Thursday, December 29, 2011

TRANCE aka THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY

 
Trance aka The Eternal Kiss of the Mummy, aka The Eternal (1998) 
Dir. Michael Almereyda
Starring Alison Elliot, Jared Harris, Christopher Walken, cameo by Jason Miller
During the late 90’s and Early 2000s, I had the great honor and privilege of serving with distinction in that most noble of all professions, clerk at an independent video store. That job may have been more independently instructive to my future than any other single incident in my life, and of course dramatically helped shape the breadth and depth of my film knowledge. It was a fantastic time to be in the business, because screeners – free copies of films which had not yet been made available to the public – were still common (before video piracy threatened the very foundation of a free society etc, etc.). We’d get between 5 and 15 free copies of movies per week to review and see if we wanted to purchase them. Some of these were big studio films which we, by all rights, ought to have made a decision on already, but that was all well and good. The real excitement, thought, was the onslaught of weird indie fare put out by smaller studios. This was the last days of Cannon video; Orion video; United Artists; Triton; Lion’s Gate. They were all trying to capitalize on the lucrative video market with cheapie genre titles. Heady times.

It’s funny to think about, but until Tarantino made RESOVOIR DOGS and Kevin Smith made CLERKS, there weren’t a lot of dorky amateurs making hip genre-friendly indie films. Studios kept their B-movie factories cranking, and that was were most genre fare emerged. But with the advent of those two films it suddenly seemed possible to more or less bypass the studio system altogether and make your own films. Throw some cash together from private sources, hire your friends as actors, put on a show. Out of this rich stew of new talent came a flood of aggressively amateurish dream projects which might have had a very minor theatrical or festival release somewhere but mostly went straight to video. And I watched ‘em

These bold pioneers quickly proved that studio films did not have a monopoly on sucking. The new wave of indie films were shot for cheap, they were generally ugly, confusing, poorly acted, and rife with pretensions of daring but deficient in skill to back it up. You know what I mean. Shit like THE MINER MASSACRE, MURDER 101, TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES NM, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Many painfully attempted to imitate the hip patois of Tarantino and Smith’s films. Many failed disastrously. Most are at best fitfully interesting, and at worst unwatchable.

But. They were also kind of labors of love. Young people trying to do something daring and unique that they couldn’t sell in the studio system. Interesting ideas by people not talented enough to pull them off. In other words, genre buff catnip. You know somewhere deep inside that you’re going to have to grind through dozens, maybe hundreds, to find one which even qualifies as frustrating. But something compels you to try anyway. Maybe because you’re a stoned teenager without a girlfriend, who knows, just guessing.

Anyway, TRANCE AKA THE ETERNAL AKA THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY (renamed several times for video release in the hopes of tricking innocent civilians into thinking it was something they’d be even remotely interested in) fits that category pretty well in most places. From the late 90s (1998) released by a tiny studio called “Cinema Club” (which, let’s be honest, sounds like a mob front), awkwardly paced, amateurishly shot and lit, and replete with the kind of stunning bad judgment which undoubtedly seemed daring to young artists free from the watchful eye of studio suits who might know better.

TRANCE AKA THE ETERNAL AKA THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY is slightly different from others in that field because the guy making it should also have known better. Michael Almereyda already had a good bit of experience under his belt, writing unused scripts for David Lynch and TOTAL RECALL and directing the excellent low-budget vampire softcore nightmare NADJA. This film represents a significant step back in terms of quality, but it does have some goofy charms.

The plot concerns New York socialites Nora and Jim (Allison Elliot and Jared Harris) who are obviously doing well for themselves despite the fact that they’re stunningly low-functioning drunks. They head to Ireland in order to dry out when Nora falls and hits her head (also they’re parents of a young kid, but no one seems too concerned about that).

They head out to the big scary Irish house owned by Nora’s Great- Aunt, and populated by a creepy 11-year-old servant girl and a robe-wearing Christopher Walken, Nora's uncle. Well, they don’t really dry out too well; they’re mostly in varying states of drunkenness the whole movie (which seems to have been sponsored by Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. Not only are they constantly drinking it and commenting on how good it is, it turns out their Great Aunt has like 100 cases of it in her basement, which, I shit you not, they will eventually use to try and get the evil reincarnated “mummy” drunk. More on that later). In a movie which was either worse or better, the alcoholic angle would probably have something to do with something. Here, it just kind of happens without comment or impact on the plot.

This is exactly the kind of thing which gives it that distinct 90s-indie-film vibe. It’s the sort of thing you could never put in a studio movie, and for reasons which I hope are fairly obvious. But its easy to imagine the filmmakers going, “We should make them just terrible, drunken parents and never have it go anywhere at all! Wouldn’t that be great?” and somewhere along the line “tee hee, wouldn’t that be great??” turned into the actual film, where it just sort of sits there, making everyone feel awkward like the only drunk guy at the wedding (he’s drunk on Jameson, I bet).

Speaking of weddings, this is the only movie I’m aware of which has an occasionally Irish Christopher Walken in love with the desiccated corpse of a ancient immortal pagan tribal leader which he keeps in a bathtub in his basement, is one thing I noticed. Walken is on weirdo autopilot here, letting his nifty pentagonal octogonal rose-colored glasses do most of the acting, but he’s still the most interesting thing anywhere in sight. Every fifth line or so he’ll even throw in a couple of words in an Irish accent in what I'm assuming is an homage to Peter Cushing's German in SHOCK WAVES. His wandering Walken cadence is in such strong effect here that he can actually be a little hard to understand. He has a long bit of exposition which is boldly unbound by the usual rules of American English tonal inflections, and after a while it looses so much focus that you forget about the exposition and just get lost in the oddly soothing waves of abstract, formless quasi-Irish Walkenisms.
Like most of this film’s ilk, it’s painfully clear they could only afford their one actual star for a day or so and hence he’s pretty much just awkwardly shoehorned in there as a minor side character. Notice how I keep coming back to awkwardly?

Yeah, the whole thing is pretty awkward. There’s a scene near the climax where a charming Irishman tries to seduce our heroine to the sultry tones of… Stiff Little Finger’s cover of Marley’s immortal “Johnny Was.” Admittedly a great song (and on vinyl, too!), but it would be difficult to find anything less sexy outside of a Captain Beefheart album. If it were possible to seduce women with the dulcet tones of the 70’s Irish punk rock, I wouldn’t have time to write this blog. So it just sits there, self-consciously hip but totally failing to work on any actual artistic level. Which pretty much sums up the preponderance of films of this sort.

I do fundamentally like the idea behind this one, though. It’s a unique idea for a monster movie. There’s no trance, no mummy, and while there is a kiss it’s pretty brief. But I guess SORT OF POSSESSED : BRIEF KISS OF THE DRUNKEN IRISH MOM didn’t market test as well. Basically, the villain here is an ancient immortal druid priestess who died temporarily and got tossed in a bog (preserving her body, sort of like a mummy, I’ll give them that). Not too many mummified druid movies, so it’s always nice to have another.

The body’s respectably icky, but we only see it in the bathtub – the rest of the time, its just our drunken heroine being halfway possessed. There’s your typical struggle over who gets control over the body, but it’s made a little less interesting because the mom’s such an irritating character anyway and the priestess actually seems like kind of an improvement. She does kill a few people (including one with the shattered pieces of a vinyl record, awesome, although done better in that episode of the X-Files Stephen King wrote) but mostly she just kind of wanders around trying to get her bearings. Not especially cinematic. More interesting is the weird little servant (slave?) girl they have in the house who seems to be supernaturally aware of where people are and what they need. So of course it goes without saying that nothing comes of it. It does get enjoyably ludicrous towards the end. My memory is a bit fuzzy but Jared Harris definitely tries to trick the mummy thing into getting drunk on Jameson and sexy dancing as a means of distracting it, and then bonks her over the head with the bottle, which in my opinion is not a very gentlemanly thing to do.

If this seems like a disjointed review which randomly picks at various unrelated things and didn’t even get to the plot until 1,271 words in, I can’t really argue otherwise. But I would like to point out that its reflective of this style of movie. If I had an editor and a paying public, I could never get away with writing about obscure and much-derided indie DTV horror films from the 90s, and even if I did I would have to focus and write something concise and penetrating. Since I don’t, I can indulge myself and write semi-coherent rambles which are mostly for my own benefit and my own interest in exploring weird ideas that don’t have much traction with anyone else. All well and good, but it makes you remember that there’s often a good reason that artists have editors and write with their readers in mind.

Artists complain about the suits ruining their vision, and no doubt that's often the case. But to pull off something as complex as a full-length feature on just one person’s vision – well, you gotta have a lot more vision than most people do to make it work. You gotta be able to take that vision and hone it, focus it.You and the people working with you need to have mastery of the tools it takes to visually and narratively communicate that vision. You have to get it out of your own head and into the head of the person watching. I'm convinced director Almereyda had something cool in his head – its a shame he wasn't able to communicate it to me. But for a film about a bunch of stumbling, irresponsible drunks trying to keep control of their bodies from being possessed by a far more powerful, amoral entity I guess it may work as a suitable metaphor for the film culture of it's time. If the young indie film community could get through its awkward teenagers years and go on to make the kind of excellent work we frequently see today, maybe there's hope for these drunken possessed neglectful parents and their goofy ginger kid as well.

This review is dedicated to Patrick McConnell, who loaned me his VHS copy of this film which he apparently paid real US currency for at some point in his younger, wilder days.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Watchers

Watchers (1988)
Dir. Jon Hess
Starring Corey Haim and Michael Ironside



This one stars Corey Haim, Michael Ironside, a superintellegent golden retriever named "Fur-face" (yes, really), a broad swath of truly stunning bad actors, and an apeman. And it’s pretty much exactly what you think, only more so.

It’s based on a book by Dean Koontz of the same name. Well, loosely based. In the book, Haim’s character is a former Delta Force Member who meets his girlfriend while hunting the apeman. In the movie, he’s Corey Haim and the girlfriend is his mom. You know, loosely based. It’s pretty much ET but with a bunch of gruesome violence from an escaped genetic experiment apeman with a never-explained penchant for ripping people’s eyes out. And Michael Ironside. But you know, those two factors go a long way.

Look, I’m not going to tell you this one is good, but it’s a pretty endearingly earnest attempt. For all the ridiculousness of the plot, they take it commendably seriously. You’ll actually be more likely to laugh at the inept cast than the computer-hacking dog that beats Corey Haim at Scrabble. Actually now that I think about it you’re likely to laugh at both, but still. They treat it as if you should care and I respect that. Ol’ M. Ironside even has a pretty badass [spoiler] death scene, where he gets stabbed through the neck and keeps coming.

 Most of the movie is pretty sloppy, though. The creature attacks are all choppy editing, which is a shame since the creature actually looks pretty good when you can get a look at it. But more memorable is the inexplicable parade of side characters that are all cranking weird stereotypes to 11.

I mean, you got the blond bimbo cop, the grizzled over-the-line cop, the nerdy Asian computer science teacher, the mousey hotel clerk who seems to be paying homage to the still-embarrassing-53-years-later retarded hotel clerk from A TOUCH OF EVIL, the abrasive Latina, a totally what the fuck super Cockney mulleted English guy, a creepy redneck guns salesman, and of course a couple of totally rad teens (afflicted by the then-incurable plague called the 80s -- one of them who would go on to be cured and become the ubiquitous Jason Priestly) with a little brother named “Piggy” (I know, because they must scream his name 157 times in the scene where they’re being chased by the apeman). 
And when I say these roles are cranked to 11, I mean 11. If there was an Oscar for ensemble overacting, this one would have it locked up. You know that part at the end of WAYNE’S WORLD 2 where they replace the “bad actor” with Charleston Heston? This movie has no less than 10 versions of that guy. It’s wild.

Anyway, to summarize: superintellegent dog, Corey Haim, M. Ironside, Apeman, overacting ensemble, gruesome violence, and at the end Corey Haim goes gun-crazy survivalist on everyone’s ass (yes, really). I can’t honestly recommend this movie, but if you’re in the mood for that most particularly delicate sort of cinematic pleasure pleasure –the 80s irony-free teen horror film--  this one delivers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)
Dir. by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr [sic]
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jørgen Langhelle, Joel Edgerton

Recently I’ve been watching a trend which seems to be developing. This trend is the creation of films which honestly have no legitimate reason to exist except that they are perceived to capitalize on name recognition which already exists for some other film --which originally did have some reason to exist—and yet are pretty good anyway. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. FRIGHT NIGHT REMAKE. THE MECHANIC REMAKE. THE GREEN HORNET. These films tend to either have awkwardly derivative titles (the firs two) or an identical title to the well-known original they’re trying to coast on (the rest). When you make a remake of things which obviously need no remake or extend a franchise where it clearly didn’t need to go, you know who you’re working for. It ain’t the audience. It’s the marketing department.

                So when these movies get made, the reason is obvious: the Dark One is trying to ruin everything cool. But there’s a second aspect here which is much harder to explain, and that is that some of the people making these films seem to be, against all reason, actually trying to make something good. I mean, not all of them, obviously. For every FRIGHT NIGHT REMAKE which demonstrates some real hustle, you’ve got your STRAW DOGS REMAKEs, your GREEN LANTERNs, your CONAN THE 2011 BARBARIANs, your which range from the profoundly lazy to the profoundly ill-conceived. But that’s not news, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Studios and film types both know crap like that is the cinematic equivalent of a sidewalk shell game, a quick and dirty way to cash in on people’s ignorance and laziness and-- it goes without saying-- strictly for rubes. So why the spate of entries into this dismal cannon where people seem to be actually trying? Don’t they know? Didn’t anyone tell them? It hardly seems fair.
    
    THE THING PREMAKEQUEL (which as you can see requires an entirely new noun to properly describe) is at the shallower end of the trend, but I still admire its effort and its fitful successes. The premise is this: Mary Elizabeth Ramona Flowers Winstead is a scientist called down to Antarctica to a remote scientific outpost where they’ve discovered a frozen alien deep in the ice. They bring it back to the base, where the exact same stuff that happens in the original happens again, only not as good.

              I mean, come on, you weren’t seriously thinking this thing would be as good as the original, right? Do you also think that drinking coffee is going to be basically as fun as smoking crack? So no, it’s not as good, and it’s occasionally embarrassingly tone deaf to what makes the original work. Still, you get that distinct whiff of effort; that at least someone in there was trying to make something good. The biggest problem it has is that it’s basically recreating—in a sheepish, self-consciously slightly altered form-- most of the pieces of a much better movie. If you can get past that, though, you’ll see that unfortunately its second biggest problem is most of the new stuff it adds.
      
            Most of the film is pretty similar: group of scientists with beards, shape-changing monster infiltrates them, they’re slowly picked off as their paranoia increases, weird body horror, and did I mention beards? Though not as strong as the original, the premakequel does pretty well with this, at least at the beginning. Winstead is not as strong as Russell, but there’s a pretty engaging supporting cast of mostly Norwegian actors little known in the US. Winstead’s character is unimaginatively (and intentionally, if Wikipedia is to be believed) modeled after Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, just like every single female character in every single modern genre film. Winstead, however, downplays the flintiness of ALIENS Ripley and brings an interesting kind of sharp-eyed opaqueness to her role. She’s obviously smarter than most people around her, but she tends to be quiet when she doesn’t need to speak, and direct instead of aggressive. We get no backstory on her at all, so we’re never exactly sure what she’s thinking, although those big gorgeous eyes are constantly advertising that there’s a lot going on behind them. Kurt Russell – you know he’s a badass. You have to learn exactly what Winstead’s character is capable of, and you get the sense that she may be learning too. So while obviously you’re gonna be happier watching Kurt Russell than anyone the brain could halfway imagine could conceivably date Michael Cera, its still an interesting twist and much more subtle than it probably reads on the page.
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The remaining cast of Norwegian actors acquit themselves nicely, too (it probably helps that they have a Norwegian director in Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. – this thing is practically a foreign film!). They manage to differentiate themselves enough that you can tell them apart, and work hard to sell the concept with sincerity (especially non-English-speaking Lars [Jørgen Langhelle], who manages to be overwhelmingly endearing even when we don’t always know what he’s saying, like Chewbacca). The fact that there’s a language barrier between American Winstead and several of her Norwegian peers adds an extremely effective layer to the increasing paranoia, as her ability to communicate with them makes it even more difficult to form a cohesive strategy. This one also cleverly exploits the cultural divide to splinter the group into distrustful factions, with the tension between human groups that can only imperfectly communicate creating an even more difficult situation. This change feels natural, works nicely into the existing mythology, and adds an interesting layer to a familiar situation.

Likewise, the “alien test” devised in the remakequel at first feels like a half-thought-out attempt to replicate the famous blood test scene from the original without actively ripping it off… but then turns out to have an interesting wrinkle of its own. The fact that it’s able to clear some –but not not all-- of the scientists further splits the group and adds an unexpected element of moral ambiguity which pays off nicely at the end. Is it right to lock your colleagues up simply because they can’t prove they’re not trying to kill you? How far can you go in the name of pragmatic self-protection and when does that become calculating utilitarianism? It’s a nicely nebulous issue and –although I wouldn’t swear the filmmakers considered it—an apt metaphor for age of terrorism paranoia as well.
  
Unfortunately, that’s all in the middle section of the film. Things begin somewhat more clumsily, with a bunch of exposition stuffed up front, a silly introduction to the alien (ever wonder how it first escapes? It just jumps out of the ice all the sudden. Mystery solved!). By the middle, it finds its footing, creating an interesting tension and tweaking the good ideas of the original somewhat elegantly. But then it unwisely changes direction again, and ends up on pretty weak ground. After a great 20 minutes of paranoia, the monster comes back and then doesn’t bother hiding anymore. It flips out and pretty much eats all the remaining characters as a big jumbled blob of CG human features, crawling around and growling and pouncing on people. Which makes it unclear why it bothered to hide in the first place and changes the dynamic from an escalating tension to a more standard hide-from-the-dinosaur routine. It’s not a catastrophe, but it’s also nothing special. Despite the freedom CG affords, the filmmakers fail to create anything as imaginatively disturbing as Carpenter’s body dysmorphic nightmares from the original, and the CG effects make the monster look clean, weightless and, well, CG.

Then things get worse: our remaining heroes follow the thing back to its spaceship, and the film turns from a lesser but respectable version of THE THING into an embarrassing retread of ALIENS. The ship’s design is baldly derivative (except it seems to be powered by this cool 3D 8-bit Tetris game, that’s cool) and the monster which had fooled everyone into believing it was their colleague is demoted to a mindless, roaring beast (it can change shape, but it can’t figure out how to get at our protagonist when she hides in a narrow passage? Lame. ) The whole sequence is conceived and executed about as indifferently as possible, and would have been enough to turn me completely against the whole enterprise.

Except… it doesn’t quite end there. After the big, clumsy, expode-y Hollywood ending, there’s a little coda which finds some intriguing ambiguity. Spoilers follow!
See, Winstead and her surviving buddy (the other American, go figure) kill the crap out of the alien using the fine art of explosions, leaping away from explosions, etc. But then they get back to their vehicle and she suddenly notices that the guy’s earring is gone. When she mentions it, he casually touches the wrong ear. So what does she do? She torches the son of a bitch with a flamethrower. Pretty badass, but what makes the movie slightly badass is that the film doesn’t have him thing-out when he dies; it’s an entirely human scream as he burns to death.  Then the camera lingers on Winstead’s face as she contemplates what has just happened. She doesn’t look devastated or relieved, exactly, just deep in thought. Did she just burn her friend to death over an earring? Or is she pretty sure she was right, and is contemplating what it means about her that she has this kind of killer survival instinct? The film isn’t saying, but ending on a long, quiet, ambiguous note was pretty unexpected after all that trite monster bullshit on the spaceship. (actually in this light the monster parts feel suspiciously like the kind of concession a director might make to the aforementioned marketing department in order to keep the quiet, tense ending that you really want).

Sure, it might be a little more meaningful if her character was better developed, but it’s also kind of interesting to keep her a touch enigmatic. It very neatly but subtlety uses the ending to reinforce the film’s possible allusion to the age of terrorism, where fear of our hidden enemies keep us striking first and asking questions later. But what then, once we’ve killed the people we’re afraid of and are left with only ourselves and our thoughts. What do we think of ourselves? Have we become monsters hidden in human form too? Will we ever be able to feel safe again, ever trust our own eyes to see a world without hidden, lurking menace? Can the nightmare ever end once it’s begun? The film pauses long enough to let us ponder things a little, and that’s when you feel that genuine horror come back. The fear that goes beyond being eaten by monsters; the kind of fear that dances at the edge of consciousness, that can’t be relieved with something as concrete as an exploding spaceship.

This film only flirts with these ideas, but it’s bold enough in pursuing them that I have to give it credit for trying –on and off, anyway—when it obviously didn’t have to and no one besides me and maybe Vern was going to read into it at all or care even if they did.  So this one emerges as a win for me – generally competent, occasionally excellent, interesting enough to justify its own existence, particularly as a minor but respectable augmentation of an existing masterpiece. If they must go on making these unnecessary franchise rip-off movies, and insist on continuing to confuse us by making them decent, I guess we ought to at least appreciate it when someone puts in a little elbow grease. Maybe that makes them not so completely unnecessary after all.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To the Devil A Daughter


To the Devil A Daughter (1976)
Dir. Peter Sykes
Starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliot, Natasha Kinski


                TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, adapted from the Dennis Wheatley book of the same name, is a serviceable if unexceptional Hammer film with a few touches which are undeniably awesome but not quite enough to make it great. That’s a hard truth to face about a film which features Richard Widmark facing off against Christopher Lee in a paranoia-drenched battle of wills over the not-insignificant issue of whether or not the antichrist should be brought to Earth, but there is it. You want it to be great, you sort of know better than to hope, but you think maybe, just this one time, your instincts are wrong and it’s actually going to be everything it ought to be. And then instead you get pretty good just like you knew you would. Hammer films are like that. They’re the asshole boyfriend that does the exact minimum it has to do to keep you from completely giving up on his ever being more than a lousy good for nothing layabout. He gets drunk and passes out on the couch with his stupid friends, and one of them throws up on your roommates’ weird fad diet DVD collection, but then just when you’re about to throw him to the curb he also casts Christopher Lee as a heretic priest who holds masked orgies in the name of resurrecting Satan and tricks you into thinking maybe there’s really something there, he just has to grow up a little.

But enough about my life. The pretty good here is obviously Lee, who, yes, plays a heretic priest who holds masked orgies in the name of bringing forth the antichrist (under the watchful gaze of a giant 20-foot-tall golden cloven-hoof devil idol being anally penetrated by an inverted cross. Tacky, but admittedly attention-grabbing). And man, bringing that fucker to Earth is a messy, convoluted business which requires all manner of confusing shenanigans over several decades, some of which I think are probably dreams but it’s a little hard to be sure. Figures Satan would make it some shit like that. With God, he arranged all that shit ahead of time, and all we had to take care of was the killing. But no, Satan’s gonna make you work for it. What an asshole. It’s fairly standard Satanic stuff for the most part, and made somewhat less threatening by the fact that there seem to be only two other elderly people assisting poor Christopher Lee in this endeavor. And one of them dies like 20 minutes in. 

Still, Lee gamely steps up to the plate and turns in an unusually awesome performance, even for him. He seems a bit more awake than he seems in some of these Hammer Dracula films, and I’m thinking that might have something to do with the fact that he almost has to actually do some acting this time around. His character is a former Catholic priest who did a little too much reading in the forbidden book section (see, Harry Potter? This is why they lock that shit up) and came to the conclusion that this Satanism thing probably has something to it. But it’s kinda cool because he honestly doesn’t seem to see himself as a bad guy, I think he really believes that he’s actually the only good Catholic left (he still wears his priest collar thingy, for instance, and when we see him get excommunicated at the beginning, he belligerently tells the bishop:, "It is not heresy... and I will not recant!" (remember, from the beginning of that Rob Zombie song?). So while he’s not afraid to play rough, he comes across more as an intensely religious fanatic than the usual cheeseball movie Satanists, and that’s both scarier and more interesting. His followers, including the film’s McGuffin character, somehow seem to think they’re just an obscure sect of Christianity and get quite offended when other people suggest that it’s in any way evil to bring about the birth of the antichrist. 

The McGuffin in this case is Natasha Kinski (yes, Klaus’ daughter), a nun raised by Lee who implausibly seems to have never noticed how obviously evil everything going on around her is, like my cousin who was raised by Republicans. It was only her second movie, and she was apparently only 15 when she shot it. Oh wait, you didn’t know that? Now you’re regretting that big smile you had during her full frontal scene. You sick fuck. Always ID first, champ. 

Anyway, she has only a vague idea of how she fits into the plan, but Lee plans to have her end up the mother of the incoming antichrist. Fuckin’ Europeans, man. Always gettin ‘em when they’re young. Denholm Elliot plays her father, who somehow missed the fact that his wife was a Satanic cultist and got roped into the whole deal at the last minute, when he apparently happened to wander into the exact wrong illicit ceremony at the exact wrong time (note to Satanists: why not lock the door?). He’s her father and he’s the only one who knows what the stakes are, so naturally he frets about it, grabs a random American off the street who seems to have some background in the Satan stuff, and foists the whole thing off on him on his way to go cower in an attic. Way to represent, English. On the other hand, Elliot is pretty great here, cranking up his frenzied panic to 11 and really selling us on how worried we should be about this thing, even when his fellow cast members seems somewhat less interested.

Widmark is that American, an expert on Satanism so familiar with the subject that he can kind of sound bored when he talks about it. Like, really bored. He wears a floppy old man hat and sweater vest for almost the entire runtime, but he’s the only American, so I guess he’s the only one who can save the world. Widmark-- who in all honesty cannot fairly be accused of trying too hard here-- varies between mildly concerned and unabashedly bored throughout the whole thing, but he does have one truly splendid moment where some guy he seems like he kind of know gets burned to ashes next to him. He finally takes off his leather-elbowed jacket, covers his buddy, throws his arms to his side, cocks his head back, and howls in his thin, reedy old guy wail: “Daaaaammmmmmmmnnnn   yyyyyyyooooooooOOOOOOOOUUUUUU!!!!” That's pretty rad. Then he awkwardly runs off to the big climax (where he achieves victory by throwing a rock at Christopher Lee and then walking away, probably about as much as he was up for at that point). Man, all those years of planning, and the one thing ol' Chris Lee never considered is that someone might throw a rock at him right at the end. That's gotta sting.

I’m making fun, but the movie does have some genuinely effective disturbing sequences. The big evil orgy is notable for its unexpectedly high volume of Christoper Lee ass (IMDB breaks my heart by suggesting it’s a stunt double, but I’ll never believe it). So it’s funny and a little cheesy, but it also gets genuinely transgressive in places. There’s some pretty crazy mixing of sex, violence, and Satanism which must have been at least a little shocking at the time. Kinski keeps having visions of the fetal antichrist, which looks hilariously like a sort of ground hog puppet turned inside out – but I bet you weren’t expecting it to crawl up onto her bed in a trail of blood, demonstrate its considerable oral sex prowess on her (yes, really) and then crawl up inside her womb. That’s admirably depraved, and even if a part of your brain will never be able to not laugh at bloody rodent puppets, you’ll also have to admit it kind of gets to you on some level.

                                       Yup, not OK with that at all.

 It’s also helped by a nicely paranoid, atonal score which occasionally teams with a few tense scenes and an effective Christopher Lee to produce some commendable tension and repulsion. There’s a great sequence where Lee attempts some handy mind control via the medium of turning over plates, which would be completely ludicrous if not for the deadly serious way Lee, the music, and the cinematography sells it. Ditto a scene where Widmark goes to find Denholm Elliot, who is cowering in an attic surrounded by protective symbols and literally incoherent with fear. It’s a minor scene, but Elliot sells the character’s jibbering panic so effectively that it becomes unsettling. Scenes like that are the “I’m sorry” flowers and wine which will probably get remembered longer than the thing that needs apologizing for. That’s how these Hammer films role. Mostly pretty disappointing, but it’s the good bits that will end up sticking with you and making you dare to hope the next one will win you over.   

There’s another Hammer adaptation of Wheatley’s work starring Lee called THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, which Lee actually cites as his favorite Hammer film. God damn it, that sounds awesome. Here we go again.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)
Dir. Gordon Hessler
Starring Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Michael Dunn, Christine Kaufman


People have been adapting Poe stories since the very beginning of cinema, and it’s easy to understand why: Poe stories are filled with irresistible imagery, articulated by a true master storyteller with a uniquely nightmarish imagination (which also incidentally, tended to imagine impressive set pieces which can be created on a budget. It’s not like we’re talking H.P. Lovecraft giant monsters and universes of unimaginable horror). According to the Olde Farmer’s Wikipedia, the earliest known Poe film was made in 1909, and they’ve been cranking ‘em out ever since then, perhaps reaching a high water mark with the many Corman-produced adaptations in the 50s and 60s.

Unfortunately, despite a full century of efforts, I don’t think there’s a single film out there which really quite qualifies as a direct adaptation. The reason Poe was such an indelible master of horror fiction was that his voice was so unique, and his command of language was so stunning. Visualizing Poe’s mind tends to lead to something less than the poetry of his words, and has resulted in some morose but uninspired films which pick pieces of his work but fail to capture the essential character of Poe’s prose. That, and a lot of his stories are not particularly eventful. Take the words out of THE RAVEN and you’re left with a guy sitting in a room where a bird flies through the window. The greatness is in Poe’s bruising psychological violence and his profound ability to evoke dread comes through his peerless command of his medium of the written word. There’s plenty of room for someone with an equal mastery of cinema to capture that same haunting poetry – but it would take someone with a mastery of cinema equal to Poe’s mastery of the written word.

Which is a roundabout way of saying Gordon Hessler ain’t that guy. No offense to him intended; I don’t know who would be. David Lynch, maybe? Francis Coppola, in his heyday? Suggestions are welcome. We’ll see James McTiegue take a crack at it next year, but, uh, I don’t know that I’m holding my breath for him to be Poe’s artistic equal. That being said, I’m excited as shit for that movie. Why? Simple. Just because you’re not going to create an enduring and transformative piece of art which will forever become part of the world’s great expressions of humanity doesn’t mean you’re not going to make something fun.

So I’m down with taking a visual or narrative cue from Poe and running with it, just so long as you throw me a murderous gorilla or two somewhere down the line. Bait the line with Jason Robards and Herbert Lom, and I’ll bite.

Director Hessler, in his somewhat surprisingly candid interview, is refreshingly honest about his inability to measure up to Poe, or even the long history of adaptations that came before his. In an effort to find some new ground to explore, he brings a meta approach to Poe, setting a series of unrelated killings in the context of a theater troupe which is mounting a production of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Postmodernism, of course, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but to his credit Hessler doesn’t milk it as a gimmick; it’s more just a colorful poetic backdrop against which he sets a mostly unrelated story.

Said unrelated story finds Jason Robards (looking and dressing exactly like Vincent Price, who was originally up for this role) as the leader of an acting troupe which is shocked when one of their own is murdered during the performance. Sadistically, the murderer dons the dead actor’s costume (he’s playing the gorilla) and performs the rest of the show without anyone being the wiser! Now, many of Robard’s oldest friends an colleagues are getting murdered, but surely this doesn’t have anything to do with a former actor played by the obviously sinister Herbert Lom who went crazy and is definitely, for sure dead now, seriously, why even bother checking, has to be someone else. And it even more definitely doesn’t have anything to do with the events that occurred when Robard’s young wife (Christine Kaufman) was a child and Robards nursed an unrequited love for her mother, who by a complete coincidence was married to Lom’s character.

So it’s a pretty silly story, but there are a couple of effective bits to it. For one, Kaufman keeps blacking out and having a recurring dream about a weird abandoned house, a falling actor, and a sinister guy in a mask wielding an axe. For much of the film, the cinematography tends to be pretty standard and occasionally even a tad amateurish, but the dream sequences are sumptuously photographed and intriguingly staged. They have a dark and evocative poetry to them which actually does recall Poe’s carefully suggestive style. They hit on that subconscious level that I’m always going on about. You know how I get when I’ve been drinking. I never said I wasn’t predicable.

So the dream sequences are great, and the rest of the film has some nice atmospheric moments and a great Poe-y set in a dilapidated mansion and its accompanying crypt. But the whole thing is mostly crippled by its lack of a compelling central character arc. Robards --an actor I love—seems completely directionless here, wandering throughout the whole film without finding a clear anchor for his character. The interview with Hessler sheds some light here, as he remembers that two weeks into filming Robards was regretting not taking Lom’s role, which he correctly identified as more interesting. Unfortunately, Lom is a dead fish in his role, too – he seems barely awake in a part which calls from extreme intensity. Kaufman’s character is the only one the narrative follows all the way through, but she’s a wimpy victim throughout the whole thing, passing out at every opportunity and relying on the men around her to further any plot point. The one person here who walks away with a solid win is pioneering dwarf actor Michael Dunn, a charisma monster who somehow makes his thankless sidekick role the focal point of the whole film.


In his interview, director Hessler is admirably straightforward about the whole thing (even speculating that this film is what precipitated Robards’ career downgrade from leading man to character actor) and pretty honest about what life was like for a journeyman genre director in the 70s. He says that you had to do what you were assigned and didn’t always have a lot of control over the material, and that all you could hope to do was try to elevate whatever studio project came your way. I’d say that he can probably walk away feeling that he accomplished that, but despite a generally classy production and a few inspired sequences, the thing is an unwieldy bore.

Oddly, even though I think it's probably safe to say that Robards is a better actor than Vincent Price, getting Price in the central role here might have been enough to make it something a touch more memorable. Even on his worst day, Price has an irresistible magnetism to him which would have made the slippery character at this film’s center a more compelling force and perhaps would have given the whole enterprise a bit more focus. Price is a performer; he’s compelling to watch no matter what he’s doing. Robards is an actor, stranded without motivation and direction. Part of taking iffy material and elevating it is applying to the elements of human psychology that go beyond a single individual’s personality and motivation. Price knows how to tap into that bottomless, profound subconscious state that hits on a level which is more profound than logic, even if it is perhaps less personal. Poe did too. Maybe that combination makes more sense than most folks give it credit for.

Dead Birds


Dead Birds (2004)
Dir. Alex Turner
Starring Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, Isaiah Washington

                                             I know, I know. Terrible poster.

DEAD BIRDS is one of those unfortunate films which is actually better than it ought to be but not as good as it needs to be. Honestly, those are always much more frustrating than the ones that never had a chance. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is what it is, and it's OK with that. DEAD BIRDS wants to be great. And it is good, but to really work it would have needed to be great.

Here's the pitch: sometime during the civil war, a ragtag team of confederate renegades (renegades even by confederate standards) steal a bunch of gold from a bunch of other confederates, and decide to hide out in a creepy abandoned farmhouse until the heat is off. They’re surprisingly unconcerned when the first thing they encounter is a hideous naked mole rat dog with a human face. But all they have to do is spend one night with five criminals and a bag of gold inside a creepy abandoned Southern plantation house. What could go wrong?

I'll give the film credit. It's as standard a haunted house tale as they make, but the historical setting gives it a bit of flavor. Period horror is one of the last great untapped natural resources of American horror. There have been a few attempts, but they range from similarly frustrating (RAVENOUS) to the baffling (THE KEEP) to the merely unnecessary (TREMORS 3). This one doesn't do a whole lot with the period setting, but at least it’s a good excuse to have scenes mostly lit by unconvincing lamplight. Anyway, after so many films of vacationing teenagers, it’s nice to have a group of characters coming from a different background.

The film also boldly courts atmosphere and tension with a leisurely pace that doesn't feel the need to shout “Boo!” every few minutes. It would work better if the cinematography and music were a bit stronger, however. For all its ambitions at creating an eerie mood, the shots are unimaginatively constructed, the editing is pedestrian, and the lighting amateurish. But give 'em credit for trying; although it never quite works as well as it needs to, its slow but deliberate pace and slowly ratcheting tension does manage to conjure some real – if mild – dread. But yeah, mild doesn't quite cut it.

The problem this turkey has is that its not quite imaginative enough to know what to do with its interesting scenario, so despite the advantage of having a new era to play with, the vast majority of the film just coasts on the oldest haunted house clichés in the book – yes, they have the scene where there's a crying girl in the corner with her face down and a guy walks up and puts his hand on her shoulder. Ghost, ghost, scary face, ghost, ghost, hands grab you from an unexpected place, cute kid gets possessed, ghost, ghost, disemboweling, avid-fart flashback to explain everything, awkward twist ending, bada bing, and we're out. It's that by-the-numbers.

                                     Not even as scary as it looks, I'm afraid.


That could be OK if the filmmaking was a little better (see: THE OTHERS), but there's hardly a shot in the whole thing that doesn't look mediocre and cheap, so not only have you seen all this before, you've seen it done much, much better. Frustratingly, there's sort of an interesting idea in the backstory, where we learn that Muse Watson (so unexpectedly good in DUSK TIL DAWN 2, remember?) was a plantation owner who started sacrificing his slaves in an effort to bring back his dead wife. That's a little unusual AND ties nicely into the period AND even has some possible metaphorical readings about slavery and race relations in America. So it goes without saying that that whole story is crammed into a 45-second frenetic pile of expository flashback.

Instead, they figure we're more interested in watching a bunch of stereotypes running around dealing with the resulting generic ghosts making scary faces at them every now and again. Not so much. Make that prequel, then we'll talk.

The cast is all over the place, but they do a bit to sell the weightiness. Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Junior play one-dimensional stereotypes, but Patrick Fugit and Isaiah Washington commit to their quiet, underwritten characters with an intensity which occasionally brings the film to a fitful sort of life. So that brings the total to 50/50. Unfortunately, Henry Thomas tragically plays the confederates’ leader (and our nominal main character) as a cross between Freddie Prinz Jr. and David Schwimmer. Putting a beard on some pretty boy is not the same thing as making him tough, guys. This guy couldn’t take ET in a fight, let alone command the respect of a bunch of thieving murderous racist good old boys. The script keeps insisting he’s a charismatic leader type, but he’s consistently defeated in the intensity department by Patrick Fugit. Speaking of the Fuge, he surprised the heck out of me in this role, adding layers of depth to this character far beyond his scripted role. He’s rewarded with a great possession scene which he sells with a conviction probably unworthy of this thing.

Watching the accompanying making of doc, it’s clear that director Alex Turner (in his first full-length film) was trying to make something special here, and you gotta admire that ambition. I’m not convinced that he has the instincts to back up his moxie at this point in his career, however; the surprisingly candid doc catches him locking the writer in a hotel room and telling him not to come out til he has an “acceptable” script. At issue is the writer’s assertion that Isaiah Washington’s character should kill himself towards the script’s finale as a way to impart to the viewer the hopelessness of his situation. Turner argues this is an old cliché --which is perhaps a fair concern-- but I’m not convinced that the solution he did go with (Washington is startled by a demon and disappears in a puff of smoke) is really much better. That kind of sums up the way the whole thing plays: the intention of achieving greatness without having quite the imagination to create great substance.  

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Madhouse (1973)


Madhouse (1973)
Dir. Jim Clark
Starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing. Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri

MADHOUSE is an odd little sorta surreal slasher/maybe a weird meta-joke kind of film. It’s hard to know exactly what it’s up to, and I like that. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film which has quite the same vibe to it. And it kinda works, too, in its own weird way. Not really as a slasher, not really as a postmodern genre joke, but as just as weird kind of movie with its own inexplicable dreamlike potency. Possibly, that’s because it was apparently adapted extremely loosely from a novel called Devilday. They were originally going to title it RETURN OF DR. DEATH --which would be accurate, if not exactly poetic-- but worried that title would sound like a sequel. So instead they went with a title which made absolutely no sense. We hear that Price’s character Paul Toombes did spend time in a madhouse after his wife was killed, but a more appropriate title would be PETER CUSHING’S HOUSE, which is where Price stays during the film.

The hook is essentially this: Vincent Price is a famous, beloved horror actor known for appearing as the title character in a fictional horror series called “Dr. Death.” Cushing is his friend and the writer of the series, who gave up a promising acting career to work on the project. There’s also a seething ex-wife, a slimeball American producer, (Robert Quarry) and a demented ex-lover who lives in a basement and identifies with spiders (played by CLOCKWORK ORANGE rape victim Adrienne Corri). On News Year’s eve, Price’s new trophy wife (a bleach-blonde spray-tanned botoxed parody of bombshell) gets murdered, minutes after Price is informed (by said scuzzball producer) that she had a career in the adult industry prior to her relationship with him. Did Price do it? Or is he being set up? We don’t know, and actually neither does he. He claims he’s blanked out and isn’t sure if he did it or not, and is understandably broken up about the whole thing. Funny thing: the trophy wife is a total parody of an empty-headed plastic fake, and that’s all the script needs her to be. But she’s not played as a grating body count. She seems sort of sweet, actually, and genuinely upset that her husband has suddenly discovered this embarrassing fact about her past. So when she bites it, it’s actually sort of sad and we can identify with Price’s devastation.

Price plays it pretty devastated, too. While he’s been able to avoid conviction, everyone assumes he’s guilty and he himself has his doubts. He has a few moments of glorious mega-acting* but mostly plays the character as withdrawn and broken. This gives him a legitimately tragic feel, but also keeps him mysterious enough for us to wonder if he actually is guilty, either unknowingly or by using his apparent amnesia as a convenient cover. It’s an awkward job to keep your main character a suspect, and the film mostly cheats at it by limiting what the audience sees, but there’s a opaqueness to Price’s performance which manages to be sympathetic but elusive.

Ciphers do not always make great protagonists, but Price manages, remarkably, to be emotive but also possibly unknowable. He manages to make a cohesive performance out of a character who might be an innocent victim or a sadistic liar. Either way, though, Price plays him tentatively; he looks like a man who’s afraid of himself and tired of his life. It’s a performance which is curiously both nuanced and outsized, just like the man himself. Price is a performer who is very aware of his body; here, he uses his large stature as a tool of vulnerability, slouching his wide shoulders, stooping, turning his body inward, melting into chairs with world-weary exhaustion to emphasize the extent to which this previously huge character has dwindled. It’s a performance which plays to his strengths but also gives him the opportunity to put a little humanity in the mix, with surprisingly affecting –if not quite poignant-- results.

So we’ve got that AND the usual gaillo-inspired slasher/stalker scenes --mostly pretty good-- but the real unique factor here is that the film is about a beloved horror icon played by Vincent Price. This is not a minor detail; fully a third of the film time seems to be people talking about his career, suggesting new projects for him, watching his old films. We see a few long clips from “Dr. Death” which are actually taken from Price’s old films, leading him to reminisce about working with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone in a weird blurring of fiction and biography. Add Cushing and COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE’s Robert Quarry and you end up with something of a reunion tour and last hurrah for the horror icons of the 70s (and also for studio American International Pictures, working with Price for the last time here).

So there’s a not-so-subtle layer of meta-joke lurking underneath it all (there’s a costume party where Price wears his “Dr. Death” costume, Cushing dresses like Dracula, and Quarry dresses as Count Yorga). What are we to make of this, given that the slasher element seems intended to be taken in all seriousness? I honestly have no idea. In the big climax of the film, Price ends up fleeing from a killer who may or may not be imaginary into a TV studio, where he escapes through a door – and into a interview with British TV icon Michael Parkinson, where he sits down, talks about his career, and watches a few clips of old films. If there’s a metaphor here, I couldn’t quite make it out, but it does serve to concoct a somewhat unique mix of nostalgia and serviceable slasher action. It builds to an ending which is so totally surreal that I can only assume it’s supposed to mean something, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you exactly what. It possibly has something to do with the emotional strain of creating and inhabiting evil characters in horror movies, but whatever point may have been intended arrives too murky to really pin down. In order to explain, I’m going to have to spoil the big reveal at the end so the next bit is in magically


SPOILERIFIC SPOIL-O-VISION


When the poor spunky gal played by Natasha Lynne (absolutely adorable here) gets knifed before she can reveal who the real killer is, Price goes nuts, drags her body onto the Dr. Death set and sets her up at a dinner table where he torches her and himself in a giant maelstrom of fire. We cut to his friend Cushing, who has been given the job of taking on his role. He sits at home and watches the same footage that we --the filmgoers-- watched of Price burning up, when suddenly a slightly toasted but very much alive Price comes out of the projected image on the screen and accuses Cushing of being the real killer, which he admits he did out of jealousy. In the ensuing old-man fight, Cushing ends up face down in a Spider pit. Granted, that all makes perfect sense. But then suddenly his corpse turns into a desiccated skeleton, Price sits down in front of a mirror, and begins putting make-up on. In time, it becomes clear that he’s recreating Cushing’s face over his own using makeup. What the..? Then finally, he sits down for a big meal with Cushing’s insane fire victim spider-loving wife (long story) and they explain they’re about to have a big meal of ….red herrings. And that’s it. Cut to credits of Price (!?!?) singing a song.

How in God’s name is anyone supposed to hew some meaning out of that? I don’t think anyone is seriously going to mistake Price for skinny little Cushing, even with a new face, so the assuming-his-identity is out. Maybe he’s taking on the character of an even crazier killer than the one he previously portrayed? That might kind of tie in to the main theme I guess. And wait a second, Cushing is supposed to be the killer, but he’s clearly visible in the crowd at the TV interview when the poor young lady is getting murdered. That’s obviously not some kind of goof, you don’t need to hire Cushing to fill out a crowd. So what’s the deal? And what about Price coming out of the film? It seems like it has to be a metaphor or a dream or something, but then it just keeps going. And ending on a red herring pun? Is that a hint that we’re not supposed to think about this too hard, or is it a clear sign that all of this is actually meant to be interpreted as some sort of meta commentary on genre and meaning? I’d tell you but honestly I have no fucking clue whatsoever.


YOU CAN TAKE OFF YOUR SPOIL-O-VISION GLASSES NOW

Still, as full of winking oddities as it is, the film seems genuinely serious about its atmosphere and characters. The Dr. Death costume is a visually striking design, and the film is full of that exaggerated nightmare atmosphere that I always go for. The actors seem to be trying harder than they technically need to, the horror is well-executed, and the postmodernism is handled with affection rather than smirk. Mostly, though, the film is memorable for its odd touches and the completely inexplicable ending. The incoherent tone is probably the result of incompetence in the filmmakers (as these things usually are) but here, director Jim Clark (editor to many films including recent efforts like KISS KISS BANG BANG and VERA DRAKE but director of only four, this being his last one) at least really knows how to stage sequences so they work. Put a bunch of sequences like that together, and even if they don’t make much sense the impact will carry you through. Pleasantly, that’s the case here. It may not be quite cohensive enough to qualify as the kind of career capstone for Price that it may have been intended to be, but that’s OK because it captures its own kind of weirdly mordant charm. Like Price himself, the thing is a lumbering --but fascinating—original which is worth watching even when it can’t always be called respectable.

*copyright Vern at outlawvern.com

Thursday, October 20, 2011

From a Whisper to a Scream


From a Whisper to a Scream (aka Offspring, 1987).
Dir Jeff Burr
Starring Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, Terry Kiser, Harry Ceaser
 Yeah, this isn't in the movie
                                                    
Don't you hate it when you're in the mood for a certain kind of movie, you find something that looks perfect, and then it's completely different than what you thought? That was my experience with 1987's Vincent Price horror anthology FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM. I was looking for a little horror film to ease my transition from into the October horror marathon. I was feeling entirely worn out and exhausted, and figured I needed something with a nice Halloween vibe but nothing too overwhelming. Something kind of crappy that I could zone out to but still whet my appetite for the season (the first of October is like the start of football season to the horror geek). I settled on this minor-looking cheapie horror anthology for three excellent reasons.

1: It stars Vincent Price. Price alone all but guarantees a certain unique vibe of macabre but usually overwrought (if not outright campy) horror film.

2: It's a horror anthology. Horror probably has a greater per capita ratio of anthologies to full-length films than any other genre, but most of them are not really all that, you know, good. Even most of the classic entries into that genre are not good. Does anyone actually like anything other than the last segment of TRILOGY OF TERROR? Of course they don't.

3: 1987. That's the same year as ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING. Not a great time for horror films, and even those legitimately great ones like EVIL DEAD II tend towards goofy, fun times rather than disturbing nightmares.

So I figured I had WHISPER pegged. I settled back, cracked open a MD 20/20, and let my eyes glaze over. The film begins promisingly enough with a lady who looks like she was built from the spare parts of 1985 who's being executed in soft focus via lethal injection. A reporter at the scene leaves and heads straight for Vincent Price's house –a sort of museum/library/gothic Southern Mansion, or at least a painting of one-- to ask him what he thinks caused his niece (the executee) to snap and become a sociopathic murderess a la MONSTER but uglier and 80sier. Price is looking very, very old and very, very tired, and halfway attempting a sort of Tennessee accent every fifth line or so in the grand tradition of Peter Cushing's SHOCK WAVES German cadence. The library he lives in looks like it could have been built and lit by Roger Corman himself. Price pontificates grandiosely (albeit in a way which suggest he was too tired to complain about one more take) about how the town itself is to blame for the murders. He tells four stories of residents of the town who have come to bad ends, bookending everything (unnecessarily, he appears in-between the stories as well to rehash exactly what he said before the last one.) Yes sir, this thing was looking like just what I had in mind.

But then something entirely unexpected happened. The movie got good. Not watchable, not better than expected; good good. The first story stars RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD'S Clu Gulager (absolutely unrecognizable) as a tightly wound grocery story manager who pines for a gorgeous but aloof female employee even as his devotion to his invalid sister holds him back. This story has about every ick scenario ever put in a horror movie, including but not limited to rape, incest, necrophilia, murder, cannibalism and terrible songwriting. No problem, except that it's executed to the hilt with a kind of sweaty, atmospheric mix of gritty realism and nightmarish Southern Gothic surrealism. Here's how good it is: when a tiny anamatronic monster zombie appears, you will only laugh a little. And you'll be genuinely unnerved as soon as you see the expression on Gulager's face. It's an upsetting little tale which treats its subjects dead serious and indulges in a pitch-black sense of humor only to heighten the horror, rather than relieve it.

This poster has even less to do with the film than the first one.
                        
The second tale, featuring a fantastic Terry Kiser and an even better Harry Ceaser focuses on a low-life scuzzball who is rescued, near death, by a swamp-dwelling recluse with an unspeakable secret. It's has a low-key sinister crawl building to another genuinely shocking moment, but its real strength is a superb sense of time and place, intelligently milking both evocative beauty and alien menace from its swamp setting.

The third story, the inevitable “weakest of the segments,” is about a carnival glass eater and his would-be girlfriend and their doomed attempt to leave against the wishes of the carnival's witchy owner. It also has plenty of atmosphere and great performances, but it's narratively a bit weaker than the first two, failing to get the most out of its gore hound ending.

The fourth story is not the best, but it may be the most interesting. It finds a group of despicable Union soldiers (who are introduced murdering surrendering Confederate troops without realizing that the war has ended) at the brink of their discovery of a mysterious farm, abandoned except for a curiously well-organized society of war orphans. It's a little BEYOND THUNDERDOME and a little CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and it admirably builds a creepy scenario while cultivating (but not overplaying) its central metaphor about what happens to a society born out of violence which loses track of the context of that violence. Unfortunately, its also the only story which feel a bit rushed as an anthology segment. We can guess where this is going, but the story zips along to the big conclusion without the pleasure of milking the menace for awhile. The other three segments make great, self-contained short stories, but this one probably deserved a novella.

I mention literary equivalents because one of the most intriguing and successful aspects of this film is that it truly captures the feeling of an effective short story. Most anthologies superficially mimic the abbreviated form of storytelling, but few capture the profoundly mysterious quality of the best short fiction, which often isn't so much interested in telling a story as it is at hinting at a story and letting your mind fill in the gaps. The best short fiction suggests rather than tells; few short film anthologies seem to really understand that. This one, for whatever reason, has that lyrical, amorphous quality of cultivating mood and mystery with a few simple strokes and letting the viewer do the work of exploring the dark corners it only hints at. Which is not to say that its some sort of arty narrative-free tone poem; each segment tells a complete story. But what lingers is the shapeless darkness which pervades each story, ties them together, and brings forth something a little more menacing than the straightforward horror show that exists on the surface.

The director here is Jeff Burr, who impressed Vincent Price enough to sign onto one of his last film roles. This was his first big film, but he would on to be a prolific director of shitty sequels to horror films like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, and sequels to PUMPKINHEAD, PUPPET MASTER, STEPFATHER, and others. Too bad, because here he shows serious promise. This one is intriguing and unique and deserves a place in any horror anthology buff's heart.

Monday, October 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class


X-Men: First Class (2011)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Starring Everyone.

Hey, remember back when I said that KICK-ASS was a depressing and vapid attempt to disguise violent machismo as depth? And remember I said, in passing, that despite its distasteful subject matter it was admittedly kinetic and funny, and that yeah, probably LAYER CAKE director Matthew Vaughn had a much better action movie in him somewhere?

Well, it turns out that he did, and in fact not only was it in him, it has already in the world. I had forgotten that after being booted from X-MEN 3 (which ultimately went to the workaday Brett Ratner and became universally despised among nerds despite the fact that its a reasonably solid if somewhat uneven entry into the franchise) Vaughn finally got his chance to return to the world of the X-Men with the staggeringly unnecessary prequel X-MEN: FIRST CLASS which chronicles the period of time when Charles “Professor X” Xavier (formerly Patrick Stewart as an old guy, now James McAvoy) first got together with his fellow mutants and especially future frenemy Eric “Magneto” Lensherr (formerly Ian McKellen and formerly inexplicably spelled “Lehnsherr” in all the comics and in every previous movie, what's up with that?) and started that X-Men school that we've all heard so much about.

FIRST CLASS in an unnecessary movie in nearly every aspect. It takes a few marginally popular supporting characters in the X-Men universe, recasts them as their younger selves, and tells the story of what happened to them when they first met, most of the emotional beats of which were already covered extensively in the first 3 films (and possibly to some extent the first WOLVERINE prequel, which I haven't seen). So, you pretty much know everything substantial that will happen in this story, as well as the fact that all the characters you're familiar with will survive and move on to the sequels. Hell, you even know who's going to get injured and who's going to turn evil and what their philosophies will be. And you even know why since they explicitly discuss it in at least two other films. It doesn't matter much to me if the turning point for Magneto was a submarine battle with Kevin Bacon or a lightsaber fight on a lava planet, so what possible reason could there be to go see a movie which merely fills in the details for events which are already fairly concretely outlined for us?

To answer this question, I'd like you to go out and watch RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Go on, I'll wait.

(elevator music)

There, see? That's a movie with even less reason to exist, a pre-boot to a terrible remake of a series which was already pretty well done to death when the first five (count em!) films came out back in 1856 or whatever. It's exactly the sort of film concept which is made into a big summer film when some Hollywood accountant gets a survey back which identifies name recognition of some brand among the 18-30 male demographic as being over 70%. Someone crunches the numbers and figures if they advertise enough, they should be able to scratch together a 70 million opening weekend and then easily return on the investment through merchandising. Advertising partnerships will do the rest and grow the brand sufficiently to restart the franchise. Oh yeah, and someone will probably have to write a script or something and make a movie. It doesn't really matter what.

There's no reason for anyone to seriously try and make something good when the whole thrust of the project seems to regard the film itself as an irritating but necessary minor component. But for whatever reason, probably boredom or crystal meth, someone decided what the heck, since we're making it anyway why not actually make it fun?

And, to everyone's confusion and general bafflement, they did. Apparently nobody was paying enough attention to get in there and stop them, so they just made something silly and fun and cinematic and entertaining.

At the time, I attributed it to the fact that the weird black star thing from THE FIFTH ELEMENT was focusing on ruining our government and had briefly been diverted from ruining our action cinema, but now I think old Matthew Vaughn maybe outta get a little credit for starting this trend of unnecessarily fun needless franchise movies, because FIRST CLASS has the same philosophy of trying to actually entertain you despite the fact that there's no particular reason for it to want to.

Even though it's produced by Brian Singer (who directed the first two but was blacklisted from the series for awhile for daring to make a SUPERMAN movie which was better than we all deserved and hence widely disdained), the feel is pretty different than any of the series so far. It's less serious, more goofy, more awkward, more colorful and energetic take on the material, which makes sense because it takes place back when everyone involved was a goofy, awkward teenager or young adult. Believe it or not, this actually works in the film's favor by adding a whiff of youthful enthusiasm into the proceedings.

There are a number of things this film has going for it, which make it unexpectedly enjoyable. Among them:

+Its early-60s milieu. Unlike the slick, grim, modern X-Men trilogy, this one has a lot more fun with colorful sets, bright locations, and just a hint of camp courtesy of its sixties-era conventions. The film wisely (and with unexpected discipline) avoids making a bunch of corny Austin Powers jokes about the era, but there's something very fun about watching Kevin Bacon lounge in the belly of a Submarine decked out in what could be a set and wardrobe straight out of a Roger Moore Bond film. The film is set in the 60s out of necessity, but Vaughn makes it work beautifully for the tone of the film. The slightly silly, colorful, but strait-faced production meshes nicely with the inherent silliness of the superhero stuff's internal reality. Its a nice reminder that people take the X-MEN films seriously not because they tried to make everything gritty and realistic, but simply because the films treat the characters and situations seriously, as though they matter and are worth caring about. What a fuckin' concept.

Oh Kevin, draw me like one of your mutant girls.

+An inexplicably awesome cast. Kevin Bacon probably chooses these ensemble films these days just to make the Six Degrees game a little easier, but pretty much everyone in this thing is better than we deserve so it works out. Bacon himself is masterfully hateable as an ex-Nazi megalomaniac charming enough to lament that he looks like a jackass wearing a big purple helmet. But you've also got WINTER'S BONE alum Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique. Lots of people thought she doesn't add much weight to the character, but I think she does a fantastic job of portraying a Mystique who's warmer, younger, more naïve, and probably a bit shallow. It makes a nice contrast to older Mystique's ultra-confident duplicitous calculations, so while Lawrence's performance is less show-offy than you might think from an Oscar-nominee, it works nicely in the story and makes her feel vulnerable to exactly the kind of charismatic villainy we'll eventually see. We've also got Oliver Platt, Ray Wise, James Remar (wait, really? I don't think I ever noticed him), Jason Flemyng (somehow making an impression despite being a completely unrecognizable and virtually silent minor character), Rose Byrne, January Jones (don't get the love for her, but here she is), ABOUT A BOY's Nicholas Hoult, perennial bearded Russian Rade Sherbedgia, and fucking Michael Ironside (mysteriously credited a “M. Ironside”).

Also James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

Put Vincent D'onofrio and Kurtwood Smith in there somewhere and you'd pretty much have every awesome minor actor still working in pictures today. Most of them play thankless minor roles, but having great actors play minor roles is a time-honored and effective way to goose up a film's overall greatness. See WAYNE'S WORLD 2 for more on this philosophy.

So Bacon is great, of course, but it's Michael Fassbender who really brings this one to the next level. People have been hyping him for awhile but this is the first thing I've seen him in where he's really blown me away and made me go, “OK, I get it.” His young Magneto is a charisma monster, and I don't know if he just arrived on set first and picked all the good lines and scenes for himself or what, but somehow he ended up with them. He sells the character's inner torment with a sincerity which, like the movie itself, was certainly not necessary or expected but gives the film surprising emotional weight even when the script doesn't back him up.

Oddly, McAvoy (as a young Charles Xavier) is the only one who seems to be coasting here. The script doesn't really do him any favors by making him a bland, motivation-free plot device, but unlike Fassbender he doesn't fill in where the script leaves off. The only character traits I could really ascribe to him were “preachy” and “British.” This presents somewhat of a problem since the film's final conflict is between Xavier and Magneto, and you're supposed to end up thinking Magneto has gone too far. But if you or any reasonable person had to pick a friend to side with, you'd choose Magneto since he's so much cooler and more relateable (in fact, the villainous details seem kind of shoehorned in and don't really seem to fit with his character). Sure, we know Charles can hold his liquor and looks like he'd be fun at parties, but Fassbender looks like he's well on his way to being that Most Interesting Man in the World who drinks moderately priced mid-range Mexican beer (man, that is interesting!).

Admit it, you'd drink whatever beer he told you to.

So it's a bit unbalanced, but McAvoy does fine, the casting is excellent, and the actors craft fun (if not always exactly deep) characters across the board. Which brings us to the final thing the film has going for it:

+ Who needs action? For a superhero film, there's virtually no action or fighting at all throughout most of the run time. Magneto has one awesome scene of introduction which is so badass I won't spoil it for you, but otherwise most of the film is about the characters meeting and setting things up, hardly an action sequence or major setpiece to be found. If there is a genius to the thing, though, it's that it knows it doesn't have to be blowing shit up all the time to entertain you. It has such a great cast and such a light, fun touch that its most pleasurable experiences are often its least expensive. Watching the montage of Charles and Magneto recruiting other mutants and experiencing the rush of excitement all parties feel as they reveal to each other that they're part of the same club is just a pure pleasure in a way movies used to be before “fun” was synonymous with “sensory overload.” Interesting, likeable characters having fun and bouncing off each other, nary an explosion in sight. I mean, I'd trade the whole ludicrous battleship desert island nuclear showdown for a couple more scenes of the newly recruited X-Men hanging out and playing with their powers. There's a genuine earnest joy there, something which has been missing from superhero movies so long I almost hadn't even realized how much I missed it. It pervades the whole film and buoys it even when the script sags a bit.

Ok so the script, written by Vaughn and a few others of little note* is pretty weak. I can't deny that. It has a few clever ideas but some (the mutant “cure”) we've seen before and others (good guy turns evil) are sort of half-formed and don't really add up in any satisfying way. Like KICK-ASS, the script keeps telling you that it's saying something deep but then never really says it. If the script were even a little better, I might be able to join these nerds who are calling this one a classic. Sorry, can't follow you there, kids. But a film this packed with good stuff can sustain itself on goodwill alone. Even when the film can't quite find the words to say it, there's a certain truth that the actors bring to their roles, and an even greater sense of dorky fun.

Look, it has Kevin Bacon lounging in a burgundy velour suit in the belly of a submarine decked out with shag carpeting, a blond in a two-piece white corset, and a guy who people seem too polite to point out looks exactly like the devil**. If that ain't enough to convince you to see the thing, I dunno, man, maybe watch THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS or something.

* Although STARDUST co-writer Jane Goldman is about the hottest writer I've ever seen, especially now that she's filled out a little. Damn, cast her next time! Oooh, and she had her own paranormal series, “Jane Goldman Investigates.” This might be love.

**So, apparently this guy actually is literally the devil (according to his wikipedia page, anyway). His bio sounds like it would make a good Ken Russel film, though, and I think I speak for all mankind when I say I'd like to see a 160 million dollar spin-off about Jason Flemyng in devil makeup going around, “mating with women who had strange appearances.”

 Seeking: Ladies of strange appearance, ages 18+ who are up for no-strings attached kinda thing.