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 na├»ve, 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.