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.
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.

*Edit from 2012: That turned out to be a fairly astute assumption.

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


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.


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