Friday, April 27, 2012

Pumpkinhead

Pumpkinhead (1988)
Dir. Stan Winston
Starring Lance Henriksen, Pumpkinhead, Dirt Bikes


                     False advertising. There is no pumpkin' squeezin' in this movie.   

    PUMPKINHEAD is one of those second-tier horror franchises which has probably survived as long as it has simply through sheer perseverance. Somewhere between CHILD’S PLAY, which started off with some modicrum of legitimacy, and, say, the LEPRECHAUNs. It was never considered a classic, or probably even a favorite, by any self-respecting horror junkie (the only demographic which would ever bother with it in the first place)  but through a relentless march of deeply unnecessary sequels it managed to stay afloat long enough that people got used to it being around and developed a certain sentimental fondness for it, like Ron Paul. I’d been mildly interested in seeing the original but it had been irritatingly difficult to track down, and I had given up the effort until I saw that FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM director Jeff Burr helmed the second of the series. I liked that one, so I finally gave in to the dark side and made a legitimate legal purchase of the original even though I was pretty well convinced it would be softer than a Jack-O-Lantern on Thanksgiving, and not nearly as alcoholic.

    I mean, it has some horror credentials. Stan Winston isn’t much known as a director, outside of this and the amazing-sounding Anthony Michael Hall project A GNOME NAMED GNORM*, but if you’ve clicked on a review of PUMPKINHEAD I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what he is known for. And of course, it has Lance Henriksen in it, who has been reliably awesome since at least the time of Charlemagne. But then again, fucking SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN has him too, and that’s a long way from being viewable by humans outside some kind of laboratory-assisted eye-bleeding endurance test. He’s always gonna be great, but I’m not suffering through 90 minutes of fully-clothed college kids stumbling over their lines in the woods for a five minute Henriksen cameo.

But, turns out I underestimated this one. Yes, there’s a lot of fully-clothed college kids jabbering on, looking slightly guilty and not meeting our eyes out of the shame of not being Lance Henriksen when all we fucking want to see is Lance Henriksen or, that failing, some kind of god damn pumpkin monster. But this is 1988, meaning it was actually possible to get Henriksen himself for more than half a day of shooting. He’s pretty much the main character here, and that goes a real long fucking way.

The premise is this: Henriksen is a single-father Hill-Person-American** who runs a little country general store with his punishingly adorable soon-to-be ex-son. Out of the big city come a bunch of obnoxious college kids with dirt bikes, on their way to the proverbial Cabin in the Woods. Can anyone think of a movie where this ever actually goes well for someone? Why can’t they rent a cabin in the woods and have a night of piercing personal introspection and richly complicated emotional relationships, a la THE BIG CHILL? I’m starting to think the entire horror genre is being secretly propped up by the Tijuana tourist board. Anyway, they stop by Henriksen’s country store to ask for alcohol or Xboxes or something. You know how those fucking college kids are.

So you get your usual creepy-backwoods rednecks being vaguely hostile to the generically pretty city kids, but the twist is that here you’re on the rednecks’ side. Henrikson’s Ed Harley is a hard-working, dedicated single father and doesn’t deserve to be condescended to by a bunch of rich-kid jocks who figure they’re kings of the universe. They’re unwelcome here because they have no respect for the fact that they’re entering someone else’s home, that maybe the residents here would prefer not to have a bunch of drunken yahoos zooming around their yards on dirt bikes. A philosophy which gains some support after a the particularly egregious asshole of the gang runs Harley’s son over, and then flees the scene.

Now, the college kids are divided over this incident; most want to stay or help, a few just want to get back to their lives and to get away with it. Some of them do try to help in the kind of pathetically non-helpful way that people who are not used to actual problems usually try, but when Harley comes back to find his boy dead and a couple college kids standing around and looking sheepish, he wordlessly grabs the boy and runs to find help. When one of the girls awkwardly asks, “is there anything we can do?” he turns around and gives her this look:


Clearly they shot her question and this reaction shot separately, since anyone caught directly in this gaze would be instantly and violently eradicated from existence


And you know it’s on.

See, Harley remembers something from his own childhood: There’s a demon in these mountains that you can call on to bring vengeance upon someone who has wronged you... for a price. A demon that sleeps beneath a pumpkin patch. A demon that looks kind of like if the xenomorph from ALIEN was made out of prunes. A demon called... well, you get the idea. So basically the rest of the film is Pumpkinhead knocking off college kids one by one in mildly creative ways.

Winston, as both writer and director, did two things very right with this movie. For one, he hired Henriksen for the role of Harley, who plays the part with a furious intensity which drags the rest of the movie along behind it. Henriksen --himself from a poor working-class background-- plays Harley with great dignity and conviction as a genuinely good man who cracks under unimaginable grief. He’s a completely believable, well-rounded character and it makes both his wrong turn and his slow horror at what he’s done all the more tragic and even moving. Combined with an elegantly simple, appealingly folkloric premise (the other thing Winston nails, especially in the effective portrayal of the old Mountain Hag who Harley approaches for help), you’ve got something pretty effective here.

Unfortunately, other than those two things, everything else about the movie is pretty frustratingly bad. Henriksen is so good that the predictable shitty acting from the college kids really stands out and the whole enterprise feels painfully lopsided. Even though Harley is kind of the villain, you’re rooting for him out of simple charisma alone. But for some poorly-thought-out reason, the script seems to want to make the college kids somewhat sympathetic, and they’re such bland archetypes that you’re never really going to root for them. It’s just going to be less satisfying when they get killed. Basically the whole second half of the film leaves Harley to watch the college kids get picked off, but then fails to kill them in any memorable ways and fails to make watching them die at all satisfying. Even the awful asshole who runs over Harley’s kid suddenly turns faux-sympathetic at the end, where’s the damn fun in that? I’m still not going to like him, why can’t you at least let me enjoy the spectacle of his death? They might have been wiser to just make the whole lot uniformly abrasive, unsympathetic monster fodder.

And monster fodder they are, but unfortunately this monster isn’t really one which you are that interested in seeing fed, either. On one hand, it’s a fond reminder of happier times to see the beast portrayed by a giant physical puppet instead of a bunch of nerdy pixels, and it gives it a sense of physicality which makes it a bit more intimidating. On the other hand, though, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s just not a very interesting design for a monster. The special effects are great, and Winston shows them off by giving you a pretty good look at the monster for most of the latter half of the film. But there’s just nothing very nightmarish or compelling about it. While Giger’s Alien design was carefully constructed to draw upon people’s unconscious fears and repulsions, this thing just looks like they just threw some claws and teeth together, stretched it out, and called it a day. It just doesn’t have enough personality to be disturbing, nor enough physical prowess to seem especially dangerous.  An actual pumpkin headed demon would have been better. Hell, the Old Hag who conjures the thing is way scarier.  


The guy on the left is way scarier when he's mad.
         So, they bungle the most important parts of any monster movie, but there’s enough good here to save it. In the third act, Harley comes back to try to repent for what he’s done and mitigate the damage, and the conflict shifts away from watching college kids get killed and towards Harley saving his soul, which is a subject we care a lot more about. Once Henriksen is back on the scene and the we abandon the anemic monster-killings, the stakes seem higher and the drama becomes more effective. Winston conjures some surprisingly effective atmosphere (complete with respectably moody mountain music) and actually manages to sell the folklore and the tragedy much better than the monster itself. Odd, I know, but there it is.  Pumpkinhead himself probably wasn’t a strong enough monster to deserve a whole series, but the film has enough going for it that it probably earns its reputation as a low-level classic -- or at least earns a TV sequel directed by Jeff Burr. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s just good enough to earn the opportunity to sully its good name with a bunch of shitty cash-in DTV sequels. By god, that’s something worthy of some good old-fashioned vegetable-themed demon vengeance.


PUMPKINHEAD CHECKLIST:

Lance Henriksen:                                  YES
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:        YES
Satisfying Kills:                                      NO
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect
They Could Get For This:  LANCE FOR MORE THAN 5 MINUTES
Pumpkinhead Smacks People
With His Big Stupid Hands:                   YEP
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:          SUCCESSFUL
At All Watchable:                                   YES



*Yes, really.

**Confirming that the Hills do indeed have eyes, hence easily outpacing their nearest competition in the Mole people.


Man, I’m never going to look at those “Veggie-Tales” movies the same way again. Always thought there was something creepy going on there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Headhunters (Hodejegeme)

Headhunters (2012)
Dir. Morten Tyldum
Starring Askel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau


    Vern, in his infinite brilliance, likes to compare genre films to Blues songs. Blues --maybe more than any other popular musical genre-- are rigidly structured in terms of style, texture, composition, and even content. All true blues songs are fundamentally the same, and yet some blues songs are forgettable background noise and others burn through your soul like your heart was pumping gasoline. It’s up to the individual performer to take the basic form of the blues song and make it their own, make it better, make it richer. They don’t accomplish this by getting creative and surprising you, they do it by milking the absolute most power possible out of the basic structure they’re exploring and giving it a part of their own unique humanity.
    
            Genre movies are like this too. Case in point, the little-by-our-standards-big-by-their-standards Norwegian chase thriller HEADHUNTERS (HODEJEGEME) which opens this weekend (yes, this coming weekend. I know people.) There’s not really anything in here that you haven’t seen done before, and done this well or better. But it’s got the fundamentals down to a fine art and has enough of its own unique personality that it works like a charm.

Askel Hennie (MAX MANUS, which sounds like a truly amazing porn but is actually a historical action film about Norwegian Nazi-fighters) plays the oddly-named Norwegian Roger Brown, a smarmy corporate headhunter by day and fine-art thief by night. He’s got to hold down two big-ticket jobs because he wants to spoil his much-taller and much-hotter wife who he’s worried would never have anything to do with him were he less than obscenely wealthy. Just as he’s getting over his head in debt, in walks Claus Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, GAME OF THRONES) an aggressive Dutch ex-military, ex-special-ops tracker, ex-mercenary ex-CEO who just happens to have an original Rubens painting in his Norwegian aunt’s apartment worth millions. Roger is worried about ripping off a guy who sounds like a Steven Seagal backstory, but he needs the money so he goes for the big score. Greve, whose massive technology company specializes in GPS tracking, is having none of it. And so the chase is on.

One nice thing the film has going for it is that it takes its time carefully laying the scenario out, but once Greve comes after Roger, it suddenly lurches into high gear. Most films would waste our time by coyly escalating things, letting Greve make a bunch of thinly-veiled threatening speeches, etc. Here, Greve just grabs a hunting knife and comes after him. It’s simple and visceral and I like it. We all know the structure of this blues song, so why be coy when we can cut right to the good stuff?  And once Greve starts coming, he simply doesn’t let up. So it’s this vain, effete art thief versus a relentless, ruthless manhunter. Roger knows he’s way out of his depth, and just books it halfway across Norway on a directionless terror-soaked adrenaline tear, with Greve always hot on his tail. 

There’s a nice blending of the shockingly brutal and the drolly comedic here, which suits the film very nicely. Roger isn’t exactly the most likeable film character in the world; he seems vain, opportunistic, disinginuous, insecure. But his punishment is so outlandishly over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh and feel for him a little. It helps that he looks like an exact cross between Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken*, so he coasts on their goodwill a little. But there’s also something about the naked, childlike horror at all this in Roger’s face which tells us that he’s basically a nice guy. Sure he’s an asshole, but he definitely didn’t deserve this. He’s just an insecure little fellah, mostly harmless, who bit off way more than he could chew. We can all empathize with the fear of suddenly finding ourselves way over our heads, so you ultimately want things to turn out OK for him even though you know this is one of those arty European thrillers which will probably have him come to an ironically bad end. Like he survives everything only to be hit by a truck outside his house or something. You know the kinda shit they like to pull. Anyway, Hennie’s performance perfectly walks the line between making Roger too much of an asshole (in which case you wouldn’t care what happens to him) or too likeable (in which case you’d feel too bad for him to enjoy watching his predicament). So you can root for him and still enjoy watching him get shot, stabbed, run over, poisoned, bitten, covered in shit, etc (man, this guy is practically Rasputin!)

He's his own Quentin Tarantino cast!

                          
It’s rare for a thriller to consistently be both seriously tense and mordantly funny, but this one nails it. There’s plenty of creative action (all very nicely staged) and the film has a nice build to it, sustaining tension and creating a nice rhythm of wild terror and brief respite. On a few occasions, it gets a little too jokey (two morbidly obese twin policemen seem like they should be in a POLICE ACADEMY film) but mostly the tone has an almost Hitchcock vibe -- exciting and very lightly cheeky. Coster-Waldau (probably the best known in America out of the cast) is maybe a little less colorful than you might like from the villainous role, but he’s a credible threat and believable as a guy who has no compunction whatsoever about killing to get his way. Hennie, for his part,  is actor enough that when he’s called upon to be serious, he’s up to the challenge and can bring you along with him. So even when the plot seriously strains credulity, the two leads wrestle us back into caring.

As a blues song, it’s one of those ones which just works. I can’t seriously argue that it’s going to be an enduring classic, but it’s a rock-solid application of the conventions of the thriller genre. Those uppity Norwegians manage to squeeze the genre for all its worth, mining thrills, laughter, and even a little pathos out of a pretty by-the-book premise. Not that it’s completely predictable, either -- there’s one major red herring which took me, at least, delightfully by surprise. A little playful solo between the choruses. Like a blues song, the details may vary, but the fundamentals remain the same. You know basically how it’s going to play out, but that’s OK because the fun is in the actual playing out itself, not the end result. It’s not reinventing the genre. It’s just playing it for all its worth.  

The never said anything about shooting over spilled milk.
                            
*There’s also a theory that he looks like Buscemi and Conan O’Brien (but shorter) which would be even more appropriate given his old "If they mated" bit.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Woman In the Window

The Woman in the Window (1944)
Dir. Fritz Lang
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea







What we got here is one of the early Film Noirs to hit (along with MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and LAURA, to name a few) before the term had even been coined, directed by one of cinema’s all time great masters (Fritz “M” Lang) and starring one of the most iconic actors of the era, Edward G “SOYLENT GREEN” Robinson. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to, and it’s not quite the classic that it ought to have been, but it’s still a damn good reminder of just how good these early film noirs were, before they had exactly solidified into a genre.
    
           Robinson plays Richard Wanley, bespectacled professor of criminal psychology who has just sent his family away on vacation and is, in some small way, lamenting his highly domestic life with his friends over literally dozens of cigars and old fashions. Besotted by a painted image of a beautiful woman in a store window, he ignores the advice of his friends that “adventure doesn’t suit old men” when he unexpectedly meets the young woman in person. One thing leads to another, a wealthy interloper gets murdered with a pair of scissors, and suddenly the professor and his young consort Alice Reed(Joan Bennett) are trying to fend off the police and a mysterious blackmailer before the murder can be pinned on them.

It’s a simple setup, but with a few twists I really appreciated. For one, the whole murder thing was really a misunderstanding. This guy bursts in on Wanley and Reed and Wanley stabs him in clear self-defense. They could have just gone to the police and been done with it, but they’re afraid of the embarrassment of being caught together (they’ve just been sitting on the couch, of course, because this is 1944) and decide to try and hide the body instead. So as the whole thing spins out of control, there’s an unspoken desperation over the fact that now they’ll definitely look guilty even though they’re not.

Another great twist is that one of Wanely’s drinking buddies is none other than the DA who’s investigating the case (Raymond Massey). He happily babbles on about the fabulous new forensic techniques the police have been using, and even takes his friend on a tour of the crime scene itself to show just how much evidence they can glean from a few small details. So you’ve got several great scenes of Robinson trying not to look overwhelmingly sick as he gingerly pries for more details. They keep joking how Wanley perfectly fits the profile of the killer, and it’s hard to tell if they’re trying to make him crack or just unaware of his sudden, profuse sweating.

I also love the relationship between Wanley and Reed. Bennett is, of course, utterly delectable as the femme fatale here, but unlike many actresses who came after her in this mold she has a great sweetness and decency to her. It’s 1944 so they can’t come out and say she’s a prostitute, but come on, you can put two and two together. Even so, duplicity isn’t in her nature, and she and Wanely have a genuinely sweet rapport. It’s interesting because of course we know that Wanley’s a married man, but he seems like he’s definitely toying with the idea of cheating on his wife with this young woman before everything goes wrong. It’s probably the production code that stops him more than the requires of the narrative, but it makes for a surprising dynamic. These two were drawn together by sex which never materializes, but they’re bound together by their unfortunate predicament -- and yet, they end up being very loyal and supportive of each other anyway. The tentative way they grow to trust each other and care for each other in an (apparently) purely platonic way is one of the film’s real graces. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film relationship quite like it.
 
                                       You're god damn right I would.

But the cops aren’t their only problem. The final piece of the puzzle is the mysterious blackmailer, played by Western staple Dan Duryea. Duryea’s a low-life thug, but a devilishly smart one. He’s physically intimidating and prone to violence, but sharp enough to easily dismantle any attempts to trick him. The way he bemusedly walks around Reed’s apartment, demolishing every argument she makes piece by piece while simultaneously searching the area for material to use against her is genuinely chilling. Duryea’s not an actor I ever noticed in anything else (he’s in SCARLET STREET, CRISS CROSS, and the 65’ FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX too, but I can’t say I remember him in any of those) but he’s dynamite here. He so easily outmatches Reed in every way that he almost has a Hannibal Lecter quality to him, manipulating her for his own amusement as much as for monetary gain. The way he allows Reed to think she’s got the drop on him, only to suddenly turn things around on her, is simply dripping with grinning sadism. It’s pretty awesome.

Not everything is quite as effective as Duryea’ performance, however. Fritz Lang --arguably the biggest luminary here-- is kind of coasting on this one, making a straightforward but not especially stylish picture mostly set in unimaginatively photographed apartment rooms. It’s not bad work by any means, and he and editor Gene Fowler Jr (who also worked with Sam Fuller and John Cassavetes and directed I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) do successfully cultivate an atmosphere of crushing paranoia, where every side glance seems like it might have sinister implications. But I feel like he could have tried a little harder to make it as visually striking as his earlier work.   

Still, it’s not lack of style which has kept this one from being regarded quite as highly as the legendary company it keeps -- it’s the ending. Lang and writer Nunnally Johnson (THE DIRTY DOZEN, a ton of other legendary scripts) obviously set up the perfect tragic ending, tease you with it, pull the trigger, give you reason to believe they’re going to resolve things, and then fucking have the balls to go all the way with it. It’s a perfect ending. And then out of the blue they rescind it and turn the whole thing into a joke. I’m going to spoil it for you, because better you find out from me and go into this thing knowing what to expect. Basically, after the film ends exactly the way it needs to end, they suddenly reveal it was all a dream. The whole movie. He fell asleep after his friends left, and dreamed the whole god damn thing, even the multiple scenes which he is not present for. He leaves the club to find that, WIZARD OF OZ-style, the characters in his dream were all faces he’d seen on the street. And when approached by a young woman a la the start of his dream, he bolts off accompanied by cheerfully whimsical musical cues assuring us that he’s learned his lesson about not being adventurous at his age.

What a fucking tease. Obviously a concession to the production code to offset any ruffled feathers over the danced-around but still somewhat scandalous sexual nature of the film, but still. It’s so maddeningly counter to all the film’s obvious good instincts that you almost have to wonder if it was Lang’s “fuck you” to the production code, intentionally terrible and obviously tacked on just to demonstrate how their Puritan oppressiveness was stifling great art. Other than that, though, you’ve got a real good one here. Lang, Robinson, and most of the cast would reunite a year later for the probably slightly better SCARLET STREET, but WOMAN IN THE WINDOW stands out as a unique and formative film noir which lacks the rigid genre structures of later entries and thus is full of sublime surprises.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bruiser

Bruiser (2000)
Dir. George A. Romero
Starring Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope, Tom Atkins




    Let’s start things off on a negative note. BRUISER isn’t really a very good film at all, and it’s a significant step backwards from Romero’s previous film, the enjoyable DARK HALF. It looks cheap, much of it is poorly staged, the acting is mostly pretty bad, its central themes are muddled, and it features some embarrassingly bad creative decisions which undermine most of what it’s trying to do. But, it’s worth looking at because aside from its myriad of obvious and embarrassing flaws, it has two major strengths. First, it continues to explore the basic theme of controlling our antisocial impulses which Romero had previously examined in MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN GOD DAMN FEAR, and THE DARK HALF. Second, it has a really great horror premise which it fails to completely ruin, despite the pretty thorough bungling that it goes through.


    Let’s look at where Romero is in his career at this point. MONKEY SHINES (1988) looked like a turning point for him, getting his big studio break after nearly two decades of challenging independent filmmaking made him a recognizable name. But it was a big flop, the studio basically recut it against his will, failed to promote it properly, and then ceased to exist shortly after its debut. Then, his Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES also failed at the box office (debuting in 17th place with a final take is reported at $349,000. Yes, thousand.) Finally, he has what looks like a sure win with an Academy Award Winner starring in a Stephen King Adaptation, which most people agree is pretty good and even makes a little money. And what happens? Seven years before he can even get another film made, and even then he has to go and find Canal+ producers in France to get it actually funded and distributed. So he’s done exactly what you’re supposed to do, played the game, did his best, and now it’s 2000 and he’s exactly back where he fucking started, making cheapie independent movies with foreign capital.


So perhaps it’s little coincidence that this is exactly the predicament BRUISER’s protagonist finds himself in. Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng) is shy, unassuming guy who follows the rules, doesn’t make a fuss, and quietly does his job. And what does he get for his efforts? He’s living in a permanently unfinished house in the creepy suburban sprawl which he can’t afford with his bored, bitchy wife, while failing to get any credit from his outrageous, coke snorting-model-molesting-party-animal boss (Peter Stormare) who also happens to be fucking Henry’s real love, the equally unfulfilled Rosemary (Leslie Hope). Oh, and he has a douchey “best friend” who manages his finances and tells him not to worry about the details when he muses that it seems like his money should be going further. So he gets nothing but abuse at home, nothing but frustration at work, his best friend is obviously stealing from him, and finally, when compelled to go to Peter Stormare’s party, he gets to find out his wife is also having an affair with his boss. So both the ladies in his life are getting into this guy. This may have something to do with the fact that he has the awesome name Milo Styles and is Peter Stormare in full-on wild and crazy guy mode, which makes it somewhat understandable but you still got to feel for the poor bastard. 

 Also at the party: Rosemary (Miles’ nominal wife) has the guests mold creepy expressionless plaster masks and then decorate them to symbolize the person who created them. Great party, lady. I mean, we all remember the classic creepy mask-making scene from ANIMAL HOUSE, right? Just as much fun here. Anyway, Henry is too shy to do it, but he’s fascinated by the masks (in fact, he has more reaction to them than to his wife blowing his boss not five feet away).

    The next day, Henry awakens to discover he’s wearing the mask. Well, not wearing it, exactly. It’s attached to his face, or has replaced his face. Looking into the mirror, he sees only this expressionless plaster facade. And once he realizes that this is his new face, it doesn’t even take an hour before he’s committed his first murder.


    So it’s a great horror premise, especially for Romero, because it makes literal the upsetting psychological truth that de-individualizing allows people to do things they would never do if they had to look at themselves or knew other people could look at them. It’s why the Klan wears those hoods. It’s why executioners used to wear shrouds. It’s why internet message boards are filled with horrifying debasements of humanity. Why people are so rude on the telephone. Why Cobra Commander is such a dick. This has been scientifically studied at some length, and it’s a phenomenon which is measurable and repeatable. Several truly upsetting studies were done back in the 50s, when you could do these sort of things in the name of science. 


    So not only does Flemyng now look creepy as all get out, he’s free to act without an identity. You can argue that the mask frees him of his individuality and his humanity, or you can argue that he was such a blank already that the mask merely externalized the emptiness which already consumed him (I think the film leans more to the latter) but either way it’s an exciting metaphor that should have been an easy home run. I mean, so far we’ve seen Romero depict men who were horrified to find out their darker desires were being acted out against their will. Now we have the added wrinkle that this protagonist is actually doing it himself -- he’s taken his loss of identity as free reign to act out all his most antisocial fantasies and get revenge against pretty much the whole world. He IS the Dark Half. He’s his own helper monkey. Rather than resisting his urges to lash out at the world, he leaps for them at the first opportunity. All it takes is giving up his face and his soul.



I mean, what a great horror premise, right? And especially great for Romero, who (as we’ve seen) loves these highly literalized metaphors. Freed of the need to justify his actions to a human being, the first thing he does is savagely murder the cleaning lady who was bitching about the occupants of the house in Spanish. Where Romero used to seem to think most people would resist their violent urges, here we see just how quickly Henry’s savagery comes out and consumes him once he’s given an opportunity, and how fast any kind of empathy or moderation recedes. The minute he stops holding back, his violence just explodes outwards and he becomes, basically, Jason -- a masked psycho indiscriminately chopping up anyone he feels wronged him in some way. It fits right in with DARK HALF and MONKEY SHINES’ overwhelming paranoia of letting bad thoughts slip into the real world.

Except that Romero doesn’t play it quite like that. He takes what is clearly a horror concept of a guy becoming a monster and shoots it like it’s some kind of empowerment experience*. Suddenly Henry is able to stand up for himself, to right the wrongs that were done to him by everyone in his life. Henry’s enemies are such awful assholes themselves that it basically becomes a revenge fantasy, where you get to cheer for Henry blowing away the cheating wife, the thieving best friend, etc. Romero even has a Greedo-shot-first moment where Bestie goes for his gun, to make it all nice and legal. Stand your ground, faceless rage machine-- no moral ambiguity to get in the way of our fun.

But any enjoyment you might be able to get from a well-executed revenge fantasy is completely demolished by the fact that this is all Henry’s fault anyway. Yes, people have been taking advantage of him, treating him like shit, whatever. But I don’t buy his whiny victim routine. He could have left his bitch wife any time, could have told his friend to let him see his finances, could have told his boss he wants a raise. But he never did. Instead he said nothing, sat there day after day in the middle of the miserable, empty life he built for himself, and decided it was everyone else’s fault. And now we’re supposed to root for him to murder everyone who ever hurt his feelings? You’ve got only yourself to blame, you putty-faced prick. 

All this climaxes in his least satisfying but admittedly most colorful murder, where he attends a giant costumed warehouse Misfits rave/show (where he blends in because he’s wearing a mask) and uses one of the lasers from their laser light show to shoot a hole in the skull of Peter Stormare, who is at the time suspended over the crowd in some sort of drug-fueled sex harness. It’s not quite as cool as it sounds, because it’s kind of poorly staged, but it’s still a winningly ridiculous setup. Problem is, he’s already killed wifey and best friend, and now he’s going after his boss, who doesn’t really have any personal problem with Henry. You’re saving this guy for last? All he did was ignore him at work, I don’t think he personally cares enough about Henry to even be mean to him. I mean, he may be a coke-snorting-model-banging-wife-swapping-misogynist-nutball-Russian-porno-kingpin, but that actually makes him at least 6 adjectives more interesting than silent, resentful Henry. Who are you gonna root for, the hilarious and outrageous asshole, or the guy who’s going on a murder rampage because his feelings got hurt? It’s like if Jim hacked Stifler to death at the end of AMERICAN PIE and we were supposed to find it satisfying and cathartic. And Jim is about a hundred times more likeable than Henry.     

Part of the problem is Flemyng, who is an actor I usually love but who was terribly wrong for this part. Flemyng’s superpower is the sly, witty, underdog charm which is always simmering just below the surface, spilling out his eyes and lingering on the clipped end of his jangling british cadence. Here, unfortunately, he’s playing a consummately unwitty, awkward blank slate, eyes hidden behind an expressionless mask, and with a somewhat labored American accent to boot. Romero was smart to cast an great underdog, but then we never get to see anything redeeming or interesting about Henry before his big murderous conversion. Which in my opinion makes him not so much an underdog as a boring loser. We’re not gonna root for the guy just because his life sucks. You’ve gotta have something going for you that we like. Self-actualizing doesn’t just mean lashing out at things that upset you; it means actually cultivating the things that are worth standing up for. Romero doesn’t seem to quite get that. 

It’s not too hard to imagine why. Romero had to be in such a frustrating place at this point in his career that maybe just the very act of lashing out seemed empowering. He’d been an underdog from the start, working diligently, staying positive, imagining it would pay off. And it never quite did, or at least not in the way he might have hoped, where he’d have more financial freedom and more opportunity to direct. After all that time, how are you going to convince yourself to keep up the optimism? It’s natural to feel some resentment. You spend too much time --like the protagonists from MONKEY SHINES of THE DARK HALF-- carefully controlling your thoughts and worrying about what might happen if you gave in to your darker impulses, and eventually you’re gonna go nuts and simply explode. So even though BRUISER explores the same theme, it’s almost a repudiation of the self-denial subtext those films put forward. But unless you just spent 30 years making serious, imaginative horror films only to find yourself right back where you started, you’re not gonna identify with this creep Henry very much. It might feel liberating to Romero to finally show a guy snapping and just going with it, but from an objective perspective there’s just no way to side with this asshole. Romero should have starred in it himself and had his faceless avatar hack up a bunch of movie studio execs -- that, I might have been able to cheer for. 

Since BRUISER (which, by the way, refers to the name of the Maxim-esque mens’ magazine Henry and Milo work for) Romero hasn’t exactly slacked off, but he hasn’t returned to this curious theme of self-control which runs through his work from 1988 to 2000. He did the pretty respectable LAND OF THE DEAD, which revisits the political and social allegories from the earlier DEAD films, but DIARY and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD are even sloppier and less coherent than BRUISER. So in some ways, this one feels like the end of the line for Romero, and his admission that he, like Henry, has pretty much given up trying to make it work. In one of the few scenes in the film which feel like something approximating humanity, Henry tells his long-time unrequited love that it’s too late for him, but she should break her own miserable cycle and live a happy life. Maybe in a way that’s Romero telling future indie filmmakers to not try the frustrating path he went down, but instead to follow their own dreams to a more rewarding future. If this cycle of films at all represents Romero’s own inner struggle for peace, I sincerely hope he found it. He’s a unique guy and, flaws and all, no one else could have made the particular movies he did. I’ll always hold out hope that he’ll make one more great one** but even if he doesn’t I hope he doesn’t feel like Henry, living unnoticed in his half-finished dream house. 

You’re a good man, George Romero. Even when you’re not of the living dead.



*IMDB confirms this was his intention: According to George A. Romero and his wife Christine Forest on the DVD commentary on DAWN OF THE DEAD, the distributors of Bruiser (2000) sold it as a Romero horror film (example of that is the poster with the gashes on the white face). Both Romero and Forest felt that it wasn't just a horror film but more of a story of a man who is going through difficulties in his life. The fate of selling [sic] this movie as a horror film was this movie ended up going to video instead of theaters. 


**Also to be inducted into the “I hope they’ll make one more great one!” hall of fame: John Carpenter, Wes Craven, John McTiernan, Walter Hill, Dario Argento, Kevin Smith.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear

Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988)
Dir. George Romero
Starring Jason Beghe, Joyce Van Patten, John Pankow, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Root, Frank Welker






Continuing our “Not of the Living Dead” expedition into George Romero’s less shambling/lurching/intestines-eating cinematic exploits, we find ourselves at MONKEY SHINES, which wikipedia says is “sometimes” subtitled “AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR,” but obviously should be all the time and will be every time I speak of it and anytime anyone wishes to speak of it to me without fear or immediate and severe recrimination. If it is indeed an experiment in fear, I would say that if our hypothesis was that the film would inspire fear, the hypothesis was not supported by the evidence gathered. The problem is, the experiment is invalid anyway, because it’s impossible to repeat and hence has no predictive power. But it’s an interesting experiment to watch, because it represents a turning point in young George Romero’s career and it involves monkeys.
    
     Romero is now a venerable well-respected grayhair, fighting a never-ending battle with Martin Scorsese over who can successfully wear the thickest possible eyeglasses without falling over. But there was a time when he was a young indie upstart. In fact, he spent the first two decades of his career, since his 1968 debut, making cheapie independent films including the classic trilogy of NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY (he never got around to TEATIME OF THE DEAD). So when a guy finally gets his big studio break after 9 films and 20 years, it’s kind of a big deal.
  

He responded with MONKEY SHINES, an odd film by any metric you want to use. For one thing, it’s odd to see a Romero film that looks this good. They obviously spared no expense in pursuing the vision of this already-legendary director they’d hired, providing decent actors, decent lighting, nice camera equipment, a few location shots, real monkeys, the whole deal. You can practically smell the catered buffet. But it’s funny, because other than maybe buying the rights to the novel this is based on* there’s not really any reason Romero couldn’t have made this as an independent film. It’s mostly one location, no big actors, few special effects. I would say that Romero builds the film like a guy who isn’t used to having a decent budget at his disposal, but come to think of it that never seemed to stop him in the past. The big biker attack in DAWN looks like it cost as much as this whole film just by itself. So for whatever reason, his big studio debut is a small-scale affair, inward focused and claustrophobic rather than extroverted and explosive. Maybe the monkey had a really great agent and walked away with half the budget, who knows?

Anyway, the result here is that we have a kind of reverse REAR WINDOW. Which I guess would be FRONT WINDOW, or maybe FRONT WALL. Alan (Jason Beghe) is a star athlete and law student who becomes a quadriplegic after a freak car accident. Increasingly embittered and isolated, he gets a second chance at life when his Herbert West-esque best friend Geoff gives him a helper monkey named Ella who (unbeknownst to anyone else) is also a subject in an intelligence-building experiment. Ella and Alan bond immediately, and everything seems fine until suddenly Alan’s enemies begin turning up dead. Is it a coincidence, or is Ella somehow acting out Alan’s subconscious anger? Here's a hint. The movie is called MONKEY SHINES.

So, in contrast to REAR WINDOW’s voyeuristic interest in whether someone else is a murderer, Alan is even more disabled and has to solve the mystery of whether he is somehow complicit in murder. Even though he doesn’t know how he’s directly responsible, Alan is wracked with guilt that his unspoken anger is being acted out -- commendably, given that the people getting snuffed are inarguably a bunch of irredeemable assholes and at least one is played my Stanley Tucci. This strikes me as especially interesting given its odd thematic similarity to my last Romero film, THE DARK HALF. That one is about a man who finds his fictional alter ego has come to life and if lashing out at people he loves. Here, our protagonist finds himself in the awkward position of feeling guilty over the death of people he hates. In both cases, we have heroes who find themselves responsible for darker aspects of themselves which they never actually acted on. Both have darker qualities --which are not necessarily unusual or unjustified-- and find that for reason beyond their control, outside forces are acting based on these qualities. I mean, Alan has perfectly good reasons to be angry, particularly at the people who end up getting killed (the doctor who botched his surgery and crippled him ends up running off with his bitch fiance. I’d argue that’s about as good a reason to be grumpy as has ever existed). But both movies have a deep horror of the parts of ourselves we are least proud of somehow manifesting their desires against our will.

A quick bit of biographical research on Romero finds nothing in his history which would seem relevant to this odd bit of metaphysical paranoia. By all accounts, he seems like a nice guy. For fucks sake, it was a bit of film he did for MR. RODGERS that inspired him to go into indie filmmaking.** But then again, Alan and Thad Beaumont (from THE DARK HALF) seem pretty nice, too. So do I, I hope. Maybe that’s what makes it so scary. We’re all people who try as hard as possible to do the right thing, to ignore the devil (or monkey) on our shoulder, but in acknowledging that we’re trying to do the right thing we have to admit that there’s some small aspect of ourselves that might choose the wrong thing if not properly controlled. The price of controlling our darker impulses is that we’re always living in fear that they might, somehow, slip past our defenses and out into the real world. And I imagine most human beings know the horror of losing control and giving in to our demons at one time or another. Neither DARK HALF nor MONKEY SHINES has a lot of explicitly scary scenes, but they both understand how fundamentally terrifying it would be to watch helplessly as you completely lose control of that part of yourself and find it acting against your wishes. And the inherent fear that it’s more of you than you’d like to admit.

MONKEY SHINES ups the ante a bit by making Alan’s murderous avatar more than just a murderous evil twin, like DARK HALF does. In this case, the killer is Alan’s helper monkey Ella, played to the adorable hilt by renowned monkey actor Boo***. Ella is shown to be highly intelligent and loyal, and in fact is a godsend for poor paralyzed Alan, who bonds with her immediately. But as they start to ‘shine’ with each other**** she begins to bring out the less inhibited, more reactionary animal side of Alan. It’s hard to argue that she’s exactly a villain, though; she’s intelligent enough to kill, but it never seems like she has a human understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. So really, the fact that she becomes a killer is more the fault of humans who are acting on her -- through Alan’s monkey mind-meld and Geoff’s crazy experiments on her brain. Monkeys can’t be expected to rise above their animal nature, but humans are (perhaps unfairly and even unrealistically) supposed to exercise control, even of their very thoughts. The fact that Alan doesn’t do so dooms poor Ella as well, an innocent victim of her own genes. Just one more thing to feel guilty about.

MONKEY SHINES isn’t much of a horror movie on the surface (even once the monkey goes apeshit, it’s not too terrifying because it’s a damn monkey) but as a really bleak drama it works pretty well. Again, a big part of that comes from Romero’s steadfast determination to make a very literal, non-subjective film. He simply shows us what is happening, and lets the underlying horror of losing control carry it. As ridiculous as the premise is, Romero’s lack of stylistic trappings and the committed performance of the actors means it never feels like a joke. In particular, watching Alan’s simmering frustration at his newfound helplessness (both as a physically and mentally functional adult) works brilliantly to help you feel his plight in a way which never has to go for DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY-esque filmatic gimmicks. (And of course, if you feel his frustration and anger too, it makes you a little more complicit in the carnage that eventually comes from it.) There’s something about the straightforward approach that Romero uses which completely defuses heckling, and even the rare sex scene between a woman and a quadriplegic feels genuine. The monkey rampage at the end may not exactly be the stuff of nightmares, but it does feel convincingly desperate, and you care enough about the characters that you at least don’t want them to be taken down by a vengeance-minded monkey helper.

So, another interesting entry into the “Not of the Living Dead” cannon, which plays with a surprising amount of the same themes. We’ll look at a further elaboration on one man’s ability to control his darker impulses next in BRUISER, where we’ll find out what happens when you become your own evil avatar. For one thing, someone is definitely going to be shot with a laser while hanging suspended from a sex harness at a huge costumed rave while the Misfits perform. Which is something MONKEY SHINES ought to have had too, now that I think about it. They at least needed to get some mileage out of the creepy cymbal-crashing monkey on the poster (who isn’t in the movie, unfortunately; we’d have to wait until TOY STORY 3 before someone really milked some evil out of that little bastard). As an experiment in fear, this one leaves some unanswered questions.


*NOT by Stephen King, amazingly. Sure structured like one of his. Or maybe its just his evil twin pen name?


**Says wikipedia. But even if that’s bullshit, it’s so great that I’m going to repeat it to everyone I know until it becomes true.


***Again, not written by Stephen King.


****Ella is also voiced by Frank Welker, aka Megatron, Nibbler, and every cartoon animal not voiced by Don Messick.