Friday, August 23, 2013

The Maze

The Maze (1953)
Dir. William Cameron Menzies
Written by Daniel Ullman
Starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst

They spent so much money on the tagline "The Deadliest Trap in the World" (and they would have had to, because there's nothing deadly and no trap and it all takes place in one location) that they couldn't afford the "S.'

So, I’ve been watching some of these pre-60’s B-horror films, like DONOVAN’S BRAIN, THE APE, THE BLACK SLEEP, THE GHOUL and so forth, as well as some of the Universal Monster acknowledged classics that I hadn’t seen like THE WOLF MAN, INVISIBLE MAN, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. And I’ve come to a conclusion about them that I suspect will come as a surprise to people who know I’m a horror buff but who haven’t really watched these movies themselves. They’re not very good. Oh, I know they’re remembered fondly by the critical establishment, and maybe even more so by the crop of horror geek directors who grew up watching them on TV. They have good things about them, obviously; who doesn’t love seeing Boris Karloff ham it up, and who can resist the awesomeness of the early monster makeup and matte painted castle backdrops. I’m not saying they’re completely worthless. But honest to fuckin’ god, they’re mostly tepid exposition scenes, stilted melodrama, goofy comedy, and cheap castle sets. A lot of them never even get around to any actual horror until the last few minutes, and a lot of the time even when it comes it’s just some big guy waddling towards a screaming woman and then getting shot.

To be clear: it’s not because they’re dated, it’s because they’re bad. You think old film can’t be scary? Try THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, or M, or the end of FREAKS, or THE SEVENTH VICTIM, or THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, or NOSFERATU, or the utterly one-of-a-kind HAXAN. Two scoops of nightmares in every bowl. These are movies which feel utterly compelling and horrific even to this day because they utilize the power of cinema to create more than just a lumbering menace; they create an atmosphere of lingering dread which hints at the disturbing, unknowable darkness which pervades their every shadow. They follow in the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, guys who never shied from conjuring a woman-snatching monster or two, but knew that true horror lives in the human psyche, not in some rubbery suit.

The ladies enjoy smoking a bowl or two to calm their jangled nerves.

OK, not every director is going to be a Fritz Lang or Murnau. But it seems like a lot of directors who got into the horror game later on learned the wrong lessons from their predecessors, i.e. that a monster by itself made it horror. Bullshit. Sesame Street has monsters. Horror films are about atmosphere, about perversity, about the things we can’t see and can’t understand, sometimes out in the world but more often in ourselves. They’re not tangible things you can just point a camera at; they’re something you have to evoke by carefully manipulating the basic tools of pure cinema in concert with each other. In so many ways, it’s a shame that the horror genre seems to have ended up the least reputable of all film genres* because the success or failure of horror films probably relies on the strength of the direction more than any other type of film you could make. Other genres can get by on the strength of their acting or the scale of the spectacle...  but a good horror film is going to need to draw you into it’s world using the most basic tools of cinema: sight, sound, music, and editing. Many great horror films are amateurish in ways which would doom any other kind of film; they may have weak scripts, stilted action, poor production values. But they have something else: a cinematic artistry which reaches past your logical brain and stirs up the amorphous sludge of your fears lying deep below the surface.

This is a long way of saying that I didn’t have much hope for THE MAZE, a gimmicky B-movie from 1953 by a director I didn’t recognize. It has many things that would make you suspicious: an early use of 3-D (the words “3 Dimension” [sic] appear as large as the title), another dreary castle set, a lackluster-sounding mystery with a plucky female protagonist, that guy Richard Carlson from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (who I described as “generic modernist handsome” in that review). It gives you every reason to expect it will be yet another excruciatingly dull drama shot mostly in generic drawing rooms that have fires and gas lamps but for some reason are lit like a Wal-Mart.

But, as we’ll learn by the end of the movie, looks can be deceiving. Turns out not everything is what it seems, and all those warning signs actually turn out to not quite signify the abject lack of entertainment that they usually would. Director Menzies doesn’t have too many famous movies under his belt as a director, but that’s because he was a pioneering art director/production designer, so pioneering in fact that the very title of production designer was created specifically for him by no less an authority on cinema than David O. Selznick. Selznick was so confident in Menzies that he specifically sent a production notice to the crew of GONE WITH THE WIND that “Menzies is the final word,” and had Menzies personally direct the famous sequence where Atlanta gets the torch. As if that weren’t enough, Menzies also (re)directed the Salvador Dali dream sequence from Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND, worked as a director on the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD (uncredited) and directed the eyeball-popping partially-lost H.G. Wells adaptation THINGS TO COME. If you’ve seen even one of those, it becomes obvious that Menzies was a guy born to work in “3 Dimension,” which he uses not as a gimmick but as a way to enhance the layered, deep focus approach he takes to framing his scenes.

True story.

Likewise, other aspects of the production work out better than you might think. The castle set, which looks pretty much identical to any number of similar movies (is it the same one from THE BLACK SLEEP?), is much more artfully lit and photographed and hence feels genuinely imposing and isolated, rather than obligatory. Menzies knows that just like monsters, castles have a good reason to be in horror movies; you just have to do more to actually make them work for you than simply point the camera at a bunch of rooms with fireplaces. Even boring old Richard Carlson is actually pretty good here. His particular brand of distracted nonacting suits his remote, tormented character quite nicely.

What really works best here, though, is the mystery. Here’s the setup: Our plucky heroine Kitty (Veronica Hurst) has it all: a rockin’ 1950’s body, “honey blonde hair” according to wikipedia, financial security such that she seems to spend all her time picnicking and laying poolside, a wacky aunt sidekick, and, most importantly, a handsome Scottish fiance played by an American. Things seem suspiciously idyllic, and sure enough, out of the blue her husband-to-be Gerald MacTeam(Carlson) discovers that his old uncle has died and he has inherited a mysterious castle in the Scottish highlands, which he must attend to personally. As the days pass and MacTeam doesn’t return, Kitty gets suspicious and heads up to investigate things for herself. She finds MacTeam a changed man, visibly aged and obviously concealing a dark secret from her. He wants her to leave and forget about him, implying that she’s in terrible danger is she stays. But as I mentioned, Kitty is a plucky gal and won’t take no for an answer. She digs in her heels and tries to investigate the mysterious goings-on in the castle, particularly its sinister hedge maze.

Unfortunately, there is no tiny version of this inside.

The great thing about this setup is that it lets a production guy like Menzies go to town on the atmosphere. Since Kitty’s ability to investigate is limited, it offers him ample opportunity to do exactly what I was talking about 650 words ago: forgo showing us exactly what’s happening and instead imply, evoke and hint, and let our imagination do the rest. Menzies is a top-notch scene-builder and has a gift for conjuring stark, nightmarish black and white images that recall Robert Wise’s keen eye for deep blacks and ghostly pales. And as a production guy, he knows how to use sets and subtle mise-en-scene to communicate the deep unease that permeates through this weird place without ruining everything by ever showing us too much (until the very end, anyway; more on that later). That, along with the imaginative details of the mystery and a fine, classical score by Marlin Skiles, allow something as simple as watching the light under a door vanish as something large groans by in the hallway to bloom with veiled menace. The movie has an almost Lovecraftian sense that something genuinely bizarre and beyond experience is happening.

Unfortunately, the reason this movie is not better remembered today is the reveal of what is actually happening. After a genuinely fantastic buildup and the creepiest hedge-maze chase this side of you-know-what (which I bet looked awesome in 3-D), we finally get a full-on look at the reason behind all this secrecy and weirdness, and it is laugh-out-ludicrous and hilarious. Once the mystery is solved, everything wraps up neatly in about 5 minutes in a way which begs the question of why this was not done sooner. Obviously, the mystery is always gonna be better than the solution… but this is one of the worst (and goofiest-looking) solutions I’ve ever seen, and it goes a long way towards completely undoing all the good will that the movie’s built up before now. It makes you retroactively angry at the movie for wasting your time and energy making you care about something that turns out to be so silly. But you know me, man, I love a great movie, but I can still really like a movie which has a ratio of greatness to shittiness as low as 1:8. And this one pretty much reverses that number. It’s a genuinely great movie that completely blows it in the last 5 minutes. Imagine if at the end of THE INNOCENTS the big reveal was that Deborah Kerr was actually Santa Claus in disguise.** It’s nearly on that level.

In 3-D, that guy would have looked really far away.

Even so, I can still heartily recommend this one for it’s excellent atmosphere and impressive direction up until the very end. The movie has only itself to blame for missing it’s opportunity to be an acknowledged classic, but I think it's equally unfair to dismiss something which is otherwise so strong on the basis of a silly climax (after all, NIGHT OF THE DEMON has a pretty silly looking monster too!). This is a fine example of the best 50’s horror had to offer, and deserves to be celebrated as such. Even if it is also, maybe, a lesson about why it’s always better to reveal too little rather than too much.

You thought I was troubled, didn't you? Acting.

*(I was gonna say other than porn, but actually I think more classy, respected directors have made sex flicks than horror films. At least Kubrick did both. Was he the only one?)

**Or if the end of SHUTTER ISLAND was just that he was crazy and nothing in the film really happened or meant anything. Yeah, wouldn’t that have been annoying?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Dogs of War

The Dogs of War (1980)
Dir John Irvin
Written by Gary DeVore, George Malko
Starring Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger
You know how most of these 70's and early 80's painted posters have an awesome image which never even remotely happens in the movie? Not this one. 

What we got here is an interesting oddity from 1980, a kind of weird blend of mercenary action movie and war drama, but coming from a perspective which makes it a bit unique. It has all the trappings of any number of genre mercenary movies: a team of cynical, hardass character actors, a fictional African country with a sunglass-favoring dictator, a whole bunch of guns, and enough explosions to easily send a commercial tanker ship carrying nothing but cinder blocks to the moon and back a few dozen times. But unlike the sort of movie you’re immediately imagining, this one scales back on the giant muscles and outrageous stunts in favor of a focus on the planning and execution of a mercenary’s work. There’s a few big explosions at the very beginning, and then no action whatsoever until the film’s finale. In between, we get to watch as veteran merc and victim of a double girl name Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) goes on a recon mission, considers leaving the trade, gets contracts, and puts together a crack team to smuggle weapons, infiltrate enemy territory, and then (finally) blow up absolutely every goddamn thing in sight. Once the guns finally do come out we get a pretty spectacular light show, but the emphasis of the runtime is on the non-shooting parts of the mercenary’s life, from the loneliness of the downtime to the haggling over gun prices to the clever methods of skirting customs officers. It’s almost a mercenary procedural!

Signing 8x12 glossies for fans.

Part of the oddness of the film comes from the unusual casting. This is the sort of movie you’d expect to star Tom Berenger or somebody (which is good, because he’s in here too) but instead the lead is Walken, fresh off THE DEER HUNTER and HEAVEN’S GATE and not looking at all like your typical Hollywood image of a mercenary tough guy. He’s thin --almost emaciated-- and with his pale skin, red lips and blue eyes casts a decidedly feminine image (it also looks like he’s wearing enough makeup to qualify for a side gig as a geisha, not sure if that’s part of the character or what). We see that he’s pretty hardcore from the movie’s opening where he drives a jeep through an exploding airfield and hijacks an airplane, but the character skews realistic rather than towards the usual exaggerated ubermench trope; Walken’s Shannon is well-prepared and well-trained, but three guys attacking him at once quickly reduce him to the fetal position. He never says one-liners or looks like he’s enjoying himself very much, and in fact by the movie’s end it’s pretty obvious (without being overtly stated) that this line of work has not been good for his psyche.

Likewise, his teammates are a long way from Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers; they’re mostly dumpy middle-aged guys, their scalps fighting a stalemate battle between greying and receding hairlines. One looks kind of like Denholm Elliott, another sort of like a nerdy Michael Ironside, a third looks like Ed O’Neill because it is him. Interestingly, you got Tom Berenger in there too, playing exactly the kind of macho tough guy you would expect Tom Berenger to play in a merc movie like this. But he’s a minor character and seems like the odd one here, maybe a guy who has watched too many of these movies himself and has a warped idea of how he should be reacting. Nobody else seems very amused by his cowboy antics, but they just seem to accept that this is how he rolls. Even though it’s the same character that is common to more outlandish versions of this same story, the context makes him seem kind of believable here, sort of a nod to real life macho assholes who might do this sort of thing for kicks. In this line of work, it’s actually realistic to have a few larger-than-life, exaggerated personalities. Just don’t expect things to work out for them as neatly as they do in the movies.

Riding dirty.

There’s an odd instinct toward realism here, which sits maybe a bit uncomfortably with the movie’s premise but also makes it kind of unique. Turns out director John Irvin might just have a leg up in the realism department over most directors, having been a cameraman in combats zones ranging from Vietnam to Algeria during the 60s. That probably explain a lot of the unusual structure of the movie and it’s interest in the minutiae of the operation, particularly since Irvin got in touch with some of his old mercenary contacts from that era to discuss the film. Moreover, writer Frederick Forsyth (author of the novel the film is based on) actually went undercover and posed as a venture capitalist attempting to finance a coup in Equatorial Guinea, allowing him to meet various mercenaries and underworld figures and ask them how this kind of thing could be done (a few years later, someone actually tried it for real). So as crazy as it sounds, I suspect this movie is not as far from reality as we might like to imagine. There are real guys out there who are probably completely capable of pulling something like this off. What’s the ratio of fact to fantasy? Well, Irvin would go on to direct HAMBURGER HILL (which an ex-Vietnam vet with a fake leg and only one eye would once tell me was the most realistic movie ever made about the Vietnam war) and the BBC TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY with Alec Guinness, another model of subtlety and realism. Of course, he also made Schwarzenneger’s RAW DEAL so there’s that side of him too.

One obvious fantasy which remains is the uncomfortable neocolonialist subtext. The U.S. action film industry was using this period to go back and win the Vietnam war (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, THE GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) but Irvin, an Englishman, has a different cultural scab to pick at, so what we got here is a bunch of Europeans getting to go back and re-fight the colonial wars of independence. The new democratically elected dictator of the fictional African “republic of Zangaro” is specifically juxtaposed against the more moderate, losing candidate (a nice guy who winds up in jail for his efforts) who we’re told suggestively “wanted to maintain ties with the mother country.” A number of characters suggest, mostly subtly, that the people of Zangaro were not ready for democracy yet, and that Europe needs to step in and set things right. That sentiment might have been forgivable in the less enlightened time of AFRICA ADDIO (1966), but it’s a little less so in fucking 1980.

I guess this big grenade launcher type gun was a selling point for this movie, but I'm honestly more in love with Walken's original Grumpy Cat face.

Fortunately, the film only pushes this logic so far; it’s clear that the Europeans pushing for the coup are rapacious capitalists who are only interested in securing the mining rights from the new government, so at least they’re not pretending to be heroes. Still, it’s a pretty uncomfortable fantasy to set up a scenario where the white heroes have to re-conquer a former colony in order to secure justice. It doesn’t really help much that virtually every African we meet in the film is openly villainous, and the ones who aren’t are treated with open scorn over the their collaboration with the dictatorship.* Interestingly, though, race doesn’t seem to factor into it as much as Europe’s sensitivity to being told it isn’t needed.** The Europeans even get a fun comeuppance when they take on a troupe of African Mercenaries, who Berenger scoffs are “bush league,” but who quickly shut him up with a demonstration of their skill. Walken even gets an African potential love interest, who the film treats as intelligent and glamorous. So it’s not necessarily about black and white, it’s just about the abiding notion that everyone should stop worrying and admit that they love Europe. It’s a weird kind of subtext, I don’t think I know any other movie with one like it.

So, in some ways it’s a bit ungainly and morally suspect (although perhaps not any more so than your average mercenary action movie). But still gotta give this one credit for trying something a little different. And hey, you can’t get too mad at a movie that has the good instincts to spend it’s first 10 seconds doing this:

Short of adding the implied exclamation point, I don’t know what else they could do to announce their intention of badassery. Except maybe cast future Oscar winner Jim Broadbent as a non-speaking extra. Sorry Jim, no time for your shenanigans here. Instead, we got an simple, straightforward focus on watching a bunch of hard, amoral pros do what they do best. No time for feelings; If you’re gonna cry, cry havoc! That’s how these dogs do it. Less bark, more bite.***   

*I suppose there’s another way to read this, especially since Walken is an American: Africans= Europeans, dictator= Hitler, Mercs = Americans.

** By the way, Ghanaian actor and future STAR WARS EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE side player Hugh Quarshie is an unnamed extra in this. His IMDB page says he refuses to play Othello because he finds it racist, so the fact that he appears in this must mean he thinks it’s at least less racist than Othello. And I guess he’s got no beef with Shakespeare quotes, either.   

*** In fairness, I should admit that there is a brief section near the middle which involves Walken and his ex-wife, a weird performance by JoBeth Williams. They make a big deal about her crippled father, who apparently forced her to divorce Walken's character so she could care for him. Wha? That's not a thing, is it? Not sure what they were going for with this (except maybe to emphasize Walken's increasingly precarious psychological state?) but fortunately Walken fucks her, GTFO's, and then she's never mentioned again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Forgotten

The Forgotten (2011)
Dir. Joe Rueben
Written by Gerald Di Pego
Starring Julianne Moore, Dominic West, Gary Sinise, Linus Roache

I’ve wanted to see this turkey ever since I saw the first trailers for it. And for good reason. If you haven’t seen the trailer or don’t remember it, I’d like to you take a moment and youtube that shit. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Believe me, it's worth it! But be sure to watch the whole thing.


OK! You're back. So, yeah. It starts off looking like any old unimaginative big studio psycho-thriller that Julianne Moore might star in, not all that different from that stupid FLIGHTPLAN one with Jodie Foster. Moore plays the stupidly-named Telly Paretta, a suburban mom with a respectable movie profession (book editor) who is trying to get over the death of her son. Only, suddenly all evidence of his existence is gone, and people are telling her she never had a son to begin with! Is she crazy, or is it more likely that there’s a massive conspiracy involving the government, magic, and an alcoholic ex-point guard for the NY Rangers? Good concept for a paranoid thriller, right? Can you trust your own sanity? Do you dare defy these shady authority figures and all logic and reason to fight for what you know in your heart to be right? And can you do it with even a hint of doubt that maybe this is all in your mind and you’re the crazy one after all?

Well, since you’ve seen the trailer, you know why I love this concept. Rather than taking the obvious path of “is-she-crazy-or-not,” which might potentially have resulted in a good movie, they instead dramatically put to rest any doubts in the last few seconds of the trailer when out of the blue fuckin aliens rip the roof off a house and abduct a guy right in front of their eyes. That is some crazy fucking hootch and I respect it. Whatever else it may be, explaining this standard conspiracy thriller with roof-stealing alien body snatchers is going for the fuckin’ gold. You’ve pretty much guaranteed that your movie is going to be either the best thing ever or a spectacular, hilarious camp classic. And I think by this point we have a good idea which one of those is more likely. Good job, producers of THE FORGOTTEN. I admire your hubris. Thing is, though, I assumed that they had carelessly ruined the ending for us in the trailer. I mean, after you’ve discovered it was aliens, where is there to go after that? So I never bothered watching the actual movie until now.

As you can see, this slick big studio production spared no expense, they got boxes of files, actors, the whole deal.

I was wrong, though. Not about the movie being an instant camp classic, because it is; I was wrong about them spoiling the ending. In fact, the ballsiness of this movie is such that the scene in the trailer occurs roughly halfways through. Our heroes correctly decide (based on no particular evidence) that aliens are responsible for all this maybe 30 minutes in. Which means the movie wastes precious little time pretending we care if Julianne Moore is crazy or not, and instead gets right down to demonstrating that the writers of this film are clearly crazy.

For once thing, apparently omnipotent alien overlords control our minds, the sky, and the very fabric of reality itself. They successfully erase the memories of our loved ones, destroy physical evidence, and rearrange the world as they see fit. Pretty scary, but if that’s true how can poor Julianne Moore prove she’s right, that this is all a coverup and she’s the only one who remembers? Well, these aliens are very good at what they do. They seamlessly erased her husband’s brain, blanked out her books of photos (why leave a photo album which is nothing but blank pages, as if that wasn’t going to arouse suspicion?) somehow managed to alter period newspaper articles --even on microfiche--, presumably also blanked the memory of every person who ever read those newspaper articles, as well as the computers of the people who wrote, published, and edited those articles, and physically erased all physical, legal, medical, and economic traces of this lady’s son. Alas, despite doing all that stuff really, really effectively, their Achilles heel is that they use shitty home decorating contractors. See, Julianne goes to see Jimmy “Dominic West” McNulty, who she knows is also the father of a missing child. He denies ever having a kid, but something catches her eye... what’s this, the room has recently had new wallpaper put up, but not particularly well and it’s kind of peeling away. She immediately knows the thing to do is rip off the new wallpaper, which reveals --dear god, this can’t be!!--  children’s drawings on the drywall! She was right, this is all a coverup! In this case literally!! Here’s a thought, aliens of the future: next time just spring for a new paint job.

For unknown reasons, this is the only image Roger Ebert chose to use to illustrate the movie for his review. In tribute to him, I include it here as well.

The movie is filled with wonderfully nutty shit like that. And since they’re not saving their big abduction scene for the finale, they get to reuse it several more times to increasingly hilarious effect. Every once in a while, someone will be talking, usually about to reveal helpful information, when suddenly whoosh! off into the sky with them. Not too many movies can promise that kind of effort. And the few that can definitely cannot boast a cast of classy A-listers and slick big-studio locations shoots. How many movies can offer a chance to see an Academy-award-winning actress react to her co-stars getting whisked off into the sky not once, not twice, but on four separate occasions? Too few, I say.

The movie needs that kind of ridiculousness, because in every other way it’s exactly the kind of standard, pretty, bland big-studio thriller that was getting released in the 2000’s. Remember all that shit, like ALONG CAME A SPIDER or TAKING LIVES and so forth? I dunno, I guess there are a few exceptions, but in general I think the rule is that the Big Studio process does not lend itself well to effective thrillers. They’re too big, too many egomaniacs want different things and want to throw their weight around, and the final result is always watered down, unfocused and tepid, despite the pretty production and better-than-average casts. It’s just not a good environment for someone who has a clear vision of a cool thriller.

Fortunately, Hollywood has a short memory, and in this case they hired someone they thought was just some hacky studio guy (he directed SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and MONEY TRAIN). But had they looked back a little further into his resume, they’d have found that Joe Ruben was an established B movie director long before he ever met Julia Roberts, with committed ridiculousness like THE STEPFATHER, DREAMSCAPE, and THE POM-POM GIRLS clearly marking him as a guy who knows to never go just far enough when you have the option of going too far. Sure, the script by Gerald Di Pego (MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, INSTINCT, PHENOMENON) is as lazy and hacky as they come (sample line: “[shouts] Telly Paretta, stop! I'm Detective Pope! I tracked the man to this house. I shot him in the leg, and nothing. He is not human! I believe you!”) but Ruben knows to play it enthusiastically to the hilt, with no hint of the shame he should obviously feel. Occasionally, he even manages to throw something unironically good in there, for instance in his casting of the always excellent Linus Roache as the mysterious villain, or the photography in the final sequence which uses the hard geometry of the shadows in an aircraft hanger to lure some gothic expressionism into the frame. It’s long, long past the point where you could actually be involved in the story, of course, but hey, credit where credit’s due.

I'd just like to say that I think this guy Linus Roache is a fantastic actor, and look forward to the day when he might appear in a movie which was at all watchable.

I could sit here and list the many convoluted and whimsically absurd directions this thing takes, like when Dominic West’s alcoholism is cured by love or when you realize that the small airport outside NYC which is owned and operated by aliens has filed for bankruptcy and is having its assets seized (guess they didn’t feel like doing the whole mind-erase thing on the IRS?). But unfortunately, the movie is just slightly too shitty for me to wholeheartedly endorse as a nonstop yuk-fest, and mostly that is because it’s central protagonist is just a little too unlikable for it to be a completely fun experience. Obviously I’m glad the filmmakers approached this ridiculous concept as seriously as possible, but I wish they had let the two leads loosen up a little bit, or at least not be quite so dour. I know, I know, their children were kidnapped by evil aliens with poor financial practices, but they’re so singlemindedly focused on this minor problem that everything else gets ignored. I mean, I get it, you want to find your son, but don’t you find it even a little interesting that aliens exist? You never get the sense that Telly is interested in anything other than having yellow-tinted flashbacks of watching her smiling son laughing at a playground, or at the dinner table, or on the way to the airplane that carried him to his death (man, did that kid do anything except laugh?).

Maybe moms can identify with this character more than I could, but it actually just seems kind of pathetic that this lady is so fuckin' obsessed with this dead kid that she doesn’t give a shit about her job, about the aliens, or even about her poor husband, who also gets his mind erased but she doesn’t seem too bothered about it or ever mention it again. She keeps finding people who can give her information about the conspiracy, but every time they try to explain what’s going on she cuts them off and says she only cares what happened to her son. Lady, we, the audience, would actually like to hear about this stuff, pipe down for a minute. Your son isn’t getting any deader while we actually hear some details about an awesome alien conspiracy. Although in fairness, when the aliens actually get to explain their plan a little, it doesn’t turn out to be very interesting and all they can think to do is make scary faces at her. Even the aliens don’t seem to be trying that hard, so I guess you can’t really blame her that she openly does not give a shit. But still, fun as it is to watch something this silly unfold in dead seriousness, it’s kind of a bummer that the leads are such wet blankets. At least McNulty gets a quip or two early on (“Do you get drunk every night?” “No, sometimes I’m drunk by noon.”).

Anyway, hardly required viewing, but I must admit there is something kind of magical about a story this dumb getting the slick big studio A-list treatment. If you absolutely must watch a film which has both a scene of Julianne Moore and Dominic West eating Oreos together and a plot point about aliens having their assets seized by the IRS, you could definitely do worse.

scary face.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hellraiser: Revelations

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
Dir: Victor Garcia
Written by: Gary Tunnicliffe
Starring nobody. Literally nobody.

So it’s come to this. The 9th film in the series (and so far, mercifully, the last) has one thing going for it that we haven’t seen in this series for awhile: It was actually written as a HELLRAISER sequel. The last time that happened was wa-a-a-a-a-y back in HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINES, which, I know, not exactly a high-water mark of the series itself, but hey, at least it’s gotta be better than these generically dull mystery flicks where Pinhead shows up for five minutes at the end that they’ve been doing since HELLRAISER V: INFERNO, NO NOT THAT INFERNO THIS IS A DIFFERENT ONE AND ALSO THERE’S NO INFERNO IN THE MOVIE SO I CAN UNDERSTAND YOUR CONFUSION. I mean, if someone is actually intentionally writing this as a HELLRAISER movie, surely we’ll at least get some genuine cenobite action, a little extra Pinhead, maybe a skin-wearing scene or two, some fun incesty types, you know, the good stuff. And best of all, maybe we’ll finally get a Pinhead who’s not a sidekick (HELLRAISER IV), or trying to teach someone a lesson about being a nicer person (V, VI) or trying to prevent humans from defying death’s will(?!) (VII) or actually a character in a virtual reality simulation but at the end it turns out he’s real for some reason (VIII). So part IX definitely has that factor going for it.

What it’s got going against it is that it is, by a large margin, the cheapest, laziest, most tedious and amateurish HELLRAISER so far, an outing so rote and needless that even Doug Bradley refused to participate. Doug Bradley, who was in the SyFy channel PUMPKINHEAD 3. Doug Bradley, from WRONG TURN V. The same Doug Bradley who was in HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD. What does it take to get this guy to say no? Well, it turns out it takes making a movie in two weeks due to contractual obligations that required Dimension films to make a sequel or risk losing the rights to the franchise (a franchise which, obviously, was deeply important to them). Scraped together in a matter of weeks for under $300,000, this has every hallmark of a movie made for the wrong reasons by people who don’t really have any intention of making an effort. Hell, I suspect the only reason they wrote an original script was that it was quicker to just type up this piece of crap in an evening than it would have been to actually read through existing scripts and find one they might be able to retrofit with some Hellraiser trappings*.

Puzzlebox now available in Robin's Egg Blue.

Here’s the plot: two teenage buddies, Nico and Steven, vanish while vacationing in Mexico. They leave behind a camcorder (oh good, another found-footage horror movie) but no trace of their bodies or whereabout. Cut to an indeterminate time in the future, when their respective sets of parents have gotten together for the evening. Not to talk about the boys, of course, but to have a nice meal together in their isolated modernist home which is clearly owned by one of the producers. But their evening of red wine and awkward small talk is ruined by their daughter Emma, who wants to know why no one has apparently ever talked about this little mystery of the missing teens before now. Seriously, it appears that even though these two sets of parents know each other and regularly dine together, this subject just never came up. Emma was Steven’s sister and boyfriend to Nico (in clear violation of man law) so you can sort of understand why she’d like to, you know, address this issue, but the parents seem confused and uncomfortable and act as if asking what happened to their missing children is some kind of needless breach of decorum. They’re so suspiciously off-put by the whole subject that you have to suspect they’re hiding something, but no, it seems like it just never occurred to them to ask about it or look through the missing teens’ effects.

Yeah, a lot of the movie looks like this. Geez, how did no one ever think to make a horror ripoff of THE BIG CHILL before now? Pinhead really does have to do everything himself.

Emma’s a tough, no-bullshit kind of gal who wears a dress with a neckline that plunges literally to her belt while having dinner at home with her own parents, so she’s not buying this crap.** She watches the video from the camcorder that no one else ever bothered to take a look at, and whaddayaknow, turns out they got involved with some kind of mystery puzzlebox, a skinned guy, and the fakest lightning effects this side of HIGHLANDER. Well, that doesn’t tell us anything helpful without actually getting to look at that puzzlebox, but that’s impossible because they must have left it... oh wait, here it is. A couple gentle caresses later and bam! Steven’s back, though too traumatized to tell his story. But what’s this, is something lurking outside in the bushes? And why is everyone’s car gone? And the telephone lines cut? And also there’s no cell phone reception out here, sorry, should have mentioned that.

In keeping with the fact that they want to spend no money, this is essentially a single-set home intruder movie eventually ripping off, of all fools things, FUNNY GAMES. Pretty soon, a shotgun comes into play and people are forced to reveal their darkest secrets, which actually don’t turn out to be particularly dark because this is a DTV HELLRAISER sequel and they’re damn sure not going to waste any genuinely good ideas on it. I have to admit, though, that there is one semi-clever twist which comes along for the last act. It’s sort of stupid, but I’ll admit that I didn’t see it coming and it actually nicely pays homage to/rips off a trope of the original HELLRAISER which has long been absent from the series. Unfortunately there’s zero character development of any kind, so despite my modicrum of respect for the twist itself nothing whatsoever comes of it, it just means we shift to ripping off a different movie. I suppose it does qualify as revealing unknown information to the characters, though, which at least explains the “Revelations” subtitle, I guess. I wonder if they decided on the title first and then wrote the script around explaining it? Or does every writer of shitty horror sequels just independently realize that their film is all about revealin’ shit?

Who would have thought this tiny device had the power to ruin genre film making forever?

I dunno, man, shitty movies have been a staple of genre sequels since the dawn of cinema (remember when the people of the world came together and agreed to lose that BIRTH OF A NATION sequel?) but honestly this new era of shitty DTV sequels just seems so lifeless they barely even exist. I know I’ve complained about this before, but jesus, shitty movies were better when they were worse. It’s so easy for any jackass to put a film together now that you don’t have that baffling, inscrutable incompetence that used to add a little color there. Everything about this film looks like it was made by professionals -- I mean, the scenes are in focus, it’s edited properly, it’s lit OK, most of the story generally makes sense, the actors seem like they understand what acting is. But rather than improving things, that just makes it seem entirely bland, plastic, and disposable. Give me the days of obsessed maniacs doing mountains of blow, spending every dime on one crazy practical effects shot, and then piecing the rest of the movie together using outtakes and footage from other movies. That was an experience. That was unpredictable. There was something quixotic and intoxicating about being in the hands of such obviously irresponsible degenerates. This movie would not allow those guys on the set. This was put together on the advice of a major corporation's lawyers by a team of responsible college graduates whose main concern was coming in under budget and pleasing their bosses, just like the career councilor told them to. 

Even Kevin "Alan Smithee" Yagher, in making his horrible part IV, cared enough to fight for his idiotic vision to the point of taking his name off the compromised final product. I don't think the producers of this movie would even understand that sentence, let alone the sentiment. No one here has a personal stake, they're just doing a job. And it feels about as exciting as a well-managed PR campaign for Right Guard. Nobody wants to do anything interesting or ambitious because somebody might notice and make fun of them. Well, don’t worry guys, there’s nothing to make fun of here because there literally is nothing new here, period.

I don’t mind derivative. I’m on my 9th HELLRAISER for fuck’s sake. But REVELATIONS’ problem isn’t that it’s derivative, it’s that it’s boring. Simply put, it has no good scenes. Even the nearly-unwatchable HELLWORLD at least had a few fun set pieces, a couple decent kills, and Lance Henriksen. This one has none of that. It’s mostly exposition, or scenes of actors who are bad enough to be unwatchable but not amateurish enough to be funny talking past each other about nothing interesting. The cenobites barely appear more than they do in any other sequel, and they didn’t even bother to make any new ones. At least part VI has that doctor one with the exposed brain; this one just settles for doing sidekicks (a female Chatterer alongside our old buddy, and a son-of-pinhead who has nails instead of pins, ooh, scary). You know the series has finally run itself down when they can’t even be bothered to put some effort into a new cenobite with a dick stitched on its face or something. The makeup looks fine, but Jesus, could you possibly coast any more than giving us female Chatterer? Wait! Don’t answer that question yet. Instead, let’s look:

The face of failure.

Yup, it’s an off-brand Pinhead. Doug Bradley said no, and rather than taking the hint and just bringing back princess Angelika or something, they apparently decided Pinhead was like James Bond and you could just bring any asshole in to play him and we’d never notice. Why they picked this particular baby-faced weasel I’ll never know, maybe they always secretly wished that Pinhead looked more like a doughy Chandler from Friends.*** But yeah, if that isn’t the final insult, I don’t know what is. This puzzlebox is broken man, all I’m getting is pain, no pleasure whatsoever. I know what you’re thinking, it’s because this is an experience beyond limits where pleasure and pain are indivisible, but I’m telling you right now it ain’t. This is a clearly limited experience and it’s just pain, and not even a very interesting pain. More like an annoying pain that just won’t go away, like what I imagine period cramps are, or maybe like if you have to shit real bad. Must this experience be so aggressively humdrum? It’s as if they took the words of Pinhead in the original HELLRAISER a bit too literally: “The box. You opened it. We came.”

Yeah guys, but after he came, they did interesting stuff. Please don’t forget that part next time. How bout we focus on a different line for the next sequel: “We have such sights to show you!”

Or, if not that, then let’s just do “This isn’t for your eyes.”

This guy is a good summary for this turkey. Kinda tacked together.

*I Should mention that writer Gary Tunnicliffe is actually a makeup artist who's been doing the Pinhead makeup since part III. I can only assume that after all this time he's fucking sick of it and wants to kill the whole series once and for all just so he'll never have to work with all those pins again.

**The project details for the production tell us: “Emma - 18. Daughter of Ross and Sarah. She is lovely and inquisitive and on the verge of her own womanhood”

***Has anyone ever stopped to think about how utterly retarded a title that is? Friends? Why not just call it “Show with People.”