Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem (2013)
Dir. Rob Zombie
Starring Sherri Moon Zombie (God, I never thought I’d have to type THAT phrase) Bruce Davison, Dee Wallace, Ken Foree

Man, KISS really let themselves go.

I wanted to write about this one when I first saw it, but never had the time. Then later, I remembered that I actually did write pretty much everything I wanted to say over at, so I figured I’d just edit it and bring it over here to run up my numbers and for posterity. I saw this in theaters almost by mistake. I don’t think I ever saw a trailer for it or anything, I just noticed one day it was at my local cinema. The theater had three other people in it; an elderly black guy sitting in the third row by himself, and two (I think) homeless women sitting in the middle having a nonsensical conversation about Jesus at normal conversational volume right next to the exit, surrounded by bags and blankets and so forth. At first I was afraid that their constant talking would bring me out of it; then, I realized it was the exact correct way to watch this particular movie. All three people bailed by last 30 minutes.

I sort of loved this movie. If BARTON FINK and THE SHINING had a baby who was a Sammy Hagar fan, it would be LORDS OF SALEM. It’s dumb as rocks, but man, does it want to take you there. Only Zombie would have the hubris to want to make his own version of THE SHINING except someone smokes meth halfway through. I loved every insane but entirely necessary touch, including but not limited to the inexplicable bigfoot, the TRIP TO THE MOON imagery, the evil baboon statue*, the masturbating baghead bishops, the bleeding pop art, the turnkey-basted midget with the EDWARD PENISHAND tentacles. Full-frontal naked old withered witches. Name another contemporary director who would dare.

Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!

I can’t defend the end, though, which is pretty heartbreaking in how bad it wants to blow your mind and how ill-equipped it is for the job. You can almost see Zombie’s frustration with his limited imagination for deep horror manifested on the screen. He knows what he wants, but he just can’t quite create it himself. He’s trying to create something surreal and psychological and bizarre, trying to make his own version of a Ken Russel or Cronenberg or Jodorowsky movie. But the problem is, he’s not Russel or Cronenberg or Jodorowsky; he’s Rob Zombie. And Rob Zombie likes images but he doesn’t understand symbols or subtext, let alone psychology. So he can’t quite take it there, and you can just feel his frustration mount. He just keeps throwing ending after ending at you, hoping the cumulative effect will be enough to get you there. But ironically, it might have actually gotten there if he’d held back a little instead of doubting himself and saturating you with lame imagery. Take the final 15 minutes and cull 3 minutes of genuinely disturbing dreamscapes from it, THEN you’ll have the classic you’re after. It’ll still be dumb as a rock, but at least it will have focus enough to get the job done.

Being dumb as a rock AND failing to find any real symbolism or meaning does pose one weird problem, though: for all the Christian symbolism Zombie profanes with penises or nude old women, his film makes a weird case for the Christian witch-hunters actually being right. I don’t think this is Zombie’s intention, I just think he didn’t really think this one through very well. I mean, you’ve got the standard horror movie depiction of depraved, sadistic Michael-Berryman-looking witch-hunters (a rare case of a Michael-Berryman-looking fucker actually played by Michael Berryman) horrifically murdering young women at the stake. But it turns out, they were right to do it, these women actually are witches, and if anything the problem is they didn’t kill them hard enough.

Man, it sure was smokey in the past.

Seems like Zombie wants to have it both ways: brutal, unpleasant Inquisition-like Puritan witch-hunters, but also genuine evil witches. So we know that the witch-burners are right, witches are a real danger that must be dealt with brutally, but he doesn’t exactly make their persecutors sympathetic either... I mean, the three Puritans were supposed to be played by Richard Lynch**, Michael Berryman, and Sid Haig. Not the actors you really get if you’re trying to evoke heroes. On the other hand, the movie is also overtly repulsed by the witches’ perverseness (particularly the old-lady nudity) and isn’t the least bit sympathetic to them and the fact that they were murdered by a lynch mob (in this case, a mob which was supposed to be literally organized by Richard Lynch). I take this as further evidence that Zombie didn’t really think through the message of his film, and just kind of filled in the blanks with horror tropes he remembered from other movies. But it makes for an uncomfortable message which is especially hard to ignore given that it’s actually set in Salem, the site of genuine witch-hunts which the movie’s plot paints itself into actually condoning.

The other thing that doesn’t really work here is the entire anti-narrative regarding Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) gradually having her brain taken over by witches. The scenes are cool, but unfortunately Ms. Zombie never has any idea what’s happening to her and no tools whatsoever to stop it, making her one of the most passive protagonists in living memory. Seems like all she ever does is sleep! Bruce Davison (fantastic in the role, of course) is much more active in the plot, but he’s a minor character who gets (SPOILER) Hallorann’ed a bit before the big climax. So we’re just left to watch a bunch of stuff happen to Zombie’s character without there being any tension about if she can stop it or not. Lots of good images, but narratively pretty inert.

One of these days, Alice...bang, zoom. A trip to the moon. Also maybe witches will take over your mind.

I thought this was the end of the discussion, but someone pointed out that there’s an odd subplot about Heidi’s coworkers (Ken Foree, bearded dude #1) worrying that she’s being drawn back into a meth addiction she had apparently overcome prior to the events in the movie. And indeed, just as things start to turn bad for her, she does indeed retreat to a meth-fueled antipathy for the remaining runtime. As such, there has been a suggestion in some quarters that the movie has a subtext about the paralyzing effects of addiction, and that Heidi’s narrative loss of agency is actually an addict’s withdrawal from control of her own future. Maybe so, but even if that’s true it’s too underveloped to really add much here, and Heidi (though actually played with surprising care by Ms. Zombie) is too underwritten a character for us to really gain much insight into, making the whole thing kind of a mildly interesting wash. That, and I still don’t think Zombie actually understands what subtext is.

I can’t defend this as a great movie, but I gotta appreciate Zombie’s obvious desire to make something classic. His ambition is all over this thing, and there are innumerable small and wonderful details which mark it as a labor of love. It doesn’t really work; in fact, he’s so close that unfortunately you can also see how heartbreaking far away he still is. But god damn, how often are you gonna get to see something this fuckin’ WEIRD in cinemas? Even if logic dictates we must regard it as an interesting failure, I gotta say that I love it unreservedly, exactly as it is. As Zombie so eloquently says with his visuals: fuck logic, now look at this bigfoot standing in front of a neon cross.

Now that I think about it, this is probably the second best movie ever to have Bigfoot in it, after ABOMINABLE.
Several ladies-only conversations,

PS: Wikipedia says that Clint Howard is in here somewhere, along with Udo Kier and Richard Lynch, I guess in the fictional Frankenstien movie someone is watching on TV. I have no memory of this whatsoever, but if that’s true, awesome.

*Editor’s note: as of September the same year I have no memory of this, but it sounds awesome.

**Lynch died before he could complete the role and they had to re-shoot with Andrew Prine

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Naked City

The Naked City (1948)
Dir. Jules Dassin
Written: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald
Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

What we got here is an interesting little crime story from 1948 which isn’t particularly well-remembered today, but stands out as something a bit unique. It’s primarily a film noir from just around the time that genre was starting to crystallize the elements which would eventually become iconic of it. But it’s also sort of influenced by that whole Italian Neo-Realist deal, so along with the gothic cinematography, hardboiled lawmen and femme fatales, you’ve got the self-conscious use of real locations, non-actor extras, and documentary-style narration. Mixing the high stylization of film noir with realism isn’t a perfect fit, but it’s worth a look because this kind of genre hybrid is rare, and particularly since the two genres it hybridizes were both in their infancy at the time. It’s fun to see director Jules Dassin playing around with the rules of genre while those rules are still being formed.

Even though it's all or mostly shot on location, Dassin doesn't miss the opportunity to turn the geography into an expressionistic abstraction. This image has almost a Gustav Klimt quality to it.

The specific plot here isn’t that important. There’s a murder, so a wildly stereotypical Irish detective (Barry Fitzgerald, a green bowler short of a leprechaun*) and his young colleague (Don Taylor, later director of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES) rope in some suspects (Ted de Corsia, Howard Duff, others) and begin to unravel a fairly mundane web of foul play which eventually leads to lies, clues, exciting chases, and so on. Pretty standard stuff. The fun of it, though, is watching Dassin labor to fit the noir conventions into a world which feels very real and alive. It opens with a typically hollywood bullshit production-code era murder of a young woman, her murderers lurking in the shadows or obscured by giallo hand-cam angles. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in any film noir, except that it’s cut together with scenes --real and staged-- of other stories transpiring at the same time throughout the city. We see a couple with a young kid, a morning DJ spinning records, even our yet-to-be-introduced protagonist Det. Muldoon eating breakfast. These juxtapositions serve to remind you that these stories extend beyond the narrow confines of our central murder mystery, out into the vast sea of humanity roaring all around it.

The long, slow plod through the false leads, lies, femme fatales, and colorful New York locales that the movie has to inevitably take to draw our trusty lawmen to their quarry has plenty of the usual landmarks of such narrative terrain, but also feels peppered with details intended to flesh it out, make it more real. Eschewing most of the dramatic denouements common to the genre, Dassin and writers Maltz and Wald instead seem to particularly delight in showing their hard-nosed detectives grinding their way through mundane details. Minute clues require hundreds of hours on-foot to follow up on -- at one point, they show dozens of officers painstakingly canvassing every gym in New York City to ask if anyone there remembers a wrestler who liked to play harmonica. Lt. Muldoon’s command of the crime scene clues almost evoke a CSI:1948 fixation on the not-yet-common-practice field of forensic science.

Top o' the morning to ya.

Dassin may have hoped that infusing his Hollywood film noir with little pieces of reality would make it more believable, but actually it has the opposite effect, starkly pointing out how arch and stagey acting and writing were at this point. Occasionally the two world do meet happily --as in the memorable and strikingly shot final chase sequence through the rafters of the Brooklyn bridge-- but mostly the movie’s serviceable fiction can’t stand up to the bursting-at-the-seams liveliness of the reality it’s juxtaposed against. But that’s OK, because it still has the more interesting effect of evoking the story’s tiny place in the vast tapestry of New York City life. Even if this particular story stands out as being a bunch of Hollywood nonsense, it feels vastly richer for taking place in a city where every outdoor frame finds a million tiny signs of multitudinous humanity. If it doesn’t exactly make the details feel more legit, it does blur the lines in a way which was certainly unusual for the time and still feels rewarding today. There really do seem to be, as the closing narration tells us, “eight million stories in the naked city. This [is] one of them.”**

*Fitzgerald, interestingly, is the only actor in history to be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role (in 1944’s GOING MY WAY). Shame he couldn’t get nominated for Best Actress too, but I guess two outta three ain’t bad.

** I'd wondered why one of my favorite movies of all time, Spike Lee's SUMMER OF SAM, ends with Spike standing in front of the camera saying this line. Now I know, and I approve wholeheartedly. SUMMER is a very different film, but it has the same broad interest in the city of New York as a living, breathing entity all of it's own.

Friday, September 13, 2013

From Dusk Til Dawn 3: the Hangman's Daughter

From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999)
Dir: P.J. Pesce
Written by Alvaro Rodriguez
Starring Michael Parks, Temuera Morrison, Marco Leonardi, Sonia Braga, Danny Trejo

A couple years back I watched the DTV sequel to the Robert Rodriguez bait-and-switch vampire classic FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, which starred Robert Patrick and, I thought, was slightly elevated above the usual late 90’s DTV-sequel dreck through the hyperactive camerawork of director Scott Spiegel and the surprising effectiveness of it’s cast. I meant to watch the third sequel the next day and do a two-parter, but I guess something came up and then two years passed. It probably wasn’t worth the long wait, or watching at all, but hey, I did it, and now you get to read about it.

FDtD 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY seemed to be set in modern times, probably a sequel to the original film since there seem to be way less vampires around. HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER, on the other hand, jumped on the then-current bandwagon of unnecessary and inferior prequels, setting the story in 1913. Just as the same year’s STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE correctly postulated that audiences were desperate to know what Darth Vader was like when he was a dopey little kid, HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER revolves around explaining how a young version of Salma Hayek’s “Santanico Pandemonium” character got to be a performer at the bar, because who among us hadn’t felt a little unsatisfied without specifically having that question answered? What can I say, 1999 was a weird time.

"We're wanted men. I have the death sentence on 12 systems.""I'll be careful." "You'll be dead!" 

What makes the story mildly worth watching is that in an effort to tell a story no one could possibly be interested in (in fact, I had forgotten the character’s name and hence missed the point of the big reveal) they actually create some filler which is kind of clever. You see, the story’s central protagonist is FROM DUSK TILL DAWN veteran Michael Parks, playing one of literary history’s most interesting and enigmatic characters, Devil’s Dictionary and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge author Ambrose Bierce. In fact, the film’s subtitle comes from one of his stories. This is a stroke of brilliance because Bierce did indeed disappear mysteriously in Mexico, and for all we know it could have been cuz of vampires. These things happen, you know. Heck, it certainly would have been a fitting end for the guy. So you’ve got this great character actor playing a great character (Bierce’s acerbic, misanthropic wit is the stuff of legend) whose fictional depiction dovetails nicely into a real life mystery and subtly incorporates a bunch of fun details from Bierce’s real life and literary output. I mean, that’s just too damn good a setup to ruin, right?

Well, that’s what I said about THE RAVEN, and we all remember how that turned out. I’m sorry to report that director P. J. Pesce and writer Alvaro Rodriguez (who I’m sure got the job because he was the most talented person to apply and never even mentioned he was related to the producer) manage to fuck this up pretty convincingly, and they do it exactly the same way THE RAVEN did: by making the most interesting things completely unimportant. Although Parks is the ostensible star, he has nothing whatsoever to do here, spending most scenes petulant or drunk in the background, and never turning out to be important to the plot in any meaningful way. The fact that he’s playing Bierce is never relevant to anything, nor does the script capture anything interesting about Bierce’s personality or draw anything meaningful from his work or life. He’s just a minor character in a vampire story, except that he happens to be Ambrose Bierce. One character (the embarrassing, lisping Stepin Fetchit stereotype played by Orlando Bloom Jones) does summarize his story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and it seems for a while like the plot might reference that story’s famous twist, but nope, turns out not to have any bearing on anything.

Parks displays the maximum amount of enthusiasm anyone could have towards this role.

To make certain that at no time does Bierce turn out to have any effect on the plot, Pesce and Rodriguez make sure to overstuff the cast with pointless, unlikable and uninteresting characters who are constantly competing for screen time and junking up the film with their worthless and abbreviated narrative arcs. I mean, you got this annoying religious couple (Lennie Loften and Rebecca Gayheart), you got this bandito Johnny Madrid (Marco Leonardi, teenage Sal from CINEMA PARADISO!) who escaped the noose with the help of the title character (Ara Celi), plus you got her father the hangman (a weirdly cast Temuera Morrison, I guess playing a Mexican?), a wannabe female bandit (Jordana Spiro), the what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking traveling salesman played by Jones, a bunch of soldiers, two members of Madrid’s bandit gang, and a whole bar full of vampire hookers. All seem to be under the mistaken impression that the script is about them (except Danny Trejo’s series trademark bartender character, who appears in a scene or two and then is replaced by a noticeably taller, skinnier body double in vampire makeup) and none of them go anywhere. You’d assume they were there as cannon fodder, except they’re all dispatched so offhandedly that you wonder why the movie would waste it’s time introducing them at all.

Listen up camera guy, that filter you're using had better not turn me into an orange Oompa-Loompa.

And waste time it does. It turns out only Madrid and girlfriend have any impact on the narrative at all, but the movie spends so much time introducing new characters and giving them them rudimentary arcs that it doesn’t even get around to the first vampire until about an hour in, with only 30 minutes left for the obligatory bloodbath. Once the blood starts spurting things get a little more tolerable, but there’s still not much to get excited about since it’s just an obviously smaller, cheaper, uglier restaging of the original. No good gimmicks, nothing too memorable, except for one awkward, badly staged but nonetheless amicably unexpected tango dance sequence which occurs out of the blue during the climatic bloodbath. It doesn’t really work (nor do the two dancers look like they had much time to rehearse), but at least it’s different, so you gotta like that. Otherwise, the only distinguishing thing about this vampiric slaughter is that it has a decidedly Aztec flavor to the proceedings. Head villainess Sonia Braga (KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN) plays “Quixtla” which obviously is at least meant to sound like a Nahuatl name, and she favors a feathered coat and other iconography that casually reads as Aztec-inspired. Seen in this light, the film’s final shot (which mirrors the final shot of the original -- with the reveal of a huge temple in the back of the bar, only here it’s adorned with piles of covered wagons instead of cars, haha--) has a distinctively precolumbian design, too. What Aztecs have to do with Vampires, I do not know, but it’s different, it gives a little bit of color. I like it. Oh, and there’s a tiny post-credit stinger that doesn’t exactly make sense but is still enjoyable, in that it finally gives Michael Parks something to do.  

Other than that little bit of weirdness, though, there’s just not much here to hold your interest. P. J. Pesce doesn’t have Scott Spiegel’s fetish for the wacky camera angles which saved Part II from being utterly unwatchable, and while Michael Parks, Marco Leonardi and Temuera Morrison are an acceptable substitute for Robert Patrick, Muse Watson and Raymond Cruz, they are all completely underused (I didn’t even notice Temuera Morrison was riding along with the soldiers until maybe 20 minutes from the end) and simply don’t add much value to this already value-deprived vampiric hustle. What little welcome gore there is at the end isn’t voluminous or imaginative enough to make up for the listless first ¾, and when I add in the fact that most of the film is shot through eyeball-punishing colored filters… well, that’s an experience that only Ritchie Gecko could wish on anyone. Oddly, this sequel actually seems to be better liked than part 2 throughout most of the internet, but don’t believe the hype. Part 2 scared people by being slightly different from the original; this one got them back by being exactly what you might expect. But why anyone would prefer a smaller, cheaper, uglier, duller copy of something they already like is beyond me. And unfortunately, since both Part 2 and 3 were released at the same time as sort of an early test for the idea of DTV sequels, the relative success of this one seems to have helped put us on the cursed path of terrible retread sequels which still haunts genre franchises to this day. One of many examples as to why Ambrose Bierce’s outlook on humanity is as relevant today as ever.

Oh yeah, I forgot this was in there. I like this part, obviously. Maybe mankind isn't so bad after all.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Pact

The Pact (2012)
Dir. and Written by Nicholas McCarthy
Starring Caity Lotz, Anges Bruckner, and Casper Van Dien

THE PACT is a really god damn impressive example of a horror film which was obviously made with almost no money but feels more intense and ambitious than nearly any other horror film I saw last year. Like a bunch of recent horror films --this year’s MAMA, for example-- it was an expansion of a short film by the same name, but it doesn’t feel fatty nor threadbear, nor does it seem to have any interest in using the bigger budget to ratchet up the spectacle. This is a film all about tone, mostly set in one location, and generally as stylistically unadorned as possible. And that’s what makes it great.

The story is nicely simple and to the point, but with exactly the kind of subtle detail that makes something like this worthwhile. Our protagonist, Annie (Caity Lotz, formerly a backup dancer for Avril Lavigne and Lady Gaga but here a convincing everywoman) arrives back in her hometown to settle her recently deceased mother’s estate. She’s none too happy to be back because she hated her mother and ran away from home years ago, but returns out of loyalty to her older sister. Only problem is, Sis is mysteriously missing and something evil is obviously going on in the house. But what? And why?

If you're going to escape from ghosts in your underwear, doing it on via motorcycle is probably your best option.

McCarthy doesn’t have the budget for big expensive Poltergeist effects scenes, so instead he goes for a more ambitious route: THE SHINING in a house. Everything here is about dread and intimation as the camera uneasily drifts around the squat, dated suburban house which is both entirely average and subtly unnerving. McCarthy cleverly uses his long, eerie pans thought the dim rooms to not only create an air of unnerving apprehension, but also to surreptitiously familiarize us with the layout of the house. Most of the movie takes place here, and the paranoia and claustrophobia of being stuck in a house with unknown dark forces effectively transforms the normal trappings into treacherous tools of malicious guile. Before long, the outdated refrigerator and ugly wallpaper take on a threatening, perfidious quality, like crouching predators waiting for the most vulnerable moment to strike. The set isn’t as elaborate and alien as Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, but in a way the veneer of normalcy makes it all the more sinister, and its cramped, circular structure gives a palpable sense of a spiraling oubliette from which there is no escape.  

In keeping with the juxtaposition of the mundane and the inexplicable, McCarthy gets convincing, natural performances from his actors, particularly Lotz and Angie Bruckner (THE WOODS) as her sister. Lotz, as Annie, does something that characters in this situation almost never do: she makes decisions that a normal human would make. When it becomes obvious that the house is haunted, she moves to a motel. When she find evidence that someone has been in her room, she contacts the police. The police, understandably, are skeptical of her claims, but one guy is believably sympathetic to her enough to try and help anyway. This cop seems like a nice guy, an authentic mix of genuine compassion and a total incredulousness about her claims of supernatural meddling. The only thing not believable about it is that although it’s a perfectly fine performance he’s played by this cartoonishly handsome square-jawed hunky heartthrob looking dude who I did not realize was Casper Van Dien until the credits rolled. Johnny Rico comes across likeable and committed (and is better than the usual performance you’d get in something like this) but come on, no one looks like that. It’s not his fault that he looks like a human parody of a cartoon Disney prince, but seriously, that jaw is the least realistic thing in this horror movie about a haunted suburb.

Casper misses mandatory military co-ed showers.

Van Dien’s face aside, the movie establishes a surprisingly convincing reality to play in, which makes the film’s heroically strange final act a make-or-break moment. In a lesser movie, it might push credulity past the breaking point. But the nifty thing about the tone here is that despite the token of realism in the acting and design, there’s always been an undercurrent of the inexplicable, and so the explanation here (which explains enough without exactly spelling everything out) is depraved enough to connect strongly on an emotional level and muscle its way past your ability to dismiss it as absurd. It’s unexpected, yet fits snugly into the movie’s themes and the details of the plot* -- all helpful traits, although the imagery is probably nightmarish enough to get under your skin all by itself. The movie’s bare-bones minimalism --long period of quiet, few sets, no extraneous dialogue-- allows the horror to unfold at a deliberate pace, but one which never seems slack or aimless. In fact, it turns out when you don’t try to sell the horror with a loud bang and a money shot every time, it actually heightens its ability to unnerve.

I’ve got to say, there’s been a kind of renaissance of micro-budget horror movies these last few years, from the brilliant Kickstarter-funded ABSENTIA, to the eerie YELLOWBRICKROAD, to the overreaching but interesting CORRIDOR, and now this. I like this trend, because it seems to have allowed some ambitious horror directors to try new kinds of approaches to horror which embrace a minimalist, atmospheric approach. Even when they’re completely awful -- Adam Wingard’s POP SKULL, for example-- they tend to have moments which are unique and scary in a way mainstream horror films hardly ever seem to try for. Without big setpiece horror scenes, they have to focus on getting the detail right: the sound, the editing, the music, the cinematography, the tone, the psychology. Even the acting, something which for a long time most horror films didn’t even bother with. THE PACT is probably the least imaginative of this ilk that I’ve seen, but on the other hand it’s also one of the most successful and satisfying, and maybe even the most ambitious. It’s focused and disciplined, singularly committed to drawing the maximum unease out of the most minimal setups, and letting that gnawing discomfort slowly bloom into a truly horrific finale. For its confidence alone, it’s as worthy a horror film as I’ve seen in quite a while.

Before you try this, you gotta ask yourself how badly you really want to see whatever it is that's creeping through the dark at you.
I think Van Dien is the only significant male character here, so an easy win.

*The mostly-negative Village Voice review begins by falsely stating “There’s no pact in THE PACT,” a good indicator that even some major critics seem to not pick up on a theme unless it’s explicitly stated aloud for them.