Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Thirty-One: The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980) -- A

John Carpenter’s The Fog deserves rank amongst the great genre filmmaker’s most cherished achievements. In an era predominately configured on changing aesthetic codes and altered narrative formation (soon to take the post-modern form of pastiche), Carpenter remained steadfast to three central components: characters to care about, economical mise-en-scene, and classic storytelling, founded upon the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or, in filmic terms, Howard Hawks. Assault on Precinct 13 explicitly revises the Hawksian western, updating it to fit the urban gang-led terrain of east Los Angeles, drawing heavily also upon both Night of the Living Dead’s black lead and zombie-like presence for the nameless, faceless gang members. Though his drawing upon influences may appear to belong to the growing attention to intertextual construction, Carpenter’s political attention and distinctly minimalist aesthetic signals pure innovation rather than layered regurgitation. The quintessential Halloween made Carpenter a name and, more importantly, signaled the arrival of a filmmaker with total command of his craft, able to use diegetic sound, screen space, and his now famous score to communicate the existential dread faced within the genre realm, a faceless, expressionless stalker terrorizing the suburban Haddonfield, a metonymic figure for complacent, bourgeois America. The film’s success can be linked to this unconscious fear on the viewer’s part, the safe neighborhoods and smiling faces of the 1950’s transforming into places of moral degeneracy, corruption, and violence – in essence, the disintegration of the family via the repressed and closeted forces of a bygone era, now fully in view to be dealt with head-on. The “return of the repressed” nightmare in Halloween merges perfectly with the postcolonial anxieties of The Fog, yet these astute discursive elements never impede upon Carpenter’s foremost concern: form, style, and – quite literally – atmosphere. Halloween’s dread is now even more palpable since Carpenter chooses to set his film in one place over a mere 24 hour period. The claustrophobic narrative duration serves as metaphorical mirror to Antonio Bay, the terrible place, a site where century old misdeeds return in the form of amorphous pirates, seeking retribution for betrayal and murder.

Carpenter opens by citing one of Poe’s most chilling quotes: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” Poe’s question of identity and consciousness suits both Carpenter’s interest in nightmarish apocalypse via psychological crisis (the horror genre) and cultural devotion, engaging in a celebration of the past, no matter how gruesome the hidden details may be. Likewise, the next image juxtaposes two more themes for Carpenter: innocence and time. The ticking pocket watch plays as an in-joke for connoisseurs of the auteur’s style, but more importantly, it establishes the lurking doom and dread, closing in with every tick. Childhood is no longer a safe, comfortable state when the personified sins of the parents return for retribution.

John Housman’s opening ghost story reinforces the competing modes - playful children’s campfire tale juxtaposed with vengeful, wronged men. In this scene, Carpenter introduces the first of his musical themes, creepily underlining the darkness and cold engulfing the fire barely lighting the frame. Such a duality persists throughout the film, and it’s this kind of attention to battling forces that enlivens his apocalyptic discourse, where all binaries are put into play, the highest of all (good vs. evil) dueling as well. What’s so marvelous about Carpenter’s formal filmmaking, though, is its fluidity; here, he doesn’t cut to a credit sequence, but tilts up, inserting a black credit card, but seemingly going through it to reveal the bay, the title card, and the rolling fog, a virtuoso subtlety that informs all of his masterful, early films.

A radio broadcast from a small lighthouse, run by Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), announces the clock’s toll of midnight; oddly enough, the bell is rung by Carpenter himself, making an Hitchockian cameo, though Carpenter actually has a few lines (he says them rather unconvincingly, unfortunately). Nevertheless, he is puppeteer, in control of the narrative and its visual/sonic composition. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) quietly sips wine, relieving the Carpenter cameo of his duty. Malone’s shadow casts upon the wall, indicative of the proverbial double he casts, his ancestral responsible for the inevitably descending ghosts. An inexplicable, rumbling shakes free a piece of the cement wall, revealing a diary tucked beneath the surface, the contents a written recollection to be read aloud later in the film. A following montage chronicles the strange events throughout the town, such as car’s honking without drivers and gas pumping without pumpers. The only commentary provided is by Wayne’s raspy radio voice. The radio, a waning form of communication, is another meta-symbolic gesture of Carpenter’s anachronistic placement in film history, yet it also allows an ingenious narrative device for an uncanny discomfort, the radio VJ present but not, much like the murderous deeds serving as the foundation for the town’s centennial. It has a specter-like presence.

The montage segues into shore man Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) driving down a dark road; he stops to pick-up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis). “You’re my thirteenth ride,” she tells him. Suddenly, their widows are smashed by an unseen force. Wayne chit-chats with radar man Dan O’Bannon (Charles Cyphers). A fog bank rolls into a ship of seamen, drunk and unaware of the demons that roam within. Cut to the radio, which pans up to reveal Nick and Elizabeth in bed together. They talk of her photography (which she hopes to sell) and how they both feel aimless in their lives, an irresoluteness about their ultimate destination. Wayne voiced the same thing earlier, how “it’s a lot of water, but at least it’s better than Chicago.” No one is at home, everyone is a drifter. A knock at Nick’s door signals a macabre solution to discontent – death, though a converse death than suffered by the knocker, whose life was ended by greed and ambition, not malaise. The wandering ennui of the living privileged brings back the angry souls of dead. Only a rupturing of the Grandfather clock (Carpenter’s pun intended) scares away the demon. Carpenter’s seamless transitions give the illusion of one continuous scene, without breaks or breaths. Though nearly 25 minutes into the film, it has the sense of a single sequence, an ultra-long take, even with the numerous cuts.

Night turns to day, and Wayne’s son Andy (Ty Mitchell) finds an artifact from the ship on the beach. Nick shows up at the docks to find his friends haven’t returned from their midnight rounds. Meanwhile, the preparation for celebrations have begun, conducted by community organizer Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) and her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis). The casting of Leigh, obviously Jamie Lee’s mother, alludes to Carpenter’s intention to retain Hitchcock’s mode of suspense over gore. Again, Carpenter cross-cuts between discovery of the abandoned ship and the pair of women’s trip to see Father Malone. “This city should be proud of its past,” claims Williams, almost as a pre-programmed response to younger Sandy’s sarcasm and reticence towards their preparations. Malone interrupts their visit by reading the found diary; it reveals his grandfather’s admission of murdering Blake, a rich, sickly man who wanted to move the colony away from the bay. He took his riches and inhabited the land, claiming wealth, persistence and prosperity as a disguise. Overlapping Malone’s reading is Nick’s admission that “[I] don’t believe in much of anything,” a further compromise of his living, breathing body. Life taken, life uncertain – another duality persists, though Carpenter is not interested in giving easy answers or answers at all. The uncertainty lingers, explicated in troubling stories of the past, told simultaneously by Nick and Malone, each reckoning with troubled family pasts.

A body found in the remains of the ship has the signs of having been under water for more than several months; it comes to life momentarily to scribble a “3” on the floor; the sun sets, night approaches. Carpenter again manages this as if this will be the last sunset, as if death is closing in on everyone, not just those of Antonio Bay, but anyone with sins to hide, not only from a higher power, but from themselves, engaging in subterfuge to absolve their conscience. The descending fog is a threat to anyone with blood on their hands (or, as the slasher mold tends to go, anyone who dares to take its threat lightly). Carpenter communicates this through the mise-en-scene, a neon red offsetting the fog’s grays and blues. His attention to color comes through strongly in these sequences, using them in supplements with the pools of black.

Not to be underestimated through all of the thematic and formal elements is just how damned scary Carpenter’s film is, streamlined to disallow a breath to alleviate the tension. This shouldn’t suggest that the film isn’t without a sense of humor – on the contrary, the opening half is slyly funny about the notion of impending doom, Carpenter’s apocalyptic laughter coming just to the edge of the void before falling in. The second half, though, considers the end more thoroughly, rounding all of the characters up in Father Malone’s chapel, Carpenter’s score pulsating to the wall of enclosing fog, and all of them quickly thinking of how to bargain, not just with the bloodthirsty demons of the fog, but themselves, if their own fears, frights, and anxieties can be dealt with (not to mention echoes of Assault). The object sought is a gold cross – religious synecdoche in the form of materialism. The cross-hairs of guilt and religion mesh with Carpenter’s glowing, illuminated cross, the hands of the transgressed and the kin of the transgressor meeting, physically paying for the postcolonial guilt that now plagues rational minds. He gives back the material good taken, but cannot restore the life lost. Nick, Elizabeth, and the others do not speak their own thoughts, but their expressions relay reflection and understanding of mortality – the fleeting, ephemeral life that can be snatched away by colonists fueled by greed or just the rolling fog on any given night. As Wayne warns: “Look for the fog.” Look at yourself, engage in self-reflection, or these ghosts will persist and haunt the next generation, as more wronged men return for their due. At its foundation, Carpenter lays a simple moral base. Yet mounted upon that is something much grander and more nuanced, both filmicly and philosophically. The closing shot is not just a meaningless jump scare, but a reminder that even momentary complacency and amorality can (and will) cause havoc, both psychologically and physically. The Fog is indeed a great horror film, a great ghost story, and great for Halloween, but it’s also a richly defined film about history and injustice, indicating that, to echo the opening Poe quote, reality can turn into a nightmare, and vice versa, if civility and dignified purpose don’t prevail.

I’ve enjoyed writing this second Horrorthon and I hope everyone has enjoyed reading. Until next year…

Horrorthon 2: Day Thirty: The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1945) -- B

The Body Snatcher is a serviceable Halloween chiller, though not in the upper-echelon of either Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi's oeuvre. The two get lead billing, though neither is really one of the three central characters - unfortunately, that's reserved for a menial thread about Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his well-to-do assistant Fettes (Russell Wade), who become obsessed with trying to cure a paralyzed small girl. Why is MacFarlane so medically prominent? It's because he gets dead bodies from a supplier, John Gray (Karloff). Naturally, Gray does not just steal the bodies from the morgue or crime scenes - he procures them himself by murdering innocent passers-by. Lugosi shows up in a nothing role as a retarded servant, though he and Karloff have a nice scene together. Visually, Wise's second collaboration with Val Lewton proves he can manage the shadowy expressionism, though it's expected presence almost becomes a hindrance, a cliche if nothing truly spectacular is to be done with it. Thematically, it's a cautionary tale of the dangers science and rationality can cause if not kept in check, and Dr. MacFarlane suffers severely for his transgression, even though he helps save a girl's vitality. The production code can be partially blamed for this, but the whole affair has the feeling of complacency, not trying to truly make an innovative or memorable work, but simply assemble a horror film to fit the second half of a double bill. Wise and company do so competently and with lean precision, but there's really nothing here much better films haven't explored and executed with greater gusto and shock.

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Nine: Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973) -- B-

Sergio Martino's Torso makes the same mistakes as an earlier reviewed film on this blog - The Eyes of Laura Mars. It lack sufficient style, thought, and an overall gravitas to be compelling, even though it is competently pieced together. Moreover, the films share thematic material - that being a killer who fetishizes his victim's eyes, brought about by childhood trauma (concurrent within any Giallo). The similarities cannot go unmentioned, and the later film's script (co-written by John Carpenter) appears to have aped much of the ideas. In Torso, a group of college students are terrorized by a man wearing a stocking on his head; just before he kills his first victim (by tearing her eyes out) he flashes back to a doll, lying on the ground, his fingers about to come into contact with its eyes. This type of psychological fetish comprises nearly every motive for Gialli killers, and while not necessarily a handicap or hindrance in and of itself, the reoccurance necessitates an added bit of ingenuity and insight, something Martino does not do. Furthermore, the killer's identity is hilariously transparent, as only fifteen minutes into the film, the heroine says to a male friend, "You have such lovely eyes." He responds, disheveled, dejected, "Please do not tease me about such things." Surely enough, this is indeed our man, a detail that typifies Martino's surface notions of depth and insight. Nevertheless, Torso is an hilarious film, chocked-full of knockout moments, such as a child falling from a cliff to his death, or the killer deliriously screaming, "Bitches! Bitches! Bitches!" because of his impotence. While there's nary a dull moment because of the ineptitude, it's quite hard to commend the film for this, thus relegating it to "midnight movie" status. I'm not suggesting that as an inherently inferior position (far from it), but in the case of Torso, it's outlandish enough to make serviceable fodder for those seeking a bad film for a good time. The film's silly trailer should help make that point more concretely.

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Eight: The Grapes of Death (Jean Rollin, 1978) -- B

The Grapes of Death proves Jean Rollin's understanding of the horror genre and his ability to be innovative while remaining reverential. Rollin is indebted to films ranging from House of Dracula to Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, yet he exports a 70's art house aesthetic as his visual style. It is, in essence, a pastiche, but Rollin cleverly disguises this through distinct narrative ingenuity, even if the beats and plot points are clearly generic. A pesticide is being sprayed onto the grapes of a vineyard in order to turn those who drink the wine into zombies, thus making them slaves to the grapes - more proletarian workers to harvest the fruit needed for bourgeois luxury. A young woman named Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) traveling to see her boyfriend, discovers the plot after confronting one of the zombies on a train. She then works to expose the plot, to muddled success. Nothing within the narrative really matters, as Rollin's film is, at heart, exploitation, using the broadly drawn allegory for gore effects (well done), female nudity (always welcome) and zombie slumbering (eh). The sum product succeeds because of Rollin's vacillation between various modes, even if there are periods of flat-footed dialogue inspiring viewer disinterest.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Seven: Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988) -- D+

Pumpkinhead is a terrible movie, made all the more disheartening because its interesting premise is squandered in director Stan Winston's incompetent attempt to balance horror and pathos, religious symbolism and vigilante justice (his only subsequent feature involved Anthony Michael Hall and a gnome). The special effects maestro has no sense of narrative progression, tonal consistency, or, most importantly, no respect for a viewer's good faith, since it becomes clear that Winston's true interest lies in the titular demon, summoned by Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) to eviscerate a pack of wild teenagers who accidentally killed his son during a dirt bike race. The death itself absolutely defies logic or coherence, coming about through an inane series of excuses and coincidences that puts him in danger. My quibbling about such things usually remains minimal, since narrative liberties are often necessary to pursue thematic questions. Here, however, it's just a silly ploy to put the narrative into motion. Unfortunately, all of the southern black magic plays like the hokum it is, letting the demon kill a few characters before Ed, conveniently, has a change of heart, unconvincingly adding a layer of guilt to his initial need for vengeance. Oddly enough, Pumpkinhead's attempt to add "character development" or various genre elements to the Alien mold just complicates and muddles things since Winston doesn't have a strong enough directorial eye to navigate them convincingly.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Six: Uncle Sam (William Lustig, 1997) -- C+

The lofty prospect of a Larry Cohen script under William Lustig's direction only comes to moderate fruition in Uncle Sam, mostly due to both men dropping the ball in the third act. A fascinating set-up has Sam Harper (David Fralick) being killed during Desert Storm; three years later, his sister, wife, and nephew are still grappling with his death, especially once they're informed that his dead body has finally been discovered and is soon to be returned home for burial. The nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden) finds solace in calling Sam a hero, and vows to enlist when he's of age. Cohen and Lustig communicate these sequences with the utmost clarity, displaying how young minds are constructed to follow the Nationalistic order. As Jody says, "I'll do whatever the president asks of me when I'm a soldier, because he knows more than we do." Intervening is veteran soldier Jed Crowley (Issac Hayes), who tells Jody that "we used to know who and what we were fighting. Now everybody is confused." These elements nicely stage a narrative for engaging complex subjects, and Lustig films them without pretension, modestly and with conviction. What doesn't work, however, is the film's strictly horror half, when the body of "Uncle Sam" comes to life, dons the red, white, and blue duds and starts killing people during a July 4th celebration. This shift, though initially apropos in its allegorical dimension, betrays the more sincere aspects of a film confronting government lies and the selling of propaganda to susceptible children. Especially when the killings begin to have nothing to do with this thread and eventually become a self-parody. It makes one long for Bob Clark's masterpiece Deathdream, a thoroughly allegorical and intelligent film dealing with the impossibility of civilian assimilation after facing the horrors of war. Uncle Sam could have reached somewhere close to those heights if it had remained steadfast to its convictions, rather than calling an audible in favor of lesser thrills.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Five: Deadly Friend (Wes Craven, 1986) -- B-

Joe Bob Briggs has called Wes Craven's Deadly Friend "A Breakfast Club version of Bride of Frankenstein." That's about right, and it's enough to make the film worthwhile as a purely genre exercise. Techno wiz Paul (Matthew Laborteaux) moves to a new place, bringing along with him a self-built robot named BB. Along with new friends Tom (Michael Sharrett) and Sam (Kristy Swanson), the trio become good friends - and there's even the potential of a little romance between Paul and Sam. However, Sam has a controlling, abusive father. Equally pestering, an old hag neighbor who absconds with their basketball and pulls a shotty on them anytime they step near her property. The (im)perfect storm of narrative dominoes fall, the neighbor destroying the robot and Sam's father beating her and leaving her brain dead. Riddled with grief, the friends decide to resurrect Sam, using the computer chip formerly used by BB. There's nothing here that deserves immediate mentioning (except for a great death scene involving an exploding head and the basketball), but Craven navigates light-hearted humor with outrageous gore, though the final third is tonally confused, as the police are summoned and the film loses its keener edge. Craven cannot be blamed for the script's lesser aspirations (he didn't write it), though there is some ingenuity in its establishing build, especially if one does not know what's to come. Initially, it seems more sci-fi geared towards the robot, but the shift works because Craven makes it coalesce through pacing. He builds enough character momentum, narrative drive, and overall goodwill to make one not come down harshly on his enjoyable, intermittently thoughtful effort, with enough competent parts to overlook the lacking whole.

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Four: The Mansion of Madness (Juan López Moctezuma, 1973) -- A-

Juan López Moctezuma's The Mansion of Madness clearly draws heavily upon Edgar Allan Poe's short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether - yet I'm not sure even Poe could ever have envisioned as bizarre a scenario, characters, and actions as Moctezuma has. If Alucarda is bizarre, The Mansion of Madness is just fucking nutty, but then again, who's looking for restraint when it comes to crazy people? One character puts it best early in the film when he says: "Mentally disturbed people frighten me." Such a revelatory insight should not go unmentioned. Nevertheless, Moctezuma's absurdist inclinations are precise and specific throughout, utilizing editing for the primary comedic effect - a tact that more than shows his cognizance and sense of humor. If the film is noticeably lacking any relevance outside of hilarious mental patients, including a crazy human chicken, endlessly riotous line readings, and an impressive visual style to hang them upon, then you're looking for the wrong qualities - accept the grotesque perversion coupled with Bunuelian surreality, and appreciate Moctezuma's masterwork of subversive exploitation.

Journalist Gaston LeBlanc (Arthur Hansel) travels through the woods to the mansion of Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook), a seemingly progressive man who posits an alternative way of dealing with mental patients - a soothing system, which instead of telling the patient their delusions are false, reinforces their psychosis by allowing them to live it out. Maillard believes this technique will eventually allow the patient to dispel of the alternative personality. Moctezuma masterfully balances this walk and talk sequence, implementing carnivalesque marching music to counterbalance the capture and torture of LeBlanc's accompanying visitors, who decided to turn back before entering the mansion. That brings the pair to a sick fuck, a guy who's glued feathers on him, clucks and struts like a chicken. LeBlanc simply responds to Maillard's explanation: "remarkable." The intellectual, when confronted with something that confounds his intellect, responds submissively, not wanting to run the risk of revealing his "ignorance." The casting of Brook explicitly recalls his role as Simon in Bunuel's Simon of the Desert, a reflexive admission of taking Poe's reticence of scientific "rationality" and turning it into surrealism, most strikingly coming to fruition during a confrontation with mental patient Dante, who hangs upon a rack, thin and fragile, on the verge of death. Explains Maillard: "consider this the less soothing part of my soothing system." Of course, Maillard is crazy and eventually incapacitates LeBlanc and female slave Eugenie (Ellen Sherman) in an attempt to "build an empire." Poe's themes of abuse of power and scientific danger remain, but it is Moctezuma's creepy, funny, shocking flourishes that give the film verve, literally ending in a hail of gunfire, dance, and music.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Three: Vampire in Brooklyn (Wes Craven, 1995) -- B

There's something Shakespearean about Vampire in Brooklyn. It uses supporting characters as jesters and observers, slyly supplementing and commenting on the narrative, though they never take the shape of "developed" characters. Likewise, Wes Craven's directorial sensibility ventures away from portentous vampiric lore and more towards absurdity, severing any sense of verisimilitude or continuity through Eddie Murphy's pre- The Nutty Professor multiple role effort. That disconnect may go a long way in explaining the film's poor reception, both critically and commercially, but both parties missed the point - Vampire in Brooklyn is a spectacle, comprised of theatrical flourishes and heightened realities undermining its inner-city setting. It is a farce with gore, a Grand Guignol-style show of horror, blood, and delight. It is not camp, per se, but an extraction of cultural stereotypes into an alternative setting, a far more interesting concoction than any possible attempt at a straight-faced horror film given the comedic talent of its star.

The narrative is as such: Caribbean Island vampire Maximillian (Murphy) travels to New York in order to find a bride. He knows of Rita (Angela Bassett), an NYPD detective whose father was a vampire, making her a natural selection. He quickly turns indebted-to-the-mob hustler Julius (Kadeem Hardison) into his Renfield, and soon he's on his way to finding Rita. All of this is, in truth, of little importance, since the film is performance and comedically driven. So what is it about the film that makes "film critics" react in opposition? The film scored only 3 positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, against 25 negative. When in doubt, turn to Roger Ebert for insight: "ex-model Jerry Hall turns up as a white woman who, attacked by the vampire, assures him, "I understand the Negro people." That a person of her age would say this might just barely have been possible when "Blacula" was made; to put it in a 1995 movie and hope for a laugh is a sign that the filmmakers are seriously out of touch." Ebert later goes on to question the film's use of the N-word, perfectly illustrating not that he objects to how these points are made, but merely that their presence makes him uncomfortable. Furthermore, Craven's film (from a script co-written by brother Charlie Murphy) does not attempt to establish a distinctly "suitable" context for the usage of social commentary, so perplexed critics react with ironic detachment, replacing their confusion with adamant disapproval.

Nevertheless, it is Murphy's central performance that lends the film it's keen edge, especially when he morphs into a preacher sermonizing on the necessity of evil, an almost Bunuelian-touch in the midst of its vampire hokum (which the treats appropriately as such). Another Murphy character is Guido, an Italian-American inserted merely for Murphy to work, through caricature and stereotype, as a way to wackily throw a wrench into narrative normalcy. And it is funny. Bassett and Murphy are sexy together too; her vulnerability is superficial and underwritten, but Bassett makes it work, especially as the traditional "woman in trouble," only now she's able to fend for herself. All of these elements certainly don't cohere in any logical progression or unified discourse - but that "lack" does not negate their effectiveness in the moment. Indeed, this differing quality explains critical derision, since the critical mind, when confronted with functioning or abstract parts that do not make an explicitly defined whole, explains it away as "a mess" or "amateur" or "misfire" or, my favorite, "uneven." Vampire in Brooklyn is uneven, meaning it has varying tones, visual stimuli, and intents. But in my world, that's called being multifaceted.

Montenegro (Dusan Makavejev, 1981) -- B+

Following his exile from Yugoslavia and the international controversy of his masterwork Sweet Movie, Dusan Makavejev was relegated to a status most great artists find themselves when met with social displacement and political oppression: hiatus. He finally returned to filmmaking in 1981, seven years after his previous film, with Montenegro, more narratively linear and conservative, but still retaining that Makavejev-touch: humor, sex, death, and politics - told with a documentarian's eye for peculiarity in human behavior, desire, and action. Marilyn (Susan Anspach) is a well-to-do fashion designer living in Sweden, her husband Martin (Erland Josephson) and kids in tow. Makavejev sets up her bourgeois anxieties through a satirical opening song and reverie, her standing at the edge of a pier gazing out onto the lake. He finds her silly, unreasonable, and overprivileged, poking fun at the Hollywood film's Romanticization of upper middle-class depression. Nevertheless, her ennui is initially alleviated by the prospect of flying to Brazil with her husband, only to be detained at the airport for carrying a pair of garden shears (another luxury tool). There, she crosses paths with a few Yugoslavian immigrants, is taken back to their freer, less constrained style of living, and becomes the dreaded exoticist, using another culture to repudiate her own. It turns out, though, that this escapade is something she just needs to "get out of her system," a disingenuous foray into sex and "love" uninhibited by domestic or financial responsibility. Her sexual fireworks with the titular character (Svetozar Cvetkovic) result in his inexplicable death, the cross-cutting between separate parties in different socio-cultural realms indicative of her intrusion, and use of the opposing culture not to be part of a commune, but feel rehabilitated self-worth. This form of imperialistic drive amongst the wealthy is, for Makavejev, an inexcusable offense, and another fascinating link in his cinema, devoted to questioning the powers that be, either capitalistic or fascistic.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Two: Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) -- B-

Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon is well plotted and paced, but a bit sillier and less visually sophisticated than his great films Out of the Past and The Leopard Man. That step down in visual style and theme hurts the film by comparison, opting for narrative hokum concerning a science vs. faith debate that glibly sides with faith. Gone is Tourneur's darker sensibilities, though the arrival of the titular demon is rather awesome, especially as it grasps a victim during the climax and shakes him to death. It is also clear from the film that Sam Raimi wholly ripped it off for his own Drag Me to Hell, an even less sophisticated effort that amped Tourneur's already elevated levels of playfullness to distastefully epic proportion.

Psychiatrist John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London to refute cult lunatic Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis), only to discover colleague Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) has been murdered. Harrington's niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) joins Holden to try and discover what happened to her uncle, leading them to discover the black magic of Karswell, who can curse a victim by passing a parchment along to an unsuspecting victim. Naturally, Holden, because of his scintific rationality, accepts the script and starts to experience strange events. The narrative beats in the film are fine, but the investigation of supernatural belief remains curiously superficial, especially in lines like Joanna saying: "We tell children what they see in the dark isn't there. Maybe it is we who could learn something from them." A later seance scene proves the film's highlight (in what supernatural horror film isn't it?), a medium speaking in tongues, different voices, and going batshit crazy during possession. These elements are welcome, but it is a wholly different sort of sensibility than the great director's best films. Not that his decision to play things lighter is inherently lesser, but if there's nothing to really ponder beyond the simply written statements and imperatives, the humor can only go so far.

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-One: Frozen (Adam Green, 2010) -- B+

The mechanical workings of a ski lift open Adam Green's Frozen, a perfect metaphor on two levels: a converse symbol for the physical act of a film running through the projector, beginning as an acknowledgement of its own artifice and, more importantly, an ironic juxtapostion to the living, breathing, feeling characters that are soon to be stranded because of the machine. Moreover, the central conceit (three people stranded in the freezing air on a ski-lift chair) can easily be read as a larger allegory for free will, isolationist politics, and/or capitalist luxury, layering the tension and intellect to supplement the horror tropes. What director Green fortunately graps is that the frights are not an end in and of themselves, but a foundation for exploration of larger, more interesting issues via his white, early-20's, middle class characters.

It is not the characters' "likeability" that gives the film gravitas, but that they are human - they have self-assurance, but anxieties too, even if someone like Dan (Kevin Zegers) believes he can circumnavigate having to purchase a lift ticket by bribing the operator with $100 (he claims this will work because the guy makes little money), and he's right (of course, he's also the reason, due to work schedule anxieties, that the trio becomes stranded). Dan's girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) and best friend Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) are the other two, each subtley battling for Dan's affections, the girlfriend-less Lynch trying to score a later date with sexy Shannon (Rileah Vanderbilt) in order to prove he's not inadequate. That none of this set-up leads to any later developments is a brave choice, but the correct one, illustrating how abruptly life can be altered, perspectives immediately changed, without the prospect of outside intervention. Every possible savior fails, due to either nature's interference or personal distraction.

Once the chair stops and the three become stranded, the film opens into various avenues, allowing diverse readings, and complex layerings of motive and discourse. Dan, the assured kid who's been able to finagle his way out of any circumstance, defies geometrical logic, and suffers for it. He goes from his "gut," not his head, and the ultimate result is a painful death. Lynch and Parker remain, grief stricken and desperate, but retaining a sense of humor and humanity. Perhaps that's what makes Dan's horrific end all the more disturbing, since these characters view death with a light touch, not wholly jokey, but realizing their mortality and vulnerability. No one ever speaks of death or belief explictly (perhaps for the best), but the progressive blame game, sentimental posturings and ultimate reconciliation all reinforce these various discursive modes and a degree of sincerity regarding the scenario's microcosmic apocalypse, the isolation and slow, cold death a fierce and inescapable process. Things do not end completely hopeless, but the spared survivor has convincingly confronted class, nature, mortality, and selflessness in the course of a 90 minutes, a rare instance of depth through minimalism in modern filmmaking.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty: Link (Richard Franklin, 1986) -- C-

Link may be the strangest R rated film ever made. Its narrative and initial half would indicate something purely innocuous, somewhat engaging questions of scientific curiosity, but mainly focused on the cutesy relationship of the human-like ape and the even cuter novice Jane (Elizabeth Shue) to veteran primatologist Dr. Phillip (Terrence Stamp). The dopey carnivalesque music helps to solidify this tone. However, in its second half, Link becomes something else: the titular ape goes nuts, Dr. Phillip goes missing, and Elizabeth Shue gets naked. Wuh? Not that the more conventional half is very good to begin with, but the oddly situated shift takes the film in no discernably appropriate direction, a climax bringing Shue's boyfriend to the Dr.'s mansion and her rescue. Director Richard Franklin sets up an interesting proposition - subverting the standard narrative of human and ape becoming friends with unlikely shifts and changes. Yet his reasoning seems to have ended there, not going nearly far enough to be outrageous, nor intelligent enough to be dramatically engaging.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Nineteen: Giallo (Dario Argento, 2010) -- C

In Dario Argento's latest film, he apparently thinks he's making an episode of CSI. At least, that's what his visual approach would indicate - bland, non-descript,and lacking any vitality whatsoever, the once virtuoso master of mise-en-scene apparently doesn't give a fuck anymore. The bulk of Giallo reinforces this, a weak wrting/directing effort bolstered only by a game effort from Adrien Brody (who is now suing the film's producers, claiming he was never paid for his work), whose stern face and determined detective blur a bit of the material's questionable nature.

In spirit, the narrative recalls Tenebre; a deranged killer living in Torino stalks female foreigners, captures them, and kills them. He's revealed to have a medical condition which turns his skin yellow (thus the double meaning of the film's title). Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner), fearing her sister's capture after she disappears, seeks the help of Inspector Inzo Avalfi (Brody), who's carrying some demons of his own, natch. Turns out he saw his mother get butchered, then hunted down her killer...who happened to actually be a butcher, then waxed him. The backstory is supposed to give meaning to Inzo's plight, but since there's nothing going on in the film beyond the trite, it's hard to become invested. Brody gives it a go and, if there were any reason to see the film, it would be centrally to see him work. However, there is one bit of business that needs mentioning. Brody plays both the inspector and the killer. Yeah, it's obvious early on that the killer is Brody in make-up, leading one to believe somehow he's two people at once, but no. The film resolves as if they are two separate characters. Odd to no end, especially since the film makes nothing of it. Kind of like everything else in it, some mildly intriguing ideas going nowhere.

Horrorthon 2: Day Eighteen: Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981) -- A

The examination of uncommunicable anxiety, self-hatred, and human misery in Andrzej Zulawski's Possession runs horrifyingly deep, plummeting into what lead actress Isabelle Adjani deemed "psychological pornography." Apropos in particular for Adjani, whose character Anna is in the midst of nervous breakdown as the film begins, and proceeds to only fall further into madness. Zulawski directs with specified movements and motions in mind, often tracking with his characters as they walk, perhaps pulling back and then pushing in during a phone call, or match cutting to capitalize on actors movements - dynamism defines nearly every shot or sequence. There are no conventional takes; conversations between people puts them in disjointed relationship to one another - the simple act of walking across the room transcends the mundane because of Zulawski's insistence on giving his film a definitive feel and style. It is fitting, too, for the expulsion of emotional rage and fear. However, none of these stylistic flourishes even begin to encompass the film's visceral and cerebral foundation, grounded ultimately in the horror film, allegorical for the deterioration of marriage and happiness - and the dead end faced when those feelings cannot be dealt with in a rational way. They must, necessarily, take a monstrous, non-human form.

The ideas in Possession materialize out of unconscious desires and their momentum (that it is set in Berlin begins to explain unspoken anxieties); there are no expository scenes or exchanges. Adjani speaks in abstract, non-concrete terms, desperately trying to pinpoint her "monstrous" interior, what makes her want to revolt and leave husband Mark (Sam Neill). Her response: self-mutilation and seclusion. Mark initially thinks it is purely sexual - he locates her new lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a philosophical German who, when confronted with Mark's hostility, beats the shit out of him. Mark hires a private detective to track Anna, discovering her hideout and, more importantly, her true new lover. Yet these elements do not define the film's power; that comes from camera fluidity, unhinged and uninhibited performances from Sam Neill and, in one of the most emotionally wrought performances since Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Isabella Adjani, and thematic interest, primarily religious asceticism and a fear of sin, guilt and doubt in the traditional sense. There are certainly echoes of Polanski's Repulsion, but Zulawski's more disturbed and insistent on getting as far into Anna's breakdown as possible. The film's most famous sequence, where Anna has a miscarriage in a subway is, to steal a term from Carol Clover, "abject terror personified."

Possession cannot be easily explained, nor could it be easily forgotten. If the film has any problem, perhaps it is too elliptical, the questions and dialogue of the characters too abstract and metaphysical. However, that criticism can be easily dispelled by the tone, which deftly oscillates between solemn and satirical, straight-faced and knowledgeably hysterical. Anna's madness is communicated with such clarity, that laughter is the only tool that can be used to prevent a full-on immersion into her instability. This is not to say the film doesn't consistently stun in a disturbing manner - it does so frequently, but it isn't so detached from the variations of human emotion (like, say, Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier) to rule out the possibility of humor. At one point, Anna sits, attempting to talk out her uncertainties. This, in particular, is worth noting: "I know there is a third possibility, like cancer or madness. But cancer or madness contort reality. The possibility I'm talking about pierces reality." These points of ponderance do not provide tangible explanations for her anxieties - in a sense, they only complicate her more, desperately trying to solve or locate the problem simply devastates her further. The film's ending helps to clarify the metaphor, but nothing is settled or complete. Violence and procreation are intertwined, the artifice of Anna's "birth" a false solution to her psychological imprisonment - yet given the smiling, but abject face it takes, perhaps a suitable out to end her insufferable pain.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Seventeen: Killer Klowns From Outer Space (Stephen Chiodo, 1988) -- B+

It may seem hypocritical to castigate something like Night of the Creeps then laud Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but that view point would be mistaken. For here, amidst wall-to-wall self-awareness and (funny) one-liners, the heroic like-minded geeks of the former die while goofing around on the CV of an ice-cream truck, hurled into the air by a giant, scary clown (only to be, unfortunately, resuscitated). Moreover, Stephen Chiodo's sly Reagan-era funhouse of laughs, frights, and ice cream strikes a consistent, well-rounded chord, intentionally silly but infused by a predilection for the bizarre, embodied in both its eight-foot alien clowns and how they are used, not just as a goof for self-important yucks, but inspired figures for a culture swaying between adolescence and adulthood. Not only is that conflict still ongoing - it would be naive to suggest it isn't regressing towards the former. Nevertheless, Chiodo makes an even more potent concoction of horror and laughs than The Return of the Living Dead, clearly the film that serves as Killer Klowns' inspiration.

Killer Klowns starts out on a refreshing note; grumpy asshole police officer Mooney (John Vernon) scoffs at a couple of passing punks. The conflict has begun: evolving mores vs. conventional, rigid adherence to law as merely an excuse to disguise individual self-doubt. Mooney gets nothing but derision from Chiodo; a later decision to ignore logic and empirical data in favor of stubborn dogma brings about his demise. The other storyline involves young couple Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Susan Snyder), sexual but self-aware (like the film) and able to remove themselves from passive laziness to investigate the landing of a shooting star. Cramer speaks like a second rate Matthew Broderick, cool but modest. Likewise, Debbie is sexy and smart. After Mike does a dumbass Indian imitation, she responds: "Lead the way, Chief Running-at-the-Mouth." Funny, not overstated, and not even campy. All of this set up leads to the discovery of the clowns, their tent decked out in full-on ultraviolet glory. The sets look somewhat cheap, but Chiodo milks it well, playing it partially jokey, partially earnest. In one of the film's best scenes, a clown makes shadow puppets on the wall, drawing the smiling admiration of a blue-haired old lady and her husband. The figures start cute, turn progressively violent, then finally devours them. In spite of the presence of a killer klown, the metaphor is strikingly clear: danger now takes the form of what was formerly safe, smiling, and innocuous. In other words: Reagan as abject, his smiling, handsome face promising comfort, but truly bringing pain, torment, and death. That Killer Klowns from Outer Space can construct such a striking social allegory amidst the loony bits is highly impressive. There are funny touches too; the clowns wrap their victims in cotton candy cocoons; their guns shoot carnivorous popcorn. Even creepier, the clowns quickly construct a search dog as a balloon animal. Funny gags, to be sure, and they supplement character development. After all, the social subtext is nice, but the likable characters are really what gives it gravity. The conclusion remains regrettably somewhat standard, but the preceding intelligence and wit is not altered.

Horrorthon 2: Day Sixteen: Madman (Joe Giannone, 1982) -- D

Madman typifies the tedium many non-converts associate with the slasher film. It is but an outright Friday the 13th knockoff, set in the nameless woods of a nameless place on a nameless night. An old man waxes spookily about a regional legend - a wronged man that, if his name is spoken too loudly, will return to kill off those who committed the transgression. Fine by me - especially after spending a mere 20 minutes with these bland, lifeless excuses for human beings. None of the faces or names deserve mentioning. There's a fairly hot older counselor (played by Gaylen Ross of Dawn of the Dead fame), but even her momentary nudity while getting into a hot tub can only fleetingly revive Madman's weakening pulse. Director Joe Giannone might as well be a used car salesman making his first film - the utterly dreary and pedestrian direction does not indicate he's qualified to step behind the camera. Even the gore is lacking - some people get axed in the face, maybe somebody gets their throat slashed. But the film is lacking any inspiration whatsoever, even in just a line of dialogue, crazy maiming, or perverted psychological explanation for the killer. It's hard to hate the film because it does absolutely nothing other than lie on the screen, playing dead and silently mocking anyone who was tricked into paying money or spending time to see it.

A Response to Empire's "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema"

Empire's "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema"

While there are some great films on this list (I mean, with 100 slots they were bound to be right at some point), it is - overall - a travesty.

Indispensable directors like Max Ophuls, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Dziga Vertov, Josef Von Sternberg, Marcel Carne, Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi, Louis Malle, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Resnais, Ermanno Olmi, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Eric Rohmer, Dusan Makavejev, Volker Schlondorff, Shohei Imamura, Edward Yang, and Bela Tarr do not have a single film on this hackneyed list.

Even when they have great directors, they are the most obvious film from their filmmographies. Bergman = The Seventh Seal. Godard = Breathless, Band of Outsiders. Bunuel = Un Chien Andalou, Belle de Jour. Kurosawa - Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon. Eisenstein = Battleship Potemkin. De Sica = Bicycle Theives. Clouzot = Wages of Fear. Fellini = La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2. Etc., etc.

There are one or two positives. Good to see that The Spirit of the Beehive and Come and See are in the Top 25. But Oldboy? Let the Right One in? Y Tu Mama Tambien? Gimme a fuckin' break, here!

You can tell these are pretentious pricks since they use the foreign title when an English one is known. Les Quatres Cent Coups? No jerkoff, The 400 Blows. Jules et Jim? No douchebag, Jules and Jim. À bout de souffle? No asswipe, Breathless. Do you speak French? Then stop acting like it.

Ordering is, of course, a major problem, but it would be so even if a sensible person compiled a list. Nevertheless, L'Avventura number 40? Andrei Rublev number 87? Rififi number 90? And no Robert Bresson? No Au Hazard Balthazar, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, Diary of a Country Priest, or L'Argent? Empire should be stripped of any credibility it was clinging to.

There are WAY too many films from the past 20 years. In fact, that tandem of decades likely outweighs any other. A disturbing oversight, indicative of individuals lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. The fact that Amelie, Pan's Labyrinth, and City of God occupy 3 of the top 10 slots is just laughable. Outright absurd. This list caters to the 19-year-old asshole film buff who thinks he's discovered the secrets of the Earth because he's heard of Bergman, Kurosawa, and Godard - but probably only seen the films of theirs on this list. Here's an idea - see Smiles of a Summer Night, Winter's Light, or Hour of the Wolf. See Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, or Stray Dog. See A Woman is a Woman, Masculin Feminin, Weekend, Alphaville, Vivre sa Vie, or Pierrot le Fou. See Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert, The Milky Way, or The Phantom of Liberty. See the movies that true fans of these filmmakers cherish most rather than the soulless, thoughtlessly glib, shallow assholes who compiled this list.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Fifteen: Brain Damage (Frank Henenlotter, 1988) -- B+

Brain Damage teeters on brilliance throughout and deserves uncontested admission into the canon of definitive 80's horror. It is certainly director Frank Henenlotter's most passionate film, reaching for something beyond the goofy abjection of Basket Case, or (following this film) the full-on farce of post-80's subculture in Frankenhooker. Brain Damage responds to the drug use, sexual disease, and greed of a moral wasteland (here NYC) further devolving with each passing day - only it does so via a twelve inch slimy creature, who talks like Burl Ives and hooks his victims on "brain" juice in exchange for being given the chance to eat other human brains. The social metaphor is clear: (lest I mention Aylmer, the creature, is shaped like a grotesque cock) human reliance on the destruction of others (metaphorical cannibalism) because of self-imposed constraints, defines the era's mores. Many people will refuse to view it as anything more than a campy monster flick - such impertinence reinforces the self-effacing behavior the film laments.

Aylmer, a Faust-like symbol for Phallocentric order, looks and speaks like a character from Sesame Street, his soothing voice supplementing a gross, dumbass expression. His uncanny physicality makes sense, given the film's inherent critique of self-mutilation through secondary hunger drives. The cute children's show turns into a violent, absurdist reality for Brian (Rick Hearst), a 20's-something turned to addiction as a means of escaping boredom (his name, a letter switch away from "brain," solidifies him as locus of the broader populous' desires). Brian craves a psychedelic reality to replace his own - yet that immersion obfuscates his role in Aylmer's persistent hunger and destruction. The film's best sequence takes place in an underground punk club (named Hell), where tripping Brian catches the eye of a busty broad. Persistent, she takes him in the basement, unzips his pants, and is "choked" to death by Aylmer, doubling because of his phallic shape. The metaphor expands (pun intended), here its physicality normal to her touch, yet becoming abject when seen, diseased instead of "properly" functional. Another scene on a subway situates Brian's state - taken over by disease, compelled by a thirst for another high. The apocalyptic ending (echoes of Kiss Me Deadly abound) lends little closure to destruction run amok, but it cements Henenlotter's vision and very specific taste - both darkly humorous and morally conscious.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Fourteen: Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978) -- C+

Though Eyes of Laura Mars was released a good two years before Dressed to Kill, it feels like a cheap, soulless retread, initially intriguing through a narrative of art imitating life (too literally, I might add), but director Irvin Kershner (two years before he directed The Empire Strikes Back) finds no way to give its insipid dialogue sequences any verve, life, or meaning. John Carpenter is credited with the story and having co-written the screenplay - likely meaning his initial script was rewritten by David Zelag Goodman (an accredited screenwriter in his own right). I have no evidence or anecdotes to back that theory up, but Carpenter's sense of narrative ingenuity has never relied on such blatant tactics, nor a killer who's woefully evident from the film's very first scene.

Photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is releasing a new book of her work; it's being met with criticism by feminists, who claim her photographic art is violent towards and demeans women. Defensive, but persistent, Mars suddenly has a mental flash while shooting one afternoon: she takes the perspective of a murderer. Sure enough, her vision comes true, as do multiple others to follow, leading Mars to seek the comfort of reassuring policeman John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones). Kershner's technique for shooting Mars' delirium never transcends the literal: I-camera stalkings, another inferior rendition of what Carpenter would do in his own Halloween. Moreover, the film's central concern (looking, vision) remains static and uninteresting through its easy posturings and overtly explicit dialogue. There's no fluidity in style or cinematic wonderment here, that necessary element which makes De Palma so damned exhilarating.

Horrorthon 2: Day Thirteen: Prophecy (John Frankenheimer, 1979) -- C-

John Frankenheimer's Prophecy exists on odd terrain, somewhere between the more innocuous monster flicks of the 1950's and the increasingly gorier ones that would begin to pop up in the early 80's. That's not the film's problem, though - it's frightfully stupid and hackneyed, inserting a dopey plot of lumber industry goons against land loyal Indians (lead by Armand Assante) amidst the emergence of an 8-foot-tall mutant beast, spawned from the log company's excessive wastes. Married ecologists Maggie Verne (Talia Shire) and her husband, Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth), investigating the goings-on, become empathetic to the Indians and generally critical of the log company's neglect for preserving the land. All of this plays painfully rote, drudging along to its eventual conclusion of the jerks getting their comeuppance, the monster being killed, and the cautionary tale restoring a semblance of order. Even if someone wanted to defend the film as horror in the "classical" sense or "campy" fun (these disingenuous assholes and their love of camp, fuck), it does not alleviate the fact that Prophecy is worthless in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twelve: The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980) -- C+

The Changeling makes the mistake of turning into a dreary, thematically heavy-handed thriller amongst some rather creepy elements. It's telling the film is produced by HBO Films - far too much of it plays like a run-of-the-mill job, its cold, distant aesthetic simply a poor, pale imitation of The Exorcist. There simply isn't enough substantive narrative weight as a genre film, nor the ingenuity in the form to transcend those shortcomings. An odd thing to say coming from Peter Medak, who usually lets his freak flag fly (The Ruling Class, Romeo is Bleeding). Above all, The Changeling's biggest mistake is playing everything straight, using the ghost story for an attempt at verisimilitude, an empty allegory about the return of the repressed with a political twist.

Medak's direction works well in spots here, but it's largely drowned out by a tepid narrative. In the opening scene, vacationing composer John Russell (George C. Scott) watches from a phone booth as his wife and daughter are killed in a freak accident. Years later, looking for a place to work, he rents out a large, broken down home. It's equipped with a handyman who cleans up the place and, of course, strange noises that cannot be explained. The film's only superb sequence comes during a seance, as it's discovered a young child's spirit remains in the house, lingering to have the truth revealed about his murder. In a virtuoso corridor dolly a la Last Year at Marienbad, the child's crying voice plays over the fluid, rapid movements down the hallways. Little else in the film matches in terms of giddy thrills. Reserved to the point of tedious (then unnecessarily overwritten once it's learned a high-ranking political official is involved), the film's elements never cohere in any remarkable way, opting for middling conversations heavy on exposition rather than building tension. Jack Clayton's The Innocents is still the ghost film to beat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Eleven: Maniac (William Lustig, 1980) -- A-

Maniac, released in 1980 and well before its clear imitator (though still very good/great) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, appeared almost during the breaking point of the horror film, the moment where it leapt from any sense of hope in thwarting a threat to decency and, essentially, gave in. Thus, the urban nightmare is born. Horror moves out of the castles of Hammer, even the backwoods and suburbs of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween and into the heart of the city, a ticking time bomb full of sloth, lust, excess and trauma.

Serial killer Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) embodies that idea. In the opening sequence (an homage to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom), Zito deposits a quarter into the mechanical binoculars, "paying" for his right to look at a sleeping couple on a beach. Everything has its price, here. After picking up a hooker for a room, the night manager says $25 for the room. A color TV will be another $5. $35 with the tax. So long as you pay, it seems that anything goes. The hooker tells him: "C'mon honey. Meter's tickin'," Zito flashes the bills: "I got money." The desire for "just a little more" erases all sense of human worth. Zito kills (brutally) by night, slumbering back to his small apartment, then talking with his "women" - mannequins that wear the scalped hair of his female victims. He curses after a murder - crying and wailing at himself. Yet, when walking the streets or bumping into someone, he can remain perfectly calm and normal. His isolation and fractured psyche stem from childhood - apparently his mother (a prostitute) locked him in the closet while she turned tricks. Maniac would quickly succumb to this easy psychological explanation if it were used as a crutch, a glib excuse to wallow in gruesome, male domination murders. Maniac is certainly misogynistic - or, as one should always be careful to point out, its main character is. Lustig finds no way to present this without horribly punishing the female victims (nary any filmmaker has), but that does not deflect his film's ability to express an all-encompassing terror of debased modernity, where women, vulnerable because they are forced to sell their bodies in order to "make the rent" allow Zito to play out his maternal anguish.

Moreover, Maniac has some of the most memorable make-up effects work in film history. In a non-female related death, Zito mounts the hood of a car, takes aim with a double barrel shotgun, and obliterates the head/face of the male driver (ironically played by legendary make-up artist Tom Savini). An unsuspecting viewer (as I was) could only verbally express their disgust and (more so) excitement at such an audacious choice. As if to try and top that (which cannot be done), the penultimate sequence of the film, as Zito is attacked by his anthropomorphic mannequins and dismembered/decapitated, solidifies Lustig's tongue-in-cheek stance, making a dynamic (and mostly implicit) social statement, while retaining the goofier, subversive tropes that substantiate the genre.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Ten: Stage Fright (Michele Soavi, 1987) -- B+

Stage Fright, the meta directorial debut of Dario Argento protege Michele Soavi, signals a further bridging of the gap between Gialli and slasher, isolating a small acting troupe inside of a theater, the unknown killer roaming among them. It's an important distinction, seeing how the Italian mold eventually melded with the American, though Soavi retains the Gialli's sense of farce and outlandish humor. Case in point: the killer dresses in a Big-Birdesque owl costume, at one point killing an actress on stage, while the rest of the cast thinks it's all just part of the scene. Explicitly toying with the increasingly imperceptible line between theatricality and reality (a line blurred during the opening sequence), Soavi deftly composes both a reflexive think-piece and an efficient, outright horror film.

That duality functions well, especially in the set-up, where fame and money hungry director Peter (David Brandon) decides to exploit the early death of a wardrobe girl for extended publicity and profits. His artistic drive (reinforced by greed) slyly critiques art's exploitive and voyeuristic inclinations. It is by no means a novel concept, but Soavi's application of it to the horror film lends ingenuity, especially in how he adapts that moral foundation for a series of killings as ruthless and uninhibited as anything from his mentors Argento or Bava. The stage works to heighten the psychological distress, personifying the entrails of the brain through adjacent wires and light cords. Moreover, it is the audacity of the kills that stacks nicely upon Soavi's admitted fascination with murder, here more cathartic than indulgent. Highlights include a pick-axe through the mouth (Freudian to a fault), drill through the back and out the front, chainsaw wielding, axe to the head (brutal in its ephemeral thud) and, what would a horror film be without, a final bullet between the eyes. Stage Fright may ultimately be silly in its central conceit, but a jazz score heavy on saxophone helps to add even more absurdity to the hardcore violence by undercutting it, and that absurdist quality goes a long way to fulfilling Soavi's heightened, frequently hilarious metaphor.

Be sure to check out the trailer, one of the dopest I've seen in awhile:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2010) -- C-

It's telling that Gaspar Noé chooses a lengthy "aerial" take over a miniature model of Tokyo to end Enter the Void, the faux-provocateur's latest attempt to prove himself the biggest douchebag on the planet. Telling because what has preceded, in spite of its point of view shifting, psychedelic interludes, and fractured chronology, is little more than facile sadism, puerile through and through, an immature brat's misanthropy played out via techno beats, strobe lights, and childhood trauma. If one were to ask the director what his film is about, he'd no doubt give an abstract, existential and, ultimately, meaningless answer, much like the laughable philosophy speak of his one-note druggie drones, fetishized to his satisfaction through either an uber-hip, thin and streamlined physique (the protagonist) or a thick-accent, glasses and beard (the cool best friend). Nothing, as hard and straight-faced as Noé may try, can be taken seriously here.

Nor should it be taken lightly, given his shockingly textbook misogyny (this is easily the most hateful film against women since...Irreversible). And, let me tell you, it comes in a variety of forms. The framework of the narrative involves Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American drug-dealer living in Tokyo. On the way to bring a friend "his stash," Oscar is confronted by police, runs into a bathroom stall, and is shot dead. The catch to all of this is that the entire sequence leading up to his death, has been entirely from his perspective (a la Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake). Preceding his death, he discusses drugs and religion with Alex (Cyril Roy), a friend who admits his interest in Oscar's sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) - she figures in later. All of the conversation is purely from Oscar's point of view (there are "blinks" too, a cute but dumbass technique). They dissect drug culture with knowledgeable aplomb. Yet it's purely masturbatory for both themselves and the director, eroticizing and idealizing their consumptive urges, not moral lack (something Noé is apparently oblivious to). Everyone is degraded here. Especially the women - a thread that becomes readily apparent following Oscar's death and - subsequently - his reincarnation.

His death allows the film to leap backwards, to both Oscar and Linda's childhood. Noé gets off on psychosexual, pop-Freudian intimations, integrating an Oedipal element that's played by the director as if this shit were brand new. Oscar ogles his mom in the bathtub, later reminiscing about when she breastfed him. Mouth to tit themes play a major role here. He's also into his sister, especially after his parents are hilariously killed in a car accident, hit head-on by a semi-truck going the wrong way down a one-way street. The children scream their asses off in the back seat, covered by their parents' blood. The trauma (repressed, haunting memory) leads to sexual dysfunction (the desire to fuck his sister). However, Noé well oversteps the endline by suggesting that Linda, even in her grown-up state of psychological dejection, actually wants to hook up with Oscar way more than he wants to with her! Needless to say, her low self-esteem eventually finds her dancing in a strip club, ultimately letting her boss Mario (Masato Tanno) have his way with her backstage. Through another shift in pov, it's suggested (ramping up the incest themes again) that Oscar's ghost enters Mario while he has sex with her. This echoes the earlier conversation with Alex in which Oscar uttered, "do you believe in reincarnation," a dopey, desperate ploy to add depth to what is, essentially, just Noé getting his rocks off at his own "brilliance" and perversity.

The narrative shifting recounts exactly how Oscar and Linda came to Tokyo, further setting up their devastating histories. Yet there's never any sense, whatsoever, that all of the film's jumbled chronology, multiple immersions down the "rabbit hole" a la 2001: A Space Odyssey and familial destruction is ever doing anything more than congratulating its own cynical, debased self-indulgence, glibly addressing human pain and struggle with all the depth of a second year MFA student film. One of the film's last sequences, in which an earlier referenced hotel model becomes the real thing, is sure to spark the most debate as to its "meaning." Moreover, its controversial (though pretty tame), non-simulated sex may raise a few eyebrows, particularly an inner-vagina cumshot (Noé can take the pov of a woman's pussy, but never her mind). It's just more guttersnipe juvenilia, effectively constructed only by the most superficially audacious inclinations. He even throws in the typical "get the fuck out of my house!" screaming, as well as the proverbial "if you ever come in here again, I'll fucking kill you." There's no tongue-in-cheek jousting here folks - Noé's just got his tongue up his own ass, stroking his ego through a pretentious visual style and brash, mindlessly hateful (towards women and, basically, mankind) amoral aesthetics.