Friday 29 April 2011

No news is good news

Apologies for lack of posts recently but I've been away and not watching any films.  Have been watching plenty of Diana Rigg-era Avengers though which are nothing if not delirious.

More film reviews on their way.

Saturday 16 April 2011

The Resurrected (1992)

THE RESURRECTED is an American horror film that was directed by Dan O'Bannon and released direct to video in 1992.  The script by Brent V. Friedman was adapted from the novella "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H. P. Lovecraft.  It stars John Terry (no not the Chelsea and England footballer but the bloke out of HAWK THE SLAYER (1980), Jane Sibbett, who is probably best know for playing Ross Geller's lesbian ex-wife on the sitcom FRIENDS, and Chris Sarandon, who is probably best known for being Susan Sarandon's ex-husband.  For those not familiar with the story, it concerns black magic, dark rites, and horrible goings on in the basement.

Lovecraft has been ill-served by movies, generally speaking, and I think that's because his stories of insanity, ancient alien gods and shapeless, tentacled monsters are just too singular and bizarre to translate to the screen.  God knows he's enough of an acquired taste in his natural medium, the short story.  On the page, his tales are oppressive, unsettling and have a foreboding menace; in other words he deals chiefly in nebulous, abstract concepts which are very difficult to achieve on film.  Writers like Conan Doyle or Agatha Christire were much more straightforward - their stories essentially being all about the plot.  Consequently you can see why those two have had innumerable adaptations of their work, while very few film-makers have dared to try Lovecraft.

However, THE RESURRECTED is a pretty good effort all things considered.  It does take a long time to get going but once our intrepid investigators discover the trapdoor in the basement, the film really moves up a gear.  The following twenty minutes or so is gripping stuff and as close to the Lovecraftian feelings of dread and disgust as any film adaptation I've seen.  It should be required viewing for anyone out there who still plays the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.

I think there are two major elements working in the film's favour.  First is the direction of Dan O'Bannon.  He is the guy who wrote the original screenplay for ALIEN as well as loads of other high-quality delirious movies.  So he understands the genre and would, I suspect, be quite familiar with Lovecraft's stories.  Okay, THE RESURRECTED isn't an aesthetically pleasing film for the most part: a lot of the scenes have the flat lifelessness of US TV.  But maybe that is deliberate, to better contrast with the revolting final half hour.  Either way, he gets absolutely right the sequences that he needs to, and that can only come from an affinity with the source material.

The second plus point is a great performance from Chris Sarandon.  I don't know why this guy has had such an underwhelming career - whether he took it too easy too early or whether he has just been unlucky, I can't say.  What I can say is that he is terrific in this.  He has to play three different characters and, on a couple of occasions, two at the same time.  He really goes for it but not in a knowing way, like Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter; he just totally commits to the part and it's great to see.

Chris Sarandon (R)

The Misfits (1961)

THE MISFITS is a modern day western that was directed by John Huston, from a screenplay by Arthur Miller.  It stars Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter.  Sadly it has become impossible to separate the film from the the deaths of Gable and Monroe, whose final film this was, and Clift, who made only three more.  That it is a downbeat film about a group of damaged people living on the fringes of society who are almost paralyzed by regret and self-delusion only adds to its sombre reputation.  What gets forgotten is that it is also about a group of people who help each other, who are certainly troubled but are at least attempting to overcome those troubles.  It is harrowing at times but it does ultimately offer the possibility of self-realization and therefore happiness.

It has been said that one of the themes running through John Huston's impressive body of work is that of the impossble quest: a group of individuals coming together to tackle a difficult objective, and perhaps failing, but realizing some important truth in the attempt.  In that respect, you can immediately think of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), MOBY DICK (1956) and even FAT CITY (1972).  It's similar to, but distinct from, the type of team ethic that you often get in Howard Hawks' films.  Hawks tended to go more for the practical, military-style 'okay guys, let's pull together and get this job done' sort of teamwork, whereas Huston's interest is more in the emotional support that people can give each other.

In that sense, Monroe's character Roslyn is pivotal in THE MISFITS.  She comes to represent a missing piece in everyone's lives.  To Gay Langland (Gable) she represents unconditional love - like that he might once have had from his now estranged daughter.  To Guido (Wallach) she represents the ideal woman - the ultimate replacement for his dead wife.  To Perce Howland (Clift) she represents the sympathetic, consoling mother figure - in contrast to the strained relationship he has with his own mother.  She is objectified by practically every man she meets, even those whom she gets to know well.  So Monroe was the perfect choice for the role and it's tempting to read a lot across to her own life, in that she appeared to be able to give pleasure and happiness to other but was doomed never to experience it herself.

There's an interesting contrast in acting styles in this film.  Gable was known as the King of Hollywood and even this late in his career was still a huge star.  He came from a tradition of being a movie star first - a screen presence - and an actor second, a bit like Humphrey Bogart.  Wallach and Clift were full on Method actors and Marilyn Monroe was somewhere between the two.  She was famous for her looks as much as her talent but was clearly interested in improving, studying as she did at the Actors Studio.  Bearing their respective roles in mind, they all do extremely well.  Gable apparently regarded Gay Langland as the best acting of his career and, in my admittedly limited experience, I'd agree with him.  There's a sequence where he drunkenly believes his estranged children have come to visit him and clambers on top of a car to try and spot them in a crowd.  His cries become increasingly heart-rending before he collapses and slumps to the floor; it's mesmerizing.  Wallach and Clift are really able to get their teeth into their parts - damaged personae being the very stuff of the Method.  Wallach is great - slowly turning Guido from a pitiable loser, all bonhomie, into a bitter and treacherous creep.  Clift is another who wears a mask to hide his inner pain, and takes his mind off it by replacing it with physical pain as a rodeo rider.

The horse wrangling sequence, high up in the mountains is epic but harrowing stuff.  In their own way the characters are wrestling their own desires, like Ahab in MOBY DICK.  Gay Langland has a great speech where he recalls how his job used to result in the broken horses being sold as mounts for children; now "it's all got turned around" and instead the horses are sold to be ground up as dog food.  His job hasn't changed but the end result of it has - and he can't quite accept that.  It's not until Roslyn, with her empathy and compassion for all things, shows him the pointless cruelty of his actions that he begins to examine his conscience.

It's really high-quality film-making, and I include Arthur Miller in that.  His script is wordy, sure, and occasionally a bit pretentious but it is filled with humanity, decency and warmth.  That can't have been easy at a time when his marriage to Monroe was falling apart but it reveals something about his irreducible core.  Gable died within two weeks of the final days shooting and Monroe was dead inside a year but far from being a muted end to their careers they actually went out on career highs.

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear.

It has long been my belief that the continued and dedicated interest in British horror films by fans is largely based on affection and nostalgia, rather than admiration for a consistently high quality output.  Because, let's face it, it wasn't.  Film fans over the age of about 30 probably have similar memories of watching a small but endlessly repeated selection of British horror films, mainly on Friday and Saturday nights on BBC1 and 2.  That's certainly how I remember getting acquainted with the output of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon and I know a lot of other fans who do too.

But I can't really recall ever being frightened by any of them, with the possible exception of THE WICKER MAN (1973) and DON'T LOOK NOW (1973), both of which (interestingly and probably not coincidentally) were released not by one of the big three British horror productions companies but by British Lion.  In fact, it's probably because the majority of the films were a bit cheap, a bit cheesy and not at all frightening or upsetting that so many fans like myself sat up late watching them with mates and few cans of Tennents Extra.  The point is so what if the films weren't very effective - they were fun to watch, we associate them with happy times and so they stick in our memories.

I didn't ever see Vernon Sewell's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR with my mates when I was a kid so it's unfortunate in that rather than being recalled fondly, it got the full force of my adult taste.  It's dreadful.  The only good thing about it is Peter Cushing.  In this one he plays a detective who is investigating a series of violent murders which he traces to an eminent entomologist.  Cushing's great: what I like about him is that whatever the quality of the material, he always gave of his absolute best.  There's no such thing as a poor Cushing performance.  I understand that he regarded this film as one of the worst he ever made but you'd never know that to watch him in it.  There's a moment when he first appears and you expect his character to be another of those cultured, upper middle class types he played so often.  Cushing does this sort of chewing motion with his mouth, as if he is just finishing something he'd been eating, and you immediately realise this character is of a lower social status than is normal.  It's conveyed more information about the character in one gesture than a whole scene of expository dialogue would do.  A seemingly effortless piece of acting technique from a truly great actor.

Sadly the rest of the film falls to bits around him.  Robert Flemyng, who was a fine if limited actor, does the exact opposite to Cushing.  He can't quite get the look of sneering contempt off his face and, to my mind, looks thoroughly uncomfortable all the way through.  You can't really blame him because the script and special effects are terrible.  I hesitate to use the term 'special effects' because the giant death's head moth which is behind all the murders is someone dressed in a giant moth suit.  It's not 'special effects' so much as it is fancy dress; that's the standard we're talking about here.  To be honest, the alarm bells were ringing literally from the very first scene.  We see some stock footage of an African heron or some such, and then cut to a scene of a great white hunter being paddled along in a canoe by two black guys wearing the inevitable leopard-skin loincloths.  The problem is that the scene was quite clearly shot in England.  Not for one moment does it look like anything else.

Now I don't know how audiences at the time would have reacted to that.  Were they sophisticated enough to see not just something fake but something obviously and distressingly fake?  Difficult to know but seeing the film for the first time in 2011 lays bare all its flaws.  Some films can survive that: watch the original KING KONG today and it looks primitive, so to speak, but is still plainly a quality piece of work.  THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is the worst of Tigon: a shoddy, amateurish and lazy piece of film-making - and with that approach would have been shown up as such in whatever period it happened to be made.

Diplomatic Courier (1952)

Not really a delirious film, this one, but I'm a sucker for train movies and this one has some interesting credits so I thought I'd scribble down a few observations.  DIPLOMATIC COURIER was directed by Henry Hathaway and was released in 1952.  It stars Tyrone Power as the titular hero who gets mixed up in all sorts of intrigue in post-war Trieste while on a supposedly routine assignment.

It's diverting enough but is unexceptional; it has too much in common with too many better films to really stand out in its own right. It has a similar ambience to THE THIRD MAN (1949) but doesn't have the moral dimension; it has a similar plot to BERLIN EXPRESS (1948) but doesn't have the charm.  Part of the problem I think is that you don't really believe Mike Kells (Tyrone Power) is ever in that much peril.  From the outset you're aware that not only is he a government agent (albeit a courier) but he is one of the best in his field.  On top of that he has the support of the US military almost from the moment he steps off the train in Europe.  For these films to work you need to believe that the hero is a) actually in danger and b) has no-one to turn to.  Neither of those is true of this movie. 

Too much of the action is driven by the military, reducing Kells' status to little more than a pawn.  That's probably more realistic but we're talking about escapism here.  Films like this need a lighter touch, dare I say a more Hitchcockian touch.  Espionage films at this time were still basically adventure stories with thrilling action and romance taking place in exotic locations.  The cynicism and drudgery of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965) was still some way off.  Hathaway's film has more in common with the war movie than it does with the spy thriller and its attempt at greater realism harks back to Hathaway's earlier THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945).

Tyrone Power is solid but no more as the increasingly ineffectual Kells.  I think by this time his good looks and natural athleticism had started to fade; he would be dead just six years later, aged only 44.  By contrast, Patricia Neal was in the very early stages of her career and combined genuine ability with striking looks; she went on to many better films.  Karl Malden brings some Method intensity to his supporting role as the helpful Sergeant and there's fun to be had spotting Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin in uncredited minor parts.  In some ways this film could be seen as the changing of an era in Hollywood, with the studio-based star system giving way to uncontracted artists who valued acting talent above star quality.  Hathaway continued directing well into the 1970s but remained a pretty conservative film-maker.  One other point to note is that the film is based on the novel Sinister Errand by Peter Cheyney who wrote the novel on which Godard's ALPHAVILLE is based.

Friday 15 April 2011

Messiah of Evil (1973)

MESSIAH OF EVIL is an obscure but influential American horror film that was directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.  It was shot in 1971 at various locations in California but wasn't released until 1973.  It stars Marianna Hill as Arletty, an inmate at an asylum who recalls the series of events that led her to be incarcerated there.  She had travelled to a small coastal town called Point Dune to meet her estranged father, an artist.  Finding no trace of him, she fell in with an aristocratic drifter and his two female companions.  Gradually the four of them came to realise that the town harboured a terrible secret.

What's interesting about it is that it eschews the traditional model of Hollywood narrative cinema and instead goes for the more European method of communicating the story through vivid imagery.  In actual fact the narrative is entirely secondary to the atmosphere; what lingers in the memory is not the dialogue or important plot moments but a series of startling images.  In that respect it replicates the seemingly random but internally coherent logic of a dream - or in this case a nightmare.

Given the film's visual focus, the production design and photography are superb.  The artist's home is designed within an inch of its life, almost becoming a character in its own right.  There are also some very simple but eerie widescreen shots of supermarkets, gas stations, movie theatres and beaches - which to my mind must have been a major influence on the look of John Carpenter's THE FOG (1980).  Not only that but the theme of an ancient evil stirring to wreak havoc on a seaside town is pretty much what Carpenter's film is about.

Another couple of films it reminded me of are Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1970) and Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971); the latter film was the first film I wrote about on this blog.  Both of those movies are marked by a sort of gender fluidity and frankness about sex which is reflected, albeit in a less overt way, in MESSIAH OF EVIL.  The relationship between the drifter Thom and his two companions - are they girlfriends, groupies, disciples? - and the ease with which they integrate into Arletty's life is, again, a theme more commonly explored in European cinema.  Perhaps the name Arletty is a nod in that direction.

Something that has occurred to me while adding stills to this review is the repeated use of imagery to do with seeing or looking.  Arletty's father is an artist and we see plenty of artworks in his studio; Elisha Cook cameo is delivered, sitting next to a television set, almost as a 'performance' to Michael Greer (see still below); Joy Bang goes to the cinema and we watch her while see watches the movie.

Anitra Ford (L) and Joy Bang (R)
The cast is a cult movie fan's dream.  Marianna Hill was in one of Howard Hawks' final movies, RED LINE 7000 (1965), appeared in an Elvis Presley movie, played opposite Robert Forster in Haskell Wexler's ground-breaking MEDIUM COOL (1969) and is in the really odd cult horror THE BABY (1972).  Apparently she moved to Europe later in life and taught at the London branch of the Actors Studio.  Michael Greer was an openly homosexual actor at a time when, in Hollywood at least, that was an incredibly brave thing to be.  He had a few good roles early in his career but, perhaps inevitably, found that quality parts didn't seem to come his way.  Nevertheless he was a noted performer on the comedy circuit and in theatre productions.  He died in 2002.

Michael Greer
There are also a couple of interesting supporting players, including two of Hollywood's finest: Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano, who were both in one of my (and my Dad's) all time favourite American movies ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973).  There's also Joy Bang who epitomised the free spirited, sexually liberated young woman of the 1960s, both on screen and off.  She played variations on the same role in several films around this time before packing it all in and going to work as a nurse in Minnesota.

Elisha Cook Jr
The husband and wife team of Huyck and Katz were part of the Dirty Dozen group of film students at the University of Southern California, in that boom time for young film-makers.  Their careers have been patchy but they notably wrote the scripts for George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and Steven Spielberg's INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984).

The Silent House (2010)

THE SILENT HOUSE, or La Casa Muda, is a Uruguayan film that was directed by Gustavo Hernandez.  It premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival.  It stars Florencia Colucci as a young woman who is terrorised by unseen forces in an isolated and abandoned house.

There's been quite a lot of press coverage of this one, partly because it is reputed to be very frightening and partly because its USP is that the first 70 minutes is one continuous take.  "Terror in real time" is the tagline they are using to promote it.  Film critics tend to get very excited about such things because they are seen as feats of directorial ingenuity; they get to mention the beginning of TOUCH OF EVIL (1950) or the end of THE PASSENGER (1975) to show the depth of their film knowledge.

They are difficult to do, undoubtedly, because - I imagine - they require enormous organisation and attention to detail.  Everyone has to know exactly where to go and what to do, cast and crew.  One mistake and they have to reset everything and go again.  So much so that very few films use the extended or continuous take.  Hitchcock did ROPE (1948) in ten-minute takes but it's difficult to see what the advantage is, set against the extra trouble it causes.  I suppose the point is that the experience of watching it become more immersive; every time there is a cut or an edit in a film you must be aware, however subconsciously, that you're watching something artificial.  Take those edits away and you can believe that the ten-minute sequence you're watching is a recording of an actual ten-minute period in the film.

As far as I know, only one feature film has been made in a single continuous take: Aleksandr Sokurov's RUSSIAN ARK (2002).  Incredible achievement though it is, it's not strictly a narrative film; it's more a series of tableaux as a man wanders through the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  THE SILENT HOUSE, however, is a more conventionally narrative film.  So conventional in fact that were it not for the fact that it was shot in one continuous take there would be little else to recommend it.

I don't think it works, to be honest.  The problem is that it isn't consistent.  The camera is sometimes behind the actress, sometimes in front looking directly at her, and occasionally takes her subjective point-of-view.  Essentially, the director ties himself up in knots in maintaining the single take that he draws your attention away from the story - which is, in my view, the exact opposite of what that trick is supposed to do.  It does allow him to engineer a couple of pretty effective "Boo!" moments but you'd kind of expect a bit more than that, considering the trouble they went to.

There is a decent twist towards the end and you absolutely must keep watching through the credits and after because there is some very important footage which may, or may not, reveal all ...

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Edward D. Wood Jr's films are virtually critic proof: first, reporting that they are badly made is as worthwhile as saying DUCK SOUP is a comedy.  Secondly, his films are now so notorious for their ineptitude that pointing out various inadequacies merely acts as advertising on their behalf.  Under normal circumstances I would be disinclined to promote the work of a man whose very name is synonymous with low quality, lazy and careless film-making but there is an endearing quality about Wood's work that separates it from, say, the cynical exploitation of Joe D'Amato.  It's possible that Tim Burton's kindly biopic ED WOOD (1994) is more responsible for creating that impression than Wood himself but I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

There are some directors who made very few films because they were unwilling to compromise on their artistic vision.  Donald Cammell is a good example - between 1970 and 1995 he directed just five features.  Edward D. Wood Jr, on the other hand, compromised his artistic vision, such as it was, practically every step of the way.  Tim Burton would have us believe that was because Wood was simply in love with making movies and that his relentlessly positive outlook convinced him that everything would work out in the end.  I don't know enough about Wood to say whether that's true but it is one possible explanation of why he kept going in the face of critical hostility, public indifference, financial problems and his own limited ability.

BRIDE OF THE MONSTER was originally released in May 1955 under the title Bride of the Atom.  It was financed by a chap called Donald McCoy under the condition that his son Tony plays the hero.  Of course this is a moment of pure comedy in ED WOOD, momentarily fazing the hapless director before he takes it in his stride, as he does all misfortune, before marching on.  In reality this was just one of the setbacks that befell Wood and, in part, explains the amateurish nature of his productions.  Plenty of directors have had unsuitable actors foisted on them by producers but at least they were professional actors.

Loretta King (L) and Dolores Fuller (R)
There were very few professional actors willing to appear in Wood's films which is why he resorted to employing his friends and entourage - people like Criswell, Vampira, Bunny Breckinridge and Tor Johnson.  One of the few professional actors who did work with him was Bela Lugosi who, as we know, was near the end of his life, addicted to morphine and desperate for the money.  In Tim Burton's film this is presented as lifelong fan Wood giving Lugosi back some self-respect by employing him when mainstream film-makers wouldn't go near him.  Or was Wood cynically exploiting a man's weakness in order to make his film more marketable?  Who knows?  There is testimony both ways on that.

The film itself is a horror thriller about a series of mysterious disappearances that have occurred near Lake Marsh.  The police are baffled and it's not until intrepid reporter Janet Lawton starts conducting her own investigation that the trail is found to lead to an old abandoned house on the edge of the lake.  It turns out that a mad scientist is using nuclear power to create a race of superbeings with which he intends to conquer the world.  The disappearances are due to the presence of a giant octopus, the by-product of one of his early experiments.  Of course this being an Edward D. Wood Jr production the giant octopus is actually stock footage of a normal size octopus, intercut with footage of actors thrashing around with a fake octopus, inert because there was no power supply.

For what it's worth, this may be Wood's best film - not because of any intrinsic merit but probably because the production ran into slightly fewer productions than the others.  It benefits from having Lugosi in it for most of the running time, albeit as a shadow of his former self.  There is one speech he makes, where he talks wistfully of his homeland and the impossibility of ever returning, which is actually rather moving.  It's moments like that, amid the terrible acting, cheapo sets and witless dialogue, which make you - and probably made Wood - persevere.

Monday 11 April 2011

Double Indemnity (1944)

As I grew up reading my Dad's film encyclopedias I became aware of a small number of films that enjoyed unanimous critical acclaim.  Generally speaking they were films that, as a kid, I didn't have much interest in so while I was aware of them and the regard in which they were held I made no special effort to see them.  As I've got older I've started to make time to watch these movies because I think it's important to see the landmark moments in cinema.  It's important because they are often used as reference points by film scholars and indeed other film-makers.  So while I don't want to say it's my duty to watch these movies, I do think that if you purport to have a serious interest in cinema you ought to be familiar with the classics.  What surprises me when I sit down to watch a film as renowned as Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY is how great these films actually are, even now.  Such films have stood the test of time not because they were the first to do this that or the other but simply because they are brilliantly made.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is of course a film noir and in some respects can be considered the model for the genre, in terms of its content, style and personnel.  The story is one of lust, greed and cynicism - of a man who is drawn into a world of crime by a femme fatale.  In terms of style, the lighting is expressionistic, the setting is Los Angeles and the story is told almost entirely through flashback.  The personnel includes director Billy Wilder, crime novelists James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, and cinematographer John Seitz.

Impeccable noir credentials
The film presents a recognisable world of offices, train stations, supermarkets but it is a heightened realism: for example, the central characters talk in a wise-cracking and sexually-charged manner, and the locations are lit to make them appear shadowy and mysterious.  But what really makes this outwardly 'normal' world seem alien is the almost total lack of empathy in any of the characters.  I read one crit of the film which says it is utterly devoid of love or pity, which is a great way of putting it.

It's not easy for modern audiences to appreciate but the casting of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck would have added to this sense of dislocation for contemporary audiences.  MacMurray was known for his affable performances in light comedies while Stanwyck was a hugely popular star of melodramas in which she played strong, heroic women.  So they were both playing against type in DOUBLE INDEMNITY.  Walter Neff is an intelligent but weak-willed man who, given the right incentive, is prepared to kill to get what he wants.  Phyllis Dietrichson is a manipulative schemer who cares for no-one except herself and who will quite happily let others take the blame for her crimes.  Both are great in their respective roles.  It can't have been easy in 1940s Hollywood, still hampered by the puritanical Hays Code of decency, to convincingly portray a relationship based on lust and violence, but they manage it.

Fred MacMurray admires Barbara Stanwyck's anklet
The original novel was written by James M. Cain, who also wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice", a similar story that has been filmed many times.  It was adapted for the screen by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, who did not enjoy a harmonious working partnership.  As I understand it, Chandler was instrumental in writing much of the dialogue, insisting that Cain's original dialogue was unsuitable for the screen.  Wilder was more responsible for shaping the script into something workable as a screenplay.  I believe Chandler can be spotted as an extra in the film but must confess I didn't spot him when I watched it.  He's listed on imdb as 'man reading book'.  Keep your eyes peeled for him and let me know if you spot him.

Anti-hero?  Check.  Femme fatale?  Check.  Cigarette?  Check.  Expressionist lighting?  Check.

Friday 8 April 2011

Long Weekend (2008)

LONG WEEKEND is an Australian horror / thriller in the eco, or 'revenge of nature', subgenre.  It was written and directed by Jamie Blanks, who also composed the music.  It is basically a two-hander, and the stars are Jim Caviezel, probably best known for Terrence Malick's ode to nature THE THIN RED LINE (1998) and Mad Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), and Claudia Karvan whom I know only from the so-so vampire flick DAYBREAKERS (2009).  This is actually a remake of Colin Eggleston's 1978 original and, in my view, is inferior.  In case you're not familiar with it, the film is about a unhappily married couple who go to an isolated stretch of beach for a long weekend.  While there, they find that nature will eventually fight back if it abused enough.

I dont' know whether cinema audiences have got less sophisticated over the last 30 years or whether film-makers have just assumed they have.  I do know that the average age of the contemporary cinema-goer has dropped quite sharply so maybe film-makers have made the assumption that younger audiences are less sophisticated or perhaps less demanding.  Either way, the problem with this film is that it feels obliged to spell everything out, every step of the way, as if the audience is too thick to be trusted with mere hints or clues.  In my review of THE DEAD OUTSIDE, I complained that the film was confusing rather than ambiguous.  I'm afraid that in this review I'm going to complain that the film is obvious rather than ambiguous.

I will concede that it has been a few years since I saw the original so I stand to be corrected on any of the points I'm about to make but I recall it being unsettling as opposed to graphic, and troubling as opposed to horrific.  In the new version, the unhappily married couple are depicted as being two unpleasant people from the outset, so much so that I felt little sympathy for them when things turn nasty.  I don't recall that about the original; they are unhappy in their relationship, sure, but nowhere near as spiteful and vicious as these two.

There's still something in the water, 30 years on.
Perhaps more importantly, the couple's attitude to nature is made more explicit in the remake.  He smashes bottles, she smashed eggs; he treats the beach as a theme park and wildlife as the attractions; she treats it as a hell on earth.  In the original I believed the point to be that the couple's attitude was essentially just thoughtlessness, except that there was a heavy price to be paid both by nature and ultimately the couple themselves for that thoughtlessness.

Similarly, the glaringly obvious nature of the remake is rendered clear by having Peter discover dead bodies among the wreckage of the other campers' site; indeed he gets trapped with a corpse in a submerged VW camper van.  I think that sequence also gives you a clue as to the film's intention; unlike Eggleston's film the remake is a pretty straightforward, out-and-out horror movie.  But for me the one thing that typified the film's brutal attention-grabbing sensibility was the sequence where the couple pull in at a bar to buy some liquor.  There is a massive neon sign outside the bar which reads "EGGLESTON MOTEL".  That sort of deliberate and obtrusive in-joke is either going to pass over the heads of the casual movie fan, and is therefore unnecessary, or is going to stand out like a sore thumb to the movie buff, who knows and probably likes the original. This kind of thing really annoys me; probably the worst exponent of it is Tarantino. A more fitting tribute to the late Colin Eggleston, who died in 2002, would have been to leave his film to stand alone.

The Dead Outside (2008)

THE DEAD OUTSIDE is a low budget British (Scottish to be precise) horror movie in the zombie sub-genre.  It stars a cast of unknowns (and possibly non-professional actors) and confines the action to a small, isolated farmhouse and the surrounding fields.  It was directed and co-written by Kerry Anne Mullaney, which makes her a member of possibly the rarest species of them all: the female British horror director.  It's also unusual in the sense that it is less interested in the nature and extent of the pandemic than it is in the effect of that pandemic on three young people.

I'm inclined to give low-budget independent films a bit more leeway than mainstream films because the conditions under which they are made can often be extremely trying and not in fact terribly conducive to quality film-making.  But I'm afraid to say that THE DEAD OUTSIDE doesn't really work, at least not as a horror / zombie movie.  I think the root problem is that there is not enough incident of not enough interest to sustain even the relatively brief running time.  The idea of exploring the altered dynamic of a world in which it is difficult to tell friend from foe or even whether the humans or the zombies are more dangerous, but there is a balance to strike between that and depicting the conditions which have produced that situation.

Unfortunately the film comes down on the wrong side of that balance meaning that there is plenty of anguished chat between the three main characters but virtually no horror and very few zombies.  The net result is that you get a rather dreary semi-menage a trois between a truculent young girl, an earnest young man and an insincere young nurse.  I'm all for character-driven movies but they have first to be interesting characters, which these are not.  The standard of acting doesn't help, frankly; I'd rate it somewhere along the Hollyoaks / AmDram border.  Having said that, it does improve as the film goes on and I'd be interested to know if the film was shot in sequence because that might explain it.

Sarah Louise Douglas and Alton Milne
One other major problem is that the film is unnecessarily vague on a number of plot issues which makes the whole thing seem incoherent.  Again, I'm all for movies that don't lay everything on a plate for the audience but there's a big and important difference between ambiguity and confusion.  There's one major incident which at the time made me think "Hang on, where did that come from?".  Afterwards I managed to concoct an explanation for myself but I don't think the audience should be doing that.  It's fine for the audience to create their own meaning out of a film but they shouldn't have to be explaining away continuity errors.

I had to really search for a still of an 'infected' but here's one
My worry is that these aren't issues that would be solved with a larger budget (apart from perhaps the acting).  The essentially dull and uninvolving story is a misjudgment on the part of the writers, and the confusion is a directorial issue.  To end on a positive note, however, the photography is good and it doesn't look like a low-budget film.  The regional accents help to give the film a sense of place and that place is made to feel threatening by inventive use of the farmhouse setting, which has a grimy and inhospitable  feel to it which makes it feel almost as oppressive as the bleak countryside outside.

Trancers II (1991)

TRANCERS II is the first sequel to the cult favourite TRANCERS (1985).  Both were directed by US low-bduget movie mogul Charles Band and both star Tim Thomerson and Helen Hunt.  Thomerson plays Jack Deth, a 23rd century cop who, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut, has come unstuck in time.  Hunt plays Lena, the 20th century girl who helps him.  In the original film, Deth is sent back in time to LA to stop a master criminal called Whistler, who is trying to murder the ancestors of all the governors of the future Angel City.  To do his bidding, Whistler is creating zombie drones, or 'trancers', out of weak-minded individuals.  It's a lot of fun too, mainly due to the exaggeratedly hard-boiled nature of the script and a couple of winning performances from the leads.  It's not very original but has a ramshackle charm not unlike NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) and REPO MAN (1984), both of which use the same downtown LA locations and have a punky B-picture atmosphere.

The sequel has its moments but isn't sufficiently different from the first film to be a total success.  Jack Deth, having been living a happily married life in the 20th century with Lena, learns that mad scientist, Dr E. D. Wardo is attempting to create a trancer army, to carry out his late brother Whistler's plans.  Added to the mix is Deth's 23rd century wife Alice, who has also been sent back in time to thwart the villains.  The interplay between the inadvertently bigamous Deth's two wives is fun but isn't fully developed.  Similarly, the idea of a trancer factory is intriguing but doesn't become anything more than a plot device.  There is an awful lot of exposition in order to explain the new and revised characters, so there are a staggering number of shots of actors talking straight to the camera.  It's really annoying because it slows the pace right down and you end up feeling like you're watching a presentation than a feature film.

The cast is good though.  It's impossible not to like Thomerson as Deth.  He plays him as a sort of more macho Philip Marlowe, complete with one-liners, chivalry and trenchcoat.  In fact he's a cross between Marlowe and Mike Hammer.  Hunt is good but her role is slightly underwritten compared to the original; in that Lena was a spunky ex-biker chick who mucks in and is no-one's fool, but in the sequel she is a disappointingly mundane housewife type, in an unflattering wardrobe.  The supporting cast is mental: there's Jeffrey REANIMATOR Coombs, there's Richard THE SEVEN-UPS / THE NINTH CONFIGURATION Lynch; there's Martine DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE Beswick; there's Megan DARK SKIES Ward; there's cult scream queen Barbara Crampton; and there's even John Davis Chandler, who was in some of Sam Peckinpah's greatest westerns.  I love casts like that: even if the film isn't any great shakes there's loads of fun to be had spotting the various cult stars and watching them strut their stuff.

So it's not a bad film exactly but it doesn't really add much to the original.  There are a couple of quotable one-liners and a couple of decent punch-ups but the lack of ambition on the part of the film-makers is lamentable.  You kind of get the suspicion that they chucked in the stellar supporting cast because they knew the film itself was a bit lacking.  There are a further four entries in the series and I'm sure I'll see them all in time but I'll be hoping for better from them.

The Reef (2010)

One of the films I return to again and again is Steven Spielberg's monumental JAWS (1975).  It's perhaps the first film I can remember being conscious of - aware that it existed, that there was something special about it, that it was about a terrifying monster, that it was so frightening that chidlren weren't allowed to see.  I was even aware that it was based on a book.  So in a lot of ways, JAWS was a formative moment in the development of my love for films because it taught me that films could be an event, that they could be really good, that they could tell fantastic stories, that they were classified according to their content and even that they could be adapted from books.  Of course it wasn't until several years later that I actually got round to seeing it but the wait just made it more special.  I talked before about tracking down a rare film only to be disappointed; there was no chance of that with JAWS simply because it is so brilliantly made.  You may argue as to its artistic merit but in terms of what it set out to do - frighten the piss out of millions of people - it was, and still is, absolutely flawless.

It's something of a double-edged sword in that respect because on the one hand it set me off on a path of loving the creature feature but on the other hand it set the bar so high that all subsequent films on a similar theme are doomed to be inferior.  That's not say all subsequent films are poor, because they demonstrably are not.  There have been some really excellent films that followed in the wake of JAWS, so to speak, but by their very nature they must be compared to the beast that spawned them all.  But for every PIRANHA (1978) there is an ORCA (1977); for every ALLIGATOR (1980) there is a CROCODILE (2000); for every LAKE PLACID (1999) there is a, well, LAKE PLACID 2 (2007).  So it is with a real sense of occasion that I am able to declare Andrew Traucki's 2010 feature film THE REEF to be the best shark movie since JAWS.

It is an Australian movie which, in my opinion, continues the tradition of films from that country which betray a deep rooted fear of the land and, in this case, the waters that surround it.  It stars a number of actors whom I understand are well known in Australia but to me, at any rate, were completely unfamiliar.  Which helped enormously because the film's strength is that it is rooted in the every day: there are no abnormally large sharks, no salty sea dogs with a dark past and no aquaphobic New York cops.  The tension and fear comes from realising that a series of entirely credible minor accidents can put you in a position where you are in danger of being eaten alive.  The fact that the characters are Australian also roots the film in the everyday: somehow you take them to be less histrionic, more down to earth and less voluble than, for instance, Americans might be.  What that gives you is a sense that if they seem worried it's probably for a damn good reason.

A long way from anywhere
I liked the fact that characters behaved sensibly, took the right decisions, changed their minds and essentially acted as you or I might act.  They generally defer to the natural leader of the group and in the one case where they didn't, the dispute was worked through calmly and settled amicably.  It's so refreshing to see movie characters behave that way because 99% of the time they don't.  Which is because 99% of the time the characters are being driven by the plot rather than the other way around.  There is only one instance of a moment which I felt to be overtly Hollywood but it's a minor quibble.

"What was that?"
The photography is excellent and in a sense outdoes JAWS in conveying the remorseless expanse of the ocean.  In JAWS you are aware that the heroes are more or less within sight of land the whole time but in THE REEF the heroes are mere specks in a vastness that literally stretches as far as they can see, in every direction.  The acting is very good too with Damian Walshe-Howling probably getting man of the match for his turn as Luke, the de facto leader.  He is pulls off the neat trick of appearing brave and terrified at the same time.
You never know what's beyond the next swell ...
I was really impressed with it.  The director's previous feature BLACK WATER (2007) told a very similar story about a crocodile and was very good too but THE REEF tops it for me.  I would say that after a 20 minute setup, there follows 60 minutes of the most tense and genuinely frightening cinema that I have seen for a very long time.  If over the last 35 years you had actually come to think it is now safe to go back in the water this will make you change your mind.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Roadgames (1981)

ROADGAMES is a Aussie thriller directed in 1981 by Richard Franklin.  It stars the great Stacy Keach as Pat Quid ("like the Pound Sterling"), an intellectual truck driver who thinks he may have stumbled across a serial killer.  He tracks the suspect across Australia while en route to Perth to deliver a lorryload of frozen meat, stopping only to pick up the occasional hitch-hiker, including "Hitch" (Jamie Lee Curtis).

That nickname he gives to Curtis is your big clue as to what kind of movie this is; yep it's a light thriller right out of the Hitchcock mould.  Richard Franklin was a lifelong cinephile who, while studying film at the University of Southern California (with George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and John Carpenter) managed to get Hitchcock himself to introduce a screening of ROPE (1948).  Apparently they became friends after that and this movie is a real homage to the great man.

A classic Hitchcockian shot
So, what's Hitchcockian about it?  Well, for a kickoff you've got the classic Hitchcock theme of an ordinary man caught up in mysterious and dangerous events.  On top of that you also have the same man under suspicion for the crime he finds himself innocently mixed up in.  You also have the wise-cracking romantic subplot, the long drawn-out chase and the nick of time climax.  And as if that's not enough you also have some shonky rear projection thrown in for good measure.

Stacy Keach wonders whether he's been past that tree before
But it does have enough originality to stand on its own and not merely be a slavish copy.  Quid is a much quirkier character than a lot of Hitchcock heroes: he's fond of quoting poetry and talks to his pet dingo, Boswell.  He's a bit of a doofus too - there's a great sequence where he thinks he has the killer cornered in the cubicle of a roadside toilet, only to find he's got the wrong guy entirely.  There are some great stunts in it too, mainly involving the massive articulated lorry that Quid drives, which owe more to MAD MAX than they do to Hitchcock.

A couple of great shots: the killer about to strike ...

... and spotted in the desert at night - illuminated only by a lightning flash
Given that his character is on screen for practically the entire running time, and spends much of that time in alone in his cab (apart from Boswell, of course), Keach really has his work cut out for him.  But he's such a fine actor that he totally pulls it off.  You're really rooting for him the whole time, even when he makes daft mistakes and gets himself deeper into trouble.

Stacy Keach
Stacy Keach is one of my favourite actors but he's criminally underrated.  For about 10-12 years from the beginning of the 1970s he made a string of really interesting and unusual movies and gave great performances in most of them.  He's one of the most selfless actors I can think of; there aren't many actors who take on roles that put them through the wringer like Keach does.  Just watch him in FAT CITY (1972), THE SQUEEZE (1978) or THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980) getting beaten up, abused and humiliated, you name it.  He really puts himself on the line for the films he's in, often to a greater extent than they deserve.  Sadly he doesn't get leading parts any more, which is a real shame because I think he's terrific.  If anyone deserves a Travolta-esque, Tarantino-inspired renaissance it's Stacy Keach.

Pat Quid and Boswell

Jamie Lee Curtis as "Hitch"
Richard Franklin went on to further Hitchcock-related projects, most notably the pretty decent PSYCHO II (1983) but never really established himself in Hollywood, returning to Australia at the end of the 80s.  Sadly he died of cancer in 2007, aged 58.  ROADGAMES was written by a guy called Everett de Roche who wrote a lot of Australian genre movies in the 70s and 80s.  He did Franklin's earlier picture PATRICK (1978), Colin Eggleston's cult eco-horror LONG WEEKEND (1978) plus the weird HARLEQUIN (1980) and also RAZORBACK (1984), memorably described by (I think) Alex Cox as "the best killer pig movie of all time".

The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN was directed by Bernard McEveety and stars Charles Bateman, Ahna Capri, L. Q. Jones, Strother Martin and Alvy Moore.  It was made in 1971 and shot on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It tells the story of a young couple and their daughter who become trapped in a strange village where the children are disappearing and the adults are being killed in bizarre and gruesome fashion.  Aside from being an atmospheric horror movie, it is interesting for the fact L. Q. Jones also wrote the screenplay and co-produced with Alvy Moore.

Jones has been a character actor in Hollywood since 1955 and was for many years part of Sam Peckinpah's stock company, along with guys like R. G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens and his co-star in this movie, Strother Martin.  He was most at home in westerns, usually playing a slovenly, craven wretch.  He was really good at it too, which is why it's always worth catching a film he's in.  What he and Martin and the others did so well was create interesting and memorable characters out of relatively few lines of dialogue and in so doing added richness to what might otherwise be fairly routine movies.  It helped of course that he was blessed with the kind of face that even Lee Van Cleef might regard as shifty.

L. Q. Jones
It's pretty rare for well-established character actors to do much work behind the camera but L. Q. Jones is a notable exception.  As well as this movie, he produced and directed THE DEVIL'S BEDROOM (1964), and wrote, produced and directed A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975).  That latter film is a bona fide classic: a blackly comic tale of a young man wandering a post-apocalypse United States with his dog, Blood, with whom he just happens to be able to communicate telepathically.  It's unquestionably the best film Don Johnson has ever been in.

THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN isn't quite in that league, mainly because Bernard McEveety directs in a rather boring manner.  You wonder what might have been, had Jones directed it.  Still, it's not at all bad once it gets going.  The two leads are a bit dull but once they get stranded in the village and run into Jones, Martin and Moore they kind of take a back seat to those veteran character actors.  Strother Martin has the best part, as the duplicitous doctor, and he has a ball with it - he's kind of pathetic but also imbued with a satanic power which makes him genuinely frightening.

Strother Martin
The photography, by John Arthur Morrill, is really good - it's shot in 2.35:1, probably so they could get great shots of the entire coven at work, which they do.

For 1971 it's not afraid to take risks.  The villains are children and pensioners, while the priest is shown to be totally ineffectual.  It has a great ending too: if you're up against the might of the Devil himself, and you haven't got God on your side, then the chances are things are not going to end well ...

Sunday 3 April 2011

Farley Granger (1925 - 2011)

A brief entry to note the passing of Farley Granger, probably best known for his performance in Hitchock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951).  Not a brilliant actor but when the material suited him he could be quite impressive.  My favourite Granger film is Visconti's SENSO (1954) - he's great as the amoral manipulator Franz Mahler, whose casual destruction of Alida Valli's heart is breathtaking in its cruelty.  SENSO is a deliriously operatic melodrama that is as good as, but usually overshadowed by, Visconti's later film THE LEOPARD (1963).  I understand it has just been reissued by Criterion, with all the finery that it deserves.

Alida Valli and Farley Granger in Visconti's SENSO
Granger made quite a few genre movies, mainly in Europe, including the decent giallo LA POLIZIA CHIEDE AIUTO (1970) which features a wonderful score by Stelvio Cipriani.  I also remember him being mentioned in Michael Weldon's reference book "The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film" as the first mainstream actor to appear in a hardcore porn movie.  That's only partly true because he actually appeared in a giallo called SO SWEET, SO DEAD (1972) which was re-edited in the USA to include some entirely unrelated hardcore scenes - so it's a bit like saying John Gielgud appeared in a porn movie because he was in CALIGULA (1979).  So, rest your sphincters, the good name of Farley Granger remains intact.

Wake Wood (2011)

Apparently this is one of the first new productions from the revitalised Hammer company, although you'd be hard pressed to tell that from the print I saw, which didn't mention the Hammer name at all.  What it did have, to my annoyance, was a seemingly endless stream of pre-credits introductions.  You know the kind of thing: "A Such-and-such Production - fade - In association with Such-and-such Media - fade - and Such-and-such Entertainment".  It really irritated me because absolutely no-one, other than the execs who work at these companies, gives a monkey's.  I'm all for letting the audience know who created the film, i.e. the director, DP, writer and so on.  But the production companies?  Really?  Especially when there are so many of them.  It does make you wonder how many non-creative personnel it actually requires to make a film these days.

Anyway, forgive my little rant.  On to the movie.  Whisper it quietly but there is something of a resurgence in British horror these days.  I don't mean the false dawns of crap like FUNNYMAN (1994) or any of the recent Danny Dyer efforts; I mean authentically regional horror films with flair and intelligence.  I'm talking about the film equivalent of farmers' markets: homegrown produce that may look a bit less polished than the stuff you'd get in the supermarket, and perhaps even a bit rich for some tastes, but authentic, made with care and British through and through.  THE CHILDREN (2008) was a decent effort, and THE REEDS (2009) was two-thirds of very good film.  WAKE WOOD continues this encouraging trend.

It was directed (and co-written) by David Keating and stars Eva Birthistle and Aiden Gillen as parents grieving the accidental death of their young daughter.  Moving to rural Ireland in a bid to rebuild their lives, they are (naturally) stunned to be offered the chance to be reunited with their daughter, but only for three days and only as long as very strict rules are obeyed - to the letter.  In true GREMLINS style, one of those rules is broken.

Timothy Spall explains the rules
I really enjoyed it.  True, it borrows liberally from other movies (notably THE WICKER MAN, ROSEMARY'S BABY, PET SEMATARY and THE DAISY CHAIN (2008)) but it does manage to do something new with those elements.  I liked the idea of the village secret actually being a benign one: what they do is altruistic and doesn't hurt anyone, at least until Birthistle and Gillen show up.  I also liked the matter of fact way the rebirth is brough about; Timothy Spall plays the de facto town elder and you can imagine the ritual having being handed down for hundreds if not thousands of years.  That the film showed the random brutality of real life was refreshing too.  Often horror films posit an idyllic world into which nightmares intrude; in this film the mysterious villagers offer a temporary respite from the endless grief faced by the bereaved, albeit one that goes awry.

"She must go back ... tonight!"
In actual fact, the gruesome events which follow the breaking of the rules is probably the film's weakest element.  Because everything had been depicted quite logically up to then, the unexplained descent into violence didn't seem quite right.  But it's a minor quibble.  The script is decent, the acting pretty good and there are one or two subtle but effective visual tricks.  Also, the postscript - which so often in horror movies is a cop-out merely pointing to worse things to come - is intriguingly ambiguous.  A good effort then and one which continues the good run that British horror has been on of late.

Trailer here.