Friday 16 May 2014

Resurrection [1980]

RESURRECTION is an American drama that was directed by Daniel Petrie and originally released in September 1980.  It stars Ellen Burstyn, Sam Shepard and Roberts Blossom, with Richard Farnsworth, Lois Smith and Jeffrey DeMunn in smaller roles.  Burstyn plays Edna who survives a traumatic car crash and finds that she has somehow acquired the power to heal.  Returning to her childhood home in Kansas to convalesce she comes into conflict with some of the deeply religious people in the farming community who variously regard her as the Devil or Christ incarnate.

I've been intrigued about this film since I read about it in Halliwell's Film Guide probably thirty years ago.  It wasn't so much the subject matter - I was obsessed with supernatural and horror films in those days, and this didn't qualify on either count - but the fact that I never came across it anywhere: not on TV, at the cinema or in the video shop.  It was just one of those 'disappeared' films I've written about before and as the years went by with no trace of it my desire to see it grew and grew.  A couple of years ago I eventually found a grainy VHS dupe of it but couldn't bring myself to watch it in that condition.  And then, out of nowhere, an HD version arrives.

Never mind all that, I hear you cry, is it any good?  Well, being as you asked so politely, I'll give you a solid, straight-down-the-line unequivocal 'yes and no'.  The concepts of near death experience and bona fide miracles are good but only occasional fodder for films.  Off the top of my head I can think of Peter Weir's FEARLESS [1993], M. Night Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE [2000] and Richard Pearce's LEAP OF FAITH [1992] in relatively recent years.  Despite being inherently fascinating subjects I think the reason Hollywood by and large steers clear from them are threefold.  First, Hollywood is much more interested in killing people than it is in seeing them get up again.  Second, these subjects take you perilously close to religion - a topic that Hollywood likes to avoid.  Third, you're eventually going to run into the problem of how to depict the halfway house between life and death, heaven and earth.

Unfortunately, Petrie doesn't solve that problem.  His visual interpretation of the various accounts of near death experiences is too literal.  That is to say, there is literally a tunnel, there is literally a bright light at the end of it, there are literally all the people - now deceased - you ever knew lining each side of the tunnel smiling beatifically at you.  As Edna lies in a coma she imagines herself gliding along the tunnel en route to the light - is it heaven? is it God? - before realising it's not her time and comes gliding back.  The dialogue too has its clunky moments: there really are scenes where Edna's 'patients' say things like "I can hear!  I can hear!"

The other major problem with RESURRECTION is that it's monumentally soppy.  Now I'm as peace-loving as the next man but the film is so wet and liberal that it verges on the offensive.  As someone once said of a similar movie, 'It's the kind of film where you wish Pauly Shore would come on and start dry humping someone.'  Apart from the three most religious characters the entire cast is so benign that you begin to wonder whether Edna has actually died and gone upstairs.  Towards the end Edna's grandma says 'If only people would love each other the world would be a much better place'.  Good grief, I've seen greetings cards with more profound messages than that.

This the kind of thing I mean: small seriously ill boy, cute puppy.  It's too much.
The contrast between spirituality and religion is interesting though.  Edna isn't a believer and rejects her boyfriend's (Sam Shepard) conviction that she is Christ resurrected.  But she does believe that she has experienced, however briefly, some form an afterlife.  She even comforts a dying man and tells him not be afraid of death because what happens afterwards is wonderful.  So where is the intersection between a belief in the eternal soul, belief in the word of God, and belief in the teachings of Christ?  As I say, the religious characters are the only real villains in the picture so Petrie and scriptwriter Lewis John Carlino appear to be telling us that dogma is best avoided.

The fire and brimstone bible basher gives Edna a piece of his mind.
There are some effective sequences.  The climactic healing sequence where Edna appears to purge a woman's chronic, disfiguring arthritic condition only to transfer it to herself is powerful stuff and there's an incredibly evocative sequence which shows the gradual disintegration of Edna's childhood farmhouse.  The gas station sections which effectively bookend the movie and summarise its message, such as it is, are sentimental but well done.

Edna's family home slowly falls victim to the elements.
I've written about Ellen Burstyn before albeit only in passing, if you'll pardon the pun.  Her period as a top-line star was criminally brief: she was, and no doubt still is, beautiful and talented but for whatever reason - probably luck as much as anything else - didn't quite capture the public imagination in the same way as, say, Faye Dunaway.  She still gets plenty of work though having successfully made the transition from young leading actress to older character actress.  That in itself is an achievement in the youth-obsessed film business.

Ellen Burtsyn as Edna Mae
Sam Shepard is a good looking guy who has made a lot of films but I always get the impression with him that acting is something he does on his days off, rather like Kris Kristofferson.  He's obviously a very bright bloke though and that may be why he often plays slightly remote characters.  I saw him in AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY earlier in the year and he was just like that - an alcoholic writer who lives in the middle of nowhere.

Sam Shepard as Cal
Roberts Blossom was a character actor who as well as having one of the greatest names in showbiz added colour to some very good films over the years.  He didn't make that many but his characters are usually memorable: he specialises in ornery, borderline aggressive, plain-speaking farmers although occasionally you'll see him as a kindly plain-speaking farmer.  Life has few certainties but one is that you will never see Roberts Blossom in a tux leaning against a marble mantlepiece.  In reality, Blossom was a Harvard-educated man who wrote poetry in his spare time which probably tells you something about how Hollywood operates.

Roberts Blossom as John Harper
Richard Farnsworth became an actor late in life, although he had been in the film business for 40 years as a stuntman specialising in horse riding.  As if to prove that all good things come to those who wait he eventually got star billing and the leading role in David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY [1999].  And as if to prove how cruel life can be, the following year Farnsworth was diagnosed with terminal cancer and rather than submit he shot himself.

Richard Farnsworth as Esco
A couple of brief notes on the bit parts.  Lois Smith is an actress whose career resembles Ellen Burstyn's without the brief period of stardom.  She did get to play opposite James Dean in Elia Kazan's EAST OF EDEN [1955] though and there are some great stills to be seen of her doing just that.  Jeffrey DeMunn, who plays Edna's ill-fated husband, is probably better known as the equally ill-fated Dale in the TV series THE WALKING DEAD.

Lois Smith (L) as Kathy
Daniel Petrie was a director who did most of his work on TV which may partly explain why RESURRECTION has an intimate rather than an epic feel.  His 1982 Paul Newman movie FORT APACHE THE BRONX is a good cop thriller though and THE BETSY from 1977 is remembered too, although for all the wrong reasons.  His son Daniel Jr was a big noise in scriptwriting in the early 80s, penning among others BEVERLY HILLS COP [1984] (and all its sequels) and one of my favourite films THE BIG EASY [1986]. Another son, Donald, also went into the directing game but has largely helmed undemanding and forgettable light comedies.

I love this still.  Edna is about to perform her first public act of healing on this little girl whose fake putty nose is bleeding
Lewis John Carlino wrote flawed but interesting scripts for films which unsurprisingly were themselves flawed but interesting, much as RESURRECTED is.  One I've always wanted to see but failed to track down is Mark Rydell's THE FOX [1967], which Carlino adapted from a D. H. Lawrence story.  In a totally different vein he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winner's umpteenth Charles Bronson movie THE MECHANIC [1972], recently remade for Jason Statham, and the little-seen horror movie A REFLECTION OF FEAR [1973].  I think his best work is THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA [1976], which he also directed.  It's a proper delirious movie that one: sex, nudity, voyeurism, hints of incest, and implacably cruel children.  Almost certainly the best Yukio Mishima adaptation ever filmed in Devon.  It also has a terrific poster of a type you really don't see these days.

Cinematographer Mario Tosi worked on a number of films I'm fond of - FROGS [1972], CARRIE [1976], THE STUNT MAN [1980] and WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? [1981] - but I'd be hard pressed to describe his personal style.  Perhaps he was just a generalist, and there's no shame in that.

And to end, a gratuitous still of a small furry dog: Clancy


  1. Saw this movie on YouTube tonight and enjoyed. I first became aware of it through Danny Peary's book, "Alternate Oscars" in which he awarded Burstyn the Alternate Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film.

  2. I think Danny Peary is an excellent writer on films - I have his three volumes of Cult Movies - but I'd not heard of Alternate Oscars. Thanks for the tip off, I'll check it out

  3. I saw this one back in theaters in late 1980. At the time of its released, there were many TV spots about the movie and magazines hyped it even more by saying it was based on a true account. I was 12 back then and remember liking it very much. It’s not often that a 12 year old kid, who’s into Star Wars and slasher flicks, likes a more “adult drama”’type of film. Years passed and I recently caught “Resurrection” on Netflix (to my surprise). I have yet to see a blu ray edition of this thoroughly entertaining and heartfelt movie. I must confessed I enjoyed it now even more. Maybe because I’m older I can relate to certain themes better than when I was 12.
    Ellen Burstyn’s perfomance is rock solid and should’ve won an Academy Award for it. At least she got nominated. For a decidedly slow-paced looking movie, “Resurrection” moves quite fast and none of the scenes look out of place. It’s tightly directed within its 1:40 something running time. The ending is very touching and uplifting. It’s a shame it didn’t do well at the box office at the time, and its home video version came many years later (on DVD) with little fanfare. A blu ray edition should do this film some well deserved justice.
    I highly recommend this movie!

    1. Thanks for your comment Tito. I agree: I'd recommend it too - despite its flaws it's always interesting.