Saturday, September 28, 2013

SISTERS (Brian DePalma, 1973, USA)

Danielle is victim to a parasitic fission, relentlessly stalked by her own shadow whose umbilical umbra eclipses her life. Director Brian DePalma’s psychological thriller shares its stem cells with Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, giving birth to a delightfully gruesome celluloid twin. A magnificent Bernard Herrmann score evokes the raging strings of PSYCHO and the quiet pathos of VERTIGO, his music not only setting the mood but also becoming an active participant in the drama: it is a perfect companion to the moving pictures.

DePalma begins the film with a humorous wink, as Danielle is introduced as a model on a TV program called Peeping Tom (another tribute to a classic horror film perhaps?): it is a Candid Camera type show where she portrays a blind woman who undresses in front of an unsuspecting mark. The show’s participants must guess how the man will react: will he take advantage of the situation, walk away, or make his presence know? This conflict between reality and perception, that things are not what they seem, is the focus of the entire narrative.

The film begins as a burgeoning romance between Danielle and her one-night stand: a man who is sincere and kind, who stands up to her abusive “ex-husband” and shields her from harm. Here, DePalma shows us that perceptions and truth are sometimes one and the same; his chivalrous deeds a reflection of his actions on the game show. But his tryst with Danielle becomes a gruesome spectacle of bloodletting. Unlike Hitchcock, DePalma revels in the gory details and the murder is filmed in quick-cut montage (like PSYCHO) but reveals the gruesome injuries. As he crawls away leaving a thick congealing blood trail, he is able to scrawl “help” on the window. The scene is horrific though not surprising, as we know that the knife-set in the first act is a prop just waiting for its mark.

Grace is a civic-minded reporter who witnesses the murder…or does she? She avers to the police that she saw a black man stabbed to death but DePalma’s camera angle is contrary to this possibility: she could not have seen anything as her window looks down into Danielle’s apartment with a sharp glare on the glass. The police are generically apathetic and the slow procession towards the crime scene is shown in split-screen: a wonderful effect that heightens the tension as the “ex-husband” disposes of the evidence.

Grace is unconvinced when no body or blood is discovered and begins an investigation of her own. The writing on a cake leads Grace towards a first clue and her mother complains about another hint: DePalma’s slick narrative wastes no time in giving the audience information that remains ambiguous to the characters. It seems as if Grace could be exaggerating the assault to get her first “big story”, and even her Private Investigator is skeptical. Soon, the PI is off chasing a rather heavy sofa and Grace’s research leads her to the halfway house…where Danielle and her doppelganger are concealed. The ex-husband is actually a world renowned Doctor and in a surreal and insane pre-Lynchian nightmare, he hypnotizes Grace and Danielle into believing they are twins. This sequence looks like it is shot in 8mm, a low-grade black and white film stock, giving it an immediate and unworldly quality of chiaroscuro logic. Finally, the bad Doctor’s good intentions are revealed and his love is bled onto the bed sheets. But Grace denies any knowledge of the first murder…while the PI silently watches a large box standing sentinel at a rural train station.

Final Cut: (B+)

Friday, September 20, 2013

THE HOUR OF THE WOLF (Ingmar Bergman, 1968, Sweden)

The nature of art is the whisper at the edge of reason, the utterance of the eternal grave as we struggle with the self-awareness of our own mortality. The film begins as a documentary interview with Alma, the wife of Johan Borg, an artist who went mad and vanished without a trace. As the opening credits roll, we hear the camera crew setting up and preparing the interview; Alma then breaks the fourth wall and addresses not the interviewer (whose questions we never hear) but the audience directly. The film is then told mainly from Johan’s perspective whose insight was gained through Alma’s symbiotic experience and his diary entries. 

Shortly after returning to their secluded island home, Johan’s sleeplessness profoundly impacts his sanity: he must stay alert in the monotonous darkness, just before the night surrenders to the grace of dawn. His artwork is riddled with grotesque hidden images: the insect-like beings who scrabble over sun-dried rocks, the birdman and his sharp beak, the woman whose face will disappear if she removes her hat. As Alma tries to understand this odd behavior, these awful spirits seemingly visit them. But it’s unclear whether they are flesh and blood people, or disgusting figments of Johan’s fragmented perceptions, ghosts summoned from the murky depths of his subconscious. 

Alma’s love and perspicacity keeps her attuned to Johan’s mind and she enters this foreboding playground, this mockery of self-indulgent nihilism. Johan becomes a puppet, an aberration to be toyed with and discarded. Soon, the very madness that contributes to Johan’s art devours him. Ingmar Bergman breathes the fumes of dementia and exhales the ether of creativity; every shot reveals the suppressed demon within and wipes away the surface scum of reality. The mystery’s resolution is like a young boys corpse that bobs in the briny deep…forever out of reach. 

Final Cut: (A)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

TWISTED NERVE (Ray Boulting, 1968, UK)

Martin is a spoiled son eclipsed by his mother’s dark secret, kept hidden in an institution, his life an apology for his brother whose handicap is written in DNA. Roy Boulting directs this twisted tale of obscene masquerade and creepy sexuality.

After visiting his brother in the mental hospital, Martin is disenfranchised from his mother and step-father who have locked away their guilt and thrown away the key. When Martin has a chance encounter with the lovely young Susan, he pretends to suffer an intellectual disability in order to gain her trust. He eventually insinuates himself into her home: a rooming house run by her promiscuous mother, a pessimistic and racist film editor, and an intelligent medical student completing his education. Martin is now “Georgie” and plays his role to maximum effect, as his infatuation grows his identity begins to shrink. 

Boulting paces the two hour run time with clockwork precision, allowing the plot to unwind believably while ratcheting up the tension with enigmatic eroticism. We see inside Martin’s mind through his actions, and one wonderful mise-en-scene involves a stack of magazines adorned with muscle bound men and his naked body reflected in a shattered mirror, his face and genitals obscured by the spider web of broken glass. It becomes evident that he feels inferior, a boyish young man trapped in an underdeveloped body. Another scene shows him chopping wood as Susan’s mother reaches deep into his front pocket for a handkerchief, then begins to caress his chest: remember, she believes him to be a mentally challenged boy, ready to sate her own desires. But “Georgie” knows the charade will soon be revealed, and he disposes of her advances by chopping more than wood. As the camera pulls back, we see the shed and hear only the monotonous sawing as metal teeth rend bone. 

Bernard Herrmann's playfully nervous score transcends the frame and becomes part of the story as Georgie often whistles the infectious tune; the music not only underscores the action but it becomes relevant psychologically; the abstract translated into bloody and demented action, yet filled with child-like inspiration. 
The final act is a race against time as Susan discovers his despicable act, and rushes home to warn her mother. Capture by the now psychotic Martin, he begs her to endure some perverted sexual act which is drowned out by a voice-over, a nice touch that makes his plea terrifying and mysterious. Boulting then flashes a montage of murder projected from Martin’s damaged psyche as his umbilical to reality is severed, his ganglion terminally gone awry. 

Final Cut: (B+)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (Harry Kumel, 1971, Belgium)

A deserted Hotel becomes a sepulcher, echoing dark secrets and mysterious desires. Director Harry Kümel eschews prosaic supernatural conventions for the psychological, creating a seducing character study of libidinous pathology and murderous intent.
Stefan and Valerie are newlyweds caught in a circuitous travelogue, their destination obscured by Stefan’s secretive family tree. It soon becomes evident that the couple married quickly and don’t really know each other which adds to the mounting dread, as Stefan’s behavior becomes erratic and Valerie’s erotic. After checking into a storybook hotel, which beckons like some grand totem of the dead and buried, haunted by memories of long lost souls, they are consumed by two beautiful women who wear their hearts firmly beneath their breasts.
The gorgeous Delphine Seyrig once again assumes an ethereal spirit, evoking the haunting trauma of Alain Resnais’ masterful LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, a shadow dance of confounding immortal narrative. Seyrig portrays Lady Báthory, descendant or deceit, her ageless beauty a vampiric delight, clotting the senses of the two young lovers penetrated by her sexual charm. Kümel corrupts Bram Stoker’s Victorian morality by allowing the women to enjoy their incorporeal seductions, reveling in the pleasures of sex, a matriarchal domination in which men commit willingly. A subplot involving a Detective and a few unsolved murders peaks momentary interest but fails to generate suspense and is concluded rather haphazardly.
Sex and gore are kept to the imagination though the film drips with carnality and blood-lust, where two women become enslaved to their physical desires, embraced by the cold arms of undeath. For Lady Báthory, Evil always races faster than the speed of night.

Final Cut: (B)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

JACOB'S LADDER (Adrian Lyne, 1990, USA)

The Lunatic Fringe
Jacobs sings a desperate plea to a purgatory of terminal reality where demons stalk the lunatic fringe. His voice echoes through the valley of death where seemingly malignant forces conspire to tear away the last vestiges of his humanity: Jacob has finally reached the last rung of sanity unable to attain the gentle light, devoured by foreboding darkness.
Director Adrian Lynne has crafted a psychological horror film ripe with religiosity, that vast conundrum between faith and reason. The narrative is told on three levels of perception: it begins in Vietnam before transitioning to what seems to be present tense, interspersed with flashbacks to his life before the war: we are befuddled by memories within memories. Haunting images of the sun peeking through the jungle canopy like the all-seeing eye of a fierce god spying Jacob’s innards spilt upon the ground creates a paranoid allusion in the “real world” where grotesque Boschian nightmares relentlessly pursue him. Lynne films these creatures in distorted ways, utilizing slow camera speeds, POV angles, and flash-cuts but he hides these images in mundane routine: this sudden transgression of the impossible is frightening and unsettling.
Lyne uses a wonderful aural transition from the first sequence to Jacob’s new reality: as he lies dying in Vietnam his scream merges with the screech of a subway train. Chiaroscuro shadows create a disjunctive feeling as Jacob seemingly wakes from a dream, Camus’ book THE STRANGER clutched in a palsied hand. He encounters a passenger who seems vacant though perceptive, her dark eyes could be full of venom but she ignores Jacob’s simple questions. The sound of the train plummeting through dark tunnels, the interplay of light and shadow, the dilapidated condition of the train (with a close-up of an anti-drug sign which reads Hell) and the withdrawn passenger all contribute to the suspense. As Jacob is stepping from the train he sees a homeless person curled up on the seat asleep and we’re shown a quick POV shot of an obscene tail quickly hidden from view. Jacob hesitates, scared: did he (we) just see that? What’s brilliant is that we feel Jacob’s fear but it is amorphous and unfocused. Are we seeing reality from his paranoid perception or omnisciently?
As the paranoid “fantasies” become more intense, we are left to consider which of the three narratives is the most likely. Even the final act’s exposition is called in to question when considered. If he’s dying in Vietnam and the entire film is a death-dream then he must be imagining the conversation with the chemist. But how could Jacob know this information to dream it in the first place? It would be future knowledge unknown to the Jacob dying in Vietnam. The mind can recall and create the most interesting fantasies so it could be Jacob’s logic trying to make sense of a world which is quickly diminishing. After all, he is a very intelligent person who desires to complete (or does so, depending on which reality you suppose) his PHD in Philosophy. So the whole drug experiment is a concoction of his brain trying to make sense out of this madness.
But there is another more frightening implication: that Jacob’s soul enters Hell. If so, then Louis his chiropractor takes the place of Virgil trying to lead him from the Inferno. Jacob also suffers burning by ice which is only found in Dante’s tempestuous realm. Jacob is now enamored with Jezebel, a woman who could be a “false prophet” meaning she is something other than she seems. Is she a demon trying to imprison him in Hell? Or is she an angel trying to set him free? This “reality” then is inhabited by others who die so there are lost souls among the demons. For instance, he encounters fellow soldiers suffering the same fate and experiencing the same paranoia; these then are lost souls hoping for freedom. And they likely find it before Jacob who is held in this stasis by his inability to let go of life. I find this interpretation terrifying (in context of film, I personally don’t believe in religion) because Jacob finds himself being “punished” for no other reason than that obscene Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Jacob is guiltless: a good person, father, husband as depicted in the pre-Vietnam “flashbacks”…so why does he deserve this pain?  
Competing narratives lead to competing interpretations and this imbues the film with an unsettling and disturbing tension as we attempt to understand what Jacob does not. If this is a “death-dream” then it is exactly what a professor of philosophy steeped in Catholic dogma would imagine. On the other hand, if it’s an objective destination then how terrifying that this learned professor cannot identify it!
The film ends with a proclamation that the US Army did indeed use drug experiments on soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. It’s exhibited as an omniscient title card after the movie fades to black, a statement outside of the meta-narrative. What is the purpose of this confounding information? The drug hypothesis is questionably a figment of Jacob’s imagination and, even if true contextually within the narrative, contributes little or nothing towards the film’s resolution especially when considered from the character’s point-of-view. One possibility is that it purges Jacob of any guilt over his death and places it firmly in the hands of the faceless Government. In other words, the entire film is a metaphor for our Government as Evil Entity dominating its guiltless citizens who are born into a corrupt system beyond their control or understanding. Fascinating to consider, JACOB’S LADDER can be experienced multiple times and reward each viewing with new perspectives.

Final Cut: (B+)