Sunday, October 27, 2013

FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 1997, Austria/2007, USA)

The MPAA rated this film R for Terror, Violence and Some Language…but don’t worry about the Language. This review applies to bother version of Haneke’s film: The original 1997 Austrian version and the shot-by-shot American remake.  However, the US version applies the Spectatorship theory to an extra-diegetic level by casting well-known actors (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) and placing them in this diabolical experiment, thus contradicting audience expectations through use of advertising and Hollywood genre tropes. 

The plot is fairly basic: two genial looking young men hold a family hostage in their summer cabin. These clean-cut antagonists begin to play sadistic games with these totally innocent victims by torturing them both physically and emotionally. Simple enough? This plot has already been recycled in the past few months with films like THE PURGE and YOU’RE NEXT. So what does director Michael Haneke do differently than his progenitors and progeny? 

FUNNY GAMES is better experienced from the perspective of Spectatorship; that is, recognizing that this is a Film first and foremost, allowing for suspension of disbelief to be suspended. This Brechtian philosophy of emotional distance allows the viewer to recognize genre conventions while the narrative unwinds. The film is a self-reflexive meta-narrative utilizing an aside as dramatic function, where one antagonist (we never learn their names) speaks directly to the audience but is unheard by the others. This makes the viewer complicit in the drama as the antagonist makes it clear that this is happening for the benefit of the audience: ironically, the audience is as helpless to stop the carnage as the victims. Of course, the viewer is free to leave (or turn off the disc) at any time.

Haneke begins the film with a typical nuclear family; husband, wife, child, and dog on their way to a summer house away from the city. The husband and wife (George and Anna, Haneke’s generic tableau) are playing a game: they play a classical music cd and must guess the composer and piece in as few notes as possible. Haneke keeps our perspective in the car with the bourgeois family as they talk playfully together. We also see their car from a very high angle, a helicopter shot as they journey towards their destination. It’s as if Haneke wants us to see them as small and insignificant. Suddenly, the lulling swirls of diegetic orchestra are replaced by omniscient bombastic music: John Zorn’s Naked City, a primal screaming avant-garde jazz score that is totally surprising and nerve-shattering. Juxtaposed with the complacent characters this frisson sets up the violent narrative to come. 

Haneke builds the story slowly through rather mundane routine and generic cinematic devices. George drops a knife in the first act and Haneke cuts (ha ha) to a close-up of it falling under the seat of the sailboat. Haneke knows the audience is trained to follow the principal of Chekhov’s Gun. He also tests our patience (as well as Anna’s) during the first act when one of the strangers visits to borrow some eggs. As the stranger’s genial behavior leads to more and more broken eggs, Anna is amused, exasperated, then angered by his seemingly stupid actions. When she is berated by the strangers for being angry over something trivial even George doesn’t understand. It’s not until the physical violence which happens very quickly, that George is crippled by a blow to the knee. This outrageous violence is shocking because it is unprovoked and the strangers remain calm. Here, Haneke has effectively removed George as an active participant in the story so the “strong male character” is now reduced to spectator and victim. Unlike a traditional film, the injury and its effects are realistic: George is not going to struggle to his feet for any last minute heroics. But Haneke knows the viewer is expecting as much! 

In FUNNY GAMES, the film then begins to center upon Anna as the active target but her actions are kept realistic and ineffectual. She is reactive and victimized by the two sadistic intruders who offer her choices to make; for example, die by stabbing or gunshot. When the child is punished she can save her child pain by stripping away her clothes. Once again, Haneke serves to titillate because we expect a scantily clad woman in a horror film but the director in his omniscient way deconstructs that notion too: he makes Anna’s nakedness shameful. This act is awkward not only to the brutalized couple but to the perpetrators and audience as well (even though in both films she’s an attractive woman). This is a slow process that makes the viewer embarrassed and angry and is very difficult to sit through. And it should be. Haneke wants the viewer to consider the conceits of horror cinema and apply them to the ‘real world”. 

George and Anna are unable to even save the life of their son. With a bag placed firmly over his head he is threatened with a shotgun. The first film was years before 9/11 but the image is eerily evocative of the torturing of both American and Taliban prisoners by their captors. This brings a political edge to the meta-narrative. As the camera follows one of the strangers out to the kitchen in a mundane task of making a sandwich we hear the shotgun blast. Haneke’s narrative ellipsis has not revealed what exactly has happened. The camera slowly tracks into the room and we witness the unbelievable: blood and brain matter spread across the wall. Anna is sobbing deeply, taking in breath but unable to let it out, until she wails in suffering. George is devastated and unable to physically or emotionally react. On the TV is the hollow drone of some typical sports broadcast. Haneke keeps us immersed in their suffering for approximately five minutes without a cut. He allows the viewer to experience the anguish of the characters instead of cutting away to the “escape” of the two strangers who have now disappeared. 

Throughout the narrative one of the two antagonists speaks directly to the audience. The other characters do not react to this meta-diegetic dialogue: this seems to be an aside meant to make the viewer complicit in the events. The stranger makes up reasons for his conspirator's behavior; is it a bad childhood, was he abused and neglected or is he rich and bored? He also condemns the viewer for expecting what is soon to happen. When Anna makes a bold move and commits the fraudulent act of cliché, he even grabs a remote and the actual film rewinds and resets so he can move the shotgun from her reach. Anna is unaware of the alteration: it is a nasty game that affects the audience. This frustrates and angers many viewers who don’t enjoy being tricked but that is part of Haneke’s message: you can be tricked because you are immured in genre convention. He constructs the tale with the usual set of standards then subverts each one, sometimes subtly and other times forcibly. Even the knife we see at the beginning is a ruse: when the two return and tie Anna (the only survivor, so far) they take the sailboat out on the lake. We remember the knife and Anna discovers it and starts cutting the ropes. Will she escape? Of course not, as she is casually pushed overboard to drown. The men talk elliptically about a science fiction story but it’s a metaphor for what we've just witnessed, how the reality of the screen subsumes our objective realities and how audiences fail to tell the difference. 

Again, why is FUNNY GAMES so frustrating? In Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT series, more people are killed in five minutes of screen time than in Haneke’s feature. Very few have accused Nolan of making an “inhuman” film (though I’d accuse him of making a trite and banal set of films). I suppose it’s in humanizing the people who are murdered even though he withholds on-screen violence. Everything happens outside of the frame though we experience the effects of the violence: the killing of the dog, the killing of the neighbors, the boy’s death, and even George’s murder is shown in close-up of the killers face. Somehow just hearing the trauma is worse than seeing it as we the audience are immune to the blood and gore that pervades modern cinema.  

There is a trick to FUNNY GAMES and it’s this: Haneke manipulates the audience into victim blaming. Nearly every single person who watches this film exclaims that this situation would not happen to them; they would run away, call for help, or get a weapon and fight back. He even sets up a few scenarios to foster this belief. He wants to incite the audience into an emotional backlash against George and Ann. As the sadism progresses we begin to feel that they somehow deserve what’s coming to them for being so stupid to put themselves in a helpless situation. 

It’s no mistake that the murderers are young, good looking intelligent young men; Haneke manipulates us into accepting them (and here’s the Game) at the victim’s expense. Once we the audience imagines their own heroic actions and escape, we cease to empathize with the true victims and become the sadists. 

Final Cut: (A)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Kim Ji-woon, 2003, South Korea)

Two sisters share a ghostly communion, their emotional transubstantiation a grim portent of secretive abuse and incestuous deeds. Director Kim Ji-woon weaves a mysterious tapestry of familial deceit and psychological trauma interwoven with supernatural dread.
The film begins with Su-Mi being interviewed by a psychiatrist, seemingly withdrawn into a static internal world until awakened by a family photograph. This set-up leads the young woman Su-Mi back to her father and abusive stepmother; her only companion her younger sister Su-Yeong who seems to share a metaphysical bond that transcends the thick congealing blood of family ties. The paternal power structure is upset as the father seems passive and powerless in the face of the maternal malediction, the sisters victims to the dominating and exhaustive rebukes.
Isolated in a small but upscale domicile somewhere in the woods, we begin to experience frightening visions of a restless spirit from Su-Mi’s subjective viewpoint: is her psyche fractured beyond repair…or is a ghostly entity tormenting her? The narrative is told in flashbacks and crosscut with possible hallucinations and it soon becomes difficult to tell fantasy from reality. The troubled daughter seems to have transposed her identity upon the raging step-mother, and the final scenes leave us bewildered and wishing to rewind to discover the subtle clues: such as the timing of her period, the taking of pills, or the bloody sack whose contents remain a violent mystery. The father’s docile nature leads to the possibility of an overbearing guilt, and the allusion of incest hangs in the air like a misspoken curse.
Kim Ji-woon spices the story with a few terrifying sequences as a ghastly figure creeping across the floor that hovers above a traumatized Su-Mi, menstrual blood whispering an accusation onto the bed sheets, or a dark haired spirit crouched under the sink, a forlorn echo that reverberates through the house’s ethereal milieu. The story peregrinates precariously between revelation and unfathomable conundrum, but the answer lies hidden in a pair of empty shoes…and a closet.

Final Cut: (B)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

IT'S ALIVE (Larry Cohen 1973, USA)

Frank Davis fathers a genetic mutation whose killer instincts lead it directly from the cradle to the grave. As the creature’s creator Frank feels akin to Dr. Frankenstein and carries the moral obligation of stopping the gruesome deaths, knowing he must be the one to destroy the beast to find his own salvation and, more importantly, be accepted back into mainstream society. Director Larry Cohen appeals to the pregnant fear that gestates deep within our social consciousness: modern apprehensions concerning prescription drugs and pollution, their effects upon developing fetus’ and even a woman’s right to choose. Cohen also dissects the nuclear family unit, as the Patriarch commits infanticide, the one who carries the responsibility of creating this monster (or thinks he does), while the wife is relegated to the periphery of the story. Cohen focuses upon Frank’s emotional isolation and keeps the wife drugged and restrained: the man can handle the problem while the woman is unable to cope with the stress.
Cohen upsets the typical cinematic convention of “pregnant-mom-rushed-to-hospital” by allowing the first act to move slowly: the man isn't a bumbling idiot and they talk and take their time, dully arriving at their destination. As Frank awaits the introduction of his second child, Cohen offers exposition spiked with humor through dialogue and a running gag in the waiting room. He crosscuts these scenes with a bored doctor who practically berates the lost Lenore (a Poe allusion?) and demands she push harder. He then cuts back to Frank and the other fathers before showing a nurse stumble through the doors and collapse in a bloody heap. Frank then bursts into the delivery room and we see a frightful apocalypse: the medical staff has been mutilated and Lenore is screaming about her baby. The scene is over-the-top and borders on camp, the blood looks like congealed Jell-O, but the actors bring it back down to Earth.
Bernard Herrmann’s score relies on innuendo and subtly to underline the horror, and seeps into the narrative with a time-released precision. Cohen uses point-of-view double exposure to show the world from the monster child’s perspective, utilizing low angle and quick editing techniques. He smartly refuses to show the creature in a full medium shot, only offering glimpses and extreme close-ups of the Rick Baker puppet…which is for the best because it looks rather silly.
Eventually, Frank must take control and hunt down his progeny, and armed with a police rifle he stalks the sewers in search of the newborn. But seen through a father’s eyes the killer becomes nothing more than a scared and hungry baby, and he takes it in a blanket to comfort. This would have been the interesting and complex ending; instead, Cohen goes for the visceral thrill and static declaration…another has been born in Seattle.

Final Cut: (C)

Monday, October 14, 2013


Flash bulbs burst the dark curtain revealing sickening glimpses of death, the remains of unearthed corpses, and twisted, rotting, putrid reminders of our own mortality. The foreground narration overlaps these quicksilver images with an off-camera voice: a newsman repeating the top story about grave robbers and other atrocities in a listless matter-of-fact manner. The film establishes this horrific dichotomy in the very first few minutes blurring the boundaries of what we accept as normal; the chainsaw’s edge that separates madness and the mundane.
Cut to: five friends traveling to a cemetery to check on a relative’s remains, cramped together like cattle unknowingly on their way to the slaughter. Franklin is crippled, bound to a wheelchair and is a metaphor for the audience who are bound to their seats by impulse and unable to escape. Tobe Hooper brings the camera in for close-ups, confining the characters to a coffin-like hermetic space inside the van. The tension quickly mounts when they pick up a hitchhiker who proves to be rather mentally unbalanced. The girls are reading an astrology magazine while Franklin and the stranger discuss their work in a slaughterhouse, foreshadowing the fate of our five protagonists. This stranger acts out some bizarre ritual by cutting himself and burning Franklin’s photograph, then marking the van with a bloody sigil as they speed away. Their future is written in blood as the Age of Aquarius is over now subsumed by Saturn, the devourer of kindred flesh. Fate takes them to a rural filling station conveniently out of gas. They drive a short distance to Franklin’s boyhood haunt which is now a decaying shell whose timbers are exposed like broken bones. Here in the sweltering heat of Texas you can go home again…you just can never leave.  
Now Hooper opens up the frame and gives us some medium long shots to establish their isolation as the smothering darkness settles upon them. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a film with little blood or gore but the masterful editing convinces us that we see more then is actually shown! One by one, they find their way to a charnel house and become victim to a psychopath in a mask of dried human skin. They become dinner to a family of cannibals. Here, the Patriarchal family is a byproduct of industrialization, adapt at wielding the killing blow in a manner more accurate and satisfying than a machine. Sally is the last survivor and is sadistically tortured; slashed and gouged while grandpa suckles her blood in an orgy of repressed sexuality. The gallows humor is quite “heavy-handed” as the old man tries to bash her head in but it brings an awkward laugh as does the family’s backwoods caricature.
Sally escapes and the final scene of her bloodied face and hysterical laugh is chilling. We cut to black with the killer’s gasoline powered Danse Macabre contrasted against the sunrise. The film’s minimal score adds an eerie sublime quality as the chainsaw’s deafening roar becomes its epitaph.

Final Cut: (A)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942, USA)

Irena is a Femme Feline; a satanic curse boils through her veins arousing her violent passions, modern Psychology impotent to cure this arcane affliction. Director Jacques Tourneur’s low budget classic attains cult status with high scare value; he relies on ambiguous flirting shadows and clever mise-en-scene to impart palpitating horror.
What begins as a lightning-quick romance and marriage between Irena and Oliver soon spirals towards infidelity as she curtails her burgeoning sexuality for fear of awakening the beast within. As Oliver’s affections become diverted towards Alice, Irena stalks the night with cat’s grace…and hunger. Tourneur’s film purrs with anticipation and suspense as Irena fights to regain self-control but ultimately becomes victim, transforming into an evil shadow, her soul corrupt and damned.
In one scene, Alice walks the darkened streets between orbs of sickly light and the clacking high-heels that follow soon become the soft echoes of padded feet. As her pace (and pulse) quickens she reaches her destination as the bus’s air-brakes hiss like an angry panther…and the nearby tree branches shiver as if some strange form has passed between them. Tourneur again creates suspense as Alice takes an evening swim, the watery shadows painting spider webs upon the walls, and a deep guttural growl breaks the surface tension. Alice screams…and so do we. When Oliver and Alice are cornered in their workshop, he displays a protractor like a crucifix, its penumbra casting away the evil spirit.
The horror remains elusive and unseen without need for cheap special effects; the psychiatrist’s death is seen in a flurry of fur, flashing claws, and grim silhouette. Finally, Irena despises what she has become and takes control, holding the key to her own destiny.

Final Cut: (B+)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

REPULSION (Roman Polanski, 1965, UK)

Carol suffers from Agraphobia, a morbid fear of sexual assault, her eyes revealing the repulsion that lurks in the dark recesses of her psyche. This beautiful young lady sleepwalks through her life as she slowly descends into madness, consumed with dread of being isolated from her sister and of the men whose leering gaze often caress her delicate form.
Director Roman Polanski has crafted a psychological maelstrom of anxiety and suspense, physically distancing the viewer from Carol while allowing us to experience her intense delusions from her psychotic perspective. She becomes fearful of every man: her sister Helen’s boyfriend, Colin a young man who continually asks her out on dates, and the sleazy landlord (for good reason). It’s no coincidence she works in a beauty shop surrounded by women, a haven that separates her from potential male contact. When Helen goes on vacation for ten days, Carol is left alone, emotionally skinned like a dead rabbit, and eaten by paranoia and panic.
Aural hallucinations precede her violent fantasies where ghostly men haunt dark mirrors, rise from the convolutions of disheveled night sheets, or their waxy hands extruding from the walls to steal her sanity. Polanski has crafted a genuine horror film without a supernatural element, the terror of a mind turning in upon itself unable to separate truth from fiction: it’s in this cortex of soft tissue that real monsters exist who devours our perceptions.
With riveting suspense, Polanski films the final act of madness in Carol’s tiny apartment with sweating close-ups and skewed angles, converging with sudden acts of unexpected violence and bloodshed. Carol’s senses are spiked by the tolling of a church bell or the shrill tremulousness of a phone and haunted by the hungry buzzing of flies. Night after night she imagines herself being raped by ethereal men, their faces momentarily revealed to be her acquaintances, until she finally commits two very real acts of murder.
Soon discovered comatose and surrounded by gawking neighbors, it’s a man who gently carries her towards help. Polanski then unveils the final clue in a stark black and white photograph of Carol’s childhood: with shadows obscuring the face of her father, her sister’s head upon his lap, Carol stands behind them staring vacantly into the void of her incestuous prison.

Final Cut: (A)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

EYES OF A STRANGER (Ken Weiderhorn, 1981, USA)

A woman bears the burden of malignant guilt over the sexual assault of her younger sister, a childhood trauma that has left her sibling blind, deaf, and mute. EYES OF A STRANGER is a feminist retelling of Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, where the women are empowered to act independently and whose actions are not determined by patriarchal egocentrism.

Jane Harris is a reporter for a local news station, a professional who lives her own life as caregiver to her crippled sister; a self-sufficient woman who loves a local attorney but doesn’t rely on him for support. Director Ken Weiderhorn juxtaposes Jane’s passionate reporting with the silly antics of the male weatherman: a specific plot device to discredit the testosterone fueled clichés that propel the horror genre. This purposeful break with convention leads the film into new and exciting emotional territory though it still titillates with instances of graphic violence and bare breasts. Weiderhorn subverts the genre by using its own devices, narratively focusing upon Jane and her explorations into the suspect’s private life.

In standard Hitchcock fashion, the killer is revealed early in the film but suspense is generated through empathetic connection to the characters as the violence escalates towards its grim conclusion. Even the killer is given the harmless name Stanley Herbert, an overweight man of baby-fat innocence, who looks (not surprisingly) like Raymond Burr from REAR WINDOWeven down to the glasses. Look for the subtle homage to Tom Savini whose makeup is used to realistic effect and Weiderhorn’s own late night showing of SHOCK WAVES. The film’s vicious climax ends with forcible compulsion and four bright flashes: not from a camera but a .38 special.

Final Cut: (B+)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

THE BROOD (David Cronenberg, 1979, Canada)

Possible homage to Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW? Seemingly inspired by labyrinthine alleyways and the murky canals of Venice to the inner demons of anguish and guilt, stalks the tiny deformed killer in a red jacket, one of a demented progeny born of their mother’s primal rage. Writer/Director David Cronenberg takes us on a journey through the looking glass and into the bloody tangled womb of horror where the inner child dwells, abused and enraged, where it is birthed into a cruel world without consent and imbued with a survival instinct that transcends moral boundary.

A terrible custody battle between Frank and Nola leads to this brutal conflict, as her childhood trauma (both imagined and real?) is born into flesh and blood offspring who carry out her sadistic unconscious desires. She is kept isolated at a retreat while undergoing Psychoplasmics: a counseling technique that is ultimately responsible because it’s not a cure, only an exacerbation of her condition. Cronenberg builds the gruesome tension through sound and editing; each death-scene a grueling exercise in suspense as we know what’s coming….until he reveals the horror in shocking fashion. The violence is brutal and unforgiving, the effects upon Candice and the other children frighteningly realistic, and this adds an element of vile realism to this brooding narrative.

Cronenberg films one of the most horrific murder scenes ever reduced to celluloid: two enraged dwarf progeny, clad in their red winter jackets, bludgeon a teacher to death in front of terrified children. This isn't a trick of editing because the scene builds in long shot, children gathered around their communal tables drawing and finger-painting with the beautiful young teacher interacting with their activities. As the two creatures approach the table, Cronenberg cuts to medium shot, children clearly in the frame, as the imps begin beating her to death with wooden hammers. Reaction shots of the children screaming and blood spattered across their faces only heighten the terror. Finally, Cronenberg cuts to an exterior shot as one bloody child rushes through the door in panic. It makes the viewer nervously aware that the child actors may have been truly traumatized by this scene. However, it is so awfully realistic that it becomes pure artistic genius, allowing for a solid foundation to build suspension of disbelief upon so the final reveal is accepted without hesitation. 

Howard Shore’s eerie score evokes Bernard Herrmann and adds a psychotic pathos to the story, a subliminal thrum that creates frisson by making an ordinary scene unnerving and expectant. When Frank confronts his wife, she reveals a pulsing sac which expunges its fetid fetus and she licks clean its afterbirth. This is absolutely disgusting and perversely wonderful. Now that Frank's daughter is safe and they drive into the night, Cronenberg zooms into close up on Candice’s arm showing two bulging welts, then extreme close up to her tortured eyes. Will Candice continue the cycle of domestic abuse, birthing her own maternal malignancy?

Final Cut: (B+)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

MESSIAH OF EVIL (William Huyck & Gloria Katz, 1971, USA)

A small town is damned by the blood moon, trapped in a synchronous rotation with the dark man whose malevolent curse echoes with cannibalistic fury. The writer/director team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz imbue a standard horror plot with artistic flourish, birthing a freakish hybrid akin to Michelangelo Antonioni adapting Lovecraft’s SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH.
Arletty travels to Point Dune, a mysterious beach town that was once named new Bethlehem, and discovers it is a beacon for a new messiah that shall serve our dysfunctional modern times. She is in search of her father, an artist who has severed contact from his family, an outsider in this artist’s colony, a stranger in a very strange land. She becomes a ghost in his empty house, her father’s poisoned mind preserved in a journal and in the cryptic artwork etched upon the very walls: ghastly faces peer from the corners, a still unlife with vanishing points that tilt perspectives, creating a palpable unease. It’s as if his mind, stalked by the hellish strangers, is splashed upon the drywall in a suicidal fugue.
Huyck’s style dominates the narrative substance and becomes an art film masquerading as a B movie. In one wonderfully unsettling scene, a young girl sits in a movie theatre waiting for the feature to begin, ironically titled KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE. When the lights go down and her attention is drawn to the insipid previews, the seats behind her begin the fill up with strangers, their eyes dripping blood, raptors waiting for their communal signal to begin feeding. Huyck cuts to close-up and back to medium shot so we the audience see what is happening before the character does, much like Hitchcock in his famous school scene in THE BIRDS. Not content to pay homage only to the master, Arletty’s possessed father evokes the dispossessed protagonist of Godard’s PIERRE LA FOU with his mask of blue paint. Arletty is often swallowed by the thick fog, a ghost who haunts the composition’s vanishing points, drowned in the ubiquitous crashing waves and howling wind, reminiscent of the beautiful Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s masterful RED DESERT.
In Point Bluff, everyone is invited to the Donner Party…but you’ll have to bring your own dessert.

Final Cut: (B+)