Sunday, December 22, 2013

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Ruggero Deodato, 1980, Italy)

Our world of steel and glass, of choking fumes and crush of people synonymous with the Green Inferno: both are jungles of violent beauty, hunting grounds where we satiate our never-ending appetite for destruction. This tragic exploitation film is a caustic indictment of modernity, depicting civilization as the antagonist, the invader whose presence conjures the specter of Death to prey upon the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. It is also a bitter critique of the Documentary, as scenes are staged, a set-up that passes the simulacra of verity through violent manipulation; through slick editing, a film that will pronounce its blatant lies as truth for an audience that revels in its visceral impact, a society weaned on violence and gore, which does indeed eat its own kind.
The film’s low budget, stock acting and convulsive point-of-view cinematography adds an element of authenticity. The bloody special effects are shocking; in context, making the deaths very convincing. But the film ultimately consumes itself, like a starving man whose very existence is dependent upon cannibalizing his own body: the equilibrium will eventually skew towards self-destruction. Director Ruggero Deodato has the makings of an interesting and thought provoking film; a social commentary buried under the canopy of the thick jungle, but can’t separate exploitation from scrupulousness. He eviscerates live animals for his horror show and lets the camera linger over the slimy entrails, taking sadistic pleasure in the suffering of live creatures. But I admit this brutality is nothing new to the cinema: Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW, Haneke’s CACHE, Klimov’s COME AND SEE are a few modern masterpieces that kill live animals for effect…and generate little controversy. But CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST seems to go too far, the killings only create a gut wrenching vomitus expungement, as your gorge rises, its acidic tendrils caressing the palate. Juxtaposed with the fake murders, I must admit it does add a crimson patina to the film that helps reflect a genuine flare of homicide.
Deodato fails to point out the irony of his own film which capitalizes on the very morality it condemns. The film is structured as an investigation of the lost ‘Dream Team” of Documentary filmmakers, young guns who strutted into the Amazon never to return. The story is told from the perspective of Anthropologist Harold Monroe, a man hired to trek into the Green Inferno and find out the truth about the missing crew. The very first problem with the story is that Harold Monroe acts and speaks nothing like a scientist: he’s more like comic relief to the tough guy role of Chaco, his guide. If that can be overlooked, the heart of the film itself is corrupt. Deodato wants to have his corpse and eat it too! That is, he uses Monroe as a cipher to condemn the actions of the guide as Chaco uses brute force against the indigenous peoples yet Monroe himself becomes part of the problem. He belittles and demeans these tribesmen with “magic” (a radio) to get what he wants: the missing crew’s film canisters. These canisters a worshiped as part of a totem placed before their village. No Anthropologist would commit such a despicable act (or go on this mission in the first place).
Monroe eventually takes the film back to New York City and develops the moving pictures. What he discovers is dreadful: the film crew was raping and pillaging the tribesman in order to make a more exciting documentary: the power is in the editing. As Monroe curses their atrocious behavior and the Producers who are considering releasing it as a documentary, Deodato fails to make the final step towards irony. If the film were self-reflexive, acknowledging its own pretense as a fictional creation by having Monroe speak directly to the audience by breaking the fourth wall, then the message would become crystal clear. As the morality of the filmmakers within Deodato’s film becomes more and more hellish then Monroe could be used as an avatar to speak Deodato’s mind, to directly relate to the audience watching his film and have them consider their own reasons for watching a film called CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. But Deodato isn't that savvy and, as it stands, his film becomes that which it condemns as Deodato himself abuses real indigenous people to tell his story and eviscerates living animals to make a point.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend a film where actual suffering is food for the thoughtless, a recipe for consumerism. 
Final Cut: (F)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

THE STEPFORD WIVES (Bryan Forbes, 1975, USA)

Stepford Connecticut is a Disneyesque nirvana for the patriarchal hierarchy, the template for male entitlement which allows abusive relationships to prosper: a prescient and dire warning concerning domestic violence awareness. The film is a satire about male entitlement, ultimate power and control, representing the social enslavement of the burgeoning feminist movement.
The film begins with a blind female mannequin being carried by a man: a plastic metaphor foreshadowing the inhuman narrative. As Joanna and Walter leave the city, the film's derivative score plays like some TV soap opera, which will contrast the brooding horror to come. Director Bryan Forbes sets the film amid the beautiful friendly suburbs, bathing the film in bright daytime afternoon delight; he allows the friction between the couple to crescendo as a family melodrama. But monsters lurk in the shadows of Stepford and gather at a dark secluded mansion, home of the Stepford Men’s Association. Joanna befriends Bobbie, another bra-less newcomer in town; they attempt to subvert the superficial and wholesome aura of this strange environment. When they finally convene a meeting of Stepford wives to create their own feminist association, they discover a mindless and one-dimensional attitude: these women exist only to clean and serve their husbands. They spout commercial jingles and speak earnestly of their housework, like drones…or robots.
William Goldman’s script builds the suspense like tiny cogs that firmly fit together: from Joanna’s cluttered kitchen to Charmaine’s new attitude, and when Bobbie finally succumbs to the disease that proliferates the town Joanna believe she is going crazy. When Joanna voices her concerns, the horror cannot be explained in mere words, and she veers towards a nervous breakdown. Finally, her buxom doppelganger sees through her eyes darkly, and she is subsumed into the great American Dream.

Final Cut: (B+)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SECONDS (John Frankenheimer, 1966, USA)

Arthur Hamilton loses himself in the drudgery of middle age and conceit, possessed by materialism and success which have become superficial trappings that resonate in the empty chambers of his aging heart. He is adrift and alone, a wife and daughter can offer no salvation from these distant shores of space, and he must find himself once again…or continue to walk the earth virtually lifeless, a victim to the slow fade of love.
But Arthur gets a Second chance. A phone call from a “deceased” friend sets him up for a new identity, to become not only a different person but start life afresh, to breathe in the sweetness of youth tempered with the wisdom of maturity. He is reborn. But he must shed the guilt of his former life and become Tony Wilson; his old life must remain dead. Arthur’s change is only superficial and he is still imbued with the same rotting essence; he has not come to terms with the root of his inner conflict, he has only treated the symptoms. Baptized in the wine and passion of free love, he cannot shed his old skin and seeks his old life, only to discover that he was not as loved (or missed) as he thought. Arthur’s second life is now measured in seconds as his corpse will be put to good use…for the next consumer.
John Frankenheimer and legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe films with paranoid and frantic close-ups, the camera moving through crowds like an invisible angry spirit, a vengeful ghost haunting its next victim. Howe skews identity with mirrored twisting images and surreal hallucinations. This beautiful cinematography reveals Arthur’s confusion and turmoil and his inability to socialize. His inner voice is now mute. The score heightens the tension towards his narcissistic self-destruction and is hammered with irony: as he finally begins the long journey to enlightenment he realizes there are no third chances. In vino veritas: no matter where you go, there you are.

Final Cut: (B+)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


If people’s selfish and degrading acts were reflected upon their visage, what monstrosities would haunt the streets? Dorian Gray makes a pact with a strange god, its catlike grace frozen forever yet its ubiquitous presence stalks his nightmares: be careful what you wish for, it softly purrs…
Dorian is a young man who wishes to never grow old, to let his beautiful portrait age and bare his afflictions whilst he remains physically unchanged. A Faustian bargain that can end in no other way than tragedy: Dorian’s good intentions become corrupt and he poisons his intimate friends, time his second worst enemy…the first being himself. A very young and pretty Angela Lansbury is his first victim; he truly falls in love and becomes her Knight in Shining Armor, but begins his brutish downward spiral which ends in her suicide. As the story progresses, Dorian becomes indifferent to pleasure and pain, tasting debauchery and excess and filling up his empty vessel with ignoble desires at the expense of others.
The black and white deep focus cinematography is grand, displaying myriad mise-en-scene shots that convey suspense with an imaginary devilish quality: watch the scene where he confronts his portrait, the stoic cat totem is peripherally framed in nearly every shot. The watchful eyes of this god are always upon him. The Technicolor inserts of the portrait as it changes and becomes a grotesque human mockery are shocking; we see what Dorian has become, his leprous morality seeping pustules upon the image. Dorian eventually commits the final despicable act of murder, and the masterful lighting submerges his face in darkness and light as the gas lamp swings back and forth: the corpse’s shadow printed indelibly upon the wall behind him. The child who loved him but is now a grown woman (which is a bit disturbing) searches for her father, but he is dead in Dorian’s locked room.
With one violent thrust, Dorian finally commits one good dead in his lecherous existence: he stabs his portrait through the heart. When discovered, his body is an abomination with tumorous growths defiling his face: but his portrait is forever young…and innocent.

Final Cut: (B+)

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+) 

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+)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

SALO OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975, Italy)

SALO is an allegory for Mussolini’s rape of his own country and through the humorless debasing violence and sadism whispers a prescient warning for all of humanity, everywhere, anytime.
The film is set in an isolated Italian villa which is ruled by four depraved men who usher in the age of the spiritual apocalypse: the repression of religious acts is not what makes this ordeal immoral…it’s the debauchery that erases the victim’s essence, that voids their humanity, their suffering no more important than that of a crawling insect, recognized for only the physiological thrill it imparts upon their anatomy. These men are the little gods of their own world, recruiting a chosen few who help to control and pervert their young and delicate prey. This villa is haunted by the spirit of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, et al, where absolute power is wielded by criminals who torture and taunt helpless victims for pleasure, where the laws are changed without notice, the punishment swift, brutal, inescapable, where the inmates have no chance to survive intact…if at all.
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini films mostly in medium and long shots that helps to emotionally subtract the viewer from the narrative turpitude; otherwise it would be too much. When he does film in close-up we are shocked: a mouthful of feces, a young girl’s slit throat, and a woman’s laughing visage while off-screen a young boy is molested. There is no humor here in Pasolini’s film; there is only the rank stench of shit and decay, like the open pits at Ohdruff full of bloated corpses. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is composed of foreground music; a redheaded woman plays the piano during the depraved storytelling sessions, or a radio that blares some asynchronous tune beyond the frame’s border. These storytelling sessions imprint their violent fantasies upon our minds in a way that actually showing the act cannot. Indeed, imagination can be a cruel weakness.
The rumble of Allied bombers counts down the days of this tyrannical regime and they rush to fulfill every insane desire. Eventually, even one of the cruel participants is overwhelmed and destroys herself; she is the musician: it’s as if Pasolini is saying that even Art has its limits, which can be a malignant internal metaphor for SALO itself. The torture scenes that end the film are viewed from a distance through binoculars, each of the four rulers taking turns as witness and master. The acts are unspeakable. The pain is unbearable. The smiling faces of the torturers are contorted by this animal cruelty and yet they remain human. And the most frightening aspect of SALO is that these abuses are perpetuated, not by faceless monsters, but human beings.

Final Cut: (A)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

DOG SOLDIERS (Neil Marshall, 2002, UK)

A platoon of soldiers is welcomed to dinner by a family of Lycanthropes where it’s bared fangs versus big bangs. Neil Marshall writes and directs this canine incised debacle whose bite is as dull as its bark.
The setup is barely interesting: a group of bored soldiers spends a weekend on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands and are stalked by a pack of werewolves. This macho infected film wears its bloody heart on its sleeve, ripe with inane dialogue, colorless caricatures, and poor scripting. Marshall’s fast cutting during low key scenes is very distracting and neither builds suspense nor creates emotional tension. The special-effects look awkward and riotously pathetic, more unimaginative than low budget. The plot becomes boilerplate with the arrival of the chic in a tank top, and the suspension of disbelief crumbles with the abeyance of narrative logic. For example, the werewolves tear apart a vehicle (without making a sound, by the way) but can’t bust down latched doors or thin walls. The creatures are also immune to bullets but retreat from the blaring weapons, and they seem to have some aversion to light, but it’s an interesting point that is never improved upon. Megan’s character is also of little interest, somehow a bitch in this Working Group that doesn’t metastasize during the full moon, another fact that could spice this stale concoction but remains unexplained.
DOG SOLDIERS is too serious to be parody and attempts an overabundance of homage and cannot be taken as a serious horror film. The story descends into the prosaic even for a tired genre though I’ll give it points for the Antonioni reference.

Final Grade: (D-)

Monday, August 19, 2013

AND SOON THE DARKNESS (Robert Fuest, 1970, UK)

Two young women fall victim to a stranger in a strange land as they cycle through rural France for a little rest and relaxation. Director Robert Fuest deftly captures the crowded isolation of the protagonists who are separated by language and protocol from the local population, unaware of the danger until it is too late. Though set amid the fertile fields and archaic villages of France (refreshingly eschewing traditional locations!), this could be any small town on Earth where tourists intrude upon the privacy of the locals. Jane and Cathy both sense a veneer of contempt shellacked over every encounter: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!
Pamela Franklin as Jane steals the movie with a bravura performance as the strong willed and independent survivor who makes believable decisions and reacts with proactive violence when confronted by the killer. Fuest doesn’t allow for too many genre conventions to distract from Franklin’s solid characterization. Michele Dotrice portrays Michelle, the best friend, but she isn't around long enough for much character development. However, the contentiously petty interaction between the two women lends veracity to the story by introducing a complex human relationship instead of mere avatars that are nothing more than fodder for fear. Fuest also imbues the audience with the same ambiguous fears by purposely redacting subtitles so we feel a constant separation between characters.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward but Fuest is concerned with creating narrative momentum with suspense by insinuation and elision and not superficial sadism. The murder scene itself relies on moments of suspended observation or tricks of the imagination by Michelle, allowing the viewer to experience the tense scene from her perspective (of course, we have the foreknowledge that she will be killed; after all, we’re watching a horror film). So when she reaches for her panties drying on a branch and they’re missing but her bra and other undergarments are still there, we know some unidentified person took them but Michelle is just beginning to get suspicious. She looks on the ground as a close-up reveals her expression: maybe the panties are still in her saddlebag. A few branches scrape together and she hesitates alone, Jane miles down the road after an argument, and we feel her sudden recognition of isolation. Fuest doesn’t show the viewer a dark shadow or evil eyes peering from the bushes: he wants us to feel what the character feels. Her bicycle suddenly falls over and she jumps but again, it could just be the wind. She sighs in relief until she picks up her bike…and sees the mangled spokes. Now she knows absolutely that someone is lurking nearby and her dread is palpable, a fight or flight reaction that becomes overwhelming. Fuest shoots from a low–angle framing her reaction-shot through the broken spokes and twisted rim. This is a powerful scene that is the crux of the story as the killer’s identity is kept hidden. The remaining story becomes Jane’s fear for her missing friend and discovering who is responsible.
AND SOON THE DARKNESS is a nice little thriller that I understand was remade in 2010 utilizing the same title but to seemingly different results. Relying on allusion over contusion, Fuest’s film exploits that undiscovered country between our perceptions and our paranoias.
Final Cut: (B-) 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (John Newland, 1973, USA)

Sally is haunted by more than a trilogy of terrors: a diminished housewife under the spell of patriarchal authority, she seeks fulfillment by decorating the empty spaces of her life. One of the creepiest made-for-TV movies ever produced, director John Newland transmutes a woman’s struggle for liberation into an existential supernatural thriller.
The plot is basic enough for a familial melodrama, as stay-at-home wife Sally and her upwardly mobile husband Alex inherit an old decaying house. This demesne becomes a status symbol, a show piece to suggest to Alex’s superiors that he deserves membership into the “old boys” club, where a promotion means a spiritual demotion for his lovely spouse because his career is more important than his wife. Sally begins to disappear at home, to become an echo in some vast conspiracy of ghosts…or something worse. Sally’s independence leads her to self-destruction when she looks behind the earthly façade and into the abyss, releasing three tiny trolls that torment her but ultimately want to subsume her very soul.
The film is chock-full of scary moments: shrill taunting whispers, tiny bug-like creatures scurrying just out of sight, dark shadows with things bumping in the night, an old man and his dire (though ambiguous) warning and an ancient door bolted closed for no apparent reason. A great setup for a haunted house flick! But it’s the subtext that becomes chilling, as Sally begins to question her status quo in the marriage; the rude beginnings to an uncivil war. She has become a trophy to Alex, a thing that represents his achievements and not hers, a union of one. Her friend is the ultimate Beverly Hills housewife, married to a successful businessman who deals in synthetics, a superficial and plastic sham where her womanhood, her very humanity, is molded by another’s desire and sacrificed for creature comfort. But Sally’s creatures only offer fear and murder, and the immortal darkness as reward.
The marriage bleeds with normalcy as the story begins but soon dissolves with only the slightest instigation. Alex is often angry and controlling as Sally begins to question her surroundings and seek answers on her own. Her independent actions lead to punishment, both by the little trolls and her controlling husband. The creatures become a metaphor for children, released from the black womb and into a marriage that is already beginning to decompose. Though Sally and Alex never talk of children it is naturally the next step in the progression. And Sally, if she stays in the marriage, will be devoured by the burden, becoming invisible to Alex and a stranger in her own strange land of identity. She wants out but cannot escape, trapped in a prison of marital remiss. But the “children” finally capture her and drag her back into the ashes and dust, while Alex is lost in misunderstanding. Finally, Sally becomes victim to a patriarchal altruism: a woman’s place is in the home. Forever.

Final Cut: (B)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

TARGETS (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968 USA)

A Celluloid Hero confronts a gun wielding villain as imaginary horror becomes maniacal modernity; an empty life in red typeface. Peter Bogdanovich directs and stars in his debut feature, homage to the legendary Boris Karloff and an insider’s view of the bitter realities of Hollywood filmmaking while creating a well-paced thriller whose violent nexus strikes back from the silver screen.
 The story involves Byron Orlok an aging B-movie actor, exceptionally portrayed with dignity and class by Karloff, and his desire to retire from the rigors of a vapid business. Orlok is courted by a young hotshot director (played by Bogdanovich himself) to star in one last film while Bogdanovich cross-cuts with another story of an ordinary middle-class family and a clean cut son with an erotic fascination with firearms. The two seemingly disparate stories finally come together at a drive-in where the audience becomes victim, and the horrors of life prove more frightening than art. Bogdanovich uses clips from Roger Corman’s classic THE TERROR which stars Karloff as a fictional template for Orlok’s latest creation. He provides an often funny and caustic insight into the cutthroat movie-making business, as producers, advertisers and accountants become the butt of many jokes. Meanwhile, Bobby is a good looking All American guy, with a loving family and beautiful wife, showing no emotional warning signs on his suicidal road to nowhere. In one spooky sequence, Bobby is at the rifle range with his father, making small talk and cracking jokes. When his father goes down range to set up the targets, Bobby aims his rifle to find him in the cross-hairs…for no damn reason at all. When Bobby finally types his note and murders his family, it is done methodically and without emotion, actually taking the time to place the bodies in a comfortable position. Bogdanovich tracks his camera slowly across the floor, over the bloodstains, and climbs ever so deliberately towards the desk in a continuous shot until he focuses upon the typewritten letter, hacked out in red, the last testament of a madman.
 Laszlo Kovacks’ wonderful cinematography captures both timelines with a claustrophobic tension, as Orlok the horror actor is brightly lit while bobby the average guy (whose acts are horror) is isolated in darkness, both cramped in the tiny worlds of vehicles and apartments. When Bobby climbs the refinery towers, Kovacks shoots with quick zoom like a bullet striking its target, a fatal frisson that brings a heightened and believable reality. The night sequence at the drive-in is equally compelling, as the oblique lighting provides cover from the deadly sniper.
 The power of the story is that no reason is given, no flashback to some imagined provocation is offered, only the callous disregard for human life reduced to tin cans. Fortunately, Orlok may have made a career from being the villain but in his last appearance he proves to be the hero.

Final Cut: (B+)