Wednesday, August 11, 2021

OLD (M. Night Shyamalan, 2021)

 

If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will understand that my first sentence encapsulates the film’s theme or some interesting plot-point in an oblique way usually involving a pun or other perceived witticism: it’s quite fun to write! But this film doesn’t deserve such attention as it fails on every creative and technical level of film making; in straight terms…it stinks! Luis Bunuel did it much better in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL using an absurd premise as biting social commentary. Shyamalan’s intent seems to be in utilizing the germ of this hypothesis to allow us to consider the big question of ethics in scientific research and its utilitarian principles of the “greater good for the greatest number” by dehumanizing “Big Pharma”. But it’s a non-starter as the story isn’t tightly conceived to ponder such intricate ideals: I find my disbelief unsuspended as young PHD level researchers and medical doctors would murder hundreds of innocent people by sacrificing their Hippocratic Oath in such as fashion. A better script would have examined this moral conflict by focusing upon the researchers themselves, burdened with the moral conundrum of mass murder versus saving masses instead of fixating upon exploiting the victim’s suffering. However, the Nuremberg Code has already answered this medical moral question with finality.

The premise: a group of poorly sketched characters are trapped on a secluded beach and cannot leave. They begin to grow older by the minute and quickly age and physical and mentally deteriorate in 24 hours. Turns out, the mystical beach is used as a research laboratory to test the efficacy of drugs using these sickly human guinea pigs without consent. Time trials for experimental drugs which would normally takes years can be reduced to a few hours. But the inane script changes the rules as it goes so the magical aging effects aren’t consistent and terrifying. For example, they age approximately a year for every half-hour, but their hair and fingernails refuse to grow, fall out or turn gray. A character excuses this with exposition saying it must be because dead cells don’t age…but the biological process still does! It’s a purposeful fallacy perpetuated by such a dumb screenplay because if their hair grew quickly, it would be a dead giveaway and ‘spoil” the reveal. Script-writing at its manipulative worst. Also, I suggest that rapid growth of the children would require inordinate amounts of calories and we barely see them eating at all. Come to think of it, if all their biological processes are hyper-accelerated, they would all starve to death very quickly. Another WTF! inanity is the mention that this is the 73rd Test Group: so, we must believe that over the past few years hundreds of wealthy families disappeared from their environments and not a single one was traced back to this “resort”? There’s a nearly throwaway line of dialogue in the final act when a Tech says that all of the victim’s computers and phones were recovered and scrubbed…as if people didn’t tell friends and family about their vacation before leaving! It’s stupid at face value and becomes more so the longer one thinks about it. I won’t mention the tumor removal surgery which is so foolish it should be quickly forgotten. And the Deus Ex Machina in the form of a notebook in the film’s final moments is a shoddy and lazy plot device that is embarrassing.

But is the film scary? Well, if you suffer from petraphobia and/or aquaphobia you may find this terrifying. Otherwise, lingering shots of jagged rocks and crashing waves will leave you drowsy. Shyamalan confuses fear with violence and when the story slows down, he ramps up the action with a murderous and racist doctor who likes to stab everyone or a woman whose calcium deficiency leads to a laughably pretzelled demise. The tension should be in the buildup and the execution the shock: here he suffers to do either competently. I am now sufficiently convinced (as if THE HAPPENING didn’t already!) that Shyamalan is not a modern-day Hitchcock but more akin to the 21st century Ed Wood.

The actors seem to wrestle with their poorly written dialogue which is more exposition than conversation and fail to reflect the rapid and complex worsening of their mental, spiritual and emotional conditions. The cinematography is awful with bad CGI landscapes where the camera focuses upon rocks for much too long in order to create suspense or dread, I suppose. The CGI aging is also cringe-worthy and the plot points ridiculous. When the 6 year old children age to teenage years in the matter of a few hours and have sex resulting in a quick pregnancy and stillbirth, it was more hilarious than dreadful. The film is also amateurishly framed in 2:39:1 as medium-long shots occasionally cut-off the top of a speaker’s head or only capture someone’s nose at the edge of a composition. This may have been the fault of the projectionist which would make more sense as I can’t believe such inept camerawork could pass through undetected (or uncared for) by the DP.

One thing is certain, you will grow 148 minutes older while watching this film but it will feel like 148 years.

Final Grade: (F)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

DEAD AND BURIED (Gary Sherman, 1981)

 

Sheriff Gillis seems a stranger in an unstrange town, his childhood haunt now full of a nihilistic dread of murdered tourists and the walking dead. Potter’s Bluff is an interesting name as the very town is a “Potter’s Field” for the intransigent and the Bluff is not a cliff but a rude deception! Gary Sherman’s deft direction and narrative structure reveals little clues one at a time, relying on foreshadowing events and not just talky exposition. Combined with Steven Poster’s languid cinematography and Stan Winston’s gruesome effects (needle in the fucking eye, holy shit) their talent elevates this from mere exploitation to classic horror.

The film begins with a photographer being seduced by a lovely woman who then participates in burning him to death while a ghastly group appears to watch and capture his torturous demise on super 8. As the film progresses more out-of-towners are gruesomely murdered by this barbarous bunch who appear at each scene like apparitions, materializing from the night and fog. Meanwhile Sheriff Gillis is trying to solve this murder mystery in which everyone seems tangentially implicated to included even his wife and co-workers. Director Gary Sherman allows this feeling of panic to develop slowly as the Sheriff discovers the identity of the unknown photographer (ID was burned) and sees him pumping gas in town or the results of the scientific analysis of decaying flesh left by a severed arm on his rusted Ford Bronco. Dobbs, the local Coroner/Mortician is a strange beast who seems a bit mad-scientist but could be just a grumpy old man obsessed with his handy-work. Everything is slightly off-kilter until the big reveal as the story crashes towards its EC Comics climax! The entire town seems aged and decomposing (like its inhabitants) such as Gillis’ rusted police 4×4 or the houses that seem empty and in disrepair: this subtly adds to the onerous anxiousness. One scene in the final act is horrifying: when Gillis’ wife realizes she’s one of the walking dead, she wanders to an open grave and begs her husband to bury her, to put an end to her un-life. It’s reminiscent of another 70’s horror classic Bob Clark’s DEATH DREAM when the young undead protagonist urges his mother to bury him, to allow him to finally find peace.

The acting is first-rate as everyone plays their part perfectly straight though Jack Albertson as Dobbs goes a bit campy in the final scenes. As he lays dying he is able to inject himself with the serum that will prolong his un-life yet why didn’t he do that years ago? I mean, he would never age and just have to touch himself up once in a while. Why wait until he has a heart attack or some other natural catastrophe or gets shot in the torso when he could have done it at his leisure? And how does Gillis not know he’s an undead? Does he shit and have normal bodily functions? You may ask yourself these questions and a few more (Did Dobb’s really wire his lab with a dozen projectors?) but the film is composed so well it makes sense within the confines of the narrative. Just go with it.

Here in Potter’s Bluff they let the dead bury the dead. Literally.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (Reginald Le Borg, 1944, USA)

 

Amina’s body houses the ghost of Kharis’ lost love Ananka, a centuries old Egyptian taboo that is reincarnated into 20th century middle-class America where modern society has devolved into misogynistic social mores. It’s interesting to note that Ancient Egypt considered men and women as equal under the law yet here 4,000 years later in Mapleton, Massachusetts circa 1944 our heroine Amina is treated as nothing more than a victim, her Rights diminished and domestic choices preordained. Director Reginald Le Borg toys with the tropes of the horror genre but more importantly calls attention directly to the misogyny and hypocrisy of 20th century American male in the process.

The plot is fairly silly and routine for a B movie: an Egyptian High priest must call the mummy Kharis forth by burning nine tana leaves on the full moon then reunite him with his lost love Ananka whose mummified body is held in a museum in Mapleton. The twist comes when the physical body of Ananka crumbles when touched by Kharis and it’s revealed that her spirit must haunt some other fleshy abode nearby. Death and destruction ensue.

Amina is a college girl of Egyptian descent (though she has no physical characteristics that would ever lead one to believe it!) who is trying to finish her courses at the local college. She is dating the local hunk with the good old American name on Tom Hervey. Tom treats his intelligent and sometimes traumatized girlfriend (soon to be fiancĂ©) as a child by diminishing her needs by asserting his typical male bigotry. There is not a scintilla of chemistry between the two of them and she looks more distrustful of him than lovelorn. This may be the fault of the actors (Actress Ramsey Ames was a last minute replacement) but it fits the theme of the film very well. If you break down our heroine’s name Amina to its enunciated parts, a Mina is an ancient unit of weight and value equal to 1/60th of a Talent. So our protagonist is only 1/60th of a person…and she’s treated as such by the men in the story. Her fears and desires aren’t realistically considered by Tom and she’s often chided for being silly and superstitious.

As the story progresses and the mummy wreaks havoc upon small town USA, the townsfolk set up night watches and patrol the streets at all hours. But it begs the question: how far can a slow walking, limping foot-dragging mummy really go? But there are some nice flourishes. The local sheriff actually recruits the help of a college professor and they attempt to lure the mummy by secretly burning tana leaves (like the priest and another victim earlier). The posse digs a pit and camouflages it in an attempt to trap the mummy since it has superhuman strength. I suppose no one thought to just trip the creature and chop a leg off! But a rather good plan all things considered. Another scene has the museum’s night watchman listening to a murder program on the radio (“Someone will die tonight!”) and reading a lurid pulp.  It’s a bit of self-referential trope since we know the mummy is nearby and the guard is about to become one more victim.

But it’s the finale that really propels this B movie to a Grade A film! As Kharis kidnaps Amina whom he now realizes to be the reincarnated Ananka, Director Le Borg cross cuts with the confused posse, the forlorn lover Tom, the rascally dog Peanut who was given to her as protection, and the limping Mummy with his armful of flesh stumbling towards his hideout. It’s Peanut that is competent, the dog leading Tom to his mistress while all of the men of the town practically run around in circles carrying, not pitchforks and torches but lanterns and shotguns. Tom is decked by Kharis and tumbles unconscious into the bushes while Kharis gets away. Amina is slowly transforming into the spirit of Ananka: her hair which earlier had a white-streak (ala bride of Frankenstein?) is now snow white. Then we get close-ups of her hand growing veiny and decrepit as Kharis slowly approaches a swamp. Tom even regains consciousness and during the chase trips in the mud thus subverting the classic horror trope! The impotent men can do nothing to help Tom or Amina as we get one final look at her visage, now aged and mummified like Kharis, just before they are submerged in the brackish waters. The men pat Tom on the back in despair and walk away from the swamp but it’s only Peanut who sits faithfully by the water’s edge, waiting, watching, and hoping his mistress will come back to the shore.
The men have failed. Kharis has taken back his property. Amina is dead. The music swells and the End credits roll. This nihilistic ending must have shocked audiences at the time and, I suppose, can still shock audiences today.

Final Grade (A)