31 July 2008

NEIL YOUNG IS NEIL YOUNG IN A NEIL YOUNG PRESENTATION OF A FILM BY NEIL YOUNG

Daniel Dennett once said, "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear," which I largely agree with.* At this moment, I think I might refine it a bit, however: there's nothing I like less than a bad argument for a view that I hold dear, made by a person I typically respect. This is the thought that came upon me while I was watching the agitprop anti-war concert movie CSNY: Déjà Vu, directed by none less than "Y" himself, Neil Young operating under his nom de cine Bernard Shakey.

A quick history lesson: in May, 2006, Young released an album titled Living with War, written and recorded in a nine-day span less than a month prior. Comprised entirely of songs slamming the Bush administration for its sins, particularly those surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq (sample lyric: "Let's impeach the president for lying / And misleading our country into war"). A little while later, he managed to convince his sometime bandmates David Crosby, Steven Stills and Graham Nash to join him on a short tour 'round the country, whipping up anti-war and anti-Bush sentiment in preparation for the midterm elections in November. He asked political reporter Mike Cerre - formerly embedded in Iraq - to come along and record the goings-on of the tour for posterity, and now, two years later, Young has assembled it all into a movie chronicling the reception of anti-war sentiment in America from coast to coast and into the heartland.

The problem isn't, as you may suppose, that the film is stale, nor that it preaches almost exclusively to the choir; though certainly, in 2008, when only the dead-enders and possibly the insane still back Mr. Cheney's land grab, it's hard to see what purpose the documentary could serve, and agitprop movies only ever preach to the choir, whichever side of the debate. The big problem is that Young, though he be the writer of some of the finest, most trenchant, angriest political songs of the last fifty years, apparently has no skill at marshaling arguments in a cinematic context. There is no logical progression from thought to thought in CSNY:DV, no matter how compelling some of those thoughts should be; unless it is the logic of an ADHD-stricken teenager who can't follow an idea to its conclusion without pouncing on a dozen tangents along the way. Viewed from the broadest angle, the film seems organised according to a series of subheadings: first we get The Meaning of CSN, then Amerca's Views on the War and Veterans' Views on the War. But that frame is imposed from above by Young, not drawn out of the material, which is never as clearly defined as that scheme suggests.

Again, it's not that there's not some wonderfully interesting stuff inside all of it. Almost beyond question, the best sequence in the film follows Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to Atlanta, the Deepest South stop on their tour, and the place they were most worried about. All goes well until they end the set with "Impeach the President", and the half of the crowd that doesn't stand up cheering at the top of their lungs storms outside to complain to Cerre's camera that there's no excuse for entertainers daring to have strong opinions about politics, and having the tremendous lack of tact to express those opinions. It's easily the sneakiest, best bit of commentary the film ever trots out, and only slightly for its look at the climate of America, c. 2006, in which people like Young and the Dixie Chicks are made pariahs for speaking truth to power. As much as any other band from the 1960s, politics and CSN&Y were inseparable; most obviously in "Ohio" and its B-side "Find the Cost of Freedom", both of which were loudly applauded in Atlanta and everywhere else, but in such radio-friendly megahits as Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth." The smartest card CSNY: Déjà Vu plays is to point out that there's a whole back catalogue of songs that, prior to being overplayed to their deaths on classic rock radio, were just as incendiary in 1966 as "Impeach the President" was in 2006, and if you can't tell that CSN&Y were always politically motivated, it's because you're too happily ignorant to groove out to a tune whose lyrics you don't understand. It's one of the best arguments I've ever seen presented about the commodification of '60s pop culture I've ever encountered, primarily because it's rooted in a "now"-based perspective, not a nostalgic one.

Outside of that one great passage, the film veers from overly familiar to uncomfortably smug. I understand the merit of showcasing Iraq vets' understanding of Iraq, but it's not a new idea, and Young presents some 30 minutes of this material as though none of us ever realised that soldiers had personalities. That's not half as bad as the tremendous self-indulgence of the film's opening, in which the four star muse about how important they were, and how incredibly wonderful it is for the world that they've come back to save it (surprisingly, to me at least, Nash is much the most arrogant; Crosby has the good humor to observe, essentially, that if Young didn't poke the rest of them in the ass all the time, they'd be content to play their greatest hits at state fairs. "Benevolent dictator", I think is the phrase he uses). And none of it is presented in any real order; only vaguely thematic, not remotely chronological.

I don't doubt for a moment that Young means well, and Lord knows that I'm sympathetic to his political arguments (yes, let's impeach the president - and try to get him indicted for war crimes at the same time. Also, everyone should have their own lollipop unicorn). But a messy film is a messy film, and as much as I like Young's messy songs, that's just a whole 'nother art form. CSNY: Déjà Vu is what it is, and that's an urgent personal essay created by an untrained mad prophet with a camera. Cogent and meaningful, it ain't.

5/10

AUGUST 2008 MOVIE PREVIEW

And here it is, the February of summer. Anything exciting enough to be Teh Awesome came out already, anything good enough to be, um, good isn't coming out for a few more weeks (actually, that's not fair, the first official Oscarbait of the year is due in August). Let's dig into it:

1.8.2008
Good God, what a treasure trove of Brendan Fraser this summer has been! Now, it's the long-awaited follow-up to The Mummy and The Mummy Returns: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. No way this "threequel" is going to miss!

Actually, everything I just wrote was a lie. Well, except for the part that it's the third Mummy film. And that we've had to deal with a shocking amount of Brendan Fraser this summer.

The competition (other than The Dark Knight, of course) is a warm and fuzzy Kevin Costner movie about how weird our electoral system is, Swing Vote, where he has the deciding ballot to cast in a swing state to decide the next president; any chance that this story might have succeeded died with Frank Capra.

Also, vaguely noteworthy Japanese horror director Kitamura Ryuhei is behind a film adapted from a Clive Barker short story, and the trailer actually looked pretty moody and creepy, and I was all excited until I learned its howlingly bad title: The Midnight Meat Train.

6.8.2008
Wednesday releases: for giant blockbusters, and now, apparently, low-key indie comedies like the true-life story of how California wine first gained international respect, Bottle Shock.

8.8.2008
Dude, David Gordon Green is making a pot comedy-thriller. Written by the guys who did Superbad. I have no idea how, exactly, Pineapple Express is going to work, but I somehow have it in my head that it's going to.

Something like 176 degrees away from that film is The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, which I expect is going to be uplifting and empowering, and whose existence drove me to drop the first one in my Netflix queue so I could review it properly, and now you know a little bit more about my process than you did a few moments ago.

Lastly, the tremendous box-office failure of Grindhouse wasn't enough to keep Tarantino and the Weinsteins from executive-producing another neo-exploitation action flick with Larry Bishop's Hell Ride.

13.8.2008
Wednesdays: also for high-concept action comedies like Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.

15.8.2008
Here's that Oscarbait I was talking about: the newest film by the notoriously inconsistent Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which to judge from the Cannes buzz is going to make all of us Woodman apologists who declared back in '05, "Huzzah for the masterful return to form that is Match Point!" to now declare, "Ye gods! What a tedious mess Match Point is compared to this masterwork!" Personally, I find the trailer a bit unexciting, and I don't know that I want to see an Allen erotic thriller, but hey - Woody and ScarJo. And the first post-Oscar role for Javier Bardem.

Its piffling competition includes a dreary looking CGI cartoon about flies hopping aboard Apollo 11 called Fly Me to the Moon, notable primarily for being the first CG film designed from the ground up for 3-D. Also, Mirrors, a paranormal horror film with a positively bone-chilling trailer that got me really excited until I found out it was directed by Alexandre Aja, of the overwhelmingly mediocre Hills Have Eyes remake.

Also, the prequel to a sequel to a prequel is invented, finally, with Star Wars: Clone Wars, George Lucas's boldest attempt yet to make everybody hate everything even tangentially related to Jedis and the Force.

20.8.2008
Wednesdays are also good for abysmal-looking Rainn Wilson vehicles like The Rocker.

22.8.2008
You remake Death Race 2000, you gotta take the number out of the title. I understand. But taking out that film's most notable plot element - kill a civilian, get points - that I cannot quite understand. And give the whole thing over to Paul W.S. Anderson, and you pretty much guarantee that Death Race will be the worst film of the summer, Ian McShane + Joan Allen or no.

It's competition is a Happy Madison film about a Playboy Bunny who teaches smart girls how to be slutty to attract boys, though, so maybe I overspeak. The House Bunny, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank God for the indies: Hamlet 2 may have a better concept (Steve Coogan directs a high school production of his own sequel to Hamlet) than a trailer, but at least it looks to be good for more than a few giggles.

29.8.2008
And thus does summer go out with a mewling fizzle, with four movies that all look like they're counterprogramming for something bigger: I guess the major release is Babylon A.D., Vin Diesel's return to science fiction as directed by the actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, whose last project behind the camera was the dismal Gothika. The other films on deck are a Don Cheadle conspiracy thriller called Traitor, a teensploitation comedy about College, and, saints preserve us, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's second film of the calendar year, Disaster Movie.

30 July 2008

ADVENTURES IN LOWERING THE DISCOURSE

The one thing Step Brothers does not want for is a good solid high concept: 39-year-old Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and 40-year-old Dale Doback (John C. Reilly), two men with crippling cases of arrested development, are forced to live together when their parents marry; the two man-children have to do a whole lot of growing up to survive with each other and help their parents forge a new home together.

The flipside is that Step Brothers suffers as much as any film in recent memory of possessing one and only one gag that it pounds over and over again for its whole running time: watching middle-aged men acting like 12-year-olds with exceedingly dirty vocabularies. Now, I'm not nearly so naïve as to think that there isn't a whole subculture of fans who think that the sight of Ferrell and Reilly running around like big preteens, saying "fuck" in practically every combination imaginable and speaking in vaguely lisping voices is pure comedy gold. I am glad of it; only a sociopath wants for people to see movies and find them hateful, and I expect that the people who pay money to see Step Brothers are by and large the exact same people who are going to get a really big kick of of Step Brothers.

For the rest of us, the film leaves precious little to latch onto, and I'm not afraid to say that it's easily the least-enjoyable of all the Ferrell vehicles I've ever sat through (for context: I liked Old School, I kind of liked Anchorman and Blades of Glory, and I have no use for the rest). There's this much, at least: Ferrell and Reilly are friends in life, and it's quite obvious that they're enjoying the hell out of screaming insults at each other. Knowing that actors are having a good time counts for something, at least, and in this respect, Step Brothers is surely an affable time-waster. Yet "affable" only takes you so far; and 98 minutes is much farther than that. The film has mutated from good-natured to tiresome long before it hits the end credits.

Easily the strangest thing about all of this, though, is that there's an entire second personality to the film, much less important it must be said, and this Other Film is kind of great. If the A-story is about how two extravagantly immature people become just the slightest bit less immature, the B-story is about their parents, who certainly must have some opinion about their boys' vulgar flailing. These hopeless souls are Brennan's mom Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale's dad Robert (Richard Jenkins), one a simply terrific character actor and one...well, I know I have affection for Steenburgen, so she's bound to have been really good in something I can't quite call to mind. Anyway, for those of us who like our comedy smart and probing, they get all of the best moments, including their whirlwind courtship at the beginning that is, by my lights, absolutely the comic highlight of the film. It's fairly easy to explain why this should be the case: while the stars are playing what amount to grotesques, Steenburgen and Jenkins play their characters as real human beings, responding to the absurdities of the plot the way that real human beings might, in that same situation. It gives the audience something to identify with and latch onto, and in addition it allows for a level of subtlety that comes as a surprising relief from Ferrell and Reilly's antics. In essence: when Brennan says "fuck" for the 30th time, it's only funny if you think saying "fuck" is funny, but when Nancy says "fuck", it's shocking, believably out of character, and absolutely hilarious. To be frank, I'd have watched a movie that headlined Nancy and Robert falling in love and having to deal with their unbearable kids. I'd have watched that movie ten times over. Steenburgen and Jenkins are fantastic together, and if anything they highlight the flaws in the rest of the project.

Directing all of this is Adam McKay, in his third feature film and his third Will Ferrell vehicle, after Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Bless him for being there, but I'm not at all convinced that he has much in the way of an overriding comic personality (though he did co-write the script with Ferrell, from a story they both co-conceived with Reilly). Sure, he keeps the pace brisk, and he keeps things visually and narratively uncluttered enough that the actors never have to fight for attention, but I find his timing to be just not quite 100% there. Think of a truly gifted comedy director; I have in mind Billy Wilder. Think of how even in his rat-a-tat screwball, he always lets the right moments linger just enough for the characters to twitch a little tiny bit. McKay has no interest in lingering. He plows through the material like he just can't wait to get it over with, for which I suppose I am grateful.

Though in honesty, the Wilder comparison is inapt; that filmmaker always wanted us to know that it was okay to laugh at the characters, and I honestly do not think that's what we're supposed to get from Step Brothers; despite the seemingly evident fact that these are unsympathetic jerks we have for protagonists, I never once got the slightest feeling that we're not expected to find them to be completely lovable, playful guys (in this respect, that the film presents vaguely assholish men as teddy bears, it is comfortably within producer Judd Apatow's métier). For my tastes, this is a tremendous error; but this is not a film made for my tastes. I expect that by now, this is probably an obvious fact.

4/10

MOTHER'S GONNA MAKE ALL OF YOUR NIGHTMARES COME TRUE

In 1977, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento directed Suspiria, one of the most beautiful horror films ever created, if not the most beautiful. Half Grand Guignol and half art-house pretension, it made virtually no sense as a story but made up for that - and even justified it, partially - with some of the most fantastic hallucinatory imagery ever put to celluloid. Three years later, Argento released Inferno, an after-the-fact sequel that explained the witch queen of Suspiria was actually the eldest of three sister witches, the Three Mothers. It made no more sense than the first film, and was not quite so beautiful (and it had an ending that felt like it was made up the morning of shooting, for the good reason that it was).

As time went by, the idea that the story of the Third Mother would ever see the light of day grew increasingly remote, especially as Argento's reputation took a hefty fall in the early '90s (for myself, I had not previously seen any of his films later than 1987's Opera, and I must take it on faith that they really are as silly and flaccid as is typically claimed). But lo and behold, the filmmaker finally got his act together, and 27 years later, he finally debuted Mother of Tears or The Third Mother at last fall's Toronto Film Festival. Sad to say, it might have been better if he had just let sleeping corpses lie.

Where Suspiria told of Mater Suspiriorum, Mother of Sighs, the eldest and most powerful sister, and Inferno told of Mater Tenebrarum, Mother of Shadows, the youngest and most vicious, Mother of Tears is about...I bet you can probably guess. I'm not terribly interested in recapping the whole affair about how the beautiful Mater Lachrimarum (Moran Atias) is revived as the population of Rome goes crazy and plunges into an anarchy of murders and rapes, and how only Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), an art student with otherworldly gifts, can stand against the Mother. This is a Dario Argento film. The plot isn't going to survive a whole lot of close analysis, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

No sir, we come to an Argento picture for the surreal, Baroque imagery (that Argento's films are at once surreal and Baroque is one of the chief reasons that he is so damned easy to love), and though much in Mother of Tear fits either or both of those descriptions, there's a great deal of it that's also quite gaudy and goofy and, dare I say, campy. That's not a very satisfying word to describe a director whose best works are deadly serious even though they make not a trace of sense.

Perhaps, I am wrong in this. I would dearly love to be; I'd dearly love if in ten years I came back to the new film and understood how brilliantly it fits in with Argento's masterpieces, and from that moment loved it as I love its precursors. But right now, all I see is a frequently-successful throwback to the art-horror school that dominated Italian genre filmmaking from the '60s into the '80s, that spends a little too much time peering over the edge into mindless exploitation, and falls right over that edge just often enough that it's hard not to think of the stupid moments first and above all.

There is plenty here that works, like gangbusters: for example, a scene early on where a woman with a stroller stops abruptly and tosses her baby off of a bridge would surely rank among the most shocking and haunting moments in all of Italian horror. The deaths are all staged like nothing in an American film since the 1970s, absolutely coated in blood but fantastic, like something from a dream. And of course it's impossible not to love Asia Argento, the director's daughter - okay, I suppose it's possible, given that she's actually kind of a terrible actress, but she has such ineluctable presence! Few performers have ever shared her ability to dominate the screen just by standing in front of a camera. I could maybe have done without the shower scene - her fucking dad made the movie. Still.

But for every truly iconic moment, there's something just plain silly to counterbalance it. For one thing, this is an unexpectedly exploitive movie for the director. Not that I mind exploitation per se, Lord knows, particularly in these bleak and sanitised days, but there really does come a point where enough nudity and lesbianism ceases being at all titillating or scandalising, and it starts to induce giggles. Mother of Tears shoots past that point early on and never looks back. Then there are other things, like the monkey. See, one of the Mother's henchmen is a monkey that stalks around, hunting for Sarah. I suppose it's plausible that a monkey - a bit like a tiny deformed human, really - could be an effective element in a horror film. But that's not the first thing you're going to think. You're going to think, "awesome, a monkey!", when you're not busy having flashes to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I hate to end on such a trite note as this, but the film basically feels like a parody of Argento, rather than an actual Argento film. All of the ingredients are there, but done over-the-top and without the ineffable atmosphere that a masterpiece like Suspiria contains. Without doubt it's head and shoulders over the shiny commercial crap that currently passes for horror in American, but compared to what might have been, it's an absolute disappointment.

6/10

29 July 2008

THE FIRST TIME AS TRAGEDY, THE SECOND TIME AS SOAP OPERA

It may still be the depths of summer, but the (very British) adaptation of a (very British) classic novel set in the costume- and set-designer friendly 1930s positively shrieks "Oscarbait!" from the highest rafters, and by all means, the new version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is a perfect exemplar of the form: it's been fussed over until there's not an inch of life left in the thing, just the glassy pleasures of an instant museum piece; but good God, it's easy on the eyes - without question, the most visually appealing film in the career of its resolutely impersonal director Julian Jarrold (whose last assault on literature was the speculative Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane).

I speak advisedly, having never read Waugh's novel nor seen the celebrated 1981 Granada TV miniseries, but it's quite obvious that the story has been shred to ribbons in its transition to a two-and-a-quarter hour script, adapted by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock. What remains is essentially the Cliffs Notes version of a narrative detailing how poor artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) befriends the charming gay aristocrat Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), and accompanies him to his ancestral home of Brideshead; there, Charles transfers his affections from the increasingly needy Sebastian to his aloof sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and generally lusts after the glitzy life of the idle rich in Britain prior to World War II. This all takes place over the course of some years, although just how long is up for grabs; the beginning hops from place to place without much context, while the ending unravels in a Greatest Hits-style chain reaction of plot points. At any rate, the latest scenes are about 10.5 years after the earliest.

But muddying up what happens when isn't really as big a sin as leaving unanswered and mostly unexplored the question of why. The point of all this is that Charles is seduced by the glamour and sex of Brideshead, but other than clunky dialogue stating that outright, it's not a theme that the film seems particularly able to address. In fairness, that's probably not a writing issue nearly so much as it is an acting issue: neither Goode (best known for playing essentially the inverse of his present character in Match Point) nor Whishaw (who played the underwritten lead in Perfume) have enough range to balance the fluid motivations required to make their characters sensible. Goode is just too damn uncharismatic for it to be remotely plausible that he can seduce the whole Flyte family as quickly as he does, while Whishaw is stuck in petulant mode for most of the film, at those times when he isn't busy reducing Sebastian to a swishy gay stereotype. As for Atwell, it's hard to say if she's a dynamic performer - her most prominent role was as window-dressing in Cassandra's Dream - but she lacks whatever spark is needed to bring much of anything to Julia, easily the most poorly-written character in the film.

However, Goode, Whishaw and Atwell all have one thing in common going for them: they are all quite pretty. Which fits them nicely into Brideshead Revisted, which for all its conspicuous and considerable narrative sins is a deliciously sensual movie. When you set a movie amongst the British upper classes, especially before the middle of the 20th Century, you've pretty much guaranteed that the costumes and sets are going to be wonderfully decadent, and at least as eye-candy, the film does not disappoint. As filmed at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, Brideshead is every bit as lovely as it would need to be to inspire Charles's instant lust; I'd love to meet the person who wouldn't sell out an ideal or two for a shot at life in a house that damn big. I must admit to having one complaint about the visuals: the movie is shot in surprisingly low light. It almost seems that cinematographer Jess Hall got it in his mind to shoot this period piece as a film noir, which although an adventuresome idea, isn't one that pays many dividends in the end.

Leaving us with but one thing to consider: Emma Thompson. As the cold matriarch of Brideshead, Lady Marchmain, Thompson's performance absolutely ranks above the best of her career, and even though her character is not onscreen for such a great deal of time, she absolutely dominates the film (I'm reminded of a time not so long ago, when Thompson was far and away the best element of the middling Love Actually). The actress doesn't just disappear into the role; she positively disintegrates, so much that I was honestly a bit rattled when her name popped up in the closing credits. Latching on to the fundamentalist Catholicism that passes for love in Lady Marchmain's eyes, and radiating hateful indifference with naught but a mild sneer and a raised brow, Thompson is a brilliant, overpowering villain; too strong for the meandering script that contains her and infinitely too strong for the twerpy Goode to stand his ground against.

So it's not that Brideshead Revisited is a pointless film; more that it is a dry run for a film that does have a point. It's not even a film without ambition, trying to be all intellectual for grown-up audiences in the summer, but it's just not that good at it. At least there's part of a good movie here, and at least it's the pretty part.

6/10

28 July 2008

TSPDT #193: VAMPYR

Sometimes a movie just comes right along and punches a hole in your gut, and for me, Vampyr was just such a movie. Like any halfway decent connoisseur of paranormal horror and inordinately artsy European films, I've known about Carl Theodor Dreyer's first sound film for ages, but somehow I'd managed to go without seeing it until just this weekend. Shame on me.

It's the easiest thing in to world to make excuses for atmospheric horror pictures with a plot that don't make a damn bit of sense (see also: Argento, Dario, films of), but I don't think I've ever come across a movie in any genre outside of Surrealism - which was in its heyday in the early '30s, when Vampyr was produced and released - where such a masterpiece could arise from such terrific indifference to storytelling. Though there is a story, and I defy anybody to figure out exactly what it is after just one viewing, what narrative logic is to be found in Vampyr is the logic of a waking nightmare, where uncanny experiences tumble one after the other in a seemingly disconnected chain. So much so that when the hero actually does have a nightmare, or maybe it's closer to an out-of-body vision, it hardly even registers that the film's visual palette has shifted.

In a nutshell, the "story" follows one Mr. Gray (Allan in the German prints, David in the French, played in both by the non-actor "Julian West", about whom more later), a student of the occult who journeys to the village of Courtempierre, where strange events have been rumoured of late. There, Gray finds inexplicable happenings such as shadows walking around without any bodies, a mute man with a scythe walking the riverfront, and an elderly gentleman (Maurice Schutz) who presses a package into his hand upon which is written (in Dreyer's own Danish) "To be opened upon my death." Elsewhere in the village, Gray finds an shifty pair of characters, an angry old man with wild hair (Jan Hieronimko) and a grim-looking old woman with a cane (Henriette Gérard). From here he arrives at a château owned by the same gentleman who gave him the package, who lives there with his daughters Gisèle (Rena Mandel) and Léone (Sybille Schmitz), the latter of whom has been taken ill recently. When the gentleman is shot by a vanishing assassin, Gray opens the package to find a book on the history of vampirism, and he begins to put together all the clues from what he has seen in the days he's spent at Courtempierre: it is stricken with a vampire named Marguerite Chopin, who is slowly snuffing out the lives of all the townspeople.

Even from that stripped-down synopsis, I think it's clear that most of this film is not about what happens, but what is happening, if that distinction makes sense. Basically, Gray walks around and looks at things, and those things are tremendously eerie, even more than 75 years later. He's not much of a hero - indeed, his heroing duties are briefly taken over by the château's trusty old servant (Albert Bras) just when things are starting to get really exciting - but more of a passive receptacle, letting the horrors he witnesses wash over him without complaint. At least in part, this sense is thanks to West's tremendously disaffected performance, consisting of one single expression, though I suppose he arches his eyebrows a little bit more when he's really scared. I mean this in a good way; the lack of passion in the leading man is one of the utmost reasons that it's so tempting - necessary! - to think of Vampyr as a nightmare, and not an actual "film". At any rate, we should not blame poor West, who was in reality Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, a dandified playboy who agreed to finance the film out of his great love for Dreyer's previous picture, The Passion of Joan of Arc. He only stepped into the role (that of another dandy who follows his whimsical passions primarily because he has no actual obligations) when the lead actor dropped out at the last minute.

It's a stiff lead performance that suits the film very well, given that Vampyr never tries particularly hard to function as a movie according to any rules you could come up with. It'd be lovely to claim it as the final gasp of German Expressionist horror, or even the first gasp of a new sound Expressionism, but Dreyer creates mood using a wholly different set of tricks from that movement. Despite its lack of a forthright, coherent narrative, it's clearly not a Surrealist film. And it has virtually nothing in common with the American horror films coming out at the same time (and which the filmmakers doubtlessly had not seen), save that it's not afraid of the paranormal. It doesn't even play by the rules that are supposed to govern all of early sound cinema; visually, this could just as easily be a silent film (it even has intertitles!), and the sparse dialogue isn't really functional or ornamental. But this could only ever be a sound film, given how much of its uncanny effect derives from the music composed by Wolfgang Zeller, a virtually uninterrupted Gothic soundscape that must surely rank as among the most important film scores in history. I can't personally think of another film from this period that uses sound in the same way; perhaps it has to do with the deeply flawed recording techniques used on the production, perhaps Dreyer just wasn't willing to leave the silent aesthetic behind, or perhaps he actually wanted to screw with the audience's expectations.

Against that soundtrack, his highly idiosyncratic visuals play out like almost nothing else in cinema (the film's closest relative, stylistically, that I can think of is possibly Eraserhead). Prior to shooting the film, Dreyer and his cameraman Rudolph Maté had all the raw film stock flashed, giving the shot footage a washed-out, soft appearance that reads, to the modern eye, like the film has been heavily damaged over the decades (and this being a Dreyer film, that of course happens to be the case, as well), but even with that unfortunate sensation, it's still impossible to shake the hazy feel of the movie as being something otherworldly. There are a few missteps throughout, most of which can doubtlessly be traced to the film's cramped production: a few scenes have some harder-than-necessary lighting and inappropriately "stagey" shadows (a weird lapse, given how tremendously the lighting effects are controlled elsewhere, in the creation of the disembodies shadows); the dialogue, what little exists, sounds a bit grating and loud. But any complaint must be no more than a mere quibble in the face of Dreyer's tremendous skill with the camera - few if any directors in history can get more power out of something as simple as a sideways tracking shot - and it's not hard to regret that in his long but deeply un-prolific career, he never managed to return to the genre which he ultimately did quite a bit to invent.

27 July 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: MEANWHILE, AND FAR AWAY...

Now here's something surprising: after Halloween II, producer John Carpenter wanted to take his franchise away from the implacable killer Michael Myers (who was, at any rate, dead), and try something with little precedent in cinema history. Going forward, every new Halloween film would be a stand-alone horror story set on October 31, and so the series would become an anthology, and not just a programmatic genre exercise in which teens get slaughtered by a psychopath. Indeed, so committed to this idea that writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace's Halloween III: Season of the Witch can't be called a slasher film by any standard - it's a nasty-hearted paranoid action thriller with horror atmosphere.

It grossed about half of what Halloween II made, and a chastened Universal followed it up with a programmatic genre exercise starring Michael Myers, made without Carpenter's involvement. But that's a story for next time.

Fan consensus is that Season of the Witch is a terrible film because it tells a story without Myers. This is a false belief. Much like Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, which is often cited as the worst F13 entry on account of it wasn't Jason Voorhees behind the hockey mask, the third Halloween is bad for reasons that go far beyond the killer's identity, not to mention the fact that plenty of awful movies were made with Michael Myers (while virtually nothing but awful movies were made with Jason). No, there are more than enough giant logic holes, stilted characters and idiotic developments to make sure that Season of the Witch is bad for reasons transcending its simple poorness as a sequel. I for one find the idea of rebooting Halloween as an anthology series sort of exciting, anyway: it does something to temporarily make one forget the rancid taste of Halloween II, and at least Season of the Witch is hardly any worse than that boondoggle.

Let no one say the film doesn't play fair: from the first instant, it's clear that we're watching a very different Halloween, one that initially looks more like one of those techno-thrillers so big in the '80s than a horror film of any kind: as synthetic music plunks away (the score is credited to John Carpenter and Alan Howarth; I assume the latter was responsible for everything outside of a handful of quotes of the original film's music), we see what is very clearly TV phosphors in close-up, so close that you can see between the lines of resolution. Over several shots of orange lines being rendered, the most generically action-ey font you could imagine gives us the list of offenders this time around (if I'm not mistaken, it's the same font that David Lynch used in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). Eventually, the image cuts away to a far-enough shot that we can tell it was a cartoon jack o'lantern on the television.

Then the movie proper begins, on Friday, October 23, in northern California (that theoretically sets this 1982 film in 1981, by the way, but if the Friday the 13th movies taught us anything, it's that we can't pay attention to such details or we will go mad). A man (Al Berry) runs through a dark parking lot, carrying something orange, pursued by an grim fellow in a suit (who is, I believe, played by stunt coordinator Dick Warlock). Add in the synth score, and this is definitely shaping up like a period action film rather than a horror picture. This feeling is made all the stronger when the running man crushes the man in black with a car, injuring himself. The car-crush-death isn't really a slasher film killing in concept, and it's certainly not filmed that way; and as it happened, I found myself hoping against hope that maybe the change in tenor would fit the Halloween brand name well - the opening scene really does work as far as it goes, setting up a mystery right off and kicking things off on a huge burst of forward momentum. Assuming you can ignore that damnable score.

One hour later, according to a needless intertitle, a gas station attendant (Essex Smith) is sort of watching the news on TV. Apparently, a megalith has been stolen from Stonehenge. That's only kind of important, though: what really matters about this scene is that we're about to see the most horrifying thing to appear in any movie of the 1980s. A quintessentially early-'80s video effect brings up the logo for a company called Silver Shamrock Novelties, as a really nasty ear-bug starts up: to the tune of "London Bridge Is Falling Down", somebody starts to trill, "Eight more days 'til Halloween / Halloween / Halloween / Eight more days 'til Halloween / Silver Shamrock." A little boy's face appears, bobbing maniacally back and forth, dissolving into a latex skull mask. The announcer (voiced by director Wallace) comes on and informs us that there's still time to buy one of the superawesome Silver Shamrock masks, in one of three (Jesus, a whole three?) styles. My favorite part is when the announcer breathlessly claims, "They're fun, they're frightening, and they glow in the dark!" which always somehow reminds me of "They're young, they're in love, and they kill people", only stupid. Anyway, I want to make sure everyone has a real good sense of what this commercial is like, because it's a fairly major character in the film. Oh, hell with it:



That commercial totally fucks me up. Seriously. The first time I saw that kid's head waggling back and forth, I started to shudder uncontrollably. After that terrifying apparition, we jump rails over to a house where Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is visiting his ex-wife and kids with a present: Halloween masks! But just douchey old-school Halloween masks, and the kids are pretty much disinterested, and Mrs. Ex-Dan smugly notes this as a victory (she is played, incidentally, by Nancy Kyes, who played the doomed Annie under the name of "Nancy Loomis" in the two prior films; she would later marry, and still later divorce, Tommy Lee Wallace). Apparently, Dan is not such an attentive dad as all that, and we shortly see why: all it takes is one call from the hospital where he works, and it's all "fuck off kids, I've got to save lives." Asshole. And the life he's got to save isn't even an imperiled life! It's just the old man who was running in the opening scene, and he's mostly just scared. Dan arrives just as he's being admitted - incidentally, there is one moment where three black actors all appear onscreen at one time, and two of them say something, and I believe this to be an unprecedented moment in '80s horror. In the background, that godawful commercial starts up, and the old man starts to scream about how "they" are killers. For his trouble, he's tranquilized and put to bed. One nurse makes a comment about how unusually quiet tonight has been, which I choose to believe is a joke at the expense of Halloween II and its Amazing Empty Hospital. It's not quiet enough, though; just a few minutes later, a second man in black (Norman Merrill, I think - look, these characters don't have names and they're all just bunched against each other in the credits) pops into the old guy's room, and kills him by eye-gouging. The killer then runs out and jumps in a car, where he burns himself alive. In the chaos following, as Dan gets chewed-out by his ex, we find that the old man was clutching a pumpkin Silver Shamrock mask, with a goddamn huge Silver Shamrock button on the back.

The following morning - Saturday, October 24 - a vacant-eyed brunette with giant '80s hair shows up: she's Ellie Grimbridge (Stacy Nelkin, who the same year co-starred in Going Ape!), and it was her dad who was gouged to death. She demands answers, of which there are none, and stomps off; then on October 29 - wait, what? That's like, a big jump in time. Anyway, she shows up at Dan's local bar, right as the TV reminds us all that Silver Shamrock is proud to sponsor a special screening of the classic horror film Halloween in two days, right before "the big giveaway". That's a real bold step, right there. And maybe they would have gotten away with it, if only it didn't turn into a big plot point and we didn't see clips from Carpenter's film another three or four times, and got reminded that we could be watching a much better film. So Ellie asks Dan for help, and they go to his little locally-owned novelty shop, where she raids his datebook, in which he apparently wrote everything he did every single day. It turns out that one of the last things he did was to travel out to the world headquarters of Silver Shamrock, in nearby Santa Mira, a town founded and populated mostly by Irish immigrants. Dan and Ellie are flabbergasted that the Irish might make Halloween masks, because obviously all the Irish care about are leprechauns and half-gallon jugs of beer. Incidentally, this will prove to be the most racist-against-the-Irish film to have been made in America in the latter half of the 20th Century, so buckle in. Hey, if every film has to be bigoted against something, at least this is something different! The two drive up to Santa Mira, where the locals watch them scornfully - "I feel like a gold fish," says Ellie, and Dan replies, "It's a company town." Oh, well that makes sense. They pull up to the local combination gas station & hotel, where the owner Mr. Rafferty (Michael Currie), gives them the rundown on the town, and oh, faith an' begorrah, is himself ever a cartoon Oirishman! And in fact, I think the actor is Irish, but still. It's embarrassing just to watch it. He points out the land-yacht owned by the town's preeminent citizen, and the owner of Silver Shamrock, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy, who when we hear his voice, sounds not even a little Irish, but more like a Snidely Whiplash-esque melodramatic mustache-twirling villain).

Thus begins the bane of so many horror films, of every age: We Have To Keep The Heroes Safe But Something's Gotta Happen, So Let's Tread Water For The Middle Third. Apparently realising that the only two characters we've stuck with for any length of time are obviously going to be around for a while, the filmmakers suddenly toss a whole pile of Expendable Meat our way: Marge Guttman (Garn Stephens), a very angry woman who's pissed that she had to drive all the way to Santa Mira after Silver Shamrock lost her order, Dan's Girl Friday back at the hospital Teddy (Wendy Wessberg), who occasionally relays vital information like, "we still don't know what happened with that crazy self-immolating assassin. Call back!", and the inconceivably horrible Kupfer family: Buddy (Ralph Strait), Betty (Jadeen Barbor), and Little Buddy (Bradley Schacter). With nothing else to do, Dan and Ellie make out and then fuck, despite the total lack of attraction between them earlier in the film, and despite the fact that she's decades younger than he is - a fact helpfully underscored when she needlessly states that she's older than she looks. By the way, say what you will about hack horror directors in the '80s, at least they knew how to film a simulated sex scene. A totally needless body-count killing kicks things off (a crazy hobo, played by Jon Terry, gets his head pulled off), and for a while the film just wanders all over, trying to make things last for the full 90 minutes: Marge tampers with a Silver Shamrock mask and shoots her face off with a beam of light, the Kupfers go on a tour of the mask factory which Dan and Ellie manage to bogart (apparently, Buddy Kupfer is the world's best vendor of Silver Shamrock products), we learn that Cochran's novelty empire made him one of the wealthiest men in the country, and the Suspension of Disbelief Meter shoots into the red when we have to reconcile that fact, and the repeated claim that just about every damn kid in America has a Silver Shamrock mask, with the company's six employees and a product line consisting of three different items. Spin, spin, spin, little plot.

Having seen enough to know that Cochran is batty and suspicious, and that Ellie's dad must have gotten on his bad side, our heroes try to flee Santa Mira, but an army of Cochran's men in black stop them. Dan manages to wriggle his way into the factory, looking for Ellie, when he stumbles across a clockwork woman; a second later, when he punches right through one of the henchmen, we find that they are robots themselves. Cochran is evilly pleased that Dan has learned so much, and wishes to tell him all about his evil plot, since "being a medical man, you should find it interesting." Nothing about what follows makes that statement even remotely logical. It turns out that Cochran stole the Stonehenge megalith, and is using its power to create evil magic masks, which turn the user into venomous snakes and bugs, a fact that he demonstrates for Dan using the Kupfer family. Remember, the only reason this film is bad is because it lacks Michael Myers. Though it was surely unexpected that Little Buddy Kupfer would actually get killed, particularly in such an outré manner, morphing into a rattlesnake that bites his father's pants. To death.

Cochran's plan, elaborated: at 9:00, after Halloween is over, there will be a giveaway to some mask-wearing kid watching TV. Do please note that the continental US enjoys four separate occurrences of 9:00 PM every day, and that Cochran's scheme involves all of the major networks agreeing to screen the same movie at the same time - incredibly, it later turns out that this is exactly the case. And why, Dan wants to know, is it right to do this awful thing. Because Cochran enjoys a good practical joke, but also...

...and here Season of the Witch gets its very own Samhain speech, and O'Herlihy even manages to one-up Donald Pleasence by pronouncing "Samhain" correctly. Apparently, as a son of the Old Sod, Cochran is pissed that we've all forgotten about how Halloween was born in the blood rites of the ancient druids. He wants to make it a night of sacrifice again, and since this particular Halloween witnesses a perfect alignment of the planets, he can use the power of Stonehenge to et cetera. He then ties Dan in a room with a TV and a mask, and we see that even though Halloween has been on for about 20 minutes, it's about one hour into the movie. There is some surprisingly good use of the Carpenter score playing on the TV as Dan escapes his prison way too easily and breaks out to find Ellie. The last twenty minutes of the film are sort of too stupid to recap, but it's all much more action-oriented than horrific. Let us just say that in one scene, the Robo-Ellie that either replaced the real one, or always has been there (the film is terrifically unclear), attacks Dan, and he knocks her head off; then her disembodied arm attacks him, and I though "okay, this is a deliberate comedy now, right?" and then her armless, headless body attacks him, and I started weeping silently. At the very end, Dan calls...God?...to turn off the advertisements, and two stations do so instantly (ah, the days of three TV stations). All over the country. He can't get to the third quite in time, and he screams and the film ends.

I'll say this about the film, they could sure afford the hell out of Dean Cundey, whose very blue-inflected cinematography falls somewhere between his work on Halloween and Halloween II; that is to say, this film still looks like a million bucks, and I kind of can't stand that he keeps being associated with these films, and peeking ahead it appears that I don't have to any longer. Other than that, this is just one long stream of '80s horror crud. The acting is uniformly ignorable, although Dan O'Herlihy - a character actor since the '40s, and good enough at it that Orson Welles cast him as Macduff in Macbeth - makes for a charmingly obvious villain. Stacy Nelkin, on the other pole, is one of the stiffest and least emotive actresses I've seen in all my days of watching slasher movies, and that has led me to some absolutely intolerable performances. The score is generic, though that genre is the cop movie, and not the horror film, and it never stopped bothering me. The gore is distinctly un-tame for a film of this vintage, right when the MPAA was starting to get a lot of letters from irate parents, but it's also kind of goofy looking - particularly the head-pulling scene.

And then, there's that goddamn story. I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to write about it in such detail. But it's so weird! Not weird i.e. "atypical." That part is cool: middle-aged heroes who have sex and don't die (well, Dan doesn't), and a plot structure that couldn't be farther from a slasher movie if it tried to be. I mean weird i.e. "Stonehenge will turn all the children into bugs and snakes." That might have worked in a comic-horrific Vincent Price movie in the 1960s, but everything about Season of the Witch is played deadly serious. I know that everybody was still recovering from all the coke they did in the '70s, but really? Stonehenge? And a let's-bring-back-the-druids conspiracy? It's better than yet another Jason clone, but Jesus, it's no wonder they couldn't sneak this bizarre little fable under the eyes of even the least-discerning horror fans back in the day.

Body Count: 8 people plus another 14 robots, one of whom was Robot Ellie. Since the movie is so vague about what actually happened to her, I'm not counting Human Ellie, if indeed she ever existed.

Silver Shamrock Ads: 12 appearances, although we only see it in full, I think, 3 times, and one of the other times it's just on the radio. Still, it's awful enough that even that amount is far too much. How that fucking thing propelled Silver Shamrock to become the most successful mask-seller in America is beyond me.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

25 July 2008

SURE. FINE. WHATEVER.

My inner X-Phile is still strong enough and impassioned enough, all these years after the series ended in a crush of sub-mediocre episodes that it seems only fair to give him the preamble:

The Fanboy's Tale
"Chris Carter certainly deserves praise for giving the second X-Files movie an especially canny subtitle: I want to believe, all right. I want to believe that the TV show that more or less defined my adolescence did not end the way it actually ended. I want to believe that there are still stories about Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) that deserve the telling, and that aren't mired in the soap opera trashiness where we left those iconic characters. I want to believe, at the very least, that Carter can toss out two hours of entertaining, spooky summer fare, that he was right to call this a stand-alone episode for the fans.

"I want to believe, and I don't. There's nothing about The X-Files: I Want to Believe that justifies extending the series legacy, all this time after the show went off the air to general catcalls and indifference. Scully's a doctor now, and Mulder is in hiding, and apparently they live together unless they don't - the muddle surrounding exactly what their relationship has been for six years is just one of the plot holes drifting lazily across Carter and Frank Spotnitz's script. Not, frankly, that anything in the film particularly drives me to care what's been going on with these characters for six years. Not if it was so boring that they could be dragged out of retirement by such a dreadfully uncompelling mystery - surely it's not the first time that Mulder has heard tell of a possible psychic in half-a-dozen years, but what about this psychic energizes him so?

"At best, the film recapitulates the same old themes of reason vs. faith, and the search for the paranormal as metaphor for the search for proof of God's existence, themes hit over and over in the show's run but never quite this explicitly; at best it's cagey about whether the paranormal element is real or not in way that the show very rarely achieved or even strove for; at best it gives us gentle in-jokes that are charming without being cloying; at best. At worst, there's a lot of running around back and forth, stretching out a story that would comfortably fill 45 minutes to more than twice that long, and a story that would serve just fine in the middle of the season, but doesn't work at all now. If Scully and Mulder had to be brought out of retirement, it had been better that it were for some particularly extraordinary case, not a flimsy is-he-or-isn't-he-psychic murder mystery. For the fans it may be, but I don't think I know who those fans are, who'd be satisfied with a mediocrity like this."

End the Fanboy's Tale

Fandom notwithstanding, the question has to be asked, six years after the show's finale and ten years after the last feature film, what possible void can a new X-Files movie fill? Nobody I know was clamoring for one, though certainly enough of us were more-or-less interested in the rumors that popped up every couple of years that I can see why 20th Century Fox pulled the trigger at long last.

The end result is hardly the most awful movie ever spun-off from a TV show - that title will long remain uncontested as long as Star Trek V: What Would God Need with a Starship? hasn't been erased from history* - nor is it close to the worst X-Files story ever filmed. It is nothing more dire than a colossal irrelevancy, a quietly successful CSI knock-off that would deserve naught but a quick run through the multiplexes in early April except for its title and the names of its protagonists. At the story level, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the film, other than a noticeable inattention to continuity (already not one of The X-Files' strong suits). Certainly, it's no worse than the confusing truncation of the show's mythology on display in the first feature, which had to please both fans and non-fans, and only barely did either. It's simply not remotely special enough to pull a long-dormant franchise out of mothballs, and far too routine to excite anybody who needs more than the names Scully and Mulder to plunk their change down for a movie ticket.

For the faithful, those names are enough for a little bit, at least. The film gets a solid 30 minutes, maybe more, just out of the novelty of seeing our favorite FBI agents (ex-) out and about again. Duchovny and Anderson slide back into the characters like it's been a couple of weeks since we last saw them, and though both certainly look older (and Duchovny starts the film with a giant crazy hermit beard), nothing about the performances suggest that this is anything other than the Mulder and Scully of yore, though they be a little bit freer with the 'shippy side of things. (Confidential to Chris Carter: "the fans" that this movie was "for" aren't all 'shippers. About half of us, in fact, would be very happy if that whole part of the series were flushed down the memory hole).

No, the problem lies not with Mulder and Scully. It lies with Carter himself, whose storytelling skills have been visibly slipping for some 11 years now, and who was surely not the best choice to direct this film. Could a better director have fixed the screenplay? Who knows? Certainly, Carter doesn't do much to move the film along through the increasingly repetitive scenes of "Trust not this fradulent priest/psychic!" "I want to trust him, and will follow him to an isolated frozen plain." "Ye gods, bodies are here!" "Still, in future it would not do to trust this fradulent priest/psychic!" Nor does he have much of a visual sense: most of the film is needlessly cramped, full of shots that lop of the top of heads or the the sides of rooms, fixated on close-ups where there needn't be close-ups; the sure sign of a TV veteran making his first movie, in other words. I Want to Believe is so busy and claustrophobic, that its already slow pace is dragged down even more; the few shots throughout the movie that are comparatively open and clean come as a tremendous relief, and point out the film that could have been, if only the director had focused on capturing the mystery of the big wide dark out there, and not constructing new ways to keep faces hidden from the camera until the last second.

What else is there to say? Veteran X-Files cinematographer Bill Roe makes the movie look an awful lot like the show did, dark and moody - though Carter doesn't make the most of either of those things. Veteran X-Files composer Mark Snow turns in a terrifically exciting score, far more expansive than I can remember him being with the show, ranging from the expected horror-movie tones to romantic violins and even some Philip Glass-inspired moments. These are not the sort of things we wanted out of our new X-Files movie; necessary things yes, but not enough to validate the film. I suppose in the end, it's pretty much what we all expected: not so sour an aftertaste as the end of the series proper left us with, but it's still hardly worthy of the X-Files name. God only knows if there will be another one; I want to believe not.

5/10

24 July 2008

HEY, REMEMBER THE '90S?

Oh, how it is tempting to make a dreadful pun like "The Wackness is totally wack", but just because a filmmaker invites mean jokes with a poorly thought-out title, doesn't mean the reviewer is obligated to take advantage. Still, it is totally wack. At least, it's marred by an inconsistent tone and a plot that could be dismissed as easily as it is to say: "Basically the same as every indie movie ever - but in 1994!"

So yes, it's the summer of 1994, and Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, a teenybopper who I guess specialises in bullies -he played them in Mean Creek and Drillbit Taylor) is a drug-dealing pothead freshly graduated from high school. His best client and closest analogue to a friend is his psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley); his life is an endless cycle of dealing, listening to rap, bitching about Giuliani, and wishing to have sex. The chief object of his frustrated lust is Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, continuing her drift towards ubiquity), who happens to be Dr. Squires's step-daughter. Though I have withheld the subplots, I don't doubt for a moment that you can figure out where things go from here.

Not that familiarity is a sin, mind you, but when a film proudly endeavors to position itself as the latest in the miles-long line of unserious dramas about young men discovering the world and sex while staving off the crappy dullness of life, it had better do something interesting enough to justify its own existence. The Wackness gives us an appallingly vague protagonist played with heavy-lidded ennui by an actor not remotely charismatic enough to make us give a damn. The point of the story may be that Luke hasn't figured out who he is yet, but that's not a licence to crank out a flat protagonist, whose chief characteristic is that he speaks in that white-boy-rap-fiend patois that got co-opted by the internet and made ironic early in the '00s. And that he complains a lot. He is bored of life; we are bored of him; and thus is the circle unbroken.

I'd say that The Wackness also gives us a uniquely specific view of a particular moment in time, and it's a certainty that the film's vision of 1994 is a lovingly observed one, full of more period-specific signifiers than you could shake a mixtape at. Writer-director Jonathan Levine grew up in the time and place he depicts, resulting in a recreation of the mid-'90s that's convincing and complete, unlike e.g. the slapdash cod-'90s seen in Definitely, Maybe. On the other hand, this is as clear an example as you could imagine of the artist getting too close to his own work; for most of the first thirty minutes or so, The Wackness is so entranced by its own mise en scène, that it's positively suffocating. Large stretches of the movie aren't even a movie; they're Levine's filmed scrapbook. What cinematic defense could possibly be put forth for the lingering close-up on the TV screen as Luke plays The Legend of Zelda?* And then, all of a sudden, all of the 1994-osity goes away except for the soundtrack, leaving a plot we've all seen before, with nothing to tie it back to its era. There's too much '90s, there's hardly any '90s; the one thing that never is, is just the right amount.

Coming in to save the day, unexpectedly is Kinglsey. The good knight has spent most of the current decade trying to make us all forget why we ever thought he was a good actor, and at least as far as his script-picking goes, that doesn't appear to have changed. But at least his performance is a step above where it was in check-cashing experiments like BloodRayne and Thunderbirds. Or Christ, The Love Guru. I don't know if it's a classically "good" performance - he's awfully hammy and broad - but at least he's energetic and funny more often than not, and he gives the film something it desperately needs: oxygen.

(The disparity between the peppy Kingsley and the mordant Peck actually mirrors the desperate liveliness of Dr. Squires and the drugged-out misery of Luke. I wonder if Levine planned it this way, and I like to imagine the set: "Josh, be more dour. MORE DOUR, dammit! I don't want to see your facial muscles move! And Sir Ben, act more drunk! Waggle your head around so your silly wig bounces about!" That's how I'd have directed them, anyway.)

The acting is pretty much decent, in fact, throughout the cast: Thirlby is always engaging, when the script fits her (she played the super-annoying best friend in Juno, but also the tremendously appealing teen love interest in Snow Angels), and Famke Janssen, as the doc's unhappy wife, actually gets to share some scenes with Kingsley where they both do some proper acting, my favorite being the tiny facial expressions they go through when they decide to divorce. You've probably heard that Mary-Kate Olsen is in the film, but drive that thought from your head: she is in two scenes for less than eight minutes. Even so, she isn't half bad.

Other than those actors, and a significant number of well-composed outdoor shots, The Wackness is all stifling and bland and totally unimaginative: the mirthless teen anti-hero, the sin-ugly urban cinematography by Petra Korner, the glacial pace. I shall end by saying the meanest, most damning thing I can think of: it won an award at Sundance.

5/10

22 July 2008

THE LOSER HAS TO FALL

Mamma Mia! is the movie version of Red Bull. It is absolutely going to raise your energy level, but it's practically guaranteed to give you the jitters, it's artificially sweet, and it leaves a foul chemical aftertaste.

Based on the ginormous Broadway hit, Mamma Mia! begins on a supremely photogenic Greek island with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), shortly before her wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper), sending out invitations to the three men who might be her biological father; the three men who had relations with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) one marvelous summer 21 years ago. As Donna and her old friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) reminisce about the good old days, Sophie has to deal with the unexpected development that all three men show up: architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth), and travel writer Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). I can already see your brow furrowing: "Hey, isn't that pretty close to the story of the little-known 1968 sex farce Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell?" Yeah, maybe, but Buona Sera isn't chockablock full of songs from the Swedish disco superstars ABBA.

(In which case, perhaps it should have taken a cue from the band's music videos, and been a remake of a Bergman film...Summer with Monika, perhaps. Who sets an ABBA musical in Greece?)

The problem with the film is a simple one, and no, it's not that it's a jukebox musical, although Lord knows it's easy enough to fuck up that particular genre, which can be as good as Across the Universe or as bad as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The problem is that everyone involved is extraordinarily desperate to make Mamma Mia! the most god-damnedest fun summer musical extravaganza that you ever did see, and they fall very far short of that goal, and it is a truth universally recognised that the more anxious you are to produce a super-duper fun movie, the more dire the results will be if you miss. To make my case, I shall turn to the most manic & therefore the saddest moment in the film: the production number set to ABBA's #1 super-smash "Dancing Queen". In the context of the story, this song is about Rosie and Tanya trying to remind Donna of the great old times when they were all young and lively, and to convince her that she's still got it going on. As they sing and dance from Donna's bedroom down the streets of their darling Greek town, all the local women stop whatever labor they're doing, and follow the three to the docks, where seemingly the entire female population of the island joins them in a chorus line. Setting aside the peculiar decision to make "Dancing Queen" into some sort of half-assed feminist statement, the number suffers greatly from being too big for its own good: why end with a giant mosh pit of dancing ladies when you could just as easily make it about three women having a good time in private? And then there's the matter of the number's pointless and irritating slow-motion shots, but those are entirely beside the point. The point is, first-time film director Phyllida Lloyd has decided that bigger is necessarily better and funner, and ain't nobody going to stop her from making everything as giant as she possibly can.

The results aren't fun, so much as they are sad. Yes, that is the word. Mamma Mia! is a sad movie, with the energy of a gang of depressed clowns hiding their depression in a haze of cocaine.

There might not be anything as utterly dispiriting as watching people pretending to have fun, and that is quite literally the only card the movie has to play. It tries so hard to be an uplifiting tale about women of a certain age grabbing life by the balls, of stuffy men letting go of their stuffiness, of young people drinking deeply of life, and it all comes across as maniacs faking jollity. Besides Lloyd's chaotic, ill-considered direction (I'm not sure if I'm meant to admire that this über-chick flick was directed by a woman, but bad directing is going to be bad directing, whether you have a penis or not), most of this can be blamed on the frantic performances given by Baranski, Walters, and - I'm heartbroken to say - Ms. Streep herself. I might go so far as to call it the worst performance of Streep's career, if only I'd seen more of her less-regarded pictures; at any rate, it comes across like her idea of "fun-loving middle-aged gal" is to play her role according to the mid-'90s Jim Carrey playbook, with just a bit less mugging and comic vocalisations, and no talking assholes whatever.

At least she sings well enough (as suggested by A Prairie Home Companion, two years ago), as indeed almost everyone sings well enough, given that nobody ever claimed that the ABBA songbook was full of particularly vicious melodies, and given that it's all little more than a movie star karaoke party. The only exception is Brosnan, who proves that it is indeed possible to screw up ABBA with a singing voice that sounds a bit like a dairy cow giving birth. So if the one and only reason you want to see the film is because you like ABBA and you like famous people and you want the two to be combined, sally forth! Although you might be better-served by just picking up the soundtrack CD. Seriously, though, lousy singing has recently been a bane of the musical genre (damn you, Mr. Tim Burton, damn you to Hell), so the fact that the singing is at least decent in this film counts as a triumph.

Really, the only particularly good, pleasing thing about this film which tries so unfortunately hard to please is that lovely and talented Amanda Seyfried comes across exactly the way her role needs, charming and good-natured, with a crisp, clear voice. In one number, she canoodles in the ocean with the almost as lovely Cooper, and the resultant explosion of youthful eye candy is probably the best moment in the whole film; assuming, that is, that you've written off the songs by this point (I had), and hot beach sex is the only thing left to keep your attention occupied (it was for me). No, despite all the good intentions in the world, Mamma Mia! is just too clumsy, spastic and broad to function in anything like the way it's supposed to. This is what the death rattle of the film musical sounds like, and as a particular lover of that genre, I couldn't be sadder. There's only emptiness, nothing to say.

4/10

TSPDT #341: LES VAMPIRES

In the misty depths of cinema history, when the very idea of a "multi-reel", "feature-length" movie was still in its infancy, we come across a bizarre chimera: neither fish nor fowl, neither feature nor short. I refer to the serial, a form born and popularised in the early 1910s, and still alive and kicking in America during World War II, though now lost and mostly forgotten in the English-language world. Such a queer beast is the serial, at least in its Hollywood guise: a predetermined number of episodes, each running a predetermined length, each ending with an easily-resolved cliffhanger, plopped in front of the main feature week after week, produced on the smallest of budgets. But let us not be too harsh on the serial; it survives into the modern age in the form of arc-based television series such as Lost and The Wire, reviving an aesthetically dead medium and featuring in some of the finest narrative art to be created in the new century.

Of course, we don't have to catapult to the present to find examples of the serial form being used to create great cinema. In the Teens, the French director Louis Feuillade was crafting serials that, since their rediscovery in the '40s by Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque, have come to be regarded as among the finest entertainments of the silent era: chief among them the five Fantômas films, and the ten-episode, almost seven-hour Les Vampires from 1915 and 1916, our current subject.

Nowadays, when we talk about an important films from the years 1900-1920, we tend to mean those that significantly revolutionised cinematic language, which was something you could do a whole lot of back in the first couple decades of the art form. But Les Vampires is hardly a revolutionary project: frankly, it's a bit hidebound and simple. Feuillade openly spoke against the "art film" impulse, which apparently referred to those movies like the contemporaneous The Birth of a Nation, which addressed serious themes in experimental ways. None of that fancy "cross-cutting" for Louis Feuillade, no sir! Les Vampires is a film of static shots, all the action happening from one perspective like a filmed stage play; sometimes he moves the camera, and it's pretty damn exciting, and sometimes (more often later on in the serial), he'll cut to close-up shots to make sure we notice an important detail. Twice, he actually uses that damned cross-cutting, moving between two scenes occurring at the same time. But in the main, this is exactly the kind of movie that impatient youngsters like to dismiss as boring or old-fashioned. Yet here we are, 93 years later, still talking about it - because even if it's not very adventurous formally, the one thing that Les Vampires has that so many movies lack, then and now, is a cracking good story.

The Vampires, you will perhaps be sad to learn, are not a group of the blood-drinking undead. They are a gang of supercriminals operating in Paris, their leadership hidden in shadow and their actions untraceable. Leading the fight against their reign of terror, we meet Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), ace reporter for La Revue Mondiale, and his silly sidekick Oscar-Claude Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who bucks tradition by being one of the very few comic relief figures in the whole history of film to fail at being completely and hideously annoying. Whether he is genuinely comic, now that I cannot quite argue with a straight face. But he is appealing, and this is not something that most of his successors will be able to claim.

As fast-paced entertainments go, there's only one real problem with Les Vampires, and unfortunately it's a doozy: Philippe Guérande is a bit of a pill, through no fault of Mathé's. It's always a hazard with movies pitting a noble hero against a band of outré baddies, that the baddies are far more entertaining. Guérande is supremely competent, blandly moral, and no damn fun at all. Which seems like it's going to be a huge problem at the outside: Episode 1, "The Severed Head", spends most of its 30 minutes following the reporter as he looks for clues in the death of the chief inspector of the Vampire case, found in the country as a decapitated body. There's some gaudy melodrama to be savored as he stumbles across trap doors, hidden passages, and shifty locals, but for about the first 25 minutes, all I could keep thinking was how much I was not looking forward to spending seven hours with this dude. Then, the crazy shit starts to go down: a mysterious package for the reporter turns out to contain the inspector's head, the kindly Dr. Nox who was renting a room to Guérande turns out to be the villainous Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in disguise, and the last shot of the episode follows a black-clad figure creeping out of a window, sliding down a pipe and slinking off into the night. "Ah," I think to myself, "the movie just started."

And lo and behold, from that moment on Les Vampires will swing between two poles: either we're watching Guérande and Mazamette, and it's vaguely interesting and diverting, or we're watching the incredibly evil plotting of the Vampires, and it's amazingly super-awesome. And the super-awesomest part of all is just about to come onboard: after a second episode so brief as to barely deserve mention - having never seen a French serial, I'm not sure if it was characteristic of them to enjoy such variation in the running time of individual episodes (from 13 to 55 minutes), but all evidence I've found seems to indicate that it was a peculiarity of Feuillade's, and one that serves him well - we come to the third episode, "The Red Codebook", and barely has that episode begun than we meet the intoxicating supervillainess Irma Vep (Musidora, born Jeanne Roques).

Oh, Irma Vep! Perhaps the first iconic villain and fully-rendered independent woman in the cinema (and a shame it is that those two milestones should be the same figure), it's virtually impossible not to love her: whether she's vamping onstage, or creeping around the good guys' homes in a variety of disguises, she is always the center of attention, sexy and dangerous before it was common to see sexy and dangerous rolled up in one. Small wonder that 81 years after her debut, Olivier Assayas would title his metaphorical study of the history of French cinema Irma Vep, centering the plot of the film around the attempt of an aging director to turn Maggie Cheung into the most seductive faux-Musidora possible. Irma Vep - do note that her name is an anagram of "vampire", something the film makes clear in a nifty animated effect that is almost as iconic as the character herself - is the Platonic ideal of a femme fatale: though she will destroy any man who takes her, no man would dream of resisting her.

She's the most prominent Vampire, but that's not to say that there aren't plenty more to delight in watching: for example, the dread Grander Grand Vampire Satanas (Louis Leubas), who has a cannon that comes out of his study wall with the flip of a switch, that can blow up buildings and boats. Then there's the Vampires' arch-rival Juan José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), a hypnotist of such craft and skill that even Irma Vep herself falls for his trickery. Like many a TV show to follow, Les Vampires peaks in the middle, from episodes 4-8 (and especially 5 and 6), which uncoincidentally happen to be the same episodes where Moréno appears. He's the proper antagonist for the marvelously baroque Vampires, not the wimpy Guérande, and in the final two episodes, where the Vampires are just trying to kill the reporter, all of their gigantic schemes to steal fortunes and kill innocents forgotten, the air begins sagging out of the series at an alarming rate.

Seven hours is, I suppose, a long time to support as slender an idea as "gang of awesome criminals fight a newspaperman", and even before the diminished ending, Les Vampires is clearly running low on invention: more than half of the episodes end because Mazamette just so happens to be in the exact right place to stop the crime and tell Guérande everything. But when it's clicking, and it clicks much more often than not, Les Vampires is a proper masterpiece, with plenty of giddy ideas and lovely compositions - hey, just because Feuillade didn't want to move the camera, doesn't mean he didn't think about how to put imagery together - and so what if it's not Terribly Important? It's Terribly Fun, which is all the director ever wanted, and in those wonderful moments where Musidora's kohl-marked face stares right out of the screen and into your soul, it's Terribly Perfect, too.

21 July 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: IN WHICH JOHN HOWARD CARPENTER LOSES HIS FREAKING MIND

For this summer's slasher festivities, I selected the Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises for the most pragmatic of reasons: I'd already done Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I simply picked the next two biggest names in the subgenre. But as I reach Halloween II, I'm stunned by how many similarities can actually be drawn between this film and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2:

-Both follow seminal movies in the development of the slasher film that were released before the boom began in 1980; both were released after the boom. Yet in both cases, the first film is structured more like a slasher film.

-Both follow an ending that was left open, but clearly meant to stand without a continuation. Both were only released after the spring, 1981 debut of Friday the 13th, Part 2 ushered in the biggest wave of obligatory sequels known to cinema history.

-Both snagged the director of the first film in a major creative position.

-Despite this, both are pretty much useless.

Of course, by no means is Halloween II so very wretched as TCM 2 - it is not a "clever" attempt to muck about with the genre by adding "comedy" - but by the same token, Halloween wasn't such an anomaly in John Carpenter's career as the first TCM was in Tobe Hooper's. The one man also directed Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing. The other directed The Funhouse and Lifeforce.

"Oh, but Tim," you might well say, "John Carpenter didn't direct Halloween II! That schmuck Rick Rosenthal did." And yes, that is true: the film was directed by a man whose later career consisted almost entirely of journeyman work on TV dramas. But honestly, Rosenthal's work isn't all that terrible - certainly not very good, and he can't think of an imaginative composition to save his life, but with Dean Cundey coming back as a DP, the two men at least put some effort into retaining visual continuity between the two films. No, the real reason that Halloween II sucks gnat scrotums with quite such effortless flair is the dire, dire screenplay, with its flat logic and non-existent momentum and deeply ill-considered retconning. And just look at the screenwriters - John Carpenter and Debra Hill! Hey, you know what other movie they co-wrote?

Besides, if we're to believe the half-heard rumors that creep around the project's history, then Carpenter stole the director's chair away from Rosenthal for some last-minute reshoots. But not just any reshoots - apparently, Carpenter thought that the first cut was entirely too bloodless, and he personally oversaw some new gore effects; an ironic thing, given that one of the most common complaints about Halloween II is how much bloodier it is than the first film, with all of the mythic scariness getting chucked for mercenary concerns. And then twenty years later, Ghosts of Mars was released.

I don't mean to get ahead of myself. Let's start at the start, and the single finest decision made in the scripting of Halloween II, given the fact that the film shouldn't have existed in the first place: it opens in the same instant that the first film ended. Most slasher sequels, we should note, subscribe to only the loosest notion of "continuity," but the second installment in the Adventures of Michael Myers stands out, with much of the same cast and most of the same conflicts. And given that Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence are part of that returning cast, the film at least had a fighting chance, more than the endless Friday the 13ths with their brand-new slate of Meat could ever hope for.

Indeed, the new film starts a bit before the last one ended: Laurie Strode (Curtis) sends her babysittees off to the neighbors, while Michael lies dead on the floor. She stands whimpering, he slowly rises, chase is given, Dr. Loomis (Pleasence) bursts in and fires seven shots from his six-round revolver (a lovely continuity gaffe to open a film with, and dialogue later refers to him shooting six bullets), Michael falls, "It was the boogeyman", "As a matter of fact...", the body is missing. Then the new stuff begins, as Loomis bursts out of the front door to look at the spot where the killer should be (it was the backyard in the first movie), and runs next door to beg the neighbors to call the police. The neighbor fella is dubious, asking if this is a Halloween prank, claiming that he has been "trick-or-treated to death". Loomis's response is awesome - as he will have much cause to do over the next 90 minutes, Pleasence takes one look at his character's overwrought dialogue, and chews the shit out of it: "You don't know what death IS!"

Notwithstanding what I said about Rosenthal not being all that poor a director, the opening few shots give us an excellent chance to see otherwise: with compositions that are mostly identical to the ones Carpenter already executed, three years earlier (and with one of those being among the first film's most iconic shots), Rosenthal can't quite manage the same level of Baroque uncanniness. I'm not certain that I could explain why, exactly. It's much akin to the feeling you get when you're listening to a cover of a song that's being played the same way that it was originally, but there's just something really, really wrong about it.

Speaking of which, this is right when the credits begin, and we get to hear a piece of music being played the same way it was originally, but really wrong. Yes, Carpeneter's marvelous score is back, and it got fucked with. Since it was already performed on synthesizers, I can't claim that the problem is how electronic it sounds. I'm not certain what the difference is, honestly, though I think it might be that the new version has a more prominent bassline, and the effect is kind of discoey. A common ailment of the early '80s slasher. The credits themselves are also nearly identical: a jack o'lantern on the left, the titles on the right, the camera slowly moves in on the pumpkin. Which, this time around, splits open to reveal a human skull. Everything we've seen and heard so far contributes to the overwhelming sense that what we're about to watch is so very close to the last film, except that it's lousier.

So, out of the credits, and into a POV shot that is sort of like the one that opened Halloween, except clumsy, and just not as good- okay, you know what? Typing "like the first time, but shittier" is going to get very tough on my fingers, so just assume that it happens over and over again throughout the movie. So POV-Michael stalks his way into the poor part of town, where he sneaks into a house where two unpleasant old people are watching Night of the Living Dead - not content to resemble its much superior predecessor, Halloween II is now actively trying to piss me off by bringing up as many better movies as it can think of - to steal a kitchen knife. He then walks across the yard to a house where a young woman named Alice (Anne Bruner) is talking on the phone and learning of the slaughter of three teens just a few blocks over. She turns on the radio, which helpfully recaps the last film - apparently, three teens have just been slaughtered - and Michael kills her, in a tremendously bad gore effect highlighted by an obvious cut to a fake head a fraction of a second before he drives the knife into her jaw.

Back at the scene, Laurie is loaded into an ambulance, and driven to a building that is always referred to in dialogue as "the clinic," but says on its side, Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, and is a giant structure that looks to be the main medical center for the whole county. Thereon hangs a tale.

It is a fact undeniable even to the film's staunchest defenders that the depiction of Haddonfield Memorial is tremendously botched: in this whole big building, there seem to be five employees, one patient (Laurie), and a nurseryful of newborns. To say that this is unconvincing is underselling it something fierce. But suppose, for a moment, that this wasn't supposed to be a hospital; that it was meant to just be an emergency clinic like you could actually find in a drowsy Illinois town like Haddonfield is meant to be (I say "meant to" for the same reason it was "meant to be" Illinois before; ignore those green trees and short-sleeved teens in the Midwest on October 31, please). That tiny staff and that utter lack of patients makes a touch more sense, maybe? And it just happened that they found an abandoned hospital, soon to be torn down, and it was easier to shoot there than to rig up a clinic set, maybe? Or maybe not, given the large number of facilities the "clinic" is seen to have, including a classic thriller-style hot tub that can be turned up to fatal temperatures. That is to say, 125º Fahrenheit, somewhere between "a hot shower" and "a hotter shower," but maybe the girl who gets scalded to death just has sensitive skin.

Before Laurie can be admitted to the emergency room, Carpenter, Hill and Rosenthal treat us to one of the sweetest images ever: a little boy (Ty Mitchell) with a giant razor blade stuck in his mouth, blood gushing from the wound. This little boy appears in three shots: once when he gets introduced, once when his mother (Leigh French) is arguing with the admitting nurse about finding a doctor, and once when he leaves, all healed up. He serves exactly no plot purpose whatsoever. Whatsoever.

It seems like an annual thing for me to defend whatever outrageously gory horror flick just opened from the legions of moralistic critics who think that showing people dying in pain is the sure sign of a depraved sociopath behind the camera and/or in the audience (meanwhile, Wanted currently enjoys 73% on Rotten Tomatoes). But there's moral indignation and there's moral indignation, and there is simply no excuse on Earth for putting that little bit of nastiness in the movie. It smacks of the screenwriters' distaste for their project - though I should hasten to mention, I have no outside reason to believe that either Carpenter or Hill had any such distaste. It's a sour moment, one in which all the fun of the first movie (assuming that it can be called "fun") and even the fun of the more giddily stupid slashers (ditto) is sucked out in a mean-spirited gag.

So let's see...Laurie ends up in the hospital, as EMT Jimmy (Lance Guest) flirts with her a little bit before she gets drugged. That takes care of her for a while. Meanwhile, we revolve back to Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers, another actor returning from the original), driving around in the sheriff's incredibly green car - all of the police cars in Halloween II have shockingly green dashboard lights - and we're treated to the one completely human moment in the film, as Brackett learns that his daughter was one of the victims in the massacre (a callback to an ironic scene the original, when he frets over her safety shortly after her death), rebuking Loomis with the words "Damn you", delivered with all the rage and pain in the world. That kind of emotion has no place in a tawdry slasher, and we're well on our way to Tawdry Slasherland, so Brackett is whisked from the film, and Loomis is set free to wander around Haddonfield alternately screaming that Michael is an animal! and that we must stop Michael!

When we're not chasing Loomis, we're wandering through the ludicrously empty halls of the hospital, and Halloween II stops being anything other than a cheap slasher film, though at least one with decent actors and great cinematography. Michael knows that Laurie is in the hospital, and he jets right off to find her, but before he can go there he has to sneak around the perimeter, slaying guards and nurses in inventive ways, including the dumbfounding scene where he siphons all the blood out of Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford), whose role in the hospital is a bit hard to identify, but she is extraordinarily competent at it. So I imagine that it's a sign of respect, or something, that she is given such a European death, but it's staged like somebody who knew only that "a puddle of blood siphoned out of a body" sounds European, but never actually saw a giallo. And the moment is ruined anyway when Jimmy comes in and slips on the blood, sort of Keystone Kops-like.

There are so many differences between a pre-1980 slasher film and a post-1980 slasher film, but I think the one that might be the most remarkable is that, après Pamela Voorhees, it was no longer enough for a psycho killer to kill teens. He had to kill them in the most Rube Goldbergian way possible. Think: in the first Halloween, Michael had his kitchen knife. Leatherface had his chainsaw and hammer. They killed. But Mrs. Voorhees, she garroted kids, she stabbed them, she slit their throats, and her son!...It would take more than I have in me to list the ways that Jason thought up to butcher people. At any rate, Michael learned something from them in the brief span between movies, because other than the siphoning, we get to see stabbings, slittings, drownings, chokings, burnings, and poor Ben Tramer, Laurie's crush in the first movie, gets smashed by a truck, but not by Michael. The reason for all this is simply that it was How Slashers Were Done in 1981, and the reason for that, I think, is that audiences were much more interested in gore voyeurism than being scared. We'll be here all day if I try to make good/bad arguments about that development, but let me be content with saying that Carpenter and Hill didn't seem to like it, because in trying to make Halloween II a new-phase slasher movie, they destroyed everything about the property that was worthwhile in the first place. Along the way, Rosenthal manages to steal that classic "Michael just sort of appears from a dark space" trick, in a scene where he jabs a syringe into a woman's forehead.

So, okay, it's about 70 minutes in, and almost everybody is dead, and Laurie is creeping around the place. She didn't do much in the first film, mind you, but it's quite infuriating how much of Curtis's performance in this film is lying in a bed or looking very tired. She's managed to hide in a car, biding her time, and there we may safely leave her for Dr. Loomis, who is being escorted out of Haddonfield in a state marshal's car on the governor's orders, and in short order the writers play the dirtiest pair of cards they had, and start outright pissing on our memories of the original. Now, about twenty minutes earlier, Loomis had found the word "Samhain" written in blood at the local elementary school (I forget why it makes sense that Michael would have gone there, so it probably didn't). Loomis absently mentioned that Samhain would be Catholicised into All Hallow's Even, or as we like to call it, Hallowe'en. Now, he launches into the full-on crazy version of the same: in a monstrously purple speech, delivered by the delightful Pleasence like he was playing Richard III's drunk brother, Loomis more or less says that Michael kills on Halloween because of the druidic traditions of sacrifice on Samhain. Which he keeps pronouncing "Sam-hain" and now "Sa-win," like it's supposed to be. Also, there's no reason to believe the druids did that. But let's not quibble! The first seeds of Michael Myers's transition from Absolute Evil to Druidic Antichrist have just been planted! I hope I didn't just ruin the rest of the series for you. Ah, fuck it, the series was ruined ages ago.

Seconds later, in the very same scene as this bombshell, Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), the nurse who rode with Loomis to the asylum in the opening of Halloween and came along to escort him back to Smith's Grove, drops a bomb of her own: according to the Supa-Secret Myers File, he had a little sister, two-years-old when he was commited...who was adopted by a Haddonfield family when the Myers died in an accident when she was four...and now goes by the name "Laurie Strode," not aware of her adopted origins.

I must pause for a moment to collect my breath.


GODDAMMIT.


In the whole history of sequeldom, has any choice so entirely, self-evidently wrong ever been perpetrated on an unsuspecting masterpiece? I can't even imagine something that terrible - Michael Corleone was Vito's clone, Han Solo was Luke's father, Superman is actually from a race of space cannibals, Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was a little boy, I can't even make something up as terrible as: "Laurie Strode is Michael's sister". I knew it going in - I knew it before I ever saw Halloween - but that doesn't stop it from fucking with everything that made the original so utterly successful: Michael stalks Laurie for no reason. Now it's because he was out to finish the job he started 15 years ago, to become a druid fortune teller or some FUCKING THING, OH MY GOD, FUCK YOU JOHN CARPENTER AND FUCK YOU DEBRA HILL.

There's still a healthy chunk of movie to go, during which Laurie never finds out, and during which there are a few false scares, gory deaths and one tremendously satisfying shot of Michael appearing in a pool of red light. Then Loomis blows up the hospital with himself and Michael inside, and Laurie escapes just as Michael storms out of the flames to fall down "dead". And I don't care about any of it. Halloween II commits a single narrative sin that does the worst thing any sequel can ever do: it retroactively taints the original and makes it less interesting. We hates it, we hates it forever.

Body Count: Well...Dr. Loomis and Michael both sure seem to die, but we know better. Given that, the number usually put forward is 11, but it's not remotely clear what happens to Jimmy, so I'm going to run with more conservative 10.

Which number, by the way, is more than any of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, or any of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films other than the most recent.

It ties the lowest-end of the Friday the 13th series.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)