31 August 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 2: "THE GOLDEN SHOES"

The second episode of Paranoia Agent shifts gears entirely, both in terms of the story's focus and the structure (it's easy to suspect that this is going to be the case fairly consistently). In the aftermath of the mysterious Lil' Slugger's second attack, on venal, froglike paparazzo Kawazu, Tokyo is buzzing with questions about the spate of beatings, but none of that particularly matters to Taira Yuichi (Yamaguchi Mayumi), the most popular boy in his sixth-grade class. Nicknamed "Ichi" (something like "No. 1") because he's so damn good at everything, the boy becomes the target of great suspicion when more and more details come out about Lil' Slugger, and all of it matches up to Ichi - particularly the unlikely fact that they both have golden roller blades. Suddenly the subject of ridicule for the first time ever, his fragile ego can't take it, and he makes the quiet, pudgy new student Ushiyama Shogo (Tsumura Makoto) his scapegoat, assuming that it's all an elaborate plot to win Ushiyama the class council spot that Ichi thought himself destined for.

Where "Enter Lil' Slugger" was a fairly straight-up whodunnit, "The Golden Shoes" plunges us into the mind of a fragmenting personality, the first time that the "paranoia" part of Paranoia Agent makes itself known. Almost the whole story is told in Ichi's voiceover, moving from the bold confidence of the early scenes, when he's at the top of his game, to sheer desperation at the end, when he's lost seemingly everything. Ostensibly a story of how Lil' Slugger is affecting people all over Tokyo, "The Golden Shoes" is much more a merciless plumbing of egocentrism. At first, Ichi seems like a nice enough guy, but even before he starts to lose his grip on reality, we've seen through him: he's arrogant and smug and entitled, given to self-aggrandizing fantasies that present him in all manner of flattering surroundings (the deliberately limited and repetitive animation does a good job of emphasising the particular hollowness of Ichi's imagination).

Like all people whose self-rewarding fantasy lives are much happier than reality, Ichi simply can't deal with the loss of prestige that comes from being accused of a crime that he didn't commit, and "The Golden Shoes" is mostly a document of how that drives him mad. Literally mad - like I said, he's driven quite to paranoia, and if his fantasies are typically soft-focus representations of the real world, then his delusions of persecution are rather more discomfiting and stylised. All grotesque lines and shifting perspectives, the suggestion is almost that he's going paranoid - and if he's not actually Lil' Slugger, he certainly has enough of a dark side that he could be. Late in the story, he almost seems to summon Lil' Slugger, in fact, twice: once as the vehicle of his rage, and once... it's hard to say exactly what happens in those final minutes, frankly, though I imagine it will be at least a touch clearer later on. All I know is that whatever happens to Ichi in the concluding moments of "The Golden Shoes", the sight of a boy's mind snapping like that is more terrifying than any bat-wielding vigilante could be.

Once again, Kon Satoshi is making an apparent critique of modern living: replacing the first episode's attack on pop culture ephemera with a much more serious criticism of the swaggering entitlement issues that plague a number of post-industrial nations. Ichi's arrogance is deep and ingrained: we all know someone just like him, someone who spent his entirely life being catered to and has no concept of other people except in how they do or do not further his own ambition. Kon is a wise enough filmmaker to give the character enough of a human element that we both understand and pity him; but at the same time, it's next to impossible to actually like him. Either way, the idea of someone being so self-absorbed that the implosion of their ego would push them into a schizophrenic fit, now that's pretty grim and probably unrealistic, but it's already clear that Paranoia Agent is a fable of the 21st Century, not a documentary.

Of course, it's also a mystery story, and if "The Golden Shoes" doesn't give us any more real hints about who or what is Lil' Slugger, it offers tantalising hints of what's going on in the world that's being revealed so slowly. First, it was only now clear to me that the old man's curious vision at the end of "Enter Lil' Slugger" was actually a weird, poetic way of giving us the preview for the next episode, but the choice of couching it in the form of a character within the show has to be telling: we can already see that he's some kind of seer, given that he's added to his massive equation to incorporate a reference to Ichi.

Moreover, the only two moments in the episode that aren't directly related to the boy both involve Tsukiko, and what little we learn about her confirms what was mostly obvious already: she's not altogether "there". Questioned by the detectives, she barely seems to register their presence, leading an exasperated Ikari to ask her Maromi doll if he knows anything. This coy moment is sickly parodied later on, when Tsukiko wonders if she has anything to do with the latest Lil' Slugger attack, and Maromi - now walking and talking again - assures her in terribly urgent language that she has absolutely no guilt, and it has nothing to do with That Other Time. It's still not at all clear if Tsukiko is hallucinating Maromi, or if something much more peculiar is going on; but it's already turning into one of the most compelling mysteries of the show.

All in all, "The Golden Shoes" finds Kon testing his series' flexibility in generally rewarding ways: if not as dramatically "grabby" as the first episode, it's arguably more self-contained and thematically resonant, while still building on the idea of society at the brink of disorder (the opening of episode one is mirrored by a scene in which a classroom full of children all start to get phone calls at the same moment, their ringtones competing in a symphony of disharmony; and then later in a moment when Ichi's internal monologue turns into a howl of incoherent raging). By showing how far the world extends beyond the base of characters we saw in the first episode, Kon raises the stakes considerably, making the question of Lil' Slugger's meaning and motivations apply to a whole society, which is even more compelling now than I gave it credit for.

SEPTEMBER 2010 MOVIE PREVIEW

Summer's over, and good riddance - though I'm not the first to notice the curious and maybe unprecedented manner in which the 2010 summer movie seasons consistently improved as it went on. At any rate, it's time for the loveliest of all months, when the big-ticket movies are done and the Oscarbait hasn't quite gotten its makeup on yet. Hooray!

1.9.2010

First, though, we have to let the rest of the air out of the summer, with what by all means out to be a real pip of an assassin thriller: The American, with George Clooney under the direction of Anton Corbijn. At a minimum, it should be unfathomably gorgeous; and it's a good time of year for that sort of thing.


3.9.2010

And then, summer finally passes out, with Machete, Robert Rodriguez's expansion of his fake Grindhouse trailer. To be fair: it is bound to be better than a full-length Don't or Werewolf Women of the S.S. To be cynical, the best part of that trailer was the voiceover line, "They fucked with the wrong Mexican", and even if that makes a cameo appearance in the feature, it won't work as well.

Then we transition into the September Doldrums with Going the Distance, a romantic comedy with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, about two people in love in distant cities. Boy oh boy, if there were ever two people I wanted to see in a movie together, it was Drew Barrymore and Justin Long.


10.9.2010
3-D + the fourth entry in terrible horror series based on video games + the legendarily bad Paul W.S. Anderson = Resident Evil: Afterlife, the newest in a line of movies I am unreasonably excited for only on the basis of how gaudy they look. And Christ, does this one ever look gaudy. Paul W.S. Anderson in 3-D is the kind of thing that makes angels cry.

The only other wide release is The Virginity Hit, which looks so bad on so many levels I kind of can't think about it, but the limited release calendar - some of it opening only in New York and Los Angeles, unfortunately - has some interesting possibilities: Casey Affleck's documentary about Joaquin Phoenix, I'm Still Here; a hit French romantic comedy, Heartbreaker; and an Australian musical dramedy, Bran Nue Dae, among others.


15.9.2010
An Ishiguro novel set in dystopian Britain, with a cast of Lovely Young Things including Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield? Why yes, I think I am already desperate for Never Let Me Go.


17.9.2010
Taking the wide releases in order from most to least anticipated, because I have no freaking idea which one is going to be the biggest:

-The Town, Ben Affleck's second film as director. Gone Baby Gone was outstanding, and this film has an even more irresistible plot hook: a master thief falling in love with the woman suffering from PTSD after he robbed her bank. The bad news is that Ben is playing the lead himself, instead of his brother Casey.

-Easy A, in which Emma Stone (who is immensely likable, but needs to be in a really great movie soon if she doesn't want to keep drifting around and running out a career by her 30th birthday - and her window-dressing role in Zombieland doesn't cut it) relives a teen comedy version of The Scarlet Letter. Could be good, hard to say: but there is a quick bit with Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson in the trailer that is as funny as hell, and anyway, those two actors are enough to get me to pay for just about any movie ever.

-Devil finds M. Night Shyamalan story-writing and producing - because writing is his strength - a story about Satan-inna-elevator.

-Alpha and Omega looks so fucking ugly, I can't even put it into words. The least-appealing animated film of 2010.


22.9.2010
The coasts only, but a new Woody Allen film is enough of an event that I must still call attention to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which at any rate cannot possibly be as bad as Whatever Works.


24.9.2010
Delayed from all the way back in April, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps finds Oliver Stone making his first-ever sequel, for a story that probably didn't need it; but hey, topicality. Also, any new Stone is a guarantee of interesting results, though increasingly, nothing good. So this one definitely gets a look, even if one should keep one's expectations at a low simmer.

Also, Zack Snyder makes his own first: a non R-rated movie in the form of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, a cartoon about owls. From the trailer, a powerfully gorgeous cartoon; but Jesus, an epic about owls? From Zack Snyder? I wonder if there's even the possibility of this turning out well.

Rounding out the wide releases, there's You Again, which has all the hallmarks of a pedestrian, throwaway comedy - and yet there's Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver in the cast. So there must be something there that the trailers aren't telling us, unless the sole reason to see the film is watching those two immensely wonderful actresses zinging each other. Which is, at any rate, a good reason.

30 August 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 1: "ENTER LIL' SLUGGER"

Before we get started, I should make it clear that I don't really know a single bloody thing about Paranoia Agent, a 13-episode animated series created by the late, sorely missed Kon Satoshi in 2004. And I'm going to attempt to keep it that way, letting each new episode make its own impact without foreknowledge of any sort.

Kon's fourth project as a director, following three feature films (Perfect Blue in 1998, Millennium Actress in 2001, and Tokyo Godfathers in 2003), came about when he found himself with a whole lot of great ideas that he couldn't fit into a cohesive movie. The natural next step was television (for they do things differently in Japan than in other countries, where televised animation - and animation generally - is not typically regarded as the ideal medium for serious artists), though Kon's series was dark enough that it was not shown on any of the country's family-friendly networks when it premiered.

The first episode introduces us to a sprawling mess of characters, eleven according to the gloriously kinetic opening credits sequence, which showcases them each in turn against a backdrop of speeding traffic. Not all of these figures are given equal weight; some barely rate a cameo. Which in turn promises a whole lot of narrative sprawl before all is said and done, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

After the credits, the first scene proper drops us right into the hell of modernity, where several voices are all talking on cellular phones, as people tear ass through the busy city streets without paying even the slightest attention to one another. Right at the starting gate, we find ourselves plunged into a world of high-tech toys and mindless cacophony; the implication seems to be that at the dawn of the 21st Century, we've got more ways than ever to communicate with each other, but arguably less to say.

From there, we start to meet the plot: Sagi Tsukiko (voiced by Noto Mamiko) is sitting in a cubicle, trying to design a new cute character, under the piercing gaze of her last triumph, a floppy pink dog named Maromi.

Maromi is apparently the company's biggest seller, one of Japan's most beloved kawaii, or "cute", characters - your Hello Kittys and the like. Tsukiko is under a lot of pressure to create the next Maromi, but that concern takes a backseat when she encounters a trollish old woman rutting around in the trash one night; running away, she trips and falls, and before she manages to pick herself up, she gets beaten up by someone with a bent baseball bat.

In come detectives Ikari (Iizuka Shozo) and Maniwa (Seki Toshihiko), who manage to get enough out of Tsukiko to determine that her assailant was apparently a boy of around 10 years old. This story becomes a huge media event, enough so that a seedy reporter, Kawazu Akio (Utsumi Kenji), starts to dig in, hoping to sell the story for money enough to stave off an extremely angry creditor, whose father is in something like a coma thanks to Kawazu's recklessness.

Even without knowing where Paranoia Agent is going, "Enter Lil' Slugger" (Lil' Slugger being the Anglicised name of Shōnen Bat, or "Bat Boy", the weird figure who attacks Tsukiko, and then another victim at the very end) has enough density for a whole feature. It's heavy on the doom-and-gloom foreshadowing, particularly in a moment where an ancient old man (Sakachi Ryuji) scrawls a massive equation on the ground: it cannot mean anything good, especially since a wall right in front of him prophesises the arrival of Lil' Slugger.

More immediately, "Enter Lil' Slugger" presents an overall vision of a world on the brink of collapse. From the second we're thrust into that hellish soundscape of meaningless chatter, Kon obviously has it in for the trappings of the modern world, particularly in the twinned stories of Tsukiko and Kawazu, both at the end of their rope for reasons entirely connected to modern pop culture that is presented, with little ambiguity, as shallow and meaningless: she with her endless, unusable sketches for kawaii toys, he with his parasitic reliance on gossip "news".

This is all presented visually using a style that, for want of a better phrase, I'm tempted to call "realistic caricature": almost all of the characters other than Tsukiko have impossible designs, fleshy and often hideous, but bound by the physical limitations of the real world, and acting against a detailed, perfectly workaday series of locations. I wonder - and assume that the rest of the series will answer me - if the cartoon grotesqueness of the characters is meant to reflect the essential grotesqueness of the universe they inhabit: our universe, pushed by just a degree or two.

Even the most "real" character, Tsukiko, has her cartoon-world avatar in the form of a Maromi doll that she carries with her at all times; it is plainly her comfort in time of stress, at one point moving around and talking (though whether this is Tsukiko's hallucination or not is left wholly uncertain), just so that he can promise that everything is all right. The constant emphasis on Maromi (who gets a position of great prominence in the end credits, as the totem around which all of the characters slumber in peace), as well as the constant, shadowy presence of Lil' Slugger, provides a two-pronged attack on complacent culture: the dog toy represents all that is safe and nice and lovable, contrasted with a dark figure of capricious violence. Together, they suggest that too much consumerism dulls the mind with the promise of endless ease; but reality, whether it's as a miserable homeless woman or a phantom mugger, will always put paid to the comforting lie of floppy pink dogs.

At any rate, whatever the world of Paranoia Agent truly stands for, it's a wonderful deep world, captured in elegant lines by Kon and his artists, impossible to turn away from even as it is deeply unsettling and in places off-putting. A brilliant place to set a psychodrama, in other words, even if the scope of that psychodrama can hardly be guessed from the snatches of this first episode.

LUCIO FULCI: THE EYES HAVE IT

A gallery from The Beyond (NSFW - violence)

29 August 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HELL AND THE LIVING DEAD

See also: A gallery of images from The Beyond.

Thirteen films into the Video Nasties Edition of the Summer of Blood, there's been a few predominately worthwhile movies here and there, surrounded by movies that are bad enough to be hilariously entertaining and (rather more often) movies that are bad enough to be fucking bad. But all this time, I've had an ace up my sleeve. Knowing that it was far likelier than not that as full summer of Nasties would be just as aesthetically vacant as my three summers of slasher films, I made a specific point of scheduling myself a little present, in this, the second-to-last week of this year's program: The Beyond, widely regarded as the masterpiece of the great Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, and a film which, to my immense shame, I've never gotten around to seeing, despite proudly claiming Fulci as one of my all-time favorite genre filmmakers.

The background to this particular example of the under-appreciated genius's art - and not to spoil the surprise, but I'm in pretty much complete agreement with the conventional wisdom on this one - takes us to the mid-1970s, at a time when the giallo, Italy's visually exquisite, narratively dotty tradition of hyper-violent murder mysteries, was starting to run out of steam. It was in 1975 that Dario Argento released Deep Red, the last of the greatly important "true" gialli, and following that moment, the country's giallo specialists found themselves thrashing about a bit. Fulci himself had been away from the genre since 1972's Don't Torture a Duckling, but he had yet to find serious success in his attempts to find a new voice with a pair of White Fang adaptations and the extremely solid but behind-the-curve Western Four of the Apocalypse. His return to the giallo, 1977's The Psychic, failed to boost his sagging profile (though it is a damn fine example of the form), and it was perhaps only a matter of sheer luck that the filmmaker managed to get in on the ground floor of the soon to explode Italian zombie genre, helming the epochal Zombi 2 in 1979.

Having at last found huge success in the horror field, Fulci managed to ride the new wave of Italian zombies into a brief string of greatness to rival his giallo period, though by the mid-1980s he'd begun to slide again, and never really recovered. Still, that gave him time to produce three of the most unique films in horror history, typically called "zombie" movies only because there's not any other really usefully descriptive way to categorise them (the "portal to hell" movie is indeed a subgenre, though a fairly obscure one). Often referred to as Fulci's "Hell Trilogy", these are 1980's City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, and 1981's The Beyond/7 Doors of Death and The House by the Cemetery (the last two made the Nasties list, though neither was successfully banned), broadly connected by the idea that the wall between the world of the living and the afterlife is rather more porous than we'd all like.

It is, then, with the second of these films that we are presently concerned (its Italian title, E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà, has the zesty translation And You Will Live in Terror! The Beyond). The story and the conceptual hook are essentially one and the same: there is a hotel in Louisiana which is situated directly over one of the seven gates to Hell, and the young woman who has just inherited the property gets to find out the hard way what that entails. As first conceived by Fulci and story-writer Dardano Sacchetti, this was meant to be plotless in an unusually literal sense: not much more than a series of disjointed shock scenes, all centered around the presence of pure evil in an old hotel. Fulci's Germany distributors, however, wanted zombies; and something mostly like zombies they got (especially in the final scenes). The core of the film remains almost exactly what the filmmakers wanted in the first place, though: New Yorker Liza Merrill (Catriona MacColl, with the Americanised name "Katherine" in the credits - she's a London native) would like to restore the Seven Doors Hotel to operating capacity, but Something has other plans, and goes to violent lengths to get its wish. We in the audience know a lot more about the terrible history of the Seven Doors than Liza will ever learn, though even we are still mostly left to be buffeted about by the capricious bends of the plot, which is coherent as far as such things go, though only in the sense of "it describes actions in an order that is easy to follow" and not in the sense of "you'll know what the hell happened and why at the end of it".

The Beyond opens with one of the strongest scenes to be found in Fulci's filmography - one of the strongest scenes, indeed, in Italian horror. In 1927, a mob of angry men storms the Seven Doors, looking for a painter named Schweick (Antoine Saint-John), declaiming him as a warlock, despite his protestations that he is the only thing that stands between them and something evil. They brutally murder him, and entomb his body behind a cement wall in the basement.

Oho, but that doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what this magnificent opening is all about. It plunges us swiftly and mercilessly into the atmosphere and violence that will define all of The Beyond, which is itself as beautiful and gory simultaneously as any film of its vintage. Shot in sepia tone, one half-wonders if it was conceived as nothing but an excuse for Fulci and his regular cinematographer, Sergio Salvati, to show off how gosh-darned talented they were; if you know two things about Fulci's aesthetic, the second (after his love for outrageous, poetic gore, high even for an Italian) is the abandon with which he wielded the contrast between light and dark, and of course that contrast is inherently more obvious in monochrome than in color.

The sequence also reveals the artists to have that rarest of all gifts: the ability to compose images using the widescreen ratio of 2.35:1 in ways that not only possess an abstract beauty all their own, but also create a narrative and emotional mood simply from the way they relate objects to one another. That Fulci was a great visual director, I knew; that he and Salvati created one of the most perfect anamorphic-widescreen horror films in history, I did not know, until those first images of The Beyond came to life before me. Woe to that one who only sees the film in its original American VHS edit, titled 7 Doors of Death! Not only is it cut badly, making its deliberately unclear story simply muddled, it reduces this fine widescreen images into pan-and-scan monstrosities - I haven't seen the film, but I cannot fathom that it would be even slightly as effective without the total effect of the constantly perfect compositions driving it.

The visuals are, in fact, such an essential element of how the film functions, I've felt obliged to provide some frames - taking a moment to point out as I do so that the first of these (which is, for all intents and purposes, the first shot of the movie) is such an obvious reference to Sunrise that I'm simply taking it as given that Fulci and Salvati knew that's exactly what they were doing.



The fogginess of that first image, and the perfect geometry of the spots of light, calling specific attention to the men in the boats; in the second, the dramatic light from below, splashing against the hotel exterior, giving it an ominous feel, while those black, slablike cars thrust a wall between us and the building - a wall of pitch dark; and the way in which the focus and the use of light and dark objects in the third send your eye scurrying down the hall ahead of the mob, taking in details quickly as you end at the nervous porter; I didn't choose these images entirely at random, though I almost could have in this sequence and stumbled upon three equally driving moments. That's how much care went into the lighting and composition of every shot - not just in this sepia opener, but in the entire feature.

In this sequence, we are also pitched into the on-edge mood of the film, thanks to inserts of a wide-eyed young woman (Cinzia Monreale, under the name "Sarah Keller") reading a book simply titled Eibon, as a storm rages. Where she is in relation to the mob, we cannot say for certain; but her descriptions of the writings of that man Eibon neatly align to the ravings of poor Schweick, talking all kinds of madness about the doors to hell as the mob drags him from room 36, down to the basement, where he will be whipped with iron scourges and nailed to the concrete wall with thick spikes, and then covered in quicklime, in a scene whose gut-wrenching depiction of the mortification of the flesh is not one degree less convincing or nauseating than the same material in The Passion of the Christ, 23 years later.

54 years after all of this, things play out more or less how they must: Liza flitters about, clashing politely with employees Martha (Veronica Lazar) and Arthur (Giampaolo Saccarola) - "They came with the place", she explains, but the darker meaning of this never gets touched upon - and making plans with designer Martin (Michele Mirabella), which include among other things the disposition of the faintly unpleasant painting left by none other than the late artist Schweick, a grey-tone piece showcasing what appear to be dead bodies lying in a stony desert. Meanwhile, she picks up information about the town from local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck). But all of this is mostly incidental: if the beginning didn't tell us what we needed to know about something very wrong lying in wait within the Seven Doors Hotel, there are other clues: a workman falls and ends up in the hospital (this is where John enters the story, in fact), after seeing two chalky white eyes - blind eyes, from the look of it - staring out of an upper-story window; and the man that Liza hires to deal with the flooded basement, Joe the plumber (Giovanni De Nava) - yes, called exactly that, and if your mind just flashed to "I wonder if Sarah Palin is a huge fan of The Beyond", you are not alone - cracks open a wall, and naturally enough, out comes a hideously withered hand, and gouges out poor Joe's eye in the process of killing him.

From there on out, things happen pretty naturally (particularly if you've boned up on your H.P. Lovecraft): the exhumed corpse of old Schweick starts making the rounds, bringing bodies to life everywhere he goes; while Liza makes a new friend in the form of Emily (Monreale again; hmm, important?), a blind woman of a certain otherworldly mien. That is to say, she's some kind of ghost, which is a fact we're meant to notice instantly (her eyes look exactly like whatever frightened that worker off his scaffold), giving the film a real hell of a kick as we sit around, watching Liza meander about aimlessly, waiting for whatever the hell Emily portends to happen. People die like flies - flies dying hideously violent deaths, involving tarantulas chewing on their tongues and beakers of acid and the like - and what it all means is a matter for conjecture, because we get just enough concrete information that it's really damn hard to fit any of it together perfectly.

The narrative incoherence present in the film, endemic to Italian horror filmmaking for a decade on either side of 1981, was probably never as well-suited to the topic at hand as in Fulci's Hell Trilogy: and The Beyond turns it into flat-out art. It is something of a perfect horror movie. The genre, as I have argued and others have argued before me, is all about the interruption of the quotidian by the uncanny; horror, that is, is the presence of inexplicable danger in the face of the most banal kind of normality. It's hard to think of a better way to describe The Beyond than "inexplicable", the plot rolls along so capriciously and arbitrarily. Both Liza and John explicitly describe themselves as rationalists: she on account of growing up in New York, he on account of a medical degree. And of course they are both completely wrong, and to prove it the movie surrounding them has nothing of the rational about it.

Functioning as little more than a chain of shocks and unsettling, protracted scenes of violence, The Beyond wears its theme right in its structure. Head towards it with the assumption that it will all hang together in some traditional sense, and you're going to be horribly upset, which is not just part and parcel of Italian horror, it's uniquely appropriate - the film is quite literally a depiction of all Hell breaking loose, which would tend to be the kind of experience that doesn't nicely fit into pre-conceived notions of what a movie ought to act like. This is present not just in the creation of the visuals, but in the fragmented editing (even in the most generically typical sequence, the zombie shoot-out), and the sound design: like most Italian films until the end of the '80s, The Beyond was not shot with sync-sound, but unlike all but the very best of them, it boasts a soundtrack that goes far beyond its creepy music in the creation of an impossible, otherworldly mood. The sound effects in this film are all over the place, with the hair-raising specter of tarantulas that crawl around with metallic scraping noises getting my vote for most entirely fucking eerie.

Even Fulci's most characteristic quirks take on a new meaning here. He was known as an "eye" director: one of his most notable gore effects is the eye-gouge, of which there are a staggering three here (or rather, two and one "honorary", so to speak). But the imagery goes beyond literal eye-popping. One of the most typical kinds of shots in the film is the close-up of a character's eyes, filling the frame; blindness is an important recurring narrative motif. There's a sense in some moments in which the film is looking back at us: late in the film, there is an entirely unmotivated scene which consists of one shot only, of Liza staring straight into the camera, breathing hard. This constant emphasis on eyes insistently reminds us of perception, of the act of watching, of the act of visual interpretation; and deprived of any narrative coherence, visual interpretation is just about the only thing The Beyond gives us.

The period clustered around the end of the '70s was a marvelous time for this kind of artistic horror that was so committed to its creation of an uncanny, supernaturally irrational world that the film itself promotes incoherence within the viewer's brain; just preceding The Beyond, 1977 and '80 begot Argento's Suspiria and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, respectively. Together, the three films represent a high-water mark for horror before and after: incredibly well-crafted, creating an unearthly vision of horror through a delicate combination of scenario, image, and sound. The Beyond is the ultimate expression of everything in Fulci's career: with this one film, he secured an unassailable (if regrettably obscure) position in history, and arguably achieved the greatest success ever in turning the one evident weakness of all Italian horror into an incontrovertible strength.

Body Count: 9 people are at one point seen alive, and later seen dead, plus a dog. It could well be 11; what happens to Liza and John at the end is probably closer to being dead than otherwise...

Nastiness Rating: 5/5, truly Nasty. I decided to commit myself to that rating during the scene when a little girl backs away in stunned alarm from the red, foamy pool that used to be her mother's flesh; and then the wildly protracted "tarantulas devouring a man's face" scene came along and confirmed it. The opening sequence, with its torture-porn quality scourging and skin-melting was really just a cherry at that point. Also, observe that this film was not successfully banned, while the "we've got tempera paint and sheep parts!" gaudiness of Blood Feast was, and reflect with me upon the asininity of the DPP over this whole Video Nasty thing in the first place.

28 August 2010

LIKE AN EGYPTIAN

As a general rule for life, I've found that if a movie stars Patricia Clarkson (especially since the turn of the millennium), it is almost certainly worth seeing. Not, maybe, a masterpiece; not even, necessarily, particularly good. But Clarkson herself is invariably worth watching, and she's of that rarefied company of actors who seems to always pick projects that are at least interesting, even if they are not invariably perfect.

Hence: Cairo Time, which would sound exactly like "Lost in Translation with a middle-aged Scarlett Johansson" if I told you the plot, and would probably never sound like anything else no many how details I added. Which is an extremely good reason why you should never let a plot synopsis be the sole reason you choose your movies (whereas choosing them because of the lead actress - now that's just good sense). What makes Cairo Time work has little to do with its story as such, and more with the empty spaces around the story, filled in with details of character and emotional presence.

Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, the wife of Mark (Tom McCamus), a UN official working on some business in Gaza whose details we never learn. She has come to Cairo to spend some time with him, learning only when her plane lands that he's been held up due to the customary unquiet of that region, and in his absence, she's met by his friend and former aide, Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig). Tareq offers to escort Juliette around the city, which she accepts, though only after finding life in the American embassy to be a grueling matter of addle-minded petroleum wives and sheer banality, and finding further that Cairo is not an easy place to be a Western woman with no knowledge of Arabic beyond the word for "thank you". It's convenient to say that what crops up between Juliette and Tareq is a hesitant, unrequited romance, though convenience here comes at the expense of precision.

The most important thing to point out is what Cairo Time is not: an "innocents abroad"-style depiction of a foreigner out of her depth in an exotic culture. That is to say when it is that thing, it's unyieldingly in service to its more immediate concern, a woman who is not terribly happy, and is well aware of it, stretching her wings a little bit.

How much of this is inherent in the screenplay, and how much of it comes entirely from Clarkson, is something that I can't altogether say; I'd credit the actress with more than half of it. Certainly, I think the film would be better across the board without writer-director Ruba Nadda. Every individual aesthetic works extremely well, especially Luc Montpellier's excellent cinematography, moving jarringly from blinding exteriors to murky interiors, and constantly refusing to sentimentalise Cairo as the stuff of a tourist's postcards, even in such seemingly-iconic shots as the Giza pyramids at sunset; Teresa Hannigan's judicious editing also stands out, gently establishing Juliette's inability to connect with the world around her, and then just as gently showing how she starts to grow more comfortable, while Niall Byrne's score falls into an uncanny sweet spot where it seems both obviously sentimental (all soaring strings), but contains just enough moody dissonance that it never plays strictly as we'd expect. But the guiding hand behind all these elements, and more (the sound design is rather cunning, as well, to say nothing of the costumes by Brenda Broer), is always inclined towards the obvious statement rather than the quiet suggestion. A film whose themes are insulated and personal has a hard time standing up to the overtness of Nadda's direction, and even more her writing.

Still, what works in the film manages to assuage the harshest edges of Nadda's missteps; and nothing but nothing works better than Patty Clarkson, whose evocation of Juliette is most of the reason the film exists at all. It's a character study, all the way through, and the best parts of the character come from the actress: a grimace the briefly flashes across her face, or that wonderful, "I'm not really happy, but I have a certain level of satisfaction nevertheless" half-pained-smile that she does so extremely well - and given how very much that phrase describes her character in Cairo Time, she gets to use it a hell of a lot. Juliette, we are quickly given to understand, is a bit frustrated: she has, by this point, run out of surprises and it's clear enough that this "flying around the world, meeting Mark" routine has become dull. The arc of the movie, then, is in how she finds what it would be like to actually live like this, to be a different sort of woman in a different place; it is a drama about being shaken up by a change of scenery, in effect. This skates right up the the edge of orientalism, without going over: the specifics of Cairo matter more because they are unfamiliar than because they are necessarily exotic, if that makes sense. The exoticism simply makes it take that much longer for her to find her bearings, which in turn gives her more space to live a completely different lifestyle. This includes finding herself attracted to a man not her husband for the first time ever; while this could come across as both exploitative and maudlin, it's more simple and peaceful than that. Juliette has never been given a chance to live outside her life, and so has never been able to respond to a man, much less one as erudite and charming as Taleq. This is all Clarkson's doing, or at least it's all refracted through her being such that our understanding of the character is entirely a function of the actress's nuances and shading, regretful without being bitter, presenting a perfect facade of satisfaction that she only mostly believes, feeling occasional emotions that take her by surprise even as she enjoys them.

It's Juliette's movie all the way, so it's not entirely surprising that Taleq isn't a fully fleshed-out character; but Siddig turns in a magnificent little performance that suggests a human hiding in the largely functional role nevertheless. Like Clarkson's performance, Siddig's is full of tiny moments - by necessity, given that the script leaves him little else to do. His fractional asides, responding to Juliette with varying degrees of amusement and understanding that we notice although doesn't, tell us volumes about the man; the two actors are a perfectly matched set, and in the process Siddig manages to accomplish one of the hardest acting feats of all, making it impossible to remember that he's a Star Trek universe veteran.

Between the two of them, they make Cairo Time a much more involving, lingering experience than it it probably deserves to be. Certainly, it's not a particularly graceful film, except that sometimes moments of pure grace just soldier in and turn a fine adult drama into something so much deeper that words fail me. At the end, Juliette finds herself discovering that the woman who was so enriched by Cairo is going to return to being Mrs. Mark Grant; like everything else, it's hard to say how much this bothers her exactly, but it is a heartbreaking moment regardless, and all the more heartbreaking because I didn't realise until exactly that instant just how much I cared about this woman. Not all art announces itself and bowls you over with its power; sometimes it sneaks up on you unawares, and as minor and sometimes frustrating as it can be, it's this habit the film has of revealing itself to be much more than it seems that makes Cairo Time a compelling vision of a woman lost and found.

7/10

27 August 2010

IN MEMORIAM: KON SATOSHI

12 October, 1963 - 24 August, 2010

Like a great many fans of animation, I was stunned beyond words to learn that Kon Satoshi, one of the greatest anime directors of the modern age, died this week, losing a fight with cancer at the age of 46. His moving final statement can be found here.

Despite a career spanning only four features and a television series (his fifth feature, The Dreaming Machine, is supposedly far enough along that his widow and colleagues will oversee its completion this year), Kon had firmly established himself as a true visionary, using the medium of animation to explore the depths of human consciousness like no-one before him. He was truly one of a kind, and will be deeply missed.

It seems only right that I should pay some kind of tribute to this man's work, in whatever way I can, and since I've seen all of his four features, but never the 13-episode Paranoia Agent, that seemed like the best place to go. Beginning on Monday, I'm going to take a short look at each of the 13 episodes, one per day; I hope those of you who've seen the show will join in the conversation, and those of you who haven't will be inspired to take the opportunity to start along with me. The show is available on Netflix (discs only, no Watch Instantly), or most of the expected non-legal internet sources.

26 August 2010

WHAT BIG TEETH YOU HAVE

Though the last few years have seen a gradual return to harder and more violent horror movies after about a decade of feeble, teen-friendly thrillers, it's still hard to be prepared for Piranha 3D, directed by French gorehound Alexandre Aja, from a screenplay by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. This is not a film that should ever have made it into a mainstream multiplex; its genes were formed in the warm, wet pool of the '70s grind house, when exploitation films didn't just feature nudity and blood, they featured fucking and graphic evisceration. Naturally enough, I adored every second of it, all the more because in addition to be wanton and filthy and foul, it's absolutely as tacky as hell.

It's title, for God's sake, is Piranha 3D (or actually, not: onscreen, it's just Piranha. But you know what I'm aiming at). And a tawdrier display of the possibilities of 3-D projection has not been seen anywhere in the three-year lifespan of the current phase of that fad, though the "eyeball on a pick-axe" scene in My Bloody Valentine 3D is coming from the same place. Piranha 3D is a whole feature's worth of eyeballs on pick-axes: limbs, toothy fishes, geysers of blood, and lots of naked female breasts jut straight out at the audience with mercenary abandon. "Tawdry", did I say? It's downright indecent.

Not really remaking 1978's Piranha, a horror-comedy masterpiece directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles, so much as agreeing with its notion that it might fun to throw a hell of a lot of carnivorous fish at a waterside resort, Piranha 3D presents us with Lake Victoria, Nevada, one of those little communities whose economy depends entirely upon one brief tourist season. The kind where e.g. if you had to shut down the local tourism site e.g. a beach, it would destroy the lives of every regular citizen.

So it's spring break, and Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue, gamely adding a sense of character to a largely functional role) is busy dealing with the hordes of screaming college students, while she things her eldest son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen) is babysitting his siblings Laura and Zane (Brooklynn Proulx and Sage Ryan). In actuality, Jake is torn between doing his noble duty, fecklessly pursuing his old high-school crush Kelly (Jessica Szohr), and following the hypnotically sleazy producer of a Girls Gone Wild knock-off, Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), on his quest to film naked drunk girls cavorting in the quieter parts of the lake. More to the point, an underlake earthquake has just opened up a cavern that has been isolated for thousands of years or more, releasing a bunch of big goddamn piranha. You have more than enough to go on - everything before "big goddamn piranha" is window dressing, and the film knows it.

The film, in fact, knows many things. Its predecessor was one of the first meta-horror films, both serious in its intent to terrify and thrill, and also a loving satire of its own kin. Funny as hell when it needed to be, but never a spoof, always a real honest-to-God killer animal movie; that was Piranha. Now, Piranha 3D attempts to do the exact same thing, and it is not as successful - trading in the writer of Lone Star for the writer of Good Luck Chuck will have that effect - but it is altogether more successful than a hard-R horror movie in 2010 has any right to be.

We get the sense at the word "go" that Piranha 3D has a certain cleverness to it when the film opens on a shot of a man sitting in a boat, singing drunkenly while he fishes. The man is played by Richard Dreyfuss, and the song is "Show Me the Way to Go Home", and the movie does not insist, at all, that we understand why this is significant. The scene could play just as easily as a random, inexplicable Richard Dreyfuss cameo that sets up the plot, but if you know that Jaws exists - and anyone seeing Piranha 3D probably knows this - it's a clear, unashamed admission by the filmmakers: "Oh, yeah, we are going to rip-off Jaws something fierce, by the way".

For every moment that follows, it's absolutely clear that Aja and his crew are making a movie that they know very well is derivative, hackish, and cheesy: they count on it. One can say anything about Aja - beginning with the fact that every one of his features suffers from some crippling flaw or another - but he's a smart director, who knows how to play the audience like nobody's business. And, as he now proves for the first time ever, a director with quite a broad sense of humor.

Piranha 3D is not, emphatically, a deconstructionist work, along the lines of Scream or (arguably) Aja's own High Tension. There is no meaningful sense in which it subverts it own existence or tries to apologise for its own wildly poor taste and leering sexism. At the same time, it's profoundly self-aware (that Jaws gag, for example), and throughout all the trashy exploitation, it feels like there are in a sense two different movies going on at once: the obvious neo-grind house picture, in which naked boobs and buckets of fake blood are thrown out just because those things are awesome, and a slightly sheepish, mostly pleased movie that keeps remarking to itself: "well, this is the kind of movie where there ought to be a lot of naked women, so here they are. Tits ahoy!" In other words, the film is fully aware that it belongs to a certain kind of extraordinarily crass genre without feeling the need to distance itself from that genre. The exact opposite, in fact: one of the most immediately notable facts about Piranha 3D is its 110% commitment to being trashy, whether it's a parasailing scene that appears to have been placed in the movie solely to afford the shot of a topless woman flying towards the camera, or an extended - very extended, long beyond what I'd have assumed remotely plausible - sequence in which seemingly hundreds of extras are killed off in ways that far outstrip anything even in Aja's notably bloody oeuvre. One could argue that the excessiveness of all these sequences is by its nature self-parody; and certainly, you'd need to be clinically dead not to understand how a scene of two women making out underwater for several minutes, set to Léo Delibes's "Flower Duet" from Lakmé is clearly meant to be a joke, even if it's not right up your alley. And certain elements, such as O'Connell's boisterously slimy performance as a Joe Francis clone (the filmmakers' game attempt to prove that they're not just interested in ogling women; they're equally anxious to punish the ultra-male chauvinist in the most humiliating gag possible), or Christopher Lloyd's showstopping cameo as a demented ichthyologist, or the deliberately stupid final shot, can only be regarded as farce. On the other hand, the most outré gore effects (which I should not even imagine giving away) are far too seriously sick to be funny, even if they are immensely delightful.

At one point, Laura humiliates her older brother by explaining, at great length, that he enjoys looking at boobs. This odd little moment, clearly motivated by the evergreen love of putting precocious little girls into films, has a double function; subsitute "the audience" for "Jake", and she is essentially mouthing Piranha 3D's manifesto. We are here to see exploitative junk, and Aja has the respect for the audience and the integrity as a horror director to give us exploitation, with none of the sadism of a Saw and none of the fainting-couch niceness of a PG-13 slasher flick.

One has the clear sense that everybody involved is very proud of Piranha 3D, right down to its damnably shoddy post-conversion to 3-D (it was always meant to be in 3-D, however, unlike other post-converted films). There is a story that, upon seeing the desperately fake-looking robin at the end of Blue Velvet, the shame of that film's effects crew, David Lynch was ecstatic almost beyond words. So it is, I suspect, with the cheap 3-D here: it adds to the sense that we're watching something too unbelievably crass to live, and wonderful because of it. So praise to you all, makers of Piranha 3D! To you, Aja, and to you, cinematographer John R. Leonetti, and to you, editor who is named only Baxter, and the wonderful make-up people at K.N.B. EFX: you have made a movie that is slick and shallow and nasty in every way, and I enjoyed it more than I would have imagined possible.

7/10, partially because I'm embarrassed to go on record with something higher

WHO YA GONNA CALL?

The blog has been on a bit of an '80s kick lately, and Adam Bertocci did his part to keep things going when he donated to the Carry On Campaign and requested today's review. Three cheers for the decade of Reagan, leg warmers,and hair metal!

Even for a decade in which the high-concept comedy reached its apex, there's something exceptionally high-concept about Ghostbusters: a horror and science-fiction hybrid whose state-of-the-art visual effects were so damn state-of-the art that the film still wasn't quite finished when it premiered in June, 1984, and yet at heart it's just a buddy comedy, just a tale of the geek and the wiseacre like a number of significantly less costly films from the same period.

Of course, given that we hardly recall most of those other movies even with the haze of nostalgia, while Ghostbusters remains as iconic a pop culture touchstone as any other movie from that decade (I can wax all the rhapsodic I want to over The Princess Bride, for example, but must always finally acknowledge that nobody - or only a teeny number of people - would be breathlessly excited for a first-person Princess Bride video game in this day and age), I don't mean to suggest that its big-budget somehow makes it a shallower thing: the very reason for its longevity has everything to do with its "bigness", its costly high-concept ambition which lends the film a kind of grandeur and impressiveness that sets off its resolutely intimate, human-sized comedy and makes it seem all the funnier for the contrast (a similar dynamic drives Men in Black, which has long struck me as the last of the great '80s action-comedies, stranded out in the back half of the 1990s).

For, taken strictly as a comedy and nothing else, Ghostbusters has a very definite loose and ultra-casual feel to it, born of the low-key genial good humor typical of writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in those days, and carried further still by a clutch of lead performances that seem to have the shrugged-off sense of improvisation (the top-billed star, a certain Bill Murray, may indeed have improvised a great deal of his work, although how much varies depending on the source you follow). It's not hard to see the creators' background in projects like The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack shining through: movies that are very much in a chilled-out, "we're all just hanging around, being goofy" sort of mood.

Indeed, so casual and cool is the movie, it's altogether shaggy- but just in case, I should quickly outline the plot, I suppose. Three parapsychology professors in New York, Drs. Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis), are given the boot when their school determines that they're layabouts spending too much money on go-nowhere research. And we have every reason to side with the school, given that the first we see of these gentlemen is Venkman rigging an ESP test to favor a pretty girl that he'd self-evidently like to screw. Deprived of income and a place to conduct Stantz and Spengler's experiments on ghostly phenomenon, the trio manage to set themselves up as New York's only paranormal exterminators, and in just a little while they've proven themselves both as scientists and as public servants. Just in time, too, for the recent uptick in ghost activity in the city is tied to a forgotten Sumerian god called "Gozer" - and whatever Gozer is, it has a particular interest in Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), a musician whom Venkman has been courting, mostly without success.

Now then, that shagginess: the plot of the film is the investigation into stopping Gozer's return, and the movie is well aware of it. But everything that gets us to that point is slapped together; frankly, Ghostbusters has a broken first act, in which we are introduced to our three characters and their paranormal interests, shown the creation of their science and their company, introduced to their snippy receptionist, Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts, a dismally under-used actress whom I have loved since before I can remember - any other fans of the long-extinct sitcom Love & War out there?), and their new recruit, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson), and given quite a few scoops of foreshadowing, and all of it done so lazily that it would get a failing grade in any screenwriting class in the world. A great deal of information is simply posited, and we damn well better be okay with it; details are thrown out that seem to tie back in to nothing at all (one example from a sea of them: with the money gained from a third mortgage on a single-family home, the boys are able to finance what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment); arguably the most interesting part of the whole narrative, the ghostbusters' rise from crackpots to national celebrities, is covered in a montage set to Ray Parker's inescapable "Ghostbusters" theme song.

This is not one of those insights that grabbed me as I discovered a beloved slice of childhood to be a shell of what I remembered. Unlike a lot of films that I wore out on VHS, I've seen Ghostbusters frequently - prior to re-watching it for this review, it couldn't have been even two years since I saw it last. And here's the important thing: prior to re-watching it for review, I had never thought about the first act as being dysfunctional in any way. And that's why I have chosen to call it "shaggy": it's unkempt and messy and doesn't really work, except it really works. Which brings us back to the loosey-goosey casualness, and the irremovable anchor brought to the film by the Murray-Aykroyd-Ramis triumvirate.

(Incidentally, I feel terrible for Hudson: it must be thankless than playing the fourth man in a three-man show, though it wasn't always meant to be. In the early stages, his role was intended to be longer, a vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who turned it down in favor of Beverly Hills Cop. A good thing, too: the slacker-ish, buddy-movie vibe would have been seriously damaged by a more prominent role for Zeddmore, especially one with Murphy's generally more manic persona. And the jockeying for prominence between him and Murray would have been intolerable, although it's equally likely that another actor would have been cast as Venkman in this scenario).

Whether by design, accident, or after-the-fact stroke of genius in the editing room, Ghostbusters is Bill Murray's movie. Without Aykroyd and Ramis to bounce his sardonic delivery off of, it's true that there'd be nothing for him to do; but without his performance, in which he forever crystallised his persona as a sarcastic & weary, but oddly likable smart-ass, the simultaneously breezy and snotty mood of the movie simply would not exist. It's hard to believe until you start looking for it, how much of Ghostbusters consists of nothing but Murray's reactions to things: to Ramis's deadpan technobabble, to William Atherton's prissy EPA inspector, to Weaver's prickly charm (incidentally, with the intensely wonderful chemistry between Murray and Weaver on display here, I consider it nothing shy of a crime that they never made a movie together outside of this franchise). Not to diminish the other actors' contributions: Aykroyd in particular has some entirely marvelous lines and moments, and Rick Moranis's smallish role as the twerpy accountant Louis Tully is a tiny comic gem, albeit one that largely exists in some totally different movie. I just feel, steadfastly, that it is Murray who sets the comic tone, and the other performers simply follow in his wake.

Of course, Ghostbusters is not just a comedy; that was my theory all the way up at the beginning. And part of what makes it so magically weird is the juxtaposition of this very laconic comic mood piece, loose and unstructured and improvised, with the planning-intensive visual effects that are found throughout the movie. A juxtaposition, not a conflict; for despite the odds, Ghostbusters never feels the strain of trying to bring together two apparently incompatible modes of storytelling. Credit for this must go to director Ivan Reitman, a quintessentially '80s director who always seemed to be a step or two behind such other popcorn-fantasy maestros as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, or Richard Donner. Even in Ghostbusters, he doesn't do anything that I'd be inclined to point towards as particularly inspired, visually: perhaps owing to the complexity of so many of the images, the framing throughout the film is rather perfunctory than visionary, though the great cinematographer László Kovács did what he could to add some texture with lighting, and to keep the dirty tactility of New York more or less intact

Still, a film with as many competing modes as Ghostbusters could have easily fallen apart without a strong guiding hand; and this Reitman provided (as he did not, years later, in the similar Evolution). Even given some visual effects that haven't aged well (the worst of them, I suspect, already looked reedy in 1984), there's a real kick to several of the scenes, which I well recall flipped my shit back when I could still count my age using one digit, and while the horror is definitely of the family-friendly sort, it's horror nonetheless; Kovács's aforementioned lighting and Elmer Bernstein's dissonant score do a lot to make certain of that. And yet, the horror and the comedy merge seemlessly, even within the space of a single scene (in Moranis's performance, they merge into the same moment at times). Ghostbusters is definitely a comedy first, a horror film second, and a science fiction film only in the incidentals; but a successful enough hybrid of those things that it would be wrong to try to limit it generically.

As it works despite throwing together seemingly incompatible genres together; thus does it work despite being a bit of a narrative shambles; despite being visually unremarkable in some ways and plainly incomplete in others. It works almost solely because of attitude and charisma. If it sounds out to use the word "charisma" in relation to a movie, well... that's the charm of Ghostbusters. It's such a singular beast, all sorts of angles and ideas jutting out of it, held together by its onscreen insouciance. Or to put it another way: when a film is this divinely entertaining, then it works. And few American movies from the 1980s work nearly as well, despite being, according to all good sense, "better".

25 August 2010

VAMPIRES ARE NOT THE ONLY THINGS THAT SUCK

Vampires Suck, according to the MPAA's notes, has been rated PG-13 for, among other things, crude sexual content. As is typical of that organisation, they've gotten it wrong: I disagree in the strongest terms with the implication that this film has anything resembling content.

The film is a spoof of the Twilight franchise, written and directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. These men became famous for their "____ Movie" series, such notorious objects as Date Movie and Epic Movie, and in 2008, the legendarily wicked one-two punch of Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie. None of which, I should mention, have I seen. Those who have are rather unanimous in their opinion that Vampires Suck, by virtue setting its parodistic sights on a single target rather than just tossing a whole bunch of shallow references to the big blockbusters and celebrity scandals of six months ago, is the most functional and successful of the Friedberg/Seltzer projects. I won't dispute that because I can't, but its kind of terrifying to imagine what could be less functional than Vampires Suck - I have to imagine that by the point you get to the worst Friedberg/Seltzer film, you're in the vicinity of CIA counter-torture training.

The plot is exactly that of Twilight and New Moon, crammed together in 80 minutes that includes the end credits, with all the characters re-named. It turns out that the most incisive note of satire present in the film is something that the filmmakers probably didn't even notice: the 252 minutes of those two films can be cut by more than two-thirds without losing any significant quantity of plot, and without feeling rushed - oh my no, Vampires Suck does not feel rushed. It is the most stretched-out 80 minutes that I have spent in a theater in a great many months. If you had told me that I was sitting there for several hours, I'd have probably believed you. But I timed it. Trailers, and credits, and it was all over in some 92 minutes.

In place of Bella Swan, we here have Becca Crane (Jenn Proske); standing in for Edward Cullen is Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter) - an indefensibly lazy joke, though Stephenie Meyer kind of set herself up for it - and Jacob Black is replaced by Jacob White (Chrisopher N. Riggi). The rest is still the same, basically: Becca goes to live with her estranged father (Diedrich Bader) in the gloom-covered town of Sporks, Washington, which is, the first time we see it, overrun with vampires to the degree that you could wonder if the Cranes are the only mortals. This idea is flirted with throughout the movie, and nothing remotely interesting is ever, ever done with it.

From that point on, it's the same old thing: Becca meets a super-pretty sparkly vampire, they fall in love, she is oblivious to the affections of a local Native American boy who is also a werewolf, eventually her vampire boyfriend calls things off because he doesn't want her to die, then he tries to kill himself by deliberately incurring the wrath of the vampire council. And when I say, "the same old thing", I mean it's exactly the same old thing: other than changing the climax from an Italian setting to a vampire-themed prom, pretty much every beat of the story precisely follows from one of the first two movies; the only difference is that Vampires Suck is putatively funny (oddly, though, this movie repeats a trick from Meyer's books, in which a brief passage from the climax is placed as the prelude, found in none of the films). The comedy sometimes comes, as you'd expect, from re-contextualising Twilight in a sarcastic way, as when Bella is approached by a jock who speaks admiringly of her boring personality and mumbling tone - that, by the way, is one of the best jokes here, which should give you a good sense of the film's signal-to-noise ratio. More often, the jokes really don't do enough to even earn the name "joke": it's usually something along the lines of "Plot point from Twilight, then a reference to the Kardashians". I am told that this is not at all dissimilar from the "humor" in such works as Meet the Spartans, in which the mere fact of "Here is Britney Spears interacting with Spartans" is meant to be amusing in and of itself. What this says about Friedberg and Seltzer as both wits and human beings is not terribly flattering.

It's not hard to imagine this working: Airplane! is one of the finest of all cinematic comedies, while being for long stretches virtually nothing but a line-for-line remake of Zero Hour. The comedy in Airplane! comes, however, from the filmmakers' careful redistribution of dramatic emphasis, understanding then when you stress this moment, it's thrilling, but when you stress that moment, it's silly; coupled with a bevy of immaculate performances that are serious in just the right ways to point out the absurdity of the characters. Friedberg and Seltzer either lack the skill or more likely the desire to do anything as deceptively subtle as the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team. And they're miles and miles away from the masterpieces of all film parodies, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, in which serious moments are undercut by a gag that comes out of the situation entirely organically and naturally, rather than being dropped on top of the situation arbitrarily (and of course it's no coincidence that, even through the parody, you can tell that Brooks really loves Westerns and Universal horror).

I can't believe I'm typing this, but Twilight deserved better. The books and movies are loathsome, and worthy of parody; but Vampires Suck is no parody. Friedberg and Seltzer obviously noted that the films have birthed a large culture of haters, and decided that they could make money by aiming at those haters, and were driven in not one inch by a desire to actively engage with the essential core of Twilight in a way that could be genuinely, savagely clever. It's all surface-level recreation of things that are stupid, and it's meant to be funny because we already know it to be stupid. The best example is Proske's performance, an uncanny impression of Kristen Stewart's dead-eyed, inert embodiment of Bella; it's actually brilliant acting, for no uncaring hack actress could have inhabited Stewart's mannerisms down to the last degree, as Proske does. But I've just described the joke. It's not, "Kristen Stewart plays the role in a slack-mouthed stupor, therefore X, in which X is a funny observation". It's played for nothing more than "Hey, you know how Kristen Stewart is a shitty actress? Amiright? HAHA!" Um, yes, you are right. Haha. Please let me go now.

But then, this is supposedly the only thing the filmmakers know how to do: point out that something exists, and then assume that we are laughing. It's admirable, I suppose, that they've managed to keep their pointing mostly limited to just one franchise this time around (other than an Alice in Wonderland gag that comes from fuck knows where), but Christ Almighty, if this really represents a major aesthetic step forward for the boys... All I know is that I'm glad that if I decided that I really ought to see one of their movies, I made it this one. If Disaster Movie is really that much worse, it would probably have driven me to deliberately choke myself to death on my own tongue. As it was, Vampires Suck was so egregiously bad at so many points that I was almost conscious of my own brain shutting down in protest; a feeling somewhere between falling asleep and watching yourself die. At times I almost felt that my mind was going to drift out of the theater into some hallucinatory ether, except that my body kept grabbing it back, growling, "Fuck no, if I have to watch this, then you have to watch this", and I snapped back too full attention, feeling a bit dizzy and nauseous. Though I expect this latter part was simply because the movie is basically an emetic.

What the hell, though, it's not as bad as Marmaduke.

1/10

24 August 2010

IT'S A HARD WORLD FOR LITTLE FILMS

It kind of feels, even now that I've seen it, that The Duel isn't a real movie - oh, beg pardon, of course I meant Anton Chekhov's The Duel, as it appears that the film is "really" titled. It probably says more about me than the filmmakers that I find this fact incredibly annoying, but there's something about the simultaneous desperation and smugness of putting an author's name right there in the title that kind of turns me off, right there. But setting that aside - for it probably is the single great flaw of Anton Chekhov's The Duel, if you're a bizarrely anal-retentive jackass like myself - it still doesn't quite feel like the film exists in any legitimate way. A celebrated Georgian-Israeli filmmaker directing an adaptation of a Russian writer's classic novella, with American dollars backing it, and an all-Brit cast; it doesn't seem to have "premiered" so much as simply wandered into New York's Film Forum one April day, and even now it's not exactly in the midst of a general release, so much as a series of random and disconnected engagements oozing across the country with glacial slowness.

This state of affairs isn't an affront to humanity, mind you; but it is a pity. The Duel is at least good enough that it deserves a fighting chance to be seen by anyone, anywhere in the world, and not just a "blink and you'll miss it" series of assignations with various art house theaters. Though hemmed in a bit by an excessive sense of gravity - the dreaded "We're adapting Chekhov! Be entirely serious, everyone!" syndrome - director Dover Koshashvili (whose 2001 debut, Late Marriage, is loved by positively everyone I know who's seen it, though I have myself not) has a rock-steady hand and a keen sense for how to make things, visually, a great deal more interesting than is quite necessary for the genre. God bless him for it; in a degraded age when even fine filmmakers are content to do a good enough job, stumbling across a fellow who is actually prepared to think, at great length, about what would be a compelling and meaningful way to present material especially prone to "good enough" treatments - the prestige costume drama literary adaptation - that is something refreshing and reaffirming.

Having not read the 1891 novella, I cannot begin to say how much of Mary Bing's screenplay hews closely to that source - but it feels right. The drama hinges on Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a man of uncertain means and employment living in a small town with his mistress, Nadya (Fiona Glascott); in a heavy irony (Russian literature knows no other kind), her husband has finally died, leaving the couple free to marry, just exactly at the same time that he finally figures out that he no longer loves her, if he ever did. So he confesses in what amounts the the movie's opening scene to an old doctor, Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), who functions as a tolerable approximation of the film's overarching moral guide. Overhearing this confession is Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a zoologist with armed a zesty overreading of Darwin's theory of natural selection as a scientific proof that certain people are just too inferior to live. Ostensibly because he objects to Laevsky's unthinking ruin of an upstanding married woman, Von Koren has made it his mission to take the layabout hedonist to task for his moral crimes, which in due order culminates in (what else) a duel, that noble exemplar of 19th Century masculine honor. What happens as a result - well, I can't spoil a movie nobody will see based on a 120-year-old classic, can I?

It is probably not evident from this précis the degree to which the movie's story is fussy and precise; irritatingly so, one might say, but part of the great charm and great frustration of 19th Century Russian literature is its overwhelming, serious thoughtfulness, literature obsessed with ideas and modes of thought as much as with human characters and melodrama. So the mere fact that in The Duel, every character has the undeniable tang of the symbolic - Laevsky is Bored Self-Involvement, Von Koren is Unyielding Rationalism, Samoylenko is Pragmatism, Nadya is Modern Women Question for Self-Definition, and so forth - should not altogether be held against the film; it's a feature, not a bug, as they say. There's a reason, of course, why this kind of material often makes for rocky moviegoing - Sergei Bondarchuk's massive War and Piece, and Louis Malle's unnervingly casual Vanya on 42nd Street are the only movies based on major 19th Century Russian literary works that I can immediately recall as being great films - which is that this kind of intellectual profundity clicks better in the stentorian context of the printed word, or aided by the electricity and physicality of live theater, than in the more immediate, and simultaneously more transitory, medium of cinema.

Given that limitation - and make no mistake, The Duel does indeed trip up on its own deepness from time to time, and in these moments comes across as arch and talky more than anything - Koshashvili never contents himself with simply letting the screenplay do the work. On the contrary, his direction is quite careful and driving. For one thing, he does not (heaven be praised!) fall into the typical costume drama trap of letting the incredibly detailed dress (designed by Sergio Ballo) and sets (Ivo Husnjak) stomp all over everything else. Instead, he and cinematographer Paul Sarossy marshal the natural tendency of those elements to crowd-out the human element to the film's advantage, framing the sumptuously appointed interiors as cages, flat planes of stuffy misery that dominate and limit the characters (the opposite tends to be true of exteriors: they're expanisve images with focus that extends so deep it's almost 3-D). It takes a special kind of skill - or maybe it's just perversity - to make a film at once so beautiful (several shots are pretty enough to hang on your wall) and still so smothering; the whole film is a bit like having a hand clenched around your throat, gripping, yet so subtle about it that you don't notice till it's over.

Above and beyond such niceties of mise en scène, the film boasts a remarkably deep field of actors that I've pretty much never heard of: there are some notablemissteps (I could have done without Scott's decision to literalise Laevsky's animal urges with honest-to-God snarling), but for the most part, everyone onscreen is bringing a remarkable level of control to characters who have to be at once both individual and icon; a tricky balancing act, but one that generally works. Particularly in the duel scene itself, wherein Scott and Menzies both do things with their body language that should be marked as essential viewing for anyone with even a little bit of interest in the state of silent acting techniques, circa the early 21st century.

A fluid, easy film; no. But an engaging, fascinating, undeniably annoying in patches film? Without a doubt, and though better films have gotten and will get higher-profile releases this year, it's a damn shame that something as altogether stimulating as The Duel will have to settle for being The Best Film You Almost Certainly Won't See of 2010.

8/10

23 August 2010

TEN FOR MONDAY: WHAT'S IN A NAME

This weekend, a film opened in the United States under the title Nanny McPhee Returns. This was not what it was called anywhere else in the English-speaking world; when it premiered in Britain earlier this year, it was a Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (the cynic in me assumes that the American distributors wanted to avoid the "controversy" of putting a scientific phrase in the title & riling up all creationists in this country).

Neither title is particularly great; but while Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is at least somewhat loose and playful, Nanny McPhee Returns is desperately anonymous, and only vaguely descriptive. Either way, it got me to thinking about the naming of movies, a most esoteric and fine art, and that in turn led to a list of:

Ten Outstanding Movie Titles, in chronological order

(It started life as a ten-best, but even I shied away from that level of unbridled chutzpah. There are just too many brilliant movie titles, especially in regards to a certain boot-shaped country's exploitation films)


Sh! The Octopus
(William C. McGann, USA, 1937)

Before I saw it, I heard it was kind of dreadful - but with a title like that, how could anyone say with a straight face, "I don't want to see it". And it is kind of dreadful, as it turns out, but I don't expect to convince you, nor Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, who could barely contain his delight at getting to say "Sh! The Octopus" over and over again the time that I saw it.


Hud
Martin Ritt, 1963, USA)

There are simple titles, and then there's the magnificently stripped-down Hud, the fewest number of letters possible for such a potent syllable. The coarse flatness of the "U" bridges the slamming-door emphasis of that "D" with a puffy aspirant that makes the tiny little word seem much harder to say than it is. A title just as crude and direct as its amoral namesake.


Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver
English: This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse
(José Mojica Marins, 1967, Brazil)

Presented without comment; because, what could I possibly add?


Buon funerale, amigos!... paga Sartana
English: Have a Good Funeral, My Friend... Sartana Will Pay
(Giuliano Carnimeo,, 1970, Italy/Spain)

I have not seen this well-regarded spaghetti Western, in no small part because the film I'm imagining is almost necessarily better than the actual thing. But I do know this much: the protagonist is a total fucking bad-ass, and Sartana is going to pay a lot.


Non si sevizia un paperino
English: Don't Torture a Duckling
(Lucio Fulci, 1972, Italy)

The giallo film with an animal in the title is as much a convention as anything; but there's still something real grabby about this one in particular: why would I torture a duckling, anyway? And then there's the way it makes it incredibly hard not to visualise how one would go about torturing a duckling, and if you're anything like me, by this point you are positive aching to see it.


Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things
(Bob Clark, 1973, USA)

The best part of a fine, undemanding zombie movie is easily its lightly jokey title, which has always struck me as a sort of homage to the wordy Italian titles of the era. Whatever the case, it's a grand name and a good piece of advice.


Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle
Literal English title: Every Man for Himself and God Against All
Traditional English title: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
(Werner Herzog, 1974, West Germany)

A perfectly ordinary American title hides the wonderful, roiling rhythms of Herzog's all-time best title (and this is the man who gave us Even Dwarfs Started Small, no less), a vast statement of intent. Stately and wildly paranoid and cynical, it could not possibly suggest the mood of the film any better.


Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(Chantal Akerman, 1975, Belgium/France)

Man, the '70s were a great time for movie titles. Here we have a marathon-length description, devoid of any inflection or hucksterism; just a simple statement of who and where. The film itself, a hypnotically myopic 3.5 hour study of the tiniest details of a woman's domestic life, deserves no less a plaque than this.


Snakes on a Plane
(David R. Ellis, 2006, USA/Germany/Canada)

A perfectly functional title? No, a bold declarative statement, a promise that this movie will fulfill one and only one function, and if you're not interested in seeing snakes on a plane, then stay the hell away, because snakes on a plane is the only thing going on here. Ah, snakes on a plane.


Mio fratello è figlio unico
English: My Brother Is an Only Child
(Daniele Luchetti, 2007, Italy)

A decent, but largely unmemorable family-historical drama, given the whisper of immortality by a phrase that gets more and more suggestive, mysterious, and compelling, the longer you let it roll around in your mind.


Honorable mention:
Twitch of the Death Nerve
Italian: Reazione a catena
(Mario Bava, 1971, Italy)

Unfortuantely, the film's most evocative title (probably my favorite in history) isn't one of the multiple names it was given in its native country. But I couldn't let it pass completely unremarked.

22 August 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HEY LOOK, EVERYTHING SEEMS MORE RESPECTABLE IN FRENCH: LA NUIT DU DÉMON. SEE?


In 1957, director Jacques Tourneur gave the world Night of the Demon, widely agreed to be one of the finest works ever made by that horror-poetry master. It's a magnificently atmospheric film about an American scientist running into a demon cult in Britain, made with an almost unbelievable level of care, talent and craftsmanship given what was certainly not a huge budget; genuinely creepy when it's not hypnotically beautiful, it's easily one of the finest horror films produced anywhere in the world in the 1950s.

It is not, however, the Night of the Demon that ended up on the Video Nasties list. That Night of the Demon is the 1980 film where Bigfoot rips a guy's dick off.

Not, of course, that I went into this expecting the Tourneur film; no sir, I knew, and knew well, that the Nasty Night of the Demon was the one where Bigfoot rips a guy's dick off. But it is one thing to know in your head that there is a movie in which Bigfoot rips a guy's dick off, and another altogether to actually see the movie in which Bigfoot rips a guys dick off, and believe it or not, it's actually kind of hard to sit up in your seat afterwards, and think to yourself, "wow, I sure am happy that I just did that". Here's a thought problem: imagine that you are at a party, and someone asks what you did that afternoon, and your answer is "I watched a movie where Bigfoot tears a man's cock off while the man is taking a leak on the roadside". Is there even a tiny part of you that feels anything proud in that moment? Thus it is, that a little voice in my head has been very sulkily observing (whining, more like) for a while now, "Well, you could have watched the Tourneur picture, and written about that; but OH NO, you had to watch a fucking Bigfoot movie, where Bigfoot rips a man's fucking pecker off. Christ, you make me sick." That little voice ain't half wrong; but it can't be helped now.

Ay, indeed, Night of the Demon is not at all a film to be proud of seeing, to say nothing of being the poor bastards who made it; if I were given just one word to describe it, that word would almost have to be "sleazy". Give me another, and I'd use "bad". "Sleazy and bad" - sounds like a swell date night, n'est-ce pas? And if you gave me a third, that should be "mind-numbingly dull", which is of course not one word (it's not even two words, depending on how you define hyphenated compounds), but "boring" doesn't do the film justice. Its stultifying tediousness cannot be hemmed in by such a narrow adjective. Much as a star in the night sky looks brightest when you look a bit to the side of it, but it dims when you look straight on; so does Night of the Demon only fully grab your attention when you're not paying strict attention to it - for the more you dedicate yourself to watching it and nothing but, the more it is certain that you shall fall asleep from the aggressive lack of incident, punctuated only by blasts of incredibly eager violence. This alone is more than enough to tell us the film's whole and entire raison d'être, though I don't imagine that was much in doubt.

Things begin promisingly enough, with a foleyed-in dripping noise that complete dominates every inch of our attention, as we look at an IV bag. No sedate "drp, drp" is this; nor a "plunk, plonk" something a bit showier so that we're aware that a heightened sounscape is going to be the order of the day. Nossir, this is a full-on "BLORP, BLORP", a bit like the sound Mario makes in the water levels of the first Super Mario Bros. It does, however, set the tone of the movie well enough, for one of the most immediately obvious traits of Night of the Demon is its ghastly sound mix, a wandering mixture of horribly mismatched sound effects and dialogue that seems to to come from another hemisphere than the footage it accompanies. It seems easy enough to assume that, like the Italian films of the '60s and '70s, it was filmed without sync-sound, and everything was just overdubbed later, although I can't quite credit that explanation; but it doesn't matter. When a woman sounds, in the space of one sentence, like she's just taken a step two feet closer to microphone and taken a big gulp of water, we're past the point of examining "whys" and standing in dumbfounded amazement at the "whats".

That IV bag is connected to a certain Professor Nugent (Michael J. Cutt), whose mouth and neck are swaddled in thick bandages as he talks with a policeman and a psychiatrist (it's best not to worry about who played who - the credits are full of the names of people who never really did much of anything else, and it's effort beyond worth to match names and faces) about the terrible event that has befallen him of late. Since he's basically mummified, you'd expect that he would probably be at least slightly speech-impaired. But that just goes to show how much you know. In fact, Nugent speaks of the hideous trauma that left a number of his students dead and he fighting for his life in a hospital in the measured tones that a lesser mortal might use to read aloud the instructions for completing the 1040-EZ. All three of the actors in this scene are pretty dreadful, actually - all of the actors in the movie, now that I'm being honest about it, but the cop in this scene is a special kind of incompetent, reading his lines with an awe-inspiring lack of inflection that would have left Paul Marco, beloved for his woodenness as Officer Kelton in no less than three Ed Wood movies, stunned into disbelief.

Nugent's hideously clumsy exposition segues, of course, into a totally unrelated scene of a man getting his arm torn off at the roots by a creature who stomps around in what I came to think of as DemonVision®. This consists of bog-standard "killer's POV" footage, framed by a red circle. I should point out that our first glimpse of gore does not disappoint; not if the reason we're here is to indulge in wildly over-the-top but lovingly realistic death and dismemberment (and if that's not the reason you're here, by this point in the film you've probably gotten to wondering, what the hell Jacques Tourneur was thinking, and you're going to have a rough 90 minutes). Director James C. Wasson lingers over the stump from a number of different angles, and captures with the quiet intensity of a lover the blood pooling into a depression in the earth - a depression in the shape of a big foot. Zounds!!

BOOM comes another seemingly disconnected plot, but this one pulls everything together. Turns out that this poor unarmed man was the father of one of Nugent's anthropology students, and some years after that death, he trots her up in front of the class to explain her constant waking hell as proof that his pet theory (which we might define as "Bigfoot exists, and the government is involved in a conspiracy to destroy all evidence") is true. His evidence is compelling - showing a 16mm film dismissed by many as a hoax, he presents the unanswerable argument that, "A hoax? Come on!", and this inspires not just the orphaned girl but a handful of other students to take a trip into the backwoods to find a specific Bigfoot that has, according to some rumours, been murdering people with abandon for quite a while now.

And with that, you pretty much have the plot for almost the whole movie, which alternates between "Nugent and his students hike and canoe into the wild" scenes and "Nugent tells a story of how this place reminds him of the one insanely grisly murder committed by the creature they're hunting, replete with flashbacks, because otherwise, it would be about an hour between gory bits" scenes. In town - which town does not matter, nor how far away it is from any other point (between a day and two weeks, from the available evidence) - they learn about Crazy Wanda McGinty, who may have had a run-in with the sasquatch, and may have been raped, and may have given birth to a half-sasquatch, half-human baby, and incredibly, the film almost seems to want to keep this a secret for a good half of the running time, despite how blatantly it's being telegraphed. So the bulk of the trip is actually to find Wanda's cabin, miles and miles from anything.

Allegedly, the better part of this is an almost beat-for-beat rip-off of another "killer Bigfoot" movie that I haven't seen, Shriek of the Mutilated; according to most people who have bothered to form an opinion, that earlier film is much the worst of the two, lacking anything remotely like hellzapoppin' extravagances of gore. And to be completely fair, a gore-free version of Night of the Demon would have been enough to put me into a boredom coma. I will point out that the plot is also almost beat-for-beat the same as Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues, so it could just be that the "killer Bigfoot" genre is just as beholden to well-established tropes as the slasher film. I also know that becoming a "killer Bigfoot" movie expert would the saddest thing I could possibly do with a life that already includes regularly writing 2000-word analyses of godawful exploitation pictures, so this line of thought ends now.

For a very, very, very long time, the A-plot action of Night of the Demon is gratuitously dull, marred by dialogue that marries the worst of overstated exposition with the most tortured syntax and plain old inscrutability (the dead man's daughter expresses, very mildly, that she recognises the place where the old fellow got ripped apart like a ragdoll), and marred even worse by what is, all exaggeration aside, one of the worst casts, top-to-bottom, that I've ever seen assembled. It's really kind of a holy experience; and in the presence of friends, with plenty of booze and maybe something a touch stronger, I can imagine Night of the Demon passing by as a breezy lark, one of the most gloriously, outrageously bad movies that one could ever hope to see. Alone in my apartment with a notepad, the movie left me gasping for air, trapped in a sea of grinding awfulness.

All that gets us through the first 60 minutes or so, then, are Nugent's not-infrequent daydreams about people getting slaughtered by Bigfoot. Whether it's the twentysomething Girl Scouts being forced to stab each other to death, or the camper being impaled on a branch, the film makes up for in sheer gutsy tastelessness what it otherwise lacks in interest. Culminating in, yes, the bit where a motorcyclist stops to relieve himself in a ditch where Bigfoot happens to be hiding, which drives the enraged cryptid to wrench the man's genitals right off. If I were a shallow type, given to tawdry joking, I'd here comment, "Talk about jerking off, amiright?" and chortle loudly. Thankfully, I am shallow and tawdry, and therefore am pleased to have done just that.

All of this is filmed with a shocking amount of stage blood; and convincing, too. Plainly, Wasson cared more about the gore effects than the rest of the movie put together, and from a financial standpoint, it's hard to blame him. No two ways about it, Night of the Demon is a kick in the pants - but part of it feels so blissed-out about its own tastelessness, it left me feeling a mite sour.

The fact of the matter is, Wasson's not that bad of a director. This was his only movie, and it's honestly not hard to imagine him growing up into a really top-notch horror filmmaker if he'd so chosen. Some of the compositions have a certain flair for drama that we don't expect at all, and even in the crappiest scenes of exposition-heavy dialogue, he finds interesting things to do with camera movement that keep it from being quite the unmitigated wreck that I've suggested. There's always visual energy about the film, though Wasson doesn't seem hugely keen on doing anything with that energy - certainly, it doesn't salvage the narrative at all. And that's what I was driving at: you've got this clearly talented kid, consistently taking the easiest route of shocking the audience just for the hell of it. Not everybody can depict a penile stump with quite the élan that Wasson does, but anybody can depict a penile stump in general. And while the director is certainly responsible for most of the film's sick verve, and I'm not one to dismiss a film with some high-class sickness to it, it feels a bit... bratty.

At any rate, all bets are off when the team finally arrives at the great Wanda McGinty's shack deep in the woods, and finds that yes indeed, she is a crazy person whose half-human baby was killed by her Bible-thumping cult-leader father after she was raped by the local Bigfoot. A set of reveals whose juvenile enthusiasm honestly does make up, almost, for how programmatically disgusting its meant to be. Then everybody dies in a positive geyser of blood, and the audience is free to wonder How did Nugent's face heal so quickly? and, Wait, I thought there were Satanists in these woods? But mostly, to talk about how feckin' kewl the scene where he whips the guy with his own intestines was.

Pure, unbridled raunch has its place; and the raunchiness of Night of the Demon is something to behold, alright. Do I wish that the film surrounding that raunchiness with so fuckawfully slow and wretchedly made? Yes, I certainly do, but in those precious moments that it's operating all-out, the movie is kitschy enough in its virulence that you can at least see the outlines of a justification for the whole damn thing.

By the way, whatever home video company released the original version of this one? The version that has the fake Oscar in the bottom corner, indicating perhaps to the unwary or the fucking stupid that Night of the Demon is some kind of prestige horror film? Classy.

Body Count: 14 on-screen (and nearly all of them quite blood-soaked), with another three that take place juuuust offscreen, for an altogether slashery total of 17.

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. I've got to hand it to the DPP this time: castration-by-sasquatch, a missing link-on-teenager rape scene, and the most nauseatingly real gore effects that no money can buy; "deprave and corrupt" maybe not, but "disgust and degrade", without a doubt.