31 October 2010

HAMMER'S SOULFUL HORROR

The years 1964-1969 were probably the peak of the Hammer Film Productions wave, popularly if not aesthetically. By the middle of the '60s, the company had firmly entrenched itself as the world's best source of tony Gothic horror, and was beginning to explore other genres, finding great success with pirate movies (e.g. The Devil-Ship Pirates of 1964) and a rather silly but greatly enjoyable cycle of cavepeople adventures (begun the the wonderfully cheesy One Million Years B.C. in 1966). The Dracula franchise had been triumphantly taken out of mothballs in 1966 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and as pop culture gradually caught up with Hammer's cutting-edge infatuation with gore, the studio grew increasingly bold with its treatment of onscreen violence.

Thus riding high, producer Anthony Hinds returned to the Frankenstein series, arguably Hammer's most important property (just as it had been at Universal in the American horror Golden Age of the late '30s and early '40s), which had been left at something of a slack impasse with The Evil of Frankenstein. By no means a failure at the box office, the film nevertheless was a failure of nerve, rewinding the bold experiments made by the series' first two entries in re-defining what "a Frankenstein movie" could be, in favor of a darker, edgier take on the histrionics of the later Universal monster movies. Whether this was necessarily the way that the Hammer folks thought of that project, it is absolutely undeniable that the next film in the series, 1967's Frankenstein Created Woman, is all the wonderful things that The Evil of Frankenstein is not (despite sharing with that film Hinds as screenwriter): a genuinely original chapter in the annals of cinematic mad science, exploring themes never quite tackled in the same way before or since, and returning to the brilliant and cold Baron Victor Frankenstein, played as ever by the indispensable Peter Cushing, the gravitas and dry wit and outstanding psychological complexity that had made The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein two of the most innovative and excellent of all classical horror films.

The film marked the return of Terence Fisher to the Frankenstein series; in the end, The Evil of Frankenstein would prove to be the only Cushing-as-Frankenstein picture not to be directed by Fisher, and the inordinate jump in quality between that film and this would appear to be all the argument anyone needs ever make as to why this is a very good thing. Fisher was not the only talented director working at Hammer, but his trademark stateliness and presentational grandeur was a perfect fit for the archly Victorian, idea-driven Frankenstein films, as evidenced by how convincingly he foregrounds themes in Frankenstein Created Woman that, in the hands of someone looking just for shock and atmosphere, would have seemed altogether silly. For, even by the standards of the Hammer Gothic aesthetic, this movie has some very loopy notions upon which its plot hangs - yet it never comes anywhere remotely near camp or melodrama.

Like Revenge, Created Woman opens with a death-by-guillotine (which is framed as a mirror image of the earlier film): a loud, evidently drunk man (Duncan Lamont) taunting his captors as they drag him up the scaffold. The prisoner's loutishness quickly evaporates, however, when he spots his son, Hans (Stuart Middleton) watching from a distance, and while he successfully begs the police to send the boy away, you can't keep an inquiring adolescent from hiding in the bushes and observing with intense terror as his father is decapitated.

Such a dramatic way to open our story! Buoyed by a great, burly performance by Lamont, who popped up in small roles in a good handful of Hammer pictures, it is driving and threatening, unforgettably staged, instantly wiping clear all the memories of the far less urgent Evil. And it's only an appetizer for what's to come, when we jump ahead a decade or so to find grown-up Hans (Robert Morris) serving as the assistant to Hertz (Thorley Walters), the doctor of whatever tiny backwater German village serves as the location for this chapter. The scene in which we first find these men is even more dramatic than the opening: Hertz has been nervously counting down time, and at the exact second he reaches one hour, he and Hans pull a coffin out of a freezer. Who should be in the coffin but our good friend Baron Victor Frankenstein, apparently dead, though Hertz and Hans quickly set to reviving the body. It's clear from Hertz's addled, terrified actions that whatever is going on, it's the baron's experiment, even before he comes back to life and explains it for us, but the precise nature of that experiment is a great deal harder to predict: apparently, Frankenstein has set his skills on determining the exact length of time that the human soul remains in the body after death sets in.

The straight-up metaphysical nature of Frankenstein Created Woman marks it as a peculiar outlier within its series, which was otherwise devoted to the idea of mad science, though for my part, I rather love it: it is right in keeping with the films' treatment of Frankenstein as a man icily divorced from sentiment or human feeling, driven only to learn more and more about the natural world. Having over the course of three films discovered most of what he could about the revivification of dead flesh, he has haughtily turned his gaze even more towards the domain of God in which men of his ilk so cheerfully like to tamper. And it's also worth pointing out, as regards Frankenstein's character arc over the course of the films, that he has grown so detached from anything like "emotion" that he apparently didn't think twice about using himself as a guinea pig, forthrightly committing suicide-by-exposure just in the interests of knowledge. This remarkable emphasis on scientific process over even his own personal safety will inform the film's later events, and serve to make this step in the baron's development perhaps the most subtly terrifying yet.

(Whatever "development" means: there's no direct continuity linking this film with the others, unless it is true, as is customarily assumed, that Frankenstein's lame, gloved hands are the result of the fire at the end of Evil. Certainly, there are no other specific plot points that connect this with any of the three preceding films).

Cutting to the chase: Hans, forever shamed in the community by being the son of a convicted murderer, loves the local tavern-owner's daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg), crippled and covered with facial scars apparently from birth. Her father (Ivan Beavis) refuses to let the boy consort with her, but he is cowed enough by the wicked local fops - three grating assholes named Anton (Peter Blythe), Karl (Barry Warren), and Johann (Derek Fowlds) - that he says and does nothing when they make a mess of his café and humiliate Christina. In due time, the three youths are drunk and belligerent enough that they accidentally beat the old man to death, leaving Hans on trial for the murder; he is convicted and executed, and deprived of her father and her lover, Christina pitches herself into the river and drowns. Frankenstein is absolutely delighted by this turn of events, for it lets him push his soul experiments to the next level: without any thought for what it might do to the victims, he leaps upon the chance to instate Hans's soul in Christina's body.

It is the privilege of genre films to investigate questions far above their station, sliding ideas in through the backdoor; but even so, Frankenstein Created Woman has some uniquely bold ambitions hiding just underneath its story of bloody revenge. "Where does the personality lie?" the film asks at every turn, from Frankenstein's blithe decision that the soul is a quantifiable physical object that can be contained within a sonic force-field (it's much less contrived the way the movie presents it), to the tension underlying the film's last 20 minutes or so, when Hans's consciousness resides both within and yet somehow "outside" Christina's own consciousness - which may or may not be the same one she had before she died. A strict materialist ought to write this off as so much question-begging; we could just as easily argue that the personality lies wholly in the brain, and once the brain dies the personality is irretrievably erased. But it would be crude to allow strict materialism to deny the dramatic power of a movie so breathtakingly uncommon as Frankenstein Created Woman, which probably did not invent the "man's mind in a woman's body" narrative, but certainly explores issues that no other film of which I am aware has explored in anything like the same way. One need look only as far as Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man to see the idea of "soul transference" used in a perfunctory, plot-driving way, and be doubly impressed at the level of intellectual commitment that went into Hinds's script for Frankenstein Created Woman.

Of course, it still works as straight-up Gothic horror, albeit on a level less horrifying (and frankly, less Gothic), than some of the earlier Hammer works. Cinematographer Arthur Grant, working in one of Hammer's A-list horror franchises for the the first time, was not as accustomed to the murky blacks and hushed shadows that had marked the form to that point; and Fisher didn't seem inclined to emphasise the story's Expressionist possibilities either. The result is a clean, even bright mise en scène - it is the most daylight-heavy of all Hammer's Frankenstein films - that is less scary than it is troubling: troubling that Frankenstein should be such a stone-cold villain and yet be so engaging and charming that we can't help but like the bastard.

Cushing's performance is neither as layered nor as deep as it had been in Curse or Revenge, but he appears highly refreshed and ready to take the character in new directions, which involves a much spryer, more sarcastic, and weirdly enough, more fun baron than we've seen prior. All of Frankenstein's actions, and certainly Cushing's performance, shows that he's grown even more certain of his skills and genius than before; and thus untroubled by self-doubt or pesky ethical considerations (not that ethics were ever more than glancingly noted in the earlier films, beside Evil), he has become cheeky. It's a remarkably playful, entertaining performance, dominant enough that we can forgive the fact that, in all other ways, Frankenstein is not as prominent here as before.

Mostly, the cast surrounding Cushing is good: Walters is particularly wonderful as Hertz, characterising the doctor as a smart but easily-confused sort, helplessly impressed by Frankenstein's strength of character and medical genius. It's a performance that reminded me, oddly but distinctly, of how Frank Morgan might have played the same part. As for the young lovers, Morris and Denberg are both only slightly better than the average pretty young Hammer co-leads, though since Denberg wasn't a professional actress - she was a Playboy model - that she manages to be better than so many wilting Hammer blondes is its own sort of achievement.

The film is not, honestly, an unmitigated success: the plot moves forward in a choppy way, underdone by some very harsh editing at points, and it is much less visually distinctive than the very best Hammer movies. But it's original enough, and sure enough of its own originality, to stand proud as one of the truly essential horror movies of its era, just a couple of years before the walls came tumbling down and Hammer's stately brand of thrills had to compete with the unbounded violence and gore that has remained the dominant mode of horror filmmaking ever since.

Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)

29 October 2010

MOTHER OF MERCY, IS THIS THE END OF JIGSAW?

The Saw films and I are not buddies, to put it mildly. Though there is hiding within the first one a very good psychological "chamber horror" film, it is not itself a very good film, and the sequels have all in their way proven to be one diminishing return after another. And morally vicious! I can still not name a film that has left me with such a sour, cynical taste in my mouth as Saw III.

Even so, the promise that the awkwardly-titled Saw 3D would be the final entry in the franchise (or probably not, but a fella can hope), coupled with my general theory that everything is more pleasantly cheesy with 3-D, had me in a fairly mellow mood, going into it. I was expecting, certainly not to enjoy myself, but to have a satisfying time watching crazy violent shit and not really worrying about it. This mood lasted until the film's second scene, before the title had even come up.

It is a scene that, in keeping with the "second wave" of the franchise, the films written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan following the original "trilogy", presents a splash of violence that ends up having nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot: a woman and two men (Anna Lee Greene, Jon Cor, and Sebastian Pigott) are tied to a machine in a glass box in the middle of the downtown shopping district of what I have come think of as "Saw City"; one of them has to die, and the two men are in control of the death machine, and naturally trying to kill one another and save the woman, who has been cheating on them both, and it is implied, asking them to break the law for her. So far, so typical: what makes this scene peculiarly awful is the film's apparent assumption that, since the woman, Dina, was cheating, and since, I mean WTF, it's not like a guy is going to be able to say no to a sexy lady like that, it's kind of like she's the "right" one to die. Which, of course, she does. It's the most overtly misogynistic touch in a series that hasn't been as high on misogyny as a lot of horror cinema, and it gets things started off on just exactly the right tone to promise 90 minutes of arbitrary, objectionable cruelty. Thankfully, this is not what ends up happening.

(Also, the bit where it's in a glass box and there's a huge crowd watching: it's strongly suggested that the voyeurs are in some way culpable, even though the cops are called, and that they're awful people for treating the sight of people dying as entertainment. Which is a profoundly off-kilter, even self-loathing message for a Saw movie to espouse, though I at least have always had the sense that these films actively despise their fanbase).

Instead, Saw 3D is mostly stupid and has a crudely whipped-together plot that is in no meaningful way different from the series norm; some grand finale. Here's what we've got: evil cop Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the heir to the late puzzle-obsessed moral philosopher and serial killer John "Jigsaw" Kramer" (as always, Tobin Bell), is on the trail of Kramer's ex-wife Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), who has gone to the police to offer Hoffman up in exchange for immunity. The internal affairs detective on the case is Matt Gibson (Chad Donella), Hoffman's former partner, who tries to piece together enough evidence to find and stop the wicked bastard. This takes care of the requisite "cop looking for the killer" half of the plot. Meanwhile - fulfilling the "victim put through a tour of his sins by going through a desolate warehouse in which each room is a different chamber of Rube Goldbergian evil" half - Hoffman has captured author Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery), who has risen to celebrity as the other of a book called S.U.R.V.I.V.E. (what this is an acronym for, if indeed it is an acronym, is never specified), in which he tells the inspiring story of how surviving a Jigsaw trap gave him a new appreciation for life. Except, he was never a Jigsaw victim, until now.

So far, so formulaic; maybe even the most formulaic of all the Saw pictures, though I'm happier not dwelling on that question. Even within a formula, though, there is wiggle room, and Saw 3D is a very slapdash affair, barely able to cling together itself (fortunately, not enough happens for it to have a lot of room for plotholes), and lazily stitched into the existing narrative in the irritating way that has been the hallmark of the franchise ever since Saw II: toss in a twist ending that is some combination of predictable and inane and then replay some scenes from the others with the new twisty information adding to our knowledge of what went on. Meanwhile, dangling characters and plot threads from the other films are left mostly unexplored, in way that frustrates me and I don't even like the fucking things.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that Melton and Dunstan are not good writers and have never been; part is that director Kevin Greutert palpably doesn't give a shit about the project, which he was forced to do after the producers exercised a clause in his contract to yank him away from making Paranormal Activity 2. Not a single one of the films in the series has been a model of controlled, tight direction; but none of them have worn the director's fatigue and contempt so openly. For a 3-D gore movie, neither the 3-D nor the gore are staged with any particular enthusiasm; as far as the gore effects go, in fact, this is by far the most unconvincing, tossed-off Saw film, which is of course not Greutert's fault, although I find myself supposing that he could have done a lot more to hide the effects' shortcomings than just point his camera at the blood and stare fixedly but without interest. Add in the very uncharacteristic lighting scheme - shot by Brian Gedge, this is the first Saw without cinematographer David A. Armstrong), and it's just dead-eyed and unhappy and bland.

Nor does Greutert do anything with his cast: though Mandylor has finally, in his fifth turn at the character, done something that resembles "acting" in the part of Hoffman, he is the only performer of any note who does reasonable work; while Donella, the nominal hero (my sense is that only Mandylor and Flanery have more screentime), gives not just the worst performance in a Saw movie ever, but one of the most strained, amateur-hour performances I can remember seeing in a film of any reasonably hight budget. One scene in particular - marked by several repeated, ghastly unfocused repetitions of the word "crazy", finds Donella charting new lows in the art of alarmingly ham-fisted acting (the fact that the scene ends with another actor reciting her line as if she just woke up from a most disorienting nap just adds a level of comic zest to the whole thing). Worse yet, the film wastes its two best assets: Bell, whose gravitas has always been one of the few genuinely good things in the movies, and Cary Elwes, reprising his Saw I character with some neurotic filigree, both appear in hardly any scenes, showing up just long enough to make it clear how terrible everyone else is.

But hey - it certainly does wrap things up. In a most perfunctory if conclusive way, without any sort of grandeur to it, that would leave me howling for blood if I were a Saw fan. As it stands, the flatness of the thing just sort of left me with a shrug of dismissal: Saw 3D is awfully boring, but it didn't do much after the first 10 minutes to piss me off, and that's a kind of achievement. Still, even I must admit to a certain disappointment that such a notorious brand name should shuffle off - theoretically - on such a limp, lazy exercise in the routine and predictable.

2/10

"MUERTE" IS SPANISH FOR DEATH, IN CASE YOU DON'T SPEAK MEXICAN

Dayna Christensen used her contribution to the Carry On Campaign to ask me to review "a bad horror movie from the last ten years". I wish I'd been able to come up with something a bit more imaginative for her, but the harder I tried to come up with anything else, to more I was certain that the very worst horror film of the 2000s could only ever be...

House of the Dead! Four little words, but they are enough to make a brave, hardened B-movie fanatic quake. In delight? In abject fear?

In a little bit of both, maybe. House of the Dead, as you likely know, was the breakthrough film by director Uwe Boll, who in one fell swoop made himself something of a household name, established himself as the go-to guy for cinematic video game adaptations, and staked an unassailable claim for himself as the worst goddamn filmmaker of a generation. Which is enough to make some of us respect him almost as much as we fear and hate him. Without getting in a whole thing about Boll's career, which is as prolific as it is disreputable (he has completed nineteen films since 2000, two-thirds of that since 2005), I merely posit this: hardly any filmmakers, be they as powerful as Spielberg, as detail-obsessed as Tarantino, as methodical as Malick, as psychotically German as Herzog, have produced so many films in such a span of time which, each and every one, bears the clear marks of being exactly the movie that the director intended to put forth. You may loathe House of the Dead - you may abominate House of the Dead as a crime against humanity - you may be willing to throw out the whole of world cinema for more than a century in an attempt to wipe House of the Dead from history - but you can never deny that House of the Dead is, to its last frame, everything that Uwe Boll desired that it should be.

I am not come to sing a song of praise to Uwe Boll, however - though there would never be a better place to do it than here, with the movie that made the director all the things he has ever since been. No, I am here to talk about the most jaw-droppingly ill-conceived horror movie of the last ten, no, let's call it twenty, years. A film so etiologically dysfunctional, that it in one instant proved Boll the modern equivalent to the great Crap Auteurs of history men like Ed Wood and Coleman Francis and Al Adamson. Not just because he is untalented! The Wood-Boll comparison is made readily enough on the grounds that both men were the most inept filmmakers of their day, but it goes deeper than that: their ineptitude walks hand-in-hand with a whole-hearted, totally fearless commitment to concepts that no reasonable person could ever defend as "good" (or, arguably, "sane"), leading to films so fascinating in their anti-cinematic brokenness that they become far more entertaining than a merely terrible film could ever be.

For House of the Dead, that dumbfounding conceptual idiocy lies not in the fact that it is a video game adaptation (a subgenre 10 years old by that point), or that it has virtually nothing to do with the video game it is nominally adapted from; nor that it was self-evidently a knock-off of the previous year's Resident Evil, another "video game about zombies" movie that, under the graceless hand of Paul W.S. Anderson, is merely terrible. The problem is not that executive producer, co-writer, and co-scenarist Mark Altman seemed to think that his hastily-cobbled pastiche of elements from George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci zombie pictures, tied together by out-of-place Star Trek jokes and a woefully inarticulate sense of youth culture. At least, that isn't the overriding problem.

No- the single great gaping hole in the center of House of the Dead's empty skull is Boll's decision to stage it as much like a video game as he possibly could: with action choreography that mimics the way you might think video game action works if you've not really played one, with "death animation" for the major characters, and most famously and infamously, footage from the game worked right into the movie. I love it so much that I am going to repeat it for emphasis: footage from the game worked into the movie. This is done simply, at first: just a quick shot of the first-person character shooting a zombie done to transition us from one scene to another (and it's not even done artlessly, considering what an artless idea it is in the first place). But by the end of the film, game footage has literally replaced live-action footage: shoot-outs are a psychotic mixture of movie characters pulling triggers and game zombies getting shot. And the more we see of the game footage, the more time we're given to notice things like the score, the "Player 2 Press Start" alert, and other things that Boll probably intended all along despite the fact that their presence has an actively deleterious effect on a movie already trying to cope with the fact that it is a slurry of two entirely different visual media.

The movie takes place on an island off the western coast of Canada, called by the locals "Isla de Muerte", the name given it in the old conquistador days.

OH MY GOD I LOVE that in the first sentence of my plot synopsis, I already get to the first heaping pile of the movie's asininity. Everything we hear about the background of the island - it was the home of an evil Spanish mad scientist hoping to discover the secret of immortality about 400 years ago, and it has a Spanish name - makes it increasingly impossible to avoid the conclusion that it's meant to be in the Caribbean. And it's just as impossible not to be aware, in every single detail of geology and fauna, that we're within an hour of Vancouver. This was done, of course, because of the impenetrable chain of tax issues which have caused the German-born Boll to shoot virtually all of his films in Canada, or at least with the aid of Canadian money (the question is often raised: "Why does this man get to keep making films?", and the answer is unexpectedly straightforward: they're cheap enough that the production company - which Boll owns - has already made back the production cost just in tax credits).

Isla de Muerte is the home of the year's biggest rave, we are told by the rasping voiceover of Rudy (Jonathan Cherry), one of several young-ish people who is making a pilgrimage to that event (I say "young-ish"; it's impossible to determine if the protagonists are meant to be in their mid-to-late 20s and thus much to old to be journeying to distant island-based raves, or if their are teenagers played by wildly unconvincing adult actors. Alternately - since what we see of the rave reveals both that it completely sucks and that the filmmakers didn't have the first clue what a "rave" is, perhaps they're just over-privileged twits with Peter Pan complexes). Unfortunately, Rudy's friends, who are numerous enough and interchangeable enough that I couldn't keep them apart well enough to tell you who they are, are running behind, which is why they have to hop on a boat, owned by arms smuggler Captain Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, who was once a trustworthy and important German actor, but whose decline does not, as it is sometimes claimed, begin with this film, which wasn't even his first performance for Uwe Boll. At a bare minimum, Wing Commander was four years earlier).* Kirk's first mate is Salish (Clint Howard), a colossally slimy and unpleasant man, played by Howard in just the right measure of screeching awfulness to make it clear that the actor knew how bad the script was, and decided to have some fun with it. This is true of nobody else in the movie: certainly not the host of young people, nor Prochnow, who makes the intensely bad choice of giving a sincere and thoughtful Jürgen Prochnow performance in an Uwe Boll movie about conquistador zombies off the coast of Vancouver, and thus humiliate himself about as much as any legitimate actor has ever done in any project.

The kids - Simon (Tyron Leitso), Greg (Boll mainstay Will Sanderson), Cynthia (Sonja Salomaa), Karma (Enuka Okuma), and Rudy's ex, Alicia (Ona Grauer) - the other four are paired off, but I don't remember in quite what order; Greg and Cynthia, I think, and then Simon and Karma - and the mercenaries make it to the island, pursued by Kirk's nemesis, indomitable federal agent Jordan Casper (Ellie Cornell), and they find that the rave has been shut down. We've already seen why: zombies. They quickly find the zombies, and run about a bit, and eventually find a house in the middle of the woods (a house... of the dead?), where Rudy is hiding with two others, Liberty (Kira Clavell) and Hugh (Michael Eklund), because it wasn't tricky enough keeping track of everybody. They try to get back to the boat, but then they go back to the house and zombies happen over and over again and eventually the tiny number of survivors who have made it through all the levels - I'm sorry, each suspiciously partitioned wave of zombie attacks - meet the evil conquistador wizard Castillo (David Palffy), who came to the island to discover the secret to immortality.

In a screenplay filled with more bad dialogue than even the most ambitious chronicler of crimes against the language could keep track of, my all-time favorite is probably this:

RUDY: "You did all this to become immortal? Why?"
CASTILLO: "To live forever!"

As scripted, it's just a cheap Romero pastiche, with the inordinate bad taste to name-check Romero in the most ham-fisted way imaginable. That wouldn't be enough to make it immortal; but Boll, as cynical and mercenary as he might be, had a Vision. And that Vision included not just video game footage; it included so much unexplained colored light pouring in over ever surface (a characteristic visual trope of Boll's early work); and it included a Cuisinart-cut 10-minute fight scene in which every single character is given the same LOOKATMEE!!! moment when they're put in the middle of a turntable and the camera buzzes around them at about 70 mph, while they fail entirely to look badass; and a legendarily awful "bullet time shot" in which Casper and a shotgun face off against a zombie with an axe. It included multiple character deaths accompanied by a red-washed series of shots flashing back to events which may or may not involve that character, as the camera does that whooshing 360º thing.

It's just straight-up hypnotic: not one single choice the director made works, and the whole effect is literally incredible. Anyone who has seen more than one or two movies knows enough about the artform to understand that House of the Dead is hardly a movie at all. It's performance art, or something close to it, so willfully opposed to everything that decades of refinement have established as cinematic grammar that I am unable to decide if Boll is a genius or just evil. Whatever the case, House of the Dead is an experience not soon forgotten, and though I cannot begin to claim that I'm a better person for having seen it, it's certainly more entertaining, in the most perverse possible way, than just about anything else released in that decade. This isn't just so-bad-it's-good filmmaking; it transcendentally redefines what the lower depths to which "badness" can aspire.

*Autobiographical note: it was the first time I saw House of the Dead that I invented a game that I play to this day. Upon seeing his name in the credits, unexpectedly, I wrinkled my nose and uttered aloud with dismay - in an empty apartment - "Jürgen fucking Prochnow is in this?" And now, whenever his name comes up in the opening credits, I shout as loud as propriety allows, "JÜRGEN FUCKING PROCHNOW!", a habit which has ruined more than one repertory screening of Das Boot.† I'll bet you're hugely excited that I've shared this with you.

†I have not, in fact, ever screamed, "JÜRGEN FUCKING PROCHNOW!" at a screening of Das Boot, although now I really want to.

28 October 2010

THE HORROR OF DIMINISHING RETURNS

Paranormal Activity 2 is just a lil' bundle of problems. I'd be inclined to say that it is a perfectly fine film in and of itself, considered in a vacuum, whilst being a completely unacceptable prequel to Paranormal Activity; and this is exactly how I took to describing the film when I first stepped foot out of the theater. But it's not at all true, you see, for PA2 could not exist at all as a functional thing if it didn't have PA1 sitting in the shadows, propping it up, explaining what would otherwise be some profoundly stupid narrative gaps. So PA2, despite being almost entirely fine in every possible way, doesn't work at all as a standalone movie and doesn't work at all as a sequel. QED, it doesn't work at all, which seems altogether too harsh a judgment.

The first Paranormal Activity, you perhaps recall, was a independent film produced for pocket change in 2006 and 2007 by writer/director Oren Peli, captured entirely on the camera owned by Michah (Micah Sloat), who had decided that the best thing to do in the whole world was to film the apparent demonic possession afflicting the costly suburban sprawl home he shared with his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston). Micah and Katie return for the new film, but only in glorified cameos; the main story this time centers on Katie's sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), and Daniel's teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim), whose mother is dead. Otherwise, everything is much the same as before: the film is depicted as being a found footage document, which briefly shows the 2005 birth of baby Hunter, before cutting ahead, jarringly, to August 2006, with Daniel grousing about grabbing the first tape he could find to record the damage done to the home in a break-in where the criminal took nothing but a necklace and destroyed just about everything he or she (...or it! we fill in for the film, given that we know as the characters do not that the title of their story is Paranormal Activity 2) could manage. One assumes that if (SPOILER, but not really) Daniel and Kristi didn't end up dead, he'd be in quite a spot of trouble for recording over the baby tapes.

The break-in leads the family to install security cameras all over the house, in the overreactive way of wealthy suburbanites everywhere, and the film thereafter is divided about half-and-half between this security camera footage and camcorder video produced mostly by Ali. What happens is not going to come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Paranormal Activity: inexplicable things start happening at a slow rate, then they start to happen a bit faster, then shit goes absolutely crazy, and nobody in the film can figure out how to stop it. "Inexplicable things" consists largely of bangs and things falling and the German Shepherd Abby staring and growling at something that isn't there. Whatever the hell is going on, it's clear that something evil wants to gets its paws on Hunter - we know it is evil because the family's nanny and maid, Martine (Vivis) says so in Spanish; for Martine is Hispanic and Catholic, and as a result of those two things has an intuitive understanding of the spiritual world that the rest of the characters lack. Yes, it's that kind of film.

The film, as written by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst, and directed by Tod Williams, does as little as possible to mess with the formula provided by the original: lots of still shots at night of the inside of the house that become repetitive enough that a well-placed THUNK is all by itself enough to make half the audience wet themselves. Though, it must be said, the THUNKS aren't quite as well-placed here; and by expanding the primary speaking cast from two people to four plus a dog and a baby, PA2 dilutes itself rather badly. One of the chief pleasures of the original film was in watching a generally normal couple coming undone in the face of inordinate stress; with a cast this large (and a house this comically sprawling), the sequel has a hard time focusing.

I'm also not a particular fan of the security camera conceit; though I suppose the point was to ameliorate the problem so many had with the original (and with the whole "first-person camera" subgenre), that the characters wouldn't really carry around a prosumer camcorder throughout everything that happens to them, and to provide a bit more flexibility in how many rooms the filmmakers could show, if anything it just calls attention to how fake everything is. There are things we see onscreen that, given the family's propensity for reviewing their security footage, couldn't possibly have gone unnoticed; and while the first film could plausibly claim "found footage", this one cannot - it has to have been edited. So who did the editing? (Gregory Plotkin, but that's not really here nor there).

This, coupled with the fact that Williams and his small army of writers can't come up with anything to match the low-fi thrills and merciless slow boil of the original, and you have a film that is basically the same, except that it's not as good in every degree. Though I have to give Williams, or his AD, credit for getting tremendously natural performances out of the dog and the babies playing Hunter - no, seriously. Most of the best moments in the film rely on them reacting to something we can't see; meaning something that wasn't there on set at all, and it must have been hell to choreograph. So congratulations to the filmmakers on that count.

Still, PA2 works, basically, as as less-so version of something that I, for one, thought was absolutely great the first time around. It clatters and goes "Boo!" quite convincingly. And yet it sucks, and the reason it sucks I can sum up in one word:

Mythology.

PA2, in addition to unambiguously setting up an eventual PA3, wants to expand the narrative universe of the first film in a way that doesn't work - and I suspect, could not under any circumstances. Paranormal Activity was brilliant in no small part because it was inexplicable: these two characters are under attack from something with no apparent motivation other than to be evil. The most successful horror films are always about something evil that lashes out without reason; explanations are invariably less scary than random happenings. And PA2 is all about the explanations. Oh, not all about them; a sufficiently inattentive viewer could probably miss both of the two scenes that very briefly suggest - but do not explain for certain - what's going on. And the same viewer could probably miss the scene which retroactively explains the first film, and in the process makes it a hell of a lot less effective. Absolutely no viewer who is still in the room can miss the asinine final scene, which is the only part of the movie to take place after the original (the rest is about two months before), and not only ruins the impact of that film (the worst thing any sequel can ever do), it leaves a giant hole in the sequel for anyone who didn't see the first part. Pragmatically, if the last eight minutes of Paranormal Activity 2 didn't exist, I'd feel several times better about it; but they do, so I don't.

5/10

27 October 2010

BEST SHOT: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

Season 1 of Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at the Film Experience ends tonight, and Nathaniel picked a doozy of a picture to wrap things up: The Night of the Hunter, the only feature directed by Charles Laughton, and arguably the finest work in the career of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, in a career including Orson Welles's sophomore effort The Magnificent Ambersons, and the one-two Sam Fuller punch of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, just so we all understand what an overweening thing I've just claimed on his behalf.

The film is a marvelous thriller, featuring Robert Mitchum's best performance as a murderous conman posing as a preacher, and Shelley Winters's best as the addled woman who falls for his trickery (though I should mention that I'm not the world's biggest Winters fan), and Lillian Gish's... not-best performance, but let's not let anything sour the movie. A grim bedtime story, a nightmare fairy tale for adults, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most beautiful, haunting, even terrifying movies of the '50s.

But we're here, if I recall aright, to pick my favorite shot. There are a great many to choose from. A great many. As I said, though, my preferred reading of the film is as the scary bedtime story, and so I narrowed my choice to those images that best evoke the "once upon a time", not quite real sense evoked by that phrase, "bedtime story". And here it is:

The young protagonists, in their journey away from Mitchum's all-encompassing evil, have fled down the river, filmed with delightfully Impressionist touches, of which my favorite must be the kindly light in the window of this isolated house, surrounded by a glow that suggests heaven itself is inside. It's not; it's just a waystation where the children can sleep for one single night, but the unearthly beauty of the farm is at least in part a promise that things are going to get better. At any rate, in a litany of gorgeous images that mark the river voyage, this is the one I love the most.

A close second is the shot of the preacher, menacing even in the distance, that ultimately drives the children away from this temporary shelter and onward toward their ultimate sanctuary.

But since it is "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", not "Hit Me With All The Shots You Damn Well Please", I will say no more about it.

FRANKENSTEIN'S TWO-HEADED MONSTER

The two major horror franchises born at Hammer Studios in the 1950s shared, for their first few entries, a curious number of similarities: in both cases, the first entry (The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula), directed by Terence Fisher from a Jimmy Sangster script, gave us Peter Cushing as the protagonist and Christopher Lee as the villain with hardly any screentime. The first sequel for each (The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Brides of Dracula), re-teaming Fisher and Sangster, dropped Lee's character to focus on Cushing's, and this led to a long period of dormancy. For both series, the next sequel came out after a six-year gap, with Lee's character returning (sort of; and thereon hangs a tale).

From here, I can no longer connect the two: for while the 1966 Dracula: Prince of Darkness (from the Fisher/Sangster duo) is a pretty great vampire movie, and I'd at least entertain the argument that it's the best of all Hammer's Dracula pictures, its analogue, 1964's The Evil of Frankenstein is not pretty great. It's pretty wan and spotty, in fact, though probably not as bad as the most rabid Hammer fanatics would have you believe. Certainly, it is a stunningly terrible sequel to Curse and Revenge, owing in no small part to the absence of both Fisher and Sangster from the creative team: they were replaced by Freddie Francis, whose work as director was never nearly as important as his career as a gifted, award-winning cinematographer (this was one of his earliest directorial efforts), and Anthony Hinds, the genius producer who did more than any other individual to bring Hammer to its heights, writing under his customary pseudonym "John Elder" - and by no means do I want to imply that Hinds/Elder was some kind of untalented hack. In point of fact, he was responsible for writing some truly excellent Hammer productions, and he managed to keep the Dracula franchise from sinking into out-and-out shit longer than anyone could fairly have expected.

Still, his first effort in the Frankenstein series was not one of his more solid efforts: lacking even the slightest trace of continuity with the earlier two, so tightly unified by Sangster's genius, although we could perhaps forgive this if it were the only problem. Continuity was hardly the hallmark of the Dracula films, to say nothing of Universal's cycle of movies in the 1930s and '40s with the same characters, and some of those turned out just fine. But that's not the only problem: The Evil of Frankenstein is littered with internal inconsistencies, lazy character motivations, and a dramatic arc that goes nowhere and does nothing. Then there are the non-script issues; but since I've started down this road, I'll continue.

At first, it seems like this might be a straightforward, if sloppy, continuation of The Revenge of Frankenstein: in an isolated woodland cabin, a dead body laid out for its funeral is stolen by a nasty little man (Tony Arpino), who is being secretly watched by an even more shadowy figure, revealed to us only briefly as the infamous Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). Frankenstein has commissioned this body snatching, and after paying off the horrid little man, he and his assistant Hans - you remember Hans, from the last movie? The promising doctor who grew fascinated with Frankenstein's research and became his aide? The one who revived the baron after a mob of angry amputees beat him to death? Well, this isn't him, it doesn't seem, because he's substantially younger (and played now by Sandor Elès, with a pronounced accent found nowhere in Francis Matthews's performance), and he seems to know little of Frankenstein's work. Which, right now, involves plunging the dead man's heart into a chamber of liquid, and massaging it until it starts beating on its own. This delights Frankenstein - until a meanie priest (James Maxwell) bursts in and wrecks the laboratory. Barely escaping, Frankenstein and Hans journey to the Baron's old home in Karlstaad, where he hopes to recover some of the fine art that he left behind when he was chased out, to sell it and thus pay to continue his research.

It's clear enough by now that any sort of real continuity between The Evil of Frankenstein and its predecessors is not on the table, but even so, the opening of this film is pretty damn good. The opening body snatching is impeccably moody, staged by Francis so that even though we know exactly who wants the corpse and why, it's still mysterious and unsettling what's going on. And it's all tremendously handsome: the Hammer Gothic aesthetic had been refined enough after the experiments in the late '50s that the dusty basement where Frankenstein conducts his hellish work is perhaps more convincing than any single set in either of the preceding movies. And Cushing's curt demeanor coupled with his scientific zeal is excellent, though not really at all the way he'd played the character before. Yessir, if this first scene were really the caliber of The Evil of Frankenstein, we'd all have quite a great movie on our hands.

Instead, the movie dives headlong into a flashback sequence that starts to explain just how wrong things could go, and why. Recalling to Hans why he had to flee Karlstaad, Frankenstein recounts the story of his artificial man, who escaped from the lab and went on a spree killing sheep (yes, sheep), until the local police forced it off of a cliff, and brought Frankenstein up on charges of it's not quite clear. First things first: I admire Francis and Hinds for conceiving of this lengthy sequence without dialogue. It gives it a hazy, pantomime feel, reflecting both the distant quality of the memories, and giving them a certain legendary scope.

The thing is, we get our first great look at Frankenstein's first monster here, and let's just say, it's not the mass of scar tissue and rot that Christopher Lee so memorably embodied seven years prior. Here's what happened: in between 1958 and 1964, Hammer entered into a distribution partnership with Universal Studios, which meant that the injunction against using anything remotely like the iconic makeup or set design that made Universal's Frankenstein a masterpiece had been lifted. Hammer made the most of this by copying the general design mentality behind Frankenstein's lab, and by recasting Frankenstein's monster to look somewhat like the legendary 1931 version created by Jack P. Pierce.

Somewhat.

The movie could be a stone-cold masterpiece of horror in every possible way but one, and that one would still be enough to more or less ruin the whole thing. Because this, dear reader, is what Hammer's best and brightest could pull together when using all of their not-insubstantial resources to pay tribute to the most famous monster design in cinema history:

It looks like a joke. It's so terrifically false - so inflexible, so rubbery, I honestly thought the first time we see the monster's eye in close-up, that his face was covered in some kind of swaddling. But no. It's just the make-up. And that shot, by virtue of being somewhat dark, hides the worst of it:

I can't imagine the filmmakers thought this was acceptable; I must assume that they just didn't have the time to get it right. At any rate, the film is stuck with that make-up hatchet job, and there's just no getting around how much that, by itself, drags The Evil of Frankenstein down. I have the most urgent pity for actor Kiwi Kingston, who had the damnable job of making that look alive and threatening.

Back to the plot: Frankenstein and Hans arrive in Karlstaad on a carnival day that looks rather more like the 1920s than the 19th Century, and sneak past anyone who might recognise the doctor to find his abandoned chateau, which has been stripped. A subsequent trip to town reveals that it was the burgomaster (David Hutcheson), who did most of the stripping. Right about now, Frankenstein is discovered, and the two mad scientists flee, finding refuge in the cave where a mute beggar girl (Katy Wild) lives when she's not be tormented by the locals. There, trapped in a permanent glacier, who should they find but the monster? And while Frankenstein is able to resurrect it, he can't bring it to consciousness. Back to the village, where he offers a deal to the only man more hated in Karlstaad than he is: the hypnotist Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe). The theory goes that Zoltan can just mesmerise the monster into consciousness, which would seem like so much hot air to me, except that it works, with the ugly side effect that Zoltan alone can control the creature, and he has revenge on his mind. Cue the rampage, ending in a storm of villagers with pitchforks and torches.

Ice caves? Carnivals? Shady gypsy hypnotists? Raging mob? Frankenstein recast as something a lot more sympathetic and even heroic? This, as so many people have pointed out, is no Hammer Frankenstein film at all: it's a distaff Universal sequel, to go along with the distaff Universal visuals. It is, truthfully, better than a lot of the Universal movies: by no yardstick is The Evil of Frankenstein not greater by several orders of magnitude than the wobbly The Ghost of Frankenstein, or even more dubiously, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But the genial corniness that is so much a part of the DNA of the later Universal horror films is a deadly mismatch to the refined savagery that was Hammer's bread and butter in 1964. The Evil of Frankenstein never comes within a country mile of resolving this essential conflict in its personality.

Simply put, Hinds didn't really think about what he was writing: a half-baked Frankenstein cobbler is the result. Lest I imply that this is all because the film is halfway between the Universal and Hammer narrative traditions, I should make it clear: the script is a mess. The financial crisis that spurs Frankenstein to visit Karlstaad in the first place is conveniently forgotten as soon as possible; this is the most glaring continuity error in a film pockmarked by smaller issues. It's also marked by a collection of desperately flat characters, which isn't altogether a problem, except that the first two films had spoiled us with their exceedingly full, complex depiction of Frankenstein himself.

Deprived of such a dense role, Cushing puts forth nowhere near the effort he did in the last two; but he's still Peter Cushing, and that counts for a lot. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by the sort of bland twerps that came to characterise the Hammer stock company in the second half of the 1960s: Woodthorpe is not remotely credible as a villain, nor are Hutcheson and Duncan Lamont (as the chief of police) believable opponents to Cushing's resolve. Poor Kiwi Kingston I mentioned already; but it's worth going back and just saying it again: poor, poor Kiwi Kingston.

At least the film looks like a Hammer production, though cinematographer John Wilcox (not one of the studio's regulars) isn't so adept at capturing the uncomfortably oversaturated colors that made the best of them look so lush. He is, though, a deft hand at the deep shadows and Expressionist angles that typify Hammer's Gothic films; between himself and Freddie Francis, they do a fine job of replicating the grim, rich atmosphere for which Hammer remains best known, though there's the odd scene here and there that's unattractively overlit.

That's not enough, of course: there are plenty of films that have that Hammer feeling, if that Hammer feeling is all you want. Without a tighter, darker story, and without any stronger central performance than Cushing's phoned-in parody of his own classic role, The Evil of Frankenstein simply does not work as well as most of its contemporaries, though it's not as aggressively bad as the studio's early-'70s lunges at relevance, and not as hateful as its most ardent detractors suggest. Still, I am glad that after this one-off failure, Terence Fisher returned to the series, this time never to depart.

A last point: that title is oddly inappropriate for a story in which Frankenstein objectively does less evil than in either of the preceding movies, don't you think?

Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)

25 October 2010

TEN FOR MONDAY: DOCUMENTARIES

In light of my recent rave for Last Train Home, I thought it was a good time to resurrect the long-dormant Monday Top 10 series that a number of people seem to like. And even better, I can get back in the habit of writing those articles-by-request that so many of you kindly commissioned by donating to the Carry On Campaign. This one was requested by commenter Rob Niven, who is finally getting his list of my picks for:

The Top 10 Documentaries of All Time, As Told by a Damn Idiot Who Still Hasn't Seen Hoop Dreams, So Don't Point Out That It's Not There.

10. Gimme Shelter
(Albert Maysles, David Maysles, & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

It's a common observation that some documentarians are just plain lucky to be filming a subject (interesting, not terribly unique) when Something Major happens; and nobody was ever luckier than the trio whose initial mission was to film a major Rolling Stones tour that would culminate in the biggest free concert since Woodstock. Even admitting that the filmmakers had unusual access to the band, the film wouldn't be tremendously revelatory if not for the fatal stabbing of a concertgoer by one of the Hells Angels bikers at the infamous Altamont concert, at which point Gimme Shelter turned into a cinematic eulogy for the death of the Sixties. Admittedly, it's pretty damn good even without that turn: the filmmakers capture something particular about the weariness and self-regard of a band on the road that is both archly cynical and plaintive.


9. The Pig AKA Le cochon
(Jean Eustache & Jean-Michel Barjol, 1970)

The film is as straightforward as its title: this is the story of one animal's journey through a family-owned slaughterhouse in the French countryside, from the pen to the sausage casing. Unblinking in its depiction of butchery - the scene where the pig is killed would turn the staunchest viewer's thoughts, however briefly, towards veganism - The Pig is not ultimately exploitative, but simply an ode the rhythm of life and death, and a tribute to the country artisans who perform their duty with devotion and care, in an era when industrial ranching was already turning into business as usual. So hyper-realistic that it starts to attain a measure of abstract poetry, the film is an unforgettable snapshot of a moment in life which can mean everything in the world and nothing much at all, depending on who is viewing it at any given second - and it does it all without a single word of dialogue.


8. Harlan County U.S.A.
(Barbara Kopple, 1976)

The peak of the cinéma vérité movement of the '60s and '70s, and one of the great political movies of its generation. Kopple set out to film the internal power struggles of the United Mine Workers of America, and instead found herself drawn to the story of a strike at Kentucky's Brookside Mine, a hugely violent and drawn-out struggle even by the standards of American labor disputes. Unabashedly siding with the miners, despite a few scattered attempts to feign ambivalence, the film captures the alternating tedium and terror of a community ground into the dirt by oppressive corporate practices, placing us in the center of months and months of tension and fatigue and misery. The film is equal parts agitprop and humanist tribute, a fierce and angry and warm study of people at their lowest, and their strongest.


7. The Last Waltz
(Martin Scorsese, 1978)

The concert film is, obviously, a different thing than the "documentary" as such, and I had at first thought to eliminate the form out of hand. But there are concert docs, and then there are concert docs, and Scorsese's milestone is, simply put, the absolute pinnacle of the form. Not just because of the once-in-a-lifetime assembly of rock artists at the very top of their game, come together to say farewell to The Band, though the performances are certainly great enough to give the film a boost on that level; it's the sheer joy with which Scorsese finds a cinematic equivalent to his beloved rock music, aided by a line-up of cinematographers almost as enviable as the onstage talent, that makes The Last Waltz arguably the greatest film about music of any kind, ever: nothing else has ever approached how fully this movie captures the essence of playing and of listening, with equal reverence.


6. Grizzly Man
(Werner Herzog, 2005)

5. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
(Werner Herzog, 1997)

I had every intention of limiting myself to just one film per director, but when I got down to the final cut of the list, and realised that I was going to have to pick between my two favorite films by my favorite living filmmaker, I choked. And even if it makes the list less interesting by that much, it at least has the benefit of honestly reflecting my feelings.

Both films find Herzog pursuing his most beloved and characteristic subject: a look at intense, borderline-mad personalities from such a tiny remove that you half fear for your own sanity. Besides that, they have little in common: Grizzly Man is built out of found footage and Herzog's own discursive, avowedly partial narration, to create a picture of Timothy Treadwell which is by turns pitying and scornful; Little Dieter is virtually nothing but interviews with a subject that absolutely captivates and astounds Herzog, even as the filmmaker capriciously forces Dieter Dengler to relive the most hellish experience of his life. Both of them chart the human capacity for survival or destruction in the face of uncaring nature, and the kinds of obsession that can drive a man's whole life, with a saucy, ironic glee that leaves them among the most memorable character studies in cinema, if only dubiously reliable as journalism.


4. F for Fake
(Orson Welles, 1974)

History's most famous amateur magician, Welles had a lifelong fascination with deception and fraud, and near the end of his career (he completed only one later feature), he indulged himself with a film that can't accurately be called anything other than "documentary" on fraud, though the word needs to be applied with exceptional care. Telling the story of several prominent fraudsters of the 20th Century, including art forger Elmyr de Hory, hoax novelist Clifford Irving, and Welles himself, the film is edited together with such coy misdirection that you can't take its word for anything, as Welles points out in an incredible slick joke at the very end. Then again, what better way to consider art of lying than with a film where every word and every shot is potentially hiding a half-truth?


3. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
(Errol Morris, 1997)

Morris's masterpiece, but not for want of great candidates (I was sorely tempted to break my "no duplicating directors" rule again) is, like Herzog's finest work, a study of obsessed personalities on the edge of society. But Morris quadruples the normal number of subjects, focusing on four very different, very odd men, in whose wildly quirky pursuits the filmmaker captures a tiny snapshot of hectic modern life. Without ever appearing to put on its Message Movie cap, the film ends up saying more about how we - we messy, disjointed people - exist in the world than just about anything else ever put together, and its implications about both the narrowness and the breadth of human perspective turn what might have been a study of caricatures into a grand statement about our whole damn species. The rare sort of movie that, viewed in a receptive mood, can change everything you know about your own mind.


2. Man with a Movie Camera AKA Человек с киноаппаратом
(Dziga Vertov, 1929)

I hemmed, and I hawed, and I had great periods of heaving doubt, and I took it off the list and put it back on and took it off &c. The fact is, I don't know if this is a documentary - but if it isn't, then I have no damn idea what else to call it. Other than a revolutionary attempt to capture the basic truth of human life in a manner entirely and utterly cinematic, flashing from one image of The City (it was actually three) and The People living there over one Day (several years) to another so quickly that even now, in a time when fast-cutting is the norm, we can still hardly keep up with the joyous enthusiasm of Vertov's exploration of how meaning is created visually, with narrative mediation. I do know that I can call it that.


1. Night and Fog AKA Nuit et brouillard
(Alain Resnais, 1955)

Night and Fog is 32 minutes long. The first - and thus far, only - time that I watched it, it took me very close to one and a half hours, taking time to pause the DVD and just... exist, trying desperately to find the strength to muscle through the rest of it. That is the only measure I can give of the world-ending power of Resnais's fucking merciless snapshot of the Holocaust, which combines touristy color photography taken ten years after the liberation of the camps, incomprehensibly ghastly newsreel footage and still photographs of their discovery by the Allies, and Michel Bouquet's immaculately measured narration. And though it is, in a walk, the hardest, most sobering, most deeply unpleasant film I have ever seen, I treasure it: it is a tremendously necessary document of the depths to which humanity can sink that plants its feet and declares "Never again", while recognising with dull horror that it will happen again, and again, because that is who we as a species are. I have never seen another work of cinema that shook me half as much.


Honorable Mention:
The Up series
(Paul Almond, 1964; Michael Apted, 1970-present)

Too grand an experiment to pigeonhole it on a list, not least because it's not complete yet: this magnificently ambitious attempt to film the lives of a number of regular British citizens, visiting them every seven years since they were seven years old, is one of the truly great projects in cinema history: documenting not only the lives of human beings as they unfold in ways both expected and wholly unpredictable, but the growth of a country and even the world over the span of a lifetime. This is one for the time capsule: decades after we're all dead, this will still stand as testament to what it means to be a human.

MONSTERS, YES. NO GODS.

The first sequel to the groundbreaking The Curse of Frankenstein - the film that absolutely secured Hammer Studios as the home for top-notch Gothic horror with cutting-edge gore effects in the late 1950s and early 1960s - took scarcely more than a year to reach theaters. A sign of greed, you might think; a sign of a studio seeing that they had a great thing and immediately running it into the ground. Nay, says I, for 1958's The Revenge of Frankenstein is a brilliant sequel, one of the most sophisticated and intelligent follow-ups to a horror classic that has ever been put to film; probably the single best horror sequel since Universal's Bride of Frankenstein, ironically enough, 23 years prior. Like its illustrious predecessor, The Revenge of Frankenstein is not just a worthy sequel to a truly excellent monster film; it is arguably even better than the already exceptional original (and one must point out that, unlike Bride, the makers of Revenge didn't get there by adding a huge dose of infectious, charming camp to what had been a deadly-serious horror scenario).

It starts almost to the second where Curse left off: Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), having been convicted of the crimes committed by the animate patchwork corpse he'd created, is about to be guillotined. So, alright, not exactly where the first one ended: that film of course suggested that Frankenstein was thought to be crazy, with all his babbling talk of an undead monster that had murdered so many people. But the little tweak ends up doing quite a lot of good for Revenge, so let's all be friends about it - and about the quiet indication at the end of the first movie that Frankenstein had been set up by his colleague and his fiancée, now apparently lovers. Because that would have led to a much wimpier revenge than the one we ultimately get, in which Frankenstein's wrath is not against any specific person who has wronged him, but against the cynical, skeptical, hand-wringingly moral community of scientists who have dismissed him as mad.

That's moving quite far ahead of what is an outstanding pair of opening scenes: even from the first static shot playing underneath the opening credits, a massively canted and quite Expressionist image of a guillotine against a weakening sky, being prepared for the imminent execution. When it comes the haggard Frankenstein is taciturn, as he well might be: he's endeavored to buy off the guards, who kill the priest reading the condemned man his last rites (though we aren't immediately shown this, instead having the image skillfully hidden by a dramatic tilt away from the action). Frankenstein and one of his new assistants, Karl (Oscar Quitak), return to steal the priest's body and dispose of the shambling Cockney grave-robber who dug the corpse up, and sneak off into the foggy dark night, which is oh so foggy, and oh so dark.

Three years pass; Frankenstein is now situated in Carlsbrück, Germany, operating under the name of Stein. A tricksy and wholly convincing nom de crime. Here, has has effortlessly become the most beloved doctor and chirurgeon in town, angering the local board of medical elders; but they are no match for "Stein's" rakish good looks or generosity of spirit, which brings him to the local poor population for free care - even free amputations when it's clear that their dissolute lifestyles have left them with an arm or leg that no longer works and may indeed present a threat to the owner's life. Hell, he's even willing to take limbs that don't apparently have anything wrong with them, such a paragon of charity he is!

We take all of 0.3 seconds to figure out why he wants those body parts, and we're only slightly ahead of the young Carlsbrück doctor Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), who recognises Frankenstein immediately and- no, he does not threaten to reveal the wicked doctor's identity. In fact, he wants nothing more than to serve as Frankenstein's devoted assistant, soaking up all the knowledge he can of the power to create life from nothingness. And from here I will say no more of the plot, save that, if your only exposure to the Frankenstein mythos is the Universal series, or even the much more recent abortion by Kenneth Branagh, things don't go where you expect them to.

Its relatively innovative narrative - and I say "relatively"; it's still a Frankenstein film, and that obviously means that the titular doctor is going to bring a dead body to life, and it's not going to go altogether well - sets The Revenge of Frankenstein on a level rarely achieved by mad scientist pictures, horror films, or sequels generally: it is in no way the safe, obvious recap of the original that even the divine Bride was (we might uncharitably but not therefore inaccurately call that one "Frankenstein done over again with the gayest man in Ruritania as the villain"), but a sometimes tremendously unintuitive extension of the themes and and character arc that made Curse such a treat in the first place. As before, the chief draw of the film is Cushing's revelatory turn as Victor Frankenstein, conspicuously not played as a mad genius looking to play God, but as a consummate, morally bankrupt scientist, for whom the act of research is the only thing worth pursuing in life. With the whole first movie as the assumed background, the filmmakers and Cushing push ever deeper into Frankenstein's stunted mind, this time playing him against a younger, more charismatic version of himself, in the form of Kleve.

It's instructive to think of this character alongside Cushing's other big-deal performance in the summer of '58: Van Helsing in Hammer's first Dracula film, who like Frankenstein is an implacable man of science. The two characters, save for their intellectual rigor, could not be further apart: Van Helsing is all humanism and affection and self-abnegating bravery in contrast to Frankenstein's chilly, soulless tinkering with dead flesh. Besides showcasing just how damn versatile Cushing could be, the gap between the two films serves to set off just how invested the Frankenstein films were in exploring the lead character's warped but coherent mind. Van Helsing is a generic commonplace done terribly well in a terribly great vampire picture; Frankenstein is the rich and troubling centerpiece of an outstandingly nuanced character study in horror-picture clothes. When, ignorant of all hypocrisy, he snaps at Kleve for lacking a sense of human behavior (it's especially hypocritical in context); when he cheerfully saws off a perfectly healthy arm on the grounds that the poor don't deserve it, or stares at a powerfully rich mother of an eligible young lady with all-encompassing indifference, on the grounds that the rich are assholes; when he unhurriedly gets ready to die in the hope of escaping an angry mob; Frankenstein is something grandly intelligent and terrifyingly inhuman, played with just the right amount of dry amusement by Cushing that it's almost impossible not to be suckered into liking the bastard, despite the copious evidence that we shouldn't.

Cushing's performance would be enough to justify The Revenge of Frankenstein all these decades later; but he has behind him all the apparatus of Hammer Studios in its first flush of brilliance, to boot, including what might be, pound for pound, the finest cast in any of Hammer's Gothic films. Matthews, a studio regular, is infinitely better here than in anything else I've seen, playing off of Cushing's energy, perhaps; Eunice Gayson makes a fairly credible stab at the always thankless role of The Sex; women in Hammer films are noted neither for their dramatic necessity nor their psychological credibility, and yet Gayson almost manages to put across the feeling of a real person. But the best in show honors (after Cushing, naturally), must go to Michael Gwynn, playing this film's monster: and a very different monster than we're used to, one that hews a great deal closer to Mary Shelley's notion that the creature is articulate and highly self-aware. He's playing a version of another character, and he does it with excellent mimcry, but that's not the half of it. The performance, aided by little makeup and less "stalking and terrorising" drama, is full of tragedy and pathos, from his disgusted and heartrbroken consideration of his brain's old body, to the miserable "Help me, Frankenstein!" that he shrieks in his final scene. It is an immensely different take on the Frankensteinian creature than cinema had ever seen in 1958, and can, in its own way, stack up even to Boris Karloff's legendary performance.

The behind the scenes talent is much the same, meanwhile, as the crackerjack team that put together The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula - not to mention, the film was put together on some of the Dracula sets, redressed to look mostly unrecognisable. Tthe fact that the sets had to do double duty means that they were built quite a bit sturdier than in the first film, and look a great deal more evocative and moody than in the first film.

Back is the great, criminally underappreciated director Terence Fisher, continuing to skillfully wield his actors as just one element in the haunting, noir-meets-Victoriana vision that characterises all Hammer films, but Fisher's best of all; back is Jack Asher, ace cinematographer, whose use of murky, cobwebby shadows in every corner lends The Revenge of Frankenstein a grimy feel not entirely present in the original (one suspects that he was still stuck in Dracula mode); back, most importantly, is Jimmy Sangster, with one of his strongest screenplays ever, an impeccably smooth flow of incidents that hang together in exactly the right order, even when it's not the one you'd quite expect (for example, he delays a brief conversation about the effects of transferring an orangutan brain into a chimp - effects that are scientifically nonsensical even by the standards of Gothic horror, but whatever - to give it maximum dramatic impact, without seeming to be delaying it), and altogether being much smarter, and fuller of character and narrative cohesion than you'd expect from a movie with Frankenstein in the title. Effortlessly tying this film in with its predecessor, so that you'd never think they weren't written as one whole object, and leaving an ending that could in one swoop lead to a sequel or end on mystifying certainty, it's about as tight a horror screenplay as you could ever hope for; heavier with ideas than with scares, perhaps, but who in the 21st Century looks to 1950s horror for scares? Besides there's plenty of unexpectedly graphic gore effects for that, bright red stumps in that eerie, bright Eastmancolor of the first wave of Hammer horror.

Moreover, Sangster's scenario is absolutely uncompromising: bleaker by far than anything Hammer had yet produced, the world of this Revenge is entirely defined by Frankenstein's sour, hateful perspective. Curse was content to observe him as its protagonist; the sequel is yoked to his worldview, and that is a thrillingly uncomfortable place to be, with its class anger in both directions, its disdainful misogyny, and its blithe contempt for human life. There's something tremendously relieving when we aren't standing over his shoulder; and yet the character as written and played is so absorbing that it's exhilarating, in a black way, to spend that much time in the anti-hero's mind.

Frankly, it's about as close as Hammer ever came to an outright masterpiece: great mood combining with outstanding performances and writing, and at 89 minutes, the film understands the value of not screwing around. It is one of the great horror films, then and now, unerringly assembled by talented craftsmen who weren't looking to redefine cinema, and didn't; but in no small way, The Revenge of Frankenstein helped to set in stone the high standard of excellence that kept Hammer at the forefront of genre filmmaking for almost ten years; though Dracula probably did more to catapult the studio to financial acclaim, and it's great all around, Revenge trumps it across the board. Not an accident, I think, that when it came time for Dracula's own sequel two years later, it followed the Frankenstein mold of giving Peter Cushing's scientist the center stage, at the expense of the iconic Christopher Lee monster from the original.

Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)

23 October 2010

FACES OF DEATH

I maintain that it is tremendously gratifying to have a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood, who at the tottering old age of 80, when most directors have long since called it a career, is still pushing himself to do new things, even when those things work intermittently, if at all. In the last five years, the sometime manly dude director has put together two incredibly different war films about the same battle, a crime thriller uncertainly blended with a '40s-style women's weeper, a Fuller-esque cheapie about race and urban identity, and a stubbornly naïve political fable wrapped inside an underdog sports picture, and now he comes along with Hereafter, a plaintive and moody, half-baked and unashamedly earnest globe-sprawling drama about how people feel about death. It works occasionally; it misfires often; and it's different from everything else being made right now, though whether that's an inherent good is in the eye of the beholder.

The first thing to know about the film is that it is hobbled by its screenplay by Peter Morgan, whose stock in trade till now has been embellished historical dramas about world leaders. And the first thing to know about the screenplay is that it isn't Morgan's fault:
I sent it to my agent, and they sent it to—in a very experimental stage—Kathy Kennedy, and she sent it to Steven Spielberg, and he sent it to Clint. And he said he wanted to do it and not change anything. He said, "This is something that really spoke to me, this is delicate and gentle, I'd like to work it. I like things to be instinctive." And for me, I quite like to hone things down, I like to work something to the ground. He thought that with material like this, if you were to do the work, it would become too premeditated and cultured. He said what's beautiful about the movie, in his eyes, is its rawness, and its lack of schematic intent.
That's a darling sentiment for a director to have, but it leaves us with the awkward fact that Hereafter was cobbled together from a first-draft screenplay, and it absolutely feels like it. The tripartite story follows three characters: Marie LeLay (Cécile de France), a French newswoman vacationing in the tropics when a tsunami hits (we are invited to guess that this was the massively deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) and has a near-death experience; George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a San Francisco factory worker who, until recently, had a profitable business as a medium, helping the bereaved to communicate with their loved ones; and Marcus, a young London boy whose twin Jason (both boys are played by twins Frankie and George McLaren, with no indication of what actor plays which character at any given point) has just died, sending Marcus into a savage spiral of depression. Each of these plots explores, in some way, the human connection to - and desire for - the afterlife. And to the surprise of nobody, all three collapse in upon one another late in the film.

It's not so much the scenario that's a problem; I'm not even personally offended by the pat, desultory way that the subplots come together - it strikes me less as an unwieldy coincidence that the three stories we've been following happen to come together, rather that we have been following those stories because they ultimately come together. It's the intermittent clumsiness with which the stories have been fleshed-out: the matter of George's night school cooking classes, for example, where he meets the charming and flighty Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), and grapples with the difficulty of forming a genuine human bond when all he can see is her dead relatives. Why cooking school? Is Melanie the first woman he's felt close to, or is this a routine thing? Does any of this go anywhere, or is it just padding for what the film apparently concludes is its A-plot? Such complaints can apply to any of the sequences, and the film as a whole, and their are other complaints besides. Like: what's with all the non-white characters popping up on the fringes to be as trite and unconvincing and "othered" as possible?

Still, there's something disarmingly compelling about the story that keeps working despite the rickety framework Eastwood and Morgan have forced upon themselves. It comes down to, I think, conviction - the filmmakers are entirely committed to the questions they are asking, which are not always clearly stated, but are still somehow intuitively obvious. It is a blatantly sincere movie, one of the most sincere that Eastwood has ever directed, and I for one take him to be among the most sincere filmmakers now living: never driven by irony, nor style, nor by the cynical desire to win awards (though his career certainly looks that way; I suspect that this is an accident, that Eastwood simply has the pedestrian tastes of the Academy and that prestigey Oscarbait is, legitimately, what interests him), but because he finds a story fascinating and he wants to explore it.

And that is why, though it is massively defective, Hereafter works: the filmmakers honestly and fully care about what they're doing, so much that they're blind to its problems (Never underestimate the power of engaged filmmmakers - they genuinely respect their subject and their audience, and that shines through anything. It's why Eastwood remains vital while fellow workaholic old man director Woody Allen so often drifts into bitter self-parody). It's fair enough: the film's subject is one of the few genuinely universal experiences of the human race, and one that is not given cinematic study very often. And when a film is about death, it's usually a study in impending mortality - something that would be understandable if indulgent of the octogenarian director, and yet Hereafter absolutely never once feels like the work of an old man trying to reconcile himself to dying. It is instead the work of a vaguely spiritual but unreligious pair of storytellers wondering for the sake of it - somewhat unsatisfying as drama, but anything else would have been presumptuous beyond words.

At heart a depiction of human beings suffering and believing, Hereafter relies to a great extent on its actors, and they do it justice: Damon, as should surprise nobody, commits everything he has to his role, playing a miserable sack of a man without any trace of ego. His co-leads are every bit his equal: the brothers McLaren are amazingly expressive and unforced (save for the odd flat line-reading here and there), and its quite impossible to tell that Marcus is, theoretically, being played by two actors (suggesting that Eastwood has an affinity for working young actors that he has largely not explored, at times to his great detriment). And it is absolutely wonderful to see de France, best known to American audiences (if at all) for the torrid 2003 horror film High Tension, given the opportunity to prove that she is a genuinely worthy actress capable of breathing life into a character made up of half-assembled ideas and giving one of the most sensitive, tender performances of the year. The whole cast is actually pretty outstanding, in fact, with character actors like Thierry Neuvic and Richard Kind, and some fine work by people I've never heard of; the one wildly sour note is Bryce Dallas Howard, saddled with godawful hair and makeup, and given to delivering every damn single one of her lines with a nervous giggle at the end of it.

And too, the film is buoyed up by solid, comfortable craftsmanship, typical work of a director whose modus operandi has been to ignore the existence of cinema after the 1950s - speaking as one who feels that American film craftsmanship (as compared to ingenuity or artistry) peaked between 1940 and 1958, I'm not inclined to call Eastwood out on this point - though Hereafter has some distinct problems on that front. For starters, Eastwood's hobby of scoring his own films has never yielded such drippy, tedious results. More upsettingly, his partnership with Tom Stern, responsible for some of the best-shot films of the '00s, has gone wildly off the rails: though a dark story with solemn edges, Hereafter surely didn't need to be filmed in a uniform language of harsh edge-lighting and steely colors? The cooking school sequences in particular look more like a parody of Eastwood and Stern's work than anything - though the moments that work, work really damn well.

And in general, the laconic ease with which the director glides through the story is restful: his handling of the tsunami, for example, while crippled by wretched CGI (it's photorealistic enough, but there is no weight at all to the water, or to the boats and buildings it destroys), has a curiously counter-intuitive and largely successful lack of intensity. Though we're right in the middle of the rushing water, we never feel a part of it, which might sound cold and detached: but it's a film of observation and reflection. "You are there" theatrics aren't part of that, not for a film that is patently meant to start conversations over dinner after the movie instead of trigger dense feelings right in the moment. That's not necessarily my favorite approach to storytelling; but I'd be lying if I said that I could shake the film off. It isn't flashy and it's not remotely perfect, but it has a knot of sentimental humanism at its core that clings to you, and makes the moments that do work linger and last.

7/10