31 October 2011

MUCH OF THE WANTON, MUCH OF THE BIZARRE, SOMETHING OF THE TERRIBLE, AND NOT A LITTLE OF THAT WHICH MIGHT HAVE EXCITED DISGUST

The seventh of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for AIP, The Masque of the Red Death, opened four years and two days after the first, House of Usher, and that is a whole lot of Poe in not very much time no matter how you slice it (and let us pause to observe that by modern standards, seven movies of any sort in four years is an insane amount of output, and further that the Poe movies represent only about half of his directorial work in that period). It's probably not surprising that at some point, the man was simply going to burn out; and by my reckoning it would appear that this was the moment where that happened. Really, though, it would seem that Corman's infatuation with the series had gone cold pretty fast: the third movie, Premature Burial, was an uncertain retread of the first two, the fourth and fifth were largely parodies, and the sixth, The Haunted Palace, was actually an H.P. Lovecraft movie in Poe's clothing.

Part of the problem was undoubtedly the choice of source material: though one of Poe's most celebrated stories, "The Masque of the Red Death" offers virtually nothing in the way of actual plot, though it is arguably the most perfect exercise in creating atmosphere through prose in the writer's work. More than one-fifth of the rather short tale is dedicated to describe the layout and design of the rooms in which it takes place; that's longer than all of the lines dedicated to fleshing out the "conflict", if I can be so bold. In effect, the entire narrative goes like this: "There was a hedonist, and he did hedonistic things. He had a blue room. He had a purple room. He had a green room. He had an orange room. He had a white room. He had a violet room. Finally, he had a black room with a red stained glass window that was ghastly to be in for any amount of time. One night, he died of the plague."

In order to inflate that to anything resembling a feature film, writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (the latter making not only his first Poe movie, but his first horror movie overall) first grafted one of Poe's last stories, "Hop-Frog", onto the stump of "Red Death" - and why not, they're both easily read as stories of a dissolute nobleman getting his comeuppance - and then came the mad invention. Somewhere in medieval Europe, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) throws hideously orgiastic parties every night to keep himself amused by enjoying the depths to which human dignity can sink; when he's not doing that, he rides around the countryside being a holy terror to the peasants under his control, plucking away their food and supplies to keep his endless debauch alive. And that is just what he's doing when we first meet him; but today, the locals are fighting back. The two ringleaders prove to be Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), and Prospero is about to have them put to death when he is stopped by a pretty young woman, Francesca (Jane Asher): she's Gino's fiancée and Ludovico's daughter. Seeing a new opportunity for cruelty, Prospero offers her a chance to save one of the men; she must choose who will die. The only thing that interrupts his little game is when an old woman whom we saw earlier chatting with a man all dressed in red (John Westbrook) is found dead, oozing blood out of all her pores. Realising that the dreaded Red Death is in the area, Prospero orders an immediate retreat to his castle, dragging the three hapless villagers along to be his playthings, and proceeds to plan the grand bacchanal to end all bacchanals. Literally, as the case turns out, but he doesn't know that yet.

The vast bulk of the film (which, at 89 minutes, is too short to be anything but fleet, though it's one of the longest films in the cycle) consists of Prospero, who we eventually learn to be a Satanist - or what the screenwriters call a Satanist, but for all the talk of faith and God and good and evil (at times the dialogue seems plucked from one of those interminable Bible epics of the '50s), the whole thing doesn't feel like it was written by people with more than a passing familiarity with Western religion, sort of like those weirdly Christian-inflected manga - speaking cruelly and persuasively to Francesca, while Prospero's equally lustful but far less suave friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee) heaps cruelties upon the dwarf exotic dancer Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw), and thus bringing her lover, the dwarf court jester Hop Toad* (Skip Martin) to the point of murderous revenge.

There's a lot to like, even love, about The Masque of the Red Death, but it suffers from a huge and easily-named flaw: the script is rotten with blind alleys and deadwood. The Prospero and Hop Toad plotlines intersect only inasmuch as they take place in the same location at the same time; eventually, the writers all but yanks the jester bodily out of the picture with one of those old-timey vaudeville shepherd's crooks. And even setting that aside, the A-material, Prospero's long mental torture of the maiden, suffers from being the same scene played out multiple times: the Satanist speaks in silken tones of pure evil, and the girl brightly asserts her Christian faith, though each time she's a little slower on the draw.

It's not an insurmountable script (though it's surely one of the weakest in the series); but it certainly would have taken a director pushing at the material with more urgency than Corman was apparently interested in scrounging up to make it a top-tier Poe movie. Nor is it at all the case that he was sleepwalking: in fact, The Masque of the Red Death represents a striking new way of presenting this Gothic horror, one mired in bright lights, bold colors, and lots of moment. These are all of them the very polar opposite of House of Usher or Pit and the Pendulum; no merely lazy filmmaker would have gone in this direction. Unfortunately, a bored director might have. Ironically, it might even have been this attempt at a new visual scheme that hurts the film: when the other Poe movies hit their slow patch - and all of them have slow patches - they were able to get by on the moody, foggy atmosphere they'd created (the best of them, especially Usher and Haunted Palace, seem to deliberately court these slow stretches just to show off their atmosphere). In this movie, the atmosphere is of a wholly different flavor, still menacing, but not so hulking and brooding, and when things slow down, it's sort of boring.

On the other hand, it probably sounds like I'm picking on something I completely love: the film looks absolutely gorgeous, and I wouldn't give it up for anything. The ubiquitous and desperately necessary Daniel Haller works his magic yet again, while the cinematography was by a largely untested camera operator named Nicolas Roeg - I pray you know that name, and if you don't, then I envy the exciting trip you have ahead of you. Of course, Roeg as DP of a cheap-ass AIP picture is not the same as Roeg directing Don't Look Now and Walkabout, yet there are traces of the phantasmagoric touch he brought to his later movies in the way that bright colors are used like a weapon in this movie, so damn cheery and saturated that they almost start to overload your retinas. Heck, they're so hard and beautiful that I can even overlook the fact that there are only five, not seven, monochromatic chambers, and yellow was not one of the colors in Poe's original list.

The other thing that redeems The Masque of the Red Death, and to an even greater extent, is the lead performance: the supporting cast ranges from pretty good (Magee, Martin) to hopelessly one-note (Asher, Weston), to criminally under-used (Hazel Court, in her third and last Poe movie), but Price is on a level he virtually never doubled. If I hesitate even slightly in calling it his best work in the Poe cycle, I am solely thinking of The Haunted Palace, and both performances would put in a strong claim to being the highlight of his entire career. Here, he's playing a complete and unmediated villain - a Satanist, for chrissake! - but finding an excellent number of shades of that villainy, from the purely malicious to the bored to the self-impressed and urbane. Even despite its clumsy storytelling, the mere fact that The Masque of the Red Death gave Price the chance to play this character in such a way is all the justification it needs to exist, and while I wish it was as potent as the excellent story that inspired it - and I wish, even more, that it was up to the wonderful standard of the best Poe movies - Price is by himself enough to make it essential viewing.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, PART II

Part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon hosted by Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

I have a terrible secret, but I trust all of you enough to admit it: I don't dislike Demons 2. The film has a fairly cast-iron reputation for being a cheaper, stupider retread of Demons - not, in and of itself, a movie that can be rightly called an unassailable classic outside of the extremely circumscribed world of 1980s Italian horror buffs - that is incoherent and strange in all the wrong ways (whereas Demons is incoherent and strange in all the right ways. I concede that Demons 2 is not a patch on its predecessor; and while its Italian subtitle translates as The Nightmare Returns, it could just as easily be called Basically the Same Thing, but in an Apartment Building This Time. Plainly, less money was spent on make-up and effects, and the characters frequently make no sense, and it's pretty much impossible to say why the things in the movie happen. Though this last was also true of the original, and it's really tricky to say that one of them is more or less incomprehensible than the other.

But anyway, as I said, I didn't dislike it. Which is arguably not the same thing as liking it, and God knows the film suffers from more than its fair share of shortcomings. Yet I am partial to it anyway. It's dopey as hell, dopier by far than Demons at any rate, and maybe this is part of its charm. Certainly the level of "why the hell not?" enthusiasm that Bava and Argento evidently sank into this second chapter is addictive in the same way that a sugar rush can be - while the "cool" factor of the original has been sacrificed (despite the presence of New Wave on the soundtrack that was, I assume, not so hackneyed in 1986 as it plays today; and at any rate, heavy metal is more the stuff of a rampaging zombie/demon army, n'est-ce pas?), the second film may even be a touch more fun, on account of taking itself even less seriously.

A sign of how far off the rails the script went for this one can be found in the fact that different summaries of the plot don't even necessarily agree on the content of the first act. There are four teenagers who have broken into the demon quarantine zone established at the end of the last movie because teenagers are all inveterate adrenaline junkies* and they like to break into places clearly marked with signs reading approximately "YOU WILL BE KILLED AND EATEN BEYOND THIS POINT STOP FOR FUCK'S SAKE". And they, naturally, run into demons; and this is all happening on TV, though what, exactly, the relationship of the on-TV events to the people watching is part of what nobody seems to agree on - I got that it was a movie-of-the-week thriller, but I've also heard it argued that it was a documentary, or even a live newscast.

Anyway, the important bit is that in a hyper-modern high-rise apartment, just about everybody seems to have their TVs tuned to this program, among them Sally (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni), a girl celebrating her 16th birthday. She is about to get the worst present ever: for reasons that none of the four screenwriters are remotely interested in exploring, one of the demons suddenly turns to the camera and breaks out of her television. Thus is Sally demonised, and it takes only a little bit of time before she's turned most of the building alongside her. The few survivors fight back, ineffectually of course - once again, the DNA of a zombie movie is in here, and no right-thinking Italian zombie movie would want to cash out with anything more than a 5% survival rate among the named characters.

I have, it is true, focused mostly on the ways that Demons 2 is not like Demons, but truthfully, that's not most of what there is to talk about. It's not exactly the case that every incident is copied, but the overall structure of the thing is matched down to the very minute in some places, including the arbitrary introduction of a gang of music-loving toughs who muddle their way into the kill zone for essentially no discernible reason. And in this respect, Demons 2 is aggravating, particularly since the lowered budget means that all of these awfully-familiar demon attacks and the like are not nearly as convincing or disgusting & thus not as discomfiting.

Nor does the removal of the scenario to the high-rise do much good: I imagine the idea was that "holy hell, they can come into your living room!" which is a nominally scary idea, but the building we see is so transparently a set with such obviously production-designed rooms that it absolutely does not register as a normal space for the horror to be intruding upon. That being said, all of the film's very best moments both manage to key into that exact sense of the homey and familiar being horribly violated: an awfully cute dog turning into some nightmare beast in an effect that isn't offensively close to the dog-monster from The Thing; later on, the single nastiest death in the whole picture is given to a child (played by a dwarf in make-up). I do understand that I run the risk of sounding like a complete sociopath right this minute, but I kind of have to give major respect to a movie willing to Go There with a kid (see also: Night of the Living Dead - Lamberto Bava plainly did), because it's one of the only genuinely transgressive things a movie can do, and when it doesn't feel absolutely cheap and exploitative - and knowing that it wasn't an actual child actor involved helps with that feeling - it can be as devastating as anything else in the genre.

That both of these moments are spoiled by subsequently awful effects, well, that's why this isn't an actual "good" movie: the dog has bright green glowing plastic eyes, the kid erupts into a monster that looks precisely like Bava asked the effects team to make one of the titular beasts from Gremlins, but not family-friendly.

At any rate, the whole thing feels unmistakably cheesy, lacking the atmosphere of the malevolent movie theater that worked so darn well in the original (and the attempted commentary on TV culture, if it is there at all, is not a tenth as interesting as the self-parody of horror features in Demons), and there is absolutely no defending it on the grounds that it looks amazing and uncanny, the line in the sand for every Italian horror picture. There are shots, unquestionably: one image looking up a stairwell and spinning in a circle while the glowing-eyed demons tromp down the stairs is as magnificent an image as can be found in any 1986 horror movie I can name.

By and large, though, this is all about having a goofy blast; and we need look no further for evidence than Bobby Rhodes, who featured in a minor role as Tony the Pimp in Demons, and here portrays Hank, the personal trainer at the apartment's gym who leads all his heavily built gym rats to a glorious last stand in the parking garage - there is absolutely no way this is meant to be taken seriously, and Rhodes's ecstatic performance and the mock-epic heroics of his subplot are simply too damn silly not to be fun to watch; assuming, I guess, that you're willing to meet the movie halfway. Very important stuff in a picture like Demons 2. We have here a picture where the director is conspiratorially leaning in and murmuring, "This is totally stupid. It's great, right?" Not great, but not at all as rancid as its reputation, for the viewer willing to smirk back, "It is totally stupid, and exactly what I was looking for. Thank you, Lamberto Bava." It's daft as fuck, but always & only in the good way.

30 October 2011

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, PART I

Part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon hosted by Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

When I decided to review my way through the entirety of the Demons series this weekend, I didn't realise just how insane a project I was undertaking. When Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava (son of the Italian genre film icon Mario Bava) collaborated on the first Demons in 1985, they could hardly have guessed that their little horror picture was going to open the gate (the hellgate!) to an incredible number of official and wholly unofficial knock-offs - there are, I have learned, almost as many Demons 3s as there are Zombi 3s. Meanwhile, the "actual" Demons 3 was renamed The Church. Italian cinema is magical. To save my sanity, I've decided just to stick with the pair of movies directed by Bava and produced by Argento, and save the exegesis of the entire Demons phenomenon for a grad school thesis someday.

Deep in its heart, Demons is really a zombie movie, of which there were a great many made in Italy in the 1980s; but it says that it is about demons, and I will not question its sincerity on this point. The plot is basically thus: in Berlin, a movie theater called the Metropol trumpets its grand re-opening by offering free passes to a surprise movie. That the individual handing out these passes is a solemn, black-suited fella with half of his face hidden behind a metal plate that, from all the evidence, is part of his body, and that he hands out his tickets by stalking people through the streets in an unmistakably threatening fashion, doesn't seem to bother anybody, certainly not college student Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), the girl who gets treated to this singularly unprepossessing bit of guerrilla marketing in the opening minutes of the picture. And to be fair, the only thing that makes less sense than an Italian horror movie is West Berlin in the 1980s, so we're not deep into the "what? huh? the fuck?" part of the movie yet, though it's definitely coming. That terrifying cyborg huckster, by the way, is played by Michele Soavi, the film's assistant director and a regular AD for Argento; two years later, he'd get his first chance to direct a feature and do a damn fine job of it with StageFright.

Cheryl manages to convince her friend Kathy (Paola Cozza) to come along for the fun, and then we're off to the Metropol, a rather unbecoming monolith of a building that just seems off, starting with the fact that nobody in attendance seems to have known about the theater before that morning. But only Kathy, out of the dozen or more people we meet at the start of the show, is at all concerned by all the mystery surrounding the place. It's quite a motley assortment of cinephiles, too: George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny) are there apparently to put the moves on a pair of girls, and Cheryl and Kathy fit the bill perfectly; there's a young couple, Hannah (Fiore Argento) and Tom (Guido Baldi), a blind man (Alex Serra), his daughter and guide (Enrica Maria Scrivano), her clandestine lover (Claudio Spadaro), a bitter married couple who seem to be attending the movie in some strange passive-aggressive attempt to be mean to one another, a blaxploitation pimp, Tony (Bobby Rhodes), and his two girls Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo) and Ruth (Nicole Tessier).

The effect struck me, in the most uncanny way, less like we were meeting the expendable meat of a body count movie, and more like the cross-section of humanity you get in an Irwin Allen disaster picture, but that's of little matter. At one point, Rosemary is fooling around with a strange mask on display in the lobby, next to the absolutely inscrutable display of a dummy in leather armor riding a motorcycle and wielding a samurai sword, and she manages to cut her face a little; nobody thinks anything of it, but during the unnamed movie, the exact same thing happens to one of the characters onscreen, with a mask that looks just like the one outside; at this same moment, Rosemary starts feeling sick and her face begins bleeding again, and she excuses herself to the women's room, where her wound starts pulsing and oozing and long story short, she turns into a monster with dagger-like teeth, sharp claws, and blood-red eyes. And it's contagious - something as small as a little scratch and something as big as having a demon pull your throat out is enough to turn the victim into another one of the slavering beasts.

So, basically, a zombie movie plot, with significantly more outré zombies. And a good, healthy Italian disregard for making any sense whatsoever: we never learn what's going on (the blind man, Werner, has the best theory when he simply posits that the theater is a locus of evil), who the man with the metal face is, or much else. But it never really feels that Lamberto Bava is terribly interested in making anything but an experience - a sensory overload of some intensely persuasive gore effects (the up-close-and-personal transformation of one character into a demon, with jagged black claws splitting the fingernails and teeth rotting away to be replaced by fangs, was one of the more memorably unpleasant things I've seen in a horror movie, and I like to suppose that I'm not such a wilting flower in this regard) and a lovingly curated hard rock and heavy metal soundtrack. It's this latter that actually gives the game away: Demons is, in general, the kind of thing that people are referring to when they say things like "That's so metal!!!"* and there's an only-in-the-'80s feel to all the running around and watching people get torn in half by demons and watching demons get chopped in pieces by a man riding a motorcycle and wielding a samurai sword - hardly a spoiler, it's obviously in the wings from the instant we see that lobby display. It feels not altogether unlike an album cover, and that's even before the fantastically arbitrary introduction of a quartet of leather-clad hooligans, just because.

It is a movie that can support the descriptions "awesome!" and "stupid!" in equal measure, but by the time it was done, I was convinced that it's not quite either (though if I had to pick, my vote would be for "awesome!"). Honestly, I started to get the impression it was a comedy, even a satire; certainly by the time the movie spooled up the quiet visual pun of a can of coke, it was clear that Bava and his co-writers, among them Argento, were taking the piss a little bit; anyway, I take it as given that by 1985 it was still okay to presume that Argento, in any given situation, was not an idiot & deserves to have the benefit of the doubt.

It all comes down to the movie-within-the-movie; it's hard not to read it as a deliberate, and altogether cheeky spoof of the kind of weird shit Italian horror makers were coming out with all the damn time. Two couples snake their way into an ancient burial ground that is alleged to hold the bones of Nostradamus, and there encounter their own demon infestation; but before it gets to that point, there's a huge amount of actively silly dialogue and thoroughly contrived situations. It is, for God's sake, the hidden cemetery where Nostradamus was buried (which is not, incidentally, a hidden or otherwise unknown spot), revealed only that very afternoon by a landslide. The audience devours it wholesale: the girls are freaked out, the boys try valiantly to pretend they're not freaked out, and the whole time I'm gawking at the obvious cheapness and frank silliness of the movie and thinking, Do Bava and Argento really think that this is scary? That ALL these viewers would be this scared. No way, they can't. Can they?

Ultimately, Demons is too determined in its shallowness for me to stick by my initial guess that this was all in some manner a meta-commentary on the act of watching a horror movie, but I still think it's the filmmakers' not-very-subtle way of telling us, "don't take it seriously, this is all kind of cheesy, we're all here to have fun. And that is something to be had in abundance, if you're willing to go with the flow and not demand that the movie provide too many answers or logical connections, and frankly, if you're interested in Italian horror movies enough to stumble across Demons, you probably don't have that kind of hang-up over narrative coherence any more.

And so we get a movie that's a whole lot of sizzle, but it's the best and most immaculately entertaining kind, and not even ineffective as horror. One of the film's best moments comes when Tom and Hannah are escaping through an air vent, and Tom makes Hannah move in front of him because he can hear a demon scraping behind her, and then there's an awful moment that feels like it goes on for much longer than it does while he too-slowly processes why he suddenly hears the scraping in front now; it's a genuinely unsettling moment in a movie usually content to go for the big crazy gesture. Like the constant metal music, which works as well here as in any Italian horror picture; or the tremendously over-the-top and largely convincing gore; or the weird ending that isn't "unpredictable" as such, but sure enough caught me off-guard. The movie zigs and zags in just enough places to feel genuinely off-kilter, and the whole thing is so ludicrously overblown, like a really hectic movie musical where spectacle replaces emotion or character - perhaps Bava is simply taking refuge in audacity to keep from having to make a sensible movie, but Demons is audacious enough that he can get away with it.

29 October 2011

VAST FORMS, THAT MOVE FANTASTICALLY TO A DISCORDANT MELODY

"The Haunted Palace" is a great little poem, one of Edgar Allan Poe's all-time best pieces of verse. Emphasis on little. It's all of six stanzas long, a total of 48 lines, and its single function is to describe the atmosphere clinging to a palace in a luxuriant valley that was once, generations ago, a beautiful and vibrant place, and which is now the ruined, evil home of the ghosts of those who once celebrated there.

It's just about as ill-suited to be made into a film as anything Poe ever wrote, and yet that didn't stop American International from making The Haunted Palace the sixth film in their Poe cycle. Though calling it a Poe film is a bit obtuse, really, for it's not actually an adaptation of "The Haunted Palace" at all, other than the appearance of a few lines from the poem's last stanza. It is, in fact, an extremely loose version of the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the longest piece of fiction ever written by H.P. Lovecraft, one of Poe's foremost literary heirs; though the later author is more concerned with cosmic terrors than with the intimate chamber horror typical of Poe's work, they are two of American fiction's best creators of thick, dark, foreboding atmosphere. Roger Corman had initially conceived of Charles Dexter Ward as a palate cleanser in-between Poe films, and given the amount of success he'd been having of late, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson gave him a good bit of slack, though in the end, somebody blinks; Corman has said it was the producers, Nicholson indicated it was Corman, eventually the film was reverse-engineered into the Poe series with the application of a half-dozen lines recited by Vincent Price, plus the poem's title, which itself was justified by removing the action from a routine Massachusetts home to a giant, gloomy Gothic castle of a sort found intermittently in Poe's writings and absolutely never in Lovecraft's.

The film opens in the 18th Century, where warlock Joseph Curwen (Price) is dragged from his not-yet-haunted but clearly disreputable palace on the edges of Arkham, Massachusetts, by the local townsfolk, chief among them being Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon), Micah Smith (grand master character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and Jacob West (John Dierkies). Curwen is tied to a tree and lit on fire for his alleged role in the disappearance of young girls from Arkham, and in his ungodly defiance, he spits a curse at his captors, promising to return from the dead to wreak his revenge on their descendants. From that moment on, Arkham is a dismal place full of a far higher than usual rate of birth defects, and that explains the ice-cold reception offered 110 years later to the affable Bostonian Charles Dexter Ward and his wife Ann (Debra Paget) - he's Curwen's great-grandson, and the spitting image of the old man, and when he announces a bit too proudly that he's just come into his inheritance of the old Curwen place, it doesn't do much to make him popular with the locals, other than Dr. Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell), who is a solid, scientific, totally unsuperstitious kind of man, despite being descended from another one of Curwen's attackers.

The Curwen palace is a giant Gothic horror all its own, equipped with a soft-spoken but deeply foreboding, pallid housekeeper, Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and boasting right in the middle of the main room where you can't possibly ignore it a giant portrait of Curwen done in a style not at all likely for the 18th Century; it wouldn't be too much to call it proto-Expressionist, a violent slashing thing of angry blue brushstrokes culminating in the dead warlock's eyes, so piercing and evil and bright that they almost pop right off the canvass. For want of anything else do before returning to Boston, the Wards sleep in the nasty place, and this turns out to have been the worst idea ever: something happens to Charles in that place that drives him to want to stay, in despite of Ann's increasingly urgent requests to the contrary; he becomes obsessed with the painting, starts to hear it speaking to him in his own voice, and as the days drag on, he starts acting less and less like his pleasant self and more snappish and wicked, seeming to frankly enjoy the distress that Ann seems to suffering as a result of his changes.

So plainly, we have here a case of intermittent demonic possession by one's evil, magical forebear out to kill the descendants of his executioners and to complete whatever nefarious deed he was working on all those years before; Willet, in his dismissive scientific way, has no truck at all with the stories of the Elder Ones, dead gods from before the rise of humans, and of the dread Necronomicon, a book of the evil mysteries required to bring the Elder Ones back to life, but he's entirely willing to tell the far-more-believing Wards about it, though it does no good other than to make the full scope of the deep shit they're about to be in quite apparent.

All in all, this is just barely close enough to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward that we can't accuse screenwriter Charles Beaumont of inventing things the way he did in Premature Burial or the way Richard Matheson did in most of his Poe movies, and that probably has a lot to do with how much more narrative there typically is in a Lovecraft story than Poe story. Even so, this is pretty far away from the source material: setting aside incidentals like the age of the characters, the presence of Ann Ward, and the time period, the book is far more of a science fiction tale, with none of the possession or black magic seen in the movie. I am frankly not that exercised about it: though no reader has ever probably disliked the novel as much as Lovecraft himself, who refused to permit its publication during his life, but I also doubt very many people consider it to be top-tier Lovecraft. Frankly, the changes made end in a movie that's a lot more effective in the creepy horror department than the book ever was, and they're all of a sufficiently Gothic bent to situate the film fairly, if not exactly comfortably, within the aesthetic and tonality of the Poe films (there are just a few Lovecraft stories you could rightly call "Gothic" and Charles Dexter Ward certainly isn't one of them).

Ironically, this might even be my favorite of the "Poe" films; it is very possible that it has the most rich and creepy atmosphere of any of them, and it is almost certainly the most tightly controlled, aesthetically, outside of perhaps Pit and the Pendulum. I am tempted to speculate that Corman's brief foray into Gothic comedy with The Raven recharged his batteries and got him eager to do a straight Gothic horror again (it is known, at any rate, that he passed on The Comedy of Terrors to make The Haunted Palace), but something must have happened, at any rate, for The Haunted Palace looks absolutely gorgeous: it is perhaps the apex of Corman's skill for reworking AIP's standing Gothic sets (along with essential cinematographer Floyd Crosby - his last film in the series, alas! - and production designer Daniel Haller) to get the maximum possible bang for his buck. This film simply looks different, less showy and more strained: the color palette has been reduced to only earth tones, sickly blues, and red. So much red. Red used in the most cunning possible way; sometimes just a single candle in this shot, sometimes the florid dressing gown that Price wears, always reminding us of the death and blood and danger underlying all of this.

For this is a dangerous film; it takes its horror more seriously than any Poe film preceding it, except for maybe House of Usher. That has a lot to do with Price's fantastic performance - prior to this, it's almost impossible to believe, but he'd never played a for-real bad guy in any of these movies. But now, whew! His Curwen is one of his all-time great villains, delighted by his own evil but not grandiose about it; he is sharklike and vicious and pointedly cruel in the pain he inflicts. And the contrast with the sweet-natured Charles Dexter Ward just makes the characterisation that much sharper.

There are flaws, as there usually must be. In particular, I find composer Ronald Stein to be an unfortunate replacement for Les Baxter, for although his score is certainly moody and florid and atmospheric, I find that it's also very pushy. And Debra Paget has absolutely nothing resembling enough to do. But the good is so good - including Chaney's last really great performance as the quietly menacing villain whose doughy, Chaneyesque features contrast so neatly with his meanness, and a depiction of a Lovecraftian Thing of Another Dimension that, in its low-budget attempts to hide whatever the puppet actually looks like, manages to be as convincing as just about any Lovecraft Elder One has ever been. Not that the film is great Lovecraft; it's actually kind of lousy Lovecraft, just like Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven are lousy Poe. Which is to say: it doesn't take fidelity to make a movie that captures the essence of the source material, and however far from the specifics of the novel the film might end up, it captures the atmosphere of universal corrosion phenomenally well, and is as genuinely unsettling and creepy as any of Corman's "actual" Poe pictures.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

JOHN HUGHES: PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (1987)

The fifth film John Hughes directed, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, is privileged in a number of ways: the first movie he directed that wasn't about suburban teenagers, the only film he directed that was rated R (and, in point of fact, the last film he was involved with in any way that was rated R until 1998's Reach the Rock, which I imagine you, like myself, have never heard of), the first movie he made with his soon-to-be major collaborator John Candy, barring a cameo in the Hughes-scripted Vacation. That last point is almost certainly a mere coincidence, but in its accidental way, it's quite appropriate, for PT&A is effectively the inverse of Vacation: the misadventures of a regular American male having an impossibly bad time getting home, instead of getting to a faraway destination.

In fact, PT&A is probably more like Vacation than it is to any other film Hughes wrote; notwithstanding his debut hackwork on Class Reunion, he was not given to lewd farces, as both of these movies are (they both of them include as one of their finest moments a scene in which the protagonist launches into a genuinely angry comic rant marked by a firestorm of F-bombs), and though there is a certain level of slapstick absurdity in many of his comedies (far more after our current vantage point of 1987 than prior, it must be said), nothing else in his career suggests, quite like these two movies do, that the universe has it out for our lead character personally, and will bend all its will to wrecking his life; simple human incompetence just doesn't cover the extremities suffered by these men.* PT&A is a bit more warm and forgiving in the end, but that's in comparison to what was probably the most savagely anarchic screenplay he'd ever written; beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is the harshest movie he directed, and that is very probably why it is the most funny. At least, it will be the official position of this review that it's his most funny film, with all the usual caveats about "what's funny, anyway?"

As is typical of a Hughes script, the scenario is pretty basic: Neal Page (Steve Martin) is in New York on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving on business, and he needs to get home. First his cab is stolen by a portly man with a pencil moustache, and then his plane ends up being delayed anyway, and he ends up being seated next to the exact same portly man, a traveling shower curtain ring salesman named Del Griffith (Candy), the plane is detoured to Wichita on account of terrible storms at O'Hare (I don't remember the weather in the '80s all that well, but I certainly don't think Chicago has ever had quite the snow accumulation in late November that Hughes depicts here), and before all is said and done, Neal and Del end up roadtripping together while the entire world falls down around them: train delays, problems with rental cars (triggering the exquisitely foul tirade that was one of the main reasons Martin wanted to do the script, while also giving the world a chance to hear Edie McClurg say "fuck" in her instantly-recognisable chipper tones), two horrible nights in seedy motels, stolen money, and the odd car fire.

A comedy theorist could go around and around on why, exactly, the film works - I am tempted to anoint it as the finest comedy screenplay Hughes ever wrote, escalating the various indignities from annoyances to actual life-threatening crises and back down as a reflection of Neal's sense of impatience from moment to moment, and while the dialogue isn't quite as witty as the best lines in Vacation, it's generally tighter and more pointed - but any consideration of that topic really needs to start with Candy and Martin, both of them at the top of their game, and blessed with the most perfect sort of comic chemistry. Subtle the film ain't, but the two actors absolutely never, ever mug for attention: they play the small moments small, and the big moments not too big - again with Martin's "fuck" diatribe, but part of what makes it so great is that the actor plays it stealthily, almost like a predator slashing out with each "fuck" like a sharpened claw; he does not turn it into a big screaming blustering moment as the script could easily have supported and as e.g. Chevy Chase probably would have done.

Between the two of them the actors even manage to put over the sticky-sweet humanism of the piece; no small feat, either. Sentiment was never far away in any Hughes-scripted venture, but he generally let it out more in the films he directed, and it is not typically the case that comedy which depends as heavily upon the suffering of the main characters as PT&A does can withstand all that much sentiment - if we get to liking the protagonists too much, we'll have a harder time watching them in painful situations. I'm inclined to call this the single greatest flaw of the movie (it shares that, in fact, with Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the only Hughes film as writer or director I'm inclined to say I like better than this one: both are at their worst in their most character-driven, sympathetic moments), but the two actors ground Hughes's sensibility in something restrained enough, and critically, adult enough, that it plays alright - Candy in particular doing a fantastic job of it, showing just enough hurt that we can tell he's not entirely the clown that he's set up to be, so when things turn toward the maudlin, it's not quite so jarring and ineffective.

There are, I suppose, moments that don't work - the film's most famous scene, a jolly bit of gay panic triggered by the beloved line "Those aren't pillows", strikes me as far too crude, and so does the rest of the intermittent gross-out humor, and somewhere along the line, the episodic nature of the plot starts to feel a bit too schematic (but then, has ever a travelogue really avoided feeling at least slightly schematic?). But they're only moments. Mostly, the film's simplicity carries it through: though the "mismatched guys getting into scrapes" scenario is old enough to predate cinema, one of the reasons it's such a cliché is that when it works well, it works well, and that part of the movie had been taken care of by the casting stage. As a director, Hughes mostly just stays out of the way (the ingenuity of Ferris Bueller has already gone away, never to come back), but sometimes that's all it takes; and Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a swift, sometimes delirious comedy that doesn't need to be fussy to be excellent.

27 October 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (1987)

If I have it right, Ferris Bueller's Day Off was a deliberate half-step away from the teen angst pictures upon which the bulk of John Hughes's reputation rested in the mid-'80s (and continues to rest), redefining and to a certain extend refuting the entire worldview of films like The Breakfast Club, and serving in all ways as a most suitable farewell to the first portion of the filmmaker's directorial career. Whereas his farewell to the teen genre as a screenwriter and producer and brand name is the polar opposite: it is indeed so much a continuation of the ideas driving Hughes's run from Sixteen Candles to Pretty in Pink that it is, functionally, little other than an uncredited remake of that latter film, with the sexes reversed and with the writer's original ending restored.

This is Some Kind of Wonderful, the second film by Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutch, still in his guise as the face Hughes slapped on the films that were just too dark and serious and edgy for the main line, as it were. Once again, we have the tale of a kid from the poor side of a Southern California community falling in love with one of the most desirable rich kids at school, all while the genderfucking best friend sits on the sidelines and pines with unrequited love. Here, it's Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) who lives in a working-class home, with a father (John Ashton) who has spent these many years driving into his son's head the value of college and not ending up a miserable laborer. This message, loving though it is, has been communicated with a ferocity that has left Keith in a state of constant resentment and rebellion and anti-college furor.

His best friend in life is Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), an aggressive tomboy who has just started to realise, when the movie kicks off, that she is in love with Keith. And that's what makes it doubly painful for her when he asks out the beautiful daughter of privilege Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), who says yes not because she has any particular regard for Keith, but because she's trying to cut off her rich bastard ex, Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer). Deprived of both her love interest and her BFF, Watts tries to shut this new relationship down, reasonably pointing out that it cannot possibly go well, but Keith just muscles on past Amanda's reluctance to find even more reluctance, and he muscles past that as well; observing this, Hardy concocts a scheme to turn Keith into a small puddle of goo.

This isn't exactly the same as Pretty in Pink, though it's close enough that if anybody but Hughes and Deutch had been responsible for making it, we'd recall it today as that one movie that was a complete Pretty in Pink ripoff. As it is, it's mostly interesting for seeing how the filmmakers reconceived the character relationships and conflicts without much changing the setting. The biggest single change is that the Rich Kid in this case is not actually in love with the Working Class Protagonist, and this has the net effect of making Some Kind of Wonderful considerably nastier than its predecessor. Simply put, Amanda is not a terribly good person, no matter how many incidental details Hughes plugs into her backstory to make us like her: she is using Keith as a prop and she knows it. To her credit, she feels pretty bad about it, but this is never fundamentally a movie about the boy stuck between two girls who love him; it's about a boy who thinks that the girl loves him who is actually just too guilt-stricken to let him down easy. And that's part of what makes the film kind of nasty, as well, since it's virtually impossible not to regard Keith as being, fundamentally, a complete idiot, an impression pushed along considerably by Stoltz's determined, almost militant earnestness. He is a phenomenally guileless individual, all big eyes and "gee whiz!" smile and total lack of critical distance from anything in his life and therefore a total inability to see what's right in front of him. The movie's plot is basically about how he gets crushed.

When I call Some Kind of Wonderful a nasty movie, I'm not really saying that it's a bad thing. On the contrary, what struck me most about Pretty in Pink was that Deutch was able to tap into a strain of real social bitterness that gave the movie a lot more snap than Hughes's self-directed fables. And Some Kind of Wonderful has more snap yet, what with its acutely difficult love interest and mean tale of an innocent being punished for his naïveté. Frankly, the script is probably even better than Pretty in Pink, with generally more interesting characters and fewer contrived events, and a poor parent/poor child relationship that makes more sense and admits for a much more satisfying "self-righteous teen explains life to his elder" speech like Hughes was so damn fond of (and would never again get to write after this!).

And yet Some Kind of Wonderful is absolutely not a better movie, which is partially because Deutch's direction is even less personal than it was before, and there's nothing in the new film to give it the structural integrity of building Pretty in Pink along a socio-cultural divide with music as the signifier of what class each character belonged to; Some Kind of Wonderful uses class issues in a similarly forthright way, but without anything like the same insight into cultural trappings beyond "having money" vs. "having no money". (The strange attempt to give the film the ghost of a structure by giving each of the principals a Rolling Stones-inspired name fizzles out the second that we realise Amanda's name is there solely to justify a groan-inducing cameo from "Miss Amanda Jones" on the soundtrack).

Mostly, it's because Some Kind of Wonderful has a weaker cast: Stoltz is a one-trick pony whose la-de-da boyishness wears thin after about ten minutes, and leaves the ending feeling miles out of characters, whereas Thompson is merely miscast: she looks too old and is not nearly "trophy pretty" enough to justify her place in the story, and she tries to compensate for the latter by making Amanda far too sweet. Masterson is pretty great; the role was intended for Molly Ringwald (or apparently not - see comments. My mind is blown up down and sideways from the idea she was actually meant to play Amanda). and it shows (Ringwald's refusal to play the character led to a permanent split between her and Hughes, depriving him of, arguably, the most important collaborator of his career), but Masterson does more than simply play a Ringwald clone, and her honeyed-sarcastic take on the character is actually pretty awesome, if not enough to make it okay that she's in love with Eric Stoltz. And though he falls into the "much too old" category, Elias Koteas - in his first big role - is absolutely great as Keith's acerbic but gentle skinhead buddy, um, Skinhead.

I am glad this movie exists: it makes for an extraordinarily interesting counterpoint to Pretty in Pink - darker, much stiffer, marginally less cheesy. Worse, but arguably more intelligent. It does not have, as Ferris Bueller does, a valedictory feel, like Hughes was summing up; it is, on the contrary, perhaps the most minor and self-absorbed of his teen movies (Weird Science runs it a tight second). It's very much an advanced-studies John Hughes sort of picture; Masterson notwithstanding, it does not want to be liked in the same easygoing way as Sixteen Candles, for example. But the cynical view of humanity demonstrated within makes it a fascinating outlier in the writer/producer's canon and the '80s teen film generally, and the way that it illuminates the dark side of the genre is enough to make it a film of particular value, though I can't in conscious say that it's overlooked or unjustly ignored. Sometimes these strange outliers are special precisely because they are somewhat hidden.

26 October 2011

FEAR BEGINS... TO COMPLETELY SUCK

Not since the glorious Halloween devolved into the insipid Halloween II three decades ago has a horror franchise managed to squander all of its early potential in quite as few steps as the Paranormal Activity movies: Oren Peli's 2009 original* was a simple machine perfectly-designed to be as scary as it possibly could; 2010' Paranormal Activity 2 was a ramshackle, intermittently effective attempt at doing exactly the same things with a larger cast to dilute the horror; and now directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, of the controversial pseudo-documentary Catfish, along with PA2 co-writer Christopher B. Landon, have cranked out Paranormal Activty 3, and it is fucking stupid.

We are a long way away indeed from the simple elegance of "two people film themselves as a malevolent paranormal entity acts all terrifying in their house", when you need to use a guide map of the first two pictures just to explain the plot of the current one: in 2005, Daniel Rey (Brian Boland) films his wife Kristi (Sprague Grayden) painting the nursery for their soon-to-be-born son; while he's doing this, Kristi's sister Katie (Katie Featherston) comes along with a box of tapes from their grandma's house that she wants to store in the basement while she moves into a new home with her boyfriend Micah. This is a few months before the opening scene of PA2, which is a full year before the bulk of PA2, which is about one month before PA1. Got it all? Also, you need to bear in mind that Katie and Micah were the couple being haunted in the first movie, while Kristi and Daniel were in the second, and in both movies the women recalled the time in 1988 when Katie was 8 and Kristi was 5 when they were last plagued by this same demonic being.

So, naturally, Daniel happens to pull out a tape marked "September 1988" from the box of tapes, and... he watches it? All while still pointing the camera at the TV? For of course, the whole big thing of the Paranormal Activity films is that they're allegedly found footage, and we see the haunting and the terror as the people undergoing it have cameras here and there to capture the events.

At any rate, we cut to the 1988 tape, and we find that it was filmed by Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), a wedding videographer dating Julie (Lauren Bittner), the mother of eight-year-old Katie (Chloe Csengery) and five-year-old Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown). As the movie progresses, Dennis grows absolutely certain that Something is in the house, Something that Kristi insists on calling "Toby"; Julie categorically denies this is possible and refuses to watch the queer happenings on any of Dennis's tapes. Because, being a videographer, his gut instinct is to put up cameras in his and Julie's bedroom, and in the girls' and eventually putting a camera on an oscillating fan between the kitchen in living room, steadily rocking back and forth.

I believe, after having thought on it for a while, that there are three reasons why the first Paranormal Activity was a legitimately good film, instead of just a decent shocker: 1) it was novel; 2) it was plausible - unlike virtually every other film in the "found footage" genre, it always seemed to me quite reasonable that the characters would have produced the footage in the manner we see, and that it would be found and reviewed by other persons; 3) it was believable - the characters acted, more or less, like human beings might do under such circumstances. PA2 obviously lacked 1), had a weak but steady grasp on 2), and was adequate on 3), but also lacked simplicity - which is not, maybe, inherently a problem, but certainly larding the story up in half-assed mythology was probably not the right way to go. PA3 lacks all three, though it is considerably simpler than PA2, right up until the end where it becomes appallingly anxious to set up room for more chapters and starts puking up narrative wrinkles.

The first two movies certainly had their moments of "wait, why the hell are you still filming?" - PA3 consists of very little else, expecting us to believe that this professional wedding videographer makes a point of filming himself watching and cutting tapes, among its other contrivances; and the question of who, exactly, is meant to have found, reviewed, and edited this found footage is impossibly aggravating. Of course it's not really Dennis and Katie in 2005, however much the movie seems anxious to suggest that; but for that matter, why on earth do we need to have that framework narrative in the first place, except because there's no more elegant way of setting up the 1988 footage? And that, perhaps ought to have been the first sign that PA3 was conceptually broken.

Systemic structural dysfunction is something you can kind of overlook, though, if the goods are there - which is to say, I'm glad that PA1 is coherent and all, but I love it because it scares the holy bejeezus out of me. If PA3 was able to do at least that, it would be... not a good movie, not a good sequel. But watchable. It is not able to do that - and after comedy, nothing is as subjective as horror. I get that. Still, compared to the other films, PA3 takes ages and ages and ages before it even starts to crank up the slow burn; there is a bit of the uncanny sprinkled here and there, and the bit where Kristi has a nice chat with Toby at 1:30 in the morning is hair-raising, but for a solid 50 minutes, of a movie that clocks in at 81 including the short credits (though the longest in the franchise), this is nothing at all but the tepid domestic life of Julie and Dennis played at excruciating length, made all the worse because unlike Katie and Micah in the first movie, the central couple here doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense: they've been together just a few months, but they've already bought a place together and the girls completely accept Dennis as their new dad; and yet Julie doesn't trust him and hates the tapes. Whereas in the first movie, the tension over the video camera was actually worked into the plot, here it just serves to underline how faked all of this seems, and how little Julie or Dennis feels like an actual person.

In sum: characters who feel artificial are for the most part not haunted by a malevolent being that isn't scary even when it asserts itself, and the whole construction by which these people are put in front of us doesn't seem plausible in the first place. Congratulations on turning Paranormal Activity into yet another colossally horror picture money machine, boys.

4/10

25 October 2011

THE NIGHT THEY KILLED MONEY

To hear first-time writer-director J.C. Chandor tell it, Margin Call is not a message movie about how capitalism is broken. I will allow him to maintain whatever opinion he wants about the intentions behind the movie he made, but if this isn't an anti-capitalist rant, I have to wonder what Chandor would have done if he were in a message movie state of mind. Rich Folks Rapin' Babies: The Movie, or something along those lines, I guess.

Margin Call is the story of some 30 hours in the life of an investment bank (that is absolutely in no way shape or form Lehman Brothers) in 2008, which as you may recall was an awfully nasty time to be an investment bank (particularly Lehman Brothers). It begins during a morning purge in which several employees from every rung of the ladder are let go, among them Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk analyst specialist who has just enough time before his undignified exit from the building to hand his second-in-command, 28-year-old Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a flash drive with the admonition, "be careful". Sullivan stays late from work that night to look at Dale's work-in-progress, and determines that his ex-boss was just about on the cusp of mathematically proving that the firm was overexposed. Way damn overexposed, on over-valued real estate. And he further calculates that it's sheer fucking luck that the previous soft week in the market hadn't already sent the company plunging into default.

Sullivan takes this info to his new boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, and Emerson takes it to his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and Rogers takes it to his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and then it ends up with the CEO of the firm and all its sister companies, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), and over the course of an extremely miserable all-nighter, these folks and a few others - among them Demi Moore as top executive Sarah Moore, the only girl in a boys' club who is obliged to be a ruthless bitch in order to survive, meaning that this film returns us not only to 2008, but to 1988 as well - run through their options trying to figure out how to keep the firm alive long enough to dump their rotten assets; the best case scenario will turn them into pariahs and probably destablise the entire real-estate market, and while some of the people involved, especially Rogers and Sullivan, think that is an outcome to be avoided, more or less everybody is on board with that plan by the time dawn comes. Which is only a spoiler if you just got here in your time machine from 2007.

Insofar as this is not an all-out attack on Lehman Brothers Lite, it's because Chandor makes sure to give every character a lot of chance to explain his perspectives (or hers, as applicable), to express his fears and hopes for the future, and such. "The fantastically rich people proximally responsible for destroying the economy are also thinking, feeling people!" seems to be the idea behind it, and they doubtlessly are. They are also, as the film presents them, not tremendously decent people. The bulk of the cast freely admits to having no idea how this arcane financial jujitsu results in their swollen wallets, and Tuld openly wishes not to know. Other than Rogers, and to a much smaller degree Sullivan (who confesses at one point that he gave up work a rocket scientist because the money was better on Wall Street), not a one of the characters acts as though they plan on losing sleep over the decisions they're making, even when they are well aware that according to any code of ethics in the world, what they're doing is "wrong".

What is probably true, and maybe this is what Chandor means when he denies that this is a leftist message movie, is that Margin Call doesn't go out of its way to judge any of these people; the dominant mode is one of restrained observation: the characters go through their extremely hectic business and make their decisions with more or less soul-searching, and that is that. The film depicts a lifestyle in which even the lowest peons have so much money that they, in a very real way, cannot fathom what other kinds of life are like. Sullivan's co-worker, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) is obsessed with knowing what everyone else made the year before, and even the smallest figures are a more-than-cozy figure; but not a single person seems to care about wealth as such; Emerson even details with pointed casualness how easy it is to spend $1.25 million in a single calendar year, and seems to be neither bragging nor complaining.

Clearly, Margin Call isn't extolling this kind of lifestyle, any more than it's criticising. It's just watching as the people who have this singular worldview trying to figure out a way that they can continue having it for another 24 hours. It's no Wall Street: nothing here is shown to be sexy or exciting. It's just damned exhausting and unpleasant, framed by Chandor and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco as a whirlwind of steel blue interiors with artificial lighting.

"Exhausting" is meant to be a compliment, by the way: the thing that Margin Call does best of all, even better than give us a peek inside a "what-if" version of summer, 2008, is to suggest the psychic toll of being involved in those kinds of world-changing decisions. Structurally, this is an absolutely fascinating story: it gives us a whole lot of feints at a lead character, and seems to back those feints up with its casting choices, but it's a procedural at heart, and as the night drags on, the plot moves to whichever boardroom or city street has the action at that moment. Characters drift away as their importance is used up and comes back when they can contribute; character arcs that seem important are dropped or left on the back burner until there's a long enough wait between moments that the characters themselves have time for any self-reflection.

We are denied a single character to anchor the film, because in a certain sense, the investment bank itself is the main character, and the story is the tragedy of how it can either die tomorrow, or survive by setting everything on fire. It's a case study of one very long night of professionals collaborating and fighting with each other that relies on our knowledge of what happened to fill in all of the gaps outside of its very limited timeframe and to give the proper context to what we're watching, it works. It is a very simple movie, when all is said and done, driven by a single idea to a single end, but it is slick and thrilling and completely watchable, and it says its piece about the ghastly state of the world cleanly and effectively - not one of the great films of the year, but an absolutely fine thriller with its brain firmly intact.

7/10

JOHN HUGHES: FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986)

In the heart of every truly creative person who ends up getting pigeonholed as "the guy who does X" is the desire to do absolutely anything at all besides X. I cannot prove this was the case with John Hughes, but it certainly seems that way, for almost as soon as he secured his reputation as the Godfather of the '80s Teen Movie, he tried to dart away from it. In fact, after 1987, Hughes neither wrote nor produced nor directed another film about pensive suburban teens and their musically-narrated angst, meaning that his reign as the thirtysomething poet of high school lasted all of three years and six screenplays. And yet, his legacy depends on just that slice of his career. Go figure.

Even before Hughes's departure from the genre he did so much to define, it was clear enough that he'd run out of things to say in his The Breakfast Club/Pretty in Pink phase, for while his 1986 directorial effort Ferris Bueller's Day Off is yet another story of an upper-middle-class white kid from the fictional Chicago suburb Shermer set to a backdrop of in-the-moment tunes, it is really a hell of a long way away from anything Hughes had done before. In some ways, it feels like a summing-up moment: the comic broadness of Vacation; rifling between plots in a manner that, of all his work, most recalls Sixteen Candles; a climactic speech transplanted from The Breakfast Club. But looking for the DNA of other movies here is really not all that rewarding: Ferris Bueller is amazing precisely because of the quantum leap it represented in Hughes's career: the general mood is similar to the rest of his films, but the way that it's expressed is completely different. And just for a bonus, it was the first time in his directorial career that he demonstrated real ingenuity and creativity behind the camera.

The story is simple enough (that was one trait Hughes never got around to abandoning): a couple of months before graduation from high school, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) feigns a terrible illness to beg off of school, goads his legitimately sick friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) into joining him on a day of having adventures in Chicago, and proceeds to use his superhuman bullshitting skills to make sure that those adventures are of once-in-a-lifetime caliber. As this happens, the Shermer High School Dean of Students, Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is doing his best (and it's a very bad best) to find Ferris and string him up as an example to all seniors who might want to spend their final days in high school flagrantly breaking every possible rule just for the hell of it.

Deep in its heart, this is basically the same moral universe as any of its predecessors: parents are easily gulled and not very bright, authority figures at school are embittered totalitarians, and 18-year-olds are close enough to full-fledged adulthood that they can be trusted to have things figured out on their own. It's hardly a news flash that teen movies tend to favor themes like that; one of Hughes's great achievements throughout his career is telling this kind of story with such high-energy wit that we don't have much chance to poke holes at it (though the holes are there to be poked: Ed Rooney is a worthy case study in that, if you stop and think through his perceived villainy for a minute or two, it becomes apparent that he's doing exactly the job he is paid to do, the job that the parents of Shermer are relying on him to do with ruthless efficiency and a lack of romanticism about teenagers). That being said, what is presented with a certain aura of teensploitation in The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink is given a significantly more ironic gloss in Ferris Bueller, which unlike those previous movies does not in any way present itself as a realistic or normalised view at either how life is, or how it's meant to be.

The fact is, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is an unbridled fantasy, and unlike the director's previous film, Weird Science, it absolutely does not make a point of telling us in so many words that this is so. I do not suppose, however, that anybody has ever claimed with a straight face, as they might with The Breakfast Club, that it feels "true". In Ferris Bueller, the title character fakes his sickness so well that the entire school takes up a collection to pay for his medical bills, and by the end of the same day that he whips up this disease - about five or six hours later, tops - it's become a big enough movement that it's headline news in the afternoon edition of the paper. At the same time, he stages an impromptu Beatles sing-along during the Steuben Parade* and manages to get several hundreds of people to dance and sing with him. Throughout the film, he uses the telephone to flimflam and con his victims with farcical tricks that shouldn't work for anyone other than Bugs Bunny.

In short: Ferris Bueller is not a movie about high school life, it is about the daydreams a high school kid has about how much better life could be. There is hardly a five-minute stretch of the whole thing that is realistic in any genuinely meaningful sense. And this does not matter. I'd go so far as to claim that it's for this precise reason that it's the best of all the films John Hughes has directed: that, and a simply sublime bit of casting in the form of Matthew Broderick, whose wide-eyed enthusiasm irons out all of the less-reputable angles of Ferris Bueller's character. For, if we really stare coldly and objectively into the film's eyes, we're confronted with a rough truth: Ferris is an asshole. He lies, he bullies his sick friend, he is guilty of everything the "villainous" Ed Rooney blames him for. But it is simply not possible to dislike Broderick's characterisation, and when he peacefully stares right back at us (the use of direct address in this movie is chief among Hughes's stylistic innovations, a cinematic trick that creates much of the film's loose personality) and gives us the life lesson that it's best to slow down and appreciate things, it plays as an actual piece of worthwhile insight, and not at all the obnoxious harangue of a self-absorbed snot who only got to enjoy his day thanks to a significant dose of magical realism. Which is, basically, who he is and what happened.

So: Broderick is there to make Ferris much more likable than he "ought" to be (much as Jones, in a fantastic slow-burn performance, makes Ed Rooney seem far more unhinged and psychotic than his behavior supports), and that gives the film all the room it needs to explore this fantasy world of adolescent wish-fulfillment. More importantly, it lets Hughes indulge in a kind of broad, freewheeling comedy that isn't quite as sitcommy as Sixteen Candles or Weird Science - Ferris Bueller is in fact his first film as director that subscribes to the cartoon anarchism that, in his career up till that point, had only been seen in his Vacation screenplay. And Ferris himself, as a protagonist, has always struck me as being spiritually akin to the Marx brothers - a quick-talker with a genuinely antisocial bent who manages, by dint of being so obviously smarter than everyone else, to get away with it - rather than the real-ish kids dealing with real-ish problems elsewhere in Hughes's filmography. Cameron's subplot takes care of that, and I don't imagine that it's an accident that the moments in the film that work the least, or at least seem to be most disconnected from the film as a whole, are the ones that deal with his domestic issues. And I am not primarily thinking about the big speech at the end where he shares what he has learned (he, and not Ferris, actually gets a character arc; being essentially a fairy tale hero, Ferris ends unchanged in even the slightest detail from where he began), but about his clumsily interjected statement at one point that his parents hate each other; they probably do, but Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not the movie where he should have brought that up.

This is a perfectly easygoing film, a humanist light comedy with no stakes; it is Hughes's singularly nice movie, a love-letter to his characters and to the city of Chicago, which is depicted with rather more enthusiasm for its characteristic architecture and tourist spots than with any real geographic precision (but even so, if only for its Art Institute montage, this would still be one of the great shot-in-Chicago pictures). It is a movie almost completely made up of affection, and that is something in surprisingly short supply in Hughes's filmography: there is usually a pungent sense of social anguish in his screenplays, and when there is not, there is a clear sense that he's mocking some or all of his characters. None of that in Ferris Bueller, where even Ferris's annoying sister (Jennifer Grey, just one year prior to Dirty Dancing) is treated with a kindness that the obnoxious siblings of Sixteen Candles and Weird Science were not at all afforded. It's all very simple and unforced, and fantastically charming, funny, and appealing. It's proof, the best in the filmmaker's career, that a movie doesn't need to bend over backwards for Meaning to be absolutely great.

24 October 2011

SERGIO LEONE AND THE HALLOWEEN QUESTIONNAIRE

I have never taken part in any of the awesome semi-annual movie quizzes presented by Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, though I have very often started on one before this or that or the other thing got in the way. But I had to put in the effort for his first-ever Halloween themed quiz, particularly with its charming tribute to Dr. Anton Phibes. Thanks to Dennis for putting this and all the rest of these together! Be sure to jump over to his place to play along.

1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.
Perfect timing, what with the AIP Poe-a-Thon going on here now (some of which I've seen, some of which are new, all of which are awesome). For purely sentimental reasons, though, I have to go with the film that was both my first Price movie and my first AIP production: the robustly overcooked The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?
Given the batting average of horror remakes, I'd much rather not go there, but in the spirit of fair play: I should very much like to see one of those giant monster pictures from the '50s done with top-shelf CGI, and since Them! is my favorite of that subgenre, I will go with Them!

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?
Pass, on account of complete ignorance of Dark Shadows.

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.
I actually just last month plugged one of my biggest gaps, Carrie. I suppose I'm missing my fair share of classics, but the one I'm most excited about seeing is the new-to-Criterion Island of Lost Souls.

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.
Dario Argento. His miserable decline over the last 25 years is certainly not the sort of thing to inspire many good feelings, but he has an unparalleled run of movies in the '70s and '80s that contain within them some of the most individually perfect images in all of horror cinema.

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?
Barbara Steele, no contest.

7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.
Everybody at SLIFR went with Godzilla, and though that would be my real answer, I want to be more creative. I will thus go with my runner-up, the brain creatures from Fiend Without a Face.


8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.
I can't help but feel that Dawn of the Dead is a total cheat, but there you have it. I suppose I could meta-cheat, and go with Zombi 2 instead.

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. NOES 2: Freddy's Revenge was a stumble that the series recovered from, but with Dream Master, it sank irrevocably into asinine visual puns and hugely derivative slashering, guided by the hackulent Renny Harlin.

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?
Carradine is an objectively better actor, and somehow, watching Chaney's descent into Poverty Row and lower just makes me incredibly sad.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?
The Thing remake in theaters; Cheerleader Camp on DVD. My thanks to Kevin Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies for putting me onto the latter.

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.
This time, I am obliged to go with Godzilla.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.
Considering how much I love everything I've seen of his, it's actually not even close: Twitch of the Death Nerve aka Bay of Blood is a black comedy delight, and my favorite "pure" giallo. Worse still: number 2 isn't even a horror film, but his Eurospy adventure Diabolik.

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.
Is Peter Cushing a "horror actor"? Let me then be safe and say Christopher Lee for actor, Linnea Quigley for actress. Not too late for them to collaborate!

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.
Too many John Carpenter films to pick from! But I shall go with Ghosts of Mars, even though I have not yet seen it all the way through.

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?
Since question #3, I have still not seen Dark Shadows, but I am at least somewhat aware of Joan Bennett.

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?
Want to see me lose all of my credibility ever? It was in 2007.

Before then, I had liked good horror movies, but being a horror fan means you also like bad horror movies, or at least you seek out and enthusiastically watch movies you know that are going to be completely unsatisfying. That year, for the inaugural Summer of Blood, I watched every single Friday the 13th, coming to them from a love of bad '80s movies, not a love of slashers. I emerged the man you know today, an unabashed lover of the foulest excesses of the genre.

Looking over my reviews from before that point, I suppose I was actually a horror fancier long before then, and certainly my love of zombie pictures goes back to sometime in college, but I can't help thinking that I became an expert as a result of that trial-by-fire.

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.
With some measure of reluctance, for I haven't disliked any that I've seen, I think I need to go with Earth vs. the Spider.

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.
Traditionally, I am terrible at judging what's an "obscure" movie. I think that I would force every person with any interest in cinema to see Dreyer's Vampyr, but for a 1932 German/Danish picture, that's practically a blockbuster. I recently had a chance to see Ghost Story of Yotsuya, which Nakagawa Nobuo made the year before Jigoku, and I thought it was as beautiful and visually arresting as any Japanese horror film I've seen.

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?
I haven't seen it. I suppose that means "no".

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?
I was shocked to realise that I couldn't. The Italian cannibal movies dance right on the edge, but they pull back; most of the "extreme" horror pictures and torture pornos are not nearly as transgressive as they think they are. But even as hideous a sleazebucket as Joe D'Amato did his most notorious work outside of horror.

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.
Ugetsu, which I would go so far as to call the best ghost story ever filmed, even if it's not particularly "scary" as such.

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?
Still haven't seen Dark Shadows.

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?
I usually wave it off - it still happens with my parents - but when I do feel the need to respond, it's typically along the lines of "horror is the best way to understand what concerns and fears about the state of the world where prevalent in the culture at any given point, not in terms of men with knives but in terms of the social currents those men represent." Or I will just point out that typically, great horror pictures have the best cinematography.


25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.
I am not at all comfortable singling one person out, but if pressed I would probably have to go with Neil Fulwood at The Agitation of the Mind, whose every last essay is a perfect combination of fannish enthusiasm, critical insight, and good old readability.


26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.
In The Shining, when Danny is riding on his Big Wheel, and he rounds the corner and sees those two ghost girls. A famous coup du cinema, with its Steadicam and dynamic sound design, but mostly it's because I can never, ever think about that shot without all the hairs on my neck standing bolt upright, as they are right this very second.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.
The day a friend and I greeted the release of Land of the Dead by watching all three of Romero's previous zombie movies right in a row, with Shaun of the Dead as a palate cleanser before we headed to the theater. That it all ended in Land of the Dead does not seriously detract from the sheer volume of zombie goodness.

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?
There are three obvious answers: Scream, which forced every English-language horror picture for 15 years to adopt a very irritating knowing detachment; Ringu, which introduced J-horror to the world at large and created the first serious challenge to the slasher paradigm in horror since 1980; and Saw, which codified and legitimised torture films and splatter cinema. I'm therefore going to be a complete dick and say that it's Spielberg's War of the Worlds, which remains the very best cinematic treatment of the psychic dislocation and cosmic sense of dread in post-9/11 America.

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).
From the original: the impalement by unicorn statue, first because it has a certain Italianate surrealism to it that I adore, and second, because what the hell biblical plague was that?!

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?
A chronological tour: the eminently-watchable Nosferatu for the silents, the damn peculiar and fascinating 1933 counter-Universal picture The Vampire Bat for the early talkies, Donovan's Brain for post-War science/horror (and because you need a little bit of kitsch), Fulci's terribly under-appreciated Don't Torture a Duckling for Italy in all its guises, and Halloween, because the day just ain't complete without it.

23 October 2011

HIS EYES HAVE ALL THE SEEMING OF A DEMON'S THAT IS DREAMING

It's a parlor game for 19th Century literature freaks and nothing but to speculate on such questions, but let us take a moment to muse upon the most famous short story written by Edgar Allan Poe - that is, name the first Poe story that comes to mind. Ask a dozen people, and I suspect you'd get around a half dozen answers - "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", and "The Tell-Tale Heart", plus maybe "The Black Cat", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Pit and the Pendulum", or "The Masque of the Red Death".

Now let's open it up a touch, and drop the "short story" qualifier - ask a dozen people to name anything written by Edgar Allan Poe. Smart money is that you get twelve people answering "The Raven". It's hard to say why that 1845 poem has attained such prominence among the writer's output (and my little thought problem notwithstanding, I think we can all agree its his most famous work by a mile): the musicality of the rhyme, the massive repetition in the structure, the shivery Gothic splendor of the imagery ("each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor" is maybe my favorite phrase in all of Poe). That last one has the most to do with it, I suppose - it's a supremely gloomy, creepy bit of verse, clammy and cobwebby even on the page.

Accordingly, it is one of Poe's writings that has been adapted the most times to film, even more if we count the number of times it has been recited or parodied as part of a TV show's Halloween episode (when Tiny Toon Adventures did that in 1991, they even got Vincent Price to read it!), despite the seemingly obvious objection that its story takes a full five minutes to tell through the poem, and most of that atmosphere and not narrative. And, needless to say, none of these "adaptations" have much to do with the poem beyond quoting it at some greater or lesser length.

Naturally enough, AIP and Roger Corman eventually cranked out a version of The Raven of their very own during their series of Poe films in the 1960s; and sure enough, it was pretty far afield from the source, though shockingly, it is not remotely the least faithful of all "Raven" films. In fact, it does begin (after Vincent Price recites the first few paragraph over a surrealistic ink-in-water backdrop) with an aged man on a bleak December night, poring over a volume of quaint and curious lore. This is Dr. Erasmus Craven (Price, duh), a pleasantly doddering old man living alone with his daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess) these two years since his second wife, her stepmother, Lenore, died unexpectedly.

Two things immediately propose themselves about this opening scene: it is tremendously like what Poe wrote, given the nature of these AIP Poe movies, and it is tremendously hokey: Les Baxter's score is a bit goofier than it has been in previous films, and Price especially is playing up the doddering confusion of the lonely old man in a weirdly pathetic way for that actor. It's only the second time around that you figure out what's going on is that Corman and company are playing all of this so desperately straight that it has to be tongue in cheek. Our tell is when a raven flutters in to Craven's study, and alights on his pallid bust of Pallas, upon which the old man eagerly asks if that bird is a messenger from the Other World, where Lenore and Craven will someday be reunited. The raven caws those words made so famous down the years: "How the hell should I know? What do I look like, a fortune teller?"

And from there we're off in what is indisputably the odd duck among the AIP Poe movies, although it is also one of the very best. Taking their cues from the "Black Cat" sequence in the anthology film Tales of Terror from the year before, Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson (adapting Poe for the fourth and final time) turned this moody, brooding poem into a farce about three dueling wizards in the Middle Ages. Amazingly, it works - if not as a Poe adaptation (this is almost certainly the flimsiest of Corman's eight films on that front), and assuredly not as horror, then certainly as a playful comedy that makes the turn from absurd curio to minor classic on the basis of a tremendous cast: and not just Price, who moves through a crazy number of different registers as we learn more and more of his character's secrets, and proving in general terms that he's a far more sophisticated and thoughtful actor than most people really want to give him credit for. He's joined by his Tales co-star Peter Lorre as Dr. Bedlo, a pudgy, cowardly, alcoholic wizard who was turned into a raven by the mysterious Dr. Scarabus in a wizards' duel - really, as punishment for being a tremendous worm, we are tempted to think. Scarabus himself is played by Boris Karloff, another actor who doesn't really get his due, stuck as he was in an endless cycle of B-pictures; and this film is particularly gratifying, given how little chance the naturally witty actor was given to show of his comic chops in a straight-up comedy.

Hell, a freakishly young Jack Nicholson even shows up in one of his first really big roles as Bedlo's son, who along with Estelle Craven supplies the movie with a weird jolt of early-'60s youth culture energy that actually manages to work more than it doesn't; it's worth it for the shock of seeing Nicholson under-act, if nothing else.

The story plays out in such a confused layering of who knew who at what point and who did what to whom when and for what reason that I think it best not to even make the attempt at explaining it: clearly, Matheson relished the chance to do something that was just plain wacky, and went crazy filling The Raven with all manner of plot contortions both amusing and simply befuddling; with bright anachronisms; with filthy innuendos (at one point, Price does a double take at what sounds like a reference to mother-son incest; at another, Scarabus makes Bedlo's magic wand go limp with a cartoon droop noise); and, crucially, with plenty of space for Price, Lorre, and Karloff to react off one another - and for all that one would never automatically assume that those three actors of all people would be born to star in a movie together, they're immaculately well-matched.

It's a breezy lark, funny without being brazenly hilarious, and feeling not at all like a Poe movie, though the contrast between Daniel Haller's ubiquitous sets (and, once more that House of Usher fire footage) and the matinee silliness of the story is pretty damned appealing all on its own. The film manages to poke fun at the Poe movie formula without ever actually mocking it, a fine needle to thread; but Corman's filmography is pockmarked by examples of self-lacerating light humor, though he is not customarily thought of in those terms. Anyway, it's a charmingly off-kilter hybrid, not a comic masterpiece and not a Gothic classic, but hugely entertaining on its own very low-key terms.

The climax alas, goes on far too long and robs the film of its inertia, feeling rather like a strained attempt to get the running time over 80 minutes (the last scene does a very good job of bringing us back to the tone of the rest of the film), and commits a wildly uncharacteristic sin for Corman: it looks cheap. Let me rephrase that; obviously, every Corman film looks cheap. But they do not often look as cheap as they really were, for though the director-producer was a dynamo at stretching a buck, he also had an artistic heart, and he knew how to make the most out of the little had. Yet in The Raven, he and Matheson end things with a huge effects-driven magic duel that works about half the time, and involves some horribly dodgy animation the other half. It doesn't look any worse than every other no-budget fantasy from that time period, but that's the point: Corman's films always looked the best.

Oh well, a tiny thing. And it gives Price and Karloff a lot of good chances to pantomime and they both do it outstandingly well. The Raven is hardly the sort of film to live or die on one scene anyway; it's too much a film of the moment, with stakes that never rise above wondering what tricky thing Our Vincent will do next to outsmart everybody. It is a supremely weird movie, and it has about as little to do with "The Raven" as anything with such a faithful opening scene could; and yet I kind of love it. Never underestimate the magnetism of talented B-grade actors being relaxed and wildly self-amused.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)