Monday, February 11, 2008

Oil and Water

31. Though it was made in Mexico, Luis Bunuel's The Young One (1960) was the director's second and last English language movie. He would shortly return to Europe for his glory years, but you can see the director more or less in full command of his craft here. The story follows a black jazz musician on the run from a lynch mob after being wrongly accused of raping a white woman. He ends up on an island off the coast of North Carolina, where he meets with the caretaker of a game preserve (who instantly hates him with vivid racist zeal) and the girl in his care (who the caretaker is putting the moves on). The whole thing plays a bit like one of those Stanley Kramer pleas for racial tolerance from the period crossed with Tennessee Williams, and mixed with Bunuel's own cinematic fetishes. It's a combustible mix. Shot by the great cinematographer, Gabriel Figeroa, this looks better than similar Hollywood films, and being made in Mexico gives the filmmakers license to intimate more tawdry undercurrents in the relations between the characters. Bunuel, ever the mocking doubter, gets his digs in against religion, too.

32. Gran Casino (1947, directed by Luis Bunuel) finds the director returning to film from metaphorical exile. His first film in Mexico, it's a work-for-hire job and it shows. Still and all, there's an undercurrent of leftist rage in the film, and the musical form would seem to be the ideal vehicle for a surrealist artist.

33. The Orphanage (2007, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona) is a classical ghost story, so a certain amount of ritual can be seen in the film's construction. For the most part, it hews to the notion that haunted house stories are more about haunted people than ghosts, though there are certainly ghosts in this film. The story follows Laura, a woman who, with her husband and adopted son renovate the orphanage where she grew up with the aim of taking in special-needs children. Her son has multiple "imaginary" friends, who Laura comes to fear after her son disappears into the house without a clue. One "friend" in particular, a little boy with a burlap mask, terrorizes her. And what does the mysterious social worker who inquires after her boy want? There is nothing new under the sun in this movie (I think there needs to be a moratorium on children who make creepy drawings in horror movies), but that's to be expected in a subgenre as ritualized as the ghost story. It's executed to perfection, though, providing mood and atmosphere aplenty and at least one utterly horrifying shock to the system before settling down for a climax more filled with sorrow than with shudders.

34. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, directed by Robert Florey) is one of the more salacious pre-Code horror movies, in which mad evolutionist Professor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) attempts to mix the blood of humans with that of his ape. The imagery is particularly strong, especially the torture of the streetwalker Mirakle abducts in the early part of the film. For a film made so close to the end of the silent era, in which cameras became rooted to the spot to accomodate bulky sound equipment, this film shows a fair degree of visual imagination. Certainly, cinematographer Karl Freund stamps his genius all over this film, creating an unreal Paris of the imagination. The most striking shot in the film mounts a camera on a swing. The story? It's pretty silly, and shows evidence of being shuffled by the studio. It's amazing how anti-science the Universal horrors could be. This one is pretty lunk-headed about Darwinism, and even sets the film prior to Darwin's work. I guess Professor Mirakle was farther ahead of the curve than it seems.

35. The Black Cat (1934, directed by Edgar Ulmer) is the best of the Karloff/Lugosi teamings (the two appear together in The Body Snatcher, too, but that film is hardly an equal pairing). It's one of the few horror films from America to show the trauma of World War I so prominently. Lugosi is the nominal "good guy," though he's clearly insane and clearly ruthless. But not without cause, because Karloff, in a remarkably still and creepy performance, is even worse, an unreconstructed monster in modernist surroundings. There's an interesting suggestion that the sleek, art-deco world of the years between the wars are built on the bones of The Great War's victims: Karloff's character has built his Bauhaus temple on the ruins of a notorious prison camp, where Lugosi's character was once interred. Supposedly, this was made while the studio heads were in Europe, which explains the sheer lunacy of the proceedings.

36. Transfixed (2001, directed by Francis Girod) plays a little bit like a Brian De Palma film with the roles reversed. Its hero(ine) is Bo, a transsexual prostitute who is testifying against her father, who has been accused of child-molestation. She's reluctant to help the police because she still bears the scars of being ignored by them as a child. Unfortunately, there's a serial killer bumping off transsexuals, and her closeness to the victims draws her into the investigation. Further confounding things is her erotic obsession with Johnny, a thuggish gigolo who lives across the way from her. It's all very muddled, especially after the police decide that Bo is suspect number one. For all of that, one would hope for a more exciting film.

37. There Will Be Blood (2007, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson): short version, I didn't like this at all. Long version here:

38. In The Raven (1935, directed by Lew Landers), we have Karloff and Lugosi squaring off again, with Lugosi hogging the limelight this time as a Poe obsessed surgeon who builds a dungeon in his mansion complete with pit and pendulum. Karloff, for his part, is the hired help, a disfigured criminal doing Lugosi's bidding in the hopes that his maimed face can be repaired. The object of Lugosi's obsession is the beautiful daughter of a judge. The ensuing rigamarole is a variant on the old dark house movie. Minor, for the most part. It's hard to believe that Poe fared better with Roger Corman, but there you go. "Poe! You are avenged!" Goofy.

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