Monday, October 05, 2009

No Exit

Jaume Balaguero's entry in the 6 Films to Keep You Awake series strikes me as the genesis of [•REC]. As in that film, To Let (2006) centers on another apartment building in which our characters are trapped with the monster--in this case, a psychotic building manager--and cannot escape. The film is kind of a droll send up for anyone who has ever felt trapped in a crappy apartment. Be that as it may, there aren't any laughs in this. It's deadly serious.

Our heroes, are Mario and Clara, who are shortly going to be out of a home. Rather than move in with Mario's parents, they follow an apartment ad of mysterious provenance to a remote and foreboding apartment building managed by the psychotic Portera, whose dedication to maintaining her tenants has driven her mad. The bulk of the film is a brutal cat and mouse game between Clara and Portera, and the film is fortunate in its casting, both Macarena Gomez and Nuria González give committed performances in bruising roles. Gomez, in particular, seems doomed to comparisons to Barbara Steele, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance (see also, Dagon).

Balaguero is a firm believer in the "bad to worse" method of storytelling (sometimes at the expense of credibility, but still), and he categorically repudiates the idea of letting the audience off the hook at the end. He's a brute force kind of director, though he's capable of surprising subtlety given the pile-driver nature of his films. He also believes in narrative economy. Again, like [•REC], this is brief. It hits the viewer suddenly, like a staple to the forehead, and lets the effect linger by not taking things further.

This was made for television, but it looks like a feature film. It has a wonderful sense of dreariness and a kind of waterlogged dread. It's also agreeably violent. It features one of the best, and most credible scenes of horror committed by a trash disposer, for instance, and the blood sprays all over the place. Blood in copious quantities.

Again, this series kicks the holy crap out of The Masters of Horror, which looks like small beer in comparison.

I can only imagine the shock that Christopher Lee's first appearance on screen in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (directed by Terence Fisher) must have caused in 1957, especially in the face of the enduring memory of Karloff's creature from the Universal horrors. Lee's creature looks like a walking industrial accident victim, bringing home the fact that this is a monster cobbled together from the bits and pieces of corpses (a visual association the Karloff monster never really made). Allegedly, Lee's appearance put most of the crew off having lunch with the actor when he was in make-up. In this, and other ways, it's a thankless role.

The movie really belongs to Peter Cushing, and his version of Dr. Frankenstein is ALSO a shocking departure from the Universal horrors. Hammer was always a very conservative studio, and they pass a stern moral judgement on the good doctor for meddling in the affairs of God. Cushing's doctor is evil. No getting around it. He's a philanderer and a murderer in addition to his little science project. Cushing handles it with aplomb. It's the role he would have been forever known for if it weren't for that Star Wars nonsense.

This is a weird version of the story, though. Hammer reduces it to what is basically a chamber drama with four characters (five if you count The Creature). It's downright intimate. This is partially a function of the studio's notorious penny pinching, and it hurts the film a bit, I think. The sets aren't as lush as they could be, and it really emphasizes the genius of Daniel Haller's work for Roger Corman in the Poe pictures, because he had much less to work with, and ends up with productions that still look much, much larger than Hammer's. But I digress.

Watching this after a weekend with [•REC] and To Let was interesting, because it shows up either how fast and how propulsive horror movies have become or how leisurely they used to be. They're barely in the same idiom.

Current tally:
4 movies
3 first time viewings

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