Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Movies for the week of 7/23

My week in a nutshell:

I took another stab at The Creeping Flesh (1973, directed by Freddie Francis). The last time through, I fell asleep at the halfway point--not a reflection on the movie, per se, so much as it was on the 2am hour at which I nodded off. I'm getting old, it seems. Excellent performances by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee--every film in which they play scenes together is worth watching--but the absurdity of the thing undoes them. Freddie Francis's heart doesn't seem to be in it, either, which is nothing new (Francis was always uncomfortable as a horror director). Tigon ports over most of Hammer's mannerisms for this production, including the unfortunate equation of sexual awakening with evil. But what can you do?

Monster House (2006, directed by Gil Kenan) is the sort of kid-friendly horror movie that briefly surfaced in the 1980s (The Monster Squad, for one example). The movie concerns a trio of kids who must deal with the monstrous house across the street on Halloween, lest it devour trick or treaters like popcorn. Mostly harmless, and probably a good choice for the Goosebumps crowd, but I'd like to say a word about "performance capture" technology. There's something "off" about it. Capturing completely natural movement in animation is nothing new. Disney did it in the 1940s and backed away from it. He realized that animation needs to be slightly exaggerated to read as natural. This is something that eludes performance capture, because the technology itself is so literal-minded. The technology also gives the director license to move his camera around the scene at will, without worrying about re-blocking everything. The result is a film that is marginally lacking in actual direction and composition because no planning is necessary. I don't expect anyone to know what the hell I'm talking about.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, directed by Otto Preminger) is film noir as Greek tragedy. Detective Dana Andrews has a bad temper fueled by a desire to divorce himself from his father's criminal past. This is his tragic flaw, and leads to him killing a suspect while roughing him up. Compounding things, he covers it up. Watching him manoeuver himself to his fall from grace--and a hint at redemption--is fraught with all kinds of Oedipal nuggets. The most interesting shot in the movie is the last shot, in which Andrews's catharsis is belied by the finality of a closing door. As Billy Budd learned, the law has an imperative all its own.

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest (2006, directed by Gore Verbinski) is exactly the same sort of film as Van Helsing. It's a relentless sequence of action scenes that are the equivalent of a ten-year-old on a sugar high racing about saying "and then this happened, and then this, and this!" Mind you, it's better than Van Helsing--basic film craft will do that--but it's also exhausting, especially at 2 and a half hours. Some sequences--I'm thinking specifically of the island cannibal sequence--could have been excised whole for a trimmer running time. In any event, the relentless pace is too much. I'm reminded of something that Clint Eastwood once said about the pace of his movies: "There's nothing wrong with MTV (style-editing)...well, actually, there is. If everything is flash images, you never have time to actually look at anything." That's certainly the case here. Johnny Depp, the main reason to see the first film, doesn't seem as daft in the second, largely because the movie never pauses to let him go nuts. There's too much plot. Alas...

In any event, Dead Man's Chest, like its predecessor, is an example of genre boundaries collapsing. It raids horror iconography wholesale for its imagery--what is Davy Jones but a piratical reimagining of the Great Cthulhu, after all?--without ever once treading on the horror genre's intention of sending a shudder down the spine. It does, however, occasionally touch on disgust, particularly if you have an allergy to shellfish.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Movies for the week of July 10-16

There was a certain amount of deja vu involved in watching Lady in a Cage (1964, directed by Walter Grauman) this week. On the surface, this seems like yet another rip-off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which an aging actress from Hollywood's golden age is put into an exploitation story--in this case, Olivia Da Haviland. But there, the similarity ends. The Baby Janes, for all their grand guignol gestures, are essentially old-style gothics. Lady in a Cage is something else. It is a fore-runner of the exploitation films of the 1970s, in which the sixties youth revolution collides with the middle class. It's remarkably prescient. Consider the opening credits: We see a city in a heatwave. On the soundtrack, we hear the intimations of a world spinning well and truly into chaos. The arresting freeze-frame shots of the world at large recall the end of Night of the Living Dead, but the last image we see as these shots progress to the house of our heroine is the flyblown carcass of a dead dog in the street. Even before the story itself has begun, the movie has laid before the audience the technique used a decade later by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre AND anticipated one of its first images (Tobe Hooper's film was originally to open on a shot of a dead dog by the side of the road--which can be seen in the extras of some editions of the film--but opted instead for a dead armadillo instead).

The story itself, in which the crippled upper class woman played by Miss Da Haviland is trapped in an elevator by a power-outage, recalls Wes Craven's early films, in which the bourgeoisie are stripped of their priviledge and must compete with the savages for survival. James Caan plays the film's version of Krug, the David Hess character from Last House on the Left. But this film goes Craven one better. Craven suggests that even mild-mannered "civilized" people become monsters to fight monsters. This film suggests that those "civilized" people may already have been monsters to start with (Our heroine even articulates this thought at key points of the film's running time: once near the beginning when she speculates that it might be a good time to invest in armament stocks, then later when she specifically calls herself a monster. This film is surprising for a film made in 1964 for making the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots explicit. Even more surprising is the depiction of affluence as a suffocating burden on the young.

This is all so interesting that one can't help but be disappointed that the film isn't better than it is. Apart from the opening credit sequence (perhaps the best rip-off of Saul Bass that I've ever seen), the film is largely anonymous (as one could expect from a director who is a veteran of television), a fact that argues that the dominant creative hand behind the film is screenwriter Luther Davis, who later wrote Across 110th Street, one of the bleakest of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. More than that, the villains of the piece seem unconvincing, whether because they are poorly conceived (likely) or poorly acted (also likely). In any event, what the film lacks in style, it more than makes up for in brutality and sheer nihilism, which is a recommendation of sorts, I guess.

Future biographers of the giallo mystery might do well to look at Michaelangelo Antonioni with an eye equal to the one they cast at Mario Bava. At least two of Antonioni's 1960s films point the way to the films that follow in the 1970s. Certainly, Blow-Up is a proto-giallo. So, too, is L'Avventura (1960). We have the story of a boat party where one of the members of the party vanishes on a deserted island. The rest of the partiers search for her, but she is never seen again. It's as if she has been swallowed by the landscape (the movie films the landscapes with a glacial coldness and an epic eye that often dwarfs the figures in the frame). The disappearance, though, is only one aspect of the film's portrait of alienation. None of the characters in this film is connected in any meaningfull way to any of the other characters. The Esmeralda Ruspoli character, Patrizia, comments early in the film that she "doesn't understand islands, surrounded by all that water;" Antonioni almost immediately cuts to shots of his partiers swimming, each an island unto themselves. "If one of them dissapears," his camera seems to be saying, "what of it?" The landscape doesn't care. When the second half of the film seems to forget about the disappearance entirely, the remaining characters continue to move through meaningless lives making no connections whatsoever. It's as if interpersonal relationships are a means of passing the time until the final exit, and nothing more.