Monday, November 29, 2010

Best Served Cold

Much as I love Paul Naschy and his go-for-broke approach to horror filmmaking, there's always, always something in any given Paul Naschy movie that jolts me out of the movie. Usually, this means pausing the machine and doing something else for a bit until the mood returns, but sometimes, it involves fits of hysterical giggling. Naschy's first appearance as the Indian guru, Krisna, in Vengeance of the Zombies (1973) is just such a moment. I mean, Naschy appears later in the film as Satan in full Satanic regalia with horns and everything, and THAT moment is totally cool. It's equally ridiculous, but it's a horror movie, so what the hell? You expect those kinds of moments in a horror movie, and Naschy totally rocks the Satan drag. But the Indian brownface? Oh, Nelly! That takes some getting used to.

The Faces of Paul Naschy

And, yes, I know that I'm being totally unfair here. Naschy aspired to be a latter day Lon Chaney, and like Chaney, he plunges into these kinds of roles with gusto. I mean, if Chaney could get away with playing Mr. Wu and Alonzo the Armless and Phroso 'Dead-Legs', why the hell can't Naschy play a guru? If he wants to put a thousand faces on the screen, do all of them have to share Naschy's ethnic background? I mean, it's not any sillier than the werewolf get-up for which he's most famous. Comparing Chaney and Naschy is a mug's game, I guess, because there's an "otherness" in Chaney that's partly due to the strangeness of silent movies at this remove, while the rest is a genius particular to Chaney. Even if Naschy were equally gifted (I'm not going to make any arguments about it, yay or nay), the idiom in which he works is so different that comparisons are probably unwise. Naschy is closer kin to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and their irrepressible "let's put on a show!" moxie. I love that about him.

Fortunately, the movie lets the audience get used to Naschy as an Indian. He actually doesn't look bad in the part.

Calling Mr. Auric Goldfinger.

Anyway, Vengeance of the Zombies. There's weird sense of déjà vu here, given that so many of the principles from Horror Rises from the Tomb reappear here, most notably Víctor Alcázar (here billed as "Vic Winner"). As in that movie, Naschy plays multiple parts. Like that movie, this one was written in a fever over a couple of days. Unlike that movie, this has an odd seventies jazz score in place of the faux-Gothic organ score in Horror. The storyline follows Elvire, a follower of Krisna, Naschy's Indian guru, as she dodges a series of murders seemingly aimed at several families who once lived in India, including hers. She flees London (the film was shot on location in London), for Kishna's manor house in the country, where the station agent in town regales her with tales of the manor's cursed past. This is just set dressing. No curse or haunting ever manifests itself. In this regard, Vengeance of the Zombies actually keeps its eye on the ball. Oh, there's still a kind of blender effect, but it's not as pronounced in this movie (I'll get to that in a minute). The perpetrator of the murders is Krisna's deformed brother, Kantaka, who is working up to a grand voodoo ceremony. Toward this end, he sends out his entourage of zombies to do his bidding. The movie explains the lion's share of its plot by including a feckless Scotland Yard investigation, where Elvire's guy pal, Lawrence (Alcázar) lays out the aims and methods of Kantaka's voodoo. Surprisingly, Lawrence isn't the dashing knight who rescues the damsel. It leaves that task to a character the movie pulls out of its ass.

The plot of this movie isn't nearly as digressionary as the plots of some of Naschy's movies, but the way it mixes and matches elements mark the film as distinctively as if it was. The strange conflation of Indian mysticism and voodoo creates some level of cognitive dissonance, while the portions of the movie devoted to the police may as well be from a completely different movie. Additionally, this is clearly a vanity project for Naschy, who uses the film as an excuse to portray himself as a lady's man, in addition to a monster, etc. Naschy surrounds himself with beautiful women in this movie (again!), even when it makes no sense. I mean, is it really necessary to dress the exclusively female zombies in sexy lingerie? There's a whiff of necrophilia in this, even as it caters to the star's ego. It's kind of creepy, actually.

Naschy has a way with the ladies...

...even the dead ones.

Naschy's multiple roles allow for a pretty broad display of his talents here. He's better in the "straight" role in this film, though his character has a touch of the tragedy of Waldemar Daninsky, which is familiar territory for the actor. The betrayal in the character's past, and the way he's controlled by his brother make him more complex than one would expect. Naschy's portrayal of the villain, however, is again the highlight. Kantaka is equal parts Murder Legendre, Eric the Phantom, and Doctor Phibes, and Naschy sells it. He manages the interesting trick of blowing himself off the screen. There's nothing to be said about Naschy's appearance as Satan, here, given that it's mostly the make-up and costume that does the job here. He leers nicely, but there's no dialogue in that sequence and he's not called upon to emote, really. He's a presence, not a performance. The rest? Well, Naschy and his director, León Klimovsky, are savvy to the way movies are built around stars, and they are careful to diminish any chance that the co-stars will upstage Naschy. Nobody goes to a Naschy movie to see Victor Alcázar.

Naschy and Klimovsky don't skimp on the horror movie mayhem. They're fairly modern in how they orchestrate the movie's horror beats, placing them at roughly ten minute intervals (at the reel changes). Some of these beats are sex. Some of them are gore. It's about an equal mix, though it seems almost programmatic in retrospect.

For the most part, this is a lesser Naschy. While the elements that make his movies fun are certainly present here, the filmmakers have an annoying tendency to linger on the shots of London. It's as if, having paid to shoot there, they were determined to get the most out of the locations. There's a shot, for instance, of the sign for New Scotland Yard that Klimovsky holds far longer than its function as an establishing shot really merits. There are a lot of these kinds of shots, actually, and one whole sequence that seems completely contrived to show Naschy walking around the streets of the city. This has a soporific time dilation effect and kills some of the mood. While there are certainly pleasures to be found here, on balance, the negatives probably outweigh them.

...and the cops stand around at the end looking dopey. In how many horror films does this scene recur? I wonder.

Tombstone Shadows

My first encounter with Paul Naschy was as a reference in The Howling. One of the characters in that movie was named "Jack Molina," which I discovered soon afterward to be Paul Naschy's Spanish name. It took me a few years to actually track down any of his films. The first was Frankenstein's Bloody Terror. I didn't know what to make of it at the time. I don't mean this in a derogatory manner, but Naschy's films seem like they come from a Mexican tradition. They have the same "throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and hope something sticks" aesthetic one finds in movies like, say, The Black Pit of Dr. M or The Brainiac. While there's certainly a lot to criticize in this approach, there's also an undeniable charm, too.

One can see this approach in full force in Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973, directed by Carlos Aured), written by Naschy as Jacinto Molina and featuring the actor in multiple roles. In spite of my desire for werewolf mayhem, Netflix insisted on sending me non-lycanthropic movies. There's nary a distant howl in this movie, but that's okay, I guess. This features every other full-dress Gothic trope you can imagine, sometimes appearing seemingly at random. Note: this is spoilerific. Not that it really matters with this film.

Horror Rises from the Tomb starts well. In the middle ages, a warlock and his concubine are taken into the wilderness for execution. Alaric de Marnac (Naschy) is accused of all manner of crimes, and members of his own family act as executioners. As you might expect, de Marnac curses his executioners and vows to return and wreak a terrible vengeance upon them. The only problem with his plan, though, is that his head has been chopped off and hidden away from his body so that they might never reunite. Fast forward to contemporary Paris, where two of the executioners' descendants are invited to a seance. These are Hugo de Marnac (Naschy again, natch) and Maurice Roland (Víctor Alcázar) who are both skeptical. The medium channels Alaric, who tells them where to find his head. As a lark, the two friends and their gal pals journey to the de Marnac estate to find out if the medium was for real. Unfortunately, she is, and soon, Alaric is back in business. He and his concubine, the lovely Mabille, reincarnate as quasi-vampires, indulge in human sacrifices, and command an entourage of zombies. This, on top of the hostile locals who refuse to help our heroes (and who, upon capturing a couple of fugitives, hang them on sight). This follows a "One Damned Thing After Another" plot construction, and when Hugo and his lover, Elvira, find the talisman that will defeat Alaric, it's seems totally random. But then, so does most of the movie.

Obviously, with so many balls in the air, Horror Rises from the Tomb is bound to drop a few. A lot of the movie--most of it, actually--seems constructed from the leavings of other movies. The opening should be familiar to anyone who has seen Black Sunday, while the zombie interlude reeks of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Like those Mexican horror movies I mentioned at the outset, this is what I call a "blender" movie, in which the filmmakers take a bunch of stock genre tropes, stick them in a blender, and hit puree. This also shares a total shamelessness in its approach and it covers for its lack of originality by barging through its plot with a "damn the torpedoes" forward motion. It doesn't hurt that the filmmakers have populated the film with stunningly gorgeous women. Or that they are often nekkid. There's also enough creative gore to satisfy the adolescent sadists in the audience. One particular scene has Mabille rip open the chest of a man to pluck his still-beating heart from his chest (the filmmakers then turn oddly coy when deciding whether to show our villains actually eating the heart, even though you can totally see where the scene is going). Naschy knows his audience and strives to give them what they want.

This is Naschy's show, as you might expect, and it points out the actor's strengths and weaknesses. Since he plays both one of the heroes and the main villain, you get a portrait of an actor who is phenomenal in villainous parts, but who struggles with "straight" roles. When Naschy is hamming it up as Alaric, you can't take your eyes off of him. When he's playing Hugo, he kind of fades into the woodwork. The movie wisely kills Hugo off, and leaves Víctor Alcázar to handle the heroic duties. But even he is upstaged, alternately, by Emma Cohen as our heroine, Helga Liné as Mabille, and Cristina Suriani. It's hard to hold the screen against gorgeous, often nude women, I guess. The real star of the movie is the locations, anyway. This movie covers a LOT of faults by filming in picturesque locations during the bleak heart of winter.

Sometimes the faults can't be papered over, though. When Naschy portrays Alaric as a head sitting on a shelf, I couldn't help but giggle. It's such an absurd sight that it takes one right out of the movie. It's fun, but it's fun in spite of the film, not because of it. Still, fun's fun, right? Seriously, if you can't have fun with Naschy's films, you're in trouble, so take it as it is.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Identity Crisis

I've been tracking my blog's hits with Google Analytics, and the results are interesting and completely confounding. Here's the thing: I don't have a particular focus. Oh, sure, there's a preponderance of horror and genre film covered on my blog (as you might expect given the title of the blog), and I have a special focus on transgender cinema, but I never set out to specifically cover any one area of movies so much as I set out to document my relationship with cinema of all kinds. Google is telling me two different things about this. First, my page hits went through the roof during the October Challenge, and they've stayed high this month as I document the stragglers. I imagine that the Naschy blogothon will have a similar effect. I hope so, anyway. And yet, the individual pages that get the most hits are for art films. The most popular destination on my blog--by a large margin, no less--is my review of Ming-liang Tsai's The Wayward Cloud, a hardcore art film. This month's top hit is the review of Antichrist. So I'm attracting two separate and distinct audiences: The art film crowd and horror fans. And that's fine. I love both kinds of readers. It does kind of throw the identity of this blog off kilter, though, in a jack of all trades, master of none sort of way.

Anyway, the Thanksgiving holiday has knocked me for a loop as far as movie-watching goes. I should be back to real blog entries tomorrow and stay tuned for the Naschy blogothon in a couple of days. In the mean time, here are a few of my favorite hits for Thanksgiving:

Happy holidays.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Blogorama Part II

It's a season for blogathons, it seems. Here's another one that hits the sweet spot of my cinematic appetites. I'm ALL over this one. Plus, it's for a good cause. Film preservation is important. The Self-Styled Siren has the details.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scenes from a Vacation

Director Maren Ade's Everyone Else (2009) is a very good movie about very unlikeable people. It's one of those intimate portraits of a couple whose relationship is deteriorating moment to moment. It's exquisitely acted. For her part, Maren Ade doesn't intrude much with visual style. She mainly frames the film as a vantage point for watching its characters interact. It's an effective way to work.

The story here follows Chris and Gitti, marvelously played by Lars Eidinger and Birgit Minichmayr, as they vacation at Chris's parent's house in Italy. Chris is an architect; he's a weak man who is failing at his job and who is too timid to give Gitti what she needs. Gitti, for her part, is trying to fit herself into a relationship role that doesn't suit her. They're contrasted in the film by Hans and Sana, a couple of Chris's acquittance who have a seemingly perfect relationship. Hans is successful, Sana is pregnant and adores her husband. They're an impossible standard of comparison, and Gitti knows it. The comparison is made during two impossibly awkward dinner parties, in which everyone's flaws are laid bare. Eventually, Gitti comes to the same conclusion that the audience reaches early: Chris isn't particularly admirable. By the end of the movie, she professes that she no longer loves him, though the movie is by no means as cut and dry as that. It doesn't go where a more conventional drama would go.

The film is liberally appointed with uncomfortable scenes, from an embarrassing rendition of Willie Nelson's "For All the Girls I've Loved" to a picnic where Gitti has overstuffed her rucksack to the point where she can't haul it back to the final scene in which she feigns insensibility. For the most part, these mark the film as one that is not intended as "entertainment," whatever that may be. It's a film that is endured more than enjoyed. It's fascinating, though. The scene that hooked me is near the beginning, in which Chris's niece acts out her dislike of Gitti, so Gitti teaches her the proper way to hate someone: Tell them you hate them, mean it, and shoot them. It's charming, but it's emotionally charged, too. The film has interesting things to say about relationship dynamics, particularly in matters of dominance. Hans and Sana are happy and confident, sure, but Sana has entirely subsumed herself into her marriage. While that may work for them, it will never work for Gitti and Chris because Gitti is too much herself and Chris is too weak to dominate anyone. The failure of their relationship is a problem of negotiation over how much and how little they heed each other and how much each of then needs to give to the other.

This is a sun splashed movie. This is the kind of movie that Bergman used to make, but instead of Sweden's austere winter light, you get a kind of sun-dazed torpor. It's a harsh sun, too, in which the light illuminates everything as the characters open each other up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ex Libris

"Everyone is a Book of Blood;
Wherever we're opened, we're red."
--Clive Barker

What a strange movie Book of Blood (2009, directed by John Harrison) is. It begins with Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong), a man covered with strange scars and cuts who is abducted by a sociopath. The sociopath has been hired by a mysterious employer to deliver the man's skin. He's a collectible, it seems. The sociopath tells McNeal "You're a book of blood!" and encourages him to tell him his story. What we have in this set-up is a particularly creative framing story for an anthology film. This shouldn't be surprising, given that the stories this is based on, "The Book of Blood" and "On Jerusalem Street" are the framing story for Clive Barker's notorious Books of Blood short story collections. Given that Barker and Lionsgate are slowly mining those collections for movies, one can easily see this movie as the keystone in some DVD box set of the future. The first two stories in the series have already been filmed, as well as a scattering of others from later volumes. As a stand-alone movie, though, this creates an awkward situation: It's a framing device that doesn't frame anything.

The bulk of the story here is another one of those haunted house stories where paranormal investigators bring a bunch of equipment and an unstable psychic into a reputedly haunted house and see what happens. This stuff has become kind of a cliche these days, what with all the ghost and haunting shows on cable, but this film knows the rules, and soon pitches everyone into the deep end. The conceit of this is that the unstable clairvoyant is a bit of a fraud, so when all hell inevitably breaks loose, he's the boy who cried wolf. The two main characters in this are Dr. Mary Florescu, an investigator with a history of clairvoyance herself, and the aforementioned Simon McNeal, who is the our callow grad student fraud. Given that the movie begins showing him in an awful state, the audience is fairly credulous about his role in the film even if Mary herself, and her partner, Reg, are not. It's a deft piece of plotting, actually. It provides just enough misdirection for the story to spring its surprises. At the end, this veers sharply away from the standard haunted house investigation story into the territory of Barker's more visionary stories. The dead have highways, the film tells us; then it plops us down at a crossroads.

My immediate impression of the movie is two-fold: first, it's an extremely faithful adaptation. Second: a lot of what Barker puts on the page in his stories begins to strain the suspension of disbelief when put up on the screen. The end of this movie teeters on the verge of the ridiculous, though it never quite falls over the edge the way that, say, Hellraiser or Rawhead Rex do. This film shows one of Barker's characteristic elements to advantage: his obsession with the flaying of skin gets a particularly revolting shot near the beginning of the film, while the fear of this hangs over the entire enterprise. The film was directed by John Harrison, a George Romero protégé, and he gives the film a gloomy, modernist look that's very much of a piece with the other two films in this quasi series (Dread and The Midnight Meat Train), while he pays loving attention to his special effects gags. He's left his actors to their own devices, for the most part, and gets away with it by virtue of strong casting. Both Sophie Ward as Mary and Jonas Armstrong as Simon are far better actors than this film might have had if it had been made in 1985 or so. There's a level of commitment in the performances that sells the movie.

If the film has a flaw as a horror movie, it comes from the visionary elements. While these elements are all well and good for a dark fantasy--and who's to say that "dark fantasy" isn't the intent of the movie--they don't really cater to fears that people actually have. Oh, they may make the skin crawl (natch) by virtue of their inventive nastiness, but they're very specific to the private universe of the movie. They have no force of horror in the real world (however you may perceive the supernatural in the "real" world).

In sum, this is an honorable adaptation that's hamstrung a bit by the structural intent of the original material. As I say, I'll be happy to see a complete set of movies based on The Books of Blood sitting on my DVD shelf at some point in the future. For now, this works well enough.

Friday, November 19, 2010


My friend, the Vicar of VHS over at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies is organizing a Paul Naschy blogathon, hence the new banner to the right (and below). He kindly invited yours truly to participate, so hopefully I'll be getting in some wolf-man mayhem at the end of the month. It's a good thing I'm not suffering from the horror movie hangover I usually get after the October Challenge. And be sure to check out the Vicar's site. He and his collaborator, The Duke of DVD, have a pretty nice place over there.

The Game's Afoot

There's a certain shock of recognition in watching Young Sherlock Holmes (1985, directed by Barry Levinson) at this remove. Twenty-five years later, one can't help but see the seeds of the Harry Potter films in this movie, from its English boarding school setting to its wilder flights of fantasy. It's not hard to imagine screenwriter Chris Columbus carrying this film in his heart and mind, nursing some level of hurt for its commercial failure, and re-creating it fifteen years later in the first of the Potter films. This film forms a direct link between The Goonies and the Potter films, all of which have the same basic elements. This particular film refines the formula down to the two male leads and the girl along for the ride: Holmes and Watson correspond, roughly, to Harry and Ron Weasly, while Elizabeth is the Hermione character. No wonder Warner Brothers picked Columbus to kick off the Potter franchise. He'd already made essentially the same film once already.

The visual echoes of Hogwarts are particularly strong in this shot.

The film itself is a triumph of production design and contains then state of the art special effects. It's one of the first films to make significant use of CGI. It's a fun movie to watch, though twenty-five years of similar creations (not just the Potter films) have taken a little bit of the bloom off the lily. Revisiting this first deployment of a fully realized CGI character is a bit like going back to the films of Georges Méliès. The effects were dazzling at the time, but Moore's Law is a bitch to special effects filmmakers. Time and tide wait for no one, I guess.

The cinema's first CGI character. A dubious accomplishment or a landmark?

The story itself is kind of a romp that winks at Doyle without really embracing him. It's more in love with the Spielbergian boy's adventure. It gets Holmes and Watson largely right, and it gets the occultism of both Doyle and the late Victorian period largely right, but it's a little bit too in love with its special effects creations, while neglecting the fun character quirks of Holmes. Mind you, I suppose you could argue that those quirks were still in the formative stages, but I miss the streak of asshole-ism in Holmes, and the cocaine habit. In a film that places a premium on drug-induced hallucinations, this seems like an oversight, but then, it's essentially a kid's film. Interestingly, one of Holmes's hallucinations seems to look back at the Freudian background found in The Seven Percent Solution, though a young audience would surely miss that. What this film really lacks is the presence of Moriarty, but even this is only a conditional absence (there's a credit cookie that addresses this, which I missed when this film was still in theaters).

Other elements are pure Spielberg: the ornithopter (which flies across the moon), the cultists that recall Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, the daddy issues. The most un-Holmesian element of the film is The Girlfriend the filmmakers have provided for Holmes, and it stands out like a sore thumb. One longs for a young version of Irene Adler, but, no. Instead, we get a damsel in distress. The movie includes Elizabeth as an element that scars Holmes for the rest of his life, but it's an element that doesn't really work.

This is not a film that really rewards deep analysis. It's all surface, no subtext. A ride, if you will. There's nothing wrong with this, per se--I like escapism as much as the next girl--but J. K. Rowling (and, by proxy, Alfonso Cuaron) really has set the bar impossibly high for this stuff. JUST being a recounting of "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" is no longer enough even in kid's movies. Don't get me wrong: I like this movie, but the years have not been kind to it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Origins of Totalitarianism

"Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within."

-- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

For a throwaway exploitation movie from the mid-1970s, Rene Daalder's Massacre at Central High (1976) sure does stick in the mind in spite of its long absence from home video. Its conspicuous absence on DVD has more to do with the uncomfortable similarity of its theme to the rash of school shootings in the intervening years than it does with the relative quality of the film. Mind you, it's not a masterpiece. It has that flat "look" of a 1970s After School Special and it's saddled with an absolutely abominable score (a fact even the director of the film concedes). The performances from a cast of familiar, but not too familiar, actors are mostly functional at best. Seriously, no one ever hired Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for her acting chops, and Andrew Stevens was just competent enough to have a further career in the twilight world of Shannon Tweed direct to video erotic thrillers. Robert Carradine is just about the only better-than-competent actor in the film. The lead is Darrel Maury, who had a reasonable career as a TV actor. He's just "off" enough for the role, but he's not good enough to make it sinister. This is a flaw.

The story here is what's interesting. Maury plays David, a new kid at the titular high school. On his first day, he runs afoul of the elite cadre of bullies who rule the school under their iron heel. He takes a dislike to them, and the feeling is mutual, until David hooks up with his friend, Mark, who kinda sorta runs the bullies. David looks the other way and everyone lives and lets live until David stumbles across an incident where the bullies, led by bete noir Bruce, are in the midst of gang-raping a girl. To this, David cannot look away, and the bullies cannot take his silence as a given. They show up to menace David as he's working on his car and accidentally crush his leg under a wheel. For the moment, the film plays out like any other run of the mill exploitation revenge film, with David executing his revenge with grisly efficiency, making each death look like an accident. The one that sticks in my mind is the swimming pool scene, in which a diver takes off from the board in the dark only to have the lights come up and reveal no water below him. Then something weird happens. David's revenge is over far too quickly. The movie still has a way to go. There's method in this, because once the bullies are gone, there's a power vacuum, and the oppressed kids begin to vie for elite status. Each faction, recognizing that David is the power player, tries to enlist his aid, not counting on the fact that David is disgusted by the whole thing. Then the movie earns its title, as David decides to take out the whole stinking lot. He has to destroy the village in order to save it.

Clearly, there's a political parable in this movie. It is not lost on me that the kids who form the initial elite are snotty, affluent white kids, while the oppressed include the political leftists, the disabled, and women. I don't even know if this is a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers or if it arose naturally from the power structures it is sending up. Not that it matters. There's a weird absence of adult authority in this movie, too, which is suggestive. Is there a broader society, or is this it? And if there's a broader society, why are they looking the other way? Are they enabling the formation of fascist social structures? Why? The conversion of the free-speech hippie character (Carradine) into a fascist is downright prescient, given the political history of America subsequent to this movie's release. When I first saw the film as a teen, I thought the political commentary was pretty awesome. As an adult, it depresses me. It's a little too pointed.

Meanwhile, the film doesn't skimp on the exploitation elements. There's plenty of nudity and gore to appease an audience looking for nudity and gore. It's creative in its killings, too, which is refreshing in a sector of film where the phallic implications of a knife are exploited to the exclusion of most other forms of mayhem. One set of characters, involved in a threesome (yay for polyamory, I guess), is done in by a boulder dropped on their make-out tent. One character is dropped into electric lines by a sabotaged hang-glider. In a scene possibly inspired by The Big Combo, one kid is killed by his own hearing aid. The catalog of mayhem here is impressive, but, of course, it's not what people remember about the movie. In an exploitation movie, that's some kind of achievement.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Big Hate

I'm not entirely sure why I allowed myself to be talked into watching Lars Von Trier's incendiary horror movie, Antichrist (2009), or, indeed to be lulled into fascination by its languid opening act. It's not as if I didn't know that when he's not pushing the borders of film form, the director is perfectly capable of a jewel-like precociousness. He was doing this sort of thing as long ago as Europa, a film as different from the Dogme aesthetic as I can possibly imagine. This one is, too; it's as lovingly crafted as a portrait miniature. Film craft can only go so far, though, and when you're presented with a film so drenched in the worldview of its author, you really need to react to the worldview. Frankly, what's in Von Trier's mind disgusts me. Again, it's not as if I didn't already know this.

This is largely a symbolic movie. The two lead characters are played with commitment and raw nakedness (not just their nudity) by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe; they're named only "She" and "He." We know that "He" is a therapist. We know that "She" is writing her dissertation. In the film's prologue, our two leads are making love while their infant son, unattended, tumbles out a window to his death. She is consumed with grief, but instead of letting go of this grief, she allows her grief to be used as an instrument for our characters to tear each other to pieces. Literally.

The bulk of the film takes place at "Eden," the couple's cabin in the woods, and this becomes a highbrow variation on the spam in a cabin horror movie. The natural world is terrifying to "She," and seems to endlessly place a finger on the raw nerve of her pain. "Nature is Satan's church," She says. Lo and behold, nature's monstrosity is on full display here: a dead bird falling to the earth, crawling with insects, a deer with a half-birthed fawn dangling from its uterus, a fox that speaks the words "Chaos reigns." Later, "He" roleplays nature, and says that what he wants is to "hurt you as much as I can." Then the movie literalizes this.

The third movement of the film is titled "Despair (Gynocide)," which should be a warning to the curious. Von Trier has a wholly justified reputation for misogyny, and it's almost as if he's answering those accusations in this film. If this is so, his response is curious. "Women do not control their own bodies," Gainsbourg's character says, "Nature does." If nature is evil, ipso facto, so are women. That's not a repudiation of the director's accusers, now is it? Von Trier is far too intractable a personality for that. No, it's an embrace. Women, in this film's worldview are crazy or evil or both. But never let it be said that the director doesn't give equal time when it suits him. Dafoe's character is hardly sympathetic, and the genital mutilations go both ways here. Seriously, when a movie is reduced to showing a woman cutting off her own labia to shock the audience, it has seriously jumped the rails.

Yet for all its horror, for all its artiness, this is a conventional movie, from the familiar "couple working through the death of a child" set-up to the torture-soaked final act. This doesn't have the shock of the new, no matter how the other elements of the film may shock an audience. Takashi Miike already did this sort of thing better and more painfully ten years ago. When Charlotte Gainsbourg laments near the end of the film that, "None of it is any use," she might be talking about more than she knows...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Please, Sir, Not in Front of the Klingons

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, directed by William Shatner) starts with an arresting image of a mysterious rider emerging from a blasted landscape. It's a visual that I had forgotten in the years since I first saw it, and it gave me hope that my opinion of the film might change with a new viewing. It wasn't long before I realized why I had forgotten it. It was quickly swamped with sillier and sillier images. In truth, I've been dreading revisiting this movie. My memory of it from when it was first released was of a crap grenade, and throwing myself on it in the name of blogging wasn't particularly appealing.

My twenty year-old impression of the film wasn't wrong.

The story here involves a renegade Vulcan whose Galactic Army of Light commandeers the Enterprise and takes it on a quest to find God. They're chased by a Klingon Bird of Prey whose captain is intent on testing himself against Kirk. It's nothing if not ambitious, but it's so filled with psychobabble and pseudo-philosophy that it turns ridiculous. The movie is also a paean to William Shatner's boundless ego. Like the previous entry in the series, this movie goes out of its way to provide each member of the crew with some bit of shtick. Uhura's bit is the most out of character, methinks, in which she does a fan dance to distract some bad guys. The bad guys, for their part, act like morons when they see this. Most of the other characters--including Kirk--come off as buffoons. Again, this is an extension of the modus operandi of the previous film.

What keeps this from the deepest depths of bad cinema is a consistently high level of production design and a few committed performances. It's certainly an attractive film. It goes back to Jerry Goldsmith's fanfare from the first film in the series, which is a welcome change from James Horner's tonally inconsistent work in the previous couple of films. Plus it ties the movie to The Next Generation, which was coming into its own at the time of this film's release. DeForrest Kelly gets the best scene in the movie, among the actors, in which his doubts as a doctor are brought to the fore. Leonard Nimoy's Spock is nicely conflicted, too, in a story that brings him into conflict with his own renegade half-brother (a mis-cast Laurence Luckenbill).

It's the main concept that really does this movie in. The Enterprise used to go out to meet god on a regular basis when the original series was on the air. For that matter, the first film in the series has echoes of this plot, too. The occasional religiosity of Star Trek has never sat well with me. When Shatner points out the absurdity of the film's conceit near the end of this film ("Excuse me? What does god need with a starship?"), he unwittingly points out the absurdity of his own film, but I find myself in sympathy with him, not only for the level of his unconscious critique, but also for putting my own skepticism into his own mouth.

In sum, Trek V combines the series' religious impulses with the buffoonery of Trek IV, and where that film was awkward, this one is embarrassing. To an extent, I kind of like the fact that this film exists. It stands as the movie series' equivalent of the television show's balmier episodes like "The Way to Eden" or "Who Mourns for Adonis." But, y'know, those episodes were embarrassing, too.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Walking Through Fire

A slightly different version of this post was originally posted at the trans-feminist blog, The Second Awakening.

I already wrote in a more general way about The Girl Who Played With Fire a couple of months ago, but I had a lot of thoughts rattling in my head about it–more than I put into that review. There’s also been a lot of discussion of these movies on the feminist blogs I read, so I thought I’d make some comments here, too. This movie is built around the rape scene and general abuse of women in its predecessor, so sensitive readers are hereby admonished that this may contain triggers. I also need to note that I haven’t read the books on which these movies are based. I’m ONLY writing about the movies. I understand that there are some major differences.

For the most part, I don’t approach movies with any particular ax to grind, so I don’t default to a feminist or a queer reading of most movies. Usually, individual movies will suggest the critical tools that are most useful to understanding their value (or lack thereof). For example: my main cinematic drug of choice is horror movies. By their very nature, horror movies suggest psychoanalytic readings. Freud works. So does Lacan. I tend to use Jung when I approach horror movies, because I think he best explains the enduring appeal of horror movies even after they’ve lost their power to actually scare the viewer. You could use a feminist scalpel to dissect horror movies, or a sociological scalpel (especially given the interesting tendency of horror movies to mirror the social climate of their milieu), but these are secondarily useful, given that horror movies are specifically attempting to manipulate psychological effects in more radical ways than other kinds of movies. I also think that the greatest movies reward multiple approaches.

I don’t know that the Millennium trilogy is composed of “great” movies. Almost certainly not. But I do know that they are specifically tailored to a feminist viewpoint. And when they are subjected to a feminist critique, they are a serious muddle. On the one hand, they cast Lisabeth Salander, their title character, “the girl”, as a defiantly queer heroine who spits in the face of the patriarchy. On the other, they cater to the fantasies of middle-aged white men by providing them with a secondary protagonist to act as a surrogate. This is most obnoxiously played out in the first film when, seemingly out of character, Lisabeth, decides to become sexually involved with Blomqvist, the male protagonist. Given the systematic abuse of the character both in the text of the first film and in the revealed back-story in the second, this stands as a stroke fantasy for Blomqvist’s middle-aged het male identifiers. Blomqvist is a necessary character from one other point of view, too, given that most of the men in these movies are such monstrous avatars of misogyny that he functions as a kind of apologia. At least these films are smart enough to let Lisabeth Salander stand as the heroine of the story, though she tends to vanish from this role from time to time in the second movie. I note on my other review that Lisabeth strikes me as Holmes to Blomqvist’s Watson, and Holmes sometimes vanished from his stories, too, all the while remaining as the driving presence.

The depiction of rape in these movies is troubling, though. Not just because it depicts the act in elaborate, loving detail, but because it builds the whole plot of the second movie around the event. You can make an argument on the evidence of the first film alone that the rape scene is both gratuitous and filmed in such a way as to titillate the audience (one of my correspondents thinks that Rapace was “posed” during this sequence to suggest some level of enjoyment; I don’t know that I agree, but I can see her point). The second film’s treatment of the event using the footage from the first film has the unfortunate effect of defining Lisabeth Salander in relation to it. It also details further instances of abuse in her past. So instead of embracing the character as complicated and brilliant, it defines and motivates her as a victim and casts the film and series in the role of the rape/revenge fantasy.

At least the second film doesn’t go down the absurd path of Lisabeth and Blomqvist’s sexual relationship, which is a relief. Hell, the two don’t even share the screen together until the very last scene in the movie. I’ll give the movie props, too, for depicting Blomqvist as a kind of a sad sack white knight who doesn’t quite get there in time to save the damsel in distress. This film, like its predecessor, lets Lisabeth be a badass all on her own. It also surprised and delighted me by reinforcing her queerness. There’s a ridiculously hot sex scene near the beginning of the film between Lisabeth and her ex-lover that goes beyond the usual soft core fondling and kissing for a straight male audience. It’s a scene that has some level of authenticity. It doesn’t hurt that Noomi Rapace doesn’t fit the image of a straight male fantasy. I love that she has unshaved underarms, for one example. And the tattoos and piercings, too. (As an aside, there was some dumb college student in the audience when I saw the film that could be heard to audibly go “ew” when the shot of Noomi Rapace’s underarm came on screen. Suck it, tool; she’s not there for your jollies). One other nice thing about the queerness of the character is that it rebukes the occasional and ignominious depiction of gays in crime fiction as murderers and psychos (think Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train* or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs). I mean, there are plenty of queer detectives in print; not so much in movies and television.

In the final analysis, I enjoy these movies on a gut level, because if I think about them too long, my mind might talk my gut out of its enjoyment. They are thrillers first, after all, and though they’re pretty conventional thrillers, they still manage the odd set piece to set the pulse a-racing and they provide unusually interesting characters. There’s an image of Lisabeth at the end of the second movie that’s brutal and defiant at the same time and it might just summarize the series’ central appeal. Rape her, beat her, shoot her, bury her in the ground, it doesn’t matter. She’s indomitable. Men cannot destroy her. I’m looking forward to the third film.

*Bruno Anthony was created by Patricia Highsmith, as was everyone’s favorite sociopathic bisexual, Tom Ripley. Highsmith was herself a lesbian, which begs the question of whether she made her most interesting characters queer because she thought they were interesting, or whether she did it out of some sense of self-loathing. There’s plenty of writing about this out there, so I’ll just mention it in passing.

Also, The Silence of the Lambs strikes me as the touchstone for the Millennium pictures, given that Lisabeth Salander is a close cousin to Clarice Starling.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Inquisition! What a Show...

Welcome to another installment of Netflix Roulette. This time, our random number generator comes up 19 and 14, which corresponds to Stuart Gordon's 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum.

The Pit and the Pendulum reassembles Gordon's frequent collaborators Dennis Paoli and Jeffrey Combs for a Gothic romp through Poe. This film marks the beginning of Gordon's long exile in Spain, which lends the film a certain European feeling appropriate to the story. The film is dominated by Lance Henriksen's lead performance as Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. It's animated by an antic gallows humor. But all of these elements are in the service of a cheapjack Full Moon production. It's an uneasy mix, which keeps it from being as iconic a horror movie as, say, Corman's version. The movie languished on home video, where it was originally released. I'm not entirely sure it deserves its obscurity, but it certainly goes out of its way to earn it.

The opening of the film is magnificent, though, in which Henriksen's Toquemada exhumes a body in order to condemn it as a heretic. He promptly has the skeletal remains flogged. That right there is the movie in a nutshell and if the movie consisted only of its pre-credit sequence, or if the rest were worthy of it, it would be very good indeed. Hell, if the movie let Henriksen hold the screen for most of its runtime, it would be very good. But it doesn't. The movie is populated with a supporting cast who execute the film's comedy with all the panache of a sitcom. This, unfortunately, includes Combs as the twitchy inquisitorial clerk and Stephen Lee as the lead turnkey in the dungeons. The movie also tends to eschew mood; it's entirely too well-lit for being set in a dungeon. There's also some supernatural hugger mugger that seems wholly out of place, but that's a matter of taste, I guess.

Still, there's a lot to recommend. Henriksen is THAT good as a version of Torquemada who is inspired by Victor Hugo's Frollo. The plot of the movie concerns his lust for a young baker's wife (Rona De Ricci), who haunts his dreams. The baker plunges into the dungeons of the inquisition and winds up faced with the title horror. The film takes a few detours along the way, including the mystical education of the baker's wife at the hands of a chatty witch and a short excursion into "The Cask of Amontillado," with Oliver Reed in role of Fortunato. This last reminds me of the Corman films, actually, because they often included secondary stories to pad their length. Some of the small touches are good, too, like the hourglass that has sand made from ground up human bones and Torquemada's choice of bedroom decor (he sleeps under a sword of Damocles). The film's best line comes after Torquemada has cut out Maria's tongue: Combs disclaims the act with "How can they confess if they don't have tongues?" The film's best moment comes when Esmerelda the Witch, having ingested a bunch of gunpowder, explodes on the stake. I also appreciate the inclusion of Poe's solution to escaping from the pit. Love the rats.

So a mixed bag, all told, and pretty good as Full Moon productions go. It's certainly fun in fits and starts. But it's disappointing from the man who directed Re-Animator. It should be so much better than it is.

Originally published on the Wildclaw Blood Radio blog.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, directed by Leonard Nimoy) has long been a favorite of fans, but I've never really liked it. This puts me in the position of questioning the paradigm that it's the even numbered Star Trek movies that are good, but there it is. It's a film of dramatic tonal shifts and goofy images. I'm thinking specifically of the weird, psychedelic sequence that plays during the time warp scene, prehistoric computer graphics and all. I'm thinking of the goofball presentation of Spock, recovering from his ordeal over the previous two films, as some kind of hippie. I'm thinking of the grim trial scene that opens the movie, in which the Klingon deliver their grievances against Kirk to the Federation, complete with footage from the previous installment. I'm thinking about James Horner's opening fanfare that sounds vaguely like Christmas music.

It's a goofy movie.

Trek IV is basically a comedy. The plot follows the crew of the Enterprise as they pilot the Klingon Bird of Prey they commandeered in the previous movie back in time to contemporary (in 1986) San Francisco in order to find a pair of humpback whales. The whales are needed to answer one of the series' patented unfathomably powerful probes that is in the process of destroying 23rd Century Earth, where whales are extinct. The thrust of this is to put the familiar characters in a fish out of water, stranger in a strange land setting in which the jokes are predicated on the subsequent anachronisms. It's pretty middlebrow stuff, without any real tooth as social commentary. It's undercut a bit by the earnestness of its save the whales message. It's undercut, too, by an uncomfortable cluelessness on the part of a few our crew mates. Elements of the plot are predicated on the characters' ignorance of history. This is particularly true of Chekov's jaunt at the naval base, looking for "nuclear wessels." Surely, the Cold War hasn't been forgotten in the 23rd century.

I have to admit: it's a little bit odd to see a film as late as 1986 still vilifying punk rock, but I guess this is at the cusp right before rap and hip hop would assume the role of obnoxious noise for middle class white America. I wish Catherine Hicks's character, Gillian, would have made the jump that Kirk and Spock are gay--a not-unreasonable conclusion given the film's setting. You can totally see the wheels turning in the mind of the actress even if they aren't in the minds of the screenwriters, but it's an undiscovered country here. It leaves a lot of comedy potential on the table by ignoring this option, which is too bad.

The movie goes out of its way to spotlight each of the crew members with some variety of shtick. Some of these fall flat. Most of these fall flat, actually. A lot of it is tailored to Star Trek fans and is the sort of thing that winds up on buttons sold at sci fi cons ("Gillian: Don't tell me, you're from outer space. Kirk: No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space," is a perennial favorite). Some of this is funny, most of it is...awkward.

That's probably the best word for my relationship with this movie. "Awkward." Yeah. That's pretty much it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Noise, a 2007 thriller from Australia directed by Matthew Saville, starts with a vivid set-piece. A woman steps onto a subway train. After the train pulls out, the man in the seat in front of her topples to the ground. She looks around her and realizes that everyone in the car has been massacred. For a point of reference, this sets up echoes of Clive Barker's "The Midnight Meat Train." The scenes shortly thereafter detail a murder in the suburbs that eventually link to the subway massacre. But detailing the plot of this movie is probably beside the point. Apart from its opening scene and its closing scene (a vivid and nasty gunfight), this isn't that kind of movie. Not really.

Noise follows the intersecting paths of two characters: Lavinia (Maia Thomas) is the woman who we watch enter the train and who, the movie later tells us, survives a confrontation with the author of the massacre. The other is Constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell), a cop who suffers from constant tinnitus. McGahan seems to be the only sympathetic cop in Melbourne, and he's dealing with the crushing isolation of his diminished hearing, the bureaucratic BS of his department regarding it, a potential cancer diagnosis, and a deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend (who is also a cop). In another (American) movie, these two characters would meet, fall in love, and he would rescue her. Fortunately, this isn't that movie. Instead, this movie ladles on the quotidian detail of their lives, including the quotidian minutia of being involved with a murder case. The film builds a good deal of gloom and doom out of this approach, given that it meticulously sets up a sword of Damocles for each character. In addition to exploring a kind of miserablist theme of alienation, this is a film that postulates that even if you are being stalked by a serial killer, the details of life go on. It does occasionally cause the film to drag, though.

Stylistically, this is in line with contemporary noir from Australia and elsewhere. It's a gloomy film, lit by fluorescent lights and populated with brutish working class losers. It looks like a lot of other films, actually, though it's slick and accomplished--especially during the two sequences that open and close the film. The sound design, on the other hand, is unusual. This film places a premium on its soundscape; as its title suggests, there's a LOT of noise in this film, and it makes a point of recreating McGahan tinnitus on the soundtrack. Sometimes, as in a scene where McGahan can't hear anything over the ringing in his ear, the soundtrack is almost unbearable. Sometimes, the soundtrack overwhelms the dialogue, too, exacerbated by heavy Australian accents and idioms; in places, I was wishing for subtitles (I watched it on Netflix Instant).

For all of its art-film tics, though, this is still a thriller, and when you get right down to it, it does its job. Crime films and crime fiction learned long ago that if you pay attention to the thrills, you can do whatever else you want. If you want to watch the everyday details of the lives of these characters, so be it. Just give a payoff. This film understands this in its bones. By opening as it does, and by closing as it does, it also shows an understanding of Sam Arkoff's dictum that you need a good first reel and a good last reel, but what's in between doesn't matter.

I mentioned the gunfight at the end, and I'd like to elaborate on that a bit. It's a duel between a man with a pistol and a man with a shotgun. It's filmed with an admirable economy, showing exactly where the two combatants are and never fudging the geography of the scene. It's clean in the way a lot of Hong Kong action scenes are clean, but it doesn't FEEL like one of those scenes, because neither combatant is a gun fu master. They're saddled with the need to stay behind cover, the need to reload under duress, and the need to not get killed. To put this into context: I can't imagine being Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer or Hard Boiled, with his preternatural grace and ease with his pistols, even under fire, but I can imagine being Brendan Cowell in this movie: scared shitless, fumbling to open his gun and reload it, dealing with the deafening sound of the gunshots, losing track of his opponent. There's a palpable desperation in this scene, and the way it's staged has a visceral punch. It certainly leaves a mark as the credits roll.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Terra Incognito

As far as I know, Sauna (2008, directed by Antti-Jussi Annila) is the first Finnish horror film I've ever seen, so I couldn't tell you if it's a typical Finnish horror film or even if it's a typical Finnish film. The only other Finnish films I've ever seen are a handful of Aki Kaurismäki films, which is probably not a representative sampling. In any event, this film echoes a LOT of other traditions, from Asian horror movies to Eastern European art films, while fully embracing none of them. It's a genuine weirdie in any case.

The story here follows a team of cartographers mapping the new border between Sweden and Russia after the conclusion of the 1590–1595 Russo-Swedish War. The two principle cartographers from Sweden are the brothers, Erik and Knut, each of whom carries with him the guilt of past sins. During the course of the early part of the film, each brother authors new sins to carry with them: Erik lusts after a young girl who has hosted the expedition, while Knut locks her away in a cellar for her own protection from his brother. He leaves her there to die. They wear out their welcome in a hurry. As they trek through the wilderness, Knut begins to see a ghostly figure in the fens and marshes where they're traveling. He's convinced that it's the girl, haunting his every step. He starts to come unglued. Erik is more stoic, but he's lived with so much guilt from the dozens of people he's killed that he sublimates it beneath a hard, hard exterior. Eventually, the party comes to an uncanny village in the middle of a swamp, a village populated with exactly the number of people Erik has killed. The village hosts a sauna, which, according to the local superstitions, will wash away sins. Meanwhile, members of the party are dying in ghastly ways. The village, it seems, will not let its inhabitants go untouched. Both brothers enter the sauna eventually, and confront their own inner darknesses. Erik, for his part, aims at redemption by offering himself to the dark forces here in order to allow the only girl in the village to escape. But he can't escape his own sins.

This all sounds interesting. Hell, it IS interesting. But Sauna is also maddeningly vague about, well, just about everything. It doesn't really explain anything beyond who the characters are and what they're tasked with doing, preferring to allow the viewer to construct their own explanations for the events on screen. This is particularly true of the deranged, completely inexplicable ending. Then again, the film does tell the audience at the outset that the expedition we've been following vanished without a trace before it finished its task. You can't say you weren't warned, I guess. This gives the film a weird Roanoke, Virginia kind of feeling to it in the end, which is an exotic touch of strange.

Regardless of how one interprets the film, it's fascinating for showing a completely unfamiliar time and place, a feeling that's amplified from the filmmakers' choice of a desaturated color palette and a desolate, starkly beautiful landscape. The look of the film has been meticulously crafted. Both Ville Virtanen and Tommi Eronen as our respective brothers look like they were grown for this movie organically. The visuals are all of a piece. So too is the slow burn of its suspense. The fact that this narrative charges into Terra incognito provides its mysteries with an awful sense of discovery once they begin to reveal themselves. This is amplified by their sheer impenetrability. I can't explain what happens at the end of this movie. I'm not entirely sure I want to.

But I can't get it out of my head.

Final Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 37

First Time Viewings: 37