Monday, March 24, 2008

The Stone Face

73. Much as I loved Lucky McKee's May, I can't say that I like the idea that he qualifies as a "Master of Horror" on the basis of a single film, however good it might be. But the way the series has shaken out, it's the guys that don't have the bona fides that have done the best work so far. Go figure. (As an aside: were I feeling unkind, I might make the same complaint about Tobe Hooper, even though he has a long career in the genre, but that's just sour grapes). In any event, McKee's entry, Sick Girl (2006), is very much in the mode of May, which the director himself describes as a romantic comedy gone horribly round the bend. May herself, Angela Bettis, is on-hand again as Ida Teeter, a lonely entomologist who is a stand-in for anyone whose love life has been stifled by their "geeky" pursuits. Ida is smitten with a girl who sits in the lobby of her building drawing pixies, and after an awkward introduction, they hit it off. Unfortunately, Ida has been sent an exotic bug that bites and infects her new paramour, and the story becomes an allegory for jumping into a relationship too fast, without knowing the darker side of one's chosen partner. This is very much the goofiest of the MoH entries, but it has a kind of charm and brutal honesty when it comes to relationships. McKee finds more horror in the emotional hurts of his characters than he does in gore and monsters, though he doesn't skimp on that, either.

74. The last act of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, directed by Charles Reisner and an unbilled Buster Keaton) is a cinematic tour de force. The hurricane sequence that buffets Keaton as he tries to rescue his father and girlfriend has some of the most jaw-dropping set-pieces you've ever seen. One wishes that the movie itself had the kind of existential dilemmas found in Keaton's best works, but that's quibbling. Entertainers used to have to be extraordinary, and Keaton uses the last third of this movie to show himself in the full flower of his enormous talents. The rest? It's all set-up, and it's not bad set-up, either.

75. I like to think that Keaton and director Edward F. Cline were in the game of one-upsmanship when they made "Cops" (1922), in which they top every Keystone Kop movie ever made. This is pure chase comedy, in which the individual against the state is taken to absurd lengths. It would almost be Kafka-esque were it not so achingly funny.

76. 10,000 B.C. (2008, directed by Roland Emmerich) made my brain hurt. I suspected, going in, that it was going to be a stupid movie. Emmerich specializes in stupid, after all. But in my wildest imaginings, I couldn't have guessed at the depths of the idiocy in which this film wallows. I suspect that the screenplay may have been written in crayons. I could feel my I.Q. drop just from watching it. Serves me right for not listening to that little voice in my head. The mammoths? The ax-beak? You can get that stuff on the Discovery Channel.

Current tally: 76 movies, 28 horror movies. I'm slipping. Time to kick it in gear.

Monday, March 17, 2008


69. So, there's not an original thought in Neil Marshall's Doomsday (2008). It doesn't take a film historian to spot the source of the basic plot: a one-eyed anti-hero is sent in to a walled-off prison/quarantine area to find the Macguffin. Mix liberally with Mad Max, Aliens, and half a dozen other sources and you have a movie drunk on its own derivitive impulse. And while I have some qualms about Marshall's preference for the "run and gun" approach to action sequences, I give him props for taking on his sources on their own ground and adding his own brand of nastiness to them. There are a lot of decapitations in this movie. For all of that, I can't say I disliked it. Indeed, I walked out of it with a huge grin, because, of all the lessons Marshall has learned from John Carpenter, the timing and substance of Doomsday's punch line, when it comes, does his idol proud.

70. Speaking of Carpenter...1981's Escape from New York seems today a relic of another time. It's strange watching an action movie that hasn't even a hint of the Hong Kong action New Wave. In a way--and even for its time--it kind of plods. Still and all, it presents a pretty depressing future (now in the past) populated by vivid personalities, and it shows an admirable economy of resources. But if it remains interesting at all, it's because Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is an iconic anti-hero. Russell holds the film together by sheer force of will. It's almost a pity Plissken never got a vehicle worthy of him. Alas...

71. One of the previews at Doomsday was for the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie, in which there appears a woman warrior with animated white hair. This is a figure that should be familiar to fans of Hong Kong action films, given that Ronny Yu's The Bride With White Hair (1993) is one of the signature fireworks displays of their glory years. Yu is best known in the US as the director of Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason, but even though it's not explicitly a horror movie, The Bride With White Hair is a better horror movie than either of those. Its intent is as a romantic fantasy, a kind of wuxia Romeo and Juliet, but it has such a high body count and so many instances of spurting arterial blood (often backlit for maximum effect) and a villain that is a palpable monster, it's hard not to see it as a horror movie, too. That's the nature of some of the best HK flicks, they defy genre convention by choosing their generic elements a la carte. In any event, the title character is played by the wonderful Brigette Lin, who can lacerate her opponents with an icy stare and a whip, while her beau is played by the dashing Leslie Cheung, who plays the wuxia warrior as slacker. This is the kind of movie that Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung did so often in the 1980s, but Yu's style is more brutal than theirs, and his flair for the grotesque is grittier, though it is by no means less outlandish.

72. For most of its running time, Stuart Gordon's first entry in to the Masters of Horror series, Dreams in the Witch House is pretty mundane. The original story by H. P. Lovecraft has one of my favorite opening sentences ("Whether the dreams brought on the fever or the fever brought on the dreams Walter Gilman did not know"), which is disappointingly absent. Absent, too, is the feeling of antiquity in the eponymous house, along with its sinister history (elided, but not expounded). It seems a run of the mill boarding house rather than a decaying relic of a witch-haunted past era. Ezra Godden is the lead, a mathematician plagued by awful dreams about his new lodgings. He's pretty good; better, anyway, than he was in Gordon's Dagon, but the story doesn't give him much to do until the end. The end is memorably nasty and almost makes up for the relatively lackadaisical build-up. Of the MOH installments that I've seen thus far, this one is middle of the road.

73. Among the more improbable collaborations in movie history: Jess Franco and Orson Welles. Franco was a second unit director on Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1965), which ultimately led to Franco asserting the moral authority to cobble together the fragments of Welles's Don Quixote. This, of course, is absurd. But I won't quibble. The second unit stuff on Chimes is nice. This was Welles's favorite of his own movies, and its probably my own favorite of Welles's movies, too. It's certainly my favorite Shakespearean film, though I sometimes waffle between this and Throne of Blood. It seems criminal to me that this film remains largely unseen. It's a masterpiece. In any event, during this revisiting, I was struck by how unpleasant a character Prince Hal really is, and by the fact that he tells the audience, and he tells Falstaff, exactly what his calumny will be late in the movie, with no one believing him. Anyone who buys into the notion that Henry V is militarist propaganda needs to see the first two parts of the Henriad to realize that the Bard cuts that notion off at the knees. One of the multifarious triumphs of Chimes at Midnight is the bitter irony it imparts on Ralph Richardson's narration from Hollingshead's chronicles, praising Henry V's reign as Falstaff's coffin is wheeled away. In any event, this remains one of the great sleight of hand acts in all of cinema, in which Welles concocts an epic from smoke and mirrors. He presents himself as a magician and a charlatan at the beginning of F for Fake, but this movie shows that the man was capable of miracles.

Monday, March 10, 2008

An Off Week.

A bit of an off week for me.

65. Dario Argento's second installment for the Masters of Horror, Pelts (2006), is more recognizable as the work of Argento. In terms of production design and mise en scene, it might as well have been signed by the director. In other respects, though, it has more in common with the late Lucio Fulci. This sucker is red meat city. Meat Loaf plays a furrier who comes into possession of the pelts of some mystical racoons. The pelts drive all who come into contact with them to a bad end. Some of these "bad ends" are, um, creative. I'm not entirely sure which is more gruesome: the guy whose face is bitten off by a bear trap or the denoument, which involves a vest of human skin. In any event, the whole thing is ridiculously over the top, which is probably wise, because the material is too silly to take seriously.

66. Gregory Wilson's adaptation of Jack Ketcham's The Girl Next Door (2007) is a grim, un-fun movie. It's not necessarily bad, but it's a relentless downer. And it's based on a true story, too. Lovely. Hide the razor blades. It's also vividly nasty. There's a scene with a blowtorch that suggested to me that I should turn off the tv and go for a walk. I didn't, but there was the urge. If the acting were better, it might well be unendurable, but every so often, someone would emote and I would be blissfully reminded that I was watching a movie. Take that however you like.

67. I've said some bad things about Goldfinger (1964, directed by Guy Hamilton) in the past, mainly concerning the influence it holds over subsequent Bond films, but in spite of that, it really is a marvelous film. Every piece fits together seamlessly. There are no throw-aways. In particular, I'm fond of the shot of Felix Leiter as one of the "victims" of Goldfinger's nerve gas--a knowing wink to the audience that things aren't playing to plan, if you catch it. And Goldfinger's plot to irradiate Fort Knox is second in my affections among supervillain schemes only to Lex Luthor's plot to sink California. Great fun.

68. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, directed by Nicholas Meyer) is the best of the Star Trek movies. Not coincidentally, it's the one with the least social commentary on its mind. It plays as pure adventure. Plus, it has what most of the Star Trek films lack: a terrific villain. Only Alice Krige's Borg Queen in First Contact survives a comparison with Ricardo Montalban's Khan, here re-invisioned as a refugee from a Mad Max movie. The battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant in the nebula remains one of the best such duels in science fiction movies, even if it IS a retread of every submarine film you've ever seen.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Two Week's Worth

49. Howard Hawks's Ball of Fire (1941) contains one of my favorite Billy Wilder screenplays (with Charles Brackett). A reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this finds gangland moll Barbara Stanwyck hiding with a group of academics in the final stretch of writing an encyclopedia, led by linguist Gary Cooper, who realizes that his entry on slang is all out of date. The slang quotient of this movie is high and most of it is a foreign language these days, but that adds to the enjoyment as I imagine the Austrian, Wilder marshalling his relatively recent English skills in constructing this movie. But make no mistake, this is Hawks's movie. If you want to see an abject lesson in the primacy of the director over the writer in making movies, look no further than this. The words are great, sure, but the placement of the camera and the actors in the frame dominate this movie, particularly Hawks's penchant for constructing communities from group shots (including group shots that reveal character independent of the script) and his penchant for defining his characters by their professions. Excellent character work in this movie, by the way, especially from Dana Andrews as Stanwyck's gangster beau.

50. This year-long project of mine compells me to make genre distinctions for the tally of horror movies, which gives me fits when it comes to a movie like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's Black Narcissus (1947). The last act of the movie plays a LOT like a horror movie, or, at the very least, like a full blown gothic, with the Himalayan convent turning dark and empty, like a vast haunted house. The movie provides the proverbial madwoman in the attic, too, in Kathleen Byron's deranged Sister Ruth. I'm not the only person to notice this association. Glenn Erikson's review at DVD Savant includes this observation:

Some recent Savant reading unearthed the tale of English filmmakers Powell, Carol Reed and David Lean watching convoy-shipped rare prints of American movies during World War 2, personally bicycling one of their favorites, The Seventh Victim to screenings in a bombed-out London. This makes Savant want to connect Black Narcissus to the films of Val Lewton, particularly his I Walked With a Zombie. Before your eyeballs roll violently, think on the following: A sensual, distracting tropical ambiance created entirely in the studio, with seductive tracking shots and lighting effects that create a palpable feeling of fantasy. An interpersonal story that pits the political and religious ideologies of individuals against one another, in a land where modern Western ideas sit uneasily atop incompatible ancient beliefs and traditions, some of which are dangerous. The story is told less through action than (this right from the Black Narcissus DVD notes) 'a succession of small incidents and casual encounters' - precisely the way Joel Siegel described Lewton's narrative style in The Seventh Victim. Very similar to the zombie product of passion and repression in Zombie, Sister Ruth in Narcissus is transformed into a zombie-like harpy, a 'worldly woman' in a red dress and red lipstick, eyes blazing and hair akimbo, like a Fury. If this comparison does nothing for the appreciation of Narcissus, it will hopefully elevate the genre-bound graces of the Lewton and Tourneur's wonderful Zombie movie.

So, screw it, I'm counting it, but don't expect the usual huggermugger of the genre if you decide to take this as a recommendation. What you WILL get is one of the great conjuring acts in movies, in which Powell and Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Clayton construct a Himalaya environment of dreams without ever leaving England. This is one of the high points of technicolor cinematography, which is amazing given the muted color schemes on display. Even the usual meddling of technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus doesn't appear to have taken root in Cardiff's astonishing photography. Byron once claimed that half her performance in Black Narcissus was provided by the lighting, which explains why many actors prefer the stage as a true test of their ability.

Another problem with my year-long project reared its head this week, too. How do I want to count short subjects? And television projects? For the TV stuff, I think I'll count it if it's self-contained (opening the door for, say, Fanny and Alexander later in the year). For shorts? Hell, I don't know. Maybe I'll count them, and decide at the end what to do with them. I have another ten months.

51. The Cameraman's Revenge (1912, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) is a perverse example of insect noir, in which a jilted cuckold takes revenge on his cheating spouse and vice versa, all animated by real insects turned into stop motion puppets by the genius (or madness) of Starewicz. Creepy and funny at the same time.

52. Destination Murder (1950, directed by Edward L. Cahn) is a second feature noir programmer through and through. It's not bad. But it's not good, either. Has a memorable use of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," but it's an otherwise rote variant on Cornell Woolrich's The Black Angel.

53. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (directed by Aditya Chopra) is one of the biggest hits in the history of movies--it had an eleven YEAR first run--but you'd be hard pressed to know it if you live outside of India. I mean, Titanic is friggin everywhere, but this film is barely a blip on the consciousness of Western pop culture. Actually, this film is a LOT like Titanic--minus the special effects, I guess. It is intended as a huge entertainment first, and as art only incidentally. I have to admit that I found the first seventy minutes or so to be a chore. Shahrukh Khan's "romantic lead" is so infused with the spirit of Jerry Lewis that I devoutly hoped that he would get hit by a bus. But at about the half way point, I started to groove on the rhythms of the movie. This thing is at its best when it is indulging in musical numbers, even towards the outset, though even as an outsider, I can get a feel for the alienation engendered by the Indian diaspora and expressed admirably in portions of this film. Indian starlets are gorgeous, by the way. Really gorgeous.

54. "Fetiche ("The Mascot," 1934, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) finds the director's stop-motion artistry in full flower. The tale of a stuffed dog trying to bring a child an orange is simple enough, but the long dark journey through which this quest threads is a tour de force in cinematic ingenuity. This is one of my very favorite films.

55. I don't have a lot to add to what I've written about Forbidden Planet (1956, directed by Fred Wilcox) in the past, except to note that the Krell laboratories and planetary machines are still the coolest environments in all of 1950s science fiction. There's a real sense of awe in this set of reality.

56. It's Alive III: Island of the Alive
(1987, directed by Larry Cohen) is occasionally funny, but it's the end of the line for these movies. Having exhausting a thin premise, this veers into the ridiculous. Even Cohen's frequent collaborator, Michael Moriarty, seems to know that this is pretty dire material. Cohen's ideas have always outstripped his execution, but this film finds the director's abilities and ideas farther apart than usual.

57. Justice League: The New Frontier (2008, directed by Dave Bullock) adapts an acclaimed graphic novel in a variant of Warner's current "superhero style" originally pioneered by Batman: The Animated Series. It's an uneasy mixture of Watchmen-style revisionism (see the scene between Superman and Wonder Woman in Indochina at the beginning of the film) and the goofy optimism and outre monsters of the original Justice League comics from the late fifties and early sixties. There's a lot to recommend, and fans will find lots of soothing nostalgia spotting the referrences in the background, but I wish the movie had been longer than its mere 72 minutes. It feels cramped, which tends to make the character development come to naught.

58. Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005, directed by John Carpenter) has a creepy performance by Udo Kier as a mysterious film collector and some memorable gore, but at the end of the film (le absolute fin de film, as it were), this is a low-rent retread of Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, with it's insanity inducing horror movie standing in for an insanity-inducing book. And given that I hated In the Mouth of Madness for its anti-horror subtext (horror fiction turns people into degenerates and murderers, the film implies), I doubly repudiate THIS for repeating the same cannard with much diminshed elan. Crap, mostly.

59. Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005, directed by Don Coscarelli) is more like it. Mind you, I might take issue with the notion that Don Coscarelli is a "master," having made a bunch of Phantasm movies and Bubba Ho-Tep and not much else of note, but damned if he doesn't deliver with this. Coscarelli seems to be pretty self-effacing on the interview material on this disc--he knows, given the other filmmakers associated with MOH--that he's on notice to prove his bona fides. So where Argento and Carpenter seemed to be phoning it in and relying on their bearded reputations, Coscarelli gives his best effort, and I mean that literally. This is his best horror film. Another collaboration with writer Joe R. Lansdale (who legitimately IS a "master" of horror), this is a mean deconstruction of slasher movie conventions that turns a neat (if mildly predictable) twist of the tale at the end. It reminds me most of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 without that film's excesses and dodgy performances. This is more intimate than that film--it's a chamber version of the same material, if you will--in which the nature of monstrosity is given a going over. It's pretty damned good.

60. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2007, co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud) is another adaptation of a graphic novel, one of a much more serious bent. A chronicle of Satrapi's life in Iran before and after the revolution, and in Europe as a teen, this has a deceptively simple visual aesthetic, a particularly wry sense of humor, and an underlying humanism that transforms it into something universally accessible. Sony made a BIG mistake when they decided to market this to the art house crowd at the expense of the mulitplex, because teen-age girls would have made this an enormous hit if they had the chance to see it. Stephen Colbert was absolutely right when he asked Satrapi: "If you humanize your enemy, don't you make them seem more...human?" (If I had the wherewithall, I'd show this to everyone who was thinking about voting for John Bomb-Bomb-Iran McCain. Hell, I'd love to show it to McCain himself.) This makes great use of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." It's that kind of movie.

61. The Story of the Fox (1930, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) is a full-length feature on which the filmmakers labored for more than a decade. The care shows in every frame. The story is standard fairy tale fare, in which the King of the Beasts orders the arrest of the Fox after receiving a multitude of complaints. But that's all incidental. What commands interest is the shear audacity and scale of what Starewicz puts on the screen. This is as technically intricate a stop-motion film as you will ever see, with each character clearly designed and performed. A wonderment.

62. "The Town Rat and the Country Rat" (1927, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) is another technical tour de force, in which I found myself wondering how Starewicz was accomplishing his effects. Not my favorite of Starewicz's films by a long mile, but fascinating.

63. The Tragedy of Othello (1952, directed by Orson Welles) is a study in pure cinema. Stripping the play to its barest bones, Welles places his film in an expressionistic Venice where the angles and vast architectures mirror the ambitions and passions of the characters. Welles is an adequate Othello, but this is Iago's play even in this incarnation, and Micheál MacLiammóir is a more than admirable Iago. One wishes that the sound were better, but there's nothing to be done for it. We're lucky to have even this.

64. The Uninvited (1944, directed by Lewis Allen) retains some of the comedy elements of the ghost movies of the day, but it doesn't monkey around when it comes to the haunting itself. It's a pure gothic when it delves into the revenants that occupy its haunted house and haunted past. Think of this as a supernatural version of Rebecca. The initial manifestation of the movie's ghosts do an admirable job of ratcheting up the dread. Interesting lesbian subtexts are to be found the various supporting characters.