Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Bat (1959)

The Bat is a 1959 crime thriller directed by Crane Wilbur and starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead  It's the third film adaptation of a 1920 broadway production of the same name that was first adapted as a silent film in 1926 by Roland West, then again by West in 1930 as a talkie entitled The Bat Whispers.  It's worth noting that Bob Kane credited the masked villain of the 1930 film as an inspiration for the comic book character of the Batman that he co-created in 1939.

The story follows the efforts of the authorities and Cornelia Van Gorder, a popular mystery novelist, to apprehend a mysterious costumed killer known only as "The Bat."  The masked fiend leaves a trail of mutilated corpses in his wake as he prowls the night in search of stolen loot rumored to be hidden somewhere in the country home occupied by Van Gorder and her entourage.

Price turns in a typically charismatic, quietly sinister performance as a doctor drawn into the hunt for the buried treasure, but it is Moorehead's Mrs. Van Gorder, or "Miss Corny" as she is affectionately known by her loyal but petrified maid Lizzy (played by Lenita Lane), who steals the show.

As the bodies pile up, the cops get involved but they are revealed to be bumbling and useless at practically every turn.  Only Van Gorder, a fearless, unflappable, self-fashioned sleuth, proves to be a match for the ruthless Bat in this chilling game of death with a cool million in unclaimed bank securities up for grabs. 

Watch the film immediately or we are finished.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

comments about the forthcoming remake of Evil Dead (2013) & some idle speculation

So there's a forthcoming remake of Sam Raimi's classic cult horror film Evil Dead.  Watch the red band trailer here.  Obviously the original is iconic and great.  And the remake will probably be fun to watch and I will probably see it when it comes out.  But it represents an obvious trend in Hollywood that is wearing on a lot of people's nerves, including mine.

There are simply too many remakes and sequels these days.  Often they're half or most of what's on offer in major theaters (here are some illustrative figures).  It's lazy and proof that audiences will settle for anything that is effectively packaged as a "major event" or "epic cinematic experience," however unoriginal or derivative it is.  Movies should not have to be "epic" viral phenomena, cynical exercises in pure commercial nostalgia or the visual equivalent of an amusement park ride. 

It's no mystery to anyone why this trend has become so pronounced.  Major studios invest millions into these fucking movies.  Producing something with proven market viability by tapping into the nostalgia or brand loyalty of an existing audience tends to be an extremely safe and reliable play, notwithstanding the occasional flop.  But it sucks for people who want new stories -- and yes, i mean *really* new stories, with unfamiliar dramatic situations and characters -- or who recognize that many of the greatest stories ever told (by Hollywood) were really nothing like the live action video games that pass for movie storytelling now. 

I'll only offer one example to illustrate what I mean.  Consider the classic film noir thriller Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish:

Night of the Hunter is a literary adaptation, so in a sense, it's not original, either.  That is, the story didn't originate with a screenplay writer, but with a novelist.  In fact, the novel was inspired by the true story of a man hanged in 1932 for murdering two widows and three children.  Literary adaptations have been big business in movies from the very outset, but they don't qualify as "remakes" or "sequels" in the sense I mean here.  They don't essentially reproduce movies already made or expand an existing film franchise.  While literary adaptations tell stories that are already in circulation among the general public, those stories are new to moviegoers.

I won't go on at length eulogizing Night of the Hunter, but suffice it to say that its standing as one of the great thrillers is well-deserved.  Mitchum depicts a malevolent huckster and predatory killer masquerading as a genteel preacher, the archetypal wolf in sheep's clothing who ends up stalking defenseless children in the night over a large sum of money buried by their dead father.

The movie is suspenseful and the characters are compelling.  Mitchum's portrayal of the twisted 'preacher' is chilling, not least of all because he appears to believe that he is really acting with some sort of divine authorization.  Gish, who plays a voluntary caregiver of lost children, eventually squares off against the preacher.  Her character is staid but shrewd and projects maternal dignity and strength.  She provides an ideal counterweight to Mitchum's obsessive, feral intensity.

The movie's atmosphere is forbidding and dreamlike.  The scenes of the children in flight from their pursuer portray their natural surroundings as dark and menacing; the river which bears them away is almost Stygian.  One feels the threatening presence of the preacher loom large like a shadow over everything, especially when he is absent.

The stark opposition between the characters of Mitchum and Gish, with the fate of three children ultimately hanging in the balance, provides the center of gravity for a story that unfolds ominously and haunts you long after the film is over.

All of this is achieved with a handful of actors and no pants-shitting pyrotechnics concocted for millions by a doughy computer animator.  In fact, none of it could be achieved by any amount of "epic visuals."  That is not the point.  You are drawn into what is happening because the story is good and the performances are powerful and finely observed.

Something you might hear a lot is that the decline of Hollywood for these reasons and others is not a death knell for moviegoers but for the big studios and theater chains.  Roger Ebert has taken this line.  After all, increasingly many of us are spending most of our movie-watching lives on Netflix or some other streaming venue, often watching shit that would never show at a big cineplex.  Plus big theater chains gouge you on overpriced, suicidally super-sized concessions and exorbitant ticket prices that their typically shallow, narrow offerings cannot really justify.  But despite all this, I still love going to the movies.  I've been doing and loving it since I was a small child and probably always will.

So I'll probably watch the shitty Evil Dead remake.  But still.

Monday, October 22, 2012

To the Devil...a Daughter (1976)

There are few things I love more than classic Hammer Horror.  For those who aren't familiar with Hammer Film Productions, it is a British production company founded in 1934 that flourished from the late 1950s through the middle 70s.  Hammer made all sorts of films, but specialized in the fantastic and sensational genres ranging from swashbucklers and prehistoric epics to opulent period pieces, literary adaptations and supernatural thrillers.  

"Hammer Horror" productions are legendary for their Gothic pageantry, moody and macabre set pieces, lavish costumes, theatrical ambiance and colorful dramatic palette.  The studio is probably best known for its stable of remakes and reworkings of classic horror stories, most notably those first popularized by Universal Studios in the 1930s such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.  A great many British actors who later came to be known outside the U.K. got their start with Hammer, including Sir Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing (the latter having gone on to depict Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars film).

I won't turn this post into a precis on Hammer, but I might do a Hammer series in the near future.  Maybe this post will be the first in that series.

My friend Andee was recently looking for something to watch that's fun and scary but not a slasher flick.  I'm fond of some slasher stuff, but my primary interests in the horror genre lie elsewhere.  Slasher films are essentially high-dollar exploitation films.  Like a lot of horror, they're very formulaic, but the slasher formula isn't as fun for me.  I love exploitation movies, but I prefer the earlier stuff that was made on a pitiful budget and was not so self-consciously directed at a massive audience.  There's something naive and refreshing about the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ted V. Mikels that's lost in any of Wes Craven's or John Carpenter's franchise films.  So I thought a Hammer flick might be of interest to my friend.  One of her friends suggested something with satanic themes.  So I suggested Hammer's 1976 occult thriller, To the Devil...a Daughter.  

To the Devil... is pretty notorious and there are a number of reasons why.  The biggest reason is that, since it was a critical flop and a commercial disaster, the film is widely credited with ruining Hammer studios.  The film was an adaptation of a popular novel by occult writer Dennis Wheatley.  It was the second of Wheatley's novels to receive the Hammer treatment, and it was to be the last.  Wheatley had been pleased with Hammer's handling of his work in 1968 with the success of their film The Devil Rides Out, based on his novel of the same name.  But he was outraged by the script of To the Devil...  He felt that it departed too much from his story, whereas he attributed the success of The Devil Rides Out to the film's faithfulness to the letter of the novel.  Indeed, the climactic scene in the film version of To the Devil... is rather awkward and was the result of a last-minute compromise over disagreement within Hammer about how to conclude the movie.  Wheatley refused to allow Hammer to adapt any more of his stories after To the Devil...'s critical and commercial failure.  It ended up being the final horror film Hammer made until the late 2000s when they finally began clawing their way out of financial oblivion. 

Nevertheless, Christopher Lee turns in a fabulous performance as Father Michael Rayner, a demented priest-turned-occult Svengali-figure in service to Satan.  An aging Richard Widmark plays John Verney, an occult writer (and Wheatley's obvious alter ego) who is drawn into the web of treachery, heresy and demonic machinations set in motion by Father Michael.  Widmark's Verney becomes the reluctant protector of a fifteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski, who plays Catherine Beddows, a cloistered, nubile lady of the cloth in thrall to Lee's Father Michael, whose dread purpose is to transform the unsuspecting girl into the Canaanite avatar of hubris, Astaroth.  

To the Devil... was Hammer's misguided attempt to cash in on the occult trend in movies that had worked so well for Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) It can't hold a candle to its competitors, but it's not a worthless effort.  Its greatest strengths are the performances of Widmark and Lee.  These are fine actors doing their best with what they were given, which was a half-baked turd.  For instance, the script was still being reworked throughout the making of the movie.  Widmark was given his revised lines during makeup at the beginning of each day.  He threatened to walk off the set and fly home to the U.S. during shootingScreenplay co-writer Roy Skeggs sat on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night several times, persuading Widmark to stay the course, before finally giving up and ignoring his threats to take the first flight back to L.A.  

Beyond the lead performances, there's some implicit conservative commentary on the spiritually rudderless youth of the day, lots of frontal nudity and plenty of fucked up visuals during the several scenes depicting bizarre and grotesquely eroticized Satanic rituals.  Perhaps the film's greatest perversity is that you're made to think you get to see Christopher Lee's finely sculpted derriere.  But alas, it's a bare-assed body double.  

For all its faults, To the Devil... is classic nunsploitation schlock.  It's comfort food for fans of kinky occult mumbo-jumbo and shameless shock cinema, and well worth the time of anyone with a well-developed taste for the tasteless in film.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

So I saw Prometheus a few days ago and enjoyed it, despite having some mixed feelings.  I won't do a detailed review because I'm still digesting it, but I came across this interpretation on some blog shared by someone on Facebook.  For now I just want to offer some reactions to the reading the blogger is pushing.

It's an interesting piece. However, some Facebook commenters expressed disappointment with the film in light of this piece, and I don't see why its interpretation reflects poorly on Ridley Scott or the movie. 

It seems like the blogger is suggesting that Prometheus has lots of rich religious and mythic symbolism. In my opinion, that's cool and interesting. This is especially so since the blogger had to bring in lots of stuff most people have probably never heard of to explain and defend his reading. Maybe I'm being too low-brow here, but that fact makes his repeated jabs at Scott for being "unsubtle" seem pretty silly and overdrawn.  But I digress.

I guess the mythic/religious symbolism could be seen as making the movie bad or "worse" if we take Scott to be endorsing some kind of narrowly pro-religious message, though come to that, I would wonder why that fact makes the movie bad. And I doubt that idea is really fair to Scott, as he is outspokenly atheistic and claims the Christ-centric reading appealed to him as an anti-religious message. After all, on the blog's reading, the crucifixion is seen by God (the Engineers) as an indictment of the human race, not the instrument of its salvation -- even indirectly and despite ourselves, as in Christian theology (or the Mickey Mouse version of it we Facebook critics were relying on). If we wanted to align the Engineer's point of view more closely with the Christian God's, maybe we could suppose that they were disappointed by humanity's failed uptake of the meaning of Christ's self-sacrifice? But that doesn't square with their supposed resolution to destroy us as soon as the crucifixion occurred. Don't we get at least a few centuries to respond to that event? And besides, the blogger's supposition is that the crucifixion was not intended by the Engineers.

But anyway, the Christ-was-a-Space-Jockey scenario isn't the only possible explanation for why the Engineers supposedly changed their minds about the human race. For one thing, Scott chose not to endorse that reading or promote it in the film, despite having considered it. And for all we know, the Engineers didn't change their minds. Maybe all along they were breeding the human race as fodder for their biogenic weapons, which they simply lost control of on LV-223 as they prepared to cull the human population 2,000 years ago. After all, ostensibly all-powerful agencies having grand plans that blow up in their faces is a big theme in both Alien and Blade Runner.

Which reminds me, I'm not convinced at all that the Engineers are simply celestial "gardeners" of life. To begin with, the captain of the Prometheus, whose "just a grunt" standpoint is often more realistic and perceptive throughout the film, describes the installation on LV-223 as a military base. And the presence of the Xenomorph/"Destroyer" creature in the mural the blogger makes so much of suggests that the Engineers have had prior dealings with these beasts. Does it really make sense to suppose that the proto-Xenomorph we glimpse at the film's end just happens to almost exactly resemble the image in the mural, if that image was merely a figurative representation of death thought up by the Engineers?

Anyway, basically I liked the movie because I like translucent, 8 foot tall bodybuilders that bash puny insect humans with severed, still-alive heads without batting an eye. FTW!

***Follow-up: August 13, 2012***

I saw Prometheus again tonight and I'm more sure than ever that it was dismissed far too hastily by lots of people.  There's lots of cool nuances I missed the first time through, including:
  • A lot of dense interplay between the roles of creator and created being along an unstable and indefinite spectrum of humanity -- richly interwoven and sometimes incompatible roles that are occupied by all the central characters and often by the same character at once.  
  • The android character, David, as the story's opaque center of action around which all else revolves, just as he is figured visually as the center of the cosmos he conjures in awe when discovering the navigational array in the cockpit of the derelict alien craft.  And as the medium of (mis-)translation between 'god' and 'man,' being neither, himself.  And finally, like the human race in relation to their extraterrestrial progenitors, as an instrument that has taken on its own, unforeseen purposes at odds with those of its creator.
My friend Dan Levine said something recently about how theologically-oriented writing about violence and 'peacekeeping' (I think) is typically more insightful than secular theory of war.  In a similar way, I think this movie might exhibit the tendency of the "secular imagination" to run aground.  I'd like to hear somebody's thoughts about it who is not a prideful, desiccated, godless wretch like me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Blade Runner (1982)

Certainly this film is nothing new to most people who venture at all beyond the garbage currently on offer in theaters. And though I'm no film critic, I imagine that about as much ink has been spilled over this movie as about any other popular film in the past half century. So I doubt I have anything to say that hasn't been said over and over already.  Still, here are some of my own reasons for loving this movie and returning to it so often.

For one thing, I collect film soundtracks on vinyl and this is one of the crown jewels of my collection. The score is by Greek composer Vangelis, whose score for this movie is not only gorgeous but remarkable for its unique and effective integration of sounds from the different eras embraced by the movie. The score, like the rest of the film's aesthetics, has one foot in the 1930s and one in the 80s projected nearly 40 years.

I always find myself responding to a lot of things in this film.  It's a brooding parable about prejudice, dehumanization and the way that encountering another sort of person you have managed to consider inhuman can transform you -- especially when you discover and confront them in yourself, as Harrison Ford's Deckard does in the film's implied twist ending. Though they're very different movies otherwise, District 9 is another movie that excels at communicating those themes in a lot of the same ways.  And of course Blade Runner is the definitive future dystopian/sci fi adaptation of film noir.  And Harrison Ford and Sean Young are incomparable dreamboats.

Visually speaking, Blade Runner is certainly one of my favorite movies. The decay and fragmentation of the society portrayed in the film, radically alienated from its own humanity and in a perpetual state of technological vertigo, is so credible because it is communicated with some of the most unforgettable visuals in popular movies.  The stark opening frame is a good example of what I mean.  A prismatic human eye, shown in extreme close-up, swarms with reflected, artificial light.  The resulting panoramic vista is decidedly hellish, with pillars of flame projecting skyward from the jagged skyline of an industrial sector encompassing the city's horizon. 

The figure of the eye as a kind of opaque window to the soul is one of the film's dominant symbols.  For instance, the means by which Blade Runners identify outlaw replicants -- a mechanical interrogation tool called a Voight-Kampff test which measures a subject's capacity for empathic response -- tracks involuntary dilation in the subject's eye.
One of the film's eeriest scenes features two replicants conducting an interrogation of their own in which they question (then murder) a genetic design worker for the robotics and biotech corporation responsible for their creation and consignment to offworld bondage.  The replicants taunt their victim, whose specialty is eye design, by adorning him with frozen eyeballs.  When Batty finally confronts his aloof creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, geneticist and head of the Tyrell Corportation, he executes him by forcing his thumbs into Tyrell's eye sockets and crushing his skull.  Also, throughout the film, the eyes of artificial life forms share a tendency to glow or conspicuously reflect light, including those of Rachael and Deckard himself, who is implied to be a replicant in the film's final moments.

But, above all, Blade Runner is one of those rare movies that addresses serious existential questions in a way that doesn't come off as shallow, pretentious or bad. The moral ambiguity of the status and behavior of the replicants, as victims driven to reactionary violence from a condition of radically and artificially childlike innocence, is also really well played.

Rutger Hauer's characterization of Roy Batty, especially his immortal, half-improvised death monologue, is sublime.  Batty's final, life-defining act of mercy is the ultimate expression of his imperious strength and consummates his status as a kind of playful, agonal spirit.  To me, that scene is a poetic reflection on self-overcoming as the highest possibility inherent in the human condition, and one of the most memorable dramatic finales of any film.

After all, Batty is a "combat model," designed to serve as a soldier on the offworld colonies.  He leaves a trail of corpses in his wake on his quest to confront his maker, but his ultimate refusal to kill Deckard, who has continually suppressed his empathy and therefore (by the film's own lights) denied his own humanity in order to hunt and murder Batty's fellow replicant escapees, represents a triumph over the genetic and social conditioning brought to bear by the social order against which he rebels.  Here is the scene.

Perhaps what I like best is that Blade Runner doesn't supply any clear or easy answers to the questions it poses, including whether humanity or personhood depends on one's not being the product of genetic manipulation, the possession of empathy, or some other requirement proposed in or by the film.  Indeed, the story establishes unresolved tension between the very criteria for humanity it suggests.

For instance, the ostensibly human characters in the film consistently demonstrate less empathy for either replicants or one another than do the replicants themselves, who show mutual concern and mourn their fallen comrades despite their failure to pass the empathy test contrived by their masters.  And though Deckard is (arguably) a replicant, he manages to stifle the empathy he feels for his quarry in order to do "a man's job," in the callous words of his fellow Blade Runner Gaff (played by Edward James Olmos, of later Battlestar Galactica (2003) fame), which ironically call attention to the inadequacy of any narrowly biological criterion for "mankind" as a moral category.

In the end, humans and replicants alike are dehumanized by the godlike power to design and create life cynically wielded by Tyrell.  Scott does a fine job of conveying how suffocating and claustrophobic his L.A. of 2019 has become, where all are subject to surveillance and manipulation by the genetic and social engineers inhabiting Tyrell's pyramidal citadels that dominate the skyline.  The symbolic importance of Batty's decision to infiltrate Tyrell's stronghold and depose him therefore surpasses the obvious Frankenstein parallels, and represents a symbolic toppling of the entire social order.

There are plenty of Nietzschean overtones here, too, though they are a little muddled.  It's only after destroying the temple in which life is defiled that Batty, formerly a self-described "slave," can prefigure another way of going on.  He does by inhabiting a kind of 'second innocence' marked by an affirmation of life in the face of death, where ironic laughter and a triumph over revenge in the form of mercy, both for his enemy Deckard and the captive animal he releases as he dies, emerge as the appropriate response to impending oblivion: "...all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain."  If empathy is the favored indicator of humanity, it is not a fait accompli, but something hard-won through revolt against the systems of technocratic control that, in the film, have reduced the Earth to a murky hellscape and called its enslaved refugees back down as avenging angels to righteously dethrone their omniscient creator and put a defiant love of life in his place.