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.