Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

#72: Paperhouse (Bernard Rose, 1988)

I'm guessing it's hard to make any movie, even a piece of dogshit, but it's probably really, really, really hard to make a movie that succeeds as a horror film, a children's movie, a character study of a young girl, a fantasy, and a compelling family drama that manages to be emotionally affecting without being sentimental, manipulative, or banal. Paperhouse somehow achieves all these varying, counter-intuitive, contradictory tones. I really liked this movie.
Paperhouse has yet to be released on DVD in the United States, which is ri-goddamn-diculous, but the circa-1989 Vestron VHS tape I had to visit three fine local video stores to rent compensated for its lesser image quality by wowing me with trailers for a David Hasselhoff/Linda Blair vehicle entitled Bail Out, an advertisement for Nancy Reagan's astrologer's 900 number (complete with a disclaimer warning that the ad was not meant to convince anyone of the existence of astrology), and a Sports Illustrated subscription ad that offered a free VHS of Amazing Biff Bam Blooopers (not a typo). This might lead you to believe that Paperhouse is a piece of schlock. You would be incorrect. Paperhouse may be a low-budget film, but it's a work of undeniable skill and visual invention.

The film is carried by its lead actress, the then-14 but playing and looking younger Charlotte Burke, who never appeared in any other films. This is surprising, considering how good she is in this movie. She plays a young schoolgirl who keeps fainting and dreaming strange dreams about a house and a young boy she's been drawing in her notebook. She contracts a particularly dangerous fever and has to remain bedridden for several weeks. I'm already getting frustrated because any plot synopsis of this movie sounds cliched, stupid, and heavy-handed, but the film rarely, if ever, plays out in such predictable ways. Anyway, she keeps having these oddball dreams, and she slowly realizes that anything she adds to her drawings shows up in these dreams. She eventually makes a close connection with a boy she's drawn, and they have to hide from a creepy, menacing weirdo who shows up in the dream. Part of what I love about these scenes is that the creepy weirdo is actually a nice person in waking life, but the girl has very complicated, frustrated feelings about this person's absence in her life, so he manifests as a nightmarish figure in her dreams.

This movie always makes a right step, even though it's constantly tip-toeing over a landscape full of narrative landmines. I was glad and enthusiastic during its entire running time. See it on crappy VHS today.
The director, Bernard Rose, tends to alternate smart horror films with modern updates of Tolstoy. What a strange career. He also directed Candyman, which I loved in high school but am hesitant to re-visit because of that high school love; Immortal Beloved, a bio-pic of Beethoven starring Gary Oldman; and Ivansxtc, an update of Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Illyich" set in contemporary Hollywood.
This movie deserves a more sophisticated analysis, but I'm drunk, it's Friday night, and I've got a lot of shit to do this weekend. I'll just say that it's very good.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

#71: The Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)

Director Robert Mulligan, who died last year at the age of 83, had a long and varied career, though he's still somewhat underrated. A master craftsman who applied his skill, good taste, and sharply detailed eye to a variety of genres, Mulligan brought a strong sense of location, subtle but beautiful shot compositions, and a knack for picking great cinematographers and editors to his films. His most famous film is his 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but my favorite Mulligan film is the project immediately following Mockingbird, Love with the Proper Stranger, a beautiful black and white urban drama/romantic comedy hybrid starring Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood. Even his overly sentimental final film, Man in the Moon, starring a young Reese Witherspoon, boasted a lived-in setting, fine performances, and subtly compelling imagery.

Mulligan made dramas, comedies, crime thrillers, and Westerns. The Other is his only horror film, and it's a strange one. The screenplay by Tom Tryon, based on his novel, has a lot of problems, including mawkish sentimentality, overblown and stagy dialogue, and some predictability. The actors have a tough time convincingly putting this dialogue across, particularly the child-actor twins Chris and Martin Udvarnoky and the late Uta Hagen. The German-born, Wisconsin-raised Hagen's Russian accent is weak and distracting (much like Pierce Brosnan's French accent in Nomads), which is particularly disappointing considering Hagen's pedigree. Primarily a stage actress and acting teacher, Hagen's pupils included Jason Robards, Al Pacino, Matthew Broderick, Sigourney Weaver, and Jack Lemmon, so I feel foolish criticizing her performance. She obviously knew what she was doing, but I found her awkward in this film. So far, it sounds like I didn't care for this movie, but that's not the case. Despite my many misgivings, The Other contains several wonderfully creepy scenes, a great location, Mulligan's excellent shot compositions, and, as always with Mulligan, expert cinematography and editing. It's a frustrating film, full of great and terrible things, but certainly worth seeing.

Fitting snugly in the rural American Gothic mold, The Other takes place in the old, weird America best exemplified in the early folk and blues songs on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Set in the 1930s on a small New England farm, the film focuses on the large, extended family living there, particularly a pair of twin boys. They are joined by hired hands and their families, their Russian grandmother, a cousin, some aunts and uncles (including a young John Ritter), and their half-mad, frail mother who is still in mourning for her dead husband. The twins, Niles and Holland, spend most of their time together. This isn't a good thing, because Holland is on the evil side of the movie twin spectrum and is probably responsible for his father's death. Niles, seemingly, is a goody-two-shoes who is very close to his grandmother. Just to make things weirder, Niles has a form of extra-sensory perception taught to him by his grandmother. Called "the game," it allows Niles to mentally step into another person's or animal's body and experience whatever he, she, or it experiences. The summer drags on, bad things sometimes happen, and the boys visit a traveling carnival's freakshow. Bad things continue to happen, including a nasty incident involving a pitchfork hidden in a pile of hay. Several scenes between grandmother and grandson pile on the drippy sentimental gloop, but are nicely offset by memorably dark setpieces involving a loony neighbor, the freak show, and a missing baby, leading to an inevitable but memorable conclusion.

Though Tom Tryon's screenplay was the weakest thing about the movie, his life story is fascinating. The Connecticut-born Tryon began his career as an actor in live-action Disney movies, eventually becoming a movie star and tabloid heartthrob. Tryon became disillusioned with acting in the 1960s, in no small part due to being fired in front of his visiting parents by Otto Preminger on the set of The Cardinal before being rehired shortly thereafter. Tryon quit acting and reinvented himself as a writer of horror, science fiction, and mystery novels. Surprisingly, the handsome movie star turned genre author reinvention worked, and many of his books became bestsellers. Alongside a handful of TV and movie adaptations, his novel Fedora was turned into a criminally underrated film by Billy Wilder. The openly gay Tryon dated both a cast member of A Chorus Line and a porn star and, bizarrely, invented an imaginary lover named Patrick Norton who inspired most of his male characters. He died in 1991 from stomach cancer.