Saturday, February 20, 2010

#79: Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999)

I really like this movie. Antonia Bird's 1847-set vampire/cannibalism/western horror film shares some affinities with other films I greatly admire, including John Carpenter's remake of The Thing and, oddly enough, Robert Altman's western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It's a story of (mostly) men, isolated in the wilderness, stalked by something strange they've unwittingly invited. (Of course, Altman's movie doesn't have any horror elements, but it's set in the same time period and includes wintry isolation, psychological torment, and encroaching death.) All three films contain plenty of humor as well, and some starkly beautiful shots of the landscape. It's the McCabe & Mrs. Miller of cannibalism movies! Feel free to use that on the poster.
Ravenous, one of the unfortunately few horror films directed by a woman, had a successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival before being stupidly marketed as a parody comedy by the geniuses at Hollywood, USA, marketing division. It flopped. The film is definitely funny, but it's a dark humor, and the copious gore and eerie tension probably turned off audiences who thought they were getting Dracula: Dead and Loving It 2 or Hot Shots, Part Trois. I have little sympathy for either the movie studio distributing this film or the misguided initial audience, but I wish the filmmakers had received a better shake. At any rate, the movie exists and all that other stuff is ancient history.

Ravenous opens with Guy Pearce getting a demotion to a third-in-command position at an isolated northern California outpost. Without giving too much away, I will say that Pearce's demotion is a tricky business. He showed some initial cowardice but his eventual bravery caused a victory, so the bigwigs in the military aren't quite sure what to do with him. The outpost is populated by other military undesirables who aren't quite undesirable enough to be discharged. There's a bookish, practical, and humorously cynical first-in-command (Jeffrey Jones), an alcoholic veterinarian acting as the outpost's doctor (Stephen Spinella), a young minister who's a little slow and a little nuts (Jeremy Davies), an overly gung-ho soldier (Neal McDonough), a peyote and peace-pipe freak (David Arquette), and a brother and sister who are members of the region's native tribe (Joseph Runningfox and Sheila Tousey). Into this orbit comes an emaciated, disoriented Scottish settler (Robert Carlyle), who tells them a disturbing story about how he ended up lost in the wilderness. Freaky, unexpected, and awesome things happen after this, and I don't want to give any of them away.

What sounds like an annoying collection of "quirky" characters is mostly excellently and naturally underplayed by the fine cast. Davies and Arquette are the weak links, with Davies doing his usual horribly mannered schtick and Arquette doing his usual not very good actor thing. Fortunately, they are sparingly used. Carlyle, Pearce, and Jones get most of the attention, deservingly. Jones is dry and funny, Pearce effectively manifests his character's multiple physical changes, and Carlyle is just awesome.
I have a soft spot for period piece horror movies, but Ravenous succeeds on its own terms. The cast is mostly solid, the characters are fleshed-out (har-de-har) and interesting, the movie is genuinely scary and funny, the genre and sub-genre elements (horror, vampire, cannibalism, western, black comedy) are skillfully handled, the atypical electronic score by Michael Nyman and Blur's Damon Albarn sometimes ratchets up the tension and sometimes distances itself from the action, and the whole thing is just fun to watch. There are a couple of ridiculous exposition-heavy scenes, but mostly director Bird does everything right.

Bird, a British director, inherited this project when original director Milcho Manchevski was fired. Mostly a veteran of British television series and TV movies, Bird has directed three other features besides Ravenous: the Catholic Church-baiting drama Priest, the Chris O'Donnell/Drew Barrymore vehicle Mad Love (huh?), and the crime thriller Face. Somebody give her another horror film, please.
Fun fact: Though this film is set in northern California, it was actually filmed in Czech Republic.
Another fun fact: This movie will make you want to eat people! Eleven thumbs up!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

#78: Rampage (William Friedkin, 1987)

William Friedkin's had a strange career. His first two features were a Sonny & Cher vehicle and an adaptation of a Harold Pinter play (Good Times, The Birthday Party). In the early and mid-1970s, Friedkin joined the ranks of the New Hollywood A-list after the critical, financial, and Oscar successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist. For most of that decade, he was considered a member of the rank of successful new directors that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Hal Ashby, and Brian De Palma. Though Friedkin has worked consistently since then in both film and television, he hasn't had a single box office hit since the back-to-back successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist (still his best-known films) and his subsequent filmography is as bizarre and uneven as the one-two punch of Sonny Bono and Harold Pinter in his early days. Some of these films have been unfairly neglected, for a variety of reasons. Sorcerer, his remake of Clouzot's Wages of Fear, was his first expensive flop but is probably his best and most underrated film. Not just a remake, Friedkin's version is a tough, tense little masterpiece with a great Roy Scheider performance and an effective score from Tangerine Dream, believe it or not. Cruising, a spooky and occasionally silly serial killer police procedural about a murderer in the gay S&M leather clubs in New York City, was attacked at the time by gay rights groups for being homophobic and ignored by mainstream audiences. I think the film has improved with age, and despite some clueless campy moments, is genuinely scary and exciting. Al Pacino is excellent in the leading role, and the homophobia charges seem dated and unfair. Prominent gay critic Robin Wood (a great writer who unfortunately died in December) was one of the biggest defenders of Cruising and had a lot of interesting things to say about the film and its controversy. To Live and Die in L.A. is another solid and underrated Friedkin movie, with William Petersen and Willem Dafoe, a score by Wang Chung (yes, it's true), plenty of sleaze, and a surprisingly tough and cliche-free ending.

I've managed to avoid some of Friedkin's biggest flops, some of which sound truly terrible, including the killer-tree horror film The Guardian, the Chevy Chase-as-arms-dealer comedy Deal of the Century, and the Joe Eszterhas-scripted erotic thriller Jade. Friedkin's last two films, the thriller The Hunted and horror movie Bug, received some of his best reviews since the 1970s, but they suffered from poor distribution, indifferent audiences, or both. I haven't caught up with them yet.
This brings us to Friedkin's 1987 serial killer movie, Rampage. I have three words for this movie. What the fuck?
I'd like to just leave it at that because I don't really know what to say. Rampage shifts tone several times in particularly graceless ways, and Friedkin's writing and direction seem muddled and confused. It appears that Friedkin was trying to figure out what kind of movie he was making while he was making it, and he never landed on anything. The film morphs from horror to police procedural to right-wing pro-death penalty screed to anti-psychiatry screed to courtroom drama to psychological thriller in abruptly jarring ways. There are some isolated remarkable compositions, but the majority of the film is shot in a flat and inert '80s TV/straight-to-DVD style. Some performances are great, including Alex McArthur as the killer, Grace Zabriskie as his mother, and the late Royce Applegate as a grieving father, but some are inconsistent and a few are terrible, including the stereotypical psychiatrist roles. Much of what happens in the film is ambiguous, but this ambiguity seems unintentional and unfinished. Scenarios and characters are introduced and then dropped. The film is 97 minutes long, but there seem to be several hours missing.

Really dumb things happen consistently in this movie. I usually don't like to nitpick inaccuracies or brief errors in judgment, but there are so many here that I can't resist. A woman brings home grocery bags on Christmas Day in a northern California suburb. What grocery store is open on Christmas Day in a northern California suburb? The killer shoots three people in a house while a family plays outside a few feet away. They don't hear the gunshots. The prosecuting attorney shows up at the crime scene with the cops and detectives before the killer is caught. I'm no prosecuting attorney, but I don't think they also double as homicide detectives. Don't their jobs start when the criminal is caught? The killer escapes midway through the trial, kills some more people, and is recaptured. The DA asks for this information to be given to the jurors. The judge says it's not pertinent and decides that, hey, why don't we just pick back up where we left off? Courtroom scene continues, with the escape playing no part in the rest of the movie. Prosecuting attorney turns from a rabid anti-death penalty liberal to a rabid pro-death penalty conservative overnight because he has flashbacks to his own daughter dying of pneumonia several months previously, and somehow the analogy is made that pulling the plug on his brain-dead daughter is the equivalent of executing the serial killer. Zuh? He also makes the analogy that the serial killer is equivalent to Nazi Germany because they did their crimes secretly, even though none of these crimes were committed secretly. The serial killer gets the prosecuting attorney's home phone number and calls his wife. Right after this scene, the scenario is dropped and the wife is never shown again. A PET scan shows that the killer's "brain is full of insanity." The killer is shown in fantasy sequences bathing in blood while a caged tiger walks around behind him. Why a tiger? It does look pretty cool. I give Friedkin that.

On the plus side, the film is short (though the courtroom sequences are dull, stupid, and drag on interminably), and the first 40 minutes are solid, intriguing, and creepy. The killer, who believes that his blood is failing and he needs to harvest internal organs and drink blood to stay alive, and his home life are portrayed with a matter-of-fact, non-sensationalized directness. I found this part of the film satisfying and filmed with a contradictorily compelling mix of action and detachment. The opening scene, in which the killer picks out a gun and fills out the paperwork for the 14-day waiting list, is unsettling and darkly humorous. The rest of the film is a poorly handled mess, with a couple of unusual touches you don't often see in films. These two moments are oddball and true, and they're part of why I like to watch movies. In one scene, a small boy whose mother and older brother were killed by the murderer plays with the wife of the prosecuting attorney while he talks to the boy's father about testifying. The boy picks up the dead daughter's doll and asks with a mixture of little boy suspicion and disgust about girly stuff, "Is this a girl's toy?" The wife tells him it is. The boy then hugs the doll, says "I love it," puts it down, and goes back to his boy toys. It's the kind of sweetly weird thing a little kid would do, and the movies usually ignore. In one of the dreary courtroom stretches, an expert witness for the prosecution mishears a question, cocks his head toward the attorney, and says "I'm sorry?" You never see a movie character mishearing another character without it being a plot point. This seems like an accident that was kept in to enhance realism. I'm a weirdo, but I like moments like these in films.

The studio distributing Rampage in the U.S. went bankrupt, so Friedkin's film didn't receive a theatrical release in this country until 1992, when Miramax bought the rights. They made Friedkin change the ending, but I don't know that it made any difference. (Imagine the Weinsteins interfering in the filmmaking process. What a shock.) Ennio Morricone did the score, but I never noticed it much. I would have paid more attention to the music had I known it was Morricone. The film is based on a novel by a real-life district attorney, which was based on the real-life case of blood-drinking serial killer Richard Chase, known as "the Vampire of Sacramento." His Wikipedia page is a wild read, as well as a wild ride. (I hear a wild ride based on his crime spree is coming to the Epcot Center in 2012.) The film is set in Stockton, California, also the setting for Leonard Gardner's great novel Fat City and the great John Huston film adaptation, as well as the hometown of great rock band Pavement. Great. Rampage, however, is not so great, though not without some charm.