Saturday, December 28, 2013

#172: Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)

In late 1967, a former magazine writer and aspiring filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich got the chance to direct his first feature film from his current employer, Roger Corman. This opportunity came with a few unusual stipulations. Bogdanovich could make whatever film he wanted as long as he used Boris Karloff for two days of the shoot (Karloff owed Corman two days of filming from a previous contract), incorporated 10-15 minutes of footage from a recent Corman horror film called The Terror (starring Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson), and brought the whole thing in under budget. Bogdanovich jumped at the chance and quickly created an ingenious little script with his then-wife, costume designer Polly Platt, and his mentor, film director Sam Fuller, who refused a screenplay credit so as not to overshadow the younger filmmaker.
Bogdanovich managed to turn the bizarre stipulations into integral parts of his excellent film, and Karloff liked the project so much he stayed on for an additional three days of shooting after his contractual time was up. Targets is an exciting opening chapter in a filmography that would include The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Saint Jack, Noises Off, and other underrated films, but it's also unlike anything else Bogdanovich ever directed. Both a film buff's love letter to classic Hollywood and a frightening look at the random violent outbursts that are an unfortunately common part of American life, Targets focuses on two separate storylines that come together in an exciting concluding scene at a drive-in movie theater.
In the first storyline, Bogdanovich plays an aspiring young director named Sammy Michaels working the schlock horror exploitation circuit but looking to break into art films. Boris Karloff plays a very thinly disguised version of himself, an older actor named Byron Orlok stuck in a rut of low-budget monster movies and looking to retire. Sammy wants Byron to act in his next film, but Byron is adamant that he's finished with the film business. Sammy's girlfriend is Byron's secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), and the interracial romance is portrayed in a refreshingly casual and non-condescending light for the period. Sammy hounds Byron to read his script, while Byron's handlers hound him to keep making films and honor his commitment to appear personally at a drive-in screening of The Terror in Reseda.
The second storyline is about a clean-cut, blonde young man who looks like he walked right out of the 1950s. His name is Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly), and he lives with his wife and parents in a nice Reseda suburb. He shares a love of hunting and gun collecting with his father, but unlike his father, he has an arsenal of weapons in the trunk of his car and an unexplainable urge to kill other people. He's been suppressing the urge while he entertains it in his thoughts, but the time has come to act on his impulses. He starts on his family and moves on to strangers. After running a red light and attracting the attention of a police officer, Bobby ends up hiding out at the same drive-in where Byron and Sammy are about to make a personal appearance.
Inspired by Charles Whitman's murder spree at the University of Texas campus in Austin in 1966, this storyline is eerily effective because Bogdanovich doesn't psychologize or explain his killer's motivations. We don't gain an understanding or insight into why Bobby feels the need to kill because Bobby doesn't understand it himself. I don't know whether this absence of explanation was a conscious aesthetic choice or a necessary omission due to a lack of time and money, but either way, the film benefits from its ambiguity. O'Kelly plays Bobby just right, making him sympathetic and ordinary as well as frightening and distanced, a dark, dangerous evil covered in a banal exterior, a guy who brings a ham sandwich and a bottle of Coke to a killing spree.
Karloff is wonderful in the lighter half of the film as an aging movie star realizing that he has no place in a culture dominated by youth. He has a twinkle in his eye throughout, and he and Bogdanovich have an easy, funny chemistry. Karloff, like his fictional counterpart Orlok, may have been pigeonholed as a campy horror guy, but this is one of those special roles that showed he was capable of a whole lot more than he was usually given.
Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Bogdanovich belongs to the group of film directors who are also huge film buffs, and Targets is one of his most specific love letters to the movies. Besides the nods to Karloff and Roger Corman, Bogdanovich stops the plot to show his and Karloff's characters enjoying an old Howard Hawks movie on television (The Criminal Code, starring Karloff), and the opening scene takes place in a screening room where a print of The Terror is being projected. Before all hell breaks loose in the final scene, Bogdanovich lovingly films the preparations at the drive-in, from the ticket booth employee collecting money from the arriving families to the projectionist preparing the reels and setting up the lights. This is a film lover's movie.
Roger Corman was so pleased with Targets that he thought the film's distribution could be handled by a major studio. He was right. Distribution rights were sold to Paramount, but their promotion of the film was lackluster, and the movie flopped. Despite its lack of financial success, studio executives watched the film and thought Bogdanovich handled himself well, and a few years later, Bogdanovich was given the go-ahead to make The Last Picture Show. Targets has since become a cult film, and it deserves an even bigger audience. A scary, funny, lovable, and formally interesting film, it's one of the great debuts from the group of directors who made their reputations in the American golden age of the 1970s.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

#171: Street Trash (Jim Muro, 1987)

A slimy, scuzzy, disgusting, morally bankrupt, often very funny "video nasty" (to use a British term I've always enjoyed), Street Trash is two-thirds of a classic midnight cult movie. Unfortunately, the other third (which I completely blocked out after my first viewing) is a godawful piece of gang rape, necrophilia, and sexual harassment as entertainment misogyny that is impossible to enjoy if you're not a dirtbag. That piece of the film tarnishes the rest of it by association and made me feel dirty, but if you can get past those scenes, the rest of the film is pretty damn enjoyable, if you enjoy melting, exploding humans, wallowings in filth, and hilarious non sequiturs. Writer Roy Frumkes (whose parallel career as an actor began when he played 1st Pie-in-Face Zombie in Romero's Dawn of the Dead) has said that his goal in writing Street Trash was to include something that offended absolutely everyone, so I guess the gang rape is there for people like me who don't enjoy gratuitous sexual violence. On all other counts, I can enjoy what Frumkes is going for here. I'm very uptight about cinematic depictions of sexual violence if they're included just to shock or titillate. I can get behind every other poor taste cinematic transgression, however. That's just the way I'm wired.
Street Trash is about a community of homeless, alcoholic vagrants in beaten-down, mid-1980s Greenpoint, Brooklyn and what happens to them when an explosive concoction called Tenafly Viper hits the neighborhood liquor store they frequent. I spent three lovely days in Greenpoint this past summer as part of a week-long New York vacation, and it's definitely lost much of the scuzz captured here by Muro. The cinematically hellish Manhattan and Brooklyn streets of '70s and '80s New York captured by Scorsese, Toback, Larry Cohen, and on and on are practically a bouquet of fresh tulips compared to Muro's Brooklyn. You want to spray every character and location with a high-powered hose and an industrial-sized cauldron of soap.(Aspiring rock bands: Soap Cauldron is still available.)
So. I said Tenafly Viper was explosive. It is. One drink of this stuff and the unlucky imbiber either melts or explodes in crazy Day-Glo colors. And it's not a slow, wait-for-it-to-be-absorbed-into-the-stomach-lining thing, either. You immediately start exploding or melting as soon as you swallow that first drink. The basic rule seems to be that fat guys explode and skinny guys melt, but some people work a nice combo platter of melting and exploding. The colors are different every time. This may be inconsistent, but if there's one thing that's consistent about Street Trash, it's inconsistency. This movie is all over the damn place.
The characters inhabiting this world are, almost to a one, disgusting, drunk, sexist, racist, homophobic, filthy in body and mind, conniving, unethical, and fond of dropping bizarre one-liners. Most of them live in a junkyard behind an auto-body shop, including a crazed, murderous Vietnam vet with a knife carved from a femur and a couple of runaways. The crazed vet often has Vietnam flashbacks. An Italian gangster and his smart-ass doorman also get mixed up in this story. The gangster sings the closing credits tune, a parody of Sinatra's "My Way" that incorporates his threats to the doorman and the unfortunate effects of Viper (sample lyric: "What's this? I'm startin' to ooze. You little creep, what's this fuckin' shit?"). Real humans made this movie, which exists and can be watched.
Frumkes' script and a lot of the acting are decidedly amateur, which is par for the course on a low-budget exploitation movie, but a handful of the performances have a lot of charm, and the special effects and camerawork are surprisingly way above average. You probably know whether this is the kind of film you can find some value in, but if you're still on the fence, let me mention it also includes a character getting decapitated by a compressed air tank while his severed head manages to look up the skirt of a passing woman, a severed penis that is used in an elaborate game of keep-away, the aforementioned exploding and melting bums, a character who wears a gas mask for no discernible reason, a yuppie sent flying through his own windshield, some decent slapstick comedy, and the most extensive shoplifting scene I've ever seen. And of course, a few fart jokes. And, unfortunately, the rape and harassment scenes I mentioned earlier, which can be fast-forwarded through without missing anything entertaining or important.
Maybe that sexualized violence now embarrasses director Jim Muro, because he refuses to discuss the film in interviews and has all but publicly disowned his involvement in the film. I mentioned before that Street Trash features some tremendous camerawork, and Muro is the guy responsible. In addition to his directorial duties, Muro operated the Steadicam. A few short years after Street Trash, Muro became one of the most in-demand Steadicam operators in Hollywood, and he's currently one of television's most successful cinematographers. As a Steadicam guy, his CV includes Brain Damage, Maniac Cop, Field of Dreams, The Abyss, Dances with Wolves, Predator 2, The Doors, Terminator 2, Point Break, JFK, Raising Cain, A Few Good Men, True Lies, Clueless, Strange Days, Casino, Heat, L.A. Confidential, Titanic, and The Insider. Maybe it's understandable why Muro downplays Street Trash, but I think it's important to never forget your roots, which, in Muro's case, includes exploding drunken bums and an airborne severed penis.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

#170: Spider Baby (Jack Hill, 1968)

Filmed in 1964 but not released until four years later due to a series of setbacks and complications, Jack Hill's Spider Baby is a cult film truly deserving of its reputation. Campy, funny, dark, creepy, sexually depraved, and very, very entertaining, Spider Baby is evidence of both the unfairly neglected Jack Hill's great talent and the imaginative superiority of many drive-in/exploitation/B-movies over expensive, mainstream Hollywood product. Spider Baby is not like other movies. It has its own weird, freaky thing going on, and I salute that weirdness and wholeheartedly endorse that freakiness. Throw away whatever you're watching now and put Spider Baby on.
For those of you unfamiliar with Spider Baby's charms, it's the story of the Merrye family, a tight-knit unit who live in a run-down Gothic mansion in an isolated, foliage-hidden stretch of rural California. The family suffers from a rare disorder, beginning in late childhood, that causes the brain to slowly regress in age as the body continues to age normally. As adulthood continues, the Merryes become more childlike until they have the brain activity of infants. Then things get weirder as the disorder makes them regress even further. They become feral, disfigured, hairy wild creatures, though the Merryes we're introduced to at the film's beginning haven't regressed this far yet.
Those three Merryes, in their late teens and early twenties, are Ralph (exploitation film legend Sid Haig) and his two younger sisters, Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). The Merrye parents are no longer among the living, so the trio of afflicted young people are looked after by the dutiful family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). There's also some talk about a feral uncle and two aunts who live in a hidden basement, but we won't see them for a while. Ralph is a large, bald baby who's about to go feral, but his sisters are still lucid, if very childlike. They also have a dark side. Virginia is obsessed with spiders and has a murderous streak, while Elizabeth likes manipulating Virginia, pushing her to do bad things and then chastising her for it. She has a murderous streak of her own, and the two make a dangerous team.
The Merryes receive a telegram from an ill-fated messenger (Mantan Moreland) informing them that two distant cousins are visiting that day. The cousins, a brother and sister named Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart), have learned that they are the inheritors of the Merrye fortune and that their afflicted cousins are being raised by a family employee. Assuming Bruno is merely after the family's money, they decide to pay a visit to their distant relatives and assess the situation, their lawyer Mr. Shlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel) in tow. The Merryes are not the visiting type, and an already weird day is about to get weirder.
Working independently with a small budget provided by first-time producers who worked in the real estate business, the filmmakers nevertheless created a memorable, unusual film with better performances and more striking images than your run-of-the-mill drive-in cheapie. Washburn and Banner are both hilarious and frightening as the Merrye sisters, with their odd spoken cadence and body movements reminding me, in part, of documentary footage of Manson family acolytes. I don't know if the Manson Family women ever watched Spider Baby, but they seem to have stolen a few moves.
Lon Chaney, Jr., gives a sincere and emotional performance as a man who genuinely cares for the Merrye family. A bad alcoholic at the time of filming, Chaney was so devoted to this film that he managed to stay off booze for the 12-day shoot. Chaney as Bruno is a bit crazy, in his own way, but he's the sturdy foundation that grounds the film, the straight man the other characters play off. (He also sang the awesomely goofy theme song, nicely covered by the avant-metal supergroup Fantomas on their film score covers album The Director's Cut.) The rest of the cast give their characters unique traits and distinct mannerisms, especially Redeker (a veteran actor who also cowrote the screenplay for The Deer Hunter, oddly enough). No one here is a stiff placeholder or a tool of the plot. These are characters existing in a world created specifically for this film, not a generic world of general film tropes.
Writer/director Jack Hill is an underrated, unique film voice who had a great run of B-movies in the '60s and '70s. Hill grew up in Hollywood with an architect father who did a lot of work for Disney and Warner Brothers as a set designer. He attended UCLA's film school with classmate Francis Ford Coppola, and both men got their start with Roger Corman, though Hill remained in the drive-in/exploitation circuit. After codirecting a couple of horror and sexploitation films, Blood Bath and Mondo Keyhole, Hill got the chance to write and direct his own film with Spider Baby. He followed it with a drag racing film, Pit Stop, that introduced Ellen Burstyn to the world; four blaxploitation films with Pam Grier (The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, and Foxy Brown); The Swinging Cheerleaders, my favorite cheerleadersploitation film; and Switchblade Sisters, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's. Hill's last movie, the 1982 fantasy film Sorceress, was an unhappy experience and a reportedly lousy final product, though I haven't seen it. The finished film was taken away from Hill, reedited, and credited to fictional filmmaker Brian Stuart.
Fed up with the movie business, Hill retired after the Sorceress fiasco to concentrate on writing a novel. The single novel turned into a series of novels that Hill is still working on, and I hope he finishes them before he kicks off and that somebody publishes them. He wrote another screenplay in the 1990s, an offbeat sex comedy he planned to direct with Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee in the lead role, but he failed to find funding. The movie business doesn't treat its veteran directors very well unless they're firmly entrenched in the big studio system, and that really sucks. Jack Hill's still here, though, and so are his best films, of which Spider Baby is most definitely one.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

#169: Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Hitchcock's favorite of his own films, 1943's Shadow of a Doubt is both a textbook example of "the master of suspense" in peak form and an unusual exception in his body of work, in that its central subjects are a close, loving family. Hitchcock's protagonists are most often solitary individuals trapped in a private hell or romantic couples bound together by sexual attraction and shared wit, but it's a rare Hitchcock film that focuses so specifically on a family unit, though I'm going to qualify this statement later in the review. Perhaps this focus on family can be attributed to co-screenwriter Thornton Wilder (of Our Town fame) more than Hitchcock, but that's just speculation on my part. No matter the source, it's exciting to see Hitchcock tackle the subject of hidden evil in a wholesome small town. David Lynch, for one, was taking notes.
The family at the center of Shadow of a Doubt is both typical and unusual: a banker father, Joseph (Henry Travers, best known as the angel in It's a Wonderful Life), a working mother and homemaker, Emma (Patricia Collinge), a daughter in her early twenties, Charlie (Teresa Wright, so good here and in my favorite movie about veterans returning from the war, The Best Years of Our Lives), and two younger children, Ann and Roger (Edna May Wonacott and Charles Bates). The family is tight-knit and close, all-American (as stupid as that word is, it fits here), church-going, hard-working, comfortable with each other. They're an unusual bunch, though. All three children are fiercely intelligent, eccentric, and both wise beyond their years and dreamily, naively romantic. Emma embodies the American '40s mother figure, but there's a melancholic wistfulness and a wounded sensitivity just below the surface. Meanwhile, Joseph is obsessed with murder, of both the true-crime and detective fiction varieties, an obsession he shares with his neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut). The two men, in some of my favorite scenes, debate the best ways to murder each other without getting caught. Also, both men have some of the best facial expressions in film history.
Charlie is feeling a little down at the film's beginning. She feels the family is stuck in a rut, going through the motions, trapped in its particular roles. She decides to write a telegram to her namesake, her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, veteran of multiple Orson Welles films and plays), and ask him to come for a visit as a way of rejuvenating things. She's pleased and surprised to discover that Uncle Charlie has written a telegram of his own, announcing an extended visit. The two Charlies have a bit of a telepathic connection, in a subtly supernatural undercurrent that grows more disturbing as the film progresses. Uncle Charlie's reason for leaving his current home of Philadelphia to visit his sister's family in Santa Rosa, California, however, is much darker than the younger Charlie realizes. Rather than heeding her telepathic call, Uncle Charlie is on the run from two men he gives the slip at the film's beginning. Initially, we're not sure who these men are and why they're after Uncle Charlie, and Uncle Charlie himself is a bit of a mysterious figure. Nobody knows what he does for a living, other than vague mutterings about him being "in business," and though he has been staying in Philadelphia, his sister mentions their time in the Midwest, his brother-in-law describes him as a "New York man," and he describes himself as a person who's been all over the globe.
Young Charlie has an obsession with her uncle. She feels they have a deep spiritual and mental closeness, and she idolizes his independent lifestyle and worldly demeanor. Some analysts of the film have described their relationship as one of incestuous sexual attraction, but I feel it's more complex and less sleazy than that. Charlie does have a bit of a crush on her uncle, but it's less romantically sexual than it is romantically ideological, in my view. She sees him as a kindred spirit and mentor, an idealized figure who has realized the fantasies young Charlie daydreams about. Charlie is a deeply intelligent young woman, lacking only life experience and adventure, and she thinks of Uncle Charlie as a guide to the wider world. Uncle Charlie initially seems happy to be among family, offering gifts and warm smiles. He's got one hell of a dark side, though, and young Charlie feels the burden of being the only one in the house to discover it. (Here's the solitary individual trapped in a private hell I mentioned above.)
Formally, Shadow of a Doubt is subtler than some of the stylistic tours de force that come later, but Hitchcock still has you by the shoulders and throat from the beginning. He avoids closeups, for the most part, but when he chooses to use one, it has tremendous weight and impact. The camera moves often, but doesn't call attention to itself short of a few intense moments. The film is relaxed and unhurried in its pace without losing any narrative momentum or focus, and suspense is maintained even when we're given most of the information. The man was such a naturally gifted filmmaker.
Hitchcock's work with the actors here is wonderful as well, despite his reputation for using them as chess pieces and his famous description of them, apocryphal or not, as "cattle." The principal cast fit their roles perfectly, but what's equally impressive is how rich and memorable even the tiniest parts are here. Macdonald Carey is too much the all-American bore as one of the men on Uncle Charlie's trail who develops romantic feelings for the young Charlie (she's too complex to love such a conventional guy, in my opinion), but everyone else is interesting enough for their own movie. My favorite is a hilariously deadpan former classmate of Charlie's who is currently working as a waitress at a rough dive bar, but I'm also fond of an overzealous traffic cop, an irritated librarian, and a friend of Charlie's who says very little but hungrily sizes up, head to toe, every man she meets. There's a real sense of community and character here that makes the film feel alive. I was lucky enough to see Shadow of a Doubt on the big screen six or seven years ago, and I loved it just as much on my second viewing.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

#168: The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

I don't really know what its status is in our current cultural climate where "art" is a dirty word in both mainstream culture and the various subcultures buried just beneath it and where even a mainstream crowd-pleaser like the first Rocky would be marketed as an art film if it were released today simply because it's not about CGI figures crashing into each other, but for a good thirty-plus years, The Seventh Seal was the symbolic figurehead of European art film, referenced and parodied endlessly in popular culture, perhaps most memorably for people of my vintage in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. I saw dozens upon dozens of references to the film's famous chess match with Death years before I ever saw the film. It's hard to imagine another subtitled foreign art film becoming a mainstream reference point today, but culture is a lot more fragmented than it was in the '50s. If you're in your thirties or older, you probably know this movie even if you don't know this movie. If you're younger, you probably don't, unless you're the curious type who seeks out the older and/or the currently unfashionable.
If you are familiar with this movie, you might be questioning its place on a horror movie list. I questioned it when I first noticed it occupying a spot on Rue Morgue's list. "That's not a horror movie," I remember thinking. Then, when images from it came back to me, and I thought about the arc of the story and the elements and images making it up, I changed my tune. Like all Bergman's films, The Seventh Seal was marketed as a European art film for a highbrow audience (well, a few were initially marketed as sex films for horndogs who liked a little culture with their nudity ("Come for the tits! Stay for the cultural advancement!"), but that was a brief advertising fad in the late '50s and early '60s), but The Seventh Seal is also a dark fantasy with some pretty horrific imagery, a Halloween-appropriate piece of Scandinavian Gothic.
Expanding this line of thinking to Bergman's career as a whole, I'm tempted to call him one of the major non-horror directors who's had the most influence on the lighting, framing, and atmosphere of the horror genre. Almost all of Bergman's films contain scenes with disturbing, nightmarish imagery. Even one of his most straightforward pieces of drama, Autumn Sonata, has a scene of pure horror in it. The Virgin Spring was the inspiration for Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. Fanny and Alexander has supernatural elements. The Magician is a non-horror film that looks and feels exactly like a horror film. Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Sawdust and Tinsel, Cries and Whispers, The Passion of Anna, and Persona have moments of psychological terror. Two Bergman films I have yet to see, Shame and Hour of the Wolf, have even been described as his takes on the horror film. This is my long-winded way of saying The Seventh Seal is not much of a stretch for an adventurous horror list like Rue Morgue's.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Plague. A knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), pitch up exhausted on a beach. They have just spent the past 10 years fighting in the Crusades and both men are disillusioned, though in very different ways. Antonius' faith in religion has been shaken by the violence of the Crusades, but he still believes devoutly in God. Like many Bergman characters, he doesn't understand why God remains silent and desperately wants God to make his presence known. Jons is a cynical realist and atheist who sees no evidence of a higher power and has no faith in gods or his fellow men. They make an interesting pair, these two, so different from, but so loyal to, each other. Also present on the beach is Death (Bengt Ekerot). He's ready to drop both men with the plague, but Antonius offers to play chess with him in exchange for a little more time. Antonius wants to do something, or experience something, meaningful before he dies. The two men travel the countryside, with Death showing up at periodic intervals to continue the game. Meanwhile, a married couple, Mia and Jof (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe), members of a small acting troupe, join the knight and squire as they attempt to escape both the plague and the general end-of-times panic gripping the residents of the nearby villages.
Bergman adapted his most famous film from his own play, but the story feels like an old fable, and, as my wife pointed out, the structure has the feel of a Shakespeare play. The filmmaking, on the other hand, has a '30s horror feel and a more conventional score than is usual for Bergman that accentuates the dread and suspense. I was also surprised at the amount of humor in the film. Though Bergman made a small handful of comedies, the majority of his filmography is pretty devoid of humor. I don't remember a single light moment in the early '60s-early '80s stretch of his work until 1982's Fanny and Alexander, a very serious film in its own right but one that makes room for some comic relief in its early scenes. The Seventh Seal, however, is full of humor, both dry and silly, both physical and verbal. In that sense, it's a pretty unusual Bergman film, maybe the only one where you see his lightest and darkest sensibilities sharing space.
The Seventh Seal may not appeal to a more traditional horror fan or somebody who wants a blood-soaked slasher film, but I think there's a lot here for the adventurous horror enthusiast. Apocalyptic visions, Death, eyeless corpses, birds of prey, dark thunderstorms, a Satanic woman burned at the stake, half-mad villagers, omens, the plague, the absence of God. It's all here. A critic's darling in his prolific years who was championed by the French New Wave filmmakers and the New York critical establishment, Bergman has taken a few recent hits in some quarters as an overrated, repetitive writer whose compositions owe more to the theater than the cinema, but I'm not on board with many of these criticisms. He may not be as formally innovative as contemporaries like Bresson, Dreyer, Antonioni, Godard, Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and Renoir, but his films still retain their emotional power and his mastery at photographing faces is far more cinematic than theatrical. He's on the shortlist of directors who know exactly when, where, and how to use closeups. Bergman's not untouchable, but his best films will long outlast his detractors.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


The next movie on the list is Brad Anderson's Session 9, and I already reviewed it. Here's the link to the old post. New post coming tomorrow.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

#167: The Separation (Robert Morgan, 2003)

Sibling relationships are among the most complex we have as humans. Siblings share understandings and experiences between them that aren't shared by any other person on earth, as well as the obvious shared genetic material. In addition to this shared biological and ineffable stuff of life, the differences between siblings in the manifestation of otherwise shared traits of nature and personality are even more fascinating. I suspect these similarities and differences are even stronger in twins, though I know I need to be careful here. I am friends with twins who helpfully point out the often ridiculous media stereotypes about twins, stereotypes that those of us who aren't twins have too often uncritically internalized. Still, twins share even more experience between them than other siblings due to their shared age, while identical twins clearly share more genetic material. This similarity and closeness often has the effect of amplifying the differences between twins. Regularly unfairly portrayed in the media as a two-headed single entity, it's unfortunate that twins aren't regarded often enough as separate individuals with separate interests, goals, personality quirks, and personal lives. It's also clear, though, that twins have a deep connection to each other that I'm sure those of us who aren't twins can't begin to understand.
These are obvious points I'm making, but they are gracefully and subtly illustrated in British writer/director/animator Robert Morgan's stop-motion animation short The Separation. The 10-minute short begins with a pair of conjoined twin brothers in a hospital room. The brothers are joined at the side, a few inches above the waist. Soon, we see the aftermath of an operation to separate the two, and later, their work as dollmakers. The brothers have very different reactions to their separation, but each in his own way pines to be reattached, though their reasons are also very different. I'll leave it here.
The Separation is a visually beautiful short that manages to be both disturbing and touching, both creepy and sweet. Though the brothers are identical twins, their movements, facial expressions, and personalities make them easy to tell apart, no mean trick in a short piece of animation. Morgan is a skilled animator and director, and his characters and their backgrounds (the hospital, the doll factory), movements, and clothes are highly detailed and impressive. Morgan's decision to use only background sound and no dialogue was a wise choice. Without dialogue, every movement, every facial expression, every action carries emotional and narrative weight, and pulls the viewer into a dreamy but intensely focused level of engagement. In just a few minutes, Morgan makes you care a great deal for tiny, handmade figures that never say anything.
This level of handmade detail is especially welcome in this young century of computer animation, CGI, and green screen effects. A master craftsman slowly and painstakingly creating narrative and emotion with skilled hands and a camera is an art that is slowly disappearing. As someone who loves handmade FX, I find this cultural change depressing. Convenience, corporate money, and mediocrity tend to triumph in capitalist countries, but pockets of beauty like this survive in the margins. We're all going to lose the war, but battles can still be won in the nooks and crannies too small for the winners to bother lowering their giant heads and craning their oversized necks to see. The audiences are smaller, but they're more open and engaged.
Since 1997, Robert Morgan has written, directed, and animated four stop-motion shorts (The Man in the Lower-Left Hand Corner of the Photograph, The Cat with Hands, The Separation, and Bobby Yeah) and written and directed a live-action short (Monsters), and the rock band Tool used a reedited version of The Separation for one of their music videos. Morgan is contributing a segment to the sequel for the Drafthouse Films anthology The ABCs of Death. His shorts are widely available on YouTube and Vimeo, as well as his own website, and The Separation is on DVD on the international horror and cult movie shorts anthology Small Gauge Trauma. On the strength of The Separation, I'm definitely going to check out his other stuff. I have embedded it for you right here.

Friday, October 18, 2013


I've already reviewed the next movie on the list, Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre. Here's the link. New post coming soon.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

#166: Rituals (Peter Carter, 1977)

Thanks to the success of John Boorman's 1972 adaptation of James Dickey's Deliverance, a new horror subgenre enjoyed a brief period of fashionability. There isn't any official name for this subgenre, so I call it the middle-aged-guys-go-into-the-wilderness-and-terrible-shit-happens movie. I'm predisposed to like this kind of thing, but I will admit there are some less than stellar examples. Rituals is one of the more obscure nutzo wilderness movies, and until recently wasn't even available on DVD, but don't hold that against it. If you're only going to watch a handful of these kind of films, and you've already seen Deliverance, you need to throw Rituals near the top of the pile.
Rituals is a low-budget independent Canadian production, but its lack of shiny Hollywood polish is a blessing. Director Peter Carter is no master visual stylist and the screenplay fails to flesh out any of the characters, but the movie is big on suspense, atmosphere, dread, and raw, visceral intensity. This is a dark, tough, tense film that doesn't ever let up, and its location shooting in the remote Ontario wilderness and lack of back story give it an unsettling documentary feel. A bit too visually pedestrian and schematically written to be a great movie, Rituals is still a damn good genre film and deserves a larger audience.
Rituals opens with our characters, five middle-aged doctors, preparing to board a small plane that will drop them off in a remote chunk of the Canadian wild for six days of camping. The five friends vacation in a different location together every year, but this year's trip seems fraught with tension from the beginning. Two of the quintet, who happen to be brothers, are battling substance abuse problems. One of the two, Martin (Robin Gammell), has lost his practice due to his alcoholism and is the on-call physician at a steel mill. There are also major tensions between Harry (Hal Holbrook) and the rest of the men, especially Mitzi (Lawrence Dane). Harry is an ethical guy who thinks his old friends are more concerned with corporatizing and franchising their medical practices and procedures than with helping their patients. Things start off tense and only get worse, though there are a few brief moments of comic relief from the plane's goofball pilot (Murray Westgate).
Once the men arrive at their destination, they realize it's even more remote than they had anticipated, but they roll with it. They argue with and complain to and about each other in between moments of levity and inexperienced camping errors. It's all fun and games and angry bickering until all their boots are stolen and ominous ritualistic symbolic animal mutilation occurs near their campsite. Spooked, the men send one of the brothers off to a remote outpost to attempt to find some better quality footwear. Soon, a series of terrible things happens to the men, and it becomes horrifyingly clear that a skilled yet crazed outdoorsman is stalking them. But why?
Carter does a nice job increasing the tension to nearly unbearable levels, and he skillfully avoids the repetition inherent in the plot and setting. Holbrook and the supporting cast of Canadian character actors do a lot with the thinly written parts, especially Holbrook, and I liked the conceit of making the men doctors. They can treat their injuries, which makes them less helpless victims and more challenging prey than the random horny teenagers in more generic slasher films. I was also impressed at the film's progressive-for-the-time treatment of Martin's homosexuality. It's revealed in a no-big-deal way midway through the film, and he's treated as an equal and a friend by the rest of the men. Other than one jokingly effeminate line of dialogue and an unsympathetic character calling Martin a "faggot" in a moment of anger and weakness, the character's sexuality is never made an issue. This character you've just spent 30 minutes with is gay, the movie says, because gay people exist. You're going to spend another hour with him, and his sexuality is not an issue. I don't want to overstate Rituals as some kind of civil rights landmark, but it was a very surprising thing to see in a 1970s genre film.
Rituals is a solid horror film that taps into the primal fears of the remote wilderness. What happens when you're isolated from modern civilization, when you no longer have control over your environment, when there's something out there that wants to get you and it knows what it's doing? This is not a groundbreaking film, but it's scary and intense and a fine way to spend an hour and a half.