Thursday, June 28, 2007

#15: Cherry Falls (Geoffrey Wright, 2000)

It's disappointing that "Cherry Falls" got lost in the shuffle, while Wes Craven's "Scream" became a pop culture phenomenon. (To see my rather low opinion of "Scream," click here) "Scream" predated "Cherry Falls" by four years, so maybe the comparison is groundless. However, both films ostensibly poke self-referential post-modern fun at the cliches of, and yet still (supposedly) work as, teenage slasher films. "Cherry Falls," however, is funnier, scarier, less belabored and obvious, and less ethically suspect. Wright is less contemptuous of his audience than Craven, and doesn't resort to the annoying habit of "Scream"'s incessant play-by-play instructions on how to read the film. I don't need the characters in the movie to tell me I'm watching a movie. I know that. Damn.

"Cherry Falls" has a simple, funny premise. A serial killer is systematically wiping out teens in the small town of Cherry Falls, but instead of punishing bad girls for having sex, he/she is killing virgins. Once the word gets out, those wacky teens organize a "fuckfest" for the weekend to eliminate themselves as victims. Additionally, the killings may have something to do with a dark secret in the town's past, involving a few prominent citizens. The director and screenwriter know that the self-referential inversion of the sex=death template of slasher films in "Cherry Falls" is obvious, and they don't feel the need to constantly explain it to the audience. The material is played relatively straight, though not without some John Hughes-esque intentionally badly written teen slang and sex-related gags. The killings, in particular, are far from comedic, with some truly suspenseful shocks and a creepy-looking killer of ambiguous gender (why is this so scary? does it go back to "Psycho"?). Brittany Murphy is interesting in the lead. I like her. She's got an oddball delivery that makes me think of her as a real person and not the anonymous spokesmodel so many of her young Hollywood peers seem to be. Michael Biehn is also good as her father.
The movie's got some problems. It runs out of gas in the final third. The killer's identity is probably pretty obvious, but I had already rejected him/her in my mind earlier in the film. He/she is a pretty ridiculous choice for a killer, and the climactic final killing spree scene is played for laughs. It is a funny scene and regains some of the momentum lost shortly before, but it's kind of a cop-out compared to the straight-faced brutality of the earlier murders. "Cherry Falls" also suffered an editing hack-job to whittle it from an NC-17 to an R rating. This may explain why there are a few intimations of unrequited incestuous lust between Murphy and Biehn that are set up and then forgotten, why one of the murder scenes is cut so short, and why some of the subplots are so quickly wrapped up.
However, "Cherry Falls" is something "Scream" wasn't: fun.

Monday, June 11, 2007

#14: The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)

There is honestly not much to say about "The Changeling." It is a competent ghost story, strongly if somewhat anonymously filmed, cliched (though not destructively so), with great atmosphere and setting. It's a well-told campfire story. If you like a nice little ghost story, and I certainly do, it gets the job done. I'm a sucker for late 1960s--early 1980s American location-shot films, probably because this is what I grew up watching, but also because there is such a relaxed, unadorned encapsulation of straightforward American life in the details and physical settings of these films (no matter the plot) that is regrettably and painfully absent from recent mainstream American movies. (I hasten to add that the 1950s are probably my favorite decade for American film, narrowly beating the 1970s, but nothing beats 1966-1983 for that indefinable lived-in atmosphere I prize so much).

Movie stars in this time period looked like real people, and the extras, character actors, and bit players did, too. Even more so. Now we settle for a bunch of fucking Ashton Kutchers. And he's the name that stands out! I don't even know who the fuck anyone else is. What happened to faces that looked like ANYTHING had happened to them? What a long digression to tell you that this film was shot on location in New York City, rural upstate New York, Seattle, and Vancouver (we're not the only Americans, you know, you xenophobic fuck).

The story is about a highly regarded composer and professor of music in NYC, who, while on vacation in upstate NY, witnesses the death of his wife and young daughter in a horrific automobile accident. Recovering from the trauma, he decides to relocate to his alma mater, Seattle. Fellow professor friends hook him up with a mansion in the country, which is huge, gothic, and haunted. Oooh-wooo-ooo! Soon, a spirit is attempting to make contact. But why? George C. Scott, as the professor/composer, decides to find out. I'm a big fan of Scott's, particularly for his performance in "Dr. Strangelove" and his refusal to attend the Oscar ceremonies or accept his nominations and awards because he thought the whole thing was bullshit, but he's been criticized for this performance.

It's true, he doesn't physically move around much or wail, sob, and flip out. I guess we expect our horror movie characters to overact a bit, and it must seem odd when they don't. However, I think Scott's stoic choices are good ones. After all, a man who sees his wife and daughter smashed by a truck is not likely to run crying from a house because a ghost is in it. He's like, "Go ahead and haunt this shit, motherfucker. I've seen some scary shit, and I ain't going anywhere, cocksucker." That's a direct quote from the script. It's true? While most of us wouldn't ascend deep into the bowels of a well, alone, where a skeleton had just been found, in the dead of night, it is plausible Scott's character would. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the film was trimmed to meet a reasonable running time without much thought to logical narrative continuity. It's true I don't put a premium on logical narrative continuity, but there are some pretty nonsensical gaps in logic that reasonably hint at chunks of the film being cut away, particularly a minor character who is set up at the beginning of the film as a major one and an uncharacteristic Scott outburst that doesn't gel with the rest of the story. Cliches and narrative gaps aside, "The Changeling" is a highly entertaining, creepy ghost movie that wouldn't damage your weekend much. I realize my tepid recommendation may cause you to say, "Hey! Why would I rent this movie that you say is only mildly good? Life is short, bitch." To which I would reply, "Come on, I've already lived almost three more years than Kurt Cobain. What else are you going to do? You might even be older than me."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

#13: Cemetery Man (Michele Soavi, 1994)

Hyper-stylized overkill is not really my thing, hence my distaste for Oliver Stone, summer blockbusters, and most music videos and commercials. I can't even enjoy this stuff on a couch-potato level because the barrage of loud and fast images gives me a headache and the nature of the barrage usually forces the actors to portray their characters as either ultra-cartoony hams, inert dullards, or little lost children. "Cemetery Man" is full of hyper-stylized overkill. And I loved it.
"Say what?" you say. "Explain, dickhead."
Okay, I will. If any film can justify extreme hyper-stylized shenanigans, this film's mixture of comedy, horror, pontifications on the meaning of life and death, and hummingbird-quick changes in tone can. "Cemetery Man" has the uncanny ability to make you think you know where it's taking you, then abruptly jerk you somewhere far away from there, then muss your hair, slap you on the rump, and gently set you down right where you think you should be, but things have changed so much that the familiar path is just as fucked up as the one you were on. If you can make sense of that tortured, awful sentence, you might be the ideal viewer for this movie.

The film is photographed in such a massively inappropriate way that any other way of photographing the film would have been inappropriate. It's shot like an expensive European perfume commercial. Think of movies you've seen that were obnoxiously, claustrophobically, middlebrow-ily postcard pretty. This movie looks just like that, times fifty, though instead of the E.M. Forster adaptations and costume dramas we are used to seeing through that clear postcard haze, "Cemetery Man" is full of zombies, exploding heads, large-breasted naked women, fat guys with messy eating habits and vomiting problems, dirt, slime, improperly stored public records, horrific automobile accidents, love affairs with decapitated teenage heads, skull-splitting, a syringe to the cock (partially offscreen), the fight within oneself to overcome nihilism and ennui, and sex on graves.

This film starts where lesser zombie films take two hours to finish, and propels itself crazily through an ever-expanding maze of detours, digressions, gags, pratfalls, contemplations, tender empathies, nihilistic brutalities, bad jokes, good jokes, and multiple weirdnesses until it dead-ends, a few miles from where it began, in a surprisingly moving conclusion.

I failed to mention that Rupert Everett plays the leading role, and he's perfect for it.

I'm overselling it a bit, but I've never seen anything like it. I particularly recommend it for people who don't like horror movies. And people who do.

True love travels on a gravel road.