Saturday, September 27, 2008

#46: Jack Be Nimble (Garth Maxwell, 1993)

This interesting, obscure New Zealand film stars a pre-female Alexis Arquette and the late jazz drummer/actor Bruno Lawrence, and should probably enjoy a much larger cult reputation. It has several midnight-movie ingredients:
1) A heavily stylized, hallucinatory, yet formally consistent tone
2) Psychic telepathy
3) A weird metal box with flashing lights that hypnotizes anyone who stares at it
4) Weird murders
5) Teen angst
6) The New Zealand equivalent of Southern Gothic
7) Four creepy sisters who move in unison and never speak, whose appearances bear distinct similarities to the female followers of Charles Manson

Jack Be Nimble begins with two young siblings watching their mother have a nervous breakdown. She abandons the children, and they get adopted by two separate families. The sister winds up in the home of a loving, middle-class couple, while poor young Alexis lands in the creepy backwoods shack of a sadistic, hateful farm couple and their weirdo daughters, the aforementioned four creepy sisters. All grown up now, the sister (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) hears voices in her head that hint at the location of her brother and starts a relationship with fellow psychic Bruno Lawrence. Lawrence's character is that rarest breed in a horror film, an asshole who is not secretly evil. He's just an asshole. Meanwhile, Arquette's adoptive father whips him with barbed wire and tells him he's never allowed to leave the farm. Arquette promptly shows the family the weird metal hypno-box, does some nasty things to the mother and father, but unwisely spares the weird sisters. He flees the farm and reunites with his sister. The happy, and vaguely creepily incestuous, reunion is short-lived, however. Arquette is a little too messed up by his upbringing to forgive and forget, and the weird sisters go on a murderous rampage of their own, in search of him.
Jack Be Nimble is a hard film to love. The stylization is intentionally claustrophobic, and a little humor could have tempered the unrelentingly bleak tone. However, I admired the film's consistent, focused style, unusual story, and avoidance of cliche. The four creepy sisters are awesome villains and my favorite part of the movie. (I couldn't find a decent picture of them.) Jack Be Nimble is definitely worth a look and should be better known.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

#45: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Why does this movie work so well? The director, Philip Kaufman, hadn't made a horror film before, and he never made one again. Most worryingly, Invasion (I'm shortening the title because I don't want to type out the full name every time, though I'm still against shortening and/or combining things, e.g. South By, SoCo, Brangelina, LiLo, etc., so please forgive me) is a remake of the great Don Siegel original. (By the way, rent anything with Siegel's name on it. He was a great director, as well as an important mentor for two of my favorite actors-turned-directors, John Cassavetes and Clint Eastwood.) The potential existed for this remake to be a pointless mess. Instead, Kaufman wound up making his best film. This is a great horror movie.

I have a hardcore 1970s fetish. Some people describe that decade as a time of malaise and self-absorption, but I think they're confusing it with the 1990s. Though the only year I remember from that decade is 1979 (I was born in 1977), I feel like most of my formative cultural touchstones come from the years between 1967 and 1985. My teeny-tiny hometown is almost exactly ten years behind the zeitgeist. If you were to visit the place right now, it would look exactly like 1998. So, I really did grow up between 1967 and 1985, in a delayed time warp kind of way. Also, the Denver WGN affiliate played a movie every night at 7, and I usually watched at least part of whatever the station showed, which mostly consisted of American movies made between 1967 and whatever year preceded the year we were currently in. I remember seeing Dog Day Afternoon when I was eight and having my mind blown, among hundreds of examples. So, I grew up watching predominantly 1970s movies on television, and I have a bottomless well of love in my heart for the way '70s movies look. I believe that roughly the same amount of quality, shit, and quality shit get released every year, but I can't help feeling nostalgia for a time I barely lived through, when grown-ups could go to a mainstream theater and regularly see great movies in all genres from a variety of excellent directors in their prime. We live in a time when a mean-spirited, politically muddled, incoherently directed, and grimly depressing movie like The Dark Knight is seen as the pinnacle of mainstream film art and sophistication (though I agree with almost everyone that Heath Ledger was awesome as the Joker and Two-Face looked great) and a piece of motherfucking dogshit like Dane Cook can be a bankable movie star. (I do think our current decade has been absolutely phenomenal for film, but only a handful of great movies has reached a wide audience.) Long story short, I first saw this movie as a child on the Denver station, and it has all the 1970s qualities I deeply miss from today's mainstream films (slight seediness, realistic locations with lived-in atmosphere, fully developed characters with personalities, visual creativity without overbearing flashiness and incoherently quick shot lengths, editing that makes sense, idiosyncrasies that are free of fake-indie mannerism and quirk, absence of corporate sterility, adult characters who aren't infantile).

Updating the original film's small-town setting to urban San Franciso, Kaufman's allegorical backdrop encompasses post-Nixonian conspiracy paranoia and New Age and psychobabble self-help fads in contrast to the original's Red Scare and McCarthy witchhunt parallels. Aside from its era-specific fears, the movie exploits some universal, primal terrors that keep it from being dated, for example contagious epidemics, societal change, loneliness, not being able to sleep or something terrible will happen, loss of identity, distrust of others, and a feeling of helplessness at the direction the world has taken. Invasion maintains an off-kilter creepiness throughout, in which every mundane object, including a flower and a garbage truck, and every person, including the guy sweeping the floor, appear menacing. Kaufman sets a consistent tone without errors in judgment or lapses in taste. The movie never beats you over the head or devolves into cliche, and the shock sequences are powerful because the audience is so invested in the characters.

Those characters are portrayed by a great cast. Donald Sutherland plays a bureaucrat at the Department of Health, and Brooke Adams plays his co-worker. They're good friends, with lots of sexual tension, due to Adams' unavailability. Her boyfriend (Art Hindle) gets bodysnatched by spores that have drifted to Earth from space and flowered in all kinds of plants, setting the story in motion. Sutherland's friends include a husband and wife (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) who run a mud bath/sauna, and a celebrity psychiatrist, played by Leonard Nimoy. Goldblum, an aspiring poet, despises the faddish pop psychology of Nimoy. These characters are multi-faceted and interesting, likable and flawed. The movie contains many excellent cameos, including the star of the original, Kevin McCarthy, director of the original, Don Siegel, Robert Duvall, Lelia Goldoni (star of Cassavetes' Shadows), film composer Sam Conti, film archivist Tom Luddy, Kaufman himself, and the banjo playing of Jerry Garcia (one character is a banjo-playing homeless man with a dog). All this, plus a great ending.
I wish Kaufman would have made other horror films. He's had an interesting but frustrating career, making quality films (The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and colossal duds (Henry & June, Quills, Twisted), but he's never topped this movie. The screenwriter, W.D. Richter, went on to write Big Trouble in Little China and direct Buckaroo Banzai. Adams and Cartwright have continued working steadily, but without the cachet and success of Sutherland and Goldblum, yet another example of the marginalization of middle-aged women in Hollywood. Male actors can continue playing leading roles until they're geriatric, while the women have to be 35 or younger. I suppose I can continue to complain about Hollywood films for several more paragraphs, but I'll just stop here and mention that Hollywood used to make movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's good, it's weird, it's scary, it's paranoid, and it's fun.