Saturday, March 21, 2009

#57: Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

The blurb on the Manhunter DVD cover invites trouble by claiming that the film is "better than The Silence of the Lambs." Considering the popularity of the Jonathan Demme film, Manhunter's promotional blurb begs people to disagree. I'm not one of those people. I like Demme's film, and I think he's generally a more interesting filmmaker than Michael Mann, but Manhunter beats the pants off The Silence of the Lambs in a fake contest between Thomas Harris adaptations featuring the character of Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor to use Mann's spelling, which has been changed for no discernible reason).

Anthony Hopkins' much ballyhooed performance as Hannibal never convinced me. He's fun to watch, but he makes the character into a charismatic and cartoonish monster movie villain. He's just a Freddy Krueger/Sherlock Holmes/MacGyver hybrid, with a pinch of the media characterizations of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. There's nothing particularly scary about Hopkins' Lecter because we always know we're watching Anthony Hopkins. Brian Cox in Manhunter, however, is truly creepy. Though his Lecter is a supporting character in the film, Cox, to my taste, is far more unsettling than Hopkins' co-starring role. Cox is understated instead of broad, and his quick but calm body language is unpredictable and eerie. He gets the character's intensity and lack of conscience across without talking about eating livers and wearing funny masks.

Lecter's part in Manhunter is small, but the effectiveness of his scenes complements the overall effectiveness of the entire film. This might be Mann's best movie. It's smartly cast, well-written, nicely edited, consistently unsettling, and full of eye-popping shot compositions and colors. Only some inappropriate and dated musical choices, a glaring continuity error in a supermarket scene, and a pair of ridiculous purple shorts mar an otherwise unified tone. William Petersen of CSI fame plays a more intense spin on his CSI character. He's a serial killer profiler who caught Lecter the first time but sustained serious injuries in the process, with resulting mental problems. He's brought back into the fold to track down another killer, the nicely named Francis Dolarhyde, played so well by one of my favorite actor/directors Tom Noonan. Noonan's creepy house in the woods is one of the most interesting locations I've seen in the movies. Joan Allen has a small but interesting part as a blind woman who briefly gets involved with Dolarhyde.

Mann and his cast and crew do an excellent job of creating a sustained feeling of tension, dread, and unease, and Noonan's killer is both frightening and recognizably, sympathetically human. The movie works as a horror film, a suspense thriller, a police procedural, and an action movie without seeming like a disorganized collection of elements.
The Hannibal Lecter juggernaut has inspired a franchise of mostly shitty sequels and prequels, and Mann has become a big-shot Hollywood A-list director, but Manhunter is unfortunately mostly neglected as both a Lecter adaptation and a Mann film, which is crazy because it's the best of both.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

#56: Luther the Geek (Carlton J. Albright, 1990)

Whoo boy. The ups and downs of being a horror movie fan. Our last film on this list, Let's Scare Jessica To Death, was an accomplished piece of work, regardless of genre. Our latest film, Luther the Geek, is a piece of something else entirely. I'll give you a hint. It rhymes with "shit." Of course, being the horror movie fanatic I am, I enjoyed it anyway.
The story, what little of it there is, begins in rural Illinois in the late 1930s. A group of inbred hayseeds, most carrying either pitchforks or bottles of moonshine, pile into a barn and watch a circus geek bite the head off a chicken. In the melee to get a good spot, a small boy is shoved into a wooden beam and loses a bunch of his teeth. He wakes up from his unconsciousness in time to see the geek's act and notice his own missing teeth. He becomes fascinated by the geek and even tastes a sample of the chicken blood himself. His obese, moronic mother interrupts the blood-drinking and promises the young boy a severe beating.

Flash forward to the present. Our little boy grew up to become Luther the Geek! Bet you didn't see that one coming. Confusingly, he both bites the heads off chickens and thinks he's a chicken. Zuh? Instead of talking, he just clucks like a chicken. He's in prison for biting a bunch of people to death as a teenager, but his model behavior grants him a contentious release from the parole board. More script stupidity, as a man who spends all his time clucking like a chicken and making a pair of razor-sharp false metal teeth is probably not going to be released into society, but then we wouldn't have a movie, would we?
Luther's first few minutes in society see him going berserk, of course, and he soon escapes from his own crime spree by hiding in the backseat of a woman's unlocked car at the grocery store. The woman unknowingly transports him to her rural farm, where he proceeds to terrorize the family there, including the woman's large-breasted twentysomething daughter (Stacy Haiduk) and her dim-witted boyfriend, and a complete jackass of a state patrolman, who utters such cringe-inducing lines as "Hey chicken-man! Colonel Sanders wants to fry your ass!"

Searching for this movie on-line, you are most likely to find tributes to Haiduk's breasts rather than considerations of the film. This is mostly fitting, since the movie is fairly ridiculous and, putting on my 15-year-old-boy hat for a second, Haiduk has a tremendous rack. (OK, I stretched the truth a bit. That hat is always on.) I suspect that the whole film was a ruse to justify the gratuitous five-minute shower scene followed by the gratuitous five-minute sex scene.
The rest of the film follows the stalk-and-slash genre conventions, with a lot more chicken-clucking. The characters are profoundly stupid. When Haiduk's character finds her mother bound and gagged on her bed, she tugs at the bindings instead of trying to untie the knots and takes several minutes before considering scissors or knives. Luther wanders off three or four times, but they obediently remain in the house, waiting for him to return. Edward Terry as Luther is actually a compelling actor, and Albright occasionally stumbles into a striking image, but this is mostly a perfunctory, amateurish production, as befitting a Troma-distributed film. I will grant that the ending is chicken-cluckingly over the top. Luther the Geek should be watched with a dozen of your friends, plenty of booze, and nachos. Or maybe chicken nuggets, har-de-har.

A few movie facts:
Director Albright never made another film, and this is his only credit as a director. He wrote it under the pseudonym Whitey Styles. The special makeup effects person refused credit. This might have something to do with a young woman unconvincingly playing an elderly woman, complete with pancake makeup and a terrible wig. The movie was filmed in Tampico, Illinois, which happens to be Ronald Reagan's hometown.