Saturday, May 30, 2009

#62: Mute Witness (Anthony Waller, 1994)

I had low expectations for this movie. The only other Anthony Waller-directed movie I've seen is An American Werewolf in Paris, which is one of the flattest, most inert, least visually interesting movies of recent years, too boring even to be terrible. Mute Witness, on the other hand, though overly slick and perfunctory in visual style, is a suspenseful, skillfully told, entertaining film that successfully balances both the horror and crime thriller genres and a dramatic and comedic tone.

The storyline's not half bad. An American film crew is shooting a terrible slasher movie on the cheap in a Moscow studio. (Life imitating entertainment: the film's original script was set in Chicago, but the location was changed to Moscow because the sets and labor were much cheaper in Russia.) The main character is Billy, a mute woman who is the special effects artist (played by Russian actress Marina Zudina). Her sister is along, too, because she's dating the director, a spoiled doofus whose father has powerful political connections. After the day's shooting ends and the cast and crew start heading home, Billy runs back in the studio to find a prop they'll need for the next day's shooting. She's accidentally locked in and, because she's mute, can't get anybody's attention to let her out. She hears voices several minutes later, and she wanders on to an impromptu porn shoot involving an unknown woman and two members of the horror film's Russian crew. Her embarrassment soon turns into terror when she realizes the porn film is actually a snuff film. Spotted by the two Russians, she has to run, hide, and evade the men in the large, darkened film studio. This extended scene is truly scary, with Waller ratcheting up and successfully sustaining the suspense and tension.

After this scene, the horror elements recede and the film morphs into a Russian gangster thriller. While the menacing feeling still exists, comedic elements start creeping in, but Waller and his fine cast make it work. This part of the film often gets compared to Hitchcock, but I don't think the comparison is useful. It certainly doesn't do Waller any favors. Hitchcock was often attracted to plots involving innocent bystanders sucked into dark conspiracies, and I can see him finding the plot of Mute Witness enticing, but he was a master visual stylist. Waller's visual style lacks personality and merely serves the plot.

Despite Waller's limitations, Mute Witness is a highly enjoyable film, thanks to the novelty of its story, the capable handling of tone, and, especially, the solid international cast. Zudina has to carry the film solely through her facial expressions, and she pulls it off in a big way. Her face is very expressive and emotive. Oleg Yankovskiy, who died of cancer just last week, is great as an undercover detective, and the two Russians playing the snuff filmmakers are some seriously creepy-looking individuals. Perhaps the strangest bit of casting is an unbilled cameo by Alec Guinness as the head Russian gangster, known only as The Reaper. Guinness's involvement in the film is a truly bizarre story. His scenes were filmed nine years before the rest of the movie. Seriously. Nine years before the rest of the movie. I'm not kidding. Waller, who had never directed a movie in his life, convinced Guinness to shoot a quick scene for no pay from an early draft of his screenplay in 1985. Guinness agreed on the condition that he remain uncredited in the eventual film. Little did he know that his performance, filmed 15 years before his death, would eventually be his final big-screen credit in 1994. (His last official credit was a TV movie in 1996.) Guinness filmed the scene quickly in one morning before catching a flight. Surprisingly, Guinness's scene is seamlessly interwoven into the film and doesn't look like it was shot nine years before the rest of the movie. When Waller's revised screenplay called for another shot of Guinness later in the film, he just used extra footage from the 1985 shoot and reversed the film so Guinness appeared to be facing a different direction. Bizarro world.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

#61: Mother's Day (Charles Kaufman, 1980)

Charles Kaufman, not to be confused with the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich et al., Charlie Kaufman, is the brother of Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman. If you've seen one Troma film, then you've seen pretty much every Troma film. Perfunctory framing of shots, bland cinematography, some of the ugliest location shooting in the dreariest parts of New York and New Jersey, fart jokes, boob jokes, fat jokes, extreme gore, porn star cameos, obvious genre satire, a preoccupation with toxic waste and nuclear mishaps. I'm glad Troma exists. It warms my heart that Lloyd Kaufman has managed to keep his production company going for so long, and I love what he has to say about Hollywood and big business and his support of independent filmmakers. But only rarely is a Troma film consistently entertaining (The Toxic Avenger, Tromeo & Juliet). I will never get the two hours of my life back I spent watching Surf Nazis Must Die. Surprisingly, Lloyd's brother Charles has a much more competent grasp of the basics of filmmaking, with a less labored approach to comedy, suspense, and horror in Mother's Day. Mother's Day is a solid, creepy horror film with some very funny moments and only a little bit of the torture and rape stuff I hate to watch. (By the way, the guy who directed Saw is remaking this film, with Brett Ratner producing. I'm sure the expensive Hollywood production values will make it look as forgettable as possible, and I'm also sure the torture and rape will be expanded and emphasized while the humor will disappear. I'm especially sure it will be a gigantic piece of shit.)

Mother's Day begins with a hilarious satire of self-help gurus. At a workshop in New York City, a tough-looking motivational speaker with a New Yawk accent and a bald bodyguard stands at a podium (the sign on the podium letting the crowd know that smoking, spitting, and watches are banned), tells the crowd, "Remember, once you go out those doors, don't stop to think about what you feel. Because once you stop to think about what you feel, you doubt what you know. And once you doubt what you know, you're gonna assume you don't know it. Why? Because you don't act on it. Once you know what you know, you act on it." A young couple at the workshop hitch a ride from an old woman. She begins to drive them to her home in rural New Jersey. The couple, pretending to be into the self-help guru so they can murder and rob the old lady and looking like a pair of young punks that Charles Bronson would mow down in a Death Wish movie, get a taste of their own medicine when the old lady's car conveniently dies and her Deliverance-esque grown sons jump out of the woods and attack and kill the pair. The mother tells her boys how proud she is of them. It's a heart-warming moment.
Next, we meet three female roommates at Wolfbreath College, about to graduate. (I was accepted to Wolfbreath College, but my family couldn't afford it. I had to attend the University of Nebraska instead. Oh, to call Wolfbreath my alma mater. What days those would have been.) The three women, who call themselves the Rat Pack, swear to be best friends forever, which is what women in their early twenties normally do, right? Not elementary school girls. Anyway, fast forward 10 years and the women's lives are very different. One is a wealthy socialite in Beverly Hills, one a spinster taking care of her sick mother in a small apartment in Chicago, and another is a career woman in New York supporting a mooching boyfriend who pretends to be an artist. The Beverly Hills sequence is particularly well done, centering on a hilarious pool party that Lloyd Kaufman jokingly claimed influenced the pool sequence in Boogie Nights. However, he may be right. The set-up of both pool parties and the movement of the camera in both scenes is surprisingly similar. Anyway, the Rat Pack still gets together once a year in a different location, the women taking turns selecting a vacation destination while keeping it a secret from the other two. This year, the three unfortunately camp out in the woods near Mother and her backwoods man-children. Fortunately, they get to smoke joints, skinny dip, hang out in their underwear, roast marshmallows, reminisce, and pledge undying friendship forever before the crazed hillbillies kidnap them and take them to their crazy house in the woods.

So far, the movie's been really fun, but it takes an unfortunate turn toward rape and torture for an unpleasant five minutes. I hate this kind of thing, especially since it's totally dominated mainstream American horror films for the past 10 years mostly thanks to that little punk piece of shit Eli Roth. (I have no idea what Quentin Tarantino sees in that guy.) Fortunately, the sequence doesn't last too long, and the movie gets entertaining again. The hiding, chasing, and stalking scenes have been done before in many horror films and thrillers, but Kaufman keeps the suspense level high.
There's a plot twist two-thirds in that closely mirrors Last House on the Left. I find that movie incredibly unpleasant, but somehow the similarly plotted Mother's Day greatly entertained me. And Mother's Day has one of the best horror movie endings I've ever seen. A subplot pays off in a big way. I won't say anymore than that.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

#60: Motel Hell (Kevin Connor, 1980)

Many times on this list, directors have taken a well-worn premise and done something interesting with it. Motel Hell takes the backwoods-hicks-turn-human-beings-into-food cliche into highly strange, hilarious new places. I highly recommend Motel Hell. Probably the only cannibalism-themed horror film to feature Rory Calhoun, Wolfman Jack, and a pre-Cheers John Ratzenberger in the cast, Motel Hell started life as a Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) project. The studio eventually passed on the project, saying it was too weird to find an audience. This pissed Hooper off so much that he walked away from the movie. British director Kevin Connor, who made every one of the 1970s Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations about fighting monsters in the center of the earth and starring Doug McClure that I watched at my grandparents' house on cable on Saturday afternoons in elementary school, stepped in and rescued the movie from limbo. I'm glad he did. It's his finest hour.

The story takes place at kindly old farmer Vincent Smith's (Rory Calhoun, standing and walking like a little Rory Calhoun) and his younger sister Ida's (Nancy Parsons) rural motel, Motel Hello. The "O" keeps shorting out, so the neon sign blinks "Motel Hell" into the night. Vincent has a side business, selling his famous smoked meats throughout the county. The recipe is secret, but I would not be revealing too much to tell you that he uses human beings he picks off the nearby highway at night to season his smoked meat concoctions. Maybe I'm a little off, but I kept craving beef jerky throughout my viewing of this film.
Vincent, believing he's doing the Lord's work in simultaneously fighting hunger and overpopulation, doesn't just kill people and smoke their carcasses. He keeps them alive for a while in his secret garden, buried up to their necks, their vocal cords cut to prevent them from screaming. He then waits for the right time to serve them up, combining their flesh with pig meat to make a delicious meat treat. If we've learned anything from horror movies, and I hope that we have, it's that human meat is incredibly tasty.

The other main characters include Nina Axelrod, playing a blankly stupid young woman initially intended as smoked meat. When she survives the staged motorcycle accident that kills her much older boyfriend, Vincent decides to keep her around as help. She blankly accepts everything throughout the film, giving a relatively stiff performance. The other cast members do a great job, however, especially the standing and walking Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent. Paul Linke does a nice job as Vincent's much younger bumbling stooge brother, who is also the sheriff and knows nothing about the secret smoked meat ingredients. Wolfman Jack plays a televangelist and preacher of the local evangelical "Eurekaistic" church (he really was an ordained minister in addition to being a rock DJ), while Ratzenberger (Cliff on Cheers) plays highly against type as a drummer for a debauched rock band, Ivan and the Terribles, whose members end up in the meat. This rock band shows the producers' 1980 confusion about what direction music would take. The members are a mixed bag of heavy metal, new wave, punk rock, and jean-jacketed burnout cliches.

Director Connor and the fine cast keep the film atmospherically rich, well paced, suspenseful, and very, very funny, particularly when old-school Hollywood vet Calhoun (standing and walking throughout) wears a pig head during a chainsaw duel and when some very enthusiastic S&M swingers check into the motel. The cast mostly underplays and the pace is relaxed without being slow, while Connor does a great job of presenting that late 1970s/early 1980s atmosphere I love so much with his depiction of small, out-of-the-way motels, neon signs, public access televangelists, giant jars of smoked meat sticks, blondes with long straight hair, and overalls as daily wardrobe.
I love Motel Hell.
Note: Motel Hell is available on DVD paired with Deranged, which I wrote about earlier.