Saturday, January 29, 2011

#100: When a Stranger Calls (Fred Walton, 1979)

I've reached my 100th review! I still have one more movie to write about until this project is over, but the blog will carry on indefinitely while I accumulate more horror movie lists, guides, cheap DVD sets, etc. Announcements about the next phase in the blog will show up in the next post.

When a Stranger Calls is an odd choice for an overlooked horror film list and joins the company of a handful of other movies from this list that most horror fans have already seen (Day of the Dead, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, From Beyond, Black Christmas). The movie was a minor theatrical hit in 1979 and a popular rental for years, but I'm sure the kids of today with their iPads and video games and horse-drawn carriages have maybe only seen the 2006 remake, so I can justify its inclusion on those grounds. Additionally, I've overlooked it. It was one of those movies I'd been meaning to rent since I was a pre-teen but never did.

Though When a Stranger Calls is a long way from being a great movie, it compensates for its lapses into cliche and lack of distinctive visual style with a solid, unusual cast, excellent use of location, great atmosphere, and mixture of reliable genre tropes and unexpected detours from conventional genre narrative. Perhaps the most interesting of these detours is the film's structure. Most mainstream films have a three-act structure, but the three acts in When a Stranger Calls have three distinctive beginnings, middles, and ends. The film's first third is the most famous and most prominent in all the promotional materials. Inspired by the urban legend of the terrorized babysitter who discovers that the disturbing phone calls she's receiving "are coming from inside the house!!!!," this section is a showcase for Carol Kane as Jill Johnson, the babysitter for a rich couple going out to dinner and a movie. The kids are asleep upstairs when she arrives, and she's soon bombarded with creepy crank calls that have become horror movie catchphrase dynamite: "Have you checked on the children?" The pre-caller ID/cell phone/star 69 days were a golden age for creepy phone calls. Like Gang of Four says, two steps forward, six steps back. If creepy phone calls are your metier, creeps, you're SOL in this sexting age in which we live in, to paraphrase Paul McCartney. After this section, the film's strongest, ends, the movie loses a little momentum, but there's still plenty of solid entertainment ahead. The second act fits more comfortably in the police thriller genre and takes place seven years later. In this section, the madman, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), has escaped from a mental hospital. We get to know him, a woman he becomes obsessed with (Colleen Dewhurst), and the private detective tracking him down (Charles Durning). The last act returns to the horror vibe of the beginning, as Duncan resumes his terrorizing of Carol Kane, now married with two small children, after seeing a newspaper article about her charitable work.

When a Stranger Calls was director and co-writer Fred Walton's first film, and it's clear he's no visual stylist. The film's camera setups, shot compositions, and editing are closer to the flat style of the era's network television programs, and Walton spent most of his career making made-for-TV films, including a sequel to this film starring a returning Kane and Durning and The Stepfather's Jill Schoelen. Inactive for several years after his successful debut, Walton returned in the mid-1980s with an episode of the revamped Alfred Hitchcock Presents and April Fool's Day, a teenage slasher film with a twist ending that critiqued and parodied the teenage slasher film genre. He made two more features, thriller The Rosary Murders and boarding school drama Hadley's Rebellion, before switching to TV movies for the rest of his career, which has apparently ended. (He hasn't made a TV movie since 1996.)
Despite Walton's visual limitations, he compensates by choosing atmospheric New York City locations, including wealthy suburbs, seedy bars, and city streets, and staying out of the way of his talented cast and compelling story. Carol Kane is great, as usual (though I doubt a woman as interesting as her would marry the "new regional sales manager" dweeb of a husband she's saddled with), and so is Colleen Dewhurst, Charles Durning, and Tony Beckley. Beckley brings depth and even a bit of sympathy to his crazed madman, and it's surprising to learn he had terminal cancer and knew it while he performed what would become his last role. (He died in 1980.) Humphrey Bogart knew he was dying of cancer while filming one of his last roles as a home-invading murderous criminal in William Wyler's The Desperate Hours. He said the part helped him deal with his anger about his terminal illness. I wonder if it was similar for Beckley.

When a Stranger Calls is a satisfying genre film with an iconic opening scene, an above-average cast and an unusual structure that gives you three conventional short films in one. I'm sure it's better than the 2006 remake. I admit I've never seen the remake, but I was bored looking at stills from it online, so I can't even imagine the boredom of sitting through it. I know I'm being a little judgmental, but the remake appears to be a generic slasher movie with one of those modern casts of corporate-sexy, sexually asexual, robotic J. Crew twentysomethings, devoid of personalities and interesting faces. When a Stranger Calls may not be a classic, but it sure has more than that.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

#99: Wendigo (Larry Fessenden, 2001)

I'm a big Larry Fessenden fan, even though he's directed only four feature films in 20 years, and I hate one of them and have some minor problems with another. He's one of the few modern directors working in the horror genre whose films I anticipate, and he's a fine character actor, too. A true independent filmmaker (as opposed to "indie"), Fessenden has integrity and has so far managed to avoid the lure of Hollywood cash and the compromises that go along with it. He not only directs, but also writes, edits, produces, and sometimes acts in his movies. His four feature films are personal, character-based, independent dramas that use classic horror themes and cliches to parallel the ways we use religion and religious myths to help explain the horrible things in our lives. Fessenden has an idiosyncratic, distinctive visual style as a director and an expert sense of structure, pacing, and formal style as an editor.

Fessenden's first three features are an unofficial trilogy of classic monster updates. His first feature, 1991's No Telling, uses elements of the Frankenstein story to express Fessenden's discomfort with animal testing and is the only Fessenden film I dislike. His two pet causes, animal rights and environmentalism, often make their way into his films, but the political content overwhelms the story in this first feature. No Telling is an awkward, preachy film with weak writing and acting and an amateurish look, but isolated moments hint at the talent revealed in his later work. Fessenden followed his worst film with his best, 1995's Habit. Not only one of the best independent films of the decade but also one of the best vampire movies ever, Habit is an overlooked gem. A character-rich drama with elements of black humor and a creeping sense of dread throughout, Habit sometimes plays like some unholy but successful marriage of John Cassavetes or early Scorsese and George A. Romero. Can you tell I love this movie? Next came 2001's Wendigo, my second-favorite Fessenden movie, and his extremely loose update of the werewolf/shapeshifter genre (just replace wolves with deer). I'll discuss this in more detail later. His last feature was 2006's The Last Winter. Despite some serious flaws (a return to the soapboxing and preachiness of his first feature), The Last Winter also contains some of his richest visuals, a good cast, great atmosphere, and a stunningly bleak ending. A mixed bag, for sure, but well worth your time. His one flirtation with Hollywood filmmaking occurred recently. He was hired to direct the remake of Spanish horror film The Orphanage and wrote a screenplay with Guillermo del Toro, but he quit the project when the studio interfered with his casting ideas.

Though Fessenden's made only four features, he's been actively involved in film since the late 1970s. He directed several short films, works steadily as a character actor in small but interesting parts (Bringing Out the Dead, Animal Factory, Session 9, Broken Flowers, Wendy and Lucy, his own films), and produces independent features (River of Grass, Wendy and Lucy, House of the Devil, his own stuff). He has also written a how-to book about reducing environmental waste on film shoots and occasionally gives lectures about it.
As I wrote earlier, Fessenden's films use horror archetypes as a parallel to the way religious myth explains away life's horrors. The supernatural elements in his films retain an ambiguity. Unlike most other films in which the supernatural may only be occurring in the characters' minds, Fessenden's films (mostly) retain their mystery and dread. The ambiguity remains after the closing credits scroll down the screen. Both interpretations remain plausible. No Telling uses the Frankenstein legend to explain sanctioned animal abuse, Habit the vampire myth to explain alcoholism, grief over the loss of a parent, suicidal thoughts, and relationship problems, and The Last Winter a variation on the Wendigo creature to explain global warming, corporate greed, and environmental destruction. On the other hand, the girlfriend in Habit could very well be a vampire and that weird creature in The Last Winter really could be out there in the frozen Arctic.

Wendigo is Fessenden's most explicit exploration of the mythology theme. Mostly seen through the perspective of a small boy, Wendigo is about a child's attempt to understand the adult world around him and its anger, sadness, marital problems, mental illness, jealousy, and violence. That, and a weird part-deer, part-human, all-ass-kicking demon in the woods. Wendigo opens with a New York City family driving to the upstate country home of a friend. The family (Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and Malcolm in the Middle's Erik Per Sullivan) hit a large deer a few miles from the home and get stuck in the deep snow after sliding off the road. Shortly thereafter, a trio of hunters appears alongside the deer. They've been tracking it for hours and have already wounded it. One of the hunters, Otis (John Speredakos), kills the wounded deer. Tension flares between Otis and the family almost immediately. Otis is angry that the deer's antlers were cracked when the car hit it, and Kim (Clarkson) is angry that Otis fired his pistol so close to their car. Fessenden sets up two prominent horror cliches in this opening scene (city folk unwisely going to the dangerous country, the menacing backwoods hick) but, as usual, transforms the stereotypes into something realistic and strange. Otis is far from an inbred, slobbering hillbilly stereotype and closer to the resourceful, smart, mean-eyed, gun-loving, quick-to-anger bully I know too well from my own rural upbringing. The city family aren't stereotypical, either. They're entitled and pushy, yes, but mildly so. Their negative qualities don't solely define them. Their young son Miles (Sullivan) tries to understand the menacing outside world, the deer's death, and his own parents' problems, and we see these events through his perspective. As my wife astutely pointed out, whenever his parents talk directly to him, they are actually indirectly talking to each other, scoring points, pressing their arguments and disagreements, and attempting to quell their own and each other's insecurities. Miles turns these outside worries into internal nightmares and fantasies of supernatural creatures and the menacing Otis. The tensions between his family and Otis continue to mount, and then the Wendigo enters the picture. These elements come together in a tense, satisfying conclusion that doesn't wrap things up but doesn't make you feel cheated out of an ending, either.

Fessenden's work as an editor on this film is just as impressive as his directing. He skillfully weaves together long and medium shots, long takes, and contemplative passages with quick intercutting of closeups on Miles' toys, drawings, and nightmares. He has a big bag of stylistic tricks, but he uses them sparingly and effectively. He has a knack for shooting everyday objects in a way that imbues them with terror and dread. I also appreciated the tiny visual and verbal nods to The Wolf Man, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Wendigo isn't quite as consistent or developed as Habit, but it's pretty damn good.