Saturday, April 16, 2011

#105: Alucarda (Juan Lopez Moctezuma, 1978)

Michael Weldon, in his Psychotronic Video Guide, paid Alucarda a mighty compliment, which Mondo Macabro, the company releasing this film on video in the U.S., shrewdly blurbed on the cover of the DVD: "More blood, loud screaming, and nudity than any horror film I can think of." Weldon's statement is not factual, but it is true. There's a difference between truth and facts. I've seen more blood and more nudity and heard more screaming, but I've never seen such expressive use of all three in one film. In many ways, Alucarda is incompetent, ridiculous, and stupid. It's also transcendent, ridiculous, and right fucking on.

Narratively, Alucarda is a piece of junk. The dialogue is shit. The characters have no motivation for anything they do. The camera movements are awkward and graceless. The zoom lens is out of control, like a bad high school kid during last period on Friday with a substitute teacher. The editing is troglodytic. That doesn't matter. This movie is bananas. Ba-motherfucking-nanas. Tina Romero, as Alucarda, is one of the great movie faces. I'm talking Maria Falconetti, Gena Rowlands, Ida Lupino, Tuesday Weld, Lynn Lowry, Sissy Spacek, Grace Zabriskie. The kind of female screen face whose beauty is beside the point. Interesting, captivating facial expressions and features that you can't stop looking at and that can't be framed in any non-cinematic way (unless they're working with a piece of shit like Oliver Stone). Besides her face, Romero can scream like nobody's business. She has the most interesting scream I've ever heard. I generally find screaming, on film and in real life, cloying and ear-tiring. I could listen to Romero scream all day. I don't know if this makes any sense. You have to see this movie to make sense of it, and I can't really recommend this movie to anyone who doesn't have my peculiar taste and hard-to-explain aesthetic. I'm a fan of the auteur theory. My primary, and sometimes only, decision in seeing a movie is the person who directed it. That's not true with horror films, though, and particularly untrue in this case. This is, in many ways, a bad movie, maybe even a terrible movie. But it has so much to offer. It's a fucking weird experience. If you like weird experiences, you should see it.

A plot description for a movie that has no idea how to tell a story, which is different than choosing not to tell a story. Moctezuma is trying, but doesn't know how. Still, he's got something. In an extra on the DVD, Guillermo del Toro talks about how Moctezuma hosted a late-night Mexican TV show that aired horror, sci-fi, and fantasy silent films on weekends. This helped me better understand Moctezuma's aesthetic. He would have made a great silent filmmaker. He's fantastic with closeups, with nightmare logic, with lighting, with facial expressions. He's bad with a lot of other things. In horror, his strengths are welcome and his weaknesses are easy to forgive.

Oh yeah, that plot. A girl (really, a full-grown woman playing a teenage girl) enters a Christian orphanage after the death of her parents. Her roommate, Alucarda (spell it backwards), has a bizarre fascination with death. Immediately, these two ladies get the pseudo-lesbian hots for each other and vow to die together one day. (Things move fast in 78-minute films). On a stroll in the countryside, they meet a deformed, hunchbacked gypsy (Bunuel regular Claudio Brook) and unwisely follow him to his camp. They buy some shit, including a large dagger, and head back to the orphanage. I won't explain how, but these young ladies become possessed by Satan and start taking off their clothes, staring crazily, blowing up shit, sucking the blood from each other's breasts after slicing the breasts open with a knife, giving some hardcore Satanic sass-back to the Christians, screaming like beautiful banshees, and freaking everyone the fuck out. A lot of stuff happens after this, and none of it makes any narrative sense. Claudio Brook shows up again in a second role as a straitlaced doctor. You see a lot of naked people, a lot of blood, and hear a lot of screaming. God Bless Mexico!

I don't know what else to say. This movie is a prime example of the bizarre virtues and weaknesses of filmmaking. Something can be a piece of trash and an oddly beautiful piece of something else at the same time. I don't know whether I'm overpraising this thing or selling it short. Maybe I'm just a fan of the time when women didn't make their private junk look like an elementary school girl's business. Maybe I like blood, breasts, Satan, fire, and Christians getting their comeuppance. Maybe I had some free time on a Friday night and this filled the bill. Or maybe it's great.

Come on, everybody. Who doesn't love Mexican lesbian Satan-possessed adult women posing as teenagers with a vague connection to the Dracula mythology? Who doesn't love a movie where the actors are speaking English but came to it as, at most, a second language? Who doesn't love life, my friends? Who doesn't love life? And who doesn't love death? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Alucarda! Whoop! Whoop!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

#104: Alien 3: The Assembly Cut (David Fincher, 1992)

Ignoring the Alien vs. Predator franchise because it doesn't even rate, I find it fascinating that the four Alien films have been made by four different, visually distinctive, powerful directors: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise), James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic), David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amelie). Most of us agree that the first Alien film is a kick-ass horror/sci-fi classic and the second one is a kick-ass action/sci-fi jam, but I am in the minority in my enjoyment and admiration of the final two films in the series, particularly the fourth film, which only my wife and I and one friend enjoy among the entirety of planet Earth. I really like the Alien series. My wife loooooooooooves the Alien series. She is like a fan of the band Phish when it comes to Alien, if that fan stopped loving a terrible, noodly rock band and transferred that love to a movie series about killer aliens. My wife's enjoyment of these movies enhances my own enjoyment. I love how much she loves them.

When I first saw Alien 3 on the big screen in high school, I found it ambitious and visually interesting but dreary, confusing, and tedious. I watched it again in college with my wife in the early days of our relationship and liked it a little more but generally agreed with my previous opinion. I also found the comical overuse of the f-word unintentionally ridiculous. It was a film easier to admire than enjoy. Still, there was something in there worth seeing. Fincher wasn't just copying the highs of the first two films.
The production of Alien 3 was troubled. Screenplays by cyberpunk author William Gibson and Near Dark co-writer Eric Red, both supposedly awesome, were rejected. The shooting screenplay, by Hollywood jobber Larry Ferguson from a story idea by Vincent Ward (Map of the Human Heart), underwent an emergency rewrite from producers David Giler and Walter Hill (Hard Times, The Warriors, TV's Deadwood), and some reports indicate the film was still being written as it was shot. Fincher, in his debut film, endured constant interference from the studio and had final cut taken away from him. In most instances in which a Hollywood studio takes final cut away from a strong director, poor decisions were made. Fincher, still apparently bitter about the experience, says he hates the film and refuses to watch it again.

This leads us to the "assembly cut" found on the special-edition two-disc DVD. Sometimes misleadingly marketed as Fincher's "director's cut," (Fincher says he doesn't know who assembled this cut, and he refuses to watch it to find out) this version of the film is 30 minutes longer, restores some deleted scenes, takes out some scenes, and is a differently edited, vastly improved beast. This cut of Alien 3 turns an interesting failure into a solid sci-fi/horror film with a stronger sense of character development, narrative momentum, and suspense. It makes more sense, moves through the story with more fluidity, and just plain looks better. Despite being 30 minutes longer, it is far less tedious and leaden. And the comical overuse of the word "fuck" is mostly absent until the concluding scenes. I suspect this version is much closer to what Fincher intended, but we may never know.
The basic story, if you haven't seen it, begins when the escape pod from Aliens crashes into an ocean on a not very hospitable planet, which is deserted save for an all-male prison colony of violent YY-chromosome offenders. Ripley is the sole survivor of the crash. Except for the motherfucking alien! Oh yeah! Her presence in the colony stirs up some shit. These men haven't seen a woman in years. Charles S. Dutton, a prisoner, has become the de facto leader of the place and converted most of the other bad apples to a fundamentalist Christian offshoot of his own devising. The only employees are a doctor who used to be a prisoner, the warden, and the warden's second-in-command. Most of the prisoners are British, with a handful of Americans spicing things up. There are a lot of solid actors in this crew, including the late, great Pete Postlethwaite, Mike Leigh veteran Philip Davis, and Withnail & I's Paul McGann. Into this claustrophobic, dystopic, sweaty, all-male gumbo comes Ripley and a cute lil' alien. The alien, still in its infant crab/camel spider-looking phase, jumps into the body of an ox (deleted and re-shot as a dog in the theatrical cut, for inexplicable reasons) and births itself for realz (that spelling is really going to bring the youth demographic into this blog's readership), quickly mutating into a full-sized adult killing machine.

This version of the film restores a number of images that were idiotically removed from the theatrical cut, including a number of shots of the surface of the prison colony's planet. One particularly neat shot shows a work crew leading a team of oxen through a dusty, snowy landscape to get to the crashed ship. Some early CGI of the alien in movement looks pretty weak, but Fincher uses these shots sparingly and goes for the full-on animatronics, make-up, and latex suits when the creature is in close-up. I continue to remain excited about H.R. Giger's sweet alien designs. This is one of the great movie monsters. Giger's involvement with all four films is one reason why they look so good. (Let's also give credit to Sigourney Weaver's excellent work in all four. She makes a great action hero.) The conclusion still drags on a bit too much for my taste. How many shots of alien POV and guys running down a hallway and buttons being pushed and hatches being closed can a person sit through? However, the final scene is a bleak yet oddly optimistic conclusion, dulled a bit by the existence of the fourth film, but still pretty unexpected for a Hollywood movie.

Fincher may have had a miserable experience making this film, but he's done alright for himself since, making Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network. Still, I think he's too hard on Alien 3. He should watch this assembly cut sometime, at the very least to end the debate about whether it's his version or not.
One final observation: the placement of the 3 in the logo for the film makes it look like Alien Cubed. I'm no mathematician, but isn't this misleading? The film should follow this equation: (the number of aliens in the first two movies) x (the number of aliens in the first two movies) x (the number of aliens in the first two movies) = a holy living fuckload of aliens. This movie has just one full-grown alien, plus an alien fetus. What gives? Aah, I'll let it slide. It's the weekend.