Saturday, June 25, 2011

#110: The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956)

What will you give me for a basket of kisses?
Why, I'll give you a basket of hugs.

Just try getting that dialogue out of your head after watching The Bad Seed. The question is spoken in a child's cloying faux-sincere sing-song by blond, pig-tailed Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), an eight-year-old girl. One of her parents, usually her father, provides the answer. Rhoda does everything right. She gets good grades, is well behaved, knows just what to say to win over most adults. But she's a little too perfect, too calculating. And when she doesn't get her way, she kills without remorse. She has no conscience. She's a sugary, pigtailed, blackhearted little ball of pure evil. And her mother is starting to realize it.

This campy yet emotionally affecting 1956 gem skillfully blends dark comedy, horror, and melodrama and, rare for its time, provides multiple complex roles for its mostly female cast. Not a "woman's picture," in the parlance of the times, but a movie about several women and their interactions with each other. Besides evil little Rhoda, the movie introduces us to her warm-hearted, loving mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), coming to the realization that her precious little girl is a horrible monster, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden), their landlord and doting family friend who is obsessed with true crime and psychoanalysis, Hortense Daigle (Eileen Heckart), the mother of one of Rhoda's victims who has turned to booze in the absence of her son, and Claudia Fern (Joan Croydon), Rhoda's teacher, who is harboring some dark suspicions of Rhoda herself while suppressing those same suspicions. The men in the cast are minor supporting players, used to further the plot or supply brief bits of character actor color, with the exception of Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup, an oddball handyman who has an adversarial relationship with Rhoda. Jones is a good actor, but he struggles with a terrible Southern accent here, though his body language and facial expressions sometimes make up for it.

The Bad Seed started life as a novel by William March, which was quickly adapted into a successful Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson. The film followed with that same Broadway cast, after initial plans to feature Rosalind Russell as the mother fell through. The film has a sedentary, stagy quality common in films adapted from plays, and the film's action is largely confined to the Penmarks' apartment in long scenes of dialogue. Despite this stage-bound quality, the film succeeds as a film, for a number of reasons. The 1950s was a great decade for beautiful black and white cinematography, and this film is gorgeously lit and shot by Harold Rosson, whose resume includes Docks of New York, The Wizard of Oz, and Singin' in the Rain. Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy's direction is subtle but visually distinct. He knows when to pull in for a close-up and when to pull back to see everyone in the room at once for maximum emotional impact. He moves the camera rarely, but when he does, it packs a punch. The cast, so comfortable in the roles already, do amazing things with body language, facial expression, and movement. Just seeing what they do with their hands and feet is an acting lesson. These people are living these characters. I don't know what they were like on stage, but they clearly perform for the screen here. Nobody overperforms for the back row. Everything is natural and tightly controlled.

The Bad Seed
begins with Christine's husband preparing to leave for Washington, D.C. He's a colonel and has to advise some important people, but that's not important. He needs to be gone for the plot, so he leaves. Christine gets lots of alone time with Rhoda, though Monica drops in often to spoil the girl. Rhoda is her smiling, insincere self until Monica mentions the penmanship contest in which Rhoda came in second to that Daigle boy. Rhoda flips the fuck out into white-hot rage and says that medal is hers. A few days later, at the school picnic, the Daigle boy mysteriously drowns and his penmanship medal goes missing. When Christine finds the medal among Rhoda's things, she begins to realize that her daughter is not just a spoiled liar, she's also a cold-hearted snake. (Look into her eyes.) She begins to wonder about a suspicious death at the last apartment they lived in, and things get pretty damn dramatic after that.

If you're the kind of horror fan who wants to see the shit go down, you may be disappointed. All scenes of physical violence occur offscreen. The horror in this film is of the emotional and psychological variety. Words, suggestions, facial expressions. That's where the horror happens here. Patty McCormack as little Rhoda is perfect in this movie. She really makes you believe she's the embodiment of evil. It's a hilarious, genius performance. How could a kid be that good? With every twirl of her pigtail, every scowl, every smile, every movement of her hands, she's a composed little devil. I love it. Eileen Heckart is also particularly good as the drunken mother of the dead Daigle boy. Despite some dated debate about heredity vs. environment (apparently, it had to be all one way or all the other way), the film holds up nicely. The black comedy and horror elements are pitched in the right tone, and though the film threatens to explode into hysterical melodrama near the climax, it manages to keep everything together.

Oh yeah. The ending. The Broadway play ended on a much darker note, which I won't reveal. Unfortunately, the Motion Picture Production Code, the arbiter of inconsistent and contradictory movie morality at the time, had a confusingly worded rule: "Crime shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and order." The studio forced a new ending on the film, which would have dulled the impact of the preceding two hours if they hadn't come up with the hilariously apocalyptic fuck you happy ending that makes a mockery of forced happy endings. You want it to end like this, they ask. Well, get ready for it to end like this times a billion, followed by a goofy joke. Evil is punished in spectacularly silly fashion. I recommend this movie.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Flashback: Aswang (Wrye Martin & Barry Poltermann, 1994)

The next movie on the list is one I've already reviewed on the site. Here's a link to that review.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

#109: Anguish (Bigas Luna, 1987)

Wes Craven's Scream is a smug, stupid film that is inordinately pleased with itself. Craven thinks he's clever, but the film is postmodernism for dummies, a braying donkey of a movie that can't stop honking instructions at the audience about how to watch. Possibly more irritating than the film itself was the mainstream critical response. Critics praised Craven for breaking new ground in the horror genre and ushering in a shiny new era of self-reflexivity and self-awareness. Meta-horror! Whoo! The problem with this praise (besides overrating a film with bad acting, editing, writing, and shot composition) is that the horror genre had already pioneered this critical self-awareness for decades before Craven cashed in, with more wit, style, respect for the audience, and respect for the genre. Craven had even, clumsily, done it himself two years before Scream with his postmodern Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, New Nightmare. It wasn't a very good movie, but it was much more ambitious than Scream.

Critics in the Family Guy reference-bludgeon era who pretended Scream was something new should have been pantsed (or de-pantsed, depending on your regional slang) and forced to watch Spanish director Bigas Luna's Anguish, a movie about watching movies, generally, and horror movies, specifically. A postmodern delight, this film within a film within a film within a circle within a spiral within a wheel within a wheel is a blackly comic horror gem that is clever, but not too clever. This is a movie made by a movie lover, intended for movie lovers. It replaces Craven's contempt and self-satisfaction with authentic pleasure and fun.

WARNING: Anguish is almost impossible to write about without giving away spoilers, so proceed at your own risk. I'm not a plot-oriented moviegoer, so I don't mind spoilers myself, but a fresh viewing of this movie with no idea what to expect would be something sweet.

Anguish opens with a funny William Castle-esque warning about hypnosis and then enters the home of Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) and her son Michael Lerner (Barton Fink, A Serious Man). He's an orderly for a prominent eye surgeon, and he and his mother are both pretty nuts. Zelda has some powers of clairvoyance, and she flips out when her son is accosted by a rude patient. She hypnotizes him and instructs him to kill the woman and steal her eyeballs. When things get even worse for Lerner at his job, Zelda sends her son on a hypnotic killing and eyeball-stealing spree. This portion of the film, formally and structurally, resembles a combination of Castle-style '50s horror gimmickry and the '70s Italian horror of Argento and Fulci. It's a clever and interesting mix, but the movie is just getting warmed up.

After the first two killings, the camera pans back and reveals this portion of the film as a film. We're in a dark theater, watching it on a big screen with an audience. The rest of Anguish cuts back and forth between the people in the theater watching the horror movie, the horror movie they're watching, and both at the same time as events in the theater begin to parallel what's on the screen. When Lerner's character in the film-within-a-film goes into a movie theater himself to start his killing spree, I really wished I was watching Anguish on a big screen instead of a DVD. Audiences in a theater get the experience of watching people on a big screen watch people on a big screen watch people on a big screen. I love that.
When the film reveals itself as a film-within-a-film, the audience members become characters and Anguish becomes a film about how we watch movies. Some people are bored, some entranced, some disturbed, some hypnotized. We focus mostly on two teenage girls who are experiencing vastly different things. One girl loves the film while the other feels frightened and ill. She wants to leave and whines a lot while the other girl tries to shut her up. Another audience member near them gives her the creeps. He seems a little unhinged. Later, we'll find out he's very unhinged. He really loves the movie. I'll just leave it at that.

This English-language film by Spanish director Bigas Luna is one of his rare forays into horror. Called the Russ Meyer of Spain by a few critics, Luna gained his arthouse reputation by making visually audacious sex comedies and giving Javier Bardem his first major roles. I haven't seen any of his other films, but Anguish really makes me want to give them a look. This movie could have easily been a cloying, overbearing mess in the wrong hands, but Luna gets everything right. In most films-within-films, one of the two pieces is throwaway junk. Here, the horror film the audience watches is just as interesting and beautifully shot as the rest of the movie. Unlike Craven's running commentary throughout Scream, Luna relaxes and tells his story with images, not words. This is an enormously entertaining film about the ways we watch movies. It's funny and suspenseful and horror fans and movie lovers in general should check it out.