Saturday, November 26, 2011

#121: Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

Jacques Tourneur was born in Paris nine years after the invention of cinema and brought to the United States by his father Maurice nine years after his birth. He and the movies grew up together. Maurice was a silent film director, notable for The Wishing Ring and The Last of the Mohicans, (though he made some sound films toward the end of his life) and when Jacques was old enough, he began working on his father's films as a script clerk and editor. Jacques eventually directed films of his own, mostly shorts and documentaries, until his debut feature in 1939, a noir film called They All Come Out.

Maurice Tourneur was a great director, and Jacques was even better. He was good at everything. Horror, noir, westerns, dramas, action/adventure. The younger Tourneur directed enduring classics in all these genres. Most famous for a trio of atmospheric horror classics for producer Val Lewton in the early 1940s (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man) and the Robert Mitchum-starring noir classic Out of the Past (1947), Tourneur is a master of mood, light, shadow, and perspective. I haven't seen The Leopard Man yet, but the three other films I mentioned are among my favorites, and so is the little-seen small-town family drama Stars in My Crown (1950), starring Joel McCrea as a minister in a tight-knit town coming apart thanks to an outbreak of scarlet fever and the persecution of a sharecropper by a mining interest wanting his land. These are all great movies I strongly recommend to anyone who loves this era of film.

After a long break from horror, Tourneur came back to the genre in a big way with Curse of the Demon in 1957. An American/British coproduction based on an M.R. James short story, Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon) stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist attending an international conference in England, the purpose of which is to debunk claims of the paranormal and supernatural. Holden was working closely with a British colleague to expose the manipulations of a self-styled Satanic cult guru and expert in black magic named Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), but his colleague died in a mysterious accident the night before Andrews arrived. Or was it an accident? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Karswell places a curse on Holden by surreptitiously sneaking onto his person a parchment with ancient runic symbols on it. According to the curse, Holden will die two days later, at ten p.m., at the hands of a scary demon. Holden thinks the curse is nonsense, but the parchment seems to have a mind of its own and tries to fly away or into a fire, sealing the curse onto Holden before he can pass the parchment to someone else. The remainder of the film sees Holden struggling to reconcile his education and logic with his fear and superstition while he tries to find out more about the delightfully evil Karswell. (In a bit of inspired storytelling, the Satanic Karswell lives with his kindly old mother, who wishes the committed bachelor would quit black magic and settle down with a nice girl.) Holden is joined in his adventures by Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummin), the niece of his deceased colleague.

Though the central conceit of the film is a common horror trope (superstition and faith vs. science, logic, and education), Curse of the Demon is more complex than most of its counterparts. Though the film makes clear the curse and demon are real (against Tourneur's wishes), the film never discredits science and knowledge. Every character is complex, intelligent, and flawed. Curse of the Demon instead makes the argument that an open mind and a healthy curiosity are virtues and that there are things we may never understand. Andrews' unbending, rigid skepticism and Karswell's overwhelming belief in the supernatural are presented ambiguously, making the film more unsettling than more simplistic films handling similar themes.

Alongside the effective story and performances, Curse of the Demon is visually beautiful. Edward Scaife's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is a masterpiece of light and shadow. Tourneur directs some amazing setpieces with gracefully gliding camera work (including a windstorm scene at a children's party) and uses a varied but narratively coherent selection of shots and perspectives, including medium shots, closeups, high and low angles, moving and still cameras, first-person and omniscient perspectives, and an effectively controlled use of space (open and claustrophobic) to eerie effect. This is such a great movie, made by people who are really good at what they do.

I hinted earlier that Tourneur didn't want to show the demon. As filming drew to a close, the producers decided the demon needed to be shown at the film's beginning and conclusion. A pissed-off Tourneur was forced to sacrifice some of his film's ambiguity for the sake of crass commercialism. To his credit, the demon looks great from a distance, an expressive, shadowy evil hovering in the sky, surrounded by smoke. The closeups of the demon do not look great. He looks like a child's stuffed animal. These closeups are one of only two flaws that mar an otherwise excellent movie. (The other is a small, domestic cat that turns into a large jungle cat. The effects are unconvincing and Andrews is clearly fighting with a floppy stuffed animal. It's a minor gripe, a nitpick, and doesn't hurt the film too much.)

The film played in most countries as Night of the Demon but was edited down from 95 to 82 minutes and retitled Curse of the Demon in the United States. The edit removes two scenes, a trip by Andrews to Stonehenge and a visit to a family of one of the cult members, in order for the film to play on a double bill at drive-ins and Saturday matinees. Both versions of the film are available on DVD.

Friday, November 11, 2011

#120: Curdled (Reb Braddock, 1996)

Despite the patronage of Quentin Tarantino, Reb Braddock's sole feature film, Curdled, didn't make much money and received mostly negative reviews. Braddock has been unable to get any other film projects made, though he's enjoying a second career as the head of the film program at his alma mater, Florida State. This bad luck is unfortunate, since Curdled is an energetic, entertaining, skillfully paced, darkly funny film with lots of good performances (especially Angela Jones') and not much filler. Why did the critics beat up on a film that, at least in my opinion, is very good? I'm going to do some armchair speculating and put forth the idea that many deserving films receive a critical drubbing (and many bad or mediocre films receive praise) every year for two major reasons that have very little to do with the film's content, form, and style.

First, if you're the kind of movie fan with fervently mainstream tastes who thinks the purpose of film criticism is to find a consensus opinion about films you've already been bombarded with advertisements about and confirm your own taste without challenging you or pointing you to anything new (the consumer report or test kitchen approach to film criticism), then you probably have no problem with most newspaper, television, and magazine film criticism and the Rotten Tomatoes tyranny of the majority philosophy. Here's the first problem with that approach. It's mostly dishonest, though many of its practitioners have convinced themselves otherwise or just never thought about their part in upholding a boring status quo. Here's why. Most newspaper, TV, and magazine film critics are journalists, with journalism degrees. They don't have any film or film studies backgrounds. They're reporters who happen to like movies, but they approach film like journalists, and it shows in their writing. These are people who mostly think in terms of stories and language, not in terms of image, sound, and structure. They are also instructed in journalism school to write every article, no matter which section it's in, in language a fifth-grade student can easily understand. I don't have a problem with this populist approach when it comes to important news stories the public needs to know about, but it's a horrible approach to arts criticism and complex news stories (particularly foreign policy stories that require more historical background than the mainstream media is ever going to give you). Film is primarily a visual and aural medium, but popular discourse about the medium almost always forces it into that limited plot and story box, with some perfunctory cliches about the acting. I love a good plot and story as much as anybody, but it's the least important part of a movie. How that story is told visually is the real deal. I'm starting to digress here. Here's the second problem with the mainstream approach. When a movie with a lot of promotional buzz opens, the New York and Los Angeles critics review it first since it opens in these cities first. These critics have their own biases, pressures, unholy alliances with advertisers, and hidden agendas, but they get the first crack at publishing their opinions. The mainstream critics in the rest of the country see these reviews and hear the buzz by the time the film gets to their metropolis, hamlet, or burg. Most of these critics don't want to appear unsophisticated or wrong, so they tend to follow these early reviews like lemmings or sheep or whatever other belabored animal simile you care to use that's been beaten like a dead horse or whatever other belabored animal simile you care to use. Sometimes, the New York and L.A. critics are divided on a film. The rest of the country soon follows, dividing into two camps. It's both funny and sad how predictably the mainstream critics follow each other. The same handful of films get reviewed, talked about, discussed in the same terms. The public discourse is shaped. Curdled is one of those films that received a first round of negative reviews that just kept following it across the country.

Whew. That was a bit long-winded. Here's the second major reason good films get bad reviews: cultural pressure. What I mean when I use that term is that a person or situation involved in the making of the film has done something (or nothing) to draw the ire or confusion of the mainstream press, so the press dumps on the film to avenge itself or the public, regardless of the film's worth. This happened twice in the 1980s to two very good films, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Elaine May's Ishtar, to such an extent that they are still considered two of the worst films ever made, though mostly by people who've never seen them. Both films went over schedule and over budget and lost money at the box office, which the press gleefully reported. Cimino, the director of Heaven's Gate, and Warren Beatty, producer and co-star of Ishtar, had alienated the press shortly before both films began production. Beatty in particular had made several publicly disparaging comments about film critics. Both films had their share of flaws, but both were ambitious, visually interesting, unique, and politically prescient (the former about widespread corporatization, the latter about Mideast foreign policy and showbiz) and were unfairly trashed by nearly every major mainstream critic. Former critics' darlings Cimino and Beatty were taken down a peg, a whole peg. This happens all the time.

In 1996, Quentin Tarantino was one of those guys who needed to be taken down a peg. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had been moneymakers and critical successes, but Tarantino was taking his sweet time making a followup. In the meantime, Hollywood seemed to have gone to his head. He kept popping up in goofy acting cameos, his segment of Four Rooms was a bad idea in a bad film, he produced or executive produced several movies that weren't that great, and he kept showing up on talk shows in a Kangol hat acting like a coked-up, obnoxious goon. Also, Tarantino imitators were saturating the crime film market. Nearly every weekend between 1995 and 1998, some shitty Tarantino knockoff opened. This had very little to do with his still-excellent directing chops, which he showed off in the following year's Jackie Brown, one of his best and most underrated films.

The reason Curdled existed was also the reason it was treated unfairly by the critics. Tarantino had seen director Reb Braddock's student film, also called Curdled, at a crime film festival in Italy when he was debuting Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino fell in love with the film and its star, Angela Jones, and helped co-writer/director Braddock get the funding to adapt the short into a feature film. He even cast Jones in a small but substantial role in Pulp Fiction as the taxi driver who helps Bruce Willis make his getaway. The character was based on Jones' character in Curdled. Tarantino executive produced the feature film, convinced Miramax to distribute it, and put it out on video on his own Rolling Thunder imprint. Curdled had the misfortune to hit theaters during the peak of the first major Tarantino backlash, and I strongly suspect that much of the negative response to Curdled can be traced, intentionally or otherwise, to the prevailing anti-Tarantino sentiment. All this massive preamble is my way of saying that Curdled is a very good black comedy/horror/crime thriller that has been the victim of a royal screwjob. It's not a great movie, and Braddock is not an unsung genius, but this movie is a damn good time, damn it.

Curdled is about a Colombian immigrant in Miami, Gabriela (Angela Jones), who works in a bakery. She's a childlike, naive innocent with a sexual charisma she doesn't realize she has and an intense fascination with violent crime and serial murder. She keeps a murder scrapbook and is closely following the current wave of killings and beheadings of socialite women in Miami. One night, she sees a TV ad about a crime scene cleanup company that's looking for new employees. She gets the job, quits the bakery, and enthusiastically takes on the new position. I like the scenes in the workplace featuring the all-female, mostly Latino and Cuban staff (including Daisy Fuentes) and boss Lodger (Barry Corbin from Northern Exposure and No Country for Old Men). Soon, Gabriela's job puts her in close contact with the serial killer, leading to a lengthy final scene that combines suspense, humor, horror, music, and dance and a very funny and satisfying conclusion. That's all I'll say about it.

Braddock is clearly dealing with a limited budget, and the film is not exactly a visual feast, but he wisely avoids flashy overstylization and gets a lot of mileage out of his actors' graceful movements through the frame and facial expressions and a great soundtrack of cumbia music that is skillfully integrated into the narrative. Jones has a wonderful movie face that can play sexy, naive, frightened, and sophisticated at the same time, and her performance is a highlight. The jokes are all understated and funny, except when they need to be broader (though they're still funny). William Baldwin's serial killer (not a spoiler, the movie reveals this at the very beginning) could have been a lot more ridiculous but is not overpsychologized or overblown. The film's 89-minute running time never drags, and the editing is sharp and natural. Even the smallest characters are individually drawn and personalized. Each character has his/her own voice and personality.
I like this movie a lot. The critics are wrong. Give it another shot. Braddock also needs another shot. I think this guy can make another good film.