Saturday, March 31, 2012

#129: Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

Achingly beautiful films about face removal that inspire Billy Idol's hits don't happen every day, but it did happen once, in France in 1960. Georges Franju, lyrical and poetic director of slaughterhouse documentary Blood of the Beasts, was a master at capturing atypical, little-seen parts of Paris and creating beauty out of grisly subject matter. Eyes Without a Face is one of the most graceful and visually sumptuous horror films. It's a film that takes its time and gives the viewer space to really look. It doesn't turn its gaze away from the beauty or the horror, and its expressive use of light and movement is all too rare.

Eyes Without a Face opens with a nervous yet frightening Alida Valli driving down dark, suburban Paris streets at night. A slumped figure in a fedora and overcoat sits in the backseat. Valli pulls over near a river and drags the figure to the water's edge. The viewer now realizes the figure is the dead body of a young woman. Valli tosses her into the water and watches her sink with a curious, unsettling expression on her face. We soon learn that Valli is the assistant of Pierre Brasseur, a celebrated surgeon with an interest in skin graft experimentation. When the body is fished out of the river, Brasseur identifies it as that of his own missing daughter, Edith Scob. In actuality, his daughter is neither missing nor dead, but safe and alive at home. Brasseur is consumed with guilt after his reckless driving caused an accident that disfigured her, and he and Valli have conspired to kidnap young women with similar features. Brasseur then removes the kidnapped woman's face and grafts it onto his own daughter's. The experimental surgeries aren't perfect, and Scob's body eventually rejects the grafted skin. Brasseur is getting closer to success, but that requires more kidnapping and face removal. Meanwhile, Scob wears an expressionless white mask and waits.

I first saw this film 12 years ago on a less-than-pristine VHS version and admired it without loving it. Seeing the Criterion DVD last night, I gained a greater appreciation for the film. The DVD print is mostly excellent, and the expressive black-and-white lighting is given its proper due. This is a gorgeous movie. Franju has a distinct eye, and the images he captures are startling, disturbing, and beautiful. European movie veterans Brasseur and Valli give sharp, understated performances, and Scob is something else. Her piercing eyes and lithe frame and her slow, stylized movements create a very physical, yet ethereal presence. She's like a porcelain doll brought to life or a dancer performing an abstract piece. She could have been a great silent film character. Besides this trio of performers, the film includes two detectives, a large older man and a younger one, who supply some subtly dark comedy that complements the film's tone without detracting from it.

When I first saw this film, I remember feeling sympathy for Scob's character. This time, I realized how complicit she was in the kidnappings, forced surgeries, and murders. (SPOILER) Until she snaps at the end, killing Valli, setting her father's dogs loose upon him, freeing his doves, and walking into the woods alone, she waits at home, fully aware of what her father and his assistant are doing, hoping for the return of her formerly lovely face. (END SPOILER) She's a willing participant, as disturbing and disturbed as the rest of her household. This is a movie that gets creepier with repeat viewings.

Eyes Without a Face is an influential film, one that has been acknowledged as a classic by both horror fans and admirers of golden-era European art cinema. Pedro Almodovar used elements of it in his most recent film, The Skin I Live In. It has a timeless quality but is also a relic of a style of black-and-white, shot-on-film moviemaking that no longer exists. I don't have a lot of spiel this week, just my admiration and recommendation.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

#128: The Eye (Pang Brothers, 2002)

Wong Kar Mun (Angelica Lee) has been blind since the age of two. She doesn't remember what it was like to see. She lives in a high-rise apartment in Hong Kong with her grandmother and flight attendant sister, who is often out of town for work. She lives a largely quiet life, her sole outlet for independence a spot playing violin in an orchestra comprised of blind musicians. When she gets the chance to have a cornea transplant that may restore her vision, she goes for it. The operation is largely successful, and Wong begins adjusting to the life of a sighted person with the help of a hospital psychologist, Dr. Wah (Lawrence Chou), who looks like he's about 12 years old.
The new corneas aren't all puppy dogs and rainbows. Along with the sights of the natural world, Wong can also see ghosts. Some of these ghosts are pretty disturbing. Wong eventually reaches a breaking point and refuses to leave the apartment, until Dr. Wah convinces her to accompany him in tracking down the identity of the cornea's previous owner and solving the mystery of the hauntings. Then some other shit happens.

My fairly uninspired plot synopsis may lead you to believe there is not much to say about this movie, and you would be right. That's not a slam. This is a pretty effective ghost story with some great scenes, but it's also a straightforward, mainstream horror film with a pretty pedestrian screenplay. I like it, but I also think it's one of the weakest films on the usually fantastic Rue Morgue list. Despite my reserved admiration, the film has connected with worldwide audiences, inspiring three sequels and an American remake starring Jessica Alba. I haven't seen the remake, but I'm going to say it's horrible because there have only been 30 good Hollywood films, tops, since 2000, and also because Alba is a pretty but wooden actress who couldn't carry a 30-second shoe commercial, much less an entire movie.
I'll get into my problems with this film first, then move on to what I liked about it. I'll start with that screenplay. The characters only say things that move the plot forward and almost never say things that show who they are as people.

Sometimes, this dialogue is full of forced exposition, which is one of my top movie pet peeves. For example, Wong and her grandmother watch some old home movies of Wong and her sister as children shortly after Wong gets her sight back. "Your father videotaped these moments in case you got your sight back," her grandmother tells her. "That was before your father and mother divorced. Your parents divorced eight years ago." I'm glad her grandmother told her this because blind people don't understand how time works, apparently. In another scene, Wong is meeting her psychologist for the first time. "You used to be blind," he tells her. "Now, you have your sight back." Thanks, doc. He holds up a stapler. "Since you went blind at the age of two, you lack most of your visual language and must learn it. What is this object?" he asks her. Then, before she can answer, he puts the stapler in her hand and says, "You will know it's a stapler when you touch it." All the screenwriters would have had to do was modify this dialogue slightly to make it less stupid, but they took the lazy way out. Fortunately, this kind of moronic exposition is largely confined to the early scenes.

Two more gripes. The actors aren't bad, by any means, but they lack personality and distinction, and the viewer never gets a sense of them as people. They're too fresh-faced and anonymous. The other problem is a common one. The film runs out of gas in the final third when the mystery must be solved. I lose interest with most mainstream films when the plot threads have to come together for either a giant action scene or an explanation of events (or both). I've never been a plot guy, even as a little kid. I've always been an atmosphere, character, and form guy, so most of what I like about movies is gone by the conclusion in films lacking a strong, personal vision.

I have some complaints about The Eye, but I don't want to drive you away from it. There's lots of good stuff, too. The film's middle 45 minutes, in which Wong sees a variety of ghosts, is well done. Two scenes in particular, one in a beef and noodle restaurant and the other in an elevator, are fantastic. The tension is masterfully manipulated. These are solidly creepy moments, and well worth your time. The film's entertainment value is high. Despite its flaws, it builds in momentum for much of the first two-thirds and becomes more absorbing with each ghost sighting. It would make a good Halloween rental for a small gathering.
The Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide (yeah, Oxide), are identical twins who started out as editors and became successful directors in their birth home of Hong Kong and ancestral home of Thailand. They've also made a couple of Hollywood productions, though those have been less successful. One of those was a Nicolas Cage-starring remake of their own film, Bangkok Dangerous. I've only seen The Eye, so I don't have much to say about them as filmmakers. I'm going to go ahead and wrap up this less-than-stimulating post now. See you in a few weeks.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Flashback: The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)

I've already written about the next movie on the list. I just want to reiterate that it contains the greatest carp-related monologue in cinema history and probably the only C. Everett Koop cameo. George C. Scott was the balls. Here's the link.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

#127: The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1982)

A film about ghost rape directed by the guy who made the Iron Eagle movies? Sounds like an entirely avoidable experience. Fortunately, it's much better than it has any right to be and is a solid, relentlessly suspenseful, not terribly exploitative ghost movie with a great Barbara Hershey performance holding the whole thing together. Martin Scorsese considers it one of the scariest horror films. It's also the third most accurate ghost rape movie ever made. (If you're keeping score, the first two are Ghost Dad and Free Willy 2.)

The Entity begins with single mother Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) going to work, then to a typing class, and finally home. She checks on her sleeping, pre-teen daughters, then goes to the garage to chastise her teenage son for leaving dirty dishes on the table and the refrigerator door open. She brushes out her hair, rubs some lotion on her skin, and gets ready for bed. Then, an invisible presence hits her in the face, throws her onto the bed, and sexually assaults her. She screams, her son rushes in, and Hershey tells him to search the house. No one is there, and all windows and doors remain locked. Her son convinces her it was a nightmare, but the attacks continue, and he slowly becomes a believer. Hershey, worried she's going nuts, starts seeing a psychologist (Ron Silver), who believes some childhood trauma is reemerging in Hershey's life and causing hysteria and hallucinations. We get some of the tired science vs. the supernatural debate in the movie's final third, but not enough to sink the film.

Frank De Felitta, the screenwriter and author of the novel, based his book and screenplay on a supposedly true story. That may be an enticing hook for those of you who believe in the supernatural, but I, an unbeliever in ghost rape due to my unbelief in ghosts, can take or leave it. Instead, Hershey's performance and Furie's deft handling of tension and release sucked me into this film and kept me engaged. Hershey's character is both an average woman and an intelligent one, and Hershey makes her a compelling, believable person. She never does anything stupid that lesser horror movies require their female leads to do. She doesn't sleep with her psychologist, she doesn't investigate dark corners of her home alone, she gets the fuck out of the room when it makes sense to get the fuck out of the room, she investigates the possibility she's suffering from a mental illness, she remains practical and determined throughout. She makes you believe she's the single mother of her three children. The actors share a convincing family chemistry. She's great. A lesser actress would have sunk this film.

I'll give Furie a little credit, too. He's hardly a unique visual stylist, but, as a solid journeyman storyteller, he doesn't intrude on the film with distracting overstylization, either. He has a good sense of when to use Charles Bernstein's effective score and when to use silence. (Tarantino used some of this score in Inglourious Basterds.) Most of the film was shot on location in real Los Angeles neighborhoods. The house is a real house and looks it. The shock scenes aren't over- or underused. He keeps the story moving, even at a slightly overlong running time of 125 minutes.

Furie's had a strange career, even by director-for-hire standards. Besides every Iron Eagle movie (with the exception of the third one), Furie also directed Michael Caine spy thriller The Ipcress File, Diana Ross-starring Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Rodney Dangerfield low point Ladybugs, and several episodes of Pamela Anderson's syndicated TV series V.I.P.

For those of you who share my intense dislike of exploitative rape and sexual violence scenes in horror films, I want to assure you that The Entity is not a film that will make you feel dirty. The assault scenes are disturbing, but mostly for what they leave out. The camera puts you in Hershey's shoes, not the attacker's, and the film has a barely hidden subtext about the hiding in plain sight institutional sexism women have to navigate through daily. Of course, the film was written and directed by men, so I don't want to make too much of this. However, Hershey's character is far more intelligent and multifaceted than most female characters in the majority of both genre and mainstream American films. How odd for a ghost rape movie.

The Entity is scary, in a great old-fashioned teenage sense. It feels real, and I jumped in my seat a handful of times. The filmmakers admirably steer clear of explaining the entity, why it's after Hershey, and what eventually happens to it. There is no secret reason from Hershey's past that brings the entity to her, no ancient curses or Indian burial grounds, no big reveal of who this entity used to be in a former life. This lack of explanation and avoidance of most ghost story cliches makes the movie far creepier and more plausible than the plot description led me to expect. I like this movie.