Saturday, April 19, 2014

#180: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

How do you write about a film like Alien, by far the most famous movie I've written about on this site, a film that is considered a popular landmark of the horror and SF genres, a film that's already been written about plenty? Is it even possible to watch it with fresh, critical eyes? I've seen it so many times, and I heard all about it from my mother and other relatives before I saw it for the first time myself when I was in sixth or seventh grade. I've often wished I could have seen Hitchcock's Psycho without knowing about the shower scene/death of Janet Leigh, Norman's mother being dead, etc., and envied those audiences who saw it fresh in 1960, not knowing what was coming. Similarly, how great would it be to see Alien completely unaware of the cute little critter that violently propels itself out of poor John Hurt's stomach? The acid blood? The second set of teeth protruding from the first set?
Alien was a big hit in 1979, but critical consensus was much harsher. Most critics felt the movie was soulless and empty, an effects-driven carnival ride that was pushing character-based movies out of the way. One of my favorite film writers, Dave Kehr, wrote a particularly scathing review in the Chicago Reader. He called it an "empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome, if gimmicky, cinematography." His review concludes with the withering sentence: "Instead of characters, the film has bodies ... ." I like the film far more than most writers of the time, and its critical reputation has improved over the years, but if I'm going to let myself be completely honest, Kehr does have a point.
What? Heresy, you say. Don't misunderstand. I still love the movie, but there is a distinct lack of character development, and Ridley Scott is most definitely using his actors as bodies more than characters. These are thin, barely drawn people, but Scott tricks you into caring deeply for them because of the actors he uses. This is one of the great '70s casts, with three of my favorite actors ever (Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, and Yaphet Kotto), two people I like almost as much (Ian Holm and John Hurt), the always reliable Tom Skerritt (if you'll allow me to do something as ridiculous as quote an old tweet: "I never say 'Alright! Tom Skerritt!" but I also never say, 'Oh, no! Tom Skerritt!' Thanks for keeping me on an even keel, Tom Skerritt"), and the underrated Veronica Cartwright, fresh off another great genre film, Philip Kaufman's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Plus a cute cat and a freaky-ass alien. These actors are used for their facial expressions and projection of character types and emotions they can impress upon a viewer just by walking in a room, but Scott doesn't allow them to become distinct individuals. (To be fair, one of them is a robot, after all.)
Is this a flaw or a part of the film's design? In the story, the crew are expendable, the ulterior motive for the mission more important to the corporation they work for and the military interested in the specimen they gather than their value as individuals. Scott uses his characters in the same way. They are expendable, their value as tools of entertainment, shock, and suspense more important than their value as reflections of human experience. Cynical and empty, or a commentary on corporate cynicism and emptiness? Both? Too schizophrenic? I can't decide.
What I can decide is how thrilling and gorgeous and satisfying the film is as a pure genre exercise. H.R. Giger's blueprint designs for the alien and its home planet remain some of the most imaginative and aesthetically appealing in my viewing history. I don't know how someone could not love the design of the alien. I get the same charge I got as an 11-year-old whenever I see it. The stomach-bursting scene is worthy of its classic status. The design of the ship, the atmosphere, the sense of both claustrophobia and infinite space, the strobe-light cinematography, the pure excitement of the thing. How could you not be entertained?
It's funny that critics at the time considered Alien a soulless effects piece when it looks like such a model of handmade beauty compared to the truly soulless CGI extravaganzas dominating theaters today. Can you imagine a CGI stomach-bursting scene? Everything in Alien looks made with care and love by imaginative human beings, not some studio employee clicking a mouse 800 times or some generically handsome goofball jumping around in front of a green screen. (Monthly CGI rant complete.)
It's interesting to see Alien's idea of the future with its mixture of dated '70s haircuts, old-fashioned computers, and an abundance of cigarette smoking alongside the more convincing depiction of corporate servitude and devaluation of humanity. What are you worth as a profit-generator? What can you contribute to the war machine? That's the future that is sadly more convincing. But that's also one of the movie's pleasures, and one of the pleasures of any film set in the future that's more than a couple of decades old. I truly enjoy the mixture of clearly dated technology, interior decoration, clothes, and hair alongside the predictions that just may prove to be right.
You've probably already seen Alien at least a few times, right? What else can I say? In addition to the great cast, there are great people behind the scenes. Ridley Scott, back when he knew how to make a good movie, directs. He followed Alien with probably his best film, Blade Runner. Dan O'Bannon wrote the screenplay. I've reeled off his many awesome credits on this site a few times before, so I'll skip that here, but the guy was a legend. Walter Hill, a pretty great director in his own right, was one of the producers. And I've already mentioned H.R. Giger. No matter how thin the characters, I'll always love this movie.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

#179: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: We did it. Another list has bitten the dust. This is the final film on the Rue Morgue list of 100 alternative horror films for the connoisseur. I started this blog in 2007 as a way to reconnect with my childhood love of horror films, a love that had fallen by the wayside, and that reconnection has turned into an obsession. The first 101 films I reviewed on the site were Fangoria's list of overlooked horror films, and when that came to an end, the Rue Morgue list was helpfully suggested by a reader. This list provided the next 78 reviews (both lists had 22 films in common). What I initially planned as a temporary blog that would end when the project ended has turned into a permanent one. My readership has increased, and this is the only one of my three blogs with a majority of readers who aren't friends or family. I get lots of feedback from horror fans, which I enjoy, even the handful of angry, abusive emails I received for expressing my discomfort with the rape scenes in I Spit on Your Grave. Weirdos.
So, here's the plan for the future. I have no intention of ending this blog while I remain alive. I recently purchased three horror film encyclopedias, both volumes of John McCarty's Official Splatter Movie Guide and Phil Hardy's The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, and I am going to write posts on as many films in these three books as I can before I am killed by death. McCarty's books focus on horror and exploitation films from the '70 and '80s, while Hardy's book is a comprehensive encyclopedia of horror from the silent film era until 1992. I am going to start from the top, alternating a different encyclopedia with each review for a little more variety, and keep going indefinitely. I will only skip films if I've already reviewed them here or if they are impossible to find. The Fangoria and Rue Morgue lists were carefully curated, and in taking both of them on, this blog has championed overlooked gems and cult films. That focus will expand a bit. In taking on the new guides and encyclopedias, I will be watching and writing about not only overlooked gems and cult classics but also famous classics, famous non-classics, terrible pieces of garbage, bizarro oddities, historically important works, the mediocre, and the merely entertaining. Quality and quantity will now exist side by side. I'm taking it all on. But before I do that, let's get to Witchfinder General.
The Rue Morgue list began with a great Vincent Price film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and it closes with another. Witchfinder General, the final film by the talented but very ill-fated Michael Reeves, is based on a historical novel by Ronald Bassett about real-life witch hunter and lawyer Matthew Hopkins. (Of course this guy's day job was being a lawyer.) Hopkins traveled all over England and was paid by local magistrates to extract confessions from and mete out punishments to accused witches. Historians estimate that Hopkins and his assistant are responsible for sixty percent of the deaths of accused witches in England, which is a staggering statistic even if the numbers are much lower. Hopkins referred to himself as "Witchfinder General" even though no such title was bestowed by Parliament. Reeves' film takes this historical figure and surrounds him with a fictional story of love and revenge in the English countryside.
Taking place in 1645 during the English Civil War, the film focuses on a Roundhead soldier, Richard (Ian Ogilvy), his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer), and her uncle, a village priest named John (Rupert Davies). As is all too common in our weak human nature during times of crisis (in this case the civil war), the general populace has responded to the turmoil by becoming an unthinking, paranoid, accusatory mob. Unfortunately for our trio of sympathetic characters, the villagers have accused John of witchcraft. Enter the witchfinder general, Matthew (Vincent Price) and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell). Stearne is a sadist and opportunist, who cares little for Matthew (the feeling is mutual), but enjoys the moneymaking opportunities and the chance to torture people. Stearne is a small-minded, banal man of simple evil, but Matthew is pretty frightening. He's also a sadist and opportunist, but on a much larger scale. He's intelligent, calculating, has political power and authority (though not as much as he thinks), and a complete lack of empathy for his fellow men and women. He knows he's sending innocent people to their deaths and doesn't care. He's in it for money, sexual favors, the wielding of power, and the voyeuristic thrill he gets from Stearne's torture tactics.
Price is excellent in the part, bringing a subtle, underplayed menace to the role that contrasts with some of the campier, bigger performances he was giving at the time. Director Reeves did not want Price in the part, fearing he would ham it up, but the film's financiers demanded his participation. Reeves promptly let everyone, including Price, know that he wasn't Reeves' choice, and the two men had a fraught, unhappy relationship on set. Reeves got exactly the performance he wanted from Price, so I'm not sure why he continued to treat him so poorly. Price, despite his horrible time on set, loved the results and wrote Reeves a ten-page letter praising the film and apologizing for his doubts. Reeves failed to return the apology, but he wrote back that he knew Price would love the film once he saw it.
There are many other pleasures in Witchfinder General besides Vincent Price's menacing, quiet performance. Reeves was a naturally gifted director who understood film innately as a visual medium. There are no uninteresting shots, no images included merely for expository information, and no clunky transitions, but there are also no images or shots that are flashy or unnecessary. The use of real rural English locations instead of studio sets gives the film a haunting, timeless quality. The violence is more graphic and extreme than most films of the period, but its use is always pointed and never gratuitous, and Witchfinder General is remarkably critical of the concept of revenge, a concept that is too often elevated to a virtue in American and British genre films. Reeves has an economy of expression that wrings a lot of impact from lean, short scenes that move gracefully to the next moment. I wonder what he could have accomplished had he lived longer.
Michael Reeves' life was both fascinating and short. Obsessed with film and wanting to be a filmmaker since he was a small child, Reeves and his childhood friend, actor Ian Ogilvy, made Super 8 movies as kids, with Reeves using his mother's tea trolley to assist with tracking shots. Though Reeves and his mother were poor, they received a financial windfall when a wealthy relative died and left them some money when Reeves was 15. After graduating high school at 17, Reeves took a chunk of that inheritance and flew from his home in Surrey, England to Los Angeles. He found the address of his favorite director, Don Siegel, and turned up at Siegel's doorstep uninvited, asking for work. The amused Siegel greatly enjoyed the ballsy British teenager's spontaneous visit and offered him a job. The child prodigy quickly moved from crew member to filmmaker, directing three horror films (She Beast, The Sorcerers, and Witchfinder General) by the age of 24. Unfortunately, while preparing for his fourth film, an adaptation of Poe's The Oblong Box, he died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 25.
Despite this truncated life and career, Reeves' final film continues to resonate. The film's rural locations, English Civil War setting, and a few of the shots influenced Ben Wheatley's latest film, the very good A Field in England. Metal bands are big fans as well. The film gave its name to early '80s British metal band Witchfinder General and an EP by Cathedral and inspired a song by Electric Wizard. How can you argue with those credentials? You can't. Witchfinder General kicks ass.
Trivia tidbit that didn't fit with the rest of my review: The film was released in certain markets as The Conqueror Worm, an almost as metal-worthy title, and credited to Edgar Allen Poe to cash in on a mini-craze of Poe films, though Poe's work had nothing to do with this movie. A new prologue and epilogue were shot with Price reading from Poe's poem of the same name. It's not as funny as the rebranding of Tombs of the Blind Dead as a Planet of the Apes sequel (the ghosts' origin story scenes were removed and a new prologue was filmed explaining that the murderous beings were the ghosts of a race of apemen from outer space), but it's still a bit of a headscratcher.