Saturday, August 29, 2015

#214: Backwoods aka Geek (Dean Crow, 1987)

This low-budget straight-to-video micro-indie shot in rural Indiana explores one of my least favorite subgenres of horror -- city slickers terrorized by backwoods hillbilly psychos -- but it manages to develop the characters beyond most films of this type and give them unexpected traits. It avoids some of the duller and more irritating cliches, and though it's hardly a wonder of visual expressiveness, it doesn't look sloppy or inept. I may be damning Backwoods with faint praise, and I wasn't a huge fan, but it's a decent little horror movie.
Backwoods begins with our leads, couple Karen and Jamie (Christine Noonan and Brad Armacost), in the midst of a cycling/camping vacation. They're biking back to their home city of Detroit and decide to take a break and camp for the night in small-town Indiana. Karen and Jamie are an intelligent, resourceful pair, but they're also a couple of smartasses, as we discover when they tell the park ranger (Gary Lott) that they're brother and sister when they're clearly a couple and as we keep discovering when they encounter the family in the woods. Writer/director Dean Crow seems to be going for some of the smartass chemistry Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepherd shared in Taxi Driver (minus the unrequited sexual tension on Albert's part) and Armacost appears to be doing a Brooks impression. (By the way, Armacost is the only one in this cast of nonprofessionals who had an acting career after this movie. He primarily works in theater, but he's appeared in small parts in several movies and TV shows.)
The park ranger gives them some camping options but warns them away from a particular stretch of the woods, saying that a group of Indianans tried to settle there in the 1920s but died out and that locals steer clear of the place. That sounds like the perfect spot for Karen, and they pitch the tent there despite Jamie's reluctance. The next morning, they hear a gunshot right by their tent and find a man standing over the body of a young girl. She's been accidentally shot. Fortunately, Jamie's a doctor. He's able to help the girl, Beth (Leslie Denise), and her imposing but grateful hillbilly father, Eben (Dick Kreusser), tells them to come with him. They can camp on his land, and he will feed them in return for their medical assistance.
In spite of genre stereotypes, Eben and Beth are not crazy inbred psychos, though Eben is pretty eccentric and can be intimidating when he's drunk on moonshine. He's basically a goodhearted man with some quirks. Unfortunately for everyone, Eben has another kid, a grown man with the mind of a feral, animalistic murderous lunatic who lives in the abandoned smokehouse and bites the heads off chickens. His name is William (Jack O'Hara). He spies on Karen skinny dipping in a nearby lake and gets fixated on her, to the downfall of almost everyone. I was worried when this scene started, but fortunately this movie avoids rape scenes. Rape horror is my least favorite subgenre by a huge margin, and it too often goes hand-in-hand with the crazed hillbilly movie. Christine Noonan's character is capable and resourceful, but she still has to get naked in several gratuitous nude scenes, probably a prerequisite for 1980s video distribution money, but I'm grateful rape scenes weren't a part of it.
You can probably guess the rest of the story, but Crow generates genuine suspense, and O'Hara is a frightening presence. The performances are rough, as is to be expected from a movie where everyone is making their first and in many cases only film appearance, but the lack of polish has an authentic charm I value. I can't say I genuinely enjoy this type of film, but this one is a lot better than it has any reason to be, and Crow knows how to make his tiny budget work. This one is hard to track down now, but as of this date, someone has put it on YouTube.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

#213: Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

I've been staring at my computer screen blankly for the last hour, trying to figure out how to start this post. Often, it's the movies I love the most that are the hardest to write about. And I love most John Carpenter films, especially his great '70s and '80s run from Dark Star to They Live. I'm a huge fan. His first two decades of work gave me many formative childhood and teenage memories.
Even though he's made popular hits and cult classics, he still doesn't get the respect and reputation he deserves. Like fellow genre travelers Joe Dante and George Romero, he's been ill-treated by the Hollywood machine in the last 20 years. These guys should get mentioned alongside Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, and the rest of the American heavy-hitters who made their initial splash in the late '60s and/or '70s, and they should get more chances to make more movies their own way with the resources, scripts, and actors they choose. In a lot of ways, they're tougher, stronger, and sharper filmmakers than the guys who hog all the attention (and it's always guys who hog all the attention -- I have a separate but somewhat related rant about great women filmmakers of this era getting to make less films than their male peers, which is still a major problem even if things are slowly improving).
Assault on Precinct 13 is a lean, tough, exhilarating, suspenseful thriller with a great use of atypical Los Angeles neighborhood location shooting, physical space, silence and noise, spooky electronic music, and a skillful and intelligent eye that knows how to turn low budgets into a plus instead of a minus. I wish I could live in a world where movies like this came out every week.
Assault on Precinct 13 was Carpenter's second film. It followed Dark Star, a burnout existential science fiction comedy that plays like Jacques Tati, Cheech & Chong, Stanley Kubrick, Ishiro Honda, and a group of acid-fried surfers had to make a film together for a thousand bucks and it somehow worked, and preceded his first huge hit, the instant-classic horror film Halloween, for a long time the most financially successful independent film ever made, which led to Carpenter's intermittently successful but often troubled relationship with Hollywood. Precinct 13 shared Dark Star's scarce resources and Halloween's effective use of silence and physical space to create tension and suspense, and it shows how much of an innate filmmaker he was even at this early stage. He knows how to do a lot with a little.
Carpenter's favorite director (and one of my favorites) is Howard Hawks, and he modeled this film on the Hawks template of an unlikely group of heroes, including a cool, tough-talking woman ("the Hawksian woman" eventually became a film studies term), having to band together to face a difficult challenge. Hawks made films in several genres, particularly the western, the screwball comedy, and the film noir, and he returned to this template again and again, proving its classic durability and flexible molding to any genre. The Hawks film Carpenter is most indebted to here is Rio Bravo, arguably Hawks' greatest western, in which John Wayne's small-town lawman has to face a siege with only Dean Martin's drunk, Walter Brennan's crippled old man, Ricky Nelson's naive young gunslinger, and Angie Dickinson's card cheat for assistance, though Laurie Zimmer's performance here owes much more to Lauren Bacall in Hawks' To Have and Have Not. Assault on Precinct 13 is, at its core, a western given a fresh coat of paint as a suspense thriller with action and horror elements and a relentless murderous street gang taking the place of outlaws on horseback.
In Carpenter's version of the Hawks template, six members of the Street Thunder gang are gunned down by police. The gang may be racially diverse, but they are homogeneous in their worship of nihilism, revenge, and murder. They're bad guys who don't care about their own lives or anyone else's, but the cops gunned them down without much justification. A group of fellow gang members decides to hit the streets and kill some people -- it doesn't matter who -- to satisfy its blood lust. Meanwhile, precinct 13 is moving to a new location and will only be open for one more night. New lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has to spend his first day on the job babysitting the mostly deserted station, directing anyone who stops in or calls to the new precinct. The phone lines and electricity are being shut down the next morning.
He's not too thrilled about it, but he rolls with it. Bishop is a black lieutenant in a mostly white force. The film doesn't belabor this point, just subtly highlights it in a few lines of dialogue. He's joined by the secretary, Julie (Nancy Loomis), and a dispatcher?? (hinted at but kind of unclear), Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), as well as a few on-duty officers. A few hours into the shift, a prison bus hauling some criminals to a high-security facility several hours away makes an emergency stop due to one prisoner's serious illness. These prisoners include Wells (Tony Burton) and charismatic murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston). They hold them in the handful of cells in the mostly abandoned precinct. Through a series of intense and nutty events, the street gang lays siege to the precinct, and police and criminals alike have to band together to stay alive.
A reporter once asked Howard Hawks for his philosophy on what makes a movie successful, and Hawks famously replied, "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes." This is a pretty accurate description of Assault on Precinct 13. We get the ice cream truck scene, the siege on the precinct, and the trapped victims building a plan and fighting back. Three great scenes. In between, we get an atmosphere of silent dread, character development, tension building, dry humor, a skilled balance between quiet moments and intense action, and an avoidance of clunky exposition and over-explanation. No bad scenes.
I'm also a big fan of Carpenter's cast of working and character actors in this film. I'm confused and baffled by the numerous reviews that mention how the movie works in spite of the clunkiness, shittiness, awkwardness, and/or mediocrity of the performances. When it comes to general movie opinions (or anything, really), I'm continually reminded that I don't understand where many of my fellow human beings are coming from aesthetically, and they probably feel the same way about me. We live in the world together and interact with each other, but each of our inner lives are separate apartments impermeable to any other person. It's surprising that any of us make connections with each other, especially us highly irritable introverts. This was a long, digressive way of saying that I find so many professional Hollywood acting performances overly slick, emotionally sterile, and disconnected from life, while so many nonprofessional and character performances in low-budget and independent films, despite or most likely because of their occasional awkwardness, lack of polish, and/or limitations, feel so honest, emotionally moving, interesting, funny, compelling, and cinematic. I think we're brainwashed into thinking the polished, the slick, and the professional are superior to the raw, the awkward, and the natural. Life is awkward. Living human people are fucking awkward. I like awkward.
You know what's not awkward, though? Carpenter's direction of this movie. He's damn good and so is this movie, and it was a thrill to see it again. It had been too many years since I last gave it a spin, and it gets better each time. I would also like to point out that this is a movie that is unafraid to kill children, which, as I've said before, is horrible in real life but awesome in a movie. Weird fact: the kid who gets shot in this movie (Kim Richards) is Paris Hilton's aunt. She was a child actor in the '70s who had a natural, unaffected delivery and seemed like a real salt-of-the-earth type (the magic of Hollywood) but is now a reality TV star on one of those Real Housewives shows. All of our lives are weird, but some people's lives are really, really weird.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

#212: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923)

Wallace Worsley is a name that has largely receded into history. The former Broadway star and silent film director's name never entered the pantheon of timeless greats, and he's largely unknown today. Granted, he's not as innovative or as formally interesting as his more celebrated peers like Murnau and Griffith, but based on the evidence of this film and 1920's The Penalty (also starring Lon Chaney and also reviewed on this site), he deserves more attention.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Worsley's most famous film, thanks in large part to the enduring popularity of the Victor Hugo source novel and the iconic title performance by Lon Chaney, but those aren't the film's only virtues. Worsley capably and confidently handles the tricky feat of wrangling a literary adaptation with several characters, hundreds of extras, and an event-filled plot without succumbing to bloat, unevenness, numbing of the viewer, or a draggy pace. The characters are fleshed out and distinct, nothing seems rushed, but the action really moves. The story is a melodrama/adventure hybrid with a Gothic horror feel and a central romance that drives the plot, and Worsley handles this mixture of genre and tone with skill and cohesion.
You're probably familiar with at least one version of this story. Worsley's film sticks closely to Hugo's novel. Chaney is Quasimodo, the deformed, disfigured bell ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the servant of Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the much nicer archdeacon Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier). Jehan concocts a scheme to kidnap Gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), adopted daughter of Clopin (Ernest Torrence), figurehead and leader of the oppressed beggars of Paris, and makes Quasimoto do his dirty work. Quasimoto is captured in the act, Jehan slinks away, and major events are set in motion. Meanwhile, Esmeralda is falling in love with aristocrat and town hunk Phoebus (Norman Kerry), which also sets several major events in motion. Norman Kerry's biography on contains the following sentence: "He often wore fancy wax mustaches." You will be happy to know he wears a fancy wax mustache in this film. His Hollywood head shot also shows him wearing a fancy wax mustache.
The large cast, including several characters I didn't even mention, is uniformly excellent, particularly Chaney and Miller. Miller has a face that was destined to put her in the movies, and Chaney has a different face in every movie. Chaney's physicality and willingness to put himself in all kinds of painful appearance-altering devices for the sake of his character in is full evidence here. In addition to the large cast of characters, the film called for hundreds of extras. In this shitty era of clicking on a mouse to create crowds of people, it is especially enjoyable to see actual throngs of humanity playing fictional throngs of humanity. The producers picked up extras on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, paying them one dollar a day for their trouble. This method of acquiring extras meant that a large chunk of them were prostitutes and petty criminals. The prostitutes, by unconfirmed reports, made some extra money offering their services after shooting wrapped, and other extras got their pockets picked by the petty crooks. The producers eventually added fifty Pinkerton detectives to the cast of extras to cut down on the pocket-picking. Take that, CGI nerds. Ninety years from now, legendary Hollywood stories from our current year will be about people making things in an office on a computer and a few blandly attractive actors jumping around in front of a green screen. Fuck that shit.
This film, a passion project for star Chaney, who owned the rights, almost didn't happen, falling through on several occasions and moving from director to director (including Erich Von Stroheim and Tod Browning) until Worsley got the job. Universal, known at the time for cutting costs and making things on the cheap, decided to pour lots of time and money into this film and make it a signature prestige project. The lavish sets took six months to build, and that work is visible on the screen. This really looks like a 15th century Paris neighborhood (yeah, how would I know that etc., but I'm talking imaginatively and emotionally here), even though it's a Hollywood studio. The costumes took six weeks and are also very elaborate. All this time and money paid off, and the movie was a massive hit, becoming Universal's most profitable silent film. It earned $3 million at the box office, which was a massive pile of dough in 1923. Normally, I don't give a shit about box office receipts, but somehow I find silent film figures like that interesting. Why? I don't know.
Besides its superficial success, the movie is an artistic success, too. Worsley gets so many iconic images from his cast doing their thing on those gorgeous sets, and there's so much detailed activity and life in every frame. I dig this movie.