Arrival (2016)

*. In my notes on Incendies I concluded by saying that Denis Villeneuve’s vision was one that would be hard to maintain when success came calling. I think Arrival shows that he maintained it. Whether he should have, at least to this extent, is another question.
*. Most of what you’d expect from a Villeneuve film is here. The plot that is a slow (very slow in this case) burn. The emotionally scarred and deadened characters who always seem as though they’re half asleep. The painterly settings (natural and urban). Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mournful strings that seem to echo the whale songs of the aliens and the sirens of the base camp. The Heptapods themselves are also familiar, looking like Louise Bourgeouis’s statue of Mother from Enemy, only missing a leg. There’s even a shot where Louise (Amy Adams) has a vision of one in her tent that seems an exact quote of the end of Enemy.
*. But here’s the thing: Arrival is a genre picture. I like how Villeneuve grounds it in such a personal story, but it still needs to move a bit faster than this, especially at the end. The final half hour here really drags. I know that saying one finds a thoughtful film boring or dull is enough to brand one immediately a philistine, but I think the ending would have been a lot more powerful if they’d given it to us straight. Before we drift into the final montage, with Louise truly unstuck in time, we’ve already figured out what’s going on. We know Ian is Hannah’s father, so why be so coy about it until the very end? Was the reveal at the end of La Jetée (1962) any less effective for being so abrupt?
*. Then there is the story. It’s based on a Ted Chiang novella and I guess it’s a decent premise. By that I mean it’s an interesting attempt at making an end run around the paradoxes that come with every time travel story. But it doesn’t hold water. Because they use a different sort of language (which we can still interpret) the Heptapods are able to comprehend all of time at once. Hm. That seems a mighty big leap to make just because they don’t use a past or future tense. And at the end of the day (if the day has an end) I don’t see where it solves any of the problems we’re all familiar with in time travel stories. I won’t go through all the paradoxes; suffice to say they’re all still there, at least by my reckoning.
*. To take only the most important example: the main point being made is similar to that posited by Nietzsche in his myth of eternal recurrence. Here’s the relevant passage from The Gay Science: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? . . . Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
*. The demon’s question is made real by Louise’s understanding of the Heptapod language. “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” she asks Ian. But it’s an idle question because the real point is whether or not she could change things. That shouldn’t be possible, even given her understanding of the alien language.
*. Another real problem I had with the story was how stupid the military was. In the first place, why is the military in complete control? Where is the president? Why is China being run by General Shang? Why do we only hear it briefly mentioned once near the end that the U.N. might have to get involved in this? You mean they weren’t already?
*. Meanwhile, the military behave like they haven’t learned a thing since The Day the Earth Stood Still. They want to know what these aliens want, and they want to know right now. They’ve got no time for scientific fancy-talk about how complex this might be. And if they don’t get the answers they want, well, even though the aliens are no threat whatsoever, they’re going to have to blow ’em up real good. Hang the consequences! I mean, it just may be that they’re dangerous if provoked — after all, they have spaceships and have mastered faster-than-light travel — but so what? We’ll never know until we launch a few missiles at them.
*. Arrival is something different, and I give it a lot of credit for that. It’s just that standing back from it a bit I’m not sure that many of the risks it takes pay off and I don’t think it’s all that original a story once you strip away the linguistics stuff, which is all window dressing anyway. The film’s design elements are impressive, though the Heptapods themselves look and sound maybe a bit too much like the creatures in The Mist. The cast, as usual for a Villeneuve movie, give subdued performances, and are often half hidden in darkness, shadow, or silhouette. This is all to the good. And yet.
*. It may be that my attention span has entered a zone of terminal atrophy, but I think Arrival could have used more of a spark.

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Sicario (2015)

*. It’s not that surprising that Anthony Lane, reviewing Sicario in the New Yorker, saw in it a kind of Western. The cartel/border action flick has established itself now as a Western sub-genre, at least in the critical literature. That said, I see these movies as more akin to the gangster flicks of the 1930s, albeit having replaced the dirty streets of Prohibition-era New York and Chicago for the desert. Yes, the look is very Western (or neo-Western), but the cartels always make me think of the mob in Little Caesar and G-Men, and when Alejandro invades the drug lord’s hacienda in Sicario it’s hard not to think of the end of De Palma’s Scarface.
*. I like Sicario, and I want to say that right off the top because I do not like it as much as I think most people did. It’s a decent movie, but it’s a long way from a great one.
*. Take the photography. It’s by living legend Roger Deakins, and it looks very nice. If you were thinking while you were watching Sicario that it seems a lot like No Country for Old Men that probably has as much to do with the fact that Deakins shot both movies as it does to their both being about tales of border violence. But does Sicario look any better or any different than No Country for Old Men?

*. The shot that gets the most praise is of the team of warriors walking off into the desert, silhouetted against a desert sunset. It looks very nice. I don’t object to it, but aren’t all desert sunsets beautiful? When people talk about the beauty of a film’s photography I like to think it’s because the cinematographer has shot material that isn’t conventionally beautiful, or which may even be ugly, and made it look beautiful, or at least interesting. Like the long shot of a ditch full of garbage in Stalker, to take one example. And aside from the sunset here, how did this movie look any different than a random episode of Breaking Bad (which, admittedly, is a very good looking TV show)?

*. Sticking with the look of the film for just a second, what is with all the overhead shots? I’ve heard it said that there was a desire to blur the border between the U.S. and Mexico by showing it from above, where it effectively disappears, but I think in these exterior shots what director Denis Villeneuve really wants to do is blur the line between the camera as the omniscient eye of God and the view from surveillance drones or spy satellites. This gives the film the same kind of detached, almost clinical feel as the aerial shots in Enemy, where we feel like the characters are rats in a maze.
*. As an aside, another reason for the aerial shots, at least of Juarez, was that shooting in the city was considered to be too dangerous.

*. That said, Villeneuve’s thing for overhead shots goes beyond these homages to Google Earth. He also goes back to it in a number of interiors. Sometimes it seems to allude again to security cam footage, but elsewhere it just seems arty, or meant to take us into a kind of visual abstraction, as when when Macer washes her hands in the sink, or we get the cutaway in the torture scene to a shot of the drain and the jug of water. Normally such flourishes strike me as artificial and posturing, but they work with the overall feel of Sicario, which remains very cool and distant, even when it takes us indoors and up close and personal.
*. Another aspect of Sicario that gets a lot of praise is the handling of several set-piece scenes. The one that stands out the most (and which was the most difficult to film) is the traffic-jam shootout. Again, I thought this was a decent sequence, but not particularly memorable. Critics raved about how “tense” it was, but it didn’t seem that way to me. There are no surprises and it just plays out in a perfunctory manner. That may have been the point — that the police team is so highly trained and professional that the bad guys don’t even get a shot off — but it seemed kind of anti-climactic to me.
*. The same could be said of the tunnel sequence. Again, nothing much happens very quickly. I didn’t feel any suspense or tension, and at the end of it I didn’t feel as though anything was at stake. In fact, I was a little unclear what the point of the raid was, aside from just stirring things up.
*. Both scenes share that sense of quiet, underplayed professionalism, but I didn’t find them particularly compelling. Ditto for the bus station scene, where (again) nothing much happens but we get a quiet build-up to a payoff that never arrives. At least we were spared the torture though.
*. I called these scenes “quiet” but that only refers to the dialogue. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score isn’t underselling anything.

*. I like it when Macer (Emily Blunt) asks Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) what’s going on and he replies “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now we’ll just keep an eye on the time.” That’s a good line and I’m quoting it because it’s the only good line in the movie. This is a movie where nothing interesting or even of any import is said.
*. In other words, I didn’t care for the script. The dialogue is part of it, but the story is weak too. The plot is total nonsense. Emily Blunt’s Macer is a proxy for the audience, not knowing what’s going on. We’re with her. But then we find out what’s going on and it’s just a throwaway, and an unconvincing one at that. These guys are really worried about legality? They couldn’t find a more pliable FBI agent to adopt? Someone they could be sure of? And what is poor Reggie getting dragged along for?
*. Come to think of it, what even happens to Reggie? At one point I thought the team had just killed him after they came out of the tunnel. I don’t think that’s what happened, but we don’t see him again. So, maybe.
*. Alejandro’s one-man sassault on the drug lord’s home struck me as a really routine action-movie fantasy, with the hero taking vengeance for the murder of his family. I didn’t buy it for a minute and thought it seemed out of place.
*. Del Toro’s Alejandro is only another version of Javier Bardem’s Chigurh: an implacable and laconic force of fate embodying a cynical philosophy that has the world divided into predator and prey in a land of wolves. Apparently there were immediate plans for a sequel to Sicario based on his character. Because why not? We like superhero franchises.

*. The cast got a lot of praise. I don’t think they had to work very hard. Brolin and Del Toro could play these characters in their sleep, and Del Toro looks like he may have been trying to do just that. Emily Blunt has absolutely nothing to work with so just tries to get through things as blankly as possible. This gave me a new appreciation for what Villeneuve saw in Jake Gyllenhaal. He can do blank better than almost anyone and was Villeneuve’s true huckleberry.
*. I’ve heard that the script described Juarez as “a living hell.” The mayor of Juarez urged a boycott of the film because it presented a bad image of the city. But he also said that it was accurate enough up until about 2010, when things started getting better. That didn’t strike me as boosting the hometown very much.
*. At the end of the day I thought this was just a slick action flick with a generically vague script. It looks nice and scores some style points for not being so damn loud and frantically edited. Give Villeneuve and Deakins credit for that. But I don’t think it makes any profound political or moral point and I don’t think it’s as effective or original a piece of filmmaking as it was hailed as being on its release. Still, if they were to set up an Alejandro vs. Chigurh death-match in the sequel I’d probably watch.

Enemy (2013)

*. I really like Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, but when I was reading it I don’t think there was a single moment when I thought it needed to, or even could be, turned into a movie.
*. I bring up Saramago because Enemy is a film that invites and resists interpretation and you might be thinking that reading The Double will help you to a deeper or clearer understanding of what it’s about. I recommend reading The Double, but not for any light it will shed on Enemy. For starters, there are no spiders in the book, giant or otherwise.
*. The spider imagery is a good example of what I said about inviting and resisting interpretation. Spiders are obviously central, but they have no explicit meaning. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the cast signed a confidentiality agreement forbidding them to speak to the press about the spiders. This suggests that there was a correct and secret meaning to them, though I think it might all have been part of the promotion.
*. For what it’s worth, my own reading of the spiders is pretty straightforward and I think widely agreed upon. They’re meant to symbolize the women who are trying to catch Adam/Anthony in their web (i.e., force him to commit and settle down).
*. So much, so easy. Things get more complicated, however, when we start trying to unpack what is “really” happening in the movie.
*. Let’s stick with the matter of the doubles. Here are the main possibilities:
*. (1) Only Adam (the history professor) really exists. Anthony (the actor) is just a fantasy. But to make this work, Adam has to be married to Helen (Anthony’s wife) and there is no Mary. The radio report of a car crash is about some totally unrelated accident.
*. (2) Only Adam really exists, but he pretends to be Anthony on the side. This is the split personality thesis. Adam/Anthony is thus really having an affair with Mary, posing as . . . Adam. Hm. I suppose this means that Mary dies alone in a car crash for some unrelated reason, but the whole business with her noticing the mark from this wedding ring makes no sense. I also wondered how he was affording the rent on two apartments without his wife noticing any red flags.
*. (3) Adam actually has a doppelgänger, for whatever supernatural or science-fictional reason (perhaps a device being used by the government in some future totalitarian Toronto). The double, Anthony, dies and Adam decides (or resigns himself) to settling down with Helen. She thinks this is a good idea too, though with her own misgivings.
*. That third possibility is usually discounted, if it’s brought up at all, but I’m not sure it should be dismissed so quickly. For one thing, it’s very much embedded in Saramago’s novel, which draws on the literature of the fantastic. Here the fantastic elements seem clearly identified with mental states (anxiety, dreams), but perceptions can be reality.
*. I don’t think there’s any easy way of sorting this out, even though many of the explications of the film seem to end with the notion of their being only one protagonist with a split personality. There’s a basic problem with this though. For example, it raises the question of why Adam’s fantasy life is being led by Adam and not Anthony. That’s a weird sort of fantasy. Adam is the part of the personality he’s trying to escape from.
*. There are also issues with regard to the time scheme that are unresolved and probably unresolvable. Is the trip to the sex club something that happens at the beginning of the story, or the end? Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference and we are just meant to understand that our hero is stuck in a loop, the historical “pattern” that he lectures about.

*. All of this is very clever, and fun to puzzle over, but I think the point of it is just to jazz up the otherwise obvious reading I began with: that what we have here is just the story of a middle-aged, slightly introverted man who is anxious about settling down and becoming a father. The idea of the hero having a split personality isn’t very original or engaging by itself. Fight Club is probably the best known recent example, but it’s a plot with a long history, going back to films like De Palma’s Sisters. Also, the complexities of Saramago’s novel, which depend a lot on metafictional conceits, are hard (though not impossible) to translate to the screen. This leaves Denis Villeneuve playing with a pretty limited bag of tricks, involving a lot of misdirections and red herrings.
*. I don’t want to give the impression from any of this that I didn’t like Enemy. In fact, it’s one of my favourite movies of this decade. I don’t think it’s as complex or as deep as some have made it out to be, but it is serious and thought-provoking, original and well made. It’s sad they didn’t keep Saramago’s twist at the end, but I don’t they could have given the streamlining they’d done to the theme.
*. It also stars Jake Gyllenhaal. Jake Gyllenhaal always strikes me as someone who is coming down off something. For what it’s worth, I thought he made a more credible Anthony than Adam. In the latter role he seemed affected to me, and I got tired of the stutter.
*. I lived in Toronto for ten years. God what an ugly city. As I recall it’s even worse in reality than it looks here.

*. It has to be more than just laziness that makes me think of Cronenberg here. More than just Villeneuve and Cronenberg both being Canadians with a thing for psychological thrillers, or the weird plot (are Adam and Anthony dead ringers?), or the way the foreboding architecture is used to make people seem like test subjects in some lab experiment (Adam teaches at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, which is a Cronenbergian location as well). No, there’s something else.
*. The fear of the other sex, for example. Or the insect imagery, which has it that instead of a man turning into a fly we have a woman turning into a spider — and note how bug-like Anthony appears in his motorcycle gear. He’s not really a predator, he’s the prey.
*. But most of all I think it’s just a shared sense of subtle and quiet unease. We are not at home in this alien world.
*. I was going to say something appreciative of the photography, and specifically the burnt orange and yellow colour scheme, which makes Toronto seem an urban desert (and Villeneuve does like the desert). It’s certainly a lot warmer than my own memories of the place, which are all painted in a couple of shades of grey. It’s also nicer than the aquarium colours (predominantly blue and green) that have become the default for so many horror movies lately.
*. But then I began to wonder why so many films are going this route, settling on a specific and quite limited palette instead of making a more dramatic use of colour to create a deeper sense of space. So much of today’s photography seems bleached or tinted and that’s it.

*. I’ve mentioned before how much I love a scene where we get to see a character just thinking. So it should come as no surprise that the moment in the movie I like the best comes when Helen (Sarah Gadon) is considering what to do with this man in her bed. What makes this especially wonderful is that it’s not that we know something she may or may not have figured out (that this isn’t her husband), but that she knows something we don’t and perhaps never will, which is Adam/Anthony’s real character.
*. I want to end with that because it’s a high note and I really did like Enemy. I wouldn’t have thought The Double a likely work to be adapted into a successful film, but I think they took the right approach here, staying true to most of the story while taking it in some interesting new directions. There are layers here worth peeling back, but something at the center that I don’t think we can ever get to.

Prisoners (2013)

*. When a movie works it’s usually the result of a team effort. All the pieces have to come together just right. Failure, however, can be the result of a single bad element. The bad element in Prisoners is the script by Aaron Guzikowski, which was considered a very hot property but took a while to develop. What were they thinking?
*. All we have here is a bog-simple serial killer story, expanded to inordinate length (and, reportedly, the film was going to be even longer). Yes, there’s a twist at the end. But the final explanation for everything that is going on, which stitches together all the various gruesome findings that Detective Loki has been turning up, is so stupid that we’re left tossing our hands in the air. Really?
*. As ludicrous as the plot is, it could still have been cleared up in about five minutes if anyone involved in such an elaborate, generational conspiracy had the ability to talk. This is something they are either unable or unwilling to do, which makes no sense at all. Alex knows what’s going on and what he’s being asked, but for some reason clams up in the face of all Keller’s punishment. Admittedly, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) doesn’t seem to know the first thing about torture (just beating someone to a pulp isn’t very effective), but why won’t he answer the questions put to him, except in laconic riddles?
*. Then there’s Bob Taylor. He also knows what’s going on but apparently has a bad case of PTSD. Or something. Anyway, he’d rather blow his head off than actually reveal anything. Joy has some excuse (she’s drugged up), but even later she’s in no condition to tell the police exactly what happened to her and Anna because . . . well, just because if anyone did that then there wouldn’t be a movie.
*. By the way, I think I missed how Joy escaped. Was she let go? For what reason?
*. Even at the end we have Anna, who presumably could tell the police where her father might be, or at the very least help with their investigation of the murder property, just sitting and staring at Loki, saying nothing. What is with these people? Reticence is made into a fetish in this movie.

*. So the script, for me, turned into a deal breaker. I didn’t credit any of it for a second. I could cut these notes off now, but I guess there are a few other things to say.
*. Prisoners was Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language feature, which is enough itself to give the trashy proceedings some extra weight. It’s a good looking movie, even when the dominant visual motif is of seeing things through a glass darkly. A significant amount of the film is shot looking through dirty windows, rain and mud-streaked windshields, and filthy or clouded mirrors. Apparently Melissa Leo even asked the prop department not to clean her character’s glasses at the end of each day’s shooting.

*. David Thomson really, really didn’t like Prisoners, calling it “hideous, cruel, degrading, depressing, relentless, prolonged, humorless, claustrophobic, and a mockery of any surviving tradition in which films are entertaining. And 153 minutes.” In particular he singled out the look of the film (which I liked): “the dreadful territory where American films are occurring, nowadays, places where nature has succumbed to development (and then development has been abandoned). You look at the place and think, Good God, do people have to live there? . . . Pictures go in search of real, cheap places to do their work, and America begins to look like a Soviet wasteland where the decaying billboards for forgotten advertisements bind up our wounds.”
*. This is a good rant, but I don’t think it’s fair. Actually the film is set in Pennsylvania (but was shot in Georgia), and while Thomson might not want to imagine people living in such an environment, many do. I think it looks like the same sort of locale where Buffalo Bill hailed from in The Silence of the Lambs, and I thought both the interiors and exteriors were realistically and dramatically rendered. Yes it’s a grim setting, but Villeneuve has a thing for these post-apocalyptic urban and natural landscapes. Keller is preparing for end times that have already arrived.
*. The other thing that follows from this being a Villeneuve movie is that nobody smiles. His universe is joyless, and his characters (I’m speaking of all his movies here) seem to walk around stunned by loss and misfortune. One gets the sense they don’t much enjoy being alive. Even the villain in Prisoners just goes about killing as some kind of grim duty.
*. I think it was the director of Donnie Darko who said that Jake Gyllenhaal really impressed him by how long he could go without blinking. I wonder if Villeneuve was thinking of that when he gave Loki the tic of blinking all the time. I can’t think of any other reason for it.
*. For all the intelligence implied by his improbable name, Loki isn’t that bright is he? And he sure as hell doesn’t believe in having back-up. As for driving like a madman to the hospital at the end instead of calling for an ambulance, I’m totally at a loss.
*. I think Hugh Jackman has more talent as an actor than he usually gets to exercise, but this is a lousy role. The movie unfortunately splits into two threads, which becomes a problem when what happens in one thread is a lot more interesting than the other. Loki’s investigations are interesting, in a very routine police-procedural way. The scenes set in Keller Dover’s torture crib are silly, ineffective, and dull.
*. Is there some kind of moral point being made? Not much of one. I guess just the usual one about the cycle of violence and the pointlessness of torture, themes that Villeneuve seems attracted to. But beyond that? Does Keller’s faith redeem him in any way? It’s given a lot of attention, and contrasted with the anti-faith of the killers, but ultimately I don’t see anything made of it.
*. So it’s longer than the usual psycho thriller and is an attractive production, tricked out with the distinctive languorous look favoured by this director. But at the end of the day it’s a formulaic and stupid script that can’t carry the weight it’s asked to. I think it needed to be either more serious or more fun. I would have enjoyed it more if they had played it as trash.

Incendies (2010)

*. I like Incendies, but it’s a movie with a really big flaw.
*. I don’t mind the contrived plot, which was taken from a play by Wajdi Mouawad that was in turn inspired by the story of Souha Bechara. Denis Villeneuve was attracted by its likeness to Greek tragedy, which is hard to miss. The coincidences would be hard to take without such classical precedent. We have to believe they are all due to the workings of fate.
*. Then we come to the reveal at the end, which like Greek tragedy (and maybe all tragedies, really) has the story turn inward on itself, being a family tragedy. But my response was not so much surprise as bafflement. I was confused. How did this work?
*. My confusion was based on a misunderstanding of the movie’s time scheme. Let’s outline what happens. Nawal Marjan has a baby that is taken from her. Then she moves to the city and gets involved in politics. This eventually lands her in prison, where she spends fifteen years, at the end of which she is raped and gives birth to twins. Later she moves to Canada, where she gets a job in a law office. The twins grow up. Then Nawal accidentally meets her first child, who turns out to be the guy who raped her in prison. Thus the father of the twins is also their brother.
*. That’s weird, but the revelation has none of the power of the similar reveal at the end of Chinatown. This is because in Chinatown it comes as a real surprise but the logic of it immediately strikes us in the face. In Incendies it’s not a huge surprise and it doesn’t immediately make sense.
*. The problem, the “really big flaw” I began by mentioning, has to do with the dates. Nawal is, I believe, played by the same actress throughout the film, which covers a time span from her teenage years to sometime in her seventies (I assume). This was probably necessary given the film’s fractured time scheme. If they didn’t have this consistency the audience might have gotten lost.
*. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of making the viewer mentally compress the time scheme. In short, I didn’t see how Nawal’s son could be all grown up by the time she’s done her time in prison. I had assumed the time lapse between her giving birth to him and then being arrested was around two or three years. Instead it seems to have been nearly twenty. Then Nihad (her son) at the end seems to be much too young. I know it should all be theoretically possible and that I’m just reading it wrong, but this doesn’t ease my gut sense that it doesn’t add up.

*. I think it’s a testament to Villeneuve’s eye that he’s able to make a story this compelling and powerful out of such improbable and confusing material. He does it with a style that would go on to become his trademark, and in particular a camera whose quiet (but not slow) movement is full of implied threat and casual doom (amplified by some heavy strings). His landscapes, urban or desert, are burned out, and his characters are similarly burnt out, shell-shocked cases. You don’t see too many people smiling in a Villeneuve movie. There’s a pathetic scene in Incendies where Jeanne is invited into a circle of village women to have tea and she seems like she’s almost enjoying the moment before getting slapped down by reality in the form of the village matriarch.
*. It bugs me, but I can overlook the problem I have with the timeline. What I love is the overall flow of the picture, as well as the stand-out set-piece scenes like the harrowing bus massacre and Narwal’s moment of anagnorisis at the pool. Villeneuve’s pacing is a relief coming from the usual hyper-edited Hollywood light show and there’s no denying his eye for the visionary mundane. He asks that we notice things on a human scale, and makes the case for why this is important. As his career took off this was a personal style that he would be hard pressed to defend.

The House of Fear (1945)

*. By this point the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series was humming along nicely. They were, however, losing altitude. After a string of successes — Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of DeathThe House of Fear is a bit of a let down.
*. It’s “based on” the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips.” At least that’s what it says in the credits. But it has absolutely nothing to do with that story aside from the business of orange seeds being sent to the victims just before they die. They don’t even keep the number of seeds the same since we start off with seven pips. And I couldn’t figure out why they were bothering sending such a warning in the first place.
*. I suppose few people today even know that a pip is a seed. It may have been a more widely used word in 1945, but The House of Fear was still a catchier title.
*. The actual plot is hard to follow. Something about an insurance scam. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through without a major payoff. But for sheer gruesomeness it’s pretty startling. The ghoulish way the killers cover their tracks must have raised a few eyebrows in 1945. Or maybe audiences back then weren’t shocked by the thought of people being blown to pieces, to the point where the only way of identifying them was by way of upper class dog tags like cufflinks and rings. There’s no direct mention of the war in this film, but it’s there all the same.
*. Speaking of gruesomeness, there’s a cut in this film that caught my attention. Right after discussion of the mutilated body found on the beach — one that has had its head, arms, and legs removed — and the observation that these limbs had been removed cleanly, as though by a surgeon, we cut immediately to a close-up shot of the suspicious Dr. Merrivale slicing the leg off a turkey.
*. That’s a cut (no pun intended, I’m talking about the edit) that has become a cliché, especially in horror films. You’ll see a gleaming knife held aloft, a woman screaming . . . and then there’s an immediate cut to another knife slicing into a birthday cake or a hunk of roast beef. It’s a clever little joke and seeing it done here made me wonder who did it first.
*. The House of Fear is a light bit of fun, but it doesn’t have a strong villain and the plot is confusing. There is a lot of familiar banter between the leads. The problem-solving involves following footprints in the sand and the discovery of a secret passageway. You can’t go wrong with the classics. Bruce’s Watson is played a little thicker than usual for comic effect. Lestrade shows up and (as usual) doesn’t help much, but he’s really part of the furniture now. You might as well just sit back and get comfortable here.

Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

*. Mario Bava considered Five Dolls for an August Moon to be his least favourite (or worst) movie, which, given his prodigious output, is quite a badge of bad merit.
*. I don’t think it’s anywhere near his worst work, and indeed I find most of it quite watchable. To be sure it was done on the cheap and in a mad rush, but so were most of Bava’s films. And as I’ve said before, I think these constraints actually inspired him.
*. I’m pretty sure no one understands the plot of this movie on a first viewing. The twist ending is both (a) ludicrous; and (b) thrown at the audience so quickly that it’s hard to follow. I certainly couldn’t figure it out until someone explained it to me. Sodium pentothal bullets? What?
*. Perhaps it makes more sense in Italian. I watched the English language version, where at least I got to enjoy lines like: “I can’t figure out whether you’re dangerous or just stupid.” “You forget: I like men but I like them to be alive.” “A cheque in my brassiere? I hope you find it.” “It looks like we’ll all end up in this damn freezer. Am I right?” and “When my father shoots animals with sodium pentothal they never talk, they just lie there and sleep.”

*. I’ve heard some suggestion that Bava deliberately sabotaged a project he was a late replacement on and didn’t feel any personal investment in. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that he pulls back on the violence, preferring to present the victims more as objets d’art. This starts right at the beginning with the reveal of Edwige Fenech as an erotic statue. The bouncing glass balls lead us to a tableau of a woman dead in a jacuzzi. Another body is revealed on the beach, with painting paraphernalia scattered about as though it was about to become the subject of a still life.
*. Most remarkable of all in this regard is the shot of Jack lying among assorted fruit and vegetables (including a very strategically placed carrot). The arrangement here is quite obviously meant to recall nature morte, to use the more suggestive French way of referring to these things.

*. There’s quite an interesting genealogy to follow. The main source is Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with its story of a group of people being killed off one by one on an island they’ve been invited to. Bava seems to have been not much interested in all that, and in his next film, A Bay of Blood, he took things in a different direction: away from the well-constructed plot and toward shocks and thrills. The next step would be Friday the 13th and the slasher film with bodies piling up around the remote cabin in the woods. So . . . Friday the 13th is Agatha Christie’s great-grandchild.

*. The sixties flavour is a lot of fun. I don’t usually think of Bava’s crazy zooms as being part of that whole psychedelic-a-go-go style, and I don’t think that’s what it originally came out of, but it fits in perfectly here.
*. The impression I get is that the whole thing was treated more or less as a joke. Those bodies hanging in the freezer can’t be taken seriously, and you just have to throw your hands up and laugh at the ending. Still, it’s nicely shot and Bava arranges all the pieces nicely. There’s even a touch of Morel-like surrealism in the visit of the sailors to the mysteriously empty beach house. The killers are directors too, and not without a sense of humour. Maybe Bava thought none of it was any good, but I can’t believe he wasn’t having fun.

Alleluia (2014)

*. A nurse. The most terrifying figure in all of modern life. A bureaucratic guardian at the gates of life and death. A dark fetish stereotype, invasive and maternal. Helpless in our hospital beds, they have us at their mercy. As the film begins she moves her hands over a male corpse, the camera not sparing us the puddle of pubic hair and terminal flacidity. Then she looks at the camera. At us. With a look that says . . . what? You see what I have done? To this end you must come. You’re next. I’m not fucking around.
*. I really like Alleluia, a French-Belgian co-production directed by Fabrice Du Welz. It’s based on the true crime story of the 1940s Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, which was most famously filmed as The Honeymoon Killers (1960). But it is so bold a reimagining of the events that it made me all but forget its earlier treatments.
*. It’s a harsher tale than The Honeymoon Killers. For starters, it’s closer to the events it’s based on in a couple of uncomfortable ways. The Martha character (named Gloria here) is a divorced woman with a daughter (Martha Beck had two children). Also, the real Martha Beck did start her career as an undertaker’s assistant, preparing bodies for funeral.
*. But what really sets it apart from The Honeymoon Killers, at least for me, is the absence of any campy humour.
*. This is a point that I think I have to expand on. I was surprised when reading reviews of Alleluia to find so many references to it as a horror comedy full of black humour. Did I miss something? The Honeymoon Killers is a horror comedy. Martha eating her bon-bons in bed and Ray swishing his ass in our face make them into comic stereotypes as much as they are real people. Their victims are also quite deliberately sent up. The miserly lady taking them to dinner at the cafeteria is only the funniest example. Piety and patriotism both get the satiric boots put to them.
*. Where is there any of this in Alleluia? I find it telling that the only scene that people seem to agree on finding funny is the one where Gloria can’t stop herself from laughing at how Michel is stringing along the Catholic lady, but she (the Catholic lady) isn’t a comic figure is she? The grasping priest is, a bit, but he’s only a one-liner.
*. There’s a bizarre operatic interlude where Gloria sings over a victim’s corpse that has a Sweeney Todd sort of air to it, but I found it more weird than funny. It seems a bit like the bizarre dance at the pub in Du Welz’s Calvaire. In any event, it’s a one-off.
*. You might just convince me that there’s something comic about Gloria’s rapid degradation from introverted professional woman to an almost pre-verbal idiot sibling on a hair trigger for hormonal meltdowns. But even here I thought the presentation more disturbing and realistic than comic, even with Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas in the role.
*. I wonder if, given the times we live in, some people look at any sort of extreme cruelty and laugh at it to show either how tough they are or how they’re in on whatever the joke is supposed to be. But I also grant that I may be missing something.
*. The cinematography by Manuel Dacosse received a lot of praise, but I have reservations about the film’s look. It has a gritty documentary feel akin to The Honeymoon Killers, albeit achieved through different techniques (grainy film, jarring editing, uncomfortable close-ups), but Dacosse, who also shot the stylish Amer, sometimes seems to be trying too hard. In particular I don’t understand the fascination with shooting through various obstructions, like a dirty window, a curtain, or a partially closed door. This is rarely a good idea, and yet people keep doing it.

*. One place, however, where I think this obstructed view really does work, because it means something, is in the scenes where we go back and forth between Gloria and Michel in the restaurant during their first date, and then later in bed. In both scenes we only see half of the face of either, the other half being blocked as though in eclipse by the other’s head in the foreground.
*. This works because it makes a point. Gloria and Michel complete each other, as the old saying goes. They are two halves of the same being. They each have a bright, smiling side and a dark, mysterious interior. We never see all of either of them.
*. In praise of great sound effects: note the wet thunk as the axe strikes Solange’s arm. That’s so good you don’t mind that you don’t actually see the axe striking her.
*. Is the violence what makes it so raw? No, it’s the sex. In particular, it’s middle-aged women who don’t all look like models and who are horny. How often do you see that? Even in The Honeymoon Killers the women were caricatures, and their loneliness didn’t have much of a sexual component to it.
*. Most of all, however, what drives this movie are the two lead performances by Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas. They both manage to be weird without being cartoonish psycho stereotypes. It’s not often such characters have depth and come across as real people, but here they do. I don’t find them sympathetic, but they do come across as individuals being driven by urges they don’t understand and can’t control. That’s all on them, as it isn’t so much something in the script as it is in their faces.
*. There have been a lot of movies that have explored the folie à deux theme, from Gun Crazy through The Honeymoon Killers and Badlands up to the present day. I think Alleluia can take its place with all of these. Despite taking as inspiration a vintage crime it still manages to be contemporary: explosive, direct, and disturbingly gritty. There’s life in these old bones yet.

The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

*. The true story of a pair of serial killers, a classic folie à deux. But is it terrifying, funny, or sad?
*. That’s always the sense of unease that attends black comedy. Are we just making fun of these people (and their victims)? Are we horrified at their behaviour? Or do we find them sympathetic?
*. I think it’s to The Honeymoon Killers‘ credit that it balances all three responses. It has moments of shock and horror, some very funny scenes, and finally permits us some feelings of sadness, especially for Martha, the lonely heart till the end.
*. Well, everyone loves a lover. And whatever else you may think of them, Ray and Martha have the real thing. Their love, in Leonard Kastle’s words, was “their one redeeming feature,” and it counts for something.
*. They are also that familiar comic duo of the mismatched odd couple: the thin and sexy Latin playboy Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) wedded to the solid and threatening Venus of Willendorf (Shirley Stoler). They’re made for each other.

*. Of course they’re caricatures. We have to laugh at Ray shaking his ass in our face, or Martha lying in bed eating chocolate bon-bons. She will, in fact, always be stuffing her face: with pretzels, slices of toast dripping with jam, cookies. They seem to have been found waiting together for a casting call to a John Waters movie.
*. But while caricatures, are we meant to see these two, and Martha in particular, as evil or disgusting? As noted, she’s always eating. The camera doesn’t shy away from revealing her fleshiness. She’s not shot in a flattering way, usually presented in harsh lighting with little make-up. And yet look at what she has to endure. Being taken advantage of by Ray. Having to play the sexless third wheel to his string of worthless new lovers. Aren’t we rooting for her, at least a bit? As Stoler said of her character, she was “a hungry, lonely woman, who only wanted a very ordinary life with a man she loved.” Ray’s financial conquests were, to her, only obstacles to be overcome.
*. It’s a movie that’s sometimes compared to John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I don’t see much of a connection beyond the obvious. Henry is a film unrelieved by any sense of humour and doesn’t make us feel anything for its pair of unredeemable killers.
*. I’ve also heard it described as being shot in a documentary style, but I think that’s misleading as well. Aside from the use of caricature and satire, it’s actually filmed in a very stylish way. I love the delayed pan around the room to reveal Ray and Martha listening to the Lincoln story being told, the repeated use of a three-shot, and the incredible close-up on the eyes of the final victim as Ray and Martha discuss her murder (was this something Tobe Hooper was taking notes on?).

*. So instead of “documentary” we might say “realism” (a contemporary review even called it “super-realist”) but even here I think the label is a stretch. Yes, there is a kitchen sink and it’s clear these people don’t live elegant lives, but the story itself is a dramatic heightening of the everyday.
*. Here’s another label: American. Francois Truffaut famously declared it his favourite American film, and I wonder how much emphasis he wanted to put on the adjective. Ray and Martha are romantic entrepreneurs, struggling upwards (or outwards, to a cozy suburb). Theirs is an American dream, a pursuit of happiness that either makes them (and everyone around them) miserable, or kills them.
*. But America also comes in for a good deal of satiric needling: from the lady in the bath singing “America” while Ray and Martha rob her, to the Lincoln bedtime story. The ideal America is being undercut, but in 1970 there was a lot of that.
*. “You’re the hottest bitch I’ve ever seen.” That was still an insult in 1970. Probably not for much longer though.

*. I think Gary Giddins makes an interesting point about the latent misogyny on display: “Filmmakers almost always treat these predators with humor, as though rich elderly women who search for love deserve a sorry fate.” He points to Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux as early examples of the same type. What makes The Honeymoon Killers different is that Martha is both predator and prey. She was Ray’s victim before she took on the role of co-predator, and at the end she is back living in a True Romance dream world. So I don’t think it’s really misogyny so much as it’s an attack on romance itself as something phony. Phony and dangerous.

*. I don’t think it’s a sleeper, in the sense of an accidentally good film. And I say that despite the fact that Kastle was a newbie (a composer by trade) who never went on to make another movie (at least that I’m aware of), or that Tony Lo Bianco or Shirley Stoler, who were both stage actors, ever did anything else as good (though Lo Bianco did land some other memorable roles). The thing is, despite it’s low budget this is a very well made movie. Lo Bianco thought most of the credit went to cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Stan Warnow, and there’s no question they did a great job. But as with any successful movie, everyone seems to have pitched in.
*. Though initially marketed as an exploitation flick, it’s far better than that. I wouldn’t call it my favourite American movie, but I do believe it’s a great one, and a landmark in its own right.

The Night of the Devils (1972)

*. The Night of the Devils comes to us courtesy of the same Tolstoy story (“The Family of the Vourdalak”) that served as the source for the second tale in Bava’s Black Sabbath, where the family patriarch was played by Boris Karloff. I think that may be the most interesting thing to note about it though.
*. I don’t mean that it’s a bad movie, only that it’s very much what you’d expect from a low-budget (were there any other kind?) Italian horror film of this period.
*. The director, Giorgio Ferroni, had been active in the 1930s and ’40s and this was one of the last movies he made. I don’t think he was averse to this kind of material, but you still have to wonder how it would make someone feel to end their career on such a note.
*. As with most of its kind, you feel an odd disjunction in nearly every aspect of the production. It’s a classic story, but presented in a lurid, exploitive manner (including full nudity and gouts of red paint). The score, by Giorgio Gaslini, is beautiful but soars above the material (in a way that reminded me of Riz Ortolani’s work on Cannibal Holocaust). The effects, by Carlo Rambaldi (who went on to work on Alien, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) are crude but occasionally effective. The melting face actually looks pretty good. There are moments of real visual art, revealing an almost painterly eye, even when relating the most gruesome events.

*. Of course the most obvious disjunction is in the sound. That’s to be expected with a lot of European movies of this type. I’m not even talking about the poor dubbing here, but bizarre effects like the boiing! sound when the father picks up the statue in the witch’s lair, or the way one person climbing a flight of stairs is accompanied by what sound like at least two sets of footsteps, or the way a car pulling to a stop in a leafy forest clearing makes the sound of tires squealing on pavement. Our senses seem to inhabit different dimensions.

*. So the bottom line is that if you like this kind of thing, this is exactly the kind of thing you’re going to get. You get zooms. Lots of zooms. You get eyes peering through cracks. In the opening dream montage you even get a skull covered in maggots, a note of pure Fulci that comes out of nowhere.
*. Since I do like this kind of thing, I enjoyed it. The pair of kids are a real treat, going from adorable cherubs sitting in a window to giggling demons. The twist at the end is pretty good. The story itself is a tight little package, and works itself out in the familiar but effective manner of a folk tale. As I say, it doesn’t stand out from a lot of similar Italian genre work of the time, but there’s nothing wrong with that.