Prophecy (1979)

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*. Prophecy fills almost all the boxes on the checklist of what you want to see in a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It’s a shame it doesn’t manage to pull it off, pace Stephen King, who, in Danse Macabre, uses it as an example of the “really horrible movie” that is nevertheless irresistible.
*. There is really only one irresistible moment. This is when the creature swats a little boy swaddled in a ridiculous yellow sleeping bag, sending him flying into a rock. Whereupon the sleeping bag explodes with a sound like popcorn popping, shooting downy feathers all over the campsite.
*. What makes this scene so remarkable is the way it seems clearly designed to be played for laughs (the boy attempts to bounce away from the creature while still wrapped up in his sleeping bag), and yet ends with such a shocking and emphatic way. You don’t often see children being killed, then or now, in horror movies. The result is a true WTF? moment, and I mean that in the best sense. But it’s not enough to save the rest of the film.
*. Things start off on a decent enough note. There’s a chase through some dark woods with a trio of hunters and a pair of hounds. They are attacked by something in the woods. There are roars and screams. So far, so conventional for the intro to a monster movie. But then there’s a nice transition to a tableau where we see the bodies of the hunters decoratively arranged at the foot of a cliff while some classical music plays, music we later see is being performed by Talia Shire.
*. That’s a good intro, but from here things go downhill quickly. We next mee our hero, a public health doctor who is clearly a crusader for whatever cause needs crusading for. He’s played by Robert Foxworth, who might almost be a double for Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what a leading man looked like in an SF-action/thriller in the late ’70s! Can you dig it?
*. Foxworth and Shire (who, I’m sorry to say, looks as hard done by as always), are sent to the woods of Maine to do some work for the Environmental Protection Agency. This introduces the movie’s main theme, which is eco-horror. There were a lot of movies like this in the 1970s. For some reason they fell out of favour. I’m not sure why. It’s not like the world’s environmental problems went away.

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*. I have nothing against eco-horror, but the Message here is so obvious and laid on so thick you just want them to drop it and move things along. The natives (or Original People) are in the right. The white man and his dirty industries are destroying the beautiful Maine wilderness (which is actually British Columbia). Mother Nature will be sure to bite back. So let’s get on with it!
*. The heavy Message is just one way the movie bogs down in self-importance. As Kim Newman puts it: “Prophecy is merely silly, but its throat-clearing, significant title and definitive ad line (‘The Monster Movie’) elevate it to the status of overambitious annoyance.” We’re talking about a mutant killer bear, people. No need to get all fancy about it.
*. Then, after half the movie has been spent setting up the ecological and mythological back stories, we finally get the monster. King thinks it looks “sort of like a skinned pig and sort of like a bear turned inside-out.” Most viewers found it disappointing. What bothered me most was that it walks around upright. That’s quite a bear (or boar) mutation. And it’s not scary because let’s face it: a bear walking on its hind legs just looks silly.
*. As an aside, I have to register a complaint against a horror cliché that I’ve always found particularly annoying. This is the idea that any man or animal poisoned with toxins or radioactivity doesn’t get sick but is instead blessed with supernatural size and strength. I mean, how did those pathetic mutant bear cubs, which look like the baby in Eraserhead, grow up into the fearsome Katahdin?
*. King: “George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead came out at about the same time as Prophecy (June-July 1979) and I found it remarkable (and amusing) that Romero had made a horror film for about two million dollars that managed to look like six million, while Frankenheimer made a twelve-million-dollar movie that managed to look like about two.”
*. Why does this movie look so bad? One thing I’ll flag is the way the scenes of the great outdoors are only establishing shots for action sequences that in turn often seem to have been filmed on studio sets. At least that’s what a couple of the campfire scenes look like to me. And studio “forest” sets always look cheap.
*. The raccoon attack starts off with a good jump scare, but (as was inevitable, because raccoons) turns into something unintentionally hilarious. Plus Foxworth should know that tossing a dead coon into his fireplace is going to stink up his cottage for weeks.
*. I should add that the raccoon scene got the production into trouble as they were apparently mistreating it very badly. Which is kind of ironic, given the movie’s message about respecting the environment.
*. It’s hard to think of anything this movie does well. Frankenheimer blamed his heavy drinking at the time for the film not realizing its potential, but I think another big problem was that he just wasn’t a natural fit for the material. I hear the novelization is actually quite good, but the script is dreadful, with lines like “You were too busy playing God to be a human being!” and important plot points, such as Shire’s pregnancy, simply forgotten.
*. I’d like to say this one is a guilty pleasure, but the fact is that it’s mostly just stupid and dull. It takes too long to get going, then once it does it forgets all about what came before and just throws a cheesy monster on the screen and calls it a day. At the half-way point there is a little moment of magic, but it’s just a pop of popcorn in the woods.

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Curse of the Cat People (1944)

*. I don’t think there’s ever been a sequel like this. We have all of the same leads in the same roles, and the same screenwriter and producer, but in almost every other respect it has nothing to do with Cat People. The scene at the beginning where the two kids spot the black cat in the tree had to be added after principal shooting because the studio realized there were no cats in the final cut of the film at all!
*. In fact, it seems to entirely reject the conclusion of Cat People, which I thought made it clear (though on the DVD commentary Greg Mank says it’s left ambiguous) that Irena did indeed turn into a cat (and hence “she never lied”). In this movie, however, with Oliver and Alice having left the big city for a cozy suburban existence, Irena is just a pitiable head case destroyed by her own fantasies: a cautionary tale for little Amy, who is assumed to be lying about everything, just like Irena.
*. Ann Carter as Amy is the real lead, being in nearly every shot of the film. Apparently she got her break in movies because she looked so much like Veronica Lake. She did some other films in the ’40s but then got polio which derailed her career.
*. Greg Mank considers this to be one of the greatest child performances ever, and praises Carter as “pretty, strange and sad.” I agree . . . sort of. She also seems very stiff to me, and her acting consists mainly of turning on the same two or three expressions. On the other hand, she really works in this part. So I guess I’d call it good casting.
*. This was Robert Wise’s debut as a director, but he actually shares that credit with Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired after he fell behind schedule. From what I can tell, Fritsch directed about half of the movie but I don’t know which half. Mank mentions on the commentary that a full breakdown of who shot what would “require more time than we have,” but he does mention that Fritsch shot all the Simone Simon stuff. In any event, I usually see it referred to as Wise’s movie because he’s the one who went on to have the bigger career and I wanted to be sure to mention Fritsch because I don’t think that’s fair.
*. Stephen King called out the first “Lewton walk” scene in Cat People because Alice was so obviously on a sound stage he couldn’t believe that she was really walking through Central Park. Film’s state of the art didn’t allow for what King refers to as “the set of reality.” Such a scene worked for audiences in the 1940s, but no longer works for us. Much the same could be said for Curse of the Cat People, which is almost wholly studio bound and which ends in perhaps the fakest snowstorm in screen history. But I don’t think you can level the same objection at this film because it’s quite consciously (and literally) a fairy tale. We’re in a world where any distinction between the real world and fantasy has been lost.

*. I love the slow revelation of the good fairy Irena. She arrives gradually: first just a reaction shot from Amy who then plays with her (invisible to us) friend in the garden, then a shadow and musical motif arriving in Amy’s bedroom, then a voice singing, then we see an old photograph of her, and then she finally appears to Amy in all her glory.
*. Some people don’t like Irena’s get-up. I don’t mind it. It seems like the kind of thing a little girl might imagine a fairy princess wearing. Mank, weirdly, thinks her appearance is a bit “kinky” and imagines her wearing fishnets under her gown, or nothing at all. Usually I’m on board for such speculations, but here it seems a stretch. I think Irena looks pretty wholesome.
*. The whole subplot involving the theatrical Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her estranged daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, the Cat Woman from Cat People) is pretty darn depressing. Perhaps not as depressing as it was originally written, which had the story ending with Barbara being dragged off to the looney bin, but still quite a downer. I mean, there’s no reconciliation, and while Amy is happily absorbed back into her family Barbara is left to slink away into the darkness. I wonder if she’ll go on to become the mad lady of that old house, filling it with hundreds of adopted cats.
*. Given how different a movie this is from Cat People I don’t think there’s any way to compare the two. Curse of the Cat People certainly takes the idea of the “imaginary” monster as far as it can go, as I think we’re left to assume that all the Irena stuff we’ve seen was in Amy’s head. When Wise made The Haunting, which also drew into question the source and real presence of the story’s evil, it was intended as an homage to Lewton.
*. As Mank says, the people who like Curse of the Cat People like it a lot. I find it stagey, kitschy, and sentimental, and yet I fall for it every time, finding it a moving film despite how obviously manipulative it is. Like the best fairy tales it’s both darkly realistic and pure fantasy, presenting imagination as both dangerous and a force of grace. It’s accessible to children, but with a quality about it that I think adults respond to as well. Or at least I respond to it. But then, I’m a bit of a sap.

Cat People (1942)

*. Cat People is famous today mainly for two scenes where Irena (Simone Simon) is stalking Alice (Jane Randolph): the first following her through Central Park before Alice catches a bus and the second in a basement swimming pool. It is also a movie that has become a byword for horror that scares us by not revealing its monsters or just relying on jump scares and shock effects.
*. I mention this first just to get it out of the way. Yes those two scenes are good (though I think perhaps a bit overrated), and yes the film gets a lot of mileage out of being suggestive rather than explicit. But on my re-viewings — and I watch this movie a lot — I tend not to notice the building of suspense as much. What interests me are more pedestrian things.

*. For example, I wonder what the “good, plain Americano” boy Ollie sees in Irena anyway. She seems so insipid with her cutie-pie face and lilting little-girl voice that makes even her most dramatic lines sound like baby talk. Was she using some kind of cat magic to seduce him? Or did he just see her as a stray that he wanted to take in? At one point he seems to think he’ll be able to normalize her by marrying her, which is as deluded as those women who think they’ll be able to change a man by getting him to settle down. But I guess we all fool ourselves in the same way when we’re in love.
*. Obviously Alice is the girl for Oliver. They’re made for each other: the all-American couple. She has an outstanding collection of hats but doesn’t have any exotic (read: foreign) vibe going on. Indeed, Jane Randolph wasn’t just made for Kent Smith (his real name!), but made for the part of the good girl playing opposite the vamp. She’d be doing it again in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where she’s the foil to Lenore Aubert.

*. Given the obvious mismatch, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Irena. We get the sense she’s really trying, but this marriage is going nowhere and Ollie is a heel. He betrays her right away when he goes through Alice to find a psychiatrist, and utterly humiliates her at the museum when he sends her off to go look at something modern while he and Alice share their common passion for model ships. The dialogue here is cruel: “Don’t send me away.” “We’re not sending you away. We just don’t want you to be bored.” After a moment like that, it’s hard not to think Ollie gets let off easy at the end.
*. Speaking of the end, that final line is another kick at Irena isn’t it? “She never lied to us.” It was “us” (Ollie and Alice) all along. And not lying? How good and plain Americano is that? As though, in the face of this revelation of authentic supernatural horror, such common decency not only matters, but is the only thing that matters.
*. A final note on our sympathy for Irena: how sad is her little attempt at a wave good-bye to Oliver on the grand staircase after she takes her final leave of him? She’s just killed Dr. Judd, which was a kind of act of loyalty. And she knows now that Alice is taking her place. But I guess she still has feelings for Oliver, even if he has moved on.

*. Cat People came out a year after Citizen Kane, and RKO was looking to recover its fortunes with cheap, commercial, horror movies. It also came out a year after The Wolf Man and it very much plays to the same archetype, and makes a clear nod to the werewolf mythology when Dr. Judd jokes about needing a gun with a silver bullet to face Irena. Irena the werecat even frightens cats in her human form, just as dogs will lunge and bark at Lawrence Talbot.
*. So we go from dogs to cats, men to women. It was actually pretty daring at the time to have a female “monster.” There weren’t many of them in early horror films.

*. I’m not sure where Tom Conway’s Dr. Judd fits in the history of screen psychiatrists. The movies really didn’t know what to make of psychiatry yet, and while later they would become heroic healers able to unlock the secrets of the mind, here we’re presented with someone who is just a seemingly dignified (but secretly lecherous) hypnotist. And yet, he is not without a heroic dimension too, finally being cast in the role of a latter-day King John ridding New York of an Old World evil.
*. The script by DeWitt Bodeen is kind of hammy and obvious, but I think a lot of that came with the territory. Overall, I was impressed at its structure and economy.
*. Animals are notoriously difficult to work with, so let’s give a special wet treat to the hissing kitties in this film and, most of all, the black panther Dynamite. Get a load of that look he gives Irena when he sees her stealing the key to his cage. You (obviously) can’t teach acting chops like that!

*. The scene with Irena and Ollie on either side of the closed door is well known, but I’m not sure how all that plays to a contemporary audience. Of course back in the 1940s you couldn’t show married couples sleeping in the same bed, but the idea that even months after being married Irena and Ollie can’t even sleep in the same room seems ridiculous. Nevertheless, was this scene being slyly parodied in The Wicker Man when Britt Ekland does her mating dance on the other side of the door from the repressed Sgt. Howie? I think it must have been in someone’s mind.

*. What a beautiful looking film, especially with the lighting. I like the use of the light tables in Ollie’s office in particular. You know cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s eyes must have widened at the possibilities there. Also terrific is the play of light off the water that makes shifting liquid patterns on the walls of the swimming pool. That’s what makes that scene work.
*. I think this is a truly great B-picture, but I’m not sure it transcends that label. Pauline Kael: “Lewton pictures aren’t really very good, but they’re so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary.” I think this is maybe a bit harsh. There are real moments of excellence in the production here, and the frank, if allegorized, portrayal of sexual jealousy and betrayal stands up very well. As I’ve said, it’s a movie I find myself re-watching quite a bit, and I’m almost always being struck with something new about it. That’s pretty special for a B.

Gravity (2013)

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*. It’s often been said that movies are as much a business as they are an art. This is something no critic should lose sight of. I would, however, make it a triumvirate. Movies are an art, a business, and a technology, in roughly equal measure.
*. It follows that successful filmmakers are either great artists, shrewd businessmen, excellent engineers, or some combination of all of the above.
*. You’ll have guessed where I’m going with this. Gravity was one of the more critically-acclaimed movies of 2013 and went on to win seven Academy Awards. These were mainly for its technical achievements, which were inventive and ground-breaking. Trophies were handed out for Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Score (Steven Price). In other words, it looks and sounds great.
*. Alfonso Cuarón is the kind of director I think of as an engineer. Other Oscar-winning engineers include James Cameron and Peter Jackson. Those with longer memories may think back to Victor Fleming. These are the guys you want helming your mega-budget blockbusters because they know how to get all their ducks in a row.
*. I’m not putting these directors down or pigeon-holing them, but just saying that this is the kind of thing they do really well. More to the point here, this is the kind of movie Gravity is. It spent a lot of money on effects, and it spent that money well. As noted, it looks and sounds great. But . . .

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*. But that’s it. They spent $100 million on a ten-cent script. Of course this has been a successful formula for Hollywood for years. And Gravity took in over $700 million in box office, so who cared if it was about two of the dullest characters you could imagine floating around in space as one thing after another goes terribly wrong? You weren’t really meant to care about Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) or Dr. Smooth (George Clooney).
*. Personally, I think it would have made for a more compelling movie if they hadn’t given the two leads any back story and just made them pure professionals. But in any event, they’re not what the movie’s about. You’re here to gaze in wonder at the magnificent view of the sun rising over the Sinai, and gape at things flying at you in 3-D.
*. I like how it attracted so much intelligent commentary. Critics (amateur and professional) had a field day arguing over how realistic it was. Apparently the whole business of the orbiting space debris is way off. The only part that bothered me was when Clooney let go to save Bullock, since I didn’t see how he would have been dragging her down anyway, but this point has been argued back and forth by people who know a lot more about it than I do.
*. Sure, it’s entertaining in a rollercoaster-ride sort of way. But the best film of the year? I can’t think of any reason I’d watch it again. In the future, I think computers might be able to make movies like this. And I’m afraid they may make them just as well.

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Death Line (1972)

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*. What makes this movie so interesting, and so good, can be boiled down to its time and place.
*. The time was 1972, which is two years before the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This gives it pride of place when discussing a gritty film about a feral “family” of cannibals. The remarkable long camera pan around the meat cellar — seemingly drawn out even more by the drip-drip-drip and heart beat we hear on the soundtrack — reveals a design comparable to the furnishings of the grisly homestead in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was in turn one of that film’s most noteworthy elements. So let’s give this film some credit for being ahead of the curve. I mean, the British horror industry at this time still mainly consisted of the neo-gothic and anthology comic books of Hammer and Amicus. Death Line is clearly a very different beast.
*. The place was England. As noted, not a country whose film industry was known for horror. The director, Gary Sherman, was American though, and this was his first dramatic feature, which probably helped in some ways.
*. As we listen to the groovy score playing under the opening credits, which are themselves run over a series of out-of-focus blobs of coloured light that bulge psychedelically, it’s hard not to think of the hard times that “swinging London” had fallen on.
*. The fact that we’re in England is also important for the mythic shape the story takes. In America the cannibals live out on the frontier, off the main highway somewhere. They are rural figures, obviously lower class white trash, but they are mainly divided from the rest of civilization by geography.
*. In England the degenerate subway dwellers are an underclass in the rigid social hierarchy. They have proletarian roots, as the descendants of navvies who were buried alive when excavating the subway and then left to rot. Their undoing is in killing James Manfred, O.B.E. (that means he’s an Officer of the Order of the British Empire). The scruffy detectives will take a lot of pleasure insisting on that O.B.E., and in a final dig it’s still attached to his name in the credits.
*. The class hierarchy is something that informs the entire movie. Donald Pleasence is a rumpled figure who enjoys life’s simpler pleasures (tea during working hours, a pint at the pub later). When he goes to Mr. O.B.E.’s house with his assistant Rogers he tears a strip out of the décor before being humiliated by a toff from MI5: an ultra-posh Christopher Lee with the hyphenated ruling-class moniker of Stratton-Villiers. Pleasence protests that he is the master of his manor and will prosecute any villains (or villeins?), but this is empty bluster and they both know it.
*. Of course underlying all of this is Wells’s The Time Machine, with the underground workers literally feeding on the upper classes. That’s a staple of a lot of science fiction, but it doesn’t crop up quite as often in horror. The Descent is one counter example, but the dominant tradition in American horror anyway is, as I’ve said, to situate such baddies in an anti-Romantic rural ghetto or wilderness. I guess that might have something to do with a more egalitarian society and the myth of the frontier, but I won’t pursue this point here.
*. Another English vs. America divide can be seen in the different titles the movie was released under. Death Line is pretty good, being original and yoking together the idea of the Man representing the end of his family line with the subway stop being a dead end for various passengers. In America, however, it was released as Raw Meat. Just because.
*. It was also released with a poster that is one of the most egregious examples of false advertising you’ll ever see. It looks like it’s going to be about a whole “tribe” of super-sexy zombies. Which it isn’t.
*. As far as the movie itself is concerned, I think it’s very good but not because of anything Sherman does. It seems to me there are a lot of opportunities for suspense wasted. Sherman went on to direct Dead & Buried, another cult horror favourite, as well as other thrillers, but I never get the sense that this is what he wants to be doing.
*. I like watching Donald Pleasence in just about anything, and he seems very at home here. And Hugh Armstrong is excellent as the Man, giving him all the pathos of Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein. And I do think Sherman helps out, for example with the long shot of the Man’s mourning after his wife’s (mate’s?) death in childbirth, which really emphasizes a sense of isolation and loneliness.
*. It’s also a relief to see the Man get taken down so easily in the various fights he gets into. Yes, he’s very big and strong, but he’s also wracked with illness and seems to have a serious head injury. He’s not one of those killer supermen we see in so many, more conventional horror films. In this respect I compare him very favourably to the radiation-sickened powerhouses in The Hills Have Eyes remake.
*. The script also strikes me as very good, balancing the obvious comic elements with the horror. The ending in particular underlines this. What are we to make of Inspector Calhoun going through the Man’s underground home and muttering that it’s no way for someone to live? Understatement yes, but comic? And what about the Man’s chant of “Mind the doors!”? It’s absurd, but also pathetic.
*. There are parts that don’t work as well. The young leads, for example, strike me as uncomfortable and almost unnecessary. But despite any miscues it’s such a well-executed and original little film that it makes a lasting impression. More than enough, I think, to assure it a place in the underground horror hall of fame.

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The Boy (2016)

*. While I wasn’t expecting much out of this film I ended up liking it quite a bit. It’s so nice to say that. Today’s movies don’t all get me down.
*. The premise is very familiar in many ways. The young woman being left all alone in the ginormous, spooky old house. The creepy doll. The jump scares that turn out to be dreams and end with our heroine waking up in a sweat. The phone lines going dead, the power going out. The killer who is very hard to kill. The ending that leaves at least the theoretical possibility of a sequel. We’ve been here before many, many times.
*. But there are differences too. I thought the underlying story, with its genuinely surprising plot twist, was actually quite interesting and made . . . well, just enough sense. I won’t say it made a lot of sense, or was wholly credible, but I didn’t give up on it entirely. I’ve certainly seen much worse. I also liked that there were parallels drawn between the Heelshires and Greta and their psychological dependence on the Boy. It’s all pretty freaky, but I thought it worked.
*. I also liked the restraint. This isn’t a gory or particularly violent movie. Indeed, until the final act almost nothing happens at all.

*. Victoria’s Craigdarroch Castle is quite a pile, and I guess they needed a really massive old house for the plot to have any credibility, but the place seems so extravagant it almost takes away from the creepiness.
*. It’s borderline comedy how Greta keeps that towel on all the time she’s investigating the attic. She must have wrapped it pretty tight!
*. No, this isn’t one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in the last few years. There are a few too many clichés indulged in, and the ending seems not to have concerned anyone. But it was better than I thought it was going to be and was decent enough in its own right.

Pin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988)

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*. What a strange and uncomfortable film. And yet undeniably effective.
*. Canada doesn’t get enough appreciation for its great little horror movies. Everyone knows the name of David Cronenberg, but there are also lots of other quirky classics like, for example, Ginger Snaps, Cube, and this movie. All in all, horror is probably the genre Canada does best.
*. Pin takes its mythic chassis from Psycho, only Leon is the repressed young man whose personality is split with a plastic anatomy dummy rather than the effigy of his dead mom. Like Norman hiding his violent self behind “mother,” Leon hides his psychopathy behind Pin.
*. So the story itself doesn’t break a lot of new ground. But it’s handled in such a surprisingly thoughtful and mature manner that it stands head and shoulders above the ocean (I was going to say pool) of crap that flooded screens in the 1980s. I mean, I don’t think we even see a knife being brandished once. “Pin” may be a killer, but he’s no slasher.
*. Yes, the psychologizing can be heavy-handed. We get it that mom was a neat freak and dad was . . . Terry O’Quinn. So authoritarian and odd. Plus seeing the nurse use Pin as a sex doll would have scarred anyone, and attending his sister’s abortion might not have been healthy for Leon either. But I give the script credit for presenting us with this much back story and making it interesting. I mean, we never do find out what Norma Bates did to little Norman.
*. A man chopping wood is almost always a bad sign, isn’t it? At least that’s what I thought when I saw Leon with his axe building up the wood pile. It made me think of James Brolin in The Amityville Horror. I only learned later that the script for Amityville Horror had been written by Sandor Stern, who wrote and directed this movie. So maybe it’s just a personal association.
*. The cast is great. David Hewlett looks eerily plastic himself, especially with that haircut. He also has the ability to tilt his mouth at a striking angle. Cyndy Preston isn’t just a scream queen as Ursula but someone we can relate to.
*. They did a good job with the dummy, and an even better job casting Jonathan Banks (probably best known as Mike Ehrmentraut on Breaking Bad) as Pin’s voice. With his flat reasonableness he reminded me a bit of Hal in 2001, the computer that goes insane. I also like how Pin seems to become progressively bossier and less empathic as things go on. With his final words, doesn’t he even display a certain contempt for Leon?
*. Ah, once again with the old, bizarro-world cliché of being trapped in a house where all the doors are locked from the outside. It takes Ursula coming home to rescue Marsha. Now how much sense does that make?
*. Oh, these introverted families and their isolated homes. Gothic nightmares all play the same way (the author of Pin, Andrew Neiderman, became the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews after her death, and wrote the stage adaptation for Flowers in the Attic). “A good job is worth more than the money, it’s good for the mental health,” their aunt tells the new orphans. Good advice. At least a job will get you out of that damn house.
*. I can understand why this wasn’t a bigger hit. It’s too quiet and understated for its own good. And yet it’s presented with real professionalism throughout, and despite its familiarity in so many regards (the Psycho angle, the evil-mannequin angle, the gothic horror angle), it has a unique feel. Horror in the ’80s wasn’t all bad. It’s just that sometimes you have to look hard for the good stuff, and only find it hiding someplace weird.

If …. (1968)

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*. One response to watching this film today is that without some experience of the English class system and/or English public boarding schools you’re not going to really understand it. But then the school was always meant to be a metaphor or microcosm, and when all hell breaks loose in the final minutes you realize we might still be in Kansas, or Colorado. That explosion of rage is universal.
*. I’m reminded of the second film version of Golding’s Lord of the Flies (released in 1990), where the stranded schoolboys go from being British to being American military cadets. I think every critic who reviewed that film when it came out made the obvious joke that American schoolkids were already murderous savages so that what happened was no surprise.
*. Fair? Probably not, but we’re talking about national mythologies here and in a global culture they all start to bleed into one another anyway. I mean — or at least one of the things I mean — is that the Girl at the end is clearly Patty Hearst years before she joined the SLA. I do think If …. has a resonance that takes it outside its particular time and place, something that was very much Lindsay Anderson’s aim (note the lack of any contemporary “swinging” music on the soundtrack). But I don’t think it takes us far outside a more basic, almost biological ambit.

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*. OK, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. Let’s start with the obvious: what is the problem at College House? Repression. The authority figures are all closet (or semi-closeted) cases, taking their sadistic frustrations out on the kids. If you’re starting to hum Pink Floyd’s The Wall about now, you know what that was coming out of.
*. Our animal passions need an outlet, in squirts of blood or sperm (or both). Even the few female characters we meet are snarling beasts of fury beneath their matronly facades.

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*. Given this rebellion vs. authority, id vs. superego dichotomy, I wonder if something more could have been done with regard to the most-talked about aspect of the filmmaking: the jumps between colour and black-and-white photography. Apparently the initial decision to go with this arose out of problems they were having filming inside the chapel, but from there it was driven by “intuition, pattern, and convenience,” without any heed to thematic relevance. This is much the way Oliver Stone uses it in movies like JFK and Nixon: to set up a visual rhythm. Malcolm McDowell thought it was totally arbitrary, an aspect of Anderson’s anarchism, while Michael Medwin describes it as “purely economic.” My point is that given the movie’s theme it could very easily have been used in a way that worked in combination with that theme. Or would that have been too obvious?
*. It’s interesting how often what seem to be important creative decisions are brought about almost by accident or through improvisation. The changes in film here are a good example, but another is the striking nude wrestling scene in the roadside diner. According to Malcolm McDowell it was just as a suggestion he made to Anderson, so that McDowell could get to roll around naked with Christine Noonan. And it turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the film.

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*. To bleed, or not to bleed. When Mick gets cut during the duel scene it’s obviously meant to be a turning point. He is amazed at the sight of “real blood,” and later he’ll initiate his chums into the plot by making them blood brothers with cuts on their hands. But in the final battle scene the only blood we see is when the headmaster is shot between the eyes by the Girl. To a contemporary audience, used to lots of exploding squibs or CGI geysers of the red stuff, it all looks pretty silly.

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*. I don’t think the absence of blood in this scene was a creative decision, though some people have seen it that way. They point to how the climax is all a fantasy, something that is underlined by one particularly bad or at least noticeable edit where the quad is full of people and then miraculously cleared a second later.
*. But blood would have involved all kinds of problems. For one thing, squib technology was still pretty new. I’ve mentioned before in my commentaries on Night of the Living Dead and Bullitt — both released in 1968, the same year as this film — that both those films claim to have been the first to have used them (which is historically incorrect but still a point worth keeping in mind).
*. There might also have been a problem with censors, whom they had already provoked enough to receive an X rating.
*. And finally there is the matter, again, of economy. The crowd was apparently made up of extras who had been told to wear their Sunday best, so it’s doubtful Anderson could have got them to go along with becoming victims of a bloody massacre.
*. But to return to my original line of thought: what does it all mean?

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*. School sucks. Even I’ll sign on to that, and I never had it half this bad. But more than that, what we have here is a familiar burst of ’60s anti-establishment violence. Only here we have to ask what it’s all in aid of.
*. In his Criterion essay, critic David Ehrenstein says that “If …. is about both dreaming and mastering, revolting against the status quo and daring to imagine what it might be like to put something else in its place.” I think this goes too far. What is this “something else”? What sort of new society is being born at the end? Even if the rebel forces never run out of ammunition and manage to kill all the screws, so what? Would this usher in the Age of Aquarius? Free love? Anderson was a self-professed anarchist whose only desire was to tear the whole system down. He didn’t have a model (as some anarchists do) for what was going to take its place.
*. The reason the question is worth asking is because we know what Sixties rebelliousness resulted in: not much. If the story of If …. was about anything, Anderson said, it was about freedom. Can we avoid hearing an Austin Powers “baby!” after that? Is this all that freedom means? A chance to run away with our beautiful lovers?
*. No. Sex is secondary. On the commentary track David Robinson says that in 1968 there was still an air of nobility that attached to revolutionary acts, and that this was the film’s true meaning. “Death to the oppressor” and “liberty” are the rebels’ watchwords. Their targets helpfully come in uniforms: the bishop, the general, the headmaster, the fellow in a suit of armour. By all means get rid of these clowns. But then what?
*. Then nothing. Robinson on the commentary gives the last word to Anderson: “While there are still minds to be moved, imaginations to be stirred, a true film may yet perform its explosive, life-enhancing function. We may yet be revenged.” That final note, I think, is key. Revenge is all.

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*. All of which suggests that the ending is more Columbine than revolution. The massacre is a total dead end: a revenge fantasy and not a political act. There is no larger meaning.
*. Revenge is a powerful and dangerous emotional force. It’s always been a favourite of drama, back through Elizabethan days all the way to the plays of the Homeric cycle. We want our stories to give us a sense of seeing ultimate justice being served, of scores being settled, of things being set right. So while it would be nice to see our youthful heroes riding off into the sunset with their girl- and boyfriends, that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is bloody vengeance.
*. I like anger in filmmakers. I think it’s a great fuel for art. This, however, strikes me as something different, as just being mean. Maybe that’s what Kubrick saw in McDowell. For all the idealism and “nobility” of the revolutionaries of the 1960s, it wasn’t a big jump from Mick and his fellow crusaders to Alex and his droogs.

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Hardcore Henry (2015)

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*. I’ve written before, quite a lot actually, about how the dominant action film aesthetic of the twenty-first century has been that of the video game. This informs everything from character (negligible) to plot (episodic levels featuring challenges of rising difficulty), and most of all to visual texture, encompassing such things as perspective, editing, composition, and mise-en-scene. What you are watching, if you are watching a Hollywood blockbuster today, is a cartoon or comic-book fantasy animated with CGI. In other words, a video game.
*. My notes on recent action films have, in particular, pointed out how often fight scenes now just resolve into first-person shooter (FPS) games. See, for example, what I’ve said about John Wick, or the remake of RoboCop (both 2014). Hardcore Henry takes this a step further, being nothing but an extended FPS. See for yourself (while imagining a rock soundtrack, classic or contemporary, playing in the background):

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*. I don’t want this intro to make it sound as though I hated Hardcore Henry. It’s important to register though that it’s a movie more indebted to various video games and video game franchises (Doom, Call of Duty, etc., etc.) than other films. Yes, there’s a nod to the early POV noir Lady in the Lake, and the opening, with Henry being awakened, recalls the resurrection of RoboCop in the original film, but these are incidental. The source material here is all FPS. In the final battle we even have Henry “powering up” twice (with a replaced battery and a double jolt of adrenaline) before using a bunch of floating bodies as platforms to jump from, much like Mario himself. It’s that kind of movie.
*. The reason I think it’s important to note this is because this is a movie that, even among its critics, gets a lot of credit for being highly original. I don’t think it is, since it contains nothing the target audience wouldn’t already be very familiar with. The POV business is a gimmick, and not an original conceit by any stretch of the imagination. Even if you’re not a gamer, the look is much the same as any of the more frantically paced shaky cam films of the period, like Rec and Cloverfield.
*. Another thing Hardcore Henry gets a lot of credit for is the quality of the stunts. I wonder how people can even tell. There’s a lot of parkour-style running and jumping around that made me wince for the damage being done to someone’s knees, but the more spectacular stuff was so choppily edited I couldn’t tell what was going on most of the time. What’s the point of having great stunt work if you can’t see it?
*. But like I say, I don’t want to just hate on this movie. It’s not my thing, but there’s no denying its energy. I didn’t think the story made any sense, or at least wasn’t explained adequately, but I enjoyed some of the absurdist humour provided by the character of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and thought the crotch-sniffing, psychokinetic villain Akan was interesting enough. It’s just that the whole thing left me feeling a special kind of empty, like I’d just watched a 90-minute trailer or some guy playing a game online. For a movie that puts so much stock in putting you into the driver’s seat, it’s an alienating experience. You end up feeling less like a participant than a spectator for a bit of fun that somebody else is having.

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The Lineup (1958)

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*. This is a movie that was based on a television series, which in turn had been based on a radio show. Given the date I think it must have been one of the earliest such migrations.
*. Director Don Siegel had been involved with the TV show (he directed the pilot), but wanted to do something different with this movie. Specifically, he wanted to ditch the police-procedural part of the story and just focus on the trio of gangsters gathering the heroin. The studio, however, insisted on the tie-in to the TV series. Some might disagree, but I think this was wise, as I don’t find the villains here as interesting as many seem to. I don’t think they could have carried the whole movie.
*. It’s sometimes described as a film noir, and it’s even packaged as such in the first of Columbia’s Film Noir Classics sets, but I don’t think the label fits. Most of the key noir elements are missing. I’ll mention three.
*. First, there’s no sense of moral ambiguity. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is described as a pure psychopath, and there’s no reason to doubt he’s just bad all the way through. The only inner conflict he feels is in trying to keep his rage in check. “He pushed me too far!” is a great line — but only for Wallach’s delivery.

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*. Second, it’s a day film. I’ve mentioned before how San Francisco has never struck me as a noir town because it’s just so bright and pretty (see my notes on The Sniper and Where Danger Lives). That sense of prettiness is emphasized even more here because all the action takes place during a single cloudless, fogless day (with no night scenes). And it’s not a city of grime or shadows. The settings are almost all very tony and attractive, with the junky driver’s room being the only exception I can think of.
*. Third, there’s no femme fatale. Indeed, there’s only one woman in the cast, and she’s a hostage (and single mom) who doesn’t provide any erotic spark. This lack of women opens the door for the kind of crazy speculations that James Ellroy makes on the commentary track about how many of the characters in the movie are gay. I think he goes further down this road than is warranted based on the evidence, though something is clearly being hinted at in the steam room scene, and the ambiguous relationship between Julian and Dancer, neither of whom seem attracted to women (Julian thinks they “have no place in society”), is up for grabs.

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*. These three items aren’t determinative (apparently Eddie Muller and Ellroy consider the great theme of noir to be “we’re fucked,” which is certainly the case here), but in my book they count against considering The Lineup as a film noir. That said, it is a decent crime film.
*. Eli Wallach got star billing in what I think was only his second feature (after Baby Doll). For some reason he reminds me of Joe Pesci here. They have the same air of comic, weaselly menace. Of course given the role of Dancer he basically steals the show, but I think he would have managed that anyway. Eddie Muller: “there’s something scarily attractive about that character, you’re going to see a lot more of it in American movies after this.”
*. Everybody else, even the other crooks, seems ’50s square. I think there’s only one scene where they take their hats off.
*. The locations are fascinating, even if they do give the film a bit of the feel of a tour of SF landmarks after a while.

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*. The direction is certainly “proficient” (Ellroy’s word) but also has a lot of nice flourishes. You have to love Dancer shooting the housekeeper being reflected in the mirror. Big style points for that one. Then notice how that scene in the crime lab at the beginning where they discover the heroin in the statuette is all done in one take. That’s pretty impressive as the camera moves around quite a bit and the scene moves through several distinct phases of exposition Then we’re taken to the opera house and a lovely tracking shot following our two detectives through the colossal halls. And even Manny Farber, who didn’t much care for Siegel, admired the Hitchcockian “minor masterpiece” of the Sutro’s Museum sequence.
*. Which brings us to the car chase. Siegel liked car chases (he’d already done at least one very good one in The Big Steal), and here he offers up an excellent mix of back projection (which Muller thought Siegel probably hated, but which he nevertheless handled very well) and dramatic locations (most obviously the Embarcadero Freeway, still under construction). Muller goes so far as to call it “the best car chase done in a movie up to this point,” and he may be right.

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*. I wonder if it was that easy to pick up women in 1958, or if audiences at the time found the aquarium scene ridiculous. Forget the fact that Dancer’s a dangerous killer, even if he’d been on the level would he have been able to get such a woman to trust in him so quickly and so completely? Ellroy calls his method “the con of male isolation,” but I’ve never known that to be such a winner.
*. But then the entire plot is ridiculous. Ellroy: “never in the history of crime has something like this gone down, with the multiple kidnappings and murders . . . it’s a specious construction.” You can’t think about it for a second. Eddie Muller mentions how the whole plan would fall apart if Dancer didn’t happen to meet the cleaning lady in the hall of the hotel who tells him where his last mule has gone, and he’s right. But you can’t ask questions like that of a movie like this. It’s not built to make sense. I mean, Dancer doesn’t even have a remotely credible cover story for just walking into the Sanders mansion and getting them to give him their flatware. And the idea of taking the woman and her child hostage so that she can explain to the Man what went wrong is beyond ludicrous.

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*. Even aside from the absurdities, the plot seems to me to be a very rough piece of work. What was the point of Raymond Bailey’s character Dressler? Just to introduce us to the mechanics of drug smuggling via unwitting mules? Surely that information could have been presented in a way more integral to the main action, as Dressler is dropped completely after the first third of the film and is never returned to.

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*. As with any genre flick you have to appreciate the little perverse twists. Here these would include Julian’s collection of last words, the strange figure of the Man, in a wheelchair no less, and the little girl who winks at Dancer before the nuns take her away. What was that all about?
*. Today there’s more of a formula for this sort of film, but at the time this was a pretty daring piece of work. It’s still great fun, full of memorable if not quite classic moments. I’m surprised it isn’t better known, as it holds up well as entertainment. Looking into it as deeply as I can, I can’t see it as aspiring to be anything more.

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