Ant-Man (2015)

*. If you’re looking hard to find some significance here it may be in the comic evolution of Marvel films. Sure they always had a sense of humour, what with wise-cracking superheroes and an awareness of their own absurdity, but with Ant-Man you get something that’s a big step toward a superhero comedy. A proto-Deadpool, if you will. And even if you don’t care for such levity, it’s more welcome than those awful Dark Knight movies of Christopher Nolan. But then, could you imagine Christian Bale cracking wise?
*. It’s a good thing the tone here is so light, as it has to carry a very slight, very improbable, and very predictable plot.
*. I was wondering, before things got started, just how they were going to get started. I mean, we know the basic outline cold by now. Ordinary guy (even billionaire Tony Stark is very much an ordinary guy) gains super powers through some kind of accident. He has the usual problems adjusting his personal life to fit the new circumstances he finds himself in. There’s usually an older mentor figure who is involved at some point, and an evil corporation or alien force (sometimes allied) with designs on global domination. So as you take your seat you just want them to get on with it.
*. Well, at least things move quickly, even if there are no surprises. This is a movie that doesn’t want to surprise us. Is there anyone who didn’t think the safecracking business was a test right from the start? Or that Darren Cross was going to double-cross our heroes? You had to know that even without knowing his last name.
*. They even make a joke of this at times, especially with the running gag involving sucker punches. The person being punched is always taken by surprise, but I don’t think the audience ever is. And the movie knows this. It doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve.
*. And yet it still works pretty well. The good guys are all likeable. Paul Rudd has that “scruffy yet buff dude” look that has become dominant for male leads (I mistook him for Ben Affleck in Gone Girl). Michael Douglas is decent. Evangeline Lilly comes close to stealing the show, in a part that is very poorly written. The three “wombats” are conventionally funny.
*. Where things fall down is with the villains. They aren’t interesting at all, and their motivations are only a throwaway. Basically they’re just Lex Luthor and Hydra ex machina (who the hell are those guys anyway?). Eventually it all comes to seem very much like the first Iron Man movie. Which, again, is something the movie is aware of. Michael Douglas makes the point early that his particle is far more significant an invention than Iron Man’s fancy suit. Because he knows you’ve already made the connection.
*. This knowingness could be annoying, and I guess it is a bit, but it’s all kept very low key. We go through all the obvious dramatic stageposts, like Hank Pym telling his daughter Hope about what happened to her mother, or Lang and Paxton bonding at the end, but then they’re undercut with a grin and a wink at how this is all just a “moment.”

*. Maybe it’s this winking knowingness that helps paper over what I found to be a rather disturbing scene when Cross miniaturizes a corporate enemy into a dab of goo and then wipes him up off the floor and flushes him down the toilet. I found that rather uncomfortable, but given the movie’s attitude of “it’s just a movie” it doesn’t carry any weight. Still, I wish they’d left it out.
*. Little people have always been a popular subject for effects films. Yet despite all the advances that have been made from the days of The Devil-Doll, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tom Thumb, Gulliver’s Travels, and Fantastic Voyage, I didn’t find the effects here very compelling. I never had the sense of a tiny person in an oversized world. Maybe it was how fast everything was cut. Maybe it was the way Ant-Man was able to keep zipping back and forth from big to small. Maybe it was the fact that small Ant-Man has increased atomic density (or whatever) and so is just as strong as when he’s full-size, so he is in no real danger from angry kittens or vacuum cleaners. Or maybe it was the way CGI makes everything look fake. Whatever it was, I just didn’t feel involved in the microworld. Though the Thomas the Tank Engine stuff was cute.
*. One thing that did strike me as interesting was the idea of the fully wired hero. I guess Iron Man is somewhat the same thing, but Ant-Man, with his hacker friend, helmet that puts him in constant communication with everyone, ant-mounted cameras seeing everything, and special insect telepathy powers (that make no sense at all and which the movie doesn’t even try to explain), is networked. It almost seems like someone should be controlling him with a joystick while everyone else watches him live online.
*. It could have, and probably should have, been a lot worse. It’s incoherent and slapdash. There’s a whole scene of Ant-Man breaking into the Avengers mansion to steal . . . something, which is just an excuse to tie the character in to the rest of the Marvel universe. I guess. The jokes are lame. As noted, the plot is predictable, and also improbable in the extreme. I mean, ant-sized people who hold on to ICBMs while in flight? I can’t even begin to explain all the things wrong with that. Finally, the action scenes struck me as unexceptional. I couldn’t get into any of them.
*. Nevertheless, it has a kind of goofy charm that has become the Marvel house style. This helps smooth things over. Like all the Marvel movies I can think of (or remember) it’s certainly not worth watching twice, but it’s painless the first time around.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

*. Richard Matheson’s novel was just titled The Shrinking Man. Hollywood added the “Incredible.”
*. They wanted to add some other stuff too. Most obviously a happy ending where the doctors find a cure and Scott Carey becomes a big person again. But, remarkably, the test audiences went well and they stuck to what Matheson (who had insisted on doing the screenplay) had written. Which, despite its note of spiritual uplift, is pretty darn bleak. Scott is disappearing into solitary nothingness. This may lead to his finally becoming one with the universe but only in the sense that we all do when we dissolve into our irreducible atoms. As Stephen King remarked, he’s just reached the acceptance stage of finding out that his condition is terminal.

*. To be sure, there are significant changes made to the novel. The curse of Scott’s sexual frustration, most notably, is gently elided. Scott and Louise don’t have a kid, so there is no babysitter for him to ogle. And the theme of humiliation — as Scott is progressively infantilized and feminized — barely registers. In the initial stages of his shrinking, when they just think it’s weight loss, Louise teases Scott that he can live a child’s dream world and eat nothing but ice cream and cake, but this is dramatic irony, not mockery. And the scenes in the novel where Scott is beaten up by a gang of kids and molested by a dirty old man are both dropped. There was a fairly large page-to-screen gap in the 1950s.

*. I don’t imagine Matheson was at all bothered by any of these changes. He was a commercial writer and he wanted a hit to get him started in the film biz. For example: in the story Scott’s basement nemesis is a black widow spider. Matheson knew a black widow spider doesn’t spin a web but he wanted that type of spider anyway for thematic reasons, and the black widow has a resonant name. In the movie the spider is changed into the even more improbable tarantula, which also doesn’t spin a web. But so what? Would anyone care? Not a chance.
*. Mostly it’s an effects movie, and I thought these were pretty good considering the time and the fact that this wasn’t a big-budget picture. Some of the process shots look a bit cut-and-paste, and at one point Scott’s body turns transparent, but for the most part it works well. Scott’s playing with the oversize props (pencil, mousetrap, scissors) was a lot of fun. I was a bit upset though that Clarice, the circus midget, wasn’t a midget at all but a beautiful actress given the same treatment as Scott.
*. The one effect that had me wondering was the giant waterdrops falling from the water heater. I assumed these must have been balloons. In fact they were condoms filled with water.

*. They got a good performance out of that cat. Cats are notoriously hard to coach, but “Butch” seems to have come through. The scene where Louise is sure Butch has eaten Scott, and then we see Butch coughing as though on a hairball, is wickedly funny, though audiences at the time might have found it upsetting.
*. It’s a great novel, predictably popularized by Hollywood. But they didn’t change as much as I thought they would have, and the ending in particular maintains a kind of bleak dignity. Other movies would make use of the same conceit, shrinking a woman, shrinking the kids, shrinking a submarine, but they wouldn’t have the same weight as this one. Which is why we still remember it, when all the other tiny people have shrunk away to nothing and disappeared.

Casino Royale (1967)

*. The one word you’ll see used in almost every review of this movie, both contemporary and appearing more recently online, is “waste.” I’ll just quote Leslie Halliwell, who called it “One of the most shameless wastes of time and talent in screen history.”
*. It was certainly a waste of money, going over double its original budget, and indeed coming in as more costly than the “serious” James Bond films being made at the same time. Money was just being thrown around. Woody Allen was amazed that he was put up in an expensive hotel for weeks before they even got around to shooting his scenes. It was that kind of thing.
*. More than money, however, it was a waste of talent. I mean Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, David Niven, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, a really nice performance by Joanna Pettet, the beauty of Ursula Andress . . . plus at least five directors (the final sequence was co-directed by the stunt coordinator), and maybe twice as many screenwriters. Included among the latter group were names like Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder, whose early drafts were tossed. Waste, waste, waste.

*. The other word that gets used, only slightly less than “waste,” is “mess.” Those five directors and dozen screenwriters should give you some idea of what is meant by this. Everybody here was just doing their own thing, and nobody seemed to know what anyone else’s thing was. Roger Ebert thought it “a definitive example of what can happen when everybody working on a film goes simultaneously berserk.” An opinion shared, I think, by everyone who has ever seen it.
*. Ebert’s review though helpfully reminds us that there were actually quite a lot of comedies in this vein coming out at the time. Chaotic zaniness was part of the zeitgeist.
*. That said, it’s really hard to overstate just how big a mess this movie is. The plot is completely incoherent, with none of the big or little pieces connecting in any way. What’s with that car wash scene? Who are those women? What’s the point of Evelyn’s dream after being drugged, which comes complete with its own theme music? Why present that big floorshow just to introduce the character of Mata Bond? Doing up the spy school to look like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was certainly interesting, but what the hell was the point? You can’t make any sense out of this film.

*. The result plays a little, or a lot, like a variety show: a feature-length Laugh-In. Aside from the bits with Woody Allen none of it is very funny. The timing is all wrong for comedy. The cameos become disruptive and alienating, and include in-jokes that I’m not sure many people will get today. The “Born Free” music plays when a lion jumps on top of the sedan in the opening scene, for example. Or Stirling Moss (a race car driver) chases after the bad guys on foot while Sellers gets in a racing car. Or Peter O’Toole shows up playing the bagpipes and asking about Richard Burton. Or George Raft stands at a bar flipping a coin. In the closing credits he is billed as playing “Himself.” I wonder what that means.
*. Having said all this, I have to confess that I really love this crazy piece of crap.
*. I don’t know why. I’ve always been a big Bond fan, so maybe that’s part of it. I like watching such a talented cast tossed into the pool without a clue about what’s going on and responding in different ways (Sellers actually thought the movie was going to be played straight and not as parody). The sheer incoherence of the proceedings makes the whole thing into something like a psychedelic Rorschach test, letting us make what we will out of the shifting shapes and patterns that appear on the screen.

*. Most of all, however, I love the “Casino Royale Theme” written by Burt Bacharach. Ever since I first heard it some thirty or thirty-five years ago I’ve had it pop up in my head at all different times. The other big hit from the movie, “The Look of Love,” is better known (and a nice enough song in its own right, with vocals by Dusty Springfield), but Bacharach’s nutty theme is so good it even makes you forget about the (missing) canonical Bond themes. If there is a golden thread holding all of this mess together, it’s coming out of Herb Alpert’s trumpet. Great stuff.
*. Obviously this one makes you think of the Austin Powers movies, which only began arriving thirty years later. So if nothing else you have to give it credit for being ahead of the curve. And compared to those movies, I think Casino Royale holds up quite well as a bit of authentic nonsense.

The Beyond (1981)

*. Say what you will about the films of Lucio Fulci, the man knew how to talk the talk. Here he is defending The Beyond against critics complaining of its narrative incoherence: “People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: Any idiot can understand Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles, or even Carpenter’s Escape From New York, while The Beyond or Argento’s Inferno are absolute films.”
*. The notion of an “absolute film” sounds like Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” but that’s misleading. Pure cinema was a way of telling a story visually, but Fulci has no interest in story at all. “My idea,” he explains, “was to make an absolute film, with all the horrors of the world. Its a plotless film, there’s no logic to it, just a succession of images”

*. Those, then, are the ground rules. If you find The Beyond hard to follow then you just don’t understand that it’s a nightmare and isn’t meant to make sense. Don’t try to figure out what is going on, or why. Give up on trying to figure out who Emily is, what she’s doing, and why she has to be killed if she’s already dead. Or how that overturned bottle of acid just keeps pouring and pouring until it seems like it’s emptied a couple of bathtubs. Or how the doctor’s revolver magically reloads, and why he doesn’t understand, despite all the evidence he has in front of him, that you can only stop zombies by shooting them in the head. This film has nothing to do with such matters. Perhaps there are answers in the Book of Eibon, but good luck finding it!
*. We could even take this “absolute film” defence further. The Beyond is usually grouped together with two other movies — City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery — as forming what’s been called the Gates of Hell trilogy. These three movies have little in common aside from dealing with very local outbreaks of zombies. But why even expect them to be connected? If The Beyond isn’t internally coherent, how could it function as part of a trilogy?

*. I’m not a big Fulci fan. I’ve mentioned before how I think he’s the least talented — and that by a long shot — of the big three Italian horror masters (the others being Mario Bava and Dario Argento). He has little skill when it comes to building suspense, preferring to wallow in gore and to throw a bunch of images up on the screen that should be scary but rarely are.
*. Maybe it’s the lack of any sense of pace. Damn but Fulci’s zombies move slowly. They’re just barely ambulatory. Other times they only stand around like mannequins. Then there are the big fuzzy spiders. They crawl about their victim here with a distinct lack of urgency. This seems to be Fulci’s default pace. Horror approaches very slowly and steadily, like the creep of bloody foam coming up to the girl’s shoes in the morgue. But it’s never very scary, or even threatening.

*. The slow pace and lack of a coherent story, with some help from bad dubbing and bad effects, make for some funny moments. I don’t laugh at Bava or Argento, even when they’re really bad, but I find myself laughing throughout a lot of Fulci’s movie, even, or especially, when he’s at his best. There’s something so wonderfully silly and surreal about them. Like Emily being shown running out of the house over and over. What’s going on there? Or is that another question not to be asked?
*. I just mentioned bad effects, and that’s a point I want to underline. After all, if you’re selling your movie as just a bunch of unrelated images, those images had better be good, right? Well, they’re not. The dog and spider puppets look terrible. The effect the film keeps going back to is having faces dissolve into sludge: with lime or acid dumped on them, or being torn apart by spiders. But the latex and goo just look fake. And look at the watery blood pumping out of Emily’s throat when it’s ripped open by her dog (a scene stolen from Suspiria, by the way). That’s just ridiculous. It clearly isn’t coming out of any arteries.

*. Fulci also has a thing about going after eyes, and this at least gives The Beyond it’s one “good” (if physically improbable) kill as the spike in the wall is driven through the back of Martha’s head and punches out her eyeball from behind. I’ll give him one point for that. But it’s not as good as the eye being impaled with a splinter of wood in Zombie.
*. By that time, however, The Beyond was so far behind on the score that it didn’t make any difference. For some reason this is considered a bit of a cult film, though I don’t think it even rates that highly among Fulci’s other work. I’d rather watch Don’t Torture a Duckling or Zombie or City of the Living Dead again than watch this. As always with Fulci there are a couple of standout scenes and some interesting sets (the morgue, the flooded basement, the moonscape of hell), but that’s it. All in all it’s a turgid, waxy mess that isn’t well put together or original in any way. It may be “absolute film” but that doesn’t make it any better.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

*. This is the sixth of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (the first two were produced by 20th Century Fox, so this was the fourth by Universal, in case you’re confused by the commentary). If you’d been following along you’d be forgiven for thinking that the series was going downhill. And if you had such lowered expectations, you’d be in for a pleasant surprise, as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is one of the best.
*. The source, again adapted very freely, is the story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” (earlier adapted by a French company as Le Trésor des Musgraves). This is a good sign, as it heralds a return to the canon. Holmes is no longer fighting Nazi spies, as he’d been in the immediately previous films. As David Stuart Davies on the commentary track notes, Sherlock Holmes in Washington was “the least successful and the least liked of all the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies” so the right decision was made to get back to basics.
*. What the basics meant was an old-fashioned murder mystery set in a country manor full of eccentric suspects. It also meant that Holmes would be shown analysing the evidence and coming to conclusions using his famed powers of deduction. This is a real detective movie, and all the stronger for it.
*. The country manor is a rest home for allied officers, but aside from that the war isn’t mentioned. Instead, in Davies’ nice turn of phrase, the film “slips into a cozy time warp.” “Cozy” being the name given to a whole genre of domestic mystery novels that this film fits in with pretty well.

*. That time warp effect is also the effect of this being a Universal production. The Universal horrors all seemed to be set in a vague fantasy land, and here we’re in the same generic back lot that looks less like Northumberland than it does Romania. Not that it matters, since the same set was Wales in The Wolf Man. And even the Musgrave crypt is the same crypt set from Dracula. Reuse and recycle.
*. I’ve had occasion before to remark on the really poor job of subtitling done for the DVD release of these films (see my notes on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon). I don’t know why they’re so bad, since UCLA did a fine job of restoration and the DVD Complete Collection set is very nice. But in this entry they’re the worst yet. In the first place they’re very poorly synchronized, and in the second they are widly, sometimes amusingly, inaccurate. Brunton, for example, describes Geoffrey and his sister going at it “hammer and tongues.” “Mrs. Miniver” becomes “Mrs. Minivar.” In Sally’s recitation of the ritual the line “What foeman advanced? The bishop’s page, brashly” is rendered as “[inaudible] in advanced the bishop’s page brashly.” “Anno domini” becomes “domino” (with no “anno”). Finally, I believe when Sexton calls the Musgraves “lamb poor” (what it reads in the subtitles) what he really says is “land poor.” At least that makes more sense, as I’ve never heard the expression “lamb poor.”
*. Yes, I watch movies with the subtitles on. I’m getting old and can’t catch everything that’s being said. Though I think I could have made better guesses than those that were made by someone here.

*. The supporting cast, mainly made up of a stable of actors who appeared (in different roles) in a lot of these movies, is excellent. I have to single out Halliwell Hobbes as the butler Brunton however. Hobbes often played butlers and, like Rathbone and Bruce, he had the role down pat. Everybody here just seems so much more comfortable than they did in the earlier movies. That’s part of the coziness too.
*. The presentation is terrific. There’s an art in moving from page to screen, and this movie is a great example of how it’s done. The outline of Conan Doyle’s story is made into movie material by making it more visual and even auditory. There are so many examples of this: the chessboard floor and game of chess (not in the story), the thirteen chimes, the use of the false flashback, the way the raven discovers the body in the boot of the car, and the foregrounding of physical clues like the glove, the shoe, the rake, and the knitting needle. Sure most of these are red herrings, but the movie forces you to watch.
*. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Davies that the movie runs out of steam at the end. I think most people have figured things out by the final reel and it does seem like they’re just trying to stretch it out. I’d also agree with Davies that the murderer turns out to be “one of the most colourless villains ever to pit himself against Sherlock Holmes”. He is a bit disappointing.
*. Then there’s the closing homily, with Holmes telling us that “the old days of grab and greed are on their way out.” You know, in 1943 I think a lot of people honestly thought that way. And they probably did for a while after. Today it all seems so hokey. That’s our loss.
*. So a bit of a weak ending, but overall it’s one of the better films of this series. It’s not often a franchise manages to turn itself around like this. There were still a lot more movies ahead, but at least now they were on the right track.

Le Trésor des Musgraves (1912)

*. The French seem to have always liked Anglo-American detecive stories, from Poe to Agatha Christie, so it’s not too surprising that one of the first serials based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes came out of a French studio.
*. Le Trésor des Musgraves was one of several Holmes films done by the production company Éclair, directed by and starring (as Holmes) Georges Tréville. It’s based on the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” and sticks surprisingly close to its source. If you’ve seen the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce vehicle Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, based on the same story, you’ll notice that this production is far more faithful to the original.
*. For example, I’ve heard some people complain about this movie because it doesn’t have Watson in it. But in the story Watson is only introduced at the beginning, as an audience for Holmes. The case of the Musgrave ritual was one of Holmes’s earlier adventures and he hadn’t met Watson yet.
*. Given that this is a short, coming in at just over 17 minutes, the story has to be compromised somewhat. Even the ritual itself is abbreviated into a couple of directions for a treasure hunt. But the basic elements are still there, including the butler and maid being in cahoots and falling out in much the same way. None of that is in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (which, by the way, is a great little movie in its own right).
*. I’ll confess I was thrown by the shift into a flashback in the second half of the film. Yes, it’s announced as the maid’s “strange confession,” but even so it took me a while to figure out where I was. I don’t know what the first film to use a flashback was. I’ve seen it credited to D. W. Griffith, but not which movie. In The Birth of a Nation he used what he called a “switchback” technique, but that was something different and anyway the movie came out three years after this one. So I think we’re dealing with what was, at least, a very early instance of it in this film. I wonder if audiences were able to follow along, or if they felt temporarily confused like me.
*. This little movie is more than just a footnote in the history of a technique though. It’s really quite enjoyable, making good use of what seem to be very cramped sets intermixed with outdoor settings. Holmes’s parlour looks entirely appropriate (though purists will be able to point out all the missing details). The crime is especially well presented, with the hands reaching up from the subterranean chamber being a delight. And Tréville looks good as Holmes, though there isn’t much detective work for him to do.
*. One of the nicest things about it though is how well preserved it is. I don’t know if it’s been restored or if we just happen to have a remarkably good print that’s survived, but it looks great. So little remains from that era in any form, a movie that looks this good is a real rarity. Even people who aren’t Holmes fans or silent cinema aficionados should find it a treat.

The Mist (2007)

*. It seems to me that any discussion of this movie has to begin, and perhaps even end, with the matter of dates.
*. The original Stephen King story, or novella, it’s based on was first published in 1980. It then appeared in slightly edited form in his collection Skeleton Crew, which came out in 1985.
*. This is important because of a few other dates: George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Romero and King’s collaboration Creepshow (1982). Romero and King are good friends and I think it’s hard to mistake the influence the earlier Romero pictures had on The Mist. In particular the small group of survivors of an apocalyptic event who are besieged by monsters provides the bedrock. The politics aren’t much different either.
*. But this isn’t 1980, or 1985. It’s 2007. Or it might be. There’s a sort of time-warp feel to a lot of the proceedings and it seems a low-tech version of the twenty-first century in a lot of ways. Frank Darabont also originally wanted the movie to be released in black and white because he saw the story as being “a bit of a throwback,” which must have thrilled the studio even less than his downbeat ending.
*. Still on the matter of dates, Darabont also says that the colour version feels “very much like a mid-seventies kind of movie to me.” So we’re still going way back here, to Romero and early King.
*. Another date to keep in mind: 1980. The year of Alien, and creatures bursting out of the bodies of impregnated men. You can’t see the MP stuck in the spider’s cocoon and not think of a similar scene deleted from the theatrical release of Alien (but put back in Aliens). In Creepshow‘s final story we also see cockroaches erupting from the corpse of Upson Pratt. So this was something very much in the air, but again the air of 1980, not 2007. I hasten to add, however, that nothing like it occurs in the novella.
*. In general I like these siege movies, but they do become a bit conventional. What makes this worse here is how schematic it all is. We even get a whole scene where the breakdown of democracy is laid out. When people are frightened, we are told, they will revert to tribal politics and a crude theocracy. Amanda’s “faith in humanity” and belief that “people are basically good, decent” will melt before the fanaticism of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).
*. Oh, how King hates these religious fanatics. In a deleted extended scene where Mrs. Carmody is praying in the washroom stall this is really driven home. In the theatrical release we just see her face in close-up, but in the extended scene much is made of the way she’s on her knees praying to a toilet. Get it? If not, her hateful rejoinder to Amanda and subsequent behaviour makes the point loud and clear.

*. There’s stuff to like here, especially from the cast, including a number of Darabont’s regular stable (warming up for The Walking Dead). But there was more that I didn’t like, including some pretty important stuff.
*. For starters, it’s just too long. Darabont really wanted to get it to come in under two hours, which, by his reckoning, he just did (if you don’t count the closing credits). But despite his best efforts it just doesn’t move fast enough, or with enough of a sense of urgency. I also had the feeling that action and suspense sequences are not really Darabont’s thing. They certainly don’t build effectively here.
*. Another thing dragging it down is the CGI work. This really isn’t very good. Our first monster sighting comes with the tentacles reaching into the loading dock, and they’re also the worst. As you know, I’m no big fan of CGI, but I’ll admit it can be very effective when done right. But if it’s off just a bit and you think you’re just looking at a cartoon, you’re in trouble. This movie is in trouble.

*. Then there is the behaviour of the different characters. I had a hard time buying it. Some of the people we meet seem like they are only plot devices if not quite caricatures. There’s mad Mrs. Carmody. There’s the legalistic/rationalistic Judge. There’s the threatened kid and the suddenly vulnerable parent. There are the local yokels who are weak and ignorant bullies. There’s the woman who only wants to go home to her children.
*. About the only counter-intuitive characterization comes with the soldiers. Why are they such wimps? One would expect them to become quasi-authority figures in such a crisis, as they have uniforms and seem to have more information about what’s going on than anyone else. But they are totally useless.
*. Wouldn’t the logical thing to assume about the mist be that it was some kind of poisonous or hallucinatory gas? And yet even before the monsters appear this doesn’t seem to be something anyone even considers. They’re not afraid of the mist per se at all but of what might be in it. This struck me as weird.

*. A good example of the piling up of little, nagging doubts about what was happening comes when David’s group makes it escape from the market to his vehicle. Three things about this scene bugged me.
*. (1) How the hell does the group get separated? They all go out together and they only have a short distance to go to get to David’s vehicle, so how do some of them manage to get lost?
*. (2) Once the one group has made it to the vehicle, why does David lay on the horn and start yelling and screaming to attract the others? Wouldn’t this be a sure way to just get more of the bugs to attack him?
*. (3) When he finally pulls out, why does he put on all of his headlights (and he has stadium lighting rigged out on that Toyota Land Cruiser) to drive through the fog? Seeing as it’s daylight (they planned to leave at dawn) why would they bother? Headlights don’t help much in a heavy fog or mist. In fact they make it worse. And like making all that noise, wouldn’t the lights just attract the bugs? We already know that’s what attracted them to the windows of the market.
*. These are all relatively minor points, but the way they pile up just within one scene is disturbing. By the time the group drove away I was left shaking my head.

*. Then there is the matter of the ending. Unlike in the novella, David and his gang don’t just drive off into the mist. For some reason Darabont thought such an open ending was a non-starter, though it seemed to work for Hitchcock in The Birds. So he came up with something a little more final.
*. After mentioning Hitch in this context, I’ll drop in this passage from the end of King’s novella, where the narrator reflects on the inconclusiveness of his story: “It is, I suppose, what my father always called ‘an Alfred Hitchcock ending,’ by which he meant a conclusion in ambiguity that allowed the reader or viewer to make up his own mind about how things ended. My father had nothing but contempt for such stories, saying they were ‘cheap shots.'” No wonder King was so impressed with what Darabont did.
*. I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that I don’t like it. I don’t even care much for the music (a piece by Dead Can Dance), not because I don’t like the music but because it doesn’t seem to fit the atmosphere. Darabont thought it a fitting “requiem for the human race,” but it just sounds off to me. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the proceedings feel even more solemn and portentous than they already are.
*. More to the point, I couldn’t really buy the group’s final decision. They weren’t really in extremis at that point. Hell, they’d already been through worse. So it didn’t seem like something they had to do, at least right away. Of course it’s later revealed to have been a mistake, but the problem is that it seemed like a mistake to me at the time.
*. In sum, it strikes me as a good little ’80s horror flick that is uncomfortable in the twenty-first century. It’s a Lovecraft set-up (I assume that’s Cthulhu himself plodding off through the mist at the end), married to all of King’s usual thematic touchstones (family and community threatened with breakdown), molded on to a Romero plot. The thing is, by 2007 we’d already seen all of this and seen it done better. Meanwhile, the flaws (especially the crude characterization and ugly CGI) loom even larger than they would have thirty years ago.
*. The moral of the story, that (in Darabont’s words) “the monsters inside the market are worse than the monsters outside the market,” is a simple one. Presumably it’s the same thing that attracted Darabont to The Walking Dead, where the same could be said of the survivors and the zombies. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being reminded of this — we have met the enemy and he is us — but The Mist is in no rush to make the point and let us go.

Il caso Valdemar (1936)

*. Poe has always been a film favourite, and I think we’re all familiar with the adaptations made of classic tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat.” That some of these adaptations were very, very loose, sometimes borrowing nothing more than a title, is no matter. Hell, sometimes they don’t even get his name spelled right in the credits. It’s “Edgar Allen [sic] Poe” in The Haunted Palace, and “A. E. Poe” here. But as the creators of the P.O.E. series understood, it’s only the last three letters that count. Three letters and lots of atmosphere.
*. But while I think cinema’s fascination with Poe is natural, I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the amount of love his story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” has gotten. It was the final story in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror trilogy, was George Romero’s entry in Two Evil Eyes, and was also adapted in P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie. All of this for a story that’s basically about a dying man who is hypnotized so that he remains in a state of suspended decease until the “control” is released and he decomposes in a rush. That’s it. Just a guy rotting in bed.
*. Well, decomposing corpses have always been a horror staple, and having a corpse decompose very quickly right before our eyes is the sort of trick that effects people like to play. So I suppose that’s a big source of the attraction.
*. Il caso Valdemar is a silent film with only some scrawled notes (in Italian) to explain what is going on. Knowing the story would be a help, but perhaps not as much as you might think. Some matters remain obscure, though I don’t think they’re really necessary to enjoy the film.
*. As you should expect, the disintegration, or liquefaction, of Valdemar’s body is the star of the show, and it’s very well done. It even sounds better in Italian: the final title card tells us of how Valdemar is converted into “una massa semiliquida, una abominevole putrefazione.”
*. We’ve been prepared for the final effect by the heavy emphasis on close-ups of people’s faces, so that the fixation on Valedmar’s face turning into goo and sliding from his skull is all of a piece. It’s also shockingly gory for 1936. It’s much better than what Corman was able to do in 1962. This was Fulci nearly fifty years before the Godfather of Gore hit his stride!
*. Another nice bit of preparation for the climax comes with the women being ushered out of the room and the door shut. This adds to the sense of our getting to see something secret and forbidden.
*. It’s odd that this was such a one-off. It’s really quite well handled, arty but not too arty and with terrific effects. Nevertheless, co-directors Gianni Hoepli and Ubaldo Magnaghi never seemed to go on to do anything else and today this film isn’t very well known. It should be, and if you’re at all interested in horror cinema you should check it out.

Howl (2015)


*. In my notes on Train to Busan I mentioned how that film showed glimmers of being something more than just another zombie movie. Mainly because it was about zombies on a train. Unfortunately, that didn’t make it different enough.
*. Howl seems like it might be a new twist on the werewolf genre because it’s about werewolves on a train. But it falls short too. They’re both good movies, but they give the sense of having left something on the table, an unrealized potential.
*. To extend the comparison between the two movies, they’re both (a) set mainly on trains, and (b) deal with a group of besieged passengers who have to work together in order to survive, but who eventually fall out and start fighting among themselves.
*. I’d also add that where they both try to be a bit different is in the changes they make to their iconic monsters. The zombies in Train to Busan aren’t really zombies (purists will argue) and the creatures in this movie aren’t conventional werewolves. But they’re close enough, so those are the labels I’m using. And the fact that the monsters are different, without being all that different, gives some idea of the limitations faced by such genre fare.


*. Howl is an easy movie to like because it has a low-key sense of humour and because the hero, Joe (Ed Speleers), is such an agreeable fellow. He’s young, good-looking, and going nowhere in what seems to be a terrible job. And that same sense of averageness characterizes the entire cast. These aren’t beautiful people with interesting lives. In fact, they seem like a bunch of losers. Who else would be riding this midnight train?
*. The decision to set the movie on a train isn’t easy to understand. The fact that the train isn’t moving kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Once it’s stopped it might as well be just another cabin in the woods.
*. I don’t think it’s really possible, by the way, for a passenger train, even on such a run as this, to stop dead on the tracks all night without someone bothering to check in. As Adrian says at one point, the nearest town is only a couple of miles away.
*. The werewolves, it has to be said, are really disappointing. They’re just people walking around in silly-looking rubber suits. I did like their crooked legs and eyes that glow in the dark, but not enough is made of this. There are also no big transformation scenes, which are sort of a werewolf-movie staple. The director, Paul Hyett, is perhaps best known for his special make-up effects on films like The Descent and Dog Soldiers (another werewolf movie), so this was a bit of a letdown.


*. I wonder if they thought of making it in black and white, just for fun. I mean, there is no colour in this movie at all. Even the blood looks black. But then photography in black-and-white is a different skill altogether from shooting in colour and maybe there aren’t a lot of people who still know how to do it.
*. The sound seemed particularly bad to me, as I had a lot of trouble making out what people were saying. But that might just be me getting older. In any event, I think I must have missed something. Why are they still so afraid of other werewolves being outside the train after they kill the first one? Had they seen more than one?
*. It’s kind of pointless calling out characters in a horror movie for doing something incredibly stupid that puts them at risk, but even so I have to register my amazement at the bookworm Matthew deciding to take a long walk in the woods when he hears someone calling for help, especially as he is supposed to be assisting Billy (the mechanic) in fixing the train. I mean, come on. That makes no sense at all, and just tells you five minutes in advance that Matthew is about to be killed.
*. Poor Billy is written off a bit casually, isn’t he? He’s almost the co-hero of the piece, often seen taking a stand alongside Joe. I was sort of surprised Joe didn’t try to help him.
*. I don’t think this is a major contribution to the genre, and it doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a decent enough flick to pass the time. It was released direct-to-video, which I think is right. Though I’m not sure how much longer that distinction will mean anything.


Late Phases (2014)


*. Low expectations can be a wonderful thing. I came to this movie anticipating nothing. It didn’t have a wide release, wasn’t a sleeper hit at the box office, and received mostly middling reviews (on balance, somewhat negative). I think you’d have to be a real horror aficionado to have even heard of it. So, with all of that, I was pleasantly surprised.
*. In fact, I really liked Late Phases. Mostly for two reasons: (1) the lead performance by Nick Damici as the irascible blind Vietnam vet, and (2) the intelligent script.
*. We know we’re in trouble right away as we enter the gated retirement community of Crescent Bay. In the first place, it’s not a place you go to live but, as Ambrose puts it, you go to die. That’s foreshadowing. We may wonder if the gate is there to keep people out so much as to keep them in. Then the welcoming committee shows up at Ambrose’s house and all we can think of is a troop of Stepford wives. This is obviously all a façade.
*. I’ve seen Late Phases compared to Bubba Ho-Tep (which has the residents of a nursing home fighting a mummy), but it doesn’t adopt that movie’s comic tone. Instead it grounds its fantastic tale in realism. Children who feel guilty about abandoning their parents, and who suspect their parents’ fears may be the result of dementia. A church congregation full of nothing but (judgmental) seniors. Ambrose’s bonding with his service dog. We recognize and sympathize with all of this.
*. With regard to the religious angle, I guess we have to chalk this movie up as being yet another example of the complete inability of faith to provide any kind of defence or support in the fight against supernatural forms of evil. I’ve mentioned this before in my notes on movies like Paranormal Activity and The Witch, and it’s made very clear here as the werewolf explains that all that “Sunday school garbage” of confession and the rosary, necklace and prayers, is no use at all in fighting lycanthropy. When he complains that “All I want to do is live and worship and kill in solitude and die in peace,” he might be staking out a new confession.
*. You certainly can’t call it an idiot plot. Ambrose knows exactly what’s going on as soon as he hears that his neighbour was killed on the night of a full moon. That sinks it. Werewolves. No doubt in his mind. Time to start ordering some silver bullets.
*. The werewolf is pretty sharp too. The plan to go around recruiting reinforcements seemed like a good one to me. He was certainly thinking ahead.
*. The werewolf costumes probably received the most negative reaction from critics, and here I have to agree. They look terrible. They sort of reminded me of the evil bunny in Donnie Darko, and that is not a movie I like being reminded of.
*. The big transformation scene, however, isn’t bad. It’s not all CGI and has the villain sort of pulling apart his human skin to release his inner wolf, which I thought fairly original and thematically apt.
*. The direction by Adrián García Bogliano strikes me as kind of flat, but I don’t how much of that might be attributed to wanting a low-key approach fitting the twilight world of Crescent Bay, or to the fact that this was Bogliano’s first English-language feature. I certainly thought it could have been creepier, especially given the blind hero.
*. Still, I thought it was an original concept, with some good acting on display and an interesting werewolf. The last reel isn’t great, and it ends on a schmaltzy note, but in the bottomless heap of noisy dreck out there I thought this was a small but enjoyable moment of creativity and quiet.