Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

bucketofblood1

*. This is the first of the collaborations by Roger Corman and writer Charles B. Griffith. It was immediately followed by the better-known Little Shop of Horrors, to which it bears a very close resemblance: the same nebbish hero, the same story structure, and even the same sets and a lot of the same cast.
*. Dick Miller expressed some disappointment at what might have been, had there been more time and money (the film was shot in five days on a $50,000 budget). I wonder. It’s not true that more money always leads to a better film. Some directors do their best work on tight schedules with limited resources. Mario Bava, I think, is one such director. Roger Corman was probably another. I don’t think Corman ever wanted (at least in the sense of “needed”) a larger budget.
*. Say what you will about Corman, but he was at least a competent director and his material was usually offbeat and interesting enough to carry a picture.
*. This is a gentle but effective satire of beatnik culture. The poetry seems spot-on to me, and the foodie-talk still works. In fact, it may be more relevant than ever.
*. Dick Miller is just a fun actor to watch. He always seems smarter than his material, but not in a way that plays down to it. He manages to bring something special out of even minor roles. I’m not sure he could carry the lead in a big movie, but in a little picture like this he’s perfect.
*. There’s something timeless about the story of the failed artist selling his soul for a hit. And Walter’s frustration here is palpable. I love how he tries to work the clay into a face and is reduced to yelling at it to “Be a nose!”
*. In addition to a re-make in 1995 this was also the direct inspiration for Herschell Lewis’s Color Me Blood Red. That was a terrible movie, and highlights the vast gulf that you can find separating genre films occupying the same band of the budget spectrum. A little talent, in whatever department, goes a lot further with less money.

bucketofblood2

Death Wish (1974)

deathwish1

*. As with most (all?) rape-revenge movies, a matter of genre protocol has to be raised. Is this an exploitation film?
*. If it was, the label has, I think, mostly expired. This was a controversial film when it came out but now it seems tame. We have become used to cycles of bloody vengeance, and their pasted-on moral-political messages.
*. I don’t think it was as seminal a film as it has been made out to be (though it did go on to spawn a string of utterly worthless sequels). It was a film of its time, reflecting current anxieties.
*. Holy first appearances! Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Guest (not his debut, but still very early in his career), and Denzel Washington are all here in cameos.

deathwish6

*. I like Charles Bronson well enough when he was given a little something to work with (which wasn’t often). I think he’s very good as Paul Kersey, but some of the other names that were considered for the part might have been really interesting. The list included Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, and Frank Sinatra.
*. In case you don’t watch a lot of movies from this period, New York City in the ’70s was a shithole. And even if you did know that, Michael Winner is determined to make the point right away with a jarring cut from a beautiful Hawaiian beach to a gridlocked “war zone.” Later in the film a trip to sunny Tucson will underline the same point. The only time you see “glittering New York” is on a postcard at the airport. You’re supposed to register this as a lie.
*. Despite its gritty urban look, the film is very close to being a fantasy. The depiction of the criminal justice system, for example, is nonsense. Ochoa has a hunch and so just breaks into Kersey’s apartment? And he doesn’t care who knows he’s doing it? Then the D.A. and Chief of Police both conspire to let Kersey go?
*. Christopher Sorrentino, in his excellent little book on the film, insists on this point. In his analysis Death Wish was never intended to be a realistic film: “Muggers didn’t operate that way, the police didn’t operate that way, psychosis doesn’t occur that way, and the theme of revenge is simply too interesting for a film to turn it into a second job the way this one does.”
*. On that final point, this is a very interesting revenge film in that Kersey never does get his revenge against any of the three perpetrators of the assault on his wife and daughter. I found this surprising. Is the movie making a point that the punks and hoods are all interchangeable anyway, and that if Kersey kills some of them it comes to the same thing?

deathwish4

*. I don’t really buy the smoothness with which Bronson breaks bad. All of his stations of the cross seem scripted, and he takes to his new role as urban avenger too quickly.
*. Kersey’s vigilantism is understandable, but does it go too far? Did Winner want to show him as totally corrupted once he got a taste for blood? Note how by the end of the movie he has a compulsion to kill that literally forces him to take his gun to the streets instead of lying low for a while, even when he knows the police are on to him. Then when he does get in a gun fight he continues to hunt his prey until he physically collapses, when it would have made far more sense for him to try to get away.

deathwish2

*. I think this may explain the otherwise baffling voiceover on the trailer: “Never make a death wish, because a death wish always comes true. And you get to love it.” Huh?
*. A right-wing attack on the “liberal media”? No, that would come later. Here the television news shows, magazines, and tabloid papers are vox populi.
*. There are a pair of scenes of partiers hitting the streets. In the second instance (the one with the costumed revellers) they serve some dramatic purpose (by allowing Kersey to escape his building unseen), but they aren’t really necessary. I wonder if Winner thought they had some thematic relevance. Probably not (the nuns, for example, were apparently just symbols of nothing in particular), but it makes you wonder. There’s an air of carnival to all the madness.

deathwish3

Mystery Street (1950)

mysterystreet7

*. No, I didn’t recognize Ricardo Montalban at first. But as soon as he opened his mouth . . .
*. And note how it’s a bit odd that we have to wait for him to open his mouth. It’s obvious he’s the center of the scene he first apperas in, but he says nothing until he gets a phone call. I wonder if that was deliberate. We see him initially as the hero (he is handsome and in charge). Then when he speaks, identifying himself right away as “Moralas,” we are perhaps startled that he is not exactly “one of us.”
*. Elsa Lanchester takes over from a pretty decent ensemble cast. She had a way of doing that. Her Mrs. Smerrling is a toxic mix of laziness and guile. I like the touch of having all those beefcake pictures surrounding her mirror. It makes me wonder what happened to Mr. Smerrling.

mysterystreet8

*. Alain Silver on the DVD commentary calls John Alton “the preeminent cinematographer of the noir cycle.” He was certainly busy enough during the period, and adept at the standard grammar of noir photography: in particular the exaggerated use of high and low angles, and working with odd lighting effects and expressive shadows.
*. Sometimes noir camerawork can try too hard and draws too much attention to itself. That sometimes happens here, but more often I appreciated how nicely the shots were composed. Take the stakeout at Trinity Station and the two juxtaposed shots of Sharkey watching Harkley. What a use of diagonals.

mysterystreet2

mysterystreet3

*. The genre is docu-noir, and with the crime procedural plot and location shooting (this may have been the first film Hollywood ever shot in Boston!) a touch of style does help.
*. The forensics are impressive. I was amazed that they showed the death photos. And the bit about the bullet holes in the car having closed up because the car was submerged was news to me. They didn’t have all the toys of the CSI team yet, but the crime lab stuff here is good.
*. When Vivian is shot she falls forward on her car horn. I’m always interested in the first time a particular piece of film business appears. It’s a hobby of mine. Of course the dead person falling on their car horn is probably best known for its appearance at the end of Chinatown, and has since become a cliché. Was this the first movie to do it?
*. The women make things happen. The men tend to be more passive, either reacting to events set in motion by women, or being dragged along or following in their wake. It’s the four lead women who get the plot to work. Like Vivian, they’re in the driver’s seat. Vivian and Mrs. Smerrling pursue Harkley (to their own eventual undoing), Mrs. Shanway tries to clear her husband, and is doing a pretty good job tracking down leads, while Jackie is indirectly responsible for disarming Harkley.

mysterystreet1

*. Bad hair = bad men. When you have a widow’s peak as pronounced as Harkley’s, is there any chance you’re not guilty of something?
*. It strikes me as a shockingly frank movie, even for noir. Vivian is obviously a prostitute, not just a B-girl. We never see her plying the bar trade, while we find out quite a bit of her long history as an escort. Other subjects brought up include racism, adultery, Mrs. Shanway’s miscarriage, and Vivian’s pregnancy. Then there are those aforementioned death photos in the crime lab.

mysterystreet4

*. What a ghoulish movie! There’s almost a whiff of necrophilia about it: Harkley holding and kissing the dead Vivian, the superimposition of the slides showing the skulls beneath the beautiful skin, and even the funeral parlour director who was one of Vivian’s clients because she reminded him of his dead wife. Creepy.
*. The Harvard locations are awkwardly introduced, as the detectives get lost and have to wander around the campus asking for directions until someone tells them they’re in the wrong place entirely. You get the feeling they’re included just for local colour. An alternate title was going to be The Harvard Mystery, but this movie has little to do with Harvard and they probably thought that was too big  a stretch. I think they just wanted to use the name of Harvard to stand for “science.”
*. The title they went with isn’t much better though. How generic can you get? What street is being referenced?

mysterystreet5

*. I usually don’t bother pointing out gotcha!-style continuity errors, but there was one here that I noticed on a first viewing for some reason. The books on the bookshelf behind Mrs. Shanway have fallen over between a pair of shots. I guess I’m just always looking at people’s bookshelves.
*. Why does Mrs. Smerrling testify against Shanway? I don’t see how it serves her interests. Indeed, given how Harkley has just rejected her I’d think just the opposite. She wants the case kept open and Harkney in danger.
*. Isn’t it odd that nobody takes Mrs. Smerrling to the hospital? She’s just left to die in her bed at home while everyone searches her apartment?
*. I love how Harkley loses his patrician cool with Moralas and slams him with a racist gibe (“the way you talk you haven’t been around here long”), just at the exact point in the scene when their roles are reversed and Moralas is sitting down behind Harkley’s desk while Harkley is standing fearfully in front of him. A great bit of staging.
*. There’s one twist too many at the end. They shouldn’t have bothered yanking Shanway back into the story by telling us that he’d escaped, and thus was potentially still the killer. Nothing is gained by this and it seems like they’re trying too hard to keep a false lead in play.

mysterystreet6

Friday the 13th (2009)

friday13thn1

*. 21:47. That’s when the title comes up! Amazing. It’s like a whole pre-movie before the rest of the movie begins.
*. But in a movie like this you have to throw a bunch of good kills at the audience right away. Otherwise they’re going to be bored waiting for the fresh meat to be slaughtered. Kids today bore quickly.
*. Also you need to eat up the clock somehow to get to a 90 minute running time when you don’t have any plot at all beyond the usual . . . you know.
*. I’m struck by how humourless, dark, and downright depressing the twenty-first century horror franchise re-sets were. These movies just get me down. I guess they’re trying to be more “realistic,” which is a respectable enough goal, but the originals were not that realistic to begin with. They were nightmares and dark fantasies.
*. The same team was behind this as did the equally downbeat 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (the same producers, and the same director, Marcus Nispel). Though apparently Michael Bay walked out of the premiere of this one, claiming there was too much sex. I don’t get it. I don’t understand someone walking out of a movie that they produced. Did Bay not get final cut? Did he not see the final cut? Did he not want to see the final cut?
*. Technically I guess this is more a remake of Friday the Thirteenth Part 2 than Friday the Thirteenth. But who’s counting? Only the fanboys and girls. Then again, they’re also the only ones going to see this movie.
*. Wow, the sexual banter around the campfire with the lines about drinking piss and eating fish hasn’t improved one bit since . . .  I Spit On Your Grave. Ghastly.
*. Jason just isn’t very interesting, is he? His mom was a better villain. Not only is Jason inarticulate, he’s totally unexpressive: a mute in a hockey mask. There’s a limit to how much I can get out of such a villain. I think even the shark in Jaws (Cunningham’s original inspiration for the part) had more personality.
*. Expect the expected. The deaths all seem perfunctory. I can’t say I find anything original here at all. And there are just so many genre and franchise clichés to get through. It’s like the movie is waterlogged with this stuff before it even gets out onto the water. The gratuitous breasts, the two stoners, the initial stop at the gas station, the crazy old coot with a cryptic warning for outsiders, the shadow outside the tent, the running through the woods with flashlights, Jason crashing through a window behind somebody and grabbing them, the discovery of the bodies, etc.
*. Why even bother? Except, of course, for the money, and the chance to re-start a franchise that was winding down as a cash cow. I thought the Hills Have Eyes remake the best of all this period’s horror “re-sets,” and about the only one I can think of that improved on the original. But as the creators of that film said, why bother with a re-make if you’re just going to do the same movie? And so they completely re-imagined Craven’s original.
*. Not only don’t they bring anything new to the table here, they don’t even have the sense of humour or low-budget surrealism of the original series. The photography is better, but aside from that . . . pfft.

friday13thn2

*. It is interesting that the prime targets now are rich kids enjoying their parents’ wealth (the luxury cottage, the Cadillac SUV). Is this a demographic that the producers felt worth targeting? Why? Because there are more young people like this today? Or more young people who want to be like this?
*. There’s a real porn sensibility at work here. Like with a porn movie, you just want to see the fucking/killing, and the plot is disposable. Right from the get-go you really don’t want the actors to open their mouths unless they’re going to have something dangerous shoved into it. Meanwhile the girls all look and act like strippers and the young men are focused on getting off. The preppy boy even compliments Bree on her surgically enhanced “nipple placement.” Kill them all, Jason. Kill them all!
*. Keeping with the porn angle, there’s also a weird voyeuristic vibe. When the one couple are fucking in their tent in the pre-movie slaughterfest they’re sure the nerdy guy is spying on them. Later Jason looks through the window at Bree riding Trent (while she films herself, naturally). And out in the living room Lawrence prepares to masturbate to a clothing catalogue but has trouble because he thinks a mounted head on the wall is watching him.
*. Obligatory Psycho references with Jason’s bedroom and the swinging lamp in the woodshed. The twenty-first century is a retro place.
*. Psycho isn’t the only name being dropped, however. I take it the decomposing body in the tub is a nod to The Silence of the Lambs. The tow-truck driver’s waving hand is from Duel. Mounting the girl on the antlers is from Silent Night, Deadly Night. Nothing original to see here.
*. An odd decision to only make a couple of quick references to the original music, which was about the only thing from the earlier films that was worth keeping.
*. Why drag Jason’s (presumably dead) body all the way down to the lake and throw it into the water? Just because. They had to get that final shot from the original in there somehow while still holding out hope for more sequels. As of this writing, however, the franchise seems truly dead.

friday13thn3

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

friday13th31

*. The third part of the franchise, and I think any claim by the producers that this was going to be “the final chapter” has to be seen as disingenuous. The full Jason has now arrived: a superhuman creature wearing a hockey mask who kills pretty much indiscriminately.
*. On the matter of the hockey mask: just why is Shelly wearing a hockey mask with his scuba gear anyway? Come to think of it, why does he have a harpoon gun? I’ll bet you never thought that was going to get used later on in the film, did you?
*. A lot of people rate this movie one of the highlights of the series. I think it’s the worst of the first three. You have to feel a little ripped off by a series that started off bad, made a ton of money, but kept going downhill while looking cheaper and cheaper. I mean, where the hell is Crystal Lake? Higgins Haven just looks like a scummy pond. And since this movie supposedly takes place right after the events of Part 2, it’s not even Friday the 13th!
*. Steve Miner was production manager on the first film and directed the next two. I wonder if he felt at any point during these early years that he had sold his soul, and got little in return. He went on to do a lot of work in TV, but he does get some credit in my book for the not-too-bad Lake Placid.
*. As with Part 2 (which was the only sequel in the franchise that didn’t have roman numerals, for some reason), the censors cut out a lot of the “good stuff,” leaving us with a handful of pretty unremarkable kills. The girl getting an arrow in the eye and Rick having his eyeball popped out are the highlights.
*. Also as with Part 2 there were alternate endings planned and shot, none of which made any more sense than the dream bullshit we’re left with here.
*. More of the iconic theme is worked in here, but it doesn’t sound as fresh as the first time around. It’s less breath-y. And the disco music that goes with the opening credits is awful!
*. Sticking to a formula is one thing, but I thought there were far too many false scares in the second film and I think this one has even more. I guess they figured there was no limit to how many times you could go to the well.
*. A few questions, as one way of explaining why I think this movie is so bad.

friday13th32

*. What is with all of the vocalizing of what are obvious points? Not once but twice do we have scenes where characters are being dripped on from above, leading them to ask themselves out loud “Where’s this coming from?” When Chris gets in the van she says “Keys! Keys!” as she tries to find her keys. Then when the van stalls she says “What’s happening?” Looking at the gas gauge that’s reading empty, she cries out “Gas!”
*. Why does it take so long to get going? Why bother with the intro from the end of Part 2, especially when it just confuses the ending of that movie? And why do we spend so much time with Harold and Edna, given the fact that they’re not dispatched in any memorable way?
*. How did Ali survive being chopped apart by Jason? And what was he doing all that time in the barn? Just waiting until his re-appearance at the end?
*. What’s with Chris’s dream/memory of being attacked by Jason? What sense does that make? What happened to her? I’ve read speculations of whether or not she was raped — something that was apparently in the original script — but this doesn’t explain why they bothered with such a backstory in the first place. Was there going to be a Son of Jason?
*. These questions arise out of the general sloppiness of the writing, and the way the series started off in such an improvisational way. It’s curious, however, that the effect is something akin to the nightmare world of the Freddy Kreuger movies. Except in those films the surrealism was deliberate and here it’s born of incompetence. The producers just couldn’t make a Friday the Thirteenth movie that made sense. In later installments they didn’t even try.
*. I suppose it does take some talent to be a “scream queen” and run around acting terrified. Because Rachel Howard as the pot-head Chili is just terrible in this limited role. She almost seems lost as she wanders about the house in a vaguely upset sort of way. Or is she still supposed to be stoned?
*. You don’t have to throw gasoline around a barn that’s full of dry hay and straw in order to burn it down. The cigarette that presumably fell out of Loco’s mouth when he was impaled would have been enough to torch the place in seconds. But then perhaps bikers might not be expected to know that.
*. Because it was 1982 and because this was Part III it was necessarily shot in 3-D. I despise 3-D. It sucks now, it has always sucked in the past, and it will continue to suck for as long into the future of film as film has a future. What makes it even worse is when the effects drive the visuals so much you think you’re watching Doctor Tongue’s House of Horrors on SCTV. Get ready to see all kinds of shit being thrown at the screen: yo-yos, eyeballs, popcorn, pitchforks . . .
*. Yes, I was a bit surprised to see the pregnant girl get killed. I thought that gave you immunity.
*. There are literally thousands of reviews of this movie online. Thousands! But I guess I can’t say anything now.

friday13th33

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

friday13th21

*. Given the success of the first Friday the 13th, a sequel was inevitable. And the bizarre ending of the original certainly left the door open. (By bizarre I mean the last girl’s insistence that Jason is still “out there,” despite his eruption from the lake clearly being a dream.)
*. The creators of the original (producer/director Sean Cunningham, writer Victor Miller, effects man Tom Savini), have always said that a sequel was not their intention. Indeed, they felt that one would be logically impossible. Which it was, but that wasn’t about to stop the gravy train.
*. What the original team would have liked to do was create an anthology series of unrelated horror films using the Friday the 13th title/brand. This was an interesting idea, but not as commercial as simply repeating the same formula over and over.
*. So, more of the same, on a slightly larger budget and with a very fast turnaround (Halloween II would come out the same year, and that franchise had a head start). One has low expectations, and they are not disappointed.
*. But let’s give the film some credit, and offer up a partial defence of its more egregious failings.
*. The opening sequence shows some competence. Yes, the cat-through-the-window gag is just one of the far too many false scares played on the audience, but the head-in-the-fridge business works well (even if it doesn’t make any sense). And it’s a pretty convincing head! Better than Jason’s face at the end anyway.
*. Sticking with the pre-credit sequence, it’s worth noting that well before Scream the makers of these movies were totally aware of all the clichés they were mining, from the cat to the scary phone call to the shower tease. They didn’t poke and nudge you, but they weren’t giving you this stuff straight up either.
*. There are a number of little touches throughout that suggest we are at least seeing professional if not inspired filmmaking. When Terry returns to her cabin to find a knife, the way she tosses her towel at the POV camera is clever. And when she’s inside the cabin I like how she drops out of sight only for her head to pop up facing us in the foreground. You have to appreciate the little things in a movie so generally bad.
*. While on the subject of Terry (played by Kirsten Baker), I will of course frown and tut-tut at the Buttman-style camera work that follows her ass around, but if you’re going to ogle the female body (and this movie has a fetish for watching them undress), then Baker is hard to resist.

friday13th23

*. Fans of the series usually rate this as one of the better entries, though it’s missing a lot. Jason isn’t a superpsycho in a hockey mask but a handicapped guy schlepping around with a flour bag over his head. The ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma music is downplayed. And, worst of all, there are no good kills!
*. It seems a lot of the “good stuff” wound up on the cutting room floor. The censors were antsy following the backlash against the first film. So, to take the most glaring example, the double shish-kabob of the couple in bed (a shameless steal from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood) was cut to the point where nothing at all is seen.
*. I also think the story structure is wrong. The kids are killed off in a bunch too quickly in the middle of the film, leaving too much of Ginny just running around being chased by Jason.
*. Ginny seems a feisty one, so it’s a little disappointing that she does nothing to help Paul in their first confrontation with Jason.
*. The ending is one of the worst ever. “Where is Paul?” Well, where is he? There is no explanation. In their defence, it was said that the original ending had the head of Mrs. Voorhees on the altar opening its eyes and smiling, but that it was felt this looked silly so it was cut.
*. Or at least that’s what was said. I think it’s a terrible excuse. If the ending was silly then they did it wrong, or it was a bad idea in the first place. And how would a smiling, decapitated head have explained anything? Apparently it would have “implied” or “indicated” that Paul was dead. How so? And how does it explain what happened to Jason (a point muddied even further by the opening of Part 3)?
*. I think it’s worth quoting the conclusion of Roger Ebert’s review of this film, just because it addresses a point that I find myself pondering more and more as I collapse deeper and deeper into middle age. “Sinking into my seat in this movie theater from my childhood, I remembered the movie fantasies when I was a kid. They involved teenagers who fell in love, made out with each other, customized their cars, listened to rock and roll, and were rebels without causes. Neither the kids in those movies nor the kids watching them would have understood a world view in which the primary function of teenagers is to be hacked to death.”
*. So much has been written about this film, especially online. You can read books about it, watch documentaries on it, listen to interviews and commentaries, go to conventions and meet the stars, join discussion forums that argue over every little detail. Which is fine. It is a movie with a large cultural resonance to go with its long commercial tail. But at the end of the day, it really is a worthless piece of crap.

friday13th22

Friday the 13th (1980)

friday13th1

*. 1980 was the end of a sort of golden age of horror that planted the seeds of many different horror franchises. And when it comes to franchise horror I don’t think any film had such a long and surprising run as Friday the 13th.
*. Surprising both because it was so prolific (a dozen titles as of the time of this writing) and because it got off to such a lame start. The original was nowhere near as good a movie as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Alien, but, speaking in terms of cultural evolution, it enjoyed a much greater reproductive success.

friday13th3

*. How did this happen? In part because, as Kim Newman observes, it “is a jackdaw of a film,” put together out of bits and pieces borrowed from other successful films. In part because “reproductive success” was its mission from the beginning. Producer/Director Sean S. Cunningham (producer of The Last House on the Left) wanted a project that would make money, a goal that this generation of horror directors was very in your face about. A commercial project would give Cunningham the freedom, in turn, to make more movies. He used that freedom to make more Friday the 13th movies. (He did other stuff too, but the Friday the 13th series stands out as his only significant achievement. Which, as I like to say, tells you something.)
*. Another contributing factor was that this movie, as cheap as it looks (and indeed was), actually came out under the aegis of a major studio (Paramount in the U.S.). This was something new, and it meant the money poured in.
*. Very little else was new, and this was by conscious decision. Cunningham wanted a rip-off, specifically of Halloween (with the ending from Carrie tacked on), and that’s exactly what he got.
*. There does seem to be a reductio at work with these franchises though. This is a lesser film than Halloween. Sleepaway Camp was a rip-off of this film. And as bad as this movie is, Sleepaway Camp . . .
*. Psycho DNA is spread throughout. How many times have we seen that swinging light bulb? It’s almost obligatory now.

friday13th4

*. The revenge of Mrs. Bates: an old woman seemingly controlled by the ghost of her dead son, who speaks and even kills through her. I like it. Betsy Palmer’s toothy Mrs. Voorhees is so much more interesting than the mute beast in the hockey mask. And tell me you saw the scene of her getting hit in the crotch with the rifle coming!
*. It seems relevant in some way (though probably unintentionally so) that we never learn Mrs. Voorhees’s first name, even when she introduces herself. She’s a mom. Just a mom.
*. In case you’re wondering, her first name is Pamela. But we only find this out in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter when we see her tombstone.
*. The score, with its jarring strings, seems to me at times to be violating Hermann’s copyright. Harry Manfredini states on the commentary track that every horror movie rips off Hermann, which probably isn’t true but you can’t blame him for thinking so.
*. The ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma of the Jason theme, however, is one of the few really original contributions to the genre.
*. I don’t buy the argument (made a couple of times on the DVD commentary) that compares this film to an Agatha Christie mystery (most obviously And Then There Were None). The killer, for one thing, is not a character we are introduced to or know before she reveals herself at the end. That is not how mystery works.
*. Many other arguments and interpretations have been thrown at the movie, treating it as some particularly significant piece of contemporary cultural mythology. I don’t think many of these hold up. Cunningham saw the only point to the mayhem as being an illustration of the idea that bad things can happen to anyone. The killer he specifically likens to the shark in Jaws, just a force of violence out looking for lunch. Which leaves us with precious little when it comes to a guiding philosophy or theme.
*. It’s not quite an idiot plot because most of the victims have no reason to believe that something strange is going on before they are killed. Still, why doesn’t the one girl at least put on her raincoat before running out into the storm in her nightie? It’s hanging right by the door!

friday13th2

*. Of course there is no longer any outrage much at horror. I can still remember Siskel and Ebert railing against the depravity of this franchise. That seems like the nineteenth century now. We even take the excesses of The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film for granted. But with no shock value attached to this film, what value does it have?
*. It was very cheaply made but Tom Savini’s special effects hold up reasonably well given the budget. The arrow through the throat and axe in the face are pretty good. The action proceeds along at a good clip. The character of Mrs. Voorhees makes for an effective twist. Jason’s theme music is great.
*. It isn’t scary at all now and I don’t remember it being very scary at the time. But it is effective as a thriller and met the low expectations of its audience. While I acknowledge that, when it comes to having success in Hollywood, the golden rule is still William Goldman’s “nobody knows anything,” I think there are a couple of fairly basic principles that should be followed: (1) give people exactly what they pay for; and (2) try and do at least a couple of little things right. That’s all Friday the 13th manages, and it turned out to be more than enough.

friday13th5

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

aguirre3

*. Heart of Darkness, again. And well before Coppola (who claimed this film as a “very strong influence”). It’s a universal theme, but one that Herzog, at least in English, has trouble expressing. When asked on the commentary track about what attracts him to people going out into the wilderness and losing themselves he is rather vague: “I think it has to do with us within nature. And civilization, where are we standing, where do we come from, what is the bottom line of our existence, and how do we behave under particular strain and stress, and then you gain insights, much deeper insights, into our very nature.”
*. Perhaps it would have made more sense in German.
*. Speaking of what might have been lost in translation, I find it amusing that the movie was originally shot in English but that this soundtrack went missing. On the German soundtrack the voices are post-synched, and it shows. That’s not even Kinski’s voice you’re hearing. Which makes me wonder why I don’t just watch this movie in a dubbed English version. But I never have.
*. Not that it matters much. This is a movie that works without dialogue. The score is beautiful, and so are the jungle sounds. But aside from that, it might almost be a silent movie. And Kinski gives a great silent film performance, complete with exaggerated gestures and dramatic poses.
*. Indeed the whole movie seems to be on a journey into silence. Ursua retreats into silence after Aguirre’s coup, and throughout the movie death comes so silently it is rarely even noticed.

aguirre2

*. Shooting on location is difficult, and if reports are accurate shooting this film was hell. But it was worth it. Few other movies give you such a sense of being in the real shit. How Herzog made a film that looks so beautiful under such conditions is beyond me.
*. The jungle wasn’t meant to be just a scenic backdrop but in some way representative of the souls of the men. This seems to be something Herzog really believes in.
*. I first saw this movie as a teenager and vaguely remember being bored out of my mind by it. I appreciate it far more now, indeed my love of it grows with each repeated viewing, But I can also see what initially turned me off. Herzog does like holding a shot for a long time. “Normally a filmmaker won’t hold a shot this long,” he says on the commentary, referring to some early shots of the raging river. In that particular instance his point was to show that nature had an independent life. Independent of our attention, I assume.
*. Kinski seems to be on the same wavelength with the long takes. Does this guy ever blink? As if those bulging eyes weren’t enough! I don’t think he blinks once throughout his entire “wrath of god” speech. Amazing.
*. Where did the Richard III impersonation come from? Herzog suggested the idea of playing Aguirre like he might have a hunchback. The historical Aguirre had a limp, but Kinski’s head is tilted so far over in some scenes he looks like he’s about to fall down. I like his crab-walk though. It gets the idea across that Aguirre is already someone broken by life. It’s hard to imagine him ever being married, much less having such a sweet kid.
*. That said, this is a standout portrayal of evil, one that accurately catches the charisma and persuasiveness of Aguirre’s mania. This in turn explains why men would choose to get behind him as a leader, and then how the group disintegrates as his personality unwinds.
*. In his book The Serial Killer: A Study in the Psychology of Violence, Colin Wilson makes some interesting points about dominant personalities. Apparently during the Korean War the Chinese found that by isolating one dominant prisoner out of twenty the rest of the prisoners would become inert. And when Bernard Shaw asked the explorer Stanley how many members of his expedition could potentially take over if he were to be injured he answered exactly twenty. Wilson then cites the work of Lorenz and Tinbergen as demonstrating that this rule of a dominant five per cent applies to all animal species, and that when groups are under stress the dominant five per cent begin showing signs of criminal, psychopathic behaviour.
*. There appear to be around twenty members of the expedition here. Now look at all the group compositions and see how Herzog arranges them into the leader and the pack.

aguirre1

*. I’m sorry, but it’s laughable that Inez and Flores should both look so damn good right up to the end. They’re in the jungle and they look like they just came out of a salon.
*. Herzog deliberately goes for stylized posing, figures frozen “as though in a still photo,” or “frozen still lifes”.
*. A deliciously acid portrait of the priest. The church has always sided with power.
*. Why do I get the feeling that Aguirre’s daughter is mentally handicapped in some way? I just do.
*. I love looking at all the faces in the background. There are so many shots arranged this way, highlighting Aguirre’s status as the dominant personality, with the others cast into the background as audience. There they stand, silently (silence again!) observing. Rarely if ever saying anything. Just watching. And fatally, passively, going along with Aguirre’s madness.
*. Herzog: “I’ve never storyboarded anything in my life. I think it’s a disease of Hollywood . . . you lose all spontaneity out of filmmaking.” And again you wonder how he managed to make a movie so composed this way. I mean, there’s hardly a shot here that feels out of place.

The Jackal (1997)

jackal1

*. “Based on the motion picture screenplay The Day of the Jackal by Kenneth Ross.” No mention of Frederick Forsyth. Why not? Because he didn’t want anything to do with it. They also had to shorten the name because Zinnemann didn’t want people to think there was any connection to his movie either. This is not a good sign.
*. The basic idea here is still fine: the mysterious professional killer hired for a seemingly impossible high-profile hit. And I didn’t mind updating the British aristo to a suave corporate suit. But from there everything goes wrong.
*. The overriding problem is the script. The novel, and Zinnemann’s movie, were all about the killer’s precision craftsmanship. They were smart. But this movie is stupid.
*. Now there are a lot of very stupid movies out there, but when you take an intelligent project and make it seem this dumb you are courting disaster. It’s not like Godzilla being a stupid movie. You expect Godzilla to be stupid (maybe not as stupid as it is, but still stupid). Your expectations are higher here.
*. Roger Ebert: “The Jackal is based on the screenplay of Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 classic The Day of the Jackal. That was a film that impressed us with the depth of its expertise: We felt it knew exactly what it was talking about. The Jackal, on the other hand, impressed me with its absurdity. There was scarcely a second I could take seriously.”
*. Almost every plot point in the film is absurd. Why, for example, does the Jackal make such a messy job of killing Lamont and then not bother hiding the body? That’s not how Edward Fox handled the photographer. Then, after he’s done blowing Lamont to pieces, why does he not grab the blueprints for the gun mount, which is what he wanted Lamont to give him in the first place?
*. Another one: Why does the Jackal disguise himself as a cop at the hospital opening? What advantage does that give him? Wouldn’t he blend in more without the uniform? Wouldn’t it be likely that other officers of the city police force would fail to recognize him and be suspicious?
*. Instead of a chess game between the killer and the detectives the plot unwinds through a series of gigantic leaps of intuition and crazy improbabilities. Why would the Jackal bother going after Isabella? And then leave a clue behind for Declen to follow up on?
*. Who are the hijackers after the Jackal? What do they want to hijack? What happens to them?
*. How on earth does the Jackal shoot up the marina in broad daylight and then just drive away?
*. When the authorities find out that the Jackal is after the first lady (a huge leap made by Richard Gere), the idea is floated that they, you know, get her off the podium. But no! According to Declen that would just lead to the Jackal shooting into the crowd. Huh? Why?
*. I could go on and on with these questions. Nothing in this film makes any sense. Bruce Willis isn’t bad as the Jackal, but it’s not enough that he’s a stone cold killer when he’s being undercut at every turn and made to seem a moron.
*. I do like that giant gun. But isn’t it overkill for the job? Why not just use a rocket launcher and be sure of the kill?
*. It’s funny how Sidney Poitier pronounces On-tah-rio.
*. There was no point in introducing useless extra characters like Major Koslova, or even Isabella. There was more than enough plot in the original to fill out two hours, so why bring these people in? And how awkward is it that Isabella is married now and has a family, whom she still loves “in my way.” What way is that? Is she letting Declen know that she’s still available?
*. Needless to say her sudden appearance at the end is absurd. But enough already. Criticism is wasted on nonsense.

jackal2

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

dayofthejackal3

*. This is an odd film in that it is quite well known and highly regarded but doesn’t get talked about much. I think perhaps because the low-key presentation makes it seem dull to modern tastes. It’s a well crafted, but not an exciting film.
*. So let’s talk about the presentation. This is not a conventional suspense thriller, though the plot would make you think otherwise.
*. For starters, there’s the music. Most great suspense films have memorable scores. The score here is by George Delerue. The production notes on the DVD I have refer to the way it “heightens the film’s edge-of-the-seat excitement.” Please. In fact, it isn’t heard outside of the opening few minutes. This is a very quiet movie that mainly gets by using muted, background sound. There isn’t even very much dialogue, especially in the final movement.
*. The lack of a dramatic score is part of the documentary, almost at times newsreel feel to the proceedings. Is this an Anglo-French remake of The Naked City? The voiceover at the beginning might make you think so.
*. Adding to the newsreel quality is the use of locations and the number of long shots where the actors seem to be sliding into anonymity. We see people from a distance, but we can’t hear what they’re saying.
*. It’s a very workmanlike, functional bit of direction from Fred Zinnemann, but then that’s the Jackal, isn’t it? Workmanlike, functional.
*. The editing does catch your eye. It’s very abrupt, especially the closer we get to the end. I know the book well, but still feel a jerk when we go from the Paris cemetery to Charles Calthrop’s apartment.
*. Who the hell wears glasses in a sauna? Who?
*. I wonder what happened to those periscope devices we see in the Liberation Day crowds. Were they not very effective? Do people still use them?
*. The only scene where I thought they made a mistake with the Jackal comes when he throws the suitcase off the bridge while saying “Good-bye, Mr. Duggan.” The Jackal would never talk to himself like that.
*. Is that Derek Jacobi? It is! God he looks young. But I guess he was.
*. What is it with Zinnemann’s fascination with clocks? How many shots of clocks are there in this movie? It seems like there are dozens (actually, somebody has counted and there are 31). And they don’t serve much purpose, the one exception being the glance at the clock to see how much time the French police have to get to the train station before the Jackal is due to arrive in Paris. Perhaps they’re meant as a metaphor (the Jackal operates like clockwork), but mainly I think they’re just meant to remind us that time is indeed passing and is of the essence.
*. The surveillance footage we see of the bodyguard Wolenski is ridiculous. They must have been sticking the camera practically in his face to get such shots.
*. In case you’re wondering what the Jackal’s preferred neckwear is, I believe it’s an ascot. Though in some scenes it just looks like a scarf.
*. Michel Lonsdale is decent as the slightly comic Lebel. It’s the moustache that makes him funny. A moustache can be so expressive.

dayofthejackal2

*. Having read the novel first, the main thing I was interested in when I first saw this movie was seeing what the gun looked like. Forsyth spends a lot of time describing it but I could never visualize it properly. It is an odd looking thing. An extension of the Jackal himself, who is another slender machine obsessed with precision.
*. I loved the scene where the Jackal is lying in bed having the obligatory post-coital cig and Delphine Seyrig lies next to him with her breast and nipple prominently – nay, defiantly! – on display. It’s so artificial when filmmakers cover up nudity in bed.
*. Aren’t we all rooting for the Jackal? He’s an individual up against the massive bureaucratic power of the state. Admit it: you want to seem him pull it off.

dayofthejackal1