Monthly Archives: September 2014

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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*. Herzog just has an eye for visual themes, a sensitivity to the found poetry of the image. Why should a bunch of Mexican mummies (the mummies of Guanajuato) work so perfectly as an intro to a movie about a Transylvanian vampire? Just because of the way they look. I assume that as they’re used here they’re meant to be the desiccated corpses of Dracula’s victims, but they are never actually explained, and don’t need to be.
*. There’s an interesting bit of genealogy behind this film. Herzog thought Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu “the very best German film ever,” “the most important film made in Germany.” This film was thus an act of homage — it was not, in Herzog’s mind, a remake — to the grandfathers of German film (grandfathers because the generation of fathers had been erased).
*. Despite the extent of Murnau’s influence, Herzog makes some startling remarks on the commentary where he seems to be unconscious of significant parts of the earlier film (the funeral procession scene, for example). Of course it may be that he had just internalized all of it and was unconscious of his borrowing.
*. Also on the commentary is Herzog’s claim that he has never seen the Lugosi Dracula. Amazing.
*. Murnau had a reputation as a painterly filmmaker and Herzog picks up on this and runs with it. You can’t help thinking of Vermeer when watching Murnau, but you can’t help seeing Vermeer here.
*. The dominant colour motifs are black and white, both of which really are colours in this case. The range of tones is remarkable. The vampires (Dracula and Harker) look unhealthily white, and Dracula in particular is set off against various blacks, his head almost floating above his cloak like a white blob. Lucy, on the other hand, looks like she’s made of porcelain and is pale as a ghost, but in a way expressive of purity. She often appears as white on white on white.

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*. Just look at the scene where Dracula suckles on Lucy the whole night long. It’s a dark scene but it seems lit from within by all those shades of white: the pale faces, the blankets, her nightdress, the pitcher, the walls, the candles, the curtains. It’s a Whistler symphony.

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*. Herzog thought Murnau’s vampire to be too much “like an insect.” He wanted Kinski to have a soul, to be human and feel human emotions. And what a fascinating idea it was to have a depressed vampire. I wonder if this says something about the ’70s. It’s a sensibility you don’t get in any previous versions of the story that I’m aware of. Even the dying town is a downer, and the ending is unprecedented in its all-around unhappiness.
*. Shot on the cheap, and looks better for it. A low budget seems to help some historical pieces. The past was a low budget time, and when it’s filmed that way it lends authenticity to the proceedings.
*. Why are the town elders surprised and panicked to find a reference to the plague in the captain’s journal? The spread of the plague had been reported in newspapers that Renfield was reading. Rats were all over the ship. What else did they think had happened?
*. Filmed in both English and German versions, which probably wasn’t too difficult as there’s not a lot of important dialogue. As with Aguirre, this could have been a silent film. Because Herzog was a German filmmaker with an eye on the American market? Or just because dialogue doesn’t interest him that much? I think mainly the latter.
*. Herzog frequently adverts to having his actors just hold a pose, not wanting them to even try to act. Another partial nod to the silent tradition.
*. I’ve always thought Kinski was a natural silent film actor, so he’s in his element here. And he pulls it off by underplaying the part, at Herzog’s insistence.

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*. It’s not a scary movie. Murnau’s version was scarier. There are no frightening scenes at all, and Herzog appears to have deliberately eschewed the most frightening moments in the 1922 film. We never go below decks with Dracula on the ship, for example.
*. Popol Vuh came through with a great score: very simple and foreboding, built around a dirge-like moaning. Florian Fricke and Herzog just seem to go together, like . . . Herzog and Kinski.
*. The thousands of rats were an infamous disaster. I don’t know why Herzog bothered. In Stoker’s novel Dracula jumps off the ship as a dog. That might have been scarier, and a whole lot easier to shoot.
*. The shot where Dracula enters Lucy’s room behind her, opening and closing the door and having his shadow appear but without a reflection in the mirror, was a complicated one and quite effective until the end, when he is clearly visible in the mirror. It’s impossible to miss, and hard to figure why Herzog didn’t work around it or cut it out.
*. I love Isabelle Adjani’s look. But as far as acting goes, she mainly seems intent on just seeing how wide she can keep her eyes for long periods of time. The whites of her eyes are another bit of pale in Herzog’s palette.
*. Van Helsing is almost as useless here as he is in Murnau’s film. He’s an enlightened man and doesn’t believe in vampires. He also seems old and frail, and offers up platitudes that suggest senility. Even his role at the end is perfunctory and unnecessary. It’s interesting that when Norman Hill asks Herzog about this on the commentary, noting the unimportance of his Van Helsing, Herzog is totally silent, offering no response at all.
*. If I had to answer Hill, I would say that Van Helsing’s very uselessness is the point. He’s there to show how isolated, how much on her own, Lucy is.
*. Harker going to Transylvania is much like Aguirre heading down the Amazon or the Grizzly Man entering the wild: man, alone, going into a nature that is both beautiful and deadly. We can’t fight what we find there, and end up merely absorbed by it: swallowed by the jungle, eaten by a bear, transformed into a vampire and then disappearing into the haze like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, only in reverse.

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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

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*. This was a movie you almost never saw. Because it was an unauthorized film version of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s widow took the producers to court and got an order that the negative and all prints of the film be destroyed. Luckily that didn’t happen, but it’s a case to keep in mind in any discussion of the pros and cons of a rigid enforcement of intellectual property rights.
*. I like this movie more and more every time I see it. Which is the opposite reaction I have to Browning’s Dracula.

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*. A note on names. Dracula’s name is Count Orlok here, and the term “Nosferatu” is usually translated as just generically meaning “vampire.” But that doesn’t fit with the title cards, where Nosferatu is clearly used as the Count’s name, and the word “vampire” is used separately.

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*. You can lose count of all the iconic shots in this film, almost all of them being appearances of Orlok (or his shadow). What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Orlok is only on screen less than ten minutes. That’s the same sort of effect Hannibal Lecter has in Silence of the Lambs, where he appears for just under sixteen minutes. Villains don’t need a big part to make a big impact. They just have to establish an aura or presence.
*. It’s the Hamlet of horror films, and Herzog would lovingly quote all of its best lines/shots in his 1979 version, sometimes unconsciously.

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*. Murnau is so good on location and out of doors (how did he get such steady shots of the ship at sea?) that it makes me wonder why he insisted on shooting all of the unlimited-budget Faust in a studio. As much as I love Faust, I think of what might have been.
*. Andy Klein: “As Orlok, Schreck is fitted with the same huge hooked nose and grasping talons that have traditionally been associated with Shylock and Fagin. He lives off the blood of others, much as Jews were believed to drink the blood of Christian babies. He and Knock communicate in a strange secret language that is impossible for the rest of the citizenry to understand. Worse yet, Knock and Orlok both seem to be part of some secret, monied cabal, whose purpose is to pollute, corrupt, and control the sleepy, unsuspecting populace. Orlok’s arrival is accompanied by the plague; and he himself is associated visually with vermin. It would not take much — no more than the rewriting of a few title cards, substituting the word ‘Jew’ for ‘vampire’ — to turn Nosferatu into a perfect Nazi-era propaganda drama.”
*. Fair comment? Mostly, though I think Klein overstates the case a bit. It’s not clear that no one but Knock understands the coded language Orlok uses. It might just be meant to represent some weird regional dialect. Also, while undoubtedly rich, I don’t see Orlok portrayed as a miser or even as being all that that interested in money. Why would he be? The same goes for Knock. And finally, there is no attempt to give the film an overtly religious dimension by portraying the citizenry as a community of upright churchgoers threatened by a diabolical anti-Christian outsider.
*. No, jumping into bed and pulling the covers over your head really isn’t the most manly response to seeing a vampire at your door, is it? Poor Hutter. And his wife is still a virgin?

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*. I wonder if it was assumed that audiences wouldn’t be able to recognize a hyena, and thus think it might be a werewolf.
*. There’s a lot of effort put into making Orlok seem a natural predator, like a fly-eating plant or a spider. David Thomson: “[Murnau] sees Orlok as an emanation of the natural world — he is a mist and a vapor in mountains where cloud formations are often strange.”

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*. At the same time, as mentioned above, there is no mention of any religious connection made to vampirism at all. We never hear of Orlok being afraid of crosses or holy water, and the only way to kill him is through some pagan rite involving the sacrifice of a maiden. The business about killing a vampire by exposing him to daylight was a total invention of Murnau’s, by the way.
*. Count Orlok clearly isn’t a sexy vampire in the mould of a Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but it’s interesting how, before his arrival in her bedroom, Ellen does some rather risque groping of her own breast. Then, when Orlok does show up, the shadow of his hand moves up her body and settles on the same breast. I wonder if Murnau had a thing for this. In Faust, Mephisotopheles really goes to town groping Martha’s chest as well.

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*. Did Murnau think there was something funny in the scenes of Orlok lugging his coffin around Wisborg, or is the humour there unintentional? It seems almost Chaplinesque. You can’t help thinking that if someone were standing next to him he would be sure to knock them down if he turned around too quickly.
*. Does the Van Helsing character in this version of the story (dubbed Professor Bulwer) do anything? Anything at all?

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Swamp Thing (1982)

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*. A comic-book film before comic-book films became a dominant (or the dominant) film form. And for once I regret the lack of CGI. The Swamp Thing is just a guy in a rubber suit, a sort of poor man’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. I think they’d do a better job with this material today.
*. I think it’s a terrible, irredeemably juvenile movie. As with today’s comic-book fare, it’s a bit entertaining on a first viewing but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to see it twice.
*. I do like the character of Jude. He gets all the best lines, and never misses with his flat, low-key delivery. “Does anything work around here?” Barbeau asks. “Just me,” he replies.
*. Jude the obscure? I’m not sure  how he gets by. That run-down store doesn’t look like it’s seen any business in years. Which at least means that he has no problem dropping everything and heading out into  the swamp with Cable when the bad guys arrive.

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*. That neon green goo had to come from Re-Animator, didn’t it? But no! Re-Animator came out three years after this movie. So perhaps this is where they got it from.
*. Poor Adrienne Barbeau. She could have been given more to do here, but in the end the movie just wants her for her tits.
*. To be fair, the movie only wants Louis Jourdan for his accent and a touch of class. I’m not sure who ended up being embarrassed the most.
*. Oh no! Not the old “drop down under the table during the transformation scene, and then pop back up as something else” routine! But by that point, you couldn’t have been expecting anything better.
*. I know some people, perhaps feeling nostalgia for the ’80s, find a kind of cheesy charm in all the cheap stunts and effects. I think it’s clichéd, and the clichés weren’t very interesting to begin with. If Wes Craven has a heart, then I don’t think his heart was in it. But the burning man stunt is one of the best of its kind I’ve seen, and the laughable creature Arcane turns into at the end is worth waiting for.

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Moscow Clad in Snow (1909)

*. The documentaries of yesteryear (or in this case “actuality films,” if you insist on the difference), are like a form of fantasy, a magic mirror in this case revealing a time of horse-drawn carriages and sleds, not to mention giant bells and cannon that seem left over from a race of giants. We can recognize the people we see, but it’s a way we’ll never be again.
*. In fact, I find documentaries even more fantastic than the escapists fare of the era, like A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery. A Trip to the Moon is all effects, and effects are always with us. But real streets without cars!
*. I can’t help thinking that if Moscow got any more snow then those streets would be impassable, even with sleds. Then again, a Moscow not clad in snow would be a hellishly muddy mess. Imagine that street in the spring!
*. What makes me find all of this so beautiful? Is it just because it’s a vanished world? I know I feel the same way looking at the streets of 1950s San Francisco in Vertigo, but that’s only natural. I think everyone responds that way to Vertigo (or San Francisco). But these early documentaries almost always have the same effect. And I don’t think I’m romanticizing the past. Snow clad Moscow isn’t some ideal or exotic place. But as I get older, and science fiction gets more and more dystopic, “the past” starts to look like Eden, civilization’s paradise lost.
*. The camera work is very simple, really just a series of pans, but given the limitations of a stationary camera the shots are well chosen. I especially like that opening pan, with the birds sailing about in the middle distance. There’s a tremendous sense of space.
*. It’s very much a city movie, about people going places: walking, riding, sledding, or on skis. Everyone seems so busy.
*. Some of the people seem to know what’s going on, but we also see people looking at the camera with innocence; that is, not seeing themselves as subjects being filmed, not performing, but just wondering what’s the game. That’s another Edenic attribute of the past, a time before the narcissism of the subject, when we all started looking at ourselves.

 

JFK (1991)

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*. No, I don’t believe the JFK conspiracy theories. Especially the ones that depend so much upon rag-tag collections of misfits and losers. I mean, if there was a conspiracy to kill the president, how would someone like David Ferrie have gotten in on it?
*. That said, I do think this is a great movie.
*. For many reasons, but I think the one that stands out the most is this: even with a running time of nearly three-and-a-half hours (for the director’s cut), it’s never boring. The only places where it starts to stick a bit are the domestic, “Norman Rockwell” scenes (Little girl: “I don’t like it when you and mommy fight”). But these are mercifully few, and brief.
*. Credit the crackling script and most of all the frantic editing. Has there ever been a movie with more cuts (remember that running time in your answer)? What is the single longest shot? Are there any more than a minute? And even in these longer shots the camera is constantly moving around, as with the very nice dolly into David Ferrie’s apartment after his suicide.
*. And it’s not just the speed and frequency of the cuts. The same kinetic visual rhythm hops crazily from black-and-white to colour to different kinds of film stock and speed. This movie was made in the editing room.

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*. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was all in the casting. There’s an old saying that a movie is made when it’s cast. True or not, the casting in JFK is brilliant, using typecasting and the star system to, in Roger Ebert’s phrase “create instant emotional zones around their characters.” The stars make quick, lasting impressions, striking the screen like typewriter keys on a page. Tommy Lee Jones is supercilious. Joe Pesci is manic. Walter Matthau is garrulous. John Candy is a bubble of grease about to pop (what does his line about the ho-hos and the ta-tas mean?). Gary Oldman seems like a visitor from another planet. Kevin Bacon is dirty. Jim Garrison (that’s him playing Earl Warren) is compromised. Jack Lemmon is befuddled. Donald Sutherland is smug and deluded.

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*. Sissy Spacek is wasted, I think because Stone really doesn’t understand women (he’s been accused of not liking them, but that may be going too far). Laurie Metcalf as Suzie Cox (an invented character) is good, but then she’s really just one of the boys in Garrison’s office.
*. Then there’s Kevin Costner. A cross between Jimmy Stewart and . . . a flagpole? He really relies on his props: that pipe and those serious-looking glasses that so often turn into discs of reflected light, the epitome of cool intelligence. He’s ideal, perhaps a little too ideal, for the part, but he’s not a great actor. For one thing, he has no sense of humour or even irony. David Thomson: “a man like Costner would be killed by humour.” How did he ever get cast in so many comedic leads?

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*. Does a lack of humour matter? Is Stone’s tongue ever in his cheek? I want to think it’s possible. There are scenes here, like the generals nodding at each other in their smoke-filled rooms, that tingle with comedy.
*. As with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Zodiac, the hero’s obsession with uncovering the Truth puts a strain on his family life. And as with both of those movies, the hero is finally vindicated, at least morally if not in the court of public opinion. We, the audience, know he is right. Long-suffering wives take heed: stand by your man while he chases his dream, fights the system, makes his movie, etc.

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*. In real life, Garrison’s wife divorced him after the events described in the movie. She may have been as unimpressed as the jurors, who only deliberated for an hour.
*. Southern accents are so redolent of corrupt authority. Their relaxing sound always puts me on my guard.
*. But let’s return to Stone’s sense (or absence) of irony. Is he a believer? In something, but I’m not sure what. There are so many theories to pick and choose from. He’s throwing a lot at the wall and hoping something sticks. But just having some belief is what’s important. I think Stone had to believe in this stuff in order to make the film work. Earnestness is essential, even when you’re admitting that a lot of the time you’re making things up.
*. What are the forces behind this coup d’état? They are, in Rose Cheramie’s prophetic voice, “serious fucking guys.” What she is referring to is Garrison’s notion of an “invisble government” of disciplined Cold Warriors holding positions of power in the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, Secret Service, White House, and even the Dallas Police.

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*. Not, however, the mob. Though that’s a theory aired here as well, and Stone in the DVD commentary calls it a “lucid argument” that he wants to throw out there with everything else. “It’s your call,” he finally shrugs.
*. In case you might have missed the cues, in his commentary Stone is quite emphatic about the heroes and the villains of the piece. Here he is, for example, on Clay Shaw: “I think Clay Shaw was a handsome man, but underneath that I see brutality, brutality in every way, a very, very twisted man, a very scary man, for me.” And here he is on Fletcher Prouty (the model for Donald Sutherland’s character): “a man tall, erect, of military bearing . . . he’s a wonderful man, filled with honour and strength and dignity, and kindness and truth and graciousness.”

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*. On several occasions Stone has described this film as his effort to create a “countermyth” to the Warren Report, one that would reveal the inner meaning of the assassination if not the whole truth. And while I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories, it’s a resonant myth for several reasons.
*. In the first place, it’s a story of the “little guy” taking on “the system” and being shut down. Who doesn’t identify with such feelings? Only someone who has never had any dealings with the government.

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*. It also resonates because, while the conspiracy narrative is unconvincing, we feel in our hearts that it should be true. There really is a military-industrial complex, and they do wage wars for profit. Politics and the justice system are rigged games run by powerful elites.
*. “This is my Godfather,” Stone says at the end of his commentary (going on to claim Nixon as his Godfather: Part II). I think this is right, at least in so far as this is his best and most representative movie. It’s all here: the passion, the idealism, the sentiment, and the sheer energy of language and image that carries everything before it. The point is not to convince but to move. The countermyth represents an emotional truth. That’s not the province of history, but art.

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Executive Action (1973)

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*. It sure looks like a TV movie. It wasn’t, but it was made on an extremely low budget and didn’t have a long run in the theatres. In fact, it was quickly yanked because of bad press (too soon, I guess), and wasn’t seen again until the late 1980s (and then only on TV).
*. The early ’70s were the golden age of conspiracy movies, for obvious reasons (Watergate broke in ’73, and there was no limit to what you could think the government was up to), but I think by using a real event this one hit too close to home. Showing Kennedy’s head exploding was probably a mistake. By the time Oliver Stone got around to doing JFK, attitudes had changed considerably.
*. An interesting take on events because it presents things from the conspirators’ perspective. Only, who are these guys? They aren’t FBI, CIA, Secret Service, or military, and yet they seem to have their fingers in every pie. Burt Lancaster is some kind of ex-black ops man (he could have been a general, but John Frankenheimer had already made that movie). Will Geer represents Big Oil. Robert Ryan’s tricked-out railway carriage suggests he’s a nineteenth-century robber baron with a steampunk time machine hidden away somewhere.
*. If the conspirators are a vague group, their motives are even murkier. Robert Ryan is apparently concerned that the coloureds are going to start taking over by sheer weight of numbers. How killing Kennedy is going to solve the third world population bomb isn’t clear. Will Geer, who appears in too many cutaways, disapprovingly watching Kennedy on TV, just thinks that the president is soft, a typical mushy liberal who should be gotten rid of.
*. I see the hand of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in all this. I think he just wanted to target a vast right-wing conspiracy.
*. None of this is very convincing, but then neither is JFK, where it’s almost as hard to figure out who the conspirators are (aside from “everybody”).

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*. Is it cool to flush a toilet with your foot? There’s no reason for the one team leader to do it, and yet he does. Why?
*. An almost all-male cast. I mean, there are few women even in supporting or back-up roles. In the second half of the film three come on screen for a couple of lines or less: a stripper, a secretary, and a girlfriend.
*. Fun with statistics. At the end of the film a voiceover tells us that the chances of so many material witnesses to the assassination dying within such a brief period of time was calculated by an actuarial at 100,000 trillion-to-one. Later efforts have recalculated the probability down to a point where it’s virtually certain to have happened. You decide.

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*. The intercutting from documentary footage to dramatic re-creations during the assassination sequence and its immediate fallout is very effective. It’s this stuff that makes this a movie that deserves to be better known. Otherwise, despite some big names in the cast I don’t think the acting is anything special (Pauline Kael describes their “matchlessly dull performances”), and the photography is pretty ugly throughout.
*. Are we meant to think that Burt Lancaster’s character has been eliminated by the cabal at the end? We do see him taking heart medicine earlier so it’s possible he’s had a heart attack. But the seeds of doubt have been planted.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

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*. Horror and sex. The two went together long before the dead teenager genre. Sex has always been a force to be feared, especially in film. Nearly every movie monster is out to get some: from Dracula, who already has a harem of succubi, chasing after Lucy, to King Kong breaking down walls to get to Fay Wray, the Creature of the Black Lagoon falling for Julie Adams (well, who wouldn’t?), and on and on.
*. Is this just an obsession of the movies? This version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is outrageously sexy (I’ll get to some of the details later), but Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel isn’t. In fact, there are no women in the novel at all. Mr. Hyde is a brute, but his only crimes (at least that we hear of) are his trampling a kid in the street and beating an old man to death. The beast within isn’t an unleashed id, but just a violent psychopath.
*. Director Victor Fleming’s take on the old story is something quite different. Spencer Tracy is introduced to us as a sexually wired guy. The crazy man in the church identifies with him immediately and calls him “bull-blooded.” Later, Tracey adopts this designation and likens himself to a bull in a china shop. And even in the presence of his fiancée’s father he can’t help nibbling on her fingers. This man is hungry. He certainly doesn’t have any scruples when it comes to a brief dalliance that includes some playful undressing with a girl like Ingrid Bergman. We may well doubt his insistence that he was in control of the situation throughout.

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*. Then, of course, there is the fetish angle. Probably the most famous scene in this film comes in the first dream sequence, a tire fire of Jekyll’s libido that has Tracy whipping Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner as a pair of naked pony girls.
*. In case you haven’t seen the movie, I will assure you I’m not kidding, and repeat: Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner appear as a team of pony girls. How did that make it past the censors?
*. And this isn’t the only bit of over-the-top sexuality. Bergman seduces Dr. Jekyll by taking off her garter and stocking, a garter that he fears may be on too tight and that he pockets and takes home with him. In the second dream sequence Bergman becomes the cork in a champagne bottle that is screwed into and then released with a triumphant pop and surge of bubbly (I have to insist again that I’m not making this up!). We also learn that Bergman is whipped by Hyde when she becomes his concubine.

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*. The first time I saw this movie I was puzzled by the casting against type. Surely Bergman should be the good girl/fiancée and Turner the fallen seductress? And the story goes that this is the way it was supposed to be, but Bergman was tired of being good girls and asked that the roles be reversed. Whether this is true or not, however, is still debated.
*. I think the change, if it was a change, sort of works. Bergman isn’t convincing at all as the b-girl (one assumes she is an immigrant from somewhere, maybe France), but she does a good victim. Turner, meanwhile, just doesn’t look right in period dress.
*. Tracy’s performance is similarly mixed. He’s fine as the troubled and repressed Dr. Jekyll, but his Mr. Hyde is only a sleazy, bug-eyed loser with unkempt eyebrows and dirty teeth. He’s not even particularly threatening or violent. He gets his kicks out of tripping people, poking them or pushing them from behind, or abusing women and engaging in domestic cruelty. In the event, Tracy’s performance was widely panned. The New York Times found him “more ludicrous than dreadful.”
*. Victor Fleming was one of those guys I like to think of as engineers rather than directors. Producers could feel comfortable putting him in charge of big, bothersome projects like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind. But he had little in the way of a personal style (contemporary examples of the type would include names like James Cameron and Peter Jackson). This movie needed more humanity. There’s fog and gas lamps, but no atmosphere. And while I don’t mind Hyde’s minimal make-up, the transformation scenes are weak, being just a series of superimposed dissolves. How his hair goes from an unruly mop as Hyde to perfectly coiffed as Jekyll is anybody’s guess.
*. I wonder what was in that smoking beaker that Jekyll/Hyde drinks to effect his transformations. I can’t think of many beverages I’d want to drink that give off stage vapours like that.

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Capricorn One (1977)

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*. The end of a long and impressive run for the cinema of paranoia in the 1970s.
*. How do you know it’s the end? Well, for starters the conspiracy is about as far out there as you can get. As if the faking of the moon landing wasn’t bad enough, here we have a faked expedition to Mars.
*. Who could be behind such a hare-brained scheme? Hal Holbrook makes a vague rhetorical gesture toward “people out there, forces out there” that are “grown-ups.” As opposed to? How many people at NASA are in the know? How many people in the FBI? Who in the government is involved? That shady Congressman Parker certainly seems part of the plot, but is he? I don’t see where his connection is ever made explicit. And large corporations, of course (Con Amalgamate, who would be recycled as the villainous corporation in Outland).
*. We also know we’ve come to the end of the line when we get to the horrendous happy ending. How painfully contrived and unbelievable. Hollywood wins again. Hyams wanted audiences to cheer at the end (Rocky was his inspiration): “I just think it was a time in America when we were so fed up with bad guys winning.” And cheer they did. Vietnam and Watergate were now fading memories. Just a few months later the government would be covering up the arrival of aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it turned out they were nothing to be frightened of. Morning in America was on its way.
*. Finally, you know a genre is spent when it begins to show signs of self-satire. Writer/director Hyams makes his case against the power of the media, but he doesn’t believe in any of the rest of it. I think this weakens the film. Say what you will about Oliver Stone’s sense of history, JFK is all the more powerful a film because he sincerely believes the truth is out there.

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*. As with any conspiracy involving so many moving parts, you can’t imagine it staying together. Take the disappearance of the NASA technician Elliot Whittier. This makes no sense at all. If the conspiracy had wanted to get rid of him they could have easily killed him or removed him in some mysterious but quiet way. Instead they set up a ridiculous alternate reality where he never existed? How long could such a cover story last? Didn’t Elliot have any friends (aside from Caulfield)? Or family? And if they really wanted to kill Gould’s character would they have done something as silly as cutting his brake lines? Or taking a couple of wild shots at him in a deserted location and then running away?

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*. Hal Holbrook. The face of compromised power. The burned-out conspirator. Hyams on his commentary notes his facility at delivering set-piece speeches, and that’s part of it. You can never quite trust him, even when he’s playing one of the good guys.
*. I was just dying to see James Brolin get his perfect mane of hair mussed. That’s a genuine Hollywood-hero coiffure. But then in the desert he gets to wear a cool bandana. No fair!

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*. The scene where the astronauts talk to their wives has no time delay in their messages? That doesn’t seem realistic.
*. It’s a clunky script. The pace flags at several points, many scenes either go on too long or are irrelevant, and the structure is misshapen. The chase following the astronauts’ escape takes up too much time, basically splitting the movie in two. And while we can all think of one or two prominent exceptions, I think there are few things as tedious to watch as people crawling through the desert.
*. Hyams on the matter of pacing, then and now: “You know to do a mystery, even in a film that’s filled with some very big action scenes, I’m not sure you could take the same pace now. I think audiences are a bit more impatient, I think you’d have to speed some things up some more because they won’t sit still. Certainly young audiences . . . I think you’d have to do it a little quicker. I don’t think that’s necessarily good, I think it’s just what is.” Fair enough.
*. How did they get NASA to cooperate with the making of this movie? Perhaps they thought there was no such thing as bad publicity.

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*. All through Sam Waterson’s painful cliff-climbing episode I was thinking that there must have been an easier way up. Then, in the shot where the camera pulls away to show the two helicopters waiting for him at the top, you can clearly see that he could have just gone around. There’s even what seems to be a trail running up one side of the cliff, to the right.

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*. Yes, the helicopter chase scene is an amazing stunt. It’s some of the most impressive aerial work I’ve ever seen. And it doesn’t work at all. What I mean is that it doesn’t go with the rest of the film’s sense of claustrophobic dread and paranoia. It belongs in another movie.
*. Hyams mentions on the DVD commentary that O. J. Simpson’s head was so big they had to get a special space helmet made for him. I hadn’t noticed before, but Hyams is right. It’s huge!

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*. Gould has to open his medicine cabinet to show you that there’s nothing in it, so you’ll know that the drugs the FBI find there later have been planted. And so Hyams shows him rinsing his mouth with Scope. After which he immediately heads to the kitchen and pours himself a cup of coffee. Who keeps their private stash of cocaine in their medicine cabinet? Who drinks coffee right after rinsing their mouth out with mouthwash? Come on. Think, people. Think!
*. Hyams wanted the helicopters to be characters, and I think he achieved this effect. But of course it’s silly that they have to keep stopping in mid-air to look at each other, and it’s not clear to me why they’d always be together anyway if their goal was to cover as much ground as possible in their search for the astronauts. Shouldn’t they have split up?

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*. I wish Brenda Vaccaro had been given more to do. She’s really a solid actress and I think she was perfect in the part. She has a reputation for playing tough characters, probably because of that throaty voice, but it’s her intelligence that impresses me. Despite having an almost entirely passive role here, she seems smarter than all of the men around her.
*. Hyams had no idea what one critic meant by his “Kubrick homage” at the end of the film. I don’t think it’s an homage, but I picked up the connection to Dr. Strangelove and the coke machine right away. But apparently he was totally unconscious of the connection.
*. Do Walker and Willis die? I felt it was left open-ended, but on the commentary track Hyams makes it clear that he thought they were executed, and talks of their two “death” scenes. I guess that’s not a definitive statement, but you can take it for what it’s worth.
*. Hyams concludes his commentary by wondering a bit wistfully about how well this movie has stood the test of time. Reasonably well, I would say. It’s not in the front rank of conspiracy thrillers from the period, but people still watch it and the airplane chase scene is still impressive (and I think always will be).
*. Aside from that, it also remains interesting for its self-reflexive quality. It’s a movie about mediated reality and how the image can be a manufactured lie. I hate the ending, but there’s an important point in it where the television cameras all turn from the funeral service toward Brubaker; that is, away from the official, political lie and toward the truth. There’s a darker, matching moment when the astronauts are making their escape in the jet and Brubaker wonders if their families will be happy to see them come home. It’s a profoundly troubling thought. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if the astronauts were to remain dead heroes? Wouldn’t a lie be better than the truth?

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The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

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*. I wonder if the theme seemed as depressing in 1962 as it is today. Isn’t this a movie about the right to die and assisted suicide? How sad is poor Jan’s case?
*. Yes, it’s a terrible movie. But though cheap in an awkward way (dig that car crash!), and with some really clumsy editing throughout, it’s nevertheless full of those bizarre touches that elevate it to great bad movie status.
*. Take the script. Were the 1960s the last decade of really literate screenwriting? Of course there are still great screenwriters doing wonderful work, but do today’s Grade Z crapfests have lines like this: “No, my deformed friend, like all quantities, horror has it’s ultimate. And I am that.”
*. On the subject of great bad movies, this one got a nomination in the Medveds’s Golden Turkey Awards as one of the “Most Brainless Brain Movies of All Time.” The synopsis, however, is faulty to the point of giving the impression that neither of the authors had actually seen the movie. For example, the car accident is said to occur “during one romantic, moonlit romp to a local cemetery.” In fact the accident occurs in broad daylight, and they are on the way to Dr. Cortner’s magnificent country house. Then later, Dr. Cortner’s assistant Kurt is described as Jan’s “brother.” Where did that come from?
*. Virginia Leith as “Jan in the Pan” (as she’s been dubbed) is actually pretty good in a limited role. And I like how she seems to need no time at all to adjust to being a disembodied head. As soon as she regains consciousness she is plotting her revenge.
*. Despite this, the confrontation between Jan and Doctor Bill is much delayed. They only see each other for the first time after the accident with less than ten minutes left in the movie. And then when they do come face to face they initially have nothing at all to say to each other.
*. I don’t think their relationship was going anywhere, and it’s hard to understand why Bill wants to revive it except to prove that he can do it.
*. “It’s getting awfully warm in here,” the “model” says as she takes off her jacket and gloves in a seated striptease, just before the doctor drugs her. Obviously there’s something exploitative here, even if you’re not watching the “European” cut of the film with the semi-nude modeling sequence. I think having a catfight between strippers gives the game away.
*. Probably the most disturbing aspect of the movie is Doctor Bill’s leering hunt for the perfect body. There is something of the psycho-stalker in these scenes.  Bad enough that he performs such monstrous experiments in his basement, but to be a lech as well seems overkill. Science and sexuality are a dangerous mix . . . or are they in some creepy way complementary?

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Frogs (1972)

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*. From American International Pictures, the same good people who would later bring us Tentacles and Empire of the Ants. A name that you can trust when it comes to this form of entertainment.
*. Frogs is usually described as an early example of eco-horror, but aside from the opening credit sequence juxtaposing nature shots against scenes of pollution, nothing is made of this. Is nature running wild because of all the shit that’s being dumped in the water? Maybe.
*. The way I see it, this is more an example of the kind of drive-in crap that was prevalent just before the advent of the slasher/dead teenager genre.
*. What a misleading title. There are plenty of shots of frogs (or toads) hopping (or being thrown) around. But let’s face it, frogs aren’t very scary or threatening. Instead, the people here are attacked and killed by snakes, lizards, leeches, alligators, spiders, scorpions, birds, and even a giant turtle (really!). Finally, Ray Milland is apparently finished off by his own collection of stuffed animal heads. Again, really.
*. Iris was originally supposed to die in a pool of quicksand, and you can still see this scene in the trailer. In the final cut, however, it was dropped because the producers thought it looked silly. Think about what that means in the context of a film like this.
*. Why does the phone ring at the end? Were the frogs on the line?
*. Stuart seemed to be doing a pretty good job wrasslin’ that ‘gator. He had its back pretty secure anyway (and you can see that its jaws were actually taped shut). So how did he get killed?
*. Is there an award for decent actors who wind up appearing in such awful movies? If so, I nominate Ray Milland. Was he embarrassed? Bored? I vote for dejected.
*. I’m not sure that the best way to get a snake down off your dining room chandelier is to shoot it with a pistol.
*. Hands up everyone who recognized Sam Elliott without his moustache! I know I didn’t.
*. A good bad movie? To each their own. It has a few silly moments, like the death of Michael by killer moss, but most of the time it’s pretty dull. The nature cutaways, especially to the lazy toads and frogs, are repetitive and pointless. A really great bad movie would have made more out of the ’70s-Southern Gothic disjunction, with Big Daddy Crocker playing off against his sideburned and swinging grandkids. Alas, it was not to be.

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