Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Sea Hawk (1940)


*. This is one of the great if not the greatest pirate film, though there are no pirates in it. Technically Captain Thorpe and the other Sea Hawks are privateers. There’s a difference.
*. It reunites a lot of the talent from Captain Blood: most notably star Errol Flynn, director Michael Curtiz, and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It also takes its title (and little else) from another novel by Rafael Sabatini, the author of Captain Blood.
*. But in the intervening years Warners had gotten even better at this material. After films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex they had every aspect of the swashbuckling historical romance down pat: costumes, sets, models, music, choreography . . . it was all in place.
*. Errol Flynn, who had starred in both Robin Hood and Elizabeth and Essex, had also grown into the part of the handsome, athletic leading man. In Captain Blood he was still very much a rookie, but learning so fast that they reshot a number of his earlier scenes.
*. Most of all, he had developed a relaxed presence, effortless charm, and a sense of humour. But he doesn’t play it broad. In the one entirely comic scene, where he encourages the mosquito-tortured Alan Hale to hold his breath, he doesn’t even crack a smile. But you can tell he’s having fun throughout, and is now completely comfortable holding the camera in every scene without even seeming to try. He is doing more with less.
*. Look carefully at the scene after the jungle ambush where he seems to collapse for a moment and then immediately picks himself up because he knows he has to put on a show of strength in front of his men. It’s a really nice little moment, but if you blink you’ll miss it.
*. His swordplay was getting better as well, and he puts on a good show here against a double for Henry Daniell. Daniell (who went on to play the tortured doctor in The Body Snatcher opposite Boris Karloff) made a good villain, but couldn’t fence at all. The wonderful shadow-play of their swordfight might have been meant as a bit of a distraction, but it’s so wonderful you don’t think for a moment of any ulterior motive.


*. The studio wanted Olivia de Havilland, again, to play opposite Flynn, but I think Brenda Marshall is better suited for the part of Dona Maria. She has a more sultry, foreign look (I was reminded of Demi Moore). In fact she was of Norwegian descent (her real name was Ardis Ankerson), though born in the Philippines. I think she’s very good, and plays a strong lead against Flynn’s always somewhat feminine persona. Note how in the carriage scene she is the first to profess her love, and takes the initiative in kissing him.
*. I’ve written before of how circumscribed a genre the pirate film is, with certain elements that have to keep reappearing. In the face of this, a bit of invention goes a long way. Here are a couple of examples.
*. The grappling scene is a stand-by, but in the opening battle here (the only sea battle in the film, actually) the Albatross is boarding a Spanish galleon, which has long oars sticking out below decks. As the two ships are pulled together these oars bend and snap, something we hear even more than we see. The sound effects are wonderful, and the whole sequence was made possible by the special tank (the Maritime Stage, as it was called) that Warners had just built, kitted out with two full-size replicas of the warships.


*. Another obligatory scene is the initial round of courtship between the pirate and the lady. This is usually played out in a conventional way, but here Curtiz makes it more interesting visually by having Flynn up on deck staring down at Marshall and then dropping the pin in the water to gain her attention. It’s basically a Shakespearean balcony scene on board a ship, and it looks great.


*. You can see how everything came together in the scene where Thorpe and his crew return to the Albatross after being bushwhacked in Panama. We begin with a great process shot that is both beautiful and convincing as the small boat rows out to the anchored ship. We suspect something is wrong. The script is alert here: one of the men in the boat thinks it’s a trap. Our own fears are being openly expressed. But he is quickly hushed, dismissed as gunshy after the jungle ambush.
*. Korngold’s score becomes forbidding and suspenseful, more effective even than the rousing fanfares elsewhere in the picture. Then, when the men climb aboard the ship, the music stops. Given the pervasiveness of Korngold’s themes and the held-breath silence of the ship, this immediately heightens the tension. Now we know something is wrong as we listen only to the creaking of the rigging.
*. The direction aids our sense of paranoia. There’s a startling overhead shot, looking down on the deck. But nothing is revealed. What’s going on? Then we see bodies, including one indirectly, the shadow of a hanged man.



*. Again, there is nothing terribly original about the scene itself. The pirates walk into a trap and are captured. But in every department the presentation is handled perfectly, with talent and invention at work in nearly every frame.
*. Would it have been better in colour? Warners was doing these kinds of films in colour at the time (Robin Hood and Elizabeth and Essex, for example), but they didn’t go that route here, with the only nod to colour being the shift to sepia tones when they go to Panama. It was colourized in 1991 though, if you want to see what it may have looked like. Personally, I’m a big lover of black and white, but for this kind of material I don’t know. Pirates are colourful people. Only a couple of years later The Black Swan would show what could be done with a full palette.
*. Spain as the Evil Empire, complete with galley slaves pulling to the drum and the lash, and a megalomaniac Phillip II casting a giant shadow over a map of the world. We can roll our eyes at Thorpe’s opposition to Spain’s looting of the New World (England’s colonial record was little better), but given the time we have to make allowances. It’s 1940, and Phillip is really Hitler. Meanwhile, only plucky little England holds out against him. This is their finest hour.
*. The pirate film soon ran its course. Here, however, it was mature without being in decline, and all hands were on deck.


Captain Blood (1935)


*. A star is born. Like being shot from a cannon, to make the obvious analogy. In the featurette on this film that’s included with the DVD, film historian Lincoln D. Hurst calls Errol Flynn’s performance “the most amazing debut of any new actor in the history of Hollywood.” That’s a dramatic pronouncement, but not unwarranted.


*. Flynn was heir to Douglas Fairbanks as an action star, but the two weren’t the same. Fairbanks was the more physical, both in terms of his stunts and the way he played a role (larger, for the silent screen). Flynn is prettier: he has the great physique and hair of a Harlequin cover model.
*. I don’t mean that in a negative way. The movies have always been about beautiful people. And it’s worth noting that Flynn was, apparently, suffering from malaria while shooting this film. But still, he is less solid than Fairbanks. In the ranks of action stars he put the emphasis on the star. He was a lover, not a fighter. For what it’s worth, Rathbone, who had a reputation as the best swordsman in Hollywood, thought him an inferior duellist to Tyrone Power.


*. You could say two stars were born, though Olivia de Havilland had just been in Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I believe she was only 19 here, and looks adorable. She could also act, and has terrific chemistry with Flynn, as they would go on to star together many times.


*. The pirate film wasn’t a new genre in the ’30s, like gangster films or monster movies mostly were. Indeed this was the second time around for filming Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name. I don’t suppose anyone reads Sabatini today. I haven’t. Later, Sabatini’s novel The Sea Hawk, which had also been made into a movie in the 1920s, would have its title borrowed for another Flynn vehicle. Some of the battle footage in this film (basically the shots of full-size ships in action) was taken from the first Sea Hawk, which gives you some indication of just how generic the action in pirate films was. Broadsides and swordfights.
*. In the 17th century, was there any effective treatment for gout? Nowadays I believe it’s mostly handled through drugs. So I’m not sure what Dr. Peter Blood is doing to the governor that works so well. Unless the governor is just a hypochondriac and there’s nothing wrong with him anyway.
*. Michael Curtiz is one of the more colorful figures in Hollywood history, probably best known (outside of his films) for several very funny malapropisms. He wasn’t an auteur, but he was a very capable professional with a knack for keeping the story moving. Even in what are fairly static scenes he engages our interest in subtle ways by dollying the camera, filling the frame in depth, or sharp editing.
*. A good example of the latter is the speech delivered by Flynn beginning with “It’s a truly royal clemency we’re granted my friends, one well worthy of King James.  . . .” There are two cuts made in this speech, breaking it into three shots, when the whole thing could have easily been done in a single take. It’s very effective, and yet so smoothly done that you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it.


*. The boats were large-scale models and they look terrific. Yet another example of how CGI hasn’t improved a thing. Even the shots of the ships shelling Port Royal look good. It’s all a studio production and doesn’t suffer for it. Not just because the in-house effects people were so proficient, but also because film hadn’t really developed an aesthetics of location shooting yet. If you’d shown Curtiz what Herzog did in Aguirre, for example, I’m not sure he would have understood it at all, the sensibility would have been so alien.
*. The idea that the pirate chieftain is actually a good guy in disguise is a trope that goes back to classical times, and was already familiar to moviegoers. These movies really followed a pattern, down to the wooing of the high-born lady by the gallant knave. That this has been such a resilient archetype is something to wonder at.
*. The story structure is a bit off. We’re half-way through the picture before the slaves escape and take to a life of freedom on the high seas. And there is no clear focus on a villain. The hanging judge, Judge Jeffreys, puts in an appearance. There’s a harsh slave driver named Dixon who apparently runs a mine but nothing is done with him. Lionel Atwill goes AWOL, both from Port Royal and the movie. And finally Basil Rathbone is introduced late and dispatched early, a terrible waste of one of the screen’s great bad guys.


*. Audiences didn’t really care. It was a big hit for Warners because the stars were in alignment. Flynn and de Havilland were both unknowns and both clicked. Erich Korngold was new as well, and had little time to write a score, but still delivered. Curtiz did a great job with the material. The effects are first rate. For a while, pirates were going to be big.


The Black Pirate (1926)


*. Genre filmmaking, and proud of it. The opening titles promise a shopping list of “golden galleons, bleached skulls, buried treasure, the plank, dirks and cutlasses, scuttled ships, marooning, desperate deeds, desperate men, and — even on this dark soil — romance.” Not all of this is delivered, but they come pretty close. It’s Return to Treasure Island!
*. Pauline Kael called it the Fairbanks movie best loved of children, and apparently an eight-year-old Jackie Coogan may have put the bug in Fairbanks’s ear to make it. But it’s gruesome for the kids, isn’t it? In the opening scenario one of the prisoners swallows a ring and the head pirate (Anders Randolph) has one of his men cut it out of his stomach with his knife (we see him hand the ring over to Randolph, his knife dripping with blood). Later we’ll see the same head pirate fall backward on to a dagger planted in the sand, and Sam De Grasse test a stolen sword by stabbing a bound prisoner in the guts.


*. Acting in silent films, and being a silent “star,” was something different from being a film star in the sound era. It involved other techniques and demanded other qualities. But the main ingredient for an action star hasn’t changed much. Douglas Fairbanks was very fit, looked it, and flaunted the look. He even shaved his chest with a straight razor, saying it was “common practice in the Orient.” Just in case you thought all the buff physiques of today’s manscaped bodybuilders and action stars was a new development.
*. An ability to handle acrobatics was another part of it, but a not insignificant one. I couldn’t help thinking of Lon Chaney swinging his way up the façade of Notre Dame when watching Fairbanks climb all over the pirate ship here. They both knew how to play the monkey well.
*. It was shot in the then new two-colour Technicolor process, which I love, though here it seems somewhat bleached as they were still working out the bugs in the process, which at this early stage involved sticking two layers of film together. I can’t imagine how difficult the restoration was.
*. Fairbanks also consciously wanted to make the colour easy on the eyes, as it was a concern at the time that too much colour would tire people out. Technology is always scary.


*. Though the colour effects are a bit underwhelming (especially in the night scenes, which even disappointed Fairbanks), the stunts and effects are terrific. Who can forget Fairbanks sliding down a sail that he’s cutting open with this dagger? Or his swinging on ropes through the rigging (a “stunt” that was achieved by simply reversing the film)?
*. The most impressive shots, however, are of the aquanauts swimming in formation underwater to attack the pirate ship. I couldn’t figure out how they did this, given the requirement of awesome amounts of light to film in the Technicolor cameras. On the DVD commentary Rudy Behlmer explains that they aren’t really swimming underwater but are being suspended by a crane and pretending to do the breaststroke against a backdrop, with a foreground of water with bubbles rising from it. Which sounds very complicated, but looks terrific.
*. Tell me with a straight face that you watched the scene where Donald Crisp cuts Fairbanks’s bonds and didn’t laugh. He’s standing behind Fairbanks, with the tip of the dagger sticking out over the top of his belt buckle, rubbing up and down against Fairbanks’ backside. It’s indecent!
*. Fairbanks is really a duke! Hooray! That means he can marry the princess! Because otherwise the classes don’t mix. In Imperial Spain or 1920s America.
*. It’s almost sad the way MacTavish tries to give the pirates’ buried treasure to the royals as a wedding present. Keep it for yourself, matey. They don’t need it.


*. At the end, after Fairbanks kills De Grasse (in what seems a really awkward manner), he uses the dead body as a shield to block the shot from a pistol that one of the other pirates fires at him. I wonder if this was the first movie to show someone doing this. In more recent years we’ve seen the body-as-shield used to almost comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback. James Cagney also did it to Abner Biberman in The Roaring Twenties (1939). But this may have been the first time ever, albeit with a corpse.
*. As a genre, the pirate film has shown itself to be curiously impervious to change: through later films like The Sea Hawk and The Black Swan right up to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Though there are twenty-first century pirates, mostly hailing out of Somalia, you can’t really have a modern or neo-pirate story. Pirate movies are strictly circumscribed in terms of time and place, which means they all look the same: with the same costumes, props, and other genre elements (like those listed in the argument before this film). And so while among the first, The Black Pirate is also unsurpassed.


Foxcatcher (2014)


*. Whenever a movie based on real events changes those events in significant ways you have to ask what the director was really interested in, what his angle was.
*. In Bennett Miller’s own words, the closed-off worlds this story is concerned with (elite sports, dynastic wealth, repressed homosexuality, drug use) introduced the “narrative of a cult. You’ve got all the essential ingredients — a disaffected community in these wrestlers who are unrecognized and unrewarded. A charismatic leader who belongs to another sect that speaks to them. A utopian vision. A geographical separation from the outer world, literally, by a gate in which their own order is permitted to be honored. And an underbelly of violence, because the natural course of a cult narrative is to end in flames.”
*. I can see some of this, but John du Pont, both in real life and as we see him here, was only a wannabe cult leader. He was devoid of charisma. He had to bribe people to call him father, mentor, and coach — labels that are treated more as brands, like “Team Foxcatcher,” than as human roles.
*. What did Miller change? In real life du Pont was a much stranger figure (I recommend watching the ESPN documentary The Prince of Pennsylvania for background). At the end, it was clear to everyone around him that he was a dangerous psychotic with a drug problem, someone who had taken to threatening people with guns. In the movie he’s an odd duck to be sure, but a sympathetic figure and not threatening.
*. The thing is, what he represents here is the dark reality of the American dream: the terrible unhappiness and isolation that accompanies great wealth. The point being not only that money can’t buy you love, happiness, or even friends, but that it actually poisons these things.
*. Is that an un-American message? There’s something provocative going on with all the invocations to American revolutionary history, du Pont’s Cold War mentality, and the final shot of the crowds chanting “U.S.A.!” at what appears to be some tacky pro wrestling event. What are they fighting for? It doesn’t seem like freedom and democracy.


*. “Wanna tell me what’s going on with you and du Pont?” Dave asks Mark. That is the question, isn’t it?
*. I don’t think the movie has to be any more explicit on this score. Du Pont’s leanings are made pretty clear, and the real Mark Schultz even objected to what he, understandably, took to be indications of a homosexual relationship. This is all fine, and I don’t think it was necessary for Miller to say anything more about it. David Lean was even less explicit in his portrait of Lawrence of Arabia and I think everybody got the point.
*. What surprised me when the movie came out, and still surprises me somewhat today, is how few mainstream critics even mentioned this angle. Du Pont was a “creep,” someone with a “weird obsession” or a representative of “moral decadence,” but the words gay, homosexual, or even the more innocuous “homosocial” were rarely if ever used. Why not?
*. To take just one example, very typical in this regard, Mark Kermode refers to the “tormented,” “pathetically impotent” du Pont’s “unfulfilled desires,” and the film’s delving into “the tortured male psyche.” A point is raised about a “homoerotic subtext” (can we really call it a subtext?), only to dismiss this as just a bit of stereotyping that Miller isn’t interested in. Which makes one then wonder why he included it, as it didn’t come directly from the source. Miller could have simply made du Pont a drug-addled paranoid schizophrenic, but he chose to leave that stuff out.
*. Why not discuss this angle? Questioning sexuality has always been a happy hunting ground for film critics. In gangster films, for example, it’s almost de rigueur to go over the ambiguous sexuality of figures from James Cagney’s Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson’s Rico in Little Caesar all the way up to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface. And just before I made up my notes on this film I had occasion to re-watch The Third Man, where both of the commentaries on the Criterion DVD made much of whether Harry Lime and Holly Martins were something more than just good friends, while it was simply taken for granted that Kurtz and Dr. Winkel were gay partners.
*. I think there might be something to these various examples, but they don’t seem that important. In Foxcatcher, however, I think it is important to recognize how physically attracted du Pont is to Mark, and Mark’s status as a kept man. This is a movie about a romantic obsession that turns violent. Why was it taboo to speak of this in reviews? Miller invested a lot of time developing it. I’m not saying that’s all there is to the du Pont character — far from it! — or that there is something inherently damaging about his love that dares not speak its name. But surely in the twenty-first century we can handle representations of the dark side of homoerotic love.
*. How did this movie ever get stuck with an “R” rating? “For some drug use and a scene of violence.” That’s “some” drug use as in one scene where John and Mark snort lines of coke in the helicopter. And “a” (singular) scene of violence when Dave gets shot. There aren’t even any exploding squibs, and there’s very little blood. You have to have adult accompaniment if you’re under 18 to see this?
*. I know professional fighters have insane weight cuts, but can an in-shape athlete really shed twelve pounds in ninety minutes? Just by inducing some vomiting and riding an exercise bike?
*. Steve Carell, an actor best known for comic parts, received a lot of praise, and an Academy Award nomination, for his turn as John du Pont. I have reservations. An enormous prosthesis nose gives him a grotesque appearance, which he exaggerates by holding it in the air all the time. He also has a constipated delivery that makes his limited lines stand out awkwardly.
*. For such a long film full of character studies it’s not very talky. These are physical, isolated, repressed types, not men of words. This is further emphasized by the number of scenes Miller chooses to present in eerie silence, or with an ear-damaged tinkling of piano in the background.
*. The wrestling brothers share in the same distortion to the point of grotesquerie. Mark Ruffalo affects an ape-like walk and Channing Tatum, pumped up till he looks like a plastic action figure, seems far too pouting and dour to be a professional athlete. Where do either of them show any great passion? They were hypercompetitive in real life, but here both seem strangely passive and depressed.
*. The silence, depression and total lack of levity contribute to the main knock against Foxcatcher, which is that it is dull. Dullness is, necessarily, a subjective judgment, but this is certainly a slow and deliberate film. That’s not something I hold against it. This is a tragedy with a slow burn, with the players withdrawn, silent, and repressed to the point where they’ve become opaque and deformed. The pure products of America go crazy. And they have guns.


Stereo (1969)


*. So who is this Dr. Luther Stringfellow chap anyway? I at first assumed he was the youthful Caligari we see in the opening frames arriving by helicopter at an all-but-deserted sanitarium in the northern woods of Ontario, a place run by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (just thinking about that makes my head hurt). Decked out like a Victorian dandy complete with cape, walking stick and pocket watch, he certainly seems to be someone in charge.
*. But apparently this is not Stringfellow but one of the doctor’s guinea pigs, part of an ethically dubious experiment involving “induced telepathy” that is being conducted at the Academy. So is the doctor that fellow with the beard who shows the dandy to his room? I thought at first that he was an orderly, but his pacifier gives him away as another “Category A” resident in the program.
*. What is it with the pacifiers anyway? I take it they’re symbols of something, but what? They’re clearly made to echo the ankh on the back of the tarot cards, but I think they are less concerned with “life” than they are with preconscious urges. The Category A residents seem to have reverted to an infant-oral stage of sexuality.
*. Or at least that’s one interpretation. Various objects reappear through the film as leitmotifs: the pacifier, a walky-talky, pills, chocolate bars. They all have an oral connection, and a connection to childhood, but beyond that you’re on your own.


*. Nor is that the doctor’s voice providing any of the male or female voiceovers. These describe the doctor’s work in dispassionate tones, but all refer to him in the third person.
*. So Dr. Stringfellow may be Caligari. Or Dracula. Or Godot. Or Monsieur Maillard. Or David Cronenberg. Or all of the above. The only thing we do know about him is that he’s checked out of the sanitarium for . . . personal reasons. Maybe he came down with something.
*. Is he a hippie who went bananas? It seems his perverse goal was to set up a “telepathic commune” dedicated to free love (that is, “a fully three-dimensional sexuality”). This parapsychological structure would dissolve the obsolescent patriarchal family unit in orgiastic bliss, and, carried into the national context, would “presumably carry with it its intrinsic qualities of willing reciprocal dependency and mutual experiential creativity.” That is not psychobabble. It’s hippie talk.
*. 1969 was a countercultural watershed though, and we can see the backlash starting here. The telepathic commune or conglomerate is doomed to break down. In my notes on Shivers I remarked how the high-rise in that film might be viewed as a satire on Rochdale, an alternative-education co-op in Toronto, still in operation at the time both films were made. Stereo might be viewed as having a similar counter-countercultural message. Who is paying down the mortgage at this college for communards anyway?
*. A personal aside: I actually lived across the street from the old Rochdale when I went to the University of Toronto, in Rochdale’s sister building Tartu College. I also lived in the old Elrond College building when I attended Queen’s University, which was another experimental student housing co-op back in the day. They are privately owned today, and stand as ugly landmarks of the “brutalist” architectural style which we see on display throughout Stereo (which was shot on the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus). It was ugly back when it was new, and looks even worse now.
*. Is Cronenberg just laughing at the counterculture, or is there some ambivalence? I’m inclined to see ambivalence, but that’s because I think his take on the counterculture is grounded in his ambivalent attitude toward sex. About which more in just a bit.
*. The scientific shop talk in the voiceovers sounds like it might just be a string of buzzwords. And, to be honest, I’m not sure what relatively common words like “cybernetics” or “existential” mean in any context. But there is a sort of basic groundwork being set down that explains a bit about what’s going on.
*. Sticking with the voiceover, I find it gives the film, especially when added to the vaguely futuristic lost-in-time setting, a real La Jetée vibe. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not though.
*. In so far as I can sort out the underlying narrative supplied by the voiceover it goes something like this. The residents are all “telepathists,” though this is not a natural ability but the result of their having had different kinds of surgery done on them to enhance their telepathic abilities.
*. As noted, the point of the experiment is to see if telepathy can be used to form a new kind of social structure, allowing for greater freedom and less conflict. Since telepathy requires some kind of emotional connection for there to be any telepathic “flow” (the Stringfellow hypothesis), some attempt is made to increase such connections through psychic aphrodisiacs. Unfortunately, this can lead to a pathological condition (a “geometrically increasing rate of telepathic flow”).


*. In short, telepathy operates like a kind of sexually transmitted disease. At least one of the residents even develops a condition of “schizophonetic partition” (I think I have that right) as a prophylactic or psychic defence mechanism, which involves the creation of a false telepathic self. The down side to this, however, is that the false self can eventually come to dominate the true self as the latter atrophies through a lack of connection with other minds (and bodies). This leads to a morbid declension.
*. The only other defence is separation from the group mind. This is the option chosen by Dr. Stringfellow, who abandons the project, ostensibly so the commune can achieve group autonomy without him. However we are told that this has led to Stringfellow’s growing depressed, suggesting his own dependence on the telepathists. Perhaps he will become another suicide. We are told that this is the fate of a couple of residents who are separated from the group.
*. So what we have here is an early example of what would eventually be dubbed “venereal horror,” a genre Cronenberg can lay some claim to having invented. The point being that the human condition is to be torn between two seductive evils: isolation and infection. We can’t live with other people and we can’t live without them. Telepathy seemed to offer an out — non-physical union — but the cure turns out to be worse than the disease (another big Cronenberg theme). Now we have other people inside our heads. It’s a wonder they don’t explode . . .
*. Of course it isn’t a great movie. That would be expecting far too much of what is basically a student film, one that couldn’t even be shot with proper sound (the reason voiceovers had to be used was apparently because the noise from the camera was so loud). The structure is awkward and the story muddled. Nevertheless, its look holds up well and in hindsight it can be read as a calling card for a lot of the more sinister developments to come.


Prom Night (2008)


*. Kim Newman: “It takes a great deal to screw up utterly generic material — but the people working over The Fog and Prom Night manage it.”
*. I can think of very little to add to Newman’s judgment, except that the original Prom Night was even more generic than Carpenter’s The Fog. This is a terrible film that fails to improve, in any way, on a terrible original.
*. Instead of having at least the pretence of a mystery surrounding the killer’s identity, it’s given away right from the start. So even that tiny bit of interest is missing.
*. The original had very little gore, I think largely because they couldn’t afford it. Here I’m not sure what the problem was. Perhaps they really wanted that PG-13. I’ve heard that this is the first slasher film to ever receive such a rating. In any event, for a movie like this to cheat on every single murder, with this high a body count, is like watching a porn movie without any sex. There’s nothing else of interest. And the killer here only has a knife. That’s it!
*. You know, if you just have to get to the third floor, and you’re really in a rush, the stairs aren’t a bad option. Beats waiting for the elevator.
*. Poor Idris Elba. But damn, the man is a professional.
*. I was hoping — yes, hope springs eternal, even with only ten minutes left to go in a film as dire as this — for a clever explanation of how the killer escaped the hotel. Something along the lines of Hannibal’s escape in The Silence of the Lambs. What I got instead was the PG version of that scene. But it’s an homage that doesn’t add anything to the original.
*. I wonder how many people actually cover their own mouths when they’re trying to be quiet. I got tired of seeing Donna doing it.
*. I didn’t mind the usual slaughter of the innocents. Even the still virginal but, alas, black Lisa. But how is it that the insufferable Crissy survives? What were they setting her bitchy character up for?
*. Why on earth doesn’t Winn call for back-up when he knows the killer is at Donna’s house?
*. You could go on listing the improbabilities forever. Perhaps the most ludicrous is the way Lisa leaves the prom with her boyfriend just minutes before the announcement of the prom queen, which is the moment she’s been waiting for all night. What sense does that make?
*. I’m not wasting any more time on this one. It’s not worth it. Avoid it if you can.


Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)


*. At the end of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II a cop standing outside of Hamilton High, observing the carnage from prom night being removed, remarks “I don’t know what we got here. Something strange.” It is a sentiment that I think most people watching the movie would agree with.
*. This is a hard film to categorize, not because it was thinking outside the genre box but just because it’s an unholy mess from beginning to end.
*. For starters, it has nothing to do with the first Prom Night. Absolutely nothing. They’re both set at a Hamilton High, but the first movie was shot outside Toronto and the second in Edmonton, so they’re not even the same school building.
*. So why is it Part II? Peter Simpson, the producer of both films, originally wanted to call it The Haunting of Hamilton High, but had to change the title in order to get a distribution deal. He thought this probably hurt the film.
*. There were also problems with the director, and apparently half the movie had to be re-shot. Which may help explain the mess.
*. Once it gets going, the tone is all over the map. Is it a satire? A horror comedy? Confusion arises because it’s neither scary nor funny. I’m not even sure what it was trying to be.


*. There’s little gore, but at the same time it’s not a movie that plays it safe. Taboos are broken left and right. For example: (1) Jess is superfluously introduced as pregnant, which should make her untouchable, and yet her big hair and parachute pants aren’t enough to save her when she gets thrown out a window. (2) Full frontal nudity is paraded in the women’s locker room. (3) The possessed Vicki can’t resist giving her dad a full lip lock, which he doesn’t try very hard to resist. Now I know none of this constitutes X material, but it is transgressive.
*. The presiding spirit is that of Wes Craven (it’s one of many in-jokes that Mr. Craven is the name of the science teacher here). Vicki’s nightmare visions of the school, her being sucked into the chalkboard, her demonic rocking horse with its lolling tongue, and the girl being crushed in her locker are all pure Craven of the Nightmare on Elm Street period. (Perhaps of equal significance is that Jim Doyle, who’d done the mechanical special effects on Nightmare, had the same job on this film.)
*. The difference is that the Nightmare on Elm Street movies had at least a surface coherence, a dream logic. One can never be quite sure what is going on here.
*. There are, for example, more nods to the Exorcist than you’ll get from a Regan MacNeil bobblehead doll. But despite all the stuff with the priest, who strangely keeps a shrine to Mary Lou, this never feels like a devil movie, and in fact Mary Lou mocks the idea of there being any virtue in religion.
*. There are also nods to Carrie — but while Mary Lou is a victim, she’s also evil to the bone and so impossible to feel any sympathy for.


*. And what are we to think of Bill? Michael Ironside is one hard-ass school principal, that’s for sure. Hell, he can even knock a man out with a shoe! But how culpable is he for Mary Lou’s initial demise? How does he feel about her thirty years later? Why does he mock his buddy the priest for affirming what he already knows is true, that Mary Lou has come back?
*. It was 1987 so of course the fashions are laughable. What’s really funny though is the way that when Vicki is possessed by the spirit of Mary Lou and comes to school dressed in ’50s clothes she looks perfectly normal, and it’s her gawking friends who appear ridiculous. They make fun of her outfit, calling it a fashion crime and accusing her of being stuck in a “fashion coma,” but they shouldn’t be talking. It’s not like Vicki is wearing a poodle skirt. Today it’s the cool kids of Hamilton High who look like pastel ghosts of prom nights past.
*. I did like the Mary Lou monster at the end, but overall I don’t think this film is worth bothering with. At times it’s almost so bad it’s good. But like all movies that are almost so bad they’re good, it’s terrible.


Prom Night (1980)


*. Can we be serious? This is a terrible film. Terrible. It’s a very cheap rip-off of Halloween (with a splash of Carrie at the end), dialed up by the producer of Halloween. But Halloween itself was a very cheap exploitation film (done on a budget of around $300,000 to this film’s $1.5 million) and it is orders of magnitude better than this piece of shit.
*. That’s a point that’s worth stressing. Many of the most influential, if not always best, horror films have been done on a shoestring: from Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Blair Witch Project, Saw, and Paranormal Activity. And lots of horror films from this period (the gusher years of slasher in the early 1980s) were made on extremely low budgets but overcame this with intelligence and originality. They also looked better than this movie does. In some ways slasher films are a genre curiosity, starting out low and then drifting downward while continuing to enjoy box office success.
*. There are various places where Prom Night falls down, especially in comparison to Halloween. For starters, Carpenter at least had the good sense to throw the audience a bone or two in the early going, beginning with the opening POV murder sequence. Here we begin with a long, somewhat baffling introduction (how culpable are the children in Robin’s death? why are they so worried about being found out?) and then nothing at all happens until the killer strikes at the prom.
*. Compounding the negative is the fact that this is not a suspenseful or scary film. In fact I’m not even sure they were trying for suspense. And it is also light on the gore. True, they didn’t have Tom Savini on site, but here we don’t see anyone being killed until the final murder, a spectacular decapitation that is the film’s sole highlight. For the other victims we just see “after” shots of dead bodies. A slasher film can’t cheat its audience out of what is its very raison d’être .
*. The only thing I can think to say in its defence is that they were going for more of a giallo-style slasher mystery than the usual hackathon, an impression aided by the complex back story, multiple red herrings, and blurry film (a dismal effect whose “milky brume” is listed as one of the essential components of “Canuck-O-Vision” in Caelum Vatnsdal’s book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema). But even this hopeful interpretation was undercut by the confusion I felt over who the different characters were, their relationships to one another, and the improbability of the story. How could the killer be in so many places at once? Why was he wearing lipstick at the end?
*. Another interesting tidbit from Vatnsdal is this quote from Jamie Lee Curtis: “all that psychopathic killer stuff was not in the original script, not in the script I agreed to do. They added that after they cut the movie. I’m very angry about that, and I’ll always be angry about that because I feel I wouldn’t have made the movie had it been a remake of Halloween — which is exactly what they were trying to do.”
*. Huh? If “all that psychopathic killer stuff was not in the original script” then what the hell was? And of course this movie was a remake of Halloween. This is, as Curtis notes, exactly what they (and every other horror filmmaker at the time) were trying to do. She could not possibly have been unaware of any of this. What was she upset at?
*. This is so very bad a film that there are some who consider it to be an early satire of the genre. I think this is going too far. It is not a satire. It is Canadian. There’s a difference. Though from Cannibal Girls on down the boundaries have been blurred.
*. There are perhaps a couple of scenes of comic relief, but I think most of what we have here is unintentionally funny. In particular, I had to laugh at the killer’s complete ineptness in doing away with the surprisingly resilient Slick and his prolonged chase of Wendy, which leads him through every room in the school except the one where the dance is being held. I also love how he had to go back and retrieve his axe at one point. Can’t forget that!
*. But criticism is really pointless. The film did great box office, becoming Canada’s highest-grossing horror film of 1980 and receiving Genie Award nominations for editing and for Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance. Oh, Canada!


Frankenstein (1910)

*. Every novel has to be put through some process of condensation when making the jump from page to screen. Sub-plots and minor characters get dropped, inessential scenes and excess dialogue are trimmed. Even so, this “liberal adaptation” of Mary Shelley’s novel takes more than a bit off the top. Coming in at under 15 minutes, it had to.
*. That said, if you were looking for a novel ripe to be pared down then this would be near the top of a short list. Shelley’s Frankenstein, despite being not all that long, is dull and preachy, with a lot of boring talk, especially in the latter parts. None of this was going to fly in a silent film and so instead the producers here opted to highlight what has always been the staple of the franchise: the creation of the Monster and its subsequent threatening of Frankenstein’s bride.
*. The creation scene holds up pretty well more than a hundred years later. It’s a simple trick, reversing the film on a burning dummy, but it’s effective. When the Monster rises from the cauldron we can hear Frankesntein crowing “It’s alive!” even without the use of any title cards.
*. Charles Ogle as the Monster is also a wonderful creation: a shaggy, top-heavy and shambling derelict. It’s a shame we don’t get any close-ups on his face to get a better look at his make-up, but this was early cinema.
*. What’s interesting is that while he looks like a stitched-together corpse made out of mismatched pieces, in this version of the story he actually isn’t. Instead he’s just a bunch of chemicals tossed together in a cauldron.
*. The horror film as a genre hadn’t really been invented yet. This is less a horror movie than a magic show, a staple of early silent shorts. Frankenstein is a figure in the tradition of the stage magician with his smoke, trick mirrors, and exploding powder, pulling rabbits out of a hat (which is basically how the Monster first appears).
*. And then . . . the story flips, becoming a very liberal adaptation indeed. Shelley (whose name, perhaps significantly, is misspelled on the Edison Company program for the film) is jettisoned wholesale for Robert Louis Stevenson and the whole thing turns out to have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde fantasy, with the monster just being the release of Frankenstein’s evil id.
*. This switch helps contextualize the shot of the Monster hovering over Frankenstein’s body as he lies stretched out in bed, which must be an intentional nod to Fuseli’s Nightmare. Such a scene works because a nightmare is what the Monster is. Trivia: Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother) was, briefly, Fuseli’s lover.
*. Why the change to a dream monster? The official explanation, propagated by the Edison Compay in their program for the film, goes like this: “In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”
*. Nonsense. My guess is that the change in the ending was just the result of expediency. They had to wrap the show up quickly, and not leave any loose ends hanging. Also the mirror trick plays well on screen, being another bit of stage magic to play with. Movies weren’t ready to take monsters seriously . . . yet.

The Colony (2013)


*. Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is sometimes referred to as the “bible” of screenwriting, and even though there are plenty of people who object to its over-schematization of the art of the screenplay, it does lay out some basic principles and conventions with clarity.
*. The best known of these is the three-part structure: setup, confrontation, and resolution (or beginning, middle, and end). The three sections are separated by “plot points”: “any incident, episode, or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction.”
*. The Colony was ripped by critics for its general lack of originality, but it was this tripartite structure that struck me the most. The setup introduces Colony 7 and what’s going on. Just over 20 minutes in to the film, the team leaves the colony. That’s a plot point. The confrontation has the team arriving at Colony 5 and finding out what happened there. The feral feast is revealed at the exact midpoint. Then with just over twenty minutes left, another plot point: Sam arrives back at Colony 7 to begin the third act. You couldn’t draw it up any neater.


*. I can’t say I like the movie much. The interior sets are the most interesting part. Inside is all industrial grunge, and it works pretty well, but outside we’re stuck in a permanent CGI winter that doesn’t even look all that cold. The actors are often underdressed and I don’t recall ever seeing their breath.
*. Yet again an opportunity to deliver an environmental message about climate change is avoided. How did we manage to end up with a snowball Earth? Nobody’s sure.
*. Apparently the “weather modification tech” didn’t work. Indeed, it may have been counterproductive. When they showed us that machine I was really hoping they weren’t going to reintroduce it and have it play a role like the Martian atmospheric controller that surges into life at the end of Total Recall. Well . . . not exactly. But close enough.
*. One cliché I can’t stand in these movies is the survivor (here he’s Leland) who could easily explain what’s going on to the rescue team but for some reason just can’t get around to it. He can ask for food. He can show the team the video broadcast from the group with the functioning weather machine. But when it comes to providing some useful information, like what happened at Colony 5 and what potential dangers might still be hanging around, he can only jibber moronically about how “they” are still out there. This makes no sense at all and it’s silly to drag out the reveal in such an obvious and awkward way.


*. When it finally comes, the reveal isn’t that surprising. The feral cannibals are mindless antagonists, and not even very believable.
*. Much is left unexplained. How do the ferals get out of Colony 5? How do they get across the abyss after the bridge is blown? How do they track the others, especially when it’s always snowing and windy, so that their bootprints would disappear in minutes? When does Kai find the time to do her make-up? Did they think they might actually make a sequel?