Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Ruins (2008)


*. In my notes on Hannibal I mentioned how I had reviewed the novel by Thomas Harris before the movie came out, and felt pretty sure that it would never be filmed, at least as written. I didn’t see how they’d do the man-eating pig stuff, or the final scene with the fellow eating his own brain.
*. I was wrong, and not for the first time. They kept all of the horrible parts in, though I don’t think that helped make it a better movie.
*. I also reviewed Scott Smith’s The Ruins when it was first released, and even though Smith’s previous novel, A Simple Plan, had been turned into a well-received film, I thought it unlikely that he’d be following that one up.
*. Why not? Well, just because the novel was so damn stupid. Fun, in a trash-horror sort of way, but very, very stupid.
*. I was wrong again.
*. Here’s the final paragraph of my review of the book: “Popular horror has always had a way of tapping into larger cultural anxieties. Dead teenager movies from the 1980s were often seen as containing a subtext about the dangers of promiscuity. In the 1950s it was radioactive mutants. Stephen King is obsessed with family breakdown. But The Ruins doesn’t resonate on any level. Perhaps there is an environmental message in it somewhere, or a heartfelt plea for the rest of the world to learn English so we can better understand what they’re saying. But in all likelihood it is just a warning for affluent young Westerners visiting Cancun to stay on the beach. Where they can safely read books just like this one, with the sound of long, warm waves tumbling in their ears.”
*. So there are obvious sub-genres involved here. The first and most obvious is the innocent (spoiled, beautiful, young) Americans abroad finding themselves in some global backwater (“it’s not even in the guidebooks!”) that threatens to eat them alive. See Hostel (2005) and Turistas (2006). As the twenty-first century got rolling the world started to seem a very scary place for Americans.


*. The second sub-genre I would invoke is that of the Game of Death movie, where there’s nothing particularly scary going on but we have a group of characters who unaccountably find themselves stuck in a death-trap that they have to spend the rest of the movie trying to figure their way out of. See Cube (1997) and Saw (2004). There’s a definite tinge of existential dread in these films, the restricted sets recalling some theatre production of No Exit. Hell is other people just as much as it’s the heat from the flames. Will the small group be able to cooperate and find a way to escapet? Or will they fall out and kill each other? Just whose idea was this shitty trip anyway?
*. Given what I think are the most obvious precedents, it’s interesting that when director Carter Smith is asked on the commentary what horror films he tooks as inspiration he responds first with Cannibal Holocaust (a choice he later backtracks on a bit), and the “body infection” horror of David Cronenberg (he specifically references The Brood). There is some connection here, but I find it interesting that there’s no stylistic influence discernible in either case. This is a movie made very much in the idiom of twenty-first century American horror.
*. I would praise the idea more if it weren’t so stupid. I mean, really. It’s not quite as stupid as the book, but still. Does this plant exist nowhere else but on this pyramid in the middle of nowhere? Is it really able to sustain itself on the odd tourist who wanders into its web of vines? How does it grow so leafy and green 30 meters underground, where there is no light? Or does it not bother with photosynthesis?
*. On the commentary track Smith admits his greatest fear was that the whole thing would become comical, and it was a legitimate concern. A man-eating plant? Little Shop of Horrors was a dangerous precedent in everybody’s mind.
*. Given the silliness of the central conceit it’s not surprising that the only real horror here is what the group members will end up doing to themselves. The two big gross-out scenes both involve radical battlefield surgery in the war against the plants, and the two most shocking scenes are of the natives killing those who become infected. The ruins are just the backdrop for the more human horror.
*. These vines spread like cancer, and it’s this under-the-skin disease angle that I find most interesting. This may be the source of the film’s real nagging sense of unease: that even in the twenty-first century healthy young people can be stricken with a condition for which there is no cure.


*. Since they know the vines move and like to go after flesh, how much sense does it make for them to leave the paralyzed and bound Matthias lying right beside a big clump of them, even after they’ve seen them snatch away his lower legs? Maybe they could have moved his stretcher closer to the middle of the clearing? Or watched over him? They make such a big deal of trying to take care of him and then they just basically feed him to the plants.
*. In other respects it’s a pretty basic film. The plot is the reverse siege, like Rec, where the characters are trapped inside with the monster and prevented by armed guards from leaving. First-time director Smith does a professional job, but can’t create suspense. There are no scary moments in the film, only a few disgusting ones.
*. I’m not sure what to make of the gender angle. On the one hand it seems anti-sexual, with the sexiness of the characters being progressively degraded throughout the film. But the males look buffed and waxed, with abs from a men’s fitness magazine cover, and the film spends a lot of time looking, close-up, at Stacy in her tank top and panties. It’s also a notable change from the novel that Stacy is the character who flays herself alive to get at the vine. In the book, that role is taken by a guy. Smith doesn’t give any explanation for the change other than the fact that it had already been made in the first draft of the script he read and he thought it worked. Overall, I find the presentation of Stacy troubling.
*. If you have the DVD you can watch the movie with several different endings. I always take this as a bad sign, indicating that the producers weren’t sure themselves about the movie they were making.
*. As it stands, they wanted something different than the book, which was seen as being too bleak for a mass audience (in the book all the characters die in the ruins). This is true, but isn’t the adapted ending worse? With infected Amy getting away the vine is loose in our world. That can’t be a good thing. Except for a sequel.


The Prowler (1981)


*. What an odd slasher film. We begin with an extended historical introduction, complete with newsreel and a Dear John letter read in voiceover, all suggesting an elaborate back story. We’re later led to expect something more along these lines as we explore Major Chatham’s mansion with its clues to the past and what happened thirt-five years earlier.
*. And then . . . nothing. No connection is made between the killer and any part of this historical material. Indeed there is no explanation at all for why the killer has decided to get dressed up like a WW2 soldier and go on a killing spree. One supposes he was the jilted lover, triggered into going full slasher with the revival of the graduation dance, but none of those dots are connected.
*. Does this matter? Producer-director Joseph Zito: “I never ever ever was terribly concerned about how this film would work as a murder mystery. I never thought it would work as a murder mystery.”
*. Zito remarks on the commentary that the period intro was a “big burden” for a low-budget slasher film. So why did they do it when it serves so little function? I wonder if it had something to do with being wed to the slasher convention of having a movie built around the anniversary of a particularly meaningful date, starting with Halloween through titles like Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night, Deadly Night, April Fool’s Day, and Prom Night.
*. The idea of having the slasher be a guy dressed up as a soldier probably seemed like a good one at the time, but in practice it makes the Prowler look like one of those plastic toy soldiers come to life: a drab green all over and a scarf covering the face. At least that’s all I could think of. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, if you look at the poster or DVD box cover I think you’ll see what I’m talking about.
*. I’m also not convinced that a pitchfork is that effective a weapon, and I dare say I’ve used one more than most people I know have (though not for killing people). Not to mention the fact that it’s a bit incongruous for a soldier to be carrying one around. The bayonet I understand, but a soldier with a pitchfork? And yet the movie was re-released in the U.S. under the title The Pitchfork Massacre. Audiences must have thought they were going off-road for another rural nightmare.


*. OK, I’ll confess I didn’t recognize Farley Granger as Sheriff Fraser. I also didn’t recognize Lawrence Tierney as Major Chatham (though he’s hardly seen). But can you blame me? How did these two end up here? Not that either of them were ever huge stars, but still.
*. Indeed, Tierney is used so little here it’s hard to figure why they even bothered getting him for the part. He has no lines and only really appears in one scene, for a total screen time I believe of well less than a minute. And how is he getting around so much in his wheelchair anyway?
*. On the commentary track, by the way, Zito says Tierney got an Academy Award nomination for Dillinger. He did not. The only nomination that movie received was for its screenplay.
*. I really love the job Blue Underground does putting out these trash horror pics with commentaries (an excellent one here with Joseph Zito and special effects man Tom Savini) as well as other extras, but this movie really looks terrible and the sound is awful. I wonder if there wasn’t anything they could do to clear it up.
*. Speaking of the DVD, on the cover it has a pull quote from Creature Features Movie Guide. I don’t know who or what that is, but the quote reads “Intense and suspenseful! One of the better slasher bloodbaths!” Do you think that calling this film one of the better slasher bloodbaths was meant as faint praise? I wonder if the exclamation marks were in the original.


*. The band playing at the graduation dance was apparently called Nowherefast. They’re pretty good aren’t they?
*. I don’t think the pool murder scene worked the way they wanted it to. In the first place, Lisa (Cindy Weintraub) goes into a bizarre splashing fit that makes no sense at all after getting kicked back into the pool by the killer. Then I got the sense (perhaps mistaken) that they wanted the blood to pool out in front of the underwater light, turning everything red, and that this was an effect they didn’t get. That said, the bayonet sawing into her throat is well done.
*. Can we talk about Mark’s hair? Or is that a helmet he’s wearing? I wonder if we’ll ever see men’s hair like that again. Hopefully not.
*. Already by 1981 we were familiar with all of the clichés. The shower scene(s), the characters splitting up so as to be dispatched separately, the person being stalked trying to stay quiet while a rat is crawling over her, the last girl, the hard-to-kill killer, the shock ending. But it’s efficiently done, all the kills look good, and it led directly to Zito getting hired to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Excelsior!


Quills (2000)


*. Here’s a movie I didn’t like very much.
*. Not because it has almost nothing to do with real story of the Marquis de Sade at Charenton.  As screenwriter Doug Wright (who was adapting his own play) puts it on the DVD commentary, there was no intention to be true to de Sade’s biography and so right from the beginning they wanted to indicate to the audience that his story had been “tarted up” a great deal, while remaining “true to his spirit.” Brook’s Marat/Sade was more historically accurate, and it was a musical.
*. Is it true to de Sade’s spirit? No, but I don’t mind that it’s a whitewash of de Sade, making an aged, morbidly obese, syphilitic reprobate into a fun-loving rebel who enjoys cocking a snoot at authority (and ends up paying the price). This is the modern Sadean myth — somewhat akin to the Mozart/Amadeus myth — and once history has been made over into myth then you just have to accept that it’s become something else.
*. No, the reason I don’t like it is simpler: it takes the story of de Sade and turns it into a clichéd historical drama with nothing new or interesting to say.


*. Basically this is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest transplanted to post-Revolutionary France. De Sade is McMurphy, the madcap free spirit who doesn’t really belong in such an institution in the first place. Michael Caine’s Dr. Royer-Collard is Nurse Ratched, a grim figure of authority, more Sadean than de Sade in Wright’s view, who is intent on breaking the marquis’ rebellious spirit. This he finally does through a surgical intervention that silences the voice of the counterculture permanently.
*. The moral/psychological point is entirely conventional. De Sade represents artistic freedom, a natural force that will stop at nothing to express itself. Royer-Collard and the Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) represent authority and oppression — the man of science and the man of God, as Coulmier helpfully points out, in case there were any chance we might have missed it. Of course, both are repressed. Virtue is hypocrisy. They are the real perverts.
*. There is nothing either complicated or subtle about the presentation of all this. Indeed, Philip Kaufman lays it on with a trowel. Denied quills, de Sade writes with his own blood. Royer-Collard not only takes a child bride, but keeps her locked in her rooms and deflowers her without consideration or even pleasure. Cutaways to a statue of the Virgin Mary, check. Simone predictably responds to this treatment by transforming from convent girl to lusty adulteress. Madeleine is betrayed by the one unattractive maid at Charenton, who complains about de Sade’s stories while being unable to get enough of them. And so it goes, all the way down the line.


*. No one, however, suffers worse than Joqauin Phoenix. Miscast to begin with, the role itself is impossible. For starters, the repressed clergyman stands out as the biggest cliché in a cast full of them. His scenes with Madeleine verge on parodic. Will he dare to break his vows? Then he is given a series of ridiculous poses to hold, as when he bizarrely strips off his cassock to take Madeleine’s place at the whipping post, or when he runs outside in the rain during the fire scene so that he can scream barechested at the heavens “Madeleine!!!!”
*. In the final movement of the film, however, things get even worse, as he imagines having sex with a resurrected Madeleine only to awaken to a crucifix crying tears of blood before suffering a final, totally improbable, descent into madness, incarcerated in his own asylum after having been somehow possessed by the spirit of de Sade.
*. Indeed the whole movie collapses at the end, with the totally ahistorical and thematically heavy-handed business of de Sade having his tongue cut out. As if the movie hadn’t been obvious enough up to that point.
*. One potential area of interest has to do with the causes and effects of pornography: where it comes from, how it may lead to the corruption of innocence, and its addictive hold over weaker minds. Is pornography a response to repressive social mores? Does it lead to violence? Can it be a kind of therapy? Is it art? These are all valid questions, but in the end I don’t see where the film has anything new to say about what are old and admittedly still highly contentious points.


*. I just couldn’t get into a movie that was so trite. I felt like I was twenty minutes ahead of it the whole way, or at least until the very end when it swerves into absurdity. The actors are fine, but because they’re just representing types there’s never any sense of tension between them. Shot entirely in a greenish milky light, there’s none of the rawness you’d expect from such material. De Sade, both the man and the myth, was a truly nasty piece of work, but here he’s just a faded roué who only wants to write. I couldn’t help thinking that if they had tried to be more historically accurate the results would have been more dramatic.
*. A movie like this doesn’t have to shock, but it does have to be dangerous. Unless we can feel that danger we’re not dealing fairly with de Sade’s legacy. But can any film hope to do that today? Art has almost entirely lost its ability to shock, controversy becoming just another marketing gimmick. I take it that’s the meaning behind the twist at the end, as de Sade’s novels are being used to fund the asylum (and line Royer-Collard’s pockets). The real horror is that the Man won not be destroying de Sade’s spirit but by co-opting it. Much is often made of how de Sade is one of the very few authors whose name has entered the language. Not just as a psychological condition, but as a commercial brand.


Marat/Sade (1967)


*. OK, so the full title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Just to get that out of the way.
*. It’s always hard to make a film of a play look like a film, but how much harder when making a film of a play within a play, and that play a musical? Might we like the show, but still not find it a great movie?
*. I’ve never seen a live production of Marat/Sade, but I have the feeling it probably works better on stage. One thing that a movie can do that a play can’t, however, is force the perspective. The camera limits our vision, narrows our attention on what it wants us to see. Peter Brook makes good use of this here, going for lots of tight close-ups that increase the already dense sense of claustrophobia. We really don’t want to be so close to this particular gang of characters. Our proper place is in that dark audience on the other side of the bars.
*. The camera can also become an actor, as when it spins about madly in the final outbreak of orgiastic violence. Or a voyeur, as we wonder if we’re going to see a real jailbreak with the lady’s bosom being set free when as is raped. Does that make us feel dirty? Should it? De Sade might still be playing us.
*. We don’t have as many movies today that are this interested in political theory. This isn’t to say we don’t still have political movies (though the most political tend to be documentaries). But after the “end of history” was announced there haven’t been as many advocates for revolution as there were in the 1960s.
*. But it’s not just the rightward turn of Western politics that has dated this movie. There’s also the slippage in general historical knowledge. I wonder how many people, even theatregoing types, have enough of an acquaintance with the French revolution and the rest of the historical background of this play to make much sense of it today. In the 1960s you could count on a reasonably well educated audience being familiar with the basic points being covered. Not any more. I think the vast majority of even highly educated people today would find most of the historical material here obscure. That may sound like grumpy old man talk, but I think it’s true. I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing, but cultural literacy has been dropping for a while now.
*. That is, however, part of this movie’s message. What we’re being presented with is the situation in 1793 (the year of Marat’s death) commenting on the situation in 1808 (time present in the play), commenting on the situation in 1963 (the date of Peter Weiss’s play) and 1967 (that of Brook’s film), commenting on the situation today (whenever that may be). It’s an adaptable message, that the new boss is always the same as the old boss. So Napoleon is the British prime minister or the American president, and you’d better not say anything bad about them.
*. The boxes within boxes also make it hard to judge where one’s sympathies lie. Marat is the idealistic hero of the piece, at least compared to de Sade as cynical voluptuary and the warden as foppish bureaucrat, but Marat is also de Sade’s creation. When de Sade speaks we feel he’s outside of the play, offering up authorial insight or commentary, whereas Marat is only reading his lines and Charlotte Corday is a puppet, seeming half asleep and just about to collapse whenever she has to get up and do something.
*. Brook is fully in tune with Weiss’s material, and this is essentially a filmed version of his original British production, with much of the original cast. It set a standard. The cast are credible. It’s hard to watch Ian Richardson and not see Francis Urquhart scheming up something behind those piercing eyes. Glenda Jackson is convincingly out of it. The design is suitably grubby and the photography by David Watkin is infused with a soft industrial light (all of it, apparently, coming from the “window” wall).
*. Is it a great movie? No. But it’s a great production of an interesting play that still has something to say to us in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I think we’re more likely to just see de Sade as the hero today and enjoy the chaos, rather than be concerned with Marat’s revolutionary political dreams.

The Haunted Palace (1963)


*. The place to start here is with the opening credits, which look very nice, what with a spider tripping along its well-lit web against a black background. The credits themselves, however, are misleading in one respect.
*. That respect is the source of the script (by Charles Beaumont, with some dialogue written by Francis Coppola). Specifically, the script is said to have been derived from a poem by “Edgar Allen Poe” and a story by H. P. Lovecraft.
*. The only thing they got from Poe, whose name is spelled wrong (it’s “Allan”), is the title and some lines we hear Vincent Price reciting at the end. Lines that have nothing to do with the movie we’ve just seen.
*. Basically what seems to have happened is that Roger Corman didn’t want to make another Poe movie and so pitched American International a Lovecraft project. They agreed, but still wanted Poe’s name on it, so they changed the title and added the voiceover at the end
*. Then there’s the story by Lovecraft. It isn’t named in the credits, but it’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a posthumously published work that is actually a short novel (it was filmed again in 1992 as The Resurrected by Dan O’Bannon). Corman was using The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as a working title, but again there is very little connection to the source. Corman says that he brought in elements from other Lovecraft stories to give it more depth, but I don’t know what these elements are, or why he needed to bring in extra material for more depth since the novel is considerably abridged as it is.


*. The biggest change to the Lovecraft story is the addition of a love interest, with Joseph Curwen attempting to revive his dead mistress and in the process sacrificing Ward’s comely wife. There are no female characters in Lovecraft’s tale (Lovecraft had . . . issues . . . when it came to women), and this business of invoking the spirit of a deceased lover is more in the spirit of Poe, and far more in the spirit of Vincent Price’s filmography. For some reason this is a situation Price’s hero-villains find themselves in again and again. I mentioned this in my notes on The Last Man on Earth, where I made the link to his Poe films and the Dr. Phibes character. I might have added his Shelby Carpenter, who is the fiancé of the missing Laura. I wonder how he got typecast playing this part so often. Whatever the explanation, here we are again.
*. It’s a pretty good little film, if you have properly lowered your expectations. That is, if you know it’s a low-budget AIP quickie, shot in fifteen days. Given those parameters, it actually has a few unconventional elements mixed in with the usual gothic trappings of oversized castle interiors and misty graveyards spotted with blasted trees.
*. Among the interesting parts I would note (1) the double role Price plays as the wimpy C. D. Ward and the malevolent Joseph Curwen (who even has a bedroom scene with Debra Paget, in her last film role, where he seeks to exercise his husbandly prerogatives in a forceful manner); (2) the deformed inhabitants of Arkham, who are interesting despite being badly made up and serving no function in the story at all (complaints I could also level against Lon Chaney’s character); (3) the first appearance on film of Cthulu, or Yog-Sothoth, looking a bit like the Creature from the Black Lagoon with an extra arm, but still; (4) the dark ending, which pretty clearly indicates that Curwen has taken Ward over completely. It’s kind of silly and feels inconsequential in such a film, but it surprised me.
*. Look, with these AIP pictures the bar is set pretty low. They’re not great. But this one has enough going for it to be worth checking out once anyway.


The Brood (1979)


*. I’ll begin by saying that this is probably my favourite David Cronenberg film. Not necessarily his best, but my favourite.
*. Why do I like it so much? I’d start with the screenplay. It seems to me to be the most mature statement of his theme of body horror: a brilliant, original, and disgusting concept grounded in a compelling, efficient, personal story involving real people that we care about.
*. I also like its visual imagination. Yes, the killer midgets in snowsuits may have been a borrowing from Don’t Look Now, but why not borrow the good stuff? And Cronenberg makes them his own.
*. But by visual imagination I also mean what I might call storyboard narrative. I don’t know how much Cronenberg uses storyboards, but there’s one passage in this film that is so perfect in its layout that I think it’s one of the very best episodes in any horror move I’ve ever seen.


*. I’m thinking of the murder of the teacher Ruth Mayer and the abduction of Candice from the public school. From beginning to end this whole sequence comes in at under four minutes of screen time, which is amazing.
*. Here are just some random thoughts about it. First of all, there’s the great use of high and low-angle camerawork. We look down on the crowd of ankle-biters because we begin with Frank and Wendy at an elevation above the school doors as the kids enter the school, an elevation that is duplicated inside the school as there is a platform above the classroom area that we also look down from (and will again as we look down on Ruth’s body). This keeps the identity of the brood children concealed (though we know who they are as soon as they’re isolated playing on the tire swing). This concealment can be quite subtle. Note how the important shot of the brood kids entering the school plays out in the deep background of a shot of Frank talking to Wendy.
*. Then there is the horrible impropriety of it. A murder not only in broad daylight, but in a classroom filled with small children! Is no place sacred? Terrorized tots are a horror gimme, but still you’ve gotta love it. That crayon drawing Frank pulls over Ruth’s bloody face is perfect.
*. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out a couple of things about this sequence that don’t work, and that are representative of where the film falls down.


*. In the first place, there is the weird imperturbability of Candice and her teacher when they come face to face with the brood children. Shouldn’t they seem more alarmed, or at least nervous? This blankness is something that I didn’t understand. Nola’s mother is also a little slow on showing any fear at the imp tearing apart her kitchen, and Frank doesn’t show much expression when Nola reveals her reproductive accessories to him. Was it intentional to keep things this low-key?
*. The other criticism I had was that the murder itself wasn’t very well staged. Again, this is a problem elsewhere in the film, particularly in the murder of Nola’s mother. It doesn’t look like either victim is being struck remotely hard enough to do any damage, and I’m not even sure those tiny wooden mallets the brood kids are using would be able to do much no matter how hard someone was swinging them (alas, plastic safety scissors would have made an even worse option). I would make the general observation that at this point in his career Cronenberg really wasn’t very good at filming action sequences. Even at the end it’s very clear Frank isn’t choking Nola.
*. I can’t leave Candice at school without mentioning that I had the very same Happy Days lunch pail when I went to school. I can smile about it now.


*. The Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics. Well that sounds . . . different. Another Cronenbergian institute out in the hinterlands whose specialized cures are worse than the disease. But how far into the hinterlands are we? Those amniotic gas tanks the brood have on their backs must be pretty big if they’re walking all the damn way to Toronto, and back, on their murderous expeditions.
*. I love the police inspector’s lines as he leads Frank into the station and updates him on the case. It’s the sort of dry, absurd wit Cronenberg usually reserves for his scientists, but it plays just as well coming out of a cop’s mouth. “We were spending our time checking out an Estonian musician.” Gold. “My guess is it’s some crazy woman who didn’t want anyone to know she had a deformed child. She’s had this kid locked up in an attic for years and never told anybody. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
*. Hm. So you’re an old woman living alone and your kitchen is being smashed apart and you figure you should . . . go take a look. It’s probably just a very localized earthquake. Or a raccoon. Let’s open the door and find out.
*. Also very funny is Bob Silverman’s Jan Hartog. His gleeful revelation of his cancer (“It’s spreading!”) may be my favourite line in the entire Cronenberg oeuvre. He’s very good in his brief role in Scanners as the isolated artist too.
*. A father defending his messed-up family. There’s something essential to this, more even than it being Stephen King’s main theme in the 1980s. It’s a motif that you see developing more and more throughout twentieth-century fiction. I’m not sure what the full meaning of it is, but I’ve been wondering about it for a while.
*. As has been well reported, the idea for the plot came out of Cronenberg’s own messy divorce and custody battle. You really get a feel for this in Frank’s final confrontation with Nola, as he mouths a string of sensitive-man platitudes before she reveals herself to be a monster and he gets to strangle her. I love an angry filmmaker. It brings out the best in them.
*. I wonder if there was a nod to Cold Comfort Farm‘s “something nasty in the woodshed” in calling that building a woodshed. It looks like a pretty upscale woodshed to me.
*. I still think that Oliver Reed, with a gun, should have easily been able to handle a whole cabin full of those homicidal ankle-biters in their colourful jumpers. Yes, they’ve got lots of attitude. But they’re not very big, or strong. Though the one that kills Nola’s father has a hell of an arm throwing the glass globe through the wall.
*. Samantha Eggar’s accent works because it makes her seem even more alien. That her parents don’t have accents is par for the course. Perhaps she’s a brood baby herself. In any event, she also looks impressively bat-shit crazy, while Oliver Reed looks suitably repressed, like someone who is barely maintaining a reluctant sobriety.
*. The rest of the cast are pretty solid. Even Candy (Cindy Hinds) is effectively creepy, while Art Hindle is about as straight an everyman as you could ask for (though his hair is improbably glorious, looking like something out of a shampoo commercial).
*. Roger Ebert thought it “reprehensible trash.” He also thought it “a bore . . . because hardly anything of interest happens until the last 15 minutes or so.” This is not true. There are several excellent suspense sequences that come before the end. As with his negative response to Blue Velvet, one feels a bit of a knee-jerk attitude toward violence.
*. But then who doesn’t have such a reaction? Violence isn’t doing its job in a film if it doesn’t make your knee jerk. This one certainly has that, and even more, it’s a movie that gets inside you.


Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)


*. The title probably sounds familiar even if you’ve never heard of this movie (which you probably haven’t). In 1945 the serial killer William Heirens killed Frances Broan and wrote the following note in lipstick on a mirror in her apartment: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.”
*. It’s actually the U.S. alternative title. It was originally released in the U.K. as The Full Treatment, which is the name of the novel it was based on.
*. This is not a good movie, in any department. The exclamation mark in the U.S. title is totally unearned, suggesting a level of excitement that is never felt. But then I wonder how many really good movies there have been about psychiatrists. They always seem so earnest, and date so quickly.
*. It’s undone by its script, which, in typical Hammer psycho-thriller fashion, is heavily overwritten (talky, with a needlessly complex plot). I think they were going for a downscale version of Vertigo, which had just come out a couple of years earlier. But this movie is even more far-fetched. The psychology, for starters, is hard to buy into. Even if that “abreaction” technique were ever employed for such a purpose, I doubt it was used like it is here.
*. It’s undone by its budget, which was obviously strict. The interiors look like sets, with Colby’s apartment coming off particularly bad (at least the Harley Street psychiatrist has a bookshelf full of the works of Freud). The various accidents are all elided or clumsily rendered through frantic edits. We only see the stagey aftermaths of the two car accidents. And note how he two luxury cars, including the doctor’s Bentley, appear to be totally undamaged after their collision. Of course we never see the cable car fall.
*. It’s undone by the cast, all of whom seem out of place. The thick accents don’t help, but even Ronald Lewis as a bottom-slapping Brit is annoying. Not that I think anyone could have pulled off such a role, switching from hot to cold so many times, so quickly.
*. About the only thing I liked here is the scenery. The Côte d’Azur circa. 1960. If only I had a time machine.


Silent Running (1972)


*. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 is usually taken as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. In film the same sense of concern took a few more years to really take hold. Science fiction was a natural fit for speculations about where we were heading, both as a species and as an ecology, so a lot of ’70s dystopic SF had an environmental message. Overpopulation, for example, in Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, led to nightmarish future states where nature has effectively ceased to exist. These films weren’t just speculative fantasies but political.
*. It was, in short, a cinema of concern, far removed from pretty much everything that came after. There were many wastelands in the 1980s but little interest was taken in how we got there. Was it peak oil that created the world of the Road Warrior? Global nuclear war? In 12 Monkeys humankind has been driven underground because of a man-made plague, which is safe because there’s not much we can do about it absent the time cops. And of course the zombie apocalypse (virus? radiation from space? a voodoo curse?) is ultimately an Act of God. We just have to deal with it.
*. More recent filmmakers have remained reluctant to invoke environmental messages in their futuristic speculations. I mentioned in my notes on the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still how in that film the whole matter of global climate change and the environment is quickly brushed aside, presumably because the producers just didn’t want to go there.
*. Of course, it was also the ’80s that saw a massive cultural backlash against hippies, immediately turning audiences against Bruce Dern in his monk’s robe, with Joan Baez crooning in the background. Clearly he is a hippie in space.
*. So let’s return to a simpler, more direct, and more honest time, when everyone knew that spaceship Earth was in trouble and some people wanted to do something about it. Nothing shows how far we’ve traveled more than the basic ethical situation faced by Freeman Lowell of the Valley Forge (he’s a “hell of an American,” in case the names didn’t already tell you). In the twenty-first century someone who murders three of his fellow crew members in order to defend the environment would only be seen as a homicidal maniac or eco-terrorist. Now admittedly Lowell isn’t perhaps the sanest fellow here (has Bruce Dern ever seemed entirely sane?), but he’s very far from being an evil crazy guy. Instead, he’s the hero: saddened by what he had to do but not because he feels it was wrong.


*. On the DVD commentary track Bruce Dern remarks that he’s allowed to get away with murder because it’s done “in the name of science.” Trumbull corrects him and says it was done “in the name of love and passion.” Either way, it would hardly be defensible today.
*. What makes the environmental message so odd is the fact that in Trumbull’s original imagining of the story there was no environmental message. Lowell was just going to head off alone into space and meet up with some aliens. There would be biomes, but they would simply be maintained as a source of food.
*. Silent Running was also a child of the counterculture on a more practical level, being one of a slate of films that were greenlit by Universal in an attempt to cash in on the success of Easy Rider. Young talent were given low budgets (under a million dollars) and creative freedom. Among the other films, according to Dern, were Hopper’s The Last Movie, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Miloš Forman’s Taking Off and George Lucas’s American Graffiti.
*. Interesting writing credits: Deric Washburne, “Mike” Cimino, and “Steve” Bochco. However, despite this joint effort (with Trumbull drawing it all together), I think the script is terrible, at least from the scientific perspective. A great deal is also left unexplained. For example, sending the biospheres into space must have been a huge project, so why are they just nuking them now as so much dead weight? The voice of Anderson only says that he “has received no explanation.” Then of course we have botanist Lowell’s “Eureka!” moment when he realizes that plants need sunlight to survive, which is unintentionally hilarious.
*. For what it’s worth, Mark Kermode (a big fan of the film and author of the BFI volume for it) explains Lowell’s brain freeze as the result of his becoming unhinged and not being able to “see the wood for the trees.” Trumbull apparently shares this point of view. I think it’s a very lame excuse made after the fact to paper over a huge boo-boo.
*. It is also inconsistent. The domes already have a lighting system — they would have to, being all the way out to Saturn — so what is Lowell doing that is different by bringing out the lamps?
*. The robots were forms with double amputees inside them and somehow this does lend them humanity, despite their being largely non-anthropomorphic. Dern insisted on playing opposite them with the actors inside the machines even when they weren’t being called on to do anything, rightly sensing the presence they have.


*. The big problem I have with the robots is that they are so awkward and slow that they seem entirely impractical for any function. Only fast editing makes the surgery scene slightly believable, and from what we see of them walking it must take them hours just to move about the vast spaces of the ship (since we never see them using any form of conveyance).
*. The same slowness and inefficiency dogs the other machines we see as well. Look at how slowly the robotic arm sets up the pool table. Lowell could just put the balls on the table himself in a tenth of the time.
*. Trumbull had worked on the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and apparently made this film as a more humanistic response to Kubrick (the same impulse behind Tarkovsky’s Solaris, making 2001 quite a reactive influence on the genre). In particular Trumbull didn’t care for the way the humans in 2001 were presented as robotic while the computer was the most “human” personality in the film. If so, this film may have overcompensated, as Lowell becomes the homicidal Hal of the Valley Forge (killing off the crew so as not to jeopardize the ship’s prime mission), and the rest of the crew behave like the jerks in a teen comedy. Meanwhile, the most sympathetic character in the movie is, again, a machine.


*. Another anti-Kubrick aspect to the movie is its consciously grungy, industrial/functional look, something aided by its being shot on board a decommissioned aircraft carrier.
*. It’s this SF realism that may have been the movie’s biggest influence. It’s hard not to look at that opening scene with the crew sitting around the dinner table talking about how much they hate their job and not imagine the crew of the Nostromo bickering about their shares and other union business at the beginning of Alien.
*. I found the product placement a bit surprising given the movie’s theme. The Valley Forge is an American Airlines space freighter. Did AA really sign off on that? What’s with the Coca-Cola logo on one of the storage crates? As for all the Dow Chemical logos, they provided the containers when Trumbull suggested it to them as a good PR move seeing as they were getting so much negative publicity with regard to their supplying chemical weapons for use in Vietnam.
*. In itself this isnt a bad little movie. The model work in particular is very good and makes it look much bigger than its budget. Trumbull thought Universal killed any chance of box office by not investing in a promotional campaign, hoping for word of mouth to carry it. I suspect it wouldn’t have done that well anyway, as it’s not that kind of movie. You can only get so far with audiences without a really sympathetic lead, and Dern’s Lowell is a wild-eyed and crazy-haired nutbar while Dewey is a toaster with duck feet.
*. Since its release it has gone on to achieve cult status. It has the low-budget, serendipitous and quirky charm of a cult film. Maybe it’s because I didn’t fall in love with it as a kid that I don’t think as highly of it as many of its biggest fans do. Still, for its originality and all the chances it takes I do respect it a lot.


Splinter (2008)


*. When this film it came out it was heralded as one of the better horror movies of the year. I thought it was OK, but . . .
*. It’s a ho-hum story in the horror-siege genre, the only point to it being to provide an excuse for showing off the “Splinter Creature.” This means that the creature has to carry the entire film. Yes it’s a small cast intereacting on a restricted set, but we came here to see the monster.
*. That monster, however, is only slightly original. Basically it looks like John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, with various absorbed bodies grotesquely melting together and weird appendages breaking out in crazy directions.
*. To its credit, at least it’s not another vampire or zombie movie. And also to its credit is the fact that there is very little CGI. Most of what you see are practical effects. But, and this is a big caveat, you’re not going to see much.
*. You never get a good look at the monster. There are no big, revealing shots of it, even at the end. The editing is very fast and choppy and during the frantic action scenes the camera is moving all over the place.
*. Director Toby Wilkins cites the Bourne movies and 28 Days Later as his inspiration. If you’ve read my notes on the latter you know how much I hated the jerky editing. In fact, after CGI I think this is the aspect of contemporary action/thriller filmmaking that I hate the most. Is it just because I’m so much older than the target audience? I don’t think so, as I’ve heard a lot of young people complain about the same thing. Surely there’s a limit to how much and how fast you can yank the audience’s eyeballs around. And it really defeats the purpose when you can’t understand what’s going on.
*. A little of this kind of camera work, especially at the beginning, would have been fine. What is that critter that comes out of the woods and attacks the gas station attendant, for example? I think it’s an infected racoon, but it might be a fox. In any event, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your monster hidden this early. Only at some point you have to show the audience what you’ve got.
*. According to the filmmakers the reason they didn’t show more of the creature was simple: it looked like shit. The rubber suit didn’t even fit the guy wearing it in the final sequence. Which is at least being honest.
*. As already noted, the script is nothing special. I found the business with Seth lowering his core body temperature so as not to be noticed by the heat-seeking creature a ridiculous premise. Why didn’t they just insulate him, or cover him with frozen blankets? Mud worked for Arnie in Predator.
*. It also seemed to me that fighting the creature with fire would have been (1) more obvious, and (2) easier. They had all that lighter fluid they didn’t end up doing anything with aside from the crazy notion of pouring it out the door and somehow setting the forest on fire. How was that ever supposed to work?
*. Why is the cop so dense about not heeding the warnings everyone is shouting at her? I think that sequence goes on too long.
*. As Seth was getting ready to stagger to the cop’s car I kept wondering how unlikely it would be to think that the cop had left her keys in it. Remarkably, this is something that seems not to have occurred to anyone. I had to face palm when he finally did get to the car and found out that there were, in fact, no keys in it. Damn!
*. There’s no explanation for what the Splinter Creature is: whether a long-dormant species or something recently mutated. Such an explanation is unnecessary, but I wonder if they considered addressing this at some point. Wilkins says he wasn’t interested, but we do drive by a sign announcing experimental oil extraction going on in the area. Alas, like most such environmental warnings in this supposedly environmental age, the sign is ignored and nothing more is said about it.
*. On the commentary track Wilkins describes the sign as “one of our two very subtle, faint, allusions to maybe where the creature came from.” I didn’t register what the other clue was. I think he might have been referring to all the insects buzzing around.



*. So it’s nothing particularly new, and not very smart. But Wilkins handles suspense well and keeps things moving along (the film clocks in at only 82 minutes, which was a relief). I really like the “fishbowl” effect of the gas station/convenience store. Jill Wagner rocks the horror-girl tank-top. Paul Costanzo is a convincing nerd. The white trash couple are believable, and Lacey has a zinger of a line about shooting a hole in Polly big enough to watch TV through.
*. There’s a nice amputation scene where an arm gets taken off with a boxcutter and a cinderblock. Though I have to say that Seth’s expression of surprise when he finds out he can’t cut through the large bone in Dennis’s upper arm with a boxcutter is hard to credit. This is, however, of a piece with the failure of any of the characters to think things through (see their plans for setting the forest on fire, or getting to the cop car without having any keys). Are we seeing a satire on the attention-deficit generation?
*. Curiously, another horror film that came out the same year, The Ruins, also featured a gruesome makeshift amputation scene as a highlight. Such things were obviously in style in 2008.
*. I thought this movie was better than The Ruins. So was this one of the better horror flicks of 2008? Damn, the bar has been set so low I think that maybe it was.

The Big Heat (1953)


*. I like crime dramas as much as the next guy, but I feel that they get more than their fair share of love and affection from film historians, cinephiles, and critics. Sometimes it seems as though every little noir — and noir was a B-genre in the first place — has to be touted as a minor masterpiece.
*. The Big Heat is a good example. I don’t think it’s anything special. Fritz Lang directs, but doesn’t seem particularly interested in what’s going on. I’ve read a lot of praise for his sense of style, but I don’t see much of it here. Certainly no more than in any comparable noir product.
*. Glenn Ford is, as in Gilda, upstaged by his co-stars. This is a point worth expanding on. David Thomson makes a big deal about Ford as righteous avenger in this film, but really he isn’t. He just doesn’t have that manic gleam in his froggy face, and we never see him get that upset over his wife’s murder. Instead there’s a cut from her being pulled from the burning car to a meeting in the commissioner’s office after the funeral. Ford tries to look stern, and says a lot of tough things about the cops being rabbits as he goes out on his “hate binge,” but he never crosses over a line of decorum. He doesn’t try and beat information out of Atkins (the auto wrecker), or out of the widow Duncan. He just has to impotently walk away.


*. Instead, the real story of vengeance is that of Goria Grahame coming after Lee Marvin for throwing a pot of scalding coffee in her face. That is the film’s defining moment (Scorsese was impressed, and would re-use it in Cape Fear). It is Grahame’s role as lady avenger, complete in face mask and fur, that is the movie’s strongest narrative line. She’s the one who finds out where the widow Duncan is staying and hunts her down. She’s the one to exact retributive justice on Vince Stone.


*. The rights of the disabled have come a long way. The accountant at the Victory auto yard, who walks with a cane, doesn’t want to say anything bad about Atkins because “not many people would hire someone like me.” To be an accountant? To sit at a desk and do the books? All she has is a gimpy leg.
*. The script is nothing special. The plot is straightforward. There are only a couple of zinger lines, one of them served up by Lang when we see the spread of Atkins’ fat ass as Bannion asks where “Slim” is (the other is Grahame’s line when she enters Bannion’s hotel room and calls it “early nothing”). There is no sexual tension with Grahame because Vince just likes to slap women around and Bannion is in mourning and she’s just a B-girl anyway. Finally, the crime boss Lagana is a non-entity with an unexplained mother fixation, someone to be dismissed almost as an afterthought with a headline.
*. So it’s not an essential movie, even within its genre. It is worth tracking down though, if just for Grahame’s turn as a Fury in fur. In the end, Bannion is only here to clean up her mess.