Monthly Archives: June 2016

Battle Royale (2000)

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*. You know a film is tapping into something archetypal when it calls up so many other works of the imagination. Here we have The Running Man meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies meets The Most Dangerous Game meets And Then There Were None. And the list could go on.
*. Also, when you tap into archetypes you’re getting into the collective unconscious, which tends to lend the proceedings a dream-like air. After several viewings this is the aspect of Battle Royale that I find myself coming back to the most.
*. Of course it’s a fantasy. Even given the dystopic premise, however, it’s infected with fantastic improbabilities. Take two examples, two clichés well-known to fans of action films that are taken to extreme levels here.
*. The first of these is the gun with unlimited ammunition. Bad enough that the mute psycho Kiriyama has a machine gun, but except on one occasion it never runs out of ammo. Even assuming his duffel bag is packed with extra rounds (which would make it impossible to carry), he’d still burn through it all in a couple of minutes at the rate he’s spraying lead around. In all, the business of ammo is not well handled. Basically, as long as the story requires the characters to have guns that still fire, they will. If not, they’re out. But Kiriyama becomes a figure out of a nightmare with his bottomless clip.
*. The second cliché has to do with the number of bullets people can take and keep going. The ending where Kitano gets up and walks around after being torn apart by machine gun bullets at point blank range had me wondering if the whole thing was now to be seen as a joke. A joke or a dream.

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*. The sense that it’s all a dream is furthered by the way the film begins and ends. In the beginning the kids are taken to the island after being put to sleep on the bus. When they wake up it’s in the classroom and they’re already collared and in the game. Then at the end (of the “director’s cut”) there are three dream-like, or dream, “requiems.” One of these seems to be a flashback, another a sort of dream vision, and I have no idea how to take the third, the conversation between Kitano and Noriko. Is this a memory of an earlier conversation that really took place? One of their fantasies? Is there some suggestion of a creepy relationship between them?
*. If it is all a dream or nightmare or fantasy, whose is it? Noriko’s? Shuya’s? Kitano’s? After all, the whole show is his way of getting back at the bratty kids of class 3-B. Just how on earth did an asshole high school teacher get put in charge of this project anyway? Doesn’t that seem fantastic? Then notice all the time he spends stretched out on his couch in his pyjama-like sweats . . . dreaming his revenge.
*. And why are they called “requiems”? Is something being lost in translation? The sequel to this film was called Battle Royale II: Requiem and I didn’t understand its use there either.
*. So you can’t worry about the story not making any sense. Dreams don’t. The three rebel/hacker kids, for example, hunker down in one building throughout the film, apparently immune to the orders to move about the island. And how could it be that none of the kids have heard of the Battle Royale program before they’re kidnapped? Apparently it’s a hit show on TV. In the book the film is based on they do know about it, but that part is left out here. Which is a benefit to the audience (we have the game explained to us just as it’s being explained to them), but is something that makes no sense at all within the world of the film.
*. I wonder who did the first series of jump cuts closing in on a face for a shock effect. The first appearance of the Monster in Frankenstein? Probably. Another standout example is the sequence of three shots taking us into the face of the woman with her eyes pecked out in The Birds. I bring this up only because we get it again here, with three very fast cuts jumping in to the bloody face of the dead teacher when Kitano pulls the sheet back from his corpse. You can’t go wrong with the classics, and those three fast cuts into close-up are pure horror gold.
*. There’s an odd mix of sentimentality with the breaking of taboos. I found all the business about the kids having different crushes to be eye-rolling stuff, but then you get these outbreaks of sickening weirdness. The part where Hirono confronts Mitsuko about who is having her period is off-putting enough, but when she says she “checked” Megumi’s corpse to see if she was menstruating my jaw dropped. Mitsuko’s flashback to her mother’s pedophile boyfriend is bad, but the fact that he has some kind of sexual assault doll with him is vile.

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*. Overall, the movie is clearly on the side of the kids. Parents are seen as either pathetically helpless or cruel degenerates (I include Kitano in the latter category). Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older, but I find this romanticizes things a bit much.
*. The emphasis on the kids and their problems, however, has been a big theme in what I would describe as twenty-first century existentialist horror. Instead of just being the meat on the hoof fresh for slaughter that we had in older slasher films, what we get here and in movies like the Saw and Final Destination franchises is young people stuck in absurd but terminal situations forced to find a way to give meaning to their lives through some kind of authentic act or commitment (either to one another or to an ideal).
*. It’s a movie that’s definitely in tune with today’s social Darwinist zeitgeist, where you can’t trust anyone and your best bet to survive (or succeed) is to be a psychopath. The island is the school of life.
*. This point is driven home at the end when we are told that the game on the island is no different from life in the big city. Noriko and Shuya are going to have to keep running. Tokyo is just another jungle. The Battle Royale is an allegory or microcosm. Life is the game.
*. There was much talk of an American remake, but this was considered to be redundant after the success of The Hunger Games. There was a sequel, but Kinji Fukasaku died and I doubt even he could have salvaged what was a doomed project. An archetypal movie like this can’t really have a sequel, it can only be repeated. In nightmares we’re always running in sand.

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The Running Man (1987)

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*. Here are some relevant dates.
*. The Running Man was a novella that was published in 1982 by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym used by Stephen King. Apparently producer Rob Cohen didn’t know Bachman was King when he bought the rights to the story. I find that hard to believe, given how these things usually play out between agents, but I guess anything’s possible.
*. Richard Dawson was host of the TV game show Family Feud from its debut in 1976 until 1985. For a while he was one of the best-known television personalities in North America, albeit one who creeped a lot of people out. His casting here is the film’s one saving grace, and according to co-producer Ted Zinnemann he was so strong in the initial cut of the film it was felt that he was stealing the movie away from Arnold (“he [Dawson] was so good he sort of overpowered everybody else”). They then made cuts to his part to make sure their star remained their star.
*. A couple of dystopic Italian films had dealt with somewhat similar ideas a few years earlier: Endgame (1983) and Lucio Fulci’s Warriors of the Year 2072 (a.k.a. The New Gladiators) (1984). The connection to Fulci’s movie is the strongest, it being about a gladiatorial game show with convicts as contestants (they choose playing as an alternative to the death penalty), and the hero being a man wrongfully convicted. On the DVD commentary, however, neither Zinnemann nor director Paul Michael Glaser mention it, or earlier precursors like Death Race 2000 and Rollerball. Instead there’s a vague nod to Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the medium is the message, though I’m not sure what McLuhan has to do with all this.
*. On this same point of influence, Zinnemann adds that “we didn’t look at other pictures and try to take from them at all.” He says “the only reference point at the time were the Japanese game shows . . . I don’t think we looked at Blade Runner as in any way connected to this movie, for instance.” Blade Runner?
*. As with earlier and later versions of the neo-gladiator story there’s a conventional conflict between the powers of the corporation (government and big business joined at the hip in an entertainment-industrial complex) and rebel forces. What The Running Man does that’s a bit different is it turns the camera around to mock the bloodthirsty audience, and in particular older motherly and grandmotherly types, screaming for more violence. Other films in this genre don’t go here. Perhaps because it would make people watching the movie feel uncomfortable? I’m not sure.
*. The “Japanese game show” that provided inspiration was Trans-America Ultra Quiz, which began airing in 1977 and ran until 1992. With Battle Royale (2000) there would be a repatriation.
*. 48 Hrs. came out in 1982. Steven de Souza had co-written that film as well as Commando (1985), an earlier Schwarzenegger vehicle. He would go on to write Die Hard and Die Hard 2. He had a reputation for witty one-liners that could be quoted over and over.
*. Here are some examples of that wit in action, taken from The Running Man. After nearly decapitating Subzero with razor wire, Ben (Arnold) says “he was a real pain in the neck.” Standing over the dead body he announces “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero.” After slicing Buzzsaw’s crotch with a chainsaw he tells Amber that “he had to split.” Before torching a fuel-soacked Fireball with a flare he asks him “How about a light?” Then, after burning him to a crisp he says “What a hothead.” After sending Damon Killian’s sled into a Cadre Cola billboard, causing it to explode, he says “That hit the spot.”
*. Yes, in 1987 you could get paid a lot of money for writing stuff like that.
*. In his defence, and it can only be a partial defence because lines like “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero” are really inexcusable, de Souza may have been trying to patch together a script out of pieces that just didn’t fit together. King’s original story had been left far behind and there are various characters here who don’t seem to have any purpose. Amber is the usual superfluous love interest, but why did they even bother with Yaphet Kotto’s part? What does his character contribute to the film?
*. Beverly Hills Cop came out in 1984. The “Axel F” theme for that movie had been written by Harold Faltermeyer and it went on to win a Grammy and become a chart-topping hit. Faltermeyer was less inspired by this material. His techno-pop score is terrible.
*. The Running Man was released late in 1987, which is when I would have first seen it. I went with a bunch of friends, all young men and Arnie fans. We were disappointed. Zinnemann: “I remember it had a huge opening week or two, and then it sort of fell off and why it fell off I can’t remember.” He goes on to say that audiences didn’t get the typical Arnold movie they were expecting because there was too much comedy. I think it just wasn’t very funny, despite looking very silly.
*. The television show American Gladiators debuted in 1989 and ran until 1996. Apparently it was inspired by this film.
*. The late 1980s and early ’90s were the glory years of product placement. That’s why you’re seeing so many ads and logos here.
*. Total Recall was released in 1990. In both movies Arnold is paired with feisty Hispanic hotties (María Conchita Alonso as Amber here, Rachel Ticotin as Melina in Total Recall). I don’t know why. In any event, Paul Verhoeven had a better grip on this sort of material, as he seemed to really enjoy over-the-top, futuristic satires. Though it’s hard to blame Paul Michael Glaser for this film’s shortcomings (as Schwarzenegger, in his memoir Total Recall, did). Glaser was a late replacement as director, brought in to rescue a project that was in trouble. Andrew Davis was his immediate predecssor (there had been several others) but was way over schedule and hence way over budget only a week into shooting.
*. The 2-disc Special Edition DVD came out in 2004. It includes documentaries on the rise of reality TV and something on the threat of the U.S. PATRIOT Act to civil liberties. Interesting stuff, but I don’t think it has much to do with the movie. Meanwhile, the menu animation looks about three decades out of date.
*. “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed.” Closer, closer . . .

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Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984)

*. I don’t rate Lucio Fulci that highly as a director. Despite the number of truly dreadful projects he worked on, however, you can usually count on a couple of interesting scenes per Fulci film. Scenes that at least give you the sense that he was trying.
*. The scene that stands out the most in this film comes near the beginning, with the murder of Drake’s wife by a trio of whistling, well-dressed assassins. It’s a creepy bit of work with echoes of A Clockwork Orange, Once Upon a Time in the West, and maybe Argento’s Tenebrae, ending with a classic bit of artsy gore: the victim’s bloody hands sliding down a glass wall. I don’t think it makes much sense in terms of the plot — it’s an incredibly contrived scheme to frame Drake and so get him on the Killbike show — but for a moment Fulci seems at home.
*. Fulci probably enjoyed putting it together. I don’t think he cared very much for SF as a genre though, and he seems not to have been that interested in saying anything about violent spectacle as entertainment, which is the theme of this film.
*. Fulci’s métier was suspense, horror, and blood. He wasn’t that great at action, and could only offer limited help to his actors (like using quick zooms to show their surprise, again and again). There’s a short scene, also near the beginning of this movie, that’s supposedly part of a futuristic Fear Factor-type television show where a woman has her throat cut open by a swinging pendulum blade in the best Poe tradition. It’s less than a minute long but you sense right away that this is where Fulci’s heart is really at. Not the ray guns and cheesy special “futuristic” effects (mainly a lot of blinking lights), but instead something more primitive and atavistic.
*. Of course there is a lot that’s primitive going on here too. All of these movies dealing with murderous game shows harken back to gladiators fighting in the Colosseum so what better place to set this one than the eternal city itself and the “New Colosseum”? Along the way we drive past various Roman landmarks, as well as some pretty bad models of the city, and the whole thing ends with a chariot race on motorbikes. Motorbikes that have a nasty habit of exploding into fireballs whenever they collide with anything.
*. The various alternative titles underline this connection to the Classical past: The New Gladiators, Fighting Centurions, Rome, 2072 A.D: The New Gladiators, and so on. The year 2072, by the way, marks the two-thousandth anniversary of the beginning of construction on the original Colosseum. This was during the reign of the emperor Vespasian.
*. Not quite as ancient a source is the film Rollerball, which I think was clearly in mind. Drake is the movie’s Jonathan E. (here he’s announced as “the undefeated superchampion of the world,” which is quite a title). Meanwhile, Rollerball‘s computer, Zero, has been replaced by one named Junior. Alas, Zero’s occasional absentmindedness has degenerated into psychopathy, as Junior, for whatever reason, has decided to go full Skynet as a way of compensating for the fact that it had been programmed to be benign.
*. It’s a film that also looks forward to The Running Man, particularly with the idea of using convicts as contestants and the need for the show’s managers to find/frame a celebrity to boost ratings. There’s even a similar interest in media manipulation, with Drake’s “memory tape” being comparable to the “raw footage” of the Bakersfield massacre.
*. It’s nice to see Fred Williamson getting some work, even if he has nothing to do. The only character of any interest is Howard Ross’s Raven, head of the Praetorians and wearing a cap that foreshadows that of Bison in Street Fighter. He also gets to go crazy as he tries to exert “maximum psychological pressure” on Drake, with a highlight being his yelling at him to “Pick it up! Pick it up! PICK IT UP!”
*. Aside from these trashy moments there is nothing to recommend this one. It’s a good example of a VHS movie: the kind of thing you rented so you could just waste some time with your friends back in the 1980s. I’m not sure if that’s a genre that really exists any more, and not just because VHS is no longer with us. I guess today it would be a YouTube video, but that’s not quite the same thing. In any event, even fans of Fulci are unlikely to find much of interest in it, as he clearly wasn’t inspired by the genre or the theme.

Rollerball (1975)

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*. This is what the future looked like in the 1970s. No need to say “dystopian future” because that was understood. Think films like Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976). Not because of their stories or themes (though there’s a bit of environmentalism thrown in here I’ll mention in just a bit), but for their production design.
*. The clothes. The interiors. The buildings. The women who all look like models (Norman Jewison thought this made sense, as we would have figured beauty out in the future so that we could make everyone look good). The men who have hair on their chest. I mean, James Caan is one hairy man. I love how, at the high-society party, everyone is dressed in black tie but Caan has got his shirt unbuttoned to show off his pelt and gold chain.
*. It’s hard to be critical. Basically, if you’re trying to project what the future is going to look like, in terms of its style, it makes sense to take the most stylish elements of your own period and exaggerate them. So the buildings are the cutting-edge of modernism (the BMW building in Munich, which opened in 1972, makes a good icon for corporate power). The loose, flowing clothes make it look as though everyone is getting ready to go to the disco, from the women’s neo-classical evening gowns right down to Jonathan E. in his big-belt-buckle, open-neck urban cowboy look. The interiors are large and garishly cluttered. Couches are as wide and expansive as beds. And of course you can never have too many television screens in your home or office.

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*. Things start off well: prepping the track for the game, introducing the teams, and then throwing us right into the action. And the game itself is well conceived, visually arresting, exciting, and fairly easy to follow (basically you just stick the ball in the hole). The photography and editing are also terrific, and given how much this kind of filmmaking has changed in the last forty years the fact that it holds up so well is a testament to how advanced it was at the time.
*. It’s all fun and games as long as there are still rules. The final match, however, is a bit ridiculous. There are no substitutions, no penalties (thus no rules), and no time limits. The whole point of the exercise is to just let everyone fight it out and whoever the last man standing is wins. So why bother even trying to score? Why not just have everyone beat the hell out of each other? Jewison: “If you take out all rules of conduct then you’re going to end up with total violence.” Well, yeah.

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*. Outside of the game, the movie starts to fall apart. The political point, about the heroic individual triumphing over corporatism and cynicism, is muddled. Sports leagues have always had individual stars, so what would have made the rollerball managers think their game wouldn’t? What’s more, doesn’t it seem kind of lame that the corporate suits can’t manage to get rid of Jonathan? Couldn’t they just fire him? And isn’t it a rather abstract point to be trying to make anyway? Rollerball was intended to display “the futility of individual effort”? That’s just not the way games work.
*. Other elements seem just as awkward. You’d think no one would want to be standing next to the drunken women who are firing that napalm pistol off, but even aside from that the point being made is obscure. These people have no respect for life and “have a lack of empathy with all living creatures” (Jewison) . . . so they blow up trees? What does that have to do with “cold corporate greed”? And what’s with all the stuff about Jonathan having his wife taken away from him? Yes, women are mere trophies to be awarded to whoever’s higher up in the corporate hierarchy, but that’s a crude point not worth the time spent on it. And in the end, Maud Adams’s character is only a walk-on and walk-off, serving no dramatic purpose.

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*. Then there is the computer, Zero. This, I’ll admit, is funny. Silicon has been surpassed and the latest thing is “fluidics” so Zero is basically a tank of water. Ralph Richardson is the dotty scientist, part lab tech and part animal trainer. Apparently he retains enough of a classical education to be nonplussed at Zero having managed to lose the entire thirteenth century (which is no big deal, as it was just Dante and some bad popes). I blame those stacks of punch cards!
*. But again, the point gets muddled by a script that doesn’t seem to have thought things through. Zero is “the world’s brain,” but becomes totally discombobulated over a fairly straightforward question: How corporate decisions are made and who makes them. At first Zero doesn’t want to answer and then provides the obvious tautology (“Corporate decisions are made by corporate executives. Corporate executives make decisions.”) This is then followed by some lame aphorisms like “Knowledge converts to power. Energy equals genius.” Jonathan had to travel all the way to Geneva to hear this? It seems so pointless.
*. Some of the technology is shrewdly prophetic. The library with no books because they’ve all been “transcribed and summarized” sounds familiar. Behold Google Books! There is, however, no “cloud” computing and all this information has to still be stored at a physical location, where it has been compromised and can be controlled by the corporations.
*. Also prophetic is Jonathan’s deletion of Ella’s video files. She’s being ghosted! And she’s standing right there in front of him!

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*. What was it that filmmakers in the ’70s liked so much about ending movies with blurry freeze frames? It seems like such a dumb thing to do, but for a while it was all the rage. You don’t see it as much now.
*. Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 came out just before this film, in a different kind of race to sneak in and ride the wave of Rollerball‘s promotion. They’re interesting movies to compare. Obviously both deal with futuristic bread and circuses, violent entertainment fed to the masses by corporations as a kind of “safety valve for the explosion of emotion” (Jewison). We may also think of Network, which came out the next year, in this context. Rollerball, however, is played straight, and its message drags it down. Network is a black comedy and Death Race 2000 is a pure comic book that leaves politics in a dust cloud somewhere in its rear-view mirror.
*. I think Rollerball‘s earnestness it its undoing. It does a great job with the game itself but the rest of the film is awkward and often dull. Some of the spirit of satire or black comedy that fuels Death Race 2000 might have helped it out. It’s fine that Jewison wants us to take it seriously, but when it comes to making us care about what it is we’re supposed to be taking seriously he drops the ball.

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Death Race 2000 (1975)

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*. On the one hand you could see this movie as marking a watershed in the American road picture, the turn from counterculture classics like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Vanishing Point to pure popcorn parody. Our motorists are no longer anti-establishment outlaws on a spiritual quest but sports-entertainment celebrities driving down the innocent for dollars.
*. Or you could see it as an early satire of violence in sport, with the Transcontinental Road Race being a dystopic gladiator game prefiguring The Running Man, Battle Royale, and the Hunger Games franchise. It was even made in a rush (as most Corman films were) so as to take advantage of all the promotion going into Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, another film with a similar theme.
*. Two questions I have, keeping in mind both these contexts: is this a film with a social or political message? And is that message undercut in any way by the way it’s presented?
*. The counterculture road films were political. Their heroes were rebels fighting the authority of the Man. But here, as in Rollerball, the show that the drivers are participating in is itself a form of corporate/state propaganda. Yes, Frankenstein (who Corman originally wanted to be played by Peter Fonda), in the end allies himself with the rebels. But is he a force for social change?
*. Then there is the second question. Does the fact that the movie presents itself as slapstick, a Wacky Races comic strip, undercut any political message it might have? I think it probably does. It’s hard to get upset at the way violence is being marketed as entertainment if it’s all played as a joke.
*. Roger Ebert almost walked out of the film in 1975, seeing it as a glorification of violence and a bad influence on kids (who were, to his surprised and somewhat outraged eyes, the main audience): “The audience was at least half small children, and they loved it. They’d never seen anything so funny, I guess, and I was torn between walking out immediately and staying to witness a spectacle more dismaying than anything on the screen: the way small children were digging gratuitous bloodshed.” Nowhere in the review does he register any awareness of the film as being critical of the use of gratuitous violence as spectacle and mass entertainment. We may take this as some evidence of a message not getting through, at least to audiences at the time.
*. Part of the film’s point is that anything can be entertaining if it’s packaged as entertainment. I think it’s true that the people watch car races on television do so mainly in the hopes of seeing a spectacular crash. The rest of it is just driving around in a circle. So why not just cut to the good stuff?
*. Given how broad it all is, I’m actually impressed at how well the movie works. Director Paul Bartel somehow manages to strike just the right note, mostly through his keeping the pedal to the metal in terms of pacing. The cartoonish gags need this kind of rapid-fire set up. The gag with the manhole crew. The gag with the false detour leading off a cliff. The gag with Frankenstein driving around the geriatric-euthanasia-wheelchair sacrifice and wiping out the doctors and nurses. The gag where he runs over his own pit crew. These all get sprung on you so fast you laugh before you have a chance to think about what it is you’re laughing at. Which is usually something too stupid to be cruel.
*. Stallone just before Rocky. Would you have guessed a star was about to be born? He does command attention. But then stealing scenes from David Carradine isn’t hard.
*. I don’t like it as much when we take breaks from the race. There’s some gratuitous nudity thrown in and a fuzzy back story involving Frankenstein’s navigator. But when it’s on the road it really is a rush. It would be remade as a Jason Statham vehicle in 2008 with, all too predictably, none of the original sense of humour. In any event, its real afterlife was in videogames, leading to even more concern about what it was doing to the children.

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Amer (2009)

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*. A movie I thought I’d like, and wanted to like, a lot more.
*. It sets out to be a homage to giallo films, and since I do love me some Bava and Argento I was totally on board.
*. The movie has three parts, representing stages in the life of Ana from childhood, through adolescence, to an adult woman. And the first part delivers on the giallo promise. There are unnerving, uncomfortable close-ups. There’s a jangling, jarring score. There’s a psychadelic use of light and colour. There’s heavy breathing on the soundtrack, and what may be a witch or at the very least a killer, wearing dark gloves.
*. I wasn’t sure what any of it meant, but it looked and sounded great. Presumably the French directing team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani were setting something up that was going to be further developed in the next two parts.
*. Sadly, no. The second part has Ana walking around in a short dress with her mother. She is aware of men looking at her (as well they might, as the camera can’t help but imitate, or parody, the male gaze). Her mother is aware as well, and cuts her erotic reveries short.
*. This second section is just a tease, an erotic red herring where nothing happens and the climax is a comic letdown. To be fair, gialli have such passages, but they don’t go on this long and they aren’t as laboured.
*. It’s also in the second section that I began to understand that Ana was a neurotic who was imagining various threats. Again, this is not unknown in a giallo, but it does deflate the rest of the movie.
*. The third and final part just underlines this. Adult Ana is in line for a sexual breakdown. As she returns to ther family home, now a ruin (at least on the inside) we return to various motifs from the first section but there is nothing that has anything to do with the plot points that were then introduced. It is revealed that Ana is the psycho, and an enigmatic ending suggests she has done away with herself.
*. This is all very disappointing. What starts off so well turns into a repetitive and empty exercise in style. That Cattet and Forzani spent so long writing and developing such a project is astonishing. This is just three very short films stretched out and then tacked together, with little in the way of an overarching narrative but only a lot of visual flourishes and silent ambiguity. I wasn’t even sure what the title was referring to. It’s nice to look at, and suggestive of various things, but never rises much above the level of student work.

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Urban Legend (1998)

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*. We can divide the history of the slasher film into certain periods. After its inception in the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, the Hollywood slasher came of age in the early ’80s with a burst of now classic/canonical franchise titles. Then, in the ’90s came self-referentiality and genre deconstruction, with the Scream movies leading the way. And finally in the new millennium there was a return to the originals “reset” in darker, more realistic versions.
*. Sticking with my timeline, Urban Legend fits neatly in as a representative of the ’90s version of the Slasher Movie 2.0. Kim Newman: “Ordinary as it is, Urban Legend was champ in its weight-class.” That weight-class consisting of Scream rip-offs. I say “rip-off” in a non-judgmental way, recognizing that Scream was the seminal text of this period of slasherdom as much as Blood and Black Lace (1964) was for the giallo or Halloween was for the ’80s dead-teenager flicks.
*. Of course, if you’re not the first then you’re going to be called a rip-off. That’s Hollywood. On the DVD commentary director Jamie Blanks and screenwriter Silvio Horta talk about how frustrating it is to have the film always being compared to Scream, while at the same time acknowledging their debt to that film. So I take back rip-off. But they were following in Scream‘s footsteps.

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*. I certainly don’t want to dump on Urban Legend here. Though it didn’t get great reviews, I think this movie holds up very well and I like it a lot. It has a humorous concept, a pair of really good lead performances from Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart, some fun cameos (Brad Dourif and Robert Englund), a solid supporting cast (including Loretta Devine as a Pam Grier Rent-a-Cop, John Neville as the Dean, and Danielle Harris as a Goth roommate from hell), not much gore but lots of suspense, an occasionally clever script, and one truly memorable kill (I mean the tire spikes; the “Drano down the throat” was just so-so).

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*. A more personal reason for my liking it is that it was shot at the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus, which I attended for many years. The exteriors were very familiar to me, albeit different in an uncanny way.
*. It’s amazing how much a place can change when you see it on film. I knew all of the buildings very well, and yet it took me a while to place them. A lot of this is due to the fact that the shots had to be carefully arranged because where they were filming is in fact smack in the middle of downtown Toronto and Blanks wanted Pendleton University to be out in the woods of New Hampshire somewhere.
*. This is part of what gives the movie such a sense of slight otherworldliness. I mean, let’s face it: the story doesn’t make any sense. The campus police force is one security guard? None of the phones work in a storm? There was a massacre at the university just twenty-five years ago and it’s been completely covered up, to the point where nobody can say for sure if it ever happened?

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*. The film does provide an out with its ending. Perhaps the whole movie has been nothing more than the telling of another urban legend. Which isn’t as weak as it sounds given the strangeness of the proceedings. Those Gothic buildings and New England setting had me thinking this might be Miskatonic University in Arkham. It just has that eldritch feel to it. Even the fact that the killer is wearing a parka in the middle of summer adds to the weirdness. Toronto doesn’t get that cold, at least in July.
*. The sense of off-kilter weirdness also helps explain the one scene Blanks singles out on the commentary for being a mistake. This is when Natalie watches Brenda swim laps in the school pool from a glassed-in gallery. Things seem peaceful enough but then Natalie sees a figure in a parka enter the pool area. Thinking this is the killer, she starts screaming and banging on the glass to get Brenda’s attention, finally smashing the glass with a chair just before the person in the parka pulls off her hood and reveals herself to just be some girl in a swimsuit.
*. Now OK, all of this comes off as painfully contrived. Why is this girl entering the pool area from outside wearing a parka (the same parka that keeps turning up in odd places throughout the film)? Why is she wearing a swimsuit, and nothing else, underneath a parka? Why does she keep the hood of the parka up as she walks the entire length of the pool? It’s ridiculous.
*. But then the whole scene is full of implausible points. Does it seem likely that Brenda would be swimming all alone? Or doing lengths in a bikini? We’re not in the real world, or a world that’s even trying to look real.
*. I like the business of Natalie pounding on the glass trying to get Brenda’s attention, and I thought it interesting that it’s a scene that’s reversed later as Tara Reid pounds on the glass trying to get Natalie’s attention before Reid is killed. I wonder how conscious this was, or if Blanks was just doing the same thing almost unconsciously. Apparently he only found the radio station location (where Reid is killed) by accident, so perhaps it wasn’t planned. This was Blanks’s first big movie and he was probably going with stuff he knew. Like those shots from directly overhead of the dead bodies.

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*. All of which means that among the raft of post-Scream hip or ironic slasher films of the ’90s Urban Legend may indeed be “champ in its weight-class.” I’m not sure why it was panned so severely by critics and generally disliked by audiences. For genre fans, I think it’s well worth checking out.

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