Monthly Archives: July 2016

Black Sunday (1961)


*. Technically, the movie I’ll be talking about here is The Mask of Satan, and the difference between The Mask of Satan and Black Sunday (British and American release titles respectively) is slightly more than a mere matter of alternate titles. A few minutes of gore were removed for the American release, there was a complete re-dubbing of the dialogue (that changed some plot elements), and a new score was added.
*. Yes, the changes make a difference, but the fact is this movie is a bit of a mess anyway. As Bava expert Tim Lucas points out on the DVD commentary, there are various scenes that seem out of order, or as though they were the product of pure improvisation. For a movie made this cheaply, more or less on the fly, it’s possible.
*. It’s a landmark film, and like any landmark it looks forward and back, commanding the territory. In particular it stands at a watershed between Gothic and Neo-Gothic (the “Neo” mainly meaning colour and gore, at least at this point in film history).
*. It looks backward, most obviously, to the Universal horror films of the 1930s. The crypt looks like that in the basement of Dracula’s castle, and there are even some exotic creatures crawling about Asa’s tomb (though I suppose it’s possible there really are scorpions in Moldavia). There are also graveyards decorated with blasted trees, crawling carpets of mist, and angry villagers with torches and pitchforks storming the castle at the end.
*. Lucas flags the image of the mask in the goblet as coming from White Zombie, but I’m not sure if the girl sent out to milk the cow is a reference to Snow White. That scene recalls a similar sequence in The Leopard Man to me.
*. It looks forward to a rush of such films, different only for the fact that most of them were made in colour. Just take the opening sequence of Asa burning at the stake and cursing the villagers. This was to be revisited many times, in films like The She Beast, The Haunted Palace, and The City of the Dead (a.k.a. Horror Hotel). And yet as we get it here, the business with the spiked masks takes it over the top into a realm of tacky gore that was never duplicated.
*. Bava would go on to show what he could do with colour, which was a lot, but in this film (his first credited as director) he is already at or near the top of his game. He has a painterly eye and a terrific sense of space that’s evoked through graceful camera work: pans, dollies, high and low angle shots, a layered depth of field, changes in film speed, and a whole bag of effects tricks (he’s particularly fond here of shooting through things, like eyeholes, fingers, windows, and branches). Despite all of this, however, it’s a movie that never feels visually busy, or as though there is anything out of place. Bava was simply a director who could be counted on to do a lot with a little, though like a lot of directors with this gift he tended to do less when he had more.


*. Does this mean I agree with Danny Peary, who remarks that “Black Sunday convinced many of us that Mario Bava would be a force to be reckoned with in the horror field for many years to come. Unfortunately, he never made another picture half as good”? No.
*. I think Bava made a number of wonderful films after Black Sunday (my personal favourite is Blood and Black Lace) and at the same time I also think it’s easy to overrate, or perhaps mis-rate Black Sunday. Yes, Bava went on to make a lot of great trash, but great trash is what Black Sunday is too. So I see less of a falling off.
*. You don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. The final reveal of Asa’s rotten corpse was so effective Bava used it again in Planet of the Vampires and at the end of Dario Argento’s Inferno (a film Bava apparently co-directed).


*. A couple of notes on critters. First, is that the biggest bat in the history of horror cinema? It’s enormous! Second: Tim Lucas identifies the castle hounds as Neapolitan mastiffs. Are they? They look a bit undersize and their heads make them look more like Dobermans. A Neapolitan mastiff is a very odd and distinctive-looking dog.


*. Barbara Steele. This was her breakout role, which is odd in some ways. She was apparently a total pain in the ass on set and Bava never worked with her again. Nevertheless, she went on to be typecast as a horror queen. The role really works for her, allowing her to be both virgin and whore, the beautiful and pure Katia and the diseased Asa. Pauline Kael thought she made “evil and good all but indistinguishable” (while also saying that “in both roles, she looks like Jaqueline Kennedy in a trance”). Lucas picks up on this as well in his commentary, calling the character of Asa one of the first female movie monsters, a figure that both attracts and repels. I wonder if this is an Italian thing. Note that jeweled crucifix shining out of Katia’s cleavage, or the effect of her face aging so suddenly.
*. The visual effects are excellent. As I said earlier, Bava could do a lot with a little. The brilliant resurrection of Asa reminded me of Frank reassembling himself in Hellraiser, and it was apparently all done with foodstuffs (rice, poached eggs for eyes, etc.). About the only time the effects really misfire is when the Prince falls into the fireplace and there’s a weak double exposure. But perhaps he’s evaporating? Later in the same scene there’s no sign of his body.
*. The script may have been written on the fly, and I don’t think it’s terribly good. As an experiment, I watched the whole movie once with the sound turned off and enjoyed it just as much. The violence still has the power to shock and the whole thing has a pulp craziness to it that has proven timeless. More than fifty years later it continues to speak to us of ends and beginnings.


Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)


*. This isn’t a personal favourite of mine, though I can see why some people really fall for it. I think it’s a beautiful period poem full of lyrical imagery. It’s just that I don’t see much else going on.
*. As I wrote the above I noticed that “period poem” could be interpreted in different ways. I meant “period” as in a costume drama. Though if you wanted to see it as an ode to menarche then there’s nothing stopping you. That’s clearly a big part of what’s going on.
*. In fact, interpretation of its symbolic language is, mainly, what Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is about. There’s a sort-of story (based on a surrealist novel), but as Peter Hames says in his video essay included in the Criterion DVD release, it’s really just “a flow of imagery, a set of resonances.”


*. Does that bother you? For me it’s a question of degree. I found the symbolism frustrating: both too obvious and too obscure. At heart I see it as a coming-of-age tale, with Valerie being introduced, in various ways, to the world of adult sexuality. This is both something natural and enjoyable, as well as something scary and predatory. Angela Carter was taking notes.


*. Just to take a couple of ambiguous examples that Hames throws out with regard to colour symbolism: (1) white is purity, obviously, and we are clearly meant to be overwhelmed by Valerie’s virginal bedroom. But white is also the paleness of death, the bloodless faces of the Polecat and Valerie’s grandmother. So how we read it depends on context; (2) red is blood and sex, so Hames says the red curtains of the carriage are meant to symbolize the womb. Well, maybe. But even if that is what the curtains are meant to represent, or suggest, I’m not sure what the larger meaning is. Does the carriage give birth to anything?


*. Then there are the animals and animal names. We have birds (freedom? innocence again?), a horse (not sure about that one), a weasel (tricky little devil). Again one gets the sense that this is kind of obvious, and yet at the same time not very clear. Or perhaps what I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing more complicated being said than the most basic symbolic interpretation, which is itself broad enough to contain a range of different meanings.
*. As a final example, take the earrings. Obviously they’re meant to represent some kind of supernatural, protective power, but is that really symbolism or part of the story?


*. I wonder what it was about lesbian vampires that so possessed the European art-house circuit at this time. Just the next year there would be Daughters of Darkness, Requiem for a Vampire, and Vampyros Lesbos. I’d put Valerie and Her Week of Wonders at the high end of this genre (that is, the least exploitative, not necessarily the best), but it’s still a familial relation.
*. Herzog must have seen this movie before making his Nosferatu, not just for the way the village is shot but for all the painting of white on white. The bat ears on the vampire go back to Murnau though.


*. It looks very pretty in a fairy-tale kind of way, though I think Jaromil Jireš is overly fond of the high-angle shots and the staginess sometimes seems too much. The incest angle is interesting but I wish more had been done with it. As it is, the whole question of whether Valerie is being (sexually) threatened by her father or uncle or whoever is left up in the air. This is part and parcel of the vagueness I mentioned earlier. At some point you have to be more than merely suggestive and resolve some of the ambiguity. Without that grounding, we’re left with something as beautiful but light as dandelion seed.


The Osterman Weekend (1983)


*. Everything is wrong, and that right from the start. How can we believe we’re watching a surveillance video of the murder of Fassett’s wife when we’re getting a half-dozen different camera angles along with assorted zooms? I mean, I can ignore the romantic music in the background, but otherwise this looks like a worn and skeezy VHS porn tape.
*. I know. There’s no point pulling a movie like this apart for being implausible and unrealistic. Everyone involved knew it was nonsense from the start. Peckinpah hated the novel (and the screenplay) and didn’t want to do “a fifth-rate piece of shit by Ludlum” at all, though apparently he also said that he liked to adapt bad novels (he is not the only director to have felt this way).
*. Alas, though this was not a movie Peckinpah wanted to make he thought it might lead to getting more work. He hadn’t done a movie in five years and felt that this might get him back in the game. As things turned out, it was the last film he made.
*. There’s a sort of protective halo that wraps around a famous director’s last work. Negative criticism feels too much like speaking ill of the dead. Such generosity is well intended, but it’s still just superstition. The Osterman Weekend is a truly terrible, train wreck of a film.
*. What makes it terrible is mostly the ridiculous plot. The cast is actually pretty darn good, with a lot of unconventional moves that work really well. John Hurt as the Machiavellian mastermind pressing the buttons on his solid state control panel. Rutger Hauer as a political pundit pressed into action. Craig T. Nelson as a large and surprisingly lethal comic writer. Dennis Hopper as a pussy-whipped M.D. Meg Foster as a mama huntress with alien eyes. Chris Sarandon as Gordon Gecko.


*. But the story. You can’t overlook it. A political conspiracy thriller simply can’t afford to be this stupid. As Roger Ebert remarked in his review: “I don’t demand that all movies make sense. I sometimes enjoy movies that make no sense whatsoever, if that’s their intention. But a thriller is supposed to hold together in some sort of logical way, isn’t it?” Well, we may think of North by Northwest as a counter-example, but the point still stands.
*. All of the major set-piece scenes are ridiculous. I can’t think of any decent explanation for the car chase at all, and the piping going through the windshield was built up so far in advance it actually managed to be anticlimactic. Hurt’s improv weather report (because he doesn’t know how to use his equipment!) just makes the whole Tanner Show surveillance theme seem like a joke. Helen Shaver singing “Jesus loves me” just before she gets blown up real good is pure schmaltz. And as for the burning swimming pool . . . I don’t want to get all huffy over plausibility but a single small jerry can of gasoline isn’t going to make a pool burn like a lake of fire for that long.
*. The only reason you keep watching is to get to the twist already. When it comes it’s so jaw-droppingly stupid you daren’t think about it for a second. I can’t think of a less likely way for Fassett to get his revenge on Danforth.
*. When Tanner finds where his family is being held hostage he also finds the family dog, which has been gagged as well. On the DVD commentary Garner Simmons makes a bold claim for this, saying “that’s us”: the reason for showing the gagged dog is to “provide a commentary on who we are.” Wow. I enjoy imaginative readings of movie subtexts as much as the next guy, maybe even more, but this is crazy. The other authors on the commentary track seemed equally mystified, opining that they just thought it was a silly joke.
*. Indeed the whole ending seems to me to be a crazy swerve. Up till then I thought I was watching a movie about the misuse of power and the surveillance state, with maybe something to mutter about voyeurism as well. Then we get to the coda and Tanner delivers some smug lines about how we’re all slaves to the media. Where did that come from? When did this become an essay on free will?
*. I’d like to say I enjoyed this one more, but even though it’s quite an oddity it’s an even bigger mess. The pool, the pool, the pool is on fire!


One Missed Call (2008)


*. Here we go again. A beautiful young woman in a low-cut top (Meagan Good, no relation), alone at home with a cat, gets a phone call. We know she is about to die. Why? Because this is the introduction to a teen horror film so she is marked as the First Victim (the open parenthesis of the Last Girl). Also, she is black. You may not know anything about this movie, but you know for sure it’s not going to have a black heroine. That’s settled.
*. Then the cat gets it. Enjoy that part. It’s the only breath of originality and fun you’ll get in this movie.
*. One Missed Call is not just unexceptional in any way, it’s also second-hand. Technically it’s a remake of a 2003 Takashi Miike film that was derided by Entertainment Weekly as being “so unoriginal that [it] could almost be a parody of J-horror tropes.” Why anyone would want to remake a project so played out is anybody’s guess. Are there no fresh ideas in Hollywood at all?
*. The basic idea, and main elements, go back to Ringu. Here again is a creepy little girl wreaking her vengeance from beyond the grave, with the heroine and her boyfriend trying to solve the mystery of some past crime before their time runs out. As in Ringu they think they’ve laid the curse to rest but by now the audience knows much better and there is a violent epilogue where the demon appears looking very, very much like the risen Sadako in the American remake of Ringu, The Ring.
*. Isn’t it rather odd that the one girl, Taylor, is killed on live TV, in front of a number of witnesses, and nothing ever comes of it? I know the lights went out and the video died on them, but still. Everyone was right there.
*. I’m trying hard to think of some reason to recommend this film but I’m coming up with nothing. I’m not sure the story makes any sense, but after a while I stopped trying to figure it out. The notion of viral cellphone-horror is nothing new, and indeed we had been down the J-horror-followed-by-an-American-remake route already with Kairo/Pulse.
*. The subject of child abuse is raised, and I thought this held promise as a sort of emotional virus that would play itself out through violence, but in the end nothing is done with it. Beth’s history of being abused by her mother is simply dropped, while the abuse in the back story turns out to be a false lead. So nothing there.
*. I suppose the most interesting thing about it is just how savage the reviews and public response were. By various analytics this was determined to be one of the very worst films of the decade.
*. Judged on its own, this is hard to justify. It’s a bad movie, but not that bad. What I think lies behind all the ill feeling is just how derivative a film it is. You can only go to the well so often before you get called out on it. By 2008 we were well past the expiry date for a movie like this. Critics and audiences were fed up.


Se7en (1995)


*. Not to keep you in suspense: I don’t like this movie very much.
*. In the first place, it has a very crude and obvious script by Andrew Kevin Walker (who appears in a cameo as the dead guy in the first scene). We can hear something wrong right away. The very first exchange has Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) visiting a murder scene and asking one of the cops on duty if the child of the deceased had been a witness to the murder. For some reason this makes the cop go off on him.
*. Why does the cop snap like this? What are we missing? The cop is upset just because Somerset is showing some humanity? I know that’s a theme that will be returned to, but it’s done so awkwardly right out of the gate that it’s baffling. Usually characters are allowed to develop somewhat, but here they are made to reveal themselves with jarring abruptness. So, first scene: Somerset is someone who cares. This makes him a pariah. He is about to retire. Got it.
*. Then Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) shows up. Somerset asks him “Why here?” to which Mills responds “I don’t follow.” Really? The movie just started and I had no problem understanding the question. But in another few seconds we already have Mills saying he doesn’t want to start off with the two of them kicking each other in the balls. Ah. So that’s it. Conflict. Got it.
*. I’m not even sure the things the characters say make sense. After explaining to the chief that they are dealing with a serial killer Somerset declares that he “can’t get involved in this.” What? What? Somerset, you are involved in this. The fat guy is your case.
*. Or is it? The next time we see the detectives together Mills is working on the gluttony case, apparently alone. What happened?
*. I honestly don’t know if it bothers people that the words coming out of characters’ mouths don’t make any sense, or are seemingly without any motivation. But motivation is something that a lot of writers don’t feel much concerned with these days, which is a point I’ll be getting back to shortly.
*. Leaving aside the matter of dialogue we can take a step up and talk about character. The script’s set-up here is as old as film itself. This is a buddy picture. Cop buddies.
*. One of the cops is old, nearing retirement, and jaded without being cynical. He speaks in a mellow bass and delivers terse, gnomic wisdom about how “So many corpses roll away unavenged.” Yeah. Or, when he gets in a cab and is asked where he’s headed he says “Far away from here.” Cool, man.
*. For what it may be worth, Roger Ebert found Freeman’s lines to be “wise, informed and poetic.”
*. The other cop is young, a hot-head, brash and idealistic. He also can’t seem to keep his hands out of his own hair.
*. The old cop is wine, the younger beer. The old cop lectures the young cop on how they must divorce themselves from their emotions, and the young cop responds that he feeds on his. The old cop plays by the rules, the young cop makes his own. And so it goes. You can write it yourself.
*. David Fincher initially didn’t like the screenplay because it seemed too much like a generic cop buddy picture. I guess he just rolled with it.


*. Going from dialogue to character to plot we reach another level of banality. This isn’t just another buddy picture but another psycho-killer thriller, presumably made more serious by the fact that the killer has a library card and has been inspired by classic depictions of the seven deadly sins. Personally, I don’t think that’s any more advanced than the motivations of the average giallo slasher, but we don’t live in a literate age so such a cheap display of vulgar learning passes for high-brown erudition. In the future, anyone who reads will be accounted a genius.
*. That probably sounds a bit snobby so let me fill it in a bit. In the first place, the script is snobby itself by making Somerset seem like some kind of retired university don as he visits the cavernous empty library to look at actual books, while Mills pronounces the name of de Sade like that of the pop singer (“Sharday”), hasn’t “seen” The Merchant of Venice, and, worst of all, thinks Dante was a “goddamn poetry-rhyming faggot piece of shit.” Of course h doesn’t have a clue what the seven deadly sins are! He’s just a boor. That apparently screenwriter Walker didn’t know what they were either until he began doing his own “research” for the film suggests a certain cultural anxiety.
*. But Somerset, like the killer, has a library card and it’s a place he’s obviously familiar with so this gives him special insight into the crimes. How special? Why, did you see how he found the words GREED and GLUTTONY written by the killer at the crime scene and was able to deduce that the killer was inspired by the seven deadly sins? And he also knows that there will likely be five more murders! Seven minus two! Whoa! I mean . . . that’s some detecting.


*. But perhaps the audience really is as far behind as Mills. Perhaps they don’t read. Or can’t read. When Victor, the sloth victim, is discovered we see the word SLOTH painted in large capitals above his body. Somerset enters and says . . . “Sloth.” That’s an assist for people who, literally, can’t read.
*. The problem with this, to state the obvious, is that Somerset’s vast erudition, and all of those books that he gets out of the library and photocopies, don’t help at all. They aren’t even relevant. For example: as Mills points out after his own bit of research, Dante’s Purgatorio begins with the punishment for the sin of pride. If he’d wanted to pursue the point he could have talked about how pride has always been considered the chief of the seven deadly sins, the one that gives rise to and controls the other six. But Somerset quickly shuts this line of inquiry down, saying that the books were just an inspiration and not a guide.
*. Which means that the books are useless. Mills is better off sticking with his Cliffs Notes. When I first saw this movie (which is when it came out) I’ll admit this pissed me off. I assumed that all the library research was going to pay off in some way and that they would probably learn that pride had to come last. But instead nothing at all is made of the conceit. It’s just a faux-intellectual throwaway.


*. Because everything is so obvious, and John Doe actually wants to get caught, the plot has to work hard to give our detectives something to do, or even just to make it seem as though they’re actually detectives. Did you see how they discovered that the first victim was actually bound hand and foot underneath the table? And the cops didn’t notice that? Hell no, that’s what the dicks are for!
*. This leaves our boys, and the movie, in limbo (that’s in Dante too, by the way). At one point Mills even says that he’s sick of waiting around the precinct doing nothing. “Why sit here rotting till the lunatic does it again?” he barks in frustration. But the script can’t think of anything intelligent for the detectives to do until another body shows up. Unless it’s Somerset’s library idea.
*. Is the library check a stretch? Yes, but a telling one.
*. To begin with, the FBI man puts his neck on the line (“a big risk”) and runs the library check for . . . fifty bucks and whatever Somerset has in his pocket?
*. Then, it’s interesting how Somerset assumes that a well-educated man like the killer doesn’t have basic books like Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy at home but has to sign them out of the library. I mean, he does have a library at home but the only books in it are ones that he’s written. “Just his mind poured out on paper.” A man ahead of his time. Imagine what he could have done with an Internet connection.
*. I’ve already said how nothing Somerset learns from his books is of any use in solving the crime. What is of use? Data mining library records. There’s a moral to that story.
*. Of all the books to give the killer away, the one Somerset picks out is by Thomas Aquinas. Because Aquinas wrote something about the seven deadly sins. Whatever.


*. But enough about the script. If there’s one thing Se7en gets a lot of praise for it’s its look. As with the writing, however, I found this to be mostly conventional and crude.
*. It is always raining. Fine. Just outside the city it’s a desert, but I’ll suspend disbelief.
*. The look is neo-noir. I suppose it’s the present day, but it looks like the 1940s. Think Blade Runner. And that’s not as big a leap as it may seem. Sure Blade Runner was neo-noir set in a futuristic landscape, but look at some of the interiors here, in particular the library and the locker-room at the police station, and ask yourself if they wouldn’t fit right into Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles 2019.
*. I liked the set designs, though they are unoriginal, too dark, and too much alike. Is every apartment in town such a shithole except for the uber-rich ones owned by the lawyer and the model? And why the hell is it so dark? The cops are always using flashlights even in the daylight. Perhaps nobody in these shitty apartments is paying the electric bill, but in the police chief’s office he has the blinds open on the big windows behind his desk but has no less than three lights turned on. And it’s still dark!
*. One thing that stands out is the neon cross hanging over John Doe’s bed. That seems way too kitschy for the refined, intellectual killer. He may be crazy, but he has better taste than that.
*. As for John Doe’s motivation, that’s another throwaway. He’s preaching, Somerset tells us, “his murders are sermons.” How disappointing this is.


*. Kevin Spacey is a fine actor, but he’s wasted here despite being given a substantial amount of screen time to do his thing at the end of the movie. Why is he disappointing? Because clearly this movie is the son of The Silence of the Lambs. Even Howard Shore’s score, which I like, is effective mainly because it sounds so much like a retooled version of the work he did on that film. Because what would inspire him to do anything different?
*. But compare Hannibal Lector to John Doe. Lector is charismatic, intelligent, and most of all interesting. We hang on his every word. Doe is a cliché, a somewhat prissy religious nut who has nothing at all interesting to say or tell us. I see this inability to imagine an original or interesting villain to be yet another failure of the script.
*. I also though this a case of a movie having its cake and eating it too. It has something to mutter about fighting the good fight for decency, but revels in grotesque cruelty. We feel no sympathy for Doe’s victims, who are in the end only stage dressing. Even Gwyneth Paltrow spends most of the movie looking like someone who needs to be put out of her misery.
*. I’m not saying Se7en is a terrible movie. It’s slickly directed and has a better pace than most of Fincher’s later work. The opening credits set a standard (for good or ill) that would be often imitated. I really like the chase scene. But these are just the trimmings. The story and the look are both clichéd and the whole thing seems like a lot of heavy breathing over nothing. It isn’t a thriller or a mystery but just something to be endured. That it was so well received, by critics and audiences alike, says something about what our expectations had become for this kind of a movie. Despite all of its nods to high culture it asks nothing of us but a very simple gut reaction. It manages this much, but let’s not kid ourselves about how low a bar has been set.


The Hand (1981)


*. Let’s face it, if you’re interested in seeing this movie today it’s because of two names in the credits: Oliver Stone and Michael Caine.
*. Caine hands in a professional performance, despite playing a psycho with Gene Wilder hair. He was, by his own admission, simply in it to get a paycheque so he could make a down payment on a new garage he was having built. Which is weird because (a) that must have been some garage; and (b) I didn’t think Caine drove. At least I remember some discussion on the commentary for Get Carter about how he couldn’t drive and those scenes had to be fudged.
*. Which brings us to Oliver Stone, whose first studio feature this was. He had already won an Academy Award (for writing Midnight Express) and had written the screenplays for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. It’s hard to see what attracted him to this project aside from the chance to make a big commercial score. 1981 was the year of the slasher film and studios were seeing huge returns on minimal investments. If that was the plan, however, it failed miserably. The Hand bombed and probably set Stone’s career back a couple of years.
*. As usual with Stone, there’s a lot of casual misogyny. Here, however, much of it came from the source, a novel by Marc Brandel written as Brandel was apparently coming out of a messy divorce. And so we have Anne (Andrea Marcovicci), one of the most unlikeable film wives of all time. She wants a divorce and is, as you might guess, totally unreasonable about it. She spends a lot of time whining to her soon-to-be-ex-husband about what “we’re” going to do for money but never suggests getting a job herself or scaling back her lifestyle. She’d rather indulge in the faux spirituality of the “Me generation” that Stone heartily despises, doing yoga with a fey-looking instructor who we can be sure “understands” her and reading Carlos Castaneda (Stone: “I met him, he wrote some great stuff, took us to the edge of consciousness in our generation”). At one point she even tells Caine that it’s none of his business if she’s fucking somebody else on the side. This while they’re still married and he’s supporting her!
*. Anne is, in short, a ball-breaking modern bitch. This is the symbolism of the hand, the loss of which is a kind of castration. The artist can no longer draw his popular Mandro (get it?) comic strip. The young gun hired to keep Mandro going is “cutting the balls off Superman.” The hand, an unrestrained id, will have its revenge.


*. That’s Mara Hobel playing the daughter Lizzie. You may recognize her from having played the young Christina in Mommie Dearest (released the same year as this film). For some reason, on the commentary Stone twice refers to Hobel as having been in Annie, which came out the next year and which I don’t think she was in.
*. I like James Horner’s clanging score. Stone thought it “a very large and bold score a la Bernard Hermann” but didn’t think it succeeded. I think large and bold was just what the film needed. They could have used more of it. Why underplay such a preposterous premise?
*. The basic problem, which Stone was conscious of, was “How do you make a small thing scary?” A hand jumping on people and strangling them recalls nothing so much as the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s laughable. And indeed in Evil Dead 2 the possessed hand was played for laughs. Looking back on the results achieved here, Stone comments that there were too many shots of the hand and “less could have been more.” Nevertheless, the studio wanted more scary stuff and he had to go back and add scenes at their insistence.
*. How do you make a small thing scary? I don’t think it’s impossible. There have been lots of scary spiders, ants, and parasites in horror movies. I think the key has to be to exploit our sense of where we are vulnerable to such threats. For what it’s worth, Stone says on the commentary that the question was answered by “Chucky and the doll,” which is presumably a reference to Child’s Play.
*. Why does the hand kill the bum (Stone himself in a cameo)? Or does it? I don’t know.
*. In 1981 yoga was in decline. Think middle-aged women in black leotards. It was a workout for moms. It’s amazing how it managed to re-invent itself into something sexy in the twenty-first century. I think it probably had something to do with all the new gear.
*. I can’t see any point in switching to black-and-white. It doesn’t (always) signal a fantasy or that something violent is about to happen. Later in his career Stone would switch to black-and-white and other types of film just to set up a jumpy visual rhythm, but that’s not the case here.
*. It probably shouldn’t bother me so much, but it’s obvious that Caine is just wearing a sock over his hand in the scenes where he isn’t shown with a prosthesis, You can tell because his arms are still both the same length.


*. The ending is ridiculous. Stone likens it to the end of JFK, where Costner presents his case. I wonder if that means he thought Garrison was mad too. In any event, the real comparison is to the coda at the end of Psycho, where the psychiatrist is brought in to explain what’s been happening and what’s wrong with Norman Bates. It probably wasn’t necessary in Psycho, and it’s certainly overdone here. This is, however, a problem that all psycho-thrillers have to deal with. How much explanation is really necessary? How much is too much? Whatever the answer, I think it’s best to do it quick and get it over with. Here it goes on much too long, and still manages to avoid any sense of closure.


The Babadook (2014)


*. Tales From the Hood was a 1995 horror anthology film where the conceit, as you can probably guess from the title, was to present a bunch of Tales from the Crypt-style stories from an urban black perspective. The second story, “Boys Do Get Bruised,” was about a boy whose teacher sees him showing up for school with signs of physical abuse. The boy claims he is being attacked by a “monster” that turns out to be his mother’s boyfriend. At the end the monster is destroyed when the boy takes a picture he’s drawn of it and destroys it.
*. I begin with this because The Babadook is pretty much a revisiting of this same theme except from a single mother’s perspective, and I don’t think it’s that complicated in going about it. For some reason, however, it’s a movie that has attracted a lot of discussion over its meaning.
*. For example, I often hear it said that the Babadook monster is a “metaphor” for grief. I don’t buy it. I don’t see how the movie is about grief or the grieving process at all. This seems to be one of those lines that gets picked up and then repeated endlessly in the echo chamber of the Internet until it becomes a kind of conventional wisdom.
*. No, the Babadook is Amelia. I can’t see how that could be made any clearer. Even in interviews, writer-director Jennifer Kent has said that what she wanted to show was the real struggle that parents have in “facing the darkness in ourselves.”
*. In brief, Amelia is stressed out: struggling to cope, anxious about being a bad mommy and putting her son at risk, not getting enough personal time to take care of business, and constantly running on no sleep. So she has a breakdown. Her son Sam notices, and is scared at what she’s turning into. Before long, she’s scaring herself with dark fantasies of what she may be capable of.
*. That’s the basic idea, and I don’t think the reveal comes as any kind of a surprise twist at the end. I can’t say I found it particularly scary either. The Babadook monster doesn’t look or sound that frightening, though its resemblance to young Sam was disconcerting. Nor did I think it was a groundbreaking idea. Aside from the Tales From the Hood episode other obvious influences include films like The Exorcist (with the parent-child roles reversed), Poltergeist, and especially The Shining, with Amelia (who is a writer, after all) getting her Jack Torrance on at the end.
*. Once again, I think my initial response was damaged by the critical hype. If I’d come to this movie cold I might have been impressed more. But given how well received it had been it had higher expectations to meet.
*. I thought Essie Davis was solid as Amelia, and the film as a whole was well-produced with an interesting look. I also think mommy rage is a real thing that we don’t see enough of in popular culture, which still tends to whitewash motherhood. I think Kent sort of lost the strength of her convictions, however, and wound things up with a more feel-good ending, as Amelia’s maternal instincts win out and the id-like forces of unconscious violence and resentment are banished to the basement. This was too pat a way to wrap things up, and makes me question Kent’s determination that there will never be a sequel. She didn’t really close the book.


Gone Girl (2014)


*. The novel, by Gillian Flynn was a sensational bestseller and a movie was more than inevitable. By that I mean it was a novel written in the expectation that it would be turned into a movie, as many novels are these days. In this case the film rights to the book were purchased, and it was effectively in development, even before publication. Flynn would also write the screenplay, which is a very close adaptation with nothing of consequence left out (though I missed Desi’s enabling mom). In his New Yorker review Anthony Lane expresses the wish that it had diverged from the book a little more, especially with the ending, but that was never in the cards.
*. That ending bothered a lot of people. They thought it unlikely that Nick and Amy would be able to get back together. I think this is missing the point. As with the novel, what starts off as a realistic tale of a young couple losing their way in an economic downturn — a downturn that finds them especially vulnerable (they are both writers for heaven’s sake!) — takes a sudden swerve into satire and fantasy in its second half. As David Fincher puts it on the DVD commentary “I maintain that the movie begins as a mystery and then sort of hands off the baton to an absurdist thriller.” By the time we get to the end we’ve gone through the media looking-glass and we’ve left realism far behind, entering a world that is “incredibly hyperbolic” (Fincher).


*. This doesn’t hurt the movie (or the book), and indeed I think it’s probably a big part of why it was such a hit. Realism has never gone over well with movie audiences. Hell, even “reality TV” is an oxymoron. When Tanner Bolt suggests pitching the story of Amy and Nick as a reality TV show he speaks with some authority.
*. Another reason for the film’s success was the way it pushed a lot of political buttons. What most of these connected to is the question of whether or not it’s a feminist film. Is Amy a righteous avenger fighting back against the patriarchy’s image of the “cool girl”? Is she empowered? A fierce representative of “abused, unwanted, inconvenient women” everywhere who was pushed too far? Or is she a homicidal psycho bitch, the reincarnation of Glenn Close’s madwoman in the tub from Fatal Attraction or the toxic psycho bitch from Play Misty for Me? Is Amy a narcissist interested only in being the center of attention and having people love her? You can see how much fun this is.


*. My own reading of Amazing Amy is that she’s a combination of Fincher’s ubiquitous criminal mastermind/puppetmaster (Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in Se7en, Consumer Recreation Services in The Game, the Zodiac Killer in Zodiac, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) and a traditional femme fatale. She has a deadly allure, able to present herself as the vulnerable damsel in distress while in fact being mad, bad, and very dangerous to know.
*. Every femme fatale needs some man she can control and potentially destroy. I don’t know if there’s a generic name for these guys, but they share a certain weakness when it comes to women. Boney recognizes this right away here, identifying Amy as a Type A or alpha female, and Nick as Type B. When we see Nick going down on Amy it’s not just a play to make him seem more likeable to a female audience (which was, according to director David Fincher’s commentary, a concern). Nick knows she comes first.


*. Ben Affleck certainly looks the part. He’s a big, good-looking guy who has gone soft and flabby. But Affleck is a movie star more than he’s an actor, which means he just looks the part. He doesn’t seem to have any sense of how to play Nick aside from looking sleepy. This drains energy from the film, which is something it really doesn’t need.
*. Throughout the movie this sexual role reversal gets played out in different ways. Boney dominates Gilpin, being his superior. Greta bosses redneck Jeff around (“He talked you into this?” “I talked him into it.”) The media is ruled by talk-show queens who threaten to eat Nick alive. This is a woman’s world.
*. Gone Girl is slow. This is not the fault of the script, which is well paced though still overlong given that it’s pretty simple story (the complexity is only in the way it’s arranged). Flynn keeps her story moving. The problem is more with Fincher, whose direction is polished and slick but totally stiff and without any sense of tension or suspense.
*. I mentioned the femme fatale and the schmucky hero and these are both typical figures from the world of noir. At its heart, I think this is a noir picture, but noir was always a B-genre. It’s meant to be snappy, abrupt, and a little rough around the edges. But Fincher is just way too smooth for this. This is a B-movie with A-list production values. It also runs for two and a half hours. Noir films don’t run for two and a half hours.


*. I like the credits coming up as quick fades. The timing really strikes the right note of sudden vanishing.
*. Gone are the days of penmanship. We’ve been reading about it for years now, but I still found it striking to see well-educated (Harvard and Yale) Amy only able to print her journal entries. And yet according to Desi she believes in “the lost art of letter writing.” I guess she printed her letters to him too.
*. I’m glad Fincher points out on the commentary that the lodge Amy stays at is “the Ralph Lauren version of what’s described in the book.” Can we believe white trash Greta staying at such a resort? I found this to be a really false note in the film, with Desi’s lake house being only a slightly less improbable upgrade. He’s rich, but not that rich.
*. It is, however, a mistake that’s representative of what’s wrong with this film. It looks too good.


*. Rosamund Pike is very good as Amy, meaning that she’s a convincing psychopath, but in the end I’m not sure how fascinating a character she is. I think great villains should enjoy being bad a little more.
*. I’ve already said my piece on Affleck. Neil Patrick Harris seems a bit lost at sea in trying to interpret who Desi is. But the rest of the supporting cast is great. Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens in particular are very well cast, and Tyler Perry is a gust of fresh air. That these “ordinary folk” should be stealing every scene they’re in with the two leads is, however, another problem the film has. Amy and Nick just aren’t very charismatic or believable figures.
*. There’s a lot to like here. Even stuff I haven’t mentioned, like the psycho score. But I still found it left me cold. Gone Girl looks great and is professionally handled, but in the end it’s a trashy tabloid sort of picture and doesn’t need a professional look. The swerve into craziness at the end also drains it of emotional resonance. I feel like it should be saying something about relationships between men and women, but how much can be extrapolated from this singularly “fucked up” couple? I mentioned Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction earlier and these are both movies that I can return to. Gone Girl may be considered by many to be a better film, but I wouldn’t share that opinion. I think it’s just more contemporary. And I don’t care if I ever see it again.


Disclosure (1994)


*. I know I shouldn’t laugh. Morally, Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) is doing the right thing, defending his virtue from a sexual predator. And it’s true that sexual harassment goes both ways. It’s a tale as old as Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, after all.
*. But then you see fifty-year-old Michael Douglas, who, to his credit, has been working out and still sports a magnificent coiffure, with thirty-two-year-old Demi Fucking Moore, all stripper body and lingerie. She does the grind on him and he can only mutter “no, no, no, no, no!” to resist. And it happens. You get the giggles. This really is ridiculous.
*. What is even more surprising, however, is that their failed tryst is not the most absurd plot point in Disclosure. Nothing about this movie makes any sense. Not the big things (why are they going after Tom in the first place, and why bother with the sexual harassment angle?) and not the little ones (who the hell is Levin anyway?).
*. Poor Michael Douglas. He does know how to pick ’em, doesn’t he? From Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and Demi Moore here. You’d think he’d learn.
*. On a less sarcastic note: what is it about Douglas that made him so representative of threatened masculinity in this period? Was he too good-looking for his own good? Were his female co-stars too sexy for theirs? How tragically ironic that after all this he would be diagnosed with throat cancer, which he publicly blamed on cunnilingus. Truth had symbolically imitated the worst nightmares of his screen infidelities.


*. Any film from this time dealing with computers was doomed to feel dated in a matter of months. But over twenty years later, I think Disclosure holds up reasonably well in this regard. Sure, the tech company, whose main product is a great new stand-alone CD-ROM player, is laughable, but back in the day, before the cloud, such things really were all the rage.
*. The point of the “Corridor,” however, mystified even contemporary reviewers. Why don VR gloves and a visor just to navigate a file system? Surely the funniest part of the movie is when the group of executives at the Four Seasons all rush back up to their room so they can play with it some more. Forget about the hookers and blow, let’s go for a walk down an empty corridor and pull out file folders!


*. The frank language probably seemed bold in a mainstream movie in the mid-’90s. Today I think we roll our eyes at the use of the word “penis”. As Chris Rock might have said (and this right around the same time): What are they, doctors?
*. I feel sorry for Demi Moore. Meredith is a character who isn’t even interesting as a two-dimensional villain. I want to believe that she’ll be back to buy out Digicom sometime in the future. Maybe that’s who she is in Margin Call, a film that gave her a chance to play a corporate executive straight, and which turned out to be a role she shone in.
*. And isn’t Tom a heel? Did he really have to throw that gratuitous insult at Meredith about how she could go fuck herself with her wine bottles? He deserved to get raked over the coals for that.
*. The issues remain of concern, but even at the time this movie made them seem lightweight. Indeed half-way through the movie the whole sexual harassment storyline is dumped and it turns into a dull and unbelievable corporate thriller. Time and again kinks in the plot have to be cut with quick-fix solutions (and not, I might add, through the assistance of the singularly unhelpful emails Tom receives from “a friend”).
*. Michael Crichton was an idea man with an almost unerring commercial instinct. I think that his intelligence and instinct helped cover up the fact that he was terrible at plotting and character. This made him a great writer of novels and screenplays that weren’t quite for grown-ups, and barely even for young adults. Maybe that’s why Disclosure seems to want to get away from its flirtation with sex and talk of penises. That stuff is for a more mature demographic. Crichton’s real audience are those man-boys in the hotel lobby who can’t wait to go upstairs and play with their cool new videogame console. That’s way more fun, not to mention safer, than messing around with dirty girls.


Single White Female (1992)

*. I feel I should like this movie more. I like Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh a lot, and they are both really good here. And while the story doesn’t break a lot of new ground, it is at least a tested formula.
*. Perhaps my problem with it is that the formula is too tested. Where there are no surprises there is little room for suspense. We all know there’s something wrong with Hedy from the get-go, and we all know exactly how this arrangement is going to play out.
*. In addition to the predictability there is the flat, I might almost say lifeless, direction of Barbet Schroeder. For a psychological thriller film there is a surprising absence of style. There are no set-piece suspense sequences and little imagination in the use of the setting. Instead, it seems as staid as a filmed play on a restricted set with a small cast of characters.
*. What saves it, and makes it a movie worth returning to, are the two leads, who manage to be riveting even underneath their ginger muffin-top haircuts. Bridget Fonda is a very hard actress to steal a scene from, and yet Leigh does so with a performance full of quiet, nervous intensity. She never lets Hedy get out of control, and even at the very end we have the sense that she’s more depressed about the turn things have taken than she is angry.
*. As just one example, I love the scene where she considers Steven Weber’s body after driving her spike heel into his head. It reminded me of Michael Myers tilting his head to inspect his handiwork in Halloween, both dissociated and childlike.


*. Why are literary females so threatening? Alex in Fatal Attraction works in publishing and has piles of books beside her bed. Annie in Misery is at least a dedicated reader. Hedy here works in a bookstore. Both Amy in Gone Girl and Amelia in The Babadook are (or were) professional writers. Coincidence? Or is there something about bluestockings that men find slightly sinister?
*. Hedy has a back story that makes her a more sympathetic character, which is rare for a film like this. Evelyn in Play Misty for Me and Alex in Fatal Attraction pointedly come out of nowhere. In the novel Misery Annie Wilkes has a very developed history that we get less of in the film.
*. Here, however, we do learn a little bit about Hedy and what makes her tick. Thank heavens all these crazy women keep personal scrapbooks! But there’s a fine line to walk at the end of such films as to how much psychologizing you want to throw at the audience. I see it as being the legacy of the shrink at the end of Psycho who comes on to tell us what was wrong with Norman Bates. That scene is judged by most people to have been a mistake and I think ever since filmmakers have been wary about trying to explain evil. Is there an underlying suspicion here about the truths of psychology and the effects of trauma? I think there is.
*. That orange hair. I can’t stop hating it. You have to work hard, I mean work really hard, to make Bridget Fonda look bad. But here we are. I guess they were trying to go for something distinctive so that Hedy’s makeover will be even more obvious, but if that was the reasoning I think it was a garish mistake.
*. Something seems off in either the editing or the choreography of Hedy’s attacks. There’s too much time in her wind-ups, so that you’d think her victims could quite easily either duck or block what she’s throwing at them.
*. Annie’s apartment is in the Ansonia building, which was originally a residential hotel built in 1899. Now it’s luxury condos, naturally, and it likely costs a small fortune to live there.
*. I’ve seen this one labeled as an “erotic thriller” but despite lots of nudity and some fooling around in bed it doesn’t feel at like a sexy film. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, or even if it was a conscious decision.
*. All in all it’s a good little film that never realizes its full potential. Fonda and Leigh are great, as usual, but it’s a conventional thriller with little else to recommend it.