Monthly Archives: August 2016

Night Key (1937)

nightkey1

*. This is a short (68 minute) and cheap Boris Karloff vehicle from Universal that went over budget and over schedule but still seems rushed.
*. What I mean is that there are a lot of elements, some of them quite interesting, that are never developed or which seem superfluous.
*. A good example is the business of driving the getaway car up a ramp into the back of a moving van. This is clever (and will make modern audiences think of the end of The Italian Job), but it doesn’t serve any function in the plot. As it stands, there was no need for the bad guys to use such a trick since they were already getting away. Indeed, it almost gets them into trouble as the moving van nearly backs into a pursuing police car.
*. Many other parts of the story have the same feel of being introduced only to be thrown away. Is there any point to Mallory going blind? Not much, and it makes certain scenes very awkward. Or take as another example how Mallory is shown at the beginning using his new invention, which seems to be an early photo-electric beam system. This never plays any role in the story aside from being something he wants Ranger to adopt.
*. Perhaps oddest of all is the treatment of Ranger. He’s a corporate villain, every bit the low-down thief that the Kid is and just as unscrupulous and double-dealing, but in the end he isn’t punished in the slightest. Indeed, he becomes the benevolent capitalist who is able to make everything right just with his money. Along the way his crooked lawyer is simply dropped. Yes it’s nice that Jim and Joan have happily paired off in the back of the cab, but there seems to be a serious imbalance in the moral ledger when the most powerful bad guys never receive their comeuppance.
*. Night Key is often referred to as a science-fiction crime film, which was an odd genre mix at the time. The science is, however, sensibly rendered and it gives the movie its one spark (I was actually quite interested in the explanation for how the “key” works) . There’s also a foreshadowing of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Mallory’s adoption of Petty Louie (“Yeah! Science!”). Of course Mallory doesn’t really break bad, but there’s always that ambiguity in the uses science can be put to. What it creates can also be used to destroy.
*. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie though is the way the Ranger Security Company has supplanted the police. As Jim Travers acknowledges, Ranger Security really can’t just barge into Joan’s apartment without a warrant, but for them that’s not an issue. They are the law. The whole city is plugged into their surveillance system, and when the system fails there is no other authority to fall back on. It’s up to Mallory and Jim to shut the gang down, as poor dumb Louie takes the most casual bullet-to-the-back every filmed.
*. This is where the failure to balance the moral ledger is most worrisome. Who will watch the watchmen? Ranger Security’s board of directors? Will Mallory ever get that eye operation now, or will he just go blind?

nightkey2

Advertisements

Poltergeist (2015)

poltergeist21

*. This is a remake that was panned by critics and faded quickly at the box office. I think this was mostly because the original Poltergeist had become such a fondly remembered favourite that a remake was seen as at best unnecessary and at worst a kind of sacrilege.
*. Since I thought the original Poltergeist was a godawful piece of garbage, with nothing at all to redeem it, I came to this film without the same bias. In fact, I thought a remake was a project with a lot of potential. If nothing else, the special effects would be improved.
*. Well, the special effects are improved. I particularly liked the simple effect of the hands pressed up against the inside of the TV set. Aside from that, however, this movie is too faithful to the original to be any good. I liked it better, but only because I hated the original so much.
*. I wonder if anyone (writer, director, anyone) thought to ask the obvious question of how two unemployed parents of three children, with maxed-out credit cards, could buy a house. Yes, they’re apparently relocating to a less desirable neighbourhood, but it still looks like it would be out of their range. Meanwhile all the writers had to do was introduce a line about a severance package or inheritance or something like that to clear the matter up. But instead it’s left in the air. A new house is just another expense the family can’t afford, like a cellphone or drone.
*. One hopes they at least had insurance, though I’d like to know what the claim was for. Gas explosion? In any event, it seems to have paid out as the Bowens are house-shopping again right away. Good luck finding a place without a closet though.

poltergeist22

*. Why did they make the creepy clown doll such a big part of the advertising campaign when it only appears for a few seconds, less screen time even than in the original?
*. The paranormal researchers are a little more believable, though I still found myself asking how they knew so much about what was going on. “I’m fairly certain Maddie can hear us better than we can hear her,” Dr. Powell says. Really? Based on what, exactly? Personal experience?
*. I laughed out loud when they attached the rescue rope to a tiny screw stuck into the drywall. Yeah. That’s really going to hold.
*. The DVD comes with the dreaded “alternate ending.” As I’ve said before, if you have more than one ending then you don’t have an ending. Here I’m not sure what was going on with the husband-and-wife team reunited on TV. I guess he survived.
*. Judged on its own this isn’t a bad little movie. It’s not very scary or violent, but this too is in keeping with the spirit of the original, which was a very Disney horror film. Indeed, if anything this movie is gentler. We don’t see anyone tearing their face off or maggots crawling over food.
*. The big problem a movie like this has is something that’s not its fault. The haunted house movie has evolved a lot since the ’80s, mainly as a reaction to the success of Paranormal Activity. In comparison to that franchise (and its clones) Poltergeist seems tame and uninspired. Instead of a remake it’s a throwback, which was unnecessary and, in the event, unwanted.

poltergeist23

Poltergeist (1982)

poltergeist1

*. I did not like this movie at all in 1982. Seeing it again over thirty years later I liked it a lot less.
*. That doesn’t put it strongly enough. This is a terrible movie: a total failure in every department that is often comically bad. How anyone can claim to like it today is beyond me, and yet it continues to be quite highly rated.
*. Controversy still surrounds who was responsible. Tobe Hooper got the directing credit but it seems to have been a Spielberg film all the way through (he wrote and produced it and apparently was in charge on set). It certainly looks like a Spielberg movie, and not a bit like anything Hooper might have done.
*. We begin in suburban Spielberg, U.S.A., where life is the usual lovable domestic chaos. Rascally kids playing with their toys. Bickering neighbours. Could anything bad ever happen here? Yes, this is supposed to be a scary movie and we can be sure we’re about to hear things going bump in the night, but as Kim Newman observes, “Poltergeist may be the only successful, non-spoof horror film in which nobody gets killed.”
*. In fact, not only does no one get killed, no one even gets hurt. The worst thing that happens to people is that they get “slimed” like the kids on the children’s TV program You Can’t Do That on Television. That’s the Disney level of horror we’re at.
*. Apparently Spielberg borrowed from his own childhood fears when writing the script. He was afraid of trees at his window and scary-looking dolls. Which just goes to show that even as a child he had no imagination.
*. I think Oliver Robins as Robbie may be the most irritating child performance I have ever had to watch. He is either in adorable-tyke mode (reading his comic books in bed, sleeping with his baseball cap on, teasing his older sister at the breakfast table) or else screaming, screaming, screaming for his mommy. I wanted to see him die a horrible death.
*. But then all of the acting is bad. Just look at the way the Mr. and Mrs. Freeling cast meaningful glances at each other when Tangina tells them about the perils they must face to save their daughter. It’s like watching a high-school drama class.
*. The script is abysmal. Listen to the scene where Beatrice Straight’s Dr. Lesh (a psychologist who apparently knows everything about what happens to us after we die) tries to explain death and the (non-denominational) afterlife to Robbie. Why, he ‘members when his grandpa died, and he didn’t see no soul! And . . . and . . . he knows ghosts can be mean because he got beat up in school once and the bullies took his lunch money! But not to worry chil’, because “Some people believe that when people die, there’s a wonderful light, As bright as the sun. But it doesn’t hurt to look into it. All the answers to all the questions that you ever want to know are inside that light. And when you walk to it, you become a part of it forever.”
*. It got to the point where I was just laughing and screaming along with the characters. “Mommy!” “Don’t hurt my babies!” “You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why?! Why?!?!” And perhaps my favourite, Dana arriving just in time to see the house disintegrating and screaming out “What’s happening?!?! Daddy!!”
*. What else is crap? Everything. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is way too big and played too loud. The special effects look like shit: cheap animation, lots of flashing lights, and a ridiculous scene of a fake plastic face being torn apart.

poltergeist2

*. I felt so completely disenchanted I began wondering about irrelevant story points. Like how, if Diane is 32, she has a daughter who is 16 (and in fact the actress playing the daughter, Dominique Dunne, was 22, only 11 years younger than JoBeth Williams). I mean, sure it’s possible, but still a bit surprising. I also wondered (another idle musing) if young people today know what’s going on when they see a television station signing off for the night. Are there stations that still sign off for the night? Or why, in such a huge house owned by such an affluent family, the two youngest kids share a room. And a boy and a girl at that! That seemed really weird to me. Or, finally, if your clown doll freaks you out that much, why would you set it up at the foot of your bed and not stick it in the fucking closet?
*. It just goes on and on, without making any sense at all or being convincing for a minute. They put in the foundations for that whole development without disturbing any of the graves? Why is the Freeling home the only one affected? Do the ghosts count for anything, or is the Beast calling all the shots?
*. As I say, I just had to laugh. Look at how awkwardly JoBeth Williams falls into the hole that’s been dug out for the swimming pool and then has to roll herself down into the water. It isn’t a bit convincing. And then she has to roll all the way back down again when she fails to climb out!
*. Throw in the usual clichés (the guy who doesn’t realize the danger he’s in because he’s listening to music with headphones on; the guy who fumbles with his car keys when he’s trying to get away) and you just have an appalling piece of filmmaking. As I say, terrible in every department. Just a year earlier a much better movie, The Entity, had been made out of similar material. It’s still a movie that has the power to shock. Poltergeist is only good for a laugh.

poltergeist3

These Are the Damned (1962)

thedamned1

*. This film is a real curiosity. I don’t think it’s very good, and in some ways it’s very bad, but it is interesting.
*. The parts don’t really add up, and the overriding sense is of everything being a bit out of place, like the Canadian actor Alexander Knox’s heavy Scottish burr. I wonder why, for example, we’re in beautiful Weymouth. It seems like such an inappropriate location for a top secret government facility.
*. Then there are the Teddy Boys (a British term for types like the gang of rockers led by Oliver Reed). What role do they play in all this, functional or thematic?
*. You have to struggle to make a connection between the biker gang and the radioactive kids, though people have tried. Do they both represent youth at risk? A lost generation?
*. I’ve also heard it argued that the gang are like the scientists in some way. Glenn Erickson: “as in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange the hooligan motorcycle gang is simply a mirror image of the institutionalized brutality of society at large. The Teddy Boys’ outlaw disenchantment is a direct reaction to the warped values of the adult generation.” Really? That seems like a big stretch to me.
*. I wish the Teddy Boys had been left out. The “Black Leather” song they march to makes them seem like the Jets from West Side Story. And then there’s poor Oliver Reed. This was one of his earlier appearances on film and he already seems so out of sorts.
*. I’m not sure what’s going on between King (Reed) and his sister Joan. The studios thought the script was hinting too much at incest, but I don’t really see any of that. Joan’s accusation that King is still a virgin came as a shock, but I guess the strained psychological point is that he’s impotent and so doesn’t want anyone to “have” his sister. If that makes any sense, or really has anything to do with the rest of the movie.
*. Then again, I’m not sure what’s going on between Joan and Simon either. They seem to fall in love rather quickly, especially for a May-December romance.
*. Then, just to keep this ball rolling, we might ask what’s going on between Bernard and Freya. Is she a kept woman? Are they lovers, at least until she becomes expendable?
*. Was radioactivity not that well understood in 1962? Why would the children have no body heat? Shouldn’t they be showing some sign of sickness? At least they aren’t given super powers.
*. I know it’s silly to nitpick about such things, but how practical is the idea of selecting nine children to be the breeding stock for a new race, and then raise them in an underground bunker and teach them things like poetry? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have set up an above-ground compound somewhere and taught them how to be farmers?
*. The script is filled with the kind of talkiness that became the Hammer house style after they finished strip mining Universal’s monster franchises. Everyone is so earnest and dramatic. By the time we get to the end and Bernard is saying things like “My children are the buried seeds of life” it just seems commonplace, of a piece with all that has gone before.
*. I don’t like this movie. The gang stuff doesn’t work, the romantic relationship(s) are all creepy, and it’s wildly overwritten. Some people see it as a landmark work, unjustly forgotten today, but I don’t think it holds a candle to earlier Hammer SF efforts like the Quatermass movies.
*. The ending, however, does manage to redeem it somewhat. It’s incredibly bleak, with the military helicopters hovering over the demise of all our heroes and the pleading voices of the children begging for help playing against shots of Weymouth’s smiling esplanade. It’s striking to think that in 1962 this is what some imagined the last best hope of humanity might look like (and note that Bernard is not presented to us as a bad man).
*. Then again, have we any reason to be more optimistic today? The waters are rising at Weymouth and people are still having a good time.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

1000corpses4

*. It would be easier, and perhaps more charitable, if I just said this is a terrible, terrible movie and leave it at that.
*. But I won’t. Why not? Because I don’t want to do that for every bad movie I see, and because this movie has a particular claim to our attention in being the directorial debut of Rob Zombie.
*. I give Zombie credit for at least one thing: he does have a distinctive style. You can’t really mistake a Rob Zombie movie for anything else but.
*. That said, it’s a style that’s a hyperkinetic pastiche of other styles, most notably that of the music video. It’s not a style that’s much use for storytelling, but proceeds by way of rapid cuts and sudden shifts between different types of film speed, colour, exposure, and texture. There may be a rationale for some of this (Zombie says the rock-video interruptions are meant to be visions of what’s inside various characters’ heads), but mostly it seems random, and even includes footage Zombie shot while on tour.
*. The typical Zombie plot is also entirely derivative, being a bunch of bits and pieces adapted from the horror canon. I suppose the most obvious influence here is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with the gruesome backwoods family torturing the dumb kids who take a detour off the main road. I’ve never seen a horror movie about hillbilly, redneck killers tormenting middle-class city kids before.

1000corpses1

*. And yet for all its heightening of Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s look (the crude-but-effective sets from the earlier film are turned into something almost operatic here), it’s decidedly less shocking or disturbing. It’s not even that gory, when you get down to it. Instead of the matter-of-fact unpleasantness offered up by Tobe Hooper, what Zombie delivers is manic, even hysterical action.
*. Not being scary is one thing, but the degenerate family here are downright annoying. Sherrie Moon’s giggling and the hammy overacting of Sid Haig and Bill Moseley all get old really fast.
*. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Zombie just doesn’t give a damn about the murder and mayhem he’s dishing out. He doesn’t seem invested in it at all. Listening to the DVD commentary, one starts to feel that he’s motivated less by how well a scene will work than how “hilarious” or “cool” it seemed on the day of shooting.
*. Another thing that struck me while listening to the DVD commentary is how improvised it all was. Apparently the whole Dr. Satan angle was going to be a hoax, some elements were simply added on a whim (the cheerleaders, for example), and a whole sub-plot about a Skunk Ape creature was dropped, leaving residual references to it floating in the music-video ether. Making a movie in this way plays havoc with any sense of structure.
*. But does Zombie care about structure, suspense, or characters? I don’t think so. The characters, for example, are either victims or grotesque caricatures of juvenile evil. Tiny is a hulking giant. Otis is an addled artist. Poor Karen Black is all make-up and tits. Baby just wants to “have sex with dead bodies and dance around” and likes “to get fucked up and do fucked up shit.” How interesting is any of this?
*. The only thing I really enjoyed was listening to Zombie’s commentary over the end credits where he muses aloud about who all these people were and what they did. Now that was funny.

1000corpses2

*. I guess someone finds it interesting, as I can’t explain Zombie making a career out of doing the same shtick for so long without finding an audience. My guess is that the people who like it are younger than I am.
*. So while I’ll admit Zombie does have an enthusiastic fan base, for the life of me I can’t see what they find in his movies that they think is worthwhile. His movies aren’t original. They’re not disgusting. They’re not scary. They’re not witty or funny. Are we supposed to laugh at the random obscenities that the characters bark at each other? They’re no funnier than the crude slogans on the novelty t-shirts that everybody’s wearing.
*. In summary, the best I can say for Zombie’s work is that it has a reckless energy to it, though it isn’t put to any end other than to be hilarious and cool.
*. But when a horror film is only a self-indulgent quest for hilarity and coolness it loses its edge. Great horror-comedies have to hold a real threat in reserve: the laughter comes partly as nervous release from the ratcheting up of suspense or our investment in the characters and what will happen to them. If the genre is just being sent up as a manic joke then the film never develops any traction or has any weight. Hysteria follows from exhaustion. Even irony has its limits.

1000corpses3

The Way to Shadow Garden (1954)

thewaytoshadowgarden1

*. A film by “Brakhage.” If you have to ask his first name, he isn’t going to tell you. And he was only twenty years old!
*. This was made a year after Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection, and while I don’t think the two films are all that similar they are related in some interesting ways. Both movies, for example, deal with characters who become unhinged for no apparent reason before walking off into a forest/garden.
*. In both films we end on a sinister note. In Unglassed Windows the two women are absorbed into foliage, almost as though being swallowed up. In this film it seems significant to me that the negative technique used to film the garden doesn’t represent the man’s own point of view but that of the camera looking at him. He’s the one being hunted.
*. From the days of Oedipus, attacking your own eyes has been a way of showing that you’ve seen too much. It’s an effort at un-seeing. What it means here, however, is more ambiguous.

thewaytoshadowgarden2

*. Already we can see Brakhage finding his own film language. What he did using minimal camera movement within a mostly static composition was amazing. There are shots that seem to pulse with a life deeper than the frame. The man’s silhouette writhing in the doorway is a good example, though even this is an overstated moment by Brakhage’s standards. He is a director of profound subtlety.
*. That said, I don’t find this a very interesting film. Brakhage clearly was losing interest in telling a story and seems mainly to have just wanted to try out different effects. Some of these are actually pretty good (all things considered). I like the way the camera seems to pass through a cloud of smoke, for example. But in the end any attempt at understanding the film is frustrated by the lack of information we’re given. A mood is evoked, some tricks are played, but it doesn’t add up to very much.

thewaytoshadowgarden3

Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953)

unglassedwindows1

*. I can’t help you with what the title refers to. Sorry. “Unglassed” isn’t a word you hear every day, but I don’t know if its use here is significant of anything.
*. Stan Brakhage was an influential American experimental filmmaker known for his many short films, composed over a long career. This one is an early work with an actual narrative and it isn’t very well known. You won’t even find much information, much less discussion of it, online.
*. The story has a group of six young people (four men, two women) out for a drive. Their car breaks down and five of them head off to investigate an abandoned mine (the sixth person, the car’s driver, goes for help). Two of the men jealously confront each other over one of the women. They get in a fight and one is killed and the other seems to commit suicide. The other man, a reader who is always carrying a book around, heads off on his own. Then the two women walk into the forest.
*. There is no audio (though you can watch a version with a musical accompaniment). The acting has the large mannerism of silent film, which would normally seem out of place but work here, perhaps because of the empty space we’re in.

unglassedwindows2

*. That sense of emptiness, or isolation, is a theme throughout the film. We begin with shots of the mine that have the buttressed geometry of Sheeler’s (post)industrial visions. Then, even within the closed confines of the car, the six people, with the exception of the two lovebirds, appear withdrawn into themselves. The reader reads. The other woman is doing needlework. The jealous man observes the couple. The driver drives, his eyes on the road. They are together alone.
*. It’s worth watching the movie with no audio just to enhance this effect. We can see the characters arguing with each other but it’s like they’re on the surface of the moon, with no atmosphere to carry sound waves and thus totally cut off from one another.
*. I wonder what the book is that the one fellow is reading. I can’t make it out, but it seems like it might, or should, be relevant.
*. The abandoned mine is a location that recalls the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India. They are empty but operate as a kind of echo chamber for all of the sexual tension. The woman-in-the-middle is the one who wants to visit the mine, but she is also the one who becomes most discombobulated when she gets there.
*. Once she starts wandering around, the mine starts to seem a very threatening place. A bright blade of a board with nails sticking out of it is foregrounded in one shot, seeming to be pointed at her like a knife. A broken window frame lying on the ground is like a trap she’s afraid to step in. The machinery starts to spin. This place is dangerous. They probably shouldn’t be walking around such a site without wearing safety boots and hardhats.

unglassedwindows3

*. Finally, the woman breaks down and screams. Why? Why does Adela scream in the Marabar Caves? It’s a question without an answer, like what happens to the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock (to take another example). Obviously (as in both those other cases) it has a sexual significance, but beyond that we’re guessing.
*. The violence that follows is almost perfunctory, as though the two jealous lovers know their fate already and just have to play out the string. And then something magical happens that lets us know we’re really in the hands of a filmmaker who is an artist. The two women walk away from us, literally disappearing into the forest.  Tellingly, they go in different directions, moving away from each other as well as the camera. That feeling of separation and isolation we began with is reaffirmed, and we end as we began in a deserted space.
*. I find it a haunting and suggestive film, its sense of closure provided by an evocative persistence of vision. It’s an origin myth for a ghost story. You can bet that the driver isn’t going to find anybody when he comes back. They will have all become shades.

unglassedwindows4

Hellmouth (2014)

hellmouth1

*. This is a film produced by Foresight Features, which is an outfit based out of Collingwood, Ontario specializing in low-budget, offbeat horror (they’re the same people who did Exit Humanity, the Civil War zombie pic).
*. In fact, this one was so low-budget it was financed partially through an online crowdfunding campaign. I suspect the inspiration came from watching Sin City and realizing that they could do something similar and — what was an even more important consideration — it wouldn’t be that expensive.
*. So we’re back in an indeterminately retro era (the fashions and vehicles are vaguely mid-century) and a world of green screen and CGI, stark black-and-white with bursts of dramatic colour. Red in particular is lipstick and blood, two of the most important cues.

hellmouth2

*. Surprisingly, it works. At least the Sin City look does. It may not break any new ground in this regard, but Hellmouth is a visual treat, with all sorts of interesting details going on in the background. In particular I liked the strange container crates we see the sculpted figures in the cemetery carrying in one shot. What is going on there? Are they stevedores? It feels like we’ve traveled to some industrial Easter Island.

hellmouth3

*. I also like Steven McHattie as Charlie Baker. He is perfectly cast as the reclusive dreamer who is as tough as shoe leather but the leather is finally coming apart at the seams. I kept thinking of a Walter White all strung-out and twitchy on his own supply.
*. Unfortunately, Hellmouth doesn’t have a very strong script. This is a bit surprising seeing as it comes from Tony Burgess (he plays the character of Chips here), who is a horror master (he also wrote the screenplay for Pontypool, which is based on his novel).
*. I thought from the title that it might be adapting material from Burgess’s story collection Hellmouths of Bewdley, but that’s not the case. There is no connection at all. Instead the script just seems like a bunch of unrelated elements that are stitched together in a crude way. The escaped convicts, for example, serve no purpose at all.

hellmouth4

*. There are hints at some informing myth standing behind it. We begin with Murnau’s Faust playing on the television in Charlie’s cabin, but I don’t see where the Faust story has anything to do with what goes on here. Instead the basic idea seems a revisiting of the Orpheus myth, with Charlie descending to the underworld to rescue Fay. But even that is shaky. Does Fay seek Charlie out to rescue her? If so, why? She can’t be rescued.
*. Stories like Faust and Orpheus, however, are grounded in belief systems. The point of Hellmouth is that Charlie doesn’t believe in anything that’s happening. He finally has no faith except in himself. The point seems to be that a lonely old guy who is dying doesn’t have to go to Florida or to Hell to find some meaning in his life since in the end he has to find that meaning in himself. Even love is a mirage. The sense I get is that the movie wants us to find this somehow life-affirming but it seemed depressing and ultimately deluded to me.

hellmouth5

They Live (1988)

theylive3

*. I don’t know if They Live was ever announced as the official film of the Occupy Movement, to be shown during “movie night” on the side of a tent maybe, but I don’t see how they could have come up with a better title.
*. Really, it’s all here. The x-ray vision of a country owned and operated by a small elite of “free-enterprisers” and their collaborators, a shadow cabal of global capital who run the world and who are “dismantling the sleeping middle class.” The underground, culture-jamming hackers and their catchy slogans. The small park of squatters (labeled as communists or terrorists) that is later levelled by the fascist cops.
*. Just sticking with that latter point, how amazing is it that the first of the “ghouls” (the name they’re given in the credits) that Nada kills are cops? Yes, they’re really aliens, but that’s still quite a taboo to get blown away by our working-class hero as soon as he arms himself.
*. Carpenter was well ahead of the curve here, though They Live is also very much of its time, being a response to the Reagan revolution in American politics. We even get a politician on TV talking about “morning in America” in case you miss the point.
*. It’s really an old message though. The character of Nada (pro wrestler Roddy Piper) has a long pedigree. Here’s just one forefather: In Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel The Jungle (1906) the hero, an immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus gets a job in the meatpacking industry in Chicago. There he gets beaten down by the system. A hulk of a man, he is of the belief that if he does a hard day’s work and follows the rules he can at least provide for his family if not get ahead. He is, however, cruelly disillusioned and ends up joining the socialist movement.
*. Nada’s line “I believe in America. I follow the rules” is a red flag. It must be meant to recall the opening of The Godfather, where it is used ironically. And we know that it’s being set up to be knocked down here. Nada has to be brought to a point where he doesn’t believe in America. Or at least what America has become.
*. The political message bothers a lot of people because (a) it’s heavy-handed; or (b) it’s muddled. Fair enough, but then this is a B-picture and it has no pretensions to sophistication or subtlety.
*. Personally, I take it directly, at face value, and love seeing Piper as the check-shirted, working-man defender of humanity. Kent Jones remarks that They Live is “the one modern action epic with a genuinely proletarian hero.” In my notes on My Bloody Valentine I mentioned how rare a bird that film was due to its blue-collar setting. Popular, genre flicks (escapist, unrealistic) are geared toward the mass moviegoing audience: middle-class and suburban. Slashers aren’t supposed to be tearing apart mining communities. Action epics, even of the SF variety, are much the same. Yes, Arnie in Total Recall is working a job much like the Nada lands at the start of this film, but as things turn out he really isn’t a hardhat. He’s an interplanetary man of mystery.

theylive2

*. The racial angle plays into this. Not only are Nada and Frank (Keith David) brothers, but as Jonathan Lethem notes there are no black ghouls. This despite the fact that the ghouls, while generally appearing as yuppies, also seem sprinkled about the middle class.
*. I often hear it asked what it is that the ghouls are up to anyway. They’ve come all the way to Earth just to make money? Is there maybe a message about the sheer pointlessness of capitalism in that? This is a point I’ll return to.
*. Another thing that isn’t clear is how long the ghouls have been doing this. It all seems fairly recent, but the larger point, I think, is that the rich are always with us. In allegorical terms, Pharaoh was a ghoul.
*. Nada isn’t much of a name. It comes from the source (a Ray Nelson short story), but is never mentioned in the film (it appears only in the credits). We are also never told the name of the city we’re in, though it’s obviously Los Angeles. This seems to fit with the film’s attitude toward signs and labels generally, which are revealed to be generic and uniform underneath their colourized camouflage. Names are lies, or else part of a system of control.
*. Piper isn’t a great actor, but in this part he works. He looks a little like a good-natured cartoon sheepdog, and though he delivers a number of famous lines (like the one about being all out of bubblegum), my favourite is his slow “I don’t like this one bit,” with the “one” drawn out like a thought being born.
*. How is it possible that Meg Foster is not one of the aliens? Those eyes can’t possibly be real.
*. The whole thing is a breathless fantasy, akin to those of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot that’s never explained. We make a quick visit, for example, to a transporter room that operates by “some sort of gravitational lens deal, bending the light or some damn thing,” but that’s all we’re told. Nothing more needs be said because it’s not important for the allegory to explain how the aliens/ghouls are traveling to and fro. There’s an incredible economy to Carpenter’s storytelling in this film.
*. But then there are moments when “economy” doesn’t seem the right word. Nada tells Frank a story about being terrorized by his father that seems completely pointless. Meg Foster’s character (Holly) is both vague (was she always on the side of the ghouls, or did she change her mind again?) and superfluous. And then there is that epic alleyway beat-down between Nada and Frank that never wants to end.
*. What are we to make of this fight? It seems to have been a kind of improvisation, with Piper and David wanting to really put on a show. They rehearsed it for weeks, and I have to say it looks great (trust a professional wrestler to be able to sell a fight). But it’s absurd. Why is Frank so obstinate about not wanting to put on the glasses? I guess from his point of view Nada is crazy, but why not humour him? Again, I think it’s an allegorical point being made: that we have to be forced to see the truth. Otherwise it’s too comfortable to live in the Matrix. Hell, even the homeless in this movie are seen sitting outside eating cooked meals and watching television on a couch.
*. I mentioned the uncertainty surrounding the Holly character and whether she has always been a traitor to her species or just turned at the last minute. The Drifter is another such collaborator, though of a more comic turn. It’s interesting how both this movie and The Thing share a concern with these enemies within and the problem of deceptive appearances. And again one thinks of the paranoia of Dick.
*. I think this is a wonderful little movie, full of quirky, inexplicable moments (the blind preacher mouthing the words of the television broadcast, for example) and staying light on its feet despite a heavy political message. Indeed, I would put They Live on a short list of essential movies of the 1980s. What keeps it relevant is both the timelessness of its message and its abiding ambiguity. Are the ghouls really bad guys? What are they doing that’s so bad? Don’t they just want to fit in, socialize and be friendly?
*. If anything, the human collaborators are worse. They’re the cynical sell-outs. But then can they be blamed? I don’t think we’re meant to feel that capitalism was an alien invention. They just plugged themselves into the human grid. And meanwhile they’ve made the world seem such a colourful place.

theylive1

Darling (2015)

darling1

*. For many years I thought I lived in a haunted house, but it didn’t bother me because it was my home and I was the one who was haunting it. Caretakers or renters are in different position, and temporarily moving into a house you’re unfamiliar with is fertile ground for horror since it’s always a scary experience. Hence Deborah Kerr as the new governess in The Innocents (a movie that writer-director Mickey Keating references as an inspiration for Darling), Jack Nicholson taking over the Overlook in The Shining, or George C. Scott renting that mansion in The Changeling. As with the oldest house in New York that Darling is left alone in, these places are all just too damn big for the new person to fit comfortably into.
*. You can hear echoes of these earlier haunted-house flicks in Darling, but the movie I was most reminded of (aside from Repulsion, which is the most obvious influence) was Amer. Like Amer, Darling is a micro-budget exercise in film style, an homage to 1960s psychological horror much as Amer was an homage to the giallo. Both films proceed by way of strong, mannered visuals with almost no dialogue.
*. As with any such picture there’s a lot of ambiguity about exactly what’s going on. Is Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) just a psycho? Does she actually kill anyone, or does she just imagine it? Is the house haunted? By what? What’s in the room at the end of the hall? And perhaps most of all, what role does Madame (Sean Young), the lady of the house, play? Is she working together with the evil forces in the house to find it new victims? The end credits make us wonder, as she’s shown hiring another girl as caretaker.

darling3

*. How much do those two cops at the end not look (or sound) like cops? That had to be deliberate, but I can’t think of what the point was.
*. I also wonder what the point of the intertitles was. I think they’re meant to be suggestive rather than literal, but I found them off-putting.
*. The oldest house in New York City also appears to be stuck in a time warp. It’s not clear what year we’re in. The artisanal black-and-white photography, Darling’s lace collar, and the old-style telephone all seem to take us back to the early twentieth century.
*. I like black-and-white. Twenty-first century black-and-white has its own specific feel though. The photography here didn’t remind me of anything so much as that in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, with none of the warmth or texture of, say, Gil Taylor’s work in Repulsion. I still like it, and find it effective, but it’s hard not to sense that something has been lost. In a word I’d call that something depth.
*. The problem with homage movies is that they don’t look forward to anything. They don’t break new ground, and they often don’t even address contemporary concerns. Instead they point back to their sources, and given the deliberately historical feel to the setting here I had a hard time figuring out what, if anything, Keating wanted to say about the way we live now. What modern anxieties is he addressing?
*. Is Darling being exploited? There’s no reason to think so. For all its flashes of violence, Darling isn’t an angry movie. The blood cleans up nicely and that body doesn’t even leave a streak on the hardwood as Darling drags it down the hallway.
*. Here’s one go at interpretation: It’s a movie about appearances, about making a solid first impression and being tidy. Also: good help is really hard to find.

darling2