Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Amityville Horror (2005)

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*. Once more into the past, dear horror buffs. Led again by Michael Bay, who also re-set Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Doesn’t he have anything better to do?
*. This is a profoundly unoriginal movie. I’m not saying that because it’s just another franchise re-set looking to cash in on a brand name. I mean that it looks just like all the other horror re-sets from the same period: slick, dark, and depressing.
*. Perhaps most noticeable is the fact that despite being set in 1975 (they were making a cursory nod at being based on a “true story”) it looks nothing at all like the period. Most obviously, James Brolin was pretty much the definition of what a shaggy hunk of ’70s beefcake was supposed to look like. Ryan Reynolds is a buff, body-sculpted, twenty-first century dude, complete with a well-defined inguinal ligament crease.
*. Is Reynolds miscast? Muscular goofiness worked in Deadpool, but here I don’t think the part called for a comic actor. I say this despite not liking the general humourlessness of these re-sets. But I just can’t take Reynolds seriously enough for his George Lutz to be as threatening as he needs to be.
*. I was surprised how close the script stuck to the original. Yes, they downplay the priest (who is really no help at all), but it’s still the same story, with most of the same basic elements. I thought it odd that the fly attack didn’t look any better than it did thirty years earlier. Perhaps being attacked by a swarm of flies is just a hard sell, even with CGI.
*. More is made out of the difficulties of setting up a second-try family, which was really soft-pedaled in the original. Though in the end nothing much is done with it. Actually, the end of this movie feels really rushed. And despite presenting more of a back story, I was still confused as to what the whole point of it was.
*. For example, why does the resident devil, who clearly has something against Christianity, make George put crosses on all the coffins he makes? What’s his game?
*. The first movie was a mess. The franchise was a mess. The re-set took all of this and turned it into a bright and shiny new mess. I don’t think it’s worth bothering with unless you’re too young to have any memory of how it all got started. Since Michael Bay is proud of making entertainments for teenage boys, that might be taken as an endorsement.

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Amityville 3-D (1983)

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*. 3-D! Oh no! Duck! Here comes the title!
*. I jest. A bit. The thing is, I’ve never seen this movie in 3-D, which means I may be missing a lot. Indeed, I may be missing the whole point of the exercise. A Frisbee comes flying out of the screen, and later a swordfish.
*. As with Friday the 13th Part III and Jaws 3-D, which were both released the same year as this, the 3-D process used was something called ArriVision. This was a process that was supposed to revitalize 3-D, but audiences didn’t like it. It probably didn’t help that the movies were crap.
*. I guess this is a sequel to The Amityville Horror, and its prequel Amityville II: The Possession, though none of the movies seems to inhabit quite the same fictional (or quasi-fictional) universe. This is, for example, the first film to mention the DeFeo family murders. In Amityville II the family is given a different name. And there is no mention of the Lutzes here at all (I think for legal reasons).
*. Why does it always have to be a writer who goes crazy in these haunted houses?
*. Another question: Why the hell does John want to live in such a massive mansion by himself? The Lutzes and the Montellis were married couples with loads of kids, so it made sense. But why would a single man with no kids living with him want, or need, a six-bedroom Dutch Colonial barn? He mentions before buying it that it will give him “plenty of room.” Well I should think so! But plenty of room for what?
*. I found this time out that I was starting to get tired of the house. The franchise as a whole is quite bound by the same basic set. We rarely leave the house, and that basement and that attic get very familiar quickly. Not that the series doesn’t try to get out more often, making the demon’s power remarkably mobile, but this in turn only makes me question what limits that power has.
*. The photos Melanie takes showing the rotting face of the soon-to-be-dead real estate agent are pretty creepy, but it seemed strange to me that nobody was very impressed by them. I don’t think anyone could see pics like that and think there was something wrong with the camera or the film. Though I have to admit, that angry emoji she discovers is pretty darn silly. Maybe the silliest thing in this silly picture.
*. Poor Dr. West. For a paranormal investigator he really didn’t have a clue what he was up against, did he?
*. It’s probably best known today for being what I believe was the feature-film debut of Meg Ryan, but is there any indication here of her later becoming a star? I don’t see anything.
*. There’s the same peculiar sense as in the other two instalments of a movie that isn’t sure what it’s finally about or where it’s going. Even at the end it’s left unclear what happened to Susan, or why. Is she that pathetic-looking orange light effect? As for the well being the gateway to hell, why does it fill with water? Or flames? And what is that stupid-looking, fire-breathing demon? Is that supposed to be the angry Indian?
*. The ending would seem to have driven a stake through any thought of a sequel, but then the house had blown up real good at the end of Amityville II and that didn’t stop them from bringing it back. Instead, it was poor box office that left the franchise dormant (at least for theatrical releases) until the twenty-first century, when all the horror classics from the 1970s and ’80s were remade. Next stop: 2005!

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Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

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*. The Amityville Horror was a terrible movie, but was made on a budget of $5 million and did $86 million in box office. So . . . Amityville II.
*. Amityville II: The Possession is a better movie (it would be hard not to be), but on a $5 million budget (which was much better spent) did only $12 million in box office, and was panned with even harsher reviews than the first film (Roger Ebert thought it “slightly better” than the original, but included it as one of his worst films of the year for 1982 and gave it a “BOMB” rating anyway). What happened?
*. I think it disappointed critics and audiences for two reasons.
*. In the first place, there’s an incest subplot that is thrown in for no good reason. I say no good reason because it’s only something hinted at in the source and it has no dramatic purpose here. I think it might still have worked as a way of showing the devil at work in Sonny, but it’s actually hinted at even before the devil takes him over and, most bizarre of all, his sister is totally up for it! What? I mean, this is really weird.

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*. In the second place, the end of the movie is crap. Up until the murder of the Manelli family things were going well. It’s a far more suspenseful film than The Amityville Horror, and the sequence leading up to Sonny’s possession is really quite effective. There’s even one shot where the evil spirit yanks a tablecloth and drapes it over a crucifix that I think is excellent. But then . . .
*. But then the movie effectively ends. With the family dead there’s simply nothing else at risk and nothing for the movie to do but turn into a brainless Exorcist rip-off, down to the writing that appears on Sonny’s skin, and the priest calling upon the devil to enter into him at the end in an act of self-sacrifice.
*. I wonder what Hans Holzer, whose book was the source, thought of all this. In his commentary on The Amityville Horror he stresses how the possession had nothing to do with religion, and that you don’t need a priest to do an exorcism anyway. But here the religious angle is placed front and center.

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*. I’ve heard complaints about the poor effects, but I thought they were pretty good. In my notes on the first film I mentioned missing some Fulciesque gore to go along with the stupid “opening a doorway to hell” plot so I was happy to see a bit more blood and latex introduced here. Sonny’s head peeling off doesn’t look bad for 1982.
*. It’s still not clear who or what the devil/demon is. An Indian spirit? A ghost? A pagan devil? As with the first film, many questions are left unanswered. Who are those people shambling out of the basement? What happens to the priest?

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*. Did you notice how the black moving man seems to sense there’s something wrong with the house? And how the black police chief has seen something like Sonny’s possession before, in Puerto Rico? That’s a horror cliché you don’t see as much any more, but it still pops up every now and then.
*. Technically this is considered a prequel because it deals with the events that occurred before the Lutzes moved in to the house. There’s not much attempt at maintaining continuity though. And the Walkman is definitely anachronistic.
*. The fact that, even more than in the first film, it was based on a true story (the DeFeo murders), actually makes it worse, since it seems as though the film wants to exculpate Sonny on the lame demonic possession defence.

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*. In almost every regard this is a better movie than Amityville Horror, and the incest angle gives it a trashy cult edge that holds up at least as well as the first film’s camp hamminess. The heartless destruction of the family strikes me as being downright contemporary, what with today’s nihilistic values making the slaughter of the family de rigueur.
*. Its poor reception might have ended the franchise. In a better world, perhaps. For whatever reason, however, the series kept going, taking its next step into a new dimension! 3-D! Let’s blow this shit up!

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The Amityville Horror (1979)

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*. It may be hard to understand, over thirty-five years later, the sensation that this movie caused at the time. From out of nowhere (that is, an American International picture originally projected to be a TV movie) it became one of the most profitable independent films of all time. From there it went on to become a franchise, reset and still alive and kicking in the twenty-first century.
*. I think the idea, really only a marketing ploy, that it was based on a true story, helped. Such a claim was bogus, but it sold tickets.
*. What the story was really based on was the haunted-house genre in general. Its generic nature can be seen in how very much of a piece it is with The Shining: the real horror being a family falling apart and ultimately being threatened by an axe-wielding daddy possessed by spirits, in a house with a sinister “red room” and a thing for bursting at the seams with blood.

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*. It’s a testament to the generic nature of the story that this project and The Shining had independent origins. Jay Anson’s book and King’s novel were both published in 1977. Kubrick’s film didn’t come out until a year after this one, but was obviously much longer in production.
*. As I say, the real horror here is the same as in The Shining, and indeed in a lot of King’s fiction. That is to say, the breakdown of the nuclear family. In his book Danse Macabre, however, King points to another aspect of The Amityville Horror worth noting. It is, he writes, an “economic horror” story.
*. I think King is right on the money, so I’ll quote him at some length. “Everything which The Amityville Horror does well is summed up” in the scene where Kathy’s brother loses the $1,500 he was going to use to pay the caterer. This house is, literally, a money pit: swallowing wads of bills and leaving only a money-band behind as mockery.
*. For King, that scene’s “implications touch on everything about the Bad House’s most obvious effect — and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially. The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account. It’s the more prosaic fallout of the place where so many haunted-house stories start. . . . At the conclusion, the house seems to literally tear itself apart . . . and I found myself wondering not if the Lutz clan would get out alive but if they had adequate homeowner’s insurance.”
*. Ultimately King finds the movie “pretty pedestrian,” but he likens it to drinking beer, which still does the trick. “The main reason people went to see it, I think, is that The Amityville Horror, beneath its ghost-story exterior, is really a financial demolition derby.” The Lutzes face a fate worse than death not at the hands of ghosts and demons but of contractors.
*. As a final note on this matter, King sees the picture’s subtext of economic unease as tied to its time, with “18 percent inflation, mortgage rates out of sight, [and] gasoline selling at a cool dollar forty a gallon.” It was a movie that “could not have come along at a more opportune moment.” Flash forward to the second great wave of haunted house pictures coming . . . when? In the wake of the great subprime mortgage meltdown. As I said in my notes on Sinister: “The family’s economic situation had me concerned. . . by moving back to their previous home (which looks like a multi-million dollar mansion and is meant to show the heights from which the family has fallen), basically writing off the haunted death-house, haven’t they committed financial suicide?”
*. It’s a house of horrors particular to its time in another sense too. I’m not talking about the “vibes” either. Whoever thought floor-to-ceiling marbled mirrors in a bedroom were a good idea? Or marbled mirrors, period? The horror. The horror! For God’s sake, get out!
*. Now back to the movie.
*. It’s really bad. That’s why I meant its cultural status may come as a surprise to someone seeing it today for the first time.

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*. The acting is crazy bad. Margot Kidder is the only one to escape with any dignity intact. The kids are, as the line has it, so annoying you want to see them die. James Brolin begins the film with what is perhaps the most beautiful man’s coiffure ever seen on film but gets progressively more unkempt. That and his purple eyeshadow make him look more and more like a muppet as things go along. He does get some crazy hammy lines though. Apparently he thought “Oh mother of God, I’m coming apart!” was “a little over the top.” Rod Steiger . . . what to say? Someone should have told him to dial it back to eleven. Not that the part is any good, but still. He out-Herods Herod and then some. Though, to his credit, he did have to put up with having all those flies crawling over his face.

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*. Father Delaney, justifying himself: “I am not some pink-cheeked seminarian who doesn’t know the difference between the supernatural and a bad clam! I am a trained psychotherapist!” Hm. Does he mean he ate a bad clam and it gave him food poisoning? And what on earth difference does it make that he’s a trained psychotherapist? Does he think his secular education gives him a right to question the church?! “Even psychotherapists lose touch with reality sometimes. Your education doesn’t give you immunity.” Take that!
*. The story is pretty basic: a Fulci plot unenlivened by that schlockmaster’s gory highlights. Indeed there are no good effects at all in this film. The swarms of flies are laughable, and apparently that’s supposed to be a pig with red eyes staring out of the window. I couldn’t make it out the first time I saw it. After learning it was a pig I could only say “Huh?”
*. The script is a wretched mixture of clichés (the black cat providing a jump scare by leaping into the window, the rotten step breaking on the basement stairs, the series of jump cuts into a terrified actor’s face), unintentionally hilarious lines (“I don’t like lectures. And I don’t like being hassled in the men’s room. I’m going to write you a check. Either that’s good enough for you or you’re going to eat your own goddamn food!”), and random elements that never cohere (who is that grubby neighbour who shows up at the door with some beer and then disappears? what purpose does the cigar-smoking cop serve? why does the film never make any use of the boathouse? why does Kathy’s face suddenly seem aged in one shot at the end?).

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*. It’s hard to imagine a bigger mess, and this is without mentioning all the glaring continuity errors (the disappearing carpet on the stairs, Father Bolen saying he can’t move the locked steering wheel when he’s clearly spinning it easily, the attic window that explodes and is then whole again in the next shot, etc.). This is wretched even by AIP standards.
*. Though perhaps the window exploding isn’t a continuity error. The old Dutch Colonial at 112 Ocean Avenue seems to have awesome mutant powers of regeneration, or else the violence it suffers is only in the minds of its inmates. I mean, at the end of Amityville II the whole place blows up in a spectacular fireball, but then in the next shot seems none the worse for wear.
*. In my notes on Paranormal Activity and Insidious I remarked on how ineffective the priests are in helping the haunted families. You can see this movie as a signpost on the way toward where things were headed, as Father Delaney is run out of the house at the beginning and is pretty useless throughout the rest of the film. I mean, the devil/demon/whatever just kicks his ass, even at long distance.
*. The ad line was “For God’s sake, get out!” Does anyone actually say “For God’s sake, get out!” in the movie? I don’t think so.

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*. A window covered in flies is no big deal. You get that all the time in older houses in the spring. You just vacuum them up. Now to be fair, the events described in the book were supposedly taking place in December-January, which means flies shouldn’t be so active. But it doesn’t look like winter here, and with all the wood George is burning perhaps he’s warming things up too much.
*. The DVD has a very funny commentary by Dr. Hans Holzer, a Ph.D. in parapsychology. I guess that’s better than being a trained psychotherapist. Apparently the doctorate was bestowed by the London College of Applied Science. I don’t know if this a real degree, or a real university. That’s the sort of para-world we’re inhabiting here.
*. In any event, Holzer is rather critical of the film (“it is a true story, but what the film version did to it is another matter”). That may be because he went on to write the book that Amityville II: The Possession was based on and had an axe to grind. Leaving that aside, he has a lot of great lines about things like how priests are generally useless at performing exorcisms (since ghosts have “nothing to do with religion”), on the connection between the paranormal and particle physics, and how the Amityville house may eventually spontaneous combust at any time since that Indian ghost isn’t going anywhere.
*. As an aside, I find it interesting how often DVDs of films from this same genre include commentaries or bonus features that treat the stories as true phenomena. In addition to the commentary on this one (and more material included in the Amityville boxed set), I’m thinking of the bonus materials included with The Entity and the original Poltergeist. Why is this? Do people who like haunted-house stories actually take them seriously?

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*. According to Holzer the ghosts in the story were those of an Indian chief who had been buried on the land. This isn’t clear from the film, where the idea seems to be that it’s the devil (or perhaps a pig demon), coming through a walled-up gate to hell. Does it matter? Roger Ebert thought it did, and his review has a point: ” In order to be a horror movie, a horror movie needs a real Horror. The creature in Alien was truly gruesome. The case of possession in The Exorcist was profoundly frightening. The problem with The Amityville Horror is that, in a very real sense, there’s nothing there. We watch two hours of people being frightened and dismayed, and we ask ourselves . . . what for?” This is yet another failure of the script.
*. Holzer’s gobbledygook actually gets some play in the film. Here’s the sensitive wife of George’s business partner as she enters the basement: “Demons are smart. They’re not just monsters, they think just like you and I do. Just in reverse. It’s a closed system.” Uh-huh. And you know all this . . . how?

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*. That iconic home with its quarter-round attic windows glaring like angry eyeballs should be the monster, but it isn’t. Holzer is adamant that it isn’t the house that is haunted but rather the land it was built on, which remains haunted to this day (the Indians “take their burial land very seriously”). To be honest, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then at the end everyone just runs away and that’s it. Not exactly closure, and I don’t think this is because they were planning on a raft of sequels.
*. In Danse Macabre King does a great job of explaining why even a bad horror film can have something profoundly popular about it and thus be a ringing commercial success, but I think his analysis can only go so far. I don’t think the financial-horror angle or the true-story pitch explain everything. Nor does the film’s continuing reputation as a camp (not cult) classic. Yes, the late ’70s seem horrifying enough to us today, with that wallpaper and those braces the babysitter has to wear. But why did audiences in the summer of 1979 respond so overwhelmingly to such a piece of garbage? This seems to me to be the abiding Amityville mystery, and horror.

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Night Trips (1989)

*. Porn movies aren’t about people having sex. They’re about watching people having sex.
*. That may seem kind of obvious, but I think it’s something that’s so essential to the mode that it’s easily forgotten. The “real” sexual act isn’t the fucking on screen, but the masturbation (mostly) that it is meant to inspire. I mentioned this in my notes on Mr. Adam Bitt at Convent (1925), which is one of the earliest porn movies ever made, and it’s been true ever since.
*. So as Night Trips begins and we see the silhouette of Tori Welles caressing a video screen showing preview clips from the fantasies Night Trips is about to explore, and her first words challenge us with “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?”, we know we’re in the game. Porn has long been the leader of a direct assault on the fourth wall. Even today we may think of the fetish made out of “eye contact” in the POV genre.
*. To show how this works, let’s start with the basic set-up here. Tori Welles is having trouble getting a good night’s sleep because of all the sexual dreams she’s having. So she’s hooked up to the “mindscan imager,” which will allow a pair of researchers (Randy West and Porsche “the top sexual psychologist in the nation” Lynn) to view her dreams on a TV set while Tori is under hypnosis.
*. The first dream, or night trip, has Tori, who is in the dream as a spectator, watching a couple having sex. As she watches she starts to rub herself on a brass rail. Spears and Lynn watch this on the TV, while also watching Tori masturbate in the clinic. As things go on, Lynn will enter the dream and begin to masturbate herself while watching Welles masturbate, while Welles is dreaming of masturbating. You see how this works. It’s an erotic mise en abyme.
*. That may sound high-falutin’ for a porn movie, but Andrew Blake is a high-faulting’ porn director. Night Trips marked his hardcore feature debut, and won not only AVN’s film of the year (which is not a big deal, in my book), but also a non-porn award: the Silver Medal at Houston’s WorldFest in the non-theatrical release category.
*. Blake was the first adult director to win a film award at a mainstream international film festival. How did he manage to receive such acceptance? In brief, by making sex look classy. Acknowledging Helmut Newton as inspiration (a couple of the scenes here are even shot in a tinted black-and-white), his stated style is “erotic fashion.” Violet Blue describes the look as “decadent, lush, opulent, unfailingly arousing, moneyed and sophisticated.”
*. That reference to money is the essential point. The people in an Andrew Blake film enjoy all the good things in life: living in big houses, collecting fine art, driving beautiful cars, and wearing the best clothes. This is the luxury porn of today’s real estate programs. The sex is almost incidental, and indeed will often be more concerned with carefully staged foreplay than the usual hydraulics.
*. The models are little more than another species of luxury item. There is almost no dialogue, making the score by Burke all the more important (and it’s very good). People often remain faceless or hide behind sunglasses. Seen through a cool blue filter, Victoria Paris and Ray Victory seem like animate mannequins, perfect physical forms making out by a perfect pool. Aside from a trademark blast from Peter North there is none of the industry’s usual emphasis on money shots, a climax that Blake has never cared much for. I suspect he finds them messy.
*. Is it just me, or is the revelation that the faceless stunt dick in the final scene is actually Randy Spears strike anyone else as creepy? I mean, he’s her psychiatrist! He owes Tori a duty of care and instead he’s taking advantage of her nymphomania. It all seems very unprofessional, though I guess Harry Reems’s unorthodox treatment for Linda Lovelace’s misplaced clitoris in Deep Throat set a precedent.
*. In an interview twenty years after the release of Night Trips Blake had this to say: “My style has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, from a conventional narrative approach to a more free-flowing, abstract style. By abstract I mean combining images in certain patterns that reflect and become a metaphor of the brain achieving orgasm. The random thoughts that go through the mind when masturbating.”
*. This stream-of-aroused-consciousness approach may not have been fully developed yet in Night Trips, but it was already Blake’s signature. It is most clearly expressed in his camera movement, which is random, brief and discontinuous. What it mimics is the surreptitious gaze over parts of exposed flesh, as opposed to the wide, glistening stare of more conventional adult films. In his later movies this style marker would be even more pronounced, but you can already see the direction Blake was heading in here.
*. Al Goldstein rated this as one of the best adult films ever made, saying that real sex never looked as good. You might think that this would be a prerequisite of any porn film, but it has not always been the case. While I wouldn’t say Blake gave porn mainstream credibility (something I don’t think it can or should aspire to achieve) he gave it something more. He gave it a sense of style and refinement. He made it beautiful. If he made it less human too, that was collateral damage.

The Black Castle (1952)

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*. 1952. It’s twenty years since the glory days of Universal horror. And this is what things have come to. A collection of cinematic bric-a-brac without any strong, unifying narrative or art to the presentation.
*. The bric-a-brac make us think we’re in a half dozen different movies. First off, there’s the creepy castle, the graveyard, and the howling wolf. Then there’s what may be a premature burial. Has that young man been turned into a zombie? I only wish. Then a set-up lifted wholesale from Dracula: planning the journey on a map, and then a carriage ride that stops at an inn where dropping the wrong names sets off alarm bells. But the count in this case is not a vampire. Instead, he’s someone like Zaroff, the huntsman from The Most Dangerous Game.
*. Toss in some other odds and ends like a moat filled with alligators (a real high point in the film, for me), a villain with an eye patch, some African totems, the black leopard from Cat People (well, at least it looks like the same kitty), a bit of subterfuge borrowed from Romeo and Juliet, and even Boris Karloff, poor Boris Karloff, turning in another tired performance in a generic supporting part. And poor Lon Chaney (Jr.), turning in another tired performance in a generic supporting part, this time as a mute Igor. Or Gargon. Sheesh.
*. Throw it all in a pot, or a black castle, stir, and . . . you have this.
*. If it all sounds like a messy stew, that’s because it is. What’s remarkable is that it’s actually a flashback film, spending most of its length explaining how our heroes ended up about to be buried alive. It just takes forever before we are told what is going on. Which, it turns out, is a revenge plot so bizarre it never could be explained properly anyway.
*. Aside from the alligator room (did I say how much I liked that?), the only other thing that interested me here was the rather casual attitude displayed toward adultery. Count Karl von Bruno is married to Elga, his second wife, after having disposed of his first a la the collector in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (I assume that’s her corpse stored in the dungeon, for no reason except to be discovered at a bad time). Despite his current marital status, he makes love openly at his castle with Therese, who is presumably the next in line. Meanwhile, Elga takes all of about twenty minutes to fall into the arms of the dashing Burton. Before long they are confessing that their lives meant nothing before they met each other.
*. I can see making the count out to be an adulterous lech, though even so it seems odd that he’d be carrying on with Therese right in front of his wife. Basically he’s telling her she’s being replaced. I guess this helps justify her quickly taking up with Burton, but in 1952 it’s all shockingly a bit like a swap meet.
*. So it’s really just a collection of leftovers from other horror movies, stitched together in a very awkward way. The potential for comedy was there — Richard Greene would have been a terrific comic lead — but that was probably seen as less profitable. Too bad.

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Reds (1981)

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*. For a long time in the world of painting there was a hierarchy of genres, with large canvases of historical or mythological subjects taking pride of place and still lifes at the bottom. Sometime in the nineteenth century, with the rise of Impressionism in France, this hierarchy was thrown out and history painting has largely disappeared from the art scene.
*. You know what I’m going to ask next. What happened to Hollywood’s historical epics? At one time they ruled the roost, the studios’ go-to prestige projects and Oscar bait. There was Doctor Zhivago and Gandhi, and Dances With Wolves. Then something changed. David Lean died. Attention spans shortened. People (at least the masses of people that big-budget films depend on) lost interest in history.
*. Instead of the traditional (fuddy-duddy) roles of art to instruct and to delight, audiences only wanted to be delighted. Instead of history lessons they wanted comic books and fantasy. CGI gave a lending hand. The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy would win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
*. This is a roundabout way of saying that they don’t make movies like Reds any more. It was bold, and to some extent quite original for its time. The story of a doomed love affair between a pair of American communists could never have been considered high concept. It’s still shocking to me that Paramount signed off on it. Not because of political or ideological reasons, but because the public was never going to embrace it.

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*. The Witnesses were also something new, and were a gamble that I think really pays off. Then Ken Burns came along and wrecked it, making us feel today like we’re just watching another PBS documentary.
*. It’s a very personal project, though initially Beatty didn’t want to star in it. I think his playing Reed was probably inevitable. And I think he does well, in part by staying true to form.
*. What I mean is that Beatty is a clown. He is seemingly compelled to include comic bits in most of his performances — doing an entire scene in a ridiculous chef’s hat in Bugsy, even putting on the sunglasses with the one missing lens at the end of Bonnie and Clyde. Here the movie is full of them: doing a scene with his face lathered for shaving, putting on a dog costume, banging his head repeatedly on a low-hanging chandelier, riding a hand cart on a railway, burning dinner in the kitchen.

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*. As I’ve said before, Beatty is an odd leading man in that he has a comic face and funny voice. And Diane Keaton has always specialized in playing kooky parts. Casting them as the leads here might seem a stretch, but the thing is they’re both playing somewhat naïve idealists with an air of childishness about them. That’s not to belittle either the content or the strength of their political convictions, but it emphasizes their vulnerability. We take Reed’s side against Zinoviev (a very effective Jerzy Kosinski), of course, but at the same time we know it’s an argument he’ll never win. It’s not just the soulless Soviet bureaucracy he’s up against, but a whole different cast of mind.
*. That said, it was nice to see Beatty not backing down on Reed’s own revolutionary intensity. When Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) confronts him with the manifest failure of the Bolsheviks he admits as much but offers up the defense that you can’t make a revolution without breaking some heads. For him, the ends justify the means.
*. Keaton’s Louise Bryant is less well drawn. In the first half of the picture she looks like she might be developing into as full a character as Reed, but in the second half she disappears, her face mainly being used for cutaway reaction shots.
*. I don’t care at all that Jack Nicholson doesn’t look like the real Eugene O’Neill. Leaving appearance aside, I still think he’s badly miscast. He just doesn’t belong in a historical drama.
*. What is the significance of Reed joining the cavalry charge when the train is attacked? Does he know he’s dying anyway and so is trying to get killed? Has he given up on the revolution? Is he frustrated with being a man of words and now wants to go out in a blaze of glory as a man of action? I’m guessing a bit of all three, but despite being nicely filmed it also comes across as another quasi-comic bit. He’s wearing a suit, for heaven’s sake.

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*. The film was shot on locations all over the world, but it’s really worth noting how well they incorporate famous landmarks in a few brief scenes. Lessons to be learned: go for short takes and a low camera angle (to make the streets disappear).
*. Reed’s death is introduced in a heavy-handed way, what with the symbolism of the dropped cup being picked up by the boy, but I thought the final shot worked very well, seeing him lying on his death bed through a narrow frame, with Keaton’s silhouette exactly blocking out his head.

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*. But . . . no, they don’t make them like this any more. Neither studios nor audiences have the patience. You could greenlight a project like this for a television miniseries, but that’s about it. Unless you could find some way to introduce orcs. Or zombies.

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October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928)

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*. One of the first things you have to get out of the way when talking about this film is that it’s not a realistic depiction of Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917. As the famous line has it, more people were injured in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace than were in the actual event. The opening scene of the statue of Alexander III being pulled apart refers to an event that happened in Moscow, not Petrograd, years after the events of October 1917. The presence of Trotsky was all but eliminated from the final cut at Stalin’s direction (Trotsky had just been purged). And there are many other examples.
*. This isn’t a real critique of October, however, since Eisenstein never had any intention of making a faithful documentary account of the revolution. As a film (one of several) commissioned by the Bolsheviks to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their taking power, what they were looking for was propaganda.
*. A bigger knock against the movie, in my opinion, is that it isn’t effective propaganda. This was something it was criticized for right away. Too much of Eistenstein’s “intellectual montage,” it was felt, was sailing over proletarian heads. Even Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, got in on the act, saying that much of the film’s symbolism would be unintelligible to the masses (always the target audience in Soviet ideology).
*. It’s a complaint I have sympathy for. This is a film that demands to be read, and to have a correct reading. One has to be fairly knowledgeable in the history being recounted, as well as the various symbols being employed, to understand what is going on. Krupskaya, for example, was complaining about the statues of Napoleon being too difficult, and they are actually some of the more obvious referents in the film (with their meaning underlined by the title cards).
*. Another image Krupskaya singled out for its obscurity is the sea of scythes raised by the peasants in the opening scene of the statue being toppled. This was meant to suggest the common identity of the soldiers with the peasantry. Does it work? Or is it just confusing? I opt for the latter. And I still couldn’t tell you what the significance is of the montage of religious statues, even after reading Eisenstein’s explanation (where I think he says that it’s meant to reduce the idea of god to the absurd by drawing us into different cultural expressions of divinity that the viewer will find alien and ridiculous).
*. Here’s another reading that I came up with: is Kerensky climbing the same flight of stairs over and over a reference to Trotsky’s famous barb that Kerensky’s best speeches were a pounding of water in a mortar, sending up a halo of steam? Perhaps. It might even fit with the statue’s wreath. But I’ve never heard of that connection being made so I may be just imagining it.
*. In all of this Eisenstein was experimenting, and he would later look back on October and judge some of his experiments failures. He called it a baroque film, which suggests (at least to me) a hit-and-miss approach. Some things work. I like the multiple shots of the statue of Alexander III, making him out to be an Ozymandian figure too large to fit in a single frame and prefiguring his imminent dismemberment. Other things, like the machine-gun editing to mimic the action of the man firing the machine gun on the crowd, are strained or otherwise ineffective.
*. Statues were a sort of crutch for Eisenstein, an easy objective correlative. Instead of evoking an idea or emotion through editing or photography — as the lion statues are used at the end of Battleship Potemkin — here they only enable crude or bizarre analogies. Alexander III is a giant, oppressive figure, shot from below. Napoleon (or Napoleon-Kerensky) is a toy-like miniature, a wannabe master of the universe. Rodin’s Le Printemps rebukes the woman soldier. The First Steps shows the birth of a new society. So it goes, a sort of shorthand in marble.
*. The result is to make the movie both obscure and heavy-handed. Montage, even of the intellectual variety, doesn’t have to be this abrupt or dislocating (the peacock! that Buddha!), but Eisenstein wants us to notice what he’s doing. There’s nothing subliminal going on. But at the same time it’s not always obvious what is.
*. I really hope they didn’t kill that horse just for the movie, and found some dead stock to use instead. But given the time and place they may not have given it a thought.
*. Lenin doesn’t actually have much of a role after dramatically appearing at Finland Station. This may have been Stalin’s doing as well, since he wanted Lenin’s part edited so he wouldn’t appear to be too liberal. Stalin, by the way, only appears in the one scene which is also one of the few remaining scenes showing Trotsky. Trotsky is making an argument that is about to be overruled by Lenin, who Stalin is (pointedly) sitting beside. Meanwhile, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko becomes the closest thing to a hero in the movie. He would later be purged (that is, executed) by Stalin in the 1930s.
*. Instead of the big names, who are mainly relegated to cameos, Eisenstein celebrates anonymous heroes and faces. This was one of his trademarks, and also a remarked upon difference between Marxist doctrine (history made by collective action of the masses) and “Western” filmmaking’s focus on the heroic individual. I don’t think it’s a raised-by-Hollywood bias, however, that has me disliking so many of the Bolshevik heroes. The idle stablehand who is meant to represent “neutrality” and the wheedling older comrade who manages to turn the Savage Division’s tide of wrath strike me as particularly unpleasant types.
*. Quite often they weren’t actors. Eisenstein cast by appearance. Lenin, for example, was a then unknown worker. They didn’t have to act much, but only react. Eisenstein rarely shows people thinking but instead has them expressing simple emotions like joy or anger. Violence is either exuberant or vicious, revolutionary or counterrevolutionary (the umbrella-wielding maenads).
*. The (dialectical?) movement of ebb and surge, forward and backward action, revolution and counterrevolution, informs the entire film. The statue comes down, the statue goes up; the blade is drawn from its scabbard, the blade returns to its scabbard.
*. This same back-and-forth movement, only from mass and crowd to face and individual, is also noticeable in Triumph of the Will. It may be characteristic of political filmmaking, where group identity and the image of the leader (or the leader as image) is so important. Come to think of it, Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) has a similar dialectic.
*. I just don’t think it works that well. As I’ve said, it’s not really successful as history or as propaganda. I don’t think it’s a favourite even among fans of Eisenstein. Individual sequences are great as stand-alones, with their own beginnings, middles and ends, but the film as a whole has a weak narrative structure and without some preliminary grounding in the events depicted I think most viewers will feel lost.

La révolution en Russie (1906)

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*. Well of course it’s hard to follow. It depicts the same historical events as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in just under four minutes. As I noted in my commentary on another Ferdinant Zecca film done for Pathé Frères, Histoire d’un crime, there are real difficulties in compressing a complex narrative into such a format.
*. Given this massive abbreviation I think it’s easy to mistake what is going on. The officer who takes over the ship, for example, isn’t reasserting imperial authority but joining the mutiny. And that’s not the Potemkin lobbing shells into Odessa in the final part of the movie but a warship loyal to the tsar (hence the destruction of the working-class home). These actions are not very clear (and the absence of any title cards doesn’t help).
*. In outline there are four major passages. A brief establishing shot nicely introduces the ship, and sets up the studio-sets that will follow. The mutiny takes place on deck, and but for some rather sad looking dummies flying through the air it’s easy to follow, especially if you know Eisenstein’s film. Then there is the display of the dead mutineer, which works well within the confines of what movies had to work with at the time, being a theatrical tableau.
*. The final section is the most memorable and is actually quite well done. We stand behind a naval officer who in turn stands behind a cannon that fires on the painted city, its shells sending forth eruptions of stage smoke. This master shot alternates with two scenes of violence in the city as seen through a telescope. We see the officer using the telescope, so these shots are nicely integrated with the rest of the passage, even if they are presented on the same plane as the rest of the action.
*. Finally, the sudden cut at the end makes me think they might have just run out of film.
*. The main point of interest, at least for me, is this last part. The man with the telescope, and the way we join with his point of view by looking through its spyhole at the victims of the bombardment, prefigures what’s been called the pornography of war. He exults in the carnage while remaining detached from it, safe offshore. It’s a precursor to the way we watch bombsight explosions from laser-guided missiles on television today.
*. It’s not really comparable to Battleship Potemkin, and not just because Eisenstein’s film is a work of genius made twenty years later with much greater resources behind it. Potemkin was also a movie with a passionately held idea behind it, one that informed the film at every level. Whatever its technical accomplishments, which are not negligible, this is still just a docudrama bound by the limitations of the form.

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Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

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*. There’s a scene in Horrible Bosses 2 where a police investigator tries to trick our three heroes into giving away their knowledge of a kidnapping. They manage to cloud the issue by all talking a bunch of nonsense at once, which baffles everyone. When the cop asks his partner to confirm what he thinks was said, the partner admits that he doesn’t really know given all the “yammering.”
*. That scene is representative of most of the rest of the movie. The characters spend a lot of time yammering, which is to say talking over top of each other. Not much of what they say is very funny, but the yammering itself is supposed to be.
*. It’s not a terrible movie, but it is a let down from the first Horrible Bosses, which was not a comedy classic. Kurt and Dale (Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) seem to have shed significant IQ points and Dale in particular crosses the line into just being irritating most of the time. Nick (Jason Bateman) is again the overly earnest straight man.
*. The supporting cast are good, but their parts aren’t well written. Jennifer Aniston returns as a very raunchy sex addict with a strange fixation on foreskin. Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey don’t have anything new to say or do. Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine represent the dark side of the American dream. I guess the American dream is a joke now. A joke or a horror show.
*. The plot is very similar to the first film, with the three amigos getting in way over their heads trying to take down the rich and the powerful. Foxx offers some useless street advice but comes in handy in the end, as in the first film. Spacey yells and insults Nick, as in the first film. Aniston pursues Dale, as in the first film.
*. Aside from Day’s turn it’s all pretty easy to watch, even if nothing very funny happens. A lot of the humour is forcing material that’s no good to begin with. Gay jokes abound, and though I don’t object to these on moral or political grounds I tend to consider them low-hanging fruit. In any event, critics generally found the film distasteful and audiences didn’t seem much interested. The bloopers that run with the end credits were actually well worth watching in the first film. Here it’s just people messing up their lines and breaking into laughter. I think this is a series that’s already well played out, and I’m not looking forward to further instalments.