Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

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*. In the twenty-first century the classic slasher horror films of the ’70s and ’80s were all being remade, their franchises “reset.” I’m not sure why. The short answer would be to cash in on what were recognizable brand names, but as a creative challenge? These cover versions brought little that was new to the table, and they all looked exactly the same (many of them being the product of the same production company, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, which was created specifically to make low-budget horror flicks).
*. What is new with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the title now renders “chainsaw” as all one word) isn’t an improvement, and what stays the same probably wasn’t worth keeping.
*. For example, why set the movie in 1973? To get rid of everyone’s cellphone? Anachronisms pop up. “Sweet Home Alabama,” which they’re all singing at the beginning, hadn’t been released yet. As Kim Newman remarks, “gym-toned 2000s starlets like Jessica Biel and Eric Balfour just don’t look like hippie chicks and dudes.” Those big round bales of hay we see out in the fields didn’t come in until later. Apparently even the make of chainsaw is an anachronism.
*. Just sticking with the chainsaw for a second, I want to say something. Let’s get real. If you hit so much as an old nail or a bit of wire the chain on a saw is fucked. You certainly can’t grind them on tire irons, or cut through car roofs with them, or slice through steel barrels, or saw them into cement floors. That would destroy the saw right away. And they don’t run that long on a tank of gas (or oil, given how much it seems to be burning). I think the chainsaw here must have been purchased at the same magical store that sells those guns that never run out of bullets in action movies. No matter how much work Leatherface makes it do, it just keeps going.
*. Something else that stayed the same is cinematographer Robert Pearl, who also shot the original. Newman mentions how “the look is more highly wrought” because Pearl had “the resources to make the grime almost pretty.” He doesn’t say whether he thinks this is a good thing. I certainly don’t. The original film’s grunginess was a big part of its success. This movie just looks like all the other horror resets: slick, without being unsettling.
*. Newman does flag “a certain inauthenticity which comes with trying to redo a property that achieved near-perfect form  the first time out.” The original was always going to be a hard movie to remake (or follow up, for that matter) given that its success was so much the result of its shock value, cheapness, and rank unpleasantness. So much of what it did has gone on to become cliché, which is what a lot of this movie turns into at the end. There’s the car that won’t start. The basement step that breaks through. The rats scurrying over the person who’s trying to stay quiet and hide. The last girl in the tank top. They didn’t need any of this.

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*. A good example of the higher production values leading to disjunctive results can be seen in the crazy family’s house. In this movie it looks like the mansion from Giant, especially given its isolation. It appears especially ridiculous at night, backlit by what seem to be stadium lights. I didn’t buy it for a second.
*. Then there are the big changes to the story. The concept of the crazy all-male family is exploded in a misguided attempt to build up more of a back story or mythology and include more family members (whose exact relations remain obscure). But the original family were characters. These are just freaks and types.
*. Leatherface has a name (Thomas Brown Hewitt), but seems even less sympathetic a figure. The franchise has always had problems with Leatherface, as he is both the iconic villain and a big baby.
*. Even more puzzling is the lack of any reference to cannibalism, which is the crime that basically defined the first film. We visit a slaughterhouse here, and there’s a crude likening of Erin to a slab of beef in one scene, but there’s no suggestion that the family are actually eating people.
*. Of course in those early shock horror movies sex and violence were always near allied. And they still are, which means basically you have to amp those qualities up: making it sexier and gorier.
*. On the former front, Jessica Biel looks entirely edible here, bouncing around in an hourglass-accentuating outfit which even turns into a wet t-shirt that she jiggles about in at the end. This is another example of a disconcerting upgrade, as Biel is just so damn sexy it makes you feel dirty watching her suffer. I also thought it kind of sad how her character Erin is wrong about everything. Then when she has to kill Andy, do you think she might have thought of a kinder way of doing it than stabbing him in the gut and disembowelling him? Holy harakiri.
*. As far as the gore goes, it seems fairly standard. It isn’t there to shock or create suspense, but merely to depict people suffering. This makes you feel dirty too.
*. A lot of effort went into making Tobe Hooper’s film into a franchise. Including all of the sequels and prequels and resets and spin-offs there are (as of this writing) eight titles in the Texas Chainsaw canon. I don’t recall any of them after the first being any good.
*. Give Platinum Dunes credit for making an unpleasant film. At least if that’s something you want to give credit for. To be honest, I was checking my watch a lot near the end, wondering how much more I had to sit through. Too much.
*. Roger Ebert hated (hated, hated) this film. Here’s how he starts off his review: “The new version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a contemptible film: Vile, ugly and brutal. There is not a shred of a reason to see it.” And here’s how he ends: “Do yourself a favor. There are a lot of good movies playing right now that can make you feel a little happier, smarter, sexier, funnier, more excited — or more scared, if that’s what you want. This is not one of them. Don’t let it kill 98 minutes of your life.” He’s right, and I think he was more sad than angry. So am I.

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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*. This is another one of those movies that has had so much said about it and is so well known that commentary is almost pointless. And the fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should be such a movie is itself remarkable. I mean, we’re not talking about Citizen Kane or Vertigo here.
*. The title is sometimes spelled “Chainsaw,” as it is in all of the other instalments and the 2003 remake, but this is not correct. Or rather, it is correct, but it’s not the way it’s spelled in the title here. Original working titles included Leatherface, Saturn in Retrograde, and Head Cheese. What they ended up with, however, was perfect.
*. Tobe Hooper improbably wanted a PG(!) rating. Instead he initially got an X, which he cut to an R (the cut material was later restored).
*. The titles appear against shots of solar flares. What do they mean? Hooper: “a lot of scholars get excited by this.” Well, OK, but is their excitement grounded in anything? I can only point to the matter of astrology that is raised later, and see it as implying that the stars are not in their proper alignment (recall that discarded title, Saturn in Retrograde). Though any connection between what the backwoods family of cannibals are up to and the movement of celestial bodies is hard to see except as an example of cosmic irony.
*. John Laroquette did the narration. Hooper wanted him to try and sound like Orson Welles. Make of that what you will.

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*. For what it’s worth, the opening scroll never says that this is a “true story,” but just an “account” of “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.” That crime was the Ed Gein case, which was also the basis for Psycho (which tells you something about how loose an “account” this is). A movie that stuck closer to the Gein story was the cheap but effective Canadian production Deranged, which was released a few months earlier. It’s interesting to watch Deranged alongside Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as some of their most notable elements are very similar, without there being any question of influence, at least that I’m aware of.
*. Just to stick with that opening scroll for a second, here’s how it gets started: “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin.” Why Sally and Franklin “in particular”? Sally survived! Jerry, Kirk, and Pam all die tragic and pretty horrible deaths.

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*. No, it’s not as gory as you might think. But contrary to a lot of what is said today it is pretty explicit and they do show a fair bit of blood. That we just imagine all the blood and gore has become a cliché now, but it’s not entirely true. The meathook scene is as explicit as you’d expect, and Franklin’s demise sprays out lots of blood. I’d also add that despite the low budget most of the gore is very well handled. Leatherface carving into his own leg, for example, or the Hitchhiker being run over.
*. Tobe Hooper. What an odd, unfulfilled career. Showed real talent in this film, and I rather liked Lifeforce. Poltergeist was a silly mess, but I don’t know whose fault that was. Still, nothing that came after this movie lived up to its initial promise.
*. I say Hooper shows real talent here because I think it’s a movie that’s really quite well directed and not just a happy accident. Let’s take a couple of examples.

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*. (1) the short dolly shot of Pam getting up from the swing and walking toward the house. On the DVD commentary track this is referred to as “the best shot in the film,” so it’s worth analyzing. In the first place, there’s the sugar: this is an ass-cam shot, an echo of the earlier shot of the two girls standing in front of the Coke machine. We see a shot like this and it’s disarming in its frank vulgarity, typical of bargain-basement exploitation films of the ’60s. But it was a difficult shot technically, passing under the swing and keeping the proportions right, and it does a lot of work. Note the way it highlights Pam’s bare back, which foreshadows her imminent hanging on the meathook (the meathooks, I also think, are hinted at in the railway-tie swing). And finally there’s the way the house seems to swallow her up, swelling over top of her as she approaches it.
*. (2) The scene where Jerry enters the kitchen and discovers Pam in the freezer before being cut down by Leatherface. How many cuts are there in thirty seconds of film here? In all the excitement I kind of lost count. They’re so fast I even lost count on a re-watch. They also come at all different angles and perspectives, adding to the effect of making us feel Jerry’s confusion, as well as disorienting us completely so that we can’t be sure what direction a threat is going to come from. We can’t get settled in any one point of view.
*. I could give other examples, but I think this is enough to make the point that Hooper knew what he was doing. And given how much of a natural sense he had for such things it makes his subsequent career all the harder to understand.

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*. A family of men without women. But does this mean they are repressed? I don’t think so, and I have trouble with any Freudian reading of the film. The women are obvious sexual attractions: young, good-looking, bra-less, and (as noted above) shot from a low angle so we can leer at all the booty on display. But they aren’t promiscuous and (because of this) fated to die, as would later become a slasher staple. In addition, there’s little sense that the cannibal family want to eat them in any kind of a sexual way. The women are just meat, like the men. When Sally says at the end that she’ll “do anything” if they’ll let her go it gets her absolutely nowhere. They’re just not interested. None of the family members seems remotely sexual. The closest thing to sexual innuendo I can see is grampa sucking on Sally’s finger and the cook poking Sally with the broom handle.
*. If it isn’t a movie with a gender angle to play up, it also strikes me as pretty much apolitical. Is it a vegetarian manifesto? Please. Jason Zinoman’s excellent survey of modern horror, Shock Value, mentions some of the other ways it has been politicized, including Hooper’s own remark that it was inspired by Watergate. This strikes me as another non-starter. Yes, the family are the usual back-roads hillbillies, and we hear that at least one of them has been laid off from the slaughterhouse. As Zinoman puts it, “they are casualties of technological innovation. They are the country folk left behind in a modern world.” But really: so what? I think it’s just as significant that they’re a weirdly arts-and-crafts family, but I don’t think that has much of a political message.
*. Another possible political angle is that of the anti-hippie backlash. The van is a groovy set of wheels, and Pam is reading New Age astrology. The documentary included with the DVD begins by pointing out that this was a post-Manson movie, set after the end of the summer of love. And yet, as I just noted, the family are sort of like hippies themselves. They live on a kind of commune and are into the arts. They make their own food and design their own clothes and furniture. Perhaps you are what you eat.

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*. So I don’t buy the political readings. Just like I don’t see Dracula as a metaphor for the Depression. That some see a political message even in the fact that the gas station is out of gas (which was happening a lot at the time) strikes me as stretching for a meaning that is available, but mostly speculative and unnecessary.
*. It is a landmark work in modern American horror, with a place in that tradition only rivalled by a handful of other films (Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist). What strikes me the most about it, even today, is how disturbing a movie it remains.

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*. When I say disturbing I’m mainly talking about its frank sadism. Not just the unaffected, matter-of-fact way the people are presented as meat (Danny Peary: “Too realistic for its own good”), but the unaffected, matter-of-fact way that the demented family enjoy inflicting pain and suffering. God knows we’ve gone further, much further, down the road of a cinema of cruelty since 1974, but I can think of few films that present such cruelty as something the perpetrators find fun.
*. Yes, Leatherface is a somewhat sympathetic case who only kills those he considers to be a threat to the house or the family, but the gas station owner is really creepy. I’ve always found the most disturbing scene in the film to be the one where he chuckles and grins as he pokes Sally with the broomstick in the cab of his truck. That’s even worse than the business where they try and get Gramps to kill her with the hammer.

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*. Getting back to Leatherface as a sympathetic figure, it’s interesting to note his cultural “cooling” over time. In this movie he’s alternatively feminine and comic, lumbering through the woods like a bear and acting like an old woman or “big baby” (Hooper) bustling about the house. He seems to be a retarded, pathetic figure, and we feel for him after he kills Jerry and when his brother beats him around the kitchen. There’s something pathetic about him. But in later versions of the story he would become a darker, more dangerous figure, more in keeping with his bad-ass nickname.
*. It’s interesting how often amazing results arise from the very restraints to production enforced by a low budget. Some directors seem to thrive under such circumstances (Mario Bava is a name I think of here). Robert Burns, the art director, said he didn’t want the movie to look like it was designed by an art director, and the movie is so much better for it. The crude, cheap quality of the clothes and the house make them seem more realistic, more threatening, less glossy. And things like the pale scalp of Jim Siedow (the Old Man, or Cook) is a nice grunge touch that you can’t really duplicate in a big budget production. Nor can you duplicate the very real discomfort of the actors in what was, by all accounts, a painful and grueling shoot. Hardship is its own horror.
*. Sound plays a role throughout, beginning with the irritating whine of the cameras in the opening graveyard montage. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are sounds: the steel door slamming shut, Leatherface squealing like a pig, the fat dripping into the fire, the humming of the house’s generator, Franklin blowing raspberries. Meanwhile, the score strikes me as just a sort of racket, but it fits in much the same way as the discordant editing. As Peary points out, this is a movie that isn’t trying to build suspense but to shock. The music has to have the same end.

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*. Poor Franklin. He’s so awful that negative criticism has engendered its own revisionism, with lots of people now saying he’s not so bad. To hell with that. It’s a treat to see him die. When before this had we seen such a dislikeable disabled or handicapped character in a movie? Aside from the stereotyped deformed villain or madman, that is.
*. I love the anger with which Leatherface slams the metal sliding door shut. It’s such am emphatic period on the scene. Was it being consciously echoed at the end of the first Saw movie? It’s too bad though that we lost the shot of the grate on the floor just inside the sliding door in that scene. It would have been nice to keep that, with all its implications.
*. This is a great horror movie, and like a lot of great horror movies it has its comic moments as well. I’m just not sure how intentional all of these were. The Old Man raging at what Leatherface did to the front door seems scripted, and it’s very funny. But the physical humour of Leatherface (jumping away from Sally when he’s chasing her in the house, or overrunning her outside) was accidental.

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*. I wonder what happened to the truck driver at the end. Maybe he’s still running. Leatherface should have gone after him right away. He seems to run even slower than Sally and looks like he has lots of good eating on him.
*. Leatherface’s dance is the perfect send off. It’s odd, but is prefigured by the zany dance of the hitchhiker as he is left behind by the van. Note that the hitchhiker also blows raspberries in that scene.
*. Stephen King: “There are films which skate right up to the border where ‘art’ ceases to exist in any form and exploitation begins, and these films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chainsaw [sic] Massacre is one of these.” I wonder if this is a judgment that lasts, or if it just means that Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a watershed film, marking a new border. I kind of think it’s more than that, and I think King does too. In part because it’s just as shocking and disturbing today as it was when it was released. Just compare it to the lame 2003 remake.
*. I’ve said that the success of this movie isn’t just a happy accident. There’s too much talent involved, and I would single out for praise the contributions of Hooper, Burns, and Siedow (really the only good actor in the cast). That said, it was, as all great movies are, an accident to some degree. Saturn was in retrograde. Demons were raised. They still haven’t been laid to rest.

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Le Samouraï  (1967)

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*. I have two responses to films that I don’t like as much as I’m told I should. The first is to think they’ve been overrated. I use this one when I am in no doubt that I’m right and everyone else (or at least the critical consensus) is wrong. The second response is to throw my hands up and confess that I just don’t get it.
*. I just don’t get Le Samouraï. People whose opinion I respect think that it’s great, and it has quite a passionate following, but even though I’ve tried hard to like it . . .
*. It’s most often said to be a film of pure style. This means it gets a pass for telling a very simple, unconvincing, and unoriginal story, with little dialogue, about a character who remains a complete cipher. All of which I can forgive and issue a pass for. What I can’t abide is just how dull a movie it is.
*. The dullness seems to follow from the style, which is both static and a pose. It’s often praised for its suspense, but I don’t feel any of this. There are a number of quiet, set-piece scenes — the men planting the bug in Jef’s apartment, Jef finding it, the pursuit through the subway system — but I didn’t find these very interesting. They seem to me like scenes that other directors had already done before and done better. If I can say it without seeming flip, there’s a difference between suspense and just dragging a scene out. Melville drags a lot of scenes out in this movie, but doesn’t build much suspense.

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*. When it comes to the look of the film, its supposedly definitive and unmatched evocation of “cool,” I am, again, unimpressed. Aside from that washed-out apartment (Melville: “My dream is to make a color film in black and white”), I didn’t like any of the jarringly theatrical interiors (jarring because they are juxtaposed with realistic street scenes). The nightclub in particular looks tacky and cheap. That this was by design doesn’t help.
*. I don’t even find Jef particularly well dressed in his retro trench coat and fedora. Then again, I don’t find Alain Delon that handsome either. He’s just pretty and incongruous. That’s not cool. It’s more creepy and weird.
*. Another word that often gets applied to this movie is “beauty.” I see even less evidence for this than style or cool. What is beautiful about this film? Some of it looks nice, but that’s as far as I’d go.
*. Does the style mean anything? I can’t see where it does, except as a costume. The silence is also a red herring. To me it simply represents the fact that Jef has nothing to say, because he’s never really thinking of anything. Except his job. It’s not just that he’s solitary and withdrawn, but that his mind has withdrawn as well. And by that I mean it’s shrunk.
*. The most obvious comparison is to Point Blank, which came out the same year and which is also a dream of a gangster film with accentuated style points. But Point Blank sets the hook in you hard right from the start and doesn’t let you go, driving forward like Walker (Lee Marvin) marching down that long hallway, his heels banging out the drum taps of doom. Le Samouraï has none of that momentum, and (I think) even less style.
*. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — there are few films I like as much as Point Blank — but if I’m being totally honest I even prefer a gangster film like Fernando di Leo’s Caliber 9 (1972) to this. At least in that film the characters had some depth and were relatable. As I’ve already noted, I don’t find anything complicated about Jef.

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*. I’m not even sure the movie is coherent thematically. Despite the title and some ersatz epigraph from the Bushido Code (that Melville actually wrote himself), there’s little connection between Jef and a samurai. Roger Ebert: “The quotation and the whole pose of the Costello character are meant to suggest a man who operates according to a rigid code. But as Stanley Kauffmann points out in his review, ‘a samurai did not accept commissions to kill merely for money: honor and ethics were involved.’ Here the honor and ethics seem to be Jef Costello’s loyalty to himself; a samurai was prepared to die for his employer, and Costello is self-employed.”
*. Critics have had to work hard to make the connection, but the best explanations of the title they’ve come up with have to do with Jef being bound for death and the ritualistic nature of his killings. Which, when you think of it, is pretty weak.
*. The main theme is said to be solitude. Jef is the ultimate lone wolf. Only he isn’t. He has a girlfriend (played by Delon’s wife, Nathalie). Or is she his girlfriend? Melville apparently liked the fact that they looked like brother and sister, and we know that she has a boyfriend/lover/john that Jef doesn’t object to. So maybe she’s just a professional alibi. It’s hard to tell.
*. Some, perhaps most, of my inability to get this movie comes down to a matter of temperament. I’m not a fan of the French New Wave. The editing is interesting, but when it’s the most interesting thing about a movie I think there’s a problem. And aside from being interesting, I don’t think there’s much to say about Le Samouraï. It’s not a film I enjoy.

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The Witch (2015)

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*. Did there have to really be a witch? Or witches? Wouldn’t the story have made (more) sense without them?
*. I’m not arguing that writer-director Robert Eggers would have had a better movie if he’d left the actual existence of witches ambiguous, but I’m raising the question because it seems to me the story didn’t require him to come out on one side or the other.
*. For most of the film it’s possible to view the events as being religious delusions brought about by a particular cultural matrix, the stressful conditions the family is coping with (small group dynamics, cabin fever), and Thomasin and Caleb entering puberty. I’ve also seen it suggested (by Mark Kermode, among others) that the very bad things are all a group hallucination, perhaps brought on by eating rotten food, but I think that’s a stretch. In any event, when Eggers shows us the witch, alone, rendering the dead baby and then rising into the night air on her stick, he gives the game away. The witches are real.
*. Settling that question, for better or worse, The Witch goes on to be a very good thriller. It’s wonderfully photographed, lit, and scored, and has a literate script that presents us with real people doing their best, by their lights, to survive a difficult situation. That they live in a demon-haunted world isn’t their fault. This isn’t an idiot plot.

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*. It’s a fresh twist on an old story, but not a totally ground-breaking one. Basically what we have here is the cursed family motif — very popular in franchise horror films of this period like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister — transferred to seventeenth-century New England.

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*. Such a simple act of translation implies that The Witch shares common ground with these more contemporary examples of the formula. A couple of these strike me as worth highlighting.
*. In the first place we have the assertion that the devil is real. God? Not so much. William’s family are pious, and rigidly devout in their worship of the Lord and observance of his commandments, but this is something that does them absolutely no good at all. Faith and prayer have no efficacy when it comes to fighting the powers of darkness, which are presented as being far more involved in the affairs of this world. This isn’t so remarkable in stories about modern suburban families, but in Puritan New England it comes as a bit of a shock. I’ve seen hair-splitting analyses of this film that try and square what happens with some brand of theology, but they strike me as unconvincing (Caleb lies about looking for apples and so dies with an apple coming out of his gorge). I guess God didn’t die recently.

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*. The other point to flag is the dark ending. As with several of the other cursed-family franchises I mentioned earlier, the family here is wiped out. I made the point in my review of Sinister 2 how this bleakness marks a real shift in the horror genre in the twenty-first century. For a writer like Stephen King, for example, one of the key focal points for his stories is the nuclear family under threat. The defense of the family has long been a genre staple — just think of all the home-invasion horror movies there have been. But in this new generation of films the family is annihilated, suggesting more of an anger at the family than an anxiety over its vulnerability.
*. As I mentioned with regard to Sinister, it’s hard not to see this as reflecting badly on us. And here, in The Witch, we are again. I mean, this is not a dysfunctional family. Obviously they’re under a lot of stress, but the parents aren’t cruel or abusive and the kids may fight but they also seem to care for each other. But as with all those other horror films we’re left with a bunch of dead bodies on the ground and evil triumphant. Thomasin even seems joyful at her assumption into the night. Clearly there are many among us who feel that the family (meaning the family unit, not this particular family) should just go to hell.

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*. The cast is great. I especially like the worn parents, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. On the commentary track Eggers says Ineson has the greatest voice in Western Civilization and a face “like a Northern Renaissance carving.” Anya Taylor-Joy projects alert innocence. Also wonderful are the little boy and girl, who seem almost like dolls. Which is to say they’re both cute and eerie.

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*. The Billy goat Black Phillip is also good. Apparently he was hard to deal with, but that’s goats. I don’t like goats. I’ve always thought there was something evil about them.
*. I’ve also mucked out a lot of stalls in my time. A lot. The way Thomasin is doing it she’ll be at it all day.
*. Eggers: “Fowler’s not the right breed of dog, but what can you do?” I don’t know. Get the right breed of dog? Or a dog that looks a little more like the right breed of dog?
*. But this is nit-picking. Overall I found this to be a very effective, atmospheric film where the professionalism more than makes up for a low budget and short shooting schedule. It’s amazing what good things can happen when everyone just does their job and the whole point of the project isn’t to rip something (or someone) off.

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The Cage (1947)

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*. I like some experimental films very much. But not this one.
*. As with The Potted Psalm, basically it’s just a catalogue of the usual tricks. Peterson turns the camera at odd angles, or flips it upside-down, or spins it in circles. He reverse the film, or distorts the picture in funhouse-mirror surfaces. He goes out of focus, or crowds in for extreme close-ups. Shots are repeated again and again.
*. None of it adds up to much. There’s a flimsy bit of a story but none of the political or aesthetic messaging of surrealism, which had played all the same visual games twenty years earlier. As far as I can tell there’s no point being made at all.
*. Two items of interest stand out. A man removes his eyeball and we get some shots from its (the eye’s) point of view as it rolls around the floor and gets lost in the city (San Francisco). And out on the street the cast of the film seem to run forward while everything else around them is in reverse motion. This part must have been fun to film. More fun than to watch, I think.
*. The eyeball and the reverse running are the kinds of things that we might label as “concept art.” But while the idea or concept may be interesting, the execution is ineffective. It’s not well done, and after a while we’re left wondering why it’s being done at all.
*. Even though it comes in at only 28 minutes I found this hard to finish watching once. It feels like a student piece, but as a filmmaker Peterson never really graduated to the next level. Today I think his short films have mainly a historical interest.

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The Potted Psalm (1946)

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*. This is a short, experimental film that likely won’t change whatever opinions you might have about such things.
*. I was unimpressed. It’s basically American surrealism, which I don’t think was any different than European surrealism except for being decades later. None of the tricks or effects we see here are anything new. The imagery isn’t interesting, and even the arrangement and rhythm of the editing strikes me as unaccomplished.
*. Things get off to a good start with a really nice rising pan that reveals a cityscape that takes you by surprise. And some of the images that immediately follow have a kind of found poetry feel to them. But then . . .
*. According to the MOMA program notes included with the Kino DVD “The filmmakers [Sidney Peterson and James Broughton] wrote and discarded a dozen scripts during production, and what was finally cut from thousands of feet was a clever melange of visual jokes.”
*. A dozen scripts? Really? What we have are just a series of shots, and I’m not sure their arrangement even makes much difference. And what are the visual jokes? I just see a bunch of techniques that, in typical surrealist fashion, emphasize irrational elements and distortions of the human form. Bodies are made elastic in various ways, or appear without heads, or wearing masks.
*. Since none of it holds together as telling a coherent story (or stories) we are left to admire isolated passages. I can’t discern any political, emotional, or thematic coherence to it, and it seems to me you have to make an effort to erase your film of all such meaning or significance. I mean, some of the images here are suggestive, but that’s about it.
*. About the only item of interest is the subjective point of view. This may be what is being symbolized by the food imagery and the keys. Peterson’s camera eye is a window, or a mouth, or a doorway, forever being redirected (feet in particular draw its attention) and taking things in. The shots of the beer and cigarettes being consumed by the camera/viewer directly reference this. In The Cage he would take things a step further by making the camera a free-wheeling eyeball.
*. That’s the most I can make out of it, anyway. Perhaps it has something to say about death, since we begin and end in a graveyard and the image of a small animal’s desiccated body is returned to several times, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you anything. Even the title remains unclear, and is probably just an idle play on words. In 1946 none of this was really avant grade, and clearly it wasn’t leading anywhere.

Devil in Miss Jones (1973)

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*. I don’t think Devil in Miss Jones (the title has no definite article) is a great movie, but it may be the greatest porn movie ever made. It really transcends the genre, with imagination, professional workmanship, and a riveting lead performance. But how unlikely was this?
*. Incredibly unlikely. Indeed, that Devil in Miss Jones turned out so well is one of the most unlikely things in the entire history of film. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
*. In the first place, it followed hard on the heels of the mainstream success of Deep Throat, the movie that really inaugurated “porno chic” or the Golden Age of Porn. But Deep Throat was a total piece of shit, no doubt about it. And since movies, and porn movies in particular, usually don’t want to mess with success, what incentive was there to do any better? None at all.
*. Second: Not only did it come after Deep Throat, but it was written and directed by the same auteur who wrote and directed that film, Gerard Damiano. So in addition to the aforementioned inertia (not wanting to mess with a successful formula) we also have the same creative mind at work. So why would anyone expect anything different?
*. Third: Most porn movies rise or fall on the strength of their stars. Those are the girls who are put on the poster or the box cover. But the woman who was going to be the star of this film backed out at the last minute, leaving Damiano to cast the crew’s cook, Georgina Spelvin, as Justine Jones. At the time Spelvin was 36 years old, which is old enough by Hollywood standards, and ancient for porn (at least before the increased prevalence of cosmetic surgery and the advent of MILF porn). Spelvin had been on stage as a chorus girl, and appeared uncredited in a handful of exploitation flicks, but she was hardly an “accomplished actress” (as she is described by the narrator of the BBC series Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation). She’d never had a lead role or done hardcore. She was not conventionally beautiful and at one point the Teacher (Harry Reems) even evaluates her and finds her body merely “practical,” without the roundness most men desire.
*. Given all this one could be forgiven for betting that Devil in Miss Jones was going to be not just another piece of shit, but an even worse piece of shit than Deep Throat. But that’s not what happened at all.
*. Instead of being more of the same, and less, Devil in Miss Jones moves light years beyond Deep Throat into all new porn territory.
*. It’s a dark film with passages of black humour but none of the slapstick of Deep Throat. I can imagine the raincoaters wondering what the hell was going on as they sat through over ten minutes of prologue before Justine gets her chance to be consumed by lust. The suicide is totally asexual and downbeat. But once the spark is lit, look out.

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*. If the sexless suicide prologue wasn’t enough to tell you that things had changed, the editing and camera work would give the game away. We’re in a different world here. Someone has put some thought into all this. Note how, immediately after her suicide, we don’t see Justine’s face until we’re into her interview with Mr. Abaca. Since we haven’t heard her voice in the opening scene, we can’t be sure who it is we’re seeing walk into this room. We don’t expect it to be the same woman we just saw kill herself, and if we do we might think that this is a flashback. But the dead don’t know they’re dead (or so we’ve been told), so her fate, like her face, is only gradually revealed.
*. Which brings us to Georgina Spelvin. She’s on fire here, a knockout with striking feline features and a non-stop dirty mouth (Damiano just told her to keep talking until the scenes cut, so all of the dirty talk was improvised). She looks terrific, and dives right in to a surprising amount of transgressive sex (anal is the showcase in this movie, and at one point Justine even gives herself an enema in the bathtub). As for what she’s doing with that snake . . . well, all I can say it that it’s not my thing, and that I trust they were both all right after.

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*. If the raincoaters were mystified by the slow beginning I’m sure they left in a daze at the end. But can one imagine a more fitting end to a porn film than a vision of hell as a state of eternal sexual frustration and unsatisfied desire? I hope Justine is into edging. It’s an unforgettable screen moment, brilliant in its originality and ambiguity. That’s Damiano himself (credited as Albert Gork) as the Man in the Cell — though is he a man, and is that a cell?
*. Maybe he’s the devil himself, just there to watch, like the Jigsaw Killer. I’m still not sure what he’s going on about and I think what he says probably means different things to different people. In any event, I love how Justine isn’t paying any attention to him. This is closer to my own image of hell: two obsessed people talking at each other with neither of them listening to what the other is saying.
*. A lot of people don’t consider this to be a porn movie, instead insisting on its art-house status. I don’t think this is right. You can’t take the sex out of it. Rather, the sex is the element that this vision of hell is immersed in. “The way is to the destructive element submit yourself,” Conrad has one of his characters say. Devil in Miss Jones shows a woman who is engulfed in that element, using her hands and her feet, and her mouth and other orifices, to keep herself afloat. A woman who dies falls into a dream, like a woman who falls into the sea . . .

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The Purge: Election Year (2016)

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*. In my notes on The Expendables 3 the only defence I could offer for watching such a movie was that I’d seen the first two and thought I had to see things through to the end. I blamed inertia. I liked the first two Purge movies (The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy) rather more than the Expendables franchise, but still didn’t feel particularly drawn to this outing. And yet, here I am. And here we are.
*. The DVD for this one has a blurb calling it “the best Purge film yet.” I’m not impressed by that. I think it’s the worst of the Purge movies, and that by some margin. I thought this movie was total garbage. It started off bad and just kept getting worse as it went along.
*. Where the earlier films were dystopic action films with heavy political subtexts, this one is a political film with a lot of perfunctory and (by now) familiar action sequences.
*. The politics are obvious and delivered without any subtlety. The theme is class war, which might be mistaken for race war. The racial angle, however, is handled in an even more clumsy manner than the politics. The heroic, self-sacrificing black store owner Joe Dixon is given a bunch of terrible lines. Surrounded by a gang of crips he remarks “There are a whole bunch of Negros coming this way, and we’re looking like a big ol’ bucket of fried chicken.” Ugh. Then, defending the senator and her bodyguard from the (black) underground: “I ain’t gonna let y’all shoot these white folks. These are our white people.” That’s just awful.
*. Just from this alone I’d call this a terrible script. But there’s even more wrong with it. The basic outline of the story is predictable in all its essential plot points: the senator’s betrayal, the uniting of the two plot strands when the senator falls in with the convenience store gang, the senator’s capture, the team getting in touch with the underground, the senator’s rescue. You probably had all this figured out in the first ten minutes.

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*. There are some swerves within this basic outline, however, that struck me as bizarre. For one thing, the story wastes a lot of time introducing characters that are later disposed of in a surprisingly casual manner. I’m thinking in particular of the Candy Girls, but also Rondo (the man cuffed in the triage van), and the Russian Purgers dressed up like American historical figures. That last case might be the most surprising of all, since the costumes are one of the few places where this series shows any originality, and Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty were very prominent in the advertising and promotion for the movie. But they’re only on screen for a few minutes.
*. All the usual improbabilities with the Purge movies are back, but I thought this one made even less sense. Why were the Candy Girls so set on breaking into a store that they knew was defended by at least a couple of guys who were armed to the teeth and would have the drop on them? Why is the Purge so popular with voters when it looks like the vast majority of people just want to survive the night? Does it stand to reason that foreigners would be allowed into the country for the Purge? And finally why are the New Fathers no longer just a white economic elite but now a bunch of slavering fundamentalist maniacs? How could such a bunch of whackos run any kind of country?
*. I guess one response to that would be Donald Trump. This movie came out during the 2016 U.S. presidential season and it was commonly seen as a commentary on what was happening: with the NFFA being a radical version of the Republican party and Senator Charlie Roan being Hillary Clinton. Marcos is a Mexican immigrant with a criminal past who nevertheless is a hero. When Trump announced that his campaign slogan for 2020 would be “Keep America Great,” it was noticed that this was the same as the ad line for this movie. I guess all of this works, though like everything else about the movie it’s a very crude message, crudely made.
*. The series keeps doing great box office so I expect we’ll see more of them. I don’t think writer-director James DeMonaco, who has helmed each of the first three movies, wants to do another, which might allow for some fresh ideas. From the final seconds of this one it seems as though The Purge: Civil War is next up. I don’t think things can get any worse . . .

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Beyond the Reach (2014)

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*. Did you really think Gordon Gekko had redeemed himself? I know he seemed to have turned the page in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but this is Michael Douglas we’re talking about and capitalism may sell out to China, but it doesn’t change its spots.
*. John Madec in this film is another corporate titan betraying the American dream to China, which makes him a familiar twenty-first century stereotype. Obviously this was a major political anxiety of the time, and played no small part in the election of Donald Trump. What’s interesting is that the Chinese are not the villains in these stories, but rather American businessmen who sell out. For the Chinese it’s just business. For people like Madec it’s akin to treason.
*. Beyond the Reach is not a very interesting movie. In the first place, it’s nothing new. It’s an updating of a movie-of-the-week called Savages (1974), which was in turn based on a YA (!) novel titled Deathwatch (1972). Going back further, it’s The Most Dangerous Game in the desert.
*. The direction by Jean-Baptiste Léonetti is too solemn and plodding. For an action-suspense film it never really builds, and we just start to feel like we’re suffering along with Ben. That sunburn was painful just to look at, as bad sunburns often are.
*. I think the biggest problem though is the character of Madec. Michael Douglas is fine, but he seems unsure of what was expected of him. In many ways he’s a comic figure, what with his bespoke SUV, hunting rifle, and cappuccino by the campfire, but this has the effect of making him less threatening. Is he even a real hunter? Does he take some sadistic pleasure in hunting Ben? Is he a corporate psychopath? There’s nothing wrong with hamming such a role up (Leslie Banks did it marvellously in The Most Dangerous Game), but the character still has to have some basic consistency and integrity. Madec ping-pongs back and forth between being an evil genius and a goof.
*. Jeremy Irvine is bland and buff as Ben, and doesn’t really give Douglas anyone to play against. There is a girlfriend who doesn’t play any role in the story at all (meaning if you left her out of the film, what difference would it make?). Ronny Cox rounds out the cast in a strangely ambiguous role as sheriff. Not strange and ambiguous, but strangely ambiguous. It’s left unclear to what extent, if any, he was in cahoots with Madec. And why would the movie want to leave this up in the air?
*. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe sounds like 28 Days Later doesn’t it? That’s what I kept hearing.
*. What a hopeless ending. They begin and end with dreams that foreshadow the action, and this had me shaking my head. It also made me wonder if the entire coda was a dream, as it made no sense whatsoever. Madec’s escape was preposterous, and his personally hunting Ben down in Colorado even more so. Could they not think of any other way to wrap things up? Because when you slap an ending like this on to a movie it’s much worse than having no ending at all.
*. It’s interesting that both the director and the location manager mention in the making-of featurette that they wanted the desert to look totally alien, like Mars. But surely it’s meant to recall John Ford’s Monument Valley. It is a mythic, not an alien landscape.
*. Well, the locations are nice to look at, and the SUV and rifle are powerful product placement, but the script here is really a mess of parts that don’t fit together, which is actually quite remarkable given how simple and minimalist a story it is. There was potential here for something much better, but I don’t think anyone really knew what they were doing.

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Embedded (2012)

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*. I’ve written before about the way convention very quickly turns into parody. Embedded is a conventional shaky-cam or found-footage horror film, quite recognizably in the Blair Witch Project mold. Instead of a witch, the filmmakers are pursuing a forest creature in the woods of Montana (actually British Columbia, with Revelstoke standing in as the town).
*. The set-up involves a television news team (cameraman and reporter) interviewing various locals about all the disappearances and people gettin’ “ripped apart somethin’ awful.” Could it be a pack of wolves? A grizzly? Or somethin’ else?

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*. Is this parody? Jason Simpson plays a farmer who seems almost deranged, but then he overplays his part throughout. My favourite scene in the whole film, of a dog being tossed out of the bushes like it’s being shot from a cannon, is very funny.
*. And the sasquatch creature? Are we meant to take him seriously? A man in an ape suit might have been scarier. Apparently director Micheal (that’s how he spells it) Bafaro’s aim was for a combination gorilla-lion-man and he thought it ended up looking pretty cool. I’m not so sure I agree. Does it even have any teeth in its gaping mouth? Whatever you do, don’t pause the playback when he appears. You don’t want to get a good look at him.
*. I’m not sure how the creature manages to get the jump on everyone, even in broad daylight without a lot of trees around. It seems like it would be pretty easy to get a shot at. People keep talking about how fast it is, but it’s not supernaturally fast. And how does it manage to move around the woods so quickly without making any noise? That’s impossible.
*. A note on the DVD commentary: it’s well enough done — featuring writer-director Bafaro and Don Knodel, who plays James Parnell — but you can hardly hear it because the audio level is the same as the soundtrack. Somebody messed this up.
*. You knew the missing kid was going to show up at some point, didn’t you? That’s another convention.

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*. A lot of it isn’t very good. Certain passages are now inevitable, like the use of night vision. The script is overwritten and too dramatic (the sheriff’s campfire speech, for example). In movies like this, more improvisation is usually better. The acting is pretty bad. The monster is a joke. The camera keeps breaking down for no dramatic purpose I can see. It was shot in a park and looks it, meaning that you never feel like anyone is more than a five-minute walk from a main road. Indeed at one point near the end, when the few survivors are supposedly lost, they’re clearly walking down a road. Why didn’t they just keep on it?
*. And yet it’s a fun movie if you keep your expectations in check.
*. If there’s an interesting angle to it, it’s in the fact that the reporters have a background in war reporting (Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia) and that several of the hunters have been in the military. Of course the title had a specific meaning in 2012. So is the story here an allegory of American military misadventures? At the end there will be an attempt at an evacuation by helicopter, reminiscent of various Vietnam movies and newsreels. Things don’t go so well. It’s hard not to also think of Rituals and its demented vet on the rampage.
*. Does it all go back to cowboys (or colonists) and Indians? A jungle that swallows armies whole? The green zone in Baghdad was an urban safe space, not a wilderness. Being embedded meant being protected, not eaten alive. I don’t think Embedded is consciously making a satirical point about this; it’s just not that subtle a movie. But it still gives us something to think about.

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