Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Stuff (1985)

*. Larry Cohen died just a week after I finished writing up these notes. This lends what follows an air of retrospective. Where does he rate, based on his total body of work? For originality, intelligence, and commercial instinct (a rare combination) you have to give him high marks. In his first edition of Nightmare Movies (published in 1988) Kim Newman includes Cohen in a separate section discussing individual horror auteurs, and begins by complaining of how he hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves. At the time, Newman saw Cohen as “still a developing, surprising talent”: “all Cohen’s movies are lively, packed with off-beat and unusual ideas, well acted and laced with quotable dialogue.”
*. But by the time of the next edition of Newman’s book (2011) there was little to add. Cohen had basically stopped directing at the end of the ’80s. As it turned out, The Stuff would be his last important work. Though I thought his episode in the first season of Masters of Horror, “Pick Me Up,” was one of the series’ best.
*. There is another side of the ledger when it comes to Cohen. As a filmmaker he strikes me as having a level of competence below that of Roger Corman. Newman calls The Stuff “so haphazardly assembled that the director seems to be on holiday.” Editing and sound are sometimes so far out of whack as to be hilarious, and I don’t get the sense Cohen cared all that much. The Stuff would be followed up by It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, which is one of the worst movies I have ever seen and that may be taken as further evidence of a growing indifference to the quality of his work. Might we also see in it the seeds of his getting out of the business of directing altogether? Perhaps all he really wanted to do was write.
*. I think we have to take the good with the bad. The Stuff is a mess from start to finish. The effects, and this movie is full of effects, provide the most striking range of incongruities. As a director Cohen’s reach always exceeded his grasp, but (surprisingly given his low budgets) he rarely falls on his face. Some of the special effects here are laughably bad, but others impress. You never know what you’re going to get from one scene to the next.
*. Overall, however, I enjoyed all the pre-CGI trickery on display, from the model work to the process shots to the prosthetics. Hell, they even threw in the upside-down room from A Nightmare on Elm Street. But at the same time there were a number of shots I wish they had left out. So like I say, you take the good with the bad.
*. The premise is typical of the paranoia horror that was the subtext to a number of movies in the ’80s. A possibly sentient yogurt bubbling up from the depths of hell proves to be addictive. In time, our addiction consumes us, leading to the deathless ad line here: “Are you eating it, or is it eating you?” We may say the same of many items found in the developed world’s diet.

*. Its main inspiration is taken from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the scene of Mo and Nicole looking down on the “mining” operation seems a direct quote), but we can also think of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and They Live (1988) for more contemporary satires of consumerism. It’s not something we see as much of these days, and I’m not sure why. Have we just learned to accept that the Market is always right, and that there’s something elitist or non-patriotic in criticizing consumer choices? Even when those choices have been manipulated by evil corporations? But note that even here we see the (black) market triumphant in the end. The Stuff doesn’t actually need Nicole’s marketing genius behind it. It sells itself.
*. Does this movie work without Michael Moriarty? I don’t think so. It’s odd, but after thirty years his performance stayed in my memory more than any of the big effects scenes. His low-key approach to the crazy proceedings grounds the film and stops it from becoming mere slapstick. This might have been a film that got out of hand without him. Even with him it comes very close. I’m not sure the introduction of the militia unit at the end really fits with the rest of the film, though they do make for curious heroes.
*. I mentioned that I still remember this movie thirty years after last seeing it, which is no small accomplishment for any film given the way I forget things. I even had the jingle still in my head: “Enough is never enough, of The Stuff!” Many of the details I’d forgotten, but the basic plot had stayed with me. So maybe Cohen wasn’t “still a developing” talent at the time. Maybe this was all there was. He made a handful of indelible films — It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q, and The Stuff — that are holding up just as well if not better than the work of his better-known peers, and the fact that there are so many calls for The Stuff, which was not a hit, to be remade is a tribute to its continuing relevance.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

*. I’ve said before that peak zombie was probably reached sometime around 2007. Also around the same time came the inevitable progression (or regression) into zombie comedy or zomcom, a subgenre featuring such hits and misses as Shaun of the Dead (still the best of the bunch), Fido, Zombieland, and Juan of the Dead.
*. My sense is that by 2019 we’d passed peak zomcom, though 2019 saw the release of both this movie and Zombieland: Double Tap. Too late to the party? I think so. But The Dead Don’t Die is something worse than just a zomcom that isn’t funny, or just another lousy zombie movie.
*. The feeling I get is that this was one of those movies, Beat the Devil may be the archetype, put together by a bunch of famous/talented people (“The greatest zombie cast ever disassembled!”) just as a lark. As such, it may have been a lot of fun to make but is a lot less fun for the audience. Still, all those big names did mean it got to open Cannes.
*. Where is the comedy in this zombie comedy? In the way not-very-funny material is dragged out as running gags (the theme song, the bit at the diner where everyone serially suspects the involvement of wild animals)? I thought the dick jokes in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse were funnier than this.
*. Whatever the reason for the lack of humour, the message is old and dull. The zombies have been revived by polar fracking. Maybe. But so what? The zombies are also mindless consumers, drawn to do the same things they did when alive. Well, that’s an idea that only goes as far back as Dawn of the Dead and the mallwalking corpses. Which was over forty years ago. Only the brand names have changed, and the fact that the zombies here can articluate their desire fox Xanax and Oxy.
*. Other funny stuff? Well RZA, head of the Wu-Tang Clan (not to mention The Man With the Iron Fists) drives a UPS truck. Except now it’s WU-PS. Get it? Ho-ho.
*. There are subplots that go nowhere and serve no purpose at all. The biggest of these is Tilda Swinton playing an alien samurai mortician. I guess “alien samurai mortician” seemed funny to someone. But she isn’t. And why is she even here? It’s never explained and she has no function in the story at all.
*. Tom Waits appears as Hermit Bob, a figure who I guess is meant to function as a kind of chorus to the events going on in Centerville. But do we need a chorus? Isn’t it pretty clear to everyone what’s going on?
*. This leads me to another point. The thing is, I think there’s the germ of an interesting movie in here. I like how so many people seem already primed for the zombie apocalypse even before it’s made clear that this is what’s happening. Young people especially. They’ve seen the movies and TV shows. They can pick up the references to Romero. This reverses the usual zombie plot point where it takes a while for the characters to come to grips with what is going on. Which made me wonder: what if they made a zombie movie, one that all the characters understood to be a zombie movie, and the zombies never actually appeared? Now that might have been fun to watch.
*. Alas, despite the stupid metafictionality of the premise here (Bill Murray and Adam Driver even discuss having read the script), nothing like that is done. Instead everyone just goes through the motions until the end arrives and we get to see that, yes, things are going to turn out badly.
*. The only hope for this corpse of a movie is that, given enough time, it will find a fan base that “gets it.” All that stuff that isn’t funny? It’s comic genius! Jim Jarmusch and the gang were years ahead of us all.
*. Well, I can wait.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

*. If I’m right, or even close to being right, in locating peak zombie in the year 2007, then we might consider films like this as typical of a decadent phase. That’s what I said in my notes on Zombieland, and this movie came out some six years after that, so . . .
*. Well, this is a terrible movie. The zombie stuff seems almost totally irrelevant, as it’s really just a stupid gross-out teen comedy. Still, it caught me at the right time. Sometimes a movie does that. The Brothers Grimsby, for example, had me laughing so hard I was rolling on the floor crying. I didn’t laugh at any of the jokes in Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, but I still enjoyed most of it just because of the mood I was in. And yes, that is something I feel a little ashamed of.
*. When I say the zombie angle is irrelevant I mean that all the laughs and all the gross parts are really just typical teen humour and not related to the fact that this is a zombie movie. I mean, a zombie man has his dick pulled off, a busty zombie has her top come off so a pervy scout can feel her tits, and another zombie goes down on a girl at a party. Is that zombie humour, or just a bunch of stupid dicks-and-tits jokes? You can see why I’m ashamed to say I enjoyed it.
*. As per usual, the first act of the film introduces us to all the characters who we’re going to see again after they’ve changed. The crazy cat lady. The burly bouncer. It’s all very formulaic. Then, because they’re scouts, you know they’re going to somehow make use of their training to craft some DIY zombie-fighting tools even though there’s no reason why they should. Why not just break into a gun store instead of a hardware place? This is California! Or why didn’t they take that soldier guy’s gun? I guess that would be too easy or make too much sense. Instead, because they’re scouts, they have to be shown making their own zombie-killing weedwhacker and nail-firing crossbow.
*. Also as per usual in the zomcom subgenre there are a lot of nods to other horror films. One mile marker heading out of town shows the distance to Haddonfield, the home of Michael Myers. The cunnilingus gag may be derived from Re-Animator. And the finale reminded me of the end of Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave, though I wouldn’t want to say for sure that the producers even knew of that movie.
*. Crude without rising to the level of offensive. Puerile to the same degree. Neither funny nor scary. But if you just want to turn your brain off and watch something really, really stupid for 90 minutes it may do the trick.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

*. I watched this movie on a whim, mainly because I loved the title (which is a literal translation of the novel it’s based on, Laissez bronzer les Cadavres by Jean-Patrick Manchette). About two minutes in I was feeling a lot of Sergio Leone, but even more than that I was thinking to myself how much it felt like a movie I’d seen a couple of years ago called Amer.
*. As it turns out — and I did not know this at the time — it was directed by the same husband-and-wife team that directed Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Instead of gialli, however, it’s sending up the neo-noir gangster as defined by Quentin Tarantino. And I have to stop here and say that I do hate dropping Tarantino’s name into the mix so often, but let’s face it: his knowing, self-referential, retro, playful, film-for-film’s sake aesthetic is still with us.
*. I’d rate this movie slightly higher than Amer. The problem with Amer, or the main problem I had with it, is that it didn’t add up and was hard to follow. Here, because there’s a source they were working from, it’s at least easier to understand what’s going on. Even in the final act, which takes place in darkness, we can still figure out what’s happening.
*. It helps that the story is so simple. A gang of thieves steals a truckload of gold bars and hides out in an abandoned (and ruined) stone villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Also staying at the villa are some decadent artist types. A pair of cops come calling and the thieves fall out. As they always do. The bullets start to fly and nearly everyone ends up dead. It’s a story that goes back at least as far as Chaucer.
*. But I don’t think anyone who sees this movie — and virtually nobody who has commented on it — gives a damn about the story. Amer had almost no dialogue at all, and frankly they could have done the same here and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Guns and gold, that’s all you need to know.
*. Instead of telling a story, the only thing Cattet and Forzani are interested in is flash. This is a movie not just dominated by but entirely composed of gimmicks and stunts: extreme closeups, discontinuous editing, and what seem like a thousand other visual tricks meant to startle and surprise. Meanwhile, the soundtrack provides the perfect loud accompaniment, with cannon-blasts of gunshots, a Morricone-ish score that doesn’t back down a whit from the master, and lots of creaking leather.
*. There is also a lot of corrupted sexuality, as personified in the character of Luce, played by a fifty-year-old Elina Löwensohn who still looks hot as hell in a bikini. She is into bondage and (giving) golden showers. I think the latter point is meant to rhyme with the ecstasy-of-gold plot. I wonder if it’s in the novel.
*. The usual line is to chalk all of this up to the directors’ sense of style. I would not go so far. Style is meant to express something, it carries emotional (and sometimes intellectual) weight. It does work. What we get here is gimmickry. The endless stunts and flourishes don’t serve any purpose beyond themselves. They are meant to impress, but only to impress. Or to divert our attention from whatever isn’t going on.
*. Many of the reviews of the film talk about its style but then confess that this gets to be too much and in the end becomes fatiguing. I thought it got fatiguing very quickly. This is because I found it impossible to care a whit about any of the characters, or how the plot was going to resolve itself. I think this was because Cattet and Forzani may have cared even less.
*. In a way, I guess a film like this could be thought of as a contemporary exercise in pure cinema. The point then would be precisely that we shouldn’t care about the story or the characters, but only in the way these elements are rendered. The film is a kind of a crucible, with that brilliant Mediterranean sun melting everything down to . . . what exactly? Not all that glitters is gold.

Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)

*. So there’s this cop, you see. Actually he’s not a cop, but a semi-mythical frontier figure known as a Texas Ranger. Name of Walker. No, that’s not right either. Name of McQuade. J. J. McQuade. Chuck Norris.
*. Even the toughest thugs and gangsters on the border grow still at the mention of the words “Texas Ranger.” This McQuade is a bad-ass who likes to power around the border in his mud spattered Ram Charger, living off a diet of Pearl Beer. Pearl Beer and nothing but. When he cracks one open it’s like Popeye ripping the lid off a can of spinach.
*. As a cop his methods are . . . unorthodox. But he gets results. Even though his so-called superiors are always busting his ass for not being more media friendly. His marriage has broken down but he’s still on good terms with his ex and his daughter. It’s just that being a cop was too hard when it came to having a relationship. You know how it is.
*. Luckily for him, this means he’s available for a random hot babe (Barbara Carrera) to fall in love (and in bed) with him at first sight. She’s easy on the eyes and she can clean house. Too bad she already belongs to a mean dude who smokes a cigarillo and who also knows karate (David Carradine). Hell, the mean dude even drives a car with a license plate that says CARATE.
*. McQuade works best on his own. A bit of a “lone wolf,” you might say. Though he does have an older mentor figure named Dakota (L. Q. Jones). But then admin saddles him with a rookie partner, who’s also Hispanic. McQuade just hopes the kid won’t get in his way. He also hopes the damn Feds sent out by Washington don’t get in his way either.
*. Some bad guys are up to some bad things. Like smuggling weapons . . . somewhere. To terrorists. Maybe. The Ranger is on their case, but then they push his daughter off a cliff and send her to the hospital. And kill his mentor. And kill his dog! That’s going too far. Now it’s personal. But first the chief has to put him on leave. He doesn’t want the Ranger turning this into a vendetta.
*. So McQuade and the kid and the black FBI guy (the only Fed you can trust) head south of the border to take out Mr. Carate. This they do with machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, a crossbow, and lots of karate kicks. Bad guys go flying through the air from explosions. Good guys dance between hail storms of bullets. The black FBI guy gets gut shot, but it’s no big thing. He can walk it off. The babe gets killed, dying in McQuade’s arms. Damn. Now it’s really personal. McQuade and Mr. Carate draw their weapons on each other but then toss them away so as to settle this mano a mano. Then McQuade blows Mr. Carate up, because it was written into Carradine’s contract that his character couldn’t be bested in hand-to-hand combat.
*. You can tell from this synopsis why Chuck Norris went on to become such a figure of fun in later years. There’s being an action star and then there’s a career built on cookie-cutter stuff like this.
*. But while Norris is a terrible actor, and his movies generally range from bad to very bad, Lone Wolf McQuade is pretty easy to take. The whole thing is done up as a kind of homage to spaghetti Westerns, down to Francesco De Masi’s score, so highly derivative of Morricone. The mix of martial arts and the Western had been done before with David Carradine playing the monk Caine in the television series Kung-Fu. Basically the masters of the martial arts are now gunslingers, and vice versa. Kurosawa had raided the genre, Leone had ripped off Kurosawa, and now there was no telling East from West.
*. The fight scenes are reasonably well handled. And if they’re over pretty quick at least they’re not edited all to hell like so many other martial arts movies. Norris and Carradine wanted to do as much of the fighting themselves as possible, and I think that helps.
*. The script, as I’ve outlined, is just a string of clichés. Apparently John Milius had a hand in it, and it sounds like something he didn’t spend a lot of time on. He didn’t get a credit for writing but was listed as a “spiritual advisor.” Whatever that means.
*. Just before they fight Carradine says to Norris “I’ve waited a long time for this.” Like what? 48 hours? I think that’s as long as it’s been since they met.
*. OK, I do have to admit that driving his truck out of its grave Bat Out of Hell style was great. If I were rating movies on a scale of 1 to 10 that scene alone would be worth a point.
*. They were clearly setting McQuade up to be a franchise hero, though it would take a decade for Norris to return as Walker, Texas Ranger. But the years didn’t matter. He’d always been a dinosaur.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

*. My DVD of On Dangerous Ground is part of a box set, Vol. 3 in the Film Nor Classic Collection. By this point it seems to me Warner Bros. were starting to scrape bottom (though they had more of these sets to come). I don’t mean this in terms of the quality of the films, but in their connection to film noir. The first film included in Vol. 3 is Border Incident, a movie about an investigation into illegal immigrant farm labour. The second, His Kind of Woman, is a very odd sort of crime comedy (also, like Border Incident, set partially in Mexico). Were these noirs? Well, they were about cops and criminals.
*. One can argue endlessly over the definition of noir. And indeed many people have. Since the 1970s it’s been a favourite topic for critics. Is noir even a genre? Does it describe a moral vision, a style of photography, a setting, or scripts grounded in hard-boiled, tough-guy fiction?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing over this but personally I think it’s a stretch to see On Dangerous Ground as noir. It seems to me more like a crime melodrama. But others disagree. In 100 Film Noirs (part of the BFI Screen Guides series) authors Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips include it. And it’s in this box set. So there’s some consensus out there for seeing it through this lens.
*. As Glenn Erickson notes on the DVD commentary track, this is a movie that has enjoyed a revival in terms of its crtical standing. Its current high reputation, he tells us “is all retroactive.” When On Dangerous Ground came out it was not well received, for what I think the innocent viewer will understand as obvious reasons. Ida Lupino’s judgement was that it was well produced but suffered from a poor script. Bosley Crowther concurred, thinking director Nicholas Ray made the most of “flimsy material,” the story being “a shallow, uneven affair.” It’s a movie that splits in two, and however deliberate a decision this was (it’s not in the source novel), Variety thought it seeemed like “two pictures grafted together.”
*. I’d agree with these negative judgments. It is a poor script from A. I. Bezzerides (best known for writing Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and making a surprise cameo here as the sleazy Gatos). Much of the dialogue strikes me as overwrought and formalistic, and in the second half the romance between Jim (Robert Ryan) and Mary (Lupino), however capably rendered, is just too much. Again, this was not a failing that anyone missed at the time. Ray’s original ending did not have Jim coming back to Mary but presumably continuing his lonely downward spiral in the city. But that would have been too bleak even for noir.
*. It is an interesting film to look at, and has some terrific photography in different modes, from the handheld camera in the early street scenes to the chiaroscuro in the shed. This made the poor quality of the DVD transfer I was watching all the more disappointing. You really need to see the restored version.
*. What is that thing in the farm house that looks like the sculpture of a tree branch? Is it a sculpture of a tree branch? Or is it supposed to be a tree?
*. Did Robert Ryan look like Sterling Hayden back in the day or what? I actually thought he was Sterling Hayden for a moment.
*. Speaking of misidentifications, when the cops chase down the man in the street, they’re going off a radio description that only tells them they’re looking for a man in a gabardine coat. No wonder they get the wrong guy! That’s not a lot to go by. How would you even be able to tell if someone was wearing a gabardine coat if you were just driving by them anyway?
*. In their chapter on the film in 100 Film Noirs Hillier and Phillips mention that it’s a favourite of Martin Scorsese “and a key influence on Taxi Driver.” This echoed something Erickson says in his commentary: that the later film On Dangerous Ground most resembles is Taxi Driver. I’m not sure I see much of a connection. Travis Bickle is, like Jim Wilson, an alienated loner who sees the city as full of garbage, but is there anything aside from that? Is Iris supposed to be Mary? Is Travis rehabilitated? Does he renounce violence? I don’t get it.
*. There’s a lot to like here. Bernard Hermann’s score really grabs you by the lapels as the titles come up (if you have lapels), and it nicely develops an echoing hunting theme as the chase after Danny begins. Both the city streets and snowy upstate landscapes are well evoked and juxtaposed. Danny is an interesting figure, bold even for the time. Ryan does a good job in what is a complicated role. Lupino does her best to get us to take Mary seriously. But I keep finding myself drifting back to those earlier judgments. This really is a flimsy script, both on a line-by-line basis and for its contrived and sentimental premise. That’s hard to overcome.

The Nun (2018)

*. The Nun marks the fifth entry in the Conjuring Universe franchise (following The Conjuring, Annabelle, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle: Creation). Yes, it’s a universe. That’s what they call franchises now when they make enough money. And while the Conjuring Universe hasn’t drawn in the bucks of the Marvel and Star Wars series, their return on investment has been even more impressive.
*. Some of these movies have been OK. With The Nun, however, I think we’ve passed peak Conjuring. As with Annabelle it takes a spooky if silent design element and runs with it (a doll and a painting of a nun respectively). In this film the character of the Nun is traced back to a convent in Romania that sits on top of a portal to hell built by a duke in the Dark Ages (whenever that was). After a random bombing in the Second World War (the film is set in 1952) the portal reopens and shit happens.
*. It’s all pretty standard stuff, going back as far as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. That familiarity, however, brings with it a lot of laziness. At the end of this film I wasn’t even sure who the Nun was. I suppose she’s an embodiment of Valak (a.k.a. Valak the Defiler, the Profane, the Marquis of Snakes), which is to say presumably a nun who was possessed at some earlier point. Perhaps we’ll need a prequel to this prequel to explain that a bit better. But in any event, almost nothing about Valak is clear, at least to me. Including what his/her game is. A lot of this obscurity may be due to the fact that, like Annabelle, the Nun doesn’t speak. I think she has one throwaway line at the end, but that’s it.
*. But the sense we have of traveling well-trodden ground goes deeper than this, and ties in to that notion of peak Conjuring I mentioned. These movies all share the same horror playbook, especially with the jump scares and slow pans that reveal figures lurking behind the protagonists. There are scenes where characters reach out to pull a veil back from a face. Several scenes. All done very slowly. There are shots down long corridors. There are dark rooms where we can only make out indistinct shapes before the lights are extinguished entirely. In fact, this film is so dark it becomes an eye strain after a while. I could barely see anything.
*. I also had trouble hearing a lot of the dialogue, which is too bad because what I did hear was pretty funny. When Irene (the good nun, played by Taissa Farmiga) explains that they have to seal up the portal with the blood of Christ her hunky but not too bright sidekick Frenchie says “Christ? Jesus Christ?” That’s a classic. Then, when the relic with said blood is found and the awestruck Frenchie says “Holy shit,” the priest responds “The holiest.”
*. Apparently the director (Corin Hardy) had a Catholic priest bless the set before shooting started. When the film was released it was reviewed by real nuns who discussed the film from a theological perspective. This is what the Church has been reduced to in the twenty-first century.
*. It was panned by critics and audiences but made a ton of money and a sequel was announced as inevitable. I can’t say anything nice about it aside from the fact that it looks good, based on the parts of it I could see. Say what you will of this gang, but they do know how to stretch a buck. You don’t waste money on big stars, or a name director, or even a script. You just go with what you know, and expect people to be willing to pay for more of the same. It’s worked so far.