Monthly Archives: August 2020

Witchfinder General (1968)

*. I don’t remember when I first saw Witchfinder General but I do remember being underwhelmed. I’d heard and read a lot about it and so my expectations were perhaps too high to be met.
*. Having lived with it for a while now I find it growing on me with every re-watch. Keeping in mind what it came out of helps. A low-budget American-British co-production from Tigon British Film Productions (a discount Hammer) and American International (who were just looking for a tax write-off), it’s remarkable that it was noteworthy at all. Add the fact that it wasn’t the movie Michael Reeves had planned on making and it’s even more impressive.
*. The main changes in the original plan came about because (1) Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasence to play Matthew Hopkins and when Vincent Price came on board (at AIP’s insistence) the part had to be re-imagined and re-written, and (2) the violence had to be toned down quite a bit to get approval from the censors.
*. The fighting between Reeves and Price has become legendary. Price, however, was a professional and turned in one of his finest performances. One of their confrontations resulted in the following exchange: Price: “I’ve made 87 films. What have you done?” Reeves: “I’ve made three good ones.”
*. As delicious as this bitchiness is, it’s wrong on two counts. Price had only (!) made 75 films at the time, while Reeves had directed two, neither of which can really be counted as “good.” I mean, She Beast and The Sorcerers are both interesting and well worth checking out, but they didn’t give him any bragging rights.
*. It’s hard to know what to make of Reeves. There’s just not enough evidence to draw on. He’s become a kind of cult figure, largely because of this movie, which he made when he was only 24. The next year he would die of a barbiturate overdose. That kind of thing has a way of stamping your ticket to the pantheon. Would he have gone on to greater things? All we can see is that the potential was there.

*. What strikes me most deeply about Witchfinder General is the pervasive moral bleakness. This is a horror movie, but despite its subject matter it doesn’t have a hint of the supernatural about it. There are no witches to be found, and the monsters are all human.
*. The juxtaposition of cruelty with the beauty of the English countryside only further underlines the association of human nature with violence. In a way the villains here aren’t monsters; they’re the normal ones. Hopkins is just the pious hypocrite who is really a lech while Stearne is the bully who is a coward. There’s nothing remarkable about such types. What’s surprising is that they’ve risen to the top.
*. This is also brought home by the cutaways to the faces in the crowd. This is a kind of community horror, as we saw in Two Thousand Maniacs! and would see again in The Wicker Man (on the DVD commentary track Steve Haberman likens them to the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Reeves being a big Don Siegel fan).
*. The world has turned upside-down. It seems like Cromwell’s soldiers should represent the ultimate authority in the land, but it’s Matthew Hopkins who has the law on his side and he is totally for hire. This is one of the most politically nihilistic movies I’ve seen, and indeed such a judgment might (and has) been extended even further. Kim Newman: “Reeves’ masterpiece is one of the most downbeat movies ever made, a ninety-minute negation of every moral precept horror films have stood for.” Danny Peary: “It is safe to say that no director in cinema history exhibited such a consistently depressing and angry view of the world and humanity as Reeves.” I think that last maybe goes too far, based on the slim evidence we have, but I can see where Peary’s coming from.

*. Reeves had originally wanted to film the Battle of Naseby but I don’t see where that would have added anything. I do think it’s too bad we don’t get to see a countryside littered with corpses, as he also had apparently planned. I imagine this looking something like Goya’s Disasters of War and it would have fit right in with the tone of the piece.
*. Another level of the moral bleakness can be seen in how quickly Sara falls in line with what Hopkins wants. Which is to say, she’s immediately on to him and makes the bargain on the spot. It’s only when she’s raped by Stearne that she breaks down.
*. I don’t usually like to go too far in symbolic readings of movies, but sticking with the pervasiveness of the evil I’ve mentioned here’s another observation from Peary: “The evil is all-encompassing, as is evident when Hopkins kills suspected heretics by/in fire, by/in water (drowning), and in the air (hanging); and is himself brutally killed deep within the earth.” I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess it works.
*. Was I just being thick in not seeing much in it the first time I saw it? Well, few people did when it came out. It was mostly ignored, or written off as just another Vincent Price AIP-Poe entry. Even more recently Alex Cox called it a “fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films.” What most critics responded to at the time was its sadism and violence, and in this department it has, of course, been left far behind.
*. So I could imagine a lot of people coming to this movie for the first time and not being that affected. But it’s a movie that puts its hooks in you and keeps pulling.

The Sorcerers (1967)

*. A real curiosity. On the one hand it’s a fascinating premise: an elderly, down-at-the-heels couple taking over the mind of a young man in ’60s swinging London and taking a walk on the wild side, vicariously.
*. On the other hand it’s an incredibly stupid premise: apparently Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) is a hypnotist but what he’s invented is a laughable contraption that will, indeed, allow him and his wife to control the young man’s mind through psychic projection.
*. Put another way, it’s a fascinating premise from a thematic point of view, but stupid in so far as you can’t credit it for a second. What’s going on seems to be some weird amalgam of science and spiritualism, symbolized in the jarring disjunction between the glaring white lab and the cozy yet shabby parlour the Monserrats commune in. Then Marcus and Estelle (Catherine Lacey) have a falling out, involving them in a kind of psychomachia for the control of young Mike’s soul. It’s just plain weird.
*. I say it’s interesting thematically because of the way it inverts expectations. This is swinging London, but Mike (Ian Ogilvy) is the burned-out, jaded one, while it’s the old couple who are the thrill-seekers. Monserrat seduces Mike by offering “dazzling, indescribable experiences, complete abandonment with no thought of remorse.” But Mike won’t be feeling any of this. Instead, the thrills will all be enjoyed by the Monserrats. The old people are the hedonists and law-breakers. Or really, inverting things even more, it’s the old lady who wants to go crazy. Marcus ends up being a bit of a stick in the mud. Her will is stronger than his.
*. Of course you could also read it more traditionally, as Kim Newman does, as “informed by the 1960s impatience with the deadening influence of age over youth.” But that doesn’t quite work for me. The Monserrats aren’t well off, and indeed Mike seems to be of a better sort altogether (he’s a clerk in an antique shop). In class terms, it’s the older generation that is rebelling.
*. Michael Reeves’ second movie (or second-and-a-half, if you want to use a Felliniesque accounting). I don’t see much of a through line, however, between She Beast, this film, and Witchfinder General. I guess the general air of moral collapse and social breakdown is one constant. Stephen Jones calls this “one of the most downbeat horror movies of the 1960s,” which, if true, would be quite an achievement. It certainly has an angry edge, and one that doesn’t spare anyone.
*. As with a lot of movies from this period, parts of it have dated in funny ways. The mind-wiping sequence, with splashes of psychedelic slides being projected onto Mike’s face, is worth a chuckle. My favourite moment, though, comes when the ancient Monserrat picks the cute-as-a-button Mike up in a late-night diner. “You’re looking very bored, young man,” he begins. “I’ve been watching you this evening. I wonder if I might join you. Perhaps I can offer you some coffee.” Then, when Mike asks him what he wants: “I can offer you an unusual evening. Some extraordinary experiences.”
*. Mike is suspicious! What does this old guy really want? Is he selling “blue movies”? Cheap hash? No, not at all. But being bored he doesn’t hesitate in going home with him and letting Marcus hook him up to the machine. I mean, why not?
*. This ridiculous scene is yet another example of the kind of inversion I’ve mentioned: with age (the sweet old couple in their dingy apartment) corrupting innocent youth (the flashy young man who’s into club-hopping with various model girlfriends).
*. Leaving all of this sort of analysis aside, is The Sorcerers any good? It was the first production by Tony Tenser’s Tigon company. Tenser was known as “the Godfather of British Exploitation.” As with America’s Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore, Tenser started his exploitation career off with nudies and found the turn to horror an obvious, even natural path to take from a commercial point of view: “like sex, everyone understands and wants to see a horror film.”
*. That’s probably true, at least to some extent. And I think that seen as just a low-budget thriller The Sorcerers is a lot better than most. There isn’t much here in the way of a story though, beyond what could have been effectively handled in a half-hour television episode, and I don’t think the scares are very well handled. Apparently Reeves wasn’t particularly interested in horror movies and only did them to show that he could make movies that made money (as The Sorcerers did). Tenser appreciated this spirit of professionalism if not craft and signed him to a multi-film deal, fated not to be fulfilled.

She Beast (1966)

*. After stepping in to complete Castle of the Living Dead, director Michael Reeves (or Mike Reeves, as he’s styled here on the title card) makes his debut. Which, as I think most people would agree, is She Beast‘s sole claim to fame. On the DVD commentary star Ian Ogilvy states matter-of-factly that Reeves is “the only reason this movie is of interest to people these days,” to which producer Paul Maslansky immediately concurs: “No question about it.”
*. Ogilvy also offers up the opinion that dying young was what made Reeves into a legend. Would anything about She Beast have made you think Reeves was destined for greater things? He wrote the script (under a pseudonym) but seems to have thought the material a joke. Did he take much pride in his work? “If we’re going to make crap,” he said to Ogilvy, “let’s make the best crap anybody’s ever seen.” You can interpret that in different ways.
*. He actually wasn’t a fan of the horror genre, again according to Ogilvy, but wanted to get a reputation as a commercial director and thought a horror picture would make money. Ogilvy: “he was quite an opportunist.” On the other hand, he did have a bleak moral vision that was a good fit with where horror was going.
*. We can see he also had a sense of style, especially when shooting outdoors. A lot of shots here are nicely composed. There’s some good camera movement. But there were obvious limitations, shooting in 21 days for only £17 000.
*. Of those 21 days they only had Barbara Steele for one. Apparently she had to work for 18 hours (she claims 22). I can believe it. It’s remarkable to me how they managed to get all her scenes done in a day. I don’t see how that would have been possible. It takes time to set things up, and she’s in a lot of scenes at the start of the movie, in many different sets and locations. How could they have done all that in a day?

*. Just to stick with the question of faulty memories and the vagaries of film history for a minute, the commentary track (with Ogilvy, Maslansky, and Steele) is quite entertaining and throws up a number of interesting points. Steele says she hardly remembers making the movie at all, which is understandable given the pace she was setting working on such stuff. But when the subject turns to dubbing (like all these productions the sound was done in post) she says she’s certain that her lines were recorded by somebody else. Ogilvy and Maslansky both say they’re sure it’s her voice. Then she says she’s not sure and they say they’re not sure. The upshot of which is that only 40 years later (the commentary was recorded in 2007) this is a point that is now lost to film history.
*. I wonder how sympathetic we’re supposed to be to the witch Vardella. That is, if she is a witch (alternative titles had her as a Blood Beast and Sister of Satan). Maybe she just suffers from some unfortunate skin condition and the villagers are the usual bunch of narrow-minded sadists (we’d see a lot more of them in Witchfinder General). Also, as played by a large man (Steele: “like Anthony Quinn times two!”) she comes across a bit like one of the Monty Python gang in drag. She’s kind of hard to take seriously.
*. Was that part of the joke? Ogilvy thought the movie couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be horror or horror-comedy or comedy. I share his uncertainty. There are a lot of jokes about life in a communist dictatorship, John Karlsen plays Count Von Helsing mainly for laughs, and things are capped off with a ridiculous Keystone Cops chase. Apparently Reeves didn’t film this part, and didn’t care for it, but had to leave it in because the movie was already running short.
*. Maslansky, by the way, would go on to produce the Police Academy movies. So maybe he was subconsciously pushing things in that direction. The character he plays, for example, has his fly undone at the end in a very noticeable way.
*. The script doesn’t add up. What does Barbara Steele’s character Veronica have to do with anything? She isn’t really possessed, she just disappears for a while and the witch Vardella does her thing. When Philip asks Von Helsing for clarity on this, and tries to find out where Veronica is, he is quickly brushed off. This may seem like a little thing but it’s really not. I don’t see how even a very young man like Reeves was could write a script with such an essential plot element completely disregarded. The story simply doesn’t have a core explanation of what is happening. Shouldn’t Vardella come back as Veronica? Though I guess then they would have had to hire Steele for another couple of days.
*. I’ve seen She Beast several times now, and I’m not sure why. It’s really not very good. To answer the question I began with as to whether you’d be justified in seeing any promise in it I think the honest answer is no. I don’t think it’s a mark above the usual AIP fare. Stephen Jones refers to it as being basically a kind of home movie. But it’s odd and has a sense of fun about it. Given how young Reeves was and what he had to work with he did well. And better was to come.

A Master Builder (2014)

*. The Master Builder is a play I’ve never seen in performance. I may have even avoided it because I didn’t think it would work well on stage. The action seemed a bit silly and the ultimate meaning of it all obscure.
*. As Wallace Shawn puts it in the conversation included with the Criterion DVD, “no one understands The Master Builder.” It’s certainly a work that has invited a wide range of interpretation over the years. I think it suggests different things to different people. This Master Builder (note the change to an indefinite article in the title) offers up one reading, and it’s one I wasn’t expecting.
*. The wrinkle here is that most of the play is imagined as Halvard Solness’s dying thoughts. Hilde (Lisa Joyce) isn’t a real person but a figure summoned out of his unconscious. Or perhaps a succubus, the angel of death, or the “grim reaper in disguise” (Joyce mentions this as a possibility). His death at the end, in turn, is only symbolically a fall from a tower. In fact he dies in bed.
*. There are two things I’ll say about this way of presenting the play. First: it’s bold and highly original. I’d never thought of the play in this way, but it’s incredibly effective and I’ll probably never read it again without first imagining it in these terms.
*. The second point worth making is that Shawn and his longtime collaborator André Gregory had been doing The Master Builder for years before deciding to film it and this dream angle was only a late decision. Gregory attributes it to the fact that he was a much older man than when he started working on it and his concerns had changed. He was now more interested in the end of life, getting old and dying, and what it meant. In the play Solness is only middle-aged, so obviously this is a big shift in perspective.
*. So as a production of The Master Builder I rate this very high. As a movie, a little less so.
*. They didn’t want to just make a film of a play. That’s always the case when people make a film of a play. But it’s something that’s hard to avoid and I don’t think it’s avoided here. I don’t think there’s much achieved here in terms of Demme’s filmmaking that really adds to what Gregory and Shawn had already done. That it was shot in eight days, all inside the same house, adds to this.
*. Even the performances, which are good, strike me as being played more in a stage manner than for the camera. They are, in general, too broad. Joyce’s Hilde is maybe the most extreme in this regard, all breathy whispers and giggles that make her seem almost orgasmic. An interesting way of imagining the role, but I think there’s too much of it. And in the supplemental material it’s said that there was a lot more of her laughter in the original cut. Apparently Shawn didn’t even notice it. How odd.
*. How we view Hilde is crucial. Demme thought of her as a “mysterious stranger” in a haunted house film. Gregory, seeing Solness as Ebenezer Scrooge, also saw her as a sort of spirit or ghost. Ibsen, I think, thought she was a homewrecker (nicely complementing Solness in his role as home builder). She’s all this, and a sexual force as well that introduces a bunch of other complicated elements. Was Solness hitting on her at a party when she was 12? What’s up with that? Is this her revenge?
*. If Hilden is fertile ground the other players in the drama have always seemed to me incomplete and frustrating. Kaia’s infatuation with Solness and her dual allegiance to him and her fiancé make no sense to me. I don’t know what the doctor’s purpose is in the play, though his appearance here is at least justified. As for Aline (Julie Hagerty), I guess she just represents grudging duty. But is she mentally well? Are we supposed to think she’s crazy?
*. I think Ibsen gives these characters short shrift so I can’t blame this production for being just as vague. I’ll stick with saying this is a great Master Builder. A great movie? No.

Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (1966)

*. Great title. The Italian, Operazione Paura (Operation Fear), doesn’t have the same pizzazz (and was apparently only used to cash in on Erika Blanc having starred in a spy film with a similar title). Plus it has an exclamation mark. An exclamation mark isn’t a sure-fire sign of sleaze or exploitation (think of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! or the musicals Oliver!, Hello, Dolly!, Moulin Rouge!, and Mama Mia!), but I think most of the time it gives a pretty good indication of what you’re in for. As in movies like Them!, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Die, Monster, Die!, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Stop Me Before I Kill!, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!
*. If the exclamation mark helps to temper expectations I think that’s a good thing. Kill, Baby . . . Kill! had a low budget even by Mario Bava’s usual standards and the production still ran out of money part-way through filming. The screenplay wasn’t even finished when they started shooting and some of it had to be improvised. The score was just taken from a library.
*. If any director was capable of making something out of such straitened circumstances, however, it was Mario Bava. From such inauspicious beginnings Kill, Baby . . . Kill! has gone on to gain quite a reputation as one of Bava’s best films, and one that has had a wide influence. In particular, the ghost of Melissa Graps with her ball has become a horror icon. That ball would continue to bounce its way through many a movie in the years to come.
*. I can only get on board for part of this. I wouldn’t rate this among my favourite Bava horror films, putting Blood and Black Lace, A Bay of Blood, and even the obscure and somewhat dotty Five Dolls for an August Moon ahead of it. At least I enjoy those movies a lot more. What I will say for Kill, Baby . . . Kill! is that it may be Bava’s scariest movie. It does have a suspenseful creepiness and nightmare quality to it that really works. Some of the jumpy zooms, and the slow pans around from frightened faces, are very effective. And Melissa does have a pale dangerousness that black-gloved slashers don’t.
*. That said, I also find this to be one of Bava’s dullest outings. He tries, but the story just isn’t that compelling. The weird gives way to the perfunctory. The hero Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is a pin-up, often shot from below, which makes his rugged face topped by remarkable coiffure have even more the effect of a monument. Not only is the gore dialed way back (we only see victims after they’re dead), but the way Melissa wreaks her vengeance, by getting her victims to kill themselves, is disappointing.
*. Exteriors were shot in Calcata, the disputed home of the Holy Prepuce (really, people) and a place that seems to have always been close to falling apart. The studio interiors don’t always make for smooth transitions. But even filming outside Bava manages to conjure up his usual weird lighting, with stenciled blobs of green or red being cast on ruined walls.
*. As I’ve said, no matter what the conditions of filming or material, Bava could almost always make something interesting. That’s the case again here. There are a number of great moments, like Dr. Eswai chasing after himself running in and out of the same room in a loop, or any of Melissa’s spooky appearances (I especially like the way she grabs Monica’s hand). But in this film the parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole, with the ending in particular feeling like something they just came up with on the last day of shooting, and not quite deserving of an exclamation mark.

Ready or Not (2019)

*. Family is one of the great sources of horror in our time. I’ve mentioned before how for Stephen King the breakdown of the nuclear family is his one great theme. In other movies, however, that process has already advanced quite a ways. Think of Norman Bates wanting to introduce Marion Crane to his dear old mom in Psycho. Think of the family that slays together staying together in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or the mutant clan in The Hills Have Eyes. Really, I think the list is endless. I’ve only mentioned franchise originals here but you see the same thing even in obscure one-offs like Spider Baby. Family is hell.
*. Anxiety over our family’s weirdness, or over awful in-laws, also feeds into our fascination with disturbing “meet the folks” stories. A couple of obvious precursors to Ready or Not here are You’re Next (2011) and Get Out (2017). In both those films a new girlfriend/boyfriend is invited to the wealthy family estate only to end up fighting for their lives. To the main theme, that family is hell, a political message is added: rich people are murderous bastards.
*. This isn’t to criticize Ready or Not for being a rip-off, though I thought the similarities between Erin in You’re Next and Grace in this movie to be pretty direct (the bloodied battle-bride also recalls Clara from Rec 3, but that’s another sort of movie altogether). I just think it’s interesting to note the sort of conventions that are being evoked.
*. While I’m at it, I’ll also mention another horror sub-genre in play: the Game of Death. These are movies where a character or a group of characters has to somehow survive a challenge, the prize being life. One later Game of Death movie I was reminded of here was Would You Rather, which is one of the few that has a political angle, with the contestants playing the game at a millionaire’s mansion for his entertainment.
*. What anxiety does the Game of Death address? I’d guess it has something to do with the natural desire for life to have a kind of rough justice. Most of life is pretty unfair. The way the Le Domas family insists on following correct procedures and keeping with tradition is actually reassuring. Yes it’s brutal, but unlike the game of life this game has rules.

*. None of the other films I’ve talked about so far are even mentioned in passing in the “making of” documentaries included with the DVD, or in the filmmakers’ commentary. I actually thought the team behind this one, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence, would have said a bit more. But I guess it’s something they didn’t want to talk about. Was it something they were thinking about though?
*. I can’t tell. What I was hoping for was some further discussion of the political angle, but they say very little about this. Is it because this isn’t all that political a movie? It’s interesting to note that the only movie of those I’ve mentioned that really tries to make a political statement is Get Out, and it mixes race with class. But in You’re Next, Would You Rather, and Ready or Not, despite things being teed up nicely with the depiction of plutocrat families that are not just dysfunctional but savage and degenerate, there’s no broader political point being made.

*. These aren’t really movies about class struggle. To take just one example from Ready or Not, Daniel’s wife Charity makes no bones about having been born on the wrong side of the tracks and having married Daniel for his money. So she’s Grace, only she had an easier challenge. Among the family members, it seems only crazy Aunt Helene with her punk haircut and battle-axe is into the hunt. Meanwhile, the downstairs staff at the mansion are all as complicit in the deadly game, if not more so, than the family they serve.
*. One good twist on the formula is having the family itself consist of a bunch of upper-class twits who don’t seem capable of tying their own shoes. This is the source of all of the humor but it also makes a satiric point. The fact is, there’s is inherited wealth that they’ve done nothing to earn so they aren’t particularly capable or good at anything. They sold their souls to the devil to get rich, which is sort of like winning the lottery.
*. Well, there’s no sense complaining about this not being a movie it isn’t trying to be. I would have liked it to be a bit angrier, and perhaps that was how it was originally envisaged. On the commentary track they say that the first draft of the screenplay had Grace dying at the end, which suggests something a lot darker (and probably less commercial). What they ended up with something more generic and predictable, but it works. I wasn’t a fan of V/H/S, but Southbound was pretty good and I liked Ready or Not too. Radio Silence is getting better. I’m looking forward to what they do next.

Next Floor (2008)

*. An early short by Denis Villeneuve, before his career took of with a string of critical hits (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). Of his later work only Enemy strikes me as a work of real genius, though I’ll admit he has a unique look, which is something that isn’t easy to achieve in the current environment, especially directing SF-Fantasy fare.
*. The set-up is pure allegory. A table full of society types are stuffing their faces full of exotic dishes. Then, when they grow too heavy, they crash through the floor to the next level of the empty building they’re in, table and all. The maitre d’ calls in “next floor” and the waiters and musicians and other attendants scramble downstairs to set things up again. But the same cartoon descent is repeated over and over.

*. The colours and the appearance of the food recalls nothing so much as the painting “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins. But while repellent, most of the entrées do look edible. It’s just that they’re grotesquely supersized and the way the diners are eating is made to seem even more disgusting than the sight of people eating normally looks. The assembled guests are an off-putting bunch as well, even before they’re turned into statuary by the accumulating plaster of their violent relocations. Clearly we’re meant to be on the side of the hired help, at least until the final shot.
*. The allegory I mentioned is pretty clear. We’re in Buñuel territory here, with a modern retelling of The Exterminating Angel. The diners are the haute bourgeoisie, or capitalists more generally, and they are literally digging their own graves in the abandoned building. Yes, the system is collapsing due to its own contradictions. The most glaring contradiction being that they are eating themselves out of house and home: consuming to such excess (not just in terms of the volume of the food they’re served, but the endangered species on the menu) that it all becomes a suicidal race to the bottom.

*. Growing social inequality has led to a unsustainable state of affairs, but what happens isn’t revolution. The waiters aren’t rising up against the diners here. Instead they are content to continue playing their part, giving the upper classes enough rope (or food) to hang themselves. That this is deliberate is indicated by the cold eye the maitre d’ casts on the serial catastrophe. He knows what’s going on, and is prepared to let it happen.
*. I’m not sure how political such a message is. Are the lower classes to remain passive and simply allow their social superiors to destroy themselves? This question is made more complicated by the accusatory glare of the maitre d’ that the film ends with. For me this asks “Whose side are you on?” And which side is really worse? Is it better to be an enabler than to be one of the destroyers? Isn’t an enabler a destroyer too? Questions very much for our time.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

*. The Spanish version of The Exterminating Angel begins with a warning: “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” This has to be carefully parsed. It does not say that the film has no explanation, just that “no explanation” is the best explanation “from the standpoint of reason.” And reason may not be the best entry point anyway.
*. I like to read the statement in these qualified terms because otherwise I think it can only be viewed as highly disingenuous. The Exterminating Angel is a fable — a group of upper-class operagoers find they can’t leave a dinner party — and a fable’s literal meaning is usually about as banal as it gets. The story isn’t real by any canon of realism, so what then does it mean?

*. The usual line as to the film’s meaning is that it depicts a “reversion to savagery”: the “thin veneer” of civilization giving way to our base animal nature. What better representation of this than a dinner party? Everyone is so polite and refined and on their best behaviour, but it is all an act. Barbarism lies just below the surface. This was, to take a more recent example, the point of Herman Koch’s The Dinner (which was filmed three times, in 2013, 2014, and 2017). How beastly is the haute bourgeoisie, especially at feeding time.
*. I’m sure that is a fundamental point Luis Buñuel is making in The Exterminating Angel. It’s just that it’s not a very interesting one and I don’t think it’s all that’s going on.
*. In itself it’s a common theme. I already mentioned The Dinner, but we might also think of High-Rise. The dinner guests roasting sheep over the campfire at the end here reminded me of Laing roasting a dog on a spit at the end of that movie. But here’s the thing: given the circumstances the guests find themselves in, should we be judging them so harshly? Unlike the dining parties in The Dinner they aren’t being hypocrites. They genuinely believe in good manners and keeping up appearances. It’s just that after a few days (or months) cooped up in the same room together they start to get on each other’s nerves, their clothes get ragged, and they smell bad. Can you blame them for any of this? Strip basic amenities away from any of us and of course we’re going to “revert” to a more primitive, barbaric state. Does that expose us as being bad people?
*. So we come back to the question of interpretation (which I’ll use in preference to explanation). What is going on here? In trying to answer that question I’ll look at two of the issues that usually get the most attention in this regard, the question of why the dinner guests can’t leave and the use of repetition.

*. Why can’t the guests leave? It’s hard not to think they’ve been selected for their class. The servants, equally inexplicably, all want to get out of the house as soon as possible. But once the invisible force field has gone up it’s clear that there’s no physical reason any of the guests can’t just leave. This isn’t Escape Room. They seem more stuck by the force of their own inertia. They don’t want to leave, at least in the early going. They find excuses and rationalizations for staying, and even at the end many of them play along with Leticia’s idea for breaking the spell as though they’re just going through the motions. Which is exactly what they are doing.
*. Is there some significance to the fact that Leticia (Silvia Pinal) is a foreigner? That somehow she doesn’t belong in the trap with the others? For Roger Ebert “the dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac.”
*. I think this is a possibility. My sense though is that the explanation is more general. I think what keeps them stuck is that force of inertia I mentioned. In Dante’s Hell the sinners don’t want to escape from their punishments because it’s part of their sin that they just want to keep on doing what they’re doing. The upper class of any society prefers some discomfort, up to and including their own destruction, to anarchy and the loss of their position of privilege. Hence, as bad as their situation gets here it’s still preferable to the alternatives. So they don’t want to leave.

*. This is also the reason repetition is used throughout. The guests might even be aware that they’re saying and doing the same things over and over. But that’s the way they like it. I think it’s wonderful how they “escape” only by repeating their own actions as literally as possible, which in turn is no escape at all since it just means they’re going to find themselves back in the same situation.
*. The guests begin praying to God, but then move on to mysticism and black magic. But I think Buñuel’s point here is that this doesn’t constitute any real moving on. They’re just different, though equally meaningless, belief systems that, in turn, reflect a lack of imagination and moral laziness. The guests don’t actually want to believe in a higher power or make any changes in their life.
*. I want to go back to something I said earlier about not judging the guests too harshly since they’re in a situation where you’d expect everyone to behave badly. I don’t think I’d be any worse than most of them. But the other point to raise in their defence is that people from all walks of life outside the church are similarly afflicted. No class is an island, and while they may suffer different fates and be impelled by different motives, what happens to the upper class affects (or trickles down to) the rest of society as well. Inertia is a social disease.
*. That is, I think the final point being made. The ruling class want to divorce themselves from the rest of society. It’s like today’s rich wanting to live in gated communities or private islands, with the workers kept out of sight (or perhaps replaced by robots or some other form of cheap labour. What they complain about the most is all the people they’re stuck with. The torment of not being able to be someplace alone. Hell is other people. But there’s no escape from this part of the human condition. The guests — being social animals by nature, like all human beings — are just another flock of sheep herding together and sticking to traditions that are only fossilized instincts. So I don’t judge them harshly, while at the same time having no sympathy for them at all.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

*. Oof. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is hard to endure. I don’t mean emotionally, since it’s a movie that made me feel nothing, but rather physically. After sitting through 130 minutes of this I felt drained. Beaten. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
*. I’m not sure I can explain the plot. There’s an organization named Monarch that has located a number of sleeping prehistoric monsters around the world. They are now named Titans because MUTOs was a branding fail. A Monarch scientist (Vera Farmiga, taking a break from chasing ghosts) has created a device that somehow signals to the Titans. It is stolen by a team of ecoterrorists who Farmiga is secretly working with.
*. Why? Well, her son was killed by Godzilla, so that’s part of what’s driving her. She also spouts the sort of villainous Green boilerplate that was literally everywhere during these years. Humans are destroying the world and there has to be a cull to restore balance. Godzilla and the other Titans (the Earth’s “original and rightful rulers”) are a kind of antibody produced by Gaia: Earth’s “natural defence system.” He’ll kill off the excess humans who can’t find their ways to Monarch shelters, destroy our cities, and the radiation he leaves behind will, somehow, spur a greening of the planet. Gotta love that radiation.
*. This is so stupid it makes me feel stupid just typing it out. After a while Farmiga figures out it’s stupid too. But by then Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon Titan, has been awoken, along with a bunch of other monsters (including Rodan and Mothra), leading to a Clash of the Titans in Boston’s Fenway Park.
*. I realize that in any Godzilla movie the story is disposable. But this isn’t just a throwaway story but a downright terrible one. On no level, and at no time, does it make any sense. Who are these ecoterrorists? Where are they getting the money to fund this private army? I guess some billionaire like Zobrist in Inferno or Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service or maybe it’s Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War. As I said, this genocidal Green plot was popping up everywhere.
*. To say that such messages are mixed is an understatement. Farmiga’s isn’t just stupid, she’s insane. So what does that say about the environmental movement? Matthew Rosza found some “subtle social commentary” here, but (1) there’s nothing subtle about Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and (2) what does that social commentary consist of? That environmentalists are genocidal whackos? Rosza calls Godzilla a “metaphor for the damage we are causing our planet.” So he’s sort of like global warming? That’s subtle?
*. Then there’s the weird mix of science and mythology. In the original Gojira, Godzilla was just a prehistoric creature who was awakened by nuclear testing. Which was at least something you could get on board with. Here, however, the Titans are kind of like Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones, though apparently humans have been worshipping them for a lot longer than there were humans. And maybe Ghidorah is something else entirely, having perhaps come from another planet. The Chinese doctor (Zhang Ziyi) hasn’t figured that one out yet, being too young to have seen Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964).
*. So nothing about the premise makes sense. But the rest of the script is equally bad. Mothra is introduced as being an important character in the story but is then dismissed as so much dust. I could never figure out exactly what the ORCA device was doing. The same routine of Godzilla being beaten and then coming back to life is repeated several times, until it becomes ploddingly predictable. And then there’s the dialogue.

*. I honestly couldn’t believe the words coming out of people’s mouths. Poor Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa has the worst of it. “Sometimes,” he tells us, “the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons who created them.” Huh. That’s deep. It’s also something I don’t think anyone has ever said at any time. He also says this: “There are some things beyond our understanding, Mark. We must accept them and learn from them. Because these moments of crisis are also potential moments of faith. A time – when we either come together or fall apart. Nature always has a way of balancing itself. The only question is What part will we play?” Apparently that came out of a fortune cookie. Really. The writers knew it was that bad.
*. “We opened Pandora’s box, and there’s no closing it now!” Yes, I think this is how Pandora’s box usually works. “This is a dangerous path! You are meddling with forces beyond our comprehension, gambling with the lives of billions!” Whatever. There are various attempts at humour that fall flat. One guy confuses Ghidorah with gonorrhea. Hilarious.
*. OK, so let’s forget about the human story. You came to see monsters flattening cities and a kaiju battle royale. Is this part of the movie any good?
*. It’s not great. I mentioned Godzilla’s appearance only briefly in my notes on Legendary’s first kick at this can, Godzilla (2014). I don’t much care for the new look. With his very fat body and tiny head Godzilla looks like a pyramid. His pug face also seems very limited in its range of expression, basically only going from sleepy to disgruntled.
*. The fight scenes are OK. It got tiring, as it gets tiring throughout all the films of the Godzilla franchise, to see humans trying to do their part by firing off small arms at the behemoths while missiles and bombs either just bounce off them or actually make them stronger. Even the classic oxygen destroyer from Gojira just ends up killing a lot of fish. It seems as though the Titans are indestructible. Ghidorah can grow back any body parts he loses. An after-credit sequence suggests he’ll be back. Rodan seems to get killed but then a few minutes later is fine. I’ve already mentioned how Godzilla keeps coming back no matter what happens to him. Franchise filmmaking doesn’t handle death well. Marvel superheroes (almost) never die, any more than James Bond, or Jason or Michael or Freddy.
*. I guess if the monster stuff was all you came in for you likely got close to your money’s worth here. Box office was disappointing, but a sequel, Godzilla vs. Kong, had already been announced. Godzilla never die!

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

*. You can tell a lot about a movie by tracing its debts, or genealogy.
*. For example, you might think Kong: Skull Island is just the latest in a line of King Kong films, from the 1933 original through the Dino De Laurentiis reconstruction in 1976, to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. But actually this movie has nothing much to do with those three versions of the same story aside from the title ape. This Kong never leaves his home island and there’s no chemistry at all going on with his human girlfriend (Brie Larson). This is a straight-up monster movie.
*. If you read around a bit you might find some more interesting connections being made by the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. According to him — and, I believe, the first screenwriter (of what turned out to be many) — Apocalypse Now was the main inspiration. This really pulled me up short.
*. Reviewers picked up on this and ran nowhere with it. Here, for example, is Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, saying that what the film “yearns to be, is a pop-culture Apocalypse Now, with the human foe removed, the political parable toned down, and the gonzo elements jacked up.”
*. Hm. I don’t even get the sense of yearning. How do you get from Apocalypse Now to this? Because helicopters? The river voyage through a similar-looking jungle? Is John C. Reilly the Dennis Hopper character? Is Samuel L. Jackson playing Robert Duvall’s Kilgore, gloomy at the prospect of Vietnam being over? Is Tom Hiddleston Martin Sheen? Is Kong himself supposed to be . . . Kurtz?
*. It gets worse. Here is Vogt-Roberts: “If I were going to break it down for people, I’d say you obviously have Apocalypse Now and just the era of ’70s filmmaking, with films like The Conversation, too.” Yes, not just Apocalypse Now but the whole era of ’70s filmmaking is what lies behind Kong: Skull Island. You didn’t notice the homage to Altman? The nods to Scorsese? The reference to The Conversation?
*. I’m joking, but listening to the DVD commentary it seems Vogt-Roberts really does see these influences everywhere. In just the first three minutes he’s already looped in Apocalypse Now, David Lean, and spaghetti Westerns, not to mention Japanese comic book art (manga) and video games.
*. I don’t think any of this background is much help. Instead, I think everything you need to know about this edition of Kong is that it was the second film in a projected “MonsterVerse” that was launched in 2014 with the remake of Godzilla.
*. The MonsterVerse was a direct response, or imitation really, of the hugely successful Marvel Universe. The idea is to have a kind of interconnected series of franchises. Universal attempted the same project with its Dark Universe, launched with The Mummy around the same time this film came out. Apparently the world is too small for today’s studios. They each need their own universe to play in.
*. The template here is the same as any Marvel Universe movie. You have a cast with a lot of name stars, at least one of whom is a Brit. You have a huge budget that you blow on epic CGI effects. Then you wrap it all up with a post-credit sequence that’s used as a hook or trailer into the next instalment.
*. So that’s what Kong: Skull Island is. It’s a comic-book movie. An amusement park ride. Does it matter that we don’t care for this Kong? Not really, since he doesn’t die at the end. In any event, he’s really just a big furry Hulk.
*. Kong beats his chest. But does Tom Hiddleston’s chest beat Kong’s? He looks like he’s been working out on the pec deck quite a bit. Alas, neither of them can hold a candle to Brie Larson in a tight halter top and what looks like a Tomb Raider bra. I may seem crude mentioning this, but her boobs are hard to miss, especially after they give her character that camera strap to cut between her cleavage the whole film. You don’t do something like that by accident.

*. The cast. Larson exudes a bit of liberal concern and a lot of healthful heat. In addition to showing up buff, Tom Hiddleston manages to keep a straight face. He’s a good actor. John C. Reilly is just a clown. John Goodman is expendable. Samuel L. Jackson, appearing as Ahab, steals the show. How many times have we seen him do this?
*. I’m sure Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is tough as old boot leather, but I wonder at what point he would have considered calling off the helicopter attack on Kong. Shouldn’t he have seen what was going on and decided a tactical withdrawal made sense?
*. The script is garbage. The characters are split up so we can have more encounters with different monsters (or MUTOs, as the MonsterVerse has dubbed them, an acronym standing for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The plot is nonsense and introduces a bunch of unnecessary elements that are never explained. Nothing that anybody says is worth listening to. All you’re doing is waiting for the next monster eruption. They appear with some regularity, killing off a few expendables before being dispatched themselves in creative ways.
*. As an example of the extreme silliness of it all, ask yourself just how the hell Kong manages to fall into a pile of anchor chains and get himself completely tied up in them? I mean, how is that even remotely possible?
*. This is a movie for very young people with very short attention spans. It’s also a movie for people who aren’t interested in character development or interaction. If you liked Peter Jackson’s King Kong but thought it suffered because it had too much story and not enough scenes of Kong fighting dinosaurs, well, the MonsterVerse has your back. They’re going to get rid of all that extra fluff. Game on.