Author Archives: Alex Good

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

*. James M. Cain went to Hollywood in 1931 to work for Paramount and spent the next 17 years working there, moving among all the major studios. All that he would have to show for those efforts, however, were screenwriting credits for Stand Up and Fight (1939) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944). Not much to brag about, but it was also during this time that he wrote a string of bestselling novels, beginning with The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934.
*. Postman, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity would all go on to be made into hit movies. So why did Cain have so little success actually writing for the screen? I don’t know. Perhaps he was just too rough around the edges. While the 1946 film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice has the same basic story, it feels very different than it does on the page.
*. Some of the legal machinations are left out (making Cora’s getting off a little too easy), the cat lady has disappeared (though one scene with lions had apparently been filmed), and, of course, the corrupt seediness of the novel is downplayed. The racial angle is dropped, so Nick Papadakis is no longer a Greek but a gently befuddled Brit by the name of Nick Smith (a wildly miscast Cecil Kellaway who, as Manny Farber put it, “makes an auntie out of the hash-house owner”). Cora, gleaming in white ensembles and with platinum bobs, can no longer be mistaken for a “Mex.”
*. Farber was particularly harsh on this tidying up. “The story calls for particularly feverish, dissatisfied people living in an environment that might well drive them to adultery and murder. Garfield, Turner and Kellaway, instead, looks as fresh, upper-class and frozen as tulips, wear Saks Fifth Avenue clothes or better — and lots of them: the hobo, for instance, comes off the highway in a sharp, two-toned affair. The lunch stand is large, too sumptuous for highway hamburgers, and has the dummy look of studio houses. The country around it is dappled with dew. The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables . . . ”
*. A lot of this is just what happened to any novel made into a Hollywood movie at the time. But while it may not be kitchen sink realism it does at least show us a kitchen sink. If you wanted something more along these lines you’d have to wait for the postman to ring again in 1981.
*. Cora also doesn’t beg Frank to “Bite me!” and “Rip me!” (meaning rip her clothes off), and is given stronger motivation for wanting to get rid of her husband. She’s an ambitious woman, and Nick is not only much older, he wants to sell the diner and retire to his childhood home so that Cora can be a nurse to his paralyzed (“half-dead” in her words) sister. Bad enough, but there’s even worse. His childhood home isn’t in sunny southern California but — oh dear God no! — Canada! That sinks it. She’s going to have to kill the old bastard.
*. But the movie didn’t have to be explicit because it had something the novel could never hope to evoke in language. It had Lana Turner.

*. “No actress,” in David Thomson’s summary judgment, and if you watch her high-school emoting in the scene where the hospital calls and tells her that Nick is going to live I think that’s a fair call. But as Thomson goes on to say, she “had the unanimated, sluggish carnality of a thick broad on the make.” Which is Cora Smith, so it’s no surprise Cain thought she was perfect in the role. If your hormones don’t start to pump as soon as the camera pans up her legs then something is wrong with your pump. This is sexuality incarnate, cheap and lush. It doesn’t matter if she’s ironing or doing dishes or just stirring something on the stove, she’s a domestic Venus you want to fuck. There is no point using more delicate language. Bite her, rip her, fuck her. She’s not a subtle presence.
*. Take that sultry presence away and is this a great movie? I’d call it no better or worse than an average noir. The direction by the unheralded Tay Garnett is professional. Nothing about the production, from the design to the editing and photography, stands out. John Garfield does look the part of the drifter loser, but somehow never has much of a spark with Turner (apparently Turner was disappointed they hadn’t been able to find someone who was at least attractive, though there are also reports that they had something going on behind the scenes). Hume Cronyn is the only other standout in the cast, and there’s a scene where he’s laying down the rules to Cora where you wonder how much fun it would have been to have the two of them getting friskier. One can only fantasize.
*. The script neuters Cain pretty completely, even going so far as trying to explain the notoriously vague title. I did like the bit where the girl Frank picks up in the parking lot doesn’t mind getting out of her car because “It’s a hot day and that’s a leather seat. And I’ve got on a thin skirt.” In the 1940s that was considered dirty talk, and indeed it still sounds a little dirty today. To be fair, at the time this was a pretty daring picture.
*. In other words, it’s the chassis of a solid story turned into a star turn. Really Turner’s only star turn. That’s its claim to classic status, and it’s irrefutable.

The Strange Ones (2011)

*. There’s a difference between being strange and being a stranger. The Man and the Boy (David Call and Tobias Campbell) in this short film have no names. We don’t know who the Man and the Boy are or what the relationship between them is. We discover them on the road, on foot, and don’t know where they’re coming from or going to. The film’s first line is a question, “Where are we?”, that isn’t answered.
*. On foot because their car has broken down? Because they ran out of gas? Is it even their car? They stop at a motel and the Boy jumps into the pool. The Man tells the motel attendant (Merritt Wever) that they’re brothers going to see their dying mother. The Boy tells her that he’s been kidnapped and that the Man is dangerous. Afterward, she watches the two of them fight, and then display affection toward each other.
*. It’s a short essay in ambiguity, which is not the same thing as obscurity. The feature film that the writing-directing team of Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein would go on to spin out of this in 2017 would be obscure. But here we’re left in the position of spectators, like the motel attendant, looking through windows, doorways, and chain fences, not hearing what the two are saying to each other and left only with gestures and expressions that could mean different things.
*. Interpretations abound. I see it often taken as a film about a gay relationship, though I’m not sure where this is coming from. Where are the signs of anything sexual in nature between the Man and the Boy? My own initial take was that they were just a pair of petty thieves or grifters, looking to either rob the motel or take advantage of the attendant in some way. But that’s only based on their appearance and the fact that at least one of them is lying about what they’re doing on the road.
*. Being strange or a stranger always assumes some benchmark either of normality or in-group status. I think we’re meant to identify with the attendant here, on the outside looking in at these weird arrivals. Though the fact that the film begins with the two of them and not with her is a point against such a reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s the strange one though.
*. Some people hate movies like this, which present mysteries without solutions. I think they walk a fine line between cutesy coyness and obfuscation. In this film we aren’t given enough information to arrive at any clear sense of what’s going on, but perhaps because it’s a short I didn’t feel as though anything was being held back. It represents a fragment without any dots to connect. I wouldn’t look to the later movie as an explanation any more than I would to Joan Lindsay’s novel to explain Picnic at Hanging Rock. What you see, through a dirty glass doorframe and a couple of layers of fencing, is what you get.

The Grudge (2020)

*. Much better than I thought it was going to be. Of course I was expecting it to be terrible given how badly it was panned by reviewers, but even so.
*. But first off: what exactly is it? The original intention was to make a sequel to the American Grudge franchise but The Grudge 3 had done poorly and then the project got stuck in development for a decade, so by the time they got the wheels rolling again the idea was to do a “sidequel.” This is an ugly, terrible word that apparently just means spin-off.
*. So the first few minutes here present us with a passing of the baton from Kayako to the woman who will become her American avatar, Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood). The actual curse and haunted house in this movie will be related to the original, but effectively they’re starting out a new franchise. Albeit one that operates in pretty much the exact same way as the old. A gloomy little boy is replaced by Wednesday Addams.
*. This all seems kind of awkward to me, but I’m not sure how else they could have played things and still have this be a Grudge film. They had to get out of Japan somehow and this is the kludge they came up with.
*. It’s now a J-horror movie with American characteristics. Because the main protagonist is a cop we see more guns, even if they don’t have any use. There’s also more of a sense of can-do as far as fighting the ghosts goes. Depending on which ending you watch the hero may even be successful in defeating the curse. At least she gets to burn the house down.
*. Though if you really want to burn a house down, would you just take a jerry can of gasoline and start splashing it around the front hall and up the stairs? Is that the best way to do it? Wouldn’t you try to start it in a particular place where there was a lot of fuel (that is, something in the house that’s likely to burn)?
*. Nicolas Pesce must have seemed like an obvious choice to direct, a horror up-and-comer after The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing, movies that had been clearly influenced by J-horror. On the other hand, Pesce’s self-defined wheelhouse is cultish, alternative fare so he might not have been the right person to tab for a franchise instalment.

*. In any event, what surprises me here is that the scary parts (aside from the few jump scares, which I liked) are the weakest. Maybe it’s the CGI flies. CGI doesn’t do flies well (see my notes on The Haunting of Sharon Tate). Or maybe it’s the way the odd splashes of violence seem sort of anti-climactic. Poor Lin Shaye, after hunting all those ghosts in the Insidious franchise, just whacking her head on a handrail in a stairwell on the way down. Brutal sure, but scary? Or cutting her fingers off? Well, does she suffer from dementia or not?
*. What saves the movie for me are the two leads. I’d seen Andrea Riseborough in a few other things, but she’d never registered much outside of Oblivion. She should have stood out in Mandy, but didn’t (at least for me). But here she’s great as a haunted single-mom, basically carrying the whole movie on her shoulders. Demián Bichir is like some kind of gruff alien only doing Earth patrols. He should be ridiculous but somehow he fits with the sodium-lit surroundings. With his character’s obvious distaste for a routine of showering and shaving, and Muldoon’s dirty blonde mousey-do, tats, and general appearance of emaciation, you get the sense they were trying out for a season of True Detective: Ghost Protocol.
*. Riseborough and Bichir make the film watchable, and there are moments that aren’t half bad. I definitely thought it better than it was made out to be by critics. But in the end it’s still too creaky with bits and pieces that don’t fit together, a problem that goes back to the question of exactly what sort of a movie it wanted to be. Remake? Reboot? Sequel? No, “sidequel.” So a little bit of everything. Even a bit at the end (of the American release version) that is a straight steal from Dark Water. Why? I guess they wanted more J-horror in there somehow.
*. It felt to me like they just weren’t sure what they were doing. A feeling reinforced by the fact that the movie was actually released with different endings. What they wound up with is neither fish nor fowl, but a domestic-international hybrid that thrashes around for a while before fizzling out. I’m hoping this is the end.

The Grudge (2004)

*. I’ve re-watched The Grudge a lot over the years. I think perhaps in part because I have so much trouble keeping the story straight. The non-linear narrative is only one complicating factor. There’s also the fact that Ju-on: The Grudge was actually the third movie in what had become a horror franchise. So there’s quite a lot of back story that is only brushed at here in a pretty superficial way. Then there’s also the fact that the characters of Matthew Williams and Peter Kirk, played by William Mapother and Bill Pullman, look so much alike. And finally let’s throw in how Kayako is insane, leaving Peter (and us) struggling to understand exactly what is going on with her, and why he kills himself.
*. But in the documentary “A Powerful Rage” included with the DVD star Sarah Michelle Gellar says she was drawn to the material because it demands intelligence of the audience. So I take that as a challenge. I mean, has watching so many less-complicated movies made me too stupid to follow this one?
*. Usually I manage to get things straight by the end. Of course there are parts of the story to balk at. The first of these has to do with figuring out just what kind of a ghost Kayako is. Just like her shadowy appearance she seems kind of amorphous. Is she liquid or a gas? Her locus of power is the house she died in, but she can travel anywhere in a pinch. She can also teleport from place to place, but most of the time has to crawl around on the floor. Mainly, I think, so she can look scary.
*. Perhaps the biggest thing about her to flag though, at least for a Western audience, is that she kills indiscriminately. “It never forgives. It never forgets.” That was one of the film’s tag lines. But Kayako kills people who have done her no wrong and who she has no memory of. This is one of the themes of J-horror that seemed most alien at the time, but that American audiences would soon be embracing. We were used to monsters who killed sexually promiscuous teenagers or just plain assholes. But here you only have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to get iced. I think it says something about our evolving sense of justice that we adapted to this point of view so readily.
*. I should say that, given the general rules of the curse (screenwriter Stephen Susco: “If you go in the house, you’re doomed”), the real estate agent here must not be liking his chances. Poor John Cho didn’t get off so easy in the 2020 reset (or sidequel, or whatever you want to call it).
*. Another J-horror theme that was something a bit new was the revenge of the submissive/repressed woman. Not rape-revenge, because Kayako isn’t raped. Indeed her fantasy is to engage in an affair. She wants to break free. Was this something Western audiences identified with? Perhaps not as much.
*. “It is said in Japan . . .” I wonder if this is total bullshit. I suspect it is. I don’t think people in Japan are any more likely to believe in such stories as people living in any other country. Japan certainly has a long tradition of ghost tales, but the way Kayako behaves and is motivated seems new. Someone should make a horror movie where a police officer in a parka says “It is said in Canada . . .” before giving us some line about the Wendigo.
*. I like this version of The Grudge. In fact it may be favourite Western J-horror. Though the fragmented narrative is hard to follow it allows for a series of excellent mini-climaxes before the end, instead of having to wait, as in The Ring, for a big reveal. So I’ll totally disagree with Roger Ebert’s dismissal of the film’s pace and structure: “I eventually lost all patience. The movie may have some subterranean level on which the story strands connect and make sense, but it eluded me. The fragmented time structure is a nuisance, not a style.” Neither a nuisance nor a style, I would say.
*. The suspense is well handled in scenes that don’t blow us away with gore. Instead Kayako seems to mainly scare people to death, with scenes ending on a scream (or Toshio’s mouth hanging open, or the reveal of Yoko’s missing jaw, which both provide the same visual cue for screaming). This makes for some great chills, as seeing people being scared is itself scary. It’s silly that Susan wants to jump in bed and cover up her head to get away from Kayako, but it’s one of those things that knock us back down the stairs into childhood (as Stephen King would say). On the other hand, the way some characters become catatonic strikes me as less effective.
*. One thing I don’t much care for are the performances. Gellar is just OK. Jason Behr’s character is kind of pointless, and is even made to appear a bit ridiculous at the end, which is not at all how the original plays its final act. Some of the problem may have been due to director Takashi Shimizu not knowing English. The script, however, also leaves some of the characters with not much to work with. Behr and Pullman in particular seem a bit lost, left to wander around in a daze.
*. Wardrobe. I think most of the time if you don’t notice it, it’s doing its job. So why does Maria Kirk look so glammed up when Karen goes to visit her? That dress is really making a statement. I mean, I guess she’s planning on going out later, but I don’t recall there being any explanation for it and it just seems really odd. Especially in the middle of the day.
*. J-horror, at least the Western taste for it, didn’t last long. I’d call this movie its peak, at least among English-language productions. The sequels and sidequel would mark a falling off, just as the rest of the Ring franchise would prove to be. Nevertheless they were on to something here and Hollywood did at least manage to go carpetbagging for a couple of respectable remakes. That’s pretty good, and as much as we could have hoped for.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

*. Is J-horror over now? And, if so, can we say, looking back, that it ever amounted to much?
*. I think most Western audiences know of J-horror only through its two greatest exemplars: Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002). Both movies were remade by Hollywood (as The Ring and The Grudge respectively), and both were only instalments in what turned into long-running horror franchises in both countries. Indeed, in the case of Ju-on: The Grudge we’re talking about the third feature in a series that actually began with a couple of shorts (Katasumi and 4444444444), though it was the first instalment to receive a theatrical release.
*. Outside of these two franchises the translation to English-language productions has been thin. Dark Water (2005) was good. One Missed Call (2008) wasn’t. Nothing to get that excited, or frightened, by. Since then Hollywood has gone back to making Godzilla Japan’s number-one entertainment export.
*. This being the third Ju-on movie, I think most people coming to it at the time probably already knew something of the back story or (as we like to style these things now) mythology. That would help, as none of it is explained here. But even if they were up to speed the narrative is so random they probably felt some confusion. There’s certainly more a sense of something episodic in this movie than was the case with the American remake, though it does hold together in a loose fashion. If you’re just coming to it cold, however, I think you’d likely be lost. I know I was, even having seen The Grudge several times.
*. Watching this movie alongside The Grudge I had much the same feeling as watching Ringu and The Ring. Some of the effects here are really crude. Kayako’s ghostly form hovering over the old lady looks especially bad. Hollywood was able to help things along in this department, as well as putting together a somewhat tighter ship in terms of the script (the opposite of what Gore Verbinski did with Ringu). I think the remake is a scarier movie. But, even with the language barrier, I much prefer the performances in Ju-on and think the presentation has a kind of honest simplicity about it that works. Kayako’s head looming out of the bathroom stall looks awful, but still manages to be terrifying.

*. Overall, I think this is an excellent movie. Some of the parts don’t fit all that well, especially the Izumi chapter. This adds to the episodic character of the story that I’ve mentioned. But it also has a strong sense of personal style, as in the delightful nod to Fuseli’s “Nightmare,” or the final montage of empty streets. But to return to my initial question, was J-horror really anything special? If Ju-on: The Grudge is one of its greatest achievements, and I think it is, it seems fair to ask.
*. I think J-horror was good, and important. Despite being derivative in some regards (even of itself, including some straight steals in this movie from Ringu), several of the qualities that would become typical of J-horror were necessary and new. Among these I’d flag the monstrous women (empowered? rising up against male oppression?), the importance of technology as a spiritual medium (these aren’t your grandparents’ ghosts, they can even use cell phones!), and the destruction of the innocent.
*. Hollywood would pick up on all of this, without doing much that was interesting with any of it. Despite having their pick of the crop, I don’t think the American version of J-horror was very successful. For some reason the male leads in both The Ring and The Grudge strike me as particularly weak, as though the producers didn’t know what to do with movies where men were secondary. Note, for example, that Rika doesn’t have a boyfriend in this film, and returns to the haunted house to save her female friend. Was that just not going to fly in the U.S.?
*. The real thing here however is that even twenty years and many films later this still holds up as great entertainment, with a handful of unforgettable moments. Rough around the edges to be sure, but nevertheless it’s proven durable.

4444444444 (1998)

*. This is the second of two very short films that began, in embryo, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on franchise. I don’t think it’s quite right to see them as laying the foundation for Ju-on (as Shimizu claims they did) because all they really do is introduce the two main characters of Kayako (in Katasumi) and Toshio (here), without any narrative context. Context being admittedly hard to provide in three minutes.
*. J-horror deserves a lot of credit for injecting supernatural horror into modern technology, but I wouldn’t want to overstate this. Creepy telephone calls have long been a staple of scary movies. The jump with cell phones is that the scare can reach out and touch you anywhere, anytime. So no more “the caller is inside the house!” (Black Christmas) or standing just outside, watching you (Scream). The caller may be sitting right next to you! It’s a more intimate device in that way.
*. What this portability and ubiquity allows for is this movie’s jump ending. This is a version of the sudden radical collapsing-of-distance jump. Think of the gremlin on the wing of the plane in the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (also included in Twilight Zone: The Movie). You don’t expect the creature to suddenly be so close, literally right in your face, when the passenger raises the blind of the window.
*. The appearance of Toshio works the same way. Anyone on a phone must be some distance away, we think. But then all of a sudden he’s right there, invading our personal space in a creepy way.
*. I say creepy because on the surface he doesn’t seem like an immediate threat. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t have a weapon. In fact I don’t know if he even has any clothes on. His mouth opens and some black tar comes out, but is that supposed to be dangerous?
*. As the series would later develop Toshio actually wouldn’t be much of a threat. He’s more like Kayako’s familiar, tying into his association with a black cat. If anything he’s a warning. Something bad is about to happen. And when you think about it, isn’t a warning delivered by an imp like this even scarier than what’s actually coming? We have to imagine it’s going to be something really bad.

Katasumi (1998)

*. It’s interesting to reflect on how stories begin. Often it’s only with an image. In the case of the Saw franchise things apparently got started with the “reverse bear trap” device, which provided Wan and Whannell with the hook for a short film that launched everything.
*. In the case of Saw 0.5, however, there are some aspects of the subsequent mythology present. Like Billy the puppet, and the notion that escaping from the killer’s trap was meant to teach some kind of life lesson.
*. With Katasumi (In a Corner) we’re given much less in the way of explanation and background for what would become the equally long-lived Ju-on franchise. All we really have here is the image of Kayako Saeki (with no clue as to this being her identity) doing her slow crawl toward her victims. But was this not just the initial germ of Ju-on, the gleam in Takashi Shimizu’s eye, but also everything that was essential about it?
*. I don’t say that as a way of deprecating Ju-on, a series of movies that I rate very highly. I just mean to suggest that behind a lot of franchise horror there’s usually a very simple idea. Perhaps nothing more than a man in a mask. The rest of the story really isn’t that important. In later films Kayako’s back story would be filled in, but I can’t say I ever really cared who she really was or what happened to her. She was never anything more to me than an angry ghost.
*. I think this is a fair way of looking at the Ju-on franchise. Subsequent movies would be episodic in nature, almost playing like a series of short films, all leading up to very similar climaxes. Victims falling down and scurrying on their bums away from Kayako would be a favourite motif. The kid Toshio would be added to the mix, though we may think of Kanna here as a forerunner. We’d never see much of Kayako in action, but only the horror of her victims at her approach. And that would be enough.
*. Still, I think it’s impressive how much Shimizu would milk out of such a simple concept. And is Kayako even that different from Sadako, with the same veil of hair falling over her face, and only crawling down stairways instead of out of television sets? I guess there must be something archetypal about a creeping terror, though I’m hard pressed to think of other movie monsters moving in quite the same way before this.
*. As a horror calling card I’m not sure I would have sat up and taken much notice of this. The POV stuff, with Kayako moving in for the kill like a kind of land shark, strikes me as kind of silly. With only a few minutes to play with there’s no chance to present any sense of what’s going on. Kayako might as well be some flesh-eating forest spirit (she comes out of the woods), only now moving on from preying on rabbits. But when we see Takako Fuji coming at us for the first time, and hear her ghastly death rattle, a hook is set. For the next several decades it would go on reeling us in.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

*. It’s a skit. There’s a perfunctory story about the champ taking a fall and having to achieve redemption. There are various characters who are just quick sketches, including Ricky Bobby himself. From this a series of gags are strung. Not physical gags so much, but the crude humour of people behaving stupidly or in a vulgar manner.
*. I say that without being censorious. I thought the foul-mouthed Bobby kids were fun. I just mention it because that’s really all there is to say. Talladega Nights isn’t a satire of anything or a movie that’s making any kind of bigger point.
*. Sacha Baron Cohen. Damn. Could they have given him a single funny line, or did they just think that having a gay NASCAR driver with a French accent would be enough? Given how he’s presented in the third act (his husband missing, his motivation in racing Ricky complicated) it seems as though the writers didn’t have any clear idea of what to do with him. Maybe they just figured he’d improvise.
*. The DVD comes with a lot of funny extras. Even the commentary with director Adam McKay and “friends” is done as a feature-length comedy track. Indeed, I found it just as funny as the movie itself. Which is to say, not hilarious but worth a smile or two. That said, the whole effort — movie, commentary, extras — is just a collection of random funny people saying and doing occasionally funny things. Also there are cars racing around a track and crashing. I thought it was OK, but I won’t be bothering with it again. It will live on in a couple of memes.

Mandy (2018)

*. Well, this certainly is some fucked-up shit. Maybe a bit too much so. I applaud its free-wheeling spirit but would it have helped to dial things back a bit?
*. I’m not sure. Parts of it try too hard. The crazy visuals and fantasy elements overwhelm, and are maybe meant to overwhelm, what seems to be a pretty pedestrian rape-revenge story. A gang of “Jesus freaks” (I wonder why they felt the need to rope Jesus into this) attack a couple in their remote cabin, killing Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and leaving Red (Nicolas Cage) to take his revenge.
*. We’ve certainly been down this road many times before. But then things get trippy. The cult are apparently in touch with demonic forces that take the form of a trio of giant lizard-men on ATVs. They look a bit like the Cenobites from Hellraiser but they’re nowhere near as interesting because they don’t seem capable of saying much aside from growling about blood and burning and death. Still, I wasn’t expecting them to put in an appearance and they helped spice things up a bit.
*. In fact, they may be less modeled on the Cenobites than on some heavy metal rockers from the ’80s. Which would make sense since the film is set in the year 1983 A.D. (they really add the Anno Domini). And to be sure many viewers have identified the metal trappings of the story. Red looks like a typical headbanger of the period, and his specially forged axe might as well be a guitar slung across his back. It’s also true that metal in the ’80s had a thing for this kind of fantasy mythologizing that would make it a good fit with the story.
*. Why then is there not more metal music? Something like the soundtrack for Heavy Metal (1981 A.D.)? Instead we get King Crimson, a ’70s prog rock outfit that I don’t consider to be a metal band at all, and another song written for the film that’s basically psychedelia. Sure the Children of the New Dawn are a latter-day Manson cult, but should they still be writing Manson-era music in 1983? Mandy wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt, so let’s hear some Sabbath!
*. As an aside, I have to wonder why Manson’s gang became so fascinating to filmmakers around this time. Manson’s Lost Girls and Wolves at the Door (both 2016), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Haunting of Sharon Tate (both 2019). What gives? The backlash against hippies is usually traced back to the 1980s, which is when I thought it ran its course. So why is it being dredged up again now? There weren’t any hippies in the ’80s. At least that you’d notice.

*. Returning to the story, as Red pursues his vengeance things become increasingly strange. I won’t try to explain it because I’m still not sure what was really going on. Maybe aliens were involved. Maybe Red was dreaming the whole thing. I don’t know. But Cage makes a great avenger, wired on demon drugs and masked in blood as he duels bad guys with chainsaws and lights cigarettes off of burning decapitated heads. Yeah, he’s bad.
*. And I could get on board with all of this. But I have two really big caveats I have to register.
*. In the first place, I thought the story really dragged in several places. I mentioned being disappointed that the demon bikers don’t talk more, but given the speeches the loquacious bad guys like Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and the Chemist (a nice turn by Richard Brake) make, that’s probably a good thing. Once these guys start talking it becomes clear right away that they have nothing at all to say but they keep talking anyway for what seems like a really long time.
*. All-in-all I have to say this is a lousy script. After a while I started thinking they might have been better off doing without it and just playing some music and letting the action speak for itself. Because nothing that anyone says really means anything. “They wronged you,” the Chemist opines, unhelpfully. “Why’d they have to go do that?”
*. The other criticism I would level at Mandy may be more the result of my getting old. A lot of this movie made me think of the t-shirts worn at metal concerts in the ’80s that told everybody “If it’s too loud, you’re too fuckin’ old!” But not only did I have trouble hearing a lot of the (worthless) dialogue (I usually watch a movie with subtitles anyway), I also couldn’t see much of what was going on. Not only are scenes filmed in very dark coloured filters, for no good reason at all, but the images are blurry as well. You’ll have to strain your eyes just to make out a lot of the gore.
*. Don’t get me wrong. I liked a lot of the creative visuals that director Panos Cosmatos indulges here. But the movie looks so muddy a lot of them didn’t really register. And if you’re being weird all the time then weirdness itself loses its bite after a while.
*. So it’s halfway to being a great cult movie, of the kind you don’t see a lot of anymore. Plus it’s got Nicolas Cage losing his shit because somebody ripped his shirt. However, it’s also at least twenty minutes too long, has a throwaway script, is hard to see or hear, and barely got me interested in its atavistic plot (you kill my woman, I crush your head). I’m glad we have it, and have no hesitation recommending it to others, but I doubt I’ll be seeing it again for a while.

Dragonwyck (1946)

*. A movie best known today for some of its credits, though these aren’t the ones it would have been identified with at the time. In 1946 this was a Gene Tierney vehicle, because Darryl Zanuck thought she was the most beautiful woman in the history of the movies. It was also an Ernest Lubitsch production (he was slated to direct before getting ill), but his name was taken (at his request) off the credits because of his creative differences with fill-in writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz, whose first film as director this was.
*. So at the time you wouldn’t have thought much of the name of Mankiewicz, or of Vincent Price (another fill-in, in his case for Gregory Peck). Price’s billing is even below that of Walter Huston’s.
*. But as Steve Haberman points out on the DVD commentary Dragonwyck is the movie that, in the rear view mirror, can be seen as launching Price’s career in a certain type of role: what Haberman calls “the prototypical Vincent Price character.”
*. What’s that? A sinister, decadent, and usually somewhat depraved aristocrat associated with various characters out of Poe (it was the Poe connection that actually allowed Price to finally understand his character here). There’s often a dead wife floating around somewhere too. Price would even joke that this was the first of his “dead wife” movies. He’d do countless more.
*. In Dragonwyck this figure is made a little more interesting because he’s crossbred with a Byronic hero manqué. The poltroon Nicholas Van Ryn is so anachronistic he’s ready to restart the American Revolution all on his own, but isn’t quite up to playing the Prince Prospero of the Catskills. It’s quite an anticlimax when Miranda (Tierney) climbs the tower to his secret chambers and finds not a Bluebeard stash of corpses but only a drugged-up derelict.
*. Though perhaps underwhelming, this is at least something a bit different. The thing is, it’s just thrown into the mix with a whole bunch of other stuff that doesn’t stick together. As Lucy Chase Williams puts it, Dragonwyck showcases “all the tried-and-true elements” of the gothic romance genre, but they’d don’t cohere.
*. To take the most obvious example, what is with the story of Van Ryn’s great-grandmother Azilde, her portrait, and the haunted harpsichord? What does any of that have to do with the rest of what’s going on? Whenever it gets reintroduced it seems shoehorned, not to mention baffling. And why did Van Ryn have to bring that oleander from Rappacini’s garden into his wife’s bedroom to poison her? Wasn’t that a bit suspicious?
*. Even the romance angle is both weird and disappointing. Why does Miranda marry Van Ryn? She doesn’t seem in love with him so is she just a gold-digger? That’s not very sympathetic. Nor is there much chemistry between her and Dr. Jeff (Glenn Langan), who represents the new aristocracy. He’s just another one of those tried-and-true elements that go into the romance formula. He’s young, good-looking, a doctor. Of course they’ll get together after a suitable period of mourning for ol’ what’s-his-name.
*. This is a movie that makes you think of lots of other novel-movies — from Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Uninvited, down to all the later Poe/Price entries — only it’s not as good or quite as much fun. As a foreshadowing of that later development Dragonwyck is noteworthy, but despite its top-drawer talent (Mankiewicz, Alfred Newman’s music, Arthur Miller’s photography) and prestige-picture budget (nearly $2 million), it’s not much of a movie. Still worth seeing for all of the reasons mentioned, but unlikely to be a favourite.