Author Archives: Alex Good

Taken (2008)

*. This one was a real head-scratcher. It was a huge box office success, turning a $22 million budget into over $220 million while making an action hero out of Liam Neeson overnight. Neeson thought it was going to be a direct-to-video release. Instead it turned into a franchise.
*. But why? It’s not very good. I mean, it’s really, really not very good.
*. The story is, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as Commando. You took my little girl. Now I’m going to hunt you down and kill you. Game on.
*. In addition to being old, it’s also very stupid. I get that Bryan is short on time, but why not just follow Peter around instead of jumping him in broad daylight and trying to beat the shit out of him in the back of a cab? Then chase him to his death? What use was that?
*. The script is pretty much worthless. The bad guys remain almost totally anonymous, and have to be introduced serially because none of them are very interesting. And the dialogue even includes lines like “it was all business, nothing personal.” Come on. In 2008?
*. So it’s just a brainless action flick. But the action isn’t any good either. All of the stunts and fight choreography are done in the editing room. Because if your longest shot is only lasting a couple of seconds, you don’t really have to do much in the way of stunts do you? There’s nothing inherently wrong about this — action films have been doing it for a while now — but at the same time, it’s not that impressive either.
*. Some people were offended by it, finding it racist. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but Bryan does seem a little disinterested in the plight of the other kidnapped girls. Hey, he’s just here for his daughter.
*. There is a larger point, however, that I think is lying behind these critiques. Bryan’s daughter, Kim, is presented in a totally unsympathetic way. In brief, she’s a shallow, spoiled, manipulative brat. I mean, the movie really doesn’t give us any reason at all to like her. She even turns on her bff Amanda when she finds out Amanda has lied to her about there being other people staying in the Paris apartment. As if that even comes close to the whoppers Kim has told to get her dad to sign off on the trip!
*. So why present Kim to us in this way? Why not just make her a normal kid instead of such a trophy daughter whose mother thinks she’s going to see the world as it really is by jetting around Europe staying in “the best hotels” and trying to be a U2 groupie?
*. Because she’s not really a person, she’s an asset. What she represents is capital, which is also the point of her virginity being auctioned off at the end. What Bryan is defending is not honour or humanity (qualities shared by the other poor girls he finds), but something that’s worth even more. Kim is a high-value property, they aren’t. So Bryan isn’t defending America’s outraged innocence, but the status of the American dollar as the world’s default currency. Intact, Kim remains undepreciated (not a typo for underappreciated).
*. So what in all of this made it such a hit?
*. Well, in the first place Neeson really worked. He wasn’t the first choice for the part, but the producers just got lucky. The most particular of his set of skills is maintaining such a disciplined front. I guess the first lesson in action-film school is how to project cool. No problems on that front here. Billy’s going to kick ass without breaking a smile or a sweat, or even cracking a wry one-liner.
*. Second, it was an action film that had an extra little bit of nasty. It’s our hero this time out who is doing the torturing, not the poor guy strapped to the chair. And when he zaps the information he needs out of him, he just leaves him to fry. Nasty. Also nasty is shooting his (former) friend’s innocent wife in the arm. I didn’t see that coming, and it woke me up for a second.
*. And . . . I guess that was enough. All around, this was a totally uninteresting little action flick that just merrily punches all the buttons (or pulls all the triggers) it can. So Bryan’s wife left him to marry a billionaire did she? Well, just look at how the bitch comes crawling back to him in tears when she needs a real man to do the dirty work of getting their daughter back! How crude can you get?
*. Crude, but I guess for a lot of people it was effective. They were ready to be taken, and would be again.

The Copper Beeches (1912)

*. This is a curiosity. It’s one of eight Sherlock Holmes films made “under the personal supervision” of Arthur Conan Doyle, and apparently the only one of the eight that survives.
*. The reason this is interesting is because it is a very different story from what Doyle wrote. So the next time you get upset at directors messing around with the Holmesian canon, keep this film in mind and realize that Doyle was totally on board with allowing whatever changes were necessary to make a story more filmable (if not always better) entertainment.
*. For a short, silent film like this even a very short story has to be cut quite a bit. You just don’t have enough time for complexity. So, no Watson. Nobody else in the manor except mean old Mr. Ruccastle. No mastiff hound patrolling the grounds. Just a simple trap that is frustrated by the ingenuity of Holmes.
*. Aside from its special status as having been supervised by Doyle, there’s nothing very interesting going on here. It’s one of the Holmes movies made by the French studio Éclair starring Georges Tréville as Holmes. I’ve made notes on one of these, Le Trésor des Musgraves, which apparently did not have the imprimatur of Doyle (though I don’t know why it wouldn’t, since it was made by the same people at around the same time as this film).
*. I mentioned the fact that there’s no Watson here, as there wasn’t in Le Trésor des Musgraves. Instead, the story begins with the situation at the manor and Miss Hunter only comes to seek out Holmes about halfway into the movie. This makes me wonder what Doyle really thought of Watson. Of course he’s a figure much beloved by Holmes aficionados, but was he ever much more than a literary device? In a short film like this, where he wasn’t needed, he was easily disposed of.
*. I find The Copper Beeches to be slightly less interesting than Le Trésor des Musgraves, mainly for being more conventional. The acting is even stagier, with lots of arms being thrown out wide and heads tilted back. Shots tend to follow a basic formula. If you see Miss Hunter leaving the manor by the white gate and then riding down the country lane you have to see her returning with Holmes riding down the same country lane in the other direction, and then entering the same white gate. It all makes for a much tidier film than the Musgrave one, but less interesting. Still, for Holmes fans it’s worth checking out.

Point Break (2015)

*. Shouldn’t this movie have been a lot more fun?
*. The suits at the FBI express some bafflement at the motives of Team Extreme, but Utah thinks he has them pegged as hipsters seeking Nirvana. Hey, with a gang leader named Bodhi and a groupie chick named Samsara, what else? Bodhi, however, says they’re not seeking personal spiritual enlightenment so much as attempting to raise global consciousness about the fate of the planet while looking to honour Mother Earth at the same time. Or something like that.
*. But that’s all just a bunch of New Age blather. What the gang are really driven toward is death. A beautiful death, and a nice send-off too, with a promise to reunite in the afterlife. And, especially seeing as how young they all are, isn’t that a depressing philosophy? They appear, at least to me, to have sort of given up on life. This struck me as a very different note than was struck in the 1991 original, where Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) wants to affirm the value of life and the human spirit.
*. What would have happened if they’d completed the Ozaki 8 anyway? Would they have retired? Gone back to the top of the list? And since the Ozaki 8 seem to be subjectively determined and contingent on various factors, what kind of an achievement is it? It’s not like climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents or anything.
*. My goodness this script is bad. I mean, you knew going in that it would just be a line to hang the epic stunt sequences on, but it’s much worse than that. I was especially confused as to why the gang was “giving back” to the poor while being financed by such an obvious douche-bag (and probably criminal) 1-percenter like Al Fariq. How did they square that?
*. As we get the usual montage of Johnny piecing together where the gang is going to strike next I was wondering what he was going to come up with and how he was going to get there. Well, you see, the first six items on the list “all traveled in one direction: down,” so the next ordeal should involve fighting against gravity. That means going up. That can only mean . . . free solo rock climbing. And that means . . . Angel Falls, Venezuela. Damn, the kid’s good!
*. Then there is the dialogue. “We can only be responsible for own path, brother.” “Ideas can be powerful.” “That’s the difference between us. All you see is lines. We see the truth.” And etc. A little of this might have gone a long way, but there is a lot of it so it seems to stretch to the ends of the earth.
*. The only moment I really enjoyed was their cutting open the bales of cash mid-air and seeing the greenbacks explode all over creation. Something symbolic there. Almost meta, brother.
*. I’ll admit, I was laughing out loud at (not with) a lot of it. Starting with the opening scene and Jeff falling to his death, which I don’t think was supposed to be funny. Ditto for those colourful flying-squirrel suits. None of it made any sense, or really worked as any kind of update on the original. Instead of surfer dudes we now have tattooed Extreme Sports Poly-Athletes and eco-warriors undermining capitalism via heavily-sponsored stunts set in the world’s most gorgeous locations. Despite the ad campaign touting how real these stunts were, it all has the feel of something as phoney as that giant wave at the end, which comes as the ironic revenge of Mother Earth upon her staunchest defender, reuniting him at last with the Many and the One. It’s a beautiful line, man. The dude abides.

Point Break (1991)

*. I remember seeing this one with a group of friends when it first came out and I think we all were left wondering what to make of it. Sure it was a cops-n-robbers action film with car chases and gun fights, and the usual bullshit about the unorthodox and mismatched buddy cops with the hard-ass jerk of a boss, but, at least at times, it did seem like something different.
*. Maybe it was just trying a bit harder. I like how the footrace plays out with a number of interesting elements. It starts off with Johnny fighting the man in the Reagan mask while that man is on fire. That was kind of interesting. Then you have little things like the way the perp closes and locks the glass door behind him when he cuts through the house, and then throws the dog at Johnny. These aren’t things that make you go “Wow!” but they help to perk up what is an otherwise conventional chase sequence.
*. Then there are the sympathetic villains. It’s established early on that they don’t kill people when they rob banks, and the ex-presidents theme shows wit. They are “adrenaline junkies” looking for a way to finance their “ultimate rush”-seeking lifestyle, because, let’s face it, working sucks. I think we can all relate.
*. This relatability is an important point that I felt the 2015 remake flubbed badly. In that movie the gang struck me as depressingly downbeat. They wanted to die, but die beautifully. At one point in this film Johnny accuses Bodhi of having a death wish, but that’s not right. As he makes clear in his big campfire speech, what Bodhi wants to do is show that the human spirit is still alive. The gang accept death, but they’re not really directed toward it. You could argue that Bodhi is suicidal at the end, but at that point all his options have been removed.
*. Kathryn Bigelow also nicely captures the romance of the gang’s lifestyle. The surfing and skydiving are a kind of ballet. And Patrick Swayze just has too much energy and charm to be a real villain, or to lead us to think that he wants to die.
*. If there’s a big problem with the movie (I’m ignoring all the little problems) it’s in how quickly Bodhi turns from someone who is essentially non-violent to being almost indifferent to killing. His whoops and cheers after landing in the desert next to the body of his dead friend struck me as particularly jarring.
*. Then again, Johnny doesn’t do much to revenge Gary Busey’s Pappas does he? I guess he never bonded with his partner as much as he did with Bodhi.
*. Keanu Reeves. Pretty awful, as usual. But Bigelow knew him and could use him for what he was: a beautiful man who looks great in a wet t-shirt. Put a couple of more animated figures on either side of him (Swayze and Busey) and he seems almost normal.
*. Roger Ebert: “The plot of Point Blank, summarized, invites parody (rookie agent goes undercover as surfer to catch bank robbers). The result is surprisingly effective.” It’s interesting how often this happens. It doesn’t matter that a plot is ridiculous or “invites ridicule” so long as it works dramatically.
*. Some of the dialogue is very bad, and Reeves’s delivery just takes it up (or down) another level. His final words to Bohdi on the beach are hard not to smile at. But it’s a script that’s also knowing enough to undercut its own badness in this department. Example: Reeves bellowing at Tyler “My name’s Johnny Utah!” and having her call back “Who cares?” Or Reeves (again bellowing) to Bohdi “This is your fucking wake-up call! I am an FBI agent!” and having Bohdi reply “Yeah, I know. Ain’t it wild?”
*. It’s sometimes labeled a cult film today, but I don’t know if it quite makes that cut. I think it’s well made, and Swayze is terrific. Some of it is very conventional, and some of it very stupid, but it seems at least aware of these shortcomings. It’s not a movie I return to, because at the end of the day I don’t think there’s much to it, but it’s weird enough to have lasted this long and it may be around for a while yet.

Freaks (1932)

*. The easy and obvious place to start is to say that this movie is itself a freak, an oddity, sui generis, “one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio” (David Skal). Though perhaps this is only being lazy and clever. As the initial review in the New York Times put it: “Freaks is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion.”
*. Well, let’s start with things that I think we can say about Freaks. In the first place, it was a commercial failure. MGM wanted to get into the horror business after seeing Universal’s success, but they didn’t like what they got with Freaks and it did poorly at the box office. Critics were largely (though not exclusively) against it, it was banned in the UK, and then all but disappeared for a number of years. Tood Browning’s career was basically over. Skal says Freaks “was the beginning of the end of Todd Browning’s previously charmed career at MGM,” though he did go on to make a couple of other interesting but minor films in the 1930s (including Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll).
*. In the second place Freaks a semi-lost film. Apparently it was cut by about a third and the stuff that was cut is gone forever. In this (one) respect it’s like The Magnificent Ambersons (or Metropolis, before that semi-lost film was found): a landmark film but also a ruined monument to what might have been.
*. As a result of having lost so much and then having extra material added in post production at the studio’s insistence (including a new opening and a dreadful epilogue), the result is a mess. There are even lines that are left not making any sense. For example, when Hercules belts Joseph(ine) he says he’ll fix her eye, which just sounds bizarre because they cut the line before it which had him saying “You’re fixing your nose are you?”
*. A final word I’d add to this short list of failure and lost is shock. There are very few horror movies that retain their power to shock, and for Freaks to be able to do so after nearly a hundred years is amazing. And yet who can forget Cleopatra’s final appearance as the Duck Lady? This is body horror long before there was a name for it, and it still packs a wallop.
*. I love the hand tearing through the title screen, and the barker’s spiel immediately grounds our sympathy. “They didn’t ask to be brought into this world.” Echoes of Frankenstein, which are perhaps not by coincidence. Early monsters tended to be more sympathetic. Contemporary horror is more about psychopaths and other killing machines.
*. There’s also a prologue scroll that played before the film that I should mention. “Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.” I had never heard the word “teratology” before. It means the study of abnormalities of physiological development. You learn something every day, and from the unlikeliest sources.

*. Danny Peary: “I can think of no film from the period that is filled with more sexual innuendo.” It really is remarkable, both for how much of it there is and for how frankly it’s presented. Some of it was cut (Skal mentions a scene where the trained seal amorously pursues the Turtle Girl), but plenty remains. Perhaps the most daring is Cleopatra’s line when she displays her bosom to Hercules and asks “What do you think of these?” But there’s also the scene where Cleopatra drops her cape for Hans while he ogles her, or when Phroso seems to notice Venus’s “shape” for the first time. Then there’s Roscoe stripping down to his (ladies’) underwear, or Frieda hanging her lingerie on the clothesline. Or think of the way Cleopatra goes into orgasm mode while Hans massages her (“It’s so good to be rubbed!”), or the similar expressions of passion by the Siamese twin who is not being kissed.

*. Why so much sexy stuff? Usually sex in horror is meant either as a distraction or as a way of suggesting some thematic or psychological link between sex and violence. Here, however, it seems like just another way to introduce a note of normality. Of course these are sexual beings. They are, as they insist, still men (and women).
*. With his background in the circus and predilection for such creepy stories (he’d already done The Unholy Three and The Unknown), I guess this was the movie Browning was destined to make. David Thomson thought Thalberg was also a key personality, but I think this may be overplayed. Thalberg initially supported the film (or at least supported Browning), before later despairing of it.
*. Thomson: “Nothing is exaggerated; nothing is set up in a world of shadow or dementia.” Because it didn’t need to go the route of expressionistic nightmare, though Browning was more than capable of this. But I think the main point is that Browning didn’t want the freaks to seem like monsters, at least initially. He wanted them to appear normal before they turn into something dangerous.

*. Perhaps because of all the cuts it seems to me to be a movie of moments. The wedding banquet is justifiably famous, remembered in films like Altman’s The Player and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Gooble-gobble” has entered the vernacular. The sense of a net closing around Cleopatra and Hercules in the final act is well handled, and the climactic chase in the storm, with the freaks sliding through the mud in pursuit, is great, if abbreviated. Finally, the shot of Cleopatra as the Duck Woman is unforgettable, and really should have been the final shot of the film. The only other ending I can compare it to for sheer shock value is the “Help me! Help meeeeee!” at the end of The Fly (1958).
*. The sideshow performers do their thing, but the acting by the “normal” figures isn’t very good. Some of them seem as uncomfortable with the dialogue as Browning was with sound generally. Originally Myrna Loy was set to play Cleopatra and Jean Harlow Venus, but they understandably bailed. The project itself was originally the idea of Harry Earles (Hans), who wanted to make a film of the Tod Robbins story “Spurs.” Actually, as the credits read, the final script was only “suggested” by “Spurs.” They are very different stories. For example, the midget’s revenge on his gold-digging bride is only to beat her (putting the titular “spurs” to her while he rides on her shoulders), not to turn her into a freak herself.

*. I began by mentioning the conventional line about how this movie is a sort of sideshow attraction of its own. That has to be qualified, as it does tell what is in many ways a conventional story, but I think it’s as a freak  show that I still look at it.
*. What I mean is that I don’t really enjoy watching it, and don’t come back to it very often, but that it does exert that horrible fascination that we associate with freak shows, or car accidents. I think parts of it are very well done, and even in its present mutilated form it may be Browning’s best work (I’m not a big fan of Dracula). Maybe it’s the lack of any characters I really care about that leaves me feeling a bit cold toward it.

*. This is, however, also one of the more remarkable things about how Freaks works. For most of the movie the freaks are presented sympathetically: loyal to each other and generally good natured. But at the end this image is reversed: we go from their idyllic first appearance playing in the sunny woods to the last shots we have of them, covered in mud and crawling through a stormy forest at night, very much objects of terror. In other words, we’ve been fooled by a bait-and-switch. Not that the freaks really are evil monsters, but that the story is told in such way that we’ve been lulled into thinking they’re harmless and nice only to have our expectations suddenly reversed.
*. We may think we’re living in a world with certain moral rules, but in the end that’s not the way Browning wants to play it. Because let’s face it, the epilogue’s attempt to whitewash Hans’s complicity in what happened to Cleopatra isn’t just unconvincing but disgusting. We know he is an embittered and nasty man.
*. Skal calls Browning a “profoundly cynical artist.” He’s our contemporary. This is a bleak film and it belongs on a double-bill with such an example of twenty-first century cynicism and body horror as The Human Centipede. Such an outlook is more at home in our own time. Gooble-gobble. One of us.

From Beyond (1986)

*. Why did this team — director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton — give or take individual members, keep returning to the works of H. P. Lovecraft? After all, they changed the actual stories so much as to make them virtually unrecognizable. Indeed, in some cases they seem to have only kept the characters’ names.
*. Roger Corman had taken the same liberties with the works of Poe in his Poe cycle, and apparently Gordon had the idea of doing the same with Lovecraft. This doesn’t, however, explain the particular attraction Lovecraft had.
*. I think the main draw was that it was material that was in the public domain that had name recognition. The titles were even sometimes presented as H. P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, etc. At the same time, however, the stories were not sources that people were too familiar with or particularly wed to.
*. As an added bonus, with Lovecraft you got tentacles. Lovecraft is all about ropey, grasping tentacles. For some reason these movies really like tentacles too. They almost make a fetish of them. So there was something that was simpatico there.
*. There is one consistent, and glaring, digression from Lovecraft they make (I’m still talking about the Gordon-Yuzna Lovecraft films in general here). That has to do with sex. Most of these films have an enlarged and explicit sexual component, but sex was never big for Lovecraft. Or at least, it wasn’t big on the surface. Biographers and literary critics like to speculate on the meaning all those tentacles might have had in the mind of someone so repressed.
*. Of course there’s nothing new about erotic horror. Dracula was a sexy guy. The Wolf Man was the awakened id. Around this time, however, horror was getting downright kinky. A year after this movie was released Hellraiser came out, which played up the S&M angle even further. In fact, they’re very similar films in many ways, with horny devils from another dimension and women who get turned on by all that nasty stuff. For Dr. McMichaels the “resonator” is clearly some kind of proto-orgasmatron.

*. As with the famous scene of “the head giving head” in Re-Animator, the envelope here is pushed pretty hard. I mean, Katherine giving Crawford a handjob and then licking her fingers is pretty darn explicit.
*. Aside from the sexual angle though there’s nothing much of interest here. Lovecraft’s story is done before the credits start to roll. The plot basically just exists to show off a bunch of gruesome effects involving people’s bodies melting in grotesque ways. And pineal glands that sprout like erections from foreheads. And tentacles.

*. At the beginning of the movie (right after the credits) Dr. Bloch leaves her keys in the door to Tillinghast’s cell when she leaves. I thought they were going to make something out of that, but I guess it was just a slip.
*. It’s not a scary movie but it does have some fun moments. Bubba (Ken Foree, who was Peter in Dawn of the Dead) fighting the monster in his red Speedo-underwear. Crawford sucking out eyeballs. Just hearing the name Dr. Pretorius (in the story Tillinghast is the mad doctor while the Jeffrey Combs character is unnamed).
*. But basically it’s an effects film. Given the date and how cheaply the film was made (in Italy, where the producers could really stretch a buck), we shouldn’t expect too much from those effects today. Some of them, especially the floating fluorescent eels, look pretty bad. There’s also none of the sense of transgressive danger that would energize Hellraiser and make that movie such a game-changer. From Beyond doesn’t ask us to take it seriously, because that’s not how it takes itself.

Morel’s Invention (1974)

*. The source novella, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, was apparently also the inspiration for Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Make of that what you will. I can’t do too much with it, aside from noting how Anna Karina, muse of Jean Luc-Godard, looks like a flapper (Morel’s “group portrait” is dated 1929), and that Louise Brooks was supposedly the model for Faustine and Delphine Seyrig’s “A” in Last Year at Marienbad. So these screen-muse figures all sort of blur into one.
*. This is significant because Morel’s Invention is a love story, or I think more properly an obsession story. The fugitive (Giulio Brogi) — and I think he is a fugitive, rather than a castaway, as credited — is yet another star-struck fan, falling in love with someone who is essentially a movie star, to the point where he wants to enter the film and be a part of it. It’s The Purple Rose of Malta.
*. Unfortunately, director Emidio Greco (directing his first feature) doesn’t capture this obsession. There’s really nothing going on between the fugitive and Faustine, which probably makes a lot of the movie hard to understand for anyone not familiar with the book. Unless we’re made to feel his obsession then nothing makes any sense.

*. This is too bad, as there are a lot of different avenues the movie could have explored. The question of whether it is all a dream (the fugitive is first awoken by the music of the newly-arrived visitors). The looping time scheme, which has the visitors constantly re-enacting the same week, and the different perspectives this gives the fugitive (and us) into their lives. The way the early visitors don’t know they’re dead (as actors don’t know they’re in a movie), which allows for incongruities like the dancing in the rain (reminiscent of the rain falling inside the house at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris).
*. There’s almost no speech, aside from Morel’s lecture on his experiment, and little by way of score aside from source or diegetic music. This might have been interesting too, as the visitors hail from the silent era. But again it’s a road we never go down.
*. I like the museum itself, and it’s dusty air of Art Deco luxury. Luxury always has a touch of the alien about it, and that’s something we do get to feel here.
*. Casares’s novel is no doubt hard to adapt, but it really deserves better. The ending here in particular struck me as limp and enigmatic, flubbing the idea of the fugitive dying into art and becoming the image he has come to adore. That’s a form of suicide our own age is very much in love with, as we imagine uploading consciousness to the cloud. Morel’s machine is now a server, and he wouldn’t need to go to all that trouble to build a museum. With CGI effects and all the rest, we’ve already taken reality out of our SF movies. Now all we have to do is take it out of our reality.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

*. Last Year at Marienbad is a puzzle film, of the kind that does not allow for a solution. Its meaning can be argued over, but never finally determined. For some people that is its weakness, for others its strength.
*. This obscurity was intentional. Screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet thought it “a pure construction, an object without reference to anything outside itself.” That’s of course impossible for any image or use of language, but it does help explain the film’s sense of presenting a time and place hermetically sealed off from rest of the world. It’s only when the camera settles on these figures that they come briefly to life. When the camera dollies or pans away we can be sure they all go right back to their version of the mannequin challenge.

*. Obscurity, however, doesn’t mean that interpretation can run free. Resnais didn’t think of the film as a total enigma, only one whose reading would be unique to each viewer. But I think there are still limits. On the Criterion DVD Ginette Vincendeau presents us with the possibility that it may be a post-nuclear war movie, or that “A” (Delphine Seyrig) takes over the narrative at the end. I find the first suggestion to be crazy and the second not based on any evidence. I prefer Roger Ebert’s reading of “X” (Giogrio Albertazzi) as the author/director (or auteur). “Isn’t this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around?” Yes, I can see this. But then Ebert has to enter caveats and we know we can’t take this line of thinking too far.
*. It’s a movie that has always divided opinion. Where some find it difficult others find it empty. The Medved brothers, for example, included it in their volume of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. I wouldn’t go that far, perhaps because I don’t find it as frustrating so much as simply odd. Once you realize and accept its difference then you won’t get so angry.
*. For example, the most interesting part of the documentary on the making of the film  that’s included in the Criterion DVD (Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad) has the script girl Sylvette Baudrot showing a chart she had made breaking the film down into separate time threads, with some left “indeterminate.” Of course, once you allow for the existence of an “indeterminate” time or narrative thread then the whole scheme falls apart. How many times does “A” die? Or does she die? Drawing up such a chart strikes me as a pointless exercise, though I’m sure lots of people have given it a try.
*. Nor do I think that looking for sources or later signs of influence helps very much. With regard to the first, it’s often said that Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel provided some of the inspiration, but I don’t see that as being of much assistance. Apparently Casares based the character of Faustine on Louise Brooks, and “A” in Marienbad (the Faustine figure) had the same model. But I’m not sure what any of that means. Meanwhile, would “X” be the fugitive narrator from Casares’s novel? Are these characters only holograms? I suppose it’s possible, but then a lot of things are possible.

*. Looking to movies it might be thought of as having influenced, I find the link to horror films most suggestive: from Carnival of Souls with its haunting organ music and protagonist who doesn’t know she’s dead, through Daughters of Darkness (Delphine Seyrig returning to a classy hotel, an “edifice of a bygone era,” as a decadent vampire), to Kubrick’s The Shining. Pauline Kael, who was not a fan, thought the characters (“or rather figures”) to be “a tony variant of the undead of vampire movies” (and “M”‘s likeness to a vampire was noted by many other critics as well). But in going down this road I know I’m just pursuing my own subjective reading, being someone who spends a lot of time watching horror films. I’m sure anyone could find similar connections to other genres, like romance.
*. So if everything is so indeterminate, what can we say about Last Year at Marienbad? I guess the thing that stands out the most is the look. By this I mean the excessively stilted, formal arrangement of the pieces and the players. The sense of refined stasis that reinforces the notion of a closed world from which there is no escape or release. Even emotion seems out of place. When “M” shoots “A,” does he do it in a fit of passion? It doesn’t look that way to me. Even the “rape” scene (if that was what it is) seems almost ridiculously out of place.
*. As Mark Polizzotti says in this Criterion essay, “though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love.” So how can we imagine a rape and a murder?
*. Nor do I have the sense of passion being repressed or sublimated in some way. Instead, emotion seems to have drained from Marienbad, or wherever they are, along with all the colour. “X”‘s pursuit of “A” is just a routine, like playing all those games against “M” that he doesn’t seem to mind losing. But then he appears to be the only one who knows that he’s been through all this before.
*. My own take on it, for what it may be worth, is less that the characters are caught in an endless loop (as in The Invention of Morel) as they inhabit slightly different threads of time in alternate universes. At times these threads seem very close indeed, as when we get the series of shots of “A” in her death pose, which are all slightly different. But in other threads she hasn’t been murdered at all. Then, at other points, the threads seem to cross. Perhaps the “A” who “X” is talking to at some particular moment doesn’t remember seeing him at Marienbad last year because she really wasn’t there. Then, later, he meets up with an “A” who has.

*. At one point, following this reading, we actually get to see a number of threads simultaneously, a rare moment of temporal conjunction. This is in the shot of the three images of “A” as though being reflected in a pair of mirrors. Except these are not reflections, as “A” makes different movements in each. It’s like three different Marienbads cross over at once, at which point they will begin to diverge again.

*. It’s a magic moment, but among the few I can point to. I won’t deny that I don’t love this movie. It’s the kind of film that has to be watched over and over, but one does so at least partially out of a sense of duty. It lures us with a meaning that I don’t think it has, but I’ll still grant it’s a work of art that teases us out of thought. I don’t think it’s an empty experience, but I do find it to be a modest one and probably not worth that much thinking about.

House of Wax (2005)

*. There was a fairly common and consistent critical response to this movie when it came out. In a nutshell: it wasn’t as bad as most people thought it would be. That was not to be mistaken as saying it was good, but rather as relief on the part of most reviewers that it at least wasn’t total garbage.
*. I felt the same way. My initial response was that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. But then, it is a dead-teenager movie. So the bar to be cleared is lying on the ground somewhere.
*. The title might have you thinking of 1953’s House of Wax starring Vincent Price, itself a remake of a 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. But it has little to do with those movies aside from the killer’s nasty method of preserving his victims.
*. Instead, we are back on the most familiar ground in all of American horror: the car full of young people who find themselves in danger when they drift off the highway into redneck territory. Before you can say “Not another Texas Chain Saw Massacre clone” you are, indeed, watching another Texas Chain Saw Massacre clone.
*. The set-up is a cliché, and the clichés stick to the rest of the film like burrs. Elisha Cuthbert is a capable actress, but she’s just the twenty-first century version of the last girl here. Which is to say she’s tits in a tank top. The other characters include the boyfriend, the sexy girl (Hilton, who gets to run around in her underwear), the jock, the bad boy, and the superfluous comic dude who holds the camera (literally). They all behave very, very stupidly. Meanwhile, the villains are a degenerate family who preserve their mama’s corpse in a perpetual shrine. They like heavy metal music and indulge in gratuitous sadistic cruelty. One of them wears a mask. They have superhuman strength and are very hard to kill. You know the drill. Rob Zombie keeps making this movie, and it’s almost a surprise not to see his name in the credits here.
*. One of the guys is killed after having his Achilles tendon severed with a scalpel, and later the same trick is done to Hilton. That’s become another cliché. Who did this first? It gets done in Hostel, which came out the same year, and I’m sure I’ve seen it in several other films as well. Pet Sematary (1985) was earlier (the scene when Gage kills Jud) but I don’t know if they can lay claim to being the first. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’m always curious about these things.
*. Most of it sticks to the usual script. A. O. Scott thought “the victims don’t die in precisely the order you might expect, but everything else goes pretty much according to formula.” This is, again, setting the bar pretty low. It’s set up clearly at the beginning that Carly and Nick are the good twins who are meant to mirror the evil twins who run the wax town. So we can be sure we’re going to be left with the two of them at the end. As for the precise order of the other deaths . . . who cares?
*. And yet despite all this I still thought House of Wax above average, at least for this genre. There are two reasons for this.
*. The first is Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction, which isn’t what I would call inspired but at least handles all the basics well. He understands suspense and how to squeeze an audience’s discomfort level into the red.
*. More than that however, what I really like about House of Wax is its design and look.
*. In the first place, the effigies are great, meaning they look like people who have been coated in wax. In many cases this is because that’s what they actually were. But what’s even more impressive, and delightful in a gruesome way, is how they extend the wax museum conceit to the point where the killers have created an entire Art Deco museum made of wax, and even a wax town: a multimedia necropolis of off-road performance art complete with mechanized dummies, music and even film. Put to one side any questioning of just how probable or possible such a thing would be and enjoy it.

*. Its surreal otherworldliness makes Ambrose feel a bit like the town in Two Thousand Maniacs!, which would in turn have made a better movie to show at the local picture palace than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (misspelled on the marquee as “Whatever Happened . . .“). The two movies even came out within a couple of years of each other — which, by the way, was well before the brothers’ memory, so I’m not sure what was going on there.
*. More realistic effects don’t always make a horror film scarier, but the potential behind the sinister art of the mad wax artist and just what he does to the bodies he uses as models had been skipped over in earlier films. Here it is dwelt on, showing us living bodies sprayed in wax and turned into exhibits. We might think of the low-budget flick Nightmare in Wax, but House of Wax adds a level of morbidity, especially when we see what’s happened to Wade.
*. Too often these movies end in a disappointing and predictable manner, but the climax here is the best part. The melting house is a nightmare all its own, and looks terrific. It’s a good example of what can be done by taking today’s effects and using them to expand on traditional concepts in ambitious and original ways. I even love the way the streets of the town the morning after are still deep in congealed wax that the emergency vehicles have to churn through like mud.
*. It’s a shame really that this movie is remembered today mainly for being the one with Paris Hilton in it. It’s a lot better than that. The early twenty-first century saw a whole lot of remakes and resets of slasher franchises, and though House of Wax doesn’t really belong among them (it had no late-’70s-early-’80s predecessor), it has a lot of the same characteristics while doing a better job. It’s certainly a movie I’d rate much higher than the remakes of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Last House on the Left, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. None of those movies are worth seeing again, even if you’re a fan of such fare. This one, however, is a roadside attraction that’s worth another visit.

Crucible of Terror (1971)

*. There are a lot of horror cheapies and bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation flicks out there that are now deservedly forgotten. In our new digital dispensation, however, it appears that nothing will ever be truly lost, at least in the way that so much of the history of early cinema has gone missing. Instead, these movies will go on to enjoy a long afterlife somewhere in the clouds.
*. That’s where I found Crucible of Terror, a film that I came to with very low expectations. It’s not a great, or even a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty lousy all the way through. But for some reason I loved it. I’m so glad it hasn’t disappeared.
*. Explaining why I like it isn’t easy. It’s one of a bunch of Brit horror films from the early ’70s that Kim Newman summed up as “marginal cinema, where double-bill-fillers can be sold either for sex or violence and nothing else really matters. Too cheap for period settings [like the efforts of Hammer], these films, intentionally or not, manage to locate their horrors in a recognisable, seedy British setting unexplored in the movies. The plots are outmoded B melodrama, the girls are mostly pretty and disposable and — very rarely — extraordinary, almost-art films . . . slip out.”
*. I don’t think Crucible of Terror is extraordinary for almost slipping into art-film territory, but it does take the B-picture melodrama plot to new heights (or depths). There’s so much that’s unexpected going on. We start off thinking we’re going to get a House of Wax rip-off, but the shocking opening sequence isn’t really followed up on. Then we visit the London art scene, where we’re introduced to a hustling dealer and his dipso buddy, who also happens to be the son of a reclusive artist (the madman we met earlier). From there we’re whisked off to Cornwall and some coastal lovely scenery, where the mad artist lives with his batty wife. At this point things the plot swerves into murder-mystery territory as a killer in black gloves starts killing off the guests at the artist’s home.
*. Finally, the ending is perhaps the strangest thing of all, yanking us away from the whole mad-artist storyline into supernatural territory with the aid of a possessed kimono that has a hashtag symbol on the back. It’s madness, I tell you. Madness.

*. It’s not that all of this is weird, but rather the character of its weirdness that I enjoyed. It’s weird in a fun way.
*. The cast and characters are a delight. Mike Raven, who was a bit of an eccentric artist himself, does his best Christopher Lee, which is pretty good. James Bolam is suitably hapless as the dealer who has to put out in the back of a Rolls with a wealthy patroness (oh, the things we do for art!). Raven’s wife is a pathetic-comic figure who dresses up like a little girl while lugging around stuffed animals. The girls, I’ll agree with Newman, are mostly pretty and disposable. But then, that’s what they’re for.
*. While I don’t think anything about the film is particularly well done, for the most part it seems competently produced, and there’s such a lot of manic creativity on screen I wonder why writer-director Ted Hooker never went on to anything else. Was this a one off?
*. As I’ve said, there were a lot of not-very-good, low-budget horror films in the ’70s that have now disappeared and aren’t worth hunting down. I think this one is worth checking out though. In addition to the weirdness it has the Cornwall scenery, Raven’s off-beat performance, and some interesting kills. The casting of the model in bronze is amazing. Nothing else in the film matches up with it, but that’s OK. My expectations had already been surpassed.