*. There was a time, it didn’t last long or produce much, when movies thought they could “do” video games. This was before movies became video games, meaning their visual and narrative style (as well as some of their plot lines and characters) were imported from the video game form. The Resident Evil franchise, for example, is based on a series of video games, but more than that it’s a series of video game movies. Video games provide their aesthetic.
*. Hellworld seems like it’s going to be one of these early video game movies because the conceit is that the characters we meet are all players of an online game called Hellworld which draws on the Hellraiser franchise. I’m not sure if the game is based on the movies or if, in this world, there are any movies. But the basic Hellraiser mythology is part of the game, so everyone knows about Lemarchand’s Configuration (the box) and who Pinhead is. One of them even wears a Pinhead t-shirt.
*. I only say it seems like it’s going to be a video game movie because the game itself doesn’t play any role in the film aside from being an excuse to bring this bunch of characters together at a Hellword party held in some creepy mansion and hosted by Lance Henriksen. “There’s something really strange going on in this house,” says the last girl long after she should have figured that out.
*. The tag line was “Evil Goes Online” but in fact nobody goes online. We barely see anyone playing the Hellworld game and none of the people we meet seem remotely like gamers. They’re basically just franchise fans. In other words, Hellworld is set up to be something new to the Hellraiser franchise: a dead teenager movie. We see the young people (Henry Cavill plays one of them) being separated and dispatched individually. As per the usual idiot plot they behave like total imbeciles (my favourite is the girl who sprays herself in the face with perfume). In addition to his chains and hooks Pinhead grabs a meat cleaver and other weapons and turns into a Jasonesque slasher. There are lots of boobies, plenty of simulated sex, and a little blood. The name of the last girl is Chelsea. I don’t think any of this signals an advance.
*. The book Henriksen (credited only as the Host) has on top of his desk is A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought by Nigel Ashford and Stephen Davies (Routledge, 1991). I tried to think of something to make out of that but couldn’t come up with anything.
*. The most remarkable thing about Hellworld is that it might actually be worse than Deader, the previous movie in the series. Though to be honest we’re only talking about different flavours of shit. Director Rick Bota has a very small bag of tricks and techniques, and if you hadn’t seen enough of them after the last two Hellraiser movies you will after five minutes of this one.
*. It might have been a bit of fun. There was potential in the premise, which winds up with a twist so far-fetched it almost made me laugh. Really, if you try to work it out it makes no sense at all. I think if I hadn’t been so angry at that point I might have got a chuckle out of it. But this isn’t even a good bad movie. It’s just a piece of garbage that must have seemed at the time to have put the final nail in the franchise coffin. I mean, could things get any worse?
*. Well, they did get worse. Maybe some day I’ll pick up on the series (still ongoing as of this writing) and do some more commentary. But for now this is my stop and I’m getting off.
*. Yes, the title of this instalment is Deader. Which is either the best Hellraiser title ever or the worst. It sounds sort of like Dead and Deader.
*. Could it be the series was developing a sense of humour? The much maligned Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth had a jokey quality, what with its CD-playing Cenobites, but Deader? That’s funny stuff. I mean Hellseeker was a stupid title, but Deader is worser.
*. Alas, getting a laugh was not the intention. Deader is a typically gloomy late-Hellraiser movie, full of squalor and angst. The title refers to a suicide cult of punks who are brought back to life by the power of the cube. They call themselves “deaders,” you see.
*. The plot is actually quite confusing. I was never sure what the deaders were up to, or who their leader, a guy named Winter (Paul Rhys) was. I think he was supposed to be a descendant of Lemarchand, but I might have missed something. In any event, he was very irritating and I was looking forward to his being eviscerated.
*. Also confusing was the back story of the reporter, Amy (Kari Wuhrer) sent to investigate the cult. Apparently she was abused as a child, which led her to kill her father. Or maybe that was all a dream. I wasn’t sure.
*. The connection to the Hellraiser mythology is again tenuous. This is another movie, like the two previous films, that began as a spec script unrelated to the Hellraiser franchise which was later rejigged to include the character of Pinhead and the magic box.
*. Filmed on location in a Romania where everyone speaks English with a British accent. It has the same sort of look as the other Hellraiser movies of this period, which is not surprising as Hellseeker, Deader, and Inferno were all directed by Rick Bota. It’s a made-for-TV look that, since these were all direct-to-video releases, is fitting. But there’s no spirit or energy behind it this time out. Even Pinhead seems bored.
*. Also the same as the other late Hellraisers is the way all of the scary scenes are presented as visions. So they show you something that makes you jump, which causes Wuhrer to scream (which, I have to say, she doesn’t do well), and then we cut back to reality. This happens so many times you get sick of it.
*. I’m not going to bother trying to defend Deader. It’s garbage. Instead of being creepy it’s just sort of depressing. Kari Wuhrer looks good. I’ll give it that much. But really she looks too good to be in such an ugly, stupid movie.
*. I think of this movie as forming the second part of a triptych with the previous film Hellraiser: Inferno and the next one up, Hellraiser: Deader. All three were made out of scripts that weren’t written as Hellraiser movies but instead were adapted to include cameo appearances by Pinhead. All three are psychological horror stories, with protagonists wrestling personal demons while on a nightmarish quest of self-discovery. This one and Inferno are more like Jacob’s Ladder and Angel Heart than anything in the Hellraiser mythology.
*. That said, I did sort of enjoy Inferno. At least the first half was pretty interesting. But Hellseeker is a total waste.
*. I wish it weren’t so. I like Dean Winters and have found him quite watchable in everything I’ve seen him in. But there is absolutely nothing interesting going on here. In Inferno the main character was a police detective tracking what seemed to be a serial killer (I’m still not sure what was really going on, and perhaps it was all a dream). In this film Winters plays a cubicle monkey who gets in a car accident and loses his wife and his memory. As the film proceeds things start coming back to him. But not fast enough. I was praying for Pinhead to show up just to break the tedium.
*. Everything here is a letdown from Inferno. Pinhead’s back-up band of Cenobites have nothing to do and have an uninspired look. They’re nothing like the tongue twins in the previous movie. Meanwhile, Pinhead himself seems even more awkwardly shoehorned into the plot than usual. Though there’s a surprising connection to the first two films with the return of Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence, who I didn’t even recognize at first). It turns out the plot hinges on her making yet another deal with Pinhead, which doesn’t work out so well for her sleazy husband.
*. It looks, and indeed was, very cheaply made, but doesn’t have any of the creepy, Lynchian chills of Inferno. What it has instead is that bane of 1980s VHS thrillers: girls in sexy underwear having simulated sex. Incredibly, low-level employee Trevor (Winters) is a babe magnet. So off come the clothes for some of the most unerotic lovemaking ever seen.
*. There’s no point spending more time on this one. It’s crap. Basically Winters wanders around having a bunch of (supposedly) scary visions that he snaps out of whenever they’re about to reach a climax. This happens so many times you stop paying attention and only want the nightmares to come to an end. Which, by my reckoning, wasn’t nearly soon enough.
*. And now for something completely different.
*. Hellraiser: Inferno is the fifth film in the Hellraiser franchise and, as an indication of the series’ fortunes, the first to be released direct to video. But, and I say this in its defence, it is not just more of the same.
*. In my notes on the previous instalment, Hellraiser: Bloodline, I said that the character of Pinhead had become a kind of albatross for the series. His hooked chains had become stale and he was growing less interesting every time he opened his mouth. It’s a relief then that he’s hardly in Inferno at all, just basically appearing at the end to deliver a surprisingly moralistic homily to the film’s protagonist.
*. This is probably because the original script was not written to be a Hellraiser movie but was adapted for the franchise. Instead it’s a psychodrama about a “bad lieutenant” police detective (Craig Sheffer) who goes off the rails (cocaine, prostitutes, stealing and forging evidence). He feels guilty that he’s cheating on his wife and neglecting his parents and his daughter. It’s not even clear if the Cenobites are real or if they’re just delusionary manifestations of personal demons.
*. Even allusions to previous films in the series don’t seem right. For some reason the Lemarchand Configuration (the name of the puzzle box) has been dumbed down to the Lament Configuration. The Engineer — the name of the chief demon in the source material (Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart) and turned into a ridiculous monster in the first film — is a name adopted here by Pinhead. It’s like we’re in a kind of alternate-Hellraiser universe.
*. The visual texture of the film is also different. Yes, it’s still a bargain-basement production, but gone are the fake-looking sets and tunnels (well, there’s one tunnel/hallway scene, but it’s actually pretty good). It’s not a picture that tries to look as big as the previous sequels, and I think it’s better for that.
*. A lot of people write Inferno off, but I think the first half at least is very good. The new Cenobites are actually quite disturbing, and (as many before me have noted) there’s a real David Lynch vibe to the proceedings. The second half of the movie tends to get stuck chasing its own tail down a rabbit hole (to mix my metaphors), but up till roughly the hour mark it’s quite enjoyable. Directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister) it’s also the scariest film in the franchise since the first.
*. There are a few unforced errors. It’s fine that Joe steals the first victim’s money from his wallet, but why does he change the evidence form? Isn’t that a giveaway? And sure, it’s neat that he sees a videotape of the murder of the ice cream guy Bernie, but does he have to watch it in a bar?
*. Would it have been a better movie without Pinhead? That is, without being part of the Hellraiser franchise? I don’t know. Pinhead is certainly an odd fit for this material. He’s always been more about the passions of the flesh than tortures of the mind. At the end he seems almost to be trying to help Joe by playing Clarence Odbody to his George Bailey.
*. But is that a bad thing? As I started off by saying, Pinhead’s usual shtick was getting old. And even if it came about through the economy of recycling scripts, Inferno at least came up with an interesting new direction to explore. I think you could take a one or two-line synopsis of each of the Hellraiser films and say “Well, that sounds interesting,” or “That might be a bit different.” Inferno is no different. It’s not a great movie, but for the fifth film in a series that usually only rates around the same level as the Children of the Corn or Leprechaun franchises it’s actually a lot better than I expected.
*. Yorgos Lanthimos is a crossover art-film director, making movies that, while weird or surreal or abstract or in some other way experimental, are also tethered to reality and have stories you can follow. The lonelyhearts hotel in The Lobster, for example, is a strange place, but we can recognize the types who find themselves there and we root for the love story between David and the Short Sighted Woman.
*. In a similar way, Dogtooth is a story that not only seems torn from the headlines but it’s one that has gone on to be featured in a number of mainstream thrillers. I call these the bunker horrors, and they include movies like Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, It Comes by Night, and A Quiet Place. The inspiration for this slew of films may have been the Josef Fritzl case, but despite the clear similarities Dogtooth was already in rehearsal before that story broke and Lanthimos says he was unaware of it. Still, the point remains that, while it’s a strange premise, it’s not that far removed from reality. And of course one can think of other movie analogs in play from The Collector to The Village.
*. I’ve remarked in my notes on other bunker horror movies that they feed into an anxiety over how to protect one’s family when the whole world has gone to hell. Dogtooth is a little different, or more in line with Room, in making the bunker a prison kept by an insanely isolationist warden. But his motivation, however twisted, is much the same. My point is just that this isn’t a totally off-the-wall exercise in surrealism. In so far as Dogtooth had a real-life inspiration it was in Lanthimos’s observation on the weirdness of family life in general.
*. Indeed, families aren’t just weird. They constitute their own separate reality. This is true even for those that don’t live in a bunker. Dogtooth underlines this by having the children here being taught a different language and having to follow a bunch of other bizarre customs. It’s all undeniably weird, but I think we’ve all visited homes where the families seem to partially speak a language unique to themselves, and that operate by a set of personal rules that make no sense to outsiders.
*. That much of Dogtooth I can appreciate. And I also like its visual inventiveness and pacing, punctuated as it is with shocking moments. Not all of this, however, do I understand. Take, for example, Lanthimos’s habit of cutting off people’s heads. I don’t mean literally but in terms of his compositions. In an interview he refers to the “really strict framing” he used in shooting the film, but why should that so strictly cut actors off at their shoulders? I can’t think of any good reason. I’m inclined to think it’s connected to his being against actors acting, and his depersonalization of character (which we see expressed in the robotic way he insists lines be delivered, and his use of clothes as uniforms). Then again maybe it has something to do with the blindness motif. I don’t know.
*. There’s a coldness in all this, but then the art house is a cold environment. Also typical of that environment is the fact that Dogtooth lets you read a lot into it. Lanthimos does enjoy his ambiguous open endings, but I wonder how much of that is for a purpose and how much because he just can’t figure out where he wants to go next. The basic point here that the father can only keep a lid on burgeoning teenage sexuality so long before it erupts in violence seems pretty simple to me. Will the younger daughter escape? Or does escape in this context only mean trading in one prison for another that may be even worse (the trunk of the car, or that penitentiary-like work place the father is employed at)? I’ll admit I’m not optimistic.
*. Swordfish is a stupid movie about (supposedly) smart people.
*. John Travolta plays Gabriel, a criminal mastermind. He employs genius hackers like Hugh Jackman’s Stanley (who boasts of a preternatural ability “to see the code in my head, I can’t explain it”). You’d think that with conspirators like these there would be something very clever afoot, but as far as I can tell the only thing going on is a plot to break into a bank’s computer and transfer $9.5 billion into a secret account in Monte Carlo. That’s it. I don’t understand how they were going to get away with it aside from the fact that it all had to do with computers and you can (or at least could in 2001) do anything with computers.
*. Or take the scene where a pair of Gabriel’s henchmen simply walk into the police station and kill the Finnish computer hacker and his lawyer in the interrogation room. On the DVD commentary director Dominic Sena says that he thought that having the thugs just barging into the police station and shooting the two men “wasn’t smart enough.” So he added something “you weren’t expecting,” which is that they get Cheadle’s character out of the interrogation room by way of a prank call and then shoot their victims through the one-way mirror. This made them seem smarter? Really? Does such a laughably improbable hit qualify as smart?
*. So, no, this is not a smart movie. This is a movie where the women are all crazy sexy and cars crash into things and blow up. I mean, a lot of cars blow up. And Halle Berry is served up like a piece of meat. Berry is a very sexy woman, and I have nothing against a bit of cheesecake, but she’s also a good actor and she’s just put on display here for no other reason except to be ogled. She deserved better treatment. It was reported, however, that she was paid $500,000 just to take her top off for her sunbathing scene.
*. Why even bother introducing the character of the senator (Sam Shepard)? I wasn’t sure what his role was in all of this. Sena: “something covert is going on and we just leave it at that.” In the end Travolta has to kill him and all of his henchmen off in the middle act just to get rid of them.
*. Originally Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle) was going to be killed halfway through the movie too. Sena had to argue to keep him in, though to no good purpose. He’s just there to run along behind the action, showing up a bit too late to all the parties.
*. Why is Ginger wearing a wire anyway? I think the point was that it was all a deliberate misdirection of Stanley. But this is another part of the script that really doesn’t stand much looking into. Like how she gets roped into the game of fooling Stanley at the end with her mock-hanging and fake death. How did they know in advance to have that whole bit of theatre ready to go?
*. There were several different or alternate endings included with the DVD. This is usually a bad sign, suggesting an awareness on someone’s part that what they had just wasn’t working. I can see why. I understand they didn’t want the sort of conventional happy ending that Gabriel mocks at the beginning of the film. Plus Sena wanted to show how smart Gabriel is by getting away with it. But the moral calculus is never made clear.
*. I want to be careful what I’m saying here. I have nothing against a heist movie where the bad guys get away. What I object to is a movie where the motivations and morality of the characters remain so opaque.
*. Sena remarks on the commentary that “Travolta is one of the few actors I think who can actually play this sort of disgusting, reprehensible, evil, villainous character and you still like him.” But should we? I mean, he does kill innocent people. A lot of them. But Sera wanted the ending to make it clear that Gabriel truly is a patriot because there isn’t “a glimmer” of this in the rest of the movie. It seems to me that this is leaving things till rather late in the day.
*. Roger Ebert, who is usually a pretty good stand-in for the opinions of the common man (albeit one with a solid understanding of the art and the industry), began his review noting this confusion: “Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It’s skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters. There is one person in the movie who is definitely intended to be a hero, but are the villains really villains? Are they even themselves?”
*. Personally, I felt confused by all of the endings. I didn’t really know what Gabriel was up to (was he still working for the government or was he a freelancer?) or why. He just seemed to me like a cocky jerk. Not smart, just arrogant and unaccountably rich. Again: I don’t mind that a heel gets away with it at the end, I’m just unsure of whether or not he was supposed to be a heel. It seems a stretch for me to see him as a hero, even if he is a patriot (which also seems dubious).
*. The car crashes and explosions are really good. It’s about the only positive note I made while I was watching the movie. Apparently I was not alone in being impressed by the fireworks. Producer Joel Silver told Sena that the car blowing up in the parking garage was the best explosion he’d ever seen (and he’d seen a lot). So give credit where it’s due. And the bus flying above the streets of L.A. was spectacular. Aside from that it’s all pretty dumb, and not quite as much fun as it should be.
*. At one point, as things start to get rolling in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Brenda Fraser’s Rick (Ricochet) O’Connell grimly intones “Here we go again.” It’s one of those knowing lines that an audience is supposed to grin at. As the third film in the series, here we are, going again. The joke is that we, like Rick, can now expect more of the same. Is that a good thing?
*. There were only cosmetic changes made to the formula. Oded Fehr didn’t want to come back as Ardeth Bay, figuring (correctly) that his part wouldn’t make any sense in China, so they just went with another guardian figure in Michelle Yeoh. Rachel Weisz also opted out, but Evy is still here, now being played by Maria Bello.
*. I thought the way they switched actors in the Evy part was cleverly done, but it made me wonder how much we were supposed to now see the first two movies as romantic fictions written by Evy the novelist. That was awkward.
*. In most respects though this is “Here we go again.” It’s the same damn story, with the villains waking up the mummy just because that’s what villains do. Again the mummy is the product of some unhappy historical love triangle. Again there’s a sacred book of the dead, this time composed on oracle bones. Again there’s a crazy pilot to move our heroes around quickly. Again there are massive armies clashing in the desert.
*. Roger Ebert actually considered this to be the best of the series. He thought much less of the preceding films than I did. Here’s what he said about The Mummy Returns: “It is a curiosity of movie action that too much of it can be boring. Imagine yourself on a roller coaster for two hours. After the first 10 minutes, the thrills subside. The mistake of The Mummy Returns is to abandon the characters, and to use the plot only as a clothesline for special effects and action sequences.” Fair enough, but doesn’t all of that apply even more so to this film? I would have thought so.
*. For a big budget movie like this I can see them wanting to get the biggest Chinese stars, but Jet Li, whatever his many strengths, isn’t much of a villain. And he doesn’t get a chance to do a lot of martial arts. I think he was miscast.
*. Director Rob Cohen wanted more John Hannah in this film, but I don’t think that’s what he got. Instead they had to make room for the cringe-worthy romance involving the really anti-charismatic Luke Ford as Rick’s son.
*. In some ways this was meant to be a bridge film, with Rick and Evy passing the torch to the next generation of mummy fighters. Apparently there was even some thought given to killing Rick’s character off here. On the commentary track Cohen (who had started the Fast and Furious franchise) mentions the possibility of a fourth film, but it was not to be. Instead, the studio chose to reboot with the launch of the Dark Universe and the Tom Cruise movie The Mummy in 2017. Which was at least something different, if not better.
*. So this was to be the last rodeo. As such it strikes me as both too much and not enough. Too much of more of the same (which was too much in the first place), and not enough that’s really new. I liked the yeti, but now they’re all that I remember.
*. It should be clear from my notes on these things that I don’t think there have been many decent mummy movies.
*. There have been a couple of classic treatments that I’d rate as just OK: the initial 1932 Boris Karloff offering and the 1959 Hammer version with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. And then there are two very different films that I still really enjoy: the big-budget 1999 rollercoaster ride starring Brendan Fraser and the low-budget horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep.
*. Purists may want to argue that these last two aren’t “real” mummy movies but I think they fit the bill just fine. They mix in a lot of other stuff with the genre but the basic rules are the same. Bubba Ho-Tep, for example, isn’t just some zombie or vampire. He has personality: dressing up like a cowboy, scribbling graffiti on the walls of the bathroom stall, and cursing a mean streak in hieroglyphics. And the fact that he stays alive by sucking the souls of his victims out from their assholes actually makes as much sense as the business with tana leaves. The soul-eating and -shitting business here is crazy, but has its own coherence, which is more than such mumbo-jumbo often has.
*. As (relatively) colourful a figure as Bubba Ho-Tep is, however, he’s a shadow of the two main characters: a man who thinks he’s Elvis Presley (Bruce Campell) and another who think he’s JFK (Ossie Davis). They both live in a Texas nursing home that the mummy has made his personal happy-hunting ground. So there are three legendary figures whose lives, or afterlives, are coming together at once.
*. There are two fortunate consequences of such a bizarre premise. In the first place, it helps deal with a perennial problem mummy movies have that director Don Coscarelli mentions in his commentary. Mummies don’t move that fast, which leaves their victims all too often frozen in terror or screaming and fainting while their fate slowly shuffles toward them. In this case, however, the victims can’t run away because they can’t run. Not that they are shrinking violets anyway. Most of them do want to put up a fight. It’s just that they don’t have enough juice left in their tanks.
*. The second thing I’d note is the neat way the plot reverts the traditional type of story where children become aware of monsters but the adults don’t believe them. In this case it’s the old folks who see the mummy but everybody at the home thinks they’re suffering from dementia. After all, these are guys who think they’re Elvis and JFK. They obviously have rich, childlike imaginary lives.
*. The whole thing was shot on a budget of just over $500,000, which is remarkable. What makes it work is the script, based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, some great performances (not just Campbell and Davis, but Ella Joyce as well), and Coscarelli’s restraint in not rushing the story. Coscarelli took his time with a shooting schedule of a month on this one, and that’s something that’s reflected in the pace here and the attention to detail. This isn’t a horror movie for teens but one that enjoys the pleasure of good conversation without the interruptions of jump scares.
*. I don’t care for the ending much, which seems awkwardly and almost mawkishly sentimental. Out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the picture anyway. Apparently initial audiences didn’t like the scene where Campbell snaps at Ella Joyce’s nurse, but for me it worked. It grounded Campbell’s character in real emotions and a real situation, which is what I think the story needed.
*. Still, to borrow an image from that ending, the stars were in alignment here. It took someone like Coscarelli and the creative freedom of an independent production to make a movie like this, and through sheer professionalism it all works. Over the years there’s been much talk of a sequel but nothing has materialized. I think that tells you something about just how hard it is to make a good little movie. Much harder than to make a bad big one anyway.
*. There are a lot of things I like about The Mummy Returns, so let’s start with that. I like the way we pick up some ten years after The Mummy. Rick and Evelyn are happily married and have a plucky but not-too-irritating sprog. For some reason this made me think of Another Thin Man.
*. I also liked several of the set-piece action scenes: the fight on the double-decker bus with the soldier mummies, for example, and the attack by the tribe of mummy pygymies in the jungle. I rolled my eyes at Izzy’s dirigible but, sure, it was fun. And I could appreciate Imhotep pitching himself into hell when realizing that his eternal love hadn’t been worth it after all. It’s hard to think of another movie of this kind where the villain kills himself rather than being destroyed by the hero.
*. I could go through a similar list for things I didn’t like, headlined by the terrible CGI work on the scorpion monster at the end. But overall I think the good parts outweigh the bad. The problem is that they don’t add up to as solid a movie as the first one.
*. I don’t know why so many mummy movies have such bewildering plots. Is it to make up for their stiff and rather dull feature monsters? That would be less necessary here, as Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep is a compelling enough figure on his own, but there’s still way too much going on. For starters, did the film really need all the stuff with the Scorpion King? It seemed to complicate things far more than necessary, and at the end of the day it just confused me. If you awaken the Scorpion King, and then kill him, but only with the ceremonial spear, then you get to command his army, which will allow you to rule the world? Whatever.
*. There’s a lot of unnecessary stuff like this. Another example is the fact that Alex has to get the bracelet off his arm in seven days or he’ll die. The only place this really comes in to play is in the final dash to the pyramid, which hardly seems worth it. It’s just another example of too much going on. There are too many flashbacks, and too much exposition, even for a mummy movie. They really needed to streamline things. Why all the rigmarole about Alex escaping from the train at Karnak when he gets recaptured right away? Just another example.
*. I mentioned in my notes on The Mummy how improbable it was that Imhotep would mistake Rachel Weisz for Patricia Velasquez. In this movie they try to fix things up by bringing Velasquez back and making Weisz’s character into Velasquez’s step-daughter (I think). Also, Rick is now identified as one of the Medjai or bodyguards (because of some tattoo he doesn’t remember getting), which means he’s tasked with protecting Evelyn. Or at least he’s a spiritual descendant or reincarnation of one of these figures. Honestly, it’s just not worth trying to figure out, and I suspect few people even try. But if all they wanted was a flimsy bit of plot to hang the action sequences on they could have got by with a lot less.
*. Trading places. Dwayne Johnson in his first dramatic feature. Still only referred to as “The Rock” by director Stephen Sommers and editor Bob Ducsay on the DVD commentary. He’s just here for his muscles and I don’t believe he even gets a single line. Meanwhile, Brendan Fraser seemed like one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising and most bankable leading men.
*. Was there a curse of The Mummy? This movie did well but the franchise died, leading only to a mongrel sequel (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) and a spin-off for Johnson’s character (The Scorpion King). But Brendan Fraser, as noted, mostly disappeared. Perhaps the mummy’s curse, or the curse of Monkeybone. Stephen Sommers has never lived up to this early promise either, going on to direct Van Helsing and G.I. Joe movies and not much else. Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O’Connor: they were all great in supporting roles but just followed up with more supporting roles in worse pictures. Rachel Weisz fared best of all, becoming Yorgos Lanthimos’s It girl. But you would have thought with a pair of hits this big much more was to come from these people in terms of mainstream success. So was there a curse after all?
*. It should have been good, if not great. Anthony Shaffer’s play has a timeless quality about it. Michael Caine and Jude Law are more than capable of holding their own. Harold Pinter did the script and Kenneth Branagh was behind the camera. So what went wrong?
*. To answer that I want to go back to what I said about Deathtrap. Instead of that “timeless quality” Sleuth had that I just mentioned, Deathtrap was very much a film of its time (the early ’80s). The same goes here, with Andrew Wyke’s country manor now being redone as an ultra-modernist dream home that we could never imagine anyone actually living in, complete with a full suite of CCTV cameras (that, curiously, play no part in the plot). Only ten years later it looks silly.
*. Another thing that’s been lost is any sense of Andrew being an author possessed by his genre. Olivier in the original was someone who had trouble separating detective fact from detective fiction, he’d become so steeped in the latter. In both Deathtrap and this film Caine is playing a hack who doesn’t seem that interested in whodunits, which makes his obsessive gamesmanship (in both films) harder to understand.
*. More than this, what’s missing (again, as in Deathtrap) is the sense of fun. In the first Sleuth movie both Andrew and Milo were people who loved playing the game, putting on performances, and besting their rival. Here they just like being mean to each other.
*. The Shaffer/Mankiewicz Sleuth had its dark moments, but was still a comedy. Deathtrap tried to be funny, and maybe it was in 1982, but the jokes haven’t aged. This Sleuth, however, doesn’t even seem to try for laughs. There’s a laboured bit of stale Pinter in the “I’m you, you’re me” scene but aside from that there’s no attempt at levity that I can discern.
*. The homosexual couple in Deathtrap was obviously not a match made in heaven, but it was at least believable and didn’t play to stereotypes. The seduction scene here is, to use the cliché, cringe-inducing. The final third of the film plays the gay angle as something sick, making the nastiness even more distasteful.
*. Distasteful and dull. I mentioned how surprised I was in my notes on the 1972 version that it was so long. This movie is nearly a full hour shorter but actually feels the opposite. The final act (or, in the tennis lingo they use, set) of the original game is disposed of so that the icky and ultimately very boring homosexual angle can be played out, which was more lively and sincere in the original for being left unstated. Here the only thing that happens is that Andrew pretends (or does he?) to fall in love with Milo, who plays along in kittenish fashion until he finally calls Andrew a poofter, which gets him shot. How interesting is any of that?
*. For what it may be worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much in this case) Caine says on the commentary that he thought Andrew only wanted a companion and not a sexual partner in Milo. Hm.I think the sexual angle is played up pretty obviously from the moment he makes his proposition.
*. A proposition, by the way, that Branagh found “touching.” An older man offering to buy a rent boy? I doubt Pinter thought there was anything touching to it.
*. That’s Pinter (interrogating Branagh) appearing in a cameo as the detective on the crime show Andrew is watching on TV. I wasn’t paying much attention and thought it was John Thaw’s Inspector Morse.
*. Branagh wanted to keep things interesting without leaving the confines of the postmodern box of a set he’d constructed, which leads to a lot of irritating camera work. None of it seems natural and it has the effect, I found, of depersonalizing the leads when what should have been driving the film is their personalities. I mean, we don’t even see their faces until about eight minutes in.
*. I’ve mentioned how unnatural the sets and camera work is and I’d say the same about the acting. The way Law in particular uses his body and bellows some of his lines seems very much geared toward playing to a live audience and not to the camera.
*. So Sleuth (1972) is still there, despite Pauline Kael’s saying that only two or three people were still interested in it ten years after it came out. Deathtrap has dated less well but still has some admirers. This movie, however, is already almost entirely forgotten. Which is, I think, probably for the best.