Saturday, October 28, 2017

THE WHIP AND THE BODY - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written in 2013 for DVDTalk.com.


Maria Bava's 1963 ghost story The Whip and the Body is a gothic romance with a kinky twist.

Hammer Horror-man Christopher Lee stars as Kurt Menliff, the outcast son of a wealthy family who returns to his father's Victorian castle upon learning that his little brother (Tony Kendall) has married Kurt's one-time betrothed, Nevenka (Daliah Lavi, Lord Jim [review], Casino Royale [review]). Kurt is intent on regaining his birthright, as well as reasserting his dominance over his former lover. Nevenka, as Kurt demonstrates, has always had "a little violence in her," and is thus aroused by the snap of his whip.

Things take a spooky turn when Kurt is murdered, killed with a dagger that has past history for the family. The Menliffs are a complicated clan, and when more strange happenings and murders occur once Kurt is buried, there is some question of whether the killer is his ghost (as Nevenka contends) or one of the many other suspects in the castle. Katia (Ida Galli), for instance, has reason to hate Nevenka: she was originally due to marry the younger Menliff before Kurt's banishment threw a spanner in the works.

The Whip and the Body is a solid tale of haunting, though Bava is more concerned with the creep factor in the bodice-ripping love triangle than he is jump scares, gore, or your basic bump-in-the-night material. This makes for a rather satisfying chiller, where the twists and turns are reliant on whose delusion and/or explanation you choose to believe. Unsurprisingly, Lee pulls off the required menace as the vengeful specter, and Lavi is a all kinds of gorgeous as the breathless damsel in distress. Add to the mix Ubaldo Terzano's colorful photography and Carlo Rustichelli's evocative period music, and The Whip and the Body is a tantalizing costume drama about doomed love.



BLACK SUNDAY - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written in 2012 for DVDTalk.com.


This is my first exposure to the work of Mario Bava, but based on Black Sunday, I need to start seeking out his other films right quick. The Italian horror master's 1960 debut is stylish and spooky, a little bit sexy and a little bit scary, the right combination for a ghouls and witches story.

Black Sunday opens in the late 17th Century, as the Vajda family burns one of their own, alongside her lover, for being a minion of Satan. It's a gruesome death. A metal demon's mask is nailed to their faces before they are burned, so that anyone who looks upon their corpses will know why they have died. Unsurprisingly, the devilish lovers drop a devilish curse on the Vajda family for this indignity. No matter how long it takes, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and Javuto (Ivo Garrani) will have their revenge.


Jump ahead 200 years, and the traveling Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant Andre (John Richardson) urge their coachmen to hurry them to their destination. Despite his warnings that the way they have chosen for him will take them through treacherous and mysterious territory, they take that path anyway. The coach throws a wheel just outside a rundown cathedral. While they wait for the driver to fix their ride, the two learned men explore the ruins, discovering it is actually a mausoleum, and uncovering the witch's grave. When a bat attacks Kruvajan, he accidentally breaks the seal on her casket, unwittingly unleashing the curse. People will soon start dying in increasingly macabre manners.


The Princess' ancestors still live in their family home. This includes her doppelganger, the dark and lovely Katia. Barbara Steele, with her large eyes and sharp features, has a face made for ghost stories, and her performance as both the innocent girl and the avenging spirit works both sides of the equation perfectly. The dual role has the interesting effect of making it so we never trust Katia, while we also have a strange sympathy for Asa. After all, regardless of what the witch was dabbling in, the root of her evildoings was love. Javuto, devoted even beyond the grave, has traversed the years to protect her from any that might prevent her resurrection. And, of course, there are sparks between Katia and Andre. It's no surprise that his affection will prove more powerful than crucifixes and spells, and it's fitting that in the climax, not only does he wrestle with Javuto over a pit of despair (both literal and metaphorical), but he must decide which Barbara Steele is the one who stole his heart. (Random Thought: Since we're talking romance and fate, I am surprised that Javuto and Andre weren't doubles, as well; it'd have been neat to see the stiff-backed Richardson playing an evil twin.)

Black Sunday, which is alternately known as The Mask of Satan, was loosely based on a story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Bava uses these classical origins to build a foundation of respectability, only to crack it open and show the lurid drama that lays just underneath. Though arguably tame by today's standards, the way the director works around the restrictions of the era actually makes those details--the dripping blood, the heaving breasts--all the more salacious. As any horror fan can tell you, suggestion is almost always more effective than direct expression, the unseen is scarier than the seen, what is hinted at more unnerving than what is explicit. Bava and Ubaldo Terzano share director-of-photography credit, and their black-and-white images are gorgeously staged. Dark and stormy skies allow for creeping shadows, and an unknowable emptiness lurks around every corner. Evil could be hiding anywhere.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

PERSONAL SHOPPER - #899


If you still have doubts as to how good an actress Kristen Stewart is, just watch her emote in reaction to smart phone text conversations in Personal Shopper. Exchanging personal messages with an unknown individual, she both interacts with the phone and her environment, searching those around her for the potential correspondent. Panic, intrigue, fear, engagement, daring--she runs through these various emotions, delivering her side of a silent conversation--the only dialogue appearing on a small screen--through expression and gesture. It’s an intriguing performance, bringing to life a gripping directorial device, one that focuses the audience with the same intensity Stewart brings to the rest of the film.


“Focus” is a good word actually. As Maureen, Stewart’s focus is unwavering. Watch her as she tries on the clothes from her boss’ closet, rushing the mundane task of dressing, adding an urgency, this is something she’s not supposed to be doing. It’s a private moment enacted for the moviegoing public, but with zero regard for the camera. She’s forgotten she’s being watched, even if we have not, even if we remember that the person on the other side of the phone may actually be observing her somehow. It’s all about the action and ritual of getting dressed. This kind of energy is essential to Personal Shopper succeeding. Writer/director Olivia Assayas, who previously directed Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria [review], hangs everything on his lead. She is in every scene, only off camera in rare instances. This is her movie to win or lose--and Kristen Stewart totally wins.

It’s hard to describe what kind of movie Personal Shopper is. It’s actually many things, free of being tied to one genre. Its most prominent trait is probably suspense. This is a suspenseful drama with supernatural twists and elements of crime. It’s a story of identity. It’s erotic. While there are multiple plots--Maureen’s two jobs, a spiritual medium and the titular shopping gig; the hunt for the ghost of her dead brother; the back-and-forth with the texter; the mystery that rivets us in the final portion of the picture--Assayas doesn’t put any one aspect in the driver’s seat. Rather, he invisibly toggles between each piece, properly treating them as a single whole the way a great novelist might. Strange, unexplainable things happen to Maureen, but they are as matter-of-fact and normal as her everyday life. It’s an impressive illusion. Personal Shopper never fails to feel real.


There are two central questions being asked throughout Personal Shopper. First, who does Maureen want to be? Second, are the outside forces she encounters benevolent or malevolent? The latter applies not just to the unseen (and sometimes seen) ghosts, but to everyone in her life. Is Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), the socialite Maureen works for, considering Maureen’s interests at all? Is the designer who wants to see Maureen in her client’s clothes looking to screw her over? What is the invisible figure on the other side of the phone really after?


Assayas works with rhymes and parallels to create both tension and possibility. Maureen’s discovery of the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, for instance, provides Maureen with an example of a concrete application for her connection to the afterlife. Klint claimed her abstract paintings were commissioned by wandering spirits--facts we learn from a documentary embedded in Personal Shopper, one of two movies inside the movie (the other is the re-enactment of a séance, which you should pay attention to, it gives you a few tools for interpreting things later). Klint is said to have rejected her artistic training and a normal creative path to go in this other direction, prefiguring the emergence of abstract painting and risking ridicule. Likewise, Maureen has seemingly given up part of her own identity to earn a paycheck. Necessity trumps desire. The job itself is assuming another identity. A personal shopper makes decisions for her client, chooses the clothes she wears, yet never really steps into her shoes, neither literally nor figuratively. Arguably, these acquisitions for Kyra are more tangible than the pursuit of apparitions. Note how when Maureen selects the items she’ll take from the shops, she holds them in her hands, tests their strength, be they jewels, belts, or what have you. These are things she can grasp, even if she must surrender them.


Yet, the job isn’t everything, Maureen is already a double. She had a twin brother, and both were born with a congenital heart defect that cost him his life when he was only 27 (that most portentous of ages). Maureen could also die from it, and the affliction is yet another presence that hangs over her. Will it assert itself or let her be? But it’s the lost brother, Lewis, that holds her back more than their shared bad heart. Maureen remains in Paris waiting for her departed sibling to fulfill a promise and send her a message from beyond the grave, releasing her from their bond, granting his blessing that she move on.

Except maybe that’s not the lesson she needs to hear. Or more specifically, maybe she shouldn’t be waiting for that validation. Most of her encounters, be it the odd conversation with Kyra’s lover or the awkward chat with the new boyfriend of Lewis’ ex, the message seems to be that Maureen needs to act for herself, to stop waiting for others to give her the go-ahead. The person texting her wants to know if she wants to be someone else, and she thinks she does, but one might glean from Personal Shopper’s cryptic ending that what Maureen really needs to be is herself. She needs to realize that when she’s choosing the clothes for Kyra, she’s choosing the ones she does because they are what she really wants to wear.


Assayas handles all the different elements of Personal Shopper with a clarity that transcends any of the narrative’s internal confusions. He and cinematographer York le Saux (Carlos [review]) shoot every different environment and situation with the same sense of normalcy. The images are beautiful, yet lacking in ostentation. Even the special effects shots in the haunted sequences are simply integrated, never overtaking the moment, presented at a scale equal to Maureen’s. Amazingly, those scenes are still spooky, just as some of the later set-ups create a palpable anxiety. The realism of the crime scene in the final quarter is unnerving, immediately putting us in the moment. Likewise, an arty choice in a climactic scene not only gives us further reason to potentially believe the ghostly aspects of the script, but also turns our expectation on its head rather than telegraph a coming turn.

Personal Shopper is moody and weird, and it’s best viewed with an open mind and total attention. You won’t know where it’s going from moment to moment, but that’s a good thing. Once all those moments are put together, it’s one of the most satisfying new movies in recent years--and one that rewards multiple viewings. The film’s mysteries have plenty more to offer than is evident on first glance, all of which play out and are revealed on Kristen Stewart’s face. Don’t stop watching her, because she’s watching everything else, purchasing these experiences for our benefit.



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

JUNE NIGHT - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally appeared on DVDTalk.com as part of the Ingrid Bergman in Sweden set released in 2011.


June Night was the last film Ingrid Bergman made in her native Sweden before moving to Hollywood. This 1940 Per Lindberg picture is pretty straight soap opera, with Bergman playing a girl named Kerstin, who, in the movie's first scene, is shot by her boyfriend (Gunnar Sjöberg) when she tries to walk out on him. A trial and small-town scandal follows, and so Kerstin changes her name and moves to Stockholm to start over. She swears off her wanton ways, but this new leaf will be tested when she catches the eye of a handsome doctor (Olof Widgren) and also runs across the nosy reporter (Hasse Ekman) that sensationalized her story and dubbed her "the wounded swan." Both men become obsessed with her, and both are dating galpals of Kerstin's--the nurse (Marianne Löfgren) that helped her when she got to Stockholm and one of Kerstin's roommates (Marianne Aminoff). All these affairs come to a head the night the shooter comes to visit and the many romantic lines intersect.


June Night is a little slow. The script, written by Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius from a novel by Tora Nordström-Bonnier, relies heavily on coincidences and never delves very far into its characters. Unfortunately, this is especially true for Kerstin, who gets less introspection and development than the side characters; Bergman's charisma and screen presence are all that fuel the portrayal, and the actress brings a gravitas to the role that wouldn't otherwise be there. I suppose Lindberg and Hyltén-Cavallius could be striving to make Kerstin an unknowable and mysterious figure, which might lend some explanation to why everyone is so fascinated by her (and why she does so much damage without even trying), but if so, it doesn't really work.



Monday, October 16, 2017

A FILM UNFINISHED - FILMSTRUCK

This review as written for DVDTalk.com in 2010; it is reprinted here with the text updated to reflect 2017.


Hollywood can keep making horror films and raconteurs can keep spinning yarns about haunted houses, but nothing will ever be as spooky as real life.

The documentary A Film Unfinished is both a ghost story and a cinematic archaeological project. Yael Hersonski's movie is an excavation of several cans of film left behind in an East German vault by Nazi propagandists. Labeled with the title Ghetto, the footage shows the Warsaw encampment that was the home to thousands of Jews for a good portion of the war. Shot in May 1942, mere months before the Germans would shut the ghetto down and send most of the prisoners to their deaths, the remaining hour of film, abandoned during editing and absent of a soundtrack, is bizarre and disturbing. Little official record exists about Ghetto, why it was made or why it was jettisoned. Yet it serves as a potent document of the conditions in the giant prison, and of how the Nazis tried to curate their own historical records--to the point that we must still question everything we see.


A Film Unfinished essentially takes all of the remaining material--including a more recently discovered reel of outtakes and one cameraman's personal movies, shot in color--and puts together the  footage with what little is known about the original project. Hersonski uses three major sources of information to try to understand what the Germans were hoping to accomplish: the personal diary of the Jewish warden charged with overseeing the camp, the secret journals of prisoners, and the testimony of Willy Wist, a cameraman whose name appeared on the few official documents relating to Ghetto that still exist. The journals are read in voiceover, while the deposition of Wist is reenacted by two actors who mostly appear just out of frame. Wist was either a man living in denial, who had blocked out what happened, or a guilty co-conspirator trying to outrun his past, as he alternately feigns ignorance and seems troubled by the few things he admits to remembering. The sober way in which he talks about the assignment goes against the smiling image of the young man who accidentally gets caught by his comrade shooting home movies. (Hersonski regularly pauses the Nazi film when part of the film crew appears in the frame, highlighting their placement like a prosecutor presenting evidence.)

One of the things Wist remembered was also A Film Unfinished's most controversial scene. The documentary was released without a rating because the dunderheads at the MPAA objected to the nudity in scenes in a ritual bath. One group of men and one group of women are stripped and herded into an underground bathhouse. Barely able to disguise their shivers in the cold water, they dunk themselves repeatedly. It's perhaps the most disturbing segment of the movie, particularly as we learn that these scenes, just like all of the scenes in Ghetto, have been staged. The bathers are gaunt and malnourished, and this scenario was only concocted to humiliate them. There is nothing prurient to be gained by watching it, so any objection to its harsh truth is just misguided. To have left it out would have done history a disservice.


From what Hersonski can gather, Ghetto was meant to achieve two goals: to show that conditions in the Warsaw ghetto weren't as bad as some might claim, and to suggest that the Jews starving in the streets were the fault of the greedy upper class living on the fat of the land while everyone else suffered. Thus, the crews filmed the worst poverty as it really existed in the streets and then turned around and staged opulent get-togethers where healthy-looking prisoners were seen to be having a good time. To counteract what we see, Hersonski not only finds pertinent passages in the written first-hand accounts, but she also gathers a handful of survivors who watch the found footage and react to what they see. They were all children during the war, so the memories are painful and sometimes seeing their faces, filmed in the dark of a movie theater, can be painful as well. They are shocked by how the Nazis tried to twist their miserable existences into things they were not. Thankfully, there are also cathartic moments. At least for a couple of the witnesses, this trip to the past brings some healing.

Unsurprisingly, A Film Unfinished is a somber affair. Hersonski treats the material with a quiet reverence, maintaining an even tone in the narration and using Ishai Adar's moving ambient score as a gentle lifeline to lead the viewer through what is particularly difficult material. There are no huge answers at the end of the movie, no great explanation as to why one group of people would do such a thing to another group of people, why there would be this sickening compulsion to film it and mold it and turn truth upside down. I suppose, though, that's because there are no answers that could make sense, no matter how clear-cut. What motivation would be satisfying? What endgame would actually make any of this seem rational? All we can do is watch and learn and feel, and hope against hope that, as a global people, we will never allow such darkness to fall across our world ever again.

We hope...and yet that haunted feeling lingers. Particularly reconsidering this film in the harsh light of 2017, when Nazis and racists walk the American streets once again. Perhaps if more people see movies like A Film Unfinished, though, they will join the numbers that have already emerged to stand against them.



Friday, October 13, 2017

TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME - #898


Sometimes don’t you just wish people would leave well enough alone?

Listen, I love Twin Peaks. And I love David Lynch. So much so that I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on opening weekend. I saw it with my friend who also loved Twin Peaks, and I think there were only three of us in the whole theater, which usually makes everything better. You know, because it’s quiet and the theater is yours and you can just enjoy it. No such luck here. I hated Fire Walk With Me. So much so that I waited until just this past year to watch it again, despite re-watching the whole of Twin Peaks itself more than once, as part of my re-immersion for Twin Peaks: The Return (or, if you will, Season Three).


Now, I know some of you are clicking off or discounting my opinion for bias or are firing up the comments to let me have a piece of your mind, but let me just say this: not only is twenty-five years a long time to hold a grudge, but I don’t “hate watch” anything. I would never give a movie another spin without some genuine interest in seeing if I was wrong. Over the decades, I have heard many defenses of Fire Walk With Me, heard many a person tell me how much it terrified them, and I was interested in seeing what those people saw. I mean, I’m not twenty years old anymore, maybe the person I am now will find something completely different than he once had. Hell, the movie I watched right after this was Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, which I also hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years, and I didn’t like it as much now as I had when it was new. Anything is possible.

The funny thing is, I had pretty much the same reactions I had the first time, only softer. I partially credit Twin Peaks: The Return, which maybe has helped by elaborating on what would have been Lynch’s technique and intention here. Certainly these two elements connect to each other better than the actual series bridges the gap between. There’s also probably some managed expectations. When Fire Walk With Me first touched down in cinemas, my yen for it was high; spinning it again, I had a better idea of what to expect.


Here are the two main reasons I have trouble with Fire Walk With Me:

(1) It doesn’t work as an individual piece. As both a prequel to the Twin Peaks television show and the beginning of an intended film series about the Black Lodge mythology, it relies heavily on what you know while simultaneously withholding new information in anticipation of a later payoff. It’s merely a sliver.

(2) As a prequel, it doesn’t show us anything that we actually need to know. Fire Walk With Me does not enhance the mystery of Laura Palmer. There is nothing new to be gleaned from witnessing her final days, for seeing her realize the true identity of her tormentor. In fact, it may even detract from the mystique by putting too fine a point on some things. I’ve always felt that Twin Peaks was at its best when there were two potential explanations. Is Leland Palmer possessed by a man named Bob, or is Bob merely a dissociative coping mechanism? (Sorry if you see that as a spoiler, but then why are you reading a review of a prequel to a murder mystery?)


If the goal was to better know Laura Palmer, there was more to be gleaned from Jennifer Lynch’s  book, Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, than there is in Fire Walk With Me. Lynch and co-writer Robert Engel don’t add any more to who she is. This is not a story of an innocent being ruined, but merely the last days of someone who has been victimized to the point of no return. And worse, there is a creepy aspect to how Lynch chooses to show the events, leering at Sheryl Lee’s naked body, that seems to dispel any condemnation of the abuse that got her here. The camera sweats and pants in her presence as much as Leland Palmer does, lingering on Laura’s exposed pain as if the suffering itself were art.


Which, let’s be real, if it’s art, it’s because Sheryl Lee elevates it. If there is any one reason for Fire Walk With Me to exist, it’s to show what a beast of a performer she is. Laura Palmer is no easy role. She’s simultaneously meant to embody the American cliché of the perfect “girl next door” and show all that is rotten behind that illusion--in other words, the culmination of Lynch’s oeuvre up to that point embodied in one character. At this time in her life, Laura doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going. Between the trauma she’s suffered and her self-medicating, her moods swing at the flick of a light switch. At the same time, she attempts to maintain a semblance of control by being all things to all people. Lee manages to hit every note--every feeling, every mask, every persona--while also maintaining a consistency that means Laura is never actually “out of character.” She’s always the same person underneath, she never deviates. It’s astonishing to watch. How Sheryl Lee wasn’t every famous director’s first choice for their next movie is beyond me. (And there still isn’t an actress whose scream can unnerve and curdle the blood as much as Lee’s, as evinced by her anguish at the end of The Return.)


The opposite can be said of Ray Wise in the Leland Palmer role. Whatever nuance and restraint he had in the television series is gone; Lynch has reduced him to a bug-eyed pervert who can barely use his words. It’s indicative of a cartoonishness that permeates Fire Walk With Me and the worst parts of The Return (Dougie Jones, anyone?). There’s a sense that Lynch finds this all disposable. It is just television, after all. How else to explain the chintzy slow-mo effects or his reliance on the jazzy posturing that seemed so hip and fun in the orginal series but just seems perfunctory here? Fire Walk With Me is paving the way for the near self-parody of Lost Highway.


Which isn’t to say there is nothing good. Were the first chunk of the movie, with Chris Isaak as Agent Desmond, shaved off and turned into its own thing, Lynch might have had the makings of an interesting modern crime flick. And while seeing Laura’s last days doesn’t shed any light on her character, we do see different sides of Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), James (James Marshall), and Donna (a miscast Moira Kelly), showing how at times they are nearly as close to the edge as their friend.


It’s not enough, though, and those that would contend that a longer director’s cut would maybe solve these problems need only look to The Missing Pieces to see that this would not be the case. It doesn’t take much to see that, with the exception of the portentous scene with Doc Hayward, there was nothing essential trimmed out, it’s just more of the same.

When I expressed disappointment over the conclusion of Twin Peaks: The Return, a friend pointed me to this excellent clip of Siskel and Ebert arguing over Blue Velvet back in the day. There is something to be said for Ebert’s reaction against how Lynch sometimes treats women, but also much that is right about Siskel’s contention that the director evoked from Roger exactly what he wanted, that he played him like a violin. While I believe that to be the case for the David Lynch they are debating, I’d contend that Fire Walk With Me marks the artist beginning to lose control of his instrument. I wonder if our willingness to fill in the gaps for him, to rationalize the missteps of The Return or even some of the unfinished threads of Mulholland Drive, is us giving the man too much credit (as I likely did in my review of Inland Empire), and by turn, his being lazy. I’ve heard arguments that the best thing about older Lynch is he doesn’t take the audience into consideration and just does what he wants, but at the same time, art is about communication, and even though it is the audience’s responsibility to do some interpretation, it shouldn’t be our job to do the actual writing or to build with tools that aren’t provided for us (no matter how much we may want to). Or invent meaning where there is none. If Fire Walk With Me is where David Lynch stopped giving us consideration, how is it that we still give so much to him? Particularly here, where the brilliant flashes we see in both Mulholland and Twin Peaks: The Return are absent.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me? More like Just Walk Away. Don’t @ me.



OSLO, AUGUST 31 - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally ran in the Portland Mercury in 2012.


There’s nothing inherently special about the date August 31. For some, it might represent the end of a season, signaling a life change. As Anders, the main character of Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31 points out, it's the day before the city drains the public pools. In other words, it's Anders' last chance to sink or swim.

Oslo, August 31 is a quiet movie. Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie, who was also in Trier's wonderful Reprise) is a 34-year-old junkie with two more weeks in rehab. On August 30, he is given leave from the facility because he has a job interview. (Had the treatment center known he tried to kill himself that morning, they might not have let him go.) Oslo follows Anders over the next 24 hours: he visits old friends, misses a connection with his sister, blows the interview, and ends up at a party. His temptation threat levels keep escalating.

Trier's film is an honest, unsentimental portrayal of the fallout of addiction. Anders spends most of the movie talking. He tries to explain himself and own what he did. He never makes excuses, but he still wants to manage how people react to him. The weight of his past is a burden and far more difficult to shrug off than the people in his life think. Trier assembles his story as a series of scattered moments, repeated exchanges, and overlapping experiences. The opening montage of faceless voices sharing their memories of Oslo places Anders within a larger narrative: He is one of many who have called this place home. Yet, the devastating impact of Oslo, August 31 is how, ultimately, Anders is just a single individual, all on his own.


Monday, October 9, 2017

BEDLAM/I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE - FILMSTRUCK

These reviews were written in 2005 to cover the Val Lewton boxed set and published in my now-defunct column "Can You Picture That?" It is adapted here now that several of Lewton's productions have been added to Filmstruck for Halloween.


Val Lewton started off as a pulp novelist before being hired by David O. Selznick to work as part of his production team. RKO eventually snatched him away to try to revive the studio after the Citizen Kane fiasco of 1941, and Lewton created a roster of efficient craftsmen to start cranking out B-movies for the studio. The result was some classics of the genre, famous for their sense of invention. Lewton had to work quickly and with little money, so he developed a style that used economy to its advantage. The stories were tight, usually preying on the imagination of the audience by keeping much of the macabre violence offscreen. Lewton realized it was better to make you create your own impression of the horrible things that happened, to make you a part of the experience, flying directly in the face of the Universal monster fests that had been on top of the horror heap for quite some time. 


Mark Robson, a former editor who collaborated with Lewton, directed Boris Karloff in 1946's Bedlam, the second film the pair made together, and it has a similar center to their first team-up, Isle of the Dead: a malignant force trapping people in one place to serve his own ends. In this case, however, Karloff’s apothecary, Master George Sims, doesn’t see any greater good the way Isle's General Pherides becomes misguided in trying to preserve his army. Sims is only trying to preserve himself and maintain his position as the head of the infamous 19th-century mental hospital.

Based on engravings by William Hogarth, Bedlam is gruesome and macabre. It’s not a traditional spookified frightfest, but instead uses its medical setting and the sociological conditions for a little psychological horror, playing on a rather common fear: being wrongfully committed to the madhouse. When Sims locks up Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) for opposing his cruel tactics, it can stand in for the anxiety any of us would feel in a situation we can’t escape from. It’s survival against malicious forces beyond our control. Ultimately, Bowen’s kindness does exactly what Sims fears: the lunatics take over the asylum. 


Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie is easily a standout of the genre that takes us to the West Indies where voodoo is alive...and so are the dead!

Tourneur creates a gorgeous setting for the story: the tropical estate of the Holland family, long-time exploiters of the island people. Amidst the lush foliage is a statue of Saint Sebastian, the namesake for the island, pierced with arrows, his body arched in pain. When the rain falls over its torso, the statue appears to bleed. Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell, a nurse hired to come to the island and care for the catatonic wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway). No one is exactly sure what happened to the woman. One explanation is she caught a tropical fever that wiped out her mind, and another--one popularized in a local song--says that when Paul found her canoodling with his half-brother, he persecuted her into insanity. The locals that make up the servant class on the Holland estate believe something different, that she is no longer alive at all. She is the living dead!

I Walked With a Zombie works along many parallel lines. In one sense, it is an indictment of imperialism, decrying the wounded state of the oppressed people. The citizens of Saint Sebastian were brought over on slave ships, and they are so distraught over their non-lives, they cry when a baby is born and laugh with relief when one of their number dies. Their state of living decay is beginning to affect the Hollands, and the family is falling apart. The dominance of the now indigenous culture is also a victory over the oppressors’ science. Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), the Holland matriarch, is a doctor, and she has invaded the voodoo ceremonies to sneak a little medicine into suspicion. Yet, there is nothing she can do for her daughter-in-law, and as the voodoo priests call the zombie out into the sugar fields, she begins to believe there is something beyond what she can understand or control.


The mixture of science and magic holds very real consequences that are analogous of the ways we interact with each other. The infidelity of the Holland family has destroyed their grasp on their opulent life. Only Betsy’s goodness pulls Paul out of the abyss. The same cannot be said for his brother. Unable to let go of the feelings he has for the zombie woman, he ultimately meets a dire end, finding the relief in death that the islanders have promised. Fittingly, he and his absent lover are chased to their doom by the only other zombie in the movie--a towering island man who has come to claim the woman so she can be put amongst his people, where she now belongs.

Tourneur’s direction is lyrical, using the natural surroundings of Saint Sebastian to their full effect. This is a story about nature winning out, after all. Amusingly, the film was based on a tabloid story about a woman’s love affair with a dead man. Lewton was often given very little to start his films with, sometimes just a title. The triumph of I Walked With a Zombie is that of creative men taking small beginnings and making something bigger out of it. 


Martin Scorsese has said that film fans that don’t like horror movies can’t be real film fans. Horror films are movies at their most visceral, playing with our bodies and our minds, provoking reactions. In these splatter-filled days of ridiculous curses and unrestrained gore, horror films don’t poke at our imaginations the way these older movies did. In the end, their endurance is evident of the lasting scares they inspire. Even their lack of color gives the viewer something spookier, something culled from the terrors of the night. Pass on the latest remake making a box office grab and go to your local video store for something with a little more power, and then get ready for a scary Halloween.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

DON'T LOOK NOW - #745


What surprised me the most when the film came to an end was how much I cared about the main characters of Don’t Look Now. In the final moments of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 supernatural drama, a rapid montage of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as the movie’s central couple quickly summarizes all that we have seen over the previous 109 or so minutes, and I was strangely moved. For a movie I didn’t really enjoy, I shouldn’t have had that much of a connection, but turns out, I did.

Credit is likely due to Sutherland and Christie, who excel as John and Laura, a British couple on a working holiday in Venice, where the memory of their recently drowned young daughter haunts them. As far as Laura is concerned, quite literally, too. After a clairvoyant blind woman tells her that she has seen the lost child in their midst, and that the girl is happy, Laura is both freed of her grief and newly obsessed with the loss. John, on the other hand, is weighed down further by this revelation--both from worrying over his wife’s alleged delusions and the warning from the psychic that Venice will harm him somehow.


And so it is that eventually we realize that this is a couple who is not really together, but moving in separate directions, divided by emotions that should otherwise bind them. Tragedy can have this effect, though. Grief is personal, and though the husband and wife are processing the same events, they do so from two different vantage points. John literally pulled his daughter’s body from the water, while Laura only witnessed the aftermath. And though they both wonder “what if?” in relation to their kids going out to play that day, John has the added regret of being the one who encouraged them to venture outside. Thus, it’s even more resonant when they hear of their young son having an accident back at school in England, which serves to pull them further apart, both literally and figuratively, and kick off Don’t Look Now’s final movement.


Roeg’s nimble visual touch serves him well here. The swift cutting he and editor Graeme Clifford (McCabe & Mrs. Miller [review]) employ to toggle between the two characters, as well as past and present, serves to keep the viewer disoriented, often almost like we are opening and closing one eye at a time, back and forth, getting two skewed versions of the same picture. Sutherland flourishes in this oddness, his congested delivery transforming his character’s sadness into a kind of wet, physical symptom he can’t dislodge. He is a man trapped in a narrative he can’t seize control of--which is ironic, since we are led to believe he is a little psychic, too, but yet he can’t sense his own impending doom.


Don’t Look Now is based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier, a favorite of Hitchcock, whose Rebecca [review], Jamaica Inn, and The Birds all draw from her source material. Unlike Hitchcock, though, Roeg doesn’t manage to extract much suspense out of the writer’s tale. Even as Roeg uses the criss-crossing Venice canals and roadways to get John lost, he doesn’t manage to create much sense of peril. I can’t believe I am saying this, but I actually wonder how much better Brian De Palma might have handled Allan Scott and Chris Bryant’s script. The mistaken-identity ending could only be more De Palma-esque if either Sutherland or Christie woke up in bed, having dreamt the whole thing. (Note: Composer Pino Donaggio also scored De Palma’s Dressed to Kill [review] and Blow Out, but his work here is often too erudite, and tends to detract rather than add, most notably the cheesy classicisms of orchestration during the infamous sex scene. Despite all the visible flesh, one must assume that Donaggio and Roeg don’t want us to find it even remotely erotic.)

Perhaps, though, I am looking at this all wrong, and not examining how Don’t Look Now appropriates the cumulative effects of grief. If we go back to my opening statement, despite not being particularly engrossed or engaged, I still somehow found myself having an emotional reaction at the finish, one of sadness and pity for a couple I had come to...not really identify with or like, but get used to? In his own weird way, Roeg managed my experience, massaging my sentiments, and got me exactly where he needed me to be. Now the question becomes whether I’ve become attached enough to want to revisit John and Laura and see if, knowing what I know now, feeling what I feel, Don’t Look Now plays any differently. It’s not something I’m compelled to do immediately, but maybe one day....