Friday, July 30, 2010

The Stranger

Orson Welles blends plot elements from some of the best film noirs of the 1940s for his third film The Stranger (1946), and although it proved to be his most financially successfully film as a director, it might very well be his most disappointing and lacking in the visual flair he displayed in his masterpieces.

Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is an investigator tracking down Nazi War criminal Franz Kindler (Welles), and his search has led him to Harper, CT, where Kindler has assumed a new identity as a professor at a prestigious boys academy and even married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice (Phillip Merivale). As Wilson moves in, he attempts to persuade Mary the man she married is really a monster, but if Kindler should suspect anything, he will kill her.

I was reminded of three movies while watching: Double Indemnity (1944), The Third Man (1949), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Wilson is reminiscent of Keyes, the insurance investigator played by Robinson in DI. Robinson is more straitlaced and restrained here and not the same rapid-fire motormouth, but given the background of Nazi war crimes and concentration camps, that's more appropriate (DI was just as much a dark comedy as a thriller).

Welles seems be tuning up for Harry Lime, once again playing a postwar criminal in hiding and resorting to an elaborate deception. But whereas as Lime remained in the shadows and was to a degree charismatic, Kindler might as well be flashing a sign that says "I'm a Nazi!" Whether it's writing down his plans to murder his wife, physically reacting in the presence of Wilson to the discovery of evidence, and concocting elaborate lies to tell his wife (which she believes without question), it's hard to believe this man has evaded capture from a worldwide manhunt and never left evidence. He even kills a dog (just so the audience can be sure he is evil).

Finally, in Shadow of a Doubt, Teresa Wright slowly learns her uncle Joseph Cotton is a serial killer. There, she was proactive, finding the truth herself, and when she learns the facts about someone she's idolized all her life, it's understandable she'd initially be reluctant to act. Here, Mary has to be told everything and then denies it. If she didn't, the movie would end because she would say what Wilson needs to arrest Kindler. It feels contrived. Plus, it's established early on the townspeople consider Kindler an outsider and stranger who has not been in Harper very long. There's not much passion between Mary and Kindler, so her discovery doesn't carry as much emotional weight as Wright learning the uncle she was named after is a murderer.

That is not to say Welles fails to imbue anything of substance or value. Welles depicts the ability of upper class suburbia to both shield and deny the presence of evil. Kindler easily assimilates himself in the upper class community, all the while believing himself to be superior to everyone else. He even compares himself to God looking down on an inferior race. As she learns evidence of her husband's crimes, Mary clings to his lies because the truth means she loves a Nazi. Although not stated explicitly, a scandal of that proportion would ruin her reputation. Notice how she's always insisting the curtains of the house be closed. Even in this perfect little town (the town clerk says, "In Harper, there's nothing to be afraid of."), dark secrets exist, and the wicked can remain anonymous. Evil is not just in a European death camp; it can be right next door or in your own house.

As direction goes, Welles still shows he's the master of shadows and claustrophobic closeups, even if his work is not a patch on Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil. When Mary learns the facts, the clock in the town church tower is repaired (by Kindler, who loves clocks), and the bell is constantly chiming to remind her of her guilt. The movie moves at a quick pace and is fairly exciting. Robinson is good, and the rest of the cast is able, even though Welles and Young aren't helped by one-note characterization and contrived plotting respectively.

My biggest problem with The Stranger is it feels routine and transparently commercial. There are no surprises, and it doesn't really doesn't stand out. While Welles and his actors manage to elevate the material, it disappoints. Still, it's Orson Welles, and though not a masterpiece, it's worth a look.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) is the fourth Hammer Film Dracula movie and features Christopher Lee in his third turn as the count. That should be enough of a review for any horror fan, but I'll continue.

It's been one year since Dracula was destroyed in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), but his castle remains overlooking the village, and the people fear his evil lives on. A visiting monsignor (Rupert Davies), determined to put their terror at rest, convinces the local priest (Ewan Hooper) to lead him through the mountains to the castle, and there, he perform a rite of exorcism and places a large golden cross on the door. But the priest flees down the trail, slips on the rocks, and falls near Dracula's resting place, and bleeds into his mouth. The count is resurrected yet again. Incensed he can no longer enter his ancestral home and with the priest under his control, he follows the monsignor to the city and sets his sights on making the holy man's niece Maria (Veronica Carlson) his undead bride.

Director Freddie Francis (who made Tales from the Crypt in 1972 and was an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) imbues the movie with the requisite style and atmosphere one expects from a Hammer film: period piece, full moon, fog, ramshackle inns and taverns, Gothic castles and churches, ornate mansions, copious bloodletting, and women in low cut outfits. Certainly, this Dracula film is beautifully shot and designed, and Lee, as always, is a striking presence with his black cape, bloodshot eyes, and bared fangs.

There also appears to be a strong anti-religious bent to the film, or at least criticism of the church. The monsignor, a pompous and self-righteous parishioner, brings about the return of the evil in his efforts to vanquish it. The priest is weak-willed and cowardly. He falls under the sway of Dracula and helps him attack victims and violate women, churches, and graves. Also, the hero of the film Paul, (Barry Andrews) who is Maria's betrothed, is an admitted atheist. This point also reveals the monsignor's hypocrisy because he praises Paul's initial honesty regarding spilled beer and laments how people don't say what they really mean, but as soon as he learns of Paul's non-belief (which Paul is quite open about), he becomes angry.

At the center of the film is the suppression of truth. The villagers whom Dracula tormented so long no longer speak his name. Even though the evil remains and they live in fear, the villagers refuse to confront anything and blame outsiders for stirring up trouble. Max (Michael Ripper), Paul's father, is a baker and bartender who tells his ambitious son to abandon his studies because the truth never did anyone any good. When the monsignor learns his niece is being targeted by a vampire, he does not inform anyone until after he has been gravely wounded. Keeping the truth hidden, whether it be the threat of Dracula or family tension, does not keep prevent pain but rather allows evil to grow.

The movie's criticism of religion leads to confusion in the climax. SPOILER ALERT: The priest, at the direction of Paul, has led him to Dracula's casket, and here Paul stakes the count. As he moans and struggles, the priest tells Paul to pray, but as an atheist, he won't, so Dracula survives. Later, Dracula is knocked off a ledge and impaled on a cross, and then the priest prays, even though it is Paul who caused the fall. While this can be seen as the priest regaining pure faith, it might have made more sense for Paul to discover his own faith or for no spiritual guidance be necessary. It seems the filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner and changed the rules of vampirism to get out of it. END SPOILER

Other vampire rules are altered. Dracula is seen in a reflection when he returns to life, and that's never explained, and having never seen the previous film in the Hammer series, I don't know how Dracula can be defeated by being kept in a frozen river with his body intact. That blood would awaken him makes sense, but what was keeping in stasis to begin with? The priest cannot remove the cross from the door, and yet Maria, under Dracula's power, is able to. The priest stays at Max's tavern but never raises any suspicion among anyone even though he frequently spends time in the cellar doing all sorts of heinous deeds.

The movie also ties vampirism with sexuality. After the priest, Dracula's next victim is Zena (Barbara Ewing), a barmaid who flirts with a lot men and makes a move on Paul when he's drunk. After being bitten, Zena becomes completely submissive to Dracula and eager to please him. This ultimately leads to her destruction. On the flip side, the relationship between Paul and Maria is implied to be sexual, and the idea of premarital sex clearly disturbs her uncle. Meanwhile, Dracula enters her room at night to feed, and as he violates her, she becomes corrupted to his will. In a way, it could been seen that Maria is threatened by two vampires draining her vitality: Dracula by drinking her blood and the Monsignor by suppressing her relationship with Paul (It should be noted the monsignor wears a cape in his first scene that bears a resemblance to Dracula's).

While a flawed movie in the mythology and plot departments, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave offers a classical interpretation of the dark prince, and with an intense performance by Lee coupled with intriguing religious and sexual subtext, it's very compelling.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spontaneous Combustion

By the end of the eighties, Tobe Hooper's career in Hollywood was effectively over. Not only did his three-picture deal with Cannon Films result in three critical and commercial failures, the controversy over whether he or producer Steven Spielberg had directed Poltergeist tainted his reputation. With Spontaneous Combustion (1990), Hooper returned to low-budget, independent horror, but instead of a glorious return-to-form, the film went straight to video and was reported to be heavily compromised in post-production. For Hooper, it went down as another failure.

I consider myself a completest which is why I track down movies said to be bad if they're directed by a filmmaker I admire. When I was in England, I found this title in a market as a part of a "buy 2, get the 3rd free" deal, and since I haven't found this in the States, I figured it was worth the price. And I can say Spontaneous Combustion is better than Hooper's The Mangler and Crocodile, but then again, most things are.

Spontaneous Combustion would have worked as a short film because the first fifteen minutes are really quite stellar, but the rest is a mess. In 1955, young couple Brian (Brian Bremer) and Peggy Bell (Stacy Edwards) test an anti-radiation vaccine for the military by being exposed to a hydrogen bomb detonation. They emerge safe and healthy, and soon, it's learned Peggy is pregnant. A seemingly healthy boy is born nine months later. All appears happy for America's first "nuclear family."

Then, Brian and Peggy spontaneously combust. Thirty-four years later, Sam Kramer (Brad Dourif) notices something strange is afoot. He keeps getting migraines, everyone he knows is acting secretively, and people keep getting burned to a crisp after contact with him.

The first of the plot description is the best sequence in the movie. There's an underlying streak of dark humor watching this young couple being promised the American dream in the form of the perfect suburbia. Hooper plays on government propaganda with a black-and-white news reel the military is planning to show in theatres around the nation promoting the success of the experiment. The government is attempting to tell people that not only can they be kept safe from nuclear explosions, they can even thrive.

But it is all a lie. The perfect little suburban home cannot mask unforeseen consequences, genetic or otherwise, that bubble up in the couple's offspring. The government, with all its power and military might, cannot protect you from a flame that scorches from within. The sequence ends on an ominous note: the baby remains alive. What does this mean for the future?

That is a question that would have been best to end on because the answer is a rather lame conspiracy thriller filled with plot holes and implausibilities while leaving out vital information about character relationships and motivations. In short, not a whole lot makes sense. Too often, the viewer is left wondering who these people are and what they're doing. There are at least three doctors, and I kept getting them mixed up. Sam calls himself his birth name (David Bell) before he's learned it. Sooner or later, everyone in Sam's life is revealed to be in league together for something, but it's not really compellingly paranoid or suspenseful. In fact, it's rather dull; characters pop up to espouse something we already know, and occasionally, someone gets burned alive.

That's the frustrating aspect of the plot. Sam spends the entire movie figuring out what we learned in the opening scenes, and the movie never really develops beyond that. There are some elements hinted at, but they go nowhere. The main villain Orlander (William Prince) could have been used better. Wheelchair-bound, breathing through an oxygen tube in his nose, and with his urine bag hanging above him, he's an industrial capitalist who science has kept alive artificially at the price of his own humanity, but he only appears as a seemingly benevolent old man who gives a speech at the end to reveal a lame twist. I'm still not even sure what he wanted to accomplish, how he thought what he did would accomplish it, or what he was doing.

The fire effects are mixed. Sometimes they look good such as John Landis' cameo as a radio technician who pisses off Sam. Other times, they're obviously animation or a burning dummy. Dourif does what he can with the role, and he certainly pulls off the rage of the character, but he doesn't get much support from his co-stars or script. A nice touch, we first see him auditioning for what I think is Shakespeare's King Lear, a play concerned with the legacies of fathers and the violent effect they can have on the next generation. Likewise, Sam is playing a role for the cabal controlling every aspect of his life.

Spontaneous Combustion starts out great but peters out quickly. When focused on the experimentation and the military-industrial complex satire, it works, but the conspiracy and cover up is inept, cliche, and goes nowhere. With a coherent script, this could have been something. As it is, you should watch the first fifteen minutes and then turn it off.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Trip to England

It's been more than two weeks since my last post, so I figured I'd give an update before plunging back in. I spent time visiting my sister, who lives in Newcastle, England, and while I was there, I experienced some historical sites in the country and make a foray into Scotland for a music festival called T in the Park, where I camped out for three days among 85,000 fans. It rained every day and was awfully cold (in July!), but it was a cool experience.

With all the mud and tents, it's probably the closest I'll get to Woodstock. Surrounding the festival were these green hills and mountains against the horizons, and it was pretty and was something Tolkien could write about. One strange detail: men in Scotland have no problems taking a piss along any wall when the urge strikes them. Scots certainly aren't skittish about exposing their privates in a public venue as dirty as this, and it took some getting used to on my part (My younger sister snapped quite a few pictures).

T in the Park is an annual fest in Edinburgh, and I'll be honest, most of the music wasn't for my taste. I'm a hard rock/heavy metal fan, and this was more for British alternative rock and pop fan. Still, I had a good time. I really liked Airborne, the one heavy metal band in the lineup. The four were something a cross between AC/DC and Metallica (an Australian foursome, and the frontman kept downing Jack Daniels). The Proclaimers also put on a good set. I only knew their one song "500 Miles," but they played a lot of good tracks. What I liked about them was how, in a lineup of bands comprised of people who look like they belong on the cover of a fashion magazine, the Proclaimers were a bunch of nerdy middle aged men who knew how to rock. The festival headliner on the second day was Eminem. While he put on a good show, the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder, and it was very uncomfortable, especially when people behind kept shoving. My other pet peeve is Eminem sang medleys of some of his classics. I prefer full songs, but no one else seemed to my mind. He knew how to put on a show regardless. During his performance, Eminem was joined by D12, and they sang, among other tracks, a rather poignant tribute to the late Proof, whose image hung over the stage. Other groups I saw included Black Mountain, Newton Faulkner (really funny), the Black Keys, the Stranglers, Skunk Anansie, the Corals, Florence and the Machine, Jamie T, Stereophonics, and Muse.

I'm not sure if this makes up for missing Iron Maiden when they came to Cleveland during my trip, and as I type this, Heaven and Hell is in London giving their final performance ever in tribute of their fallen front man Ronnie James Dio. If only I spent a few more days in England, that would have been a concert to see. Oh well, I still have the American Carnage tour to look forward to.

The historical sites were really cool. Warkworth and Alnwick Castles were two castles in Northumberland I visited. Warkworth is a site of preserved ruins, crumbling walls, and hidden stairwells and passages that were fun to explore, and Alnwick is still lived in by the Percy family, which has owned it for centuries. It's a residence and museum filled with paintings, portraits, statues, cannon, and furniture. There's even a guard tower and dungeon on display. Alnwick also possesses a magnificent garden and fountain arrangement.

I also checked out Beamish, an open air museum where the village has been preserved as it was in the 1820s and early twentieth century. Not only did I go through the different buildings such as the schoolhouse, farm, and dentist office (note: it paid to be rich to afford the better tooth puller), I also went down in an old coal mine where I had to wear a hard hat, and the height fell to four feet. The guide said miners actually worked in tunnels as a low as two feet, the height boys could stoop to and still push carts. At four feet, all they had to do was lead the donkeys. At one point, the guide turned the lights down simulate candle glow most miners worked by, and it was nearly pitch black. During the peak period of coal mining, he explained, an average of three miners died every day in the mines of England.

Later in my trip, I followed William Wallace's example and sacked York. Well, I visited Jorvik viking center there. The place smelled, and I thought I'd see more armor and swords, but I rode this little cart that took me through a recreated village complete with animatronic villagers (Jorvik is the Viking name for York). At the gift shop, my sister bought me a book of Viking sayings, and you might catch a few in my upcoming writings. I also walked along the wall in the city center and visited the Minster Cathedral, a stunning display of architecture. I couldn't take pictures in the crypt area as I could elsewhere, but more than any other time, I felt like Indiana Jones and kept expecting to bump into a Crusader with the Holy Grail.

Near the end of my trip, I rode the metro to Tynside, where the Tyne River meets the Atlantic. There stood the ruins of a castle that guarded the region, and later, it served as an artillery battery during the World Wars. The bunker was nifty, and the Priory (as the castle is called) afforded a cool view of the coast.

Sorry if I bored you with my exploits overseas, but I would encourage anyone to visit and take in the sites and histories of different landscapes and regions. It's quite rich and rewarding to do so. But don't worry, I bought three DVDs over there, and I'll review them this week.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Suspiria

Don't ask me to explain the plot of an Italian horror film. I can't. Trying to make sense of one is like trying make sense of a dream; it operates on its own logic, finding ways to unsettle you because it doesn't make sense, like being trapped in a nightmare.

That's the best approach Dario Argent's magnum opus, Suspiria (1977). There is something of a story involving an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) enrolling at a prestige European academy only to discover it is controlled by a coven of witches, but the plot is just there for Argento to go all out with his visual style.

What really distinguishes Suspiria is its elaborate color and lighting scheme. It goes without saying many of the best horror films in history are black and white, and many modern movies have a grungy, gritty look about them, but Suspiria is colorful and beautiful to look at. Bright ruby reds, cool blues, garish yellows and greens, it's like watching a painting. In an interview, Argento once said he was influenced by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and I think he must have been drawn to "Masque of the Red Death," with its descriptions of Prince Prospero's colored rooms. Even the violence, as brutal and graphic as it is, is perversely wonderful to look at. Even as you wince, you're drawn in.

Just as vital as the visuals is the soundtrack, composed by Argento and Italian rock band the Goblins. The music is a throbbing pulse that's just as unnerving as the imagery, and at times, it takes on a fairy tales-esque tone, with chimes, synthesizers, and keyboards adding to the surreal nature of the whole film.

Fairy tale is a good description for the entire movie. Suspiria marked Argento's departure from the Giallo thrillers that had defined his career up to that point and his arrival into the supernatural. The characters aren't deep, the plotting is arbitrary, and several characters are forgotten about, but it feels like a nightmare. Argento differentiates the students, young and naive, from the adults, sinister and older, to create a sense of unease. When Jessica Harper's character arrive, everything feels off-kilter: a thunderstorm, being denied entrance to the building, a rude cab driver, isolated in a foreign land, and other weirdness illustrates this is not a world meant to be taken as real. While The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Blair Witch Project work effectively for their gritty realism, Suspiria is fantasy, and to treat it as realism is a fatal mistake for any viewer. Suspiria taps into a child-like sense of terror, being alone in the dark at the mercy of forces you can't comprehend or resist. It's other worldly.

Argento doesn't abandon his slasher roots either, and he pulls off the deaths exceptionally well. The first kill is rightly regarded as one of the most shocking deaths in cinematic history. The victim is not only yanked through glass and stabbed with a knife repeatedly, she is hung with an electrical cable and thrown through a stained glass ceiling, the fragments of which impale someone standing underneath. It's nasty.

Admittedly, some aspects don't hold up under scrutiny. Why do the witches resort to stalking and stabbing victims when casting a spell would probably be easier and less likely to draw attention? The dubbing is suspect. This is a problem with many Italian movies of the time, and while it's something you learn to accept, it's particularly distracting when Udo Kier (who usually plays the creepy foreigner in American movies), who has a distinctive voice, speaks with an American voice dubbed over his.

Regardless, Suspiria is a daring, unconventional piece of horror cinema. Although Argento completely jettisons plot and character, he amps up nightmarish atmosphere and style. It's a brutal yet beautiful film.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

From Beyond

The horror in Halloween is constant. At any moment, Micheal Myers can leap out and kill you. Likewise, the zombies are everywhere in Night of the Living Dead. But other horror films are more conditional. Stay out of the water in Jaws, and you'll be fine. Don't fall asleep, or Freddy will slice you up in A Nightmare on Elm Street. By inserting safe zones for their characters, filmmakers can reinforce the danger of leaving their sanctuaries, so the viewer is thinking, "Now, he's screwed." For his followup to Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon operates on a similar logic in From Beyond (1986): when you can see the monsters, they can see you.

Based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond opens with scientists Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) and Dr, Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) working with a machine known as the Resonator which is designed to stimulate the brain's pineal gland. Pretorious believes the pineal gland is a dormant sixth sense that will allow him to see beyond the range of human sensation. When the machine is powered on, they see strange creatures swimming through the air, beings from a dimension that exists parallel to ours. But something else appears, killing Pretorius, and Crawford is locked away in a mental institution as a paranoid schizophrenic. Psychiatrist Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) is convinced of his story and decides to recreate the experiment. With street wise cop Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), Crawford and Katherine return to the house where the Resonator awaits.

The story by Lovecraft is less than ten pages and is used in the movie as the pre-credit sequence. From there, it expands on the concept of monsters beyond our perception around us at all times. We get slime, tentacles, claws, teeth, melting skin, giant slugs, weird bat creatures, and Pretorious, whose mind has merged with the creature that devoured him; he keeps popping up increasingly deformed, swollen, and mutated. The effects combine the creature work of John Carpenter's The Thing with the rubber reality hallucinations of David Cronenberg's Videodrome, and while From Beyond lacks to the budget of either of those films to match their realism, it makes up for it with inventive designs and overall grossness, and Sorel makes for a great villain in the tradition of the Hammer Films mad scientists.

And those are just the creatures. The violence is similarly disgusting. In addition to the aforementioned decapitation, there are brains sucked out through eyeball sockets, people shredded down to skeletal remains, and a very phallic probe protruding out of Jeffrey Combs' forehead. In fact, From Beyond ramps up the kinky sex as well. Before his accident, Pretorius was into bondage, keeping chains, videos, and restraints in a private room and being transformed into an inhuman monster doesn't alter his desires. Stimulating the pineal gland also causes arousal, which is the only explanation we get for Barbara Crampton donning S&M regalia later in the film before the creatures attack yet again. So, if you've ever wanted to watch a woman battle interdimensional monsters while wearing leather bondage gear, this is the movie for you.

Gordon uses a lot of psychedelic lighting to replicate the extremes of human vision, and he brings the same stylistic flair he brought to Re-Animator, a very straight-laced, tongue-in-cheek approach to some pretty out there stuff. Unlike Re-Animator, From Beyond is not as tightly scripted, and there are more plot holes. While it's fun to imagine the villain in Re-Animator taking a bus without his head, certain developments reek of contrivance here. The story also feels repetitious at times: turn machine on, monster appears, turn machine off, monster vanishes, rinse and repeat.

Still, it's hard not to admire what Gordon's done here: make an outrageous, unforgettable gorefest with classic Lovecraftian atmosphere and a wicked dose of black humor. This sort of movie will not appeal to everyone, but for genre fans, you can't go wrong.