Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Advertisements

Guys Reading Poems (2016)

c8mxwwiuwaa1zok

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

“WHEN you have tidied all things for the night,
And while your thoughts are fading to their sleep,
You’ll pause a moment in the late firelight,
Too sorrowful to weep.”

So begins “Solitude,” by Harold Monro, one of 32 works that comprise most of the spoken words in Harold Lee Hughes’ new feature, “Guys Reading Poems.”  The mood it captures is tangible, and suggests the ideal state of wistful melancholy from which to appreciate this delicate cinematic creation.

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him; to cope, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  This ostensible premise serves as the centerpiece in a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout- fear and grief, anger and sorrow- is evoked both by the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals.

It’s an ambitious undertaking to pack so much heavy emotional content into an average-length movie; many filmmakers have tried to channel these kinds of demons into some kind of celluloid catharsis, only to fall short of the mark.  Such efforts are often constructed either as overwrought psychodramas which offer trite resolutions for the sake of closure, or else as fantasies which obscure the issues behind mythological tropes and pseudo-symbolic whimsy.

Hughes has taken a middle path; “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy- which means that it is also neither.  Instead, it walks a line between realism and artistic conceit; multiple layers emerge from each other as a progression of imagery takes us from past to present to future, through reality and fantasy and places in between.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual; a prologue depicting the courtship of father and mother plays like a lovely pantomime of archetypes, and the rift which develops between them later- as well as the conflict it creates in their child- is eloquently communicated by body language and artful cinematography.  As for the reciting interlopers, they may be somewhat disorienting, at first, but soon become a comfortable presence; like a Greek Chorus, they give voice to the soul of the story.  It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization can yield an authentic emotional connection, allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like a lotus flower blossoming in a dream.

The array of poems incorporated includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and WeHo poet laureate Steven Reigns, among many others; no less crucial, however, is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah.  Lushly lit and richly photographed, “Guys Reading Poems” is a movie that revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply imbedded memory.  Combined with a flair for artistic design and a deft use of symbolism (which avoids heavy-handedness without sacrificing clarity), this results in a movie of distinctive style and beauty which lingers in the mind’s eye long after viewing.

As for the onscreen talent, they face the task communicating complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably.  At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars; but it is Patricia Velasquez as the mother- brooding and cold, yet vulnerable and tragic- who, appropriately, dominates the screen.  Rounding out the principal cast is Alexander Dreymon as the father; charismatic, and impossibly handsome, he balances tenderness with a hint of swagger as he provides an embodiment of the elusive masculine ideal.

Of course, the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” so the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles.  Their soulful delivery provides the movie’s beating heart, and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes.  Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience- and each of them, like Dreymon, are stunning examples of the male aesthetic.

In fact, the preponderance of maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (piercingly established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), inevitably suggest a gay subtext.  This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an unmistakable allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the entwined longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency- all these themes have deep resonance within the LGBTQ community, and all are intricately woven into every fiber of “Guys Reading Poems.”  Never overt, but vivid nonetheless, it’s a layer of meaning that makes this a full-fledged addition to the queer cinema canon.

Even so, Hughes’ film has a universal appeal.  By channeling the pain of damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, he has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile these psychic scars within their own life.  It’s an interior landscape that can be recognized by almost anyone, of course; and by treating it with candor, acknowledging its dark beauty, and honoring its inseparability from identity, Hughes has given us a movie which illuminates the path to transcendence.

“Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such unlikely to achieve widespread success at the box office; but for those of us who appreciate the bravery required not only to confront these difficult issues, but to explore them in such a public and honest manner, it is a much-appreciated effort and worthy of being sought out.  It deserves to be called essential viewing.

Goodnight Mommy [Ich seh, Ich seh] (2014)

509614

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

With Halloween right around the corner, most of the cool kids will want to include an outing to a nice, creepy horror flick amongst all the other seasonal festivities.  If that includes you, but you are bored to death by variations on the “Found Footage” formula (and their perfunctory cheap scares), you might want to seek out a showing of Goodnight Mommy.  Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, it was Austria’s 2014 submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.  It didn’t get the nomination- but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

Set at an isolated house in a deceptively tranquil woodland, Goodnight Mommy evokes a modern-day Grimm’s Fairy Tale as it introduces us to Lukas and Elias, a deeply-bonded pair of twin pre-teen brothers whose mother has just returned home from having extensive facial surgery.  Almost immediately it becomes apparent to them that more has changed about her than just the features still concealed beneath those intimidating bandages.  Her personality is different: she is colder, harsher, and, worst of all, inexplicably intent on driving a wedge between her two sons.  Gradually they become convinced that she is an imposter, and they begin an effort to expose her- but soon it becomes clear that the biggest question may be how far they are willing to go to discover the truth.

There are a lot of things that grab you right away about this movie.  The opening sequence, in which we first see the twins roaming together through a cornfield, immediately sets the tone.  They (and we) are inside a vast bubble of isolation, one which seems serene and peaceful but is in fact alive with unseen and vaguely unsettling activity- revealed by the carefully orchestrated soundscape of buzzing insects and rustling winds, just the beginning of a soundtrack which favors natural ambience over the use of music.  There is a score, but it only emerges for brief and infrequent intervals, and is all the more effective for it.  Then there is the cinematography, the opposite of what you see in the Paranormal Activity movies and their ilk.  Instead of a herky-jerky handheld camera, we get the stately elegance of widescreen, 35mm photography with the kind of artful framing and clean lines that make the film as good-looking and stylish as the country house of its setting.

All this technical excellence makes it clear that Goodnight Mommy is not a film made by hacks, but it would count for far less if the content were not on the same par.  The directors make sure that it is: their script is complex and tantalizing, doling out clues and hinting at secrets even as it provokes us with new mysteries and confronts us with surprises.  We know from early on that we are being manipulated; Franz and Fiala show us the world only through the eyes of the two young protagonists, carefully filtering our perceptions through them and making us both dread and anticipate the shift in perspective which we sense must be coming.  This sense of impending menace is compounded by the performers: real-life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz are perfectly cast, exuding both sweet sadness and a kind of otherworldly distance which makes them the perfect blank slate upon which to hang the audience’s expectations; and Susanne Wuest, as Mother, walks the thin line between being menacing and sympathetic with dexterity, keeping us unsure, almost until the very end, whether we should fear her or feel for her.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a horror film if there were not also some outright creepy, maybe even gruesome imagery along with all the psychological unease, and although I don’t want to give anything away, I can promise that it delivers (and that if you are squeamish about bugs, you might want to be prepared to look away a few times).

Goodnight Mommy does have its flaws.  The cost of keeping its characters ambiguous enough to preserve our uncertainty is that sometimes it’s hard to connect with- and therefore care about- any of them; and like many horror films, the story hinges on a gimmick, one which will probably be fairly obvious to most savvy moviegoers pretty early on.  Nevertheless, the film works superbly because it doesn’t rely on standard elements of genre formula to have its unsettling effect.  Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but Goodnight Mommy disturbs because it reveals real-life horror, the kind that makes us lie awake at night and worry about those we love.  In the end, it seems more tragedy than thriller.

That said, it’s still pretty thrilling.

T2: Trainspotting (2017)

t_two_trainspotting_ver6_xxlgToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

A little over two decades ago, though English director Danny Boyle had built a reputation in his native country with his work in theatre and his first movie had just won a BAFTA award, he was still an unknown quantity to the rest of the world.  That changed when his second feature roared onto screens in 1996; immediately embraced by audiences and heralded by critics as a rebirth of Great British Cinema, it became an instant pop culture phenomenon, and suddenly his name was no longer as obscure as the quaint English pastime from which it drew its title.

That movie was, of course, “Trainspotting,” and twenty years later, thanks to its enduring popularity, it has gained iconic status.  Now, at least partly for the same reason, it has also gained a sequel.  Still, “T2: Trainspotting” is no mere effort at pandering to fans; Boyle, now an Oscar-winner and power player, has long spoken of a desire to revisit his breakthrough film because he felt there was still a story to be told.  With the help of original screenwriter John Hodge, he has mined the source novel (by Irvine Welsh) and its follow-up, “Porno,” to flesh out that story, and re-enlisted the now-considerably-craggier original cast to bring it to life.

For those who need a refresher, “Trainspotting” followed the wild-and-wooly exploits of a cadre of young mates – Renton (“Rent Boy”), Daniel (“Spud”), Simon (“Sick Boy”), and Franco (“Begbie”) – as they tried to navigate life (and heroin addiction) in the economically depressed slums of Edinburgh.  It ends with Renton leaving his friends behind in the squalor of their dead-end lives, as he escapes with the hope of building a better one for himself.  “T2” rejoins them 20 years later, as he returns to make amends.  Things aren’t much different, despite the intervening years.  It’s as if time has stood still for these men, or rather they have stood still while time passed them by.  Their world is still defined by the blight of poverty, and the oft-repeated catchphrase, “Choose Life,” seems as much a gilded lie as it was in their youth.  And of course there are still the drugs, with their insidious allure, and the abdication of responsibility which comes with them.  This time around, though, percolating under it all, are a host of long-buried conflicts- with each other and with themselves- which their reunion inevitably brings to the surface.

Boyle directed “Trainspotting” with the exuberant, visually engaging style which has marked his entire output.  Driven by irreverent energy, it was in turn dizzyingly joyous and harrowingly dark, laced with absurdity and irony, and marked by a refusal to rely on the tropes of social realism.  That same vision propels “T2”: it shares the same essential elements (arresting camerawork, bright colors, free-associative imagery, an edgy pop-music soundtrack), and adds a touch of self-referential humor to the mix (clever acknowledgment of the notoriously thick Scottish dialects, for instance, and several nods to the original’s iconic toilet scene).  The new film unquestionably feels like a natural extension of the old- perhaps a bit more sophisticated, and maybe a bit mellower, but no less audacious.

The cast clearly relishes its chance to revisit these characters.  Leading it, of course, is Ewan McGregor as Renton, bringing the same intelligence and good nature which allows us to like this character even when his choices strike us as questionable.  The formidable Jonny Lee Miller is every bit his equal, managing to be somehow lovable as Sick Boy, the inept con artist on the other side of their precarious bromance.  Ewen Bremner is again both comical and heartbreaking as Spud, and Robert Carlyle gives us a Begbie whose ferocity and haplessness have only been magnified by the passage of time.  Finally, new addition Anjela Nedyalkova brings a complex blend of warm and cold- along with a fresh perspective- into the mix as Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika.

When a sequel appears to such a revered original, there is always a question of worthiness.  The intervening years have added layers of resonance which help to make “T2: Trainspotting” a compelling two hours, and Boyle and company have certainly brought the same level of energy and expertise to the table.  Its quality is undeniable.  Is it a masterpiece of the caliber of its predecessor?  Not quite.  Does it add something essential to the story?  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, any film as intelligent, superbly executed, and downright entertaining as this one will always be welcome- and that not only makes it necessary, but very worthy indeed.

Weiner-Dog (2016)

wiener-dog-poster01

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Todd Solondz doesn’t make movies to offer you an escape from your problems; he makes movies to confront you with them.  Ever since his 1995 breakthrough, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he has repeatedly offered up grim, uncomfortable stories of the dysfunction lurking just beneath the banal surface of suburban American life.  His films are variations on the interconnected themes of failure, depression, and emotional isolation.  Not exactly the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Yet the quirky writer/director has developed a loyal cult following who continue to be mesmerized by his sardonic vision of the world and the broken, faltering lives of the people who live in it.  Indeed, there is an almost masochistic fascination to these sad little fables of modern life, not unlike that can’t-look-away feeling you get when passing a gruesome accident scene on the highway.  Coupled with this morbid appeal is his tendency to feature recurring characters in his films (usually portrayed by different actors) alongside the new ones.  The desire to see what has happened to some of these familiar figures (and the hope that they have somehow managed to improve their dismal lives) is undoubtedly key in keeping his fans coming back for more, and it provides a major hook for the filmmaker’s latest effort, “Weiner-Dog.”

Those familiar with “Dollhouse,” which remains Solondz’ most popular and successful work, will immediately recognize this title as the nickname bestowed on that film’s pathetic anti-heroine, middle-schooler Dawn Wiener.  Though clearly intended to invoke that connection, and though that much-beloved character does indeed make her long-anticipated return here, in this case the name refers to a new central figure- a dachshund who becomes the pet of four different, unconnected people through the course of her life.

First, she is gifted to a young cancer survivor, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), providing the boy with a brief respite from the stark home environment created by the antagonistic and seemingly loveless marriage of his affluent parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts).  Then, she is adopted by the now-adult Dawn Wiener (the gifted Greta Gerwig)- still awkward and desperate for affection- who takes her along for the ride as she accompanies an old schoolmate on a road trip.  Changing hands again, she becomes the pet of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a has-been screenwriter barely clinging to his job as an unappreciated teacher at a film academy.  Finally, she ends up as a companion animal for Nana (the always-stellar Ellen Burstyn), an elderly and misanthropic invalid who receives a surprise visit from her long-absent granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet).

That’s it.  The dog connects the segments by her presence, but otherwise these are stand-alone vignettes, composed around Solondz’ usual themes and exploring the various ways in which human beings treat each other- and themselves- very badly.  As anyone familiar with the director’s work would anticipate, there’s not much hope to be found in these stories, and where there are glimmers of it they are subverted by the surrounding circumstances; and yet, the film has a strange and terrible beauty.

This is the hallmark of Solondz’ work; he shows us life at its cruelest and most demeaning- almost always with the explicit qualifier that it is we ourselves who are responsible- and yet he makes it somehow lovely.  He also makes it darkly funny; he is, above all, a social satirist whose stunted, minimalist dialogue conveys both depth of insight and an arch sense of ironic humor that revels in making us laugh at the things which most disturb us.  It might be argued that the laughter is a defensive reflex, a release of uncomfortable tension; this may be true, but it’s an authentic response, nonetheless.

Cut from the same cloth as his earlier films, this is perhaps Solondz’ most elegantly-made work to date.  Cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a low-key study in composition that subtly elevates the aesthetic and allows us just enough of a cool perspective to distance ourselves without being able to completely detach.  That’s important, because Solondz wants us to reconnect with the primal emotions- fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, resentment- within us all.  He warns us that if they are left in the darkness to be stoked by our failures and losses, they can make our lives like those he shows us on the screen; those lives might seem absurd, exaggerated, and extreme, but he never lets us believe they are anything other than truthful.  Brutally truthful.

For non-Solondz-fans, it should be noted that “Weiner-Dog” (like all of his work) is likely to put off many viewers.  It’s bleak and unrelenting, with a pall of despair that hangs over it from beginning to end.  Animal lovers, especially, should be warned to consider carefully before seeing it; for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

1473523071_skrin3

 

Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

The Revenant (2015)

 

leo-xlarge

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

With a title like “The Revenant,” one might expect the newest work by Alejandro G. Iñárritu to be a horror movie.  Indeed, though its name is meant only as a metaphoric reference to the central character’s experience, many viewers may find themselves horrified by much of its content and imagery.  This is not a criticism; rather, it’s a warning to viewers who might otherwise be unprepared for the level of intensity attempted- and achieved- by Iñárritu as he tells this story of determination and survival within the terrifying beauty of the natural world.

The screenplay, by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, is based “in part” on a novel by Michael Punke, which was itself based on the real-life story of Hugh Glass.  An experienced frontiersman, he was part of an 1823 fur trading expedition in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase; abandoned and left for dead by his comrades after sustaining severe injuries on the trail, he managed to crawl 200 miles to the nearest settlement- despite his grave condition, the harsh weather, and the danger from hostile Arikara war parties in the region.  The real Glass became something of a legend, to be sure; through the combined dramatic embellishments of Parke’s novel and the movie’s script, that legend is transformed into a classical revenge tragedy exploring the contrast between the savagery and nobility of man.

To go into any more detail about the plot would be difficult, not so much for fear of giving away the twists and turns of the story as for the sake of preserving the revelatory power of the film’s key moments.  Iñárritu uses a fluid camera to immerse his audience, creating an effect which is less like watching a series of events take place than it is like being in the midst of them as they arise and recede.  It’s disorienting and overwhelming; the vast scope of the wilderness setting, the camera’s restless focus, the hyper-reality of the natural light and the meticulously crafted soundscape- all these combine to form an atmosphere pregnant with surprises, both wondrous and terrible.  When those surprises come, the film commands a visceral response that rises beyond mere involvement in its narrative and connects you with that primal corner of your psyche that still sends prickles up your spine whenever you hear an animal howling in the darkness of night.  Iñárritu, far from rehearsing yet another big-screen tale that could easily have been lifted from a samurai epic or “spaghetti” western, seeks to provide his audience with a concrete experience of unthinkable occurrences.

It may have been the director’s audacious vision to bring such remarkable things to the screen, but an expert team was necessary to realize it.  The film’s roving camerawork, though carefully plotted by Iñárritu, was executed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also managed to give every shot a surreal and luminous beauty that haunts the memory long after the film is over.  Accompanying the stunning visuals is the ethereal score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (in collaboration with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), which contributes its own sense of stark detachment and otherworldly grace to the action.  In front of the lens, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a raw performance, possibly his best to date, as Glass; he communicates a profound range of humanity with a minimal amount of dialogue, in spite (or perhaps because) of the sheer physical ordeal of filming the role.  No less effective is Tom Hardy as the darker half of the story’s human conflict, creating an unforgettable portrait of a man who has become hardened into the personification of self-serving indifference.

“The Revenant” certainly feels unprecedented, but it does not completely escape its very “Hollywood” roots.  It retains many of the familiar tropes found throughout decades of frontier adventure movies, and it yields to the temptation of rewriting history in order to provide the kind of satisfying climactic showdown expected in such fare.  Nevertheless, Iñárritu, who is Mexican, brings an outsider’s perspective to this inherently American milieu and transcends its form to offer something beyond expectation.  Even as he charts the inexorable force of will that drives the drama, he confronts us with the breathtaking enormity of Nature and thereby forces us to contemplate our own irrelevance in the face of its awesome power.  He took well-documented pains to do so- going over budget and behind schedule in order to shoot his film in sequence with natural light, under grueling and dangerous conditions which sometimes endangered his cast and crew- but the payoff is visible in every extraordinary frame.  “The Revenant” shows us a kind of cold, profound beauty that is rarely seen in a mainstream American film, and that is a precious reward for those who have the stamina to endure it.

 

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale (2015)

WITCH

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

The Witch, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, is a horror movie which asks us to suspend our modern-day disbelief in order to accept that witchcraft, black magic, and Satanic possession are as much a part of the real world as its family of 17th Century protagonists considers them to be.  Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” and based on the lore of a region and era in which widespread hysteria over such matters infamously culminated in the Salem witch trials, it informs us that much of its dialogue is taken directly from official transcripts of first-hand accounts from the period.  It strives to convince us of its authenticity, seeming to insist that our ability to accept the literal truth of what it shows us is crucial to our understanding of the story.

Set in New England of the early 1600s, it follows a family of settlers who have been cast out of their Puritan community for their preaching their own strictly conservative beliefs.  They establish a farm on the edge of the wilderness, where father William rules the family with a firm but loving hand; he daily performs the hard work required to maintain their home with the help of his eldest, daughter Thomasin, and her brother, Caleb; mother Kate tends to her newest baby, while the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, spend their days playing with the goats in the stable.  For a time, they seem to thrive, living an austere but tranquil life.  Their fortunes take a turn, however, when baby Samuel, while under the watch of Thomasin, suddenly disappears from their midst.  Though William insists the infant was taken by a wolf, it soon becomes apparent that another sinister presence from the woods is responsible, and as its mysterious grip tightens around the isolated family they find themselves terrorized by events that challenge not only their deeply-held faith in God, but their faith in each other, as well.

In the hands of many directors, this plot would undoubtedly be the framework for a host of lurid thrills and cheap shocks.  Indeed, throughout The Witch, horror buffs may find themselves repeatedly expecting the requisite “surprise” pop-up frights, and waiting for the slow build to explode into a progression of ever-grislier mutilation and carnage.

Eggers, however, has a different experience in mind; through both his screenplay and his meticulous staging of the film, he avoids sensationalism and focuses instead on maintaining and reinforcing the kind of realism more reminiscent of a subtle period drama than an over-the-top fright flick.  Not only are the costumes and the settings simple and historically accurate, the language of the dialogue is written and spoken with the ring of period authenticity.  The cinematography (elegantly executed by Jarin Blaschke) uses mostly natural and available light to remain firmly rooted in the real world while still using plenty of shadow to evoke the implied darkness lurking in the heart of the story, and Eggers artfully frames his shots to create painterly images that are nevertheless tangibly naturalistic.

Perhaps most critically, the actors are uniformly superb, a true ensemble cast.  Each member of the family is portrayed with the kind of absolute honesty that reveals complex and unexpected layers of humanity; even the youngest children are remarkably believable, a fact which enhances the overall effect of the film’s horror immeasurably.  All deserve equal credit.  .

It is the film’s well-crafted realism, though, that may prove its fatal flaw, for some audiences.  Everything about it, from its title to its haunting score (composed by Mark Korven), tells you that it is a horror film, but- on the surface at least- it doesn’t play like one.  The pace is slow, and the implied menace is rarely shown.  Even the title character herself barely appears onscreen, though we are emphatically expected to believe in her.

The brilliance of Eggers’ movie, of course, is that it never really does expect us to do that.  The movie hinges on the certainty that we will question the reality of this family’s experience and analyze it on a deeper level.  This is no cautionary tale about danger in the literal woods; rather, it’s a warning about what happens when we isolate ourselves within our beliefs- at odds with our communities, our loved ones, and our own true nature.  The interpersonal drama of the little family we are shown gives us plenty of clues about the real evil that is tearing them apart, and it comes from within, not from without.  It is this sly and subversive subtext running through its center that makes The Witch stand apart within its genre.  It may not terrify, but it provokes, and that is what will linger in your memory.

Well, that, and a certain black goat…

Sinister (2012)

Sinister (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Sinister, the 2012 horror feature by director Scott Derrickson, about a true-crime writer whose research into the unsolved murder of an entire family uncovers links to a decades-long series of similar killings and connections to an ancient malevolent force.  Combining a standard cinematic narrative with elements of the now-prevalent “found footage” format employed by the horror genre, it relies heavily on mood and atmosphere, eschewing overt violence and gore for the terrors of a stimulated imagination and the deliberate build of suspense through tried-and-true methods of filmic storytelling.  Benefitting from intelligent writing and a strong and experienced cast headed by Ethan Hawke, it received mostly positive response from critics and was even named by some as the best horror film of the year.

Inspired by a nightmare in which he discovered a home movie documenting the hanging death of an entire family, Derrickson built a screenplay, co-written with C. Robert Cargill, in which this situation serves as the premise for a tale of real-life obsession and supernatural evil.  It begins as crime author Ellison Oswalt, moves with his family into a house located in a small rural town where a family has been brutally murdered the year before- except for a young daughter, who disappeared without a trace.  Hoping to recapture the success of his first bestseller after a string of subsequent failures, Ellison plans to research the sensational case up close; unbeknownst to his wife and children, he has gone so far as to purchase the very house in which the killings took place.  While exploring the attic, he discovers a box containing an old projector and several reels of Super 8 home movies; obviously curious, he takes them into the office he has set up in a spare bedroom and begins to watch.  When he begins with the most recently-dated film, he finds- to  his horror- that it shows the murder of the house’s former occupants, although any shots of the murderer have been edited out; even more disturbingly, the remaining films, dated over the course of six decades, contain a visual record of other, similar murders- each one the ritualized slaughter of an entire family by different, equally horrifying methods- and in each one, upon close inspection, can be found a glimpse of an ominous, dark-eyed figure watching the gruesome proceedings.  Though at first he considers bringing the films to the police, Ellison’s ambition to regain his fame and fortune wins out; he decides to pursue the investigation by himself, hoping to solve the case on his own and use it as the basis for his triumphant return to the bestseller lists.  With the help of a star-struck deputy sheriff and a local expert on the occult, he begins to piece together a pattern linking the various filmed murders, but the mystery only deepens- as does his obsession with it, leading him to heavy drinking and driving a wedge of alienation between himself and his family, who have begun to be affected by the sinister aura of the house.  It soon becomes apparent that Ellison’s ego-driven quest for answers has uncovered an ancient and diabolical secret, and that he may unwittingly be placing himself and his loved ones at risk by continuing to pursue the truth.

Derrickson’s efforts to create a truly frightening film went beyond the development of the screenplay itself, and involved a heavy focus on the creation of the central villain, whose wordless presence gives Sinister the bulk of its creepy power.  After abandoning his original conception of an evil “Willy Wonka” figure, luring children into his murderous trap, and transforming the character into an legendary Sumerian spirit rather than a demonic entity (to avoid rooting the film in a specific religious setting), he researched over half a million online images and drew inspiration from the visual style of “black metal” music- which is extensively used in the soundtrack- in order to achieve the look and persona of “Bughuul,” fondly known as “Mr. Boogie” by the children who fall under his spell.  The filmmaker’s instinct to get it right was a wise one- many otherwise effective horror films have been sunk by the presence of an unconvincing or laughable monster, but Sinister succeeds in dispensing chills largely because of the primal fear effortlessly elicited by its elegantly simple, utterly terrifying boogeyman. Made all the more disturbing by his ephemeral presence on the fringes of consciousness and reality, he appears only fleetingly onscreen, yet he leaves haunting, indelible images in the mind and makes us search for another look at him even as we dread the prospect of it.  Though the plot of the movie is driven, like so many other films in the genre, by characters making mind-numbingly stupid choices (why do horror characters never reach for a light-switch when they enter a darkened room?) and implausibilities that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief dangerously close to its limit, we forgive these clichés of the formula because of the palpable aura of inevitable doom conjured by our brief encounters with this otherworldly phantom.  From the first moment we see him, we know where things are going, and we are drawn into the journey towards that horrific culmination with the same illogical, obsessive fascination as the characters onscreen.

Not that Sinister is devoid of strengths besides the portrayal of its Sumerian specter; although the perfunctory and predictable pitfalls of the genre- cheap and sudden shocks, the usual reliance on creepshow staples such as evil children and menacing animals, the aforementioned brainless behavior of the potential victims- are undeniably present here, Derrickson and Cargill have infused their screenplay with enough intelligence to bring a sort of sense to these elements.  Their clever use of modern technology to facilitate the story not only allows for the visceral immediacy of the supposed “actual footage” upon which the premise hangs, but also for streamlining the narrative; the pursuit of information requires no more than a few keystrokes on a laptop, eliminating the need for lengthy expository scenes at the local library.  In addition, the rooting of the story in a tech-savvy modern world helps to heighten the contrast with the antiquated force of evil within it, and- more importantly, perhaps- serves to compound the isolation of our protagonist, whose vulnerability increases the as he retreats deeper into his self-created solitary confinement.  In addition, Sinister re-imagines the stock characters of the genre to a sufficient degree that they almost seem original.  The town sheriff is not a pompous buffoon, but a smart and authoritative figure with refreshing candor and obvious wisdom, and our confidence in Ellison is undermined almost from the outset, simply through the hostility and lack of respect he bestows upon this man; likewise, the deputy who later assists in Ellison’s research, though he seems, at first, to be the slack-jawed yokel we’ve seen so many times before, soon proves to be a sharp and savvy investigator, who might be a valuable ally if the ostensible hero were not blinded by his own sense of intellectual superiority; finally, Ellison’s wife and children, though ultimately relegated to the position of a plot condition, are not the clichéd ciphers so often seen in these roles- the kids, though troubled (understandably and believably so), are possessed of genuine and endearing personalities, and his wife (played by the lovely and substantial Juliet Rylance) is strong, supportive- within reason- and eloquent enough to deliver the film’s keystone monologue about her husband losing sight of his life’s true purpose in the pursuit of fortune and glory.

It is this last point that underscores what truly elevates Sinister above the level of schlock horror and gives it the weight and substance that allows it to be more than just a spooky campfire story.  In Ellison’s self-destructive determination to recapture his worldly success, he abandons his role as protector and companion to his family; indeed, he effectively separates himself from the rest of mankind, devaluing all outside influence and presuming to stand alone against a powerful evil which he has yet to fully comprehend.  Cut off from the source of his humanity, and with his stubborn ego undermined by self-doubt and self-loathing, he can only watch, powerless, as the forces he has unleashed proceed to overwhelm him and infiltrate the world around him.  It is this portrait of a man haunted from within, driven by his ambition but paralyzed by his fear of failure, that gives Derrickson’s movie its real power; the story of Bughuul and his ancient evil becomes a metaphor for the soul-consuming effect of displacing one’s humanity in favor of the blind pursuit of material success, and Ellison’s spiraling downfall is as much an indictment of the so-called “American Dream” as Willy Loman’s delusional road to suicide in Death of a Salesman over a half-century ago.  Of course, this is not to say that Sinister has social commentary as its ultimate purpose; the film is aimed squarely at scaring the bejeezus out if its audience, and it succeeds wickedly.   Nevertheless, while it is relatively easy to shake off the chills it brings by exploiting our fear of things that go bump in the night, this deeper level allows those chills to sink to the bone, leaving us unsettled and uncertain long after the final, gruesome images have faded from the screen.  It is also the presence of this underlying theme that allows the film to seem fresh and original even as it evokes and pays homage to the genre classics which influenced its director- most obviously The Shining, a movie with which Sinister bears many similarities in story, subject, and mood.

Derrickson’s slick direction goes a long way towards making the whole thing work.  He heavily utilizes his soundtrack, both musical and ambient, to create near-unbearable tension; the big visual scares come as surprises, emerging from the periphery of our gaze or rising from the shadows of the background; his use of authentic Super 8 film to recreate the ghostly snuff films which lure both protagonist and audience into the story lends a grainy realism that makes these sequences all the more disturbing, and his choice to cut away from these at their most gruesome moments, or show us the gore out-of-focus, in a reflection or in the background, forces our imagination to complete the picture with images more horrific and unthinkable than anything he could have put on film.  The director’s cleverness behind the camera, however, would be for naught without a strong performance from his star, and Ethan Hawke- an oft-overlooked but genuinely fine actor, particularly adept at playing likable losers on a downward spiral- delivers just that; in Hawke’s capable hands, Ellison avoids coming off as just another cocksure golden boy paving the road to his own deserved comeuppance and instead becomes a sympathetic Everyman, flawed but inherently decent, well-intentioned despite his over-confidence, and ultimately more devoted to his family’s welfare than his own success.  Though we see from the beginning that he is an unreliable figure in which to place our trust, we are drawn to identify with him nevertheless, largely due to Hawke’s honesty, which lets us inside the conflicted and desperate mind which drives him; he takes us along for the ride, bouncing between determination and fatalism, buoying himself with self-assured good cheer even as morbid self-doubt eats away at his core, and never letting us forget that Sinister, for all the arcane circumstances at its surface, is really about a man’s struggle with demons on the inside.

This review may seem like a rave, and in a way, it is.   I must admit that, for the most part, contemporary horror movies do very little for me; I find them gimmicky, shallow, and unimaginative, relying on gross-out tactics and cheap scares to make an impact without challenging the intellect.  They debase human behavior, fetishize violence and cruelty, and reinforce a simplistic morality even as they present a nihilistic view of a hostile and malicious universe.  Of course, these criticisms of the genre are not unique to its most recent expressions- far more horror movies have been lowbrow schlock than have been cinematic gems, no matter what the era- and there are certainly exceptions.  Sinister is one of those, a movie in which the shocks resonate to a deeper level and strike at fundamental issues in our collective psyche; it taunts us not just with primal fear of horrors hiding in the dark, but with the more sophisticated terrors of living in the real world- of failure, of inadequacy, of getting it all wrong, and perhaps worst of all, of playing in a rigged game where even your most determined effort only serves to ensure your ultimate defeat.  Sinister is not, in the end, a film of the caliber of such cinema greats as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, which weave philosophical contemplation about the true nature of evil seamlessly into their narratives, nor does it approach the subversive genius of Golden Age classics like King Kong or Bride of Frankenstein, in which the hypocrisy, greed, and intolerance of so-called normalcy are used to cast the “monsters” as more worthy of sympathy than those they terrorize; like those and other films of the genre, it invites us to think and to feel as it thrills us, but it falls short of true brilliance by never quite breaking free of standard formula, no matter how expertly it adapts the tropes to its own ambitious needs.  Nevertheless, it succeeds in chilling us to the bone without expecting us to shut off our higher functions in exchange for the thrill, and it manages to breathe new life into its clichés without being too clever for its own good (see my review of The Cabin in the Woods).  Sinister may not be a great movie, but it is, in my estimation, a good horror movie- and coming from me, that is high praise indeed.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1922777/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War.  Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem.  No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.

Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party.  With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside.  In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution.  With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town.  In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals.  Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him.  Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued.  Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham.  There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.

Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film.  Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture.  The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions.  In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.

It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama.  From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script.  Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent.  Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance.  Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause.  If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order.  Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings.  The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty.  Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world.  Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed.  Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles.  There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.

Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint.  The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted.  It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic.  Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today.  Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.

For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.  It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film.  Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead.  Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative.  In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career.  Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies.  The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection.  Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.

The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments.  In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name.  Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film).  A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night).  These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.

Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works.  This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was,  like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars.  Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema.  It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man.  For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood.  The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture.  It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings.  Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew.  It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement.  Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.