mother! (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make movies for your enjoyment.

From the earliest days of his career, his films have been a relentless barrage of grotesque and transgressive imagery, built around themes of paranoia and self-destruction, and tied together into a debasing experience that feels less like a catharsis than an assault.

Consequently, it seems odd that viewers would expect his latest work – “mother!” – to be the kind of tried-and-true psychological thriller its advertising would suggest; it seems even more odd that their reaction to it would be one of surprise and even outrage.

Yet that is precisely what happened.

During the movie’s opening weekend, critics and audiences alike labeled it as a “flop” within moments of walking out of the theater, and took to social media with ranting diatribes calling it one of “the worst movies ever made” – but does it really deserve such labels?  The answer to that question may be as perplexing as the film itself.

“mother!” is ostensibly the tale of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her author husband (Javier Bardem), in an isolated house in the country.  She works hard restoring their home, previously burned in a fire, while he struggles with writer’s block, but their life together seems tranquil and full of hope – until a strange couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, threatening the stability of the idyllic world they have built for themselves.

The premise echoes countless other thrillers in which happy couples are terrorized by interlopers, and forced to face uncomfortable truths about themselves as they battle to restore order to their lives.  Though Aronofsky quickly derails the formula with his customary descent into nightmare logic, he nevertheless takes on all the tropes of the genre – buried secrets, subversions of intimacy, implications of “gaslighting,” even good old-fashioned jump scares.  He doesn’t necessarily take them seriously; indeed, he milks them for considerable humor, using them to mock both themselves and the audience’s willingness to buy into them, even as he twists them into the service of his larger agenda.

He utilizes a similar combination of homage and satire in the repurposing of some of his own now-familiar tools, most notably the “unreliable narrator” technique.  Almost the entirety of “mother!” is focused in close-up proximity to Lawrence’s character; most of the action comes to our attention through a sort of peripheral vision which not only serves as a reminder that we are seeing it through her eyes, but creates a dreamlike flow which warns us that not everything in this film should be taken at face value.

It’s a warning well worth heeding.

Behind its thin disguise, “mother!” carries an ambitious vision.  From the bones of its generic horror plot, Aronofsky has built no less than a cosmic allegory about the eternal dance between creation and destruction.  Rife with Freudian underpinnings and Biblical overtones, flavored by the director’s darkly surreal visual style, and exploring a daunting array of themes, it’s a construct so dense with metaphor that its layers reflect endlessly upon each other like an infinite funhouse mirror.

It might be said that so much significance to unpack reduces the film to the level of a pretentious intellectual exercise, or that the Harvard-educated Aronofsky’s own privileged background is inseparable from the observations he makes.

Nevertheless, any honest artist must draw on personal experience in creating their work, and while these qualifications may be necessary for a discussion of the movie’s relevance within the larger culture, they are ultimately irrelevant to assessing the skill with which Aronofsky has executed his film or the impact it has upon the viewer.

Both are considerable.  The filmmaker has crafted a screenplay which deftly weaves  complex ideas into a simple narrative as it constructs a post-modern Creation Myth – with a decidedly feminist flavor –  out of a “B” movie structure; he has translated it onscreen with a blend of arch self-awareness and unabashed authenticity.  His film boasts a collection of superb performances (particularly Pfeiffer’s) and a masterful use of cinematography and sound in its depiction of a pastoral world slowly devolving into a landscape of dark esoterica.

Why, then, do so many people hate it?  Despite its calculated intellectualism, “mother!” is a deeply visceral experience that hits us in our most uncomfortable, instinctual places – but perhaps more than that, it leaves us with a sense of betrayal.

From its very beginning moments, Aronofsky makes us think we know exactly where he’s taking us; he telegraphs all his tricks with such a heavy hand that it puts us off almost as much as the escalating gore and violence; and yet, in the end, he still manages to pull the rug out from under us.  He takes our expectations and turns them against us, and it feels like a dirty trick.

It’s no wonder that many viewers have felt like they have been subjected to the same kind of psychological abuse suffered by Lawrence through most of the film – but that doesn’t mean it deserves to be written off with the vehemence and vitriol it has inspired in so many of its detractors.

Aronofsky never meant to make a simple horror movie that would disquiet you for the duration and then send you home feeling safe, secure, and satisfied.  To consider “mother!” a failure is to miss the director’s intention entirely.  His movie may not be for everyone, but it is also cinematic expression at a level of fearlessness almost unheard of in American filmmaking.  It’s a work by an artist at the peak of his talents, who seeks to challenge and provoke us – whether we like it or not.

With that in mind, his movie is perhaps too successful for its own good.

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It Comes At Night (2017)

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

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The greatest horror films are never just about scaring us.  The Exorcist or The Babadook may present us with demons, but they are really showing us the hidden evil in our own lives; every slasher flick is really a morality tale in which the smallest sins are harshly punished; and even Frankenstein or Dracula, in all their incarnations, are more about the twisted pathways of the human psyche than they are about the terrors of the supernatural.

Such movies, like fables from the Brothers Grimm, are cautionary tales which teach us lessons by tapping into our deepest fears.  Good filmmakers understand this, and they root the scares they deliver onscreen into something deeper than the artificial scenarios that provide them.  It Comes At Night, the new thriller from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, aspires to follow this example.

A grim parable about human nature masquerading as an apocalyptic survival tale, it centers on a small family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) that have boarded themselves up at an isolated house in the woods after the outbreak of a terrifying plague which brings an agonizing death to anyone who contracts it.  When a surprise intruder turns out to be seeking water for his own nearby family, they decide to invite these strangers to live among them.  At first, the newcomers (Christopher Abbot, Riley Keogh, and Griffin Robert Faulkner) are a welcome addition to the household; but after a mysterious event sows the seeds of mistrust, the family begins to fear that inviting these outsiders into their home may have jeopardized their own survival.

Such a premise has direct connections to the kind of double-edged dramas featured on shows like The Twilight Zone, which often presented a “what if” microcosm in which to explore the hot-button issues of the day.  The parallel is highly apt to today’s world; in the age of Brexit and Trump, with its resurgence of Nationalism and xenophobia, existential fear has boiled to the surface of our communal awareness much in the way it did during those precarious days of the Cold War era.

Shults has adapted this time-tested formula for contemporary audiences; the conflict he presents reflects the concerns of our own time, but he doesn’t hammer home his point.  Rather, he invites us to make the connections for ourselves, and focuses his efforts instead on frightening us.

He begins his film with a traumatic sequence which establishes the horrors of its disease-borne threat while emotionally bonding us to the family at its center; he builds a tense and oppressive mood throughout, creating a sense of claustrophobia — even in the open forest outside the house – which underscores the pervading fear that there can be no real escape; he evokes a feverish delirium by progressively blending scenes of nightmare and reality until we have difficulty telling which is which; and he brings us to a ferocious climax which undercuts its inevitability by surprising us with devastating immediacy.

Apart from its opening and climactic sequences, however, It Comes At Night may fall short of expectation for many hardcore fright-seekers.  Although he provides plenty of creepy moments and jump-in-your-seat scares along the way, Shults has taken a less-is-more approach.  He seeks to disturb, not to terrify, and as a result the film plays more like psychodrama than horror.  This, of course, allows us the opportunity to recognize the allegorical threads of his story and connect them to the issues which it is his real agenda to address.

To a point, those connections are pretty clear.  The two families live in a world of fear, and must decide whether to cooperate or isolate, to help each other or look out for their own interests; the choices they make are clouded by paranoia and mistrust, and their ultimate survival likely depends on how well they are able to overcome those obstacles.  You can’t come up with a plainer metaphor for the challenge of living in a global community than that.

From there, though, things get a little vague.  Following the lead of such recent horror efforts as Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Shults deliberately masks the specifics of his story in such a way that many key events are left for the audience imagine for themselves.  This results in an ambiguity which forces us to draw our own conclusions about which approach is right — or indeed, whether it ultimately even matters which one we choose.

While this opaque approach lends itself well to multiple interpretations, it can also create the risk of muddy storytelling.  Unfortunately, this is the case with It Comes At Night.  Shults leaves a little too much to the imagination, resulting in enough uncertainty about the plot to leave us more confused than stimulated when the credits finally roll.  Indeed, this lack of clarity makes the film’s ending seem abrupt, and audiences are likely to go home with the feeling that they must have missed something important.

This is particularly disappointing in view of the movie’s deeper ambitions.  Though comparison is seldom fair, one cannot help but be reminded of this year’s earlier social-commentary-as-horror offering, Jordan Peele’s brilliant Get Out, a film which dazzled largely because of the clear and concise lines between its sensational plot and its slyly satirical observations.  The intentions are different here, of course, but Shults has chosen to blur his lines instead, and the result is a promise that never feels fulfilled.

This is not to say that It Comes At Night  is a failure; Shults is a gifted filmmaker, and he has succeeded well in crafting a moody and engaging thriller.  His cast is excellent, and the cinematography by Drew Daniels is a master class in atmosphere.  The pieces are all there, even if the film as a whole is unsatisfying.

LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

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

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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.

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…

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

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.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabin in the Woods, the genre-twisting feature, from the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, that satirizes horror movie conventions within a larger science fiction framework as it tells the tale of five college-age friends who are secretly manipulated by a mysterious high-tech agency during a weekend getaway at a mountain lake.  Filmed in 2009, it was held from release by the bankruptcy of its studio, MGM, which could not afford the cost of marketing and publicity; eventually picked up by Lionsgate Films, it finally hit screens in early 2012, when the long anticipation by Whedon’s many fans turned it into a major box office success.  Lauded by many critics for its clever restructuring and skewering of the “slasher movie” genre, it managed to find its way onto several best-of-2012 lists in addition to becoming one of the year’s biggest financial hits.

The movie begins with the back-and-forth intercutting between scenes of a large-scale government tech lab where final preparations are under way for an elaborate and unspecified project, and a group of five young people getting ready for a trip to a secluded mountain cabin.  The kids- Dana (the sweet and comparatively wholesome “good girl”), Jules (the bleached-blonde sexpot), Curt (Jules’ jock boyfriend), Holden (Curt’s studious friend, brought along as a blind date for Dana), and Marty (the pot-smoking nerd)- set out in an  RV, and, though they have an unsettling encounter with the attendant at a run-down gas station on the road to the cabin, they remain in high spirits, looking forward to a weekend of good times.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear they are being remotely monitored by the technicians in the mysterious lab, who seem to have complete control over their environment.  Upon arrival at their destination, the five friends discover that the cabin- recently purchased by a cousin of Curt’s- is an odd and disconcerting place, adorned with gruesome art, fearsome stuffed animals, and see-through mirrors, and they eventually stumble upon a trap door which leads to a secret basement full of odd and arcane relics.  Among these objects they find a diary, written by the daughter of the cabin’s original owners; as Dana reads it aloud, it reveals a horrific tale of torture, disfigurement, and murder, practiced by the family in the service of their twisted puritanical beliefs, and includes a strange Latin invocation- which she also reads aloud, unwittingly calling the long-deceased clan back from the dead.  Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that all of these events seem to be under the orchestration of the observing lab technicians, who watch with satisfied interest as the murderous zombies slink towards the unsuspecting young people in the cabin.  Needless to say, the weekend getaway is soon to become a terrifying fight for survival, in which the would-be victims will discover that their perilous situation has larger implications more dire than any of them could suspect.

The screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods was co-written by Whedon and Goddard, who worked together on Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; though it took them only three days to write, it is undeniably clever.  It’s difficult to discuss it in much detail without giving away too many of its secrets, but it is safe to describe it as a mash-up of Friday the Thirteenth and Night of the Living Dead as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft. This in itself is creative enough, but it’s also apparent that the pair have a definite agenda here, in which they use a sort of meta-drama- self-consciously utilizing all the stock characters and conceits of the slasher film scenario- to explore the deeper psychological origins of the horror genre, linking it both to its ancient roots in the superstitions and religions of ancient cultural memory and to its modern role as a fetishized outlet for the primordial and antisocial urges that still lie at its core.  The story of the five not-so-innocent kids is enfolded into a larger plot that allegorizes the makers of such formulaic horror vehicles themselves, using an elaborate metaphor to satirize their motivations and criticize the growing trend towards “torture porn” within the genre.  The concept is ingenious, audacious and inspired; the writers have constructed a puzzle box of a movie, in which several layers of plot fit neatly inside each other, with each addressing larger and more significant themes, ultimately providing both homage to and an indictment of a genre which celebrates the bloodlust lurking in the core of human nature.  At the same time, they endeavor to create a movie which works simultaneously as a high-concept art piece and a wildly entertaining example of schlock cinema.  With the first goal, they come respectably close; with the second, however, they are much further from the mark.

On a conceptual level, The Cabin in the Woods works well; the underlying conceit, though veiled, is apparent from the beginning, allowing us to appreciate the way it informs the narrative as it gradually emerges to our full understanding.  It’s a good choice, because on the surface level, what we are given is far too ordinary to hold our interest for long.  The movie-in-a-movie storyline, with its hapless young victims being stalked and slaughtered one by one, is so familiar and predictable as to be completely devoid of shock; it’s deliberately derivative, of course, but the unimaginative, by-rote handling of the formula is no less dull for its intentions.  To make matters worse, the dialogue, loaded with obligatory comic banter and snarky “fanboy” in-jokes, is stale and stilted, with a decidedly sophomoric reliance on cliché and self-indulgence; the characters, though an effort is made to give them more personality and depth than the typical stock figures in such fare, still behave like one-dimensional stereotypes, and despite the fact that we are clearly told that their actions are being manipulated by their white-collar puppeteers, again, it makes little difference to our level of emotional investment in them- or rather, our lack of it.  It’s true that. as the movie expands from the killer zombie hillbilly scenario, they (the survivors anyway) are seen to have a little more on the ball than they’ve managed to show so far, but by the time this larger plot has taken over, so much screen time has been squandered on the regurgitation of shallow horror convention that it’s hard to care.  Even though it happens too late in the game, the development of the framing plot, in which we discover the real horrors of the cabin in the woods, is far more original and engaging, though it, too, suffers from the malady of unconvincing dialogue; the film’s final quarter is so much more interesting that it heightens our disappointment over everything that has gone before.  Still, when the movie finally reaches its endgame, fully revealing its devilishly clever dual purpose as a satirical exploration of form and a cynical commentary on human nature, it succeeds in winning us over with its sheer audacity, leaving us with a sort of grudging delight and making us wish that Whedon and Goddard had spent more than three days writing their screenplay.

The movie built on that script is certainly made well enough; directed by Goddard, with Whedon serving as producer (presumably too involved with his myriad other creative endeavors to get behind the camera on this one), it succeeds in emulating the stylistic sensibilities of the teen scream genre it draws from, using time-honored techniques of visual vocabulary to tell its story (with a good bit of sly humor) and expanding to a slicker, more contemporary mode as the focus shifts loose from the constraints of genre formula. There is nothing truly mind-blowing here, in terms of visual style or innovation, just smart utilization of the established tricks of the trade, but Goddard has clearly done his homework, and he pulls it off in a workmanlike fashion. More overtly impressive, from the standpoint of cinematic creativity, is the work of the movie’s designers and technicians, who give us a number of delicious visual treats, particularly in the climactic scenes involving an everything-but-the-kitchen sink catalogue of movie monsters ranging from the familiar (murderous clowns, werewolves, sadistic hell-spawn) to the not-so-familiar (a killer unicorn, a lamprey-faced ballerina, and a decidedly grotesque merman). These sequences were accomplished by an impressive assemblage of the finest effects artists and technicians in the industry, requiring the rental of extra facilities to accommodate the sheer number of workers, and shooting at the huge aerospace building of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, since the available studio space was inadequate for the necessary scale. The unprecedented effort was worth it- this section is by far the most fun and memorable few minutes in the movie, generating more actual laughs and thrills than the entire pick-em-off-one-by-one saga that takes up the first three-quarters of screen time.

The film’s other production values are solid, as well; the cinematography by Peter Deming, the musical score by David Julyan, the production design by Martin Whist – all these are several cuts above the level of the low-budget exploitation thrillers upon which The Cabin in the Woods depends for inspiration, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little amateurish roughness around the edges might have gone a long way towards bestowing Goddard’s film with more of the authentic grindhouse flavor it sorely needs.  The higher quality is appreciated, however, when it comes to the performances, since bad acting is rarely a plus, and since the film requires a bit more nuance from its players than the typical horror entry.  Though it’s notable that two of the cast members are Chris Hemsworth (as Curt) and Richard Jenkins (who shot their roles here before making it big as Thor and earning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor, respectively), the true stars are Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, as Dana and Marty, who are both charming enough, and more importantly project the intelligence and spunk needed to make them into a convincing hero and heroine.  Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are goofily likeable as the pair of elder-generation nerds who serve as team leaders for the mysterious behind-the-scenes project, and Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams, as the remainder of the youthful adventurers, succeed in making their characters more than the mere ciphers they might have been.  Sigourney Weaver, who seems to have made a supplemental career for herself playing self-referential cameos in this kind of satirical sci-fi fare, makes a surprise appearance near the end, but disclosing the nature of her role would be too much of a spoiler; suffice to say that her presence onscreen is welcome and her performance is amusing without being over-the-top.

I suppose I should confess that I have never been particularly fond of the “slasher movie” sub-genre, though most of my generation, which grew up with them, seems to consider them essential touchstones of pop culture experience.  I always thought they were predictable and dull, and rarely frightening; consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the effectiveness of The Cabin in the Woods, either as a legitimate entry or as a parody.  Many viewers have responded much more positively than I to Whedon and Goddard’s Lovecraftian mind-bender, but even I can say that it’s worth a look.  Even though, ultimately, I found it as predictable and unengaging as the films it sends up, it contains many aspects that impressed me, and yes, even entertained me.  For one thing, it has a lot more “heart” than most of these cold-blooded slaughter-fests, reminding us that alongside those savage instincts in our unconscious there are also nobler ones; though, in the end, the film’s “message,” if you can call it that, is cynical and even nihilistic, it leaves you with a more or less positive view of mankind- in the individual, if not in the collective.  It’s also a very smart movie, with canny observations about human behavior on the personal, social, and cultural level, and it weaves these into its formulaic plot in a way that illuminates the stock situations and conventions, revealing the deeper implications of the well-worn narrative structure and helping us to see it as more than mere repetitive drivel.  Finally, I can truly embrace its creators’ avowed purpose of decrying the level to which the horror genre has sunk in our modern era; most horror movies today are mindless spatter films, capitalizing on flavor-of-the-week trends and using sensationalistic formats to earn a quick buck and nothing more.  At best, they are meaningless, and at worst, they are thought pollution, celebrating cruelty and violence for their own sake and reinforcing some very ugly behavioral tendencies in an audience that is typically of a very impressionable age.  The Cabin in the Woods attempts to address this state of affairs by offering an alternative which both satisfies the need for a good scare and stimulates the intellect, as many (though certainly, admittedly, not all) of the so-called “old school” horror films tried to do.  It’s very clever, alright; unfortunately, in the end, it’s too clever for its own good.  Those who are likely to clue into the brainier aspects of the film will probably not respond to the horror, and those who are in it for the cheap thrills will undoubtedly be disinterested in any higher purpose.  Of course, there is a convergent group of viewers- most of them, probably, already fans of Whedon’s nerdy-cool fictional universe- who will find both levels of The Cabin in the Woods right up their alley, and they are the ones for whom this movie is made.  You might not be one of them, but it’s still worth watching; even if it doesn’t quite work (and even if it doesn’t look like it, at first glance), it’s refreshingly intelligent filmmaking.  There’s precious little enough of that out there, so get it where you can.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1259521/?ref_=sr_1

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that looking at the pictures below might be a mistake.  I try not to provide spoilers, but some of these images might give things away that you don’t want to know ahead of time, and once you see something, you can’t unsee it, so view at your own risk.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 comedy-horror film by John Landis, about a young American who survives an attack by a mysterious assailant while backpacking through England, only to find that he has become cursed to transform into a monster by the light of the full moon.  A quirky mix of madcap humor and gruesome horror, it was a fairly respectable hit upon its release, despite mixed reviews, and has since become something of a cult classic.  It was particularly notable for its then-groundbreaking make-up effects, which garnered their creator, Rick Baker, the first-ever Academy Award in the new category created to honor such work.

The movie opens on the moors of Northern England, where two young American friends, David and Jack, are on the first leg of a European hiking tour.  Arriving at nightfall in a remote village, they decide to stop off at the town pub in order to get some rest and sustenance.  The locals view them with suspicion, and when Jack asks about a strange 5-pointed star carved into the wall, they become downright hostile; the two young men decide to leave, and though they are warned to stick to the roads they soon become lost on the moor.  Things get much worse when they realize they are being stalked by a mysterious animal; when they try to run, it abruptly attacks them, savagely killing Jack and mauling David before the villagers arrive and shoot the beast dead as the young traveler loses consciousness.  He wakes up some days later, in a London hospital, where he has been sent by the locals to recover from his injuries.  The physician, Dr. Hirsch, and the attending nurse, the lovely Alex, are kind and sympathetic, but their young patient is troubled by the villagers’ official report that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic and not a ferocious animal.  Though the police put little stock in his traumatized memories, Dr. Hirsch decides to do a little further investigation on his own; meanwhile, David strikes up a relationship with Nurse Alex, moving in with her upon his release from the hospital.  Their romance is blissfully therapeutic, despite the young man’s troubling, violent nightmares; but harder to ignore are the visits from the increasingly decomposed ghost of his unfortunate friend Jack, who claims that they were actually attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now a werewolf himself.  Worse yet, Jack and all the other victims of the monster’s bloodthirsty rage are doomed to wander the earth until their killer’s bloodline has been severed- meaning that David, as the last surviving carrier of the curse, must die before the next full moon can transform him into a ravenous beast and lead to more senseless slaughter.  Though David is skeptical of the warnings, Hirsch is sufficiently convinced by a visit to the moors that his former patient may be a danger to himself and others, and he joins forces with Alex in an attempt to protect the young man from the darkness- whether supernatural or psychological- that threatens to take control of his destiny.

As written by Landis, who was inspired over a decade earlier when he witnessed a group of Central Europeans performing a ritual to prevent a deceased fellow villager rising from his grave, this grim and familiar tale is laced with the kind of hip, contemporary humor that marked the youth-oriented films of the period; arch, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, and self-referential, the comedy is a major ingredient in the mix, but Landis stops short of letting it undermine the gravity of his horror story.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, and many critics were at a loss to reconcile the seeming opposition of the movie’s two aspects; nevertheless, the apparent cross purposes complement each other in a way that makes for a unique and highly entertaining ride.  In addition, the two cultural sensibilities reflected in the film’s title are brought into the equation through the film’s overall style; the flip jocularity of the American mindset is superimposed against a background of traditional English influences that resembles a blend of Hammer horror and the Carry On series, with a slight dash of Monty Python thrown in for good measure.  The resulting subtextual implication in which the youthful, callow naïveté of the distinctly American personality is thrust into the Old World subtlety of European experience, suggests a story that is ultimately, perhaps, about the dangers of being overconfident in a world that is deeper and more complex than we know.

That’s not to propose that Landis’ purpose here involves any kind of socio-political statement; the “babe in the woods” undercurrent, extrapolations about cultural identity aside, serves mainly as a foundation for the uneasy sense of foreboding that pervades the film from its opening frames, when the hazy atmosphere of the isolated moors seems pregnant with ominous possibility and fills us with the dread of something unknown, lurking just beyond the hills or, perhaps, hiding in plain sight.  Confronted from the start with this landscape that is at once familiar and alien, we immediately bond with the two fresh-faced adventurers who, a few moments later, arrive on the scene- in a truck full of sheep, like proverbial lambs to the slaughter (to reinforce this idea, the pub through which they will soon begin their descent into horror is called “The Slaughtered Lamb”).  We are charmed by their banter, comfortable in their camaraderie, and touched by their friendship; we share their bemused outsiders’ perspective because we, too, are outsiders here, a commonality that helps us identify with them, but because they are so endearing, we also genuinely like them.  It is this factor, cannily accomplished by Landis in his script, that makes us cringe at a deeper level when they become victims of the inevitable carnage; and with this foundation laid, as the film follows the subsequent adventures of David, despite the cheeky comic tone maintained throughout, we can never quite escape or ignore the soul-sickening undercurrent of sadness which pursues us to the end.

Landis is able to pull off this delicate balance largely because he seems unconcerned with pre-conceived limitations of genre; as the director of the wildly popular Animal House and The Blues Brothers, he was the undisputed master of the kind of irreverent and iconoclastic humor that is on display in American Werewolf, and he confidently delivers the same lampooning style in his approach.  There is a definite anti-establishment flavor here that is cut from the same cloth as those earlier films, manifested in a continual opposition between stodgy decorum and free-spirited permissiveness.  The guarded discretion of the villagers regarding their town’s dark secret, the by-the-book attitude of the bumbling policemen assigned to de-brief David, and the stiff-upper-lip dispassion of Dr. Hirsch and even Nurse Alex as they become more deeply involved with their patient; all these are contrasted with the repeated disregard for rules of behavior displayed by the young Americans.  Jack and David challenge local custom with their questions in the pub, and later on, David flies against procedural form with passionate protests regarding the truth about his attacker on the moors, and he skirts propriety by crossing professional boundaries to initiate a relationship with his nurse; it is a similar lack of concern for the rules that allows Landis to blur the lines between comedy and horror with such disarming audacity.  In a way, it is as if he is attacking repressive authority on multiple fronts; not only does he sideswipe convention and cliche with satirical absurdity, and disturb order and decorum with gruesome violence, he also flaunts conservative standards of decency with a high level of sexual frankness and pointedly gratuitous nudity.

An American Werewolf in London uses all these ingredients, ultimately, in the service of providing entertaining thrills for the youth audience at which it was targeted.  The hip, comedic tone and the willful exploitation of sex and violence create an appealingly loose, edgy atmosphere, but it is the narrative itself that keeps us hooked, and Landis the director handles it skillfully.  The leisurely opening sequence is a small masterpiece in itself, and could stand on its own as a fine short film; the jocularity of the protagonists is slowly overtaken by the undercurrent of menace in a textbook example of building tension through visual storytelling.  As the tale progresses, we are subjected to alternating moments of hilarity and terror, often spiking one with the other, keeping us off balance at a visceral level while Landis fills the screen with artfully arranged variety of culturally telling details, from the recurring ironic presence of a Mickey Mouse figurine to the ludicrous porno send-up being shown at the cinema where David has his final meeting with Jack.  Along the way he continues to build on our emotional connection to David (as well as to Alex and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Hirsch, who become his allies) and offers up numerous stylish set pieces- a handful of nightmare sequences, a zany romp at the London Zoo, a gripping predator-and-prey chase in a “tube” terminal, an erotically-charged love scene between David and Alex in the shower- until he reaches the climax, an over-the-top blow-out of carnage and confusion in Piccadilly Circus that plays like a deadly slapstick farce.  Up until this point, his recipe works; the excesses of the finale somehow push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, and the callousness with which he treats the deaths of all these innocent bystanders feels a little too mean-spirited to be excused under the license of black comedy.  The final tragic confrontation which closes the film, a forgone conclusion since the very first frame, is also, undeniably, a bit of a letdown, and the promising potential for emotional payoff remains unrealized; it’s as if Landis, who has expertly managed to pad out what is essentially a familiar and simple scenario with clever distractions, has reached the bottom of his bag of tricks and decided to end his movie by hurriedly delivering the expected ending with as little fuss as possible.  Despite this anticlimax, however, Landis’ has invested enough into his main characters, on a deeper level than the snarky disaffection of the movie’s surface, to leave us in a state of satisfied melancholy as the end credits roll, and though we may have wished for an worthier ending for his clever mash-up, it must be admitted that his effort to present an oft-told tale in a fresh and surprising package has been, on the whole, a success.

A good deal of that success deserves to be credited to the charm of Landis’ leading players; in particular, of course, the considerable appeal of his star, David Naughton, whose earlier career as a pitchman for Dr. Pepper had made him a familiar face for most audiences, contributes significantly.  Attractive, affable, sincere, and possessed of a devilishly sly but somehow wholesome quality that makes him both sexy and endearing, his personality is well-suited to the demands of both the lightweight and dramatic aspects of American Werewolf, and watching him here makes us regret that, for whatever reason, he failed to become the rising star that his talent seemed to promise.  Matching him well is the beautiful Jenny Agutter, another familiar face (Logan’s Run¸ Equus) who never quite achieved full stardom, at least in the U.S., as Alex; she carries the same, sweet-but-sexy aura as her leading man, with an added layer of maturity and intelligence that makes her far more interesting than the standard damsel-in-distress usually found in monster movies.  John Woodvine is witty and refreshingly likable in his role as the benevolent older authority figure, Dr. Hirsch, and the assortment of recognizable English actors that constitute the cadre at the “Slaughtered Lamb” do a fine job of infusing life and dimension into the stock “superstitious villagers” characters that they represent.  The standout performance, though, comes from Griffin Dunne, as the doomed Jack; his lovably nebbish, self-deprecating nerd persona provides a perfect complement to Naughton’s all-American boy, and the chemistry they share is tangible- a factor that helps to add resonance to later developments when the deceased Jack returns to haunt his best friend.  Dunne manages, in those scenes, to bring the likable humanity of his character to the forefront despite the progressively hideous make-up he wears, undercutting the body horror of his walking-dead image with wit, pathos, and personality.

On the subject of the make-up, the aforementioned Rick Baker- whose prolific work in this field has always helped to redefine and push the limits of the craft- leads the pack in terms of kudos for Landis’ technical crew.  Not only do his remarkably detailed and gruesome prosthetic creations make for an utterly convincing conversion of Dunne into a grisly walking corpse, his work with Naughton’s transformation sequence, in which the handsome actor becomes the fearsome title creature, is a ground-breaking display of wizardry; a far cry from the old stop-motion effects used to morph Lon Chaney, Jr. in the classic Universal Wolf Man and its sequels, it is a truly hair-raising (literally and figuratively) pre-CG spectacle that reminds us all that movie magic did not begin with the computer age.  Also noteworthy is the cinematography by Robert Paynter, capturing the character and mood of the numerous English locations, from the desolate moors to the garish lights of Piccadilly, with a richness that gives weight to the proceedings; again, it’s a reminder of a now-bygone time, before the distinctive visual quality created by photography on actual film was supplanted by the high-definition digital imaging that dominates cinema today.  Finally, Landis gives his film a soundtrack that is comprised partly of effectively unsettling original scoring by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, and partly of a rather tongue-in-cheek selection of various popular recordings linked together by the subject of the moon, with several varied renditions of the standard, “Blue Moon,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” each figuring prominently in highly memorable sequences.

An American Werewolf in London is another one of those films that figured prominently in my own younger years; I have fond memories of seeing it, multiple times, on the big screen, and there was a time when I could quote virtually every line of dialogue.  In the ensuing years I assumed that my youthful enthusiasm, coupled with a fondness for monster movies and all things English, had probably paid a large part in my enjoyment of a film which, really, was little more than pulp cinema.  Upon my recent viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in fact, Landis’ odd little film holds up extremely well, and, in fact, boasts many nuances- some of which are explored above- that I had not previously recognized.  It’s really a tight, stylish, and yes, classy movie; though it deliberately strives for the lurid, sensational atmosphere of both Hollywood exploitation cinema and British “penny dreadfuls,” and it offers up a considerable amount of nudity, sex and violence (the gory, nightmarish kind so gleefully proffered by the blood-spattered horror films produced in England throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s), it nevertheless maintains an elegant, restrained sensibility, suggesting far more than it shows and allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Landis, for all his excess, does himself credit in his handling of the werewolf and its reign of terror, giving us only brief glimpses of the beast itself and using cinematic artistry- sound, camera perspective, editing- to build the suspense and fear; of course, we would feel cheated if he didn’t also deliver some good old blood-and-guts, and he gives us just enough of those to make us happy (if that’s the right word), but its also to his credit that we walk away feeling as if we’ve seen much more of a bloodbath than we actually have.  In the end, though, American Werewolf is most truly memorable for its unique hybrid personality, which lets us laugh, cringe, and cry a good deal more than we might expect.  It’s a smart, sexy, and surprisingly affecting film that has aged well, which is more than can be said for many of the more lauded-at-the-time works from the period.  Though it may not, at the time, have been as highly esteemed as Landis’ previous hits (mentioned above), and though, for many, his most important and lasting creation will always remain his video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” An American Werewolf in London  may well, in truth, be his best work as a filmmaker; at the least, it’s a definite crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to evoke a grin and a grimace from even the most hardcore horror buff.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082010/