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.

Blade Runner (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Midnight Special (2016)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

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Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era.  It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new.  It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be.  Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work.  However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be.  Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.

Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse.  With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.

There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.”  Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes.  In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings.  By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.

Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going.  “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works.  To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here.  The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair.  It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.

It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances.  Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave.  As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work.  As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace.  The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film.  His screen time is all too brief.

“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés.  In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas.  It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, indeed.

The Revenant (2015)

 

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale (2015)

WITCH

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that, and a certain black goat…

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