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.

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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

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.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 shocker about a series of gruesome murders at an out-of-the-way roadside motel.  Based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein, a deranged Wisconsin farmer who stole numerous bodies from a local cemetery and murdered several women while living with the corpse of his long-deceased mother, it was heavily deplored by most- but not all- critics at the time.  Thanks, however, to Hitchcock’s sensationalistic marketing strategies and his popularity as the host of the then-current TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it was an enormous box office success; it played an important role in changing the film industry’s outdated standards for “acceptable” subject matter and spawned scores of imitators, paving the way for the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films and wielding immeasurable influence over generations of subsequent filmmakers.  Its critical reputation quickly grew, and it is now almost universally recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time, or certainly, at least, one of the most important.

Psycho is one of those films that is so widely known as to be ingrained in the cultural consciousness; it is hard to imagine that anyone in 2012, whether they have actually seen it or not, would be unfamiliar with the once-notorious plot twist that prompted Hitchcock to implore movie audiences not to reveal the ending after they had seen it.  However, on the assumption that there are such people out there who might be reading this, I offer fair warning that beyond this point you will encounter “spoilers,” and you might want to stop here.  Psycho begins in Phoenix, Arizona, with a lunchtime tryst in a cheap hotel between Marion, a secretary, and Sam, her divorced lover from out of town, who cannot afford to marry her because of his crippling alimony payments.  Later, at the real estate office where she works, Marion’s boss entrusts her with $40,000 in cash, instructing her to take it to the bank on her way home; seeing a chance to put an end to the dead-end arrangement of her love life, she instead packs a bag and takes the money to start a new life with Sam, heading down the highway towards Fairvale, the small California town in which he lives.  When a blinding rainstorm makes driving unsafe, she stops for the night at an isolated motel off the main highway, operated by an awkward but sweet young man, Norman, who lives with his elderly mother in a Victorian house on the hill behind the office.  Norman is warm and polite, inviting his weary guest to join him at the house for a light dinner; but after Marion overhears a heated argument between her host and his mother, who angrily refuses to let him bring a female guest into her home, he instead brings a plate of sandwiches to the motel, and the two of them share a meal in the office parlor.  During their conversation, Norman tells Marion that his mother is mentally disturbed and prone to fits of anger, but that he feels obliged to care for her, though it means sacrificing his own freedom, because “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”  When Marion returns to her room, she decides to take a relaxing shower before going to bed- only to have it brutally cut short when the dark figure of Norman’s mother creeps into the room and stabs her to death with a butcher knife.  Upon discovering his mother’s savagery, Norman decides to do the dutiful thing and clean up the mess, disposing of the body and all evidence of Marion’s ill-fated visit- including the stolen cash, still wrapped in a newspaper- in a nearby swamp.  A few days later, in nearby Fairvale, Sam is visited in his hardware store by Lila, Marion’s sister, who has come in hopes that she will find her missing sibling there; they are quickly joined by a private investigator named Arbogast, hired by Marion’s boss to retrieve the stolen money without involving the authorities.  When it becomes clear that Sam is as ignorant as they are to Marion’s whereabouts, Arbogast begins to canvas the area looking for signs of the missing girl’s presence; eventually he arrives at Norman’s motel, where he quickly deduces the young man is hiding something.  After sharing his suspicions in a phone call to Sam and Lila, he sneaks into the house in search of Norman’s mother, thinking to get more information from her, and quickly becomes the next victim in the deranged woman’s bloody rampage.  With Arbogast’s disappearance, Sam and Lila decide to take the investigation into their own hands, and head to the motel to seek answers- but neither is prepared for the dark secrets they will uncover before they can solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance.

As detailed in the current film, Hitchcock, Psycho was a major departure for the legendary director, a small-budget, black-and-white, sordid and sensationalistic shock piece that no studio wanted to touch.  Even with his prestigious reputation and his popular status as a television star in his own right, Hitchcock had to finance the film himself in order to make it.  It was a risky venture, to say the least, but one which paid off for him in a very big way; the film broke box office records, becoming the highest-grossing release of his career and making him a millionaire.  Its success forced critics to re-evaluate it- those who had been initially dismissive of it as a tastelessly lurid, low-budget shocker, beneath the usual standards of the “master of suspense,” soon praised it enthusiastically and included it on their “best of the year” lists, and it was ultimately nominated for numerous awards (including four Oscars).  In the end, Psycho rewarded its director with the late-life revitalization of an already extraordinary career, made him an even greater power player than he had been before, shattered industry taboos against depictions of sexual and violent content, and won him a new generation of fans- and all at a cost of less than a million dollars.

It was no accident of fate, either; the canny Hitchcock understood exactly what he was doing, and he exerted his meticulous craftsmanship on every aspect of the production in order to achieve the kind of visceral, ground-breaking effect he knew would electrify audiences seeking a new kind of thrill.  To this end, he had chosen his source material for its deeply unsettling subject matter, as well as for its deliberate and merciless manipulation of readers’ sympathies. To keep the budget down, he chose to shoot in black-and-white, using mostly the personnel from his TV series; a few trusted collaborators, however, were also hired, such as graphic artist Saul Bass, editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose previous contributions to his film work had proven invaluable.  He cast the roles with familiar and experienced actors, but avoided using big stars, both to keep salaries down and to prevent personality from overshadowing the story; and- after rejecting an initial screenplay by James Cavanaugh, who had written several scripts for his TV series- he hired screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who had only one previous writing credit, but possessed extensive personal experience as a patient in psychotherapy) to adapt Bloch’s book for the screen.

Stefano’s screenplay remains fairly faithful to the novel in its plot, though a few changes were made to accommodate the requirements of the cinematic medium; most significantly, the central character of Norman Bates was transformed from an overweight, middle-aged alcoholic to a youthful, squeaky-clean boy-next-door.  This was Hitchcock’s direct input, designed to make the character more readily sympathetic to the audience; his likability was crucial for the director’s purpose, which involved tricking the audience- and here’s the big spoiler, for those who care- into identifying with a psychotic murderer.  Indeed, the narrative of Psycho is one piece of trickery after another, enhanced by Hitchcock’s casting of his biggest star, Janet Leigh, as a character who is killed off a third of the way through the movie, and his other biggest star, Anthony Perkins, as someone who not only covers up her death but ultimately turns out to be her killer.  The crucial plot twist- that Norman’s mother is in fact her stolen, mummified corpse and that he himself suffers from a split personality in which he commits the murders while assuming her identity- is kept hidden by shrouding the mother figure in mystery, keeping her offscreen except in shadow, silhouette, or oblique camera angles, and hearing her conversations with Norman from off-camera- which has the added effect of making the audience feel like an eavesdropper.  This is another important element of Psycho, the sense that we are clandestine observers of some forbidden ritual, and it of course constitutes the biggest trick of all- Hitchcock turns us into voyeurs, getting our cheap thrills by peeking through windows, listening at doors, and sneaking into private rooms.  It’s a now-familiar tactic, used extensively by filmmakers wishing to enhance our connection to their subjects and to subvert our affectations of propriety, and Hitchcock was certainly not the first to use it; but in Psycho, he brought it out of the art house, where European and avant-garde directors had been experimenting with it, and into the popular cinema, thrusting mass audiences into a wholly subjective experience and smashing through the “fourth wall” of the camera by making it into a substitute for the eye itself.  We are subtly drawn into this personalized experience from the very beginning of the film, when the camera slowly zooms from a panoramic view of the Phoenix skyline through the window of a darkened hotel room to spy on Sam and Marion as they finish their midday liaison; throughout the rest of the movie we are kept in the action with the heavy use of point-of-view shots, scenes filmed through doors, windows, phone booths, and even a peep hole, and the theme of clandestine observation is layered in by the characters themselves, who overhear, watch, question, and spy on the actions of others throughout the film.

This voyeuristic approach was nothing new for Hitchcock, but rather the culmination of a motif with which he had long been fascinated; throughout his career he had developed techniques for enhancing the audience’s identification with the lens, emulating the natural movement of the human gaze with his camera, using the same point-of-view perspectives and many of the other tricks which would become the dominant mise-en-scène of Psycho.  Likewise, many other of his favorite thematic elements are contained within the narrative- doubtless one of the reasons he was attracted to the material.  Many of Hitchcock’s films feature problematic relationships with domineering parents (sometimes played for laughs, but always containing a decidedly dark undercurrent); his heroes are frequently flawed, even seriously broken, and often unsympathetic, while his villains are usually charming and likable; law enforcement figures are mostly ineffectual or downright incompetent, and “polite” or “normal” society is generally seen to be a hypocritical veneer for hiding any number of unsavory character traits; and, of course,  there is the ever-present icy blond, a beacon of inaccessible beauty, repressed sexuality, and, usually, possessed of a compromised virtue which must be regained.  All of these are deeply embedded in the fabric of Psycho– there are even two icy blonds- and used relentlessly to undermine the audience’s ingrained expectations.  The heroine is a thief, but her victim is a fatuous boor, and her motives are understandable, if misguided; her sister is prudish and severe, while her boyfriend is morose and belligerent; the police are condescending and dismissive, the private eye pushy and sardonic; Norman, however, is shy, kind and endearing, even if his hobby of stuffing birds is a little weird, and he is, of course, the epitome of the dutiful son.  In any standard narrative, it would be clear where our sympathies should lie, but here everything is turned upside down; we root for Marion, and when she is suddenly and cruelly taken from us, we easily transfer our affections to her killer.  We make this willing shift partly because we do not yet know he is guilty, it’s true, but Hitchcock has built his trap so craftily that we would likely take the leap even if we did.  By the end of the film, the director has successfully made us emotional accomplices to both grand larceny and murder, and with his final shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud, a lifeless shell representing all that is left of her naive hope for a happy future, he rubs our faces in it.

There is another layer to all this subversive irony, though, beyond just a trickster’s impulse to make us feel dirty.  Our willingness to empathize with first a thief, then a killer, is grounded in what we think we see, what we want to believe, and what we have been trained to expect.  There are plenty of warnings- all the information we need to see the truth is plainly given as we go along, and yet we choose to bestow our sympathy based on romantic illusion.  We want the pretty, decent Marion to be able to “buy off unhappiness,” and we assume the boyish, mild-mannered Norman to be the innocent victim of his mother’s cruelty- from which we hope he can somehow break free without repercussions for his role in covering up her crimes.  This emotional manipulation is achieved by Hitchcock’s mastery of image; he carefully arranges what we see and hear in order to place us in conflict with ourselves, torn between our direct instinctive reactions and our intellectual assessment.  It’s a master con, made possible because of our tendency to mistake image for reality, but we buy into it willingly even as Hitchcock tauntingly tips us off all the way through.  Just as he gives us indications throughout that could easily lead us to recognize the truth about Norman and his mother, he inundates us with reminders about the relationship between image and reality; virtually every scene features mirrors or windows which allow us to see both the characters and their reflections, and most of the plot’s complications arise as a result of decisions based on faulty perception of the surface.  Marion is able to steal the cash because she seems trustworthy, she trusts Norman because he seems harmless, and everyone believes in his mother’s existence because she seems to be in the house.  Even the town sheriff, upon learning about the supposed involvement of a woman he knows to have been dead for years, is uninterested in investigating further because he forms an explanation that satisfies his assumptions.  In the end, Psycho is not about solving mysteries or exposing the pathology of a homicidal personality; it is an examination of- and a warning against- the dangers of living in a fantasy derived from what we want to believe.  We, as the audience, arrange the images to tell the story we expect to see, and when we are brutally reminded by Marion’s ignoble exit from the scenario that all is not what it seems, we fall right back into the clutches of illusion by transferring our sympathies to Norman.  In the climactic revelation, the sight of Norman, shrieking maniacally in his cheap wig and dress as Sam wrestles him into submission and his desperate illusions fall away along with the last vestige of his sanity, we cannot even comfort ourselves that we had no way to see it coming.  It may be a shock, but when we re-examine what has gone before, it is not really a surprise.  We let ourselves be deluded every step of the way, allowing our preconceived judgments color our perceptions; or to put it another way, to paraphrase a key subject from the parlor discussion between Marion and Norman, we have stepped into our own private trap.  This is the true heart of the film- the self-created cage of perception that traps us each and defines the way we see the world.  The image we embrace becomes identified as our reality, but as Hitchcock loves to remind us- and nowhere more vividly than in Psycho– this is an illusion, and one which can lead to the direst of consequences.

With so many volumes having been written about Psycho, it was not my intent to add much to it; clearly, however, I have been caught up in the spell of this much-discussed classic.  Something about this movie begs to be analyzed, explored, and revisited time and again.  There is so much here to stimulate, to intrigue, to perplex.  One can watch the film simply to revel in Hitchcock’s pure technical mastery: the aforementioned ways in which he invites us to participate in his own voyeurism; his ability to build tension with his deliberate pacing and editing, utilizing long, leisurely scenes interrupted by sharp, violent shocks that echo the stabbing of the knife; his use of visual means to keep us off-balance and on edge, such as dramatic camera angles, uncomfortably extreme close-ups, overhead shots, and other signature Hitchcock touches; and of course there is the justly famous shower scene, a 45-second collage of spliced film that terrorized the entire culture in 1960 and still inspires a particular kind of fear today.  You could also focus on Bernard Herrmann’s iconic musical score, a haunting and nerve-jangling composition for strings that Hitchcock himself credited for being 33% responsible for the film’s effectiveness and has been consistently placed at or near the top on lists of the greatest film soundtracks ever written; during the opening credits, you can marvel at the way the music is complemented by the title sequence created by the great Saul Bass, a no-less-iconic jumble of broken, intersecting lines that suggest the jagged turmoil of a disturbed mind as they spell out the pertinent names and assignments of the movie’s participants.

Of course, you can also reap the rewards of Psycho if you dedicate a viewing entirely to an appreciation of the performances.  Anthony Perkins’ work here is as fine an example of screen acting as you are ever likely to see, a masterpiece of understatement with subtle nuances revealing themselves upon every repeat viewing.  It was a role that matched him perfectly, allowing an intertwining of personal experience and fictional subtext that gives Norman a rare level of authenticity and makes him as heartbreaking as he is disturbing; though the character permanently defined his career and resulted in years of typecasting, it provided the young actor with a chance to leave a legacy the likes of which few others can claim.  Often overlooked, but no less definitive, is Janet Leigh’s outstanding work as Marion Crane; offering us an utterly convincing portrait of an everyday working girl, smart and clearly independent, but hiding a desperate longing to find the happier life of which she dreams, she wins us over immediately- and not only because of the obvious sex appeal of the opening scene, in which she helped to break down the so-called “decency code” by appearing in only a bra and a slip- and makes us keenly feel along with her the frustration of her mundane life, the irresistible thrill of her impromptu escape, and the mounting distress and paranoia that comes as she begins to recognize the consequences of her choice.  She is powerfully likable, which makes it doubly cruel when she is abruptly taken from us; this was Hitchcock’s goal, of course, carefully orchestrated by expanding Marion’s story from the brief episode it comprises in the original novel and by casting his most widely-known star in the role.  Leigh was his first choice, and she eagerly agreed to the project without even reading the script or discussing her salary; she was rewarded for her enthusiasm with an Oscar nomination, and, like her co-star, she created an unforgettable piece of cinema history, a rich and layered performance that is so good precisely because it contains no overt histrionics with which to call attention to itself.  The rest of the cast, though their roles are not as complex in dimension, are equally memorable- despite the fact that the director was vocal in his dissatisfaction with John Gavin (whom he referred to as “the stiff”) and that he was, by all reports, punishing Vera Miles for her abandonment of his earlier Vertigo (she became pregnant and bowed out before filming began, forcing Hitchcock to replace her with Kim Novak) by making her character here as unappealing as possible.  As Sam and Lila, respectively, both performers actually provide exactly the right qualities to their roles, making it impossible to imagine the film any other way; and, rounding out the main cast as Arbogast, Martin Balsam is likewise a perfect fit, giving us a canny portrait of a no-nonsense professional whose blunt and rumpled exterior belie the crafty shrewdness underneath.

There is so much to write about Psycho; I could go on with discussions of the layered themes and the techniques used by Hitchcock to explore them, or the brilliance of the stark black-and-white photography and its visual symphony of light and shadow, the contrast between the unglamorous, utilitarian settings and the austere design of the now-famous Edward-Hopper-inspired house that glowers down over the motel- the list is inexhaustible.  Similarly, I could write volumes about the history surrounding the film.  The battles with the censors over such things as the raciness of the opening hotel room scene, the use of the word “transvestite,” and the inclusion of a toilet (never before shown in an American film); the painstaking creation of the shower scene, which took a week to film, and generated obvious controversy upon release as well as much future argument about factors like whether it was Leigh or a body double that was used in the majority of its shots or the extent of involvement by Saul Bass, who drew the storyboards for the sequence but later claimed to have directed it in its entirety; the depth of contribution by Hitchcock’s wife and creative partner, Alma Reville, who- as she had on every film of her husband’s career- collaborated on every aspect of the movie from pre-production to final editing; all these things and more are legendary chapters in the story of Psycho, and you can (and should) read about them in so many other places that it is unnecessary to take any more time with them here.

The most pressing issue regarding Psycho, perhaps, for the “typical” modern viewer, who may have little scholarly interest in the film as a piece of cinematic art history and probably doesn’t care about the virtually unfathomable influence it has had upon every horror film that came after it, is simply whether or not it is still holds up.  Does this seminal, deceptively simple thriller live up to its reputation for inducing terror and inspiring nightmares for weeks after seeing it?  The answer, honestly, is probably not.  By today’s standards, even the most squeamish viewer is unlikely to find any of the film’s once-controversial violence hard to take; the gore factor is minimal, even in the famous shower scene with its chocolate-syrup blood, and, with a mere two killings taking place onscreen, the body count is decidedly low.  Taking this into account, along with the fact that it is virtually impossible to go into the movie without knowing its twist ending (or at least being familiar enough with its many imitators that it becomes easy to spot from very early on), Psycho is unlikely to generate many shocks with jaded modern audiences, and indeed is more apt to produce laughter- a development, incidentally, that would likely have pleased Hitchcock, who always claimed that the film was meant to be a very dark comedy.  Still, even if it has lost its power to scare us outright, it nevertheless casts an eerie and unsettling spell; even with its now-tame level of splatter, the shower scene is a deeply disturbing psychological jolt which plays on our most primal fears and reminds us of our innate vulnerability in the most common and universal of activities, and there is an undeniable creepiness that pervades the scenario, compounding as it progresses so that the Bates Motel and its adjoining house become more ominous and sinister in the bright light of day than in the earlier scenes at night.  Furthermore, instead of a neat and positive happy ending, Hitchcock leaves us with the mocking reminder that the world’s evil can be temporarily vanquished, but it will still remain, hidden in the most innocent-seeming of places, awaiting its opportunity to catch us unprepared; the final sequence of Norman, sitting alone in his cell as we hear “mother’s” voice in his mind, undermines any sense of safe, comfortable normalcy that might have been re-established by the previous explanatory denouement in which the smugly self-satisfied forensic psychiatrist unfolds his pat diagnosis of the murderer’s tormented psyche, and the final aforementioned shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud reminds us of the ugly reality of her senseless death- defying any attempt that might be made to assign it a meaning or purpose.  There is no comfort here, only tragedy and a chaos so deeply imbedded it can never be excised.  The power of these observations is as tangible today as it was five decades ago, whether or not Psycho frightens on a direct level, and any viewer seeking more than a cheap, visceral thrill will soon be drawn into the movie’s seductive web of delusion and consequence.  In short, Psycho may be better approached by the modern viewer as a psycho-drama, without expectations of blood-chilling fright and nausea-inducing carnage; indeed, it can be viewed, as its director did, as a comedic exploration of the fantasies in which we wrap ourselves and the mishaps in which they might result, though admittedly this requires a particularly morbid sense of humor.  In truth, of course, Psycho was never really meant to be a horror film, though it may have horrified; as in all of Hitchcock’s work, the real purpose is hidden behind the “McGuffin,” his term for the seemingly vital element around which his plots appear to revolve but which is actually a ruse through which his true concerns can be explored.  The McGuffin here is the mystery itself- ultimately the theft, the murders, and the psychotic delusions of the central character are all merely smoke and mirrors for Hitchcock’s master plan, in which he pulls the rug right out from underneath us and leaves us grasping for support that is no longer there.  Though he dresses Psycho in the trappings of the horror genre, its real riches lie beneath that exploitative exterior, and are ultimately more profoundly upsetting than any cheap momentary shock tactics could ever be.  On this level, from which it has always, truly, derived its greatness, Psycho is as fresh and relevant as the day it was released, and remains a must-see requirement for anyone who considers themselves even a casual film fan.  Personally, I first saw it at the age of ten, alone in my second-story bedroom on a tiny black-and-white TV screen.  It didn’t scare me, much, even at that tender age, but it certainly made a deep impression, and it most likely provided the single film experience that started me on my lifetime cinema adventure.  I’ve since seen it an uncountable number of times, and each time I never fail to be drawn in and to discover something new to consider.  If you are lucky, Psycho will hook you the way it hooked me; at the very least, it will make you think twice about leaving the bathroom door unlocked the next time you shower in a motel.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/

Freaks (1932)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Freaks, the infamous 1932 film by director Tod Browning, about- and starring- the disfigured performers of a circus sideshow; controversial from the moment of its release and still disturbing today, it was lambasted by critics who found it repugnant, and was quickly pulled from circulation after provoking public shock and moral outrage.  Considered an affront to decency, it was barred from exhibition in many U.S. states and in countries around the world, and effectively ended the career of a director who had been one of Hollywood’s most respected talents; nevertheless, over the ensuing decades it gained a reputation- no doubt enhanced by its lack of ready availability- and became, in the ’60s and ’70s, a cult favorite, frequently screened as a midnight movie despite the fact that many of the prohibitions against it were still in place, making it technically illegal to be shown in many states.  Its rediscovery led to a critical re-evaluation, and today (thanks to modern society’s more enlightened, less reactionary view of its subject matter) it is widely regarded as a genuine classic, a brave and truly unique piece of filmmaking and a seminal influence within the horror genre.

The story takes place entirely within the insular world of a traveling circus, focusing on the day-to-day existence and relationships of its cast- particularly the collection of malformed misfits that comprises its sideshow, which includes dwarfs and midgets, “pinheads,” conjoined twins, a legless boy, a human torso, and numerous other bizarrely-shaped and differently-abled individuals who, despite their deformities, enjoy a comfortable and seemingly pleasant existence within the rarified environment of the circus, living together in a tightly-knit community with its own sort of exclusivity- as well as its own unwritten code that governs their interaction with the outside world.  One of their number, a midget named Hans (who has recently become engaged to Frieda, another little person in the troupe), has become obsessed with the “normal” Cleopatra, the show’s new trapeze artist, an exotic beauty who indulges his attentions with flirtation and flattery; privately, however, she is only amused by his affections, making cruel fun of him with her real lover, the circus’ opportunistic strongman, Hercules.  Though warned by his fellow “freaks” that she is not sincere, Hans continues to pursue Cleopatra, eventually spurning his fiancée for her; she humors him in order to take advantage of the lavish gifts he gives her, and when she discovers that he is secretly the heir to an enormous fortune, she and Hercules decide to steal it for themselves.  She concocts a plan to marry the little man so that she can become his beneficiary, and then slowly poison him, making his death seem due to illness and allowing her to claim the money and run away with the strongman.  At their wedding feast, however, she becomes drunk, reacting with disgust when the freaks attempt to accept her as one their own and inadvertently revealing her affair with Hercules.  Though she is seemingly able to allay the suspicions of her new husband- who has grown weak from the poison she has already begun to administer- the other sideshow performers are onto her scheme, and they resolve to take matters- and justice- into their own hands.

Director Tod Browning had spent his early youth in the circus (which he had run away from his privileged family to join) where he had formed a strong connection to the specialized society of its inhabitants; when he encountered the short story, Spurs, by Tod Robbins, he immediately knew he wanted to use it as the basis for a film.  He had built an impressive career as a director of silent films, making a name for himself through his extensive collaboration with renowned horror star Lon Chaney, with whom he created a number of classic films known for not only their moody eeriness, but for their remarkable level of humanity; after continuing his success into the sound era (as the director of Dracula, the 1931 hit which made a star of Bela Lugosi), he was able to convince MGM Studios- with whom he had worked on the Chaney films- to allow him to develop a film based on Robbins’ story.  Though the studio had serious reservations, production head Irving Thalberg gave Browning his full support, even in his decision to use real sideshow performers in the film instead of actors in makeup.  Consequently, working from a screenplay that combined basic elements from the original story with the concocted plot of Cleopatra’s treachery, as well as episodes inspired by his own experiences in the circus, Browning was able to realize his dream project.

In the end, he may have wished he had not; his use of genuinely deformed actors caused an outcry from public and critics alike, who felt their presence made the film far too disturbing to watch.  Worse yet, Browning was accused of exploiting these unfortunates for his own profit, much in the way that real-life carnivals and sideshows had done for years.  Whether or not this was true, the film’s preview screenings were a disaster, with audience response so vehemently negative- and one female patron threatening to sue MGM over a miscarriage supposedly brought on by the movie- that the studio edited out 30 minutes of the most upsetting footage before its general release, leaving it with a running time scarcely over an hour.  Even with these cuts, a new prologue, and a more upbeat happy ending tacked on for good measure, Freaks was a failure at the box office; not only did it fail to make back its cost, it generated so much negative publicity for the studio that, after a short release, they pulled it from theaters and put it on the shelf- though it would later emerge in exploitative road show tours, under lurid-sounding titles such as Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes, and sometimes accompanied by such titillating underground fare as amateur films of nudist camps.  As for Browning, he was more or less blacklisted from making any more important movies, relegated to helming a few low-grade horror entries until he gave up his career in 1939, and he passed away in relative obscurity in 1962- just a few years before the resurgence of interest in classic horror films that would doubtless have restored his fame and reputation, never to see the day when a youthful counterculture would turn his greatest failure into his greatest triumph.

Calling Freaks a triumph, actually, might not be an apt description; it possesses a raw and unfinished quality that has nothing to do with the removal of so much footage (all of which is now, sadly, considered lost).  Its story is sensationalistic, more a transposition of conventional melodrama into an unfamiliar setting than a real attempt at exploring this rarely-seen world, and it capitalizes on the irrational fears of the lowest common denominator to achieve its horrific effect.  Despite these things, however, and perhaps even because of them, it has a unique power that makes it nearly as shocking today as it was 80 years ago; watching it is as difficult as it is fascinating, evoking a decided sense of seeing something you’re not supposed to see.  It’s actually very easy to understand why audiences in 1932 would react so violently to Browning’s film, unaccustomed as they were to the kind of distorted imagery of the human body that has since been portrayed onscreen.  Even today, thanks to advances in medical and nutritional science and the ready availability of pre-natal care which have made such dramatic and heartbreaking birth defects a much rarer occurrence, the sight of all these non-CG-enhanced distortions of physical humanity is more than a little unsettling. The real power of Freaks, though, is only apparent for those who can get past the deliberate gross-out factor of its surface and invest themselves in its story, the clear message of which is that true ugliness lies not in physical appearance but in the soul.  Without exception, the so-called freaks are good-natured, trusting, generous and sweet (though Hans may be blinded by desire into making some foolish choices); it is the “normals” who are the real monsters here, with Cleopatra’s gold-digging cruelty and Hercules’ brutish arrogance making them truly among the most loathsome villains in classic cinema.  Of course, it would be contrary to Browning’s message to make all of the normal characters so unpleasant; the others exhibit varying degrees of likability, in terms of their relation to the freaks, from the uncharitable but relatively benign attitudes of the circus’ tumblers (a decidedly non-athletic-looking pair, incidentally, to be holding such a job) to the kindness and total acceptance offered by the film’s ostensible romantic leads, the lovely seal-trainer Venus and her clown boyfriend Phrozo, who even risk their own safety to come to the aid of their oddly-shaped friends.  Though the narrative approach is simplistic and heavy-handed, the black-and-white morality is part of what makes it work; it should be obvious that true humanity exists under the skin, having nothing to do either with physical beauty or the lack of it, and it is one of the defining characteristics of the insensitive and the mean-spirited that they neither see nor care about this basic truth- they are, in fact, the real “freaks” in this story, the unnatural evil that must be weeded out in order to restore harmony.  It is a testament to Browning that he makes their comeuppance both horrific and immensely satisfying, accomplishing the somewhat Hitchcockian feat of transferring audience identification to the perpetrators of violence in order to underscore his subversive point.

Freaks does not dwell entirely in the dark and moralistic realm of its main plotline; throughout the film are vignettes, many of them drawn from Browning’s real-life memories of his own years in the circus, of existence in the sideshow world.  It’s a place where, despite the extraordinary nature if its inhabitants, the details of daily life are mundanely familiar- Frieda the midget having girl talk with Venus while hanging laundry, lovers’ politics between the conjoined twins and their paramours (both of whom are, by the way, normals), the joyful bedside gathering of friends when the bearded lady gives birth- and go a long way towards endearing us to the misshapen cast of characters.  Some of these moments are played for laughs hinging on the idea of these outwardly strange individuals behaving like average people (a conceit which, though likely very true to real life, was also a staple of the sideshow and vaudeville acts in which they performed); others are touching and revelatory, such as the early scene in which a landowner stumbles upon Madame Tetralini, the sideshow’s “headmistress,” accompanying several of her more drastically deformed charges on an outing in the woods.  A few of these sequences awaken a genuine sense of wonder and open a window into these unusual lives, such as the famous scene when Prince Randian, the “Human Torso,” expertly lights a cigarette using only his mouth or, most particularly, when a passionate kiss bestowed on one of the conjoined sisters sends a tingling wave of arousal through her twin.  These humanizing moments, some of them unforgettable, contribute to the effects of the well-known scene of Hans and Cleo’s wedding feast; we feel the infectious joy of their raucous celebration- sharing in the fun of Koo-Koo the Bird Girl dancing on the table rather than experiencing the appalled reaction of an uninitiated gawker, respecting the true generosity of their chanted ritual of acceptance for the new bride (“Gooble-gobble, Gooble-gobble, One of Us, One of Us!”) instead of cringing at its seemingly ominous implications, and recognizing Cleopatra and Hercules’ drunkenly flagrant contempt and disrespect for their hosts as the deep affront that it is rather than identifying with it.  For the film’s harrowing climax, however, though these efforts to bond us with the freak community may allow us to be on their side, our sympathy does nothing to alleviate the sheer visceral terror they evoke when we see them lurking in the shadows or crawling slowly but inexorably towards their helpless quarry.  This is Browning’s true mastery coming to its fruition- he helps us to subdue our instinctive and primordial fears around these outwardly disturbing figures and then brings those fears to life for us in a way which simultaneously repulses and elates us.  In this way, he offers a film which transcends its own morality to deliver a pure, non-intellectualized reaction, and one which has rarely been matched, let alone surpassed.

As disquieting as this famous climactic sequence may be, modern audiences will only be able to imagine what it was once like.  Following the film’s overwhelming rejection by preview audiences, MGM made Browning cut a large portion of it; the original version featured the brutal castration of Hercules and included a lengthy and graphic mutilation of Cleopatra by the vengeful freaks.  There was also a longer version of the sideshow epilogue, in which the former strongman was seen on display, singing soprano, before the final revelation of the once-beautiful Cleopatra transformed into a grotesque duck woman- webbed feet, feathers and all.  This latter image, of course, remains in the film, no less disturbing for its lack of logical explanation, and justly infamous for its sheer audacious shock value.  It was meant to be the final moment, a lingering horror to send the audience home to their personal nightmares; in most existing prints of the movie, however, it is followed by a short finale- hurriedly filmed after the cuts were made, in hopes of leaving audiences on a more hopeful note- which shows the reconciliation of little Hans and his faithful Frieda, a pleasant enough conclusion, but juxtaposed against what we have just witnessed, one that feels a little hollow.

In terms of its production values, Freaks was a fairly high-budget project, and it shows.  Many of its scenes were shot on location (that is to say, outdoors) giving it an expansive, realistic feel that is missing in many of the more set-bound films of this early talkie period.   The cinematography (by Merritt B. Gerstad) is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro black-and-white moodiness, and the artistic design captures the authenticity of its circus setting in all its rough-edged, seedy glamour.  As for the acting, the “normal” cast all deliver perfectly acceptable performances in the somewhat stagy, melodramatic style of the day, with Olga Baclanova appropriately standing out as the flamboyantly callous and deceitful Cleopatra.  The specialty players, though all were seasoned performers in the real-life sideshow and vaudeville circuit, were not trained actors; even so- though their delivery is sometimes stilted, their diction often indecipherable, and their characterizations generally simplistic- they are so genuinely themselves that they win us over with the power of sheer personality.  This is especially true in the case of some of the more profoundly compromised actors, such as the microcephalics (“pinheads” being the less-sensitive but more commonly-known term)- particularly “Schlitzie,” (in real life, despite the dress, a man named Simon Metz), whose infectious charm practically leaps off the screen- and those others affected by especially severe genetic defects. Also memorable are Johnny Eck (the legless boy, a handsome and particularly gifted performer who was well-known and popular in Vaudeville), the aforementioned Prince Randian, and Violet and Daisy Hilton (the Siamese twins, also well-established as entertainers offscreen and later the subject of two stage musicals and an acclaimed documentary).  In many cases, these performers continued to work and thrive for many years after their appearance in Freaks (though with the decline of vaudeville many of them eventually faded into obscurity); indeed, one of the movie’s prominent dwarfs, Angelo Rossitto, went on to enjoy a long career as a film actor, culminating in his appearance as the key character of “Masterblaster” (or, at least, the “Master” half) in the 1985 action/sci-fi fantasy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

For most casual audiences, the most important question is this: does Freaks live up to its reputation?  My answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!” Truncated and brightened-up as it may be, Freaks is still a powerful film experience, one which achieves the rare objective of truly forcing the audience to confront its own level of humanity.  It’s hard not to feel compassion for these examples of nature gone wrong, but Browning’s film makes it clear that it is not our pity that matters- rather it is our acceptance.  Pity is another form of judgment, after all, no different perhaps than the less charitable attitude of dismissive contempt exhibited by the film’s scheming villains; it is based on a presumption of inferiority, and even of powerlessness- a presumption Cleopatra and Hercules, to their misfortune, discover to be very much mistaken.  Browning’s movie, for all its deliberate creepiness and sensationalism, is ultimately a powerful reminder of the old admonishment not to judge anything- or anyone- by appearances, and more than that, a strong plea for tolerance and equality.  The circus, after all, is a classic metaphor for the world itself, and the sideshow freaks stand in for all those social misfits who are outcast for their differences.   It is no wonder that Freaks was rescued from cinematic oblivion by the counterculture of the ’60s, and has been embraced ever since by those who, for whatever reason, stand apart from mainstream culture and disdain the shallow hypocrisy they see there; the appeal is obvious to anyone who has ever felt shut out because of who or what they are- and which of us can say they’ve never felt that?  Freaks, then, is a parable that validates the disenfranchised.  It also (to borrow a phrase) comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable, which it’s probably fair to say is what Tod Browning set out to do with his magnum opus.  Though it may have cost him his future, I’m sure it would be some consolation for him to know that, even if it did take decades to happen, he is dearly appreciated for having succeeded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/

 

Dark Shadows (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Dark Shadows, the 2012 big screen adaptation of the classic 1960s supernatural soap opera of the same name, directed by Tim Burton and starring a gallery of players comprised of both frequent collaborators (most notably, of course, Johnny Depp) and high-profile new faces.  Taking its basic premise and most of its characters from the original series- a low-budget affair, created by Dan Curtis, with an enormous cult following which thrives to this day- Burton’s film capitalizes and expands on its camp value, and uses it as a vehicle with which to blend his own trademark sense of macabre humor into a nostalgic revisitation of the early ’70s era in which it is set and a tribute to the gothic horror cinema with which he grew up.  Long-awaited and much-anticipated, its box-office take was respectable despite the impact felt from direct competition with The Avengers, but it met with disappointed reactions from critics and audiences alike, despite its high production values and the popularity of its director and his quirky leading man.

Though using the television original as a source for its basic scenario, the screenplay (penned by Seth Grahame-Smith from a story developed with John August) veers from the details of its episodic plot in favor of a more-or-less self-contained storyline, making several significant changes in the process.  The film begins with a prologue in which the background is laid for the ensuing events; in 1760, the wealthy Collins family emigrates to America, expanding their commercial fishing empire to the coast of Maine and building a majestic estate surrounded by a thriving seaport town- named Collinsport in their honor.  However, the family’s young scion, Barnabas, runs afoul of a household servant, Angelique, by spurning her after a brief dalliance; secretly a witch, the jilted girl avenges herself by cursing the Collins family, killing Barnabas’ parents, bewitching his fiancée to suicide, and transforming him into a vampire.  She then exposes him to the town as a monster and persuades them to bury him alive, dooming him to endure a solitary eternity with the memory of his loss.  The story then flashes forward to 1972; the town of Collinsport still thrives, now sustained by a rival fishing empire founded by none other than Angelique, who has used witchcraft to sustain her own immortality.  The Collins estate still stands, inhabited by the family’s last dysfunctional descendants: Elizabeth Stoddard, the stern but determined matriarch; her sullen teen-aged daughter, Carolyn; her ne’er-do-well widower brother Roger Collins; and his troubled young son, David, who insists he can see and talk to the ghost of his recently-drowned mother.  Rounding out the household are two heavy-drinking outsiders- the boy’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman, and caretaker Willie Loomis- as well as a newly-hired nanny, Victoria Winters, who has a secret past.  These last remnants of the once great Collins brood are surprised by the sudden arrival of Barnabas, inadvertently freed from his two-century imprisonment by the excavations of a construction crew. Despite his monstrous nature, he is still devoted to his beloved family, and vows to help them rebuild their collapsed fortunes and restore the Collins name to its former glory.  In order to succeed, however, he must once again confront the vindictive and powerful Angelique, who still carries a torch for him after all these years, not to mention helping his descendants work through their various dysfunctions while keeping the secret of his vampiric identity and continually trying to come to grips with life in the 20th Century.  To complicate his task further, he finds himself drawn to the lovely Victoria, who stirs in him the memories of his long-lost love.

It might seem, all things considered, that Dark Shadows would be a perfect match for the unique sensibilities of Tim Burton; the director has built an empire of sorts on his peculiar brand of gothic-flavored pop cinema, drawing heavily on influences from past masters of horror while infusing these macabre elements with a distinctively contemporary flair for irony and dark humor.  His visual style mixes the grotesque with the endearing and the arcane with the hip in a way that has become instantaneously recognizable as his own, and his recurring motifs (the focus on abused, disenfranchised characters and their efforts to redress the wrongs they have endured, as well as their need to find emotional connection and the innate humanity often hidden by their outward appearance or outcast status) weave their way through his body of work in a way that further marks him as a true auteur.  He has a way of using his horrific subject matter to express basic and universal emotional values, transforming that which at first seems disturbing into something almost sweet; he has created a niche for himself as a cinematic champion for the social outsider, making movies that invert the formulas of traditional romance and adventure and carry the decidedly life-affirming message that freaks are people too.  With such a background, Burton would appear the perfect candidate for bringing the campy chills of Dark Shadows to life for a new generation, and infusing it with an added layer or two of contemporary perspective in the process.  Unfortunately, the rich potential inherent in this match-up goes largely unfulfilled.

Perhaps the key element in the popularity of Dark Shadows in its original incarnation was its unflinching determination to take itself seriously despite the obviously ridiculous underpinnings of its premise, the banal soap-opera dialogue that often sounded like it was written over the course of a ten-minute coffee break, and the low-budget constraints on its efforts at gothic ambiance; it was never high art, but rather a guilty pleasure.  With Burton’s blockbuster approach, these charms have been subverted: the stone walls of this Collinswood never shake when a door is slammed; and instead of bold-facing its way through discussions of ancient supernatural forces with a deliberate lack of irony, the film treats the entire scenario as fodder for self-aware tomfoolery.  It’s understandable, even wise, that Burton and his team would take this approach; to recreate the intangible air of somber goofiness that marked the original series would likely be impossible by deliberate effort, particularly in the more sophisticated cultural environment of 2012.  The problem is that somehow, despite the impressively crafted visuals and the considerable talent of its star-powered cast, Burton’s film seems sillier and, well, much more pointless than it should.  Though some effort was made to recreate the soapy format, at least in the dialogue-driven scenes, and in spite of the obvious reverence in which Burton et al. hold their source material, this effort to bring Barnabas Collins and his broken clan into the flashy present feels bogged down by an inability to mesh the heavily comic reinterpretation into a compelling story; the thematic elements on which the plot is based seem all-too-familiar (especially for Burton) and the key story developments seem perfunctory, as though the script were put together strictly by formula- which, of course, it probably was.  In the absence of any real weight in the narrative, all that remains are character development- sadly botched by the script’s cartoonish approach, which gives us caricatures drawn with broad strokes (despite the solid work of the actors) and leaves us confounded by their actions, which seem motivated by the needs of the plot rather than based on any semblance of inner logic- and the heavy reliance on comedy, mostly derived from the juxtaposition of an 18th-Century dandy into 1970s culture, as well as the nostalgic kitsch that comes from the recreation of this 40-year-bygone era.  Dark Shadows is full of jokes, but since the majority of them are centered on Barnabas’ culture shock and inability to adapt his mindset to the modern world, it feels like the same one, endlessly repeated.  This is not to say there are no laughs here- at times the magic formula does work- but they are few and farther between as the film moves towards its predictably spectacular finale.  Similarly, the gothic creepiness which is so integral a part of the world of Dark Shadows– both here and in its former life- is layered on with all the expected excess and Burton-esque flair, but no matter how many visual nods are thrown in the direction of the Hammer horror classics, the whole atmosphere more closely resembles the tongue-in-cheek faux-spookiness of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.  In other words, a contemporary reboot of this franchise could have been either funnier or scarier than the original, or better yet, both; but this film is neither.  To the director’s credit, although much of the film falls flat, it never seems to be disingenuous; though screenwriter Grahame-Smith’s efforts may lack sincerity, Burton’s translation of them to the screen does not.  Unfortunately, his good intentions are not enough to make Dark Shadows into the movie it deserves to be.

That said, it should be observed that there is plenty of exemplary work on display here.  Even the critics who were harshest with Dark Shadows were lavish in their praise for its visual style, drenched with Burton’s usual synthesis of Grand-Guignol-goth and candy-coated pop art.  He has gotten so good at creating this kind of pseudo-horrific spectacle that it no longer thrills or delights us with quite the morbid wonder evoked by Beetlejuice or Sleepy Hollow, despite the added polish that has come with an increased budget and the advancement of CG technology.  Indeed, one almost takes it for granted in Dark Shadows, which is a mistake the savvy viewer should avoid; the intricate and imaginative design and execution of the Collinses world is the one unqualified delight of the film, and the recreation of the early ’70s setting which is woven into the gothic visual tapestry adds an extra layer of flavor- and one which manages to be heavily definitive without resorting to over-the-top parody.  Aiding in this sense of heightened authenticity is the saturated cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, who based his work, to great advantage, on the look of actual films of the era.

As for the cast, it has already been mentioned that they do exemplary work, despite the weakness of the material.  There are standouts among them: Michelle Pfeiffer, who comes closest to recreating the style of the original series as Elizabeth, underplaying her melodramatic dialogue like the pro that she is; Chloë Grace Moretz, a young actress with a remarkably mature talent that appears to be propelling her into the status of bona fuse stardom, as the snarlingly rebellious Carolyn; and Jackie Earle Haley, as Willie the Caretaker, whose unfazed, deadpan persona adds a much-needed earthiness to the proceedings.  The others are less memorable, even the beautiful Eva Green (as the venomous Angelique), simply because their roles require little of them beyond the one-dimensional functions they are assigned by the screenplay, but to their credit, none of them come off badly for it.  There are a few interesting cameos, as well; iconic horror star Christopher Lee makes another Burton appearance as a salty old sea dog; seminal shock-rocker Alice Cooper plays himself, hired to perform at an elegant ball thrown by Barnabas and looking agelessly like his own four-decade-old persona; and as guests at the same ball, original Dark Shadows cast members Lara Parker, David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jonathan Frid- the original Barnabas, who would, sadly, pass away shortly before the film’s release- pay a fleeting visit, being greeted at the door by a beaming Johnny Depp.

And what of Mr. Depp himself?  This charismatic screen chameleon has acquitted himself admirably in no less than 8 films with Burton, indeed becoming virtually the face of the director’s work, as much a part of his milieu as the sinister subject matter; in these appearances, as with most of his other work, he has displayed a gift for making the offbeat quirks of his characters into utterly convincing extensions of his natural personality, using imagination, intelligence and honesty to give these oft-cartoonish figures an unmistakable ring of truth.  Popularity notwithstanding, he is a vastly underrated actor, capable of remarkable range, who augments and enhances virtually any film in which he participates.  His performance as Barnabas Collins, though it certainly lives up to his usual standards, is a bit of a letdown.  It’s not that he is any less committed than usual- indeed, he exhibits a clear relish for the part, no doubt a result of his long-standing wish to play it- but that, once more, the script falls short of the mark.  Though Depp infuses his over-the-top mugging with his customary connection to truth, allowing us to believe in this unlikely character as more than a cipher in an extended skit and even making him likable enough to care about his ultimate fate, his Barnabas is ultimately a hollow spectacle, an exercise in comic acting that lacks a solid core; he plays the character to a tee, but in the end, thanks to the formulaic writing, he has made no inner journey.  He, like all the other characters, has simply reacted to each plot development without growth or change, which makes our wish for his ultimate success more of a reflex in response to the conventions of the narrative than a result of any real connection to the character.  It might be argued that this is the nature of true melodrama, which concerns itself with outward events rather than inner truth, and is therefore apropos for a film that is, after all, based on a soap opera; nevertheless, it hardly allows for a truly engaging experience, resulting instead in an entertaining but noticeably shallow diversion that seems to drag on interminably despite a relatively short running time.  Depp’s performance, as the centerpiece of the film, is just the clearest representation of the singular flaw that prevents Dark Shadows from ever truly drawing us in: a lack of any real purpose to propel it forward, making it feel, in the end, like an overlong pageant instead of an engaging story.

I wanted to like Dark Shadows.  I wanted to very badly, and I had high hopes for it because Tim Burton is, for my money, a truly great filmmaker; his work has an audaciously subversive glee that makes even his most commercial projects feel edgy, and even if many of his biggest films are ultimately less than the sum of their parts, he has an impressive track record that will surely leave him, in the final analysis, standing firmly in the pantheon of cinematic masters.  That said, his very best work seems to occur when he veers away from his most characteristic material, in films such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, flavored with his particular style but ultimately informed by another sensibility and governed by a different set of rules.  Dark Shadows, though it was originally spawned by another mind than his own, is nevertheless a quintessentially Tim Burton film, and bears his own unmistakable stamp.  It’s not a bad movie, by any means; it’s at least moderately entertaining, though unlikely to elicit any strong reactions of either fear or laughter, and it is certainly good-natured enough to be forgiven for not quite living up to its potential.  What is troublesome about Dark Shadows is that it could have been great- should have been, even- but it was defeated before a single frame was captured on film.  No matter how talented its director, how masterful the designers and artists who bring it to the screen, or how brilliant its players, a movie with a mediocre script will never be better than a mediocre movie.  This is, of course, a problem as old as movies themselves- countless would-be classics have been sunk by incompetent writing- but it is particularly upsetting when artists of this caliber fall prey to the trap.  Both Burton and Depp pursued this project, and it was a labor of love for them from beginning to end- how then, could it go so wrong?  Perhaps it was, after all, their affection for the material that tripped them up, blinding them to the faults of their film with false confidence in the notion that such a seemingly natural match of artists with their material could not help but succeed.  Whatever the reason, it was an artistic miscalculation, for Dark Shadows is probably the pair’s most easily forgettable joint effort, and Burton’s least effective film since his abysmal remake of The Planet of the Apes.  From a financial standpoint, however, despite its less-than-hoped-for success at the box office, the sure-fire formula still netted both men- and the studio- a considerable amount of money, leading to the most disturbing suspicion of all- that Hollywood greed overrode artistic aspiration, as it so often does in the film industry, denying us all the joys of the Dark Shadows movie that might have been.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1077368/

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bride of Frankenstein, the classic 1935 sequel to James Whale’s Frankenstein, once more directed by Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the iconic monster and Colin Clive as his creator, as well as featuring Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger in new roles.  Though it did have its detractors, it was mostly seen as a triumph even upon its initial release, and it is widely hailed today as one of the few movie sequels to surpass the original, not only representing the artistic pinnacle of Universal’s cycle of horror films, but considered by many to be the defining masterwork of Whale’s short career.

After a sumptuous prologue in which Mary Shelley- author of the original Frankenstein novel, for those who don’t know- regales her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron with the continuation of her macabre tale, Bride of Frankenstein picks up where the first film left off, at the smoldering wreckage of the windmill in which, after throwing his creator to an almost certain death, the monster has presumably been burned alive.  As the mob which had trapped him there disperses, the parents of a child he had murdered linger to assure themselves of the creature’s demise, only to make the fatal discovery that, having found refuge in the mill’s flooded basement, he has survived after all.  Meanwhile, after being transported back to his baronial castle, Dr. Frankenstein is also found to have survived, much to the joy of his fiancée Elizabeth, who vows to nurse him back to full health so that they may finally celebrate the wedding postponed by the rampage of his marauding creation.  His recuperation is interrupted by a visit from his former professor, Dr. Pretorius, who reveals that his own experiments in the creation of life have also met with success and insists that the two join forces in order to continue the work; Frankenstein, despite the horrific experiences that resulted from his previous efforts, is fascinated and drawn in by the possibilities.  In the outside world, the monster wanders the countryside, seeking safe haven and experiencing disastrous encounters with terrified townspeople.  Eventually captured and imprisoned, he breaks his chains and escapes into the woods, where he finally finds refuge with a lonely blind hermit, who treats him with kindness and teaches him to speak and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  This idyllic respite is short-lived, however; a pair of hunters discover the creature, the hermit’s cottage is accidentally set ablaze in the ensuing struggle, and the forlorn fugitive flees as his new friend is led away to safety by the interlopers.  With the entire countryside on his heels, the monster hides away in a dilapidated crypt, where he unexpectedly encounters none other than Dr. Pretorius.  The scientist befriends him, and promises that, with his help, he can persuade Dr. Frankenstein to make a new creature, a female that will at last offer the lonely outcast the companionship for which he longs.  When the good doctor, newly married and about to embark on his honeymoon, refuses to cooperate, Pretorius instructs the monster to abduct Elizabeth, and promises Frankenstein her safe return upon the completion of the new creation.  Though he has been forced into participation, the doctor becomes enthusiastic about the project in spite of himself, and soon- thanks to some unsavory assistance procured secretly by Pretorius to find a suitable heart for the new creature- the experiment reaches its successful fruition.  The original monster’s intended mate, however, has a mind of her own, an unexpected development which leads to disastrous complications.

Following the success of the original Frankenstein in 1931, Universal was eager to produce a sequel; they publicized their intention to make one almost immediately, but director Whale was uninterested in returning to the material, feeling that he had exhausted the possibilities with his first effort.  It took several years for the pieces to come together, during which time the filmmaker was persuaded to helm the project as part of a package deal- he was given the chance to direct another film in which he was interested (the now-virtually-forgotten One More River) in exchange for accepting the assignment on the Frankenstein sequel, over which he was also promised absolute artistic control- and work commenced at last on the long-awaited film.  Whale believed, however, that a sequel would be unable to surpass his original movie, so he decided to take a different approach; seeking to turn the film into a black comedy, he rejected several scripts before settling on an adaptation by John Balderston (who had adapted the first film for the screen) of an episode in the original novel in which Frankenstein is coerced into building a mate for his creation.  Another writer, William Hurlbut, was brought in to add the macabre touches of humor desired by Whale, and it was ultimately his screenplay from which Bride of Frankenstein was made; it is clear, however, that he worked in close collaboration with the director, for the film bears Whale’s unmistakable stamp on every frame.

With his background in design and direction for the theatre and his taste for the techniques of German Expressionism, James Whale was an ideal choice as a creator of gothic horror films, something Universal- and its chief executive, Carl Laemmle, Jr.- fully appreciated; the director himself, however, was bored with the genre by the time he made Bride, and frustrated with being pigeonholed into the category of “horror director.”  This conflict seems to have created the perfect foundation for Whale’s precocious creativity to manifest itself on film.  With the rare artistic freedom that was his price for doing the job, he turned the project into something more interesting for himself than just another A-list shocker.  His movie is rich with subversive subtext, taking the accepted conventions of horror melodrama and slyly turning them inside out; he infuses the plot with sly social commentary, finding a sense of the absurd in every scenario and exploiting it for dry comic effect even as he takes delight in its horrific elements.  The representatives of decency and normality are presented as grotesque caricatures, exhibiting ignorance, intolerance, hypocrisy and cruelty at every turn, while the film’s outsiders are treated with dignity and sympathy; whereas in the original film, Frankenstein himself is the main protagonist, a misguided but well-intentioned visionary who takes on the role of Prometheus, in Bride of Frankenstein there can be no mistake about the fact that it is the monster who is our hero.  The angry mobs- a cliché ripe for satire even in 1935- are here the enemy, and the unfortunate victims of the monster’s wrath are merely collateral damage in a reactionary war against the unknown and misunderstood.  As for the doctor himself, he is now an overwrought, uptight coward, denying his true nature to pose as a bastion of decent society; he has been supplanted instead by Pretorius, a figure of dubious motivation but possessed of an undeniable charm which makes us like him despite the shadier aspects of his character.  Pretorius is clearly bent on the destruction of the status quo, and given the unflattering portrait we are given of the society around him, such a goal cannot help but seem reasonably understandable; thus he, like the lonesome creature he befriends and ultimately exploits, becomes a focus for audience identification.

Whale’s film is filled with deliciously subtle wit, even in its most horrifying scenes- Pretorius is a major source of the verbal comedy, although other characters deliver some intentionally unintentional zingers, such as the stodgy burgomaster’s assertion that it’s time for decent men and their wives to be in bed.  This kind of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness is largely responsible for the film’s status as a “camp” classic, which further has given it a reputation for having a heavy homosexual subtext.  Whale was openly gay, and other members of his cast and crew were either known or rumored also to be so; it is not surprising that a connection could be made between the movie’s dominant theme of social ostracism and an expression of gay experience in 1930s culture, and the film’s ironic tone and anti-social perspective certainly suggest an alternative sensibility.  The most obviously gay element, of course, is the prominence of Dr. Pretorius, whose arch attitude and fey demeanor go beyond the level of the typical codified “sissy” characters of the period to make him clearly identifiable as gay to all but the least sophisticated audiences, even in 1935.  Many of Whale’s contemporaries have vehemently dismissed the notion that he deliberately intended the film’s content to be read as “gay,” either overtly or by inference; watching Bride of Frankenstein, however, it is hard to imagine that a director of such obvious intelligence and command of his art would be unaware of the implications inherent in many of the movie’s situations.  Perhaps it is an overstatement, based on a retro-fitting of modern ideas, to interpret (for example) the extended sequence of the monster’s relationship with the blind hermit as an allegory for same-sex unions; but it seems equally unlikely to think that Whale and his associates were not aware of the obvious metaphor of an “unnatural monster” being persecuted and driven to the fringes of society to find acceptance.  Of course, social isolation is a universal experience, and one of Bride‘s great strengths is the clarity with which it is portrayed; Whale’s acute personal connection to the monster’s plight no doubt played an important role in his ability to bring it to the screen with such powerful resonance.  Like all great artists, he drew inspiration from his own psyche to infuse his work with a conviction and authenticity that is accessible to all.

Whether or not the supposed gay subtext was intentional, Bride of Frankenstein contains a considerable amount of sexual innuendo which most definitely was meant to be there.  Nevertheless, these elements were not the source of the film’s difficulty with the Hays Office; rather, the censors objected to the film’s heavy use of religious iconography and its extreme (for the time) violence.  Whale loaded his movie with crosses and crucifixes, at one point even featuring a scene in which the monster, captured by the irate villagers, is lashed to a post and raised is an unmistakably Christ-like pose before being loaded into a cart for transport to a jail cell; while much of this material remains, the Hays censors insisted on the removal of some even more overt scenes which they deemed to be blasphemous.  The director was known by his colleagues to be irreligious, but even so it is doubtful he intended disrespect by including these aspects in the film; more likely, it was a pointed observation on the irony of the decidedly un-Christian treatment visited on the monster by the supposedly righteous mob, and perhaps also, subtly, an inversion of the Christ story, in which a being raised from the dead is persecuted and rejected by an fearful and inhospitable populace.  As for the violence, it probably goes without saying that it is hard to see, by today’s standards, how there could be any objection to the few brief moments in which the monster dispatches yet another irate villager; there is no visible bloodshed, we are given no gruesome close-ups or buckets of gore, and most of the killings are over before we even realize they are happening.  Still, the body count in Bride of Frankenstein is considerably higher than that of the original film, and quick as they may be, some of the murders are admittedly disturbing on a psychic level that has nothing to do with the gross-out factor which has today replaced the deeper shocks favored by horror filmmakers of old.  Consequently, extensive cutting was necessary to obtain a passing certification from the Hays Office, and at least one new scene had to be hurriedly added before release in order to bridge the story gaps created by these edits.  Thanks to Hollywood’s self-imposed decency standards, therefore, Whale did not quite achieve the complete artistic control he had been offered; indeed, the studio also reneged on its promise in one key instance, demanding a happy ending (and one which might facilitate the possibility of yet another sequel) to replace the one Whale shot, in which (“spoiler” alert) all the principal characters perished.  Consequently, new footage was shot at the last minute, depicting the escape of Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth (who is technically, of course, the actual title character of the film); however, due to budgetary constraints, it was not possible to reshoot already finished footage of the exploding laboratory, so that in the final version, the good doctor can still be seen pressed against the wall as the room collapses into rubble.  Though this was contrary to the director’s plan, there is a certain ambiguity to the hollowness of this tacked on reprieve, which evokes questions of how this hopelessly scarred couple can ever hope to free themselves of the nightmarish experiences they have lived through- particularly the doctor, already a visibly broken man, who was at least partly responsible for the preceding events having ever taken place.  In any case, the survival of these two characters does nothing to alleviate the sense of tragedy which permeates the film’s final moments; if anything, it underscores the sadness we feel at the fate of the film’s true protagonist.

Analytical discussion aside, there is much to praise in Bride of Frankenstein; Universal considered it one of their most important productions, having established a lucrative domination of the horror market and fully anticipating a major hit with the eagerly awaited continuation of one of their most popular films.  Consequently, the production values are sumptuous, from the elegant period decor and costumes of the Romantic Era prologue to the elaborate blend of gothic futurism that dominates the laboratory in the movie’s climactic scenes.  The special effects were top-notch for their time, and black-and-white cinematography (by John J. Mescall) is a glorious example of the bygone aesthetic of light and shadow that made films of this era such a magnificent, ethereal beauty.  Franz Waxman’s eerie, unresolved score provides a darkly romantic atmosphere throughout and drives the story relentlessly towards its cataclysmic finale.  Whale’s skill as a director manifests itself not only through his overseeing and coordination of all these elements, but in his edgy visual style; with rapid cutting, extreme angles, and a highly mobile camera, he manages to build a film that keeps the viewer breathlessly off balance, ensuring that it works as a horror movie independently of the black comedy that simultaneously exists for those audiences savvy enough to see it.

To paraphrase the ending credits, a good cast is worth mentioning, and no discussion of Bride of Frankenstein would be complete without mention of its star, Boris Karloff, whose fame and popularity were so great at the time that he was billed simply by his last name.  The pathos which he brought, somewhat unexpectedly, to his portrayal of the monster in the original film, is here brought to the front and center of the proceedings, and he provides genuine heart to the story, which prevents the loopy comedy from undermining the movie’s seriousness and keeps the sensationalism of the horror elements from overpowering its deeper message.  It is well-known that the actor objected to the creature’s development of speech within this movie, feeling that it would create an awkward and jarring effect that might alienate the audience- or worse, make them laugh; even so, he rose to the occasion well, delivering his stilted, remedial dialogue with as much conviction and sincerity as he performed the physicality of the monster.  The addition of speaking did have a somewhat unfortunate side effect, in that Karloff was unable to remove his dental plate as he had in Frankenstein, which meant that the formerly sunken-cheeked monster had a fuller face this time around; but the iconic makeup (designed by the uncredited Jack Pierce) was adapted to reflect the damage caused by the windmill fire that ended the original film, so the change was perhaps less noticeable than it might have been.  As for Colin Clive, the other returnee from the first film, his severe alcoholism had progressed considerably, and its ravages were plainly visible onscreen- the actor looks considerably older this time around, and his distraught, unfocused persona is a far cry from the clear-eyed drive and passion of his former appearance as Dr. Frankenstein.  His deterioration was doubtless made all the more evident by the fact that he broke his leg in a horseback riding accident shortly after filming began, requiring him to be seated for most of his scenes and in excruciating pain for the ones in which it was not possible.  Though this was obviously a tragic state of affairs for Clive, who would die at the age of 37 just a few months after the release of Bride, it gave him a decidedly convincing edge in his nerve-wracked, tormented performance as the unfortunate doctor.  Replacing Mae Clarke, who was battling health problems and unable to return as the hapless Elizabeth, was 17-year-old Valerie Hobson, whose melodramatic performance, while hardly memorable, adds an appropriate touch of the hysterical to the mix; and the aforementioned Ernest Thesiger, an English stage actor of considerable reputation who was a friend of Whale’s, makes one of the most memorable appearances in the history of horror as Dr. Pretorius, dripping with prissy irony and presenting a veneer of good-natured gentility which magnifies, rather than masks, the malevolent intent behind it.  As for the justly famous appearance by Elsa Lanchester as the monster’s would-be mate, it is without question the film’s electrifying highlight- not just because of the iconic design of the character, with her Nefertiti-inspired lightning bolt hairstyle, but because of the actress’ brilliant, jerky performance (which she said was based on angry swans), punctuated by shrill shrieks, deadly hissing, and other sub-human vocalizations.  Often overlooked, however, is Lanchester’s other performance as Mary Shelley in the film’s opening scenes; she sets the tone for the entire movie, offering up a demure and delicate persona with the unmistakable glimmer of a twisted and demonic imagination underneath it.  Rounding out the cast is the delightful Una O’Connor, as Frankenstein’s busybody housemaid, whose encounter with the monster early on is another of the film’s highlights; she provides comic relief, of course, but there is an undercurrent of ugliness within her character that continually reminds us of the small-minded baseness of the common throng.

Bride of Frankensteinin (which was referred to in publicity material with “The” in front of the title, though the word is absent in the credits), by today’s standards, is not a scary movie.  Modern audiences expect much more gruesome and explicit shocks, and the lingering Victorian morality which pervades horror movies of the past now seems quaint and laughable.  Nevertheless, it is, by any standards, a superb movie.  Once its conditions are accepted, it offers a compelling and surprisingly affecting story while laughing with us at the ridiculous conceits the genre requires.  Regardless of whether Whale intended it or not, it contains a rich subtext that reflects both his personal experiences and the larger social fabric of the time, and touches on a universal nerve that is timeless in its relevance.  Most importantly, it contains a treasure of rich, indelible images that transcend the material itself to become icons of the popular cultural imagination.  On top of all that, it is what Whale himself declared it would be: a “hoot.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026138/

Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407236/

Santa Sangre (1989)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Santa Sangre, the surreal 1989 horror fantasy by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, about a young man, raised in a circus, who is dominated by his puritanical mother and driven by her to exact revenge for the sinful impurity which led to her brutal dismemberment.  Hallucinatory, disturbing, and gruesome, it received only limited release in the U.S. despite its director’s status as a revered avant-garde legend and the enthusiastic reception of critics, but quickly became a cult classic and has since been made widely available for home viewing.  Hailed by many as a masterpiece, it’s a bizarre visual feast, pervaded by a garish carnival atmosphere and a sense of sickly wonder, which offers the guilty thrills of Grand Guignol horror alongside religious, psychosexual, and social themes, providing an unforgettably nightmarish cinematic journey through the arcane and the unspeakable.

The story centers on Fenix, whom we first see as a patient in a mental institution- naked, animalistic, and uncommunicative, but beginning to emerge from his isolated state in response to the gentle coaxing of his doctor.  Through flashbacks, the origins of his traumatized state are revealed; we see his childhood as the son of a circus impresario and his aerialist wife, performing as a juvenile magician and surrounded by the extreme environment and eccentric denizens of their show-business world.  His libidinous father is enamored of his newest act, a tattooed contortionist whose abused deaf-mute daughter, Alma, has become a new companion for Fenix; his mother is also the fanatical leader of a cult dedicated to the memory of a little girl whose arms were cut off by rapists.  When the authorities close and demolish her church, and she catches her husband with his tattooed mistress, it is too much for mother to take- she attempts to punish the philanderer for his faithlessness, resulting in a tragic turn of events that leads to his death and her dismemberment, a tragedy witnessed by their horrified child.  When the film returns to the present, we see the adult Fenix gradually reawakening to his memories, culminating in his escape from the hospital and a reunion with his now-armless mother; together, they form an act in which his arms become hers- an odd symbiosis which carries over into their strange and secretive offstage life.  It gradually becomes apparent that Fenix’ limbs have become subservient to his mother’s will, and he is forced to do her bidding despite his own wishes- even when it means committing murder.  The situation becomes even more complicated with the reappearance of Alma, now grown into a beautiful woman; his feelings for her threaten to disrupt the twisted bond between mother and son, triggering a final battle of wills in which Fenix must attempt to regain control of his destiny and put an end to his mother’s vengeful reign of blood, once and for all.

This scenario may seem convoluted and illogical, but in Jodorowsky’s screenplay, co-written with Roberto Leoni and producer Claudio Argento, it all makes its own kind of sense.  It is clear from the beginning of the film, when we are first introduced to our damaged protagonist (crouching naked in a white room adorned with only a severed tree trunk, which he uses much in the way of a monkey at the zoo) that we are visiting a universe where the rules of common sense and linear thinking do not apply.  It’s a primal place, a realm of deep unconscious impulses and associations, where every occurrence seems symbolic and yet has simultaneous real-world significance.  In short, it is a dream reality, and one marked by the kind of feverish dread and sadness from which we long to awaken.  Into this soul-sick, delirious setting, the film weaves its epic tale of good and evil, complicated by deep-rooted familial bonds, contradictory moral strictures, and the personal needs of heart, body and spirit.  Along the way it mercilessly exploits our expectations and challenges our sensibilities, forcing us to endure depictions of unthinkable cruelty, incomprehensible depravity, and devastating heartbreak, so that when we are confronted with the grisly violence of murder, it seems almost a relief.  Certainly these scenes provide a kind of cathartic release for all the accumulated emotional saturation to which Jodorowsky’s film subjects us; but this does not mean that Santa Sangre condones or glorifies killing.  On the contrary, these periodic bursts of bloodshed only serve to compound the psychic despair that drenches the movie, until it seems that true evil is everywhere and all the good intentions in the world are powerless to stop it.  This, of course, is the ultimate point of Santa Sangre:  it is not enough to bewail and bemoan the workings of evil, or to regret one’s own unwilling or unknowing participation in them; the consequences may be dire, and the effort may be great, but conquering evil means taking responsibility for one’s own actions and exercising one’s free will by refusing to perform its bidding.  In a film so outwardly monstrous, the biggest shock of all may be that it is, ultimately, about the triumph of good over evil.

In support of his overriding theme, Jodorowsky has assembled a film worthy of his legendary surrealist pedigree.  He fills the screen with a progression of remarkable images, drawing heavily on the filmmakers who have influenced him- particularly Federico Fellini- but infused with his own darkly visionary sensibility.  Over the course of Santa Sangre he gives us a dancing dwarf, an elephant funeral, a pimp who gives cocaine to mentally handicapped children, naked whitewashed corpses rising from their graves, dogs and chickens feasting on human blood, a cross-dressing wrestler, and any number of other fascinating, macabre, unsettling sights and sounds; it’s an inundation of the bizarre that is so perversely gripping that looking away is simply not an option.  Jodorowsky is not merely being outrageous for the sake of shock value, however; every element, no matter how bewildering it may seem, has a concise purpose here.  The theatricality of the early scenes reminds us of the traditional view of the circus as a metaphor for life, but its larger-than-life atmosphere carries over into the film’s “real-world” setting- particularly in the nighttime streets of Mexico City, bedecked with the morbidly cartoonish imagery of Dia de los Muertos and populated with a frightening menagerie of revelers- suggests that the absurdity of life itself requires no exaggerated artistic conceit to expose its folly and decadence; the recurrence of quasi-religious iconography underpins an examination of hypocrisy in a moralistic dogma more concerned with punishment than salvation, more fixated on death than life, and more reverent of representation than of reality; and the heavy use of deep psychological themes throughout- symbolic bird imagery, the multilayered opposition of illusion to unadorned reality, the merging of sex and violence, the conflict between paternal and maternal influences- is carefully accumulated towards the director’s ultimate purpose of peeling back such complications to reveal the truth that choice, in the end, is what defines us.

For those who are just looking for a horror movie, Santa Sangre delivers on those terms, as well.  All of Jodorowsky’s avant-garde explorations are woven around a lurid tale of psychosis, murder, and mayhem that could easily have come from a mind like Stephen King’s.  In keeping with the film’s ironic title, much blood is spilled during the course of its story, in celebrations of gleeful gore managed with the flair of a true cinematic master; the macabre humor with which these killings are played out is worthy of Hitchcock- whose work, like Fellini’s, is echoed throughout.  Indeed, despite its serious agenda, Jodorowsky’s movie is laced with comical moments; part of the director’s style is to capitalize on the absurdity of what he shows us, eliciting laughter in the face of the strange and unfamiliar.  In a similar manner, he finds beauty in the grotesque and joy in the sorrowful, giving Santa Sangre an unexpectedly transcendent quality for such a gruesome saga.

Populating Jodorowsky’s epic is an assorted collection of personalities, some professional actors and many, clearly, not so professional.  At least a half-dozen cast members are relatives of the director, including his sons Axel and Adan, who portray Fenix as a young man and child, respectively.  Both deliver performances to do their father proud; as does the fiery Bianca Guerra as Concha, the unforgiving mother.  Also worth mentioning are Guy Stockwell as Fenix’ über-masculine, contradictory father and Thelma Tixou as his gyrating, tattooed mistress; many of the film’s remaining cast fall into the “where-did-he-find-these-people” category, conjuring memories of Tod Browning’s Freaks– another seminal influence for Jodorowsky’s vision- and providing indelibly-stamped images for the memories of any viewer.  The acting, needless to say, is not always stellar amongst these motley supporting players, though many of them do acquit themselves admirably; but even the most stilted and awkward performances contribute to the overall surrealism of the piece, an effect that is further enhanced by the obvious dubbing of some of the dialogue- a factor no doubt made necessary by Jodorowsky’s inexplicable decision to shoot his film in English, despite its Mexican setting and the fact that most of his previous work was produced in Spanish.

Santa Sangre is one of those film experiences that reminds viewers of the dazzling potential of the cinematic medium.  It transports us to a world that we have never seen, or even imagined, and opens pathways to the deepest, most private places of our psyches, making us aware on a level that erases the extraneous differences in our lives and connects us to the shared consciousness that unites us with the rest of humanity.  It manifests its own, utterly unique style while drawing from a sea of visual influences that includes not only the aforementioned filmic inspirations but such diverse sources as Frida Kahlo, the psychedelic counterculture, and the garish camp of lucha libre.  It’s a pity, though hardly a surprise, that this and Jodorowsky’s other films have remained more-or-less obscure; their edgy, unorthodox visual poetry is hardly the stuff of safe, commercial filmmaking, and the director’s long history and reputation as an iconoclastic free spirit has no doubt kept him distant from the profit-driven film industry establishment.  Nevertheless, the French-Chilean auteur maintains a large and loyal cult following throughout the world, and has enjoyed a long and remarkable career of which filmmaking is only a single facet; he is renowned as an artist, a theatrical director, an author, and a creator of comic books, as well as for his extensive work and research in the field of “psychomagic,” which has included a painstaking recreation of the classic Marseilles Tarot deck and the development of several therapeutic practices drawing on ideas from various so-called “occult” fields towards the purpose of psychological healing.  At the time of this writing, he is 83 and still active, at last report working on a film version of his autobiography, with which his stated goal is “to lose money.”  Perhaps the recent re-emergence of Santa Sangre, lovingly restored on DVD and BluRay and widely available on web-based streaming video platforms everywhere, will introduce the dark wonders of his world to a wider segment of the population and help to create a larger audience for his latest project.  At the very least, it may lead viewers to seek out and discover Jodorowsky’s other works, such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain, so that he may, at last, get the recognition he richly deserves as one of the great auteur filmmakers of our time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098253/