Thursday, October 31, 2013
The Movie: A drifter from Colorado (wrestler Roddy Piper of Hell Comes to Frogtown), who we never actually hear the name of but whom the movie credits call “Nada”, wanders into Los Angeles looking for work. As he explains to the lady at the unemployment office, construction in his neck of the woods dried up with the economic problems, and he has a family to support. Unfortunately, even here work is incredibly hard to find. However, he eventually finds a construction site willing to take on new employees.
It says a lot about the economy that Nada is far from the only homeless worker on the site. Fortunately for him, however, he is quickly befriended by Frank (Keith David of the Thing and Pitch Black), another worker, who leads him to a shantytown run by a community activist named Gilbert (Peter Jason of In the Mouth of Madness). However, once he’s there he starts to notice some strange things. There’s a blind preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) in the park exhorting the locals to wake up to the evil in their midst; but the way he speaks makes it sound like far more than just your typical theological evils. Later at the campsite, when the residents are trying to watch television, the broadcast is hacked by a man (John Lawrence) speaking dire warnings about mind control and those in power. His warnings aren’t too different from those given by the blind preacher Nada saw; in fact, Nada notices said preacher standing in back and talking along with the broadcast word for word.
Nada has also noticed that Gilbert and his associates spend a lot of time at an old church across from the shantytown; and among other things, choir practice seems to go on until the wee hours of the morning. Curious, he investigates and finds that something’s not quite right. The choir is actually just a recording being played over speakers, and the rest of the church’s interior is given over to equipment to send pirate broadcasts and make, something. Nada doesn’t have enough time to check the contents of all the boxes, but he manages to hide one away for later. It’s a good thing that he does; the church’s inhabitants seem to have attracted some kind of official attention and that night a horde of policeman raid the area. They strip the church bare, level the shantytown, and beat the living snot out of everyone they can get their hands on; terminally in the case of most of those associated with the church.
The next day Nada retrieves the box he stashed and looks inside. He’s puzzled to find nothing but sunglasses. However, it’s when he puts the glasses on that he’s really stepped in it. The glasses drain all color out of the world and show that a lot is going on that Nada has never even suspected. Everywhere there are subliminal messages like “work, marry, reproduce,” “no free thought,” and “stay asleep.” Devices for further enforcing said messages, as well as general observation, are also everywhere. Worst of all, Nada notices that certain people, namely the ones with obvious wealth and power, aren’t actually people, but hideous, ghoulish looking beings. Unfortunately, Nada lets slip that he can see what’s really going on, and winds up on the run for mass murder. He manages to get Frank to see it as well, and the two men go looking for answers and a way to fight back.
“They're free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.”
For some reason, lately I’ve been wanting to see some really good 1980s satire that does feel dated. Unfortunately for that ambition, this movie ain’t it. Even now, over twenty years after it was made, They Live feels entirely current and relevant; the only exceptions to this being a few hair and fashion styles that we see.
John Carpenter made They Live to show his disgust at the political and economic results of the Reagan Era, results that have only grown worse as time goes on. The aliens present a metaphor for the relatively small handful of the uber-rich who have been working since that time, all too successfully, to dismantle the middle class and claim everything for themselves. And, through near complete control of the media, they’re able to essentially keep everyone “asleep” while they do it.
The economic hard times the characters are dealing with are the recession that came at the end of the 1980s due to the popping of the latest financial bubble. Sound familiar? These things are far from uncommon in our history, and always end up the same way. Another thing that rings true is how the desperation of the times serves those in power. Note how our heroes start out so desperate to get by that they do their best to ignore what’s going on even when it’s blatantly suspicious. Nada’s “I still believe in America” speech, Frank’s insistence that Nada “let it alone” whenever he points out something peculiar; these are people who’ve lost so much already, that they’re willing to do just about anything to hold on to what little they’ve got.
Another aspect of the movie that should seem all too familiar if you pay attention is the subliminal messages our hero notices. With the exception of one message lifted from the original short story (“Work 8 Hours, Sleep 8 Hours, Play 8 Hours”), one of the few aspects of They Live that does feel dated, the subliminal message our hero notices are all message that are constantly being thrown at us, even if we don’t notice them consciously; and even in the contexts through which Carpenter depicts them. “Conform” and “Obey”; everyone, from politicians to corporations, is constantly urging us to go along with the crowd and preying on our insecurities about fitting in. Also, it’s come to my attention that ever since 2001 American flags have been a lamentable inevitability in just about any kind of advertisement; the point, of course, playing upon one’s sense of patriotism and suggesting that buying said project, whether it be a politician or an insurance plan, is aiding the country (and that if you don’t buy it you’re a Bolshevik weenie). “Buy Stuff”; that’s the message all advertisements send. I can’t even go on line anymore without a buttload of popups telling me I need to shell out my money for something because I cannot possibly live without it. “Stay Asleep”; so much of our “news” is actually propaganda or distraction. I guess “Watch Television” falls under that as well.
Then there’s the part where Nada looks at some cash through the sunglasses and sees the message “This is Your God.” In a nutshell, I think this sums up the issues that Carpenter is putting on display here, and so much of what is wrong with America in general. If the U.S. does have a state religion, it would have to be the worship of Mammon. Think about it, money is pretty much the be-all and end-all of all the goals we are supposed to set for ourselves; and the basis by which we are taught to judge people. It’s also the basis of all our wars, whatever the official justification is. Seriously, read some history, nearly all of our wars in the past century or so have been fought because of some financial interest or other. And worst of all, having an obscene amount of money ensures that you can get away with just about anything. I’d get arrested for trying to bribe a politician, but these large corporations can get away with giving them large amounts of money to vote a certain way and calling them “campaign contributions.” Likewise, there’s something very wrong with major financial institutions being able to commit capital crimes, hurt a lot of people, nearly destroy the economy, and yet still successfully demand handouts and tax cuts from the government. A while back I came to the conclusion that Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like a Hole is a far more appropriate national anthem than the Star-Spangled Banner; and I don’t think I’ll be changing my opinion on that anytime soon.
Finally, there are several scenes that just look prescient; although it’s probably more due to the fact that history goes in cycles and the human race keeps making the same damn mistakes over and over again. The scene where the police are leveling the camp bears a very strong resemblance to stories I’ve seen on the news about the police dealing with the Occupy movement. When Nada and Frank stumble upon a fancy dinner where one of the aliens is addressing all the wealthy human collaborators, it could be a fundraiser given by the Koch Brothers, Mitch Romney, or any one of the all too many demagogues for the Cult of the Free Market. And when Nada sees a politician on T.V. who’s actually one of the aliens, the speech he gives sounds way too familiar.
There is one major flaw in They Live. Halfway through, the movie changes tone completely and suddenly becomes another big, dumb action movie. This puzzled me the first time I saw it, but in a recent review from El Santo of the site 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting he points out that it’s John Carpenter’s satirizing of the action films of the period. After reading that, it made more sense when I saw it again; and I will confess that some of it is very clever. Unfortunately, the action elements go against the tone set by the first half of the film. The aliens fall too easily, and the conclusion feels forced. This undercuts much of the sense of creepy paranoia the movie builds up on at the start.
Overall, though, They Live is still worth seeing. Excepting the tone change it is very well made. More so, it has a very important message that has only become more relevant in twenty-something years since it came out. So do yourself a favor and watch this movie; then put on the sunglasses and take a good, hard look at the world.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
The Movie: Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon, credited here as Helen Harp) is out swimming one day when she runs into Betty (Lone Fleming), who she was friends with at school. Virginia introduces Betty to Roger (Cesar Burner), the man she has recently started seeing, and the troubles begin. Betty and Roger are obviously attracted to each other from the beginning, and his relationship with Virginia is still in the early stages. In fact, Roger insists to Betty that he doesn’t have anything serious with Virginia and invites her to join them the next day on the weekend they’ll be taking in the countryside. This, of course, makes Virginia even more uncomfortable. On the train, while Virginia is thinking about her time in school with Betty, a flashback reveals to us in the audience that the two girls have a more than platonic history. So, is Virginia jealous of Betty for Roger? Roger for Betty? Both? Does she even know? If this were a different movie Roger would have a ménage a trois in his future; but instead, probably more realistically, Virginia decides she can’t handle the sexual tension anymore. She hops the train and starts walking toward the creepy ruined monastery in the distance that the conductor told her was the closest thing to civilization for miles around.
The engineer’s argument with his son (who stokes the engine) over whether to stop and get her back, and his insistence that she’s as good as dead, does not bode well for Virginia. Neither does the place itself. The ruins have this real sinister vibe; and even though this is supposed to be a monastery, those aren’t Christian crosses on the graves, they’re Egyptian ankhs. Nevertheless, figuring she doesn’t have much of a choice, Virginia settles in.
That night, as darkness falls and Virginia is bedding down, a mysterious bell rings. That is the signal for those strangely marked graves to open up and their inhabitants to emerge. Said inhabitants are hideous, skeletal figures dressed in the remains of medieval knight armor. They home in on the sound of Virginia’s radio and attack. It quickly becomes apparent that they move fairly aimlessly; until Virginia screams. Whenever she does that, they automatically become more focused. Somehow, Virginia manages to escape the room and steal one of their horses. Unfortunately, they prove to be much better equestrians. The skeletal knights knock Virginia off her horse and descend on her en mass.
At the end of the weekend, Betty and Roger are a little worried about not having heard from Virginia. They ask the hotel staff about Berzano, the ruins they last saw Virginia headed towards; but all they are able to learn is that the locals are terrified of the place, believing it to be haunted by some evil, and that the hotel staff aren’t supposed to talk about it. However, they rent some horses and ride out to the ruins. It’s not a good sign when the horses run off in terror. Once there, Betty and Roger discover Virginia’s things, and two police officers. Virginia’s body was discovered a little way from the railroad tracks, drained of blood and covered in bite marks. Human bite marks. The cops take the couple back to town for questioning, and to identify the body.
When Betty returns to work at the small mannequin factory that she owns, she learns a little bit more about Berzano from her assistant, Nina (Veronica Llimera), who grew up in a nearby village. Nina explains that the place was owned by the Knights Templar, and that they are supposed to haunt the place after nightfall. However, the full story is learned when Betty and Roger consult Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz) a noted medieval historian.
Professor Candal explains that the Knights Templar came back from the Holy Lands with, among other things, knowledge of a blood ritual that granted immortality. They terrorized the area for a while, but the locals finally had enough of their virgins disappearing and rose up. The Templers were executed for heresy and strung up where the birds could peck out their eyes. Unfortunately, their immortality ritual worked, and so they continue to haunt the region in search of blood to keep on living.
After this is explained, a cop appears to tell the professor that his son, Pedro (Jose Thelman, credited as Joseph Thelman) has become a suspect in Virginia’s death. He leads a group of smugglers in the area, and the cop’s suspect that stunts like Virginia’s murder are performed to scare people away. Our couple seeks Pedro out, and determine that odious human being though he might be, he isn’t a killer. They convince him and his girlfriend, Maria (Maria Silva), to join them on an expedition to see what really happens at Berzano at night. That night, Virginia’s body rises from the slab, kills the morgue attendant, and then heads over to Bette’s factory (which happens to be right next door to the morgue) to stalk Nina. Meanwhile, our little expedition is on hand to witness the Templers rise from their graves…
The Review: Tombs of the Blind Dead was among my very first real introductions to the eurohorror of the 1970s. I had read about it online, and was eager to see it for myself. I will admit that at my first view, I really wasn’t sure what I thought of it. By that time I had seen plenty of American style horror movies, and this was something very different. While a bit more streamlined and coherent than its brethren, Tombs still tends to work more on style and atmosphere than it does on plot or characters. That can turn viewers of the more conventional, Hollywood-style movies off; and judging by his reaction I know it has at least one friend I loaned my copy to.
First of all, if you’re used to the near constant adrenalin fueled jump-scares Hollywood uses in all its recent movies, then Tombs is going to feel really slow for you. It creeps along and builds up to its few big scares. Also, while there is blood, there is none of the elaborate gore most people associate with horror these days.
Likewise, the plot, as in so many films of this subgenre, tends to be full of holes you could drive a semi through. Getting the characters over to Berzano often takes having them act in blatantly stupid ways. Okay, the first time around Virginia is definitely upset, and strong emotion prompts everyone to do really stupid things sometimes. When Betty and Roger arrive for the first time they have legitimate reason; they’re worried about Virginia, they feel guilty about their part in her turmoil, and as of yet they have no real reason to suspect there’s anything wrong out there. However, the final trip out to the Berzano for the movie’s climax, really? Your friend died in a truly horrible way, so that even if you don’t actually believe the stories about the undead Templers, you know for sure that something awful has happened there; and you’re still going out there at night without any real backup or telling anybody where you’ve gone? And to top it off, you’re doing it with a man you’ve just met, but who you know is a criminal.
That last part leads to the movie’s most tasteless and objectionable scene. In short, Pedro talks Betty into taking a walk with him, and then comes on to her. When she tells him she’s a lesbian, he rapes her. Firstly there’s just the horrible crassness of the setup; I’m firmly of the opinion that if the only way you can think of to show some bare boobs in your movie is to shoehorn in a rape scene, you really have a problem. However, on top of that I’ve seen several of Amondo de Ossorio’s movies, and this is not the only one of them that features the theme of lesbians being raped by men. Obviously, the guy had some major issues. Fortunately, it’s a very small part of the movie.
The final major plot issue in Tombs that I’d like to address is Virginia’s resurrection. Based on the back-story we’re given, it really doesn’t make much sense. Also, it only comes up in Virginia’s case, and is never addressed again. I’ve read some other web reviews that have summed up the issue by addressing it from the Templers’ point of view: “So, I spent all this time and effort learning the secrets of immortality, and lost my sight in the process, and now everybody I bite is equally immortal? What a rip-off!”
Where Tombs of the Blind Dead does work, however, is in the horror scenes themselves. Despite all its flaws, Tombs ultimately works, like the majority of the best eurohorror, as the triumph of style over substance. The ruined castle used for Berzano, for example is a great place to start. Europe is full of abandoned castles, and as such European directors, particularly low budget ones, have often utilized them as set pieces. As I believe I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the atmosphere of these places is such that even the most incompetent of moviemakers seem unable to completely take away from them. However, Ossorio displays a talent for aptly employing the inherent creepiness of the ruins. The camera shots of Berzano convey to the viewers that this is, indeed, a very bad place for mere mortals.
Likewise, the soundtrack is amazingly effective. The background theme is a deceptively simple Gregorian chant, played at an unsettling tone, and interspaced with screams. Along with that are Ossorio’s use of sound effects throughout; the doleful tolling of the unseen bell that announces the Templers’ rise from their graves, the clack of the train on the tracks, to name but two examples.
The scene where Virginia stalks Nina at the mannequin factory, while problematic plot-wise, is extremely effective in and of itself. First of all, early on Betty’s factory is established as an unsettling place. First of all, there’s just something unsettling about mannequins and their resemblance to living people (or dismembered body parts as the case may be); and Ossorio takes full advantage of that. On top of it, the lighting is established to be screwy; early on Betty explains to Roger that on the floor above is a place that makes and tests neon signs. The actual stalking sequence is very well done, and combined with the unsettling location it produces a scene straight out of a nightmare.
But the most effective element of the movie is the blind Templers themselves. First of all they just look nightmarish; they’re basically rotting skeletons, with just enough skin to retain the remains of facial hair, dressed in rotting chainmail and moldering cloaks. The way they move is also disturbing; a slow, shuffling gait, but one with a definite intelligent menace. On top of that is their obvious blindness; and how any noise, even the smallest, causes them to descend upon the source with a determined and obvious purpose. Even the scenes where they’re riding horseback, though shot in slow motion, come across as disturbingly majestic.
And the Templers don’t just look terrifying, either. Watching them in action, it’s clear just how outmatched the human characters are. Even their most glaring weakness, their blindness, is shown to not be a major hurdle for them. After all, what good is being still and quiet when they can still hear the beating of your terror-stricken heart? And the climax and denouement, where this horror that’s been festering in an out of the way location for so long is inadvertently brought back to civilization; it’s something that really sticks in your mind.
So in conclusion, Tombs of the Blind Dead is nothing like the Hollywood horror films you’re probably used to. Also, it does have its flaws. However, overall, there is a reason many people consider it a classic of the genre.
Monday, August 26, 2013
The Movie: In a town in the Old West, there is some strange sickness going around that has already killed several girls. Dr. John Carter (John Hoyt) has been doing his best to save the victims, but thus far to no avail. However, Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming) has spent the night praying over her, and it looks like that’s done the trick. Then again, the family seems to have celebrated too soon. As soon as everyone leaves the room, the girl screams, and everyone runs back in to find her dead. Dan notices the window open and the window shade flapping. When he kneels down to pray over her body, he also notices two small, bleeding puncture wounds in her throat.
Dan and Dr. Carter head back to Doc Carter’s home and two children; Tim (Jimmy Murphy) and Dolores (Kathleen Crowley), who we later find out is also Dan’s girlfriend. There they have to deal with the latest results of Doc Carter’s other major problem. The Doc’s ranch is next door to a wealthy man named Buffer (Bruce Gordon). Buffer, entrepreneuring capitalist that he is, wants Doc Carter’s land and has been harassing him and his family in various ways to drive them off it. It doesn’t help matters that Tim is a hot-headed teenager who feels he has something to prove. Doc heads back into town to discuss it with the local Sheriff (Edward Binns), but the Sheriff isn’t able to do much. Worse, as Doc is riding home a black-clad figure attacks him, bites his throat and drinks his blood.
When the buckboard arrives home with their father’s corpse, Tim and Dolores are beside themselves with grief. Convinced Buffer did it; Tim gets drunk and goes to the local bar to confront him. The Sheriff tries to intervene, and Buffer even tries to walk away, but nothing will stand in the way of the hot-headed youth. When Tim pulls his pistol on Buffer, Buffer shoots him down. Dolores is now doubly upset; and despite Dan and the Sheriff’s attempts to talk her down, reacts to this latest outrage by putting up posters offering “$100 for the death of a murderer”. A mysterious, black-clad gunslinger takes an interest in the posters.
Buffer finds out how much trouble he’s in when he runs into said gunslinger, one Drake Robey (Michael Pate), at the saloon. Robey tells Buffer, very confidently, that he will kill him if he takes the job. When one of Buffer’s goons pulls his gun on Robey, Robey casually shoots it out of his hand even though the goon shot first. The goon protests to Buffer that he shot Robey dead center, but Buffer doesn’t believe it. After all, no man could survive a gunshot that close, and Robey was obviously very much still alive.
Dan and the Sheriff both try to convince Dolores that Robey is bad news and she should get rid of him. However, Dan discovers that Robey’s an even bigger problem while going through Doc Carter’s papers for her. He finds the journal of the man who sold the land to Carter; one Don Miguel Robles (Edward Colmans). Don Robles writes about how his son, Drago, came back from a long business trip to Madrid to find that his new bride, Isabella (Jeanna Cross) had taken up an affair with his brother, Roberto. In a fit of rage Drago killed Roberto; but was overcome with guilt and eventually wound up committing suicide on his brother’s grave. Soon after, many of the local girls, including Isabella, became afflicted by a strange ailment. Hearing Isabella’s scream one night, Don Robles rushed to her room and found her dead. Standing over her was an evil fiend who had once been Drago. Don Robles tried to put Drago to rest once and for all, but just wound up driving him into hiding.
Now Dan knows that he’s got a vampire on his hands, but Dolores refuses to believe him. More and more she’s falling under Robey’s influence, and growing weaker as he feeds on her. Worse, Robey is well aware that Dan is on to him. But how can Dan defeat a monster who shrugs off bullets?
The Review: I first watched Curse of the Undead in college, when I found it among the movies at the local town library. I looked to rewatch it ever since, but unfortunately it never seems to have been released on DVD. Now, about a year ago I discovered a website called Trash Palace that does DVD-R transfers of rare, hard to find and out of print movies. My first purchases were a pair of obscure French movies I’d been seeking for a long time. Admittedly, they weren’t quite what I was after; what Trash Palace had were the American releases, which meant English dubbing instead of French with subtitles. However, overall they did a good job, and I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something and haven’t been able to find it through the more mainstream sources. Anyway, a few weeks back I was looking through their catalogue; and imagine my surprise and delight when I found that this little gem was being offered.
Curse of the Undead is a movie that employs two familiar sets of tropes; western and gothic horror. However, it is not afraid to play with those tropes and do something different with them. For example, on the horror side, the vampire himself is a far cry from the example set by Bela Lugosi. Now, for those of you who don’t know who Bela Lugosi was (and shame on you if that’s the case), he played Dracula in the 1930s Universal Pictures movie of that name, and pretty much established the public image of the vampire. The long capes, the goofy accents, mirrors, death by daylight, coffins, turning into a bat or a wolf, all of it goes back to Lugosi. Now, I’m aware that these days we’re seeing a new generation who hears “vampire” and thinks sparkly, centuries old cradle robbers and majorly unhealthy relationships that are somehow supposed to be romantic. However, for the sake of this review I’m going to pretend that we live in a better world that was never submitted to Stephanie Meyer’s vision of the genre.
Anyway, Drake Robey is far more akin to the vampires of traditional European folklore than he is to Dracula. For example, his condition comes from his committing suicide, and there’s no indication that he can spread it to anyone else. There have been many cultures, particularly in Catholic Europe, who believed that suicide was such a horrible sin that those who committed it would return to plague the living. In fact, people were burying suicides at crossroads as late as the 19th century to keep them from coming back. Robey’s evil is linked entirely to that unforgivable sin he committed. There are even some indications that he doesn’t like his condition and isn’t truly evil by nature. However, that one act has driven him beyond the pale.
As for lesser tropes, daylight doesn’t seem to be a huge issue for Robey. He’s obviously much stronger at night, and tends to stick to the shadows, but he can walk around at high noon just fine. He does seem to need some coffin time, every so often he holes up in Doc Carter’s coffin, but it only appears to be every once in a while. The cross does have an effect on Robey, but that is tied to the body of folklore he comes out of. Finally, he can be destroyed by a wooden stake through the heart, but that isn’t how it’s eventually done.
I find the character of Dan equally interesting. He is decent, honest, brave and upright; but what else would you expect of a western hero from this era? He’s also devout, but somehow I don’t find any of that as cloying or unrealistic as I otherwise might. Somehow, the scene of him making out with his girlfriend established him as human for me. Likewise, he does have his doubts. In all, I found him a likable character and was cheering him on.
From the horror end, I found one trope that the movie diverged from interesting. In these vampire stories you usually have two particular types among the heroes. One is a Van Helsing type; usually an older man who knows all about vampire lore and who spurs the rest of the heroes on to fight the monster. The other is the dashing young hero who stands at the front, usually the true love of the heroine the vampire has designs on. Dan fits into both categories. On the one hand, he’s the one who first notices the signs and puts all the pieces together to figure out he’s up against a vampire. On the other, he’s also the one who carries the fight to Robey. And, I might add, it’s also his girlfriend who Dan is fighting for.
That’s it for the horror tropes. The western ones are just as interesting. For one, everybody seems determined to try and stay on the right side of the law. Dan never decides that his fight with Robey supersedes the law, and he’s one of the two major individuals trying to talk Dolores down from taking revenge on Buffer. Buffer himself visibly makes an effort to stay on the right side of the sheriff, and he only shoots Time when the boy pulls his gun. Even Robey provokes Buffer into drawing before he shoots, so that he can then legally claim self defense. In fact, only Tim, the hotheaded teenager, and ostensibly one of the good guys, lives by the philosophy of shoot first and shoot often that we tend to associate with western settings.
Curse of the Undead may move kind of slow for the adrenalin junkies of this generation, but I think it does a good job of building up its plot and establishing its characters. There are a few effective scenes; my favorite being an incredibly creepy one where Robey stalks Dan through the town streets at night. And finally, when Dan defeats Robey at the end, it’s in a way that I, for one, think is rather ingenious; and yet it flows organically from both genres.
In conclusion, I think that Curse of the Undead is a fun, well done little movie that shakes up the tropes of both genres that it covers. I, personally, think that it’s a mortal sin that it’s so hard to get a hold of. If you like westerns, horror, or just clever takes on familiar tropes, this one’s worth a watch if you can find it.
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
The Movie: Shrek (voice of Mike Meyers, the star of Austin Powers and Wayne’s World), is an ogre who lives all alone in his swamp. This is how he prefers it; and his only real contact with the outside world is to scare off the occasional band of torch-wielding villagers who decide to come after him. Unfortunately for Shrek, his simple life is about to be upended. Lord Farquaad (the venerable and prolific John Lithgow), the local ruler, probably has the worst case of short man syndrome you could ever encounter. He is determined to be the Perfect King of the Perfect Kingdom; and the various fairy-tale entities who inhabit it have no place in the perfect world he envisions. As such, he’s been busy rounding them up for banishment; and Shrek’s swamp is where all the exiles wind up. To Shrek’s dismay, his neighborhood suddenly becomes awfully crowded.
Angrily, Shrek sets out to confront Lord Farquaad and demand his swamp back; accompanied by an annoying talking donkey (Eddie Murphy, last seen here in Bowfinger) who offers to show him the way. Fortunately, when Shrek arrives at Duloc, Farquaad’s kingdom, the tiny tyrant is in a mood to bargain. Having been told by a magic mirror that he isn’t technically a king, and that to become one he needs to marry a princess, Farquaad has fixated on the lovely Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz, last seen here in the Mask). The one catch is that Fiona is currently locked in the tallest tower of a ruined castle, which is surrounded by a moat of lava and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. If Shrek agrees to rescue Princess Fiona and bring her back to marry Farquaad, then Farquaad promises to return Shrek’s swamp to him, with all the squatters packed off elsewhere. Not really having a choice, Shrek and Donkey set out to rescue the princess.
However, it turns out that getting Fiona away from the dragon, difficult and nerve-wracking as the incident is, is just the easiest part of the adventure. Fiona is nothing like Shrek has expected a princess to be, and against his will he finds himself taking to her. Fiona, meanwhile, while initially disappointed that her rescuer wasn’t Prince Charming, finds herself warming up to the ogre. You see, unknown to Shrek, Donkey, and Farquaad, Fiona has a major secret. It’s why she was locked in the tower in the first place, and it’s definitely going to have a major impact on how things turn out…
Shrek: “Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?”
Fiona: “Well, yes, actually. Oh... this is wrong. This is all wrong! It's not supposed to be an ogre!”
I was in the mood for something different. Ever since I first saw Shrek in the theatre, it’s been one of my all-time favorite movies. In fact, I saw it in the theatre probably at least three times; something of a record for me. Admittedly, this movie has suffered a lot over the years due to Disney’s attempts to wring as much cash out of it as possible; repetition, over exposure, and three unneeded and increasingly inferior sequels. But if you can put all that aside, the original Shrek is extremely clever, well made, funny; something that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.
Probably the aspect of this movie that caught and held me from the beginning was the message. Shrek is a message movie; but unlike most message movies it doesn’t attempt the bludgeon its audience with said message sledgehammer-style. Instead, the message is woven intrinsically into the script, the plot, and the characters’ motivations. Said message is one that we all need reminded of on a fairly regular basis: life never turns out the way it’s “supposed” to, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The setting of the movie, a world where all the fairy-tale characters we’ve known from childhood live, is perfect for showcasing this message. After all, thanks to Walt Disney fairy tales as we know them are extremely codified and formulized. I’m sure that the moment you read “fairy tale”, a very specific set of tropes immediately came to your mind: beautiful princess in danger, handsome prince to the rescue, monster, true love, marriage, happily ever after. If you grew up watching Disney movies (and let’s be honest here, who of us hasn’t?), these tropes immediately come to us without any conscious thought, because they’re what we’re conditioned to expect.
The genius of Shrek is that it presents us with these tropes, priming our expectations, and then turns them on their heads. Pay attention; all throughout the movie, whenever a character expresses how something is “supposed” to happen, we see it come about in a very different fashion. However, ultimately the outcome is all the better for it.
Lord Farquaad is probably our best example of this. He is a control freak who is determined to create the Perfect World; and he has a very specific picture of how such a perfect world looks. Everything in his kingdom is very carefully scripted. Whatever doesn’t fit the script is quickly disposed of.
However, as is always the case, perfection is beyond Farquaad because he, himself, is imperfect. Farquaad doesn’t fit his own script at all. The script calls for a king who is tall, handsome, dashing, brave and noble. The reality is a short, insecure, weaselly coward. When Shrek first lays eyes on Farquaad’s castle, his observation is “do you think he’s compensating for something?” And that, in a nutshell, sums up Lord Farquaad. A truly great man lets his actions speak for themselves and accepts the respect that is given; he doesn’t demand and script it. Farquaad wants to be seen as brave, wants to be seen as the man who makes the hard decisions, wants all the reward and glory that would come with rescuing and marrying Fiona; but he wants somebody else to make the sacrifices and take the risks it entails. When Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc, Farquaad is holding a tournament to pick a suitable champion to rescue Fiona. “Some of you may die,” he tells the aspiring champions, “but that is a risk I am willing to take.” Personally, that line always brings to mind a certain former president when he was trying to drum up support for a disastrous and unnecessary war; one waged for very similar reasons.
Fiona’s motives are, ironically, very similar to Farquaad’s; she is trying to compensate for a perceived imperfection in her life. When we start to get to know Fiona, it quickly becomes obvious that she’s anything but helpless. She’s more than capable of taking matters into her own hands when it’s needed. When the princesses takes on a whole pack of forest bandits single handedly, and beats the living snot out of them without taking a scratch; it’s clear that she has no problems defending herself. In short, Fiona never needed “rescuing” at all; she would have left that tower a long time ago if she wanted to. She was there entirely because she felt she had to be.
After a little over a decade (has it really been that long? Yep, feeling old.), and plenty of media overexposure; I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point to reveal Fiona’s curse: she turns into an ogre at night, and will continue to do so until “True Love’s first kiss” will lock her into the form she’s supposed to take. Now, Fiona has been raised with some definite ideas of what a princess is supposed to be. As she tells Donkey when he finds out about her curse; “princesses and ugly don’t belong together.” She’s got everything about her rescue and the removal of her curse planned out to the smallest detail; so of course, none of it goes as expected. However, you have to admit she’s much better off with the outcome she gets than she would have been with the outcome she was expecting.
Shrek’s motivations are the exact opposite. Beaten down by society at large, he’s long given up on any kind of perfection. All Shrek wants is a place of his own where he can be alone and avoid all the abuse that others direct his way. However, despite his social problems and the expectations of others, he’s not a monster. The scene with the lynch mob at the beginning shows that. Lynch mobs are obviously not an uncommon thing for Shrek, the resigned little eye roll he gives upon noticing this latest mob makes that very clear. However, while he very observably has the villagers outgunned, he settles for scaring them off instead of actually hurting them. Unfortunately, a lifetime of derision has made Shrek feel on some level that he isn’t worthy of any kind of positive feeling. This makes him insecure, and all too ready to believe the worst.
That brings us to Donkey, who, while at times seeming like odious comedy relief, is actually a very important character who is absolutely necessary for Shrek and Fiona’s Happily Ever After. Donkey is actually an archetypal character. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an archetype is a concept; a principal, ideal or fear presented in the form of an individual. Donkey embodies one of the fairly universal archetypes; that of the Fool.
In brief, the Fool notices what everyone else misses, which is the source of his power; but is oblivious to what’s blatantly obvious to everybody else, which is why everybody considers him a fool. He succeeds by approaching the problem from a direction that never would have occurred to anyone else. Longtime readers and anybody who knows me in person can probably guess why I so identify with the Fool.
Anyway, Donkey approaches everything ass-backwards (pun not intended); but since he lives in an ass-backwards world, this in absolutely necessary. His obliviousness to social expectations can make him extremely irritating; but it also means he’s not blinded by them, either. He’s willing to try things other people aren’t, and this brings about some unexpected, but needed, outcomes. For example, he is obviously the first individual to extend the hand (or hoof, in this case) of friendship to Shrek. Shrek initially finds Donkey obnoxious, but even more so Donkey confuses him. For some reason, Donkey doesn’t seem to notice or care about the fact that Shrek’s an ogre, and Shrek obviously doesn’t know how to handle it. Fear and hatred Shrek is used to, but genuine friendship and positive regard is an alien experience for him. Something similar happens, for the same reasons, when Donkey meets the dragon guarding Fiona. However, being that the dragon turns out to be female, she reacts by falling for him. While this does produce some extra unexpected consequences in the short term; in the long term it provides the heroes with a needed ally for the climactic showdown with Farquaad.
Likewise, Donkey’s inability to be blinded by social expectations means he’s usually aware of what’s really going on, even when everyone else isn’t. And, it also means that he’s the one who always says what needs to be said, even (especially) when it’s not the “appropriate” thing to say. In short, Donkey is the one who lights a fire under Shrek’s ass when he lets his insecurities get the best of him, and who always ensures that Shrek goes in the direction he needs to go.
The animation in Shrek is marvelous; and ultimately you get the sense throughout of a genuine, living, breathing world of which the characters are but a part. While there are, admittedly, some pretty awful lines, there are a lot more great ones and exchanges of dialogue. Finally, there is a truly witty sense of humor throughout; both for children and adults. Along with this, Shrek has this really dark, nasty edge just below the surface at times. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Most notable, though it took me a while to add it all up, are the presentation of the Three Bears among the exiled fairy-tale creatures. When we first see them, they are all three locked in cages. Later, we just see Father and Baby Bear in Shrek’s swamp. Finally, when the camera pans across Lord Farquaad’s bedchamber, if you look you’ll notice that his bearskin rug has Mama’s bow. Disturbing stuff, and I have to wonder how younger kids who’ve noticed this have reacted.
In the end, Shrek is a true classic of a movie. Unfortunately, this has been overshadowed by the sequels. Shrek never needed a sequel; it’s perfect as a self-contained story on its own. Unfortunately, artistic in integrity (or any integrity, really) has rarely been able to truly get in the way of somebody making obscene amounts of money. Worst of all, to my mind, is that the first sequel comes very close in the first two-thirds of the movie to overcoming that. However, that’s a discussion for another review.
Friday, June 28, 2013
The Movie: Martine (Isabelle Goguey), after months of unemployment, goes to start the job her fiancé got her: a caretaker position at Deadlock House, a nursing home. She arrives a day early, and for some reason that seems to be a major problem. The stern director, Helene (Betty Beckers), initially claims that they don’t have the facilities for her yet; but she’s able to throw something together rather quickly. Even more surprised is Nicole (Charlotte de Turckheim), the woman who currently holds Martine’s position. Nicole’s not happy about Martine, because, despite Helen’s attempts to explain that she’s there to assist Nicole, Nicole’s convinced Martine’s her replacement.
Still, in spite of the rough start, Martine and Nicole wind up getting along and Martine starts learning the ropes of her new job. She has her work cut out for her, because there are all sorts or weird rules and restrictions: the new employee is not allowed to leave the grounds for the first two months, for one; or the fact that all the inmates are vegetarian, and the staff is expected to follow suit. And speaking of the inmates, they generally seem more suited for an insane asylum than a nursing home.
It turns out that Nicole was more right than she knew about Martine being her replacement. That night, while Martine is on a date with her fiancé (Helen declares that since Martine doesn’t officially start work until the next day, she’s not yet subject to the not leaving the institution rule), the inmates gather in a solemn processional and meet with the creepy, limping groundskeeper, Flavien (Michel Flavius). The procession troops into Nicole’s room, where they grab her from her bed and drag her to a secret basement under the kitchen. There, they lay her across a slab, slit her throat, and cut open her nubile chest and belly. Then Helene, Flavien, and the inmates reach in, pull out organs, and have a ghoulish feast.
When Martine discovers that Nicole has disappeared the next morning, Helene tells her that Nicole threw a fit about her being hired to the point of being unbearable, and was subsequently dismissed. The story doesn’t ring true with Martine, however; as it doesn’t jibe with the extremely friendly and conciliatory note Nicole left her. Martine discovers more clues that Nicole’s disappearance wasn’t as Helene would have her believe. Her life becomes a major balancing act between trying to figure out what’s really happening at Deadlock House on one hand, and coping with its inhabitants’ increasingly disturbing behavior on the other. And meanwhile, time ticks by; two months pass rather quickly, and said inhabitants all eagerly look forward to the coming of the 28th…
The Review: By this time, while it’s probably stereotyping, I’ve come to expect a certain pattern for end of the ‘70s European horror films: Style and mood over a coherent storyline. Copious nudity. Killings that tend to be more dramatically shocking or mean-spirited than graphically gory. Weirdness for weirdness’ sake. I was expecting all this with Night of Death, but it’s not what I got. Not that I’m complaining, I was just a little surprised.
Exploitation-wise there was gore, and one or two scenes of it were more graphic than expected. However, it still wasn’t gratuitous; used only when it was needed. Likewise, there wasn’t all that much nudity (I will admit to being a little disappointed about that); and what there was served the plot. As for the plot itself, it was extremely straightforward and coherent. There were some definite moments of weirdness, mood and style; but the plot took precedent.
The core of the plot is revealed very quickly; Helene, Flavien and the inmates of Deadlock House are all members of a cannibal cult, and the need for caretakers and ridiculous rules are a ruse to get a prospective meal in and then fatten her up before they eat her. However, there are a few genuine twists. What’s more, they’re very well woven into the main plot. None of them feel like the scriptwriter just pulled them out of his ass when he felt he needed a certain outcome; there is always a significant build-up and legitimate hint beforehand. Even the inevitable kicker ending doesn’t come out of nowhere; there are hints about it almost to the very beginning. They’re just presented as side-notes and throwaway details, however, so it’s possible to miss the significance of them until you think back on the movie once the end credits start to roll.
But what really got me were the heroine and her situation. Her situation struck a chord with me because it was all too familiar; this is my job. Admittedly, I deal with individuals with disabilities instead of geriatrics, and I babysit them at their jobs instead of taking care of them at home. Still, there are more than a few similarities. Ultimately both are the same field, taking care of people who, for whatever reason, are unable to take care of themselves. Also, I’ve had some experience at nursing homes in my life; and the inmates of Deadlock House are far more my clients than they are those of nursing home staff.
Here’s the main thing about working in healthcare, particularly this specific corner of it: it could drive a saint to commit murder. I’m not exaggerating. Healthcare has one of the highest turnover rates, largely due to stress and burnout. I’ve known no end to coworkers who’ve left because they couldn’t take it anymore. Martine’s experiences working at Deadlock House (not counting the cannibalism) resonate with my own work experiences far more than any other movie I’ve seen.
The first major issue lies in dealing with the clients (that’s what we officially call our charges at my job). The first thing to remember is that these are individuals who are even more blatantly dysfunctional than your average human being; otherwise they wouldn’t need the care in the first place. This can make even seemingly everyday interactions infinitely more complex. Now, lest readers think I’m being too harsh, let me point out that I have a lot of experience in this from both ends. On the one hand I have been gifted with Asperger's, A.D.D., mild Tourette’s, cancer, and various other conditions that the gods, in their infinite sadism, decided I was worthy to have bestowed upon me. I’m very high functioning, but I understand intimately the need for accommodation and being unable to comprehend “proper” social interactions.
On the other hand; no matter what your problems, there is a limit as to how much of your actions you can blame on your handicaps. No matter how much of the short end of the stick you got, at a certain point it all comes down to your choices and actions. One thing never fails to amaze me is my society’s tendency toward overcompensation. I concur that we have treated those with disabilities horribly in the past; and that they are human beings fully deserving of the dignity that comes with that. Hell, I firmly believe that just being human automatically entitles you to handicaps and disabilities; some are just more obvious or socially acceptable than others. However, people have a habit of forgetting that it is entirely possible to have a disability, and still be an asshole.
One of my best and dearest friends, who has worked in this field far longer than I have, comments on one incident early in our relationship where I was appalled about how she was venting about a client, even saying “that’s a horrible thing to say about your clients.” She points out that ever since I started this job, she’s never heard me say anything like that again. I’ve had my own experiences with that; once my brother told me, shocked, “Nathan, that’s a horrible thing to say about retarded people!” However, whenever I’ve expressed those exact same sentiments to individuals who’ve actually worked in the field, the response I’ve always gotten was some variant of “yep, welcome to the club.”
So to repeat, I know Martine’s charges all too well. And I find the way the movie depicts them extremely believable. At first they just seem amusing. For example, one of the patients (as per usual I can’t recall his name) is always knitting a red something or other. When Martine asks, he explains that he is “knitting Revolution.” Later in the movie, when he has been punished by the cult for misbehavior, Martine finds him knitting in black instead. When she asks, he responds that “the Revolution is in mourning.”
However, as the movie goes on their behavior toward Martine gets more and more inappropriate. For example, blatantly looking in her window while she undresses. One patient in particular exemplifies this; Mr. Leon (Jean Ludow), an old man who’s usually in a wheelchair even though he can walk perfectly, and who’s always playing with a variety of toys and magic tricks. He revels in using them to be obnoxious. At first he’s amusing, but very quickly it’s obvious that Leon is a major asshole. And it should also be noted that while Martine shows a patience throughout the movie that would shame most saints, by the end she’s getting very fed up with all the crap.
It’s extremely difficult already figuring out the line between where to accommodate for disabilities and where to hold someone accountable for their actions. It’s so much more so when the line is drawn for you. Watching Nichole deal with her charges, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. She tells them exactly what needs to be said, and doesn’t sugar coat it. She even slaps Leon at one point when he crosses a line. I’d get in so much trouble for doing that, and I’ve had clients who need far more than a slap.
The second major issue is dealing with the bureaucracy of the job. One of the most notable things I’ve obtained in the last 5+ years is a deep and utter loathing for the word “professional” and all its derivatives. From the context it always seems to be used in in contemporary society, my definition for professional is “appearance for appearance’s sake, whatever the cost.” I’m sure plenty will argue that, but I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary. I understand the need for some focus on appearances, considering that we are taking care of vulnerable members of society, but at a certain point it just becomes ridiculous. Except for the fact that this was in the context of a horror movie, I really didn’t see anything suspicious of the rules Martine is expected to follow. Considering all the ludicrous expectations I’ve had to deal with in the name of “professionalism”, not to mention all the ones women have had to deal with throughout history due to their gender, it just seemed like business as usual. The only real difference is that professionalism is usually implemented in spite of potential harms; in this case it’s used to hide them.
Something that surprised me halfway through the movie was when I realized that I was actively hoping for Martine to survive. Now, partly, as I lay it out above, I identified with her situation. I will also admit that I was in love from the moment that I saw she was a French-speaking redhead. However, there was a bit more to it. Through her actions, Martine reveals herself to be a genuinely nice and good-natured person, who’s only mistake is winding up in a nasty situation. Following that, watching how she handled the situation further endeared her to me. Martine behaves in a truly competent manner; and even when she’s caught (which she is several times), she coolly provides a rational excuse for what she is doing. She only truly freaks out once, and it’s a situation that I’m sure would cause any of us to freak out. Even then, she is able to do what needs to be done.
Finally, I would just like to add that Night of Death has a few truly scary and beautiful set-pieces. The stand-out for me is the scenes where the inmates gather for their ghoulish feasts. They walk out into the hall in a column, all dressed up, moving quietly by implacably while an eerie song plays on the soundtrack.
So in conclusion, Night of Death is a decent and enjoyable little horror movie. Well made, eerie and atmospheric, but with a definite plot, it’s worth watching. I just wish that certain elements of it didn’t feel so familiar; but I have personal issue to blame for that more than the movie.
Friday, May 31, 2013
Evil Dead: Ash (the famous Bruce Campbell, in the movie that made his name as a cult actor) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker); along with their friends Scotty (Hal Delrich) and Shelly (Sarah York), and Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Ash’s sister, have rented an isolated cabin in the mountains for the weekend. However, there’s something kind of spooky about the place when they arrive. What’s more, there are all sorts of hints that dark force lurks about the area. Unfortunately, Cheryl is the only one who notices these first hints; partly, it’s suggested, because she’s a New Ager and therefore open to these kinds of things; but I suspect that it’s largely due to the fact that she’s officially the fifth wheel, and therefore doesn’t have anything to distract her. In any case, the others don’t put any stock in Cheryl’s concerns; they’re way too focused on their weekend and their significant others.
Of course, Cheryl’s fears are anything but unjustified. That night the boys go into the basement and discover some things left behind by a previous tenant. The two fateful items for our campers are a really disturbing book, and a tape recorder. The kids play the tape, which it turns out was made by an academic translating the book. He identifies it as the Naturon Demonto, the Sumerian Book of the Dead, and says that it includes passages that allow the evil spirits lurking just outside our world to come in and possess the living. Then he proceeds to read the translated passages.
Naturally, this spells the end for our heroes. The tape finishes awakening whatever evil force that academic called to the area, and the campers are possessed and killed one by one. Will any of them be able to survive?
Dead by Dawn: Ash (still Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend, Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler), go on a getaway together to an isolated cabin in the woods; where it would appear that the rightful owner is not using it. Unfortunately, said rightful owner, Professor Raymond Knowby (John Peakes), was working on the translations to a rediscovered copy of the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead. When Ash stumbles across the good professor’s copy and plays the tape of his translations, it has the exact same effect as in the first movie. The dark force called up by the book snatches Linda, and then comes back possessing her body to torment Ash. And it’s not just Linda Ash has to deal with, either; the evil power has all sorts of weapons at its disposal from possessed trees to Ash’s right hand developing a mind of its own.
Ash has one tiny sliver of hope, though he doesn’t know it. Professor Knowby’s daughter, Annie (Sarah Berry), is headed back to the cabin with some missing pages from the book. Said pages have what is needed to put the evil back down. Unfortunately, there are the inevitable complications. When Annie arrives to find a bloody stranger in her cabin and her parents missing, you know she’ll draw the wrong conclusions. The stupid redneck couple who she hires to guide her through the woods is going to make things even more difficult. And that’s nothing compared to what her father buried in the cellar…
Compare and Contrast:
Ladies, gentlemen, hermaphrodites, asexuals, and everyone else; I am pleased to announce that this blog has now been up and running for a full three years! Unfortunately, with that landmark comes some very bad news; the tumor in my hand is back yet again. As of this writing I have no clue what’s going to happen; I’m just praying it doesn’t involve any further surgery or loss of body parts. Naturally, I’m doing everything I can to cope with the situation; among other things digging out all my old tumor-coping movies. Among the ones at the very top of that list is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.
The aspect of the movie that puts it in that spot is one particular scene. In that scene, the Evil possesses Ash’s right hand, which then proceeds to beat the living snot out of the rest of him. Finding himself completely unable to control the hand, Ash attempts stabbing it, cutting it off with a chainsaw (and then later replacing it with said chainsaw), trapping it under a garbage can and some books (the top book very prominently titled A Farewell to Arms); and then when all that fails and it busts free, trying to shoot it with a shotgun. All throughout the rest of the movie, whenever the characters are in the middle of dealing with something particularly nasty, Ash’s severed hand has a tendency to step in and make an already unpleasant situation even worse. Considering that my problem centers entirely around my own right hand, for all intents and purposes, developing a mind of its own and going out of its way to hurt me, not to mention my tendency to use tasteless humor as a coping mechanism for my problems, you can probably draw your own conclusions as to why I revisit that scene to face my medical issues.
At roughly the same time, a remake to the original Evil Dead has come out as well. I have yet to see said remake, although I fully intend to. However, the timing (which, unless you count the presence of perverse gods, is purely coincidental) got me thinking that I should probably write something on the original while I was at it. After all, Evil Dead was remade once before. Despite its title Evil Dead 2 isn’t a sequel, it’s a remake.
It’s a fascinating experience watching the two movies back to back. They have the same director, most of the same crew, and even the same lead actor playing Ash both times. In both movies Ash has a girlfriend named Linda, although she is played by different actresses. There’s the same basic setup, the same core plot, the exact same major props, and I’m pretty sure that’s the exact same cabin in both movies. And yet, despite all that is recycled into the second Evil Dead movie from the first, we have two very different movies here.
The first Evil Dead is very much a straight horror movie, and an amateur work. There’s really not anything deep or complex about it at all; I’d even say that it’s elegant in its simplicity. Evil Dead is your typical spam in a cabin setup; a small group of young people goes somewhere isolated and gets slaughtered by the evil lurking there. Our heroes are presented in the broadest of strokes: Ash is the hero, Scotty is the asshole, Linda and Shelly are the girlfriends, and Cheryl is the spooky, New Age chick and Ash’s sister. They make a lot of the mistakes we’ve all come to expect from characters in horror movies. It’s also obvious that this is a very low budget film.
And yet, in many ways these elements work to the movie’s advantage. Old tropes become old tropes in the first place because they work when you know how to use them. Raimi shows that even this early in his career, he was very adept at employing the ages old horror clichés to their most effective. He plays with your expectations; giving you an expected build up, but holding off just long enough on the payoff that you start to wonder if it actually will play out like you anticipate.
Something that continually fascinates me about Evil Dead, and Evil Dead 2 for that matter, is the nature of the Evil itself. Possession horror itself isn’t unusual, I’ve reviewed at least three or four movies centering around the theme on this blog thus far. What gets me is how the Evil seems to infuse everything; the woods, the cabin and its possessions, eventually it gets to the point where the possession of the human characters is just an afterthought. Once called up this dark force subsumes the landscape itself, and it is only then that it starts to possess its human victims. Probably the part that gets me the most is when Linda is possessed. For the most part she doesn’t actually attack; she just laughs this repulsive giggle and mocks Ash while he struggles, complacent that he will eventually fall.
While it does happen that a low budget hamstrings a perspective movie from the beginning, this isn’t always the case. One of the things I love the most about low budget cinema is the occasional director I come across who doesn’t let his financial limitations stymie him, but instead lets it influence him to be far more creative and innovative than he would have been if everything he needed had just been handed to him. Raimi does this all throughout Evil Dead, using what’s at hand however he is able. The most notable use of this is the p.o.v. shots representing the Evil. We never see the Evil itself, but it is constantly represented by these p.o.v. camera shots moving through the forest at heights and angles that couldn’t be reached by a human. For the last one he reportedly tied the camera to the handlebars of his motorcycle and drove it straight at Bruce Campbell, which apparently cost the actor some hospital time. So that shriek of sheer and utter terror Campbell gives just before the credits; it ain’t acting.
Probably the biggest difference Dead by Dawn has from the original Evil Dead is its tone; the first is a straight horror film; the second, however, has a sense of humor. Now, people tend to look at me funny when I say this, among a great many other things; but humor and horror are two sides of the same coin. They are both emotional reactions, and how one reacts to them varies from person to person. Also, despite what we may think, the line between the two often tends to be very thin and blurry. All you have to do is tweak the circumstances just a little bit, and something we’re cringing at one moment we’re laughing at the next. As Mel Brooks put it: “tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
What Raimi does in Dead by Dawn is to essentially take all the main elements of the first movie and flip them; play upon how outré they can be, tweak them a little, and play them up for how ridiculous they are. You’ll notice that there are a few major changes as a result of this. Our unhappy campers are just Ash and Linda this time, and Linda gets possessed within the first five minutes. A large section of the movie is just Ash, facing off alone against the Evil and slowly but surely losing it. For this movie Campbell reveals his amazing talent as a physical actor, as the helpless Ash gets battered and bashed all over the place.
However, the sense of humor at play here is a very grim, whistling past the graveyard kind of laugh. Dr. Freex on the website the Bad Movie Report makes the observation of Dead by Dawn that Ash actually dies in the first five minutes, and the rest of the movie he’s in Hell. This is probably due to the larger budget Raimi had second time around, but even more than in the first movie, he plays upon the theme of the Evil infusing and taking over Ash’s whole world. It’s obvious that this movie is tongue in cheek, and sometimes it even gets a little cartoony, such as with the gallons of multi-colored blood, but this is still a horror movie.
My description of the scene with Ash’s possessed hand at the beginning of this review probably gives as good an example as any of the kind of humor on display here. The whole movie gets downright surreal at some points, with a few parts that leave it vague as to how much of what we see is really going on, and how much is just Ash’s decent into madness. And, while the end was used as a way to segue into Army of Darkness five years later; on its own I find it to be one of the most original ‘the hero is screwed’ style endings I have ever come across. The fact that you may need to reflect a moment before you realize just how much he is screwed and why only makes me like it more.
So in conclusion, watching Evil Dead and Dead by Dawn back to back is an interesting experience. There are so many similarities, and yet they are two very different movies. The first is a straight, low budget, yet effective horror movie; the second a bizarre mix of horror, humor, slapstick and surrealism.
Friday, April 5, 2013
The Movie: Four college girls have been best friends since kindergarten, and are still attending school together. They also really like to party. Well, Faith (former Disney sweet young thing Selena Gomez) does try to be a good girl. She’s part of a conservative church group, but despite her group’s warnings she still likes to hang out with her friends. Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the director), on the other hand, is really into the whole ‘party girl’ thing. And as for Candy (former Disney sweet young thing Vanessa Hudgens, last seen on this blog in Sucker Punch) and Brit (Ashley Benson of the TV show Pretty Little Liars); don’t turn your back on them.
The four girls are determined to go to Florida and have the ultimate Spring Break. Unfortunately, Spring Break is almost here and they haven’t saved anywhere near enough money. Fortunately for the girls, but not any of the other people involved, Candy and Brit have a brainstorm on how to get the needed cash. Armed with ski masks, squirt guns and hammers, and with Cotty driving the getaway vehicle, they rob a local restaurant. The girls are suddenly rolling in cash, and it’s off to Florida as planned.
As always, however, the good times inevitably hit a snag. A wild party the girls are attending gets raided by the police. Worse, all of the girls’ ill-gotten loot has been blown on booze, drugs and scooters; so they can’t afford to pay bail. This is compounded by the fact that none of them, particularly Faith, want their families to know what they’ve really been up to. However, Fate decides to grant them a guardian angel of sorts.
Actually, fallen angel is probably more accurate. The girls catch the attention and interest of a drug dealer who goes by the handle “Alien” (James Franco, of the Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy). Alien swoops in and pays the girls’ bail, then offers to show them the good time they’re after. Faith does the smart thing and bails out, taking the bus back home. However, the other three girls are very interested in what Alien has to offer them. This is going to land them in some trouble. Another drug dealer feels that Alien has gone too far poaching on his turf, and is determined to remove the problem. The fact that Candy, Brit and Cotty are so eager to work for Alien is going to bring them right into the middle of the conflict. Then again, Candy and Brit have up to this point shown definite signs of being junior crime lords in the making. Maybe this won’t be so disastrous for them after all…
“Spring Break, bitches!"
Is it weird to be disappointed that a movie isn’t anywhere near as bad as you were expecting it to be? That’s the $64-million question I am putting before my readers. When I saw the previews for Spring Breakers, they put to mind a certain kind of movie. They promised four popular young things, two of them who were only recently Disney teen poster girls, showing as much bare skin as their nudity clauses would allow; drug fueled mayhem, sleaze, depravity, explosions, weirdness, and a really bad plot and script. Of course, I had to check it out. However, the movie I actually did see, while it did have its moments, never quite lived up, or maybe I should say down, to my expectations.
Admittedly, the bar was probably set way too high, or low, as the case may be, from the start. After all, among a great many other things I have long submitted myself to the likes of grindhouse exploitation movies, B-flicks, low-budget sexploitation, no-budget sexploitation, independent films, young John Waters, David Cronenberg, Jesus Franco, Ken Russell, a handful of truly fucked-up Japanese flicks, and more Italian porn than is probably healthy for a single individual. No major Hollywood studio these days could possibly meet the standards that that sets, nor would they want to. Also, actresses these days, particularly young actresses with the kind of status that Gomez and Hudgens currently possess, have some pretty strict clauses in their contracts as a matter of course that limit how far they are able to go on screen. There is some hope for Hudgens, who I will elaborate on shortly; but while the advertising campaigns play on Disney “good girls” breaking into “big girl” roles, the sad truth is that at this juncture Gomez and Hudgens still have far too much riding on their good girl image to risk throwing it away just yet.
As I said earlier, Spring Breakers does have its moments. It is undoubtedly a consciously weird movie, although the constraints of the Hollywood studio system insures that it’s not exactly envelope pushing; maybe envelope tapping. Parts of the movie definitely look like a drug trip. There’s also a tendency to loop scenes and lines of dialogue, switch them around, and play the dialogue from one scene while we watch another scene entirely. Sometimes it works for effect, sometimes it’s just irritating. Also, the one image that really sticks with me is two girls in neon yellow bikinis and hot pink ski masks wielding sub-machineguns.
As for the sleaze, that’s a little bit harder to pin down. It is definitely a sleazy movie, at least for the first half. However, at about the halfway point it feels like the movie has grown bored with the sleaze and cut down on it for the most part. Also, there are definite limits. In its favor, I will say that Spring Breakers is honestly and sincerely sleazy; none of that attempt at making “safe sleaze” or promising something and then chickening out. However, it feels like at the beginning the director drew a line and said “up to this line the sky’s the limit, but this is as far as we go.” I can’t decide how much of this is admirable restraint and how much of it is just studio restriction.
Of the cast, I would have to rank Franco as the best. Admittedly, Alien is a caricature; but he’s a very convincing and believable one. The highest point of favor I can give to Franco in his role here is that I didn’t recognize him. I have a very good memory for faces, if not necessarily names or contexts. Even if I can’t attach a name or a context to an individual, sadly an all too common occurrence for me, I can usually recognize that I know a face from somewhere. The fact that it wasn’t until I was looking up stuff for this review that I finally recognized him speaks volumes for this man’s talent. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, my favorite actors tend to be the ones who can sink so far into their character that we actually forget we are watching them.
Franco also has the funniest scene in the movie, a monologue where he’s trying to impress Candy and Brit with the alpha male routine. “Look at my shit,” he says multiple times, fortunately meaning it in the very figurative sense. The following is paraphrased, but it’s the basic gist of his monologue, interspaced by proclamations of ‘look at my shit’: “Look at all this cool stuff I have! I have all this money! Look and swoon at what a strong, virile, male I am! Look at my phallic overcompensation devices (i.e. guns, and if that’s how you’re going to use them, I’ll call it like I see it) and visualize what I’m trying to convey with them!” However, after doing the desired oohing and ahing, the two girls each grab a gun and use it to play their own dominance game; and Alien discovers that these aren’t just two young bimbos he can seduce, but younger, female versions of him. Of course, he’s automatically in love.
The other lead that caught my eye was Hudgens. Now, up to this point I’ve been on the fence about her as an actress; having never seen any of the High School Musical movies, and finding that in the only other movie I’ve seen her in, Sucker Punch, she’s really not given anything to work with. In Spring Breakers, she scared the hell out of me. Hudgens very believably portrays Candy as nihilistic, amoral, and extremely vicious about getting what she wants. Now I know some of my longtime readers will point out how I tend to be most attracted to women who scare me; but seriously, Candy I would stay as far away from as possible. I can now believe that Hudgens is genuinely interested in more mature roles. She won’t be claiming the crown of Lina Romay or Linnea Quigley anytime soon; but I’m sure that we will see gradually more mature and risqué roles from Hudgens in the future. She has some genuine talent and potential as an actress if she keeps working at it.
As for the female leads as a whole, I had no trouble believing they were college party girls; a back-handed compliment if I’ve ever given one. It’s funny, considering the media blitz, but Gomez really doesn’t go out of her “good girl” roll at all. Unfortunately, the screenwriter didn’t know how to portray why she is that way, so Faith is more a cipher than anything else character wise. Not only that, but she leaves as soon as things start getting interesting. On the one hand, how often do you see characters making smart decisions in these movies? On the other, though, this was the perfect set-up for an “innocents in over their heads” style exploitation movie; and the vile part of me that likes to watch those things was screaming in fury that they didn’t follow through on it.
Ultimately, Spring Breakers as a movie occupies that awkward neither realm that lies between and exploitation and an art film, but doesn’t qualify as either. On the exploitation side, the movie refuses to truly dive down into the sleaze; although the first ten minutes made me think it would. However, on the art side, I got the impression that the director truly was trying to make a point. Unfortunately, I never figured out what that point was, it was too garbled. The ending is one of those maddeningly vague, ambiguous movie endings that I have long learned to associate with either the director not knowing how to end it, or the studio deciding they didn’t like what he had and making him change it. There was a major missed opportunity to raise it up and take it an innovative direction, which disappointed me.
If you mostly watch just mainstream Hollywood movies, you will probably find Spring Breakers weird and sleazy. However, for somebody like me who actively seeks out the truly weird and socially unacceptable, it’s actually rather tame. Spring Breakers does have its moments and I did have some fun with it, but ultimately I found this to be an unmemorable movie, either in the positive or negative sense.
Side Note: I put up a few more links to other blogs. In particular, please check out Horror Movie Medication. The gentleman in question just started that blog, but thus far he has some good reviews and fascinating insights.