Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuppence An Innocent

On the list of dangerous professions to have when starring in a horror movie, I think ‘governess’ must rank fairly high. Add in the dread of children speaking with British accents inside a large and ghost-ridden mansion and you can bet your spoonful of sugar that the overtime pay just isn’t worth it.
Quick Plot: Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a prim blond with the luck of the easiest job interview since Being John Malcovich. Although she has never actually worked with children, she adores them and instantly lands the position of being governess to the niece and nephew of a wealthy--but not lonely, hm hm hm--bachelor who inherited the rugrats without the slightest desire to even look at them. Miss Giddens immediately packs up her velvet bustles and heads to a secluded country home to meet, teach, and get really freaked out by Flora and Miles.

All seems well and Mary Poppinsonian at first, as Flora (played by a ten year old And Soon the Darkness’ Pamela Franklin) is an absolute dear, while Miles proves to be incredibly charming...perhaps too charming. It isn’t long before Miss Giddens starts to pick up on strange cues between the children, an odd closeness that ends in ominous giggles. Coupled with that, she keeps hearing voices and occasionally catching glimpses of figures no one acknowledges until the housekeeper reveals the fate of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her abusive lover, the family’s valet Quint.

The Innocents is an eerily gothic ghost story that takes its time a la The Haunting. Co-written by Truman Capote (based on a play by William Archibald which was in turn based on The Turning of the Screw by Henry James), the film has long been a favorite of greatest horror films/ghost stories/underrated genre pictures by the likes of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese. You can see why. From the haunting music box theme to shadowy menaces, director Jack Clayton (aided immensely by director of photography Freddie Francis) builds some brilliant suspense with every tool at his disposal. Heck, just hearing the name “Miss Jessel” spoken with an English accent is enough to send a few chills through your spine.

In addition to creepy ghosts with romantic liaisons, The Innocents is rich with something far more unsettling and not innocent: Oedipal leanings. The precocious Miles takes quite a liking to his pretty teacher, leading to an uncomfortable moment that puts Miss Giddens at the wrong end of an inappropriate goodnight kiss. It’s incredibly creepy and though it doesn’t get fully explored, the hints hang in the air with stifling weight.

High Points
Many a filmmaker could take more than a few lessons from the atmosphere of The Innocents, something established incredibly well both indoors and out
Low Points
Though Miss Giddens’ chastity does come across, we never quite get to know this woman outside of her relationship to the children. While that in itself is interesting, it would have helped to know a tad more about our main character’s past, at least to give us a clearer sense of her reliability. Although perhaps that was the point...

Lessons Learned
When you spot a ghostly figure lurking outside, always make a note of his rating because you can guarantee the first question asked to identify the stranger will be “Is he handsome?”

Suggesting a game of hide-and-seek inside a gigantic mansion just before bedtime is probably not the best idea a governess could make
Nothing weird about bringing a dead bird to bed with you. Nothing. At. All.

Pompadours don't look any more normal on gothic children than they do on Korean dictators

The Innocents is a hard film to find, but if it comes your way, it’s certainly worth dimming the lights for a quietly chilled evening. Fans of atmospheric horror should consider it required viewing in the same vein as The Haunting. Of course, it’s a slow trail and one not necessarily rewarded with a colorful Insidious ghost party finale or The Others-like twist, but The Innocents is, plain and simple, a classic in its understated horror straight into its tragic conclusion. Watch it...just not if you have to agree to supervise creepy British kids in order to do so.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Michael Ironside Can Visit Me Any Hour

Why does MIchael Ironside headline so few films? 

Why does Michael Ironside wear women's makeup in so few films?
Why does Michael Ironside wear a pleather tank top in so few films?

Why is this world such a poorly managed place?
Quick Plot: A feminist newswoman named Deborah (Lee Grant) earns some press when she grills the lawyer who prosecuted a battered wife who killed her abusive husband. Later that evening, Deborah comes home to find a shirtless Michael Ironside wearing her costume jewelry and waving a knife over her heart. 

Deborah is sent to a general hospital and put in the care of Sheila, a single mother nurse who does double duty at a woman's shelter. What neither woman realizes is that Ironside's Colt is a serial killer who stalks and slays women that catch his interest.
Visiting Hours was once classified as a video nasty, which is irritatingly ridiculous. Watching it today, the actual violence is quite tame, leaving more to the imagination than you'd expect. Despite being about a raging misogynist who slaughters strong women, the film contains no nudity, hardly any gore, and carefully filmed violence that has far greater effect for not being exploitive. A pseudo-rape scene, for example, never lingers over the victim's body lecherously. It's a great exercise in restraint that makes Visiting Hours feel positively classy (not nasty). 

Okay, so there's this, but trust me!
The film was written by Brian Taggart, whose genre credits include a random assortment of television and films like The Spell, Omen IV, Poltergiest III, V, and the made-for-TV remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Director Jean-Claude Lord has a long resume, though few (that I can tell) genre credits. It’s quite a shame, since Visiting Hours is indeed a uniquely well-crafted thriller that does almost everything right.
There's also something to admire about the strong female characters, not a trait you found readily in '80s killer thrillers. As Sheila, Linda Purl (probably better known to modern audiences as Pam Beesly's mom and Michael Scott's ex) conveys a realistic balance of likable innocense and common motherly sense. Sure, she probably shouldn't run home without that reluctant cop when she suspects a killer's playing house there, but you believe her earnestness at that point and become genuinely invested in her fate. Lee Grant's Deborah isn't a perfectly defined character (see Low Points) but she has a certain Dee Wallace-in-The-Howling quality that makes you respect this professional woman's dedication to her beliefs.

But the real star of Visiting Hours has Sides of Iron, and his contribution can't be underrated. The fact that he barely says two sentences in a row yet still conveys so much presence speaks strongly to Michael Ironside's performance, making the character's Energizer Bunny-like determination to assassinate his targets all the more powerful. 

 Also, he wears a pleather tanktop in one scene and an argyle sweater vest the next. Now THAT'S versatility!

High Points
I won't argue that I'm not biased--my love of Michael Ironside is legendary to listeners of Girls On Film--but I do objectively feel that he gives a superb performance. The man's face is obviously custom-made to this kind of role, but Ironside goes a step farther by making Colt both a sociopath and child of abuse. It's actually quite understated

This is an odd 'high point' to explain, but I shall try: the sexual aspect of Visiting Hours' violence is handled incredibly well. A lesser film would have used several chances to toss in a few boobs or worse, gone more conventionally brutal with the attacks. But that's not who Colt is. As we learn from his surviving victim, he's impotent and therefore not interested in the sexuality of his female victims, but in their strength. It's a much more complex topic than you typically see in a serial killer thriller, and I appreciated it.
Low Points
I understand that Deborah's main position as a political newscaster is anti-violence, but this quirk seems so shoe-horned in to make Visiting Hours end on a kind of Straw Dogs 'we're all killers' note that simply isn't necessary

Random AMC Pacer Alert!
The vehicle of choice for single mom nurses everywhere

Lessons Learned
Even crimped hair and hot pink high-waisted jeans aren't enough to arouse some men
Sleeping in the nude can be slightly inconvenient, especially if you're babysitting small children or expecting a serial killer to break in

Too much loose living causes gallstones 
Hospital pudding can be quite tasty, at least if you're William Shatner

Random Observation
When the subject of criminal sketch artists arises, I often find myself confused. I can't remember what color hair a person has, much less describe in detail where his or her cheekbones sit with enough accuracy to produce an accurate portrait. That being said, Michael Ironside has a pretty unique face and had any police department employee with a notebook and pencil asked, I imagine every female character in the film could have given a full-bodied driver's license photo!

It's a shame that Lord didn't make more genre films, as Visiting Hours is by far and away a cut above most of what I associate with this type of story. The characters are well-constructed by good writing and solid performances, making the plot twists believable even when they shouldn't be. The film is streaming on Netflix and has just received a long-delayed DVD release (on a dual disc with Bad Dreams, no less) so check it out if you enjoy a good cat-and-mouse hunt or if like me, you just enjoy Michael Ironside in pleather.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Melancholy Bridezilla

On a recent(ish) episode of Girls On Film, the ladies and I drooled over the briliance of Nicholas Roegg's Don't Look Now. In terms of visuals, it's arguably one of modern cinema's most influential genre films while also boasting excellent performances and a solid base of emotional connection. I would give it four stars without a blink, but here's the funny thing: I don't in any way agree with its theme.
Don't Look Now is ultimately a film about fate and predeterminism. Sure, there are other forces at work, but in my SPOILERY opinion, we are never to believe that Donald Sutherland's character ever really had a chance. His death was scheduled as soon as we first caught that glimpse of red on his slide, and no amount of dwarf ducking could prevent it.

I am not a believer in the idea that one's fate is ever sealed, but in no way does that detract from my appreciation and enjoyment of Don't Look Now. I bring this up because Lars Von Trier's Melancholia is a film that I simply don't agree with, one so seeped in a literal depression and conviction that the world might as well explode because it has virtually nothing good that deserves to survive.

I disagree, and unlike a film that works on other merits, I don't think Melancholia is otherwise strong enough to stand on its thesis.
But it's still really pretty.

Quick Plot: A gorgeous overture follows plays over striking imagery as Earth meets what we'll later learn is the comet Melancholia. Sticks are whittled, children carried, horses fallen, and explosions imminenent as we move into the main meat of the dinner, Chapter 1, Justine.

Played by a wonderfully understated Kirsten Dunst, Justine is a beautiful bride and successful copywriter faking smiles on her wedding day. The groom is kind and handsome but dull as a prison spork and the venue--a sprawling golf course estate owned and lorded over by millionaire brother-in-law Keifer Sutherland--as cold as it is luxurious. Though the wedding photos are worthy of a magazine spread, the marriage--SPOILER ALERT, if that's possible when the first five minutes of the film tell us the world blows up anyway--ends before morning as Justine's depression is simply too crippling for any anniversary.

The second part of Melancholia focuses more on Justine's put-upon older sister Claire, played by Antichrist goddess Charlotte Gainsburg. It's been some time since the failed wedding and the new, more pressing issue of the upper class is the movement of Melancholia. Claire worries that it will hit Earth, while her husband (Sutherland as John) insists the world is safe. Once a now dingier and Dunstier Justine arrives, the dangers of cometary collision become more pressing.

Melancholia presents two different viewpoints on the state of the world: one that it's a place worth saving because it has good in it (Claire) and the other, that it's a giant wad of chewing gum with hatred and awfulness sticking out every germ-ridden end. Since this is a film by Lars Von Trier, you can guess which side wins.

And that's my ultimate problem with the film. Yes, it's also quite slow and (duh) pretentious, but I often say the same about Michael Haneke movies and ultimately deal out positive reviews. Like Von Trier, Haneke doesn't necessarily see the world as an oyster and often focuses on extreme acts of onscreen cruelty, but there's usually some point or theme to think upon later with some agreement or intelligent rebuttal.

But what is that for Melancholia? That the world is best seen as something to be destroyed? That it's not fit for a pleasant, imaginative child like Claire's son Leo to play in? Where Haneke's The White Ribbon was a deceptively simple town biography about the absence of innocence, Melancholia feels like an overly beautiful diatribe on how the whole world should just go to hell.

I suppose that if you're viewing the film as a portrait of depression, maybe it achieves success. Justine's progression from uncomfortable bride to the calm in the light of a meteor does work from a certain perspective. It's validation for her negativity, as is the all-too easy (SPOILER ALERT) suicide of John, the previous symbol of cultural normality. That John would leave his family at their hour of need just feels easy, much like my main beef with the villain's final act of cowardice in The Woman.

How is Justine's stick fort any stronger a symbol than Claire's idea of sipping wine with classical music? Are we supposed to stand behind Justine when she insults her sister for wanting to survive? I do think Melancholia gave me a window into Justine's world in its first half, as her inability to play the perfect wife felt true and sad, rather than grating or disrespectful. It's the film's latter half that ruffled my Bjork swan dress feathers, the idea that this is not a world worth fighting for and to pretend differently is just a lie. I like wine and scenic porches and the innocence of youth, and if using those things to confront death means I'm wrong, then I just don't understand why sitting on grass surrounded by sticks is that much righter.

Okay fine: when the apocalypse hits, I'm making nachos and drinking a bottle of Ommegang Three Philosophers Ale. I can't lie to you. 

High Points
In a depressing movie about the end of the world, every touch of dark humor counts and nowhere is this more apparent than Udo Kier's wedding planner

Though she doesn't reach the ungodly levels of Emily Watson, Kirsten Dunst finds the perfect notes to convey Justine's inner workings without ever resorting to easy showiness

Low Points
The aforementioned premature death of a key character feels like a cheat and I'm still miffed about it

Lessons Learned
American accents are a recessive gene

Putting your boss in your wedding party does not excuse you from working on your wedding day

The apocalypse is going to be realllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllly pretty

Tree of Melancholia
Film critic Jim Emerson had an interesting writeup of Melancholia, but his comment sections were even more enlightening. One reader started to draw comparisons to Tree of Life, which got me to thinking how the two films play together. Aside from their obvious compatibilities (both using small family stories behind the backdrop of the universe's death), the films do seem to look at our relationship to the world with different conclusions. I'm not itching to rewatch either anytime soon, but when I do, I'm definitely making it a double bill. 

See/Skip/Sneak In
While he's no flawless Paul Verhoeven, I consider myself a fan of Lars Von Trier, even when I can't say I like his work (meh to Dogville and Manderlay). Personally, Melancholia doesn't come near the heights of Breaking the Waves, Antichrist, or Dancer In the Dark because I just can't get behind the film's thesis. At the same time, it features some truly spectacular use of sound and imagery, along with the typical good female performances that come standard with a Von Trier tale. If you're not familiar with his work, then I certainly wouldn't start here (I'd say Emily Watson's mind-blowing work in Breaking the Waves is the best primer) but those who look forward to seeing whatever wackiness comes out of the world's craziest Dane will definitely get SOMETHING or another out of Melancholia. For me, it goes in that second tier and falls a little lower due to its negativity.

But what can I say? At heart, I'm just a cockeyed optimist.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Birdemic On a Plate

Yes, I realize this is an image from a Christmas special (or THE Christmas special, if I may be so bold) but I feel it reflects my feelings of joy, gratefulness, and felt cuteness to the best of my abilities. Happy Thanksgiving, or Happy Thursday, or if you're in a REALLY alternate time zone/universe, Happy Day Where My Country Eats Turkey And Yours Goes To Work. Whatever it is, have a drink, watch a parade, complain about xmas carols being played too early, and have a good time. I'm thankful for having you as a reader (yes, YOU!, YOU! All of YOU!--well, except for you. No silly, YOU'RE okay, I mean the one with the weird mole standing next to you. That one creeps me out). Where was I going with this?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I'm Thankful For the Lightning House/Doll's Lair Thanksgiving Swap!

At the risk of sounding sappier than The Christmas Shoes, there are a lot of treasures that make me grateful this Thanksgiving season. Chief among them are some of the joys I get on a daily basis from blogging (or .comming, if you will) and chief among THAT (there's a very complicated hierarchy going on here) are the people I've met through this wacky activity called writing Internet reviews of horror films. Thusly is it my pleasure to revive the monthly(ish) movie swaps with one of my favorite bloggers and all around dudes, Zack of the Lightning Bug’s Lair. For the Bugg, I recommended the bizarre (and conveniently streaming) Bad Boy Bubby, while Zack went much more seasonally appropriate. In his words:
"When I think about Thanksgiving there's a few things that always spring to mind, jellied cranberry sauce, the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade (which I preferred to call the Macy's day parade when I was a kiddo), and Arlo Guthrie’s Alice's Restaurant. I was first introduced to Guthrie’s tale in song form when I was probably six or seven (the more explicit movie which Emily is looking at I didn’t see until later), and his story of a hippy Thanksgiving, the debacle of garbage disposal, and the draft, never fails to make me laugh. The same goes for the movie. While it does move slow in some parts, director Arthur Penn captured the spirit of the song, the somber mood among the hippies as the Sixties drew to a close, and an honest look at an era of protest that doesn’t seem all that distant now. So this Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for so many things, friends like Emily, my family, and all the people who support horror writing, but I also want to give thanks for Alice’s Restaurant where you can 
get anything you want (exceptin’ Alice). Happy Thanksgiving, folks. "

I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Quick Plot: Arlo is a young musician with floppy anti-establishment hair but a pleasantly laid back demeanor. When he gets his draft card right square and center of the Vietnam War, he attempts to circumvent service with a college education. When that proves to be a bust, Arlo moves on to visit his friends Alice and Ray, a free-spirited couple opening up a restaurant in a deconsecrated church.

I can't tell you how many times I've walked by or through a decadent cathedral and imaged what a great performance/hangout space it would be. What I didn't know in all this fantasy decorating was that churches had to OFFICIALLY be un-holified in order for that to happen. Not being a Christian, this doesn't bother me from a soul safety point of view or anything, but I must say, doesn't the act itself seem rather, well, UNChristian? As if heathens can move into your architecture, but dangit if they get any leftover good vibes or vampire protection?

Moving on...
Actually, there aren't that many places to move on to. See, Alice's Restaurant is a film about hippies and if there's two things hippies don't generally care for, it's cops and barber shops. But if there's a third thing, then the third would be plot.

And that's kind of fine. This is not a film about growth or destination, but more a string of episodes that follow Arlo and his friends through biker races and Thanksgiving dinners, sort of like a much better version of George Romero’s Knight Riders only with less Renaissance Faire action. There’s minor tension regarding Arlo’s draft card, which ultimately culminates in a rather hilarious (and extremely Catch-22-esque) army physical complete with a giddy psychological exam and surly young M. Emmett Walsh. A subplot regarding Arlo’s recovering heroin addict pal raises some stakes, but the film never wants to commit to any real story or conflict. Since Arlo--not an actor by trade, but a likable presence onscreen--& co. are fun to watch, the movie is too.

Upon rewatching Harold and Maude a few weeks back, I was disappointed at how much I no longer liked the characters. They were selfish and destructive people who put others in harm’s way--or just extreme inconvenience--for no real reason other than that’s what they felt like doing. I worried that I’d feel the same way about Alice’s Restaurant, but I didn’t because these characters--none overly nice or revolutionary or special save for some musical talent--weren’t out to hurt the world. They simply had their own way of life and for the most part, it didn’t have the slightest bit to do with anyone else. When generations of friends sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, you take it as an imperfectly perfect moment for these people at this time. One year later, some might be fighting in Vietnam, others might be dead of an overdose or happily raising children conceived in a haze of pot smoke and burnt pumpkin pie air, but on this particular evening, life is about a good meal with your friends.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to the subtext of Alice’s Restaurant (and no, I’ve not plunged into the 18.5 minute song just yet) and maybe a few years from now, I’ll see Arthur Penn’s film in a very different light. Perhaps because of my current mood--it’s THANKSGIVING for goodness sake--I’m only looking for and at the happiness, of which there’s plenty. Having just seen Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, I don’t need a depressing tale about how ugly the world we live in really is. Not when there are musical interludes and soft satire, free dessert and blind judges. Yes, there’s also unhappy marriage and drug addiction, but the smell of sweet potatoes can cover a whole lot if you’re hungry.

High Points
Alice's Restaurant is a genuinely funny film, often from Guthrie's exaggerated (yet still dry) narration contrasting with the rather calm onscreen action. What keeps it refreshing--at least to me--is that the humor never feels overly mean or anti-establishment for the sake of hating the establishment. 
Your enjoyment of this film will depend in big part on how you feel about folk music. I dig it, so I dug the film and all of its ‘let’s sit back and sing’ moments, but if that type of thing ain’t your cup of cocoa, then you might want to try different brew

Low Points
For the first half or so of the film, we see Arlo spurn the advances of several attractive women, usually with good reason (like the lasses being 14) but also with such detachment that we start to wonder if he's simply asexual. And then a pretty but not overly interesting young lady shows up and it seems to be love. It would have been nice to know what it was about this particular love interest that made Arlo care.

Lessons Learned
Girdles feel funny
Weddings are way more kickass when top hats and blue velvet are invited

There was an awful lot to dig in the 70s
When free food is on the line, a hippie will do almost anything

Town dumps are generally closed on Thanksgiving

I’m not overly familiar with all the backstory involved in the making and reception of Alice’s Restaurant (and that includes the 18 1/2 minute song it’s based on, because if I still haven’t watched the 3 hour Saving Private Ryan, where am I going to find time to listen to an 18 minute song?) but I think the film holds up regardless as both a strangely sweet portrait of friendship, dryly funny satire on the draft, and hauntingly subtle tale of unhappiness. I have the feeling this is a film that will deepen for me with time, one that might mean something different to me five or ten years from now than it did upon first viewing. Time will tell, and I look forward to it.

Don’t forget to hear Zack’s take on Bad Boy Bubby at The Lightning Bug’s Lair, complete with my lawyer talk argument for why it’s kinda sorta almost a little bit a Thanksgiving film. Ride the kangaroo on over!