[jahsonic.com] - [Next >>]
More seminal horror films, 1919 - 1999
Is there a more maligned genre than the horror film? asks Noel O'Shea in Seminal Horror Films, 1919 - 1999 (part 1 and part 2).
Related: Noel O'Shea - part 1 of this series - horror films
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1919)
"The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" can be called the first art film, and it is certainly the very first psychological horror film. German expressionism flourished after the First World War, and "Caligari" was a prime example of the techniques involved. What were audiences to think of this wildly surreal nonsense, a tale seemingly told by a madman, and involving weird goings on with a somnambulist and his evil master? They thought it was great, actually.
Czech poet Hans Janowitz provided the initial idea for the film, and Carl Mayer came up with the plot about a fairground magician who hypnotises a somnambulist into commiting murders in a tiny Dutch village. "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" is actually based on their own experiences: in 1913, Janowitz witnessed a well-dressed gentleman emerging from the bushes and disappearing into the night, and the body of a young girl was found in the same spot the morning after; for his part, Mayer drew on his unsatisfactory experiences with a high-ranking military psychiatrist during the war. But the story - admittedly intriguing - was less important than the visual aspect to the film. Set designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig, were members of "Der Sturm", a Berlin-based expressionist movement, and they were responsible for the highly unusual production design, the costumes and the eerie makeup. Fritz Lang passed on directing (he was busy with his own film "The Spiders" at the time), so Robert Wiene was brought on board. The result is a film truly like no other. Cesare, with his pasty face and black bodystocking, moving through a weirdly-angled surrealist wonderland, looks forward to James Whale's "Frankenstein", and the scene where he carries the heroine over the hills and far away, was directly copied by numerous Hollywood productions (most memorably in the aforementioned "Frankenstein"). The sets themselves, an architect's nightmare, were rarely copied by Hollywood (where could they use all the off-the-wall angles and painted shadows in a pre-Tim Burton Tinseltown?), but it is these weird walls and windows that give the film its remarkable success.
Mayer and Janowitz wanted their story to reflect the rise of dictatorship in Europe at the time, with Dr Caligari standing in for the Prussian authorities lording it over the servile population (represented by Cesare), but a framing device, which showed that the story was told by a madman in an asylum, and that Caligari was in fact the head of the asylum, had the effect of reversing the film's political stance (Caligari is now the benevolent dictator figure looking after the best interests of a meek citizenship); however, the final closeup, of a leering Werner Krauss, magnificent as Caligari, suggests that the screenwriters' original message might still have survived the inclusion of this framing device. (Perhaps it had, because film theorist Siegfried Kracauer called his famous history treatise "From Caligari to Hitler", suggesting that the film prophesised the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.) Krauss is quite brilliant as the magician, but even he is overshadowed by lanky Conrad Veidt as the pitiful sleepwalker; it was a performance that brought him to Hollywood, where he leant his distinct talent to a number of great films, notably "Casablanca". I would argue that "Caligari" contains his best performance, and that the film itself is one of the towering achievements of the Silent Era.
There had been other screen versions of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel before this one, but it took Universal's Studio's stab at it - with genius James Whale at the helm - to bring "The Modern Prometheus" to the masses (let's face it: this film version is a lot more famous than Shelley's original novel). Beginning with a suitably ghoulish graveyard scene, with some brilliant use of shadow by ace cameraman Arthur Edeson, "Frankenstein" establishes itself as a unique blend of all-out terror and overwhelming melancholy (there is a lot of suffering in the film, not least by the Monster himself). Boris Karloff became a star with his subtle playing of the Creature, assembled from corpses, and Jack B. Pierce's makeup provided the icing on the cake. Many critics consider this film to be the most influential horror film ever made, and no self-respecting film fan would dare argue the point. Luckily, plans to have Bela Lugosi play the monster - after the resounding success of "Dracula" - were scuppered (Lugosi, always a bit of an egoist, shied away from the production when he discovered the part was largely silent), and the relatively unknown Karloff stepped into the massive boots. In his hands, the Monster becomes almost a heroic figure, a sad, child-like being, in the film's early stages, before the reaction of society forces him to commit murder, and this was to change the way monsters were portrayed on screen ever since (the Monster's "growth", from birth - watch how the Monster tries to touch the light after taking his first steps - to adulthood, and ultimately to murderer, has parallels with Man's Biblical Fall, and this, more than anything else, gives "Frankenstein" its timeless qualities). Colin Clive is also superb as Henry Frankenstein, the scientist who emulates God by creating life (one of the most telling lines, "In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God," was cut from the final print - The Hays Office running rampant with the scissors yet again - but thankfully the line has since been reinstated). And while you are watching this classic, spare a thought for poor Dwight Frye, who plays the hapless hunchback; every other Universal horror film had Frye playing the same part - and meeting the same grisly fate - over and over again!
How does this visualisation of the myth hold up against the more modern takes provided by Hammer Studios and Kenneth Branagh? Hammer's "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), with Christopher Lee portraying the Monster as pure evil, is actually very good, but Branagh's high-pitched Nineties version - De Niro's powerful acting always excepted - is a complete shambles. Whale's "Frankenstein" is the most sublime of them all; to look into Karloff's limpid eyes, is to look into the essence of horror itself.
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
The most sophisticated horror film of them all, James Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein" blends elements of Gothic horror with satirical comedy, and knocks the somewhat po-faced attributes of the original "Frankenstein" for six (magnificent and all as that film was). Apart from anything else, this sequel proves that "The Godfather Part Two" is not the only sequel to improve on its cinematic antecedent.
A wonderful prologue, featuring Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, who informs Lord Byron that her Monster did not really die in the fire that ended the first film, sets the tone for the comedy of manners that is to come, and before long we are back in that shadowy world populated by Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. The Monster himself, brilliantly reprised by Karloff (those splendidly expressive eyes!), is much more sympathetic this time around (and closer to the character in Shelley's novel), with the boos and hisses reserved for a new character - the wickedly droll Dr Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger steals the acting honours from Karloff, and enters that pantheon set aside for the greatest of all film characters). Pretorius is a creation that Oscar Wilde would have been proud of: "Have a cigar," he says to the Monster, proffering said item, "it is my only weakness." The fact that this is the first meeting between the two, and that it takes place in a crypt, with Pretorius picnicking on one of the coffins, only heightens the sophistication of the film's delightful wit.
Of course, the main thrust of the story is Dr Frankenstein's creation of a mate for his Monster - at the behest of Pretorius, who wants to create a whole race of monsters - and no actress ever made a bigger impression than Elsa Lanchester (again) in the role of the Bride. The scene where she is created - complete with the most famous hairdo in film history (modelled after Queen Nefertiti apparently) - and rejects the Monster with an otherworldly shriek, is one for true connoisseurs of horror, and pay particular attention to Franz Waxman's musical score at this point (his use of churchbells is awesome). We feel sorry for the Monster here, as we do all through the film in fact, because he is the most sensitive and gentle creature in the story. He becomes 'civilised' in "Bride of Frankenstein": he learns to speak, he drinks wine, and - in another classic scene - he smokes a fine cigar. His encounter with blind hermit O.P. Heggie is the most telling sequence of all, a scene which shows that the hermit is not 'blinded' by prejudices against the Monster's appearance and accepts him as a friend (this scene also inspired a very funny parody in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein", with Peter Boyle as the Monster and Gene Hackman as the soup-spilling blindman). This is much closer to the Creature of Shelley's seminal novel, and as close as any cinema incarnation has got to the heartrending pathos of her creation.
John Mescall's lighting is superb throughout, favouring a delicate blend of light and shadow, and his work during the Monster's trek through the expressionistic forest is second to none. And what about Charles D. Hall's art direction? I give you Frankenstein's magnificently functional laboratory, and I think further elaboration is unneccessary. The sublime performances have had superlatives thrust upon them elsewhere, but I will add this much about whining Una O'Connor: could somebody please shut her up?!
James Whale has perhaps only one rival for the title of Greatest Horror Director (David Cronenberg), but no-one ever matched him for his macabre wit and style. "The Bride of Frankenstein" is undoubtedly his masterpiece, but the earlier "Frankenstein", "The Invisible Man", and "The Old Dark House" in particular, are sophisticated horror classics par excellence. If you're a "Scream" fan and have never even heard of Whale, then the joke is on you. Luckily there's still time to save yourself... Here's how to do it in Five Easy Steps: You have a television, don't you? And a video recorder of some kind? Now all you got to do is rent "Bride of Frankenstein", "Species" and "Friday the 13th". Hold "Species" and "Friday the 13th", watch "Bride", and you haven't broken any rules. ("You want me to hold 'Friday the 13th?'") I want you to hold it between your knees. (And that's about as sophisticated as I'm gonna get! But maybe you should rent "Five Easy Pieces" too...)
CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Producer Val Lewton masterminded some very effective horror films for RKO during the Forties; working closely with talented directors like Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, Lewton made a string of low-budget atmospheric gems that have become horror classics. "Cat People" was the first of these and is generally regarded as the best of the lot: it remains a masterpiece of suggestive horror, a wonderfully atmospheric chiller where terror is wisely left unseen to ferment in the mind of the viewer (Paul Schrader's 1982 remake can - and has - been judged a failure because of its gleeful, almost schoolboyish, depiction of visceral violence).
Simone Simon is the Serbian girl who is too frightened to have sex with her new husband (Kent Smith) because she fears that by doing so she will transform into something hideous (she claims that this is exactly what happened to her ancestors in more primitive times - they became giant cats because of their sexual proclivities). Naturally her husband reckons that she needs pyschiatric help and packs her off to see Dr Lewis Judd (Tom Conway), who has a crack at convincing Simon that she is a victim of her own paranoia. But the imagery conjured up by director Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca tells a different story, and Simon does have a touch of the feline about her eyes...
The horror created by "Cat People" is of the evocative, almost ethereal, kind. The knowing glance of a cat-like woman in a restaurant unnerves Simon and sets her on the path of terror (Elizabeth Russell makes a deep impression, even if she is on screen for only a few moments). There are many other sequences played out in this low-key vein. Simon scares the life out of a caged bird in one sequence, by playfully pawing at the cage the way a cat might do it (earlier we had seen her crouched at the bottom of a bedroom door, which conjures up more cat-like imagery). One of the best is the atmospheric night-time walk through Central Park by actress Jane Randolph (she works with Smith, and Simon is insanely jealous of her): someone, or something, is following her along the path, and we jump when Randolph jumps as a bus stops up beside her and its doors open with a feline hiss. The famous swimming pool scene is a horror staple: Randolph, alone, swims around in an indoor pool, when the lights go out; cat shadows appear on the wall and low growling echoes around the terrified woman. Suggestive horror was never realised so superbly as in this classic scene.
The idiots at RKO insisted that producer Lewton include a scene showing a black panther, which nearly - but not quite - destroys the careful mood established by the film's low-key tone, and this is yet another example of deplorable studio interference (just ask Orson Welles!); they struck again while Lewton was making one of his best pictures, "Night of the Demon" (1957), and the result was the inclusion of one brief perfunctory shot of a monstrous demon (we had created an even more terrifying beast in our imagination anyway). Despite the meddlings of these Philistines, however, Lewton's group of horror films from the Forties - and especially "Cat People" - remain true originals and are among the finest 'mood pieces' the cinema has to offer. (Incidentally, "Curse of the Cat People", directed by Robert Wise in 1944, is not really a sequel to this film at all, at least not in the strictest sense, but another psychological horror fantasy - this time showing the surreal events through the eyes of a child.)
Hammer Studios' first foray into vampire territory is perhaps the best-loved of all Dracula films; it's certainly much better than Universal's lacklustre 1931 version, and less muddled than Coppola's admittedly interesting take on the legend of the thirsty Count released in 1992. Of course, the pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing - the dynamic duo of the horror genre - gave the film an extra frisson and turned the enterprise into an acknowledged classic (their partnership on "The Curse of Frankenstein", made the year previously, is a very good version of Shelley's gothic tale, but it can never escape the shadow of Boris Karloff's iconic Monster).
"Dracula" is a fast-moving colourful affair - not at all faithful to Stoker's flamboyantly embroidered prose - and is expertly directed by Terence Fisher, who clearly understands the relationship between blood and sex that would become the overriding theme of nearly all vampire films made subsequently (he would direct many of them himself). This version also gives us an aristocratic Count, thoroughly British when called upon to socialise with his intended victims, first seen gliding down a huge stairway to greet his guests waiting at the bottom, in a scene that could have come from the pen of Evelyn Waugh. Not at all like the monstrous figure remembered from Lugosi's failed impersonation in Universal's overrated version, and certainly not a bit like Max Schreck's horrendous-looking vampire in "Nosferatu", F.W. Murnau's brilliant addition to the genre (and for my money still the best vampire movie of them all). More than anything else, Lee's Count Dracula is quintessentially English (Lee's Dracula has often been compared to a 19th century James Bond, and there is no denying his debonair charm here, even if he is a bit long of tooth).
The film emphasises the eroticism underlying the vampire myth. The Count is portrayed as a seductive foil for his female victims. Carol Marsh, as Lucy, adds a lot of sensuality to her scenes where she prepares for Dracula's nightly visits, and she is typical of most of the bloodsucker's female prey. There is something sexual about the scenes depicting Van Helsing and Arthur ("Batman"'s Michael Gough) driving stakes through the flesh of sexually aroused women, causing them to shriek as if in orgasm (comparisons can be made with Piper Laurie's death scene in Brian de Palma's "Carrie"). Dracula's demise - he melts in the rays of the sun - would seem the perfect antidote to his magnet-like qualities, but - wouldn't you know it? - he bounced back in sequel after sequel, some good ("Dracula - Prince of Darkness", made in 1965, is almost the equal of the original), some absolutely dire ("Dracula: A.D. 1972" is complete rubbish).
"Mother's... what is the phrase?... She's not quite herself today."
"Psycho" is set during the Christmas Season (a title insert tells us it is Friday, December the Eleventh), but the holiday is never mentioned once in Hitchcock's influential film (and if that doesn't tell you something about the great director's extremely black sense of humour, nothing will). An adaptation of Robert Bloch's chilling novel - itself based on the gruesome exploits of Wisconsin weirdo Ed Gein - the film was designed as a sick joke by the director. But, as had happened with the westerns of John Ford, the professed simplicity of the work is denied by the work itself; "Psycho" may indeed be a sick joke, but it is not a simple one.
The credits sequence hints at the events that will unfold in the film: names are split in half, as if by an unseen knife, which almost unconsciously introduces the idea of split personality which becomes integral to the film's plot. Then the camera gives us a panoramic view of Phoenix, Arizona, before selecting one window out of thousands; is Hitchcock suggesting that this story could be about anybody? The first 30 minutes establish Janet Leigh as our heroine - the person we most identify with - and so it comes as quite a shock when she is brutally murdered halfway through the film; never before had the lead character in a film been eradicated at such an early stage - a great shock in itself - and the manner of her demise - stabbed to death while taking a cleansing shower - singlehandedly paved the way for the slasher film. This shower scene disoriented viewers expecting to see Marion Crane give back the stolen money and find another way to be with lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin).
The character of Norman Bates is an extremely complex one; he cannot say the word 'bathroom', but, in his Mother disguise, he can brutally murder someone in that very room. In Bloch's novel Norman was a middle-aged alcoholic, but screenwriter Joseph Stefano felt audiences would not identify with such a character and so created the much younger version we see in the film. Anthony Perkins gives one of the cinema's towering performances, allowing the audience to be sympathetic towards - and repulsed by - Norman's loneliness and what it does to him. Both Norman and Marion are similar characters: they are both racked by guilt arising from sex, and they are both haunted by the past. Norman has commited murder (he kills his mother and her lover ten years before the events depicted in Psycho) to make his own sexual world appear normal; Marion steals $40,000 with the same motive in mind. Even before she embarks on her famous journey that will lead her to Bates' Motel, Marion is fated to meet Norman, her alter-ego (think of the first scene in the movie, where Sam talks about turning the picture of Marion's mother to the wall, and then remember that first conversation between Norman and Marion, where Norman says that a man's best friend is his mother). Marion is just a fledgling version of Norman, a character who just might commit murder if she doesn't see the evidence of what she will become in the character of Norman (she does, and resolves to give back the money, but it is too late - she has met her alter-ego).
"Psycho" was the first American horror film to set its story in a recognisable contemporary world; most horror films up to this point drew from fairytale and gothic convention, with the effect that the audience was kept at a distance from the nightmare unfolding on the screen. Hitchcock implicates the viewer in the horrors portrayed in his film: we, as voyeurs, become part of the action. How else do you explain our fascination with watching Marion take a shower (surely a mundane activity and not at all cinematic?), or the fact that we hope Norman will mop up all the blood after the murder and not leave any traces (the reason Hitchcock takes his time over this scene, I think), thus making us identify with a killer. This is also the reason the audience urges Marion's car to sink once again into the swamp after it stops its descent momentarily. Cinema has rarely - if ever - cut so close to the bone.
Despite the limited budget, "Psycho" contains some of Hitchcock's best work. The shower scene, of course, is legendary, utilising nearly 100 separate cuts to achieve its frenzied staccato rhythm. The murder of Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is just as good, with that brilliant overhead camera shot of 'Mother' bolting out of the room. The way Hitchcock lights the shot of 'Mother' pulling back the shower curtain with knife raised, so we cannot see her face, is also a good example of Hitchcock's superb direction. Bernard Herrmann's musical score, more than anything else in the film, is responsible for the film's success. Marion's car ride is accompanied by Herrmann's strings almost constantly, belting along at a furious pace, until it almost stops just as Marion - and the audience - catches a glimpse of the Bates Motel sign; the screaming violins that stab at the audiences' ears as Marion Crane is murdered in the shower (with the camera spiralling back from Marion's eye, signalling that we are now out of Marion's head), once heard, can never be forgotten.
For better or worse, Psycho spawned the likes of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kreuger and Michael Myers; in fact, it introduced the whole concept of the serial killer to the screen. No horror film has been more influential (well okay, maybe "Frankenstein"), and, for those who saw it in 1960, not knowing what to expect, it remains the scariest film ever made.
THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
"The best film ever made in Pittsburgh!" screamed the posters for Romero's ironic horror classic, and in hindsight, they were telling the truth. We've seen dead bodies rise from the grave before - "White Zombie" (1932), with Bela Lugosi, and Val Lewton's "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943) spring to mind - but the monsters in those nonetheless effective chillers never seemed to pay too much attention to where their next meal would come from, or, indeed, who their next meal would come from... Romero gives us the feasting zombie, requiring human flesh for survival, and for many, it is the ultimate nightmare. For sheer downright terror, "Night of the Living Dead" had no equal in 1968, and many fans herald it as the scariest movie ever made to this day; the ending is surely one of the bleakest in history (it even outdoes "Se7en" in this regard). I don't think that it is as scary as "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974), which it has often been compared to (they both offer realistic horror, almost like a documentary in approach), but I think that Romero's is the superior film.
"There coming to get you Barbara," her brother Johnny taunts in the opening sequence where a brother and sister are visiting their parents grave. It's a prophetic exclamation in two ways: they will indeed come to get Barbara, but because Johnny adopts a Boris Karloff voice and is killed by a zombie soon after, Romero is saying that his film has no room for lugubrious monsters of the Karloff variety - his monsters have no redeeming features whatsoever, their raison detrè being to kill people and eat them. Another way that "Night of the Living Dead" announces itself as a reaction to mainstream Hollywood is in its depiction of the killing of the mother by her daughter; the scene is a reaction to the scene in Hollywood's "Meet Me in St Louis" (1944), where Margaret O'Brien smashes the heads off the snowmen in the garden imagining them to be her mother. The famous ending, where the nominal hero of the film is mistaken for a zombie and killed by the local 'normals', is the ultimate snub on the cosiness of Hollywood. In fact, the only thing in the film that can be called pure 'Hollywood', is the explanation offered for why the dead are suddenly rising from their graves and eating people: something got to do with radiation fallout after an abortive rocket launch to Jupiter.
The budget of the film was set at a paltry $140,000, but Romero uses this to his advantage by filming in black and white and carefully composing all of the shots in the film (take note of the brilliantly framed shot in the first scene, where Barbara and Johnny are inside the car, while an old man stumbles - a zombie, we discover soon after - through the graveyard deep in the background). Even the fairly amateurish acting adds to the documentary-like quality of the film and makes it one of the most terrifying films ever seen on the screen. Duane Jones gives the most accomplished performance, as the black 'hero' of the film (I say hero, when what I really mean is that he is the only character who doesn't break down completely at the first sight of a marauding zombie). In Tom Savini's interesting but inferior 1990 remake, the Barbara character is given a post-Ripley makeover and becomes a tough adversary for the zombies, she just doesn't have Ripley's survivalist luck. And I don't know how Night of the Living Dead affected the trade at the local butcher-shop which donated the entrails for that infamous zombie feast scene, but one can only hope that the table manners of the regular customers are a little better than that of the gruesome gourmets here!
The film spawned two sequels, the classic "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and the seriously underrated "Day of the Dead" (1985), but despite the critical acclaim heaped on the 1978 film, the original remains the best of the three. Admittedly, "Dawn" is going for something bigger than its predecessor, and has been called a satirical masterpiece concerning the consumer society, but I think that this is overstating the case a bit. There are some brilliant moments, however, most of them provided by makeup expert Tom Savini. "Day of the Dead" is probably the blackest and funniest of the three, and it contains the best acting performance of the trilogy, the one given by Howard Sherman as "Bub", the zombie with a yen for the finer things in life (a touch of the Mary Shelleys here, methinks).
THE EXORCIST (1973)
A cause cèlèbre of Seventies cinema, "The Exorcist" is now being re-released to a whole new audience of thrill-seekers. William Peter Blatty, previously known for his comedy scripts - he penned the best of the Pink Panther films, "A Shot in the Dark" in 1964 - until his novel "The Exorcist" changed everything, decided that the story of demon possession would make a great motion picture. Taking a real life case-history (a boy was seemingly possessed by a demon in 1949, not too far from where Blatty lived at the time), Blatty and director Friedkin turned it into the first "event" picture of the Seventies. The film has been championed as an important subject for religious debate ever since, taking on board the idea that if the Devil exists, then so too must God, but I think that this is reading a bit too much into a horror film that, in reality, is nothing more than a well-engineered exercise in terror; but what an exercise in terror it is!
"The Exorcist" gets right to the heart of what scares us, and mounts an assault on our primal fears. It takes an innocent child - a child whose relative naiveté allows her to have an imaginary friend called Captain Howdy - and introduces her to unspeakable horror, replacing the cosiness of Captain Howdy with an all too real demon. Any parent will feel pity and horror for what Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) goes through in the film, but, curiously, the filmmakers don't seem to care very much about her plight, and are more interested in moving from one mechanical set-piece to the next (apparently director William Friedkin was tyrannical on set, often firing guns all of a sudden to shake up his actors). As Regan's metamorphosis kicks in, and she becomes a repulsive pea soup-spewing monster, the film goes into overdrive, decorating the screen with vomit, blood, bile, you name it, to scare the audience witless. For many, the most horrific scenes in the film take place in the medical center where the possessed child undergoes excruciating tests on camera (this was just too much for some parents), but most people remember the head turning 360 degrees, the masturbation scene, the levitating bed, and that aforementioned projectile vomiting (actress Eileen Smith doubled for Blair in many of these scenes). There's a prologue set in Iraq, showing Fr Merrin (Max von Sydow, who came up against similar forces in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal") finding an ancient symbol of a devil, but this scene overstays its welcome by a long way, and its inclusion may be nothing more than an effort to camouflage the sensational aspects of the story by dressing it up in metaphysics. Blatty explains that he wanted people to see this symbol in the same light as the monolith in Kubrick's "2001" - this time as a symbol of the timeless qualities of evil - but the scene strikes me as unnecessary.
Running parallel with Regan's story, at least in the film's first half (before the two merge in the second hour), is a separate narrative thread dealing with the disillusionment of a young Jesuit priest, who feels enormous guilt for the neglect of his elderly mother. Playwright Jason Miller is very good as Fr Karras, and the film is as much concerned with his salvation as it is with restoring order to the MacNeil household. These early scenes also establish the world as chaotic and insane, where everybody is protesting about something (Regan's mother, a famous actress, is actually making a film about the protest movement), and where a priest can ignore the pleas of a homeless man ("can you spare a few pennies for an old ex altar boy, Father?" is a line plucked from Karras' psyche and mocked in mimicry by the demon later on in the film); it's a world that the Devil can enter with ease, and innocent Regan is a perfect vessel for its machinations. Regan, in fact, becomes the battleground for the struggle, where Karras will fight it out with the demon (and also his own inner demons), and order will be restored.
The quality of the acting on show here is of a very high standard (Blair received an Oscar nomination, as did Jason Miller, and Ellen Burstyn, as Regan's mother, got the nod from the Academy as well), but an unseen Mercedes McCambridge makes the biggest impression as the Voice of the Demon, her rasping delivery of horrendous expletives more unsettling than anything we see on the screen. Also impressive is Irish actor Jack MacGowran, who has one great scene as an abusive drunk, before he becomes one of the demon's victims. Incidentally, apart from MacGowran's big scene, what little humour there is in the film is provided by the demon, which makes "The Silence of the Lambs" one of the more successful victims of the film's influence. Friedkin's direction is assured and not without its moments of sheer brilliance: his idea to refrigerate Regan's bedroom for the final showdown between Good and Evil, so that we see the breath of the characters as eerie shafts of light, is a stroke of genius. Makeup artist Dick Smith broke new ground with his transformation of Blair from a sweet 12 year-old into a hideous cadaverous thing (and you've got to feel for the actress during these terrifying sequences), and the incredible sound won a well-deserved Oscar.
In Nick Freand Jones' BBC documentary "The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist", Blatty discusses some scenes that were cut from the final print. One of the excised scenes is a theological debate between Merrin and Karras during a respite from the arduous exorcism, which would seem to indicate that Friedkin was after full-blooded horror rather than a serious-minded treatise on God and the Devil. Another cut scene is of a possessed Regan descending the stairs bent over backwards (the infamous "spider walk"), and its absence from the finished print is less easy to explain. Maybe it's time for a Director's Cut? Before that, however, I urge you to go along and see the film that scared a whole generation of moviegoers years before Jason and Freddy sharpened their steel.
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
The first appearance of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is the most shocking scene this reviewer has ever witnessed; it's numbing in its relentlessness, offering no escape from the mindless horror on screen (this film predates "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", which it resembles in tone, by twelve years, and I bring this up only because some critics found John McNaughton's urban horror film too bleak to contemplate). And that first sound of Gunnar's roaring chainsaw is only the beginning...
Based - very loosely - on the deranged exploits of Ed Gein (which formed the backbone of the "Psycho" story), who was much given to abducting runaways, killing them, skinning them, and wearing their flesh as clothes (let's just say that Mr Ed was never in the running for local mayor...), "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is certainly a brutally direct filmic experience (the viewer becomes suffocated - and that is the right word - by the horrific, claustrophobic action on screen). It's about as close to a real-life snuff movie as possible, and the film's success on the midnight movie circuit gave director Tobe Hooper a ticket to Hollywood (where he toned down his style and made a much underrated horror film called "The Funhouse" (1980), before hitting the big time with "Poltergeist" in 1982, even if a certain Mr Spielberg is rumoured to have lent a helping hand). But this stunning debut remains his best film.
Pretty soon, as you watch the nightmare unfold, you realise that Hooper is going for extremely black comedy in "Chain Saw Massacre", but you've got to have a hell of a sense of humour to laugh at what happens to the hapless bunch of teenagers in the film. Only one of them survives the nightmare - the other four being killed in increasingly horrible ways - but this girl has undergone unbearable torture at the hands of the sadistic family of cannibals, and her escape is not the relief it should be (at least, not for the viewer). There is no sense of catharsis, of a wrong being righted, at the end of this overpoweringly downbeat work. Apparently the filming of this infamous slice of grand guignol was not a happy one, with much pain and suffering on the set (many of the actors involved have talked of their injuries sustained while filming), and we get a sense of the truth of this from watching it (is Marilyn Burns acting or is she really terrified?).
I don't know if a modern audience could sit through "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"; horror addicts weaned on the likes of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" might find Hooper's realistic mise en scene a little too close to the bone for comfort, even though there is considerably less blood on show in Hooper's film than in the more recent splatterfests (think of "Hellraiser", and even "Scream"). But those who lament the decline in scary horror films will hold "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (what a title!) close to their collective bosom and rightly regard it as a classic. It belongs in the same category as "Night of the Living Dead", in that these two films, more than any other, epitomised our worst nightmares, mainly because of their unflinching attention to realistic detail and refusal to lighten the tone (the fault of nearly every contemporary horror film): these are the kings of the "unnerving" horror film. Watch the scene where the family of chainsaw-loving degenerates capture Marilyn Burns and give their "grandfather" a hammer to use on the terrified girl (granddad looks like a corpse, and if he isn't dead then he's at least 100 years old and hasn't aged particularly well); the scene is barely watchable, because the idea of an old man battering a young girl repeatedly over the head with a hammer is absolutely nightmarish (as it is, he can barely hold the hammer, and he needs help from his relatives). The grainy look to the images heighten the realism considerably, giving the charnel house an unbearable mood of absolute evil (Robert Burns' production design - mostly dingy rooms filled with chicken feathers and furniture fashioned from human bones - conjures up a terribly foreboding disquiet as well).
Not surprisingly, the film spawned a couple of sequels, but - as with a lot of horror spin-offs - they went down the road of outright parody and are pale shadows of the original. In the final analysis, Hooper's savage but brilliantly made film is either one of the crowning achievements of the genre, or a sadistic atrocity: you decide...
There have been some terrible films made from the novels of Stephen King, but "Carrie", based on the author's first book, is one of the best of them. It gives Sissy Spacek one of her best roles, as the socially unskilled schoolgirl Carrie White, who discovers that she can move objects just by thinking about it - the white-coat brigade call it "telekinesis" - and her performance is most responsible for the film's success. Unusually, the film's one note of excess - apart from the bloodbath of the last half-hour - is to be found in Piper Laurie's deliriously OTT portrayal of Carrie's religious zealot mother; a little too delirious, perhaps, but brilliantly played nonetheless and worthy of the Oscar nomination she received. I say unusual, because the film's director, Brian de Palma, is not known for his restraint. It's amazing to see a de Palma film in which the director's trademark dizzying style is toned down in the service of a carefully-built storyline; the script, by Lawrence D. Cohen, is well above average for the genre, and is never less than intelligent, particularly in the scenes depicting Carrie's victimisation at school.
De Palma has been criticised for copying the great Alfred Hitchcock, his films being brushed off as mere imitations of the Master of Suspense, but there is no denying the director's visual flair for depicting graphic violence on the screen (he was nicknamed Brian "de Plasma" in some quarters). Whatever one can say about him, de Palma is brilliantly cinematic. The credits unfold over a beautifully shot slow-motion shower scene, which immediately remind us of Hitchcock's "Psycho" (some of the cuts used in the scene are remarkably similar). There is blood, yet it's not at the result of a knife attack, but the onset of Carrie's womanhood: she has her first period, and the ignorance and terror she displays of the process causes derisive laughter from her peers. "Plug it up!" they scream, throwing tampons at her, and the audience is completely on Carrie's side when her telekinetic powers begin to manifest and provide her with the only ammunition she has to fight back (her social skills can't cut it). Interestingly, Carrie only uses her powerful gift when she is being wronged by people who can't see beyond the gawky exterior to the intelligent woman underneath: she may be the most sympathetic 'killer' in all cinema (and I think that this is an improvement over King's novel, which tended to place the emphasis on Carrie's monstrous qualities).
Sexual repression is at the heart of "Carrie". A biological change that should be a stepping-stone in life for the young girl, is made a hurdle by the religious mania of her mother (who rants about how disgusting it is, but is clearly obsessed by it). When the frightened girl looks to her mother for guidance, she is met with malevolence and locked in a tiny room to pray under a statue of St. Sebastian. De Palma has often been severely criticised for equating sex with violence, most notably in the poorly received "Body Double", and it's hard to disagree. Perhaps the most succinct visualisation of this aspect of de Palma's films can be found here, in the scene where Laurie is pinned to the wall by flying cutlery, courtesy of her daughter's new-found mind skills, and dies in a frenzy of orgasmic moaning. And, of course, just when Carrie seems to be fitting in and gets asked to the prom by the most popular boy in school (a pre-'The Greatest American Hero' William Katt), her dreams are shattered by people who will not let her assume a position of social acceptability.
Apart from de Palma's visual trickery, there is fun to be had from the familiar faces in supporting performances. John Travolta and Nancy Allen are downright hilarious as the bickering couple who will stop at nothing to ensure that Carrie's prom night will end in disaster for her (and, as it turns out, for everybody); their idea of dropping a bucket of pig's blood on Carrie White at the prom would seem a trifle misguided in hindsight! Future Mrs Spielberg Amy Irving is solid, as the one girl in the school who feels she owes it to Carrie to try and make her happy, thus she sets up her boyfriend Katt to ask Carrie to go with him to the dance. And watch out for P.J. Soles, in a dry run for her role in John Carpenter's "Halloween".
In interviews, de Palma has defended himself against criticism that he steals from Hitchcock, by putting forward the argument that Hitchcock created the 'grammar' for suspense films, and that it would be ludicrous for a modern director of suspense thrillers not to use it. I think it's a fair point; the artistic world is full of - indeed, it thrives on - utilising what has gone before. "Carrie" does owe a debt of gratitude to "Psycho", and any number of Hitchcock thrillers, but de Palma's visual bravura elevates the film above mere plagiarism, and the deeply-felt emotions of the characters captured something fresh in the genre in the mid-Seventies. The film is also famous for one of the best 'shock' endings in horror films. Along with "Dressed to Kill" (1980), this is the director's best shocker.
Italian director Dario Argento is renowned for his visually inventive horror films, even if most of them contain narratives which spiral off into increasingly ludicrous directions. "Suspiria" is his acknowledged masterpiece, a film that has no concept of the word "restraint", but is a splendidly realised exercise in terror just the same. Wide-eyed actress Jessica Harper plays Susie Bannion, a dance student who we first meet in an Italian airport in the dead of night. As she makes for the exit doors, Argento sets up the mood of disquiet straightaway by using garish colour schemes, some subtle slow-motion inserts, and a deliriously loud rock score - all weird xylophone playing and heavy breathing - by The Goblins, and all this in the first five minutes! Susie is going to study in the exclusive Dance School run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli (and you will dispel all memories of Bennett as Spencer Tracy's wife in "Father of the Bride" (1950) after seeing her in this), but first she has to get there in the teeming rain. Without showing anything overtly suspect, the director establishes an eerie atmosphere through his obvious mastery of cinematic trickery, but when the first murder does come, it still shocks because of the elaborate nature of Argento's direction and his ability to communicate real pain by visual means (he seems to step up a gear when dealing with violence on the screen). Susie sees a girl leaving the school in some distress (Susie hears the girl speak snatches of dialogue, which becomes important later on), and she herself is told to go away when she tries to gain admittance.
The murder of the mysterious girl is so graphic and stylish - she is repeatedly stabbed by an unseen assailant before being hung (she falls through stained-glass, which kills another girl below her) - that everything else in the film seems like an anticlimax and most of the plot developments leave logic far behind. Yet, the film's second killing almost tops the first, as the unfortunate victim is taunted by a razor-wielding psycho, only to fall into a room full of wire mesh (ouch!). Udo Kier, who starred in "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" and "Blood for Dracula", two notorious horror films from the early Seventies, is brought in to introduce the witchcraft element of the increasingly bizarre storyline (the school turns out to be a front for a witches coven), and doesn't seem to serve any further purpose; it is clear that Argento's agenda involves finding highly cinematic ways to show murder on the screen at the expense of almost everything else. There are one or two effective moments of suspense, particularly when something enormous seems to hover outside the tent-like curtains around the beds of the students (erected because of an infestation of maggots!), and an eerie sequence where a blind man is attacked by his guide-dog (the large stone statues of demons shown in this scene suggests that the guide-dog has been guided itself by some outside forces). Best of all is a scene where Susie is attacked by a bat, with nothing but its horrible screechings and Susie's screams on the soundtrack (it's a very unnerving sequence, despite the obviously mechanical flying rat). It's one of the few scenes in the film where The Goblins are not heard to pound relentlessly on the soundtrack, adding immeasurably to the mood of mounting hysteria. It's hard to equate one of the screenwriters of Sergio Leone's monumental western "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Argento worked on the story with Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci), with this piece of bravura grand guignol, but then again, both films delight in the visual element to storytelling. The finale of "Suspiria" is a case in point, involving Susie's encounter with the putrid head witch, a giggling reanimated corpse, exploding crockery, and burning witches, and - surprise surprise - The Goblins cranking it up to 11 one last time; it has to be seen to be believed. Say what you like about the ludicrous storylines of Argento's films: what they lack in logical progression, they more than make up for in sheer visceral style.
Director John Carpenter proved himself a director of considerable talent with his first two pictures, the workmanlike genre pieces "Dark Star" and "Assault on Precinct 13"; but in 1978 Carpenter made what is arguably the only stalk-and-slash horror film that can be mentioned in the same breath as "Psycho" (only not too loud, okay?). Made on the shoestring budget of $320,000, the film became the highest grossing independent film ever made, its reputation resting on a few brilliantly-directed suspense sequences and a truly terrifying killer. "Halloween" proved to be a highly influential ride through a fantasy-horror landscape, a film in which one character asks if the killer terrorising Haddonfield is the bogeyman, and another answers that it certainly is. In truth, this film throws all logic right out the window, but "Halloween" offers visceral terror par excellence, so who wants logic? Right from the opening sequence, Carpenter lets us know that this is a fantasy horror film, as rooted in reality as "The Wizard of Oz" or "Peter Pan"; in this scene we discover that the killer is a little boy; his parents stand motionless in the driveway, looking at their statue-like son holding a bloodied kitchen knife, all in complete silence, save for Carpenter's chilling musical score, and this shot is held for much longer than normal (I'm positive that such a scene in reality would be accompanied by much screaming and shouting) - a totally unrealistic set-up, but a highly effective opener just the same. Carpenter's use of the widescreen is excellent, and more often than not, if you search the frame beyond its main subject, you will find action at the edges of this frame or behind the foreground subject. The director also makes great use of the Panaglide camera, particularly in the subjective camerawork employed in the opening sequence (which was done in one long continuous take). The film is so effective, I think, that it has only two challengers for title of Best Horror Film of the Seventies: "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) and "Dawn of the Dead" (1979). Even if Carpenter's classic is not the best, it's certainly the most fun.
The story begins on Halloween night, 1963, with that opening murder. Michael Myers, a six year-old, stabs his sister to death in Haddonfield, and is locked up in an asylum, where he is studied by Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Fifteen years later he escapes (during a particularly effective night-time sequence that evokes memories of those dreamlike Val Lewton films), causing Loomis to exclaim that 'the Evil has gone' - he reckons Michael Myers is evil incarnate, a monster beyond all reasoning, and he is the only person who believes that Michael will return home to continue what he started years ago (he's right, of course). The action switches to Haddonfield, as the sleepy town awaits Halloween, and the return of prodigal son Michael. We meet Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut, a virginal teenager who is too smart to be found attractive by guys (according to herself); her friends, Annie and Lynda, are more worldly-wise, and the three girls are refreshingly believable characters (their conversations about boys and sex are very witty for a genre more used to dialogue scenes acting as mere preludes to gory slaughter). There is some truth to the claim that the film is sexist in the way that it offers up scantily-clad teenage girls as serial killer fodder, but if we examine the motivation of Michael a different perspective emerges.
Michael Myers has sexual problems. Even as a six year-old he is still fascinated, and simultaneously repulsed, by sex, which is why he allows his sister to finish what she is doing with her boyfriend before he strikes. Fifteen years later, he does the same - he doesn't kill Lynda until after her sex with Paul - her boyfriend - is finished (Myers' heavy breathing after he kills her is a result of his murderous act, but also follows on from the sex he has witnessed - he's like Dennis Hopper in David Lynch's Blue Velvet in this regard, only quieter!). And because of Laurie's relative innocence in sexual matters, she is bonded to Michael in some way; as she walks down the street and Michael is caught by the camera as he watches her from behind, she sings 'Just The Two Of Us'. Of course, later in the series we learn that Michael and Laurie are brother and sister, but the writing's on the wall as early as this film. He's rather too clumsy in his attempts to carve up Laurie, as if something is holding him back, and when we consider how easily he made mincemeat of Laurie's friends, and the fact that, for all her professed smarts, Laurie locks herself in a closet - a closet! - towards the end and he still botches his attempts to kill her, it becomes clear that there is some kind of perverse relationship between the two. It's one for the psychiatrists.
Carpenter builds the suspense right from the off with an atmospheric - and very clever - musical score (his own composition); it is the only sure clue to the appearance of the killer on the screen; just before that famous white mask materialises in the frame, Carpenter will usually announce it with a musical exclamation point or a subtle change of key. Elsewhere in the film Carpenter cheats the viewer, by having a bit of fun with POV (point of view) shots: when it looks like the camera is showing Michael Myers' point of view, it cuts to show the killer occupying a different position than the one expected on the screen - thus, Carpenter flouts audience expectations and builds on the suspense in an original way. The director indulges in a bit of sleight-of-hand during the two big murder scenes, teasing the audience into thinking that they can pinpoint the timing of the killer's actions, only to let the sequence play on beyond any normal time limit and have the victim killed when the tension is at bursting point: we would expect Annie (Nancy Loomis) to be killed in the washroom, because Carpenter shows us Michael looking at her in the background - but she is allowed to escape this situation and is murdered later on. P.J. Soles doesn't fare any better: Michael watches as she makes out with her boyfriend on the couch, lets them go upstairs to bed, and then kills her only after he has despatched the boyfriend and pretended to be him for awhile (it is clear that Michael still has the mind of a child - he gazes curiously at the boyfriend's dead body in the same way a six year-old would examine a frog he has just killed). This 'stretching out' of audience expectations provides the film with an enormous thrill factor, and gives "Halloween" a Hitchcockian veneer (Hitchcock's legacy knows no bounds!).
Apart from the narrative, "Halloween" is really about cinema, and Carpenter's obvious love for the medium. That's why Howard Hawks' "The Thing" is the film that everybody seems to be watching in Haddonfield on Halloween night (as well as "Forbidden Planet", another Carpenter favourite), and it's the reason that the Pleasence character is called Loomis (after a character in "Psycho"). Carpenter loves to have his camera constantly on the move, and he enjoys the visual trickery involved in messing about with the foreground in his film. The film is terrifying - arguably the scariest slasher movie ever made - but it is not sadistically so, like, say, "Friday the 13th" or "I Know What You Did Last Summer": it's a popcorn horror - the best kind (because you are never in any doubt that it is only a movie), and, even now, when I watch it, I find myself thinking they don't make 'em like that anymore, and that is high praise indeed.
THE THING (1982)
Still in the process of gaining the immense critical praise that it truly deserves, John Carpenter's "The Thing" ranks with the very best of modern horror films, and the film could be the director's crowning achievement (I'm still not sure if "Halloween" is the more accomplished work of the two). Returning to the source of the original story (John W. Campbell's classic short story "Who Goes There?"), Carpenter, and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of Burt, trivia fans), brought the shape-changing attributes of the alien to the fore (jettisoned by Howard Hawks' 1951 version, which had James Arness shuffling about in dark corridors for most of the running time), and gave special effects maestro Rob Bottin licence to create some of the most truly repulsive creature effects in film history (at one stage in the film a character cries "You gotta be fuckin' kidding!", as another of Bottin's monsters materialises - actually, a severed head sprouts spider legs and scuttles under a table! - and he might as well be speaking for the audience). But much more than a showcase for groundbreaking special effects, "The Thing" offers a timely reminder of the kind of paranoia introduced by films like "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" (1956): loss of personality was a major theme of Fifties horror, and Carpenter here couples it with the idea of the human body in revolt, a theme emphasised in many modern horror films (particularly in the work of David Cronenberg), while at the same time undermining the Hawksian theme of a small group of professional men pulling together to overcome a crisis, which was integral to the earlier version (in Carpenter's remake, the men are divided by their own suspicions that any of their number - or all but one - could be the monster). There is also some subtle playing around with dialogue scenes - Carpenter often cuts away in the middle of a scene when you think there is more dialogue coming - which shows the director's experimental - almost playful - approach to the horror form and the controlling of suspense in particular.
The opening scene is intriguing. A helicopter chases a dog through the icy wastes of the South Pole, one of its passengers taking potshots at the unfortunate canine with a high-powered rifle. It's a premise that causes much speculation on the part of the viewer (who will already have seen the credits sequence depicting a spaceship crashing into Earth), and sets up the story beautifully. The crew of the helicopter is made up of Norwegian scientists, who have gone bonkers - or so it seems - and chased the dog all the way to the neighbouring American weather research station, manned by Kurt Russell and a disparate collection of quirky characters. The Norwegians are killed and the dog is put in the kennels with the other huskies. But, in a brilliant effects-laden sequence, this dog proves to be much more than merely Man's Best Friend, and all hell breaks loose in Antarctica.
Carpenter's film has been severely criticised for its lack of strong characterisation - all of the characters are given absolutely no room to develop - but I think this is intentional on the part of the director and screenwriter; a major theme of "The Thing" is the eradication of personality due to the introduction of outside "alien" forces. Giving the characters as little personality as possible from the outset also plays on audience expectations when each successive character is taken over by the alien (it's impossible to guess who will be next in the "And Then There Were None" plot structure of the film). It also paves the way for the marvellous open-ended ending, with two characters remaining, each wary of the other (my guess is that neither of them is the monster, because, in either case, it would have nothing to lose by immediately killing the last human), and each willing to "wait around and see what happens." We might not care very much for these characters, but we do care for the humanity they represent. Critics have rarely copped on to what Carpenter is doing in his films, and with "The Thing" most of them missed the boat entirely.
When the monster isn't bursting forth in a mass of gloopy tendrils and dripping fangs, a mood of quiet, oppressive tension is sustained by Carpenter's careful direction (watch how wonderfully he paces the scene with the blood samples) and Ennio Morricone's eerily effective electronic score is perfect. Whether you prefer Hawks' film to this one is surely not the point - they are vastly different exercises in horror - but I think Carpenter's film is in dire need of a critical revaluation; it is worth a hell of a lot more than the almost universal critical drubbing it has received since its release, and is arguably better than any horror film made since.
Wes Craven's second exercise in postmodernist horror (after the far superior "Wes Craven's New Nightmare"), "Scream" is a clever piece of cinema in a jokey Tarantinoesque kind of way (these days every film gets compared to the boy Quentin, in one way or another, particularly if they are self-referential - as this one is in spades), but it gets tangled up in all the knowing references to the genre and ultimately falls over itself in its efforts to please everybody. It's clever alright, but not clever enough to deliver a truly scary horror film (any aficionado of terror will tell you that the film is decidedly not scary). This kind of film is not a happy development for the horror movie fan, and I'm a bit surprised that a director of Craven's talent would limit himself to the kind of exercise that depends on its knowledge of past - and much better - horror films for its very existence (we even get the theme music from "Halloween" at one point!). I'll admit that scriptwriter Kevin Williamson can come up with some nifty dialogue, but the whole thing is just too contrived and downright silly towards the end (and horror films should never be silly). Maybe it isn't a horror film at all, but something that exists outside the genre, in a kind of a namedropping no-man's land kind of a genre (it often seems that Williamson name checks just about every horror film made in the last twenty years, just so we know he knows) - one character wears a Freddy Kreuger vest, and the only reason for its inclusion is so that the audience can go "How clever!"
Neve Campbell plays Sidney Prescott, the teenage girl who must live with the memory of her mother's death at the hands of a maniac the year before, and who finds herself being pressurised into having sex by her boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich). So far, so Hollywood Nineties. Enter Sidney's friends, who spout cool and clever dialogue at every turn and come across as half-baked Richard Linklater creations. David Arquette is the one exception as naive police officer Dewey, the only really likeable character in the film (compare the teenagers in "Scream" with the nice young characters in Carpenter's "Halloween", and Williamson's script becomes a cold - and much too calculating - affair).
The prologue, with Drew Barrymore being terrorised by a movie-loving maniac on the phone, is actually quite effective, but it works as a short film exactly the same way that the first twenty minutes of "When a Stranger Calls" (1979) did - the rest of the film bears little relation to this sequence and cannot measure up to it. Once we get on to the main storyline, in fact, the tightness of that opening sequence is stretched out until the whole thing becomes somewhat flaccid, despite the knowing Nineties dialogue, and then it's just a case of who will get killed next (you'll be forgiven for thinking that "Scream" sets out to kill as many clichés as teenagers, such is its determination to appear original).
The early Wes Craven - the director of "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977) and even "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1985) - would have laughed at a film like this one... for all the wrong reasons.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
"The Blair Witch Project" plays like a cross between "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) and Robin Hardy's "The Wicker Man" (1973), but I feel that it is more successful than either of those two classics at tapping into our primal fears and scaring the living hell out of us. Forget that it was made for around $40,000. Forget that it was made by people you never heard of. Forget that the film is not really a documentary at all. This is horror fare as it should be; none of that post-modernist "Scream" malarkey here, but an extremely clever exercise in scare tactics that has at least one scene that should be talked about whenever conversations turn to The Scariest Moments In Film History (gotta be the "Psycho" shower scene right? Or maybe the shocking ending to beat all shocking endings in "Carrie"?) - it's an apology caught on camera that will unhinge the hardest of hearts, and it is the most memorable scene in a film that many viewers will find hard to forget (and, naturally, has been parodied to death ever since).
Writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have hit upon an idea for a horror film that is so simple it is absolutely brilliant: they film "The Blair Witch Project" as a would-be documentary, purporting to be the recently found video footage of a documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch that three teenage filmmakers were making before they disappeared without trace in the woods nears Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994. Everything we see is footage from the two cameras that the three filmmakers were using at the time of their disappearance, and everything we see is subservient to the feelings aroused by what we don't see, but rather imagine (always the essence of good horror). This 'suggestive' horror is a trick managed by films like the original "Cat People" and Robert Wise' "The Haunting", and this latest offering is a textbook example of how to terrify an audience without resorting to all-out gore. Let's hope other filmmakers follow the lead and give the makeup artists some time off. The three actors are very good at communicating the sheer terror of being lost in strange surroundings, with Heather Donahue especially good in the most difficult role (she has to put over a character who we must feel sympathy for, but also convince us that she is the main reason for the in-fighting that results as soon as the trio lose their bearings - she is highly annoying most of the time). Josh Leonard and Michael Williams inject some much needed humour into the proceedings, as Donahue's hapless partners, with the latter particularly adept at the timely one-liner (he name checks "Deliverance" at the point where it wouldn't be any surprise at all to see a couple of hillbillies emerge from the woods with murder on their minds). Myrick and Sanchez certainly put it up to these actors, sending them into the woods with just the mere hint of a script, instructing them to go to various rendezvous points where food would await them (the bundles of food became smaller as the shoot progressed) along with script updates. At night, the directors would run around the actors' tent making weird noises and generally scaring the hell out of them, and it is these scenes - often in pitch darkness with just the terrified voices of the actors heard on screen - that are the most hair-raising.
It would be a mistake to underplay the role of the marketing campaign in turning "The Blair Witch Project" into the most successful film ever made; more than anything in the actual movie, these behind-the-scenes dealings transformed Myrick and Sanchez's film from an effective micro-budget indie hit into a veritable cinematic phenomenon, with nearly every poster screaming that it is "The Scariest Film You Will Ever See!" (it is, if you never see "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" or Sluzier's original "The Vanishing"...): the documentary behind the documentary, "Curse of the Blair Witch", which purports to interview the people who knew the three missing persons most, is a stroke of genius and the most telling example of this effort to convince us that what we are watching is actually a documentary about real events (it fooled just about everybody when it first aired).
One more thing: you'll never again sing "Teddy Bears' Picnic" without conjuring up images of eerie stick-men and terrified teenagers in tents. You have been warned.
Left of Centre Films
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) Where does one start with "2001: A Space Odyssey"? The most critically acclaimed science fiction film ever made, the one that is constantly held up as an example of 'seriousness' in the genre (a genre which is frequently criticised for its 'pulp' and 'camp' leanings: for every "Day the Earth Stood Still", there are a hundred "War of the Worlds", the argument goes, the blinkered idea being that the former embodies some kind of aesthetically superior quality, while the latter has an unwelcome comic-book veneer) - the thinking man's sf film, as it were. Whatever your opinion of the film, there is no denying the importance of 2001, and it has a unique place in cinema history.
Director Stanley Kubrick had wanted to make a science fiction film for some time, before he met with famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in the mid-Sixties. A meticulous craftsman, Kubrick wanted his film to look as realistic as possible (remember that "2001: A Space Odyssey" was made before the Moon landing), so after kicking around a few ideas, the two artists decided to use Clarke's short story 'The Sentinel' as the starting point for the film. I would suggest that Clarke's input was minimal ('The Sentinel' is responsible for the appearance of the monolith, and little else), and that the resulting film is almost entirely the vision of Stanley Kubrick.
We've all heard the following dissection of the film: "Um...nothing happens in it...it's too boring...where's the story?..." But the film is about nothing less than the evolution of Man, and it goes on to postulate a possible future for our species - if this doesn't constitute a narrative structure then Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' isn't much of a story either. The film did baffle audiences in the 60s, however, and it continues to leave people scratching their heads, wondering where the story went. It certainly was a new kind of experience for filmgoers weaned on conventional story-telling techniques. "Experience" is the operative word here: 2001 must be 'experienced', rather than followed like most conventional films. Kubrick was after something metaphysical, something more esoteric than the norm; he certainly caught it with this film.
The narrative structure of the film is divided into three sections, each one with a caption. In the first - "The Dawn of Man" - prehistoric man discovers a strange black monolith of unknown origin; this mysterious object seems to influence man's intelligence in some way, and soon he is using tools to survive. But, in a typical Kubrick development, one of the ape-men kills another of his kind with this new tool, a bone. Here is Kubrick's most simplistic visualisation of how evolutionary progress has a dehumanising aspect on mankind; it is a theme that features in all of the director's major films, from "Paths of Glory" to "Full Metal Jacket".
In the most celebrated jump-cut in film history, an ape-man throws a bone high into the air in an act of triumph (he has just used it to kill); as it descends slowly Kubrick cuts to a floating spaceship - exactly the same colour as the bone - in a perfect match-cut. Thus, the film travels four million years in one single cut. There is no sign of the expected caption, separating this section from the first one; Kubrick wants us to know that the spaceship, ostensibly a sign of Man's technological progress, is still an artefact from The Dawn of Man. This is the most important theme in "2001"; Mankind's real progress will be heralded by the total rebirth of Man, as a Starchild, a new species melding with the Cosmos, as seen in the final images of the film.
All of the human characters portrayed in Kubrick’s film are 'depersonalised', they are becoming more machine-like with the growth of technological advances, and the only character with more than a shred of humanity, is the HAL-9000 computer; his disconnection - his 'death' - is presented in stark contrast to the deaths of the astronauts he shares the spacecraft with: he sings "Daisy, Daisy", as his circuits are cut one-by-one, and moans "I can feel it, Dave" almost like a human being - but, in stark contrast, we learn about the demise of the astronauts through computerised readouts. This is a bleak vision of the future indeed, but a prophetic one.
Full of the most awe-inspiring images in all cinema, "2001: A Space Odyssey" marries drifting spacecraft with classical music, and it works beautifully (this technique was also hugely influential on future filmmakers, and you only have to look at Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", or Scorsese's "Raging Bull", to realise this). The special effects still hold up today, which is nothing short of miraculous, in the wake of the development of CGI effects (the film has an uncanny documentary 'look' to it). And it is a testament to Kubrick's extraordinary skill as a director that the film is still regarded as the best science fiction ever made.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)
The most beautiful of all westerns, Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" begins with a myth-destroying shoot-out (in which representatives of Leone's Good, Bad and Ugly characters, from you-know-where, are gunned down by Charles Bronson's The Man), only to have one myth replaced by another, more elegiac, one. Concerned not only with myth, but with a curious hybrid of myth and reality, the film works on a number of levels, but most important is its theme of the changing face of the Old West (the change heralded in by the coming of the railways, firstly, and secondly, by the passing of power from the man with the gun to the man with money - fans of John Ford's "The Man who Shot Liberty Valance", made six years earlier, will recognise the idea as if it were an old friend). Stir in the Hawksian elements that give the film a lot of its edge, and you'll wonder why this masterpiece is rarely mentioned in the same breath as "The Searchers" and "Rio Bravo" (the film is only popular with people who adore westerns).
"Once Upon a Time in the West" opens with perhaps the most celebrated credits sequence ever commited to celluloid: sprawling over twelve minutes, it gets my vote as the best opening to any film, and is the scene that undoubtedly marks out Leone as one of the finest directors ever to wield a megaphone. In this bravura sequence, we are introduced to three men waiting at a station - for whom? - and even though Leone's soundtrack emphasises the mundane nature of the task, picking out a whining windmill, the incessant buzzing of a fly, and one of the men loudly cracking his knuckles, the scene is decidedly not boring. Leone uses his patented extreme close-ups to good effect here, the marble faces seeming to have strayed from Mount Olympus, and indeed, at one point Bronson refers to himself and Henry Fonda's Frank as belonging to "an ancient race." This is the main theme of the film: men - those men who understand that their nature is rooted in violence - are becoming extinct as economics becomes more widespread (the main representative of the new world is Morton - played by Gabriele Ferzetti - a crippled railroad baron who hires Fonda to "clear the tracks;" even though he is killed, the last images of this western suggest that the 'new world' is here to stay).
There are many surprising images in "Once Upon a Time in the West", but the biggest surprise of all is the casting of Henry Fonda - an actor who had become the embodiment of integrity through his roles in "Young Mr Lincoln", "The Grapes of Wrath" and "12 Angry Men" - as a cold-blooded killer; the first time we see him he calmly shoots a young boy who has just witnessed the massacre of his family at the hands of Fonda's men. There is a story told that on the first day of shooting Fonda turned up on set with a moustache and brown contact lenses (to make himself appear more villainous), but when Leone saw him he immediately told him to get rid of the disguise and bring back Henry Fonda. His uneasy relationship with Bronson is a puzzle to Fonda: throughout the film Fonda asks Bronson who he is, and Bronson answers with the names of men. "All dead men," Fonda says. "They were alive until they met you, Frank," answers Bronson. When they finally face off against each other - as all Leone heroes eventually do - Bronson tells Frank that he will only discover his identity at the point of dying, and before he kills Frank there is a flashback explaining Bronson's reasons for killing Frank.
As he did with his "Dollars" trilogy, Leone called on the services of scorist Ennio Morricone, and the music he created for this western is brilliantly effective and complements the visuals perfectly. Unusually, Morricone actually wrote his music before any of the film was shot, and Leone instructed his cast to use the score as the tempo for their performances. The rich aural tapestry of the film, with each of the main participants having their own musical coda (droning harmonica for Bronson, electric guitar for Fonda, breezy banjo for Jason Robards, and lush orchestral score for Cardinale) certainly influenced the way films were scored ever since (Morricone's score offers us the chance to hear an electric guitar on a soundtrack for the first time).
Of course, Leone is first and foremost a visualist, and "Once Upon a Time in the West" is his most visually inventive western. That opening credits sequence is an example, but so too is the massacre of the McBain family, with the sight of a group of ducks flying skywards as a prelude. The pan upwards from Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) to reveal the busy street of Flagstone is manipulation of the widescreen frame at its very best. The tracking shot that follows a horse outside Morton's train, passing over the corpses of Morton's slain men, and finally catching up with Morton himself crawling towards a stream. The West never looked better, and no other director of westerns - not even Ford - could boast visuals as beautiful as Leone's, and this is the film for which he will be remembered most.
Both Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped Leone come up with the story, and this isn't as weird as it sounds when you consider that Argento and Bertolucci emphasised the visual aspects of their films above all else. And remember that "Once Upon a Time in the West" joins Bertolucci's "The Conformist" as the closest the cinema has ever got to opera. As with all of Leone's films, try and see this one in a theatre.
RUMBLE FISH (1983)
The Eighties were not kind to director Francis Ford Coppola; "One from the Heart" (1982) was a commercial disaster and almost spelt bankruptcy for Zoetrope Studios; a year later The Outsiders was judged a failure, particularly from the man whose kingdom was the decadent Seventies, with a throne room containing such treasures as the first two "Godfather" films, and the surreal brilliance of "Apocalypse Now" (not to mention "The Conversation", perhaps the most eye-catching bauble of them all). And why was a director of Coppola's stature wasting his talents on a teen angst adaptation anyway? But in 1983 Coppola decided to adapt a second S.E. Hinton novel for the screen ("The Outsiders" being the first), this time filming mostly in black and white - with some colour inserts - and utilising an expressionistic technique rarely seen since the German films of the Silent Era. The result received mixed reviews, with most critics judging it an interesting failure, but in terms of cinematic technique, "Rumble Fish" is the director's most accomplished work since "The Godfather, Part Two", and quite possibly the last great film from one of the cinema's true artistic giants.
We've had street gang pictures before, most notably in Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) and Walter Hill's ultra-stylish "The Warriors" (1979), but Coppola (and screenwriter S.E. Hinton) puts an existential spin on the whole youth culture, weaving an expressionistic tapestry of both sound and vision to create a spellbinding work. The characters move through a fractured, weird world, and are either too stupid or too blind to see the dead end they are heading towards. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) wants to be like his older brother, the iconically monikered 'Motorcycle Boy' (Mickey Roarke, in the performance of his career), and be a 'king' in his own turf, gaining the adulation that his brother received in the past (but who now realises that it's all a meaningless waste). Dennis Hopper is on form as the boys' father, a hopeless drunk, whose life is effectively over; the film suggests that if Rusty James continues on his present course, so will his.
It is in Coppola's brilliant direction that "Rumble Fish" attains the artistic level of the best of Eighties' cinema. He films an early street fight in stark black and white tones, and gives the scene a superbly strange "look", while the soundtrack startles the ear with heightened sound (elsewhere, the soundtrack takes a surreal turn to illustrate The Motorcycle Boy's intermittent deafness - he is also colour-blind, which accounts for "Rumble Fish" being filmed in monochrome). Stewart Copeland's punchy score is one of the best of its kind ever, an experimental aural magic carpet woven from staccato drums, jangly guitars and echoing keyboards. And pay careful attention to Stephen H. Burum's magnificent black and white photography, especially during the opening shot.
Not usually mentioned when discussing Coppola's genius as a film-maker, "Rumble Fish" is a magnificent work of art, a bold experiment that pays off in spades, and one of the best films made in the Eighties.
BLUE VELVET (1986)
The dark and sinister underbelly of modern America gets "Lynched" in "Blue Velvet", and the reaction from the audience is one of nauseous fascination. The film is one of the few masterpieces of the Eighties, a gut-wrenching exposé of the seamier side of homespun Americana ("Meet Me in St Louis" - okay, but I'm bringin' my knife and my oxygen mask...), a barely watchable pervert's version of "Our Town", with Dennis Hopper hitting a home run as the ultimate modern Mephistopheles. It's as if director David Lynch wants us to look through a glass darkly, only to find an even darker reality beyond. "Pleasantville" it ain't. And yet...
On the surface, Lumberton is just like any other American small town - a lot like Pleasantville in fact, or maybe the "normal" parts of "Twin Peaks" - but Lynch is more interested in what goes on below this sweeter than apple-pie surface. The opening sequence is legendary: the camera lingers over red roses, snow white picket fences, and an ultra-clear blue sky (symbolising - surprise surprise! - the Red White and Blue of the American flag), but then Frederick Elmes' camera travels downwards, into your average American lawn, and picks up the bugs scurrying about in their thousands. These bugs are the symbols of evil in Blue Velvet and there are many visual references to them throughout the film. It's one of the great opening sequences in films, and the rest of the film is hard-pressed to maintain this level of creativity. Shortly afterwards we meet Jeffrey, the clean-cut college boy returning home after his father has a stroke; we take one look at him and we think... nice - the boy is nice. When he finds a severed human ear crawling with bugs, it's akin to him finding the key to the gates of Hell, with Hopper waiting behind them, armed not so much with a forked tongue as a profane one (Lynch said that his film is like "The Hardy Boys Go To Hell"). But the great thing about "Blue Velvet" is that, while it takes great care to delineate the opposites contained in the storyline (good and evil, light and darkness, and so on), it still allows for one of those sides to embody traits belonging to the other, so that Jeffrey is far from a saintly figure in the film, and by the end he will have actively participated in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship and committed murder.
A part of Jeffrey is fascinated by the world inhabited by Frank Booth (Hopper) and nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini). When he hides in Dorothy's closet, and then finds himself observing a perverse sexual game between her and Frank, he is compelled to watch; when Frank leaves, Jeffrey takes his place by hitting Dorothy. When he is dragged along to the weird bar "This Is It", the hangout of Frank and his cronies, and lorded over by weirdo supremo Dean Stockwell, Jeffrey is almost there - almost a member of Frank's evil team, and the only salvation to be found will be in his killing of Frank, to prevent himself becoming another Frank. His only help is provided by Laura Dern's Sandy, the one truly good character in the film; at times this young couple are like the Hansel and Gretel of fairy tale, only instead of following the breadcrumbs which will lead them out of danger, they follow breadcrumbs - in the shape of that severed ear, some nice romantic songs, and Heineken beer - into danger. They escape this nightmarish world, but the final image, of a robin with a bug in its beak, is elusive (by using an obviously fake bird, is Lynch hinting that his happy ending is fake too?). Dorothy escapes the clutches of Frank as well, but her safely returned son looks a bit like a bug with that toy hat on his head...
Very little is to be taken at face value in "Blue Velvet"; even the relative innocence of songs like Bobby Vinton's title song, and Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", are here given a dark edge and fall on the side of the devils. The film will disturb you like no other film since "A Clockwork Orange" or "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer". True, there are many things in this film that are repulsive, but like Jeffrey, we must watch.
The release of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" in the 90s, along with its critical and commercial success, would seem to suggest that the Western - hardly the most popular of genres in recent years - might enjoy something of a revival. But "Unforgiven" offers a lot more; it is quite simply a film that joins the likes of "Red River" and "The Searchers" at the summit of the Western genre. Discussing John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", William Pechter said that 'its fascination lies less in what it is itself than in what it reveals about the art of its maker,' and to a large extent this is true of Eastwood's film; one cannot examine this western without looking at his entire career, and, in this sense, "Unforgiven" can be viewed as an emotional summation of his celluloid past. Few films are as conscious of its star's past, or indeed, the entire Western genre, as this one. "I ain't been in the saddle myself in quite a while," Munny says at one point, attempting to mount his horse, and the line is almost a Brechtian device, putting the audience 'outside' the narrative, as well as placing the film in the context of Eastwood's other Westerns (Eastwood's last Western before this one was the solid "Pale Rider" in 1985). The fact that the film is dedicated to 'Sergio and Don' - Leone and Siegel - the two directors most responsible for shaping Eastwood's screen persona - adds another note of resonance to a film positively swimming in resonance. David Webb Peoples' screenplay was written in the early Seventies, a time when Westerns like Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and Penn's "The Missouri Breaks" were heading a kind of 'revisionist' charge, films less concerned with telling a story than in providing a commentary on the genre. "Unforgiven" doesn't really fit into this revisionist mould, and it has something that those other westerns lack - dramatic focus ("Unforgiven" has drama of almost Shakespearean proportions).
There are many oblique references to other westerns in the story; the plot, involving three men on a quest to find two men who mutilated a prostitute, evokes memories of Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley attempting to track down the missing girl in "The Searchers". William Munny and Ethan Edwards are similar characters; both exist on the fringes of society, and both of their quests are set beside their inner struggle with personal demons. Edwards is doomed at the end 'to wander forever between the winds', like a dead Indian's soul, and ex-killer Munny also discovers that he is doomed to return to his past ways. The journey which takes Munny from peaceable farmer to cold-blooded killer can be seen as the reverse side of the events that changed the Eastwood character from being a man of vengeance to a community leader in "The Outlaw Josey Wales".
The town of Big Whiskey gives us another cinematic reference point: it is almost a carbon copy of the one in George Steven's "Shane". Both towns are lorded over by men of evil hiding behind public acceptance, and the scene where 'Little Bill' Daggett (Gene Hackman) gives bounty hunter 'English Bob' (Richard Harris) a vicious beating, is surely a homage to the scene in "Shane" where Jack Palance guns down Elisha Cook Jr in the mud. And perhaps the 'English Bob' character, with his fancy bag of revolvers, is meant to remind us of Colonel Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef in "For A Few Dollars More", the middle part of Leone's "Dollars" trilogy.
Another film which "Unforgiven" has much in common with, both in terms of narrative structure and in terms of the legendary status of its stars, is John Wayne's last film "The Shootist", directed by Eastwood's long-time collaborator Don Siegel. JB Books (Wayne) is a retired gunfighter who wants to turn his back on violence and die with dignity, but, like Munny, he can't escape his own legend. They both show young boys obsessed with the glamour of becoming a famous gunfighter, that it's all a facade ('what about the fancy clothes?' Munny asks the young Schofield Kid, after the youngster is appalled by the murder he has just committed). If a film like Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" shows the physical harm that a bullet ripping through flesh can do, then this western illustrates the psychological damage done to the man who pulls the trigger. "Helluva thing killing a man," Munny tells the Kid, "you take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." This shows a new maturity in Eastwood's Westerns.
On another level, "Unforgiven" can be seen as Eastwood's attempt to escape the constrictions of his Man With No Name/Dirty Harry screen persona; "I killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another," he rasps during one scene, conjuring up images from Eastwood's own celluloid origins - "I ain't like that no more," he adds, unconvincingly, in another. This is casting The Man With No Name in a more realistic setting than the almost-alien landscapes of the "Dollars" trilogy: Jack N. Green's dark lighting imbues the film with a gritty reality when compared to Tonino delli Colli's sometimes surreal images in Leone's films. "Unforgiven"'s final sequences, with Eastwood cast in the role of avenging angel, is ironic in that, while some would argue that it is a cop-out and a celebration of violence, the scene actually kills two birds with one stone (or is that five men with a single hand?) by providing a satisfying climax to the narrative, and also offering Eastwood's final salute - he has said that it is his last Western - to his own screen persona. Eastwood knows that, despite the heaps of critical praise lavished on his film, and the four Oscars of course, the lasting image which will be remembered from "Unforgiven" is that of William Munny/Clint Eastwood entering the saloon, hat over his eyes, pointing a rifle at the hushed crowd, and spitting 'who's the fella owns this shit-hole?' at them. If this is indeed Eastwood's last Western, then it's a helluva way to bow out. As the newspaperman says in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": 'when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' Fact: Clint Eastwood is a legend; "Unforgiven" indelibly prints it.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)
"I tell you this is not a world of men, Machine." Richard Roma
More testosterone than you can shake a stick at! David Mamet's magnificent stage play makes a riveting transition to the screen and works as a perceptive study of men trying to live in a man's world (except for one very brief moment, there are no women in this film). All the performances are top-notch, but it is Pacino and Lemmon who stand out: the former almost embodies that electrifying presence he had in the Seventies, with films like "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico", while former Billy Wilder alumnus Jack Lemmon is a revelation even to those critics who consider him one of the very best actors Hollywood ever embraced, playing the washed out Shelley "The Machine" Levine. Throw in a blistering Ed Harris, early promise from Kevin Spacey, an always dependable Alan Arkin, a role-model mouse in Jonathan Price, and a superb cameo from Alec "Put that coffee down" Baldwin, and... Well, you can't go wrong with a cast of that calibre, can you? James Foley directs the actors with a sure hand even though the action rarely moves out of the office where the men work as real estate salesmen. Spacey manages the office, while Ricky Roma (Pacino) is the current hotshot salesman and top man on the sales board. Roma is so confident he doesn't even bother showing up when Spacey brings in Baldwin to give his team a dressing down (in a scene written specially for the film), leaving Harris and Lemmon to absorb most of Baldwin's venom. It's a great scene - ensemble acting at its very best - and one of the key scenes of 90s cinema. Baldwin gives it to the salesmen straight: their jobs are on the line and they've got one week to boost their sales and keep their jobs ("the good news is, you're fired; the bad news is, you've got - all of you've got - one week to regain your jobs"). Closers only will be assigned the new Glengarry leads and Spacey will guard them like they're the crown jewels. But Lemmon's daughter is hospitalised and the bills are mounting up, and maybe Spacey could be persuaded to hand over a couple of premium leads... (after all, just who was it that spent eight months at the top of the board for three years running anyway?)
Watching Lemmon playing a man at the end of his rope bears witness to a great actor at the top of his game. He goes one-on-one with Spacey right after Baldwin's cameo and his willingness to do anything to pay the hospital bills is painful to watch. Later, when he calls on Bruce Altman out of the blue to try and sell him some land, his embarrassing false smiles and cocky patter should have landed him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar without further ado (and yes, I do know that the winner Gene Hackman for "Unforgiven" was astounding). Lemmon wasn't even nominated. Corollary: the Oscars are worthless. Take a look at Lemmon's face when Altman finally manages to get him out of the house - it says, "I'm beaten", without the actor having to open his mouth, and very few actors could have pulled it off as well as Lemmon.
The main thrust of the narrative concerns the robbery that sees the coveted leads stolen from Spacey's office. The act itself is never shown, and Mamet plays tricks on the audience by setting up Harris and Arkin as the obvious thieves (it is clear that Harris would rob the office if he had an accomplice to take the heat off himself, and most of their two-hander scenes involve Harris pitching the robbery to Arkin in a what-have-we-got-to-lose argument). The unveiling of the actual culprit is a neat coup by both Mamet and Foley (and you'll have to watch the film to see what I mean), but the important thing in "Glengarry Glen Ross" is not who did what, but who is saying what.
Pacino almost matches the powerful acting showcase from Lemmon, playing the brash, amoral Roma to the hilt. His scenes with Pryce are some of the best in the film (despite a shaky American accent from the British actor). In another ferocious dialogue-driven scene, he tears into Harris and some of that 70s Pacino buzz is in the air. He saves his best vitriol for Spacey, however, and you might wonder how he would have handled Baldwin if he had bounced into the office during the latter’s tutorial. On the evidence presented here, King Kong would be hard pressed to shake Roma’s unflappable demeanour. Al was nominated for the Oscar that should have went to Lemmon, but he actually won the Best Actor statuette for his barnstorming performance in "Scent of a Woman" the same year (I think he's better here). And keep an eye out for the scene between Pacino and Lemmon late in the film: two actors from different eras giving it their all ("Heat"-style goose bumps ensue).
The transition from stage to screen is often a problematic one: the result is more often than not an unexciting filmed play - all static with little electricity. "Glengarry Glen Ross", thanks to the cast, Foley’s constantly prowling camera, and the brilliant dialogue from Mamet, is a wonderful example of how to get it right.
Forget "Trainspotting" - "Naked" is the best British film of the decade. It's an angry film, comparable to Billy Wilder at his vitriolic best, and the film's intensity might prove too much for some viewers. Mike Leigh's masterpiece opens somewhere in Manchester, with a couple having sex in a dark alleyway; the emphasis is on the violence of the act, and we're not really sure if it constitutes a rape. This is modern Britain, and writer-director Leigh paints a lurid picture of a country in crisis ('where Kinnock fumbles, and Thatcher lies', as songwriter Mike Scott succinctly put it some years ago, in his song "Old England"). The main focus in "Naked" - he cannot be called the 'hero', for there is absolutely nothing heroic about him - is on Johnny, played with ferocious energy by young actor David Thewlis (his performance joins Jack Lemmon's tour de force in "Glengarry Glen Ross", as the best of the 90s); bitterness governs his every utterance, and his obvious intelligence and vision is filtered through an overriding cynicism that makes mincemeat of everybody and everything in its path. We meet Johnny in this opening sequence, and he is rarely out of camera-shot in the entire film; he is a character that could have come from the pen of Beckett by way of Irvine Welsh, a damned - and damning - prophet (he's Gandalf crossed with Sid Vicious, but more waster than wizard). Immediately after his antics of the first scene, Johnny steals a car and drives it to London ('the big shitty,' to use his own vernacular), where he thrusts his wit upon everyone he encounters, but meets his match in yuppie Jeremy (the real villain of the piece).
Once in London, Johnny visits an ex-girlfriend, Louise, played by the always excellent Lesley Sharp, who lives in a filthy flat with unemployed Sophie and nurse Sandra. His encounter with wacky Sophie, herself an intelligent soul beneath a drug-fuelled sorrowful existence, is a standout, horrific in its depiction of two burned-out souls clinging to each other: it says more about the Britain of the Nineties than most other films. It is clear from this encounter - if the film's first scene wasn't enough - that Johnny is a misogynist: he likes to inflict pain in his relationships with women, both physical and psychological pain, and his ornate and witty phrase-making, taking in everything from "The Book of Revelations" to Homer's "Odyssey", cannot completely disguise this aspect of his character. "You've had the universe and you're bored with it," he yells at his ex, but he could just as well turn these words back on himself, moving, as he does, through a bleak universe with nothing but loaded - and, in the end, empty - words to offer any kind of guidance. In the film's most telling scene, Johnny is offered shelter from the storm by a nightwatchman who guards an empty office building. This purveyor of security for the self-centred has read the Bible too, and he enjoys the ensuing argumentative battle with Johnny. This guard of dishonour cannot compete with Johnny's stream-of-consciousness discourse on the ills of Modern Life: imagine a world where the barcode - a symbol that adorns every item these days - seems to be proof that the Apocalypse is around the corner; Johnny's pessism almost sells the idea, his cavernous mind working overtime creating his very own vision of the future.
Even though Leigh is noted for the heightened realism of his work (often dubbed "social surrealism"), his characters - at least in his earlier films - are usually likeable and usually female (think of Alison Steadman in "Life Is Sweet" or Brenda Blethyn in "Secrets & Lies"); "Naked" marks a change in direction for director Leigh; his earlier films tended to have women as their central characters, with a certain sense of camaraderie existing between these modern women and their creator (Leigh has created some of the most interesting women in films). Johnny is a stark departure from this earlier cosiness, but there is a corresponding deepening of dramatic texture due to this embracing of the dark side of our souls - watching Johnny cut through the cosy bullshit is a tuning point for Leigh's cinema. But there are worse predators in Britain's social jungle. Enter Jeremy. As played by Gregg Cruttwell, this character is much more dangerous than Johnny. He is the yuppie from Hell - a rapist who uses money as his weapon of choice (Leigh is suggesting that his economic situation almost gives him a licence to do what he does and get away with it). Even Johnny cowers in his presence. If we are in some doubt as to the consensual nature of the sex in Naked's first scene, we are left in no doubt that Jeremy rapes and humiliates Sophie beyond any sense of reason. He's what Shakespeare would have called a smiling damned villain, and what Leigh presents as the future of Britain. No wonder Johnny is mad as hell, but Howard Beale has nothing on him (Johnny will still have to take it: no choice, you see).
Life - the dark side of existence, that is - has rarely been portrayed with such overpowering bleak imagery (Leigh is a modern Dickens in this regard), where conversation is almost a bloodsport. I guess I'll have to leave the last word to Johnny: on first meeting Louise in London, where she asks him how he got here -
"Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang, and the bang expanded, energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to froggie, to froggie to mammal, to mammal to monkey, to monkey to man: amo, amas, amat, quid pro quo, momento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on little bits of grated cheese and leave under the grill til Doomsday."
Michael Mann's "Heat" is a classy thriller, just about the finest one of the decade in fact, containing some career-best performances from a great cast and action scenes that are up there with the best the genre has to offer.
Anyone familiar with the director's previous work, such as "Thief" and "Manhunter", will recognise some familiar themes here: the hunter and the hunted being almost mirror images of each other, the director's Antonioni-influenced framing of architectural structures as if they were characters in themselves, and his effective use of ambient music to give the action a peculiar mood of disquiet amongst the lushness of the surroundings. You'll also recognise Hawksian elements in the playing up of the professionalism of the two adversaries. And, of course, Heat is the film which finally brings Al Pacino and Robert De Niro face to face - albeit briefly - in two brilliantly staged - and acted - scenes.
Running 171 minutes, "Heat" gives the heavyweights a chance to really get into their roles, and De Niro, in particular, gives his most compelling and controlled screen performance since "The King of Comedy" (1983). Neil McCauley (De Niro) is a bank robber so thoroughly disciplined that everything is subservient to the job. He lives by the creed "never let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner", which causes a few problems when he falls for designer Eady (Amy Brenneman); "I am alone, I am not lonely", he tells her, and for once he gets it wrong. For his part, cop Vincent Hanna (Pacino) lives his life bound by strict self-imposed rules ("you live among the remains of dead people," his wife Diane Venora tells him at one point, and it is a truthful observation); thus, in the classic coffee shop confrontation, both men recognise that they are two sides of the one coin, even though they are on opposite sides of the law.
It is this ambiguous relationship, where each man has a deep respect for the other, that gives the film much of its excitement and its kinetic energy, but Mann ups the ante with a couple of brilliantly staged action sequences, particularly a high-adrenalin shootout on the streets of Los Angeles, which is as good as any similar sequence in a John Woo film, so that the film is a carefully balanced mixture of action and characterisation.
It has been said that Mann has a unique knack for selecting the right actor to fit a role, even down to the bit players, and Heat testifies to this. Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore are excellent as two members of McCauley's team, Jon Voight is solid as a rock playing go-between Nate, and former Thomas Harris serial killers Ted Levine and Tom Noonan are unrecognisable but highly effective in their relatively brief roles. Making the biggest impression of all is Ashley Judd as Kilmer's dissatisfied wife (who wonders how she got herself into "this rat bastard situation"), with a performance that is not overshadowed in any way by the two acting giants. Only Amy Brenneman fails to impress in an admittedly underwritten role as De Niro's love interest.
Mann usually directs from his own screenplay, making him one of America's leading auteurs at the moment. No matter what the subject matter, a Michael Mann film is guaranteed to be visually striking and meticulously crafted, with equal attention afforded to both the performances and the look of the film. Heat is no different: Dante Spinotti's camerawork is marvellous, particularly during the two robbery sequences, and Mann's attention to detail borders on the ludicrous at times. The staging of the central bank robbery and its violent aftermath is a case in point: the robbery itself takes only a couple of minutes, and the shootout begins so suddenly (watch Kilmer's change of facial expression) you may wonder at the haphazard nature of it all. But Mann builds the scene like a master craftsman: the scattershot nature of the gun battle camouflages the precise direction of Mann, marshalling every aspect of the scene with considerable skill, and it is likely to be mentioned every time great action set-pieces are discussed by critics.
"Heat" has its detractors: many have complained that the film is overlong. But Mann packs more into the nearly three-hour running time than most directors have achieved in their entire careers, and the film remains the director's best work to date.
THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
Terrence Malick's return to cinema begins with a crocodile sinking slowly into a pond; it's a mesmerising image, and in visual terms, prepares us for the sometimes awe-inspiring depiction of nature - and Man's uneasy relationship with it - in this sometimes awe-inspiring film. Just as he did in his first two films (his entire output, up to the release of this film), "Badlands" (1973) and "Days of Heaven" (1978), Malick presents us with awesomely beautiful images in the service of a narrative that defies convention and any element of commercialism; that he has produced a flawed masterpiece should come as no great surprise to those people who have waited twenty years for the director to break his silence.
"The Thin Red Line" is based on James Jones' middle novel in his World War Two trilogy, a series of books beginning with From Here to Eternity and ending with Whistle; the book is long and powerful, and its description of men in combat proved to be a huge leap forward for the author in artistic terms - Jones really does capture the horrible reality of man pitted against man, with nothing between them but their inability to get along. I don't want to get bogged down in an argument concerning how faithful the film is to its literary antecedent, because it is my belief that no film owes a thing to the novel it is based on: the film is a totally separate entity, a work entire, with little relationship to the literary work (thus, there is no such thing as an "unfilmable novel"), and this review will concentrate on what Malick has put on the screen, rather than how the director's vision compares with that of the author.
The action is set in the Pacific: Guadalcanal, a small island, and the scene of a battle between American and Japanese forces which proved to be a turning point in the war, is the beautiful arena for the events shown here. It is a richly naturalistic place, filled with magnificent creatures and luxurious foliage; the natives enjoy a way of life at odds with most of the "civilised" world and seem to have a harmonious relationship with the nature surrounding them. Into this Eden strolls the soldier, the man of violence, and while he deals in death among the long grass, nature looks on, often caught up in the human conflict (we see an injured bird pull itself along the ground, verdant hills turned into a hellish inferno by saturation bombing, and a captured crocodile - the one we saw in the opening scene perhaps? - suffering the physical abuse of the soldiers), but finally, nature is presented as too pure and too powerful to give way entirely to humanity's folly. Malick's Guadalcanal is the arena for the ultimate war - Man against Nature - with the victor firmly established in the film's last shot of a single helmet lying on the sea-shore, engulfed by water, as timeless an ending to a war film as one can get: Man's warring nature goes way beyond the Guadalacanal sortie, to be mapped out by events in our entire history on this planet; Nature is a spectator in this, but an omnipotent presence just the same.
Jim Caviezel plays Witt, a soldier who detaches himself from his fellow soldiers, and seems to exist on the very fringes of human society, in a world fashioned from his dreams and memories (the actor wears an otherworldly smile throughout the film, while the faces of his colleagues are awash with panic). He senses the rapture in nature, and asks questions as to why Mankind cannot hold onto this feeling - of being part of a greater, more spiritual, whole - most of us sense in fleeting moments throughout our lives (ironically, this feeling is most often attained in times when we are close to death - witness a soldier touching the fronds of a leaf before once again being thrown into the heat of battle), and which he is closest to during the time he spent AWOL living with the islanders. Sgt. Welsh, played effectively in a rare low-key performance by Sean Penn, argues these points at different times in the film, flying the flag for pragmatism in the earlier scenes ("there ain't one world but this one"), and yet showing signs that he might be won over by Witt towards the end. ("Still believing in the beautiful light, are you?" he asks Witt after the big battle sequence - the best of its kind since Welles' "Chimes at Midnight" - "How do you do that?" he adds, with envy.) There would seem to be a growing awareness in Welsh by the end of the film, and it can be read as an optimistic ending because of this. Elsewhere, Nick Nolte's character is fighting with the standards he has set for himself as a career soldier, John Travolta's General has no idea where he is, George Clooney gets about sixty seconds to show us that he thinks the war is a cabaret and he's got top billing, Woody Harrelson dies a terrible death, Elias Koteas will do anything to ensure the safety of his men, and John Cusack shows us once again that he is one of the finest actors around (his performance embraces the "less is more" credo). Ben Chaplin is very good too, as the soldier who must fantasise about his wife - whom he loves dearly - to get himself through the war, and he really should make more films. Towering above all these characters is John Toll's exquisite camerawork, which should land him an Oscar, presupposing that the Academy can see straight, of course: his shot of "the rosy-fingered dawn" is worthy of the award all on its own. Hans Zimmer's music is surprisingly effective also, the best he has ever done, in fact, and might also get the nod from the Academy on Oscar night.
Maybe some of the scenes in the film could have done with a trim, particularly those in the latter half after the fighting is over, but that is the one flaw in this magical work, and it stands as a glowing testament to the fact that very few directors can touch Malick when it comes to visualising the tantalisingly vague overlapping of Man and Nature. Critics will argue that the film lacks closure, but isn't this an essential characteristic of life? Along with last year's "Dark City", "The Thin Red Line" offers the most sublime and visually inventive critique on the search for the soul as we are likely to see for quite awhile, and both are impossible to forget.
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)
Orson Welles' second film, following his monumental debut with "Citizen Kane", "The Magnificent Ambersons" is actually a more mature, more reflective work than its predecessor, and this is despite the fact that RKO butchered the film while the director was away in Brazil filming a documentary for the war effort; then they tacked on a happy ending which Welles didn't even shoot (it's attributed to either assistant director Freddie Fleck or editor Robert Wise). The reasoning behind this act of savagery was that an audience would not understand Welles' cut of the film, particularly when they were expecting another "Kane". The result of this interference is that Welles' 131-minute version is lost forever (and is probably the ultimate Holy Grail of film legend), but the 88 minutes that survive are sublime and testify to an incredible talent. The film itself is based on a Booth Tarkington novel, but the general consensus is that Welles has vastly improved on the book and, even in its truncated form, the work is a true masterpiece of the cinema.
The theme of the film is the destruction of time and how one century gives way to the next in the name of progress (the film opens during the last years of the 19th century): it laments the passing of a gentler, more innocent, era. Welles' introductory voiceover narration sets the scene:
"The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendour lasted throughout the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet."
The early scenes introduce us to Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a fairly successful inventor who falls in love with Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). In a series of bravura sequences Welles cleverly conveys the changes in fashion at the turn of the century alongside Eugene's increasingly inept wooing of Isabel, utilising the disembodied voices of the townspeople to act as a kind of Greek chorus (Welles' use of sound is incredible throughout). This technique is markedly different from that employed for "Citizen Kane" - just compare the opening sequences from both films - and testifies to the wonderful innovator that Orson Welles proved to be throughout most of his career (even the credits are spoken by Welles, rather than shown). Stanley Cortez lit these scenes in the style of the photographers of the time and the period is convincingly conveyed - he even utilises the old silent technique of the iris camera shot to emphasise the Victorian flavoured period. These scenes would honour any great director in his twilight years, and it's amazing to think that Welles was still in his mid-twenties when he made "The Magnificent Ambersons".
The storyline sees Isabel eventually marrying the prosperous Wilbur Minafer, while Eugene leaves the town and becomes successful as an automobile designer. This hurts Aunt Fanny, Isabel's sister, more than it does Isabel, because it is she who truly loves Eugene: Agnes Moorehead gives the film's best performance as the lovelorn Fanny, the spinster who spends most of her years suffering the pangs of unrequited love and the woman who must suffer the cruelty of Isabel's son. The introduction of George Amberson Minafer (an unusually brilliant Tim Holt), the spoilt young upstart son of Isabel, sets the story up for its tragic consequences and Welles' narration takes on darker tones as a consequence. When Eugene returns with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), it is clear that George despises all that the older man represents - he looks on the automobile as a monstrosity and is not afraid to speak out against it. The scene where Lucy and George meet at the Amberson ball is the most beautiful in all cinema, done in one long tracking shot that moves from Cotten and Costello as they walk towards the dance floor, and then across the dance floor to catch up with Holt and Baxter talking in the shadows. This sequence is perfect. The scene also serves to highlight George's precocious nature in his matter-of-fact tone with Lucy. When Wilbur dies and Eugene again begins to show an interest in Isabel, George refuses him entry to the huge Amberson mansion (even though George has now fallen for Lucy) - there's a great shot of Holt fuming just inside the door of the great house, while Cotten stands mute in silhouette just outside. Clearly, George Amberson Minafer must get his comeuppance.
With Wilbur gone, and Isabel's health growing worse by the minute, the magnificence of the Amberson's begins to wane. Now the once-commanding mansion shows signs of decay - a crumbling reminder of a bygone age - and George must resort to actually working in order to survive. The death of his mother leaves George all alone, with only Aunt Fanny for company, and soon after that he is almost killed in an automobile accident; he has finally got the comeuppance that most everyone prayed for (but, as Welles tells us in his narration, most of the townspeople who wished it on him have long since died). But the film ends on an upbeat note, with Eugene and Fanny conspiring to make George's last years happy ones - an ending which sticks out like a sore thumb when compared with what has gone before, and it seems totally out of touch with the mood of pervading doom created by Welles up to that point.
I think "The Magnificent Ambersons" represents Orson Welles' best work, a film which reveals his poetic side more than the technical aspect of his genius; and don't bother wondering "what if" as you watch this severely cut work: better to marvel at what you do see, and, like the theme of the film, shed a tear for a lost era in filmmaking.
MCCABE AND MRS MILLER (1971)
One of Robert Altman's most interesting early works, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971) may prove infuriating for some viewers. It's an anti-western, a film that glories in the muddied squalor of the Old West (no sign of Ford's beloved Monument Valley here!), and the key word is deglamorisation. Beatty is McCabe, a grizzled stranger who arrives at the poor town of Presbyterian Church, and who decides that he could make some money there. He makes money alright, but it is only with the arrival of Mrs Miller (played very well by Julie Christie), who counteracts McCabe's relative naiveté in money-matters with a keen business sense, that he becomes prosperous and a well-known figure in the town. This, in turn, brings him to the attention of bigger businessmen, who want to buy him out, and who will resort to violence if they don't get their way. This is what was happening all over America at the turn of the century: large corporations were buying out small businesses, effectively ruining people who just want to make an honest dollar. The film ends with a snowstorm and a violent confrontation, but it should leave you to rethink your ideas of heroism in an increasingly harsh world.
I don't think Beatty has ever been better than he is here, playing the awkward McCabe as a loveable buffoon who doesn't know what he's getting into when he decides to fight the suits (represented by Altman regular Michael Murphy and Anthony Holland); ironically, I think he does his best acting when he's not reacting to someone else on screen - the scenes where he is alone on screen, talking to himself, show Beatty at his best. McCabe is one of the most personable losers ever to grace the screen, and Beatty works hard to make the characterisation a memorable one. Julie Christie, as the worldly-wise Constance Miller, is almost Beatty's equal, playing the hard-talking woman as vulnerable underneath the iron shell (she is addicted to opium), and she was nominated for an Oscar (Jane Fonda got it for "Klute"). But "McCabe and Mrs Miller" is not really an actors' film: it's a director's film, and, to a lesser extent, it's a cinematographer's film. The muted tone Vilmos Zsigmond achieves with his camera gives the film its personality, the warm interiors contrasting with the snow-flecked exteriors to great effect. The final twenty minutes, with McCabe trying to keep one step ahead of three gunmen as the snow falls incessantly around Presbyterian Church, is probably Zsigmond's best work (in fact, the two films he made with Altman, this one, and "The Long Goodbye", represent the Hungarian artist's best work, highlights in a career that includes lighting "Deliverance" in 1972, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), for which he won an Oscar, and "The Deer Hunter"). Even the muck and filth of much of the film's setting is rendered extremely beautiful by Zsigmond's craftsmanship.
Altman sticks to the technique that he developed for "M*A*S*H". A large-scale ensemble cast of quirky characters are allowed to come to life on the screen, mainly because of the director's use of realistic overlapping dialogue and his deft handling of what might be called "everyday situations"; there are many scenes where Altman will show two people talking, then cut away to another group having a conversation, but still retaining the dialogue from the initial conversation on the soundtrack, overlapping the new dialogue. And the sudden outbreak of violence, another of the director's "tricks", is exemplified in a stunning scene where Keith Carradine is gunned down by a kid on a rickety bridge - it is one of the most shocking sequences in Seventies cinema. His decision to use some of Leonard Cohen's songs over the visuals, which might seem like a bizarre idea given the setting, actually works beautifully, and goes a long way to establishing a wonderful melancholic mood throughout "McCabe and Mrs Miller". All of these elements help to make this film one of the director's most emotionally powerful works and, along with "Nashville", I think it's the best film of Altman's career.
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
Many Raymond Chandler fans were disgusted at what Robert Altman did to Philip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye"; in place of the hardboiled, tough guy private detective, immortalised by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks' seminal "The Big Sleep" (1946), we get Elliott Gould's mumbling unshaven slob, who cannot even feed his cat (in the film's brilliant opening scene). This Marlowe, who mumbles "that's okay with me" in any given situation, might seem like a million miles from Bogie, but both retain the sense of morality that the character embodies in Chandler's superbly written novel. Altman, working closely with talented cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, places Marlowe in a world that is quickly turning into a cesspool (Los Angeles stands in for the bigger picture), making the slovenly character the only one who really cares, and the result is a great film that might not be to everyone's taste (all of Altman's work falls into this category).
The plot is a loose affair - this is Altman, remember - and adapted by Leigh Brackett (who worked on "The Big Sleep"), with - I suspect - the director looking over her shoulder. Soon after Marlowe fails to feed his cat he gets a visit from old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton) who's in a spot of trouble. Lennox tells him he's beaten up his wife and wants a lift to Tijuana. Marlowe obliges - he feels a sense of duty to old friends. When he gets back he is arrested for aiding Lennox, whose wife is found beaten to death. Thrown in jail, he is released when Lennox apparently commits suicide. Marlowe doesn't believe any of it. He receives a call from a Mrs Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), who wants the private detective to find her missing husband, alcoholic writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). As Marlowe begins his investigation he soon discovers that both mysteries are linked and that crime boss Marty Augustine (film director Mark Rydell) is involved. Okay, it doesn't sound loose, but the way Altman handles it, with throwaway scenes that seem to have little to do with the narrative - that ten-minute opener with Marlowe's cat for instance - the film has a loose, lazy feel to it that actually works superbly. Even John Williams' musical score has this quality: it is almost entirely made up of various versions of the title song playing constantly in the background, and the visuals are enhanced by this witty technique. Zsigmond adds his own signature, particularly in the scene where Van Pallandt and Hayden have another one of their arguments: as they shout at each other in their beach house, Gould is reflected in the glass door, waiting for them on the beach - it's a magnificent shot.
Altman and Brackett updated the story to the early Seventies, a time when morality was an increasingly rare thing, when criminals were getting away with it, and the world had no heroes to speak of. Altman's Marlowe is no hero, but men like him are all we got. Gould is very good in a highly original reading of the role. He lives next door to a group of female hippies, always stoned, always topless, and they have no effect on him at all (contrasting with the reaction of everybody else who observe them). He chain-smokes, steers clear of violence by smart-assing his way out of tricky situations, and is a character that could only exist in an Altman film (this Marlowe is quite similar to Gould's portrayal of Trapper John McIntyre in the director's first big hit "M*A*S*H" in 1970). Hayden is good too, as the blustery Wade, a showman with nothing much to show, who turns out to be one of the hapless victims in "The Long Goodbye". But Rydell makes the biggest impression as the fast-talking Augustine. His only real outbreak of physical violence in the film, involving a coke bottle, is one of the most shocking scenes in cinema (Altman was very good at these moments of unexpected violence), and Joe Pesci must have seen this performance before he did "Goodfellas".
In a decade that produced some of the best films ever made, "The Long Goodbye" is one of the best of them. Oh, and look out for one of Augustine's burly henchmen, billed as Arnold Strong - he later changed his name to Schwarzenegger and became quite famous apparently.
THE WARRIORS (1979)
Walter Hill's ultra-stylish film gained a certain amount of notoriety when it was first released, primarily because of a number of violent incidents in theatres where it played. A case of life imitating art? Whatever your feelings about the depiction of violence on celluloid, there is no denying that "The Warriors" gets the blood pumping like very few others. The film is about a street gang who get blamed for the murder of a charismatic gang leader at a massive rally held in New York. From then on, the gang - The Warriors of the title - must get back to their home base in Coney Island with every other gang intent on killing them. It's a great premise for a film, but Hill turns it into something special: the director's use of colour is original and eye-catching, and the almost poetic way he handles violence is breathtaking (this is "The Red Shoes" savaged by "Reservoir Dogs" - a "Tales of Hoffmann" as told by Hannibal Lecter - we're talking balletic violence here, make no mistake).
Save for the last scene, the entire film is set at night, allowing Hill, and his regular cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, to dazzle us with their elaborate colour schemes. The title sequence is a case in point: beginning with a shot of Coney Island's fairground Ferris wheel in darkness, all we see are the multi-coloured neon lights on a black background, and the shimmering light of a train approaching its station. We are introduced to each gang member in turn, as they seem to address the camera directly in crisply edited little snippets, while Barry de Vorzon's thumpy score underlines the unmistakable tension of the sequence. It's an arresting opening, and the rest of the film doesn't disappoint. Some of the acting is a little shaky, except for wacky David Patrick Kelly, as the wide-eyed looney who sets up The Warriors in the first place: his performance ensures him a place in the Bad Guy Hall of Fame (once heard, his "Warriors, come out to play-ay!" will not be forgotten in a hurry). But in a film like this the actors are redundant. What's important here is the mise en scene: the vibrant look of the film and the way in which Hill fills the frame with dazzling images of choreographed violence. For me, the standout scene is the one where The Warriors become involved in a midnight chase with baseball-wielding gang members made up to look like Gene Simmons wannabes: apart from choreography that wouldn't look out of place in a Bob Fosse production, the sequence allows James Remar to deliver the immortal line "I'm gonna shove that thing up your ass and turn you into a popsicle" (what's happened to the art of screenwriting these days?). Hill breaks up the tension of the action scenes by frequently cutting to Lynne Thigpen, as a cool radio disc jockey, who plays funky music and announces the latest developments in the Warriors Versus The Rest of the World scenario (we only get to see a close-up of her lips throughout the film).
Apparently, "The Warriors" has its origins in Sol Yurick's novel of the same name, which, in its turn, was based on Xenophon's "Anabasis" (a Greek play, no less); but, for any film fan with eyes, the true precedent to this visual banquet is probably "West Side Story", by way of Sam Fuller. It might not be "All Singing!", but it's certainly "All Dancing!" (most of the cast were, in fact, dancers), and "The Warriors" remains as vibrant today as when it was released over twenty years ago and it's still Hill's finest hour.
(Note: Look out for Mercedes Ruehl, as an undercover cop who puts the squeeze on James Remar.)
"Dreamchild" is a wonderful little film - the perfect example of a sleeper - and built around a great performance by a 72 year-old Coral Browne. She plays Alice Hargreaves, an English woman who travels to New York in the 1930s. The hook is that she is going to accept an honorary degree on the centenary of Reverend Charles Dodgson's birth. Dodgson is better known by his pen name - Lewis Carroll - and it transpires that Mrs Hargreaves provided the inspiration for his "Alice in Wonderland" stories when she was a clever little girl.
As the film unfolds, we learn that the memories that come flooding back to the woman are painful and they cause her to meld fact and fiction in her confused mind. The late Jim Henson created the grotesque creatures from the Alice books, and the scenes where the old Alice has imaginary conversations with The Mock Turtle and The Mad Hatter, among others, are highly effective and strangely moving. In the flashbacks - and these are beautifully timed throughout - Ian Holm is excellent as the troubled Dodgson, and the chemistry between himself and the young Alice (nicely played by Amelia Shankley - where is she now?) is expertly conveyed.
Gavin Millar's direction is quite good, but I tend to agree with the criticism that the scenes set in the New York of the Thirties are full of unnecessary caricatures and stolid dialogue (which is surprising, given that the screenwriter is Dennis Potter, an author not usually known for that kind of thing). But Browne's acting is so good that she somehow manages to illuminate all these sequences, and her presence is almost regal. Nicola Cowper is fine too, as Alice's travelling companion, who might actually be the young passionate woman that Alice never allowed herself to become (she is hardened against the world), and who may yet break through to the softer nature of her employer, glimpses of which we see in the fantasy scenes.
The film ends on a positive note, which is extremely resonant when one thinks of the circumstances of Mr Potter's death in 1994 from psoriatic arthropathy (a skin disorder which affects the nervous system). The man left a formidable, often controversial, body of work: "Brimstone and Treacle", "Pennies From Heaven", and the monumental television series "The Singing Detective", are among his best-known works, and they are all highly original and very important literary achievements.
BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
Highly polished nonsense from Paul Verhoeven, "Basic Instinct" is an implausible, wildly over-the-top thriller, with incredibly inept dialogue and supremely fuzzy characterisations, but - and here's the irony - it all adds up to wonderfully compelling entertainment. Of course, there's the sex. Ah yes! Sex, sex everywhere, and ne'er a pause to think (to paraphrase one of the literary giants of yesteryear). The raunchy bits are raunchy with a capital "R", and contain some of the best choreography this side of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers". Maybe Sharon Stone does strut her stuff once too often but who's complaining? (Not Michael Douglas.) Cut out the sexual shenanigans and you're left with a none too convincing murder mystery that lasts about as long as a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
The plot tries hard to be a convoluted affair - it's scripted by Joe Ezterhaus, so what can we expect? - beginning with the savage murder of a rock musician named Johnny Boz, who has the good fortune to expire after only five minutes of screen time, thus avoiding the acute embarrassment of having to mouth the atrocious dialogue that follows. His only scene is - wouldn't you know it? - a sex scene, the dialogue consisting of various guttural sounds and a fairly good impression of an agitated gorilla (where was Johnny when "Congo" was being cast?); then again, who wants to come over like a member of the House of Lords when you got an extremely naked blonde to play doctors and nurses with? Anyway, nursie takes out her ice-pick and stabs Johnny 31 times with it, deflating his ego somewhat, and suspicion falls on his main squeeze Catherine Tremell (stone cold Shazza), who is a writer (ha!), and has written a book about a rock star stabbed to death with an ice-pick...
Seems like an open and shut case to me, but not to flawed cop Nick Curren (a better than usual Michael Douglas). Nick's contention is why write about a murder and then carry it out in minute detail only for the cops to finger you as the prime suspect. That would be stupid, thinks Nick. Nobody's that crazy, thinks Nick. But there is something weird about that Tremell broad... Before you can say "Kama Sutra" Catherine has Nick back drinking and smoking (I told you he was flawed) and generally acting like leftovers from American Pie.
To be fair to Verhoeven, he gives the audience what it wants; nothing is implied in his films, everything is shown in glorious Technicolour. Working with effects wizard Rob Bottin he creates amazingly gruesome murders, revolting and fascinating the audience at the same time. The director's rulebook seems to consist of showing everything literally: if the script calls for a cop to be shot to pieces then go ahead and show it (ala "Robocop"). Need your bad guy to have his arms ripped off? Rip 'em off (Total Recall). Want to see what happens when a man gets stabbed in the face with an ice-pick? Look no further than "Basic Instinct". Yep, guilty pleasures abound in the oeuvre of Paul Verhoeven.
Much has been said about the depiction of lesbians in the film, many criticising it for portraying all the lesbians - and bisexuals - as completely off their trolleys or homicidal maniacs (usually both). This is a moot point, however: Verhoeven's film is an entertainment, like all of his work, seeking to hook its audience with some off-balance characters and ludicrous plotting, rather than churning out yet another debate about sexual politics. The attitudes displayed in the film cannot be read as the director's - or the writer's; the film is merely a story involving female characters that happen to be, in the parlance of Randle P. McMurphy, "right down the road wacko".
Finally, a word about those notorious sex scenes. Well, they're by turns steamy and crude, totally devoid of any kind of eroticism, and a bit of a bore really once you've seen Douglas' arse for the seventh time. "Basic Instinct" is not about sex in the way that "Last Tango in Paris" or "In the Realm of the Senses" were about sex - it merely uses the sexual content as its selling point, and the film is primarily about going to the cinema, putting your brain in neutral, and being taken for a ride...(ouch!). Oh, and listen out for Jerry Goldsmith's musical score - it's up there with his best.
Last question class: what the hell is Michael Douglas wearing during that nightclub sequence?
your Amazon recommendations - Jahsonic - early adopter products