Sunday 28 April 2019

Freddy Krueger Has Risen from the Grave

I'm taking some time at the moment to rewatch some of the horror films of my misspent teens and twenties. First and foremost: the Nightmare on Elm Street series. I've seen and adored the 1984 original a good number of times over the years, but I haven't watched the sequels since boarding school, back in 2003-4, on DVD with a friend. (I remember being thrilled by cherry coke and microwave popcorn, which didn't exist in my parents' sensible household.) We gave up after The Dream Child, if memory serves at all right, which from what I've read seems both sensible (in the light of Freddy's Dead) and regrettable (I missed out on Wes Craven's New Nightmare). The point is, it's been a while.

Back in the day I enjoyed A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), but the reviews I've read since haven't been kind. And yet the film really holds up. Freddy's Revenge has problems, sure; a lot of them if you're exacting, but none to my mind film-breaking. And at the same time it's really bold and experimental and subversive (within the limits of the extremely rigid slasher genre, you understand). That's partly by accident - slasher aficionados have given the genre far more thought than the people who made most of these films ever did - but it's real nonetheless.

We open on a school bus in Springwood, Ohio, where an awkward-looking teenage boy, Jesse (Mark Patton) sits alone, while groups of cool kids giggle among themselves. But what seems like a normal ride to school turns to terror when the bus driver, a burnt-looking man with a knife-glove, drives the bus off the road and into the desert (!?), where shenanigans ensue - until Jesse wakes up, soaked in sweat and screaming, in his bed.

It turns out that awful nightmares have been a regular feature of Jesse's life since his family moved to 1428 Elm Street, the house where Nancy Thompson lived in the first film. Jesse has trouble fitting in at school, spending time only with his girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Myers). The nightmares grow worse: Jesse finds himself walking into the boiler room in the basement and keeps running into the fedora-clad bus driver from his nightmares, one Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Freddy explains that he wants Jesse to 'kill for him' so that he can take over his body and return to the real world. Before long the bodies start to pile up, each followed by Jesse waking up with Freddy's glove on his hand...

The plot isn't just not a rehash of the original, it inverts it: where in A Nightmare on Elm Street Nancy was trying to pull Freddy into the real world to defeat him, in Freddy's Revenge it's Freddy himself who's trying to punch through the looking glass, while the heroes are trying to keep him down. What I like best, though (SPOILERS), is that the role of protagonist shifts from Jesse to Lisa at the end of the second act. As Jesse becomes ever more stressed and sleep-deprived, he's increasingly incapable of dealing with the situation; eventually, Freddy takes over his body entirely, so that Jesse, inasmuch as he exists any more, is now the antagonist. Lisa takes over as Final Girl and resolves the plot, so that the happy ending is her freeing him from captivity. The standard slasher structure is definitely there, but twisted for a more interesting take.

Here's what makes this messier, alas: Freddy's Revenge doesn't follow the franchise rulebook for what Freddy can and can't do. While he's still yelling about how he wants to return to the real world, he's already doing things in the real world that he shouldn't be able to. Specifically, a lot of stupid poltergeist crap that's more baffling than scary, like setting the family toaster on fire ('It wasn't even plugged in!' dunh dunh dunh) or the film's abiding moment of shame: Freddy possessing the family parakeet. Oh noes, the bird is swooping down on the family in tremendously goofy POV angles, giving Jesse's dad a minor cut on the cheek! Shock horror, Jesse's dad broke the lamp trying to hit the bird! Followed by the pièce de résistance: the bird bursts into flames and blows up, showering the family with feathers, like it swallowed a stick of dynamite in a forties cartoon.

But then again, A Nightmare on Elm Street didn't do it by the book either: Freddy levitates Tina off the bed, in one of that film's best scenes, in a way he absolutely shouldn't be able to do according to what we think of as the franchise rules. The ending, of course, is famously obscure and totally blurs the line between dream and real world: you tell me who's alive and who's dead at the end of the first film, since I can't (Freddy's Revenge clears that up in a bit of exposition), whether Glen and Nancy's mum were in fact dragged off bodily to the underworld or not and so on. Really, Freddy's Revenge is breaking rules that didn't exist yet when it was made, so I'm happy to give it a pass.

Then there's the issue of what, if you didn't know the meaning of words, you might call the film's 'homoerotic subtext'. Jesse is gay. It's just barely possible to read the film in other ways, since no-one ever says so in so many words; but really everything that's right there in the finished product insists on it. A small part of this is only due to Patton's performance (his palpable discomfort at Lisa's attempts at seduction, for instance), but pace writer David Chaskin, Jesse's visit to a fetish club or Coach Schneider's naked shower death are all in the writing and pretty hard to misinterpret. What's more, this can't be separated from the plot. Jesse's uncertainty about his own identity and inability to open up to his girlfriend create the insecurity that makes him a perfect victim for Freddy. 'The gay issue' isn't extraneous, it's central to the plot.

The dream sequences are much better than I remembered, though not a patch on Dream Warriors; the performances are fine, i.e. not Heather Langenkamp, but not Friday the 13th Expendable Meat either. Freddy is still a skulking shadow-dweller, but he does talk more this time around, since he has to explain the plot. He's definitely not yet the killer clown he'd later become, though. Witness this exchange towards the end of the film:

TERRIFIED PARTYGOER: Just tell us what you want, all right? I'm here to help you. FREDDY: Help yourself, fucker! *kills him*
Not exactly a zinger, is it?

Dream Warriors would bring back Heather Langenkamp and take the franchise in a totally different, initially delightful direction. That means Freddy's Revenge is a dead end, a road not taken. Does it have flaws? Yes, definitely. But it's still very much worth it: besides being a decent way to spend an hour and a half, it's one of the strangest slashers of the eighties.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) started a Star Wars tradition of confusing and alienating audiences that has become pretty much synonymous with the franchise over the years. For despite being advertised by just that four-word title ahead of release (see the poster), the film's opening crawl instead referred to it as Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. A science-fiction franchise had suddenly become a humongous 'saga' that had apparently and inexplicably begun on its fourth installment. The course had been set for a bright future of crippling continuity errors and, eventually, a leaden prequel trilogy - a curious achievement for what is clearly and unequivocally the best film in the series.

This doesn't quite seem to have been the intention right at the start: some of the most distinctive plot elements of Empire (SPOILERS) were only introduced by George Lucas after he was disappointed by a first draft, written by veteran space opera and planetary romance writer Leigh Brackett in the final stages of her battle with cancer. In reworking the script Lucas came up with the film's darker direction and the no-longer-stunning plot twist that Darth Vader is (well, claims to be, as far as Empire is concerned) Luke Skywalker's father. This in turn led to a backstory expansion in which Anakin Skywalker was Obi-Wan Kenobi's apprentice before being seduced by the Emperor (now a user of the dark side of the Force and no longer a mere politician, though not yet Ian McDiarmid), opening the possibility of a prequel trilogy. This newer, bigger story also retroactively turned Obi-Wan into a liar who manipulated Luke into helping him and attempting to blow up his own father along with the Death Star, but really, in the continuity mess of even the core Star Wars canon that's small change.

The story: forces of the Rebel Alliance, including all the surviving heroes of the previous film, have constructed a base on the inhospitable ice world of Hoth. Before long, though, they're discovered by the Imperial fleet of Darth Vader. The rebels manage to hold off the Imperial ground assault long enough to pull off a successful withdrawal but Han Solo and Leia Organa (Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher) fail to get away from the Imperials because of the Millennium Falcon's broken hyperdrive. Hiding first in a deadly asteroid field and then fleeing to Cloud City, where Han's old frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) runs a mining operation, they're hunted by Vader's fleet as well as a bunch of bounty hunters.

Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) follows a vision of his one-time mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi to the swamp world of Dagobah. There, Obi-Wan's own teacher, the diminutive and ancient Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz), instructs him in the ways of the Force, teaching him to become a Jedi knight himself. Before he can complete his training, though, Luke has a premonition of his friends in danger. Worried by Yoda's warnings but ultimately unable to ignore Han and Leia's suffering, Luke races off to Cloud City, his training unfinished, to save his friends from Vader's clutches.

The final script, written by Lawrence Kasdan based on Lucas's second draft, is fantastic: it zips by, the necessary exposition is handled supremely well (for a film that expands the story so much, there are very few scenes of character simply sitting down and talking), and the dialogue is much punchier and more contemporary than Lucas's self-conscious throwback pulp stylings in Star Wars. Those work too, and having lavished praise on Lucas's script I'm not about to change my mind. But what worked for Star Wars wouldn't work for Empire: where the first film was all about roughly sketching a world of intergalactic adventure and a stark battle between good and evil, the second installment fleshes out that world and develops its characters from old-school sci-fi archetypes into, well, people.

(Even so, let's not beat about the bush: the timeline of Empire is pretty much impossible (which isn't to say Star Wars fans haven't made up elaborate excuses for the film). In the time that Han and Leia take to run from Hoth to Bespin, the Empire hot on their heels (a few standard days at most), Luke goes to Dagobah, meets Yoda and gets a significant chunk of Jedi training done (weeks at least). Impossible in terms of realism, to be sure. But in story terms, it works: Luke's less action-packed, more contemplative and philosophical scenes alternate effectively with scenes of danger involving Han and Leia. Time has always moved at the speed of plot in Star Wars, and I'm happy to give the film a pass here.)

The new and improved dialogue does a lot for the characters, and it's a much better fit for some of the actors. Carrie Fisher's Leia is even more acerbic this time around, and Kasdan gives her a couple of fantastic zingers: 'Would it help if I got out and pushed?' when Han's rust bucket won't get going, or the wondrous 'You don't have to do this to impress me' as he heads into an asteroid field. That brings us neatly to the problem of Leia in Empire: she's reduced from the aristocratic leader of Star Wars to playing the straight man to Han Solo's antics. Which is enjoyable, but leaves the character a little thin. Ford is freer and looser this time around (thanks, no doubt, to a more cooperative director), and Hamill is - well, I like him less in Empire than in either Star Wars or Jedi, but his final scenes in the film are terrific, no doubt about it.

In the smaller roles there's so much goodness: I'm a particular fan of all the pitiable Imperial officers who must achieve impossible objectives, or be murdered by Vader. (There is, in general, a lot of excellent bleak humour in the scenes aboard the Executor). An easy favourite is Kenneth Colley's put-upon Admiral Piett, a man who through long practice has become really good at ignoring people being force-choked right next to him, and actually makes it out of Empire alive. But Julian Glover's General Veers, a man who clearly enjoys nothing more than (a) sneering and (b) stomping on infantry with his enormous armoured tank, is a wonderful mini-villain too. On the other side, I'm a big fan of Bruce Boa's General Rieekan, who radiates a slightly gruff but likeable authority on Hoth.

That's all well and good, but let's get to the best character in Empire, shall we? Because Yoda is that. I still love the reveal that the cackling imp who rummages through Luke's equipment is, in fact, a powerful Jedi master. He's a perfect embodiment of the film's thesis that the Force as a mystical ally can help the weak triumph over the strong, that it makes the underdog's victory over all the Empire's might a real possibility. He injects a warm sense of wonder about the Force, a humanist love of people over cold military power ('luminous beings are we, not this crude matter') and a yearning for peace ('wars not make one great'). And he does it all with humour (Frank Oz's outraged delivery of 'Mudhole? Slimy? My home this is!' cracks me up every time), dignity, and real authority. I understand that for Hamill weeks of sharing the scene with a puppet weren't too much fun, but the result is spellbinding.

(You know who sucks in Empire, though? Obi-Wan Kenobi. He does nothing but deliver some exposition and whinge about stuff. And Alec McGuinness, whose wry self-amusement worked wonders in Star Wars, is really phoning it in this time around. It's a waste.)

Lucas didn't do much to polish Empire in the special editions and home video releases. The major exception - one Star Wars fans don't object to, curiously - is Ian McDiarmid portraying the emperor (instead of Elaine Baker with digitally inserted chimpanzee eyes and Clive Revill doing the voice). Even better is that you don't need the despecialized edition to appreciate the special effects, which Lucas, despite his reputation, has only ever tweaked to remove errors. And they're wonderful. Terrifying stop-motion AT-ATs marching mercilessly across the frozen landscape while seemingly mosquito-sized rebel snowspeeders flit around them, a city floating above the clouds, a star destroyer adrift after a hit from the ion cannon. My absolute favourite, though, is the tauntauns. The puppet work in close-ups is very good, but I adore the stop-motion used in wide shots even more. The creatures move in an alien yet believable way, and they've got an almost Harryhausenesque amount of personality. (Plus great sound design, but in Star Wars that goes without saying.)

In the hands of Irvin Kershner Empire is a bit more life-sized than Star Wars, its characters just as mythical but a little less archetypal. By the second film, the series was starting to fill out its world, developing its characters (who are starting to feel like people we know and like instead of The Naive Young Hero, The Rogue, The Damsel, The Mentor, &c.) and breaking free from its '30s forebears. Put another way, Empire feels much less like Flash Gordon fan-fiction and much more like the work of people who suspected that more than just paying homage to them, Star Wars would utterly displace the pulp serials of yore in the public imagination. With a compelling story involving great characters, terrific setpieces and top-notch craftsmanship, Empire provides a good argument that Star Wars' place as a pop culture juggernaut is fully and legitimately earned.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Hokey religions and ancient weapons

Star Wars is the first blockbuster franchise I loved. Whether it was for lack of interest or because I preferred books, I didn't watch a lot of films when I was a kid. Star Wars blew me away. It opened up my imagination to a whole world of pulp science fantasy and started me off on a geeky obsession that has never gone away, attested to by shelves of tattered, treasured Expanded Universe novels.

Admittedly the Star Wars film I'm talking about was The Phantom Menace, and I only caught up with the first film in the series on VHS a few months later. I loved them both - I suppose I wasn't the most discriminating eleven-year-old. With time I learnt that fandom orthodoxy frowned on The Phantom Menace but loved Episode IV: A New Hope, as Lucas retitled the 1977 film on its re-release. And at least as far as Episode IV is concerned, the fandom is right. The film is ace: a total matinee delight that may not be the same technical marvel it appeared in 1977, but holds up just about perfectly all the same.

(A quick note: the basis for this review is the Despecialized Edition of Star Wars, a fan-made high-definition version of the original trilogy that attempts to restore the films as they originally appeared in cinemas, instead of the 1997 'special editions' (plus subsequent additions and changes) that modern Blu-ray copies are based on - fan-made because Lucas infamously wouldn't release anything except his new and allegedly improved versions in high-definition.

The thing is, the special editions are how I first experienced Star Wars, and I imagine it's the same for a lot of people who weren't around in the seventies and early eighties. But because of all the criticism the special editions get in fan circles - Han shot first et cetera ad nauseam -  I was aware of most of the changes. They're pretty minor, by and large: CGI critters instead of practical effects, mostly, and a weird floating Jabba who pops in to utter the exact same threats Greedo did hardly five minutes earlier. But there's one exception: a scene near the end, in which Luke meets his old Tattooine mate Biggs Darklighter on Yavin 4, which ended up on the cutting room floor in the original release but was restored for the special editions. And considering the banter between the pilots during the Death Star attack is damn weird without that scene - they're talking as if they've known each other all their lives, which isn't indicated in anything we've seen before - restoring it was clearly the right decision.)

The story: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a nineteen-year-old living on the backwater planet of Tatooine, longs to be released from his tedious life on his uncle's moisture farm and go off to become a starfighter pilot. Tasked with cleaning two new droids his uncle has bought (Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker), Luke discovers they're carrying a message of vital importance from Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), which they're tasked with relaying to a retired general and current hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Obi-Wan reveals to Luke that just like himself, Luke's father was a Jedi Knight, a fighter for good drawing on the mystical Force killed by the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), and perhaps Luke would like to accompany him to leave Tatooine and join Princess Leia in their rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire?

This is understandably too much for Luke to take in straight away, but his decision is made for him: Imperial stormtroopers attack his home, massacring his aunt and uncle and forcing Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids to flee. In the seedy spaceport of Mos Eisley, they hire smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his towering alien sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are themselves in a lot of trouble with some unsavoury elements. Together, this motley crew head to Leia's homeworld of Alderaan, only to find the whole planet obliterated by something that decidedly isn't any moon...

Everyone knows that story, but it's perhaps worth pointing out the ways in which the plot of the 1977 film isn't the story of the Star Wars franchise that developed after it, simply because George Lucas and his collaborators hadn't settled on those things yet. Certain family relationships don't yet exist; Obi-Wan unambiguously hates Vader's guts; the Jedi are treated as a myth of the ancient past and the existence of the Force is explicitly denied by several characters, although in the course of the film it seems to become the official creed of the Rebel Alliance; the emperor is a distant, unseen figure; Vader is only one of the empire's henchmen and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) orders him around, while others openly insult his religious beliefs.

It's so simple and archetypal (little wonder, since Lucas was heavily influenced by Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces): a wide-eyed audience stand-in who dreams of seeing something of the world, be a hero and rescue a beautiful princess; a wise old mentor, not long for this world; a charming rogue who learns to value friendship over money; a dastardly villain; and a character who, yes, is at this point still kind of an old-school damsel in distress, but at least has her own mind, some justifiable complaints about her ill-planned rescue, and ideas for how to do a better job. But it takes skill to do this stuff well, and Star Wars does it extremely well.

The script isn't usually given the amount of credit it's due, but it's among the reasons for the success of Star Wars and its immediate ability to capture the imagination. Lucas wrote the thing more than once, never happy with the results, and when Star Wars started filming in Tunisia the screenplay was still unfinished. The process of often sharply critical feedback over several years from Hollywood insiders and Lucas's wife, as well as uncredited dialogue rewrites by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, somehow produced a particular alchemy.

The result is glorious high pulp, instantly quotable and wonderful: "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"; "I find your lack of faith disturbing"; "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid"; "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?";  "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers", and so on. None of this is remotely how real people talk, but it gives the film an outsized air of adventure and wonder that helps it hit all the high notes.

Then there are the performances. The role of Luke Skywalker at this point is still something of a generic person, but Mark Hamill gets that right: we like and empathise with Luke, and that's what the film needs. The others are allowed to do more, and they're terrific. Alec Guinness forever seems gently amused at being asked to deliver dialogue about Jedi knights and disturbances in the Force, which results in a winning, light performance. Peter Cushing, veteran Hammer Horror vampire hunter, makes for a marvellously icy and authoritative warlord with drive, determination and cruelty to spare.

To me, there are three standouts: Harrison Ford's natural charisma causes him to make the role his own so much that he essentially spun it off into another franchise, as Indiana Jones. Anthony Daniels portrays C-3PO as a self-pitying but fundamentally decent comic foil who gets some of the film's biggest laughs ("Listen to them, they're dying, R2! Curse my metal body, I wasn't fast enough, it's all my fault!") And lastly, David Prowse's physical acting has always been overshadowed by James Earl Jones's voice, but his performance inside the Darth Vader suit is perfect: authoritative and menacing, but very far from emotionless. I adore the scene in which he pauses as he senses Obi-Wan for the first time; it's subtle but all kinds of wonderful.

Star Wars wouldn't be Star Wars without the lovely production design, though: it's chock-full of amazing ideas brilliantly executed. And unlike the second and third prequels, which are full of stuff happening in the background, the first film has the sense to actually briefly focus on the terrific alien suits, grime-covered droids and fossils bleached by the Tatooine suns, giving them each the dignity and two seconds of glory they deserve. (My favourite is and remains the tiny droid skittering away from Chewbacca on the Death Star, beeping in fear.) The film's used-future aesthetic - which belongs exclusively to the good and neutral characters, while the Empire is exquisitely glossy - is wonderfully and consistently realised.

The special effects are extremely good: they look dated, yes, but virtually never unconvincing. The real star is Ben Burtt's sound design, though. From all the mechanical whirring and hissing to Chewbacca's voice and Vader's breathing, the sounds of Star Wars remain instantly recognisable. There's so much high-class craftsmanship here, it really makes you appreciate the often-forgotten art of sound design (and miss it in all the projects that neglect to go beyond mere competence).

So what doesn't hold up? Despite everything, the final film is a bit slight; it zips past having established fairly little of its world beyond rough outlines, and selling some of its character development more through conviction than storytelling logic (Luke's attachment to Obi-Wan, in particular, feels dodgy after so short an acquaintance, especially since he immediately forgets about the people who raised him). The film offers a world of adventure so appealing, it's not surprising people wanted sequels and an enormous expanded universe. But it also feels a little like Star Wars needed those things to round it out, and like, had nothing else ever followed, the film would feel roughly sketched. But if the worst thing I can say about a film is that I want more of its world and characters than it can possibly provide in two hours, well...

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Every chapter I stole from somewhere else

In Chapter 18 of Dracula, Bram Stoker offers a brief summary of the villain's identity: 'He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land. If it be so, then was he no common man, for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the "land beyond the forest".'

The vagueness allows Stoker to gloss over a detail: Vlad III was the Voivode of Wallachia, a mostly lowland principality to the north of the Danube in present-day southern Romania. Transylvania, where Stoker's count has his home, is an entirely different (albeit neighbouring) region, a part of medieval Hungary. Stoker rightly thought the legend of Vlad the Impaler was too good to pass up, so he fudged his history a bit. And we don't mind because he did it in the service of a novel that presents, despite awkward, overheated prose and reactionary politics, a good story.

You know what's pretty much the opposite of a good story, though? Dracula Untold. Seriously.

In the fifteenth century, Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans) rules the principality of Transylvania [sic] as a vassal of the Turkish Empire. When the Turkish envoy Hamza Bey (Ferdinand Kingsley) demands that 1,000 Transylvanian boys - including Vlad's own son (Art Parkinson) - be turned over to the Turks for training as Janissary soldiers, as Vlad himself was, the Prince is distraught. After his attempt to plead personally with Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) fails, Vlad refuses to budge, killing the Ottoman party tasked with bringing back the hostages and plunging Transylvania into war.

Realising he lacks the strength to fight off the Turkish army, Vlad visits the monstrous denizen of a mountain cave (Charles Dance), who lends him his vampiric powers. If Vlad manages to resist the craving for human blood for three days, he will return to his normal human self. If he gives in, however, he will become an immortal bloodsucking fiend forever. Realising he has little choice if he is to save his people, Vlad accepts the wager and turns into a superpowered, if increasingly sinister version of himself.

It would be difficult to argue that Dracula was exactly crying out for an origin story. (Not impossible: I for one would love to see a historical fantasy series set in the fifteenth-century Balkans on TV.) But dredging up the making of a hero has been the fashionable way to rekindle audience interest in washed-up properties since Batman Begins in 2005 (Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man was an origin story too, but saw no need to go on about it). Christopher Nolan's Batman films also gifted us the flawed, introspective hero that's spread like measles throughout corporate filmmaking. It's an approach that works fantastically for Batman, but for other characters - like, it turns out, Dracula - it's potentially lethal.

Combine a cookie-cutter origin story, a dark and brooding protagonist and the burden that Dracula Untold is the first film in the Marvel-aping rebooted Universal Monsters cinematic universe, and you have a recipe for disaster. The franchise angle forces the film to end on a bizarre and awful modern-day scene, while its slavish paint-by-numbers approach causes Dracula Untold to run into a serious problem: namely, that Dracula's appeal isn't as a hero, glum or otherwise. What people pay for when going to see a Dracula film is a charismatic immortal villain. Attempting to tell the story of how a virtuous aristocrat became an undead monster isn't impossible. But it would at the very least require the courage to make your protagonist, you know, evil by the end of the film. Instead Evans's Dracula stubbornly remains the same reasonably decent concerned dad, whether he's celebrating Easter with his adoring subjects or slaking his thirst on the blood of thousands of mooks. Worrying about audience sympathies causes writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless to simply give up on character development entirely.

But then, Dracula Untold isn't trying to tell the story of how a monster came to be because, apart from the most cursory of nods, it isn't a horror film. It's a superhero picture, if the shameless and uninspired cribbing from the conventions of the DC and Marvel films of the last decade didn't give that away, and a particularly asinine example of the form: cardboard villains, tedious powers and an adherence to formula so rigid that it chokes whatever life should be there right out of the film. There's even a scene in which silver fills in for kryptonite. In the face of so much formula, who could blame first-time director Gary Shore for falling asleep at the helm?

The film borrows extensively from what has come before. The opening scene, for example - in which voiceover narration explains to us scenes of boys being put through gruelling military training that includes a lot of whipping - is a bafflingly close retelling of the start of 300. Frank Miller's anti-Persian tirade provides the backbone for much of what follows, although Dracula Untold lacks the earlier film's full-throated fascist propagandising. Its Turks are mostly uninspired generic baddies, although the ominous crescents on their tents and repeated references to their menace to the capitals of Christian Europe are quite enough, in the age of Anders Behring Breivik, to qualify as grossly irresponsible. The film is, not to put too fine a point on it, racist trash, its obvious brainlessness aggravating rather than lessening its offensive pandering to fashionable prejudice.

Then there's Vlad's leading of the Transylvanian people to the safety of a monastery in the mountains, borrowed among other antecedents from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It's indicative of the film's gross lack of any sense of scale: the whole of Transylvania seems to consist of at most a couple of hundred people located in a single castle, and the entire war between Vlad and the Ottoman Empire is over in the required three days (in the real world, meanwhile, a medieval army would take well over a month to cover the distance between Istanbul and Vlad's historical capital of Târgoviște).

Nothing in Dracula Untold, in short, feels like it takes place in a plausible approximation of the real world. It looks fake, too: I left the film convinced its backgrounds were entirely computer-generated only to find out it was shot on location in Northern Ireland - a popular filming location in the age of Game of Thrones though not, alas, one famed for its scenic mountain ranges. The cold metallic colour palette chosen by cinematographer John Schwartzman seems an odd fit, too, for the backwoods medievalism the story would seem to require.

It's tired hackwork, is what it is, and the utterly uninspired performances reflect this. Evans tries, but he has literally nothing to work with; of all the people onscreen, only Charles Dance manages to have some fun with a scenery-chewing, genuinely effective performance. Say what you will about corporate filmmaking, but it guarantees at least a certain professionalism. Dracula Untold, alas, has literally nothing to offer beyond that base amount of competence. It's a product so soulless that it's difficult to be upset no-one involved in it managed to care.

Saturday 20 June 2015

The courtship of Mr Dracula

I don't know Francis Ford Coppola, obviously. But Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) suggests something about the director behind the project: namely that, stung by the middling reviews and accusations of cash-grab filmmaking that dogged him in the wake of The Godfather Part III, Coppola decided to make the most spectacular, overtly 'artistic' picture he could. And if the result was a film that would inspire devotion from some and bile from others, so much the better, for no-one could accuse him of playing it safe for guaranteed box-office returns.

Obviously, that may just be a fiction. But it would explain some of the eccentricities in Bram Stoker's Dracula, a film so chock-full of odd choices that it barely resembles a coherent narrative at all. An undead love story invented from scratch, perching precariously atop an almost slavishly orthodox retelling of Stoker's novel; milquetoast, bland performances right next to unfettered scenery-chewing; out-there visuals that never cohere as an aesthetic - Dracula has it all, and then some. It's a film of a thousand ideas, many of them clashing with each other in what could not possibly be classified as a success, but rather an endlessly watchable, legitimately fascinating failure.

The plot: in the fifteenth century, Prince Vlad of Wallachia (Gary Oldman) fights the invading Ottoman Empire. While he is gone, his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) receives a false report of his death and kills herself in despair. Overcome with rage and grief upon his return, Vlad curses God, drives out his priests and becomes an immortal bloodsucking fiend.

In 1897, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania to seal a real estate deal with Count Dracula (Oldman). Arriving at Castle Dracula after an unsettling journey, he soon finds the count a strange host: besides being the only person Harker ever sees, Dracula also appears oddly obsessed with blood and medieval history and nurses a worrying hatred of mirrors. Harker soon realises that he has become the count's prisoner. His purchase of Carfax Abbey in London completed, Dracula departs the castle for England...

... where the psychiatrist Dr Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant) is troubled by his patient Renfield (Tom Waits), who rambles about 'the master' and has taken to devouring spiders and small insects. Meanwhile, wealthy socialite Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) has become engaged to Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), despite also being courted by Seward and Holmwood's friend, Texan Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell). Lucy becomes ill after being found wandering outside at night by her friend, and fiancée to Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who happens to look exactly like Elizabeta. Lucy's strange case leads Seward to consult his mentor Abraham van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile Mina's seemingly chance acquaintance with a recently arrived Transylvanian prince turns into a mutual obsession...

There are too many Dracula adaptations out there to claim that Bram Stoker's Dracula is the most faithful of the lot, but it undoubtedly hews far, far closer to the text than other well-known film versions. The film does actually reproduce the whole of Stoker's novel from beginning to end, missing virtually none of its beats (and if this seems like nothing special for an adaptation, please consult the 1931 and 1958 films). In places this is faithfulness for faithfulness' sake: the character of Quincey Morris remains exactly as inessential as he is in the novel and could easily be merged with Arthur Holmwood, but Coppola chooses to keep him in there. The devotion to the source material extends to seemingly trivial details earlier versions saw fit to dispense with.

And yet! The narrative structure of the novel is presented pretty much unchanged, but the story is completely different. Where Stoker wrote a Gothic horror novel about a sworn group of men fighting the vampiric villain who targets 'their' virtuous women, Coppola's is a tale of irresistible love/lust between an immortal lover and the reincarnation of his true love. The novel is terrified of female sexuality (Lucy's attempts to attack Holmwood are one with her amorous advances, forcibly interrupted by Van Helsing in his dual role of vampire hunter and chaperone), but the film's Lucy acts downright shockingly liberated (to put it politely) to begin with. Meanwhile, the overtly physical love between Dracula and Mina does not bring the latter to perdition, but helps the former renounce evil.

Adopting the novel's structure but repudiating its reactionary ideas does not, to me, work particularly well: it  turns the film's heroes into fools for at least the film's third act, when they're supposedly racing against time to stop evil. It also forces Oldman to portray two totally different characters: a hammy centuries-old monster liberally quoting Bela Lugosi's performance in the role (literally: his line readings of "I am Dracula. Welcome to my home" and "... What music they make" blow Lugosi's right out of the water, besides being a lot of fun for the actor), and a sensitive romantic lead. Both are fairly compelling, but they're impossible to reconcile as a single figure.

That decision also amplifies the tendency of the other performances to feel like they're from totally different films: Keanu Reeves's bland presence is frequently criticised, but his is a thin straight man part in which he acquits himself reasonably, mind-bogglingly horrible 'English' accent aside; Grant's twitchy Seward, a theoretically rational scientist who runs a nightmarish Bedlam while addled on then-newfangled drugs; Hopkins's Van Helsing, insane on a level that's occasionally amusing but clashes so badly with the other performances that several scenes he's in just fall apart; Elwes, a little unsure if his performance is an homage to or a parody of Errol Flynn. Ryder is, I think, the standout: her accent, too, is weak, but she never ceases to be convincing as the story's heart.

The film's enormous problems with its tone extend to the visuals, which are proudly overblown and lush but incoherent, throwing around idea after idea just to see what sticks. Some are fantastic: Castle Dracula, looking like a sinister enthroned figure against the backdrop of the Carpathians; vampire Lucy in her gorgeous and terrible shroud; the count suddenly dissolving into a mass of rats. Others are much less successful (Dracula's costume and makeup in his initial appearance are strikingly different from the usual 'You'll know I'm a vampire because I wear a cape' interpretations, but they're somewhat awful on their own merits).

It all adds up to a film that has a thousand things on its mind: being an homage to earlier iterations of the material (Coppola quotes without restraint from the genre's classics); half-baked explorations of fin-de-siècle signifiers like the cinematograph and absinthe-fuelled decadence; a young-and-sexy updating of Dracula for the MTV generation; a visual playground for an undoubtedly creative team; occasional questionable forays into horror-comedy (there's a particularly tasteless cut - you'll know it when you see it) -

- and, somewhere in there, an honest-to-God vampire picture that disregards an ossified cinematic tradition around Dracula to arrive at a totally new look at the count. Coppola foregrounds the beastly, feral nature of Dracula, his menacing presence - tinged with temptation - outside civilisation's hall and its hearth-fire in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It feels at times as if Coppola is adapting not Stoker, but a take Angela Carter might have devised on Dracula.The result is a film that's unlike any other bloodsucker film out there. Unfortunately, its extravagant ambition never coheres. It's not boring for a second but, alas, that doesn't mean it's any good.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Battle of the Five Hours

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is apparently the shortest of Peter Jackson's Hobbit series, but had you told me it was twice as long as any of the Lord of the Rings films I might well have believed you. The Battle of the Five Armies is, above all, an earnest plea for the importance of structure. It's a film that - after a prologue that feels tacked on from the preceding film - is just an enormous slog, without notable turns, shifts, pauses or high points.  It's noisy and epic in its ambitions, while at the same time being utterly inert and tedious.

I should say first, perhaps, that I haven't seen either of the two preceding films. (The release of An Unexpected Journey inspired me to re-read the book, at least.) But if watching the first two installments is necessary to enjoy Battle of the Five Armies, that hardly improves things: Each film in a trilogy, you'd hope, should have a satisfying arc of its own and be enjoyable watched in isolation, especially since they're being released a year apart. This is something, incidentally, that Jackson's own Lord of the Rings trilogy achieves in adapting a single novel that was split into three volumes at the insistence of Tolkien's publisher, even if the writers have to strain mightily to make it happen (especially in The Two Towers, where as a consequence the seams are most obvious). For The Hobbit, Jackson didn't even try.

The plot, what there is of it: The company of dwarves having finally reached the Lonely Mountain, their 'burglar', hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), steals the Arkenstone from Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Angered, Smaug flies off to Lake-town and burns it to the ground, but is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) in the process. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), suddenly freed from the headache of how to get rid of Smaug, refounds the dwarven kingdom of Erebor and, increasingly overcome by the allure of gold, has his followers fortify the entrance before others stake a claim. As indeed they do: Bard arrives with the people of Lake-town to demand the share of the treasure Thorin promised, to help rebuild the town; he is soon joined by the army of King Thranduil of the wood-elves (Lee Pace), who is incensed at Thorin deceiving and escaping him. Thorin's pig-headed refusal to negotiate is backed up when his cousin Dáin Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) arrives with an army of dwarves. Before the sides come to blows, however, a horde of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) shows up and much mayhem ensues.

There's also a subplot involving Gandalf and some characters you may remember from the Rings films fighting the necromancer in Dol Guldur, but that takes up all of five minutes.

The Battle of the Five Armies is pretty to look at, no doubt: the wintry surrounds of the Lonely Mountain are a triumph of landscape photography, set design and cinematography. Set in cold northern wastes the Rings films never touched on, The Battle of the Five Armies serves up new, interesting environs. And there are some genuine thrills there, too: Dáin's dwarven phalanx in action is a sight to see, even if the Warhammer-esque blockiness of the dwarf design, which I've never been a fan of, still spoils the view somewhat.

On the downside there are the terrible CGI-enhanced baddies. The Rings films, for all the criticism rightly levelled at them, were heaven for fans of practical effects. The design of the orcs, using masks, prosthetics and make-up, gave the creatures a gross physicality that lined up with the spittle, body odour and vile dietary habits that defined them as fictional versions of the working-class people of Tolkien's patrician nightmares. CGI allows the creation of wonders that old-school effects have never been able to achieve, but the trade-off is still often a lack of heft and weight.

There is no reality and thus no threat to these orcs, snarl as they might. Compare the magnificant fight between Aragorn and Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to Thorin's endless, mind-numbingly boring battle against Azog in this one, and despair. (A similar scene, in which Legolas leaps along a collapsing walkway like Super Mario, caused peals of laughter to ring around the auditorium.) With the Hobbit films (let's just boldly assume this problem affects the previous two films as well), Jackson has gone full-on Phantom Menace.

The film is hopelessly dragged down is its sheer length, forced by the mercenary decision to turn The Hobbit not into one, nor two, but three feature-length films. Reverse that decision, and this entire film could be wrapped up in the 45 minutes the material merits; the enormous structural problem would disappear; the fact that the nominal protagonist has nothing to do would be much less noticeable. Lengthy, pointless scenes involving cowardly Alfrid (Ryan Gage), in which jokes about such humorous subjects as men wearing women's clothes are expected to provide comic relief, could be cut, as could a bizarre psychedelic sequence involving Thorin among Smaug's gold that shows us  Jackson using the freedom granted by a near-total absence of plot to baffling effect.

But the film's length isn't its only problem: indeed some fairly important aspects of the book are passed over in downright indecent haste (the arrival of Beorn and the eagles), while threads are left dangling in other places (we're left to assume, for example, that Dáin and the elves defeated the orc army after its leaders are killed elsewhere, but the film doesn't see the need to spell out the outcome of the  titular battle). There's the film's uninspiring visual language too: where Rings had stunning images, even if they were often an homage to greater works, The Battle of the Five Armies offers little to look at, as if Jackson was overcompensating for his tendency to gawk at his sets.

Anyway, I'm glad this new trilogy is over, and sort of pleased Jackson doesn't have the rights to any more of Tolkien's works.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Retracing the wounds of the martyrs

For an Italian horror film released in 1976, Pupi Avati's The House with Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) is a little weird. Old-fashioned, in a sense: in the second half of the seventies, the giallo was in decline, wandering into the dustbin of obsolescence just like the Gothic horror genre it had replaced. The trend towards outré gory exploitation was already clear, even if most of the zombie and cannibal films that would exemplify this tendency hadn't been released yet.

In comes The House with Laughing Windows, and it's at once a throwback to chaster times - no series of elaborate murders here - and a weirdly experimental thing: a post-giallo, perhaps, both chronologically and thematically. It's a coincidence - Avati could hardly know that the time he finally moved from his earlier Gothic horror-comedies to the giallo would be an age of transition - but it's an interesting one. It's an exercise in deconstruction: Avati explores the spaces between the traditional beats of the giallo and discovers new loci of terror.

The film is set in a small marshland town in Emilia-Romagna. Struggling artist Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) has been commissioned by the diminutive mayor, Solmi (Bob Tonnelli), to restore a fresco of St Sebastian by an infamously morbid, long-dead artist that's recently been discovered at the parish church. Stefano also rents a room at the villa of a bed-ridden old woman, Laura (Pina Borione), begins a relationship with a young teacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano), and is increasingly freaked out by the painting and the town's many strange residents.

That's really it. There's a death early in the film, but where in most gialli that would trigger Stefano's investigation  (with the requisite crucial bit of detail buried in his memory), it mostly sets off an hour of thickening atmosphere here. It's a broody mood piece, largely free of outrageous murders and, to the shock of every giallo aficionado, entirely bereft of trenchcoat-wearing black-gloved killers. Instead of progressive plot movement, we get foreboding galore and a sudden rush towards a final twist that doesn't win any sense-making competitions.

Not that The House with Laughing Windows is tastefully free of violence. The film opens with the dead artist Legnani's insane, bloodthirsty ramblings playing over footage of a murder, and the ending is in a similar vein. For all that the giallo is violent, it tends not to reduce the human body to meat to the extent that The House with Laughing Windows does in crucial sequences; despite being extraordinarily invested in Italian particularity in every other respect, here the film feels like the horror films coming out of the United States at the same time, or indeed the cannibal film that was about to consume the Italian horror industry. What I'm saying, I guess, is that Avati's uncredited work on the screenplay of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) doesn't seem entirely out of character.

The film boasts a strong cast, beginning with a compelling central performance by Capolicchio. A classic giallo protagonist in the sense of being an outsider having to navigate an alien place and community, Capolicchio nevertheless remains opaque himself instead of being an easy audience stand-in. And this is the right choice: by only allowing us a loose and tentative anchor, Avati increases the sense of unease. Marciano is similarly great; but if I had to nominate a best-in-show it would be Borione's wonderful, unsettling weirdness.

The connection between sexual transgression and murderous violence is well-established in the giallo, even if it never became codified into the rigid sex-equals-death moralism of the slasher film. Avati takes those lingering shots of lacerated flesh and pushes them further, into a film that connects, spoiler, wickedness to gender-bending. Its sexual politics is now more obviously problematic, but hasn't lost all the potency it held in the seventies. And that goes for The House with Laughing Windows as a whole: in deviating from the conventional structure of the giallo, it's perhaps the most chilling film in the genre this side of Bava or Argento.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Why'd it have to be snakes?

Some things I enjoy now were acquired tastes. Horror, for example, I mostly disliked throughout my formative years. But I've loved globe-trotting adventures since I was little. I grew up reading Verne, Stevenson, May and Haggard, even though I didn't realise the horrid colonial subtext at the time. So when I first watched the Indiana Jones films - late: around the time the retroactively reviled Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out - I enjoyed them tremendously.

So I was pretty delighted when the local semi-arthouse cinema did a one-off screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The first of the Lucas-Spielberg films involving Harrison Ford's adventurer archaeologist had been the one I enjoyed least (except for that belated fourth film, which nobody seems to count): I knew it was good, but the earlier incarnation of the franchise couldn't quite match the finely honed machine of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). So I watched it again, had an enormous amount of fun and left with a furrowed brow over all the problematic stuff in it.

Set in 1936, the film opens as Dr Henry 'Indiana' Jones (Harrison Ford) is exploring an ancient site somewhere in South America. Improvising his way around wicked traps, Indy manages to snag a golden idol despite the treachery of a local hired hand (Alfred Molina). He promptly finds himself relieved of his prize by his rival, the ruthless French archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), barely escaping with his life. Back in the States, Indy is given a new mission by the secret service. It seems that the Nazis are digging in Egypt, having tasked Belloq with finding the Ark of the Covenant. To reveal its exact location, though, they need the Staff of Ra, which is in the possession of Indy's old patron Abner Ravenwood, last known location...

... Nepal, where after Abner's death his daughter Marion (Karen Allen) keeps the headpiece of the staff. The problem: Marion is none too keen on Indy after he broke her heart ten years previously. Fighting for their lives against goons led by giggling Nazi sadist Major Toht (Ronald Lacey), though, does something to repair the lost trust, and the pair make it to Egypt with the staff. There, they link up with local digger Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to infiltrate the Nazi excavation, and hopefully locate the Ark before the Führer's men do.

What struck me as a tiresome flaw during a recent viewing of Star Trek Into Darkness is a virtue here: Raiders of the Lost Ark is gloriously propulsive, barely letting up from start to finish. Even exposition tends to be loaded with background action: take the dinner at Sallah's, where Spielberg and Lucas throw poisoned dates into an already fun dialogue scene. After the US-bound table-setting the film does not slow down until the dénouement, although Lawrence Kasdan - he of The Empire Strikes Back - is a smart enough writer that by the time the relentless action scenes finally get a little wearying, he switches to a lower gear so that the film's climax is heavy on tension but light on fisticuffs.

The film's idea of appropriate race relations.

The cast is uniformly great. Harrison's perpetually exasperated adventurer archaeologist is of course iconic, played here perhaps with a little more meanness than in subsequent offerings; Denholm Elliott's Marcus Brody is such a delight that it's no surprise Last Crusade expanded his role. I must admit I have a massive fictional-character crush on Allen's Marion, and I hope my judgment is not too terribly clouded by that, but: what a fantastic character! When introduced, at least: Marion drinking a local under the table, then holding her own in a battle against Toht's henchmen is pretty awesome. Unfortunately, Kasdan's screenplay proceeds to defang her. Being put into dresses, in fact, becomes a plot point, and she's an increasingly distressed damsel relying on Indy for rescue and basic common sense.

That's the real problem with Raiders of the Lost Ark: based on 1930s adventure serials, the film somehow sees fit to just bring in all the racism and misogyny of that period instead of challenging it. Marion's demotion is the least of it, alas. The film's racism is ugly and pervasive. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom takes a lot of flak for racism, and deservedly so; but its predecessor is no better by any real yardstick. Its non-white people, to be sure, are not crazed murdering cultists: they are mostly childlike innocents requiring the kind guidance of the white man. A narrative in which white people are masters and Egyptians mere labourers is never seriously challenged (see the image above). Worse, the ambiguous South Americans are treacherous, lazy and cowardly and, in the case of the indigenous warriors Belloq has allied himself with, primitive and superstitious. It's totally unnecessary and leaves a terrible aftertaste.

Despite that, too, being mostly associated with its immediate successor, Raiders is pretty brutal, featuring multiple unpleasant deaths, mostly bloodless though they may be (and in one infamous scene involving a Nazi bare-knuckle boxer and an aeroplane propeller, it's decidedly not bloodless). There's violence against animals as well, including a whole mess of snakes being doused with petrol and set on fire, and an unfortunate monkey. It's better than an Italian cannibal film inasmuch as it's not real, I suppose, but far from pleasant or called for. Like Tintin in the Congo, Raiders presents the killing of animals is harmless entertainment, and the thought that it might be something else never crosses the film's mind.

If that doesn't sour your appreciation, though, Raiders of the Lost Ark is overflowing with joys. Norman Reynolds's production design is just wonderful: the Ark marries an ancient feel with art-déco chic in just the right way, while the South American temple is a laundry list of wonderfully executed tropes. (Who doesn't love ancient traps?) More than anything, it shows what the people involved were best at: Spielberg, at being the greatest blockbuster director of his generation; Kasdan, at marrying drama and action-comedy; and Lucas, at taking a step back and using his genius for production without directing himself, a lesson he sadly did not heed in later years (see also: Jackson, Peter).

It's such a delightful film that its less savoury aspects are a whole lot easier to overlook than they might be. With the double-whammy of Empire and Raiders, Kasdan clearly had a winning streak in the first half of the eighties (even Return of the Jedi, weighed down by merchandise-friendly teddy bears and material rehashed from Star Wars, is ultimately well-written, devastatingly so in some scenes). Raiders of the Lost Ark is tremendously good fun: populist but not stupid, hilarious without being tasteless, and action-packed without directing that violence at the audience in the manner of twenty-first-century action films.

Friday 28 June 2013

All the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood

There's probably no better testament to the iconic status of Thunder Road (1958) than the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. Not because 'Thunder Road' and Thunder Road have anything to do with each other: one's a proto-carsploitation thriller about moonshiners, the other a lament of lost youth tied to 'one last chance to make it real'. What matters is that Springsteen saw the poster to Thunder Road when the film was making the rounds on the drive-in and grindhouse scene, and was so inspired that he wrote a signature song without even watching the whole thing.

The other bit of trivia I'll pretend to know about before watching Thunder Road: Robert Mitchum wanted Elvis Presley to play the role of his character's younger brother. 'Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch,' Ian Johnston drily notes of their meeting. Nothing came of it, since Elvis's notorious manager demanded a sum of money that would have exceeded the film's entire budget. And thus did the world come to enjoy the spectacle of Mitchum's son pretending to be his brother.

World War II veteran Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) has returned to the East Tennessee holler where he grew up. There, he is the best driver in the dangerous business of evading the FBI while running moonshine from the mountains to Memphis. A gangster from the city, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), attempts to muscle in and bring the moonshiners, including Luke's father (Trevor Bardette), under his thumb. After he refuses to be swayed by Kogan's offers, Luke is in increasing danger, while also trying to keep his mechanic younger brother Robin (James Mitchum) from joining in his life of crime.

Mitchum's assured movie star performance helps sell all this, and the film works hard to make him the epitome of cool. It works, in a very fifties way: Mitchum strikes matches on the soles of his boots, wears leather jackets, and humiliates his enemies by repeatedly crushing their hats. There are not one but two women madly in love with him, femme fatale singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith) and wholesome girl next door Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight). But since dialogue bluntly establishes Roxanna is all of eighteen years old, her unrequited longing also points to a central problem: Mitchum was plainly about a decade too old for the role, and casting his son as Luke's fool brother makes it worse.

On the plus side, though, Thunder Road is jolly entertaining. The story of working-class underdogs facing down a wealthy bully is hardly original, although the fact that all parties involved are criminals gives it an edge. The younger Mitchum's performance is no great shakes, and that causes undeniable problems in the film's last act; but his father's swagger holds it all together. What really makes the film click, though, is the action. Largely eschewing the rear projection that still dominated driving scenes in the fifties, Thunder Road has some outstanding car chase scenes that prefigure the carsploitation mania of the seventies, complete with terrific stunt driving and excellent fluid camera work from director Arthur Ripley.

It's a perfectly good low-key crime thriller, and it's no wonder it became a staple of grindhouses in later decades. Its outsized legacy elevates Thunder Road to a status it doesn't necessarily earn. Without this film, it's hard to imagine about half the oeuvre of the Drive-By Truckers, or the current deluge of country-rock bands with 'whiskey' or 'still' in their name. Mitchum's obsession with the project may not have paid off financially or critically, at least not in the short run. But it proved, in case that needed proving, the enduring appeal of cool.
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:

Tuesday 21 May 2013

And there was no longer any sea

Watching Fast & Furious 6 with friends a couple of nights ago inspired me to write up an earlier Paul Walker film that offers similarly base pleasures. Really, all Into the Blue (2005) ever seeks to accomplish is in that damnable poster: people in skimpy swimwear, with maybe a plot in there somewhere if you're the kind of snob who likes that sort of thing. By that extremely modest standard I suppose Into the Blue succeeds, inasmuch as it stars Jessica Alba and Paul Walker, both of whom are attractive and don't wear a lot of clothes. Congratulations.

But Into the Blue was hardly conceived as an experimental documentary on people displaying skin within the constraints of the PG-13 rating, a Koyaanisqatsi of late capitalist standards of beauty. That's where not-very-prolific screenwriter Matt Johnson came in, churning out a script in a couple of hours while doing something else (or so I assume). Considering Into the Blue was a sizeable flop (it made $18.8 million domestically on a budget of $50 million), that didn't really pay off.

This blog has something of a tradition of outlining a film's plot, and I'll stick with that even when the story is a wispy, ethereal thing. Anyway: we're in the Bahamas, where Jared (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend Sam (Jessica Alba) go scuba-diving with Jared's visiting friend Bryce (Scott Caan), a lawyer with a heart of gold buried beneath many, many levels of jerkishness, and Bryce's girlfriend Amanda (Ashley Scott). As luck would have it, during the very same trip they discover both the Zephyr, a treasure-laden ship that's been at the bottom of the sea since 1861, and a plane chock full of cocaine.

That causes something of a dilemma: if our heroes report the massive amount of drugs, the DEA (who apparently have jurisdiction in the Bahamas, if Into the Blue's grasp of police work is any better than its understanding of history) will discover the wreck too, thus depriving Walker & Co. of their stab at treasure. Lacking the funds to mount a proper operation, however, they have to make do with bringing the wreck up piece by piece - despite Bryce's idea of making money by selling some of the cocaine. Meanwhile, they're starting to arouse the suspicions of Reyes (James Frain), the drug lord who owns the plane, as well as Bates (Josh Brolin), an unscrupulous treasure hunter.

Built on the astonishing contrivance of a shipwreck and an aeroplane full of drugs being found in the exact same spot, Into the Blue mostly refuses to embrace the utter ridiculousness of its concept and sort of just shuffles along, occasionally throwing a half-hearted twist at the wall in the hope that something will stick, and then ends. The script is curiously uninterested in itself, alternately being obvious and not explaining what's going on. (One character's loyalties change without any explanation whatsoever, unless I fell asleep at an inopportune moment.) The intellectual laziness of conflating centuries of Caribbean history, of course, is something of a given in this genre.

Both leads are, I suppose, better known for their looks than their acting ability, but even so Alba is distinctly better than the totally blank Walker, and more than once her despair is palpable. 'I believe in you more than in the prospect of any treasure,' the script makes her say; she tries mightily to sell that line and does not go gentle into that good night. Opposite her Walker frowns slightly, trying to remember what human emotions are and which of them he's supposed to be mimicking. So much for the leads, but there is real joy to be found in the supporting cast. Caan's smarmy frenemy is pretty good, but the standout is Brolin, then stuck in his wilderness years and committing fully to a gloriously unhinged performance that threatens to elevate Into the Blue to the level of genuine entertainment more than once.

What's worst is that the film looks terrible: its underwater world is an entirely flat sandy seabed, and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and director John Stockwell conspire to shoot it like a modest documentary. For all its $50 million budget, the diving scenes look about as good as if they'd just dunked the actors' heads into a paddling pool. (Perhaps all the cocaine is genuine - it would explain where the money went.) In terms of the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship that's the real glory of many a B-movie, Into the Blue is a massive disappointment. Even Jessica Alba at the peak of her pin-up days can't restore any joy to a film that looks and feels like a direct-to-video sequel that somehow found its way into cinemas.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

My castle is in the hills above the village

After Dracula made boatloads of cash in 1958, a sequel was a foregone conclusion. Initially, it was to be strictly formula. Both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were approached to reprise their roles, but Lee declined, and the screenwriting team (Jimmy Sangster of Dracula, helped out by Peter Bryan, Edward Percy and producer Anthony Hinds) had to cobble together a new script. The result, released in 1960, is a thoroughly good Gothic horror film, but boy, do the seams ever show.

Some of that, of course, is just a marketing ploy: naming a film The Brides of Dracula (with the poster advertising 'the most evil, blood-lusting Dracula of all!', no less) when the prologue immediately explains that Dracula is (still) dead is at least a tiny bit cynical. Sexing up the property by using a premise designed to have lithe young women wander around in nightgowns is as shameless, but it's not like vampire fiction was ever particularly wholesome.

A young schoolteacher, Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), is on her way to a new job at a girls' boarding school in Transylvania when, through shenanigans inexplicable and foreboding, her coach driver abandons her. She accepts the offer of a seemingly lonely aristocrat, Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), to spend the night at her château. (Note to self: refuse any invitation that begins with, "My castle is in the hills above the village...")

At Château Meinster, Marianne discovers that the baroness is not quite alone: she keeps her son (David Peel) chained up in one part of the castle, ostensibly because he is mad. During the night, though, Marianne frees the baron after he tells her his mother has locked him away to keep his land and titles for herself. To nobody's surprise, this is a terrible idea. Although Marianne does not understand it yet, the younger Meinster is in fact a vampire, kept confined for years and fed a steady diet of young women by his mother, who could bear neither to let him loose nor to dispatch him. Now that he is loose, he quickly takes off with the aid of his nanny, Greta (Freda Jackson).

The following day, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) finds a traumatised but otherwise unhurt Marianne in the woods. He asks her detailed questions about her experience, but fails to tell her what's going on. After dropping Marianne off at the girls' school, Van Helsing investigates the Château Meinster. There he encounters the baroness, who has been turned into a vampire by her son against her will. Van Helsing stakes her in her sleep, but finds the young baron's coffin missing. That the threat isn't over becomes obvious when a young girl in the village nearby dies from a neck bite. And soon, Marianne is engaged to be married...

The plot of The Brides of Dracula starts strong, but descends into a frustrating muddle by the second act before hurtling towards an outright nonsensical conclusion. If Van Helsing had told anybody except the village priest (Fred Johnson) about the vampiric goings-on lives might have been saved, but I'd forgive that contrivance if  The Brides of Dracula didn't also feel like two separate stories stitched together: one about a lonely mother who keeps her vampire son locked up, the second about a hypnotic vampire who draws young women into his coven. Most frustrating are the half-developed characters. Freda Jackson (from Nottingham! fist bump) turns in an outstanding performance as Greta, whose sour-faced demeanour hides a fanatical devotion to Baron Meinster. She's rewarded with a terrific soliloquy early on; thereafter, the script decides she'll be a cackling goon, and she is eventually killed off in a decidedly underwhelming fashion.

Jackson is splendid, but she's far from a lone standout. Hunt's Baroness Meinster is as impressive, all austere aristocratic dignity covering desperate love for and fear of her monstrous son. Cushing turns in another excellent performance, settling into the role and beginning to hone his characterisation of Abraham Van Helsing, battling the forces of evil with science! Yvonne Monlaur, drop-dead gorgeous in a very sixties way and working an adorable French accent, hits all the right notes; it may not be a performance for the ages, but it's enough to regret Monlaur retired from acting only a few years later. The problem, really, is the villain: Peel is good as a brash young baron but never develops a take on monstrous bloodsucking, and he absolutely lacks the astonishing physical presence of Christopher Lee. Where Dracula was a terrifying battle against evil, its sequel just has me rooting for Cushing to beat up a blue-blooded punk.

The lack of a compelling villain means The Brides of Dracula is ultimately a notch below its predecessor, but in other ways it surpasses that film. Take the production design. Where Bernard Robinson's work in Dracula was a little musty he goes gloriously over the top here, sticking dragons and gargoyles all over the already impressive Neo-Gothic architecture of Oakley Court; and since in Gothic horror 'crazier' almost always means 'better', this is a very good choice indeed. There's more action too, awkward in places though it is; and we get the most rocking Peter Cushing moment yet, in which he neutralises the effect of a vampire bite by cauterising his own neck wound.

Despite being a bigger, sexier and more action-packed sequel The Brides of Dracula also makes some significant adjustments to the series mythology: shapeshifting, explicitly ruled out in the 1958 film, enters the series here, with a not-terrible giant bat effect. Vampires now need human servants to watch over them during the day (they learnt from what befell Dracula's original bride, I presume). Elsewhere, what was hinted at in Dracula is more fully developed, first and foremost the notion of vampirism as 'the cult of the undead', 'a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions and their struggle against Christianity'.

Certainly, Baron Meinster's coven has the character of an extremely patriarchal religious community, and in portraying it as supernaturally wicked The Brides of Dracula inadvertently ends up critiquing patriarchy even while exploiting it to pander to the audience. It's a good film, is what I'm saying in a roundabout way: it doesn't blow the roof off the horror film, but it's a very fine example of the developing Hammer template.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Horror... from beyond the grave!

Faced with the mythic stature of Hammer Film Productions in British pop culture, it's amusing to consider how little the company's rise had to do with stodgy English reserve. Hammer's first real horror film, 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment, was so named to cash in on the X certificate, and that was a sign of things to come: for the next two decades Hammer churned out lurid low-budget films that aimed to titillate as well as terrify. The closest analogue is the Italian film industry of the same period, which has a similar track record of sleazy horror films made quickly using the same actors again and again, to tremendous profits.

But where the Italian horror industry - at least in retrospect - was centred on directors, Hammer Horror is most firmly associated with its stars: and no stars more famous than Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, first working together in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein (as Victor Frankenstein and the creature, respectively) and teamed up again in the following year's Dracula, because that's how Hammer did things.

That intro may not sound like Dracula is a great work of art, but it is: as a B-movie and as a film qua films it runs laps around the tedious and overpraised Lugosi film, which it absolutely refuses to be shackled by. As such, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay adapts Bram Stoker even more freely than the reworked-for-the-stage approach behind the 1931 film, into something that shares some names with Stoker's novel but little in the way of locale or plot.

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at the castle of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) in Transylvania. Ostensibly tasked with reorganising the count's library, Harker is on a secret mission to destroy the vampires. He succeeds in staking Dracula's bride (Valerie Gaunt) but is overpowered and turned by the count. Anxious about the fate of his confederate, Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) just walks into Castle Dracula during the daytime (in this film, everybody hangs out at Castle Dracula like it's a popular stop for a picnic during a Sunday afternoon stroll) and dispatches the newly vampiric Harker, but finds Dracula himself gone.

Meanwhile in Germany (or, you know, somewhere: see below), Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) worry about the worsening health of Arthur's sister Lucy (Carol Marsh). The well-meaning but inept Doctor Seward (Charles Lloyd Pack) is unable to determine the cause of her ailment. Van Helsing arrives to tell the family of the death of Lucy's fiancé Jonathan Harker, but stays to look after Lucy. When his cryptic instructions are ignored, Lucy dies and is buried, but it isn't long before the revenant begins preying on her niece Tania (Janina Faye).

Having been told what's going on, Arthur joins Van Helsing in hunting Lucy down, but rejects the professor's suggestion of using his sister to find Dracula. (Arthur's conflict - let his sister's wretched undeath go on and endanger others in the hope of catching Dracula, or put her to rest at once? - is played to the hilt; it's a terrific plot element invented wholecloth by Sangster.) Instead, Lucy is staked. But it isn't long before the count has selected his next victim - Mina - and Arthur and Van Helsing are engaged in a desperate race against time to track down the count and take him out once and for all.

That's quite a lot of changes: some characters disappear (poor Quincey Morris, forever cut out until Francis Ford Coppola had a heart in Bram Stoker's Dracula). Others are changed radically and relationships restructured (Seward as a GP, Harker as a vampire hunter, Arthur Holmwood as Mina's husband rather than Lucy's fiancé). The geography of the film is likewise different; none of it takes place in England, but where it is set is not quite clear. Given all the border business the Holmwoods presumably live somewhere in southern Germany; but it's best to assume that the whole story takes place somewhere in the composite Europe of the British imagination, a land full of medieval castles and superstitious peasants. Certainly, considering all the locals speak in clipped British stage accents despite being (a) peasants and (b) German, it's not easy to pin down.

Cushing, too, doesn't bother pretending to be Dutch. But it's a great performance: driven and professional, he is far more scientist than crazed medicine man. And if his talk of biology (it's an exposition-heavy film, with Cushing's scenes doing the heavy lifting of explaining the series mythology) weren't enough, there's hardly a clearer indication of Van Helsing as the champion of scientific modernism than the fact that the film assigns him Dr Seward's phonograph. Carol Marsh's Lucy is another very good performance, but Lee of course is the standout, despite the fact that he doesn't even appear very much. But director Terence Fisher makes his scenes count. From an iconic gallery entrance quoted by George Lucas in Revenge of the Sith to a latex-heavy disintegration scene, he's an all-round terrific villain: a real monster only incidentally inhabiting a human body, instead of Lugosi's aristocratic twit.

Dracula isn't perfect. The relatively grounded production design can't keep up with the terrific matte paintings and surreal castle interior of the 1931 film: all things considered, the film looks a little bit too much like a 1950s postcard of rustic holidays on the continent. If those holidays occasionally ended in a bloodbath, that is: Dracula thoroughly earns its notoriety with fairly gut-churning violence. Ultimately, what Fisher does with the limited resources at his disposal is impressive. Fifties horror films, let's be honest, tend not to be all that scary to us enlightened moderns. But the combination of Lee's animal menace, Fisher's fantastic horror direction and James Bernard's awe-inspiring score turns Dracula into a genuinely terrifying experience.

Sunday 21 April 2013

To serve and give his life as a ransom for many

By 1964 the historical epic was on its way out. In the United States Cleopatra, doomed by its stupendous cost and the scandal surrounding its leads, had hastened the demise of the genre. In Italy pepla could always be cheaply made, but audiences were beginning to desert sword-and-sandal adventures in favour of the new kids on the block, the giallo and the spaghetti western. With the ancient epic as a whole went the colossal Bible adaptations of the fifties and early sixties, like The Ten Commandments (1956) and King of Kings (1961).

Curiously, though, the dying years of the biblical epic were in fact well suited to serious public explorations of religion. The papacy of John XXIII, culminating in the Second Vatican Council, marked an opening of the Catholic Church towards the world, a qualified departure from its previous defensive stance vis-à-vis modernity and possibly an ecclesiological revolution. As part of that, the Church became more willing to engage art produced by non-Catholics.

The non-Catholic that interests us here is Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian novelist, director, poet, intellectual and pretty much every other cultural profession under the sun. An open atheist and communist, Pasolini was also followed by (well-founded) rumours of homosexuality in the tabloid press. He was, in short, precisely the sort of person the Syllabus of Errors of a more combative papacy was directed against. And yet Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) - dedicated to the memory of John XXIII - is a stunning success, a far more interesting religious work than the often musty epics Hollywood had churned out. Armed with an unimpressive budget, Pasolini succeeds in making the most ubiquitous story in Western culture strange again.

He does this, first, by adapting only the Gospel of Matthew, shunning the usual approach of harmonising the gospels or filling in gaps in one with bits from the other. That approach often leads to ridiculousness in adaptation (witness talkative crucified Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) as well as cognitive dissonance, since we're taught not to realise that Matthew and Luke tell different and incompatible nativity stories. By sticking solely to Matthew, the film does not feature the birth of John the Baptist, the census and journey to Bethlehem (like Matthew's gospel, Pasolini implies Joseph and Mary are from Bethlehem), the birth of Jesus in a stable, the shepherds - and that's the nativity alone; later, we're not given the 'I am' statements, the woman caught in adultery, the wedding at Cana, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the parable of the Good Samaritan, doubting Thomas, and so on. By missing all these familiar elements, the narrative feels startling and strange; we see its shape, but it is not the shape of the gospel we think we know.

Instead, Pasolini - faithful to Matthew, I think - presents the story mostly as an escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jewish civil and religious authorities. He emphasises Herod's massacre of the innocent at Bethlehem, repeatedly stressing the violence of the authorities. We see Jesus react tearfully to the murder of John the Baptist, but determined to continue his mission. Under pressure in Jerusalem, he retreats into the company of the Twelve, with whom he eats a final supper at a safe house before being betrayed, arrested and executed, and rising again on Sunday.

At the heart of Pasolini's gospel story is Jesus (and, before him, John the Baptist) challenging the institutions and representatives of Israel to accept him as Messiah. Rejected, he begins forming an alternative Israel consisting of the poor, the disreputable and the sick - an upside-down kingdom that pointedly confronts the authorities. The victory of established Israel - capturing, convicting and executing Jesus - proves an illusion, as he rises and commissions his followers to extend his kingdom to the whole earth. Because the old Israel rejected Jesus, it has now been rejected by God.

That storyline, of course, is why Matthew's gospel is often accused of antisemitism - a charge that seems basically accurate, although anti-Jewish rhetoric from a precarious first-century Messianic sect is undoubtedly different from the modern-day scourge. Pasolini avoids that problem by de-contextualising Matthew's Jesus-against-the-Jews story through the deliberate use of anachronism. Herod's soldiers are dressed like medieval warriors and Spanish conquistadors, and the film uses the Romanesque and Gothic churches of Basilicata and Apulia for sets. The soundtrack features well-known pieces of religious music from Händel to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night". By mixing symbols from two thousand years of Christian history, Pasolini's film is at once about first-century Palestine and the hope of a whole crushed humanity in Jesus. First-century events are thus imbued with an eschatological dimension.

At the same time, Pasolini undercuts folk orthodoxy at several points. Salome, whose dance before Herod II leads to the execution of John the Baptist, is portrayed as a nervous teenage girl under the thrall of her mother, not the lascivious temptress of tradition. Jesus, meanwhile, is not the serenely smiling figure of religious art; Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui portrays him as angry, driven, and ultimately inscrutable. The other actors, local amateurs all, predictably give flat, affectless performances - which, given Pasolini's copious use of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, is as it should be.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is not the plain Marxist allegory Pasolini was expected to produce. Pasolini's Jesus is, instead, the Christ of liberation theology: in his ministry God's kingdom - inaugurated by his death at empire's hands - and the embrace of the oppressed are inextricably bound up. The audience, though, is not put in a comfortable position of solidarity. Pasolini films the trial of Jesus over the shoulders of the jeering crowd, implicating the viewer in the rejection of Jesus. His Jesus is not reducible to a single lesson or pat truth. The suffering of mankind bound up in him, he remains mysterious - but endlessly fascinating.