Thursday, October 17, 2019

AND SOON THE DARKNESS (Robert Fuest, 1970, UK)


Two young English women fall victim to a stranger in a strange land as they cycle through rural France for a little rest and relaxation. Director Robert Fuest deftly captures the crowded isolation of the protagonists who are separated by language and protocol from the local population, unaware of the danger until it is too late. Though set amid the fertile fields and archaic villages of France (refreshingly eschewing traditional locations!), this could be any small town on Earth where tourists intrude upon the privacy of the locals. Jane and Cathy both sense a veneer of contempt shellacked over every encounter: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!
Pamela Franklin as Jane steals the movie with a bravura performance as the strong willed and independent survivor who makes believable decisions and reacts with proactive violence when confronted by the killer. Fuest doesn’t allow for too many genre conventions to distract from Franklin’s solid characterization. Michele Dotrice portrays Michelle, the best friend, but she isn't around long enough for much character development. However, the contentiously petty interaction between the two women lends veracity to the story by introducing a complex human relationship instead of mere avatars that are nothing more than fodder for fear. Fuest also imbues the audience with the same ambiguous fears by purposely redacting subtitles so we feel a constant separation between characters.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward but Fuest is concerned with creating narrative momentum with suspense by insinuation and elision and not superficial sadism. The murder scene itself relies on moments of suspended observation or tricks of the imagination by Michelle, allowing the viewer to experience the tense scene from her perspective (of course, we have the foreknowledge that she will be killed; after all, we’re watching a horror film). So when she reaches for her panties drying on a branch and they’re missing but her bra and other undergarments are still there, we know some unidentified person took them but Michelle is just beginning to get suspicious. She looks on the ground as a close-up reveals her expression: maybe the panties are still in her saddlebag. A few branches scrape together and she hesitates alone, Jane miles down the road after an argument, and we feel her sudden recognition of isolation. Fuest doesn’t show the viewer a dark shadow or evil eyes peering from the bushes: he wants us to feel what the character feels. Her bicycle suddenly falls over and she jumps but again, it could just be the wind. She sighs in relief until she picks up her bike…and sees the mangled spokes. Now she knows absolutely that someone is lurking nearby and her dread is palpable, a fight or flight reaction that becomes overwhelming. Fuest shoots from a low–angle framing her reaction-shot through the broken spokes and twisted rim. This is a powerful scene that is the crux of the story as the killer’s identity is kept hidden. The remaining story becomes Jane’s fear for her missing friend and discovering who is responsible.
AND SOON THE DARKNESS is a nice little thriller that I understand was remade in 2010 utilizing the same title but to seemingly different results. Relying on allusion over contusion, Fuest’s film exploits that undiscovered country between our perceptions and our paranoias.

Final Cut: (B+) 

Monday, October 14, 2019

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (Irving Pichel, 1932, USA)


Bob Rainsford learns that the world is indeed divided into two kinds of people and on a mysterious island the predator becomes prey. The title is a double entendre representing the exploits of two Big Game hunters whose machismo is reinforced by hunting dangerous animals and the competition (or game) that will soon exists between these men. Bob Rainsford is a world-renowned hunter whose ship is purposely lead astray upon a coral reef: as the only survivor he swims ashore towards an island and stumbles upon an archaic castle, looming above the jungle like some barbaric idol. It’s here that he meets Count Zaroff, a man who not only knows Rainsford but also considers himself to be the best hunter in the world, and soon a contest for survival ensues. 

Director Irving Pichel utilizes all the horror tropes of early cinema: the haunting castle, the evil henchmen, the dank torturous dungeon replete with severed heads, the evil and cunning genius, the beautiful scream-queen whose survival depends upon our protagonist, but instead of leading the narrative into the supernatural…he leads it into the realm of the hyper-natural. Though the setup is easily contrived, Count Zaroff and his henchmen of Russian caricatures, there is an interesting subtext to the film. As technology moves into the modern age and we homo sapiens dominate the world, the only natural predator of our species has become ourselves. Zaroff's mens rea is explained with moral ambiguity, suffering a head injury that may have cause his homicidal impulses. Or did this only allow his true self to emerge? 

Count Zaroff decides to hunt Rainsford and the sultry Eve Trowbridge, and she is the voluptuous prize whose fate is to be raped by this despicable coward. If the two can survive until sunrise, Zaroff promises to give them the boat to the mainland but he reminds them that he has never lost this “chess game”. But Rainsford is resourceful and this mano-a-mano confrontation wastes no time creating tension: our protagonists set pits and deadfalls to kill Zaroff but to no avail. He hunts them with a bow but sensing defeat, retreats to his domain and gets a high-powered rife with a scope while his henchmen bring the dogs. The victims escape into the foggy swamps rendering the rifle useless but the dogs hunt them through moor and vine choked trees, until they are trapped upon a treacherous precipice. With one shot, Rainsford seems to fall to his doom as the sun rises, and Eve’s light is dimmed by the coming of Zaroff’s violent ecstasy. Finally, poetic justice is served as the boat races from the harbor and Zaroff becomes the food of the dogs. 

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY (Freddie Francis, UK, 1969)


Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly live a life of disintegrating values and dehumanizing games, and become victims themselves of a sexual revolution. Freddie Francis’ bizarre brood of British banality is a delectable hybrid of Luis Bunuel domestic surrealism as written by Tennessee Williams.

The film begins with the unnamed protagonists (known only by their titular sobriquets) playing in a zoo and teasing the animals…and humans. These two teenagers act and speak like children, uttering annoying baby-talk with a riptide of sexual urgency. An unnerving implication of incest is revealed with finger-sucking aplomb while they search for a playmate. After discovering a drunken bum on a park bench, they bring him back home to Mumsy and Nanny to complete the Patriarchal pastiche, a nuclear family unit whose fuse is set to purposely implode. But Girly and her brother blackmail another man whose mannerisms are all to manly, seducing all three women and finally playing them one against the other, as sex becomes the greatest weapon.

Freddie Francis creates a claustrophobic fear in the shuttered mansion, where chilling details like boarded-up doors and locked rooms foreshadow events. Sex is juxtaposed with violence, as the shrill baby-talk barely conceals the murderous events. The fault of the story is that there is little sympathetic context, no character that becomes the focal point of audience attention. The events are orchestrated for effect; for physical detachment (like the head, for instance) and not emotional attachment. We just don’t care about anyone but applaud their comeuppance.

A black comedy of unique proportions, GIRLY upsets Christian values and redefines the family structure, as sex becomes the currency for survival, the man’s tool leveraging power and transforming the matriarchal structure where the daughter now usurps the throne.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, September 7, 2019

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, 1961, France)


Restless spirits rendezvous, victims haunting a grand manor that looms above them like Hill House, ghosts lost amid a maze of elliptical memories and infinite corridors. The protagonist is frozen outside of time, tortured like the prisoners of Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, his emotions icily detached from any human concerns except traitorous desire. The others who stalk the carpeted hallways, their footsteps and tremulous whispers absorbed by this mortuary that swallows the last vestiges of their humanity, seem to dress in the funeral attire of the upper class. The musical score is a dirge that is often antithetical to the visual montage; beautiful art-deco adorations of the nouveau riche contrast this sullen march towards perdition. The inhabitants cast long shadows that seem to stalk them; ghastly creatures that have consumed their souls…or possibly these shadows cast them?

The nameless protagonist pursues his lover throughout the endless passages, his voice-over narration opposing the film’s reality, as if he is trying to convince himself that by repeating this mantra he can change his past, present, or future. Burdened by guilt of rape and murder, his victim dressed as a feathery angel, he is startled and falls from the crumbling balcony. In one great match cut, the jilted lover turns and aims his gun at a target then Resnais cuts to the woman gliding gently down the hall, implying that she is the object of his violence. The “husband” seems to be the grand tormentor, always winning at Nim and holding power over his prisoner, as the Devil incarnate. When the final game is lost, the protagonist makes the sign of the cross with the game-tiles, as if to drive away the consuming evil.

Director Alain Resnais has crafted a mysterious film that demands the viewer to imprint his own psyche upon this celluloid canvas. The gorgeous deep focus black and white cinematography lets focal points disappear into dark mirrors and long passageways, while the slow tracking shots remain obtuse and disembodied. Though many people seem trapped in this immaculately kept netherworld, they are spiritually isolated…and whoever walks there, walks alone.

FINAL GRADE: (A+)

IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge, 2006, USA)


Luke Wilson in literally an average Joe, a victim of the military’s unnatural selection for a cryogenic experiment: he awakes to a nightmare of ubiquitous obtuseness, a future society where stupidity has evolved as the status quo. Mike Judge’s dunce capped satire is over-the-top hilarious but not far from current cultural trends where Reality TV dominates and Conglomerates consume the landscape.

Isaac Asimov wrote about the decline of human intelligence years ago, as college graduate working couples nurture fewer children than the religiously fixated and miseducated who birth and rear new monstrosities on a regular basis. Multiply this by a few centuries and this militant satire, though impossible (an elite class would still be needed to run the computers and maintain the infrastructure), still resonates with a tone of truthfulness and ill-humor. The attention to detail is farcically incisive: clothes slathered with advertising, grunts and inane slang as a common denominator, sex infusing every facet of society (such as Starbucks and Fuddruckers), Costco’s huge warehouse crouched amid the rubbish-strewn environment like some Lovecraftian horror, and the redacted history that literally depicts Chaplin as THE GREAT DICTATOR and has UN (pronounced monosyllabically) dinosaurs saving the world from fascist behemoths wrapped in Nazi regalia. Though funny, this prescient warning should be headed as we see the rise of Creationist Museums that vomit their religious myths as fact: the human race is becoming lost in a blink of a cosmic eye, stumbling towards extinction by our own hands!

Unfortunately, the voice-over narration is annoying, as Mike Judge seems to have contempt for the very audience he wishes to reach: we don’t need omniscient explanation. But Luke Wilson as Joe and Maya Rudolph as Rita are excellent as they exemplify the empathetic human spirit, this emotional connection that otherwise would leave the audience to despise the entire species. IDIOCRACY is sinfully smart and those who rave about 90 day FiancĂ©Ex on the Beach or Ghost Hunters…just don’t realize the joke is on them.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)

Friday, September 6, 2019

IN BRUGES (Martin McDonagh, 2008, UK)


IN BRUGES is a Hieronymus Bosch triptych: three characters caught in a static loop unable to escape the Garden Of Earthly Delights. After Ray bungles his first contract by accidentally killing a child, he and his mentor Ken are sent to Bruges to await their next assignment. Ken is deeply moved by the city’s peace and tranquility while Ray is impatient and frantic with boredom: Heaven and Hell is a matter of perspective.

Writer/Director Martin McDonagh has created a deeply philosophical film that (I believe) has been mostly misunderstood: this is not just a wise cracking, slick talking PULP FICTION style comedy! McDonagh explores beliefs in Theistic Existentialism and Buddhism because the characters are brought to a turning point in their lives…by their own hands. They also hold the key to their own salvation but keep repeating the same destructive behaviors. And it’s fate that ultimately brings the three together. Bruges is an allegorical Purgatory, an inescapable dreamlike place that exists between worlds where the three characters are trapped by their own rigid moral codes and ideals.

As the violent drama nears its bloody climax, Ray, Ken, and Harry are each given a chance to redeem themselves but ultimately fail. I imagine this story playing out for all eternity (think GROUNDHOG DAY) until one is able to change and attain enlightenment: Ken almost achieves Nirvana by self-sacrifice but he also remains embedded in Samsara. The labyrinthine canals are like the city’s veins, the people it’s flesh, and the crumbling ancient structures its bone. The tower provides an omniscient view of the city and points the way towards salvation while the mysterious caverns lurk somewhere below the park while the suffering happens in-between. The film does not spare the brutality and gore and devours the characters like some demented Boschian nightmare.

FINAL GRADE (A+)

Saturday, July 13, 2019

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (Lars von Trier, 2018, Denmark)


 This is the house that Jack built.
 This is the girl
 with the flat tire
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 This is the woman,
 who lost herhusband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 This is woman with two children,
 hunted and shot like animals,
 Now prone besides the woman who lost her husband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 This is the simple girl,
 humiliated and mutilated,
 Next to the woman and her two children,
 hunted and shot like animals,
 Now prone besides the woman who lost her husband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 These are the five men tied in a row,
 Near the simple girl,
 humiliated and mutilated,
 Next to the woman and her two children,
 hunted and shot like animals,
 Now prone besides the woman who lost her husband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 Now appears Virgil to guide the Architect,
 leaving behind the five men tied in a row,
 Near the simple girl,
 humiliated and mutilated,
 Next to the woman and her two children,
 hunted and shot like animals,
 Now prone besides the woman who lost her husband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 Through concentric circles of Hell until the bottomless pit,
 Virgil guides the Architect,
 leaving behind the five men tied in a row,
 Near the simple girl,
 humiliated and mutilated,
 Next to the woman and her two children,
 hunted and shot like animals,
 Now prone besides the woman who lost her husband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

 Now falls the Architect into the pit he deserves,
 Guided by Virgil,
 leaving behind the five men tied in a row,
 Near the simple girl,
 humiliated and mutilated,
 Next to the woman and her two children,
 hunted and shot like animals,
 Now prone besides the woman who lost her husband,
 positioned next to the girl with the flat tire,
 That lay in the house that Jack built.

Final Grade: (C-)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID: 2005 SPECIAL EDITION (Sam Peckinpah, 1973, USA)


Pat Garrett chases the ghost of his past through the thin dry air of desert heat, loaded with Law but empty of Justice, until he finally knocks upon Heaven’s door. Sheriff Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid are reflections in the same dark glass, both share a grim visage whose ghost whispers a bloody truth that the times may be a’changin…but people aren’t.

Director Sam Peckinpah begins the film with a monochromatic visual of Garrett riding into an ambush, and cross cuts (in color, to set the narrative timetable) to Billy and his gang carelessly slaughtering chickens for sport and laughter. This explosive violence imbues the film with its militant nihilism, a philosophy of the human abyss as these two men confront each other as different sides of the same coin, their existence at stake in this fixed game of death. Actor Kris Kristofferson is able to bring a genial humanity to William Bonney, his boyish charm a startling contrast to his murderous nature. James Coburn’s weathered countenance is like a grinning skull and though Garrett is legally on the right side of the Law, Coburn plays him with a monstrous but not unkindly demeanor, a man tainted with self-loathing for selling himself for money and duty. The film is structured as a chase, as Peckinpah cuts between the hunter and his prey, building tension towards the final showdown. His gratuitous use of slow motion mayhem is an orgy of bloodshed, beautifully rendered in vivid color and detail that paints the romanticism of the Western genre from red to the deepest black of despair.

Bob Dylan’s score is subtly masterful adding a poetically mournful narration to an end of an era. As Garrett finally discovers The Kid’s hideout, the Sheriff guns him down and thus destroys the vital part of himself: Peckinpah examines this theme as Garrett shoots his own image in a faded mirror: it is a spiritual suicide. Thus life is cyclical and the very same men who paid him to track down and destroy his cohort eventually murder Garrett: he finally surrenders his badge and his guns are buried in the hot desert sand.

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, 1977, Italy)



The Freeborge School of Ballet becomes a danse macabre, as a coven of hags flourish like a secret garden of blooming iris. SUSPIRIA begins on a dark and stormy night, the cracking thunder and nervous rain drowned under a pummeling crescendo of guitars and bombastic drums. The soundtrack overwhelms the senses while the visuals bleed Technicolor fury as a terrified woman’s final words are muted…and she flees into the night. Director Dario Argento conjures forth a magical sense of dread and destruction with meretricious inventiveness, utilizing vibrant colors and ostentatious set-designs while gradually revealing the ghostly footsteps that echo down the school’s haunted corridors.

Suzy is an American girl, resourceful and independent, who finds herself intoxicated with the ambition of becoming a world-class dancer…and drunk with blood-red wine. Her nights become a restless coma until she finally discovers that her food is being drugged. Freeborge is run like a prison, the teachers the warders, and the students that stay at the school are soon to be awarded a prestigious degree in the Arts…the Black Arts! Suzy clashes with these taskmasters but soon develops a relationship with Sarah, and the two of them soon unravel the twining mystery of razor wire.

Argento shocks with gaudy death scenes and revels in the quick-cut gore, allowing the camera to linger over the sliced faces and nail-pierced eyes, but also allows the characters to breath before their expiration. From the creepy malformed assistant to a ceiling dripping with maggots, he regurgitates many horror conventions but frames them in interesting ways. Argento also divulges the furtive whisper spoken at the film’s beginning and the remainder of the plot focuses upon Suzy’s ability to figure it out. Most of the film is kept within the school, which heightens this claustrophobic terror of being isolated from the real world. Suzy’s meeting with the psychologist is pure exposition, a quick way to disclose background information, but Argento’s use of extreme low angle frames the characters against a blue sky…that wonderfully offsets their tenebrous conversation.
Armed with forbidden knowledge, Suzy seeks to follow the footsteps and confront the Mater Suspiriorum. She traverses the hidden door and wanders towards her doom, realizing she cannot become part of the coven, only victim of it. But salvation is found with determination and a glass feather.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

THE SILENCE (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)


Johan walks amid the silence of a labyrinthine hotel, a way station of death and war, as a spiritual apocalypse rages between his mother Anna and his aunt. Here in convolutions of this nameless city, in the dark alleys and crowded iniquitous bars, Anna fulfills her physical desires, slave to this primal urge, while her sister Ester suffocates slowly from some dreaded disease, bedridden and lonely, translating foreign prose into understandable text. Johan haunts the hotel’s maze, distant and distracted, longing for a mother’s love, encountering strange characters but always separated from their barbed-wire boundary of language: like an imaginary god’s obtuse scripture, a burning bush whose conflagration consumes the human essence.

Director Ingmar Bergman dissects the soul in this triptych of understanding: Anna represents the physical instinct, full of beautiful life, grasping this desperate instinct which may disappear in an atomic flash; Ester courts Death, her sexual urges unfulfilled, fearing the loss of her intellect and becoming something less than human; while young Johan is the innocent and mischievous child, in need of affection and attention. Anna and Ester stare mostly out of windows, observing the world at a distance unable to cross this translucent borderland: like germs trapped under a glass slide… or maybe they are the ones being measured and observed. Anna rides her guilt trip on her back and from behind, and condemns her sister’s judgment in a penetrating ecstasy of delight. She then abandons Ester to this foreign place and takes Johan back home, on a long train ride through the rain drenched night. She opens the compartment window and becomes soaked, her memories and self lost like tears in rain. But Johan has one last parting gift from Ester: a note written in a foreign language. He holds it dearly because he loves his aunt: is there some sacrosanct message or only the whispering gibberish of an inscrutable deity?

Final Grade: (A)