Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Ernest Schoedsack and Merian Cooper’s companion piece to their epochal King Kong, shot on many of the same sets and intended to help defray the costs of their bigger production, is certainly the lesser film. A point which doesn’t mean so much in such a context, especially considering it’s possibly been just as influential as that film, with several official remakes and plentiful imitations, including Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey, the John Woo-ised Van Damme vehicle Hard Target and sci-fi variant Predator. With direction credited to Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, it confirms that a lot of King Kong’s brilliance lay in Cooper’s unerring, huckster sense of breathless hype, and Max Steiner's what-the-hell score, neither of which are in long supply here. The Most Dangerous Game is distinctly calmer and slower to get going, and not as dynamic and fiendishly bizarre when it does.

Richard Connell’s prize-winning short story was however a tough act to follow, presenting a narrative of almost perfect, Shavian form and brevity. The Most Dangerous Game finds famous big-game hunter and travel writer Bob Rainsford finds himself cast away when the yacht of a rich friend smashes against a reef near a South Pacific island after the captain is fooled by misplaced light buoys. He swims to shore, and finds himself the guest of his émigré Russian counterpart, Count Zaroff, who has become bored with animal hunting and now taken up stalking two-legged prey, having made his island hideaway into a perfect stalking ground, and arranging strong, hardy candidates by shifting the lights that mark the channel.

The adaptation adds some company for Rainsford (Joel McCrea) and Zaroff (Leslie Banks), in the shape of a love interest and figure of immediate sympathy, Eve (Fay Wray) and her boozy, garrulous brother Martin (Robert Armstrong), but for the most part keeps the story’s structure intact, with Zaroff hinting at his elegantly perverted obsessions during a lengthy, slow-burn scene in which he guests know very well something is wrong but must play the charade to its end, as prelude to a protracted life-and-death struggle. With a visual intensity and inherently propulsive drama to match Kong, The Most Dangerous Game also plays as a fitting thematic variant.

A recurring image in Zaroff’s bastion is that of a satyr clutching a bare-breasted, victimised maiden, for whom Wray provides ready embodiment. But rather than a colossal projected beast of the id in the shape of a giant monkey, the satyr here is certainly Zaroff himself, speaking with anticipation of the revels that come after the hunt, punctuated with his meaningful appreciation of Wray’s form and her gulping, wide-eyed certainty of his intent. A bleakly sadistic streak lies underneath Zaroff’s playing courtly host, as he shrugs off Martin’s over-friendly, liquor-sodden demeanour, even allowing him to lean on him with a tipsy, friendly arm wrapped about his shoulder. Once Rainsford and Eve have gone to their rooms, Zaroff then invites him to see the trophy room where he keeps his victims’ heads, his gambit for informing and inspiring his next quarry, plainly relishing the opportunity to slaughter the presumptuous Yank.

The screenplay bolsters Zaroff’s hardened, callous attitude to life formed in war and exile, as essayed in the story, with a more fashionably psychological touch, in suggesting he’s been unbalanced by a head wound, which he often strokes and reacts to like a familiar, driving him to indulge the depths of his broken psyche. Nonetheless, he is every inch the Old Europe villain, a reactionary imperialist with a cabal of various ethnic thugs (including, amusingly, Noble Johnson as a Cossack) to do his bidding, and a former Portuguese colonial fort filled with the accoutrement of the ancien regime, whilst one of Martin’s impertinences is to insist he play a “good tune” and none of that “highbrow stuff” he’s given to banging out on the piano. Surrounded by inelegant Americans, Zaroff wraps himself in the trappings of a civilisation he makes a mockery of, and yet subtly confirms that tradition as based on a history of repression, victimisation, and self-serving cruelty. The dense jungle, fog-clogged swamp, vine-crusted cliffs and titanic waterfalls of the island are vividly overdrawn as a perfect fantasy turf, in which the thinly civil veneers of Rainsford and Zaroff peel away, and they enact an elemental war to stake their claim to life and female. Rainsford, after refusing to become Zaroff’s partner in systematised murder, is forced nonetheless to set deadly traps for Zaroff and his aides and match him on his own errantly savage level.

The film’s force is however hampered by a script that isn’t all that persuasive, sporting some obvious dialogue (“Now I know how all those animals I hunted felt,” Rainsford inevitably comments) and thinly developed characters in a scenario that doesn’t quite make the most of the dark parallels it hints at. The dualism of Rainsford and Zaroff – both are haunted veterans of WWI in the story, and each is defined by his own understanding of the genteel sportsman's ideal – which Connell described with care is muted in favour of clearer moral boundaries: McCrea inhabits his role with an uncomplicated, one-dimensional demeanour befitting a cowboy hero, in which McCrea’s most suited career lay ahead. He lacks convincing outrage and guilty conscience in seeing his own philosophy of life taken to grotesque extremes, and any real hint of existential desperation in his efforts to stay alive. But the stickiest point is Banks’ severe miscasting as Zaroff: the mind boggles what the thought of Erich von Stroheim or Boris Karloff might have done with the role that Banks fudges with a weirdly unspecific Slavic lisp and bug-eyed evocation of psychotic malice. Banks was generally a smooth, avuncular leading man in British movies, and he’s not convincing or memorable as a noble sadist.

Nonetheless, once the chase starts, Schoedsack’s staging takes off, offering some brilliant high-paced tracking shots in following McCrea and Wray’s frantic flight through the jungle. Innovative camera flourishes pepper the film, especially in a rapid descending dolly shot from Eve’s perspective, closing in on Zaroff’s face as she realises his distinctly dishonourable intentions, and the technical effects, with good model work and dramatic matte environs, were of a very high calibre for the time. The scenes in the murky depths of the swamp, crawling with alligators and Rainsford’s lethal devices waiting to puncture the unwary, the baying, racing hounds, and the confrontation above a colossal cataract, are gothic adventure at its purest, and although the very end lacks Connell’s mordant off-handedness, the film maintains a serial-like pithiness right to the last frame.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Highly entertaining as a blackly comic riff on the revenge motif and an eye-catching exemplar of a strand of what might be called pop-art horror from the late ‘60s and early ’70s, The Abominable Dr Phibes also draws inspiration from the craze for Jazz-age flavour sparked by films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Bonnie and Clyde. Director Robert Fuest had handled several episodes of The Avengers in that show’s halcyon days, and he brings that playful, retro-cool flavour to a story that evokes the mechanical plots of Edgar Wallace, the lair-plotting of The Phantom of the Opera, and quotes the elaborate techno-sadism of Fu Manchu.

The story, revolving around scarred, grief-stricken genius Anton Phibes’ (Vincent Price) programme of vengeance against the eight doctors and one nurse whom he blames for failing to save his wife’s life on the operating table, is chiefly an excuse for elaborate invention in Phibes’ multiple homicides based on the ten plagues Moses brought down on Egypt. Phibes’ killings are usually self-conscious in their ridiculousness, like a plague of locusts that eat off a victim’s face or a catapulted brass unicorn head, and the tone veers towards camp, garishly amusing comedy, particularly when the victim of the latter device has to be literally unscrewed from the wall.

Fuest archly celebrates Phibes’ status as new-age anti-heroic rebel against the modern religion of medical science, preferring his own cabalistic style of extremist moral surgery. His murders are rendered like varieties of gruesome, critical performance art. Particularly in the finale, in which Phibes contrives an elaborate exercise in race-against-time surgery, the narrative anticipates the affectations of the Saw films, and with a not-dissimilar keynote of gruelling exacted punishment for the sloppiness inherent in everyday lives, here explicitly related to an Old Testament moral code, and a general air of gimmicky anticipation. Dr Phibes is however far more likeable and visually appealing than that glum and tacky series.

In spite of the jokes, and sometimes in accord with them, Fuest offers a weirdly beautiful vision of 1925 as reconceived by Carnaby Street, full of resplendent art-deco sets and curious anachronistic flourishes, which possess an occasionally otherworldly, liebestod-inflected perversity. Fuest offers a morbidly romantic zest, like in the first scene, in which Phibes bangs away with delirious rapture on his organ, and then sets a mechanical jazz-band to play, conducting the mannequins with enthusiasm, before greeting the arrival of his mysterious, silent, seemingly spectral assistant Vulnavia (incarnated with cool stature by Virginia North) in a blaze of light and spinning with her about the floor his ballroom-cum-hideout.

Vulnavia swans through the proceedings bedecked in clothes that often suggest a flapper pagan priestess, sawing away on a white fiddle whilst Phibes’ foul deeds are done. Particularly funny is her and Phibes’ miniature concert as they watch one of his victim’s plane fall from the sky (he’s being gnawn on by rats, understandably distracting him from his piloting duties), and off-hand moments as when Vulnavia settles for a thoughtful cigarette amidst Phibes' fantastically odd home decor. North's and Price's scenes together anticipate the way Orson Welles would use himself and muse Oja Kodar a couple of years later in the even more waggish riff, F for Fake.

Because the film is driven by affection for its villain and delight in the malicious splendour of his killings, the good doctor’s victims are barely characterised, except through varieties of smugness, or perversion, in the case of blue movie-loving Dr Longstreet. Terry-Thomas, in a droll cameo, plays Longstreet, who receives a midnight visitation from Vulnavia whilst he's indulging his habit: the doctor is immediately lost in lustful delight as he beholds the gorgeous creature who's just invaded his rooms, his hand still swinging the crank handle of his projector even though it’s broken off, a neat image of auto-erotic frenzy. She ties him to a chair, Longstreet unable and unwilling to resist the promise of a bit of dominatrix action, only to spend the night having his blood drained out into bottles by Phibes.

The one exception to the ludicrousness of the victims is Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, a late fill-in for Peter Cushing), chief surgeon at the operation that failed to save the life of Victoria Regina Phibes, a conscientious and whip-smart man who has to save his son from the ninth plague, the curse of the death of the first-born, so of course he is the only one to retain any real chance of fending off Phibes' machinations. What’s left of the potential for genuine horror is leavened by plentiful comic relief by a particularly entertaining Peter Jeffrey, as the canny but considerably outmatched Inspector Trout, and his various underlings and overlords at Scotland Yard, trying to keep up with Phibes’ relentless, fearless invention.

Dr Phibes was however chiefly designed as a paean to the legend of Price, with the film publicised as his one-hundredth feature, sporting numerous references to some of his famous works, especially House of Wax, the tinkering mod-mad scientist of the Dr Goldfoot films, and even, in his wife’s name, to the play he made his Broadway debut in. The curiosity here is that Price’s most distinctive and effective device as an actor, his voice, is only heard in raspy, disconnected snatches, for Phibes can only speak through an electric device, and then mostly only in interpolated, repetitive invocations to the shrine he keeps to his wife. However, this helps affirm Price’s definite skill as a physical mime, communicating with great deftness his alternations of eagerness, contempt, judiciousness and joy in the process of gaining his revenge, particularly in the malevolent, unfaded hate he displays in burning the faces from representative mannequins of his victims: his lack of words to express himself with somehow only focuses the lethal emotions which are Phibes’ only true provenance.

Fuest was making his fourth feature here after Just Like a Woman (1967), Wuthering Heights, and And Soon the Darkness (both 1970). Whereas his work on And Soon the Darkness in particular was singular for its canny spaciousness and disorientating use of the big screen for claustrophobic ends, here Fuest inverts that achievement by finding constant opportunities for turning limited spaces into baroquely packed vortexes of detail. His background in art direction for television, where the possibilities for suggesting style are far more limited, is also very apparent: like more imaginative TV directors, Fuest crowds the edges of frames and foregrounds with looming objects, décor and design, whilst action occurs in a central or slightly displaced, deep-focus zone. The results are occasionally immobilising, but nonetheless accumulate into an ebullient universe of period paraphernalia and stylised historicism, a haute couture fantasia of the Jazz Age viewed through a lens of post-modern genre detritus. If production company AIP’s take on horror had been best defined by Roger Corman, who often experimented with introducing textures inspired by other visual art forms in his '60s work, from psychedelia to pop art to abstract expressionism to Cubism, Fuest offered here possibilities to extend and enlarge that approach, in conceiving his labours in B-movie land as a place to indulge a laissez faire take on cinema style. Whilst Fuest's career individuality dissipated quickly, like too many intriguing talents to emerge in just as the British film industry entered crisis, his run of films in the early '70s are entirely justified cult objects. Dr Phibes satirises and debunks the Gothic horror and stylised thriller traditions of genre cinema and literature from the first half of the 20th century, just before their last vestiges would be swept away by the splatter movie, and yet it also celebrates them with the most delicious brand of eye candy.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983)

After the well of the Halloween franchise’s possibilities had been emptied thoroughly by the pedestrian Halloween II, John Carpenter came up with the idea of branching off into new territory with an extended series of original stories, built around the Halloween mythology, hinted at in that first sequel with its deployment of Celtic myth and the festival of Samhain as a secret motivation for Michael Myers. This offered a plethora of potential themes and stories to riff on, and Carpenter had luck in securing a screenplay by the doyen of eerie, Nigel Kneale, then visiting Los Angeles on a request from John Landis to write a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Kneale’s script was, however, considerably rewritten with commercial intent, reportedly at Dino de Laurentiis’ behest, and credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace, who had been a production mainstay on Carpenter’s earlier films. The result was a relative financial failure that temporarily killed the series and was dismissed with near-abhorrence by critics and fans for a long time before gaining a belated following.

What respect Halloween III: Season of the Witch does get is usually accorded to what’s left of Kneale’s original concept, which is indeed singularly brilliant and morbidly threatening. There’s actually quite a lot of Kneale’s familiar obsessions remnant in the story, with similarities to Quatermass II (a remote town as basis for sinister operations by a malevolent company) and Quatermass and the Pit and The Stone Tape (ancient relics containing massive, scientifically exploitable resources of power), as well as Kneale’s usual interest in satirising conceited organisations and philosophies like militarism and corporatism – which ought to have accorded well with Carpenter’s sensibility. It’s this last part that’s relevant to the sting Halloween III: Season of the Witch undoubtedly possesses, as Irish toy manufacturer Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), through his sizable and prosperous Silver Shamrock factory located in Santa Mira, California - the location also of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a reference that is certainly not accidental – has successfully flooded America with his popular, ceaselessly advertised masks.

The twist, or the practical joke as Cochran would have it, is that his masks are weapons of cabalistic murder, implanted with shavings from a block of Stonehenge that unleash flesh-eating insects and snakes in an emanation of stygian evil that will cause horrific general slaughter, as Cochran’s new-age tribute to his ancestral creeds. This devilishly clever project however takes a long time to be made explicable, coming across less as truly engaged satire on the commericialisation of holidays based in ancient creeds and spirituality than as a mere MacGuffin. For the most part Season of the Witch is badly hamstrung by a low budget and a flimsy, rushed-looking production. Photographed by Dean Cundey in the same contrasts of heavy shadows amongst scantly lit but intricately coloured environments, a distinct series look is maintained – the problem being that was a very cheap look. It was all too easy for this film to be treated on either end by the money-men and critics as tacky grindhouse fare on the way to becoming VHS fodder, part of the great flood of cheapjack horror sequels and imitations that cluttered the early ‘80s genre landscape.

Efforts to emulate familiar cheap thrills, like the casual drill murder of a likable character, and the repeated scares of a constantly reviving cyborg in the finale, are desultory. However, in other ways, the seamy look of Season of the Witch adds to the unsettling atmosphere, promising the sort of tale in which the usual things don’t happen, and that’s quite true in a plot that threatens mass infanticide. It is however reassuring to see some of what was then the Carpenter stock company on screen, with Tom Atkins repeating hero duty from The Fog and Nancy Loomis – after she had resumed her birth name of Nancy Kyes and soon to marry director Wallace – appearing briefly as his bitter ex-wife.

Atkins is Dr Dan Challis, an ER staffer who treats a terrified old man, Grimbridge (Al Berry) who we see in the opening trying to escape the murderous attentions of some suited, well-quaffed assassins. The old man warns about a plot to “kill us all!” before one of the assassins locates him and jams his finger through his eye. The assassin then calmly immolates himself in his car, and no trace of human remains can be found amongst the remaining ashes, only synthetic materials. This leads Challis and Grimbridge’s daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin, an actress who seemed destined for heights never hit), to Santa Mira, where they try to peek behind the curtains of Cochran’s operation, but soon enough fall into his hands. O’Herlihy doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes the most of it with a terrific performance, offering a sickly sweet, caramel-smooth façade to his pet retailers before revealing his motives and beliefs with forbidding, zealous assurance: “The hills ran red with blood!” he crows with malefic delight in fantasising about the communal orgy of animal and child sacrifice that supposedly capped the Samhain festival.

In spite of the film’s slack early horror sequences, the intensity of the two scenes in which his microchip spell-conduits are employed finally generates a palpable sense of menace. The faint threat exuded by the playful Silver Shamrock ads, with its naggingly, insinuatingly catchy theme song attached to the tune of “London Bridge”, proves all too literal (the advertisements, with clunky synthesiser music and digital effects, are in themselves fascinating exemplars of cheapskate hype). The film’s last third ratchets up a surprisingly strong tension as a consequence, leading to the hoariest and usually effective stunt for a nail-biting situation: the hero tied to a chair.

The fact that Wallace was an inexperienced helmsman highlights the problem Carpenter consistently had in trying to outsource his projects: no-one available was as good a filmmaker as he was, and the thought that Joe Dante might have directed it, as originally mooted, is irresistible. Kneale’s original, apparently more comic take on the set-up might indeed have had a powerful influence on Dante’s Gremlins. Although he follows Carpenter’s example in The Fog in calmly constructing his story and sense of setting, Wallace sets up murders and fight scenes staged with little élan and there’s little dexterity to the filmmaking until Challis is finally shown Cochran’s secret laboratory, with its banks of computers and technicians working around the stolen chunk of Stonehenge, a visually striking conflation of cutting-edge and indescribably ancient paraphernalia. Unfortunately, suggestions that an Irish pagan cult might have moved in complete to Santa Mira, with a The Wicker Man-esque type of incongruity on offer, are mooted but not at all explored, which is generally true of all the film’s most intriguing elements. Sloppy details abound, like a crime scene with no police cordon and a factory without a decent security alarm. Kneale himself complained about the scenario being reduced to about six characters and a cardboard set, and there’s too much truth to that assessment.

Yet plenty of cheap and nasty films from this period are well-remembered. Perhaps the real reason for the interesting and worthwhile Halloween III: Season of the Witch being reviled was because of its undoubtedly grim premise of indiscriminate child murder, although such a storyline could all too easily have tapped into an era of urban-myth-fuelled anxiety over Halloween-night excursions. But it is true the film’s curtailed, ambiguous climax is a bit unfair to the audience, which anxiously wants (or at least I did) to see this story come out right, a touch that finally leaves a bad aftertaste. In a period in which the horror genre often went darker than ever, this was threatening dark indeed. Nonetheless, it’s still not a bad little movie.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cinema Oz Part Three: 1990-Present

...and, at last, faithful readers, the third and concluding part of my Australian cinema primer for GreenCine, looking at the industry's last twenty years and casting a highly opinionated eye on the movies therein.

...and just to make the set:

Enjoy, and thank you for your patience and attention.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Terrore nello Spazio (aka Planet of the Vampires, 1965)

An everlasting icon for the creative genius of Mario Bava, Terrore nello Spazio is an object lesson in making the most of very little, a film which can be easily described as a gothicised Star Trek episode, albeit one painted in the most vivid and driving fashion by Bava’s camera mastery. The popular title given to the film for its English-dubbed release, Planet of the Vampires, is at the least misleading, because there are no vampires in the film: Planet of the Zombies would be closer to the mark. Either way, it stands with the following year’s Operazione Paura as Bava’s most cinematically resplendent and dramatically confident work, as Bava achieves a canny and clever synthesis of two genres that often overlap but rarely blend as effectively as they do here. His film’s acute similarities to Alien are impossible to ignore, and Bava’s film more than holds it own in the comparison.

Adapted from Renato Pestriniero’s short story “Night of Twenty-One Hour”, Terrore commences with two spaceships travelling to a remote planet in response to a distress signal. On approaching the planet, the ships are brought down by irresistible forces and, shortly after landing, the lead ship’s captain, Mark Markary (Barry Williams), is the only member of the ship’s crew not to be afflicted with a sudden murderous rage, and it’s a lucky thing that in fighting off his crewmembers and restoring them to sensibility, or they could have all killed each-other. Which, the crew finds when they’ve recovered and made the trek across the planet’s fog-wreathed, hallucinogen-coloured surface, is exactly what’s happened to their fellows on their sister vessel. They bury their comrades, but soon enough those gnarled and scarred bodies rise from their graves and lurch away on their business.

That business, as it slowly becomes apparent, is to commandeer more humanoid bodies and their spaceships, for they’re now possessed by invisible aliens desperate to escape their dying world, and need to eliminate or similarly possess the remaining humans to be sure of getting away and establishing a foothold on a new planet. The low-budget and rushed production is easy to discern thanks to such details as plastic flooring of the spaceships that crinkles up when people fall on it, and amusing lapses, like how the women crewmembers, after days humping it around with leather helmets on, still when they take them off retain perfect ‘60s hairspray bobs. It’s equally apparent that a lot of Bava’s fog-machine and lighting effects are to cover up a set-bound production.

And yet such limitations swifly fade as Bava tackles the project with a proper genre maestro’s enthusiasm: the technical qualities of the cinematography and the inventiveness of the set decoration, art design, and special effects crew (apart from the uninspiring model shots of the ships in space) would have been impressive in any circumstance. With an FX budget too low for matte images, Bava utilised the Schufftan photographic process to achieve some fascinating multiple-element shots, of the heroes trekking across the seething stygian landscape of the planet, exploring the capacious innards of their own ship, or approaching the ruin of another, ancient alien craft. Bava turns the planet’s surface, studded with knobs of rock and bubbling pools of sulphur, into a wonderland of recontextualised expressionism: if Forbidden Planet presented a planet upon which the embodied id roamed, Terrore turns an entire world into an emanation from the id.

Bava’s excellence at graceful, context-establishing tracking shots is quickly reconfirmed: being a cinematographer has by no means proven over the years to automatically imbue a director with understanding of the cinematic form, but in Bava’s case it was certainly true. His capacity to create an unnerving mood hits its peak when the resurrected astronauts escape their graves, pushing up the steel tablets that eight them down and tear off plastic shrouds, amusing little details that confirm the clever fashion in which the generic blend has been achieved. The astronauts wear black clinging space-gear which combines a peculiarly Italianate idea of the futuristic with a fitting gothic flourish, as if everyone’s clad in Dracula’s riding leathers.

Bava offers a neat quote from his debut film, La Maschera del Demonio, when the humans glimpse the gruesomely tattered torso of one of the reanimated bodies when his tunic flaps open, and the nightmarish struggles of the zombies to rise from their graves likewise is reminiscent of Jovatich’s revival in that film, but realised in altogether more delirious terms, with plumes of rising smoke and ponderous slow-motion filming that evokes the pure physical improbability of the dead reanimated. If any director ran wild with the gaudy delights of Technicolor, it was Bava. At least before a fitting but slightly illogical twist ending, the story is tight and the script sober and intelligent, sporting some interesting sci-fi motifs, where often Bava had to often work wonders in spite of flat screenplays. Tension builds with efficient force, as the struggle becomes one not merely to escape the hostile planet but for the remaining humans to save their whole species. The urgent fight-and-flight climax is a surprisingly well-executed action sequence considering Bava rarely helmed such scenes.

As John Carpenter admitted Bava’s influence on Halloween, then the notion this film influenced his take on The Thing is hard to resist, especially in contemplating the dark conclusion. The theme of possession is a common one in fantastic cinema, but Bava’s specific fascination for collapsing temporal identities as individuals become repositories for restless spirits and unresolved traumas, their own inherent personalities fading into insignificance in the face of a parasitic yet unquenchable remnant desires, refusing to be laid to rest, is certainly present here. In this regard, Bava seems to me to have done some work in paving the way for the innate body horror of filmmakers like Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero, in whose films people’s flesh cease to obey their commands and warp, pervert, and decay in resistance to their will. Only a couple of years would elapse indeed between Terrore and Night of the Living Dead, which also fused elements of science-fiction logic to animate a much more earthbound take on the zombie motif.

And of course it’s hard not to think Bava might have had grounds to sue Dan O’Bannon and company in the scenes in which the crew discover the ancient, crashed alien spaceship still littered with the fossilised bones of its own very non-human crew. That sequence, with the ship’s huge interior lit by gaudy clashing hues and dominated by concentric circular corridors, anticipates in immediate terms the twisted, spiralling interiors of Operazione Paura’s Villa Graps, and also anticipates the geometrical conceits of Dario Argento’s set design. Where Alien, and to a certain extent The Thing, both become in essence monster-on-the-loose movies, with heroes battling dissociated, animalistic enemies, Bava’s film offers a more subversive, multi-hued, interesting threat, as the factions fight to escape the doomed planet: what any individual is willing to do for their own species, and what that victory might entail for others, presents an intelligently articulated ambiguity, one beautifully essayed in a fratricidal moment in which Williams has to gun down his possessed brother in order to save the world. The finale retains some punch as Earth is assessed with the contemptuous eye of colonial real estate developers.

Terrore nello Spazio is less distinguished as a smart, compact thriller however than as a darkly beautiful evocation of outer space as the last frontier not of the superego but of the psyche’s bleakest pits. Williams, familiar face from B-westerns but who proved to possess a curious mix of the gentle and the gritty in Samuel Fuller’s great 40 Guns, is quite effective in setting the tone of cool, measured authority, as his crew – even the ship’s two female officers, Sonya (Norma Bengell) and Tiona (Evi Marandi) are occasionally brittle but generally allowed the dignity of professionalism and some effective ray-gun action, an element handled with refreshing ease after stickiness of so many ‘50s sci-fi entries in dealing with altered gender roles – maintain a stoic awareness of their own mortality and the value of that mortality in this context.

A terrific film.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups, 2001)

In initial viewings, Christophe Gans’ loopy, imaginative mixture of horror film, swashbuckler, chop-socky flick and conspiracy thriller, struck me as over-long and frustratingly pieced together. In returning to it, I found it has aged well, and even if it still lacks contiguity in reconciling some wildly disparate story and cinematic elements, it’s nonetheless always been admirable for its originality and scope, and the quirkier conceits and leisurely pace now seem minor faults. Taking a different tack to the same problem of reinventing French popular filmmaking than the House of Besson, Gans took similar obsessions – martial arts, pulse-racing action, socio-politico cynicism and multicultural idealism – and cross-bred it with the familiar form of the historical film, leaving intact a certain level of intellectualism in that genre even whilst offering up kung-fu fighting Indians and steampunk monsters.

Distinguished especially by Dan Laustsen’s brilliant photography, Brotherhood offers up Hammer Horror forests and ruins, well-handled CGI and animatronic monstrosities, and ebullient high-kicking physical violence, as it riffs on the real-life mystery of the Beast of Gévaudan, where mysterious wolf-like creatures terrorised rural France in the 1760s. Royal naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his blood-brother Mohawk offsider Mani (Mark Dacascos), survivors of the Seven Years War, are sent to investigate the beast’s relentless rampage, embodying between the two of them the gamut of the Voltaire-Rousseau Enlightenment’s ideals – Noble Savage and Rational Man team up to kick more ass than Batman and Robin.

They soon find their efforts squeezed between the frosty, close-ranked demeanour of the local aristocrats, led particularly by the powerful Morangias family and priest Sardis (Jean-Francois Stevenin), and the desire of the Royal authorities to see the crisis, and the agitation it has stirred up, ended swiftly. Mani locks eyes repeatedly with a wild-child strumpet (Virginie Darmon), belonging to a band of mysterious, fight-loving, animalistic gypsies who haunt the locality, whilst De Fronsac tries to romance the Morangias’ haughty, wilful daughter Marianne (Emilie Dequenne, in one of her first adult post-Rosetta roles). He also relieves himself copiously at the local whorehouse with sultry Italian demimondaine Sylvia (Monica Bellucci). But she’s got a secret – no, it’s not the same as The Crying Game: turns out she whores for the Lord, being a Papal agent sent to combat the sinister conspiracy de Fronsac himself begins to uncover.

For the attacks of the beast, a mysterious wild animal wearing a metallic suit that makes it all the more deadly with steel teeth and armour plating, are directed by a hidden mastermind, linked to a plot to frighten the populace, roll back liberal reform, and reinforce religious and aristocratic hegemony! Bloody battles with the steel-bristled beast, vendetta-fuelled combat with the hidden cabal’s feral Gypsy army, incestuous rapes, burial alive, and miraculous revivals through Indian herbal remedies can only result.

All this makes the film sound far more outlandish than it actually is, for Brotherhood of the Wolf is actually distinguished by a passion for old-fashioned, involved yarn-spinning, played with a straight face throughout. The film positively bursts with ideas – perhaps too many, as a streamlining approach might have made the film more rigorously compelling, rather than the dog's (wolf's?) breakfast on offer. The edit prepared for the English dub job shaves a chunk out of the centre that removes some of the tale’s complexity but improves the pace.

Only in the concluding passages, in which de Fronsac suddenly turns into a superlatively physical agent of vengeance, does the film strain credibility to breaking point. Until then Gans manages to make his post-modern approach to genre and the lushness of the traditional French period film mesh with eye-gorging results. Moments of bravura gall abound, as when the camera survey’s Bellucci’s copious naked form as it transforms into rolling, snow-crusted countryside, and the prelude to the beast’s first proper appearance, sending a bolt securing a trap door flying into the air in slow-motion relish of the suggested force about to explode forth. Many elements, such as Bellucci’s elegantly murderous and sexy character, and the gloriously bizarre gypsy band, are so strong and intriguing in and of themselves that Brotherhood of the Wolf feels like a set up for a half-dozen franchises.

It’s to Gans’ and screenwriter Stephane Cabel’s credit too that the tale is thoroughly rooted in the historical moment, evoking the social fall-out of the Enlightenment, Reformation and Imperialism, the mixing of cultures on the frontier, and other specific themes which all confirm an admirable refusal to dumb down. There’s a cunning political metaphor, too, about the creation of monstrous threats to inspire reactionary sentiment. Nonetheless, this extra heft possibly contributes to the film’s ultimate failure to entirely cohere, both going on too long for sheer thrills and not long enough to realise all its potential, and indicates a final indecision about what kind of movie to make.

The acting by a suspiciously excellent cast is admirable, with Bellucci, Dequenne, and Darmon offering a dextrous triptych of vivid fantasy femmes, although Edith Scob, hallowed starlet long ago of Eyes Without a Face, doesn’t get to make much of an impression in her part as the Morangias matriarch. Le Bihan is fair as our hero, although he doesn’t wield much charisma, so it’s easier for the soulful Dacascos, and particularly a louche, lupine Vincent Cassel, as the deeply twisted villain of the piece, to make more of an impression. Gans’ direction, for the most part rich with energy, invention, and intelligence of eye, offers a tangled evocation of the gothic tradition, but stumbles with some hammy sound and camera effects in his desire to seem cutting-edge, and the film’s jerky rhythm is a problem. Gans made a fool of himself for many with his later Silent Hill, but hopefully his forthcoming take on Fantomas will be a return to confident form.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The 13th Warrior (1999)

A project which possessed enormous potential, John McTiernan’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel “Eaters of the Dead” is one of the few worthwhile recent entries in the historical-adventure genre of the likes of The Vikings or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (both 1958), infused with some gamy modern flavour. Troubled in production and brutalised in test screenings, a lot of footage was re-shot by Crichton himself, and the result was still a heavy box office flop. The 13th Warrior has since gained a small but strong following, and might have been for this storytelling tradition what Master and Commander was for the seafaring yarn: a distinctly modern, intelligent, inquisitive take. The film we ended up with is neither a misjudged gem nor a calamitous failure, but a mildly entertaining rump of what might have been something exceptional. The storyline had undoubted heft and potency, and some of that still shines through the fog of Hollywood. Crichton’s narrative placed real-life Arab diplomat and historian Ahmad ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas) in the midst of a legend destined to become the Beowulf saga, with a cunning anthropological twist, as he makes contact with the Northman warriors led by Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich) in central Rus, and travels with them back to Scandinavia to help King Hrothgar (Sven Wollter) in his frantic struggle against not literal monsters but strange, vicious, cannibalistic Neanderthal-like remnants known as the Wendol.

Sometimes The 13th Warrior hums with a sense of moment and purpose, building tension and a sense of grandeur, but too often it barely hangs together. The filmmaking is rife with awkwardly shot, poorly lit, confusingly edited fight sequences, and littered with poorly delineated, mostly flat characterisations, and weak and discontinuous story threads. For instance, a sub-plot involving Hrothgar’s wicked son Wiglif (Anders T. Andersen), who lurks with all the dastardly, phlegmatic, effeminate aplomb of a Jay Robinson or Roddy MacDowall Caesar, but who never gets around to serving a substantive function in the storyline. Or the romance between Ahmad and Viking chick Olga (Maria Bonnevie), so dutiful they hardly seem bothered to raise a saucy eyebrow at each-other. Diane Venora is in there, but I barely glimpsed her. Kulich’s Buliwyf is so one-dimensional in his Soviet-Realist fashion it’s hard to tell what’s so different when he finally expires sitting upright in a statuesque pose. Even before the re-editing and re-shooting, one suspects the script was a half-hearted mess.

The film’s problematic action scenes are also a reminder that McTiernan played a definite part, already apparent with Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), in helping usher in an era of hosepipe framing, eye-jerking camerawork, and visually illiterate editing, for constructing action set-pieces as a kind of blurry op-art. Here, it’s not helped by poor pseudo-realistic lighting, with major confrontations that are virtually incomprehensible. An elaborate early action scene when the animalistic (yet horse-riding and tactically sophisticated, a contradiction not engaged with at all) enemy assault Hrothgar’s fortified village sees a barrage of shots that render the spacial relationship of any one character and event to another so indistinct they could be in different countries.

The final confrontation, although riding the wave of some well-constructed tension and hype, as the heroes make their reckonings with gods and prepare for a terrible, outnumbered onslaught, is similarly disappointing because it’s over almost before it begins, Buliwyf’s defeat of his nemesis, the horn-wearing general of the Wendol, like so many other aspects of the film, seems the product of a distracted director. The whole film, indeed, says too much about the worst tendencies of modern Hollywood, and certainly reflects a kind of utterly paint-by-numbers approach to storytelling that afflicts so many films, and at some point, either in development or in being “rescued”, the makers surrendered depth and personality to a cynically provisional sense of narrative.

Nonetheless, the film remains watchable, because for all its flaws it is based in strong, intriguing material, which isn’t entirely obscured. The onward sweep of the story, beginning as familiar quest saga and shading into historical mystery, before becoming a bruising few-against-many fight-fest, has some of the drive and palpable energy McTiernan had once commanded so effortlessly. Momentum builds because, for the all the bare-bones characterisations and jittery storytelling, such lacks have never necessarily harmed a B-Movie swashbuckler. The 13th Warrior works up a certain matinee enthusiasm in scenes like that in which the Vikings answer the call of an old soothsayer woman to join Buliwyf's party, and when they finally invade the Wendols' caverns, swaying from ropes and plunging down flooded tunnels with an aplomb not a great distance from Island at the Top of the World. Banderas is reasonably supple and charismatic in his interesting but underwritten role, but Dennis Storhoi, as Herger, his best buddy amongst the Northmen, gives the most enthusiastic performance. Omar Sharif, who took a temporary retirement from acting because of his bad experience with this film, lends some weight of both cinema history and movie star status to the early scenes, but his presence remains another dissatisfying, denuded teaser.

Warrior stands out for presenting an Islamic Arab not only as heroic but as the spectator’s avatar as a model of faith and civilisation through which to approach the rough, grotty, pagan forebears of so much of subsequent European society. Whilst what’s left of the film fails to investigate the historical milieu it constructs with much dexterity, nonetheless the production offers a dark, dirty, innately physical world with convincing detail, and tantalising little ideas – like making the Wendol pantheists who worship an idol resembling the Venus of Willendorf – keep it buoyed. The result was a film both intriguing for its ambitions and all too frustrating in its excisions.