Monday, 26 April 2010

Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

Moral and emotional nuance. Intricate characterisation. An ambiguous ideal of masculinity and a revolutionary woman’s place in a man’s field of labour. A dark portrait of assailed conscience in a world of inherent corruption and inhumanity. None of these phrases immediately bring the name of Cecil B. DeMille to mind, but they’re nonetheless present in this film, although everything is subordinate to the flagrantly romanticised interests of DeMille’s personalised brand of historical hogwash. Saddled with some right silly comic relief, including a ventriloquist’s dog, Paulette Goddard singing gritty shanties to the disapproval of Charleston society matrons, and getting spanked by Ray Milland as a prelude to being dumped overboard to prevent her marrying John Wayne, Reap the Wild Wind takes a while to find its sea-legs. DeMille’s usual narration at the opening pompously relates the coming shenanigans to the security of the United States and Manifest Destiny, before offering up a portrait of slavery-riddled, propriety-shackled antebellum Dixie that’s very pretty and very bogus.

Once Reap the Wild Wind gets on with things, however, it’s quintessential escapism, made with the usual overripe intensity that was DeMille’s gaudy capability, and his delectable eye for physical detail. The recreation of period Key West, haunted by wreckers and sea salts and thugs and villainous dandies, is an eye-delighting landscape, full of memorable faces and impossibly lush Technicolor costuming and set décor. This was the first film to ever gain an Academy Award for special effects, although the effects are uneven: the underwater photography, shipwreck scenes, and the famous giant squid are fascinating, but there’s an amusing number of all-too-obvious sky-cloths behind bobbing models throughout.

Reap the Wild Wind is also the most entertaining of the several films, including Wyler’s Jezebel (1938), made to provide an actress who felt cheated of playing Scarlett O’Hara a chance to practise her Ah Dee-clairs, Goddard in this instance, playing Loxi Claiborne, the tomboyish, tricky, ardent inheritor of her father’s salvage business who’s introduced casting off her plum petticoat and broad hat in favour of boots and jersey to ride out to the rescue of a wrecked ship’s crew. DeMille’s love of tough, rule-breaking heroines was always however counterbalanced by a firm inevitability of their being punished for their wily ways. Goddard had earlier played a wild half-caste femme fatale in DeMille’s disastrous North West Mounted Police (1940), and here she took centre stage with an energetic, saucy performance, if one that still sees her squashed between disparate types of dashing gentleman, and at last humiliated in her wrongheaded choice.

Loxi falls for Captain Jack Stuart (Wayne), who seems her ideal of manhood, a man she rescued from the debris of his ship after his first mate Widgeon (Victor Kilian) conspired with arch-villain King Cutler (Raymond Massey) to ride the vessel onto a reef. Worried that Jack will be keelhauled by the ship’s owner, Commodore Devereaux (Walter Hampden), and especially by Devereux’s right-hand man, the slick lawyer and lady’s man Stephen Tolliver (Milland), she takes advantage of a trip to Charleston to woo Tolliver and soften any ill-feeling he might have against Stuart. Her efforts work too well, as Tolliver, who seems to embody everything Loxi has contempt for, soon wants to marry her. Loxi creates constant stirs by refusing to conform and act her part, except when it suits her, but that finally proves a dangerous game as she helps turn a confused, serious situation finally into a fatal one.

Tolliver nonetheless defends Stuart against Devereaux’s outrage, and secures for him the command of the line’s new steam vessel, the ‘Southern Cross’, on condition of Tolliver’s being able to prove him innocent. But through a series of misunderstandings, not aided by Loxi’s scheming and assumption-making, Stuart ends up disillusioned and signing onto Cutler’s side, plotting to wreck the ‘Southern Cross’. What should be a ticket to a nefarious fortune is however impeded when the possibility arises that the wreck cost the life of Loxi’s cousin Drusilla (Susan Hayward), who was romancing Cutler’s younger brother Dan (Robert Preston) and stowed away to return to him.

Loxi is trailed by a rotund maid (Louise Beavers) whose looks and mannerisms are patently copied from those of Hattie McDaniel’s great Gone With the Wind character but with all of her strong points removed, to instead spend most of the film being freaked out by Stuart’s pet monkey, a stand-out amongst a proliferation of minstrel caricatures. Nonetheless, some of DeMille’s faintly discernible Lincoln Republican background idealism is present as Cutler, as well as a wrecker (argh!) and lawyer (eek!), is also branded a slave trader, who promises to make Stuart rich by giving him a ship to fill with “black ivory”, suggesting an underlying darkness to the storybook portrait of the old south, the economy of which seems, here, to float on the sea and on a wealth of exploitation and violence. DeMille took care to avoid upsetting anyone by making sure that Cutler is written off as a "bad Yankee" by the captain of Loxi's salvage ship, Philpott (Lynne Overmann): "I'm a good one," he adds smartly. The actual story, however, suggests less Margaret Mitchell than DeMille's riposte-cum-supersized remake of Hitchcock's interesting Jamaica Inn (1939). It's worth noting that the screenplay was co-written by Hitch's regular collaborator Charles Bennett, and Alan Le May, who would later write the book that provided the basis for the great Wayne vehicle The Searchers (1956).

As usual, it’s sharkish profiteers and sleazy manipulators who are the villains, white-anting a noble, burgeoning culture. There’s the usual cameo by an historical figure, here, David Farragut (Milburn Stone), when he was still a lieutenant, to bring these shenanigans in line with a coherent sense of national narrative. Tolliver becomes a combination secret agent and Perry Mason, as he travels to Key West to investigate Cutler’s operation with Federal backing, and then prosecutes Stuart for conspiring in the wreck. He soon proves to possess enough brawn and rectitude to more than match up to Jack. Cutler proves however as effective at Stuart’s defence as he is an overlord of crime, killing off witnesses and painting Tolliver in turn as the true villain who planned the wrecks. Massey plays Cutler with plummy relish in one of his best villainous roles, smiling his leathery smile with the satisfied sadism of a cat who's just eaten the pet canary. Preston, as Dan, radiates such a ludicrous virility it's a wonder he doesn't drip refined testosterone.

“Put him on the beach, see how he takes it,” Devereaux decides, to test Stuart’s mettle, a test that proves finally too much, especially when he thinks Tolliver means to taunt him, and although Wayne gets some choice tough-guy lines – “Shut up about her, or I’ll tear the jaw out of you!” – they start to sound intriguingly hollow as Stuart’s moral core collapses. He not only fails himself and gets Drusilla killed but also dashes Loxi’s conviction, so strong that she sabotages her own ship to stop Tolliver intervening before Stuart can get the ‘Southern Cross’ out of port. The finale offers, of course, a chance for tragic redemption before death by calamari and tidal wave. It’s not very deep character tragedy, but it’s nonetheless still definitely character tragedy, and one of Wayne's most unconventional and uniquely fragile roles. Errol Flynn, not such a stranger to darker, more neurotic if still two-fisted characters, was originally slated for the part. Milland, although required to wrestle his way through some rather desultory early scenes, manages also to rise to the occasion in playing a dapper gent who can mix it up with pirates.

It’s to DeMille’s credit that he wrings as much flavour and tension out of an extended court room sequence, with the sweat-stained denizens of the galleries and sense of nerves fraying in a humid, claustrophobic balm, in a room designed to feel like a vice closing on the protagonists, as he does out of the long, amusing scene when Cutler sets some thugs on Tolliver and friends to shanghai them away on a whaler, requiring Loxi and Stuart to help him fight off a collective of very ugly mugs and then selling the defeated heavies off in what was supposed to be their place. The seagoing scenes are gorgeous and well-detailed, making this a must for anyone fond of seafaring flicks, and the finale, in the tottering, endangered wreck of the ‘Southern Cross’, is excellently visualised, if weighed down by a certain contrivance. Even if it’s a lumpy mix, it’s still a good ride when it gets down to business, and DeMille’s sense of pictorial style – replete with fanciful wipes to propel scenes, teeming and painterly master shots, and soaring crane work to absorb his meticulous mise en scene – is impossible to deride.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Casablanca as Hero’s Journey

An academic piece.

Part One:
Structure Breakdown of Casablanca in accordance with Chris Vogler, ‘A Practical Guide’, from The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, adapted from the precepts of Joseph Campbell.

Act One

Ordinary World
Casablanca: French Vichy government; German influence; Moroccan street culture in contrast with refugees. French-run bureaucracy and police.
Casablanca as terminus for a “torturous” refugee trail.
• Rick and his Café Amercain at the centre of temporarily stable sociopolitical situation.
• Flashback to peaceful pre-diaspora Paris.

Call to Adventure/Disruption
• Murder of German couriers by Ugarte to obtain Letters of Transit. Letters of Transit as MacGuffins.
• Strasser’s arrival.
• Round-up of “usual suspects” and arrest of Ugarte.
• Arrival of Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund; their requests of Rick to help obtain the Letters of Transit.
• Ugarte’s pleading with Rick to aid him before arrest.
• Carl’s implorations for Rick to attend underground meetings.
• Hint of Supernatural Aid: the nature of fate. “Of all the gin joints in all the world” etc.

Refusal of the Call
• “I stick my neck out for no-one.” Will not aid Ugarte.
• Rick as isolationist, “no longer a practical foreign policy”.
• Refusing to attend underground meetings with Carl.
• Rick gets drunk, will not listen to Ilsa’ explanations.

Meeting with the Mentor
• Victor Laszlo as mentor, coaxing Rick into action.
• Renault as false mentor, purveyor of cynicism and egotism.

Crossing the First Threshold
• Rick’s dissolving habits. “Breaking a precedent” in drinking with Victor and Ilsa, etc.
• Aiding the Romanian husband and wife.
• Rick’s giving approval to the band to play “La Marseillaise” for Laszlo.

Act Two

Tests, Allies, Enemies
• Road of Trials for Rick: Fall of France and former life; Ilsa’s abandonment;
disillusionment; Ilsa’s return as married woman; gaining possession of the Visas; contending with Strasser.
• Rick’s tests of character and moral compass:
- Refusing entrance for the Deutsche Bank representative to the gaming room.
- Resisting the interrogation by German officers.
- Fends off efforts by Renault, Strasser, and Victor to discover his inner mind.
- Refusing Ugarte aid reflects disgust with killing for profit.
- Helps the Bulgarian girl. Proves he’s “a rank sentimentalist”.
- La Marseillaise scene.
• Allies:
- Allies defined by personal loyalty: Carl, Sacha, Sam, employees of Rick’s Café.
- Potential allies: Ilsa, Victor, Capt. Renault.
- Ilsa as Temptress/Goddess
• Enemies:
- Strasser and his entourage.
- False enemy: Renault.

Approach to the Inmost Cave
• Renault’s office at Police Headquarters. Here Ilsa and Victor are told of Ugarte’s death; Strasser outlays his plans to defeat Victor.
• Rick confronted by Ilsa in his own office; forced to reckon with his pain, his anger, and listen to her story. Discovery of truth and forging of new intimacy, new plans.

• Rick’s Café closed and smashed up by the authorities.
• Victor injured escaping from Underground meeting.
• Rick and Ilsa confront each-other; her threat to shoot him; their moral and emotional quandary.
• Rick appears to betray Victor with Ilsa’s connivance – the momentary appearance of total moral chaos.
• Rick manoeuvring to get Victor out of jail, out of the country. An escape against all odds. Both “rescue from within” and “magic flight”.
• Confrontation with Strasser, shoot-out; threat of arrest.

• False rewards: Rick regains Ilsa’s love, her vow to abandon Victor, escape to America.
• True rewards: renewed will to fight; a “beautiful friendship”; renewed self-respect; punishment of the tyrant and escape; new awareness of people’s potential for good.

Act Three

The Road Back
• Rick as walking dead man, a failure by his own moral & emotional standards, gives way to Rick exhorting Ilsa to suborn her desires, as he is, to the cause.
• “Welcome back to the fight” – Victor’s congratulations – Rick’s return to his status as fighter. Benediction of the Mentor.
• Rick’s departure with Renault. Renault and Rick as “masters of two worlds”
– Rick manipulates his enemy to help Ilsa and Victor escape; Renault uses
his status to save Rick, “resurrects” him.

Return with the Elixir
• The elixir as will to fight, the cause of battling Nazi tyranny
• Love of Ilsa; fellowship of Victor and Renault.
• “Freedom to live” – recaptured values and sense of will that enable freedom
to oppose tyranny.

Part Two – Commentary

Casablanca, as well as being a generic melodrama, belongs to a genre of World War 2- era propaganda films, in being about, as Danny Peary put it, “a man who is sitting out the war and ignoring the Cause because of personal problems, (and) comes to realize that he, like all individuals, has an important part to play.” It is, at least in part, designed to inspire a state of moral and emotional excitement and commitment. It takes place in the days before Pearl Harbour, and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) will be roused to act as the US was roused. Chris Vogler proposes that “the values of the Hero’s journey are what’s important”, and it is crucial in Casablanca that Rick join the fight against Nazism. The film presents a hero composed of assured strengths but also wounded ideals and feelings, who will only commit to war having demonstrated to his own satisfaction the point of doing so. The aims of Heroic narrative and propaganda converge in Rick, as the film attempts to generate a heroic drama in a contemporaneous political context.

Casablanca’s plot commences with a prologue of omniscient perspective, which emphasises the end of a settled, ordered existence. But this also outlines the formation of a tenuous way of life in Casablanca, functioning in a delicate equilibrium, distinct from the polarities of the war. It is defined as a place in stasis, of flux. Refugees can neither go forward nor back. Captain Louis Renault having the “usual suspects” rounded up provides an illusion of movement but also the truth of immobility. This cynical act segues into two important plot details: Renault knows the real criminal, as he informs Major Strasser, who has arrived specifically to contain Laszlo, the man for whom Ugarte intended the Letters of Transit. He personifies the force of evil expanding from Europe. “We Germans must get used to all climates, from the Arctic to the Sahara.” he announces. Already, the equilibrium in Casablanca is altering, and the state of flux is primed to collapse. Microcosmic and macrocosmic connections are emphasised. When the gendarmerie shoot down one of their “usual suspects”, he collapses before a poster of Marshall Petain, violence on the street and the political landscape thus entwined; the Gaullist literature the dead man has on him counters the Petain image and slogan.

Most, if not all, of the characters in Casablanca are defined by what they have already lost, in homes, status, jobs, and loved-ones. The ordinary world is already lost. The core flashback, in which Rick recalls his Parisian romance with Ilsa, reveals they lived in a bliss that was a-historical. Ilsa and Rick insisted on a relationship free of specificity regarding past lives. The temporal displacement of this key sequence emphasises that this is past, transmuted into nostalgia, and that such wilful existence outside the terms of history could not continue. Fate, and history, must take their course. In contemplating Rick and Ilsa’s affair after its end is already known, clues to its fundamental instability gain in urgency. In coming with the Nazi invasion, Rick’s loss of Ilsa is linked to the world’s loss of cohesion, the failure of the island from history they attempted to build. The flashback partly solves some mysteries, but also presents further mysteries, continuing to sustain emotional tension.

This is the backdrop to the situation of Richard Blaine, heroic exemplar of the microcosmic/macrocosmic clash. His own state is one of neutrality. Much about Rick remains hazy, and, tellingly, the subject of mythmaking within the film, especially by Renault. Even the efficient Gestapo have some “vague” points in their dossier. Rick remains only partly delineated figure, with a mysterious background, and seems purposefully conceived as a “shadowy antagonist…the same as the figures who appear in our dreams and fantasies” (Vogler, 1999: 2). He summarises some then-popular archetypes. With his shady past and knowledge of “certain parts of New York”, he could be a gangster. His mixture of terse manliness and wounded heart, associated with tragic romance and the Spanish Civil War, is reminiscent of Hemingway’s heroes.

Rick’s exceptional status is such that he is first introduced by reputation. Everyone comes to Rick’s. When the film comes to Rick’s, the structure of the scene serves as a fanfare for a hero’s entrance. Following a series of shots that introduce the interior of the Café and its denizens, a waiter brings a cheque for Rick to sign, and only his right hand enters the frame. This composition, unlike those of the other characters, gives him the benefit of initial anonymity. His status is not immediately on show. He is distinct from the milieu. A high-angle shot of him writing: O.K. Rick. Only then follows a pullback shot, revealing the complete man, pondering a chess-board. He is defined like a heroic king of myth: kingdom; minions; visitors waiting for an audience at court; his right hand of power. Rick OKs things, he plots the moves. His potency has been visually confirmed before he speaks a word.

Carl, Renault, Ilsa and Victor prod him to see what he’ll do. Ugarte begs him to help him. The Germans suspect and fear him. There is an assumption that what Rick decides to do will be of great consequence. Rick is associated with many friends and allies, again dovetailing the patterns of heroic narrative with a requirement of the propaganda film. A quick glance at other films of the period – e.g. The 49th Parallel (1941), The Demi-Paradise (1943) Sahara (1943), etc – reveals an emphasis on groups of varying political and ethnic identities grouping together to fight the common enemy, just as the Allies were doing in the war. Thus Rick is surrounded by Sacha (Russian), Yvonne (French), Ilsa (Norwegian), Victor (Czech), Carl (presumably Hungarian-Jewish like actor S.Z. Sakall) – all who have suffered Nazi persecution. If, in Heroic narrative, allies confirm the moral position of the hero, this is vital in such a milieu. Most integral is the influence Rick has on Renault, converting him through example of action to the side of anti-Fascism.

Ilsa and Victor herald a double disruption. Victor’s arrival counteracts Strasser’s – the war has arrived, symbolically if not quite literally, in Casablanca. Ilsa comes at the side of the man she abandoned Rick for. This duo reintroduce into Rick’s life two specific qualities he has rejected: partisan spirit, and human attachment. Laszlo, though roughly the same age as Rick, plays the role of Mentor, his scarred face denoting him as a man who passed through trials. His and Rick’s relationship is defined by measures of resentment and respect. “One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca.” Victor comments; “And about Victor Laszlo everywhere.” Rick replies. Rick is the man of Casablanca, the place of stasis: Victor the man of the world and action. Later, when Rick will spurn engagement, Victor directly resounds: “You know what you sound like Mr Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.” Laszlo is a voice of conscience, assuring that these dramas are not merely incidental, but part of a web of destiny.

Destiny indeed plays a hand. If a supernatural force is at play in a heroic narrative, then the caprices of fate that link these people together might count. Rick reflects on this in the “Of all the gin joint in all the world” line, discerning this fateful coincidence. Ilsa, in turn, embodies a dichotomy of womankind as goddess and temptress. Rick, in the flashback, is bewildered by this mysterious sprite’s entrance into his life. Her glittering beauty, her memories of getting braces put on her teeth, embody illusory fresh-minted purity. Her abandonment of Rick and reappearance with another man, causes him to equate her with a bar-room floozy. Rick’s ardour is defined by a strain of disguised misogyny, disappointed that his illusory perfection was not lived up to, that the goddess did not exist. Rick’s journey is defined by changing perceptions of Ilsa and her role in his and Victor’s lives. An act of narrative doubling – “parallelism” as Bordwell and Thompson call it, implicit in the appeal of the Romanian girl makes to Rick, her questioning the idea that loving someone can entail betraying them – helps initiate him into his new role as an active participant, using the mechanics of his own house’s rigged game to help her and her husband.

The “approach to the innermost chamber” is internal, but also involves penetration of private sanctuaries. Renault’s office is where Rick ventures to spin the plot with which he will save the day, at the same time inviting the appearance of total surrender, to the lowest ebb of total amorality, in pretending to conspire for Laszlo’s destruction. This comes hard upon the scene in Rick’s private apartment, where Ilsa confronts and pulls a gun on him; she had to break into his sanctuary, to violate his last privacy, to bring about his own inwards search. “Go ahead and shoot – you’ll be doing me a favour.” Rick instructs her, figuring himself as the walking dead. Without the power of ideal love that Ilsa represents, he is nothing. She surrenders to him instead, and her kiss resurrects him as a functioning human. The web of false conception and misunderstanding is now torn apart. Rick’s subsequent vow, “From now on I’ll do the thinking for both of us,” explicates new shouldering of responsibility. Ilsa’s willingness to let him take the reins is the ultimate boon – Rick doesn’t even need for it to be fulfilled. Nor is it the only resurrection of Rick. Once he has shot Strasser he is prepared to be arrested, and pay the price for his choices. In terms of the cause-and-effect, every action entails an immediate reaction; but has the circumstance not only been set up for Rick’s possible destruction, it has also been set up for his rescue, for Rick requires saving by an ally. Renault does this, fully affirmed as an ally, and Rick is transfigured into his mentor. Simultaneously, Rick and Renault become masters of two worlds. Rick plays the Vichy like a consummate musician, exploiting vanity and self-importance, and Renault responds by using his position to put the investigation off.

The reward for losing Ilsa and rejecting the false victory of stealing her is initiation into the comradeship of soldiers, marching off to war. The will to fight, the renewed sense of love and loyalty, is the elixir he wins. Laszlo carries the light of European liberalism to America; Rick carries American potency into war. He rejects egotistical self-interest, and emphasises the unimportance of individual desire in a troubled world. And yet the elixir is especially vital because its constituent ingredients – love, loyalty, idealism, friendship, and intelligence mixed with dutifulness – are precisely what have demanded, and also enabled, his victory. The shift in equilibrium is complete. Strasser is dead; Victor and Ilsa have escaped; Rick and Louis leave. They have all begun on the road to victory, and left the peripheral limbo of Casablanca.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Quarantine (2008)

American remake of the well-received Spanish film [REC] takes the now-familiar stunt of offering what is purportedly a documentary hewn from found footage, and drives it to hyperbolic extremes. Quarantine recounts a few horrid hours in the experience of a reporter for a flaky late-night current affairs show, Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter), shooting a puff piece on fire-fighters, and, along with her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris), getting trapped along with the crew she’s following in a Los Angeles apartment building within which a mysterious disease infects the inhabitants, driving them to commit explosive acts of insensible, homicidal rage. After a deceptively light-hearted, deftly acted opening describing Angela’s efforts to produce a piece of slick TV filler alternating with vigorous flirtation with her two assigned guides, Jake (Jay Hernandez) and Fletcher (Jonathan Schaech), inflected with a finely realised sense of the everyday, the film plunges straight into a situation that supercharges the basic story of 1986’s Warning Sign.

Surely uppermost in the minds of the makers of [REC], and still viable here, is the ghostly cultural memory of the cruel expedience often employed in dark times of bricking up victims of plague in old European cities: the resurgence of medievalist exigency into contemporary life is a popular flourish in modern horror. That’s blended here with some cynical, very modern anti-establishment paranoia in which goons with guns arrive to keep the building’s inhabitants, and the unlucky rescue workers and TV crew with them, quarantined within the structure, which becomes then a shadowy maze crawling with lunatics. When they manage to get a television working, they find they’ve been condemned to certain death as the police chief (Michael Potter) states the building is empty. A veterinarian (Greg Germann), examining victims of the disease, recognises them as suffering from a mutated version of rabies, and a cleverly enigmatic climax suggests the outbreak is the result of government research hijacked by religious extremists who sought to release an “armageddon virus” on the world.

Whilst implacable authoritarian force is being exerted from outside, inside the clashes between police and firemen and journalists suggest a miniature, adrenalised discourse on social institutions, with outraged and hysterical cops pointing guns to enforce their authority, and Angela and Scott refusing to switch off their camera, asserting the necessity of their making a record of the truth. This in itself makes a different argument to some other works in this little sub-genre of first-person thrill-rides, in which the immediacy of the style is usually intended to imply a curious divorcement from reality on the part of the shooters, and therefore critiquing a media-soaked modern world. Here, on the other hand, Angela and Scott’s dedication to their journalistic job becomes in the end the only possible good to come out of the situation.

Quarantine displays both the unique qualities and pitfalls of the contemporary brand of horror film. The intensity of the on-screen drama, in which everything turns to pure chaos within moments and the horror rolls on with relentless, unscrupulous purpose, is gripping and hypnotic. Whilst gore and grotesquery are plentiful, it’s often only captured in brief, disorientating, indelible snatches, full of curtailed visions of little girls gnawing on men’s faces and what’s left of dog-ravaged corpses. But the breathless pace and unremitting subordination of depth to a spook-house sensibility, with protagonists constantly running and dodging a growing populace of snapping, snarling diseases pseudo-zombies, and the filmmakers more busily engaged in playing with audience expectations then in wringing out a genuine sense of frail humanity, robs it of much potential power. The microcosmic possibilities offered by the building’s multicultural mix of obnoxious yuppies, bourgeois arty types, illegal immigrants, solitary elderly folk and denuded nuclear families don’t develop beyond the merely sketchy.

George Romero once floored filmgoers with having a little girl eat her own father and stab her mother to death, the kind of ruthless twist no-one had ever dared on screen before. But Quarantine confirms that sort of terse amorality as now merely par for the course, and the beats of this merciless variety of film have become just about as predictable as the sort of familiar, formulaic fare they were supposed to replace: you know everyone’s going to end up dead. Modern genre material has become finally divided into offering superhumans (consider Milla Jovovich’s role in the Resident Evil films with their similar plot starting-point) and human lunchmeat, with little room for plucky Spielbergian everymen in between anymore. Not helping is the fact that the first-person genre has become its own spoiler alert, considering every film made in this mode ends inevitably with the camera lying discarded by its now-deceased owner. It’s also an ideal style that gives filmmakers a chance to show off their technical chops and disguise familiar lacks in constructing characters and narrative nuance.

With all that off my chest, Quarantine’s still well above-par, thanks to the slick, virtually seamless execution by director John Erick Dowdle, who adapted the Spanish film’s script with his brother Drew. Utterly vital is the energetic commitment of the cast, all of which are strong enough to make them film at least an acceptable, accessible substitute for [REC]. Carpenter, who confirmed her game physicality in her eye-catching breakthrough performance in the otherwise desultory The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is terrific, shifting from foxy professional coquette, to forceful advocate of the Fifth Estate, to near-paralytic terror, pushing on only in creeping inches through sheer determination to survive. She looks damn good in a singlet, too. Rade Sherbedgia on the other hand is sorely wasted in a minor role as the building’s avuncular superintendent, and Harris has what is officially the thankless role in these movies.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Tingler (1959)

Possibly William Castle’s most famous and well-regarded film, at least from amongst the fruits of the heyday of his faux-Hitchcockian huckstering, it’s rather more confidently essayed than Castle’s immediate predecessor and companion piece, House on Haunted Hill. Both films sport star Vincent Price, then fast entrenching himself as the great American ghoul-movie star, subplots involving marital monstrosity, and gaudily tacky fairground fright effects. It’s also more polished and poised, if far less sly and uniquely neo-realist, than Roger Corman’s near-simultaneous excursions into low-budget, high-concept fare, such as Little Shop of Horrors (1960), just before Price found a home with Corman for his epochal series of Poe adaptations. Castle’s earnest, and yet somehow hilarious, appearance at the outset promises a thoroughly good time, but The Tingler is chiefly sustained by a smart script with some wonderful animating ideas, courtesy of Robb White.

The notion that a monster grows in centipede-like form up the length of one’s spine, feeding on fear like a parasite, is an irresistible starting point for a genre work from a man entirely dedicated to finding the soft spots of his audience. Not that anyone was every likely to die of terror at a Castle film, in spite of his Lloyd’s insurance policy, but few works even in the symbol-laden horror genre have ever quite embraced such a keen figurative idea as the Tingler itself. Research pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) develops his theory based on signs of spinal damage he detects in executed prisoners, and explores the notion with the aid of his talented research assistant David Morris (Darryl Hickman). He also shares his ideas with a chance acquaintance, Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge), a mousy man married to a deaf-mute, Martha (Judith Evelyn), who owns a silent film revival theatre. She presents a perfect vehicle for experimenting with the Tingler, which can only be robbed of strength by the psychic release valve of screaming, but having no vocal chords she cannot make any sound at all.

Both men have an epiphany that leads to diverse, and yet linked, responses. Warren, tired of his obnoxious, unfaithful, rich wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts) disrespecting him and trying bully her younger sister, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) into ceasing to date David, scares her into fainting with a faked shooting that enables him to take an x-ray of a Tingler. Ollie, on the other hand, hungry for his wife’s money and fed up with living in a sickly, combative environment, begins providing gruesome apparitions to provoke the Tingler’s growth until it kills her. His plan works, and he brings her to Warren to confirm she’s dead, but she continues to move in spite of being stone cold: Warren realises the full-grown Tingler is still alive inside her and cuts out the ugly creature for study. But the Tingler proves a troublesome little critter, all too capable of existing outside the body when fully formed, and a handy tool in Isabel’s revenge on her husband, before going on a little walk to the chagrin of some movie theatre patrons.

The interweaving of family conflict and bizarro psychosomatic manifestation makes for a fascinating mixture, anticipating, in a cheerfully unpretentious fashion, the likes of Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1979) and Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), in exploring psychological concepts, like the primal scream and the collective unconscious, through literalised nightmare figures. The exploitation of then-nascent concepts in therapy like the primal scream as release valve and the use of LSD as exploratory vehicle – as Price does in one sequence – was cutting-edge as story material on the movie screen. The Tingler also repeats the marital-war motif of Haunted Hill and raises the interesting spectre of Castle’s curious misanthropic fascination with husbands and wives trying to murder each other as a driving plot device. The swankiness of Warren’s house, provided by Isabel’s money at a high cost in emotion and self-worth, contrasts the seamy charms of the Higgins’ theatre and apartment: in both marriages, money and hate are inseparable even at diverse ends of the fiscal spectrum. The Tingler itself then becomes a rampant animus, the grotesque offspring of perverted human lives.

Such motifs were possibly trying to channel some of the emotional brutality and intensity of Castle's models, Hitchcock and H.G. Clouzot, whose Les Diaboliques (1956) seems to have particularly influenced his rather cheesier gimmicks involving fake bodies in bath-tubs, and his three-card monte plots. That Castle definitely wasn’t Hitchcock or Clouzot is self-evident; in truth he was perhaps not even on a par with other journeymen dabbling in fantastic cinema at the time, such as Arthur Crabtree and Gene Fowler Jnr: his camera set-ups are generally merely dutiful and the action set-bound, even though his careful framing of actors betrays an eye trained by the exigencies of the old studio style. Stunt effects, like isolated colour as Martha is frightened by visions of vivid red blood, and half-hearted lens distortions to reproduce Warren’s LSD trip, are crude, and yet have a kind of pop-art delight to them.

The limited camerawork and the cheap settings reflect more the cramped budgets of Castle’s independent work than any lack of technical chops on his part (the photography, by Wilfred M. Cline, and the lighting, are quality work in their way). But his showmanship, beloved in popular memory thanks to its innately tacky humour value and notion of chiller cinema as a kind of audience-participation game that looked forward to the Rocky Horror Show, actually often hurt the integrity of his films, sacrificing a complete and logical feel to contingency, as the significant subplot of Warren’s increasingly deadly conflict with Isabel goes nowhere and leaves story issues dangling, and the finale is perforated by silly time-outs and a “shock” finish that’s merely irritating and disappointing. Like Haunted Hill, The Tingler stops rather than finishes, and to this extent Castle represents a cheapened vision of the horror genre.

But Castle’s approach is an indicator, just as much as the more inflated paraphernalia such as Cinerama, of an American film industry searching for new ways to galvanise its waning patronage, and represents a bracing by-product of the loosening bonds of that industry: Castle perhaps helped prove that an independent director could make his own films successful with a strong sense of his intended audience. Castle probably in this way helped pave the way for rather more volatile, boundary-pushing talents such as Herschel Gordon Lewis and George Romero to wow midnight matinee audiences with their sick visions, even if Castle’s own talent was far more clean-cut and retrograde. The Tingler itself, once seen, though clumsily animated, is fascinatingly designed, with a look that made have influenced future generations of body-invading organisms in horror and sci-fi films, immediately putting into my mind the brain slugs of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Price, playing a more sympathetic character than usual, in spite of Warren's willingness to indulge a little play-act murder, is slick and remarkably free of any hint of ham or tongue-in-cheek; Cutts, as his laughingly self-satisfied, icicle-hearted spouse, is both memorably nasty and sexy; and Evelyn memorable in her soundless anxiety and final desperation. The music, by Von Dexter, consciously apes Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo. Most delightful, although a little fudged in the pay-off, is the great touch of having the Tingler escape into the theatre, tickling the shins of viewers engrossed in the 1921 Henry King film Tol’able David, a scene that plays as meta without any self-consciousness, much like the similar sequence in The Blob (1958), but with an added dimension of delighted movie buff indulgence of a kind that was still relatively rare in cinema at the time. Even the choice of silent movies accords neatly with Evelyn’s disability and denies the handy pleasure that The Tingler indulges: the healing power of good noisy scream.