Monday, 23 August 2010
Sunday, 22 August 2010
Sunday, 15 August 2010
Friday, 13 August 2010
Hardly met with universal appreciation by fans and supporters of crepuscular auteur George A. Romero, this nonetheless struck me as his effortlessly his best film since Monkey Shines (1988). Diary of the Dead doesn’t entirely recapture the relentless magic of his great original “Dead” trilogy, but it does restore the thematic and narrative drive, ghoulish humour, and cold evocation of crisis and fate that defined his best works to a surprising extent, and it’s a significant step forward from the flat and dutiful Land of the Dead (2005). Commencing with the appropriately self-satirising touch of a group of young student filmmakers engaged in making a mummy film under the supervision of their mordant, tippling Etonian film professor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), Romero throws this collective into the midst of the initial onslaught of the zombies, and they flee from their college in
The asocial ruthlessness of Romero’s defining works is, then, sharpened to a new point, but with a balancing sense of moral imperative to leaven the cynicism. This classic trait of Romero grazes against a more antic, mocking, gore-comic and crowd-pleasing sense of humour than he once offered, and the mixture of this with much more heavy-handed social commentary, is distinctly less integral. The failure of the disparate impulses to entirely gel is what generally holds the film back, but at the same time, it doesn’t descend into a comedic freak-show of the likes of Bruiser (2000), and it plants seeds of disquiet and menace that don’t entirely germinate until after it’s over. It helps that the overt humour is often very funny and even occasionally inspired and desolating in final effect, like the group’s encounter with a deaf and dumb Amish man (R.D. Reid) who’s approach to dealing with the zombies includes dynamite and a scythe, which he finishes up driving through his own skull to take out a creature that's assaulting him, and the professor’s prowess with a bow and arrow proving startlingly keen. I also particularly like how Romero interpolates radio broadcasts from Night of the Living Dead (1968) to confirm the concurrency of events.
On the road the crew encounter thieving national guardsmen who have readily, happily abandoned their social responsibility, and a collective of black folk who, suddenly left to run things, sensibly stockpile and jealously defend supplies and weapons. Romero’s questioning bent feels out the edges of ethical problems, refusing to let the audience off the hook in likening the reactions of the living to the perverted facsimiles of the living to non-generic situations. The very close presents the spectacle of rednecks indulging their fantasies by blowing apart zombie women. Technically, it’s fascinating and extremely well-done, with excellent, judicious special effects and make-up that do seem to present the most amazing violence captured with apparently unblinking precision by the camera. The opening, in the guise of a news broadcast, offers context that references Dawn of the Dead’s start in a tenement slum, and establishes Romero’s evolving theme of a corrupting body politic, commencing with the infection of the bottom of the social ladder and working its way to the top: the final segment takes place in the huge mansion belonging to the family of Ridley (Philip Riccio), who was playing Jason’s mummy monster and finishes up living the role, and the remnants of the cast finally lock themselves away from the troubles of the world in that house's capacious panic room.
The fat’s long since been trimmed off the group and those who are left have proven themselves capable at least as survivors and in the case of Maxwell, a warrior of an old and intelligent breed. Romero takes a couple of neat pot-shots at the modern school of zombie flick (“Dead things don’t move fast!”) whilst referencing his own famous ploys. Debra’s desire to get back to her family, which becomes something of a shining beacon for all the crew in the seeming promise of the nuclear family still being intact and welcoming, meets the inevitable, grim spectacle of her father being eaten by her mother and her younger brother trying to gnaw her head off before Maxwell gets him with a well-aimed arrow. The structuring lets the overall project down a bit: the last third, whilst darkening and deepening all the while, stumbles at a few turns. A late scene in which Jason’s leading lady, a brassy Texan girl, Tracy (Amy Lalonde), who finds herself acting out in essence the same schlock-horror situation she was for the movie within the movie, up to and including the exploitable moment of having her breasts bared, and the director still doing his own job but for a vastly different reason, is funny and gripping all at once, but the relative casualness of the tone cuts against the grain of the film’s increasing sense of threat and horror. But Romero's point, that the process of filmmaking can be in itself parasitic and violent, is surprisingly self-critical and convincing.
Whilst Romero’s approach is more distinctly stolid, lacking the visceral intensity of the likes of Rec/Quarantine, which of course owe much to Romero in the first place, Diary stands up with De Palma’s Redacted for asking more probing questions of the rhetorical nature of the first-person film style, and the relevance of the characterisations and the sense of impending apocalypse are finally more satisfying than Cloverfield. Like Rec, it presents a case for the necessity of documenting the truth at the cost of moral initiative, but it also relentlessly criticises that tendency, skewering the Darwinian behaviour of documentary and news filmmakers in letting harsh misery play out before their lenses without feeling a need to engage. The film's open-ended conclusion deliberately deconstructs the assurances of its voice-over and the entire motivating story of attempting to build a coherent sense of a world going mad: no amount of telling the truth, finally, actually changes it, and that can be, in contradictory fashion, a deeply unsatisfying thing. The acting is of a surprisingly high standard for such an unknown cast, especially Wentworth, whose mirror monologue towards the end is both a fine moment for his character and also a commentary on the film that works better than Romero’s other, more literalised pronouncements, provided chiefly by Debra who’s taken on the task of turning Jason’s project into an effective unit for the benefit of the world, after Jason throws his life away in a pointless gesture - another classic Romero touch. In spite of its shortcomings, Diary is a sign that the man who is possibly the most famous living proponent of the Horror genre still has some tricks up his sleeve.
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
The first Universal Frankenstein film not to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster was a test-case for fresh-minted genre hero Lon Chaney Jnr and his star-maker producer George Waggner, who had provided Chaney with his hit The Wolf Man. Whilst Waggner had momentarily reinvigorated Universal’s chillers with that terrific werewolf flick, The Ghost of Frankenstein, on the other hand, represented a series clearly declining in ambition and scale, and, whilst offering in itself an attempt to bring the series to a satisfying close, pointed the way forward to the degraded last few entries. Here the drama shifts locale from the
Misshapen shepherd-cum-master criminal Ygor (Béla Lugosi), having improbably recovered from the bullets Basil Rathbone’s Wolf Frankenstein fired into him at the climax of the previous film, is haunting the ruins of the since-abandoned and ruined family castle. The townsfolk, outraged that’s he’s still alive, and paranoid about the Monster’s return, decide to do what they do best – a little homunculus lynching. They commence hurling dynamite into the ruins, almost killing Ygor, but instead shattering the since solidified sulphur pit into which the Monster had previously tumbled. Of course, he’s uncovered by the blasts, revived, and Ygor helps him escape, whereupon a bolt of lightning partly restores the Monster’s limberness better than a bottle of Gatorade.
Ygor is inspired to take him to Ludwig, and tries to blackmail the good doctor into returning his hulking friend to full health. But the Monster makes a splash, as he often does, simply by walking into town: making friends with a tiny girl who calmly accepts him as a giant, he casually swats aside villagers who try to impede his effort to retrieve her ball from a rooftop. Ygor’s efforts to pressure the doctor result in one of his assistants being killed, so that Ludwig resolves to grant both the Monster’s wish for an end to his painful life and restore the young man’s by transplanting the dead man’s brain into the Monster’s undying frame. Ygor is at first upset that he’ll be losing a friend, but gets over that quickly when he realises he can convince Ludwig’s erratic but talented, embittered chief assistant Dr Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) into his own brain into the body instead. You just know that when you put Lugosi and Atwill together in the same room, no good’s going to come of it.
Director Erle C. Kenton was the new, relatively workaday ringmaster for this entry, as he would be again on House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). The frenzied opening scenes are actually the best in the film, with Ygor dodging blasts and trying to drop blocks of masonry on his tormentors, finally finding the monster whose wiggling fingers jut out of a lump of solid sulphur, with snappy editing and some neat stunts and explosions, before the staging settles down to a drab, limited functionalism. Gone is almost all sign of James Whale’s delirious Gothic and Lee’s outsized Expressionism, in favour of the technically smooth but unambitious wartime studio style. If Lee’s film had certainly sped up the Monster’s transformation into a run of the mill ogre, it was far more sophisticated in design and dramatic shaping, and Rathbone’s tour-de-force of arch anxiety is swapped for Hardwicke’s far more restrained, rather haunted turn: his close-ups linger on the deep circles under his eyes, as if simply possessing the family association and trying to avoid the consequences of it has worn out his soul. The title is literalised – you don’t think we could leave it metaphoric or anything, do you? – when Ludwig is visited by his father’s ghost, or at least his own strung-out hallucination (the shade is played, unfortunately not by Colin Clive, who had died in 1937, but also by Hardwicke). Ludwig is convinced not to run away from his legacy by killing the Monster, but to try and make it work as it should have to begin with.
It’s a pity that Chaney’s lumbering, barely expressive performance is so banal: it really takes the spectacle of characterless, blank-faced, arm-jutting idiocy he provides here to appreciate just how beautiful Karloff’s mime work was. It was a few easy steps on to the brainless automaton of the last couple of entries, as which the Universal Monster became remembered by those who had never glimpsed Karloff’s inspired performance in the first two films. Nonetheless, in his delight in the girl’s friendship, his overt social harassment for his disconcerting appearance, and his initial hopeful smile and then disappointed sibling rage when he spies Ludwig only for his theoretical brother to deny knowing who he is, the Monster is clearly rendered slightly more overtly sympathetic than in Son. This was thematically appropriate material for the series, and perhaps also was intended to play up Chaney’s repute for playing beleaguered everymen after Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Wolf Man. The drama of the piece moves inexorably towards putting this tortured non-man, whose only kinship is with children, to rest and giving someone else the chance to live forever through his body.
Subplots involving Ludwig’s daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers) and her local policeman boyfriend Erik (Ralph Bellamy), who’s as obnoxious as all pushy do-gooders are in these films, don’t really do much more than fill out the running time. Lugosi’s Ygor, a surprisingly inspired grotesque performance in the first go round, is given far less time to enliven proceedings. Nonetheless, in spite of all the film’s limitations, the script is actually quite solid and even admirable in its piling on of new twists to try and enliven a flagging formula. The film builds to a clever consummation in which Ygor gains his wish, his fierce Transylvanian lisp emerging from the Monster’s mouth in proclaiming his rebirth as a Titan - although it makes no sense why the Monster would now possess his voice. Only Bohmer’s miscalculation involving rejection of body parts – Ygor is a different blood type to the Monster, as Ludwig realises – limits this ungodly new hybrid’s potential, by sending him blind, and thus ripe for roasting in another yowling mob’s conflagration. As a sequel to three of the best Gothic horror films ever made, The Ghost of Frankenstein is rather puny, but by the standards of the 1940s genre, apart from Val Lewton’s efforts, it’s actually of a high calibre, and a very entertaining 67 minutes.