Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

The decline of Hammer Studios and their famous series of horror films in the early ‘70s is a cautionary tale for all film industries. The incapacity of the studio to move beyond its depleted and over-exploited brand of horror, wringing every last drop from their famous Dracula and Frankenstein series and purveying rather tawdry stabs at sexing up their wares, is a study in what happens when reliable formulas and brand recognition are pedalled too hard at the expense of taking real, imaginative risks. The classic emotional intensity and atmospheric pungency of the gothic horror film had been to a great extent decimated by the opportunism of many later Hammer efforts, just as the more contemporary, scurrilous brand of horror just beginning to emerge in the early ‘70s made the awkwardness all the more apparent in age. Names like Dario Argento, George Romero, Wes Craven, William Friedkin, and Tobe Hooper were becoming synonymous with a new phase in the genre's history just as Hammer was running out of puff. The Satanic Rites of Dracula was the final time Christopher Lee played his most famous horror character, opposite Peter Cushing, as Abraham Van Helsing’s descendent Lorrimer for one last bout, in a direct follow-up to the previous instalment, Dracula AD 1972.

Satanic Rites proves however a minor surprise, in that, whilst certainly not in a league with the great early films in the series by Terence Fisher, it’s an interesting grasp for relevance. Like the final Hammer horror film, Peter Sykes’ To the Devil a Daughter (1976), Satanic Rites attempts, with a certain amount of ambition, to more effectively fuse the traditional genre motifs with a realistic, contemporary setting and a style more redolent of spy and action movies. In this regard it’s definitely superior to Dracula AD 1979 and the episode before that, the shoddy The Scars of Dracula (1970). Satanic Rites’ relative strength is all the more surprising because director Alan Gibson had likewise helmed Dracula AD 1979: that film’s unbearably modish reconstituting of the vampire overlord amidst some dreary hippie lowlifes has been swapped for a far more ambitious and potential-laden notion, with Dracula now having reincarnated himself as the head of a multinational corporation under the pseudonym D. D. Denham, living as a secretive recluse in an office block a la Howard Hughes. As part of his programme of world domination, he has set up a secret cult that has ensnared several major figures of the British government including a member of the cabinet, Porter (Richard Matthews).

Porter's MI5 underlings discover this when one of their agents, having infiltrated the country mansion that is the cult’s base, is caught and brutally tortured, but then manages to escape by the skin of his teeth from the cult’s mob of motorcycle-riding, sheepskin vest-wearing goons. The agent dies soon after, but not before tipping off his superior, Torrance (William Franklyn) and secret service head Col. Mathews (Richard Vernon), as to their precarious position. Scared to trust any others in their department apart from their immediate circle, they instead contact Scotland Yard detective Murray (Michael Coles, repeating his role from AD 1972), who in turn decides to bring in Van Helsing and his granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley, replacing Stephanie Beacham) as experts in the kinds of cabalistic rituals the cult purveys. The cult kidnaps Torrance’s assistant Jane (Valerie Van Ost), and she is vampirised by Dracula, whose entrance, presaged by fog sliding under the door of Jane’s cell, is fairly eye-catching, and seems to have inspired Marston’s first appearance in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979).

When Murray and Torrance search the mansion, Jessica, like foolish women all through the ages according to horror movies, decides to investigate, locating a spooky door around the back of the building, and entering the lair where all of Dracula’s recent female converts, including Jane, have been chained up. Jessica’s screams bring Murray and Torrance to the rescue, with Torrance forced to stake his formerly loyal dogsbody. Simultaneously, Van Helsing tracks down another of the cult’s seduced savants, Nobel Prize-winning Professor Keeley (Freddie Jones), who has developed a deadly mutation of the Bubonic plague at Dracula’s behest, with the vampire possibly intending to execute a global apocalypse as his last, nihilistic gesture of hatred. This last idea is the film’s best, bringing the association of Dracula and the Black Death, inherent in the mythology since Bram Stoker presented the equivalent of a plague ship in his novel, and explored most forcefully by Werner Herzog in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht several years later, into a squarely modern, potentially gripping context, along with the rather too obvious but equally amusing conflation of vampirism and corporate capitalism.

The notion of Dracula’s rage having reached a nexus point of unconsciously all-consuming, self-defeating totality, is fascinating, and it neatly dovetails with the film’s air of winding down the saga (it wouldn’t entirely end the series – The Legend of Seven Golden Vampires would follow a year later, although without Lee and returned to an historical setting). To say that the film fails to realise the potency of its ideas is almost superfluous, but at least ideas are present. 

Unfortunately, although the film’s physical production is strong and the visuals slick – there’s some particularly good stunt work – the still fairly low budget means that the infrastructure of Dracula’s supposedly super-rich organisation is distressingly lacking in convincing density of detail, such as effective security. Jessica’s plucky penetration of the cellar full of unspeakable monstrosities merely requires hopping an electric eye beam. Lumley, who is here obviously, even when she was still a relative spring chicken, a disconcertingly mature kind of screen siren with her air of no-nonsense poise, groovy sense of style, and huskily sexy voice, is obviously made for better things than being felt up by vampire chicks in a basement. Jones’ presence in the cast lends the film his customary air of seedy fanaticism, although his contribution, a lengthy scene of plot explanation with Cushing, is minor overall.

Some touches here, like those motorcyclist minions, seem possibly inspired by Death’s agents in Cocteau’s Orphee (1949), and Gibson tries to keep the hyper-modern and the atavistic in a similarly fruitful balance, if without anything like Cocteau’s artistry. But whilst Don Houghton’s screenplay is sufficiently busy and inventive to keep the film buoyed, it leans on some lengthy expository dialogue sequences, whilst giving the good cast, especially Lumley, little body of characterisation to work with, subordinate to a merely functional drama that’s usually the fatal trait of an exhausted series. Gibson’s vision of modern London as a backdrop is full of grossly commercial-like shots of the Albert Hall, the South Bank, the Houses of Parliament and Piccadilly Circus, an unfortunate reminder of state of British cinema in the mid-‘70s, reduced to being a wing of tourist boards. Likewise Gibson’s fondness for trying to use the more obscure methods of killing vampires, such as running water, results in the distinctly undramatic dispatch of said vampire chicks by turning on the sprinkler system. Rule of thumb: I don't care if it seems like a clever twist on an obscure piece of vampire lore, no vampire should ever die by sprinkler. In spite of all his efforts, Gibson never really solves the problem of transferring the age-old vampire theme into a modern context, seeming only to drain them of erotic and physical threat.

The one-dimensional character that Lee’s Dracula had been gradually reduced to in the run of the series sees him, in spite of all Van Helsing’s theorising about his death wish, still tiredly going through the motions of trying to make Jessica his undead bride, at a final ritual where he unleashes the virus by hypnotically forcing Porter to crush the vial within which it is contained, resulting in Porter’s gruesome expiring by the disease and then catching fire. The rest of mansion goes up in flames, too, thanks to Murray’s adventurous efforts, fortunately before the bug can then spread. Lee’s best moment in the film is the one in which Dracula allows Van Helsing to penetrate his penthouse, and, seated in shadow, tries to put off his relentless foe by remaining in character in Denham in speaking in a plummy Hungarian accent, quite possibly the most dialogue he’d had to recite in a Dracula film since Fisher’s first entry. Satanic Rites came out in the same year that Lee had given one of his best performances in a film that was notoriously butchered and mistreated, The Wicker Man (Satanic Rites, ironically, had like that film only a limited, disrespectful release) and Lee’s frustrated boredom is readily apparent. Interestingly, however, Satanic Rites seems to have looked to the James Bond films for inspiration, looking forward to Lee’s finally playing a Bond villain the following year, and also, in a way, closing a circle – the Bond films, with their brutally libidinous hero and pop-art dazzle, always seemed to owe a little initial impetus to Hammer’s example, and some genre critics have noted the Bond and Dracula have similar roots in similar Byronic figures like Heathcliff in English literature.

Cushing works up a bit more zealousness in his scene with Jones, and then his first confrontation of his great nemesis. But both Lee and Cushing’s boredom becomes all too apparent in the zestless finale, in which Dracula pursues Van Helsing through nocturnal parkland, only to be fooled into the clutches of a hawthorn bush, paralysing him with their totemic power, giving Van Helsing time to listlessly pluck a stake from a picket fence and kill the vampire. The decline from the swashbuckling flourish at the end of Fisher’s Dracula to this plodding dispatch is sorry indeed, even if the novelty of the use of the hawthorn bush does offer piquancy and a certain visual drama. The closing moments of the last Hammer Dracula film don’t inspire relief, exactly, for the instalment’s better notions and relatively strong first two-thirds linger pleasantly. Those better notions were later to be recycled in the likes of Damien: Omen 2 (1978) and The Devil’s Advocate (1997) in suggesting Satan’s agents love shiny skyscrapers. Nonetheless this Dracula would not be rising from the grave again, and he didn't look like he wanted to, either.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Homicidal (1961)

William Castle’s efforts to establish himself as Alfred Hitchcock’s rival in cinema thrills and public notoriety sees him kick off this film with a brief but amusing little cameo in which he offers to the audience’s eye the product of his own embroidery talents, displaying the film’s title, adopting a playfully sing-song voice in trying to capture Hitch’s familiar brand of schoolboy’s black humour. The first twenty minutes of Homicidal, an attempt to steal the limelight of Hitchcock’s game-changing hit Psycho (1960), seems to promise Castle’s best film. In one of Ventura County’s sleazier precincts, a young woman calling herself Miriam Webster (Jean Arless) checks into a hotel, and, after pointedly requesting the younger, virile-looking bellboy, Jim Nesbitt (Richard Rust) to carry her bags to her room, hits the young man with a strange business offer. She wants him to marry her, and then have the marriage immediately annulled, for the price of $2,000 dollars.

Nesbitt reluctantly agrees, after swallowing his slightly wounded pride in realising that she doesn’t want to marry him for real, and lets her drive him a tedious distance to the house of a JP, Alfred S. Adrims (James Westerfield) and his wife. In a splendidly seedy vignette, the slovenly Adrims, clutching a bottle of booze in his nightgown, takes care to overcharge the couple, Miriam shooting eyes like daggers at Nesbitt when he starts to protest, and then enjoins his wife (Hope Summers) to play the Bridal March (“It’ll disturb the neighbours!” “Then play soft!”). When Adrims bends forward with a leer to kiss the bride, Miriam is suddenly gripped by an apparently reactive frenzy and repeatedly knifes the JP in the stomach. She flees as Adrims expires in Nesbitt’s arms. It’s a scene that displays Castle’s gift for blackly comic American gothic as suggested in The Tingler (1959), and sports a defiant amount of gore for a 1961 film, Adrims’ gut gushing (grey) blood as his assassin stabs him with joyless but relished, prosecutorial fury.

Emily eludes police by stealing Nesbitt’s car and then changing to another she’s left waiting, and makes it unscathed to a large house outside the small Californian town of Solvang. It soon emerges that this woman is not Miriam Webster at all: she’s Emily, nursemaid to Helga (Eugenie Leontovich) the crippled old former nanny to the real Miriam and her half-brother Warren, brought back to America from Denmark, where Warren and Helga spent many years after his parents died in a car crash. Emily’s campaign seems, initially, to set up Miriam (Patricia Breslin), who keeps a florist’s, as a murderess, but soon her efforts seem less directed, as she trashes Miriam’s shop, taking special care to destroy all the wedding paraphernalia, before lurking in wait for Miriam’s boyfriend, chemist Karl Anderson (Glenn Corbett), and knocking him unconscious. Karl awakens to Warren’s solicitous aid, and Karl and Miriam begin trying to puzzle out the mystery of Emily’s place in Warren’s life: Miriam eventually seems to learn that they are secretly married. But the truth, which takes until the very climax to emerge, if you’re utterly blind, is that Warren is Emily, brought up since birth to take the place of the boy her father had desperately, imperiously demanded. Now she’s utilising her ability to shift between genders to create in Emily a murderess scapegoat who can eliminate all who know about his/her secret and whatever impediments remain to inheriting the Webster fortune.

Burnett Guffey’s photography apes Psycho’s look with its hyper-contrast black and white and minimalist settings. Whilst Castle was undoubtedly an opportunist, his oeuvre is marked out by his recurring decision to couch his stories in themes of familial homicide – the husband-wife duels of House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler give way here to an even darker, and in some ways brilliantly anticipatory, theme of childhood perversion and fatally blurred gender roles. These are encapsulated by the cunning final shot of the doll that was Miriam’s favourite toy and the whip that was the tool to toughen up “Warren” lying together in a coldly mocking emblem of the sort of psychosexual signifiers that would have sent Jacques Lacan in to paroxysms of ecstatic deconstruction. Emily is repeatedly drawn into tactile fascination with such signifiers, caressing the short hair cut of a young boy and clutching a doll with dead-eyed, cheated maternal confusion. The notion that Warren/Emily has been driven mad by not only by cruelty in upbringing but by inability to reconcile the rigid codes of masculinity and femininity in a classically patriarchal household, holds a wondrous potential for dark satire and subversive assault on the mainstream ideals of the ‘50s over and above what Psycho achieved, and also looks forward to Dario Argento’s rich variation on these themes, Deep Red (1975).

Even more pointed is the ironic theme involving the ease with which familial roles can be filled or emptied according to economic consequences, adds urgency to Warren/Emily’s campaign of schismatic role-annihilation: Emily’s initial buying of a husband gives way to her final efforts to murder her sister, all to assure Warren’s inheritance, which, it has been dictated, must go to the younger male inheritor, but only as long as he is male – Warren/Emily’s efforts then simply extend and invert the mean-spirited enforcement of a patriarchal ideal, that subjects the theoretical bonds of family to mere capitalism. The very finish, after Warren/Emily is rather casually dispatched with a bullet in the back by Miriam, is a jokier play on the deliberately cheesy explanation of Psycho, but lacks the sting of Hitchcock’s punchline, as Karl’s comic last line, replying to Miriam’s question as to whether her new-found wealth will change things between them (“Yes it will Miriam…I think I’m going to love you more!”), deliberately deflates the tension between love and money that is central to the story.

And yet Warren/Emily is constantly driven to fury by being confronted with the signifiers of romantic love and marriage, something s/he has a cruel outsider’s perspective on, and her game involves a pretend marriage between the different aspects of herself. Emily hires a man to sharpen her favourite weapon of murder, a surgical knife, the weapon with which she determinedly attempts to cut apart her own fatally concatenated life by cutting apart the people in it, the act of the sharpening lingered over in almost erotic pleasure. Much of the film’s overt suspense and most compelling scenes comes from the constant toying Emily engages in with Helga, who, wheelchair-bound and mute after a stroke, attempts to constantly tap out messages pleading for aid but has Emily purposefully mistranslate them. Helga’s part in establishing nursery room authority and rewriting the “natural” codes of gender has been completely, viciously inverted, for all of Helga’s most despairing efforts to communicate with the outside world, including the local physician, Doctor Jonas (Alan Bunce), fail, before Emily finally, gleefully cleaves her head off. Emily’s delight in controlling her crippled muse of violence clearly looks forward to the sisterly sadomasochism of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963). Castle’s overt gimmick, that Arless plays Emily and Warren, albeit with a man dubbing over Arless’ lines when inhabiting Warren, largely explains why he’s otherwise quite restrained, except for a “fright break” towards the end, sporting a clock dial on the screen, giving audience members too freaked out a chance to retreat to the “Coward’s Corner”.

Castle’s reputation as a trashy, entertaining showman obscures, to a large extent, his essentially conservative solidity as a filmmaker, in spite of his overt acts of carny barker hype and delight in trying to tease and nauseate his audience, and both the longevity of his efforts and their frustrating lack of truly cinematic punch can both be laid down to this solidity. His stalwart technique always kept his chosen narratives from approaching the outer limits of hysteria they promised. Castle does spice his style up here with flash cuts to close-ups of Emily’s eyes during her wild moments, but is otherwise largely content to stick with his usual variation on master shots from one side of his sets, to which the action is largely bound, as per old studio practise, and dully rhythmic exposition. Then again, the concision with which Castle offers up some patently weird images and frames his action, demands respect: even if Castle’s inspiration is only present in flashes, at least the flashes, when they come, are fascinating. But the screenplay, by Castle’s usual collaborator in his later fright-fests, Robb White, is again full of good ideas but only functional, flat characters and dialogue.

The middle act, after the strong start and before the off-the-wall last ten minutes, is a slow plod, depending on the hilariously unconvincing masquerade of Arless as a man to sustain mystery and tension, and giving far too much screen time to the bland-as-beige Miriam and Karl. The clever dark humour and intriguing suggestions in the early scenes giving way to a main story that’s impossible to take seriously as it’s played out, and Castle’s imagination is finally too literal to take it stranger places. Admittedly, the central ruse needed either uncommonly brilliant mimicry or outright surrealist campiness to be pulled off effectively, or, preferably, keeping Warren off screen. Although Arless does a good job in imitating a young man’s body language, her appearance, with a dental plate that keeps her from closing her mouth properly much of the time, makes her look more a demented butch chipmunk, and it effectively ruins what chance the film has of sustaining real tension. Still, Arless gives it the old school try, and her performance is a lot of fun.

Homicidal does kick upwards again as it builds towards Emily’s final murder of Helga. Helga’s dumb-show appeals to Jonas, and the doctor’s delightfully idiotic response to the urgent terror on the woman’s face (he does come back in the nick of time later to save Miriam, but all too late to help Helga, because he was “concerned”), Castle pushing in for an indelible close-up of Helga trying to communicate, and then Emily’s girlish, taunting glee in letting Helga try and escape her on the elevator that takes her wheelchair up and down the stairs, before delivering the coup-de-grace, is all compellingly bizarre. The (suggested) gruesome pay-off, that Emily leaves Helga’s severed head balanced in place, ready to plunge down the stairs at the slightest disturbance, as a welcome-home gift to Miriam, is a memorably funny touch and also anticipates the later compulsory scene in slasher films like Halloween (1978) in which caches of victims are discovered like the killer’s idea of practical jokes. Nobody over the age of six years was in any need of retreating to the Coward’s Corner, at any rate.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

In the Loop (2009)

Armando Iannucci’s film adaptation-cum-sequel to the TV series The Thick Of It represents an honourable attempt to revive the big screen political satire, a form that was finally bludgeoned into joyless irrelevance in Hollywood by the likes of Mike Nichols and Barry Levinson during the mid-to-late ‘90s, and therefore much missed during the intervening decade's perversity. Revolving, in unspecified but self-evident terms, around the rush to war in Iraq in 2002-3, Iannucci’s film depicts befuddled British minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), who, after a poorly chosen wording of a statement on war’s “unforeseeable” nature during a radio interview, comes into the firing line of merciless Prime Ministerial henchman Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), whose constant stream of abuse and insults represent less a nascent Machiavellian political strategy than a degeneration into schoolyard bully tactics. Foster, his sturdy aide Judy Molloy (Gina McKee), and newly appointed assistant Toby Wright (Chris Addison), try to stem the bleeding when Foster compounds his gaffe at a conference with an American delegation. When he’s next tackled by reporters, Foster’s drivel about being ready to “climb the mountain of adversity” sees him, in spite of Tucker’s equally disparaging response, suddenly become a darling of the American Assistant Secretary of State, Linton Barwick (David Rasche).

Foster is therefore dispatched to Washington on an ill-defined mission of liaison, taking Toby with him, and soon finds himself being batted back forth between the pro- and anti-war forces within the State Department, the latter camp led by Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) and peacenik soldier Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini). Karen’s desperate efforts to expose Barwick’s chicanery are dogged but outgunned, trying to wield a paper written by underling Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) that clearly establishes the cons far outweigh the pros in going to war, in resistance to the war’s onrush. Meanwhile it emerges that Tucker is the real emissary between the Prime Minister and Barwick, bringing over dubious but desperately required war intel, only to be frustrated to the outer reaches of obscenity-spouting by being palmed off onto twenty-something functionaries. Foster toys with making a stand and resigning, whilst Tucker finds himself momentarily caught with his pants down after Toby sees that Liza’s paper leaks to the British press, threatening a vote at the UN being rammed through by the pro-war forces.

In The Loop captures the minutiae and complex cross-currents of modern political life with unsentimental clarity. The contrast between the giddy thrill promised by Foster’s Washington escapade – although it finally proves to be little more than a series of hotel rooms, waiting rooms, and confused trailing – and the petty complaints and excruciating trivia in his home constituency, represented by a teetering wall that threatens to crush a garden shed belong to moustachioed crank Paul Michaelson (Steve Coogan), lays out the sharp contrast between the drug-like highs of imperial-scale politicking and humdrum, all-too-human-scale concerns. This elucidates not only how men like Foster, who have spent their lives pleasing people in order as a means to pleasing themselves, live and die by their lack of deep awareness, but also the disparities and lacks in whole political philosophies. Toby’s attraction to and short-lived tryst with Liza, whom he had a crush on when they were students together, in spite of his having a girlfriend, Suzy (Olivia Poulet), also a government functionary in Whitehall, personalises the irresistible siren call of the Americas to the drab, oppressively responsible Brits.

In The Loop is also a rare piece of British satire that’s competent in both sending up American characters and portraying them accurately and affectionately. Miller, on the surface formidable and one of the few people in the film capable of handing Tucker his arse on a plate, has anxieties and inadequacies which are empathetically revealed, as he displays his rage at getting the run-around from Barwick, and contends with his love-hate relationship with the droll, principled Karen. Their like-minded attitude to the war as ill-planned and dangerous is coloured by a long-ago sexual escapade, and by their final divergence of loyalties, his as a soldier and hers as a public servant who actually wishes to serve the public. In The Loop also directs a coolly accurate eye on a haute macho pre-eminence where the likes of Tucker and Barwick feel entirely justified in brushing aside Judy and Karen – Tucker constantly assumes the former to be a disloyal incompetent. That McKee especially retains her ever-sturdy poise is admirable under the circumstances.

Tucker’s bruising encounters with Miller and Barwick momentarily rattle that human cesspit’s confidence, who experiences crisis in contending with people who aren’t discombobulated by his aggression, because their sense of power and how to wield it makes his own actual fiefdom look humiliatingly petty. The film’s single moment of truly affecting human vulnerability is one in which Tucker, having been humiliated by Barwick and knowing his own position can’t withstand even a single major blow, stews in momentary anguish. Therefore he becomes, ironically, and very temporarily, something of an anti-hero in trying to work up an effective comeback to Barwick’s arrogance. Barwick’s weird mixture of contempt for anyone who’s not on his programme and war-hungry prerogative, and timidity about swearing properly and his middle-management way of fobbing people off, makes him even less likeable than Tucker.

In The Loop does what it does exceptionally well, in the constant stream of wittily profane dialogue – which proves that’s not a contradiction in terms – matched to performances of wall-to-wall excellence, if only in service to essentially one-dimensional characters. If it feels a bit underwhelming in total, especially considering the praise heaped upon it chiefly for filling a dearth of relevant commentary that isn’t leaden and preachy, it’s partly because the concept hasn’t moved that far from a TV sitcom. The episodic structure of the story bears that out, and Iannucci’s filmmaking is for the most part basic, full of stock-standard faux-documentary quick zooms and hand-held shots, if rendered in exceptionally pretty terms by Jamie Cairney’s cinematography. In The Loop’s narrow focus hews close to the formula of much current British television comedy, full of awkwardness, disparagement, piss-weak neophytes who can’t keep their dicks in the pants, authority figures who have no authority, and women who go through break-ups and betrayals with listless, by-rote outrage. British political satire has sunk a long way in terms of conceptual boldness and originality from the likes of The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1971) and O Lucky Man! (1972). That Tucker takes over the material is inevitable because he’s the only person who isn’t, in some fashion, pathetic, and he starts to seem less a portrait of gross power politics than a remorseless instrument of sadomasochistic punishment of the lesser mortals who have inherited the hallowed but hollowed-out bastions of the British Empire.

The narrative’s ironies, which see the few people who try to take a stand against the war cold-shouldered, pushed into irrelevance, or even destroyed, to enable this dubious adventuring, are dulled somewhat, in large part because the filmmakers take such obvious, giddy-making relish in the grotesque behaviour of Tucker and his (even worse) Scots compatriot in bureaucratic head-kicking, Jamie MacDonald (Paul Higgins). MacDonald overtly terrorises Suzy and her officemate Michael Rodgers (James Smith) by kicking a fax machine to pieces when he discovers the leaked report came from their office, in contrast to the smarmy inefficaciousness of Foster and the younger characters like Toby whose moral compasses are fatally compromised by their wayward impulses. The whole thing’s divorced from any real sense of the horror that’s about to be unleashed, and starts to take on a smell less redolent of a devastating critique of closed-circuit, on-message politics, than it does of liberal self-pity. Considering the very real highs of surrealism and lows of tragedy that defined the real process of driving towards the Iraq war, In The Loop, whilst decent enough in its own right, ought not to be mistaken for a film that does this anything like justice, for when satirists’ best efforts can’t match the absurdity of life, they’ve failed. The basic familiarity of the style aids, but doesn’t entirely cause, the film’s cumulative lack of emotional or intellectual weight. This is satirical comedy for the most literal of minds.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Kinky, intense, and memorably rendered, John Hough’s filming of a Richard Matheson screenplay, drawn from Matheson’s own novel, plays with the motifs of classic haunted house tales, especially Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, whilst blending a pseudo-scientific spirit similar to that of Nigel Kneale, and presaging Matheson’s own deepening interest in life-after-death occultism. It’s also one of those transitional films in the genre, a deliberately corrosive take on the old-fashioned haunted house movie, charged with the full regalia of modern concerns, sex and violence nudging away the metaphors and taking over the dramatic landscape, but still retaining familiar structures and tensions before a more anarchic, reductive style of horror arrived. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) is the parapsychologist commissioned by interested industrialist Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) to investigate the multifarious mysteries and dangers of the world’s only truly, not yet debunked haunted house, the mansion that had belonged to one Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough), a monstrous magnate whose perversions and sadistic egotism led him to turn his house into a fortress that was the scene of debaucheries and murders, before he was finally bricked up somewhere within the structure to maintain overlordship over his home from beyond the grave.

Barrett camps out in the mansion with his wife and assistant Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) and two reputable mediums, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a dichotomous pair in their personalities and varieties of receptivity. Fischer was the soul, sane, physically intact survivor of a previous attempt to plumb the house’s mysteries when he was a teenager, and he is a physical medium who determines to keep himself mentally intact by resisting reading the house at all costs, terrified with very good reason of the forces within, long enough to collect the money Deutsch will pay. Florence is a good-natured empath, na├»ve, religious and with a touch of the flower-child to her. She’s determined, nonetheless, and finds herself struggling to convince the others that she’s in contact with a son of Belasco’s, who she believes is trapped as a spirit within the house, since being chained and walled up alive in the basement decades ago. Whether she’s right, or being manipulated, or has perhaps found a perfect avatar in the house's potency as a psychic weapon to enact her own pent-up frustration, becomes an important question after Barrett’s dismissal of her beliefs results in a near-fatal cascade of telekinetic assaults on him. Slowly, Florence’s hopeful theory that multiple spirits are in thrall to the insidious remnant force of Belasco’s personality gives way to the colder, less romantic fact that Belasco is the house’s only entity, toying with the people who have entered the space for his own cruel amusement. Casting Franklin, who had made her film debut as a child actress in Jack Clayton's Henry James adaptation The Innocents (1961), plays on presenting her in an entirely different type of very adult part, and likewise tips a nod to that film and its concept of the truly haunting evil lying in the repression of sexuality and the egotistical manipulation of children.

Hough wields the familiar imagery of the jutting, foreboding gables of the house rising out of thick veiling fog, a prowling black cat hinting at the malevolent presence lurking within, with unembarrassed relish. Soon a glutinous air of threat and eroticism entangles both the females of the party, Florence coming to realise the ghost she believes to be Belasco’s son is demanding some sort of erotic experience with her, and Ann is subject to spells of intense, almost trance-like lustiness that leaves humiliatingly exposed before both Fischer and her husband. Simultaneously, the men are unable to meet the women's needs, as Barrett becomes increasingly stiff-necked and resistant to ideas and explanations that don't fit with his, and Fischer, in holding off the house by necessarily distracting himself from the consuming pains of the people around him, renders himself useless in draining off the tension that is consuming the others. Like the same year’s The Exorcist (Roger Ebert has theorised that William Friedkin's film and its source novel had roots in Matheson’s earlier speculative writing, with its dedication to explicating the irrational in a firmly realistic context; and Matheson’s influence on Stephen King is similarly crucial), Hell House attempts to delve with felicity and force into the latent paranoia over female sexuality and familial travesty inherent in the haunting/possession motif, complete with a similar device of innocent Florence possessed by the spirit of evil, spouting foul language and mocking insults. The narrative's incisions into these themes is less filtered than The Exorcist, if less slick and successfully moody, for that film took refuge in veiling Catholic angst, the pre-pubescent state of its endangered female, and a less defined invasive, controlling villain. Belasco, another grand genre villain modelled after Aleister Crowley, has constructed his ego-empire as a trap for the neuroses and misperceptions of the people who enter it. He’s able to fool Florence into giving herself up as a sexual martyr to him under the impression she’ll be giving Belasco’s son the gift of earthly delights, so he can flitter away satisfied to the spirit world.

The narrative works then like a pressure cooker that sees the characters’ ever-so-slight misreading of each-other and the situation spiral into tragic explosions of violence. Fooling, perverting, and gradually tearing Florence to bits is Belasco’s chief delight, of course, whilst Florence is desperate to prove herself competent and rational in the glare of Barrett’s increasingly dismissive, smouldering masculine contempt and Fischer’s moral and metaphorical impotence. Franklin’s superbly sustained performance is a great part of the film’s cumulative effect, increasingly bedraggled and near-crazed, covered in unholy stigmata. She is left giggling like a madman after her attempt satiate the spirit with her body sees her get the rudest of possible shocks, but refusing to cop out of the dangerous situation, even when she knows she is likely to die. Ann, in turn, is ripe for an inversion of repression, moving from chipper second-fiddle to her husband's stalwart cleverness, to sweating and shivering with untapped passion, as she prowls about in horny hypnosis, fondling the breasts of a feminine statue before coming on to Fischer. Fischer himself is too neurotic and damaged to be of use to either lady, at least until the climax. Everything seems to wind inwards towards the dark heart of the house, the chapel, the place Florence, even with her perpetually prominent crucifix, can’t venture into: the image that the film builds to, that of Belasco seated within a hidden chamber of the chapel, seems in this context to reflect the similar revelation of God as a spider of madness within the wall in Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly (1961). Meanwhile Matheson’s story attempts to portray the spiritual versus scientific contest as one infused with other conflicts, between masculine and feminine energy, sexuality and sterility, blind faith and nihilism, whilst aiming to finally privilege both perspectives in a new paradigm.

Hough’s another interesting director who managed some good early work in the horror genre but whose career never really went anywhere: having debuted with the seriously uneven but in many respects admirable Twins of Evil the year before, he moved on to this generally classier piece of work. Hell House has a potential that might have come to purest life in the hands of a great expressionist stylist like Mario Bava or Dario Argento, to construct a truly enveloping sense of space and architecture as erotic and emotional trap, which remains only stolidly present in Hough’s hands. On the other hand, his concentration on psychological stress achieves its own authority, and Hough’s use of the house itself as a weapon, characters pinioned under crushing weights and riddled with the psychically directed household objects, anticipate the way Argento uses similar objects as sources of torture and pain in Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1976). The production is clumsy in places: the big clunky machine with which Barrett tries to cleanse the house of residual psychic energy looks like a lost Doctor Who prop, and Franklin’s wrestling match with an evil cat (animal attacks are almost always a weak point of horror films) is likewise more amusing than scary. Some of Hough’s hammy camera effects, spinning about or dangling from the ceiling pointlessly, do over-emphasise the film’s forward rush into pure hysteria. Hough’s creative use of distorting perspective lenses, especially in his epic close-ups, which render the perspiration-flecked pores and anxious lines of his actors’ faces battlegrounds of the ethereal yet wearing psychic war being fought, is much more effective in building and sustaining the fraught atmosphere.

Hell House, for some of the reasons I’ve spoken about, doesn’t hit classic status, but it does execute some riveting scenes, including that in which Florence lies crushed and bloodied under the colossal crucifix that Belasco drops on her in the blackest of jokes, dying but now fully aware and defiant, knowing that in killing her Belasco has exposed his own weakness. Even better is the finale in which Fischer, horrified by Florence and Barrett’s deaths, finally refuses to run away and instead begins to intuitively unravel the mystery of Belasco, realising, with beautiful thematic resonance, that Belasco's vicious, eternity-defying egotism and misogyny was sourced in physical inadequacy, manifest in the ultimate bodily frustration, having had his legs cleaved off and replaced by false ones to make himself look taller. McDowall’s terrific performance, up until this point full of neurotic, restrained energy, repetitively making gestures with fists and tense fingers that emphasise his efforts to keep his body and soul together, explodes into exultant mockery of Belasco, the heretofore unstoppably evil spirit now knocking him over repeatedly in the most childish of tantrums, until his power collapses entirely, allowing the final penetration of Belasco’s hidden mausoleum and the revealing of Belasco’s corpse, embalmed in sitting position, still sporting his wooden legs. The final revelation is absurd on one level, but it fits in well with the idea of Freudian anxieties and bodily horror provoking emotions strong enough to last far beyond death, and Fischer’s victory is one of the best-realised heroic moments in the genre.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Salt (2010)

Angelina Jolie’s struggle to find a career niche, in spite of, and because of, her colossal magazine-cover stardom, has led her to a career juggling two basic types of parts. Stunningly statuesque amazons, full of superhuman bravado and barely detectable humanity, in her big-ticket fare (Tomb Raider, Wanted, even, after a fashion, Girl, Interrupted), have balanced a parade of distraught, assailed, but unshakeably strong-willed, maternally devoted characters, in her would-be serious fare (Beyond Borders, A Mighty Heart, Changeling). As glib as such an analysis usually is, nonetheless I’ll venture for argument’s sake that the first type of role is close to how the public sees her, and the second type is how she’d like to see herself. Salt, interestingly enough, forges a synthesis of these two roles. As Evelyn Salt, she plays a CIA agent who is tough as nails physically and mentally, strong enough to withstand vicious North Korean torture in the opening scenes, and take all kinds of incredulous punishment in the course of the film’s subsequent on-the-run action. And yet she’s also unflinchingly human in placing the life of her husband Mike Krause (August Diehl), above all other things, including personal well-being and the national interest. Her husband is a sweet-tempered arachnologist: Evelyn seduced him once upon a time because he had easy access to the North Korean border, but their affair soon evolved into her true love when he raised all hell to save her from being beaten up by Asian sadists in her underwear, a necessary step in the formation of any stable relationship.

Cunningly, then, Salt proceeds to explore one side of Jolie before giving birth to the other, which, ironically, makes it the star vehicle she’s needed for about ten years now, in the same way Humphrey Bogart needed High Sierra in order to balance his screen persona before becoming a true movie star. Jolie’s already a true movie star, but Salt is one of her most satisfying vehicles to date, at least in terms of her own screen persona, because of this balance. Evelyn finds herself a wanted woman when a seamy Russian ex-spymaster, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), under the cover of officially defecting, blows her cover as a Soviet mole, planted decades ago as part of a colossal project to undermine the American state. He wants her to assassinate the Russian president (Olek Krupa), visiting New York for the US Vice President’s funeral, as the gambit, as Orlov and a cabal of fanatical Soviet hold-outs attempt to put the long-delayed but still viable plan of conquest into action. Evelyn is driven initially, it seems, by urgent concern for her husband, knowing Orlov’s fellow conspirators will have snatched him to ensure cooperation, and she stages a lengthy, bone-jarring escape, first from the CIA station in downtown New York and then from pursuing agents, sent after her by her fellow operative and friend Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), and hard-ass Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Much running, jumping, motorcycle-riding and dangling from the roofs and, occasionally, the sides of trucks ensues, before Evelyn appears to do the unthinkable and goes through the motions of assassinating the Russian President.

As a movie, as opposed to a movie star vehicle, Salt is far less compelling. The political themes are hilariously retrograde, full of dubious displacement: it’s the North Koreans dealing out water torture, the Commies are still the bad guys, and in Salt 2 Evelyn will certainly save Hitler’s brain. Salt is certainly not about politics, of course, but about constant thrills and twists, as Evelyn’s true loyalties and motives, and even actions, are kept as enigmatic as possible for as long as possible, before she emerges as a straight-up good guy who's just misunderstood. This is really more a twisted family drama, with Evelyn in combat against a ruthless patriarchy, Orlov as false, perverting father figure, Winter as treacherous brother-lover, and new-age Mike a girly-man victim of the fierce old-school machismo of these politicised bullies. Evelyn must escape a particularly warped familial psychodrama – she’s repeatedly welcomed back as “Sister” by the other products of the project’s brainwashing training programme, and Evelyn fights to redefine herself. Looked at in such a fashion, Evelyn’s final, forbidden come-on to Winter in trying to penetrate the sealed room in which he’s preparing the apocalyptic consummation of this drama, takes on perverse overtones indeed. This is not to say the film delves into this theme with any depth or even apparent self-awareness, but it does bubble away intriguingly within the whirlybird narrative. Evelyn, like Jason Bourne, is compelled to get revenge on the people who moulded her into a fearsome beast, but the storyline also displays the fingerprints of writer Kurt Wimmer, who offered the joyously juvenile power fantasy of Equilibrium (2002). Many mainstream action films with female heroes often end up turning those females into men, metaphorically: Salt takes this to a logical place as Evelyn goes the full drag-king to infiltrate the White House. As in Equilibrium, Evelyn is a product of a totalitarian system that, in betraying her, invites destruction from its own perfect creation, and the need to suppress an emotional response in order to pass a torturous test recurs too. Her subsequent unleashing of naked, exterminating fury, provides the film’s best scene. Evelyn, in seeming to have cleared the hurdle of not only assassinating the Russian President but then escaping from police custody, makes it to Orlov’s base of operations, only to see Mike gunned down in front of her. Such is Orlov’s final act of bastard cunning in testing Evelyn’s loyalty, one she passes, but the moment she’s alone with Orlov, she smashes a bottle of vodka and stabs him to death with the jagged glass, before slaughtering the rest of his crew with ice-cold bravura.

Philip Noyce’s retreat from his own (rather drab) stab at a late-career resurgence as a serious filmmaker, with Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American (both 2002), sees him back in the territory of his ‘90s pay-cheque action movies. He’s keeping up with the times here, and Salt, stylistically, is an attempt to graft the more traditional type of action-thriller dynamic onto the template presented by Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films, the furious whip-pans and jump-cuts, the fragmented impressionism, of that series’ divisively received action scenes, attached to a story that offers clearer revenge motifs and more familiar generic structuring, heightened melodramatic plot stakes, and a less vague emotional context. But the blend doesn’t really work as well as it might have, because the non-stop pace of the Bourne films was at least attuned to its alienated sheen of existential angst, life reduced to a series of bitter battles revolving around the need to penetrate a riddle that offered no final hope, only clarity of scepticism. Salt, on the other hand, builds emotional climaxes that are unfortunately muted and rendered near-ineffectual because of the film’s perpetual restlessness and taciturn, businesslike facade. Evelyn’s physical daredevilry, jumping off speeding trains and out of moving helicopters, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exposition, like her use of spider venom, from amongst Mike’s collection of pet arachnids, to synthesise a temporarily paralysing toxin, are so cartoonishly improbable and speed by at such a pace that they become something close to moving wallpaper. You sit and watch it all pass by in a brain-numbing blur, all too aware that you’re watching total balderdash, rather than making the hard yards of forcing the suspension of disbelief.

The climax of the second act, which I’ve already mentioned, for instance, ought to be the end of the film, but it is instead more a way-station, on the way to more, far less personally urgent and therefore altogether less engaging action, in which Evelyn has to try and forestall Winter’s efforts to start nuclear war. Salt finally illustrates something that’s fascinatingly, persistently problematic with the modern Hollywood action film, so fixated with maintaining a nerveless, spectacular kind of adrenalized rush that it neglects the potential weight of its themes and characterisations. Stretched a little further, Salt could have yielded the same kind of emotional punch as Sydney Pollack’s ‘70s thrillers, or the gritty, voluble engagement of Brian De Palma, or even a simple, pulpy cheer-along like, well, Equilibrium, but finally, curiously, teasingly, doesn’t deliver anything with simple completeness, except the spectacle of motion, like it’s the Olympics of cinema. Like Evelyn Salt herself, these contemporary action films seem to feel a need to keep their emotional engagement utterly contoured to the vicissitudes of cool efficiency. Jolie’s game commitment to her role serves her well, at least: her gradual shift from emotive, concerned Angelina to hard, imperious, borderline-sociopathic Angelina, gives focus to her performance and provides what dramatic weight there is. The very finish is easy to write off as a clear gateway to a sequel, but it is at least admirable in openly embracing a lack of resolution. The image of Evelyn, dripping wet, bloodied and battered, running off into the night to do battle with an unseen army of ghostly infiltrating warriors, presents less the comforting vision of an undaunted hero than of one whose own interior psychic war has metastasized into a full-blown psychotic nightmare.