Monday, 25 April 2011

Mandingo (1975)

Regarded upon its release as a ne plus ultra of sleazy trash, but rescued and regarded by some critics, especially Jonathan Rosenbaum, as perhaps the most unflinching look at elements of a daily reality of slavery in the American Old South, Mandingo is actually perched somewhere between those two poles. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it represents both a climax and waning point of the tensile realism with which he had inflected his late-‘60s and early-‘70s films, as Mandingo is expostulated in a visually realistic fashion, yet embraces an oversized artificiality associated with camp in its acting and plot. Mandingo takes Kyle Onstott’s pulp novella and turns it into the cinematic equivalent of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, blurring the middle-ground between exploitative fantasy and subversive fever-dream. The cinematography manages to be alternately alluring, drinking in natural and source lighting with painterly effect, yet also peculiarly unmannered and unvarnished, and this helps Fleischer in communicating visually a deeply ironic perspective. Likewise, Maurice Jarré’s incredible score deconstructs on an aural level what the drama does on narrative level, orchestral romanticism shading into plucked banjos and African drums, in music that commences with ironically playful themes juxtaposed with blackly comic displays of alien behaviour and philosophy, and becomes increasingly, spare, atonal, and sick-sounding. The film’s poster deliberately evoked Gone With the Wind, and Fleischer offers up a key scene that mirrors the old blockbuster in which a baby is miscarried after a fall down a flight of stairs. A black mammy character is dolled up like Hattie McDaniel but whose name, “Lucrezia Borgia”, evokes decadence and decay, in giving birth to the evil twin of Margaret Mitchell’s and David Selznick’s ultra-romanticised antebellum.

The story revolves around the Maxwell clan, represented by an ornery patriarch (James Mason) and his son, Hammond (Perry King). Their plantation, Falconworth, is a seedy, crumbling empire with a columned homestead in desperate need of a good paint job, constantly selling off their human chattel to pay for whatever extravagancies they indulge. The opening, set to an appropriately mournful blues song sung by Muddy Waters, sees the camera entering the grounds of the plantation as if violating a veil between present and past, as a columns of slaves is mustered for selling. The leisurely following scenes introduce the world of Falconworth with its peculiar rituals, as Hammond steps up to his manly duty and deflowers Big Pearl (Reda Wyatt) as is the custom, and keeps “wenches” for his bed. House slave Agamemnon (Richard Ward) is caught teaching reading and religion to the other slaves, and earns being strung upside down and beaten on the backside. A relative, Charles Woodford (Ben Masters), arrives in time to take exception to the softness of the beating, actually being executed by another slave, and when he attempts to demonstrate a more vigorous style, Hammond gives him what-for. The misunderstanding is quickly overcome, and Charles invites Hammond for a stay at his richer, more embellished plantation. The two men are given two concubines for the night, one of whom, Ellen (Brenda Sykes) proves to be a shy virgin, who charms Hammond: they fall in a kind of love. Nonetheless, Maxwell insists Hammond marry Charles’s sister Blanche (Susan George) for the sake of providing a proper heir. But she has her own dirty secret: she lost her virginity to her brother when she was 13, and after their wedding night Hammond is furious with her, returning to the arms of Ellen, whom he buys. Whilst in New Orleans for his honeymoon, Hammond buys a Mandingo (a Sierra Leonese) slave, Ganymede or "Mede" (Ken Norton) for short, a virile and powerful man Hammond hopes will fulfil his father’s long-held dream of finding a perfect stud to breed champion fights, and when Mede gets into a brawl with a brothel owner’s slave, he grabs the attention of a Creole gentleman, De Veve (Louis Turenne), who proposes that Hammond pit Mede against his own champion Jamaican fighter Topaz (Duane Allen).

The most worthy aspect of Mandingo is that it succeeds in making the world it portrays vile and cruel in ways that a more “respectable” version couldn’t manage – Roots looks almost cute by comparison, and Spielberg’s Amistad kept a long way from the seamiest aspects of institutional slavery that Onstott’s story all but drools over. From the way Maxwell uses a slave boy in local quack Redfield’s (Roy Poole) supposed cure for rheumatism, to his prescription for both a proper beating for Agamemnon and then the necessary cure for his wounds (“Salt…lots of salt.”), the big pot of hot water he has Mede sit in to toughen his skin for fighting, terrified virgins being offered up for violation, and Charles’ indulgence of sadistically flogging his female slaves before bedding them, the sheer infuriating mass of inhumanity is pushed to a fittingly extreme point. There’s no breathing room for apologia, and yet it’s a complete vision of society existing by different rules to an extent that it almost normalises those different rules. The story imitates the elder Maxwell’s world-view in that it essentially reduces everything on display to a macro-biological study, where all human transactions are fundamentally about flesh and power; no external forms of morality or social custom are allowed to interfere with its ultimate vision of an exclusive sectarian patriarchy. Maxwell views his slaves, and everyone else, too, as essentially an animal amenable to appropriate habits of fornication, feeding, and breeding. His peculiar plan is to breed a kind of superman who is nonetheless completely obedient to his will, cunningly revealing the subterranean link between the perverted pseudo-Darwinian rhetoric of Nazi ideals and their historical counterparts and springboards.

The adaptation, in spite of screenwriter Norman Wexler and Fleischer’s best efforts, doesn’t transcend the innately sordid source material, as the narrative throws in everything it can think of, from incest to death-battles to infidelity and matrimonial homicide, in keeping the pot boiling. But this narrative tactic helps comprehensively expose the workings of a culture that has removed all blinkers relating to the use of one set of human beings by another, apparent on all levels, from a German immigrant woman checking out the size of Mede’s manhood with an eye to using him as a walking sex toy, to the casual selling off of the slave children, or “suckers” as they’re called, to the final murder of a half-caste baby with astonishing blitheness. The story also incidentally satirises and exposes the assumptions of the type of generational saga, popularised by writers like Edna Ferber, which evolved into the soap opera. The exchanges of prerogative and power, as well as sins and advantages, between fathers to sons and then warped in strange new shapes, familiar from such fare, here metastasize in peculiarly monstrous ways. Hammond seems characterised as a more humane, unwillingly participant in the cruelty of the world, affected enough by beatings that he has to leave, and later sticking up for a slave woman who doesn’t want her sucker sold off. But his greater emotional involvement also leaves him more prey to irrational rage when acts that violate the fundamentals of the inescapable culture he’s been raised in, committed by his wife, give the lie to it. Especially, smartly anarchic is Fleischer’s insistence on inverting the tale’s delight in the trappings of sexual slavery by eroticising its male, rather than female characters: he shoots topless women with dead-eyed clarity, where it’s Mede and Hammond whose undressing and physical beauty is lingered over, particularly when Blanche blackmails the slave into her bed, and strips him down with pornographic relish. The atmosphere of the film is so fetid it’s a wonder sweat doesn’t start streaming down the screen, amongst other bodily fluids.

Mandingo’s central set-piece of violence, Mede’s battle against the Jamaican, is quite remarkably brutal for a mainstream film of any era: “No holds barred!” declares the referee, and that’s what we get, as eyes are gouged and bodies are bitten, Mede finally defeating his opponent by ripping his jugular vein out with his teeth. Blanche is named obviously after Tennessee Williams’ iconic heroine, but this version strips Williams' heroine of aristocratic affectations and leaves only the sexually voracious hysteric beneath, also channelling Scarlett O’Hara’s sense of offended entitlement and unhappy marriage, curdled into vicious sociopathy. Everyone in the film is some sort of murderous bastard, it’s just a question of what they’re murdering for. Mede does it out of respect; initially impressed that Hammond buys him to save him from the German woman’s bed, he’s inspired by affection when Hammond tries to stop the fight against Topaz in worry at the damage being done to Mede, and Mede works up the determination to best the ogreish opponent. But Mede is mocked as a tool by Agamemnon, and contrasted with Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), Agamemnon’s angriest and most successful convert to the underground revolt, who was sold to the Woodfords, and who instigates a rebellion. When Cicero is caught by Mede and Hammond, he gives a fiendishly impolite speech to the assembled white onlookers, reminding them of the hypocrisy of having fled their own oppression in other lands and then imposing it on others, then inveigling them, “After you’ve hung me, kiss my ass!”

The weird mixture of semi-anachronistic Black Power tropes and high camp, totalised sexuality that invests the proceedings of course seems as much about the mid-‘70s as it does about history. Mandingo is concise about methods of social control and construction of repressive paradigms: Maxwell has banned all reading and writing amongst his slaves, as well as religion, anything that might give them a sense of self and power to contradict his imposed concept of them as a dumb fodder. The film's sexuality is exaggerated, of course: the old South idealised its chivalrous surfaces and relied on a complex interplay of double-standards and euphemisms in a manner that's missed here, to a degree that actually hurts Mandingo's satirical impact. One seriously doubts that, as undoubtedly practiced as it often was, that sex-slavery, depicted here as accepted and pervasive as in any distant historical fantasy of ancient Rome or Persia, was ever so openly acknowledged and institutionalised. That this world is being likened, indeed, to such more remote and imperial settings is confirmed in the classical names the slaves are given. The portrait of the Maxwells as men less able to comprehend white females than blacks is mordant. Yet the failure of the film to establish the gulf between what is done and what is “not done” saps the force of the scurrilous developments by which the society’s rules are violated and wrath incurred, as evinced in a much more euphemistic, yet coherent, tale like Raintree County (1958), where the heroine’s biracial nature inspires schismatic insanity and is desperately suppressed. The camp aspect is stoked mostly by George’s suitably unhinged performance, building to a head when Blanche whips Ellen with ripe fury for usurping her place in Hammond’s bed. This drives Ellen to run away, only to take a plunge down the stairs, killing Hammond’s baby which she is carrying.

It’s worth noting that whilst the story is critical of the culture it describes, it’s also highly indulgent of it, offering the spectacle of awesome masculine strength in Mede and the erotic never-never land to mitigate the bitter flavour of the amoral setting. Indeed, as in Italian muscleman movies and Conan the Barbarian, it’s the amoral, historical setting that gives the power fantasy it heft: you can see a similar thing working even in a film like Gladiator (2000), in which, in an inevitably losing game, nonetheless the strong man subverts the ruling paradigm by dint purely of his physical potency. The film’s fascinating final act nonetheless veers in some unexpected directions, as Blanche violates the ultimate taboo in her society by screwing Mede and having his child. The efforts of the Woodfords to cover up the sin by killing the baby fail when Hammond insists on seeing the dead child. Stirred to a murderous intent all the more chilling because of his poise, he first, under the guise of caring for Blanche in her post-birth exhaustion, feeds her a poisoned glass of wine. He then sets out to kill Mede in the most hideous fashion, and the film reaches an apogee of appropriate madness as Hammond, after shooting Mede full of holes, presses him into the boiling water with a pitchfork. The literal act of rebellion comes not from Mede, but from Agamemnon, but Mede's final words nonetheless betray his shock and rage at discovering that Hammond is just another whitey, and a final rejection of mere obedience. The end impression of a world that’s locked into a spiral that can only end in self-annihilation is nihilistic, yet actually cathartic in a manner like Visconti’s The Damned (1969), in portraying such a nadir everything else seems an improvement.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Films that make gigantic amounts of money from investments of very small amounts of money tend to be treated less like standard films and more like indicators of some profound shift in the zeitgeist. Easy Rider. Halloween. The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli’s smash hit, parlayed from a $15,000 budget and some post-production cleaning up, is obviously in the pseudo-genre inspired by The Blair Witch Project, as a faux-“found footage” chiller building an intense mood out of the most minimal of effects, and created less of an amazed stir when it piled up over $100,000,000 at the box office. Nonetheless the achievement still demands a pause to take stock: it reveals the still-powerful audience appeal of the no-frills horror film and the tingle of verisimilitude found in the shooting style, in complete opposition to the showy pyrotechnics of the blockbuster and the contemporary horror film which is usually more obsessed in flogging one silly with gore. Whilst it lacks the solid mythology and grounding in a well-conceived mystery milieu that Blair Witch offered, Paranormal Activity is superior in sustaining drama and at least some character conflict, grounding its tale squarely in brittle bourgeois suburbia. It’s also more radical in the way it works the cinematic space for scares, not entirely unworthy, in its way, of comparisons to Val Lewton’s suggestive, determinedly eerie style of horror film. Quite literally making a “things that go bump in the night” movie, Peli lets the frame lie dead for minutes at a time, making the audience keenly aware to the smallest manifestations of strangeness, aware of the rule that Andrei Tarkovsky once, best outlined, that when nothing happens for a few seconds, boredom results, but when nothing happens for minutes, the tension becomes enormous.

Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) are a young couple, characterised as determinedly normal, neither highly intelligent nor entirely shallow, with Micah a tech nerd and stockbroker and Katie studying English at college. The film’s first act carefully weaves its way into the main story, the problem at hand taking some time to become apparent. That problem is the couple are being beset by strange nocturnal sounds and telekinetic events, and Micah, reacting with a boyish enthusiasm to the exciting mystery, has decided to film their bedroom whilst they sleep. But a psychic, Dr Frederichs (Mark Frederichs), upon visiting them, explains that he senses the presence in the house is no mere haunting ghost, but a malevolent demon that might react to provocations and step up its ambiguous programme. He gives them the name of a colleague who specialises in demons, but Micah’s determined to delve into the problem himself. Katie’s been stalked by the presence since infancy, a “little detail” that Micah quietly resents having sprung on him, and the demon leaves a taunting clue to mysteries of her past in the form of a photograph, singed from the fire that consumed her childhood home. Micah’s attempts to flush out the demon, whether by scattering talcum powder on the floor to measure its movements, or bringing in a ouija board to communicate, merely play right into the presence’s game, taking delight in teasing them and terrifying them. Katie also seems to occasionally fall into trance-like states where she stands by the bed for hours in the dark and wanders about the house.

Whilst riding a wave of first-person thrillers, many of which have managed to be inventive and spin the gimmick in their own unique way - Cloverfield, Redacted, Diary of the Dead, [Rec]/Quarantine - in terms of certain imagery and themes, Paranormal Activity is actually most notably similar to Lake Mungo (2008). Brad Anderson’s film delved with broader cinematic reflexes and a better script into an exploration of haunting as manifestation of grief whilst purveying the form of a mockumentary, exploring ambiguities of visual reproductions of reality. Peli set himself a less challenging task, not at all unforgivable considering his minuscule resources. His quietly percolating premise offers his haunting as a manifestation of any lingering baggage that weighs down the individual psyche. It can be read as any form of formative trauma – the way the “demon” is rooted in disaster and uprooting in Katie’s youth bears it out – and the lingering adult issues that foul up later relationships. Micah’s approach to the haunting, treating it first as a game and then as a personal challenge, contains potential as a study in frustration of the privileged citizen frustrated by his incapacity to maintain control over the world, something he's been raised to expect. His sense of mission also meshes nicely with both sublimation of his anger with Katie for not telling him about the presence’s part in her life sooner, and a reactive need to establish safety in his home. Unfortunately the dynamic here soon resorts to the clichéd pitting of masculine certainty (or bullishness) against feminine instinctive caution (or wimpiness), and the improvised acting by Sloat and Featherstone, whilst surprisingly good, relies on some overly basic and hackneyed character reflexes.

Paranormal Activity is nowhere near as cumulatively substantial and unsettling as Lake Mungo, hobbled by some poor choices on Peli’s part more as screenwriter than director. The nature of the presence is defined too early in the film, meaning that the subtle shifts in its methods and intent are too easy to grasp for the audience to be as effective as they might be, and the terror of the inexplicable is exchanged for what is basically a stunt spin on a standard horror story a la The Entity (1981). Peli announces visitations with an unnecessary, telegraphing droning sound effect, and the tricks with sound and mysteriously moving household objects would prove mere funfair antics if it wasn’t for the mood of credulity well-stoked by the actors. The film’s pivotal moment of creepiness with the ouija board is overstated and decorated by unnecessary special effects hype. Subtler moments, like a barely noticeable lick of wind batting Katie’s hair when she swears she feels the presence breathing on her, are far more striking. If the hand-held camera craze has largely created a severe deterioration in the sense of the relationship of elements in a shot exemplified by so many recent films, here Peli admirably allows his camera to be quite controlled even in motion, and knows how to use the elusive edges of a quickly moving frame to introduce a sense of oppression and paranoia. The finale, reportedly at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg, was retooled several times in looking for the right final charge, and all of the different versions are available for inspection. The one they ended up with, with a possessed Katie hurling Micah out of the darkness at the camera, is notable for the long, relished wait for the pay-off Peli indulges, and an appropriate hue of black comedy, as girly Katie, claimed at last by her tormentor becomes a leering demon capable of tossing the self-assured day trader clear across the room. Only in the very last image, of Katie leaping with an evil leer at the camera, does the film wallow in the sadly derivative. Sequels result.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Tod Browning should have been on top of the world after the enormous financial success of his Dracula (1931) temporarily changed the horror film from seamy sideshow attraction to mainstream blockbuster material. And yet that film, both aesthetically, as a seriously uneven work, and chronologically, in his career, marked the commencement of a declining period of waywardness for the director. Browning had been forced to cast stage star Béla Lugosi in the title role after his long-time collaborator Lon Chaney Snr died of cancer, leaving him without his favourite actor who could handle almost anything Browning could throw at him, a significant tool in the hands of a director fascinated by teeming strangeness and the humanity within the grotesque, and vice versa. He used the clout Dracula gave him nonetheless to make his masterpiece, Freaks (1932), but his bankability, as we would say today, took years to recover from the furious reception to that much-banned film. He finally signed on with MGM and found a kind of replacement for Chaney in the form of Lionel Barrymore. But Browning’s over-heated, twisted imagination was never going to sit comfortably with Louis B. Mayer’s house style of polished, pseudo-classy entertainment, and the two most prominent films he made for MGM, Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll, are noticeably semi-domesticated and diffuse. As Browning’s dedication to cinema was waning steadily after a career dotted with alcoholism and losses of inspiration, The Devil-Doll was to prove his second-last film. Nonetheless it is an absorbing and damnably odd mix of genres and stylistic impulses.

Officially based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by the near-mythical fantastic scribe Abraham Merritt, but also infused with Browning’s own short story “The Witch of Timbuctoo”, the film’s screenwriting credits inspire a double-take: two of the three credited screenwriters are Guy Endore and Erich Von Stroheim, partly explaining the peculiarly continental feel of the material, as well as its uncommon emotional and conceptual seriousness. The Devil-Doll commences with several story flourishes that recur again and again in the period’s pulp fiction, most notably the piquant touch of the prisoner escaping from French Guiana’s Devil’s Island, and the programme of revenge facilitated by a pseudo-scientific gimmick. Here, there’s actually two men escaping from the penal colony, being Marcel (Henry Walthall) and Paul Lavond (Barrymore), both of whom have driving causes to flee their jungle prison and return to the world. Marcel is an obsessed scientist, and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has set up a laboratory within the steaming Guianan rain forest, waiting for his emergence. Marcel and Malita suggest Pierre and Marie Curie turned into creepy sociopaths in having stumbled down a different path of scientific discovery. They’ve been collaborating on a project to shrink living creatures to a far smaller size in order that the world’s food resources will be less overburdened. Unfortunately all of their experimental animal subjects have so far been reduced to inert, doll-like organisms, still living but mindless and responding only to the concerted will of another.

Lavond, a former banking tycoon, has escaped with Marcel to visit vengeance upon three men. He gets to observe as Marcel plunges madly back into his labours, using the crippled housekeeper Malita had hired, Lachna (Grace Ford) as a subject; he seems at first to succeed in reducing her size and restoring not only her mind, but her physical capacities, but as he tries to shrink her further, he ends up with only the same old doll, and induces a fatal heart attack in himself to boot. Malita, desperate to continue the project, asks Lavond to aid her. Together they travel to Paris, where they set up a toy store and Lavond, in a classic touch of Browning perversity, takes on the guise of a little old lady, “Madame Madeleine”, a toymaker, to escape police detection. His trio of targets, Matin (Pedro de Cordoba), Coulvet (Robert Greig), and Radin (Arthur Hohl), responsible for the embezzlement and murder they set Lavond up to take the blame for and now comfortably running his bank, smugly decide to put out a 50,000 franc reward for his recapture. But Lavond avoids detection at every turn, and uses the dolls to ensnare them and terrify them: Radin finishes up as one of the dolls, Coulvet is paralysed in his sleep when stabbed with a poisoned stiletto by Lachna under Lavond’s control, and Matin is finally terrorised into confessing the trio’s sins.

The basic story, then, is The Count of Monte Cristo by way of Frankenstein, filled with potential for a lucid insanity that never really hits full-throttle. Fragments of beautiful weirdness still dot The Devil-Doll’s running time, from the sight of the nearly-naked Lachna in the first stage of her reduction, lolling in ecstatic physical completeness for the first time, to Malita entertaining herself by having the shrunken Radin and Lachna dance a jig, only for Lachna to take a tumble off the table-top, stirring Lavond’s enraged distress. The scenes of the dolls’ adventures, particularly a lengthy set-piece in the film’s middle as Lachna, given to Coulvet’s daughter as a present, eerily extricates herself from the sleeping girl’s arm, climbs a colossal bureau to steal jewellery, then traversing the bed filled by the sleeping Coulvet and his wife with tiny knife in hand, are brilliantly done on all levels, a real triumph for Browning and designer Cedric Gibbons. There’s a vein of humanistic empathy in both Lavond and the film, lifting it well clear of the usual mad scientist sadism. Lavond is a complex character, determined to prosecute his retribution but feeling empathy for the shrunken creatures, and tortured by his desire to visit and make peace with his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), who despises his memory.

Browning’s love of toying with signifiers of normality and gender surfaces in the sight of Barrymore playing drag, even when stripped of his disguising wig, spending whole scenes still with earrings dangling, and the whole characterisation fits in neatly with Browning’s interest in performance and façade, acts within acts. Hints of folie-a-deux and masochism, too, to the odd, fanatical relationship of Marcel and Malita, who finds a childish delight in making her “dolls” dance but explodes in pyromaniac rage when she learns Lavond wants to destroy all of her husband’s labours. There’s a bracing flavour of a very black intelligence in sights like the miniaturised Radin trussed up in a bow, hanging on a Christmas tree, as the nastiest possible present. The intrinsically phobic notion of the mundane yet strangely human-like objects like dolls proving to in fact be animate and capable of committing murder and mayhem, anticipates later, famous variations such as Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson’s Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Child’s Play (1987), and there’s an undercurrent in the portrayal of the villains' fancy haute-bourgeois homes becoming infested with barely detectable manifestations and reactions to their own villainy that feels acutely satiric. The surprising density of the drama, thanks to the odd mix of high-level collaborators, helps make The Devil-Doll surprising, but also proves a double-edged sword. Whilst Browning’s controlling ingenuity is evident throughout, the whole project feels drained of urgency and darkness. The desire to keep Lavond as an essentially empathetic and heroic figure and also a merciless engine of extra-curricular punishment of wrongdoers doesn’t fit well either with the new Production Code rules or the overly-polished MGM style, which renders the necessary sense of infernal intensity minimised.

The right key of hysterical perversity is best achieved by Ottiano, who offers an inspired turn as a feminine grotesque, sporting a Sontag-esque white streak in her wildly thatched hair, limps about on a crutch and makes angular body movements, alternating a kind of frantic enthusiasm and desperate wrath. Barrymore on the other hand is terrific but constrained by the peculiarities of his role, forced to rein in his character’s galvanising rage and diabolical wit, but it’s still a brilliantly sustained performance, both technically and emotionally. He pulls off Lavond’s masquerade with such simple stagecraft that the overtly unlikely conceit seems perfectly convincing. Browning throws the viewer into the story with characteristic eccentricity, commencing with a glaring spotlight shining into the camera, which then slides aside to face down the barrel of a machine gun, and he then cuts to almost random shots of padding, booted legs and tracking dogs stalking the jungle night, before finally zeroing in on the two escapees. Some of his fascinating first-person tracking shots also dot the proceedings. But the lighting and the camera angles possess little gothic style, apart from brief snatches in the swampy opening, and in spite of the deeply weird material and storyline, the whole thing feels less like a cinefantastique excursion than an oddly embroidered melodrama. This problem is exacerbated by the way there’s no vital connection between the subplot of Lavond and his daughter and the rest of the film. The real story even wraps up ten minutes before the film is over, leaving the rest for some sentimentally appealing stuff of Lavond pretending to be a prison friend of Lorraine’s father, punishing himself by writing himself out of her life forever whilst again play-acting, but still delivering a jolt of uplift, as if we’d somehow stumbled into the more familiar kind of MGM family weepie, and the tonal indecision should be infuriating. Yet it makes for a strangely affecting end.

Dementia 13 (1963)

Often credited as the feature-directing debut of Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 actually followed two quickie nudie flicks, The Bellboy and the Playgirls and Tonight for Sure (both 1962), and Coppola’s collaboration on bashing together a couple of Roger Corman quickies, including The Terror (1963). Dementia 13 nonetheless signals his emergence as a mainstream, individual director, and it’s a rough and awkward experience that contains flashes of real cinema. Produced by Corman during one of the occasional sojourns to tax shelter Ireland that his team made, Dementia 13 clearly signals itself as another film in the mould of Psycho. Coppola’s film, like Hitchcock’s, commences as a study in the malfeasance of a blonde, but turns into a psycho-killer flick ,with motifs based in a mystique of old houses, familial repression and oppression, and childhood traumas. The opening sequence is the most striking in the film, as Louise Halloran (Luana Anders) and her stocky, weak-hearted husband John (Peter Read) row across a lake at night, engaging in a marital tiff as loaded with nasty undercurrents and fulminating rage as any equivalents in Coppola's later, more artful films. Louise is a gold-digger infuriated by the small endowment the couple are to receive from her mother-in-law’s will. John is sufficiently fed up with his wife to take delight in trying to shred her nerves in turning up the irritating rock ’n’ roll ditty playing on his transistor radio, and to mock her coming disinheritance even as he succumbs to a heart attack, induced by rowing. He dies before she can get him back to shore, and so she decides to dump his body in the water and pretend he’s gone off on business. She sinks the radio with him, and his body bobs eerily below whilst the music continues to echo sonorously from the murky brine.

After the intervening credits, Louise packs up her husband’s belongings and dumps them in the lake, clearly evoking both Janet Leigh’s baling out of Phoenix and Tony Perkins’ hurried clean-up in Psycho. Coppola cuts with awkward suddeness to a conversation between Louise and Billy Haloran (Bart Patton), the youngest of the three Haloran brothers, and it becomes clear that in spite of the American accents, the story is taking place in Ireland, as the Haloran brothers received American educations. The family had all gathered at Castle Haloran, a sombre old pile, for the will reading. Louise convinces the family that John has gone off to New York in a hurry, and plans to use the breathing space to work on Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunn). Lady Haloran is morbidly obsessed with her young daughter Kathleen who drowned seven years before, and keeps her sons on a tight leash with the threat of disinheritance to make sure her obsession is constantly stoked: coinciding with the family gathering is the yearly ritual where she and the boys recreate Kathleen’s funeral, at which the mother always faints. Louise attempts to use Lady Haloran’s fixation as the key to her fortune, by pretending to be in mediumistic contact with Kathleen’s spirit. But when she sets up a neat little trick that will see some of Kathleen’s favourite trinkets bob up in the estate pond where she drowned, Louise, as she emerges from the water, is brutally axed to death by a shadowed assailant.

Dementia 13, appropriately for the early work of a director notable for his capacity to make even assignment work seem deeply personal, contains plentiful fragments that anticipate future oeuvre gems. Many touches especially recur again in his The Godfather films, most overtly the theme of family legacy as a poisoned, murder-inducing chalice, and grief over lost kin. The opening scene with its charge of emotional convulsion in a lonely, watery setting, anticipates Fredo’s murder in The Godfather Part II. The wayward anti-heroine caught without options faintly anticipates The Rain People (1969), and the portraits of marital anxiety and strife, manifested in both in Louise and John's relationship and that between older Haloran brother Richard (William Campbell), a troubled and sensitive artist, and his fiancé Kane (Mary Mitchell), present a theme that would bob up again in Coppola’s ‘80s films. Coppola returned to horror movie images and ideas in aspects of Apocalypse Now (1979) and more properly with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). His common fetishisation of ritual paraphernalia and funereal atmosphere is also apparent in the “reburial” of Kathleen.

But the film operates firmly under the laws of the period’s genre shockers, as well as, in its modest way, also forming part of a vanguard of new-fashioned genre style. Coming out in the same year as Mario Bava’s instigation of the giallo genre with Sei Donne per l’Assassino and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s splatter-defining Blood Feast, Dementia 13 has some similarities to both. Whilst the creeping, tricking gamesmanship of the killer is closer to the former, the murder scenes come within shouting distance of the latter. There’s a surprisingly gamy, brutal charge in visions like the dead Louise, still dripping wet, stripped to her underwear and covered in blood, being dragged across the lawn, and a hapless poacher’s head being severed and bouncing away into the water. A sequence of the axe-wielding psycho stalking Lady Haloran, glimpsed as a silhouetted figure, smashing his way through wooden barriers, clearly looks forward to ‘80s-style slasher flicks. Other visual and aural gimmicks, like the glimpses of creepy children’s toys and the heavy use of the harpsichord in the score, would become heavy clichés in ‘60s and ‘70s horror, but seem fairly original here.

Coppola makes insistently naturalistic use of location filming, but the technical limitations, apparent in the artless cinematography, hurried lighting, and poor sound recording, hamstring the impact. Still, his nascent ingenuity is apparent, in spite of the strictures of a no-budget shooting schedule, to push away from merely stand-and-talk dialogue, moving his camera when he can, and offering some lively shows of editing in the murder scenes. He builds to the film’s two killings with some decent suspense-mongering, managing to imbue the physical surrounds with a sense of lurking threat. He offers occasional eerie imagery, such as Louise’s sunken totems bobbing to the surface, and the sight of a doll facsimile of Kathleen. That dummy is kept by the killer as a fetish of worship and guardianship, submerged in the lake, freaking out Louise when she sees it lying on the lake floor just before she’s murdered, its blonde hair wavering in the water a la Shelley Winters in Night of the Hunter (1956), and afterwards secreted in other locales around the estate.

Later, Kane, afraid her husband might be the killer and following him into the castle’s lowest levels, finds troves of the sculptures that the family’s men have specialised in producing, and the killer tries to keep Kathleen alive through just such a lifeless yet emotion-charged stand-in for the living figure. Such motifs possess the right lustre of a morbid charge inherent in inanimate totems associated with the dead love-object. The plot offers up the usual abundance of red herrings, including all the Haloran brothers and their unctuous, oddball family doctor, Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee). The idea that John might be still alive and responsible for the killing is mooted when the lake is drained and his body is not found, the receding water instead revealing a bizarre gravestone for Kathleen that was sunk there. Caleb, entering the narrative halfway through, begins picking at the surface of the hitherto enclosed clan dynamic, approaching Kane with warnings about Richard that seem more like bizarre threats, inspiring her paranoid revulsion.

The problem with Dementia 13 is that, dramatically speaking, it’s flatter than a dead flounder. Whilst Coppola would later use his authorial gifts to garner himself a shared Best Screenplay Oscar for Patton (1970) and fill out his auteurist credibility in the best years of his career, here his writing, shared with fellow B-movie hero Jack Hill who was in charge of the second unit shooting, is bland. The story, probably cobbled together in a rush typical of the Corman aegis, barely hangs together, seeming to swerve in different directions opportunistically rather than through well-considered development. In spite of the location, the Irish atmosphere is weak, exacerbated by the chiefly American cast. Apart from Magee and Anders, Corman’s versatile starlet, the acting is insipid, although it’s amusing to note that Mitchel, here the young ingénue, later reinvented herself as a production assistant, and worked in that capacity for Coppola on several of his later films. The whole project resembles one of William Castle’s droll but corny Hitchcock imitations more than Corman’s own lucidly hysterical horror films, and doesn’t, in spite of smoother aspects, actually equal Monte Hellman’s debut for Corman, The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) as an integral starting-point for a future ‘70s art-cinema legend. Magee, early in his emergence as a screen actor and a year away from his salutary appearance in Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, contends with an awkward part which gives the feeling Coppola enjoyed watching the actor work and let him take up more of the screen time than his character justifies, in trying to fill both the Sherlockian investigator and the fishy potential villain and satisfying neither use. But the killer is actually Billy, who accidentally killed his sister and has developed a psychotic determination to “protect” her doll-avatar from prying eyes, shot dead in a clumsily rushed coda. There’s still a charge in the final shot of Caleb slamming the murderer’s axe into the head of the Kathleen-doll, all too eager to shatter the last, literal straw-dummy illusion that the Halorans have been sustaining in defiance of all life logic, suggesting such an act is, in its way, as cruel as any physical murder, but necessary.

Sidney Lumet 1924-2011

Sidney Lumet and Anna Magnani on the set of The Fugitive Kind (1959). Photo from Filmscreed.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Die Hard 2 (1990)

Along with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Renny Harlin’s sequel to John McTiernan’s storied 1988 smash represented both an apotheosis and a waning point for the Hollywood action flick as it had evolved through the ‘80s. But whereas James Cameron’s blockbuster sequel saw the genre reins handed to the digital effects crew, signalling the eventual erosion of their ethos of dynamic physicality, Harlin’s film is still firmly attached to the material. But that’s not to be taken for restraint: in fact Harlin shoots far over the top, and that is its greatest asset, partly camouflaging thin writing and the recycling of a few elements too many from the first film. As such it’s the working model of the classic sequel, being the same, but with more of it. Or, as hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) puts it, summarising the entire continent of action sequels, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” McClane here, having successfully patched up his marriage to Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and moved to LA to become a cop there, is now back on the eastern seaboard. In Washington DC so that his family can spend the holidays with Holly’s parents, he’s waiting for Holly to arrive by plane at Dulles Airport, which is operating in the midst of a blizzard and the delirious Christmas rush. Unfortunately another passenger flying in to the airport has a very different welcoming committee. Former dictator and drug lord Gen. Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), recently ousted from his home nation, is now being deported to stand trial in the US, and due at the airport during the night.

A team of treacherous American special forces soldiers, led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), determined to save Esperanza for his “willingness to stand up to Communist aggression” and a presumably handsome pay check, use a secret base in a nearby church to hack into the airport’s control tower systems and take them over, threatening to crash planes unless they’re allowed to take Esperanza off the plane and fly out again unmolested. John, noticing the peculiar behaviour of some of Stuart’s men in the airport terminal, surprises them in the midst some apparently nefarious business and immediately gets into a battle, killing one. The airport police captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) dismisses McClane’s feeling they were up to something bigger than luggage thievery, and just as McClane finds a sympathetic ear in the person the airport administrator Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson), the airport is still completely unprepared when Stuart takes control. An attempt by Trudeau’s assistant Barnes (Art Evans) to use another communications system in the airport to contact the planes sees his accompanying SWAT team wiped out by three of Stuart’s planted men, and Barnes is only saved by McClane, who, recognising the opportunity for ambush, sneaks up through a ventilator shaft and takes the villains by surprise. Infuriated, Stuart decides to teach the controllers a lesson and deliberately crashes an airbus, killing hundreds of people.

Whilst Harlin and DOP Oliver Wood mimic McTiernan’s and Jan de Bont’s stylistics, essayed in the same crisply defined but saturated colours, with similar evocations of intensely physical extremes, and a voluble feel for the inward mechanics of the modern world’s seemingly serene music of the technocratic spheres, the differences are discernible. Harlin’s innately excessive, flashy style, which soon be let off the leash in films as bad as The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994) and Cutthroat Island (1995) before finding a kind of perfect median of nonsense with Deep Blue Sea (1999), was tethered here to a solid design template. There’s a strong continuity in recurring motifs and characterisation thanks to the screenplay by Steven E. De Souza (collaborating with Doug Richardson rather than Jeb Stuart this time). The disparity comes more in the disjunction between McTiernan’s sharply handled violence, spotted with gritty realism but also judicious, compared to Harlin’s orgiastic readiness to cut away to gory money shots of dead victims riddled with bullet holes, sliced throats, or icicles jammed in their eye sockets. Harlin’s yahoo staging of action scenes approaches the operatic, McClane leaping and rolling whilst firing a gun in a way that suggests John Woo without the accompanying auteurist peccadilloes. Die Hard 2 moved the series further away from a noir-ish situational dynamic decorated rather than dominated by set-pieces, to sheer Republic serial-like gallivanting.

Thus the combative verbal byplay shared by McClane and Hans Gruber and the interestingly emotion-fuelled battle between McClane and Karl in the original give way to far more functional, speedily defined characterisations. Sadler is polarising in his playing of compact psychopathy masquerading as hard-ass patriotism, but except for Nero’s charismatic but brief turn as Esperanza, none of the villains possess anything like Gruber’s mordant humour and inspired personality. John Amos, as Major Grant, Stuart’s former CO assigned to bring him down but really in league with him, is almost unable to keep a smirk off his face in playing his janus-faced role. Bedelia and William Atherton as sleazy hack journalist foil Dick Thornburg do their best to make their repetitious roles, both being trapped on the same airplane together at the eye of the crisis, still bounce. Bedelia tosses the same disdainful quips Thornburg’s way as she offered Gruber (“Writing your acceptance speech for the Video Sleaze Awards?”), and Thornburg tries to scoop the story broadcasting from the plane toilet, thus instituting a rather different mile high club, but neither can make this feel anything less than cheesy recycling, and Bedelia is stuck in an even more passive role. When Harlin cuts to her crossing herself in anticipation of the plane’s final desperate attempts to land, he comes perilously close to self-satire.

Nonetheless, Die Hard 2 is still a helluva ride, and largely thanks to the fact that Harlin has no shame. The story (actually adapted from Walter Wager’s novel 58 Minutes) reiterates the basic dynamic that made the original stick out: hero with a personal stake + villains + large piece of infrastructure to be exploited as thoroughly as possible. That infrastructure is the airport and its snow-crusted surrounds, and the atmosphere of chilly weather and hot blood and explosions is beautifully sustained. Harlin and Wood maintain the right contrast of deceptive cosiness and hyped-up horror in the yuletide setting, warm interiors and frigid exteriors constantly clashing. The carnage spread by the bad guys is absurd yet potent and widespread, from nice old caretakers to nice young replacement soldiers. Particularly in the sequence on board the British airplane Stuart decides to crash (piloted by Colm Meaney!), full of nervous old woman, children, and sweet stewardesses all ready to get iced, he delivers with such enthusiastic, cold-blooded aplomb you’re not certain whether he deserves plaudits or a trial. He even goes for the old doll-in-the-wreckage gag. A post-9/11 perspective certainly makes it seem less cartoonishly supervillainous and therefore less forgivable: the suspicion this sort of blockbuster gave real terrorists ideas is hard to dispel. But then again the degree to which this sort of action film is a sort of training ground for the psyche in dealing with crises – a notion mooted sarcastically but with some perception by Hans in the original in taunting John about the kinds of movies he liked as a kid – as opposed to mere showman’s claptrap is also just as worth considering. McClane’s quick-thinking, guerrilla-style approach to tackling terrorists as opposed to gallumphing SWAT teams walking in the front door is a reasonable warning about how to deal with the cleverer terrors of the contemporary world.

McClane is at his most unbreakable, a little too much so to be quite as empathetically plebeian as he was at the outset, although he still swears and does battle with same unapologetic lack of class. He survives freefalls from helicopters and exploding snowmobiles, and takes out coteries of machine gun-wielding baddies with his police automatic and a few good kicks. McClane’s brief working partnership with a Rent-A-Car officer (Lauren Letherer) which turns briefly flirtatious more than faintly recalls Bogart’s encounter with Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep (1946), even as our hero establishes his safely married status with another retro reference, this time to Joe Friday. Sporting a score once more by Michael Kamen, repeating his familiar brass and pizzicato-strings themes, whereas the first film was tied together by the ironic leitmotif of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, here it’s Sibelius’s “Finlandia” (doubtless a touch approved by its Finnish director). The script likewise repeats themes of the original, with quiet revisions. The idiotic, obstructionist policing in Die Hard is here pushed further with Franz’s Carmine as the archetypal jealous bureaucrat who quite happily calls himself the big fish in the small pond and spends most of the movie blocking and irritating McClane. This leads to the compulsory moment of degradation – actually, several of them, but most especially when Grant tells off Carmine for constantly abusing “Mr McClane”. But this is tweaked in the end as Grant proves to be in league with Stuart and Carmine comes on board when convinced of the duplicity and sets out to “kick ass!” Likewise, Thornburg is here balanced out by Sheila McCarthy’s more responsible chase-and-face reporter Sam Coleman, who gets dissed by both Stuart and McClane with practically the same profane kiss-off, and dismissed by one of Stuart’s lackeys as a “pinko bitch”. But she proves a helpful pinko bitch, helping McClane zoom after the bad guys in the finale in her station’s news chopper, and doing what Thornburg would never do, covering her cameraman’s lens when John and Holly embrace in the finale.

The eventual impression, bolstered by future Presidential wash-out Thompson’s performance as the rock-solid, competent, conscientious Trudeau, and the plucky, inventive Barnes (who partly fills in the role of McClane’s African-American side-kick a la Reginald VelJohnson in the original: VelJohnson’s Al Powell reappears briefly, helping McClane identify a perp’s fingerprints over the fax) is of a film less bitingly cynical about modern institutional authority. On the other hand, the basic plot motif of fascistic military types beleaguered by their country’s waning enthusiasm for Cold War heroics and turning traitorous, which would later be recycled in the likes of The Rock (1996), is an interesting if soft-pedalled follow-on to the Eurotrash baddies of the first instalment. Stuart’s team contains eye-catching members Robert Patrick, Vondie Curtis Hall, and John Leguizamo. The rebel theme is cutely borne out by the Civil War referencing names of Stuart and Grant. McClane is, on the other hand, again associated with the heroism of WW2: “Just like Iwo Jima!” shouts Marvin (Tom Bower), an airport janitor and presumably a veteran who bestows this beatifying battle cry on McClane and Carmine as they ride off to action. Esperanza, obviously modelled on Manuel Noriega, and his collusion with the Americans carries the unmistakeable whiff of being based on the Iran-Contra scandal, whilst carefully making it clear this is a rogue operation. That was one of the strengths of these early instalments: their clear basis and pointed perspective on topical geopolitical inspirations. The down-and-dirty battle of good and evil reaches an apotheosis in the relish with which Harlin has McClane bite a hunk out of Stuart’s hand and spit it back in his face, and Grant finishes up whisked into a thousand pieces by turbine.

The film’s action scenes are its raison d’etre, and it’s all systems go there, from McClane’s first luggage-ramp combat to the brilliant snowmobile chase over a frozen lake. Some scenes are so hilariously silly they achieve a kind of awe, especially when the baddies, having bottled McClane up in an airplane cockpit, toss in grenades, requiring him to use the ejector seat to escape just in time, hurled up into the sky just above the roiling fireball. And that’s without mentioning the comeuppance McClane gives to the collected villains, the sort of moment that the Mythbusters have probably tried to test and declared impossible, yet it’s hard to care, because Harlin screws both the tension and two major plot points up into a tight wad at this point, delivering both an aptly sticky end for the baddies and a landing light for the aircraft desperately needing to land. The whole thing is both spectacular and spectacularly illogical, for the plot has holes you could pilot a 747 through, and the excess reaches overkill at points. It is however an arch display of Hollywood production on the most massive of scales, where jet liners are playthings for cinema fantasy. Whilst the whole affair isn’t up to the standard of its predecessor, it possesses a rugged lustre and infernal intensity that Hollywood can’t wield anymore when it insists on blowing stuff up.