Friday, October 24, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 23 - Audition

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Takashi Miike has directed more than ninety films over the course of his two-decade career, so a person would probably have to see at least a couple dozen before accurately characterizing his body of work. I've seen four, all of which featured a lot of extreme content, but Miike has also made mainstream thrillers, historical dramas and even a few family films. So when I say that Audition is a model of restraint compared to the other Miike films I've seen, take it with a grain of salt. While it doesn't feature a ton of explicit gore or projectile bodily fluids or kiddie pools filled with poop, it's still disturbing (and good) enough for me to file away under "Films I Respect That I Might Never Watch Again."

Audition's beginning is deceptive - if you haven't seen it and want to go in fresh, I recommend stopping here. Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is encouraged by his teenage son (Tetsuo Sawaki) to start dating again; it's a setup that wouldn't be out of place in any number of Japanese domestic drama, and Miike stages and shoots it accordingly. Shigeharu's friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer, convinces Shigeharu to allow him to set up a mock casting audition to find a new wife. He soon falls for a young actress and dancer named Asami (Eihi Shiina); after pursuing her for a few days, the two begin dating. The first half of the film is expertly paced, as we get small hints that something is very wrong with Asami. It's deliberate enough to drive some viewers expecting a bloodbath to frustration; the first major scare doesn't occur until about halfway through the movie, but when it does, it's a doozy, and it works precisely because Miike was willing to risk drawing out the tension to the point of tedium.

Audition's brutal climax has inspired feminist readings of the film, as a basically decent guy who is talked into doing a pretty creepy thing is punished for casually exploiting his position of privilege, to which I'd respond, "Yes, but." For one thing, as wrong as staging a false audition as a pretense to meet women is, the punishment is so grossly disproportionate to the crime that it would play like black comedy if it weren't so difficult to stomach. Also, and most importantly, while it's suggested early on that Asami might be disturbed as the result of a history of abuse, by the end it's not clear if anything we think we know about her is true. Asami's is a very specific kind of madness where attempting to trace back an original cause only leads to more questions; everything she does is a sort of performance, and there probably isn't a "real" her at the core of it. This could be interpreted as problematic, because these are exactly the kind of characteristics abusers will ascribed to their partners to shift the blame; on the other hand, people like Asami do exist, and they're generally very canny at manipulating power dynamics in a relationship.

So while Audition is partly a cautionary tale about abuse of privilege, it's also a canny role-reversal, with a male character experiencing the nightmare scenario for any woman who goes on a date with a stranger. And that ending is brilliantly executed; though I haven't seen the movie since that first time, I can remember certain images and, especially, Asami's creepy sing song-y voice as she does her work. While Miike actually avoids lingering on the graphic details, it's a masterpiece of suggestion that goes on for an unbearably long time; at one point, I was relieved to think the worst was over, and when it was revealed as a fake-out, I was both horrified and amused by Miike's willingness to push the scene as far as he could. And he ends the movie at precisely the right moment; I'm not sure if Asami's final line is an expression of contempt for Shigeharu, or if it's a genuine show of affection, and I'm not sure which possibility is more frightening.

U.S. Release Date: August 8, 2001 (Also opening that weekend: American Pie 2, The Others, Osmosis Jones, The Deep End, Session 9, An American Rhapsody, The Turandot Project)

What critics said at the time:

"Those intending to see Audition will not be put off by my revealing that gross sadism, mutilation and amputation, involving acupuncture needles and cheese-cutter wire that slices through skin and bone, form the protracted and, in my judgment, pornographic climax: a sequence of violent psychopathology which shows how the Far East cinema's fixation on physical pain is now being presented in art-house terms, imported into the West by distributors ever eager to bring sensational new products to market, and passed by Mr Whittam Smith with a Certificate 18. Such material will soon, I forecast, filter down into mainstream cinema protected by the overriding defence of Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rights - the ‘free expression’ one." - Alexander Walker, Evening Standard 
"Singularly untrustworthy, the grisly climactic spree contains the most appallingly memorable image of the year (piano wire is involved). The final half-hour of emphatically corporeal horror is all the more unsettling for its queasy open-endedness—its lysergic inability to distinguish between reality and moribund fantasy. The effect is of a zero-gravity torture chamber, with no exit in sight." - Dennis Lim, Village Voice
(I'd skip this trailer if you haven't seen the movie, as it spoils the best scene.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 22 - In the Mouth of Madness

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

John Carpenter's filmography from his debut, Dark Star in 1974 to They Live in 1988 has to rank among the best filmmaking hot streaks. The eleven features he directed in that time range from good two great, with three - Halloween, The Fog and The Thing - that belong on any shortlist of the best horror movies, and several others that have devoted cult followings and continue to provide inspiration to today's genre filmmakers. The '90s saw a decline in the quality of Carpenter's work, however; while Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. and Vampires all have their moments, they're not nearly as focused or well-crafted as his previous films. After directing several high-profile commercial failures, Carpenter no longer had the same choice of material (he took over Memoirs after Ivan Reitman and other directors passed), and Carpenter has been quite frank about the fact that he began to lose interest in filmmaking around this time (after 2001's Ghosts of Mars, he wouldn't direct another feature for nine years).

Carpenter did direct one movie during the decade, In the Mouth of Madness, that ranks among his best. Written by then-New Line exec Michael De Luca, it's a Lovecraft-inspired story about an insurance investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill), who is tasked with investigating the disappearance of best-selling horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), whose books may be literally driving his fans insane. Early on, a character notes that Cane outsells Stephen King; it's not subtle, and neither is the rest of the movie, but that's actually something of a positive. As Trent travels to a tiny New Hampshire town that was the setting of many of Cane's stories, he encounters a collection of monsters and weird characters straight out of the author's work, and the tone of the movie is all over the place as it jumps between evil children, tentacled beasts and an axe-murdering Frances Bay. It works, though, because Carpenter finds a thread of wry, even self-deprecating humor; at one point, the skeptical Trent exclaims "God is not a hack horror writer!" and Carpenter has a lot of fun imagining what reality might be like if he was.

While the movie features effects work by KNB and Industrial Light and Magic, some of its most effective scenes rely on old-school sleight-of-hand techniques, with a simple blue filter providing the most memorable (and funniest scene). Part of this is likely a function of the movie's budget, but Carpenter feels looser and more inspired than with his bigger-budgeted movies of the decade. Admittedly, In the Mouth of Madness sometimes feels like it's going in circles (which Neill's character literally is at points, to be fair). Carpenter pulls it off in the end, though, ingeniously tying together the story and his own feelings about the genre with a final scene that plays like the funniest unused Twilight Zone ending ever. While Carpenter has made a few more horror movies, the ending feels like a final statement or, at the very least, a Bronx cheer in the general direction of the genre that he helped define.

U.S. Release Date: February 3, 1995 (Also released that day: Boys on the Side, The Jerky Boys, The Secret of Roan Inish, Martha and Ethel)

What critics said at the time:

"'In the Mouth of Madness' takes a whack at a Lovecraft-like doomsday scenario. A prehuman form of consciousness, acting through Cane's writings, introduces a new and brutal reality for the sake of destroying humankind. Nice try, but the film plays much sillier than that -- for example, when the woman embraces Cane, little knowing that the back of his skull is gone and that his brains are churning and oozing in some very menacing ways. In the end, the most interesting thing about 'In the Mouth of Madness' is its relationship with itself - its cheesy horror celebrating the power of cheesy horror, while pretending to be appalled." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
"'In the Mouth of Madness' is a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. An homage to the master of the macabre, novelist H.P. Lovecraft, on the part of its writer Michael De Luca, this handsome, intelligent New Line Cinema production also finds its director, John Carpenter, in top form and provides Sam Neill with one of the most challenging roles of his career--which is saying a lot." - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 21 - Misery

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Misery was released at a time when the prospect of a Stephen King adaptation didn't cause a great deal of excitement. There had been over a dozen features based on King's novels and short stories in the previous decade, and while a few, like 1989's Pet Sematary, were hits, most of them were critically panned and sank quickly at the box office. Just a few weeks before Misery was released, Graveyard Shift, based on a story from King's anthology Night Shift, came and went (though I just looked it up and was surprised to discover it opened at #1 in a slow week). An exception to the rule was 1986's Stand by Me, a rare adaptation of King's non-horror work, which was a critical and commercial success (and, for me, a personal favorite that only grows more poignant as I get older). King was understandably reluctant to sell the movie rights for Misery, one of his best and most personal books, a nightmare version of his experiences with less-than-stable fans of his work that, he admitted years later, was also a metaphor for his battle with addiction. Ultimately, he agreed on the condition that Rob Reiner, who directed Stand by Me, would produce or direct. Reiner agreed, and the movie he directed remains one of the stronger adaptation of King's work, anticipating the more respectable King adaptations in the decade to come.

King's novel and William Goldman's script could almost work as a play (and it has been adapted into a play since), with most of the action confined to the bedroom where writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is held captive by his "number one fan," Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). It's a two hander that relies almost entirely on the lead performances to work, and both actors are terrific. Bates' performance is remembered for the scenes that allow her to go over the top ("HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE CACADOODIE CAR!"), but she's even more chilling in the scenes where she abruptly shifts from manic to depressive; as monstrous as the character becomes, Bates keeps her psychologically credible in a way that's much more frightening than if she'd been a cartoon nutjob. Caan is just as good as Paul, a role he won after it was passed on by just about every high-profile male actor of his generation, as it's almost a completely reactive role that requires the actor to stay in bed for most of the movie. However, Caan is so good that you forget about the limitations of the role; he does a great job of letting us register his fear and desperation even as he outwardly tries to placate his captor.

Caan's role here reminds a bit of James Stewart in Rear Window, and Reiner's direction is something of a valentine to Hitchcock. He makes the most of the movie's claustrophobic interiors, with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld favoring low-angle setups from Paul's point of view that emphasize Bates' frightening control of the situation. Reiner is maybe a little more tasteful than the ideal director for the material might have been, softening a few of the book's most gruesome moments, particularly the infamous "hobbling" scene (a sledgehammer becomes Annie's weapon of choice instead of the book's axe and blowtorch). However, Reiner's softer approach probably helped the movie become a critical and commercial success, and the rare horror movie to win an Oscar for one of its performances. Reiner's company, Castle Rock (named for the fictional small town where many of King's works are set), would go on to produce several other King adaptations, including Best Picture nominees The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Stephen King adaptations didn't become an entirely reputable prospect in the decade to come - the '90s also gave us The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man - but Misery is still one of the most successful Stephen King movies, and a darkly funny response to any fans who want him to stick to writing horror.

U.S. Release Date: November 30, 1990 (Also released that day: Diamond's Edge)

What critics said at the time:

"This all would have been perfect for a half-hour TV show or one of those horror anthology films. As it is, even the resourceful Reiner and Goldman are hard put to keep things going until the inevitable final clash. For better or worse, they don't explore the most obvious subtext: the notion that Caan's best way to escape would be to seduce Bates, who is bonkers about him. That her character is not only a psychopath but a homely psychopath might have made for an interesting digression or two, but then sex scenes are never King's strong suit." - Ralph Novak, People

"Bates turns Wilkes into the nastiest nurse to reach the screen since Louise Fletcher tormented Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Wilkes is a lonely soul whose only solace is the fantasies Sheldon spins in his books. Bates makes the transition from passive aggression in Wilkes' initial dealings with her charge to paranoid, murderous obsession with authority and conviction. The fact that her looks and manner suggest someone waiting calmly in line at the K mart checkout counter adds a telling touch of the commonplace to rank evil." - Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 20 - Jacob's Ladder

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

George Romero once said, "The reason you do horror is to upset the applecart." That is, horror stories are designed to create disorder, whether it's in the form of societal collapse or the psychological and spiritual chaos of the characters. More often than not, horror movies end with the restoration of order, allowing audiences to exit the theater and breathe easy knowing the alien has been blasted into deep space, or the axe-wielding maniac has been killed (until the next sequel), or the devil has been exorcised from Regan McNeil's body. On the other hand, the '60s and '70s saw a rise in horror movies, like Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Romero's Night of the Living Dead, that deliberately deny the audience the resolution of order restored. Volumes have been written about how these movies reflected the increasingly pessimistic attitudes of the time, and I won't get into it in any depth, but stories that force us to consider the possibility that everything is irreparably fucked serve as important a purpose as those that give us reason to hope otherwise.

As I get older and more keenly aware of my own mortality, though, I have an increased appreciation for a third, much rarer kind of horror movie. These are the ones that don't shy away from gazing directly into the abyss, but still arrive at an earned sense of hope. Jacob's Ladder is one of the best examples of this, literally putting its protagonist through hell before ending on an unexpected, transcendent note. While much of the movie telegraphs the fate of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet who is increasingly plagued with hallucinations (or visions) of demons, the final reveal (which I won't spoil here) doesn't play like it was meant to be a shocking twist. Instead, the audience is cued towards gradually understanding what's happening with Jacob at the same time that he does. Jacob's Ladder gives nightmarish form to our worst anxieties, but in the end, it's an uncommonly compassionate horror movie.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Ghost released the same year) creates some truly horrifying visions of death and the afterlife, which are brilliantly realized by director Adrian Lyne and his crew. A scene where Jacob thinks he's seeing his girlfriend (the late, great Elizabeth Peña) get down with a demon at a party is a mini-masterpiece of disorienting lighting and sound design. Throughout the movie, Lyne keeps us on edge by placing weird, nearly subliminal characters and images (achieved ingeniously using in-camera effects) on the margins of the frame. Lyne also made a big change to Rubin's script, which depicted its demons with old-fashioned Biblical iconography, horns and all; instead, the director literally stages hell on earth, with the high point a scene where Jacob is pushed on a gurney through a hospital that quickly grows more and more nightmarish (I've seen the movie several times, and this scene still gives me the creeps). Lyne has always been a great visual stylist - like his peers Alan Parker and Ridley and Tony Scott, he works wonders with smoke and diffused light - but most of his other movies, like Flashdance and Indecent Proposal, are pretty shallow. Jacob's Ladder is by far his most thematically complex movie, and he was also wise to cast Tim Robbins, who is remarkably vulnerable and sympathetic as Jacob.

Not all of the movie's puzzle pieces fit together in the end. There's a subplot about Jacob and the other members in his unit having been secretly dosed with experimental hallucinogens by the government; it's introduced as a possible explanation for his hallucinations, and the movie seems like it's about to become a conspiracy thriller. The subplot does end up playing an important role in the resolution, just not the one we thought; then, after the movie fades to black at the perfect moment, a postscript about real-life Army medical experiments comes onscreen, as if somebody completely misunderstood what the movie is really about. It's a weird choice, but the movie is strong enough that it's easy to shrug off. Jacob's experiences in Vietnam and his lingering grief over the accidental death of his young son (Macaulay Culkin) are important aspects of the character, but the movie is primarily about letting go, and how that doesn't need to be a frightening prospect. Jacob's Ladder is very thoughtful and literate about death and our greatest existential questions without ever veering into New Age-y baloney and easy answers. A lot of horror movies are about spirits, but a horror movie about a spiritual journey is a rare thing, and one this scary and thought-provoking is even better.

U.S. Release Date: November 2, 1990 (Also released that day: Graffiti Bridge, Waiting for the Light, Frankenstein Unbound, Vincent & Theo, C'est La Vie)

What critics said at the time:

"Jacob's Ladder, which serves up horror in subliminal, jump-cut flashes, is a gruesome ''psychological'' thriller — a bad acid trip of a movie — and it may appeal to those who got off on the druggy, soft-focus demonism of Angel Heart. Yet the film is just highfalutin hackwork — two hours of anything-for-a-shock unpleasantness. The script, by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), has been kicking around Hollywood for nearly 10 years. (According to reports, it's the script everyone loved but no one dared to film.) Rubin's conception might have worked on screen, but we'll never know, since Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks), who finally proved himself a genuine filmmaker in Fatal Attraction, is up to his old high-gloss tricks. In Jacob's Ladder, he directs like a sadistic psychiatrist under contract to MTV." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"'Jacob's Ladder' enters into the hallucinations of a desperate mind, and lives there. It evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen. Despite an ending that is intended as victorious, the movie is a thoroughly painful and depressing experience - but, it must be said, one that has been powerfully written, directed and acted." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Monday, October 20, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 19 - Tremors

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Since I started this project, two different readers have suggested none too subtly that I may be overthinking things in writing about the appeal of these movies. "They're horror movies, they don't have to be smart/have meaning/be well made," and so forth. I don't mention in order to open up a debate, because I think I'm only barely doing anything like "analysis" anyway, and I've only given anything like a negative write-up to one movie so far, and it's arguably the most artsy-fartsy one on this entire list. Frankly, after the second person informed me that movies aren't for thinking, I exclaimed to myself, "I did it! I'm a real film writer now!"

I mention it, though, because I find that the most challenging movies for me to write about are often the ones that are pleasurable in obvious, uncomplicated and subtext-free ways. Tremors is one of those movies, a pleasant B-movie throwback with a monster that isn't a metaphor for anything. The Graboids aren't the product of our destructive effect on the environment, and their existence wasn't kept a secret by greedy real estate developers or a corrupt local government. The setting, a tiny desert town, doesn't function as a microcosm of anything; it's simply an economical way to bring together a small, diverse cast of characters in an isolated location. It's not an homage, parody of or commentary on giant monster movies; it's just an unassuming, well made and good-natured example of the subgenre that deserves its reputation as something of a classic.

More to the point, I remembered that I just wrote about Tremors last year at my friends' request. And even there, I admit that I'm straining to find things to say. So while I may be guilty of overthinking or overanalyzing or overwhatevering, at least I can admit it when I don't have much to say (and, since nobody is paying me to write this, I don't have to). Since, for reasons that would be tedious to go into here, I've had about 12 hours of sleep in three days, I'm going to make this my one "smartass kid passes in an essay about why he didn't write the assigned essay" post for the month. I'll just add one note to that older post - in mentioning that Fred Ward had a great year in 1990, I left out Miami Blues, a very good, underrated movie that I'll surely discuss in more detail with my next poll, "Tournament of Baldwins."

U.S. Release Date: January 19, 1990 (Also released that day: Everybody Wins, Sweetie)

What critics said at the time:

''Tremors' wants to be funny, but it spends too much time winking at the audience. More than anything else, it looks like the sort of movie that might have been put together so that tourists visiting Universal Studios could see a movie being made." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

"As concocted by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (who also did the original 'Short Circuit'), 'Tremors' evokes the populist spirit of '50s B-movies, much more so than such high-powered '80s remakes as 'The Fly,' 'The Thing' or 'The Blob.' Director Ron Underwood keeps things moving briskly, celebrating not the single-mindedness of the 'graboids' but the resourcefulness and resilience of the townspeople." - Richard Harrington, Washington Post

'90s Horror Poll: Day 18 - Funny Games

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

Before I get into the problems I have with Michael Haneke and Funny Games, his 1997 meta-thriller about a family held captive and tortured by two sneering upper-class teenagers, I should acknowledge that the movie demonstrates his considerable skill at crafting scenes and moments intended to provoke his audience into questioning their relationship to onscreen violence. The film does an excellent job of putting us on edge even before its smirking Leopold and Loeb (they call each other a variety of names througout, but we'll go with "Peter" and "Paul") announce their intentions. The prolonged scene where they repeatedly ask to borrow, then "accidentally" break their neigbors' eggs plays brilliantly on the question of when vacationing couple Anna and George will be provoked enough to stop being polite. Here, as elsewhere in the movie, Haneke maximizes our discomfort by letting scenes play out in fixed, static shots that go on for much longer than average. After the couple and their son Georgie have been taken hostage, most of the movie's violent and dramatic moments occur offscreen, and it's very disturbing to experience some of the most brutal moments entirely through the reactions of other characters. He's capable of both wringing as much tension as possible out of a protracted, real-time attempt at escape and determining one character's fate in a coldly off-handed gesture.

Brian De Palma has said that it's important, with a horror movie, that the audience not know if they can trust the filmmaker; that's definitely the case with Haneke, and his precision and mercilessness would make him an excellent horror filmmaker if he were so inclined. Except that, according to Haneke himself, Funny Games isn't a horror movie at all, but a self-reflexive criticism of the representation of violence in movies. By denying us conventional dramatic payoffs and the keeping the worst bits mostly offscreen, the movie is meant to make us question the entertainment value we get from onscreen representations of violence. Many consider the film a layered, complex exploration of the negative influence of violence in the media; however, I find it frustratingly obtuse and self-contradictory, its detached style in the service of a didactic, scolding message. Worse, Haneke seems uninterested in examining his own role in employing exactly the sort of emotional manipulation he means to condemn, or how it reflects on his career-long tendency towards bludgeoning the audience with moments of brutality that, apparently, we're supposed to blame ourselves for reacting to. While I don't know if Haneke himself is truly sadistic, Funny Games often feels like a session with a dominatrix who believes that we're the true perverts and he's flagellating us towards moral enlightenment.

It's tempting to cite the many quotes where Haneke contradicts himself about the movie's intentions, but I'll stick to the evidence in the movie itself. So what are the supposedly brilliant devices he employs to make his point? The killers explicitly reference the fact that they're in a movie; there are a few points when one of them addresses us directly, like a psychopathic Zach Morris; and there's one scene where an act of violent retribution is undone by one of the characters picking up a remote and literally rewinding the film. The first two devices have been used repeatedly in other movies, often in more subtle and interesting ways; the last, frankly, is very silly. Not only does Haneke fundamentally not understand the psychological experience of horror movies, where even fans who primarily enjoy the blood and gore undergo a complex process of identification with both the killer and the victims - he'd do well to read Carol J. Clover's writing on the subject - but his methods of advancing his argument are actually more crude and obvious than many straight horror filmmakers' own approach to screen violence. There are countless examples of horror movies, from Psycho to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to most of De Palma's filmographythat demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of our relationship to cinematic horror than Haneke's, films that actually invite us to explore the nature of onscreen and real-life violence instead of punishing us for being interested in the first place.

I also have to take exception with Haneke's low opinion with fans of the genre - while, yes, some horror fans just want to see fucked-up shit (who are, ironically, largely responsible for boosting the movie's reputation), most of us are far more interested in exploring the subtext of the films than he gives us credit for. This includes those of you who will disagree with my take on the movie and, I'm sure, are capable of intelligently explaining why. I must remind you, though, that Haneke himself famous said of Funny Games that "Anybody who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does" (presumably, anyone who saw his shot-by-shot English-language remake needed a double dose). So one might argue that those who praise Funny Games are the depraved ones and, as I think it's well crafted but kind of stupid, I'm actually demonstrating greater moral enlightement (though not as great as Michael Haneke, because nobody is as enlightened as Michael Haneke, obviously). Put another way, anybody who doesn't need my thoughts on Funny Games stopped reading two paragraphs ago, and anyone who is still reading does. And all of us need Michael Haneke's fake Twitter account.

U.S. Release Date: March 11, 1998 (Also released that weekend: The Man in the Iron Mask, Chairman of the Board)

What critics said at the time:

"Symptomatic of the fascist mindset is the self-righteous application of a strict code of civility from which the ruler himself is naturally exempt. Thus, Haneke despise's the mass audience's pleasure in make-believe mayhem while demonstrating his own capacity to dish it out. The most honest aspects of Haneke's movies is the evident satisfaction the director derives from the authoritarian aspects of his position - demonstrated most spectacularly in Funny Games when the worm, as it were, finally turns. The wheel is rigged so that only Haneke can win." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice
"'Funny Games' is an intellectual's suspense film, which ultimately tries to critique and demystify violence. But, since our responses are never all cerebral, that's not entirely possible. Especially with villains like these: Giering, amusingly, recalls the lumpishly likable Beau Bridges and Frisch's sang froid suggests Patricia Highsmith's 'Talented Mr. Ripley' (and Alain Delon in the film version, 'Purple Noon'). The beleaguered family is truly sympathetic, especially Susanne Lothar as clear-headed wife Anna. And the form is so transparent, the storytelling so expert, that this film becomes unnervingly lucid. We always know where we are -- even if we're on the road to hell." - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Sunday, October 19, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 17 - Lost Highway

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was considerably darker and more abrasive than the series, it still contains enough deadpan comedy that, along with the way it ends Laura Palmer's sad story with a disarming moment of grace, makes the question of whether it's a horror movie or not a debatable one. With David Lynch's next feature, Lost Highway, there's very little debate - it's basically a two-hour nightmare, one that ends without any moment of resolution for its protagonist(s?) or the audience, and what little humor it contains is very grim. While the story relies on noir staples like the seductive girlfriend of a violently jealous gangster, the villain here is most likely the protagonist's own disturbed mind. Lynch has said that he realized, after making the movie, that he was inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial, which actually makes perfect sense; it's a movie about a guy who creates an alternate life for himself to forget a terrible thing he's done, only to find that his own mind - in the form of the creepiest character Lynch has ever created - won't let him escape.

The movie begins with couple Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette), who are living in a sort of monosyllabic horror show of a failing marriage even before they start receiving videos showing the outside and, eventually, the inside of their house (I was annoyed when Michael Haneke either unintentionally repeated or blatantly stole this device for Caché and everyone was apparently fine with it). As with most mysteries in Lynch's movies, the tapes aren't a puzzle to be put together as much as a harbinger of darker things to come, which manifest themselves in the form of a guy in Kabuki makeup (played, in a queasy coincidence, by future possible wife murderer Robert Blake) who approaches Fred at a party and informs him that they've met before. The guy also tells Fred that he's at Fred and Renee's home right now; Fred calls home, at the mysterious man's insistence, and the man does indeed pick up at the other end. The scene is a perfect example of Lynch's amazing gift to take a scene that, on the page, could play like a lesser Twilight Zone episode and, by staging it just right, eliciting the right performances from his (presumably very trusting) actors and, especially, knowing just when to cut to tighter close-ups on his actors, creates a scene that works as a horror story in miniature.

The story soon jumps ahead to Fred in prison, accused of killing his wife, which he doesn't remember. One morning, after suffering a headache that looks slightly less painful than the one Michael Ironside gives Louis Del Grande in Scanners, Fred wakes up as a different person. Pete (Balthazar Getty), an auto mechanic in his early 20s, doesn't remember how he got there, but the movie switches tracks with him. Pete soon begins an affair with Alice (also Arquette), the mistress of a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Just as the movie seems to be veering into Double Indemnity territory, bits of Fred's life start to intrude on Pete's story in strange ways, until the whole thing folds back on itself. The movie has a great deal in common, thematically and structurally, with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, but while those movies end on a note of liberation for their trapped heroines, there's no exit for Fred at the end; it's easy to imagine the end credits simply looping back to the movie's beginning.

It's not quite as strong as the two later films, and once you start to understand what's happening to Fred/Pete, some of the details might start to seem unnecessarily obscure. But it contains some of Lynch's best work - the scene where Mr. Eddy assaults a tailgater is the most memorable in Loggia's filmography (other than his Minute Maid ad), and there's a great sex scene between Pete and Alice, scored to This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren,"* that takes a hairpin turn from beautiful to chilling (Arquette's performance is very underrated). And whenever the movie seems ready to fly off the rails, Blake returns to bring everything into frightening focus. Blake may be playing the devil (this was Blake's interpretation), or a projection of Fred's conscience (co-writer Barry Gifford thought so); personally, I think he's like the subconscious characters in Inception (albeit in a less literal way), determined to eject Fred from his own dream. Whatever the case may be, Blake is completely terrifying; late in the movie, there's a POV shot of Fred, from the driver's side of his car, pulling away as Blake approaches with a camera, grasping at Fred as he drives away, that is as suspenseful as any protracted chase in a slasher movie.

Given the theme of this month's poll, it's also worth noting that Lost Highway is immediately identifiable as a late-'90s movie. Lynch's films often feel like they're taking place in the present and the recent past at the same time, and Lost Highway sort of tries that with the noir elements. In this case, though, the wall-to-wall industrial soundtrack, as well as the industrial influence on the production design and costumes, make it much more recognizably of its time. This hurts the movie a little bit - it takes me out of the dreamlike atmosphere Lynch is working so hard to build when Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins show up in cameo roles. While I don't doubt that Lynch is a fan of Manson, Nine Inch Nails and the other artists on the soundtrack, it sometimes feels like he's straining for relevance in a way that none of his other work does. It's a minor nitpick, though, as the movie is still fascinating and often very unsettling; let's just say that, while a David Lynch movie isn't improved by putting a Rammstein song on the soundtrack, being on the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie makes Rammstein a little more interesting.

Sidenote: If you haven't read this David Foster Wallace piece about Lynch, focusing on a visit to the set of Lost Highway, I can't recommend it highly enough.

*Lynch wanted to use this song as the soundtrack for Jeffrey and Sandy's dance scene in Blue Velvet; when he found out he couldn't, he wrote the lyrics to "Mysteries of Love" during a lunch break.

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 1997 (Also opening that day: The Empire Strikes Back (Special Edition), Rosewood, Blood and Wine)

What critics said at the time:

"In Eraserhead, there was a rapturous quality in even the most grisly images. Amid the terrible loneliness of human (and industrial) life were flecks of opalescent beauty, and of connection. In Lost Highway, the plugs have been pulled, and what's left is a misanthropic cackle that echoes in the void. It's distressing to think that Blue Velvet was the climax of Lynch's hopeful phase, that his view of humanity has been downhill from there. It's not that the vision here is so bleak, but that it's so reductive, and that it leads nowhere. Lost Highway is Eraserhead without the wonder, Eraserhead conceived by an angry man recycling stale genre movies and making them staler and more primitive yet." - David Edelstein, Slate
"Lynch has landed us in storytelling territory so weird and new that a more precise plot synopsis would probably be incoherent, like the handbook for the afterlife that the dead are required to read in Beetlejuice. Yet from beginning to end, Lynch keeps us anchored in a very plausible, slightly comical, hypnotically humdrum world where people drive cars, go to work, and haunt their own apartments. For all that these characters relentlessly transform, inside and out, their world is solid and constant--and from the get-go, this is a reassuring indicator that Lynch knows exactly what he is doing. We are never anywhere except where he and co-writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) want us to be." - F.X. Feeney, Mr. Showbiz

Friday, October 17, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 16 - Bram Stoker's Dracula

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

The November 1992 issue of Fangoria - the cover of which refers to Bram Stoker's Dracula as "The Horror Event of the Decade!" - features an interview with director Francis Ford Coppola about his then-new film. Coppola talks at length about his attempt to make an experimental film out of Bram Stoker's novel, while the studio wanted a big, lavish A-list horror movie. At the end of the interview, he concludes:

 "The irony is that even though this film didn't turn out as experimental as I originally planned - I got maybe 40 percent of what I was going for - it's still not your conventional movie. Certain aspects of it got away from me, got bigger than I intended; I was looking at making a smaller, stranger, artier version, and what I got is a big, strange, artier version."

It's a familiar narrative turn of events in Coppola's career, the intention of making a small art film ballooning into something much larger. In this case, though, Dracula turned out to be the rare unqualified hit of Coppola's post-'70s career, largely thanks to a very effective marketing campaign - the movie's gorgeous poster was ubiquitous that fall, as were the many bits of cross-promotional ephemera (the VHS release featured ads for the soundtrack and the Sega Genesis game). The movie itself didn't prove to be the horror event of the decade, and it remains divisive among horror fans, but Coppola did succeed in making a uncommonly idiosyncratic blockbuster - with its opulent, romantic approach to horror, Dracula is very much of its time, but there hasn't been anything quite like it since.

Personally, I've always been a fan of the movie, which I wanted to see as badly as most of my peers wanted to see Home Alone 2: Lost in New York that fall. I had to wait until the following summer to see it on video; admittedly, my attention flagged a bit in the last half-hour, by which point everyone in the cast is yelling all of their dialogue, but I liked the movie for the reason many critics didn't, the way it aspired to elevate Dracula to the level of high art while still indulging in gratuitous T&A and as much onscreen bloodletting as the average splatter movie. Seeing it on the big screen several years later, I was able to fully admire Coppola's attempt to tell this story in purely visual terms, as though it were a silent film; the movie's over-the-top visual spectacle may not always be dramatically coherent, but between the lavish production design, the extraordinary costumes by Eiko Ishioka (who deservedly won an Oscar for her work on the film), frequent Fassbender collaborator Michael Ballhaus' cinematography, and the stunning visual effects (supervised by Coppola's son Roman), which were mostly achieved in-camera, the movie's accomplishments are unique and ambitious enough to forgive its occasional missteps. It's playfully inventive and proudly disreputable in a way that Coppola's films wouldn't be again until his most recent, Twixt.

The first thing people are apt to remember about Dracula, of course, is Keanu Reeves' performance as Harker, particularly his oft-parodied British accent. Ever since I read an interview with Coppola where he mentioned that he wanted Johnny Depp for the part (the studio didn't think he was a big enough star at the time), I can't help imagining an alternate universe Dracula that, with that one change, is celebrated as a classic. Beyond that, I'm the fan of all the performances - yes, everyone is chewing the scenery, especially Anthony Hopkins, but naturalistic performances would have been drowned out by the scale of the production. It's the kind of movie where a curly-mustached Cary Elwes can burst into a room and bellow "What the devil is going on hee-ah?" and it just feels right. Other standouts in the cast include Tom Waits playing Renfield as a bug-eating Tom Waits, and Sadie Frost, who takes the typically thankless role of the best friend who Dracula seduces first and makes something special out of it - she's sexy in a way that made me uncomfortable as a kid and probably more so as an adult (the whole movie is luridly sexual - it's probably unnecessary, but I'm not complaining). And while the character of Mina doesn't require as much from Ryder as her much more interesting performances in movies like Heathers and The Age of Innocence, this might not matter if, like me, Winona circa 1989-1994 was one of the earliest and most influential crushes of your formative years.

It's Gary Oldman, though, who steals the movie; he's my favorite screen Dracula after Christopher Lee, and his chameleon-like talents are perfect for Dracula as conceived here. Managing to convincingly act through the several complex makeup designs created by Greg Cannom (also a deserving Oscar winner for his work here), Oldman is equally convincing as a decrepit elderly Dracula, a young heartthrob Dracula, or a six-foot-tall bat. His romantic scenes with Ryder are straight out of a Harlequin novel, but he's persuasive enough that when he bares his bleeding chest for Mina to drink from, you can see how she might be into it. Dracula was one of the first in a wave of movies, like The Crow and Interview with the Vampire, that took a Gothic, romantic approach to dark subject matter that appealed to young audiences, particularly teenage girls. Years later, it's easy to trace a line from these films to the Twilight series, though fans of Dracula would likely sneer at the comparison. The truth is, they tap into the same fantasies, though, compared to Stephanie Meyer's chaste sexuality, Coppola's film is practically pornographic, and delightfully so - I can't believe I've reached my conclusion without discussing the blood-drinking orgy scene. Ah well, another time, perhaps.

U.S. Release Date: November 13, 1992 (Also released that day: Traces of Red, Love Potion no. 9, Tous les Matins du Monde)

What critics said at the time:

"For one thing, the 130-minute drama goes on forever. For another, it feels like neither a success nor a failure, living in its own world of maddening oppositions: It's enthralling in many places, dull in others. It's as wondrous as it is overextended. You can't tell if this is a flawed masterpiece or an intricately designed bag of wind." - Desson Howe, Washington Post

"Boring? Empty? These adjectives accurately describe most Hollywood pictures I see week after week, all of which have easily definable heroes, plots, conflicts, and resolutions, and as few ideas of any kind as possible--visual, thematic, stylistic, or otherwise. If anything, Bram Stoker's Dracula suffers from a surfeit of such ideas, not to mention a surfeit of characters and action. If you require your entertainments to be easy to follow and to synopsize or review afterward, you'd be better off heading for Aladdin." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Readers