Monday, March 26, 2012

Inland Empire (2006)

Ever since his 1977 debut Eraserhead, David Lynch has been baffling audiences and critics worldwide. His unconventional, often very cryptic and non linear narratives, surreal imagery and the general oddness of his films have made him one of the most polarizing filmmakers of the last 40 years. While his unique style has earned him a rabid cult like fan base, it’s also earned him many detractors who dismiss his work as incoherent nonsense. Whatever your stance on Lynch is, you have to at least admit the mans originality. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious fanboy, the man is the true definition of an “artist”. Along with filmmaking, he’s also a producer, musician, painter, writer, and pretty much whatever he want’s to be. Whatever art form he chooses to work it, be it film, music, painting, writing or what have you, you can tell it came from him almost instantly. His style is uniquely his own. Clocking in at a weighty 3 hours, his 2006 opus Inland Empire is perhaps his most challenging film to date.

Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) has just landed the lead in the film" On High In Blue Tomorrow’s" alongside Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). While rehearsing for the film, the film’s director Kingsly (Jeremy Irons) reveals to Nikki and Devon that the film is in fact a remake of an old German film entitled "47". The original film was based on an old Polish folk talk which was said to have had a Gypsy curse placed on it. Both leads were murdered and the original film was never finished. During the shoot, Nikki’s perception of reality becomes obscured, and as she begins to fall for Devon, the personality of Sue, the character she’s playing in the film becomes dominant, transporting her into a nightmarish world of alternating realities complete with doppelgangers, a crying “lost girl” in a Polish hotel room, Eastern European circus troupes, mocking prostitutes, a “phantom”, anthropomorphic talking rabbits who converse exclusively in non sequiturs followed by a laugh track, and much, much more.

Just go with it. That’s the best advice I can give to anybody going into this film. If you go into it without any preconceived notions the results will be far more satisfying. The same could be said about any Lynch film for that matter. Inland Empire is a monolithic nightmare of a movie, a surrealistic journey into an abstract world that’s quite jarring on the senses. I think at this point in time everyone should know that Lynch’s films are weird and Inland Empire is no different, but even by Lynch standards this one goes off the rails like nothing he’s done since Eraserhead. It starts off on an odd foot, and gets increasingly stranger as it goes along. The motif of duel identities/personalities and different perspectives of reality is nothing new for Lynch, having explored such themes in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, but with Inland Empire he takes those ideas too even more extremes. Throughout the film’s 3 hour running time, we’re stung right along with Dern into this obtuse labyrinth and a good majority of the time it’s never quite clear whether what we’re witnessing is from the perspective of Nikki, of her character Sue, is a scene from On High In Blue Tomorrows or if the crying girl in the hotel room is watching everything unfold from her TV set. Character’s and vignettes intertwine seemingly at times having nothing to do with each other, yet they do. Like most of Lynch’s works, just what exactly it all means in the end is open to interpretation, but all of it does end up coming full circle in a way. I can only speak for myself, but it was all the abstractions that make Inland Empire such an intriguing watch. Even if I had no clue what was going on in terms of narrative, I was still engrossed in what was happening on the screen, and wondering where the hell Lynch was going to take us next, and wondering where all of it was going to end up made it all the more endearing. Lynch has a way of getting you emotionally invested in the material, no matter how strange. One of the films more powerful sequences sees Dern bleeding on the street while three homeless people near her converse about bus tickets and their dying drug addict friend with a hole in the wall of her vagina. It’s a heavy scene, and yes the dialogue seems totally out of the blue but againt it’s the alluring nature of it all.

Inland Empire was sort of an experiment for Lynch who opted to shoot the film on digital video. The digital look has drawn criticism from many, but personally speaking I liked it, but I’ve also seen countless films that have used the medium. Anyway, Lynch again proves he’s still got one of the best eyes to ever look into a camera. The digital look gives the film a more personal feeling, if that makes any sense. There are many point of view shots, and some of the shaky cam effects put you right there in the scene with Dern. The film’s haunting mood is actually enhanced by the digital look. Of course this is also largely in part to Lynch’s gift when it comes to setting and use of color and sound design. Right from the title sequence Lynch serves us up a platter of dread with a side order of unpleasantness, and that same tense vibe never lets up, as you know anything can happen in Lynch world. When we first meet Nikki, she has a very surreal conversation with her eccentric new neighbor (the great Grace Zabriskie), a conversation with ominous connotations. There are tons of close up’s during this sequence that would seem completely out of place in any other film but it works so well here given the context. Matter of fact, everything in this film seems to have ominous connotations. Only Lynch could make something like a lampshade or a back yard barbeque seem threatening. Even stuff like the rabbits, which may seem completely absurd on the surface give off this uneasy feeling when coupled with the disturbing goings on in the film. There are way too many chilling moments to mention all of them, but some of the more freaky ones involve Dern on the streets of LA surrounded by cackling hookers and Nikki’s encounter with the “phantom”, which is most people have referred to as nightmare inducing. That fucking face… If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. I mentioned above the sound design.

Even if you’ve only seen one Lynch film you know just how important sound and music is to his movies. Lynch doesn’t just visualize his works, he hears them as well. Longtime Lynch music collaborator Angelo Badalamenti was absent from this project, but that’s hardly any cause for alarm. Inland Empire is peppered with low end frequency drones that only fuel the film’s overwhelming sense of dread. Lynch puts his own music to great use, having his song “Ghost of Love” play as one facet of Nikki’s personality stands in the snowy streets of Poland. The songs sparse, eerie instrumentation, mixed with Lynch’s depraved sounding, slightly pitch shifted vocals drips with atmosphere, providing the perfect, almost noirish soundscape for the cold visuals on the screen. During the film’s final act there is a simply stunning montage (where some of the loose ends involving characters are tightened up) set to the song “Polish Poem”, performed by Chrysta Bell, one of Lynch’s muses. It’s one of the most stunning things Lynch has ever put to the screen, one of the best uses of a song in a film that I’ve ever seen, the ideal melding of sound and image. The song is a lush ballad of sorts, and the combination of what your watching, the music, and the cryptic lyrics coming from this gorgeous voice is actually quite touching. Even after all of the horror Lynch has put you through for the last 3 hours, he still finds a way to fit in a tender moment like that. It goes back to what I said about being emotionally invested. You might not fully understand why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but it effects you all the same. On the more nonsensical front, there’s a scene where a group of prostitutes randomly dance to “The Locomotion” while Dern looks on, appropriately confused. Even for a film like this it came out of left field. Then of course there’s the closing credits which is basically a music video featuring a huge dance ensemble set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”.

I’m only repeating what many people who have taken on this film before me have said, but Laura Dern put on the definition of a clinic here. She IS the film, so to speak. Every emotion you could possibly want a performer to convey, she displays it and them some. Talk about range. It’s amazing how, in sometimes rapid succession she can go from one personality to another, be it a timid housewife, a white trash jezebel, a wealthy actress, and so on. Whatever hellish situation Lynch throws her into, she owns it. Some of the best segments of the film are where she is shown telling tales of woe to a mysterious detective of sorts, where she utilizes this sleazy, trashy southern accent which she pulls off wonderfully, and the shots of her looking directly into the camera with this insane grin, in the mindset of Sue are chilling. Whether it’s the way she delivers dialogue, uses a facial expression or body language, doesn’t matter. The results are the same. Perfection. One of the best performances ever recorded. Jeremy Irons is always great no matter what he does, and even though doesn’t really have a lot to do here, he’s great all the same. Just like Dern, he can play pretty much anything and pull it off. Justin Theroux does his thing, emitting coolness. It was cool to see Grace Zabriskie as the crazy neighbor, and Harry Dean Stanton as Kingsly’s weird assistant. William H. Macy and Diane Ladd also have brief appearances and there are a slew of cameo’s during the closing credits.

Inland Empire was very much a do it yourself type of production for Lynch. He financed the majority of the film himself and distributed it himself. For a filmmaker like who’s as far into his career as he is, it’s very admirable too see him go guerilla the way he did for this project. The same can be said for the incredible cast. The footage of the Rabbits in the film were from a web series Lynch did in 2002 called, what else, "Rabbits". Two of the rabbits are voiced by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring from Mulholland Drive. Harring is also seen during the closing credits. It’s been six years since Inland Empire was released, as of this writing it’s the most recent feature film Lynch has directed. He’s been involved in numerous other ventures over the last few years. He started up the David Lynch Foundation spreading the word about Transcendental Meditation which he practices, wrote a book, "Catching the Big Fish", produced and performed on the aforementioned Chrysta Bell’s debut album This Train, and late last yer he released his solo debut album Crazy Clown Time. I, along with other fans are more than curious as to what the future will hold for Lynch in terms of film, especially following up a film like Inland Empire. Whatever he chooses for his next project, it’s bound to be like nothing else, as everything else he does. Inland Empire is as original as it is terrifying. It will leave some people mesmerized, a good majority frustrated, and everybody scratching their heads. I definitely would call it one of Lynch’s best features, the perfect example of just how out there a film of his can be.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Crash (1996)

I’ve been a fan of David Cronenberg ever since I first saw Shivers way back when. I’d never seen anything quite like it and fell in love with it instantly, so naturally I just had to seek out everything from the man behind it. Cronenberg is easily in my top 5 directors of all time. The way his films uniquely explore topics such as the human body, the mind, science, sexuality in a creative, intelligent and more often than not extremely visceral manner sets him apart from any other auteur out there. Simply put there isn’t anyone like him. A true, brilliant original if there ever was one. I remember all the hoopla over Crash when it was first released. All the talk about how depraved it was, how Ted Turner, owner of Fine Line Features tried to stop it’s release, how some audience members at the Caanes Film Festival walked out in disgust. Of course I wanted to see it instantly! There really doesn’t seem to be that much grey area when discussing Crash. You either love it or are repulsed by it. Count me in with the former. The more I watch it, the more it becomes one of my favorite Cronenberg films.

After surviving a car crash that killed the husband of one Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), James Ballard (James Spader) suddenly finds himself aroused at the idea of the car crash. He and Dr. Remington cross paths again, and upon discovering they share the same perihelia have sex in the front seat of James’ car. Dr. Remington introduces Ballard to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the “leader” of a group of car crash fetishists. Vaughan and his clique recreate famous celebrity car wrecks, watch crash test dummy videos like it was porno and bang pretty much exclusively in cars. According to Vaughan, the car crash is a "fertilizing rather than a destructive event, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form”. Ballard fits right in. Ballard introduces his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) to Vaughan and his new found passion, and together they go deeper and deeper into this new, dangerous world of autoeroticism, always looking for their next crash.

You know when the first scene in a film involves a women pressing her breast against an airplane you’re in for something just a bit different. “Plotless” is a term I see thrown around a lot by opponents of this movie, and I guess that’s a fair assessment, as it’s doesn’t really build up to any major pay off or conclusion. What it is however, is a fascinating character study about a few twisted, yet undeniably intriguing individuals. These are obviously very empty people, who have become so bored with every aspect of their lives they have to resort to the most extreme things imaginable to find fulfillment, and temporary fulfillment at that. Much like in Cronenberg’s debut full length film Shivers when the inhabitants of the Starliner Towers apartment complex became infected with the parasite, compulsive sexuality took over and all sense of morality was lost. Those infected let no social taboo get in the way of their gratification. The characters in Crash are the same way, the crash is their parasite, it consumes them. They’ll stop at nothing to get their kicks, caring not for the safety of themselves or others (especially other drivers on the road), all societal norms thrown out the window. Like a seasoned drug addict, the rush is never strong enough, they’re always needing more. I think that was a huge reason why this film bothered so many people. The unsettling idea that there are people in the world with absolutely no limits. Couple that with the perverse sexuality of the film and you’ve got two good ingredients to make some uptight people very uncomfortable. It’s precisely that dangerous aspect of the characters personalities that makes Crash so intriguing. It’s impossible to look away, always wondering just how far will they take their obsessions and how far will Cronenberg take the viewer.

A lot of people complained that the film didn’t get too in depth when dealing with the characters and their fascination with crashes. As Ballard puts it, it’s all very satisfying to him, yet he doesn’t know why. These people are the way they are, that’s that. Cronenberg neither condones nor condemns their actions, making it all the more alienating. I think trying to make sense of it all would have lessened the impact, pun intended. Cronenberg has called Crash and existential love story and it a way that makes complete sense when you focus on the marriage of James and Catherine. Prior to James’ crash, the love life of the two had obviously lost it’s spark, as they both had extramarital affairs during the day, relating their experiences to each other later in the bed room. After James has his crash he realizes that way of getting off no longer works. When he introduces Catherine to this new turn on of his the two find a common bond once again. The films final moments signify that, in a touchingly depraved way that they do indeed love each other and they will both continue to chase down their ultimate crash, together.

Although based on the controversial novel by JG Ballard (whom the James Spader character is named after), thematically Crash is pure Cronenberg though and through. The eroticizing of the car crash, the ultimate fusion of man and machine, metal and flesh. It’s not just the crash, it’s all the connotations of the crash. Along with it comes the after effects, the scaring, the scabs and the deformities. The reshaping of the human body. The future, to quote Vaughan. This is most apparent in the character of Gabrielle, played by Rosanna Arquette. Obviously a crash victim, her legs are encased in huge metal braces, in essence making her half-metal, with a large vulva like scar down the back of her leg. The ideal women for Vaughan’s “project. The car itself can been seen as an aphrodisiac. There’s a scene where Vaughan picks up a prostitute and while he does his thing in the back seat of his car, Cronenberg cuts back and forth between Vaughan and the hooker and Ballard driving, caressing the steering wheel, and during the lead up to one of the films most notorious scenes, Ballard and Gabrielle look at new cars as foreplay. A good majority of the sex scenes in the film are completely void of eroticism, as the sex these people engage in is just as mechanical and emotionless as they are. Psychical collisions, nothing more. The one true passionate love scene is the final one between James and Catherine, as it’s the one time where it feels as if both partners are truly involved, with more than just their bodies.

Crash defiantly shows off how good an eye Cronenberg has. This is a slick, sexy looking film, dare I say the best looking film Cronenberg has done. It’s very pleasing to look at, yet at the same time it gives off this aura that’s as cold and distant as it’s characters. That had to be intentional on Cronenberg’s part. There’s an amazing sequence where James, Catherine and Vaughan drive past a massive wreck on the highway. James stops the car while Vaughan eagerly rushes out of the car to observe and takes photos of the wreckage and victims, taking Catherine along with him, having her pose for him in the damaged cars. The way Cronenberg shot this sequence, the lighting mixed in with the heaps of twisted metal and smoke emitting from the cars, a breathtaking shot of a women slowly turning her face to the camera revealing shards of glass sticking out of her face, all the while the films main theme performed by Howard Shore (which couldn’t be more perfect and fitting) plays over it, only Cronenberg could make such destruction seem so attractive. The car wash sex scene that follows is beautifully photographed and it’s not just because of Unger’s body parts either. The way Cronenberg focuses on not just Vaughan’s manhandling of Catherine, but the environment, inside the car and out, the shots of Ballard looking on intently through the rearview mirror. It’s hard to describe without just listing things and I don’t want to do anymore of that. One of those “you just gotta see it” things.

I’m sure you’ve read many reviews where the writer calls a certain actor or actress’ performance “brave”. There couldn’t be a more suitable word for the performances in this film. A huge round of applause for the entire cast, as it sure took a lot of balls to play these people. James Spader, who is no stranger to psychosexual roles, underplays it as Ballard, yet that reservation was perfect when playing a person as soulless as Ballard. There’s a particular telling moment when Vaughan tells him he wants him to get a tattoo as part of the “project”, and almost without any hesitation whatsoever he blankly asks “Where do you think this should go?” Deborah Kara Unger portrays Catherine as an archetypal ice queen. Out of all the characters, Catherine is probably the most distant, spending most of the film with the blankest look on her face. Unger’s performance makes Catherine one of the most interesting characters, the final scene of the film reveals a ton about her personality, and it might be more disturbed that her husbands. Equally cold is Holly Hunter’s Dr. Remington. Never once does she express any sadness over the death of her husband, hell the only brief mentions of her recently deceased husband were from James and Catherine. Hunter plays it straight, much like Spader and it fits. There’s only one thing on her mind and we know it. And then there was Vaughan. Elias fuckin’ Koteas. Simply saying he stole the show would be the understatements of understatements. Vaughan is a man who embraces his depravities, the look of lust in his eyes when he stares down Ballard’s scars, the almost orgasmic tone in his voice when he describes the details of a crash, the way he caresses cold metal like a lover. Koteas plays him with glee, emitting untouchable charisma, stealing every scene he’s in with complete ease. It’s a crime he didn’t get an award for this.

Crash won the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Caanes Film Festival for “daring originality, and audacity”, the same festival where members of the audience walked out on it. Daring originality and audacity. Those three words sum up Crash pretty much perfectly. It’s obviously not for everybody. The extreme sexual fetishism, the lack of a story and it’s overall bleakness will turn away many, but for those who enjoy films from off the beaten path should take right too it. Cronenberg was the perfect choice to direct this. I don’t think any other director could have handled Ballard’s material quite like he did, and Ballard agreed. Crash is a unique experience that exposes us to some pretty dark aspects of the human mind, what people could do when so called “normalcy” has lost all hold and the dangerous melding of sex and technology. Crash may be cold, but like all Cronenberg films, it will stay with you long after viewing. 16 years later and it’s still polarizing viewers.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock is easily my favorite director of all time. Hands down. Has been for a long time. I got into his films fairly early in my movie watching career and became a fanatic pretty much instantly. Nobody could captivate an audience like Hitchcock. When you watch a Hitchcock film, you become invested in every possible aspect of it. Not only was he a master storyteller, he was a technical innovator. His influence is everywhere, as numerous filmmakers have tried to copy his style, how many times have you read a review of a film and seen the word “Hitchcockian”? As the saying goes, there was only one Hitchcock. When I was first getting into his films, his 1948 experiment Rope quickly became a favorite of mine and it’s one I often return to. Even after countless viewings, it’s initial impact is never lost on me.

Putting their philosophy of superiority to use, and proving to themselves that they can get away with committing the “perfect murder”, college mates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) strangle their friend David Kentley to death in their apartment and store his body in a chest. The two are hosting a party later on with guests such as David’s father, his aunt, his girlfriend Janet, friend Kenneth, and Brandon and Phillip’s former school teacher Rupert Cadell. Adding insult to injury, the two use the chest David’s body is stuffed in as a makeshift buffet table for the party guest. The invitation of Cadell both angers and frightens Phillip, as he fears he is the one person to suspect something, while Brandon assures him that Rupert would be the only one to appreciate what they’ve done. Sure enough as the party goes on and David still doesn’t show up the guests get increasingly worried, and with Phillip’s behavior becoming more and more erratic, Rupert begins to have suspicions of his own.

I think at this point in time calling a Hitchcock movie intense is like saying it snows in the winter. Still, even by Hitchcock standards Rope is a nerve racking experience. It should come as no surprise to Hitchcock fanatics that he was able to create such tension in a limited setting as he did it a few years earlier with Lifeboat, but it’s still astounding he was able to achieve the mood that he did when you take into consideration that aside from the opening credits sequence, the film never leaves Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. There are no action scenes, no chase sequences or anything like that, nothing blows up. It’s obviously not a whodunit, as the culprits are clear as day, as is their motive so I’m not spoiling anything here. The suspense comes from the fact that there is always the constant reminder that just a few feet away from any one person in front of the camera there is a dead body lying in a chest, the dialogue and interactions between Brandon, Phillip and the party guests, especially Rupert. You’ll wince every time a character even glances towards that chest, and there’s one very brief moment involving the housekeeper that’s sure to make your heart skip a beat. Whenever the fact that David is late to the party is brought up, it’s quite gripping to see how Brandon, and especially Phillip react. As Phillip becomes more and more guilt ridden about what he’s done, the danger of him exposing the crime becomes more real. The suspense is heightened even more when Rupert begins to have suspicions of his own, and it just keeps on building.

The classic Hitchcock device of discussing murder during dinner is put to perfect use here. We learn that Brandon took the Nietzsche-esque philosophical musings of Rupert during his school days to heart, which is why he feels Rupert would approve of what he and Phillip did.  According to Rupert, murder is an art that only a few privileged and intellectually superior people, those who are above the average moral standings should be able to commit. The tension is heightened during this conversation as Brandon proudly boasts that he and Phillip are two of the “privileged” ones.  This allows for some of Hitchcock’s trademark black humor to make an appearance, as Stewart’s character opines about how many of the worlds problems murder could solve, such as having trouble getting theatre tickets or getting into a restaurant, and that although he approves of murder, it shouldn’t be a free for all, it should be reserved for special occasions, such as “cut a throat week”, or “strangulation day”. There are other traces of dark humor thrown in as well, such as Brandon giving David’s father a stack of books tied together with the same rope that killed his son, and admittedly, the whole idea of serving food on the chest that the body is stored in, while extremely depraved, is somewhat comical. I’m sure Hitchcock got a real kick out of it.

Dall, Granger and Stewart put on clinics here, Granger especially. It’s obvious that Phillip regrets what he’s done mere seconds after the murder, and he spends a good majority the movie with a sickly, worried look on his face and when he speaks it’s incredibly uncomfortable, as most of the time as you get the feeling that at any moment he could crack and confess the whole thing. There’s a brilliant scene where Stewart’s character is basically interrogating Phillip while Phillip tries to play the piano. Steward is calm and collected, he knows something odd is happening yet won’t come right out and say what he thinks is going on. Phillip knows this, stammering over words and becoming more and more nervous by the second. When he tries to play it cool Stewart sees right through it. There is almost a sympathetic aspect to Phillip, yet we never forget what he did in the beginning of the film. Too little too late if you will. John Dall portrays Brandon as you would expect, a self satisfied, smug asshole. He’s instantly detestable, with his shit eating grin and smartass remarks. Moments after the murder he make a remark about how the glass David took his last drink out of should be preserved as a museum piece, but it’s such good crystal and he’d hate to break up the set of glasses from which it came. He’s obviously very proud of what he’s done, over joyous in fact. Yet all the while he’s almost commendable for all his audacity. It’s almost as if he wishes he were caught, just so he could brag about murdering someone just because. The films final moments with all three is truly  something for the history books, when all the build up reaches a boiling point, it goes way beyond edge of your seat intensity. I’ve seen this film more times than I can count and that final segment never fails to leave me in awe. The back and forth between Brandon and Rupert, Phillip’s rapidly declining composure and impending breakdown, the pacing of it all, pitch fucking perfect execution. If this scene isn’t studied in film schools, it should be.

Rope was one of Hitchcock’s most experimental films. Having the events of the film happen in real time, Hitchcock wanted to film to look as if it was shot in one long, continuous take. Of course this wasn’t possible in 1948, as he could only shoot for around 10 minutes per take, so he got around it by using numerous close up’s of various things and holding the shot while he reloaded the camera.  If you look for them, it’s not hard to figure out where the cuts are, but you’ll be so engrossed in the story you won’t think to look for such things,  but it’s just another example of how innovative and ahead of everybody else Hitchcock was when it came to filming techniques. The way he maneuvers the camera, going from one end of the room to the other, from one conversation to the other, or not having the camera move at all, observing people from a distance, there are numerous times while watching it feels as if your standing right there in the apartment. Like all his films, it’s damn near impossible to take your eyes off the screen for a mere second, and again I reiterate how he crafted a gripping story with such a limited setting with ease. I can count on my hand the number of directors who can pull off such a thing, and still nobody comes close to what Hitchcock achieved when he worked with such a setting.

Rope was adapted from a play which was loosely based on the real life case of Leopold and Loeb, two college students who murdered a 14 year old in 1924 just for the thrill of it. Leopold and Loeb were gay, and it’s been assumed that Brandon and Phillip were lovers in the film as well. It’s been said that Hitchcock intended for the two to be gay,  although this could never actually be said or shown on screen in 1948 with the production code and all. I believe Hitchcock even had to have the script supervised by some studio higher up‘s due to the rumors of there being two gay characters. The words “gay” or “homosexuality” were never uttered on the set, instead they were replaced with “it”.  There’s been a lot made of the so called homosexual undertones in the film, and there’s differences of opinion when it comes to that aspect. Whatever the nature of Brandon and Phillip’s relationship is, Brandon is obviously the dominant one, as it’s quite clear that Phillip acts as his footstool. I’ve always thought all of it was just like looking for the times when Hitchcock ended a take, these things might go right over your head on account of being too wrapped up in the story.
Rope was second “limited setting” film Hitchcock did, along with the aforementioned Lifeboat (1944), Dial M For Murder (1954), and of course Rear Window (1954), which also starred James Stewart, the second film he and Hitchcock would collaborate on (Rope was the first time the two worked together). They did two more films together, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). All masterpieces, needless to say. Rope is an essential watch, not only for Hitchcock fans but also for fans of film in general. It’s an engrossing watch, not only for the experimental aspects of how Hitchcock went about making it, but also for the stunning performances of it’s three lead actors, great use of dialogue, and it’s unique way of holding the audience captive in suspense like only Hitchcock could do. If your new to Hitchcock, this definitely needs to be on your “to watch” list. The work of a true master of his craft.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Evilmaker (2000)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at that DVD cover and probably already have your mind made up as to what kind of movie this is. Truth be told, that cover is a classic example of false advertising, and I’m sure at first glance you’d think to yourself that this movie doesn’t really have that much to offer. That assumption would be very much unfair. While it’s true that during the course of the movies 100 minute running time leading lady Stephanie Beaton does grace us with some glorious tit shots, The Evilmaker is so much more than one of “those“ movies. It’s one of the more original low budget horror offerings, and it’s sure to surprise some skeptical viewers.

After getting out of a bad marriage, down on her luck Serena (Beaton) returns to her hometown to stay at her mothers house to try and get her life straightened out.  Her best friend from high school, goth girl Rachel (Felicia Pandolfi) decides to take her out to the coast for the weekend to cheer her up, as it was the place they always took her when she was feeling bad, along with her two other high school friends Tyler (Dori Schwartz) and Cindy (Arlene Henry). Along the way, Rachel's car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, leaving the girls stranded. After walking a few miles trying to find a passing car or something to help them out they stumble upon a house at the end of the a dead end road. Seemingly abandoned, they make the bright decision to spend the night and try to find help in the morning. Eager to leave after spending a creepy night there, the girls luck gets even worse when they discover Rachel’s car has gone missing, forcing them back to the house. It’s upon their return that a malicious spirit makes it’s presence known, terrorizing the girls, Serena in particular, forcing her to confront more than she bargained for.

While the film does follow some  of the well tread horror conventions, as the car breaking down, ending up in a strange place, bad things start happening is nothing we haven’t seen before, The Evilmaker is one of the most ambitious independent horror films out there, and stands out from the rest of the pack. Given the limited budget this thing had, writer/director John Bowker could have easily said "fuck it" and taken the easy route that a lot of low budget horror films are guilty of, like going straight for the gore and T and A and not giving one ounce of a shit about telling a story. Instead, he and his crew actually gave a shit, and turned out a film that actually told a story, was character driven, and had a truck load of atmosphere. The film is far from one dimensional, as Bowker crafted  an excellent story full of twists and turns that’s bound to always keeps you on your toes, even entering mindfuck territory towards the third act. Just when you think you know what’s going on or going to happen, Bowker pulls a fast one on you, so the film never drags at any point. They way the titular “evil maker” is revealed as well as it’s motivations and haunting techniques, as well as Serena’s way of finally confronting it, I though were a pretty unique twist on the supernatural, making this much more than just another ghost story. There’s even yet ANOTHER twist at the very end that you won’t see coming.

The film is damn eerie, and very early on establishes a sense of dread that carries on throughout the film. Bowker sure chose some great locations to shoot in. A house in the woods is always going to carry some creepy connotations, no exception here. It’s not a completely run down shack, but it’s not someplace you’d want to spent the night in, let alone three days. The surrounding areas, especially a culvert that plays a pretty big role in the storyline also give off chilling vibes. There’s one scene in particular where the character of Rachel is just standing and staring at the culvert, and even in daylight it all feels so ominous. Bowker seemed to know his limitations concerning the budget and still was able to create some unsettling atmosphere, including some really cool uses of strobe lights, the exterior shots of the house at night with the blue strobes going on and off in the windows looked great. There are some interior shots using the strobes, and while it might be a tad hard to see what’s going on, it still looks damn cool. The soundtrack plays a huge part in giving this film it’s uneasy feel, fantastic soundtrack all around. The main theme that plays during the opening credits is certainly goose bump worthy, but my favorite piece of music created for the film plays after the car breaks down and their walking to find help. It’s just synth music, but there’s something about it that I took to right away, mostly the melody. It’s pleasant to listen too but it’s also foreboding, perfectly used.

This is Stephanie Beaton’s finest performance, hands down. The girl really can act, and here she gets the chance to show off her range, range that you might not have guessed she had if you’ve only seen her in a Witchcraft movie. Her character of Serena is well rounded, and right from the start of the film she is instantly likable and sympathetic. She does a great job with all the material, and despite the somewhat melodramatic situation her character finds herself in at the beginning of the film, she never goes overboard or hams it up with the dramatic stuff. She carries the films third act all by herself,  and even when she has no dialogue, she lets her mannerisms and facial expressions do all the talking. I’m quite sure it was refreshing for her to play a character like Serena. Plus she sure can swing an axe. Felicia Pandolfi rocked as the goth best friend Rachel. Not only is she easy to look at, she pulled off the goth look perfectly and  I totally bought her and Beaton being best friends as they play off each other wonderfully. Defiantly a magnetic presence. The other two girls are hit and miss. Dori Schwartz is competent in the role of Tyler, it’s just that she doesn’t do anything to stand out. Arlene Henry is definitely the most wooden out of the entire cast. A lot of the time her dialogue seemed really forced and come out rather awkward sounding, but Beaton’s and Pandolfi’s performances are so strong the moments of strained acting are sometimes not as noticeable, if that makes any sense.

Alas,  as much as I'd like to say that The Evilmaker is a perfect film, it's not without it's shortcomings. Obviously due to the limited funds, some of the ideas just don't translate all too well on the screen. A scene that sticks out like a sore thumb is when the spirit in physical form is shown. It looks kind of corny, plus Schwartz’s off delivery of her lines in that scene didn’t help much.  I think with a bit of tweeking it could have possibly worked better than it actually did. There are some weird looking visual effects too towards the end of the film that could have used some more work as well. The imagination was there, just not the money. Finally, there are some flashback moments (moments that have major storyline implications by the way) that would have benefited from an extra take or two thanks to a certain actor, ESPECIALLY considering his character. In all honestly, these issues are few and far between, but when the occur they do tend to throw off the film’s consistency a bit.

The Evilmaker, while not perfect is a prime example of what can be achieved, even with a small budget, when the people involved really put a lot of effort into their work. Sure, it’s got flaws,  but it’s also got tons of ambition, great performances from Beaton and Pandolfi, a lot of unique ideas and a real feeling of eeriness that a lot low budget horror films don’t even bother trying to create. Even if you end up not liking it, you’ve got to hand it to John Bowker for trying something a bit different and adding some unique touches when it comes to the supernatural/ghost subgenre.

Bowker also wrote and directed a sequel, Abomination: Evilmaker II in 2003. It’s a decent time passer, and Pandolfi returned for it, but needless to say it doesn’t even come close to touching the original. Both films are available on a double feature DVD (the first one pictured above with Beaton in her undies.). Defiantly worth picking up, as it’s got commentary from Bowker,  and cinematographer Joe Sherlock, a short look at the shooting of a scene from the first film, a blooper reel and 40 or so minute featurette on the second film.