In the Year 2889 (The Cornfield #22)

The number 2889 shall henceforth measure the distance between resonant childhood experience and cold-eyed adult perspective on a movie. I recently re-watched In the Year 2889 for the first time since seeing it at age twelveorwhatever, and the effect was having a movie-memory full of mystery and magic brought crashing down to earth.

I had a feeling that would happen. In the Year 2889 is a 1967 American-International picture directed by Larry Buchanan, whose name has come down to us as the trashmeister of Mars Needs Women and Zontar: The Thing from Venus. Its title and plot are both second-hand: the title is derived from a Jules Verne connection, and the story remakes Roger Corman’s 1955 film The Day the World Ended.

I didn’t know any of this when I saw the movie as a child, had no idea Buchanan would later become a camp figure for connoisseurs of bad cinema. Probably hadn’t seen the Corman film at that point, either. I simply watched the movie unfold in some sort of hushed late-night-TV situation and was enchanted by the premise: an isolated house located in a geographical anomaly that would keep the a nuclear holocaust’s radioactive vapor from drifting into its vicinity. Here a group of survivors hunker down to wait out the worst of it, with the usual bickering and goo-goo eyes, including one guy who got affected by the radiation and seems to be turning into a mutant. (It is not set in the year 2889. Given the turtlenecks and the hair length, it might take place ten years ahead of the year 1967, at the outside.)

Being a sucker for end-of-the-world scenarios and fantasies of complete independence (every kid should read My Side of the Mountain at a vulnerable age), I liked this very much. The house was buffered by thick forest and hillside, offering a cozy sort of Eden, while the possibility of scary mutants added just enough menace to keep things lively. Nobody knew the mysteries that lay beyond the hills, or what might happen in the future.

(Speaking of what lay beyond the hills, one of my favorite scenes in Corman happens in The Day the World Ended: the mutant comes back to the house from one of his wanderings – he’s like an outdoor cat that disappears at night and shows up at the backdoor the next morning, having seen unthinkable things during his nocturnal prowl – and dreamily describes the new society that is being formed out there among the evolving race of mutants. Partly of the old human world, partly of the new, he’s a strangely haunting figure, even within the B-movie environs.)

So I watch this movie now, because Scarecrow Video actually stocks a copy on its shelves. And it takes almost no time for the mist of childhood memory to clear. In the Year 2889 is terrible. To be fair, this DVD copy of the movie is atrocious, seemingly a dupe of a dupe of a 16 mm. print or something; the movie probably won’t ever look as good as it did when I saw it on TV in the early Seventies. And the soundtrack makes Chimes at Midnight sound like Dolby digital. Fine, one makes adjustments for those sorts of technical shortcomings. But it’s still a crummy film on every level, even with the sturdiness of the Corman picture serving as its understructure.

The timing is completely off, and the acting wooden. The name in the cast is Paul Petersen, who achieved youthful popularity on “The Donna Reed Show” and, as the next Ricky Nelson, scored some pop hits. (His single produced by Brian Wilson, “She Rides with Me,” is something to savor.) There’s also Bill Thurman, who beefed his way through a few B-character roles (and The Last Picture Show), doing a tiresome bit as a boozer who hides his jugs of moonshine on the property. It must be seriously potent hooch, because the two jugs last for weeks. Everybody’s pretty bad.

All right, so that memory is affected, although in the month or so since I watched In the Year 2889, I think the old memory is coming back and crowding out the recent re-viewing. I hope so. Now the question is, do I dare watch The Monitors again?

Paul Petersen’s “She Rides with Me,” here.

Not of This Earth (The Cornfield #20)

Beverly Garland, Paul Birch: nurse and emissary

Because I have been tooling around the state of Washington giving a talk on the subject of the alien-invasion movies of the 1950s, the Shout Factory DVD release of a Roger Corman triple comes as a welcome refresher on this title. Attack of the Crab Monsters and War of the Satellites will have to wait their turn, because it’s been a while since Not of This Earth (1957) was available on a decent home-vid format.

When Roger Corman won his honorary Oscar, the gesture was received with a great deal of affection and much fond talk about Corman’s savvy business techniques and his tutelage of future Hollywood stars and filmmakers. Along with all that stuff, his own directing skills are authentic, and should be acknowledged when talking about the good ol’ days of shooting two movies in a week. Corman treats the zany storyline of Not of This Earth (screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna) with his calm, “why couldn’t this actually happening?” hand, complete with nondescript yet nicely chosen locations and an alien menace who looks like an insurance salesman, albeit with funny accent and sunglasses.

In fact, the plainness of the presentation is why it succeeds. Opening scene: two lovebirds necking in a convertible parked at an everyday sidewalk (it costs too much to get the whole crew up to shoot in a scenic lovers’ lane); the chick gets out by hopping backwards over the passenger door – the way a cool kid would – and turns to enter one of those California low-bungalow apartment clusters. When the boyfriend’s jalopy is gone she pauses to look down the sidewalk, and Corman cuts to a long, empty, nothing sidewalk, and by god if it doesn’t raise the gooseflesh a little – because it looks like your sidewalk in your hometown, and the light is fading, and it doesn’t have a movie-luster. She goes inside the gate, saddle shoes skipping, and (following an obligatory cheap scare involving an owl) there he is: a man in a fedora and sunglasses, solid as a truck. He takes the glasses off, gives her the hoodoo look, and she drops. Something here is not of this earth. Great dreamy Rorschach-y credits follow.

Paul Birch plays the visitor; supposedly he left the production after an argument with Corman, and a body double filled in his role. The visitor, who calls himself Paul Johnson, comes from the usual dying planet and requires blood transfusions, which he mind-warps a doctor into providing; Beverly Garland plays the nurse hired for live-in duty, Jonathan Haze (future Little Shop of Horrors star) plays Johnson’s chauffeur, a vaguely beatnik/j.d. type. Corman may have the soul of a mogul, but he clearly had an appreciation for 1950s sick humor, and so the appearance of a desperate vacuum-cleaner salesman (Dick Miller) at Johnson’s front door becomes a five-minute vaudeville routine with a murderous punch-line.

Johnson communicates with his otherworldly commander by sitting in the armchair in his living room and speaking with a contraption inside a hidden bureau. Who needs a secret lair? This is much more sensible. Get a Coke from the fridge, sit in your favorite chair, and receive orders from your intergalactic masters. This is what works in the movie – the mundane made weird, an appealing trait of low-budget moviemaking.

On the B-movie resonance scale, Not of This Earth falls shy of A Bucket of Blood and Masque of the Red Death, but well above a score of other Corman projects. If the alien-invasion scenario is in vogue, and you can’t afford special effects of flying saucers, this is exactly the way to get in the game. There is a monster-movie monster, a flying thingie that lands on people and makes their heads bleed. But most importantly, there is a final scene in a cemetery, with a fantastic final shot that seems to predict Night of the Living Dead‘s opening sequence. A great opening, a great finish – the movie is half-earned already.

Opening sequence and more, here.

Hannibal (The Cornfield #17)

Anthony Hopkins is on the loose again this weekend in The Rite, and this reminds us of how his career changed when he adopted Hannibal Lecter as his avatar. This review of Hannibal, published at Film.com in 2001 (the movie opened almost exactly ten years after The Silence of the Lambs), observes the way Hopkins, and Lecter, have grown. As grotesque as the movie gets in its subject, and acknowledging the void of the Hannibal-Clarice relationship as a huge letdown, I do like aspects of this picture, mostly the idea of Lecter living his life as an exquisite Continental who could easily have wandered in from a Merchant Ivory adaptation of a Henry James novel; except for his personality quirks, he might be consulting on the preservation of medieval art, or opening his own wine shop. (If only he could refrain from making fun of the way Americans pronounce “Chianti.”)–R.H.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter looked like a sleek, streamlined predator, an eel; with his face hollow and his hair slicked back, he was all eyes and teeth. Much has changed in Hannibal. Ten years have passed, both in the fictional life of Lecter and since production of The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins looks stouter, older, but handsomer; his (that is, Lecter’s) dentist-drill intensity has changed to a more relaxed movement through the world. The prison jumpsuit is gone, replaced by Italian threads, for Lecter has been living in Florence for some time, like a puttering old gelato-nibbling esthete. In one of our first glimpses of him, he is a roundish fellow, chicly dressed with a broad-brimmed fedora, and for a moment we might be forgiven for thinking we have just seen Truman Capote visiting the continent.

In short, Hannibal (and Hannibal) has become decadent. There was a steely simplicity to The Silence of the Lambs, which arranged itself around a series of face-to-face encounters between Hopkins’ Lecter and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, fledgling FBI agent. Hannibal is more complicated, more outrageous, less controlled in every way. Jodie Foster having opted out of the sequel, Julianne Moore now plays Clarice, as though in a kind of trance. When she is set up for a fall by the Bureau, Lecter gets wind of the plan and comes, in a way, to her rescue.

But the movie takes a while to get there. The entire (quite engrossing) middle section is taken up with an Italian policeman’s efforts to land a huge reward by catching Lecter. He is played by Giancarlo Gianinni, that marvelous relic of past arthouse hits, his skin seemingly baked by Italian sun and cigarette smoke. The reward has been established by the hideously disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled), and when we use the word “hideous” in describing this movie’s effects, please take it as gospel. Billionaire Verger’s connection to Lecter is that he cut off his own face while in Dr. Lecter’s presence (and fed it to a dog—Lecter went hungry?).

The film also features a public disembowling, man-eating pigs, and a climactic “meal” that certainly qualifies as one of the most audaciously revolting sequences ever to find its way into a mainstream movie. Director Ridley Scott turns away from some of this, but he serves up many of the horrors with a kind of mirthful directness. Thanks to his facility with visual storytelling, Scott nails many moments, including the film’s opening: we watch three men speaking calmly, sitting in a great room, seen from longshot in a stately proscenium-style composition. Abruptly, in mid-conversation, Scott cuts to a huge close-up of one of the men—and it’s Verger, in all his faceless awfulness. If that doesn’t set the tone, nothing will.

Hannibal’s biggest failing is not in its grossness, nor in Scott’s slick approach. It’s in the absence of that central connection from The Silence of the Lambs, the mysterious bond between Clarice and Dr. Lecter, in which two people met in an unwholesome but profound way. Thanks to the plot of Thomas Harris’s sequel, they are kept apart, and we must take their connection on faith. Because we remember the first movie, when Lecter first purrs “Hello Clarice” into a cell phone from half a world away, it’s a truly shivery moment. But its owes its power to that earlier, greater film.

Black Moon (The Cornfield #12)

Very first thing in the movie is the sight of a wealthy urban sophisticate sitting in her child’s room, beating out a hypnotic rhythm on a large primitive drum. This is Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess), wife to successful businessman, hale ‘n hearty, everybody-loves-him Stephen Lane (Jack Holt). Check her name: two exotic morsels followed by dull-as-dishwater Lane; the lady was raised on a Caribbean island, part of the only white family there, and as this opening indicates – the servants respond with a “there she goes again with the drums” reaction – she has never entirely gotten over her voodoo-inflected upbringing (parents killed at an early age, neglectful uncle, prolonged outings with the natives). When you get to the end of the picture, you wonder what she’s doing with this trance-like drumming: communing with her true wild self, or preparing her daughter for a ritual sacrifice to come?

This is Black Moon, a 1934 Columbia film directed by Roy William Neill, who had come up through silent films and would do Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and a great many Sherlock Holmes titles in the 1940s. It comes two years after White Zombie and (given a few saucy references to things like “living in sin”) just before the Production Code really settled in. In U.S. culture an interest in voodoo and zombies remained in the air in the wake of William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, and Black Moon hits a lot of the signposts of that world, many of which would come up later in I Walked with a Zombie. There’s a triangle here, as there would be in I Walked with a Zombie; accompanying Juanita to San Christopher is Stephen’s secretary, Gail (Fay Wray), who has already made it clear to the audience (if not to her thickheaded boss) that she is in love with him.

Once on the island, there are various nocturnal walks, a couple of voodoo ceremonies, and a great many moody, forceful compositions. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August (who did Sylvia Scarlett and The Informer within a year and was clearly in a groove) create true backlot mysterioso here, from the overgrown yard of the plantation house to the noirish interiors. The scattered dribs of Creole language add to the mood, and Juanita’s talk of the islanders being oppressed by their white employers – delivered after she has definitively gone over to their team – comes as a well-aimed dart, even if most of the natives in the film fall into the realm of background menace.

But then, you can only do so much in 68 minutes, and what Black Moon does it does well. And with some eeriness, too: why do Juanita and Gail look almost identical? Is the whole movie some sort of oddball dream Stephen has, about replacing his unreachable wife? Within Jack Holt’s giant noggin, the idea must have been there: sure, he got cool cred for marrying the foreigner, the slinky alien lady with the jungle history and the sugarcane patois, but now his friends are raising their eyebrows about her incessant drum-beating, and after all, although she comes from money, it isn’t our kind of money, is it, old sport, and really what sort of a name is Juanita Perez? Not exactly one for the Blue Book, eh? So Stephen lets her go off to San Christopher, with daughter in tow, as she promises him that “When I come back, you won’t know me. I’ll be mild, placid, positively meek.” Evidently her nervous condition has made her something of a handful. He lets her go, despite the fact that every single person in the movie talks about what a dire idea is for Juanita to get anywhere near the old island ways. It is also necessary to overlook the Perez family emissary who comes to the U.S. to deliver a message but gets a knife in his back before he can say what he’s come about.

We don’t see what Juanita does when she goes off for her prowls, nor is it detailed what happened to her during her voodoo upbringing – except that her uncle saved her from “a living death.” She merely vanishes for long sections, and returns looking zonked-out and over-heated. What we do see involves a couple of glimpses of voodoo rites –  singing and drumming and that – the point of which is human sacrifice. This is where enforced discretion often creates intrigue in movies. What does she do out there, in the tropical jungle? She has knowledge that Stephen can’t possibly understand, with his fat smile and his good faith and his ease in a cold climate. This can’t go on, between the two of them. He doesn’t get her, and she must, as she says, go back home. As she sits in her daughter’s room in the opening scene, we may appreciate the ordinary space. But also notice that the classy wallpaper is decorated by a large drawing of a tree, whose tangled limbs spread out over the wall in this corner of the room. The ancient things are calling.

The Crazies (The Cornfield #4)

It’s almost Halloween, so: George Romero’s 1973 non-zombie offering, recently remade with some respectable actors and a budget. Both films follow the same general outline: a military plane carrying a sample of a biological weapon crashes near a small town (western Pennsylvania in the original, Iowa in the remake), seeping into the water supply and infecting the locals with a virus that turns them insane; the twist is, the government’s attempt to contain the outbreak is at least as damaging as the bloody and disturbing as the rampant lunacy. I liked the 2010 version well enough, but re-visiting Romero’s original is a reminder of how low-end horror can do its thing in a more effective way than glossier examples of the genre.

Take the people in The Crazies, for instance. There’s not an actor in sight you could reasonably call a movie star, and very few you could reasonably call actors. (Lynn Lowry had a Spacekian something than put her in a few memorable genre roles – Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad and Paul Schrader’s Cat People among them – and thus a level of cult renown.) Even the extras are distinctly different from extras you’d find in a reputable movie: there’s a quality of ordinariness about everybody on screen, with a surfeit of lousy haircuts and self-conscious mannerisms. Which means there’s no sheen that gets between you and the creepy feeling that this might be happening. (The downside, of course, is that bad line readings come along at a more frequent rate than you might wish.)

No sheen, but quite a bit of skill. Romero is credited as his own editor, and the movie bops along to a peculiar rhythm, especially the dialogue exchanges within scenes – there’s a strange fractured quality to it, as though the infection had spread to the editing room and rendered everything extra-jittery. (Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker get at something like this in Shutter Island, where dialogue scenes feel as though they’ve had their normal beats shaved down by crucial half-seconds, a method that seems to want to drive the viewer insane.)

And Romero’s talent for offhand horror, already there in Night of the Living Dead, is effectively deployed here. Nothing’s off limits, including incest. Romero lets us know this in the opening sequence, which drags a couple of unsuspecting, play-acting children in to a child’s worst-nightmare-come-true vignette of domestic fear.

The movie’s most prominent element is its timeliness. Just in case you doubted Romero’s goal, he includes a sequence of a priest setting himself on fire, staged to resemble the shots of the monk who committed the same act in Vietnam. Echoes of My Lai and Kent State, and a generally caustic view of the police action that descends on Evans City, PA, leave no doubt about Romero’s intentions. In a bigger, more respectable movie, this would be heavy-handed, but there’s something about this kind of allegory deployed in a Z-budget horror film that really creates a buzz. Watching the movie feels like picking up a newspaper from the early 1970s and scanning the downbeat headlines. (Truffaut said that The Night of the Hunter was like “A horrifying news item retold by small children”; The Crazies is a newscast delivered by the insane.)

The Crazies is so scathing it sometimes undercuts its own effects. It’s a good touch that the military guys in their indistinguishable hazmats suits and gasmasks come to appear less human than the infected people, but you also can’t understand a damn thing they’re saying. The military types are so completely inept that the movie becomes a spiral of incompetence whenever they’re on screen, but Romero doesn’t quite go all the way with it. We’re watching the opposite of a Howard Hawks film: here, the professionals working together on a common goal do their jobs poorly throughout. And the rare distinctive performer – Richard France, as the egghead scientist, trailing around the air of Beatnik braininess – just reminds you of how fumbling the other actors are.

But it’s all still effective, and a key candidate for American films that might give the mood of the early 1970s. Now if only the DVD could have subtitles for the hazmat actors.

Repulsion

This piece on Repulsion was written, like the Rosemary’s Baby essay, for a Polanski series at the University of Washington in 1986.–Robert Horton

There’s this rabbit, you see, this rabbit that is first mentioned in the opening minutes of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and actually appears in the flesh a few minutes after that. It’s intended as dinner for Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and her sister and her sister’s man, and it’s arranged very nicely on a clean white plate in the fridge: all curled up in the fetal position, looking like some monstrous abortion from a godless time, prehistoric or post-nuclear. (This freakish beatie is surely the uncredited physical prototype for the squalling, rampaging creatures of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Ridley Scott’s Alien.) We will return to the festering rabbity horror throughout the film, as its putrescence escalates while our heroine goes increasingly insane. The rabbit is her mind, or is in her mind, no doubt; we witness this lapin tartare growing more fetid and disagreeable while her face remains as beautiful and bland as it was in the opening moments of the film, when we see a big close-up of her mask-like, utterly imperturbable face, staring into nothingness.

But then the rabbit is only the most fragrant and memorable part of Carol’s apartment, which itself serves as a picture of Dorian Gray, cracking and shivering and expanding while she remains shy and immaculate. The film is an extended game of point-of-view, during which the everyday flotsam of reality—street musicians, sugar cubes, laughing nuns, stray toothbrushes, tintinnabulating bells, fender benders, and a “poor bunny”—appear warped by a mad perspective.

Polanski forces the issue of point-of-view from the outset. After all, the film begins with the camera seeming to pull out of the pupil of an eye that will turn out to belong to Carol (the credits float across the image like mucus drifting over an eyeball). We’re explicitly locked into Carol’s vision, and the hysterical world she will survey over the next 105 minutes of screentime amounts to an exploration of her disintegrating mind. Polanski doesn’t make us take this on faith, however; he’s scrupulous in establishing her point of view.

Consider, for instance, the remarkable scene just after Carol’s sister leaves to go out to dinner, early in the film. Carole stares into a metal tea kettle, which effectively distorts her image. Polanski goes from that to the peeping-hole in the door, another lens that queers the vision. Then the camera, apparently unattached to Carol, looks about the apartment: at the children’s toys on the table, out the window at the white nuns and black nuns scurrying below, then across the wall to a vaguely Japanese artwork hanging there, to the phonograph and the Edith Piaf record sitting by it, to more trinkets on the mantle, finally to a photograph of a family, dominated by the central presence of a young, angelically blonde girl staring off into space. These shots are an evocative view of Carol’s world: the distorted vision, the seemingly arrested development of a child, the bottled-up repression of the nuns, the irrelevant dislocation of a Japanese print in a South Kensington flat, the unconscious sorrow suggested by Piaf, the extremely spooky look on the little girl’s face of being there but also being…somewhere else.

The cracks in the wall show another form of Polanski’s strict, no-cheating approach to submerging us in Carol’s point of view. The first mention of a crack comes during a conversation with her sister; sis is in the background, Carol is looking toward the camera in the foreground, off to the side, absently. Evidently she’s looking at the wall, because she mutters, very quietly, “We must have this crack mended.” Polanski will do nothing so gauche as to show us the wall—which is, presumably, unblemished—nothing that gives us the high-sign that “It’s all in her mind!” The phrase is simply dropped into the dialogue, but we can see that her sister does not respond to the comment about the crack, and that there probably isn’t one.

Later, after the couple has left to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Carol is alone in the apartment. For the first time, Polanski uses that awful craaaacking sound, and shows us the wall busting its seams. But he does it by the rules: first the sound, as we look at Carol’s face—and then a sharp, second-long cut to a close-up of Carol’s eye—and then the sight of the wall gaping open. Polanski didn’t have to insert that close-up of Carol’s eye—I mean, we’ve got the idea by now, right?—but he is one of the most careful directors alive today, and everything that exists in the frame matters to him. That’s why it’s important that this first visualization of Carol’s cracking psyche follows certain rules. Besides, Polanski is a director fascinated with eyes, as the essential organ for a character’s, or a director’s, vision. He likes making you see things in a way you’ve never seen them before, and he’ll blow out your eyes—figuratively, that is, although sometimes, as in Chinatown, literally—to make you see things his way.

Repulsion is full of details that simmer mysteriously. Polanski makes a close-up of hands peeling potatoes seem vaguely sinister, even if we don’t know yet that the potatoes will grow as deformed as Carol’s thoughts. A glove being pulled from fingers—the fingers of a manicurist—seems oddly resistant. In the end these hand images will climax in the animation of the walls in the apartment. The other weird details—the sucking of sugar, the wrestling on telly, the postcard with the conspicuously off-center Italian tower—accumulate and create a palpable sense of disquietude. The cinema of Roman Polanski is rife with the ordinary being uncanny.

Polanski had the apartment built to differing dimensions, so that in some scenes the living room seems small, in others expansive; and so on with the other spaces inside, especially that horrible hallway. He also uses wide-angle lenses to distort space (a practice that prompted cinematographer Gil Gaylor to mutter, “I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,” as reported in Polanski’s autobiography, Roman). Polanski’s orchestration of these odd elements is brilliant, and communicates as fine a portrait of madness as any on screen. But the apartment is only the most striking of the film’s locales. Polanski charges the other, more banal, avenues too.

The film begins in the beauty salon, which is both sterile and grotesque (its grotesqueries need not be catalogued). The other key locations are the streets of London. At first, these would seem to be beyond the reach of even Polanski’s considerable talents of art direction; those wide-angle lenses aren’t going to do him much good out there. But Polanski’s deviousness is boundless. A crack on the sidewalk can be spellbinding. A car accident is unsettling even when in happens in the background. A simple plate of fish & chips (while no rotting rabbit, mind you) looks static and gross.

And then there are the scenes in which Carol is not even present (and when we say that the film is seen through her point-of-view, that’s not the same as saying that we literally see things through her eyes). The ultra-strange conversation in the pub between Colin and his chums is informed by the same kind of misunderstanding of male-female relations and sexual terror that we see in Carol. And it ends, incongruously, with Colin’s garrulous mate urging him to “Relax, take it easy, enjoy life”—and then planting a kiss directly on Colin’s lips. Colin’s drawing his hand across his mouth echoes Carol’s gesture, when Colin had kissed her.

Even sanity rings with offbeat inflection. The sister’s man seems healthy enough, but his farewell to Carol—”Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”—is in the realm of the absurd. And his note to her on the postcard, “Don’t make too much Dolce Vita,” is like a terrible, cruel joke. The thought of Carol making anything remotely like la dolce vita is so ridiculous, the note becomes hurtfully pointed, like laughingly telling a quiet person to quit talking so much. Then there’s Carol’s only friend, the girl at the beauty salon, who responds to Carol’s tale of solitude by saying, “That’s enough to drive anyone up the wall!”—a loaded phrase within the design of the movie. She goes on to describe her merriment at seeing a Chaplin picture, and advises Carol to go out and see a movie. This brings the film’s most poignant throwaway moment: Carol says, “I’d love to!”, clearly hoping her friend might invite her out; but the friend doesn’t quite cross that line, the friendly hand is not extended, and Carol goes home alone to play out the final acts of her drama. By the way, the Chaplin film is The Gold Rush, and the scene the friend describes is the one in which Chaplin and his companion, delirious from hunger and cabin fever, go slightly insane, and Charlie appears to be a chicken—another story of cooped-up madness and distorted perspective. Polanski is thorough.

We end with the eye again, with the photograph. We’ve been given no explanation for Carol’s madness; we have seen only its persuasive reality. The clue of the photograph suggests that the sickness has been there for a long time, and is connected with Carol’s daydreaming, her fantasy, her imagination. That may disturb us most of all: that the dreamer’s reaction to civilization is to go insane, or enter an alternate reality. It’s a final tribute to Polanski’s skill that he doesn’t just submit this as an idea, but as a spookily haunting image. That little girl—who could be a young Catherine Deneuve—is a frightening and impenetrable figure because, like the first close-up of Carol, her face, eyes, posture, spirit communicate the presence of absolutely nothing.

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

by Robert Horton

“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.

night6Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.

Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.

Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.

You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.

Another helicopter shot finds Harry, trundling along the country roads in a Model T. The dead woman is clearly Harry’s handiwork; as he admits in his conversations with the Almighty, his habit—and pleasure—is killing rich widows. In his wide-brimmed hat and black suit, he looks like an avenging angel—and we haven’t even noticed his knuckles yet, which bear the tattooed letters LOVE and HATE on each hand (the film’s most famous contribution to popular culture, still borrowed for movies today, including Do the Right Thing). His homicidal fingers come into play when the Reverend Powell delivers his stirring lecture on “the little story of right hand, left hand,” a dubious discourse that convinces complacent suckers but doesn’t fool Powell’s adversary, a child. (Pauline Kael keenly noted that Powell is “a Pied Piper in reverse: adults trust him, children try to escape.”) Continue reading

Let the Quantum In (Weekly Links)

lettheright3A slow week for openings, thanks to 007. My Herald reviews:

Quantum of Solace.

Let the Right One In.

And for the Seattle Channel, I banter with Nancy Guppy about the new Bond picture and a box set featuring Gregory Peck: here.

I talk with KUOW-FM’s Jeremy Richards about 007 things and Buster Keaton’s The General. The movie talk comes at 38:30, here.

My take on Casino Royale, here.

Psycho

Psycho, by Robert Horton

What good came from Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho? Well, it was nice to hear Bernard Herrmann’s music throbbing out of Dolby stereo theater speakers. The color design confirmed Van Sant’s talent as an inventive art director. Anne Heche was alert and vulnerable in the birdlike role Janet Leigh had played in the original version of the movie.

Other than that, Van Sant’s faithful-but-flat update mainly served as an inadvertent testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, simply by reminding Psycho fans of how good Hitchcock’s film was in the first place. Psycho has withstood critical disdain (upon its first release, anyway), three sequels and a remake, frequent lampooning, slavish imitations, and thousands of shower jokes. Its survival gives ample evidence of its status as an American classic.

One other aspect of Van Sant’s full-color, visually handsome remake is worth mentioning: its sheen throws the cheapness of the Hitchcock film into focus. Crucial to Psycho’s power is its drab, black-and-white, quietly depressed ambiance. Hitchcock’s technical mastery was not in doubt at this point, the director having just finished the impeccably-produced Vertigo and North by Northwest, so his decision to shoot the film with his TV-series collaborators, rather than his regular crew, is fascinating and defining. Supposedly Hitchcock was being a good businessman; he saw the rewards being reaped by low-budget producers of the drive-in era, and saw a chance to make a bundle on a small investment (which he did, since Psycho became an enormous hit). Another motivating factor was studio nervousness about the dreadful subject matter. Psycho was adapted from a horror novel by Robert Bloch, who based his book on the saga of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin madman whose misadventures would later inspire the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies.

Not a subject in the classy Hitchcock vein, to be sure—so, yes, the producer-director was hedging his bets with a low-budget production. But I wonder if Hitchcock also instinctively understood the perfect match of budget and story. Psycho’s world, captured in the flat light of John L. Russell’s camera (he was a regular DP for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series), is one of small apartments and shitty jobs and drab motel rooms, a series of private traps for sorry people. The movie turns a light, in a particularly merciless way, on the empty corners of the human soul; everywhere you look, it is a spiritual Phoenix, Arizona. Continue reading

Halloween Countdown: Godzilla x 3

One of the interesting things about reviewing movies for a long, long time is that certain franchises keep coming ’round on a regular schedule, like comets returning every few years. Here are some time-capsule looks at Godzilla pictures that orbited during my watch.

Godzilla 1985 (published in The Herald, 1985)

Thirty years ago, a monster was born in the minds of some Japanese filmmakers: Godzilla, an enormous fire-breathing dinosaur who loved to stomp on Tokyo. The film made a lot of money, but when it was exported to the United States, somebody worried that it needed an identifiable American actor. So new scenes were shot and blithely spliced into the original. They featured Raymond Burr trying to find a way to defeat the indestructible monster.

Godzilla spawned a raft of Japanese monster movies, and the big guy himself starred in many of them, often doing titanic battle with other monsters as Tokyo was repeatedly trampled underfoot. Now, just when you thought the trend was waning, it’s Godzilla 1985, a comeback picture that did good business in Japan last year. Once again, someone on the American side decided to put an American actor in place — and who better than Raymond Burr, reprising his original role?

So now, when Godzilla breaks out of his grave early in the film, there’s a cut to Burr’s face, bearded and bulkier, registering some kind of cosmic tremor. For a few minutes, it looks as though this remake/sequel might be fun.

You have the usual badly dubbed Japanese actors saying to each other, “We don’t know for certain Godzilla will attack Japan” (obviously, they’ve never seen a Godzilla movie). Continue reading

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