Sunday, June 30, 2013

V/H/S 2 (2013)

Time's a little out of joint, since we're breaking up our 20s flow, but this is a very-hyped sequel to a very hyped first film that left many, me included, pretty disappointed.  "Sequel" is loosely-applied here—we get a similar house-full-of-tapes wraparound, but it's a different house with no sign of the first film's housebreakers.  Otherwise, the only carryover is the anthology format itself.  We get one fewer entry this go-round, which really works in 2's favor—there's a little more breathing room, a little more space for impact.  This will have spoilers!


There's almost a record for quickest tits debut, then a private investigator and his amour enter a house on the trail of a missing college student.  They find the room above, with a laptop and many a television and tape.  The PI searches the house while his girlfriend watches tapes, giving us the frame for our movie.  The first entry concerns a guy who has received an eye implant, courtesy of some ambiguous company.  The implant includes a camera which cannot be turned off and we get plenty of footage of the guy looking into mirrors.  Too bad he's not a coke addict or this would seem more natural.


This eye is like the eye from THE EYE and the guy quickly starts seeing sallow and raccoon-eyed dead people around his house.  A girl shows up and tells him that she had the same problem following a company-sponsored cochlear implant.  Then they make love, then die.  Adam Wingard directed this and it's perfectly fine, nothing spectacular, but nothing offensive either.  Just a good first foray.  Next...


Eduardo Sanchez of BLAIR WITCH, ALTERED, and LOVELY MOLLY turns in another fun short, this one a first-person bicycler-zombie romp, complete with an attack on a child's birthday party.  I liked the zombie's looks and especially their sounds, like spastic mumbles, the sounds old people make sometimes when you try to explain the Internet to them.  Again, good times, but no timeless classic and perhaps a bit below the usual Sanchez gold standard.  It's weird to think that, without him, this movie/genre would not even exist.  Things to remember: zombies prefer iPhones.


Third, THE RAID director Gareth Evans offers a pretty lengthy tour of an Asian apocalyptic cult.  Cults as a subject would seemingly be a good choice for horror, but the films mostly don't work.  Nothing has come close to toppling WICKER MAN as the cult cult film supreme and this short doesn't mount a serious challenge.  The initial stages are pretty lifeless, as we get the admittedly-hilar-looking leader ranting and raving while the film crew tours his bunker of folk songs and incest.


But then the film just decides to throw up its hands and go CRAZY.  Everything that could splatter does, flesh gets shredded like Christmas paper, and it all leads to an ending that some might say goes too far into ridiculous monstery outrageousness.  But I loved it, man, I think the best thing that you can do with this format is keep the tempo rapid and don't skimp on the red and cast puppets if you can.  Half moody waiting, half orgy of violence, very flawed and very good.


The movie took the song's advice and saved the best for last.  Jason Eisener, who directed this, also did HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, so you'd expect the prior entry's unreasonable sensibilities to continue.  They don't, though, as this entry pairs right up with V/H/S 1's curtain call in that it uses the same kind of haunted house/video game structure.  Except that, this time, a dog has the camera.


Kids run around and try and fail to escape monsters, really sinister grey aliens in this case, so I amazed that I actually slept last night.  This felt like a very fun ride, like something that you'd hit first at an amusement park.  No, it doesn't have much to say about art or human nature or the nature of the universe, but it has chafed aliens breaking open attic doors to get at you and sometimes that's all that you need.


The V/H/S movies, like a lot of modern horror, are driven by unrelenting hype from the Internet's horror establishment.  So I was wary about believing the raves regarding the improvement visible in the sequel.  Guess what, it really is better!  I wouldn't say it's a great or very good film, but its flaws are less naked than the first film's and it's a great deal faster and more fun.  Horror anthologies are generally pretty unmemorable, so saying that this ranks in the top half of the horror anthology scale probably isn't fulsome praise.  But it's worth a watch if this kind of thing is your kind of thing.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

FAUST (1926)

"Breathtaking" is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  Despite the ambitions of neo-bohemians, artwalks and chapbooks are rarely really breathtaking, and even beautiful sunsets get old, just like beautiful women.  But "breathtaking" is the adjective that FAUST calls to mind right from the start, when a trio of demonic horsemen emerge from the clouds, steeds snorting smoke.


The Faust legend is old, much older than Goethe's famous incarnation of it.  Shakespeare competitor Christopher Marlowe wrote a stage version of it in 1604, based on the life of a real alchemist and astrologer.  In this Murnau film, Faust is a sort of local shaman/Mr. Fixit, using protean scientific methods to salve local illnesses.  But that's the action at the microscopic level.  FAUST actually starts at the cosmic level, with the devil wagering that he can divide Faust from his divine nature.  An angel takes the bet.


It's been forever since I read Faust, so I'm not sure which elements are shared or distinct between the film and its literary ancestors.  I loved the Job overtures, with heaven and hell symbolically placing mankind's performance review in one man's hands.  And Faust fumbles our ball a lot in this, but initially it's the plague that drives him into Mephisto's arms.  He is frustrated because none of his knowledge can save his fellow citizens from death by plague.  The plague that the devil unleashes in this momentous scene.


Dude, intellectually I know that's a guy standing over a miniature set, but Murnau does such a fantastic job at constructing the scenes that I just gasped when the demon appeared and sent the plague into the village.  And during the fair, too, what a dick!  


The horror elements of this get scaled back a bit as the film proceeds, although Mephisto's debut is certainly creepy enough.  He also sports a kind of proto-Exorcist look during one of the film's many fine FX scenes.


Although Faust's consent to his Faustian bargain is well-intentioned, the townspeople don't see it that way once they realize that he's not right with God.  To thank him for chancing his soul to spare their lives, they throw rocks at his face.  At this point, Faust's more selfish urges come to the fore.  Mephisto gives him youth, then arranges a tryst with a beautiful aristocrat (who immediately dumps her fiancee once she sees a Mephisto-conjured gem).


Soon enough, Faust falls for a girl from his village named Gretchen.  Mephisto again is the worldly wingman, winning the lady's ardent heart with pretty very sparkly object-things.  The temptation subtext that recurs here is quite great, as is the recurring motif of the mirror as a flag for sinful desire.


At this point, FAUST starts to lose a bit of the unstoppability that it has previously demonstrated.    The slow romance between Faust and Gretchen takes center stage and Mephisto is kicked into the background, along with a comedic aunt.  


Thankfully, this wrong turn is quickly righted, as FAUST gets even more myopic and focuses on the travails of Gretchen.  These scenes provide a 180 from the light rom-com of the pastoral scenes and are essentially woman-misfortune deathporn of the Roaring Twenties.  It's here that we also start to see humanity from Satan's POV, as crowds of sniggering assholes gawk at the chained Gretchen.  


Gretchen could have been a throwaway good-girl love interest, but FAUST gives her tons of depth.  She becomes the film's Christ character through her splendid display of self-sacrifice and even has visions like an Old Testament prophet.


Camilla Horn is the film's MVP as Gretchen.  As mammoth in scope as the first half gets, these final scenes are the most affecting.  Without them, this would be a spectacle, but basically remote and academic.  The Gretchen scenes rehumanize FAUST (and Faust!).  They turn what would have been a very good technical achievement into a classic and definitive masterwork.


Choosing between this and CALIGARI was a nightmare.  If the comedy-aunt scenes had been excised, FAUST would be #1.  Even so, you should rush right out (via a car, or Roku or YouTube) and see this.  It's exquisite and breathtaking, the end.


RATING: 9/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  Faust (1926)
3.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
4.  The Man Who Laughs (1928)
5.  The Unknown (1927)
6.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
7.  The Wind (1928)
8.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
9.  A Page of Madness (1926)
10.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Monday, June 24, 2013

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

Is this a horror film?  THE MAN WHO LAUGHS is an adaptation of semi-forgotten Victor Hugo work and kneads the monstrosity/love themes of Hunchback of Notre Dame with the social commentary/constant crying of Les Mis.  A movie about disfigurement for moms and daughters to enjoy together!  But, listen, fuck Gypsies.  In the 17th century, they kidnap kids and slash their faces into permanent grins, then sell them as clowns and sideshow attractions.  One such kid is Gwynplaine, son of a rebel who's offended the king.  Said king sleeps in history's awesomest bedroom, complete with creepy statues that serve as secret forts for insidious jesters.


All that covers perhaps the first five minutes of this film.  It's totally Victor Hugo in that it has a sweeping epic plot and dense characterization.  The homeless and deformed Gwynplaine finds a baby in its dead mother's arms.  The two urchins find relief in the hovel of Ursus the Philosopher, who eventually brings smiling Gwynplaine and blind beauty Dea into show business, such as it was.


The dick king dies and is replaced by Queen Anne, who forces people to attend exceedingly boring chamber music concerts.  One of said people is the duchess Josiana, who ducks out of concert duty so she can parade around naked and attend street fairs.  She sees one of Gwynplaine's performances and summons him to her presence, stimulated by...what?  Inclination toward the perverse?  Pity?


Mostly, I think it's because she's a proto-hipster rich kid, who tries all kinds of things to try to make herself less of a boring spoiled rich kid.  If she lived in 2013, she would be a Wiccan with a Doctor Who shirt and gauged ears and a feminist Tumblr, but, being stuck in 1690, she has to settle for sideshow freaks and a pet monkey.


WAAAAH I WANNA BE A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE TOO!  My dislike of Josiana is fired by my extreme love of the Gwyneplaine/Dea love affair.  I have (almost) never cried about a movie, but when Dea says, "God closed my eyes so I could see the real Gwyneplaine", my allergies suddenly struck hard.  


Lon Chaney was originally going to get the Gwyneplaine role, but contractual mischance lead to Conrad Veidt assuming the part.  What a stroke of luck for us, movie friends!  Veidt is consistently incredible here, delivering a very nuanced and emotional performance despite the omnipresent rictus grin.  Fun fact: Veidt's appearance here as the slit-mouthed man inspired Bob Kane to develop the Joker character for Batman, who would eventually develop into Heath Ledger's slit-mouthed Joker for grimnoir film The Dark Knight.  Circles upon Nietzschean circles.  Mary Philbin is also present as Dea and has much more to do than she did in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Matter of fact, the entire cast is pretty terrific!


The filmmaking on a technical level is impressive, too, lots of interesting shots (THAT WOODEN FERRIS WHEEL SHOT WTFOMGZ) and crisp editing.   A way better outing for director Paul Leni than the middling WAXWORKS!  Plus, MAN was kind of a transitional silent film in that it did have "sound" (sound effects like knocking and group murmuring), but no individual spoken dialogue.  So that's interesting as well...


So is it a horror film?  There's no killing, no monster attacks, and basically the only thing that plants this in horror territory is the presence of deformity.  But is HUNCHBACK a horror film?  Is FREAKS?  Is simple physical oddity enough to qualify a work?  I thought briefly about all this, but decided that the dark tone, child-carving Gypsies, and facial grotesques were enough to merit inclusion.  Plus it's a very good-to-great film and I wanted some shifting to happen at the top of the list for once!

RATING: 8/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Man Who Laughs (1928)
4.  The Unknown (1927)
5.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
6.  The Wind (1928)
7.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
8.  A Page of Madness (1926)
9.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
10. Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire (1920)

Monday, June 17, 2013

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920)

One of the earliest iterations of the often-filmed tale, this JEKYLL sticks John Barrymore in the title role(s) and sticks very close to the Victorian sensibilities of the original Stevenson novel.  Dr. Henry Jekyll is just so good, splitting his time between experiments and doctoring the poor at a free clinic.  Other characters' jimmies are rustled by his infernal do-gooding and infamous rake George Carew, dad of Jekyll's fiancee, decides to drag him down into the gutter with the rest of us.  So he takes him to the home of seedy vice, the dancing hall, this one creeping with comely prostitutes of the English rose variety:


So hot.  Physical beauty is not stored up for the winter in this film, even though the fashion is Victorianly smashing. 


 Jekyll is tempted by an Italian dancing girl named Gina, who wears a ring with a chamber for storing poison, and who looks like this.  Reader, you and I have probably made worse choices in bars, so let us not throw stones.


This whole experience wakens Jekyll to "a sense of his baser nature".  He begins to fantasize about splitting the "two natures in man" (evil and good) into "different bodies", ostensibly so he can sin physically without imperiling his soul.  I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE OF 1886.  So Jekyll quickly whips up a phial of man-nature-splitting soda and drinks it, releasing the beast within him, Mr. Hyde.  He looks like this:


To be fair, it gets better as the movie progresses.  Barrymore was working without the makeup that would make later versions of this story so memorable and basically just relied on facial contortions.  At times (above), it looks bad, but at times it doesn't.  Plus the splendidly-rendered title cards compensate for imbalances on the visual side.


While Hyde is strewing his trails with depravity victim, Jekyll is...engaged!  To a woman named Milicent!  Who plays piano!  And is SO GOOD!


This woman obviously has no time for depravity.  JEKYLL & HYDE then becomes a story of choices in love, with the bland and inoffensive beauty of Milicent on one side and the ethnic excitement of Gina on the other.  This is Ivanhoe with delirium tremens hallucinations!


I liked that Jekyll's experiments were prompted by his dawning awareness of his chthonic appetites.  There's a great compulsion-repulsion thing happening once he's pulled out of his ivory tower by his soon-to-be stepdad and he tries to utilize his science ways to put tidy boundaries around his new whore & liquor interests.  Doesn't work, but it was a good try!  Barrymore is pretty solid as Jekyll/Hyde, even though this is very Victorian-shallow in terms of characterization.  Everyone is either debauched, goody-good, a poor, or a child actor.


Which brings us to another thing I liked.  NO THANK YOU, CHILD ACTOR.


Anyway, we eventually have a perfectly Victorian resolution with lots of swooning and dramatic dying.  This JEKYLL is clearly outperformed by the 1931 and 1941 versions (and DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, which I love so much), but it's pretty fun, if a little limited by its Dickensian style.  It's not a world-changer, but it's a perfectly fine & inoffensive morality play.


RATING: 7/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
5.  The Wind (1928)
6.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
7.  A Page of Madness (1926)
8.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
9.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
10.  Alraune (1928)

Friday, June 14, 2013

WAXWORKS (1924)

This one just barely limped across the genre line to horror.  WAXWORKS is a very early example of the anthology film and the wraparound in this case demonstrates that wraparounds have always been extraordinarily weak and underconceived.  So don't feel bad, CREEPSHOW 2.  A writer sees an ad at the fair and lands a job writing backstories for the three or so wax figures in the world's most disappointing wax museum.  This ersatz plot leads to the real meat of WAXWORKS, two short historical/fantastic films about Ivan the Terrible and fat Arab polyamorist Haroun, plus a teeny baby tacked-on story about Spring-Heeled Jack and/or Jack the Ripper, who I'm pretty sure were two different people, but whatever. 


First, we have the film's lengthiest entry.  A baker in one of Islam's many golden eras is married to a beauty who he keeps behind doors, away from hungry eyes.  She's bored with her locked-in life, so he promises to steal the Caliph's magical wishing ring for her, right after he squeezes her boobs with his floury hands.


But, in the film's most imaginative sequence, portly Caliph Haroun enjoys walking around at night for exercise and he ends up at the baker's house with his wife.  WAXWORKS is pretty restrained here and doesn't even give us kissing on the lips, but doles out scads of Shakespeare-lite love-trio comedy.  There are some decent visuals to be had as well, but generally I was pretty unimpressed.


Section 2!  Ivan the Terrible can't really help his behavior because his name is Ivan the Terrible.  His main hobby is watching people die after they've been poisoned.  He employs a "poison mixer" to write victims' names on an hourglass.  Life sucked before Roku.


The visuals here, like in the Haroun entry, are intermittently enjoyable.  Picking Baghdad and Russia as settings was a fine call, as we get minarets and onion domes to enjoy even when the plots sputter and falter.  The story as such wasn't super-compelling, but this portion at least had fewer grating elements than the Haroun "whimsy".


Finally, horror!  Gets 6 whole minutes!  Back in the wax museum, the Jack figure comes to life and stalks our hero writer and the gal who also works at the wax museum (that has three figures total).  This is a trippy sequence, with tons of superimpositions of carnival rides and such laid atop images of cringing and glaring.  


Most anthologies are failures in a creative or artistic sense.  Approximately none of them excel at cohesion or gestalt, so the best that one can reasonably expect is a gem or two along the way.  Nothing in WAXWORKS was memorably offensive, but nothing was especially memorable either. Like the last few silents I've seen, mediocre, and I'm starting to think there's a reason I hadn't heard of a lot of this stuff before.

RATING: 5/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S (unchanged!):
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
5.  The Wind (1928)
6.  A Page of Madness (1926)
7.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
8.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
9.  Alraune (1928)
10. The Magician (1926)

Monday, June 10, 2013

ALRAUNE (1928)

aka A DAUGHTER OF DESTINY aka UNHOLY LOVE, ALRAUNE puts the lie to the notion that eroticism and perversity are an invention of the modern day.  This 1928 thing sloshes all around in pre-code sin, as you can tell from this synopsis: smart scientist Professor Jakob ten Brinken is an expert on genetic crossbreeding.  In other news, there's a legend that says mandrakes grow underneath the corpses of hanged criminals (SCIENCE BREAK: this is because hanging causes involuntary ejaculation, which you can learn more about by reading Naked Lunch and other classic literary smut at your local library, or by reading David Carradine's autopsy report).  ten Brinken dreams of impregnating a young woman with a mandrake, it's all he wants in the world, but he informs his nephew that "You must seek her out for me from the scum of society!"  Hello, scum...


And this is the mandrake...


This is some kind of kabuki demon guy that hangs on the ten Brinken wall.  It doesn't have anything to do with the story, I just like it a lot.  "NOW TRY ON CAMISOLES FOR ME"


So the whole mandrake pregnancy actually works.  And they called him mad!  It produces a girl who is named Mandrake and is thus already set to fail in the world.  Because strip clubs hadn't been invented yet, Mandrake contents herself with breaking out of a nunnery, then peer-pressuring her boyfriend to steal from his parents and take her on a train trip.


She sluts across the rails and whores her way into a circus gig.  By this point, it's starkly clear that something is wrong with Mandrake.  She exhibits behavior that moderns would call sociopathic, explores pleasures without concern for consequences, and isn't afraid of mice.  And stares down lions in the circus's lion cage.  PS: This is the first time I've ever wanted to read a feminist analysis of any work of art.


Finally, ten Brinken finds her and we go from a voyeuristic tour of Mandrake misbehavior into narrowly-averted Prof/Mandrake "incest"(? I guess? I mean, she was made out of a mandrake, but??? SPLICE?).  Don't worry, though, it all works out.


ALRAUNE sounds incredible, admittedly.  The synopsis makes it seem like it couldn't fail to be a amazing movie and yet it's so weirdly uninvolving, almost like the emotional blankness of its characters have splashed all over the film as a whole.  And story's really the only thing that this can claim as its own special merit.  The acting is decent, the visuals are fine-but-unexciting, so the potential of the story is what is going to either sell you or not on ALRAUNE.  Plus, like HARD CANDY, it ends in the most saccharine and timid way possible, although, unlike HARD CANDY, it has the excuse of being nearly 100 years old.  From the board game, ALRAUNE OR THE WIZARD OF OZ:


So she ditches what's special and different about her to become just another girl.  Have fun pinning jar pictures on Pinterest, Mandrake! Interesting, but not especially good.

RATING: 5/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
5.  The Wind (1928)
6.  A Page of Madness (1926)
7.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
8.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
9.  Alraune (1928)
10. The Magician (1926)