Wednesday, September 28, 2011


A martial arts or wuxia movie set in snowy locations is as unusual to me as a spaghetti western in a similar setting, but any comparison between Lo Wei's wintry adventure and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence must end there. The two films are alike only in their bracing visual novelty, the locations for Shadow Whip enlivening a rather silly story. The mighty Cheng Pei-Pei stars as innkeeper Yun Kaiyun, who lives and learns the art of the fighting whip from her uncle Fang Chentian (Feng Tien). All of a sudden, a chance encounter on the road into town brings all sorts of trouble down on the inn. Two swordsmen and a band of bandits all have grudges with Fang, the man known as "the Shadow Whip," and it's taken all of them 15 years to track him down. Turns out he's been in hiding ever since a big, brazen robbery of a caravan that left its organizer dead, the security firm hired to protect it bankrupt, and the bandit gang severely pissed off. They'd planned to raid the caravan, only to have the Shadow Whip apparently beat them to it, and now they want to avenge his waste of their time. Meanwhile, Fang's onetime sworn brother, who'd asked him to help out guarding the caravan, wants revenge for his betrayal, and the son of the organizer wants plain old blood for blood. But what looks like a tale of terrible discoveries by Yun about her uncle twists into a whodunit when a flashback reveals his innocence. It isn't much of a mystery once Fang himself is off the hook, and it's hard to believe that he's spent 15 years in hiding without ever considering the most obvious possibility. But this is the sort of picture where the real culprit can be tricked into incriminating himself with ridiculous ease, so Feng's stupidity doesn't exactly stand out. Let's concede that the plot is just an excuse for the action and move on to the meat of the picture.

The Shadow Whip's winter wonderland: Cheng Pei-Pei rides to the rescue (above) while Feng Tien demonstrates a practical use of his signature weapon.

Fang and Yun can do amazing things with whips, with a lot of help from the director. Sight gags abound: they can whip a sword out of one enemy's hand and fling it into the belly of another; with superhuman strength, Yun can wrap a whip around a foe and haul him into the air to serve as a human shield against a flight of spears; Fang can whip an antagonist and torque him skyward, only to have Yun lash out and slam the poor schmuck to the ground. That may be cool on paper, but the stunt and effects work here is often quite crude, including some of the most blatantly visible wires I've ever seen on actors. It's almost as if Lo Wei presumes we'll be so impressed with his locations that we'll ignore his sloppiness with the basics. This is one of those films where the most powerful characters can virtually fly through the air, where one character is so light on his feet that he leaves no prints in the snow, but Lo Wei lacks the vision or the budget to give the superhuman action the necessary disbelief-suspending smoothness. This isn't an uncommon fault in Shaw Bros. product of the early Seventies, but this time the fight scenes don't quite make up for it. The whip-vs.-sword fights lack the lethal elegance of sword-vs-sword or the creative weirdness of more eccentric weapons -- like the exploding crossbow bolts fired by the villainous "Serial Trio" here. I'm sure there's an art to whip fighting, but here it looks like so much flailing about, at one extreme, or unconvincing stage artifice, at the other.

Fortunately, a brisk pace (done in 79 minutes) and enthusiastic performances by Cheng and the rest of the cast make Shadow Whip easy to endure, while the snowy locations are an added attraction that distinguishes the picture from the run of the mill. It's a mild mediocrity for the most part, but it's still a must-see for Cheng Pei-Pei completists, and Shaw Bros. fans should find something to enjoy here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

THE MUSIC ROOM (Jalsaghar, 1958)

My impression had been that Satyajit Ray was the "serious" Indian director, the one who didn't stuff his movies with gratuitous musical numbers and had the respect of the global arthouse crowd. So of course both of his films that I've seen -- this one and The Chess Players -- have extensive musical interludes. Neither, however, fits the stereotype of a "Bollywood" product. The performances are (presumably) authentic to the period of each film and relevant to each film's story. That's more true of Jalsaghar, which Ray made between the second and third films of his fame-making "Apu" trilogy. Like Chess Players, Music Room is a gently satiric story of aristocracy in decline. But while Chess Players is a period piece in which its protagonists game away while Britain consolidates its power over India, Music Room is set in the modern day and sees its hero succumb to modernity and his own indolence. But with his demise, Ray seems to say, an older, admirable culture passes from the scene.

Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is a zamindar, a Bengali feudal landlord whose land and revenues are slowly being washed away by floods and storms. Despite his declining fortunes, Roy still insists on playing his traditional role as a patron of the arts, which means hiring the leading musicians and dancers to perform for the leading men of the community in his music room as well as setting off lots of fireworks during popular festivals. An amateur musician himself, he imparts his love of Indian music to his son while his wife laments his impractical ways. Roy works himself into a rivalry with a local upstart, the businessman Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Bose), who's building an ostentatious modern home on land acquired from the zamindar, with a music room of his own. Roy is determined to outbid Ganguli for the best talent even if he bankrupts himself, but breaks down when his wife and son are killed by a cyclone returning from a trip to relatives.

Heartbroken, Roy closes his music room and vegetates as his fortune further deteriorates, until Ganguli shows up to announce his hiring of an acclaimed dancer for his performance space. Aroused by the once-deferential Ganguli's newfound condescension, Roy orders his retainers to take the last of his savings, money reserved for local temples, to hire the same dancer for his own refurbished music room. After her performance, he has one last triumph over Ganguli, insisting on his seignurial right to make the first offering of coins to her. Having reaffirmed himself, and having nothing left but furniture to auction off, he decides to die in the saddle as his mighty ancestors might have....

Ray regards Roy with affectionate ambivalence. The zamindar is undeniably a hopeless spendthrift and what the Russians might call a superfluous man. He is literally framed as a museum piece, often gazing into a full-length mirror surrounded by portraits of his ancestors, as if he were no more than a figment of art or, worse, a piece of furniture himself. Roy simply seems unfit for the modern world, but what does that say for the modern world? It's hard to say, mainly because Ray never lets us really see things from Ganguli's perspective. The businessman is little more than a foil for Roy, motivated by ambition and some resentment of Roy's past condescension toward him. But Ray seems to want to say that Ganguli is some sort of philistine compared to Roy, someone who patronizes the arts only to show off his wealth, while Roy is shown as a sincere music lover. The musicians and dancers make money no matter who pays them, of course, but Ray wants us to be as impressed with Roy's devotion to music as we are bound to be by the virtuoso performers the director puts on screen. To that extent, Jalsaghar is like the parable of the widow's mite. Ganguli may well prove as reliable a patron of the arts as Roy was, but the moral of the story seems to be, in part, that Roy's love is greater because he gave everything he had. And if the Indian aristocracy is to pass away anyway, then what a way to go....

Jalsaghar reminded me more than anything else of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, another story of an aristocrat attempting to cope with changing times. While Roy never learns the famously paradoxical lesson of that film and the novel that inspired it -- if we want things to stay as they are, then everything has to change -- and ends up more like Gerald O'Hara from Gone With The Wind than like Burt Lancaster's Sicilian grandee, Ray's and Visconti's films have a similar elegiac tone of regret for what goes when aristocracy passes away. If that sounds reactionary, bear in mind that Visconti was a Marxist, while I don't know about Ray's politics, and that in both films aristocracy is supplanted not by egalitarian democracy but by bourgeois boors. That overthrow leaves an implicit question mark hanging over the end of The Music Room. Will a world of Gangulis who no longer have Roys to emulate still have time and resources to dedicate to art for art's sake? Depending on your feeling for Indian music and dance -- and anyone's feelings aside, the virtuosity of all the performers is indisputable -- Ray makes that a question worth asking and an occasion for regretting the demise of someone who might otherwise seem like no great loss. In a film intended as a tribute to art, that's a small triumph of art itself.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wendigo Meets STAKE LAND (2011)

While my friend Wendigo is the real vampire-movie fan, he sometimes doesn't know about the lower-profile indy vampire films until I happen to stumble upon them. That was the case earlier this year when I mentioned that a low-budget vamp movie was getting rave reviews down in New York City. He hadn't heard of Stake Land at that point, and didn't really remember my mentioning it when I showed him the DVD from the Albany Public Library. He isn't automatically impressed by positive notices in The New Yorker or other publications, nor should he be, but he saw no reason not to take a chance on Jim Mickle's apocalyptic vision, and now it's a film he wants to add to his personal collection.

Mickle envisions the fall of America within a generation of the outbreak of some kind of contagion -- he's vague about the cause but biological warfare seems likely -- that turns millions of people into fanged bloodsuckers who die in sunlight. Bad enough on its own terms, the contagion is abetted by a cult militia, the Brotherhood, who believe that the vampires are God's scourge to cleanse the earth. By providing the apparently mindless vampires with victims, the Brotherhood acquires a measure of control over them, and uses them as biological weapons, dropping them from helicopters into secure enclaves ("lockdowns") from small hamlets to Washington D.C. The federal government has collapsed, the politicians have fled or died, and the cities are hopelessly infested. That leaves survivors in small communities to fend for themselves in lockdowns or forge north toward "New Eden" in spite of rumors of cannibalism there. It's a world where lone-wolf hunters like "Mister" (co-writer Nick Damici) have become legends, but have also become a dying breed, and where extracted vampire fangs are trophies and a kind of currency. It's probably a matter of prestige rather than value; if you can show some fangs, particularly the long ones from "berserker" vampires, you can get a lot on the house.
Above, Mister (Nick Damici) plies his trade.
Below, the currency of his trade.
Mister is heading north with his assistant Martin (Connor Paolo), whom he rescued from an attack that left Martin's parents dead. Mister's a hard taskmaster, but you can understand his reasons, though people tend to question whether traveling is a better option than settling down, especially given the dangers in the wilderness where the Brotherhood holds sway. But Mister is a classic restless loner, Martin notwithstanding, and he seems to think that all the lockdowns are doomed, anyway. Inevitably, though, he runs afoul of the Brotherhood when he rescues a nun (Kelly McGillis) from rape and kills the son of local Brotherhood chieftain Jebedia (Michael Cerveris). The trio fall into a Jonestown trap, a feigned mass suicide, and are captured, the nun to become Jebedia's concubine, Martin to be raised by the Brotherhood, and Mister to be left tied up on the road at night as vampire chow. But Mister is not so easily disposed of, and Martin isn't so easily deterred from running away, and after some narrow escapes they leave the nun to her fate and hit the road again.

Mister hunts humans as well, especially rapists, but that puts him in trouble with the hooded Brotherhood

Along the way they hook up with an ex-Marine and pick up a pregnant hitchhiker (Danielle Harris)before taking revenge on Jebedia and reuniting with the somehow-escaped nun (it's really so unbelievable that she got away that we actually thought it might be a dream sequence) in another lockdown. A brief moment of reunions and revelry is ruined by a Brotherhood airdrop.  Leaving the lockdown folk to rebuild, our motley quintet ventures out once more, only to gradually discover that they're being stalked by a new kind of mutated vampire -- a "thinker" who proves all too familiar....

A fleeting moment of peace for Connor Paolo and "paranormal expert" Danielle Harris,
with Kelly McGillis barely visible at screen right.

Wendigo and I were strangely reminded of I Am Legend -- the Richard Matheson novel, not any of the movie versions -- by Stake Land's vampires and by its otherwise relatively sociable hero. The vamps here are folkloric revenants, little more than hungry corpses without any gifts for seduction, but still sufficiently humanoid that they're scary in a way the animalistic vampires from Priest were not. There are telling moments in Mickle's film where people recognize their vamp attackers as former neighbors and friends; some of the moments are sad, some sardonically funny. Mickle and Damici put their own stamp on the vamps by introducing different classifications and noting numerous mutations. They create a jargon of labels like "berserkers" (who have longer fangs and tougher breastplates, requiring a stake through the spine) and "scamps," young, confused vampires who haven't quite developed the killer instinct yet. They also try to naturalize the phenomena, by noting that vamps don't flourish in cold climates, while following Matheson in giving them some traditional yet unaccountable vulnerabilities. Following Priest, this is the second vampire film we've seen in a row that climaxes with the appearance of a "new" kind of intelligent vampire that comes closest to the traditional movie vampire. Wendigo suggests that this possible trend that portrays the traditional master vampire as the product of an evolutionary process is necessary to convince a skeptical audience that a lone humanoid vampire can once again be scary. The "thinker" or "human vampire" is a game-changer, Wendigo contends, changing the rules that the fantasy scenario has so carefully laid down. They're also an admission by writers and directors that the hordelike inhuman vampire really isn't as scary as they sometimes claim.

At the same time, Stake Land seemed to us at times like Zombieland played straight, with a violent eccentric training a neophyte and real risk facing any character we get to know.  Like in Zombieland, characters aren't encouraged to dwell on their pasts, and we never learn how Mister became a hunter or got his nickname. There's implicit resignation in this, an admission that there's no point dwelling on the past because it's gone and not coming back. That helps establish the plausibly postapocalyptic setting for a film that's more Mad Max than Road Warrior, though Wendigo was reminded even more of the Walking Dead comics and TV series. So does the enactment of a widely shared American nightmare of a militia cult taking over and imposing a reign of fanatic terror. The Brotherhood are such hateful villains that Wendigo and I were perplexed that the people in the lockdowns didn't join forces to destroy them utterly. But that's societal breakdown for you, I guess, and it may have something to do with Mister's lack of faith in any of the lockdowns. In any event, it's a story of "Red" America against itself, with a bias toward country music even among the good survivors, but we're not sure if there's a message to that.

Stake Land isn't above the occasional festive Romero homage.

Stake Land has a visceral quality that's probably only enhanced by Mickle's obviously small budget. Wendigo could tell whenever Mickle was cutting corners, and we could tell that he was doing so creatively, particularly when he stages the vampire airdrop in the obvious absence of an actual helicopter. You'll also notice that there aren't horde attacks or burning or exploding vampires -- we only see the remains when vamps are left out in the sun. The less obvious fakery, i.e. the less cheap CGI you use, the more convincing the fantasy actually becomes. Most of Mickle's effects budget went to makeup and practical gore effects, though Stake Land doesn't go overboard with the latter. The real keys to the movie's pretense of authenticity are Mickle's location work and art direction, which set the story in genuinely rundown and rugged settings and occasionally achieve paradoxically pastoral, even idyllic effects, and the committed acting of Damici and the rest of the unglamorous cast. Connor Paolo recovers quickly from his "Call me Ishmael" style opening to play a coming-of-age role in uncliched, unpredictable style. A completely deglamorized Kelly McGillis impresses in her small role as someone barely qualified to cope with disaster who struggles constantly to retain her moral sense. Not even Mister is a generic character, archetypal as sometimes seems. He's not a super slayer, despite his reputation, and he doesn't have all the answers or all the wisdom -- which means he's in as constant peril of making a fatal mistake as everyone else. Like the hero of The Road, it's possible to say that Mister's go-it-alone approach is the wrong answer for the time, and the ending suggests that Mister himself may have realized this. In fact, the film promises no safety, but insists on no doom, for any of the characters. It ends at a literal liminal point of transition, a border crossing that really stands for nothing but another milestone crossed. It's the happy ending of a day, or a stage, at most, and it's not particularly reassuring. Nor is it meant to be, since Stake Land is arguably a fall-of-America scenario first and foremost, with the vampires as a Macguffin -- though that doesn't dilute its power as a vampire film very much.

Mickle's movie will be joining Wendigo's permanent collection because it's a carefully crafted, convincing and character-driven fantasy rather than the all-too-common compilation of vampire cliches. In short, Stake Land creates the illusion of a real world gone terribly wrong. As such, Wendigo says it's the best vampire film he's seen since Let The Right One In. He recommends it strongly to any vampire fan, and especially to those who, unlike Wendigo himself, are sick and tired of the benign vampire fantasies of Twilight and the like. He hopes that Stake Land is a film all vampire fans can agree upon.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On the Big Screen: DRIVE (2011)

Late as I am to the party, I'm probably saying nothing new if I mention that Nicolas Winding Refn's new thriller, which has become perhaps the most divisive movie in the blogosphere this year, is very much a backward looking film. If anything, commentary to date has understated Drive's retrospective scope. Masters of the obvious note the film's debts to crime cinema of the 1980s, particularly the works of Michael Mann and Walter Hill, and Mann provides a jumping-off point to trace Refn's influences back to Jean-Pierre Melville, a fellow European. But we can go further back yet. I saw hints of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly in the hero's nighttime shoreline showdown with an enemy, for instance, and that takes us back to the 1950s. Beyond that, this is a film so soaked in history that Frank Capra's grandson is one of the producers. But let's draw the line at Capracorn; Drive has none of that, though its hero is, for all intents and purposes, a John Doe. Nevertheless, the Capra family tree takes us all the way back to the silent era, and in the skeleton of its story and its aspirations to pathos, Refn's film, adapted by Hossein Amini from a James Sallis novel, is like a silent film -- like many a silent comedy, to be more precise. A nameless denizen of an underworld pines for a woman and the family life she embodies, but renounces his desires, first to secure a future for the woman and her husband and then, after that doesn't quite work out, solely for the sake of the woman and her son, before he hits the road one more (or last) time -- but not until some spectacular gags (as movie stunts are often called) take place. I don't mean to say that Drive is funny -- it's not even unintentionally so. But it's more evidence for my contention that the modern action film evolved from silent comedy (Buster Keaton's The General being the proto action film). Everyone notes that the anonymous driver, whom I'm tempted to call Scorpion for the design on his jacket, has little to say in the picture, but they trace that to Mann and Melville's brooding antiheroes. I'm just saying you can go much further back to sound the depths of Drive's influences. But to get to the meat of the matter, you might not have to go so far back in time. Refn may have tipped his hand slightly when he (or Cliff Martinez, who's credited with the soundtrack) went to the Tarantino well to score the scene where a masked Scorpion lurks outside a restaurant where Ron Perlman's gangster is partying. I feel certain that I alone in the afternoon audience recognized those lyrics as they played, and I practically marked out. Let me show you why. Take a look at the first three minutes of this clip that dmovie27 uploaded to YouTube.

Riz Ortolani wrote that tune for the late Gualtiero Jacopetti's 1971 magnum opus Goodbye Uncle Tom, a time-traveling trip to the days of slavery in all its squalid and intimate cruelty. Ortolani made a specialty of composing soaringly romantic music that served as counterpoint to cinematic brutality, the other great example of his approach being his sublime theme music for Ruggiero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. Including Ortolani on the Drive soundtrack is arguably an assertion of the actual "European" character of Refn's film, as opposed to whatever Albert Brooks's film producer-turned-gangster means when he notes contemptuously that critics had called his '80s action films "European." Like many Euro directors and composers, Jacopetti (with Franco Prosperi) and Ortolani juxtaposed soundtrack lyricism and visceral violence in a manner that remains offputting to many Americans. Likewise, some American reviewers this month have been taken aback by a sudden eruption of ultraviolence in Drive after a relatively non-violent first half. I can understand the objections to some extent because it comes as an abrupt shock, not that the story turns gory, but that Ryan Gosling's driver proves so capable of extreme brutality. It's not that he's too pretty or too bland to be a killer, but that he appeared to have been established as not a killer, just a driver. Had he been shown as a man of violence from the beginning -- had he played a hitman rather than a driver, and had the ultraviolence been a constant rather than a sudden change in the picture -- the violence wouldn't have the jarring and in some cases deal-breaking effect it's had so far. But there seems to be a point to the violence arriving late and suddenly. The scorpion on Gosling's jacket tells part of the story. He alludes to the fable of the scorpion and the frog at one point, but the script assumes our knowledge of the tale, which in moviedom is most identified with Orson Welles. In the fable, the scorpion invites the frog to ride across a stream on his back, despite the frog's fear that the scorpion will sting him. In midstream the scorpion does sting him, which seals his own fate as well. As the frog protests and they both sink, the scorpion reminds him that stinging is simply his nature. In Drive, the driver's (or Scorpion's) nature is violent, even if he could hope otherwise and dream of Hollywood stuntwork, stock car racing, or the love of a good woman. Violence marks the nameless man as the permanent outsider who can never have a settled life, just as it often marked the silent clown who could never avoid trouble with the cops or miss an opportunity to wreck stuff.  The synthesis of aspiration and disillusion is pathos, and pathos is one thing Drive has that can't be traced to the Eighties.

For Refn, as for his European (usually Italian) forebears, extreme violence is a kind of reality principle that subverts the idealistic mood of their films' upbeat, romantic music. A perverse kind of pathos evolves, for instance, when Ortolani uses a more insistent, rocking instrumental of his Uncle Tom theme to score a horrific rape scene. Drive's violence serves the same disillusioning yet deliberately pathetic purpose. We ought to note that the violence here isn't as extreme or blatant as it could be. When Scorpion stomps someone's face in, we get one horrifically suggestive shot when bone appears to cave in, but Refn doesn't keep his eye on the destruction the way Gaspar Noe does when a man's face is staved in with a fire extinguisher in Irreversible. There are other moments when Refn turns or cuts away from the worst we could see. That may have been to avoid an NC-17 rating, but it also tells us that the violence isn't really an end unto itself. It simply signifies the irreconcilability of Scorpion's world with the world he longs to join. Drive isn't a gore film, but a thriller, and it works well as that. Refn (who supposedly doesn't know how to drive himself) stages a number of nice old-school car chases as well as tense moments of pure waiting and anticipation. It has a couple of charismatic yet convincing villains in Perlman (whose buffoonish brute made me think of a Will Farrell assembled from dead bodies) and the stunt-cast Albert Brooks, who continues an honorable tradition of comics-turned-heels that recognizes an inherent viciousness in comedy. As the object of Scorpion's adoration, Carey Mulligan may as well be Edna Purviance, but that's not a rip on the actress; it's just the nature of her role. As for Ryan Gosling, I'm not sure yet whether I really liked his performance or not. He doesn't really look the part, though I'm hard pressed to tell you what Scorpion should have looked like. I guess I can't shake a feeling that Gosling's benign-bordering-on-bland visage is part of a cheat on the film's part, a concealment of its true nature -- but on the other hand, Gosling's character is practicing a kind of self-deception when he dreams of domesticity and fatherhood, though we may not realize this as soon as we should. On some level he's a cypher, on another a pathetic striver, almost Keatonesque in his taciturnity. He's at his most chilling when he covers his already-sort-of masklike face with an actual mask, the bald movie-star mold (Vin Diesel?) he wears when stunt-driving, to become a Michael Meyers-like stalker -- and maybe that scene, in which he drives his enemy into the sea like an implacable figure from some other fable, shows us the driver's true self. That scene is eerily evocative and one of the best in a picture that has a multitude of powerful moments but may not quite add up to the sum of its parts. Few films released this year have been as potently evocative as this one, though, and my experience proves that you don't have to be enamored of Eighties cinema or Eighties culture to enjoy Drive.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Every so often in Matthew Vaughn's latest comic-book movie there's a moment that has inspires the feeling the whole film was presumably aiming at -- the sense of destiny in disarray, the pieces visible but out of place and begging the question: how do we get from here to what I know? Most of those moments come whenever Kevin Bacon, playing mutant Mengele turned war provocateur Sebastian Shaw, parades around wearing a piece of headgear, designed for him by the Soviets to protect his mind from telepathic penetration, that everyone watching, movie fans and comics fans alike, recognizes as Magneto's helmet. The sense of backstory suddenly made strange is probably stronger for comics fans because, in comics, Sebastian Shaw is not a former Nazi, has nothing to do with Magneto's origin, and played no role in the formation of the X-Men. But as the usual leader of the Hellfire Club, a recurring clique of evil wealthy mutants with an 18th century gimmick (hence the name, presumably), Shaw was probably at or near the top of the list of villains X-Men fans were waiting to see in a movie. So here he is, however out of time and place, and his shoehorned presence is typical of the a la carte approach taken by Vaughn and his co-writers in cobbling this prequel together. The result is a superhero picture that has little of the crazed vitality of Vaughn's Kick-Ass. Instead, First Class (which has nothing to do storywise, need I add, with the comic book miniseries of that name) is an awkward, mispaced mix of whimsy and obligation, an overlong series of variations on required themes and motifs without a real life of its own.

The deal is this: while little Charles Xavier grows up wealthy and privileged with his virtually-adopted little sister Raven Darkholm, the future Mystique, little Erik Lensherr endures the Holocaust in the custody of Klaus Schmidt, the future Sebastian Shaw -- a mutant hiding among Nazis and searching for more of his kind to experiment on. Seeing Erik bend a metal gate in a fit of panic, Schmidt hopes to induce another display of power by threatening the life of Erik's mother. Alas, Erik can only perform after the fatal shot is fired, wrecking Schmidt's lab and crushing guards' heads under their helmets while shouting "NEINNNNN!!!" -- but somehow, he doesn't seem to think of killing his actual tormentor. He'll get to that as a grown man (Michael Fassbender) hunting Schmidt/Shaw and other war criminals. He happens to attack Shaw's yacht at the same time that a grown Xavier (James McAvoy) is trying to help the CIA learn Shaw's secrets, with a grown Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) tagging along. When Erik ends up out of his depth, Charles rescues him and the film's bromance begins. They join forces, in tense concert with a suspicious U.S. government, to probe the links between Shaw, his Hellfire Club, and the Soviets, who in this year of 1962 wax indignant over the placement of American missiles in Turkey. Shaw suggests stashing some Soviet missiles in Cuba, with the hidden hope that the superpowers will launch at each other, kill off most of humanity, and make the world safe for mutants. With the help of a primitive CIA mutant-detection device, Xavier puts together a motley team of proto X-Men, picked by the screenwriters from various periods of comic-book history with an eye for diversity and an impulse to old-fashioned expendable tokenism, to stop Shaw, while Erik (nicknamed "Magneto" by the new kids) is just out to kill the bastard. Bristling under U.S. surveillance and seduced by Shaw's dark-father "I made you" spiel, Erik isn't about to change sides, at least as long as Shaw is alive. But when the chagrined Americans and Soviets propose a preemptive strike on mutantdom assembled, all bets are off....

To be blunt, Bacon's helmet gives a better performance than Bacon does. He brings nothing to the Bond villain role designed for Shaw, and his lifeless smirk typifies the nearly total failure of First Class as a retro-stylized period piece. But I get the impression that it wasn't anyone's intention to hop on the Mad Men bandwagon here, despite the presence of January Jones as an inexcusably affectless Emma Frost. It's only an accident of math, after all, that Xavier and Magneto are the age the writers wanted them to be, based on the ages of the characters in the 2000 X-Men movie, in the early 1960s. Even so, the production should have made more of an effort than it did. Anachronistic clothing, hairstyles and dialogue (I don't think anyone was a "badass" in 1962) abound, and the soundtrack is thoroughly unevocative of the period. The film's few attempts to turn Charles and Erik into something like swinging bachelors are pathetic, and these scenes, like many gratuitous bits of power-discovery and training, sap First Class of practically all urgency. One can't help agreeing when Hugh Jackman manifests just long enough to tell these two to go fuck themselves. Playing these dolts, McAvoy and Fassbender are mindboggling overqualified, yet utterly at a loss when challenged to make their characters anything more than overdetermined cliches. They're trapped by what the characters have to be, what we've already seen of two old men in three movies, and they can do nothing more about it than grimace, grunt and cry "NOOOOO!!!" just like any other genre actors. While some comics purists will protest that First Class is unfaithful to official history or actual published books, its real failing, even as it manages to be mildly entertaining and occasionally energetic, is that it doesn't break free of even the cinematic past. It didn't free the actors to make something new of their roles, and it didn't free the audience to see this movie as a new beginning rather than a dead end.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wendigo Meets PRIEST (2011)

 Before anything else, we owe a shout-out to Coach Steve Niles and his vampires for laying the undead smack down on the zombies on Deadliest Warrior last week. They really showed Max Brooks and his "unstoppable virus" who the apex predators really are! But now for something completely different: Scott Stewart's extremely loose adaptation of Hyung Min-woo's graphic-novel series and the second teamup of the director and actor Paul Bettany. They first joined forces for 2010's Legion, a film my friend Wendigo liked more than most people did, and on the strength of that Wendigo was ready to give Priest a chance when it hit DVD. Cory Goodman (who has gone on to write the current release Apollo 18) took the Korean comics' core idea of holy warriors fighting supernatural menaces in the Old West and turned it into a multi-genre homage that eventually manages to take on a life of its own.

As an animated history explains, on this alternate reality "There has always been man, and there have always been vampires." The two species have been at war from the beginning, and despite the vampires' advantages in strength and speed humanity managed to develop technologies of mass destruction to destroy the vampires' hives. But the tide didn't turn until the emergence of the Priests: a co-ed order of vampire slayers who somehow acquired the strength and speed to beat the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Wendigo and I spent the picture waiting for some big explanation of how this was possible; perhaps something to do with vampire blood or something similar. But the most we learned was that the Priests learned how to "focus." If you focus, for instance, you can leap through the air and use the stones tossed by another Priest (and that's probably important) as stepping stones for leaping higher still in order to engage the enemy. In other words, their powers make no sense at all -- but this is a fantasy world, so deal with it.

Anyway, at a certain point the Church declared victory and disbanded the Priests, who wander about their Blade-Runnerish "retro-future" cities without practical job skills or prospects for the future. That's the plight of our title Priest (Bettany) until he gets word that his brother's family has been attacked at a frontier settlement out west. Suspecting a vampire revival, he defies religious orders to venture out, only to find his brother (Stephen "True Blood" Moyer) on his deathbed and his niece kidnapped. Accompanied by a local lawman (Cam Gigandet) with a crush on the niece, the Priest embarks on a search for the girl, with the understanding that he'll kill her, despite the lawman's objections, if the vampires have turned her into a subhuman "familiar," or worse.

Our heroes find evidence of an impending vampire uprising, including a train-borne assault on the eastern cities, now in a state of perpetual night, in order to wipe out mankind. There's a human brain behind the plan: a fallen Priest (Karl Urban) who'd once been part of Bettany's team but had been captured by vampires and fed their queen's blood. That made him a unique "human vampire" who can daywalk and bare a couple of modest fangs with a smile. Aided by a Priestess (Maggie "Nikita" Q) who'd been sent to stop Bettany but has tender feelings toward him, the good guys have to stop that evil train from reaching the cities and save young Lucy, who's more closely related to Bettany than he first let on....

Wendigo had the liberty of knowing little about the Priest concept before watching the movie, so there were no expectations to be violated or disappointed. Legion created a certain expectation of action that the film fulfilled easily, and Wendigo expected Stewart and Bettany to offer a different take on vampire hunting, if not vampires themselves. Different it definitely was.
Wendigo had never seen vampires like the ones in this film. They're quite inhuman: sightless, fewer fingers, no apparent individual intelligence, and a variety of subspecies (warrior, guardian, queen, etc.) Stewart explains on the DVD that he wanted to make vampires scary again, but Wendigo thinks that the director went too far by reducing them to little more than animals. Intelligence is what makes vampires scary most of the time, but there was little frightening about Stewart's creatures. They're little better than fast zombies in that regard. They look interesting, but that's about it -- except for the human vampire "Black Hat."
The part was a bit of a step back for Urban, who relied on a lot of the bombast he brought to his Julius Caesar character on Xena:Warrior Princess. But his attitude keeps the character entertaining as a villain. Even with him, Wendigo was unclear about whether the plan to invade the cities was the ex-Priest's idea or something implanted by the batlike vampire queen. The former seems likely, since the film shows vampires faring quite poorly against just two Priests, plus a retro-future cowboy. On top of his master plan, Black Hat has an agenda of revenge against Bettany, who he still blames for letting him go in that past crisis and letting the vampires get him. He also has a more vague grievance against the Church that made him a Priest, as do the Bettany and Maggie Q characters. There's a Nam or Iraq vet subtext here in the film's portrayal of exploited and abandoned traumatized soldiers that might have been developed further -- how are Priests recruited and trained, and how old do you have to be or can you be to become one? -- but the film is what it is.
Scott Stewart clearly sees star quality in Paul Bettany, even as he arguably condemns the still-respected character actor to genre hell. Wendigo understands what Stewart sees in the actor; Bettany has an interesting look and he's a plausibly formidable physical presence. We agreed that, in this role, he looked like he'd stepped out of the pages of 80s-vintage Heavy Metal. Stewart admittedly doesn't give Bettany much emotional range, but that probably comes with the genre territory -- though Wendigo asks why, in this fantastical world, Bettany couldn't speak in his natural accented voice, while slumming Christopher Plummer could?
While Stewart may be unintentionally dragging Bettany down, he catches Maggie Q on the way up. Wendigo has seen some Nikita episodes and finds her an interesting actress with a different enough look to give her characters character. This picture gains some extra life when she arrives. Of the three heroes, Cam Gigandet as the lawman is no more than a bland audience-identification character, with no more purpose than to follow in the steps of Jeffrey Hunter.
Wendigo hadn't seen the reviews when Priest was released, but he is a Western fan, so he recognized early how the film was imitating the plot and character arcs of John Ford's The Searchers, with Bettany in the John Wayne role as the pursuer torn between rescuing and destroying his kin and Gigandet as the sidekick fighting for mercy. It's an interesting gambit but one the writer can't follow through on, since we can't have Lucy "living with a buck" the way Natalie Wood lives with the Indians in the great Western. Bettany can't face the dilemma of whether or not to kill his "tainted" kin, because were the girl tainted in this context she'd have to be killed. This deprives Bettany of levels of indignation and personal conflict, reducing him to his default mode of sullen grimness. Writer and director press on regardless, and a deleted closing scene is probably the most blatant homage possible, with everything but Bettany with hand on arm as the door closes on him.
We don't really have anything to say about Brad Dourif's character, but we include this picture because he's Brad F'n Dourif, and because we can.

But The Searchers is just one of the elements jumbled together in the genre cuisinart that is Priest. At its delirious best, Stewart's film is an insane mashup of post-apocalypse, dystopia, western, Spaghetti western, and vampire hunting. At any given moment we might recognize The Searchers, or Blade Runner, or Once Upon a Time in the West, or The Road Warrior -- or in my case, even The Good The Bad and The Weird. But Wendigo reminds me that I needn't make a long list of genre influences, because there's one word that sums it all up. Priest, he says, is steampunk -- a word that Scott "retro-future" Stewart can't bring himself to say. Now that he knows more about the Korean comics, Wendigo is more indignant about the Americans' disregard for the source material. But on its own terms, which are the ones we have to accept, he finds the Priest movie an effective, exciting action film, though not an improvement on Legion -- he just loves those archangels. But he won't recommend it to vampire buffs, since it won't really push their buttons much. For my part, I found this hard going for the first half as cliche followed cliche in tight formation. Once it hit its energetic stride in its last half-hour, though, it became quite fun to watch for its crazy synthesis of genres. It's nothing great, but it got better as it went along. Not all films do that, so let's give Priest some credit.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Among the stuff you'll find when you look for free feature films online is a trove of English-subtitled Russian films from the Soviet era and beyond. Mosfilm has its own YouTube channel, while the "PyccoTypucmo" (pronounced "RussoTurismo") channel has even more titles, including Boris Durov's action hit for the Gorky Film Studio (watch it here), a rugged adventure film that compares respectably with grindhouse movies from the capitalist world. Apart from a certain flatness of characters, there's little to mark this as a Communist film, and I'm sure it wasn't made with any propaganda purpose in mind. Brezhnev-era Bolsheviks believed in entertaining folks, and Soviet Man appears to have been entertained by the same stuff that pleased his bourgeois counterparts: violence towards men and women, violence by gun, knife, foot, fist and grappling hook -- the faster paced, the better.

At a few seconds short of 80 minutes, Pirates of the XXth century practices truth in advertsing by showing us modern-day pirates in action. But we start with a Soviet freighter, the Nezhin, picking up a boatload of medicinal opium, bound for Vladivostok and distribution to hospitals. The opening credits promise martial-arts action, as we see a crewmember practicing with his "numbchuks" and breaking boards to entertain his mates. This energetic routine is interrupted when the crew discovers a man adrift in the water. The rescued man, Saleh, speaks no Russian, but some of the crew speak English, and they learn that he jumped a ship whose cargo of cotton caught fire. Next, the Nezhin discovers a disabled ship, the Mercury. Its distress is a deception, as was Saleh's. As he creates havoc on the Nezhin, destroying its radio, pirates from the Mercury -- a crew of terrorists and mercenaries -- storm the ship, slaughter most of the crew, steal the opium and set the vessel ablaze. As the pirates zoom off, a handful of survivors, including two female crewmembers barely saved from drowning, pile into a lifeboat in search of safety.

Fortunately, the survivors find land before long. Unfortunately, they've stumbled upon the Mercury's base of operations. But that actually gives them a chance to recover the opium and bring the pirates to justice. With help from a native girl, the Russians capture weapons and manage to take over the Mercury. But the pirates have mined the bay to deter pursuers, and the Russians can't get out. Worse, their two hapless women -- if anything, the "progressive" Commies were retrograde, on this film's evidence, in their portrayal of women -- have been captured and subject to torture. Happily, the pirates are willing to negotiate and let the Russians leave with their skins intact, though without the opium. The sailors don't trust the offer, since they could obviously lead a navy back to the pirates' lair, but they go along in order to give heroic first mate Sergei (Nikolai Yeryomenko) a chance to take the villains down single-handedly and shirtlessly....

This is undemanding mayhem, impressively staged on locations and on the open sea with real ships. The action is often quite brutal, and the violence against the helpless females is just about as exploitative as anything you might have seen from the "free world," without the compensatory, quasi-empowering revenge. Again, if you think of the USSR as part of a generic global "left," you might expect more female empowerment here, but Pirates is very much an unapologetic "Men's Adventure" type of film, from the modern-piracy theme to the exotic backdrop for torture. It's also indelibly a Seventies film, as the disco-esque score will tell you right away. Wikipedia claims that this was the most popular film of 1980 in the USSR, and I imagine it must be an iconic movie for Russia's Seventies fetishists. It was a great find for me, if not a great film, because I'm always intrigued by what true pop cinema, as opposed to arthouse cinema, looks like in different countries. Pirates of the XXth Century probably isn't the face Soviet cinema meant to show the world, the cinematic commisars probably having something more refined in mind. But it shows us that, even at a low point in the Cold War, the years of the invasion of Afghanistan and the Olympic boycott, moviegoers in the communist and capitalist blocs -- or some of them, at least, spoke a common language.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

EVEN THE WIND IS AFRAID (Hasta el viento tiene miedo, 1968)

How many movies are available for free online? By now it's probably impossible to get an accurate count as new stuff appears constantly. Every so often I get curious, so I do a Google Video Search for stuff 20 minutes or longer. Sometimes I'll check by year, sometimes by genre, sometimes by an artist's name, and so on. The other day I did a "1968" search just for the heck of it and got a lot of results. There's quite a bit of eastern European stuff to be seen, with English subtitles, as well as some Bollywood, Shaw Bros., etc. We must be close enough to Halloween now that I was interested in seeing a horror film, and Google pointed me toward Carlos Enrique Taboada's film, which one "EddietheArsehead" has uploaded to YouTube with enhanced fan-generated subtitles. Eddie bills Hasta el viento tiene miedo as "perhaps the best traditional ghost story ever filmed."  That was a gauntlet thrown to the floor. I don't claim to be a specialist of even a particular fan of ghost movies, but that big a claim for a movie I'd never heard of, or didn't remember reading about, basically dared me to watch the film. I wouldn't call it the best of anything, but it does have its virtues and its attractions.
Even the Wind is set at a girl's school where you can tell the students apart by their hair and their basic character traits. Our led student is Claudia (Alicia Bonet, who plays the character's mother in a 2007 remake), who opens the film with a nightmare in which she discovers a hanging woman, the dead one's feet hanging just above eye level. Claudia becomes convinced that, in her dream, she had been inside a locked tower on the campus -- which she and her cronies (and the class tattletale Josefina) now find unlocked. The girls explore up the stairs but are discovered by their headmistress Miss Bernarda, aka "La Bruja." For trespassing, Claudia and her friends are forced to remain on campus over the holiday break.

Stuck together with La Bruja and her more sensitive subordinate, Miss Lucia, the girls get on each other's nerves. One of the girls breaks into the tower to recover a confiscated snapshot of her boyfriend (Another opines, "I wouldn't go in there for a photo of Tony Curtis!") and finds a picture of a past student -- whom Claudia recognizes as the girl she's seen in her dreams. The girl in the picture is Andrea Ferran, who hung herself when La Bruja confined her to campus over the holidays and her mother died in the meantime. Tensions among the girls stretch near to snapping, and Josefina bears the brunt of it, getting forced to dance with the exhibitionist Kitty and then stripped to her scanties. Kitty gets out of control as girls in Mexican horror films will do, and embarks upon a striptease, which the other girls watch with mounting horror, as if Kitty herself were a ghost. But it's not that bad, until  Kitty herself sees a ghost -- Andrea, through the window -- and the others see it, too.

I don't know about the wind, but she looks scared.

Determined to get to the bottom, or top, of the haunting, Claudia returns to the tower, and in a shocking development falls to her death after seeing the hanging Andrea while awake. It's a bold, Psycho-like move by the director to eliminate the main character of the story just past the halfway point -- except that Claudia gets better, hours later, after she's been put on a slab under a sheet. It's a miracle, but Claudia has come back changed. She's smarter, showing off extensive and surprising knowledge of the Romantic movement in European literature. She suddenly has enhanced abilities on the piano, when she'd been an indifferent musician before. Of course, Lucia had already told us that Andrea Ferran was smart as a whip, with an excellent memory, and a brilliant pianist. So you see what's going on here -- partly. As someone says, "You never know what the dead want," but Taboada has given us enough information to enable an educated guess. But if we're dealing with Andrea, not Claudia, what'll happen to Claudia when Andrea will get what she wants -- revenge, that is?

There's an irrepressible tackiness to Mexican horror in color from the Sixties, and that makes Even the Wind too garish to be gothic much of the time. But Taboada does work up some authentic chills, especially when he gets the girls out of their over-bright, over-colorful dorms and into the night, often in their nightgowns. Then it's gothic all the way, with gusto. The ending is a bit flat, simply because the circumstances of Andrea Ferran's death aren't really the stuff to inspire epic vengeance. It's not as if the headmistress, Bruja or not, actually killed Andrea's mother or Andrea herself. But I suppose we had better not question ghosts when they're in a temper. But if the film suffers from ghostly pettiness, it gets by with a naively exploitative charm. The students are fun to watch and Kitty's striptease of terror is definitely a camp highlight. Watch the film in the right frame of mind and you may not think as much of it as EddietheArsehead does, but you may want to thank him for making ninety minutes of innocent spooky fun available online. Check it out and judge for yourselves.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Imagine Ernest Hemingway becoming a movie star, but not by adapting one of his innovative short stories into a film, but by appearing in a Warner Bros. gangster picture. That seems roughly equivalent to seeing Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima playing a yakuza in Yasuzo Masumura's colorful crime film for the Daiei studio. Mishima is a rough equivalent for Hemingway in his volatile and ultimately suicidal mixture of sensitivity and machismo -- which is all well and good if you've heard of Ernest Hemingway. Otherwise, let's talk about a Japanese crime film.

Mishima plays a typical yakuza protagonist, a man just out of prison. Takeo Asahina has done time for trying to kill a rival boss, whose gang has tried to kill him in prison but took out the wrong man. Living up to the English-language title, Takeo is reluctant to leave prison at first and determined to lay low once free. But family pride goads him into making a stand -- after he dumps his showgirl paramour for her own protection. He strikes up a new relationship, which for him encompasses rape and pressuring the girl to have an abortion. Meanwhile, the gang war goes on, though it ends for Takeo in tellingly absurd fashion.
Afraid to Die puts style above substance, but don't get the wrong idea. Masumura isn't interested in set-piece action scenes or epic murders in the Kinji Fukasaku manner. What made it unusual for me was the milieu in which the director stages his yakuza plot. His movie has a dense, cluttered look to it that sometimes seems artificial in a Guys and Dolls way and at other times seems almost oppressively mundane. The feeling I got was that the movie was playing out in someplace more like the real world than like the generic yakuza-movie milieu. This is one of many movies that was debunking yakuza mythos before Fukasaku came along, but the way Masumura does it is to place his criminals in ordinary settings that diminish their mythic attitude. I can't immediately recall another yakuza movie I've seen that shows the gangsters in one of their most important roles, as strikebreakers. It doesn't get more unromantic than that, but having the clans compete to blackmail a pharmaceutical company that had botched a product test comes close. The overall effect is anti-epic, emphasizing how small-time Takeo, his allies and his enemies are.
I won't judge Mishima as an actor on one film in a language I don't understand, but he's convincing enough as a loser, which is what Takeo is. His final scene is clearly intended as an indelible directorial statement demonstrating how much of a loser Takeo or any yakuza really is. Continuing his strategy of embedding the gangsters in mundane settings, Masumura stages the final hit in a department store, in a maternity department. In an image worthy of silent comedy, Takeo meets his fate on an escalator, trying to stagger down while it carries him inexorably upward. He becomes a man on a treadmill, an icon of futility, and anything but the sort of man apart a yakuza man (or a yakuza fan) imagines himself to be. The scene is a stylistic exclamation point that reinforces the diminution of the yakuza by turning him into a kind of clown and a plaything of forces beyond his ken. Nothing else in the film really comes close to its visual inspiration, though I owe props to a bizarre nightclub scene featuring a surreally suggestive song -- in translation, at least -- about bananas. That number, the escalator scene, and Mishima's experiment in acting make Afraid to Die a curiosity at the very least. As an auteurial exercise in blending the lurid and the low-key, it's somewhat better than that.

Oh, what the hell. Here's a song about bananas -- you'll be able to tell that much even without English subtitles. Use your imagination and translate it yourself. Thanks to noutnoutnoutnout for uploading it to YouTube.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pre-Code Parade:THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933)

Paramount Pictures's adaptation of William Faulkner's controversial best-seller Sanctuary is an instructive example of the limits of "pre-code" cinema. Modern-day movie buffs tend to romanticize the period between the coming of sound and the institution of stricter Production Code enforcement in 1934 as a short-lived period of maturity and frankness, though not explicitness, that was neutered by religious fanatics, condemning Hollywood couples to separate beds for the next thirty years or so. It's an objective fact that "pre-code" cinema is more lurid and somewhat more ribald than product from the period of Code Enforcement, but there were still limits, and The Story of Temple Drake, which was broadcast on Sept. 14 on TCM to the joy of more than one blogger, illustrates those limits.

Faulkner's novel, allegedly written as hackwork for a quick buck in between more ambitious books, tells the story of Temple Drake, an 18 year old college girl who endures a night and day from hell after she rides along with a casual boyfriend to pick up booze from a backwoods bootlegger. They're stuck in Lee Goodwin's country house of horrors after a car wreck, and Temple, a judge's daughter, feels menaced by all the men there, but especially the sociopathic gangster Popeye. Laugh all you like, but Popeye kills a "feeb" who'd tried to protect Temple and rapes the girl, in the book's most infamous scene, with a corncob. Popeye blows the scene, allowing Goodwin to be arrested for the feeb's death and taking Temple with him to a whorehouse. Goodwin's lawyer, Horace Benbow, tracks Temple to the whorehouse and urges her to testify at Goodwin's trial to save his life. Though she admits the truth to the lawyer at the brothel, Temple refuses to take the stand -- only to appear as a prosecution witness and perjure herself by identifying Goodwin as the murderer and her attacker. Goodwin is convicted, but the local mob can't wait for the execution and lynches him. Temple's father takes her into Parisian exile. Popeye gets arrested, convicted, and killed for an unrelated offense.

Screenwriters Oliver H.P. Garnett and Maurine Dallas Watkins make some of the usual pointless cosmetic changes. Judge Drake becomes Temple's grandfather rather than her father, Horace becomes Steven Benbow (William Gargan) and, perhaps most importantly for the studio that released Max Fleischer's cartoons, Popeye becomes "Trigger" (Jack LaRue). The most obvious cosmetic change is the title, which was going to be -- as the poster above shows -- The Shame of Temple Drake. Why not call it Sanctuary? To fool people who wouldn't let a Sanctuary movie into town? There's probably an answer to that question, but I don't know it. Some story changes are more drastic. The story follows Faulkner pretty closely until the rape -- though no corncob is ever shown. Later, director Stephen Roberts stages a melodramatic confrontation for Benbow, Temple and Trigger. The lawyer threatens to beat up the gangster but Temple, fearing that her old friend will be killed, makes like she loves Trigger and enjoys her new life until she drives Benbow away. Then she prepares to leave, proving to Trigger that she'd just faked her affection to save Benbow's life. He tries to stop her from leaving, but she shoots him to death. She reaches the county seat where Goodwin's (Irving Pichel) trial is held, but is reluctant to testify because of the shame it'll bring on her (she's been a subject of gossip the whole picture) and her family. Benbow calls her to the stand, but can't bring himself to ask the necessary questions of her. As Judge Drake reprimands Benbow for frivolous lawyering, Temple stands up and volunteers the truth, saving Goodwin, before she faints. Benbow carries her out of the courtroom, telling the judge, "Be proud of her. I am."

Rarely seen outside of film festivals in modern times, Temple Drake has a huge reputation among pre-code connoisseurs that is partly justified on its own terms. After an opening that stresses Temple's centrality to town gossip, the film really gets going once she and her escort get stuck in the woods. Their approach to and arrival at the Goodwin place, guided by the drawling. gibbering feeb, is something out of a horror film, and it could be argued that the motley, menacing Goodwin household is a precursor of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and other rural terrors. Karl Struss's cinematography is proto-noirish at times, often transforming Trigger into a pure silhouette of malice. At age thirty, Miriam Hopkins is too old to play Temple but gets the spoiled, scared essence of the character right, and she looks fine in the pre-code actress uniform: lingerie. Her ordeal is one with which anyone of either sex who ends up stuck with dubious strangers on a vanished friend's initiative can empathize. Jack LaRue plays Trigger like someone's prophetic fever dream of Humphrey Bogart -- maybe Bogart's own -- but he doesn't live up to my reader's recollection of Faulkner's Popeye. On the page, he reminded me of Anton Chigurh. Popeye dominates the novel, starring in the opening and closing chapters, in a way he can't in the movie, which is Temple-centric. From his early menacing encounter with Benbow to his ironically passive submission to death, he flows through the novel like a current of evil, but is just too easily dispatched in the movie, just as evil is too easily dispelled.

But while pre-code cinema is no match for mainline Southern gothic, it has to be admitted that Hollywood would not be able to touch this material for decades afterward. I don't believe there was another Faulkner adaptation until 1949's Intruder in the Dust, and Sanctuary would finally be filmed under its own name in 1960, -- my copy of the novel is a movie tie-in -- with Popeye further transmogrified into Yves Montand (!) and again renamed, presumably out of deference to Roy Rogers's horse, as Candy. And even a bowdlerized, happy-ended version of Sanctuary was way too strong for the Legion of Decency types who already had enough clout to demand cuts to Temple Drake. The fact that a major Hollywood studio would even think of taking on Sanctuary, when it certainly wouldn't just two years later, is what we love about the pre-code era, even when we admit its limitations. Better a truncated Sanctuary in 1933 than none at all, which is what we would have gotten in 1935. There's a poignance to the incompleteness of pre-code cinema, whether on the individual level of variously compromised films or the overall sense of the period as a dead end or a path but partially taken before the road was blocked. Had The Story of Temple Drake appeared last year, it would have been condemned as a travesty on the level of the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. As a product of 1933, it deserves a lot of the credit it gets from posterity.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wendigo Meets DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

It's been more than a decade since I last showed my friend Wendigo Harry Kumel's Euro-vampire film, which I'd just bought on VHS in a letterboxed director's cut. Wendigo remembers being disappointed with the film. He'd expected more sex scenes with more overt lesbianism and a greater resemblance between Delphine Seyrig's "Countess Elizabeth Bathory" and the legendary Blood Countess whose name she bears. I'm to blame, in part, because I'd talked it up pretty big based on what I'd read about the film in the fan press. Now, however, Wendigo wanted to appraise it as a vampire film, not a cult sex film. While some of its flaws are still pretty obvious, he finds that he appreciates the movie more on a second viewing.

It was this or the Overlook: Daughters of Darkness's honeymoon hotel.

Kumel's subject is one of the world's worst honeymoons. Stefan (John "Willie Loomis" Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are just married and staying uneasily at a hotel in the seafront town of Ostend. It's off-season and the hotel is largely deserted, except for the late-arriving Countess Bathory and her sullen companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). The concierge recognizes the Countess but can't believe his eyes; she's the spitting image of a woman who stayed at the hotel forty years earlier. To Valerie's dismay, Stefan and the Countess share a lurid interest in her namesake, the reputed murderer of hundreds of girls in the name of eternal youth. That's just the latest thing to bug the new wife; it also irks her that Stefan won't take her to meet his mother -- we learn later that he has good reason for his reticence. This early alienation between man and wife makes both appear vulnerable to the Countess, who stokes Valerie's jealousy while ordering a reluctant Ilona to seduce Stefan. Ilona would clearly rather bite the man's neck, but she'd also rather be free of the Countess. Freedom, such as it is, comes when she freaks out in a shower and manages to kill herself with a straight razor. At that point, Bathory makes her play for her real target, Valerie....
Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) has a choice of targets to try her Dracula moves on.
Wendigo deems this a relatively uncharacteristic Euro-horror, until the very end. It had a strong, linear, character-driven storyline for a European film, with little in the way of "dream logic" and music that actually seemed to fit the mood of the story, but it has what seems to him a typical Euro finish: an abrupt act of violence followed by an illogical epilogue with a twist that makes no immediate sense.  For the most part, however, Daughters strikes a healthy balance between style and "substance" (character development, plot). Much of the substance comes from John Karlen's performance as a selfish, dishonest, abusive person who struck Wendigo as more evil, in some ways, than the vampires. Stefan is a bigger, more habitual liar than the Countess, who after all has just one big secret to keep. He quickly proves himself an unfit husband and in a way as much a threat to Valerie as the Countess is. You can see why it wouldn't take much prodding for Valerie to choose Bathory as the lesser of two evils.
Daughters makes no great strides in vampire mythos. The vampires bare no fangs and make no transformations, but they have several traditional vulnerabilities, particularly to sunlight and, as Ilona proves, to running water. Wendigo believes that this is the first time a vampire has been defeated by throwing her under a shower. There's very little blood drinking, and the little we get comes late in the game after a slow build-up of suspense that makes the moment more dramatic. Wendigo notes that Euro vampire movies generally aren't fetishistic about displaying vampire powers. Too often in Anglo-American films you can imagine the writer or director marking off their checklists of abilities displayed and effects deployed. By comparison, the Europeans tend to take supernatural powers for granted without needing to make a big deal out of their use, or they take an eccentric approach to them like this film's play with mirrors. The Countess can use mirrors, and we see her hands reflected, but we never see her face in the glass. You notice that enough to wonder what you might see there if you had the chance.
The glamorous life of the vampire; Ilona gets the dry heaves.

With a strong ensemble cast and patient plot development, Daughters now impresses Wendigo as an above-average vampire film that he can recommend readily, albeit with reservations. He did not find it "slow," as some online reviewers have; maybe he's grown more patient with age. If the film has a grave weakness, however, it's Kumel's direction of action, particularly the three violent death scenes. Ilona's death by straight-razor impalement (?), Stefan's double wrist-cut by the halves of a broken bowl (??), and the Countess's car-ejection (from the back seat) and tree-impalement are all implausibly and ineptly staged. We're not sure why these scenes play so poorly; having seen no other Kumel films, we can't say if he has a chronic weakness or a problem with this particular script. Maybe it's a mark of art that you can't do action well, but we doubt it. But since Daughters of Darkness isn't primarily an action-horror film its lapses, however laughable, can be forgiven. It remains an intriguing and attractive film of disturbing beauty, even if some of its transgressive element has been lost over time. Don't expect too much in the sexual or sapphic line, but do expect a sensuous shiver or two.

Here's a slightly repetitive and spoilerish English-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by KXKWarriorV.