October 27, 2011

Joey (1985)

German director Roland Emmerich is nowadays best known as the man behind Hollywood blockbusters such as "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow", big budget science-fiction films where he has shown a taste for using a heavy amount of visual effects, a style that has earned him his fair share of detractors. While certainly Emmerich may not be the most original or artistic director in the history of cinema, it's hard to deny that his films have a very particular style of his own, a style that he had been developing from his early films, and that owes a lot to his "spiritual guides", the great masters of fantasy cinema of the 70s: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (reportedly, watching "Star Wars" in his youth made him decide to become a filmmaker). Lucas' influence is clear in Emmerich's first movie, the sci-fi adventure "Das Arche Noah Prinzip", but his second film makes Emmerich's devotion to Spielberg all the more evident: the little fantasy film named "Joey".

Better known in the U.S. as "Making Contact" (where it was had 20 minutes cut), "Joey" is the story of its titular character, a 9 years old kid named Joey (Joshua Morrell) who after the tragic death of his father, begins to experience strange psychic powers. This powers allow him supernatural abilities like moving inanimate objects with his mind or setting things on fire. Joey soon even manages to apparently make contact with his dead father. Naturally, Joey's sanity is questioned by those around him, but the kid really doesn't mind. However, not everything is good for Joey as his newly found powers accidentally awake an evil supernatural force that had been contained inside the body of an old ventriloquist's dummy that Joey had found in an abandoned house. Flecther (Jack Angel) the dummy, possessed by the ancient evil force, claims to be the ghost of the ventriloquist and shows pretty similar powers to Joey's. Soon Fletcher puts the lives of everyone near Joey in danger as the evil Dummy has dark plans for Joey's special powers.

Written by Emmerich himself, along with scriptwriters Hans J. Haller and Thomas Lechner, "Joey" is has many classic elements of a supernatural horror movie on the lines of Tobe Hooper "Poltergeist" (a Spielberg production released three years before "Joey"), but done with the approach of a fantasy movie for children pretty much on the style of "E.T.", another Spielberg film. To be fair, while there are many elements and reference to classic sci-fi, the premise has its fair share of originality and in fact results in several pretty good scenes. Sadly, the script's overall development is quite typical of its time, and resorts far too much on the genre's clichés to work. Focused entirely on Joey, the film works more as a creepy adventure film than as an strictly horror movie, mainly because the story is written in a way that highlights the main character's fight versus the evil force over the horror created by the Dummy. This is not to say that there aren't any horror moments, they are there, and some actually work really good.

While done with a relatively low budget, Emmerich packs his film with very good dark visual imagery, and even in this early film there are signs that forecast Emmerich's taste for big budget special effects. It's really interesting what he achieves with his minimal resources, and it could be said that even at this early point in his career the director already knew the kind of films he wanted to do in the future (visual nods to George Lucas abound through the film). Cinematographer Egon Werdin crafts some nice atmospheres, particularly when the film veers towards horror territory, where the visual style gets closer to the afore mentioned "Poltergeist", a similitude that certainly can't be exactly unintentional, as "Joey" could be seen as Emmerich's ultimate tribute to Spielberg and Lucas. Unfortunately, "Joey" also shows what perhaps has been the downside of Emmerich's style through his career: the scenes with special effects work, whereas the ones without them show his shortcomings as a director.

The cast in "Joey" is sadly, really average in their work, and this is actually one of the film's weakest points (perhaps in fact "The" weakest). Unfortunately, the lack of experience of the cast (specially in the case of the kids) becomes increasingly notorious as the film unfolds, and given the fact that the director was also unexperienced at this point did not help (and honestly, directing actors has never been one of Emmerich's strengths). Anyways, the only actress with real experience, Eva Kryll, plays the role of Joey's mother and delivers easily the best performance of the film. Unfortunately, her character is really a small part and doesn't have enough screen time to allow her to display her talent. Josua Morrell, who leads the cast as Joey, could be the case of inspired casting, as the boy looks pretty natural in front of the camera. His delivery is a tad stiff, but actually manages to carry the film. The rest of the cast is where the problem gets evident, as most look pretty artificial in their delivery, even those in smaller roles.

An unexperienced young cast paired with an unexperienced young director is many times a deadly combination for any film, and "Joey" has this as one of its biggest flaws. The actors' delivery is pretty poor and Emmerich's uninspired direction (when there aren't special effects to support the action) results in a pretty bland storytelling. In fact, the film gets dull many times when the special effects are gone, as Emmerich fails to keep a good balance between the action scenes and the more expository, dialog-based ones. The screenplay is not without its problems, as there are times where serious plot holes show up, and it becomes clear that the three scriptwriters were unable to make a cohesive work that tied up every of their ideas (interesting plot points are introduced and later abandoned). Nevertheless, despite all this flaws, director Roland Emmerich manages to pull off an entertaining adventure out of this messy ingredients and, while definitely troubled, has some good elements for a children's horror movie.

Perhaps the best use "Joey" (or "Making Contact") can have is as an introduction to the horror genre for young children, as with its touch of fantasy and adventure, it could be attractive despite its darker imagery. Unfortunately, more experienced horror fans won't enjoy it as much as kids, and won't find things to like in Emmerich's first entry in the horror genre. "Joey", like Emmerich's other early films, certainly shows the young talent of a master of visual effects that, while probably not a very accomplished artist, still manages to make entertaining and attractive films that deliver good doses of entertainment. While lacking in many aspects, "Joey", or "Making Contact", is definitely a good tale of horror to enjoy with the kids.


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