December 30, 2009

The Last House on the Left (2009)

In 1972, a young filmmaker named Wes Craven began his career with a powerful tale of violence that would become a classic of its time, and the first of his many contributions to the horror genre. That film was "The Last House on the Left". Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's "Jungfrukällan" ("The Virgin Spring"), Craven's "The Last House on the Left" was a raw story of vengeance in which the parents of a missing girl discover that they have given shelter to the criminals that tortured and raped their daughter. While not without its problems, "The Last House on the Left" was a fine proof of Craven's abilities as a storyteller, and even when it wasn't entirely original, this modest gem was a breath of fresh air for American horror. 37 years after its release, Wes Craven returned to that house, this time as producer of the remake of the film that kick-started his career. In a time when remakes of horror classics are awfully commonplace, it is the turn of filmmaker Dennis Iliadis to revive the horrors of the Last House on the Left.

The story begins with Dr. John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn), his wife Emma (Monica Potter), and their daughter Mari (Sara Paxton), preparing for a time of vacation at their lake house. After arriving, Mari borrows the family car and visits her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), who works the cash register at a local store. There they meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a teenager who's traveling with his family and invites the girls to his hotel room to smoke marijuana. Everything seems fine until Justin's family returns to the hotel. His father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), his uncle Francis (Aaron Paul) and Krug's girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) show up and it's revealed that they are dangerous criminals. The gang kidnaps the girls, but Mari tricks them to take a route that will take them to her parent's house. Her escape plan fails and the car crashes into a tree. As punishment, Paige is killed while Mari is raped. Mari attempts to escape again, but is shot. The criminals decide to seek refugee in a nearby house, unaware that it is Mari's house where they will spend the night.

With a screenplay by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, this version of "The Last House on the Left" remains for the most part faithful to the original's storyline; nevertheless, a bigger emphasis is placed on character development, slowly building them in a realistic, convincing way. Fortunately, the comedy relief of Craven's original film is gone, and we are left with a more serious tone and a greater sense of urgency. This last element enhances the suspense of the screenplay, and the tension of the whole situation, moving away from the crude violence of Craven's film to a more sober, yet equally as dark kind of story. The focus is no longer in the shock and the consequences of violence, but on the effects it has on people, as even the criminals are shown in a very realistic way, far from the psycho stereotype; which makes their actions more disturbing, and believable. Still, Alleca and Ellsworth's take on "The Last House on the Left" may feel a bit misguided, as it seems that the writers felt the need to make the family more heroic than what Craven intended in the original.

Moving away from the current trend in horror, director Dennis Iliadis makes his version of "The Last House on the Left" a return to a slower, sober style of horror, that working in contrast with the violence of the screenplay works wonders in heightening the effect of the disturbing events that take place at the lake house. Where nowadays quick-cuts would be used, Iliadis uses long takes not only to enhance the suspense of the film, but also to introduce the audience to the violence of the character's vengeance. The work of cinematography by Sharone Meir truly creates a powerful atmosphere once the criminals enter the house, and its elegance and classy style make the film look, quite appropriately, like a family drama gone to hell. However, while Dennis Iliadis' reinvention of Craven's classic is superior to the original in some aspects, it feels lacking in an interesting point: despite creating a realist and believable scenario, Iliadis' Collingwood family is too fantastically heroic, specially when contrasted to Craven's ordinary Collingwoods.

Acting in "The Last House on the Left" is in general of an excellent quality, and one of the aspects in which the remake is superior to the original (for the most part). As Dr. John Collingwood, Tony Goldwyn is truly the highlight of the film, delivering a powerful performance as the man who must decide what to do when he discovers that the criminals who abused of his daughter are his guests. Goldwyn gives life to his character in a truly outstanding way, capturing the inner horror of the role remarkably. Monica Potter is equally impressive as his wife, Emma, and makes a perfect match for Goldwyn's riveting performance. As the leader of the pack, Garret Dillahunt is an interesting choice, and his performance is quite good, albeit he is no match for David Hess' work in the original, making a weak villain in front of Goldwyn's terrific work. As Krug's brother Francis, Aaron Paul is a bit of a mixed bag, as his performance as a psycho goes a bit over the top. Sara Paxton, who plays the difficult role of Mari, truly delivers a great work, specially considering the difficulty of her scenes.

In general, it could be said that the performances on the villain's side tend to be average in contrast those of the Collingwoods. As written above, Dillahunt does a nice work, but not enough to make an even match with Goldwyn. And Paul and Riki Lindhome (who plays Sadie), are a bit stereotypical. In his search for not making the villains obvious, director Iliadis falls in the trap of making them too weak. Whereas Craven was enamored by his villains, Iliadis plays in favor of the Collingwoods, making them even a symbol of heroism that may go beyond the vengeance theme of the film. While Iliadis does take his time to elaborate on the horrors of vengeance, it all soon becomes forgotten as the punishment of the criminals becomes enjoyable. Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with going that route, but I do feel that it was a missed opportunity (and one that Craven did take), to use the Collingwoods as a symbol for the ordinary family, instead of the heroic Hollywood family that must kill the bad guys and save the day before dinner.

In a time where remakes are done just for money's sake and old classics become the source of proved formulas for cheap horror movies, it is indeed a breath of fresh air to discover that, despite its problems, Dennis Iliadis' "The Last House on the Left" is not one more of those remakes, but instead an intelligent movie with an interesting, and still relevant theme. Granted, Iliadis' may not have done a masterpiece with it, but even when it is indeed a different take on Craven's film, the spirit and essence of that legendary classic of exploitation is well respected, and that's something to be thankful. Probably it won't change the history of the horror genre, but "The Last House on the Left" is quite an interesting revision to an old story. Perhaps less crude, but equally as powerful, with this film one just has to remember, "it's only a movie, it's only a movie".


December 11, 2009

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Due to his many contributions to the genre (mainly his 1984's classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the rejuvenation of the slasher film produced by his 1996's movie, "Scream"), filmmaker Wes Craven has earned rightfully the title of "Master of Horror", with a career dedicated from the very beginning to create nightmarish tales of horror and suspense. From undead psychopaths to zombies, and from masked killers to werewolves, Craven has touched nearly every theme in the genre. While certainly Craven not always delivers what one would call a masterpieces (he's had his fair share of botches), in his movies there's always at least an original twist on familiar subjects. Many have been the nightmares created by Craven, but even when his contributions to the genre are many, perhaps no film amongst his body of work has had the raw power that his very first film, 1972's "The Last House on the Left" had. An adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's "Jungfrukällan" ("The Virgin Spring"), this tale of violence and vengeance is one impossible to forget.

"The Last House on the Left" begins with Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) getting ready to attend a concert with her best friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). Mari lives with her parents, Dr. John and Estelle Collingwood (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr), in a nice house in the woods. Despite her parents' concern, Mari and Phyllis go to the city for the concert. At the same time, a group of violent criminals led by Krug Stillo (David Hess) have escaped from prison, and are resting in an apartment. When the concert is over, Mari and Phyllis meet Krug's teenage son, Junior (Marc Sheffer), who leads them to the apartment with the promise of selling them marijuana. At the apartment, both girls are trapped by the criminals, who begin to torture and rape them. Next morning they are taken with the criminals as they travel to the countryside, but a malfunction in the car force the group to walk through the woods, where the girls are brutally killed. The criminals decide to rest in a nearby house, posing as salesmen, unaware that the last house on the left is actually Mari's house.

Written by director Craven himself, "The Last House on the Left" began with the idea of making a very graphic and shocking film. Supousedly, the original screenplay contained heavier violence, but Craven later decided to tone down a bit the script. One can only wonder how harsh was that softening of original story because, while certainly there are more graphic films, the violence in "The Last House on the Left" is quite strong and powerful. Like Bergman's film (itself based on a Swedish ballad), the main theme of the film is vengeance, specifically, the justification of vengeance against those who have harmed a loved one. Craven's take on the subject is based chiefly on violence, with Mari's parents, normally a peaceful couple, uncovering a darker side of their souls when they discover that the people they have helped actually have done terrible and irreparable things to their beloved daughter. While somber in tone, Craven decides to insert bits of comedy to lighten up the story, but the attempt ends up as silly and out of place.

In this his first time as director of a feature length film, filmmaker Wes Craven already shows his talent for storytelling and that fascination with the villains of his stories that would become part of his style. Limited in budget, Craven takes advantage of the raw quality of his equipment to achieve a realistic style, that fits nicely the crude nature of his story. As written above, the graphic violence of the screenplay was slightly toned down, but the implied violence of the images is intact, and perhaps make the film to look more realistic. Through the lens of cinematographer Victor Hurwitz' camera, Craven creates a nightmarish vision which power is in the realism of what's on screen. This powerful impact is perhaps what makes the comedy side of the film to look even more childish than what it really is. Craven's use of the cops as comedy relief is truly incomprehensible, as the realism slowly crafted by the work of Hurwitz' cinematography and the editing (by Craven himself), goes through the window whenever the cops appear.

The acting in the film is for the most part effective, albeit a couple of performances are quite weak. In the difficult roles of the abused girls, Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham are quite good, delivering believable performances as two teenagers looking for a good time. While a couple of times they feel a tad wooden, overall their work in the film is more than appropriate. Now, the ones who steal the show are the bad guys, mainly David Hess and Fred Lincoln. As the leader of the gang, Hess is an imposing yet strangely charming figure, and delivers probably the best performance in the film. As the sadistic maniac Weasel, Fred Lincoln is perfect, giving an eerie degree of realism to a character that could had been easily a mere stereotype. Also worth to notice is Marc Sheffler's work as Junior, which is quite effective despite not being a terrific performance. Unfortunately, Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr, who play Mari's parents, aren't a fine equal to such collection of good performances. It's not that they are bad, they just feel average in contrast.

The rest of the cast ranges from average (like Jeramie Rain) to plain bad, as in the case of Marshall Anker and Martin Kove (the cops). However, it would be too harsh to put the blame entirely on Anker and Kove, as in all honesty, their characters themselves are two big problems that the film has. As written above, the cops appear as comedy relief in bits where their incompetence is played for laughs, pretty much in the tone of the Keystone Cops. The problem with this, is that their antics are so ridiculous that the effect achieved, instead of being a release of the tension, becomes confusion about what's happening, as the comedy is so exaggerated that feels out of place in the middle of the seriousness of the rest of the film, and completely breaks the pace the film has. Other than that (which is a problem that could had been solved with editing), "The Last House on the Left" is a top notch horror film that takes a familiar theme (stories about rapes and revenge have always been popular) and makes a powerful vision out of it.

In a way, it is really amazing what the young director achieved in his first film (and producer Sean Cunningham, who would go on to become a familiar name in 90s horror films), as with his limited resources Craven conceived a shocking nightmare that more than 30 years after its release, still strikes as a powerful tale of revenge and its side effects. Probably Freddy Krueger and Ghostface are his most famous and recognized monsters, but what Craven created in this movie, was an exploration to the monster dormant inside of each one of us, and that's probably why "The Last House on the Left" is still so scary, haunting and fascinating: because it's hard not to feel identified with the couple. Proof that often talent is more important than resources, "The Last House on the Left" marked the beginning of Craven's career in horror, and that was only the beginning. And remember, it's only a movie.


November 29, 2009

The Wicker Man (2006)

Robin Hardy's 1973 cult film, "The Wicker Man", is definitely one of the most interesting films ever made, and one of the best horror movies in cinema history. Written by Anthony Shaffer, it is a film that through a thrilling story of mystery and suspense, raised interesting questions about faith, philosophy and human psychology. The clashes between extreme ideologies and its disastrous consequences were the main theme of the film, and its eerie atmosphere, ambiguous subject and original score turned the movie into a revered cult classic. To remake a movie like "The Wicker Man" is definitely not an easy task, but certainly a very interesting project to make, as the source offered countless possibilities to explore. Director and writer Neil LaBute, famed for the interesting takes on human nature he makes in his films and plays, seemed like an ideal choice to make a reinvention of a classic, but sadly, I must say that this project ended up as another wasted opportunity.

In this new version, Edward Malus (Nicholas Cage) is a Californian patrolman taking some days off as he is recovering from the shock of a tragic accident on the road. While recovering, Malus receives a letter from his former fianceé Willow (Kate Beahan), telling him that her daughter, Rowan (Erika-Shaye Gair), has disappeared and asking him for help. Confused about Willow contacting him after she left him many years ago, Malus decides to travel to the private island of Summersisle, where Willow lives now, in order to help her find her daughter. In Summersisle, Willow is a member of a community that lives outside of the world, and is dedicated to the production of honey. Right after arriving to the island, Malus begins the investigations, but the population is suspiciously uncooperative and of a very strange behavior. Soon Edward discovers that Rowan is kept hidden in the island and that there is a more complex and bizarre situation going on in Summersile.

Neil LaBute's new take on the original is certainly a bold spin on the themes of the original film: instead of religion and the clash of faith being the main themes, LaBute takes the neo-paganism topic to make extreme sexism the focus of the movie. Under this theme, Summersile is now a matriarchy where females rule and males are oppressed, and the film's "hero" is an unbalanced man with a deep disdain for females. In all fairness, it is an interesting and ambitious spin, and it's clear that LaBute really understood that "The Wicker Man" was more than the tale of a missing kid; however, he fails to develop this subtext through the story and ends up with a very weak background to the core plot, leaving his version of "The Wicker Man" soulless, and just as another typical thriller. While on previous occasions LaBute has successfully pulled off interesting takes on the many forms of sexism, his work on "The Wicker Man" feels really weak, and ultimately disappointing.

Unlike his writing, his direction of the movie is effective and during the first part of the movie, almost matches the original in terms of atmospheric horror and overall eeriness. Sadly, it takes an enormous effort to transform a lousy script into a good movie, and LaBute simply can't make it this time. While the movie moves at a nice pace and showcases a very good work of cinematography (by Paul Sarossy), the problems of the script become quickly too apparent and by the second half the movie becomes a series of scenes that have not logic or serve no purpose. Certainly, LaBute makes some scenes work, and the mystery and suspenses is well handled, but the fact that many scenes lack coherence or are ridiculous, in terms of storyline, make impossible to make something good out of them, no matter how effective technically the director could be. And LaBute is a good director, but the badly developed script finally damages the whole movie and good talent gets wasted with lousy dialogs and silly situations.

Nicholas Cage's performance as Edward Malus is probably one of the worst roles of his career, and not really because his performance is completely bad (it is bad, but to be fair, somethings he strikes the right notes), but because the character is horribly written. Ellen Burstyn is a perfect example of a wasted talent as Sister Summersile, the matriarch of the island and main "antagonist" of the film. Burstyn is a superb actress, and in "The Wicker Man", she delivers her lines with power and dignity, but like Cage, she can't do much to save a script doomed since its conception. Kate Beahan is definitely the worst actress of the cast, making her character look even worse than what it is (an accomplishment in itself, as Willow is one of the worst written ones). Beahan looks wooden and without any expression. Leelee Sobieski appears in a completely unnecessary (and underused) role and perhaps only Molly Parker escapes untainted by the film, although of course, her role isn't really big.

In the end, the debacle of "The Wicker Man" can be summarized in two words: bad scriptwriting. LaBute's idea of using the plot to make sexism as main theme is good and to an extent, quite original, but he betrays the original's spirit (and perhaps, in many ways LaBute's own ideas) by the oversimplification of the characters. While Sister Summersile becomes the embodiment of evil, officer Malus appears as a weak and naive man, taking out the whole clash of believes from the picture in favor of cheap sympathies for the character. With Burstyn's role becoming an exaggerated villain caricature (far from Christipher Lee's complex Lord Summerisle of the original film), and Cage's Malus as a simpleton, the story becomes an overdose of stereotypes. This change proves to be a mistake as Malus victimization becomes a joke that in the end makes the whole finale feel utterly pointless. The many plot holes and silly lines of dialog are just the tip of the iceberg of a doomed screenplay.

Unfortunately, Neil Labute's take on "The Wicker Man" is a horrible disappointment, not only to fans of the original, but also to fans of Neil LaBute, as the movie is nowhere near his previous success and feels as nothing more than a cheaply made for TV thriller. The absolutely ridiculous screenplay ruins what could had been an interesting change to the original's plot, and any bit of interest and intelligence the story could have had, goes down the drain with the atrocious lines the characters have. Personally, I'm not against remakes, as I like to see different versions of a story and there's always the chance to make something really original out of a previously done work; however, this update to "The Wicker Man" is a movie to be left forgotten as soon as possible. True, it's good looking trash, but trash after all.


November 23, 2009

The Wicker Man (1973)

Ever since its troubled release back in 1973, director Robin Hardy's "The Wicker Man" has been slowly (but constantly) adding new members to its cult following as the film becomes better known, and it's just now that finally the movie is getting the praise it deserves as one of the best films ever made. Watching it now, more than 30 years after its release, it's hard to believe that this superb example of mystery and suspense in film was almost lost, as the financial problems of its production company (British Lion Films) nearly cost Hardy his movie. Fortunately, British Lion Films was bought and its new proprietor needed a movie released quickly; so Robin Hardy's film still managed to be finished, and while not exactly in the complete version of the director's vision, "The Wicker Man" was finally released theatrically and Hardy's tale of the disastrously horrific consequences of a clash of faiths was able to enchant us with its perfect mix of horror, mystery and suspense.

In "The Wicker Man", Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Neil Howie, an officer from the mainland who travels to the remote island of Summerisle after receiving an anonymous letter informing him of the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan. Immediately after his arrival to Summerisle, Howie begins his investigation, but discovers that the locals refuse having met Rowan in the island, as if the girl had never existed. Somewhat discouraged by the answers, Howie decides to keep investigating, and soon discovers that the population of the island follow a strange religion with pagan beliefs that are a complete shock for his very conservative Christian faith. As he discovers that there's a chance that young Rowan may still be alive (with the villagers being responsible for plotting her kidnapping), he decides to attempt to rescue her from what he thinks is a barbaric and uncivilized way of life, but he'll discover that there is much more in Summerisle than the case of a kidnapped child. In his trip to Summerisle, Sergeant Howie will also discover a different law from his own, and the true nature of sacrifice.

Writer Anthony Shaffer became fascinated by the idea of a modern clash of religions when he attempted to adapt David Pinner's novel "Ritual" to film, but while the adaptation failed, the idea became the source for "The Wicker Man"'s main theme: a confrontation between two extreme sides of religiousness. It's really amazing the way that Shaffer explores this theme through the story, because as the plot unfolds, he interestingly avoids to use the basic archetypes of "hero" and "villian", and just lets the characters be quite human, exposing their personalities and making the choices that ultimately drive the plot towards it's legendary finale. While he cleverly utilizes the missing child plot to raise questions about the nature of faith and believers, it's surprisingly never disrespectful about it; and while it certainly uses exaggerated features of both faiths in his characters, the movie is more a cry against blind fanaticism than against a specific religion.

Even when Shaffer's brilliant screenplay is one of the film's fundamental elements, the direction by Robin Hardy is what truly completes the circle and makes the whole movie what it is. Despite being under a serious budgetary problem, Hardy managed to bring to life Shaffer's thriller taking advantage of the script's exhaustively researched plot to create a movie that was ambiguously captivating, frighteningly realistic and of a simply otherworldly nature. By blending a very natural, almost semi-documentary visual look with the unforgettable folk score by Paul Giovanni (that updated old traditional songs), Hardy created a joyful atmosphere that despite being cheerful and playful at first sight, becomes increasingly haunting as the plot unfolds. Hardy maintains every element so human that it never feels illogical. In fact, that's perhaps what's so terrifying about "The Wicker Man", the fact that this, sociological horror, could really happen. Giving little to no clue about the mystery of the plot, Hardy maintains the suspense always at the maximum level in preparation to a sublime conclusion that has now become a classic.

Another of the film's best features are the incredible performance of the members of the cast. Edward Woodward is simply perfect in the difficult role of Sergeant Howie, delivering one of the best performances in the history of the horror genre as the main character of this brutal clash of cultures. The legendary Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle, owner and ruler of the island, and one of the movie's most interesting characters. Lee literally becomes Summerisle and fills the role with his natural charm and breathtaking talent, showing that there is more in him than the Dracula of his Hammer films. Director Hardy managed to convince Diane Cilento to come out of retirement and play a part in "The Wicker Man", adding her experience to the film's assortment of talents. Finally, Britt Ekland plays Willow, a local of Summersile who gets interested in the newly arrived cop. Ekland may not give a performance as amazing as her three co-stars, but she gives the eroticism the movie needs in an unforgettable scene.

Sadly, the first thing one notices about "The Wicker Man" is how dated it looks. While the themes at play are really universal, the movie can't help but look like a product of its time, specifically a product of Great Britain in the 70s. It's colors, it's overall design, it all feels quite dated by now. True, this can be a flaw in a way, however, thanks to the style Hardy took on the making of the film (like truly exploring a different culture) make up for this flaw, justifying it and giving the film the look of a real documentary film. This of course has the immediate result of increasing its gritty realism in frightening proportions. Through the years, "The Wicker Man" has faced some criticism due to the constant use of songs through the movie, almost to the point of being labeled a pseudo musical film. While this is true to an extent (the songs are certainly omnipresent, and a couple may break the pace the film has at times), I think that the way they are used fits perfectly the detailed plot and its intended theme, adding as well an enormous amount of realism to Summerisle village and its culture.

"The Wicker Man" may look like another typical thriller with the same kind of mystery and suspense that has been done over and over for a long long time, but it's actually one of the most intelligent and interesting movies ever made. It is a brilliantly written movie that invites its audience to question the nature of heroism and morality, and to witness how far mankind can go for their beliefs. Raising difficult yet interesting question, Hardy and Shaffer create in "The Wicker Man" a powerful tale about faith that definitely leaves a mark on its viewers, regardless of their beliefs. While it really looks dated by now, it's still one of those movies where everything fits in the right place, making the movie as a whole feel like perfect. "The Wicker Man" is definitely a must-see, and not only for the horror genre fans, but for everyone interested in cinema in general. Time to keep the appointment with "The Wicker Man".


October 31, 2009

The Ghoul (1933)

In 1909, British actor William Henry Pratt traveled to Canada looking for fame and fortune on stage. A relative of members of the British foreign service, Pratt decided to change his name hoping to prevent embarrassment to his family, and the name he took would become legendary: Boris Karloff. Eventually, Karloff made it to films, establishing a career as character actor until success came with Universal Studios' classic, "Frankenstein" in 1931. Almost instantly, Karloff became an icon of the horror genre, and his career rose to new levels. It was in this moment when he returned to the United Kingdom to make a horror film: 1933's "The Ghoul", a movie that was considered a lost film for decades until a pristine copy was finally found in recent years. After all those years spent in the dark, expectations about the film are definitely high, specially when it's a film where Karloff once again shares the screen with his "Bride of Frankenstein" co-star, Ernest Thesiger. All those factors make "The Ghoul" quite an interesting film to see.

In "The Ghoul", Boris Karloff plays Prof. Morlant, a famous Egyptologist who has dedicated his life to collect religious artifacts from Ancient Egypt. On his deathbed, Morlant has faith in the power of "The Eternal Light", a mysterious medallion that he wants to present to the Egyptian gods after death. Morlant asks his butler, Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to wrap the medallion in his hand, and promises that if anyone betrays him, he'll return from the grave for revenge. Morlant's threat is not without a reason, because he knows that people will be after the powers of the eternal light. And his fears become true when his lawyer Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke) enters his house. Morlant's heirs Betty Harlan (Dorothy Hyson) and Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell) also arrive for the reading of the will, as well as Nigel Hartley (Ralp Richardson), a parson who used to visit Morlant trying to get him back into the Christian faith. On top of that, Egyptians Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) and Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith) also want the medallion, but nobody will be prepared to face the Ghoul.

Based on a novel and play by Dr. Frank King, "The Ghoul" features a complex plot that goes beyond the norm in horror films set in a dark house. While at first sight, the characters are once again the common collection of stereotypes, everyone has a defined personality and motive to be included in the plot, which twists and turns constantly in a dynamic, unpredictable way that moves with a very fast pace. True, they are still the basic archetypes of this genre of plays (the butler and the lawyer mainly), but the way they all interact with each other in the complicated storyline makes those stereotypes refreshing and quite interesting. The take on the religious confrontations between Morlant and Hartley are of great interest, and Morlant in general is certainly, an unusual villain for its time. Greedy, selfish and downright evil (unlike for example, the villains in Universal Studios horror films), Morlant is still the one who got robbed, and the plot really plays up on the audience's sympathies to make this bad guy the one to root for.

Director T. Hayes Hunter creates a wonderfully dark atmosphere in "The Ghoul", taking full advantage of the talents of cinematographer Günther Krampf and Art Director Alfred Junge, both of them seasoned artists from the years of German Expressionism. "The Ghoul" carries a lot from the Expressionist style, as the lavish sets make Morlant's mansion to become a powerful reflection of its malevolent owner. A director from the days of silent films, T. Hayes Hunter focuses on making a visually stunning movie that allows the wonderful work of Krampf and Junge to shine; nevertheless, despite this focus on the visual he also employs editing and sound in very interesting, even innovative ways (for its time). Certainly, young editors Ian Dalrymple and Ralph Kemplen (his first work) carried out several fresh ideas about editing while working on "The Ghoul". Nevertheless, while technically "The Ghoul" is a brilliantly done movie, certain problems, such as the stagy style that Hayes Hunter employs in his cast, as well as details with the screenplay stain what could really be a flawless work.

The cast is in general good, albeit the there's a general tendency to go over the top, as if it was a play instead of a movie. As Prof. Morlant, Karloff delivers a terrific performance, first as the weakened yet malevolent dying man and later as the resurrected ghoul, the legendary actor is truly at his best. Perhaps there's a bit of overacting that, while often appropriate for the role, at times it's just too much. Unfortunately, Karloff receives limited screen time, and one wonders why is it that he is off the screen for so much time. As his lawyer, Cedric Hardwicke is a nice counterpart, but like Ernest Thesiger, his characters is maybe a bit too simple for him to explore. While his performance is remarkable, Thesiger's role is also a one-note character. As the young couple of heirs, Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell do an effective, albeit unimpressive job. Their problem being having to portray a couple of underwritten characters. In his first role, Ralph Richardson has a very interesting character to play, and he delivers nicely in what would be the beginning of a promising career.

As written above, the screenplay has details that damage what could had been one of the best examples of horror from the 30s. For starters, while there's a lot of care in creating an interesting and complex storyline, the development of characters suffers a bit, and some of them are still just a step above being mere stereotypes. Also, the movie seems to lack a real protagonist, because while interestingly, the sympathies seem to be with the evil Morlant (as everybody is after his treasure), he disappears from the film for the entire second third of the movie, leaving the focus on his heirs. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if Hyson and Bushell's characters had a bit more going for them than just their looks, because while the actors do a good job in those roles, the characters just lack the necessary development. Bushell's Ralph, lacks the charm and comedy a hero of Old Dark House films would need to carry the film, as in the end, despite the obvious references to Universal Studios' style of monsters (mainly "The Mummy"), "The Ghoul" is a Dark House mystery tale, and plays firmly by those rules.

It's kind of a shame that a movie so perfect in technical aspects and with quite a talented cast, could not result in the classic that it should be, but in the end, this is the case of "The Ghoul". While it is a real eye candy and has a story quite bold for its time, the lack of character development truly makes "The Ghoul" a bit difficult to watch without getting a bit bored; as even went the complex plot offers a nice refreshing twist to the Old Dark House mystery films, the lack of interest in the characters (and with the only one with real impact absent during most of the film) proves to be fatal for the movie. Anyways, due to its wonderful achievements in cinematography and art direction (not to mention that it's never bad to watch Karloof and Thesiger together again), T. Hayes Hunter's "The Ghoul" is an interesting film to see, and despite it's problems, I'd still be thankful that the film could be erased from the lists of lost films.


October 04, 2009

Le chaudron infernal (1903)

While an enormously influential pioneer on the field of special effects, French director Georges Méliès was oddly not that interested in making color films in his career. The reasons behind this apparent lack of interest were probably related to how costly and laborious was the process of hand-coloring frame by frame, as while his first hand-colored movie was done in 1897 ("L'Hallucination De l'Alchimiste"), he wouldn't attempt to make another one until 1903, when the hand-colored movies done by Edison's Studios became to be as popular as his films. That year, right after the enormous success of his masterpiece, "Le Voyage Dans la Lune" ("A Trip to the Moon"), Méliès directed 3 shorts that he colored himself: "La Guirlande Merveilleuse", "Le Cake-walk infernal" and "Le Chaudron infernal". Of the three, "Le Chaudron infernal" (or "The Infernal Cauldron") is the most well-known, mainly because this film followed Méliès' interest in the horror genre.

"Le Chaudron infernal" (also known as "The Infernal Boiling Pot" by some sources) is a movie about an evil green-skinned Demon (Georges Méliès, of course), who works as an executioner in Hell. Another demon in charge of bringing him the condemned, begins his work by sending a woman to the Executioner, who joyfully ties her and throws her into the big cauldron he has in his room. His assistant brings him another two condemned, this time two male courtiers, who follow the woman to her fate inside the boiling pot. As the bodies enter the cauldron the infernal flames grow bigger and reach an enormous size. After putting the three inside the cauldron, the Demon stirs up the remains and suddenly the smoke that comes from the cauldron begins to form images that resemble the bodies of the condemned. Realizing that this are the souls trying to escape, the Demon will raise the fire from Hell to stop them from escaping.

Among Méliès' many fantasy films, "Le Chaudron infernal" is definitely one of the most impressive of all despite its short runtime, as the addition of color takes the film to a whole new level, making Méliès' many tricks look even more amazing than before. To his usual array of dissolves and camera tricks, Méliès added the effects of drawing over the celluloid (an effect made famous years later by the "Godzilla" films of the 60s), using the hand-coloring technique not only to make the film look nicer, but to make an effect in itself. On a completely different subject, it's interesting to see that in this movie Méliès continues his preference for themes of horror and black magic, as he knows that it's in the horror genre where he'll be able to exploit his special effects to shock and impress his audience.

Being objective, the only problem of "Le Chaudron infernal" is definitely its runtime, as considering that by 1903 Georges Méliès had already done "Le Voyage Dans la Lune", one would think that this film is a bit too short. However, there is a reason for this considerably shorter runtime: it's short because the process of coloring the film was lengthy, and Méliès wasn't able to make longer colored films (and as written above, that's why he only made 7 colored shorts in his career). Despite this problems, "Le Chaudron infernal" is definitely one of the most interesting movies done by the legendary French magician, not only because of its inventive use of color as a special effect, but also because of its place in the history of the horror genre. This movie is definitely pure Cinemagic.


September 14, 2009

Martin (1977)

A key figure in the development of modern horror, American filmmaker George A. Romero forever changed the face of the genre in 1968 with his highly influential film, "Night of the Living Dead". What Alfred Hitchcock and H.G. Lewis had started in the early years of that turbulent decade, the 28 years old Romero would take one step further with his indie movie, which featured an urban style of realistic horror, a rawer kind of violence and a complete reinvention of the zombie as a monster. Unfortunately, Romero's following movies lacked the impact and success of "Night of the Living Dead", and only a return to his zombie apocalypse would take him back to the top: 1978's "Dawn of the Dead", the ultimate zombie movie. Nevertheless, amongst those less popular efforts done between "Night" and "Dawn", there's a modest film that despite lacking the tremendous popularity of the "Dead" films, is definitely as interesting as them, and perhaps one of Romero's finest works. That film is 1977's "Martin", the sad tale of a vampire for the modern world.

"Martin" is the story of Martin Matthias (John Amplas), a solitary young man in his early 20s with a tendency to use narcotics to sedate women in order to be able of slicing their wrists and drink their blood, believing himself a vampire. Martin travels to Pittsburgh, where he meets his uncle Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an hostile old man who accuses Martin of being his cousin, an 84 years old vampire from his native country. Cuda takes Martin to his house in the nearby town of Braddock, hoping to be able to save Martin's soul before killing him. While Martin tries to get along, Cuda treats him like an ancient vampire, using old folklore to protect himself and his granddaughter Christine (Christine Forrest) from Martin. All this takes its toll in the already alienated Martin, but he manages to develop a friendship with Christine, who thinks that Martin believes he is a vampire because their family has driven him insane. With Christine's help, Martin begins to open up a bit, even improving his relationship with women, but even in modern times tragedy follows vampires where they go.

In an interesting revision of the vampire myth, George A. Romero transforms the legendary predator of folklore into a troubled young man, whose apparent inability to relate to the world is manifested through silent killings and strange visions of romantic vampirism. But still, while Martin has those idyllic hallucinations, he still rejects Cuda's lore about vampires as silly superstitions, thinking of himself as "the real thing". Complex, realistic and rich in character development, the film is focused on Martin's life at Cuda's house, with the old man trying to save Martin's soul via magic and religion while Christine tries to save Martin's mind from the madness he lives in. A captivating character study, "Martin" deconstructs the vampire myth and plays with its lore and rules, keeping always in ambiguous terms whether Martin is really a vampire or not. Imbued with a sad, nostalgic tone, "Martin" is a tale of loneliness and decadence, as the one sure thing that Martin has in common with folkloric vampires is that both are complete outsiders.

Shot with a low-budget, "Martin" has a very realistic urban style, albeit one with a dark and depressing tone, as the town of Braddock is presented as a dying industrial suburb. Through the lens of cinematographer Michael Gornick, Martin's life is framed by a bleak atmosphere where the urban landscape equates loneliness and decadence. Unlike the common vampire stereotype of most horror films, Romero's bloodsucker is anything but seductive; on the contrary, Martin's inability to relate with the world forces him to use narcotics to drug his victims. While in his visions (shot as a stylish silent film) he's a complete vampire, in his reality, Martin is nothing but a bunch of unsatisfied wishes; with his only contact with the outer world being his calls to a night radio talk show. And not only the young vampire is a troubled person, but every character in the film seems to be trapped in that depressing loneliness that Romero implies that's inherent to our modern life. While slow in rhythm, Romero manages to keep things interesting and the film never runs out of steam.

Leading the cast is John Amplas, who delivers a truly powerful performance as the film's title character, Martin Mathias. In films like this, which are essentially a character study, the acting is of tremendous importance for the success of the film, even more with a story as unusual as the one in Romero's "Martin". Fortunately, Amplas delivers a wonderful job, capturing perfectly the tortured soul of the troubled young vampire. Wheter one believes in Martin as a mentally ill man, or as a true modern vampire (it's never fully stated which is the truth), Amplas is always in perfect tone with his character, fleshing out a very human and sympathetic character (quite a feat, because no matter if his vampirism is real or fake, Martin is still a very real serial killer). As religious fanatic Cuda, Lincoln Maazel is very effective, sometimes even frightening; albeit a couple of times he seems to overact a bit more than necessary. As the more "normal" character, Christine, Christine Forrest gives a good balance to the story, and her work is subtle, yet quite appropriate.

Dark, melancholic and fascinating, "Martin" is not a typical horror film, in the way it examines the mind of its lead character, the horrors he experiences and the horrors he creates. The vampire theme of the film serves Romero to explore a serial killer from a quite unusual and interesting perspective, as it's truly Martin's deluded psyche what's shown in the film. With its highly atmospheric cinematography, captivating storyline and the eerie score by Donald Rubinstein, there's little to complain in "Martin", however, it's a complete change of pace from Geroge A. Romero's other, more famous films. And perhaps the fame of Romero's iconic horror films about zombies is "Martin"'s worst enemy, because this modest little gem will definitely disappoint those expecting another "Dawn of the Dead". The atmosphere is similar, but the style is completely different, and "Martin"'s slower, subtler pace may not be something for fans of gore. Nevertheless, while a very different kind of beast, Romero's quirky tale about the alienation of a modern vampire is as good as his famous zombie films.

It's a shame that despite Romero's status as a master of horror, his films outside his "Dead" series tend to be overshadowed and forgotten. But "Martin" is a proof that there is more in Romero's career than zombies, and that he is certainly not a one trick pony. Melancholic, atmospheric and subtle, "Martin" may not be shocking or brutal, but it's the kind of horror that gets under the skin, the one that disturbs rather than terrify. Making a vampire tale for our age of disbelief, Romero made in "Martin" a true gem of psychological horror, a powerful study on the serial killer theme and simply one of this best films. Definitely on par with his zombie classics. And that's not an easy feat.


September 03, 2009

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

In 1915, an athletic 32 years old Broadway actor moved to California and signed the contract that would start a legendary career. His name was Douglas Fairbanks, and his meeting with director D.W. Griffith at Triangle Pictures would be the first step in the road that would take him to be known as The King of Hollywood. At Triangle, Fairbanks met directors Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, as well as Griffith's favorite writer, Anita Loos; under their wing, Fairbanks would make many of his early films, most of them romantic comedies, in which Fairbanks' natural charm and athletic abilities would make him a favorite of the public. Amongst those early comedies, there's a strange little film that even now, almost 100 years after its production, remains a curiosity as fun and bizarre as when it was first released: the short film "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish", a surreal comedy about a cocaine-shooting detective named "Coke Ennyday". Behind this twisted Sherlock Holmes parody was Tod Browning (later a legendary filmmaker by his own right), who joined Griffith and Loos as writer.

Douglas Fairbanks is Coke Ennyday, "the world's greatest scientific detective", a man gifted with not only a brilliant mind for science and great deductive talents, but also with the ability of consuming huge doses of drug without any problem. In fact, it could be said that Ennyday's life wouldn't be the same without his constant injections of cocaine, as whenever he feels down or needs energy, his loyal syringes will get him high and laughing again. One day Coke is visited by Police Chief I.M. Keene (Tom Wilson), who asks him to investigate a suspicious gentleman (Allan Sears) so rich that literally rolls in wealth. Apropriately dressed in checkered detective hat and coat (and car!), Coke begins his investigation, which conveniently takes him to discover a gang of opium smugglers who operate in the beach and transport the drug in fish-shaped lifesavers known as "Leaping Fishes". But this adventure has something else for Coke besides his beloved opium, as he also will have to save the young girl in charge of the "Leaping Fishes" (Bessie Love) from the gang of smugglers.

The story, written by Tod Browning and D.W. Griffith (under the pseudonym Granville Warwick), is mainly a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character, detective Sherlock Holmes. Playing with Holmes' addiction to cocaine and taking the idea to the extreme, Browning and Griffith create a wacky story filled with absurd situations in which Coke's joyful consume of drugs serves nicely for comedy effect. It's very interesting how the short film keeps an irreverent and subversive tone, handling drug addiction in a very lighthearted way (an attitude that perhaps would not be seen in cinema again until the 1960s). The surreal world of Coke Ennyday, with his weird car and his "scientific periscope" (a prediction of closed-circuit television?), displays the bizarre originality of Browning's particular style of fantasy. The inter-titles, while not some of Anita Loos' best work, do have the witty style she was known for, and suit perfectly the joyfully irreverent tone of the short film. Perhaps at its core it's still a typical story, but one with a style of its own.

Directed by Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" shines because of three main assets: its unusual and outrageous screenplay, the effective work of Art Direction, and of course, the talent and charm of Douglas Fairbanks. The directors seem to realize this and in turn, decide to keep things simple and let the story flow freely by focusing on Fairbanks and his character's antics, as well as letting him show some of his athletic skill in certain scenes. Cinematgrapher John W. Leezer has the chance of a couple of interesting camera effects (although nothing that had not been seen before), but in general, the movie is quite simple in style and execution, following strictly the pattern set by the legendary D.W. Griffith (after all, Cabanne began as Griffith's assistant). An efficient albeit perhaps unimaginative craftsman, Cabanne takes no risks and keeps the basic line set by previous comedies of the same kind. Nevertheless, it's worth to point out that the pace given to the film is appropriately dynamic, considering its curious set of characters.

Being gifted with great screen presence and a natural talent, it's not a surprise that Douglas Fairbanks reached Hollywood's heights as fast as he did. While still not the kind of character that would make him famous, Fairbanks seems to enjoy himself in the role of Coke Ennyday. With a character as silly and unpredictable as Coke, Fairbanks allows himself to exaggerate, overact and play the fool; but still, he never feels wrong or out of place as the story is precisely about nothing else but playing the fool. Under the effects of his drugs, Coke lives untied by the norms and owns an unnatural luck; Fairbanks takes those traits of his character as a chance to engage in physical comedy. As his romantic interest, Bessie Love doesn't have much to do, as her role is quite stereotypical and could be considered as one of the few "normal" characters in the short film. Nevertheless, her sweet quietness provides an effective counterpart to Coke's wild antics. The rest of the cast is pretty much OK, delivering pretty much the standard quality from Triangle Productions.

As written above, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a great early example of the wild imagination of Tod Browning. Like "Sunshine Dad" (from the same year), it displays his fascination with irreverent characters who live outside the norm, as well as his taste for surreal, bizarre comedy. It's a shame that the directing, by Cabanne and Emerson is so uninspired, because a screenplay like Browning's could had been exploited in more imaginative ways. It's true that Emerson had already directed Fairbanks's hit "His Picture in the Papers", but a great deal of Emerson's success had to do with Anita Loos' (teammate and later wife) witty screenplays so, it wouldn't be fair to blame Cabanne entirely for the unoriginal, dull style of "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish". Certainly, given his amount of work and reputation, Cabanne would be the most logical suspect, but I don't think that Emerson is without guilt. Anyways, the fact is that the work of directing is a tad mediocre, and definitely unworthy of such an imaginative script and such an explosive lead actor.

Weird, bizarre, and truly unique, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a very interesting film that, despite its age and short runtime, still can get laughs because of its handling of the absurd, and it's complete irreverence. Given the generally innocent concept we have of the "good old days", it's at first hard to imagine a movie dealing with drugs in such a liberal, carefree way as this; specially a movie starring Douglas Fairbanks, written by Tod Browning, Anita Loos and produced by D.W. Griffith. Such legendary names carry so much weight that the shock is of a certainly big proportion. But in the end, those icons also knew how to laugh, and "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is simply a group of very talented friends who one day got together and decided to make a wild, crazy movie about a detective named Coke Ennyday. Who would use coke any day.


August 31, 2009

El Diablo y la Nota Roja (2008)

Seen with disdain and even repulsion by diverse sectors of the population (yet still read with great interest by practically everyone), yellow journalism has always been at the center of criticism because of its sensationalist nature, and its tendency to exaggerate, distort and exploit news. Mexican press developed a particular form of yellow press, completely devoted to death: the Nota Roja. Roughly translated as "red news" (because of its bloody content), the Nota Roja section in Mexican papers is characterized by its focus on accidents, crime, murders and suicides. While the degree of graphic content may vary (from prudish lists of accidents in more serious newspapers to the highly gory details of "¡Alarma!" magazine), Nota Roja exists in practically every Mexican newspaper. Fascinated by this direct and uncompromising approach to death, British filmmaker John Dickie decided to follow journalist Alejandro Villafañe, better known as "Diablo" ("Devil"), in his everyday search for bloody red news. "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is that chronicle.

In "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" ("The Devil and the Red News"), the eye of John Dickie's camera accompanies Diablo, Alejandro Villafañe, in diverse situations related to his job as journalist of the Nota Roja section of a local newspaper. Sorting cops, forensics and victim's relatives, Diablo takes pictures and collects notes about every case he finds, taking Dickie (and the audience) to discover the world behind the news of the Nota Roja. The film works as an interview of sorts, with Diablo explaining every detail of his trade in his very personal style. In this way, Dickie explores how the Nota Roja works, from the difficult job of photographing corpses to the writing of outrageous sensationalist headlines, as well as the complicated relation between the authorities, the press, and those involved in every case (criminals or victims). Also, between visits to crime scenes and the morgue, Diablo opens up a window to his life, and we get to know the man behind the gruesome photographs of Nota Roja tabloids. His family life, his personality, and how his work affects him. And us.

By following Diablo in his everyday journey, director John Dickie manages to make a very intimate portrait of the man and his atypical profession; while at the same time, explores the difficulties and challenges of said line of work. With a good dose of politically incorrect black humor, Dickie shows the world of Mexican crime news as it is, in all its crudeness, with Diablo as his guide through the blood and violence that fill the pages of the Nota Roja. While somewhat desensitized to that world, Diablo remains a fun man with a good sense of humor; and armed with his radio and notebook, Diablo takes his old VW Beetle and rides through the streets of his town (one of the many towns in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) looking for the next person who'll make the headlines of the newspaper. Despite the non-serious tone of the documentary, Dickie remains as objective and direct as possible, and even Diablo himself gets his fair share of criticism. Overall, the structure (divided by chapters, one for every headline Diablo writes in the film) is quite dynamic, and the movie is never boring or tiresome.

Nevertheless, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is not without its flaws, as even when the film flows at a nice pace for the most part; sometimes it does feel rushed, as if there had not been enough material for some segments of the movie (unfortunately, some of great interest). This also gives the feeling that something is missing, as while the editing (by Manuel Méndez) is for the most part good, sometimes the jump from chapter to chapter is too abrupt, as if the segment was incomplete. This result in certain details not being fully explored, like for example the fascination of people with Nota Roja articles. Granted, this could very well be outside of the scope of Dickie's investigation and the film's focus, but still, it's a question that tends to appear continuously through the film and that sadly, no concrete opinion is given in the subject (albeit certain ideas are thrown in a couple of interviews). Perhaps this was intentional, as Dickie was more interested in the figure of Diablo as a common man with a very uncommon kind of job.

In the end, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is a very interesting (and morbidly fun) trip to the bizarre world of crime news in Mexico.. Bold, harsh (a couple of scenes could be quite graphic for some) and very politically incorrect, John Dickie's documentary is an entertaining journey to this fascinating world in which violent deaths are part of the job, and where one has to lurk into the darker side of human beings to find the news piece of news. Maybe "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is not the most complete of documentaries, but the straightforward way it deals with its subject matter works great with the gritty mood of Nota Roja articles. Crude and violent, yet strangely human, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is an interesting view on our own morbid tastes, as perhaps everyone who reads the Nota Roja hopes not to know those photographed, and enjoys the secret relief that someone out there had it worse the previous day.


August 23, 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

During the years of the Great Depression, a wave of criminal activity began to expand across the United States, with a rise of bank robberies, gun fights, and organized crime in general. A direct result of the difficult social and economical situations of the Depression, this period of time, from 1931 to 1935, is often called the "Public Enemy era", due to the fascination that the exploits of criminals and gangsters exerted in the American public of the time. Sensationalized by the press (and later, by cinema), the famous crimes of people such as Baby Face Nelson or Bonnie and Clyde, soon became the source of legends and popular stories. Amongst those idolized criminals, one has a special place in American popular culture due to his singular charm, successful heists, famous escapes and the great challenge he represented for the rising FBI: John Herbert Dillinger. Michael Mann's 2009 film, "Public Enemies", once again brings the legendary bank robber to the big screen, this time focusing on the attempts done by the FBI to stop public enemy number one, John Dillinger.

Set in 1933, the story of "Public Enemies" begins with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) being taken to prison by an agent. Inside jail, it is revealed that the guard is his associate Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), and the whole thing a plan to release the rest of Dillinger's gang. Things go wrong and a shootout ensues, but most of the gang manage to escape and hide in a country house, ready to plan the next bank robbery. In the meantime, agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is upgraded by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), because of Purvis' killing of famous criminal Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). In charge of the hunt for John Dillinger, Purvis begins to reform the strategy and modernizes the methods of the investigation. While this happens, Dillinger meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at a party and falls in love with her. As Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie will discover the difficulties and dangers of being part of Dillinger's life, and will be in a dangerous position in the middle of the duel between the FBI agents and John Dillinger's gang.

Written by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and director Michael Mann himself, "Public Enemies" is a crime drama based on Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34". While still a dramatized and not exactly accurate view of John Dillinger's life and times, the writers remain as faithful as possible to the enormous amount of historical data found on Burrough's book and in "Public Enemies" offer a highly detailed trip to the Great Depression years. Covering the final years of John Dillinger's career, the film focuses mainly on two themes: Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette, and Purvis' obsession with capturing Dillinger. Exploring how the ups and downs of Dillinger's criminal career affected their life together, it is the couple who gets the most exposure, giving a powerful emotional core to the film that allows to have a very human view of the legendary criminal. More concerned with Dillinger's person than with his world, in the end the story plays with the classic themes of love, death and tragedy.

As he did before in "Collateral" and "Miami Vice", director Michael Mann once again bets on digital cinema, with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, in charge of employing high-definition digital technology to recreate the Public Enemy era. The result is a clean, pristine image that gives the movie a visual look akin to documentaries. This realistic style is pretty much in tone with the intimate portrait Mann attempts to make, as "Public Enemies" often feels like a view from inside Dillinger's gang. Having as locations several of the real places where Dillinger walked and lived, is an element that also adds to this focus on historical accuracy that Mann has on the movie. All this obsessive care for accuracy may lead one to think that Mann was aiming for an objective biography of Dillinger's last days, but the result is that "Public Enemies" is at the same time a story about both the myth and the man, and how the man began to shape and live his own myth. All in all a story where Mann's mix of stunning set pieces and powerful drama can shine beautifully.

As expected, the weight of a movie like "Public Enemies", which features a group of characters lager than life, is almost completely on those who play the main characters. Leading the cast as John Dillinger is Johnny Depp, which once again delivers a fantastic performance as the iconic gangster. An actor who likes challenge, Depp makes his Dillinger completely different from the classic idea of iconic gangster from the 30s. Moving away from previous interpretations of the character, Depp makes the legendary bank robber a very real and complex person, feared and admired in that strange celebrity status that the press (and himself in a way) developed for him. As his love interest, Marion Cotillard is very effective, with a subtle and restrained performance that becomes the emotional core of the film without falling in cheap melodrama. As Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale is very good as well, but has the difficult position of having a character that's pretty much underwritten, more a cardboard stereotype than a character as complex as Dillinger and Frechette.

This detail about the role of Purvis is one of the main flaws of the film, because it really feels as if something was lacking in the FBI's side. Having a poorly developed counterpart, the film feels slow and boring whenever it moves away from Dillinger's side, and it's like a missed opportunity to explore both sides of the same coin. Granted, this perhaps was to go beyond the limitations of the medium (maybe a miniseries would be more fitting) and the focus of the film, but in a way, the story feels incomplete. As expected, the use of digital cinema in "Public Enemies" generated mixed reactions. In my opinion, the result is interesting, because while Mann and Spinotti achieve several beautifully looking scenes and a high degree of detail, some look really bad. Certainly, those are the minority, but the contrast in quality between them is so high that they are pretty noticeable in the movie. Nevertheess, the use of digital cinema in a period piece like "Public Enemies" is a bold move by Mann, and while not entirely successful, the result is not bad.

An interesting experiment in form, "Public Enemies" is a fascinating crime thriller that, even when it has several flaws, still is a captivating story with the classic elements of tragedy. Perhaps shot in film would had worked better, perhaps the result would had been the same, but what's to admire in Mann's movie is his willingness to experiment, and that even when the result is not as good as expected, he still can tell stories in a great way. Probably there will never be an objective, historically accurate film about John Dillinger's life, but that's simply because the myth around him is so fascinating and so thrilling, that still captures the imagination of the audience more than 70 years after his death. And cinema is all about myths.


June 26, 2009

La Santa Muerte (2007)

Since the late sixties, an new religious movement began to take place in the south of Mexico, slowly growing until achieving national recognition in the early years of the 21st century: the cult of the Santa Muerte (literally "Saint Death"). Product of modern syncretism between Catholicism and ancient native beliefs, the cult of the Santa Muerte is based around the figure of Death, which is seen as an angel receiving its power from God, delivering justice to its devotees. The cult gained notoriety due to the fact that many criminals were devotees of the cult, relating the sect to organized crime in general. But what started as a sect, is certainly now a bigger phenomenon, and several movies have been done around the cult; some exploit its subject unrelentingly (Paco del Toro preachy horror film "La Santa Muerte"), others explore its complexities (Eva S. Aridjis's documentary "La Santa Muerte"), and others simply don't judge it and take it as what it is: another part of the Mexican environment. Carlos Poblano's 2007 debut film, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" is one of those films.

In "La Santa Muerte" (known in English as "The Rite of Saint Death" and also as "The Saint of Death"), David Enríquez is Diego, a young man living between gangs and crime in a town near the border. Sent to prison after committing armed robbery, Diego discovers a new way to see life and death in the words of his cell-mate, Tijuano (César Sandoval), a convicted assassin for hire and devotee of the Santa Muerte. Under Tijuano's guidance, Diego discovers the beliefs of those who follow Death, and becomes good friends with the mystic assassin. Seeing in Diego his only friend, Tijuano trusts him the location of a huge amount of money he stole from a Cartel in his last job. Unfortunately, Tijuano's enemies murder him in prison as punishment for his betrayal; however, with the help of Tijuanos' lawyer (Susana Laborde), Diego gets released from jail. Now, having learned from Tijuano about the money, Diego becomes a follower of Santa Muerte and decides to avenge his friend, but it won't be easy for the young criminal to do it, as the rite of the Saint of Death is full of sacrifices.

Written by Patricia Rojas and director Carlos Poblano, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" is essentially a crime drama framed by the whole mystique of the cult of the Santa Muerte. While the story isn't anything original, what makes "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" different from other films is the degree of respect it has for the controversial cult. Granted, it definitely isn't a faithful portrait of the cult's beliefs, as they are mixed with ancient legends and a touch of Carlos Castañeda's philosophy; but the story works because it never tries to be faithful. And it is with this lack of pretensions that the screenplay manages to become, if not a faithful representation, at least a honest rendition of the cult's mystique as seen by the outer world. Nevertheless, this care for having the aura of the Santa Muerte cult kind of hurts the film, as there are lengthy explanations that make the pace slow and tedious. There's a also a lack of character development, and the attempts of poetry by the narrative at times end up sounding pretentious, but as a whole the story is well told.

In his feature length debut, Carlos Poblano conceives an thriller that, imbued by the aura of its main theme, feels at times ethereal and atemporal. Despite being firmly grounded in the reality of drug traffic, gang violence and organized crime, the atmosphere in "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" feels surreal and dreamlike, rooted in the magic and symbolism of Poblano's reinterpretation of the Santa Muerte cult. The remarkable work of cinematographer Gustavo Gilabert is instrumental to achieve this mood, as for moments (specially in exteriors), Gilabert achieves scenes of great beauty. Unfortunately, not everything is perfect, as Poblano and Gilabert struggle to achieve this magic in interiors, and some scenes are either too dark or are simply too plain, completely void of that magic. The drastic change between the look of scenes is proof that the movie took years to be finished, but the good side of this is that the growth of both Poblano and Gilabert can be seen on screen. What is truly marvelous through the whole movie and worthy of recognition is the music, by Juan García.

Acting through the film is kind of average, as "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" was the first real film experience for most of the cast (some of them being real gang members). Nevertheless, the film has some nice surprises, such as César Sandoval's performance as Tijuano, Diego's best friend and spiritual guide. Sandoval manages to surround his character in an aura of mystery without becoming too much of a caricature, being captivating and very believable as both a shaman and a killer. It really helps that his character is one that gets some of the better development in the film, because for example, Getsemani Zamudio's role as Diego's girlfriend is sadly one of the most underdeveloped, and it downgrades Zamudio's good job. Very expressive and natural in her character, Zamudio does her best in the role, but unfortunately, it's a role that most of the time only requires to look pretty. Finally, David Enríquez as Diego is effective, although at times forced, specially in his narration of the story, which feels void of emotion and impersonal.

As said above, the rest of the cast ranges from average to truly bad, but for the most part, the quality of the acting is not the biggest problem in "El Rito de la Santa Muerte". The real problem is perhaps the writers' desire to explain certain elements (particularly those regarding rites and beliefs) via lengthy explanations in either the narration or in the characters' dialogs. While the effort is commendable, it would had been better to use a different way to explain things, because as it is, the film's pace suffers terribly, getting too slow and even boring when Diego explains every character's back-story or when Tijuano describes every step in the cult's rituals. Fortunately, this is experienced mostly in the first half of the film, because as the story unfolds, Poblano takes the story to a faster, more dynamic rhythm. In the end, a bit more of care in the screenplay's development would had helped the film a lot, because on the technical side, the film is of a great quality considering the extremely limited resources the crew had to work with.

It took several years for Carlos Poblano to finish "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" and unfortunately, it shows. Nevertheless, the final product shows not only the struggles the filmmakers had to face in this independent production, but also the development of their talents, as while some scenes look average and amateurish, others achieve a degree of quality comparable to projects with higher budgets. In the end, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" may not be the most fortunate debut ever, but it's certainly not a bad one, as it's a movie that shows a lot of promise in those involved. An interesting take on the Santa Muerte cult, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" is a fine film that, against all odds, manages to be entertaining until the credits roll. Hopefully, Poblano's next project will be a step up for his career and for independent Mexican cinema as well.


June 12, 2009

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

One of the most fascinating creatures of folklore, vampires have had a constant presence in horror legends and stories through centuries. The enormous success of British author Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula" shaped the myths into one iconic figure that became the classic image of the immortal monster. The following century saw the vampire storming the new medium, cinema, becoming a popular subject in practically every decade in cinema's history. And it all began in 1921, when producers Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau got together in order to develop an idea Grau had been imagining since World War I: a vampire film. To achieve this dream, the producers hired famed scriptwriter Henrik Galeen to adapt Stoker's Gothic novel into a screenplay. However, Dieckmann and Grau were unable to get the rights for the novel, so Galeen reworked the story and set it in a fictional German town. Count Dracula became Count Orlok, and with director F. W. Murnau at the helm, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (translated as "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror") was unleashed.

"Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" begins in a German city called Wisborg, where young Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is an employee at a real state firm. Hutter is sent to Transilvania to visit the enigmatic aristocrat Count Orlok (Max Schreck), who wants to purchase a house in Wisborg and move to Germany. As he gets closer to Orlok's castle, he discovers that the locals are terrified by the mysterious Count, to the point that his driver refuses to take him into the Count's lands. A strange coach is sent by Orlok to pick Hutter, and so the young man finally meets his strange client. At the castle, Hutter only sees the eccentric Orlok by night, and he never sees the Count eating anything, so he begins to suspect that the Count is really the monster known as Nosferatu. One night Orlok admires a portrait of Hutter's wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder) and becomes fascinated with her. After revealing his true nature to Hutter, Nosferatu hurries his trip to Wisborg and takes his reign of terror to Germany.

Already known as a master of dark fantasy (having worked in early expressionist horror films such as "Der Student von Prag" and "Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam"), writer Henrik Galeen adapts Stoker's classic novel with great talent and literally makes it his own tale. Leaving out the typical Victorian focus on morality of the source (including the vampire hunter Van Helsing), Galeen enhances the Gothic romanticism of the novel by making the story not a fight between the more abstract concepts of good and evil, but an idealized duel between purity and corruption. Corruption is a central theme in the film, with Orlok, the Nosferatu, being not only the plague-bearer whose arrival to Wisborg brings death and disease with him, but also the evil corrupter who plans the destruction of the Hutters' happiness. Stylish, but imbued with a fluid rhythm (inherited perhaps, from the source novel), Galeen's storyline is very agile and dynamic; unfolding itself with an almost poetic pace that makes the story, as its title suggest, a real symphony of horror.

With films such as 1920's "Der Januskopf" ("The Head of Janus") and 1921's "Schloß Vogelöd" ("The Haunted Castle") in his young career, director F. W. Murnau was no stranger to supernatural themes such as those in Galeen's screenplay. Nevertheless, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" would become one of Murnau's most important films, as along cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner and producer Albin Grau (who worked as Art director), Murnau developed a very stylish and unique visual look for his vampire film. While essentially an expressionist film, Murnau made choices that were different than the norm, like for example the use of real locations for the movie. This adds a very natural atmosphere that contrasts powerfully with the more expressionist details of the film, such as Nosferatu's striking appearance. This contrast works perfectly with the idea of corruption that's central to the screenplay, as the natural village gets consumed by the extremely stylish nightmare that Nosferatu represents.

In the iconic role of Count Orlok, German actor Max Schreck created one of the most fascinating figures in the history of horror. Thanks to the striking expressionist makeup and his subtle, yet stylish performance, Schreck gives life to a very unique vampire. Animalistic and predatory, his Nosferatu is a real creature of the night, embodying perfectly the idea of horror as both repulsive and captivating at the same time. Trained in theater, Schreck bases his work mainly in body language, creating a nightmarish figure that moves through the screen as if one of the expressionist shadows was alive, filling the screen with a haunting atmosphere when he appears on screen. As Ellen Hutter, Greta Schröder is remarkably good, being almost ethereal in her scenes and the perfect opposite image to Nosferatu's fierce figure. As Knock (equivalent to the novel's Renfield), Alexander Granach steals every scene he is in, as his overacting suits nicely the character he plays. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about Gustav von Wangenheim, whose hammy work is one of the films' downsides.

Filled with unforgettable, haunting images courtesy of cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" still stands today not only as a great horror film, but as a marvelous artistic achievement in general. Murnau's heavily atmospheric mix of harsh realism and nightmarish fantasy truly set the standards for Gothic horror, and almost singlehandedly defined the vampire concept in films. Granted, the technological limits of its time are visible, but the fact is that, more than 80 years after its release, the amazing way Galeen, Murnau, Schreck and everyone involved in the production gave life to Stoker's novel in such a powerful and emotional film is truly a monumental work. Unfortunately, producers Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau failed to secure the rights to the novel, and the Stoker's state launched a lawsuit against their company, Prana films, forcing them into bankruptcy and forcing them to destroy every copy. "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" was almost lost, but to our good fortune, copies survived in other countries.

Powerful, striking, fascinating, thrilling and in a word, supernatural, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" went on to became a classic of the horror genre and a movie that has influenced influenced generations of filmmakers for decades. After "Nosferatu", Murnau went on to become one of the most important filmmakers in the world, moving from expressionism to a wide range of artistic styles, finally emigrating to America to direct several masterpieces before the arrival of sound. A legendary film by a legendary filmmaker, what Murnau and his crew achieved in "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" is simply what cinema is supposed to be: magic.

Watch "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1922)

May 19, 2009

Targets (1968) @ Cult Reviews!

This month I contributed another review to that cool website that allows me to write from time to time: Cult Reviews. This time I wrote about "Targets" (1968), one of my favourite films from the 60s. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, "Targets" was his debut as a filmmaker, under the wing of legendary producer Roger Corman and with the one and only Boris Karloff in the lead role. Of course, nothing came up easily, and to get that deal, Bogdanovich had to give some use to footage from Corman's "The Terror" (1963); nevertheless, Bogdanovich had a brilliant idea to use the footage: set the movie on a drive-in theatre. Powerful, crude and haunting, "Targets" was a kind of a statement, as it appeared on the final years of a decade of changes. Naturally, everything will be in greater detail at Cult Reviews.

Besides my lousy writintgs, this month Cult Reviews features a review of one of the films with the weirdest concepts for a horror movie: "One Eyed Monster" (2008), where said monster is nothing else than Ron Jeremy's detached penis. Mr. Vomitron took the job of reviewing such an interesting film and came up with a fine piece about the movie. Besides "One Eyed Monster", Vomitron tackles 2000's Swedish horror film "Det Okända" ("The Unknown"). Reviewer Coventry watched "8th Wonderland", and has many interesting conclusions about it, as it's perhaps one of the fresher films of 2008. Good ol' Perfesser Deviant writes about Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come", and if you wonder why such film appears on Cult Reviews, you have to check out what the Perfesser has to say about it. Finally, the Full-Length Movie of the Week is George A. Romero's legendary classic, "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), so by some reason beyond human understanding you have not seen such beauty, you can watch it here.

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


May 11, 2009

800 Balas (2002)

The province of Almería in Spain, became widely famous among film producers in the 60s and 70s, as it had the perfect natural settings for making movies. A couple of big epic productions like "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Cleopatra" (1963) were the first to take advantage of it, but it would be the Italian filmmakers of the late 60s whom would really exploit the vast potential of Almería as a location, making it the scenery for their low budget Westerns. The deserted landscape of Almería became an integral part of the Italian way of making Westerns, and to many of its inhabitants, it meant their entrance to the world of Spaghetti Westerns. "800 Balas" ("800 Bullets"), is director Alex De la Iglesia's homage to Almería, and the legendary Spaghetti Westerns that were produced there, as well as the many people who found job in those classic movies. With his now trademark black humor to its fullest, De la Iglesia does for Westerns what he did for the Horror genre in "El Dia De la Bestia", and delivers another jewel in this the sixth film in his interesting filmography.

Carlos (Luis Castro) is a youngster to whom growing up without a father figure has turned him into a spoiled troublemaker. One day Carlos discovers a photograph of her deceased father dressed as a cowboy, and soon he finds out that his father worked as a stuntman in the desert of Almería along with his grandfather, but neither his mother Laura (Carmen Maura), nor his grandmother (Terele Pávez) are willing to speak more about that. So, fooling his mother, Carlos visits Almería, and discovers that his grandfather Julián (Sancho Gracia) is still alive and keeps working making stunt shows with a group of former stuntman in a decaying set built for those old Spaghetti Westerns. Already angry with Julián about what happened to her late husband, Laura becomes even angrier when she finds out that her son is living with him. So in order to finish Julián once and for all, she decides to use her business to ruin Julian's old western stunt show; but neither the former cowboy nor his gang are willing to let that happen. An all they have to defend themselves are 800 bullets.

Written by De la Iglesia's frequent collaborator, writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría, and director Álex De la Iglesia himself, "800 Balas" is a story that uses that simple and typical premise about a boy discovering his deceased father's past to create a multi-layered story about honor, loyalty, and specially, about the fine line between reality and fiction; in a weird homage to the Spaghetti Westerns, all spiced up by countless references to the genre and a huge dose of the writer's trademark black humor. While not exactly a Western, De la Iglesia and Guerricaechevarría play with the genre's conventions, using it to represent the passion and magic of cinema by focusing on those who add realism to the stunts. With cinema as the perfect factory of dreams, De la Iglesia makes Julián and his gang of outsiders a group of people who never accepted that the dream they helped to create was over, and on the contrary, still feel the essence of Spaghetti Westerns in the wind of Almería. "800 Balas" is first and foremost, a loving tribute to Almería, its people, and its Westerns.

Certainly, "800 Balas" is more a character study (action-packed, but still a character study) than a straightforward Western, but De la Iglesia showcases a deep knowledge of the Spaghetti Westerns that fans of the genre will find rewarding, as the film is filled with countless references to the genre. With a stunning photography (by regular collaborator Flavio Martínez Labiano) that mimics the one of Leone's classics, and a score (by Roque Baños) that gives more than one nod to Morricone's music; De la Iglesia captures the essence of the Westerns shot in Almería, imbuing it in his tale of renegade cowboys making their final ride. As written above, "800 Balas" may not be a Western, but it feels like one, as the line between film and reality is one of the film's central themes. The originality and freshness of De la Iglesia's early years still can be seen in the way the camera flows across the scenes with a smooth pace, as well as in the humorous, irreverent tone the film has. De la Iglesia's conception of the action scenes in "800 Balas" is one of the film's greatest assets.

While everyone involved really did a great job in this film, the movie literally belongs to Sancho Gracia, as his outstanding performance as Julián Torralba is truly the film's heart. A former Spaghetti Western actor himself, Sancho Gracia adds a lot of realism and dignity to the role, making his character a complex figure that transcends a role that easily could had been nothing more than a funny caricature. With great presence and charm, Gracia becomes the former stuntman in a believable and natural way. In the role that serves as catalyst for the film's events, Luis Castro serves as an excellent counterpart to Sancho Gracia. As the problem child who grows up and matures as he discovers the identity of his father, Castro shows a great amount of talent for his age. Once again Carmen Maura delivers an effective performance as the film's antagonist, even though her role is a tad underwritten. Playing Julián's eternal rival, Ángel de Andrés López really steals the show handling perfectly the mix of comedy and drama that's prevalent in "800 Balas".

The rest of the cast are for the most part OK, making effective performances in their roles. However, I must say that at times the characters tend to become exactly what they should not be: walking stereotypes. Still, this is more a flaw in the otherwise very good script than any of the actor's fault, as unlike the main characters, the supporting ones lack the development given to Julian and his grandson. This is one of the two main problems "800 Balas" faces, with the second major problem being the fact that the movie is simply a bit overlong; because even when the film keeps a nice good pace for the most part, by the middle the film really begins to drag a bit. Scenes that are too long or even uneccessary (in the sense that, while fun, add little to the plot) break the fluid pace of the film, bringing down the rythmn and making the film to feel tedious at times. Nevertheless, despite those flaws, "800 Balas" is still one of Alex De la Iglesia's funniest films, and a very recommended watch for every fan of the Spaghetti Western films of the 60s and 70s.

Like the cowboys he often played on screen, the old stuntman Julián Torralba decides to fight until the end against modernity, playing the only he role he knows to play. With his story, bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy, "800 Balas" pays tribute to those who lost their lifestyle when Almería was abandoned by the movie industry. Despite it's obvious flaws, "800 Balas" is a remarkable homage to a long lost era, and another amazing work by one of Spain's most original filmmakers. This love letter to cinema (and to those behind every production) is a must-see for Western fans, specially those who enjoyed watching Clint Eastwood walking through Almería, as the spirit of those legendary films seems to revive in this movie for a last ride through the Spanish desert.