Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movie Review: "The Exorcist" by David Pretty

I know that parody should be considered flattering, but if it happens too frequently or if it's overly effective it can end up tarnishing the original source material.  Seriously, can anyone out there think of Michael Jackson's "Bad" or "Beat It" without being reminded of "Weird Al" Yankovic's genuinely funny re-interpretations? 

So it is with The Exorcist.  Starting with the infamous Richard Pryor Saturday Night Live skit, to the horror spoofs Repossessed and Scary Movie 2, all the way up to episodes of The Simpsons, Supernatural and Angel a lot of shots have been taken at this venerable horror classic.  But I think that's only because people want to take the piss out of a film that really scared the shit out of them as kids.  Indeed, even after abusing viewers for close to forty years, The Exorcist is still an unrivaled horror masterpiece.

As soon as we experience Friedkin's creative use of sound we know that we're in the hands of a master at the height of his powers.  Starting with the evocative use of the Athan during the film's title card, he goes on to employ a loud, electronic buzzing on the soundtrack for the scene in which Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) discovers a small demonic headpiece.  This technique is employed again when Merrin later squares off against the full-sized statue of Pazuzu.

Friedkin continues to use an arsenal of auditory weapons to keep the audience ill-at-ease.  Even when the film segues into more familiar environs, we're kept off kilter by the weird, unnatural noises coming from the well-appointed attic of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).  Then we're treated to the subtly unnerving strains of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" as Chris walks through the windy, leaf-strewn streets of Georgetown in late October.  The only other piece of music that's comparably evocative is John Carpenter's score for Halloween.

The matter-of-fact sensibilities employed by Friedkin in the Iraq scenes are carried over here.  We're soon introduced to affluent actress and single mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her sunny and gregarious daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Their scenes together are completely convincing, devoid of any illusion, conceit or pretension.  Their candid performances and the film's documentary-like approach really sell the film's realism.

During all of this, Friedkin is dropping subtle, throwaway hints that something may be afoot.  The noises in the attic start not long after Regan leaves her bedroom window wide open overnight.  There's a scene where she innocently talks to her mother about communicating with her invisible friend "Captain Howdy" via a Ouija Board.  During all of this, Friedkin keeps serving up the mundane in order to lull us into complacency.    

This includes the nondescript introduction of Father Damien Karras, a sad-sack Jesuit priest played brilliantly by Jason Miller.  After a seemingly pointless scene in which a street derelict asks him for spare change ("Could you help an old altar boy, Father?  I'm a Catlick."), Damien heads back to the old neighborhood giving audiences a time-capsule glimpse of how scummy New York City used to be in the Seventies.  Karras tends to his ailing Greek mother who stubbornly refuses to leave "her home", despite the fact that her apartment is dark, claustrophobic and incredibly oppressive.

In an all-too-real moment of terrestrial horror, Damien's mother takes a turn for the worse and she's confined to the sort of place that 60 Minutes used to try and sneak cameras into.  As Karras tries to make his way to her, he's swarmed by a clutch of dementia-ravaged zombies desperate for acknowledgement.  Even after he finds her, she's inconsolable, blaming him for her current state.

It's the sort of painfully genuine real-life moment that seems completely incongruous in a so-called horror film.  Up to this point in time, most fright flicks contained a comforting element of fantasy; the cinematic equivalent of spotting a zipper in a monster suit.  Unfortunately, Friedkin isn't willing to let us off quite so easily.

The character of Damien Karras is a fascinating and tragic one.  As a fully-accredited therapist, he would have made a fortune in private practice, giving him plenty of resources to help his ailing mom.  Instead, he chose the priesthood where he's finding it virtually impossible to council folks who are experiencing a crisis of faith.  "There isn't a day in my life when I haven't felt like a fraud," he tells a compatriot at one point.  A lot of credit has to go to Jason Miller for inhabiting a character so burdened by guilt and defeat that he seems physically impaired by it.

Up to this point in time, no-one could possibly describe the film as a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride. In fact, by modern standards, the first thirty minutes of The Exorcist are downright mundane.  But as I was re-watching the film a few nights ago, I was really impressed by William Friedkin's patience.  In exhibiting so much restraint and treating the audience like adults, he has time to develop full-blooded characters all the while lulling us into a false sense of security.

Simultaneously, he's also dropping plenty of subtle indications that things are about to go completely bat-shit nuts.  At the thirty-one minute mark, he begins to make good on this promise.  As she's searching for the source of the odd noises in the attic, Chris's candle suddenly explodes like a flame-thrower.  Meanwhile, Regan lies awake in her bed downstairs, her disconcertingly vacant expression hinting at malice.

The following morning a priest discovers an obscenely desecrated statue of the Virgin Mary.  As a kid weaned on Catholic dogma, the first time I saw this image I thought that it was irredeemably tasteless.  Immediately I began to fear that Friedkin was one of those directors, willing to annihilate any taboo in his mad quest to shock and horrify his audience. 

Evidence to support my hypothesis quickly piled up.  In a display sure to kill a party quicker then playing "Hotel California" on repeat, Regan barges into her mother's high-class social, predicts doom for one of the guests and then promptly pees on the carpet.  Although Chris tries to re-assure Regan (and herself, presumably) that it's "just nerves", nothing can prepare her when her daughter's bed starts clattering around on the floor.

Friedkin then conjures up a bad dream for Karras, peppered with subliminal demonic faces and images of his now-deceased mother wailing mutely.  He then contrasts this with Regan's material- world medical nightmare.  Her spinal tap is documented in such agonizing detail that it feels like a  wince-inducing instructional video.  No film has ever been more effective in blending real-world fears with traditional supernatural horror.  Eventually they blend together so seamlessly that fantasy and reality are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Powerful and nefarious forces continue to manifest, first thrashing Regan around and then speaking through her.  I think it's safe to say that no-one in 1973 was prepared to hear such a nasty and guttural voice come out of a hitherto-angelic little girl.  "Keep away!  The sow is mine!" the demonic voice bellows at the gathered physicians seconds before uttering the terrible invitation to "Fuck me!"  After this charming homily, we know that the kid gloves are off and we could be subjected to any depravity imaginable.  It's like being a passenger on a low-flying bush plane and discovering that your pilot is an escaped mental patient.

Of course, the doctors try to convince Chris that her daughter is experiencing fits, seizures and elevated levels of strength due to her heightened mental state.  It's not until a shrink's family jewels get crushed before a small team of psychologists finally broach the subject of exorcism. "The victim's belief in possession helped cause it and just in the same way, this belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear," the clinic director gamely tells Chris, perhaps hoping to be done with of her.

But what reason could screenwriter William Peter Blatty possibly devise that would make a staunch atheist like Chris MacNeil so desperate that she'd be willing to consult with a bunch of "witch doctors"?  Well, the scene he came up with not only solved this little snafu it also single-handedly drove church attendance through the roof in the early months of 1974.  Chris comes home after yet another pointless meeting with the eggheads only to find that the everything in her daughter's room is spinning around like ingredients in a Cuisinart.  She also notices that Regan has found a rather unconventional use for an errant crucifix. 

Accompanying this shocking sight is a still-convincing, one-hundred-and-eighty-degree head spin gag and the sort of language that would make Bill Burr wince.  The resulting amalgam of distorted screams bleed into the following scene of Karras cresting a hill in silhouette, surrounded by skeletal trees and fall leaves.  It's a chilling introduction for a a chilly-looking tableau. 

The film gets more and more intense as it moves towards endgame.  Friedkin eliminates every noise on the soundtrack save a horrible wheezing sound which grows more pronounced as Karras approaches Regan's room.  By this time, the vocal talents of veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge is put to great effect, giving the demon the sort of authenticity that a synthesized voice could never provide.  When Karras plays back his recordings of the interview, the effect is startling.  There are multiple voices, animal sounds, foreign languages and more backward messages then in the entire Styx catalog.  

Combined with this is Linda Blair's startling physical transformation, realized by make-up maestro Dick Smith.  Under Friedkin's guidance, Smith goes for realism, treating the possession almost as a physical disease.  His designs suggest that Regan has been using her fingernails (or the previously-seen crucifix) to engage in self-scarification and the resulting wounds are becoming gangrenous.  The notorious vomit effect, rigged up by technician Marcel Vercoutere, was supposed to strike Jason Miller right in the sweater-vest.  Unfortunately, the trajectory was slightly off and it hit him flush in the face, resulting in a candid reaction akin to the chestburster sequence in Alien

All of this would normally add up to plenty of scares for the average horror movie, but Friedkin just keeps throwing one shock after another at us.  Accompanied by Jack Nitzsche's spine-tingling musical notes, an eerie plea of "help me" pokes up through Regan's abdomen.  In conversation with Karras, the demon suddenly impersonates the subway derelict who asked the priest for money earlier.  When I first witnessed this, I'm pretty sure it permanently burnt out a synapse in my brain.  The connotation was simple yet awful: evil is everywhere, all-pervasive and omnipotent.

Fortunately, Father Merrin finally arrives in that iconic scene of a cab pulling up to the fog-shrouded MacNeil house.  A lone figure steps out, silhouetted by a corona of light shining down from Regan's bedroom.  As soon as Merrin steps foot inside the house you quickly realize that this is a guy who doesn't fuck around, as evidenced by this early exchange:

Karras: Do you want to hear the background of the case first?
Merrin: Why?

A major part of the character's appeal is Max Von Sydow.  Although he was only forty-four at the time, he plays eighty better then any actor I've seen before or since.  His performance is augmented by Dick Smith's flawless aging makeup, which I'm also pretty confident has never been rivaled.

Despite Merrin's cool exterior, their trek up to Regan's bedroom is leaden with a feeling of certain doom.  In the ordeal that follows, the two priests manage to sustain rivers of day-glo vomit, shaking beds, flying furniture, low-level earthquakes, levitating bodies, creatively repellent language and the re-appearance of our old buddy, Pazuzu.  Throughout it all, Merrin remains unflappable.  Even as his body begins to falter, his spirit seems resolute.

Which leads us to the most powerful scene in the entire film.  After being broken by the demon, Karras finally returns to the room only to discover that Merrin is unconscious.  Regan, still possessed, sits off to the side, watching him with the sort of slack-jawed interest a child would exhibit while frying bugs underneath a magnifying glass.

Knowing that their only hope is slipping away, Karras desperately attempts CPR on the elderly priest and Regan promptly starts giggling.  Damien snaps (Hmmm, that tendency must come with the name), throws Regan to the floor and literally pounds the demon out of her.  He invites the entity to come into him but quickly realizes that he has no hope of controlling it.  His next action is inconceivably shocking.  

By the end of the film, my wits feel as if they've been thrown down a vertical flight of steps.  Notwithstanding the film's capacity to scare, you can't help but admire its impeccable level of craftsmanship.  The casting is flawless, the direction is tight, the performances are organic, the dialogue is solid, the effects are seamless and the script is one of the most well-calibrated engines of high-octane suspense ever committed to celluloid. 

In spite of all the parodies, The Exorcist continues to resonate with me, even after almost forty years.  For a film that does unimaginably awful things to its characters and the audience, it's more significant today then a slew of its high-brow contemporaries.  Honestly do people still talk about The Sting (the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year) with the same level of passion and vested interest?

But that's not to denigrate the pedigree of The Exorcist.  It isn't just the scariest film ever made, it's also one of the most artistic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: "Wolf Creek" by David Pretty

At just over the midway point, Wolf Creek had the makings of a modern and comparably scary Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Regrettably, major script issues begin to creep in, giving this otherwise tense, raw and (in some twisted way) artistically-shot horror movie an unrecoverable black eye.

In yet another tireless example of a story supposedly "based on true events", the movie kicks off with two female tourists Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristie (Kestie Morassi) hooking up with Sydney native Ben (Nathan Phillips) for a carefree tour of the Australian Outback.  After an excessive bout of partying, they decide to venture out to the titular Wolf Creek, site of a massive meteorite crater.

Returning from their epic hike, the trio discover that their watches have inexplicably stopped and the car's engine won't turn over.  Almost on cue, a colorful and eccentric chap named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) shows up and offers to tow their vehicle to his camp where he can affect repairs and the trio can crash for the night.  But as it turns out, trusting this seemingly sincere offer for assistance turns out to be a horrible mistake.  After nodding off, Liz wakes up bound and gagged alone in a shed.  Although she manages to escape, her subsequent rescue attempts end up pulling everyone through a knothole of abject misery and unimaginable terror.

There are plenty of things that work really well in Wolf Creek.  Director Greg McLean's background as an art student ensures that there are some stunningly beautiful and hauntingly evocative shots of the Australian outback.  This is expertly contrasted with the ugliness of Mick's junkyard camp as well as his crazed behavior.  In a wise and welcome move, McLean also gives us plenty of time to get to know his troika of main characters.  In fact, a good fifty minutes clock by before anything particularly odd happens.

Mick's one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from down-to-earth yokel to raving loon is completely convincing.  When warning signs begin to appear that Mick might not be all there (his awkward silence after Ben's "Crocodile" Dundee joke is particualrly unnerving) you can't help but start yelling at the screen: "Fly you fools!  No!!!  Don't drink that!!!"  John Jarrett does a phenomenal job creating a character ten times more frightening than Jason Vorhees could ever hope to be.  Armed with a slew of creepy personality tics and a laugh that will haunt you long after the credits roll, Mick Taylor is a repellently genuine creation.

The three victims are also well realized.  Since Mick is clearly infuriated by the concept of Ben as the "modern Aussie male", Nathan Phillips is the perfect foil for our villain.  Cassandra Magrath is tremendously sympathetic and we really want to see her survive.  But it's Kestie Morassi who'll really pull your heart through the ringer.  The scene in which she's being tortured by Mick is almost unwatchable.  I wasn't surprised to learn (via the "making of" doc) that the crew often felt compelled to rush onto the closed set after hearing Morassi's heart-rending and painfully authentic wails of anguish.

Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through, Wolf Creek started to piss me off.  I sincerely hope that these characters aren't based on real people, since their decisions were so infuriatingly stupid that it's an insult to the viewer's intelligence.  The script suddenly becomes a brain-dead puppet master, forcing its automatons to do things that will leave viewers feeling manipulated and resentful.  Liz in particular takes several actions which only serve to pad the film's run time, add needlessly to the backstory or unnecessarily jeopardize the characters.

I really don't want to throw the scary It's Alive baby out with the fetid bath water.  If you take away the moronic scripting choices you're still left with a tense, memorable, and genuinely frightening film with an uncomfortably authentic antagonist.  It's a pity that the ill-gauged deviations make for a scripting cardinal sin of near-murderous proportions.

     Tilt: down.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Movie Review: "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) by David Pretty

With its stark black and white "Universal"-era photography and eerie 50's-style sci-fi soundtrack, its very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security during the early goings of Night of the Living Dead.  But by the time you're twenty minutes into George A. Romero's seminal and nihilistic zombie redux, you begin to realize that the director is willing to do just about anything and to shock and horrify you.

Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive at a creepy (is there any other kind?) cemetery to pay respects to their dear, departed dad.  Picking up on his sister's unease, Johnny attempts to freak her out by pointing out a lanky, shambling figure approaching from the distance.  "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" he intones in his best Karloffian tones.

His attempt at gallows humor quickly escalates into a moment of genuine terror.  The ghoulish drifter attacks Barbra, forcing Johnny to come to her rescue.  In the ensuing scuffle he's rendered unconscious, giving Barbra an opportunity to flee (and possibly gloat "Who's comin' to get who now, bee-yotch?")

She runs to an abandoned farm house but the system shocks keep piling on.  In quick succession, Romero gives us dramatic shots of taxidermy, blood dripping down from the upstairs landing and a wince-inducing close-up of a half-eaten corpse.  To make matters worse: graveyard boy shows up again, this time accompanied by an entire posse of his fellow shamblers.  Is there any wonder why Barbra (plus a large segment of viewers, presumably) find themselves virtually catatonic with fear by this point?

Just as the last of Barb's marbles are circling the drain the script introduces several new characters.  Noble, level-headed Ben (Duane Jones) does his best to keep our "heroine" sentient while shoring up the house's defenses, taking stock of supplies and fending off undead incursions.  More reinforcements emerge from the bowels of the basement in the form of thirty-year old teenagers Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) as well as Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), her asshole husband Harry (Karl Hardman) and their pre-chomped daughter Karen (Kyra Schon).

When this rag-tag group finally determines what's going on, we fully expect them to band together in a united bid to escape.  Unfortunately their campaign for survival is immediately de-railed by a clash of egos, infantile power plays and chronic jack-assery.  I hate to break it you you, kids, but 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead weren't the first entertainments to pose that eternal question: "During a zombie apocalypse would our worst enemies be the zombies or ourselves?"

After Ben breaks out a radio we soon learn that their assailants are re-animated corpses.  That's bad enough but when we discover that these fiends have a taste for human flesh, a fuse burns out in our brain.  Given what we've witnessed thus far, we immediately begin to dread the very real possibility that Romero will follow through on the inferred threat of showing these cannibalistic proclivities on screen.  

Y'see, prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombies were mainly depicted as mindless laborers, goons or automatons (The Plague of the Zombies from two years being a notable exception).  It's interesting to note that Romero's flesh-eaters in Night of the Living Dead are still a work in progress.  The graveyard zombie doesn't pause for a Johnnycake, they all recoil from fire like Frankenstein's monster and collectively exhibit three-dimensional thinking by using weapons.  In light of established zombie behavior it's interesting to watch Romero's ghouls employ rocks to break car windows and headlights, clubs to batter down doors and garden trowels to get their murder-on.

The script even gives us pseudo-scientific reason for the danse macabre.  After Ben produces a vintage T.V. set news reports soberly inform us that the dead started to get mobile not long after an irradiated satellite returning from Venus was destroyed in our atmosphere.  Mercifully, Romero would abandon this hackneyed MacGuffin (apparently left over from the previous decade's atomic monster movies) for future entries in his zombie saga.

Leading up to these revelations, the audience continues to witness evidence that Romero is complete off his rocker and more then willing to shatter ever possible taboo in order to horrify us.  Ben blasts away at the ghouls with a rifle, treating audiences to some very early Peckinpah-era blood squibs.  Matter-of-fact mock news reports urge viewers to ignore the normal grieving process and cremate their loved ones before they get back up and start nibbling on elbows.  A nekkid zombie casually strolls into frame at one point.  Another horribly disfigured ghoul chows down on a bug, simultaneously testing our funny bone and gag reflex.  

And with that Night of the Living Dead shoves the viewer out of the nervous-giggle-inspiring funhouse and into a relentlessly terrifying endurance test.  When Ben, Tom and Judy's quest to refuel their escape vehicle ends in a debacle, Romero goes right for the jugular.  Given that the tense yet ungory Psycho was probably the previous high-water mark for scares, movie goers at the time must have been traumatized when Romero's dead-eyed camera lens impassively documented zombies graphically chowing down on human fricassee.  

Night of the Living Dead is undeniably a product of its time.  Although Romero constantly downplays casting a black actor in the lead (insisting that Duane Jones got the job simply because he was "the best actor they knew"), anyone can appreciate the significance of this bold step.  Especially when a roving band of armed, German shepherd-leading rednecks have their unforgettable run-in with Ben at the climax of the picture.   

The other major subtext that bled into the script was the youth rebellion prevalent at the time.  Conservative parents that had grown up demure and obedient in the Fifties could scarcely fathom their own offspring taking part in anti-war protests, draft card immolation and espousing tenants of freedom and anarchy.  When Karen Cooper succumbs to the zombie plague and comes back to bite the arm that feeds her and (literally) break her mother's heart with a garden trowel you really don't need to be a sociologist to figure out what this means.

Considering the film's skid-row budget, the performances are generally pretty good.  As originally scripted, the character of Ben was a "colorless" but crude, rough-and-tumble goon.  When Duane Jones came onboard he wisely insisted that the role be re-written to bring it more in tune with his own personality.  As a result, Jones is flawlessly self-assured, well-spoken and exceedingly noble.  In fact, the only time he seems ill-at-ease is when he's required to brandish a rifle or strike a frantic Barbra, clearly two artifacts left over from the previous draft.       

Speaking of Judith O'Dea, her performance as Barbra is pretty hammy.  The fact that she goes Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs almost immediately isn't a liability since O'Dea's overwrought approach is actually better suited to mania or catatonia.  A lot of hay had been made over the fact that Barbra is virtually useless throughout the film but it's also somewhat realistic.  Let's face it, folks, if dead bodies suddenly started coming back to life and devouring the living, most of us would lose our shit pronto, regardless of gender.  Granted, there's still an antiquated whiff of sexism in the script, particularly when human choad Harry Cooper whines about being saddled with "a sick child, two women, (and) one woman (who's) out of her head". 

But perhaps that line exists just to drive home the fact that Cooper is one of cinema's most monumental assholes.  Although Karl Hardman's performance is almost comedically broad, he certainly succeeds in making the audience despise him with the fire of a million suns.  Although he's depicted as the sort of  irredeemable bastard normally only seen in an E.C. horror comic, I always though that Cooper would have relaxed if he'd just bothered to unbuckle the belt cinched up around his sternum.    

Marilyn Eastman's turn as Helen Cooper is the best out of the minor players.  She's the heart and soul of the picture: smart, level-headed and sympathetic.  In fact, if anything dates Night of the Living Dead, it's her resigned complicity with her douchebag husband.  Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley are a bit amateurish as the younger couple but at least they're earnest and likable.  Their collective brain cramp during OPERATION GAS UP THE TRUCK WHILE BEING ASSAULTED FROM ALL SIDES BY CANNIBALISTIC WALKING CORPSES is frantically authentic and completely forgivable, given the dire circumstances.  

Night of the Living Dead isn't perfect.  Given the speed, frugality and unconventional nature of its genesis, some neophyte mistakes do creep in from time to time.  For example, during the full length of movie it goes from late afternoon to night to dusk to night and then back to day again.  Sharp- eyed viewers will be intrigued by the mystery of Barbra's disappearing slippers.  Smashed-out truck headlights miraculously start working again.

But more often then not, the film's low budget really sells the experience as a claustrophobic, sweaty, tense living nightmare.  The discordant, eerie music adds tremendous impact to the matricide scene as well as the pick-up truck hibachi sequence.  The ad-libbed, on-the spot interview between real-life news reporter Bill Cardille and redneck sheriff George Kosana is inspired genius.  Finally, the grainy black-and-white stills that infer a repellent application of meat-hooks and bonfires ensures that even the film's end credits are inherently terrifying.

Night of the Living Dead is the cinematic equivalent of the Zapruder film.  How often can you watch a movie make history during it's run time?  Half-way through the experience you begin to realize that you're witnessing the birth of the modern horror movie right before your wide, unbelieving eyes.    

  Tilt: up.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Movie Review: "Audition" by David Pretty

I've had several horror movie buffs recommend Audition to me, but I haven't had the cajones to watch it until recently.  I research movies almost as much as I watch 'em and what I'd read about Audition really turned me off of it.  After all, I'm not really a fan of the "torture porn" sub genre, since I really don't believe that it takes a tremendous amount of talent to horrify an audience by having one character get medieval on another with a hot poker.

Well, for this month's annual horror film fest, I finally broke down and watched it.  And, frankly, I'm very glad I did.  Beyond featuring the most squirm-inducing climax I've ever seen in a film, Audition also happens to be an elegiac character study that asks some really hard questions about gender politics in Japan, the selfishness of relationships and the disconnect between the sexes in our modern world.

Ryo Ishibashi plays Aoyama, a businessman who recently lost his beloved wife.  After many years of mourning, he's prompted by his son to start dating again.  Looking for the perfect replacement, Aoyama heeds the advice of a film-maker friend and sits in on a cattle call.  During the process he's smitten by Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), a quiet, reserved, dignified, young woman who's wise beyond her years.

Contrary to his buddy's advice, Aoyama impetuously calls her and they go out for dinner.  Ignoring the evidence that Asami may not be exactly who she says she is, Aoyama continues to push their relationship too far, too fast.  After he takes her away on a weekend retreat and they have sex for the first time, she vanishes, sending Aoyama on a desperate quest to track her down.  But it's Asami who finds him, and not long after she's discovered the secret nature of the duplicitous "audition".  What follows will surely test the mettle of even the most hardened horror fanatic.

In the level of cruelty inflicted on both the characters and the viewer, Audition is simply without parallel.  In the first half of the film, Takashi Miike really lulls us into a false sense of security.  It's cheerily lit with plenty of romantic musical swells and borderline comedic touches.  All of these schmaltzy trappings grant us unspoken permission to go along with Aoyama's ethically shaky scheme of "auditioning" these women for sex.  For the longest time it feels as if we're watching the inane sort of rom-com that Jennifer Aniston might subject us to.

But then some unconventional shoes begin to drop.  It's revealed that a character reference for Asami "went missing" a year ago.  The bar where she claims to work has been vacant for months, closed down under a veil of unpleasant circumstance.  She tells a tragic story about abuse as a child.  Despite all these warning signs, Aoyama is determined to make their non-existent relationship work for purely selfish reasons.  Half way through the film, the cinematography becomes murkier and the musical cues sound strained.  Since we're privy to more information than Aoyama, the inexorable crawl towards the climax is like watching a contemporary Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.

Very few films nowadays have the patience to lay the sort of ground work featured in Audition.  Every little component that's been thoughtfully put into place over the film's nearly two-hour run time builds up to a climax that is almost unwatchable.  I can't remember the last time I covered my eyes during a film, like a ten-year-old kid being forced to watch The Exorcist at gunpoint.  It's almost as if Audition was made to horrify me, specifically (especially with all of that eye nastiness).

Both of the principal actors see the director's nihilistic vision through with grim resolve.  In spite of his character's failings, Ryo Ishibashi has an undeniable hound-dog sort of charisma that will have you screaming at him to abandon his blind ambitions.  Eihi Shiina initially comes across as the sweetest, most demure and quietly dignified woman on earth, but the girlish glee she exhibits in the mind-blowing finale is completely convincing and genuinely disturbing.

Let me state this clearly right now: watching Audition isn't a fun experience but it's an experience which very few films, horror or otherwise, could ever possibly hope to replicate or eclipse. 

            Tilt: up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Interview: Mick Garris

Mick Garris is one well-connected dude.  He began his career as a freelance writer, contributing to classic 70's genre magazines such as Starlog and Cinefantastique.  In 1977 he parleyed a job at the "Star Wars Company" (the first iteration of Lucasfilm) into a hosting gig with the cable access interview program Fantasy Film Festival.  In this capacity, Garris was able to meet many of the genre's up-and-coming standard bearers such as John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis and Steven Spielberg.

This last meeting proved to be very fortuitous.  Garris was still a struggling scribe in his early thirties when Spielberg hired him to be a writer and story editor for his prime time sci-fi anthology series Amazing Stories.  Subsequently Garris won an Edgar Award for Best Episode in a T.V. Series for penning the teleplay for the first season episode "The Amazing Falsworth" directed by Peter Hyams.

In 1992, Garris made his directorial debut lensing Stephen King's original script for Sleepwalkers.  During production the two became fast friends and Mick's name was at the top of the list of directors when it came time to adapt King's elephantine post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Stand.  Despite the daunting nature of the assignment, Garris delivered one of the highest watched T.V. miniseries of 1994.  More opportunities followed, including a more faithful televised adaptation of King's The Shining (1997) as well as Quicksilver Highway (1997), Riding the Bullet (2004) and Desperation (2006).  

Using his insider clout, Mick began to assemble the greatest minds in the horror genre for a series of informal dinners.  This eventually led to the brilliant anthology series Masters of Horror which gave fright fans new nightmares courtesy of Don Coscarelli, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Larry Cohen, Takashi Miike, Peter Medak, Tom Holland and many more.

Last year, Mick brought his production team to Halifax to shoot A&E's four-hour adaptation of Stephen King's quintessential ghost story Bag of Bones.  During filming I was lucky enough to appear as an extra, giving me some unique insights into the film-making process.  As part of the first Halifax Horror Weekend Festival back in August, Mick screened the film for a small but appreciative crowd.

After the screening Mick was kind enough to participate in a lengthy Q&A.  This was a real thrill for me since I've been watching Mick's behind the scenes featurettes for movies such as The Thing, The Howling and Videodrome since my mid-teens.

In the following audio clip Mick talks about:
  • The evolution of Bag of Bones from a truncated feature film to a four-hour mini-series.
  • Casting for the miniseries.
  • The power of sound in horror films.
  • The challenges inherent in filming difficult subject matter.
  • His original campaign to have Bag of Bones shot on location in Maine.
  • Dealing with Nova Scotia weather.    
  • Stephen King's involvement in his own film adaptations. 
  • Working with screenwriter Matt Venne.
  • Mick's start with Amazing Stories.  
  • Storyboarding with Spielberg!
  • The unconventional film that turned him into a life-long fan of the genre.  
  • The transition from solitary writer to social director. 
  • What's scary?
  • Translating a book's internal point of view to external cinema.
  • How to move a project forward.  
  • What motivates him.  
  • Writing superstitions and rituals.  
  • His new novel Snow Shadows. 
  • The lingering influence of certain characters.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Movie Review: "The House of the Devil" by David Pretty

If you catch yourself watching the latest fright films and thinking: "Pfffft, this isn't half as scary as (insert name of classic horror movie here)" then, like me, you're probably getting pretty jaded.  After sitting through yet another mediocre crap-fest you might even begin to think that it's not worth looking anymore.

But I'm here to tell you in no uncertain terms: keep trying.  Eventually your persistence will pay off and you'll come across a film made by an intelligent director who actually understands the genre.  Ti West is just such a specimen.  Although his 2009 offering The House of the Devil isn't built on the the most original premise in cinema history, its brilliant execution had me positively giddy with excitement.

The House of the Devil tells the tale of Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue), a cash-strapped college student who's dream apartment is currently out of financial reach.  To remedy this, Sam answers a cryptic-looking want ad for a babysitter which she finds plastered all over campus.  The oddly-measured male voice at the other end of the phone is both adamant and desperate but he's also willing to shell out some major bread in order to procure her services.

Tempted by what looks like easy money, Sam gets her spacey buddy Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the Gothic, country manse of Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan).  Almost immediately, Ulman admits that he hasn't "been completely honest" about the nature of the job, so he quadruples her pay in order to compensate.  "This one night changes everything for me!" Sam foreshadows to Megan at one point.

Freaked out by the creepy mise-en-scène, Megan follows through on her threat to bolt.  After the Ulmans depart, Sam is left in the house alone with her unconventional ward.  Between the script's patient build-up and Ti West's steady hand at the helm, the audience ends up being subjected to an unbearably unnerving experience.  It's almost as if West took the pre-transformation tension from An American Werewolf in London and built an entire movie around it.  

West kick-starts his film with an unsettling title card which maintains that "during the 80's 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults".  Although this sounds a tad alarmist now, I can personally testify that the decade's all-purveying sense of Satanic Panic was actually quite palpable and wide-spread.  Despite the early tell, this simple title card kept me completely glued to the screen as I waited for the cloven hoof to drop.

Since the murky look of the 70's and 80's is so closely associated with good horror movies, it makes perfect sense that West wanted his film set in the same era.  Not only does the film feature impeccably convincing production design, it also gives West plenty of opportunity to use vintage camera  techniques as well.  Notwithstanding the retro freeze-frame opening credits, there are loads of locked-down shots, one-point perspectives, disjointed camera angles and extreme close-ups.

That's not to say that West fails to get creative with these hallowed traditions.  One of my favorite shots has Sam emerging from a distant building and walking right into the extreme foreground.  Just before Jocelin Donahue head-butts the camera, she takes a sharp left turn and a dolly shot tracks her profile in extreme close-up as she keeps walking.  It's an extremely innovative shot that I really don't remember seeing anywhere else.  How rare is that in this era of creative fatigue?   

I also really like the cast.  Recalling shades of Jessica Harper in Suspiria, Jocelin Donahue is both sweet and sympathetic as Samantha.  Even after doing some pretty snoopy or chowder-headed things, Donahue's boundless charms ensure that we stick with her.  It's just a pity that the script doesn't give her much of an arc, save that she loosens up little bit and eventually taps into a previously-unseen reservoir of fortitude.

Greta Gerwig is also memorable as Sam's spazzed-out, finger-licking (?) pal Megan.  Despite her vapid qualities, Megan is written with plenty of street smarts.  I love that she insists on going with her friend but threatens to bail if things don't "feel" right.  By the time she drives out to the boonies, gets a load of the house and checks out the oddball owners, she has absolutely no qualms about rabbiting. 

Speak of the devil, I almost jumped for joy when Ulman turned out to be none other then supremely talented character actor Tom Noonan.  Noonan, who played Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter, is perhaps the most criminally underutilized actor out there right now.  His take on Ulman is nuanced, off-beat, seamless and naggingly creepy.  Just as soon as you hear his voice, you feel as if there's something "off" with the guy, even if you can't quite put your finger on it.  

Ti West proves to be a formidable triple threat, serving as writer, director and editor here.  He gives us plenty of motivation to feel protective over Sam and creates an oppressive sensation of impending doom.  By throwing a shockingly brutal and unexpected murder at us fairly early on, West ensures that the audience always knows more then his heroine does.  We know that Sam's only lifeline has been completely severed and her evening is probably going to get a helluva lot worse before it gets better.

If The House of the Devil were a football game, it would earn a mound of flags for piling onto the viewer's frazzled wits.  Even as Sam tries to domesticate her new environs by turning on every light in the house, West is there to counter with his dead-eyed camera work and Jeff Grace's spine-tingling soundtrack.  By juxtaposing Samanatha's unfettered dancing to "One Thing Leads To Another" by The Fixx (which she plays on her Gideon Bible-sized walkman) with televised clips from Night of the Living Dead, West has a blast playing around with mood and atmosphere.

When the proverbial cat is let out of the bag, the film takes a slight dip, mainly because we've seen the trappings of this sort of threat many times before.  I guess the first half of the film was so strong that my over-clocked imagination expected something equally original and a helluva lot nastier.  But in keeping his finale small scale and somewhat vague, West manages to nuzzle The House of the Devil up alongside classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen.

I'm more then willing to dole out a good review if the film-makers are patient, intelligent and reasonably creative.  The House of the Devil might not be quite as good as I think it is, but I really feel compelled to reward any film that manages to surprise me, especially at this advanced stage in my career as a horror-film fanatic.

Tilt: up.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Movie Review: "Psycho" by David Pretty

Psycho is clearly the product of a director at the height of his prodigious powers.  It's a film of supreme confidence; a well-oiled machine of squirm-inducing suspense peppered with moments of stark terror.  Unlike the clunky From Dusk 'Til Dawn, Psycho strikes the perfect balance between crime drama and horror film.

Here's the movie's extended dance mix EPK-style trailer.  They don't make 'em like this anymore, kiddies!  

Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a woman who's madly in love with a divorcee.  She's tasked to bank $40,000.00 from a work-related business deal but instead goes AWOL in the hopes of clearing her beau's debts.  To throw off her real (or imagined) pursuers, she takes a detour off the main highway and checks into a decrepit motel dominated by a creepy, Gothic house on a hill.  The rarely-trafficked site is run by the awkward and retiring Norman Bates, who appears to be starved for social interaction.

After overhearing an embarrassing confrontation between Norman and his domineering mother, Marion begins to appeases him, oblivious to the fate she's tempting.  Soon the hotel becomes the scene of a vicious and unexpected murder and the audience is left to ponder the true identity of the killer.  Layers of the mystery are slowly unpeeled, leading to one of the greatest shock endings in cinema history.

Everything in Psycho is top-shelf but the presence of Anthony Perkins is indispensable.  His iconic take on Norman Bates is incredibly nuanced, moving effortlessly from pathetic to evasive to assertive to completely nefarious.  It's a bloody shame that such a clearly-accomplished actor was chronically typecast, especially considering that his diversity is self-evident.

Janet Leigh is also terrific, portraying an essentially decent person who realizes, all too late, that she just isn't hardwired for duplicity.  Leigh's masterful portrayal of paranoia and nervousness is both genuine and sympathetic.  Vera Miles is also fantastic as Marion's sister Lila.  Her dogged determination in solving the movie's central enigma helps to usher in a truly unforgettable finale.

As one of the most consistently surprising and prolific film-makers of all time, Hitchcock trots out a veritable showcase of time-honored techniques and ends up delivering a masterpiece.  Instead of compromising his vision by shooting on a pre-existing site, the fastidious director had a fully-contained backlot set built to his exact specifications.  Although the motel and its accompanying creepy-ass mansion are inherently claustrophobic, Hitchcock's virtuoso skill with camera angles and editing really brings these locations to life.

Witness the eternally-powerful shower scene, which did for personal hygiene what Deliverance did for camping trips.  Back in 1960, this sequence was one of the most graphic, shocking and violent things that audiences had ever witnessed.  At the time, viewers would have sworn that they actually saw a knife plunging into the victim's body, but this just isn't the case.  By employing a flurry of quick cuts, off-kilter angles and a masterful use of music, Hitchcock tricks us into thinking that we've witnessed something far more graphic.  In fact, although the shower sequence gets most of the attention, the fate of Detective Arbogast is even more shocking.

I'd also feel remiss if I didn't talk a little bit more about the music.  I really wish that modern films felt compelled to have a soundtrack as distinctive and impactful as Bernard Herman's Psycho score.  The music that accompanies Janet Leigh's flight at the beginning of the film is just as effective as the hair-raising violin notes which batter our wits during the subsequent scenes of mayhem.

What else can be said about this horror classic?  Even long after the film's secrets are revealed, the performance of Anthony Perkins and Hitchcock's amazing showmanship make checking into the Bates Motel over and over again a worthy detour.

        Tilt: up.