Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie Review "The Mummy" (1932) by David Pretty

As I've detailed in previous blog entries, being a horror movie fan back in the days before the proliferation of home video was a pretty tough gig. As a kid I had no readily-available way to see the old Universal monster movies so for years I had to be content with just reading about them.

One of the movies I desperately wanted to see was The Mummy. Frankly, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I'd watch this fully-restored classic up on the big screen, the way it was always intended!  

After the runaway success of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), Universal gave producer Carl Laemmle Jr. carte blance to come up with another iconic movie monster. Clearly inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb nine years earlier, Laemmle tried to keep his winning formula intact by mining for literary sources of Egyptian horror. When this fizzled, writers Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Shayer crafted a story called Cagliostro about an ancient alchemist who's managed to prolong his life unnaturally with the use of nitrates, like a spell-casting ham one assumes.

The story swung back towards its original intent when journalist John L. Balderston had a bash at the screenplay. Balderson, who'd extensively covered the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922, returned the action back to modern-day Egypt and infused it with a story about timeless love and obsession.

With all of the film's creative and financial ducks now in a row, Laemmle then hired Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund to direct just days before principal photography was schedules to begin. Undaunted, Freund tackled the material with gusto, delivering a horror masterpiece in the process.

Lifting a musical cue directly from Dracula, Freund opens the film with a memorable credits sequence featuring an art-deco prologue set to the evocative tune of Swan Lake:

We're then introduced to the members of an archeological expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron). In a stroke of "good" fortune, Whemple and his team have stumbled upon the tomb of an Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff), who, by all accounts, was mummified alive as punishment for some severe transgression. Contrary to the dire warnings of the astute Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), Sir Joseph's moronic assistant Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) cracks into a forbidden box and reads aloud the life-giving Scroll of Thoth contained within. The next thing you know, Imhotep wakes up, nips the Scroll and then shambles off, leaving a completely hysterical Ralph in his wake.

Fast forward ten years. Imhotep has unraveled himself and is posing as an antiquities dealer in Cairo named Ardath Bey. In order to unearth his long-dead love Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, Bey tells Sir Joseph's son Frank (David Manners) about the location of her tomb. Desperate to salvage their fruitless venture, Frank and his associate Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) jump at the chance. Just as predicted, the dig yields tremendous dividends including the mummified remains of the Princess herself. After she's interred at the Cairo museum Bey promptly vanishes before Frank can properly thank him.

Bey then crosses paths with socialite Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the long-dead Princess. Believing that Helen is a incarnation of his beloved, Bey plots to kill and mummify her and then use the pilfered Scroll of Thoth to bring her back to "life" and make her his immortal bride. Only the very-smitten Frank, wily Dr. Muller and Helen's own buried memories hold any chance for her salvation.

If you freeze any given frame of The Mummy, you'll be left with a genuine piece of art. The fleeting exteriors of the dig site, the hotel entrance and the scenes in downtown Cairo provide just enough exotic credibility to avoid the claustrophobic staginess of Dracula. The interiors, including the expedition office at the start of the film, the museum, the hotel room, Whemple's study and Ardath Bey's chambers are all perfect; examples of an aesthetically-beautiful era preserved in the timeless amber of celluloid. Seeing a movie like this on the big screen is a real treat for anyone like me who loves to study the minutia of set decoration and production design. 

As if deliberately railing against Tod Browning's camera-bolted-down approach to Dracula, Freund exhibits considerable visual flair here. The scene in which Imhotep slowly opens his eyes, reaches for the Scroll and then slowly shambles unseen out of the room still elicits squirms, nervous chuckles and gasps. This is followed later on by a great flashback sequence which boasts an intense live burial and one of the first (and last) pre-Code Hollywood on-screen impalings.   

Freund keep his camera slinking around darkened museums, sweeping across dusty tombs and tilting over Imhotep's shoulder into his scrying pool. And that's good because the film feels a bit static at times with large swaths of expository dialogue to sit through. Personally this doesn't bother me at all since I find character development and lively dialogue to be a helluva lot more interesting then Micheal Bay-style pyrotechnics. But even I have to admit that The Mummy can feel a bit talky and pedestrian from time to time.  

Thank Ra then for Boris Karloff. By all accounts the horror icon absolutely despised the eight hour process that legendary makeup man Jack Pierce subjected him to in order to transform him into the mouldering mummy. Many speculate that's why Karloff only spends the first scene in full makeup and the rest of the film in his "unwrapped" state. Now some people might gripe that Karloff doesn't spend enough screen time in full mummy mode, but I'd much rather have Karloff talkative in lighter makeup then mute under a ton of cotton and spirit gum.

And make no mistake, he's downright fantastic here. With his hunched neck, deadpan expression and preternaturally-long limbs, Karloff haunts every scene he's in. Every time Freund goes in for a close-up of Karloff's dessicated visage and penetrating eyes the effect is still jarring. Drifting through the film like a tall, be-fezzed, ghoulish beanpole, you really get the impression that he'll crumble into dust if subjected to a strong gust of wind. This is belied by a commanding presence and a distinctive voice that has rarely been rivaled in cinema history.

Also noteworthy is the stunningly-gorgeous Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Curiously in step with the movie's theme, her unique beauty is preserved here in celluloid amber for all eternity. Even though she spends large swaths of screen time under Imhotep's thrall, her hypnotic eyes and palpable confidence will draw you in whenever she's on screen. Bonus points: the men don't rescue her ultimately, she saves herself through the strength of her own convictions. Not to undercut this last point but the incredibly-daring pre-Code costume she wears at the climax of the film certainly adds to the film's "va-va, voom!" factor. 

Also notable is the omnipresent Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Muller. Some folks deride Sloan's earlier performances as sloth-like and self-conscious but I find his deliberate movements and enunciation to be oddly comforting. Despite the fact that his warnings sound completely whack-a-do, he drops these lines with such erudite precision that we have no trouble believing him. If only the other characters in the film were so insightful! Throughout the film he's a propulsive presence, constantly laboring to get the dimmer characters to catch up to him.     

Having seen the film recently as part of Cineplex's recent Halloween-themed The Wolf Man / The Mummy Double Feature I really feel blessed. If you can't get out to it then I highly recommend the recent fully-restored Blu-Ray release. The image quality is impeccable, giving this viewer the distinct impression that I was watching a recent experimental film that just so happens to employ all of the equipment, trappings and techniques from the late Twenties / early Thirties.

This film is a real gem and makes for a great family watch during this Halloween season! 
   Tilt: up.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Session 9" by David Pretty

As soon Brad Anderson and Stephen Gevedon learned about Danvers State Hospital the Session 9 script probably wrote itself pretty durned quick. The place is so freakin' creepy that they didn't even feel the need to fictionalize it. In fact, there's enough nightmare fuel surrounding this real-life loony-bin to inspire an entire legion of scary screenplays.

Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is a man on the edge. As the owner of a struggling asbestos abatement team he's constantly surrounded by deadly carcinogens. To drive up his blood pressure even more, business is terrible and, as a new father, his finances are stretched to the limit. In order to keep his head above water, Gordon is forced to take on the unenviable task of cleaning out the condemned Danvers State Mental Hospital, underbidding the competition by promising faster and cheaper results.

This causes considerable strain amongst his already-contentious team. Phil (David Caruso) becomes particularly testy when Gordon retains the competent-but-cocky Hank (Josh Lucas) in order to meet the aggressive deadline. As it turns out, Hank stole Phil's girlfriend away from him and isn't shy about bragging about it. Thrown into this volatile mix is Gordon's be-mulleted, nyctophobic cousin Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) and Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a failed lawyer who's acutely aware of the hospital's dark history.

Almost immediately things take a turn for the weird. Gordon starts hearing voices and becomes increasingly contentious and distracted. As freaked out about the dangerous nature of the job as he is by their creepy surroundings Jeff is twitchier then a cat at a rocking chair convention. Frustrated by the unrealistic timetable and his close proximity to Hank, Phil becomes increasingly volatile. Only Hank lucks out, hitting the jackpot by finding a hidden cache of coins and jewelry. Unfortunately he's completely oblivious to the fact that this little treasure trove is the by-product of the hospital's in-house crematorium.

But it's Mike who makes the most chilling discovery: a series of audio tapes documenting an interview with a mental patient named Mary Hobbes. After suffering through some unspoken and traumatic event, Mary's personality has fractured into two innocent and child-like identities both of which seem terrified to manifest a third facet known only as "Simon". Over the course of the titular nine sessions, it's slowly revealed that Simon may very well be a strong presence in the hospital even though Mary is long-gone.

According to actor David Caruso the film's production designers had a relatively easy time of it because the interiors of Danvers State Mental Hospital came pre-decorated. There's a reason why so many horror-themed video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil use abandoned mental institutions as their settings; the peeling paint, gurneys, wheelchairs, isolation cells and stray orbitoclasts lying around provide enough unconscious bad karma to immediately establish the right mood. In fact, the hospital is, by far, the scariest character in the entire film.

Session 9 also has the distinction of being one of the very first feature films to be shot with Sony's new-at-the-time 24P HD digital video camera, beating out 28 Days Later by a year. This approach benefits the overall presentation, since it feels as if a sixth member of the abatement team was on hand to keep a video journal of the operation. What we're left with is a sweaty, claustrophobic, gritty final product that avoids the visual palsy of found footage films. Even with the obvious challenges posed by on-set lighting, director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz serve up an engaging and varied presentation that captures every fiber of asbestos dust, every flake of peeling paint and every creepy wall-collage.


The music by Seattle-based experimental outfit Climax Golden Twins is pretty much spot-on. There's no grand, florid orchestral score here just some atmospheric keyboard tones and jangly, discordant notes that supports the disturbing mood. It's a minimalistic choice but it succeeds in immersing the viewer deeper in the experience rather then jarring you out of the moment by being showy or self-aware.

Armed with authentic dialogue, the casts earns considerable plaudits. Brendan Sexton III is so perfect I'd be tempted to say that they pulled a fast one and hired someone right off a construction road crew and then paid to send him to Juilliard. Even though Jeff is pretty dim and slack-jawed, Sexton is so natural in his approach to the role that you instantly feel bad for the guy. Everybody knows someone like Jeff so we're immediately protective of the poor little dweeb.

The casting department also should be commended for retaining Josh Lucas as Class-A twat Hank. It's to his credit that we still don't want to see anything bad happen to him, in spite of his shabby treatment of Phil.  This is due, in part, to the brief but memorable "exit strategy" dialogue he shares with Sexton during the early goings of the film. Lucas takes advantage of this pivotal moment to clearly delineate Hank's motivation while offering some precious insight into his co-workers.

Stephen Gevedon is note-perfect as failed lawyer Mike King. We get a taste of his intensity early on when he recounts a horrifying tale clearly inspired by the infamous Satanic Panic day-care abuse scares from the 80's. King's delivery will immediately have you dreading what's to come and on pondering the impact that hysteria can have on reality. From there on in we're left to wonder if Mike is legitimately curious about Mary Hobbes or if he's a little "Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs". Either way, Gevedon keeps his cards close to his chest.

In what can only be described as a moment of hubris, David Caruso abandoned the wildly-successful N.Y.P.D. Blue at its zenith back in 1994 for the promise of a movie career that never materialized. Anybody out there remember Kiss of Death? Jade? No? Didn't think so. To this day I'm convinced that the general public wanted to punish Caruso at the time for upsetting their so-so network cop show. As a result, people  stayed away from his movies in droves.

Sadly, this also applied to Session 9, but to their own detriment. Caruso turns in an effortlessly natural performance, instantly becoming the character we relate to the most. He manages to switch gears between diplomatic, irritated, calming and irascible at the drop of a hat and each turn feels completely devoid of labor and pretense. I still maintain that this guy's been unfairly persecuted over the years and the fact that he hasn't gotten more quality film work is our loss.

The real laurels, however, should be reserved for Peter Mullen as Gordon Fleming. I'm not sure how method Mullen is but he starts out looking as if he hasn't slept in a week and eventually devolves into a twitchy, vacant, babbling mess. Despite his harrowing and authentic depiction of mental degradation, Mullen keeps us firmly in his corner. We want this poor, over-worked, stressed-out sad sack to be alright in the end but scripted and improvised throwaways unconsciously burden the viewer with the sort of unconscious dread that only a Greek tragedy audience member can relate to.

In fact, the actors are so good that they actually eclipse the characters as scripted. Frankly, I wanted to know more about these guys. For example, why did Mike fail to become a lawyer? Phil seems to be a pretty sharp dude so why is he languishing in a dangerous and dead-end job? What makes Hank so special that Gordon would hire him knowing how poisonous he'd be to the work environment? How did Jeff become "dark-o-phobic"? More details about Gordon's marriage would also have made the ending a lot more plausible.

I'm of two minds when it comes to this last gripe. On one hand the writers probably wanted to keep things nebulous in order to preserve the murder mystery aspect of the story. The downside is that these characters don't feel fully formed and, on paper, I'd be hard-pressed to give shit about them. Mercifully, just through  the grace of inhabiting these roles with complete conviction, the actors really pick up the slack.  

Half-baked characterization isn't the only issue. Allegedly the only impetus Steven King needs to begin a new novel is a high concept; it doesn't matter if he has an ending or not. That's all well and good if you produce a Misery or a Shining but not so good if the final results are It. I suspect that something similar probably happened with Session 9: Gevedon and Anderson found out about the hospital, immediately knew that it was the perfect setting for a horror movie, came up with a serviceable plot to hang this premise off of but then painted themselves into a corner with the ending.

In their defense, at least they didn't overextend themselves and make promises that the script couldn't keep. In the end we're still left to ponder if all the chaos was due to some sort of malevolent influence or if it was just good, ol' fashioned, bat-shit, head-case human nuttery. In other words, they didn't make the same mistake that the producers of Paranormal Activity made: invoking the threat of demons and then following through with a disappointing parade of creaking doors and billowing bedsheets.  

Some might also gripe about the film's disjointed quality and muddy chronology. For example, it's pretty hard to determine exactly when Gordon had that pivotal encounter with his wife. And can someone please explain this whole Miami thing with Hank to me? Given the nature of the film, even these things feel like quibbles. The story is all about skewed perceptions brought on by mental illness so these flaws actually give the movie a weird, schizophrenic quality that succeeds in leaving the viewer feeling decidedly off-kilter.

Overall the film does a lot more right then wrong. Between the amazing setting, great cast, solid dialogue, low-fi sensibilities and atmospheric restraint, Session 9 held my attention and provided more then a few haunting images, unsettling twists and lingering chills.

 Tilt: up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Movie Review: "Ju-on: The Grudge" by David Pretty

Movies like Paranormal Activity makes me suspect that North American filmmakers kinda know what scares an audience, it's just their execution that stinks. When it comes to producing legitimately scary ghost movies, the Japanese have been way ahead of us for years. If you don't believe me then check out Ju-on: The Grudge from way back in 2002.

As it is with most great horror films: the premise here is deceptively simple. A horrible event happens in a nondescript-looking house and the leftover dark karmic residue manifests itself in the form of a vengeful spirit. Anyone foolish enough to venture inside the house is haunted by this entity until death comes, almost as a sweet relief.

Even though buckets of gore and flying limbs don't scare me anymore, barely-glimpsed, unexplained spiritual manifestations that haunt the hinterlands of a movie screen really gives me a bad case of what Buffy Summers used to refer to as "the wiggins". Thanks to a series of brilliantly-conceived set-ups, nerve-jangling sound effects and a restrained application of make-up and blood, Ju-on: The Grudge really has my number. The sly, throwaway glimpses of creepy kids and shadowy spirits loitering around the boundaries of any given scene never fails to freak me out.

Having said that, the Japanese certainly have their own unique way of storytelling, which can best be characterized as "disjointed". Now, assuming that something wasn't just lost in translation, it's a bit of a challenge to keep all of the characters, story threads and even chronological lapses straight. For example, there's a scene towards the end of the film when a girl ventures into the cursed house and witnesses the death of her own father which happened years prior. Dafuq?

I still maintain that this schizophrenic method of scripting actually helps the film instead of hinders it. It keeps the audience off-kilter and doesn't provide any of the hackneyed moments of respite that soft Western audiences have come to rely on after a big scare. If you're completely jaded with the usual "maniac with a hatchet" horror flick, Ju-on: The Grudge is an inspired and original take on the genre which will resonate with you long after it's over.

Tilt: up.