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Archive for October, 2008

Psycho (1960)

–You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

 

Ah, Hitchcock! All hail the master! If you’ve wondered why my Halloween celebration hasn’t included Hitchcock until now, it’s a mixture of reasons. He is, by far, my favorite director of all time and I could easily have filled the entire 31 days of October with reviews of his films. Recognizing that this would be, perhaps, boring to my readers I resigned myself to narrowing my choice down to one selection and saved it for last. Psycho is not my favorite Hitchcock film – that would probably be either Rear Window or Notorious – but it is the one most associated with this time of year. Hitchcock, although specializing in thrillers, only made two films that could be truly classified as horror movies: Psycho and The Birds. These were the first two horror movies I ever recall watching: The Birds in high school and Psycho while in college. I recall so clearly my first meeting of Norman Bates. It was a dreary, overcast, rainy day in late fall…perfect weather to create a creepy viewing atmosphere. I also distinctly remember that as soon as the movie was over, I immediately called my best friend because I suddenly felt very alone in my small apartment. I don’t think any other film has ever had such an impact.

It’s hard to imagine that there are people unfamiliar with the names Norman Bates and the Bates Motel even if they’ve never seen this film. I have discovered to my surprise that such folks do exist, however, and for their sakes I will try not to ruin the movie’s many surprises. The first time I ever showed this to a class there was one such student who watched with completely unspoiled expectations. The class and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we watched her react in just the ways Hitchcock intended. It was almost like being in the theatre in 1960 with the original audience.

Hitchcock succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere where no one is safe. We see characters die that we don’t expect and for motives that are at first nebulous. Many people resent the psychiatrist at the end who explains the circumstances that created the murderer. They think it is unnecessary and anti-climactic. It does feel that way to audiences of today, but we are so much more jaded than the original audience. We’ve seen nearly every permutation of psychopath possible in the years since, so it’s all practically cliché for us. To Psycho’s first viewers, though, this was shocking and I understand the motivation to explain. Still, nothing can take away the power of the final sequence as the murderer ruminates in an eerie inner monologue and stares straight into the camera. The angle of that shot, along with the actor’s performance and the very quick insert of a skull all contribute to a scene that, without fail, makes the hair on my arms stand up every time.

The cast is all strong and carefully chosen. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a woman who is having an affair with John Gavin’s character, Sam Loomis. Sam doesn’t want to get married at this time because all of his money goes to paying his ex-wife alimony. He’s hoping she’ll remarry, at which time he can make a new life for himself. This is causing Marion great anxiety as at heart she’s longing for a more traditional relationship. Irresistible temptation is placed in her way at work, and she embezzles a large sum of money. Being at heart an honest person, Marion is a terrible crook and a terrible liar. She encounters a policeman who is naturally drawn to her suspicious behavior. When she checks in to the Bates Motel, she has a quiet, intimate conversation with Norman (Anthony Perkins) about hobbies, mothers and private traps. Perkins is phenomenal as Norman. It’s almost sad that he is so good because it seemed to damage his career. We feel sympathy for this soft-spoken young man who apparently is completely under the thumb of his mother.

John Gavin and Vera Miles are both good in their roles as Marion’s lover and sister. Martin Balsam makes an impression as a private investigator hired to find Marion. Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, even has a small role as Caroline, another secretary who works with Marion.

Psycho is a bit like Casablanca or Hamlet – there are a million references to it in other works. The doctor in Halloween is named Sam Loomis. Many horror movies imitate Bernard Herrmann’s score. While watching The Haunting, I was struck by how much the scene with Nell driving down the road thinking aloud reminded me of a similar scene in Psycho. Its influence is inescapable. Of all the thirty one movies that I have reviewed this month, this would easily qualify as my favorite.

Happy Halloween!

 

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Dragonwyck (1946)

–But I will not live by ordinary standards. I will not run with the pack. I will not be chained into a routine of living which is the same for others. I will not look to the ground and move on the ground with the rest: so long as there are those mountaintops, and clouds, and limitless space.

 

The Anti-rent War which began in 1839 is a little remembered footnote in American history. Anya Seton, a popular historical novelist used it as the setting for her novel, Dragonwyck. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would later win acclaim for All About Eve, directed (one of his first films) and wrote the screenplay. Gregory Peck had originally been slated to play the leading role of Nicholas Van Ryn, but he dropped out and was replaced by Vincent Price. Gene Tierney who had played opposite Price in the film noir classic, Laura, was cast as the heroine, Miranda Wells. This is a fine gothic thriller with an interesting background.

Tenant farmers of the Hudson River valley led a protest against the land-owning patroons, descendents from the original Dutch settlers. Post-Revolutionary war, during the time of Andrew Jackson, aristocratic landowners being owed annual rents on overworked farms that were underproducing seemed like an unwelcome throwback to the Old Country. The largest landowner of the time, Stephen Van Rensselaer, was a benevolent landlord known as “The Good Patroon.” When he died, though, his tenants were appalled to discover that his will dictated that all unpaid rents should be immediately collected to pay off family debts. This created a huge uproar. In the tumult that ensued the militia would be called in and an undersheriff would be killed.

This is the backdrop of Mankiewicz’s film which is one of the only movies to tackle this struggle. Vincent Price fits the part of the cultured, sophisticated patron, Nicholas Van Ryn. Van Ryn sends for his little country cousin, Miranda, to come to his estate, Dragonwyck, and be a companion to his wife. The house is huge, and the atmosphere is creepy. Mrs. Van Ryn grows ill and dies suddenly. Miranda finds herself falling for Nicholas and they are soon married. Van Ryn’s patroon heritage frequently makes an appearance and the film does a good job at showing the friction his noblesse oblige attitude causes in the community.

One of the real life leaders of the anti-rent movement was a doctor, and this film follows suit. They change the name of the historical doctor to Dr. Jeff Turner, played in the film by Glenn Langan. He is present at the death of the first Mrs. Van Ryn, but is helpless to save her. He makes friends with Miranda which Nicholas notices and disapproves of. Nicholas possesses a mercurial temperament. One moment he is rational and charming, but the next he is strange, sharp- tempered and brooding.

I remember when I was about 12 or 13 I read a thriller in which a young woman falls madly in love with a man she doesn’t know very well. They marry and move to a secluded location. After a while, the woman realized that she was married to a mentally unstable man who was violent and very dangerous. It was an exciting, even scary book for me at that age and Dragonwyck made me relive that sensation all over again. Surely, one of the scariest possible moments in your life would be to realize that your spouse is actually capable of doing terrible, cruel things and in fact may have murdered his first wife.

I felt the ending of the movie was just a tad rushed, but overall it was a solidly delicious gothic melodrama. If you enjoy films like Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel, Dragonwyck may also be to your taste.

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

–You mean all this time we could have been friends?

 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is infamous because it is the first and only teaming of screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The women were legendary rivals, exacerbated by incidents like Davis turning down the script for Mildred Pierce which Crawford would later win an Academy Award for. Their screen personas were very different as well. As one film critic comments in the special features for the DVD version of the film, Davis was considered the screen’s great sadist and Crawford was considered the screen’s great masochist. Davis considered herself first and foremost an actress. She loved using costume and makeup to make herself look hideous and completely absorb herself in the role. Crawford wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, but she always had movie star instincts as well. She preferred looking glamorous and kept to her image even when going shopping in real life.

In the film Davis plays Jane Hudson, a child star. She is the center of attention and the breadwinner when they are young. As they grow older, however, her sister Blanche (Crawford) becomes the adult star until she is injured in an accident that Jane is blamed for. Now, Jane and Blanche live together out of the limelight. Blanche is stuck in a wheelchair and dependent upon Jane to take care of her. Jane discovers that Blanche is planning on selling the house which would leave her out in the cold. Her behavior towards her sister grows cold and cruel with traces of both desperation and insanity.

Davis chews up the scenery, spits it out and chews it up again. It’s a wild performance that grows even more bizarre as Jane’s hold on reality gets more tenuous. Crawford anchors the film with an understated reserve and gravity. Her performance, really, is what allows Davis the freedom to spin out so wildly since the film already has a solid center. Although the film is worlds removed from the movies that brought Davis and Crawford their stardom, and has a miniscule budget it remains entertaining. Both women give their characters a bittersweet sadness that remains quite moving.

Of course, two such veterans were professional on-set despite their rivalry. One notorious exception came in a scene where Jane is physically abusive toward her sister. Davis actually kicked Crawford and broke some of her ribs. Ouch!

This movie touches on several fears. Many of us worry about being incapacitated and reliant on someone else to take care of us. Losing our independence is a very deeply rooted fear and is often coupled with the worry that the person taking care of us might be abusive. We shiver at stories of nursing homes who neglect or mistreat their patients because we’re terrified inside that it might one day be us. Perversely, another fear is to lose our independence because we’re trapped in a life of servitude, taking care of someone who is ill and thus monopolizes our every moment. It’s not a very nice fear, but it’s still present. Here, we have two sisters who resent each other but are both trapped in a symbiotic relationship. Another, obvious, theme being exploited is sibling rivalry and in a weird sort of way the off screen rivalry of its two stars. Baby Jane represents an experienced actor’s worst nightmare – the fear of being forgotten while your rival is immortalized. It’s similar to Salieri’s envy of Mozart in Amadeus. Salieri, though, is more self-aware than Jane. He knows that compared to Mozart, he is mediocre. Jane, on the other hand, never recognizes the fact that she is not as talented as she thinks she is. To the end, she remains firmly convinced that she is the true star of the family and surely, someday the world will agree.

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The Changeling

The Changeling (1980)

–That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.

 

According to William Butler Yeats, in his book Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, “Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood…” (48). In the 1980 film, The Changeling, John Russell (George C. Scott) loses his daughter and his wife in an accident in the first five minutes. Bereaved, he moves into an old historical mansion only to find it haunted by the ghost of a small child.

The Changeling owes a huge debt to The Haunting. Not only is this a haunted house movie with a very angry spirit, at least one of the sound effects could be lifted straight from the earlier film. There is a loud pounding noise that echoes throughout the house that sounds identical to the menacing noises of Hill House. Both movies also are masterpieces of restraint. The Changeling may be even more circumspect than the older film. Its violence, except for one key scene, is mostly off-screen and tastefully composed.

The ghost in Russell’s new house takes advantage of his sorrow. His daughter’s red rubber ball gets thrown down the stairs even after Russell drops it into the bay. This would shake anybody up, but Russell also has to endure the aforementioned bangings at 6 A.M., phantom music, wheelchairs that move by themselves, slamming doors, and most frightening of all a ghostly glimpse into the past. Since the ghost will not leave him alone, Russell starts researching the house even going so far as to have a séance.

His investigations lead him to discover the true changeling of the title which I wouldn’t dream of revealing. Suffice it to say, that while the fairies were not involved the substitution of one child for another plays a featured role. He also makes a powerful enemy (the veteran star, Melvyn Douglas) n the mortal plane who sends a cop to threaten Russell.

George C. Scott plays Russell as a man who doesn’t react to the supernatural with hysteria. He’s too inwardly focused. His grief is quiet but profound and causes him to react in a more reserved fashion than we are accustomed to seeing in ghost stories. His loss causes him to almost bond with the ghost over the unfairness of life and when he learns its story he responds with righteous indignation. Yet, the ghost is angrier than Russell and its rage can’t be bound or controlled. Ultimately, in dealing with the ghost’s unfinished business Russell is forced to get on with his own life.

Yeats also mentions that there is supposedly one infallible test for changelings: fire. The changeling of this film burns by story’s end, and one hopes that the original child will find peace beyond the grave, “having plenty of good living and music and mirth” (48). One suspects not as even in the leftover ashes, a burnt music box opens and begins to play by itself. Perhaps the flames didn’t quench the rage of a child whose time was too short upon this earth.

 

Yeats, Willam Butler. Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. New York: Collier Books, 1986.

 

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The Thing (1982)

–So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?

 

Which is scarier: the idea of looking in a friend’s eyes and seeing a stranger or a friend looking into your eyes but unable to tell if you are really you? John Carpenter’s The Thing explores these ideas in an interesting way. In a sense this is a remake of Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World, a 50s sci-fi classic, and they are both based on the same source material. Hawks’s movie though deviates from the original short story on the type of monster involved. The Thing from Another World is a sentient plant life form that resembles the Frankenstein Creature. Carpenter goes a different route. His alien is a shape shifter that can imitate anything perfectly. While the original film was a solid thriller with an intriguing conflict between the preservation of a new life form and the preservation of human life, Carpenter’s different take on the material heightens the suspense.

The movie opens with a helicopter chasing a dog across the snow in Antarctica. The people in the chopper are trying to shoot the dog or blow it up. Our instinctive reaction is to be horrified: are these people so sick that they like to hunt dogs by chasing them in planes? The dog runs toward an American scientific outpost. The chopper sets down and one of the hunters tries to shoot the dog, but misses and shoots one of the Americans in the leg. He, in turn, is shot by another American. The other hunter fumbles with a grenade, drops it and accidentally blows himself and the helicopter to kingdom come. The dog is safe, but are the Americans?

Kurt Russell leads the cast playing MacReady, or Mac. He’s also a pilot who flies the scientists around wherever they need to go. Wilfred Brimley plays Blair, a doctor, who becomes very concerned about the impact of the shape-shifter. All of the cast are excellent with other standouts being Keith David as Childs who doesn’t want to believe any of this is real and Peter Maloney as George Bennings, a man who is closer to the dogs than any of his colleagues.

The isolation of the Antarctic setting combined with the shape shifter idea really creates a heightened sense of paranoia. We often wonder how well we truly know people, and in this situation that feeling is multiplied by a thousand. The only thing I didn’t really like about this film was its gore factor. This is a very visceral movie. It ranks right up there with Alien for some of the most gruesome special effects. Skin rips, blood splatters, organs explode. I really like the sense that you can’t trust anyone. As John Carpenter says in the special features documentary, it’s a bit like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Was None. Part of the fun lies in figuring out who is going to die, who is going to survive, and who is not who they say they are. It just wish they had toned down the special effects a notch. Oh well, I’m sure that’s what other people like the best – different strokes for different folks.

There was an early Season One episode of The X Files, “Ice,” that paid homage to this movie. You have the first scientific team that gets destroyed, and you have another investigating to find out what happened. There’s an infected dog, people are “not what they are.” Mulder and Scully pull guns on each other and have to decide whether or not they can trust one another. It’s one of the show’s best episodes and they do it with style, class and a lower gross out factor. Hmm, I think I might even like “Ice” better than The Thing.

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Sweeney Todd (2007)

–These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett and desperate measures are called for…

 

I’ve never seen the theatrical version of this musical, so I’m not qualified to comment on the merits of the transfer from stage to screen. I know the Sondheim fans (you know who you are) know much more about the history of the production than I do, so I shall confine myself strictly to Tim Burton’s interpretation.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are names that go together like John Wayne and John Ford or Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. Both men have made successful films without each other, but there’s always something special about their collaborations. Sweeney Todd, of course, marks the sixth time they’ve teamed up for a film. Sondheim’s musical provides them with perfect material that plays to their interests and strengths. The big question hanging over the whole production was whether Depp could sing. There are no doubts that he’s an exceptional actor, and he has been a musician longer than he has been making movies…but not as a singer. Frankly, with his overall talent if he could carry a tune I would have been fairly forgiving. I much prefer to see solid acting with weaker singing than weak acting with solid singing…but that’s a personal preference. It’s a relief to report that no forgiveness is necessary because Depp delivers on all counts.

Sweeney Todd was once Benjamin Barker who led a happy life with his wife and baby daughter. Evil, in the form of Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin, destroys Barker’s paradise. Barker is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to transportation. He has returned, looking for the family he left behind him. He is told that his wife is dead after being raped by Turpin and the judge now has his daughter as his ward. Barker’s mind is completely consumed by thoughts of revenge, and with the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) he changes his name to Sweeney Todd and cuts a bloody swath through the customers in his barber’s chair.

Depp is appropriately dark, brooding and obsessed. Bonham Carter provides much of the film’s dark humor as she strives to help Todd and run her meat pie shop. Once again, Burton chose actors for his musical not singers and I applaud. The performances are all rich and complex with the exception of Jamie Campbell Bower’s Anthony who acquits himself well as the musical’s standard young lover. His part is not as interesting, but it provides a necessary touch of lightness to brighten the dark hearts of the other characters. Rickman has always been good at villains, but he’s exceptionally repulsive here as a judge with no mercy for other’s sins whilst having no remorse for his own. Sacha Baron Cohen is amusing as Pirelli, but behind his humor there is cunning. I was also very impressed with young Edward Sanders as Toby.

Sweeney Todd is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The work-study student who works in my office who loves horror movies commented that this movie was too bloody for her. She’s got a point. This is a Grand Guignol horror set to music. Dante Ferretti’s production design is gorgeous and grimy. London and its environs, particularly the poorer sections of the city, are essential characters in the film. This is Dickens gone very, very wrong. Actually, it’s more Hogarthian than Dickensian. I’m reminded of Hogarth’s illustrations of The Rake’s Progress showing the underbelly of London’s nightlife. With the move’s emphasis on Mrs. Lovett’s gin, I’m reminded of what a problem that particular cheap alcohol became in the 18th century. Water was contaminated, and so London’s poor lapped up gin like mother’s milk as we can see from Toby’s thirst.

As for the fears that Sweeney Todd taps into…well, the fear of being accused of a crime you didn’t commit is nothing new. It’s been exploited in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and dozens of Hitchcock films. Monte Cristo also explores that quest for revenge that motivates Todd/Barker. There’s the danger that we can get so lost in our own obsessions that we lose sight of our goals and ultimately destroy ourselves. Of course, there’s also the sickening feeling we get if we stare too closely at our hamburgers and wonder where they came from…

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The Innocents (1961)

–But above anything else, I love the children.

 

I often think it easier to adapt a novella for the screen than a novel. A novel has to be condensed so much, particularly if it is an exceptionally lengthy one. A novella is usually of a length that most of it can be retained for the screen while still allowing enough room for a scriptwriter’s additions. The Innocents would have to rank among the greatest adaptations of a literary classic, in this case of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.”

Which is scarier: ghosts or insanity? The delicious ambiguity that holds The Innocents together so delicately forces us to ask that question repeatedly. Even the opening credits are chill inspiring. A woman’s hands are praying as she desperately cries out how she only wanted to help the children and not hurt them. A young girl sings hauntingly a capella, “We lay my love and I, beneath the weeping willow. But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree. Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ by the tree that weeps with me. Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ till my lover return to me. We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow. A broken heart have I. Oh willow I die, oh willow I die…” These elements create an eerie, unforgettable beginning.

Deborah Kerr is superb as Miss Giddens, a woman hired as a governess for two small children. This will be her first position and we see her nervousness and her resolve to do a good job. We also suspect she wants to impress her employer, the children’s uncle (Michael Redgrave). He warns that he’s not a family man and that he’s hiring her to take complete charge of the children. She’s to do whatever she thinks best, as long as he doesn’t have to do anything.

Miss Giddens is enthralled by her new charge, Flora (Pamela Franklin), a pretty and vivacious child. Her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens), is away at school, but Flora talks as if Miles will be home at any moment. He does come home unexpectedly, having been expelled from school. He’s just as charming and impish as his sister and Miss Giddens adores them both…except she is bothered by little things. Why was Miles sent down from school? What happened to the former governess, Miss Jessel, who died under mysterious circumstances? Who is the man she sees at the top of the tower and is he Peter Quint, another former servant who is also dead? Are the children being possessed by these ghosts, and if so how can Miss Giddens save her charges from such abominations? Is Miss Giddens’s mind slipping due to the stress of her responsibilities and her repressed sexuality, so that everything is just a figment of her imagination?

A great deal of the horror of this picture comes from the fact that we can’t put a definite answer to these questions. One suspects the answer to the last question is yes, and yet it’s not conclusive. The children behave in strange and disturbing ways, their looks just a shade too knowing and their words a hair too mature. From the stories that Mrs. Grose (a wonderful Megs Jenkins) tells Miss Jessel and Peter Quint were apparently lovers conducting a very blatant, and occasionally violent, love affair. Their influence over the children was, without a doubt, unhealthy. How far that influence goes is unclear. Is the children’s behavior a result of having witnessed too many scenes not meant for their eyes, or was there more explicit and overt abuse on their caretakers’ parts? They do behave in a more sexualized manner than most children, which is generally a symptom of some sort of sexual abuse.

Miss Giddens explains everything as ghostly interference and that the spirits of Jessel and Quint are trying to continue their liaison through the bodies of the children. There is a chilling scene where she walks around the house after dark. The sound design in that scene alone is enough to raise the hackles on your neck.

Ultimately, she decides that the only way to free the children is to make them confront the “truth,” and speak out loud what is happening to them. The truth shall set you free, we are taught, but it can only free you if you are able to accept that truth. There are reasons why people’s minds cloud and repress painful memories…particularly in children’s minds. When Miss Giddens describes what she is doing as trying to wake the children from a bad dream, Mrs. Grose replies that waking a child from a nightmare can be just as horrific for the child as the dream itself. The shock, she explains, is just as painful. Certainly, when Miss Giddens tries to “wake” Flora, the result is disastrous.

Truman Capote was one of the writers responsible for adapting this script from James’s original novella. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for its success. The directing, music, cinematography and sound design are all uniformly brilliant. Kudos must be given to the two young actors, though. Franklin and Stephens give unnerving performances that keep us constantly guessing. We don’t know what exactly happened to these children in the past, but like Miss Giddens we can guess and feel appalled by our imaginations.

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