Cinema Psycho

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Archive for June, 2010

Three the Hard Way: Price, Lee and Cushing in House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 19, 2010

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I have a confession to make: over the years, I’ve developed a serious thing for old-fashioned, Gothic-style horror movies. The kind of stuff that modern audiences find hokey and lame. Not that I don’t enjoy modern horror films – of course I do. But there’s a secret part of me that goes gaga over spooky old houses, creaky doors, cobwebs, secret passageways, fake-looking skeletons and great character actors hamming it up. And it’s not a nostalgia thing either: I didn’t really get to see a lot of these films growing up, so I’ve had to catch up with them here and there, mostly through late-night cable showings and the occasional DVD rental. Needless to say, I’ve become well-versed in the old Universal monster movies, Hammer and Amicus, the Corman-Poe AIP films, the works of William Castle, etc. These movies just have an old-school vibe that can’t be recreated in the modern era, no matter how hard they try (look at the Dark Castle remakes, or better yet, don’t). The rise of more violent horror in the 70’s, and let’s face it, the blatant copying and kiddie-fication of the aesthetic in Scooby-Doo pretty much killed off the style, and perhaps it’s for the best. It’s a much more cynical time, and kids today aren’t likely to be scared by this kind of material. But there was once a time when Gothic horror was as edgy and disturbing as films got, even if it’s hard to picture that now.

I love digging up old obscure titles in this genre and having a blast with them, especially if they feature Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, or some combination of the three. That’s why I was totally psyched when Amazon on Demand and MGM Home Video made House of the Long Shadows available on DVD for the first time. It’s the only film in which the three horror icons appeared together (well, technically they were all in 1970’s Scream and Scream Again, but the three of them didn’t share any scenes together) and I’ve recently become familiar with the films of its director, British cult horror and sexploitation schlockmeister Pete Walker. Like most of Walker’s work, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but an interesting one at least.

Shot in England in 1983 and released in the US by Cannon Films a year later, House is Walker’s attempt to make a Gothic horror film while kind of sending up the genre at the same time. Walker’s films were generally more of the modern variety (albeit relatively tame by today’s standards) and made during the 70’s, when the popularity of British production companies like Hammer and Amicus was beginning to wane. Walker was part of the “new wave”, one might say – his films were usually set in swinging 70’s London and had teens and young adults at the center, the antithesis of the aesthetic of the old guard. So it’s kind of curious that he would make this film at all (especially as his final directing credit), given that’s a kind of winking tribute to the films he basically helped to destroy. His attempt to “modernize” the genre seems half-hearted at best, but again, Walker seems only interested in making a Gothic horror film if he doesn’t really have to make one.

The plot concerns a young American writer (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.) who is challenged by his agent to stay in a supposedly haunted house for one night, during which time he will crank out a Gothic horror novel of the type he disdains. His agent wagers that he can’t pull it off, but the cocky young writer is positive he won’t be too frightened to do the job. Here we see the conflict between the sneering, “know it all” youth and the older “seen it all” generation which was a recurring theme with Walker. Within no time Arnaz is at the house and encountering an attractive secretary (supposedly there to help him write his novel) and the former residents of the place, the eccentric and seemingly cursed Grisbane family.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal any more, but suffice it to say that nothing is quite as it seems. Sadly, it’s a good half-hour before one of the horror icons shows up on screen (come on, they’re the actors we want to see!) and Arnaz isn’t much of a lead, coming off like a typical smart-alecky sub-Guttenberg 80’s wisecracker. Once things get going and we’re finally introduced to the real stars of the picture, however, House of the Long Shadows is kind of awesome, simply because they are so awesome. Price, Lee and Cushing each get plenty of chances to chew scenery, separately and together, and it’s a wonderful sight indeed. It’s almost worth tracking this thing down just to watch these old pros at work, apparently relishing the chance to show a (potentially) new audience what they’re capable of. They certainly didn’t phone this one in, and if you’ve ever had any affection for these guys at all, this is one you’re going to want to see sometime.

Unfortunately, the disc quality is not particularly good. Now, I wasn’t expecting Criterion-level quality from what is essentially a full-screen DVD-R, and I can forgive a lot. But given that I paid $20 for a copy of this thing, I expected at least to be able to see what’s going on on screen most of the time! The problem is that much of the movie is shot in varying degrees of darkness, as Gothic horror tended to be, and the picture as presented is quite literally too dark, often irritatingly so. It’s not “shadowy” dark, it’s “I can’t see a fucking thing” dark. When the picture is light enough, it’s relatively watchable. But given the kind of movie this is, you really need a decent transfer to make it worth a purchase. If you told me they burned this straight from an old VHS copy (not even the master), I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I know, it’s an On Demand purchase for a select audience who specifically orders that title, but still. Given classic horror film buffs’ interest in these actors, you would think that the folks at MGM Home Video might have considered this worthy of a regular DVD release, at the very least as part of one of their double-feature Midnite Movies releases. I don’t tend to be an absolute stickler for things like image quality (at a time when tech-heads are upgrading to Blu-Ray, I’m raiding closing-down video stores for their cheap inventory), but it would have been nice to see this title cleaned up a bit. Come on. This is one step above those cheap-ass collections where you get like 50 movies for $5, but they all look like shit. What a deal, huh?

So while I can’t exactly recommend a purchase here, I can say that House of the Long Shadows is a very entertaining little film that fans of Gothic horror will likely get a kick out of. Since it never shows up on cable, I would recommend checking it out on Amazon’s Watch on Demand service online rather than buying a copy like I did. It’ll still look like crap, but you’ll get to see it and you won’t be out $20. Guess I’ll know better next time. For the record, I’m glad that obscure titles like this one are being made available to collectors through services like Amazon on Demand and Warner Archive, but I’d still like them to be watchable copies. Otherwise, they might as well stay in the vault, and no one wants that.

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Off the Rails: Dennis Hopper in Henry Jaglom’s Tracks (1977)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 10, 2010

You know, I’ve always thought Dennis Hopper should have played Adolf Hitler at some point in his career. Can’t you just see him with that little mustache, dyed black hair, dressed up in the full uniform, barking orders at people in his bunker? No? Well, maybe it’s just me. At the very least, he would be all over the Internet now instead of Bruno Ganz.

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Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of Hopper’s films since his death, revisiting some old favorites as well as checking out some obscure films of his I’ve never seen. I tend to do this a lot when an actor or director I really like passes on, kind of like my own personal retrospective or tribute. I’ve discovered that Colors doesn’t quite hold up as well as I thought, while The Hot Spot is still hugely underrated and Red Rock West is still as awesome as it was in 1993. The other night I discovered an obscure film which features good old Dennis at the center, a film which I’d been wanting to see for a few years now but never got around to it. The film is Tracks, released in 1977 but apparently shot a couple of years before that. It’s not what I would call a masterpiece, but if you’re a fan of Hopper’s, odd 70’s cinema or films about the Vietnam War, you might find it an interesting curiosity.

Billed as “one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War”, Tracks centers around Sgt. Jack Falen (get it?), a young soldier (although DH would’ve been around 40 at the time by my math), who’s escorting the body of his war buddy on a train home to California. That’s about as much traditional plot as you’re going to get here. The movie mostly deals with Falen’s gradual mental breakdown as he travels with a group of genuine oddballs, pursues a young girl and listens to old WWII-era big-band music (some of which is hysterically racist). Also there’s gratuitous Dean Stockwell, as Joe Bob Briggs would say.

If you know the films of writer-director Henry Jaglom at all, then you pretty much know what to expect here: very talky, full of improvisational dialogue, more than a bit self-indulgent. I’ve never been a huge fan of Jaglom’s, to be honest. He tends to be a bit precious and twee for my taste. But Tracks has something his other films don’t: Dennis Hopper, who gives a mesmerizing performance as the disturbed Falen. Whether he’s interacting with some genuinely strange passengers (some of whom are played by members of Jaglom’s regular acting troupe), awkwardly trying to seduce college student Stephanie, or running around naked in bizarre dream sequences (which I didn’t really need to see), Hopper is just fascinating to watch. What makes the performance so interesting is partially because Falen initially seems like a relatively normal guy, and only gradually reveals his psychological issues in the midst of the rest of the chaos on the train. Tracks doesn’t spell out the connections between his psychosis and his war service until the very end, unlike later Vietnam movies which would perpetuate the stereotype of the whacked-out ‘Nam vet; rather than being overtly political or anti-war, Jaglom seems mostly interested in painting a vivid picture of a cracked psyche. By the end, it becomes difficult to tell what’s “real” and what’s merely Falen’s hallucinations, and that’s the point, of course.

On the other hand, Tracks is also wildly inconsistent at times, which is one of the drawbacks of relying so much on improvisation. Characters seem to contradict themselves on a scene-by-scene basis, particularly Stephanie, who can’t seem to decide whether she loves Falen or is terrified of him. The limited setting may also turn some viewers off; about 95% of it takes place on the train, though Jaglom and Hopper do their damndest to keep things interesting, if not always logical. Personally, I happen to love train movies, so the lack of varied settings didn’t bother me a bit. Others may find it a bit claustrophobic. As always, your mileage may vary.

Above all, Tracks is more of a curiosity than a must-see; as a film, it just barely holds together, but as a snapshot of a particular time and place, it’s pretty interesting stuff and worth seeing on that level. Most of all, it’s a tribute to the strange, wonderful talent of Dennis Hopper, who could make even the most threadbare character come alive. Available on DVD (rented through Netflix).

By the way, I’m planning to write about more obscure films in the future, so if you’re inclined, drop me a line and let me know if you find this stuff interesting or not. I just want to mix things up a bit and write about movies that interest me, so I hope readers will stick with it and enjoy the ride. As always, thanks for reading!

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Insanema: Lars von Trier’s Crazy Like a Fox Antichrist

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 5, 2010

MV5BMjE3MjQ2ODc1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjYyMzI5Mg_002.jpgWell, I was all set to check out Splice this afternoon when it turns out there’s a nice long Thunderstorm Warning and a Tornado Watch in my area. So I’m stuck at home all day. Don’t you just hate when that happens? You’re all psyched to see a certain movie on a particular day and then, guess what, Nature itself is preventing you from going. Wonderful. I’ll just go tomorrow, assuming it isn’t raining frogs or something. But it kinda bites for today, you know? I want to see it today, dammit! Ah well.

Anyway, I finally caught up with Lars von Trier’s controversial new film Antichrist the other night. After all the reviews and articles I’ve read, and discussions with film-fan friends, I feel like I’m the last person on Earth to have seen this movie! Of course I know that isn’t true. My Mom certainly hasn’t seen it, and I’m sure never will. They’re actually showing it on IFC for their “Grindhouse Month”, which I find kinda hilarious, since there’s really nothing “grindhouse” about this movie or Lars von Trier’s work in general. He would no doubt find that insulting, which makes it all the more amusing.

Now that all the hype has passed, however, I have to say I found Antichrist to be an underwhelming experience. Oh, it’s an interesting watch, to be sure. But the ravings of a lunatic are bound to be interesting on some level, even if they make no sense whatsoever. Several critics and bloggers have questioned von Trier’s sanity, and Lars himself admitted in interviews that the film was the result of a period of severe depression. But frankly, I’ve been wondering about the guy ever since the one-two punch of Manderlay and Dear Wendy (which he wrote and produced). Seriously, try sitting through those films sometime, and tell me you don’t wonder if ol’ Lars has lost his fucking Danish marbles. That’s not necessarily a knock on the guy – some of my favorite directors are completely out of their gourd. Certainly von Trier has made his reputation as a provocateur, and even his best films are acquired tastes. But while watching this, I found myself wondering if the “crazy Lars” stuff was all an act, a put-on so he can throw a bunch of weird, uncomfortable shit at the audience and be somewhat excused for it.

Despite my online moniker, I’m generally not a fan of “crazy cinema” (or as I like to call it, “Insanema”) unless it really works and has a good reason for being the way it is. Some of Takashi Miike’s films I really like a lot, and some of them just bore the shit out of me. You can tell when he has something interesting going on, and when he’s just being “wild Miike” for the sake of it. The best example is David Lynch, who I think knows exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, even if some of us don’t get it at times. It’s not just an act for him. Some filmmakers seem to think, “oh, I’ll just break all the rules and make some crazy shit, and I’ll be the bad boy of the film world!” But breaking the rules only works if you know what rules you’re breaking and why. I’m not entirely convinced that Lars knows what he’s even trying to accomplish with this. He clearly understands the language of cinema, but he doesn’t seem to understand what he’s doing with it. You can be as “extreme” as you want to, but none of it really matters if you don’t make us care about what we’re watching.

That’s the basic flaw I see in Antichrist: as “out there” as it gets, von Trier never makes an effort to make us really care about these characters or what happens to them. It’s basically the story of a married couple who suffer the horrible tragedy of losing their child (due mainly to their own neglect, but that’s another issue). For some reason they go out to a cabin in the woods where the male, a therapist, tries to cure his wife of her severe depression. Then a lot of crazy shit happens. The problem is, we don’t really know these people. We never see them together before the tragedy, so we don’t know what they were like, and therefore have no rooting interest in their recovery or their future. They’re ciphers, symbols, stand-ins for Lars’ Big Ideas. Despite brave performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, I never cared a bit about them personally. So you can have all the explicit sex and genital mutilation you want, but it doesn’t matter if we have no investment in the characters that these things are happening to. This is your basic Screenwriting 101 stuff here, folks. I know Lars doesn’t care about that kind of thing, but it’s important that the audience give a shit for the 108 minutes of time they’re watching your film. He seemed to understand this when he made Breaking the Waves, at least.

Then the movie goes completely batshit about an hour into it, and just goes off the rails and never looks back. This is when we find out the real message of the film – that “women are evil”. OK, not saying I necessarily agree with that, but it’s not my issue. I don’t have a problem with him saying that. The problem I have is that he doesn’t say it very well. The film’s entire argument seems to be “Nature is evil, and women are controlled by nature, therefore women are evil”. That’s not a very persuasive argument, frankly. Why is nature evil? Because Lars von Trier says so? Come on, you have to do better than that. The fact that it’s the female character who says these things doesn’t make them sound any less loony. If you’re going to make that kind of controversial blanket statement, you have to back it up with something. Some empirical evidence. Anything that makes even the tiniest amount of logical sense. I mean, I’ve gone through my misogynistic phases too (pretty much every straight man has, if we’re being honest about it), but come on. It’s one thing to say that people (both male and female) can be stupid, cruel, insensitive, selfish, greedy and superficial – it’s entirely another thing to point at someone (much less either entire gender) and call them “evil” (as in “possessed by Satan himself completely fucking evil”). That’s whacked-out Church Lady nonsense. Unless we’re talking about Sarah Palin, then you’re pretty much dead-on. Seriously though, we’re supposed to buy into this stuff? What is this, an art film for tinfoil-wearing Tea Party members? Give me a break. Go to college.

But you know what? Some tiny little part of me suspects that Lars von Trier knows that his film is completely and utterly full of shit, and is secretly loving the reaction it’s getting from people who are foolish enough to take it seriously. I certainly couldn’t prove it in court, but I think there’s a chance that Antichrist is just a ridiculous prank on the audience. If so, then good work! If not, then the idea that this primitive nonsense is supposed to be Serious Art is perhaps the biggest joke of all. I know not everyone will agree with me on this, and I don’t expect them to. But if this is what passes for “art cinema” these days… drop me off at the nearest Jerry Bruckheimer production.

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