October 30, 2011

The Fog

John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) may be ludicrous as a thriller, but as an exercise in creepiness, it's wonderful fun. Carpenter and co-conspirator Debra Hill had just come off the phenomenal success of their low-budget thriller Halloween (1978), so by comparison The Fog seemed tame to audiences who were by now growing accustomed to more shocks and splatter, and less patient with an atmospheric, deliberately paced ghost story.

The plot involves a cadre of vengeful spirits bent on doling out vengeance (and murky weather) to a small California town on its 100th anniversary. The founding fathers of the community apparently betrayed a group of lepers, leading them to their deaths at the bottom of the sea. Now the lepers have come back to celebrate.

Carpenter relies too much on plodding slasher-film death sequences as the film progresses, but overall it's still one of his best mood-pieces. You find yourself enjoying all the little stories being weaved together throughout the film.

Carpenter imitates two masters in The Fog: Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The movie feels like a noirish, supernatural re-imagining of The Birds (the setting reminds you of that film's coastal locale, Bodega Bay, and the fog serves as a stand-in for the birds, creating a similar feeling of apocalyptic doom). Simultaneously, Carpenter invests his scenes with a Hawks-esque film noir feel. That feel is best developed in the scenes of the main character, a local deejay named Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau). Stevie sits solitarily perched in a lighthouse, from which she runs a radio station that plays old jazz standards. From the lighthouse, she has a bird's-eye-view of the whole town. As she observes the fog and begins linking it to a series of deaths, Stevie becomes a voice of warning to the community. Barbeau is perfectly cast as the heroine: she's gutsy and smart, and carries the film well, especially since she's hardly on screen with any other actors.

The Fog deflates a little at the end. The whole movie is a big buildup, layering the scary atmosphere with relish, but there's not a whole lot beneath the atmosphere. Evidently, there were attempts to punch things up by adding a little more violence to the movie after the first cut was finished, but the movie's problem isn't lack of violence but lack of a genuinely scary threat. Fog almost always adds to a horror film, but when the things in the fog are only moderately scary, fog ceases to be effective.

Most of the cast members compensate for the movie's lack of follow-through. Janet Leigh makes a good impression as a local busybody who's spearheading the town's centennial anniversary gala. Jamie Lee Curtis (Leigh's daughter in real life) returns to Carpenter-land, this time not quite as helpless as Laurie Strode was in Halloween. However, she's not memorable in this movie. Her part feels unnecessary to the story, and because there are stronger female characters around her, she fails to stand out. She's even overshadowed by fellow Halloween co-star Nancy Loomis, who plays Leigh's droll assistant in this. The two have an endearingly irritated-with-each-other relationship. With Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook as an alcoholic priest, Charles Cyphers, and John Houseman, in a creepy bit at the beginning, giving us the town's dark secret in perfect ghost-story fashion.

It might be thinking too deeply to call The Fog an indictment of colonialism, but it certainly points out the irony of celebrating people who murdered and stole to get what they wanted.

Young Frankenstein

The line between horror and comedy is tenuous, which is why so many horror films unintentionally enter into the domain of comedy. The straight horror film's mission of terrifying the audience frequently fails because the audience proffers a new, reverse-mission onto the film: to engender heckling and laughter. This is, perhaps, why Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) is still so funny. It tells the straight horror story, but allows its over-the-top nature to reign freely.

Gene Wilder, whose performance would be criticized as too much in a serious film, suddenly becomes nothing short of magnificent. He possesses an energy that few actors can summon, and turns Victor Frankenstein into a live wire: a mad genius obsessively devoted to science and to his "creation," a reanimated corpse. He becomes endearing within seconds of that first scene, in the lecture room, where he corrects a taunting medical student on the pronunciation of his name, which he has changed to "Fronk-en-steen." He doesn't want to be linked to his famous ancestor, the original Dr. Frankenstein.

What's interesting about that scene--and indeed, the entire movie--is how much effort the director, Mel Brooks, and Wilder himself (who co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks) invest into recreating the look and feel of a 1930s Universal monster classic. The black-and-white cinematography, the antiquated sets--many borrowed from the original movies themselves, John Morris's beautiful music score, all work toward creating a legitimate representation of those films. It's in the process of carefully reconstructing the elements of the classics that Brooks and company turn every convention into a gag, pointing up (and out) the humorous side of horror. The humor has always been there, but was de-emphasized by the "serious" movies.

Marty Feldman is one of Young Frankenstein's greatest assets. As the hunchbacked assistant, Igor, Feldman never gave a funnier performance. He's a foil to Wilder's unflinching devotion to the art of science. Cloris Leachman, who has always been game when it comes to being made-up in nightmarishly unattractive make-up and costume schemes, plays the creepy Frau Blucher. Madeline Kahn turns in a small but memorable part as Frankenstein's neurotic, repressed fiance who becomes a love interest for the Monster (Peter Boyle), Teri Garr plays Frankenstein's naive East European assistant, Kenneth Mars plays an eccentric local inspector with a fake arm, and Gene Hackman has a fun cameo as a blind man who's visited by the monster.

Young Frankenstein may be Mel Brooks' best overall film. It does "spoof" right--telling its own story and letting the humor find its way to the surface. (Even still, Brooks and Wilder and the supporting cast have taken care to drench the movie in gags of every kind, in case things weren't funny enough). It's a classic, one that I always like to watch around Halloween.

October 22, 2011

The Ides of March

The Ides of March is, at its most obvious, about how corruption is unavoidable in politics. It can be inadvertently bumped into, but regardless, it sticks like glue, leaving an indelible impression. The impression is either on the public, when they are made aware of the corruption, or on the corrupt person who chooses to keep one improper act a secret by committing more improper acts: corruption begets corruption.

Beneath the moralistic, cynical representation of the inherent corruptibility of politics and politicians, George Clooney's latest picture is an attempt to burst the balloon of the Idealist, the one who believes that it's possible for a politician to change the world for the better. It's done with a kind of effortless, winsome skill, because Clooney plays the kind of politician, at the surface level, that you know Clooney wishes could really exist; the kind of politician (again, only at the surface) that Clooney wishes he could be, were he to ever step into the political realm himself. As the hip young(ish) presidential candidate, Clooney's Governor Mike Morris is progressive, answers the questions he's asked, and isn't afraid to say what he really thinks, regardless of how it will be received by the media or the public. He plays the ultimate white liberal--stylish, sophisticated, and dedicated to principle. (Of course, we find out pretty soon what his true colors are.)

Ryan Gosling plays Morris's junior campaign adviser, a rising hot shot who seems to be incapable of making a wrong move or a bad judgment. He believes fully in the cause of his boss, who is trying to win the Democratic primary election against a more traditional, less viable candidate who still has a shot of winning because he's willing to play dirty. Morris refuses do get into the mud. This ultimately becomes a test of wills: how long can a politician afford not to play dirty?

The Ides of March has a conspiracy thriller-esque aura about it, but it's just an aura. The film is deliberately paced, which is fine, but after a while you realize it's not really moving toward anything. There aren't any really pulse-pounding moments, the kind of tingling excitement you expect from a political thriller. Even though the title suggests something dramatic on a Shakespearean scale, The Ides of March is tame. You begin to realize that the lack of pulse-pounding is symptomatic of the lack of a pulse. It's a characterological analysis, not a thriller, which would be fine if it added up to more at the end. It's only intermittently compelling, and ultimately forgettable.

The actors make up for the movie. Ryan Gosling's performance is strong: he demonstrates his capability as a leading man. His character undergoes a major moral and idealistic shift in the film, and he adapts to this shift with masterful control of himself. That's the whole point of the movie, that the real political players will make dramatic, character-changing shifts in the blink of an eye without blinking an eye. But The Ides of March leaves you feeling unaffected by its story and its sobering message, probably because it's telling you something you already knew. It's a moderately entertaining reminder of why we are so disenchanted with politics on both sides of the aisle.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Jennifer Ehle, and Max Minghella co-star.


The Five Points Horror Fest is back, with another film by Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci. Last year I had the immense pleasure of reviewing Fulci's masterpiece of incomprehensibility, The Beyond (1980), and this year I got to see Zombie (1979), which many consider to be Fulci's piece de resistance. It's certainly a piece of something.

In the poster you will notice that the title is Zombi 2. That's because when George Romero's Dawn of the Dead premiered in Italy, it was titled Zombi, so this is an unofficial sequel to that film. The two have nothing in common other than zombies. The difference between Italian and American horror movies is one of humor. Romero's Dawn of the Dead has a sharp sense of humor throughout, while Zombie is, within itself, utterly lacking in intentional humor. But the unintentional comedy is plentiful enough, because Zombie is such a painfully stupid splatter film.

Fulci sets most of the movie on a small Caribbean island where the dead are returning to life--attributed to voodoo. A reporter and a woman whose father died on the island go looking for answers, and when they arrive, they meet a doctor (Richard Johnson), who's trying to locate a scientific explanation for the zombie problem that's quickly turning all the island's inhabitants into flesh-eating ghouls. Unfortunately, the humans are just too idiotic to adequately defend themselves from creatures that, if they moved any slower, wouldn't be moving at all. And how on earth is the human body so sensitive, so permeable, that with a quick peck a zombie can rip out a hunk of flesh from an arm or a leg? It's madness, I tell you. Madness.

Tisa Farrow, a poor-man's Mia Farrow, plays the girl with a banal seriousness, and Ian McCulloch, a poor-man's Roger Moore, plays the reporter. There's oodles of blood and gore, a fight between a zombie and a shark, and plenty of bad dubbing to make the bad-movie-lover giggle with glee. And of course, being an Italian film, it's well-shot, punctuating the film with little artistic moments that are above the subject matter but somehow lift it out of the muck, if only momentarily. Pretty soon you feel numb from the gory parts, and you laugh at them, not because you're a sadist, but because it's all so dumb, so dumb indeed.

October 15, 2011


Psycho may be Alfred Hitchcock's most famous thriller, because of its two notorious scenes of violence. Aesthetically and thematically, Psycho stands apart from the other films generally cited as among the director's best (Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North By Northwest). It was independently financed by Hitchcock, and shot with the same crew that worked on his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And so it lacks the silky glamour of his 50s films, and is a decidedly more American Gothic than Rebecca, even though both films are about powerful women who manage to maintain control of people and places from beyond the grave.

Because of its filming conditions, Psycho resembles television more than the movies, and its dramatics are corny the way 1950s television dramas were. (It's also economical the way TV has to be.) The story is straightforward, less sophisticated than a lot of Hitchcock's movies (e.g. Rear Window) and less darkly humorous (e.g. Strangers on a Train), but it has all the tantalizingly delicious Freudian psychology of Oedipus and Vertigo, fashioned compactly into a thriller that reshaped the way people made thrillers, and the way people saw them and talked about them and wrote about them. And somehow, its corniness, its simplicity, its one-track direction toward the big reveal, all work for it. Psycho wouldn't have been as memorable, I don't think, if Hitchcock had made it like his other movies.

Hitchcock can never be accused of putting on airs in his movies: he's at his best when he revels in the low arts. His apparently instinctive approach to movies as low art has made his work deliciously entertaining, much like Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946), Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), and Stanley Donen's Charade (1963) (three of the great American thrillers). I think most if not all good thrillers are inherently comfortable with their vulgarity. These movies deal with seedy people whose complicated lives are far from glamorous or tidy. Norman Bates is a genuine lunatic with the most dangerous facade of them all: the facade of a sweet, friendly, handsome boy-next-door. He's a villain who's sympathetic, dominated by the even more villainous presence of his mother. And Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) isn't the pure heroine: she's a thief (a one-time thief, but still a thief).

Hitchcock's previous films were certainly suspenseful, but they weren't so centered around the big reveal at the end. People didn't expect the movie's only star, Janet Leigh, to be slashed to death midway through the film, and they didn't expect the movie to then shift gears and be about Norman Bates and the secrets lurking in his creepy old house. I would imagine that even those who had read Robert Bloch's 1959 novel--on which Psycho was based--were expecting some Hollywood-style changes to protect the heroine from the grisly fate of being butchered in the shower. That simply couldn't happen.

With Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam.

October 02, 2011

Salem's Lot

Salem's Lot (1979) is from a novel by Stephen King, adapted for television by Paul Monash and directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). I already reviewed it a couple years ago, but after watching it again last night I want to revisit it. It's probably the most memorable adaptation of a Stephen King novel with the exceptions of Carrie and The Shining. However, it's more interesting than The Shining and more restrained than Carrie.  

Salem's Lot, because it was shot for television, is limited by the constraints of cable. There's no gore and really no violence, which makes the job of the writer and director significantly more difficult in terms of amping up the horror. They were forced to build the atmosphere in a way that would give us the creeps. If you look at Hooper's directorial debut, Texas Chain Saw, you'll see an altogether different movie. Chain Saw is frenetic, unrelenting and grueling. In terms of plot, it's an episode of Scooby Doo, except the villain is a maniac with a chainsaw, not a local farmer trying to cover up his counterfeiting racket in the basement. Meanwhile, Paul Monash wrote the screenplay for Carrie, a movie that seems stylistically as diametrically opposed to Salem's Lot as you could get. My question is: how did two people whose previous work was so hyperbolic and garish manage to come up with this slow-paced, straight-forward vampires-in-New-England chiller?

You do start to miss the violence, because Salem's Lot might be a banal sitcom about small-town America if not for the vampire element. It's rather tame, but intermittently Hooper and cinematographer Jules Brenner have constructed some of the best vampire movie set-pieces ever. The King vampire, Barlow, is a direct nod to Count Orlock in Murnau's silent-era classic Nosferatu (1922). Barlow was quite different in the novel, but the change lends a sense of unspeakable horror and dread to the adaptation. Salem's Lot's banality is only ever at the surface: beneath it, there is the dreadful sense of doom that we felt in Carrie and Texas Chain Saw. The work of Monash and Hooper is very much a part of the subtext. Very little is overt. Hooper seems to be imitating Hitchcock more than ever. He did it a little bit in Chain Saw, when one of the kids unsuspectingly walks into the layer of Leatherface and meets an unexpectedly quick demise. We knew something was going to happen, but we didn't know when because there was no immediate warning.

Salem's Lot is chock full of warnings--musical cues, telegraphed shots that tell us, "someone's about to get it." And yet, there are still shudders. When we finally see Barlow's ghastly purple face with his beady, piercing eyes and yellow fangs, it's truly horrifying: one of the most nightmarish images I can recall in movies. There's no denying the film's power, and I think in the case of Salem's Lot the fun and the excitement lie in the hours of restraint that give way to the minutes, even seconds, of chilling horror that pop up unexpectedly, more and more as the film progresses. Perhaps this is simply the psychological explanation for why we like horror movies in general.

The cast is fairly convincing: David Soul plays Ben Mears, a writer who grew up in Salem's Lot and has returned to write a book about the Marston house, an iconic den of evil now presided over by the vampire and his human guardian; James Mason plays that guardian, and he utters every line with delightfully cryptic arrogance; Lance Kerwin plays Mark, Ben's teenage muse by proxy: he's into writing (as well as monsters and horror make-up). He and Ben develop a predictable but unlikely kinship (unlikely because their characters have almost no interaction until the end); Bonnie Bedelia plays the love interest, Susan, a character from the Old School of Wimpy Horror Movie Heroines, except she poses as a "partially-liberated feminist." In fact, Susan's character is mostly reactionary. She tows the line. Thankfully, Bedelia plays the part with an understated, intelligent grace. She lets the subtlety of her performance do the work, rather than jamming the meaning of her lines and her motivations into the "foreground" of her performance. Indeed, Susan would have been as bad as she was written if played by a lesser actress.

With Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Fred Willard, Geoffrey Lewis, Reggie Nalder (as Barlow), and George Dzundza, as a fat, drunk New England truck driver (a combination you would never want in a human being if you can help it).

Followed by the dismal A Return to Salem's Lot and a 2004 remake (also made for TV).