November 30, 2013

The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the Stairs (1991) is one strange modern-day fairy tale from writer-director Wes Craven. It's something of an expose of white greed and the plight of the urban black family. The young hero, Brandon Adams, is remarkably plucky, and adept at evading the terrifying husband-wife-brother-sister duo (you read that right) played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, whose performances are some kind of perverse delight. They're the insane landlords who overcharge on sub-par tenements and then evict residents who can't pay, but they're also the owners of a thoroughly smart house, full of booby traps, hidden compartments, and gadgets that help them control the inhabitants in the cellar--people they've decided to keep as their slaves for some reason. They also have a "daughter" named Alice whom they keep prisoner and abuse, which is generally unpleasant except that we get the guilty pleasure of watching Alice eventually learn how to fight back. The People Under the Stairs is a sickly funny movie that works mainly because of its wackiness: the over-the-top story keeps things interesting even when it feels nasty (which is Craven's trademark). This is a lot more fun than most of his other efforts. With Ving Rhames, A.J. Langer, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, and Sean Whalen. ½

Black Christmas

Black Christmas (1974) takes as its inspiration that old urban legend about the madman terrorizing the babysitter with taunting, malicious phone calls that are in fact "coming from inside the house." It's a nasty but surprisingly effective shocker from director Bob Clark, who had made two other genre pieces before this one, the schlocky zombie-cheapie Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972) and the laughable but slightly more intelligent Deathdream (1974), about a dead Vietnam vet who comes back to life a la "The Monkey's Paw." In Black Christmas, the setting is a sorority house at Christmastime, and the hormonal coeds are feeling rattled by the obscene phone calls of a psycho killer, who happens to be cloistered in the attic. Filmed in Toronto, Black Christmas feels like a bad 1970s youth drama--there's even a subplot about one of the sorority sisters contemplating an abortion--interspersed with violent murder set-pieces to ratchet up the tension. Strangely enough, it's effective, perhaps because of how crudely conceived it is. The script by Roy Moore dares you to live with the uncertainty of the killer's identity, and the dreary sorority house feels like Death itself with all its creaking floorboards and dark hallways. You find yourself drawn to the familiarity of the film's conventions, and its perverse method of turning the Christmas season into a time of dread and horror is chillingly done. (Clark himself once pointed out how many suicides there are during the holidays, just in case anyone thinks they're blissfully happy times for everyone.) With John Saxon as the police chief, Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder (who's brilliant as the brash, boozing member of the sorority), and Andrea Martin as three of the coeds, Keir Dullea and Art Hindle as two of their boyfriends, and Marian Waldman as the amusing alcoholic housemother, who hides bottles of booze all over the house. Released in America as Silent Night, Evil Night and later Stranger in the House, but it was not initially successful in this country. It has since become something of a cult classic.

November 03, 2013

Blade Runner

Years ago I fell asleep during a screening of Blade Runner (1982) in a college class called Art of Cinema. Last night I finally sat down to give it another go, and lo and behold, the same problem reared its head. For all its lush, grandiose production design, Blade Runner is a bore: a beauty with no personality. Harrison Ford, usually capable of carrying a movie when it's not so hot, wanders through Blade Runner a prisoner to its massive size. That bigness ends up sinking both the actors and the plot: they're crushed under the film's dead weight.

Director Ridley Scott tries to utilize the same deliberate pacing he employed so effectively in Alien, but it doesn't translate well to Blade Runner, because there's no pay-off, and we're just waiting, waiting, waiting, occasionally admiring the film's artistic prowess, even shaking our heads that the movie got some of its prophesies--it's set in a wastelandish Los Angeles future (2019 to be exact)--right (such as the increasing specter of advertising in our lives, although I suppose that wasn't so different in the early 1980s).  

Alien is one of the slowest movies I've ever seen, and yet I find it absolutely riveting. The whole movie has a palpable tension running through it because you know something is going to happen, and while Alien is a visually stunning film in its own right, it also practices a kind of economy that makes its pace and its characters (about whom we know very little, and dare I say, care for even less, at times) work for it. Blade Runner has both the slow pace and the unlikable characters, but it's saturated in a kind of artiness that works against it: you feel immersed in the murky surroundings of the neo-gothic urban decay and it fills you with dread. The synth score by Vangelis provides the final sheen of heavy-handed excess. (And yet many people seem to see in Scott's second major film a masterpiece.)

Scott seems intent on conjuring up the American movie past in Blade Runner. One of his heroines--Sean Young--is made up to resemble Rosalind Russell from a Howard Hawks movie, and it's pretty clear that Harrison Ford, who plays a robot bounty hunter (the robots are called replicants because they are such perfect imitators of humans--down to their memories and emotions--and he's called a blade runner) enlisted to assassinate four robots that have illegally returned to earth to exist among the humans. Ford's mission is complicated when he falls in love with one of the replicants and feels guilty for killing another. We're supposed to ponder deep philosophical questions about what it means to be human, and while these are interesting questions, they're not enough to sustain a movie that feels so intentionally important. I didn't have to work to enjoy Alien. Blade Runner demands that I appreciate how significant it is.

Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Adapted for the screen by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. With Rutger Hauer (who's an impressive, captivating actor just to behold; he commands the screen when he's in front of the camera), Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmett Walsh, William Sanderson, Joe Turkel, and Joanna Cassidy.