Retro Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

United Kingdom. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1976. Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey. 139 minutes. 7/10

David Bowie scored his first hit single in 1969: “Space Oddity,” in which Major Tom flies to space and doesn’t come back. Over the next few years, Bowie would continue in an overtly science-fiction-inflected vein, creating characters like Ziggy Stardust and developing a musical version of 1984 (eventually aborted). By the mid-’70s, you could probably be forgiven for assuming he actually did come from another planet. The logical progression of his image would then be to play an alien in a movie; with his unnatural hair coloring, emaciated frame, angular, androgynous features, and permanently dilated right eye, he certainly looked the part.

Legend posits many actors either considered or approached to play the title role in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth: Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, even author Michael Crichton (Roeg’s first choice). In retrospect, however, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton–an alien from a dying, war-scarred planet who comes to Earth in a desperate bid to save his people, only to become tempted and corrupted by the vices of humanity (alcohol, television, and sex: note how Newton’s true form lacks genitals and most orifices)–could only be played by David Bowie.

In a sense, the film could serve as a thinly veiled biography of Bowie, who’d become rich and famous seemingly overnight, who possessed a lucrative brilliance…and who also developed an addiction to cocaine. (Indeed, Tevis later came to realize that the story served as a metaphor for his alcoholism.) Bowie approaches the role with a specific naïveté, that of the artist who wants to act but has no real idea how to go about it. Constantly zonked out on nose candy, able to interact with the world around him but not feeling part of it, the otherworldly alienation that Bowie/Newton exhibits isn’t an act.

An auteur who made his bones under Roger Corman and came into his own as a filmmaker in the wake of the French New Wave, Roeg complements Bowie’s performance (or lack thereof) with the perfect aesthetic sense and set of visuals. Having perfected the art of hazy, hypnotic, mildly psychedelic atmospherics with 1971’s Walkabout, he gives the flashbacks to Newton’s home planet a sense of having been filmed on location after the apocalypse. He gives the film a steady, deliberate pace, always keeping emotional distance from the characters even in their passionate moments.

Roeg’s distinct, singular vision of the film has its drawbacks. Candy Clark, playing a hotel housekeeper who becomes Newton’s lover, careens wildly between “embarrassing” and “atrocious.” Roeg often employs symbolism too obscure for its own good, and occasionally falls prey to self-indulgence. Most notably, at nearly two and a half hours, the film is at least 30 minutes too long, and particularly drags during its final act.

Yet, ultimately, The Man Who Fell to Earth serves as an important document of what David Bowie represented, and–perhaps inadvertently–who he actually was during this stage of his career. Bowie contained multitudes–Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King, the sophisticated crooner of Let’s Dance–yet in a very real sense, the Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

R.I.P. David Bowie (David Robert Jones) 1947-2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth poster

Retro Review: Manhunter

With early signs indicating that the back half of Hannibal’s upcoming third season will adapt the novel Red Dragon, there’s no better time to revisit that novel’s first film adaptation.

United States. Directed by Michael Mann, 1986. Starring William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Kim Griest, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen. 121 minutes.

Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, the book that introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, has already been filmed twice. There’s no better time to revisit the first of those movies–especially since early signs indicate that the back half of Hannibal’s upcoming third season will adapt the novel in some way, shape or form.

You probably know what the story is about, but just in case: ex-FBI agent Will Graham has a rare ability. He can analyze murder scenes in such a way that allows him to understand a murderer’s psychology and actually put himself in the killer’s place. Some years ago, he nearly died during the capture of notorious murderer Hannibal Lecktor (as it’s spelled here). Now Graham’s former boss calls him out of retirement to assist in the investigation of “the Tooth Fairy,” a serial killer preying on families in the American southeast. But in order to succeed, he needs to face Lecktor, once a brilliant psychiatrist–and a man who’s never lost interest in the man who caught him.

At the time of Manhunter’s production, the film’s screenwriter and director, Michael Mann, also served as executive producer of Miami Vice. That explains the brightly-lit interiors, too-expensive suits and too-expensive cars, the synth score by composer Michael Rubini and Philadelphia new wave act the Reds, and William Petersen’s beard. To be sure, Mann prefers a darker, less obviously glamorous aesthetic here than he did at his day job, but the two projects seem, in a visual sense, like two sides of the same coin. Audiences more familiar with the darker color palettes of the Anthony Hopkins films and the Hannibal series may find Manhunter’s look jarring, or even a little dated. It certainly took me a while to get used to it.

That being said, the mid-’80s styling doesn’t detract from the overall effect the film delivers. Mann is as good with emotional effect as he is with his visuals, and several key scenes (including one particularly memorable sequence featuring “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”) burst to overflowing with tension. Plot tends to take a back-seat, and while Mann preserves most of the important plot beats of the novel, at a couple of points the astute viewer will notice gaps in the story, things that the film seems to foreshadow that never happen. (A great example of this is an action Lecktor takes after his first meeting with Graham, which those familiar with the novel will recognize as setting up an encounter toward the end of the story…which never actually happens in the film.)

When it comes to the performances, it’s easy to make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on Brian Cox’s Lecktor. Considering the attention Hopkins brought to the character, that’s certainly understandable–and without Hopkins, Manhunter might never have been picked from obscurity–but both Cox and Mann know that this isn’t Lecktor’s story (indeed, his role in the film’s plot is actually cut down from the novel) and he shouldn’t attempt to steal it. Accordingly, Cox’s performance is less flamboyant and more subtle than his successor’s, but thankfully it has a similar effect.

The real protagonist of Manhunter is Will Graham and future CSI star William Petersen’s turn in the role is nothing short of electrifying and commanding. He’s more stable than his successors, and when he intimidates his attitude is more tough than scary–more like “I’m going to kick your ass” than “I’m going to slit your throat while you sleep.” This is a bit out of keeping with Harris’s conception of the character but Petersen makes it work in what struck me as a very ’80s way.

This is Petersen’s show but the rest of the cast, including Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, Will’s former boss at the FBI, and Tom Noonan as the killer, is excellent. The only dud is Steven Bauer, horribly miscast as slimy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.

Manhunter stands up as a solid psychological crime-thriller even when it looks and sounds a bit too much of its time, which is often. And it certainly stands up well on its own, apart from the infamy its second-string villain would ultimately acquire.

MANHUNTER poster

Retro Review: Poltergeist

There’s a definite need for a particular strain of horror that’s aimed at kids, and Poltergeist proves that it can be done effectively, without pulling punches or watering things down.

United States. Directed by Tobe Hooper, 1982. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubenstein. 114 minutes.

Premise: “They’re here.” Steve and Diane Freelings are a couple who seem to have it all: affluence, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and three wonderful kids. But their perfect life turns upside-down as a strange series of incidents lead them to believe their house is haunted, and the stakes are raised when spiritual forces abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne.

Something I’ve mentioned several times in the past is that one of the formative pop-culture experiences of my childhood was watching Poltergeist with my parents when it was first released on VHS; I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. Except for the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” no work of horror has affected me so profoundly, and revisiting it again after almost thirty years, I found it to retain a great deal of effectiveness.

I believe the key to the film’s longevity is its accessibility. Very few people actually grew up in places like Cuesta Verde or belonged to families as perfect as the Freelings, but the fictional environment never seems less than real. Through a combination of excellent writing, direction and acting, the film creates an idealized yet utterly credible depiction of early ’80s suburban life. We don’t see much of the family’s life away from each other–Steve interacts with his boss in a couple of scenes, and the dialog provides a few tantalizing details such as oldest daughter Dana’s sly remark about remembering the Holiday Inn–but we get enough details to fill in the blanks. I don’t feel the script is perfect–in particular, the final act goes a bit too over-the-top–but overall, it’s pretty strong.

The primary cast–Craig T. Nelson as Steve, JoBeth Williams as Diane, the late Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as son Robbie, and Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne–have perfect chemistry with each other, bringing poignancy to scenes that, as written, run dangerously close to cornball. The supporting performances are also excellent, with Zelda Rubenstein putting in a legendary performance as Tangina Barrons, the eccentric medium. It’s a bit sad that her career took a sharp turn into self-parody almost immediately after Poltergeist’s release, as here she practically radiates authority, and commands every scene she’s in without straying too far into over-acting.

There’s been some debate over the years who was really in control of Poltergeist: Spielberg or director Tobe Hooper. The production features stylistic touches from both filmmakers (watch Poltergeist as part of a triple-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Funhouse and see what strikes you), but I ultimately have to give advantage to Hooper on this one for the gore effects (I’m still surprised the face-ripping scene didn’t garner the movie an “R”), some of the creepier compositions (such as the strobe lighting effect when Carol Anne watches static on the TV), and the handling of the actors. Compare O’Rourke’s performance to that of Drew Barrymore in E.T.–see what I mean? The effects have aged very well–only the “face-ripping” scene (I’d be interested to discover what favors Spielberg rendered to the MPAA in exchange for a PG rating) looks a bit dated by modern standards.

There’s a school of thought that states that aiming a horror movie for any rating lower than R isn’t worth doing. I’ve probably stated my disagreement with this philosophy in the past. Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves: most of us are here because of things we were exposed to (or exposed ourselves to) before we became adolescents. There’s no better time than childhood for the rudimentary principles of horror to take root in the mind. While there are definitely horror concepts that shouldn’t be pitched as PG-13 (movies in the Alien series, for example), I’d argue that there’s a definite need for a particular strain of horror that’s aimed at kids, and Poltergeist proves that it can be done effectively, without pulling punches or watering things down.

Review originally written October 2011.

POLTERGEIST poster

Retro Review: Over the Edge

A seminal teen drama.

United States. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1979. Starring Michael Kramer, Matt Dillon, Pamela Ludwig. 95 minutes.

Welcome to New Granada, the planned community of the future, bringing twentieth-century European living to the southwestern desert. It’s a great place to live, if you’re an adult. However, one-quarter of New Granada’s residents are aged 15 or younger, and they’re bored off their asses. They live in the middle of nowhere. The project to build a bowling alley, roller rink, and drive-in theater was canceled, and the primary meeting-place for the local youth is a prefab aluminum building laughingly called a recreation center.

Over the Edge lays out its central thesis early: when 25% of a community’s population has no freedom, nothing to occupy its time, and doesn’t even want to be there, you have a recipe for disaster. Deprived of anything constructive to do, the kids turn to vandalism, drug abuse, rebellion and violence. The film starts with two teenagers shooting out the window of a passing police cruiser and ends with a riot during a PTA meeting.

Yet while the kids aren’t the heroes of the piece, they’re not exactly villains, either. It’s very clear that the Powers that Be are more interested in property values and real-estate development than in making sure their community is a great place for all its residents to live, and not just the ones who belong to demographic minorities. This is best demonstrated about halfway through the film, where an out-of-state developer tells New Granada’s de facto leader, “You were in such a hopped-up hurry to leave the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.”

In addition, the kids are extremely likable, given that they’re a bunch of snot-nosed punks. Hidden inside Over the Edge is a deft and poignant coming-of-age story, as protagonist Carl Willet (Michael Kramer) navigates the treacherous and sometimes violent waters of adolescence: fitting in, his first crush, and so forth. His best friend is Richie White (an impossibly young-seeming Matt Dillon), a shady character who boasts about being labeled “incorrigible” by the authorities and whose motto (also the film’s signature line) is “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” It’s an overt threat but also an implied promise of loyalty: all the kids have is each other, so they need to stick together.

Director Jonathan Kaplan takes a no-frills approach that borders on documentary or verité, a feeling reinforced by a lack of big names in the adult ensemble and experienced actors amongst the teens. (Not only does Dillon make his screen début here, he also apparently made his acting début as well.) Far from hurting the performances, it actually helps them by stripping away the façade of character, as if the kids are playing themselves.

Over the Edge is a seminal teen drama, less romanticized and idealistic than the subgenre tends to produce but more realistic and relatable. And if you don’t think the film’s themes have application outside its cast of privileged white youth, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news coming out of Baltimore recently.

OVER THE EDGE

Retro Review: Time After Time

H.G. Wells really is a time traveler who chases Jack the Ripper into the future in this thinking person’s adventure tale.

United States. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, 1979. Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen. 112 minutes.

“What if H.G. Wells really was a time traveler?” is a logical question and one that many narrative works have sought to explore. With Time After Time, writer/director Nicholas Meyer goes one step further and asks, “What if H.G. Wells really was a time traveler…and he chased Jack the Ripper into the future?” Malcolm McDowell plays Wells and David Warner plays his (wholly fictional) friend Dr. John Stevenson, an eminent surgeon who steals Wells’s time machine and uses it to escape when the police discover he’s really the Ripper. When the machine returns to Wells’s lab without its passenger, he decides he has no other choice to follow the mad doctor and stop him–a journey which leads him to San Francisco in the year 1979.

Meyer is best known for his association with the Star Trek movies based on the original series, particularly The Wrath of Khan. Keeping that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that he produced a thoughtful work imbued with a strong humanist point of view. The historical Wells was a utopian socialist, and so is this fictional counterpart; unapologetically so, in fact. He goes into the future assuming the human race will build its perfect society within four generations, but humanity disappoints by improving its efficiency with warfare and violence. By contrast, Stevenson feels more at home in the new age than in his own time. Meyer, McDowell and Warner lay out the differences between the characters in a chilling sequence about halfway through the film.

The film maintains the consistent tone of a rollicking adventure yarn, neither tipping too far in the direction of “too light-hearted” or “too dark” despite a number of elements which must have bordered on camp even in 1979. (Look, it’s Jack the Ripper, wearing a leisure suit and stalking his victims in a disco!) Unfortunately, the more science-fiction-oriented elements of the script don’t hold up to scrutiny; several elements of the time machine’s operation are obvious contrivances to keep the plot moving. I also felt one minor twist towards the end of the film was a bit of a cheat, although I understand why Meyer went in that direction.

McDowell and Warner deliver two of the best performances of their careers. McDowell perfectly embodies the idealistic yet naïve Victorian gentleman with plenty of wit and charm, while Warner radiates menace as an intellectual and philosophical psychopath. Mary Steenburgen is the weak link in the primary cast as Amy, a bank employee who aides Wells in his hunt and later becomes his love-interest. Her line-readings are a bit stiff and she doesn’t have much chemistry with McDowell. In her defense, she doesn’t have much to work with. Meyer attempts to strengthen the character with corny and too on-the-nose dialog about Women’s Lib, and he largely relegates her to a passive role for much of the final act of the film.

Despite some flaws, Time After Time is an enjoyable thinking person’s adventure tale, buoyed by two fine performances and a well-thought-0ut set of themes. Very much worth looking into.

Time After Time

Retro Review: Last Night

It’s the end of the world as we know, and this vision of the end is unfailingly polite.

Canada. Directed by Don McKellar, 1998. Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie. 95 minutes.

The world ends at midnight and the citizens of Toronto try to make the best of what few hours are left. Widowed architect Patrick (Don McKellar) wants to spend his final minutes by himself, much to the chagrin of his family, who commemorate the occasion with a Christmas celebration even though it’s not Christmas. Sandra (Sandra Oh), finding her car demolished by vandals, desperately tries to make it home to her husband. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) ticks items off of his sexual “bucket list,” including a black woman, a virgin, and his high school French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). And Duncan (David Cronenberg), a gas company executive, calls each and every one of his customers, wishing them a peaceful death and promising that service will remain until the very end.

McKellar also wrote and directed Last Night and his vision of the end is unfailingly polite. He tells us the streets are dangerous, implying that gangs of ruffians prowl the streets looking for unsuspecting victims. But he shows us mostly deserted streets, a bit of garbage, and the occasional destructive act. A woman and her young daughter sit unmolested for hours in a disabled streetcar–not something that indicates danger or threat. In Toronto–to misquote Bob Geldof–even the muggers are home by eight. (Yes, I realize this is probably a cost-cutting move; deserted streets are cheaper than huge crowds and wanton wreckage.)

Of course all these characters turn out to be connected in some way, which leads to what largely is my biggest issue with Last Night. Shifts in mood come radically: Duncan’s genteel good humor, Sandra’s increasing desperation, Patrick’s darkly comic pathos, and whatever Craig’s story is supposed to be like. Sometimes the film’s funny, sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s tragic, but McKellar never quite blends the various modes and tones together just right. The bombastic, flamboyant score, which always seems at cross-purposes to whatever the visuals are trying to accomplish, doesn’t help at all. Maybe that’s by design.

At any rate, the issue is largely counterbalanced by the excellent cast. I’m never going to be a huge fan of Oh, but she does very well here, particularly towards the end; her performance is what makes the risky “tell me something that will make me love you” sequences work as well as they do. Rennie’s take on Craig is particularly interesting; he’s the least horny horndog the moving pictures have yet seen, and it seems like he’s not so much fulfilling long-harbored fantasies as doing things because all rich, straight white guys are supposed to want to have done them. (The hint that he’s actually gay is one of the best things in the entire film.)

Cronenberg tends to use his measured calmness for evil (see Nightbreed and To Die For), but here it makes Duncan perhaps the most likable character in the film. That’s not to say I advise him to quit his day job, but it’s nice to see him stretch out a bit as an actor. Of the principals, McKellar is the weak link–he doesn’t seem to have the range to pull off one of the screenplay’s most complex characters. Most of the time he does just fine, though.

The supporting cast is also strong, including McKellar’s late wife Tracy Wright as one of Duncan’s co-workers. A young(ish) Sarah Polley makes an appearance as Patrick’s sister; she seems to be miscast (the role feels like it was written for an older actress), but she puts in a good performance nonetheless.

Although uneven in parts, Last Night is an enjoyably low-key, well-behaved, intimate and distinctly Canadian apocalypse. Won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but still worth checking out.

Last Night poster

Retro Review: The Freakmaker

A hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together, much like the human-plant monsters who menace the characters.

United Kingdom. Directed by Jack Cardiff, 1974. Starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker, Brad Harris. 92 minutes.

Half Freaks, half Frankenstein, half Quatermass Experiment, and half Hammer Horror, Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker (originally released under the less colorful title The Mutations) is a hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together. Donald Pleasance plays the brilliant but deranged Professor Nolter, who believes he’s hit upon the perfect cure for world hunger: combine human and plant DNA, so future generations can photosynthesize their own sustenance. Sadly, he has a penchant for experimenting on unwilling subjects, procured for him by the performers of a carnival freakshow managed by the deformed and cruel Mr. Lynch (an unrecognizable Tom Baker). But then the carnies make the mistake of abducting one of Nolter’s own students, raising the suspicions of her friends, who are also entertaining eminent American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris). Can Redford and the undergrads stop Nolter and Lynch, or are they all doomed to a horrifying existence as human Venus flytraps?

The Freakmaker gleefully recycles half-baked ideas from its earlier, better influences and isn’t ashamed of it: one scene outright acknowledges the story’s debt to Freaks. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grue. It’s a sort of missing link between cerebral examinations of physical transformation (and its close cousin, plants that behave like animals, like in The Day of the Triffids or the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) and the later explicit body horror of Cronenberg and Alien. As stomach-churning as the monsters are–there’s nothing pleasant about something that looks like a Sleestak with Audrey Jr. grafted onto its chest–they’re uncomfortably beautiful, as are the dizzying array of genetically-engineered freak plants that don’t walk and talk. Of course, Cardfiff doesn’t quite have budget to do the designs justice, but if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you know when to adjust your expectations.

Pity the rest of the production doesn’t approach the standard set by the production design. Pleasance’s subtle, understated performance is marred by a bad, fake, and entirely unnecessary German accent. Baker struggles to break through the barrier built by a laughably terrible makeup job, but once or twice he really does let ‘er rip with impressive hurricane fury. His physical performance is altogether better, six feet three inches of looming menace but always managing to seem half a foot taller. The rest of the “norms” are forgettable, although Harris fits his generic square-jawed Yankee hero fairly well, and second-string Bond girl Julie Ege understands she’s only here to supply eye candy. Despite the production’s reliance on Freaks, the carnies aren’t quite as distinct as their spiritual predecessors, the exception being Willie “Popeye” Baines. Be warned, he didn’t earn that nickname by exhibiting an affinity for spinach.

But really, we’ve got to go back to the script as the single most flawed element. The lack of originality glares like lens flare, and in the bad way–this isn’t a daring remix of familiar tropes but a lazy retread of things you’ve seen a thousand times before. You can spot every twist coming ten minutes away. If the character development was any thinner, you could see through the actors. Screenwriters Edward Mann and Robert Weinbach try too hard to make the dialog “hip” and “relevant” by shoehorning in lots of casually inappropriate drug references. (The reference to Timothy Leary is worth a laugh, though.)

Overall, The Freakmaker isn’t some lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a somewhat-below-standard specimen of cheap exploitation that’s largely notable for its design, its gore and its months-away-from-cult-stardom villain. (Baker would, of course, make his proper début as the fourth Doctor Who later in 1974…and face off against a plant-human hybrid two years later, in “The Seeds of Doom.”) But it’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value, and a perfectly valid option when you have ninety or so minutes you’re not doing anything better with.

The Freakmaker

Retro Review: Enter the Void

A bold, unique, singular, visionary work about terrible people I didn’t engage with doing terrible things I didn’t care about.

France. Directed by Gaspar Noé, 2009. Starring Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy. 143 minutes.

I think someone once said that his definition of a good television series was a show where you wanted to hang out with the characters every week. I don’t remember who said this, and I don’t remember the exact wording, but I’m pretty sure it was something along those lines. I don’t agree with that, from a personal standpoint. But I can extrapolate that definition to come up with one of my own personal rules, what Adam Cadre would call a “pattern of evaluation”: if I hate the symbolic process of hanging out with a group of characters, I’m going to hate the narrative, no matter what else it has in its favor.

Gaspar Noé’s 2009 effort Enter the Void has many wonderful elements, but none of them make up for it being an overlong, self-indulgent slog. The focal point of the film is Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American expatriate living in Tokyo, where he takes drugs, deals drugs, and lives with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), a stripper with whom he has a suspiciously Freudian relationship. Oscar’s best friend rats him out to the cops and he dies in a confrontation so stupid it would have earned him a Darwin award were he not a fictional character. After that, his disembodied soul floats around, first seeing the immediate repercussions of his death, then reflecting on the events of his life. His parents died in an automobile when he was a child and he and his sister went to separate foster homes, and  later in life.  Then he went to Tokyo, started doing shitty things to pay to bring Linda to Tokyo, did other shitty things for his own gratification, lived in a state of more-or-less constant denial, and then died. Then he returns to the present and the long-term repercussions of his death. And this goes on for nearly two and a half fucking hours.

Hopefully the impression I’ve given you is that Oscar is a terrible person. I expect the whole “parents died in front of him” thing is meant to explain why he is the way he is and why he has such a creepy relationship with Linda, but emotionally that explanation is an equation that doesn’t add up. Basically, he’s an asshole living in a permanent state of denial, an endless cycle of buying, taking, and selling drugs. Whatever time is left to him, he spends lusting after his own goddamn sister. And everyone around him is just as bad.

The terrible performances only compounded the problem. Brown delivers each line in the same mumbly, dull monotone, and fails utterly to convince, a real shame considering he improvised most of his dialog. De la Huerta (a performer who readily admits she’s not an actress) conveys lust and histrionics very well, but is completely lost when Noé requires anything more of her. Cyril Roy and Olly Alexander (as Oscar’s friends) and Sara Stockbridge (as Oscar’s older, married lover) fare better, but their characters are such cyphers that I kept mixing up Roy and Alexander’s character’s names, and kept forgetting Stockbridge’s even existed.

Enter the Void has a number of positives in its favor. It’s often a breathtakingly beautiful film with one of the most amazing soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and not just because it features Delia Derbyshire’s sublime interpretation of Bach’s “Air on the G String.” It’s bold, unique, singular, visionary. Its director and co-writer, Gaspar Noé, doesn’t so much (to quote my review of Melancholia) challenge the audience as double-dog-dare it to keep watching. Between Void and descriptions I’ve heard of Irreversible without actually having seen it, it seems the guy doesn’t believe that art is by necessity a pleasant experience. Good for him. I respect that.

Unfortunately the bulk of the experience he offers in Enter the Void offers is too much time spent with awful people doing stupid things, and all the pretty pictures and interesting sounds in the world can’t give me my hundred and forty minutes back.

Enter the Void poster

Retro Review: Tenebrae

Argento tinkers with the giallo formula a bit, resulting in an enjoyable, effective and essentially Argento mystery-thriller.

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1982. Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Niccolodi, John Saxon. 100 minutes.

American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), known for writing graphically violent crime thrillers, arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae. Within hours of his arrival, the police approach him: a young woman was found murdered in her home, her throat cut with a straight-razor, pages from a copy of Neal’s book stuffed in the corpse’s mouth. A message, apparently from the killer, finds its way to Neal shortly thereafter.

The killer strikes again, and again, communicating with Neal after each murder, and getting closer to him with each victim. Some connection between the writer and the murderer exists, and Neal needs to discover it in order to save his own life, and the lives of those around him.

That’s the basic premise of Dario Argento’s early-’80s giallo Tenebrae. The basic setup may seem a bit familiar, and no wonder: an apparent innocent wandering, seemly by chance, into a murder mystery–which he must unravel himself if he expects to save his own skin–is a fixture of the giallo formula. Argento used similar setups twice before, in his 1970 feature début The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his 1975 masterwork Deep Red.

That may not exactly sound like a compliment, but formula can be a tricky thing. Yes, sometimes it’s a crutch for lazy and unimaginative storytelling or filmmaking, but other times it can serve as a fascinating framework for artistic expression. Blues music can be just as “formulaic” as a horror film, but you might be surprised at how much you can do with three simple guitar chords. The same goes for a leather-gloved hand holding a straight razor.

I’ve actually enjoyed Argento’s gialli more than his supernatural horror, primarily because my chief interests in narrative are plotting and storytelling. Plot is almost never the strongest point of any Argento film, but at least in his gialli his plots cohere a little bit better than in his supernatural work (admittedly, this seems to be deliberate).

While I don’t think Tenebrae‘s plot is as solidly constructed as those of Argento’s earlier thrillers, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness of its construction. His favored tropes are present and correct (for example, a witness to a crime fails to comprehend what he experiences, and thus doesn’t realize he holds the key to the entire mystery), but he deploys them in unfamiliar ways to keep the audience guessing.

One of Argento’s strengths has been in the creation of cinematic environments. Tenebrae’s predecessors Deep RedSuspiria, and Inferno rely on bold, almost aggressive use of primary colors to make a room ooze with sinister menace, while exterior scenes set at night are shot and lit in such a way to make city centers seem like deserted wastelands. Tenebrae goes in a different direction: many scenes feature not just bright but harsh lighting, and sets are dressed in shades of white and gray. The effect is not unlike an optimistic, gleaming pre-Star Wars science fiction effort (those familiar with Doctor Who circa 1978 and 1979 may get my meaning).

Argento’s camera work remains as fluid and inventive as ever–the keystone of the production being a two-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that reportedly took three days to film. Even in his early work, Argento has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and gore, but Tenebrae takes it one step further than his previous gialli did, particularly during the intense final sequences.

Acting and characterization are a bit stronger than they were in previous efforts, but like plot these never seemed to be particularly important to Argento. The four English-speaking actors–Franciosa, plus the legendary John Saxon as Peter Neal’s agent, Giuliano Gemma as a police detective, and John Steiner as a talk show host–are all excellent, with Saxon’s occasional comic-relief antics being a particular highlight.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Italian actors dubbed in post, and while the performances of the voice artists are a tad better than other foreign-produced ventures of this vintage, there’s still some negative impact. (The relationship between Neal and his P.A. Anne is supposed to be flirtatious to some degree, but whatever chemistry Franciosa might have with actress Daria Nicolodi is blunted by the dubbed voice.) I probably should be used to this sort of thing by now, but I can’t deny it hampered my enjoyment of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Goblin, the band who supplied the scores for Deep Red and Suspiria (and were brought to Dawn of the Dead via Argento’s involvement with it), had broken up by 1982, but three former members led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, supplied the score to Tenebrae. It’s a bit hit-or-miss: the title theme, with its disco drum machine and vocoded vocals, is a terrific piece of work but other cues seem like tired retreads of earlier work mildly updated for the early ’80s. Argento and Simonetti even recycle two comparatively pieces from the European cut of Dawn that never made it to the American version.

Overall, Tenebrae is an enjoyable psychological mystery-thriller, very effective although with a few flaws. It does try to break the mold somewhat but its essential Argento-ness shines through, for better and for worse.

Tenebrae poster

Retro Review: The Cars that Ate Paris

Described as a “horror-comedy” but neither scary nor funny, it’s more of a relic from a distant place (Australia) and far-off time (the 1970s).

Australia. Directed by Peter Weir, 1974. Starring Terry Camilleri, John Meillon, Kevin Miles. 88 minutes (Criterion cut).

Australia, the mid-’70s. The country is in the midst of an economic downturn. Unemployment is high and shows no signs of getting better anytime soon.

Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George travel the back roads in their automobile, moving from town to town, looking for work. One night, they decide to follow a lead and head to the rural town of Paris. George, the driver, never makes it there alive: he crashes the car and is killed instantly. Arthur, sleeping at the time of the accident, has only vague memories of what happened.

Once released from the Paris hospital, Arthur has nowhere to go and, the car having been destroyed in the wreck, no way to get there. He falls into depression, his survivor’s guilt compounded by phobia. Not too long ago, Arthur was in another automobile accident–one in which he struck and killed an elderly pedestrian. The jury acquitted him, but the incident left him with a fear of driving. If he didn’t have that phobia, it might have been he who died, not George.

The mayor (John Meillon) takes him in and gets him a job. But Paris is a peculiar little town. The hospital is very busy, as frequent automobile accidents ensure a steady stream of patients. Many of them are never seen again; others suffer unrecoverable brain trauma and become “vegges,” permanent residents of the hospital. The local psychiatrist employs unconventional methods of treatment. And the youths of the town are violent and unruly, prowling the streets in bizarrely-modified autos.

The townsfolk harbor a bizarre secret. All those car accidents aren’t accidents at all; the residents of Paris cause them and loot the wreckage. Survivors are murdered, incapacitated or absorbed into the community. Arthur’s new neighbors hope to do the latter, but they won’t hesitate to the first two options to keep their secret.

Expectations can be tricky to manage sometimes. Let’s say you see a film that both IMDB and Wikipedia describe as a “horror-comedy.” Assuming you put much stock in the accuracy of either of those sources, you’re well within your rights to be disappointed when the film turns out not to be horror or funny. But how much of that can you reasonably hold against the film? Which faults actually belong to the film, and which ones belong to its public perception?

That’s my dilemma with The Cars that Ate Paris. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how it ever gained a reputation as a horror movie. There are two creepy scenes and one shocking shot of gore, and that’s it. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to have the intent of a horror film behind it–writer/director Peter Weir doesn’t seem to be trying to scare the audience, and he doesn’t use much genre convention. Even the title is misleading: the titular cars don’t come into play until comparatively late in the film and never play much of a role. The spiky silver Volkswagen that figures in just about all of the film’s advertising and merchandising doesn’t appear until the movie is almost over and only appears in a few shots. It’s not the cars that are eating Paris, it’s the people.

The latter half of the phrase “horror-comedy” makes a bit more sense. Once one becomes aware of what’s happening in Paris, comparisons to Edgar Wright’s modern classic Hot Fuzz are obvious. Both films are social satires about insular communities going to extreme lengths to protect themselves and “the common good.” Late in the film, the Mayor and the town council installs Arthur in the newly-created role of town Parking Inspector, complete with uniform. (Arthur had a job as a hospital orderly, but struck out at that, so the town leaders need to find him something else to do if they’re not going to kill him.) But Arthur is passive to a pathological degree and turns out to be spectacularly unsuited to the position.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t many laughs in the movie. Even the situation I just described elicited no more than a few amused chuckles. If much of the film is intended as outright comedy, I can’t see it. I’m not sure whether this might be because the film is rooted in a forty-year-old representation of a foreign culture and I just don’t get it, or whether it simply isn’t, in an objective sense, very funny. Ditto with the social commentary: I can tell that Weir definitely has a point to make, and I think I’ve worked out a bit of what that point is, but I don’t know how all the pieces fit together.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean the film is a tough slog. The characters and situations are engaging enough to keep me interested, and there are several fine performances, particularly from Meillon, Robertson and cult character-actor Bruce Spence as a deep-fried mechanic who builds wind chimes out of Jaguar hood ornaments.

Ultimately The Cars that Ate Paris strikes me as a bit of an artifact, a relic from a distant place and far-off time. I just wish I could figure out what it has to say about that place and time. But I guess you can’t expect to win ’em all.

The Cars that Ate Paris poster