Seeing Red

I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.

But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.

For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.

But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.

To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.

So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).

But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.

While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.

These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.

So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.

*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.

Whether the Tendency of the Letter Published is to Deprave and Corrupt Those Whose Minds are Open to Such Immoral Influence

The Video Nasties – a hysterical censorship phenomenon in the United Kingdom during the early years of the 1980s video recording industry that saw prosecutors determining the extent of cuts certain graphically violent movies would need to be deemed suitable for home viewing – do not have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic to them, outside of featuring graphic violence (which would often vary in amount still). It was an arbitrary motion made towards an arbitrary selection of films. So when Censor – the debut feature film by Prano Bailey-Bond – hardly resembles the Video Nasties which it takes as its screenplay’s subject matter (co-written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher), this doesn’t feel as much a failure as it seems certain people would like to pronounce it. No, there is no less of a huge amount of fascination with the movies that were subject to this certainly publicity-boosting act of committee on top of the minutiae regarding that process in itself.

The censor whose process we follow most closely is Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), who takes her job very seriously, spending long hours in a room watching violent grisly material and noting what must be cut before she and her colleagues can determine to allow the film to be exhibited on the streets or if the movie must be banned for the safety of the citizens. She seems mostly stable enough in the first few scenes, if still alarmist, as she argues on decapitations and eye-gougings to be removed from a film and if the introduction of her traumatic past very early on invites doubt, she’s still relatively well-adjusted to receive a bombast of gruesome images of murder and rape and maiming and treat the matter professionally. The traumatic past, as it were, is a young memory of watching her child sister Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers) disappear in the woods and it appears that Enid’s stability about 2 decades later is at risk from three sides.

First, Enid’s parents (Clare Holman & Andrew Havill) approach her with a death certificate finally created for Nina, despite Enid’s objection that she might still be out there. Then there’s a shocking domestic killing that imitates a violent sequence that was passed by Enid in her assessment, bringing a lot of public attention to the censorship office and Enid herself. And finally, while reviewing the latest submission by an elusive and notorious filmmaker Frederick North (Vincent Schiller), she spots the face of the lead actor Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) and is so very sure that she has to be Nina, beginning an personal investigation towards North’s production that only promises an unstoppable spiral down to something beyond the limits of the television screen.

I did very little in that synopsis to hide how Censor slides into psychological thriller territory and if Censor does not resemble a video nasty in any particular way – sure, there is gore and violence in the film but much of it is backloaded or archive footage from infamous banned Video Nasties with ironic cutting at the most visceral moments to “leave it to the imagination” as Enid suggests – it does resemble the unreliable atmosphere of a giallo with its choice of colors and spacing between the office workplace and Enid’s boxy apartment home, in the modern homage fashion of Cattet & Forzani or more closely to fellow British arthouse horror stablemate of Bailey-Bond’s Peter Strickland. And certainly this has extratextual purpose as well in indicting the sort of hang-ups that somebody might have imposing their restrictions on art, even art as disreputable as these violent pictures.

Censor is a movie that’s easy to chop down into three acts that slide well into each other, though I will admit there is a distinct difference in quality or engagement for that middle half interrupting the regularity of Enid and her colleagues staring at dismemberments between notes, researching their filmmakers, and having debates about what could possibly be going out to the public in between slimey producers waltzing into the offices to discuss those results (the producer particularly showing up in pivotal ways being played by resident screen creep Michael Smiley, which is of course an excellent casting choice*). Anyway, everything up until Enid visits a video store trying to solicit a Frederick North picture to clerk’s reluctance despite it being obvious he stocks banned videos is transparently a conduit for Bailey-Bond’s love for the movies, their attached notoriety, and a close interest in the process that brought them that notoriety. But that sequence is far enough into the middle investigation once Enid sees Lee’s face on a work assignment that we’re already beginning to segue into aimless meandering that is brought by slack and less interesting editing and once she leaves that video store, it’s not coming back for a while.

But that’s all fair since editor Mark Towns is saving his best for last and that can be argued for the rest of the crew as that meandering finally leads to the climactic final third where Enid finally finds a direction to take on in finding Alice and finding out if she’s Nina and her tenaciousness starts to affect the visuals in a tremendously exciting way. The frames of the aspect ratio begin to close at a snail’s pace so you can hardly notice the walls closing in on Enid, the colors by Annika Summerson’s camerawork become more saturated than the more grounded hues within the first hour, and video effects slowly corrupt the visuals in a way that disguise the segue between Enid’s perspective on things and the camera’s without particularly telling us what is the truth until the very final minutes. It doesn’t take a deep dive to recognize the events in terms of narrative, but it remains the sort of translation between a subjective perspective and the cinematic form that makes me giddy when encountered in the wild. And it all just brings us back to the interest in that video nasty aesthetic with a moment that particularly seats us as viewers into watching something ostensibly artificial and beastly before Enid finds ways to disrupt it in shocking ways.

So there one has it. Deep in the midnight screenings of Sundance 2021 birthed a cryptic horror yarn on a moment in pop culture that come from a place of deep admiration. Censor, which I have to assume is a continuation of ideas from Bailey-Bond’s earlier short film Nasty (which I haven’t seen), is a fairly confident feature debut that presents the filmmaker’s personality with aplomb and it is very easy to see how Bailey-Bond’s interests and my interests align enough that I’m excited for whatever she comes up with next, genre or otherwise.

*I was also convinced for a minute that Matthew Earley, who plays a co-worker of Enid’s, was actually a cameo by Ben Wheatley at first glance. Apologies to Earley.

Come, It is Time to Keep Your Appointment with…

 

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I wonder if I can credit Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man for initiating my interest folk music, given it constantly stops its own narrative investigation in order to indulge in a festive performance of traditional songs arranged by Paul Giovanni. It’s present to the degree that Hardy himself called the film a musical during production. It’s either that or Yusuf Islam back in his “Cat Stevens” days that brought this in me, but I was more or less exposed to both of them around the same time in high school and The Wicker Man seems the work of art that made a more significant impact on me. For The Wicker Man also initiated my interest in storytelling that focuses within an isolated location or community, particularly when the resultant development is a suspicious eerie atmosphere hidden underneath surface pleasantries with its inhabitants. And it is in that particular aspect that I think it was tough for me to figure out what I meant when I used “cult” to describe The Wicker Man.

You see, The Wicker Man is of course a film that explores the existence of a pagan culture within the fictional agronomical society of Summerisle that sits in the Hebridean Archipelago, based in Celtic history, as police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent there to investigate the sudden disappearance of a little girl named Rowan Morrison. So “cult” describes the subject.

But “cult” also describes the object. The film has only slowly developed more and more of that status than the already low-key but unanimously positive reception it had as a rough horror classic in the late 2000s when I first saw it and both of those elements – the reception and the version – are based in the same thing: a mind-bendingly convoluted set of rights disputes and poor handling of the print (sometimes apparently deliberate spite by producer Michael Deeley who famously hated the film, sometimes incidental) that led to the 102-minute cut that Hardy was satisfied with being turned into an 88-minute compromised cut that was released (as a double feature with fellow horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now) and most commonly seen. Meanwhile, a 99-minute version closer to Hardy’s preference was sent to Roger Corman to later be used as the basis of Hardy’s restoration to a Director’s Cut that was a bitch to find back in the day up until a Blu-Ray in 2013 was released of one more attempt by Hardy – whose previous decades of optimism that his original cut was still existent had now been disabused – into a 91-minute Final Cut from all the surviving resources.

I told you it was convoluted. All that combined made The Wicker Man a tough enough find in worthwhile quality to turn it to cult semi-obscurity.

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Having seen the 88 minute, 99 minute, and 91 minute versions, I do feel most qualified to say that any version will easily get you to a significant amount of brilliance. For no matter which cut one watches, you’re still going to get the abnormal slow boil of the Anthony Shaffer’s mystery script coming together real nicely in any arrangement, probably thanks to Hardy being involved in each cut (even in reluctance) and so having an idea of where to deal with whatever’s removed or moved around. And while the Final Cut is my preference – it’s the one where the pacing feels tightest and confident in where it slips away, while also spreading the musical numbers spread enough (with the addition of the brilliantly dreamy “Gently Johnny” to truly pay off in Hardy’s attempts to create The Wicker Man as a musical – I particularly love the idea the theatrical cut had about opening right when Howie arrives on Summerisle in a seaplane without any foreplay in the mainland as in the other cuts. It gets us on quite the disoriented foot with the setting. Though I must say the original opening with Howie performing mass does so much to establish what position he is entering this conflict from.

The second of which he steps out of the plane, he’s given a hard time by the smiling harbor master just for requesting a dinghy. The harbor master tries to deflect as much as possible by claiming the harbor is closed until Howie insists long enough. And so the majority of the movie is witnessing Howie’s fluster as he is continuously directed around in a circle by several individuals or authorities, including being told by the mother and classmates of the child that Rowan never even existed. Howie’s a dutiful and thorough investigator who pushes through the continuous lies and mishandled records – all delivered in the most bothersomely polite manner and off-putting brightness – to find proof of her existence and evidence suggesting a misdeed of some sort. It’s often just enough clue at the end of a scene to augment the frustration out of every interaction Howie is involved in and understand why he must push his bemused way through every misdirect he’s given.

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The direct obstruction of his policework is not the sole thing that takes Sgt. Howie aback. His firm appeals bring him eventually to the leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who charmingly informs Howie of the island’s pagan philosophies, rooted from his grandfather, as well the fruits of which the island bases its economy and why these two elements are intertwined. And even before Lord Summerisle lays it out for him, Howie has already witnessed strange unorthodox things happening around such as an open air orgy in the night (including an naked woman in a graveyard whose weeping over a grave resembles quiet orgasms), and the attempts of the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund, dubbed in an excellently weird way by Annie Ross) to seduce him behind the door by singing and dancing naked in a waking trance.

Howie, we learn extremely quickly, is Christian of a conservative and pious sort, establishing an impossible-to-miss battle of ideologies deep within the film. Shaffer and Hardy, to their incredible credit, deliver this fight in a difficult complex manner: Howie is there to investigate a potential murder and everybody in the island is throwing him the most uncannily suspicious sensation in all their twisting grins and lackadaisical attitude to learning of a child in danger. And yet Howie is also imposing of his Christian judgment onto the citizens of the island, at one point forcing a makeshift cross over a grave regardless of whatever religious beliefs the deceased may have had and outright calling Summerisle’s religion fake to the Lord’s face which is taken with the same unstressed casual receptiveness as anything else thrown to Lee’s face. Lee has long had glowing love for the performance he gave here, almost single-handedly keeping the film’s memory alive while it was essentially lost in the 1980s, and it shows with the clear amount of fun friendliness he exudes in perfect foil to Howie’s disgusted sobriety. It’s affecting to have the closest thing we have as a direct antagonist (as opposed to the entire community) such a welcoming air about him.

It’s off-putting to have such an intolerant character we are forced to align with by our moral sense of what he’s trying to do and yet this very island is so queer – personably as well as visually in flat focus, which is uncomfortably close for a setting so based in stone and trees dressed by a handicraft and populated by faces that look like they’ll squeeze your hand until you show them your teeth – that it’s just as much a natural orbiting to Howie’s point of view despite the aggressiveness of his rhetori. It’s miraculous that Hardy’s direction is able to frame Howie in such a way as to really pull out muted contempt for the character yet still treat his ultimate fate as utterly tragic (which I’d assume you know if you’ve even heard of the film, but if not I’m gonna go ahead and wave a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING up in here). It is indeed a strange land that the stranger has entered and sometimes what’s most familiar is what we’re going to gravitate towards.

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About that strange land: I’m not sure, with a wide variety of Scottish Isles and cities in which it was shot, one can say The Wicker Man subscribes to Werner Herzog’s ideal of the “voodoo of location”, but for someone like me who was totally ignorant of the geography of Scotland at the time and to this day have never actually experienced the country firsthand, The Wicker Man feels transporting. Indeed, Lee in his autobiography Lord of Misrule appears to suggest that their experiences within those distinct areas of Scotland “stitched together a plausible island” and it’s believable enough to fool me. And what gives it that further out-of-place vibe as a setting is Harry Waxman’s vibrant whites making the place seem so overexposed in an eerie way. A visual approach that further provides menace and trepidation to how unfailingly cheerful Summerisle is as a community.

About the culture: well, the very handworn element of the costumes and the festivities leaning into the imminent May Day celebration that the film’s climax takes place (and of course, if you have heard of The Wicker Man, you know how it ends just about as well as you know how Planet of the Apes ends but I repeat SPOILERS once final time if you are of a lucky sort.) are of an uncivilized sort, even by the means of a culture portrayed as tying naval strings to graves and such. The costumes and instruments of their celebration are introduced in one of the latest montages of investigation, strewn together in earthy ways from earthy materials. But not least of all the Wicker Man himself, revealed to us at the last possible moment as a towering madness of straw that really calls attention to the inhumane sacrifice to be made inside of it. And when it dawns on Howie what their plans are for him and his helplessness, the film intensifies rapidly into a more unambiguous horror than everything that preceded it. In a way, the point of the ending of The Wicker Man is not what happens but how it happens and by the mood of Woodward and Lee in this climax is where the complex battle of ideologies has to introduce ambiguity to the final notes of their performances: Woodward as Howie goes through several modes of disbelief and terror in the knowledge of what waits for him and how easily he was manipulated for all his steadfast authoritarianism and trying to declare his faith with various levels of dubiety invited of the viewer, landing on a moment of truly cracking prayer before the flames that will take his life in seconds and undermine by the pained shrieks and cries of the animals dying with him. Lee as Summerisle, meanwhile, is confident and self-satisfied by his plan working as expected until Howie suggests a potential turn of events that knocks that perennial smile off his face and suggests his own level of ambivalence to the practices he mandates of the isle’s people. Shaffer as a writer pulls out all the possible stops with this final turn of events, amplifying the cheeriness of the people at their most religiously violent with their final chant “Summer Is Icumen In” battling with the cries of the animals for dominance on the soundtrack while this ends up being – now that the secrets are all spilled out – the moment that Waxman and Hardy opt for an overcast set of shots as we watch the titular construction burn and collapse to reveal the setting sun.

So yes, the staying power of The Wicker Man may be the loves it brought to be in folk music and quietly unsettling horror movie atmospheres. But it also delivers them in a remarkably intelligent package, mapped out by one of the best writers working in Britain in the early 1970s and executed by two terrifically polar performances by actors at the very peak of their abilities. It’s one of the earliest cases of a movie I watched truly sticking in my head and making me consider what I just watched beyond the hard genre shocks it delivers (it may be a foundational part of my atheism, if I’m being frank), in an unassuming way that does guide me on WHAT to think. And it’s probably based on that that The Wicker Man had the sort of longevity that get it being restored and worked on to be introduced by generations further on alongside me as I constantly engage with its rewatchability.

Like I said, it takes a really great movie to work wonders on people when the most popular thing about it is its ending.

Suzy, Do You Know Anything About Witches?

I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.

But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.

It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.

That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.

Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).

But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.

In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.

*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.

Come Back Again to Here Knows When

You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.

Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).

Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.

And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.

Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.

Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.

These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.

And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.

*Funny enough, the owners of the mine where the film was shot ended up cleaning it before the production team arrived, to their absolute dismay. The set had to be filthied up proper to fit the ominous ambience that Mihalka and the producers were aiming for. Still there’s a big difference between a fake mine stage and a real one that maybe had to have some makeup put on it.
**One of the more grim murder sequences, whose aftermath we still see and frankly resembles a similarly cut up sequence from the same year’s Friday the 13th Part 2, is believed by Mihalka to be lost forever and so he accepts the restored uncut versions as the closest to his vision.

They’re Going to Destroy Our Casual Joys

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If I had seen Strange Days sometime in my teenage years, it would have been a part of my “25 for 25” project and had some deciding factor in how I put together my personal canon and identifying the aesthetics I am attracted to most. Instead, I saw it for the first time a few months shortly AFTER I had turned 25 and it never had the opportunity to turn me into the sort of cinephile it could have, although I find it fortunate that the sort of cinephile I am happens to be very compatible with it.

I’ll make one more declarative statement before getting into the thick of what makes me a fan: If I had seen it early in my high school life, it MIGHT — MIGHT – have become my favorite movie. Indeed, it is very easy to see what it shares with my main favorite movie champion holder* Blade Runner: they’re both the stories of disgraced ex-police dealing with a case over their head set in a future version of Los Angeles while grappling with the morality behind technological advances. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that co-writer Jay Cocks (with James Cameron, who conceived of the entire project) had previously attempted to option Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with Martin Scorsese well before it was adapted into Blade Runner.

Any sci-fi film set in the future with even the slightest hint of noir owes its existence to Blade Runner anyway. Beyond that, Strange Days is a different film in every line of its DNA. Most of its differences feel rooted in the fact that Strange Days is set in 1999, which is easy to laugh aside now as an apparent lack of foresight but such if you fail to recognize that this movie was released in 1995. Cameron wanted to set the movie so close in the future that it’s practically the present, just around the corner with urgency towards its decrepit view of the future. As a result of the proximity of the time period, director Kathryn Bigelow and production designer Lilly Kilvert don’t give us flying cars and neon baths. Instead, things look like they’ve poisoned the concrete jungle into corpse-blue under Matthew F. Leonetti’s lens. The militarized police force occupy every corner, with each cut by Cameron and Howard Smith on the streets practically darting desperately to seed them. There’s an unstable paranoia that comes with being set in the turn of millennium. Even if you’re too young to remember the fears of Y2K, a character constantly refers to the imminent new year as the end of the world and it’s hard to argue when the designs feel on edge. It’s more anarchic than refined and it’s easy to see why the inhabitants of this world are eager to escape to memories of a better age with the main technology at the center of Strange Days: the SQUID, a cerebral device that is able to record an experience on a disc giving you the same physical sensations and emotions.

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We’re introduced to this tech (and the movie itself) through a visceral and roughly textured single shot with the point of view of a robber before a disorienting death drop wakes up Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the aforementioned disgraced ex-cop who now makes his living selling discs on the black market as he lambasts his supplier for trying to sell him a snuff disc, because he’s got morals. As we spend more time with Lenny, we discover his pathetic and unhealthy inability to move on from his musician ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Lenny uses every possible opportunity to rely on the kindness of his overworked best friend, bodyguard/chauffeur-for-hire Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), to find his way to clients through which to make his unsavory trade and to facilitate his stalking of Faith in whatever seedy foggy multi-colored industrial punk dives she’s performing at whenever he’s not replaying overly bright SQUID memories of her in his lonely apartment at night.

Despite the wounded sleaze (It’s very easy to see how Fiennes got this role after playing the sloppiest Nazi character ever in Schindler’s List), Fiennes communicates a sense of warmth particularly through his shocking but calming eyes seeping through his greasy long hair (something brought up by more than one character and it’s not for nothing that the movie’s first shot is a close-up of his eye**). Nero is clearly a heart-on-his-sleeve louse that is pushed around rather than pushing others around and he’s constantly able to rollback up with a salesman smile. Lenny and Mace’s dynamic, thanks to being the best performances and the center of the movie, appear to be the most honest in the film: In Lenny’s aimless appellations and intentions and Mace’s frustrated objections and straight talk out of the heart. Bassett isn’t the protagonist Strange Days eventually turns her into from the start, but she walks in already with the exhausted attitude that she’s the only one getting her shit straight and Mace as a character benefits from that attitude as she enters with one of her many moments getting Lenny out of trouble.

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In any case, somebody trusts Lenny enough to arrive to him in a frazzled and anxious state asking for help: Iris (Brigitte Bako), an old friend from Lenny’s time with Faith, who drops a jack into Lenny’s car just before it’s repo’d and then disappears entirely. And whatever the reason she’s scared, Lenny is certain it has something to do with Faith’s manager/new boyfriend Philo Gant (resident 90s bad guy Michael Wincott) and a conflict of interest should be expected when you think the man your ex left you for is involved in some heinous stuff, particularly when it all circles around the impromptu murder of conscious and outspoken hip hop figure Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), another client of Gant’s.

This is a lot of stuff, but Strange Days gets to clean it up nice because it seems like Bigelow and Cameron were intent on making two different yet harmonious movies. Cameron’s basis has always been on the emotional matrix between Mace’s feelings for Lenny while trying to protect Faith, it’s the very first element he ever conceived of the film before even the futurism (it’s for this reason that I find it very curious he gave this concept to Bigelow, who was already his ex-wife of 2 years by the start of production in 1993). And it’s a line carried through by the lead actors certainly, but Bigelow as a filmmaker appears to have little use for it. She’s making a conscious and angry film – galvanized to finally start this movie after the 1992 proved to be one of the most heated eras in American race relations – utilizing the arrangements of the characters to unlock different observations on brutality as a result of a police state, voyeurism on the sufferings of others, the self-deprecating and regressive effects of nostalgia, the ease of white men to avoid trouble that black people (and especially black women would find themselves in), the objectification of women in the media, black women being put in second rung or expected to lay down for white women, conspiracy theories, hip hop and music’s place in observing these issues and having an affect in communities, all mirroring the 1990s in which this film was released and the anxiety in the air. Surrounding these characters’ romantic complications is a whole society developing and decaying in ways that were apparent in the real world. The resultant world-building feels like an extension of the heightened emotions of their romantic complication and lack of awareness.

I’ve already gone through the production design insisting that police are ever-present, down to helicopter lights constantly flashing through the windows. But it’s also in the manner that, for a 2 1/2 hour movie, Bigelow’s direction is violently fast and may as well prove to be coming off her growth as a notoriously “masculine” director with Near Dark and Point Break. There are few action setpieces in Strange Days and they are dangerous and fantastic (while also being the areas where Mace takes charge), but even the majority dialogue sequences have Leonetti’s camera movements whipping around like a paranoid eye and Smith and Cameron’s cutting turning the atmosphere frazzled, denying any sense of calm. And Bigelow is unafraid to go to harrowing places: halfway through the film comes a controversial rape/murder sequence involving cross-cutting with a character witnessing it via the SQUID, first with gleeful interest as he misreads the scene and then with horror as he recognizes the victim, her emotions, and the actions. The end result indicts an audience’s interest in the exploitation of individuals for profit and entertainment.

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I am making this movie sound a lot more unpleasant than I feel it is: it is paranoid, it is violent, it is charged, but it has two lead performances able to guide us and make us feel safe even when they don’t and it has moments of relief from the tension that appears throughout the movie [particularly scenes involving Mace’s family and particularly her son Zander (Brandon Hammond) who has a small but comforting slow-motion shot involving fireworks to assuage Mace’s fears]. I also feel like I am making this movie sound perfect, which is not even close to. For one thing, while Strange Days is ahead of its time in many ways, it’s not altogether prophetic. Being a 1995 film about the future that doesn’t invoke the internet at all makes it an outlier and not in a good way. It also has a mostly unimpressive supporting cast beyond Fiennes and Bassett: Lewis feels like the weak link in the movie’s core conflict, feeling way too young for the jaded rock star part she’s trying to play and treating her character’s contempt for Nero less as genuine frustration of a man who is essentially stalking her and more like a teenager lying because she feels like it. Even if that’s how the character is meant to be (which I don’t think so – I like to think Faith does not want Nero to get hurt but she genuinely does not have any remaining romantic feelings for him), it feels like it makes the emotions so much flatter. Meanwhile, the best the supporting cast can do is play unidimensional archetypes of roles they seemed to be typed as in the 1990s like Vincent D’Onofrio being one note of angry or Tom Sizemore being one tone of grimy.

And yet still, I love Strange Days with all its future warts and if there’s something I think signifies how easily I am able to forgive its sleights, it is its climactic finale during a boisterous New Millennium party in the streets. At one point, it is the most harrowing sequence in the film as someone is beaten to the ground in closeness, the next the crowd has jumped in to save a life and it’s a release of all the pent-up anger the film has built under itself, and finally Bigelow inconsistently decides that all is right: justice is served by a confused system that nearly killed an innocent minutes ago and the world does not end at midnight like we feared. And while this is an ending I fundamentally disagree with, the final grace note of where our characters end feels so emotionally right and reassuring as the streets celebrate all around them and we look up to a new night sky while Lori Carson & composer Graeme Revell fades into Deep Forest in a peaceful compulsively delightful ending.

And then the disc ends and I open my eyes.

*give or take a Casablanca.
**In fact, that’s another thing Strange Days and Blade Runner have in common: a close-up of a character’s eye appears within the opening cuts of each film.

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Like Rats in a Maze

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So, like… I haven’t been in the target audience of Young Adult fiction for a little under a decade now and when I was part of it, I was already looking for the door, so I might not be entirely in the know about these works. To my memory, the only major series I’ve read were Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. But, like, there’s usually some kind of social observation in the heart of it, no? Like hamfisted, absolutely undiluted social observation that you would have to be not paying attention to the unsubtle dialogue to miss. The Hunger Games had classism and the exploitative nature of the media, Harry Potter had a wizard version of the Ku Klux Klan that got more and more time as the main antagonists, Twilight for all that it ranks at the bottom barrel of things I’ve read and watched even has some muddled attempt at determinism (and Mormon looking views on romance).

So, we get The Maze Runner – one of these young adult works that I hadn’t even heard of until we suddenly had a film adaptation come out in 2014 and make enough money to have another aim at being the next Hunger Games-level box office franchise – and I just don’t get what the fuck it’s trying to be about.

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I mean, I get what it’s trying to taking inspiration from – Terrence Malick’s landscape photography in consideration of how the majority of the movie takes place in an entrapped area of forestation (and I don’t mean to insult Malick but comparing him to a movie as terrible-looking as The Maze Runner), Lord of the Flies in how it revolves around a bunch of kids isolated from society trying to create their own community – but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about any of that. Which is not only shocking, it just kind of makes me feel like I wasted my damn time worse than I already dreaded before spending two hours watching the thing. Like there was nothing to gain and it was philosophically and thematically empty from a genre that proudly wants to proclaim its themes and philosophies, adolescent as they may be, in a very urgent way.

Maybe the original novel by James Dashner, which I frankly have no intention of reading, does a better job of dicing up a message out of it. Maybe more likely is how the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (yes, the president of NBC News, that same guy. No sarcasm.), Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is so distracted by the necessity of stacking exposition dump upon exposition dump to slowly seep out some summary of what is happening to actually concern itself with depth and theme. I don’t think that excuses itgiven that Divergent – another flipping Young Adult novel adaptation that’s desperately tried (and hilariously failed) to be the next Hunger Games – was also a movie packed to the brim with world-building exposition dump and you’d still be able to takeaway that story’s appeal to the importance of individualism, even if you had watched it blindfolded or with earmuffs or upside down (not at the same time, though. Be serious.) Still it’s just plausible that such was the case with The Maze Runner.

Those exposition dumps happen to be showing us how a young man we learn later to be named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a large plain of grass called the Glade inhabited by several other boys mostly devoid of personality beyond their pragmatic status and none of these statuses seem remotely interesting except that of a Runner, the boys who are selected to run everyday into the walls that surround their little plain and try to find a way out of the maze within, running back to the community before the doors to the wall close every night and trap them in the maze lest they be attacked by a bunch of giant CGI monsters called Grievers. This is like… the premise of a movie, not a full on plot and yet it takes The Maze Runner more than 2/3 of its runtime to lay that all out. It’s not even world-building because everything they’re explaining and elaborating on is confined to the Glade and the Maze, nothing else.

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And some of these things are of course delivered in some manner that has to do with the element of cutting and framing in cinema, like the sort of impressively trapped and uncomfortable flurry of opening shots where Thomas is practically launched into the Glade in unstoppable motion and quickly shifted from surrounding him from dark walls behind a steel cage into surrounding him from blinding light and laughter and boyish eyes no less confusing before he faceplants from fear. But that’s like it. That’s the only worthwhile moment conceived out of Wes Ball’s direction in the whole movie. The rest of that exposition through cutting is in the case of randomly clunked up flashbacks of Thomas’ time before the Glade, spurred on by Teresa’s (Kaya Scodelario) arrival into the Glade. Kind of glad there’s no “sexual tension” amongst these apparent teens played by guys in their 20s and 30s, but like… there’s practically no reaction to her arrival.

None except from the central antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), who brings the closest thing this movie could ever have to tangible conflict given how much of it is still just developing itself. Like all the other boys, Gally supplies more exposition but this time with a permanent scowl (without much effort, Poulter is best in show given how his face – particularly his eyebrows – compliments angry looks and he has an imposing build) and a tone of “I don’t trust these new folk” towards Thomas and Teresa (even though the implication is that THEY all were slowly sent into the Glade progressively so, like, aren’t they all new folk?).

Anyway, I think the film eventually figures out it’s running out of time and tries to have the reveals expand more in scope in a more accelerated fashion as it reaches its end and tries to actually make good on suggesting the state of a world beyond the maze, but it all felt like ambling and idling until the last three minutes when the literal plot police (I mean, fucking literal!) show up and tell them what’s going on with the franchise beyond before scooping them up and taking them out of the movie.

I mean, I get that maybe the premise of The Maze Runner isn’t my thing. But it’s not my thing because it seems like a concept that, unless under a skilled writer and director, can only be hamstrung be its self-imposed limitations. And I don’t think high enough of Young Adult works to think they usually house skilled writers and directors. And Ball and company have to work sooooo fucking hard to make a movie feel as unrewarding a waiting game as this. So why put myself through this? You assholes saw Maze Runner: The Death Cure enough to have it top the weekend box office and forced my fucking hand and now I’m covering it. I hate you all.

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I Love Vinnie

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So, there is a grand ol’ two-prong consensus about the Polish animated Vincent Van Gogh crypto-biography Loving Vincent by this point that’s beaten me down since my initial enthusiasm after seeing it well back in October and it is this: On the first part, the movie is wonderfully gorgeous, absolutely miraculous to see on the big screen (and I pity those who will only have the opportunity to see it on a laptop or something at this point in their life). It has to be. For a long while it was anticipated by some (including yours truly) as a… not-revolutionary (despite the marketing’s insistence on Loving Vincent being the first of its kind) but highly unique animated experience on the basis of its craft.

Let me get the unpleasantness element out of the way first though, because the second part of that consensus deals with the content of the film and it’s an unfortunate blunt one: the script is bad. In this world of a narrative-focused cinematic experience, when you keep hearing that the script of a movie is bad, that’s a dealbreaker regardless of how brilliantly the craft is. My attitude of the script by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel (Kobiela & Welchman perform double duty as co-directors, Welchman TRIPLE as co-producer) is not nearly as damning, but it’s certainly not enthusiastic.

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The concept of a Rashomon-esque attempt at individuals attempting to deal with the aftermath of a suicide and trying to rationalize why somebody so gifted would be brought to the point of killing himself, spurred on by the young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) being tasked by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver the painter’s (Robert Gulaczyk) last letter to the art dealer brother Theo van Gogh (Cezary Lukaszewicz), only to discover Theo himself had passed away suddenly in the wake of his brother. And in his waiting game, Armand begins to take an interest in the circumstances of Vincent’s last years in suspicion of the how he died.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel beaten down by the continuous pointing out that the script quickly de-evolves, despite its attempt at structual exercise, into a cyclical series of talking heads all coming to the same dead end in how the late 1800s had no understanding of clinical depression and how because of that repetition, every inch of the movie’s 95 minutes is felt. And I understand that but the one piece of the script that really irks me (other than its overbearing coda and garbage ending credits song very labored) is how it attempts to give a finite answer to the source of van Gogh’s desperate depression and is weirdly satisfied about that answer. Given the subject matter, it feels icky to me.

So there’s that. That’s the script. If you’re a content-over-form type of person, you will more likely than not hate Loving Vincent and I’m sorry that you would. I am not at all that type of person and I found myself totally wowed and affected by the execution of the film’s core style.

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Directors Kobiela (a painter herself) & Welchmann overlooked 125 painters working on 65,000 frames intended to imitate the style of the legendary Dutch painter’s impressionistic oil works for its modern day, including pencil sketches for flashback sequences. A portion of these paintings are rotoscoped, but enough of them are from scratch to seriously impress upon anyone even slightly interested in the matter of fine art or even just the works of van Gogh (I can’t imagine how the two interests aren’t correlated though. Are there art hipsters?)

And maybe that might seem like a gimmick to some, but for someone like me who has never had the opportunity to witness any of Van Gogh’s works in person (but one dreams), seeing it on the big screen as opposed to a trailer on my computer makes me more aware of the physical element of the art short of actually reaching out and touching the thing (it’s something that makes me kind of wonder how the film would look in 3D, possibly akin to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It’s impossible to ignore the inadvertent contours of the art, the gloopy swirls and strokes that maps all around the frames. Kobiela & Welchmann did very well with photographer Tristan Oliver to translate that beyond the flatness of the screen, they want you to feel the depth of the lines, like the landscapes extend beyond the frame, like the portraits betray the wear of the individual’s face.

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And then there’s the fact that you’re witnessing this in motion. Very little of the shots are stilled in place, you are literally watching art’s textures move little by little. This is obvious in sequences where water is on-screen and most especially obvious in sequences with rain pattering on its steps. And because this isn’t really frames so much as flat-out paintings being presented as frames, you feel the shifts in colors (and idiosyncratic colors doesn’t seem to cut describing van Gogh’s works – he seems to have a dark earthy sensibility to the colors of the world and a lack of scrutiny in using different shades and the film captures that beautifully) and contours being presented more as a visual progression than standard animation’s necessity to turn movement fluid and seamless. It’s fascinating work and while I was just dismissing the marketing’s claims of it being the first of its kind, I can still happily claim that the movie is unlike anything I personally have ever experienced in a cinema.

So therein is a choice to be presented to the prospective viewer of Loving Vincent, one that certainly lives inside an audience member since they began watching movies: Are you looking for content or are you looking for form?* I mean, the answer is pretty obvious to me, given I had just recently defended Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, so it’s no surprise I pretty much loved Loving Vincent. Because if you’re there to see some out of the box storytelling and intelligent storytelling, Loving Vincent is incapable of making most people very happy on that end and I am sorry to say that you might be happier selecting another movie. But if you’re sitting in that theater seat** because you’re an animation or fine art enthusiast or scholar and you’re looking for something to change the way you look at the works of one of the most influential painters in history (excusing my admittedly limited knowledge of the art form), you’ve made the right choice.

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*Ignoring the understanding that in a medium as aesthetically based as film and especially animation, content IS form sometimes.
**Assuming it will have a second-run thanks to its Oscar nominations pls

Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

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It is a relatively good thing, I think, that I saw Luc Besson’s summer space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets before I was able to start reading the original Franch comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières by the name of Valerian et Laureline*. It is a brilliant and wonderful work of pulp artistry and adventure storytelling that Valerian certainly lives up to in more than a few ways, but also stands as the kind of visual swashbuckler comic literature I wish I had access to as a child. That I read it after seeing the movie being a good thing is due to how little the characters within the comic series – dashing handsome and tall Valerian and red-haired ingénue from the Middle Ages Laureline – do not at all look similar to Besson’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I like to hope that wouldn’t have bothered me, but just to be sure, the fact that I saw Valerian before reading them ensured that the only reason I’d fell the leads are miscast is because of their performance.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a damn great movie in my eyes, regardless of what the detractors of the movie think. It is more than a bit likely to show up on my top 20 of the year and it’s easily my favorite space opera of essentially the four major ones we’ve received this year (the others being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and sadly Star Wars: The Last Jedi in that preferred order). And yet the one thing I can’t find myself to argue with detractors about (and indeed there are plenty) is that the leads don’t work. Less so Delevingne, who takes command of every moment like her character’s name wasn’t removed from the title with intelligence but would probably do much better with a co-star that she could actually have romantic chemistry with. It’s more DeHaan, not only being unable to pass for dashing anything but instead looking like the son of Peter Lorre in all those baggy eyes and delivering his macho lines like he’s barely out of breath. Lines that, mind you, are essentially a space soldier harassing his partner and only the best kind of screwball chemistry would make it feel less objectionable. DeHaan, an actor I overall love and want to see in more movies (who definitely helped with this year’s earlier A Cure for Wellness) is not that actor.

An out-of-place lead actor is certainly not something I could hold a moviegoer accountable for being unable to ignore, but in truth my love for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one that supersedes all of that just as much as my love of Star Wars does likewise. If I ever go to watch a space opera because I want compelling substance, please slap me in the face because something’s wrong with me. Valerian delivers an overwhelming amount of world-building in its gaudy biome designs of different regions in its titular International Space Station (we witness the growth of the original Space Station into this wondrous cornucopia of alien cultures and civilizations in an opening montage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that even detractors find lovely, slowly having several of Besson’s usual collaborators like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton welcome several disarming but lovely extra-terrestrials in the spirit of galactic brotherhood).

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Hell, the moment that the trailer featured a long-shot sequence of Valerian crashing his way past walls separating several different environments and habitats, a variety of smooth surfaces, bold various colors, and dazzling lighting servicing several the kind of cartoonish but ambitious and engrossing CGI convinced me I was going to watch this movie in 3D and the second scene in the movie inviting us to explore a shiny shimmering beach planet where the very skin of its silver natives glows and pearls flow like water before showing off the depth of field by having a violent and explosive invasion occur is when I was certain I made the right decision.

See, I don’t really have a problem with Besson’s screenplay. It’s certainly slightly less stupid than Lucy (which I also stan for) and has a certain subplot that involves a detour introducing us to a wonderfully hammy turn by Ethan Hawke and a crazy fun outfit-switching dance performance by Rihanna (and whatever dance double they had)**, but its main purpose is to utilize the Ambassador of Shadows storyline into the making of a world-building adventure from setpiece to setpiece – here’s a trans-dimensional bazaar where Valerian has to interact with one dimension while inhabiting another to extract an item followed by a monster chase, here’s deep sea dive filled with imaginative sea life before Laureline has to wear some brainsucking jellyfish as a helmet, here’s a Gilliam-esque throne room for a couple of laughs while troll-esque aliens feed their picky king, and so forth. The context isn’t what has to make these experiences joyous to me, Hugues Tissandier’s construction of these sets and creatures does more than enough to do so and then Alexandre Desplat’s sparkling epic score lifts the film to ethereal heights (and it’s not even his best score of the year given The Shape of Water), the sort of spectacle driven cinema that gets butt in the movies to begin with.

Listen, if something as ridiculous looking and sounding as Valerian was not going to be your thing, that’s alright. I stan for the likes of Jupiter Ascending so it could hardly be unexpected that I walked out of it feeling my summer was made. It’s utterly shallow, but it’s also transfixingly vibrant. It doesn’t have as comforting an audience surrogate as Bruce Willis in Besson’s previous The Fifth Element, but if you’re willing to just go for the ride without anyone to relate to, you will still find yourself sucked in. You may or may not have to go into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a very specific idea of what you look for in movies, but luckily it provides exactly what I look for: a brilliant living expansion of worlds and domains for which we can witness setpieces unlike anything we ever have seen before and possibly won’t see since.

*I will go on the record as to pointing out that I find removing Laureline from the title of the film to be a dirty fucking move, especially since I think the argument can be made that Laureline has more screentime overall.
**Between this, Girlhood, and American Honey, movies are really trying to make me overlook my dislike for Rihanna’s music and turn me into a fan of hers. It’s working.

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You Blow That Candle Out, We’re Gonna Kill You. Kill You.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slasher film as pleasant as Happy Death Day and I doubt I ever will. The only true contender for that spot is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and there’s definitely a bit more viciousness in its third act than there is in the entirety of Christopher B. Landon’s third feature film. For most people that might be quite the dealbreaker, especially in the expectation that a horror film has to… y’know horrify kind of. But I’ve never been one to consider slasher films a subgenre to hold to for its scariness and the fact that Happy Death Day takes full pleasure in stretching out the novelty of its premise in a manner that’s kind of genial doesn’t make me regret the number of times I laughed and enjoyed myself during the whole thing.

That very premise being how nursing student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has been living her life in flippant antagonism towards everyone and everything around her and her hedonistic life has found her at the end of a butcher’s knife the night of her birthday. Only she wakes up again on her birthday morning in the same boy’s dorm of Carter’s (Israel Broussard) and a bit more wary of what she might assume was a dream that felt too real, tries to deviate her path slightly only to once again find herself stabbed to death by the same BabyFace Masked. And with that death, she wakes once again understandably freak out by the time loop she’s stuck in – enduring her birthday over and over with the same violent end, trying to find a way to circumvent the loop and stop her murderer.

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Or the elevator pitch version “Groundhog Day as a slasher”. There’s even a button of a scene where they name-drop Groundhog Day as a “yeah, we totally ripped off that movie” statement without adding the weird attitude of “… And because we said it, you can’t call us out for that” that most self-aware horror seems to want to adopt as bet-hedging. Happy Death Day‘s script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell is less concerned with pointing out the absurdity of its premise and more concerned with finding a way to make it fun without being the butt of a joke. And it certainly has a sense of humor about itself, but one that gets to exist side-by-side with Tree’s frustrations at waking up, being killed, and repeated and how that affects her day-to-day mood. It’s that dissimilar from the idea that we’re all different people every time we wake up, though I’m doubtful that was on Lobdell or Landon’s mind and that they merely wanted some semblance of a character development arc as Tree recognizes just how arbitrarily she was treating her sorority sisters, her father, Carter, and the professor she’s having an affair with and see how much of her problems she can shelve in the hopes that she survives to the next night.

It’s a lot shallower than that on paper but Jessica Rothe is pretty much a miracle of a performer, an exhausted and sarcastic pillar of charisma that gives this movie all she can to have some semblance of momentum based on the way she evolves and learns about herself. And despite indulging at points in the sort of shallow catty bitchiness that outs movies like this as obviously written by a guy who saw Mean Girls once and didn’t get it, it also has the same sort of forgivability as Mean Girls. We don’t really hate Tree on the first loop and by the middle of the film, we feel her annoyance at every single slip-up that lands her in bloodless mortem (the editing takes advantage of the PG-13 nature of the film to make smash cuts play as punchlines a la Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, especially in a Demi Lovato-tuned montage and a ringtone allegedly created for the movie that actually sounds creepier than anything in Bear McCreary’s cliched score), and by the time she’s kind of figured it out, her joie du vivre is pleasantly earned in the face of how Rothe takes every new step differently (Broussard kind of follows up with different responses to the same event, but even at second-best in show – partly because he just shows up the longest – he’s just not on Rothe’s level). Maybe it’s partly in the aftermath of having just finished binging The Good Place, which accomplishes similar things but honestly better, but Happy Death Day‘s intention to see a miserable unhealthy person grow into something better makes me more willing to see it all the way through, even in spite of Lobdell’s ethic lapses. It certainly has some obvious Eszterhas-level attitudes about women (especially in its third act which feels like the weakest element of the script), Macklemore-level naivete about sexuality, and the in-sorority bullying of the one non-murderer character we’re meant to hate is clearly racially coded. But none of those things pop their heads long enough for me to not have fun.

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And this is all sounding like I’m not really interested in it as a horror film and I don’t want to pretend I think it’s a bad horror film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but its treatment of the blue cold hospital, the tall cavernous clock tower, and a creepily cartoon killer mask based on the college setting’s mascot (by the way, who would possibly find a football team called the Babys intimidating?) is at the very least on the better side of Blumhouse cliches as possible and Happy Death Day certainly wants you to know that even if Tree’s never truly in danger, she still feels threatened and trapped in slowly canting angles and surprise light blowouts. But it also isn’t very much concerned with elevating itself as horror. Honestly, if it weren’t for the comedic tone which isn’t even all that unique, Happy Death Day would feel entirely like just another forgettable horror film that happens to work enough that you don’t demand a refund.

Still and all, Happy Death Day can’t help sharing its enjoyment of digging into a hat of tropes and using its horror identity as a source of things beyond the genre. Like It, the bigger horror film of the year, I’m not singing its praises high and far but I am more than willing to relive it like Tree did (given that I literally walked out of a second screening before I could finish this review) and it’s not freaking me out that I did.

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