Monday, October 31, 2022

H22 #29: The Birds (1963)

The creeping sense of dread in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds combined with its surreal siege narrative remains an uncanny cinematic experience. Hitchcock's apocalyptic adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier short story still gets under the skin. Anytime I catch site of a murder of crows flying overhead I feel some trepidation.

Tippi Hedren stars as socialite Melanie Daniels. The film begins with Melanie meeting Mitch (Rod Taylor) at a pet store. They banter about birds and their exchange is mildly flirtatious, leading Melanie to track him down at Bodega Bay. The first half the movie plays as a high brow melodrama with the various romantic intrigues at the idyllic seashore community. A sense of malaise and frustration serves as a foreshadowing of the terror to come. Interspersed throughout are signs our feathered friends are acting strangely.

Hitchcock's mastery is on full display during the attack scenes, done without music and only the high- pitched bird squawks. They find ways into houses, swoop down in large numbers on children playing in a schoolyard, each attack is an escalation. In my favorite scene at the diner, locals express their fears about what's going on, when a bird expert points out humans live at the mercy birds who outnumber them by the billions. In other words, nothing can stop them.

Many saw Cold War parallels, the birds a stand in for the threat of nuclear war. The helplessness of everyone in such an attack is captured with brilliantly by Hitchcock. Nature is a big theme as well, mocking all human pretensions with sheer power. An otherworldly grimness certainly takes over in the last 20 minutes. Other films have trod similar ground such as Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel or Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. The Birds in representing a rebellion by nature, forces the audience to grasp an arcane possibility. 

An overblown melodrama for the first hour transforming into an outright horror spectacle is Hitchcock once again playing the audience with one grim joke after another.  

Sunday, October 30, 2022

H22 #28: Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark showcases her kinetic style and preference for characters who live on the extremes - in this case vampires. 

When Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) has a brief romance with Mae (Jenny Wright), she not only converts him to vampirism but also introduces him to her hellraising band of the undead. The Aliens reunion is a treat for movie fans including Bill Paxton, Lance Henricksen, and Jenette Goldstein. Paxton is at his most unhinged. These vampires are unlike any other to appear on the screen, a band of outlaws taking no prisoners. 

Shot throughout Arizona and Oklahoma, Bigelow paints a visceral portrait with the landscapes. A perfect synthesis of the horror-Western with shootouts worthy of Peckinpah.

H22 #27: Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher's Zodiac is a tour de force procedural told through the haze of 1970s discontent and bureaucratic inertia serving as a subterfuge for paranoia. A film bleeding with film history from Fritz Lang's M to the paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula, Zodiac simmers in true crime obsession and harrowing encounters with the pursuit of the truth.

Zodiac is about the murders afflicting the Bay Area through the 1970s. Fincher is uninterested in criminal pathologies, and way more into how modern cities deal with a crisis. We follow detectives with the San Francisco Police department, principally Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and journalists for the San Francisco Chronicle, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyellenhaal and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr). 

The narrative drive of Zodiac is among the best of 21st Century cinema. Fincher drew upon All the President's Men as a primary influence: The brightly lit newspaper offices are contrasted with the darkness of the street where the killer lurks, striking at random. David Shire who composed the score for many '70s movies including ATPM was brought in for Zodiac. While many previous novels and films have dealt with killers terrorizing a city, Zodiac explores how mass media adds to the sense of paranoia. Television news feeds off the tension and makes it worse, the killer knows how to manipulate the media to stoke mass panic. 

Fincher relents from going too far into exploitative territory. Three of the killings are recreated, the scenes focus on the randomness of the killings, which is frightening enough, but not on the gory details. Neither does the film obsess over the psychology of the killer, James Vanderbilt's script is more of a puzzle. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith as an amateur sleuth, spending most of the film trying to decode the clues in the countless letters the killer sent, in what would form the basis of his 1986 book Zodiac.

Meanwhile, the detectives on the case continually run into jurisdiction issues, which led to clumsy evidence collecting and a poor pooling of resources. Ruffalo as Inspector Toschi persists with the case despite all the setbacks - to his own detriment. When the authorities finally finger a likely suspect played by John Carroll Lynch in an icy performance, they fail to attain enough evidence. RDJ as Avery was targeted with letters by the killers and his own idealism is slowly shattered as his own investigation hits brick walls.

Graysmith becomes the main protagonist of the story, Gyllenhaal plays him with the right amount of virtue and intelligence. In perhaps the creepiest scene he follows a lead and ends up in a scary basement with a shady man offering information. Chloe Sevigny plays Robert's long-suffering wife in a thankless role who eventually leaves him over his obsession with the case.

In interviews Fincher spoke about growing up in the Bay Area being terrified of the Zodiac killer as a kid, almost in the way one speaks of fictional characters like Michael Myers or Freddy Kreuger, so there's a personal touch running through the film. The film was smart enough to create a vivid sense of '70s verisimilitude without trying to make grand statements about the era which has all been said before. It's all there on the screen. 

In the end I find Zodiac to be an oddly optimistic film in its thesis that the truth is attainable, thus eschewing the sense of ineffectual doom of so many paranoid thrillers.


Thursday, October 27, 2022

H22 #26 The Amityville Horror (1979)

George Lutz (James Brolin) wields the cross against evil forces, a common image in '70s horror.

Based on the "true story" 1977 novel by Jan Anson and the countless urban legends to emerge from the Amityville Murders that occurred on November 13, 1974. The highly questionable saga of the Lutz family who moved into the Long Island house after the killing provided the material for the film.

Released in the summer of 1979, James Brolin and Margot Kidder starred as George and Kathy Lutz. I'm a fan of the film, in fact, it's one my favorite haunted house films. It pairs nicely with The Shining, even though the styles of both movies are different, they complement each other. While Kubrick's obsessions are on full display in The Shining, Amityville is all about middle class anxieties of the late 1970s.

These anxieties center around the purchasing a house. As many have noted, Stephen King and John Kenneth Muir of specific note, there are constant occurrences and dialogue revolving around money. George constantly complains about costs from groceries to the heating bill, while the IRS has questions about his business expenses. Kathy's brother loses a bunch of cash before his wedding. Owning a house brings many expenses and becomes an incessant source of tension. How can a nuclear family survive when burdened with taxes, rising energy costs, and stagflation?

Family decline was paralleled by organized religion's waning influence. With so much financial pressure many families still clung to the church for guidance and stability. Rod Steiger camps it up as Father Delaney. When he arrives to Christen the house, he's attacked by flies and later becomes seriously ill. Later when driving the breaks of his car go out, clearly the clergy are targets and unlike the priests in The Exorcist, are totally ineffectual against the supernatural.

Lastly, there's the fragile institution of marriage. It's of note, emphasized more in the book, that Kathy is divorced, and her kids are from a previous marriage, adding extra pressures on George who suddenly must take on a stepfather role. The divorce rate skyrocketed in the 1970s in part due to the gains of Second Wave Feminism. Changing gender roles are very much in the subtext, and the cultural debate over the meaning of marriage plays heavily into the Lutz story. 

The cocktail of horror goofiness and pop sociology in The Amityville Horror make it a staple of the Halloween season - and think twice before buying a fixer upper. Is anything more terrifying than bad plumbing? 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

H22 #25: Carnival of Souls (1962)


If Ingmar Bergman had grown up in Kansas I could see him making a film like Carnival of Souls. Filmed in grainy black and white, Carnival of Souls is one greatest Midwestern Gothics ever made (it was mostly filmed in Lawrence, Kansas). The film tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of reality after she's the unfortunate passenger in a tragic drag race.  

After the car crashes off the river bridge, a scene Tim Burton duplicated in Beetlejuice, young Mary arrives in a new town and lands a church organist job.  She gets a room in a boarding house with a nosy landlady, while trying to fend off the advances of her crude neighbor, meanwhile a sinister looking old man keeps appearing at random.  

I admire how the film gradually moves from the realistic to the surreal, common everyday activities like shopping and going on a walk take on a sinister quality.  Eventually Mary comes to realize she may no longer be among the living.  

We're also in the Kansas of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mary's interactions with creepily bland locals ramps up the sense of foreboding. The minister, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, tries to offer Mary some spiritual guidance to no avail.  She also sees the local psychiatrist who advises her to get a boyfriend. All the men come up short in this film.  As Mary grows increasingly vulnerable, her innocence adds to the sense of dread. 

Carnival of Souls is a must see cult classic, the artistry of the cinematography and skillful use of local setting are expressionistic and haunting. These images really stick with you.  The look and feel of the film anticipated George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, David Lynch's weird America aesthetic, Tim Burton's playful creepiness, even Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  

Herk Harvey never directed another feature film, but left a real gem for movie fans everywhere. Watch it for free.

H22 #24: The Patient (2022)

The Patient
just completed its 10-episode run as a limited series on Hulu. Written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg the series stars Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleason, in an intense and often disturbing story of a serial killer imprisoning a therapist in his basement. Despite the heavy hitting premise, the series is leans into being a character study of violence and psychology. Themes of Jewish identity and the purpose of mental therapy are also explored, The Patient manages to transcend the tropes of its genre.

Carell plays Dr. Alan Stauss, a therapist with thriving practice mourning the death of his wife Beth (Laura Niemi) and estrangement from his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds) who converted to Orthodox Judaism. Flashbacks are used throughout to recall key moments in Strauss's life, not unlike Lost.

Little is revealed about the past of Sam Fortner (Gleeson) except that he's a serial killer who was abused by his father. A classic study of the banality of evil, Sam is a foodie and works as a restaurant inspector, and a big fan of Kenny Chesney. Almost fey in appearance, Sam is one of the least threatening figures to appear as cold blooded killer. Gleeson peppers his performance with minor nuances. 

Strauss wakes one morning and finds his foot chained to a wall. Sam informs he's been taken captive to "cure" him of killing people. Once the initial shock wears off, Alan tries to treat him. He gets to the root of Sam's rage going back to his father and being bullied in school. It's clear Sam is a psychopath leading a double life by hiding in plain sight. 

Their therapy sessions recall Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos. Like that patient-doctor relationship, their exchanges are compelling but never lead to anything. Alan is fighting a two-front war, convincing Sam they are building a relationship while also plotting an escape. In fantasy sequences he talks to his own therapist played by David Alan Grier in a strong supporting performance, serving as his conscience in an unthinkable situation.

The series blends the mundane with sudden bursts of violence. In one horrific moment from an early episode, Sam brings one of his still living victims' home (a restaurant manager who argued with him) and forces Alan to deal with the horrendous scene. Flashes of progress in Sam are continually erased in predictable setbacks. Yet Sam does go through something of an evolution, while Alan's journey is more existential.

Episodes frequently reference and suggest parallels to the Holocaust, Alan is haunted by family members who died in the death camps. In the ninth episode "Auschwitz" Alan turns to Victor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning to find hope. Alan associates his captivity as a replay of what his relatives experienced. Issues of how to resist and the soul crushing sense of the losses from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. While Sam never does or says anything antisemitic, he fits the profile of a war criminal who would commit such awful acts. 

The heavy performances of Carell and Gleeson maintain an intensity throughout. An examination of evil as a malignant force in the past and present, the series is anxiety inducing and compelling, most of the episodes are only 30 minutes. Carell brings an inner strength to Alan, which is about the most heroic one could hope in such a situation. I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending, it's both inevitable and surprising.