Tuesday, September 29, 2020

H2020: #7 Amazing Stories: "Mirror, Mirror"

Air Date: March 9, 1986
Written by Joseph Minion (story by Steven Spielberg)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Sam Waterston, Tim Robbins, Helen Shaver, and Dick Cavett

Steven Spielberg's anthology series Amazing Stories ran for two seasons on NBC. Although the show attracted the best talent of its time, the episodes were often uneven, as most TV anthologies tend to be. In an After Hours reunion, "Mirror, Mirror" was directed by Martin Scorsese and scripted by Joseph Minion. 

The 24 minute episode follows famous horror writer Jordan Manmouth (Waterston) who finds himself being terrorized by a phantom from one of his movies. The episode begins with Jordan doing a TV interview with Dick Cavett on his latest film. He confesses to taking great pleasure in terrifying people. Jaded by wealth and fame Jordan lives in a lonely mansion surrounded by reminders of his creations, telling a limo driver (Tim Robbins) he finds agents and ex-wives much scarier than his horror stories.

"Mirror, Mirror" is mostly a disappointment, reminiscent of a Night Gallery episode which were famous for squeezing an entire story out of a horror gimmick. The concept, a writer being haunted by their own creations, has potential for irony and dark humor, but it never goes anywhere: we get a cycle repetitive scenes. Scorsese included some Hitchcockian shots that will delight cinephiles, but the story ends with a thud. At best a footnote in the prolific careers of Spielberg and Scorsese. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

H2020: #6 The Gift (2000)

Over the past week I revisited Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, even started watching the TV series Ash vs The Evil Dead (2015-2018), but I wanted to watch one of his under the radar movies. The Gift from 2000 is set in Georgia and stars Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, a woman with ESP skills. Recently widowed, Annie is struggling to raise three young children while some residents of the town consider her a witch. 

Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the script was inspired by Thornton's own childhood. Raimi gathered together a stellar cast including three Oscar winners - Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank and J.K. Simmons. The Gift is a family drama/murder mystery with some supernatural elements. Blanchett's performance anchors the movie, a single mother struggling to get by while being marginalized by some, not unlike Christopher Walken's tragic character in The Dead Zone. Many want to use Annie's gift to their own advantage.

The plot centers around the murder of a local woman Jessica (Katie Holmes) engaged to the school principal Wayne (Greg Kinnear). The town suspects handyman Donnie (Keanu Reeves) a troublemaker with a history of domestic abuse towards his wife Valerie (Hilary Swank). Annie also witnessed some things on the night of the murder suggesting another suspect. Locals resent her being used as a consultant on the case by the police chief played by J.K. Simmons, who Raimi would later cast as J. Jonah Jameson in his Spiderman trilogy.

The Gift passes as an entertaining mystery with the expected twist ending. As a whole the film borders on underwhelming with its conventional pacing and some cliched caricatures, most notably Giovanni Ribisi chewing up scenery as a mechanic with an emotional attachment to Annie. Keanu is also over the top as the abusive husband. Blanchett is the most charismatic as a woman navigating different types of men trying to manipulate her to their own ends. Raimi's sure footed direction brought a versatility in one of the more character driven movies in his filmography. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

H2020: #5 Army of Darkness (1992)

The trajectory of the Evil Dead trilogy from a supernatural slasher to medieval sword and sorcery epic is pleasing in a sublime way; a progression from tragic laced terror to slapstick horror and finally a sword and sorcery adventure. To quote the anti-hero of the series Ash, "Yeah, truly amazing."

Evil Dead II ended with Ash being sent back to the year 1300 and getting himself captured by Lord Arthur's army. When Ash kills a deadite after being thrown into a pit he's welcomed into the army as a hero. Then Ash goes on a quest to retrieve the Necronomicon so he can get back to the 20th Century.

Ash's quest to retrieve the book is full of slapstick humor, including a fight with a clone of himself. Once he finds the book, in a reference to one of my favorite movies The Day the Earth Stood Still, he must recite "Klaatu barada nikto" and struggles to pronounce it correctly! Meanwhile the Army of Darkness forms, composed of ghouls and skeletons, it's a spectacular shot seeing all the skeletons advance in an homage to Jason and the Argonauts. The pre-CGI effects look pretty good, way more aesthetically pleasing than the Droid army in The Phantom Menace.

At 80 minutes (a lesson more modern movies should heed) Army of Darkness never lets up. The combination of action, comedy, and medieval set pieces are a visual feast. Bruce Campbell gives a physically demanding performance, while Raimi's direction displays a comic book sensibility, skillfully mimicking the pacing and imagery of a comic book.

Looking at contemporary reviews of Army of Darkness I'm surprised at the snobby attitude of mainstream critics - Roger Ebert, Janet Maslin, and Owen Gleiberman* to mention a few. They scoffed at the juvenile humor and the camp sensibility. Camp as defined by fellow blogger John Kenneth Muir "an aesthetic style based on a sense of knowing theatricality."** Going for artificiality instead of realism allows for double meanings and making light of the goofy tendencies of cinema. The Ash character is a great example of a Camp protagonist, transcending parody and entering into a realm of heightened reality. Army of Darkness holds up so well because it refuses to take itself seriously, winking at the audience and allowing them to join the fun.

Camp has fallen out of favor with modern audiences who prefer the Christopher Nolan brand of realism for comic book pictures. But the never ending stream of Marvel and DC movies are ripe for a blistering parody at some point - especially Nolan films. I cannot imagine Nolan doing Camp. 

*I'm not someone who trashes critics or the critical enterprise. I've learned a lot about film by reading lots of criticism over the years. 

** Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

H2020: #4 Vivarium (2019)


By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61424261, courtesy Vertigo Publishing

A House Hunters episode gone really bad.  An ordinary couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Potts) decide to take a tour of the latest housing development. They are led there by a peculair acting man Martin (Jonathan Aris) who shows them the house and then disappears. When Tom and Gemma try to leave they discover there's no way out of the neighborhood. Trapped.

Before all this happens we're shown a nature sequence of the cuckoo bird's parasitic birthing method of leaving their eggs in another bird's nest, disrupting the flow of nature. Gemma, a teacher, comforts a child who finds a baby bird pushed out of its nest by the cuckoo, telling the child that sometimes nature is cruel. She'll soon learn the lesson all too well. 

Psychological horror may the most potent subgenre because it gets into your head. Vivarium got under my skin, a movie that may bounce around in your head for a couple days. Slightly altering the way you see the world. Accepting they're stuck, Tom and Gemma begin a daily existence, being provided with food from an indeterminate source. Both come to accept they are in some version of hell, and it's not the zany Tim Burton afterlife of calypso music and shifty exorcists. Then a baby is dropped off who quickly turns into a creepy kid, and eventually an even creepier young man. Imagine having to take care of something evil. Gemma tries to connect with the "child" while Tom begins to lose his mind, spending his days digging a hole in an existential attempt to escape. 

A slight spoiler, but the film never shows its cards. It 's unnecessary. I have an idea of what's going although it's never explicitly revealed. I suppose there are other possibilities. Metaphors abound throughout, namely, life is predictable and boring as we gradually settle into our roles. A dark theology is embedded into the movie, the universe/nature is malevolent. Nature makes a mockery of human ambition. I'm not pessimistic enough to believe that. Yes, we may all live lives of quiet desperation with little to show for it at the end. But at least there's the possibility of meaning and experiencing joy through the power of memory, a notion the film at least tries to suggest.  


Friday, September 25, 2020

H2020: #3 Evil Dead II (1987)

Evil Dead II would become a touchstone of 80s horror alongside the original Evil Dead that was released in 1981. Sam Raimi's career had stalled after his 1985 film Crime Wave flopped, so he and Bruce Campbell decided to make a follow up to The Evil Dead. Raimi's idea for a sequel was formulated during the making of the original, involving Ash being sent back to the Middle Ages to battle deadites, but that story would not be told till 1992 as Army of Darkness. Evil Dead II is more of a remix of the original, leaning towards a more comical and farcical tone. Influences ranged from The Three Stooges, 1950s b-movie horror, and McDonalds commercials. 

A framing device beings the film with an explanation of the Book of the Dead, an ancient that can unleash sinister forces. The film begins with Ash heading back to "the cabin" with his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler). Things quickly go south when they discover Professor Knowby's tapes from the Necronomicon and play them. A big mistake! Linda gets possessed, forcing Ash to kill her (a few times). Ash also gets possessed and at one point must fight off his own evil hand that attempts to strangle him by cutting it off - a moment played for laughs. It's great, a triumphant moment for Ash. 

Meanwhile, Professor Knowby's daughter Annie (Sarah Berry) acquires missing pages from the Book of the Dead and she heads to the cabin with her research assistant partner Ed (Richard Domeier). Locals lead them to the cabin where they find an embattled Ash who they believe murdered the professor and his wife. The second half of the film replays the original as they all battle the deadites, including the Professor's ghoulish wife who spouts off one liners. At one point Ash attaches a chainsaw to his stumped arm, another iconic moment. The action at the cabin plays as farce, but still gets gory with unique late 80s stop motion effects, spewing a variety of disgusting fluids.  

At 85 minutes, Evil Dead II gets in and gets out at the right time. Like the original it walks a fine line between graphic violence and slapstick comedy, this time around the camera is winking at us more often than not. Campbell's performance as Ash is a pastiche of the 80s action trope, a working class hero who finds the strength within to overcome otherworldly/demonic obstacles. The ending sets up the conclusion to the trilogy, providing an epic dimension to the saga.

Raimi would go to a successful career directing mainstream films in Hollywood, most famously the Spiderman trilogy with Tobey Maguire. The Evil Dead's imprint can be found in many of his films. Bruce Campbell can be counted on to make an appearance, as well as Ash's 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

H2020: #2 The Evil Dead (1981)

Written and directed by Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead is one of the most popular low budget horror films of all time. Shot in a guerilla style under hazardous conditions with a cast and crew of college students, the movie would launch a popular franchise of sequels, remakes, musical, and a television series. 

The premise was a familiar one for the era, a group of college kids decide to vacation at a remote cabin and things go terrifyingly wrong. Raimi spins a film of suspense and guile, a symphony of incessant chaos. When all hell literally breaks loose, a haunted house claustrophobia sets in. The gore aesthetic utilizes a cacophony of methods, usually involving Karo Oil, coffee, milky substances, and fake blood. Gore effects in movies seem to work best when they achieve verisimilitude, somewhere between the real, fake, and the fantastic. The Evil Dead succeeds to near perfection with its litany of splattering bodily fluids. 

Things quickly go amiss when they are driving through the woods and they stumble upon a rickety bridge as a POV presence follows them. The banality of these five kids, not unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, adds tension to the opening act. Ashley (Bruce Campbell) is the only with any personality, more quiet and passive at first. Things go awry when they discover an ancient book in the cabin basement with a set of tape recordings. They listen to a professor recount a horrific series of events, then even creepier voices read from the book and summon the evil spirits. Once the terror takes off, starting when Cheryl (Ellen Sandweis) is sexually assaulted by a tree in an unnervingly convincing and controversial scene, but it serves a purpose: we've crossed a threshold into a terrifying realm with no rules. An onslaught of demonic possession, cannibalism, and dismemberments ensue. 

Raimi's visceral filmmaking is of the highest level with the resources available: jarring and unrelenting. A flurry of uncanny imagery and scenarios ranging from comic to nauseating, often times both. We witness the female characters become demotic fiends as Ashley looks on in shock. The sexual nature of their attacks adds another layer of unease for the audience, Ashley being straddled by his beheaded ex-girlfriend being an example. There's also the idea of being dead, but not really dead, that's a recurring motif (especially in a morbid burial scene). All of human decency and ritual are overturned in a fight for survival. Raimi cut out more serious scenes when Ash reflects on the losses and wisely kept the focus on the slapstick splatter.

An enduring quality of The Evil Dead is that it simultaneously repulses and entertains, straddling the line between the cartoonish and realistic. Breaking taboos while reestablishing a sense of normalcy through the character Ashley. Raimi's skillful direction prevents The Evil Dead from being just another schlock horror film.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

H2020: #1 Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The vampire genre has proved a fertile ground for musings on immortality. From Interview With a Vampire to the classic 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, all explore the curse of not being able to die. Jim Jarmusch employs such an approach in Only Lovers Left Alive, one of my favorites of the past decade. 

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve, two vampires who've been living for the past 500 years. They refer to mortal humans as zombies. They spend alternating long periods of being apart and together. Eve is living in Tangiers and maintains her friendship with the playwright and Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who faked his death in 1593. Adam lives a solitary life in Detroit and writes music for local rock musicians through his intermediary in the music industry Ian played by the late Anton Yelchin. Both depressed and missing each other, Eve sets out for Detroit to reunite with Adam. When Eve's mischievous sister Ava played by Mia Wasilkowska arrives the brief respite ends.  

Once reunited, Adam and Eve have officially been married three times, both reflect on the decades since their last meeting. Eve is fascinated with abandoned Detroit at night, reflecting, "when the cities in the South burn, Detroit will bloom." They have lived on the fringes of civilization and witnessed many rise and fall over the centuries. The combination of Detroit and Tangiers creates a unique mood. 

Despite their hip charm, vampires still thirst for human blood. Adam has a contact at the hospital "Dr. Watson" played by a suspicious Jeffrey Wright who supplies him with a fresh supply. Obtaining blood the old fashioned way, preying on unsuspecting victims, is only used for emergencies and considered obsolete. When not in need of blood, they pursue their various artistic and intellectual pursuits. Adam is a science prodigy and at one time aspired to emulate his heroes Galileo and Einstein, but at some point lost faith in science as a means of changing the world and now composes music. Eve still believes in the power of art.

Swinton and Hiddleston both provide a sense of tragedy and sensuality to their roles, both cursed and blessed with immortality. Music is the force sustaining both of them. There's no low brow or high brow, references run the gambit from Eddie Cochrane to Jack White and they're always on the lookout for something new, even in a world they view to be in terminal decline. At one point Eve asks, "Have the water wars started yet?"

I suppose living for centuries on end would lead any thinking person to philosophy. Watching the film during a time of quarantine felt cathartic, a vampire's life is built around social distance and nighttime after all! We're all torn between our primal instincts and aspirations to a more dignified approach to life so the characters Adam and Eve are relatable. 

Jarmusch's ennui aesthetic he's employed throughout his career starting with Stranger Than Paradise segue ways perfectly with the vampire film. Only Lovers Left Alive is drowned in darkness and neon, life on the space between the birth and death of a culture.