Friday, September 30, 2022

H22 #3: The Fly (1986)

 


A tragedy disguised as a horror film, David Cronenberg's visceral and hauntingly grotesque remake of the The Fly, is propelled by a razor sharp script and humanistic performances by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.

Seth Brundle (Goldblum) is a brilliant scientist who's isolated himself from most human interaction. He meets science journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) who takes an interest in his work in teleportation and they eventually fall in love. Eager to share Brundle's work with the world, Veronica must fend off her editor Stathis (John Getz) who wants to take credit for the scoop. One night in a drunken fit of jealousy (he believes Veronica is also seeing Stathis) Brundle teleports himself unaware a fly entered the chamber.

A main theme in Cronenberg films is how we evolve as human beings. In the first half we see Brundle's confidence and hubris grow as he prepares for the fame and adulation that will come with his scientific breakthrough. The nuances in Goldblum's performance are subtle. In an early scene he complains of car sickness and his fear of vomiting, am ironic foreshadowing of what's to come. As he begins to transform, Brundle becomes more physically and sexually aggressive, the first step in his metamorphosis into insect. 

As he begins to physically transform, the film becomes a symphony of dread and macabre fascination. Many in the 1980s saw parallels to the AIDS epidemic, a disease mostly afflicting young men in their prime of youth. Cronenberg later stated he viewed it as a metaphor about the fear of aging and disease, specifically cancer. Brundle refuses treatment fearing he will be just another "tumorous patient." 

Seeing Brundle become something else that's ugly and frightening is when the real scares start. He begins to vomit on his food before eating (like a fly), strange fluids come out of his body, and his entire physicality alters. In time his psychology changes, his musings on "insect politics" are unsettling, an existence of unalloyed aggression with no morality. In perhaps the most tragic line, "I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over . . . the insect is awake."

The Fly also draws upon classic literature such as Frankenstein and The Metamorphosis. Anxieties over the human body and psyche undergoing rapid change were Cronenberg's specialty in most of his previous films Shivers and Videodrome. The performances of Goldblum and Davis bring a humanity to the story, we truly feel awful for these characters. The focus on birth and decay imagery provides an unsettling dilemma for the audience as well when considering our own vulnerabilities, a sign of the film's enduring power. 


Thursday, September 29, 2022

H22 #2 The Munsters (2022)


Rob Zombie's foray into family entertainment, a reboot of the beloved 1960s sitcom The Munsters, has been a dream project he's had in development for years. The results are mixed. I'll say this, I liked the Spree (the candy) color scheme, it has an original visual style. The look is somewhere between classic Tim Burton and a Disney World attraction. Unfortunately, the film is consistently unfunny, needlessly plot driven, and way overlong for sitcom style feature.  

Jeff Daniel Phillips and Sheri Moon Zappa lead the cast as Herman and Lily Munster. I found their performances to be one note, not so much uninspired but sinking under the onslaught of corny jokes and repetitive physical gags. Unlike the orginal series, the film is an origin story of how they meant, Herman is a wannabee TV star, while Lily is lovelorn and wanting to break free of her father Grandpa Munster played Daniel Roebuck. There's just not much to the cast of characters other than their goofiness that's never endearing. By keeping the humor on a 1960s sitcom level with no attempt to update for 2022 was obviously intentional and appealing to hardcore fans of the series. In the end, this gleefully anachronistic approach comes off as misguided and at worst grating.

While watching I wondered who the audience was for this labored, but well intentioned, reboot. One may find originality in the borderline anti-comedy/hip to be square approach, or (including myself) a barely memorable curio of pop culture nostalgia. 

**

H22 #1: A Classic Horror Story (2021)


With its ironic title, the 2021 Italian horror movie A Classic Horror Story makes it clear it will go meta from the get go. For the most part it executes on its challenging premise. Similar to A Cabin the Woods, the film explores many horror sub genres including folk, torture porn, and slasher. 

Opening with a group of young people traveling in a RV obviously recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the characters at first come off as superficial but all are allowed to develop. When a wreck leaves them stranded it leads them to take refuge in a cabin hidden in a deep forest, well, you get the idea. They discover many frightening things there including a local cult practicing human sacrifice and medieval torture. While its never exploitative, a definite mood of dread sustains the narrative. 

The character building scenes are effective with Eliza as a young woman dealing with pregnancy and a film student Fabrazio who is not what he appears to be. More character scenes may've made the film even stronger. The reveal at the end felt plausible within the confines of the movie. Well directed and thoughtfully acted, the film is full of surprises and some truly squeamish moments. 

***

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)


Nicolas Roeg's vibrant adaptation of the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis The Man Who Fell to Earth is a product of the 1970s just as the novel was of the early 1960s. The book was a Sci-Fi satire of Space Age America, while Roeg focused on the entropy of modern life. The story imagines a visitor from another planet, who goes by the name Thomas Jerome Newton, on a mission to use the resources and technology of earth to help save his dying planet. Starring David Bowie, ideally cast because of his own fascination with Sci-Fi personas, emerges as a unique anti-hero of 1970s cinema. 

The film begins with Newton landing in New Mexico (Kentucky in the novel) and adapting to a new environment his biology wasn't designed for. He begins to acquire wealth by selling rare jewels and earning patents due to his vast scientific knowledge. Supporting characters include a patent attorney played by Buck Henry, Rip Torn as a chemistry professor who becomes a confidante to Newton, and Candy Clark as Newton's caretaker/lover. 

A recurring issue with the film is that while all these characters are interesting, their relationships never quite work. Rip Torn is almost a separate movie as a brilliant, womanizing professor (in the novel a he's misanthropic loner), while scenes between Bowie and Clark are often aimless, even a little awkward. Buck Henry, always a compelling screen presence (and maybe the all-time greatest SNL host), is under developed as a rare gay character in a 1970s Sci-Fi film.

Yet Bowie's charisma and Roeg's fascinating visual style are enough to sustain the film that feels like a real journey by the end. Newton is a humanoid, but his anatomy and biology function differently than human beings. In time he develops a taste for alcohol, becomes addicted to television, eventually losing focus on his mission. The government discovers Newton and takes him captive and conducts painful experiments on his body. The odd reality of the world in the movie prevents any Twilight Zone type twists, and instead becomes a meditative story on the corrosive influence of modern human civilization - even on a visitor from an advanced planet. 

The novel leans more into Cold War anxieties surrounding nuclear war. Throughout, Newton surmises the earth has only a few decades left before self-destruction, leaving him baffled at how a planet rich with so much water and natural resources rare in the universe (his own planet is nearly out of water) could behave so recklessly. Like the protagonist in Tevis's later book The Queen's Gambit, Newton is a genius and, in this case, a literal alien struggling to live in a world of mediocrity and cheap consumerism, one where science has been coopted by the defense establishment.

Unfortunately, Bowie's own music wasn't used in the film due to contract issues. It's easy to envision Bowie starring in a version of his own Sci-Fi concept album The Rise and Fall Ziggy Stardust, which may have proved to have been richer source material. Roeg was clearly more interested in the sexual aspects of the story, inspiring some of the more outlandish sequences. Yet the sense of alienation and fragmentation in The Man Who Fell to Earth leaves a resonance, making it one of the most iconic Sci-Fi films of the 1970s.

Nope (2022) ***1/2



Jordan Peele's 
Nope may complete a trilogy of Horror-Sci-Fi thrillers that began with Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). Get Out put an original spin on the body snatchers mythos, while Us paid homage to '80s horror, especially the films of George Romero and John Carpenter. Nope may be the most ambitious the trilogy, Western imagery and showbiz mythology loom in a Sci-Fi scenario.

The sound design is fantastic, totally enhancing the theatrical experience. The sound utilized an assortment of animal, weather, and digital sounds. A subtheme running through the movie is film vs digital. Michael Abels' score draws inspirations from Jaws-Close Encounters of the Third Kind era John Williams, with added majestic Morricone flourishes with a satiric edge. 

Without revealing too much of the story, Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star as siblings O.J. and Emerald Haywood. The Haywood family has a long history of being horse wranglers for the film industry. They also own one of the oldest ranches in California. O.J. is introverted and prefers focus on running the ranch, while Emerald handles the business side.  There's a subplot involving an incident with a chimp on a '90s sitcom set, a closely guarded secret by the industry. Steven Yuen appears in a supporting role as a child actor who starred on the sitcom and happens to live near the ranch - he's since reinvented himself as a reality TV star.

Nope works on multiple levels. There's the main story of the mysterious phenomena around the ranch. On a deeper level the film is interrogating representation in Hollywood history, how minority performers were either invisible or present to make the white actors look good, especially in horror and Sci-Fi genres. Get Back expressed how the post-racial moment in America was illusory as the Obama era closed out, while Nope speaks to the continual struggle of the culture at large in 2022 to reckon with the past.

Peele draws upon Sci-Fi and Western iconography; his characters are likable and act with courage and dignity. Embedded in the story, not unlike M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, is also a sense of hope and renewal. The intricate climax is handled with grace, Peele keenly navigates clich├ęs and approaches them from different angles. Some have criticized the film for not fully fleshing out the characters, but I think the minimal exposition works in its favor. 

Like Spielberg, Peele's visual narrative style seamlessly blends everyday objects with the fantastical. The sense of the past constantly informing the present leaves a strong impression. I wonder if Peele will continue making genre films, or like Spielberg, branch into other areas like historical epics or literary adaptations. Either way, I hope the movies keep coming.