Friday, October 16, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #13: Guillermo del Toro's CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

"Ghosts are real." - Guillermo del Toro... scuse me, Edith Cushing, right.


First off, to pull a page from Roger Ebert's review of the Coens' Miller's Crossing, I'll gush first in regards to Crimson Peak about the 'haunted' house where 2/3rds of the action takes place.  Allerdale Hall is one of the great places in the movies, modern or, hell, otherwise.  Walking in it's basically a production designer's wet dream (or perhaps a nightmare to pull off, though I imagine with Guillermo del Toro you have a vision to guide you like few others in today's cinema).  The entire place has depth and dimension, as if you're there in such a way that a 3D movie would only mimic or, really, make smaller. 

The staircase is scary, the elevator has its feeling of clustrophobia, there's always a sharp knife that can appear that can really hurt you, and then all of those hidden places like the bottom level with the big cisterns (please correct me if that's what they're not called).  Not to mention that it is constantly snowing inside - the roof has a giant hole, you see, so there's always that sense that the outside world is trying to take over this place, which is grand and majestic but has also rotted with time and, naturally in the case of this story, the ghosts and phantoms of all that have perished.  In large part, we may find out, not by accident. 

I could go on and on about that 'Peak' - called so because of the red matter that is being mined by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) - but there is a story here, much more in a Gothic tradition of literature (and, frankly, trashy horror-romance novels).  It starts with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as the daughter of a businessman who may be able to assist Sharpe with a business proposition he has with a machine to mine, except that he won't and finds something 'off' about him.  But she finds him intriguing, not least of which as he gives her his interest and seems genuine.    And she also meets his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who has her own kind of Gothic ambiance about her - rarely, if ever (not ever, actually now that I think of it) is she dressed in anything but black - and it would appear Thomas would like to ask for Edith's hand.  The father is the main obstacle.  Once that is, erm, well, not to say too much on that for now, Edith does marry Thomas and they head to the Sharpe family home of Allerdale Hall.

Did I mention that the Hall is far away from town (four hours by foot), and is falling apart/slowly sinking?  And that Edith is an author, or trying to be, and has a story with a ghost in it.  Seems peculiar, but as she explains to a reader, "The ghost is a metaphor."  To say that del Toro takes this line as meta for his film is an understatement, but what's fascinating (but also kind of frustrating) about this film is how it actually is as opposed to how it was marketed. 

People - such as the crowd around me seeing it on a Friday night - expect a horror movie, and it is that time of the Halloween season.  While the kids may have their Goosebumps, the adults (or, perhaps, 14 year old 'Bookish' girls) have this film, which is also super violent (more on that in a moment, my patient readers).  But is it horror?  According to that above-linked interview, del Toro claims it's far more in the "Gothic" tradition, where it's not the supernatural beings but the humans, and weird family dynamics, that drive the drama.  In this case, it's an overblown melodrama to the max.

This isn't to say the ghosts aren't effective... Ok, they are and they aren't.  At first, when a young Edith is visited by the ghost of her mother, it is scary and creepy, but in that way where there's almost nothing she can do about it.  But what's so striking here is the same thing as in Pan's Labyrinth: this is a female character who does not fight or grapple much with the ghosts around her - except to the extent that at Crimson Peak (where she was warned not to go to, albeit how could she have known with all that RED around her, maybe a clue, but I digress).  She just knows that ghosts exists, and this comes from a director who believes that monsters and supernatural beings are simply HERE in the world with us (that or he has a helluva celebrity profile he puts on).  At ant rate, these ghosts are here... but they're also CGI ghosts, which is a stark, not totally effective contrast with the fact that everything else, this Hall, everything in it, IS real, and the color palette from del Toro and DP Dan Lausten heightens how dark and grim and RED everything is.

In other words, Crimson Peak has been sold to the American public as a supernatural horror movie, and it's actually something else entirely; this means that a good number of audience members, who might find being rowdy at a horror movie is not only not bad but accepted and in a way encouraged, will have to sit and take in a story that has (shock of shocks) real characters (far as this kind of story goes) and stakes that don't involve screaming teens or the typical worried parents or found-footage jump-scares. 

Sure, there are moments del Toro fucks with his audience, having a spectre running around quickly by in the background - something that deservedly gets a bellow of laughter - but it's almost like the ghosts are an afterthought in the bigger plan of the story, that they're there to warn or give pieces of information to the heroine, but not in a way that feels affecting  This is, at heart, after all, a love triangle, or depending on your point of view (with the Charlie Hunnam character, who comes in and out as a doctor investigating what happened to Edith's father) quadrangle between the Sharpe siblings, Edith and the doctor.

Mostly the Doctor is out of the picture (something I didn't expect, given the third act), so that leaves these three souls in this big old house.  Hiddleston and Chastain soak up these roles to their fullest potential, and while Hiddleston is a handsome, charming man who veers towards being creepy, Chastain embraces being a cold-but-also-hot creature of slow-building death and destruction.  You know the moment you see her on the screen she's bad news, but that's what's fun about a character like this in a story like this, no? 

And the dynamic between Hiddleson and Wasikowska is not to so far removed from Jane Eyre... except that it gets drenched all into the red-coal and blood-soaked world of del Toro.  Of course bad things are happening to Edith, and will continue to do so, and the question for these characters is: can they make the choices to change?  Is that really a question for one or the other?  Hell hath no fury in a del Toro story like someone, especially in these period pieces, that goes against the will of someone so set in their ways.

Chastain, like Captain Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth, is a character who has a point of view, and whether you agree with it or not (most certainly, most of us will not) she expresses it and holds to it and will cut someone's throat - or much, much more - if one gets in her way.  Chastain so commits to it that it's easy to forget just two weeks ago she was the committed, smart leader of the Pegasus ship in Scott's The Martian, and much earlier this year (technically a 2014 release) she was the wife of a questionable businessman in A Most Violent Year

The way Chastain is going, we may indeed have a new Meryl Streep on our hands.  And I'm not sure I can remember the last time I saw Streep do so much with a cup of tea or, especially, a sharp knife to a face or with another guy's face to a sink.  Del Toro's nastiest, most vital villains are the ones who have solid convictions and believe what they're doing is what has to be. 

By the way, this is a brutally violent film.  One may take that for granted from a director who is known by and large in the US for his spectacles - Hellboy 1 & 2 and Pacific Rim - but as the director of bloody films that have that blood and gore soaked from a historical tradition of gruesome carnage from people who just lose grip on, uh, anything, it's not surprising to see where Crimson Peak goes.  It's clear once again that del Toro can't help, as an artist in that perfected auteur-type of mold, to go back to things that just tickle his sense of the tactile and what can genuinely shock us. 

Bugs are one thing, and there are several here (at one point a butterfly is eaten by ants - actually a more effective bit of CGI than many of the ghosts here), and at times they're placed about in such a way that they may be missed, or are part of the framework of parts of the Hall to where we can't not expect them, if that makes sense.  And then the violence is the other thing; something about this man and horrible things in bathrooms, or with flesh torn apart in places that is just 'HERE IT IS'.  How does one explain it?  Why bother to look too deep?  Maybe it's from living in the harshness of Mexico for all those decades. 

To finish off, Crimson Peak is a lush, exciting and original film (and yet acknowledges in many ways the influences it wear on all sleeves) that is in love with how it is lovingly made and presented, and is a ghost story about ghosts and also a (mostly) tawdry incestually-drenched Gothic 'romance' with melodramatic intentions.  I might find something similar in the classic literature section, but I would also find something similar in my wife's section of book's that she knows are trashy historical pieces.  It's also a movie in love with the 'gotcha' moments of suspense that we'd hope and look for with this filmmaker, but it's about so many other things. 

My face whenever someone talked behind me during the movie.
In a way I don't blame the bleating ewes around me at the theater from chatting here and there during the movie... no, that's a lie, I do, but I mean that by how the film IS something that you would not expect from the commercials: it's dark and twisted and says things about human nature that will make us uncomfortable.  Maybe del Toro firmly knows this, to the point where a line is said before a waltz between Edith and Thomas (and forgive me if I'm paraphrasing):

"I like being uncomfortable.  You close your eyes to what you should see."
"I don't like to be uncomfortable.  I want to keep my eyes open."

Once again, Guillermo, not a perfect film, but... I salute you. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Robert Zemeckis' THE WALK 3D

The Walk is a movie that is at odds with itself. I don't mean in any conscious way, at least that the director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis would fess up to. It's a film that features spectacular direction, the kind that makes me like to go to Zemeckis movies - hell, even in 3D, which is a rarity for me (maybe once a year I go, and this was the one), but for this director he makes it worthwhile for the scope and how he moves the camera in high-flying spaces, kind of his thing - and has a lead character who is charismatic as well as arrogant and presumptuous, but with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a very human stubborn 'artiste' which makes it watchable and fun. But the writing is where it falters. Oh, my dear readers, it so so falters.

I'll break this up into the good/really good, and the not-good. This is an inherently captivating story, and fitting for a cinematic treatment - keep in mind this is the medium that has its roots in figures who did feats of daring-do (think Harold Lloyd going up the building in Safety Last, or any given Buster Keaton flick) - as it revels in spectacle. This is about a man who loves to walk on a wire, and to take it into an artistic plane; it's not simply about defying physical odds (though I'm sure that's there, it has to be for a stuntman, which is what he is technically speaking), but about performance. He is basically an outcast clown, as he has the opportunity in this story to join a circus with a solid trainer (Ben Kingsley is the French/Czech mentor) and instead chooses his own path, and somehow the World Trade buildings catch his attention: so high off the ground, at a place where one can cross if they so do try.

It's through this mission, this 'coup' (it sounds like that anyway how Philippe says it) that this Frenchman with this rugged determination decides to put a wire up between the twin towers just before the buildings are completely finished and open to the public. It's at heart a heist film, but the twist is that it's a crime all for the 'art' of the dare of performing. It still has that format though, and it's great fun seeing how Philippe and his photographer friend (and would-be love interest, slightly underwritten but a good friend character) come to New York with him to find "accomplices" - his word, not mine. And when it comes time to pull off this 'heist' of space and time, which is the only way I can describe it, it's nothing less than thrilling cinema.
This story and this character, sometimes assholish, sometimes utterly whimsical and very, very French, is hard to resist if one is looking for a spectacle that prizes the simple but inherently thrilling sight of a man walking on a wire. It's also about in an absorbing, creative way the process to how Philippe learns how to trust the wire he walks on, learn when it works or doesn't, and how to concentrate like some kind of Zen master. It's nothing short of fascinating and leads up to a performance from Levitt as this man that's as funny as it is awe-inspiring (watch as he keeps walking, and walking, and going back again when he could stop, perhaps just to see if he can really do it). And the supporting cast is game, and Alan Silvestri's score does a good (if not all great) job of adding heft and dimension to the scenes that need them, including some Beethoven's 5th in the climactic walk itself. So much is excellent with the film that... it's a shame that there's a fatal flaw, so fatal that it almost makes me hesitant to recommend the film at all: narration. Useless goddamn narration.

The screenwriters walking the tightrope of my patience... and they FALL OFF!
I can't tell you how much it takes me out of a scene to see this character, in the framing device of talking to the audience as he stands at the top of the Statue of Liberty and talks to the audience... and talks and talks and talks, telegraphing so many of his emotions and thoughts in the moment and/or after the fact, even when (especially when) Zemeckis is already showing these actions or close to it on screen. It's so strange to see Zemeckis fail at this so miserably when he used narration in a creative way in Forrest Gump; I wondered watching The Walk why it worked there and it doesn't here, and I think it's about what it tells about the character as well as the story - Forrest is giving us this long, sprawling, life-long journey and it's a unique, even satirical perspective.

Philippe is not like that - many of his thought and such are at best unnecessary and at worse make him a bore of an 'artist', to a pretentious degree, and at absolute best maybe 5% of the narration gives us some character we wouldn't see or get otherwise from the actor. We should be able to see, and often DO anyway, on the face of Levitt what he's thinking or feeling as he does this or that, and can see well enough what other characters are doing like Kingsley's guy. Narration is difficult to do in any movie, but here it's so terrible as to make one pine for the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, or Luke Wilson in Middle Men.

Perhaps if one can block out that side of the movie, The Walk will be a blast for most open audiences. Again, the basic story of what this man did in 1974, what lead up to it and the little details leading up to the "steal", makes for a core plot that is fantastic and carries that true-but-escapist flair we like to go to big movies like this for. On the one hand the movie has a different take on how to achieve fame than we get to see in, say, the average sports movie, and yet it's also not a movie that uses heights to address peril in the way we usually see, and it's refreshing, not to mention how committed Levitt is to the role (as are the supporting actors, albeit a couple of 'types' really do stick out). On the other hand, when you have your main character telling you things that not only don't need to be said but are already SHOWN, it mucks with the cinematic form. It's A-grade filmmaking with a C minus grade script.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #12: Troma's POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD

"That's strange. Nobody said anything about thunderstorms in windowless basements."

A movie like Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead in a very odd way could be similar to a Twilight movie or Transformers in one respect (movies that Lloyd Kaufman would be I'm sure proud to take a massive diarrhea-splatter-mess-disaster-apocalypse shit all over like in a particular scene in this): it's critic proof.  People who see it are going to see it, all based on the brand that is Troma entertainment. 

Yes, I can tell you how much I laughed at certain parts of the movie (I did), and if there was a test screening where I was the sole subject and my laugh-meter and face registering disgust and 'eww-gross' faces and 'WTF' moments, it'd seem like this movie was a total blast.  But can I actually dissect its messages or its unique vision or how certain shots were composed and the mis-en-scene of the thing?  Uh... let me think... NO.  So, is it any *good*?  Let's see...

If there's one thing about Poultrygeist that I can tell you is that, more than Toxic Avengers or Class of Nuke 'Em High or even Tromeo & Juliet, there is no change in tone throughout the movie.  It hits 11 right at the first scene and doesn't stop, where the main couple - Jason Yachanin as Arbie and Kate Graham as Wendy (GET IT, oh, there's more) - are dry-humping in a cemetery and the loose-rip-off set up from Poltergeist is established with groping arms and hangs that come out from under the ground (that there's an Indian burial ground, and once it gets bulldozed-over and a fried chicken franchise is set up, the chicken will rise from the dead).  Oh, not to mention in that scene a guy gets anally-invaded and the demon-chicken or whatever it is (was that it?) comes out of the guy's mouth, underwear in tow.  So, in other words, excess is not only the name of the game, it's all Lloyd Kaufman has got here.

You wanna see a guy (a big fat-ass named Jared ala Subway, a joke that in 2015 now has a different connotation) shitting out diarrhea all over the walls in such a way that is amusing just for how much it goes for (I don't like shit jokes unless the actor themselves, i.e. Jeff Daniels in D&D, can sell it), and THEN followed up with the demon-chicken-whatever making him implode/fall into himself and a skinny man covered in blood pop out of his body?  Here.  How about a musical number (one of several) where the now lesbian Wendy sings with Mickie (Allyson Sereboff) about what it means to have the highs of, uh, Lesbian love?  Or what about a talking sloppy Joe (sorry, 'Jose') that tells about what these un-dead chicken demons are going to do?  Or about 2912938109103223912020103 other things that this movie fucking does?  Good almighty Christ!

I think I actually can, and will, genuinely criticize the movie on a couple of points.  Kaufman and company set up early on this will be a musical.  This didn't totally thrill me, as the songs are mostly just bland and have to be bumped up by the "MESSAGE" of the lyrics (they're obvious for good reason, as is everything else in the movie, but not as clever as they'd like to be), but hey, it's a musical, let's see where they go with it. 

But after about 45 minutes in, and certainly when shit really starts to hit the fan in the last, oh, 40 minutes when it's just a gigantic action scene with little moments of Arbie (not) figuring things out quickly, the songs stop.  Sure, there's a soundtrack with some sporadic alt-rock songs, but with the exception of one sort of half-assed-half-way song near the end involving one of the undead-Chickens, it stops being a musical.  It should've made up its mind, but the problem is that the songs that are here are kind of weak and the performers are mixed (Graham can sing OK, while Watkins, as the "General", has a number that flatlines) - that said it is fun to see Kaufman, as the elder Arbie, having a song AND dance number with Yachanin. 

I know it's not intentional, but how weird would it be if that young guy was actually the kid from Moonrise Kingdom a few years later? It's the same outfit...
The other thing is that, yes, we should throw all logic out by the time that the undead-chickens start attacking and people come back from the dead and sprout chicken heads and grow beak-noses and things like breasts popping out with devil-chicken-eggs coming out (and the little baby birds need to be fed while attacked to the breasts, of course, silly).  But certain characters just come back and it would seem like they should be dead.  Hell, even Kaufman coming back for the climax doesn't make sense, as he is meant to be the 'vision' to Arbie of his future self.  Why is he there for everyone to see?  Well... I should let that one go.  After all, how many times in cinema history do we get Lloyd Kaufman plugging away with a machine gun at a guy in a zombified chicken outfit?

Not Lloyd Kaufman.... yet.  Watch out, Caitlin Jenner! You got competition coming!  But I digress...
See what I mean by trying to criticize it though?  I will say one more thing: the movie is sporadically very, very funny, in large part due to ridiculous puppet work, or for things like a man, fucking a chicken in the back, getting a broom-handle so far stuck in his ass that it comes out through his dick (yes, the dick-head is at the end of the broom handle.  But other times it just tries way, way too hard - yes, and I'm saying that about a goddamn, motherfucking crazy-ass shit-diarrhea-storm like a 21st century Troma movie. 

Some of that I put on the actor Yachanin, who is so grating that for as much as the movie can try to appeal to the inner 13-year old in me, he's ONLY appealing to 13 year olds comedically.  And while some of the racial jokes have some over-the-top merit - i.e. Humus and the jokes about 9/11 and Jihad clearly making fun of racists, what about near the end where (spoiler, but really, do you care) it's revealed that she's really a hot white woman with a.... bomb that's been strapped there all along?  And this after already hulking out on Meat-Steroid juice that made her die and.... Oh, nevermind.

I've seen a mix of reactions on IMDb and other places - on Rotten Tomatoes, the sort of unofficial arbiter of all critical taste it seems these days (didn't check Metacritic), the movie has a 64% rating - some calling it Troma's best movie, while others calling it their worst.  And it's interesting to see the reactions from these people, at least it was for me, just based on who had seen previous Troma movies and didn't like it (or loved it), and those coming to it cold, likely seeing the title and premise and hoping to get a trashy guilty pleasure.  Some say it's a bat-shit crazy masterpiece, while others come away wondering who could've made such appalling

Ultimately, with Poultrygeist, I came in somewhere in the middle: I had some pleasures watching some of this, and when the big HOLY SHIT (first) climax happens at the restaurant and the undead chickens wreak havoc, it actually got disturbingly gory and gruesome, which I didn't expect.  But there is a certain point where it's overbearing with its political message - and yes, it has one, which is, uh, fuck the world really, and both lesbian liberals and corporate fatcats are ruining everything, not to mention Mel Gibson with his Jesusy nonsense.  Of course it does revel in wanton chaos and mayhem, and we expect that coming from Kaufman/Herz's work on Toxic and Troma's War and so on.  But is there a point where one can say 'enough is fucking enough, guys', or 'We've now seen that same car crash for the 19th time!'

For them, I picture dying on set covered in fake blood and green slime while a girl is yelling and dancing with her boobs out and rock music plays on the background.  That's Troma: it's stupid, it's gross, it's obnoxious, it's in-your-face, and it MEANS IT kind of punk rock filmmaking at its most, uh, Troma-iest.  

PS: The final 'Poultrygeist' theme song over the end credits IS really catchy

Sunday, October 11, 2015


And now time for another documentary - this one is about just one movie instead of, like, all of them.  And what a.... beast of a movie.  ::Badumptish::  Ok, on to the review. 

I remember seeing the trailer/commercials for the Island of Dr. Moreau around the time it came out.  I was too young to go see it by myself, and didn't, frankly, have much interest in rushing out to see it either; it would've been a right time, as it was just in that period where I was either just about to start or was getting already into horror movies.  Some of them were just your standard, franchise-slashers (Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers), but I also got into zombie stuff (the Romero world) and From Dusk till Dawn - basically anything that looked good and gory was fine. 

With this, I just wasn't sure what to think of it, and this documentary about its sort of unmaking (the firing of Richard Stanley) and then its disastrous remaking with a different director, is worth it that the movie got made in the first place.  Well, almost; Dr. Moreau itself isn't a very good movie, as it's so bugfuck insane and yet by turns still another horror-action movie from the Hollywood machine (with one or two truly WTF scenes, mostly thanks to Brando with a head full of ice cubes and Kilmer doing a Brando imitation). But those reasons may or may not be answered by this documenary.

But who is Richard Stanley?  This is something that Lost Soul is out to inquire about, and for the first half we get to know roughly who he is - in large part through his love of the original HG Wells story, that he presented it to New Line Cinema through producer Edward R. Pressman and got excited "like a kid in a candy store" in the pre-production process.  This is contrary to what I thought that it was just another property Hollywood was looking to cash in on, which is what makes Stanley's fate extra tragic.  Who is he exactly?  Well... kind of an odd dude, to the very conventional (typical) Hollywood type of moviemaker or crew person or executive... actually, not to the crew, at last for the most part.

 What's so good and credible about the approach that David Gregory takes is that Stanley doesn't come off, from the testimonies from the interviews assembled - i.e. cast member Fairuza Balk, studio head Robert Shaye, members of the Stan Winston make-up group, other cast, Pressman - as just one thing.  He is stand-offish and unable to communicate with people on the set one moment, and the next he is very nice, approachable, and able to express his vision to people who need to get his direction.  Stanley certainly gives the impression that he was passionate about this (basically, his career of two previous independent horror films lead up to this as his studio breakthrough), though also... odd, but in a way that's, shall one say, quirky (?)  What else to explain for how seriously he takes (or took) a "wizard" who did some sort of spell on the other side of the world while Stanley met for the first time Marlon Brando, and because he said yes it validated his effectiveness at wizardry (and, on the flip-side, when the wizard dies in the midst of pre-production due to a freak illness, the production goes south). 

One may remember seeing Stanley last year in the great documentary on Alejandro Jodorowsky's saga of (not) making an adaptation of Herbert's Dune; he gives some interesting commentary on the artistic process, not least of which about Jodorowsky himself, and I was reminded without him saying it that he, too, came from a troubled production at one time.  And in the intervening years I've read about the story of Moreau's misbegotten state of how-it-became (thanks to IMDb and the book 'The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made" by David Hughes). 

But what will grab your attention about this movie is that, for a long stretch in the second half, Stanley disappears.  For good reason, as he got fired from the production after 4 days - one suspects, given some of the testimony, they found Stanley's designs too weird and 'off', but the official reason was that the footage wasn't suitable - and yet for other reasons that were not his fault (Brando's daughter died, a hurricane came in just as the production got started and messed up any outdoor shooting plans, Kilmer was a prep-school-bully asshole hot off Batman).

Brando's look of consternation is actually him holding in a really big poop...
If I missed anything it was Stanley in the 2nd half as the sort of 'star' of the movie.  What compensates is that the story of the full, physical production of Dr. Moreau is, really, one of those 'Nuts' stories, in ways that are typical and not so much.  In a massive, extraordinary and 'That-Makes-Total-Sense' coincidence, Brando played Kurtz in the troubled production of Apocalypse Now (which at least had the grace to, you know, become one of the great films), and the writers of both these books - Wells of Moreau and Conrad of Hearts of Darkness - were friends and had a falling out when Conrad wrote 'Hearts' after Moreau, which Wells took to be a rip-off (i.e. a Madman in the jungle, with the point of view of the outsider coming to see him, and the 'natives' all around him, though in Wells that's not really the case).  For Kurtz I actually get it for Brando, contrary to some opinion out there who hate that part of the movie, but I wonder still if someone else would've been a better fit for Dr. Moreau.  But, needless to say, Brando definitely takes over (with, uh, some other cats), in the second half of this movie.  And... goddamn.

(I think the moment where I lost it is the anecdote where Robert Shaye, in giving an example as to why Brando was the most difficult actor to ever work with in a lifetime, mentioned an anecdote where Brando was talking to one of the producers or an actor and suggested shutting down the set, reworking the script, all in the purpose of reshooting his scenes so that he would spend the whole movie wearing hats... and at the end of the movie it's revealed, when he takes off his hat, that he has the head of a dolphin!  Just.... I can't even... ok, back to the review).

It's not that money ran out or that the conditions with the weather got/stayed bad after the hurricane.  No, what makes the production go crazy are the things, chiefly, that can make a production kind of suck: a director who is a total asshole (John Frankenheimer), not to mention a hired gun who doesn't even really like the script (one of the actors, by the way, recalls asking the director what his vision of the movie is, and he responds, "Ugh, who needs a vision, I'm telling a *story*, plus I have my own writer"); two stars who were basically, in no uncertain terms, looking to sabotage the production, one (Brando) being that he kind of hated acting and saw it as a lark anyway, and only took it seriously insasmuch (at that point for sure) for the bucks, and another (Kilmer) who would do things like (dear God) setting the focus puller's hair on fire just as a shot is about to get set up. 

This is all to say that Brando, Kilmer and Frankenheimer, who all hated each other to the point where the actors wouldn't leave their trailers one day until the other came out first, made the made-up actors and crew become aimless and party recklessly and, at best, stay pissed off and bewildered in make-up that would take hours to put on and take off on just the off change they would come to set.

Actual concept art from Stanley's vision; there was go be a scene - and Stanley saw him as Dr. Beard - as women birthing human-animal hybrids with dog-men as nurses... which is one of the many awesomely wild ideas here.
In other words, Lost Soul is about, perhaps, the 'Lost Soul' of the Moreau movie itself, as it got taken over by other writers, new actors who were given direction but not very clearly by the beleaguered if professional Frankenheimer, (David Thewlis who, ironically according to IMDb, was a choice by Stanley but turned down initially), and more conventional bat-shit crazy ideas (i.e. the Spanish actor, who was cast by Stanley, given the mega-prominent role as Brando's side-kick - a choice by Brando made iconic in South Park and Austin Powers parodies).  Or, plain and simple, as Fairuza Balk says, it all comes down to fucking money.  Why does a production like Island of Dr. Moreau get finished while Gilliam's Don Quixote gets abandoned after five days of shooting (re: Lost in La Mancha)?  Does the studio matter in these cases?  Pretty bloody well likely, one would think.  And what about Mr. Stanley, and how he views it? 

Ultimately, Richard Stanley, after basically thinking he'd never direct again, said he went to live in the mountains somewhere, far away from Hollywood, where he could avoid doing things like, say, dressing up as one of the extras after being fired and sneaking on to set (he appears, one is shown in the doc, *on film* behind one of the dog masked-beasts).  He actually HAS made more movies since Moreau, but all under-the-radar stuff, shorts and documentaries.  What one comes away with is a man who went through a nightmare - a director who was inexperienced at a level of filmmaking at this mega-budgeted studio level ($35 million in 1995 dollars) - and is now philosophical about it, at least to a degree. 

So, in short, you get a lot of different takes, the 'what ifs' of Stanley's vision, and the reality of what Hollywood does when ideas can't be corralled and artists don't get the backing and bad luck rears its ugly head.  Though it's not the best of these 'perfect storm disaster' type of movies-about-movies docs, and is missing some people that should've participated (Michael DeLuca for one, but also actors Ron Perlman and David Thewlis are sorely missed), it's a very good one, and you may be intrigued enough to seek out his other films, Hardware and Dust Devil.  I know I am now...


Spooktacular Savings #10: Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS (1961)

"Sometimes, one can't help.... imagining things..."

The Innocents appears on first glance looking at the premise to be another ghost story, or some case of the supernatural, that takes place during a period setting (19th or early 20th century, one of those time periods).  It is that, but oh it is so much more than that.  What The Innocents does is look at human nature and what happens with good people who are pushed to the edge.  We always try to be good people - most of us, maybe not the Sociopaths or those driven by religious fervor, but I digress - but especially to those we care about.  Deborah Kerr's character loves children, how they're innocent, how they play, how they wonder, the goodness in them.  But what if they aren't good, or what if there are malevolent forces?  What if she's just seeing things?

This is a film, directed by Jack Clayton and from a Henry James book ("Turn of the Screw", which I heard about for years) and co-written by Truman Capote, that posits what happens when someone like the good and caring Governess Miss Giddens is compelled to save the children from what she sees as supernatural entities ("abominations", as she calls them at one point).  She starts seeing them not too soon after she arrives to the home where the young Flora (Pamela Franklin) lives and is taken care of usually by Mrs. Grose (Meg Jenkins in a really fine performance, which I'll elaborate on shortly).  The young boy Miles is away at school - until, the Governess discovers, he's not, that he's being sent home for some reason that means he's expelled.  So now the children are together again - and things keep seeming a little 'off' around them, like, say, there could be someone else in the room....

I thought I knew what I would be getting within 20 minutes or so of The Innocents, that this would be some sort of ghost story and maybe it would be about the former workers on the estate who are haunting Kerr and the children.  Certainly that's what we're led to believe in some of the set-up, and in those shadowy figures that Kerr sees at night.  At least, at first it's at night, and in a way that makes it seem like 'oh, maybe I just saw something - not a figure on a tower, just, uh, something else.'  But then she sees it during the day time, such as a woman in black and standing, staring at her.  Can anyone else see this woman, or the man who looks exactly like the one in the locket?  Unfortunately, no, and it isn't the kind of subject, i.e. why can't you/don't you see the dead people who you used to know very well around here, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint', that can be broached around the children.  But there's more to it than that.

Point of view is crucial when it comes to a good horror movie, and can make or break one when a filmmaker is aiming to make a great one (i.e. Pan's Labyrinth being from the girl's POV for the most part, of The Shining from that of the father, mother and son in equal measure).  In this movie, it's all from Kerr's Miss Giddens, and naturally we side with what she is seeing, these malevolent forces and spirits who are calling out in the night and making things especially haunted in the hallways.  And all this while, the Mrs. Grose believes here - up to a point.  I really like how Jenkins plays it in these scenes, which make up a large part of the mid-section as Giddens keeps figuring things out, scene by scene.  I don't think Grose is someone who wants to see anything bad from any side, and in a way she's secretly more of someone the audience would relate to than even the Governess; she's ignorant, or wants to be or tries to be, of the bad things that have happened and that she's seen over time with these dead people ("they're dead", she tries to say, not to comfort but just as a fact), and yet, that's more common sense, isn't it?  Do we completely trust Giddens' POV every step of the way?

I'm not sure, personally, but that's what makes The Innocents go from a good, spooky ghost story into an exceptional one, that sticks emotionally and cuts through to your gut to terrify on a more instinctual level.  Could all of this be in her mind?  She gets firmer in her conviction that these children are not only haunted by these un-dead entities, but that the spirits may (and are) taking possession of them (i.e. when Flora gets especially spooked by Giddens and freaks out - a lot, this girl has to do a lot of screaming, and does it to the point where it gets upsetting, in a good, dramatic/horrific sense).

But there are little moments I could sense, just maybe, she might have doubts.  After all, no one else is seeing these things, and the ambiguity is constantly notched up whenever someone might refer to 'Others' since there's workers on the facility.  I have to wonder what the film might be like if it ended on a note where it explained, "Yes, this is what was happening to Giddens and the children and so on'.  Moreover, the film's success in its storytelling is not leaving easy answers by the end, either.

A lot of this is strong, convincing and clever writing, on how Kerr sees these kids, which evolves gradually.  They're the sweetest little sprats you could hope to come across.  At least, at first, one should say.  They like to play hide and seek.  Flora has a pet turtle that's as cute as she is.  And then... there's that song, which is hummed by Flora and Giddens asks where she heard it.  "I don't remember," she replies.  Is that so?  How does Miles know it on the piano?  Why does it waft around, sometimes following Kerr like that song follows around Gary Cooper in High Noon?  And then there will be those little moments, those little cues (which Jack Clayton directs so expertly it's mind-boggling how simple but solid these choices are) where we see Miles give a look, or have an expression as he's saying something.  It's not as noticeable with the girl - perhaps, if she is possessed, it's a different reaction than for the young Miles - but it's there as well.

Another horror movie, a shlockier one lets say, could jump immediately to 'Children = evil, must be stopped", but it's not that clear, by far, for Kerr's character.  She wants to save them - she mentions more than once she was raised in a home (religious as it was) that people are good fundamentally and should be treated with the kind of love and respect one would want in return - so she can't immediately snap to harm, or even be strict ala Mary Poppins might get.  To the transformation of how Kerr, as well as how she sees kids, is brilliantly laid out and we get to see this step by step by step, until it's difficult to say that the kids are NOT possessed... or are they?  What if it's just the influence of the spirits?  And can they be saved, whether together or if she has access to Miles one-on-one (which is where it all leads to, by the way)? 

The direction and lead performance from Kerr are spectacular.  Clayton, with a major assist from legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis (Elephant Man, Cape Fear), uses widescreen to create so much depth in the frame, even when it's just shots on the two women taking in a room (in close-ups, but then one may move around while the other listens, and the focus is crisp and sharp).  And when it comes to things that Kerr sees, in the day or the night but especially the night, it's accentuated by the clarity but also how sound is used (that scene where Kerr is walking around from room to room and the sounds of the spirits and the night mix together, it's intensely creepy).

Kerr dominates so well in every scene, sometimes trying her best (and, as per the character, not able) to hide what she wants to say or feel, and then when it comes out we can feel it because of how the actress keeps this maxim: she's a loving person with a perception that can't be easily too shaken.  Few actresses can register shock, constantly, from scene to scene, and keep it into the area of trying to keep things controlled.  But Kerr does... until things just fall apart; that she's beautiful should be neither here nor there, but the remarks people make, like Miles when he first sees her ("I can't imagine a governess being so pretty") can't be by chance or accident.  Another beautiful woman coming in to this home where another beautiful woman - the former governess - once was.  Kerr makes this tension throughout the story palpable and makes it into tragic dimensions.

The Innocents is a major ride of a horror movie, but mostly in the psychological sense.  It grows deeper as you get more drawn in to the mystery, but also just how Miss Giddens can't shake how she HAS to do something, even if, especially if, the others like Mrs. Grose are ambivalent (or, perhaps, just don't believe here, which is reasonable given the circumstances).  Francis is there to create the ominous, awesomely elusive mood, and the actors are there to make it into a dramatic spectacle.  I might even say it's a tragic picture - about loss (of others on the young), about losing one's sense of self, about denial, about a lot of things in a way that drives one to wonder about the mind and that always drives the narrative in a way like 'I wanna see what happens next!'

As for the 'Innocence' part... well, just remember as Mr. Waits once said: