Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Prison (1987)

Because of an over-abundance of prisoners the old, dilapidated Creedmore Prison is being reopened after over thirty years. Warden Eaton Sharpe is overseeing the renovations, which are being carried out by the first wave of prisoners, but he still has nightmares about the innocent man he sent to the electric chair in 1956 in this very same prison. Could things go horribly wrong in a way that results in a series of inventively gruesome deaths?

The opening nightmare sequence of this movie is pure dynamite. Using a subjective camera, we are put in the place of a condemned prisoner on the final walk to the electric chair. A scene rather like this one is present in the opening of Orson Welles's fascinating unproduced script for Heart of Darkness, from way back in 1939, the primary difference being that this one breaks the subjective camera to show us the prisoner in the chair rather than continuing to the disturbing fade to red of Welles's version.

We then get back to more familiar ground with scenes of the prison board approving the reopening of the facility, over the objections of the sole female board member, and the prisoners arriving and being browbeaten by the ball-busting Warden. Prisoners are introduced as stock stereotypes: the wise old black guy (a few years before Morgan Freeman made this role his stock in trade); the hairy white biker rapist and his pretty-boy cellmate; the huge black guy; the scared black guy; the weasly white guy; the voodoo-worshipping black guy; the doofus Italian guy; some guy; some other guy; and, of course, the clean-cut white hero.

Things are ominous right from the start, but it's not until the execution chamber is broken open that the vengeful spirit is unleashed and the killings start. And wow, these really are some gruesomely inventive killings.

I thought that Prison was a highly entertaining movie. It's filmed in an actual abandoned prison, and it makes great use of this location both for its atmosphere and for its set-pieces. The story races along at a terrific pace, and it's all quite stylishly photographed and the cast is good, in a broad horror-movie kind of way. Some elements of the movie reminded me of earlier movies (especially A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Keep) but it's not derivative and emerges as very much its own beast. There are some glaring script issues that I really wish had been addressed, but for me the movie's virtues outstripped its flaws.

In a number of ways Prison is very much a horror movie of its time. It has a vengeful supernatural killer from beyond the grave, it's built around the aforementioned series of murder set-pieces, and the whole movie is covered in layers of smoke and grime and lit by shafts of blue light and an abundance of special-effects electrical sparks. It was the first American film for Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose next movie was A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Most ominously of all, it's produced by Charles Band's Empire Pictures, known for such schlockfests as Ghoulies and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.

On the other hand, Prison is the brainchild of producer Irwin Yablans, who first came to prominence when he proposed a story to fledgling filmmakers John Carpenter & Debra Hill called The Babysitter Murders, about a psycho who kills babysitters. Carpenter & Hill, of course, worked this up into Halloween. In this particular case, Yablans had an idea for a movie called Murder in the Big House, about a psycho killing people in prison. (Yablans does not have a knack for catchy titles.) Scriptwriter C. Courtney Joyner pointed out that there are always lots of killers with knives in prison and suggested that the story take a more supernatural spin. It's a shame that his good ideas ended there (Joyner's other uninspiring credits include the likes of Puppet Master 3 and Class of 1999) but Prison has enough style, action and (surprisingly enough) decent actors to make up for a rather shonky script.

After watching the movie, it occurred to me that the aforementioned opening scene is kind of a mirror image of the famous opening of Halloween, but instead of being from the point of view of a killer, we are shown the point of view of a victim. I had to wonder if this was deliberate on Yablans's part. I don't think it was intended to be Deep, but this scene made me really think about capital punishment (a subject I already have strong feelings about) and about the strange psychological space that prisoners find themselves in. If you were about to be executed for a crime you did not commit (or even one that you did), would you really placidly walk to the place of execution and just let it happen without a fight?

Our young hero, a car thief called Burke, is played by Viggo Mortensen in his first starring role (if you've heard of him, it's probably because he played the transvestite cannibal cowboy Tex in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III a few years later). The primary villain, Warden Sharpe, is played by Lane Smith in what seemed to me to be a spot-on impersonation of Richard Nixon; I was pleased to discover that Smith actually did play Nixon a few years later. Lazy-eyed basketball player, professional wrestler and future President of Earth "Tiny" Lister turns in a pretty decent performance as one of the many under-written prisoner roles.

The worst thing about the movie is Chelsea Field's character, the prison board representative who is attempting to push through penal reform initiatives. Field is a pretty decent actress who was too often relegated to useless wife/girlfriend roles (the main exception being her doom-haunted performance in Richard Stanley's unique Dust Devil), and her character here serves the dual mechanical purposes of getting a woman into an otherwise all-male picture, and providing background exposition. She does her best with what she's given, but her scenes are lazily written (when she eats in the main mess hall, the prisoners barely glance in her direction) and every time the movie cuts away to her, the claustrophobia of the prison setting is dissipated. This is doubly annoying because all the elements are present between the prison walls to tell the full back-story, but instead we get tension-draining scenes of Field talking to old guys about plot points.

Another serious debit is the way that the movie hints that Burke is somehow connected to or reincarnated from the prisoner executed in the opening scene, and then completely drops it. I'm all for portentous hints and unexplained mysteries, but this just felt half-finished, as if a subplot was only half-removed from the movie.

But why quibble? Prison is an unusually well-made little horror movie. It's a shame that Harlin went sharply downhill from here (via that Elm Street sequel through an Andrew Dice Clay comedy and on to bone-headed blockbuster action flicks) and that Viggo Mortensen's career went nowhere.

I've listed this as a 1987 movie because that's what it says on the copy I watched, even though the rest of the internet says 1988. This means that by my counting, next year is the 25th anniversary. So can we please have a special edition with a Renny Harlin commentary, and a featurette where Kane Hodder yet again tells that great story about how he stuffed worms into his mouth for the final scene? (Note to Kane: I looked hard, and I didn't see any worms.)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Black Swan (2010)

Whew, now this was a good time at the movies. Black Swan is a lurid psychological thriller in the mold of Roman Polanski's early movies, especially Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant. It's also probably the closest we'll ever get to a Hollywood remake of Satoshi Kon's anime masterpiece Perfect Blue, and it draws further influence from 1970s giallo movies. It's pure cinema.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a neurotic ballerina attempting the role of the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake. Mila Kunis plays her chief rival Lily, who is either extremely friendly, extremely competitive, or both; Barbara Hershey is her highly strung and overbearing mother Erica; and Vincent Cassel is the tyrannical director/choreographer Thomas. Winona Ryder makes a strong impression in a small role as Nina's predecessor, Beth.

Almost straight away the movie lets us know that something is wrong with Nina: she sees her doppelganger for the first time in the first few minutes of the movie. The whole movie portrays her point of view, which is highly paranoid and filled with hallucinations. There is a strong focus on nacissistic doubling: Nina sees hallucinations of herself and of other people with her face; Kunis parallels and contrasts with her throughout; Beth embodies a possible end result for Portman's character; Erica is reliving her own failed career through her daughter. Everywhere she looks, Nina sees nothing but her own reflection.

Like this!

Nina's relationship with Thomas is fascinating: it's antagonistic in the extreme, as he plays mind games with her and manipulates her sexually while seeming to be uninterested in actually going through with seducing her. It's the exact places where her mind is unravelling that cause him to want her for the role of the Swan Queen. The doubling with Lily is also interesting, as she is portrayed as everything Nina won't let herself be. Mila Kunis is brilliant in the role, which requires her to strike the perfect balance between being sympathetic and antagonistic. Nina is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Lily, which culminates in an astonishingly steamy scene that I'm sure will draw many people to the theatre on its own.

It's a very body-conscious movie all around. The camera obviously lingers on the dancers' bodies, particularly that of Natalie Portman (and her pronounced clavicles). A lot of attention is paid to the movement of feet, with amplified cracks on the soundtrack to emphasise the unnatural pressure that is being put on them. Skin bruises, ruptures and splits throughout the movie, and if you are at all sensitive about your cuticles you'll definitely have trouble with some scenes (just thinking about this is making it difficult to type). There are also some sequences showing some pretty astonishing muscle movement in a couple of dancers' backs; at least once this is definitely accentuated by CGI, but at other times I was unsure. Although it's rarely especially gory, it's definitely not a movie for the squeamish - many scenes are designed to make the audience squirm.

The music is a star in itself. Composer/arranger Clint Mansell (previously the frontman for the great British band Pop Will Eat Itself) brilliantly arranges passages from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in ways that rarely call attention to themselves except when they are supposed to. This score rivals his collaboration with the Kronos Quartet on Requiem for a Dream for sheer power.

Black Swan has too much of the sort of dialogue where characters describe what they think and how they feel, but fortunately all of the actors are strong enough that they also embody the emotions and contradictions within the characters. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the rubber reality inherent in the movie required some things to be spelled out verbally to allow the audience to "get it," but I did find it a little irritating. Still, decent dialogue is in sparse supply even in good movies so I'm not going to complain too much about it.

It's also not a particularly original movie, though I'm sure it's going to be acclaimed as such by people who haven't seen the movies it's been influenced by. I'm not going to go into that here; there's already plenty of information on this available elsewhere. But at the end of the day, how many truly original movies are there? At least there is actual substance to this movie, unlike the recent and vastly overrated Inception, whose brilliant action sequences were the only compensation for a script that stole only the most superficial elements of Satoshi Kon's mind-bending anime feature Paprika.

I thoroughly enjoyed Black Swan. Technically it's very accomplished, the acting ranged from solid to masterful, there's plenty to chew on, and it packs a powerful visceral punch. See it even if just for Mila Kunis, whose star is definitely on the rise.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

This movie opens with Barbara Steele painted blue.

The review could end here - I am that easy to please. But I know that you would not be satisfied with this, my darling readers, and so I must press on.

Curse of the Crimson Altar is supposedly taken from the H.P. Lovecraft short story "The Dreams in the Witch-House". I don't know how anybody worked that out; it's not mentioned anywhere in the credits and the similarities with Lovecraft's story are, "both feature a house with a witch in it." Fortunately the movie has a lot more going for it than simply being another botched Lovecraft adaptation.

The story involves antique dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) searching for his missing brother, Peter. As the audience has already seen Peter in the opening sequence (where he is very clearly referred to by name) we know that he has been inducted into a cult, sacrificed a woman on an altar, and had something branded onto his chest, but Robert doesn't know that.

Robert heads off to Craxted Lodge at Greymarsh, from where Peter had sent him some antiques before disappearing, noting that this town is where their family originally hails from. When he arrives, the first thing he encounters is a screaming, half-naked young woman being chased by a car. When he tries to intervene, he discovers that it's just "a rather sophisticated kind of hide and seek." Inside the Lodge he finds one of those wild parties that you get in '60s horror movies: body painting, joint smoking, people pouring champagne all over each other... but all the guys are wearing suits.

In a marked contrast to the heroes of most of these sorts of movies, Robert immediately grabs a drink and looks like he's having a whale of a time. But he has to tear himself away to go and find J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee) and make enquiries about that damned missing brother. Morely's manservant Elder is played by yet another horror movie regular, Michael Gough.

Faced with two oddly-behaving horror stars who are clearly lying to him about the disappearance of his brother, Robert does the sensible thing and decides to stay at the lodge and try to make time with Morley's niece Eve (Virginia Weatherell). Even the arrival of yet another horror icon, Boris Karloff, does not dissuade him. Karloff plays Professor John Marsh, the local witchcraft expert, and despite being in very poor physical shape and spending most of the movie in a wheelchair, he gives a wonderfully crotchety performance. His first conversation with Robert is gold: first he accuses him of mocking Graymarsh's traditions, then he gets angry at Robert's failure to appreciate fine brandy, and as a cheerio he invites him to come and see his collection of instruments of torture.

Speaking of Graymarsh's tradition (and of torture), Robert has apparently arrived on their most fĂȘted night: the anniversary of the town burning Lavinia Morley as a witch a hundred years before. They still all like to get together and burn her in effigy, because nothing brings a community together like a good lynching.

Now that all the ducks are in a row, the movie can get going. Elder is sent to do Lavinia's bidding by a revolving lamp that speaks with Barbara Steele's voice.

Robert starts doing the horror movie investigating game: checking out the graveyard, searching for secret passages, reading the church records, etc. It seems that everywhere he goes, he keeps running into Professor Marsh and his scary mute bodyguard. He also starts having weird hallucinogenic dreams in which Lavinia tries to lead him down the same path as his brother...

I don't think I need to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed Curse of the Crimson Altar. It's true that I thought that the protagonist was a jerk, the story was convoluted and simplistic and predictable all at the same time, and that it didn't make good use of the slew of horror icons at its disposal. It didn't even put Barbara Steele in any of the same scenes as Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee, which is a real shame as it was he only movie she ever shared with either of them. But on the other hand it had plenty of the overdone coloured gel lighting, psychedelic visual effects, pseudo-wild partying and '60s ambience that I love in horror movies of the era.

It also shares the broad generation gap subtext of most other '60s British horror movies, and refreshingly unlike most of these movies (particularly those of Hammer) it does not conclude that a youthful list for sex and drugs does not need to be punished by brutal death. In this respect is bears some similarity to the movies of Michael Reeves (The Sorcerers, Witchfinder General), also produced by Tigon.

The whole thing is wrapped up a bit too quickly for my liking, with some hasty exposition from Karloff to paste over some of the plot holes. Fortunately, this Scooby Doo ending where the supernatural elements are explained away is deliberately contradicted when something unquestionably supernatural happens moments later. Take that, Mark of the Vampire!

Curse of the Crimson Altar seems to have been Barbara Steele's last gothic horror movie - she was quoted as saying "I never want to climb out of another fucking coffin again!" She did appear in a couple of more contemporary horror movies in the 1970s, most notably David Cronenberg's debut feature Shivers, but as far as witches, vampires and banshees were concerned, she was done. The era of the great horror stars was almost over; Karloff died the following year, Lee & Peter Cushing creaked through a few more Hammer movies to mostly diminishing returns, and Vincent Price retired from the genre out of distaste for the more realistic and graphic movies he was being offered.

In a way it seems that something was lost, but the 1970s was to become one of the most vital and innovative decades for the horror movie all around the world so I'm not going to sit around crying over it. Sometimes you need to cut away the dead wood to get new growth, and sometimes it takes more than a figure as familiar as a favourite uncle to frighten people. I don't rate it as highly as many seem to, but Peter Bogdanovich's Targets makes a strong case that the news had become more frightening than anything Dr. Frankenstein could cook up. (Not that the world itself had necessarily become any more dangerous, but reportage of violence and death had become so prevalent and so vivid that people felt more at risk.)

Next time, we'll have even more Lovecraftian sex & drugs hippies. Look out for it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Tale of Three Kinskis

Klaus Kinski was one of the most brilliant and charismatic actors to ever grace the screen, but largely by his own choice he appeared mostly in trash. He rejected Fellini, Visconti and Pasolini but made four movies with Jess Franco; he turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark to do Venom.

Kinski is best remembered for the five movies he made with director Werner Herzog, but if you saw him in Android, Creature and Crawlspace you'd remember him from those as well.

Android (1982)

"I thought it was a clever little movie. It is the first movie I've done that children might like. The greatest thing in the world is to do something for children."
-Klaus Kinski on Android

In a secret laboratory aboard a distance space station, Klaus Kinski is attempting to create the perfect female android. His current android assistant Max 404 (Don Keith Opper), who's been getting interested in the idea of human reproduction, is alarmed to learn that Kinski's success will mean his own termination. Then three space-criminals arrive to complicate matters.

Despite this unpromising setup, Android turns out to be an utterly charming movie. Most of this charm comes directly from Opper, who plays Max as a lovable innocent. We are told that there has previously been a bloody android uprising and that they are now banned, hence the isolation of Kinski's research, but it's impossible to imagine Max turning into a cold, soulless killer. Opper walks in a strange stiff-limbed gait, speaks his mind with a naive bluntness, and is socially awkward without being the least bit shy. It's a terrific performance, and he manages to steal the limelight from Kinski throughout the movie - something that's usually unheard of, and it's all the more impressive because Android was Opper's first movie.

Not that Kinski is sleepwalking through his role. He has less screen time than Opper, but the scene where he confronts the new arrivals to the station and then suddenly realises that one of them is an attractive woman is one of the highlights of the movie.

Though the movie borrows ideas from Blade Runner and both sets and special effects sequences from Battle Beyond the Stars, Android is ultimately one of a kind. Rock drummer Brie Howard, in her only decent movie roll, is pretty good as the object of everyone's various desires. Kendra Kirchner, in what seems to be her only acting role, makes a major impression in just a few scant minutes of screen time; her first line of dialogue (a quote from Shakespeare) is electrifying in context.

The other two guys are only adequate, and nobody else is in the movie, but who cares? Android is a good movie and a really fun surprise. I was emotionally invested in the characters, and that never happened in either of the other two movies I'm talking about today.

Creature (1984)

"Klaus Kinski is dead now, and the world is a better place for it."
-William Malone, director of Creature

A spaceship is sent to find out what happened to a space station that mysteriously blew up while surveying Saturn's largest moon Titan. There they encounter an enigmatic sandwich-eating German scientist called Rudi (Klaus Kinski). They also encounter an alien monster that likes to implant parasites into people's brains so it can invite their friends to dinner. Yummy!

Although it's just a dumb Alien ripoff made on a low budget by a fairly untalented cast & crew, I thought that Creature was quite entertaining. It was fun to see Diane Salinger playing a tough bounty hunter in the same year as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure; I like to think that this is Simone she did after getting bored of France. What a year she had in 1985, getting to work with Paul Reubens and Klaus Kinski in her first two movies!

Salinger's performance is one-dimensional, but that's one dimension more than the rest of the cast has to offer. So when Klaus Kinski unexpectedly shows up, it's like an arc lamp has suddenly been shone into a darkened room. We're instantly blinded by the sheer force of his talent, so that the rest of the cast becomes a series of shadows. The man could hold an audience by eating a sandwich.

If you like dumb, cheesy, gory Alien ripoffs filled with dry ice and bad special effects (and who doesn't?) then Creature is for you. If you like Klaus Kinski, then Creature is for you. If you don't like either, see a doctor.

This was a good bit.

Crawlspace (1986)

"At this point, my crew begins whispering in my ear, one by one, three or four times a day: 'David, please, kill Mr. Kinski.'"
David Schmoeller, director of Crawlspace

Our movie begins with a young woman ascending a staircase, calling softly, "Mr. Gunther?" She enters a darkened room; the light doesn't work so she turns on a torch. As she moves deeper into the cluttered room, she does not notice the door close and lock itself behind her. She does, however, notice the small cage in which crouches a woman. She tries to tak to the woman, but she only reaches out for her and moans.

Suddenly, Klaus Kinski is behind her. "She can't talk, I cut out her tongue," he says mildly, indicating a jar in which the tongue in suspended in liquid...

In most horror movies, this would be the climax. In Crawlspace, this is the first two minutes of the movie. Unfortunately this isn't the only thing that writer/director David Schmoeller gets backwards in this sick and sleazy, yet oddly tame horror thriller that looks back to Peeping Tom and forward to Saw. It's closer to Peeping Tom in its level of explicit gore and closer to Saw in its ability to build suspense, so that's backwards too.

The movie stars Kinski as the landlord of an apartment building who only rents to young, attractive women. He likes to crawl through a series of vents spying on them, freaking them out by making odd sounds, and activating remote control rat holes. Every now and again he kills them, usually in a manner that involves an elaborately unlikely death machine. I guess he's probably inspired by H. H. Holmes.

Then Lori (Talia Balsam) moves in, and Kinski takes a particular shine to her. As his last words to the woman in the opening scene where, "What a shame, I really liked you," this probably makes us uneasy. In traditional horror movie pattern, she notices that something is going awry and starts to investigate.

There is the odd plot complication and a couple of characters who mysteriously disappear and are never referred to again, but for the most part Crawlspace follows a pretty straight line: Kinski acts weird and creepy towards Lori but she never seems to notice, Kinski terrorises and kills his tenants, Lori doesn't quite manage to notice the slaughter even though she's already nosing about, and so on.

Then, this happens.

With the odd voyeuristic German serial killer who lives upstairs, owns the building, and was traumatised by his father's sadistic experiments, Crawlspace was clearly inspired by Peeping Tom. In place of that movie's masterful suspense and icy intellect, it offers an unhinged Kinski and some rather underbaked exploitation elements. The tone of the movie is sleazy, but it never really delivers and remains disappointingly tame.

Despite this, I enjoyed Crawlspace. David Schmoeller's movies (other include Tourist Trap and Puppet Master) usually remind me a little of Don (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli's movies, though Schmoeller doesn't have anything like Coscarelli's prodigious imagination. Everything's just a little off kilter, there's a nice visual style that doesn't call attention to itself, people do things for no discernible reason, and there are odd plot holes that seem somehow to be deliberate.

Out of the three movies, Crawlspace give you the most Kinski for your buck, Creature has the strongest exploitation elements and is definitely the best for drinking to, and Android is just flat out a good movie.