An intense and aggressive domestic drama descends into experimental horror in Żuławski’s cult classic Possession. Steered visually by the restless cinematography of Bruno Nuytten the film constructs a world pervaded by uncertainty, discomfort, and a sense of worse to come. The initial horror is of an everyday nature: Mark (Sam Neill) arrives home to Berlin to discover his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has been having an affair and is not the least bit sorry about it either. He turns on the insecure male hysterics and quickly drives her to a similar pitch—then beyond. However, in an apartment downtown Anna has been keeping (and gradually growing) a more monstrous secret, and as her behavior becomes more and more unhinged the film explodes into a warped and chaotic exploration of loathing, desire, and frustration.
As the above perhaps suggests, Żuławski’s film focuses at least partially on ‘possession’ in terms of sexual behavior: Sam Neill feels his cheating wife has acted like one ‘possessed,’ although in doing so highlights his own desire for ‘possession’ (of her). Character interactions are histrionic from the outset but often powerfully so—commanding our stunned attention with so much emotional mess. Beyond sexual ‘possession,’ the film is famous for its scenes of female madness, which are indeed remarkable and transfixing. Yet one scene in particular (you will pick it) is so explosive it seems to repel any possible identification or sympathy, risking a kind of objectifying ‘insanity porn’—a display foremost for our shock and amazement. Or perhaps in its transgressive and apocalyptic intensity (far beyond narrative or meaning) the moment achieves a kind of liberatory chaos? I expect opinions vary.
The mysterious Thing kept by Anna in her grubby parody of the domestic environment is darkly fascinating, yet the film seems occasionally to lose interest in it, so the device isn’t quite explored to its full visual or metaphoric potential. Ultimately the themes of partner-perfection and obedience are provocative and troubling, and the film’s emotional collisions both traumatic and captivating. But in addition to Anna’s startling hysterics, a very kooky paramour, the monster and a doppelganger there’s also talk of souls and death and God—and really there’s just a bit too much thrown in for us to get an intellectual or emotional feel for its implications. Disorienting sometimes to its detriment, Possession is nevertheless a work of wild and commendable audacity. 3.5 / 5
Good old-fashioned revenge doesn’t get much better than this down and dirty lead crusade from Giulio Petroni. On the kind of sodden night from which nothing good can come a gang of hoods storm the home of the young Bill Meceita, murdering both his parents. 15 years later, all grown up and more than handy with a gun, Bill (John Phillip Law) sets out for revenge. Meanwhile, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an outlaw as weathered as the rocks he splits during his term of hard labor, is finally granted release and begins his pursuit of the crooks who double-crossed him into the slammer in the first place. You guessed it: they’re the same low-lives.
The storyline of Death Rides a Horse packs a crude punch, but the ominous atmosphere is what really sucks one into this graceful and aggressive film. The rumbling strains of Morricone’s score effortlessly summon dread or exhilaration as required, and the opening attack scene is a horrid thrill-piece of trepidation—moody enough to be captivating and tumultuous enough to be genuinely threatening. The cinematography here arrests us at every turn: shots of the cutthroat legion moving over the hill toward the farm in the blinding rain, of water cascading off low hat brims, of hooves stepping with dire purpose through the mud.
Although the film’s main interest is action—the simple pleasure of watching a couple of tough hombres take care of business—Petroni’s stylistic flair lends a symbolism of its own to these proceedings. The treachery and isolation of the Western landscape, the inexorability of fate, and the development of a surrogate father/son relationship between Ryan and Bill are all evoked.
The minimalist characterization and straight-up firepower of Death Rides a Horse won’t appeal to all viewers, but for those keen on a tightly plotted thriller content to let the lead do the talking, the film is a treat. 4 / 5
1981 was the year of the wolf, unleashing on cinemas both An American Werewolf in London and The Howling as well as Michael Wadleigh’s captivating Wolfen, the director’s first and final non-documentary feature. Albert Finney plays troubled NYC detective Dewey Wilson investigating a series of gory kills, beginning with the mutilation-murder of a real-estate tycoon and his wife. Big Money of course has plenty of enemies, and possibly connected is a militant Native American activist, Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos). But this crime-scene suggests some hairier happening.
Eschewing the sexual subtexts of its contemporaries, Wolfen instead gestures to an ancient and unknowable animal world never quite vanquished. Like much animal horror, Wolfen imagines the creature’s point of view as it stalks its human prey; yet these shots are used so extensively that the technique threatens to destabilize familiar human points of view associated with the order and normality Wilson seeks to restore. The resulting impression is that this threat is not merely some aberration of civilized life to be corrected by good policing, but a rival reality—ever-present and always waiting for the inevitable demise of western “progress.”
This theme is hauntingly imbued in images of industrial and residential dilapidation—urban rubble through which the wolves stalk their prey. As Wilson tracks his targets, a tingling, stealthy score by James Horner accents (and never smothers) the film’s shivery atmosphere. A film as dark, graceful and bewitching as its elusive antagonists. 5 / 5
There are many noteworthy aspects of Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil, although perhaps the most striking is the sight of Gary Cooper (otherwise doing his wearily gallant thing as usual) suddenly punching co-star Susan Hayward square in the face. Phrased as one of those well-meaning “for your own good”-type maneuvers, the act is nevertheless so alarming that it threatens to overwhelm our focus on the story itself.
Otherwise, for all its simplicity it is an engaging and thoughtful story. After being stranded somewhere in Mexico, three dubious fortune-hunters (Widmark, Mitchell and Cooper) accept the offer of local woman Leah (Hayward) to recover her husband (Marlowe) from a mine for a fee of two thousand dollars each. In order to earn their keep the men venture deep into Apache territory, proceeding to a place called the “Garden of Evil” —allegedly the province of malign spirits—all the while bickering and questioning both their own intentions and those of their female guide.
Filmed in lavish Cinemascope, a widescreen format intended to yank viewers from their TV sets by giving them the full measure of cinematic spectacle, Garden of Evil looks glorious. Additionally, Bernard Hermann’s score masterfully runs the gamut from brooding to dreamily elegiac, lifting the film’s themes of suspicion and sin out of the rich visual canvas. The story itself seems to lose some of its momentum in a few places, but the eye-popping visuals and momentous score easily rescue it from stagnation.
The characterization is intriguing and misanthropic, and an atmosphere of tension is established between the three wanderers from the outset. Cooper’s performance feels off-kilter though, and a number of lines are delivered as if he were engaged in a different conversation from that of his interlocutor(s). This may be a deliberate strategy to build up an atmosphere of impenetrability or miscommunication around his enigmatic character. The effect, however, is ultimately awkward—almost as if he were somehow digitally inserted from another picture.
The Indians here are the faceless screechers from any number of Westerns; however, the film does ruminate on the ethics of the occupation and exploitation of their land. The sinister nature of fortune-seeking more generally is also scrutinized, and the travelers are haunted by a sense of their own moral inadequacy. The development of these themes, and particularly their stylish evocation through setting and score, make Garden of Evil suspenseful and rewarding viewing. 3.5 / 5
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
Dir. George Roy Hill
Upon returning to their hideaway to plan a robbery, famed outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) are challenged for the leadership of their gang by an ambitious oaf, whom they slyly outmaneuver before admitting his plans for the group were pretty worthwhile after all. And pretty worthwhile stealing for themselves. They will rob the Union Pacific Flyer, not once but twice: hitting the train once would be audacious, but twice would be downright unexpected and, thus, probably more profitable.
The heist is a success, but when railroad director E. H. Harriman organizes the toughest posse that ever rode to track down the bandits, the two are forced to abscond to Bolivia, where further “nice” bad-guy shenanigans and fish-out-of-water fumbling awaits. One scene sees Sundance wax vehement on the cosmopolitan inadequacies of the locale; in another, the two use language crib notes to perform an amusingly amateur stick-up.
Harriman’s hired guns, however, led by mercenary ex-lawman Joe Lefors, aren’t much bothered by jurisdictional complications. This is a manhunt, but there will be no arrest: putting Butch and Sundance in the ground is what counts and the country is immaterial.
BC&TSK is essentially a kind of three-way romance between Butch, Sundance, and the audience—whom the film clearly anticipates is enamored of the actors who play them. Sure, Katherine Ross puts in an appearance as Etta Place (Sundance’s main squeeze), but in a cheeky celebration of male camaraderie like this one her character is as extraneous as it is uninteresting, and she serves mainly as a proxy for the fraternal fling between Butch and Sundance.
And now I’m afraid I have to get a lot less cutesy than George Roy Hill’s buffed-up buddy flick: what we have here is an almost quaintly undaring picture motored along by the cheery bankability of stars, jokes, and glamorous production. We never forget that BC&TSK is foremost an investment, and it comes off as a particularly bloated and populist one when posed against the challenging, Vietnam-influenced viciousness of contemporary The Wild Bunch (1969). The audience is longlined with dazzling visuals, showy score and a wagonload of wisecracks. And then there’s the iconic leading men. Newman is a first rate actor, but his performance (and seemingly permanent tickled-baby grin) is at times tiresomely smug, and the chummy routine he and Redford have going doesn’t really show off the acting skills of either.
BC&TSK’s most irksome offense is not its free-wheeling lack of imagination or expensive blandness, but the portentous tone it eventually takes on. The elegiac finale that sees Butch and Sundance go down is greatly misjudged, clashing with the general mood of affable anachronism that is, really, the film’s bread and butter. Having dialogue that’s all hammy jokes and merry sarcasm is all well and good, but one can’t expect to trade it in for moodiness when the film is almost over and instantly have achieved something.
In this sense, BC&TSK hijacks the worked-for sentiments of earlier Westerns like its heroes do trains. The “inevitable end of the outlaw life” theme is hastily rolled out: a few perfunctory lines about how it’s “comin’ to an end” and that’s that—a lazy attempt at poignancy waylaid by smug charm and glossy production. Which brings us to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” written for the film by Burt Bacharach and Hal David: catchy song, charming, great—not here. Its use is the epitome of camp tedium, dashing any chance the film has of achieving the bleaker tone it eventually desires.
What we’re left with is a Western too afraid of getting its hands dirty to really explore the themes it feels entitled to rudely grope at in its final scene. The film’s serious side is almost entirely compromised by its specious appeal to generational “hipness” and Western cliché. Various homages to other pictures—Jules and Jim (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—also seem indicative of its lack of real interest in putting its nose to the grindstone and forging something worthwhile on the subject at hand.
After all this, I will hardly sound convincing when I say that I don’t think BC&TSK is a bad movie. Even with Newman’s smarmy delivery, there are a number of genuinely funny lines. Maybe it’s showy, maybe not—but either way the cinematography is mesmerizingly top notch, in measures both playful and painstakingly. The heroes’ relationship to their inexorable but almost unseen pursuers is one the story’s more thoughtful aspects; the posse come to serve as a metaphor for the forces of time and civilization that Butch and Sundance continue to test. The night-time chase sequences are hauntingly shot, and tension is effectively developed through our boys’ refusal to admit what is increasingly clear: their days are numbered.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fabulous looking picture; and it’s a funny picture—thoroughly attuned to the cocky snap of sarcasm and one-liners—but this cavalcade of cool barely disguises the weaknesses that make it an ultimately unfulfilling picture. Butch might be the one with the plans, but William Goldman’s script doesn’t have too many new ideas; Sundance might be fast on the draw, but BC&TSK is a little wide of the mark. 3 / 5
Audible Studios, April 26, 2016
Length: 4 hrs and 31 mins
The golden age of radio drama may be in the past, but audiobook subscription service Audible supplies an enthralling extension to the saga of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, and of creatures and memories that also refuse to be left behind. The play is approximately novel-length (indeed based a novel by Tim Lebbon) and divided into chapters of around 25-30 minutes long, complete with not merely dynamic voice performances, but also sound-effects and a score—by turns eerie, momentous and mournful—to bring the production to vivid, egg-opening life.
The narrative picks up after the events of the first film as Ripley’s escape pod is intercepted by the crew of a mining vessel, who begin having a xenomorph problem of their own. Consequently Ripley, here played with all the characteristic mannerisms by Lauren Lefkow, is on hand to tell them how fucked they are—before becoming the key adviser against the threat. Meanwhile, android Ash, played by (and dismembered as) Ian Holm in the original film and now performed by Rutger Hauer, is up to old tricks. Hell-bent on fulfilling his mission for the Company of transporting an intact alien specimen, Ash’s disembodied artificial intelligence infiltrates and contaminates various ship systems to sabotage this new team’s efforts. Conceptually and tonally, the film strikes a balance between the first and second films, combining the original’s focus on malignant AI and a crew under-prepared for the menace they face with plenty of action as the creatures close in.
This is a recorded drama, so there is no ‘narrator’ and the dialogue does an excellent job of signalling to listeners what’s occuring without seeming contrived. Only at one point, during a scene of high action, did this mode feel slightly remiss in terms of timely communication. A regular verbal log kept by Ash, for benefit of the Company, also helps clarify chapter events as well as providing a sinister counter-narrative to the trials faced by human characters.
This new story is thrilling and energetic, yet retains the technical flourishes that helped plausibly underpin the films. The only let-down here is that while the drama initially presents as an ‘alternative’ timeline, later turns of the narrative work to re-integrate what has happened into the existing Alien chronology in a manner that seems clunky and unnecessary. Nevertheless, this hardly makes much of an acid burn on such an gripping and gorgeous production. A must for fans of the franchise. 4.5 / 5
Hammer’s sequel to Quatermass 2 (1957) earns most of its stars through a warped and imaginative conclusion; the closing scenes of this wordy film demonstrate surprisingly eerie imagination—finally showing us something wordlessly (and exquisitely) weird.
But before that: Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is summoned to help investigate a mysterious metallic shell uncovered during tunnel repairs to the London Underground. He extracts from within some big crusty bugs—perfectly preserved fossils—that he deduces are ancient Martians. Naturally the authorities won’t have a bar of it, and hinder his every step. Meanwhile the craft itself begins acting up, hurtling nearby objects and inducing madness in a few of its meddlers.
Diverging from iconic Hammer fare in its modern, urban setting, the film is a rather low on atmosphere early on, focusing primary on the Professor’s inquiries being stymied by obnoxious officials. Given the innovative Underground setting, one thinks of the missed opportunity to play on this more fully (perhaps using a few haunted-house conventions to evoke a uniquely urban sense of the uncanny). Moreover, the earliest strange happenings (objects levitating near the craft) are disappointingly explicable—by visible wires.
The pace quickens after the plot has been rather exhaustively unpacked (an explanation involving local legends, ancestral memories, psychic powers and alien ethnic-cleansing). Then we get what we’ve surely been waiting for all along: quakes and chaos emanating from the Underground to threaten busy London above. Most effective is the film’s attribution of a sense of the ‘demonic’ to its ultimately extra-terrestrial menace. Once this note is resoundingly struck, the technical mumbo-jumbo of science-fiction seems left behind, allowing us to be held and haunted by the film’s final spectacles of terror. 3.5 / 5
Pulp adventure and primate horror—how could they miss? For a start, with dull/miscast characters and poorly orchestrated suspense sequences. The above aren’t the only subgenres vying for expression either, and Congo struggles to set a tone that will juice the most out of such a patchwork of material. Hardly woeful—there are flashes of great potential here—but this gorilla-flick never gets up a full or frightening charge. 2.5 / 5
Rarely does a horror film improve much after flubbing its initial scares. The titular Creature initially gropes with fishy fingers from the water a couple of times, but fails to evoke any real alarm. Having him wetly trudge along a boat’s deck in full sunlight is not an effective use of frog-face either. Yet, later, long sequences of the monster stalking his human prey through the weedy depths are urgent, entrancing and masterfully orchestrated.
The tale of the long-lost mutant is foregrounded by evolutionary hypothesizing, and the journey down the Amazon in quest of a mythic specimen is also a journey back in time: the film’s adventurers seek a prehistoric place where all manner of freaks may yet thrive. For all his gills and fins, the monster is also conspicuously anthropomorphic, and the suggestion of our continuity with so strange a cousin provokes unease through a blurring of the human-animal binary.
The Creature’s crafty abduction of a human bride, Kay (Julie Adams), is of course iconic. Since the strapping lover of this damsel (Richard Carlson) refuses to commit to her outright, Gill-man’s predilection for female company hints at an exploded patriarchal fear that she is not sexually “secured”—indeed, she is also desired by a rival explorer (Whit Bissell) during the journey. Later, however, the subtext shifts and the menacing Creature seems to reflect Kay’s fear of angering her lover, since she fancies his rival right back. As these thematic adjustments suggest, the film hits a sweet-spot of anxiety and ambiguity, charging us for confrontations in which humans thrash in life-or-death struggles against the amphibious terror, as well as propelling us toward the tragic finale. 4 / 5
2001: A Space Odyssey meets Them!, Saul Bass’s Phase IV sees the humble ant granted cryptic intelligence through a vague series of cosmological adjustments. From the beginning of the film, extreme close-up sequences depicting ant activity impose upon us a world to which we ordinarily have only the most limited awareness and access, both physically and visually. Yet here our knowledge of this unique perspective, so removed from our own, intensifies the conflict between us and “them” as the ultra-organized ants range themselves against other earthly inhabitants, especially humans. The strange events begin in the US desert, and a duo of scientists, entrenched in a high-tech base of their own design, begin various experiments to solve the riddle of this mysterious ant-agonism (sorry). Ostensibly a thriller, but with little to pound the pulse, Phase IV’s virtue is rather its engrossingly moody visual mode and the creeping sense of the uncanny to which it gives rise. 4 / 5