FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Twisted Numbered Films!

Twisted Numbered Films!

By Kristin Battestella

Even if it isn’t that dreaded 666, you know a horror movie with a number in the title will carry a certain amount of bizarre, twisted, and freaky.

Dementia 13Roger Corman produced and eventually interfered with this 1963 directorial debut of Francis Ford Coppola (I will hit you if you need a film reference for Francis Ford Coppola!) Clearly made on the cheap with quick, iffy dialogue, most of the picture is too dark and tough to see. The title doesn’t have much to do with anything, either, but the opening crime, water motifs, and axe murders are pretty entertaining. It’s a weird mix of both men- Coppola’s brooding atmosphere and complexity against Corman’s hint of over the top blood. Fans of both will indeed be curious to see this special blend of contemporary crime and creepy Irish castle. Eerie music and suspenseful, deceptive builds carry the weird family, death, and grief thanks to Coppola’s stylized interpretation. However, Corman’s insisted upon shocks aren’t bad, either. It’s almost as if two different films are happening- a ghost story and a slasher mystery. It makes the vision muddled at times, but it’s all quite creepy and entertaining nonetheless. Yes, this will be too slow or poorly done for some modern audiences, but a few good ghostly scares and deaths make this one wonderfully worthwhile for fans of the boys.

Devil Times Five – Teen idol Leif Garrett and his sister Dawn Lyn make for some creepy youngins in this 1974 picture also known as Peopletoys – and a dozen other titles for good measure. Eerie seventies lullaby notes ironically accent the snowy vacation spot, yuppie couples, and old fogies as perilous, icy, winding roads lead to vehicular disasters. Nuns and kids should be a sign of safety, however, real snow filming, old fashioned cars, and past technological isolation up the apprehensive mood. Although the teen voiceovers and their jive lingo are dated and the characters are initially stock stereotypes, the acting both from the adults and the children isn’t bad. Slow motion and still zooms are unnecessary now, granted, but the black and white scenes showcase the shocking child violence, blunt objects, and group attacks – an extra oomph on how these miniature sociopaths get hungry and sleepy after a good bludgeoning. A belittling sex proposition of a slow adult is awkward, but cat fights, lingerie, and boobs about the bedroom scenes create a saucy upscale before our unaware adults come to realize they can’t handle these escaped, killer charges – who have a wicked motivation and intellect far beyond their years. Guns go missing, knives disappear, wood needs to be chopped, and it’s fun to see who or what is going to set off another crafty murder. Sure, this isn’t scary by today’s standards. However, the bathtub terrors and snow siege build well over the 88 minute time for some bemusing – if twisted – entertainment.

 

 

You Make the Call, Addicts!

Session 9 – Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) wonderfully executes this taut psychological thriller and smartly tells his 2001 tale in the gloriously eerie Danvers State Hospital for premium naturally spooky effects. Both Peter Mullan (Red Riding) and David Caruso (CSI: Miami) are on form, keeping the viewer intelligently guessing as to all the mystery and paranoia right up to the end. Unfortunately, everything falls apart for the finale. There are so many suspenseful and horrific possibilities, and any one of them was possible here. Yet none actually happens in this disappointing end.For all the smarts and interesting strides made beforehand, Anderson and co-writer Stephen Gevedon (Oz) leave you scratching your head at the unexplained conclusion. Claiming the deleted scenes on the DVD resolve everything doesn’t help, either.

Room 6 – Frightful Hospital nightmares of masked surgeons and aware as the scalpel cuts but immobilized patients open this 2006 in limbo experience starring schoolteacher Christine Taylor (Hey, Dude! people, Hey, Dude!), creepy kid Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me In), and the mysterious Jerry O’Connell (Sliders). Our couple has moved in together but rushed proposals and reluctant answers escalate to car accidents with realistic shocks, injuries, and intensity. Retro taxis, old fashioned nurses uniforms, and a sickly green surreal add to the unfamiliar hospital fears and confusion aftermath. Overhead or looking up from the operating table camera angles increase the bizarre afoot – lots of blood needs to be drawn and disappearing patients aren’t sure how they got there or why they are being treated. Resorting to pay phones or phone booths and avoiding suspicious bums increase the uneasy unknown as the accident survivors look for missing victims. Everyone seems to know their names and histories while freaky voice messages and blood splatter create disturbia. Unfortunately, from boo visions, dream splices, and false wake ups to rapid fire images, phantom bloody faces, and cryptic child warnings – a lot of unnecessary clutters the already weird, which world is real, obvious purgatory tone. Less is more, even if it means ditching the naughty naked nurses and interesting levitating demon church battles that should have happened much sooner if they were critical to the plot. A lack of modern technology leaves the research to an old lady in a dusty archive telling stories of fiery devil worship that should have been seen and not told in cliché explanations complete with background thunder and lightning. The ensemble struggles as the contrived connections, suspect characters, and required twists get silly, and the disjointed nature of the onscreen reality does not excuse the disjointedness in the film. While clearly about the titular past reconciliations, the finale strays with zombies, ridiculous flickering lights, and a nonsensical, realm mixing maze akin to a hospital themed house haunt. There are some quality, entertaining moments here, and this isn’t as bad as I thought it would be – but the big reset button mood is no secret and this never cashes in on any of the potential intrigue.

4gettable!

Apartment 1303Two and a half minutes of loud, padding opening credits don’t help this muddled 2013 remake starring estranged singer Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business), miscast snarky daughter Mischa Barton (The O.C.) and foolish youngest Julianne Michelle (looking like a sickly thin fourteen year old) who signs a cheap lease on the titular flat complete with a view, creepy kids, a pervy super, and ghostly residue. The mother/daughter arguing plot feels like a dramatic movie separate from the horror, but De Mornay’s husky singing is more interesting than the cliché girl alone taking selfies and talking to herself over ironing board jump scares. It’s tough to care about this drinking, quivering kid. What did she expect? Rattling doors, phantom shadows, spooky sounds, foggy attacks, and scary faces tapping at the window do better than the ugly crying shouts, cheating boyfriend, the black best friend in only one scene, divorced dad cop subplots, and one uncomfortable sex scene. The ghost girl looks like a man, the bathroom scenes are laughable – those fake bubbles in Mischa’s tub! – and the screaming ghost roars are useless. The spectre and its special effects are barely there but this ghost can physically do a lot – like dragging the stick chick all across the floor. An unexpected turn halfway through makes viewers wonder why one plot wasn’t just told in its entirety as a short opening prologue before the family pieces. However, the sisters really are interchangeable, and I would rather have seen their broken down mom moving into the haunt to do some comeback songwriting and solve the scares. Phantom phone calls, bizarre dreams, investigation of past deaths, even calling the police for the deadly facts come too late, and the paranormal really happens most in last ten minutes with no resolution and four more minutes of credits. Eighty-five minutes my foot! There’s no time to waste, yet this does everything but focus on the horror – and its ten years behind on the blonde moves to a creepy place with a kid trend. While serviceable for those who can laugh at this kind of babe alone boo fest, I suspect the J-horror original is better.

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Movie Review: Apocalypsis

Movie Review: Apocalypsis

Welcome to a world where every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard seems entirely real.

Apocalypsis introduces a world like our own, but which has followed a much darker path. The American government has implemented an ambitious project of surveillance and control. Most of the population is “chipped”—implanted with RFID devices that allow the government to monitor their activities. Cameras and drones are everywhere and AI tracks the population through facial recognition. Anyone who fights back is a target.

Evelyn and Michael are two such people.

Evelyn (Maria Bruun) is a deeply religious woman who draws her strength from her orthodox faith. She strives to help everyone in need, especially the downtrodden. In her quest for increased enlightenment, she experiences distressing apocalyptic visions while studying the book of Revelation. She sees the End Times in the world around her and becomes determined to act before it’s too late.

Michael (Chris O’Leary), a man with no faith, fights the increasing government control using technology and activism. He seeks to enlighten the populace and save them from themselves if he can. However, Michael knows he’s a hunted man and he wavers between going off the grid to save himself and risking everything to free society.

The film explores the relationship between Evelyn and Michael and their differing approaches to changing the world. Their common goals bring them together, but fundamental differences and deep-seated paranoia threaten to rip the friends apart. All of this take place against a high stakes background that keeps the audience guessing what the heroes can really do and what the final stakes will be.

Apocalypsis takes place in New York, where there are a million places to hide, but no real assurance that any of them are safe. In the city, people are everywhere and it’s impossible to know which ones can be trusted. The setting suggests a near future, where America is a hairsbreadth from martial law and every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is taken as absolute fact. You are being watched. You are in danger. The stakes have never been higher.

Michael takes the audience into the nooks and crannies of the city, where he hides like a rat and thinks like one too—survival always foremost on his mind. He showcases the modern side of the city, the underground tunnels and back alleys where he hides from sight, always in the dark, using his computer to fight for him.

Evelyn walks the streets of the most needy, reaching out everywhere she can. The moments of peace that she encounters are within the walls of her orthodox church. There she finds solace in something bigger than herself, a divine benevolent ruler at odds with the paranoid government that rules her on Earth.

Director Eric Leiser takes an artistic approach with the camera. Flashing imagery and overlaying shots create a surreal atmosphere. Evelyn’s visions of the apocalypse are animated, casting a sharp contrast from the rest of the film and heightening the feeling that they are unlike anything that she has seen before.

Apocalypsis delves into the question of religion versus action and what really creates a “good” person. What role does faith play in motivating someone to take action? Evelyn has her faith and good intentions, but is that enough? Does Michael’s single-minded purpose blind him to harm that he may be causing with his zeal?

Apocalypsis is a horror think piece, delving into dystopian and science fiction genres. There isn’t any overt gore or jump scares. Rather, the horror manifests as a lingering sense of dread as you wait to see what happens to the characters and their world. All the while, you question how far Apocalypsis really is from our world right now.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Mirrors and Superstitions!

 

Mirrors and Superstitions!

By Kristin Battestella

I don’t know about you but I won’t purchase a second hand mirror thanks to these reflective frights!

Dark Mirror I stumbled upon this 2007 thriller late one night on IFC and enjoyed the unique aspects here. It’s so nice to see a non-blonde or idiot buxom pretty perfect lead in Lisa Vidal (New York Undercover). An ethic mom with issues like sneaking a smoke, possible marriage trouble, unemployment, and creepy neighbors- we haven’t seen the likes of this realistic well-roundedness in a horror film in sometime. The intriguing twists on cameras, mirrors, flashes, glass, and illusions are well done- not overly excessive but better than other similar films like Mirrors and Shutter.  Even Feng Shui gets involved in the twisted mythos here. The spooky L.A. house design also has some non-Sunny SoCal flaws, complete with hidden objects, altered reflections, deadly history, deceiving twists and turns and an unreliable narrator hosting the entire picture. What exactly are we seeing? What is real and what isn’t? Some of the storyline is a little confusing, and not all the acting is stellar, but the freshness here is entertaining and thoughtful throughout.

Mirror Mirror – Ironic country music and frightful orchestration accent the bloody period introduction of this 1990 teen creeper. Yes, that’s a generic title complete with a barebones DVD and no subtitles, but the spooky mix of antiques, hats, and shoulder pads make for a gothic mid century meets eighties style. Like dentistry, the innately eerie mirror aspects pack on the macabre along with blue lighting, distorted demonic voices, gruesome dreams, and bugs laying on the atmosphere. The 30-year-old looking teens in too much denim are mostly tolerable thanks to relatable new kid in town outsider feelings and feminine spins. Rainbow Harvest (Old Enough) is perhaps too wannabe Lydia from Beetlejuice and there is no sign of authority or investigation whatsoever, but the dark tone, a bemusing Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters) handling the research, and the neurotic Karen Black (Burnt Offerings) make up any difference. This is a solid R, but the blood, nudity, water frights, and dog harm are done smartly without being excessive. The familiar Carrie, Teen Witch, and The Craft designs will be obvious to horror viewers, but it’s a fun 90 minutes of out of touch parents and teachers, high school cliques, and escalating creepy crimes. The titular evil from the other side takes hold for a wild finish – but never, ever put your hand down that garbage disposal, ever!

Oculus – Family scares, guns, and glowing eyes creepy get right to it as siblings are trying to both remember and forget their past tragedy in this 2013 mindbender full of askew dreams, unreliable memories, statues covered in sheets, and one cursed antique mirror. I would have preferred leads older than their early twenties – clearly appealing to the young it crowd – and despite an understandable awkward or instability, Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt) are too wooden at times. Fortunately, the more mature Katee Sackoff (Battlestar Galatica) and Rory Cochrane (Empire Records) and child support Annalise Basso (The Red Road) and Garrett Ryan (Dark House) do better. The non-linear past and present retelling, however, is confusing – the parallel plots aren’t quite clear until the paranormal investigation brings everything together in one location with elaborate equipment, carefully orchestrated timers, and fail safes for a night of ghostly activity. The video documentation makes for smart exposition at the expense of a larger cast or showing the accursed historical events – replacing the tried and true research montage for today’s audiences without resorting to the found footage gimmick. There are no in your face camera effects or zooms with booming music when the frightful appears, and the viewer is allowed to speculate on the seen or unseen reflections, there or maybe not whispering, and distorted blink and you miss them doppelgangers. Is there a psychological explanation or is this all supernatural? Although the recollections or flashbacks of the crisscrossing events should have been more polished – are we watching two, four, or six people as this battle replays itself? – the paranoia builds in both time frames with canine trauma and alternating suspense. Yes, there are Insidious similarities, the product placement and brand name dropping feels unnecessary, and the uneven plot merge cheats in its reflection on the warped or evil influences at work. The finale falters slightly as well, however, there is a quality discussion about the titular manipulation, and the time here remains entertaining as household horrors intensify. WWE Studios, who knew?

The Witch’s Mirror – Oft spooky actor Abel Salazar (The Curse of the Crying Woman) produced this black and white 1962 Mexican horror treat with Isabela Corona (A Man of Principle) as a creepy housekeeper amid the excellent smoke and mirrors and titular visual effects. From a macabre prologue and illustrations to Victorian mood, candles, and rituals, El Espejo de la Bruja has it all – love triangles, jerky husbands, revenge, betrayals, grave robbing, and ghoulish medicine. The plot is at once standard yet also nonsensical thanks to all the sorcery, implausible surgeries, ghosts, fire, even catalepsy all building in over the top, soap opera-esque twists. The sets are perhaps simplistic or small scale with only interior filming, but this scary, play-like atmosphere is enough thanks to wonderful shadows, gothic décor, and freaky, sinister music. Several language and subtitle options are available along with the feature and commentary on the DVD as well – not that any of the dubbing, subtitles, or original Spanish completely matches. The audio is also messed up in some spots, but the script is fun and full of cultish summonings and medical fantasies. Maybe this one will have too much happening for some viewers, as every horror treatise is thrown at the screen here. However, this is a swift, entertaining 75 minutes nonetheless and it doesn’t let up until the end.

You Make the Call, Addicts!

Doppelganger – The opening Drew Barrymore suckling scene feels a little too carried over from Poison Ivy, but the follow up blood and screams with mom Jaid Barrymore add to the 1993 kitschy. The very dated style, light LA grunge feeling, and passé cast are way over the top, and vampire lovers are removed from an onscreen script rather than a shoehorned in plot necessity like today. Thankfully, Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H) is bemusing and so is the “Hey, it’s Danny Trejo!” moment, but seriously, George Newbern (actually the Adventures in Babysitting guy) isn’t Paul Rudd? Sadly, the slow motion soft core wanna-be shots don’t work until more blood and creepy aspects enter in- symbolic windows bursting open and yes, growling winds just make things laughable. It’s all too quick to get to the sex and titillation- casual lesbian on the dance floor motifs and forced use of the word ‘twat’ feel more awkward than cool.  The scares are obvious, and poor music choices, sound mixing, and bad dialogue re-dubs don’t help as Barrymore comes off more like a PMS queen or mental bitch rather than an innocent girl with a slutty, killer lookalike. Though the plot itself is too thin, things becomes more interesting when the murder investigation raises a few questions. Unfortunately, even the FBI agent (Dan Shor aka Billy the Kid from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) lays the smack on really thick! Barrymore doesn’t have a full command on the dry dialogue scenes, either. However, despite the baby doll dresses and old lady headscarf, teen Drew is looking flawless. I’m sure there’s a male audience that can have fun with that, the unintentional camp, and the cheap entertainment value here- except for the finale. Good Lord, what happened there?!

FRIGHTENING FLIX by KBATZ: Dead Calm

 

Dead Calm Old, But Still Kind of Creepy

By Kristin Battestella

 

My Mother gets the wiggins every time she watches the 1989 thriller Dead Calm. A very young Nicole Kidman and then popular Billy Zane date this drama on the high seas, but there’s enough chills to keep you on the edge of your seat.

After the death of their son, John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his young wife Rae (Kidman) take time to grieve and bond anew as they sail back to Australia. After a month at sea, they encounter an unresponsive ship, then its lone survivor Hughie Warriner (Zane) on a dinghy. Neill leaves his wife to care for Hughie on their ship while he tries to save Warriner’s damaged vessel. Unfortunately, once Hughie has Rae alone, his true nature is revealed.

 

Natural suspense goes a long way for Dead Calm. There’s plenty of violence and disaster to get into on a lonely boat on the high seas. Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector) does well with the vast dangers of the sea as well as the tight, claustrophobic, and confined interiors. Who doesn’t love all that bottomless water along with all the wood and mechanics to use, abuse, and on which to get hurt? Even the dog aboard ship is used intelligently. The fine story by Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior, Payback) – based on the 1963 novel by Charles Williams- is also complete and well done in the under two hour time frame. There’s a ticking clock of rescue and seafaring desperation in Dead Calm that appeals to all our fears. Today the powers that be would make a huge action disaster picture full of computer-generated squalls and people in bikinis. While not lacking on action or congested fight scenes, Dead Calm focuses on what would happen when we add the worst of human nature to the sea.

Sam Neil (Jurassic Park, The Tudors) is a little old for his wife, and this strain-along with the death of their child goes a long way in Dead Calm. Neil’s authentic as a former Navy man who knows the ocean. We trust him, like him and his instincts. If John feel’s something fishy, we worry with him. We don’t doubt he loves his young and saucy wife, but John’s rigid style might not keep Rae for long.

 

But of course Dead Calm uses all it can of the young and pretty Kidman (The Hours, Moulin Rogue, To Die For) in her first big picture stateside. Her accent, style, and mannerisms are not the elegant lady we know today-in fact, her delivery might be difficult to understand for some. At first, it doesn’t seem there’s a lot to Rae beyond the clichéd young and grieving wife and mother. However, Kidman shows her future talent with charm and chemistry with both her leading men. As Dead Calm progresses, Rae wisens up and uses her short, beachy outfits to her advantage. Naturally, a certain sexuality comes into play-and it’s all good and ambiguous. We don’t doubt Rae’s grief and devotion to her husband, but she is younger and all alone with a hot and scary guy.

Billy Zane does bad guys best: Titanic, yes, The Phantom, not so much. Built and bizarre, you don’t blame the Ingrams for being suspicious when they meet Hughie. Sure, the tale he tells of violence and marooning on the high seas might make anyone a little flaky; but Zane sells every piece of Hugie’s psychotic bend. His paranoia, quick obsession with Rae, explosives speeches, and creepy dancing seep into everyone one of our fears-we’d be afraid to be alone with Hughie at all, let alone sailing away into the worst that we can imagine. Then again, I’m sure there is an audience that will find Zane’s portrayal sexy as hell. Despite his mental instability, Hughie is vital and in control, and yes, it is rough and kinky.

 

Dead Calm’s styles-much like Billy Zane’s popularity, have however, waned. The clothing styles are very dated and Kidman’s bushy hair isn’t all it could be. The score by Graeme Revell (Sin City, Daredevil, The Crow) is too overbearing and obvious as well. There’s also not much rewatchability once you know all of Dead Calm’s twists and turns. Some of the naughty scenes, however, can be studied and re-interpreted time and again.

Fans of the trio will enjoy-although, this picture is not for any one who has water or boat phobias, I must say. There’s nudity of course for Kidman and Zane lovers, too. They’ve gone on to bigger and better things, but Dead Calm has all the makings of a scary, psychological thriller. Dated, perhaps, but sex and fear never get old. Look for this high seas adventures on DVD or blu-ray.

Movie Review: Wastelander

In a post-apocalyptic world, what remains of the human race clings to life in a vast, desert wasteland. A rampant slave trade, gangs of cybernetic bandits, and sinister warlords plague the land. Rhyous (Brendan Guy Murphy), a lone fighter, searches for Eden, where the remnants of civilization are rumored to remain. Taunted by incomplete memories of pre-war society, Rhyous fights the urge to succumb to savagery and greed, even as he must fight to stay alive.

Wastelander follows Rhyous in his search for Eden and takes us through the last dregs of humanity. The movie is an action filled romp, a la Mad Max. The overarching theme about finding humanity—whether by returning to the old or blazing a new way—ties rival groups together and pushes them apart. Greed and survival fuel ganglands style wars where the price of any misstep is death. Still, slivers of humanity peek through scenes of violence, as Rhyous shows the kind of compassion that seems to have gone extinct.

Rhyous is paired with tough-as-nails Neve (Carol Cardenas), a former slave who doesn’t back down in the face of a fight. Neve humanizes Rhyous in a surprising way, bringing out a protective quality, when Neve isn’t exactly a damsel in distress.

The fight scenes are creative and well choreographed, blending seamlessly into the violent landscape. A mixture of weapon types and fighting styles ensure that no battle is quite like the others.

Creators designed a full and engaging world for Wastelander . Pop culture advertisements linger in the most unlikely places long after the end of the world had come and gone, giving a fascinating look into the time before the wastes. The story has some creative high points when examining what it might mean for humanity to lose all knowledge of the world from before (“What’s ‘years’?”). The costumes offer a glimpse of how humanity would make the best of what resources were left. The film had a clear aesthetic style with regard to post-apocalyptic fashion. Creators merged functional items with a unique style that set the stage without saying a word. They did a lot with seemingly very little, using details to distinguish from the everyday.

The cinematography in Wastelander  fits well with the grim world it portrays. The desert landscape and lighting create a vision of stark lights and darks, much like the ‘rule or be ruled’ morality of the world portrayed. Any escape from the environment brings danger because if any resource is available, survivors can bet that someone else found it first. The film makes creative use of sets and props to find interesting ways to show characters interacting with their world.

Wastelander is a great blend of the action and science fiction genres, with elements of horror throughout. It has a violent edge, so it may not be for all viewers, but the concept and world building are worth experiencing.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

 

An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

by Kristin Battestella

Fans of old school thrillers young or old can earn their suspense credentials with these early Alfred Hitchcock nail biters.

The Lady Vanishes Only one lovely train passenger has seen the titular dame, causing rail car mayhem for Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra) in this 1938 mystery. Travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle as our ensemble is humorously introduced – from the governess rambling about her past charges and country songs or dances to cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the line from London for the cricket scores. All the rooms are let out in this hectic hotel save for the maid’s quarters, and she comes with the room, wink! The bellhop is trying not to look at the scandalous bare legs as our bachelorette orders caviar and champagne, but the men in bed together is gay in both senses of the word with jolly good innuendo. This quirky inn comforts the audience yet there are whispers of pretty American girls and the almighty dollar getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. A hit on the head at the train station leads to a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, magic tricks, and slight of hand illusion. Everyone’s interconnected – incognito affairs, musicians, a famous doctor, magicians, and foreign diplomats. Some genuinely don’t recall seeing the woman in question, but others have an ulterior motive for not wanting the train delayed, willful gaslighting compounded by lies, lawyers watching their own back, and that unreliable bump on the head. Tea in the dining car alone, suspicious wine glasses – complaints about non-English speakers, nationalism, political secrets, and conspiracies. Who’s really on who’s side? Train whistle harbingers pepper the constant hum of travel, matching the rail montages, impressive rear projection, and black and white photography. Despite the confined setting, the pace remains fittingly on the move with perilous comings and goings between cars. There are stoles and divine hats, too, but that giant monogram scarf looks more like a napkin stuck in her collar! Humorous bunging in the cargo with magician’s rabbits, trick boxes, false bottoms, and contortionists is good on its own, however, perhaps such fun should have happened earlier before the serious mystery escalates. There are some contrived leaps as well – it’s amazing how all the Englishmen can shoot to kill and do it so easily – and though not naming the enemy country is understandable thanks to political relevance then and now, the obligatory bad guys are just nondescript. Likewise, one can see why the sardonic comedy teams and shootouts were included, and Flightplan really steals from this right down to the writing on the foggy window. Fortunately, the ticking clock race to the border, wrong track turns, gunfire standoffs, and international chases roll on right up to the end. But seriously, what it is with Hitchcock and trains already?

 

 

Lifeboat – Journalist Tallulah Bankhead is stranded on the high seas with torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and Nazis in this 1944 self-contained thriller nominated for Best Director, Story by John Steinbeck, and Black and White Cinematography. There’s no need to waste time on spectacle with the in media res sinking – flotsam and jetsam with everything from English playing cards to dead Germans heralds the nationalism and wartime grays to come amid damp passengers, dirty sailors, famous dames, mothers, babies, and injuries. Tallulah’s in furs, smoking a cigarette, and dictating what junk to bridge aboard, and despite the tiny boat space, multiple conversations happen fore and aft thanks to strategic intercutting between the immediate wounded and more self-absorbed survivors. Fog and windswept water sprays accent the superb rear projection, and the strategic filming captures everyone from all angles with foreground zooms and background silhouettes. Natural ocean sounds and the rocking of the ship, however, might make sensitive viewers seasick. There are numerous colloquialisms as well as accents and translations, but conversation is all we have – a stage-like talkative jam packed with insinuating layers, interrogations, and double meanings. Can you make your own law in open waters and toss the Nazi overboard? Everyone feels the need to establish who’s American, Christian, or had relatives in Czechoslovakia and France, and the black cook is surprised he’s included in all the decisions. It’s unfortunately expected that Canada Lee’s (Cry the Beloved Country) Joe is the least developed character, yet he’s also the most genuine person starboard. This is also a more diverse ensemble than often seen in today’s movies, and three women talk to each other about shell shock and lacking supplies but nobody knows the right prayers for a burial at sea. Cold, wet, sleepless individual vignettes allow the refreshingly flawed stranded to come clean, and at the time having a Nazi officer as a realistic character rather than an evil archetype was understandably controversial. Testy questions on who’s skipper, united sympathies, and diplomatic delegating drop the formalities, as after all “we’re all in the same boat.” However, information is not always forthcoming and no one knows the course to Bermuda – except Herr Kapitan. Can you trust his seamanship? A compass, typewriter, watches, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers with Sir Alfred in the classifieds add tangibles and some humor alongside baseball talk, debate on the superior rowing capabilities of the Master Race, and other unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” Repeated “Some of my best friends are…” quips also address differences as rambling on past regrets becomes veiled talk about shocking revelations and amputations. Lost material possessions give way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, and tattoos, but there’s time for intense poker, lipstick, and flirtation. Bermuda is the macguffin, and storms, hunger, delirium, suspicion, and men overboard get in the way of getting there. Rather than just special effects cool, wet and wild action heightens the internal boat suspense as beards grow and tables turn. They’re surrounded by undrinkable water, rain is precious, fishing bait is nonexistent, and sudden twists happen with nothing but a splash. Violent mutinies and shellfire are surprising to see in a forties movie, but Bankhead is a stunning, strong, sexy older woman able to be kissing or angry in the same scene – a multifaceted female role few and far between these days. Once stripped bare by the consequences of welcoming your enemy, do you accept your fate, continue to row, or laugh at the irony? Perhaps this warning against fatally lumping all together and the guilty lessons learned in such a no win situation can only be appreciated in retrospect, as this tale tries to see everything from both sides, remaining gripping from beginning to end with nothing but eight people in a boat in the middle of the ocean intensity. It makes one wonder why nowadays everything is so gosh darn bombastic.

 

SabotageBuzzing light bulbs go dark in this 1936 caper based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – not to be confused with Hitchcock’s previous Secret Agent or later Saboteur. Whew! Crowds are both confused and giggling in this blackout, singing or arguing by candlelit and wanting their money back from the down picture show. Flashlights, the silhouetted skyline, shadow schemes, and askew camera angles add to the power tampering suspicion, and suspenseful notes follow our mysterious man in black as he returns home, washes his hands, and claims innocence – despite his neighbor’s claims to the contrary. He talks of money coming soon yet doesn’t want to draw attention to his cinema business, but the professional, public, and domestic are intertwined with families living above the bustling marketplace. Fine dresses, fedoras, and vintage cars add to the quaint, however no one is who they seem thanks to grocers with an angle, Scotland Yard whispering of trouble abroad, and shadowed men with their backs to the camera conversing over promised payments. The innocuous movies, aquarium, and pet shop host seemingly innocent ingredients used for making bombs, and onscreen days of the week lie in wait while the public is occupied by the picture show, hoodwinked by what’s in plain sight. Creepy packages, trick bird cages, and threatening “sleeping with the fishes” coded messages become a tongue in cheek nod to the nature of cinema and hidden observations as covers are blown and men scatter. Our wife is clueless abut her husband and oblivious to her family being used for information, creating an interesting dynamic for her between the handsome detective and a damn cold, cruel husband. Who are behind these plans and why? Despite several great sequences, convenient plot points leave too many unanswered questions. The busy start is rough around the edges, meandering for half the movie before becoming eerily provocative as a child delivers a fatal ticking package in the middle of the crowded market. We know the route and the time – delaying for street sales, demonstration detours, and interfering parades ups the suspense alongside traffic jams, stoplights, and montages featuring clock tower gears, dangerous flammable film, our innocuous brown papered package, and the puppy on the bus next to it! A clock on every street corner checks each five minutes passing amid town criers, newsboys, crescendos, and clues in the film canister that go for the big shocker while silent visuals bring the threats home to the dinner table. Although I don’t think today we’d have a cartoon singing “Who killed Cock Robin?” but that might just be me.

 

The 39 Steps – Like Maugham’s Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don’t need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who’s picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro has created a film masterpiece. And, with a stunning thirteen Academy Award nominations for The Shape of Water, I am not the only one who thinks so.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret government facility. Elisa lives a quiet life of routine and resignation. When abrasive military man, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives at the facility with an aquatic monster from South America, Elisa is captivated by the surprising humanity she witnesses in the creature. She develops a kinship with the amphibian man, who is limited in communication much as she is. When Cold War agendas threaten the creature, Elisa risks everything to save him. Set against a backdrop of ego, intrigue, and romance, The Shape of Water is far more than the typical monster movie.

It’s difficult to characterize The Shape of Water as any one genre—whether spy thriller or romantic drama—but, in many ways, that is the film’s strength. The plot is gripping, driving from one scene to the next, always with a new question in the viewer’s mind. There are no groundbreaking twists or sharp reveals. Things move forward as expected, but at every turn the viewer is left wondering what exactly will come next. At no point do we feel as if any character is safe from the events on the screen. Unexpectedly funny moments set scenes of horror in sharp relief. It all builds to a gripping conclusion that is every bit as harrowing as it is satisfying.

The film features a diverse set of characters, not just in demographics, but in personality, motivation, and abilities. They were all equally memorable, but most importantly, they were believable. What set the characters at odds were their different motivations and values. There were no contrived conflicts. At every crossroad, each character made the decision that was appropriate for them.

Elisa Esposito was a powerful force throughout the film. Elisa is no shrinking violet. Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in the 1960’s and being unable to speak, she doesn’t back down from what she knows is right. I’m always enamored with characters who have limitations of speech, especially in horror movies. The role of a Scream Queen filled by a woman who literally cannot scream is such a self-aware implementation of the genre that it deserves praise all on its own. The ability to convey emotion without words is an incredible skill and Sally Hawkins delivers, conveying with longing looks more emotion than I felt in all of the Notebook.

As the main villain, Richard Strickland is deliciously easy to hate. A cruel and vain man, Strickland has an inflated sense of his own importance and capability. Portrayed as the ideal 1960’s husband—with the good job, suburban house, beautiful wife, and loving children—his deviance lurks deeper. He treats everyone as beneath him. At the same time, Strickland is a remarkably ordinary villain, the sort of man that everyone will recognize. Even without the backdrop of the supernatural, Strickland would be a terrifying presence. Through the film, it becomes increasingly clear that he will do whatever he wants to fulfil his own sense of overinflated importance, regardless of consequences to others. His predatory attitude toward Elisa is particularly unsettling. Watching his spiral into madness and obsession is both terrifying and satisfying.

Despite being central to The Shape of Water, the character of the Amphibian Man is surprisingly flat. What is there to say about someone that is majorly made up of a costume and CGI? He’s visually entrancing and has a few poignant moments, but his main role is to showcase the way other characters interact with him rather than to give much growth or power in his own right. As for whether you find him attractive, that’s a personal matter and between you and your own sexuality.

The Cold War setting of the movie was indispensable to the plot. The motivation to keep knowledge out of enemy hands, if they weren’t able to obtain it themselves, drives the characters to dark depths, making them willing to pay any price for their country, even if that price is their human soul. I can’t imagine any attempt to make this movie in a modern setting. The film needed the backdrop of the era’s black and white morality to properly set the stage for the movie’s central theme.

After all, what makes a monster is not circumstance or affiliation, but underlying motivations and character. Humanity extends to more than just humans. What is it that makes someone worthy of respect? Worthy of life? The Cold War, during which even other human beings were seen as lesser animals due to their political affiliations, creates a perfect environment in which to address the question of “what makes something human?”

While I would not consider The Shape of Water a horror movie in its own right—certainly not a ‘scary movie’—I think that there are elements that every horror addict will enjoy. It’s a love letter to old horror movies, taking tropes from the height of campiness and drawing them out in ways that only modern filmmaking can. It is a visual delight to watch and a gripping story to follow with plenty of nods to classic horror films. Especially in a world where it feels as if anything and everything has been remade, The Shape of Water stands apart as the only one to take an old concept and do it justice.