Archive for October 1992

Rampage

October 30, 1992

William Friedkin’s 1992 film Rampage is a ham-handed screed in favor of the death penalty. William Friedkin’s 1987 film Rampage is more of a complex thriller that isn’t nearly as sure what it thinks about the death penalty. These are two radically different films, though the one you’re likely to see — Friedkin’s preferred cut, as of 1992, anyway — is the worse one.

Both films concern a serial killer, Charles Reece (Alex McArthur), loosely based on real-life psycho Richard Chase, “the Vampire of Sacramento.” Reese saunters into people’s houses, shoots everyone dead, sodomizes the women’s corpses, and drinks their blood. We don’t have to look at much of this in detail; in either version, Friedkin is atypically tactful about showing the actual violence. Reece is caught and taken into custody, and district attorney Tony Fraser (Michael Biehn), a self-described liberal, finds himself prosecuting the case. After visiting the scenes of the crimes, Fraser becomes convinced that he must prove Reece sane. Huh? Well, if Reece is proven wacko, then he can be found not guilty by reason of insanity, and instead of going to the gas chamber he’ll go to an institution, where he might eventually be set free.

Sadly, in both versions, we get about half an hour of thriller and about an hour of courtroom drama, which is where Friedkin’s head was at this time out. He must really have yearned to direct scenes of people arguing over a legal case, because ten years later he ended up remaking 12 Angry Men for Showtime. Anyway, Reece’s psychiatrists mount the defense that he’s clearly off his rocker, since he thinks Satan is poisoning his blood and only by drinking his victims’ blood can he stay alive. Fraser finds himself in the odd position of insisting that such a man is perfectly mentally healthy. He goes so far as to demand that one of the shrinks state for the record that the Nazis were sane (this was obviously long before Godwin’s Law). In the early, scary section, though, Friedkin creeps us out as successfully as he always has.

Friedkin finished Rampage in 1987. It showed at a few festivals, and then its distributor, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went under. It took five years before the film could be legally disentangled and released by Miramax; in the intervening time, Friedkin apparently changed his mind about what he wanted the film to say. In both versions, Fraser is still mourning the loss of his little daughter six months before. In the ’87 version, though, more is made of the strain the case puts on his marriage as his wife (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) questions why such a liberal man has such a hard-on for the death penalty. Some footage that isn’t in the ’92 version underlines the idea that Fraser feels guilt over having to make the decision to pull the plug on his comatose daughter (he’s a good Catholic, too, as both versions establish early). He feels terrible for having had to make that life-or-death decision then, so it doesn’t make sense in the ’92 version for him to be so blithe and single-minded about making it again.

The films have drastically different endings, too. Without venturing into spoiler territory, let’s just say that the ’87 version leaves things open to a lot of doubt and questioning — and even more remorse on Fraser’s part — while the ’92 version is an open-and-shut case, rhetorically speaking. (Weirdly, too, footage from the tragic ending of the ’87 cut is used in a different context earlier in the ’92 cut, perhaps leading the viewer of the redux to wonder why a presumably sleeping character looks stone dead.) To be blunt, Friedkin must’ve read some really hardcore pro-death-penalty pamphlets between 1987 and 1992. The ’92 version must also have pissed off Alex McArthur, since it omits the actor’s big moment near the end of the ’87 cut, when Reece tearfully asks for his life to be spared so that he can somehow work to make up for the things he did, and so that “killing people won’t be the only thing I did my whole life.” Meanwhile, in the ’87 version, Fraser sits in darkened rooms or a helicopter in flight and tells his tape recorder that he’s not sure what the answer is, but killing Reece isn’t it, and Michael Biehn — a fine, intense actor — is best in these scenes. Which, in the ’92 cut, are nowhere to be found.

Full disclosure: I’m a liberal and I abhor capital punishment. But I don’t insist that every film mirror my politics — I still believe a good pro-death-penalty movie could conceivably be made. It’s just that Friedkin hasn’t made that good movie. He himself, in interviews coinciding with the ’92 release, said that he was less pro-death-penalty than anti-insanity-defense. Fine — although the way the movie sets it up, either the bastard dies or he might possibly someday get set free; there’s no middle ground — but Friedkin stacks the deck (as of 1992) to make the psychiatrists look weak and venal, and he seems a lot more convinced than I am that a killer, once found insane, will be let out of the looney bin once his crimes are “forgotten about.” (Hasn’t Friedkin been watching his own movie? Hardened cops are sickened at the scenes of Reece’s crimes, muttering that they’ve never seen anything like this before. The impression we get is that Reece’s savagery is and will be, at the very least, memorable.) The case of Charles Manson, whose initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when California briefly did away with the death penalty, would seem to refute this; certainly no one has “forgotten” what he did, and as I write this in early 2012, Manson has recently been denied parole for the twelfth time. He will most likely die behind bars, as he should. Killing him would only have martyred him in the eyes of his followers.

Or take probably the most famous example of the insanity defense, John Hinckley Jr. He’s been at St. Elizabeths Hospital for 31 years, and though his leash has loosened in recent years (family visits and such, always closely monitored), he’s pushing 60 now and it doesn’t seem likely you’ll run into him at the supermarket any time soon. Nobody has forgotten what he did, either. And he didn’t even kill anyone (not for lack of trying, of course). Anyway, rather than bending himself into rhetorical pretzels trying to argue for Reece’s sanity, Fraser could have done the homework and seen that many criminals institutionalized via the insanity defense end up locked away for longer than they might have been in prison. If you’re still deemed a threat, you stay there. And post-Hinckley the insanity defense has been used very sparingly, in less than 1% of criminal cases. That’s mainly because the defense, on whom the burden of proof of insanity rests, knows it’s a hard fucking sell.

Basically, in re-editing his film to make a cruder point, Friedkin took out the shadings in his characters and the better work of his leads, and in no way whatsoever did he improve the movie. He in fact systematically made it worse. (But then Friedkin has never been the best judge of his own work — remember the needless subliminals he inserted into the Exorcist re-release, and the visual hack job that was the first, director-approved French Connection Blu-ray?) In many ways the two films are the same, with the same structure and narrative beats, but the more pensive and ambiguous moments that Friedkin chose to delete while preparing the ’92 cut are the ones that set the ’87 version apart. The ’87 cut ends on a note of healing and hope (a bereaved husband and his son at a carnival); the ’92 version ends on an image of Reece staring at us through the bars of his cell, capped with an epilogue card telling us he’ll be up for parole in six months. Take that, you lefty anti-death-penalty twerps! Friedkin has taken an unsettled and unsettling work of art, something beyond politics, and coarsened it into a polemic.

Reservoir Dogs

October 23, 1992

Movie buffs often run into people who swear they can’t sit through a film more than once. Too many movies, to be certain, aren’t worth even one viewing, but some demand an exception. In 1991 there was The Silence of the Lambs, and in 1992 there was Reservoir Dogs, a movie that seems perfect for video, where you can run it again and again. It’s not just its quality that requires multiple viewings; it’s the way the plot unfolds. Making his first movie, the young writer-director Quentin Tarantino plays with time and space, and part of the excitement is how he makes everything snap together. What sounds like meaningless blather about the pros and cons of tipping a waitress turns out to be the key to understanding a character; shots that seem gratuitous and show-offy turn out to reveal more than pages of script. Tarantino is by far a more assured plotter than a director — which is saying something, because he’s also a purer moviemaker than 80 percent of the competition. His natural mastery of film language isn’t half as exciting as his ability to use it to tell a crackerjack story. And he’s written himself a gem.

In Los Angeles, mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his effusive son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) assemble six thieves to carry out a jewelry-store heist. So that none of the crooks will know each other’s identities, Joe assigns them color-coded names. In flashbacks (they’re almost like dossiers), Tarantino gives us what we need to know about three of the thieves. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), a veteran with a mild Southern accent, is the unofficial leader. He and Joe go way back, and Joe picks him because he’s level-headed and experienced. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) has just been released from prison, where he spent four years because he refused to snitch on Joe. As payback, Joe and Eddie cut Mr. Blonde in on the heist. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is a peaceful sort who, when the movie gets underway, is screaming and bleeding in the back seat of Mr. White’s car. The heist, we learn, has gone bad: There was a shoot-out, precipitated by the ruthless Mr. Blonde, who lost his cool and started blasting innocents and cops alike. Two other thieves, Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) and Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself), are killed before they can make it back to the thieves’ planned meeting place at a warehouse. With the gushing Mr. Orange in tow, Mr. White speeds back to the warehouse; minutes later, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), a callous, suspicious type, shows up and starts squawking about “a rat in the house.” The cops arrived at the scene too fast, he argues; they must have been set up. Which of the thieves is the rat? The plot isn’t nearly as linear as I’ve made it sound; Tarantino supplies it in gradual dribbles, and there are surprises — not just centering on who the rat is.

For a while, Reservoir Dogs seems to dawdle. Mr. White and Mr. Pink keep snapping at each other while Mr. Orange fades in and out of consciousness. This minimalist theatre of the absurd is expertly acted. Tim Roth continues the British tradition of faking American accents more convincingly than Americans can fake British accents. In the present-day scenes, he has a reason to overact; he is, after all, shot in the stomach, which, as Mr. White helpfully points out, is the most painful place to take a bullet other than the kneecap. In the flashbacks, Roth is loose and casual — in Mr. Orange’s words, “supercool.” But mostly he functions as an appreciative listener, and when he’s with Keitel there’s definitely something worth listening to. Keitel (who also coproduced the film) has trouble with his own accent, but he may be the best macho grandstander in movies. This former Marine has such physical authority that he never has to oversell his toughness. Yet he’s also funny, as when he takes Joe’s black book away. Berating Joe mildly, as if speaking to a beloved uncle, Keitel scores a big laugh while never overstepping Mr. White’s bounds with Joe. (Tierney, in his few scenes, is hilarious.) Keitel’s monologue about what to do if the jewelry-store manager causes trouble is already a classic. Steve Buscemi oozes untrustworthiness, so it’s a central joke of the movie that he doesn’t trust anybody. In a key exchange, Mr. Pink snaps at Mr. White, “For all I know, you’re the rat.” Angered, Mr. White shouts back, “For all I know, you’re the fuckin’ rat!” Mr. Pink doesn’t take offense at this: “See, now you’re using your head.” To Mr. Pink, everyone’s a fuckin’ rat. Buscemi is the movie’s cynical voice of reason; he’s the type of guy who says things like “I’m surrounded by idiots.”

The funniest performance, though, may well be Tarantino’s, though he only gives himself a few minutes onscreen. As Mr. Brown, a talkative young thief who will later drive one of the getaway cars, Tarantino dominates the pre-credits scene with his often-quoted dissertation on the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” He seems ecstatic to be holding forth at a table with some of his lifelong movie idols (Keitel, Tierney) sitting alongside him. (If you want to shoot the shit with your matinee heroes, hire them for your movie.) Tarantino’s monologue is aggressive, profane, and meandering (“What the fuck was I talking about?”), much like his directorial style. Some may wonder why Tarantino, having made a vivid impression in the first reel, all but drops out of the film soon after. But really he doesn’t. The first scene is his signal to us that even off-camera, he’s going to tell stories, make us laugh or cringe, freak us out.

Cosmetically, Reservoir Dogs looks like a macho multiple orgasm of a film, its characters swapping “fuck you”s (and then bullets) with absurd relentlessness. (After the fiftieth “fuck,” the word becomes white noise, the way it did in Scarface, GoodFellas, and Blue Velvet.) Yet Tarantino sneaks in a tender homosexual subtext, which makes the macho excesses even funnier. There seems to be more going on between Mr. White and Mr. Orange than a typical bond between thieves. The men are opposites in obvious ways (the colors that serve as their names, their physical builds) and in not-so-obvious ways (which Tarantino later makes obvious), but what they have in common is a fundamental decency. Tarantino reveals Mr. White’s compassion early on, when the veteran thief argues for the importance of tipping waitresses. (He’s the only one who sees it as a moral obligation.) Mr. Orange performs an act of mercy at risk of the wrath of the other thieves. There is something in Mr. Orange that draws Mr. White closer. The name Mr. Orange suggests he may be a different, more humane person underneath his streetwise exterior, his “peel.” Mr. White responds to this — he wants to peel away his own fake identity and relate to somebody, anybody, on human terms. Under duress, he tells Mr. Orange his name (Larry) and where he’s from. In movie terms, that’s the start of a beautiful relationship. When Mr. Orange is dying of a bullet in the gut, Keitel and Roth do their most intimate acting. On request, Mr. White holds Mr. Orange, comforting him; spontaneously, he takes out a comb and gently untangles Mr. Orange’s sweaty hair. The scene has an erotic spark that Tarantino doesn’t shy away from. The way Keitel murmurs “You’ve been brave enough for one day” has an unmistakable nurturing tone. If Mr. Orange asked to be tucked in and kissed goodnight, Mr. White would probably do that, too. Maybe even without being asked. Of course, this is only possible when no other men are around; and the joke of this mini-subplot is that these two can only find intimacy when one of them is on the brink of death and bleeding buckets.

The clues to the other characters can be found in the names Joe gives them. I’ve already discussed Mr. Orange. Mr. White, of course, is the film’s moral (but not always rational) center. He’s not a role model, but in this movie’s terms, he’s close to it; he’s a professional, not “a fuckin’ psychopath” like Mr. Blonde. That fuckin’ psychopath, incidentally, might take his cue from “Blondes have more fun.” Nothing troubles Mr. Blonde (at least not in the scenes we see; if we could see his behavior during the heist, we might get a far different impression). The heist is a game to him, and so is sadism. Preparing to mutilate a cop, he boogies to the beat of “Stuck in the Middle with You.” He entertains himself and seems almost hurt that the cop isn’t entertained too: How could you not enjoy being tortured by such a fun guy? (Michael Madsen proves himself a master at smooth-faced evil; he also proves that evil is most terrifying when it’s soft-spoken.) Mr. Pink, a role Tarantino originally planned to play, bristles at the homosexual scent of the name. He’s possibly the most cold-blooded of the thieves; he’s no sadist (sadism is a fuckin’ waste of time, man, let’s just get the job done), but he lacks ordinary human empathy — he’s the one who made a big thing about not tipping, and he doesn’t care all that much whether Mr. Orange dies. He’s like a street-punk Mr. Spock: Logic and professionalism are more important to him than humanity, and he’s in it totally for himself. So his name, which suggests softness and femininity, seems ironic.

Of the two lesser characters, Mr. Brown also balks at his name (“It sounds too much like Mr. Shit”); Mr. Blue’s name may make sense if you know the backstory of the actor who plays him — Eddie Bunker, an ex-con who served as this film’s consultant and wrote the book (No Beast So Fierce) on which the excellent Dustin Hoffman drama Straight Time (about a thief) was based. The other men are playing veteran hard-asses; Bunker actually is one. Bunker may have been attracted to this project because Tarantino turns his tragic recividist theme from Straight Time (thieves are psychologically incarcerated in or out of jail, helpless to break their criminal patterns) into black comedy. The central event in Straight Time, incidentally, was also a botched jewelry-store heist — though in that film it was shown in tense detail, whereas Tarantino keeps his heist on a hearsay level. For Tarantino, the heist holds less fascination than what happens before and after.

Critics emphasized what a camera whiz Tarantino is, but as directorial debuts go, this isn’t all that show-offy. He does some smooth Scorsese pans in the opening scene, and when Mr. Blonde goes to work on the cop, the camera tilts upward and to the left, as if it couldn’t bear to look. Mostly, I was aware of Tarantino’s superb command of economic craft: Not a shot is wasted. When Mr. White and Mr. Pink are pointing guns at each other, the camera pulls back slowly, at length; at first it seems like a self-conscious visual allusion to how small-minded these hoods are (as well as a distancing tactic). But the camera, it turns out, is pulling back to reveal Mr. Blonde, who sucks on a soda and watches the men with quiet amusement. Suddenly he looms large in the frame, while the other two look like squabbling insects in the background.

What I consider Tarantino’s masterstroke is the men’s-room scene. This is a made-up story told by one of the thieves about the time he was waiting to sell some weed, went into a bathroom, and ran into four cops and a pot-sniffing German shepherd. Time stops as the thief tries to look nonchalant, taking a piss and washing his hands while the dog barks at his gym bag, which is full of grass. What’s great about the scene is that not only do you forget it’s a flashback — you forget it’s a bullshit flashback. It seems to be true and happening now, and you find yourself tensed up and sweating right along with the thief. Tarantino even pauses to let one of the (fictitious) cops tell a story about some guy he almost blew away, and you half expect the film to splinter off and dramatize his story, too.

By this point in the movie, it’s clear that Tarantino loves artifice as much as realism. The script is loaded with pop-culture references: Music constantly comments on the action (and is also commented on); at least two characters talk about Charles Bronson; Lee Marvin, Charlie Chan, John Holmes, Pam Grier, and even the Thing from the Fantastic Four rate a mention. There’s also a nod to Method acting, a debt to the structure of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, and perhaps a titular tip of the hat to Straw Dogs (nobody can seem to agree on what exactly a “reservoir dog” is). The cop’s mutilation may be a tribute to Blue Velvet (as well as Un Chien Andalou); the conversation between Nice Guy Eddie and Mr. Blonde in Joe’s office is a better-written variation on macho rants from a lot of bad prison movies; and so on.

Reservoir Dogs has its share of obvious humor, mostly centering on droll throwaways or crude insults. Sometimes the fierceness and abruptness of the violence is funny; sometimes it’s the single-mindedness of the thieves. (You feel bad for the woman Mr. Pink yanks from her car, but the desperation of his action is so perfect that you laugh.) You can’t help laughing during the sickest part of the torture scene, when Mr. Blonde lifts the severed ear and speaks into it: “Hey, what’s goin’ on? Can you hear me?” (I tend to think more people are bothered by the sight and sound of the spluttering torture victim after the fact than by the actual torture.) Mostly you respond to the sustained tone of absurdity. As if to underscore the point, Tarantino hired the master of absurdism to provide running commentary — Steven Wright as the laconic DJ of the station that plays “Super Sounds of the ’70s.”

The movie keeps building to the ultimate absurdity — when the heated exchange of words becomes a crossfire of bullets — and, sure enough, it happens, but Tarantino puts a wicked spin on it. The action is so sudden, so simultaneous, and so defiantly uninterested in a routine prolonged action-film shootout that it’s hilarious. Tarantino, whose character dies earlier in a more realistic way, has the last laugh on the other thieves, which led some critics to peg him as just another hot-shot with some style and no heart. But he doesn’t laugh at the men; he laughs at their macho code, which depends on the gun and ultimately can’t stand up to the gun. These dogs may finally be all bark and no bite, but that can’t be said of the movie.

Dr. Giggles

October 23, 1992

The real star of Dr. Giggles is whoever built the surgical tools that the title villain uses. In his shiny black bag, the not-so-good doctor (Larry Drake) carries the most hideous medical instruments imaginable: a long speculum that enters the nostril and pierces the brain; a pointed thermometer that gets shoved into a victim’s mouth and out the back of his head (thank God it’s not rectal); huge separators that seem designed to crack open an elephant’s ribcage; and the show-stopper, a gleaming gun of some sort that discharges razor-sharp spikes — ka-chinngg! — and punches holes through flesh and bone. I enjoyed watching this stuff in action, but I didn’t buy it for a minute. To quote the Joker: Where did he get those wonderful toys? The movie doesn’t tell us; he just seems to … have them. (I’m especially curious about how he came by the giant Band-Aid he suffocates someone with.)

That’s just one example of plot malpractice in Dr. Giggles, which robotically checks off every slasher-film cliché in the book. Dr. Giggles, you see, suffers from a Childhood Trauma. His mother died of heart failure; his father, a good doctor, couldn’t save her and steadily went nuts — killing people and taking their hearts home to transplant in his wife. Eventually the locals caught up with him and stoned him to death, but not before he cut open his wife, stuck his young son inside her stomach, and … No, I’d better stop before I make the movie sound interesting. The boy, understandably twisted, grew up to become Dr. Giggles, a maniac who thinks he’s continuing his dad’s “work.” And when he escapes from the asylum and spots a high-school girl (a pre-Charmed Holly Marie Combs) who has heart trouble — just like dear old Mom! — he knows he’s found the perfect patient.

The script, by Graeme Whifler (with some major revisions by director Manny Coto), is a pathetic body-count contraption — 101 Varieties of Weird Ways to Die. The usual group of stupid teenagers hang out at a carnival (which has no reason, plotwise, to be in the film, except that the moviemakers had access to it) and wander off to be butchered by Dr. Giggles. The killer must also have a terrific set of skeleton keys in his bag — he’s always waltzing into locked houses to get at his prey. Giggling nervously (hence the name), the doctor keeps himself amused by spouting moronic medical one-liners (“This won’t hurt a bit,” “Are you feeling any discomfort?”). “Have a heart,” he says as he throws a heart at someone (a direct steal from Dreamscape). The movie falls into a deadening, repetitive rhythm very fast, with Brian May’s score (which sounds like Danny Elfman Lite) working overtime to make the action seem impressive.

Larry Drake, a hulking, baby-faced character actor who made his name as the gentle Benny on L.A. Law, can also play vicious psychos, as anyone who caught him in Darkman can tell you. As Dr. Giggles, Drake pulls off a neat trick: He convinces you that this monster actually thinks he’s doing noble work. When he prepares to operate on the girl with the bad ticker, he really seems to want to heal her, even though he’ll probably end up killing her in the process. Drake has also worked up a great giggle for the role; he seems raring to give a classic sick-puppy performance. But the idiotic script won’t let him. He just stalks from house to house murdering people until it’s his turn to die, and we all know a horror-movie villain can’t die just once. No, he keeps popping up with even bigger weapons. Luckily, he gets killed for real before he can reach into his bag and pull out, say, a jackhammer.

It’s obvious that Dr. Giggles wants to be a cartoonish, outrageous splatter comedy along the lines of The Re-Animator, which also got some mileage out of gross mad-lab jokes. But in outline it’s no different from Friday the 13th and its clones. The numbing familiarity of everything in the film just makes the cartoonish bits look ridiculous. You could ask, “Well, what’d you expect from a movie called Dr. Giggles?” I don’t know — maybe a little fun?

Candyman

October 16, 1992

Based loosely on one of Clive Barker’s weaker stories (‘The Forbidden,’ in his In the Flesh collection), Candyman has an alluring premise: Urban myths, such as the old tale about alligators in the sewers, may be true. Not only that, they may be religions — paranoid belief systems in which malevolent, godlike creatures punish those who dare to doubt the legend. Yet, as intriguing as this may sound, it’s still just standard slasher-movie stuff at heart. We all know from a hundred bad films that the guy who jokes about the axe murderer “who was never caught” will be the first to get chopped. Same thing here. Candyman reheats old material and serves it as if it were bold and original, and people will probably eat it up.

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a grad student at the University of Illinois, is working on a doctoral thesis about urban folklore. Conducting interviews in the barren Cabrini Green projects in Chicago, Helen keeps hearing about Candyman (Tony Todd, from the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake), a mysterious figure with a hook for a right hand. Whenever someone looks into a mirror and says “Candyman” five times, Candyman appears, butchers everyone within reach, and vanishes. Helen, of course, doesn’t take the myth seriously and goes right ahead and says “Candyman” five times into a mirror. Soon, the killer comes knockin’. And he’s definitely coming in.

As conceived by Barker, Candyman is an urban spin-off of “The Hook,” a rural horror story told around campfires (Bill Murray used it to scare campers in Meatballs, and Stephen King refers to it often in his work on horror Danse Macabre). Barker set his original story in a London slum and described Candyman as having “waxy yellow skin.” In the movie, both Candyman and the project dwellers he terrorizes are black. In his past life, in 1890, Candyman was an artist who had an affair with his white model, and was mutilated and killed for it. Now he’s a shadowy ghoul, a tale told to frighten children. When Helen starts investigating a series of murders in the projects (which the locals attribute to Candyman whether he committed them or not), Candyman becomes obsessed with her. He wants to make her his eternal partner in pain.

Presumably, writer-director Bernard Rose decided to relocate Barker’s story and include the racial angle because he wanted to make the plot more socially relevant. (A more cynical reading might be that he wanted to make a horror movie that would cross over to the mostly untapped, potentially lucrative black audience, since the horror genre tends to be lily-white.) The film, however, comes uncomfortably close to presenting Candyman as a figure of dangerous black sexuality. A hulking black man menacing a blond white woman: is there a more primitive racist image? Rose seems to sense this, and he backs off, concentrating instead on metaphysics. Candyman, it turns out, is a vengeful patriarchal god who wants what was taken from him in life (hence his preoccupation with Helen) and wants to eliminate all doubters so that his “congregation” of followers won’t reject him (hence his vicious treatment of Helen). Still, the hot-button imagery at Candyman‘s center evokes mixed feelings that Rose doesn’t quite know what to do with.

Rose, who has directed two little-seen features (Paperhouse, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl) and a few videos (UB40′s “Red Red Wine,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”), gives Candyman a brooding dreaminess and some striking visuals. (Unfortunately, he glazes those visuals with a droning score by Philip Glass, Mr. Repetition himself, who would seem to be above a multiplex horror movie for teenagers.) From the interviews he’s given, I gather that Rose thinks Candyman transcends the horror genre. If so, why does he throw in so many clichés? (Maybe he hasn’t seen many movies from the genre he thinks he’s transcending, and so he isn’t aware he’s doing a lot of stuff that’s been done to death.)

At night, in Helen’s bedroom, a figure pounces on her for no reason except to make the audience jump — the time-honored False Boo. Helen keeps wandering into dark, claustrophobic spaces, and that’s good for some more audience squirming (get the hell out of there, you asshole!). Candyman murders people and leaves Helen to take the blame, a cause she helps by unfailingly picking up the murder instrument every time, so that the police can burst in and catch her with (A) a bloody corpse and (B) a bloody knife. Helen must be the stupidest grad student who ever walked. And I disliked the way Rose keeps us edgy by placing an infant in danger for half the movie — the device is so shameless that even the lowest hacks don’t stoop to it any more. (Wasn’t it bad enough that William Friedkin, in The Guardian, gave us an evil Druid nanny who wanted to sacrifice a baby to a tree?)

Candyman himself, a stolid villain with almost no emotional shading, is the film’s biggest problem. He’s supposed to be in love with Helen, but why her? (It’s convenient that the grad student who goes poking around his turf happens to reflect his lost love.) And are we expected to sympathize with his plight? The man rips open innocent people. The background on this killer could be a lot clearer: If you blink, you miss the reason he’s called Candyman. Bernard Rose isn’t the usual Friday the 13th bozo; he has talent. But he mistakes murky characterization and plotting for artistic ambiguity, and however much he wants to tell himself he hasn’t made a mere slasher movie, that is pretty much what he’s made — and at least the old slasher movies were honestly cheesy and didn’t hide behind metaphysical guff and Philip Glass. Rose might have been better off making a movie about alligators in the sewers.

2011 note: This has not been one of my more popular reviews. The movie has its fans.

Under Siege

October 9, 1992

462under_siege_1992_-pic_1In Under Siege, a scrappy, disrespectful, but ingenious working-class guy finds himself isolated in a room while terrorists outside blast everything in sight. With only his wits and some firearms, the man runs around picking off the terrorists and formulating brilliant strategies. We might as well just call this Die Hard on a Boat, but what the hell. The man, a former Navy SEAL turned Navy cook, is Steven Seagal, who tosses a mean kitchen knife and can build a bomb from scratch in about the time it took you to read this sentence. So we don’t worry too much about him. In the original Die Hard, Bruce Willis cut himself up trying to walk barefoot across a floor littered with broken glass. Steven Seagal would just eat the glass. Then he’d probably fart it back out at his enemies.

That’s about all Seagal doesn’t do in Under Siege, yet the film does represent a change of pace for him. His past few movies (Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, Out for Justice) have been posturing urban nonsense, with Seagal chucking people out windows and disarming burglars in package stores. Here, he spends the whole film in enclosed quarters, with the ocean under his feet, and so he’s forced to use his head as something more than a place to hang his ponytail (which, incidentally, has been snipped for this movie). Delivered from the back alleys and crack-dealer plots of his other films, Seagal seems ready for a smarter breed of action-adventure movie.

Under Siege unfolds aboard the USS Missouri (actually the decommissioned USS Alabama), a battleship on its final tour of the Pacific. With only a skeleton crew manning it, the Missouri presents a nice target for the terrorists, who take over the ship under the pretense of a surprise birthday party for its captain (Patrick O’Neal). The second-in-command (Gary Busey), who’s in cahoots with head terrorist Tommy Lee Jones, shuts Seagal in the meat locker after Seagal decks him (Busey figures that placing Seagal under formal arrest would screw up the plan). So there Seagal sits, getting cold and pissed, until he escapes the meat locker and gives his fans what they paid for. Hi-yaaa!

Not that Seagal has a Bruce Lee death shout. His Aikido dazzles the eye — he breaks limbs with amazingly fluid, looping motions — but his facial expressions suggest a man eating cold cereal. This guy just doesn’t seem … into it. Demolishing his opponents with skull-powdering kicks and lightning-fast chops, Seagal has the blandly attentive pout of a kid playing pinball. (If I could do what he does, I’d look a lot happier about it, wouldn’t you?) He does not have, to be sure, a lot of oomph in his acting. But he does have a solid screen presence (any actor who can break your face holds your attention) and a way of looking mildly amused by the fools who dare to start shit with him. That’s about all he needs.

Seagal, it turns out, is only as good as his director. Under Siege reunites him with Andrew Davis, who directed Seagal’s impressive debut, 1988′s Above the Law (he also directed Chuck Norris’ best movie,Code of Silence). I consider Davis a superior, overlooked craftsman on a par with John McTiernan (Die Hard) and Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games), two other guys who have no identifiable “style” but make exciting, meat-and-potatoes adventures distinguished by spatial and narrative clarity, varied compositions, and beautifully smooth action sequences that flow into each other like the panels of a great comic book. It’s easy to gush over a Scorsese or a De Palma, but guys like Andrew Davis, with his solid, invisible technique, bring respectability back to the action genre. Watching Under Siege, you don’t feel as if maybe you should’ve waited to catch it on video.

As for the Seagster, he forfeits the film to his co-stars. Gary Busey, a dependable character actor who’s built a macho video cult of his own, feels secure enough to play his one big scene in drag; the moment makes almost no sense, but how many movies offer Gary Busey in a trampy dress? And Tommy Lee Jones, playing a psychotic ex-CIA operative in Gene Simmons drag, takes Under Siege to a different atmosphere. He brings a bored yet frightening authority to lines like “If you resist, we will kill you and the man next to you.” You might ask, What’s this Oscar nominee (for JFK) doing in a Steven Seagal movie? Answer: Having a king-hell good time. “He’s a professional,” says Jones, admiring Seagal’s handiwork on a pair of unfortunate terrorists. Under Siege shines brightest when the real pros — Davis, Busey, and Jones — are at work.

Hero (1992)

October 2, 1992

 

A mess, though very often an enjoyable one, thanks to the cast. Dustin Hoffman has one funny moment after another as Bernie La Plante, a chiselling bum who happens upon a plane wreck and pulls some passengers to safety. Among the survivors is news reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis), who mounts a campaign to track down “the Angel of Flight 104″ (she didn’t get a good look at Bernie’s mud-covered face). Meanwhile, Bernie hitches a ride from another bum, John Bubber (Andy Garcia), a ‘Nam vet who lives in his car; when the news station offers $1 million for an interview with the “Angel,” Bubber comes forward with “proof” — a shoe Bernie gave him (having lost the other one at the crash site). Instantly, Bubber is lionized by the entire country, while Bernie fumes in jail.

Hero has an interesting premise, but the unfocused script by David Webb Peoples (can this be the same man who wrote the same year’s masterful Unforgiven?) veers between tired satire and Capra-esque uplift. The two forms collide, producing not sparks but dull noise. Though she has nothing to do, Davis is sometimes touching as a woman who’s ready to believe in a hero no matter who he is. Garcia, however, shouldn’t be playing virtuous roles like this. (Bubber fakes everyone out but feels terrible about it; the movie would have more point if he started to believe his own press and became a real fake.) It’s a measure of the movie’s confusion about its subject that when Bubber makes an impassioned speech about the hero in all of us and the cynical station chief (an unbilled Chevy Chase) yells “Bullshit!”, it gets a big laugh. Hero probably read better as an unproduced screenplay than it actually plays. But for fans of the cast (including two members of the Cusack clan) it’s worth a rental.


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