Archive for April 2020

The Wretched

April 19, 2020

wretchedAnyone who’s been watching a lot of horror movies during the shutdown because they prefer to be frightened by something fun that has an end in sight may want to know about The Wretched. A second effort by the brother filmmaking team of Brett and Drew Pierce (2011’s zombie comedy Deadheads), the movie is about as comforting as a film can be that deals with an ancient witch that steps into people’s skins, kills their babies and makes them forget they ever had babies. Perhaps the grim premise is mitigated by its young heroes, who — along with Conor Murphy’s handsome widescreen compositions and Devin Burrows’ robust score — remind us of the ‘80s as seen through the magic-hour filter of Steven Spielberg. It’s all confidently crafted, even if some of the plot points could be better laid out; if you have to stop to remember why a character would have a gun, it hinders the momentum of the thrills.

The setting is both soothing (a lakeside marina where some of the characters work) and eerie (a forest that hosts a dreadful-looking tree whose existence seems conditional). Our young anti-hero is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a typical teen, smart but emotionally turbulent, moping over his parents’ divorce. This summer Ben is assisting his dad at the marina, lining up the boats at the dock just so, giving the little kids sailing lessons, along with pal-and-maybe-more Mallory (Piper Curda). Next door to Ben and his dad lives a family with mysteriously dwindling numbers. The Wretch, you see, has gotten into one of them, and … Well, the Wretch lives in the aforementioned ghastly tree, and likes to kidnap children, probably for food. I mean, why else would a Wretch want kids around?

Again, some of the storytelling leaves us in the lurch. If we’re wondering why a father seems unaware his infant child is missing, it takes us out of the movie momentarily, even if it’s explained later. When a baby is gone and his father doesn’t know or care, we need the context now or the fragile, fragile imaginative contract is broken. The explanation arrives alongside the movie’s twist, and it isn’t my favorite aspect of The Wretched, although it does pull us inside the confusion of the affected character. But much of this gets a pass from me because the leads, Howard and Curda, are so low-key appealing; Mallory is funny and sometimes seems to be tickling the film’s somber lore on its tummy, and Ben is realistically wounded but not obnoxious. We are (there’s that word again) comfortable in these kids’ company. Not only do we root for them to prevail over skin-shedding, baby-munching evil, we want them to be happy. And some of the relationship stuff — say, between Ben and his dad’s new girlfriend — feels authentic enough that we expect it to continue, until the movie reminds us it’s a horror movie and pulls us up short.

At just over an hour and a half, The Wretched doesn’t presume our patience. You didn’t ask, but my feeling is that the best horror movies work along the lines of a good horror short story — punchy, potent, to the point. And one thing the recent mode of season-long arcs in television has taught us is that if you want the equivalent (or a successful adaptation) of a horror novel, it’s best accomplished now as a season of TV, or at least a miniseries. (This isn’t new, of course; 1977’s Roots was an early “novel for television” whose story couldn’t have been told in a feature film’s two hours.) You can do things in that elongated medium that you can’t do in movies; you can develop dread in depth, and layer your characters. But pacing is as important at length as it is in works of greater brevity, and there’s a reason Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (146 minutes) is more fondly remembered than the one Stephen King himself wrote for television (273 minutes of po-faced fidelity to the source, in word if not in tone).

Anyway, The Wretched is a fine horror short story. It confines itself to a few locations and a few people; if converted to prose, it would fit nicely in an anthology alongside, say, Let the Right One In and It Follows and The Babadook and, if you insist, Hereditary. Oh, and the original 1981 Evil Dead. That this film seems to have some Sam Raimi in its quiver, in terms of theme and milieu but not style, is probably no accident; like Evil Dead, it was shot in Michigan, and the directors’ dad is Bart Pierce, who was on Evil Dead’s FX crew. So we have here a film that more or less successfully channels Spielberg, Raimi, Grimm and Dahl. That’s not bad company to be in, either.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

April 5, 2020

cook thiefThirty years ago this month, we in America began to hear of something dark and alluring, a British film with a title worthy of Grimm: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Those of us who caught it in an art-house theater, with an actual audience, remember the hushed noises around us. It was a weird crowd. Viewers accustomed to rather more genteel and artsy fare were confronted with images of sex and violence; viewers with a thorough grounding in exploitation flicks were confronted with allusions to great painters and dramatists. Either way it was a confrontation. Does it say anything today, though? And really, did it ever?

I’m not a Cook, Thief hater. Its creator, writer-director Peter Greenaway, crafted an extraordinary — and extraordinarily memorable — fable about art and love adrift in a cruel world of … of what? Consumerism? Capitalism? Thatcherism? Cook, Thief can be an attack on whatever you want it to be an attack on. But is it really an attack? Certainly the second character in the title — the thief, crude gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) — seems meant to stand in for ugliness and brutality wherever we may find it. Spica sits in his favorite restaurant, which he has also bought, and spews about disgusting topics as though he were a naughty little boy testing the patience of his elders. But no one dares to push back at him; doing so may get you stabbed in the face with a fork, or taken out to the parking lot and smeared with dog excrement.

Whatever narrative tension there is in Cook, Thief derives from Spica’s abused and soul-tired wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who loathes Spica and has her eye on a literally bookish man, Michael (Alan Howard). Michael comes to the restaurant each night, reading about the French Revolution over the meals prepared by the head chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), who also hates Spica. If Cook, Thief belongs to anyone other than Greenaway, it’s Mirren, who wrestles the movie away from Greenaway’s often pompous clutches and invests it with recognizable human emotion — even during a late scene that goes on forever and spoils what might be, in a “lesser” film by Greenaway’s lights, the big twist. If you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t for years, you will come away from it with an even deeper-seated respect for Mirren, who does her damnedest in a largely unwritten role. Greenaway, it seems, doesn’t do humans any more than his opposite number — say, Michael Bay — does.

Yet it’s this very tension between humanity and the film’s rigorous scheme — between life and art — that digs its hooks into our memories. The lurid cruelties that Greenaway lingers over, out of perhaps some disdainful conviction that this is what the mass audience wants, help to file the movie on a rarefied art-exploitation shelf alongside, say, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. I don’t mind Greenaway’s fixation on art. I actually prefer his Belly of an Architect, made two years before Cook, Thief, and not just because Brian Dennehy dominates it brilliantly. There’s a compassion, a generosity of spirit, in it that’s missing from Cook, Thief. But by the time Greenaway made this film, he’d been in the business and dealing with money men for enough years that his experience, I suspect, informed the Juvenalian satire here.

Cook, Thief was the first film by Greenaway distributed in America by Miramax, which at that point was building a reputation as a tony studio specializing in prestigious works from the indie scene and from abroad. After the movie’s success — driven by all the buzz about its ghastly content — Miramax got into the Greenaway business briefly, with Prospero’s Books and Drowning by Numbers. Nowadays, of course, Miramax is associated with far more sinister things than a movie featuring vomit and shit and corpse-munching. The bearded, balding Albert Spica, with his potato face, his violently menacing swagger, his ferocious misogyny, and his deafening contempt for anything uppity while conspicuously consuming fine food (art food!) only to shit it out later, strikes me in 2020 as nothing so much as Greenaway’s prescient portrait of Harvey Weinstein. Viewed as a metaphor for Greenaway the cook’s hatred of the slimy vulgarians he had to prepare exquisite dishes for in order to continue to cook at all, Cook, Thief takes on considerable thematic weight. And who among us can object to the way Greenaway deals with his Weinstein, by putting the means of revenge not in the cook’s hand, finally, but in the wife’s?