Archive for the ‘remake’ category

Rabid (2019)

December 8, 2019

Rabid-2019-3If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.

The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.

The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.

Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.

There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.

Papillon (2018)

November 11, 2018

papillonWhen I was eight or so, I had a brief fascination with the story of Henri Charrière, or “Papillon,” a French thief falsely accused of murder in 1931. Subjected to years of brutal and/or solitary imprisonment, Papillon kept escaping and being locked back up, until in 1941 he finally made it off of what was meant to be his final jail, the inescapable Devil’s Island. In all versions — Charrière’s bestselling memoirs, the 1973 film based on them, and now the remake — this material is intended to be the inspirational saga of one man who refused to let his soul be caged, and so forth. It’s a real “triumph of the human spirit” tale, with a repetitive freedom/capture/punishment, lather/rinse/repeat structure. What appealed to an eight-year-old about it? Maybe the guillotine. That was pretty cool.

The guillotine makes its appearance in the new Papillon, along with an upped quotient of bloodshed and nudity. The original film, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, very nearly got an R rating for its brutality but won a PG on appeal. The new one was never going to get a PG, from the looks of it. I’m not sure why someone felt the time was right to retell this story, except maybe that Unbroken, which shares Papillon’s high regard for masochistic endurance, had some success four years ago. Despite the advances in technology, the guillotine’s work is less convincing here than it was in 1973. The earlier film, thanks to a jump cut, gave the illusion of a man going from alive and terrified to dead and decapitated instantly, with his head tumbling down towards the camera. In the remake it happens at a distance from the camera; it might as well be a mannequin getting beheaded.

Everything else seems to happen at a distance, too. Charlie Hunnam, the new Papillon, and flavor of the month Rami Malek, as Papillon’s forgery-artist friend Louis Dega, make kind of a lackluster team compared to McQueen and Hoffman — who wouldn’t? A decade-spanning adventure  needs outsize personalities, grand gestures. These two aren’t bad — they turn in human-scaled, naturalistic performances, which would be fine in another kind of movie. But it’s not enough to carry a movie for two hours and thirteen minutes or to engage us for that long. Our attention shifts to broader supporting actors like Roland Møller as a violent, desperate inmate who wants in on Papillon’s escape, or Yorick van Wageningen as the Javert-like warden at French Guyana, where Papillon is kept. Aside from Papillon’s girlfriend in the early Paris scenes and a Mother Superior who sells him out, the movie is also quite the sausage-fest, which I guess is a trap of the material.

I don’t imagine this Papillon will transfix any eight-year-olds, even ones as weird as I was. It’s too grim, too poky and dreary. Which may be another trap of the material, or the prison-escape genre. You have to spend a good long time establishing the prison as a place our hero must escape against all odds. We feel trapped right along with the hero, and when he finally leaves the prison, so can we. I can’t be the only one who feels the deep urge to walk out when we get the montage showing how long Papillon spends in solitary confinement. He doesn’t want to be there, why should we want to sit there with him? A movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, with no hope of escape at the end but with plenty else to distinguish it, is far more engaging and even exhilarating than an old-school lockdown fable like Papillon. It’s ‘30s pulp elevated to wannabe-poignant Chicken Soup for the Soul fare. As for the 1973 film, much less the books, I haven’t wanted to revisit them. Better to let that memory stay gold.

Death Wish (2018)

June 3, 2018

deathwishThirty years ago, Bruce Willis had to prove to the world that the Motown-crooning jokester from Moonlighting could anchor an action movie — Die Hard, of course. These days, Willis has the opposite problem: he now has to prove he can do things other than action, and his career in the last decade or so has been depressingly long on worthless straight-to-video shoot-‘em-ups. Which brings us to Death Wish, a surprisingly fine and effective reboot of material first published by novelist Brian Garfield in 1972 and filmed, with Charles Bronson, by director Michael Winner in 1974. Playing Paul Kersey, now a Chicago surgeon whose wife (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and daughter (Camila Morrone) rendered comatose by home-invading burglars¹, Willis indeed proves that Willis the actor — intermittently on view in movies like Looper and Moonrise Kingdom — is still with us.

This Death Wish was directed by Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies and The Green Inferno have given him a rep as a gorehound bro he doesn’t really deserve. I always think there’s more going on under the hood of his exploitation-throwback movies than many critics give him credit for, and in this film he works conscientiously; during a montage of Kersey learning how to use the gun he’s stumbled upon, we also see gory clips of what bullets do to flesh and what must be done to close the wounds. The Death Wish series headlined by Bronson got nastier and eventually more outlandish, to the point where its excesses are beloved by fans of bad grindhouse (“They killed The Giggler, man!” yells a punk in Death Wish 3). Roth takes the material back to basics, giving us a vigilante who at first can’t even fire a gun without hurting himself.

Just because Roth takes a responsible, pro-family stance here, and stages some of the violence to bring out the clumsy desperation of non-supermen trying to shoot each other in close quarters, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deliver some cathartic bloodshed. Some of the killings are abrupt, others are worthy of vintage Fangoria, and one punk goes out with his face twisted in a comic-horrible rictus of agony. The blood splatters out like crimson branches, pools under spasmodic bodies; brains leap out of a skull that’s just been flattened by a car. In general, Roth successfully walks the hair-thin line between drama that takes respectful measure of the effects of violence and good old all-American exploitation.

Radio jocks all over the city take sides on Kersey the “Grim Reaper” and invite their listeners to do likewise. Dateless neckbeards in basements post YouTube tutorials on how to clean guns or wipe out data on a laptop. Kersey himself, in one of the script’s wittier throwaways, becomes an internet meme. (Joe Carnahan is solely credited with the screenplay, which had an uncredited once-over by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.) The punks, as always, are carefully ethnically mixed, and there are actors of color in doctor and cop roles — though I presume we’re not yet ready for a black Paul Kersey. (In the ‘70s, we were, and blaxploitation flicks obliged us.) Eli Roth may not be making a rabid reactionary potboiler, but he’s also not making a movie that’s going to challenge mainstream expectations, or grapple with the complex, heartbreaking causes of urban violence.

Willis lets himself smile and shed tears, as if grateful for the company of real actors. His Kersey is smart but vulnerable, haunted by the memory of his brutal father, chagrined by his ne’er-do-well brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who keeps turning up asking for loans. D’Onofrio may be the best thing in the movie, making the brother self-justifying but decent, alluding to some crime (probably minor) he has on his record. Death Wish stays slick but gets a little tired and predictable as it heads for the finish line. Still, Roth maintains a sharp control, giving us, near the climax, a quiet slow camera track towards Kersey’s house that in its undemonstrative ominousness recalls (and ranks with) vintage John Carpenter. Someday Roth will apply his horror-movie instincts to material that can make them sing, and he will make a classic. As it is, Death Wish is far better-wrought than it could have been, or deserved to be.

¹Many will be relieved that, unlike in the original Death Wish and its vicious first sequel, there are no rapes we have to watch or even hear about.

The Fly

April 24, 2016

flyIt’s hard to fathom that it’s been decades since David Cronenberg was actually a horror-movie director. Yes, some of his films of recent years have had horrific elements — say, 2014’s Maps to the Stars — but The Fly, released thirty years ago, represented Cronenberg’s farewell to a certain type of sci-fi/horror movie he’d practically patented, the icky bio-horror film that treated bodily mutation not as a threat but as a source of fascination — even self-realization. Movies like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were 101 courses; The Fly was Cronenberg’s doctoral thesis, and it turned out to be the biggest hit he would ever have.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1986, the mass audience bought what Cronenberg was selling — a doomed romance packaged as a dare-you-to-sit-through-it gross-out. The Fly was the perfect vehicle to introduce Cronenberg to the larger mainstream, which he then wasted no time alienating (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash). Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never more charismatic) is the foxiest and most attractive of the Cronenberg avatars, a genius whose motion sickness has driven him to develop a means of teleportation. Seth shows his work to science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis in a sharp early performance), though it isn’t quite ready for prime time — the “telepod” has trouble with organic material like flesh.

Cronenberg readies us for the nausea to come when an early experiment involving a baboon goes haywire. The Fly goes incredibly fast — Cronenberg’s regular editor, Ronald Sanders, clips the scenes to a bleeding edge, and it’s not long at all before Seth — jealous because his new lover Veronica still has contact with her old lover and magazine editor (John Getz) — gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Of course, a fly stows away for the ride, and when Seth is re-integrated in the other telepod, the molecular-genetic structure of the fly has fused with Seth’s. He becomes Brundlefly, and he gains superhuman strength and speed before deteriorating into a lumpy, grotesque creature who has to vomit on his food to digest it. (Emetophobes are, understandably, not among the movie’s fans.) Eventually Seth begins to lose his humanity and pass over into insect consciousness, leading to his frightening monologue about “insect politics,” which serves to explain his personality change. “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it,” Seth clarifies (sort of), “but the insect is awake.”

Aside from having a Fox-produced (and Mel Brooks-sponsored) big-movie sheen — and Howard Shore’s most dramatic score this side of Lord of the Rings — this may be Cronenberg’s most emotionally accessible film, and it really only has the three characters, other than sidebar figures who drift into Seth’s path briefly. It’s fast, and it’s also stripped down; you’re out of there in less than ninety minutes, but by then, you might be ready to go. The Fly also marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s second phase of films, the terribly sad meditations on the fragility of sanity (his next, Dead Ringers, is among the most depressing movies ever made). The movie follows Seth through the twin breakdowns of mind and body.

The transition wouldn’t work nearly so well, of course, without Geena Davis convincing us that she still loves the man underneath the monstrosity, and without Jeff Goldblum persuading us the man is still there. There’s none of Goldblum’s later grinning, apartments.com-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, more for his own edification than for posterity. Cronenberg was right to keep Seth restlessly eloquent right up to the full transformation — Seth crests on his own ersatz insights, like someone on a cocaine rush, and then collapses into rage and lust, while Veronica looks on helplessly. (Without being condescendingly dumbed-down — she does know her way around a lab, after all — Davis’s Veronica is the audience’s stand-in, staring aghast as Seth riffs mumbo-jumbo about “the plasma pool.”) Seth has a way of dancing rhetorical circles around his topic, then focusing his ire abruptly on his listener and spitting vituperation. Nobody can keep up with Seth; he’s the foremost expert on his condition because he’s its only host body.

The emotions as well as the intellect carry us through the gushers of goop. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. After The Fly, there was really nowhere else Cronenberg could take his body-horror obsessions. It’s a remarkably economical distillation and commercial apotheosis of his pet themes, and it works brutally well in the realms of heartbreak and skin-crawl. It’s a full package.

Two Men in Town

March 8, 2015

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William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) stands straight, moves slowly, and seldom smiles. He’s been in prison for the last eighteen years for killing a deputy, but good behavior has bought him a parole — a chance he seems earnest about not wasting. Very quickly, William settles into his new life; he finds a job, he finds a girlfriend, he moves in with her. If you’re thinking there are elements from his past violent life willing to drag him down, though, congratulations on having seen more than a few movies. Fortunately, Two Men in Town, a remake of a 1973 French film, doesn’t rest much of its weight on its plot. It’s a mood piece, an actors’ showcase, set out in the desert of New Mexico where sun and dust and sky are the whole world.

William is haunted by two men from the bad old days: Sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), whose deputy William killed, and Terrence (Luis Guzman), an old associate who wants to pull him back into crime. Men lead to damnation, but women point to salvation: William’s parole officer, Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), is tough-minded but wants him to do well, and his bank-clerk girlfriend Teresa (Dolores Heredia) shares William’s yearning for a simple, honest life. There are very few twists in store, which is good but can make the movie seem a bit lightweight. William has anger issues, and he converted to Islam in prison, and he enjoys tooling around on the cheap motorcycle that was one of his first post-jail purchases, and that’s about all there is to him. Simplicity.

Director/cowriter Rachid Bouchareb seems interested in William’s conflicts as iconic, metaphoric. He is a Free Man who will never truly be free. William is black and his nemesis the sheriff is white, but nothing much comes of that. The sheriff has a couple of scenes, in fact, that underline his compassion in certain contexts; he works border patrol (just as Keitel did in the sorely overlooked The Border) and feels badly about the suffering of illegal immigrants, and he throws a party for a returning soldier from Afghanistan. I imagine these details are here (if they aren’t imported from the 1973 film) to show the sheriff as a multifaceted man whose life doesn’t entirely revolve around hovering over William and waiting for him to fuck up.

The scenes between Whitaker, who underplays and simmers, and Keitel, whose rage at the death of the deputy feels genuine, are powerful enough to raise the question of why their conflict is never resolved. Not much else is, either. Two Men in Town, like a lot of desert-set cop dramas (The Pledge, Electra Glide in Blue, El Patrullero), sort of lets its story drift upward and away, like a shimmering highway mirage. Waiting for a climactic scene between William and Teresa? Sorry. How about between William and Emily? Nope. So you have to get your enjoyment in bits and pieces, from the mood and the landscape and the performances. Blethyn is just about the hero of the piece, and deserves better than to have her character all but forgotten about. Ellen Burstyn turns up for a few minutes as William’s adoptive mother, and though it’s fine to see her, all she did was make me reflect that the only other movie featuring her and Harvey Keitel was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, forty years ago now, and that they don’t have much more time to reunite properly (they don’t share any scenes here). And I’m reasonably sure that wasn’t what I was supposed to be thinking about during her scene.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

January 11, 2015

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Even when Spike Lee remakes a horror movie, he can’t sell out. For one thing, the “horror movie” he has remade is an artsy 1973 item named Ganja and Hess, a film nearly lost but later restored, and generally known only to die-hard cult-flick fanatics and serious students of African-American cinema. For another, Lee has taken a page from the original film’s writer/director, Bill Gunn, and made the film with a leisurely, unhurried pace, full of ennui … well, it kind of drags, if you want to know. Under the new title Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s movie repeats Gunn’s themes of vampirism as addiction and the painful dichotomy of a black man torn between African spirituality and American Christianity. Lee certainly doesn’t schlock things up. But, other than some left-field lesbian flirtation late in the game, he doesn’t add much excitement, either.

As before, the new film follows scholar Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on his journey into blood obsession after his insane assistant stabs him with a cursed ancient weapon. The curse renders Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. He steals blood bags from a hospital; he preys on an AIDS-stricken prostitute, then on a young mother. Eventually the assistant’s ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for the assistant, and Hess seduces her into the life of the undead. There are minor and major changes — for instance, Lee disregards the climactic note of redemption on which Gunn sealed his movie — but Lee mostly traces Gunn’s template, right down to some dialogue (Gunn receives a 25-year-posthumous cowriting credit here).

I hate to say it, because I’ve always respected Lee’s work even when certain bold attempts have flatlined, but Ganja and Hess will stay with me longer than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will. As a filmmaker, in terms of technique and talent, Lee has it all over Gunn, but Gunn was serious and passionate about this story in a way that Lee isn’t, quite. Lee is a fan of Ganja and Hess, and he decided to honor it and its maker, but the material itself doesn’t seem to light a fire in his belly. (It was a Kickstarter project, and a lot of it feels like a movie that could be reliably shot on the quick and cheap in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee lives some of the year.) Gunn’s film, despite or possibly because of its technical ineptitude, packs more DIY charm, and even on Blu-ray it looks chewed up and bruised, adding to its dreamlike effect. Lee’s film looks slicker, but to its detriment; it’s as though someone made a pristine-looking remake of Last House on Dead End Street … or, more to the point, George Romero’s Martin, another idiosyncratic vampire movie that could go on a double bill with Ganja and Hess.

This particular story, with its specific concerns about racial authenticity, is very much of its time. It doesn’t translate very well to 2015, when a young black man’s biggest concern is not losing his African soul but being shot by the cops. Lee’s version spends a lot of time on Ganja and Hess’s tragic love story, which indicates a misreading of what made the story unique in the first place. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ Hess is stoic and bland, lacking the brittle power Duane Jones brought to the role, but Zaraah Abrahams is fun to watch as Ganja, and she gets some heat going with the striking Naté Bova as an old flame of Hess’s. But Gunn had more on his mind and in his heart than Skinemax eroticism; his film was somehow lovable despite being completely uningratiating and stubbornly elliptical, because it felt pure. Ganja and Hess is art; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a copy of art, and I don’t know that Gunn would be flattered by it.

Godzilla (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzillaWe begin with a perhaps naïve question: What, if anything, does Godzilla mean to us today? Surely he means something different than he meant to the Japanese sixty years ago, when he made his screen debut as Gojira. For the Japanese audience, Gojira was a radioactive Jungian shadow. For us, driving blithely to the multiplex as the ice caps melt, Godzilla means … warm-weather spectacle, I guess. The new Godzilla pays some visual homage to various worldwide disasters of recent years, but what are we supposed to think or feel about the catastrophes? Nothing, because our thoughts and feelings are perfectly irrelevant. Things will happen, nature will balance itself, the planet may be fine but a great many forms of life on earth may come out in the wash. It’s Noah all over again, appending “zilla” to “the wrath of God.”

According to the new film, Godzilla and the gigantic creatures he battles (known as “MUTOs”) were not born in the crossfire hurricane of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The MUTOs are ancient animals that feed on radiation; Godzilla is an ancient animal that feeds on the MUTOs. We, therefore, are not complicit in creating them, though our many nukes do attract the MUTOs, who seek somewhere nice to chow down, mate, and spawn. A certain nihilism darkens this Godzilla and puts it within atomic-breath distance of the original Gojira. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim last summer declared boisterously that the apocalypse was cancelled, thank you very much, and that we would band together to punch monsters in the face. Godzilla ’14 bends over backward trying to find stuff for its human characters to do besides take shelter or die. Here, the apocalypse may be averted, but cancelled? — well, it’s not even on the bubble.

For a long time — longer than some viewers may like — we get trembles and intimations of the monsters, nothing more. Then the big guy shows up, and his prolonged roar has a cleansing chthonic power. That sound, like an especially intense thunderstorm, seems to rip the very atmosphere open sharply. Godzilla is here to fight the monsters, though not on our behalf; he really doesn’t care if the MUTOs’ deaths benefit us, nor does he fret if he inadvertently kills several thousand of us while chasing his prey. To the extent that Godzilla doesn’t actively pursue our destruction, he’s on our side. We and our big buildings — well, actually tiny buildings, comparatively — just get in his way.

Depending on the theater at which you see Godzilla, and in which format (2D or 3D), you might not get what you came for. In several of the fight sequences, director Gareth Edwards films the action from a human’s-eye street level, or shows it on TV monitors, or shuts doors on it. This you-are-there gambit is witty. But later, when Edwards’ camera pulls back to give us a full-on view of the carnage, much of it is obscured by smoke or rain or the darkness of night. Poking around online, I find that some viewers are reporting that it’s hard to see what’s going on, and others haven’t had a problem at all, so it could be projectionist apathy specific to certain theaters. Your best bet might be to take in Godzilla at a reputable IMAX venue.

I enjoyed what I could see of the monster mash, and I see that I haven’t talked much at all about the puny humans. Well, each actor represents something via one note. Bryan Cranston is Paranoia and Panic. His soldier son Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Stoic Heroism, while Taylor-Johnson’s nurse wife Elizabeth Olsen is Worry and Nurture. Ken Watanabe shuffles through every so often, repping Quiet Resignation, accompanied by Sally Hawkins, who Stands Around Pointlessly. Actually, the entirety of humanity Stands Around Pointlessly here and in most other Godzilla films, but human audiences are assumed to be so narcissistic as to need human characters to watch onscreen while waiting, and waiting, for the star to come in for his close-up.

Carrie (2013)

October 20, 2013

Chloe-Moretz-in-Carrie-2013-Movie-Image4As the legend has it, Stephen King’s Carrie almost didn’t see the light of day. King wrote the infamous opening (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), hated it, and circular-filed it; his wife Tabitha salvaged the pages from the trash, read them, and encouraged King to see the story through. “It bit hard,” wrote Harlan Ellison, who observed that the manuscript got passed around to various female Doubleday employees, all of whom were knocked back. It’s primal stuff, essentially King’s unintentional rewrite of Judy Blume (Are You There Satan? It’s Me, Carrie). The story runs thick with blood of all kinds: menstrual, porcine, finally redrum. It also runs hot — it’s a fever-dream novel, slick with the sweat of sickness, dread, rage.

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version saw the story’s melodramatic potential and pumped it up into a perverse black comedy. The new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), takes the material rather more seriously. Here and there, it feels closer in tone to King’s emotionally heavy novel than De Palma’s abracadabra show did. That doesn’t mean it’s the better film, nor is it an across-the-board worse film. The story has been transplanted to today, so that when poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) receives her chthonic humiliation in the girls’ shower room, her chief tormentor captures it on her phone camera and uploads it to YouTube. This nod to cyberbullying can’t truly take hold, though, because Carrie doesn’t have the internet — or much else — at home. What she does have is the ultimate religious-nut mother (Julianne Moore), who in this telling came close to killing newborn Carrie with her seamstress’ scissors and enjoys scarifying her own flesh with other tools of the sewing trade.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as oppressed daughter and lunatic mother in the ’76 film, sank their teeth into the purple material; Spacek underplayed touchingly, Laurie camped it up to the rafters. Moretz and Moore come across more like the unhappy people you might actually meet — their scenes in their dreary home are borderline depressing. Moretz’ casting has been criticized because she isn’t nerdy-looking, but then neither was Rebecca Sedwick, driven to suicide last month after almost a year of cyberbullying. (Really, none of the actresses who’ve played Carrie — including Angela Bettis in a 2002 TV version — have exactly matched King’s description of her as “a frog among swans.”) Moretz’ Carrie is ostracized because of her social awkwardness and her strange aura of religious punitiveness — she’s more like an Amish girl plopped down into a typical suburban high school.

Kimberly Peirce brings out the story’s complex web of mixed feelings between females, who resent, pity or fear each other. The males in the film, as in the book and in De Palma’s version, exist only to do the girls’ bidding. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty about her limited role in Carrie’s humiliation and prompts her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom. The ringleader of the tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), enlists her boyfriend to assist in the shockingly cruel climactic prank involving that famous bucket of pig’s blood. Originally written when feminism was really starting to take hold in America, Carrie hasn’t much optimism about the higher morality of girls and women. Nor should it: it’s a horror story, not designed to be comforting. A few, like Sue or the conscientious gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), feel compassion for Carrie. But they’re not enough.

Which leads us to the climax. De Palma filmed it as a gleeful revenge of the nerd, a cascading grand finale breaking out split-screen images of cathartic force. Peirce doesn’t split the screen, though she does make use of computer effects unimaginable back in 1976. Rather than standing disturbingly stock still like Sissy Spacek, Moretz poses and gestures like an ancient witch-woman (the blood smears spilling down her face like tribal marks complete the effect) while everyone who laughed at her goes spinning into glass doors or catches fire or is trampled to death under fabulous prom-night heels. The final exchange between Carrie and Chris is painfully, almost sadistically drawn out. Peirce knows she can’t go whole-hog whoo-hoo over high-school carnage the way De Palma did, not in the era of Columbine and Sandy Hook. She holds back a bit. So what could’ve been a newly relevant reheating of old material — showing what bullying does to victims and to bullies — comes across as a missed opportunity. Still, since most of Carrie has always been a drama working up to a horror-film climax, and since that drama is sensitively directed and powerfully acted, the new version passes muster as a different take that will not, in most people’s hearts, replace De Palma’s. Let them co-exist.

Maniac (2013)

June 7, 2013

horror-movie-reviews-maniacMy response to a remake of 1980’s Maniac substituting puppy-eyed Elijah Wood for slimy man-mountain Joe Spinell was, at first, a hearty “Whaaa?” Then I thought it over, and the idea sounded more and more intriguing. If you’re going for a fresh approach to the notoriously vicious grindhouse-horror landmark, you don’t try to compete with Spinell; you cast against him as aggressively as possible. Ergo, Elijah Wood.

Spinell’s Frank Zito, a tormented mama’s boy who scalped women and planted the tattered skullflesh on mannequins in his grubby apartment, left big and probably smelly shoes to fill. The recasting works from one perspective: Elijah Wood can more plausibly lure victims into a false sense of security — aww, lookit that face, he couldn’t hurt a fly! — than Spinell could. Well, Norman Bates didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly either, so that angle’s been done. Which leaves us with the question of whether Wood is plausible as someone who can do what we see his character do in this film. Emotionally, his Frank is as chaotic and filled with misogynistic loathing as his forebear. Physically … I don’t know, he just doesn’t look to have the upper-arm strength to be peeling off scalps with the ease with which he does it. Wood commits himself fully, but the performance seems to be a thoroughgoing, conscious effort to break away from Frodo and all his other good-boy roles. He was creepier, wordlessly, in Sin City, really.

Leave it to the French to conclude that a remake of a quintessentially American (and steadfastly ’70s New York) fleapit horror flick is not only possible but necessary. This Maniac was produced by Alexandre Aja (High Tension), co-written by Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who’s worked on all of Aja’s films), and directed by Aja associate Franck Khalfoun. What these gentlemen bring to the party that original director William Lustig didn’t is a certain cold Gallic pizzazz, which sometimes presents as pretension. The major stylistic difference is that almost the entire movie is filmed from Frank’s (often splintered) perspective, which I guess is a way to pull us into complicity with ghastly murders. At times it’s like a feature-length reiteration of the opening scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or maybe Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void crossed with American Psycho.

The you-are-the-killer viewpoint works best in quieter moments, when Frank meets and develops an interest in Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who likes to take pictures of mannequins. At one point, when the couple attend a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the camera stays stuck on Anna’s lovely face until she turns to Frank (us) and says “Stop staring! You’re missing the movie.” Some similar moments are effective, as when people react to Frank/us as if he/we were gawking at them uncomfortably. There’s enough male-gaze stuff in the movie to keep film theorists contentedly scribbling for years.

Overall, though, the camera eye doesn’t do much for the plot, and in any case it’s applied inconsistently, sometimes leaping out of Frank’s POV right when that POV threatens to disturb us the most — when he’s killing. There’s a protracted murder in a parking lot, and another in a snobby lady’s penthouse, in which the camera moves off to show us Frank and what he’s doing. What it reads like, more than anything, is an excuse to show off the explicit, excruciating gore effects by the legendary KNB team. (Aside: gorehounds will want to seek out the uncut 89-minute version for all the undiminished scalpings, stabbings, and meat-cleaver-to-face action. There’s an 87-minute cut out there that more or less renders it R-rated, and nobody wants an R-rated Maniac.)

The milieu has moved from grimy ’70s NYC to shiny millennial L.A., and, for me, the most disturbing moments seem to capture the City of Angels as a city of demons, or at least a city that turns its back on demons. During the parking-lot murder, Frank’s gaze tilts up to the L.A. skyline at night, with windows glittering in the dark background, full of people oblivious to (or indifferent to) the carnage down below. It’s a fine cold moment, echoed later when Frank, before carving up the snobby lady, stares out at the lights of the city. We wonder if there are similar scenes playing out elsewhere in Los Angeles. Maniac also uses sound to put us in an unsettled mood. The soundscape, with a score credited to someone named “Rob” (no relation), deals in the sort of menacing, rumbling, unearthly ruckus associated with Thomas Bangalter’s work for Gaspar Noe. It’s like being inside someone’s upset stomach — lots of low-register brown-note amplified-heartbeat stuff. It’s effective but occasionally overdone.

Ultimately, though, the flashy style outclasses the plot and the dime-store psychology imported directly from the simpler 1980 film. Frank is still nursing some sort of homicidal fixation on his promiscuous (or possibly straight-up whorish) mother, and he talks to the gory mannequins in his apartment as if they were disloyal girlfriends. He sees his mother in the women he kills, a motive which at this point strikes me as either faithfully retro or significantly played-out. Like a lot of the crimson-soaked French new-wave horror, this Maniac is more of an exercise in style than a genuine expression of insanity. Oddly, too, considering how approachable this Frank appears to be as opposed to Spinell’s Frank, Spinell actually made us feel that meeting the photographer (Caroline Munro) might turn him around from his psychotic extracurriculars, seeking solace in art. We don’t especially feel that way about Wood’s characterization. We just seem to be marking time along with Frank until he goes after Anna. A climactic bit involving a car crash falls into the so-abrupt-it’s-funny category but doesn’t seem meant to be taken that way.

It’s a nice try (very likely the only time “nice” will be used as a descriptive vis-a-vis this thing). These French fear-makers want to bring us back the unapologetic shock-horror and splatter of the old days, but they can’t help wedding it all to avant-garde techniques and sensibilities that end up distancing us from such mundane things as tension and suspense. This Maniac isn’t a hollow travesty — it was obviously made by folks who respect the original, and it’s nobody’s idea of a surefire big hit — but it feels pointless just the same, a gimmicky and sometimes labored retelling of a story that, it turns out, really only worked 33 years ago with an actor who looked like an Easter Island statue slathered in pizza grease.

Evil Dead (2013)

April 7, 2013

Evli-Dead_03If you ever wondered what the Evil Dead movies might have been like without the central wit and charisma of their star Bruce Campbell, the answer now awaits you at a theater near you. The new Evil Dead remake certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore; tons of the stuff spatter, pool, mist, spurt, bead up and roll off. Much has also been made of the majority of the effects being realized “practically” — that is, with old-school latex and Karo syrup, not computer-generated flesh and blood. Such things, I suppose, are to be honored in this era of hermetically-sealed fantasy film, when you know that most of what you see is not only fake but doesn’t exist in real space. The drenched and sticky actors in Evil Dead would no doubt tell you it all existed in real space, all right.

What’s missing, first and foremost, is the incomparable real-guy presence of Bruce Campbell, who in the original three Evil Dead films directed by Sam Raimi came close to defining himself as the Buster Keaton of splatstick. Raimi never tired of tormenting Campbell by making him do one grotesque, painful thing after another, because Raimi knew that Campbell, at least in his youthful prime, was fun to watch being bashed around — not because we disliked him but because he looked as though he could shrug it off. In the new Evil Dead, there is no Campbell analogue, no character named Ash; the closest the film comes is a frail-looking recovering addict named Mia (Jane Levy), who spends a good chunk of the movie locked in the basement of a cabin, possessed by a demon who makes her do things like split her tongue in half with a knife. Despite this, later on, after the demon has vacated her, she can speak perfectly well.

The plot is similar. Five college-age people come to a cabin in the woods. I use those last four words advisedly, because if you have seen last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, this film will seem kind of late to the party. The trip to the cabin, it seems, is a last-ditch effort of sorts to rehab Mia. Accompanying her is her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), a registered nurse. Olivia apparently has lots of detox meds and tranquilizers to use on Mia, leading me to imagine a scene back at the hospital where a pharmacist yells “What happened to all our detox meds and tranquilizers?”

A mysterious book is discovered in the basement. Eric, being a horror-movie character and therefore staggeringly stupid, reads aloud from the book and unleashes demons, one of which promptly infests Mia, who in turn corrupts Olivia, and we’re off to the races. The movie hits the beats that Evil Dead fans will expect and perhaps be bored by. A character’s hand is possessed, requiring its removal by way of an electric carving knife. A nail gun, a shotgun and a chainsaw all get a bow on stage. What’s missing, to go further, is not only Campbell but the spirit of play and prankishness that he represented. The new director, Fede Alvarez, is no Sam Raimi, and that’s not to say he’s a bad filmmaker; he could be a fine one, given the right material. But Raimi made these films with energy and gutbucket humor, whereas Alvarez goes about his work grimly, as though the Evil Dead films were works of the utmost gravity.

Yes, yes, this is probably supposed to be a new re-imagining of Evil Dead, not slavishly following in Raimi’s footsteps. I would just as soon see Alvarez directing something fresh, and I would rather not see Raimi, Campbell and co-producer Rob Tapert lending their imprimatur to this remake as producers, thus smudging their own names and leaving a bad aftertaste on the original franchise. The main disappointment of the new Evil Dead is that it simply isn’t very fun. The original films, particularly the two sequels, were essentially comedies, and Evil Dead II achieved a level of grisly pop art. The new film seems as though it might be interesting for a while, using demonic possession as a metaphor for drug addiction (and nobody believing the hysterical and withdrawal-scourged Mia when she starts seeing the evil dead), but soon that gets buried in arterial spray and close-ups of someone pulling a hypodermic needle out of his face. To top it off, this thing is too slick. It’s beautifully lighted, and it cost $17 million and looks it. The first Evil Dead cost about $400,000, and Raimi had to invent camera rigs to get some of the insane shots he wanted. No invention here.