October 26, 2010

night of the demon

“I detest the expression ‘horror film.’ I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe it.”  – Jacques Tourneur, Positif

The lead character in Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, psychiatrist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), declares that he is “not a superstitious sucker.” He is a sardonic skeptic of mystical powers and things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately for him, Tourneur is a master of visualizing dread, at uncanny images that disturb the orderly corridors of consciousness. So Night of the Demon, my selection for this week of supernatural selections at Movie Morlocks (it airs on TCM on October 29th at 6PM), finds Holden’s self-righteousness crumble in the face of Tourneur’s terrifying control of the medium. As Raymond Bellour wrote, Holden’s “problem is trying not to believe in the devil, while ours is trying to accept belief in the cinema.”

All inquiries into Tourneur run through Chris Fujiwara’s critical study, The Cinema of Nightfall, and the following is deeply indebted to his essay on the film. If you have the time, ditch this essay and read the book.

Holden flies to London to study the activities of a Satanic cult led by the urbane Julian Karswell (a coldly charismatic Nigel MacGinnis). He was to join Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) in the venture, but the latter died under mysterious circumstances, torn apart as if by wild animals. Soon Karswell is warning Holden against investigating any further, and predicts his death in three days’ time. Beginning to suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations, Holden accepts the help of Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), and attempts to uncover the truth behind Karswell’s morbid declaration (the ending was strikingly re-purposed in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell).

The film was based on the short story “Casting the Runes”, by M.R. James (available to read here). Charles Bennett, the scriptwriter on many of Hitchcock’s British films (Blackmail, The 39 Steps) bought the rights and worked with executive producer Hal E. Chester to bring it to the screen.  Chester was reputed to have re-written parts of Bennett’s script, and cut around 13 minutes out of the 95 minute British feature for the American release, re-titled Curse of the Demon (both versions are available now on DVD). Chester also had producer Frank Bevis re-shoot scenes to feature the title monster more prominently, alienating Bennett and Tourneur in the process. Tourneur:

The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon.

He went on to tell Joel E. Siegel that he only wanted “four frames” of the monster to be shown in the film, during the ending on the train tracks. “People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw.” Tourneur wanted very fleeting glimpses of the monster, to let the horrors unfold off-screen, in the viewer’s mind, as in his superb work with producer Val Lewton (Cat People, The Leopard Man). This strategy would also keep doubt alive about the ultimate reality of the creature. For while Tourneur believed in the supernatural, he wanted his viewers to come to their own conclusions.

The monster, modeled on demonology books from “3,400-year-old prints copied exactly”, was created by art director Ken Adam. Adam: “I designed the monster, but under protest. I agreed completely with Tourneur.” (from Christopher Frayling’s Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design). The demon looks grotesque enough in stills, but its immobility on film gives it the unfortunate rubber-suited ridiculousness of a Godzilla knock-off. It does not tonally fit into Tourneur’s elegant frames.

From Harrington’s first appearance it’s clear the characters in the film will be at the mercy of their environment, and that the world is disturbingly outside of their control. His car appears as a halo of light in between a thatch of dark forest, he mops his nervous brow in a medium-shot profile, and then a cut to a POV shot looking up, as branches emerge into his headlights and descend back into blackness (Bellour compares this opening flicker effect to film running through a projector). Once he arrives at the Karswell’s, to tell him he’s giving up the investigation, fearful for his life, Tourneur cuts to an extreme high angle, with Harrington dwarfed by a gaudy chandelier in the foreground. He is already swallowed up by the world, the darkness ready to take him next. After he leaves the demon makes its first, and very controversial, appearance.

It is from this sequence that Fujiwara, contra Tourneur,  makes an intriguing case for the demon’s presence, that it “fits into the film’s structural play with ambiguity of point of view.” That is, Harrington first spies the creature in a POV shot, but then there is a cut to a long shot, with Harrington in the frame watching the monster. The latter backs away from subjective identification with Harrington, taking an exterior perspective, and, “his [Harrington’s] presence in the frame splits the viewer’s gaze into two – one that identifies with Harrington’s look and one that frames Harrington himself and the image constructed by this other gaze.” Fujiwara notes a similar play with POV in the rest of the feature, including Holden’s optically wavering hallucinations, and the uncanny appearance of an aging hand that is seen by no-one in the film’s universe. The viewer is constantly weighing the verity of each shot, as well as the idea that it might be impossible to determine the difference between what the characters see or imagine.

Holden ends as dazed and confused as the viewer, no longer safe in his assumptions about a rational world, or in man’s ability to discover absolute truths. His last line is, “it’s better not to know”, and then he disappears behind a passing train.


September 24, 2009


The old Hollywood studio-hand W.S. Van Dyke — who directed, amongs countless other things, “The Thin Man” — once advised a young Orson Welles to “just keep it close, and keep it moving.” And an unlikely inheritor of this wisdom is Paul W.S. Anderson, whose latest work to hit screens is this week’s “Pandorum,” which he executive produced, leaving the directing to German up-and-comer Christian Alvart. Rivaled only by Uwe Boll for the title of worst-reviewed director of the past decade, Anderson’s also been one of the most resourceful. Working with the flimsiest material (video game adaptations and remakes) in the least respectable of genres (sci-fi, horror), he’s managed to construct a remarkably coherent body of work. With his longtime producer Jeremy Bolt and a loose coterie of actors, he’s created a series of films that focus on the expressiveness of claustrophobic spaces and the physical grace of his (mainly) female protagonists.

Anderson’s interest in confined spaces may have come to him in childhood. He was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the northeast of England, which was a major coal mining town through the first half of the 20th century. He told the New York Times’ Dave Kehr about “the lure of going down there into the dark. It’s in my blood. My grandfather, who brought me up, was a coal miner. I visited the mines with him. I remember it vividly. It was horrible. I’m glad I didn’t go into the family business.” Instead, he went to school, graduating from the University of Warwick with a degree in film and literature. He continued on to earn an MBA, with the hopes of running his own production company.

Anderson’s entrée into show business was as head writer for “El C.I.D.,” a wonderfully titled ITV cop drama starring Alfred Molina. Then he met up with Bolt, a philosophy student at the University of Bristol, Ken Russell’s driver and a fledgling film mogul. In 1992, they formed the production company Impact Pictures, and started looking for cash for their first feature, “Shopping.”

A strange mélange of rebellious youth drama and dystopic sci-fi, “Shopping” cast an angelic Jude Law in his first starring role across from his future ex-wife Sadie Frost. Gleefully amoral, Jude (as Billy) and Sadie (as Jo) head a group of homeless “ram-raiders,” kids who crash cars into storefronts, and steal whatever tickles their fancy. Anderson (no W.S. yet) envisions the city as a succession of inky black tunnels, smoky warehouses and abandoned industrial sites. He explores these spaces with all his film school tricks, including canted angles, extreme chiaroscuro lighting, and circling camera movements to underline Billy and Jo’s aimless self-destruction.

Their rebellion is cultural more than political: after rifling through a stolen car, Jo brandishes a cassette tape with religious fervor and screams, “Billy Joel, fuck that!” Then, they blare some Jesus Jones over the radio. Billy’s brooding is in stark contrast to Jonathan Pryce’s enigmatic police chief, the first in a parade of fascistic government figures to make an appearance in Anderson’s films. This central drama is under-written, but Anderson successfully captures a mood of bruised teenage romanticism. Banned in some U.K. theaters for its violence, “Shopping” still managed to nab a spot at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite only receiving an edited, direct-to-video release in the U.S., the film earned enough attention for Anderson to move across the pond.

In a 1992 article at the Independent, Anderson said, “I get very angry when I go to Leicester Square and all the movies are American.” Three years later, he went to Hollywood, never to return to his native England. His big break came with the adaptation of “Mortal Kombat,” an incredibly bloody video game that Anderson played at arcades while he was in college. It was a self-consciously silly film — he said he wanted to make it a cross between “Enter the Dragon” and “Jason and the Argonauts.” It reflects the hand-made, amateur ethos of that combination, maintaining a jokey, self-reflexive tone not unlike “Big Trouble in Little China.” (The 2006 Impact Pictures-produced “D.O.A.:Dead or Alive” has a similar spirit). The main set is a labyrinthine, fantastical underground lair, where the tournament’s fighters wander with bemused nonchalance, even when they stumble upon a Ray Harryhausen-esque six-armed behemoth planning their demise. Here, Anderson utilizes his constricted set as a genre playground, mutating to throw fighters together or supply the material for a clunky bon mot from the dry-witted Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) or the gun-toting Bridgette Wilson. It made over $120 million worldwide.

The film’s success gave Anderson the leverage to bring over Bolt, and the Impact Pictures logo has been slapped on all of their subsequent features. Having a producer’s credit doesn’t equal freedom, however, and Anderson’s next two films, “Event Horizon” (1997) and “Soldier” (1998), suffered from bad luck and studio interference. “Horizon” contains another classic Anderson setting, an abandoned spaceship that is manifesting a malevolent force from within, the first of his sets that is a character in itself. With glowering performances from Sam Neill, Lawrence Fishburne and Jason Isaacs (a member of Anderson’s nascent stock company), menacing production design from Joseph Bennett and a restrained, longer-take style from Anderson (still no W.S.), it has all the elements of a quality slow-burn chiller. But it’s saddled with a shaky third act made even more incomprehensible by studio-mandated cuts, and it ends up a compromised failure.

The “Soldier” shoot was even more harrowing. Intended as Anderson’s first landscape movie, it was slated to shoot outdoors until the El Niño hurricane swooped in and pushed everything into studio soundstages. This changed the entire visual scheme of the film, which takes place in the same world as “Blade Runner” (both scripts were written by David Webb Peoples). Star Kurt Russell broke his ankle the first week of shooting, compounding the difficulties. The visual palette is drab greens and browns, and the sets have an airless, slapped together feel, which is devastating for a filmmaker of Anderson’s interests. Kurt Russell’s grizzled, monosyllabic performance is a compensatory pleasure.

After “Soldier” flopped, Anderson went back to his basics, a video game adaptation set in the tight quarters of an underground biological warfare lab. The result was “Resident Evil” (2002), for which he wrote his first screenplay since “Shopping.” He received a modest $30 million budget from the German company Constantin Films (a relationship that has continued through “Pandorum”), and he churned out a beautifully controlled piece of zombie mayhem.

An amnesiac Alice (Milla Jovovich) goes down a corporate rabbit hole to a facility that produces the T-Virus, an experimental weapon that happens to turn dour government types into drooling brain eaters. Aided by a brusque security team and an enigmatic artificial intelligence named the Red Queen, Alice tries to lead the troops back to the surface. Anderson told Collider that “I’ve always liked strong women characters in films. When I first came to Hollywood, there was this kind of rule that was expounded by several people within the industry that I heard many times that female led action movies don’t work.” He continues to prove them wrong.

The casting of Jovovich was especially fortuitous. Her piercing blue-green eyes open the film, while her brusque line readings and lithe athleticism carry it to its close. You can’t blame W.S. (this is where he adopts the initials, the same year as that other Paul Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love”) for falling in love with her. (They were married in real life this past August.) Successful enough to inspire two sequels, the “Resident Evil” trilogy is a bloody, oozing love letter to Ms. Jovovich, keeping the camera close to her expressively stony face as she dropkicks zombie dogs, incinerates mutated crows and slices through the rest. She bottles her desperation up into a twinge at the side of her mouth, and grows increasingly jaded in each iteration of the series as the world edges closer to dissolution. It’s a profoundly pessimistic franchise.

Anderson wrote all three entries, but handed off directing duties to the sequels as the landscapes expanded beyond his favored darkened corridors. He carefully matched locales with genres, so 2004′s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”‘s action-film ethos is set in the teeming urban warfare of Raccoon City, handled with speed and aplomb by Alexander Witt, a second unit director for “The Bourne Identity” and “Casino Royale.” For the third film, 2007′s “Extinction,” Anderson pairs the wide-open desert spaces surrounding Las Vegas with a spaghetti western element (as well as a thrilling “Birds” homage), outfitting Jovovich in a duster and leather boots, and bringing back “Mortal Kombat”‘s Linden Ashby to play a sharpshooting cowboy. Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”) was tapped as the director, and his visual scheme of airy long shots, subordinating the characters to the emptied out horizon lines, is very effective in conveying the debilitating spread of the virus.

The “Resident Evil” trilogy is Anderson’s greatest accomplishment, and appropriately for his aims, it’s a modest one. They are nasty, brutish and short pieces of genre business, infused with lively character performances, resourceful production design and a bracingly downbeat worldview, all anchored by the unfussy bulldozer performances of Jovovich. His other directorial project in this period, 2004′s “Alien vs. Predator,” brought in more money than any of the “Evils,” but it’s a muddle in comparison, a joyless exercise in geometrical gore. “The Dark,” a ghost story he produced in ’05, is a far superior slice of Andersonian claustrophobia. Directed by John Fawcett, it’s a classically structured horror film that moves with sinuous tracking shots around a collapsing family, constructing a vision of hell out of candle wax and unlit rooms.

He found himself on solid footing again with “Death Race” (2008). With a small budget, dour stars (a superb Jason Statham and Joan Allen), a minimum of CGI and a maximum of twisted steel, it’s as fleet footed as “AvP” is sluggish. The booby-trapped race track might be his most sadistic work in a confined space yet, centering on a demolition derby with video game inspired power-ups to juice the carnage. Allen is especially menacing as another of Anderson’s fascistic overlords, leaning in to intimidate her prey with a low, gruff whisper before flipping the switch that snaps their necks. This is also what Mr. Paul W. S. Anderson does best. He keeps it close, keeps it moving, and then something goes boom.




March 9, 2010

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In the flurry of interviews Martin Scorsese granted running up to the release of Shutter Island, he rattled off a long list of movies he screened for his cast, including Laura, Out of the Past, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. The first two were studied by DiCaprio and Ruffalo to look good in a rumpled suit (thanks to Dana Andrews and Robert Mitchum), while the last three, of course, were churned out by Val Lewton’s miraculous horror unit at RKO, a remarkable run of terror keyed off of the suggestion of violence rather than the blood and guts themselves. But the main wellspring of Scorsese’s recent box-office champ are two later Lewtons, which he also mentions: Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) [Spoilers abound below].

the-isle-of-the-dead-1886.jpg!LargeThe screengrab above is from an early shot of Isle of the Dead, a dead-ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio’s opening journey towards a ghostly island of his own in Shutter Island (the model for both of which is Arnold Böcklin’s series of “Isle of the Dead” paintings, the 1886 version is seen to the left). Greek General Pherides (Boris Karloff) and reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) row over to a cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of Pherides’ wife. They discover an empty coffin, and stumble upon the bizarre household presided over by Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), an archaeologist who ordered peasants to go grave robbing. Now repentant, he lives on the island and offers shelter for any lonely wanderers. Then one of the guests dies of the plague, and Pherides and Davis are stuck quarantined inside, along with superstitious maid Kyra (Helen Thimig), consumptive wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her young nurse Thea (Ellen Drew) and stuffy husband Aubyn (Alan Napier).

Karloff’s Pherides is a clear influence on DiCaprio’s Det. Teddy Daniels. Both are violent men of authority who are driven to paranoia and madness, linked to romances past. As the days of confinement continue, Pherides falls under the spell of Madame Kyra, who accuses Thea of being a “vorvolaka”, an evil spirit who sucks the life out of her victims. Her evidence is Thea’s employer Mary, who has been slowly dying for years. Karloff’s eyes begin to bug out as Pherides clings to this fantasy as the true solution to their predicament – kill Thea and the “plague” will dissipate. Daniels is also imprisoned, but in an insane asylum, as he attempts to solve the mystery of a missing inmate during a biblical thunderstorm. DiCaprio plays it queasy and sweaty, while Karloff goes for a more operatic insanity, but they are both dangerous obsessives driven to insanity by the horror in their own souls.

Why I think Isle of the Dead is a scarier film, if not necessarily a more coherent one, is a result of Lewton’s visual understatement, with the aid of director Mark Robson and DP Jack MacKenzie. The film contains ultra low-key lighting, and when the supposed “vorvolaka” does appear, in a harrowing sequence of live burial, fleeting tulle garments, and tridents shoved into chests – it’s conveyed through terrifying glimpses.

It’s miraculous the film has the power it does, considering the difficulties during production. Karloff required spinal surgery after eight days of shooting, shutting down the production for months. In the interim, Lewton knocked off the delightful Body Snatcher, and when the shoot picked up again, the script was scrapped and re-made somewhat on the fly. No one on the production was happy with the finished product (future Lewton-ites aside), until perhaps the notices came rolling in, when James Agee called it “one of the best horror movies ever made.” It also affected a young Scorsese, who in an oft-recalled anecdote, remembers running out of the theater as a kid in sheer terror before the end, too scared to continue.

In any case Karloff and Lewton were a good match, as Karloff’s intro to the short story collection Tales of Terror attests:

The mightiest weapon of the terror tale is the power of suggestion – the skill to take the reader by means of that power into an atmosphere where even the incredible seems credible.

That could have been the Lewton team’s motto, and the two were to work again for the last time on Bedlam one year later. This film has an even closer relationship with Shutter Island, as it focuses on torturous treatment in an insane asylum, and the lead character’s incarceration. Lewton modeled the film off of plate 8 of William Hogarth’s series of paintings and engravings, “The Rake’s Progress”, which depicted subject Tom Rakewell’s final degradation at Bethlehem Hospital (aka Bedlam). Almost too slavish to Hogarth’s engraving, Lewton and director Mark Robson dissolve in and out of stills of the artwork before each new sequence, adding a static element to Lewton’s usually sinuous works. It’s a weird film in any context, though, with lead Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) a whitewashed reference to the Restoration England actress (and probable prostitute) Nell Gwyn. In this film, Nell is merely a kind of jester for the rich Lord Mortimer (Billy House), and tags along at the “loony” show George Sims (Karloff) mounts for the Lord’s pleasure. Sims runs the “Bedlam” insane asylum, allowing the inmates to rot in a barnyard atmosphere of scattered hay and the constant threat of death. Nell’s conscience is pricked by the earnest young Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), who sees a spark of pity in her.

The closest analogue to Karloff’s sadistic Sims in Shutter Island is probably Max Von Sydow’s malevlolent-seeming Dr. Naehring, who is intimated to have a Nazi past and moves with the same stiff bearing as Karloff’s schemer. The inmate population is the same however, a menagerie of terrifying grotesques, erudite madmen, and flailing arms in dimly lit, humid hallways. While Bedlam’s tone varies rather wildly from Restoration comedy to moralist grandstanding to atmospheric horror, it is never safe – and there are some agelessly wonderful bits, including the loony lawyer inmate who dreams of projecting his flip book onto a screen, only “It’s because of these pictures that I’m here.” That is, the cinema made him to madness. A truth Mr. Scorsese, Val Lewton and myself can certainly relate to.