August 11, 2015


In April of 1959 Edgar G. Ulmer was given an impossible task. Toiling in Dallas for Miller Consolidated Pictures, a short-lived B-picture studio, he was assigned to shoot two features in eleven days. These turned into Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960). Most of the limited time and money was spent on Beyond, since its leap into the future required more elaborate set design and a larger cast.  What remained for him to use for The Amazing Transparent Man was a house on a hill, five actors, and an improbable tale of a mad Major experimenting with nuclear radiation to create an army of invisible warriors. From these meager resources Ulmer spun a dark, despairing tale of Atomic Age breakdown. Each character nurses a private tragedy, egged onward to self-annihilation. For most of its life the film has been an object of scorn — it was the subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode — but seeing a 16mm print projected at Anthology Film Archives (in their series on American International Pictures) was something of a revelation.


Miller Consolidated Pictures, led by John Miller, Mike Miller and Robert Madden, was a fly by night operation targeting the seedier side of the B-picture market, hiring exploitation publicity legend Kroger Babb as Vice President. He likely came up with the prime ballyhoo on the poster about how the Transparent Man will “appear invisibly IN PERSON at every performance.” The Amazing Transparent Man could be included in Anthology’s AIP series because Miller Consolidated Pictures (MCP) went belly up soon after the film was given a limited release in 1960, finishing its run with three films to its name (Date With Death (’59) and the two Ulmers). AIP snapped up the rights to Amazing Transparent Man and gave it a national rollout in 1961 as the top half of a double bill with the British Godzilla knockoff GORGO. In the dual review in the New York Times Howard Thompson raved about GORGO (“the best outright monster shocker since King Kong“), leaving only one withering sentence for the Ulmer film: “The word for The Amazing Transparent Man is pitiful.”


This “pitiful” production seemed doomed from the start. Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne acted in Beyond the Time Barrier, but bailed before shooting on the Transparent Man was completed (Ulmer was working on both simultaneously). “The reason I left”, she recalled to Tom Weaver (Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks), “was because the two-story motel where the whole crew was living burned to the ground.” Hence the reason each actor seems so hollowed out and exhausted. The pulpy script was by Jack Lewis, a former Marine and founder of Gun World magazine who self-described as a “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo.” Whether he was drunk or vagrant during his creation of the script is unknown, but Lewis was mainly a writer of Westerns, with Transparent Man the only science-fiction yarn he ever filmed.


Major Paul Krenner (James Griffith) and Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman (Spy Smasher), in her final film) help ace safecracker Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) bust out of prison. In return for his freedom, the Major wants Faust to break into a government facility to steal fissile materials. This will allow Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault) to continue his invisibility experiments, which has thus far only successfully been executed on guinea pigs. With no way out, Faust agrees to the deal, becoming Ulof’s first human trial – only a transparent man could break into the vault containing nuclear material. The Major’s goal is to create an entire army of invisible men, but Faust isn’t keen on his crackpot scheme, and instead goes into business on his own, convincing Laura to help him rob a bank and flee Krenner’s control. But the invisibility treatment starts to wear of, he is identified, and everyone’s plans begin to crumble. As everyone scrambles to save their lives, Ulof’s lab becomes a ticking time bomb.


Invisible man stories are creative opportunities for the budget-minded director (see also: Edward L. Cahn’s Invisible Invaders), because you can shoot an empty room and the viewer’s mind creates the illusion of action. Ulmer takes advantage of this throughout, training his camera on nothing. Bare tables and floors become axes of tension, and the director relies on his actors as reactors, their expressions investing the void with dread. Lewis’s script posits the past as another void, with each character wishing for it to disappear. Dr. Peter Ulof, a European refugee, confesses to Faust that he was forced to become a doctor for the Nazis, performing experiments on hooded prisoners in concentration camps. Each patient was anonymous, so Ulof could not tell that one of his “patients” was his own wife, who died under his hand on the operating table. Ulof has been forced to work for Krenner because his daughter Maria is being held hostage, and if he quits, she dies. Krenner is also manipulating one of his guards, Julian (Red Morgan), by convincing him his son has been jailed in Europe, and that Krenner can set him free (this turns out to be a lie). Laura’s motivation is simply money and power, and she gravitates to Faust’s plan for a quick score at the local bank. Though he is named Faust, the deal he makes with Krenner is not a selling of a soul, for Faust has none. He’s a craven criminal with nothing but the basest self-interest.


In one of the film’s most elaborate optical effects, Faust’s body starts reappearing during the bank robbery, his head popping back into view, and then his legs, before his whole body reconstitutes itself.  He is disappointed when he gets his body back – the only happiness in the film appears in Faust’s voice when he is invisible, when he can revel in his insubstantiality. But being cured of his visibility is going to kill him – the doc gives him only a few weeks to live. Characters don’t die in The Amazing Transparent Man, though, they just to crumple and dissipate. When Julian is informed that his son was dead, he slumps down onto a chair and simply shuts down. He is never seen or heard from again, as if the illusion of his son’s existence was the only thing tying him to this earthly plane. The ending is suitably apocalyptic, bringing the atom bomb to middle America. This catastrophic event is something the characters seem to yearn for, to have their individual cells fission along with the nuclear material, to wholly disappear into the bright, white light.



June 2, 2015


The “It” in It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a lumbering thing, a slow-footed creature from a Martian lagoon terrorizing the crew of a rescue ship returning to Earth. Despite his violent blood-sucking tendencies, “It” is a lovable sort, blundering about in the spacecraft’s engine room with the stunned and disoriented gait of a medicated mastiff. Under the rubber suit was a soused Ray “Crash” Corrigan acting in his final film, a former serial adventure star battling alcoholism, the pathos of his performance pouring out his pores and through the mask designed by Paul Blaisdell. The human crew is less sympathetic, a slickly Brylcreemed group of technocrats who leave each other to die with nary a second thought. This efficient, vulgar, and remarkably suspenseful film was directed by Edward L. Cahn (one of his five 1958 credits). Once a promising director of high-toned genre fare for Universal in the 1930s (see: Afraid to Talk (crime), Law and Order (Western), Laughter in Hell (chain gang)), he descended the ranks at the studio to short subjects until he landed in 1950s B-pictures with independent producer Robert E. Kent.  It! The Terror From Beyond Spaceis their first and most famous film together, since screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted its scenario for use in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). And now it is the first Kent-Cahn movie to reach Blu-ray, thanks to Olive Films. It! The Terror Beyond Space should be more than a footnote in Alien oral histories, though, as it stands on its own as a resourcefully relentless scare flick.


Robert E. Kent was a screenwriter who bounced back and forth between Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers from the late 1930s through the 1950s. His credits run from the “adaptation” of the Bela Lugosi comedy Zombies on Broadway to the same credit on Max Ophuls’ prestige drama The Reckless Moment. He started his own production unit in 1957 (going by various names: Vogue Pictures, Peerless Productions, Harvard Film Corp.), and landed a distribution deal with United Artists. Kent must have met Edward L. Cahn on the set of the immortal The Gashouse Kids in Hollywood (1947), a PRC feature for which Kent wrote the screenplay and Cahn directed. Cahn was respected for his speed and reliability, and Kent surely remembered and filed that away. So Cahn was brought on to direct It! The Terror From Beyond Space for Vogue Pictures, the first of 32 features they would make together in the next four years.

Poster - IT, The Terror From Beyond Space_16

The original screenplay was written by Jerome Bixby, his first. So he likely came cheap, a priority for Kent’s nascent production unit. But Bixby was building a resume as a prolific Western and Science Fiction author, having already published “It’s a Good Life” in 1953, which would later be adapted into the evil psychic kid Twilight Zone episode of the same name. His story has echoes of A.E. Van Vogt’s story “Black Destroyer”, but it’s also influenced by the locked room monster mystery The Thing From Another World (1951). Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the only surviving member of an original nine-person Mars mission. The United States Space Commission orders that a rescue ship led by Commander Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) be sent to bring the surviving members home. Upon arrival to the red planet, Van Heusen suspects that Carruthers murdered the rest of his crew, and places Carruthers under ship arrest until they arrive back to Earth, where he will be court-martialed. It is not long before the Colonel is cleared, as a scaled, lizard-like monster picks off the crew one-by-one, sucking them dry of blood (the working title was It, the Vampire From Beyond Space). The surviving crew keeps barricading doors and moving up in the ship until there’s no place left to run.


At a high-speed 69 minutes, there’s not much time for characterization, but sub-Hawksian attempts are made at a group breakfast. The crew debates Carruthers’ guilt and reminisces about life at home. Commander Van Heusen is adamant that Carruthers is a murderer, and treats him with barely disguised contempt. The female officers are more sympathetic, especially Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), a combo nurse and waitress (the gender politics are not, let’s say, progressive) who grows closer to Anderson with each passing corpse. The narrative is simple and irresistible, and the higher the crew climbs, the slimmer their chances of escape. The geography of the ship (thin and skyscraper tall) limits their movement, and the monster will just keep tearing through the locked bay doors until it can get to the tasty liquid coursing through their circulatory systems.

Poster - IT, The Terror From Beyond Space_17

The key to the whole frightful operation is the creature design by Paul Blaisdell, a refugee from American International Pictures. An artist for Science Fiction magazines, he was drafted into monster making by Roger Corman, who paid him a pittance to design The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes (1955). Totally self-taught, he would go on to create a dizzying bestiary of monsters for AIP and others before the Sci-Fi boom trickled out, and he retreated to a career in carpentry. Blaisdell was friendly with Bixby, recalling to biographer Randy Palmer that “Jerry Bixby wrote a hell of a script, in my opinion, and we had no problems figuring out what a Martian lizard-man should look like.” Palmer writes that Blaisdell “wanted to give the lizard-man an expanded, barrel-like chest to suggest the enormous lung capacity a living being would need to survive in the thin atmosphere.” And because it was a carnivore, he gave it needle like teeth. The flat nose and flaring nostrils were added, one assumes, because it looked cool. The problems arose with the casting of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Blaisdell had almost always played the monsters he designed, fitting them to his own physique. But Ed Small thought Corrigan would add some name value to the marquee, as well as being an act of generosity to a struggling actor. But by all accounts Corrigan was in the midst of a terrible bender, and he never showed up to the costume fitting with Blaisdell. On a tight schedule, Blaisdell couldn’t wait, so he modeled the head on his own, which caused trouble later on, because Corrigan’s enormous sozzled melon stretched out the mask, to the point where his chin is visible in some shots in the movie. Blaisdell was also annoyed with Robert E. Kent and UA executive producer Edward Small, who kept giving him contradictory information about how they wanted the eyes to appear. After many revisions, he was able to please them both, but the experience was a frustrating one (for the full, sad story of his life, read this article by Vincent di Fate for


Blaisdell’s friend and collaborator Bob Burns recounts similar stories, but also reveals how the set worked as organized by Cahn:

I think it was shot in about 12 days. It had a longer shooting schedule than most of the films Eddie worked on. He also knew the limitations of Crash [brought on by his drinking], and so he kept that in mind. Eddie Cahn, I’ve got to say, was probably one of the best directors I’ve ever seen work —and especially with those short shooting schedule things, where he didn’t have any time. He did his homework every night. He came in and he knew exactly what set-ups he wanted. And, if possible, he could do forty set-ups in a day. He’d just move on. He was even better at it than Roger Corman. Of course, he’d been around a lot longer. He used to do a whole lot of those “B” westerns.

It was an intense workload for the entire production team, which Cahn had to orchestrate under extreme time constraints while juggling the demands of an obstreperous lead monster. Corrigan began his career as a fitness instructor to the stars, climbed to become a leading man in spectacular serials and B-Westerns  (Undersea Kingdom, The Painted Stallion), but ended up in ape suits (Captive Wild Woman, Nabonga, White Pongo) and  one final “It” suit. One can understand his anger.  Through it all, Cahn’s organizational vigor, the strong narrative and geographic line of Bixby’s script, and the stretched-but-still-scary monster design of Paul Blaisdell contribute to a creature-feature that that retains its bite.


July 9, 2013


Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He  sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.

After the success of The Shrinking Man and its movie adaptation (which added Incredible to the title), Matheson moved to television writing, often with collaborator with Charles Beaumont. They were close friends, part of a circle of fantasy writers that included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Matheson recalled that, “When we joined this agency [Adams, Jay and Rosenberg] it was such a strange new world out there that we decided to work together.” Beaumont and Matheson worked on cop shows and Westerns like Bourbon Street Beat and Have Gun — Will Travel.

Their most long-lasting contribution was to The Twilight Zone, which they both began contributing to, separately, in ’59. Rod Serling was a fellow traveler in the speculative arts, and provided an invaluable platform for the kind of material they wanted to write, even with showbiz compromises. Their material, as Matheson notes, “never made any social commentary”. They were detail men, interested in fleshing out their imagined worlds rather than allegorizing the existing one.

In Twilight And Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, the writer declares that “Steel” is his favorite episode of the ones he wrote. He adapted the teleplay from his own short story, of a “sports item, circa 1976″, in which boxing was outlawed and replaced by bouts between lifelike robots. Lee Marvin plays the “Steel” of the title, a former pug turned down-at-heel manager, too poor to upgrade his rickety “Battling Maxo” bot, which mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell) keeps running through some spit and a prayer. Maxo is so old even his parts are outdated, and is only booked when a newer model is destroyed in a car accident. Steel needs Maxo to put up a fight so he can pocket the take and make some upgrades. Matheson’s small-scale story was later inflated into the 2011 blockbuster Real Steel.


Directed by auteur-fave Don Weis (I Love Melvin), this TV assignment replaces Weis’ usual ebullient charm for sweaty close-ups and grimy hallways, a portrait of broken American dreams as tactile as 70s fight films like Fat City. Lee Marvin shows he can ease up his ramrod military posture and ease into a slouching ignominy. A fast talking salesman like Peter Falk in Marbles, his pitches have lost their sheen, routines without conviction. Only when faced with annihilation does Steel show some backbone, replacing Maxo in the bout when the android pops some essential springs. Facing certain defeat, and possible death, Steel takes his shots and his money, ready to fight another day.

As in I Am Legend and The Shrinking ManSteel is concerned about the grungy details of these everyday futures, whether it is how to scrounge for food, evade a giant spider or make a low-tech living in a high-tech future. Night Call (Season 5, episode 139, 1964), is another of these daily grinds, which Matheson adapted from his short story “Long Distance Call.” Old spinster Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper) is living out her days in an empty home, her only company a harried maid. But every evening she receives cryptic phone calls from a moaning loner, which she first assumes to be a prank, but soon realizes is something far more disturbing.


Matheson claims he “talked them into hiring [Jacques] Tourneur” to direct the episode, despite the producers’ concern that a movie director would take forever to shoot an episode. Matheson recalls that Tourneur, “shot the shortest Twilight Zone schedule that anyone has ever done. It was like twenty-eight hours or something.” He was a fan of Tourneur’s work with Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie), and was thrilled to have him direct one of his scripts. It turned out to be one of the last projects Tourneur would work on.

It takes place almost entirely in two rooms of Elva’s house, her living room and bedroom. In frequent medium shots, Tourneur establishes her as the queen of an emptied out domain. It was the third of Cooper’s appearances on The telephone1964bTwilight Zone, and this after 60+ years of performing, having made her stage debut in 1905 in the musical Bluebell in Fairyland. She plays Elva as a shut-in battle-ax, jittery at any intrusions in her protective shell. The calls make her imperious exterior crumble, and you can see the regrets of the past rush through her softened features.

Richard Matheson wrote 14 teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and had two of his short stories adapted by others. Compromised as they are by commercial forces (“Steel” was the first episode sponsored by Proctor & Gamble), they offer variations on Matheson’s theme of process, how characters rationally deal with the unreality that is thrust upon them. Some trundle onward with brittle hope like Steel, or crumble in regret like Elva, but what Matheson is most interested in is the jagged path that leads there.


June 18, 2013


The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The GooniesCocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket.  It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budgetIt comes out in a loaded Blu-ray today from Scream Factory.


Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were Cannon Films, and they signed Tobe Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract Hooper dropped out of Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) took over as director.  In their first meeting Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they “bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through.” One of those “development things” they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began.The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by Dykstra, who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work (read more about his analog techniques in the film here).


If Golan and Globus expected the Spielbergized Hooper of Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper recalled his own attitude as, “I’ll go back to my roots, and I’ll make a 70mm Hammer film.” Recognizing Colin Wilson’s novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment, he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. Frank Finlay, for example, in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing. The title was changed to Lifeforce and the producers cut down the film for US release by 15 minutes and replaced Mancini’s score, but it didn’t help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake, that everyone then, “expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”


The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley’s Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds worthy of Forbidden Planet, they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as “Space Girl”, Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.


Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint, ignorant of Madonna/Whore complexes or slut shaming. She knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered.” If this were a male character, he would be a raffish romantic lead (Gerard Butler maybe?), but as a woman she could only be a (nude) world-devouring hell beast. It’s a thankless role for Mathilda May, who is tasked with striding naked with a zombified gaze for two hours, but she does get to cow the men and their toys.

The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of an unprepossessing nude woman.  Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end he’s sweating and flinching so much he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that’s only when she’s taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart’s  mouth, ““I am the feminine in your mind, Carlson”. Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Railsback is, very literally, embracing his feminine side.


September 18, 2012

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It was a banner weekend for Paul Andersons, as Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul W.S. Anderson topped the specialty and worldwide box office. As PTA’s vaultingly ambitious The Master has understandably dominated the cultural conversation, I wanted to create some space to discuss the ever-workmanlike W.S. One of the few directors to fully embrace 3D, creating dazzling depth effects on half the budget of most Hollywood spectaculars, he’s an endlessly resourceful stylist. Despite this, W.S. has long been one of the worst reviewed directors in the United States. One of his staunchest defenders has been New York Times film critic Dave Kehr,  so I went to see Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (rated 30% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) with him at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan. Afterward we sat down and had an informal chat about Paul W.S. Anderson’s work and career. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

RES: So you were first impressed by Paul W.S. Anderson by seeing Shopping (1994) at the Toronto Film Festival?

DK: I’m pretty sure that’s where I saw it. British punk movie, big rock score. Stylistically, it’s not as accomplished as his later work, but the elements are there. It’s all nighttime, it’s all glare and chase sequences that move into the next one. And the people who consider themselves the last representatives of humanity in a corporate world.

RES: Yes, his villains are always the ultra-privatized, corporate overlords.

DK: The classic figure, right. I interviewed him once [you can read the 2002 NY Times interview here], and he was a very affable guy, and was startled that anyone would want to talk to him. It was really an effort to track down his publicist, because he had given up on getting recognition years before that, even.

RES: Once he made Mortal Kombat (1995), he became associated with video games, which was just considered trash.

DK: No more serious consideration necessary, the guy makes video game movies. And he’s still making cheesy video game movies…

RES: But excellent ones!

DK: Yeah. And he’s seen a lot of movies. Who he reminds me of is Fritz Lang. I’m pretty sure I asked him about that, and he said, “oh yeah, love him.”

RES: The connection with Lang is with his use of geometric figures?

DK: All the underground stuff, worlds within worlds, imagined conspiracies. In particular the space used in Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), the geometry and symmetry.

RES: Also similar is the puppet-master, a Mabuse-like figure.

DK: Sure.

RES: Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil, Joan Allen in Death Race (2008)…

DK: The sinister boss figure hovering over all these people, and making them move and jump around. In the Resident Evil series, I guess it’s the computer, the Red Queen.

RES: It’s the corporation itself, a faceless entity.

DK: Yeah, it has its own life.

RES: It’s the entity that makes them jump around, but it’s how Anderson shoots this jumping around that makes him special. How would you describe how he shoots action?

DK: It’s hard not to think of the musical. It’s so perfectly choreographed. It reminds me of the first Hong Kong stuff in the 70s, with a real sense of exuberance in action that you haven’t seen in a long time. Real physical action, not just shooting guns at each other. Jumping off of buildings…

RES: While shooting guns…

DK: That came a little bit later, but what I’m thinking of is Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues (1986). I don’t know if it stands up now. That style has been so overdone to the point of absurdity.

RES: Well, Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) was rather disappointing.

DK: Wasn’t it? I turned it off. So much CGI…

RES: Yeah, even with their weapons. And that’s the thing with Anderson’s films. There is tons of CGI, but they’re also very physical…

DK: He never gives you the sense that he’s faking it. The stunt choreography is really good. He clearly has a personal interest in that stuff. Getting to Budd Boetticher – the way people fight each other in Paul Anderson movies, it’s that kind of psych-out thing that Boetticher does. Through dialogue, through intimidation. It’s like a chess game, they’re anticipating each other’s moves. The fun is in seeing the twist at the end – how Milla Jovovich really out-thought the other person.

RES: Like in the opening of Retribution, Milla grabs a chain and lock, and works a number of variations on how she uses it in attacks. I did read that interview you did with him, and I remember he mentioned that he comes from a family of coal miners, explaining his fascination with claustrophobic spaces.

DK: Even when there are exteriors in his films, they turn out to be interiors. [In Retribution what looks like Tokyo, NYC and Moscow turn out to be an underground testing facility built by the evil Umbrella Corporation.]

RES: Each entry in the Resident Evil series has a very specific sense of place. The first was an underground labyrinth, the second an urban hellscape, the third a version of the West, and the fourth is the Western coast of the U.S. In Retribution, Anderson devises a plot where he can jump between these differing spaces.

DK: Although he does add the suburban section here. It’s fun to see her in normal clothes, playing at playing the mom. Then when she straps on the S&M gear, it’s very satisfying.

RES: Yes, the suburban sequence is really poking fun at traditional family drama, or even sitcom scenarios. It acknowledges the artificiality of genre constructions right up front.

DK: He really lays it on thick, with the deaf child. A perfect Spielberg suburb that turns out to be a deliberately unreal nightmare. These stock figures are actually trying to kill you.

RES: He shows these stock characters as stock – disposable. Even the little girl, who is the emotional center of the movie, is presented as fake, a clone with imprinted memories.

DK: Yeah and the little girl realizes it too, that Milla is not her mommy. I’m trying to visualize the scene where they see the cloning room. Are there any male characters there?

RES: No, I don’t think so. You see the clones of Milla, Michelle Rodriguez and the girl. Which goes to show how subordinate the male characters are in this film, they don’t even get decent clones.

DK: You hear complaints about there being a lack of action films with women, well, this is one of the most successful series out there, and it stars a woman. There are no compromises here, it’s just not a big deal at this point, in the Resident Evil world.

RES: What did you think of the use of 3D in this one?

DK: Great. It never seemed arbitrary, it always worked. I like all that stuff in the white prison cell, the geometrical form, the Umbrella design, it looks flat until something  pops out. It just has stuff you don’t see in other movies, including the lighting, backlit scenes with one or two lights. He doesn’t fill the frame the way Cameron does. Cameron has to have something going on in every corner of the frame. Anderson seems to be aware that, 3D isn’t just putting everything in one frame, it’s directing like as you would a normal film. Anderson knows how to put those shots together so it doesn’t feel disruptive, isn’t jarring. You need good solid old-fashioned match-shots on action. Where a lot of 3D directors get hung up is, they’re just framing every shot for what it is, and not thinking about what comes after it. It gets irritating after a while, with depth-of-field changing left and right.

RES: That’s what causes people to get headaches…

DK: It does for me. It pains me watching that stuff. I can’t help trying to put it together in my head.

RES: You saw The Avengers (2012).

DK: Every shot is just a guy shooting, with no sense of who he’s shooting at or chasing after. There’s just no relationship between this action and that action. It’s either complete in itself or it’s forgotten by the next shot. So it’s not about the logic of how you fight an army of 12 invincible zombies and get out alive, which has a certain amount of plausibility in the Anderson because the strategy is there, the athletic abilities are there, the ballet-like quality of moving through the air… It feels kind of serene in a way. It’s always so cool, she just knows how to execute it.

RES: You can see people thinking in Resident Evil: Retribution

DK: Yeah, she’s thinking down the line – look at this person, what’s he going to do, how am I going to react.

RES: What do you think about his use of slow motion?

DK: It’s kind of a cliché since The Matrix (1999) but I find it pretty effective. It exaggerates, or brings out those qualities more. And I really enjoy seeing whoever that stunt-person is doing her flip three times through the air. You want to savor that moment. I can accept it as part of the conventions now.

RES: At least of the new conventions, it adds clarity to movement rather than muddying it. What about that opening scene, of the action scene rendered in slow reverse motion. It’s gorgeous, although it seems like Anderson and his crew are just fucking around.

DK: Was it in the last film? No it wasn’t.

RES: It’s a continuation, picking up where Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) left off. I don’t know what the point of it was, but I certainly enjoyed it.

DK: I also appreciated the recap at the beginning, because at this point, after five of them, I forgot exactly how it all got started.

RES: Although it’s not really a series where you have to know the mythology to enjoy it. Another thing I love are those architectural blueprint shots, which shows you where all of the characters are. Anderson is obsessed with letting you know where you are.

DK: He also does that in Event Horizon (1997). It’s important to know your position in space for a coal miner… I wonder if those are the same matrixes they used to model the CGI. Well, the Moscow stuff, I guess that was real location footage.

RES: Yeah, there was a second unit in Moscow

DK: The White House didn’t look all too real though…

RES: I’m sure they tried to get permission to shoot at the White House.

DK: Yeah, they called them up. “-I’m the producer for Resident Evil Part Five, we’d like to stage a zombie holocaust. –We’ll get back to you.”

RES: It’s interesting that they shot real locations and in the movie they made them into virtual places. Usually that works in the reverse direction. What are your pantheon Paul W.S. Anderson films?

DK: They’re all pretty good. He keeps getting better. Retribution is the smoothest and most satisfying. It does not feel monotonously fast. And it’s really tight. Every scene flows. And that’s exactly what Joss Whedon can’t seem to do. “Alright, that number’s over. We have two to three minutes of sarcastic banter between thinly sketched characters before it’s time for the next number to start.”

RES: This feels like the ideal Paul W.S. Anderson movie, plucking from everything he’s done before…

DK: You think it will convince people he’s got talent? [laughs]

RES: If one person is converted, we’ve succeeded.

DK: They don’t have press screenings for his films.

RES: And that’s not going to change.

DK: It’s not like that audience is going to respond, “hey, this got a great review in the Times! Let’s go see Resident Evil 5!” It’s funny how people get that label of being schlock directors. I don’t know what he did to deserve that.

RES: It’s just received wisdom. His name has become shorthand for schlock.

DK: Yeah, but is he Uwe Boll or something?

RES: It’s the subject matter.

DK: But Christopher Nolan became an international star directing comic book movies.

RES: Yeah, but Anderson does video game adaptations, there is a difference. Comic books have risen in cultural capital the last couple of decades. Not so for video games. Roger Ebert says video games are not art, so Paul W.S. Anderson is out. He’s out. People always forget how Hawks and Hitchcock were regarded as vulgar entertainers in their day.

DK: It seems like that lesson never gets learned. Each generation of critics blows it in their own way.

RES: Not that I’m saying Paul W.S. Anderson should be compared to Hitchcock…

DK: Well, he’s at least Far Side of Paradise at this point. [laughs] Maybe he’s Gordon Douglas. Anderson is not able to make the number of films Douglas was – Douglas could make five movies in a year, and Anderson makes one every two years, and he’s incredibly prolific for today. He has a little studio system set up now. He has a star, a franchise…

RES: It’s one of the great director-actress duos of our time…

DK: Absolutely!

RES: Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale – that’s the B-team.

DK: C-team. That’s bad because they bring out the worst in each other. She’s a fun light comedienne but terrible in action movies. I don’t know what Wiseman is good for actually [laughs].

RES: Any final thoughts?

DK: Well, it’s just such a pleasurable, kinetic experience to be moved through that. You don’t feel assaulted, irritated and beat up by a movie. It’s a movie that respects your intelligence, and has put some thought into how it’s going to work. It’s not one damn thing hitting you in the face after another. That’s just stimulation, lights flashing, sound going off, CGI crap falling on top of everything. If you get people hopped up and stimulated then maybe they’ll think it’s entertainment, but it’s not. I’m a grumpy old man.

RES: Justifiably so. What does that make me then?

DK: Well, I was a grumpy young man too.


July 3, 2012

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On July 18th, Olive Films will begin their roll-out of the Republic Pictures library with DVD/Blu-Ray releases of High Noon (1952) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Republic has long been one of the most underutilized holdings in the home video market, passing from corporation to corporation with little concern for the treasures it contained. But upstart Olive has closed a massive licensing deal with Republic parent Paramount Pictures, and is set to release a flood of material (from B-Westerns to prestige pics) in 2012 that had mostly been overlooked in the digital age. While these first two releases have been well-represented on DVD, it is their premiere on Blu-Ray, and there are plenty of rare gems coming down the pike (all transferred in HD), including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar,  Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.

Herbert J. Yates began his career in film processing in 1915. By the 1930s his Consolidated Film Laboratories was a major developer of B-film. As the Great Depression sent many Poverty Row studios into the red, Yates took them over, combining six companies (Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield and Invincible) into one Republic in 1935. They made money off of disreputable serials and Westerns, giving daredevil action directors like William Witney endless opportunities to hone their craft on a shoestring budget.

Witney started his career at Mascot, riding horses in films for his brother-in-law, and director, Colbert Clark. Witney directed his first film, The Painted Stallion (1937), for Yates, and remembers the set-up in his autobiography, In A Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase:

Republic’s main office was in New York where taxes were lower than in California, and Consolidated Film Industries, which made all the release prints, was located next door in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The office in New York City was located at 1776 Broadway…

Then, after Yates bought out the last of the executives from the six former companies, Witney writes, “I will say one thing for him. He screwed a lot of very smart men.” Witney wasn’t one of them, working productively for the company in serials (Daredevils of the Red Circle, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), Roy Rogers Westerns and teen-sploitation (Juvenile Jungle, Young and Wild) until the company was sold in 1959. It was because of money-making B-pictures like Witney’s that Yates had the money to invest in prestige productions like Orson Welles’ Macbeth and John Ford’s The Quiet Man and (the less expensive) The Sun Shines Bright. Yates rubbed Ford the wrong way, as the curmudgeonly director told biographer Joseph McBride, regarding The Sun Shines Bright:

Well, they didn’t ruin it, they couldn’t ruin it. But they cut a lot out of it. You’re working with a stupid lot of people, the executive producers, so what the hell, you’ve got to expect it.

But whatever his shortcomings as a producer and a shameless money-grubber, Herbert J. Yates, through accident or circumstance, funded some of the glories of the Hollywood Classical Cinema, both the high art of Ford and the low of Witney, and for that he deserves our reluctant thanks.

Yates sold his company’s library in toto to National Telefilm Associates (NTA) in ’59, bowing to the rising dominance of television. They had severely curtailed production, and were mainly making their money selling TV rights anyhow.  A Dec. 23rd, 1957 issue of Billboard announces the sale of syndication rights to NBC of 218 features and 15 serials for $3,5000,000, with the writer noting that, “the move by Republic to put its package in active sales is concurrent with reports that the studio is in the process of terminating film production.” At this point the demand for B-pictures had disappeared, as the 1948 anti-trust Paramount Decision had divested the studios of their theater ownership. They could no longer “block-book” their product and force theater managers to run whatever they sent them.

NTA made money syndicating the TV rights, with the rise of cable TV in the 1980s reinvigorating profits, leading them to change their name to Republic in 1986, and producing their own TV shows like Beauty and the Beast (1987). In 1994, Aaron Spelling Productions purchased NTA/Republic, and essentially used it as a distribution arm, and as a name to sell its own projects, completely divorced from the low-budget studio it once was. Now Republic Pictures Home Video would release a Spelling mini-series like James Michener’s Texas on VHS, while Johnny Guitarlanguished in the vaults. This was followed by some swift multinational swallowings, as Blockbuster purchased Spelling, and then Viacom bought Blockbuster. The Republic library then became the custody of the Viacom-owned Paramount Home Entertainment, all by the end of 1995.

There had been sluggish attempts to release the Republic library on home video during this period. Spelling licensed it to Artisan Video in 1995, who released The Quiet Man and a few others until the company was gobbled up by Lionsgate in 2003. Artisan’s rights expired in 2005, reverting briefly back to Paramount, but Lionsgate then decided to renew this license for another six years, starting in 2006. For what must have been effective but arcane accounting reasons, Lionsgate effectively sat on the Republic library. They released the comparatively unknown Arch of Triumph (1948), Only the Valiant (1951), and One Touch of Venus (1948) on DVD, but left the vast, and vastly better known, titles sitting on the shelf.

Once Lionsgate’s laissez-faire reign ended this year, Olive Films leapt into the fray, manically licensing Republic titles from Paramount, and almost immediately putting them into production. In the first few months of their stewardship, Olive will have released more of the Republic library than Artisan, Lionsgate and their forebears combined. As fast as they are releasing them, there are some quality control concerns, but the early returns are encouraging.  Both High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have received high marks from tech review site, as well as my own eyes. The transfers are clean and sharp with rich contrast. Paramount’s archival wing had obviously had done strong HD transfers on these, and Olive presents them with no digital blow-drying. High Noon comes with a making-of documentary, while Invasion contains no extras, which is the norm for the company. And while Olive has had notoriously poor cover art in the past, their Republic discs all seem to have original poster artwork – a huge improvement over some of their early Photoshop jobs.

While it would have been ideal for Paramount to push its massive resources behind the restoration and release of the Republic library, perhaps it’s more appropriate for the scrappy and relatively under-funded Olive Films to do the job. Releasing its discs quickly, efficiently and with little marketing muscle, the Republic Pictures library has finally found a licensor that can match its huckster spirit, and that has the smarts to take advantage of other companies’ mistakes.


June 12, 2012

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It has been 30 years since Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, and he hasn’t lensed an indelible image since. That is, until Prometheus, the Alien prequel which resurrects H.R. Giger’s oozingly organic set and creature design. Scott has never had a more brilliant collaborator, and filming the late Giger’s vision in elegantly executed 3D makes for an immersively entertaining spectacle, opening up the dank corridors of Alien into deepening chasms and high-vaulted chambers. It’s a 3D film with depth effects in every frame, one of the rare blockbusters to fully take advantage of the technology.

The story is starry-eyed pulp, as God-fearing scientist Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) believes that the symbols from ancient cave paintings point to a distant planet that may hold the secret to the origins of human life. She and her douchey husband Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are hired by the demonstrably evil Weyland Corporation to explore said planet, and discover that its inhabitants, instead of divulging the secrets of the universe, might want to implant wriggling monsters into their chests.

There’s a lot of convoluted mythmaking here, along with a tossed off religion vs. science debate, but in its most basic form it follows the template popularized by The Thing From Another World (1951), where a small group of adventurers are trapped in an isolated area and threatened by a malevolent force. In the hands of Howard Hawks, the setup is an excuse to explore the dynamics of a group at work, while It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a B-movie spin on the material more concerned with streamlined thrills. It is the latter that was one of the main influences on Alien, although initially unacknowledged. The ’58 Edward L. Cahn film is about an exploratory space ship in which a monstrous alien stowaway hitches a ride on the return trip to Earth. Screenwriter Jerome Bixby said, “I feel like the grandfather of Alien“, because of all of the similarities between the two films, and even consulted his lawyer about taking legal action against Dan O’Bannon’s script (Which is all very silly, considering how much he admittedly lifted from the Hawks film).

Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihths’ script for Prometheus, despite all its gestures towards the mystical, retains the structure of Thing and It! and Alien. It is almost a beat for beat remake of the latter, opening with a steadi-cam tour of an emptied out ship, its inhabitants still in stasis. Then there is the touch down onto the strange planet, the growing realization that something is “off” (including a foreboding storm in both), with chaos soon ensuing. The only departure Prometheus takes from Alien and It! is that the main action occurs on the alien planet, not the ship. This allows for grand landscape shots of a dramatic mountain valley (shot in Iceland), that opens up the film and creates a nice tension with the tight dark hallways that dominates the rest of the action inside what is thought to be a hollowed out hill. These interiors eventually open up themselves, revealing intricately designed, bone-edged chambers. These grand crevasses and dark hallways are perfect for 3D, and Scott and his collaborators take full advantage.

Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski was instrumental in getting Scott to shoot in 3D, convincing him that they could shoot at the same tempo as 2D with new “atom” rigs from 3ality Technica (see below) that are half the size of usual stereoscopic setups. This allowed them to attach them to tripods, dollies and steadicams, enabling the same freedom of motion as 2D cameras. Stephen Pizzo from 3ality describes the setup: “They had the four studio cams working continuously and they would bring in the steadicam rig as required. The crew moved the rigs around just as if they were regular cameras, and other than the addition of a convergence puller for that shoot, it looked very much like a standard crew compilation.” The results are often stunning, as the film adds the cavernous dropoffs of waterfalls and mountain valleys to add to the depth effects of the narrow passageways of Alien. Further enhancing the effect is the sparing use of green screen, with the majority of scenes shot in massive sets constructed by Scott’s long time production designer Arthur Max. This gives the 3D a tactility gone missing in most of the all-CG 3D blockbusters. According to Wolski in Variety, Scott reacted to the new technology by saying, “Guys, we’ve been shooting 3D all our lives. We always think three-dimensional, now we just have a tool to enhance it.”


March 6, 2012

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The 12th edition of Film Comment Selects concluded this past week at Lincoln Center, having screened 32 films from all over the cultural map. The stoned dropout to the New York Film Festival’s Ivy League grad, the films chosen by Film Comment magazine’s editorial staff tend towards the spectacular and the underground, and occasionally underground spectaculars. Plucking from the festival scene (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish), genre titles (Alexander Zeldovich’s Target) and experimental multi-projection performances (J. Hoberman’s Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds), it has something for everyone. That is, if everyone was a creepy cinephile shut-in.

The selection of Target (2011) encapsulates the mission of FCS, a Russian sci-fi film too genre-bound to make the NYFF, and too arty to pick up mainstream distribution. The film is conceptually simple but dramatically sprawling, pulling from influences as disparate as  Stalker and Gattaca. The year is 2020, and China has emerged as the dominant super-power, its culture seeping into every corner of Russian daily life. The Mandarin-speaking minister of Natural Resources, Viktor (Maksim Sukhanov), is tiring of his sterile marriage to Zoya (Justine Waddell), a feckless beauty who spends her mornings getting her face un-wrinkled by a nano-bot infused death-mask. Longing for the days when the felt something resembling emotion, they light out for the mountains of Central Asia, in which an abandoned astrophysics laboratory is rumored to emit cosmic rays that grant eternal life. They are joined by Zoya’s hyperactive TV-host brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovskiy), the thuggish customs agent Nikolai (Vitaly Kishchenko) and Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), the dreamy narrator of a Chinese-for-Beginners audiobook.

As with Stalker’s Zone, the astrophysics site seems to have a consciousness all its own, with the guides referring to it as “The Thing, The Detector, The Target”, both an active agent and a receptacle for divine radiation, an elusive and contradictory force.Viktor and his entourage ignore this ambiguity, and approach it as just another slumming self-help adventure, the simple rural living distracting them from all those riches. But then the site has its effects, and immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. The radiation makes them act younger and more impulsive, as if slightly buzzed. The movie shifts from sci-fi futurism to melodramatic fucking and fighting, as the group turns into an overheated brat pack of randy adolescents. Eternal love in this situation becomes not a promise, but an existential threat.

The films of director Alexei Balabanov present another kind of threat, not of the banality, but the deadpan absurdity of evil. His relentlessly black comedies eviscerate the Russian state apparatus in stories of institutional incompetence and sickeningly casual violence.  A Stoker is a return to contemporary Russia after the early 20th Century detour of his Bulgakov adaptation  Morphia (2008,selected for the 2010 FCS). Skryabin (Mikhail Skryabin) is a native Siberian Yakut who was shell-shocked in the Afghanistan war and never recovered, spending his days in the boiler room fueling the furnace, and typing away at a novel he’s been writing obsessively for decades. His face is a placid mask, and his reactions sluggish, as if instructions were dropped into him down a deep, cobwebbed well. Balabanov shows this garlanded hero as a zombie of Russia past, lobotomized into a cog in the mob’s death machine, as he burns up assassinated corpses in his furnaces. It is only when his daughter gets caught up in that same machinery that he dodders back to life, adding a few more drops of blood into his country’s vast reservoir, before drifting back off to sleep.

Also easing into the land of dreams is Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk (1983), a hypnotic nocturne set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Agitated typesetter and single mom Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) agrees to translate a sheaf of Chinese nursery rhymes to make some extra cash. Her life is already filled with everyday surreality, from her perpetually bleeding finger to the trance-like rhythms tapped out by her sullen workmates, but with these translated tales reality entirely escapes her, and she is left circling through a laid-back nightmare. Everything gets repeated, from a child’s obsessive street-crossing to the elevator’s insistence on stopping at every floor. Shot with the languorous long takes of DP Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s film approximates the feeling of half-sleep, when the day’s events are cycling through your head but your body is shutting down, your consciousness slipping away.

There is nothing sleepy about the wide-eyed adorability of I Wish (2011), the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows). Returning to more commercial ground after his experiment with latex love in Air DollI Wish was partly financed by Kyushu Railway Company, whose bullet train provides the central plot point of the film. It’s a simple tale of a family split by divorce. The two sons split, with Ryonosuke (Oshiro Maeda) living with the father (Joe Odagiri) in Fukuoka, while the older brother Koichi (Koki Maeda) stays with their mother in Kagashima. They vow to cut class and meet at the midpoint between their two cities, believing that when the new bullet train passes that point, their dreams will come true. A saccharine set-up, but Kore-eda leavens it with such melancholy and lightness of touch, it ends up indelibly moving. This is in no small part to the charismatic kid leads, real-life brothers who perform as the manzai (comic duo) act Maeda Maeda (according to Mark Schilling in the Japan Times). Already professional comedians, they have impeccable timing and rapport, with Koki playing the straight man and Oshiro the loudmouth madman. That this routine works despite their being separated for the majority of the film is a testament to their rhythm, as well as the fine parallel editing of Kore-eda’s team.

Film critic J. Hoberman (now of Blouin Art Info) does some editing of his own in Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds, his multi-projection spectacular that layers Passion of the ChristWar of the Worlds (2005) and Land of the Dead on top of each other in an orgy of martyrdom and Hollywood pizzazz. This special presentation grew out of Hoberman’s college lectures, in which he experimented with Passion as well as Rocky, playing all five (at that time) in the series at once.Passion was projected on film in its entirety, stretched vertically from its original Scope ratio to fit into the fatter 1.85, giving the characters, as Hoberman said, “an El Greco look”. Then scenes from War of the Worlds, and all of Land of the Dead were projected digitally over it, and hidden affinities began to emerge. It calls attention to the cookie-cutter manner of Hollywood screenwriting, in which “beats” all occur in the same spots, regardless of whether it’s Jesus’s crucifixion or a zombie rebellion. Then there are the smaller bits of serendipity, with Satan’s snake slithering towards a cowering Tom Cruise, or fireworks blooming over Pontius Pilate. As Hoberman admitted, it was more of an installation than a crafted work of deconstruction, and encouraged wanderings in and out. I remained lodged in my seat (with no booze nearby), so I let my mind wander instead, grazing over each layer of action, waiting for moments of convergence, after which I oohed as if wooed by the latest blockbuster, which, at Film Comment Selects, it most certainly was.

Click to read what I previously wrote about FCS selections Despair (1978) and Almayer’s Folly (2011).


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.