Archive for the ‘Little People’ Category

 

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

 

Certainly as a director and a little less so as a star, Clint Eastwood has worked in just about every genre there is. One glaring exception is horror, or so it would seem. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER comes pretty damn close. It’s a genre rope-a-dope. You see the star of THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY and he’s riding a horse and carrying a six-shooter, so you think you know what kind of a movie you’re expecting. And then you get hit with something else entirely, but not right away.

 

 

 

Here I find myself in the unfortunate position of spoiling a movie early on simply by describing it in terms of the horror genre – since for a long stretch, the story of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would not lead one to conclude it should be filed anywhere other than the Westerns shelf of the library.  

 

 

But, at the very least, Clint Eastwood as director and star uses some elements of the ghost-story genre in the construction of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.  The unnamed gunslinger appears out of the haze of the frontier heat on his way into a town that he eventually paints blood-red (literally) and re-names “Hell,” and the wailing score by Dee Barton of PLAY MISTY FOR ME is at all times more horror-movie than Morricone 

 

 

Clint’s second film as director after the aforementioned PLAY MISTY FOR ME, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER was heavily influenced by the styles of Clint’s mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.  Unlike PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which was a then-contemporary thriller, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would have seemed like a return to familiar genre terrain for Eastwood. But this was no usual shoot-’em-up. It was the first of many sly and bold deconstructions of his own “nameless gunfighter” persona – this is no hero, but a ruthless avenging angel.  And maybe “angel” isn’t remotely the right term.  

Actually it definitely isn’t.

 

 

Written by Ernest Tidyman, creator of SHAFT, and moodily lensed by Eastwood regular DP Bruce SurteesHIGH PLAINS DRIFTER lets you know almost immediately that this isn’t Gary Cooper territory. The townspeople of Lago are nervous about a trio of murderous outlaws, led by Stacey Bridges (played by Geoffrey Lewis), who once terrorized the place and are rumored to be on the way to do it again. So when a mysterious stranger, in a familiar tall, dark and handsome form, rides in from the desert and shoots down some nasty customers, it would seem he’s the answer to Lago’s prayers.

 

 

But when a well-dressed blond lady tries to meet-cute with the stranger by bumping into him, he forces her into a barn and not very ambiguously forces himself on her. This is within the first fifteen minutes of the film. It’s startling and upsetting, and while there are indications the woman seems to enjoy it, that only makes it more difficult to process. Our movie’s hero has done one of the worst things you can do to anyone to a seemingly innocent person. And we’re still supposed to root for this guy? Can you imagine the Salon thinkpieces if this film were to come out today?

 

 

Of course, as it turns out, nobody in Lago is innocent or pure. But we don’t know that at the time of the sexual assault. And even once the truth is revealed, this moment still doesn’t sit right. Nobody deserves such a violation, and even if logic were perverted and contorted enough to make rape seem justifiable, does that make things better? Is anything really resolved? And why are we watching in the first place?

 

 

Twenty years later, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Science awarded Clint’s film UNFORGIVEN for its canny deconstruction of the star’s own persona and that of basically every American action hero of the past century. But — not to take anything away from UNFORGIVEN, which is a favorite — HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER proves Clint had been doing that all along. The gulf between what an audience expected from Clint in 1973, when he first rides into this movie on a white horse, and then what he proceeds to do in short order, is unfathomable. It’s still shocking today. No action star before or since had been so daring with their onscreen persona. No movie star period would risk such a vicious reversal of expectations.

 

HPD

 

 

Like HIGH NOON, this story is about a lone gunfighter preparing to face off against three outlaws in a frontier town. Like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the story finds a town hiring a mercenary to teach them to fight against invaders. But in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, the hero abuses the authority he’s given: He assaults a woman, drinks up the town’s booze, appoints a little person (Billy Curtis, who is excellent in the movie) the town sheriff, defaces the scenery, and ultimately abandons the people in their supposed time of need. He’s an unchecked anarchist at best.

The Western is maybe the single genre where American audiences most expect our heroes to be heroes. Clint Eastwood used the Western to make us ask ourselves what that means.

 

 

 

— JON ABRAMS. 

 

 

ME

 

 

 

 

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THE RAID 2 (2014)

 

 

 

Having rewatched this movie this afternoon in a haze of antibiotics, I expanded my thoughts on THE RAID 2 from the short piece on it in my Blu-Ray column, which I posted earlier this week.

 

 

 

Gareth Evans is a new action director to take very seriously: He’s growing into a world-class directing talent, in my opinion. 2009′s MERANTAU was plenty promising, an able showcase for both star Iko Uwais and for Uwais’ specialty, the Indonesian martial art pencak silat. 2011′s THE RAID: REDEMPTION delivered and then some. It was one of my top five films that year, as much as that distinction matters.

 

 

Evans’ next directorial credit after THE RAID was ‘SAFE HAVEN‘, the piece he co-directed with Timo Tjahjanto for the anthology V/H/S/2. It’s a bolt of scarcely-restrainable horror electricity. All on its own, SAFE HAVEN made my top two last year.

 

 

Evans’ style has potency, a rare quality among younger directors, especially those working in the genres of action and horror. As genre directing has trended towards the over-use of hand-held camerawork, much has been lost in the crucial areas of clarity, continuity, and identification — if I can’t entirely see what’s happening or who it’s happening to, it’s harder to stay involved on any level.

 

 

By contrast, Gareth Evans creates immediate empathy in an audience for unfamiliar actors playing characters who only just appeared onscreen a moment ago. Through smartly-chosen camera angles and clever deployment of tactile elements and technical arts like sound, Evans creates believable environments with simple strokes: The scrape of a metal bat on a concrete sidewalk, the slow juicy slice of a golden scalpel through a human neck, and so on. These small details have heft, which accumulates and enriches the texture of the film terrifically.

 

 

As a cinematic storyteller, Evans can really put you in a room, usually a room you don’t want to ever be in — think of the early scene in the first RAID where the villain murders a row of captives only to run out of bullets before the last; how much you feel for that final man despite not even knowing his name. There’s a similar scene in the new RAID film. The bit still works. You can imagine how excruciating it must be to be the last man on the row. You can see yourself in his quivering place. What would you be thinking, if put in that position? What last thoughts might you choose? This is what this director can do with a day-player who never gets a single line of dialogue. He makes you feel for the cannon fodder. Evans’ approach to action is elemental, his approach to 2-D visual storytelling is tangible. These films don’t need a third dimension — the directorial orchestration provides it.

 

 

So everything that was so effective about the first RAID film works about the sequel. The key word is “more.”

 

 

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, with twice the characters and a more complex storyline, such as it is. The closest imagining is what would happen if John Woo made THE GODFATHER: PART TWO, minus the sumptuousnous and grace. It’s a back-alley HARD BOILED. This is a seedier neighborhood. The knives are sharper. Heads don’t get knocked around, they get pulverized into a red mist.

 

 

Where the earlier RAID film showed the events of one particularly arduous day, the sequel covers a longer expanse of time. Whereas the earlier scenario was confined to one building, THE RAID 2 opens up the action. There’s a car chase now. There are subways. There are rivers and lakes and ruins and killing fields. The villains are even more vicious this time around, if that can be believed. The redoubtable Yayan Ruhian, so indelibly fearsome as “Mad Dog” in the earlier film, plays a similar role here, only to be overcome by the new breed of vicious killer. Evans’ Jakarta is no country for old mad dogs.

 

 

There’s even a bit more black humor in the sequel, much of it courtesy of the silent siblings Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, the film’s signature characters. (Better to experience those two without benefit of much foreknowledge.)

 

 

 

The end result of all this “more” by film’s end may be a faint sense of exhaustion, even among die-hard fans of THE RAID like myself. For my part I’m all RAID-ed out. “I’m done,” as series hero finally concludes. These are arduous films — for the viewer alone! One can only imagine how it feels for the active participants. Don’t get me wrong: I love THE RAID 2 and it’s clearly one of the superior action films of the year. It’s only that I’ve been through a long onslaught of fists, bullets, stabbings, and hammerings and now I’d like to see what this gifted filmmaker and his dedicated crew can do next. A third RAID film is planned; hopefully after that there’ll be a return to horror. Or a monster movie. Or a Western. Or a musical. The sky’s the limit, really.

 

 

 

– Jon Abrams.

 

@JONNYABOMB

 

 

 

 

 

Finally gonna see THE RAID 2 this week! Been waiting two long years for this thing — can you feel my excitement buzzing like a swarm of cicadas on a summer day? The action in the first movie was all-out peanut-butter-and-bananas, and the events of that one were confined to one building. In this new one they go outside! Oh my god. Imagine these maniacs in cars. I can’t wait. Anyway, here’s what I wrote about the first one when I listed it in my 2012 year-end top-ten.

 

THE RAID

 


If I were an action-movie hero (and who’s to say I’m not?), I’d be on the phone to writer/director/editor Gareth Evans yesterday.  He has made,  by a wide margin, the best action movie of the year, displaying all of the most integral virtues of the field. THE RAID starts from the most basic plot – a small group of cops are cornered in a high-rise packed with murderous thugs – and uses only a fraction — $1 million – of the means most action movies have in the pocket.  None of the guys in THE RAID look to be over five feet tall and ninety pounds, and the lead actor (Iko Uwais) looks a bit like Halle Berry circa STRICTLY BUSINESS, yet somehow hey all turn out to be the kind of fearsome, fearless shitkickers who make all fifty-two Expendables look like a Mad Magazine parody.  That’s due to the fact that these are all incredible athletes, of course, but also due to filmmaker Gareth Evans and his ferocious camerawork and ginsu-blade cutting style.

 

THE RAID

 

This isn’t just the best action film of 2012 – it’s pure cinema.  Great film-making isn’t only about storytelling and style, though THE RAID has that too.  It’s about using the tools of cinema to most effectively get a story across, with style as a garnish.  What Gareth Evans does here is present the kinetic ass-kicking doled out by his stars in a way that maximizes its impact.  The choreography of both the battles and of the camerawork that captures them has an uncommon clarity.  The violence is tactile – you can practically feel it.  This cumulative effect is also achieved by brilliantly-chosen and –rendered sound design – whether it be the sound of bullets rolling around in a wooden drawer, or that of a chambered clip, or of a machete scraping the underside of a table, or the face of a stone wall.  While everyone else was name-checking Bruce Lee and John Woo in their reviews of this movie, I was oddly enough reminded most of Martin Scorsese’s short film “The Big Shave.”  That’s the level of clever, innovative, forward-thinking filmmaking on display in THE RAID. I’m talking craft, not content.  That said: Will Gareth Evans one day make his own TAXI DRIVER or GOODFELLAS?  I would not bet against it.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

This happened on October 15th, 2009.  There’s still no joy in it for me.

Trick ‘R Treat is a movie that has developed a large internet and word-of-mouth following among a certain kind of film fan, the kind that loves to find a little-known movie worthy of attention in order to champion its merits to the world.  Trick ‘R Treat was originally slated for a 2007 release and was never released widely; it finally made it to DVD last week.  Having heard scattered but rapturous praise in advance, and always on the lookout for an original horror film that could use a defender, I made watching it a priority.

The verdict:  Disappointing.

It’s not good.  It’s not.  In fact, a half an hour into the movie I realized that it was actually bad, and it wasn’t going to stop being that way.  And sure enough, it didn’t.  It’s twice as disappointing because I know that there are plenty of smart people that love this movie, and good for them, but they’re not right on this one.  There’s some nice cinematography in Trick ‘R Treat, and some occasionally inspired imagery, but a new and original Halloween classic?  No.  Really, it isn’t.  Not hardly.

Trick ‘R Treat is an anthology horror movie, meant in the spirit of Creepshow (George A. Romero & Stephen King) or Twilight Zone: The Movie (John Landis & Joe Dante & Steven Spielberg & George Miller), and the five individual stories are meant to overlap seamlessly in the spirit of Pulp Fiction.  (Stepping into big shoes can make it real easy to trip up…)  The five stories – or four with an introductory sequence – all take place on the same Halloween night, and all are haunted by a scarecrow-mask-wearing trick-or-treater in orange pajamas, kind of a silent Crypt-Keeper figure.   That character is by far the most memorable thing about the movie, and he features into the final and most straightforward story, the only one that is ultimately worth watching in the least.

Here’s the lead-off problem:  Trick ‘R Treat is operating on the premise that Halloween has a series of traditions, and that bad things can happen if you violate those traditions.  The movie mistakenly assumes that every viewer is acquainted with the traditions featured in each story.  It certainly does not lay out the traditions clearly at the outset, and even after watching all of the stories, I wasn’t clear what principle they were referring to.

Let’s look at each segment in these general terms:

The prologue features a young couple returning from a Halloween parade.  The young woman (Talladega Nights’ Leslie Bibb) snuffs out all the jack-o’-lantern candles in the yard, against her boyfriend’s warning.  In an extended “homage” to the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween, she is stalked and killed.  The tradition broken here:  Don’t take down the Halloween decorations until the night is over?  Okay, this one I get, although it hardly seems like the punishment fits the crime.  (After all, how else can she make room for the Christmas lights?)

The first full story features a school principal (Spider-Man’s Dylan Baker), a single parent with a young son, who confronts a sloppy brute of a child (Bad Santa’s Brett Kelly) who has been smashing pumpkins and stealing candy.  The principal calmly poisons the kid, then spends the rest of the episode trying to nervously hide the body from the neighbors and his son.  The tradition broken here is:  Always check your candy.  That one I get, because it’s the only time in the movie that a tradition is clearly stated.  The crippling problem with this story is character-based:  Why does this guy kill a kid on his front steps, totally out in the open, and then all of the sudden get shy about it?

In the second story, a group of adolescents plays a scary prank on an autistic girl, but in doing so, they invoke an old supernatural menace.  Tradition broken:  Don’t play pranks lest they happen for real? I’m not sure.  This was a pretty convoluted segment, with plenty of character and plot inconsistencies.  My more empathetic tendencies also lead me to take issue with the concept of the mentally-challenged undead.  If you are the type of person who is excited by the prospect of retarded zombies, go ahead with it I guess.

In the next story, a virginal college student (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) is stalked by a cloaked, fanged man, but she and her mega-hot friends turn the tables on him.  Tradition broken:  Don’t take anyone’s Halloween costume too literally?  I really can’t say.  This segment is an utter mess, and it pains me to say it because it culminates in the appearance of my favorite movie monster.  But the story makes no sense, it is confusingly intercut with the previous stories, it features the abrupt and not-well-explained reintroduction of a character from an earlier story, and it features the worst acting of the entire film.  You can distract me with amazing cleavage, but only temporarily.

In the last story, a wheezing old bastard (awesomeness’s Brian Cox) is besieged by that scarecrow kid who’s been appearing throughout the movie.  Tradition broken: Be kind to trick-or-treaters lest they be unkind to you. I guess.  This isn’t fully clear, but it almost doesn’t matter this time around.  I called this one the best segment earlier because it has the most interesting filmmaking – it has the movie’s best actor playing against a legitimately decent monster design, and it’s just an extended chase sequence that doesn’t waste time on poor dialogue or cute twists.  The pumpkinbaby’s motivations are still mighty unclear, but at least I wrung some entertainment out of the movie’s final moments.

The one thing that fans of Trick ‘R Treat and I can agree on is the mystery behind its delayed and unceremonious release.  Not that I believe that this movie is good enough for anyone but the most optimistic and desperate horror fans, because it’s not; but because I literally see a worse movie than this dumped into theaters every single week.  Trick ‘R Treat doesn’t hang together right, but it’s less ugly and sadistic than the Saw movies, more energetic than (for example) Surrogates, and more ambitious than just about any Sandra Bullock movie.  Trick ‘R Treat fails, but at least it tried.  It’s sad that I consider that praise, but I’d rather give a chance to a movie that wants to be original than a movie that is cynical and lazy.

But yeah, probably skip this one anyway.

Am I wrong?  All I know for sure is that I’m on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

When it was originally released back in 1988, BEETLEJUICE was huge. I remember seeing it then and I have since seen this movie a lot of times. I’m not sure how well it’s remembered today, though. It’s one of Tim Burton’s earliest and purest visions. His first (feature) film was PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, which is highly Burton-esque in retrospect — the Large Marge scene in particular — but it wasn’t Tim Burton’s sensibility alone that shaped that movie. However, it was the success of that movie that allowed cinema its first blast of pure Burton, which was BEETLEJUICE; the success of which, in turn, led to BATMAN, which made Burton one of the biggest directors of the last two decades. In his amazing career, Tim Burton has alternated between movie-star blockbusters and smaller, more personal movies. BEETLEJUICE was kind of both.

 

BEETLEJUICE started out originally as a script by Michael McDowell, which was reportedly was rewritten when Tim Burton signed on. If you’ve ever seen his drawings, you know that Burton’s artistic sensibility is all over the finished movie. The spooky character design, the skewed angles, the shadowy production design, the charming hokiness, the surprising darkness (in contrast), the off-center musicality, the career-best performances by many of its actors, the affinity for outcasts and wackadoos, the demented-carnival pomp of Danny Elfman’s score – these are all hallmarks of Burton’s style. The story is actually incredibly weird – a recently deceased young couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) return from a watery grave in order to rid their home of its new occupants, a strange family consisting of Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and Winona Ryder. Since they’re not great at being ghosts, they conjure up the lecherous, dangerous Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), an exorcist who specializes in exorcising the living, in order to scare away the intruders.

 

 

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If this was supposed to be a kid’s movie, it’s definitely one of the creepiest and most bizarre kid’s movies ever made. The uniformly great cast is by turns mournful and affecting, callous and obnoxious, and in the case of Michael Keaton, unforgettably and wonderfully repulsive. In his portrayal of Beetlejuice, Keaton created a screen icon for freaks and weirdos. He’s unequivocably a villain and a pervert, and obviously is having a blast being sickening.

 

 

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BEETLEJUICE is a pivotal movie in Tim Burton’s career. It perfected the tone and spirit for which all of his best movies that followed are known, and in a design sense, it was an obvious trial run for his auteur projects such as THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE CORPSE BRIDE, and even ED WOOD. Seeing it on a big screen with a midnight audience is a great idea. For Tim Burton fans, it’s an absolute necessity; for everyone else, it’s a friendly but emphatic suggestion.

 

BEETLEJUICE is the midnight movie this weekend at the IFC Center.

 

Invoke my name on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

 

Fun Fact: This character was played by the great Tony Cox!

 

 

 

There are benefits to being an insomniac. One is that you don’t have to work hard to stay up into the dead of night to watch the kind of movies that only air in the dead of night. Turner Classic Movies has a series this month called Silent Sundays, and the other night they aired a movie I’ve been meaning to see for a while:

Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), based on a play and directed by Herbert Brenon, is a vehicle for the great Lon Chaney: Here he plays a travelling circus clown named Tito, who finds a baby girl he names Simonetta, takes her in and raises her to be a fellow performer. As she grows up, into a beautiful adolescent, he realizes to his confusion that he’s fallen in love with her. And then he has competition in the form of a dashing gentleman named Luigi.

The story has obvious echoes of the opera Pagliacci, but a more fun way to look at it for modern movie fans is that it’s Léon (The Professional) but with Italian clowns instead of Gallic assassins. The ingenue is played by Loretta Young, who went on to a long career in Hollywood, who from her appearance here seems to have been the Natalie Portman of her day.

But this is Lon Chaney’s show, and as usual, even to modern eyes his performance is compelling and affecting. For me, as with many people of my generation, it can take some work to get into a silent movie, but it’s not that way with Chaney’s filmography. For one thing, he almost always played grotesques, eccentrics, and freaks — that stuff works in any era.

For another, and maybe it’s the nature of the roles, but Chaney feels more expressive and more demonstrative than pretty much any other well-known performer of the era, to me at least. His acting is always perfectly modulated, neither too much nor too little, and thereby ensures that you hardly need the title cards to follow the story.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a great showcase for Lon Chaney, and the nature of the circus setting makes it a baroque experience, and well worth watching, but to me, it didn’t feel quite as transcendently weird as the movies I’ve seen that Chaney made with director Tod Browning. One of those is The Unknown.

It was probably Hugo that did it, but I went on a silent movie kick for a while there. So this is a movie I only got around to at the end of last year. It holds up and then some. The Unknown (1927) is one of the strongest collaborations between director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney. In it, Lon Chaney plays an armless knife thrower named Alonzo The Armless.

For real now: Doesn’t that make you want to skip the rest of this article right now and go watch this movie?

All of the Tod Browning/ Lon Chaney collaborations I’ve seen are exactly this level of crazy. These two artists were, for a while there, as perfect a match as Leone and Eastwood. Besides his command of eerie and ominous atmosphere behind the camera, Browning had been a circus performer himself, a clown and a daredevil, so he knew these worlds. Chaney was a master of pathos and the macabre, fully able to meet any of the bizarre physical demands Browning needed from him.

Needless to say I’m a Tod Browning fan. Nobody else made movies like his. The closest you could come, for that mix of playful and menacing, is arguably early Tim Burton, or recent Alex De La Iglesia. I spent time studying Browning’s movies, most notably Freaks, for one of the comics I wrote. (Still available in stores and online!)

But Freaks came a few years after The Unknown — it’s better-known because it has sound and because the titular “freaks” were actually deformed, whereas Chaney was only playing at it (albeit doing so while in excruciating pain, if you read up on the history.) The Unknown also comes before Laugh, Clown, Laugh in the Lon Chaney chronology. This is a much more depraved character, in a much more depraved movie.

Chaney plays Alonzo The Armless, a sideshow freak whose act is flinging knives at his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford) using only his feet. He can do other things with his feet, such as play guitar…

…But the main thing to look out for is that knife-throwing. Alonzo’s not that nice a guy, and he’s also a fake. Turns out he has both his arms — he’s only hiding out in the circus because he’s a career criminal, who is easily identifiable because he has two thumbs on one hand.

TWO

THUMBS

ON

ONE

HAND.

This movie is wild. Okay, so Alonzo is a genetic aberration, but not the kind he purports to be. It’s the perfect cover story! Because not only does he need to hide his identity from the authorities, but he’s trying to not let on to Nanon, the woman he loves, that he is THE SAME TWO-THUMBED MAN WHO KILLED HER FATHER!

Alonzo’s only confidante is a little person named Cojo. It really just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? Alonzo fumes to Cojo as his beloved Nanon gets closer to the circus strongman — but not too close, as since her father was killed, she has developed a phobia of being held. This in turn leaves the door wide open for the romantic advances of Alonzo, as long as he doesn’t reveal to her that he actually does have arms. (It’s a little bit like Tootsie!) Alonzo gets so wrapped up in his babe that he makes the spectacularly bad decision to go get his arms amputated. Fellas, don’t make this mistake with your lady, and I’ll tell you why: While he’s recovering, Nanon gets over her arm phobia. Not only that, but she announces that she’s marrying the circus strongman. Well, Alonzo doesn’t take this news well at all, and that’s where everything gets really Tod Browning all over everybody.

What’s so compelling and so unusual about The Unknown, and about so many of Tod Browning’s films, is that it begins on a malevolent note and that only intensifies, until the typically violent climax, where the movie’s villain gets a karmic comeuppance so horrible that it’s barely even gratifying to watch. And of course what’s so uncommon, never more than today, is how the movie’s villain was the main character and the biggest star. It just shows how very much Lon Chaney brought to the movie, and to movies in general. How many stars are brave enough to allow themselves to be shown in so ugly a light? Alonzo is an evil, angry, murderous character, only occasionally sympathetic, but clearly that doesn’t keep him from being interesting. Tod Browning’s movies were provocative, profound, and truly valuable because his bad people were truly nasty brutes, and the so-called “freaks” were the most human out of anyone. Then again, being human doesn’t always mean being good either. The world is a complicated place.

For more on Tod Browning, here again are my pieces on The Unholy Three, and of course, on Dracula.

And here’s the renowned Dave Kehr on several other Lon Chaney films.

And here’s me on Twitter, sadly far less than silent: @jonnyabomb