Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Candyman (1992)

Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) was one of the first horror movies I ever saw. Not only that, but when innocent 14-year-old-me came upstairs after watching it in the basement, the radio was playing "Candyman" by Christina Aguilera, and in my Clive Barkered state I was convinced that this was a Doomful Omen and that I was Going To Die. Thankfully, I did not die, but lived on to watch Candyman again, years later. And it was still good. Sort of.

Tony Todd is a little thin-skinned.
Candyman's heroine is earnest grad student Helen (Virginia Madsen), who hears about the "Candyman" while writing her thesis on urban legends. She visits Cabrini Green (the real-life 90s Chicago housing project where large chunks of our plot take place) to get to the bottom of the story. Unshockingly, The Legend Is True, and Candyman (Tony Todd) marks Helen for his next lover/victim. Hapless Helen keeps getting accused of the murders Candyman commits and is finally institutionalized, but when he kidnaps a Cabrini Green tenant's baby, Helen escapes the asylum long enough to rescue the infant, die in a fire and become Chicago's newest ghost story. That's why you don't mess with babies. Not even if you're a horror villain.

Candyman riffs on racial cliches which have plagued Hollywood for years (most prominently aggressive black male VS virginal white female, AKA D. W. Griffith syndrome), with mixed results. The film is strongest when it subverts the tropes -- for instance, when Helen literally takes Candyman's place as an urban legend, underscoring her own destructive impulse and sexual agency. Unfortunately, Candyman doesn't play against our expectations nearly often enough. Helen descending on Cabrini Green to utter words of cool logic to its superstitious inhabitants (never mind that their "superstitions" turn out to be true) and rescue a baby while its mother stands by have a yucky White Burdeny aftertaste. Me no gusta.

Where Candyman excels, however, is in turning the guy-cackles-girl-screams misogyny of the slasher canon on its head. The bee metaphor which pervades the film, with all its matriarchal connotations, is wickedly clever. Beyond mere symbolism, I really dug that Helen was an active agent in triggering her own Candymanly doom rather than idly hanging out, wandering down dark alleys and waiting to get slaughtered, as she would in so many movies. On this front, Candyman's ending is especially satisfying. I don't often get to enjoy a horrified shiver which also satisfies my feminist impulse.

To shut up about the politics for a second: great score by Philip Glass. Yay Philip Glass! Great pacing by Bernard Rose. Yay Bernard Rose! Less-than-great villain, unfortunately. Candyman has too much going on, with his fancy coat and his being covered in bees and his decaying chest and his scary hook and his elaborate backstory. The best horror villains are simple. Pinhead: piercings, S+M. Freddie Krueger: dreams, scary fingernails. Candyman needs to do himself a favor and streamline his image. Still, Tony Todd does what he can with it, and I like how self-satisfied Candyman seems whenever he makes Helen's life difficult, so yay Tony Todd!

All in all, I give Candyman a 3/5. I love Clive Barker's stuff and I think this movie is smart, enjoyable to watch, and full of studied, subtle performances (when do you ever hear that said about horror)? But it ventures into hyper-political territory and then doesn't follow through, which makes me sad. Maybe Candyman's imbalances are rectified in the sequels, but they've both got like -24% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I seriously doubt it.

"Please don't make me wear this stupid hairband!"
FINAL GIRL: Carolyn Lowery as Stacey. One of my favorite things about Candyman is that, technically speaking, Helen is NOT the Final Girl. Helen dies, which means the last girl standing is her scumbag husband's lover Stacey. Stacey would not be unusual in any other horror movie, because all she does is act sexy when she's not in danger and scream and cry when she is. When she shows up in Candyman, however, her bouts of hysteria underpin Helen's unique behavior patterns among horror heroines -- Helen's reaction to the Candyman isn't hysterical fear, but entranced sorrow, characterized by dewy eyes, fly-catcher mouth, and soft focus. Madsen's unusual and generally effective technique looks even better juxtaposed against Lowery's shrill fright-night posturings. So thanks, Stacey/Carolyn Lowery. You weren't anything to write home about yourself, but you were an excellent foil.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Carbon Arc Cinema's screening list is pretty scattershot. I was there a couple weeks ago for their Heritage Minute showcase (which was packed), and went back last night for their screening of Charles Laughton's 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter (which was not packed). I'm sure that when Carbon Arc screens Beetlejuice, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Clueless in the coming weeks, it'll be to full houses once more. Still, I'm sad the Halifax hipsters didn't schlepp out for The Night of the Hunter. Not only was it awkward being one of maybe three twentysomething girls in an audience consisting primarily of elderly British men (I know they were British because they pontificated endlessly after the movie about German Expressionism and film noir and blah blah blah blah shoot me in the face), but this movie is also a forgotten masterpiece, one that deserves a slice of the hype modern cineastes lavish on a token few overrated snoozers (Citizen Kane, I'm looking at you).

Robert Mitchum VS Lillian Gish: place your bets.
The Night of the Hunter follows serial killer/preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) as he romances widow Willa (Shelley Winters) so he can get his hands on money her late husband concealed somewhere on her property. Willa's daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) adores her new daddy; son John (Billy Chapin) is less enthused. Powell eventually kills Willa for being too sexy and tries to get the kids to divulge the location of the hidden cash. Pearl and John flee downriver to a neighboring town, where they are rescued by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a badass Depression-era foster mom with a shotgun. Powell shows up, Cooper shoots him, and she and her brood of orphans celebrate Christmas together in peace at The End (I love the way old movies announce The End when they're finished; do they think people might stay in their seats after the lights come up and wait for the next installment?).

I adore The Night of the Hunter. The story's caught somewhere between fairy tale and nightmare does a great job of capturing the scary helplessness of childhood -- the way how, when you're a kid, your fate always seems to be in someone else's hands, frequently someone who doesn't seem any smarter or stronger than you. The lighting is gorgeous, the framing is gorgeous. The performances are stellar. You can't take your eyes off of Mitchum as Harry Powell, who has LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles and not-very-subtly communicates his repressed sexual desires through the artful manipulation of a switchblade knife. And if only someone had thought of giving Lillian Gish a shotgun sooner.

I've seen people complain about the obviousness and artificiality of The Night of the Hunter (IMDB message boards, you will never cease to amaze me), but if you're looking for realism, you're missing the point. The Night of the Hunter isn't subtle or realistic, it's not trying to be, and (this seems to be where a lot of modern audiences get lost) that doesn't make it bad. And though aspects of the film might seem a little affected or baldfaced to today's moviegoer, The Night of the Hunter deals with themes like sexual agency and religious hypocrisy in a nuanced, evenhanded way that a lot of modern movies still can't match. 4/5 to the movie as a whole and an honorary 5/5 to every scene containing both Lillian Gish and a shotgun.

"I'm just a girl who can't say no...."
SCENE STEALER: Gloria Castillo as Ruby, Lillian Gish's oldest foster kid, whose boy-crazy shenanigans turn bad when she convinces Powell to buy her an ice cream. Female sexual agency is handled beautifully in The Night of the Hunter, especially for a movie made in 1955. There's every implication that Ruby has been sexually active, but she's never demonized for it: when she tearfully confesses to Rachel Cooper, Cooper assures Ruby she'll grow up into a "strong, fine" woman despite her involvement in what would have been a very real social taboo in the 50s. The motif of women's right to sexual freedom is echoed elsewhere (such as when Powell's wickedness is depicted through his shaming of Willa for her open sensuality) but is most prominently foregrounded in the character of Ruby, and Gloria Castillo does a great job depicting the girl's wounded pluckiness (although the 22-year-old actress is, admittedly, a little long in the tooth to play a precocious teenager).

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)

Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) completes my reviews for Herschell Gordon Lewis' "Blood Trilogy" -- Color Me Blood Red (1965) and Blood Feast (1963) are the other two films so-designated, making Two Thousand Maniacs the only member of the Blood Trilogy that doesn't have "blood" right there in the title. Don't let that trick you into thinking that Two Thousand Maniacs is going to be any kind of an exercise in subtlety or restraint, though, because it's not.

It's really, really not.
Two Thousand Maniacs' plot (insofar as there is a plot) revolves around a ghostly Confederate village, Pleasant Valley, which appears every hundred years to wreak revenge on Northerners for their previous massacree (it's Brigadoon meets torture porn). A gang of good-looking young Yankees find themselves waylaid by villagers to serve as "guests of honor" at Pleasant Valley's Centennial and are subsequently dispatched in the following ways (spoiler alert!): the slutty one gets chopped up and barbequed, the grumpy one gets torn apart by race horses, the nice guy gets rolled down a hill in a nail-spiked barrel and the mousy chick gets squashed by a giant rock. The cute blonde (Connie Mason!) and her new boyfriend (Tom Wood, bless him!) manage to get away and return with the local law, only to find the town vanished once more. Heavens to Betsy!

The best thing about Two Thousand Maniacs is Lewis' rollicking theme song, which y'all better sit yourselves down and listen to right here. The guy could have been a pretty good musician if he hadn't settled for being a pretty bad filmmaker. The second best thing about Two Thousand Maniacs are the maniacs (I didn't count, so I don't know if there were two thousand), including Jeffrey Allen as Mayor Buckman and Linda Cochran as psycho nympho Betsy. The third best thing about Two Thousand Maniacs are how unhinged the murders are. It takes a special kind of mind to dream up the deaths in this movie. I mean, there's axe murderers, there's serial killers, and then there's slaughtering a guy by tying his various extremities to four different horses and sending them galloping off simultaneously. That's commitment.

Unfortunately, the murders in Two Thousand Maniacs -- however creative they get -- are too few and far between to save viewers from excruciating boredom in the face of the relentlessly dull Yankee victims, who are not killed nearly soon or often enough. All in all, Two Thousand Maniacs gets a 2/5. It's better than Color Me Blood Red, but if you just want the gist of the Blood Trilogy, pop in Blood Feast and save yourself the filler.

"Do you think the audience will be able to tell that I'm reading off cue cards?"
 FINAL GIRL: Ex-Playmate Connie Mason as Terry Adams, the personality-less wonder. You may remember Connie Mason from Blood Feast, in which she also played the Final Girl, and doing so demonstrated all the talent and creativity of a slice of Wonder Bread. Mason's lost the bad fake tan since Blood Feast and she more or less remembers to actually act this time around: even so, she can't save Terry from being stupefying boring. The brain-numbing lines Lewis gives this poor woman to say make you wish that the citizens of Pleasant Valley had celebrated their Centennial with just one more barbeque.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Color Me Blood Red (1965)

What can I say about Color Me Blood Red (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1965)? It's barely horror. It's barely watchable. It's barely even a movie. The sound is bad, the plot is bad, the acting is bad. I'm not exactly sorry that I watched this, but I am conscious that I will never get that eighty minutes of my life back.

It is readily apparent that between Color Me Blood Red and Blood Feast (1963), Herschell Gordon Lewis learned about framing, camera angles, and conventional three-part plot structure. It is apparent also that he completely forgot that no one was attending his movies to see the brilliant work of an auteur. They just wanted to see people getting chopped up, and on that front, Color Me Blood Red hasn't got the goods.

Amanda Palmer's agent just found her next album cover.
The plot (ha! ha!) revolves around sad sack painter Adam Sorg (Gordon Oas-Heim), who just can't pull off a masterpiece, probably because he is being tortured by his agent, a weird European art critic named Gregorovitch (Bill Harris), and his needy girlfriend, who inexplicably spends every second of her screen time clad in leotards of various colors. When his agent and the critic start needling him over his washed-out colors, Sorg kills two birds with one stone by stabbing his girlfriend and painting with her blood. The art world loves Sorg's new style and the artist himself, tickled pink (red?) by all the attention, spears a couple waterskiing teenagers for tempera before he's taken down by the boyfriend of new model and near-victim April (Candi Conder). If that summary didn't quite take the first time through, don't bother to read it through again. It won't make sense, not even if you watch the movie.

Color Me Blood Red makes me sad. Whence art the seedy titillations of yesteryear, Herschell? Whence thy weird Egyptian/bluegrass soundtrack stylings? Whence art the hapless victims slaughtered by mad Egyptian caterers, crushed by giant rocks, barbequed, rolled down hills in barrels hammered full of nails? Blood Feast was bad, but it wasn't boring. Color Me Blood Red is boring, and I give it a 2/5. Ah, for the Herschell films of my youth, joyously free of any pretensions towards "art" in either style or content.

What is that album cover in the corner? Looks sort of 80s, don't it? 
FINAL GIRL: This is a picture of April (Candi Conder), the stupidest Final Girl you ever heard of. Now, lots of Final Girls do stupid things like going down dark alleys alone, or throwing away their weapons too soon, or just crying and screaming too much. But only April is stupid enough to wander directly into a murderer's den, ignore all the very visible signs that the guy is unstable and unhinged, and finally remark "you're tying me up!" with perplexed wonder and no attempt to get free. She also has no personality, apart from the facts that she doesn't drink and that she wears her hair like she wandered off The Brady Bunch. April's friends are all equally brainless, but at least the one who finds a corpse and screams "HOLY BANANAS!" is entertaining. April's just dull... dull as in boring AND dull as in stupid. It almost makes you miss Connie Mason.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987) is one of my favorite horror flicks -- It even came out the same year I was born! -- but it suffers from the Candyman curse: too artsy for horror, too trashy for art. Some reviewers seem to dislike it instinctively (Ebert's review is especially bitchy. Calm down, Roger, it's only a movie). I suspect that their hackles were raised because Hellraiser's highbrow, mythic tone probably seemed a little pretentious during the Golden Age of Trash Slashers. The grandiosity, however, isn't entirely bullshit. It's laden with too many hammer-and-hook murders to totally escape the "slasher" label, but Hellraiser isn't just a movie about People Getting Killed, and its ruminations on the inevitable degradation rooted in hedonism and masochism occasionally hit a kind of Greek Tragedy-esque sweet spot.

Electrolysis gone wrong.
The hell and the hurting kicks off when young Kirsty's (Ashley Laurence) no-good, very bad Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) solves a puzzle box that sends him to the Cenobites' realm of pain and pleasure. (The Cenobites are the bald guys in the S+M getups on all the posters. You only see them for about ten minutes). After Uncle Frank vanishes, Kirsty's dad Larry (Andrew Robinson) and stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins) movie into his empty house. Kirsty elects to live with her boyfriend. Everything's going swimmingly until Frank escapes the Cenobites' realm in a nasty-looking deskinned format and enlists Julia's help procuring a fresh human form: hard up for bodies, they finally "borrow" Larry's. Kirsty catches wind of what's going on and subsequently makes a deal with the Cenobites to return Frank to their hell realm.

The most unusual thing about all this is that Hellraiser's iconic baddie, Pinhead (Doug Bradley), isn't much of a baddie at all. Pinhead (or Lead Cenobite, as the official credits more respectfully call him) doesn't actually do much. He doesn't have to. The humans in this movie are good enough at killing each other  without his help. Furthermore, most of the victims are not frolicsome teenagers but middle-aged businessmen Julia leads back to Frank's chamber. Julia and especially Frank are the real villains of Hellraiser: Pinhead's just a catalyst. A cool-looking catalyst, but that's beside the point.

Not everything in Hellraiser works. A shot of a red carnation bursting into bloom as Julia turns to the dark side is way too highflown and silly. There's also an annoyingly random old man who appears once in a while to glower at Kirsty and munch on the crickets at the pet store where she works. He doesn't appear to have any function beyond Creeping You Out, which the Cenobites do a perfectly adequate job of without any help. These missteps are distractions, though, not dealbreakers. I give Hellraiser a 5/5. It's not a perfect movie, but it's miles closer than most horror. How'd you like them apples, Ebert?

Fashion faux pas: white shirt during battle with bloody corpse.
 FINAL GIRL: Ashley Laurence as Kirsty, a Final Girl who acts like a human being and not just a mannequin being ferried by bored screenwriters through her several requisite brushes with doom. Even though she gets put through the same motions as her less clever Final Girl counterparts (the screaming, the fleeing, the trembling in horror) Kirsty's not cut from the same cloth as, say, those brainless twits in Friday the 13th. She's independent from the beginning of the film, insisting on getting a job and living alone instead of with her dad and wicked stepmom: then, when things really go Pete Tong, she's coolheaded enough to cut a deal with the Cenobites and save her own skin in the process. She's a tough little Eighties cookie. I'll even forgive her the perm.