it's halloween, so go watch the babadook

Looking for a movie to watch on Halloween? I recommend The Babadook. I wrote about it two years ago:

The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

The Babadook is currently ranked #563 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

 


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.

 


creature feature saturday: the black cat (edgar g. ulmer, 1934)

Once again, as is often the case with these "Creature Features", the trivia behind the film is as interesting as what is on the screen. The difference here is that The Black Cat is actually a good movie.

I saw it when I was a kid, probably on our own local Creature Features show. All I remembered of it was that someone got skinned alive. Since that didn't happen until the last couple of minutes of the movie, I started wondering if I'd misremembered (I hadn't).

This was the first film to co-star Boris Karloff (here billed simply as "Karloff") and Bela Lugosi (they eventually made eight movies together). They are both good, if you like their acting ... Karloff is ominous but restrained, Lugosi is hammy. Lugosi is nominally the good guy here, as a doctor imprisoned during WWI (or something like that ... the movie isn't clear). Karloff did bad things during that war, and Lugosi has come to make him pay. (The actors' characters have names, but why bother with them? It's Karloff and Lugosi.) David Manners and Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) play American newlyweds, and are properly boring. Both lead actors have odd obsessions with Bishop's wife.

The movie is quite bizarre ... Kael accurately described it as a "nutty, nightmarish mélange of Black Masses and chess games, shadows and dungeons, Satanism and necrophilia." Karloff has a bunch of dead women hanging around in some form of suspended post-lifeness. One of them is Lugosi's former wife. Meanwhile, Karloff has married Bela's daughter.

Lugosi has a deadly fear of cats ... the first time he sees a black cat, he recoils, pulls a knife, and throws it at the cat, killing it instantly. This is about as close as the movie comes to explaining the title, which was used mostly so Universal could say it was "suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe" (the film has nothing to do with Poe's story).

It all sounds silly, and it is, but it gets out of the way in 65 minutes, the two leads are good, and everything is atmospheric in that Edgar G. Ulmer way. Ulmer made a gazillion movies, almost all of them Grade-Z pictures, almost all of them with enough recognizable Ulmer touches that he became a favorite of auteurist film critics. The Black Cat is one of his best, but it was also a curse for Ulmer. During the making of the film, he began an affair with a woman whose husband was the nephew of the studio head at Universal. There was a divorce, and a marriage ... Ulmer and his wife, Shirley, remained married until his death. But he was blackballed, and was resigned to miniscule budgets the rest of his career. His best film was Detour, sometimes called the greatest B-movie of all time. The Black Cat doesn't reach those heights, but it is several notches above the average Creature Feature. And the scene where Karloff gets skinned alive is quite remarkable. 7/10.

 


by request: the thing (john carpenter, 1982)

Given that The Thing is an accepted part of the modern horror canon, it's interesting that it wasn't a success when it was released. It did relatively poorly at the box office (blame for this is usually placed at the hands of E.T., the optimistic film that had opened a few weeks earlier). John Carpenter calls The Thing his favorite of his movies, and he says he was hit hard when the movie didn't perform. The critics didn't like it, either, although again, the film's reputation has improved over time. I've usually found Carpenter an oddly overrated director. I like most of his movies I have seen, but "like" is the operative word ... in my mind, none of the ones I've seen approach classic status. I remember liking Big Trouble in Little China quite a bit when it came out, but after I'd seen some of the HK films that influenced it, I felt Carpenter hadn't really met their standards.

The same can be said of The Thing. Carpenter loves the original ... some of this version is a clear homage to the 1951 Nyby/Hawks film. Carpenter is known as a Hawks fanatic. He doesn't let the homage go too far, though, because for the basic plot, Carpenter returns to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr. The thing changes form, so in any particular moment, it might look just like a person you know. Given the setting (men isolated in Antarctica), the paranoia sets in quickly ... as the title of Campbell's work asks, "Who Goes There?" This is an intriguing premise ... I don't blame Carpenter for wanting to explore it, even though it is unrelated to the Hawks' film, where the alien is just a giant carrot played by James Arness.

But, as I recall, when it came out, The Thing was known for its gore and its special effects. You might talk after the movie about the paranoia angle, but what got you into the theater, what impressed while watching, was the "ooooh" that accompanied the "best" scenes. Nothing wrong with that ... but ultimately, that's all The Thing is about. Alien, which had come out in 1979, had some similar shocks, but Ridley Scott built up to them. And while Alien and The Thing both share the "isolated working group" setting, the characters are much better defined in Scott's movie. In fact, this is the biggest reason the Carpenter remake isn't up to the original. I saw that original a few months ago, and thinking back on the cast of "hey it's that guys", I realize I still remember some of the character names, like "Scotty" the journalist. I saw the remake just last night, and I'm not sure I can remember any of the characters' names. Instead, I remember Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley and T.K. Carter and Richard Masur. The Thing is well cast ... Carpenter can use his actors as archetypes because the actors fit the parts ... but any character development would just get in the way of the next gory FX scene.

The Thing works because Carpenter effectively parcels out the scares. But he never lets the audience get beyond that feeling of dread ... what's next? ... and while that's a fine thing to pull off, it mostly stands on its own. The implications of the paranoia angle are only important in the film as a way of increasing the dread.

None of this means I don't like The Thing. It's one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. But over the years, I've decided that John Carpenter movies are never great movies. If you can make a handful of pretty good movies, you've accomplished something. But you aren't Howard Hawks. #314 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. (The original doesn't even make the list, which tells you what I think about TSPDT in this case.) 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday double bill

The Ghost Galleon (Amando de Ossorio, 1974). AKA Ghost Ships of the Blind Dead, Horror of the Zombies, Ship of Zombies, Zombie Flesh Eater, and The Blind Dead 3 (yes, it's a sequel, sort of). It's amazing to think there is more than one of these. As best as I can figure out, the "blind dead" are Templar knights whose eyes were torn out for their dabblings in the dark arts. They are zombies, the slowest-moving zombies in movie history, with no eyes. The plot doesn't matter, but if you're interested, here is the Amazon description of the film: "A boatload of stranded swimsuit models discover a mysterious ghost ship that carries the coffins of the satanic Templar, eyeless zombies who hunt humans by sound." Nothing is delivered ... the swimsuit models never get out of their clothes, the "boatload" consists of two women, and I'm not sure how we're supposed to figure out the thing about sound. Austrian lead Maria Perschy made movies with Huston and Hawks in the early-60s. Male lead, American Jack Taylor, was in more than a hundred movies, many of them Mexican and Spanish horror films. Bárbara Rey was Miss Madrid 1970. Rey actually has the best scene, when she is taken by the zombies. They are mostly doing their slow-moving arm waving, but Rey exhibits real fear for a couple of minutes before they cut off her head and eat her. The low budget is particularly noteworthy whenever we see the titular ship in long shot ... it looks like something Ernie would play with alongside his rubber ducky. The zombies look scary in a unique way, which lasts until they "move". The inside of the galleon is shot in spooky ways ... this would be the best part of the movie, except the film moves slower than a Templar zombie, so even the good parts are boring. 4/10.

The Corpse Vanishes (Wallace Fox, 1942). With a lot of these crappy B-movies, it's easier to just talk trivia ... there's little to say about the movie itself. Well, there is some classic dialogue, like when Bela Lugosi (who cares what the character's name is) is asked if he makes a habit of collecting coffins. "Why yes," he replies, "in a manner of speaking. I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.  Many people do so, my dear." Lugosi, who was 60, made so many bad movies that it's easy to forget they didn't all suck. The same year as this one, he made The Ghost of Frankenstein, which wasn't terrible, and only three years earlier, he had been in Ninotchka. But The Corpse Vanishes was bad. It came from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, and one of the producers was the legendary "Jungle Sam" Katzman. It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The characters included another legend, Angelo Rossitto, as a dwarf (Rossitto's long career stretched from Freaks to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The plot involves Lugosi stealing dead brides-to-be (he is the one who kills them ... they die at the altar ... oh yeah, they don't really die, they just exist in some type of coma) so he can extract something from them to inject into his ancient wife, resulting in that wife becoming young again. Oh, why do I bother? The only good thing about The Corpse Vanishes is that it is over in 64 minutes. 3/10.

 

 


train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.

Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies  are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.

 


what i watched last week

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). A series of ghost stories so gorgeous it’s nearly impossible to get any perspective on the quality of those stories. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966 (it lost to The Shop on Main Street), Kwaidan demands our awareness not just of Kobayashi, but also of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima and art director Shigemasa Toda. I don’t pretend to know who did what, but the result is stunning. Smartly, considering these are ghost stories, Kobayashi et al do not worry about an exact representation of the real. Instead, they use every available trick to augment the film canvas. The colors are brighter than those worn by circus performers, with the screen often particularly awash in the most dazzling reds. Often, I’ll see a movie like this and think of it as what I call a “coffee table movie”, something that looks so pretty you want to put it out on a coffee table for a friend to browse. But those movies are stagnant ... still photos as demo material. Kwaidan moves too much for a still to fully serve as an example. The format also works in its favor. As beautiful as it is to see, I might eventually get bored with 183 minutes of beauty. (There are alternate versions, including the original U.S. release, which simply removed one of the stories.) But the episodic nature of the film breaks those three hours into more manageable periods. And while this movie is slower, more patient, than the usual horror film, nonetheless the growing tension of each ghost story does mean you always want to know what is coming next (even though the plots don’t always make sense ... not sure they should, to be honest). It’s not easy for me to think of any movie that compares to Kwaidan ... at times I thought of Mario Bava’s anthology, Black Sabbath, but Bava’s style is nothing like Kobayashi’s here. Kwaidan is simply one of a kind, at least until someone points me in the direction of something similar. And I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is frequently so abstract I thought my Bluetooth earphones were broken. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

Pride (Matthew Warchhus, 2014). 7/10.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011). 7/10.


what i watched last week

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014). Another movie where my lack of advance knowledge probably increased my enjoyment. I try hard to avoid movies I don’t like, but I also try to watch things that are recommended from various sources, so I get a wide variety, and those sources aren’t always locked in to my preferences. The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. It made my Netflix queue because it was #423 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Well, this is one time the unknown film delivered. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. (I agree with a commenter who thought it odd that this movie wasn’t on the Film Fatales list of “Recent Women-Directed Films That Everyone Should See”.) The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone). 8/10.

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951). A bit of an oddity. Renoir, the Frenchman, teamed with Rumer Godden, the Englishwoman who had written the novel, for a film that took place in India. The movie is beautiful to look at (it’s Renoir’s first color film), and Renoir’s unstoppable humanism helps somewhat to turn the characters into people. But I found the film unable to move far outside the colonialist perspective ... the Indians are good people, but the movie isn’t really about them. The acting is highly variable; even if I thought The River was on the level of Renoir’s greatest films, the acting would prevent me from over-estimating its value. #173 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007). A perfectly competent crime thriller that somehow has gotten a lot of critical acclaim. Director James Gray is the recipient of a lot of that praise. I don’t see it. The story is unoriginal ... two brothers, one a cop, the other on the wrong side of the law, come together to defeat bad guys. There’s nothing wrong with the movie, but I felt like I was watching a remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller that had itself been influenced by American crime thrillers. Eva Mendes does good work, but it’s an exaggeration to say her character represents some triumph for women in “guy movies”. She isn’t dumped on, which is nice, but the real story here is about the two brothers ... she is secondary. Somehow, this is #815 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10. I actually preferred Gray’s romance drama, Two Lovers, which also starred Joaquin Phoenix (and Gwyneth Paltrow).

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, 2013). Silly thriller that delivers some scariness without ever making sense (which probably doesn’t matter anyway). Karen Gillan is very tall and very red-headed, and her characters is more than a little batty (albeit with good reason). Katee Sackhoff plays a supporting role ... since she’s the reason I watched this, I wish she had more screen time, but she’s fine whenever she turns up. This wouldn’t be a bad movie to watch for Halloween, but it’s no classic. 6/10.


by request: world war z (mark forster, 2013)

This was recommended by a new member of the request club, our new housemate Jen. As is often the case, it was less a request than a recommendation ... I think we were talking about zombie movies, and she mentioned that the zombies in World War Z didn’t move slow. I said I was thinking of watching it, and the next thing you know, I put it on my request list.

Should World War Z be compared to other big special effects extravaganzas (it was an enormous box office success)? Should it be compared to other zombie movies, or even to The Walking Dead, the current work that most impacts popular thinking about zombies? I’d say the latter. It brings a big budget to a small-budget genre, a bit like Terminator 2 after the cheapie Terminator. That budget brings potential added scope to the movie, but as with T2, the added budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee an improvement over the cheap originals like George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Director Mark Forster had shown the ability to work with small budgets (Monster’s Ball, $4 million) and large budgets (Quantum of Solace, $200 million). World War Z is definitely in the large budget range (another $200 million).

There are some things that the money makes possible. Brad Pitt, for one ... he’s fine in the heroic lead role. On the other hand, he isn’t notably better than the stars of the cheaper films, like, say, Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead ($6 million). (The movie also wastes Mireille Enos, burying her with the Wife Who Waits Back Home role.) The thing that Jen mentioned (the speed that the zombies move) is v.cool, but not innovative (see 28 Days Later, one of the first movies to have fast zombies). I want to say that a bigger budget allows for scenes like this film’s finest, when the zombie hordes build a mountain of bodies as they try (and eventually succeed) to scale an enormous wall. It’s quite impressive, perhaps the one jaw-dropping moment in the entire movie. But it’s also clearly CGI-driven, which is a technology available to film makers with lesser budgets.

World War Z has the feel and structure of an epic. But, as some critics have pointed out, the most suspenseful moments in the film come at the end, when the setting is confined, the number of zombies is limited, and we’re left with a simple scene that is far from epic, and all the better for it.

Speaking of the actual end of the film, it's a huge letdown.

You could point to the box office returns for World War Z ($540 million) and argue it is a very successful zombie movie. The truth is, though, that there are many zombie movies I’d show before World War Z, if I was having a zombie film festival. Depending on your definition of a zombie movie, that festival would include Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the Evil Dead series, Re-Animator, 28 Days/Weeks Later, and more. 6/10.


halloween horror friday

It’s going to take a couple of days to get back to speed, after a month of watching the Giants play October baseball. So there’s no Music Friday this week. I’m behind on TV … I haven’t watched a movie in a couple of weeks … I’ve got nothing. But it is Halloween, and so, taking my cue from MovieLens, I’ll offer a list o’ links. These are movies that MovieLens says fall into the “Horror” category, that I have rated at least 9 out of 10, and have written about on this blog. It’s a cheap way of cannibalizing myself. I’ll list them in chronological order.

Ones that I didn’t write about but which fit the other requirements:

  • Frankenstein (1931) 10/10
  • The Thing (From Another World) (1951) 9/10
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) 9/10
  • The Innocents (1961) 9/10
  • Jaws (1975) 10/10
  • Aliens (1986) 9/10
  • A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) 9/10
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 9/10