Monday, October 31, 2016

20 modern horror films -- personal faves

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom -- obsession and damage.
Last year, when I wrote a list of old-school horror filmfaves for Westword, I made a note to myself to continue that list, starting at the pivot from the ‘50s into the ‘60s when Peeping Tom and Psycho changed the horror film forever.

If the list looks odd (why In the Mouth of Madness and not Halloween? Where is Psycho and Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, Aliens, Scream, Evil Dead, etc.?), it’s because I restricted it to my personal favorites instead of hitting the points of general consensus and historical significance.

In this I am guided largely by my aversion to gore and hyperviolence onscreen. It is what it is, and I have soldiered manfully through many films even though they turned my stomach because they were brilliant – Dead Ringers and Society come to mind – but it’s not stuff I would run through again if I had the chance. I have little use for giallo, and much of Miike, Argento, Fulci, Roth and the like is lost on me.

A pretty odd dilemma for a horror-film fan, so perhaps these suggestions will help if, like me, you are a confirmed between-finger-peeker. Whether you might term some of these thrillers, or fantasies, or sci-fi, it’s all the same in result. These films scare the beejeesus out of me.

The Incredible Shrinking Man
Dir: Jack Arnold

It all begins here for me – the first first-person monster movie, and in that a major step forward. Typical guy Scott Carey (the underrated Grant Williams) is exposed to some kind of radioactive cloud while out on his boat – and he starts shrinking. He’s our narrator as well, and the story ties the viewer’s empathy squarely to Carey, who becomes a heroic figure even as his ability to register in “our” world vanishes. His final statement of self-affirmation, too, is remarkable.

Horror of Dracula (Dracula)
Dir: Terence Fisher

The first and to date only successful reboot of the Universal monster cycles begins here, in the beautiful Bray Studios of Hammer Films, in London. (The Curse of Frankenstein precedes it, but this film has a lot more resonance to it, doesn’t seem like a forced remake, as Curse sometimes does.) Three of Hammer’s horror stars, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough are here in a Technicolor reimaging of the Count as a rather more suave and commanding figure, with plenty of toothsome young actresses to bite. Soon the studio would churn out dozens of outlandish, scary titles we loved to watch.

Peeping Tom
Dir: Michael Powell

A mind-bending experience, very similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and released just before it. Something was in the air. For my money, Peeping Tom is vastly more frightening. Photographer Mark Lewis likes to take pictures of attractive women – as they watch while he kills them. The multilayered tale was so disturbing that it derailed Powell’s (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) career. The key is that the villain is portrayed as a victim, and the examination between desire and aggression, control and submission, the confused complicities of the audience, and the very nature of “making a picture” as an art form are all put into play here. Still an extremely uncomfortable movie to sit through.

The Innocents
Dir: Jack Clayton

The best adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a point-of-view tour de force. Is the governess (Deborah Kerr) nuts, or are perverse ghosts infecting her charges’ minds? After watching a dozen times, I still can’t decide. “It was only the wind, my dear.” WAAAH!

The Haunting
Dir: Robert Wise

Another great am-I-losing-it-or-did-I-just-see-something movie. (Robert Wise could make a great film in any genre, and almost did them all.) A psychic investigation goes wrong – a simple premise, but it’s played out with a patient sense of menace, with a rhythm that imperceptibly pulls you into the feelings and mental distortions of the protagonists.

The Masque of the Red Death
Dir: Roger Corman

Corman’s Poe adaptation cycle is wonderful, even given the lack of budget and time spent on them. He and screenwriter Richard Matheson (who also gave us I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and other seminal sci-fi and horror texts) created an exciting, odd, claustrophobic world usually presided over by the inimitable Vincent Price, that transmits the spirit if not the precise sense of Poe’s works. Here, as an out-and-out Satan worshipper, Price is at his most unrepentantly sadistic.

Dir: Masaki Kobayashi

A stylistically vibrant quartet of ghost stories. The horror anthology film originated with Dead of Night in 1945, and studios such as Britain’s Amicus made a ton of money from them – but this is the best. As beautiful as it is terrifying.

Planet of the Vampires
Dir: Mario Bava

Ridiculous, campy fun from the inventive Italian director. The title says it all, and an all-star cast (who reportedly couldn’t understand each other) fight the bloodsuckers in extremely stylized costumes and surroundings that proved influential for films such as Alien.

Dir: John Frankenheimer

What if you could live all over again, young and healthy, with all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained? That’s the Faustian premise of this deadpan piece of paranoia. It’s about the horror of having your dream come true, a particularly American problem.

Don’t Look Now
Dir: Nicolas Roeg
It’s a harrowing film about loss, memory, identity, fate, and communication. Set in a wildly edited world of flashback and flashforwards, a couple grieving the death of their child try to put their lives back together. It’s a heart-rending view, and Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are great in it.

The Wicker Man
Dir: Robin Hardy

The idea that there is an older, more powerful religion underneath the trappings and niceties of current theologies is a constant in fantastic fiction. It’s the vision of it out in the open, relaxed and unashamed of its realities – and necessities – that’s so disturbing here. Everybody on Summerisle is in on what’s happening save for the crusading Sergeant Howie and the audience. That calm progression towards the unthinkable at the film’s end is a soul-crushing experience.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Dir: Nicolas Gessner

Rynn Jacobs is 13, and lives with her father. But nobody seems to have met him. Is everything all right? In the hands of Jodie Foster, Rynn is just fine – until a snooping neighbor and her pedophile son (an impossibly creepy Martin Sheen) start poking around. This horror classic is also an introvert’s fantasy – everything’s fine, just leave me alone!

The Howling
Dir: Joe Dante

Certainly the jauntiest werewolf movie ever made, it’s witty, chockful of references to all things lycanthropic, rips along at a lovely pace, and includes some of SFX/makeup creator Rob Bottin’s best work, all of it pre-CGI, of course.

The Lair of the White Worm
Dir: Ken Russell

There is a tinge of horror underlying every movie the flamboyant and provocative Russell made, a disconnect with reality that defines all his main characters. In truth his The Devils, a film still largely unfindable in the United States in its original cut, is more disturbing. Still, this Bram Stoker adaptation is blasphemous, ridiculous, gratuitously gory, and very enjoyable.

Lady in White
Dir: Frank LaLoggia

Death and disaster invade Norman Rockwell country, as an old murder comes to light and sympathetic characters are found to have disturbing pasts. This beautifully filmed ghost story is balanced between poles of light and darkness.

In the Mouth of Madness
Dir: John Carpenter

Carpenter’s contributions to horror are limitless, having created the template of the slasher film with Halloween, and gems such as They Live and Escape from New York. His ‘apocalypse trilogy’ of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and this film created an imaginary universe in which doom was unavoidable, nothing was trustworthy, and meaning drained away into a sinkhole of despair and annihilation. Sounds like a hoot, no? Madness goes furthest in asserting the transience of the veneer of consensual reality, and the fragility of the human mind.

Sleepy Hollow
Dir: Tim Burton

Though Tim Burton is seen as the natural inheritor of the Gothic sensibilities of American cinema, he’s made surprisingly few straight horror films. This comes closest. Though it’s an adaptation of the classic Washington Irving tale, it’s full of Burton’s steampunk sensibilities, and references to other horror greats such as Bava and Fisher. The control of the in-studio shooting makes this one of the best art-directed modern horror films.

Dir: David Cronenberg

Cronenberg has done more for modern horror than anyone on this list. The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly . . . and on and on. Centered firmly on body horror, Cronenberg manifests all the cultural dislocations of our time in the bodies of his protagonists, literally pulling them into strange new shapes, obliterating their consciousnesses, submitting them to the will of a brutal new order. Here, he mixes the unreal and real so thoroughly that the film is a nightmare in itself, a deadly locked room from which no one can escape.

Dir: Terry Gilliam

Death and madness are the high points of this jarring exploration of abandonment. A young girl loses her father and mother and, trapped in the middle of nowhere, falls into relationships with more damaged souls. A terrifying, dark poem set in bleached Texas sunlight.

Pan’s Labyrinth
Dir: Guillermo del Toro

The present master of horror has many great movies to his credit, but this is his most magical. It’s a fatalistic fairy tale, and connects to the horrors of everyday life – Spain in 1944 – strongly enough to make its meanings clear. Del Toro’s vision gives palpable heft and believability to his most extreme imaginings – as though he were showing us real species heretofore undescribed.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The NFR Project #35: William S. Hart, cowboy hero -- in 'The Bargain' (1914)

The Bargain
Dir: Reginald Barker
Prod: Thomas Ince
Scr: William H Clifford, Ince
Phot: Robert Newhard, Joe August (uncred)
Premiere: Dec. 3, 1914
70 min.

William S. Hart was the first great cowboy hero of film. Tall, grim, and melancholy, he was a strangely Hamlet-like figure playing a rough, tough protagonist; but it was this mixture of deep feeling and freewheeling action that made his movies interesting, and imprinted him on the public consciousness.

"The Bargain" -- the epic landscape.
This, his third Hollywood venture, is his breakthrough film. Long a respected Broadway actor specializing in Shakespeare (he was the original Messala in the stage adaptation of “Ben-Hur,” real horses and all), Hart thought he’d try his luck in the movies at the age of nearly 50. Hart had traveled in the Old West as a boy, and the way the movies portrayed cowboy life struck him as deeply inauthentic. He thought he could do better, much better. Fortunately, Thomas Ince saw something in him. Both men were right.

The girl, Hart, the father.
Ince was the first great film producer, a massive and tasteful success who conceived of putting all aspects of film production and distribution in one physical location. He did so at the site of an old ranch at Sunset and Pacific Coast Highway, eventually ruling over 18,000 acres in the Pacific Highlands dubbed “Inceville.” The movie studio was born, and Ince lived in a house literally above it all.

Ince’s brilliance served Hart well. Westerns had already proved profitable. The first cowboy star was “Broncho Billy” Anderson – originally Max Aronson from Atlanta. Broncho Billy starred in dozens of popular short films, but he was a figure of convenience. If the scenario dictated that he play Billy as the hero, he would; if it was Billy as the badman, so be it. He had a name but no persona, that set of rules about a character that give it integrity.

Stolid suffering
Hart was different. He had literal stature and his face was classic, with sharp cheekbones, a Roman nose, and a soulful look in his eyes. Here, as in most of his subsequent films, Hart plays the “good bad man,” the outlaw redeemed by suffering, a woman’s love, and/or the word of God. While not blatantly Christian, Hart’s films seem as much moral fables as they do shoot-‘em-ups.

 Here’ Hart is Jim Stokes, the Two-Gun Man, a clever bandit who, wounded on the run from the posse, staggers to the Brent ranch, falling in love with the daughter there (and she him). Fortunately, the traditional donkey-riding eccentric minister shows up, and they are wed. Jim wants to return the money he stoles from his last holdup, and goes to town – where he is promptly captured.

Stumbling through purgatory
Again fortunately, the sheriff loses all the stolen money at the roulette table, and he and Jim make a deal. Jim robs the gambling hall, gives the sheriff back the money, and is set free with his beloved. It’s a simple story, but it works.

Director Reginald Barker was one of Ince’s stable of dependable directors; here, he gives Hart the time he needs to emote during a scene, a very slow kind of take opposite to the convention screen acting of the time, sharp and strong. Hart is melodramatic – there is nearly always a tension in his stance. He keeps his face still, almost a deadpan, and it invests his underplaying with intensity, as though something might suddenly happen. There’s almost a feminine energy in his low-key suffering; at other times he seems like some hypermasculine forest spirit; a vengeful cowboy ghost.

Ince’s good eye for talent includes using two great early cinematographers here, in each of their first films – Robert Newhard and Joe August. August, particularly, is known for his outdoor work and his low-level lighting achievements – tricks he learned out of necessity. There are many beautiful compositions in “The Bargain” – valley views centered on Hart’s roving figure, textured rock walls through which he wanders, and equating his heroic profile with the heroic landscape behind it.

Surprisingly, here’s the earliest 360-degree pan as well. Most think it to be in Buster Keaton’s short “One Week” in 1920, but here a little over 38 minutes in, the Border Rest Saloon and Gambling Hall gets the full once-over, the adventurous cameramen somehow cranking the projector and stepping through a full circle at the same time, while the actors stayed focused on establishing action in the background. It’s a remarkable move for its time. Perhaps the rarity of the film has kept this from being noticed to date.

Hart would make 70 films, most Westerns, through 1925. Joe August shot more than 40 of them. Ince died mysteriously on his yacht in 1924. The Western continued to grow in popularity, but with the rise of Hart, it began to grow in depth and complexity, too.

Hart was the original "strong, silent" type. He worked the paradox of, one one hand, being a manly ideal -- a "man" in Western culture being a heroic one who fights and dares, wins and loses -- and being human, a flawed, feeling person. It's a dynamic that would inform the performances of his cowboy-hero descendants such as Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: an early cliffhanger, ‘The Exploits of Elaine.’