Friday, 24 July 2015

Backcountry (2014)

aka Blackfoot Trail


Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are a handsome couple heading out for a backwoods adventure. Alex, who has moved disinterestedly between professions and is currently working as a landscape gardener, has experience as a woodsman. He’s not so quietly happy to have Jenn, an articulate and confident lawyer, depending on him for a change. He intends to take her to a remote, beautiful lake deep in a national park along the so-called Blackfoot Trail. A park ranger (Nicholas Campbell) warns Alex that the trail has been closed, but Alex presses ahead without telling Jenn. At their first campsite at the edge of the high country, Alex gets talking with an Irish trekker, Brad, (Eric Balfour) who claims to be a trail guide in the park, and shares the fish he’s caught with the couple. Charged masculine bullishness and paranoia arcs between Alex and Brad, leading to a confrontation, but Brad eventually backs off when Alex responds to his prods with grim-faced honesty, and departs. Alex leads Jenn on to the wilderness, and when he saws the paw print of a bear on the trail, takes her on a detour along a cruder trail. Alex’s certainty about the lie of the land begins to falter in the face of strange landscapes and gnawed deer carcasses left by the trail, as well as an injured toe that makes his progress doggedly painful. Finally, when he thinks they’ve reached their destination, the couple are instead confronted by a vista of wilderness, and the lingering tensions between them erupt, as Jenn, infuriated, accosts Alex as a loser who’s endangered them through his attempts to show off, until he sheepishly reveals the reason he was so intent on making the journey against all obstacles, as he hoped to propose to her at the lake. The couple soon realise however that being lost and hungry count amongst their lesser worries, as a large, cautious but formidable black bear is tracking them through the forest.


I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu watching Backcountry, the debut feature directing work of actor Adam MacDonald, who stars alongside Peregrym in the TV series Rookie Blue. The feeling of familiarity is not entirely MacDonald’s fault. Along with Into the Grizzly Maze (aka Red Machine, 2014), Backcountry is the second killer bear movie released lately amongst a recent spate of man-vs-nature dramas. Such works hark back to the days of backwoods horror flicks like Grizzly (1976), Claws (1977), and Prophecy (1979), as well as unavoidable precursors The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1975). Here there’s also the influence of more starkly serious, allegorical takes on the dangers of venturing off the beaten track, exemplified by Deliverance (1972). In terms of dramatic method and focus, Backcountry closely resembles Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek and also recalls Jeremy Lovering's In Fear (both 2014). As with those films, MacDonald takes a young couple on a cross-country adventure that segues into violent ordeal, as a means of exploring both the narrow line between civilised mores and primal instability, and also the points of fracture in contemporary male-female relationships, as opposed to the homosocial focus of Deliverance and most other, earlier survivalist tales. Like Goldthwait, MacDonald signals something slapdash under the male member of the couple’s self-assumed aura of prowess early on by showing him acting goofy behind the wheel of a car, and acerbically describes the ritual back-to-nature skinny-dipping, supposedly an expression of free-spirit bravado, as a challenge laced with wordlessly acknowledged implications. Doubtless, this is an interesting coincidence of intention, revealing something consistent going on in the minds of directors dabbling in low-budget horror at the moment. Where Goldthwait’s film was droll and eccentric in leading up to its cruel punch-lines and Into the Grizzly Maze a fun-cheesy throwback to a ‘80s style monster movie, Backcountry is rather intensely serious and determined in its desire to articulate its ideas to the point of being overdrawn in places, in spite of its minimalist storytelling and cast. 


MacDonald was apparently inspired by a real-life event, but he doesn’t settle for mere docu-drama effect, and goes beyond making the characters blank avatars for normality faced with the unknown, attempting instead to study the way situational and character dynamics fuse and combust. MacDonald amplifies the background strains on Alex and Jenn by making them disparate avatars of class as well as woodland experience and gender norms, and privileges the viewer in noting Alex’s various decisions to ignore or tactically avoid signs of threat. Alex’s uneasy square-off against interloping Brad, whose blend of aggressive bonhomie and fishy traits – his Oyrish brogue contradicts his claims to have grown up in these here parts – strains too much to achieve a note of tense “ambiguity” whilst underlining the readiness of these men-folk to snap into time-honoured stances of competition before the worthy mate. MacDonald offers up Alex as exemplar of macho arrogance still subsisting under the veneer of fun-loving hipster, grazing against the outer edges of schematic issue-mongering: the mansplainer as villain. MacDonald undercuts and complicates this to a certain extent when the object of Alex’s emphatic focus is revealed, comprehending if not absolving his mistakes. Alex is allowed a certain luckless pathos once his hopes are dashed and the gaps in his relationship cruelly exposed, and also given him a least a glint of nobility in his hopes of expanding Jenn’s game but constricted experience and granting their union a reference point to something outside the usual proclivities of urbanite coupling and its place within the flux of modern life. Alex’s attempts to improvise prove his undoing, however, in the face of the dark side of the commune-with-nature fantasy and the reality of inimical forces lurking in the woods, the very thing civilisation has been created to hold at bay. 


Backcountry is exceptionally well-made, with MacDonald making use of hand-held camerawork and spacy audio-visual effects that could have become laboured clichés but instead prove judiciously handled. MacDonald backs up his sometimes over-determined themes with solidly-crafted storytelling, with plotting that functions effectively on the level of real-world logic as well as illustrated nightmare: from the warning that the trail is closed, to the tell-tail stains of blood on Alex’s socks from his mangled toe that attract the bear, and the various ill-fated moves he makes to avoid trouble instead exacerbating the predicament, MacDonald deploys detail with sparing but cumulative effect. A gruelling physical challenge in climbing down a teetering waterfall met late in the film is cleverly anticipated in earlier dialogue, teasing out another notion the film is fascinated by, the moment where rhetorical knowledge crashes headlong into practical application. MacDonald offers a mirroring scene to the moment in Jurassic World (2015) where the heroine led on a monster with a flare, swapping that film’s comedic approach for the sight of Jenn stumbling in the night, her flare the only barrier between her and the teeth in the dark, but both films are tellingly fascinated by the spectacle of simultaneous exterior exposure and emerging interior armament in ill-starred women, far out of their depth but eventually proving hardy and capable.  


Most importantly, when it comes to the crunch (so to speak), Backcountry swerves from charting the ephemeral play of human relationships to outright horror with a sense of sudden, blunt, unstoppable calamity. Here, Backcountry, although not always so delicate in getting to the point, suddenly achieves a powerful effect, one more contemporary horror films ought to emulate, in not simply offering suspense or gore pyrotechnics but a sense of the disorientating brutality of utterly inimical situations, and confronting the audience with a truly awful proposition: what is it like to watch (and hear) your lover being consumed by a wild animal? In this regard Backcountry does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the classic films it evokes, whilst also in some ways daring to go past them. Backcountry distils the essence of the genre, a singular, hideous pivot of fate that comes and goes, perhaps with a test passed, perhaps not, but with the only assurance being that assurance is lost. 


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Wake of the Red Witch (1948)


This unusually classy Republic Pictures production, adapted from a book by Garland Roark, is loaded with all the gaudy trinkets of an exotic adventure tale – windjammers, shipwrecks, pearl diving, tiki gods, hula dancers, murder, intrigue, hints of the supernatural, and deadly cephalopods. But Wake of the Red Witch has a peculiar atmosphere that distinguishes it from the sprawl of such tales made in Hollywood back in the day, including obvious precursor Reap the Wild Wind (1942). Loaded with literary ideas, it also fits rather neatly into the late ‘40s noir zone it was released amidst, with an emphasis on antiheroes, psychological fixations and manias, and fascist power expressed through capitalist will, as well unusual structuring that emphasises a densely layered sequence of motives. Director William Ludwig had been making films since the silent era: he handled several films starring Wayne, including WW2 actioner The Fighting Seabees (1944) and the much clunkier anti-commie thriller Big Jim McLain (1952), whilst his last feature work was The Black Scorpion (1957), an occasionally overripe monster movie that nonetheless has an inky, effectively nightmarish texture. The first half-hour of this film is particularly odd, as borderline-Sadean ship captain Rall (Wayne) supervises a punishment devised to chastise anyone who fights on board his vessel: the two quarrellers are forced to pound each-other to bloody pulps. 


When mate Rosen (Gig Young), a hastily signed-on crewman unfamiliar with Rall’s methods, speaks up to end the bout, Rall tests his mettle by threatening to have him locked in the brig. Rall draws him instead into his plot to wreck their ship, the Red Witch, a vessel belonging to the ubiquitous shipping line Batjack. The Red Witch carries a load of gold belonging to the line and its shareholders, and Rall ostensibly plans to return the wreck later and retrieve the treasure. To pull off this crime, Rall and Rosen conspire to fool another senior member of the crew, solid company man Mr. Loring (Jeff Corey), about their position. As intended, the Red Witch crashes onto a reef and sinks beneath the waves. Rosen soon finds that he’s signed up for a far more tangled melodrama than he thought. Rall’s conspiracy brings down the shadow of Batjack’s wrath upon them. The company’s sinister owner Mayrant Sidneye, has a reputed penchant for malevolent and relentless payback against enemies, and when, at a court of enquiry, Batjack declines to have Rall and Rosen prosecuted for their actions, they’re left to suspect they’re being saved for a more personal and exacting lesson. Rall and Rosen subsist as pearlers and fishermen for months whilst waiting for a chance to return to the wreck, all the while sensing Sidneye’s manifold spies across the South Pacific. Finally, following a chart sold to them purporting to reveal a pearling bed at a remote island, the men find they’ve stepped directly into a well-laid trap arranged by Sidneye (Luther Adler) himself. 


The paranoid, cryptic atmosphere of the first third is distinctive, as Batjack is described as an organisation of grand power and menace that can deceive men even within the vast reaches of the Pacific, like some distant precursor to the monolithic organisations of The Parallax View (1974) or Alien (1979), whilst Sidneye is made to seem, in abstract, a figure of Mabuse-like spidery control. This movement resolves with images loaded with lingering, eerie power – the Red Witch sinking silently under the water, a wall of spikes rising from the sea to entrap Rall’s lugger, and Sidneye being carried out of the jungle as a crippled potentate by his native minions, to cluck over Rall’s position with satisfied largesse. Rosen is tantalised by Sidneye’s niece Teleia Van Schreeven (Adele Mara), who warns Rosen about the danger he’s in lest Sidneye’s mood spoil. Sidneye makes a ploy to win Rosen’s loyalty instead, and launches into a lengthy explanation by way of flashbacks as to how he and Rall first met, revealing the deeper purposes behind Rall’s attempt to wound Sidneye and his associates financially. Wake of the Red Witch becomes more conventional here on, but only relatively, as it depicts Rall and Sidneye’s relationship as a kind of lethal romance. Each man embodies qualities the other prizes. Rall has the masculine swagger and rakish gutsiness, Sidneye the readiness to treat anyone and anything as a function of his will and remake the world to suit himself. Of course, a woman was the fulcrum for their love-hate relationship. 


In Sidneye’s account, he came across Rall set adrift by annoyed Pacific islanders, a crucified he-man with sharks circling to gnaw the meat from his bones. Rall seduced Sidneye with the promise of riches as he would Rosen, drawing the shipping magnate to another island with the lure of pearls. Angelique (Gail Russell), the daughter of the island’s French governor Desaix (Henry Daniell), became the object of both men’s affections. Rall, believed holy by the islanders but loathed by Desaix, battled the giant octopus that lorded over the pearling bed and killed it, winning a fortune in pearls which he gave to Sidneye in exchange for mastery of the Red Witch. But when Desaix tried to denounce and shoot Rall, Rall socked him and accidentally knocked him into the natives’ ritual pyre, killing him. Unsurprisingly, this destroyed his romance with Angelique, who married Sidneye instead. Teleia later fills Rosen in on some of the details Sidneye judiciously excluded, including that later Rall and Angelique met again and found their love still potent, and finally she withered away under Sidneye’s thumb, dying like Cathy Earnshaw in her interloping lover’s arms. But the men’s resumed warfare still retains a weird exaltation of mutual jealousy and adversarial challenge. A bomb planted to disable the lugger by one of Sidneye’s underlings proves more powerful than Sidneye’s desired end of crippling the boat required: the device destroys the boat, almost killing Rall and the rest of the crew just after Rall has convinced Rosen to stay behind with Teleia. But the crew survive and Rall returns to taunt the almost delighted Sidneye, leading to a climax in which Rall agrees to retrieve the sunken gold from the precariously perched wreck of the Red Witch.


Overtones of Bronte-esque eternal love and morbid passion blend with the more intellectualised approach to the same themes that so compelled D. H. Lawrence, his interest in the complex intersection of primal urge, psychology, and social structure – Sidneye is finally entrapped like Lord Chatterley in a wheelchair as metaphor for impotence before Angelique and Rall’s continuing ardour, wrestling with the same schism between instinct and control, naturalness and artificiality. Rall and Sidneye’s mutual fixation is explicated complete with Teleia’s suggestion that Sidneye remade Rall as an apt pupil in the school of harsh masterdom, echoed in the same way Rall tries to court Rosen for the same ends. Sidneye is less an overtly destructive villain than a man with great gifts for accumulating life’s successes and slowly throttling them, finally reducing himself to crippled husk, whilst Rall achieves veritable demigod status amongst the islanders for conquering the octopus god, and like many a demigod of classical literature has a fatal flaw. Rall’s neurotic propensity for violence, best stoked to a fine pitch when sodden in alcohol, gains him legendary status but also continually sabotages his best gifts and intentions: he cannot operate cool just as Sidneye cannot operate hot. The unexpected complexity of these major characters as individuals contrasts their sharp relief as products of different cultural viewpoints. Rall is natural man, Sidneye a by-product of civilisation, each masters of their own world and bound in conflict and envy to duel in remote places where neither has immediate advantage. Interestingly, Teleia embodies the alternative as product of two worlds. Ludwig casually undercuts a well-worn cliché when Rosen stumbles upon Teleia bathing nude in a tropical lagoon: she emerges totally unconcerned that he copped an eyeful, and later dons full Victoriana ensemble for dining without a blink of dissonance, a female equivalent of Burroughs original concept of Tarzan. She ultimately becomes not prize and pawn of their duel like Angelique but catalyst for understanding them both as strong but failed experiments in human evolution. 


The problem with Wake of the Red Witch is closely related to the qualities that make it unusual. The odd structure and the complexities of the drama conflict with basic generic niceties of suspense and thrills. Much of the story unfolds in recounted scenes, which means that the narrative lacks urgency, never quite boiling over with the kind of psychodrama it promises, and there’s a lack of action before a finale that lacks a strong stake. Rall risks his life thanks to his own brinkmanship, in a sequence that filches the last reel of Reap the Wild Wind without the elements which made that conclusion exciting. Wake of the Red Witch is too rich to be a merely diverting piece of cine-exotica, but on the other hand, it's too busy to become a truly effective psychological narrative on the level of Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship (1943), to which it does feel spiritually connected. The result is left perched between two poles, of paperback novel romantic adventure and genuinely Conradian saga of interior drama revealed through exterior travails, whilst Ludwig’s evident gifts for striking vision-mongering is only present in fits and spurts. But the film builds to another haunting shot, of Wayne’s face distorting through registers of death-terror and dreamy acceptance as his diving helmet fills with water, an almost Kenneth Anger-like moment of perfervidly numinous imagery. Sidneye rises to his feet Strangelove-like in his shock at losing his spurring antagonist/devotee, whilst one sea salt murmurs “She finally got him!”, meaning the ruined ship claimed her betraying master. The last moments aim for Wagnerian horizons as Rall and Angelique are glimpsed riding the wispy spirit of the Red Witch for the setting sun. Wayne gives a good performance, working up something of the same irate, gnarled intensity that would later serve him so well on The Searchers (1956) when Rall is gripped by his irrational side. The project must have left a mark on the actor, who went on to name his production company Batjac. Meanwhile, according to legend, the giant octopus Wayne fights here was the same one Edward D. Wood Jr stole for use in Bride of the Monster (1953)…


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Terminator: Genisys (2015)


The trailers for Terminator: Genisys suggested it might prove emblematic of much that’s wrong with contemporary “big” cinema, offering little more than a procession of recreated beats and call-backs to James Cameron’s beloved 1984 film The Terminator, laced with shots of ageing Arnold Schwarzenegger and a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, and replete with revelations that all but spoilt what surprises the new edition had in store. The cumulative result looked like a hermetically sealed blend of cynical special effects action and nostalgic references for a middle-aged audience to a model film that was defined by a bristling confidence in it very own self. Cameron’s film was the B-movie that could, a triumph for craftsmanship and invention on a limited budget that gave Cameron a singularly successful career. It kicked off a wayward film franchise that Cameron himself continued first with the prototypical CGI-era blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but then was driven into the ground by hacky continuations Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and the god-awful Terminator: Salvation (2009). Terminator: Genisys follows a now-familiar pattern, also plied by this year’s Jurassic World but first worked with deliberation by Hollywood cinema with Halloween H20 (1998), of not exactly retconning a pile-up of haphazard sequels out of existence, but effectively ignoring them in an attempt to get back to basics. To my surprise, however, Terminator: Genisys proves rather more resourceful and unpretentiously enthusiastic in its errant attempts to wring some new life out of this material than I expected. For its first half, at least, Genisys fiddles entertainingly with the settled continuity and conceptual basis of Cameron’s model, with director Alan Taylor condensing and inverting series tropes. After all, Cameron’s original suggested a complex approach to time and consequence, with the future of Skynet only “one possible future,” opening up the possibilities for a more complex zone of interacting realities.


Thus Taylor kicks off with futuristic action as John Connor (who, having gone through incarnations of Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Christian Bale, has now settled on the form of Justin Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) triumphing over the forces of Skynet and penetrating one of the evil AI’s inner sanctums. John, knowing thanks to his mother Sarah’s accounts what to expect, zeroes in on Skynet’s time machine, and calls for volunteers to chase down the terminator that’s just been sent back in time to kill Sarah. But as Kyle is swept up in the time portal, he glimpses John being attacked by a secreted terminator, and is wracked by ghost-memories as he plunges into the past. That past soon proves both familiar and strange: the original T-800 model terminator, whilst encountering the punks outside Griffith Observatory (sadly, no Bill Paxton in their midst this time), is confronted by another T-800, this one older and in the company of Sarah (Emilia Clarke, no relation to Justin), who guns the malevolent cyborg down with an armour-piercing round. When Kyle arrives, he in turn is attacked by a T-1000 terminator disguised as a policeman (played mostly by Byung-hun Lee). Two real cops try to arrest Kyle but the T-1000 kills one and forces Kyle to hide along with rookie cop O’Brien (Wayne Bastrup). The fun of these scenes lies in how Taylor fastidiously recreates the visuals of Cameron’s original whilst also subverting them. Sarah sweeps into action, already a hardened warrior in her still-babyfaced years, whilst Kyle is confused by both being rescued by his nominal charge and the spectacle of a good terminator, whom Sarah refers to as ‘Pops’. The unstoppable forces of the first two films stalk our heroes, but prove vulnerable to well-laid traps. 


Taylor, who once upon a time made the likeable, low-key comedies Palookaville (1995) and The Emperor's New Clothes (2001), came to this project from TV’s Game of Thrones, which stars Clarke, by way of Thor: The Dark World (2013), his first blockbuster-scaled work. Taylor doesn’t yet show any great distinctiveness as a filmmaker in this realm, and he’s only a competent orchestrator of action. His established working relationship with Emilia Clarke perhaps helped make her Sarah one of the film’s best qualities however. Aiming for the mid-ground between Linda Hamilton’s milquetoast first performance and brutalised, raw-nerved Judgment Day characterisation (which has been canonised in the action heroine pantheon but I’ll admit I always found a bit hard to take), Emilia’s Sarah is gritty but still has an immature, vulnerable streak, whose powerful attachment to her cyborg patriarch has partly rescued her from the darkest dimensions of her fated identity. Through some strange crossover of timelines, an attempt by Skynet to kill Sarah as a child saw the good terminator who is now ‘Pops’ sent to save her, but he was too late to save her parents, and so ‘Pops’ became her surrogate father. Here screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier remember that theme from Judgment Day where the T-800 became something like that for young John, and amplify it. I recall how strong that note was in Judgment Day: a friend I saw it with as a kid, who had a less than agreeable home life, wept bitter tears by the fiery conclusion because his own father wasn’t as upright as Schwarzenegger’s fiercely protective robot. I appreciate that Taylor and his writers understood this element. As with the swivel of the Tyrannosaurus from villain to hero in the original Jurassic Park (1992), a touch Jurassic World honoured effectively, there’s something emotionally punchy about the idea of a monster reprogrammed as guardian, our id-beasts turned into paternal spirits. Sarah also, like her son in the future, knows her life as ordained prophecy, and thus occupies an amusingly similar space to the viewer as someone who knows the plot and thinks she’s past spoilers. Meanwhile both she and Kyle wrestle with the notion of their supposedly fated romance which will result in John’s birth – as well as perhaps cause Kyle’s death. That they’re now much more similar people than the pair who met in the first film is exposed as the two hard-headed warriors bicker and clash over tactics and purposes. 


The film’s strongest image reminded me a little of the techno-mystical-sexual finale of Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979), as Kyle and Sarah step naked together to ride a home-made time machine into the future, a moment laced with a sense of wispy eroticism that again expands on a note sounded by Cameron, in his concept of such travel as a form of birth bringing beings naked and defencless into the world with “white light (and) pain” as Kyle described. Kyle and Sarah step into the machine as individuals and emerge remade as a unit. The plot involves sarcastically diegetic rebooting – Sarah wants to stop off in 1997, canonical start of Judgment Day, whilst Kyle, left with a set of dual memories by possibly moving through a branching point in two different dimensions, insists they go to 2017 instead. This proves the right call, as all the timeline tinkering has seen Skynet’s inception pushed back to that date, when the delayed project is being pushed ahead by the son of Miles Dyson (Courtney B. Vance, wasted), Danny (Dayo Okeniyi), with the new name of Genisys, a new multi-platform AI operating system for the world’s computers (making this the second film of the year, after Kingsmen: The Secret Service, to tie the end of the world to a software download). But there are more players in this game than just our scrappy anarcho-futurists: Skynet, who has embodied itself in the lanky shape of former Doctor Who Matt Smith (who is now getting airs and styling himself as Matthew Smith), in the future, has stepped up its game with an ability to turn humans into terminators via nanobots. Skynet has assimilated John in this fashion, and sent him back as emissary and facilitator of his birth.



John-bot reaches out to his perverse family, his mother and father who are younger than him and constructed brother/son/grandfather, with a desire to unite all of them, albeit in realms digital-molecular rather than some Society (1989)-esque flesh massing. Possibilities lie in such motifs, particularly the mean but ingenious notion of John Connor, the great enemy of Skynet, joining it however unwillingly in a way that changes Skynet’s own motivation and sense of purpose. Frustratingly, Genisys backs away from its better ideas, and retreats into a very ordinary second half of bland, familiar action fare, like a set-piece in a school bus dangling off the Golden Gate Bridge that owes a lot to the RV sequence in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and the race-against-time attempt to blow up Skynet interchangeable with five dozen other race-against-time attempts to blow something up in action flicks over the years. Taylor suggests a good touch with performers developed in years of TV work, and he tries hard to give the film body through the by-play of the actors, but he doesn't have anything like Cameron's feel for crowd-pleasing. It goes without saying, too, that Genisys, like all of the previous sequels, can’t touch the original’s specific mood of blasted, grimy, bleary survivalism, in which Kyle was an ill-shaven, perma-sweaty future-hobo improvising his defence against an evil that, although animated with less sophistication, was far more threatening than just about anything CGI cinema has offered so far. Reese was a worn and tattered knight, afflicted with PTSD and a definably post-Vietnam variety of haunted grace and guilt (a definite part of Cameron's world-view that would later inflect Aliens, 1986, and Avatar, 2009). Now, Reese is just a slightly uptight straight-arrow, quickly making pals with fellow marines across the ages: warrior protagonists have become the flat dullards they were in ‘50s B-movies after 15 years of the War on Terror. Courtney, who had previously seemed best employed playing squarehead assholes as in the Divergent films and contributed to the worst revival by far of beloved ‘80s fare, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), does better by the role than I expected (by which I mean, compared to nothing), but still seems callow and lumpen compared to Michael Biehn’s wiry intensity and pathos. 


Genisys also dangles interesting plot elements – the mysterious origin of ‘Pops’ and his programming, and O’Brien, who turns up in 2017 played now by J.K. Simmons, now an elder detective raving about time-travelling robots and happy to be vindicated by the sudden reappearance of Sarah and Kyle – but does very little with them. I’m not sure if such loose ends and extraneous flourishes are left for the sake of further proposed instalments, or represent haphazard development and scriptwriting. Moreover, although obviously intended as a revival for Schwarzenegger as well as a victory lap in returning to his most familiar role following a handful of underperforming post-gubernatorial vehicles, he’s actually given very little to do. ‘Pops’ is more often than not serving as comic relief rather than unstoppable romper-stomper. Perhaps that's inevitable: Schwarzenegger is no spring chicken any more, and he was never the nimblest of action stars. Sabotage (2014) suggested a way for him to age with gravitas as well as stature, but he can’t really do that here: it’s telling that the CGI-decorated “young” Ahnuld often looks more convincing than the actual man. Although Schwarzenegger’s peculiar cachet as a movie star is still worth a hundred FX shots, part of me wondered if the film wouldn’t have been far sleeker and more functional if the action had just been left to Sarah and Kyle, particularly as Emilia Clarke has a winning way with a rocket launcher. Many commentaries on Genisys have knifed it with aplomb, and to a certain extent that’s understandable, as it remains true that it exemplifies much that’s wrong with current Hollywood. But there are qualities to it I can’t entirely dismiss, and which add up to a passable day at the movies. Although it’s certainly a product of the current obsession with branded, recycled franchise cinema, Genisys actually feels more like the kind of sequel that used to be made back in the ‘80s, a loose, odd assemblage of ideas and recurring elements the filmmakers threw together half out of mercenary desire and half out of what-the-hell affection for the material. 


Saturday, 4 July 2015

She (1935)


H. Rider Haggard, today a faded but still legible name on the scroll of beloved fantastical writers, was a hugely successful author in his day, a writer of no great style who nonetheless had such commercial and creative reach he can only be compared to a combination of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Joss Whedon today. His works like King Solomon’s Mines are perennials that helped define the popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century, and She: A History of Adventure still rides high on the list of all-time biggest selling works of fiction. Movie impresario Merian C. Cooper, fresh off his own colossal, zeitgeist-defining hit King Kong (1933), chose She as a follow-up, whilst his partner in filmmaking and globetrotting Ernest B. Schoedsack branched off to make The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). The attraction of the material for Cooper is obvious, as She offers the same précis as Kong: adventure into unknown quarters, encounters with isolated barbarian cultures, and an ultimate confrontation with a bizarre and powerful force of super-nature that stands as metaphor for the simultaneous stature and fragility of the life force, whilst also invoking weird erotic dimensions. She was not another success for Cooper and RKO, and in fact lost a chunk of change on initial release, a failure blamed mostly on the casting of Helen Gahagan, stage actress and opera singer, in the vital title role, resulting in a one-time-only movie career. She was thought lost for a time, perhaps because Gahagan had tried to buy up all the copies when she made a run for Congress. 


A print was eventually located in Buster Keaton’s movie collection, and since then has occasionally been celebrated as a camp-schlock classic in a manner similar to Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944), which itself filches Haggard’s tales. Haggard wrote five novels about Ayesha, or “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed,” a woman blessed with immortality and mystical powers after bathing in a mysterious flame of life, including one where she meets up with Haggard’s other great character, Allan Quatermain. This adaptation, co-written like Kong by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, follows the first book closely but combined elements from some of the follow-ups, chiefly to create a solid romantic rivalry. She is not, as some would have it, a bad film; it’s an entertaining, occasionally striking, ungainly achievement, with problems that chiefly stem from an incapacity to translate the source material into effective cinema as well as casting. The film starts with Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott), an American offshoot of a well-heeled English clan, called over the pond to visit his dying grandfather John (Samuel S. Hinds). Leo is fascinated by his close resemblance to one of his ancestors, another John Vincey, whose portrait hangs above the fireplace. His grandfather explains this John’s special place in family history as a great explorer who, along with his wife, ventured into the frigid wastes of Siberia and did not return. His wife turned up years later in Poland, wretched and dying, clutching a golden relic depicting a woman standing in fire. Grandfather John, with his friend archaeologist Horace Holly, entrusts Leo with the mission of retracing his ancestor’s mission, to see if the myth the relic encodes, of a flame of eternal life-giving properties, really exists, in the hope the elderly man can stave off death. 


Leo and Holly travel together up to the Arctic fringes, and, unable to find anyone willing to cart their gear north, cut a deal with frontier supplier and guide Dugmore (Lumsden Hare) to let him come along if he arranges for porters, as he assumes, on seeing the relic, that they’re after gold. Dugmore drags his naïve, convent-edcuated daughter Tania (Helen Mack) along to perform servile duties. After weeks trekking through frozen wastes, the party reaches a huge glacial barrier, and find preserved in the ice both of one John Vincey’s men and the huge beast – a sabre-tooth tiger – that attacked him, confirming one vital aspect of John’s wife’s account. But Dugmore starts an avalanche with his blundering that destroys the passage down from the glacier, and kills Dugmore and most of the party, leaving Leo, Tania, and Holly to survive alone. They penetrate a cave system under the ice and encounter a primitive people who propose to make them part of a sacrificial rite, but the intervention of seemingly more civilised people under the command of chamberlain Billali (Gustav von Seyffertitz) saves their hides.


All of this is good fun, whilst building a sense of impending mysteries and exploits with impeccable pacing and good special effects and photography, surpassing Kong’s early scenes. The intended sacrifice of the interlopers by the gruesome tribe sees the savages proposing to lower a red-hot helmet on their heads, a memorably nasty notion that looks forward to the transference-rich Sadean fantasies of The Naked Prey (1966) but also working an anthropological idea, that the oppressed gatekeepers of Kor mimic the religion of the higher civilisation but without its pretences. The novel’s imperialist-era, racially suspect understanding of what civilisation can be defined as permeates, so the revision of Haggard’s novel from an African setting might have been worked for the sake of slightly more credulity with the Siberian setting still a largely mysterious place to the average American audience of the time, and also to make this stuff less specific and irksome, in a similar manner to what Cooper did with King Kong in deliberately creating an artificial culture to libel. Cooper and Schoedsack, as documentary filmmakers, had made cinema and sold their work by offering through it a spirit of adventure they readily embodied. Rose’s status as the secret auteur of their films suggested by King Kong as a burlesque on her relationship with the two huckster-swashbucklers, is apparent here too, as Tania, like Mack’s previous character in Son of Kong (1933), is the plucky waif who’s unfazed by following her love into killing zones of climate and refuses to back down morally in the face of omnipresent power. The surviving trio are brought before Ayesha, the all-powerful god-queen of Kor, who, as a believer in reincarnation, has been waiting for centuries for the return of her singular love, John Vincey, in whatever form he might come in. Leo’s resemblance signals to her that her demi-millennial dream is fulfilled. But Ayesha correctly senses that Tania, like John’s wife, represents an attachment she must strike down or be foiled by.


Once She reaches the inner sanctums of Ayesha, the film stalls, however. She was codirected by actor-director Irving Pichel, who had also split helming duties with Schoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and here worked with Lansing C. Holden, an air force buddy of Cooper’s who probably contributed to the film mostly in a design capacity, with his touch apparent in the film's many dramatic, frieze-like vistas. The duo created a memorable fantasy city in Kor, with its towering statues, guttering pyres, drenching shadows, and monstrous blend of cyclopean antiquity with art-deco apparent in the outsized architecture, accomplished on a scale that would have made Cecil B. DeMille envious. Ayesha’s first appearance is well-staged, glimpsed at the top of a giant flight of stairs, speaking from behind a vaporous curtain with stentorian yet ethereal authority, and then bursting out into the open as she realises that her singular fixation has come true. Gahagan’s chilly presence actually suits Ayesha to a certain extent, as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is defined by a blend of imperious entitlement and anguished neediness, with a fatal tunnel vision that craves her lover but can only use the apparatus of power to answer her needs: she appeals to Leo to awaken the dormant spirit she imagines in him, but ultimately can only bully, not attract. She interestingly represents a partial inversion of the compelling theme of satyr sexuality glimpsed in both King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game, as it deals with the monstrous side of the feminine rather than masculine. Leo is briefly awestruck by Ayesha’s zealous romanticism and aura of holy power, reducing him to masculine fetish object, leaving it to Tania to resist her regime, scuttling through the halls of Kor’s palace and defying guards human and numinous to reach Leo and give Ayesha what-for. But Tania, through the jealous Billial’s connivance with Ayesha, is trussed up in S&M-accented fashion complete with silk gag and draped veil, to be sacrificed at a Kor religious ceremony, and the film lurches closer to John Willie territory.


The trouble is that all of this makes for rather static drama, like some mutant version of one of those Women’s Pictures where Joan Crawford can’t get a man because she likes wielding an iron hand in the boardroom too much, but without the gloss of by-play one of those would have. The fantasy plays on that universal wish for immortality, and the more specific, presumed feminine fear of loss of the power of desirability: diva wilfulness unbound by time and scruple. Gahagan, although often fetchingly attired to become an icon of stylised female power (to the extent that Disney modelled the evil queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1938, on her), lacks charisma and erotic presence. Her version of regal hauteur and pagan sadism is a breathy American patrician brand, like Margaret Dumont in a trimmer package. Scott is a bit of a cold fish here too, although his familiar ability to inhabit upright masculinity without seeming pompous is apparent. The dance of sensual enticement and abhorrence that is supposed to define their relationship therefore just never lights up, whilst Mack isn’t much of a romantic alternative either, all chirpy lines deliveries and girlish eyes. Tellingly, Ursula Andress’ presence in the 1965 Hammer version helped make that film a hit for its studio: Andress perfectly embodied the kind of warrior-queen image that had inspired a close artistic relative to Haggard’s creation, Klimt’s painting of Pallas-Athena, all haughty domme chic and classical Teutonic features. Like many films embraced as camp (e.g. Devil Girl from Mars, 1954), She beholds the notion of gynocracy, the rule of women, with a mixture fetishism and weak-kneed, ultimately punitive uncertainty.


The film also cuts much of Haggard’s mythology, which grew ever-denser and weirder in his sequels, presenting the possibility of a pseudo-science fiction explanation for the flame of life as well as a supernatural one. Revelation of Ayesha’s epoch-spanning memory is limited to a wistful recollection of an encounter with an early Christian – possible Jesus himself – who preached a pacific creed She doesn’t ascribe to, overseeing as she does pagan sacrifices and brutal executions because, it's suggested, they satisfy her unchecked egotism as the holder of the power of life and death. Holding back on the richness of Haggard’s creation whilst failing to capture the obsessive, mythical romanticism that’s supposed to drive the tale means that She leaves itself without much to do in its middle third. A further hunk of the film’s running time is devoted to the entirely extraneous yet mesmerically staged ritual preceding Tania’s intended execution, the ultimate suggestion of which seems to be that Kor was actually founded by a lost troupe of the Ballet Russes. Rectilinear framings of dancers attired in costumes and settings recall Fritz Lang’s cubist-medievalism in Die Spinnen (1919) and Die Nibelungen (1924), and also DeMille’s similarly shot dances in Madam Satan (1930), another film that wrestled with the spectre of female independence. Indeed, I suspect that between this and The Last Days of Pompeii, Cooper and Schoedsack were making an overt play to capture DeMille's crown as king of spectacle. But there's an interesting quality of cultural smudging recorded in such imagery, blending modernism's refined sense of form and function with the tropes of a host of classical cultures from Greek to Balinese, silently asking questions about the nature of power and gender in a world quickly losing its traditions in regard to both.


She remains visually impressive all the way through, from the vision of the frozen smilodon to the colossi in Kor's temple described by guttering firelight, mere humans dwarfed at their carved toes. When finally action does break out again, as Leo realises Tania is veiled victim under a priest’s knife, She kicks back to life for a strong finale, as extras skip out of the way of spilling, burning oil and Nigel Bruce springs in the fray to sock the high priest, a sight any movie fan must surely savour. She badly lacks such derring-do, but there’s one great sequence as the escaping trio leap over a chasm onto a balanced rock on the far side, and then push the rock off its perch along with several pursuing guards, all depicted in deadpan long shot with a clever blend of FX elements. At its best She does capture the fervent strangeness of Haggard’s world-creating and mysticism, particularly in the very climax when Leo, Tania, and Holly finally enter the abode of the flame of life, viewed as a spuming vortex of white amidst strangely geometric stonework. Ayesha ventures again into the flame of life to assure Leo of its safety, only to be steadily transformed into a withered crone, whether because she overexposed herself to the flame’s life-giving properties or tempted fate too often with her hubris, recounting her mantra of triumph over the pettiness of Tania’s mortal beauty even as hers disintegrates. Unlikely to be endorsed by L’Oreal.


Friday, 3 July 2015

Hell and High Water (1954)


Alpha and Omega are conjoined in one of the most memorable of Samuel Fuller’s headline-like cinematic declarations: Hell and High Water begins and ends with bookending shots of an atomic bomb erupting on a sub-Arctic island. Boiling infernal flame and the swelling mushroom cloud arise, a report from the fringes of the world beholding a new frontier in the Atom Age. Hell and High Water is an action-adventure film that straddles modes and attitudes with élan and a likeably distracted streak, as Fuller recast the original story given to him as a stylised piece of gallivanting he later compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Fuller made the film as a favour for Darryl F. Zanuck, who had gone to bat for him with the controversies of Pickup on South Street (1953), and dismissed it as the least of his films. But Hell and High Water represents a bridging point in Fuller’s career, perhaps the peak of that career in terms of budget and prestige afforded him, whilst it also marks the point where Fuller’s early oeuvre, with its emphasis on aberrant individuals lost within brutal events and worldly tumult, or characters like the news folk of Park Row (1952) whose passions transmit the events but operate independently of them, changed focus. The broad strokes of Hell and High Water’s geopolitical investigations seem to have facilitated Fuller’s interest in “hot topics” and characters who are more clearly avatars for such ructions, fighting forces within and without. A repeated epigram defines a moral scheme, “Each man has his own reason for living and his own price for dying,” whilst Richard Widmark returns to play another cynical hero, albeit one who, unlike his seedy thief in Pickup, has been left an angry and disillusioned wash-up after patriotic service during the war, but similarly rails against flag-wavers and professional do-gooders. 


The plot has enough angles to sustain a hefty franchise in contemporary terms. Fuller depicts the efforts of an independent, apolitical group of statesmen, scientists, and other grandees who have formed a clandestine internationalist organisation to promote world peace and investigate potential threats to that peace. Famous French scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) vanishes briefly after being mobbed by reporters at Orly Airport. The media and law enforcers assume Montel has been kidnapped by the Soviets, but Montel reappears in Japan as a member of the secret group, along with his assistant, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), who is actually his daughter, working under a pseudonym to assert her independent achievements. The organisation hires Widmark’s character, former US Navy submarine commander Adam Jones, to take charge of a salvaged Japanese submarine and ferry Montel into the remote, barren islands of the Bering Sea, where Montel believes Communists are building a secret missile base. Jones’ fight for his right to self-determination, down to harvesting members of his old sub crew, whilst working officially as a mercenary for hire, surely has the emotional immediacy to it of Fuller satising his own uneasy position as studio-sponsored auteur. Gene Evans, Fuller’s repeat star of his early, cheaper films, turns up as Jones’ cigar-chomping, sceptical subordinate. On the way, an encounter with a submarine that could be Red Chinese or North Korean leads to a violent clash as Jones, unable to match the enemy with torpedoes, has to reach back into his repertoire of tricks to elude the hunter. Much of Hell and High Water’s midsection is concerned with the same sort of submarine hide-and-seek stuff depicted in the likes of The Enemy Below (1957) or Torpedo Run (1963), and Fuller settles for staging the crash dives and underwater manoeuvring with almost throwaway proficiency. 


Fuller is plainly much more interested in his motley crew dynamics and landscapes of primal-futurism than model work action, particularly as he follows up Park Row in offering a boldfaced feminist twist. Denise cuts an intimidating figure of multifarious accomplishment. Echoing the introduction of Joan Weldon’s similarly unexpected chick scientist in Them! the same year, Denise appears as a pair of silk-clad, heel-sporting legs on a ladder, but where Gordon Douglas took the route of dismissing the matter thereafter, Fuller sarcastically makes a Tex Avery cartoon under water. Denise enters the fold of the rude, crude sailors to be met with hostility as a potential Jonah, only for her to quickly calm and cajole them with pledges that she’s a scientist above all. Denise’s assurance gains the crew’s acquiescence but her mere presence sets hormones on the boil: lunkhead helmsman ‘Ski’ Brodski (Cameron Mitchell, alight with impish humour) tries to charm the anthropologically fascinated Denise by showing off his sweaty physique and tattoos real and fake, whilst another gets stewed and tries to force himself on her, forcing Ski to cream him. But it’s Jones who finally makes out with her in the blazing red glow of emergency lights for a moment of high pressure passion. Darvi is remembered as one of the most tragic of Hollywood starlets after being discovered and promoted by her lover Zanuck and his wife Virginia, and then destroyed first critically and then socially, with this and The Egyptian (1954) her only major roles. Her much-heralded hesitancies as an actress, a slow, slightly uncertain diction and thick accent, are apparent in playing Denise, but so are her strengths – an aura of cool intelligence and a physical insouciance that belies her character's effort to present a tight package. Her reaction to Mitchell's chest-baring is a comedic coup that's also a subtle deflation of the cliché of the brainy female iceberg, as Denise delights in his meaty sexuality whilst also finding it slightly hilarious. These traits suit the character and impressed Fuller, and she works well opposite Widmark’s trademark astringent, derisive pith. 


Particularly cool is the scene where Denise is forced to kill a Chinese soldier, gunning him down when her life is in danger. For a moment the lab-grown savant is frozen in shock at having joined the game of soldiers, until Jones grabs her hand, and she immediately snaps back into action: like any good scientist, she knows it’s a case of evolve or die. Fuller’s intention to defang the political thriller side of the film did not remove all of the material’s vision, particularly as Fuller’s readiness to use an overtly anti-Communist gloss, as he had with The Steel Helmet and Pickup on South Street and would again with China Gate (1957), to ply his own agendas of interrogating social attitudes and clearing space for new dialogues about race and gender and sex and class, under the banner of unrepentant Free World prerogative. The submarine is Fuller’s United Nations of scruffy sea salts as Nicholas Ray’s European enclave of bureaucrats and soldiers would be in 55 Days in Peking (1965). Fuller levies this set-up via linguistic humour. Denise’s mastery of Asian languages helps the crew negotiate the workings of the sub. Former enemies of the last great war work with casual ease together only to be thrown into a tither by a pretty woman, who can pacify them because she speaks all their dialects. Chinese immigrant Chin Lee (Wong Artarne) entertains the crew with his witty blend of mangled syntax and pithy slang in a version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” whilst Ski learns to sing chanson Française for Denise’s benefit, and creates his own Bronx-Pigalle patois. Chin Lee eventually volunteers for the dangerous task of posing as a fellow captive to extract information from a captured, deeply indoctrinated Red, and becomes the film’s first or two tragic martyrs to dedication. 


Making only the fourth film to be shot in Cinemascope, Fuller’s delight in unusual cinematic syntax – his creative long takes and radical ways of tackling budgetary lacks and spatial problems with his camerawork – was relatively muted here. But he worked with cameraman Joe McDonald to think up innovative, rule-bending ways to frame and light the submarine interior, and assaulted the tableaux vivant-like stasis of early Cinemascope effectively. Sometimes they cut frames up with clashing and layered geometries, and elsewhere compose shots with attention to lateral lines rather than the vertical, to further squeeze together the top and bottom of the Cinemascope frame, building a sense of claustrophobia. Once Jones and crew reach their destination, the evocation of a blasted, far-flung, jagged extremity littered with secret bases, feels practically neo-mythic, with visions of apocalyptic fires and mysterious, cyclopean installations at the Earth’s distant places, null zones where superpowers fashion doomsday devices. Moments of jagged corporeal assault recur with a customary sense of weight – Denise’s shooting of the soldier, Montel getting his thumb caught in the conning tower hatch requiring swift amputation, Chin Lee beaten to death with a monkey wrench. Tracer bullets and erupting oil drums, smoke-trailing bombers and the boiling ocean where an island was moments before: all exist on a continuum of humankind’s gift for creating ever more spectacular methods of destruction. But Fuller’s gift for visions of weird lyricism still emerge too, like Jones carrying Denise with tender care bathed in red light. The film’s official spirit might be pulp adventure but its visuals and thematic stresses scan stark vistas and wastelands, foreboding Kubrick’s Cold War horizons in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and James B. Harris’ The Bedford Incident (1965; also featuring Widmark). Here the diverse crewmen battle anonymous soldiers and uncover a dastardly plot to drop an atomic weapon on Japan and blame it on the good old US of A, a prospect that finally jolts Jones’ dormant patriotism into gear. Fuller may not have loved it, and it’s surely not one of his densest or strangest works, but Hell and High Water rocks regardless.


Friday, 26 June 2015

Man in the Shadow (1957)


On the massive farming fiefdom called the Golden Empire, two ranch hands stalk prey amidst in the shadows and light patterns spread on the ground by a grand homestead. They strut into the shed where the estate’s populace of Mexican farm labourers, called braceros, live, in search of handsome young Juan Martin (Joe Schneider). In a single, electrifying framing, Arnold depicts Martin’s would-be lothario pretences as he’s glimpsed combing his Elvis-age hair into a sleek mass in the bathroom window, only for the prosecutors of white, moneyed, sexually repressed authority to barge in and take hold of him by that precious hair. He’s dragged out of the bathroom and into a shed, and beaten. When Juan fights back, he’s clubbed to death with a pick handle. Martin’s friend and fellow worker Jesus Cisneros (Martin Garralaga) witnesses his murder and travels into the nearby town at the heart of Bingham County to make an appeal for justice. New-minted sheriff Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler) begins an ordinary day’s morning, dropped off at work by his wife Helen (Barbara Lawrence), only to find the trust and understandings that underpin his community and his job are about to unravel when Cisneros makes his statement. This is because the ranch Martin’s murder occurred on belongs to Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles), a power unto himself in the locale because of imperial breadth of his property and the wealth generated by his custom sustains the town. Cisneros fingers Renchler’s top hands Ed Yates (John Larch) and Chet Huneker (Leo Gordon) as the killers, but it soon emerges that Renchler ordered Martin to be beaten for his friendship with Renchler’s daughter Skippy (Colleen Miller). Renchler’s men try to pass off Martin’s death as a road accident, but when Cisneros refuses to retract his statement, Sadler begins investigating, however reluctantly and against the increasingly frantic and hysterical warnings of his fellow lawmen and city elders, scared that with provocation Renchler might start doing business with another town.


Directed by Jack Arnold, Man in the Shadow blends modern-dress western with noir-soaked attitudes, but also follows Arnold’s string of sci-fi epics with telling overlaps. The location photography of desolate settings recalls It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Tarantula (1955). The monstrosity grows out of the remote ranch house’s clandestine isolation, as with Leo G. Carroll’s experiments in the latter. The sense of paranoia and social exclusion is pervasive in Arnold’s oeuvre, whilst the emasculation of the everyman hero is crucially similar to The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956): Chandler’s Sadler, a dude everyone likes and respects at first, becomes the incredible shrinking lawman in their eyes, to the point where he’s rendered just as powerless and victimised as the suburbanite who flees his own hungry house cat. Where those films were metaphorical, Man in the Shadow is explicit in contemplating the dark side of Atom-age America with its shiny chrome-wreathed cars and post-war assurances coexisting uneasily with lingering realities of an age of conquest and settlement that helped spread imperial domain. Arnold clearly indicts the racist disinterest in the fate of small men expressed by many of his townsfolk as a by-product of their anxiety over facing down the same source of power, whilst comprehending how their status, colour, and citizenship accords them better treatment, but still leaves them in the same position as the lowly braceros as dependents on the teat of the big boss. Renchler’s shadow hangs as vast and pendulously menacing as a massive arachnid, whilst the landscape is just as prone as Arnold’s scifi films to mysterious disappearances, changed personalities in friends, attacks of devolved beast-men, and eruptions of primal instinct in once-peaceable heroes. 


Arnold follows in Anthony Mann’s footsteps in cross-breeding noir and western, recalling Mann’s Border Incident (1949) in particular, which also dealt with the mistreatment of braceros. The influence of High Noon (1952) in contemplating the lawman’s abandonment by his citizenry in the face of threat is obvious, whilst also taking some courage from the Elia Kazan-Richard Brooks school of social justice melodrama. But Arnold, who got to make Man in the Shadow after his string of fantastical successes, is more outright in the post-McCarthy, early Civil Rights-era, in contemplating a fascistic presence in American life, a notion the town’s Italian immigrant barber Tony Santoro (Mario Siletti), makes explicit when he refuses to blackball Sadler like the other townsfolk and recalls the onset of Mussolini in the ‘20s. Arnold’s eye scans the stark surrounds and rolling hills of Renchler’s estate in daylight as antiseptically blasted and drab, following his desert-set monster movies in inverting the expanses into traps of space and menace, as if documenting the same fascination for the half-hidden blood libel written in the landscape as compels Cormac McCarthy. Come night and drenching shadows rule, as when Sadler, hoping against hope that a call to a remote locale might not be a trap, ventures into an abandoned house in out in the eerie boondocks, turning mere abandoned house into a trap of decayed ambitions and waiting fate in a manner that recalls the way John Ford rendered the usually romanticised American agrarian belt as Gothic land of blight and darkness in the early scenes of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). 


Man in the Shadow was produced by that strangest of ‘50s cinematic entrepreneurs, Albert Zugsmith, and his and Welles’ collaboration here led to Touch of Evil (1958), which deals with very similar matters, albeit it with Wellesian baroque substituting for Arnold’s aerodynamics. Welles is relatively restrained, even distracted, as Renchler, one of those neo-pharaohic characters that actor loved playing or depicting, presenting a superficially charming and equitable figure who is crippled by a suggestive weakness in the face of his daughter, and whose power has ironically left him perplexed by even the slightest shadow of conflict, quick to protect his own interests and swat at irritations like a bear stung by bees. Skippy is a flighty, nervy Ariel at the mercy of Welles' puffy Prospero and Larch’s drooling Caliban, but has enough emerging pith to escape her gilded cage with a blend of guile and skill to alert Sadler to the probable fate of her would-be lover, and may be evolving into one of Arnold's more usually competent, self-directing female heroes. The figuration of the titan with a perturbing soft spot for a daughter or sister was fascinatingly common in American cinema of the era, and Welles would play a more blustery and potent version of the same character in The Long Hot Summer a year later. Larch and Gordon give effectively bullish performances as the asshole agents whose psychopathic aggression shows up Renchler’s pretences and propel him towards distasteful ends.


But Arnold seems more interested in the social conflict, presenting an almost Ibsenish battle of community versus existential threat with a lone hero as victimised scapegoat-prophet. That overtone of existential threat motivated Arnold’s early sci-fi films in a manner for the most part more clear-cut and obvious: where the giant tarantula and gill-man presented threats to be combated, fear here infects his small-towners in the same way the mysterious fog of Shrinking Man starts its hero’s diminution, and they in turn try to cut down their appointed hero when he inconveniences them. Sadler's status as the hero who tries to awaken his fellow man's consciousness recalls Putnam in It Came From Outer Space, but the drama, as with that movie, casts a pernicious eye on humankind's capacity for aggression, xenophobia, and wilful ignorance. Cisneros is gunned down by masked goons before the eyes of his salt-of-the-earth white friend Aiken Clay (Royal Dano). Chandler’s effective performance emphasises Sadler’s growing resolve even as he’s faced with increasingly intense pressure and hysteria-tinged resentment from his peers: his eyes evasive and downcast, his body language hunkered and oppressed, when first confronted with Cisneros’ testimony, he gains stature and clarity of diction the more he’s faced with threats and the bloom of out-and-out hostility. Humiliation and abuse do finally defeat him, in the sense that he is reduced from upright civic leader to bristling, fury-stoked avenger who tosses away his badge and goes on the warpath. 


It does take a lot to get him to that point, including Cisneros’ murder, and Huneker dragging him tied and helpless around behind his pick-up truck, a Hector luckless enough to be paraded as battle trophy while still alive. Man in the Shadows doesn’t achieve the stature its many parts promise, chiefly because Gene L. Coon’s screenplay fails to investigate its characters with much depth or specificity, and the shape of the plot develops in a manner already too familiar by that time, down to the people-power finale. The realisation of the themes remain a little too boldface in handling to quite achieve the sort of festering mood John Sturges achieved in the similar Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and Arnold achieved greater power and intensity with his metaphors, where his feel for the brutal extremes of the human place in the universe and eccentricity of behaviour vibrated with more originality. But the film remains exciting and, whilst vindicating Sadler’s struggle in a violent climax, leaves off with a striking final image of Skippy left alone on the ranch, a sliver of white in the gloom, at once a figure out of fairy tales and a new world citizen who, infantilised by her father, can now claim the mantle of power as his corrupted regime is deposed. As critic C. Jerry Kutner once persuasively argued, Arnold was the first truly modern post-war American filmmaker with an understanding of the new era’s psychic fabric. Man in the Shadow, although ultimately merely sturdy as a study of that fabric, feels fascinatingly prognosticative in a way that again accords and perhaps excels his actual science fiction. As well as looking forward to such septic-heartland dramas as Hud (1963) and The Chase (1966), the compulsion here to deal with conspiracy, racism, sex, murder, law, and power, the forces working to warp the American centrifuge, all look forward to an era oncoming with a swiftness no-one imagined.


Saturday, 20 June 2015

Knives of the Avenger (I Coltelli del Vendicatore, 1966)


Knives of the Avenger begs a mythical origin story involving Mario Bava, a drinking game with Sergio Leone and/or Sergio Corbucci, and a bet he couldn’t make a gothic-tinged spaghetti western with Vikings. Reality is more prosaic: Bava was asked to take up the reins from another director sacked scant days before filming, quickly revised the script, and rattled off this Norse action flick, a seemingly strange excursion for the great Latin fantasist. Knives of the Avenger has more in common with the burgeoning strain of Italianate western than with Bava’s horror films, and bears the hallmarks of a quickie production which Bava was late boarding. But Bava has first broken into directing rescuing Riccardo Freda’s films under similar circumstances, and he knew the drill. Knives of the Avenger straddles common visual territory with The Body and the Whip (1963), with the eerie coastal setting stricken by the wind and roiling sea, as if perched on the edge of all creation, and the lucidly mythological, bare-boned world of Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1962). The theme of protagonist dogged by their past wrongs, both done to them and committed by them, is moreover all too apt for Bava’s oeuvre of guilt manifesting as possession, and moral putrefaction infesting organs human and natural. Bava expertly negotiates the low budget in regarding his stockades and model long ships, managing to make the proceedings seem all the more starkly historical and legendary. The setting is somewhere in Viking-age Scandinavia, in the nexus of stockaded town, blissful riparian cottage, and foreboding sea: the opening shot is quietly epic as Bava scans a Volva’s elaborate beachfront shrine, drawing the Fates as maps in sand ready to be washed away by the next tide. 


Karin (Elissa Pichelli, billed as Lisa Wagner) lives with her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin) in a hut, on the advice of the Volva, to hide from marauder Hagen (Fausto Tozzi). A mysterious wandering stranger with incredible knife-throwing skills, Helmut (Cameron Mitchell) passes by Karin’s farm and begs a place to rest, and Karin lets him camp by the stream and catch fish. When a pair of Hagen’s henchmen discover Karin and Moki’s hut, they try to abduct mother and son, but Hagen intervenes, killing both men in a prolonged, violent hand-to-hand battle. Karin and Moki trust Helmut after this and rely on his protection. But things are not what they appear to be, in a film where Bava’s sleight of storytelling hand spins off a complex tale of human motivation and violence from a very simple precept, and all the strands on his loom tie back to one singular incident in the past. Karin is the wife of Arald (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, who starred in Bava’s Operazione Paura the same year), king of a Viking town, but he’s been missing for years since going on a raid to Britain. Hagen, formerly a military leader under Arald’s father the former king (Amedeo Trilli, billed as Michael Moore), broke a peace treaty by attacking the city ruled by Rurik, a famously honourable and brave warrior, during which Hagen killed Rurik’s wife and children. Hagen was exiled for this, but Rurik launched a vengeful attack anyway, during which he wounded Arald, killed the king, and raped Karin. Rurik left Arald alive, who then vowed his own revenge in the smouldering ruins of his kingdom. Fate and Bava are memorably wicked however, because Helmut is actually Rurik, a tormented man of conscience in self-exile, hunting for Hagen and now charging himself with protecting Karin and Moki, who might well be his son.


Bava, characteristically, aims exactly at the point where most of the western plotlines Knives of the Avenger evokes tend to be evasive. His film has elements of Red River (1948), Shane (1953) and The Searchers (1956) in its make-up, but where those films were vague about the possibly villainous pasts of their protagonists, Bava is explicit, and he turns the shadow-play of family roles in those films and other classic westerns into outright family perversity. Where Leone purposefully stripped psychology from his death-operas and held revenge as the one, honourable motive for violence, Bava is contemptuous of those propositions, and makes the fraught interior battle of his characters the essence of his drama. Hagen’s unrestrained psychopathy drives the plot, but Bava is most interested in the theme of good people driven by the circular nature of brutality to contemplate deeds that disgust them, both Rurik and Arald, who turns up at a suitably fraught moment in the storyline. The pseudo-historical setting allows Bava this leeway; Knives represents an exact mediation between the classic peplum movie and the western which was supplanting it in popularity in Italian genre cinema, both chronologically and thematically, and Bava, who had proven how well he understood the clear-cut nature of myth with the vividly illustrated Manichaeism of Hercules at the Centre of the Earth, depicts the corruption of the noble hero Bava’s Hercules exemplified through Rurik’s plight, remaking him as the modern antihero, a loner, wounded and purified by loss, unable in spite of his heartbreaking desires to regain a place in society. Bava’s love of Hitchcock may well have influenced the mid-film flashback that completely reorientates the story and reveals the truth about Rurik, a la Vertigo (1958), and he makes sure that Rurik becomes more, rather than less, empathetic once his shame is revealed, including his hope, at once pathetic and wistful, that one day Karin might forget Arald so he can take his place.


Such fascinating gymnastics of narrative and character allow Bava to explore the sort of dualism that in horror films was usually rendered more safely metaphoric, like the possession of Katia by Asa in La Maschera del Demonio (1960), as a common human condition. Westerns and peplums both concerned themselves with moments in time when anarchy and tyranny are replaced by justice and civility; Bava depicts rather a shift between modes of justice as well as concepts of the self. Drama is built around a series of severed relationships and doppelganger fill-ins, and the crucial moment that was Karin and Arald’s wedding – an interrupted ritual that recalls both John Ford’s westerns and ancient mythology at the same time – proves to have been the severing point for past hopes and future confusions. Bava recalls Anthony Mann’s gift for depicting violence as genuinely painful and distressing on screen (indeed, Knives has aspects of a miniature sequel to Mann’s massive but equally ethically concerned The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964, whilst the final moments recall El Cid, 1961), as the various battles scattered throughout sport moments of wince-inducing epiphany, like when Rurik finally fells one of Karin’s attackers with an axe, after a fight sequence that’s almost as tightly and intensely choreographed as a Jackie Chan tussle. The stringent budget, lack of time for preparation, and setting generally precludes Bava working up such heights of stylised visualisation as marks his best work. But even with such a straitened production, Bava works some camera magic: the opening scenes set a tone of raw, totemic drama with an ambience of fatalistic beauty, and a long single-take early shot (interrupted but not disguised by a jaggedly edited-in cutaway) is an elegant blend of stop-gap invention and aesthetic coup, recalling Sam Fuller’s similarly throwaway legerdemain, as a simple pan onto breaking waves and back gives a moment for the credits to roll whilst covering a passage of time. Karin and Moki are filmed from a low angle, their footprints in the beach sand erased as they move, as figures from dreamtime. Hagen is shot in huge close-up whilst his mounted men fill the background, making fullest expressive use of the widescreen ratio, conveying the nature of Hagen’s power and egotism, and tipping a hat to Leone’s framings all at once. Bava makes his nods to Leone even more literal as he depicts Hagen adopting improvised body-armour like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), 


Rurik is envisioned in flashback as a towering figure with face hidden by a steely mask that at once evokes the new face bashed onto Asa in La Maschera del Demonio and the implacable visage of Darth Vader, and also the sweeping, sepulchral force of the vampire paterfamilias in “The Wurdalak” episode of I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963). Rurik’s dehumanisation, and depersonalisation, in thrall to his irrational fury transforms him into one of Bava’s monsters, clasping at a prostrate, screaming Karin like Mitchell’s outright villain in Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964): to twist the knife further and clearly signal Rurik and Helmut are the same man for the first time, Bava match-cuts from flashback to present with the same framing, only this time Rurik’s hand reaches out to comfort. The tavern in the Viking town is built like a bullfighting pen, with high circular walls and stalls, setting the scene for the repeated struggles that occur there, including a vicious confrontation between Rurik and Hagen, and Rurik facing Arald, who he tries not to fight, as the upright, gallant, unforgiving husband pushes the penitent defender to make it easier to kill him in clean conscience. But Bava swaps that setting for a plunge into the underworld, returning the film to a mythic frame, filming in what looks awfully like the same underground location where Bava shot much of the finale of his Hercules entry, as Rurik and Arald launch an uneasy partnership to rescue Moki from Hagen, who kills the Volva and claims the labyrinthine tunnels of her sacred cave. Rurik’s brilliant knife-throwing saves the day and underlines his redemption, but perhaps the most telling gesture is the absolving hand Rurik places on Arald’s shoulder as they part, and the lingering look Karin gives Rurik as he vanishes from the dark caverns into the light of day: these brief instants have more stirring, moral complexity in them than dozens of other films ever accumulate. Knives of the Avenger is one of those oddities that prove just how much a good filmmaker can pack into nominally brief, cheap, disposable product.