Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Vanishing (aka: Spoorloos)

(1988) Directed by George Sluizer; Written by Tim Krabbé and George Sluizer; Based on the novel The Golden Egg, by Tim Krabbé; Starring: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege and Gwen Eckhaus; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Rating: ****½

“There is an urge in the human being to want to know; so you can want to know, let’s say, on a philosophical level, on an intellectual level, on an emotional level… on the fundamental human level, and I think that’s very important when she disappears… The film plays on those different kinds of wanting to know…” – George Sluizer (from 2014 Criterion interview)

Netherlands Month continues with a look at the Dutch/French co-production The Vanishing, a cerebral, nerve-rending meditation on loss and evil. French director George Sluizer initially collaborated with author Tim Krabbé to adapt his book, but Krabbé was eventually kicked off the project after differences of opinion over the material. The resulting film gradually builds in intensity as we explore the lives of its main characters, reaching a crescendo with a staggering conclusion. Sluizer couldn’t secure a distributor for his bleak film, which eventually debuted at the Sydney Film Festival a year after it was completed.

Rex and Saskia are traveling from Amsterdam through the French countryside when their car runs out of gas. They make an impromptu stop at a gas station/rest area, and Saskia suddenly disappears. Rex’s only clue is from one of the attendants, who claims to have seen her leave with another man. Three years pass with no further evidence as to her whereabouts. Appearances on French television and posting numerous flyers in the vicinity yield nothing, except for a series of postcards from an individual who claims to know what happened to her. The Vanishing is unique among mysteries. Unlike many other films in the genre, the question isn’t who committed the kidnapping and presumed murder (this is established early in the film). Instead we’re left to speculate how it was done, and why.

Johanna ter Steege, in her first film appearance, makes a memorable impression as the mercurial Saskia, playful, but with a hint of sadness. Saskia explores her fear of isolation and abandonment as she discusses a recurring dream, being trapped inside a golden egg, floating in nothingness. While ter Steege’s character only appears on screen for a short amount of time, her memory hangs over the film like a specter, and drives Rex’s motivation to find her.

* According to an interview with ter Steege, she wanted to leave the production after her contentious experience with temperamental co-star Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. Sluizer intervened to patch things up between the experienced actor and the novice actress.

As he’s introduced in the film, Rex (Gene Bervoets) isn’t a very likeable person. When their car runs out of gas in a narrow tunnel, he abandons his girlfriend. As he walks away, accompanied by her desperate pleas not to leave, there’s a smirk across his face. We see the other side of their ambivalent relationship when he tries to apologize in the following scene, but the damage has already been done. It’s debatable whether they could have possibly lasted together, but any future they planned was lost at the rest stop. Three years later, he’s still obsessing over Saskia’s disappearance, unable to put it behind him. There’s a huge part of his life that ended when she vanished. He agonizes over the occurrence, and can’t bring himself to move on, faced with an inner dilemma he can’t resolve (“Sometimes I imagine she’s alive somewhere far away… Either I go on living and let her live or I let her die and find out what happened.”). His perpetually conflicted state of mind puts a strain on his relationship with his current girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), who feels like a fifth wheel, compared to Saskia.

The story shifts back and forth in time as we observe the other key player, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) meticulously practicing his plans, down to the last detail. Everything is calculated, down to his pulse rate and exact measurements of a drug he prepares for the abduction (he works as a chemistry teacher at a local school). In a darkly comic scene he goes through an elaborate pantomime, attempting to get everything just right, and failing miserably. He walks through the entire process: luring his intended victim to his car, opening the door, surreptitiously manipulating the vial of poison, and knocking her out. As portrayed by Donnadieu, Lemorne is a complex portrait of a sociopath, but to label him as evil would be too simple. He has a real life as a teacher and a family man. His wife and younger daughter suspect he has another woman in his life, but they’re only half right. He’s not a charming villain, but an ordinary man with an extraordinary mental defect. He commits a horrible act, not because of some deep-seated compulsion to kill, but as someone acting out a hypothetical conundrum to its logical conclusion. Lemorne exhibits equal capacities for good and terrible deeds, suggesting evil is relative. Is he a monster? To the outside observer or Rex, yes, but certainly not to his wife and daughters, who see him as a somewhat aloof and mischievous, albeit loving husband and father. He’s fascinated by Rex’s tenacity, banking on his insatiable curiosity – not knowing is a powerful motivator.

By the time we reach the devastating, unforgettable ending, we’re left to speculate if monsters are defined simply by their deeds, or their terrible thoughts. There’s a fine line that separates Rex from Lemorne. The protagonist has a cruel streak, while his adversary possesses an equal capacity for decency. The Vanishing suggests it’s only a small defect in our psyche that allows us to take the leap from mere ideation of awful acts to reality. The Vanishing disturbs us on several levels. It illustrates how obsession and curiosity, taken to an extreme, can be to our own detriment, and the world is a very dark, dangerous place. But Sluizer doesn’t let us off the hook so easily,* hinting at some greater truth about society. Perhaps there are bad people and bad deeds out there, but only because it’s something that’s inherent in each of us.

* In a 2014 interview for the Criterion Collection disc, Sluizer remarked, “I don’t mind disturbing the audience, but ‘disturbed’ means that you are obliged to think about what’s right and what’s not right.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Lift (aka: De Lift)

(1983) Written and directed by Dick Maas; Starring: Huub Stapel, Willeke van Ammelrooy, Josine van Dalsum; Available on DVD (Region 2)

Rating: ***

“A lift doesn’t move on its own – or does it?” – Police Inspector (Siem Vroom)

The ‘70s and ‘80s were the heyday of films depicting inanimate objects that developed sentience, including such titles as Killdozer (1974), The Car (1977), Christine (1983), and Maximum Overdrive (1986). Netherlands-based filmmaker Dick Maas threw his hat in the ring with 1983’s murderous elevator film, The Lift. Like those other movies, he takes an exceedingly dumb premise, and treats it with the level of seriousness usually devoted to a Merchant Ivory production.

According to a recent interview, writer/director Maas (who also composed the film’s synthesizer-laden score) acknowledged Stephen King’s short story “The Mangler” as a source of inspiration for The Lift, and modeled his movie’s structure after Jaws (Source: UK Horror Scene interview by James Simpson). Instead of Brody versus a hungry shark, however, it’s Felix versus a rogue elevator. Maas set his man-against- machine thriller* in a high rise commercial building, featuring a lone elevator repairman who’s determined to uncover the truth about a series of seemingly random accidents. First, a group of obnoxious restaurant patrons nearly suffocate, then a blind man falls down the shaft, and a night watchman is decapitated. Clues lead to a shady electronics firm called Rising Sun, which supplies the microprocessors for the computer-controlled elevators.

* Maas remade The Lift as an English language film, The Shaft (aka: Down) in 2001, suggesting there’s still life left in the killer elevator theme.

As preposterous as The Lift may seem at times, Maas has his finger on the pulse of some of our deep-seated fears about elevators. Most of us give little thought to the technology behind such a common means of conveyance, or the possible (if remote) inherent dangers if something goes wrong. If we stop to think about it, the mind reels with a multitude of possible scenarios, however unlikely they might be: power outage, a cable snaps, trapped between levels, or becoming caught in the closing doors. Not everyone relishes the idea of entering an enclosed space, if only for a few moments. Even if we’re not inclined toward claustrophobia, becoming an unwitting captive might stretch our comfort levels. We might choose to take the stairs if it’s only a few floors, but in a high-rise building, it’s unlikely we’ll choose to traverse multiple flights. 

For a film with such a low-brow premise, The Lift features some surprisingly solid performances, including Huub Stapel (who would go on to appear in other Maas films) as Felix Adelaar, Josine van Dalsum as his thankless wife Saskia, and Willeke van Ammelrooy as a persistent tabloid reporter. Felix is an elevator repairman suffering from a malaise after 10 years of marriage. He becomes obsessed, to the detriment of the rest of his family, with discovering the cause of several fatal incidents involving one of the elevators that he maintains. In one of the film’s many stretches, we’re supposed to accept that Felix would go to such extraordinary lengths to conduct a full-fledged investigation of the strange goings-on surrounding the deaths. As a result, he seems out of place in his own movie, occupying a role that would normally be reserved for a police detective. By comparison, the actual police inspector character isn’t given much to do.

Beyond the premise, Maas invites us to suspend disbelief on numerous counts. When things start going haywire in the office building, it’s hard to imagine why everyone didn’t just follow the movie tagline’s advice, and “take the stairs,” instead of continuing to place themselves in harm’s way. When Felix’s wife eventually leaves him, he doesn’t spend much effort to set the record straight regarding her accusations of adultery with a snooping female reporter. To make matters worse, the film is a little too coy about Felix’s relationship, with the final scene implying there is more going on than we’ve been led to believe. Also (MINOR SPOILER ALERT), it’s never adequately explained why an elevator company would need super-advanced experimental organic-based chips that self-replicate or why such chips would develop self-awareness or become murderous. Even if we’re willing to accept the circumstances around the other accidents, it’s hard to buy the cringe-worthy final death scene, which places a quasi-supernatural spin on the film and stretches the film’s logic to the breaking point.

As ridiculous as the story gets, Dick Maas raises valid concerns about our fear of technology and progress – as things get more complicated, it’s easier to screw them up. While The Lift won’t win points for plausibility, it’s effective enough within its own boundaries. What it does, it does fairly well. More than 30 years onward, I still can’t believe someone made this film, but I’m sort of glad he did. If we permit ourselves to step outside our rational selves for a moment and let The Lift take hold, it might just make you think twice before stepping into the next elevator.                  

Monday, June 27, 2016

June Quick Picks and Pans

The King of Comedy (1983) Martin Scorsese’s ahead-of-its-time satire about the dark side of fame didn’t make much of a splash when it premiered, but now it seems more relevant than ever. Scorsese regular Robert De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring 30-something comedian who lives with his mother in a brownstone, and dreams of making it big. He longs to be a guest on a late night talk show, hosted by his idol Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, in a surprisingly restrained performance), but can’t convince anyone associated with the show to give him a chance. When he fails to get Langford to notice him, Pupkin, along with his equally obsessive accomplice (Sandra Bernhard), kidnaps the beleaguered talk show host. 

De Niro makes you squirm as the socially tone-deaf Pupkin (in a running joke people keep getting his name wrong), who’s completely oblivious to the signals everyone sends off around him. He lives in an elaborate fantasy world where he’s a nationally renowned comedian and Langford begs him to take over hosting duties. It’s almost impossible not to cringe at Pupkin’s repeated attempts to match his delusional self-image with reality. Nearly 35 years after its initial release, The King of Comedy has much to say about the fickle, ephemeral nature of fame and the cult of personality. Why did it take me so long to see this?

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985) The third entry in the 36th Chamber series suffers from the law of diminishing returns (the first film is a genre classic), but it’s worth seeing, thanks to impressive fight choreography, elaborate set pieces and a rich color palette. Similar to its predecessor, Return to the 36th Chamber, the film leans more toward humor. Gordon Liu reprises his role as Shaolin monk San Te, but he’s not in it nearly enough. Instead, the focus is on mischievous young upstart Fong Sai-Yuk (Hou Hsiao), who defies a local magistrate and creates grief for the Shaolin master. Compared to Liu in the first two films, Hsiao’s character isn’t very likeable, appearing more obnoxious than charismatic. Also, Fong Sai-Yuk doesn’t experience much growth as a fighter (his ordeals are glossed over) or as an individual. The film is redeemed, however, by a terrific climactic scene, with Shaolin monks vs. Manchu thugs.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD, Hulu and Netflix

We Are Still Here (2015) This creepy tale from writer/director Ted Geoghegan features a middle-aged couple, Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig), grieving over the death of their grown son. They move to an old house in a small town, and invite their hippie friends (Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden) over for company. An impromptu séance (never a good idea in this sort of movie) summons the otherworldly residents of the house. We Are Still Here is notable for a modern horror film, mainly because of its older protagonists; a nice change of pace from the usual 20-somethings that dominate recent genre efforts. Geoghegan also maintains a nice ‘70s vibe, and there are a few good scares. It’s too bad the film falls into some of the usual clichés (Why do the main characters stick around when things get bad?), and it shows rather than suggests a few too many times, but  you could do much worse playing Netflix roulette on a Saturday night.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming


The Champions of Justice (aka: Los Campeones Justicieros) (1971) Blue Demon and his luchador pals form a super group of luchadores to square off against a mad scientist and his super-powerful little people army (their uniforms are tastefully emblazoned with an “M” for midget). The twisted doctor kidnaps the contestants of a beauty pageant, and freezes them for his nefarious plans. Why? Don’t ask me why, but it’s up to the wrestlers to get them back. Each successive scene (accompanied by a repetitive jazz score) is simply an excuse for the wrestlers to whoop ass. Will good prevail over evil? If you’ve seen any of these flicks, you already know the answer. One of the joys of this film is its conceit that our heroes keep their masks on at all times, which is why the sight of a luchador in pajamas fills me with glee. If you’re looking for a tightly engineered plot or scientific plausibility, you’ve come to the wrong place. On the other hand, if you just want to watch a bunch of sweaty wrestlers with colorful masks and imaginative names pummel a bunch of bad guys, then you’ve struck pay dirt.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Nature’s Fury Blogathon – Day 3 Recap

We’ve come to the end of the line for this ‘ol blogathon folks, but not before we’ve been attacked by all varieties of creatures great and small, and felt the angry, unforgiving wrath of Mother Nature at her most petulant.

It’s been a great honor to host the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, and get the chance to read so many terrific articles by a bunch of amazingly talented people. I can’t thank everyone enough for taking the time from their busy schedules to make this happen. Hopefully, it won’t be another two years before I muster up the initiative to host another such event, but until that nebulous day, let’s take a look at the last (but certainly not least) batch of posts…

And while you’re at it, be sure to visit the Day 1 and Day 2 Recaps!


Animal Attacks:

Kerry from Prowler Needs a Jump tells us what happens when an elephant and some angry ants walk into a bar (not really) in her comparison of Elephant Walk (1954) and The Naked Jungle (1954)

Dan Lashley (with special guest) of Wide Weird World of Cult Films grins and bears Grizzly (1976)

Sarah Jane (look her up on sinks her fangs into the aptly named killer snake film, Sssssss (1973)        

Chad Denton from Trash Culture pecks away at Birds of Prey (aka: Beaks: The Movie) (1987)

 Aurora from Citizen Screen reviews the greatest giant bug movie ever made (that’s a compliment), Them! (1954) 

I Fought Nature, and Nature Won:

Debra Vega from Moon in Gemini takes a stand regarding Stephen Kings’s The Stand (1994)

Amanda by Night from Made for TV Mayhem takes a look at the forgotten TV movie Ants (aka: It Happened at Lakewood Manor) (1977)

Emma Wallace from Emma K. Wall Explains it All spends some quality time on a ski lift in Frozen (2010) (Nope, not the Disney one!)

Kristina from Speakeasy gets out her umbrella for The Rains Came (1939)

Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood shows how Bogie, Bacall and Robinson upstage a hurricane in Key Largo (1948)

Wendell Ottley from Dell on Movies feels the freeze with The Ice Harvest (2005)

Robin Pruter from Pop Culture Reverie examines the drama and devastation of San Francisco (1936) 

Beth from Mildred’s Fatburgers reminds us Tom Joad will be there, in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)  

Thomas Lalli Foster chills out with Robert Altman’s Quintet (1979)