Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Resident

(2011) Directed by Antti Jokinen; Written by Antti Jokinen and Robert Orr; Starring: Hillary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lee Pace, Aunjanue Ellis and Christopher Lee; Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Hulu

Rating: **½

“I know everything that goes on in this building. I know everything that goes on in your head. You think I don’t know how your brain works? Just like your father... Your mother, she was beautiful. She married a weak man. Then she gave birth to another.” – August (Christopher Lee)

A super-big thanks to Gill from ReelWeegieMidget Reviews and Cat from Thoughts All Sorts for hosting the Then and Now Blogathon, featuring a look at the work of our favorite classic actors in the past and present. My guest of honor is the late great Christopher Lee. You can read my recycled review of his “then” feature, Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) here. But what about “now” (or in this case, recent)? Why, I’m glad you asked, because my film du jour is The Resident (2011). Reviewing this film affords me the unique opportunity to examine a modern role from this amazing thespian, as well as look at a new Hammer production.

Hammer Films enjoyed a modicum of success in the1950s and 1960s, particularly in the horror genre, building a reputation for movies done on a shoestring budget, but always with an eye on quality. Hammer’s success was short-lived, however, as the company became increasingly cash strapped, productions became more threadbare, and the movies stopped coming by the mid-1970s. But the final nail had not been driven into Hammer’s coffin. After a decades-long absence, the Hammer name re-emerged in the 2000s, with new productions, starting with an English language remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In (Let Me In) and The Resident, featuring Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee, and writer/director Antti Jokinen.

Dr. Juliet Devereau (Hillary Swank), recently separated from her husband, is on the market for a new place to live, but finding an affordable (well, for an MD at least) apartment in New York City is a Herculean task. After some trial and error, she locates what appears to be the ideal apartment, with an expansive view of the Brooklyn Bridge and a rental price that won’t break the bank. To sweeten the deal, her landlord is a single handsome guy who might just be a good candidate for boyfriend material while she’s on the rebound from her cheating husband. As any savvy consumer will tell you, however, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Strange things are afoot in her new apartment home, as she begins to suspect that her privacy is being invaded, and the landlord’s friendly overtures become a little too close for comfort.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very good as Juliet’s landlord Max, who may not be the nice guy he appears to be. He seems amiable at first, but as Juliet gradually discovers, there’s more about him, lurking beneath the surface. The good vibes begin to wear off as he loses patience with her ambivalence about entering a new relationship. The cracks in his perfect façade begin to form when she pulls away, and he starts taking things in uncomfortable directions, spying on her and making unexpected visits. Morgan takes us along for a disturbing ride as his character’s sanity erodes.

Christopher Lee does a lot with very little screen time As Max’s enigmatic grandfather August. Juliet is unsure how to interpret the elderly man, peering at her down the hall (his gift basket takes on ominous tones). From the audience’s perspective, we’re similarly perplexed about where he stands. But as we soon discover, neither August nor his grandson are what they may seem to be. August harbors a dark family secret, which manifests itself in Max. Aside from being a major selling point, Lee’s brief appearance is an essential bridge to the Hammer films of the past, serving as the film company’s spiritual ambassador of sorts. Even if he didn’t have a single line (and his lines are relatively scarce), Lee carries enough gravitas to make his character work.

The Resident falls into the same trap as many modern thrillers, counting on the main character doing stupid things to move the plot along. After a string of mornings in which she oversleeps, she has her blood analyzed, and learns there’s a cocktail of sedatives circulating in her bloodstream. Why she would return home after learning this disturbing information is anyone’s guess. Also, the film misses the opportunity to draw a parallel between her husband Jack’s obsessive behavior and Max’s growing paranoia. Despite Jack’s admission that he’s been stalking her, along with his constant phone calls, she decides to give him a second chance (Perhaps she concludes he’s slightly less creepy than her weird landlord?). Juliet installs a high-tech security system in her apartment, and then proceeds to ignore video records of the intrusions. When it finally dawns on her what’s occurring, nothing is ever reported (why she didn’t just dial 911 immediately is beyond me). Of course, the breach in security is another contrivance for the predictable cat and mouse game between Max and Juliet during the film’s climax.

As a contemporary thriller, The Resident is competent, if unremarkable. As a Hammer film, that’s another story. It lacks the gothic atmosphere of many of Hammer’s best horror/thriller movies, or maybe it was the paucity of English accents, but it didn’t have that signature Hammer “feel.”. As I watched the movie, it occurred to me the story could have easily been transplanted to a manor in the English countryside – the New York setting doesn’t suit a Hammer production. Faults aside, The Resident proves nothing with Christopher Lee can be a total loss. Lee makes up for the lack of quantity screen time with a quality supporting performance. If only the rest of the film could measure up.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nightmare Alley

(1947) Directed by Edmund Goulding; Written by Jules Furthman; Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham; Starring: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, and Mike Mazurki; Available on DVD

Rating ****½

“Listen to me, I'm no good. I never pretended to be, but I love you. I'm a hustler. I've always been one, but I love you. I may be the thief of the world, but with you I've always been on the level.” – Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power)

There are two things in movies that are almost guaranteed to hook me: I’m a sucker for movies with carnival sideshows and deep-sea exploration. Naturally, if there’s ever a movie with a deep-sea carnival sideshow, I’m in, but I digress. Nightmare Alley is set in the mysterious world of the sideshow. Beyond the sound of the carnival talker (please don’t call them a “barker”), the hyperbolic poster artwork, and shiny lights, there’s an air of desperation and failure. Nightmare Alley is about a man who shoots for the stars, only to end up on the ground.

Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep) based his screenplay on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, who studied the carnie world, and whose life paralleled the film’s main character. Charming con-man Stanton (“Stan”) Carlisle (Tyrone Power) befriends Zeena (Joan Blondell), a “mystic” who appears to read the minds of her audience members through an elaborate code, based on specific words and inflections. Stan picks up on the machinations of Zeena’s act, dreaming of going beyond the penny-ante sideshow and creating a show that will make some real money. After he learns Zeena’s code, he sets his sight on Molly (Coleen Gray), a pretty young performer who can serve as his assistant. Stan makes a name for himself with the nightclub crowd with his high-class adaptation of the carnie act, hooking in wealthy audiences with his ersatz mind-reading abilities.

Tyrone Power, tired of playing the same romantic leads, chose the role of self-centered rogue Stanton Carlisle to break out of that predictable mold. In an early scene we see Stan’s true talent for sweet-talking his way out of a difficult situation, when a local sheriff wants to jail the members of the carnie troupe. Stan pulls him aside, convincing him he understands private details about his life and insecurities. To the uninitiated, such as the flabbergasted sheriff, he appears to possess psychic abilities. He uses his considerable charms to win over Zeena and Molly, and builds a successful nightclub act, but he’s haunted by the specter of failure. He’s wracked with guilt over the death of Zeena’s alcoholic husband (whom he encouraged to embark on a final binge), and unnerved by the anguished cries of the sideshow geek (used to good effect in a few key scenes). After his latest scheme fails, he takes a rapid plunge into alcoholism and self-pity. In the DVD commentary, James Ursini attributed some of Stan’s abilities to true ESP, but I don’t agree. Stan appears to be especially sensitive to reading subtle cues and highly intuitive, but that doesn’t necessarily predicate an innate paranormal ability.

Helen Walker shines as the shrewd, enigmatic psychologist Lilith Ritter, who understands all too well “it takes one to catch one.” She identifies Stan’s game, and schemes how they can collaborate and profit from his skills. Her motives, however, remain unclear, as we begin to wonder who’s conning whom. The film takes a very cynical view of the psychological profession. Based on Helen’s unethical dealings, we’re left wondering if her practice may not be any more valid than Stan’s nightclub act.  

All along the way, we see the signposts of rough roads ahead for Stanton, but he doesn’t heed the warnings. It’s no fluke that our first introduction to the sideshow world in the film is through the Geek exhibit. The Geek is never more than a peripheral character, but his presence plays a major part, as a source of fear and fascination for Stanton. His musing about how someone could sink so low foreshadows his rapid, abrupt decline. Zeena’s tarot cards also serve as a harbinger of doom. She understands her clairvoyance act is no more than mere smoke and mirrors, but she believes in the power of her tarot cards, and what they foretell. She recalls when her husband Pete drew the “Death” and “Hangman” cards, which proved to be all too prescient. As the film progresses, and Stan’s ambitions exceed his grasp, he soon follows in Pete’s self-destructive footsteps.

Stan Carlisle’s act is built on the premise of P.T. Barnum’s time-worn adage, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” His natural talent for perception and deception forms the basis for a lucrative act, but things take a dark turn when he escalates from an innocuous charlatan to a false prophet. The film was a bold departure for Tyrone Power, which proved too much for Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to take. Zanuck insisted on a happy ending, which deviates from the book, but it does little to alleviate the uneasiness of the film’s climax, when Stan hits the bottom. By the film’s conclusion, Stan’s future is uncertain, with his life possibly damaged beyond repair. The promise of redemption, suggested by the supposedly upbeat ending, is a hollow one. As with so many films that were before their time, it took a while for popular opinion to catch up with Nightmare Alley’s status as a classic. It’s film noir at its darkest, a raw, unflinching portrayal of a man on a downward spiral.

Monday, October 30, 2017

October Quick Picks and Pans – Horror Month 2017

Anguish (1987) This unique movie within a movie from writer/director Bigas Luna stars Michael Lerner as John, a middle-aged man stuck in a stage of arrested development. He works as an orderly in a hospital clinic that specializes in eye disorders, and lives with his domineering mother (Zelda Rubenstein). She compels him to kill, collecting his victims’ eyes as trophies. Nothing in the film, however, is quite as it seems, as the story shifts from fantasy to reality (at least the cinematic reality established here) as we watch an audience watching a movie. Some of the supporting performances are uneven, but Lerner and Rubenstein captivate. Anguish is gory, playful and inventive, and will keep you guessing until the final scene.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

The Loved Ones (2009) Writer/director Sean Byrne’s film rises above the usual slasher film trappings, with its themes of loneliness, grief and belonging. Months after losing his father in a car accident, high-schooler Brent (Xavier Samuel) is picking up the pieces of his life. Things turn from bad to worse, however, after he rejects Lola (Robin McLeavy) for the upcoming prom. With the help of her father (John Brumpton), Lola kidnaps Brent, and brings him home to a little celebration of her own. What follows is an unnerving game of cat and mouse, as she employs some rather unconventional methods (including a power drill) to persuade him to see things her way. The Loved Ones also takes the unusual step of fleshing out its secondary characters, an awkward would-be lothario and his aloof goth-girl date. What binds many of the characters together thematically, is a sort of desperation, as the film explores what it means to be an outsider.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

The People Under the Stairs (1991) Wes Craven’s sly commentary on haves and have-nots has aged a little too well in our increasingly fractious society. Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) and his family are facing eviction from their dilapidated tenement building, where they live hand to mouth. Meanwhile, their pious, reclusive slumlords hide their wealth and dirty secrets behind barred windows (including a basement dungeon and a house full of booby traps). It’s an odd mix of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Addams Family that works, thanks to a tongue-in-cheek approach. Adams is great as Fool who’s anything but – okay, he’s more of a fool in the Shakespearean sense, seeing the truth that hides just out of sight. Wendy Robie and Everett McGill are also inspired as the demented couple who run their own house of horrors. Scenes with McGill running around in a gimp suit and a shotgun are nothing short of sublime.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Return of the Vampire (1944) Bela Lugosi stars as the centuries-old vampire Armand Tesla (no relation to Nikola Tesla, I gather). Columbia didn’t have the rights to use the Dracula name, but we all know what character Lugosi channeled for this movie. Instead of Renfield, he’s joined by a werewolf assistant Andreas (Matt Willis). As far as werewolves go, Andreas lacks bite (don’t hurt me), but he’ll probably go down in film history as one of the most articulate lycanthropes. There are no big surprises about this rather pedestrian vampire story, but the setting in World War II England, along with the real-life horrors of the blitzkrieg, adds another dimension to the film. Worth a look for Lugosi fans and those who prefer their werewolves on the cuddlier side.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Burial Ground (aka: Le Notti del Terrore) (1981) What begins as a fairly standard zombie flick becomes something special, thanks to extra layers of sleaze and ineptitude. A group of overprivileged twerps embark on a weekend retreat in a medieval European castle, and soon must tangle with the undead. Burial Ground, has its share of WTF moments to keep you entertained, many due to an adult little person's (Peter Bark) head-scratching portrayal of a 12-year-old boy. The movie features terrible dialogue, terrible makeup, endless scenes with people making stupid choices, and a child who’s a little too attached to his mother. It’s an oddly entertaining, albeit tasteless mix, so anyone seeking quality should look elsewhere.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wendigo (2001) On the way to their vacation home, a yuppie family (Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and Erik Per Sullivan) traveling in upstate New York hit a deer. This proves to be only the beginning of their troubles, as they evoke the scorn of some hunters, and suspicion by the townspeople. Wendigo shares similarities to Deliverance and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, with city dwellers that are way out of their element. Writer/director Larry Fessenden adds a supernatural spin to this fish out of water theme. A malevolent force, in the form of an ancient, shape-shifting Native American spirit, may be lurking about the woods. There are some fine performances, but the pacing is sluggish, it’s not very scary, and ultimately the film can’t decide what it wants to be. When the creature finally makes an appearance (in two different forms), it looks unconvincing. There’s a lot of potential with the wendigo myth, but my advice for future filmmakers is not to make the title creature a minor character.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Son of Ingagi (1940) Here’s a true oddity: one of the first horror films with an all African American cast. Newlyweds Robert and Eleanor Lindsay (Alfred Grant and Daisy Bufford) inherit an old mansion and fortune from a reclusive scientist played by Laura Bowman. The scientist was on the verge of a scientific breakthrough (All we see is her pouring one test tube into another – you know, science!) when she’s killed by the ape man (Zack Williams) she keeps in her basement laboratory (who doesn’t?). Exactly what sort of breakthrough for humanity she was working on (She laments, “What has humanity ever done for me?”), or how she got a murderous apelike creature through customs, is never explained. In fact, it’s best if you don’t question much about what you see in Son of Ingagi, but the leads are amiable enough, and it’s only 70 minutes. If nothing else, it’s worth a look for the historical value.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video  

Society (1989) Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) attends exclusive Beverly Hills High School, where he seems to have all the breaks. He’s one of the most popular kids in school, with a glamorous girlfriend and a nice car, but suspects something isn’t quite right.  He senses everyone plotting something under his nose, and feels as if he doesn’t belong in his family. Director Brian Yuzna aims high with social satire, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. It starts strong, as a light ‘80s high school comedy that suddenly takes an intriguing dark turn, but falls apart by the end, with an ending that seems rushed. The premise that the upper crust live as a different species was handled much better by John Carpenter in They Live, from the preceding year. But while Carpenter’s film has only become timelier, Society, by comparison, seems dated.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Body Melt (1993) A revolutionary new weight-loss drug is tested on some Melbourne suburbanites, and bad things happen as the test subjects dissolve from the inside out. The film starts with an interesting premise, but it’s poorly executed, with ill-defined characters, and the weak plot meanders. It has all the trappings of a cult film, but it’s undermined by an inconsistent tone that doesn’t work as straight horror, satire, or horror/comedy. In the end, it’s not funny enough or unusual enough to merit a fan base.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Amazon Video