Friday, December 19, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (2014) and THE DEVIL'S HAND (2014)

(US - 2014)

Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy's THE PACT (2012) was one of the most effective feature debuts in the horror genre in recent years. A terrific example of slow-burn done right, THE PACT was a genuine sleeper that's found a major cult following thanks to its streaming on Netflix Instant. McCarthy's follow-up effort, AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (shot and shown at festivals under the title HOME), shares some common themes with THE PACT and again allows the director to indulge in his gift for establishing an ominous sense of dread that grows more stomach-turning and uneasy with each new sequence. But McCarthy tries to tackle too much here: too many characters and too many detours lead to too many cut corners and too many loose ends.  As in THE PACT, McCarthy's key concern is family: THE PACT had adult sisters whose memories of their dysfunctional upbringing manifest in unexpected ways in the present day. AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR has adult sisters who seem to have been orphaned at a relatively young age, with the older Leigh (MARIA FULL OF GRACE Oscar-nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) seeing herself as the mother figure to the younger Vera (GLEE's Naya Rivera). But before we get to any of that, McCarthy's focus is on a teenager (Ashley Rickards) who falls hard for a boy (Nick Eversman) and ends up (I guess) inhabited by some kind of demonic spirit after playing a high-stakes shell game with the boy's creepy uncle (Michael Massee). Some initially unspecified amount of time passes as McCarthy then shifts to Leigh, a real estate agent tasked with selling the house where the girl used to live, and whom Leigh occasionally sees in the house only to flee when she tries to talk to her. Circumstances soon put Vera in the position of central character, when she's forced to take it upon herself to find the mystery girl and get to the bottom of assorted supernatural goings-on.

McCarthy plays his cards close to the vest in the early going, with some narrative time-jumping and a major reveal involving Rickards' character that probably should've landed better than it does. It's not unusual for a filmmaker to shift protagonists in the middle of the movie--PSYCHO is the granddaddy of that move--and Zack Parker's PROXY is probably the most recent example of one that does it successfully, but McCarthy has three alternating lead shifts before we get a real handle on any of them. Once he settles on Vera, it works somewhat because Rivera turns in the kind of strong, intense performance that THE PACT got from Caity Lotz, but Vera's story seems to gloss over important details and how she gets from one point to another. Throughout, the characters remain too enigmatic for us to be fully engrossed in the story. This is especially the case with Moreno's Leigh, who is saddled with the film's clumsiest exposition, whether McCarthy has her mentioning her immigrant status (younger Vera was born after their parents came to the US)--which seems to come about more from his unnecessary concern over explaining Moreno's accent than anything to do with advancing the narrative--or her inability to have children and her wish that Vera settle down and have some of her own. Like THE PACT, there's much focus on motherhood, children, and family, but it just doesn't seem as well-planned or fully-realized. If you'd never seen these films and watched them back-to-back, in either order, and were told both were made by the same guy, you'd swear AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR was the one made by a nervous first-timer throwing everything he's got at the wall and seeing what sticks because he might not get another chance, and THE PACT was the solid, sure-handed later effort of a filmmaker with confidence, discipline, and experience. On the basis of THE PACT alone (if you haven't seen it, you really should), McCarthy is one of the most promising horror prospects going today, and there are occasions where AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR works (there's one unnerving sequence with Rickards at a babysitting job that could almost function as its own short film, and the notion of a spirit taking over someone and "wearing them like a costume," is a uniquely creepy description), but it too often feels like he's just belaboring points made in THE PACT and stumbling over half-baked ideas about things like infertility and the immigrant experience that don't seem to belong here. Maybe this is the kind of film that improves on a repeat viewing, or would play better if you haven't already seen THE PACT, a simpler and much superior work. (Unrated, 93 mins)

(US - 2014)

After two years on the shelf and no less than four title changes, THE DEVIL'S HAND received a cursory VOD dumping by Lionsgate sub-label Roadside Attractions in October, a full year after they took it off the Halloween 2013 release schedule when it was called WHERE THE DEVIL HIDES. That's rarely a good sign, but while THE DEVIL'S HAND isn't all that great, it does have some moments where it seems that a better, smarter film is trying to break out of the merely mediocre one that got released. Opening on June 6, 1994 in a cult-like, Amish-looking religious community called New Bethlehem, the film deals with a foretold prophecy that the sixth girl born on the sixth day of the sixth month will be the Drommelkind--"the Devil's Hand"--Satan reborn to wreak havoc on God's world, and it so happens that six women are giving birth this very night. One of the six newborn girls is suffocated by her own mother, and New Bethlehem leader Elder Beacon (Colm Meaney) is thwarted in his attempt to kill the other five by the progressive-minded Jacob (Rufus Sewell), who not only doesn't believe in Beacon's sternly fire-and-brimstone leadership style but also happens to be father of one of the other babies. 18 years later, the five surviving girls are best friends and barely-tolerated outcasts in the community, and starting with Hannah (Nicole Elliott), they're being offed one-by-one by a scythe-wielding maniac in a black-hooded robe. Jacob's seizure-and-visions-prone daughter Mary (Alycia Debnam Carey) starts to question the ideology of New Bethlehem, much to the disapproval of her bitter, bitchy stepmother Rebekah (an underused Jennifer Carpenter). As the body count rises--some of the girls' parents start dropping like flies, either by their own hand or by the scythe killer--Elder Beacon's tight grip on the community starts to slip, and with young, blossoming teenage girls ignoring his orders, that's all the evidence he needs to conclude that it's the Devil's work.

There's a thought-provoking film to be made about the terrifying, blind fervor of religious fanaticism, but only Meaney seems to be acting in that film. He's perfect as the unsympathetic, power-mad elder, overseeing his flock like a junkyard dog and prone to barking excuses like "As long as the Lord governs my actions, I can do no wrong!"  With its concealed scythe killer evoking memories of the post-SCREAM-and-I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER slashers of the late '90s, Mary's romance with the sheriff's sensitive dudebro son (Thomas McDonnell), and most of the cast coming from shows like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE ORIGINALS, THE 100, and REIGN, too much of THE DEVIL'S HAND plays like The CW commissioned a remake of Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING. Other than Meaney, the relatively older vets like Sewell and Carpenter have little to do (both vanish from the movie by the end), but the performances of the younger actors are better than expected, especially Australian actress Carey, who was recently cast in the WALKING DEAD spinoff COBALT. Written by Karl Mueller, who co-wrote the reprehensible THE DIVIDE, and directed by one Christian E. Christiansen (if indeed that is your real name, sir), whose previous credits include the 2011 Leighton Meester/Minka Kelly SINGLE WHITE FEMALE ripoff THE ROOMMATE, THE DEVIL'S HAND also demonstrates sure signs of cutting to secure a PG-13 rating, and as we all know, horror fans want things as watered-down and PG-13 as possible. There's lots of splattery aftermaths to the mayhem, but little is shown during, and some of the murder scenes are rather choppy, no pun intended. THE DEVIL'S HAND is pretty mild and forgettable, but it's fast-paced and short enough that it gets the job done if you're just looking for a dumb movie to unwind to after a long day. There's just a lot here to back up the nagging feeling that it really could've been something more and that maybe it's just been hacked down to its most basic mainstream and safest, unchallenging elements, like some suggestions that Elder Beacon is molesting some of New Bethlehem's teenage girls--don't expect anything with a PG-13 rating to explore that plot thread. As it is, THE DEVIL'S HAND is little more than the intersecting union of a "CW viewers" and "Colm Meaney stalkers" Venn diagram. (PG-13, 86 mins)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Once Upon a Poe Revival Dreary" Edition: MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1989) and the Poesploitation Remake Craze of 1989-91

(US - 1989)

Directed by Larry Brand. Written by Daryl Haney and Larry Brand. Cast: Patrick Macnee, Adrian Paul, Clare Hoak, Jeff Osterhage, Tracy Reiner, Kelly Ann Sabatasso, Maria Ford, Daryl Haney, George Derby. (R, 82 mins)

One of the strangest, most ill-conceived, and universally rejected fads in the history of horror cinema took place from 1989 to 1991. To honor the 140th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), veteran exploitation producers Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers separately initiated a competing series of Poe remakes and adaptations that were supposed to be released throughout 1989. This Poesploitation explosion probably seemed like a good idea, especially since some of Corman's best films as a director were his numerous 1960s Poe adaptations for AIP (THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE RAVEN, etc) that usually starred Vincent Price, and those were classic films still revered by critics and audiences. On the other hand, it was a fool's mission: there was little chance of these remakes doing anything but paling in comparison to respected adaptations that came before them and they were often beset by so much financial and behind-the-scenes turmoil that the majority of them never even made it to theaters. What was meant to celebrate the legacy of one of America's most influential writers ended up being the most ill-fated 1989 cinematic resurrection this side of EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES. Corman produced some occasionally worthwhile films under his then-current Concorde banner (STRIPPED TO KILL, CRIME ZONE, EYE OF THE EAGLE 3) and had a few minor hits that stayed in theaters for two weeks instead of just one (BLOODFIST, TWICE DEAD, CARNOSAUR), but typically, Concorde product was shot fast and cheap and vacated multiplexes quickly on their way to America's video stores. Unlike his days running New World in the 1970s, Corman didn't have much in the way of breakout directors during the Concorde era. Corman's proteges at New World included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. At Concorde, Corman was focused more on turning a quick profit than shepherding talent, though guys like Carl Franklin (EYE OF THE EAGLE 2) and Luis Llosa (CRIME ZONE) would find some A-list success at the big studios (Franklin with the Denzel Washington vehicles DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS and OUT OF TIME, and Llosa with SNIPER and THE SPECIALIST), and both Franklin and Rodman Flender (IN THE HEAT OF PASSION) are still busy with steady TV directing gigs. Both Corman and Towers (who bankrolled many a Jess Franco film in the 1960s) were past the point of caring about quality, but they got movies made, knew how to turn a profit, and had been in the game long enough to woo recognizable names who were not exactly at their career pinnacle and were cool with whatever as long as the check cleared.

"Now...the magic of the master of horror and suspense 
is available on videocassette for $79.95..."

The first of the new Poe adaptations to hit theaters was MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which opened on October 27, 1989 and moved around the country into January 1990 as Corman was still continuing his New World practice of striking a small number of prints and shipping them to different regions week by week. Corman's own THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) is regarded as one of his best films as a director and arguably the artistic pinnacle of his 1960s AIP Poe cycle. The remake again utilizes the same essential story of Prince Prospero (Adrian Paul) barricading himself in his castle along with the elite nobleman who suck up to him while a plague decimates the peasants in the surrounding countryside. All the while, a mysterious red-cloaked figure on horseback makes his way to the castle for the Masque, a grand ball where Prospero and his ilk finally get their comeuppance. Corman's 1960s Poe films were known for their sometimes campy elements and Vincent Price's hammy acting, but as the series went on, things generally got more serious, especially by the time of the 1964 MASQUE and the next year's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Price's Prospero was a smiling, gleeful sadist reveling in his power over those beneath him. As played by Paul, Prospero is gloomy and depressed, and the mood is much more bleak and funereal. Director/co-writer Larry Brand is hindered by an obviously low budget that causes some interiors to resemble a community theater production, but he uses that to his advantage: in the 1964 MASQUE, the opulent, brightly-colored look of Prospero's castle helped sell the Prince and his fellow debauched hedonists on the notion that they were immune from the Red Death and that they'd be safe among their wealth and privilege. In Brand's MASQUE, the flimsy sets and gray, decrepit decor only convey the idea that the sense of security is an illusion, and while the oblivious sycophants overindulge, a somber, morose Prospero knows that judgment day is coming.

Of course, being that it was 1989 and an R-rated Roger Corman production, Brand was allowed to throw in some more modern elements. There's some sporadic gore and some nudity in a grueling and seemingly endless scene where some orgiastic noblemen make three servant girls (among them Corman regular Maria Ford) strip. Prospero is also involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrecia (Penny Marshall's daughter Tracy Reiner, who took her stepdad Rob's name), who grows jealous over his attraction to peasant girl Julietta (Clare Hoak). This triangle also existed in the 1964 film, with Prospero's lover Juliana (Hazel Court) and peasant villager Francesca (Jane Asher), but there was no sibling/incest element. The other major change is that the biggest name in the cast is playing the Red Death, in this case Patrick Macnee, best known as John Steed on the classic 1960s TV series THE AVENGERS. It's hardly a spoiler, as Macnee's distinctive voice is heard emanating from behind the Red Death's covered face throughout (in other words, it's not Macnee in these scenes). Sporting what resembles a clip-on mullet, Macnee is seen briefly in a dream/flashback to Prospero's childhood as his mentor Machiavel in the opening scene, and his face isn't seen again for another hour, when Machiavel arrives at Prospero's castle for the Masque and quickly reveals himself to be the embodiment of the plague that's sweeping the vicinity. Macnee provides enough of a credible headlining name for Corman, but he's really just a top-billed guest star.  MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH has acquired a minor cult following over the years due to the presence of soon-to-be HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES star Paul, who already logged time on ABC's DYNASTY spinoff THE COLBYS and was co-starring in the syndicated TV series WAR OF THE WORLDS at the time he got the lead role in MASQUE. Considering its low-budget origins, Brand's MASQUE has a bit more going on than most Corman productions of that era. Brand achieves several striking shots throughout, and the film makes creative and pragmatic use of its budgetary limitations. With its melancholy tone and glacially slow pace, it also does a very effective job of capturing a foreboding and very palpable sense of doom and despair. It has its scattered moments of ineptitude--the male actors' wigs, the padded leggings on Hoak's stunt double clearly visible during her roll down a hillside in the climax--but count Brand's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH as one of the more intriguing and ambitious projects to emerge from the Corman/Concorde factory in the late '80s.

Scorpion has just released MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH on DVD (but not Blu-ray), in a very nice 1.78:1 transfer with an audio commentary track by Brand. The track is moderated by serial-one-man-commentary-wrecking crew Bill Olsen, the Code Red head who found some down time to fit this in between alienating his customer base with his constantly-vanishing web site, fighting with cult movie fans on message boards, and his various other daily social media meltdowns. Olsen has done some atrocious work in the past and this commentary gets off to a dubious start with the gaffe-prone emcee introducing the director as "Rally Brand," and Brand not even remembering shooting the opening credits sequence before admitting "It's been years since I've watched this." Olsen asks some expectedly dumb questions (though not as dumb as asking an incredulous Isabelle Mejias about her inspiration in the way she stirs Nestle Quik into a glass of milk on the commentary for 1983's JULIE DARLING), but once Brand gets comfortable, he has enough things to say that Olsen doesn't get much of a chance to indulge in his usual schtick, namely mocking the movie he's watching and mispronouncing actors' names on purpose in the least funny manner possible. Brand is a little delusional about how "beautiful" the sets look, but he has some interesting things to say about working on the Roger Corman assembly line and how Corman was generally hands-off as a producer and granted a director almost total freedom so long as they didn't go over budget and delivered the requisite amount of gore and/or nudity. Brand says that Macnee was their second choice for Machiavel after Michael York had a scheduling conflict, and calls himself a "prude," stating he wasn't really as interested in the exploitative elements as much as his Concorde colleagues, though he did have to tone down one torture scene where a restrained man is impaled in his skull when Corman feared it would get the film an X rating. MASQUE was Brand's second film for Corman, following 1988's THE DRIFTER, a FATAL ATTRACTION knockoff with Kim Delaney being stalked by psycho hitchhiker Miles O'Keeffe after a one-night stand at a cheap motel (the trailer declared "Love can be deadly, when the attraction is fatal!" just in case you weren't sure what blockbuster movie it was ripping off). Corman was pleased enough with the results of THE DRIFTER to offer Brand his choice between this or BLOODFIST (Brand on turning down BLOODFIST: "I wasn't really interested in kickboxing or working in the Philippines"), and he would go on to make the 1990 Catherine Oxenberg erotic thriller OVEREXPOSED before leaving the Corman stable, where he's generally worked in DTV thrillers except for scoring a co-writing credit on 2002's HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION.

Just as MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH finished making its rounds and playing to mostly empty theaters, the next Poe offering from Corman and Concorde arrived in the form of Jim Wynorski's THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA. MORELLA opened in February 1990 and traveled the same regional route for one-week stands across the US. It bore little resemblance to Poe or to the "Morella" segment in TALES OF TERROR as Wynorski took the core concept of the dead Morella taking over the soul of her grown daughter Lenora and added splatter, gratuitous nudity, and lesbian sex scenes to fashion the kind of T&A-filled romp that Brand showed little interest in making with MASQUE. A post-CHARLES IN CHARGE and pre-BAYWATCH Nicole Eggert (her last name misspelled on the poster) plays Morella/Lenora, with David McCallum, years before his NCIS-abetted resurgence, is Lenora's father/Morella's widower husband, with the main cast rounded out by the inevitable Maria Ford and BARBARIAN QUEEN's Lana Clarkson, a Corman veteran by this point, but tragically best known today for accepting an invitation back to Phil Spector's mansion one fateful night in 2003.

While Corman got the ball rolling on the Poe revival, the legendary producer quoth "Nevermore" and pulled the plug on future Poe-related endeavors, putting the onus on Towers to leave audiences nodding, nearly napping with the bulk of the other offerings. Towers had distribution deals with both Menahem Golan's short-lived 21st Century Film Corporation as well as a post-Golan Cannon led by Yoram Globus and Christopher Pearce. Towers was on a classics tear during this 1989-1991 period, producing not only Poe movies for 21st Century, but also the Robert Englund-headlined PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (also for 21st Century, and the doomed company's only nationwide release), yet another remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS for Cannon, and the spectacularly sleazy Jekyll & Hyde/Jack the Ripper hybrid EDGE OF SANITY for Miramax offshoot Millimeter Films (a sort-of B-movie predecessor to the later, more successful Dimension Films) with Anthony Perkins as the high society Dr. Jekyll turning into a coke-addled, masturbating Mr. Hyde on a serial-killing spree of lascivious Whitechapel streetwalkers. While PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and EDGE OF SANITY were shot on the same sets in Budapest, Towers' other films of this period were shot in Apartheid-era South Africa at a time when it was cost-effective but politically and socially frowned upon to do so. While PHANTOM, SANITY, and TEN LITTLE INDIANS made it into theaters, 21st Century was in immediate financial trouble and after MACK THE KNIFE tanked in limited release and THE FORBIDDEN DANCE (aka "the other Lambada movie") had to be distributed by Columbia, the money was gone and all of the company's titles (including Albert Pyun's CAPTAIN AMERICA, which was supposed to be 21st Century's meal ticket) were left in limbo on the shelf, only to trickle out on VHS courtesy of RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video over the next few years.

Towers' Poe projects were shot over 1988 and 1989 but didn't start turning up in video stores until late 1990 and into 1991 (shot in 1989, CAPTAIN AMERICA was unseen in the US until its VHS release in 1992). Despite some interesting casts, Towers' Poe titles are a pretty sorry lot. Unlike Corman, who chose to keep the MASQUE remake and THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA as period pieces, Towers' Poe titles are updated to the present day, but the modernization brings no new perspective to Poe or the themes in his work. BURIED ALIVE, shot in the fall of 1988 and released straight to video two years later, borrows the central conceit of The Cask of Amontillado by having the killer wall his living victims into a tomb, but it's mostly a bland slasher movie with minor supernatural elements and occasional shots of a black cat roaming around. Set at a school for troubled girls run by an ascot-sporting Robert Vaughn in prime "smug asshole" mode, BURIED ALIVE offers a few bits of spirited gore and some nudity and sleaze courtesy of French hardcore porn director Gerard Kikoine, who also helmed EDGE OF SANITY for Towers, but is a pretty tired affair, with Donald Pleasence hamming it up as a toupeed, German-accented doctor, a young Arnold Vosloo (THE MUMMY) as a sheriff's deputy who keeps trying to hook up with the heroine (Karen Witter), and an 18-year-old Nia Long in her first film, a couple of years before co-starring in BOYZ N THE HOOD. If BURIED ALIVE is remembered at all, it's because it was the last film of the legendary John Carradine, fourth-billed in what amounts to a bit part, with two brief appearances for a total screen time of less than a minute. 82-year-old Carradine died just days after his scenes were shot. He decided to treat himself to a brief European vacation after leaving South Africa, but he died suddenly while in Rome and never made it home to the States from his BURIED ALIVE gig.

THE HOUSE OF USHER, also shot in 1988 and unseen until its belated arrival in video stores in 1991, is one of the most boring horror films ever made, despite a hilariously surreal wedding sequence, a discreetly-shot scene of rat-on-genital torture, and a crazed Donald Pleasence going on a power-drill killing spree in the last third. Lots of secret passageways and long corridors in this updating, but director Alan Birkinshaw keeps this moving at a snail's pace, and it only briefly comes to life very late once Pleasence and Oliver Reed share the screen and engage in a full-throttle ham-off that's ruined by a total cop-out ending, and the chief music cue is a blatant recycling of Gary Chang's 52 PICK-UP score. Towers also had his own THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH remake to butt heads with Corman's MASQUE, this one directed by the busy Birkinshaw, with Herbert Lom (a replacement for Jack Palance, who bailed at the last minute) as a dying millionaire hosting a "Red Death"-themed party where the attendees are offed one-by-one in what amounts to another slasher movie disguised as a Poe adaptation. Lom and MASQUE co-stars Frank Stallone and Brenda Vaccaro were also in Towers' and Birkinshaw's TEN LITTLE INDIANS, and presumably shot their scenes during the same ethically-challenged trip to South Africa in 1989.

While Corman and Towers were the primary purveyors of the stunningly unsuccessful Poe revival, there were contributions from others to commemorate the anniversary of the great writer's passing. The most high-profile was the two-story George A. Romero/Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES, an Italian production shot in Pittsburgh in 1989 but unreleased in the US until late 1991. Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" was a remake of the concluding story in Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), where the dying, comatose Valdemar (Vincent Price) is under the influence of a conniving hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) who's after his fortune and his wife (Debra Paget). In Romero's version, the hypnotist (Ramy Zada) and the wife (Adrienne Barbeau) are in cahoots in their plot to get Valdemar's (Bingo O'Malley) money. Argento's "The Black Cat" is a mash-up of Poe stories with crime-scene photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel), his girlfriend Annabel Lee (Madeliene Potter), their black cat, their neighbors the Pyms (Martin Balsam, Kim Hunter), a sultry bartender named Eleonora (Sally Kirkland), and a body walled-up Amontillado-style. Despite its pedigree, neither director is at the top of their game with TWO EVIL EYES, and though this catches Argento in the infant stages of a several-decade career nosedive that shows no signs of stopping, he does manage a couple of memorable sequences and a committed, if a bit mannered, performance by Keitel, and while Romero's more or less resembles an R-rated episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, it's fairly entertaining and slightly better than its reputation.

With the possible exception of Brand's MASQUE, RE-ANIMATOR director Stuart Gordon's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) is probably the best film from the Poesploitation movement. It has the same dark, dour mood as MASQUE but benefits from a bigger budget, much better production design, and an absolutely riveting performance by Lance Henriksen. Released by Full Moon in the wake of the collapse of Empire Pictures, Gordon's PIT doesn't really follow Poe or Corman's 1961 film, instead telling a WITCHFINDER GENERAL-type story with witch-hunting inquisitor Torquemada (Henriksen) and his rabid, self-loathing sexual obsession with an accused spellcaster (Rona De Ricci). Shot in Italy, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM has a distinct European flavor to it and, despite its requisite amounts of gore and T&A, has a certain element of class to it, with Henriksen, in one of his best roles, bringing much legitimacy to the film's more lurid elements. Gordon was planning this PIT remake since the late '80s and actually had Peter O'Toole signed on to play Torquemada at one point until the project fell apart. Also featuring cult actors Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Stephen Lee, and Mark Margolis, and a cameo by Oliver Reed in a nice nod to Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is one of the best and most serious films to come from the studio best known for its PUPPET MASTER and DOLLMAN franchises. Even Troma got into the act with Fred Olen Ray's HAUNTING FEAR (1991), an alleged adaptation of The Premature Burial (previously made into a 1962 film by Corman, with Ray Milland stepping in for the director's lone '60s Poe movie without Vincent Price) with a cast of straight-to-video erotic thriller regulars like Brinke Stevens and Delia Sheppard mixing it up with fallen A-listers Jan-Michael Vincent and Karen Black as well as cult figures like Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA: VAMPIRE).

As if the Poe revival wasn't already going badly enough, two other completely unrelated films were pulled in to help absorb some of the flop sweat. Cannon's SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1990) began life in 1986 as a miniseries for Italian TV starring Lou Ferrigno and directed by Luigi Cozzi. Cannon fired Cozzi during pre-production and replaced him with Enzo G. Castellari. The project was shelved after Cannon deemed Castellari's six hours of footage unusable, but three years later, the cash-strapped company rehired Cozzi to piece together 80 minutes of salvageable footage from the rubble and shoot new wraparound sequences with Daria Nicolodi as a mom reading a bedtime story to her daughter, played by Cozzi's daughter Giada. The bedtime story was Poe's Arabian Nights parody "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade," which of course had little, if anything to do with the movie other than give Cannon an excuse to open the film with a crawl about Poe. SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS is a dumpster fire of a movie that's still worth seeing for an incredibly entertaining performance by John Steiner as the evil wizard Jaffar, but the whole thing is a badly stitched-together disaster, perfectly summed up by an amazing moment where Ferrigno's clean-shaven Sinbad dives into the sea and either Castellari or Cozzi cuts to a stock footage underwater shot of a bearded Ferrigno swimming, clumsily cribbed from 1983's HERCULES. Around the time he was trying to piece together something resembling a watchable SINBAD, Cozzi also found time to direct DE PROFUNDIS, featuring cult actors such as Caroline Munro and Brett Halsey, a film intended to be an unofficial third chapter to Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, which to that point consisted of SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980). Argento eventually officially completed that trilogy himself with 2008's MOTHER OF TEARS, while Cozzi's DE PROFUNDIS was attempting--and failing--to be meta before meta was cool. It's largely nonsense, with a director played by Urbano Barberini planning a sequel to SUSPIRIA about a witch named Levana, who keeps appearing as an apparition to vomit green goo on everyone. 21st Century acquired the film for the US and retitled it THE BLACK CAT with the cynical intention of selling it as another Poe title. Of course, it was shelved like all the others, debuting in the US on the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was then known) at some point in the early 1990s, and promptly vanishing shortly after without even getting a VHS release. It was available to stream on Netflix Instant for a while and can easily be found online, but despite some nice Argento-inspired color schemes and approximately 17 opportunities to hear Bang Tango's lone hit "Someone Like You," it's a mind-boggling, incoherent mess that's really only for the most devout Italian horror obsessives, and certainly not for anyone looking for anything even remotely related to Edgar Allan Poe.

Friday, December 12, 2014

In Theaters: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

(US/Spain - 2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass, Ewen Bremner, Isaac Andrews, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Dar Salim, Andrew Tarbet, Ken Bones, Hal Hewetson, Kevork Malikyan, Giannina Facio. (PG-13, 150 mins)

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Ridley Scott's epic, gargantuan retelling of the saga of Moses and Ramses, arrives on a wave of controversy so large that it could riding the parted Red Sea. Yes, the lead actors have an overwhelmingly white shade to them, no matter how much bronzing makeup they're wearing, and such casting is as antiquated a notion as massive, bloated Biblical epics of the Cecil B. DeMille variety. On one hand, it's nice to see something like this getting made today, but on the other, whether it's the legitimate issues of casting or addressing concerns of religious audiences, attempting a film of this sort in 2014 just seems to be asking for trouble, as evidenced by the myriad of theological hissy-fits surrounding the release of Darron Aronofsky's NOAH earlier this year.

Scott doesn't go as far off the rails here as Aronofsky did, and if there's any director who could pull something like this off today, it's the seemingly ageless BLADE RUNNER director. 77 years old and showing no signs of slowing down (though, like Clint Eastwood, he cranks his movies out so quickly that you have to question how much work he's delegating to the second unit, overseen by his son Luke), Scott is to be commended for making his CGI spectacles look as organic and practical as possible.  He's come a long way from the blurry, unconvincing Coliseum crowd shots of GLADIATOR in the primitive days of 2000.  With EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Scott goes old-school to a certain extent: the CGI and VFX teams handle the bulk of the heavy lifting, but there's an unusual number of actual sets in Spain and the Canary Islands, with real, costumed people milling about on them, and it makes a difference. It brings a living, breathing vitality to these scenes. Of course, digital takes over when it has to, but even then, Scott and the technicians go the extra mile to make it look convincing. As it is, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS isn't one of Scott's essential films, but it's one of his best-looking.

The core story remains the same: in Memphis in 1300 BCE, Moses (Christian Bale) is a general in the army of Egyptian pharoah Seti (John Turturro as Mark Strong). Seti trusts Moses and views him as just as much of a son as his actual offspring, the vain Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Seti even privately confesses to Moses that he feels he would make a better leader than Ramses. Moses goes on an official mission to Pitham to check in on Seti's Viceroy (Ben Mendelson) overseeing the Hebrew slaves and concludes that the Viceroy is living too much like royalty, wasting too much money, and blatantly mistreating the slaves. While there, Moses is informed by aged slave Nun (Ben Kingsley) that he was born a Hebrew and raised an Egyptian. Moses refuses to believe Nun's story but when the Viceroy gets wind of it, he reports the news to Ramses, who has just succeeded his late father. Ramses is conflicted, but exiles Moses out of Memphis. Nine years pass and Moses is now a shepherd married to Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and with a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson). When Moses is hit on the head during a mudslide, he has a vision of God, personified as a young boy (Isaac Andrews), who tasks him with freeing his people. Once back in Memphis, where Ramses has become every bit the cruel tyrant Seti predicted, Moses' efforts are slow and ineffective, prompting God to take matters into His own hands and unleash the ten plagues on Egypt. Ramses, perhaps one of civilization's earliest one-percenters, refuses to free the Hebrew slaves, citing the economic impossibility, though after the plague of the first-born claims his own son, the devastated Pharoah tells Moses and the slaves to leave. He quickly has a change of heart, swearing vengeance on Moses and leading his army into the mountains to kill Moses and the slaves, who had a four-day head start but are stopped by the Red Sea.

Scott and the committee of screenwriters (among them SCHINDLER'S LIST Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian) borrow a little of Scott's GLADIATOR with the recurring theme of a king father expressing doubts about his son's ability to rule (think of Richard Harris' Marcus Aurelius' concerns about Joaquin Phoenix's petulant Commodus). There's other interesting elements, like some present-day political parallels and the vengeful, Old Testament God being a little kid. Bale is a suitably driven, intense Moses and there's some ambiguity whether this could all be in his head. Though he doesn't take a strictly secular approach, Scott attempts to rationalize some of the more spiritual elements, such as the parting of the Red Sea being a catastrophic weather event complete with storms and swirling funnel clouds. The visual effects in the last third of the film, particularly the show-stopping parting of the Red Sea and Ramses' army's chariots trying to navigate narrow mountain roads, are jawdropping in 3D. But there's some negatives: as Ramses, Edgerton has little to do but scoff and scowl after a while, and the rest of the cast is really left adrift by some choppy editing and what would seem to be a contractual stipulation that Scott keep the film at 150 minutes, which it clocks in at exactly. Scott is one of the chief proponents of director's cuts and extended versions for DVD and Blu-ray (the director's cut of his 2005 epic KINGDOM OF HEAVEN being a textbook case held in especially high regard), and it's often painfully obvious that there's a longer EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS that will be surface at some point in the future (maybe doing this as a high-profile HBO or Netflix miniseries where characters and conflicts could be adequately established and built upon would've been a better idea). After a strong start, details start getting glossed over on the way to Moses' exile and then again during his return and the plagues, and Scott starts filling in the blanks with montages. Kingsley is in the whole film and is the focus of a few scenes, but mainly he's just hanging around in the background. At least he gets the spotlight once in a while, which is more than you can say for Aaron Paul as Joshua and Sigourney Weaver as Seti's wife Tuya, both of whom have almost no dialogue and whose entire roles consist of little beyond nodding or looking concerned about something someone else has said (Ramses is reluctant to banish Moses, and it's implied that Tuya is actually behind his forced exile, but it's hard to tell, since all she does is glare at him when it's brought up). Weaver had more screen time with her cameo in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, and she and Paul are nothing more than prominently-billed extras here. Like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN's theatrical cut, it's a safe assumption that what's here is a compromised, incomplete version, and it's likely that a longer cut will expand on the themes and give its supporting cast something to do. As it is, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, but unfortunately, it feels like you're only getting about 75% of it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


(Belgium/France/Luxembourg - 2014)

With 2010's AMER, the French filmmaking team of Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet wore their love of the Italian giallo on their sleeves, fashioning an extremely stylish film whose visual intoxication was largely smoke & mirrors obscuring the fact that they didn't have much to say other than "We really love early Dario Argento movies." Though it contained obvious homages to Argento and Mario Bava, and eventually featured the belated appearance of a black-gloved killer, AMER wasn't so much a giallo as it was a filmmaking experiment that co-opted the style of the giallo, much like Peter Strickland's frustrating BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013).  Forzani and Cattet have returned with THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and it's an altogether more satisfying experience, even if they let their story unfold with little regard for narrative flow or a coherent plot. STRANGE COLOUR is the kind of trippy descent into madness where everything might be imaginary and almost nothing makes sense, but it doesn't matter. It's a triumph of style over substance, and it would seem that since AMER, the filmmakers are at least attempting to pay lip service to the idea of plot mechanics and committed themselves to utilizing the giallo style for something that could be mostly deemed a giallo. Of course, there's the endless visual references and the appropriation of the era's score cues by the likes of Bruno Nicolai, Ennio Morricone, Franco Micalizzi, Nico Fidenco, and Alessandro Alessandroni, but every scene and every shot is a small masterpiece of dazzling artistry. Whether the filmmakers are using a Brian De Palma split screen, conveying the claustophobic, walls-closing-in psychological terror of Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT), staging an innovative and highly-choreographed Argento-style murder (hearing noises in the apartment above, a man drills a small hole in the ceiling and sneaks into said apartment while his wife listens with a stethoscope and hears the killer's steps approaching her husband as she witnesses the murder through the hole in the ceiling), or simply granting us the sight of a few Lucio Fulci maggots, their love of that era of Italian thrillers bleeds as profusely as the victims onscreen. THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS is probably a love-it-or-hate-it proposition and those unfamiliar with gialli may scoff at the perceived pretentiousness of it all, but even if you're not a fan, it's awfully difficult to not be seduced by the virtuosi filmmaking on constant display.

Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange, who has a striking resemblance to Willem Dafoe) returns from a business trip to his lush, ornate building and has to break his door in when it's chain-locked from the inside and his wife Edwige (Ursula Bedena) is nowhere to be found in the apartment. None of the neighbors have seen her and instead, they complain to the building manager (Sam Louwyck) about Dan. Incredulous detective Vincentelli (Jean-Michel Vovk) finds Dan's story increasingly difficult to believe, and doesn't buy his claims of a mysterious bearded man (Joe Koener) sneaking into his apartment when none of the other neighbors have seen him. As Edwige's absence goes on and all manner of psychosexual imagery abounds, Dan's grip on reality and sanity slips as he, Vincentelli, and the building manager all have their own neuroses exposed, all involving an alluring mystery woman known as "Laura," while a mad killer makes their way through secret corridors behind the walls, emerging from hiding to stab people in the head. Argento is the chief influence here, especially with the production design of Dan's apartment building evoking Mater Tenebrarum's NYC stronghold in INFERNO (1980), and Dan's discovery of a dark secret behind a false wall and his misreading of a vital clue being callbacks to DEEP RED (1975). But there's more: certain portions recall the fashion gialli of Sergio Martino, whose THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (1971) and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972), along with Giuliano Carnimeo's WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD ON JENNIFER'S BODY? aka THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1971) helped coin the film's awkwardly verbose title. Dreamy, slo-mo shots of beautiful women with long, Medusa-like hair draped over pillows are straight from Fulci's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971). THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS does get too obfuscating for its own good on occasion, especially the long, circular sequence where an hallucinating Dan keeps buzzing himself into the building, and there's a few instances where Forzani and Cattet hit a wall and the film has to get itself back on track. They don't break any new ground here, instead mining decades-old material and presenting it in a way that's fresh, alive, and fascinating. It makes little sense in terms of linear plot, but it doesn't matter. Let THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS wash over you and cast its spell. It's an enigmatic, nightmarish, and stunningly beautiful film. (Unrated, 102 mins; also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(Norway/Denmark/UK/US/Iceland - 2014)

After licking the wounds incurred from 2013's HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, his disastrous attempt to break into Hollywood, Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola goes back to his roots with an English-language sequel to his 2009 cult zombie hit DEAD SNOW. Intermittently amusing but not nearly as much as it thought it was, DEAD SNOW nevertheless got a lot of love from the horror community with a style that attempted to emulate early Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson as a group of vacationing skiers encountered an army of resurrected Nazi undead. The last thing the world needs is one more zombie movie, but Wirkola surpasses all expectations with bigger-budgeted and wildly inspired follow-up that's got something to offend everyone. Beginning moments after the events of the first film, sole survivor Martin (Vegar Hoel, promoted to co-writer with Wirkola and co-star Stig Frode Henriksen) manages to get away from the horde of flesh-eaters led by zombified Nazi Gen. Herzog (Orjan Gamst) and winds up in a hospital, where he's accused of killing all of his friends and can't convince the cops that the zombies did it. Doctors have also surgically attached what they think is Martin's right arm, which he chainsawed off immediately after he was bitten. The reattached arm actually belongs to Herzog, and now Martin's right arm has immeasurable strength and the ability to reanimate the dead by touch. He escapes from the hospital and makes his way to a nearby town, which is exactly where Herzog's army is heading, still following Hitler's orders to invade and destroy. With the cops on his trail, Martin befriends barely-closeted local museum employee Glenn Kenneth (Henriksen) and adopts an affable and helpful zombie sidekick (Kristoffer Joner) that he can keep putting in dangerous situations and revive if necessary. They're soon joined by a trio of nerdy American siblings calling themselves The Zombie Squad--Daniel (Martin Starr of FREAKS AND GEEKS, PARTY DOWN, and SILICON VALLEY), STAR WARS-obsessed Monica (Jocelyn DeBoer), and brainy Blake (Ingrid Haas)--and they get additional help from a reanimated--and still pissed-off--Russian platoon for a BRAVEHEART-style throwdown where nothing is too over-the-top.

DEAD SNOW: RED VS. DEAD is one of the few zombie comedies that comes close to replicating the anarchic, anything-goes, fuck-you-if-can't-take-a-joke spirit of Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE: anyone can be killed in any number of hilariously horrifying yet slapsticky ways, whether they're infants in strollers or geriatrics in scooters; resourceful zombies yank out some guy's intestines so they can siphon gasoline from a bus to a tank; Martin spends the entire film covered in blood and there's no shortage of inventive ways Wirkola has him forgetting to realize his own strength with Herzog's supercharged arm, with a disastrous attempt at CPR on a little kid being particularly memorable and gross; endless impalings, smashed heads, and creative and incredibly gory zombie kills, and in one truly off-the-rails segment, a female zombie coming back to life and screwing her still-grieving boyfriend, all to the tune of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." I didn't really get all the love DEAD SNOW received from fans, but DEAD SNOW: RED VS. DEAD is an improvement across-the-board, in every aspect. It's the PUNISHER: WAR ZONE to DEAD SNOW's THE PUNISHER. Fun performances all around, and it gets a lot of mileage from its visiting American cast members, who help make this the most oddly-appealing zombie-battling ensemble this side of SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  Back home after an ill-fated Hollywood sojourn, Wirkola gets it right and delivers the gonzo line-crosser that the first film should've been. (R, 100 mins)

(UK/Ireland/US - 2014)

Inspired by Welsh journalist Jon Ronson's brief late '80s tenure as the keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom's band, FRANK updates the setting to the present day and gained some film festival notoriety as the indie where Michael Fassbender spends 95% of the film wearing an oversized papier-mache head. The head is almost identical to the one sported by "Frank Sidebottom," a character played by British comedian/performance artist/musician Chris Sievey (1955-2010) from the '70s well into the '90s. The film, co-written by Ronson (who also wrote the book The Men Who Stare at Goats, and was played by Ewan McGregor in the 2009 film version), centers on Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a would-be songwriter who lucks into a gig filling in with an experimental, avant-garde band called The Soronprfbs when their keyboardist has a breakdown. Fronted by the eccentric Frank (Fassbender), whose own bandmates have never seen him without his mask, the Soronprfbs take off to a seaside cottage in Ireland to work on a new album with manager/producer Don (Scoot McNairy). The rest of the band--theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), and drummer Nana (Carla Azar)--have little use for Jon and his mainstream, pop aspirations, and even though Jon offers them his life savings to work on the album after they run out of money, they allow him no creative input.  Eleven months of isolated living go by before Frank is comfortable enough to begin recording, and Jon, who has been secretly posting their sessions to social media and building the band's brand, has endeared himself to Frank and convinces him to take the band to SXSW. Arriving in Austin on a wave of underground hype thanks to Frank's unique stage presence, the Soronprfbs promptly implode over Jon's increased influence on their sound. This turns the band into the unplugged duo of Frank and Jon as Jon is forced to function as caretaker for the delicate and damaged frontman, who has his reasons for adopting his unusual persona.

Director Lenny Abrahamson keeps FRANK quirky to a fault for most of its running time, and the humor in the defiantly uncommercial, inaccessible, Captain Beefheart-inspired songs quickly runs out of steam. It does gain some significant traction in its late stages once things turn serious as Jon gets to the root of why Frank is the way he is, and Fassbender is such a gifted actor that he can turn nothing into something and create a fully-developed character with his face concealed for most of the film, just on the basis of body language and his muffled vocal inflections. Fassbender is very good and McNairy gets some laughs as the dour, depressed manager with an unusual sexual fetish for mannequins, and while it gets better as it goes along, FRANK is just too aggressive in its bid for prefab cult appeal and too blatantly pandering in its need for the loving embrace of the hipster crowd. (R, 95 mins)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: DYING OF THE LIGHT (2014)

(US/Bahamas - 2014)

Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim, Irene Jacob, Ayman Hamdouchi, Claudius Peters, Adetomiwa Edun, Robert G. Slade, Serben Celea, Silas Carson, Arsha Aghdasi. (R, 94 mins)

Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) is a legend at the CIA headquarters in Langley. He's received virtually every honor the CIA can bestow. One of the most brilliant minds in the history of the agency and a loner who's devoted his entire life to his country, Lake's been saddled with "temporary" desk duty that's now in its sixth year. He's desperate to get back in the field, but his right hand twitches, he drinks too much, and he's been prone to mood swings that are becoming more erratic by the day. He also hasn't been able to let go of a Beirut assignment from 22 years earlier where he was captured and brutally tortured by terrorist Mohammed Banir (Alexander Karim), who repeatedly beat him over the head with an oar and snipped off part his ear before an extraction team swarmed in, took out Banir and his men, and rescued Lake. Lake hasn't shaken the gnawing notion that Banir is still alive, and when he brings it up around the office, it usually provokes eye-rolls and a stern word from the CIA chief to drop it. And the news just got worse for Lake: he's been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, an aggressive brain disease similar to Alzheimer's that provokes difficulty focusing, outbursts, lack of emotional control, and wildly inappropriate overreactions. Respected around the office but stand-offish and cold, Lake's only work friend is young analyst Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), who's been doing some investigating in his spare time and gets a hit on a medication that's being smuggled into Bucharest after being prescribed by a Kenya-based doctor (Serben Celea). It's a seldom-used med that treats a rare genetic blood disorder that killed Banir's father and that Banir is known to carry. Knowing Banir has associates in both Mombasa and Bucharest, Schultz presents his findings to Lake, who is more convinced than ever that Banir faked his death and is alive, if not well. When the CIA honchos refuse to hear him out and practically force him to retire when his efforts to conceal his condition fail, Lake has a meltdown that ends up getting him escorted out of the building. With nothing to lose and wanting to nail Banir and prove he was right all along, Lake decides to spend what little time he has left finding Banir and exacting revenge. Lake and Schultz go rogue, heading to Romania where Lake attempts to infiltrate Banir's off-the-grid hiding place by posing as the new hematologist being secretly paid to visit and treat him.

DYING OF THE LIGHT sounds like a standard-issue post-9/11 terrorism thriller, and that's pretty much what it is. But that's not what writer/director Paul Schrader had in mind. Schrader, the oft-embattled '70s auteur whose screenplays include the Martin Scorsese essentials TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and whose directorial credits feature BLUE COLLAR (1978), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), CAT PEOPLE (1982), and AFFLICTION (1997), had the film taken away from him during post-production, when the producers decided they didn't like the version he assembled, saying it looked nothing like the script he originally presented to them. In October, Schrader, backed by Cage, Yelchin, and co-producer Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE), all contractually forbidden to publicly badmouth the film, staged a silent protest on social media that went viral, where they simply wore T-shirts with the contractual clause about not disparaging the movie printed on the front. Schrader said nothing, other than he was locked out of the editing room and the released version of DYING OF THE LIGHT is not his work, while primary producer Grindstone Entertainment and distributor Lionsgate have predictably offered no comment.

Clockwise from top left: Cage, Yelchin, Schrader and Refn display their grievances
with the producers and distributor of DYING OF THE LIGHT

Everything on screen was indeed shot by Schrader, but of course, editing can make a huge difference. Film Comment's Kevin Jagernauth has seen both versions of DYING OF THE LIGHT and says the differences aren't that extensive but that the sense of terror and disorientation in Cage's character has been downplayed in the released cut. In its present form, DYING OF THE LIGHT's biggest sin is its bland, generic execution, looking and playing very much like any random Romania-shot straight-to-DVD actioner. The action is mainly confined to the last 10-15 minutes and feels crammed in, and most of the way, it's a talky drag with performances that never really click. Yelchin is completely miscast, while Cage, sporting a gray version of one of his new Christopher Lee hairpieces, has been given a free pass to Cage it up thanks to the symptoms of his character's illness. He has a few of his patented outbursts, loves to overdo the hand twitch, gets to shout "As-salamu alaykum, asshole!" and absurdly mispronounces "Benghazi" to keep himself amused. There's fleeting hints of a more serious character study with Lake, and Schrader could probably draw a straight line through his past characters like Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, William Devane's Charles Rane in ROLLING THUNDER (1977), Willem Dafoe's John LeTour in LIGHT SLEEPER (1992), Nick Nolte's Wade Whitehouse in AFFLICTION, plus others, directly to Evan Lake. They're all men who feel lost and alienated from the world and are reinvigorated when they find a purpose--typically revenge of some sort. That sometimes comes across in some of DYING OF THE LIGHT's more introspective moments, but those are few and far between. What's here is as much of a standard B-actioner that Grindstone and the producers could assemble. It could've just as easily been directed by regular Grindstone hack Brian A. Miller (THE OUTSIDER, THE PRINCE) and starred Dominic Purcell.  Refn was attached to direct in the earliest pre-production stages in 2010, along with Harrison Ford as Lake and Channing Tatum as Schultz, but that fell apart when Ford bolted after disagreeing with the ending of Schrader's script, which does stay intact even in this compromised version.

Obviously, the behind-the-scenes discord with DYING OF THE LIGHT is more interesting than anything that's in the movie. Whatever its intentions, it's yet another in a long line of Redbox-ready Nic Cage trifles that seem to come along every couple of months, allowing him to chew the scenery and add to the endless YouTube "Nic Cage Freaks Out!!!" clips.  He's almost a pet doing tricks at this point. Perhaps we'll never know what really went down, but by now, this kind of thing is hardly shocking when it comes to Schrader. Back in 2003, he found himself in a very similar situation when Morgan Creek execs took his EXORCIST prequel away from him when they didn't appreciate the cerebral, spiritual film he made that featured very little in the way of levitation, green vomit, and mothers sucking cocks in Hell. Renny Harlin was hired to reshoot some scenes and beef up the crowd-pleasing horror factor, but his additions became so extensive that Schrader's version was scrapped entirely and completely refilmed by Harlan as the awful EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004) with the same lead actor (the patient and presumably well-compensated Stellan Skarsgard). The story caused such a stir with Hollywood insiders and fans that Schrader's shelved version, retitled DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, was given a limited release in 2005. It's not always successful, but it's very character-driven and intelligently-written, and it's certainly better than Harlan's remake.

Schrader with his stars during a break in filming
The 68-year-old Schrader has made great films over his long career, but he never seemed to get over the demise of 1970s maverick auteurism in the wake of Michael Cimino's United Artists-bankrupting HEAVEN'S GATE (1980).  Like Terry Gilliam, he appears to enjoy putting himself in situations where he's David taking on the Goliath-like "system." I'm all for giving a filmmaker of Schrader's stature as much wiggle room as he wants. He's earned it, but he's also been in the business long enough to know that a theory-filled religious drama with EXORCIST in the title wasn't going to fly with anyone and that the producers would eventually get their way (was he completely unaware of William Peter Blatty's battles with the same Morgan Creek guys on 1990's THE EXORCIST III?). But even when he works outside the studio system and helms the partially crowd-funded THE CANYONS (2013), the result is a self-indulgent disaster. Did Schrader not see this coming when he got in bed with a bunch of B action producers like Grindstone and the Bahamas-based Tin Res Entertainment and tried to make a serious, meaningful film?  Did he think Refn would have enough clout to get him his way? Do any of these guys have an understanding of the business in which they work?  Schrader is living in a past where all filmmakers have final cut and it's all about art. It would be great if it could be that way, and it was until Cimino ruined it for everyone, but has Schrader heard of GANGS OF NEW YORK, the film that proved even Martin Scorsese doesn't get final cut and has to answer to his backers? Schrader answering to no one gave us THE CANYONS. I got the impression from that film that Schrader was bitter and angry about a lot of things, and maybe he's justified. Like many of his protagonists, Schrader has been left on the fringes and removed from the process after demonstrating an inability to adapt to a changing world. When he made THE CANYONS, he said he was on the cutting edge of a revolution with crowd-funding. Now, here he is, a year later, fighting the same old battles and expecting a different outcome. Maybe Schrader's director's cut of DYING IN THE LIGHT is his masterpiece. I doubt it, but I'd love to see this once-relevant and frequently brilliant filmmaker knock one out of the park again. Schrader deserves better, but at the same time, you have to wonder if he, like Terry Gilliam, brings a lot of this on himself.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Cannon Files: THE NAKED FACE (1985)

(US - 1985)

Written and directed by Bryan Forbes. Cast: Roger Moore, Rod Steiger, Elliott Gould, Anne Archer, Art Carney, David Hedison, Ron Parady, Deanna Dunagan, John Kapelos, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Dick Sollenberger, Cynthia Baker Schuyler, Virginia Smith. (R, 105 mins)

Action movies and ninjas may have been what kept the lights on during their heyday, but Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus wanted to take Cannon in a classier direction. Occasional prestige projects like Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (1982) would get made, but it wasn't until 1984 that Golan & Globus started to actively court respectable filmmakers who were on the outs with Hollywood or fed up with playing the major studio game: 1984 saw the release of John Cassavetes' LOVE STREAMS and Golan's own Woody Allen-esque OVER THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE, while 1985 brought Robert Altman's FOOL FOR LOVE, Liliana Cavani's THE BERLIN AFFAIR, and two American films from famed Russian auteur Andrei Konchalovsky with MARIA'S LOVERS and RUNAWAY TRAIN. With the late 1984 hit MISSING IN ACTION, and then the likes of MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING, DEATH WISH 3, INVASION, U.S.A., and AMERICAN NINJA, 1985 was really the year that Cannon blew up and that beautiful logo became a weekly staple in American multiplexes. However, there were several big-star Cannon offerings in 1985 that, for various reasons, fell through the cracks and didn't get much exposure: Anthony Harvey's offbeat dark comedy GRACE QUIGLEY, an unlikely pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Nick Nolte in a doomed production whose troubles began when original director Hal Ashby quit during pre-production and ended with the film existing in three different versions that satisfied no one; Desmond Davis' Agatha Christie adaptation ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, starring Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway, and Christopher Plummer; J. Lee Thompson's THE AMBASSADOR, a very loose adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 52 Pick-Up, with Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn, and Rock Hudson in his final big-screen appearance; and THE ASSISI UNDERGROUND, written and directed by Polish author Alexander Ramati and based on his own novel, dealing with the Catholic Church's rescue of Italian Jews from the Nazis. ASSISI, starring CHARIOTS OF FIRE's Ben Cross, Maximilian Schell, Irene Papas, and James Mason in his last film (it was released over a year after his death), was originally a three-hour epic that Cannon chopped down to two before they stealthily unveiled it in a few markets.

One such 1985 cast-off was THE NAKED FACE, based on a novel by Sidney Sheldon. The project was chosen by Roger Moore, who was growing tired of his James Bond persona and was looking to branch out into more serious acting roles. Moore tried to leave the 007 franchise after 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, but was wooed back for two more films: 1983's OCTOPUSSY and 1985's A VIEW TO A KILL. Golan & Globus were happy to accommodate Moore and even went along with his recommendation of hiring Bryan Forbes to write and direct the film. One of Moore's oldest and dearest friends since the two met while in the British Army just after WWII, Forbes was a veteran British journeyman with numerous highly respected films to his credit: THE ANGRY SILENCE (1960), THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1962), SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964), KING RAT (1965), THE WRONG BOX (1966), and his biggest commercial success, THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975). He also wrote several novels and acted occasionally, with his best-known role being Turk Thrust, the guitar-strumming attendant at the nudist colony visited by Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards' A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964). Forbes also produced and co-wrote Basil Dearden's doppelganger suspense thriller THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF (1970), regularly cited by Moore as his personal favorite performance of his career. Forbes took the job and THE NAKED FACE was shot entirely on location in Chicago in the fall of 1983 when Moore had some downtime between OCTOPUSSY and A VIEW TO A KILL. During this period, Moore also managed to fit in a cameo as a post-plastic surgery Clouseau in 1983's misbegotten CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, where he was credited as "Turk Thrust II" as an inside joke for his buddy Forbes that's more amusing than anything in the movie.

THE NAKED FACE presents Moore as Dr. Judd Stevens, a successful Chicago shrink who finds himself the target of a killer. First, a patient is stabbed two blocks from his office after Stevens loans him his raincoat and he's mistaken for the doctor. Then Stevens' receptionist is killed. Stevens, who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident two years earlier, leads a quiet life and is greatly disturbed by these events. Not helping matters is Lt. McGreevy (Rod Steiger), the irate cop assigned to the case with the more sympathetic Det. Angeli (Elliott Gould who had just starred in OVER THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE). Loud, bad-tempered bigot McGreevy thinks Stevens is the killer and has something to hide, so he harasses the doctor mercilessly, probing every aspect of his life to find incriminating evidence against him. McGreevy's beef with Stevens is personal: several years earlier, McGreevy's former partner was killed by a perp who got to plead insanity thanks to Stevens' testimony. McGreevy ignores any leads that don't involve arresting Stevens, and even when two gunmen break into his apartment and try to kill him, Stevens still can't convince McGreevy that someone is trying to kill him. Angeli sees that McGreevy is trying to railroad Stevens and gets him taken off the case, which then adds him to McGreevy's endless shit list. While Angeli actually works the case, Stevens resorts to eccentric private eye Morgens (Art Carney), who finds a bomb planted in Stevens' car and quickly finds out who's causing all the mayhem, as McGreevy secretly follows Angeli to stay peripherally involved in the case, plotting his next move.

THE NAKED FACE is a simple and straightforward thriller with some moments of genuine suspense and a good performance by Moore. Moore seems enthused to be away from his winking and increasingly self-deprecating James Bond act and playing a real character who's often presented as weak and vulnerable. Frequently sporting thick lenses in a set of large and unflattering eyeglass frames (even by 1985 standards), Moore's Stevens is hardly a fighting man of action and takes his share of physical and verbal abuse throughout. When he's trapped in his apartment by a gunman, he's practically cowering in the corner of his bedroom when he's rescued by his surgeon brother-in-law (David Hedison, Moore's LIVE AND LET DIE Felix Leiter), who scares away the intruder. There's no wry, snide one-liners here and Moore is quite good in a more subdued role than audiences were accustomed to seeing him play. The major problem with THE NAKED FACE, other than its overbearing score by Michael J. Lewis, is that once the antagonist and their motivation are revealed, your response will likely be along the lines of "And?!" It seems like a lot of people are killed for not much of a reason, and having the villain order his flunkies to kidnap Stevens and bring him to his base of operations so he can talk and talk and over-explain his motive and address Stevens in a dismissive tone seems like something that would happen in a 007 movie. Forbes also changes the ending of the book in a way that does nothing to help the film, which fades to black on a truly bizarre note that doesn't seem to know the difference between "open-ended ambiguity" and "opening a whole new can of worms." The ending of the film wants to be a shocking twist, but it's handled very poorly and comes off as botched and clumsy.

There's still a lot to like in the mostly enjoyable THE NAKED FACE. Though Gould, Carney, Hedison, and Anne Archer (as one of Stevens' patients), turn in solid performances, they have little to do (the rest of the cast is rounded out by Chicago-based actors, including John Kapelos and former Northwestern University theater professor Ron Parady in prominent supporting roles, which begs the question: where's Ron Dean?). Perhaps everyone was just deferring and leaving the scenery for Steiger to gorge himself on. Shouting throughout like a Windy City Chief Gillespie and sporting a terrible toupee, Steiger turns in one of his great bellicose asshole performances in THE NAKED FACE. Moore may have been trying to show some range here with a sincere, serious performance, but Steiger just goes Full Throttle Rod, and while it could easily be construed as self-indulgent overacting, it's a performance that works considering the all-consuming bitterness of the character he's playing. It's hardly the most out-of-control he ever was in a film, and it still pales in comparison to his legendary "You wanna fuck me?!" outburst to Danny Aiello in the otherwise insignificant THE JANUARY MAN (1989), but still, the incomparable Steiger is on fire in THE NAKED FACE.

THE NAKED FACE wasn't the breakaway from Bond that Moore anticipated. Cannon sat on it for over a year before dumping it in a handful of theaters--mostly in the Chicago market--for a one-week run on January 25, 1985. There were reports of disagreements between Forbes and Golan, particularly when Moore's mother became gravely ill during production and Forbes rearranged the shooting schedule to allow the star to take a week off to visit her in London without consulting Golan about it first. A furious Golan reportedly slashed the budget and shortened the shooting schedule, forcing Forbes to make rushed compromises that may be an indication of why the film seems so clumsily-structured in its second half (among other things in the unsatisfying finale, it feels like there should be one more scene between Moore's and Steiger's characters). Whatever the reason--and the clashing with filmmakers and the shelving of relatively prestigious fare out of spite sounds more like Harvey Weinstein than Menahem Golan--THE NAKED FACE was one of several high-end, big-name Cannon projects from 1985 that were buried and quickly forgotten as Golan & Globus turned their attention to the money generated by guys like Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and Michael Dudikoff. It was also Forbes' last big-screen directing effort. He went on to make the 1990 Showtime miniseries THE ENDLESS GAME, based on his own 1985 spy novel, and he co-wrote Richard Attenborough's CHAPLIN (1992) before retiring from movies. Forbes died in 2013 at the age of 86.

Sir Roger Moore in a publicity photo
for his 2014 memoir One Lucky Bastard
Now 87, Sir Roger Moore has acted sparingly in the years following his 1985 retirement from the world of 007, instead focusing on charity work and his tireless humanitarian efforts (he was knighted in 2003 for his work with UNICEF). Cannon's proposed remake of the classic GUNGA DIN, announced in 1988 with Ben Kingsley in the title role and Moore, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery as British soldiers, obviously never happened, though Moore would star with Caine in the straight-to-video comedy BULLSEYE! (1991) for Golan's short-lived, post-Cannon outfit 21st Century Film Corporation. He played the villain in the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle THE QUEST (1996) and had campy turns opposite the Spice Girls in SPICE WORLD (1998) and as a flamboyant passenger on a gay cruise ship, aggressively hitting on Horatio Sanz ("Would you like a bite of my sausage?") in the Cuba Gooding Jr. atrocity BOAT TRIP (2003). He's done some voice work in a few animated films, usually spoofing his 007 image (2010's CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE had Moore voicing debonair feline spy Tab Lazenby in a joke almost certainly over the heads of the film's intended audience), and in 2006, recorded essential DVD audio commentaries for all seven of his Bond outings. He's written a personal history of the James Bond films (2012's Bond on Bond: The Ultimate Book on 50 Years of Bond Movies), and penned two enormously entertaining memoirs (2008's My Word is My Bond and 2014's One Lucky Bastard), and even if he isn't busy on the big screen, he shows no signs of slowing down.  Kino Lorber recently released THE NAKED FACE on Blu-ray, and it's a shame they didn't get Moore to contribute a commentary. As his books and his work on the 007 DVDs demonstrate, he's grown into one of the cinema's great raconteurs. Let's face it: Roger Moore was never going to win an Academy Award. He's rarely busted his ass as an actor and most of his non-007 career choices seemed dictated by where the films were being shot and how nice of a working vacation they'd provide. But Moore has always been the kind of charismatic guy who could get away with that. He's never pretended to be a great actor, but he's a class act and many of those critical of his more lighthearted interpretation of 007 have rightfully come around to appreciating him as a living legend in his emeritus years.