Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Oct 15, 2007


In the world of horror, you either “get” Lucio Fulci or you don’t. After starting his career in Italian cinema as a genre jack-of-all-trades (moving from comedies to westerns to musicals), he found himself hated by his homeland when he made the scathingly anti-Catholic Don’t Torture a Duckling (which hinted at the whole “priest-pedophile” issue years before it was acceptable). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States known it, Zombie) refurbished his box office clout, turning Lucio into one of the most recognizable international brand names for excessive gore epics.


Zombie was followed by The City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), a notorious bloodbath featuring young women vomiting up their internal organs and a man getting an industrial drill thrust through his head (all witnessed in loving close-up). Toward the end of his career, he was accused of repeating himself (The House by the Cemetery) or creating low budget, incoherent junk (House of Clocks, Cat in the Brain). Right in the middle of it all was the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, the often misunderstood and named The Beyond (or The Seven Doors of Death or And You Will Live in Terror: The Afterlife). It combined the guts and grue of Fulci’s newfound fondness for flesh rendering with a hyper-stylized visual flair and somber, sullied Southern Gothic overtones.


Over the twenty-five or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult that champions its artistry and voices frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually made available in. For a long time, the only way to see this Fulci flick was to rent or buy an abysmal, pan and scan full screen edit job with the strangely suggestive Seven Doors title. Missing most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film into an even more disjointed collection of random cuts, it was the stunted remnant the rabid Fulci fan had to dig his or her claws into. Thanks to the efforts of the unlikely duo of Sage Stallone (Sly’s son), who oversaw a major restoration of the movie, and Quentin Tarantino, who distributed it through his Rolling Thunder prestige label, The Beyond got its comeback (sadly, Fulci died before the rediscovery was in full swing). The end result, however, may be a small swatch of disappointment.


Our story begins when Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative. Naturally, she moves from the big city to the Big Easy to start anew. When one of the workmen helping to refurbish the place has a horrible accident, it seems to portend terrible things to come. A plumber named Joe is attacked and killed in the basement, and a long dead corpse is discovered. Joe’s wife dies of an accidental acid bath to the face. Then Liza runs into a blind girl named Emily who warns her about the inn’s haunted past. More gory accidents occur.


Soon it is learned that sixty years before, a warlock named Schweick lived in the lodge and occupied Room 36. The hotel was apparently built over one of the seven gateways to hell, and the strange sorcerer was either working to keep it closed…or trying to find a way of opening it. With the help of a local doctor and an ancient book, Liza must discover the truth about the “doors of death” and face down evil before the dead walk the Earth and plunge the planet into a nightmare world of malevolence.


The Beyond is an incoherent, chaotic combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is almost saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, yet finds ways to squander and squelch each and every golden gruesome opportunity. It’s a movie that gets better with multiple viewings, familiarity lessening the startling goofiness of some of the dialogue and dubbing. It is a film that is far more effective in recollection than it is as an actual viewing experience. It would probably work best as a silent movie, stripped of the illogical scripting, stupendously redundant Goblin-in-training soundtrack drones, and obtuse aural cues.


Fulci is more than capable of creating stark and moving visuals, and there is nothing wrong with linking them together to form a dreamlike state of ambiguousness, but the problem with The Beyond is that the stream of consciousness style fails to build into an effective state of dread. Instead of being mortified at what’s around the corner, or what waits in darkened Room 36, we are pitched about like Tilt-a-Whirl patrons, the film hoping we are pleased with a less than smooth suspense ride.



The Beyond also suffers from the drawbacks of its ethnic heritage, a mishmash of ogre overkill that could be called the Pasta Eater’s Prerequisites to Heavy-Handed Horror. First and foremost in any Sicilian scare-a-thon, there must be a blank-eyed woman who seems determined and empowered in one scene, but that can also become completely useless and scatterbrained the next. She must radiate innocent virginity as she embarks on soul blackening escapades. There must be strange entities materializing from the ether, ghouls, ghosts, or spirits hanging out in the material world to warn or haunt us. There is always a pissed-off dog or monkey hanging around, some manner of mauling mammal to boost the beast factor.


And as with all pathways to a Roman roundelay, all Italian horror roads lead to zombies: slow, dull-witted, seemingly nonchalant members of the living dead who are more sedate than scary. Indeed, Fulci is not out to make his flesh eaters visions of cannibalistic evil. In some ways, the reanimated corpses in The Beyond are like plot point speed bumps, ambulatory path blockers that mandate the characters maneuver around or circumvent them in order to advance the storyline. They are never menacing, never seen munching on arms or even breaking a sweat. About the most macabre thing any of the clamoring cadavers do occurs when Joe, a plumber turned pus bucket, forces a wall spike through the back of the head (and up through the eye socket) of an unwitting victim.


The ocular issues of Italian filmmakers are another concern altogether. Speaking of peepers, Fulci does have his own unique fixations, fear fetishes if you will, that get overplayed and exaggerated in The Beyond. He must have had some blunt trauma to the eyeball at some point in his life, or a desire to deliver said, since he is absolutely obsessed with removing the gooey sight orbs from out of their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them. When we’re not witnessing the purposeful removal of the soul’s windows via cruel and unusual punishment, we are compositionally close up on them, director and cameraman filling their frame with bloodshot or baby blue marbles emoting to beat the band. Fulci is a director who takes the description of cinema as a “visual” medium both figuratively and literally.


Still, the focusing on one’s corneas is not the only thing obsessing this Mediterranean maniac. Lucio also likes to place his characters and action underground, usually in a filthy, body-strewn catacomb or water filled basement. Doesn’t make any difference if logic and location renders the setting stupid or impossible, if he can bury it beneath the Earth, Fulci is placing his plot in it. This means lots of darkened shots of people standing around, wet and dirty, just as confused as the audience about where they are and what lies ahead. Of course, this should all be incredibly moody and spine chilling, right? Sure, and tiramisu was Julius Caesar’s favorite food. Unfortunately, these fascinations are more monotonous than affecting. The choices are all obvious, the symbolism as rote and routine as a grad student’s short story. Yet without them, the film would be missing one of its main selling points. It just wouldn’t be a bit of Lucio lunacy without them.


And then there’s the gore. Italians in general (and Fulci specifically) love to ladle on the red sauce, and we ain’t talking about Mama’s homemade manicotti gravy here. If there is a chance to feature the inner workings of the human body in all their claret giving grisliness, Fulci will provide untold moments of chests bursting open, guts flowing like Vesuvius, and wounds gaping like waterless goldfish. A gash is not just a cut; it’s an open pipeline to the human circulatory system. When something bites or bashes someone, it causes untold internal hemorrhaging that always finds some way to spray out and spill all over the surfaces.


Blood is poured like syrup over dry IHOP pancakes and the camera is always moving in to capture the viscera and cartilage as it’s folded, spindled, and mutilated. Unlike the surgeon’s precision of Tom Savini or a warped weirdness of Rob Bottin, the Roman and Tuscan tongue gouger enjoy languishing over the mayhem their makeup creates and even muck it up a bit more to increase its lunch loosening. They can produce some truly spectacular and disturbing imagery, but they are also capable of constructing everything to look as fake as the forehead on an Irwin Allen alien. Imagination and malignancy are not attributes missing from their latex and greasepaint gross out kit, but occasionally, things can really look more or less mannequin.



So, with all these potentially nauseating engrossments in hand, it’s hard to understand why The Beyond is not a better movie. There are boatloads of body parts and blood. There are incredibly atmospheric settings and sequences. We get excellent shock value out of seeing a little girl’s heads explode in two and a dog rip huge chunks out of its master’s throat. Rotting corpses rise from filthy bathtubs and acid melts the faces (and most of the rest of the head) of random characters. So why aren’t we cheering in cheesy delight or mortified beyond our own moral tolerance? One answer could be overkill. After all, even a movie like Day of the Dead knew to throw a little politicizing in with its vivisection.


All The Beyond (or City of the Living Dead, or Zombi 2 for that matter) wants to do is wallow in lurid disgust until the organs offend you with their over-the-top gore and then add a scene or two of inspired visual poetry to offset the smell. Fulci is going to beat you over the head with the clots and sideswipe you with the sinew. Now fellow foreigner Dario Argento creates dream imagery we can relate to, attaching the nightmares of childhood into the real world reality of adults to disturb and unarm us. His hallucinations may seem as intangible as Lucio’s, but somehow he manages to fuse tone and texture together to create a truly unnerving experience. Fulci is all about the fester, the feel and pong of rotting flesh. Once you’ve sampled the repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it’s time to serve another heaping helping.


Or maybe it’s the fact that gothic horror is just a hard sell in today’s short attention span marketplace, where werewolves battle vampires in Matrix inspired fight scenes filled with hectic stunts and CGI cartoon creatures - and yet the game playing fanboy still screams for more. Something as languid and repugnant as The Beyond just can’t register. Perhaps at an even slower pace, with more stunning images and settings, this movie would really spook. As it stands, its startlingly short running time and slapdash cinematic approach to story and scenes guarantees that once Fulci looses his audience, it’s going to be hard as hell to win them back…that is, until the ending.


It’s one of the few times where Lucio understands what he’s actually got going for him. The setting is remarkable, the acting pitch perfect, and the overall effect engrossing and yet incredibly disconcerting. It almost single handedly makes up for the previous exercise in jigsawed juvenilia. If the entire film had been handled like the last five minutes, fulfilling the prophecy the previous ninety minutes had all but mucked up, The Beyond would be a stellar work of breathtaking cinematic scope and power. As it stands, it’s just an above-average offering from a director gripped by heart juice, sewers, and tearing out tear ducts. The Beyond may be a celebrated work of forgotten genius, but why it is held in such high regard may just be “outside” your comprehension.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Oct 14, 2007


For dedicated horror fans, it’s the hideous Holy Grail, a cup runneth over with as much minced body parts and juiced marrow as possible. It’s the icing on a particularly nasty cake, a filling so foul in a pastry so vile that simply sampling its entrails-laced spice will send your palette to purgatory – forever! Since its popularity as a means of pushing the exploitation film into a new, non-nude dynamic, to its post-millennial pose as a redefining hardcore homage, gore has given the movie macabre its surreal, sacrilegious fascination. It’s also elevated the craftsmen behind the scenes – the make-up artists and effects technicians – to the level of Gods, beings given over to unbelievably realistic interpretations of human death and dismemberment.


For those of us who love dread, splatter is often viewed as the demon drug of the otherwise subtle and subjective spookshow, the next step in our genre appreciation, that uneasy leap from bone rattling to bone breaking. Some cinematic categories couldn’t survive without it. Imagine, a zombie epic without some flesh feasting, or a slasher film where the killer’s injurious intent is illustrated by a simple fade to black. For those who like to think of horror as a disease, a blight on movies comparable to tawdry XXX fare, gore is like the pop shot at the end of a rather aggressive sex scene. It’s the raison d’etra, the punchline at the completion of a jaundiced joke, a way of rewarding audience patience and solving narrative incompleteness with severed limbs and missing heads.


And yet, for some in the fear faction, gore isn’t groovy. It’s a cheap date that puts out, even when you don’t want it to, a shortcut scapegoat that argues for aesthetic sloppiness and a lack of true imagination. It’s the fart joke in the family comedy, the terminal disease that makes an already overdone drama more saccharine. While there are bigger abominations in horror – the continued Euro-trashing of vampires, the purposeful PG-13ing of content – many view the excess of blood to be indicative of what’s wrong with the contemporary creepfest. Citing old school scares like the Universal monsters and Haunting style ghost stories, they reject grue’s carnival barker bravado and cheap shot sentiments.


Of course, DVD has only broadened the debate, studios and their hired hands using the format’s ability to manipulate and reconfigure footage to produce dozens of unrated and unedited director’s/collector’s cuts. While there are rare cases when the new, MPAA-less version offers nothing new except extended dialogue and expositional material, that the vast majority of the updates are nothing more than moments of sluice originally rejected as inappropriate. Purists tend to balk at such an unnecessary reworking, while the more aggressive in the gorehound community argue that all censored scenes should arrive on home video in contradiction to their previous violated state.



But beyond the “us vs. them”, the classicist’s clash with the craven, the question remains – why is gore so satisfying? Why does it sicken some and excite others? Is there a psychological basis for such a dichotomy, or does it all just boil down to some manner of cinematic constitution. After all, there are awarding-winning dramas (Saving Private Ryan) and celebrated satires (anything by Monty Python) that uses blood and its excessive letting as a means to a much more viable ends. And while there would be some who’d actually enjoy the experience, no one is suggesting that actual autopsies be filmed and featured as the latest horror trend. No, somewhere between realism and revulsion lies the gruesome’s gonzo appeal. Tracing a path to its current controversial acceptance may lend some insight into what is, notoriously, a rather contentious creative predisposition.


For many, gore came to the fore after old school exploiteers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman decided that the nudist colony film was fading. Always looking for a new way of bringing gratuity to the grindhouse, they decided that violence was the next great unexplored option. Now, substituting terror for titillation may not seem like the soundest business model, but the duo knew that their outsider status mandated moving the film medium beyond the simple and safe. It was their purpose to tweak cinematic taboos, and since sex and brutality had been longstanding Hays Code no-no’s, what better subjects to celebrate. But by 1963, everyone and their ballyhooing brother were filming strippers for cash. Lewis and Friedman saw the wanton writing on the wall, and decided to delve into gratuity’s dark side.


The one-two punch of Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) proved to be intensely profitable. While they may not have started the horror subsect (it is up to others to argue over and determine the first true gore film), their success fueled a fiscal belief that terror could use a little redrum redirection. Initially, few picked up on the pair’s slice and dice dictum. It just didn’t seem like the proper paradigm for a softcore smut peddler to play in. Then the MPAA arrived, its “parental guidance” ideals putting a kibosh on everything that exploitation experts were pushing. While many spent the next few years battling First Amendment court cases, splatter gravitated underground. Aside from the occasional appearance in a high minded Hollywood effort (Bonnie and Clyde and The Exorcist, for example), it was film’s fringe dwellers who kept the claret flowing.


For many, the next great wave in motion picture pus came from Europe – and the Italians, in particular. Names like Argento, Fulci, and Bava brought the long dormant death dream back to prominence, mixing artistry with atrocity (or in some cases, just plain evil) to forge a kind of graphic Gothic approach. Movies like Suspiria delivered Grand Guignol grotesqueries back to the fore. By the end of the ‘70s, Zombi 2 and Cannibal Holocaust were pushing the boundaries of acceptability.  American filmmakers were also doing something similar. George Romero reinvented the living dead movie with his organ-caked offering Dawn of the Dead, while Friday the 13th combined slaughter with inventive make-up work to popularize the soon to be omnipresent slasher film. 


By the mid-part of the ‘80s, the genre had come into its own, with big name F/X men like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin ruling the medium’s cutting edge. Films like The Thing, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street illustrated that outrageous and excessive violence could be used in undeniably compelling ways, while a landslide of direct-to-video efforts established that – sans intellectualizing or originality – splatter was destined to cannibalize itself. Sure enough, by the ‘90s, fright fans were looking for something new to tweak their tired interests. CGI gave imaginary creatures a well-deserved reprieve, while foreign fear factors – especially those from Japan and other Far East nations – offered a sly, more supernatural means of macabre. It wasn’t until the torture porn efforts of the early ‘00s that gore regained its footing. Today, it’s viewed as a necessary part of the overall horror story.



Yet none of this addresses why ample arterial spray remains so enjoyable. History has a habit of contextualizing something to the point of passivity, yet new grue mavens arrive on the scene everyday. As a matter of fact, technology has helped many of them crawl out of their fanboy basements and realize their own repugnant visions. So there is obviously something universal in the fetid format’s appeal. Yet even armchair psychologists and legitimate professionals can’t agree on a reason why. Some point to the adolescent need to rebel (citing that most blood lovers derive from the standard misspent and misunderstood youth movement) while others view it as merely a technique for experimenting with one’s own internal tolerances.


Indeed, the whole double-dare and/or water cooler nature of the set-up could explain its unusual appeal. Since, by its very nature, our social order is tied to competition, being the first on your block to see the latest gross out spectacle – and better yet, thriving on it – could be interpreted as a blatant badge of obsessive dishonor. It’s a calculated cool to be sure, but in a dynamic that tends to reward such unusual accomplishments, being able to tolerate a torso ripping isn’t the worst reward one can seek. Then, of course, there’s the standard human attribute known as morbid curiosity. Tied directly to the above-stated starvation for attention, people are notorious for wanting to stare disgust directly in the face. In addition, such sentiments are usually linked to mortality and a fear of death. Gore, therefore, may provide the panacea that allows the looky-loo a chance to feel more secure as part of this tenuous metaphysical terrain.


Yet the most obvious reason for gore’s continued interest is reflected in its execution. Filmmakers have gotten exceptionally good at such “gags”, while companies like KNB and Digital Domain transformed the terrifying into a viable art. When a throat is cut in your standard scary movie, wound gaping while rivers of blood pour from the slit, it’s not the crime that’s compelling. No, what lovers of such degradation are responding to is the tiny technical elements – the momentary pause before the skin stretches and parts, the realistic look of the flowing fluid, the actor or actresses’ performance and response, the manner in which the director frames and composes the shot. Because it can easily look like the fakest of filmic propositions, horror fans are particular about their putrescence. In fact, part of the appeal is the very “compare and contrast” nature of such appreciation.


Then there is imagination. Fear fans love to see things they’ve never witnessed before. They enjoy being treated as motion picture archivists, using the past as a means of measuring the present. The splatter specialists understand this, and strive to bring something different and exciting to each new project. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof contains one of the most disturbing car crashes ever, the effect of the wreck on everyone involved examined and highlighted in horrific detail. Similarly, Saw III contained a sequence of brain surgery so sickening that many wondered if such a procedure was medically sound (to everyone’s surprise, it was/is). When Eli Roth offered up various power tools in his amazing Hostel, they didn’t shy away from their murderous mechanical mayhem, and in the Michael Bay produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Leatherface got to wield his weapon in ways original auteur Tobe Hooper could only imagine.


So maybe it is the need to stare death squarely in the face. Perhaps it stands as a cruel desire to see others suffer for the sake of a thrill. Maybe, like the canvases of Francis Bacon, devotees locate the mastery inside these massacres. Or it could just be the new age equivalent of The Depression’s desire for happy, sappy musicals. In a recent interview, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon suggested that horror is cyclical, ebbing and flowing based on the political signs of the times. Naturally, his argument took a more liberal bent when he points out that Reagan and Bush have been responsible for the most aggressive of redolent renaissances. But he may have a point. Gore is an escape, a vision of unreality in a world overdosing on actual information. It stands as a connection to our corporeal being, a way of helping us manage our fading humanity.


And besides, it’s a great deal of illicit fun. Like discovering your Dad’s stash of Playboys when you were young, the shady, antisocial nature of such disturbing imagery represents the heavy metal equivalent of movies, the raised fist anarchy that many horror fans long to embrace. After all, the genre itself stands in direct defiance of everything that makes the artform attractive – the stories are sordid and the images brutal and disturbing. So, in retrospect, perhaps the reason that gore is good stands as part of a more common individual attribute. There will always be those who follow the flock. In contrast, certain individuals will challenge such a corrosion of conformity. For them, the battle flag is soaked in corpse-grinding suet, blood caking every facet of this rage against the mainstream machine. This is one revolution that is frequently televised – and the images are always a deep, dark red. That’s why gore is so grand. It’s also why it’s so good.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Oct 13, 2007


No one thought it would be such a massive hit. After all, it was a goofy little splatter film directed by a relative genre newcomer. Besides, in a realm overrun by big name filmmakers using make-up and physical F/X to realize their most repugnant visions, how could an outsider to motion picture macabre make any kind of meaningful dent? Well, when Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon arrived on the horror scene with his unconventional Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator, legions of fans took notice. The zany zombie film with the over the top bloodletting became an instant cult classic, and as the years have rolled by, it’s become a beloved benchmark. Of course, once completed, Gordon faced a major obstacle – how to avoid the sophomore slump. After Empire Pictures’ Charles Band passed on several other ideas, another run at HP territory was devised. But this movie would be different than the first. It would move “beyond” anything the novice director had done before.


Indeed, From Beyond is more serious and less ‘spoofy’ than the tale of Herbert West and his day-glo decision to play God. It deals with more science fiction oriented elements, and delves deeper into the sleazoid sex only hinted at in Re-Animator. With a little more budget to work with, a cadre of accomplished craftsmen and technicians at his disposal, and a cast already in tune with what Stuart was hoping to achieve, the results are more compact and complete than that famous if frequently out of control first film. There is not a lot of complicated plot here – lab assistant Crawford Tillinghast is accused of killing Dr. Edward Pretorius after an experiment results in the death of the medico. Our hero claims innocence, offering instead an insane story about unseen entities that exist between the realms of reality and the ethereal. Psychiatric whiz kid Dr. Katherine McMichaels decides to take up his cause, and along with cop/protector Buford Brownlee, they return to the scene of the crime – and the pineal gland resonator that lies within.


From the very beginning of this film, you can tell Gordon is striving for something different. While his style is still the same - this is a filmmaker who loves to hide his horrors until he can give them the full majestic movie treatment they so richly deserve – the story kicks in with a different kind of urgency. On the commentary track from the new unrated edition of the film (now out on DVD from MGM), Gordon recognizes the limited scope of Lovecraft’s original tale. By the time the credits arrive, the short story has been exhausted. So coming up with another 90 minutes of filler is what gives From Beyond its novel, Italian horror like whodunit. Unlike his previous effort, which felt like a homage to every direct-to-video vomitorium released during the VCR’s heyday, this movie plays like a combination of Fulci, Argento, and Bava. There is just something about the combination of procedure and pus that recalls the very best of our Mediterranean macabre maestros.


Oddly enough, very little blood is spilled here. Indeed, the alternative narrative discussion finds Gordon arguing that he needed to replace the claret with slime. Seems the MPAA, angry that he released Re-Animator without a rating, decided to rake him over the coals come From Beyond’s consideration. They mandated cuts and edits that took most of the overt arterial spray out the set-pieces. For decades, this material was considered lost. After all, who would have thought that 20 plus years later there would be a need for gore removed from a horror movie? Luckily, a little archeology on the studio’s part turned up these trims, and tech geeks matched them to the movie. Today, we can see From Beyond the way the director intended – bile and body parts included. It’s not a more noxious experience, just one closer to how Gordon intended it to be.


It also doesn’t alter the original version’s viability. From Beyond stands as a stellar example of what ‘80s terror did best – expanding on old concepts while using any and all available resources to realize its ideas. There have been hundreds of mad scientist movies, each one offering its own unique take on the evil experiment gone radioactively wrong concept. But this movie makes a radical departure from such strategies in that it gives us competing crazed researchers – three if you count the evil quack back at the hospital that keeps putting Crawford in harms way. Pretorius may have started the dread, but McMichaels allows her inner lusts – for power, for personal glory, for physical love – to override her rationality. She becomes the far more threatening presence as the lure of the Resonator keeps her focused on pushing its limits.


While there is a John Carpenter’s The Thing like look to the main monster, Gordon again thwarts convention by making the “it” a thinking, feeling, being. When it gropes McMichaels out of sexual need, we feel the sleaze. When it tries to convince the others to join its biological make-up, it plays right into the standard human helplessness. This is thoughtful offal, organs and shredded muscle melted into a pool of psycho-sexual sluice. The effects really sell the premise, and the overall art design helps us believe in the machine’s menacing purpose. Once Crawford becomes brainwashed (literally), the motion picture meanders over into even more surreal splatter. After all, we are dealing with a creature who craves gray matter, and such mind bending tendencies really give From Beyond its excessive flavor. It matches well with what Gordon established in Re-Animator.


There are those who find that first film so much better that they tend to downplay Beyond’s solid scary film status. Granted, when the movie suddenly finds itself in S&M land, actress Barbara Crampton tricked out in full dominatrix mode to help McMichaels find her inner slut, it appears we’ve suddenly stumbled into Red Shoe Diaries territory. And a force of nature like Ken Fore shouldn’t be relegated to playing sidekick/clichéd first casualty. Still, for all its unexplainable tangents and Roma-esque madness, From Beyond is a brilliant film. Sadly, it represents the last time that Gordon would stand as a viable fear factor. As part of a contract with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, he would soon find himself lost in a swirl of failed projects and no budget miscues. For every practicable attempt (Robot Jox, Fortress), there’s a wildly ineffective misstep (Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum).


Here’s hoping that this new DVD – which also contains a nice retrospective and some intriguing storyboard to scene comparisons – will revitalize From Beyond’s reputation. Its MIA status from the format has often been cited as the reason behind its lesser consideration. Of course, Re-Animator’s rabid loyalists will scoff at any suggestion that this HP Lovecrafting can compare to the original bodily fluid fable. Though it may be hearsay to say it, From Beyond may be better than its predecessor. It feels more like a film and less like a series of F/X pieces piled together. We enjoy the character interplay more, and realize that the conclusion means more to us than who lives or who dies. We want to see Pretorius get his comeuppance. Thankfully, Gordon gives us that…and a whole lot more.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 12, 2007


The sense of community has vanished. The neighborhood is no more. We live in isolated exclusivity from each other, no longer keeping up with the Joneses, but rather avoiding them outright. We’ve got politicians saying it takes a village to raise our kids, and yet the notion today of such togetherness is so oblique as to practically blot out the white flight suburban sun. Privacy has been replaced by isolationism, imagined horrendous actions playing out a mere few feet from your own sordid secrets. And we don’t care, as long as we are safe. As he wanders through his South Boston locality, PI Patrick Kenzie senses such disconnect. He sees through the feigned interest and media hype to recognize one sad fact – a child is missing, and no one knows anything that can really help him.


In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as one of 2007’s finest films. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.


The saga of little Amanda McCready is already an overhyped press sensation when her distraught aunt Beatrice contacts local investigator Kenzie. Along with his live-in girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro, the couple is known for helping debt collectors locate deadbeats. Reluctant to take on the case at first, a conversation with the child’s blasé, drug addled mother Helen changes everything. Realizing a local dope dealer may be involved (the kidnapping may have something to do with stolen drop money), Kenzie confronts the hood. His responses raise even more questions. Worse, a local pedophile has just been released from jail, and he’s holed up in a squalid shack with some fellow addicts. All signs point to an imminent threat to Amanda’s well being. With the help from a pair of Boston’s finest, and a dedicated police captain who has made crimes against children his number one priority, Kenzie may solve this crime – or worse, discover an unruly and unconscionable conspiracy underneath.


To give away more of the plot would absolutely ruin Gone Baby Gone. One of this film’s greatest strengths is the fact finding interactions between star Casey Affleck (Ben’s brilliant brother) and the individuals he interrogates. There’s a snarky, smug strategy and streetwise strength in how Kenzie handles these situations. He relies on alliances, long standing reputation, and an almost omniscient knowledge of underworld mechanics to dig behind the bullshit and discover the truth. These wonderfully evocative moments, scattered throughout the film like rewards at the end of a complicated maze, are the kind of payoffs we anticipate and expect. After all, hints and suggestions can only take us so far. Director Affleck understands this, and purposefully allows the verbal fireworks to close up a few loose ends before unraveling a couple more.


This is also a movie about attitude. Among the various victims and suspects presented, we can see a well honed stance, a formed façade given to the rest of the world to judge or junk. From the seemingly straight laced detectives who combine caring with a well earned callousness, to the McCready family and friends who offer conflicting messages of disgust and despair, the universe of this South Boston area is covered in contradictions. When we meet Beatrice, she’s a hard nosed relative who simply wants her niece back. But then the interactions with Helen suggest a more selfish, personal rationale. Similarly, a character like police captain Jack Doyle presents nothing but professionalism…that is, until he lets a little of his guard down, and the slightest hint of anxiety stumbles across his speech pattern. In a movie filled with secrets, such personalities play flawlessly into the mix. They make for a much richer, more fulfilling film.


So does the acting. While his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was amazing, Casey Affleck’s work here is a revelation. He is so radiant, so unabashed in his studied swagger, that we breathlessly anticipate his next move. During a crucial shoot-out between Kenzie and the aforementioned house of drugs and depravity, the combination of fear and fierceness illustrate Affleck’s approach perfectly. He can talk the talk and walk the walk. Equally good are Ed Harris and John Ashton as the Boston cops. Without giving much away, they have to play both sides of the fence to forward the film’s agenda, and they do so spectacularly. While she didn’t offer much as the object of desire in The Heartbreak Kid, Michelle Monaghan does a dynamic job of bringing the story’s maternal elements to the fore. Her reactions, based almost exclusively in a female nurturing perspective, add an extra level of consideration here, and her last act resolve is simply stunning.


There are many other brilliant turns here – Morgan Freeman’s cloistered captain, Amy Madigan’s proud Irish aunt, Amy Ryan’s hedonistic hellion of a mom, Edi Gathegi’s slang spouting Haitian don – all proving that, when it comes to directing, Affleck really understands actors. But he’s also in tune with the artform’s more ephemeral facets. From the opening shots, where the Boston neighborhood is painted in brutal, authentic strokes (the extras give the concept of local color a dark, disenfranchised quality), to the set piece sequences where the plot points play out in electric, kinetic splashes, this is a tour de force that truly lives up to the tag. Gone Baby Gone shows a mastery of all the cinematic basics. Affleck then goes a step further and suggests that he knows how to turn said strategies into masterpieces.


Yet it’s the theme of ethical dilemma that this film returns to time and time again. Everyone here is in a quandary – from the victim whose dope-fueled lifestyle choices may have resulted in the literal loss of her child, to the PI who is hoping a successful resolution of this case will lead to more legitimate work – and how they respond to and decide these issues stand as Gone Baby Gone’s biggest reveals. Even characters we don’t think have a backdoor agenda turn out to be trading on their principles. It makes for a moody, complex entertainment, the kind of narrative that drags you in different directions to the point where you can’t anticipate where you’re going next – and you don’t really mind. The journey is so stunning that its frequent bouts of unbelievable cruelty really don’t distract.


Indeed, the only negative thing one can say about this film is that director Affleck’s Jenny from the Block tabloid rep may ruin the chances for a wider audience embrace. This is the kind of movie that resurrects your faith in film - not just as a diversion, but as the creator of meaningful human mythology. From its initial crawl to its final dour beat, Gone Baby Gone delivers on its premise, its promise, and its propositions. We may not like where it goes, and the images it offers can be too harsh for mellowed mainstream eyes, but the resulting work is celluloid at its most classical and filmmaking at its finest. Ben Affleck deserves a lot of credit for reinventing himself as a talent to be reckoned with, not ridiculed. Like the neighborhoods sitting at the center of his amazing movie, such tabloid sentiments are now gone, baby…gone.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


For the weekend of 12 October, here are the films in focus:


Michael Clayton [rating: 7]


Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.

Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. read full review…


Elizabeth: The Golden Age [rating: 6]


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany.

Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young English actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins. read full review…


We Own The Night [rating: 5]


Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts.

Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes its rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa. read full review…


 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.