[18 September 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Finally, a week worth getting excited about. For more than a month, SE&L has watched as, with rare exceptions, DVD distributors have unleashed their seemingly endless stream of substandard fare to your local retailer. From major motion picture flops to endless reissues of titles long since technically perfected, there has been little in the way of compelling consumer goods. In fact, the selection has been scattershot to say the least. Ah, but this Tuesday is different. Again, Criterion comes through, delivering two unsung masterworks to the digital format, while a fascinating rock doc, a collection of ‘80s style movie macabre and a couple of hard driving dramas also spark our cinematic interest. Also of note is a Playstation take on terror that is probably best left for those still sold on their Sega Dreamcast. So grab your wallet and head to your favorite B&M as these are the compelling offerings for 19, September:
The Devil and Daniel Johnston*
This is the kind of documentary that invents all the eventual critical clichés. It’s masterful proof that fact is far more intriguing than fiction. It uses the thread of celebrity as a means of binding together the eccentricity of musicians, the pain of dreams deferred, and the social/interpersonal unacceptability of mental illness. Yes, Johnston comes off like an underground Brian Wilson, a naïve creator of magical pop music whose bubbling inner demons eventually damaged and destroyed his soul. But perhaps the greatest lesson we ultimately learn is that some minds are never meant to heal. In Johnston’s case, they are to be tolerated and celebrated. Thanks to gifted director Jeff Feuerzeig, we can do just that. This is definitely one of the year’s best films.
The Elvira Movie Macabre Collection*
While she may be best known for another “body” of work, Cassandra Peterson – a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – is also noted for continuing the late night horror host tradition started decades before by numerous noteworthy individuals, including her obvious inspiration, Vampira. Her sassy, entendre laced remarks, mixed in with some cutting commentary on the flawed films being presented, lead to a considered cult following that has only grown over the years. Now, digital archivists Shout! Factory have released six select titles from her Movie Macabre series: The Devil’s Wedding Night, Werewolf of Washington, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Count Dracula’s Great Love, Legacy of Blood and The Doomsday Machine. Whether you crave this schlocky six pack, or are only interested in said vixen’s viable assets, these ‘80s throwbacks are a terrifically tacky treat.
It was only a matter of time before the Internet and the proliferation of pedophiles became the frightening fodder for the thriller genre. Thankfully screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David Slade went for subject matter more creepy and confrontational than exploitative. Turning the tables on a possible predator, young Hayley Stark (played by actress Ellen Page) is fiercely determined to exact her moralistic revenge in the most precise painful way possible, and for most people, that would be just fine. The subject matter of online deviants drives us in that direction. Then Nelson and Slade twist things up once again. Before long, you won’t know who to root for, and whom to revile. A two character, single setting drama with acting excellence to spare, this difficult, disquieting film offers not easy answers or allies. Instead, it asks us to see both sides of an incredibly controversial circumstance - and harder still, understand it.
Jigoku: The Criterion Collection*
This film tells a familiar story – a young man, involved in the accidental death of a pedestrian, faces inner torment and guilt. Yet in the hands of famed Japanese genre filmmaker Nobuo Nakagawa, this vignette heavy glimpse of Buddhism’s Eight Great Hells is like some kind of visceral visualized damnation. What begins as a conventional tale of bad decisions and karmic coincidences devolves into a pagan Pilgrim’s Progress with no shepherd to guide this sheep through the vile Valley of Death. Many have compared Nakagawa’s work here to that of José Mojica Marins, a.k.a. Brazil’s infamous Coffin Joe. Stunningly graphic, even today, with substantive amounts of evisceration and dismemberment, this is more of an experiment in terror than cold cautionary tale. Yet Nakagawa never lets us forget the humanity inside the horror, mixing imagery of reality with his revolting interpretation of the underworld.
Gloom and doom rocker Nick Cave, not previously known for his adeptness at writing Westerns, crafted this critically divisive revamp of the Outback oater, focusing on a gang of outlaw brothers and their blood drenched adventures. Starring the almost always good Guy Pearce, and peppered with performances by Ray Winstone and Noah Taylor, this John Hillcoat helmed slice of horse opera revision definitely flummoxed most film reviewers. Some called it the best film of 2005, while others can’t quite get over Cave’s overcomplicated dialogue and cinematic shortcomings. Whatever camp you’re in – pure Wayne or pro Peckinpah, The Proposition is definitely violent. But is it brutal for the sake of shock, or is there a method to Cave’s cruelty. You be the judge…jury…and Old West executioner.
Spirit of the Beehive: The Criterion Collection*
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining childhood, the Spanish Civil War, the growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood. Told completely through the eyes of our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.
Stay Alive: Director’s Cut
Granted, this is no Silent Hill. As a matter of fact, it may not even be a House of the Dead. All Dr. Uwe Boll references aside, most critics complained that this video-gamed based horror film was juvenile, illogical and incredibly ineffective – kind of like the latest release for the Xbox 360, huh? Anyway, some kids come across an illegal game (wow, how Ring-ish) that one of their friends died playing. So, naturally, they hop right in. Random garroting ensues. While the cinematic vision of the film was stuck in stupefying PG-13 land, this unrated director’s cut promises lots of excess carnage. Will the additional gore be enough to save this effort from being a Commodore 64 crapfest? Or will genre fans get their Nintendo Wii’s worth? Perhaps you need to press play and find out.
And Now for Something Completely Different
In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 19 September:
Frank Henenlotter was already famous for his ode to 42nd Street and exploitation movies when he made this follow-up to that glorified geek show, Basket Case. Using a brain sucking, if personable, talking parasite as his allegorical stand-in for drugs and addiction, this sly schlock meister got his “Just Say No” message across without having to rely on pontification or preaching. Instead, Henelotter used a considered performance by future soap star Rick Hearst and a lot of Manhattan atmosphere to show that dependency is not only harmful – it’s downright fatal to almost everyone involved. While this DVD is not as tricked out as previous versions – in fact, it’s basically bare bones – that is still not a reason to avoid this crazy cult classic. Pay close attention to the voice of the psychedelic slug “Elmer”. That’s beloved TV icon Zachary behind those sonorous tones.