Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Halloween 2 (1981)

Being threatened in a supposedly safe place is a classic and effective horror trope, and one that, being set largely in a hospital, Halloween 2 exploits as well as its predecessor did with the domestic setting. However, while capably shot, directed and acted, the script, (written, like the first, by John Carpenter and Deborah Hill) is something of a let down. By showing too much of the killer and his back-story, we lose the ambiguity that gave the previous effort an unsettling depth beyond the surface shocks.(

Continuing directly after the events of the first film, the murderous Michael Myers is still on the loose in the city of Haddonfield, despite being shot six times by his psychiatrist -turned-nemesis Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Myers heads to the hospital where one of his targets, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been taken, and we now find that there is a reason why he is after her - a chilling reason, of which both Laurie and Dr Loomis are completely unaware.

As mentioned, compared to the first film, Halloween 2 sees Myers take a more central part of the story, both in terms of his increased screen time, and some revelations about his past. This, however, is a mistake, as showing more of him diminishes his mystery and power, while the confusing back-story, with hints of links to the supernatural and ancient pagan rituals, feels poorly and barely thought out. It eventually becomes something of an irritating distraction, and the big shocking twist, the reason Michael Myers is stalking Laurie, ultimately feels shoehorned in, as another afterthought.

Ironically, some of the best and most effective elements are those that feature Myers in the background or do not feature him at all. By about half way through the film, jittery townsfolk are seeing his shape everywhere, and a lynch mob (another classic horror trope) is trying to smash up his old family home. Here, we realise, once again, how much more effective a monster Michael Myers is, when we do not see him, only the consequences of his actions. 

For example, in one of the best scenes in the film, a nurse runs to the hospital car park to try and get away, only to find the tyres on her car slashed. As she looks around, she sees another car with slashed tyres, then another, and another, and with mounting horror, she realises that every single vehicle in the car park has been sabotaged. What kind of person could do this? Someone unhinged or somebody supernatural? It is this sort of behaviour, bewildering, almost impossible to believe, and largely unseen that works best, and would be spoilt by having too much explanation. 

The other significant change is how much more explicitly violent this film is compared to the first. This, presumably, was done for commercial reasons, with the flood of slasher films released in the three years between Halloween 1 and 2, continually upping the gore ante, and, more importantly, the audiences lapping this up. This is not a criticism of cinema violence itself, as that is often the whole point of the slasher genre, to entertain (or offend, depending on your viewpoint), with ever more elaborate and imaginative killings. However, when everyone is doing that, it is the one who is not who stands out, and in that respect, Halloween 2 remains merely a part of the crowd.

However, in other respects Halloween 2 does stand out from other slasher films of the time. For all the flaws and half thought out ideas in the script, it does try to something different and a bit more complex, by having two story arcs, that of Laurie and Loomis, run separately throughout, only bringing them together at the end. In addition, director Rick Rosenthal does take time to set up some of the characters and situations, which stops it becoming a conveyor belt of killings.

Halloween 2 also invites some interesting thoughts on two subjects that inevitably crop up in Horror – sex and death. Firstly, although it might on the surface look like one of the inevitable slasher movie clich├ęs, I was fascinated by how slowly Myers stalks Laurie through the hospital corridors. Granted, she is heavily sedated for a lot of the film, which stops her from running very quickly, but other times she could get away easily. Why does he not walk any faster? In that respect, Myers becomes, like the zombies in George Romero films, a symbol of death and our own mortality – slow but inevitable, no matter how fast you run.

Secondly, a frequent criticism levelled at slasher films is misogyny, and while there may be a debate to be had about other films, particularly the linking of female, often teenage, sexuality and violent death, there is little of that in Halloween 2. Admittedly, the main female character is largely passive and has to be rescued by men, but there is a crucial difference between this film and Halloween, or, indeed, its many imitators. 

In the original, where his motives are more ambiguous, and all of the victims are teenagers who engage in drug use or premarital sex, it is possible to see Myers as some sort of force of Puritan vengeance, punishing people for their sins. However, here, there is no suggestion of a sexual agenda to either the killings, or the stalking of Laurie Strode.

Conversely, however, it does mean that Halloween 2 lacks some of the sense of danger, and even the uncomfortably perverse streak that other slashers have. Watching these films does not automatically make you a misogynist, and they can raise, sometimes uncomfortable, questions about the attitudes of the characters, the film-makers, and perhaps ultimately you, the viewer.

Lacking these sorts of extreme elements, what is left with Halloween 2 is a competent, workmanlike slasher film that, aside from the unique elements of the franchise, has little to heavily distinguish it from the scores of others in the genre.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Bride of The Monster (1956)

Ed Wood seems to have a status as one of the worst, if not the worst film director of the 20th century. This reputation, established by snarky works such as the Medved Brothers Golden Turkey books, and maintained through the likes of Tim Burton's, admittedly well intentioned, film Ed Wood is, to my mind unfair, as a movie like Bride of the Monster ably demonstrates. While I am not suggesting Wood should be put on a pedestal with the likes of Kubrick or Kurosawa, nobody who produces work this entertaining and unhinged can possibly be called a failure.

Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi, in one of his final roles) is holed up in his secret lab with his mute sidekick, Lobo, trying to build an army of atomic supermen so that he can conquer the Earth. Unfortunately, thanks to his decision to use a giant pet octopus to guard the lab, he seems to be attracting the attention of the local police. It seems the creature is responsible for the deaths of some of the local townsfolk, news which also attracts both a determined reporter and a shadowy figure from Vornoff's past.

Now, granted, on a technical level, it is certainly possible to point out some flaws in Wood's approach to filmmaking. His shot compositions are often flat and uninspired, and he seems unwilling or unable to get anything like decent performances from his actors (or hire decent actors in the first place). 

Instead, Wood's skills lie in his montage of ideas, and his relentless energy and enthusiasm. A lesser director might have buckled under the strain of a morphine-addicted star, a minuscule budget, a rancher turned film producer insisting his son take a major part, and a malfunctioning stolen mechanical prop - but not Edward D Wood Jr.  Unfazed, he works like a chef, blending whatever ingredients are to hand. He has Bela Lugosi, so we can have a mad scientist character (he certainly makes a wise choice by giving as much screen time as he does to Lugosi, the film's biggest human asset). It's the 1950s, so he has the perfect subject matter, with everyone thinking about atomic power, and its consequences for humanity - such as giving people superpowers; and he has access to a giant rubber octopus - so that’s the creature for the feature sorted, even if it means that the people being attacked by it have to move the creature's limbs themselves.

In addition, a lesser writer might have made a boring script. So many 50s monster flicks are largely turgid affairs, but not Bride of the Monster. It zips through in just under 70 minutes, and constantly piles in with crazy plot twists and ripe dialogue. As mentioned, much of the talking is wisely left to Lugosi, who seems to relish the chance to get stuck into it, especially the big speech where wistfully he speaks of being “outlawed in a world … which previously honoured me as a genius”

Dialogue like this shows that, although entertaining in its own right, when placed in the wider context of the lives of Wood and Lugosi, Bride of the Monster becomes quite a poignant milestone. Lugosi finally managed to kick the morphine addiction that had plagued him for years, only to be killed by a heart attack shortly after the film was released. Wood would go on to make his best-known film, Plan 9 from Outer Space, but his reckless ways with money and booze would soon kill off his Hollywood hopes forever. 

It would be a shame if people only watch his films in a sneering and ironic fashion, as, for me, the complete lack of sneering and irony in them is what makes his films so endearing. They are heart felt expressions of Wood's love of movies, monsters, and Bela Lugosi. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Full of fun and energy, Singin’ in the Rain is a glorious celebration of film, both the history and the medium, and easily one of the best movie musicals ever made.
Read the full article at Static Mass



Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013)


A certain amount of delusion can be a perfectly good coping mechanism for the difficulties of life – but what if that delusion completely takes over your view of reality?  Moreover, what if it starts to impact on other people, especially your family? It is these sorts of questions that lie at the heart of Blue Jasmine, a surprising, funny and, at times, brutal character study, written and directed by Woody Allen.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a former Manhattan socialite whose world collapses around her when her millionaire businessman husband is jailed for a massive Bernie Madoff style programme of fraud, taking all of her money, possessions and identity down with him. Forced to move to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger, Jasmine tries to put her life back together piece by piece, while swilling back vodka and pills. Will she find the right man to help her get things back on track - or is it time to learn how to count on herself to survive?

There are some familiar Woody Allen themes in Blue Jasmine, such as adultery and madness, but also some unexpected elements. The first thing that I found surprising about Blue Jasmine is the ferocious energy, a welcome change of pace after the rather laid back, rambling films Allen has been making recently, an energy that mostly flows from the performance of Cate Blanchett.

There is also a change of tone from recent work, giving the second surprise, namely, what a harsh film this is. The harshness comes from the situations in which Jasmine finds herself, and granted, some are of her own making, but others are a result of bad luck, a wise choice on Allen’s part, that helps engender some sympathy with a character that could otherwise become unbearable.  He also sensibly balances the intensity of the drama with flashes of humour, and not from the traditional Woody Allen one liner (don’t get me wrong, he still writes good ones), but more through the juxtaposition of Jasmine and her deluded world view, with that of those around her, or with the reality of a situation.

The third, equally welcome surprise is the characterisation. Too often of late, characters in Woody Allen films seem two dimensional, unreal, and uninspired people, who simply exist to spout dialogue. This is less of a hindrance in a comedy film if the jokes and situations are good enough to pick up the slack, which is why Midnight in Paris worked as well as it did. However, much as I liked Midnight in Paris, the characters were the US equivalents of the sort of god-awful bores you expect from a Richard Curtis script. For a serious, believable drama though, you need a believable lead character, especially if the film revolves around this character, and Allen has delivered it in Jasmine.

The aforementioned ferocious energy in the film largely originates in Cate Blanchett's performance. She throws herself into the role and, with a refreshing lack of vanity for a Hollywood star, is not afraid to show herself in an unflattering light physically, with a haggard looking face and sweat stains under her arms.

As usual, Allen assembles a strong and varied supporting cast; Alec Baldwin delivers another memorable turn as Hal, Jasmine’s greedy slime ball husband, although admittedly, this kind of role is nothing new to him. More surprising is a brief but memorable appearance from Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband, so far removed from his brash obnoxious stand up persona. Clay brings a convincing humbleness to a character understandably aggrieved as he has to watch his one chance as financial independence gets flushed down the toilet, (along with, shortly afterwards, his marriage), thanks to Hal and his fraudulent activities.

For a change, there is no "Woody Allen" character, in other words, an actor doing, to a greater or lesser extent, a Woody Allen impression, something that usually occurs in a film of his in which he is not appearing. Sometimes this can be the lead, such as Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, or a supporting character such as Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda. Louis CK, who has a brief role as a slightly nerdy man who has an affair with Ginger, comes close, but lacks the neurotic ticks and speech patterns.

In the final few minutes, we get an unexpected twist, one that adds a further layer of complication to Jasmine’s situation, but one perfectly in keeping with her immaturity and self-destructiveness. Avoiding a happy ending, which would not have rung true, Allen wisely lets the film conclude in a downbeat manner, and shows that when he cares, and when the story and characters are engaging enough, he can still be a distinctive, funny and interesting filmmaker.