Movie Reviews

Count Yorga, Vampire

 "Its powers were many. It could see in the dark, which was no small ability in a world half-veiled from light."

"Its powers were many. It could see in the dark, which was no small ability in a world half-veiled from light."

Written and directed by Bob Kelljan. 1970.

Count Yorga, Vampire has all the hallmarks of an exploitation picture aping a Hammer film, but it never feels uninspired. What's more, it even has things to say about men, women, science, etc. None of what it says is particularly new or original, but there's an energy to the movie that suggests it wasn't just a copycat production, at least not for its writer-director. The standout character is Erica, played by Judy Lang, who balances the outlandish (eating a kitten) with the cool. (Lang's bio on IMDB is shockingly short.) The good folks at Twilight Time, that red-headed stepchild to Criterion, are doing their part.

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BEWARE THE SLENDER MAN

Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. 2016

The final shot of Beware the Slenderman is haunting. It shows us a construction site in progress, two roads intersecting, a patch of cleared woods. It's as banal as images get. But it's the unseen--as in all great horror--that's truly terrifying. In this case, it's the erasure of a bloody deed, the active sanitizing of a terrible blight. Quite literally paving over it. The image taps our deepest well of fear, where all the bad things get tossed, deep and dark. From Edgar Allan Poe to David Lynch to Stephen King, this has been the great theme and subject of horror: walling up or burying the bad. Forcing forgetting.

It's particularly haunting here, in the context of this story, where the space between the real physical world and the twilight universe of the unreal is so razor thin--and is, in fact, key. The filmmakers often reflect on the emotional toll taken on the parents of the child-murdering kids at the center of this story, but always on the edges are the iPads, the cameras, the Internet, the manipulation of reality through lenses and screens and technology and, most importantly, imagination. There's some key balance in all of these things that lets a mother read It and understand it's fiction, a balance missing from her daughter and her daughter's friend. Missing from their emotional lives, their psychologies.  And its absence opens a kind of tear in that thin, crucial space, giving birth from a fictional, near-Lovecraftian universe to true and incomprehensible horror. A tear we're all too eager to patch with concrete and call the past.

Swamp Water

Written by Dudley Nichols. From Vereen Bell's novel.Directed by Jean Renoir.1941.

Jean Renoir's Swamp Water is a troublesome picture. On the one hand, it is, as The New York Times allows, Faulknerian in its scope and, despite its many off-set troubles, an intensely personal movie. On the other hand, it occasionally smacks of a certain attitude toward the backwoods southerner that falls just short of barefoot caricature. There are moments that astound--a live snake striking at Walter Brennan, a man screaming to his very last breath in a quicksand bog--and threads that confound, namely the use of "Red River Valley" as a theme song (no cowboys here by a mile) and the mythic status assigned to the swamp by the denizens along its borders. If a whole community of hunters and trappers were to spring up adjacent to a swamp, surely they'd venture into its wilderness and brave it, if only for profit? I like to imagine Dana Andrews seeing Waycross, Georgia, for the first time. It probably helped his scenes as Ben, staggering around in a lost and dangerous land.

The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 2016.

I sometimes think of Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars Von Trier as two halves of the same coin. Both haunt the twenty-first century landscape of independent cinema. They make movies about esoteric ideas with heroes and heroines who are less than noble. They deal with women and sexuality and violence in an often exploitative fashion. But one has far more heart than the other, and an excess of heart tips the scales in Refn's favor. Von Trier often seems to abuse his heroines. Refn is sympathetic with them, no matter their flaws, right up until the end. The Neon Demon is an excellent vampire story, wholly original in the world it inhabits, and often quite unsettling. It gets under your skin, to borrow a phrase from the soundtrack of Drive.

Byzantium

Written by Moira Buffini. Directed by Neil Jordan. 2012.

I've never copped to being Neil Jordan's biggest fan. I've always disliked The Company of Wolves, despite my love for Angela Carter's source material. But the truth is Byzantium charms me. Sure, Jordan goes full-Jordan here and there, with waterfalls that gush blood on what I'm pretty sure is the same island where Luke Skywalker's currently residing in self-imposed exile (wouldn't that be fun, if Luke had entered the wrong hut and come out a vampire, thebig reveal of Episode VIII). Still: I kind of like Byzantium. It's funny. It's entertaining. I'm not sure it's ever really scary, and that's a definite criticism, especially when your movie is about vampires that don't sparkle. Ultimately, this may be my disconnect with all of Jordan: his vampire movies and his werewolf movies just aren't scary. Odd, weird. Chilly, even. But not scary. He's more enamored of the eroticism that runs through vampire lore, I think. Best of all, perhaps, the film delves into the silliness of men and their brotherhoods, but Gemma Arterton's bosom is always front and center, too -- the object of a decidedly male director's gaze. It's a muddled, flawed, well-acted, diverting affair.

When Animals Dream

Written by Rasmus Birch and Christoffer Boe and Jonas Alexander Arnby. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby. 2014.

When Animals Dream belongs to a recent class of monster movies that is itself a hybrid creature: the monster movie as art film. We have its like in Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. What's common among these, aside from an aesthetic beauty that beggars belief, is the monster as protagonist: each is a werewolf or a vampire movie in which the werewolf or the vampire is the hero, not the villain. I like this, if only because it delves into mysteries of character and motivation that we've always been content to keep at arm's length in this genre in order to call the monsters scary. But part of living in a postmodern world, I think, is that we're mostly beyond fear of the other; nowadays, what we really fear--what represents everything wrong with the world--is the normative. Traditional family structures that require the maintenance of a facade. Small-town secrets that aren't really secrets save to those they're about.

Here, Marie's life is hard, bleak, and ultimately very typical of a girl her age; she doesn't seem to mind it, but she doesn't seem to enjoy it. It's mundane. Which makes her turn into monstrosity much more than a metaphor for sexual awakening, which is itself a kind of normal, boring thing--at least here, in this seaside village, where every wasted youth works through his urges in tedious nightclub grappling. Marie's evolution, it seems to me, is more about women who defy and transgress traditional beauty and thereby become beauty because of some inherent truth. Women who grow hair in unusual places. Women who bleed in public spaces. "You're beautiful," men keep telling Marie, and she is. In fact, the more monstrous she becomes, the more beautiful she becomes. Her turning is almost an ascension. And, of course, the more monster she becomes, the more she discovers that the true villains are the ones around her, the men and women who have worked so wretchedly to keep their normal, tidy world in peaceful slumber.

Midnight Special

 "I saw the sunrise this morning. I think I know what I am now."

"I saw the sunrise this morning. I think I know what I am now."

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. 2016.

Fellow Arkansan Jeff Nichols is emerging as one of the most original and talented voices working in movies today. I've seen three of his four films -- Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special (Shotgun Stories is still out there, waiting on me) -- and all three have featured a by-turns lyrical and spartan style, outstanding character work, and deftly structured plots. They're engaging and resonant. They dig deep, down to the roots. I imagine the pitch for Midnight Special had something to do with John Carpenter-meets-Steven Spielberg, with a little Kubrick on the side. But the story plays out in such an original fashion -- beginning in media res and following Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Jaeden Lieberher until their journey's end (and perhaps beyond) -- that I can't help feeling Nichols stands wholly apart from any other contemporaries. He's in a class of his own, a director to watch; he's building a stairway to greatness.

Big Bad Wolves

 "This fairy tale was written by the Israeli police, based on true events. And like any fairy tale, ours also begins with a wolf. The wolf is you, by the way."

"This fairy tale was written by the Israeli police, based on true events. And like any fairy tale, ours also begins with a wolf. The wolf is you, by the way."

Written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. 2013.

The scene: two men, Dror and Micki, imprisoned in a basement. Micki's a cop, Dror an accused pedophile. Their captor, Gidi, is a father. His daughter's corpse was found in the woods, missing a head. Gidi wants to know where Dror has buried the head. His plan: torture Dror by breaking his fingers and pulling out his toenails. Eventually, once he's learned what he wants to know, Gidi plans to cut Dror's head off with a rusty saw. Micki, the cop, is a tough guy with a conscience, and his conscience got in the way, so he's handcuffed to a pipe, helpless to watch as all manner of torture is wrought upon the shackled Dror. At one point, Gidi bakes a cake laced with sedatives and plans to feed Dror a slice, if only because this is one of the methods Dror has allegedly employed on his victims: he drugs them with sweets, violates them, tortures them, and decapitates them. "I put one candle," Gidi says, presenting the slice of cake to Dror, who is strapped to a chair, his fingers already broken by a hammer. "At our age, many candles would be impolite."

Did I mention this is a comedy?

Big Bad Wolves is a perfect concoction: part Tarantino and part Coens, part Grimm's and part Hitchcock. The music evokes Bernard Herrmann at every turn, and the premise, imagery, and violence are all firmly rooted in the juicy subtext of "Little Red Riding Hood" and, well, pretty much every fairy tale you've ever heard. And yet: at no point does the movie seem unoriginal. Israeli directing duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (the first directors to make a horror film in Israel!) have written and directed a thrilling movie with a sense of humor a mile wide. They call it a revenge narrative, something to pay back the adults for telling them bedtime stories that were so horrific. It's evident, from the first shot, they know precisely the effect they intend with every scene.

There's a lyrical moment in the final act, when Micki escapes the basement, flees through the woods, and, after bursting out of the trees, encounters an Arab on horseback in the middle of the road, lit in a circle of orange lamplight. Micki throws his hands up, and the shot's constructed so that we don't immediately see the threat. The tension deflates when, surprise, there is no threat: the Arab isn't armed; he's just a guy on horseback. Micki asks to borrow his phone. The Arab hands over his iPhone 4S, exasperated by the assumption he is dangerous. "You know how it is," Micki apologizes with a shrug. The two men agree: they get it. It's how fear works.

Very much, this is a horror film, and it's rooted in an age-old tradition that surprises, delights, and terrifies. As children, we fear the big bad wolves. What the fairy tales never tell us is how we grow up to be them.

"Shark!" - Thoughts on JAWS Turning 35

 "Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. From the novel by Peter Benchley. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

In the first ten minutes of JAWS, Mayor Vaughn strong-arms Chief Brody into keeping mum about a girl killed by "probable shark attack" in the waters off Amity Island. His oily reasoning runs so: "You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh, what?' You yell shark...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

Lately, when I've told people that JAWS is -- and has always been -- my favorite movie, I've felt a lot like the guy yelling 'barracuda.' "Really?" people say, and cock their heads. "Huh." My wife tells me it's because people don't remember how good it is. They remember the movie, sure: the mechanical shark that sank to the ocean floor when the crew submerged it for the first time, the sharp decline in beach attendance in the summer of 1975, the famous line Brody utters upon first seeing the title character (everyone say it with me: "You're gonna need a bigger boat"). Lost in the fog of too few screenings, however, is what everyone's forgotten: like The Godfather or Star Wars or Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, JAWS remains one of the greatest of American movies.

I should point out how I intend the word "great" here: in the truest sense of the word, as in larger than others of its kind, remarkable, and important. Crystal and I were fortunate enough to happen upon a 35th anniversary screening at the Fox theater in Atlanta this past weekend. I'd never seen a theatrical print of the film before, so I suspected that to sit in the dark for two hours and see it projected wide and grainy and larger-than-life would be an experience akin to epiphany. It didn't disappoint.

Films like JAWS -- and there are so very few, perhaps not even one, when it comes down to it -- demand theatrical viewing if only because their scope cannot be contained. Spielberg utilizes a wide screen to its fullest potential, with foreground and background elements occupying extreme positions for maximum emotional effect: the chief's point-of-view shot past the head of a pestering city councilman, for example, his eyes -- and our eyes -- on a girl screaming in the water. Disparate images, the gulf between them emphasizing Brody's disconnection from the more mundane aspects of his job (why does a police chief have to get drunk and rail about the pressures of being a cop in crime-ridden New York when the simple political spaces one has to negotiate in small-town life seem so much less dangerous?). Nuances abound in this very large movie.

Something else: JAWS, like Star Wars, is a product of its director's youth and audacity. Spielberg hasn't really made great movies since the eighties. When asked by a college student whether studio support by way of millions of dollars in cash to fund his pictures might have hampered his artistic development, the late great Orson Welles famously replied: "No." Maybe that was true for Orson, a director who was never really less than successful even in abject failure. But for Spielberg the hunger kept him moving, much like the titular shark; sharks sink if they stop. Spielberg stopped being hungry sometime after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his (and Lucas's) last movie born out of discontent, restlessness, and urgency.

I think I love JAWS most because it's virtually every arch-story the screen can hold: a stranger in a strange land ("Martin sits in his car on the ferry to the mainland..."), the ties of love and family ("Give us a kiss...because I need it"), a tale of friendship ("Why don't we have one more drink and sit down and cut that shark open?"), and a tale of pirates ("I'll never put on a life jacket again..."). It exploits the primal terror that lurks in all of us and somehow buoys the child in each of us.

I first saw the movie on television when I was six. There was a time -- I don't know if it's still the case, as I haven't subscribed to TV in almost a decade now -- when TBS ran JAWS once or twice a year. I recorded it and wore the tape out re-watching it. It wasn't until high school that I got my hands on the unedited film and saw, for the first time, a man's severed leg sinking to the bottom of the estuary, knotty and blossoming red. What violence it lacked the TV version famously made up for with scenes not in the theatrical release, like a little eccentricity of character, which serves to endear Quint (or is it to depict him as the madman he is?): he torments a young boy playing clarinet in a store.

JAWS is also a great movie, of course, because of what it did for the summer release schedule and the box office. Some might argue in this age of Michael Bay, well, that's no great legacy, but that would be unfair. Besides, in JAWS there is no blame to assign, only praise and fond memories. Cinematically speaking, it's a technical marvel and a milestone, a revolutionary work. A tough movie to make, and whenever I hear Spielberg weigh the challenges of making JAWS against the rewards -- "When I think of JAWS, I think of courage and stupidity," he has said -- I can't help feeling a surge of optimism regarding the infinite possibilities of popcorn movies.

JAWS is a great movie because it made me, a kid who hadn't seen very many movies yet, fall in love with the art form for reasons I couldn't articulate at six. I could only sit in front of the TV and gasp. It occurred to me, between similar gasps last weekend in the Fox, that had I been born a decade earlier, had I seen JAWS on the silver screen in the summer of 1975, my life might have turned out very differently. I might have been living in Hollywood today, trying my damnedest to direct movies. I like to think, though, that in the more intimate setting of my living room floor in 1984, from the moment the great white broke the water (and Quint's boat), I would forever be making movies -- and crying "Shark!" -- in my heart.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

 "Stealing a man's wife, that's nothing, but stealing a man's car, that's larceny."

"Stealing a man's wife, that's nothing, but stealing a man's car, that's larceny."

Written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch. Directed by Tay Garnett.

It's old, moralistic Hollywood that comes to Frank Chambers' rescue, that sets Cora Smith's soul free out in the ocean. The screenwriters believe a confession before a priest and a late-night swim are preferable to darker, nihilistic ends for Frank and Cora, and this generosity of spirit springs from the absolute necessity for justice to be served. But get this: it's not the murderers but the Law who really comes off badly here, those supposed guardians of justice who in fact joke and gamble in the presence of a blind lady. In the end, justice may be served, but it's dirty lawyers who administer it! Ah, I love old Hollywood for just this: the moralistic restraint it imposed and the social (and moral) subterfuge that restraint inspired.