Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horror Movie Roundup 2

A few more, as promised:

Nightmare City is one of the many cheap Italian-produced zombie movies made after the major success of Romero's Dawn of the Dead. The first of these spawn was Lucio Fulci's Zombie, which is okay but something of a letdown; Zombie's trailer promises a zombie meltdown in New York City but then the actual movie mostly takes place on a rural Caribbean Island. Nightmare City fulfills that promise and takes place in a modern, unnamed Western city. Technically they aren't 'zombies' but rather victims of 'nuclear contamination' which has destroyed mens' brains, given them a thirst for blood, and caked brown gunk on their faces. Like so many Italian horror movies from the 1970s and '80s, it's a movie that privileges action and spectacle over coherence and narrative sense, which means that things happen for no reason, like the existence of a TV dance show so that women can be chased around in their leotards and attacked by zombies. It's fun in a cheesy, grindhouse kind of way.

I had seen The Innocents once before but it seemed like a good idea to revisit it again when I found out that Deborah Kerr had died. It's a handsome movie, well-acted by Kerr and well-shot by cinematographer Freddie Francis, and a pretty good adaptation of James' The Turn of the Screw. However, I question the approach taken here in adapting the story's ambiguities. The movie feels like it's trying very hard to be superior to the character of Kerr's Miss Giddens, condescending to her sexual repression and hysteria. And that's why I think this movie is ultimately inferior to its next-door-neighbor, Robert Wise's The Haunting, which is about many of the same things but remains closer and more emotionally connected to its main character, Eleanor, and her problems, and more willing to indulge in the pure pleasures of the horror movie, with the bulging doors and creaks and jolts and so on. The Innocents, in trying to be so purely psychological and tasteful and genteel, falls a little short for me. Kerr is great, though.

Like everyone, I've seen The Silence of the Lambs a bunch of times and it's become an influential, landmark film. The weird thing about it is that it really straddles the line between the highbrow and the low-brow - I don't know of any other Academy Award-winning movies that include a character escaping from the police by disguising himself under a dead man's face - and then forty-five minutes later, we're laughing that he's about to murder and eat a guy.

The movie exists on two different planes - there's the sensitive, emotional half of the movie that focusses on Clarice Starling, her childhood traumas, and her efforts to try and get by in a male-dominated society, coupled with Brooke Adams as the victim down in the bottom of the well. Then there's the half of the movie where you have a superhuman, hyper-intelligent bad guy named Hannibal Lecter who the audience falls for. Demme sews these elements together pretty seamlessly, but when you really get down to it, Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who's smarter and more cultured than you are and therefore transcends the category of mere murderer doesn't really belong in a movie that purports to be a real, psychological portrait of authentic serial-killers and victims. He's a sophisticated, archetypal cartoon character, which Ridley Scott realized when he made Hannibal and reconfigured that movie into an over-the-top fairy tale.

There's no way to verify this, but I have a pretty strong feeling that Jonathan Demme was embarrassed by having created the biggest horror icon since Freddy Krueger, and took pains to only make serious-minded liberal movies and documentaries for the rest of the 1990s.

More to come soon.


frankbooth said...

I will say this in defense of Zombie: shark vs. zombie! Better yet, shark vs. zombie chasing topless woman! What else do you want, man, laser beams?!

I just watched The Haunting last night. (How did you know? I'd better put another layer of aluminum foil around my head.) The biggest flaw, in my opinion, is the whiny and overly-literal voice-over. Still great, though. Wise does some innovative camera-stuff, and I can easily imagine Sam Raimi seeing this one as a kid. I wouldn't be opposed to a decent, low-key remake down the line, preferably minus the involvement of anyone associated with Speed.

As for the bad doctor, he began as a contrast to the tormented Tooth Fairy in Harris's Red Dragon. He was the evil guy without an excuse, the one who knew right from wrong and chose to do wrong. Then the subsequent books and films turned him into some kind of anti-hero. Apparently, in Hannibal Rising he's the good guy. We're all going to hell.


I find it admirable that you managed to avoid the de rigeur" Cox vs. Hopkins" debate.

Jeff McMahon said...

Don't get me wrong, Zombie has some great stuff in it, but on an antertaining-thing-per-minute rate I think Nightmare City wins.

Yeah, the voiceover in The Haunting isn't perfect, it worked better in Shirley Jackson's book, but I don't think it seriously harms the movie either. The most amazing thing about that movie, for me, is Wise's camera blocking. The inside of that house is as disorienting as any post-Caligari German Expressionist movie, but in a much more subtle, unnerving way.

Re: Cox vs. Hopkins, I've never really cared either way. One is an iconic movie-star performance that happens to also be kind of one-note, the other is a more lived-in, emotional performance in a movie that (get ready) I find kind of boring. So six of one, half a dozen of the other.

frankbooth said...

Boring! Choke, sputter...!

We could go back and forth on Manhunter all day, but it's been said elsewhere.

A friend I walked into it cold, knowing nothing about it. The poster was a generic shot of Petersen with a gun. Cop drama. I'm pretty sure we sneaked in from another movie, so we weren't expecting much.

It was the first procedural I'd seen that went into that degree of detail. Dusting eyeballs for fingerprints, "moderate elevation of serotonin and an increase in histamine indicate she lived for 5 minutes after the shot," the bit with the ultraviolet light and the toilet's all routine in these days of CSI, but it was something new back then. So was the now-cliche detective who's half-insane himself. By the time Lecter showed up, we were riveted.

I've never seen the entire remake, but I've watched clips. Sometimes a critic will say an actor looks bored in a movie, but I've never seen it so blatantly and broadly apparent as it is here. You can almost see little thought balloons bearing images of the craft services cart hovering above the actor's heads.

"So tell me, Will...mmmmmm, pastrami."