Saturday, June 12, 2010
Starring Joceline Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noona, Mary Woronov
Ti West wasn't content with just delivering an homage to late 70's/early 80's horror with his film The House of the Devil. Oh no. He wanted to make you think you're actually watching a movie filmed during that era. For the most part, nay, for the whole part he succeeds. The House of the Devil feels like you're popping a videotape into your VCR and viewing a not-quite-cult yet not-exactly-mainstream film made by an up and coming filmmaker with a bright future directing solid and even classic genre films. The thing is, not only does he nail the period filmmaking and feel, he also creates, with The House of the Devil, a great modern genre film that serves as a starkly subtle counterpoint to the Saw's and Platinum Dune output of today's horror landscape.
Using equipment straight from 30 years ago (like, say, the band Witchcraft uses vintage recording gear when transcribing their albums), West seeks to evoke a certain period with his creation. The costuming must be perfect. The feathered hairstyles and tight jeans just right. The use of a four-track walkman by our heroine must be highlighted. And, most, of all, the story must revolve around the era's paranoia of Satanic cults and unholy sacrifice.
Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a smart but somewhat lonely college student who finds her first apartment but can't scrounge up enough money to pay for it. Given a financial reprieve by her landlady (Dee Wallace), Samantha accepts a job babysitting for Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). When Samantha and her tag-along friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, who's so sexy adorable and adorably sexy as to defy logic) arrive at the Ulman residence, they find that sitting a baby isn't exactly what the strange couple had in mind. It is not a spoiler to say that pentagrams and Lucifer worship ensues.
The House of the Devil's strengths lie in West's seriously magnificent directing chops. I'm not going to pretend to have any more than a surface knowledge of framing, but West's camera is constantly capturing stunningly moody images (such as seen here), and his instinct for creating atmosphere is highly tuned. He uses the rectangular shape of doors and hallways to instill a sense of enclosure. Sharply defined shadows ensnare Samantha, and those shadows become more and more foreboding as the film sheds its frames. Some of the images that radiate of the screen are startlingly unsettling, to say the least.
I glorify the technical aspects of The House of the Devil because the film is, by all accounts, molasses slow. See Samantha walk across campus! Watch Sam and Megan eat pizza! Sam walks some more! Now she dances to The Fixx with her big-ass headphones! There is a lot of down-time in the film, and criticisms that nothing happens are well-founded. They're just not criticisms I happen to agree with. The House of the Devil is so precise technically and so engaging with performance (both in its execution and performance of the actors) that the lack of narrative drive didn't hit me until a good hour into the film, and by that time the film had become so tense that I didn't even notice the jump from subtle, atmosphere-building horror to straight-up in-your-face gore, a jump that is handled with grace but still feels disconnected from the previous sixty minutes. I wish West had scaled back on the blood and frenetic feel of the punch in the last reel of the film. Not only does it feature a make-up job worthy of the worst haunted house in America, but it also seems as if West is trying to over-compensate for the lackadaisical nature of what came before. I'm all for a slow-burn culminating in a burst of manic-inspired mayhem (see my favorite movie, Alien), but in the case of The House of the Devil, less should have been rewarded with a little more than less.
As much as The House of the Devil relies heavily on its technical highlights, it also features magnetic performances by its cast. Jocelin Donahue is suitably smart yet naive and outsider-ish, and Greta Gerwin is aces as Sam's entitled and loyal best friend, but Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov steal the movie as the Satanic Mr. and Mrs. Ulman. Noonan especially pleases in his scenes, walking the line between sweet and creepy. The odd looking actor has never looked more normal, even when playing a sinister acolyte of the Devil. And Woronov (a genre veteran) is disgustingly sexy (and creepily disgusting) in her small role. And AJ Bowen (cast member of The Signal, another outstanding modern horror film I need to cover on this site) makes an impression as Jr. Ulman, a plump, faux-good samaritan.
I haven't even begun to describe how perfect the original music to The House of the Devil is, or how well the marketing nailed the look and feel of the film (seriously, just check out that poster above, and you'll see what I mean), but I think I've covered what works about the film well enough. It may not work for all audiences - especially an audience fed horror garbage the past ten years - but for folks looking for non-cynical, serious, well crafted, Hitchockian, deliberately slow-paced masterful horror film, spend a night in The House of the Devil.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Starring Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer
An Italian mobster and his muscled guards attempt to extract money from a corrupt cop in cahoots with a
New Orleans drug dealer. The attempt goes bad, and the mobster and his muscle fall after the drug dealer has his posse pull some triggers. "Shoot him again", says the corrupt cop after the smoke settles and the posse relaxes. "What for?", inquires one of the trigger-men. The camera pans over to the dead mobster as a mo-hawked break-dancer dressed in the mobster's clothes flips and spins on the floor next to his body. "His soul is still dancing", replies the corrupt cop.
So goes a scene from Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a strange film on all fronts that shares the first part of its title with a 1992 film directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Harvey Keitel but nothing else. As a matter of fact, Herzog has claimed he has never seen Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (and neither have I, admittedly) and insists Port of Call New Orleans has no relation to the almost 20 year old film.
The film opens as Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and his partner Steve Pruit (a criminally underused Val Kilmer) clean out a prison locker in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Realizing a prisoner is still locked in his cell even as water rises above his neck, the two make bets on how long the convict will last before he drowns. After making a bet with Pruit, McDonagh decides to save the trapped man and inadvertently hurts his back. Advised by his doctor that he'll endure years of pain, McDonagh is nonetheless promoted to Lieutenant for his good deed. While his professional life takes off his personal life takes a crack-pipe hit: now addicted to painkillers and coke, McDonagh, by all means a crackerjack when it comes to police work, becomes the most corrupt cop in the The Big Easy. He takes sexual favors in exchange for arrest leniency. He steals money from his girlfriend Frankie's clients (she's a prostitute). He snorts cocaine before canvasing a crime scene. He tortures a sickly old woman for information on a triple homicide. A triple homicide that could launch his career even further than he's already made it. If he can just stop being the biggest prick on the force.
The main attraction for watching BL: POCNO is to get to see a film directed by a man as unhinged as Werner Herzog staring an actor as unhinged as Nicholas Cage. There's been debate going on for years about Cage: one side believes the man can't and has never been able to act in his life. The other side (the side that is right) knows the man can turn in a great performance (Leaving Las Vegas, Matchstick Men, Snake-Eyes, Adaptation, Kick-Ass) but instead chooses to embrace the wacky side of his persona in films that simply aren't built to be wacky. Cage is an odd bird, but films like National Treasure aren't odd, just mainstream fluff. Give Cage the chance to fully unload and he's about as fun to watch as just about any actor you can name.
And unload he does in this film. With his hunched shoulders and thinning helmet-hair, McDonagh at first glance appears to be the most pathetic man of the law this side of Barney Fife. But his face betrays a barely concealed rage; rage at the pain he endured because of his heroic rescue (of a criminal), rage at his alcoholic stepmother and AA attending father. Rage at his hooker girlfriend for not bringing in enough money. Rage at the NOLA PD for not allowing him to conduct a homicide investigation the way he wants to. There isn't a scene in Bad Lieutenant: POCNO where McDonagh isn't a simmering bundle of drug-fueled nerves. Yet his rage is somehow controllable. Rarely does he strike out at those closest to him, instead choosing to take his outbursts to the street. Whether shaking down a young couple coming out of a club for drugs and sexual favors or telling a star football player he'll be arrested for purchasing marijuana if he doesn't throw a football game McDonagh has money on, Terence is constantly using his position as a Lieutenant to purge his rage. And Cage's performance is nothing short of pulverizing.
The irony of McDonagh's corruptness is that, in the end, it actually makes him a better cop, and Herzog understands the cruel reality of this. Once again the director displays his alternately loving and fearful attitudes towards nature in this film. The movie opens up with a shot of a snake swimming through water. McDonagh hallucinates and sees iguanas. Two men sit in front of a gigantic aquarium filled with sharks (quite frankly the most striking shot of the film and one of my favorites of the last decade). Throughout, Herzog is constantly comparing McDonagh to his lizard and finned counterpoints. These animals can be dangerous, but they're primitive and get the job done by any means necessary. If there's one director that there's a thin line between the cold and uncaring attitude of nature and the unstable reality of human emotion it's Werner Herzog.
For being a film that seemed to have started out as a way to capitalize on the provocative and cult-like status of a film that features full frontal Keitel nudity, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a surprisingly great and well made film (which also happens to feature from great supporting work from Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge, Irma P. Hall, and Michael Shannon) . It has a few flaws - Val Kilmer's little screentime and an ending that drags on about ten minutes too long - but it's a seriously fun watch, and not since his many collaborations with Klaus Kinski has Werner Herzog found an actor as crazy as Nicholas Cage to make some seriously bizarre movie magic with.