Sunday, October 19, 2014

If...

Lindsay Anderson started as a critic, co-founded the Free Cinema Movement and debuted with This Sporting Life (1963). That film's Expressionist touches soon morphed to outright surrealism. If... (1968) is the first of three movies featuring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, each stranger than the last. Anderson treats Britain's ruling class as something not to be condemned, but dynamited.

Set in an English public school, If... focuses on Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), a sixth form student dissatisfied with campus life. The faculty seems remote and indifferent, obsessed with tradition over teaching and allowing upperclassmen (the "Whips") to tyrannize students. Mick and two friends (Richard Warwick and David Wood) confronts the Whips through petty rebellion, receiving a violent response. Now Mick decides on violence, recruiting his friends and lover (Christine Noonan) to strike back.

Made at the apex of '60s activism, If... is strange by any standards. The title evokes Rudyard Kipling, and Anderson pointedly rebukes schoolyard tales like Tom Brown's Schooldays. The Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) sympathizes with Mick, which only makes him a target: he must be eliminated to "heighten the contradictions." There's a pompous priest (Geoffrey Chater) who fondles his charges and a wimpy Housemaster (Arthur Lowe) who gives the Whips free rein. Anderson contrasts scriptural readings and Christian hymns with ritualized brutality: the Establishment embodies violence, control and depravity.

Scenarists David Sherwin and John Howlett craft Mick into an Everyman rebel. He plasters his dorm with revolutionary images and muses about social decay, "brittle black bodies peeling into ash." He's singled out not for infractions but his general attitude. He earns the Whips' wrath refusing to "lick your frigid fingers for the rest of my life." Mick's not explicitly political, but every word and grimace breathes hatred of the Establishment - and unlike his kitchen sink predecessors, he takes action. He's Jimmy Porter reborn as Eldridge Cleaver.
Anderson's off-kilter direction makes Richard Lester look staid. Miroslav's photography switches between color and black-and-white, the latter reflecting idealized school rituals and character fantasies (Mick's wild sex with the Girl, a homoerotic gymnastics scene). Anderson folds in allegory imagery: a student watches bacteria multiplying under a microscope as Mick's flogging commences. If... grows more unreal, from the elaborate war games to someone wearing a suit of armor! We think Mick and friends murder someone, until they turn up unharmed a scene later. What's real and what's feverish fantasy?

If... fits snugly amongst The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Ruling Class, ridiculing Britain's establishment as stupid and anachronistic at best, murderous at worst. Anderson goes much further, however, than ridicule. The movie ends in homicidal fantasy, as Mick and his cohorts massacre grandees with machine guns and mortars. Today it plays in excruciatingly bad taste, with lines like "one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place" especially uncomfortable. Yet it undeniably captures the zeitgeist of 1968, with turmoil raging from Chicago to Paris and Saigon.

Malcolm McDowell immediately establishes his unique persona: penetrating intelligence and mischevious charm, which mask resentment bordering on psychosis. It's a small step to A Clockwork Orange, though Mick's more likeable than Alex. Anderson gives choice bits to character actors. Arthur Lowe's (The Ruling Class) beetle-browed bumptiousness is always welcome; Graham Crowden amuses as a crack-brained history teacher. Peter Jeffrey (Becket) scores as the exasperated Headmaster. Christine Noonan is fetching though her role's mainly decorative.

Anderson and McDowell revisited Mick Travis in O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), films that are even weirder than his debut. But If...'s wild, unrepentant anarchism still stands apart. It's undeniably a relic of its era: what film today would celebrate students massacring teachers? But Anderson's oddball artistry remains undeniable.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Theatre of Blood

Theatre of Blood (1973) is a unique Shakespearean slasher movie. Vincent Price considered this his favorite role, infusing his classical stage training into a typically ghoulish villain. Theatre's winning conceit carries it through grisly killings and morbid humor, even if it eventually wears thin.

Several London theater critics wind up dead, murdered in gruesome ways. Police are baffled, but Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) recognizes a pattern: one man drowned in wine a la Richard III, another beheaded in bed like Cymbeline, a victim stabbed on the Ides of March. The murders are perpetrated by Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a Shakespearean ham actor who tried suicide after critics refused him Actor of the Year. Yet Lionheart survived, and with his daughter (Diana Rigg) and various vagrants, seeks poetic revenge on his tormentors.

Theatre of Blood provides an amazing cast. Ian Hendry (The Hill) is our protagonist, by virtue of having a conscience. Queuing up for gruesome demises are Harry Andrews (The Charge of the Light Brigade), Coral Browne (The Ruling Class), Jack Hawkins (The Cruel Sea), Michael Hordern (Where Eagles Dare), Arthur Lowe (This Sporting Life), Robert Morley (The African Queen) and Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets). Add Diana Rigg as Lionheart's daughter, Diana Dors as Hawkins' wife and Milo O'Shea's cop on bench support. This roster would be impressive for a Roadshow epic; for a modest horror flick, it's astonishing.

But it's Vincent Price's show all the way. Price was never better utilized: he devours scenery, reciting the Bard's speeches while sporting an Afro wig or feeding victims poodle pie. Not even Olivier, surely, got to recite Hamlet's "To be" soliloquy, Marc Antony's eulogy and Richard III's opening speech in the same film! Price's glee quickly infects the audience: he's clearly having fun, and viewers can't help going along. Effortlessly convincing as a crack-brained ham, he's creepy and funny in equal measure.

Theatre of Blood benefits from its cast and Anthony Greville-Bell's sharp script. Douglas Hickox enjoys staging the creative murders, though considering death by hair curlers Shakespeare-inspired is a stretch! There's a memorably weird sequence where Lionheart and Devlin fence with uncapped sabers, sparring while bouncing on trampolines. The sheer variety of set pieces keeps Theatre engaging, though not everything works.

But Hickox's uninspired direction ultimately lets Theatre down. Oftentimes it seems too heavily skewed towards comedy, granting the deaths little weight. The critics are shallow caricatures, and many death scenes fizzle; Hawkins' denouement is particularly weak. A firmer directorial hand could have better balanced horror and comedy, or given it more dramatic urgency. Plant tongue too firmly in cheek and the audience grows wary.

But Theatre of Blood's shortcomings don't compromise a fun picture. There's enough kitschy gore and morbid humor to please any horror fan. And who can resist Vincent Price in all-out ham mode?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Opera

 
Horror fans consider Opera (1987) one of Dario Argento's masterworks, yet it showcases his worst tendencies. While providing a surfeit of stylish slayings, it's also crammed with questionable staging and pervasive bad taste.

Argento and Federico Ferrini's story plays like a poor man's Phantom of the Opera. Young singer Betty (Cristina Marsillach) stars in a production of Verdi's Macbeth, after the lead actress suffers an accident. Soon afterwards, Betty earns the attention of a sadistic stalker. He attacks Betty, forcing her to watch as he murders her friends. Betty turns to her director (Ian Charleson), her best friend (Daria Nicolodi) and a police inspector (Urbano Barberini) for help, but the killings go on. Cryptic clues and nightmares convince Betty that her tormentor comes from her past.

Even by Argento standards, Opera is dramatically weak. The entire cast from Betty down are poorly-acted ciphers, while the killer's motivations make little sense. Despite the omnipresent Verdi music, Opera makes little use of its setting: the Parma Opera House makes a grand abattoir, but why bother? Argento introduces side characters (a little girl who idolizes Betty) and jerky flashbacks that needlessly muddy things. Then there's the mind-boggling climax, with Betty reenacting The Sound of Music scored to thrash metal.

Never mind narrative: how are the murders? Opera's characters suffer evisceration, death by coat hanger and avian dismemberment. Argento provides an unforgettable central image, with Betty's eyes pried open by needles. The stage ravens provide an unnerving presence, menacing heroes and villain alike. It's morbidly enthralling in approved Argento fashion, with long takes, swooping angles and buckets of gore. But others feel cheap: when someone gets shot in the face, Argento uses ludicrously extended slow-mo to make this banal death "exciting."

Dario Argento's movies are all about direction. With Deep Red or Tenebre it's easy to forgive plot lapses for the atmosphere and slick set pieces. With Opera, Argento's efforts to top himself show: the killings are overbaked, the story nonsensical, the best images recycled too often. How many close-ups of raven eyes do we need? The finale plays Monty Python and the Holy Grail's ending straight, showing how misjudged Opera generally is.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Shadow of the Vampire

An uneven black comedy, E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000) depicts the filming of Nosferatu as a battle of wills between artist and monster. Despite some good gags and clever staging, it feels like a joke carried too far.

F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is Germany's leading director in 1922. Eschewing studio-bound filming, he plans to shoot Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror on location in Czechoslovakia. Among his cast is Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who's cast as creepy vampire Count Orlock. Yet as misfortune plagues the production, it becomes clear that Schreck really is a vampire. And that he's made a pact with Murnau, who demands a perfect performance in exchange for the blood of leading lady Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack).

Given Merhige and writer Steven Katz credit: Shadow of the Vampire has an awesome premise. Billed as a horror movie, Shadow's more funny than frightening: Katz's script brims with dark humor, reframing Hollywood ego clashes as a duel with a monster. When Murnau chastises Schreck for killing his cameraman, the vampire wonders if the writer would make a more appropriate snack! Murnau's a pure artist, so wrapped up in direction that human lives scarcely matter. We're less reminded of Murnau than Werner Herzog, whose Nosferatu the Vampyre starred a real monster (Klaus Kinski).

Sadly, Shadow wears thin even at 92 minutes. Merhige's more serious content (tastes of Weimar decadence, Schreck's monologue about vampirism) seems perfunctory or wrong-headed. For an exercise in cinephilia Shadow brims with incongruities, like naming Eisenstein as Murnau's equal (three years before Eisenstein's first feature) or pervasive night shooting (watch Nosferatu, for God's sake). The finale, with Murnau shooting impassively as Schreck devours his crew, starts funny but drags on way too long. By then, Shadow becomes a party guest that doesn't know when to leave.

John Malkovich plays his arrogant director to the hilt. It's a flat characterization but Malkovich relishes the opportunity for scenery-gobbling, complete with goofy German accent. Willem Dafoe is much better, playing Schreck completely straight. Beneath remarkable make-up, Dafoe truly inhabits his character: tragic, terrifying and funny in turn. Catherine McCormack scores as the vain, dope-addicted starlet; Eddie Izzard enjoys trying to act opposite a real vampire. Cary Elwes and Udo Kier are wasted in peripheral roles.

At least Shadow of the Vampire delivers some laughs before unraveling. Cinephiles will relish the camp acting, in-jokes and silent movie stylings, including intertitles, fades and iris edits. Despite its modest virtues, Shadow proves anemic.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Elephant Man

After his mind-screw Eraserhead (1976), David Lynch tackled a more commercial project. The Elephant Man (1980) is a compassionate monster movie starring a human. Beautifully shot, smartly written and brilliantly acted, it's a winner on all fronts.

England circa 1884. While visiting a London freak show, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) encounters John Merrick (John Hurt). Hideously deformed by neurofibromatosis, Merrick comes billed as "the Elephant Man." Treves takes Merrick to the London Hospital, where he discovers the man can speak. Treves befriends Merrick, shields him from showman Bytes (Freddie Jones). Yet as he introduces Merrick to London society, Treves wonders if he's also exploiting his patient.

Stylistically, The Elephant Man crosses David Lean's Dickens adaptations with a Universal horror film. Filming in stark black-and-white, Lynch and cinematographer Freddie Francis completely avoid period glamor. Instead Elephant inhabits cramped interiors, the outside world glimpsed through filthy circuses and grungy Whitechappel dives. Lynch limits weirdness to a few dream sequences (including elephant rape) but keeps viewers off-balance with gruesome sounds (Merrick's wheezing, an omnipresent industrial whir, John Morris's jingly score) and images.

Elephant benefits from its sensitive script. Like a subverted monster movie, it begins as horror before shaving away Merrick's strangeness; Elephant even has Merrick chased by a Frankenstein-esque mob. Lynch doesn't make Merrick a malformed Forrest Gump, either: he wants nothing more than to take tea and sleep like ordinary people. Transformed from mute reject to social butterfly, Merrick becomes euphoric until a prolonged, third act humiliation. Elephant Man ends on a note both transcendent and tragic, allowing Merrick an irrevocable moment of normalcy.

Lynch contrasts Merrick's humanity with social ugliness. Victorian England has no more use for Merrick than the mutilated steelworker Treves treats in hospital, exploited until useless. Bytes poses as Merrick's benefactor but ruthlessly beats him; Jim (Michael Elphick) invites bar patrons to gawk. Even Treves views him less as man than curiosity, enjoying his notoriety as the Elephant Man's benefactor. Merrick's strict nurse (Wendy Hiller) and actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) are Elephant's most compassionate characters: they're utterly straightforward, treating Merrick as a person.

Anthony Hopkins breathes compassion and self-doubt into Treves' characterization. He's marvelously restrained: when Treves explodes into a trademark Hopkins rant, it has real impact. John Hurt is heartbreaking with his breathless delivery and anguished mannerisms; Merrick's humanity shines through mountains of makeup. Wendy Hiller's icy haughtiness steals every scene; John Gielgud balances with measured gentility. Anne Bancroft has an affecting cameo, charmingly eccentric. Freddie Jones and Michael Elphick (channeling Robert Newton) make hateful villains.

If David Lynch is inexorably linked with vivid surrealism, he's also adept at human stories (Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story). The Elephant Man's power derives from its nuanced characterization: Merrick's tragic yes, but also pitiably human. Whether monstorus or not, it's easier to empathize with man than martyr.