Psycho (4 of 4)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 groundbreaking film Psycho is my third film selection in a genre study of horror. And it is an exceptional movie.

Psycho tells the story of Marion Crane the lover of a man caught in a high-priced annuity with his ex-wife. Marion is tired of meeting her man, Sam, in cheap motels during her hour lunch breaks and with flecks of even cheaper-morality she pleads with him to be married. Sam doesn’t want to be married. He likes the way things are, so he sends her back to the office further frustrated.

Back at work, her boss’s client hands her $40,000 cash to deposited in the bank–flashy and flirtatious payment for a new property. Her mind is reeling with ideas. In a flash of madness she steals the cash and makes off down the highway to the next town to meet Sam and give him the money. But when the sun goes down and the rain starts pouring she is forced off the road and into the parking lot of the Bates Motel. Vacancy. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

Suddenly the 40 minutes of movie you’ve watched is revealed as merely an extended opening scene. Psycho‘s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, said of the film that “half-way through it changes from being about this beautiful gal, to being about him [Norman]”. And he’s right Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, steals the show.

Norman, after making a sandwich for Marion, begins his rambling explanation of one of the creepiest world-views in film history. Including the hauntingly delivered line: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” When talking with Norman, Marion realizes the wrong she’s done and how crazy it was to have absconded with $40,000. She decides while back in her room that the forty thousand must be returned and feeling purified she steps into the shower for a scrub.

Norman didn’t leave their conversation with the same purified feeling. See, he liked Marion. He was attracted to her. He wanted her interested in him, but she simply judged him for being trapped by his mother when he realistically could have escaped her control. So while, Marion is showering and deciding to do the right thing with the money, Norman is moving picture frames and watching her undress through a peep-hole.

Marion didn’t realize that her purifying shower would be her last as Norman’s mother, jealous of the attention a new more attractive woman is getting from her son, stalks into the shower with a 12″ blade (and musical accompaniment)  to murder her in perhaps the entire genre’s most famous scene (and sound effects). 

The next hour of the film follows Sam, Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective named Arbogast as they try to solve the disappearance of Marion. Arbogast is killed along the way and that sets Sam and Lila off to the motel to see for themselves “what’s going on out there.” Sam and Lila sneak around the motel and it’s grounds uncovering clues and solving the mystery of Marion’s murder and the psychotic world of Norman Bates and his mother.

This is such a wonderful film that I hate to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it. So my synopsis will skip and end. If you haven’t seen Psycho, it really is an incredible movie and a must see. Frightening in a few scenes, but leaning toward what we would consider pure thriller more than “horror” as understood in the new millennium.

But there is still plenty to talk about. Psycho did great things cinematically and simultaneously had horrendous repercussions on culture through Hollywood–let me explain. Horror must come from one of two places, the external (monsters and aliens etcetera) or the internal (psychopathy). Psycho is the first masterpiece combination of these two devices. What we have is a murderer (external) and a raving-maniac (internal). This is scary because the external the “monster” side of Norman is hidden by an exterior that is not only normal but physically appealing. We aren’t able to pinpoint the deformity or paranormal or extraterrestrial aspects of the external fear. This was a wonderful thing for a film in the hands of genius director. But…

What it led to is a film-making world that simply saw an opening for further depravity. We no longer needed monsters or aliens or mutated beasts to scare us. We simply needed an excuse. And a madman would work just fine.

Psycho also instilled in cinematographers and directors a first-person perspective for their murderers. We are put “behind the knife” if you will in Psycho‘s killings. I think it’s also important to note that this first-person violence of horror films (nearly solidified by the end of the 1960’s) has been almost completely focused on women, and continues in the same trend of today’s common horror flicks. Horror from the 80’s on is commonly known as the most sexually explicit genre (outside of porn, which I won’t ever be reviewing). It’s such an overused device today that even spoofs will give screen time to the hot-girl getting chased/stabbed/raped or otherwise being horrified or maltreated. Think House of Wax or Jennifer’s Body for more serious, recent horror and Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show for spoofs. What does this say about our culture or it’s devolution? Hitchcock worked endlessly and even argued with cinematographer and screenwriter to keep nudity out of the film. It was careful camera placement and carefully directed movements that made Psycho what it was. Horror of today uses that same nudity as it’s selling point and then kills the character’s in more violent and disturbed ways for its shock value. The sex-violence intermingling of the horror genre has been steadily growing since the 1920’s.

There is an undeniable connection between Psycho and the slasher films of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, American Psycho, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and all the sequels they produced. Movies where the monsters tend to be more like perverted killers and less “monstrous”.

The sexual aspect of Norman Bates character in regard to the the history of the genre is important. If we think back about classical horror monsters, like Dracula, we see a sexual appetite connected to their destruction. The same is true of Norman Bates. Before the murders he wants to flirt with and spy on his female victims. The mother side of the murders comes from a jealously of those victims. It’s sick and twisted and horrible I know, but the genre is called horror is it not?

Psycho is a masterful thriller and mystery. It’s villain–iconic. It’s director–legendary. It’s writing–near flawless. It’s precision–endless. But don’t forget that even artful depiction of the macabre is still macabre.

I feel like this could open up some discussion so please feel free to comment. (Even if this post is old at time of reading!)



Dracula (2 of 4)

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The horror genre’s second movie for me is Tod Browning’s 1931 movie Dracula, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel, Dracula. The story of Count Dracula is a familiar one to all audiences. A salesman Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, travels to Count Dracula’s castle to have lease papers signed. Of course Dracula is creepy at first meeting, all of his cooing about the wolves howling, but he’s still cordial enough to entice Renfield. Dracula signs the papers, and then after poisoning Renfield (and shoo-shooing off his three, blood-thirsty–literally!–vampire brides) he bites Renfield. The bite of a vampire, as all vampire rules state, turns the victim into a vampire. And so, Renfield becomes an undead servant to Dracula.

After increasing his undead family it’s time for Dracula to move of course. He needs a place with a higher population and more potential for feeding on blood, like London. So he moves to London, where everyone seems to walk alone at night. Seriously, what is wrong with those people? The screenwriter gave everyone impossible over-dosages of naïvety. I’ll come back to this point.

Once in London, Dracula begins killing and bloodsucking until he encounters his foe–the great Van Hellsing, played by Edward Van Sloan (who is now a familiar face to me after viewing Frankenstein). Van Hellsing exposes Dracula as a vampire when miracle of miracles Dracula’s reflection doesn’t appear in any mirrors! Using some cool shooting techniques they eliminate him from sight creating what might be the movie’s only startling moment.

Once exposed it becomes the job of Van Hellsing and side-character John Harker to kill the vampire before Harker’s beautiful fiancé Mina is transformed into another undead monster. Vampire rules are straight-forward and since Van Hellsing knows them all, he knows that Dracula must be sleeping in “the earth he was buried in” during the daytime. Hellsing and Harker raid his castle, find the coffin Dracula rests inside, and drive a stake through his cursed heart–shattering the spell he cast on Mina.

Movie ends abruptly.

I have many issues with Dracula. As I’ve already mentioned the low intelligence of most characters is astonishing. People simply aren’t that stupid and would never be so consistently gullible. I mean let’s be honest, Dracula is never acting like a normal dude. So why isn’t everyone at least a bit suspicious or show any hint of hesitation? I’m also profoundly perplexed at the sexual attraction that Dracula receives from the women he meets. They’re all goo-goo-eyed around him. Bela Lugosi isn’t exactly Brad Pitt or anything close. Actually, he’s a pretty ugly guy–my wife confirms. So does vampirism come with some innate sexual prowess?

Throughout the film Dracula stalks into different women’s bedrooms and moves “closer and closer,” as Mina describes, until she “felt his lips.” But as little sense as vampire sexuality makes to me it actually may give this movie a deeper meaning.

Dracula is a killer, perverter, con and sexual deviant, and his victim that finally fights back and resists his temptations of immortal life and power and sex happens to be an innocent, Christian virgin. I know, this is something that stems from the novel and not the film, but I didn’t read the novel. I watched the film. And nobody cared about the novel until 1931 after the movie was made anyway. The fact that Dracula is presumably slain in the films final minutes and Mina is recovered and healed is an assurance that righteousness triumphs over wickedness, even creepy wickedness that is supernatural beyond our understanding.

Further on the positive side, Dracula has framing and cinematography that most films only dream of. The lighting on Dracula’s face, the set and camera placement in his opening hall, the cob-web infested ruin of a castle all perfectly shadowed from every angle are unmatched (although attempts have been made in many horror films since). The films perspective is consistent even with the choppy editing of the 1930s, you are always sure where you are and what you’re looking at. The genre’s current films have strayed from this practice, in favor of “cheaper” techniques of invoking fear. Which is a shame, when you see such artful camerawork that’s almost 80 years old, and it can’t be duplicated.

Finally, but not least of importance is the impact of Lugosi and Frye’s acting. Not only remakes of Dracula but nearly all vampires of film have followed his example. Some do it even better than he did. He set the tone for a sleazy and suave combination of vampire acting that has become synonymous with the vampire sub-genre and horror in general. Frye stood out more than Fritz from Frankenstein because of a larger role and frankly better acting. But he helped cement the grovelling minion side-kick role that villains still seem to have today. Think of Pain and Panic from Disney’s Hercules or (and I know I just used Lord of the Rings in an example yesterday) Grima Wormtongue from The Two Towers. Think about how those characters are played and you’ll see the mad influence of Dwight Frye.

So watch it for the camera framing and iconic performances, not to be scared, too many effects and props didn’t age well and are laughable now.

Frankenstein (3 of 4)

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Long time no posts. Life is, well acting like itself. And that’s all there is to it. To the point at hand. I’m undertaking a four-month genre study project. I am viewing many movies from early/classic stages to more modern revisionist films. I’m excited to get started. And as you may have noticed the first genre I am tackling is horror.

To begin I chose James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein. Staring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive and Mae Clarke. Interestingly to me the opening credits do not mention Karloff as “The Monster” but rather leave his name off in favor of a large question mark. I found this actually rather interesting. That a man who became so famous for his monster portrayals was originally introduced to the world as a ?.

Also I’d like to say now before going to deep, that I understand many of the films I’m reviewing and critiquing are indeed “classics” and most if not all probably deserve a 4 of 4 from anyone–especially obscure bloggers. However, to separate the films I relish from those I’d rather spit out I’ll rate them as I please.

Frankenstein begins wonderfully. Before the film even roles its title credits, a humble Edward Van Sloan walks in front of a curtain to issue a warning on behalf of all audience members that what they are about to see may “horrify” them. I was smiling ear to ear.

The movie is short, which I always like. (“Time is of the essence, seize the day boys. Seize the day!”) It quickly jumps into Dr. Frankenstein digging up graves with not Igor but Fritz, his deformed assistant. They must assemble pieces of bodies from graves and lynchings to create a body that was never alive. The last piece of flesh is a brain–which is, apparently,  hard to come by.

Fritz being the deformed imbecile that he is, steals a murders brain from a science lab instead of the “normal” brain he intended. The crazy Dr. installs the brain into his enormous hand-made specimen of a person add in a bit of “color beyond ultra-violet light” power beam and bing-botta-monster.

Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancé, her other boyfriend and the doctor’s mentor are all present at the moment of life. Wherein Dr. Frankenstein mutters and then screams the famous line: “It’s alive!” About eighty-hundred-million times. His mentor warns him about the dangers of doing such experiments and they are completely disregarded (Funny I ignored his warning not to watch the movie too…).

When Frankenstein’s monster kills Fritz everyone realizes, “Woops, we’ve gone too far!” Frankenstein goes back to town to get hitched everyone is happy. Except the boyfriend. The boyfriend is bummed. Also Frankenstein’s mentor Doctor Waldman stays behind at the tower-laboratory (LA-BORE-I-TOREE) to dissect the monster. The monster wakes up before the dissection can begin and Waldman is murdered as well.

Frankenstein’s monster escapes and chaos ensues. The finale is when Frankenstein and the father of a murdered child form a giant mob of torch-bearing citizens to kill the beast. The confrontation ends with the monster being killed and everyone being happy again.

Horror movies frustrate me. I struggle to see significance in them. To me horror films often entertain but don’t educate. Which is not a bad thing, but for a genre that has literally been around since the very beginnings of film (even thriving in the silent era) it makes me wonder if I’m missing something.

There is a real significance in this film found in what it gave cinema. Karloff famously offered his body to the role setting an example for many actors worldwide. Wearing all sorts of prosthetic pieces and even taking out dental bridges to get that iconic sour-puss look in his cheeks. This film has been recreated and picked apart in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Lord of the Rings. According to IMDB trivia John Carradine turned down the role because he was too “highly trained” to play monsters. Mistake.

Honestly, it’s an incredible film. The cinematography is indisputable. Close up screams and canted angles and claustrophobic mise en scène all combine with incredible sets, light and shadow work, acting and specific thoughtful direction to make this movie an honest classic as well as a defining style of movie making and genre.

My favorite moment is Dr. Frankenstein’s confession or brag about why he did it after having already said he knows now what it feels like to be God: “Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy!”

The Book of Eli (2.5 of 4)

The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic movie that doesn’t know to which genre it belongs. The atmosphere ripped causing a global fire which covered the world in ash and rubble and scorched everything and killed most of the planet’s living creatures and vegetation. But this actually is unclear. What we know (for sure) is that there are small pockets of human life that have resorted to extreme violence and cannibalism to survive. Also there is only one copy of the Bible left anywhere.

Denzel Washington plays Eli, a God-fearing yet merciless travelling warrior, who follows the commands of God that he alone audibly hears. What does it tell him? Take the Bible west, where it will be safe. . . at the Alcatraz Island Prison.

This sounds like a fascinating plot to me. If the story would take the above premise and start the movie there  (“Okay, go!”)  it would have been better. But it doesn’t, instead it adds a conflict that makes this action movie into something on the verge of either heretical ideology or poor direction. I hope it’s simply the latter.

The conflict comes in the form of Gary Oldman who plays Carnegie, the power-thirsty leader of a gang of killer post-apocalyptic punk-metal band members. Scary! He wants to get his hands on the Holy Book because he sees it as a tool of manipulation. Carnegie says at one point:

“IT’S NOT A ****ING’ BOOK! IT’S A WEAPON! A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, ****in’ town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.”

Well, there you have it. My frustration with the movie’s story comes from this exact sentiment of Carnegie’s: the Bible’s teachings can be completely disregarded. What it says, means nothing to Carnegie. Only what it can do for him via its spiritual magic. Eli at one point in the film says something like: “I spent so much time protecting the book, that I forgot to live by what it taught.” That’s a bingo, Eli. And that’s the problem that Carnegie had all along too. He apparently “grew up with it.” Therefore knowing its power.  So, both the hero and the villain are learning the same thing? Or just teaching us as an audience the same thing?

I’m not sure.

Mila Kunis also plays as Solara, a sidekick (action movie). And she’s about as important to the film’s story as my mentioning her here. Editing Note: She does provide Eli an opportunity to display his faith through prayer, I’ll give her that. 

The acting credits attached to the film are rather impressive. The two leads are film to film consistently good actors, but are given too little shared screen time. I’ve only seen one other Hughes brothers film, From Hell. Which is the worst Johnny Depp you can find. These two pieces of information bring me to the conclusion that the Hughes brothers, have no idea what they’re doing with their casts. 

The Book of Eli has a good premise, and certainly something to discuss about Carnegie’s understanding of what the Bible is and does, but overall the movie is substandard. The transitions are sloppy, the plot is distracted and the last twist is too big (and unnecessary) a leap of faith for my tastes.    

Best moment silhouette sword fight:

Bronson (3 of 4)

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Michael Peterson better known as Charles Bronson, England’s most famous prisoner, is serving an indefinite amount of prison time. Why? For fighting. Bronson challenged sanity and rationality as he continued his seemingly pointless expedition of violence and jail-house rage.

That’s basically all you need to know because as far as plot goes there really isn’t one. The story is already told in the premise. Bronson is a character movie. Tom Hardy plays the lead and does an excellent job of capturing the craziness of the character. His thoughtless staring and his sudden changes in mood and demeanor are disturbing and believable.

It seemed the more bizarre Bronson became the more interesting the next scene was. The confusing part was that Bronson never knew what he wanted. The film portrays him as a fame-seeker. It’s his only aspiration actually. And because of that, following the storyline becomes what I imagine a Marilyn Manson concert might be like–shocking, but not intellectually profound.

The acting is superb, but then again I’ve always said crazy is easy.

Oftentimes “based on a true story” films end up providing a new perspective of understanding about the world and why people might have acted a certain way at a certain time. But Bronson, doesn’t do that. I learned some things factually (maybe) but learned little if anything morally. A life of violence is bad and has serious consequences, but we all knew that already.

Technically the movie is strong, and this is where it earns points from me. The lighting of the film consistently sets and changes the mood, and color becomes a tool of the director Refn. (This is the first film of his I’ve seen, although I hear the Pusher series is good.) The images put on-screen are well-controlled and seem thought through thoroughly. Especially Bronson’s prison cells and a theatre stage he creates in his mind to brag his own infamy. Another surprise technically was the makeup. Violence always means blood and cuts and scraps and bruises. Oh, and then, naturally, inside the mind of any psychopath it is colorful and full of mimes. Right?

Don’t expect to have your soul rocked, but there are a few laughs and if you like to “watch them actors go Loony Toons” you found a winner. Be ready for gritty language, violence, lots of male nudity (Bronson liked to oil up and fight naked), and closeups like a 60’s western.

You can’t insult Roger Ebert

This is copy/pasted from Ebert’s blog. I just love to read stuff like this.  Gamer, get owned.

The way you talk about reading books reminds me of David Lynch extolling the virtues of Transcendental Meditation.

“I wanted to form this foundation for enlightenment for the individual and student,” Lynch said. “That’s what education should be: to develop the full potential of the individual and peace on earth. Peace on earth isn’t pie in the sky anymore. Real peace is not the absence of war, it’s the absence of negativity.”

Whether you are transcending and meditating on the void or sitting down and reading Huck Finn, either way you are suckered into sitting and relaxing and wasting your time for hours on end because elitists have told you it’s a better way to improve yourself than playing video games. How are you improved in any way after reading Huck Finn, as opposed to reading a plot summary of the book? I could read that beautiful description of a storm over and over and pontificate about how musical it sounds but it does NOTHING to improve me except in ways that you imagine in your head to justify the huge amount of your life that you’ve wasted reading books.

Ebert: Plot summary? A book is not about what it is about. It’s about how it’s about it.

I suppose this sounds “elitist,” but here goes: Based on your comment, you have never learned to read.

Zodiac (3.5 of 4)

David Fincher’s 2007 crime docu-drama Zodiac gives a detailed and specific look at the pursuit and murders of the Zodiac killer beginning in 1968.  This is a long movie, but it really needs to be. The book-length treatment of a script isn’t heavy-handed but careful and meticulous about every important detail and well-educates anyone unfamiliar with this U.S. tragedy.

The Zodiac killer writes letters to three San Fransisco area newspapers and demands they front page them or he will kill twelve random people over the weekend. This is the beginning of the Zodiac letters. They continue as detectives, played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, try to piece together the clues based on the killer’s handwriting and circumstantial evidence.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. play a cartoonist and crime reporter, respectively, who try to crack the Zodiac’s code themselves. Everyone involved in the case, or hunt, for the murderer becomes slowly obsessed as they leave behind job duties, families and personal health in pursuit of the villain.

The movie quickly becomes a window into the minds of a group of people driven to near insanity in their quest for justice. It’s nothing less than a mesmerizing study of both criminal and law enforcement and the psychological damage that people take when hunting and hiding from one another.

The ensemble cast is spot on. Ruffalo stands out as he displays an honesty in his portrayal of Inspector David Toschi. Gyllenhaal is convincing as the outclassed cartoonist in a world he can’t control or understand, but desperately wants to. Downey Jr. plays himself (I’d say nothing special, but I like Downey Jr. even if he plays himself). Anthony Edwards, Toschi’s partner, gives a solid performance and brings in an emotional bond to both detectives.

John Carrol Lynch plays the Zodiac killer. He’s positively stupendous. Inside he’s scary, disturbed and brutal, but outside he appears sympathetic and subdued. This was the best casting in the film. When you see him for the first time, you know he’s the guy, the cops know he’s the guy, shoot, even he knows he’s the guy! But for some reason, you doubt it and Fincher lets you explore those doubts right along with the detectives and police of the mid 70s.

Fincher is really a master of moods (notice the consistency in the color scheme of the three screen shots). When I think of Fincher I think of Fight Club and Se7en with their identifiable lighting and the grungy feel. Or more recently The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the holy glow about the characters. Zodiac is no different. There is a feeling throughout the films 2 1/2 hour timeline. A dark, rainy, frightening and cold feeling. But Fincher has an ability to turn the typical noir feel that he presents visually into something different instinctively. Something less cinematic and more emotional–more personal, and in this case, it worked.