Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: SUSPIRIA 2018

A young woman barges in on her psychiatrist on a bleak Berlin day in the late '70s. He shifts an appointment with her and makes notes about her delusions as she acts erratically in his office. She tells him she fears for her life and the lives of her friends back at the dance academy because it's run by a coven of witches. Exit screen left and that's the last of her ... maybe.

Elsewhere, amid scenes of stret protest and news commentary about the Bader Meinhoff gang, young Susie Bannion gets off a train and makes her way to that academy. She makes a big impression at her audition. So much so that the chief instructor, Madame Blanc is psychically alerted to her performance and abandons the class she is taking to witness this new raw talent. She's in!

From this point we follow Susie's progress through favour and skill at the school while we learn of her childhood in a forbidding ascetic Christian group and the psychiatrist's back story that has to do with the war years. Also, just as the political strife is on the boil in the streets and the world's stage the witches at the school are heading for a leadership spill. Yes, this time around they are revealed as witches from the get go. There's a point to this and it forms the wedge between this and the original version of the story from the real 1970s. But I don't spoil movies.

I am well behind on the works of Luca Guadagnino but do know he has risen from arthouse fare that has divided audience to more generally celebrated films like Call me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash. I might well choose to catch up with those but it won't be on the strength of this one. Not that it's a bad film. It is very well crafted and above all deliberate in the choices that give us its muted '70s pallet, underplayed score and character arcs. Cinematic quality is not the issue here.

This might well have been, given its troubled pre-production history, a tawdry point-missing Americanised travesty. There are pointers to that but Guadagnino steers those elements away from the mainstream cliches they might have been in the hands of David Gordon Green (who went on to yet another unbidden remake, Halloween 2018). And there is much to be admired in the way Guadagnino blends the supernatural with the socio-political elements so that without too much hammering they feel as though they belong on the same screen.

He's no slouch with horror, either, in this remake of a horror milestone. The scene in which Susie's dance seems to twist and rupture the body of a character in another room is terrifying. It isn't played for the slightest laugh and is richer for it. Other excursions into unironic horror work as well for that same commitment. Tilda Swinton is at her most intimidatingly confident as Mme Blanc. Her counterpart, Susie, is given real range and nuance by Dakota Johnson. No one the large multinational cast disappoints. So why don't I like it?

The original film is not something I grew up with but I only had to see it once, on a crumbling rental VHS at the end of the '90s, to be completely captivated by it. Why? Yeah, why? The thing has no depth, it's plot is a scattered and unconvincing mystery and is played by a cast who mostly are mouthing their lines which are very obviously dubbed by the stilted delivery of voice-over talent who sound like they're paid by the day. There is backstory but it's left till late, is dull in delivery and jolts the viewer out of the world of the rest of the film. There's a stupid and needless scene with a bat that leaves a bad taste in the mouth by its suggestion of animal cruelty. So, why do I love it?

Well, because it packs a wallop with ultra-violent kill scenes from the off, in eye popping deco settings in a pallet intentionally torn between deep reds and blues from a choice to shoot it with expired film stock. Suspiria 1977 does not pretend to be anything other than a scarefest. The whispered detective work between some of the characters is enjoyable but there's only a tiny fraction of the work given to the plotting of Argento's earlier Giallo films. It's witches/bad vs Suzy/good with a barnstorming score that sounds like the best prog rock ever. I love it because it gives all this in 98 minutes.

The new Suspiria adds almost an hour of screen time spent setting up relationships and contexualising witches and then what always feels like too long on back stories. In the end this is only in the service of an overall twist in a single character arc. Is that really worth adding a two thirds of the original's screen time: you want us to be a little more understanding about witches?

Backstory incursions are (to be in theme) a curse to horror stories if they take more than the equivalent of a few lines of a prose tale. There are exceptions but only very few. Mostly they add drag as they do here. If you've seen Sleepaway Camp you might know of a very late insert along these lines but it adds with its brevity and weirdness (which helps the otherwise too-bizarre revelation). It was backstory that turned the tale in Ringu from a freezing weird revenge story into a big bloated character piece as The Ring. Backstory allows the viewer too much control over the narrative: the horror of the original depends on the viewer's lack of this. While Guadagnino does this better than that his efforts suggest a question that is not answered by seeing the result of his efforts. Why?

Guadagnino stated that he wanted this to be different in every way? Why? You get a few extra themes in there but these have nothing to do with the intentions of the original. Reclaim witchcraft as part of the feminist narrative? Lovely, but go and make something new. To be iconoclastic? Suspiria isn't E.T. or Gone With the Wind, it's a cult favourite, tiny in the timeline. Do you really need to punish its fans with a contemporary history re-jig? The problem of this version is not whether it's well made but why it should exist at all. The recent Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, similarly told a story that did little more than appropriate the branding for what turned out to be a rather anodyne purpose that used a lot of exhausted special effects.

The main fracture between the two films really stresses the question of why we needed this. That is the issue of control. The point of the scares in Suspiria is that they are not easily controllable by the viewer. It's hard to rationalise them beyond the great sense of menace they give and the cold-sweat violence that ensues. This is nightmare logic. You can feel terror at anything in a nightmare, an ice cream cone will do, the effect of terror is your powerlessness to best or escape it. The new one is all about characters vying for control (including the offscreen terrorists). The audience in this just needs to sit back and follow, feeling at no time under threat from the film itself. This removes the power of the original. Why? You change the arc, rename characters but put the red and blue of the original in the shading of the subtitle font? That's just insulting. There is no point to this film taking the title of the earlier one. It simply doesn't earn it.

I'd planned on ending with the pun: there oughta be a lore. But there is one. Want to try a remake about witches? Do a real one on the backstory of The Blair Witch Project. Not the good but irrelevant sequel and certainly not the assembly line recent remake but something about the character of the Blair Witch herself. Or, really, if you really want to remake Suspiria and have something like the impact of the original, go all out and make it as the first drafts by Daria Nicolodi had it with the characters of the dancers being children. That's right, six to nine year olds. Make that one. Then you've got some real horror and the institutional darkness thrown in.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

HOW THE NEW HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE FAILED ME

I didn't want a new version. Advance word was that it was a complete retooling. So, why still give it that title? Advance word was good so I gave it a go. What I found was that it's an interesting take but it doesn't resolve its own tension. I'll get to what I mean by that but for now I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't like horror who might see some of its lesser sung possibilities.

I'll start with what I liked. When I watch a horror story new to me I start looking for the metaphor. All good horror runs on metaphor and is happy for everyone to know that. Poor horror keeps that down and stitches scares together. I should note that by "poor" I do not mean low budget. The overwhelming majority of poor horror movies I've seen over the last twenty-plus years have been the production of major studios with big budgets. They're poor because they leave the metaphor flat and fill the screen with production and have bloated running times. The descent of illconceived ambition that plagues the students in the Blair Witch Project got to the screen with a lot of maxed credit cards and a canny way with the young popular internet. It remains great horror.

So, is The Haunting of Hill House great? It's metaphor is served with depth and grace and it is sustained. The straining dysfunction of a family that has known trauma didn't need a haunted house but it was a bold choice to reimagine an American classic with an insistence on that. The stories of individual characters and the growing complexity in the series can be impressive. but there's a problem. It has to do with look and feel.

Hill House (which is what I'm going to call it) runs on two basic aesthetic schemes. The present day timeline is given a sombre pallet. Jade greens, greys, pallor on the faces of the Caucasian characters, a kind of constant rainy day sadness. The world of childhood and the House is made from a kind of Disney gothic, rich colour pallet but desaturated, cobwebbed, dark and endless. This is where almost all the ghosts appear and there is a legion of them (including all the "hidden" ones). At one point a character walks down a hallway in the present and enters the House and the change is done by him going through a door. Otherwise, for most of the series, the two timelines are separate and distinguished by these aesthetics.

This is understandable but it means that the cold realist drama of the present day needs an extra strong reach to keep the viewer in touch with the wildly supernatural world of the past. What you get is jump scares, heavy makeup and truckloads of digital effects that look the same as the ones used in forgettable blather like Mama, The Woman in Black (2012) or Darkness or the clueless remakes of J-Horror from the 2000s. This is meant to inform the behaviour of the grown up children in the present day timeline. It just looks like they lived in a carnival ghost house.

All the spectres (with a very few notable exceptions) have the dessicated skin and boiled eyes of all the ooky spooky ghosts of those crap movies I mentioned above. I was enticed by reports of scares that the cast themselves found too scary or some audience members vomiting from them. Really? Have these people never seen a mainstream horror film from the past two decades? If they have ghosts they ALL look like that and emerge suddenly with giant orchestral stabs. There is just no fear left in me for this kind of presentation. It might as well be the Thriller video. There are, as noted, exceptions to this and their effectiveness completely eclipses the main ones and renders them goofy and try-hard. I do not believe anyone would emerge traumatised from such a derivative supernature (I know, the trauma is primarily from something else but the line was too good not to use).

What this does is highlight how laboured the rest of it is. The present day drama is plodding and overstretched. Even when it picks up and offers characters that aren't a trial to try and care for (i.e. the twins) you get the feeling that one rather than two hours might have done a fresher feeling job. The celebrated episode 6 done in an effectively faked single take (nothing wrong with that: it's been good enough for Hitchcock and Gaspar Noe in their time) begins compellingly but soon feels exhausting and strained (not intentionally). Some of the dialogue and a great deal of the performances in the series are superb but both are let down by an apparent mistaking of screen time for depth.

Shirley Jackson's novel puts an uneasily assembly of ghost hunters into a situation that grows increasingly menacing. There is no resolution of the reality of the ghosts and while there are manifestations nary a one is seen. It is a psychological horror and when the least stable character emerges as the one with the greatest affinity with the big threatening place and feels progressively at home there you feel a downpour of her history and the heartrending sense of fate she feels it gives her as the worst happens. The Robert Wise film from 1963 honours this. Even if it leaves much of the novel out it stays true to it and offers a single realm to which we offer without effort our suspension of disbelief. The Netflix outing makes hard work of the imagination (around the cliched effects) and then tries our patience with unlikeable characters. And then it betrays everyone who has read and loved the book and seen and loved the 1963 film with a goofy nice ending. There are no rich horror fiction metaphors here or if there are they have collapsed under all that positive thinking. Not one for me.

Review: GHOST STORIES

Professor Goodman, a professional skeptic dedicated to exposing charlatans, is given a task to explain three cases that stumped his predecessor. He meets a nightwatchman whose shift at a former women's asylum is disrupted by a strange girl ghost. Next up is a teenage boy who tells of an encounter with what might be a demonic figure in the woods at night. Finally, there is the tale of a well to do man whose wife died giving birth to a monstrous child who might be the work of a poltergeist.

The stories lack resolution but all seem to have easily provable rational explanations. Goodman returns to the man who gave him his assignments and confronts him with this only to be reminded of a phrase the man was famous for: the brain sees what it wants to see. Things then turn very strange as Goodman is given a series of tough lessons in the idea.

This film began life as a stage production devised by co-writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (who plays Goodman). Dyson was the non-acting member of the team behind the uncomfortable comedy The League of Gentleman, all of whom were fans of classic British horror, from Hammer to BBC Christmas ghost stories. This film follows the pattern of the Amicus studio anthology films by having a connecting character uncover weird tales from a number of people, often strangers.

The homage here ends abruptly at the basic form, here. There is no attempt to have the segments resemble '60s or '70s films. The irresolution of the stories is deliberately disturbing as we expect a tidy conclusion that we are not given. When the overall story widens to examine Goodman's own role and his motivation the trope of the travelling tale collector is anti-generically reversed. Where this leads I'll leave to the ticket buyer.

So does it work?

Well, it's scary if too reliant on jump scares. There's a lot of work put into the kind of atmosphere familiar from both the Amicus movies and The League of Gentlemen's homage. Apart from the third story's very effective quote of the bizarre '60s short Whistle and I'll Come to You and its insistence on the uncanny in a socially privileged  setting, we are left with a string of sudden shocks accompanied by jolting stabs from the soundtrack. The disappointment that the tales don't seem to go anywhere and aren't as baffling to a skeptic like Goodman eventually give way to questions about what might be in store for him. The resolution provides a neatly tied bow but suggests we do our own thinking over what it's fastening. The nearly female-free cast offers a clue but the film's own push back at the viewer challenges them to care enough to do this thinking.

So I'm torn between appreciating the textual complexity of what I've seen, teh great atmosphere, the promise of a sinister undercurrent, and wondering if I left the gas on.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review: HALLOWEEN (2018)

Horror sequels have it tough. Imagine if celebrity kids were expected to outdo their parents. Pick your favourite and be honest about the circumstances of their fame and the breaks in good movies or great bandmates to spur them. You'd need to do a Boys From Brazil job and recreate the wounds as well as the triumphs of each one. There'd still be no guarantee that the new breed would turn out anywhere like the original. With horror sequels the fans want more and better but the same. Kill more scare more but be as innovative. With Halloween that's a very tough call. I'll get into why that is later. So, how does this one go?

It's forty years later and Michael Myers is taunted by a pair of murderable podcasters in a mental health facility that could not exist in 2018. They bring out the white-face mask that gave him his look in the first one but he doesn't respond. All the other chained rent-a-character-actors do, though, writhing and squeaking just like their drama group teacher taught them. Meanwhile a psychiatrist who does a bang-on Donald Pleasance impression (he actually gets called the new Loomis halfway through) encourages the baiting twits for his own purposes.

Meanwhile, the aged Laurie Strode (welcome back Jamie Lee) in her backwoods fortress takes practice shots at a group of mannequins that justly give a character later a hell of a creep-out moment. We see her kitchen has a secret basement filled with survivalist preserves and probably an arsenal of lethal stuff. She's grandmother to teenaged Allyson and mother to Karen who is furnished with a series of flashbacks of Laurie's survivalist training. Allyson goes about her day like the highschool kid she is, getting hyped up for the Halloween party.

Laurie breaks out of her nervous self-incarceration on hearing the news about Michael escaping from captivity to warn her descendants about the threat. They are sick of hearing the old woman rant about this thing from four decades ago and try to steer the conversation back to more soap opera style dialogue. But it's no good. Michael's on the loose and killing like it's last years shirts. And he headed for Hadonfield in a fast car. You know where it's going. There are twists but not in this review.

But is it any good? As a sequel? Yes, it's good. The kills are brutal and jolting. The suspense is frequently white knuckle. There is a final tableau guaranteed to delight. And, simmering beneath the action and the violence, there is a sadness as we get increasingly familiar with Laurie's prison of trauma and its effect on the generations that followed her. The monster's resurgence carries a weight bearable only through cartharsis and, if anything, that is the overriding theme of the piece.

Is it any good as a horror movie? Easily as good as H20 was which demonstrates the worth of calling key creative figures form the original back into play. The score is tastefully upgraded though in some moments annoyingly like the ones they grab off the shelf for James Wan movies which can work against the great tension of Carpenter and Howarth's 1978 groundbreaker. There is a twist with one character which is bewildering and wasted. The scenes at the hospital are intended to be digetic rather than filtered through a character's warped point of view and are a throwback to the worst excesses of mental illness = evil. Loomis in the original talks about Michael like a priest about a demon because Michael scared him beyond objective treatment which was the point of his odd dialogue. The "new Loomis" (Jaime Lee gets that line) attempts a kind of scientific curiosity about it but, by contrast, it just comes across as hokey and ill-conceived by the writers.

Am I being harsh? Well, I did enjoy it and appreciated that it brought a few new things to the table (and a lot of references to earlier entries which I just find tiresome these days). It is streets ahead of the Rob Zombie movies with their always mistaken attempt to provide back story to what is essentially a bad guy chasing kids. That's the thing, though: Halloween is blank enough, like its monster's mask, to have been claimed by every political or cultural agenda out there and it's still, at heart, a lean and solid effort that feels by turns featherlight and heavier than granite. To do as well at being that anything with the title needs to do as well and then better or just knuckle under and trot out the kills like Friday the 13th from its original onwards. This version doesn't quite get to as well but it doesn't just crank everything down to routine either.

Do we still need slasher films? A character in this one wonders at the fuss of the original murder spree when it has been so grotesquely trumped by mass shootings and terrorism since. Even in the movies where the '90s swung between self-aware postmodernism like Scream and the increasing sleaze of serial killer movies (which eventually even threw the token morality aside - or altered it to a new sociopathic one - to become torture porn) the scene seemed to squeeze out the old knife-wielders. But, of course, the point is in the selection and the stealth and the suspense, the hunt and the reality-defying indestructibility of the monster. They are the bits that this movie does well. At least you won't hear your own popcorn crunching over a lot of it.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Review: BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

A single shot prologue shows a man coming into a motel room moving the furniture, the carpet and the floorboards and then hiding a bag under them. The 50s classic 26 Miles plays on the track. This ends badly.

Ten years later, as a title card tells us, the motel is visited by four people who are strangers to each other and we learn that the area of the motel is divided between the states of Nevada and California. There's a thick red line on the ground and the motel floor with each state written on its side of the line. When the guests rouse the clerk he tells them that rooms in California cost a dollar more but gambling is allowed on the Nevada side (and drinking only on the California side). After some picketty persnickety choosing of rooms they retire to them.

Here we learn who each one really is, every one has a story that doesn't show up at first look. This leads to a discovery which I'll leave to the viewer. A series of snap-to causes and effects transform this into a kind of Petrified Forest deal with a charismatic bad guy holding the characters and grinding them through sadistic games to get information of the strange scene he has burst into. Sorry, no spoilers.

This outing from Drew Godard piles on the visual style with a trowel and it is never less than stunning to watch. As a kind of '90s meta-nostalgia we also get a series of hi-cal pop songs from the days of yore (there's even a juke box on set to facililtate this) to juice up proceedings. And after a chunky showdown that will also remind you of a lot of movies you saw in the '90s we're done. Coda, credits, end.

The cast carry themselves well through this. Veteran Jeff Bridges dominates as the priest with a past sliding into dementia. John Hamm works as a kind of amped up Don Draper. Dakota Johnson does what she can with the slighter role she gets and relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Cailee Spaeny are standouts. It's Chris Hemsworth who gets the most fun out of his Charles Manson type character (perhaps a little more David Koresh but both are in there) and in the moment when Darlene lets him know why she's not afraid of him with a perfectly sculpted line shows both vulnerability and self awareness which soon will turn to violence. It's a standout performance.

But the problem is that it's well over two hours long and feels like it should have been about ninety minutes. While it is never slow it is repetitious and we get a strong sense of revisited information as the third act tightens up. A sudden revelation that answers an only mildly interesting character thread lets us in on a game changing development towards the end and by that time you might be thinking didn't Tarantino wear this one bare two decades ago? Well, no, as formulaic and self-parodic as he got Tarantino could still deliver a lean loaded gun in both senses. This will pass the time but I bet you won't remember much about it a week after you see it.
 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review: LADIES IN BLACK

Teenaged Lisa starts work on the cocktail frock floor of a big department store in Sydney at the end of the '50s. She quickly proves more capable than the slave status normally accorded a fresh school leaver and is soon head hunted by the even ritzier section of model gowns, presided over by the mysterious mittel European Magda (a superb Julia Ormond) whose quotable savoir faire promise much more and tastier wisdom than the Anglos at the cocktail dress counter. Things look good.

At home Lisa is Leslie, girl from the suburbs whose mum (Susie Porter) makes her clothes for her using the same patterns she used when Leslie was ten. Dad is a burly lug (Shane Jacobsen) who needs a little schooling if he is to survive the decade to come. Leslie eventually must decloset herself about her name change but for the nonce she lives a double life.

Elsewhere at the counter Myra is having trouble getting her husband interested in her and we will hear the gamut of the euphemisms for homosexuality suitable for mixed company until matters get crucial. Her counter mate Fay is bored with the oafs she encounters but doesn't quite know what she wants. Magda's homelife is a pleasantly managed continental European series of fine breakfasts and soirees. The 2018 audience knows the reffo tag for racism and the story will negate the power of it through love of various kinds.

Even the darkest of these themes is blended like the ingredients of mock chicken in an old Home Ec text but lest I give the impression that this is a twee piece I should point out that veteran Bruce Beresford keeps a firm hand on the helm and takes what is essentially a feelgood tale of a girl watching the times around her change and smuggles in a fair amount of contemporary observation to allow some harder corners to poke through.

The xenophobia is not surprising of itself but its casualness might remind an Australian audience of recent speeches on the floor of the Senate that might well have been made during the film's setting. The scenes of mother and daughter negotiation feel natural and pointed clarifying the kind of sexual politics to come. The sexuality of Myra's Frank has a bizarre conclusion, all the more considering that the source novel was not written in the '50s but he '90s. The subplot's wrap-up could have come out of a British grim-oop-north family saga. Source material or hasty writing? It's hard to tell.

Beresford stitches a lot of post war Sydney on film into the palette and we're allowed to see enough of the work to mentally comment. It's a pleasant way of letting us join the real past with the detailed construction of it for most of the screen time.

I kept wincing at the score, though. The mallet approach to emotive orchestral scoring with a piano tinkling in cutely came so close to being embarrassing I wondered if it were irony. But, no, I suspect that the '70s chick flick tweets on the 1001 strings of Bartholemew Cubbins were paid for and delivered without a smirk. I can't fault it for not sounding like John Carpenter but couldn't help feeling that most of the intimate and weighty moments between characters would have meant more if the music was ditched. This kind of jobbing film music neither serves the period of the setting nor this one.

However, I wonder how many people will care about that. Why should they? What they get is a radiant cast performing a frequently amusing and engaging story about a society on the turn that ends, as it must, on a note of naive optimism. Cynicism need not apply here. It's just the adaptation at work. I wasted neither my time nor money on this ticket. I just kept thinking of the similar and more exhilarating earlier Beresford film The Getting of Wisdom. I guess I missed the struggle.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: BEAST

Moll is a young tour guide on the Isle of Jersey, bored but boxed into mundanity by a mother who treats her like hired help while the other daughter is showered with favour. Even Moll's birthday party is deflated by sis who announces a pregnancy. Moll strays to a dance, stays all night and is saved from date rape by a man who seems to have appeared from under the soil. His name is Pascal and he is everything Moll's mother hates and fears with an equal fury. Pascal is nature. Moll is in love.

Oh, and there's a murderer on the loose, abducting teenaged girls, raping and killing them and leaving them in shallow graves for later discovery. When they're not betting on the Portuguese farm worker their money's on Pascal. Pascal is golden blonde, sweaty and as dangerous as all freedom but understands he must earn Moll's trust. Both of the pair have a past and it's violent and guilty. But ... is he the killer?

Michael Pearce's intense debut feature is a study in contrasts. It's not just the wild nature vs corsetted civilisation on either side of the love story. It's also in the stiff and brutal motion of the fearful villagers and the strange balletic movement of the lovers when they are alone. And, while Pearce strives for a balance between these elements he seems to have found a need to prefer to write the symbols large. This never feels clumsy, though, it gives more of a sense of these things, images and actions, needing to be stated with strength. When you see the scene with the rabbit you know you'll see it again with higher stakes in allegory. This is not the self-conscious severity of a Bruno Dumont but neither is it subtle. It assumes you recognise it plainly. The gleeful shaky cam moment on the golf lawn with the roaring nocturnal beach punched in does what a lazy film leaves to an orchestral score. The nuance is elsewhere.

Most of it is in performance. Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn in the lead roles stun with their range and can be at their most menacing or eerie in the quietest exchanges. Geraldine James as Moll's mother is the embodiment of interpersonal domination, changing course on a five cent piece to control the mood and output of everything living within every cubic centimetre she surveys. Her interactions with Moll are sobering in their efficacy. In one of those unsubtle but strong touches mentioned above Moll's mother has another incarnation in the form of a flown-in police officer whose gothic interrogation scene comes from an even deeper nightmare. Yes, Moll is seeing and hearing her mother in the interrogator. We know. But we are still compelled.

When I see any film I look for its statements. Sometimes these can be and remain obscure but now and then they are so certain that the next task of seeing how the film expresses them is part of a more unconscious process. And then at the third act I wake this up and prepare to relish the taste of it. An '80s horror movie ends with the wink that that monster is still with us. A good rom com gives us a sting that the reconciled lovers have issues they haven't even dreamed of. But here, following each unfolding revelation I honestly had no idea of where it was going. It did. I didn't. Because of that alone it will be among my best of this year. But there's so much more. It's beautiful. It's ugly. It's good.