Rasputin and Beyond Obsession

February 5, 2013

rasputinThe Russian historical film Rasputin has been sitting on the Commissar of Cinema’s shelf for the better part of 10 years, having been, until recently, considered unfit for consumption.

The ban probably stems from the film’s surprisingly tame view of Czar Nicholas II. According to the film, the czar is less the evil tyrant of Bolshevik tradition than a fretful wimp held captive by his wife’s obsession with Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who eased the suffering of her hemophiliac son.

During World War I and through his death in 1916, Rasputin held hypnotic sway over the royal family and indulged his own obsessions. In the film, he’s the evil one—swaggering, fornicating, threatening, and strangling live chickens—and the czar and czarina merely dupes.

It’s a great story, filmed often before, with Conrad Veidt, Lionel Barrymore, and Christopher Lee among those essaying the meaty role. This Rasputin, potently played by Alexei Petrenko, is surely the most disgusting of all, with his limbs frequently jittering into freaky motion and his beard stringy with yesterday’s lunch.

The palace life is a bit like Disneyland, complete with theme rooms (hot springs, walls painted to resemble a seascape), Rasputin’s harem (some of his women wear false beards to resemble him), and mannequins standing guard. In such an arena, Rasputin’s madness seems almost at home.

Naturally, since Rasputin died one of the weirdest deaths of the 20th century, the film has a built-in big finish. In short order, Rasputin ate poisoned cakes and wine, was shot and beaten repeatedly, and finally was dumped into a river, where he took the hint and expired.

Oddly enough, director Elem Klimov doesn’t play the death scene to the hilt; he even leaves out the river-dumping. His direction overall is lumpy and stuttering; the film doesn’t have much grace, but it’s vivid and entertaining in individual scenes. It may be unfair to judge Klimov’s overriding scheme, since the film has been cut by 40 minutes for export.

A different kind of obsession is portrayed in Beyond Obsession, an Italian-made film from the director of the once-notorious The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani.

An American oilman (Tom Berenger) becomes obsessed with a gorgeous Italian floozy (Eleonora Giorgi) in Morocco. She’ll have nothing to do with him, however, because she is obsessed with her father (Marcello Mastroianni), who is currently in jail for killing her mother. He, in turn, is obsessed with her. Pretty soon he becomes obsessed with Berenger for hanging around her.

That’s a lot of obsession for one movie. Too much, probably. And a lot of business is none too clear at first—including the odd nature of the Giorgi-Mastroianni relationship, and her pupose in walking the streets at night.

In another film, these mysteries might tantalize the viewer. In Beyond Obsession, they’re pretty irritating, especially given the obvious discomfort of the multilingual cast in just talking to each other. In particular, Berenger (the TV star in The Big Chill) clearly has no idea how to play his character. It’s the kind of performance that can take you beyond embarrassment.

First published in the Herald, 1985 (?)

Klimov’s film, originally titled Agony, was withheld for a while, but apparently released around the time he did Come and See. The longer version of Rasputin is seeable, these days. Beyond Obsession is also known as Beyond the Door.

Student Bodies

April 11, 2012

A lonely house on a dark ‘n stormy night…a title appears, to orient us in time: “Halloween.” Wait, another title replaces it: “Friday the 13th.” But now, the final title, the true date of our story: “Jamie Lee Curtis’s Birthday.” This is Student Bodies, a movie that seeks to spoof the recent horror film cycle, and particularly the central notion of that series: teenagers who play fast-and-loose with their budding sexuality run a high risk of being hacked to death with a kitchen knife.

Now, the narrative conventions of the likes of Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls are certainly ripe for dissection, and the first scene here is funny: babysitter is dogged by a series of phone calls, boyfriend drops by for a little passionate necking, and we watch, horrified, as the killer’s hand gropes for a murder weapon and comes up with—gasp!—a paper clip. But after this sequence, which at least has a tautness inherent in the situation, Student Bodies loses pep, and slack, scattershot gags become the order of the day.

Writer-director Mickey Rose (who has written with Woody Allen) doesn’t display too much good filmic sense—he lets a few nice comedic set-ups just dribble away—and the cast is uniformly lackluster (a shop teacher with an obsession about horsehead bookends should be funnier than he is). But budget limitations—and it sure looks like Student Bodies was shot on a shoestring—may have come into play there, and hamstrung any comic ambitions. It’s not a good movie, but I find it difficult to actually dislike a film that considers Jamie Lee Curtis’s birthday a well-known holiday.

First published in the Weekly, August 12-August 18, 1981

Yes, that’s right—a Scary Movie before its time, predicting the Wayans brothers by all those years. Mickey Rose wrote Bananas and Take the Money and Run with Woody Allen, but this was his only directing shot; some reports suggest he co-directed with Michael Ritchie, who declined credit.


April 9, 2012

Out of the darkness that is the beginning of a new movie called Beatlemania we hear the first chords of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and it’s very difficult not to feel a sweet nostalgic twinge. But the feeling doesn’t last, as the dark screen gives way to the sight of four chaps pretending to be the Beatles, playing in an auditorium full of reverent, responsive teens. With this, Beatlemania lurches into staggering—and nonstop—thickheadedness. You see, the filmmakers are not content to merely present a series of songs; no, as the prologue informs us, the film is intended as a survey of that most tumultuous of decades, the 1960s.

Right, it sounds awful; but that pious declaration doesn’t begin to do justice to the movie’s sense of junior-high profundity. The series of Beatles tunes—nearly non-stop, and oddly out of chronological order much of the time—will be accompanied by images from the 60s, whether newsreel footage or re-creations. They’re all here—Vietnam, pot, Nixon, flower power—and just in case we miss anything, news headlines crawl across the top of the screen from time to time: “Martin Luther King assassinated,” or “Timothy Leary Advocates LSD Legalization”—that kind of thing. (These headlines are, for no apparent reason, often curiously out of order: “Dustin Hoffman Scores in The Graduate“—that would be 1967—rolls by during a ’64 song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and precedes a “Johnson Reelected” headline, 1964, by about 10 minutes of screen time.)

Dig this scene: we’re listening to “Helter Skelter,” watching clips from ‘Nam or the peace marches, and as the song ends we’re treated to a superimposition of Charles Manson’s X’-ed-up face. It is to blow the mind! How about stills of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and an American soldier over the strains of “Nowhere Man”? (The emphasis on exclusively American history will remain true throughout the film—I can think of nary a reference to the boys’ native Britain.)

Beatlemania reaches its nadir, however, with “Get Back”—this time, the visual accompaniment consists of people of different ages and genders fighting in a wrestling ring; they wear shirts emblazoned with identifying monikers: “Grandpa” and “Mother” and “Daughter,” etc. And they wrestle. And just on the off chance that we still haven’t made the connection, those helpful headlines are creeping by: “Generation Gap a Reality” or somesuch. Holy love beads! Heavy-handed symbolism is not merely raising its ugly head, it’s revealing the entire scabrous body. If there existed a suggestion of a lighter-hearted irony than we’d seen before, this scene might be excused as comic; as it stands, it is simply deplorable.

There’s no point in discussing the musicians who stand in for the lads from Liverpool; they’re not bad, exactly, they’re just not the Beatles. The guy who plays Paul McCartney looks uncannily like the genuine article, baby-fat and all, but why on earth does he play a right-handed bass? McCartney is one of pop’s most famous southpaws, and since the performance is not live, it should have been an easy matter to fake…I was about to start in on the unbelievability of “John Lennon’s” beard and sideburns, but I reckon the point has been made. Beatlemania is as bad in its little details as it is in its big ideas. The real Beatles can withstand this ill-advised venture: their work remains as solid and as exhilarating as ever. But is it too much to ask that the Beatles’ achievement be allowed to speak for itself? Or have the nostalgia salesmen and exploitation peddlers still not learned to let it be?

First published in the Weekly, August 12-18, 1981

I was very young when I wrote this, and the review has a die-hard fan’s outrage over details going wrong. But it wasn’t a real movie and there was nothing else to write about, and the pretentiousness of the thing was stupefying. And so was the failure to recognize that while going to a Broadway theater to see a tribute band (and Beatlemania played in New York for years) might be an enjoyable way to hear peerless pop music performed live, putting the same act on film simply makes you wonder why you aren’t watching A Hard Day’s Night or the Shea Stadium concert instead. According to IMDb, Gina Gershon and Christina Applegate are in this film. The oddly funny tagline for this was “Not the Beatles, But an Incredible Simulation.” I never wrote for the Weekly, now Seattle Weekly, again. (Revision: I became film critic at the Seattle Weekly again, in 2013, until the paper gave up the ghost five or six years later.)

An American Werewolf in London

February 23, 2011

David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, parkas: AWIL

An American Werewolf in London is a super title; it suggests an arch, off-the-wall approach to a certain film genre, but also manages to affectionately evoke older, much-beloved horror movies, like Werewolf of London. It also provides enough information for an audience to be fairly sure of what they’ll see (Although writer-director John Landis has reported this his favorite interview question he’s been getting asked is, “An American Werewolf in London…now, what’s that about?”).

Funny thing is, once our American friend (head Pepper David Naughton) gets out on the streets of London (the lucky dog is accompanied by Jenny Agutter), the inventiveness and spirit that Landis has displayed in the first part of the movie starts dribbling away. Almost as though the title, finally, was enough; as though inspiration has been exhausted by the mere act of luring an audience into a theater (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, and Escape from New York are a couple of examples of this kind of thing: a wonderful premise for a movie—and audiences did come—gives way to the film itself turning out to be a lackluster disappointment).

Still, before Landis gets his werewolf to London, there is a good deal of fun to be had: two vacationing American boys disengage themselves from the back of a truck carrying sheep (“We’re gonna miss you guys”) and set off across the lonely moors of Northern England, with their backpacks and brightly colored down parkas distinguishing them as aliens in this world (a very striking, right touch). They don’t exactly seem like innocents abroad, however; in fact, they’re both likably wiseass. This is clearly a modern monster movie, not attempting to recapture the feel of old Universal horror films; still, Landis wants it to be scary as well as hip, and manages that up through Naughton’s stay in a London hospital (I won’t say what happened out there on the moors) where he has a really terrifying nightmare. In fact, this sequence—Naughton dreams his family is attacked by creatures from –well, from his own imagination—hints at ambitions in the film that are never quite confronted head on; could be Landis doesn’t want to risk bumming out his mostly teen audience, or maybe he’s just not ready to confront such issues within himself.

At any rate, most of the stuff that follows is pretty tame, and the finale is particularly disappointing. The ending is vaguely reminiscent of Altered States; though at that ending, Ken Russell had the delirious courage to back up Chayefsky’s contention that Love is the civilizing and conquering factor over darkness. Landis doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with a similar situation, and the movie just sort of stops. Or should we take this ending—the werewolf cannot answer a woman’s cry of love—as an autobiographical confession on Landis’s part? The filmmaker as werewolf, compulsively howling and shocking, needing to grab our attention but unable to articulate his feelings? Okay, I’ll let it go, even though the werewolf in Werewolf literally does rampage and suck the blood from a Piccadilly movie audience. John Landis has provided some very enjoyable times in the last few years (Animal House and The Blues Brothers) and one hopes that he might reconcile his cleverness with the expression of that hint of ambition; although his next project, Dick Tracy, would not seem to encourage that prospect. Landis has shown enough so that we might expect more than just genre-tweaking revelations such as the fact that a silver bullet is actually not necessary to kill a werewolf.

First published in The Informer, September 1981

Head Pepper? David Naughton was indeed the star of a series of all-singing, all-dancing commercials for Dr. Pepper. It seemed sort of logical that he would get the lead off a movie after that, even if bigger stardom never happened. There’s a lot to be said for the film’s remarkable effects and that opening sequence with the guys in their down parkas, even if the mixed review seems sound. I always enjoy the armchair psychologizing of these reviews written by a 23-year-old – but hey, maybe Landis wasn’t ready to confront such issues within himself. He didn’t make Dick Tracy, at least.

Coup de Torchon

January 25, 2011

Noiret and Huppert

The waves of heat that shimmer above the African plain in the opening sequence of Coup de Torchon are not just indicators of the visual texture of the film—dusty, unstable, with a goodly amount of strolling hand-held camera—they also serve as a prediction of the clarity of the film’s theme. Which is to say that nothing is very clear at all in Bertrand Tavernier’s latest movie; that’s just as it should be, since Tavernier is offering up provocative questions about some heavyweight ideas—Morality and Justice, for instance—and steadfastly refusing to lay down any answers.

Instead, Coup de Torchon glides in a dreamy ambiguity; if the issues that Tavernier engages are heavyweight—and Tavernier, l’auteur of The Judge and the Assassin and A Week’s Vacation, is rather refreshingly resolute about tackling ideas as well as characters—his manner is nimble. He describes Coup de Torchon as a “Metaphysical Comedy,” and that should take care of anyone who needs a snap summation of this unclassifiable film.

The head cop of the town of Bourkassa, French West Africa (it’s 1938), is not quite the jellyfish he appears to be. Even as he kowtows to the local pimps (in exchange for pocket money) and lazily lets law enforcement slide, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is starting to carry out little revenges. Nothing more than dumping a shaker of salt into his (supposed) brother-in-law’s coffee, but he is striking back. To the townspeople, he is simply the bumbling wishy-washy government flunky, and they would never suspect him of being capable of sawing a hole in the outdoor latrine as a practical joke, let alone of murder, but he will do both.

At some point, Cordier gets the idea—and we’re never sure just when, or even whether he really believes it—that he is Jesus Christ, or a reasonable facsimile, sent to this Earth to clean things up. So he starts “correcting” the situation by killing people, at which times he shows more fervor than he usually demonstrates (basically, Cordier would prefer to be sleeping or eating all the time).

“The termites keep eating the crosses,” says the town priest, planting a new wooden crucifix in the earth. “Good thing Christ is cast iron,” observes Cordier. Cordier is much less durable than that church’s icon, and it is the termites of the world—bigotry, cruelty, mendacity—that have eaten into him and presumably set off his bizarre behavior. “It’s a dirty job,” sighs Cordier, as the burden of being the son of God weighs down upon him. The weariness—it’s gone past frustration, that’s too active a world—of the battle to keep the insects off oneself is beautifully captured by Tavernier (and his co-writer, Jean Aurenche—they based their movie on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280), nowhere more powerfully than in the final, haunting image.

Much of that power comes from Tavernier’s lead actor—the lead actor in almost all his films—Philippe Noiret, who shuffles, slouches and rolls through the comedic/horrific paces with the agility of a big sea lion in water. Stubble-bearded, pink-shirted, and round-bellied, Noiret gives one of those performances in which an actor seems to do nothing and does everything. (He’s aided by superb work by three special actresses: Stéphane Audrane, Isabelle Huppert, and Irène Skobline.) Noiret and Tavernier don’t let us forget that Cordier is both a personality for examination, and an all-too-recognizable portrait of somebody who lives inside all of us.

First published in The Informer, July 1983

I think this was just about the time I started reading Jim Thompson, and Pop. 1280 was probably the first Thompson book, which would explain why I didn’t say more about it. This film is perhaps Tavernier’s masterpiece, although I can’t be definitive; his movies of the last decade haven’t been shown much in the States. The 1980s were good to him, though. I met Tavernier once when he came to the Seattle International Film Festival, and he happily talked about seeing Fifties starlet Julia Adams in a movie that morning on TV, and his growing interest in the movies of William Wellman–exactly as you hoped he would talk. Detail about the movie I did not know until years later: the pink shirt Philippe Noiret wears in this film  was an homage to the dirty pink shirt Dean Martin wears in Rio Bravo. So there’s another reason to like it.


December 6, 2010

First of all: groovy dragon, like it puts the Kraken in Clash of the Titans to shame. You have to wait through most of Dragonslayer to see the whole thing, and then you think it’s going to be a letdown, but no, it’s this big ole dragon, very nimble, and quite fleet of wing when it wants to be. Well, it seems the dragon terrorizes the countryside unless it’s given a virgin to roast and eat every six months or so, and the locals are—uh—fed up with this practice (yes, there is a course open to the virgins that would reclassify them and take them out of the biannual lottery, but this doesn’t seem to occur to anyone until about two-thirds of the way through) so they hire a sorcerer, Ralph Richardson, but the job quickly falls to his apprentice, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Elton John. Kid’s got his problems, in fact that’s what the movie is about, and you probably think I’m going to rip this movie or something, given the sarcastic tone so far, but I’m not. I liked Dragonslayer; it has lapses in logic, most of which didn’t bother me (although the most irritating one is pretty dumb, like why doesn’t the hero get fried to death by the dragon’s breath? His dragonscale shield should help him, but when he’s up against rock inside a cave…that’s a lot of heat behind you), and I was disappointed not to find out a bit more about the dragon, like why it should cease its rampaging for a sure-thing virgin. Just a little suggestion of some human-like perversities might have been nice. Still, watching the thing is pretty enjoyable—I’m not about to make any proclamations about director Matthew Robbins’ mise-en-scene being anything extraordinary, but certain moments have stayed with me, like a horse crashing through a wall into an open field; or the dragon in flight pausing for a moment before it goes into a dive, the wind blowing around it seeming to hold its breath for a beat. I also enjoyed watching someone named Caitlin Clarke, and there is some pretty photography of locations that are quite gorgeous. If the filmmakers made a real mistake it’s in callously letting one of the subleads and possibly-intriguing plot complications get killed off. Chickening out of complexities is what robs the movie of any really gratifying resonance, and is why the last gag doesn’t work as well as it should. So why is it good summer entertainment? Well, it’s that dragon—that dragon rules.

First published in The Informer, July 1981.

The kid with the resemblance to Elton John was, of course, Peter MacNicol, his first movie in what would prove to be a hugely enjoyable career as a comic actor. (Mel Brooks’s Dracula—Dead and Loving It has problems, but MacNicol’s Renfield is completely in tune with the spirit of a spoof; in fact he’s what the rest of the movie should be.) I remember having a little more fun at Dragonslayer than at Raiders of the Lost Ark, as heretical as that sounds, but then, I’m a Temple of Doom man myself. Matthew Robbins had previously made Corvette Summer and was a Spielberg accomplice on a number of things; his directing life seemed to peter out after the poor *batteries not included. Caitlin Clarke didn’t land in movies much after this appealing debut (she had a good part in a couple of “Moonlighting” episodes), and died in 2004.

Road Games/Dead and Buried/Hell Night

November 28, 2010

Horror-film fans, weary of the numbing dreck that quick-buck artists have cranked out in recent years, may be in for a modest surprise when they see Road Games. This intelligent thriller, shot in Australia, relies almost entirely on suggested rather than explicit violence.

A lonely truck driver (Stacy Keach) is carting a load of slaughtered pork across the Australian desert. He recites poetry, plays the mandolin, and shares bad puns with his pet dingo, Boswell. Gradually he begins to suspect that a fellow highway traveler is the perpetrator of a series of brutal hitchhiker murders.

Keach picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) out of protectiveness and personal curiosity, and they proceed to carry on a duel of wits and wheels with the presumptive killer.

An intriguing element in these road games is that we’re clued in early that Keach is exhausted, and as the suspect becomes increasingly devious, we begin to wonder (along with Keach) whether Keach is losing his sanity. Director Richard Franklin (of the award-winning Australian horror film Patrick) underscores this by having Keach’s usually cheery soliloquies answered in voice-over by his own fevered words.

The movie takes on the quality of a dream, with peripheral characters reappearing in the unlikeliest circumstances. There’s one scene that is like a classic frustration dream: The killer abducts a victim and drives off while Keach watches helplessly a few hundred feet away, where he’s been forced to stop his truck. Another good suspense scene involves—no kidding—a walk down rows of hanging pork in the back of a refrigerated truck.

The case doesn’t need overstating; Road Games is no masterpiece. But don’t let the lurid ad campaign fool you—it’s a cut above today’s average horror fare.

Dead and Buried is pretty much today’s average horror fare, but it benefits from a wild central plot that sets it apart from a basic adolescent-slasher flick: Horrible murders are performed (and recorded on film) so that a madman may artfully reconstruct the disfigured dead and build his own army of zombies. All this fun takes plays in a sleepy resort town, Potter’s Bluff, where the town motto is “A New Way of Life.”

It’s become obvious that a subgenre of horror films mainly exists as an excuse to invent spectacularly grotesque makeup effects, like those in Maniac and Friday the 13th. Dead and Buried is explicitly about the process of makeup—making the dead look alive—so it’s very frank about lingering over some of the more grisly moments. The quality of the makeup ranges from gross-but-pretty-good to plain lousy.

The film also gives clench-jawed James Farentino the chance to let loose a couple of healthy screams, and the presence of the late Jack Albertson lends an eerie tone to speeches about the living dead.

The title Hell Night unwittingly, but conveniently, describes sitting through this grade-Z shocker. It’s the tale of an initiation ceremony that requires four fraternity/sorority pledges to spend the night in an abandoned spooky mansion. Seems that some years before, the family crazies that lived in the house had been massacred by one of their own, and legend has it the surviving lunatic may still be lurking around the place.

Of course he’s still lurking around the place, and soon the kids are dropping like flies, which corresponds to the level of humanity they’re treated with by the filmmakers. One of the boys (whom we have been led to believe is smart) suddenly decides he should go after the hulking maniac in the dark cellar with a pitchfork. It’s the beginning of about five minutes of the dullest would-be suspense in cinema history.

Poor Linda Blair is still being preyed upon, though rather than being possessed, as she was in The Exorcist, she seems bored for the duration of Hell Night. There is no reason whatsoever to blame her for this.

First published in the Seattle Times, May 18, 1982.

This was my first review for the Seattle Times, which means I’ll never forget my excitement at buying some copies on the day it came out. Won’t forget the disappointment, either: an editor had done what some editors do, which is tinker just enough with word choice and rhythm to muck up my stuff. I recall only one specific change, which was my word “dreck” being replaced by “junk” in the first sentence. So I restore the original here: nyah-nyah. (You don’t forget these kinds of things, folks.) I did a few reviews when Times reviewer John Hartl would go on vacation, and then I started writing reviews at the Herald, a Washington Post-owned daily in Everett, Washington. I did a summer on the TV desk at the Times, too, after which they contracted amnesia about me. As for the movies, Road Games is the real deal, Dead and Buried seems to have an appreciative following today, and Hell Night is still to be avoided.