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By D.K. Holm
April 20, 2006
[nota bene: The following column, by necessity, contains some spoilers! If you don't want to know the ending of the movies mentioned, don't read on.]
Can't Be Licked
Here is my audio review of HARD CANDY.
Imagine what it's like. You've stolen for yourself a few precious minutes, maybe an hour. While the rest of the family is off in another part of the house pursuing their individual interests, you are up in your den or office, hunched over the keyboard, logging into a chat room and looking for the person who has seized your fantasies. You know that the person you are pretending to be is false but you aren't sure if the person you are talking to is real. The fantasy, the sexual excitement, comes mostly from the thrill of imagining. In fact it could be argued that the actual meeting one might have with the Internet buddy is secondary, irrelevant, to the fantasy that fills the mind and which rarely if ever encounters reality.
I've kept this imagery internationally vague because I wanted it to cover as many possibilities as possible. We've all seen the news items about boys lured out of their home towns by encorcelling chat room maestros, and recently Brian Doyle, a publicist for Homeland Security and a former Time reporter, was arrested for having illegal communications, for want of a better phrase, with what he took to be a 14-year-old Florida teenager who was really an undercover agent. The thing that puzzles readers of the New York Times when such people are eventually caught is, How did they think they were going to get away with it? But when the guy is in front of that computer screen, the sexual imagination closes a steely grip around reason.
That is the main thing missing from Hard Candy, as well as from the score of other pedophile films released in the last 10 years (in fact, if you want to fund an indie film, write about child abuse). The Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman, Mysterious Skin, L.I.E., and 12 or more others all dwell on the attraction of adults for children (usually men for boys), but rarely explore just what it is that drives the compulsion, what quirk in the psyche creates it, what need it satisfies, and what the vocabulary of this particular sexual language consists of. Because of that we never get a fuller understanding of the slumped figure at the keyboard.
But this might be a pie in the sky request. Such an approach might teeter on forgiving or understanding these figures, even though half the films about this obsession appear to secretly do so anyway. The filmmakers need an out. But I'm not suggesting advocacy; just information. What the hell is going on? Answer a few questions, that's all.
So it is a given, than, that Hard Candy remains mysterious about the origins of its pedophile's obsession. At one point it hints at a former girlfriend (the way that Lolita the novel ascribes Humbert Humbert's fixation on finding a modern replica for a girl he once now but who is frozen in time for him). But it never shows him alone, in front of the screen.
In any case, the concerns of this film, written by Brian Nelson (a schoolteacher turned writer - director), and directed by David Slade (from the world of music videos and advertising), are much different. They strive for a hothouse atmosphere in which two people confront each other over the course of two hours in ways that would leave most of us exhausted after two minutes.
The poster and trailer for Hard Candy are wonderfully deceptive. Both suggest that a girl, like Little Red Riding Hood, is innocently walking into a trap. But the red hoodie of the little girl in the poster also reminds you of the mysterious figure in red Donald Sutherland chases in Don't Look Now. The second, not to spoil anything, is the proper analog.
As far as the trailer is concerned, Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson, who looks a little like Josh Lucas) is a young, attractive, glib photographer who lives in a stylishly spare house. Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) is the 14-year-old girl he meets and sways online. They meet in person in a coffee shop, and she turns out to be something of a modified riot grrrl, well read, witty, precocious, yearning, and with a verbal facility seen in teens only this side of Veronica Mars, The Gilmore Girls, and like last week's Brick. She practically talks him into taking her back to his house, and when he does, the viewer is likely to fear for her, because Kohlver creeps you out.
From this point on the film becomes something wholly other. But what? Is it a revenge fantasy? A moral conundrum? Does the film hate men? Or women? Or both? How is the audience expected to react? At least one viewer felt initial sympathy for Haley, but then grew to find her a monster, without necessarily shifting sympathy over to Kohlver. At a certain point, you just want to find out who did what, and the film plays a cunning game with withholding. In some cases, viewers may still not know as the film's credits roll. Ultimately, though, one learns quite a bit about Kohlver and very little (directly, anyway) about Hayley.
Writer Nelson said something intriguing and wise during the course of the excellent Creative Screenwriting podcast on the film (available via iTunes). He said that the after-film discussion of Hayley's motivation would be better if unimpeded by anything he could explicitly say. Hard Candy is shot in a crisp, clear, clean style that foregrounds the tension between the two characters (in fact it is shot very much along the lines of the way David Bordwell nails down the contemporary style in his excellent new book, The Way Hollywood Tells It). So there's a conundrum for you: how does the physical beauty of a film gibe with the horror of personality that it is exploring?
Media Notes From All Over
Here it is, halfway through 2006, and one of the world's prized filmmakers is having the same problems that have plagued film directors since the implementation of the studio system back in the 1920s: producer interference, lack of understanding, crew discoöperation, and money worries. The latest victim of this mental density is Werner Herzog, who went off to Thailand to do a dramatic account of the events found in his doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly with Christian Bale and found producer stinginess and crew resistance. The results are recounted in the April 24th issue of The New Yorker, in an article by Daniel Zalewski called "The Ecstatic Truth: How Werner Herzog Makes Movies," which is not on line.
Mr. Zalewski is mostly sympathetic to Herzog but does note the director's tendency to install himself in difficult situations. Herzog is among that small core of filmmakers you could call location masochists, who like to transport themselves and about 100 other people to difficult, forbidding, and hazardous terrain seemingly for the landscape's purifying or edifying qualities. Others include Robert Flaherty, John Huston, Oliver Stone, and even Frank Marshall. Herzog protests that his bad luck is purely statistical, and asserts that he declined to go to a country on the verge of revolution where he was likely to be killed, but Mr. Zalewski reminds us that Herzog also did go trek the rim of an active volcano and was briefly imprisoned and beaten in Cameroon.
The most disturbing aspect of the piece, however, is that even the crew of the film is not on Herzog's wavelength. Herzog has made some 30 films and won numerous awards. Several books have been written about him. It is probably safe to say that he is an artist. The crew, however, has the audacity to treat Herzog like a kid straight out of film school, ignorant and misguided. They mock him behind his back and secretly make shots they assume he will later need in the editing chamber against his expressed orders. Here is a typical quote from the story:
Misunderstandings of a different order are present in a case brewing in my home town, Portland, Oregon. The cast of characters starts with Seth Sonstein, the operator of the Clinton Street Theater, a rep house that shows lots of alternative, underground, and independent films. The other principal character is Becky Ohlsen, a freelance movie reviewer for the "Pulitzer prize winning" once-alternative paper, Willamette Week, and who also writes Lonely Planet travel books.
A couple of weekends ago, the paper sponsored the latest of its Longbaugh Film Festival, one venue in use being the Clinton Street. Ohlsen wrote a post-fest debriefing, which included the following paragraph:
The shit, as they say, soon hit the fan; or rather, the pie hit the face.
The once-alternative WW is published on Wednesdays. On the evening of Thursday, April 13th, Ohlsen was arriving at a bar in northeast Portland called the Sandy Hut, a former adult dive turned by attrition into a hipster hang out, when two men lurched toward her on the darkened street. Ohlsen ran, but one of the two men grabbed her, put her in a headlock, banged her against a wall, and then
shoved a pie in her face. It turned out to be Seth Sonstein, the operator of the Clinton, and, obviously from Ohlsen's transparent clues in the paragraph, the instigator of the video fun she had written about.
We know all this because the other man running down the street was videotaping the event. Sometime later, the tape was posted on YouTube.com
Called P is for Pie, presumably after V for Vendetta, one of those big Hollywood films that Sonstein frequently decries in his email press releases to reviewers, the tape is a near complete chronicle of the event. And the tape makes it explicit that Sonstein is reacting to what Ohlsen wrote. "A Willamette Week writer wronged me in this week's paper. I know where she hangs out, and we're gonna settle this," he begins. At the end of the tape he asks her, "How could you write that shit?" In between, the man behind the camera (reportedly Michael Atkins, the brewmaster of Clinton St. Brewing, and a business partner of Sonstein's), tells the resistant Ohlsen to "take it like a man," and laughs when the pie finds its target (though from only four inches). You can even hear the dull heavy thud of the plate as it hits her head. Ohlsen, who is a cute five-foot-two blonde who has inspired crushes in even the homosexual contingent of the Portland critical community, appears to be smiling at the end. Sonstein, by contrast, is at least on the evidence of the video an athletic fellow (who bears a resemblance to Eric Balfour on the new show Conviction).
The incident eventually found its way into a local media watchdog site, OregonMediaInsiders, where virtually everyone involved in the case and more piped up, and which makes fascinating reading. Sonstein, Ohlsen, Ohlsen's immediate supervisor, David Walker, the Oregonian's Shawn Levy and Michael Russell, and a whole host of anonymous posters join in to protest the notion that a street attack is a fair or even legal response to protected speech and to chronicle what appears to be an escalating series of irrational responses to "bad press" on the part of the theater operator.
Some of the responses are legitimately funny, if perhaps inappropriate given the context. Walker indicated that "If it had happened to me, one person would be in the hospital, and another person would be facing attempted murder charges." Other posts detail a pattern of over-reactions from Sonstein. One poster noted that "a writer I know says Seth once threatened to 'come down there and bitch slap' him for a negative review of a film screening at the Clinton. No mention of Seth or the Clinton in the review, just a dissatisfaction with the actual film earned him an out-of-the-blue threat."
But like most public forums, the discussion devolved into irrelevant side issues such as whether Sonstein is as good a pie thrower as Soupy Sales and the relative merits of Levy as a film writer.
For his part, Sonstein insists that the pie throwing was a prank between friends, and maintains that Ohlsen is smiling at the end of the tape. "I would love to show you all the video of us drinking and laughing at the bar after the incident," he posted. Unfortunately, repeated requests that Sonstein post the raw video immediately after his edit which would have shown more than just her surprised reaction were ignored. And Ohlsen turned up in the thread herself to explain why she was unhappy about the incident, making Sonstein's insistence that everything was hunky-dory look suspect.
Sonstein even went on a radio show to give his side of the story, but even turned that experience into a claim that he was tricked and harassed, inspiring one of the radio interviewers to post, "As far as the general public is concerned, you came out of this GREAT: Becky called your exposing yourself 'the biggest thing she learned,' you're not even NAMED in the piece, you pie her in the face and she's COOL with it, you post it on the net and get a couple hundred extra hits, you get on the radio and get to tell your side of it. So why are you so pissed off? Is it JUST because your joke bombed? If that's the case just roll with it, man. Even Carlin shits the bed sometimes."
There is some ambiguity in the case. Was she smiling at the end? She might have been grimacing from the sting of the filling. Ohlsen posted that "I have a big mouth. I have to frown really hard in order for it not to look like I'm smiling." Was she furious in the aftermath? At one point Sonstein responds to the charge that the film is cut off short to avoid showing Ohlsen's fury by claiming that this film was a project he was entering in an under-one-minute movie contest.
After almost everyone getting in on the act, on Saturday, April 22, Sonstein sent out an explanatory but unrepentant email to a select group of local writers. After explaining again that it was a short film for a contest, that it was meant to be a fun fiction, Sonstein concludes, "To all the members of the press who can understand what it is to hang out with friends, have fun, and live a little, I appreciate it. And to everyone else well, I kind of feel sorry for you." On the air a few days earlier he announced that he was going to pie every other critic in Portland.
While most contributors to OregonMediaInsiders decried the pieing, and found Sonstein's action at the very least creepy, unsympathetic posters evinced two contradictory notions. One is that movie critics are not very important; the other that they deserved to get pies in the face. Partly responding to this, Ohlsen wrote, "I think people need to move away from the physical-threat angle. That's NOT what is scary here. The danger has much more to do with what local journalists are allowed to publish without fear of unreasonable retribution from their subjects, whether they be local politicians, business owners, advertisers, whatever. An attack made in print (since apparently that's how my article was perceived) should be responded to in print. The response can be as brutal as the subject wants it to be, but it should be in print. Otherwise there's a chilling effect: people get nervous about reporting the facts (or worse, unpopular opinions) because they might be publicly humiliated on video, and where does that leave alternative journalism?"
Added one poster, "Of course, the problem here is that film critics are the target, and to a considerable amount of the public, people hearing that a movie critic got hit with a cake to the face just sounds like comedy to them, so he's got skate room he wouldn't have if it was him putting a headlock on Margie Boule [another local columnist] or something." But people take the reviews seriously, even while hating the reviewer. As Walker added, "Every week I deal with some irate idiot who disagrees with something I wrote. I have been threatened with death. Iíve had filmmakers try to start fights with me. I had someone tell me they hope my mother gets raped. All of this because some disagreed with my opinion."
Despite the fact that numerous websites and blogs, both "local" and national have commented on the incident (among them MSN Movies Filter , Mike Russell's CulturePulp , Metroblogging Portland, and Portland based movie reviewer Dawn Taylor ), the matter appears to be closed at least for now. Ohlsen is not seeking Sonstein's prosecution though some posters pointed out that the incident fits the legal definition of battery and in fact she noted that "Seth sent me an apology today, so I'm gonna go ahead and switch to whining about something else for awhile."
In his forward to the English edition of Andre Bazin's book on Welles, Francois Truffaut wrote, "When the use of video cassettes becomes widespread and people watch the films they love at home, anybody who owns a copy of Mr. Arkadin will be lucky indeed."
That day has finally arrived.
Mr. Arkadin was something of a spike between the young writers aspiring to be directors and Bazin, who founded Cahiers du cinema but never, it seems, really subscribed to the politique des auteurs, which the kids brought to its pages. The eminence gris and his acolytes remained friends but their differences, especially over Arkadin, persisted, even into the book Bazin wrote about Welles.
Bazin, it seems, wanted from the cinema something different from Truffaut. Bazin's visual aesthetic ended with Greg Toland's deep focus and the staging by Welles in Kane and later Ambersons. . For the rest, Bazin believed in physical reality transmitted through the non-human agency of a camera lens Truffaut, it appears, swooned, as did the rest of the proto-New Wave, at the visual dexterity of later Welles, i.e., beginning with The Lady from Shanghai, which is the second of the two Welles films Arkadin most resembles.
Welles's later style, which is basically weird angles and rapid editing, was born of the conditions in which his European films were made. When he went back to America for Touch of Evil, he once again had the resources to use the crane and the tracks. Thrust back into Europe after that, the quick cutting, the voice overs, the now angles, the dubbing, and the Fellini-esque carnival atmosphere came back the fore, because he was assembling his films on the run from bits and pieces that required Herculean reserves of strength, cajolery, and quick cash.
In Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock's witty anthology, Directed by Allen Smithee, (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), from which I got the Truffaut quote, Arkadin becomes the "site," as the boys and girls in the quarterlies like to say, of issues related to authorship and legitimacy in the cinema, especially in relation to the auteur theory or policy, which Truffaut and his coevals promulgated and which Bazin resisted, a lot like the way Dwight Macdonald and other old lefties hated Sarris for "importing" it. Pondering the weird production history of Arkadin, in which the name Smithee is actually used at one point, and which Welles contemplated removing his name from, Braddock and Hock write in the first chapter of the book, "the fact that it is the director's name that serves as the site of the place-holding pseudonym Smithee is evidence of the worldwide success of the auteur theory of film scholarship, whereby the director has been made both the focal point of all cinematic achievement, and the origin of filmic meaning."
A film by an auteur can be great, but doesn't it also have to begood first? This was the problem that Welles faced in his later career on the road, patching together films from disparate backers, locations, casts. Kael especially went after Welles for his poor sound production and incoherent plots. These critics sounded like the last acolytes of the tradition of quality, polishing the Oscars received by such fare as Beckett and A Man for all Seasons and blocking at the gates renegades, mavericks, and outlaws. A film must conform to certain standards of production, acting, photography before they can even begin to think of it as worthy of their attention (though even then they prove hard to please). If auteurism accomplished nothing else, it at least broke down the convenient stranglehold that the Tradition of Quality held over studios, filmmakers, and critics alike.
But by these standards is Mr. Arkadin "any good"? Well, Truffaut's fantasia has come true, and thanks to the Criterion Collection's three disc set, The Complete Mr. Arkadin (The Criterion Collection, No. 322, 1955, 2006, 99, 98, and 105 minutes, black and white, NR, full frame, DD mono in English with English subtitles, static musical menu with 28- and 29-chapter scene selection, 40-page insert with chapter titles, transfer info, pix, credits, and essays by J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Francois Thomas, plus a chronology, folding package in a slipcase, three discs, plus the novel, Mr. Arkadin, $49.95, released on Tuesday, April 18, 2006).
The short answer is yes. Or at least one viewer found Mr. Arkadinto be much, much better than years of scholarly treatises, from Charles Higham's notorious dismissal of it, to Brady's, Conrad's and numerous others' light passing over of the film, led one to believe. Let me put it this way. By the time one graduates to the third version of the film in the set, one's esteem for it has risen dramatically. Mr. Arkadin makes sense, is surprisingly coherent (given the conditions under which it was made), and is ultimately clever and moving. Even the acting is good, and Robert Arden, always so casually and callously reviled by scholars, proves to be much better than you expect.
Having digested every aspect of the set, and read up on Welles and the making of the movie, I find that Mr. Arkadin raises interesting questions about Welles's post-Hollywood career. Here are some of the issues that occurred to me:
Welles as a political refuge Was it obvious to everyone but me that one of the reasons Welles fled America in 1947 was because of the Red Scare? Welles's itinerate career sounds very much like that of other expatriates and fellow travelers, such as Jules Dassin and the host of writers who ended up working on British TV shows or ghosting for Philip Yordan. Few books about Welles go into his politics, and the only in depth information I could glean appeared in Naremore's critical study, and in Michael Denning's monumental book, The Cultural Front (Verso, 1997), which per force addresses only a limited aspect of Welles's career. But it's clear from Denning's description of Welles that he was a man fully engaged in progressive struggles. Welles was a member of numerous activist committees, was a popular lecturer and commentator on politics, and knew most of the key politicians and leftists of his day. Welles was very much a man of the far left, with a special interest in racism and anti-fascism, who even toyed with the idea of a career in politics. In this light it becomes significant that Welles's producer on Mr. Arkadin is Luc Dolivet. But more about the mysterious Dolivet in a second.
Welles as an artist interested in powerful political figures as a means to offer a critique of capitalism In light of Welles's political commitment, much stronger than most bios of the man indicate, it seems natural that one reason Welles was drawn to figures like Kane, Arkadin, and Hank Quinlan is because they gave him the opportunity to explore the psychology of "the enemy," yet with Shakespearean bravura. Arkadin is supposedly based on Stalin, but also on an arms merchant named Sir Basil Zaharoff, and Kruger, the match king. But everyone can see that he is a variation on Kane, whose "Rosebud" is Arkadin's daughter Raina (played by Paola Mori in the film, Welles's third and final wife, whom he never divorced and who was the mother of his daughter Beatrice). Arkadin is trying to protect her from his own past. Ultimately, the artist in Welles wins out over the propagandist, just as Denning says that Welles has a fascination with fascism that suggest greater ambiguity than one would expect. Which leads us to another facet. Which leads to another facet:
Was Welles a spy during the 1950s? He had the peripatetic lifestyle of a spy and a good cover international filmmaker, actor, and theater hand. He ostensibly fled America because of his leftist views, but that could have been cover for infiltrating leftist groups. Or, from the other angle, he could have been a dedicated communist and rather ostentatious Soviet mole. Either scenario might explain Welles's mysterious falling out with the film's producer, the mysterious Louis Dolivet. Simon Callow's discussion of Dolivet on the Criterion DVD is about as much about the man as anyone has ever explained about him and it makes me look forward even more to the second volume of Callow's biography of Welles. Dolivet, it turns out, is not his real name. He was Romanian and adopted the moniker as an adult. He was married to Beatrice Straight (later Oscar winner for Network), of the Whitney family, and whose brother was Michael Straight, an editor of the New Republic and later one whom many spy historians viewed as an "un-indicted co-conspirator" in the Philby spy case. Dolivet was involved with leftist politics in America, under the umbrella of International Free World Association and its publication Free World, which was a global government advocate. Dolivet was eventually barred from the United States as a suspected Comintern agent. But throughout the 1940s, Dolivet was a political mentor to Welles, who had a habit of collecting older male guardians and gurus, many of them flat out in love with him. Dolivet's falling out with Welles was supposedly over production of Mr. Arkadin, but could there also have been a political component, that one of them betrayed the other on a political level? Another side note is that the film also features Peter van Eyck in a small role as a gay power broker. This van Eyck is the same man who was a close friend of Michael Josselson, the head of the CIA funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, as shown in Frances Stonor Saunder's gripping book The Cultural Cold War. All of this stuff is brewing in the heated background of Mr. Arkadin.
Welles as a literary fraud One of the most interesting extras on a DVD loaded with them is the interview with Harry Alan Towers, the producer of a Harry Lime radio series, and who hired Welles to recreate the role. Towers tells a funny anecdote about Welles trying to squeeze more money out of the outfit by offering to write scripts. He turned in six of them, with Towers later being confronted by the actual writer who demanded payment (Lord knows what scam Welles pulled on the real scribe). There is also the issue of Mr. Arkadin the novel, which is always credited to Welles, but which was probably really written by Maurice Bessy, a French film critic, The book was initially written as a magazine serial designed to further promote the film. These and other incidents bring up the question, Could it be that after all these years, Kael was right? That Mankiewicz was the true sole writer of Kane and that Welles had little to do with it? At this late date I would point out (again?) that A), Mankiewicz didn't "write" the camera angles and tracking shots in the film or add those elements that reflected Welles's own background, and that B), Welles's "authorship" is more in line with what Hollywood film directors, from Wilder to Stone consider "writing," i.e., sitting around and coming up with ideas. They tend not to associate writing with actually sitting down and tapping out the words on a typewriter. That's what secretaries do, and in Welles's view, Mankiewicz really was probably a glorified amanuensis.
Worry about a daughter The narrative drive of Mr. Arkadin is the rich industrialist masking his dark background from his spoiled jet setter daughter. Welles had three daughters and the film's unexpected if guarded sentimentality towards daughters is an interesting biographical nugget. It forms an interesting contrast with another facet:
The Gay Subtext From Jed Leland and Pete Menzies's love for their boss-friend-protectors, to even Falstaff and some of the friendships in his later unfinished works, almost all of Welles's films have a gay subtext, or explicit or implicit gay characters. Mr. Arkadin has both. Because the actor Robert Arden, another expatriate who had done some work on the Harry Lime radio show where the roots of Mr. Arkadin's plot and premise are found, and who was appearing in the British staging of Guys and Dolls when Welles summoned him, seems to come out of no where it makes the viewer curious as to what Welles saw in him, especially given the context of the critical reaction to Arden's acting (Joseph McBride calls him "wretched"). The circumstances around the Welles - Arden collaboration sound strikingly similar to the prominent actor who plucked a pretty youth from the chorus line and helped promote his career as a been a movie star and magazine cover subject. There are numerous explicitly gay or lesbian characters in Mr. Arkadin, among them Michael Redgrave's junk shop owner (and Callow does the service of reminding us of the general brilliance of Redgrave as an actor).
No one book has yet addressed these issues. Perhaps Callow's second volume will.
Despite, or because of, these complexities, and because of its visual bravura and links to Welles's other films, Mr. Arkadin is a cinematic text of great depth. It was obviously a great influence on other filmmakers, from Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita and 8 to Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut. Also fascinating is Mr. Arkadin's links with Shanghai, from Arden's role as a sub-Michael O'Hara, to Arkadin's assignment sounding not unlike Grigsby's in Shanghai. It's visual dictionary is also pleasing and the medieval halos behind many of the characters are fetching.
You can't do too much about the sound, the bane of Welles's later films (paradoxically, since he got his start in radio), but otherwise the Criterion box is superb. Disc one has the first of three versions, the so-called Corinth Version, which Bogdanovich found in the archives of the 16mm film distributor. The first disc also has an engaging commentary track from Welles specialists James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum. This first disc also has several supplements about the Harry Lime radio series, whence came the ideas for Mr. Arkadin. Among these are three episodes and a video interview with the show's producer Harry Alan Towers. Finally, there is a stills gallery.
Disc two has the British version of the film, Confidential Report, which is told in mostly chronological order, no flashbacks. The main supplement here is "Men of Mystery," which has Simon Callow discussing Arden, Redgrave, and Dolivet. It's one of the best supplements, ever.
Finally, disc the "Comprehensive Version," a compilation from all existing footage to create as full a rendition of Mr. Arkadin has can be made, even down to the original opening shot of a woman's corpse on the beach. Also on hand is a short video interview with the two men who compiled it, plus outtakes and rushes that show Welles in action, and alternative scenes with Spanish actress in the roles of The Baroness Nagel and Sophie, made for the Spanish market. This is such a great package that I'm still watching it, even having finished the review.
The DVD Tray of Horror, Part One
Herschell Gordon Lewis finally came to network television. In spirit, anyway.
On Tuesday, November 1st, 2005, Fox aired the fourth episode of its then-new thriller series Bones. This one, titled, "The Man in the Woods," send the heroine archeologist Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel) to the great Northwest with her occasional partner, Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), to investigate the unusual case of some human remains found in the feces of a bear. Later in the episode, Bones and a search party find a corpse down a trail, near some ritualistic markings, and then another corpse near it. Bones squats down and reaches into the chest of the second, female corpse, and shows her empty bloodied, gloved hand to indicate that the corpse was missing its heart.
It was at this moment that I knew the horror film had finally arrived. No longer was the genre a reclusive creature who sneaked into cruddy theaters in bad neighborhoods or onto late night television when all the adults were asleep. No, when a popular program on free television can mimic precisely a key moment from Herschell Gordon Lewis's groundbreaking 1963 exploitation shocker Blood Feast, then all bets are off.
The signs had been looming for some time, of course, if only I'd grokked them. Horror film had risen in prestige in the 1970s and beyond thanks to movie brat directors taken such B material and giving it A level treatment in films such as The Exorcist, Alien, (arguably) The Silence of the Lambs, Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense, and many, many more. TV shows such as The X-Files softened up viewers to gross imagery on the little screen. One of the key things the movie brats did was to take seriously as adults the genres they loved as kids.
With the advent of videotape and then DVD, older B grade and lower horror films found an extension of life, like the undead who keep coming at you. While their parents were viewing The Sixth Sense film geeks across the nation were at home watching Two Thousand Maniacs and The Wizard of Goreover pizza and Pepsi. But why? What is it about the horror film that demands such loyalty? Why do we like horror films at least, those of us who do like them?
I remember as a kid having a mass-market anthology of stories from Famous Monsters of Filmland. It kicked off with an article attempting to analyze the allure of horror. Probably written by editor Ackerman, the article sought to justify a fascination with horror as healthy. As evidence, the writer offered up an unnamed tribe in Africa that had one projector and two prints, which they showed themselves on alternating nights. One of the films was Dracula, The unlikely point of this unlikely story was that embracing horror purged the tribe of fear through catharsis, one of the classic standards of theater theory.
I suppose I believed this article at the time, but now I am not so sure. I think a more profitable avenue of analysis is the linkage between horror and humor, and the director who pioneered insight into that connection is Alfred Hitchcock. But more about him in a later installment. The least profitable avenue to a theory of horror is Freudianism. Some of my favorite film writers insist on a Freudian reading of horror, and their views can be entertaining. But there is only one problem. Freud is the bunk. Freudianism is pseudo-science, and therefore any "insights" derived from it or applied to horror films are ipso facto wrong.
Horror, I've come to realize instead, is really a subset of comedy. Both genres address the absurdity of life. Both genres usually put its protagonists in complex and hazardous situations. Both mix in a little bit of each other into their palate. Thus, Hitchcock inserts numerous wry in-jokes into the course of Psycho ("Sick old ladies are usually pretty sharp"). It is no happenstance that perhaps the greatest American horror film of the "classic" era remains Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, about which Tarantino said, "You get a great comedy and a great horror film all together."
As with comedy, the genre of horror frees up a filmmaker to do serious things under the guise of merely entertaining the view (or appealing to their base instincts, depending on how you look at it). A successful and visually stunning horror film serves as a great industry calling card.
Some of these points were also made by Wes Craven and others on Nightline Friday, the 21st, in a special segment on horror inspired by the release of Silent Hill, the latest in a series of weekend wonders that suggest that no one will ever lose money making a horror film. Craven drew an especially telling analogy, that in this age of Abu Ghraib that torture appears quite often in horror films and TV shows from Saw to 24.
Torture certainly figures as the main leisure time activity in the two films with which I begin this extended meditation on horror, Wolf Creek and Hostel.
I missed both these films in the theater and was delighted that they appeared near simultaneously on DVD, making for a delightful double bill on a lazy sunny weekend afternoon.
Both films have a lot in common, not least of which is the enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino, who produced one and tapped the star of the other to appear in his next film, Grindhouse. Both films begin with its main characters on vacation, as does the new Hills Have Eyes and several '70s inspired horror films from a couple of springs ago. Both pretend that (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre) the films are based on true events. Like Psycho, both films seek to distract us with the minutia of the main characters' journeys and from the true direction of the threats ahead. Both make exquisite use of music and sound production. Both films set up one person as the potential lone remaining protagonist only to change course. And both films herald the lost of a few fingers (the same fingers?) as the pressure point of horror (finger loss figures in Hills as well). Both, by the way, are great films, perhaps the finest examples of the horror genre and its potential to be made in years. Each could easily spark a franchise (horror films are unusual in that it is the villains or monsters who become the recurrent figures, rather than the heroes).
From its first images Wolf Creek: Unrated Edition (Dimension, 2004, 104 minutes, color, R, 1.78:1 enhanced, DD 5.1 in English and French, with English and Spanish subtitles, static animated musical menu with 24-chapter scene selection, commentary track with director and producer and cast, making of, deleted scene, trailer, keep case, one disc, $29.95, released on Tuesday, April 11, 2006) suggests that though the natural landscape is beautiful, the human beings who crawl across it are bugs, a virus, not worthy of their habitat. A relatively prim English girl with an underbite, Lizzie (Cassandra Magrath) and her rowdier and more buxom friend Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are about to embark on a hiking trip with what appears to be a mere acquaintance named Ben (Nathan Phillips) to an Australian preserve called Wolf Creek, where a meteorite fell some several million years ago with the force of 200 nuclear bombs. The trio joins in with other youths for a night of bacchanalia, and Lizzie wakes up on the beach, while Kristy and Ben, on whom Lizzie has a crush, appear to have slept together.
Ben has bought a cheap car for the occasion and the script establishes that it is in bad shape. But when they get to Wolf Creek, their car stalls for strange reasons, as do their watches and other mechanical devices. They are rescued in the cold of the night by Mick (John Jarratt, sporting Gene Hackman's feral teeth), a parody of an outback loner. Unfortunately, he is not all what he seems. Mick, like the villains in Hills has been collecting stray travelers for years. He especially likes torturing women for as long as he can keep them alive, legless, armless, whatever, they can't run away because he has severed a particular part of their spinal column (he learned the trick in 'Nam, another allusion to '70s horror). There is finally no reason why Ben and the others end up at Wolf Creek to be hunted by Mick. It is simply fate: as they say about the meteor, it was just drawn to the earth by something.
The first feature film from writer and director Greg McLean, it does exactly all it is meant to do: disturb the audience, stick its finger into the wind of the zeitgeist, suggest sequels, and serve as an industry calling card.
The commentary Greg McLean, producer Matt Hearn, and stars Magrath and Morassi, along with the lengthy doc, "The Making Of Wolf Creek," tell you about as much as you might need to know about the film's background and making (the deleted scene, "G-Day," not so much). The disc also features the theatrical trailer.
The script for Hostel: Unrated Edition (Miramax, 2005, 94 minutes, color, R, 2.35:1 enhanced, DD 5.1 in English and French, with English and French subtitles, animated musical menu with 28-chapter scene selection, one-page insert with ads for other horror films, keep case, one disc, $28.95, released on Tuesday, April 18, 2006) is almost classical, if not entirely so, in its structure. Even something as simple as the motivation of the villain is laid out early, and subtly, in our first view of him. He is sitting in a train compartment, eating a salad with his fingers, pontificating on man's distance from things of the earth. We notice, however, that his fingers tremble terrible. Later, when he is about to embark on the torture to death of one of the characters, he explains that he once aspired to be a surgeon, but was disbarred, by reason of his hand shakes. Another example is Paxton (Jay Hernandez) returning to the inferno from which he has just emerged, to save Kana (Jennifer Lim), another foreign traveler lured into the inferno for the amusement of bored, rich businessmen. This was set up earlier in the film when Paxton told his best friend and fellow traveler Josh (Derek Richardson) about an incident from his youth in which he failed to rescue a drowning little girl and has been haunted by the lapse in judgment ever since.
For a horror film, the character development is thorough and the set ups are subtle. Without making too much of a show about it director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever) creates a vital distinction between Amsterdam, where the trio of friends Paxton, Josh, and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), an Icelander the two have picked up (Roth has a special for Iceland and its people), find they aren't particularly welcome. Following a lead, they end up in the Czech Republic, where the reception is much different: sexy, buxom girls instantly begin to demand their company. Little do they realize that the chicks are a honeytrap.
Like Psycho Roth's film is full of black in jokes. For example about 37 minutes in, at a disco, there is a sudden flash of decapitation foreshadowings that only make sense when the film is done. The film also follows Psycho, as mentioned before, by switching leads. Other films serve as inspired predecessors for some of Hostel's best moments. The film shows echoes of demonlover, a little bit of Reservoir Dogs (being tied to a chair and tortured), Pulp Fiction's ball gag, gristle and blood filled chambers out of Saw and the grim shocking contents of a succession of rooms as the inferno boils, which is right out of The Shining. The film is also fond of that supreme Tarantinoism, which is the bathroom as a nexus of disaster.
Talk is cheap, and there are no less than four commentary tracks on the disc. The first one I listened to was the one with Roth and executive producers Quentin Tarantino, Boaz Yakin (Fresh, and sort of the Monte Hellman of the group), and Scott Spiegel, an old QT pal. As one might expect they are highly informed, and make some good jokes (listen for the "hand brake" crack). QT is good on Hostel's roots in vampire movies and other old horror films. You can also see that riffing on other people's material is writ right into his bones.
The other yaks feature, first, Roth with actors Barbara Nedeljakova and Eythor Gudjonsson, editor George Folsey Jr. and AICN honcho Harry Knowles, which ranges widely; then Roth with producer Chris Briggs and the "making of" documentarian Gabriel Roth, a younger brother, which addresses technical and location problems; and finally one with just Roth, in which he goes over his career for the auditor's edification. At the end of these eight hours, you will know practically everything you'd want to know about Hostel. I can't imagine what he'll be able to add to the eventual special edition.
Roth the Younger's "Hostel Dissected," is an excellent making of, and comes in three parts, but with a play all function. . Also on hand is a multi-angle presentation of a scene (you don't see many of those anymore), "Kill the Car! (Multi-Angle)," covering the car chase at the end of the movie. Finally, the disc rounds off with trailers for When a Stranger Calls, Silent Hill, Underworld: Evolution, The Cave, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Boogeyman, Ring Around the Rosie, and The Fog.