Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Don't Go Into The Water

As a special summer treat I've decided to tie up a loose end I've been rather stoked about. Recall if you will December 2008 when I decided to take a break from all things undead and watch all the movies I could get my hands on about giant crocodiles and alligators. It was a blast, to be sure, a much needed station break. What's bothered me since then is the notion that there was something out there just beneath those calm waters. Specifically two croc films I hadn't managed to find. I had a legit excuse for one, it's been long out of print, one of a bevvy of Australian horror films that only ever made it to VHS in this or any country. The other was just not on DVD at the time and I was still a novice at finding things on this great series of tubes we call the internet. Anyway I've seen both of them now and realized that they have more in common than the spiny beasts at the center of their narratives. Both Dark Age and Black Water are Australian second wavers that waited long enough after the films that they take inspiration from that it's easy to judge them on their own merits rather than how closely they resemble their source films. Take what you will that both of these films about saltwater crocodiles attacking people in Australia were both based on movies about sharks attacking vacationing Americans.

Dark Age
by Arch Nicholson
Steve Harris is a park ranger who runs an animal rescue in a town in the middle of nowhere. His stock in trade are crocodiles and up until now the only thing he's had to worry about are poachers like John Besser and his redneck friends. Some of those boys happen to be out on the local river one night hunting illegally when something catches one of their lines and pulls their tiny boat over. Of the three men that go overboard, only two resurface. The police, not to mention Besser, all assume it's one of Harris crocodiles and come down on him hard but he knows nothing of his has gotten out and if its big enough to pull a boat holding three hefty hillbillies it's gotta be well over the average size and he'd know if he'd seen anything like that. Another attack a few days later on an aboriginal infant puts Harris back in touch with old flame Cathy Pope who looks after the kids. She and Harris seek help from Oondabund an old spiritual man with a deep love for the animals surrounding his home. He reckons it's Numunwari, a legendary crocodile that his ancestors talked about. Oondabund and Harris figure it's going to take a cunning hunting strategy, as well as some finessing of public officials in order to find a way to catch the beast and then make sure it's dealt with properly. Being the environmentalist he is Harris doesn't want to just issue an APB on the thing because it means every hunter for miles is gonna go out killing crocodiles to try and claim reward money. Some professionals are called in but they yield no better results than John Besser, who loses an arm while out at night looking for it. So even if Harris manages to subdue the beast, he's going to have to figure out a permanent solution before a hopping-mad Besser and his remaining cronies come looking for revenge.

I wish I knew what's kept Dark Age from being shown in Australia because maybe if they sorted that out they could release it here. I'm saying that but apparently Synapse Video has obtained the rights to release it in the states at least. And here I spent a year and a half trying to download it. C'est la vie. As a Jaws knock-off, Dark Age hits a surprising number of the proper beats while steering clear of a few others, notably it's stirring conclusion. Sonia Borg is credited as the sole writer on the print I saw but other sources have to other writers, Stephen Cross and Tony Morphett, helping her adapt Grahame Webb's novel Numunwari, apparently as hard or harder to track down as a copy of the film. It's thus impossible to know if Webb was ripping off Steven Spielberg, Peter Benchley or no one at all, and his book morphed into a Jaws copy on the screen. I say that but to be fair Dark Age is probably the best Jaws knock-off I've ever seen. Pair it with Big Alligator River or Tentacles and it's miles ahead. Pair it with Piranha or Alligator and it's still a comfortable distance ahead where craft is concerned. Unlike the smartest of Jaws' many imitators, Dark Age manages a level of style that most never aspired to. Director Arch Nicholson, an old hand at Aussie exploitation films by 1987, having directed the gut-wrenching Fortress and worked second unit on the excellent Razorback, with which Dark Age has much in common, fills the swamps with smoke and too-little light to keep us in suspense until he's ready for the big reveal. The scenes where we get glimpses of it, as in the remarkably effective first-sighting where he eats this movies' Alex Kintner in one very loud bite, do much to simply indicate the size of the creature without spoiling it entirely.

The performances are all, if not great, certainly endearing. The writer and activist Burnham Burnham makes one of only three appearances on film as Oondabund and though I suspect he felt a little patronized doing an Aboriginal version of the Indian companion from any number of American westerns and mother nature's revenge films, he doesn't totally embarrass himself or anything. And it wouldn't be a film about aboriginals without David Gulpilil who, despite looking like one column of an fossilized totem pole, is almost impossible not to like. I've loved him in every film I've ever seen him in and though he's relegated to a kind of silent Quint role, he's still easy to root for. The hillbillies and Nikki Coghill are all fine, as is John Jarratt, who was a little like Australia's Claudio Cassinelli or Kurt Russell until he mostly vanished into TV in the 90s. He had the good fortune of being rediscovered by Greg McLean, who had the genius idea of having Jarratt trade in his good looks and affability for leering menace in the astoundingly good Wolf Creek. Seriously Greg McLean is a fucking genius. But Dark Age... The croc effects are pretty great (though a more trained eye will tell you he changes from a croc to a gator in a few scenes) and though he always has a pretty good sense of where the hero and villain are going to be at any given moment, Nicholson gives as good as he gives, if that makes sense. Yes, there are problems, but ultimately you get to see a big fucking crocodile eat some people and then, in a pretty interesting turn of events, we get treated to a car chase at the end of the picture and even get to feel good about the crocodile eating people! I've accepted logic holes for less. Perhaps if Dark Age hadn't been so handsomely put together I'd be willing to scrutinize but something about good Australian exploitation warms my heart. After waiting as long as I did, I'm glad it didn't disappoint.
Of course Dark Age wasn't alone in its exploitation. For years and years after Steven Spielberg put himself on the map with Jaws if you saw a movie with a big animal in it, chances are someone somewhere was trying to cash-in on his monster shark. Everything from giant mutant bears to orca whales was put into service ripping off Jaws. Hell, even Dino De Laurentiis' terrible King Kong remake felt a little like a Jaws rip-off (maybe that's just me). So imagine for a second a shark film comes out and basically changes the game entirely. Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's Open Water had nothing to do with Jaws beyond featuring sharks as their antagonist but even those sharks are of average size and don't even really get blamed beyond being animals doing their animal thing. There is no hunt, there is no booming John Williams contrabass cue, no villain, just a bunch of digital cameras and a sense that everything is both very real and very unfair. Kentis and Lau did such an amazing job with Open Water that they have yet to follow it up; my guess is they fear not being able to top it but this is wild conjecture [ed. they had every right to be afraid]. But as anyone could have guessed, a popular shark movie was bound to have imitators. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. It is, I suppose, a possibility that the makers of 2007's Black Water had no intention of taking a page from Kentis' playbook, but honestly I don't care. Why? Because Black Water is as good a movie as Open Water and though it perhaps shucks a touch of the shark movie's realism in favor of an openly grimmer tone through-out, I didn't mind because it meant being able to see a different outcome than the one that befell the hapless couple in Open Water.

Black Water
by David Nerlich & Andrew Traucki
Lee, her sister Grace and Grace's boyfriend Adam are going away for a little bit out to the wilder parts of Australia. Evidently living in the Australian suburbs is enough to make you forget about movies like Wolf Creek, Razorback and Wake In Fright and go tear-assing off into the bloody wilderness without a care in the world. After a pit stop at a crocodile farm they head to a hotel where Grace takes a pregnancy test but hides the results from Adam. The next day they head to a boat rental joint to do a little fishing up in a mangrove swamp. The regular tour boat has just left but Jim, the assistant boat-hand, could take them out if they want to. Lee becomes a little anxious when she sees Jim grab a big goddamn revolver on their way out, but he's only too happy to explain that he's just taking a few precautions in case they need to ward off crocodiles. Then, as if to validate his concern, a big fucker of a saltwater croc spills their boat and Grace, Adam and Lee find themselves stuck in a tree on a hot day with no guide, no phones, no food, no water, no one aware of their predicament and no way home except an upside down boat in the middle of solid black water, just far enough away to make trying to retrieve it seem suicidal. The croc may have disappeared for the time being but he always pops up to remind the three tourists that they're never alone. It's gonna be a long damn day...

I'd like very much to show Black Water to the makers of made-for-syfy (née Sci-Fi) channel original movies to show what you can do with virtually no money. The plot couldn't be simpler: three people stuck in a tree while a hungry croc waits for his chance to eat them. And's almost perfect. Our three performers, Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody and Andy Rodoreda are above-average and believable. The trouble with a situation film like this is convincing us that the mistakes made by the characters aren't so huge that the film hinges on them, but big enough that they ratchet up the tension those few needed notches. Black Water's steaks are almost hopelessly average. The croc is big but by no means fantastical (and frankly it doesn't have to be. Having lately become addicted to River Monsters, I'm terrified enough of ordinary creatures) and the scenery is sunny and open yet feels claustrophobic. Grace's decision to try and see how far the tree branches lead her is incredibly thrilling, even if it is a slowly paced scene. You know that this is the extent of the traveling we'll do and directors David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki put all of our/their hope in how far she can get. They make little things into big deals with little to no frills. In fact the only part of the movie you might confuse with something trashy and made-for-tv is an opening montage of vacation photos of Grace, Lee and Adam set to a rather terrible pop song. Both times I've watched this film I've been totally annoyed by this scene until I'm up in the tree hearing the crocodile chew on body parts and then I remember why that stupid goddamn song is there. If we didn't care, if we weren't lulled into seeing these three as people then we wouldn't have much invested when the croc shows up. Like Open Water, it hedges it's bets showing you a lot of the lives of their heroes before tormenting them. I remember a long time ago watching deleted scenes for that piece of shit Deep Blue Sea and hearing Renny Harlin talk about he cut a scene where we learn that one of his characters was pregnant. He felt it made her getting eaten by a shark harder for the audience to take. Now that movie was a piece of shit and so really it wouldn't have mattered but movies like Black Water and Open Water don't have to worry necessarily about those decisions because their about people rather than characters. You don't have to worry about how best to sympathize with people, that just happens if you've really done your job as an actor. And here, they have.

Of course because these are just people, an air of grimness hangs heavy over the proceedings. Unlike Open Water you do get a few moment's respite and the music is in on it this time. Rafael May's score is one of the few things that make the film a little less than real but considering how good it is, I don't so much mind. The minimalist guitar and cello themes are really excellent and do so much to keep you on edge. Of course no music probably could have done that, too, but I understand the impulse. But the biggest thing keeping the audience on edge is the crocodile itself. It's clearly a real croc for most of the film and the stand-ins they use for close-ups are flawless. In Rogue, for example, the CG was a touch more apparent because we were dealing with a monster, a freak. That the effects happened to be excellent was a plus, to be sure, but Rogue was so entertaining that it didn't matter so much. Rogue was basically a slasher film whose killer happened to be a giant croc and Greg McLean is a fucking genius so of course it worked. Rogue actually has more in common with Dark Age tonally than Black Water and if I were a bit more savvy and smart I'd probably have paired them, but whatever. Black Water is more subtle than both films and gets by on nerves for most of the film but it also knows when to unleash a giant motherfucking crocodile. And ultimately, isn't that what we all want to see?
In answer to the question I posed a few seconds ago, sometimes. Sometimes I want to see a big motherfucking crocodile. Mostly, however I want genius filmmaking. Given the choice between something by Renny Harlin and Greg McLean, I'll take McLean any and everyday, he's a fucking genius. I like directors who know their shit. Though occasionally I'll accept that some people like getting pandered to, and join in with them, especially if it means seeing one of the last filmed performances David Carradine gave before masturbating himself to death. You may recall that when last we talked lizards I mentioned a certain film by Roger Corman under the rather dubious name Dinocroc. I caught that rather dubious piece of shit on sci-fi (now syfy) and so I suppose it's only fitting that I should catch it's in-name-only sequel on the same channel. Roger Corman and his team might not be able to make movies worth a goddamn but there was just the right balance of camp and self-deprecation for me to forgive what a piece of shit it was for most of it.

Dinocroc Vs. Supergator
by Rob Robertson
So there's a lab on and island and some scientists accidentally made big fucking lizards who're now gonna eat people if you can believe that shit. David Carradine's behind it. So a 'hot' park ranger, a 'hot' double agent, a schlubby spy and a 'cajun' gator hunter have to pit the beasts against each other before they eat all the fat tourists, slutty beach-dwellers and pervy assholes on the island. Oh but first they have to eat a swat team who didn't get through the "Hide Your Regional Accent" part of acting camp. Real movie? Debatable. In it's favor: its nonsense is somewhat endearing. The Supergator is actually not bad looking in most of its scenes, especially when compared to the Dinocroc. Also, considering that Corman was one of the first people to rip-off Jurassic Park (in fact he did it before Jurassic Park hit theatres, sly dog) it's kind of nice to see him still ripping off Jurassic Park to the point of actively stealing the sound effects from that film for his poncey little spring break movie. Bless your heart, you cheap bastard.

Against it: Well it stoops to ripping off fucking Jurassic Park, for one. It believes a gator the size of a hummer limousine can hide in six inches of water, for another. It's steeped in a blinding, MTV-like colour palette that's almost as blinding as the performances are deafening. And then there's David Carradine not really earning all that good credit Quentin Tarantino gave to him with those Kill Bill movies. But then Michael Madsen and John Travolta haven't done much since Tarantino brushed the dust of them, either...And I guess Sonny Chiba had to take that part in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, so...I'm sorry I lost my train of thought...right, big fucking gators. Yeah, so this movie is silly as shit and really too boring to be quite as fun as it needs to be. It's called fucking Dinocroc Vs. Supergator, so really this ought to be a non-stop, rip-roaring ride, people getting tore up every six seconds and the like. This was not that. So while I knew it would be spectacularly terrible, I was hoping it'd do a little more to earn my respect. But then Corman's movies were never as exciting as they ought to have been. You needed a first rate talent like Joe Dante or Peter Bogdanovich to get something worth the price of a ticket and Rob Robertson (if that is your real name) is no such thing. So all in all I'm rather glad I came back for this last stop in Crocton. A good croc movie can be really satisfying and I was entertained by all three of these films, yes even the silly one. It's tough to lose when you pick a movie with a big fucking gator running the show.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

....I Didn't Get You Anything

Before we turn away from Zombies and head for darker waters, we're going to do George A. Romero a service by showing both how far his influence has spread and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt how great his best movies are. For, if it's one thing that proves a winner, it's all the crap that tries to duplicate its success without understanding what made it so great. Today we're going on a tour of the scope of zombie films and just how much the world now owes to George. First we're going to look at three European countries first ever zombie films and then see that the Romero-inspired Zombie film has not only spanned nations but indeed dimensions. Now as excited as I am to see just how far and wide George's influence has spread (I can think of no films that better deserve a rabid fanbase than Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead) I can't say that my expectations for such films, however low, were met. So, while it is, in a fashion, good news that so many countries are producing zombies films none of them are really worth your time. They weren't worth mine, but I like to think I'm performing a public service by watching these know, so you don't have to. So don't.

by Yorgos Noussias
If the director's name didn't give it away, this is Greece's flagship zombie movie. After drilling into a cavern that no one knew was there, three workmen (never specified what kind, but I assume they're building houses) venture inside to check it out. They don't see anything out of the ordinary, but something definitely finds them. What exactly, we never know, but later that night the three men find themselves at home, a club and a football match with no memory of having got there. Seconds after explaining this to the nearest person they then bite them. The next scenes are sort of like filmed illustrations of those internet zombie infection detecting logarithms, the 'evil' makes its way through everyone in the club and the football stadium and the only people left in the third guy's apartment are his daughter Jenny and their neighbor Marina, who escape via the fire escape. They run into two other survivors, Argyris, a horny cab driver, and Meletis, a recent widower with a shotgun. They aren't the only people left alive in (what I take to be) Athens, but the way their encounters go with other living people, they may as well be. They're going to have to put aside their differences if they want to survive.

I thought I'd start here because I was actually the most impressed with what the filmmakers could get away with. Though it could have done much better Evil manages to do so much with so little that I was much more forgiving of the fact that it looks like shit and has no surprises. Yorgos Noussias clearly has a thing for crowd scenes and because his special effects people have ways of fabricating those, his movie seems much bigger than it is. Because of their ability to convincingly render both a deserted city and a full stadium overrun by zombies (the effect they use to show this is actually really impressive, as is the one they use to show it on TV) A movie with about nine characters and a bunch of zombie extras thus feels like something that Greece gave its permission for. The kind of communal feel is important in a film like this because you can be some idiot with his friends in the woods or the hope of a city. Guess which one is easier to root for? Furthermore the idea that you were doing this semi-officially says to me that you can get away with more and can afford to really kill your zombie extras. And I really do think that the language barrier almost always makes it easier to accept mistakes. Or anyway, their harder to recognize. Perhaps that's why someone like Argyris, really nothing more than the irritating comic relief, is much easier to swallow than he would be in any American film.
Is it a great film? No, but it is a brisk film and Noussias has juuuust enough skill to make you forget how little this movie matters. And really with competition like Zone of the Dead or Zombiegore, Evil looks like fucking The Exorcist. The highest praise I can really pay it is that of the movies discussed here, it's the best. But, as we shall see, that ain't sayin' much.

Zone of the Dead
by Milan Konjevic & Milan Todorovic
It's kind of hard to believe that it took two people to direct this movie as it features only one actual performance and that sadly enough comes from Ken Foree. If I had to guess I'd say directors Konjevic and Todorovic and their co-writer Vukota Brajovic are more than casual Dawn of the Dead fans as they went so far as to fly in that film's star to Belgrade so he could star in what wound up being Serbia's first zombie film. The story (and it hangs around for far too fucking long to be totally written off - as if clinging to the screenplay saves this from being an excuse to paint people like zombies and then shoot them) is that Interpol are transporting a prisoner in order that he might be executed (or something. It doesn't matter). Anyway he's supposed to be super dangerous but with a heart of gold, which his escorts Foree and Kristina Klebe pick up on immediately. So when the zombies show up they have to trust him to help them get out alive. Yadda-yadda-yadda. You've seen it before, you know how it ends, and frankly you've seen it done better. The direction is clunky, the camera work terrible, the production design regretable, the script rather awful. There is however one divergence that kind of gave the predictability a break, a loose end that quickly becomes a liability. Somewhere nearby, a man escapes from an asylum just as the zombies get there. Believing god has sent them to him, he steals a bunch of weapons and goes on a crusade to kill all zombies and broadcast the word of god to whoever's left alive. The idea of someone already insane not really effected by something as nightmarish as zombies is, as far as I know, new territory and if they'd decided to just make this the Taxi Driver rip-off it turns into every ten or fifteen minutes, they might have had something. This is easily the most interesting part of the story but its throttled in its infancy by virtue of the fact that Brajovic was evidently so pleased with the idea that he decided to play the psychopath himself and to put it mildly he's the worst actor in a cast filled with terrible non-actors. So instead of wanting to see more of their treatment of his story, I just wanted it to stop and fast.
So why doesn't this film warrant an F? One reason: Ken Foree. Foree is a tough case because like Michael Berryman or Tom Towles, he was never really a star, or even a respected actor and since playing the roles that won him a place in the hearts of horror movie fans young and old, he's been reduced to doing walk-ons in Rob Zombie movies. There are worse fates surely, but asking Foree to carry a movie that wouldn't exist without his work in a much better movie now more than thirty years old is problematic to say the least. So while you can't really say his star has fallen, he's not exactly skating on his reputation doing Nora Ephron comedies. However, Foree is a great actor even if he never got quite the chance to prove it. Watching him interact with the totally wooden likes of Kristina Klebe and Miodrag Krstovic is kind of like watching him talk to them as actors and assuring them that they'll do fine; in both cases they're both in way in over their heads but in neither case is he right. At least he proves he can still act cool with a camera on him. Despite putting on a little extra weight, Foree hasn't really aged since Dawn of the Dead and I love seeing him even if he is only (effortlessly) saving save a movie from total unwatchability, I just wish his fans had better work for him to do. Though, as per usual, it could always be worse.

by Maarten van Druten
I went to high school with a kid called Zach Luneau who used to make no-budget horror films in the woods behind campus and in his backyard instead of doing homework. He's since stopped and I think he now makes BDSM furniture; my point is even on his worst day Zach made better movies than Zombiegore. In fact, when I was maybe ten or eleven I was given a camcorder for christmas that I used to make stop-motion movies with action figures. On my worst day, I made movies better than Zombiegore. Effectively its own parody, Zombiegore has found its way here strictly because it is, so far as I can tell, the first and only zombie film to come out of The Netherlands. Frankly all this tells me is that a.) The Netherlands aren't trying hard enough, b.) Ken Foree got off easy, c.) I've got to stop giving movies with no budget my time and attention because these fuckers aren't even meeting me halfway. Trash. Tripe. Drivel. Fuck you, The Netherlands. Get your shit together and don't subject charitable idiots like me to your fucking endless infantile bullshit. This is a movie that tries to pass off a Star Wars toy as a real gun. The only part of the movie I even slightly enjoyed is when the black metal band The Maggots shows up to play a song in the middle of the film.

Night of the Living Dead 3D
by Jeff Broadstreet
If George A. Romero were dead, I'd call Night of the Living Dead 3D one of the more egregious instances of corpse-raping I'd ever seen, like that commercial David Spade did for Direct TV with footage of Chris Farley from Tommy Boy. He's not, so this is merely in bad taste and amoral, to say nothing of the film itself. You all know the story by now. Thanks to Romero not having quite the nose for business he has now, the original Night of the Living Dead was lost to the dreaded public domain, forever damned to show up on three-disc horror anthology budget packs sold on pharmacy bargain racks. George authorized a version about ten years ago (which is well worth owning for the excellently restored print if not piece of mind). Unfortunately what the public domain status means is that anyone could pass off their middling non-entity of a low-budget zombie film as a remake, sequel or whatever and nothing but common sense could stop them; and when has that been on the side of the filmmaker? The score up until now was just about split. Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead was just ok, both Return of the Living Dead and Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead were excellent. On other hand, we have Steve Miner's wretched Day of the Dead, Ana Clavells & James Glenn Dudelson's unrelated cash-in Day of the Dead 2 and the first 3D zombie movie Night of the Living Dead 3D. I fucking hate 3D. It gives me a headache, costs me four fucking dollars, and adds nothing. For more on 3D, see my review of Avatar, or follow me around for an hour, I'll find a reason to complain about it. So just guess how successful an unauthorized 3D remake of one of the two or three best horror films of all time that constantly references that film and stars Sid Haig is. Go on, guess.

Nothing, and I mean nothing works in Night of the Living Dead 3D. There aren't even enough objects directed at the screen for this to work as a 3D film, and don't get me started on the horrible fucking effects. They've changed Barbara into a stronger character but didn't hire an actress half as good as Patricia Tallman to play her. Ben is now white. Harry, Tom, Judy, Karen and Helen are now pot farmers. And Sid Haig's mortician is responsible for the zombies instead of a venus probe or nothing at all. So the budget and 3D cameras aside, this is just a dumbass zombie film with no original ideas, no decent actors, no effects budget, no scruples and no reason to exist. And it has the fucking nerve to call itself a remake of Night of the Living Dead? That sort of takes the cake as disrespect goes. Before you accuse me of over-reacting I hasten to remind you that Jeff Broadstreet has been making movies since 1989 and Romero had made only commercials before making his debut with mostly non-professionals in front of the camera. Night of the Living Dead is one of the most indelible and legendary independent film success stories of all time. Night of the Living Dead 3D is what happens when you run out of ideas twice.
Well I guess no one ever said watching every zombie film ever made was going to be a picnic but seriously, Jesus Christ! I've been so inundated with shitty zombie films lately (shitty zombie films that I walked into expecting to be at the very least not offended by for the hour twenty they'd last for) that I almost forget what a good one looks like. The next time I review a zombie film on this website I swear to Satan himself it will be good. I don't think some good news is too much to ask for - though maybe it's just beyond people these days. If three countries with rich cultural traditions/tragic and fascinating histories as Greece, Serbia and The Netherlands can produce zombie films with almost nothing to recommend them, I fear for the rest of the developing world. What will it look like when Kazakhstan or Chad finally get around to having film subsidies that could support the production of a zombie film. Should we even encourage them, seeing what we've been given thus far? Will they still look to Night of the Living Dead for inspiration? The only thing that's certain is that if I'm alive, I'll be there watching them.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

...And Many More

While George A. Romero's own movies haven't quite been up to snuff lately, I think the first person to tell you about the decency of new horror would be George himself. Take for example his decision to executive produce the remake of his early 'classic' The Crazies. He had to believe that he'd have at least some of the success enjoyed by Zach Snyder's excellent remake of Dawn of the Dead, otherwise why play the game at all? Though I'm in the minority, I think he was wise to play along because though it lacks some of Dawn's urgency and much of the original's screaming political tone, The Crazies is actually one of the most competent and enjoyable horror remakes I've yet seen and belongs just below the likes of The Ring, Dawn of the Dead, The Thing, slightly above Cat People or The Blob and way over The Hills Have Eyes (so you can imagine how far down I Spit On Your Grave and One Missed Call fall). The key here, which most remakes tend to forget, is that if we care about the characters, the general decline in flavor from one generation to the next, is forgivable. By using great characters like Radha Mitchell, Timothy Olyphant and Joe Anderson director Breck Eisner was able to build a sturdy movie that is equally as fun as the original.

The Crazies
by Breck Eisner
David Dutton is the sheriff of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, and in that movie kinda way, that means he basically runs things. He stops by a baseball game while on his rounds and arrives just in time to see Rory Hamill, reformed town drunk, enter the diamond with a far-off look in his eyes and a loaded shotgun in his hand. He tries to talk him into dropping it but in the end has to shoot him dead in front of everyone in the bleechers. His wife and son are beside themselves, not just because Rory's been killed, but because they think David told everyone he was drunk when they know he'd given it up. But Dutton's problems have just started. Across town Deardra Farnum can't find her husband. She goes out to the barn, fearing that he's the one who turned on the industrial thresher, but when she turns it off she hears her son screaming in the house and runs back. She finds him hiding in a closet and the only thing he has time to tell her is that he's hiding from his dad. Seconds later the man finds them and locks them in. Dutton and his wife Judy, the town's physician, are called out to the house a few hours later but by then the house has just about finished burning.

David and Judy are clueless as to what's causing it but everyone in town seems to be going....mad.... Anyway, the answers take their time getting there, but when they do, they bring company. The second call to the sheriff's office is from three hunters, Jesse, Red and Nathan, who, while hunting out of season, discover the decomposing body of a soldier, evidently hung by his parachute. Next step: find the plane he bailed out of. He and Clank, his deputy, take a boat ride out to the marsh near where the dead body was found, the one place it could conceivably have gone down without sending smoke up that people would have seen for miles. Sure enough they find it beneath the still, brown water like a sleeping shark. Dutton shuts off the town's water supply and heads back to town to check on Bill Farnum, who's been sitting in jail since that morning. He seems to have gotten worse; his behavior suggests advanced mental deterioration and he looks as though he's decomposing. Dutton runs home to try and convince Judy to leave town for the duration of the impending crisis situation but their debate is cut short when a gaggle of armed men in gas masks show up and ferry them at gunpoint to the high school, along with every one else in town. Looks like things are worse than David imagined.
They quickly find Clank among the other hapless detainees but things go south right afterwards. Clank is separated after the soldiers run some kind of test on him and the same thing happens to Judy moments later. David is shepherded to a gas station on the way out of town along with the others who tested negative for whatever the soldiers are looking for. David sneaks back to town on the back of a truck and heads straight to the police station to get the gun in his desk, the only one the military didn't seize during their sweep of Ogden Marsh. Other than the one Clank shows up with moments later, that is. And they're going to need every last bullet if they want to get out of town. Bill Farnham, still left in jail (one of the film's few unacceptable lapses in judgment) has one more symptom to share. It seems that after going incurably.....nuts, he dies rather painfully of what I take to be a kind of chemically induced organ failure. So not only do they have to find Judy and get out of town while dodging the men with guns, everyone they couldn't quarantine has gone...insane....and though they may once have been neighbors, now they're a real threat. And if the government knew the effects of whatever they lost in the waters of Ogden Marsh, don't you think it's a safe bet that they've got a big old contingency plan waiting in the wings if the current plan falls through?

You know for all George A. Romero's cautious bidding, I don't think I read one straight forward positive review of The Crazies when it was released earlier this year. To be honest it's no surprise that critics didn't fall over themselves praising it, even if it's a much, much better film than anyone I consulted seemed to think it was. The reasons are numerous and slightly complicated. Someone, I can't remember if it was Scott Tobias or Noel Murray, said that to remake The Crazies would be like remaking 1973: The Movie what with it's references to Ohio State and Thích Quảng Đức. In one sense that's true, but the beauty of The Crazies and the best of what I like to call 1970s Cinema Paranoia is that they were zeitgeist films that got down to your level and attacked you on your street and in your home. I Drink Your Blood, Rabid and No Blade of Grass haven't aged terrifically, but the sort of loose thematic relevance that raised it slightly above its dumber competitors is what made them so much fun. To think of David E. Durston counting on people's fear of Charles Manson to react to his very silly gore film has a kind of old-fashioned show-biz charm to it. The English speaking world may have been trying to hold onto Free Love and conservative values respectively to pull themselves out of the tailspin of the late 60s but George A. Romero and the other directors of my favorite paranoid horror films of that era were still pointing fingers, even if only some of them had any intention of backing up their anger with reasoning. Romero was one of them. The reason that the original Crazies works because beyond just being a blast with its over-the-top side-players, zany editing, break-neck pace, and cutthroat bordering on sleazy attitude towards its characters is because of its leads. Clank, David and Judy may just be cyphers but Romero cared enough about them to get us to fall in love with them, warts and all, until they inevitably met with tragedy (star-crossed lovers were SOL in cinema paranoia). My point is that you can replace Nixon with Bush and have a perfectly logical retread, but what's the point? You could make a film faithful to the style but then you end up with confused tripe like M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. So what do you do with a film like The Crazies? Smooth out the edges and make a proper movie. Unlike A Nightmare On Elm Street or The Last House On The Left, the premise can support it. The Crazies '73 was a metaphor with legs, its remake is a real movie, and fuck all y'all, it's a pretty damn good one, too.

So why didn't anyone like it? My guess is because the scares we do get aren't specific to the story being told and because the politics aren't as loud. The plot hits all the correct beats of Romero's original and adds a few of its own including a harrowing stop at a carwash, but the reason it works is because Breck Eisner has built a solid atmosphere for his leads to walk through. Unlike Romero's Evans City, Eisner's Ogden Marsh is as a real place with real people. The stuff that makes the horror work, but crucially never approach the domestic cruelty of something like Funny Games, is that leads Timothy Olyphant, Joe Anderson and Radha Mitchell are allowed to have organic conversations with the other residents. Romero's film didn't need you to believe that David and Judy had been living in the same town all their lives, they were perfectly happy to tell you that just to let you know that small town america was on the chopping block - hence terms like 'star quarterback' and 'war hero'. Thankfully the script by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright keeps that shit to a minimum, and in true Ken Russell fashion, Eisner has Olyphant and Anderson kind of breeze through any cliched dialogue. The pace of the conversations helps the movie greatly, as in the scene where they ride out to the swamp to find the plane. The rhythm of their speech is natural and they come across like human beings. When an angry Olyphant shouts at Mitchell in frustration at the car wash, nothing special is made of it; these things just happen and she gets that they're in the middle of something stressful. When he later sits across from her and gently tells her that essentially he'll kill himself if that's what she wants to do, it works just as well, even if the edge in his voice tells you he wouldn't exactly be happy about giving up. And kudos once more to Radha Mitchell for proving herself the genre's most capable actress. I have never not loved her performance and here she's the heart and soul of the movie. I truly believe a pregnant Radha Mitchell could have saved Hostel or The Wolfman.
All this is well and good, you tell me, but is it scary, you boring fuck? Yes, even if it cheats a little bit. There are so many switcheroo scares in this movie that I lost count. You know the ones. There is an agonizing build-up to something terrible, but at the last minute a gunshot changes the outcome. What I wasn't counting on was how expertly Eisner made me forget he was just going to keep doing that. By the third or fourth time I was mad, but that I couldn't tell if it was at Eisner for doing it again or myself for not being prepared says that maybe I was just having fun. Beyond that there are some very creepy set-pieces like the freezer, the thresher and the hostage that keep the tension up. The film's political message is muted in comparison to the source material but its easy enough to decipher. The military are Bush-sanctioned torture campaigns given carte blanche in America's heartland (think Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib). When you pull the masks off you find terrified privates just following orders, as you would anywhere in the middle east - does that excuse their behavior? Eisner isn't as interested in this. I'll tell you one thing, though, the sight of a boy and his mother being shot to death and then burnt by flame-throwers on their front lawn really frightened me and continued to sit in my stomach. If Kosar and Wright had hit the point about the American military and the gun-toting American public a little harder, The Crazies would have been elevated above horror and into total relevance a la The Road. Seeing as how more and more Americans are being arrested in possession of fucking assault rifles and missile launchers on their way to see the President speak and the right-wing grows ever more hateful and militant by the day, the scene on the lawn isn't something I can comfortably write off as impossible, which frightens me more than I can say. Thus Nathan, Red and Jesse are our tea-party enthusiast gun-nuts. Though they seemed affable enough before they's not hard to see the virus in their case being too much television and willful ignorance. So you can choose to see The Crazies as a raised eyebrow at the racists who would rather kill their democratically elected black president like junior CIA assassins than receive health-care because that's what the voices on TV have instructed them to think or simply as a taut, well-made movie. Either way, I think both Breck Eisner and George A. can be proud of The Crazies. It'll certainly do until someone makes more zeitgeist horror films. God knows we need them, because the world outside is starting to look like a fucking movie.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Happy George A. Romero Month!

Ok, let's talk current events. I know, I should be talking about revisionist vampire movies but I'm finding them a bit more tedious than I expected so I've decided to make a change to the curriculum. Seeing as how it's June, making it the 42nd anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, 32nd of Dawn of the Dead, we're going to detour and take a look at how those films (and George A. Romero) have shaped our culture. Today specifically we're going to look at what the man himself has been up to. And while we're at it, why don't we see what his old pal Dario Argento's gotten up to. This is a bit of a cheat, I admit, starting at the end of such a prolific and influential artist's canon, but I've got to start somewhere haven't i? I'm in the middle of re-evaluating all of his films for a career-spanning retrospective, but until then, I'm going to have a go at his latest because it is the perfect companion piece to George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead. In fact it's worth pointing out that both men's films seemed to have aged identically, right down to their latest films working as career summations, marked drops in the quality of their craft, marked increases in the sympathy of unlikely characters and to cap it off neither film was given a wide release.

Survival of the Dead
by George A. Romero
By now the story barely needs rehashing. Who here doesn't by now how Romero's movies begin? There are zombies. They've taken over. If you've seen Diary of the Dead, you may remember the group of soldiers who robbed the students about two thirds of the way through the movie. They've defected from what remains of the US Army and now need a place to hold up and wait out this whole undead thing. Enter Patrick O'Flynn. One night the soldiers kill off a bunch of redneck hunters and among their belongings find a nameless boy who has the answer to their safety woes. He's seen an add where one Patrick O'Flynn offers to help strangers get to safety on Plum Island, Delaware. The leader of the group, simply called Sarge (a problem I'll address in a moment), can't think of a good enough reason not to go even if he hates the idea of doing what the impetuous kid thinks is a good idea. I can't blame him, he's the kind of prick you meet in high school who makes it seem like graduation's never going to come. So, with some trepidation, they head to Delaware.

But this wouldn't be a Romero film if everything was just as sunny as they're told it'll be. Plum Island is host to a feud between two Irish ranching clans. When the zombies came to their small island, Patrick O'Flynn, the head of the O'Flynn family, believed in putting them down before they could get up again. This caused great strife for the religious Muldoons, the other family on the island. Shamus, the family's patriarch, believed in keeping them around to see if maybe there wasn't some hope for them, some way to bring them back to life. They fought until the one side couldn't stand the other living on the island and as Muldoon had more guns, O'Flynn was put on a boat to the mainland. He's been robbing passersby and sending them to the island in the three months since his departure. And things only get worse for them there as the Muldoons have shot everyone O'Flynn has sent over, believing them to be looters. So, after a brief squabble over money (the soldiers arrive in an armored car) Sarge agrees to take O'Flynn back to his home. Things are worse than O'Flynn had hoped. Just about everyone's died and become a zombie and the Muldoons are almost outnumbered. Muldoon and his ranch hand Chuck are having a hard time managing them all and have taken mostly to shooting them these days. Muldoon's experiments consist of putting zombies in a pen with an animal in the hopes that they'll take a dietary interest in them. If they start eating horses, that's one more species to hunt instead of people. This, Muldoon reasons, will lead to co-existing with their undead loved-ones.
As you may have guessed the Muldoons aren't too happy to see O'Flynn, with or without his armed escort and a few of them open fire the minute they spot them, killing Kenny and wounding Sarge. As they recover from their attack, they get a visit from this movie's talking fox: Jane O'Flynn, Patrick's daughter, comes riding through on horseback. The catch: she's a zombie too. Yep, take a second, think about it. If you're not entirely unwilling to continue, I can't say I blame you but I'm a Romero-ite through and through so onward I plunged. Plus I'd driven an hour to see Survival of the Dead and wasn't about to leave early. Anyway, she's Muldoon's ace in the hole. If Jane, the high-functioning zombie, can ride her horse around the island all day, then surely she can be trained to eat the horse instead of the rest of the Muldoon clan. Chuck's not wild about the plan as he and Jane used to fancy each other. Patrick isn't wild about it as Muldoon's not only keeping his dead daughter alive but using her as a guinea pig. By nightfall everyone's rarin' to shoot out their differences.

Survival of the Dead is very nearly a failure, albeit an honorable one. Romero's once tight direction is lackluster for most of the film, the performances range from tolerable to risible and the dialogue is written almost entirely in out-of-date idioms. Take the silly nicknames of the characters or the weirdly non-existent slang that the nameless boy uses. It smacks of someone out of touch trying to stay in touch, but has chosen instead to just invent something new to be in touch with. It's all a little distressing. The fault however that no one has been able to forgive is that the film is just not scary. In fact if I weren't so firmly in Romero's corner I'd probably have found nothing to like about the film. My girlfriend, who didn't have nearly the history I have with Romero, really didn't like it to the point of being made physically ill. I can't blame her or anyone else who walked away with a bad taste in their mouths because speaking frankly it isn't a great film. There are more gambles that don't pay off than in any of his other movies. First off is the decision to make half of Survival a western. Taking inspiration from William Wyler's The Big Country (though there's plenty of Anthony Mann's The Furies, John Ford's The Quiet Man and Edward Dein's Curse of the Undead to be found here), Romero turns the focus not on man V. zombie but clan V. clan. This more or less sold me because I'm a huge fan of revisionist westerns and even though the climax lacks any kind of tension or pacing, I still found myself enjoying the aspects of the film that linked it to the western genre most of all....with the exception of giving national guardsman six shooters. That was just silly.

I'll say this, there are moments here that rank as among the best in Romero's four decades of filmmaking. Despite a cast of largely mediocre actors, Romero manages to draw out a good deal of pathos for people we barely know. Kenneth Welsh and Richard Fitzpatrick as messers Muldoon and O'Flynn make for decent enough Western cyphers and they wind up with some of the best moments in the film. Take for instance their introductions. The O'Flynn's knock on someone's door because they know they're harbouring zombies upstairs and they need to sort them out. The misses has no intention of going quietly and a struggle ensues. Just before Patrick O'Flynn can waste her undead children, Shamus and his crew show up to exile O'Flynn. Despite being a riff on the siege on the apartment block in Dawn of the Dead, it's still a taut little scene that wouldn't feel out of place in any great western and is probably the best part of the film. It's all firmly downhill from there however as the main characters are introduced in the form of the soldiers. They're all pretty unlikable, have nothing to do with the blood-feud on the island which is the most interesting part of the film and give less than committed performances. When they're around we also get the least endearing part of the movie, the endless round of 'creative' zombie KOs. From the sausage fork to the flare to the fire extinguisher Romero finds new ways of killing and thus taking the fright and fun out of his once terrifying creation.
Finally the one thing I'd like to say in Romero's favour is that there is a love story nestled deep in this movie that I think deserved much more attention than it got. Chuck and Jane's impossibly unrequited romance was to me, a stroke of genius and really captured the kind of longing that make Westerns memorable beyond the gun-play and nationalistic fervour. It's got to say something about either Romero's direction or Joris Jarsky's performance that Chuck's story was instantly something I sympathized with and he was easily my favourite character. Unfortunately he and Jane's love story gets maybe fifteen minutes of screentime and that just isn't enough with Alan Van Sprang and his friends sucking all the believability and empathy out of the film. I love George A. Romero and have seen everything he's made and will continue to do so as long as I can. I just wish that he'd embrace his potential and make something truly worthy of the man who redefined horror movies. Anyone who saw Dario Argento's latest film was probably thinking the same thing but I think at the very least Giallo serves as a kind of self-contained tribute to the one-time giant. This may be because unlike Romero, Argento had a little help writing the screenplay and if I don't miss my guess Jim Agnew and Sean Keller are pretty big fans.

by Dario Argento
In the first of many references to Argento's previous work which I'll address in full below, pretty twentysomething Keiko is followed home by a madman. She's drugged, kidnapped, brought to a dank basement and tortured. It comes as no surprise when the next character we meet, Celine, a model, falls into his clutches mere days later when her sister Linda comes to town to visit. As there's no evidence of a struggle, the police haven't much to go on. Elsa visits exiled American detective Enzo Avolfi and spends a day pleading for his full attention to the point of pretty severely invading his privacy. Finally he agrees to help her by calling in every favour he's accrued in his time working in Italy. When another of the man's victims shows up on the steps of a convent, they realize the time they have left to save Celine is short indeed.

The story is almost disarmingly uncomplicated, which is not really how a traditional giallo should be. There aren't fifty-eight thousand plot twists or even a surprise ending but I have to say that such simplicity is best for the paired-down style Argento has cultivated in recent years. His approach to design and lighting has become almost minimalist compared to his early work and having seen the trouble he's gotten himself into lately trying to do more than he can (Pelts, The Mother of Tears) I'm kinda glad that Agnew and Keller gave him something simple to work on. Mother of Tears was so fucking complicated, an orgy of useless minor characters and monkeys and flying overweight ghosts and magic fire and all kinds of other confusing shit, that not only do we not know anything about the character who saves the day but we (me) don't particularly care anymore. Giallo: simple as can be. Girl goes missing, sister tries to find her before it's too late. This also gave the writers ample opportunity to pay homage to Argento's heyday. In Giallo, all of Dario's ghosts have come out to play. We have women at the opera (Opera), a girl tirelessly flagging a cab in the rain (Suspiria), Roman architecture (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage), Enzo himself seems a reference to Inferno's New York setting, Enzo's friend at public records has posters for Sergio Leone films on his walls (he and Argento came up with the idea for Once Upon A Time In The West, along with Bernardo Bertolucci), Celine's wardrobe seems culled from any number of Argento's 70s films and a lovely ornate bronze spiral staircase adorns the middle of a chic hotel room. What Argento film hasn't had a picturesque staircase near a murder?

That said the movie is a bit all over the place. The direction is a little listless and Emmanuelle Seigner's Linda goes from bored to hystrionic in little to no time at all. I love Emmanuelle Seigner but Argento, unlike her husband Roman Polanski, doesn't quite know how to use her. Interestingly she and Adrien Brody are both Polanski graduates. Coincidence? Probably. I like Adrien Brody and he does fine as Avolfi it's just more than a little jarring to see him in a film like this. It's hard not to go to bat for him knowing he produced the film and plays a very special guest role on top of playing the dogged inspector. He has a number of nice little touches like his reaction when the first found victim starts breathing again. It's priceless. Then there's the line of questioning that follows: “Who discovered the body?” “The mother superior.” “…christ.” Brody's presence alone kinda makes the film work for me even if Argento hadn't long ago forgotten how to make a compelling movie. I'd be lying if I said I didn't go way out of my way to enjoy Giallo even when it didn't bother asking me to. I really wanted to like it because I really hated The Mother of Tears and wanted the man who made The Cat O' Nine Tails and Inferno to have something decent under his belt after a decade of misses and near-misses. I wanted him to be able to retire with something that really made a showing of his considerable talent and many, many years making films. To my mind this is that film or anyway it's the most we could ask of him. He'll be 70 in September of 2010 and all things considered I think Giallo, an imperfect film, is still better than a lot of his post-Inferno output and has enough to recommend it, including a genuine emotional core and perhaps the biggest surprise that any Argento film has to offer: realism. That, in a film featuring a killer with jaundiced yellow skin, is really something.
So neither Romero nor Argento has quite given his all this time around. Though their best years are probably behind them, they've both changed horror cinema as we know it. An interesting rumour has started to circulate about Romero remaking Deep Red. If any of Argento's 70s films needed a revamping, it's Deep Red and I can think of nothing quite so touching as these two titans bonding over their mutual love of each other's work. But it is just a rumour, after all. Anyway, neither Giallo nor Survival of the Dead is as good as they ought to be, but I think asking for too much more is a touch unreasonable. What I think we can learn from this is that they have left us a decidely uneven but fascinating body of work, many of which deserve repeat viewing and adoration. Night of the Living Dead, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat 'O Nine Tails, The Crazies, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead and Inferno are tremendous movies, lifetime-pass stuff, to quote Nathan Rabin. Whatever they decide to do in future, I'll be there with a big bag of empathy and the knowledge that at least they're having fun.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Death Is Good..."

It was clear almost immediately in the American horror game that if you wanted a film done right you needed someone with imagination and someone who could work with little money. Today, B movie makers like Val Lewton and Edgar Ulmer are generally (though not nearly enough) more respected and talked about than the likes of James Whale or Tod Browning. The best B movie makers worked magic after discovering that the key to making a good horror movie was misdirection. Want to make a monster film? Make it about a marriage in trouble. Want to make a vampire film? Make it a romantic wartime drama. Or to give the filmmakers more credit, they had greater ambitions than just scaring their audiences. Anyone can jump out of the dark, not just anyone could make you think or warm your heart. That's just what both RKO and Columbia did when they were cashing in on Universal's trademark bloodsucker (albeit more than ten years after such a thing would make any sense but if Wallstreet 2 has taught us anything it's that it's never too late to shamelessly cash-in on a long-forgotten brand). Val Lewton's RKO B Unit went an entirely different direction with their only vampire movie and produced one of their rare failures. It's not really his fault, I suppose, the script was pretty terrible and no amount of interference was going to change that. How do you work around a resolute lack of tension?

Isle of the Dead
by Mark Robson
Oliver Davis is in Greece covering the frontlines of WWI for a newspaper. His envoy is a strict General called Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff with distracting, boyish curly hair) who we meet giving the execution order on one of his own men for a crime that Davis sees (and we, the audience are supposed to see) as minor considering the punishment. Pherides' explanation doesn't really cut it though but for it doesn't particular matter; a few minutes pass and Davis doesn't actually seem all that put off by it. Maybe it's Marc Cramer's limited range as an actor but the man never really seems all that put off by anything. Pherides just finishes explaining that they have to burn the bodies of the fallen to prevent the spread of septicemic plague when he remembers that he hasn't laid flowers on his wife's grave in quite some time. She's buried on an island cemetery just off the coast of where they're stationed and Davis agrees to go along for the ride after a tasteless metaphor lands him in the general's ever-broadening bad graces. The gesture works though as by the time they dock they both seem to be in a completely different movie. Davis leaves a light on at the dock on the far shore but when they step off the boat the light goes out and with it goes the last bit of tension the movie has to offer, sadly.

They discover that Pherides' wife's body has been removed from her coffin and then hear what sounds like singing. They find the only building on the island with lights on and find a whole bevy of characters with no business in war-torn Greece. They're all the guests of Albrecht (who actually never introduces himself, despite knowing the answer to all of Karloff's questions and indeed knowing him by sight), a Swiss archaeologist. apparently the grave-robbing is indirectly his fault as he put the idea that the dead are buried with valuables into the heads of the locals who then went about desecrating graves in hopes of scraping up some extra cash. If it sounds convoluted and tacked-on...well, it is. So are all the people staying with him. There's the St. Aubyns and their nurse Thea who looks after wife Mary, who's terminally ill (her husband doesn't get a first name), Andrew Robbins (a never-worse Skelton Knaggs; he can't even pull off his own accent) who's there for no reason other than about three minutes of comic relief, and Madame Kyra, the caretaker. Davis is taken with Thea immediately even if Madama Kyra thinks she's actually a greek folkloric vampire called the vorvolaka. She won't have as hard a time selling that when they all start dying of the plague, though.

For no physically determinate reason (the bodies have been taken off the island, the bodies of the potentially afflicted soldiers are miles away) the plague hits their tiny island in a big way. Robbins is the first to go, then Mr. St. Aubyn. Pherides calls in Dr. Drossos, the doctor that travels with his unit but he dies just a few days after he gets there and orders that no one leave the island and risk infecting the soldiers. Well then what can they do? If you guessed wash their hands a hundred times a day and wait for the next one to die, then you also might have the foresight to watch some of Lewton's better films. Oh wait I didn't tell you about the romance between Thea and Davis that Pherides seems intent on cock-blocking for no reason or that Kyra turns Pherides into a superstitious mess. Maybe because it doesn't really matter. And really none of that mattered to me because I find Katherine Emery more sympathetic and attractive than Ellen Drew.

I don't know what to say, really. I like Val Lewton and I remember liking this film a lot better the first time around even if my friend Maggie was quick to inform me that the science was all wrong. Maybe it was because we were watching all of Lewton's lesser-known works that day and it just seemed to fit into a grander picture. Isolated I wasn't nearly so favourably inclined. Next to nothing happens after the first few deaths and then it becomes Thea and Davis trying to find a quiet spot to make out with or without the approval of the other survivors, a turn of events that makes this more like Lewton's youth-runs-wild film Youth Runs Wild, which was the last film he made before he began developing Isle of the Dead (The Bodysnatcher was a fluke in between them that happened only due to production delays and is far and away the better film). There are a few of his trademarks here like the lantern and the atmosphere of the opening scenes but the best of them is the few moments inside the dark tomb just before the climax. The sound of the dripping water is really excellent and the whole movie could have stood a little more of that creepy reservation.
Neither Lewton nor director Mark Robson brought much of themselves to the film other than a kind of incongruous romanticism. Lewton famously (I use that term relatively) said that Isle of the Dead's message was that "Death is Good." In that regard I suppose it's kind of a wonder that such a bummer of a movie ever got made, especially while World War II was in its waning days. In that regard the romantic subplot (which becomes the plot as time goes on) could either be read as studio interference or as Lewton's view of humanity. He was making films while his fellow countrymen (US or USSR) were being killed so he himself was a little like Oliver Davis, but that doesn't really make Cramer's performance anymore interesting. It's not uncommon for filmmakers to elevate romance to the very real danger surrounding them but I couldn't really be made to care about Karloff playing crotchety old man to Ellen Drew and Marc Cramer and frankly the film's real antagonist, Helen Thimig's Kyra sounds like a cute old lady not a sadistic witch. But it wasn't all bad news in wartime vampire films. If Lewton's film showed far too little, Return of the Vampire goes the complete opposite route and delivers one of the most charismatic and boisterous monster movies of the decade.

Return of the Vampire
by Lew Landers
Something is terrorizing the patients at Dr. Saunders' sanitorium. He's got a hunch about what might be causing it because the conventional explanation his assistant, Lady Jane Ainsley, comes up with, the old pernicious anemia, just isn't cutting it. The most he's able to get out of one of his patients is an incoherent rant ending with: “His eyes like Burning Coals, NO I DIDN’T TELL THEM!” When Saunders' daughter comes down with the symptoms that have racked his other patients, he calls no more fucking around and brings Ainsley down the rabbit hole. Seeing as how our narrator's already told us that we're not prepared for the Return of the Vampire, we're already aware of what's causing all the ruckus. What we weren't prepared for is that the vampire, one Armand Tesla, is using a werewolf to do his dirty work whenever he's in the coffin. But he ain't no ordinary werewolf, he's furry all the time, perpetually under Tesla's spell. Ainsley remains incredulous until Saunders shows her a coffin with a still cold vampire inside and then his werewolf pal comes in to help him. I'd be hard pressed to explain that away. They stake the vampire and the wolf turns back into mild-mannered Andreas Obry and all is right.

In the twenty plus years between the prologue and the film proper, Lady Jane and Andreas have traveled the world killing vampires together while Saunders' daughter has grown into a feisty, independent-minded lady about to wed Lady Jane's son John (how's that for neat and tidy?). Lady Jane's home for the wedding and also to show up some asshole scientific rival of hers while she's at it. Fate, of course, has other plans. The setting you see is World War II era Britain and the blitz is in full swing. One night after Lady Jane's arrival home, a shell knocks open Tesla's coffin and some absent-minded soldiers pull the stake out of his heart thinking it a piece of shrapnel. And it just so happens that Jane and her rival are expecting a visit from a foreign scientist called Hugo Bruckner that no one has yet seen as he's spent the last few years evading capture by the Nazis. Are you pondering what I'm pondering? If it's that Tesla is going to kill Bruckner and take his place to get close, once again, to the young Saunders girl and secure himself a vampire bride, then yes. One can only hope that Lady Jane's lost nothing of her cunning in the years since the first time she tangoed with Tesla.

This movie is stacked to the rafters with awesome. It's release date kinda prevents it from going all-out berserk, which I would greatly would have enjoyed, but it's still a very satisfying movie. It mixes up the established lore of both werewolves and vampires, adds a bit of centuries-old unrequited love and to cap it off there's the rather impressive melding of current events in the form of the blitz. The first thing that impressed me was how quickly the film changes its proposed storyline. It starts like any Dracula rip-off but then takes ten or eleven turns and becomes something else entirely, until finally circling back around to an ending like that of the original Dracula. There are also a number of exciting little things to be found within, like Saunders explanation to Lady Jane that what's taking the blood of their children is “Deeper even than science” Magic is deeper than science? That’s a rather shallow take on your life’s work, don't you think? And because the film has no stars it needs to pander to (excluding Lugosi, whose presence is supposed to be more of a lingering miasma than a real character) director Lew Landers and writer Griffin Jay can introduce subplots and intrigue among it’s smaller characters. The deft camera work as Frederick Fleet and Lady Jane try to outmaneuver each other is a great example of the ways in which this film outperforms it’s A-list competitors. And best of all it gets right the fuck to work. Nary a second is wasted and yet the characters and plot still have room to breathe.

I think perhaps the most important reason why the film works beyond its impressive direction and pace is the performances. Frieda Inescort is just the sort of fast-talking, independent minded heroine a vampire movie needs. Matt Willis evokes just as much pathos as Lon Chaney's better remembered werewolf with a 16th of the screentime. The face he makes when he sees his old master has come back to life is priceless. Which brings us to Bela Lugosi. Lugosi had aged 12 years since his first screen credit and though he looks less sure of himself he has a greater presence than he ever had before. When the vampires makes his big entrance in the second act and the music stops, there’s apprehension not just in the script but in the room. It’s as if everyone present is holding their breath, waiting to see if he still had the charm he grew famous for. He seems a bit more fragile but he’s far more engaging and a lot less stiff than in Dracula. The panic that creeps into his voice in later scenes confirms my suspicion that this is purposely a less self-assured vampire. Indeed Landers seems to have been using Lugosi’s falling star as part of his character and it paid off beautifully. Willis and Lugosi's performances elevate the movie's tone from tense to tragic.
In a bit of…well it’s either irony or hypocrisy, Return of the Vampire was to be a sequel to Dracula but when the suits at Universal found out they threatened a lawsuit, not recognizing a compliment when they hear one. You may recall that Dracula was only the first recognized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel because F.W. Murnau and Prana films couldn’t afford the rights and so Universal was able to jimmy the annals of history open and slip their terrible movie in, though the spot rightly belonged to Nosferatu. And because karma is never far behind in the movie industry, Columbia managed a better picture with the same star, half the budget and a lawsuit keeping their film an orphan. Like Detour or Gun Crazy, Return of the Vampire is a B movie that simply doesn't care how the A pictures did it. For my money this is the Lugosi vampire movie to watch.