Monday, October 18, 2010

"I AM DEATH!!!!"

It took a pretty long time for the kids who grew up on Hammer films to find themselves with enough power to remind everyone how much of a bummer it was that their brand of horror died with them. Hammer were undeniably the best for their money at Victorian/Gothic horror but many people were just as enchanted by also-rans Amicus and I know I'd stand by the best of Tigon's output as steadfastly as I would the best of Hammer. Between them (and the odd one-off copycat) the three studios managed to bring the past into the present and interest a new generation in realizing that though there is a certain charm in being scared by things just down the street, it can't compare with the thought of how terrifying it was to live in a time where there was no alternative to superstition. There are fewer religious crazies than there once were (in a 'per reasoned person' kinda way) and when you combine zealotry with the absence of just governing bodies, steady work, reliable food sources and medicine for rampant incurable diseases living in the 16th century seems like a much less fun time than Twelfth Night makes it out to be. And so it made perfect sense that Hammer would set its best remembered projects in the past, both recent and distant, because vampires and mad scientists become much more frightening when you realize that even if you survive, you still might die of starvation, unintentional poisoning or consumption. Makes the triumphant endings of some of these films seem much less triumphant, doesn't it? Anyway, in the last ten or fifteen years those disciples of Hammer finally got around to paying tribute to the one-time masters of the olde-timey horror film, starting with Tim Burton's excellent Sleepy Hollow. But the two I want to look at were released almost simultaneously and though they approach the setting and time from different angles, the hopelessness is evident in both of them, even if only one of them has the balls to follow through on it.

Solomon Kane
by Michael J. Bassett
A cartoonishly evil knight called Captain Solomon Kane wraps up a siege replete with murder and almost-humourous growling that he wants more people to murder by trying to steal treasure from a foreign warlord. Soldiers and a priest follow him inside but they're all seized by demonic hands that lurch forth from mirrors preceding the trophy room. And when Kane finally makes it past all the defenses, what does he find waiting for him but fucking Satan! If that ain't the worst luck! Anyway, the devil owns his soul now but before the big guy can take it, Kane extracts a smidgen bit of mercy from him. When Kane makes it back to England it's under the condition that if he ever harms anyone ever again, he's going straight to hell. Of course, this is tested immediately when he's mugged by a bunch of corpulent bandits. And then he's tested even further when he wakes up in the care of the nice prairie family set on adopting him a la Shane or any of the thousand other films these people occupy. The exception here is that Dad is played by Pete Postlethwaite who is one of the greatest living actors (ed - well, he was. Rest in Peace, Pete). So they make him dinner and he helps them out with their camping and cleaning and cooking and all that and plays with the son and flirts with their teenaged daughter despite him being covered in tattoos and in his late-thirties. But the reindeer games end when a gang sent by an evil god-king who's totally not Sauron fucks everything up. This fellow, Malachi is his name, has sent his damned minions out into the countryside killing and enslaving all who they meet. And they've been sent here to personally test Solomon Kane by killing the cute little boy he's befriended. His deeply religious parents cry out for this battle-hardened monster to kill everyone of these fuckers (thou shalt not kill unless they've recently done something bad to you) but of course he doesn't, new life path and Satan-on-his-back and all that. But then as soon as they leave, Solomon decides that only after they've captured virginal teenaged daughter does he need to table his non-violence and instead pick up the holy hammer of ass-kicking and personally murder everyone who stands in his way, up to and including Malachi, his estranged family and a big, CG Satan monster.

Isn't it funny how in just trying to relay the events of a movie you realize how much more is wrong with it than you initially thought. I mean this is still better than Van Helsing but that's unfortunately the first thing that came to mind instead of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter which I'm sure Michael Bassett would have liked. I'll start by saying that I had too much fun watching Solomon Kane to rate it less than the C- it's going to get. I greatly enjoyed it when the big crowds of evil warriors are laid flat by James Purefoy as the Mon with no Kane. Purefoy is terrible for a lot of this film but when he's just grunting and looking like a medieval badass, which is when it matters most, I had no problem with him. Postlethwaite and Max Von Sydow are good even when slumming in the likes of this or The Wolfman, but unlike that film, the movie wasn't so terrible that I spent the whole film wondering what they were doing here. Von Sydow only has two scenes after all and he's laying down in one of them. And it isn't even that the film itself is particularly egregious. It's a lot of fun in parts even when treading down a path so eroded by time that you wind up ten feet underground when walking it. The problem here is Michael J. Bassett's script has either stayed far too true to an 80 year old pulp fiction which may have been novel when it was released but now seems like a supernatural western with a change of setting. So in other words there's nothing here you haven't seen done better or much, much worse. In the better category, how about that big red satan creature Kane half-heartedly fights in the climax. When will filmmakers learn not to bother with CGI if they can't afford the good stuff? The final battle reminded me of the very first CG shots in Young Sherlock Holmes or the remarkably awful ones in Mortal Kombat, which is never a good thing.

But returning to the script Bassett puts too much in here that the story can't support. There's the great scene where Kane seeks sanctuary in a church only to discover that the priest has keeps his flock locked in the basement because they're all zombies. It comes out of nowhere and the story comes to a halt for it but it's one of the best scenes in the film. Bassett also makes the mistake of trying to stage a conclusion like the ones in Witchfinder General or any of Hammer's Dracula films but giving it no relevance to what we've already seen. Out of nowhere in a country supposedly overrun by Satan comes two or three guys who've put together a small revolution and are going to ride right into Malachi's castle to deliver it to him. Kane overcomes his cynicism and helps them but it ultimately doesn't matter because, and correct me if I'm wrong, but if Satan's behind this why the fuck should it matter who's going to try and stop him? He's Satan!!! He and God have been knocking each other around for who knows how long to no avail. If Satan can turn guys into zombies by touching their heads (which one of his minions does), why can't he just reign down pestilence on everyone including the rebels? That's my problem with unambiguous religious horror films. The best films in this vein about being possessed by Satan, Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil, et al. work because the big guy never shows himself. Or if he does it fails to do anything but derail the movie (The Devil Rides Out) unless he's completely shrouded in mystery (Blood On Satan's Claw). Solomon Kane makes Satan quantifiable and thus makes their hero invincible and the conclusion totally tensionless. In effect, what it says is that Satan can be scared and defeated in small doses. Not the scariest or most effecting idea is it? And so what if they've defeated one of Satan's minions? He's not Voldemort, he doesn't need a decade to recover. He's fucking Satan! Who's to say he didn't just crawl up Queen Elizabeth's ass and really get some work done rather than waste time with the duke of some hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Solomon Kane wants to simply exist as a western in Shakespearian clothing but it opens way too many doors it can't close. And frankly there's a fucking culture war on and any film that actively seeks to shut your brain off and fails is on the wrong side.
I'll come clean now and say that the reason Solomon Kane seems like such a de-clawed experience is because I saw it directly after seeing our next film, Chris Smith's Black Death. If I had to guess I'd say Smith probably had a lot less money than Bassett but let's just say he used it more judiciously. Instead of shooting his wad on cameos from the world's most respected character actors, he nabbed a few beastly underrated ones and crafted a story that gets by on implication rather than forcing a confrontation with a terribly realized demon and a scenery chewing Jason Flemyng, who so deserves better than this. Black Death is the antidote to Solomon Kane while still wandering the same desolate countryside. In fact, considering that Black Death came out at the same time as Centurion, Valhalla Rising and Robin Hood and manages to have a distinct personality and the most gut-wrenching plot of all of them, it amazes me how few screens it saw. While perhaps not as thrilling as Centurion, as expensive as Robin Hood, as silly as Solomon Kane or beautiful as Valhalla Rising, Black Death was the only one of these movies about large men in armor killing shit whose ending really thoroughly satisfied me. It's also the best and bleakest tributes to the old school period horror of Tigon and Hammer I've seen since maybe Sleepy Hollow.

Black Death
by Chris Smith
Osmund is a young monk whose faith has been shaken. There's the plague that's been killing every third person for miles that not even his superiors have been able to satisfactorily explain using religious thought and then there's the small matter of his girlfriend. Yes, for a man who's supposed to be living a life of celibacy, he certainly does a lot of making out. His girlfriend Averill who Osmund has known since childhood is just as scared as he is of dying and thinks the answer is getting as far away from their village as possible. Osmund's understandably torn between serving god and maybe surviving until the end of winter so Averill gives him an ultimatum with an expiration date. She's going to meet him at a clearing they used to play in when they were children every morning for a week and then she will be gone whether Osmund has shown or not. Fate makes up his mind for him when it throws open the doors to his church in the form of the knight Ulric, a grim figure indeed. He and his band of mercenaries are here to report to the church. They have heard rumours of a place untouched by the plague and this must be because they are in league with the devil. They'd be on the road right now but no one in his gang knows the way, they just know that it passes by a certain clearing. Osmund volunteers so fast it gives his superiors whiplash and despite their protestations he leaves with Ulric later that day.

Though their noticeably less intense, the men in Ulric's band are equally as unwelcoming. Of the five men who follow him Wolfstan seems to be human under all that armour. Their first encounter with civilization outside the monastery sets the tone for their journey. Osmund sees a group of people preparing to burn a woman to death because they believe she's a witch who poisoned their well. She claims she meant to bless it, but the villagers won't be appeased. Osmund won't stand by while they kill her and only when Ulric intervenes on her behalf are they quieted. But when he gently leads her away from the group and then slits her throat with his sword a horrible quiet falls over the scene. After this Osmund starts to have second thoughts about his chosen path if these are the men doing god's work. When they make it close enough to the clearing where he promised to meet Averill, things somehow only manage to get worse. Not only is there overwhelming evidence that she was killed but her killers, a tribe of men made almost feral by superstition and disease, show up and follow him back to camp. The group is one man short when they continue their hike toward the cursed village. But of course when they arrive nothing is what it seems. Indeed the place is clean, pleasant and inside they claim such distance from the ravages of the plague that it actually takes one man a few seconds before he remembers that it's killing hundreds of people every day. The men are given food, hot showers and plenty to drink and it's here that Osmund's faith in their absolute right is at its shakiest. When the village doctor invites him into the marshes to witness something while the others drink and scheme, his world is thrown even further into chaos. There in the woods the women of the village seemingly resurrect his girlfriend before his very eyes. He'd have a stronger reaction but the wine everyone partook of at dinner puts them all to sleep right at that moment.
I was wondering how Chris Smith could possibly make things darker than he already had but when Osmund and the knights wake up caged and immersed to the neck in freezing water while the whole village looks on, I had to applaud his conviction. I won't spoil what happens next but things get a lot darker from here. Black Death is a film that starts with the plague and then plunges you further down into the ice cold waters of hopelessness than you thought a film capable of going. A few things prevent it from being quite the nihilistic slog it sounds like. Barring a few scenes, the movie is too well-lit to be all that hopeless feeling, even as we see lines of men in hoods carrying giant crosses downstream for some unholy ritual involving animal bones. Also there's the casting. David Warner on the side of god isn't a good sign. He does a great job as the abbot and I was incredibly impressed that Smith got him for the part, knowing what kind of baggage he carries with him these days. Carice Van Houten doesn't have much to do but knowing that she was the girl from Black Book made me want to see how crazy she would get. She's the only person who seems totally in control throughout and she's ostensibly the villain. Sean Bean has, I think, once in his life, played a character you're supposed to like without reservation, and he certainly goes way out of his way to play the bastard here. The only problem with this is that even as a man who'll cut an innocent woman's throat if it means getting back on the road, I can't help but like him. The man was born to carry a sword in medieval genre films and if I ever get the chance I'm going to make a movie where he gets to do just that. If I can make a film where Sean Bean kills someone with a sword, I'll be able to die happy. Sean Bean is just too likable for me to hate him and this made for some fascinating stand-offs between Smith's intentions for the character and my expectations. John Lynch's Wolfstan, who is Ulric's ally, is really the only person you sympathize with (side note: why does John Lynch not get work? He's excellent. No one does wounded spirits like he does). I'd like to have sympathized with Osmund but Eddie Redmayne isn't even as likable as Sean Bean, slitter of throats. His unchanging expression and limited emotional range make him hard to commit to liking and after the ending I actively hated him. Don't get me wrong, I think the ending in the script is great and dark and really troubling in a good way, it's that Redmayne nearly dismantles it. Granted Smith wants us to see the effects of religion but the reveal he sets up has no effect on a personal level because I found Redmayne weak and passive at the best of times and don't really care what happens to him. He isn't motivated by the same strength of convictions as Sean Bean's knight or Chris Smith.

Smith's direction is very good but I found myself wanting a little more from the landscape. With competition like Valhalla Rising, Smith's cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid should have been working overtime to find the moodiest possible lighting for every situation. Because he didn't go out of his way to find truly intense dark colours outside in the wilderness and truly breathtaking ones inside the village, instead of looking angelic, the village just looks slightly less ominous. The quality of the light doesn't change drastically enough to evoke much feeling on its own and the performances alone aren't enough to do it either. We know that things aren't right because we just fucking know. We've seen ten trillion movies and of course something evil's going on, them's the breaks. Smith's problem is atmospherics. He paints in broad strokes and there are no little gestures to be found here. It's true that Hammer Films rarely dealt in subtlety and as a tribute Black Death gets an A+, but as a moody, cynical horror film that doubles as a treatise on religion, it loses points for playing the same hand over and over again. In the end it feels like a very slight film and doesn't mask it's budget cleverly enough. It also loses points for losing its way during the climactic set piece. At its worst the scene with the underwater cage reminds me of the execution scenes in Red Zone Cuba (never, ever a good place for your mind to wander to) though it does save itself in the end by matching grimness with even more grimness, one of the most badass quotes in film history and a death scene that simply has to be seen to be believed. But for a split second I found myself wondering if we were just going to watch one execution after another.
Black Death is compelling from start to finish despite my complaints and considering that Robin Hood got an international multiplex release while this and Centurion saw almost nothing but festivals and press screenings is just baffling. Black Death is a better film than Robin Hood even if it wasn't quite as well crafted on a technical level. If the two films had changed directors, then both would be really terrifying. But Robin Hood is dull and pointless if very pretty and Black Death wants for some of that Ridley Scott visual magic. I think the key to a film set in this time period is that they have to act as window into how dark days really were. Smith understands how miserable the past is and lets reality feed the horror. Michael Bassett tried to do the same thing but he's playing with magic and so any realism he strove for doesn't amount to anything, which is a shame because they both stem from the same Religious-men-as-conqueror motif, which is powerful enough to make Black Death's opening half hour relentless and harrowing all by itself. Not one of the many knights-on-a-mission films released this year is perfect but the ones that come closest are the ones that eschew cliches in favor of the nightmare of living through that time period, or who simply work overtime to keep you riveted to the screen, which is why while Valhalla Rising wants for action it's never boring or why Centurion and Black Death are exciting all the way through. They hit familiar beats but they're made by guys who are hellbent on entertaining you quickly and furiously (another side note: if you haven't seen Centurion or Valhalla Rising, do. They're not quite horror films so I can't review them here but they are brilliant and well worth your time). Ultimately what needed to happen was for someone to look at the rushes and ask why the movie didn't look as a dark as it is. A few changes and Black Death might have entered the new classic pantheon. It's still great but it falls maddeningly short of perfection.

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