Monday, October 21, 2013

Suspiria

Dario Argento's Suspiria is the ultimate argument for style over substance in filmmaking. I've heard complaints that the plot makes no sense but I've never understood the argument. The plot makes perfect sense, it's just incredibly thin. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, relocates to Germany in order to train at a world-renowned dance academy in Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest. After she arrives she discovers that her new school is a front for a coven of witches. That's it. But onto this bare bones frame Argento builds one of the most outlandish, gruesome and beautiful horror movies ever made, a technicolor, art deco wonderland of a movie with terrifically over-the-top death scenes and a chillingly effective musical score that adds to the sense of unease every bit as much as the lurid visuals. It's sensory overload from start to finish and I adore every single minute of it.

I love stories about witches almost as much as I love stories about haunted houses. And have I mentioned that I love unsettling stories about ballet dancers, too? So how could I not love Suspiria? Everything about it makes me supremely happy. I'm basically euphoric the entire time I watch it and I have watched it many, many times. I like that the creepy supernatural vibe isn't confined to the walls of the dance academy. From the very first frames of the movie, when she arrives at the airport late at night and hails a taxi during a horrific rainstorm, it's as if Suzy's surroundings are already conspiring against her. Everything looks brighter, more colorful but also more menacing than it does in the real world. The hypnotic, disconcerting score by Goblin kicks in on the soundtrack and it sounds like a music box possessed by a demon.

Every location in Suspiria ought to feel dangerous considering that the power of the witches extends beyond the academy. Anyone who uncovers their secrets or crosses them in any way meets with a horrible end. Student Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) uncovers the true nature of the dance school and is brutally murdered that same night. The school's blind piano accompanist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci) gets into an altercation with instructor Miss Tanner (a wonderfully creepy Alida Valli) and is killed hours later when his own service dog viciously turns on him. The witches themselves never get their hands dirty but they seem to be able to summon dark supernatural entities to do their bidding at a moment's notice. And these things don't mess around. Although all the deaths in Suspiria are memorable (Stefania Cassini's Sara actually falls into a room filled with razor wire - a whole damned room filled with razor wire) Pat's is the most over the top and unforgettable. Stabbed through the heart, strung up by an electrical cord and plunged through an enormous stained glass skylight, it is relentlessly brutal but also garishly beautiful.

I guess you could argue that the resolution to Suspiria feels a little easy. The witches appear to be all-powerful but wispy little Suzy is able to defeat them fairly quickly in the film's final moments. I think the storybook ending works, though, because the entire movie kind of plays like a dark fairy tale (Argento's color palette for the movie was even inspired by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Despite its barbaric, surreal nature Suspiria ends on a triumphant note. One that is probably as close to a "Happily Ever After" as you're going to get in a horror movie. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Haunting

Robert Wise's The Haunting is the grandaddy of haunted house flicks. Adapted from excellent source material (Shirley Jackson's brilliant The Haunting of Hill House) it satisfies on every level. Beautifully filmed, terrifically acted by the small cast and genuinely frightening, this is the haunted house movie by which all others should be measured. I have never seen its equal.

The film opens with an introduction to Hill House and its wretched history. The imposing home was built by Hugh Crain, as a gift for his wife, who is killed in a carriage accident in the driveway, just moments before she would have first set eyes on the house. Crain and his young daughter, Abigail, move into the home and Crain remarries. His second wife also dies (after taking a tumble down the main staircase) and when Crain himself dies while abroad Abigail inherits the property. She lives to a ripe old age and dies in her bed, while trying to summon her live-in companion, who was out on the veranda canoodling with a gentleman from the nearby village and did not hear her employer pounding her cane against the wall in distress. The companion inherits the house but eventually hangs herself from the landing atop the spiral staircase in the library. After her death Hill House passes to a distant relative, Mrs. Sanderson, who maintains the property but opts to live elsewhere. 

The strange and tragic history of Hill House attracts Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and paranormal enthusiast intent on documenting actual proof of supernatural phenomena. Markway asks permission from Mrs. Sanderson for he and a carefully selected team of assistants, hand-picked by the doctor because of their own dealings with the paranormal, to stay in the house and record their experiences for a scientific study. Sanderson reluctantly agrees to the request but insists that Luke (Russ Tamblyn), her nephew and heir, accompany the team. The two men are joined in the house by Theodora (Claire Bloom), renowned for her psychic abilities, and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a fragile woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her recently-deceased invalid mother. Markway tells Eleanor he chose her based on an alleged poltergeist incident from her childhood, when stones rained down on her family's house for three days. Eleanor tries to deny the incident ever occurred, even though it was witnessed by both neighbors and members of Eleanor's family. 

A married couple, the Dudleys, work as caretakers at Hill House. Mrs. Dudley prepares meals and serves as housekeeper for Markway and his team but, as she is quick to point out to Eleanor and Theodora when they arrive, once the sun sets she and her husband head for the village a few miles down the road. Hill House has something of a reputation in town and none of the locals want to be anywhere near it after dark. During the night, our intrepid team of ghost hunters will be very much on their own. From the moment she arrives at Hill House Eleanor senses that something is not right. She fights her recurring urges to back out of Markway's experiment, though, because, frankly, her involvement in his project is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. Finally free from the responsibility of caring for her ailing mother, Eleanor is anxious to make a fresh start and create a life of her own. She's also hungry for human connection and longs for the acceptance of Markway, Theodora and Luke. Wise uses voice-over narration extensively in The Haunting and Eleanor's every fear and insecurity is made abundantly clear to the audience. As frightened as she is of Hill House Eleanor also feels as if she belongs there, a feeling that grows stronger the longer she stays. 

Markway and his team begin to experience strange occurances almost immediately after their arrival at Hill House. Some can be explained by the design of the house itself: Hugh Crain, it seems, was both sadistic and misanthropic and intended his house to be disconcerting and unpleasant as opposed to welcoming and homey. All of the angles are slightly askew, creating an off-kilter sensation for the people inside. None of the doors are hinged properly and after they're opened they swing shut of their own accord. But nothing in the design of the house explains the loud, angry knocking sounds that Eleanor and Theodora hear outside their bedroom doors on their first night there. Or the strange, dog-like creature that Dr. Markway spies in the hallway and pursues onto the grounds, where it disappears. Or the chalk lettering on the hallway walls that spells out "Help Eleanor Come Home." Whatever's in the house has set it has sets its sights on Eleanor and it intends to keep her.

In order for The Haunting to be effective it has to work as both a character study and a ghost story and it succeeds, on both levels. The dynamic between the four principle characters is fascinating. Alliances are created and then shift from one instant to the next. The relationship that forms between Theodora and Eleanor is especially interesting. At times they are friendly and affectionate towards one another but at other times they squabble like spoiled children. Although Eleanor's motivations are clearly presented in Julie Harris's voice-over it's harder for me to suss out exactly what's going on with Theodora. I believe that she is genuinely fond of and concerned for Eleanor but I also think she allows her annoyance for the other woman's naïveté to sometimes get the better of her, which causes her to act out in childish ways. Luke, more light-hearted and skeptical than the others, is often her partner in crime, with Markway acting as a surrogate father of sorts to the diverse little group. Eleanor is attracted to Markway almost immediately and, despite the fact that he is married, he does seem to return her feelings to a degree. Or maybe he's just especially fascinated by her because of the way the house reacts to her. Of course all of these relationships might be misrepresented to the viewer, since the story is essentially told from Eleanor's point of view and she may not be the most reliable of narrators.

Eleanor's instability may very well explain away some of the strange phenomena (she could very well have written on the wall with chalk herself, for example) but not all of it can be attributed to her. There is definitely something going on with the house. Markway says it's not so much haunted as diseased. It's a house that was "born bad" and does seem to possess a sort of malevolent consciousness of its own, one that feeds off of the energy that certain people provide for it. People like Eleanor.

This is such a sad, unsettling and fascinating story. The cast is just terrific. It's always a pleasure to see Russ Tamblyn and his Luke brings a few moments of much-needed levity to an otherwise intense story. Claire Bloom is gorgeous and fascinating as Theodora, a role that is celebrated for its positive depiction of a lesbian character. At times aloof she is also warm and highly intelligent. I found Richard Johnson's Markway to be both charming and compassionate. His scenes with Eleanor are especially captivating and sensitive. But the movie belongs, rightfully so, to the brilliant Julie Harris. There's something so genuine and open-hearted about her presence onscreen. I always empathize very strongly with the characters she creates. Eleanor can be frustrating at times but Harris makes her so raw and so genuine that's impossible for me not to feel for her.

In addition to excellent acting the production values on The Haunting are first-rate. Wise is able to create more terror and suspense with well-placed sound effects than any number of lesser horror movies do with overblown CGI bells and whistles. It is a perfect example of less is more. The rich black and white photography creates deep, ominous shadows in the enormous, opulent rooms of Hill House. The film is gorgeously shot but every frame inside the house is oppressive and melancholy. The whole thing feels stifling and claustrophobic. It's a beautifully constructed nightmare.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dead of Night

Dead of Night is my favorite anthology horror film. It's a movie that can be tricky to hunt down (and it is crying out for a remastered DVD release to clean up that muddled sound) but if you have Turner Classic Movies they are very good about including it in their Halloween line-up each October. One more reason to love TCM! The movie consists of five supernatural tales and a wraparound story to tie them all together. It opens with an architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), arriving at a country estate for the weekend.  Craig has never visited the house before but he has dreamed about it. Inside he's greeted by the other guests. He's never met any of them, either, but they show up in his recurring dream too. Craig is overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding. Based on the fragments he can recall from his dream he is sure that something horrible is going to happen. Though Craig feels he should leave the other guests encourage him to stay and, in order to assuage his fears, they decide to exchange their own tales of encounters with the supernatural.

The first two tales are the shortest and are both pretty standard ghost story fare (which is not to say they aren't enjoyable, because they are): in the first story a race car driver has an encounter with a spectral carriage which turns out to be the harbinger for a future tragedy, in the second a young woman meets and comforts the spirit of a forlorn, lonely little boy who was murdered by his sister. The third story is about a haunted mirror. There may be other stories out there about haunted mirrors but this is the only one I've ever seen. In it a woman, Joan, buys her fiancé Peter an ornate antique mirror. At first it behaves like a normal mirror should but, over time, it begins to show the surroundings of its former owner in its reflection. This alternate interior is only visible to Peter, who sees himself within the surroundings every time he gazes into the mirror. Joan begins to notice changes in her fiancé's personality and becomes convinced that the vengeful, murderous spirit of the mirror's former owner is attempting to control him. The fourth story, about rival golfing buddies who fall for the same girl, is the most lighthearted offering, even if it does contain a suicide and a visit from beyond the grave.

The fifth and final tale in Dead of Night is the longest and the most celebrated. It features Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, a talented ventriloquist whose dummy may or may not be running the show. Redgrave is spectacular as Frere. His beleaguered showman is both tormented and terrifying. It's likely that Frere is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, sometimes he's himself and at other times he becomes his dummy, but the story leaves just enough wiggle room for us to consider the possibility that his malevolent doll is acting of its own accord. The movie concludes with a resolution, of sorts, to the wraparound story that is both amusing and unsettling.

In fact, amusing and unsettling pretty much describes the overall tone of Dead of Night. It's not especially scary and at times it's downright playful but it is unsettling, even, I think, in its most light-hearted moments. It's got an incredible ensemble cast, all of whom are delightful, and a beautiful location. I'm probably a bit biased because I have a weakness for English countryside settings and movies made during the forties. If I had to live in a horror movie it would probably be Dead of Night. The malice in the movie is met with a fare amount of merriment and, if that's something you appreciate like I do, this one is definitely worth watching.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

May

Lucky McKee's May is one of the first titles that springs to mind when I think about my all-time favorite horror movies. I make a point to watch it a least once a year during the month of October. Sometimes I bust it out at other times during the year as well. Its influences are easily recognizable (the most obvious being Carrie and Frankenstein) but its quirky characters and visuals, punchy dialogue and kick-ass soundtrack make it a unique and very worthwhile viewing experience.

I found out about May via the late great Roger Ebert, who wrote a glowing review complimenting the movie's many merits. Although other critics were also buzzing about May Ebert was the only one whose site I looked in on regularly. Were it not for his enthusiastic and compassionate reaction to this movie I might never have known about it. His high praise certainly made me want to check it out.

When May came out about ten years ago I was hesitant to watch it, even though I really wanted to see it. The reviews I read suggested a high ick factor and I just didn't know if I could handle it. Just like I did with this year's new Evil Dead I waffled when it came to actually seeking out May and watching it for myself. Instead I did lots of homework in an effort to psyche myself up for it. I'm pretty sure I knew about every bad thing that was going to happen, in great detail, over the course of the movie long before I actually watched it. Fortunately May isn't really the sort of story where prior knowledge of the plot spoils the viewing experience. The outcome is projected in the movie's harrowing opening shot and the resolution seems logical, even inevitable. Plus, like CarrieMay is very much about the emotional and psychological journey of its titular protagonist and her interaction with the somewhat thoughtless but essentially decent people she crosses paths with over the course of the story. 

Like Carrie White, May Canady's had a weird and lonely childhood. We get a glimpse of it during the movie's brief prologue. May is an adorable little tot with one small physical imperfection: she has a lazy eye. Her mother is an obsessive perfectionist (the sort who gets mad when you tear into the paper on your birthday gift instead of methodically removing the wrapping so it's not ruined) and it only takes a few minutes of screen time to figure out that growing up with a woman this tightly wound might cause serious damage to a young person's psyche. May's mother is clearly horrified that her daughter is less than perfect. May must wear an eyepatch at all times, which perplexes her classmates, but that seems like less of a hindrance than a mother who instills in her young daughter the sense that she is flawed and should be ashamed of her physical appearance.

After the concise backstory the movie shifts its focus to May as an adult (played to perfection by the fantastic Angela Bettis). She works at a veterinary hospital and, owing to her lack of squeamishness, is excellent at her job. Her social life, however, is nonexistent. May is a shy, awkward young woman who lives alone and spends her spare time sewing and confiding in Suzy, her childhood doll and only friend. Suzy was made by May's mother and she is kept in a glass display box, because she's special. It's worth noting that May's parents don't seem to have any sort of presence in their adult daughter's life but, even now that she is on her own, May still abides by her mother's rule that "special" Suzy cannot come out of her box. It's sad enough that May's only friend is a doll but it's sadder still that it's a doll she's never even been able to hold in her arms.

Although she only appears in the first few minutes of the movie the presence of May's mother looms large as the story unfolds. As an adult May, like her mother before her, is obsessed with physical perfection and is dismayed by anyone or anything that does not measure up to her exacting standards. One day an auto mechanic named Adam catches her eye. May confides to Suzy that Adam is perfect and she fixates, in particular, on his hands, which she thinks are beautiful. May wants a real friend and she's decided it should be Adam. She visits an eye doctor who fits her with contact lenses to correct her lazy eye and then, through a series of awkward, hilarious, staged "chance" encounters, she gets Adam's attention. 

Adam is played by Jeremy Sisto. Although Clueless is almost twenty years old I still think of Sisto as the obnoxious Elton every time I see him. He does a good job in May, though, of being kind of cool and sexy in a shaggy sort of way. I can see why May would be attracted to him. Adam is a horror movie aficionado. He has a particular fondness for Dario Argento's work. He tells May that he thinks she's weird but that he "likes weird." Unfortunately for both of them Adam's threshold for "weird" is nowhere near as high as May's so it's not long before Adam, initially so intrigued by our heroine, becomes creeped out and breaks things off with her. May tries again and again to connect with the people around her. Her outrageously oversexed coworker Polly (a hilarious Anna Faris) practically throws herself at May but she seems to come onto every attractive woman who crosses her path with just as much gusto. If It's a serious, committed relationship that May wants she won't find it in free-spirited Polly. May thinks she's found a friend in Blank (James Duval), a mohawked punker with a Frankenstein tattoo and a weakness for JuJu Beans but he, too, is easily freaked out and quick to want to distance himself from the offbeat young woman.

Every person May encounters has a perfect part. Adam's hands, Polly's neck, Blank's arms. "So many perfect parts, no perfect wholes" May muses at one point. It's not surprising when this lonely, unstable young woman decides to take the parts she covets and combine them to create one truly perfect friend. That is literally what happens in the third act of May. Again, like CarrieMay plays as an increasingly quirky character study with unsettling overtones for the first two-thirds. After May is rejected, in one way or another, by all the people she reaches out to she finally comes undone and the consequences are, ultimately, tragic for both May and many of the people who've crossed her path. All the ick I was so worried about comes at the end of the movie. There is quite a bit if blood but it's Kool-Aid colored and not especially scary to see. The movie is scary not because it's gross but because Angela Bettis fully commits to the role of a woman who is pushed to the brink and then goes, enthusiastically, over the edge. It is heartbreaking and horrifying to witness. 

Much as she might scare me I identify so much with May. I relate with her obsessive nature and, to a lesser degree, her desire for perfection. I feel for her in her handful of encounters with Adam. She's never had anyone she cares about return her feelings and it's obvious that her emotions overwhelm her when she's around him. When he rejects her it's not surprising that she begins to unravel. I relate with the world of the movie on certain levels, too. The soundtrack features several tracks by the Breeders and The Kelly Deal 6000. The Deal sisters were pretty important to me when I was in college and I get a bit nostalgic when I hear them. I also love the aesthetics in May's crafty little apartment. All her well-ordered sewing materials and doll parts remind me of the types of things I collect around my house for art projects. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though the world McKee constructs in May is specific and idiosyncratic it speaks to me on a personal level. And May herself speaks very clearly to me. And that is both satisfying and terrifying, which is what you want from a good horror movie. Isn't it?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Innkeepers

Ti West's The Innkeepers is the movie I wanted Insidious: Chapter 2 to be. It's eerie and funny and incredibly understated. You can count on one hand the number of genuinely scary scenes but that's part of what makes it so effective. The bulk of the story is straightforward, bordering on mundane. The underwhelming atmosphere just ratchets up the tension for me. When nothing much was happening I couldn't help but think to myself "something is about to happen." The longer I had to wait for that something the more freaked out I became. Martin Scorsese, in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, talks about the effectiveness of the bland locations and people in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. He says you can tell something bad is coming because of the way everybody dances around it. The tension builds and builds until the evil can no longer be tamped down (I'm paraphrasing here - wildly). The same kind of thing is happening in The Innkeepers.

There are other similarities between The Shining and The Innkeeers. Both are set in near-empty hotels that boast violently tragic pasts. Both feature hotel staff protagonists and at least one character who is attuned to the bad vibes that the hotels are giving off. And in both stories there is a suggestion that the hotels are conscious on some level and are creating scenarios that will allow them to "keep" their protagonists forever (in much the sane way that Hill House wants to "keep" Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's exquisite The Haunting of Hill House). 

Speaking of protagonists, I love Claire, the adorable, awkward, hyper and completely dorky heroine of The Innkeepers. Here's the movie's premise: The historic but floundering Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing its doors for good. It's the last weekend that they will be open and front desk workers Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are holding down the fort. Luke has created a website dedicated to the tragic history of the inn and the alleged incidences of paranormal activity that have occured there. The problem is he's never really captured any great footage of the hauntings. Luke and Claire know that this final weekend is their last chance to get some good, concrete evidence to support the claim that the inn is haunted. They take turns manning the front desk and wandering from room to room with recording equipment, hoping for an encounter with the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, the young bride who hung herself in the honeymoon suite after her husband abandoned her. 

Luke and Claire are joined in the inn by a handful of guests. There's the grumpy young mother and her son, the sad old gentleman who insists on staying in the honeymoon suite where he and his wife spent their long-ago wedding night and, most interesting of all, former TV star turned medium Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis). Although she initially clashes with Claire, Leanne eventually offers to help the girl "make contact" with the entity that resides in the Yankee Pedlar. Leanne explains that her gift allows her to see things that will happen as well as things that have happened, although the chronology of the events is not always clear to her and, as a result, it's sometimes difficult for her to correctly interpret the messages she's receiving. 

I love well told haunted house (or hotel) stories. I like a slow burn and lots of hints and suggestions and atmospherics. I like it when there are unanswered questions at the end, instead of tidy, thorough explanations. Not every style of storytelling benefits from ambiguity but haunted house stories, a lot of the time, do. I like unreliable narrators and the hint, just the hint, that maybe the events that are unfolding are just inside that narrator's head. The ShiningThe Haunting and The Innocents are three of my very favorite horror films. They all feature unstable people knocking around inside great big, foreboding, imposing locations. That, to me, is a formula for success. The Innkeepers may lack some of the atmospheric elegance of these earlier works but it's got a quirky charm of its own. I think it's a solid addition to this subgenre. Think of them as a family. If The Shining is the overbearing father, The Haunting is the fragile, long-suffering mother and The Innocents is the melodramatic spinster aunt then The Innkeepers makes the perfect goofy teenage daughter. It's great fun. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Carrie

Disclaimer: I have seen the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie several times but I never realized, before last night, that William Katt, who plays love interest Tommy, was the same guy who starred in The Greatest American Hero. I am apparently the last person on the planet to figure it out and I am deeply ashamed, since I loved GAH when I was a kid. If you're still interested in my thoughts on Carrie, given how clueless I am about basic things like the cast, then keep reading.

How horrifying is the shower scene that opens Brian De Palma's Carrie? It is vicious and heartbreaking and Sissy Spacek's bewildered terror is palpable. This scene, where Carrie gets her first period while showering in the girls locker room, mistakenly believes she's bleeding to death and is bombarded with feminine hygiene products by her classmates, who find her frightened cluelessness amusing, sets all the events of the sad story of Carrie White into motion. Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), furious with her class for their callous treatment of the vulnerable Carrie, sentences the students to one week's detention. Anyone who gets out of line will be banned from the upcoming prom. Bad girl Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) mouths off on the first day of detention and has her prom privileges revoked. The angry and vindictive Chris masterminds a wicked plan to exact revenge; not against Miss Collins, but against Carrie. 

As Chris is plotting to destroy Carrie, good girl Sue Snell (Amy Irving) is trying to help the outcast. She convinces her sweet boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy agrees because he loves Sue and wants to make her happy. As he spends more time around Carrie it becomes obvious that he has developed genuine feelings for the shy, awkward girl. In the end, though, none of that matters. Thanks to Chris, Carrie is humiliated in one of the worst ways imaginable at the prom. Believing everybody in attendance was conspiring against her all along, and with the words of her abusive, religious zealot mother (Piper Laurie) ringing in her head ("they're all gonna laugh at you"), a stunned and horrified Carrie taps into her newly discovered telekinetic powers and makes the whole school pay for what's been done to her.

This is such a great movie. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both garnered much deserved Oscar nominations for acting. To this day theirs are two of only a handful of horror performances to ever be recognized by the Academy. In addition to their formidable work in the movie Carrie also boasts terrific performances by its supporting players. Betty Buckley is great in her feature film debut. Her Miss Collins is smart, sassy and compassionate and her exchanges with Spacek's Carrie provide some of the most heartfelt moments in the movie. Nancy Allen's Chris is the perfect high school mega-bitch. She's spiteful and bossy but also determined and seductive. It's easy to see why her friends and her meathead boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) agree to pretty much anything she demands of them. Amy Irving's Sue doesn't have quite as much to do. Her character's motivations are better explained in King's novel and go beyond her simply wanting to atone for the way she's treated Carrie. In the novel King explains that Sue feels genuine remorse for her actions but she also wants to test the limits of Tommy's love for her by seeing if he'll agree to take Carrie to the prom. Sue is testing the boundaries of her power over Tommy just like Chris is testing Billy. Everything that happens in Carrie stems from the actions of the female characters, who are all asserting their power over the other characters in the story in one way or another. Miss Collins decides and delivers the appropriate punishment to her students when they misbehave. Carrie's mother, Margaret, raises her daughter as a single parent and calls all the shots in the White household. And of course Carrie discovers, over the course of the story, her own unique power and puts it to use, with devastating results.

Carrie, the novel and, I assume, by extension, its many adaptations, has been accused of misogyny and it's not hard to see why. It's easy to interpret the story's message as "Female power is scary and when women assert themselves bad things happen." While some of the characterizations and motivations are off base and outdated I don't have a problem enjoying the story and the characters. That has a lot to do with De Palma's direction and the fine acting of his cast, Sissy Spacek in particular. Spacek's Carrie White hardly matches King's physical description of the character, who is described in his novel as overweight and acne-ridden. With her strawberry blonde locks, fair, freckled complexion and large, expressive blue eyes Spacek's Carrie is absolutely breathtaking. She's as beautiful, if not moreso, than all the other girls in the movie. This doesn't undermine her performance, though, because Spacek plays the role of the timid, awkward, lonely outcast so well. She's so fragile and uncertain that it's often uncomfortable to watch her. Once she begins to understand her telekinetic abilities her confidence increases and that is satisfying to see. The bullying aspect of Carrie feels especially resonant now, given the horrific accounts of classroom bullying that seem to frequent our nightly news reports. I want the abused outcast Carrie to thrive and I root for her every time I watch, even though I know she's every bit as doomed as her tormentors.

I'm pretty fond of stories set in high schools. And I have a particular weakness for high school dance scenes. Carrie contains one of the most bizarre, disconcerting, fascinating and heartbreaking high school dance sequences ever committed to film. I'm talking about the part before the prank with the pig's blood, when it's just Carrie and Tommy together. Their one and only slow dance is so well-filmed and so well-acted. It may be the one true moment of happiness that Carrie experiences in her brief life and you can see that it overwhelms her. In that moment I understand exactly how she feels, so the scene overwhelms me, too. The camera swirls around the couple on the dance floor and the tone is both romantic and unhinged. Everything is about to go pear-shaped, in the worst way imaginable.

Carrie combines so many of my favorite elements into one great story. It's got strong, compelling female characters, supernatural shenanigans and teen angst. It's got fantastic seventies clothing and hairstyles. It's got Piper Laurie's unhinged Margaret referring to breasts as "dirty pillows." But more than anything it's got one of the best protagonists in any horror movie, ever. Like Dr. Frankenstein's creation, Carrie is both the monster and the victim in the tale. She holds my interest and has my sympathy from start to finish.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Amityville II: The Possession

Amityville II: The Possession and I have a history. We go way, way back. It's one of the main reasons I watch horror movies to this day and it also shaped the way I watch them.

When I was a kid I had the best babysitter. Her name was Jana. She was beautiful and cool and an incredibly talented artist. I idolized her. One night, while she was watching me, we started flipping through channels on the television. It must have been close to Christmas because one channel was showing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I really wanted to watch that. Jana didn't. She kept surfing the channels until she found Amityville II: The Possession. She wanted to watch that. I did not. I wanted her to go back to Rudolph. But we had a second tv upstairs and Jana said I could up there and watch whatever I wanted. She said it was alright, I didn't need to stay downstairs with her. But I'd seen the opening moments of this Amityville movie, with the creepy-ass lullaby music and the foreboding side shots of the house with the iconic attic windows that look like eyes. I was scared. No way in hell was I gonna go upstairs and watch Rudolph or anything else on my own. I had no choice but to stay downstairs with Jana and endure the horror. 

My parents made it home long before the movie ended. But it was too late. The damage was done. There are three scenes in particular that I clearly remember seeing that night. I remember the mover discovering the false wall in the basement and going into the hidden room, which is crawling with flies and all manner of leaky, drippy filth. I remember the older brother, who has been hearing demonic voices through his headphones, looking down malevolently from his attic bedroom window on his unsuspecting family and friends below in the yard. But the scene that really got to me was the one where the invisible but undeniably evil forces in the house paint disrespectful graffiti all over the walls of the younger children's bedroom. While the children are in the room, screaming in terror. When the parents get to the room the children try to explain the mess, saying it wasn't them it was the brushes. Their father's not buying it. He's a hothead and a bully and he removes his belt and starts beating the kids with it. This was too much for little-me.

Then it got worse. After my parents got home my dad drove Jana back to her house and I rode with them. Jana told my dad about the movie and told him that she had explained to me that it wasn't real and there was nothing to be frightened about. My dad, however, begged to differ. Nope, he told her, that's based on a true story. It really happened. I'm in the backseat of the truck and I hear that. How on earth am I supposed to react to that bombshell? Thanks a lot, Dad.

It would be years before I'd watch Amityville II: The Possession in its entirety. But just like Stephen Gammell's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrations, the scenes I remembered from watching the movie that night with Jana have always stayed with me. Though it's not the most well-made or frightening movie around it was my first real exposure to the genre. It scared me but the fear developed, as I grew older, into a morbid fascination with horror stories.

Although it's the second entry in the series, Amityville II: The Possession is technically a prequel, loosely based on actual crimes committed in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue before the Lutz family moved in and the events that formed the basis for the original Amityville Horror allegedly transpired. Amityville II opens with the Montelli family, father Anthony, mother Dolores and children Sonny, Patricia, Mark and Jan moving into their dream home. Within the first few minutes of the movie it's apparent that Anthony is an overbearing and, at times, frightening patriarch. I believe that the house begins to have an effect on the Montellis as soon as they set foot on the property but I also think it uses pre-existing familial tensions to create a highly volatile situation. I almost felt like the house was testing the Montellis in the earlier half of the movie, trying to determine which member of the family would make the perfect conduit for its diabolical plans. The entity within the home eventually possesses the oldest Montelli child, Sonny. Although there are moments when Sonny appears to be in control most his actions in the second half of the movie are attributed to the demonic presence that's using him for a host. Sonny is most certainly not himself when he takes his father's shotgun and proceeds to murder his parents and his three siblings (a truly unsettling and heartbreaking sequence in the movie). When the family priest, Father Adamsky (an admirable performance by James Olson), arrives on the scene after the brutal killings have occurred Sonny claims to have no memory of the crimes he has committed. Adamsky becomes convinced that Sonny is possessed and vows to exorcise the demon, even though the church refuses to sanction his actions. 

Amityville II: The Possession is certainly reminiscent of earlier horror films, the most obvious being The Exorcist. The resolution to the story is more or less lifted straight from the William Friedkin classic. The abusive father and the domestic violence in the movie reminds me of The Shining and the demon POV shots are very much like the ones that feature in The Evil Dead. While Amityville II may lack the style and originality of these other more celebrated horror titles I still think it's pretty effective and entertaining. I think Anthony Montelli is pretty repulsive from the start. I hate the way his wife and eldest daughter cower before him and go out of their way to keep him appeased. I still hate the scene when he beats his younger children with his belt. It is every bit as harrowing to me as it was when I saw it as a child. And I hate the way he systematically shatters oldest child Sonny's self-esteem. I think Jack Magner turns in a particularly effective performance as Sonny. At times troubled, menacing and creepy but also sensitive and sympathetic. I think he fights until the very end to retain as much of his humanity as possible while under the control of a powerful and entirely evil entity.

I also enjoyed Diane Franklin's performance as older sister Patricia. She and Sonny have a close bond that's established early on in the movie but devolves into an incredibly troubling incest side plot once Sonny is possessed. I'm not really sure what to make of that development. I mean, this isn't Cathy and Chris in Flowers in the Attic, hooking up because, y'know, they're locked in a freakin' attic, hormones raging, with no one else to turn to for comfort. Nope, this is a demon-possessed older brother putting the make on his sister as an affront to God. And the sister kind of knows what's up and goes along with it anyway. And even though she goes to Father Adamsky to confess she later tells her brother that she's not ashamed of what they've done. It's just all over the place. Kind of like when it's revealed that the house was built on an ancient Indian burial ground (of course) by a witch who fled from the trials in Salem. And it also appears to have some kind of hell mouth in the basement. That is a lot of bad juju to throw at the audience. Better to pick one atrocity and run with it, rather than throwing all of them against the wall to find the one that sticks.

And yet. And yet. Even the missteps are kind of charming. I know I'm biased because I saw it as a kid and it made such an impression on me but I really do think this an alright flick. It's dated and clunky but it has some good gore effects and some decent acting. If you like this sort of thing and you keep your expectations reasonable you're liable to have a good time with this one.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dear Nick Fallon,

I have adored you for almost seven years but I've never written to you directly. I feel it's high time I let you know that you are, far and away, my all-time favorite soap opera character. Hands down, no questions asked. You smoke the competition. I even sent fan mail on your behalf to Days of Our Lives writers and producers, something I've never, ever done for another character on a daytime drama. I still remember your first day on the show. You were so hyper and silly. I was dubious. But by day two you'd won me over with your wit and charm and your enthusiastic, romantic nature. I loved that you fell head over heels in love with Chelsea the moment you laid eyes on her. Remember when you guys flew to Canada to help Shawn D. and Belle? And you stopped Philip from pursuing you by planting a knife on him at the airport? So cheeky. So smart. You and Chelsea had fantastic chemistry. I wanted nothing but good things for you two.

You didn't always make the wisest choices when it came to securing Chelsea's affections, though. Creating a fake online persona to woo her, using your boss in the medical lab as your avatar? Unwise. Especially considering he was a skeevy perve who tried to take advantage of her. But I understood your insecurities. Chelsea treated you like a lap dog when she first met you. It's only natural you would think you didn't stand a chance with her. And you came clean about that and you two were on the right path. I loved the day you helped her with her calculus homework and the two of you ended up making out. Wonderful, perfect first love stuff! You kids were beautiful! Course then she found out you lost your virginity to her mom, Billie. I stood by you after that, too. It was very much a wrong place, wrong time scenario. You still thought you didn't stand a chance with your dream girl so you took comfort in her sassy cougar-ma. It wasn't a full-blown, Mrs. Robinson type affair, just a one-off thing. I know you only ever had Chelsea in your heart. 

The day Chelsea learned the truth was devastating for both of you. That happened on Valentine's Day, didn't it? What a cruel twist of fate. You guys never really recovered from that betrayal. I hoped you could get past it but, let's be honest, it was never the same for you and Chels after that. That's why you agreed to compromise your morals and jump through hoops to try and earn her trust again. This brings me to the hairbrush saga. Remember the hairbrush? The one Willow the ex-prostitute used to frame Chelsea for the fire at Bo and Hope's house? The fire that Willow herself set after being rejected by Sean Douglas? You stole that brush so that Chelsea wouldn't be charged with the crime. It was illegal but it was admirable, too. The same cannot be said about your confrontation with Willow on the beach. You struggled. Willow fell and hit her head. She (and her unborn baby!) died instantly. What a mess. It became harder to defend you to fellow viewers at this point. You were something of a trainwreck. 

Here's the thing, though. Chelsea was a monster before she met you. The show put you two together so she could have a redemption arc at your expense. The more you screwed up the better she looked by comparison. And here's another thing (maybe the most important thing of all): all the mistakes you made were the result of your misguided efforts to make others love you. You never intended to hurt anybody. You just didn't want to be alone. That resonated with me. Big time. You were never a villain. To me you were a deeply flawed, tragic hero.

The show subjected you to further insults as you continued to fight for Chelsea and her love. Do you remember the trip to Vegas, when Jerry Springer acted as your gambling guru, and then you married a random stranger named China Lee and she split but saddled you with two kids? I don't blame you if you don't remember. You had pretty significant head trauma at the time. Not that Chelsea or anyone else noticed. Can you imagine a character like EJ or Lucas or Brady being saddled with even one of your crackpot storylines? I can't imagine any of them coming through something so humiliating with their dignity intact. But you did. And as often as you made mistakes you did a lot of stuff that was truly selfless and heroic. No one in Salem seems to remember any of the good stuff. Except for Kayla, who made a mention of you finding the antidote that saved her when she'd been poisoned. No one talks about how you fostered Artemis and Demarquette, those kids you picked up in Vegas, and eventually reunited them with their real parents. Or how you saved a pregnant Sami from a bomb planted in a bouquet of flowers. Or how you took a bullet for Melanie in Paris. This was one of your final acts of heroism but it also proved to be your downfall. 

How were you to know you'd get hooked on pain pills, go off your head and become obsessed with Melanie (and, let's be honest, she was only ever Chelsea-lite; you and your bad girl fixation). Sure, you stabbed her father, Trent, in the back and killed him but, in your defense, he was harassing her at the time. I'm sure, in your drug-addled state, you believed you were saving her life. And Trent was scum. Everyone in town had a reason to want him dead. That doesn't mean you should have let Caroline take the fall for it, or tried to gaslight Melanie into believing she'd done it herself. Not gonna lie, that was bad. But no worse, really, than what most characters on the show have done at one point or another. I had hoped you'd develop Dissociative Identity Disorder, like your mother, Jessica, and get a great big, juicy, angsty mental illness/therapy story. You would have rocked the hell out of that. Instead you got a prison sentence and, in January of 2009, you exited the show. I was heartbroken. For weeks. Even though you are not real I hated the idea of you withering away in some prison cell. I stopped watching Days of Our Lives in protest. I turned my back on Salem, convinced the show would never have the good sense to bring you back. And then, in May of 2012, the unthinkable occurred. Word came down that you were returning to the show. I'd never allowed myself to believe it was a possibility. I couldn't have been happier.

At first it was great. You were older, more subdued and brooding, but that was all to be expected. You were still my Nick. My Nick! Back in Salem. For the first several days I could barely wrap my head around it. There you were, working at the Brady Pub, bonding with the adorable Gabi and going out of your way to look out for her even though she'd made some terrible mistakes. Another bad girl. Some things never change, do they? And then it all went to hell. It was revealed that you were homophobic. When Gabi turned up pregnant after a one night stand with your cousin Will, who happens to be gay, you showed your true colors. You married Gabi and blackmailed Will into waiving his parental rights. You started spouting off nonsense about God and the Bible and what's right and wrong. You were so smug and arrogant. You sounded like an idiot. And you were filled with hate. 

I could always overlook your shortcomings but this was finally too much for me. This was not you. I thought about the years you'd spent in prison. I was certainly not alone in thinking you had been subjected to all sorts of horrible mistreatment at the hands of your fellow inmates. But it took forever for this to come to light. And in the interim I admit, with shame, that I lost my patience with you. I even tuned out for a few days. I couldn't stand to have my favorite twisted into something so unrecognizable. But I came back. I couldn't stay away. And I even began to enjoy you as a villain. You weren't the Nick I fell in love with but maybe you didn't need to be. Maybe, if I didn't love this new you, I could at least find him amusing, in a twisted way. And I did. I never condoned your homophobic antics but I liked seeing you stick it to certain characters. Salem is populated with hypocrites. You really didn't look like such a monster next to some of them. And you were still smart. There was something endearing about your tenacity and your single-mindedness when it came to Gabi and her baby. You tried so hard to construct a perfect, make-believe life for yourself. You were sort of like Gatsby with his green light. Doomed to fail. But I have a soft spot for underdogs.

Then, after months of speculation, we got the big reveal. You were raped and beaten in prison by a fellow inmate. Repeatedly. At your worst I didn't think this explanation would be enough to excuse your actions. And maybe it isn't. But it explains them. And based on what you told Maggie yesterday you've known all along that what you were doing to Will was wrong. I didn't recognize my beloved Nick Fallon during this storyline but it sounds like you didn't recognize yourself, either. Now that the truth has come to light it all makes sense to me. And yesterday, for the first time since January of '09, I caught a glimpse of the old Nick Fallon. The real Nick Fallon. My Nick Fallon. 

Welcome back, sweet pea. I don't have words for how much I've missed you. And I can never properly express why you mean so much to me. I'm not even sure I understand it myself. But I'm sorry for what's happened to you. And I'm sorry I gave up on you, even if it was only for a few days. That won't happen again. No matter what happens I am in your corner. Always. 

PS - Your portrayer, Blake Berris, is to be commended for bringing you to such brilliant life. As are all the writers who have helped, over the years, to make you real. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We Need to Talk About Hannibal

I am, at present, experiencing a blinding level of love for NBC's Hannibal, a moody, unsettling, glorious smorgasbord of a show that has eclipsed everything else that I am currently watching. The colors, the sets, the costumes, the writing and the actors are all incredible. It's so visually sumptuous and emotionally engaging that I want to gobble it up. I don't watch a lot of network television but I would if more of it looked and felt like this. While it may not be as groundbreaking as Twin Peaks was when it debuted in 1990 there's something about Hannibal that reminds me of the earlier show; it's dreamy and arty and breaks with prescribed conventions for what mainstream television ought to be. It doesn't even seem to be aware of those conventions. It just turns up each week, smack-dab in the middle of the primetime lineup, and does its own sweet, strange thing.

To date author Thomas Harris has written four books that feature the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He first appeared in Red Dragon and reappeared in its two sequels, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. A fourth book, the prequel Hannibal Rising, explored his early years. I will confess that I have never read any of these novels (though I just started Red Dragon) and my knowledge of "Hannibal the Cannibal" and his universe comes entirely from the movie adaptations. I am most familiar with The Silence of the Lambs, which I have seen more times than I can remember. The premise, FBI trainee Clarice Starling enlists the incarcerated Lecter to help her capture another serial killer, is intriguing in and of itself but what makes the story truly special is the relationship that develops between these two characters. Lecter offers his help but only if Clarice will tell him personal information about herself, specifically painful personal memories from her past. And while it would be easy to assume Lecter's doing this simply to amuse himself at Starling's expense I want to believe there's more going on than just cruel mind games. Lecter seems to admire Clarice for her tenacity and her bravery. She's willing to lay bare her soul to a monster if it means she can save an innocent woman from being killed. For her part Clarice seems to respect Lecter, or at least the parts of him that appear to be cultured and thoughtful. They are both outsiders, albeit in very different ways, but perhaps that's all they need to connect on some level with each other. It's a stretch to read romantic love into their exchanges but I can't help but think it's there, bristling beneath the surface. I know the novel Hannibal concludes with the pair as lovers but, until I read it for myself, their story works better for me if they remain unrequited.

Before Lecter ever crossed paths with Clarice Starling, however, he matched minds with FBI profiler Will Graham in Red Dragon. Graham is the man who captured Lecter, and was nearly killed by him in the process. While they can each acknowledge the other's brilliance their relationship is tempered by Graham's fear of Lecter and Lecter's resentment towards (and desire for revenge against) Graham, the man who took away his freedom and forced him to live an uncivilized life inside a tiny cell.

Chronologically, the NBC series Hannibal takes place in the space between Hannibal Rising and Red Dragon. It introduces us to Will Graham, a man with an inscrutable mind. Graham can track down evil precisely because he can walk so easily in its shoes. He could be an incredible FBI agent save for the fact that he's not psychologically stable enough to pass the bureau's screening tests. Instead he's given a teaching position at the FBI Academy, where his insights can, hopefully, help others catch the most elusive criminals. That is until Jack Crawford, Agent-in-Charge of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, implores him to help on a specific case. Eventually Crawford convinces Graham to work for him as a Special Investigator on a regular basis, despite Graham's misgivings and those of his friend and colleague, psychiatry professor and FBI consultant Alana Bloom. Although Graham's thought processes are a boon to the FBI the work he's asked to do for them takes a terrible toll on his emotional well-being. It's easy for Graham to look at a crime scene and imagine himself as the killer but it's much more difficult for him to come back to himself each time. Violent thoughts and violent acts plaque his dreams and the more he subjects himself to them the more inept he is at shutting them out. 

Enter Hannibal Lecter: Brilliant forensic psychiatrist, upstanding member of the community, friend and mentor to Alana Bloom, secret sadist who delights in torturing and eating his victims. Crawford brings him into the fold to asses Graham's mental stability. Lecter seems fascinated by Graham, whom he describes to Crawford as possessing "pure empathy." It's his ability to feel so acutely what others are feeling that allows Graham to place himself so easily inside the headspace of even the most confounding and malignant criminal minds. So it makes sense that Lecter, a man who, quite possibly, feels nothing for anyone other than himself, would find someone like Graham intriguing. Graham, a socially inept man who self-identifies as possessing traits akin to people diagnosed with autism or Asperger's, initially finds Lecter off-putting and uninteresting. That changes, however, as they spend more time together. With each subsequent episode of Hannibal Graham appears more at ease around Dr. Lecter. At this point I would say Graham considers him a friend. Graham begins checking in with Lecter regularly as a patient, despite the fact that he doesn't really believe therapy "works on him." Lecter becomes the one person Graham can talk to about the toll the work he's doing with Crawford takes on his psyche. Hannibal is meant to be the lifeline that brings Will back when his mind goes to dark places. Privately, the good doctor seems to have his own sinister agenda.

I want to write about all the reasons I love this show and I honestly don't know where to start. I guess if I begin at the beginning the first thing I fell in love with was Will Graham. I have seen both of his big screen incarnations, in Manhunter and Red Dragon, but until this series the character never resonated with me the way that Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling did. I don't feel like I ever really understood the burden of Graham's "gift" before now. He can let the bad in but he cannot shut it out. How could he feel anything but an overwhelming sense of fear every time he slips into the mind of a killer he's trying to catch? What if he begins to like the idea of killing? What if, in trying to catch the monsters, he becomes one himself? This is a man who bristles at the idea of being sociable, to the degree that he can barely make eye contact with other people, but who seems to long for connection. What must it be like to be so attuned to the feelings of others but also so closed off from everyone around you? I love the scene in the first episode where he earns the trust of a stray dog he sees running down the road. He takes the dog home, cleans him up, names him "Winston," and introduces him to the other six strays he's rescued. It's the closest the character comes to appearing happy and at ease within his own skin. The Will Graham of Hannibal, played by the wonderfully gifted Hugh Dancy, is so raw and fragile that, at times, it's hard for me to watch him. But he's so compelling and endearing that I cannot look away.

Dancy's Will has a perfect foil in Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal. They are, by all outward appearances, polar opposites. Will is nervous, uncomfortable and awkward while Hannibal is calm, cool and assured. Will is rumpled and unkempt but Hannibal is always immaculately dressed (in some of the most stunning suits I've ever seen) and immpeccably well-groomed. Will's face betrays every emotion he feels but Hannibal's face is still and placid as a mask. Hannibal exudes confidence, to the point where you can't imagine he's ever had to second-guess himself in his life. Hannibal is unflappable. Nothing phases him. Nothing frightens him. Will all but vibrates with fear. Mikkelsen has stated in interviews that he plays Hannibal as Lucifer moving amongst mortals and that is exactly how he appears. Hannibal is duplicitous and wicked. He's insinuating himself into Will's life and his work in order to undermine both and yet there's something about him that is so irresistible. I don't want Hannibal to succeed in orchestrating Will Graham's downfall... but I don't necessarily want him to fail, either.

Anthony Hopkins performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is iconic and it deserves to be. Hopkins is brilliant in the role. He is terrifyingly cruel and barbaric but also refined, well-mannered and enormously intelligent. Does he feel anything for anyone other than himself? Is he even capable of such a thing? When I watch The Silence of the Lambs I always get the sense that he feels something genuine for Clarice. I have a harder time figuring out if Mikkelsen's Lecter feels anything for any of his friends or colleagues. In last week's episode he attended a charity benefit and was visibly moved by an opera singer's exquisite solo. I am very curious to see if he will exhibit the same level of emotion in regard to any of the other characters on the show. I applaud Mikkelsen for taking on a character like Lecter, who is so celebrated and so often associated with Hopkins, and making him entirely his own dark, seductive creation. 

The Graham / Lecter relationship would be enough, on its own, to hold my interest each week. It's icing on the cake that all the other characters on Hannibal are fantastic as well. Lawrence Fishburne's Jack Crawford is stellar. He's such an authoritative and commanding presence. If Hannibal is the devil on Will Graham's shoulder, tempting him, on some subconscious level, to give in to his darker urges and impulses, then Crawford is the voice of reason and right, imploring Will to use his talent for the greater good. That's not to say that Crawford is a saint. While I appreciate his passion for justice it frustrates me to see him treat Will as a means to an end. I believe he cares about his colleague but at times he's also painfully dismissive of the toll his demands take on Will's well-being. Will is fortunate, however, to have a friend like Alana Bloom, who has no self-serving agenda where he's concerned and genuinely cares for him. Caroline Dhavernas plays Bloom with warmth, wit and compassion. She's truly admirable and appealing. Equally appealing is Hettiene Park, who plays Beverly Katz, a crime scene investigator who specializes in fiber analysis. I like that she's sassy and straightforward and that she doesn't treat Will like he's fragile or unstable. She treats him the same way she does everyone else and he seems to appreciate that. I like the other members of the forensic team, too, as well as all the other supporting players. Lara Jean Chorostecki is a hoot as sleazy tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds. She's so underhanded and self-serving and so unrepentant about the trouble she stirs up. I admire her moxie and I think she's really fun to hate. Kacey Rohl is doing a marvelous job as the enigmatic Abigail Hobbs, a serial killer's daughter who is rescued by Will Graham but also orphaned by him in the process. She's the daughter Graham wishes he could have, if only he could take her in as easily as he does his other strays. Abigail, however, seems more at ease around Hannibal Lecter, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Lecter uses that to his advantage in one nefarious way or another. I enjoy all the characters on Hannibal because I feel like they have been so meticulously crafted and developed. The level of care given to each one is wonderful. I buy them as complex beings with rich interior lives. To me they feel real.

Even though the characters feel real to me everything else about Hannibal feels slightly off, but in the best possible way. This makes sense because so much of the show is presented from the point of view of Will Graham, a man whose tenuous grasp on reality seems to further deteriorate as the series progresses. Each week Graham looks a little more haggard. He can barely sleep at night and when he does he is tormented by strange and terrible dreams. His sleeplessness forces his dreams into his waking world. I love the giant, feathered stag that frequently appears to Graham when he's alone. It stalks him in his dreams but also shuffles by sometimes as a hallucination while he's awake. Is it a harbinger or an invitation? I have no idea but it's a great, haunting image.

From an aesthetic standpoint Hannibal is peerless. I usually miss half the dialogue the first go around because I'm so distracted by the arresting visual flair of the show. Even the most gruesome crime scenes are beautiful because they are so elegantly and artistically staged. I love that so much emphasis is placed on the beauty of the meals that Hannibal prepares. Even though I know he's using his victims to feed his unsuspecting friends I can't help but salivate when I see him cooking.  The attention to detail on this show is incredible. I find myself revisiting every episode and picking up something new each time I watch.

So much has been made about the amount of violence and gore the audience sees on Hannibal. It's been criticized for being too graphic for network television. Since I watch next to nothing on network TV I cannot speak to the level of violence on this show in comparison to other network programming. I do not think the graphic content on Hannibal is excessive given the nature of the show. I have a hard time even thinking of Hannibal as a crime show because the crimes are mostly just excuses to get the characters talking about themselves or to explore particular relationships between different characters. Anyone who watches Hannibal and sees only ugliness and brutality should look closer. To me the show is deeply human. It is not violence for the sake of violence or mindless torture porn. It is emotionally, intellectually and artistically satisfying. 

Hannibal changes some of the established facts of the Harris series but it feels faithful, in spirit, to what I've seen on the big screen. Creator Bryan Fuller has already stated that later seasons will cover the same period of time already covered in Red Dragon and its sequels. I, for one, would love to see this show's take on those stories. Frankly, at this point, I will feel very cheated if I don't get to see them. Hannibal is absolutely everything I want in a television series and I applaud NBC for taking a chance on something this unconventional and unique. I hope it sticks around for a very long time.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Roger Joseph Ebert (1942-2013)

When I was younger I hated film criticism. It frustrated me that people would base their decision to see a particular movie solely on what a critic had to say about it, so I grew to think of critics as uninspired losers who haughtily discouraged viewers from seeing certain films. It seemed very unfair that a person, who couldn't be bothered to make movies himself, could affect the livelihood of people who devoted their lives to actually making movies. Of course I realize, in hindsight, that I was misinformed and that film criticism can just as often be used to champion the cinema and to direct viewers to movies they might otherwise overlook. And on rare occasions, when it is undertaken by a particularly skilled and brilliant writer, film criticism can also become a form of art in its own right.

Despite my aversion to film criticism I did, at times, tune into Siskel & Ebert. They were never appointment television for me but they were wildly popular and hard to overlook. If they rated a movie I wanted to see "Two Thumbs Up" I'll admit I was pleased but I didn't live by their ratings. It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I was encouraged, by more than one fellow film-lover, to actually read Roger Ebert's reviews. He's the only critic I've ever read regularly. There are others that I check out on occasion and enjoy but Ebert's reviews always seemed just a little bit more special. One of the things I admired about his writing was his ability to understand that most, if not all, movies have an intended audience and to frame his reviews, to a degree, with that audience in mind. A lesser critic will pan a movie simply because it doesn't work for him as a viewer but that kind of personal insight does not, in and of itself, make for a particularly enlightening assessment of a movie's worth or value. Ebert, it seemed, could look at a movie and not only say why he loved it or hated it but why other people might also love or hate it. His reviews were at once personal and universal. Plus he was witty and compassionate and he absolutely adored movies. His love for cinema, and for life, was apparent to anyone who read him regularly because it simply emanated from his words.

There is a reason that I am reluctant to call my movie and television writing criticism: the reason is Roger Ebert. I wish I knew how to write about movies the way that he did. But I don't. I'm too much in my own head and too wrapped up in my own personal tastes. That is why my posts are opinion pieces, little more than journal entries, and his are true criticism. Criticism done so well that it becomes a form of art.

In 2006 cancer robbed Roger Ebert of a portion of his lower jaw as well as his ability to speak, eat and drink. Rather than allow this to silence him Ebert took to the Internet. He continued to watch and review movies; he also blogged, amassed an enormous following on twitter and penned an autobiography. His illness seemed to spur him on instead of slow him down. I had admired his writing for several years but now I was in awe of the man himself. He took on near-mythic proportions in my mind. I thought he was a super-hero. And that is why I was so stunned by his death last week. He'd suffered setbacks before. Setbacks that would destroy someone like myself. He'd met every challenge that had been hurled at him with courage and grace. I frankly didn't think I needed to worry about him. I took it for granted that he would go on, sharing his brilliant cinematic insights, indefinitely. I am devastated that we will no longer know his thoughts on the movies being made. It is a tremendous loss and I will miss him so much.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I Wanna Tell You About a Show...

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Ryman and I am still reeling from the experience. I have been an admirer of Cave's since the mid-nineties when I was first introduced to his music. While I'm not as familiar with his more recent output (except for his exquisite work with Warren Ellis on the score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) I continue to adore the stuff I listened to in college. There's a vivid brutality to many of his lyrics, which are oftentimes shot through with Old Testament imagery, but he is equally skilled at crafting achingly beautiful love songs. He has a deep, sonorous voice capable of crooning out a ballad or snarling through a raucous tale of debauchery and depravity. There's a feral, animalistic side to him but it is complimented but a side that is thoughtful, clever and deeply literate. There's something entirely timeless and otherworldly about the persona he projects. Sometimes sinister, sometimes gentle and almost always seductive.

I had high expectations going into Saturday's show even though I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I can honestly say that the intensity Cave brought to this concert was astonishing. The experience was overwhelming and cathartic and Cave is an incredible showman. He's built like a scarecrow and he is absolutely the sexiest beast I have ever seen. Strutting back and forth across the stage in a dark suit that accentuated his slim, long-limbed build (seriously, the man is all elbows and knees) he reminded me of the Fiddle Man in the short film Hannah and the Dog Ghost, a character that has stayed in my mind since my Montessori school days. There's something he taps into that's archetypal and universal, like something I've always been aware of peripherally but couldn't quite comprehend in the waking world. Something that both terrifies and beguiles.

Watching concert footage online does not provide an adequate approximation of what the live Nick Cave experience is like. There was this wild, witchy kind of energy in the auditorium for the entire show. And it was bolstered by the way that Cave engaged with his audience. I watched, awestruck, from the balcony as he stretched his long arms out into the crowd and beckoned them to come closer. At one point he plucked a woman out of her seat and pulled her to the edge of the stage so he could crouch down and caress her hair while he sang. It was sexually charged but also protective, like a father comforting his child or a pastor tending to a wayward member of his flock (he's great at stage banter, too, and one of the reasons his over-the-top persona works so well is because you know he doesn't always take himself seriously). Given the Ryman's history one could not ask for a better venue in which to see an artist like this. I have never been to a show where the performer, the setting and the crowd all seemed to be in perfect accord. Everything just came together beautifully. I feel honored that I was there to witness it.