A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: January, 2014

“Die, Monster, Die!” (1965)

"Die, Monster, Die!" poster

Some days, I yearn for when pop culture hadn’t plunged its cheapening claws into H.P. Lovecraft. Before Cthulhu became a joke and go-to reference for meatheads to show they, like, know literature and stuff, folks didn’t quite know what to make of the author. Even American International Pictures, the first studio to try adapting Lovecraft’s works for the screen, held him in a sense of awe, however primitive those initial productions may strike modern viewers. So how did filmmakers in an age of less technological means than are available know visualize a story that was intentionally written to defy description? In Die, Monster, Die!‘s case, the answer is by not following Lovecraft’s game plan that closely, condensing an acclaimed tale of unnamable horrors into 80 or so minutes of go-nowhere scenes more maddening than the otherworldly threat they depict.

Summoned by his girlfriend Susan Witley (Suzan Farmer) to her hometown of Arkham, Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) instead confronts a town ruled by superstition. Nobody will so much as even point him in the direction of the old Witley place, which our hero soon finds to be a secluded mansion surrounded by barren wasteland. Susan is pleased to see her beau again, but the same can’t be said of her father Nahum (Boris Karloff), who suggests that Stephen high-tail it out of there as soon as he can. Consumed with curiosity, Stephen can’t help but stick around and investigate what it is about the Witley estate that has gripped the populace in fear. What he uncovers is a secret that’s literally poisoned the family for generations, prompting him to expose the whole truth and rescue Susan from its insidious reach before it’s too late.

Die, Monster, Die! was based upon “The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft’s most liked stories (as well as his own personal favorite). I haven’t read it (a problem that can unfortunately be applied to the man’s writing at large), but I have it on good authority from friends and Wikipedia that this movie uses the general idea of the piece but not much else. This didn’t seem so bad at first; the film arrived two years after American International made an exemplary adaptation with The Haunted Palace, which dipped its big toe in the Lovecraftian horror pool and hinted at the possibility of what other nasty stuff laid in wait in the dark. Alas, while director Daniel Haller (who’d later helm the mildly better screen version of The Dunwich Horror) tries going for an oppressive atmosphere that would do old H.P. proud, his payoff is weak as can be, and the narrative leading up to it is riddled with slow patches galore. For a movie about blowing the lid on a force unlike mankind has ever witnessed, this is really monotonous stuff, and either the characters don’t have a lick of sense in them, or they’ve led such jaded lives that not even the sight of glowing rocks of doom and sentient plantlife can prompt them into panic mode.

I know it’d take twenty years for Stuart Gordon to seize the gooiest special effects the movies had to offer to properly bring Lovecraft’s imagination to life, but Die, Monster, Die! could have easily tried harder. Its goal is to find horror in that gray area in between science and superstition, but the more the curtain is peeled away, the more the giggles begin to outnumber the gasps. Once the big Witley secret is revealed, it’s met with more than anything else confusion, over exactly how long this evil’s been afoot and over how characters who weren’t aware of it could have missed so many red alarms. Speaking of our protagonists, I know Adams’ Reinhart is supposed to stick out like a sore thumb — the lone voice of reason in an easily-spooked town — but his thick New England accent is too much; it’s hard to remain suitably freaked out when you expect him to tell Karloff that he’s gonna sleep with the fishes. Poor Boris looks like he’s on death’s doorstep (he would pass on four years later), which is weirdly effective for his character’s look but raises more concern for his actual well-being than for Nahum’s foreboding warnings.

Newly-released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory, Die, Monster, Die! is notable as one of cinema’s first attempts to wrap its head around Lovecraft, and that’s pretty much it. It plods along too slowly and offers too few rewards for viewers to find the energy to even jest at its expense, let alone try to be creeped out by the thing. Die, Monster, Die! is simply that big of a bore, and when riffing on it can’t get you through, you know you’re screwed.

“Triad Underworld” (2004)

"Triad Underworld" poster

The best crime movies tend to deflect as much attention away from the misdeeds of their characters as possible. Rather than revel in someone’s abhorrent behavior and expect us to root for them because they’re on the poster, films of greater foresight focus on more psychological implications. What drives one to lead a larcenous life? Did all their morals vanish with their first pull of the trigger? Hong Kong has long been a mother lode for stories like these, from A Better Tomorrow to Infernal Affairs, and then some. Upon first glance, Triad Underworld seems like a hastily-assembled jab at hitching a ride on the coattails of such titles, with its cheap look and a plot that has some difficulty getting its shit together. But all the initial confusion pays off in unexpected ways, the end result defying its crude presentation to deliver an effectively somber example of its chosen genre.

Mr. Hung (Andy Lau) is a man of many enemies. Being a high-ranking mob boss, threats on his life are par for the course, but things have changed now. Hung has just become a first-time father, and with both his reputation and family to protect, he’s urged to flee the country by his right-hand man, Lefty (Jacky Cheung). The rumors of a new hired gun en route to do him in are even more of an incentive to take off, but Hung isn’t about to surrender his power just yet, especially to a hothead like Lefty. Meanwhile, Yik (Shawn Yue) is shown to be rising through the underworld’s ranks himself, having been picked by his superiors to carry out a particular assassination. Hung may be on his way out, but Yik is all in, diving headfirst into a night that will shape his destiny forever.

Often bundled together with Johnnie To’s unrelated Election movies here in the States, Triad Underworld is a fine enough film to deserve being counted in their company. Saying precisely why requires nimbly navigating a field of eggshells, as a single revelation in the final scenes is what makes so much of the flick click. Some might call it unfair to enjoy so much of a picture almost solely due to a last-act twist (considering how overall messy the narrative leading up to it is), but it makes you take a second look and fills in enough holes to not be worth discarding. Without divulging anything vital, it comes to a poignant conclusion about the irony of a life of crime, of how lonely one becomes when they’ve an army of thugs at their beck and call. Though there is blood shed here, it’s not what interests director Wong Ching-Po, who provides the meat of the film in conversations about power struggles and why some covet being the big boss when death will be forever peering over your shoulder.

Though its photography may strike you as low-rent at first, it actually does a service to Triad Underworld in the long run. It hits home the unglamorous tone the filmmakers are shooting for, allowing not a hint of romance to seep into the production. Being frugal doesn’t always work out to its benefit (just check out those horrible, digitally-inserted head wounds), but the movie’s introspective nature shines through and makes you forget about the requisite action being kept to a minimum. Why these characters do what they do is almost all the suspense one requires, and with an exception or two, Triad Underworld‘s cast holds your attention admirably. Somebody definitely favored Lau, who gets the bulk of the screen time and best dialogue to work with. But his performance here really is great stuff, perfectly playing a consummate cool customer who commands a room even at his most unassuming. Yue is a bit less fortunate as Yik, whose purpose eventually becomes clear but only after experiencing an insubstantial arc and substituting an awful lot of glowering for expressing his embittered psyche.

While falling short of a John Woo joint’s action and the breathless suspense Johnnie To is a master at conjuring, Triad Underworld is a crime saga that sits upon a pretty sturdy foundation. It needs little to get its point across, packing just enough monologues, double-crosses, and spilled blood to make a good impression. Triad Underworld won’t change how you see the genre, but it will settle you down for a sound story with plenty of dramatic punch.

“Blackfish” (2013)

"Blackfish" poster

My childhood had no shortage of media aimed at whipping my demographic into ecocentricity. But the mania never really took, probably because what the suits saw as a spike in environmental awareness was actually kids going apeshit over Robin Williams as a rapping bat. Not even living in the age of Free Willy could get me jazzed about the inevitable trip to SeaWorld, which, according to the chilling new documentary Blackfish, is guilty of far worse than making us wish we were at Space Mountain instead. To say the movie is eye-opening is an understatement, and though I imagine many will accuse it of shaming or shocking audience into siding with it, I’m honestly not sure I’d want to meet the person who walks away from this unmoved.

In 2010, tragedy befell Orlando’s popular SeaWorld attraction. Tilikum, the park’s prized killer whale (and the largest in captivity), claimed the life of trainer Dawn Brancheau, in a horrible incident that the powers that be quickly tried to spin as the cause of human error. But a spot of digging into Tilikum’s past reveals a history of death that came to be due to the practices of parks like those in which he’s spent almost his entire life. From the hunts that broke up orca pods to the inadequate tanks they were stored in when they weren’t performing, it was only a matter of time before these majestic and amazingly intelligent creatures would eventually fight back after years of such mistreatment. But worst yet was not only SeaWorld’s knowledge of these events but the cover-ups that followed, their attempts to deflect blame onto innocents and away from the policies that allow this vicious circle to continue.

Blackfish is not the film to hit up for a fair and balanced view on its subject. This is an angry beast, an uneasy watch that presents the hard facts but offers few direct answers as to how to incite change. It simply recounts the terrible timeline that led to Brancheau’s demise and infuriatingly poses the question of why no one changed anything sooner. The number of talking heads (consisting mostly of former trainers) speaking ill of the “animals for entertainment” enterprise outweigh those who have faith that establishments like SeaWorld could still be forces for good. Blackfish features little in the way of opposing mindsets (SeaWorld declined to be interviewed), but any way you slice it, removing those like Tilikum from the wild to wave and splash water at kids is far removed from the notion of animal conservation that a rebuttal might claim in order to save face. The movie is pure expose from start to finish, and if someone doesn’t leave pissed off, it hasn’t done its job.

Certainly, Blackfish has an agenda, but it’s one that’s hard to argue against. One cannot see the image of captive orcas — with their dorsal fins collapsed, movements sluggish, and living quarters cramped — contrasted against that of their natural beauty in the wild and think that the former is okay. The sadness of the whole affair really runs deep, especially after we witness the insulting behavior of SeaWorld, whose claims of Brancheau’s death being her own doing come to conflict with witness testimony. Yes, Blackfish could have provided some light at the end of its gloomy tunnel, but it’s as dark as it is because it views its audience as reasonable human beings who should know what steps to take next. It can be a bleak piece of work, but the imparted information is compelling enough on its own to prompt audiences into taking action.

A potent marriage of horrifying facts with beautiful imagery, Blackfish makes for one of 2013’s most startling pictures. Though the near-complete absence of rosiness and levity will be a turn-off to many, the good that will undoubtedly be inspired by learning the harsh reality behind SeaWorld’s wholesome façade will be worth it in the long run. Blackfish sets out to boil the blood, and be you an animal lover or not, it’ll only be a few minutes before yours starts to percolate.

“Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich” (1958)

"Windjammer" poster

I suspect that watching a Cinerama presentation in the comfort of one’s home is akin to seeing IMAX projected on a toenail. Not even my trusty 32-incher can do justice to their scope, a serious drawback considering why these films even exist at all. They weren’t just made to be pretty; they were marketed as journeys, sense-consuming expeditions you simply had to abandon your televisions and microwaved meals to experience. Bigness is basically all these flicks had, for once you take that away, all that remains is the feeling of someone making an impossibly big deal out of their vacation videos. Such is what comes of Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich, a listless travelogue that’s not only shockingly low on cultural insight but, ironically, on visual appeal to boot.

To some, it’s a rite of passage. To others, it’s a way to see the world. But whatever the reason may be, hundreds of boys flock every year to Oslo in hopes of serving aboard the Christian Radich. The vessel is due to set out on its annual training cruise, during which only fifty applicants will be chosen to join the crew and learn those skills necessary for surviving on the high seas. But those lucky lads will be in for the adventure of a lifetime, one that will take them from port to port and have them bear witness to all the incredible sights this old planet has to offer. In fact, it’s that last idea in which this film finds itself most preoccupied, eager to plunge viewers into a basket sled ride in Madeira and tour a Caribbean sugar plantation. Once afforded to only a select few, the masses can now partake in this rare look at life themselves, without ever having to leave terra firma behind.

Windjammer was the sole product of would-be Cinerama competitor “Cinemiracle,” a process that differed only in fairly minute ways. Like its more popular rival, Cinemiracle used three separate projectors to cast their respective reels on a designated portion of a massive, curved screen. The desired effect was to totally dominate the viewer’s vision and simulate the experience of being wherever the people in the movie were. It was a technologically-bold gimmick, but it was a gimmick nonetheless, one whose charms wore thin fast when something like Windjammer chose to trade completely on its looks. The intent with Windjammer was to, presumably, supply a first-hand account of living on the seas, yet it’s this aspect with which the film ultimately finds itself phenomenally bored. There’s almost nothing in the way of an interesting human element, a story or fascinating figure to latch onto and vicariously absorb the thrill of travel through. Once in a blue moon, we cut to either one sailor who’s lugged his piano onboard or to some discussion on how this is the captain’s final voyage, yet these anecdotes are paid so little mind, their climactic payoff carries not a hint of satisfaction with it.

Also not helping a hell of a lot is that Windjammer just doesn’t look very good. I don’t blame the folks at Flicker Alley, who restored this and a number of Cinerama-related titles in pristine, Blu-ray editions but rather the original brain trust itself. There’s a muddiness that pervades the entire print, one that’s understandable when entrenched within the briny bowels of the Christian Radich but inexcusable when we head out on land. Windjammer has no shortage of cool stuff to take in, but the muted color scheme — coupled with an overall inability to replicate the “you are there” feel as palpably as Cinerama did — only rips you right out of the action. It’s like seeing 3D with the lenses caked in rubber cement, so when the cheery narrator’s tales of chasing down the ship’s dog lose their luster, you’re left without even the fact that it probably looked like a million bucks when blown up to console you.

Not even in a historical context was I able to enjoy or appreciate Windjammer to any degree. It’s just a massively uninvolving picture, regardless of how much it likes to raise a fuss about bringing that damned piano on the ship for the twentieth time. Windjammer is a chore, leaving one in the sort of funk that requires more than terrible, sea-related puns about the film’s badness to be cured.

“You’re Next” (2013)

"You're Next" poster

Satirical horror cinema has come a long way since the Scream days. Wes Craven’s 1996 smash was a revelation and is still fun to watch, but its subtlety has aged about as well as the landline. Seeing it explicitly declare its observations (“Hey, this is just like a horror movie, huh?!”) induces more cringes year after year, with the successive contenders that it inspired blurring genre lines to a much smoother effect. It’s in these ranks that Adam Wingard’s You’re Next aspires to be counted, committing much time to looking, feeling, and sounding like something with the horror fan’s heart in mind. But when it comes to its commentary, the best the film can muster are a few formulaic deviations so mild, it might’ve been better served simply giving into the conventions with which it half-heartedly plays around.

The most dysfunctional clan Wes Anderson never wrote about is gathering for their parents’ anniversary at a secluded country manor. Meek college prof Crispian (AJ Bowen) is looked upon as the family disappointment, although with gorgeous Aussie student Erin (Sharni Vinson) on his arm, he can’t complain too much. But the festivities and ensuing shouting matches have barely begun before the house comes under attack by evil forces lurking in the nearby woods. Armed with blades and crossbows, a gang of killers clad in animal masks lay siege to the mansion, picking off one bickering relative after the other. But the one thing they didn’t count on is Erin, whose background has left her with a set of skills just right for fighting back against her attackers and finding out why they chose this joint in the first place.

You’re Next has been affixed with the “mumblegore” label, in reference to the blasé sense of humor embedded within the movie’s blood spurts and musical stings. It’s an approach I’m not altogether against, a logical direction for horror comedies to take after beginning with Lou Costello bumbling in fear of the Frankenstein monster. Wingard and writer Simon Barrett don’t call attention to their good-natured jesting, which is defined by scenes in which the obligatory masked baddies are shocked to find Erin summarily handing their asses to them. I’m glad You’re Next didn’t feel compelled to make a big deal about it turning the slasher grind on its ear, but its execution is so hands-off and indifferent at times, it’s hard to tell not only what’s being parodied but if there’s any passion behind it at all. As far as I can tell, the “joke” is that Erin is the only sound mind in a house full of nimrods blundering into early graves, although these characters are presented with such apathy, there’s no vicarious satisfaction gleaned from seeing them given a comeuppance for their stupidity (the same goes for the villains).

You get the impression that You’re Next is having fun with both the killers and the victims, but with ultimately little disdain or concern drummed up for either party, it’s difficult to care about what befalls anyone. The film’s humor is of the deadpan sort, though unfocused to the point that I simply couldn’t tell what was supposed to be so damned amusing. The comedy consists of dialogue written with an intentional awkwardness that backfires and only leaves you wondering what everyone’s deal is, as well as more overt moments like two brothers continuing to argue even when one has an arrow sticking out of his back. Nothing elicits more than a smirk, and after a while, you start wondering if it’s because the movie’s too good at resembling a real deal slasher instead of a pseudo-serious spoof. Multiple shots are pulled off to ominous perfection, the practical gore effects are sparse yet pretty effective, and Vinson turns in a truly tough-as-nails performance as a heroine who’s not to be trifled with from the get-go. If it weren’t for the sloppily-integrated gags, I might have had a blast instead of wondering if the script had gone off its meds.

Since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, You’re Next has racked up a thriving fanbase, although the degree to which some folks adore it perplexes me to no end. The film’s good nature and lack of cynicism are obvious, but it’s not as infectiously enjoyable as other low-budget genre contemporaries, too undecided on its endgame for us to enjoy anything it attempts to accomplish. You’re Next already has me feeling like a cranky old codger who just didn’t get it, and as its popularity will most probably gain traction in the years to come, I don’t anticipate my position budging that much.