Friday, October 29, 2010

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I actually wrote two different versions of this article but wasn't happy with either one and decided to merge the two to something approximating what I wanted to convey.

The year is 1992 and David Lynch has just come off of, arguably, two of the most successful years in his career. Twin Peaks was a critics darling, revered as one of the most groundbreaking television shows in recent memory. Concurrently, Wild at Heart (1990) received the coveted Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Then, things started to go wrong. ABC canceled the show after the ratings sharply declined in the second season after the murder of Laura Palmer was solved. Two other shows that Lynch worked on, American Chronicles and On the Air did not even last a full season. The proverbial icing on this rancid cake was the film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), which debuted at Cannes Film Festival in 1992 to a hostile reaction from the audience and received an unholy critical ass-kicking. It went on to commercial and critical failure in the United States. How did Lynch go from media darling to media pariah with overwhelming negative reaction towards Fire Walk With Me from even fans of the show?

Lynch ended the T.V. show with multiple cliff hangers – most significantly, Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was possessed by the evil spirit, BOB (Frank Silva), while his good self was trapped in a supernatural realm known as the Black Lodge. Instead of resolving this storyline (and many others), Lynch decided to make a prequel to the series. The filmmaker remembers, "At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn't get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk." Fire Walk With Me focuses on the murder investigation of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), who was killer BOB's first victim, and with the emphasis on the last seven days of Laura's life.

The 1990s have become known as the age of irony for the horror genre. Self-reflexive humor, as epitomized by the Scream trilogy, replaced formulaic slasher franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street during the 1980s. One of the few films that went against this trend was Fire Walk With Me. Lynch’s film is not usually regarded as a horror film per se, but if looked at closely, does contain many conventions of the genre (i.e. the final girl against the malevolent monster). However, the veteran filmmaker pushes these rules as far as they can possibly be stretched. Film critic Kim Newman observed in his review for Sight and Sound magazine that Lynch’s movie “demonstrates just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 1980s and 1990s has become.”

Right from the opening credits, Lynch establishes that this film will not be like the T.V. series and also it’s horror genre credentials. A television is set to an abstract, white noise image with ominous sounding music provided by Angelo Badalamenti playing over the soundtrack. An axe comes crashing through the T.V. followed immediately by a woman’s piercing scream. This opening sequence establishes the dark, foreboding mood that will permeate the entire film. This also feels like Lynch's statement on the unfair cancellation of his show. It is easy to see why Fire Walk With Me was a shock to some fans of the show. The first third of the film sets up a sharp contrast to the series.

Like the beginning of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971), the events of Fire Walk With Me are set in motion by the murder of a woman. Lynch also presents an inhospitable world: FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) encounter resistance at every step of their investigation. They are given a cryptic briefing by their superior Gordon Cole (David Lynch); they are forced to deal with a belligerent local sheriff and his deputy (when they ask for the dead girl’s ring, the sheriff replies, “We’ve got a phone. It has a little ring.”); and the locals offer little help (“I don’t know shit from shinola!” says a man at the local diner). By and large, the detectives are unable to figure out the identity of the killer. This is certainly a far cry from the upstanding Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) and the friendly townsfolk of Twin Peaks.

One of the criticisms leveled at Fire Walk With Me was the lack of humor. However, the first third of the film is one of the best examples of Lynch's wry, absurdist comedic sensibilities. The first appearance of Agent Desmond has him and several other agents busting a school bus full of crying kids. It is a classic, surreal Lynchian image. Other examples of his dry sense of humor are Sam's estimation of how much the sheriff's office furniture is worth and how Desmond deals with the belligerent deputy. It is not what they say rather how they say it that makes these moments funny.

Donna: Do you think if you were falling in space that you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?

Laura: Faster and faster, and for a long time you wouldn't feel anything, then you'd burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn't help you because they've all gone away.

Once the film goes back to Twin Peaks, the mood becomes noticeably darker and foreboding as the last week of Laura's life plays out. Lynch shows an unflinching depiction of a young woman consumed by drugs, sex and, most harrowingly and disturbing of all, a victim of incest by her father, Leland (Ray Wise) under the guise of being possessed by a malevolent supernatural force known only as BOB.

Twin Peaks is a particularly atmospheric setting with indications that something ominous lurks out in the woods. Laura not only meets her demise among the trees but a grove of trees also serves as an entry point into an otherworldly dimension where the killer resides. The film's most impressive, show-stopping sequence is Laura and Donna's (Moira Kelly) trip to a Canadian roadhouse with two men. This sequence is an intense audio-visual assault on the senses. The entire frame is saturated by a hellish red color scheme, punctuated by a pulsating white strobe light. Over the soundtrack is a deafening bass-heavy song with a rockabilly guitar twang cranked up so loud that the characters have to yell over top of it. This powerful audio-visual combination fully immerses the viewer in an unpredictable setting that echoes the scene at Ben's in Blue Velvet (1986) and the introduction of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart.

Laura Palmer is the final girl archetype but deeply flawed. She is arguably one of Lynch’s most complex and fully realized characterizations. She immerses herself in all of these vices, which distracts from the painful incestuous relationship with her father and BOB’s desire to possess her. The push and pull of these opposing forces are too much for her and this only increases her self-destructive impulses. Sheryl Lee does an incredible job conveying Laura’s overwhelming sadness at the realization that the sweet girl she once was is rapidly disappearing and try as she might there is nothing she can do to stop it. Lee is able to show the different sides of her character. There is the confident, aggressive side that picks up strangers and has sex with them. There is the scared little girl that is dominated by her father. And there is the sweet high school girl whose reserves of inner strength — that she uses to fight off BOB — are gradually being depleted. It is an intricate portrayal that requires Lee to display a staggering range of emotion.

BOB is ostensibly the monster of the film. With his disheveled, unshaven look of a dirty drifter, he is the evil side of Leland and a frightening metaphor for the incestuous relationship between father and daughter. BOB is a demon of some sort, a serial killer who delights in taking on hosts, such as Leland, and using them as instruments of evil and to indulge in his depraved appetites. Kim Newman observed that, “In the monster father figure of Leland/BOB, Lynch has a bogeyman who puts Craven’s Freddy Krueger to shame by bringing into the open incest, abuse and brutality which the Elm Street movies conceal behind MTV surrealism and flip wisecracks.”

There are some truly frightening and unsettling set pieces in Fire Walk With Me. Laura comes home for dinner and her father scolds her for not washing her hands. The scene goes from being one of typical domestic strife to one of unsettling horror when he starts questioning her about a necklace with an intensity that is not the sweet Leland Palmer we know and love from the T.V. series. It is an uncomfortable scene that is beautifully played by Ray Wise who never goes over the top with his performance. The next scene shows Leland getting ready for bed with a menacing look on his face — he is clearly under the thrall of BOB. Then, something happens. It is like something washes over him as his expression shifts to one of sadness and he starts to cry. BOB has left him temporarily and Leland is back in control again but with the knowledge of how badly he treated Laura at dinner. He goes into her room and tells her how much he loves her. It is a touching moment, one of love and compassion, in an otherwise bleak and cruel film. Wise does an incredible job at conveying the subtle shifts of personalities, from the menacing BOB to the sweet Leland and the inner turmoil that exists in his character.

There are little touches, such as the twisted wife (Grace Zabriskie) who is driven crazy by her evil husband a la Cry of the Banshee (1970) where an equally evil husband (played by Vincent Price) also drove his wife insane. There is the truly frightening moment where Laura goes to visit Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen), a kindly shut-in to whom Laura delivers Meals on Wheels. She also confides in him and tries to convey the divided nature of herself and for a brief, startling moment, her evil nature makes itself visible to Harold, shocking both of them.

Even the birth of the film was beset by problems. The T.V. show had only been canceled for a month when it was announced that Lynch would be making a Twin Peaks movie. On July 11, 1991, Ken Scherer, CEO of Lynch/Frost Productions, said that the film was off because Kyle MacLachlan did not want to reprise his role as Agent Cooper. A month later, the actor changed his mind and the film was back on – albeit without cast members Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn due to scheduling conflicts.

In a 1995 interview, Fenn revealed why she really opted out of the film. "I was extremely disappointed in the way the second season got off track. As far as Fire Walk With Me, it was something that I chose not be part of." As a result, her character was cut from the script and Boyle was recast with Moira Kelly (With Honors). MacLachlan also resented what had happened during the second season. "David and Mark were only around for the first series...I think we all felt a little abandoned. So I was fairly resentful when the film, Fire Walk With Me came round." Even though MacLachlan agreed to be in the film, he wanted a smaller role (he only worked for five days on the film), forcing Lynch and co-writer Robert Engels to re-write the screenplay so that Agent Desmond investigated the murder of Teresa Banks instead of Agent Cooper.

To make matters worse, Lynch's creative partner in the series, Mark Frost opted out of the film as well. The relationship between the two men had become strained during the second season when Lynch went off to make Wild at Heart; leaving Frost with what he felt was most of the work on the show. Frost was busy with his directorial debut, Storyville (1992), but one can read between the lines. His absence on Fire Walk With Me was his way of voicing his displeasure with Lynch.

Fire Walk With Me debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992 to a hostile reaction from both audiences and critics. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Lynch's taste for brain-dead grotesque has lost its novelty." Her fellow Times reviewer, Vincent Canby agreed: “It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it, "a morbidly joyless affair.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “In a strange way, Fire Walk With Me is tipped too far toward the dark side. What's missing is an organic vision of goodness. The movie is a true folly-almost nothing in it adds up-yet it isn't jokey and smug like Lynch's last film, Wild at Heart.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "And though the movie ups the TV ante on nudity, language and violence, Lynch's control falters. But if inspiration is lacking, talent is not. Count Lynch down but never out.” The film's editor, Mary Sweeney, commented on why it was on the receiving end of such hostility: "They so badly wanted it to be like the TV show, and it wasn't. It was a David Lynch feature. And people were very angry about it. They felt betrayed."

To this day, Fire Walk With Me remains Lynch’s most maligned and underappreciated film. Fans of the show missed the folksy humor but that is not what the film is about — it is Laura’s last dark days. By paring down many of these elements that made the show endearing to its fanbase, it ended up alienating many of them. The film has aged well and is starting to enjoy a reappraisal of its merits. Sheryl Lee is very proud of it: "I have had so many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot." To his credit, Lynch looks back on his film with no regrets. "I feel bad that Fire Walk With Me did no business and that a lot of people hate the film. I really like the film. But it had a lot of baggage with it.” The director may have upset fans of the show but for fans of his feature film work, Fire Walk With Me is more consistent with their much darker tone. Once the film shifts focus to Laura’s descent into darkness, Lynch is relentless in his depiction of her downward spiral — one of the most harrowing depictions of a person coming apart at the seams. As a result, Fire Walk With Me is one of the best and truly terrifying horror films ever to come out of the 1990s.


Friday, October 22, 2010


Based on Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” Candyman (1992) is one of the more well-known mainstream horror films to openly acknowledge and use urban legends as the basis for its story. When most people think of such things the first ones that come to mind are alligators in the sewer or razor blades hidden in Halloween candy. The one Candyman uses is much more sinister. A young couple are about to have sex. The girl looks into a mirror and says the word, “Candyman” five times. A tall man with a hook instead of his right hand appears and brutally murders her. Urban legends are, as one character puts it, “modern oral folklore. They are the unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society.”

Two graduate students — Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) — are doing research on the Candyman urban legend for a thesis paper at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Helen’s husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) is a professor at the school and teaches a course in urban mythology. Through the course of their research, the two women learn that the residents of a dangerous area in the city known as the Cabrini-Green projects believe that Candyman (Tony Todd) haunts their building. I like that the film shows Helen’s methodical approach to her subject. She interviews several people who have heard of the supposed incidents involving Candyman and she also scans newspaper archives. This all establishes Helen as an intelligent protagonist steeped in the rational. She believes that the Candyman myth is just that.

Helen soon uncovers a news clipping of the mysterious death of one the building’s residents — Ruthie Jean — that may have links to Candyman. She and Bernadette decide to go to Cabrini-Green and check things out for themselves. Helen is driven and has the conviction to brave the dangers of the place to further her research paper so it will have something more than just the same old stories recounted endlessly before. She’s willing to risk potential life and limb to get what she wants. But she’s smart about it. She and Bernadette dress conservatively (they’re even mistaken for plain clothes cops) and are careful not to provoke the gang members that greet them at the building’s entrance. As the film progresses, she becomes obsessed with her work, going back to Cabrini-Green by herself. The deeper Helen investigates the Candyman legend, the more her perception of reality becomes skewed. She starts seeing him in broad daylight. Her life gets more complicated when he frames her for several horrific murders. Helen begins to question her own sanity as her world rapidly unravels before her very eyes.

Candyman opens with a rather apocalyptic image of the Chicago skyline being engulfed by thousands upon thousands of bees and then we hear the ominous deep voice of Candyman saying, “I came for you.” Director Bernard Rose fades to the image of Helen’s face which foreshadows that this horror film is also an interracial love story between her and Candyman, a pretty daring concept back in 1992 which met with some resistance from the studio, according to Rose. The film also touches upon the sexism inherent in the world of academia as one of Trevor’s fellow professors acts condescendingly towards Helen and Bernadette but Helen is defiant and yet also captivated when the professor recounts Candyman’s backstory.

Candyman takes a mainstay of the horror genre — the haunted house — and effectively updates it for a contemporary audience. The Cabrini-Green projects are an imposing structure: an immense concrete monolith covered in graffiti, dirt and trash and crawling with dangerous gangs. This is not a place for a white, upper class academic type to be spending her time and yet Helen makes the perilous journey because she is obsessed by the Candyman legend.

Rose has a strong visual sense. He does not shoot Candyman like a traditional horror film. For example, he uses overhead shots of the city to establish several scenes — it’s a powerful, God’s eye view of the streets and buildings that creates an unsettling mood. Rose presents truly disturbing imagery, from the swarm of bees that engulfs the city in Helen’s dream, to a toilet bowl filled with swarming bees that she finds at Cabrini-Green. This imagery is complemented by Philip Glass’ experimental, elegiac score. It is never overused but instead insinuates itself into the film, lurking in the background.

Candyman stands apart from most other horror films in that Rose spends a lot of time establishing Helen’s character, letting the audience get to know her and thereby empathizing with her when things go horribly wrong. Virginia Madsen is well cast as the smart, strong-willed Helen. She conveys a vulnerability that makes her a sympathetic character and this helps us identify with her. For the film to work, we must be emotionally invested in what happens to her and empathize with her plight. It’s a strong, layered performance that requires her to show a wide range of emotions: the confident grad student to the fearful murder suspect who questions her own sanity. Helen is no damsel in distress but rather a thoughtful, inquisitive person who may be losing touch with reality. Madsen plays a very atypical horror film protagonist and the actress conveys an intelligence and confidence that is refreshing.

The Candyman legend itself is an intriguing one and we are soon as fascinated by it as much as Helen. Its backstory is steeped in cruelty and prejudice, making Candyman a tragic figure and somewhat sympathetic in his own right. He is more than just an anonymous scary monster that must be destroyed. The casting of Tony Todd also helps transform Candyman into a fully realized character. He has the fearsome physical presence with his deep, booming voice and towering figure. Todd manages to convey the tragic nature of his character and this makes Candyman not a conventional monster that must be dispatched outright. He has a clear, understandable motive for why he’s doing what he does in the film.

Xander Berkeley plays another irredeemable jerk. There are early warning signs that Trevor is no good. He flirts with a young female student in his class right in front of Helen and also messes up her research by teaching his urban legends class while she’s gathering data from his students for her thesis. I’m sorry but there is no way a guy like that would cheat on a woman as smart and beautiful as Virginia Madsen. Kasi Lemmons complements Madsen well. They both play smart characters and Bernadette provides a welcome injection of common sense to counterbalance Helen’s obsessive drive.

Bernard Rose got his start directing music videos for Propaganda Films and short films for the Playboy Channel. He shared an agent with author Clive Barker and through him Barker found out that Rose liked several of his short stories, in particular, “The Forbidden.” Barker saw Rose’s film, Paperhouse (1988), enjoyed it and felt that the director could translate his story into a film with “style and believability.” After making Chicago Joe and the Showgirl (1990), Rose met Barker in London, England to talk about adapting the story into a film. They agreed that it should be relocated from Liverpool to the United States because an American studio was planning to back it financially and it would make the film more commercially viable. According to Barker, Rose “took the thematic material in the story and expanded it and turned it into something that was very much his own.”

Rose took the project to Steve Golin, the head of Propaganda Films. Unaware that Rose had not written any screenplays, Golin hired him to write and direct Candyman. The filmmaker wrote the script and only then did Golin find out that he had never written one before. He was angry at Rose and was going to replace him as writer. However, Golin read Rose’s script, liked it and agreed to produce the film. Rose worked on the script for years with Barker supervising the various drafts. Rose actually wrote the part of Helen for his wife Alexandra Pigg to play and Virginia Madsen was going to play Bernadette. However, Pigg got pregnant and was unable to do the film and so Rose asked Madsen to play Helen instead. Casting Candyman was a challenge for the filmmaker who met with resistance from the studio when he wanted to Tony Todd to play the titular character. The actor recalled in an interview:

“I had to do what they call a ‘Personality Test,’ where I had to go to the studio at literally 8 in the morning, in front of a bunch of suits, and display whether I had a personality. So I did my best not to spill the coffee or insult them, and at the end of it, I heard they didn’t think I had a personality. They said, ‘Well, we don’t know if he has personality, but if you believe that he can do the film… Okay… Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Yeah. That’s the guy.’ And then the last hurdle was meeting Virginia Madsen, who’s from the Chicago area, and she just had it in her contract that she had to sign off on me. Then we met, went to lunch, and she said ‘Yes,’ and that was it.”
While working on the script, Rose combined Barker’s short story with two urban legends – the Hook, about a serial killer who murdered people with a hook and Bloody Mary, whose name is to be said in the mirror. Rose decided to set Candyman in Chicago because he had been there once for a film festival and became fascinated with its architecture. Before filming started, he went to the city and did a significant amount of research, talking to people there and learning how they spoke. He felt that it was important not to write “generic-sounding dialogue.” Much of the film was shot in and around the notorious Cabrini-Green, a gang-infested housing project. Rose navigated the gang problem there by hiring many members to play themselves in the film. Madsen had grown up in Chicago but did not want to drive past Cabrini-Green because of its scary reputation. Once she began filming on location there, she found out that most of its inhabitants lived in good homes. However, the place was not without its dangerous moments. Tony Todd recalled, “I tried to come there with no expectations, but I still felt fear. Anybody who didn’t belong there was subject to danger.” At one point, the police told him to watch the rooftops for snipers! For Rose, it was important that they shot on location and included it in the film as an element of social criticism. He said, “how people can be expected to live in squalor, because the housing authority has allowed Cabrini Green to rot instead of trying to maintain it.”

The filmmakers were faced with a dilemma when it came to shoot the scene where Helen is covered with bees. Madsen was extremely allergic to bee venom and the filmmakers had to lie to their insurance company by telling them that the bees being used were so young that they were incapable of stinging her. To avoid being stung, Tony Todd and Madsen were covered with queen bee pheromones so that the insects would be infatuated with them rather than angry. In addition, Rose cleared the set and spent ten minutes putting the actress in a trance! She did the sequence without incident.

Rose consciously wanted to slow the pace of the film down because the “slower and quieter the film became, the more intense it would become.” He also did not want music that would telegraph what would happen next but instead, “just strip the track down to very simple sounds.” He also wanted to “get away from the rape fantasies that one associates with slasher movies. Helen deals with her desires when she summons the Candyman. She’s like a priest who’s always asking for God. But what would happen if God appeared and said, ‘Here I am’? That might be what the priest wants, but it would also drive him mad.”

Candyman had its world premiere at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival, playing on its Midnight Madness line-up. The film went on to enjoy generally positive reviews from film critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Rose has been clever in his use of locations. Just as urban legends are based on the real fears of those who believe in them, so are certain urban locations able to embody fear. Empty apartments in the upper floors of public housing projects are, it is widely believed, occupied by gangs. We perceive a real threat to the women, at the same time they're searching for what they think is an imaginary one.” In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “Rose invests the film with plenty of frightful atmosphere (aided by a Philip Glass score), allowing Madsen to descend into madness at a pace that drags the viewer along, somewhat unwillingly … Madsen is a much better actress than is usually found in such a role.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Ms. Madsen's performance is a lot more enterprising than what the material requires; the same can be said for Mr. Rose's direction.” Empire magazine gave the film its top rating and wrote, “Rose's movie is a triumph on many levels. Not only does it deliver a plethora of visually imaginative, shocking scenes … there's the score by American minimalist composer Philip Glass, which moves from a nursery rhyme tinkle to melancholic, melodic choral histrionics as the true grand guignol erupts.”

However, in his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum felt that the film, “starts out promisingly while the plot is mainly a matter of suggestion, but gradually turns gross and obvious as the meanings become literal and unambiguous.” In her review for USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “Too bad the premise is spoiled by some racially condescending overtones – Madsen comes off as the tenement's great white hope. And once she is drawn into Candyman's world, the story loses some of its edge. But Rose wisely concentrates on scares, not sociology.”

Candyman is a horror film that plays it straight. It refuses to resort to irony and self-reflexivity which would dominate the rest of the 1990s with the rise in popularity of the Scream trilogy and its offspring, like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legends (1998), which knowingly wink at its audience and lets them in on the joke. Candyman is grounded in realism and this makes the more fantastical elements so unsettling. It is also a rare horror film that wrestles with weighty themes such as academic sexism, urban decay, racial tensions and even interracial romance.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

American Psycho

Every time I watch American Psycho (2000) I wonder why Christian Bale doesn’t do more comedies because he is so funny in this film as Patrick Bateman, a pathologically narcissistic Wall Street Yuppie that may or may not be a serial killer. Whether he’s pontificating about the best moisturizers for his skin or shimmying with reckless abandon to “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News, Bale looks like he’s having a blast playing up the more ridiculous aspects of his character which is in sharp contrast to some of the more depraved acts he indulges in during the course of the film.

Based on the controversial 1991 novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho was considered unfilmable because of the long, detailed passages devoted to Bateman’s ruminations on the music of Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, punctuated by extremely graphic descriptions of sadistic violence inflicted on women. Anybody taking on this project would have to find a way to translate it in an interesting way without completely turning off audiences while also appeasing the MPAA.

For almost ten years filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Oliver Stone took a crack at adapting the book into a film while actors like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio expressed interest in playing Bateman. In the end, Mary Harron, director of the critical darling, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and Bale got the film made. The end result predictably divided critics and underperformed at the box office, but considering the subject matter this is hardly surprising. American Psycho went on to enjoy a second life on home video where it developed a cult following. It’s been ten years since the film’s initial release and so a retrospective look is in order.

We meet Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) having dinner with three of his friends and a few things come immediately to mind – they all dress and look alike with expensive suits and slicked-back hair (a la Gordon Gekko or Pat Riley – take your pick), and none of them are paying much attention to what the others are saying because of most of it is white noise anyway. For example, one of them (Bill Sage) returns to the table and informs no one in particular that the restaurant doesn’t have a good bathroom to do cocaine in while another (Josh Lucas) makes an anti-Semitic remark about one of their contemporaries. It’s an amusing exchange that sets the film’s satiric tone right from the get-go. Their meaningless conversation and habit of misidentifying their co-workers in the restaurant gives us an indication of how ridiculous they are.

The first indication we get of Bateman’s pathological state of mind is in the next scene where his drink tickets at a nightclub are rejected, forcing him to pay cash. When the bartender turns her back, he calls her a bitch and says he’s liked to stab her to death but when she turns around he’s all smiles. I would argue that American Psycho is a brilliant, pitch black satire on par with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971), another book which, incidentally, was considered unfilmable back in the day. Mary Harron adopts the same clinical detachment, which makes sense considering the subject matter.

Consider the way in which she takes us through Bateman’s apartment, the camera gliding elegantly through his tasteful, if not slightly Spartan living space. As his voiceover takes us through his daily routine down to the most exact detail, we see Christian Bale’s incredibly fit body doing all kinds of stretches, in the shower and getting ready for work. While Bateman peels a facial mask off his expressionless face, his voiceover tells us, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of an abstraction but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. And then I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and may be you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable. I simply am not there.” This passage is the key, I think, to unlocking the enigma that is Bateman. He spends most of his day putting on an act, a performance for others and behaving the way he thinks they want him to because his real self is almost non-existent. Or, worse, he is a sick serial killer that enjoys torturing and killing women. The key to understanding Bateman is that he’s performing all the time because he’s afraid of being caught in the act and possible revealing his true self.

Bale does an incredible job of portraying a man coming apart at the seams. The actor demonstrates a real capacity for comedy, in some scenes he’s a truly frightening figure and in others, he’s clearly not well – all sweaty and panicky. Bale has to convey an impressive spectrum of emotions in this film. It is also the little asides and whimsical facial expressions that make Bale’s performance so much fun to watch, like when he tells his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny) to wear a different outfit and when she asks him why, responds with a condescending smirk, “C’mon, you’re prettier than that.” Bateman often comes across as a vain idiot and a lot of the film’s humor comes from the contrast between how he views himself and how we view him. After all, his image of himself is taken from fashion magazines like GQ. He’s an empty shell with no soul. As he tells us at one point, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion except for greed and disgust.” These confessional voiceovers give us insight into the kind of person Bateman is.

I love the jarring musical edit from refined classical music that plays over footage of Bateman getting ready for work to the bouncy strains of “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves blasting over the soundtrack as it takes us to the next scene – Bateman’s office. In a nice touch that tells us a bit more about him, we never actually see Bateman do any work at his office. He’s either watching television or doodling. In addition, he and his cronies don’t listen to each other. For example, Bateman informs via voiceover that he’s annoyed that his fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) is rattling on about getting married while he’s trying to listen to the new Robert Palmer album. He is also indifferent to the fact that she is having an affair with Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), the only interesting person he knows, because he’s having an affair with her closest friend, Courtney (Samantha Mathis).

All Bateman wants to do is fit in and this means eating at all the trendy restaurants and having the perfectly designed business card. To this end, he tells his dinner companions that the world has to solve problems like Apartheid, stop terrorism and end world hunger while promoting civil rights, not because he believes in these things but because it’s what he assumes people expect him to say. He rattles off these causes like he’s reciting a prepared speech and Bale delivers it with just the right amount of faux-sincerity. He also employs this tone when Bateman orders dinner for Courtney later on, making sure to add comments from reviews he’s read (pointing out that the peanut butter soup was described as, “a playful, but mysterious little dish.”) in that same fake-sincere tone.

Courtney is so zonked out of her head on prescription drugs that she thinks they are eating at Dorsia, the most prestigious restaurant in New York City that everyone in the film aspires to get reservations for. Bateman and his buddies are so self-absorbed that they misidentify each other much as Paul Allen (Jared Leto) does with Bateman. And why not? They all dress, act and look the same. They live to compete against each other, like who can get a reservation at the trendiest restaurant or who has the best-looking business card. In a hilarious scene, Bateman and several of his co-workers compare their cards, each one topping the last much to his dismay as Allen’s ends up being superior to everyone else’s (and he got a reservation at Dorsia!).

The first murder we see is quick and brutal as Bateman kills a homeless man and his dog in a fairly matter-of-fact fashion. The sudden brutality is shocking as is the tonal shift from satire in the previous scene to the out-and-out cruelty of this one. On the other hand, Paul Allen’s murder is played for laughs because he is just as empty and superficial as Bateman and so he dies while Bateman critiques the Huey Lewis and the News album, Fore (“Their undisputed masterpiece,” he enthuses.) while playing “Hip to Be Square.” Bale is amazing in this scene as he goes from gleefully pontificating about music to brutally murdering Allen with an axe.

It is scenes like this that beg the question, is any of this really happening? With the exception of the homeless man, the murders are filmed in such an over-the-top fashion, either satirically, like Allen’s, or in an unrealistically brutal way, like the prostitute he kills with a chainsaw. Not to mention, no one notices Bateman dragging a garment bag with Allen’s body as it leaves a bloody trail from the elevator to a waiting car outside his apartment. Bateman covers his tracks like something out of a clichéd crime thriller complete with appropriately suspenseful music. He is even investigated by Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), a dogged private investigator who is unfailingly polite if not persistent as he attempts to piece together the timeline of Allen’s disappearance. His exchanges with Bateman are funny as the young executive offers all kinds of useless information and we wonder if Kimball knows that Bateman killed him. Is he just messing with Bateman? The only indication we get that this is all part of his imagination is his confessional voiceovers but let’s not forget he’s hardly the most reliable narrator.

Bateman’s critiques of popular music are definitely some of the funniest parts of the film. For example, he says of Genesis, “their lyrics are as positive, affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock,” and later of Phil Collins’ solo career: “seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying in a narrower way.” It doesn’t hurt that he’s saying all this while directing two prostitutes in a sex video. While having sex with both of them, Bateman looks at himself in a mirror, occasionally flexing. He’s more interested in himself than them and this showy narcissism is hilarious. It’s interesting to note that in the one scene where his heterosexuality is called into question – a co-worker mistakes his trying to strangle him as a sexual advance – he panics and is repulsed, making a hasty exit with a lame excuse (“I have to return some video tapes.”). It’s a scene that speaks volumes about his character.

I also find it interesting that the one woman Bateman spares is his secretary Jean. He invites her over to his place with the intention of killing her. He even goes so far as to aim a nail gun at the back of her head but a phone call from Evelyn interrupts him, ruining the mood and even embarrassing him. Bateman tells Jean to go, warning her that he can’t control himself. She interprets it as getting hurt in a relationship but he’s referring to his bloodlust. I think that Bateman actually cares about her enough to let her go, resisting the urge to kill her. However, as the film progresses, his homicidal impulses worsen as he loses his grip on reality. Harron depicts this visually with increasingly outlandish scenes, like a bloodied, deranged, naked Bateman chasing a prostitute down a hallway with a chainsaw. It defies logic and common sense, which, I think, is the point because this is all taking place in Bateman’s fevered imagination – a place where he can murder all kinds of women and get away with it or get into a major shoot-out with the police and kill any witnesses in what amounts to a paranoid nightmare.

When Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho came out in 1991, its mix of detailed grotesque violence and razor-sharp satire of 1980s materialism scandalized the literary world. Feminists and critics were outraged. The National Organization of Women organized a public protest over the novel. Original publishers Simon & Schuster dropped the book three months before its scheduled publication when the company’s employees objected vehemently to it. Random House eventually picked it up and the controversy that surrounded the book helped propel it to best-seller status. In 1992, filmmaker Stuart Gordon gave producer Edward R. Pressman a copy of the book and he was so impressed by it that he acquired the rights to the film version. Pressman said that Gordon wanted to make “a real X-rated version, black and white, very hard-core and very true to the novel,” and Johnny Depp expressed an interest in playing Bateman. However, the producer wanted to make his film more commercially viable and Ellis also did not think that Gordon was right the person for the job.

Once David Cronenberg became attached, Ellis wrote a draft only to be told that there shouldn’t be any scenes set in restaurants or nightclubs because they were considered static and boring. Cronenberg also told Ellis that he didn’t want to film any of the violence depicted in the book. Incredibly, the director wanted the script to be 65-70 pages long because it took him two minutes to shoot a page instead of the standard one-minute-a-page. At the time, Ellis was bored with his novel and diverged greatly from it in his draft, inventing a few scenes and adding an elaborate musical sequence at the end that set at the top of the World Trade Center and was to be scored to “Daybreak” by Barry Manilow. Pressman was not thrilled with Ellis’s script and described it as being “completely pornographic.” His draft was rewritten by Norman Snider who had worked with Cronenberg previously on Dead Ringers (1988). However, at some point, Cronenberg left the project and Pressman was looking for another director again.

Pressman saw I Shot Andy Warhol and met with Mary Harron in 1996. He liked her take on the material which see saw as a social satire. She first read the book in 1991 after being intrigued by all the controversy surrounding it. She felt that Ellis’ book was “seriously misunderstood,” that it was intended to be a “critique of male misogyny,” and those that attacked it didn’t seem to understand that it was a “satire on Wall Street, and on these young Turks.” Once she got the directing job, she sought out a co-screenwriter that would share her view of American Psycho as a feminist film and a satire. Christine Vachon, who had produced I Shot Andy Warhol, recommended Guinevere Turner, who had co-written and starred in the independent lesbian romance Go Fish (1994). Turner had even attended the same Vermont university as Ellis had and admired his success as a writer. Harron and Turner were drawn to the book because of its “skewed and critical look at male behavior, macho behavior, that we’d never seen before.” She sent Christian Bale the script and he read it without having checked out the source novel. He was surprised to find it quite funny to read and was drawn to the role because it was the opposite of anything he’d done before. When he agreed to do the film, friends and family close to him said he was committing career suicide but this only made him want to do the film even more if only to prove them wrong.

Bale met Ellis at a restaurant to get his approval for the role. He showed up in character which the writer found “seriously unnerving” because he was in a place with “someone pretending to be this monster that I created.” To prepare for the role, he read Ellis’ book, which he found informative. He also worked out extensively for the film, doing weight training and boxing, and became “fascinated with talking about the body, and diet, and the gym. It made me very judgmental of other people’s bodies as well.” In the last six weeks leading up to filming, his trainer increased the actor’s training to “three hours a day of absolute exhaustion and really boring food.” Early on, he and Harron talked a lot over the phone about Bateman and, according to the director, “how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave.” Then, one day, Bale called her and said that he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman’s late night talk show and was taken with the actor’s “very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.” He decided to incorporate that into his portrayal of Bateman.

Harron cast Bale but Lions Gate wanted Leonardo DiCaprio, hot from the massive success of Titanic (1997). A studio executive sent him a copy of the script and a $20 million offer. He expressed an interest and suggested directors like Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese, both of whom he wanted to work with (and eventually did) – all unbeknownst to Harron at the time. Lions Gate wanted a bigger movie star, one that would appeal to the international market. Harron fought with the studio and remembered, “they would’ve taken almost anybody over Christian.” Lions Gate announced DiCaprio’s involvement at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Harron and Bale were stunned and understandably upset. Pressman urged her to meet with DiCaprio but she remained loyal to Bale and refused. She didn’t approve of his casting and was fired along with Bale only to be replaced by Oliver Stone. When he came on board, the filmmaker began preparations to rewrite Harron’s script. According to Pressman, Stone went for a more psychological approach.

However, DiCaprio and Stone couldn’t agree on the direction for the film to take and the actor left the project in August 1998 due to scheduling conflicts but negotiations had fallen apart after a reading with the actor and potential co-stars Cameron Diaz and James Woods. DiCaprio went on to make The Beach (2000) with Boyle. Stone quickly followed suit and left the project prompting the studio to bring back Harron and Bale but with the stipulation that the budget would not exceed $10 million and she would cast recognizable actors in the supporting roles. During this time, Harron and Bale kept a low profile. She was convinced that DiCaprio would never do the film due to its controversial nature. Bale was still committed to the film and passed on projects for nine months because he also felt that DiCaprio would leave the film. If Harron had gone with DiCaprio it would have dramatically increased the film’s budget and she would have lost any kind of creative control over the project. She said, “Leonardo wasn’t remotely right [for the part]. There’s something very boyish about him. He’s not credible as one of these tough Wall Street guys.” Also, she didn’t want to deal with his large teenage fan base baggage at the time.

Principal photography began in March 1999 in Toronto. The production was met with protest from an activist group called Concerned Canadians Against Violence in Entertainment. They were upset that a film was being made of Ellis’s book, reportedly a copy had been found in the home notorious serial killer Paul Bernardo who, only five years prior, had committed several gruesome murders. Anti-violence groups were upset that the film was allowed to use federal and provincial tax credits because it was shot mostly in Toronto and attempted to keep the city from issuing a permit that would allow the production to make a film there. Local newspaper the Toronto Sun ran an article linking Bernardo with Ellis’ novel the day that Harron and her team were going to do a technical survey of their main filming location – an office building that would stand in for the place where Bateman worked. The bank that owned the building refused permission for them to shoot there after street protests against the film were threatened and they were faced with potential bad publicity. The rest of the city’s financial institutions followed suit and the production had to shoot the Bateman office scenes on a soundstage. Over the next two weeks, the filmmakers scrambled to preserve the rest of their locations because some of the owners began having second thoughts. The production even hired extra security in anticipation of trouble on the first day of filming but no protestors should up – for that day or for the entire seven-week shoot.

The buzz surrounding American Psycho reached a fever pitch at the Sundance Film Festival where tickets for its screening were being scalped for as much as $200. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Christian Bale's performance as being "heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” The New York Times called it a "mean and lean horror comedy classic.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, “whenever Harron digs beneath the glitzy surface in search of feelings that haven't been desensitized, the horrific and hilarious American Psycho can still strike a raw nerve.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “"Yet Harron, if anything, is an even more devious provocateur than Ellis was. By treating the book as raw material for an exuberantly perverse exercise in '80s nostalgia, she recasts the go-go years as a template for the casually brainwashing-consumer/fashion/image culture that emerged from them. She has made a movie that is really a parable of today.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner do understand the book, and they want their film to be understood as a period comedy of manners.”

However, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, The difficult truth is that the more viewers can model themselves after protagonist Bateman, the more they can distance themselves from the human reality of the slick violence that fills the screen and take it all as some kind of a cool joke, the more they are likely to enjoy this stillborn, pointless piece of work.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “"But after an hour of dissecting the '80s culture of materialism, narcissism and greed, the movie begins to repeat itself. It becomes more grisly and surreal, but not more interesting.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman said of Christian Bale’s performance: "If anything, Bale is too knowing. He eagerly works within the constraints of the quotation marks Harron puts around his performance.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, "The best scenes in the film involve the kind of status-seeking jokes that would make a very funny short subject. But over a feature-length film, there is only so much hollowness this viewer can endure before starting to yawn and look at his watch. Curiously, the material has even lost its power to shock and outrage.”

Ellis said of the film at the time, “it’s much better than how I would have done it, so I can’t complain too much.” He found her vision much more faithful to the novel than his script which was much more surreal. Bateman tries to warn people of his increasingly homicidal behavior, culminating with a desperate confession to his lawyer’s answering machine but he’s either ignored or it’s treated as a joke. Bateman sums it up best in the final voiceover monologue as he remains unrepentant and will continue to kill. He ends his speech (and the film) with this zinger, “this confession has meant nothing.” It’s a final line worthy of Kubrick and the equally powerful final line that ends Eyes Wide Shut (1999). American Psycho is a darkly comic satire on ‘80s materialism, a horror film that skewers the misogynistic behavior of superficial Yuppie businessman. Mary Harron wisely doesn’t try to do a faithful adaptation of Ellis’ novel, but instead captures the spirit of it and the end result is one of the best films of the 2000s.


Monday, October 11, 2010

The Social Network

A film about the creation of website – really?! Have we finally run out of ideas for stories to tell? There must’ve been something deeper, more intriguing enough to attract the likes of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher as their involvement in The Social Network (2010) gives the film a lot of credibility. Based on the “non-fiction thriller,” The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, the film chronicles the origins of the immensely popular social networking website Facebook and turns out to be a familiar story about greed, jealousy and power – a study in class warfare: old money vs. New Economy dot com millionaires. What started as an idea shared among a small group of Harvard University students eventually became the domain of one person: Mark Zuckerberg. However, after Facebook became a legitimate global phenomenon and he became a billionaire, the others wanted in on the action (and the money) and lawsuits and court battles ensued. Because the notion of authorship is in question, Sorkin and Fincher apply the structure of Citizen Kane (1941), by telling the story via flashbacks from multiple points-of-view, while viewing it all through a detached journalistic viewpoint reminiscent of All the President’s Men (1976). The end result is an engrossing, intelligent look at young, ambitious men who made something that altered the popular culture landscape forever.

Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is super smart but socially inept, saying all the wrong things and this is readily evident in the film’s prologue when his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) dumps him, and seals the deal by telling him that he’s an asshole. Motivated by being dumped in public, he vents his frustration on his blog with a vicious diatribe. To get his mind off it, Zuckerberg creates a website called “Face Mash” comparing all the girls at school with each other. He does this by hacking his way into other websites on campus. With the help of his friend and fellow classmate, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Face Mash becomes a hit – so much so that it crashes the school’s computer network. Fincher quickly establishes Zuckerberg as a computer programming genius and, along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsating electronic soundtrack, actually makes the sequence where the proto-Facebook website is created look cool. Reznor and Ross’ dark, brooding score perfectly complements Fincher’s often gloomy, atmospheric imagery. The director juxtaposes this sequence with a party at the school’s most exclusive club, the Phoenix S-K Final Club, in order to show how they both end up objectifying women, reducing them to sex objects for horny, young men.

Zuckerberg is busted for invasion of privacy and is approached by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) who have created a crude prototype of Facebook and they ask him to merge his ideas with their own. In return, they’ll introduce him to the higher social strata of Harvard. However, Zuckerberg’s gateway to the big time occurs when he meets Sean Parker (Justine Timberlake), the co-creator of the Napster, an infamous and very popular music file sharing website. Parker is a persuasive speaker and his slick ways impresses Zuckerberg as he sells him on the potential of Facebook on a global scale. Parker introduces Zuckerberg to nightclubs and, more importantly, appeals to his antisocial tendencies. Justin Timberlake does a fantastic job of playing Parker as a smooth-talking salesman cum New Millennium con man who is smart enough to recognize the Next Big Thing, latch onto it and ride it out to fame and fortune. He delivers a playful performance and there’s more than a whiff of a master manipulator as Parker comes across as someone who had an ethics bypass at birth. There is a delicious irony seeing a slick performer like Timberlake playing a slick entrepreneur like Parker. It’s like Parker is the Silicon Valley Tyler Durden from Fight Club (1999) to Zuckerberg’s socially awkward hacker. Parker is Zuckerberg’s unchecked id as he surreptitiously drives a wedge between the young programmer and his best friend Saverin.

Jesse Eisenberg is a revelation as he’s cast against type in The Social Network. Known for playing stuttering, loveable neurotic characters in films like The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Adventureland (2009), he shifts gears to play an aggressively ambitious nerd. His take on Zuckerberg is that of an extremely logical person with loads of talent to burn and who is motivated by rejection. He comes across as an insensitive prick that doesn’t have the time for people who can’t keep up with him and his fast mind. The film posits that the main motivational factor for him doing what he did was to climb the social ladder, to make money and to be the head of an exclusive club where he has the power to accept or reject people instead of being the one on the outside looking in. However, when it gets down to it being spurned by Erica was the prime motivator for Zuckerberg creating Facebook.

After making the popular tear-jerker The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Fincher returns to the moody, journalistic approach he took with Zodiac (2007), but where the latter was a slow burn over almost three hours, The Social Network moves along at a very brisk two hours as the talented young cast delivers Sorkin’s wordy screenplay in his trademark rat-a-tat-tat style. This film is absolutely dense with dialogue, even topping Zodiac with all of its scenes of theorizing about the identity of a serial killer. Sorkin had just come off the high profile flop of his short-lived television show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and this film sees him back on familiar turf with fast-talking cocky characters antagonizing each other. His dialogue his smart and funny as it gets to the heart of the matter – providing Zuckerberg’s motivation and doing a great job chronicling just how Facebook came to be in an engaging way. Fincher and Sorkin have pulled off quite an accomplishment with The Social Network by making an entertaining and engrossing film about the creation of a website. The irony is that Zuckerberg created Facebook as a way for people to acquire friends and connect with each other while he is a deeply antisocial person who doesn’t really care about having friends. Of course, he’s now a billionaire, which I’m sure cushions the blow but the film leaves the lingering impression that he still wants to be with Erica and that this is something that no amount of money will make go away.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

John Carpenter Week: Contributions - Saturday, October 9

So, this is the last day of John Carpenter Week and I just wanted to thank everyone who contributed something. I am humbled and extremely pleased with everything that was submitted and you all made this week a success! I would also like to thank everyone who stopped by and commented and for everyone who supported this blogathon on their own blogs. I couldn't have done this without any of you!

Here is the latest round of contributions from around the blogosphere.

"We spend the majority of the film getting to know these characters, learning about their relationships to Antonio Bay and to each other. Each of their stories is intercut, and each character gains new insights into the mystery that they must slowly piece together with the others’ help. It’s kind of like a small-town horror version of Nashville."
- There's something in the fog! - Pussy Goes Grrr

"I'd be lying if I said John Carpenter's 1995 remake fared as well.  In an effort to update the threat to appeal to  the audience of the time, I think it loses some of the original's grace and simplicity.  That being said, Carpenter can still wring out a tense sequence with the best of them and also knows that, like Howard Hawks, if something worked the first time, best not to mess with it."
- War Within the Mind: Two Looks at the Climax of Village of the Damned - Celluloid Moon

"As silly or weird as this sounds, John Carpenter is the one who inadvertently caused me to go on this path I'm trying to take into becoming a Film Archivist and working in film preservation. It started with coveting the job of the main character in Cigarette Burns, his entry to the first season of Showtime's Masters of Horror."
- Cigarette Burns changed my life - Hold onto yr genre

"Birack puts together a team of students specialising in a variety of scientific areas and in a way can be seen to be splitting the almost Sherlockian genius of Quatermass into a number of characters. And here we're back to my dad's Dolph Lundgren comment above. These characters aren't action heroes, they're academics - a point no more obvious than in the fact that they spend a good majority of the third Act knocking down a wall (Lundgren would've kicked through it)."
- Traces of Quatermass in Prince of Darkness... - Writer by Night

"Here's one second worth of frames from John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)."
- 24 Frames: The Thing - Colonel Mortimer Will Have His Revenge

"Carpenter's films in particular couple an admirable reverence for horror film conventions with an extraordinary knack for narrative economy. Below, I've taken the first 7 shots of his 1987 film maudit, Prince of Darkness, and tried to get at some sense of what makes each of them work."
- Seven Ways to Go to Hell: The First Seven Shots of John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness - Expressive Esoterica

"This is a terrific album. And I say that with a straight face. I know that you can't see my face from there, but the expression upon it is unreservedly earnest. I probably listen to at least one track from this album every day. My girlfriend wishes that was an exaggeration."
- Music Review: WAITING OUT THE EIGHTIES: PART 1 - Junta Juleil's Culture Shock

" I saw my first John Carpenter film at an impressionable age sometime in the early eighties.  It was a copy of  ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ taped from the late night premiere on ITV.  As your typical latchkey kid, home from school to an empty house,  I was lured the brand new top loading video recorder that just begged me to turn it on."
- Growing up with John Carpenter Part 1 - The Haunted Cinema
Check out Part 2, 3, 4, and 5

Friday, October 8, 2010

John Carpenter Week: Vampires

With his self-professed love for westerns and his reputation for making legendary horror films during the 1970s and 1980s, anticipation was high when it was announced that John Carpenter would be directing a western-flavored vampire film. Based loosely on John Steakley’s novel of the same name, Vampires (1998) tears down and stomps all over the brooding gothic bloodsucker cliché in order to portray them as vicious killers hunted by men who aren’t that much better. Even though the film takes place in a contemporary setting – the American southwest – it looks and feels like a western right down to James Woods as a no-nonsense gunslinger-type vampire hunter. Vampires turned out to be one of Carpenter’s most commercially successful films in years despite the mixed critical reaction. To be fair, the film has its flaws, as a lot of later of his work does, but Woods’ ferocious performance, unapologetic politically incorrectness and the use of vampirism to expose the hypocrisy of organized religion, makes Vampires an entertaining horror film.

The film starts off promisingly as Carpenter’s brooding score plays over a montage of desolate New Mexico landscapes before the camera swoops over an abandoned farmhouse. Observing it from afar is Jack Crow (James Woods) and his right-hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin). They assess the situation and deduce that the house is a nest for vampires. Carpenter’s heavy, twangy spaghetti western-flavored score kicks in as Jack and his group of badass vampire hunters move in. The director sets just the right no-nonsense tone as we see this heavily armed motley crew get ready to wipe out a nest of bloodsuckers like an exterminator would take out a hive of troublesome insects.

The build up and then actual extermination of said nest has a The Wild Bunch (1969) by way of Walter Hill vibe to it as Carpenter shows professional men of action plying their trade. This scene not only establishes Jack and his team’s tough guy credentials but also presents the vampires as very strong, almost feral creatures. There is nothing elegant or romantic about these bloodsuckers. More importantly, we also see the efficient way Team Crow works: one by one the vampires are dragged out into sunlight where they burst into flames. In the end, nine vamps, or goons, as they are referred to by Jack, are destroyed but they don’t find the master, the leader who always protects its nest.

Team Crow not only works hard but they also play hard, taking over a motel loaded up with alcohol and hookers. Yet the lack of a master still gnaws away at Jack, that is, until a beautiful prostitute named Katrina (Sheryl Lee) distracts him with an invitation for sex. While he gets her a beer she waits for him in his room. However, a master vampire is already waiting in what is probably the film’s most striking visual as the camera pans up to show the bloodsucker hovering at the height of the ceiling, unbeknownst to Katrina. He quickly seduces and bites her on the inner thigh in a very sexually-charged scene. The master then proceeds to crash the party and kill Jack’s entire team. His assault starts off promisingly as he brutally splits one hapless vampire hunter (Mark Boone Jr.) in half! But then Carpenter makes the unconventional choice of depicting the hotel room massacre through a series of dissolves, which robs the sequence of its visceral impact. We are supposed to be awed by this master’s power as he easily dispatches Team Crow but much more of an impact could have come from quick edits and hand-held camerawork to convey the chaos of the scene, not a montage of dissolves which lessens the shock of the vampire’s attack.

Fortunately, Carpenter recovers in the next scene as Jack and Montoya with Katrina in tow make a break for it in a pick-up truck. Despite flooring the accelerator, the master vampire amazingly catches up to them with scary ferocity. However, they manage to distract him, by shooting him in the face, long enough to get away. Jack decides to keep Katrina around because now that she’s been bitten by a master she will develop a telepathic link with him which will allow them to find him. More troubling, however, is that the vampire knew who Jack was. Someone must’ve set them up, but who?

Backed by the Vatican no less, Jack meets with his superior, Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) who assigns him church archivist Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), a well-intentioned if not hopelessly inexperienced priest. Father Adam tells Jack that the master who wiped out Team Crow is named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a 600-year-old vampire – the first and most powerful, accidentally created by the Catholic Church.

Jack grudgingly takes Father Adam along and quickly lays down the law with the young priest as he gives him a crash course in vampires: “First of all, they’re not romantic. It’s not like they’re a bunch of fags hopping around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents. Forget whatever you’ve seen in movies.” This doesn’t just apply to Father Adam but to the audience as well. Carpenter is saying that the bloodsuckers in Vampires aren’t going to be the angst-ridden vampires we see in films like Interview with a Vampire (1994) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Woods delivers this monologue with the consummate skill of a pro but with the enthusiasm of an actor having fun with the role as he can’t resist adding a little zinger in the end which causes Father Adam to get flustered. Being a fan of both Woods and Carpenter for years, this is a dream pairing and it is great to see the actor playing a man of action. Woods is known for playing pragmatic protagonists and his portrayal of Jack Crow is a great addition to Carpenter’s roster of uncompromising heroes.

James Woods plays Jack Crow as a tough-as-nails vampire hunter not above beheading and burying his slaughtered teammates and the hookers that were unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. Carpenter uses the dissolve montage technique here again only much more effectively. And to show what a tough guy Jack truly is, he torches the motel for good measure and Woods looks cool as he fulfills and tried and true action film cliché of walking away from a gigantic explosion. Woods displays intense steely-eyed determination, especially after his team is killed as he makes it his mission to find out why it happened and track down the vampire responsible.

Carpenter also sets up the mercurial Howard Hawksian relationship between Jack and Montoya who doesn’t approve of his boss burying the team on his own. You can see Carpenter trying to set up the same kind volatile thing that we saw in previous male-dominated films like The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) but he’s just not as successful here because in those films you really felt that those guys were a legitimate threat to each other. In Vampires, you never get the impression that Montoya would really truly challenge Jack and so their friction, at times, feels forced, or in one scene where they are actually about to get into it, Carpenter pulls things back. Daniel Baldwin brings a beefy physicality to the role of Montoya and acts a decent foil to Woods’ hard-nosed head vampire slayer. He has the look and demeanor of a classic Hollywood tough guy.

Tim Guinee is also well cast as the by-the-book Father Adam who attempts (not too successfully) to keep Jack in line. He has a good scene with Woods in a hotel bathroom where Jack forces Father Adam to reveal Valek’s true intentions. He is looking for an ancient relic known as the Cross of Berziers that will allow him, through a ritual, to live in the daylight. Carpenter is so good at filming scenes with expositional dialogue and this is because of good writing and the right actor saying the words (think of Donald Pleasence in Halloween or Dennis Dun in Big Trouble in Little China). Guinee does a wonderful job imparting this crucial information in an engaging way that takes us deeper into the film’s mythos.

Carpenter is less successful at depicting the relationship that develops between Montoya and Katrina. It starts off very antagonistic as he views her as nothing more than a tool, an end towards a means, but I just don’t buy how, over time, he begins to care for her. This aspect of the film is one of the things that makes it unapologetically politically incorrect. Katrina is thrown around by Jack and Montoya like a rag doll. When Montoya and her take refuge in a hotel, he bounds and gags her naked to a bed. I understand the restraints – so she doesn’t escape – but naked? I certainly don’t have a problem with Sheryl Lee’s gorgeous body but it doesn’t make much sense. The actress doesn’t have much to do initially as she gets slapped around by Woods and Baldwin, but once Katrina develops a telepathic link with Valek she becomes an important conduit of information. However, it’s not until the climactic showdown when Katrina finally becomes a vampire that Lee gets to cut loose and have some fun with the role.

Nine days after John Steakley submitted his book Vampire$ to his publisher, the film rights were sold in January 1990. Several directors were attached to the project over the years where it languished John Carpenter was approached. He had just finished making Escape from L.A. (1996) and was contemplating quitting the movie business for a while because “it stopped being fun.” However, Largo Entertainment offered him with the project. They had two screenplays, one written by Don Jakoby and the other by Dan Mazur. Carpenter took the book, the two scripts and read them. Afterwards, he thought, “it’s going to be set in the American Southwest and it’s a Western – Howard Hawks.” For years, he had thought about vampire films but never wanted to make one because he didn’t think there was a new way to do it: “They’re just such generic creatures, and they’ve been done so many times.” He was drawn to the western elements in Steakley’s novel: “I’ve always loved westerns and one of the reasons I’m doing this movie is that this is the closest I’ve come to being able to do a western.” He ended up combining the two scripts, utilizing elements from both, a little bit from the book, and some of his own stuff.

In casting Team Crow, producer Sandy King “tried to cast men who have a certain kind of charisma.” Actor James Woods concurred: “These are really dangerous vampires, and you like to know that they’re hiring real men for the parts – not the sort of ‘Hollywood’ version of men out hunting vampires.” He was drawn to the film because it gave him the opportunity to play an action hero. When the actor accepted the role, he told Carpenter, “I want to make this hero the baddest guy ever.” Woods has a reputation for being difficult to work with but Carpenter had an agreement with him that he could improvise a take if he did another one as it was written in the script. Carpenter had not seen Daniel Baldwin’s television work (he had been on Homicide: Life on the Street) but when they met, he “loved his whole nature and personality.” The director cast Sheryl Lee based on her work on Twin Peaks while Thomas Ian Griffith was chosen based on several action films he had done, including one called Excessive Force (1993).

The production shot on location in New Mexico over eight weeks and utilized authentic pueblos, a 200-year-old mission and a small western town where the filmmakers took over a square city block to build an old adobe prison. Production designer Tomas Walsh and his team built the interiors of the farmhouse, jail, hotel, motel, and the jail elevator shaft on soundstages at Garson Studios in Santa Fe.

Carpenter’s keen visual sense is still as strong as ever in Vampires. There’s a great shot of Valek and seven master vampires coming out of the ground, like zombies, at dusk. The lighting and Carpenter’s minimalist score create just the right atmosphere of dread. For this scene, the actors were buried under about a foot of sand and had to wait until they were called to rise from their graves. Stunt coordinator Jeff Imada devised a breathing system whereby each actor used a small box placed over their mouth to provide a short supply of air as they waited to be called to rise from the ground.

Not surprisingly, Vampires was not well-received by critics – par for the course for a Carpenter film. In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote, “ridiculous without being awful enough to be hilarious, Vampires is chock full of exhausted lines.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “making a cowboy yarn should mean more than just setting the carnage amid adobe buildings.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “the story itself can’t seem to decide whether it’s Rio Bravo or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is not scary, and the plot is just one gory showdown after another.” Sight and Sound magazine’s Kim Newman addressed the film’s treatment of women: “The treatment of women – we only see whores and vampires, and the ‘heroine’ gets to be both – is especially reprehensible.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “After a promising opening … this gummy mix of fake-Catholic mumbo jumbo and teeth-in-neck horror goes limp.” The lone dissenting voice came from the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey who gave it three out of four stars. He said it was, “deliciously twisted throughout, adding some fresh kinks to a well-worn old movie fetish.”

Vampires expertly cruises towards the inevitable showdown between Jack and Valek where we find out just how culpable and complicit the Church is in all of this. Towards the end it feels almost like Carpenter ran out of steam or money or both as the finale is strangely anticlimactic. He leaves the antagonistic relationship between Jack and Montoya tantalizingly unresolved in a tribute to Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), begging for a sequel that was eventually made but without Carpenter’s direct involvement and with it the film’s stars as well. Vampires is certainly not without its flaws and not up to par with his classic films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the film does have its merits. Over the years I enjoy it more with every subsequent viewing.