Friday, October 23, 2009
From the days when it was first available on the CBS/Fox video label, we felt a strange kinship with this seemingly unwanted 1980 party favor, a film that its Oscar winning star pretends didn’t exist. We were fascinated by the picture’s view of the shadowy world of the meatpacking district’s gay leather bars painted on an unfashionably nihilistic canvas. Over the years, we realized that few (if any) people cared about the show, as routine investigations brought about precious little information on the film, almost as if it slipped into a black hole. Cruising was the subject of our first foray into long-form essay writing for a friend’s online magazine (though it’s still possible to search out the article, we beg you not to as we find to be just this side of unreadable now) and we were thrilled to find it quoted from in Warner Bros. press release for the film’s 2007 DVD release - apparently, more people care about the film than we thought!
So it’s fitting that the film should mark our doorway into the hallowed halls of Video Watchdog, long considered the Bible for serious writing on the cinema of fantasy and the fantastic. When its publisher, Tim Lucas, announced earlier this year that he would accept submission proposals for the first time, we immediately sent off our proposal for an all-new article on a film which we feel – with all humility – we know better than almost anyone else. The extraordinary news that the article was accepted has been eclipsed only by the arrival last night of our own copy of Video Watchdog #152, in which the DVD spotlight bears a familiar name.
As someone who has enjoyed the opportunity for writing on genre cinema for nearly a decade, VW is a height to which we dared not aspire. It’s the height of the form and we’re still having difficulty believing that we have been welcomed into the kennel. The magazine is not available online, and can only be had at better newsstands or from their website. Enjoy!
Friday, October 16, 2009
We badly wanted to see horror indy Paranormal Activity before the expected backlash had time to take effect, though we did hear from lots of interwebz folks that that the film was unworthy of the massive hype machine put in place by Paramount (who picked up the $10K budgeted flick after some positive festival appearances over the last 2 years.) The Blair Witch Project introduced audiences to the 'found footage' concept nearly a decade ago (in short, footage consisting of the film/video footage shot by the characters themselves) even though Ruggero Deodato's infamous exploitation gem, Cannibal Holocaust, had used the technique rather brilliantly back in 1980 (though there was a narrative framework surrounding the use of the footage.) We were lucky to have seen BWP in its opening weekend – too early for it to become hip to hate the film – and marveled at how directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez stayed true to the '3 kids with cameras' framework and made it feel real enough to send genuine chills down our spine when the characters on screen were sure that they heard something out there. It was years before thinking back on the film's much parodied final shot lost the power to utterly spook us out. Only the Spanish REC managed to improve on the method, by taking the cameras out of the hands of inexperienced kids and into the hands a professional camera crew working for a Barcelona news station following a reporter as she films a fluff piece on a local fire department, where a routine call to an apartment building turns into the requisite night of terror. REC is an extremely polished, professional bit of filmmaking, with the presence of a professional cameraman and equipment allowing for a less nausea-inducing theater experience (and probably also holds true for its Hollywood remake, Quarantine.)
Paramount's unusual ad campaign for Paranormal Activity has focused on the terrified reaction shots of preview audiences rather than film footage itself, almost as if the studio is bashful about the film being called out as a BWP knock-off. But having finally seen the film as part of Lincoln Center's Scary Movies 3 festival , I can attest to the veracity of all those jumps, gasps, and screams (okay, we didn't actually scream – honest.) Leaving the theater, we were trying to remember the last time that genuine fear had been felt inside a movie theater, aside from the feeling that car keys had been lost at the New Roc City multiplex. Paranormal Activity centers around the videotaped nocturnal activity of a spirit that Katie (Katie Featherston) feels is invading the modern San Diego home she shares with boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat.) Micah's attitude is far more blasé, assuming that the culprit ultimately responsible for the noises in the night will turn out to be a neighborhood peeping tom rather than anything supernatural. Micah does most of the filming, playfully taping Katie as they cook meals and lay about on their couch, but also sets the camera up on their bedroom dresser when they go to bed, affording a view of the bedroom and the upstairs hallway through the open door. Time coded footage allows us to hear the odd creak and rattle – most of which happens in the middle of the night and go unnoticed until they play the footage back the next night – which quickly turns to loud bangs and door slamming. They enlist the aid of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who explains the difference between the spirit of a dead human being and a demon, the latter of which he suspects may well have followed Katie from childhood. Soon, even Micah becomes a believer, even to the point of bringing home a Ouija board to communicate with it – something the psychic explicitly warned them against. Attempts to communicate, he says, will only make their presence stronger (it also won't help to move or go to a hotel as the entity will simply follow Katie.)
This isn't a film that depends all that much on plot twists and turns, but it would be criminal to spoil any of what transpires during the tenser haunting sequences. Director Oren Peli has spent two nervous years dueling with a studio that first wanted merely to buy the rights to the film and remake it with big stars and effects to match (an act that would have shown such hysterically poor judgment we almost whished that they had gone ahead so that Paranormal Activity starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale would be appearing on Blu-Ray just about now) only to relent once Steven Spielberg – among others – had seen the film and spotted its potential. Nevertheless, Paramount sat on the film for what must have seemed like an eternity to Peli (particularly after the red hot reception which greeted the film at almost every festival it played at.) Peli expertly exploits the terror of lying in your bed in the middle of the night, having been awakened by mysterious noises and too petrified to leave the sheets to investigate the darkness. The usual 'cat jumps through open window' to the strain of a screeching musical cue type of scare is largely absent from the film, giving it an unusual rhythm that slowly but surely fills the viewer with an sense of escalating dread; once Peli and the actors convince us of the reality of the setup (within 10 minutes we stopped thinking things like "Oh, please, why would he be filming now") even the smallest shadow or unexplained noise had the power to turn our blood frigid. Now, we can't say that this psychology will work on everyone and we can hear the complaints that it was boring and that "nothing happened". Effects in the film are smartly limited (though we have strong suspicions where the studio mandated reshoots began at the film's conclusion) and most of the what occurs is left to the imagination of the viewer.
Paranormal Activity frightened us in a way we haven't felt for years in a theater; a window into the deep, spine-chilling creepiness that sneaks into our bedrooms in the middle of the night, taking our knowledge that the supernatural doesn't actually exist and throwing it out the window.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Wolfen, to use a grotesque yet appropriate pun, is an unusual beast. The only post-Woodstock directorial credit for director Michael Wadleigh (and his only narrative effort) was released in the summer of 1981, wedged between two high profile werewolf pictures, Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Audiences thinking that the film made up the third horse in the lycanthropic trifecta left this decidedly odd effort left feeling cheated, as the filmmakers had something more profound in mind than a simple ‘monster movie’.
After breaking ground on his sprawling South Bronx real estate project, super-wealthy businessman Christopher van de Veer and wife Pauline slip down to Manhattan’s Battery Park, where the happy couple enjoys a cocaine-fuelled frolic around a replica of a windmill erected there by van de Veer’s ancestor, all under the watchful eye of his mountainous armed bodyguard. But the trio isn’t alone in the park – something silent and swift is stalking them in the darkness, something with acute night-vision that registers even the most subtle changes in the human body’s temperature. After a few moments, the creatures strike; ripping off the bodyguard’s hand before he can get a shot off with his gun, and tearing apart the wealthy scion and his wife. The odd circumstances of the crime bring one of the NYPD’s more odd detectives onto the case, the sarcastic and possibly alcoholic Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, marking the actor’s first lead role since 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express) who is aided in his investigation by the equally unorthodox medical examiner Whittington (Gregory Hines) and criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) who is put on the case at the behest of a shadowy international security service that provides security for executives all over the world, and are anxious to see the van de Veer case closed quickly.
The investigation leads them to several terrorist organizations that might have a bone to pick with van de Veer (who was not, as Det. Wilson points out, exactly a friend of the third world) until the body of a derelict found in a particularly desolate area of the South Bronx turns up in Whittington’s morgue. Like the van de Veer case, the skin was torn with some incredibly sharp, non-metallic blade and numerous internal organs were missing, but the body from the Bronx contained several diseased organs that were left untouched – almost as if whatever killed him was somehow able to sense this and leave them behind. A few strands of non-human hair lead them to zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan; for the first time billed under an actual character name and not simply as ‘Man’) who confirms that the hair is, in fact, canis lupus – a wolf hair. Dewey’s investigations also lead him to Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) a former radical in an AIM-like Native American movement just released from prison and with one political assassination already under his belt. Speaking to Eddie requires Dewey to scale the Manhattan Bridge where Eddie works with other members of his tribe who possess uncommon skill at working Manhattan’s high steel jobs (based on the amazing story of several generations of Mohawks who came down from their reservation in Canada to work NYC’s skyline for over a century) Eddie eludes to an ability shared by some Native Americans to “shape shift” into certain animals – including wolves. With his investigation dead-ended by the supernatural, Dewey and Whittington set out for the ruins of a massive church in the south Bronx where the bodies of several derelicts have been found with their (non diseased) organs removed, armed with automatic weapons and high-sensitivity microphones.
Wolfen avoids the same trap that other ecologically themed horror films of the era fell into by managing to balance the potentially over preachy ecological agenda with effective storytelling and expertly filmed suspense sequences. Not only was this Wadleigh’s first (and, to date, only) narrative film, it was also his first time shooting with 35mm cameras and considering his inexperience the end result is startling. His Panavision cameras run, swoop and climb all over the city, making superb use of Battery Park and the financial district of downtown Manhattan, and the final sequence featuring several real wolves stalking the steps of Federal Hall says more in a few shots than 20 pages of “You have your technology, but you lost” soliloquies ever could. Much was made in 1981 of the film’s wolf POV shots, which were basically a re-jiggered thermographic image, but just as Terminator 2 overused the new-in-1991 morphing effect, so did Wadleigh (or his producers) lean on this trick a little too hard. Luckily, the non-POV location photography always gives us something interesting to look at; in addition to the sleek skyscrapers and ornately columned government and financial buildings of Wall Street, Wolfen also affords us a view of the desolate Charlotte Street area of the Bronx – an area of the borough that resembled a bombed-out European city just after the second World War throughout much of the 70s through the mid 80s. A wasteland of abandoned tenements and rubble strewn lots provide the setting for the long abandoned, cavernous, cathedral that the Wolfen use as a den (the only artificial set used during these sequences, incidentally.) The notion that a race of wolves with God-like hunting instincts living in and feeding off the garbage of our inner cities comes directly from Whitley Strieber’s novel, but the Native American mythology that serves as the creatures’ motivation comes directly from Wadleigh and co-writer David Eyre. Wadleigh’s portrayal of Native Americans is certainly meant to be respectful – even reverential – but he falls into the trap that caught many other liberal, well-meaning filmmakers by elevating them to a level of near deification. Wolfen wasn’t the first – or the last – film to imbue them with mythic qualities as a cinematic reparation for genocide, but we can’t help but groan at hearing how in touch Native Americans are over and over again. It would be quite a few years before they would be allowed to behave like normal people on screen (beautifully done in the little seen Powwow Highway) instead of a symbol of our lost connection to nature and a fashionable emblem of white guilt (we’re looking at you, Oliver Stone.)
The mere presence of Albert Finney classes up the proceedings immeasurably, though occasionally his performance seems to wander – the actor badly stumbles over a line in his very first scene – and we wonder if the inexperienced filmmaker was too intimidated to offer much in the way of precise direction. Finney’s appearances had been limited in the years prior to Wolfen, and his shaggy, disheveled appearance must have been jolting to those who remembered him as the essence of youthful exuberance in Tom Jones some two decades earlier (Finney did look a bit better rested in Michael Crichton’s Looker, out later that same year.) A bigger surprise is how handily Gregory Hines steals each of his scenes from his significantly more experienced co-star; this was the only the second major role for the world class hoofer and he lends the stock character a genuine, unforced humor that aids the film immeasurably. We re-watched The Cotton Club just a few weeks before checking out Wolfen for this review and suddenly found ourselves missing Hines in a powerful way. The almost always underused Diane Venora – a theater actress whose best film role to date is probably as Al Pacino’s unstable wife in Michael Mann’s Heat – is fine in a mostly underwritten role. Noonan, another Mann veteran, is almost too quirky as an eco-minded zoologist (though we loved the very inside NYC reference of having his character report a fire rather than calling the police – a jaded New Yorker in 1981 would have certainly known which call would generate a quicker response) but Olmos give a nice, unmannered performance as a not-quite-so-former radical (compared to some of his later performances that, frankly, you could slice with a knife.)
Wolfen turned out to be the filling of a wish sandwich when it was released in 1981 – the werewolf picture without werewolves. We’ve heard that Wadleigh wasn’t completely happy with the film’s final cut, as may be evidenced by the theatrical trailer included on Warner Bros’ DVD, which contains glimpses of several scenes not included in the film proper. Whatever the reason, Wadleigh never made another film in spite of the real promise shown here, and spends much of his time being interviewed about Woodstock and forgetting that Wolfen even existed. Warner’s DVD looks fine during the on-location daylight scenes, but nighttime and dark interiors can look quite pale. On the plus side, the Dolby Surround track is quite muscular, nicely supporting James Horner’s terrific score (so good that he used much of it the next year for The Wrath of Khan.) Sadly, no informative extras are included.