Saturday, October 31, 2009
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH was, is and always will be totally insane. I can’t in any way call it a good movie but I’m still glad that we have this thing around. Weirdly, I haven’t even seen the movie that many times. Up until relatively recently I hadn’t even seen it since I was a kid but even though I didn’t even like it much then (yeah, even then I was already trying to be critical about things) certain moments of this lunatic piece of work always stuck with me. It never hurt that one of the main components of the film has always been a certain song which, appropriate considering it’s supposed to be from a television commercial, is virtually impossible to get out of your head once you’ve heard it. Fortunately, the film makes sure that you hear it many, many more times than just once. Somewhat infamous as the non-Michael Myers entry of the HALLOWEEN series which, considering it’s sandwiched in between all the others, only adds to the weirdness and maybe any cult following the thing has is partly due to people at the time wondering, what the hell is this thing anyway? I guess the idea was, instead of continuing with the Myers storyline, to do a continuing anthology of Halloween-related tales. I can’t defend it. I don’t want to defend it. I’m not going to try to defend it. Why the hell am I watching it again?
Just over a week before Halloween, Dr. Dan Chalis (Tom Atkins of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS) a hard-drinking, alimony-paying deadbeat dad is called to his hospital to treat a man who has turned up, clutching a mask and murmuring “They’re gonna kill us all.” When a mysterious individual turns up, kills the man and then proceeds to blow himself up in a car, Dr. Chalis is appropriately spooked, but doesn’t know what to do about it. Several days later, the man’s daughter Ellie Grimbridge (GET CRAZY’S Stacy Nelkin) tracks Chalis down in a bar and when the two exchange notes they determine that the last place he was headed to before being taken to the hospital was the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory located in the small northern California town of Santa Mira (for all you INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS fans). Run by Conal Cochran (the great Dan O’Herlihy) Silver Shamrock, as anyone in the film knows (except for our lead character, who is first seen trying to give his kids a few crappy non-Silver Shamrock masks as presents), is the biggest producer of Halloween masks around and their incessant advertising (“Eight more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…”) of their three big masks suggests a national craze with each of the annoying commercials trumpeting ‘The Big Giveaway’ set to take place on Halloween night. Dan and Ellie head for Santa Mira to investigate and once they hit the mysterious town are determined to get to the bottom of things. But first, Dan needs a drink and Ellie is more than willing to get to know him a little better while they’re stuck in that motel.
Carpenter had moved on to direct other films by this point but he was certainly involved and though written & directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Nigel Kneale reportedly wrote the first drafts, then later insisted on having his name removed) it certainly has a number of elements that makes it feel like a John Carpenter film—a conspiracy-laden storyline, roving camerawork by Dean Cundey, the steady drone of the Carpenter-Allan Howarth score, as well as the undeniable wideness of the compositions which really does make it pleasing to look at—but something about it feels slightly dumber than it all needs to be. It’s not exactly a credible storyline and the film seems intent on ratcheting things up on a very broad level—some of the supporting characters seem much more crassly played than they need to be (mostly the others staying at the motel) and Atkins’ doctor, usually in search of another drink, is a pretty unlikable lead to follow through a film. Still, I’ll freely admit that a lead character flawed to this degree actually comes off as refreshing in this day and age. The plot point of a piece of Stonehenge being stolen is one of the great screenwriting toss-offs of all time in how they don’t even attempt to explain the plausibility--fortunately, the film has an actor in Dan O’Herlihy who in giving the non-explanation “We had a time getting it here. You wouldn’t believe how we did it!” actually makes you swallow the moment due to his pure enjoyment of the situation. There’s an undeniable grossness to some of the imagery but very little of it can be called realistic, even when someone’s head is being ripped off. It’s just…bizarre and this translates to the overall tone as well.
Calling the town Santa Mira is very clever in bringing a BODY SNATCHERS vibe to things (much of the plot certainly seems like a nod in that direction) and when the two leads check into the motel things feel like a slight PSYCHO riff for a few minutes as well (since they already used the name Loomis in the first film, that’s a nice tradition to continue) and these nods to the past are cleverly woven into things. But when you think about it, have you ever been in a situation where you were staying in a motel and everyone was introducing themselves to you? When does that happen? It all feels like a fourteen year-old mentality as if it never occurred to someone to think this whole plot through. And then there’s the one from the list of biggest plot holes of all time—the movie never considers the idea of time zones in relation to the plot which leads me to believe that on the Earth it’s set on (slightly dumber and sleazier than our Earth) all of America has only one time zone. Not to mention, I want to know who Tom Atkins is calling in the last scene. But when the whole ballgame is laid out by Dan O’Herlihy, not to mention when we get to see what’s going to happen take place in one of his test rooms, the whole thing is just so nutso in every possible way it’s hard not to admire the film for its audaciousness, being willing to approach things from such a satirical and horror angle at the same time. Of course it earns its R rating but it seems designed for kids who want to see an R Rated film, to see the best possible ‘trick’ that the holiday could ever offer. There are elements throughout that I genuinely like such as the easy-listening muzak that drones on from a radio after a particularly nasty murder takes place or how the score from the original ‘immortal classic’ HALLOWEEN, playing on TV as the lead-up to the ‘Big Giveaway’, even gets to be used at one point. The main set housing the Stonehenge piece is a nicely austere bit of design as well. But, like a fourteen year-old boy, the movie seems more interested in how potentially nasty things can get instead. Part of what makes it so dumb is what makes it so weird too (I’m still not sure if I hate the design of these masks or love them, which seems like part of the point). Maybe I don’t even want a more normal version of this film. After all, what fun would that be?
If there’s any charm to be found, the lead actors certainly help. Tom Atkins is given an unpleasant character who seems too beat down in life to do much more than hang out at a bar in the middle of the day but he somehow manages to make the guy determined and likable with all of his flaws. His best moment might come when he’s sitting in that bar by himself and trying to comprehend the silly cartoon that is for some reason playing on the TV in front of him. But really, Tom Atkins is the coolest. Stacy Nelkin doesn’t get much of a part to play—and really, what is up with the romance between these two?—but she is cute and appealing, which certainly goes a long way. Dan O’Herlihy steals the movie, no question about it. He attacks his big scene with a massive amount of relish, bringing a huge amount of clarity to something which can never make any sense. His final moment, both nonsensical and consistent with everything his character has said, is a thing of beauty. According to some sources, that’s Jamie Lee Curtis as the voice of the town curfew announcer and telephone operator. It certainly sounds like her.
Did I mention that it really isn’t that good? Sure, it’s memorable and there’s definitely a reason why it stuck in my brain for so many years, but that doesn’t make it good. It needed someone in charge to really solidify the tone in order to help that happen. If Carpenter had been in charge that might have helped matters, but his films don’t display much of an interest in satirizing the consumerist culture of Reagan-era America with the happy exception of THEY LIVE, of course. So if the insane version of HALLOWEEN III:SEASON OF THE WITCH is what we’re always going to have to watch, maybe that’s for the best. Commercially speaking, they probably shouldn’t have given it the title of a HALLOWEEN sequel; maybe going for a “HALLOWEEN presents” kind of thing would have worked better. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m sure John Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace stopped wondering about this long ago. The series returned to the Michael Myers storyline in 1988 and Carpenter was no longer involved. Meanwhile, this film lives on, leaving the rest of us out there with that damned Silver Shamrock jingle running through our heads over and over again for all the Halloweens to come. Which just leads me to think that maybe in some ways, Conal Cochran’s plan really did come true.
Sometimes in films the things that are scary to us, the most effective moments, turn out to be this way because they go beyond what we’re expecting for our own reasons. As a person gets older they might find themselves giving more thought to the actual behavior, as well as the responses to that behavior, that certain characters in films may have. And we might find that this happens even in films where those elements might not seem at first to be particularly important. This occurred to me recently during a Halloween season viewing of Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. Considered to be one of the very best (if not the best) of all films produced by Hammer, the 1969 film still plays extremely well today and while a few flaws may have occurred to me this time around what stood out for me the most was just how absolutely, positively bleak the film was. And more to the point, I found myself feeling great sorrow for female lead Anna Spengler as played by the lovely Veronica Carlson, one of the most purely beautiful of all the Hammer heroines. Yes, she and boyfriend Karl as played by Simon Ward are trafficking in a little cocaine for some badly-needed funds but not for any insidious gain--it’s simply to help out her mother who’s off in a hospital, which seems about as noble a reason as you could get (“It’s dreadful that you have to buy a life,” offers Karl in a line that still makes sense today). And it’s this one tiny flaw of theirs which allows Baron Victor Frankenstein, played once again by Peter Cushing, to take advantage of the situation, taking over their lives so that they will do everything he needs to aid in his experiments. Everything. It turns out to be a punishment which far outweighs their modest crime, certainly a greater one that they would have received if the law had gotten involved. Carlson seems to play the character as undergoing a gradual implosion through the course of the film and many have said that the film goes too far in what happens to her. I don’t know if that’s the case, but the end result is certainly an experience in which the horror is felt more than usual.
Awareness of the previous four entries is not really necessary, outside of knowing that Peter Cushing plays Baron Victor Frankenstein, continually in the search of the means to create life. By the time of this entry he is living under a pseudonym, continuing his experiments in secret. He takes a room in a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Carlson) and once he has a piece of information about she and her boyfriend Karl (Ward) he is able to use to his advantage Karl’s position in the local insane asylum. Frankenstein, you see, is very interested in the brain of Dr. Frederick Brandt, who before he went insane, believed to have solved some of the problems that have been plaguing Dr. Frankenstein through his years of experimentation. As the young couple quickly and separately learns, Frankenstein will go to any extreme to fulfill his ultimate goal.
The characters in this particular film are drawn more vividly than they often can be in other Hammer entries and the story is stronger as well—at around 100 minutes it’s allowed to breathe a little more than those that seem locked into the 90 minute running time come hell or high water and seem to stop abruptly after a perfunctory finish. It might not be the classic Hammer of HORROR OF DRACULA but it is one of the best examples of storytelling to ever come from the studio. The screenplay is credited to Bert Batt (story by Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys) who mostly worked as an assistant director and since he has no other screenplay credits it makes the quality of this particular entry even more of a mystery but there’s definitely a force brought to it all by director Terence Fisher that is undeniable. It’s as if the best elements of previous Frankenstein entries (and other films from the studio that Fisher and Cushing were involved in, for that matter) all culminated with this one big blow-out, possibly the last one from Hammer which could be placed anywhere in shouting position of the word great. It pushes boundaries in a way that you wouldn’t expect from the fifth entry in any series and it makes you wish that films from the company could have risen to such an occasion more often.
If anything, it’s one of those films which I look at now and think that as good as it is a few of the story points could have been pushed even further. If they’d done one more rewrite by an expert hand, maybe someone who wasn’t so locked into the Hammer formula, a few of the plot developments in the home stretch might not have seemed so half baked (actually, I’ll be more generous than that—three-quarters baked). As it is, it’s like something that might have been a true genre classic but doesn’t quite get there, even if where it does wind up is pretty close. The threads in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED do lead to a satisfying finish (one that could have concluded the series though Cushing did play the role one more time) but a number of pieces never do feel fully resolved—the cops drop out of the picture, the mother we hear about that gets the plot rolling is never seen or referred to past a certain point and the end involving the Brandts—touchingly played by DUNE’s Freddie Jones and Maxine Audley—never gets a satisfying conclusion on its own.
But it’s the pure, irredeemable nastiness of the Frankenstein character goes a long way towards making the film work so well—as presented here, the character may be the biggest bastard that Cushing ever played (“Pack! We’re leaving.”) and, yes, that includes the time that he ordered the destruction of Alderaan. Part of this has to do with the utter coldness that Cushing fearlessly brings to the role, but part of it also has to do with the character trajectory of Anna Spengler as played by Veronica Carlson. It’s her section of the plot that stays with me and her tragedy, combined with Fisher’s insistence on portraying the character of Frankenstein at his most vicious, seems to move the film as close towards greatness as it can get. It’s surprising to look at the actress’s filmography today and see how few films she really did appear in. Of course, the only ones that anyone cares about are this film, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and the non-Cushing entry HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Extremely beautiful, she’s not only very effecting here, but what the character of Frankenstein seems to do to destroy her very spirit almost instantly—I always remember the way she just stands there, silent, as her former boarders protest being ejected from the house—strikes me as just so damn sad.
The most controversial element involving Carlson is, as anyone who's seen it knows, the Baron’s genuinely shocking rape of Anna. Reports have the scene being added very late in the shooting, at the protest of the two actors involved, because the powers that be at Hammer decided the film was lacking in sex—so a rape scene presumably took care of that, unfortunate as that may be. I’m not sure that the scene (which apparently was not included during the film's original U.S. release) is necessary either for any number of reasons but it does somewhat unintentionally help to bridge this film between earlier Hammer and the somewhat more adult (read: copious amounts of nudity) entries from the studio that would begin a few years later. That the scene was added so late reportedly upset the actors in question, who felt that scenes occurring later would have been played differently by them (not the mention their dislike of including a rape scene in the first place) but even though it’s never referenced in dialogue it is consistent with Anna’s behavior at some points and really does make her continued psychological collapse more believable---not to mention, more tragic. Even her exit from the picture—sooner than we expect and definitely sooner than the character deserves—feels in line with this. It feels like a number of elements involved—to give Karl a real motivation for revenge (which itself isn’t fully dealt with), to be able to spend more time with the Brandt’s in their storyline and maybe just rewrite issues that were possibly occuring in general. But the fact is that the sadness of her face, so prevalent throughout much of the film, is what stays with me more than anything. The inferno of the climax is fairly well-staged but even with the extra running time it still feels like the very end comes in a “Well, I guess that’s it,” kind of way that was fairly common with films from Hammer which even James Bernard’s majestic score can’t fully help. I still wish that it were a little better than it is, but there’s no denying how effective it remains to this day and it continues to be rewarding to return to. I don’t know if it’s the best Hammer film that I’ve ever seen—I could say that and easily change my mind tomorrow—but it is one of the very best examples of what they were capable of.
The attention-getting fake-out opening of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED features what we take to be some sort of monster…who is then revealed to be a normal-looking human being underneath that mask. This person in question is eventually revealed to be the greatest monster of all, much more so than the one who has his brain placed into another body ever is—as Freddie Jones portrays that creation here, when he steps forward gently saying “I mean you know harm,” it’s a moment that deserves to be remembered among the very best of the creations by all of the Frankensteins ever portrayed on film. The vivid portrayal of that evil by Peter Cushing makes what happens to Veronica Carlson’s character in the film all the more tragic—someone without a selfish bone in her body wiped out by someone who cares about her as much as he does about a fly he just swatted. It kind of kills the idea of watching this film as an enjoyable Halloween viewing experience but it does certainly remind me of the evil that can be found in people who appear to be normal—even when they’re in 60s horror films which are sometimes thought of as camp or laughable. It’s not really right that they should be remembered that way—just as what happens to Anna Spengler isn’t at all deserved. But as time goes on, I realize that few things that happen are ever really deserved anyway.
Monday, October 26, 2009
The most fondly remembered British horror films of the late 60s and early 70s are usually period pieces, often from Hammer, sometimes from other places. It could be a question of why there weren’t more films set in present-day England but when Hammer began making things like STRAIGHT ON ‘TIL MORNING and DRACULA A.D. 1972 it was easy to see why (not that I don’t love A.D. 1972 in its own ridiculous way). Maybe the powers that be just didn’t know how to approach a version of the real world with the horror that they excelled at. Non-Hammer titles like CORRUPTION with Peter Cushing are problematic as well, but at least that one is slightly insane. It took Alfred Hitchcock to do something considerably more interesting with the London landscape in 1972’s FRENZY and among any other hidden gems out there would have to be Gary Sherman’s RAW MEAT (aka DEATH LINE, as it was known in England) a fairly bold, unnerving film also from 1972 which at the very least is considerably better than any film with the title RAW MEAT would be presumed to be. With a number of different elements at play it feels like the movie is trying a few things too many to be the genre-shattering experiment it may want to be, but maybe that feel of uncertainty is part of the point. It’s part late-show mystery, part grindhouse picture and part stylistic exercise that tries to combine different tones and defy some of the conventions that can be found in those films, resulting in a sharp turn into something bolder, more ambitious. The whole may not be as successful as some of it parts but at least it attempts to put us in a sense of genuine unease, never letting us to get too comfortable as we’re watching it.
After trolling the red light district of London, the otherwise distinguished James Manfred, OBE (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN’s James Cossin) is attacked in an Underground station and soon after his unconscious body is discovered by young couple Alex Campbell (David Ladd), an American, and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), who insists that they go get help. He reluctantly agrees (he’s seen plenty of people lying around on the subways back home; “In New York you walk over these guys!”) but by the time they get back Manfred’s body has disappeared, with no possible way he could have gotten out. Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) of the London police soon gets wind and begins to investigate. Though he is warned off the case by MI5 (in the person of Christopher Lee in a cameo) it soon becomes clear that what’s happening down in the Underground is worse than anyone feared, possibly being linked to the long ago cover-up of workers left to die in the construction of the station.
RAW MEAT makes its audaciousness known fairly early on when, after an introductory set of sequences that are enjoyable even if nothing unique, it suddenly takes a sharp left turn with the introduction of its main threat in a virtuoso seven-minute shot (the cinematographer was Alex Thomson) which is not only strikingly well-done, even with one or two apparently invisible edits, but contains some genuinely repulsive imagery as well (good thing I ordered in some Chinese food to watch the movie with). It also introduces us to one of the great, truly pitiful movie ‘monsters’ (played by Hugh Armstrong) an individual whose only words he knows to speak is the simple phrase ‘Mind the doors’ over and over, no doubt from hearing it from nearby train conductors (which we’ve actually heard as the first bit of dialogue at the start). Even within its modest scale the movie does a very good job of making the characters surprisingly layered—I couldn’t help but be surprised at the earnestness of Gurney’s character’s concern for the missing man and it contrasted nicely with the equally shocking nature of the underground dweller’s despair at losing his loved one. Even its portrayal of the British political system at work comes of as slightly more complex than would be expected and the minor involvement of MI5 in the context of this period reminded me of the machinations in last year’s very good THE BANK JOB, so it was surprising when one of the key players in the real-life version of that story turned up in a headline seen on a newspaper in one scene. The plotting isn’t quite as complex as it seems like it might be at one point--there is a certain amount of thinness to the story and that combined with the ambitiously long dialogue-free stretches makes it seem like the script couldn’t have been longer than 70 pages. It’s possible that some of this was done to stretch things out to feature length, like the prolonged opening credits with its jazzy main theme by Wil Malone and Jeremy Rose along with how one long shot near the very end drags out a scene of policemen walking a long, dark corridor but this steady feeling of gradualness the film has manages to somehow work.
Directed by Gary Sherman (probably best known for helming POLTERGEIST III but let's not dwell on that) and with a screenplay by Ceri Jones from Sherman’s story, RAW MEAT keeps its ambition in check, never seeming to want to expand things too much beyond its budgetary means but the structural nature of things also keeps it from breaking out too far beyond what the ambitions were. By a certain point it almost feels kind of like an extended demo reel for the director to display what he could do with actors, his camera, settings and pacing more than a full story that’s been put together. But even with this slight drawback RAW MEAT contains scenes which are genuinely startling as well as containing some pretty surprising gore for the time. Sherman is from Chicago (possibly making Ladd’s character a surrogate for him) and he makes very good use of London as well as the essential Britishness of some of the characters (such as Pleasance’s displeasure at learning his tea will now be served in bags). Looking forward to what John Landis would do in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, the Underground is used very well, which reminds me of how another film, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (more science fiction than horror) used the setting as well. The issue of the main plot representing what the monarchy of England is kept buried for so many years down to the more working class Inspector Calhoun drunkenly ranting about the state of things makes it feel like the film is trying to be about the state of England and its past when this film was released. I’d be the wrong guy to offer a take on all this but it does give the feel of RAW MEAT being more than ‘just’ a horror film, even one that succeeds in consistently keeping us on edge.
Playing his part as if in some dryly comic BBC series that sadly doesn’t really exist, Donald Pleasence is amazingly funny and enjoyable as he continually gets flustered with having to deal with anyone who crosses his path (as he shouts at young student Ladd, “Hurry back to school, there might be a protest march for you to join!”). He makes the film about his character more than it would have been otherwise and it’s hard not to wish he’d played the role again in other films. The pairing of Ladd and Gurney comes off as slightly bland in comparison, even with the girl’s sensitivity, but it feels intentional in how it feels like there’s believably not much to them. Their lack of uniqueness makes them seem much more genuine that the leads in various giallos that were made around this time and I like a few of their tiny exchanges like when he asks her if she wants to go see THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Christopher Lee gets some good dialogue in his single scene playing against Pleasence but it’s awkwardly staged as if the production couldn’t spend much time getting the two actors in the frame together. It doesn’t even feel like Lee worked a day on the film, it feels like he worked a half-day.
RAW MEAT isn’t very well-known and while the various pieces don’t always connect together in ways that make it a minor classic, the best things in it (Pleasence, the camerawork, the very sober tone) are extremely good, making it absolutely worth a look. The approach to its story means that any climactic action isn’t necessarily going to make everything better and the ending keeps a certain sense of dread hanging enough so I didn’t feel much of a sense of relief when the end credits rolled—almost at a point in a shot where they were slightly unexpected, which seemed to add to that feel. But it’s to the film’s credit that it didn’t try to convince anyone watching that everything was going to be all right. With films like this, you sometimes feel strangely reassured in knowing that the opposite is going to be the case. That’s one of the reasons we watch movies like this anyway.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The first image we see in Dario Argento’s INFERNO is a giant close-up of a large knife. Considering what is to come over the next few hours, this is not so surprising. But slightly unexpected in this context is its initial use, to assist in carefully moving through the pages of a certain very old book. Of course, what results from reading this book, moving through a history that is in the process of being uncovered, pretty much has the same result. The second entry in its director’s famed Three Mothers trilogy, INFERNO, which was made in 1980, has never been an easy film to pin down. Not so much a sequel to the previous entry SUSPIRIA, which it shares no main characters with, but an alternate take on several of its themes, in some ways a retelling of the earlier film but in a harsher, more minor key. While that film has the completely human presence of star Jessica Harper and its one key location of the Dance Academy for us to focus on, INFERNO hops around the map a little more, as well as seemingly experimenting with how long it can go on without actually starting the narrative we expect, as well as giving us a character who we believe will be the lead. This does eventually happen, almost by default, and it’s not necessarily the person we would have chosen. The key has to be to accept INFERNO for what it is, if only for the effect it ultimately has on us. There is art in this madness of Argento’s but he doesn’t always make it easy on us to take it in.
I could attempt a brief synopsis of the plot, but it wouldn’t be easy. While SUSPIRIA, set in Germany, told of Mater Suspiriorium, the Mother of Sighs, INFERNO moves things to New York to focus on Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness. In New York, Rose (Irene Miracle), a young poet who after reading a book by Varelli on The Three Mothers which she purchased from a nearby antiques dealer begins to suspect that her building is actually the dwelling of the Mother of Darkness and writes to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, of her suspicions and fears. Both of them, as well as a number of people around them, find themselves strangely drawn to learning more about whatever is going on, leading to much carnage as one of the characters begins to become closer to the roots of this mystery.
Even less than SUSPIRIA, possibly less than any other film Argento has made, the story being told is not important. The imagery, the mood, the undeniable sense of something truly other, is. The story we expect to receive becomes delayed in starting as we follow several different characters into their own corners of the tale, leading to horrible ends that are often punctuated by fade outs which always seem reminiscent of the end of the Arbogast murder in PSYCHO. In some ways INFERNO could be looked at as a PSYCHO-type of experience if we were introduced continually to other potential lead characters after Janet Leigh who met horrible unexpected ends as well, stretching our ideas of what this narrative should be to the absolute breaking point. To say that the film makes little sense is like saying it’s also in color—an appropriate way to look at it considering how beautiful those colors are. It’s a cold, harsh film, one that barely qualifies as having any sort of sense or humanity. The logic is one of a nightmare, where a major character thinks nothing of lowering herself into some bizarre flooded ballroom in a setpiece which makes no sense in several different ways, yet is undeniably beautiful in just as many. Imagery seen throughout is left unexplained on any level but nevertheless always manages to serve as a warning that evil is definitely nearby. The lack of a real sense of place certainly ties into that. Some of the film was actually shot in New York (just like other Italian genre films from this period, usually in an interesting way) but really very little. Of course, it isn’t set in the real New York that we know (or the real Rome in those scenes, for that matter). It’s another type of reality, a world where looking for the world of the past can lead to horrible results—in some ways, the past and the supernatural could almost mean the same thing in this context and every time somebody looks for one the other gets unavoidably intertwined.
Whereas the setup and logic of SUSPIRIA could be compared to that of a fairy tale (Imagine: “Once upon a time there was a young girl who went to a strange dance school…”) INFERNO is considerably more labyrinthine in its approach (Such as, “Once upon a time there was a young woman who lived in a strange building. Oh, and she had a brother. Oh, and he…”) which muddies things a bit and taking this sort of opposite approach is a bold step that doesn’t always work (the prolonged nighttime Central Park sequence always begins to lose me a bit). Jessica Harper was such a crucially believable presence amidst all the madness of that film and the women who might possibly have had such a sensuous effect here (namely Irene Miracle and Elonora Georgi as Mark’s girlfriend in Rome) seem deliberately not given the chance to have such an effect. Instead we get Leigh McCloskey who makes next to no impression at all and it is this coldness that always makes INFERNO more of a schematic experience than anything, even as densely layered as it feels much of the time. That we have to follow him through the film means that our ultimate destination isn’t going to be completely satisfying—of course, the climax of SUSPIRIA wasn’t the strongest part of that film either but that was for different reasons(at least the lead of this film gets to actually confront somebody). INFERNO is a fascinating and, in some ways, daring work by its director but at times maybe too disjointed to entirely connect to any sort of emotional state. Still, it’s hard to deny how much the very best moments really do linger in the brain long after it concludes and at its best there is a genuine power in there.
As a way that makes it slightly frustrating, it’s also hard not to think of it as very consciously the middle chapter in a trilogy which may have been concluded at that time. There are elements (some set design, uses of color, actor Fulvio Mingozzi playing a cab driver in both films) which provide deliberate, almost subliminal echoes of SUSPIRIA, as well as tantalizing hints of what may have been yet to come of Argento had proceeded with a third entry soon after in Ania Pieroni’s brief unexplained appearance as a character listed in the credits merely as “music student” but who no doubt is supposed to be the mysterious Mother of Tears, not quite ready to take center stage. Of course, Argento finally concluded his trilogy within the past few years with MOTHER OF TEARS which I’ll admit I enjoyed more than a lot of people did but I’ll certainly admit that when compared to the first two films, coming so many years later, it just wasn’t the same.
Unlike SUSPIRIA, INFERNO never received a real theatrical release in the U.S. by Twentieth-Century Fox and didn’t play New York until a brief engagement at the Thalia in August 1986, when it received a bemused review in The New York Times. (“shot in vivid colors, with some striking angles…but the script and acting are largely routine.” They may be ineffectual, but I don’t know if ‘routine’ is really the issue here.) But as the cult of Argento has grown over here the film has achieved its own small following, evident by the packed house at the New Beverly for the midnight show on Saturday October 17th. Helping with the special night was the appearance of star Irene Miracle, Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer who composed the film’s remarkable score (my favorite use of music in the film may me the conclusion of the Central Park sequence which, with its shots of the city skyline, comes off as some sort of perverse Gershwin moment). Also at the theater, in from Cincinnati, was Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas who is also the author of the truly astonishing Mario Bava biography All the Colors of the Dark. Bava, as it is known, was responsible for some of INFERNO’s key special effects in what turned out to be the last film he ever worked on. Despite being claimed in the past by various sources, he did not work on the famed underwater sequence, but was responsible for some of the more subtle effects of the film, such as the continuous shots of the moon, which Lucas deemed as sort of Greek Chorus to what we might perceive as the narrative. The lovely Irene Miracle, clearly enjoying herself immensely, talked about how she basically took the part for the money and that due to Argento’s health problems he wasn’t even on set at times, essentially directing by proxy. She also explained some of what might be termed the abruptness of her part’s length by saying that while she was cast thinking she had a much larger part, her own health issues at the time may have led to it being cut down. More surprisingly, she spoke of how she shot numerous scenes that did not appear in the film including “discovering a body in Central Park” which indicates that there was possibly a good deal of restructuring going on both during the shooting and the cutting (could Daria Nicolodi’s character have been expanded because of this?). Keith Emerson spoke with great enthusiasm of the process of scoring the film, including screening all of Argento’s previous films just after arriving in Rome while suffering jet lag as well as how his up tempo version of the selection from Verdi’s Nabucco that we hear during the cab ride was meant to simulate the rickety nature of riding in cabs in Rome! All three people were immensely enjoyable to listen to and afterwards most people seemed to agree that it was one of the best q&a’s that we’d ever seen at the New Beverly (You’d think it would have turned up on Youtube by now).
What we were then treated to was an absolutely gorgeous print of the film, making it clear that INFERNO is one of those films where, no matter how good the DVD looks, somehow needs to be seen in a theater, both for the dark clarity of the print, but also because it provides you with less of an escape. Even without a strong narrative, the film can be a pummeling experience, both in the immense degree of gore and in how it refuses to make it easy on how to say exactly what the hell is going to go on, if the story has already begun, if it’s ever going to begin. It feels slightly longer than it needs to be. Maybe some cutting to move a few sections along faster wouldn’t have been a terrible thing but even this feels intentional in a way to get the rhythm of the film such that it wants to stretch out certain sections to an almost agonizing degree.
The night went late, but it was a wonderful screening with the film playing just great for the packed house. As it turned out, when we emerged from the theater in what was by then close to the middle of the night a heavy fog had come down up on the city, making driving home a somewhat treacherous experience. At that late hour, you could almost believe that you would have been driving off into some strange unexpected encounter, a strange force from the past. But nothing of the sort happened and as I left that screening where I got to express my admiration to Tim Lucas for all his work over the years the power of INFERNO was undeniable. When a skeptical minor character in the film is asked what he believes he replies, “In whatever I can see and touch.” It’s a clumsy line in how it comes across and he’s off the screen soon enough, presumably as a punishment for saying it. But even though such a idea goes against what the movie ultimately tells us, the line stays with me as a reminder of such a rational belief in the face of such madness. And besides, nights like this one at the New Beverly, made so enjoyable because of the film shown as well as the people there with a tangible connection to it reveal the statement to be true.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
For John Carpenter fans, 1987’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS probably falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. It doesn’t have the cult status of something like THEY LIVE and it probably shouldn’t be ranked among his very best which would obviously include HALLOWEEN and THE THING. Since the New Beverly ran it on a double bill with THE THING several weeks ago, there was really no question as to which film shown that night was the masterpiece. But in truth I liked PRINCE OF DARKNESS back when it was first released and revisiting it now I felt that it has held up extremely well, coming off at times as genuinely dark and chilling. This new print struck by Universal (the one which was going to be shown at the theater in mid-‘08 was destroyed in the fire on the lot at the time) turned out to be truly beautiful, fitting for a film that is more deserving of praise than it has received in the past. Released the year after the unfortunate and undeserved box-office failure of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS was a slight regrouping for the director at the time, an attempt to make a low-budget film without too much riding on it. With an overriding sense of seriousness in how it approaches its subject matter it feels like one of the most genuine attempts at encroaching dread that he ever went for.
Soon after discovering a mysterious cylinder in an old, nearly abandoned church in downtown Los Angeles, a Priest (Donald Pleasance) consults with former colleague Dr. Howard Birack (Victor Wong) a famed physics professor. To further study the mass inside the cylinder, Dr. Birack recruits several students, including David Marsh (Jameson Parker) and new potential girlfriend Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) to spend the weekend in the church but as they soon begin to discover the potential power of the liquid, the students find themselves trapped, under siege from the homeless people surrounding the church and find themselves in danger from what is both inside and outside. A recurring dream the students have when asleep (“This is not a dream…”) which features a mysterious figure at the front of the church appears to be a warning sent back from somebody in the year “one-nine-nine-nine” and they soon are forced to deal with the realization that what they are faced with is the genuine possibility of what one of them calls “old scratch knocking at the door”.
With a script credited to one Martin Quatermass (actually a pseudonym for Carpenter, paying very deliberate tribute to the Nigel Kneale character Bernard Quatermass), the overwhelming feeling of true unease in PRINCE OF DARKNESS begins immediately and doesn’t let up, complete with a continually roving camera and an incessant tub-thump to the music by Carpenter. There isn’t necessarily a real theme to the score but it also seemingly won’t stop at any point during the running time, burrowing its way into our brain, just what the movie wants to do. Setting it slightly apart from other horror films, the narrative is populated with intelligent characters, graduate students no less, who stumble into this situation even as all the signs around them say something is wrong—the numerous homeless people who are gathering (led by Alice Cooper, actually), not to mention the growing amount of worms covering a window that give the impression the building is rotting all around them. Using rational thought, they don’t notice the true danger of such things until it’s too late and all of these elements combined gradually give the film the feel of a nightmare that you just can’t wake up from. Everything in PRINCE OF DARKNESS probably shouldn’t work as well as it does—some of it would come off as downright silly in other hands—but it somehow does because of the expert pacing and mood that Carpenter maintains. Within the context of this basic scenario that the director has, after all, done before he manages to bring some unexpected elements into the mix such as how all isn’t resolved the instant the sun comes up at the end of the long night. Daytime doesn’t send the evil away and the onslaught continues, with no one coming to rescue them. And when the very nature of ‘old scratch’ comes into play in moments such as when someone is standing outside the window proclaiming, “I have a message for you and you’re not going to like it…” the scene is presented with such deadly seriousness in a yes-we-really-mean-this kind of way it’s hard not to admire the film for that audaciousness.
With Carpenter’s staging displaying a consistently well-utilized sense of space throughout the building (damn, I just love the way the Scope frame is used here), it proceeds with a careful, steady mood of dread that looking at it now feels influenced by Fulci—there’s a similarity in how the pacing seems to proceed with the gradual clicking of a metronome. That feeling of dread is what stays with you about the film more than anything, but there is humor at various points and at times a likable interplay between the characters and even some goofiness on occasion—although the Tom & Jerry cartoon featuring the devil that is briefly seen feels more like a beat out of Dante than Carpenter, although it does play like an indication that maybe we shouldn’t be taking all this too seriously, even if there is a great deal of discussion of physics.
There’s a fair amount of Hawksian camaraderie between the actors and maybe even more humor than I remembered but combined with the extensive discussion of the battle between science and religion leading to how they relate to the plot (which certainly makes this film somewhat unique) it’s also a restating of the trapped-in-a single-location RIO BRAVO/NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD device that Carpenter used as far back as ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and maybe an attempt to see just how far he could take this concept. The opening credits to the film have always been slightly infamous in how they just won’t stop (I can still remember the groans heard on opening night every time they continued) and that lack of release, the attempt at a lack of release could be looked at as a prime component of the film itself, right up until the very end. It’s as if it’s saying the part of dread is not giving you any sense of relief—you can’t ever know if the dread is really passed or not. It’s not his best film, but Carpenter’s filmography would feel incomplete without it.
It’s tempting to say that the characters are all written and played in a colorless way but there is humanity in there, with some humor as well (“Have you seen Susan? Radiologist, glasses?”). This dry nature of the actors is somewhat appropriate and making any of them a ‘star’ role seems deliberately avoided—Jameson Parker is more or less the lead and is kept very low-key but his basic earnestness does make him likable. Top-billed Pleasence is mostly kept separate from the younger cast and plays his role as a more introverted Dr. Loomis, as if knowing that no ranting and raving will prevent the worst from happening. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong were both also in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA—Dun is as close to comic relief as the film allows (he’s funny in a believable way, not as strict comic relief which is an important difference) and Wong proves that he can spit out all kinds of exposition, still making it somehow fascinating. Lisa Blount, in many ways the real soul of the film as the love interest and she has a very sensuousness presence as if something horrible but unspoken in her past is affecting everything she does. Character actor Peter Jason, in his first of several films for Carpenter (he’s also worked for Walter Hill numerous times), brings a sharp sense of timing and interest to his stock role and at times there’s the feeling that his director just let him do whatever he wanted when the cameras rolled, making for some nice little moments. Not all of the actors in small roles make good impressions but even in some of the stilted line readings is a sort of naturalism that makes the ongoing threat seem even more potent. Nothing about it is very slick, but it never tries to be. It’s an attempt to siphon his filmmaking style to its pure essentials—all he needs is a building, a Panavision lens, his keyboard, maybe a few actors he likes—and from that he has the undeniable talent to produce something truly effective.
“Everybody’s acting like we should really be taking this seriously,” says one skeptic when serious revelations are being discussed. It’s as if the character is speaking for us, just as we wonder how serious we’re supposed to be taking some of these grave, world-changing revelations. Dialogue throughout the film seems to be leading us down the path to help us make up our mind. “Only the corrupt are listened to now and they tell us what we want to hear,” is stated at one point, something which seems more true than it did at the time of the film’s release, which seems appropriate considering we have long since passed the future date that is alluded to within. And since we have passed that date, what does that say about how we should be viewing PRINCE OF DARKNESS? Is it a dream or is it something else? Are our dreams ever our own or are they placed there against our wishes? The film doesn’t tell us, merely offering the blunt acknowledgement that sometimes we reach for a reflection, searching in vain for that answer. And maybe that’s all we can ever do.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Several weeks ago the New Beverly ran a one-night marathon of five trucker movies and while I wasn’t there for the whole thing I did come by for a few which included some interesting titles I hadn’t seen before, such as WHITE LINE FEVER and the latter day Patrick Swayze vehicle BLACK DOG which, so help me, wasn’t half bad. But the real find of the night turned out to be Richard Franklin’s 1981 suspense film ROAD GAMES, which was also a slight change of pace for the evening. Not only was it more of a straight-out thriller than a 10-4 good buddy trucker movie, it wound up surpassing all expectations for what otherwise were pretty much a few enjoyable drive-in movies. What this one turned out to be was an absolutely terrific film, at times stunningly suspenseful as well as extremely well-executed. Even if it isn’t as well known as it should be, I suppose that it helped to get Richard Franklin the job of directing PSYCHO II a few years later and though Franklin, who died in 2007 of prostate cancer, directed several more times after that it could possibly be said that he never came close to following through on the huge promise that this film showed. But at least there was this one. If you haven’t seen it, get that taken care of fast.
Truck driver Patrick Quid (Stacy Keach), working in Australia, is assigned against his protestations to deliver a shipment of meat across the desert to Perth. With his trusty Dingo by his side Quid (who always insists, “Just because I drive a truck, it does not make me a truck driver”) alleviates his boredom by making up stories to himself about all the different people he passes on the road. When news of a possible serial killer begins to pop up Quid find himself suddenly suspicious of the driver of a green van who he dubs “Smith or Jones” and soon Quid’s conversations with the attractive young hitchhiker he picks up who he calls “Hitch” (Jamie Lee Curtis) only increases his suspicions. But a continuing series of events, which manage to get certain people suspicious of Quid, only increases his questions. What really is up with the driver of the green van? Is he actually engaged in a series of games with Quid? And just how many pigs is Quid supposed to be carrying back there in his truck, anyway?
Best described as a cross between REAR WINDOW and Spielberg’s DUEL, it’s pretty easy to look at ROAD GAMES (Screenplay by Everett De Roche from a story by De Roche and Franklin) as inspired by Hitchcock, something I don’t think Franklin would have ever downplayed, but it succeeds as more than just a tribute by featuring a terrific script, expert direction and a hugely enjoyable lead performance by Stacy Keach as Quid, a very enjoyable character to follow along with in this film. In addition to the ever-growing suspense, the film has an enjoyable sense of humor throughout, mostly coming from this lead character and his interactions with people but it manages to expertly combine all of these tones—the way Keach’s interaction with the stranded housewife played by Marion Edward moves from comical bickering to a more gradual revelation of what might be going on to the fear of a character who up to that point had been comic relief who from revealing her own backstory suddenly makes her believably sympathetic. Out of nowhere, a sequence which began as archly funny has crept up and become much more serious than first realized. The film is filled with tiny little things like that.
The fact that we see the setup to one of the murders at the very beginning—the layout of the scene resembles straight out DePalma more than Hitchcock—but it doesn’t necessarily give everything away entirely, allowing us to sort everything out as gradually as Quid does. As much of a character piece as a suspense thriller-chase picture (I particularly like the quiet campfire stopover with Keach and Curtis), ROAD GAMES ratchets up the tension throughout with well-utilized devices like a car alarm that blares incessantly throughout one sequence, keeping it going right up until the very end with a fantastic climax as the ‘Games’ have one driver leading the other through a series of alleyways that get smaller and smaller, making the use of the truck all the more dangerous. It takes the concept of this one guy out there on the road to the limit, allowing him to go slightly crazy with his fatigue and genuine uncertainty over exactly what is going on, with a genuinely creepy trip into his truck with all those pigs hanging in there—are we going to find something unexpected hanging as well?—as well as some striking, sneak-up-on-you visuals that are employed by Franklin to illustrate this, all masterfully assembled. Right up to the end you can feel Franklin pulling all the strings of his narrative with a confidence that reveals somebody who learned all the absolute right lessons from Hitchcock. On the DVD extras, the late director slightly disowns the final sting saying it was what distributor Avco-Embassy wanted and he’s completely right, it does seem a little out of place for what the tone of the film is going for (a more subtle, darkly comic coda would have worked better). But the film is so good that it’s not enough to kill the fun and when those doors slam shut at the very end it’s hard not to feel a little elated at just how damn good this film was.
The New York Times review at the time of its release written by Herbert Mitgang is insultingly dismissive—it’s easy to imagine that Janet Maslin having a greater appreciation for what the film was going for and would probably have worked the word ‘witty’ into her review as well. It’s no surprise to learn that Quentin Tarantino is a big fan (one tiny dialogue exchange between the two leads seems to have turned up in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) and ultimately ROAD GAMES is a real find, that occasional film that you find yourself looking for, the one that makes all that obsessive searching for the ever-elusive gem completely worth it. It’s not a guilty pleasure or a goofy trucker movie in the slightest. It’s a real find and a truly excellent film that deserves to be better known than it is.
For the most part it’s all Keach’s show and he’s excellent. An actor who still works after all these years quietly doing very good work (I remember being halfway into AMERICAN HISTORY X before I realized that he was playing a key supporting role) and he nails this character, making us like him with all his good-natured eccentricities and relate to him during the more hysterical moments. When under pressure he drops his pretensions to someone stating, “I’m just a truck driver,” as if admitting that his prior boasts were nothing but, we see how vulnerable he is as well, but neither he nor the film ever makes too big a deal about it. It’s a fantastic character played by a terrific actor. Is it the best film role he ever had? Even if it isn’t, it certainly ranks up there. Curtis has less screen time and as a result isn’t quite the second lead you would expect but she does pull off being both likable and a little mysterious. Even though they’re not together as much as we’d like, she and Keach have a very nice rapport together. The Dingo gives a very good performance as well. The score by Brian May (not the one from Queen, but rather the composer of the scores for MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR) is excellent as well, alternating pounding suspense with a heroic, open road fanfare throughout that only makes the film all the more endearing.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I can’t think of anything substantially bad to say about ROAD GAMES. Its complete and total enthusiasm for its genre plays like the early work of a director who should have gone on to be huge and while Franklin did get his shot (PSYCHO II is pretty good and he also helmed CLOAK & DAGGER, which I’m planning on revisiting soon) it seems like a shame that didn’t happen. It’s our loss. But ROAD GAMES is a genuinely fantastic film and it was a great idea for the New Beverly to show it, exposing it to new viewers. It’s on DVD as well, so don’t let anything stop you.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Why do I love TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN so much? Why do I feel like I could watch it over and over again? What is it about this movie that stands out for me? Is it because it displays that ultimate fantasy of being trapped in the decadent glamour of Rome in the early 60s? Is it because the film, directed by Vincente Minnelli with all the style he is famous for (in CinemaScope and Metrocolor), is so obviously a studio product yet coming as it did in the twilight of the old studio system the whole thing plays as slightly off, maybe even nuts. The 1962 movie seems to have the feel and logic of a party that you’ve stayed at way too long, just because you’ve still haven’t given up on this one particular girl, then suddenly you look up and realize that it’s 4 AM and from this point on not a thing is ever going to make sense. In a way, the film came at 4 AM of the long night of the old studio system as well—everything is breaking down, everyone is fleeing to shoot cheaper films overseas and suddenly Cyd Charisse has become downright frightening. Maybe she always was. You can’t be sure anymore.
Based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, TWO WEEKS stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Andrus, a washed up film star who while recovering in a sanitarium is summoned to Rome by his one-time favorite director, the great Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) with the promise of a small but juicy role in his latest film, being shot for a stingy Italian producer. There is no role in this production that a desperate Kruger has lowered himself to direct, but on a tight schedule to complete this production with a producer intent on pulling the plug in weeks, Kruger convinces Jack to stick around and supervise the dubbing, always a key ingredient of a film being shot over in Italy. Andrus digs in to the assignment with a sense of purpose but finding himself in Rome he also in forced to confront his past with ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) nearby as well as the beautiful young Veronica (Daliah Lavi) who represents either the present two weeks or even a possible future as Andrus must confront his past and where he wants to go if he is going to be able to walk away from these two weeks.
The very title indicates a stopover, going from one place to another, only in the case of this film it’s referring to life in general, not just the place it is set in. Except for Lavi’s more innocent, free-spirited Veronica (who doesn’t like watching movies because “when I have two hours, I like to spend them my own way,”) everyone in the film, even the younger leading man played by George Hamilton, seems worn down, bitter. They drink in the parties, dinners and crowded cafes of Rome in an attempt to forget everything that has led them there but it never quite succeeds. Not to mention the fantasy of not just Rome but of Cinecitta—it could hardly be taken as a documentary of the filmmaking process in that place but the details of the crew, dubbing and actors all saying their lines in different languages expresses in a certain sense what it must have been like. The film is clearly set in the Rome of the time that was previously portrayed in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA but it also seems very much a Hollywood attempt to capitalize on it. This duality is one of the elements that genuinely helps with the feel that the film is caught between two worlds, two lifestyles, two filmmaking approaches.
These feelings extend to the very nature of the film we’re watching, right down to the footage from the previous Minnelli/Douglas/composer David Raskin team-up THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (some sources incorrectly refer to TWO WEEKS as a sequel because of this) that is used as a film being viewed in the film, supposedly one of the previous Andrus/Kruger collaborations. As Robinson is told how great he is he sits there sighing “I was great,” it’s hard not to read him as an obvious surrogate for Minnelli, expressing his own ambivalence for what his old studio MGM, and his own career, has come to, maybe even stating what he thinks about directing the film we’re watching. “How can a man go wrong and not know why” Robinson mournfully asks at another point, such a big question that it sounds like the theme to the film is being stated but it isn’t. TWO WEEKS by a certain point is about not the defeatist asking of the question but realizing that you need to move on from that that point--face the things you got wrong, wash yourself of all your sins and regrets (literally, in the case of Jack Andrus as it turns out) before moving on, ready to face the future and whatever it will hold. Maybe it’s also because the film is not about friendship winning the day or a man saved by finding the love of a good woman but about confronting these things on your own and once that’s done you can move on, even if it is by yourself.
Does any of this matter? Am I just attracted to this film by the scenery of Rome, the ultra-wide Scope compositions of Rome, the dream of having an affair with Daliah Lavi in Rome, the moments of Kirk Douglas faced with all the beauty of Rome all around him, tortured over what he’s supposed to do next. Maybe TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, in all lurid splendor that is on display, plays like a laugh riot with an audience, but I don’t care, even if there are elements of the story that don’t make sense on any rational level. It’s all part of the delirium that I love getting sucked into. Not to say that there aren’t a few issues—at 107 minutes it’s about a half-hour shorter than Minnelli’s SOME CAME RUNNING and there is some abruptness involving a Douglas’s relationships with a few characters in the second half (I’ve seen references out there to MGM cutting things down, but few specifics—I would imagine much of it has to do with some sequences which come near the end). But these things barely seem to matter in the phantasmagorical climax, again mirroring a BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL scene, involving Douglas with Charisse madly driving in his out-of-control car through the narrow streets of Rome, a sequence as phony as it is strangely beautiful ultimately seeming flat-out expressionistic in giving us the desperate fury of what must be going through Kirk Douglas’s head.
Everything is big in this film, from the luscious score by David Raskin to the intense staging (it looks to me like one shot of Charisse watching Douglas and another man fight over her was slightly recreated by Brian DePalma in FEMME FATALE) to every single one of the performances. Kirk Douglas somehow manages to pull off seeming like an underdog yet still full of himself, providing impressionists out there with lots of material but we see enough of him working with other people on the film that we believe in his talent and intellect. This causes him to work very well with Edward G. Robinson, who has enough presence that we totally believe him as a director who can rule over a set and terrify it as well. The freshness of Lavi works well even with her inexperience, playing as the total opposite of Cyd Charisse who comes off as so scarily intense that she barely seems human. Watching her in every single bizarrely elaborate gown she wears as she preys on Douglas with what seems like enough teeth for three people it becomes clear that TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN isn’t about realism, because these kinds of nightmares that we need to face in life sometimes aren’t real anyway. It ultimately becomes so bizarre that we can’t look away. The one-note shrieking of Claire Trevor as Robinson’s wife becomes too much by a certain point in comparison—she screams more than Ava Gardner in EARTHQUAKE and eventually it feels like a type of hysteria that is out of synch with the rest of the picture. Maybe that it’s a thankless role is the point —you can hardly blame Robinson for preferring to be with Rosanna Schiaffino, who in her role as the Italian star of the film being shot doesn’t ever say a single word in English. Even when she screams, it’s in Italian so naturally it’s charming.
So why can’t I stop watching it? I still don’t have an answer to that. Maybe I see myself in Kirk Douglas’s character, maybe I’m constantly looking for my own redemption just like he is. Maybe I really do just want to go to Rome in the early 60’s, a place where the streets and cafes appear to be teeming with the most exciting kind of life ever seen—even if it is the MGM-sanctioned version of Rome (well, at least they actually shot it on location). TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is not an easy film to see. The only video release it ever received was on laserdisc, although it does play on TCM fairly often. It’s not a film that I’m necessarily looking to share with people because I’m aware of some of its shortcomings. But sometimes the films that do feel flawed, even in all their nutso earnestness, are the ones we become attached to the most. In their flaws, we see ourselves. The films we want them to be, the exciting lead characters we wish we were. When the title of TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN appears onscreen during the benediction of the final shot as the David Raskin score swells to its conclusion, it seems to remind us that sometimes we all need to confront the abyss of our own past during two weeks in some other town. It’s ultimately our own decision how we decide to move on from that crucial point, when we finally have the ability to say, “The hell with the past.” Of course, until that happens, it’s easier said than done.