Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Past Is Never Really Past

One thing’s for sure, when a movie opens with someone screaming, “THERE IS NO GOD!” at top volume, it’s certainly making some sort of statement of theme. It’s maybe too easy to speculate right off the bat what Anthony Perkins was trying to say in the opening moments of his directorial debut but soon enough it becomes clear that PSYCHO III takes place in a world that, like its legendary lead character, is totally insane, one that has left any sort of god far behind as it embraces all the possibilities of its madness. The film has at times a truly twisted feel to it that plays now as more than a little surprising since most part threes of any kind would be inclined to play things a little safe. But here the characters who you would expect to be the point of audience identification aren’t that at all, the ones who turn out to be such aren’t even particularly likable and any ‘normal’ people who turn up never seem to be anyone you’d want to spend time with. And there’s Anthony Perkins, this time directing his own performance as Norman Bates, one that has always been criticized for taking things too far in its skittishness—and maybe he does—but in the context this film places it in the approach kind of makes sense, at one with everything that surrounds it. The film wasn’t a hit when it was released over the Fourth of July weekend in 1986 (same day as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, incidentally) and it’s probably remembered now as little more than a curio but in some ways it’s become even more potent because of its own obscurity, an evil little jack in the box that Anthony Perkins left around for anyone interested to check it out down the line. And for a film that really has no rational need to exist whatsoever the way it explores the insanity of its famous lead character allows it to somehow find a reason.

Soon after the events of PSYCHO II, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is once again fully in charge of the Bates Motel with his ‘mother’ watching over him. Business is even picking up slightly and when would-be rocker Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) passes through Norman hires him on as Assistant Manager. Also passing through is the unstable former nun Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) who left her convent when her own suicidal anguish resulted in the death of one of her superiors. When he first sees her Norman is struck by Maureen’s unmistakable resemblance to the one and only Marion Crane--the initials certainly don’t help--just as visiting journalist Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell, Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) begins snooping around, suspicious of Norman. Since Norman is naturally attracted to this new young woman who Duane has unknowingly placed in Cabin No. 1, it seems that history is about to repeat itself. Then, things begin to get really weird and some surprising secrets about Norman’s own past begin to come to light.

I happened to be watching this film recently for a Halloween season viewing when I was trying to come up with my ten most underrated horror films for the fine blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Naturally, I always slightly freeze up when trying to come up with these things but midway through this viewing I knew that it would wind up on my eventual list. Compared to the slightly straight-arrow nature of Richard Franklin’s PSYCHO II, director Perkins and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue take a more daring approach right from the get-go with that opening scene, also combining a clever bit of misdirection with a sly VERTIGO homage and all throughout the film has a visual daringness that indicates a truly twisted bent to its horror. At times the style seems to be what the world looks like through the eyes of the forever mad Norman Bates which, in a way, is what it is anyway. It really is a genuinely bizarre film, playing now more like a strangely personal black comedy than a horror-suspense-thriller on the part of Perkins to the point that I honestly wonder about his mindset at the time he made this, six years away from dying of AIDS, but I suppose that’s really none of my business. Furiously crammed into that dark comedy are doses of sleazy 80s slasher fare but even those elements don’t feel entirely out of place and even the graphic nature of the killings feels somewhat more a part of the aesthetic than it did in the previous film—the closest equivalent to a shower scene, set this time in the confined quarters of a phone booth (with a pretty minor character in this case) adds the awkward touch of a sweater half over the victim’s head and the emphasis placed on touches like bare feet getting bloodied by the broken glass almost feel more effective than graphic stabbing.

The genuinely perverse nature at times extends to moments like when Norman pauses to kiss a female corpse before he disposes of her as well as considerable touches of dark humor (some involving a body hidden in an ice chest) but in spite of the laughs sprinkled throughout it feels like there’s almost no respite from any of this madness--Diana Scarwid’s Maureen Coyle is about as unstable an individual who has ever been a lead in a film, Roberta Maxwell’s crafty reporter is hardly sympathetic in the slightest and some of the scenes down in the cabin occupied by Jeff Fahey’s Duane Duke have a genuine sense of nastiness to them as if the film actually wants us to resent that it’s making us spend time there. Even some of the ‘regular’ people who turn up around the Bates Motel, like the yahoos occupying the cabins when they’re not at the big homecoming game, hardly seem any more admirable (the most likable and level-headed of them, played by future THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 director Katt Shea Ruben, comes to a nasty end of course and on a toilet, no less) as if to say that in some ways hanging out with someone who keeps his dead mother up in the house isn’t much worse. It really doesn’t matter, but I don’t know if Norman Bates is searching for some kind of redemption in his hoped-for relationship with Maureen Coyle or if the character (and Perkins?) is looking for some kind of meaning in this mad world that the film is set in. I’m not sure he does either.

Within the schematics of the plot, several of the deaths do make this thing into more of a slasher movie than the past two films were and some of the who-is-Norman’s-real-mother stuff just feels like plot gimmickry that doesn’t really matter all that much in the end. It’s the feel that the film really means all this madness right down to the celluloid it’s being unspooled on that sticks in the brain more than the story which unfurls at a fast 93 minutes, racing to a few key confrontations almost before they might be expected to occur. Norman is a little at sea here so the film is a little at sea—there’s no one else left around from previous movies to confront him and in this sense while Tom Holland’s work as screenwriter on II may have been stronger, what Pogue has to do may have been harder—where he starts from isn’t as expected and where he takes it all is somewhat more daring, far beyond a sort of “This week on PSYCHO, several new visitors come to the Bates Motel…” that it might be in lesser hands. Since there’s not as much of a mystery as to what’s going on this time, the suspense is allowed to be somehow more internal within Norman’s own head. Along with Pogue’s exploration of the character is some cleverness throughout in the dialogue which revives the legendary “We all go a little mad sometimes” and even the previous film’s quirky “F.O.C…free of charge.” As director, Perkins has an oddball visual approach that doesn’t show much interest in ornamental passages provided by Albert Whitlock matte paintings found in Richard Franklin’s effort, focusing on the intensity of his own images and the (Bava-like?) colors from the motel’s neon that at times make appearances in Bruce Surtees’ cinematography. He’s also willing to try things that are slightly nonsensical in how they don’t quite work (like Norman departing Maureen’s hospital room and walking directly into Mother’s bedroom in one shot) but are sometimes oddly effective anyway—is Perkins photographed in blackface through most of the climax? The madness from his character makes its way into every frame of the film itself along with an early score by Carter Burwell (then fresh off BLOOD SIMPLE which Perkins was apparently a huge admirer of) that takes a jangling approach towards a veritable soundscape—musically speaking, it has nothing to do with either Bernard Herrmann or the traditional film-scoring of Jerry Goldsmith—becoming as unnerving as anything else here.

PSYCHO III is off-kilter every step of the way. It’s not a great example of storytelling—if that was even possible at this point in the well-trodden saga of Norman Bates, I’m really not sure—but it is surprisingly daring so the edge it wants to bring its own dark comedy and twisted self, like a key confrontation underscored by the incessant laugh of Woody Woodpecker coming from a nearby TV, has aged in an interesting fashion separate from the Hitchcock legacy while at the same time completely honoring it--the previous entry may be a better example of sheer plot construction, but it also feels a little square in comparison. This film is set in a world in which everything that happens is truly arbitrary in its unfairness and nastiness with the handful of Hitchcock nods also including one particular mortal struggle as a car sinks into the swamp that slightly recalls the key murder sequence in TORN CURTAIN. The implications of the opening line are never quite dealt with in the end—unless it’s just implied by the film’s own madness—and that might partly be due to a weak coda which some reports unsurprisingly have as being a reshoot. I can understand why Universal would have wanted to end it this way, even if it does kind of make the story pointless, but the moment still feels like it’s missing an extra beat to make it work or maybe it needs some kind of voiceover like the end of the original film. Either way, it’s a little too abrupt and makes the end result slightly unsatisfying. It’s a minor point, really, because PSYCHO III at its most audacious is a kind of scream of pain at the world and how no one gets out of it untarnished. In a way, we all wind up in Cabin No. 1 at the Bates Motel and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. As we all know, Anthony Perkins couldn’t either.

As for Perkins as an actor here, it’s not necessarily his strongest work, indicating that his mind was maybe on other things (Norman at his most normal here feels like Perkins at his most mechanical) but the more infamous parts of his acting style here goes beyond skittish and becomes a kind of performance art in itself, seeming somehow right for this film no matter how big he goes. And he interacts in interesting fashion with his costars too—playing someone who is genuinely disturbed in her own way, Diana Scarwid as Maureen Coyle in her conservative clothes (“Conservative clothes never go out of style.”) is both fragile and heartbreaking, playing someone who has no idea how to react to any sort of kindness and totally at sea when it comes to making anything resembling a right choice in what to do. There’s an undeniable energy to her presence, her character desperately leaning forward as she tries to express herself, and that alone gives the film a surprising amount of soul, making the film considerably more than just a clockwork structure allowing Norman to go crazy again. Jeff Fahey (all hail Frank Lapidus on LOST, while we’re at it) is smoothly cool as Duane Duke, hugely enjoyable in his sleaziness as he adds the right sort of danger and yet still playing how canny he is in how he can tell that there’s something going on at this motel beyond what anyone knows. As reporter Tracy Venable, Roberta Maxwell does some very sharp work, maintaining an interesting balance of never being too likable or unlikable, playing things more smart and cautious than might first be expected. Hugh Gillin reprises his role from II as the local Sheriff (a few of the diner employees turn up again as well), doing a particularly nice job of spitting out some ice in his best moment.

Maybe the total feel of anguish that comes from PSYCHO III just plays for me now more than it would at other times but what can I say, it’s been a strange year. More than anything after seeing this film again, what stays with me is the sincere desperation of Diana Scarwid’s character, looking for sanity in a place where she has no idea how little there really is. And I also remember that look on the face of Anthony Perkins, possessed by this point in the role of Norman Bates (which he played one more time after this in the cable movie PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING), in one of the film’s very best shots as he heads for the location where a note from his mother tells him she is (you’ll understand how that happens when you see it), a look that shows nothing but skittish madness, a battle going on in which both sides are totally mad and there’s never going to be any way to get fully out of it. Within that look on his face is the entire film, a modest achievement, but one Anthony Perkins deserved to feel proud of. It’s not always assured of itself—it is a directorial debut, after all—but it is alive. Just as, for many of us, the character of Norman Bates still is and always will be.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Italian In You

So is it even right for me to say anything about Dario Argento’s GIALLO? Over a year after its initial festival screenings, months after bad word spreading around the internet and Argento himself proclaiming his dissatisfaction due to how the film was taken away from him in editing it was pretty clear there were going to be problems. Then finally right on the eve of the film’s official release on DVD in the U.S. star Adrien Brody filed suit against the producers, seeking a permanent injunction against the film’s release alleging he never received payments he was promised after discovering during shooting that the film was underfunded. Why he waited so long is odd but nevertheless the film is out there now for all to see, for better or for worse, and I got it delivered from Netflix as soon as could be done. What seemed most notable going in next to my decidedly low expectations was that this was actually my first viewing of a new Argento feature that wasn’t in a theater, either through an AFM, Cinematheque or commercial screening, in nearly fifteen years. I’m not quite sure how I pulled that off either and considering the bankability of the star this time around you’d think that alone would have led to some sort of theatrical release, however small. So much for that optimism, I guess. For horror fans, this certainly seemed like a promising project on the surface—the possibility of the director making what based on the title alone was presumed to be a tribute to the genre he was partly an instigator of as well as the presence of Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Emmmanuelle Seigner, Mrs. Roman Polanski herself, in the lead roles. As it turns out, some of the needed elements that would promise the right kind of madness are there but due to a problematic script, troubles on the financing end and, maybe most depressing of all, a directorial style that feels decidedly low energy the film doesn’t do much in the end. It’s not a wipeout, it’s just…all right. There are some enjoyably Argentoesque touches sprinkled throughout that help but in the end the overall effect feels like too much of a shrug when it needs to be like the harsh sting of whiskey. Ideally, J&B whiskey. I only wish.

Beautiful model Celine (Elsa Patsky) suddenly disappears late one night in Turin, Italy, kidnapped by a lunatic who specializes in abducting beautiful young women in a taxi cab. When her sister Linda (Emmanuellle Seigner of FRANTIC and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) goes to the police she receives no help until she encounters Inspector Enzo Alfolfi (Academy Award winner Adrien Brody), an Italian-American cop who works in the precinct basement by himself, dealing in the worst possible abductions and killings imaginable. Alfolfi takes Linda’s information with interest and tells her to go home to wait but naturally she doesn’t listen, soon tagging along with the detective. The search for her sister soon leads them to a killer named Flavio Volpe (“Byron Diedra”) a hideous brute who has a condition that has caused his skin to turn yellow with his own plans to take care of Celine as Enzo and Linda race against time to find her before she becomes his next victim.

It isn’t all that much of a setup, with some of the way things are laid out sounding a little too much like THE BONE COLLECTOR and very quickly it becomes evident that this isn’t a giallo-type storyline anyway (odd writing credits, separately naming Argento then the team of Jim Agnew and Sean Keller—this definitely wasn’t WGA-sanctioned). Having the title derive from the killer’s condition instead of the type of film it would presumably be riffing on seems to be part of the joke. The name giallo (Italian for yellow, natch) comes from a type of book, seen in a character’s apartment here at one point, that would be issued in trademark yellow paperback covers and some of the films of this type are the ones that Argento remains most famous for. It’s generally considered a fairly stylish type of murder mystery with sex-infused violence and an overall sinuous vibe moving through lots of drinking, lots of beautiful women, lots of red herrings and any number plot turns that are usually pretty ludicrous. GIALLO the film is pretty violent with giant close-ups of unpleasant torture and has no real mystery to it—we know who the killer is right from the beginning. There are one or two patently ridiculous plot points but the way it inserts the color yellow into the plot to play off the expectations of the form frankly plays like it’s meant to be more clever than it ever really is. In spite of any intensity that arises between the leads, things are kept on a surface level as opposed to being any real examination of the genre.

It’s bland and nasty instead of stylish and sinuous with the way it delves into torture porn, for lack of a better term, turning things into kind of a drag in a way that feels a little beneath what Argento has been capable of in the past. There’s not much in the way of a story that makes a lot of sense--I doubt any missing girl’s sister would be allowed to tag along on an investigation and witness what she does, not to mention show her some pretty nasty photos of mutilated bodies, but since you could say that about any number of Argento films (or various other giallos, for that matter) that’s really not what the issue is here anyway. What’s missing is any sense of pure cinematic delirium that we would want from an Argento film of any kind and more than anything that’s what really hurts things. Too often there’s just a sharpness missing from his direction—in one scene where Brody sees someone and races after them but the way it’s shot makes it difficult to tell what’s catching his attention, so as a result there’s no way to get involved in what’s happening. As a film it’s serviceable, I’ll give it that much, with a number of touches that feel unique to the director occurring at some points appear out of nowhere in an almost refreshing way—for one thing, it occurred to me while watching this film that possibly no director can make getting bumped into by somebody as genuinely unnerving as he can. There are also some sly touches of humor, several of them involving cigarette smoking (Brody and Seigner pausing to do this at one point, similar to a beat with Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA, is probably my favorite moment in the film) and there really aren’t any issues that come out of Argento not working in his native language or any totally bonkers moment that causes things to go totally off the rails.

But maybe that’s the thing—aside from a few flashback sequences (involving an angelic little boy, for one) that do have the right sort of vibe, the several flat-out insane things that happen (also a few done in flashbacks) are filmed by Argento in just a dead-on way, so even the madness never gets a consistent tone and as a result even the crazy elements feel kind of muted. It’s not all that great a script either--if there was any real ambition to making it more than what it is or even some kind of comment on the giallo form, where Argento’s career had come from and where it had gone (which I guess he sort of already did with his film SLEEPLESS), there’s not much to mine out of this material. It’s not really boring, just kind of underwhelming and uninspired, with little real oomph associated with the director—I guess I liked MOTHER OF TEARS somewhat more, if only because in all its absurdity it had a delirium to it, unlike this one which is considerably more graphic than the average episode of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT or CRIMINAL MINDS but still isn’t really that far removed from those shows aside from being set in Italy. And I sometimes enjoy watching SVU (not CRIMINAL MINDS, that show is crap) so there are far worse things I could say about GIALLO and in a weird way I may not even be as negative on it as it seems. But with the story dwelling on business like pat discussions of a killer who “wants to destroy beautiful things” there’s just not much here to get excited by—even sequences seemingly designed to build tension like the first taxi kidnapping just come off as dull with very little effort made to make it otherwise (the final moments of Rose McGowan in DEATH PROOF come to mind as the good version of this sort of thing) as if the big shock it’s been building to will be enough. The music by Marco Werba also might be the worst score ever heard in an Argento film, playing like weak tea annoyingly dripping through scene after scene, (a lot of it sounds like John Ottman’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS was used for the temp track) and there’s an unrelentingly bland look to the cinematography by Frederic Fasano (who also shot the much richer-looking MOTHER OF TEARS) all the way through which manages all too often to gets me disinterested in anything going on in front of the camera.

The most noteworthy element of the film is also the most difficult to discuss (spoilers ahead, I guess), specifically how the actor “Byron Diedra” playing the killer who though given a name is referred to only as Giallo in the end credits is actually someone else under heavy makeup playing a second role (switch the letters around and you’ll get the answer). This isn’t at all a twist situation like the script Donald Kaufman was writing in ADAPTATION, it really is a completely different character whose face is kept obscured from the camera until around the halfway point, but there isn’t much of a point to why that happens when it does either. Drawing some kind of parallel between the two characters and where their not dissimilar pasts have led them really doesn’t play at all—the entire concept needed a better script as much as it needed a director who had an idea what to do with all this and it doesn’t feel like Argento does. The penultimate scene (which, in a better film, could have served as an ending) brings this theme to the forefront in a way that should be powerful and plays just fine by itself but too much of the subtext feels lobbed in out of nowhere, even if it has been somewhat set up, so it has no real effect. Following up that moment, the ending feels like it should have the sting of one of Argento’s other darkly comic conclusions (I guess I’m thinking of CAT O’NINE TAILS) but it just plays unsatisfying as if the production came up with the scene after the fact and brought in somebody else to shoot it. If anything, I think of Adrien Brody’s Enzo Alfolfi, working by himself down in a basement hidden away with his own madness because that’s better for everyone and then I associate that with how Argento is kind of stuck down in a basement at this point in his career as well. Maybe he even thought that this script was what he was waiting for, but what he filmed just got taken away from him in the end. One scene that brings Brody and Seigner down to a police records room where he’s given more information than he’s asked for feels about as symbolic as anything here. A prominent Italian poster for THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY seen in the background here, notable considering the director’s own famous association as one of the writers of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST indicates that he’s aware of his past, but doesn’t want to spend too much time rummaging through it. It’s a shame because I’d like to think that there’s still something of value to find down there and create one more horror masterwork but maybe only Dario Argento knows for sure.

I have nothing really bad to say about the two leads, since they both seems to be trying, ready to work and play off each other though with Brody going for a little too much of a film noir tough guy approach, Seigner’s earnest performance feels slightly easier to connect with. I also feel like pointing out that this may very well be the first film in which an Oscar winner has uttered the line, “I got you, you yellow fuck.” But the script doesn’t really give them anything to work with and whenever they seem to be relating to each other in a believable fashion, which does happen more than a few times, I kept thinking about how well they probably knew each other already from back when Polanski’s THE PIANIST was filmed (I guess you could say I’m only addressing half of Brody’s performance here, but let’s just leave it at that). I assume that the scene where the movie pauses for a moment to allow the two leads to walk past a prominently displayed JUNO poster is a nod to the Argento shoutout in that film.

Sure, it would have been nice to have an Argento film called GIALLO that featured more stalk n’slash stuff by black-gloved killers, slutty girls, dopey dialogue and lots of drinking of J&B. But that’s not what this film is and I’m not sure there’s any way to make that sort of film anymore. As it is, I still wonder if there’s any real reason for critiquing this film which has been pretty much disowned by its director and in some ways also feels slightly unfinished, particularly in the denouement. By this point, I know that writing something like this can be sort of disheartening as well. I’m not one of those people who’s been spending years bashing new Dario Argento films but when I see something like this I still wish that he could direct something that would feel ferociously, cinematically alive the way some of his earlier films did. And I’ve kept the faith a little longer than some people--I’m the guy who thinks that THE STENDHAL SYNDROME is amazing and MOTHER OF TEARS really is kind of enjoyable. I draw the line at his version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though, but of course we all have our limits. GIALLO, not parody or critical self-commentary or really anything else beyond a grisly straightforward thriller that seems to be missing a vital limb, doesn’t reach those limits but outside of a few oddball touches it doesn’t really do enough of very much else either and that may be its biggest problem.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Not Living For Dead People

In the battle of sequels featuring iconic characters that come 23 years after the original film, I say PSYCHO II beats WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS hands down. It’s certainly more entertaining and it also makes more sense as a follow-up especially since we don’t have to sit through Norman Bates happily attending any kids’ birthday parties—it seems fully aware of why people remembered the original film and its lead character, why it lingers in their cinematic memories. Of course, unlike the Gordon Gekko continuation, it didn’t even have the original director, no surprise since Alfred Hitchcock had died several years before, but Universal knew enough to enlist the services of the talented Richard Franklin, whose history with the famous director actually dated back to when he was a student at USC and not only arranged a screening of ROPE with the famous director’s permission, he even got him to come down to campus to give a lecture. After graduating Franklin returned to his native Australia, eventually directing the excellent Hitchcock-inspired thriller ROAD GAMES which more than anything must have been what caught Universal’s attention in regards to this film. Directing PSYCHO II brought the director to back to America and gave him a chance to literally follow in the great director’s footsteps, as daunting an opportunity as that must have been. Considering that making this film was probably one of the great no-win situations of any sequel ever made the end result turned out pretty well, providing an interestingly twisted character piece in a way that the original could never have been. It did pretty decent business when released in June 1983 and even Quentin Tarantino, that unpredictable rapscallion, has stated that he prefers it to the original. In fairness PSYCHO II, now considerably older than even PSYCHO was when it was first released, isn’t quite that good and it’s certainly not that iconic—it probably is more of a tribute than anything and in its defense I’m not sure that was really possible anyway, not if they were going to make a PSYCHO II with Anthony Perkins that people wanted to see. But for the most part it clearly knows what made the first film not only such a classic, but why it remained a part of pop culture and a surprising amount of it still works pretty well.

Twenty-two years after being locked up for committing several murders in the persona of his dead mother, including the slaying of Marion Crane in Cabin No. 1 of his family motel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is judged sane and released much to the protestations of victim Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles). Returned to his home by Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia) who seems fully confident in Norman’s sanity, Norman soon discovers that the motel now run by sleazy Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz) is now an adults-only establishment. After beginning a job as cook’s helper at the local diner Norman meets pretty young waitress Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly) who, after he hears her break up with her boyfriend over the phone, takes up Norman on his offer to stay with him. But soon enough Norman begins to find notes from his “mother” and receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be her so when several murders begin occurring around the house he’s the first one who is suspected. Is someone trying to drive Norman back to insanity, has he been insane all along or is there really somebody out there actually claiming to be his mother?

First things first: no, there was no way to ever compete with Hitchcock, to compete with PSYCHO and its legacy. There was no way to live up to the shock that film was in 1960 and the film seems to know this so it just decides to focus on continuing the forever twisted story of Norman Bates. Making any sort of sequel to that film was no doubt a difficult prospect anyway since the intentionally gimmicky narrative was so reliant on its own twists, with much of any depth it had coming from what was fleshed out by actors Perkins, Janet Leigh and Martin Balsam during production. The 1983 film can’t really follow up too much on what Perkins did in the original since his character’s biggest secret was, naturally, withheld until the very end leaving a fair amount of his character intentionally blank. In a way, the role he plays here is a sequel to people’s own memories of the original, filtered through what it meant to them and it plays like for Perkins, his tall and imposingly thin frame well-utilized in shots throughout, this performance is a way to also sort out what the character meant to him deep down over the years.

Beginning with a flashback reprise of the legendary shower murder that feels a little obligatory, it still takes some time to settle into exactly what this film is anyway, partly due to a certain amount of abruptness in the storytelling during the early section (the crafty screenplay was by Tom Holland—original PSYCHO author Robert Bloch’s own sequel novel of the same name was not used as the source)—Norman is released, sent home, starts a new job and brings Mary home with him all in the same day which might get things moving but seems just a little rushed for the sake of credibility. Not to mention how when the character returns to his house and motel everything is still there and in operation as if he’d been gone for an extended weekend instead of over two decades (to be specific about things, the ad campaign and film itself say 22 years but the film was actually released 23 years later). Norman is left alone in this house where he committed murders watched over by no one except for visits from a doctor who, in spite of his very nice car, comes off as pretty ineffectual in the discussions we see him have with his patient. Once these contrivances are moved past so the characters can settle into the story and allow secrets to be revealed, things do begin to come together (and to be safe I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here), turning into what really is for the most part a tight, well-paced thriller with numerous surprising twists piling up all the way through. Well, they’re not all equally surprising and I’m not sure of the wisdom of the moniker “Mary Samuels” (I guess I can’t say more than that) but for the most part the plotting cleverly keeps us on our toes, not to mention Norman, about the actual state of his own sanity as we wonder whether he really is still crazy or even if he’s only putting on an act for the people who are trying to drive him mad. There’s a fair amount of cleverness all the way through in Holland’s script—I like how Loggia’s casual dismissal that Perkins sees someone in a window is turned on its ear later on when Loggia thinks he sees someone—and at times there’s the impression that director Franklin is using this opportunity to toss every “Hitchcockian” visual idea he ever had into the mix, even tossing in a Hitchcock cameo for those looking carefully. There are lovely grace notes sprinkled throughout like a very high angle shot of someone frantically running from the Bates home at a key moment and some exciting crane work but to a certain extent Franklin also seems to be deliberately replicating the Universal backlot aesthetic employed by Hitchcock when making his film, which was itself an intentionally fast shoot done with the crew from ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS—here little, if anything, seems to be shot anywhere else with the approach complimented by rich cinematography by Dean Cundey who does some particularly beautiful work inside the Bates home along with evocative matte paintings by Albert Whitlock used on occasion to illustrate the surrounding environment.

Certain shots and moments are blatant nods, obviously, but more surprising in contrast is how Jerry Goldsmith’s fine score makes next to no attempt to replicate the legendary sound composer Bernard Herrmann so famously brought to the original. One could imagine this film utilizing the same music in blatant fashion, similar to how Scorsese later used Hermann’s CAPE FEAR score in his own remake or even just attempting a Herrmann-like score in general. But instead of approaching it as a sequel or tribute Goldsmith basically scores the film as a thriller made in 1983, utilizing electronics for the suspense (the music over the final shot also contains some harsh percussion reminiscent of PLANET OF THE APES, but that’s neither here nor there) and a more melancholy, yearning theme to represent the character of Norman Bates, returning to this home he has such bad memories of. It was a canny and daring choice to take this route, going a long way towards having PSYCHO II be an actual story about this character as opposed to just a gimmicky revisiting of a classic horror film which by then had already passed into parody. There’s a subtext throughout the story of whether it’s impossible for anyone, insane or not, to fully be able to move beyond the past, making the film in some ways about Perkins’ own acceptance of how this role really is his cinematic immortality once and for all.

Placed up against the iconic stature of the lead a number of characters are a little too thinly drawn to be totally credible. In the original, Vera Miles who as Lila Crane/Loomis had really no character to play (Hitchcock famously had next to no interest in the characters played by her and John Gavin) so the sequel recreates her as the most insufferable old harridan imaginable, barely given a single believable human moment so we have absolutely zero sympathy for how she lost her sister years ago. Since Jamie Lee Curtis had worked with Franklin in ROAD GAMES it’s no surprise to learn that her name was in the mix to possibly play Mary but, possibly hesitant to take a role that was so associated with her mother, turned it down. It’s a tough call whether she would have been the right choice anyway—in some ways she may have been almost too perfect for the part becoming a touch that would have made the story into too much of a gimmick—and as it is, the film has a variety of nods to the original both obvious (an eye staring through a hole in a wall, some familiar framing in the Bates home and a quick fade out similar to the point of the Arbogast murder to name a few) and a little more subtle (“The bathroom…”). At times it feels like it’s teetering on a tightrope trying to figure how much is too much but at times when it succeeds it’s as a thriller on its own terms with a certain Hitchcock flavor as opposed to a strict homage, if there’s even any difference.

In truth, I kind of find myself going back and forth in my head over how good some of it is, but I guess the film kind of does that too in how the pieces it gets right sometimes come right up against what it doesn’t. It’s possibly prevented from being even better by contrivances that are necessary to keep the plot going and (maybe) what seems like the demands of the marketplace at the time--the sequence of the two kids down in the basement of the house feels a little too much like something out of any other slasher movie, as well as a way to keep the body count building, but it does have a shot which always makes me jump a little where “mother” is suddenly much, much closer to who she’s coming after than we first realized. Some of the more extreme carnage that occurs late in the film has understandably always been criticized—maybe the studio demanded the gore, maybe Franklin was trying to take this stuff as far as possible (there’s some nudity this time too, probably by a Meg Tilly body double, but it’s not as exploitative as it might have been) to a point of outrage just as the original film did in 1960 but it never really works. To put it simply, this stuff is out of place not because it’s too violent but because, well, it kind of sucks. It’s too bad that some of these touches wind up hurting the movie because every now and then the film really does work well with the director at times getting suspense out of nothing but Perkins or Tilly nervously moving around the house and moments like that are clearly where the director’s talents lie, moreso than digging into the story’s sleazier elements. It’s not at all a criticism to say that based on what works best here the director (who sadly died in 2007) was possibly more at home with the straight ahead suspense/thriller elements than in the more twisted elements of the Norman Bates saga but in some ways he has the face of Anthony Perkins to dolly in on at times and just doing that has as much effect as anything.

And Perkins brings that off-kilter nature to it all, making the reformed Norman as skittish as he needs to be and yet somehow always likable, believable as someone who doesn’t know who he is if he isn’t the Norman Bates he once was since “the doctors took everything else away.” He levels the madness somehow, even managing to make his famous drawn out phrasing of the word “cuuuuuutlery” seem somehow underplayed, all things considered. I think it’s how he cuts the word off as soon as he says it, not allowing it to linger. Meg Tilly brings an odd effect to the insecure Mary that feels weirdly real as if the actress herself didn’t even bother to see the original and doesn’t fully know what’s going on. Vera Miles comes off as so completely intolerable as Lila Loomis (we’re told Sam has died—somehow I doubt his character would have allowed some of the shenanigans that go on here) that it’s hard to believe that the actress really isn’t. Maybe this is a good thing but couldn’t she have been allowed a semblance of depth? Dennis Franz is pretty enjoyable playing what in this context is really the Dennis Franz role and Robert Loggia’s tough-guy nature provides an interesting contrast both against Perkins and the way his doctor is somewhat weakly scripted, with the cool toughness of the actor bringing the right kind of intensity. Hugh Gillin is the local police captain who is also given the enviable task of serving as this picture’s Simon Oakland near the end (it’s a pretty silly speech, but I like it) and Claudia Bryer is Mrs. Spool, one of Norman’s coworkers in the diner. There’s an old school Hollywood contract player nature to both Gillin and Bryer that seems appropriate to the surroundings as if either of them had already briefly appeared as their character in the original--of course, they didn’t but Loggia did actually appear on a few episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS way back then.

PSYCHO was never meant to be a classic. It just worked out that way. PSYCHO II was never meant to be a classic either and, well, it isn’t. It’s very possible that Richard Franklin was a little too much of an acolyte and maybe a touch too square to really delve deeply into the psychology of it all. But at the same time this really was an impossible film to make and that’s it as good as it is in itself is a sort of triumph, not to mention how where Norman Bates ends up here makes for a considerably more satisfying ending than where Gordon Gekko did at the end of his sequel. If it’s not PSYCHO, it still is a pretty decent thriller enjoyably put together with a few twists of its own knife that takes things right up until the final shot. And, all things considered, that’s perfectly ok.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Very Shy, Very Subdued

Recently I found myself wondering about the career trajectory of Robert Benton, a writer/director with any number of esteemed credits to his name including winning a Best Director Oscar for KRAMER VS. KRAMER but in spite of that his place in the pantheon may be due to being one of the screenwriters of the immortal BONNIE AND CLYDE. Nothing at all wrong with that, of course, it’s about as valid a reason for cinematic immortality as you can get and in addition to his various other writing credits (he’s one of several names on the likes of WHAT’S UP DOC, SUPERMAN, even THE ICE HARVEST) is a directing output which seems to combine character studies with oddly pitched genre pieces which are in themselves often character studies. Not all of them are successful and there are even a few I’ve never seen, with a surprising gap of a number of years between them. There’s a definite clean, non-nonsense nature to much of his work with several titles having a fairly sparse running time as well (1987’s NADINE: 82 minutes). Sprinkled throughout his filmography, his thrillers could be seen as trying to replicate genre pieces that he maybe saw on the late show years before (well, he made a movie called THE LATE SHOW, after all) and one of these is the Roy Scheider-Meryl Streep murder mystery STILL OF THE NIGHT which in spite of its potentially powerhouse teaming is almost forgotten today, never put out on DVD. Released in November 1982, it plays as an odd choice for any Best Director followup coming three long years after that win. The pedigree is impressive, the two leads seem on the surface like they would be ideally matched and the film certainly looks great from start to finish, but neither the mystery nor the interplay between the characters are ever as intriguing as they should be so as a cinematic experience it ultimately plays as dramatically inert. Maybe it’s just an unfortunate case of a movie where nothing ever really gelled from the chemistry between the stars to the very nature of the mystery. The story is so sparsely populated with a certain lack of actual incident that there are really only so many directions things could ever go in and there’s an abruptness to it which indicates that maybe the reason Benton made the film in the first place somehow got lost along the way.

When recently divorced Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Sam Rice (Roy Scheider), having a bad day that includes his divorce getting finalized and the Yankees getting creamed up in Boston, also has to deal with the death of his patient George Bynum (Josef Sommer), found stabbed in a parked car on the street. He is visited by the beautiful Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep), a mysterious woman who had an affair with the dead man and asks the doctor to return his watch to his wife but seems to know more than she’s saying. After being visited by the police in the form of Det. Joseph Vitucci (Joe Grifasi) Rice begins to believe that a woman killed George and his suspicions naturally fall on Brooke. As he is haunted by descriptions of a dream George once told him about and which may hold the key to the mystery, Rice begins to suspect that he is being followed based on something he knows and his own interest in Brooke may lead to becoming the killer’s next victim.

STILL OF THE NIGHT has a certain mood to it complimented by some absolutely beautiful cinematography by Nestor Almendros and the strong presence of some very good actors but nothing particularly compelling ever happens in the plot (screenplay by Benton, story by David Newman and Benton) during its brief ninety minute running time. It all comes off as too polite for a would-be spellbinding thriller, done in Benton’s no muss, no fuss directorial style, with all the killings happening offscreen as if he didn’t want to overly rattle the nerves of his friends who he was going to have dinner with after the screening. The expected Hitchcock tropes are there, certainly beginning with Streep’s rather extreme blond hairstyle on her enigmatic femme fatale who wears noticeably elegant black gloves. There’s a dream out of SPELLBOUND, someone peering across a courtyard to another apartment out of REAR WINDOW as well as a prolonged auction house sequence that never becomes the NORTH BY NORTHWEST-type centerpiece it wants to be—actually, based on the detail of this section set in a Christie’s-type auction house called Crispin’s and the amount of needless exposition we’re given as to how it works it feels like Benton is interested in all this more than anything else in the film. Streep’s look, as attractive as she is, seems somehow not quite right for the actress, playing a part that doesn’t really go with her inherently naturalistic style. There’s certainly an interesting-enough effect given off by it and if the story wound up really building to something more her odd demeanor wouldn’t be such a bad thing. As it is, the character just comes off as enigmatic for the sake of being enigmatic and it’s never really clear why this doctor played by Scheider becomes so obsessed with this ‘very shy, very, subdued’ woman or with solving the murder of his patient at all—by a certain point when Streep enters his apartment yet again I couldn’t help but think that it would make perfect sense for him to say he had other things to do. In trying to explain his motivation he does have some dialogue along the lines of ‘I’ve got to do it,’ seeming to think that connecting with Streep’s beauty is some door that he needs to open before getting totally closed off from any sort of passion in his life but this doesn’t really play.

Unlike how SEA OF LOVE and BASIC INSTINCT would utilize this type of plot several years later there really is no sex here at all—the doctor has been told by his dead patient that, like him, Streep’s Brooke Reynolds is a stiff—and the one time it seems there will be turns out to be a misdirect. It’s a fairly passionless film, Scheider’s character shutting himself off from life after his divorce and having Chinese food with his mother, a fellow psychiatrist played by Jessica Tandy (hey, another Hitchcock nod!) so it all becomes a fairly passionless viewing experience. The lack of life seems reflected in how the barren late-night New York streets we see are populated by characters that have had any joy drained out of them by bad relationships, something which seems perfectly plausible but there’s a badly-needed energy missing that the film never quite finds. It all feels a little stifled, with extended flashbacks showing Josef Sommer as the murdered man in sessions with Scheider that come off as way too subdued, leading to a plot that doesn’t really go anywhere and a droning, too often humorless nature to the dialogue that I honestly sometimes just space out on as I try to follow what’s being said. When Scheider has an actual laugh line late in the film (“I just paid $15,000 for a painting that I don’t even like!”) it’s kind of a relief to hear the actor finally let loose in his patented “cut this crap out” nature that we love about him, but it’s not quite enough.

It feels a little like Benton was trying to make a movie-movie in the New York world he was so familiar with crossed with a few other elements—the presence of Almendros behind the camera along with the overall sparse style makes me imagine a version made by Truffaut in his Hitchcock-lite mode possibly with Catherine Deneuve in the Streep role, a notion that sounds like it would have had much more heat based on her presence alone. Hey, I’m daydreaming. For that matter, the sparse black-and-white-in-color palette and lack of a giant setpiece also makes it feel a little more like a forties film, whether directed by Hitchcock or someone else—the Fritz Lang version might have starred Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett (boost up his part a little, Joe Grifasi could easily be Dan Duryea) with even that version having considerably more passion to it. Those films were more backlot-bound than the cool, barren New York City this film is set in, amidst an upper crust Manhattan scene that Benton seems to know very well but it coexists uneasily with the pulpy nature the story should be going for. Its overly dry nature causes things to have very little impact in the end although it’s too classily made to be a ‘bad’ film—one prolonged sequence of Scheider following someone into deep, dark Central Park at night is frankly stunningly well-photographed making this section as suspenseful as the rest of the film never really is (the bemused reaction the cops have the next day to where he’s taken a walk is another nice moment) and as quiet as the climax is, with nothing but waves heard crashing below the house it’s set in, the deceptively simple image of a certain character coming towards a person with a knife somehow manages to stick in the brain like a nightmare. But that the solution to the mystery based on a dream described by someone before they died just feels a little too remote a concept and while the climax in question contains what seems like a possible nod to the end of SABOTEUR it occurs to me that it commits what Hitchcock years later felt was a fundamental error in that film, involving the wrong person being in jeopardy, and it strikes me that such a move seems emblematic of the film as a whole. Benton clearly has a fondness for the form but doesn’t have as much of an affinity for what makes it work as he does for the people living in these high-toned Upper East Side apartments, people who rarely ever get involved in such scenarios. As intriguing as some of it is, the result never really pays off.

Roy Scheider is a very dependable lead, as always a total pleasure to watch and never less than totally relatable, but he seems constricted by the nature of the material—musing about his history playing baseball makes me think of how cool it was that he used to be the star in films like this but the speech ultimately isn’t all that strong. Opposite him is one of the only Meryl Streep performances that could be considered off key. It’s not that she’s bad at all, playing things with a finishing school accent where she says things like, “I felt very, very badly,” but the actress just seems the wrong choice to be some sort of equivalent of Faye Dunaway in CHINATOWN. When she has a big speech late in the film explaining herself it’s undeniably effective, with Benton getting lost in simply framing her as waves crash offscreen below (really, it’s almost like nothing else mattered to him in the entire shoot except this one shot) but the way it’s played feels like it’s in the wrong movie. Maybe Meryl Streep as an actress just wasn’t meant to be in this kind of film. Jessica Tandy is the one person onscreen who seems to have a genuine energy to her presence that no one else here has, quizzically goading her onscreen so into revealing why he’s so obsessed with this case in her few scenes and Joe Grifasi has a few quirkily enjoyable moments as the investigating officer, enough to make it seem like it would only have helped to make his part bigger.

The film was titled STAB during production and some accounts have it not being a particularly smooth shoot, with numerous rewrites and Benton spending a prolonged period editing— without getting into spoilers, it’s certainly conceivable to imagine that certain aspects of the plot may have gone in different directions at one point. At the very least, if it had kept its original title it would have been one of the more mild films ever to contain such a moniker. Made by professionals at the top of their game, STILL OF THE NIGHT is well made enough that it certainly can’t be dismissed, but it never seems to mix together the right ingredients in order to make it a compelling piece of work. In the end, it feels like a misstep, an off day for a number of various talented people. They all do their jobs well enough that the film certainly has points of interest for anyone who might be curious but it seems to intent on remaining high-class that it never seems to realize that getting down and dirty might be a good thing. In the end, it’s a too-small glass of halfway decent red wine, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it could certainly use a good shot of whiskey somewhere it its system to liven things up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Deep Personal Commitment

A number of years ago the production company I was working for at the time was casting a new film and on this particular day there was what seemed like swarms of familiar That Guys coming through those doors practically nonstop. One of them, as it turned out, was Craig Wasson, star of BODY DOUBLE, GHOST STORY, ELM STREET 3 and others, still even then looking exactly like you’d expect Craig Wasson to look. I didn’t really interact with him at all but noticed that as he was leaving he happened to turn and say something to another actor who was there, commenting how they’d met before at such-and-such a place. The moment was almost exactly like a scene in BODY DOUBLE in which Wasson, playing the role of a working actor in Hollywood, appeared in such a scene opposite Gregg Henry which turns out to get the plot going. No one else around seemed to pay any attention to that interaction, but all I could think right then was that it suddenly, unexpectedly, was like I was viewing that movie happening right in front of me. Considering the layers upon layers in that film, suddenly for a brief moment BODY DOUBLE, of all films ever made about Hollywood, seemed to have actually come true.

I bring this up for a reason—a number of months ago in a piece I wrote on DRESSED TO KILL while discussing the structural experimentation in Brian De Palma’s thrillers I made a reference to the form being ‘possibly fumbled’ in the case of BODY DOUBLE, leading to some people leaving comments to defend the film. I felt compelled to reply that I certainly wasn’t trying to trash BODY DOUBLE since it’s not a movie I dismiss or even dislike. Some of it is extremely effective and I certainly have an appreciation for how iconic some of its imagery is (he said snickering, but you probably know what I mean). It certainly isn’t a case of my being offended by any of its content (sex, violence, yadda yadda yadda) but that was of course one of the main criticisms the film received upon its release on October 26, 1984 which had some calling for De Palma’s head on a platter while also receiving enthusiastic reviews, if not outright raves, from both Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert. It’s just that, for me, there’s a certain disconnect I feel while watching it, as if there’s an element within the film’s basic aesthetic that I feel resistant to as if the dreamlike interludes which drift through his other films that don’t have much to do with pure logic either simply don’t work for me here and I just emotionally check out. I don’t want this to happen. I want to love this film. If somehow I had never been aware of its existence then heard about what it was I would assume it had to be the greatest movie ever made. After all, how could it not be, right? Nevertheless, there’s something unexplainably off every time I take another look at it, much as I may admire certain sections, like the film is missing a key ingredient that prevents it from resonating very much with me. There’s always the hope that someday the whole thing will click together in my head and I’ll fall to the floor in total praise—I’ve never seen it in a theater so maybe that has something to do with it. And yet, an occurrence like that time I saw Craig Wasson is pretty much proof that the movie has always stuck with me, just as all of the director’s films stay with me and deep down I have a certain admiration for it. It’s De Palma—I guess there’s no getting around that.

Though I’ll try to avoid spoilers in this very twisty plot, Hollywood actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) has a terrible day where his performance in the low-budget horror film VAMPIRE’S KISS is ruined when he suddenly comes down with a massive case of claustrophobia in the middle of shooting a scene that gets him fired then when he goes home to his girlfriend and finds her with another man. Needing a new place fast he finds himself in luck when a series of chance encounters results in a friendship with fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) who just happens to need somebody to take over his house-sitting gig so he can take an acting job in Seattle. At the ultra-modern residence high up in the hills Sam alerts Jake to a small bonus via his high-powered telescope, the beautiful woman across the way in the canyon who puts on a little show every night, dancing erotically and ultimately pleasuring herself in full view. Jake quickly becomes fixated on the woman who he soon learns is the wealthy Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) but he soon also realizes that she is being stalked and harassed by several people including a very imposing-looking Indian. As he begins to follow this woman who is already being followed by someone else, Jake soon finds himself drawn into this web of intrigue down a path that results in murder and also involves a porn actress who goes by the name of Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), with his claustrophobia possibly coming into play at the exact wrong moment.

I feel like I should be doing tequila shots while watching BODY DOUBLE. Not in any kind of drinking game way—it just seems like it would make sense to do shots, as many as I can manage, while making my way through the sleazy vibe of this look at Los Angeles and the obsession of certain women that can happen out of nowhere in this town. Nothing in the film is very realistic in terms of plot or anything (Screenplay by Robert J. Avrech and De Palma, story by De Palma) but little about Los Angeles seems very realistic on the surface anyway and it all serves as part of De Palma’s quest for total cinema. As a film it’s a parlor game of layers and mirrors, with the famed doubling of Angie Dickinson in DRESSED TO KILL serving as the obvious jumping off point, presenting visions of fantasy that are as phony as they are right in front of us, deliberately obscuring things at times to the point that I wonder if the blatant rear-projection seen behind Wasson a few times as he drives his convertible is just part of the game in this portrayal of mixing the fantasy of movies with the stone cold reality of the town. The lead character is an actor but there’s no glamour to any of it--even in just a few scenes the portrayal of how demoralizing the profession can be has probably never been so harshly portrayed (based on this, don’t tell me De Palma doesn’t have sympathy for performers) and almost hidden within the murder plotline (Is it even possible to write about this film without revealing its secrets?) is the stark contrast of the glamour of such a gorgeous woman—the ultimate fantasy of beauty that we all strive for in one way or another, particularly in this town—and what really is going on with her behind those windows, a drama so horrible for her (seriously, imagine a version of this movie from the point of view of Gloria Revelle, which seems even more bizarre but kind of depressing) that we can only ever guess at it. On the one hand it’s totally addictive to wade all through this nastiness with Pino Donaggio’s memorable theme always wafting through the background, but on the other I always feel somewhat removed from it even as I get lost in how brilliantly executed certain moments might be.

It’s not even the film’s fault but part of my own problem may have to do with its basic look which while technically pristine is something I always have an innate negative response to, but I suppose I have a deep dislike to that whole pastel 80s style which here represents the neon glare of Los Angeles. Or maybe that East Coast energy from some of De Palma’s previous films has been replaced by a more laidback West Coast feel which may be appropriate but still feels off, not the sort of rhythm I respond to in his work--Guy Boyd’s investigating cop (Dennis Franz can’t always play this role, after all) kind of drones on through his prolonged exposition sequences as if we’re getting Henry Jones when we really need Simon Oakland (all respect to the great Henry Jones, of course), though I like how Boyd’s voice drips with contempt every time he calls Wasson “Scully”. Unlike the stunning anamorphic compositions of DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT this film, featuring generally strong work by Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, takes in various minor landmarks throughout the city presented in the more square 1.85 format. That Beach Terrace Motel rendezvous point down in Long Beach certainly is ideal for this and it certainly goes with the view seen through a telescope as Jake Scully continually peers at Gloria Revelle’s late-night shows—hell, since the movie is about somebody who suffers from claustrophobia keeping the frame closed in almost seems like a given—but even through shots laid out like photos in a fashion magazine done in the best giallo style, among each of De Palma’s films shot in this format (he’s gone back and forth through his career and I’d be curious to learn why) this is the one I honestly wish were filmed in full 2.35:1 ratio instead. This would of course demand a different aesthetic for De Palma’s entire visual approach and maybe even reveal the film I’m looking for each time I watch it. Still, I suppose it’s a fair question to ask if it would make more or less sense to have a film about a character with claustrophobia presented in a wider ratio? Would the wider ratio accentuate the irony somehow? I don’t really have the answer to that but, then again, I’m not Brian De Palma.

And there are points when his extended dialogue free sections, particularly Wasson following Shelton through that high-end mall in Beverly Hills, as I wonder how he’s able to stay so close to her without being noticed, if it’s really possible to look at what’s going on in a boutique dressing room from the sidewalk, until I eventually get lost in all that imagery, lost in those giant sunglasses she’s wearing, but then I’ll just as randomly get snapped out from it again. Not to mention how I always check out from any reality in the film, even a fake reality, at the point of a certain love scene involving a 360 degree camera movement, one of those attempts to intermingle reality and fantasy the director is fond of attempting that in this case, for me, simply doesn’t work. The Hitchcock game is part of all this with elements of REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO tossed in together through De Palma’s own preoccupations, along with his style of deliberately holding things back is at times which is as frustrating as it is exhilarating, such as a key car crash happens offscreen just like the most important murder more or less does. The film also continues De Palma’s preoccupation with his continuing theme of a protagonist trying to save a helpless female and in a sense the resolution—hell, maybe the very foundation of the story—is like an extension of the bitter end of BLOW OUT, only here with this hapless doofus going up against that ridiculously enormous power drill/phallic symbol any chance of success feels futile almost from the beginning. As it turns out, no one appreciates what Jake Scully tries to do when he succeeds any more than when he fails, so there’s almost nothing to feel any relief about. Of course, it was the 80s—for someone as clueless as Jake Scully, there was probably no way to win, particularly in Hollywood. But De Palma keeps it all going even past that point and the final scene either disregards such bitter feelings or just admits to the madness as part of the expected 80s happy ending. I’m still not sure how much the final scene shown as the credits roll is really supposed to be part of the ‘film’ anyway but that’s part of the point—it’s all a film, every single frame of it.

It’s almost not even a question of good or bad from my viewpoint, as De Palma’s expertise is always present, his command of displaying point of view is at times masterful. There’s just something in my wiring that’s preventing me from going for the ride the way I can in some of De Palma’s other films which, for me, find a genuine emotion to connect to through all that cinematic delirium whether it’s John Travolta’s desperation in BLOW OUT, observing the stalking of Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen in DRESSED TO KILL or even just suffering through Lolita Davidovich’s whining about her marriage in RAISING CAIN. Here the dreamlike vibe is there along with the sinuous drops of sex and violence but it all feels a little too clinical as if I’m looking at it from a distance (or through a rear window, I suppose) and with these characters (every name sounds like it’s a reference to something, I just can’t figure out what) there’s no actual emotion in the blending of these two women in Jake’s life through his eyes, which may be the film’s single biggest flaw—Shelton’s Gloria Revelle is intentionally left blank, Griffith’s Holly Body with her clothes on is all business and, amusingly, never quite realizes she’s in a thriller and Wasson’s Jake is just kind of a wimpy schmuck (enjoyably so—he can’t even pretend he’s talking on a pay phone convincingly so what kind of actor is he?). I’m not saying this is a bad thing and certainly there are any number of Italian giallos that I enjoy which could hardly be called emotionally believable but coming from De Palma it just feels like in this one particular film there’s something I’m just not connecting with, even though as I watch Craig Wasson trail Deborah Shelton from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach I’m always feeling like I should. It’s almost like the entire film is a joke that I’m almost but not quite getting the punchline of, which I admit is possible.

I barely even know what to make of some of this stuff as the movie gets lost in De Palma’s own apparent obsession to stop everything to make a ridiculous porn film/music video in the early days of MTV (actually, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” is still a pretty damn good song) and while this may be where a fair amount of my disconnect comes from that doesn’t mean that I don’t get completely absorbed by it anyway. Almost while thinking about any random scene even while criticizing it there are points where I can let any critical or intellectual process drop away and just get lost in whatever it all is, but this is my responding to the moments of pure visual De Palmaness as opposed to the actual story--I’m not sure that the gimmick of claustrophobia is really strong enough, or visual enough, in the end to base so much of the film on (and I’m trying very had to not compare this to a certain plot point involving acrophobia). Not to mention that when the final piece of the puzzle is all put together I always wonder, is that really it? Shouldn’t there be an extra twist on a twist somewhere? But asking that indicates that the plot is really what the film is when it’s really all about the layers, the subtext, that music, the question of unreality which always seems to be there in Los Angeles at certain times of day or night. I actually love the moment when Wasson says to her that he’s not following her when, of course, that’s exactly what he’s doing and the fact couldn’t be any more obvious and when Jake Scully is asked why he’s following Gloria Revell to begin with he can’t come up with an answer because, well, there is no answer beyond that he’s already seen her. Or he thinks he’s seen her. Maybe there really is no difference.

Watching Craig Wasson in this role can be a bizarre experiment almost as if the movie knows he’s never going to be anything other than this ‘hopeful’ actor, who as Jake Scully seems like a decent enough Midwest guy who has gotten beaten down in his journey through the Hollywood maze and started to drink maybe a little too much a little too often. Hell, he can’t even bring himself to confront his girlfriend when he walks in on her cheating. A few years after this film Wasson appeared in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, in one scene being thrown into an open grave as dirt is shoveled on him just like what happens to him here and I have to believe this brief allusion was absolutely intentional. Then many years later I saw him in a film production office and BODY DOUBLE was all I could think of. As a screen presence, for better or for worse, that’s turned out to be his destiny. There’s an awkwardness to Wasson’s performance here in how he can’t become the Jimmy Stewart figure he no doubt wants to be deep down and yet as the lead character of BODY DOUBLE Wasson is absolutely, completely Jake Scully.

Deborah Shelton is undoubtedly gorgeous but the schematics of the film have her be more of a figure than an actual character, let alone a human being, but considering how the actress seems to have been dubbed (apparently by Helen Shaver) the element of distance actually makes sense. Interestingly, while going through the film I found myself realizing that the actress actually sometimes seems more compelling when certain shots are freeze-framed than when she’s in motion and this actually adds to the inherent unreality of the whole thing. But at the least, within what is a mostly silent performance there is something kind of hypnotic about her. Gregg Henry, who went on to work with De Palma several more times, kind of rules in the role of Sam Bouchard (I guess I can’t say anything more than that) and Dennis Franz offers a few laughs in his small role as Jake’s director, apparently based by the actor in his mannerisms on De Palma. As the fearless porn star Holly Body, Melanie Griffith takes a role which really doesn’t come into things until well past the halfway point and shoots the movie’s energy to the stratosphere providing an unexpected quality to her already off kilter nature as she casually lets Jake know what she will and will not do in a role. Declining at first to go for a drink with Jake because “I don’t even know you” right after they’ve just shot a sex scene together, Griffith is absolutely fantastic in her relatively brief screen time, hugely enjoyable to watch in every second she has onscreen (he said snickering, but we should really avoid spoilers) and in providing the movie with a much needed dose of humor, very funny as well. What the hell, let’s just say it—All hail Melanie Griffith in BODY DOUBLE. Barbara Crampton of RE-ANIMATOR appears briefly as Jake’s girlfriend, seen only when he walks in on her. She doesn’t get a line but I like the look she gives him, after a flash of guilt, which indicates that this isn’t something she’s about to apologize for. It’s the sort of look that stays alive through an entire movie, reminding us what kind of world this is.

As much as I may feel something isn’t quite resonating for me with the end result of BODY DOUBLE I remain kind of awed by some of what De Palma achieves here. I just wish all of the elements were somehow able to come together in a more satisfying way so I could feel as strongly about it as I do several of his other films but I suppose that veil of resistance is going to remain for the time being. The director’s frank admission of its flaws on the DVD documentary (as well as commenting on the things people hated about it, which isn’t the same thing) got me to feel better about some of my own conflicted thoughts regarding the film and writing about it has certainly insured that I’ll never be able to fully shake it from my head, just like I never fully shake some of those women I encounter on those Los Angeles days when I’m about as effective in what I want to do as Jake Scully is. I may still have these issues with the film and I may still feel that it is irrevocably flawed, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep watching. And watching.