A Brian De Palma double-feature this week on Midnight Screenings.
Brian De Palma has always fashioned himself a Hitchcock connoisseur, a bravura stylistic showman who cruelly and soullessly played with his actors (especially his actresses) without care or concern. Specifically, he updated Hitch by adding a touch of giallo-era crimson paint and a laxer standard of violence that allowed him to show what Hitch had to imply. A fact that sacrifices some of the naughtier, more suggestive implications of Hitch’s best works, and for his part, De Palma’s morbid fascination with death never reached the caustically challenging heights of Hitch at his best. He was always more of a surface-level lurid showman, a sideshow ringleader interested in puritanically wowing his audiences with sights of lusty blood and enough macabre thematic perversion to scare the devil himself. Continue reading
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
There is so much good to be done with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, so much glee in its conceptual bones and in every ounce of its credentials, and it is altogether a crushing disappointment. Not an awful film, mind you, or at least not awful for the reasons we might expect, but it is most certainly not the film it could have been. To understand why, let us do our duty and note a thing or two about the film as it existed in the mind of a hopeful would-be fan of exploitation cinema, or as it existed before it was actually, you know, released. Continue reading
I don’t know, man. Death Proof isn’t really a movie. It’s an idea, and as an idea, it can’t be separated from the way it was released. Its release was very much the whole point of its existence, even separate from the actual film that was produced to facilitate that release. On its own, there isn’t a whole lot going on in Death Proof, although small pleasures, including an awe-inspiring final reel, abound. So…
Let us begin with the obvious: Grindhouse is a confused beast, asking to indulge in two feature length works of varying quality (both between the two and within individual features) that do not tackle the grindhouse aesthetic from the same vantage point as one another. On top of this, we have four trailers that do not adopt the spirit of the movies around them, nor are those four trailers in unison with one another. Let us approach this murderers’ row: Robert Rodrigeuz’s Planet Terror, a high-flying zombie movie starring Rose McGowan and a postmodern descent into the aesthetic that tackles it to the ground so hard it that words like “luridest” must be invented to explain it away. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, a confusing beast of a somber, stoic serial killer film starring Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a killer with a car as a weapon. Stopping and starting in fits and spurts, Death Proof subverts expectations by rejecting and even flaunting the audience’s desire to be wowed by its lunacy. For it is, in contrast to Planet Terror, not a lunatic of a joke, but an actual film, played straight. On their own, then, we have two films that are very much of a different order and a different form, but we will get back to this.
Now I get to go off the deep-end! To some extent, if only some, reviewing Rob Zombie’s greatest film thus far, The Devil’s Rejects, is an excuse to discuss Rob Zombie’s work on the whole. Yes he’s schlocky and his films are often messy and chaotic and have no idea what the hell is going on, but boy if they don’t have the damnedest time of their lives doing it. For all his faults, Zombie knows what he wants and isn’t about to see that vision sullied by a production company. He’s impassioned, cock-sure, self-centered, angry, obsessive, and perverse – which happens to sound like a laundry list of features that have composed many (most) of the great directors of the past hundred years. And the most important bit, lest I forget: he absolutely loves movies, and he wants us to know it too.
It is within this frame-set that I approach The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s most fully realized, most gloriously depraved, most caustically subversive, most oddly, uneasily touching, and most visually witty pieces of filmmaking yet made, and it is wrapped up in some of the finest genre clothing I’ve seen in years, exuding a positively desperate love of cinema in every frame. It’s disgusting, undoubtedly, and it doesn’t want you to think otherwise. But disgusting does not a bad film make, especially when it’s about disgust in cinema and how we cartoon-coat violence when we want to make it seem respectable. For Zombie, much like a Tarantino gone off the deep end of his own anarchism, there is an awareness that films mostly end up entertaining with violence even when they pretend not to. Unlike Tarantino however, Zombie doesn’t so much want to make violence cool as explore the tension between violence being cool and violence being disgusting, for his films are disgusting and they don’t hide their disgust away with corporate sleekness, composed formalism, and clean filmmaking. Devil’s Rejects is sloppy, amorphous, and sickly looking, showcasing film grain and making no bones about how ugly it looks.
Update late 2018: After a Halloween rewatch, I stand all the more in awe of Fulci’s truly irrational editing scheme and his almost unholy skill not simply dropping us into an unraveling narrative but demolishing the presumption of rational sense-ordering in horror to begin with. The Beyond remains a truly scrambled, egg-beaten (or brain-beaten) perceptual experience, even in the already demonically playful realm of giallo-inflected fear, let alone the wider horror genre.
It is a truth undeniable that Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Grand Guignol The Beyond lacks a capable narrative or characters, but this is true only in the way that L’Avventura and Breathless lack much in the way of conventionally sufficient narratives or sensible characters. They are all anti-narrative, anti-character films, and the deficiency is fully intentional in each case. They are films precisely about the deconstruction of narrative, the characters intentionally maneuvering themselves through their worlds in contrived, abstract ways to illustrate a point about the artifice of narrative, the performative nature of human activity, and the absurdity of film and its relationship to the human condition.
Fulci’s vision is no different, although it is filtered through a different texture. Just as Breathless is about the artifice of ordered narrative and the triviality it instills in filmic storytelling, The Beyond is too about the way films define order and conventional narrative. Except while Godard’s works cheekily and cunningly ask us to read between the lines with finesse to explore the master manipulator ironizing the characters’ search for order, Fulci’s film takes the broadest brush it can find and cuts through the order with a giant blood-red stroke. While Godard’s work undermines order, Fulci’s denounces it entirely. Continue reading
Rob Zombie is not a particularly nuanced filmmaker, but then nuance isn’t everything. Sometimes, a parade of bravura, shoot-for-the-gutter images and sounds is all you need, and if nothing else, The Lords of Salem is a fairly stunning little devil of images and sounds lined up for us by the naughtiest ringmaster this side of Italian giallo. After all, and at the risk of sounding too classicist, early cinema was nothing more than a parade of images to amuse and titillate, to vex and induce wonderment, and to distill and massage emotion out of the purity of look and feel. Those were the wild years of cinema, a period of looking to the future. Of course, Rob Zombie, here and always, looks to the past. But in it he finds something no less woolly, no less feral, and no less sensitive to the primitive power of feverish film imagery at its most direct.
His own wife Sheri Moon Zombie and a fiendish little ditty about the town history of Salem Massachusetts in tow, Zombie sets out for this sort of direct line between his script and the images he wishes to induce and caress out of it. On paper, it’s a tentative mixture of ambiguous character and enigmatic, not-quite-psychological horror (it’s too willfully difficult and primordial, and probably too literal to earn the psychological horror bent everyone who likes the film wants to bestow upon it). Sheri Moon Zombie stars as a middle-aged single Salem shock-jock radio DJ who receives a mysterious musical curio early in the film, a peculiar LP equal parts of metallic rust and Gothic haunt that soon enough reveals itself to do much more than serenade the ears with raw nails and screws.
I said these stocking stuffers wouldn’t be themed, and I toyed with calling this one something like “Nasty little black hearts that happen to have Nicole Kidman in them”, but then I realized I should limit my self-serving dumbness to myself sometimes. Just sharing.
2013 saw the “big three” South Korean maestros of pitch-black genre fare emigrate to the United States (Hollywood ever unable to beat em’, and always willing to shill out enough money so they can join em’). Kim Jee-woon went to bat first and struck out commercially (even if his grubby, sprightly little action vehicle for Ahnuld. The Last Stand, was a decent sort in it’s own way, and incomparably directed to say the least). The final hitter, delayed by one year, was Bong Joon-ho, and he knocked it out of the park with a deliriously madcap trip to film school in the rollicking kitsch-fest Snowpiercer.
In between, the bad boy of South Korean cinema went up to bat and generated a curiously slight bit of applause. Park Chan-wook was always the bleakest and most torturous of the three directors, his compatriots preferring sky-high genre fare while he always went the chilly path to the darkest places of our souls. His American debut, Stoker, follows suit, and in retrospect, the little response this film – about incest among the modern bourgeoisie – generated isn’t really a surprise. In fact, it would have been a shock had its reaction been rapturous, or anything other than the deadened, transfixed state it occupies from beginning to end.