Monday, January 18, 2016
Screenplay by Tom Gries, from an original story by Bert I. Gordon and Al Zimbalist
Narration: Marvin Miller
Bill Bryant: Dr. Ralph Martin
Wanda Curtis: Dr. Patricia Bennett
Douglas Henderson: Dr. Richard Gordon
Patti Gallagher: Dr. Nora Pierce
Featuring Little Joe -- The Honey Bear (this is an actual credit)
Time to get back in the saddle again. Every year after HubrisWeen I don't feel like watching and critiquing movies for a while, and this year was no different. Plus there was the Criterion Blogathon, which exposed my writing (such as it is) to a massive new audience, who promptly discovered that I wasn't writing anything new if they came back at any point in November, December or January up till now. Well, I'm leaving for my sixteenth B Fest tomorrow, so I figure I should watch something with bad effects and sexism so blatant that there's no subtext, it's just text. And I can cross another Bert I. Gordon movie off my list, which is nice. If I'd been a little more on the ball (and if I hadn't gotten horribly sick over Thanksgiving weekend, with the after effects of The Head Cold That Wouldn't Die lasting almost till the new year) I might have done a second Month of AlloSundays with this movie, and a couple others that featured bipedal dinosaurs with three-clawed forelimbs. C'est la vie.
And in all seriousness, it's good to be writing again. Hope you dig it, faithful readers and new arrivals both.
Man, there ain't nothing I like better in my Fifties science fiction than shots of buildings and voiceover narration at the start. And King Dinosaur has both; an observatory (somewhere) sent a telegram to the President due to some new discovery in the heavens. I would have expected this to be some kind of Sputnik reaction, but this movie was made two years before the pinnacle of Soviet science and engineering sent that round beeping thing up into orbit. Turns out that there's something out in space distressing enough to require an emergency session of Congress in order to prepare America for some cosmic threat. There's a rogue planet that's joined the solar system, having been captured by the Sun's gravity and now becoming the tenth planet.
The new planet, which will be named Nova, is also close enough to Earth that travel to it is possible, so various countries are planning to send astronauts (or cosmonauts or taikonauts) up to it in order to check the place out and see if there's anything worth having or taking. According to the narrator the new world has a breathable atmosphere, which probably cuts down on the space suit budget considerably. After the opening credits, we get more stock footage and narration (swoon!) as the nation's industrial and scientific acumen are pressed into service to make a "passenger-carrying rocket". Which was still about half a decade in the future when this film was made. The rocket's going to use a jet engine, though, which is only going to work as long as there's an atmosphere to funnel through the turbines. Oh, half-assed movie science, could I love you any more?
Over a period of months, all kinds of new gadgets are created, tested, and pressed into service in order to build the new rocket. Because it's the Fifties, there's an atomic pile powering the rocket, and the narrator is sure to tell the audience that if the astronauts aren't careful while using it, they will cause a nuclear explosion. No pressure, astro-people. No pressure whatsoever...
Still more stock footage of planes or men flipping switches spools out as the narrator explains that rocket tests involve sending mice into space in order to see if humans can survive in zero gravity. And that means it's time to pick the crew of the space rocket that's going to travel to Nova and poke around a little bit to see what's interesting. Dr. Richard Gordon is a zoologist--he's going to check out whatever animal life may exist on Nova. The expedition's geologist will be Dr. Nora Pierce while the medical officer will be Dr. Ralph Martin. The narrator implies that Martin is capable of reversing death thanks to some clunky writing, but I don't think he's supposed to be quite that good. The last member of the crew is Dr. Patricia Bennett, a chemist who will study other aspects of the planet that the other scientists won't be getting to.
Finally it's time to launch (the narrator points out that Nova will be in the best position for an approach but doesn't even hint at how two bodies in ellipsoid orbits are in different positions relative to each other at various times). Apparently there was only one dude with a slide rule working on that because the launch has to take place "in the next 24 hours". Here's hoping they remembered to pack food before ignition. At T-minus twenty minutes the crew is told to report to the ship, which doesn't sound like enough time to strap in and not get killed. Of course this is all done via stock footage of V-2 rocket launch preparations, so we never see any of the actors anywhere near the rocket at this point. But eventually there's a launch and the unnamed rocket leaves Earth's surface, pointed towards Nova (I especially dug the use of rocket-mounted cameras to give us a couple POV shots of the ground falling away).
And so, about a sixth of the way through the movie, it's time for STILL MORE STOCK FOOTAGE and one nifty looking matte painting of the Earth hanging there in space as the rocket travels away. There were no problems over the months of travel from Earth to Nova (and the stock footage of the captured V-2 rockets mean that the ship was going at full burn for months in order to reach Nova, which is...unlikely...for lots of different reasons. But the main one is that they weren't carrying 75,000 tons of fuel in a sixty-foot tall rocket).
The rocket gets to Nova, which has pine trees on its surface, and reversing the footage of the launch means that it lands without incident. The astronauts disembark for the first chance to stretch their legs and breathe air that doesn't smell like sweat socks and flatulence for the first time in a third of a year. I really like the glass-bubble helmets on the suits, by the way; it's almost certainly a compromise between the reality of space exploration as understood in 1955 and the need for the actors' faces to be visible. That's doubly necessary because it's a black and white movie, so the bright suits from Destination Moon couldn't be used to help distinguish between the characters.
I can tell that the stock footage is just going to make me chuckle every time it gets used, and one of the astronauts pointing to "an active volcano" within visual range of the landing site jabs me right in the funny bone. The first thing that Dr. Martin does on the surface is check to make sure that conditions on Nova will support human life--poking around with a Geiger counter and other things like that. The two other scientists want him to hurry up so they can join him; does that mean that the expedition (or the filmmakers) only sprung for two space suits? I would hope that NASA would send three for each member of the expedition in real life, especially considering the several-month travel time between the two planets.
Dr. Bennett takes notes on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which is a relatively deft way to get a giant chunk of exposition delivered without making her tell people who should already know things what's up. Of course there's going to be copious records of the expedition, and of course the filmmakers will want to show off the (contemporary) latest in technology while they do it. Check out the sweet Fifties font on the "Revere" recorder. It is way boss. The two scientists do a whole bunch of other tests for bacteria counts, air and water purity and all that sort of thing. I'd be hugely concerned about cracking the seal on my helmet with 40% of the bacteria being completely unknown. Think about the native populations in Central America after Europeans brought syphilis and smallpox with them...
After signalling to the other two crew members that they probably won't die just from breathing the air, Dr. Pierce and Dr. Gordon exit the ship in what look like ordinary clothes. Apparently the Jumpsuit Age of Science Fiction hadn't happened when this film was made. Dr. Pierce notices a couple of albino moose and tussling bear cubs and says there must be water on Nova since it's supporting animal life. Never mind the trees and grasses everywhere, right? I blame the screenwriter.
The foursome heads over to a nearby lake for a Science Picnic and remark on the swarm of birds flocking around (and chirping endlessly on the soundtrack). I don't know who the expedition captain is--and I suspect the movie doesn't either--but Dr. Pierce wants to check out a jungle island in the middle of the lake when there's time. Dr. Martin points out that the expedition is just supposed to take samples from wherever they land, but come on--the island's only about a mile or so from the landing site. It's not like you spent four months in a tin can just to scoop up some gravel and pine needles less than 100 yards from the landing site. I bet everyone on the ship would like to check out the island, if only for the first chance for guaranteed privacy while picking one's nose in a third of a year. Doctors Bennett and Pierce say that the lake means they have a chance to take a bath, and they're going to do that. Since this movie was made three decades too early for Andy Sidaris to show them scrubbing each other down, we just get a discreet fade to the next scene, where Dr. Martin and Dr. Gordon are goofing around with a bunch of boxes of supplies, prepping for the expedition to the island. They're awfully casual with the rifles and with leaving everything out--one assumes that the bear cubs could break things just by poking at them out of curiosity. And it's not like the scientists know if there's a burrowing animal that could eat all their stuff, or just break it. Yes, the budget precludes Graboids but only the filmmakers and audience would know that. The characters shouldn't act like they know what's going to happen because there's no damned way they ever would.
Dr. Pierce notes that they don't know how long Nova's day is, and Dr. Gordon says it's three PM as far as he can tell (which means that the movie edges up on containing some actual science along with the stock footage and narration). Without cluing anyone in the film or watching it into his reasoning, Gordon says it'll be three hours until it gets dark so there's still time to do science. Which means walking through the forest and possibly getting lost (while grainy footage of a sloth shows up briefly). Dr. Pierce digs around a little bit and says that Nova is a much younger planet than Earth, and that the geological evidence she's found (about an inch and a half below the surface) pegs the world as "prehistoric". Which means that sooner or later we might actually see that dinosaur promised in the title.
By general consensus everyone heads back to the ship (and nobody blazed a trail or set up markers to guide them back to their one safe place to live, the source of their food, and the only locking door on the entire planet). Nice job, guys. You are dumb. Dr. Bennett gets startles by a snake and has a crying jag and Dr. Martin declares that it's shelter building time rather than trying to find the rocket at night. I literally cannot believe they went out of visual range of the rocket if they didn't have a tracking beacon. The men put together a lean-to and set up a watch schedule while Dr. Gordon tells the women that they might be intrepid enough to go to a completely unknown planet but they can't be trusted not to panic staying up late and watching for animals. Thunder (or possibly that volcano) rumbles on the soundtrack while the men watch over the women and the fire burns low. I'm pretty sure the scene is supposed to be taking place at night, but there's also a shot of the sun in the sky, and then it starts raining after Dr. Gordon ends his watch.
Thunder wakes Dr. Bennett up and she starts making out with Dr. Martin mere seconds after walking up to him. The discuss their plans to marry once they get back to Earth, as heroes in Fifties science fiction often did. Also, I can't quite bring myself to imagine that the four month trip on the rocket was spent with everyone remaining celibate (but the Hays Production Code ensures that they were). The two doctors go for a romantic walk in the rain on an alien planet (and the sun gets shown again in an insert shot); then Dr. Martin trips and rolls down a hill and is attacked by a random encounter. God rolled a 44 on the Deciduous Forest Table so he winds up wrestling an alligator.
He is injured but not killed and the remaining scientists bring him back to camp. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be day or night at this point, and I'm also not sure what the expedition is supposed to do in order to treat its doctor when that guy gets hurt. Dr. Gordon gets snappy and brutal with everyone while trying to treat the injured man and Dr. Bennett collapses into useless sobs. Please see my earlier jokes and references re: Fifties sexism, and add another joke here if you like!
The next morning, Dr. Gordon and Dr. Pierce plan to go back to the rocket while Dr. Bennett takes care of Dr. Martin at the camp site. Here's hoping that someone figures out that slashing blazes into trees is a good way to keep track of where people have gone and how to get back there if they want to. Gordon tells Bennett not to leave the area, since out of the entire planet they really only know about two places on it. Dr. Bennett snuggles up to the feverish and injured Dr. Martin, for lack of any better medical options (thanks, EisenhowerCare).
Some more precious screen time is eaten up by Gordon and Pierce going back to the ship, smiling as they see a lemur, and setting out for the camp again. A superimposed gigantic wingless bee (or possibly a huge ant or grasshopper) shows up at the camp to forage. Since Dr. Bennett's a woman, she just screams and is useless, but Dr. Martin finds out that it's immune to pistol bullets. Then he finds out that rifle bullets work just fine, and they've got 1200 pounds of dead gigantic insect meat. Though as all my readers know, you can only bring 100 pounds of meat back to the wagon. The rest just spoils in the sun. Dr. Martin claims that he needs "some medicine" from Bennett, and that's apparently administered through lip-to-lip contact.
The two other members of the expedition eventually get back to the campsite, and find that Joe the Lemur has become their fifth Beatle. Dr. Gordon claims grumpily that everything's weird on Nova and claims to have seen a tanklike animal that left them alone. The gigantic dead insect must have been cleaned up by the Nova Forest Sanitation Department, because nobody mentions it, and you'd figure a half-ton bug would make quite a conversation piece on any planet. The island in the lake comes up for a fourth time when the doctors discuss what their plans are for the following day; Martin says they can't get separated again so it looks like everyone's going to the mysterious jungle island with a smoking volcano in the middle of a huge lake on an alien planet. Should work out fine for everyone.
I hope you like stock footage of a snake and Joe the Lemur making bipping noises, because that's what you're going to get when Dr. Gordon takes the first watch that night. Though when the snake crawls over Dr. Martin it might be time for someone to do something about it (Gordon's no help whatsoever and doesn't seem to notice it for a disastrously long time). The snake just crawls off without doing anything, though, and then it's time to move on to Scene 36.
Scene 36 finally arrives, and then goes away listlessly.
Doctor Gordon and Doctor Pierce bring Joe the Lemur and an inflatable raft to the lake and go to check out the jungle island at some length; meanwhile, Doctor Bennett and Doctor Martin hang out at the campsite and talk about getting married again. At the lake, you do get to see the raft get inflated thanks to a pressurized CO2 cannister, which is pretty neat. Then it's time to hear the two doctors but not see them, since the journey to the island is composed of stock footage rather than the actors doing anything (until the raft hits the shore). They talk for a while and then go into the "jungle", which appears to have pine trees and deciduous foliage more than, say, creepers and vines. They get interrupted by a brief interlude at the lean-to before the film switches back to them in a mountainous cave-strewn area that looks even less like a jungle than the forest.
An animal roar clues the pair into the existence of huge animals (again, why didn't anybody mention the huge dead wingless bee?) right before KING DINOSAUR makes his appearance...
...and it's just a goddamned photographically enlarged iguana.
Movie, I actually kind of hate you right now. I was hoping for a stop motion Allosaurus or at least a stuntman in a dinosaur suit. And I got an iguana being propped up to look like it's walking on its hind legs. Since it's the mid-Fifties, Dr. Gordon shoots at the animal and Dr. Pierce screams uselessly. Then the rifle jams and it's time to beat feet away from the monster. The two doctors hide in a convenient cave (too bad nobody says "I claim this cavern in the name of Bronson!") and the monster pursues them. Dr. Pierce flips out that Joe the Lemur is going to get killed by the monster and Gordon runs out of the cave to rescue the idiotic little thing in a sequence too terrifying to actually show. There is a rather nifty shot of the "dinosaur" reaching into the cave to snag the tasty humans, and Gordon has the presence of mind to take a picture of it. Then a photographically enlarged alligator shows up for a battle to the death that I sincerely hope did not actually injure either of the animals. Hurting a perfectly innocent reptile for art is a dick move, and the art that got made--at least in this case--is absolutely not worth the sacrifice.
Oh, hey, a third big animal shows up--this one looks like a monitor lizard or something. The two trapped doctors decide to launch a distress flare to summon the two scientists at the lean-to, although I hope their plan isn't "run for the ship while the monsters are eating our colleagues". It's a red flare (apparently--it's a black and white movie), which was the distress signal. The two doctors at the campsite run to see what they can do (although without a raft, I am not sure exactly what that will be).
Back at the monster pit, the alligator has been killed (though that's almost certain chocolate syrup poured over it to simulate blood). Dr. Bennett and Dr. Martin grab another raft from the ship and make their way tediously to the lake and thence to the island, and further still to the jungle. Back in the cave, Dr. Gordon has developed a photo of the King Dinosaur, saying it "resembles the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Earth's prehistoric age". Which, er, it does not. At all. Dr. Pierce throws a snit and tears the photo up, saying it's no use having the picture since they're not going to get back to Earth. I can only imagine what being trapped in a tiny steel tube with those two for four months must have been like.
At least there's a little more monitor-lizard footage while the two campsite doctors jog to the rescue toting the atomic power generator that the narration established was also a powerful explosive. Dr. Martin realizes that he and Dr. Bennett won't be able to rush to the rescue past the dinosaurs, but if the monitor lizard distracts the iguana Pierce and Gordon can make a run for it. Turns out that the two animals fall down a cliffside during the fight, which means the two scientists can escape without any significant risk. This they now do.
Even though there isn't any real reason to do it, Dr. Martin sets the timer on their suitcase nuke (for only half an hour!) and everyone runs off for the raft, pausing only to fruitlessly shoot at a gigantic armadillo. They run; the iguana chases them; a mammoth shows up for no reason (and appears to be a shaggy-furred elephant in a toupee). I'll give the filmmakers this, though--the score is nice and exciting during this sequence, for all that it's just four people running through a forest trail and occasional shots of a lemur. Stock footage of a snapping turtle stands in for another monster and the scientists hop into a raft and paddle away towards their rocket. They prepare to leave for Earth, having spent about 72 hours on an alien planet and doing incalculable damage to its biosphere by setting off a goddamned nuke. The film presents this as a defensible idea, which I just plain do not get. There's also absolutely no way the four protagonists got to a safe distance from a nuclear blast after half an hour of paddling and running. But the lemur is safe, so there's that.
I bet if you took all the stock footage out of this film it'd be a 35 minute short. I got this movie as a gift and I kinda want my money back. It's all the bad parts of the Fifties science-fiction craze and none of the good. When Dr. Gordon says it's time to leave Planet Nova I wholeheartedly agree with him. It's a nonsensical film in the worst way, figuratively and literally, and even at 61 minutes it overstays its welcome significantly.
But its worst offense is promising an actual dinosaur on the poster and delivering an iguana, an alligator, and a monitor lizard. That is utterly unforgivable.
Monday, December 14, 2015
The Celluloid Zeroes were going to celebrate Thanksgiving with some movies about vengeful witches, but I got horribly sick and it was delayed until the first weekend in December. Click on the various other Zeroes' links on the right to check out their sites and see what they've reviewed for this event.
Written by Tom Baker (not that one) and Michael Reeves, based on a novel by Ronald Bassett
Directed by Michael Reeves
Vincent Price: Matthew Hopkins
Robert Russell: John Stearne
Ian Ogilvy: Richard Marshall
Hilary Heath: Sara Lowes
There were two ways I saw to go when I wanted to write this review. One of them is to praise Vincent Price for his performance here. It is, without a doubt, the best work I've seen from him (out of the, let's say, 30 or 35 of his movies that I've watched). He refrains from his usual actor tricks in this one and he never lets on that it's all just a harmless thrill ride (like so many of his other horror roles). Instead, he plays Matthew Hopkins as an abject monster in a human skin, a man who despises himself for his appetites and loathes the society he lives in for being too terrified to stand up to him when he comes looking for witches. It's a complete departure from the typical Vincent Price role and if you're only familiar with the arch and campy "Dr. Phibes" kind of performance from the actor, this movie will serve as a total revelation of just what he was capable of when given the right part and the right direction.
The other way I could have gone would be to mention that witch hunts don't ever really find witches, but they're fantastic at finding expendable people that can be punished horribly as an object lesson so that everyone else in a given society keeps their heads down, does what they're told, and never tries to defy the current societal power structure. And unfortunately that's a lesson that people in America seem to keep on re-teaching, over and over and over. After a certain tipping point, the reality of witches (communists, Satanist baby-killers, secret jihadists, etc.) working secretly in the dark is irrelevant. All that matters is that everyone who could speak out in defense of an unpopular persecuted minority is too terrified of being linked with them to speak so the ambulance-chasing dickheads who want to get powerful, rich and famous can operate with total impunity. I'd elaborate about the open sewer of American politics at the end of 2015 here, but...let's be honest. If you're reading this you're already thinking of the same people I am. If I keep listing examples of assholes being assholes while trying to keep their boot on the neck of an unpopular religious minority I'll never get to the movie review and I'll just be hurting my own feelings.
One last thing, before I get to the film itself: You may well have noticed that the poster isn't for a movie called Witchfinder General; it's for a movie with the same title as a work of Edgar Allan Poetry. Well, when this movie was made in the UK it was named Witchfinder General, as that's a reference to a genuine historical personage from England. But here in the States people tended not to know who Matthew Hopkins was, so a new title got slapped on the movie in the hopes that people would think it was another Roger Corman / Vincent Price / Edgar Allan Poe movie. It isn't. If you go into it expecting one, you're just going to get your feelings hurt. But if you're ready for something that was made to speak to Western society when it was busy tearing at itself like a wolf trying to bite through its own leg, well...you're gonna have yourself a time.
The first thing you see on the screen is a field sparsely populated with sheep. The first thing you hear is a carpenter assembling a gallows with a mallet. And the first human voice is a woman screaming in pain and fear. This movie was meant to be an assault on the audience's sensibilities from literally thirty seconds in. A priest follows the woman (who is being dragged to her death by a group of peasants), droning on about the apocalypse. There's a long shot that shows just how far this poor woman is going to be dragged to her execution and the lynching victim keeps screaming wordlessly through the entire scene. It's pretty hard to take (and nearly half a century ago, this must have come across like a slap in the face from the director). The stately and classy Hammer Studios' films have just been consigned to the ash heap of history. A couple burly guys get the noose around the woman's neck and (after a nod from the priest) kick the stool out from under the woman's feet. With a snap and the creaking of the rope, all voices in the film cease and the hanging party goes back to town silently. I'm guessing some of them are glad the "witch" won't plague them any more and others are merely relieved that it wasn't their turn to be hanged at the whim of the town priest.
Roll credits (hey, this one is from the English C-list Tigon studio!). Vincent Price gets top billing, as well he should. But once we get into the technical credits the images on screen are screaming faces in grainy black and white (and one face that might well be laughing). If people were expecting a romp on the order of Peter Cushing conquering death, well...they weren't going to get it. This film came out the same year as Night of the Living Dead, and it instills the same sensation in a viewer that nothing is ever going to be okay again.
Over a shot of a tree-studded field, a narrator hips the clueless Americans in the audience (all of us) that the story takes place during the English Civil War of 1645. The Royalists support King Charles and the Roundheads are backing Oliver Cromwell, but what it mostly means is that any sources of law and order above the town--or maybe county--level in England are busy kicking the shit out of each other over hill and dale. Individual judges, priests or land owners get to act however they want, as the king and Cromwell are off struggling for control of the nation. With those two very big cats away, the rats are coming out to play as much as they like. The narrator does say that justice is being done at some points on the map, but just as haphzardly and randomly as injustice. And in this climate of terror, uncertainty and chaos, "the likes of Matthew Hopkins take full advantage of the situation".
What advantage is he taking? Well, it turns out that bumpkins and rubes in 1645 in England are really worried about witches doing evil supernatural stuff to them. Hopkins goes from town to town, walking the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu. When he gets to a place that might have witches, he tortures people into confessing that they are in league with Satan and then ends their lives. He's doing this "with the full blessing of what law there is," according to that narrator. And what a wonderful turn of phrase that dude has. Hopkins claimed to be acting as "Witchfinder General" for the country, but at least according to Wikipedia he was never granted that title or office. And for all the grandeur of his title, Hopkins is confining himself to East Anglia rather than going to and fro over the entirety of England, and walking up and down on it.
Some characters that do something other than quote Scripture, get killed or murder someone in the name of righteousness show up now. A Roundhead patrol on horseback makes its way across a field in England. Richard Marshall, one of the soldiers, takes a little good-natured chaffing from another guy about Sara, his special girl back home in whatever village he's from. Their commanding officer tells the two to shut up while they're on the move, and then calls a rest just in range of a royalist with a gun. One of the Roundheads is shot out of the saddle and the other soldiers head off in search of the ambushers (the scene of men in bright red clothing walking through the woods made me realize how ill-prepared Cromwell's forces seem to be for asymmetrical warfare). Richard's stuck holding the horses while the other men go out of sight and he just hears the conflict that follows (putting him and the audience in the same situation). Marshall winds up saving his CO's life when he spots a wounded but not yet dead Royalist with a gun and shoots him before the man can kill the man with the plume in his helmet.
Saving your CO's life turns out to be good for a weekend pass out of the war, so Richard is going to go back home to the map-speck village of Brandeston and see his girl, Sara. The other soldiers razz him about his plans for the two day pass, but it's pretty obvious that they'd swap places with him in an instant. Richard makes his way home (and I got impressed by the way the director and cinematographer made sure nothing from 1968 appeared in the shot; it can't be easy making a historical epic on a low budget). John Lowes, the town's priest, greets him happily and questions Richard about his experiences in the war. Then he shifts gears and asks if the young man would want to marry his niece Sara and take her away from Brandeston (and to a bustling metropolis like Ipswich).
Turns out that there's more than one way to get killed during the war--true, Brandeston is tiny enough that the Royalist soldiers aren't quartered there, but with so little law and order in the country any son of a bitch willing to throw his weight around can do whatever he likes. And the vicar realizes that one such SOB is coming for his town. When that happens, he wants Sara as far away from the village as possible. And then who should show up at the church sanctuary but Sara herself? Her uncle takes off (after gently hinting that he's expecting supper at the usual hour, which is probably the least sanctimonious way possible to say "do not have sex with your boyfriend right now") and Richard tells his girl that her uncle has consented to their marriage. Notice that he doesn't ask Sara about this; the more charitable view, which I happen to think is also the true one, is that Sara and Richard already planned to get hitched, so getting the priest's okay was a formality more than a transfer of property (Sara) from her uncle to her husband.
And Sara's delighted to get that news, running over to embrace Richard and then chiding him for his roughness (blaming his time in the military for his coarse manner when he kisses her). But Richard's good enough that he breaks away rather than pressing the issue, and also good enough to ask what's going on with Sara's uncle and why he wants her away from the village. Turns out that the villagers don't like the well-fed, educated priest very much. Right now they're just calling him a Papist and an idol-worshipper and the graffiti is limited to chalk instead of paint for the time being. But Lowes can see the literal writing on the wall when it's there and wants Sara out of danger. I'm assuming that the Catholic-versus-Anglican issue got settled in blood quite a bit in the 1600s, and that all the characters in this movie would know about the bad blood between sects that could lead easily to someone getting killed..
Sara, for her part, is also worried about what's going to happen and Richard reassures her--he gives her his oath that nobody's going to hurt her. Of course, he's only in town for two days, so what he's going to do to protect his fiancee after that is an open question. Over dinner that night the priest says the wedding date has to be soon and Richard points out that the army has much more say over his schedule than he does at this point. Then Lowes leaves for bed, after reminding his niece to make sure the doors to the church and sanctuary are bolted before she turns in for the night. Richard and Sara talk for a little while about whether or not she's going to make a good wife and mother, and retire to bed (together) in a scene that's a touch more explicit than I was expecting from 1968. For that matter, the matter-of-fact way that the priest treats fornication under his roof is something I wouldn't have thought any studio film could get away with that year, let alone one in Britain where there was a national censor board that could prevent anything getting made that they didn't want to be made.
The next morning, we don't spend time with Richard and Sara as they wake up; instead, it's two men traveling on horseback through the countryside. The older, more cultured, better-dressed and sharper-tongued one is openly tired of traveling with his greasier, heftier, coarser companion. It soon transpires that the older one is Matthew Hopkins, and the younger is his assistant and chief torturer, John Stearne. They're on their way to a quiet village with a priest who's been accused of Satan worship. And both Hopkins and Stearne know that where there's one warlock in a position of authority, they're bound to find other people who have also been corrupted and need to be purified by fire. As a not inconsiderable side factor, Hopkins and Stearne are paid for every witch they discover and execute, which means that there's quite an incentive to torture someone until they'll say anything to stop the pain, take that as "proof" of witchcraft, and then bill the town for their valuable services. Something tells me that Burke and Hare would get along quite well with the Witchfinder General and his assistant.
Now it's time to watch Richard saying goodbye to Sara and her uncle as he goes back to his troop and to the war. During a "heavy filters mean that this takes place at night" sequence he comes across people from his home village, who are out waiting for the arrival of Matthew Hopkins. They refer to him as a lawyer, not a witchfinder, but the audience knows what's going on (and the filmmakers show who's approaching and who's leaving the village by blocking the horseback-riding shots; Hopkins and Stearne travel from the left of the screen to the right, while Richard--who is leaving the village--is depicted moving from screen right to screen left). Richard promises to tell any lawyers that he runs across about the welcoming committee and rides off. And, of course, he does encounter Hopkins and Stearne and asks them politely enough what a lawyer could possibly be looking for in Brandeston. Hopkins tells the soldier that there's a man there who might not be the person he's been presenting himself as. I don't know how advanced the life-insurance industry was in rural England in 1645, but for John Lowes' sake I hope he's got a great policy and he hasn't skipped any payments.
Although things don't appear to be completely one-sided, at least at the start. While talking to some peasant rabble about Lowes, they tell Hopkins that the priest is Catholic and burns candles. The Witchfinder says that's not actually proof of Satan worship. Hopkins says he'll find the truth, and seems to be just the slightest bit dismissive of the ill-formed suspicions that the villagers are mentioning to him. When Hopkins, Stearne and the group of peasants get to Lowes' house, the two chief antagonists get inside along with their backup rabble. And once they're there, Lowes tells them that he categorically denies the accusations of witchcraft and devil worship (pointing out that he's a priest, which is traditionally not an occupation for people who would work in league with diabolical powers). Hopkins has enough of this "actually I am not a devil worshiper" bullshit and has Stearne slap the priest around a couple times before telling his underling to search Lowes for a "Devil's mark". I'm willing to bet everyone reading this has some skin tag on their body that would have worked as a death sentence if the Witchfinder came calling (I'm thinking of the mole that my barber re-discovers every time I get a trim right now myself). Anyway, once Stearne finds a birthmark or mole on the priest's body that doesn't bleed or hurt when he stabs it, that's proof that John Lowes is secretly a slave of nefarious powers. And every time he stabs Lowes and provokes a scream of pain and a flow of blood? Well, there's a proverb about omelettes and broken eggshells that undoubtedly comes to the torturer's mind.
While Stearne is brutalizing the priest, Hopkins looks out the window and sees a friendly peasant running to warn Sara that the torture gang is in town and they've got their sights on her uncle. Since stabbing the priest in the back a dozen times or so hasn't shown any evidence of Satanism, Hopkins tells a couple of the villagers to force the priest to run around his dining table until he's exhausted and a bit more pliable when the questions come out. That scene jumps to Sara running towards her uncle's house, where Hopkins grabs her the second she gets to the door. One imagines that he's got plenty of experience with people sprinting back to where their loved ones live when they hear that the Witchfinder General is asking questions. The first thing Hopkins tells Sara is that he's there as a witchfinder; the second is that since she's a blood relative of an accused warlock, she may well be corrupted and investigation will be necessary.
Sara's no dummy, though. She tells Hopkins that she's an orphan adopted into Lowes' household rather than an actual relative (and she might be telling the truth, for all the viewer knows). Hopkins listens to Sara's explanation, which involves her being taken into the Lowes household by his late maidservant and taking over as majordomo of the priest's house when she was old enough to do so. He doesn't think it's one hundred percent jive, but also doesn't think Sara's telling him the complete truth. He's willing to let that go for the time being, telling the young woman that they'll be talking privately later about whether or not Lowes is truly guilty of witchcraft.
Sara figures out instantly what Hopkins really means and makes arrangements for him to come to her bedroom that night (and Hopkins' completely blase attitude about this exchange of favors leads one to believe that he's very, very used to finding cute young ladies in his travels and extorting sexual favors in exchange for innocent verdicts). And to her credit, Sara uses this leverage instantly to protect her uncle. I'm sure there are some viewers or critics that would blame her for using her body to keep Lowes safe, but we've already been told that England is in a state of total lawlessness thanks to the civil war. She's using the weapon she has to protect her uncle; yes, she's doing something that most of the viewers would find repellent but she's doing it to prevent someone she loves from being tortured to death. There is a villain in this movie, of course. It's not Sara.
Hopkins says it's time to throw Lowes in jail. Stearne is perplexed, because they haven't gotten a confession out of him yet and there's still plenty of time to stab him or make him run around his table until he's willing to say anything to stop the pain. But he's also second in command, so he shrugs and tells the two peasants he's pressed into service that it's jail time for the priest.
That night Stearne is loudly regaling the peasantry with Tales of Witch-Hanging,drinking steadily and fondling the local girl who's sitting in his lap. Hopkins sneaks out while Stearne is talking about different women he's killed and the circumstances of those deaths (and the disapproval on his face is wonderful--nobody could frown like Vincent Price). It's also wonderful for the audience to realize that the Witchfinder General is showing his disapproval of Stearne drinking and putting the moves on the village woman as he's creeping outside to go force himself on Sara. Maybe he's against drinking. Or perhaps he just thinks talking about all the things he and Stearne have done is the real sin.
At the priest's house (sans priest, of course) Hopkins shows up to interrogate Sara. This "interrogation" lasts all of forty seconds before the lawyer tells Sara that her uncle is going to be tortured until he confesses and then executed, and that it'll all be over in a day or two. Sara counters by asking if there isn't anything she can do to save Lowes, and of course there is. The next afternoon (Stearne has slept literally half the day away on the tavern floor) Hopkins kicks his assistant awake and tells him it's time to get back to work. Although in this case, Stearne is a little baffled that Hopkins isn't planning to get a confession out of Lowes. But as long as he gets to "interrogate" some local women, he doesn't care about some old priest. He also needles Matthew Hopkins about where the older man spent his night, though I'm guessing Stearne didn't have much time to gossip while he was snoring on the barroom floor.
In his cell, Lowes is chained to a wall and there's the obligatory establishing shot with a rat showing that it is indeed a dungeon. But the jailer stops by to tell the priest that he's not going to be interrogated any further, and that night Stearne follows his boss to see what's going on when Hopkins leaves their room at the inn. Stearne may be a greasy, sadistic thug but he's not completely stupid. He's also a grudge-holding asshole and takes it quite badly that Hopkins is coercing sex from the best-looking woman in the village without letting his chief torturer take a turn in the rotation. The investigation scene with Stearne looking around for his boss is another one of those "blue for night" sequences, but you can tell what's going on.
What's going on: Stearne is frustrated, bored, horny and pissed off that Matthew Hopkins is keeping his latest conquest for himself. So of course Stearne goes to the dungeons and starts slapping a woman around while she's chained to the wall (I wonder how intentional that jump cut was, and whether or not the director wanted Stearne to be so transparently misogynistic). It also appears that Stearne was freelancing that interrogation, with Hopkins pointedly asking if he's sticking to the "prescribed methods" of torturing answers out of a helpless woman. I know exactly what I was thinking in 2015 when Hopkins asked that pointed question, and I can only assume audiences in 1968 arrived at the same conclusion.
Stearne gets put in charge of the witch-finding efforts in Brandeston while Hopkins is away (he's got an errand one town over that's going to take all day for him to perform). He reiterates that Lowes isn't to be stabbed or set on fire in his absence and leaves as Stearne goes back to slapping the woman in the cell hard enough to draw blood. But he only sticks to that long enough to make sure his boss is out of town; as soon as he figures he's safe to act he goes looking for Sara, who instantly realizes how much trouble she's in. She makes a run for it once Stearne mentions that he's in charge of the witch-finding in the village for the time being but he catches her and rapes her in a field (the grin on the bystander's face is actually worse than anything Stearne does in this scene, if you ask me). And since it was 1968, there's nothing explicit on the screen, which doesn't make it any better to overhear.
When Hopkins gets back to Brandeston, there's someone waiting on the road to tell him about what's been going on with Sara and Stearne. Apparently the hick tells Hopkins that it was consensual, or Hopkins just doesn't want to touch Sara at all now that he knows who's been with her (earlier, he asked about Sara's "innocence", which is a code word for "virginity" in this context). He goes back to the tavern and tells Stearne that they're going back to beating Lowes until he mumbles something that can be taken as a confession in front of witnesses (who are threatened into compliance by Stearne's brute force and Hopkins' ice-cold malice). It's obvious at this point that Hopkins and Stearne have no illusions about who and what they are.
Hopkins has Lowes and two women accused of witchcraft dragged to the local river, where he will have them thrown into the water to see if they sink or float. If they sink, they're proven innocent of witchcraft and are merely known to have made a false confession under duress. If they float or swim, however, they've been rejected by the water (which is some kind of religious mumbo-jumbo about the divine authority that makes the rivers run rejecting the accused) and they'll be hanged until they're dead. One of the women says that she's pregnant and can't be hanged--which might even be genuinely from the legal system of the time. Stearne sidesteps that issue neatly by joking that nobody would want to get that woman pregnant. The peasant mob laughs and the issue is avoided completely.
The three accused are lowered into the local river on ropes that cannot have been comfortable for the actors to wear. Two of the "witches" don't drown instantly, so Hopkins declares that they are to be hanged. The third dies during the test, which means that Hopkins (and Stearne and the villagers) have all conspired to kill an innocent person. But she went straight to heaven, so that's all right. Lowes tells his accuser that God will have to forgive him for his crimes, and winds up swinging on the end of a creaking rope, hanging from the closest tree. Check it out, incidentally--there's a third noose swinging emptily between the two bodies, because Hopkins was planning to kill three people that day.
After the hangings, Stearne goes to the local magistrate and picks up the nine-guinea fee for the three witchcraft trials. Using The Google and some fairly dodgy math, I arrived at the figure of $26,334.00 American dollars as the value of nine pounds and nine shillings in 1645. So whatever else you can say about Hopkins, he's figured out a very profitable racket. I'm betting that he gets paid very promptly, as well, because if you don't pay him off he'll stick around and accuse more people of witchcraft (perhaps starting with the people who stiffed him on his paycheck). The peasantry go back to the farms and fields of Brandeston and the two witchfinders go off to torture and execute some other completely innocent people somewhere else.
And Richard Marshall comes back into the narrative, looking for replacement horses to make up for campaign losses that Cromwell's army has suffered. He asks the horse trader about Brandeston while making small talk, and finds out about the witch trial and mass execution that just transpired. He charges off to his hometown and tells the horse dealer to report him as "delayed" when the other troopers come by to purchase mounts. He makes it back to Brandeston and finds Sara, who flees into the vandalized church and sanctuary when he shows up.
The film shows enough discretion to keep its distance during their reunion, but Sara tells Richard what she did to try and save her uncle's life. Richard's eyes go dead as stone when he realizes what his fiancee did in order to help someone she loved, and guides her to the desecrated altar where he draws his sword and kneels down to perform a do-it-yourself marriage ceremony with Sara before praying that the murdered priest rests well in his grave. And then he swears before God that he's gonna track down Hopkins and Stearne so that they can account for their sins before the Almighty. Which will mean besting the pair in a physical struggle--Hopkins is an old man and Stearne is a thug while Richard is a trained soldier and combat veteran, so honestly I'd bet on Richard even if he wasn't the protagonist of the film.
Under Richard's orders, Sara takes money from him and flees for Lavenham, a nearby town, where she will find some place to live and wait for his arrival. But unfortunately he's got obligations to the army that he can't forswear, so she'll have to do well on her own until he can return to protect her. There's some nice rural English scenery here while Richard goes back to where he needs to be (although there's one shot filmed at an angle that made the horse look like it was walking sideways and that was distractingly goofy to behold). He's probably going to have to come up with a world-class excuse for his captain when he gets back to his troop, but for the time being Richard's tracking down the witchfinders. Who turn out to be close by, according to a shepherd that the soldier questions while he's out looking for leads.
Thanks to Richard wanting a drink after a day's riding and Stearne wanting to grope the local barmaids, Marshall finds at least one of the people he's looking for pretty much instantly. Stearne thinks that Richard wants to accuse someone of witchcraft and assures the younger man that he can get a confession out of anybody when the time comes. He even brags that he's the one that really does the torturing out of that partnership, expecting the soldier to be impressed when he hears that. Instead Richard decks Stearne and sets off a furniture-wrecking bar brawl. Full marks to the actors and stuntmen for this one, by the way--wearing period clothing and throwing yourself headlong onto stone floors and wood furniture can't be any fun at all, but they really commit.
Stearne is very much worse for wear by the time the barkeep breaks his under-the-bar persuader over the back of Richard's head; the thug gallops off and Richard follows closely after in a lengthy sequence of two horses galloping over hill and dale. Stearne happens across the Witchfinder General while he's fleeing and calls out to the other man. They hide in a forest (and no explanation is asked for or given by either man, so I'm betting they're both used to having to duck out of sight after killing someone who had friends and the desire to take revenge). Marshall rides by their hiding place and Stearne explains what's going on with this particular campaign of vengeance. Stearne is all for splitting up and laying low for a while, but Hopkins won't be deterred from his course. He's got a client in Lavenham and he's going to go there forthwith. Hopkins is also one cool customer, pointing out to the frazzled (and bleeding) Stearne that they'll be safe from Richard Marshall about ten minutes after they accuse him of witchcraft. Since he's out to kill them, Hopkins reasons, it's a sensible precaution to make sure that Marshall dies first. And they've got several different ways they could bring that outcome to pass.
Hopkins and Stearne head off for Lavenham while Richard comes to grips with the fact that he's utterly lost track of his quarry. The next we see of him he's in a command tent being told that desertion is a capital offense and that even saving his commanding officer's life isn't enough of a mitigating factor to keep him from the gallows if he runs off with a wild hair up his ass a second time. ("You're a good soldier most of the time" and a planned assault on the Royalist army that needs every warm body Cromwell can get is the other mitigating factor.) Once Marshall's left the tent, though, the officer says a quick prayer to aid him in his search for Hopkins and Stearne.
One of the other soldiers says he heard about the events in Brandeston, and cautions Richard that even if he does find Matthew Hopkins and his thuggish henchman, the word of one woman who had an uncle executed for witchcraft probably won't be enough for a magistrate to declare anything against the witchfinders. Of course, Richard isn't planning to involve the legal system at this point; one assumes that if you're willing to carry out your own wedding ceremony instead of having it done properly that the civil laws of the realm are not a concern at all.
While Hopkins and Stearne are making their way to Lavenham they run across several of Richard's comrades. Stearne is ready to panic and flee while Hopkins believes he can talk his way past them (and also knowing that if he and Stearne run they'll be shot down like rabid dogs; soldiers in a civil war don't tend to ask a lot of questions if they feel threatened or think someone's working against them). Stearne gets yanked off his horse and Hopkins bails (what a bastard!), galloping away while the getting's good. He also shoots the horse of the soldier pursuing him, which buys him enough time to escape. Stearne's going to be press-ganged into the army if the soldiers who snagged him have anything to say about it. But Stearne's going to stab the men frog-marching him back to their corps and flee on foot if he's got anything to say about it. Alone, on foot, bleeding from a bullet in his shoulder and without so much as a crust of bread--if Stearne wasn't such an utter son of a bitch I'd feel sorry for him (especially when he has to dig the bullet out of his own shoulder with his knife). He passes out after performing that impromptu surgery and comes to later, with his wound closed up and some of his strength back.
Oh, and now there are two people who would like to kill Matthew Hopkins, because running off and abandoning your partner to his fate is simply not done. Even a thuggish rapist and torturer has some things he can't overlook and won't forgive. And he knows exactly where his partner is planning to go, so Stearne has a piece of information that Marshall doesn't. Off in Lavenham, Master Webb, the local bigwig, is explaining to Hopkins what's going on (two young women and one old one have been accused of witchcraft; Hopkins wants the young ones brought to his room at the inn, of course). He also tells Webb that he's got a brand new way to kill witches, and will need his assistance to carry it out. He then muses on why God had to make women so evil that witchfinders need to go around killing so many of them, which...yeah. I swear, that's the same logic you can find in any comment section on the internet. I don't even want to crack jokes about it because it's so depressingly realistic.
I know I mentioned Price's performance at the start of my review, but it bears mentioning again--he's playing Matthew Hopkins without a hint of the usual smile and twinkle in his eye that let the audience know Vincent Price was enjoying himself playing the baddie in a harmless thrill ride of a horror film. In this movie Matthew Hopkins is a cruel, vicious, sociopathic murderer who hates the society that lets him get away with everything he does just as much as he despises his victims. It's a genuinely unsettling performance and the single best thing I believe I've seen from Vincent Price in the three dozen or so of his films I've had the good fortune to watch.
Meanwhile, back in the narrative, General Cromwell himself is wrapping up an outdoor dinner with a selection of his officers and troops. Marshall shows up too late for dinner but just in time for Cromwell to promote him to Captain and give him the special mission to find and grab the King of England before he can flee off the island and go somewhere safe for royals so that the civil war will continue for another few years. Captain Marshall snags a few of his friends and goes off to look for the King as well as Hopkins and Stearne; his fellow soldiers all understand why he wants to go on his vengeance rampage, but warn him repeatedly that deserters are hanged in Cromwell's army.
Of course, Richard isn't the only one looking for a sign of Hopkins; when Stearne buys a horse from another rural horse-trader he hears the magic word "Lavenham" and sets out immediately to find his boss. And Marshall finds the man who sold a boat ride to France to the King-in-exile ("I didn't know there was a war on till you soldiers told me" is the man's excuse for helping the royals get away, and it might even be true--rural pre-literate England more or less had the technology of shouting to spread news). At any rate, Richard now gets to plot his course back to Cromwell, where he can tell the general that the King got away days before anyone showed up to look for him.
And the boat owner happily tells Richard that there's plenty of excitement in Lavenham, what with all the witch burnings. Well, that tears it. Time for a two-day ride to Lavenham, which is at least theoretically on the way back to Cromwell's camp. The other soldiers have no choice but to follow their comrade as he guides his horse off at a gallop.
Over in Lavenham, Hopkins is overseeing the execution of a few accused (and, no doubt, self-confessed) witches. There's a bigger crowd here than at any other point in the film, and they're dressed better than the soldiers or the peasants that had been in any other scenes so far. It's an interesting way to show another stratum of society that watches with ill-concealed glee and arousal as women are tortured and killed--I imagine pay-per-view witch burnings would probably make a lot of money for whatever cable company is the first one to go for that. The husband of one execution victim has to watch as his wife is tied to a ladder and lowered onto a bonfire to burn to death; he, like many of the other spectators, is there to watch so that he isn't seen not watching. In times where suspicion is proof and guilt is irrelevant, it's a matter of life or death to get along with one's neighbors.
The execution goes on as long as the director can get away with--then the church bells ring to tell everyone that the first witch has been killed. Stearne rides up just as Hopkins calls for the other two women to be executed. Time jumps forward as children roast potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and Hopkins gets a purse full of twelve silver guineas for his work; the magistrate also thanks him for his service to God and to Lavenham. And, horrifyingly enough, the magistrate seems to be totally sincere. When everyone is ignorant and social order breaks down, any old fraud can prop himself up on a pile of bodies. But the people who help stack the bodies like cordwood so someone else can ascend? In some ways the followers are even more reprehensible than the leaders.
After getting paid, Hopkins is ambushed by Stearne, but the elder witchfinder pulls a flintlock out and assures his subordinate that he won't hesitate to shoot. Stearne believes him, as he should, and allows himself to be persuaded into partnering with Hopkins again and getting half the pay for the Lavenham job as a sign of good faith. Beats a pistol ball to the midsection any day of the week and twice on Saturday. While renewing their partnership Hopkins and Stearne go for a walk in the Lavenham town center and spot Sara; Stearne wants to go get reacquainted with her right that moment but Hopkins realizes that if she's here, Richard Marshall will be around sooner or later.
Hopkins decides that running away since they're forewarned will only be a temporary solution--he knows that Marshall isn't ever going to stop hunting him down. But if he can get a witchcraft charge to stick, the soldier will be permanently taken out of the witchfinder-finding business and he and Stearne can go back to their lives of unrepentant evil. Hopkins is also clever enough to realize that grabbing Sara while they can ensures that they'll get Richard when he returns to the town. Really, it's fortunate that Stearne ran across his boss when he did; Hopkins is much better suited to be the brains of that operation. Which leaves Stearne as the muscle, which he's perfectly suited for.
When Sara hears a knock on the door and hears Richard's voice she thinks it's too good to be true, but it turns out her husband is there, and he already knew about Hopkins and Stearne's presence in the village. Stearne runs back to the inn (in a really neat shot that follows him from the side as he barrels through the people walking around), and gets his marching orders from Matthew Hopkins when he reports Marshall's arrival in the village--he's to get another goon from town, round up Richard and Sara, and take them to the local castle for interrogation and a death sentence. It'd be great if he didn't tip off the other three soldiers in town about what he's doing, too.
So off Stearne runs to carry out his mission, but he gets spotted by that grieving husband from the earlier execution. While Richard and Sara are trying to figure out where it's safe to go or stay, they get a knock on the door from Hopkins and Richard finds that bringing a sword to a pistol duel means that he's got to stand there while some schmuck from town accuses him and Sara of having familiars and making "the sign of Satan", whatever that's supposed to be. It's about 315 years too early for a Dungeons and Dragons book to serve as a sign of devil worship among small-minded hicks, but I'm sure Hopkins will think of something just as convincing when he gets around to it.
Sara and Richard refuse to confess when confronted with this "evidence", and Stearne halls them off to the castle dungeons. That angry husband is waiting for Hopkins in the parlor of the inn, and gets a pistol ball to the torso when he pulls a knife (so much for rash vengeance). At the local castle, Sara and Richard are taken down to a subterranean vault where they can be fully questioned. Meanwhile, the mortally wounded angry dude from the inn is telling the soldiers where Sara and Richard have been taken, so the remaining question for the film is whether Richard and Sara and going to survive and what's doing to be left of them if they do. Stearne starts stabbing Sara in the back looking for a witch's mark and Richard looks Hopkins straight in the eyes while he listens to his wife's torture.
The soldiers, running to the rescue, get questioned by a guard about whether or not they have a signed pass to allow them into the dungeon; down in the bowels of the Earth, Matthew Hopkins has heated a branding iron and tells Sara that if she faints or screams when he presses it to her back, it will be taken as a sign of guilt. And, yes, this is one of those historically accurate things that just makes you feel sick to your stomach when you realize "don't float and don't scream when someone hits you with a goddamned branding iron" were ways for people to prove they were innocent in a court of law. It's almost as if the actual determination of guilt or innocence was secondary to making sure unpopular people were brutalized until they died and the great mass of average humanity was trained to be too fearful to stand up to anyone in authority. Thank goodness regular old people don't do reprehensible things now just because someone who claims to be in authority tells them to.
Speaking of reprehensible things, Hopkins tells Richard that if he confesses to witchcraft (which will be a swift death sentence), Sara will be spared. Richard just swears to Hopkins that he'll kill him by way of response. The soldiers finally overcome the guard upstairs and rush down to the rescue, while Stearne gets worried and Hopkins says they need to continue doing God's work before the cavalry arrives. While the guards outside are getting taken out, Marshall overcomes Stearne when he gets untied so he can watch Sara's torture and puts the thug's eye out with his boot heel (there's plenty of bright red stage blood at this point, as there was in the earlier gun fights and torture sequences; it's something I'm not used to seeing that much in movies of this vintage and it looks suitably shocking when it shows up--though the effects enthusiast in me notices that there aren't any bullet-squib or stabbing effects in the film; 1968 was a bit too early for their use).
While Stearne screams on the floor of the dungeon, Richard grabs an axe from a weapons rack and charges Matthew Hopkins, who is absolutely no match for the younger, psychotically angry soldier. The final couple of minutes of the film feature Hopkins trying to crawl away from Marshall's axe, having been wounded horribly but not quite dying from his injuries yet; one of the soldiers shoots him as an act of mercy and Marshall gets pushed fully into madness when he realizes that he broke his oath to protect Sara when she was harmed, and his oath to Hopkins when someone else killed him.
The last sound the viewer hears in the film is Sara sobbing and screaming, her cries echoing through the dungeon and up the stairs. There's absolutely no attempt for the film to reassure the viewers that the monster is dead and everything's going to be all right; instead, the audience knows that some things can never be put right, and that Hopkins might have been the most prominent witchfinder in the film's universe, but he had so much help from so many other people that someone will certainly be stepping into his shoes and racking up those silver guineas within a day or two.
My entry to the roundtable is nice and late owing to a horrible cold that I got while everyone else was writing up their reviews, and out of my reluctance to watch a film about witch-hunters. I don't like that character as an archetype, because witch hunts never actually find any witches. They just find people to punish so that rubes can feel better about their lives and act like they're being righteous when they're really just aiding and abetting a bullying asshole that wants to ruin someone's life. After all, the safest place to be when a bully starts throwing his weight around is backing him up rather than trying to stop him. And that's a horrible thing to realize about the human condition, made worse because it's so true and because it happens every time someone decides that an unpopular minority needs to be blamed for conditions being bad. After all, if witches (or Jews, or Muslims, or illegal immigrants) are really causing all of the problems, getting rid of them can only mean everything's going to be perfect forever with them gone.
And that's a song and dance that people fall for again and again and again, with future historians looking back and sadly shaking their heads when they realize it's happened again. Even worse? It's guaranteed to happen more in the future, because people tend not to learn from history or from example if they get a chance to have the whip hand for once.
Friday, November 20, 2015
Checkpoint Telstar is proud to take part in the 180-member Criterion Blogathon, celebrating the 30th birthday of the coolest and best media release company of ever (sorry, Rhino Records). Click on that banner to go to the main Blogathon page and read some fantastic film criticism looking at gems of world cinema from the silents to today.
Written by Ed Neumeier & Michael Miner
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Peter Weller: Officer Alex J. Murphy
Nancy Allen: Officer Anne Lewis
Robert DoQui: Sergeant Warren Reed
Kurtwood Smith: Clarence Boddicker
Ray Wise: Leon Nash
Paul McCrane: Emil Antonowsky
Jesse Goins: Joe Cox
Calvin Jung: Steve Minh
Miguel Ferrer: Bob Morton
Ronny Cox: Dick Jones
Dan O'Herlihy: The Old Man
The Criterion collection turns 30 years old this month. For everyone who followed a link here about the blogathon celebrating this event, skip to the next paragraph if you want. You already know what I'm going to say here. Criterion dedicated themselves to the preservation of world cinema and the easy access of film as art to home audiences back when VHS was the preferred home viewing technology for most audiences. Back when they were pressing laserdiscs they pioneered things like widescreen presentation at home as well as mini-documentaries and commentary tracks to show the process by which films were made; basically, what is standard on a DVD release for virtually anything exists because the Criterion people came up with it. Through their efforts, American audiences are able to watch mind-blowingly great movies from Japan, India, Iran, Hong Kong, Mexico, Italy, France...the world is a Criterion fan's oyster. They've done more than anyone except possibly Michael Moore to get documentaries out in the public consciousness and seen by mass audiences. Next time you're at the library trying to decide on a movie (and if you're not hitting your local library for free DVDs, you are a fool) you're guaranteed a good time if you just look for that C logo on the spine or cover. If you're a Hulu subscriber you can stream dozens of selections from their archives as well; streaming video makes it possible for Criterion to get masterpieces of the cinematic art to you without anything more complicated that fiddling with a remote control for a moment. They've been working for three decades to raise the awareness and availability of cinema as legitimate art in the mass market.
Which raises the question of why exactly the fuck they put RoboCop out on DVD, in a cut even gorier and more violent than the already blood-soaked R rated version. In a nutshell: Because the movie is legitimately brilliant and a work of razor-edged satire aimed straight at the beating heart of the Reagan years--culturally and cinematically. Similar to something like Airplane! or Black Dynamite, the makers of RoboCop realized the best way to satirize the action movies of the 1980s was to make one that was only about ten percent more ridiculous than the ones that were already being made. At the same time they were also poking holes in the cliches inherent to superhero origin stories twenty years before American audiences knew who Tony Stark was. There's a lot more going on in this flick than just the old story of "boy meets girl, boy loses life, boy gets turned into unstoppable killing machine to seek vengeance on his killers". And the craft of filmmaking is on display in this movie almost embarrassingly well. Verhoeven gives the impression of knowing exactly what he was doing from the first images to the last, down to the design of the props and costumes and the pounding orchestral-industrial score courtesy of Basil Poledouris.
The film starts (after the logo pops up) with a commercial break that does a deft job of sketching out exactly what's going on in the science fiction world where murdered policemen can become titanium-kevlar avatars of justice. First up is a news bulletin with the slogan "You give us three minutes and we'll give you the world". Which, if anything, is optimistic now (here in the real world, CNN can take ninety days and just keep talking about one missing airplane or vanished blonde woman). The future as presented here is 1987, but worse and funnier. The apartheid regime in "the besieged city-state" of South Africa is planning to use a neutron bomb to kill people if they have to as a final defensive measure. The "Star Wars orbiting peace platform" had a technical glitch before the (unnamed) President could give a press conference, turning off the gravity and making everyone flail around in zero G. Then there's a commercial for the Family Heart Center, which I'm pretty sure was meant to poke fun at the dental clinics that were opening in Sears department stores around that time. But it's also a way to show the technological and medical progress that has been made in the movie's future society. If getting an artificial heart is something that can be done so routinely that there's a chintzy shot-on-video commercial telling people where to go to get one, medicine has advanced in this society far beyond where it is here on Earth-Prime in 1987.
Then it's time to prove that if it bleeds, it leads. A cop killer is operating essentially with total impunity in Detroit; Clarence Boddicker, a middle-aged white dude with eyeglasses, has been fingered as the man killing police by the dozens in "Old Detroit", which--in the film, of course, not in real life--is a crime-ridden shithole where good men die every day. There's a sound bite from Dick Jones, the department head of the corporation running the Detroit PD, telling the police essentially that life sucks and they need to stop whining. The cheery newscaster's "Good luck, Frank!" sent out to a hospitalized cop in critical condition sets the tone even more than the artificial heart commercial. This is going to be a film full of life-threatening injuries and poorly conceived responses. And it's going to be queasily humorous, with the viewer perhaps not certain if they should be finding this stuff funny since there's a grotesque human cost behind each joke.
Setting handily introduced, it's time to meet the protagonist and his supporting cast. "Detroit -- Police Precinct, Metro West" is the caption, and a mid-20th-century brick building in the shadows of glass and steel skyscrapers is the place. Inside there's everything the viewer would expect from an action movie--a scummy lawyer, massive crowds, outdated office equipment (and the furniture is wood rather than the sleek glass and metal on display in all the corporate offices), and there's no way the coffee in that building tastes anything like the actual drink. Desk sergeant Warren Reed is the breathing avatar of harassed, underfunded authority figures in action films. Of course he's hot-tempered enough to grab the aforementioned lawyer and physically shove him out of the station. And of course he's not thrilled that some newbie from the cushy "Metro South" posting has been transferred over to join his jolly crew ("We work for a living here, Murphy," is how he makes his opinion known). Given that the first thing he hands Officer Alex J. Murphy is a requisition ticket for body armor, one assumes he knows what he's talking about.
In the police locker room, Murphy mentions that Omni Consumer Products has been transferring lots of newer officers to Metro West lately, so perhaps Dick Jones is just blustering for the news cameras and he's at least trying to make things a little better in Old Detroit (SPOILER: Nope. And that spoiler gets dropped mere seconds into the sequence in the police locker room, when a litany of complaints from several officers are mentioned ranging from bad radios to the lack of available helicopter flights when people have been shot in the line of duty).
The gripe session is interrupted by the desk sergeant coming in to clean out the fatally injured cop's locker (this sequence ends with a closeup on Murphy's name plate on his own locker, in some not-very-subtle foreshadowing). The sarge also says striking isn't an option--yes, the police have a union, but if they weren't out on the street at least keeping a lid on the most flagrant street crime, Old Detroit would be on fire in a matter of minutes. Murphy gets suited up (uniform, helmet, armor, gun) and goes out to meet his new partner, Officer Anne Lewis--who gets introduced beating the piss out of a handcuffed perp that threw a punch at him. Murphy gets to the car first and takes the drivers' seat, and the newly paired officers go out into the day to fight crime and hopefully not become two new casualties on the news.
Elsewhere, Bob Morton (project manager, Omni Consumer Products) is on his way to a meeting where something big is going to be announced. One executive thinks it's the long-promised "Delta City" initiative being greenlit but it's something less impressive than tearing down and rebuilding Detroit. It's a crime-fighting robot with military and crowd control applications, the nine foot tall, bulletproof, machine-gun-toting Enforcement Droid 209. ED-209 has a sophisticated artificial intelligence and a pre-programmed series of behaviors meant to guide it through any commonly encountered situations in its somewhat narrowly-defined task list. The ED-209 is going to be needed to clean up the crime-ridden slums of Old Detroit before the hundreds of thousands of construction workers come in to give the city a complete makeover, of course. What this means in theory is that criminals toting submachine guns outnumber and outgun police who have pistols but the ED-209 would make short work of them.
What it means in practice is a scene that plays out like a ghastly joke. An executive named Mr. Kenny gets blasted into hamburger thanks to a software glitch (he throws his gun down during a simulated crime but the robot doesn't hear it). The assault droid tells him to put down his weapon, counts down the time left for Kenny to submit without noticing that he did so, and then says "I am authorized to use physical force" before opening up with four .50 caliber machine guns at the same time. This is terrible news--not just for the junior executive who's got a family that will be cashing in his accidental death and dismemberment plan, but for OCP. After all, having to make something that actually works is far more expensive and time-consuming that making something that can be placed on the market. Ask anyone who owned a Ford Pinto. The Old Man, the CEO of the whole damn company, is less than impressed by this product rollout. At least was in a closed setting rather than, say, on national television.
But, as business gurus in the Eighties were fond of saying, the Japanese characters for "crisis" and "opportunity" were identical. While the stink of cordite and blood is still hazy in the boardroom air, Bob Morton makes his move and tells The Old Man that he's got a project that might be able to help OCP in this time of crisis. Dick Jones, the man in charge of the ED-209 project (and second-in-command of all of OCP) doesn't want to give Morton the opportunity to speak to the CEO, but there's only so much a gentle suggestion can do in the face of something as disastrous as the product demo that's dripping into the boardroom carpet. Morton gets the go-ahead to make something of the RoboCop initiative, since the alternative would mean delaying the Delta City project at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars at the least. Oh, and as part of his sales pitch, Bob Morton says that he's been sending unprepared police officers into hot spots, which is why Alex Murphy got transferred from a nice precinct to a hellhole.
A moment here, by the way, to praise Phil Tippett for his animation of the ED-209 stop-motion prop. He manages to imbue a sense of menace into the machine, making it lunge forward towards Mr. Kenny while playing a tape of a lion's roar to provoke fear and intimidation but also moving like a device and not like a creature. The actual stop-motion model was likely the size of a big action figure, and there's a full-sized mockup that was built for scenes where someone has to interact with a non-moving ED-209. But it's the animation sequences that bring the creation to life. This movie is nearly thirty years old, but the effects when the ED killbot is moving around don't look dated whatsoever.
So, back to the narrative: That whole put-inexperienced-cops-in-horrific precincts plan bears some fruit when, as Bob Morton puts it in an elevator ride, "some poor schmuck volunteers". Guess who that's going to be? It turns out that, inexperienced or not, Officer Murphy is a showoff (he's practicing his gun-spinning tricks because his son watches a TV cop that does the same thing, and he doesn't want to disappoint his kid by not being able to do the same thing). There's some very appealing earnestness to Murphy's character here; he's square and a little embarrassed to be talking about whether or not he's spinning his Glock like a Wild West gunfighter because his son likes that or if he does. It's about the only chance we get to know Alex Murphy before everything goes to hell. The radio mentions a robbery that just happened and the silver panel van full of criminals that's on "Industrial Way" right this moment. Officer Lewis hops into the drivers' seat and the two cops speed off in pursuit of the criminals.
And it's Clarence Boddicker and his gang in that van, which was inevitable as he's the only criminal mentioned in the screenplay so far. He's got a gang that's all white except for one token Asian and one token black dude and the action sequence that follows shows his ability to think on his feet and his utter ruthlessness. When his driver Emil spots the cop car behind them, Clarence is smart enough to realize that they won't be able to outrun the law, so they slow down for a gunfight. Officer Lewis, however, is smart enough not to stay behind the van when the back doors open to reveal everyone firing shotguns at the surprisingly empty road. A running gunfight ensues, with Murphy hanging out of the passengers' window with a pistol in each hand and the criminals getting away for the moment when Clarence throws a wounded gang member out of the van as a distraction.
But hey, considering the number of dead cops that Boddicker and his crew are responsible for, a draw is a moral victory. The police follow the van to an abandoned steel mill, and once inside manage to get the upper hand for a moment before Lewis is knocked unconscious by one of the gang members and Murphy gets captured by Boddicker himself. The crime boss takes a little time to psychologically torture his captive before his men literally shoot him to pieces (it plays out like a hyperviolent take on the sufferings of Christ with a balding crime boss toting a shotgun standing in place of a Roman with a mallet). He screams and twitches as the gang fires until they're out of shells, and then Clarence Boddicker administers the coup de grace with a point-blank pistol shot. I think it's with Murphy's own gun, which he lost to Emil when he got surrounded.
Back in 1987 I remember a friend's mother being disgusted with the movie--without having seen it--for its multiple scenes of graphic violence. She claimed it had been cut down from an X to an R rating, which I have absolutely no problem believing. I also happen to think that showing violence as something horrific and painful is better for an audience than showing it as something casual; think of all the post-killing quips that action stars tended to dispense after brutalizing someone. If I have to make a choice, I'll go with the Pulp Fiction style of violence where something that takes less than a second has to be addressed for the next fifteen minutes of film rather than just watching an extra's shirt puff out and he collapses in a heap.
Officer Lewis sees this all happening but she's powerless to stop it. The best she can do is call in a medevac when she realizes that even though one of his arms is completely gone and the rest of his body is riddled with shotgun pellets, Murphy is somehow still alive (and, given the previous cops' complaints about slow response from medical services as well as Bob Morton's statements about needing a volunteer for the RoboCop project, it seems likely that there was some high-level OCP interference that guaranteed Murphy would get a priority ride to a nearby trauma center).
The next sequence is shot simultaneously from close in to watch the surgical team at work and from Murphy's point of view as he dies--either showing what he sees as the doctors lean in to inject him with drugs or use the defibrillators that every medical scene where a life needs to be saved get called into service (as well as his memories of his wife and son, which is the first time we've seen them in the film). The trauma team does everything they can think of (apparently Verhoeven's direction to the real-life doctors was "just do what you would normally do in this situation" and he filmed it), but there's just too much damage to Murphy's body and brain to keep him alive. Which would make for a very short movie, but remember that commercial earlier for the Family Heart Center? They're an example of what medicine and engineering can do in this brave new world with enough money. Or, to put it another way that science-fiction fans of 1987 would probably recognize: We can rebuild him. We have the technology.
So yeah, that screen's going to go black and silent, but it won't stay that way for long. However, as the news bulletin of the malfunctioning gravity on the space station showed showed (and as the disastrous ED-209 rollout confirmed) the technology isn't quite perfected yet. Static and a rolling picture fill the camera's point of view as people dart into the frame and do...something...to whatever is left of Officer Alex J. Murphy's body. It would appear that he's completely paralyzed at the start since the camera never moves, regardless of what's happening in his field of vision. And considering that nobody that shows up explains anything to "Murphy" as he lies there in some kind of life-support coffin there's a remarkable amount of exposition that gets delivered. Among other things, Bob Morton himself stops by to complain that the engineering and medical teams worked some kind of miracle and preserved Murphy's left arm ("I thought we agreed on total body prosthesis,"). Morton then realizes that the slab of meat underneath him is still alive and is assured that they're going to wipe Murphy's memory before installing the RoboCop programming. They disconnect the gear that lets Murphy (and the audience) see what's going on and everything goes black--for how long, nobody can say. It's at least possible that every time the picture goes out there's a delay of hours, days, or even months before it comes back up. Time does pass (there's a snippet of a party where one of the project heads is smashed and gives "Murphy" a kiss to ring in the new year) and eventually all the bits and pieces of "titanium laminated with Kevlar" are attached to the new metal body for the few remaining organic pieces of Officer Murphy.
This scene, while demonstrating all the various things that are being done to Murphy's body, also trains the audience to understand that when the horizontal scanning lines and superimposed green computer text are on screen, they're seeing things from RoboCop's point of view. It's also used to demonstrate the superpowers he's picked up as part of the compensation for the total loss of his body and perhaps his soul. Among other things, he's got perfect recall thanks to an onboard camera and taping system and an advanced targeting computer that means he's superhumanly gifted with the ten-pound pistol stored in his right hip. And don't forget the massively increased strength and immunity to conventional weapons. If he could jump a couple hundred feet in the air he'd have the same powers as the original-model Superman in 1938, more or less.
Metro West precinct, the fortress in the worst neighborhood of Old Detroit, turns out to be the place where OCP installs the monitoring and tech-support equipment so that RoboCop has a place to go inert from time to time (Sergeant Reed starts with a tirade about OCP interfering with his station house but goes silent when he sees the seven-foot-tall blue steel cyborg walking down a hallway--and so far, the audience hasn't gotten a good look at the RoboCop suit yet thanks to only seeing it on a video monitor and through a pebbled-glass window, which means they're now really interested in seeing how Officer Murphy survived, and what's left of him). And think about how fast this narrative moves--thirty minutes into the film and the world has been introduced, the villain and his gang have demonstrated their evil nature and psychopathy, the hero gets a brief moment to show he's a decent guy, and then he's been blasted to pieces and resurrected as a walking tank. Oh, and I love the shot of the various police running down a hallway at the station house to get a better look at the new guy.
Bob Morton and his technicians, talking to each other, drop more exposition on the audience. There's enough of Alex Murphy's organic body left that he does have to eat; there's a gloppy brown "rudimentary paste" extruded from a machine that keeps whatever parts of him are still left alive and ticking. According to Morton's second in command, it's essentially baby food and it tastes pretty decent. We also get a look at RoboCop's onboard tracking system from his point of view and a better look at the robot suit during the shots not shown from his point of view. Morton asks him what his Prime Directives are (the software commands running his actions), and RoboCop recites them: Serve the public trust. Protect the innocent. Uphold the law. Fans of Asimov's laws of robotics will note that there's nothing at all about the preservation of human life in this list. And Bob Morton doesn't know--but the audience does, thanks to a RoboCop POV shot with the text laid over it--that there's a fourth, classified, fourth directive that hasn't come into play yet.
The next we see of RoboCop he's qualifying for duty at the precinct firing range. All the other police eventually stop shooting when they hear the staccato bark of his gigantic phallic symbol, er, duty weapon, and crowd around him as he sets a new high score at the target range. There's also a budget-conscious effect here. First we see the neat round holes blown in the plywood targets when Officer Lewis is working through a clip of ammunition, and then jagged, splintered craters blasted out of the targets from RoboCop's portable WMD. Watching the wooden targets getting softball-sized holes blown in them lets the audience know just what's going to happen to any criminals that come across the bad side of the titanium-kevlar cybernetically enhanced long arm of the law.
And though the audience knows it's the remaining eight or ten pounds of Alex Murphy inside the "total body prosthesis", nobody else in the film does. But Officer Lewis puts two and two together and immediately gets the square root of 16 when she sees the newly unveiled supercop spin the gun around his index finger and re-holster it just like her recently deceased partner did on their first and last day together on patrol. (Seeing the gun get tucked into the inside-the-thigh holster is another effect that helps sell the illusion that there's nothing human left inside that robot body, by the way.)
The hardware works, the software checks out and RoboCop has just overqualified at the pistol range, so it's time for it--him--to go out on patrol. Thankfully, Old Detroit being the open sore that it is, he's not out for more than a couple minutes before the people living there get a look at what he can do. A man in a duster coat with a submachine gun wants to rob a liquor store. Check out the comics rack he walks by--there's issues of ROM: Spaceknight prominently shown, which was a Marvel title about a warrior sealed inside a suit of armor he could never escape to fight evil--someone knew enough to stick that in the front rack of the comics as a tip of the hat to another property about a cyborg with a gun (for that matter, there's some Iron Man comics in the rack as well, another character who needed cybernetics to keep himself alive while doing superheroic stuff). When the shop owner's wife hits the silent alarm button, it happens that RoboCop is nearby, so he just walks in and scares the crap out of the robber, who empties the gun at him to absolutely no effect. Turns out one punch from RoboCop is enough to flatten the dude. One assumes other patrol officers collect the criminal and book him, because during this sequence we never see the hero of the film doing any police paperwork--just handing The Fear out to the criminal element to the delight of the audience.
The second incident where RoboCop intervenes is a woman, pursued by two giggling psychopaths, cornered in an alley and about to be raped at knifepoint. Like every good guy does, RoboCop gives the criminals a chance to surrender and like every Escape from New York refugee in movies like this they don't take it. The guy with the knife escalates the situation and RoboCop shoots him in the balls (through his hostage's skirt, and without inflicting so much as a scratch on the woman). And audiences who just saw the massive damage done to the shooting-range cutouts wince (or cheer) at the thought of the rapist's junk getting blown into chunky salsa in his jeans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second guy surrenders without a second's hesitation.
Hell yeah there's a Criterion disc where a criminal gets shot in the groin with a bullet the size of your thumb. That's because it's a brilliant scene where that happens. Filmmaking is an art but it's also a craft, and the set design, props, costuming, sound effects and bullet squibs are all used brilliantly in this sequence to make the audience cheer when the creep with a knife gets a .50 caliber vasectomy. It takes a skilled craftsman indeed to sell a groin injury to the audience as well as Verhoeven does here. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker it would have turned out to be something like Death Wish 3, which is the same "one man cleans up the crime-ridden city" narrative but without a twentieth of the wit and ability that went into this film. Without Paul Verhoeven's guiding hand at the till, the satire in the script could have been backgrounded and this film would have wound up just like any other Weightlifter with a Machine Gun film that clogged the cineplexes of the mid-Eighties.
Speaking of satire, the next crime that RoboCop spots on patrol is a hostage situation at City Hall, where Old Detroit's mayor is staring down the barrel of a gun. About a dozen cameramen and reporters are there to interview the negotiator until they see a literally shiny object in their field of vision and run over to RoboCop. I love the petulance from the negotiator when people stop paying attention to him. During this sequence we learn that RoboCop can see through walls (X-ray vision, more or less...sound like any other bulletproof, super-strong crimefighters you know?). Punching the hostage-taker through a window in view of the cameras leads to another media break, where the talking-head newscasters can't find enough good things to say about the masked man that's cleaning up Old Detroit and also finding time to talk to children at an elementary school and give sound bite level interviews ("Any special message for the kids watching at home?" "Stay out of trouble.").
After a commercial for a board game called "Nukem" it's back to the news, where the newly safe streets of Old Detroit mean that the planned construction of Delta City looks like it's going on after several delays. Bob Morton, the man of the hour, tells the assembled news reporters that he's predicting the end of street crime in Old Detroit in six weeks--and that has to be thanks entirely to RoboCop, since every other police officer we've seen so far is only human and outgunned by all the really dangerous criminals. The interview with Morton leads to a scene where another executive congratulates him on a promotion to Vice-President of his division at OCP. One assumes The Old Man rewards people who get results, and scraping the accumulated human filth off an entire city in under two months certainly counts for results. During a pit stop at the executive bathroom, Morton talks smack about Dick Jones, and all the other people inside flee when it becomes apparent that Jones was there all along in a toilet stall and heard everything. Jones vows to destroy Morton and the RoboCop project, because it's one thing to clean up the city and make the million-job construction project possible, but it's quite another to make the ED-209 look bad (and make Jones look bad at the same time). Open disrespect in the world of OCP could well be a capital offense.
After that, we see RoboCop at rest in his brain-monitoring chair back at the precinct station. While the technicians fail to notice the memories showing up on the video screens it becomes clear that whatever process the OCP mad scientists used to blank Alex Murphy's memory out, it didn't take. The EEG readings go insane while RoboCop has a dream where he's a human, shot dozens of times by criminals, and executed by the balding glasses-wearing ringleader. His reaction is strong enough and obvious enough that eventually the techs notice something's going on and he strides out into the night partway through his rest period, not obeying any of the OCP personnel that try to stop him. A panicked call gets sent out to Bob Morton and Officer Lewis happens to pass the cyborg in the hallway, calling him "Murphy" when it becomes apparent that RoboCop doesn't know his own name. He staggers a step back when he hears that name and leaves, his voice even deader than it was after his technological resurrection.
Old Detroit's a big city, but with all the small-time criminals suddenly figuring out that they'd rather go to barber college than get their entrails blown out from a Desert Eagle on steroids, it's only the real psychos out at night causing trouble now. Which means that RoboCop encounters one of the men who murdered Alex Murphy some time ago while foiling a gas station robbery. Emil, the driver of the gang's van, is apparently a gearhead because he's out riding his motorcycle and threatening to shoot the gas station clerk just for fun when the cyborg shows up to stop him. When RoboCop tells the criminal something he heard from Alex Murphy the gun-toting psycho freaks out and declares "You're dead--we killed you!" while firing his Uzi ineffectively at RoboCop. As is required in Eighties action cinema, the gas station goes up in a gargantuan fireball (and the Shell sign reads HELL as the place blows, but somehow they don't put in a closeup of that). Emil isn't dead but he's in no shape to be questioned at the end of the sequence. Oh, and the shot of the RoboCop suit striding through the flames is instantly iconic.
Emil might not able to talk, but somewhere in that titanium skull along with the remaining pieces of Alex Murphy's brain is a powerful computer. And in his right fist, RoboCop has a USB spike that he can use to interface with the mainframe in the Detroit PD records room. The criminal records have a section for "Pol Affiliation", incidentally, which means that in the future, cops are likely to keep tabs on people for hanging out with the wrong crowd. Something that I'm certain wouldn't happen now, of course. Using a frame capture from his own memory, RoboCop finds Emil Antonowsky's rap sheet and his remaining accomplices. All of the various criminals are familiar from the dream that he had earlier, but it's Clarence Boddicker that RoboCop takes the most interest in. Going through Boddicker's jacket, RoboCop finds that name that Officer Lewis mentioned before and calls up the address and info for Officer Alex J. Murphy, Deceased.
That address leads to a quiet house in a non-hellhole section of the city and RoboCop wanders inside, his digital vision fuzzing out as he remembers some of the things he saw in his home when he was still a human being and not a metal monster that got pointed at socially appropriate targets. Watch Peter Weller's body language as the emotions start to overwhelm him; his usually controlled and mechanical movements start to get more chaotic when he realizes on some level just how much he's lost with his resurrection.
And now it's time for revenge, not justice. RoboCop finds his way to one of those Eighties dance clubs with neon on the walls and everybody jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, coked up and stupid. It's one of Leon Nash's known hangouts, and Nash is in Clarence Boddicker's gang. He's less openly stupid than some of the other criminals, but still thinks it's a good idea to kick a cyborg in the crotch (there's a great hollow "bong" sound effect here). He gets dragged off by his hair for a little conversation about Boddicker's whereabouts.
Which we the viewer find out before RoboCop does--he's at Bob Morton's place, working for Dick Jones to wipe out a corporate rival. Morton goes from tough guy to sniveling coward once he's shot in the legs a few times (I would probably just wet myself and die of shock in the same circumstances, so there's that). Boddicker's brought two things to the coke-and-models party that Morton wasn't expecting other than his pistol. The first is a DVD (from 1987! This movie was eleven years ahead of its time!) where it is revealed that he's working under Dick Jones' orders. The video message is really just a way for Jones to gloat about the murder while at a safe distance and with his hands clean. Yeah, that's a Christmas present for the prosecution if it gets found, but considering the other thing Boddicker brought is a hand grenade capable of blowing up Morton's entire house I doubt it's gonna be a factor in the homicide investigation.
Boddicker's path crosses the cyborg's a little later, when the gang boss is making an offer on the output from a cocaine refinery somewhere in the Old Detroit city limits (hey, at least there's a few manufacturing jobs left in the city). Boddicker and his gang are all heavily armed, as are the coke dealers and their security goons. Which doesn't do anyone even the slightest good when RoboCop hammers down the door. The massacre here is similar to the police station scene in The Terminator, except that you're supposed to be cheering the unstoppable juggernaut as it mows down dozens of people in a firefight. And it is a thrilling sequence, to be sure. Heck, I tend to root for the robot even when it's the villain so it's nice to see just what RoboCop can do against normal opponents. If every gunfight goes like that one, it's no wonder that Morton was predicting forty days till the end of street crime in Old Detroit. It's also worth noting that RoboCop gives everyone the option to surrender before he opens fire. That third directive is "uphold the law", not "shoot first". Once it's go time, though, he is utterly implacable until only Clarence Boddicker is still on his feet. Then it's time to read the criminal his rights, punctuating each Miranda right by throwing the man through a window. After three trips through a windowpane, Boddicker says he works for Dick Jones, and should be protected from police interference. And Directive 3 won't let RoboCop crush Boddicker's trachea with one hand because Alex Murphy was a good cop and so is the thing he's been turned into.
Which means we get to see Sergeant Reed yelling at everyone back at the precinct headquarters again when RoboCop brings his captive in and says to book him as a cop killer. Then it's time to take Dick Jones into custody, who has been expecting company (he's got a little tracking device that lets him know where RoboCop is in Detroit, and that blinking dot is getting closer and closer to OCP headquarters). Once the cyborg is in his office, Jones drops two surprises on him. The first is that the secret Directive 4 is one that won't allow OCP property to act against members of the board of directors (RoboCop spasms and twitches as he tries to carry out his other directives, fighting forward towards Jones and losing in a scene that's almost as painful to watch as Murphy's execution was). The second surprise is an ED-209 unit waiting in an alcove to destroy the mechanical man.
And for all that RoboCop outclasses the usual street scum of Old Detroit, he's completely out of his league against the ED-209. There's a shot of a terrified eye staring out of the bullet hole in the visor that shows just how much of Alex Murphy's humanity has come back--machines aren't afraid to die, of course, but RoboCop is. Only a little quick thinking and a design flaw that means ED-209 and a Dalek handle stairs about equally well let RoboCop escape with his existence (the screaming-baby noise the assault robot makes while trying to get up is another one of those queasily amusing scenes that show the wit behind the carnage).
That escape goes straight into an ambush from dozens of ordinary police who have been given orders to destroy the "rampaging" police cyborg. And it's the hostage negotiator who got passed over by the camera crews who gives the order to destroy RoboCop, which some of the police refuse to do. But enough try to cut him down that it's an open question as to his survival until Officer Lewis shows up with a getaway car. Like other vigilante movies, the police force has to be shown as ineffective and corrupt (although in this case the corruption comes from the very top of the Detroit PD's command structure rather than from the street-level police or from criminals throwing bribe money around). But the city's going to hell on its own quite handily and one escaped robot isn't a huge priority with everything else going on.
But before we get to the third act there's a car commercial for the 6000 SUX and a news report that tells the audience about a gigantic wildfire that was set by a malfunctioning laser cannon on that orbiting "peace platform" mentioned all the way back in the first media break. In this film, all technology fails to work the way its users intend it to. And hey, speaking of Detroit going to hell, the police are planning to go on strike at midnight and leave Old Detroit to its own devices. Unfortunately for everyone still living there, Darkman and the Crow aren't around to team up and keep people safe so things certainly look like they're going from bad to worse. It's also something I sure didn't notice when I was twelve watching this movie for the first time, but this is the whitest Detroit imaginable. All the reporters, all the people on the street and even about ninety percent of the police and criminals are all as white as a Sarah Palin campaign rally.
While the city gets ready to burn, Clarence Boddicker pays a visit to Dick Jones at his office (janitors are busy sweeping up all the debris from the ED-209 / RoboCop fight, which is a nice touch). He gets the unenviable job of destroying RoboCop as a security risk; the cyborg's memory is admissible in court, according to Jones. Wipe his hard drive for good and all the evidence linking Jones and Boddicker together are gone. As an added incentive, Jones points out that with RoboCop gone and Delta City still planned to go, all those construction workers and all that new turf is going to wind up needing a crime lord overseeing the various types of vice and grift that will show up. Destroy the machine and you get the job, Clarence.
Meanwhile, RoboCop's trying to fix himself with the tools he's got available at that abandoned steel mill where Alex Murphy was killed. He pulls a pair of six-inch bolts out of his head to take his helmet off and reveals that there's just the skin of Alex Murphy's face stretched over the metal that makes up almost all of his head (and once the helmet comes off, the distorting effect on Peter Weller's voice isn't used any more--once you see his face again, the other signifier of Alex Murphy's humanity comes back). It's unbearably sad when you have to look into his eyes as he says he can feel his family's absence but he can't remember them.
Time passes--after night falls, crowds of looters and psychos are taking everything that isn't nailed down on a Detroit street. Emil's hanging out watching the same Benny-Hill-but-stupider sitcom that's popped up every time someone's watching TV in the movie and waiting for the rest of the Boddicker crew to get back together. Boddicker's got a "Cobra Assault Cannon" for everyone in the gang courtesy of his connections with Dick Jones, and they know where Murphy is recuperating so it's time to go there and kill him for a second time.
It must take hours for them to get from the street where Joe and Emil are busy shooting everything in sight to the steel mill, because it's morning again when the final sequence commences. RoboCop is trying to compensate for the damage to his targeting system (being shot dozens of times by a military assault droid turns out not to be good for his software); he gets himself squared away seconds before Boddicker (in his 6000 SUX) and Emil (driving the van) drop off the crew and go hunting for their quarry. The criminals are better armed but Officer Murphy is far beyond fear at this point in his second life and Joe goes down first.
Emil tries to hit Murphy with the van and winds up driving into a storage tank for toxic waste. This is another one of those sick-joke sequences, because getting exposed to hazardous chemicals or radiation is one of the standard ways superheroes get their powers (think of the Hulk and gamma radiation or Spider-Man and the genetically engineered spider that bit him). Of course, in the world of RoboCop, taking a bath in industrial waste just gives you hideous acid burns over your entire body and drives you nearly insane with agony while your flesh liquefies. A wrong turn from Boddicker's SUX takes Emil out of the game with a spray of vile-looking liquid.
It's down to Boddicker and Joe Nash at the end, with the second-in-command of the gang dropping a crane load of scrap metal on RoboCop while Clarence stalls for time. With the cyborg trapped, Boddicker tries to break something vital inside him with a sharp chunk of rebar (Nash misses this, having been on the wrong end of a Cobra Assault Cannon round courtesy of Officer Lewis). The spear in RoboCop's side is another example of the hyperviolent American-Christ imagery the movie's been using (right before the scrap metal hits him, Alex Murphy is filmed in a way that makes it look like he's walking on the water in a huge rain puddle at the steel mill; it's as if Paul Verhoeven wanted to take the mythic elements of the Christ story and recycle them in a Judge Dredd comic). Boddicker has to get right up close to use that spear, though, and that puts his jugular in range of that data spike that we saw right around the second act.
And now that Boddicker and the other criminals in his gang are out of the picture it's time for RoboCop to go to OCP headquarters and get Dick Jones (after taking out the ED-209 guarding the front door with a spare assault cannon). He makes his way into the boardroom and informs The Old Man about that fourth directive, then plays Dick Jones' computer-recorded gloating confession on the in-room video conferencing system. That gun from the disastrous ED-209 rollout is still in the board room and Jones takes the CEO hostage. But The Old Man didn't get to be head of a multinational conglomerate by being stupid or slow-witted. After he's had a gun pointed at his head he figures he can find a new second in command, and summarily fires Jones. Which means that he's no longer a member of OCP's board of directors, and that means that Directive 4 no longer applies to his situation. It's a long, long fall from the boardroom windows and Jones winds up screaming all the way down after RoboCop shoots him half a dozen times.
But that's not the denoument. That comes when the Old Man asks who that mysterious stranger who saved the day is, and the mechanical construct with a soul of a man tells him it's Murphy.
Man...some times everything just comes together to make a classic. RoboCop is unquestionably one of those times. A production plagued with problems from small (one of the skyscrapers in Dallas standing in for Future Hellhole Detroit had neon lights on the outside that were out of commission during the entire shooting schedule) to major (the RoboCop suit was so large and bulky that production was shut down for three days while Peter Weller learned to move in it) wound up making something genuinely unique--a hyperviolent action movie with the soul of a Tom Lehrer song. It's hard to call a movie with Cobra Assault Cannons in it "subtle" but there are dozens of little subtextual glimpses of the film Verhoeven knew he was making peeking out from the grotesquely violent text. There's even a director cameo in the nightclub scene when Leon gets snagged--at one point Paul Verhoeven was waving his hands around and screaming to help amp up the extras and wound up on film; the editors cut that into the sequence as a joke and it fits perfectly with the rest of the film.
Of course Criterion had to put this out--it's a thoughtful and considered film in a genre not known for either quality and it's got a script that's constructed perfectly. Every setup in the first act pays off in the third and even the three-line characters in the cop station or the board room get their moments of dignity and humanity. It's a humanist film, oddly enough, about a character who is simultaneously more and less than human.