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Friday, October 31, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 26: Zombieland (2009)

Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Jesse Eisenberg:  Columbus
Woody Harrelson:  Tallahassee
Emma Stone:  Wichita
Abigail  Breslin:  Little Rock

Monster movies have rules. It's one of the pleasures of the genre--stakes and sunlight kill vampires, silver bullets will take care of werewolves and messing with an infernal Rubik's Cube can keep one's soul (and body) out of the hands of Cenobites. Without some kind of weakness, monsters are just unstoppable antagonists  and there's no way to create drama or tension if there's not even the slimmest glimmer of hope for the people in the monster's path (for crying out loud, even the Terminator wasn't quite invulnerable).

And over the last ten or fifteen years, zombies have become part of the Western movie monster canon. This makes my heart sing, because when I was a high-school loser I made all my friends watch Dawn of the Dead; it's still as relevant and grotesque as it ever was. Living in a world where random non-horror-fan Americans know that head shots kill shuffling corpses and bites carry lethal infection is not something I ever expected, but I'm perfectly content to be there now. For that matter, enough people have seen 28 Days Later and its sequel or the Dawn of the Dead remake to know that old-school shuffling moaner zombies have been somewhat replaced by the more contemporary "sprinting dead" model. While I'm talking about things related to the movie that make me happy--the writers and director are very obviously fans of not just the zombie genre, but horror films as a whole.

I can tell that because the movie starts out as a first-person found footage horror movie (and one with some genuinely striking and appalling imagery; the Presidential limo is upside down and on fire in the ruins of Washington, D.C.). A fast zombie sees the person capturing the aftermath of an attack and chases him down; the moron with the camera runs away backwards to keep the zombie in the shot, trips over something he didn't see and dies horribly 55 seconds into the film because that's how things would play out in real life--it also seems to be something of a mission statement on the part of the filmmakers--funny, gruesome, metatextual and dependent on the audience recognizing the situations that are being skewered (sometimes literally).

Oh, and speaking of rules, the voiceover explaining how utterly screwed the human race is? It belongs to a permanently twitchy geek who is only alive because his obsessive personality and pathological fears have manifested as a set of behavioral rules that he follows in order to live another day. The first two rules are that one must maintain one's physical fitness (everyone too out-of-shape to escape from a sprinting infected died in the first days of the apocalypse, which actually makes sense), and that shooting a zombie only once is a recipe for disaster. The "double tap" means that a survivor is considerably less likely to get a fatal surprise when a zombie gets knocked down, but it gets up again. Shooting it in the head again is a way to make sure you keep it down.

Also, the graphics used to keep the rules listed on the screen are a nice way to keep things visually interesting--they aren't just appearing on the screen in a typewriter font or something like that. Thought was put into their placement and use each time. And while the so-far-unnamed protagonist explains his rules through voiceover, the audience gets to see what happens to people who aren't living by those particular codes of conduct (SPOILER:  They die, horribly, although not always from a zombie attack). Then the credits roll, with super-slow-motion tableaux of people trying and failing to escape from sprinting rage zombies, in situations ranging from the comic to the ghastly (and occasionally both--the three-legged-race of the damned at a picnic is an image that stayed with me for five years after seeing the movie).

We meet the narrator next; he's a thin young white guy carrying a shotgun and gassing up his car in the empty suburban wasteland of Garland, Texas (he assures the audience that it looked like that before the apocalypse). While talking to himself he drops the knowledge that it's been two months since a disease-riddled gas station hamburger hit the system of Patient Zero of the fast zombie epidemic; for all the narrator knows, he is the single remaining uninfected human being in America. Even he thinks his continued survival is unlikely, but with his handy list of rules and his tangled inner web of phobias and paranoiac suspicions he's actually doing pretty well. And when he gets attacked by three zombies after fueling up his car, his adherance to things like buckling his seat belt in the car pay off with him living to run another day.

While walking from Texas to Ohio (he was going to college in Austin when the world ended, and wants to go back to his hometown to see if his parents are still alive; it's as good a reason to get up in the morning after the end of the world as any), another survivor crosses his path. It's a middle-aged goateed white dude in a Cadillac SUV customized with a snowplow blade and Dale Earnhardt's number hastily painted on the side. Just moments after the protagonist was talking to himself about how much he'd like to see a human face again, the car roars up the highway clogged with empty cars. And the first thing he does is hide, then stands a dirt bike up as a makeshift barricade. There's a wordless standoff between the two (the younger man literally shaking with adrenaline and panic) before they come to an accommodation and the narrator gets a ride.

The new guy introduces himself as Tallahassee and refers to the narrator as Columbus; he doesn't want to learn anyone's real name; the implication is that he's very, very used to people dying on him at this point in post-human history). They make a comically mismatched pair--Columbus is terrified of everything to the point of near-paralysis and Tallahassee drinks Jack straight from the bottle while driving--reckless beyond rationality. Together they kind of average out.

Tallahassee turns out to expose himself to danger above and beyond the whole "America crawling with animated corpses that eat people" risk factors. It's been sixty days since the last time anything got delivered to a grocery store or gas station, and he's hoping to find at least one undamaged, non-stale Twinkie in the ruins of civilization. Unfortunately the truck he found is full of Snowballs and Tallahassee hates the consistency of coconut.

Columbus gives us a glimpse of his life before the world fell apart; school and online gaming were the only things he really did. No friends in real life and as little contact with other people as he could manage. It worked for him, but his world was empty years before it was for everyone else. A neighbor interrupts his World of Warcraft session for the evening in a panic (she refers to him as "408" after his apartment number, so we don't get his name). He fails to come across as anything but a childlike goof talking to his neighbor from 406; she tells him about being confronted by a crazy homeless man that tried to bite her in a random attack.

406 falls asleep nestled against Columbus on his couch as he finally makes some kind of tentative human connection. Unfortunately, when she wakes up she's drooling infected blood and pus and her skin is rotting off her face. It turns out the only thing in his apartment that's remotely useful as a weapon is the ceramic top of the toilet tank, but that's perfectly serviceable as an anti-reanimated-corpse implement. And seeing his neighbor holding herself up on a shattered ankle still trying to bite him forces the protagonist to confront what's actually in front of him--he might be impaled on his own neuroses but he's aware of what's going on after that attack.

Back in the present day, Tallahassee wants to talk about sex. I didn't think Columbus could look any less comfortable then he did before, but Jesse Eisenberg digs deep and manages to achieve it. It's probably the only time anyone's been glad to see an undead woman sucking bone marrow out of a shattered human thigh bone, because at least that means there won't be any more euphemisms for coitus coming out of Woody Harrelson's mouth.

A stop at an abandoned grocery store leads to some genuinely impressive mayhem as Tallahassee beats a trio of obese zombies to real death with a banjo, an aluminum baseball bat (the stuntman really earned his hazard pay in that scene) and a pair of garden shears. And then a beautiful uninfected young woman walks into the pair's vision. She's Wichita, and her younger sister Little Rock has been bitten. Little Rock demands that one of the pair ends her life before the disease eats through her brain, and Wichita finally says it's her responsibility to take care of the family. Which she does by turning the gun on the two men and stealing their car. Tallahassee's double-middle-finger as he realizes he's been played is a real joy to behold. (The redneck:  "Nice goin', genius." The geek:  "You're the one who gave her the gun.")

The girls are looking for something, too. Little Rock asks if it's true that Pacific Playland is really the last spot in the country free of zombies and Wichita assures her that this is indeed the case. While they're driving off in search of the happiest place on the Cursed Earth, the Y-chromosome-bearing duo are looking for a car and making small talk in a town notable for the sheer number of auto accidents on the streets. Tallahassee also beats the shit out of a defenseless minivan with a crowbar as a way to vent a little hostility (although he did not limber up ahead of time and strains himself; if he'd listened to Columbus that might not have happened).

Soon enough they find an undamaged bright yellow Humvee with the driver's hands and forearms at the wheel and a duffel bag full of firearms in the back seat ("Thank God for rednecks!" is declaimed in a state of near-religious awe by Tallahassee when he sees the arsenal they just stumbled over). The older, crazier, more violent man drives off in search of the girls so he can have revenge and we get to see a flashback of him in happier times, utterly devoted to a puppy he had named Buck. "I lost him, and there ain't no getting him back". He's looking only to the future because the past is an open wound that will never stop bleeding.

The girls turn out to have abandoned their fried-engine SUV somewhere on a lonely rural two-lane highway and while Tallahassee checks the situation out, Columbus gets snuck up on and taken hostage by the prepubescent Little Rock. At least this time the two men are still allowed in the vehicle (and Columbus keeps working on that crush he's nursing on Wichita). Another flashback shows Wichita and Little Rock working a con on an overly trusting gas station attendant (with Wichita telling him a lost engagement ring was worth three thousand bucks, Little Rock "finding" it and selling it to him for 400 dollars, and leaving him holding the bag). One more firearm-swiping reversal and John Woo "guns at each others' heads" later, Columbus finally shows a little steel and demands that the four people stuck in the car together not point guns at each other and not endlessly make things even more difficult for everyone.

A sullen detente settles over the four people in the SUV as Little Rock reveals their plans to get to Pacific Playland in California. Columbus asks if Wichita has heard anything about his namesake town and she says it's burned to the ground. And, wonder of wonders, Tallahassee is the one to try and get her to be a little more sensitive to the emotional needs of the other people in the group (really, this scene is the one where I realized the movie was going to stay good till the end--it's one thing to have wacky gruesome zombie action, but another for the script and actors combining alchemically to make characters that the viewer genuinely cares about. It's also the first moment that Tallahassee expresses any kind of concern for another person in the film).

Columbus realizes that finding his family alive at the end of his journey was always a pipe dream, but he's still shattered by the realization. And Wichita undoubtedly knows what that's like, because every single person left alive in Zombieland watched their family die. The film doesn't shy away from the emotional toll that survival can take. At night (with Tallahassee and Little Rock out cold in the back of the Humvee), Wichita stops by an abandoned truck and wishes Columbus good luck in his travels; the paranoid dork decides to stay with the group instead because he wants to be with her rather than taking chances on his own.

Later that night Tallahassee is starting to feel cooped up and twitchy in the car, so they pull over at a wigwam-themed tourist trap called the Kemo Sabe to shoot a zombie in the head and poke around--just do anything that isn't sitting in the car or driving the car (as the veteran of a decade of family driving vacations, I can fully sympathize). Columbus tries on some cologne and gets needled by Tallahassee about wanting to have sex with their captor / companion. Things escalate and Columbus actually shows a little spine when he reacts to the teasing (and he gets hit with exactly 45% of Tallahassee's full strength in retaliation) and then everyone just has fun knocking stuff over and destroying things. And it turns out to be exactly what they needed as a way to vent a little bit of steam.

The miles roll on as every possible conversational topic is exhausted (and Little Rock tries to explain the setup for "Hannah Montana" while Tallahassee is driving). Everyone keeps from getting on each others' nerves enough to avoid bloodshed and soon enough they're in California. In Hollywood, a quick detour by the scorched ruins of Grauman's Chinese Theater for a star map leads the group to the home of Bill Murray (Tallahassee wants to rest up somewhere really nice), and then the movie goes utterly and charmingly bonkers. If you haven't seen the movie yet, please, go and watch it before you finish the review.

I'll wait.

I have time.

It's been 26 days of October-appropriate cinema. It's okay if you have From Hell It Came spoiled for you, but this is different and if you haven't had the pleasure of watching this one yet you should take care of that before you continue reading..

Last chance.

It's not too late to re-read 5000 words on Telstar:  The Joe Meek Story.

Okay, it's on your head.

There's a shot of Murray rising from his bed when he hears people in his mansion, shuffling and moaning as he approaches the survivors we've been following for the whole film--and it turns out that he's one of the very few remaining live human beings in the world.

Gloriously, he's not playing himself so much as he's playing the pop culture conception of himself--the guy who steals bites of strangers' lunches in Central Park and tells them nobody will ever believe it happened, and the most entertaining guest David Letterman ever has. Three of the four people in the group are instantly star-struck when they wander through his estate. The fourth, and coincidentally the youngest, doesn't know who he is (Tallahassee:  "Hey, I've never hit a kid before," but it sounds like he's awfully tempted at that point). Really, I don't know who else they might have approached for this section of the film but I cannot imagine any living actor that would have worked as well as Murray does here.

After a fakeout to the characters and the audience about Murray showing up as one of the undead (he's wearing makeup to blend in because zombies don't attack each other) Tallahassee and Wichita are utterly starstruck. I also like to believe that Woody Harrelson actually screamed with joy every time he saw Murray on set in Kingpin as well as this movie--Method acting at its finest. The semi-connected gibberish that Tallahassee lets out when he's gushing over the SNL star is a fearless performance and also perhaps the first time that Tallahassee felt good about anything other than breaking stuff or killing zombies since Outbreak Zero.

So, while Columbus and Little Rock are in Murray's absurdly plush home theater watching Ghostbusters, Wichita and Tallahassee get super, super high off of the comedy legend's weed stash and re-enact scenes from that movie with him. I especially like the great touch that Tallahassee gets to wear  the actual uniform and proton pack prop while Murray has a canister vacuum cleaner--he's such a good host.

Unfortunately, everyone's so stoned that they think it's a good idea to have Bill Murray, in full zombie makeup, sneak up on Columbus to scare him. He winds up blowing a hole clean through Murray's torso with the shotgun. Apologies and True Confessions abound and the quartet takes time to grieve and salute the fallen icon. That night, over real-money Monopoly there's a conversation about the good points to living through Armageddon (and Eisenberg, who would go on to play Mark Zuckerberg a year later, gets a dig in at Facebook). And then the bad points come up and Columbus figures out that the "puppy" Tallahassee lost earlier in the outbreak wasn't a dog. There's a legitimately heartbreaking look back at the insane brutal redneck in happier, loving times and Tallahassee finally feels close enough to the others in the group to let his guard down and tell them exactly how much he's lost.

Later on Tallahassee and Little Rock bond over a shooting lesson (destroying a swath of Bill Murray's antiques and china), while Wichita and Columbus split a bottle of 1997 Georges de Latour and reminisce on their adolescence in that year ("My first school dance. It was Sadie Hawkins, so...girls' choice." "You didn't go?" "It was girls' choice". Compared to that fiasco of a year, getting a fake tattoo and seeing Anaconda as one's first R-rated movie seem positively wonderful. But, wonder of wonders, Columbus finds out that he might be just about the last man on earth, but it's never too late to actually be a girl's choice for a dance. He doesn't have the slightest idea what to do but figures it out, and gets what might well be his first kiss slow-dancing by candlelight at the end of the world.

Or at least he would have, if Tallahassee didn't show up to ask for help to move a couch and build a fort with Little Rock. Poor bastard. To the film's credit, it does show that both Columbus and Wichita are missing out and have regrets about it not happening. But it's after the girls leave for Pacific Playland and it's too late for either of the two to do anything about it. Night falls and Columbus is packing up his gear and getting ready to leave while Tallahassee mentions plans to go into Mexico, saying that letting people close is only going to get you hurt.

That night, while the two men are having their little heart to heart, Wichita and Little Rock break into Pacific Playland turn on the power to all the rides and attractions. For one brief moment, Little Rock smiles just like a kid again, even though all the horror that she undoubtedly saw for the last two months of the Zompocalypse.

And every blood-drooling sprinting zombie for miles around sees and hears the rides as they get activated (I'm willing to bet a substantial amount of the movie's budget got spent on this third-act setpiece, and it was worth every last penny). Dozens--if not hundreds--of zombies converge on the sisters in the shadows and neon of the second-tier theme park midway, and Little Rock thinks fast enough to get on a drop tower ride that at least keeps the women off the ground and away from the horde. But they've only go so many rounds in their shotguns and unless something really unexpected happens they're going to need to save one last shell apiece for themselves.

It's not unexpected that Columbus would want to go after them and try to save the day. (It's also not unexpected that he wouldn't get very far on Bill Murray's motorcycle since he's never ridden one before.) What is unexpected is that Tallahassee is willing to risk losing his life, and worse, getting close to people again, but he does. And it's time for the two men to ride to the rescue, with both of them using their own individual apocalypse-survival skills to clear the zombies out from Pacific Playland in a sustained quarter hour of utter badassnesss. And even better, everything that Columbus and Tallahassee do in their rescue attempt is completely consistent with their earlier characterization and behavior. Tallahassee fights in a continuing berserker rage while Columbus is faster and uses hsi surroundings to his advantage, and in the manner of third-act climaxes in action movies, faces down his fears and defeats them--not for himself, but because he's trying to protect someone he genuinely cares about. And there's still time for a sound effects gag or two when Columbus has to enter melee range with a blood-drooling zombie clown.

When I first saw the trailers for this movie I figured it was going to be an American retread of Shaun of the Dead, but not in a good way at all. I was amazingly pleasantly surprised, instead, to find that it was an American version of Shaun of the Dead that celebrates the wide open spaces of the country's southwest. Instead of English pub culture and a synchronized zombie beating to Queen on the jukebox there's a look at celebrity and junk food--cultural and otherwise. The people who made this movie knew how to make a scare, a laugh, an action sequence and a tearjerker all work. It's the complete spectrum of emotion done in a single zombie movie. From the reviews of his later films, the director never quite hit the same heights again (possibly because studios expect more from you when you've got a bigger cast and budget than when you're making a silly horror comedy). But supposedly we're getting a sequel in the not too distant future, and I'd quite like to see what happens next with these characters in that world. Hopefully next time they'll know better than to turn on all the theme park lights at night after the end of the world.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Zombies of Mora Tau

Yes, I Know:  Zombies on Broadway

Thursday, October 30, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 25: The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Michael Elliott

Tony Vogel:  Nat Mender
Suzanne Nerve:  Deanie Webb
Leonard Rossiter:  Co-Ordinator Ugo Priest
Martin Potter:  Kin Hodder

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. --Attributed to Socrates

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. -- Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC, to the National Association of Broadcasters

TLC ‘Reassessing Future’ of ‘Honey Boo Boo’ After Star's Relationship With Convicted Child Molester Surfaces -- Headline from, October 23, 2014

As much fun as it would be to just throw a few thousand words of mass-media quotes on this page and call it a day, I'm going to do a review instead. But since this is a dystopian satire about mass media made about three generations ago, it's probably a good idea to give people a few signposts about culture and entertainment before I start the synopsis and the cheap jokes. First up:  It's nothing new for older people to gripe that the younger generations are enjoying life inappropriately and that things are getting worse. Second:  Television is super bad for your soul and your culture. Third:  Things aren't that bad yet. They may not be good, but at least we're at the point where even the networks pandering to the lowest common denominator imaginable are capable of some level of shame, or at least more worried about getting sued out of existence for child endangerment than they regret lost ad revenue.

Today's movie is set "sooner than you think", which is almost as cool as Streets of Fire occurring in "Another Time, Another Place". And it's only around to watch in black and white because the BBC--guardians of culture that they are--never saved a copy of the master tape used for broadcast, and only the accidental discovery of a black-and-white recording made it possible for the commentary to be released and viewed at any later date. Somehow I think that makes the movie even more relevant. The warning about media culture being deliberately wiped by the mass media makes a certain amount of sense, wouldn't you say?

The film drops the audience right in their dystopia--workers at a television studio are starting a broadcast called Sportsex, talking in impenetrable slang about how they hate the slack-jawed morons in the audience but have to watch them watch television to get the equipment calibrated correctly for the broadcast. All the performers on the show (and the people in the Future BBC Command Center) are wearing clothing with patterns and what were undoubtedly loud colors, while the numbly staring audience members are in white smocks; for that matter, the people on the show itself--men and women--are wearing jewels affixed to their faces in addition to Vegas-style costumes. Perhaps they're not just showing off conspicuous wealth with their adornments, but also giving the people watching them something shiny to look at moment-by-moment.

Nat Mender--the guy who takes his job very seriously even as he finds himself repulsed by the audience he's tracking--gets teased by announcer and television personality Misch (I guess she's got one name, like Cher or Madonna); some of the audience members he's looking at have to be thirty years old, if you can believe that, their skin shiny and worn compared to the youthful directors in the command booth. Then it's time for the broadcast to start, with Misch dropping tidbits about the competitors while teasing the upcoming event and reminding the Sportsex audience that the winners of the national events go on to the next Sex Olympics. This scene really suffers from the black-and-white transfer; it looks like the announcer and most of the competitors are wearing garish makeup that doesn't translate at all when it's in B/W.

The film shows its prescience when Nat gets a call on his wristwatch while at work and gets distracted. Then the starting buzzer sounds and the contestants (heard but not seen) go to work; another man in the broadcast booth starts critiquing everyone's technique while moans and gasps flood the soundtrack. Tellingly, none of the three workers in the broadcast booth are aroused by anything; they're just trying to get the show sent out without any technical hiccups. The test audience of proletariat are being monitored for their reactions and one of the teams gets disqualified and dropped from Sexsport for being too appealing to them. Nat states that the guiding principle for the show is "apathy control", though exactly what that means is currently not explained. The other man in the control booth says their job is to keep things cool:  "Cool the audience, cool the world". I'm not certain that a live sex show would have that effect on its viewers, but if they're used to it then perhaps it's just boring audiovisual wallpaper.

Nat clarifies what the apathy control principle contains a moment later--the future BBC is showing impossibly beautiful people making love perfectly as a way to get their audience to think of sex as something to watch rather than to perform on their own (or, perhaps more accurately, with someone else). The audience-monitoring camera screen shows a bunch of people bored and chewing gum, looking out at the viewer as they catch another episode of Sexsport, so it looks like Nat knows what he's doing.

When Ugo Priest, the department head of Future BBC Thing, shows up to complain about the poor showing from that disqualified team and learns that Misch picked them to perform and Nat didn't go through all the proper channels with his boss before putting them on the air. He brings Nat outside of the control booth for a friendly boss-to-subordinate chat and we get a little more information about the future society when there's a free dispenser of some kind of drugs called "Brighteners" in the hallway and both Nat and Priest partake while on the job (and the long shots reveal that both men are wearing what could best be described as Nehru jacket dresses; apparently the most decadent thing that the BBC could think of in 1968). The Brightener packet is a marvel of production design--it's a little tube with a baby bottle nipple on the end so a user has to suck the goo out of it to get whatever effect they're supposed to get. But it also looks amazingly incongruous to have two grown men sucking on baby bottles while discussing their jobs (and we learn from Nat that "vice" is a word that's distinctly out of fashion in the year Sooner Than You Think; apparently when everything is permitted, nothing's considered particularly immoral). Two other words that Turner can't ever recall hearing before in his life come up in this conversation:  "pornography" and "censor".

Priest also implies that concern about overpopulation was one of the principles behind apathy control, and that "watch, not do" would be a guiding philosophy that would keep the second-tier humans of the future from causing too much trouble for their society or their betters. While musing about the past that he can remember and Nat never knew, Priest also points out that there are "old-style" words with too many syllables and too much nuance to them, explaining "vicarious" as "this for that" when the younger man--who has shown himself to be smart and capable in an amazingly difficult and high-pressure job--doesn't have the faintest idea what it means. The future society isn't entirely dystopian, though, another word that Nat can't define further than "a kind of tension" is "war".

Priest is protecting one of his own interests during this chat--he's the one who got Nat placed into the job he's got, and with the Sex Olympics coming up that year he wants to make sure that his subordinate doesn't make him look bad in front of a global audience. Nat gets another call From Deanie; their son is sick and he begs off from his boss to go take care of his child (with, surprisingly enough, Priest's blessing). Then the camera cuts to "The Hungry Angry Show", with two shirtless fat middle-aged men scooping pie filling up from massive piles and either eating it or throwing it at each other. I expect this would get at least a half-season order on TLC in 2014. Deanie's the one in charge of the pie-throwing and eating show; the audience sampler shows a crowd that looks just as bored watching slapstick pie fights and gluttony as they did watching attractive people having sex.

Nat reveals more about the world while he's talking at Deanie; the proletariat outnumber the elites two hundred to one; at least some of the reasoning behind keeping them placid and watching television all the time is to control overpopulation and protect the people running the world. Watching it in 2014, I do think I'm possibly watching a play about how the 1% would view themselves, though I find it hard to accept that Roger Ailes would willingly rock a minidress and medallion while he's telling his employees what to do. We also get a piece of Nigel Kneale-created NewSpeak while Nat talks about his feelings for the audience:  The placid dupes that watch TV and get taken care of are "low-drives" while the people who run the government and media are "high-drives". This appears to be inborn in the film's universe; Deanie says that the child she had with Nat is testing low on the metabolic scale and she suspects they've produced a low-drive daughter. Nat's furious; he can't conceive of that possibility playing out. During a talk with Deanie's new man he says they were "picked", but not what for; the new guy understands instantly so there's either a fertility lottery in the future or some kind of selection process.

Kin Hodder, the new guy, is experiencing a crisis of conscience without the vocabulary or introspective nature to understand what's happening to him; he asks Nat to give him a reason to keep working on the second-tier show Artsex and to keep propping up the system with his efforts. He's also had about a dozen Brighteners and causes a minor stir when he says he wants tension, as opposed to the society that he works to maintain (which avoids all possibilities of any kind of "tension", all the time). He's also got a barely articulated idea that making some kind of fixed art rather than flickering televised image might soothe his soul. By implication, this means that the only arts in existence are the ones shown on TV to keep the world docile and stupid. And Kin also finds that he wants to share whatever new art he's able to make with the world, including the low-drives--who might or might not be able to appreciate it, or even understand why someone would make a picture that doesn't change or flicker.

Kin stops by Nat and Misch's place and intteruptus their second attempt at coitus that evening; he's brought some pictures he's drawn that he wants to show off (Misch:  "But how can they be pictures if they're not moving?"). They're all portraits with screaming mouths and bulging or hollow black eyes; Misch is appalled and Nat finds that he wants to see more of them--he describes viewing them as "like something you remember, but you've never seen". But he refuses to help Kin set up a viewing for other people to look at the artwork, at least partly because he thinks that Misch's reaction would be shared by anyone else who looks at the pictures, high-drive or low.

The next day Nat and Misch meet with their nine-year-old daughter Keten after the governmental aptitude test that's probably meant to suggest the General Certificate for Education; she's overjoyed at the thought of having tested so low that she's done with math forever (not that she understands exactly what anyone was telling her when she got this news); Keten also says she likes listening to stories more than making them up for herself and generally comes across as a bit dim, but very enthusiastic and kind. Nat's incensed; for one thing, if his offspring is considered defective it goes on his "record", and one can safely assume that just as the high-drive and low-drive populations are kept in a strict hierarchy, there are stratifications among the high-drive as well.

Later on, Nat's in a funk while Misch does a burlesque dance along with that day's Artsex broadcast, asking the distracted and distant Nat whether or not he thinks she'd be better at the show than the talent currently on the screen. This gets interrupted by one of Kin's paintings, which distresses Misch enough that she has a screaming fit (and the low-drive audience gets interested and upset by it as well, with their levels remaining upset for another full day after the pirate signal break-in). The picture's plenty creepy in black and white, but I do wonder what it looked like in full color.

Priest stops by the control booth to gently question Nat about whether or not he told Kin to put his pictures on display--and Deanie's there to replace Misch, who is still in shock after getting a look at the picture on her wall-sized TV screen (but not so catatonic with fear that she can't narc on Nat as someone who saw the artwork before Kin broadcast it). Good news for Nat--his boss believes that he had nothing to do with the signal hijack. But unfortunately Priest cannot have missed Nat's enthusiasm for the pictures. And it's absolutely bad news for Kin that the Co-Ordinator gets told by Nat that the artist said he wanted tension. Which is, of course, the one thing the world society is managed in order to minimize.

His later talks with Priest show Nat struggling to articulate what he feels when he's never learned any of the words that would help him describe what's going on in his mind. And Priest, for all his experience and wisdom, can't help Nat because he doesn't have the firsthand experience or emotion that the other man is feeling ("I remember--well, I don't, but I remember the people who did remember before we got apathy control"). He gets a soliloquy about how desperately the world needed to be taken in hand and all the tensions of life diluted, where it's explained to Nat (and the audience) that the process of lowering tension worldwide was done gently, gradually and without coercion. So at least the brave new world that Nat and Priest are in was one created without killing or imprisoning those people that wouldn't go along with its creation. They just got seduced by the numbness of the new system, one by one.

Priest stops by the control booth for Sportsex to explain a new finding from the computer (that he happily agrees with). It turns out that the low-drives do need some kind of stimulus, but one that won't lead to tension. They need to laugh--which is also low-key abdominal exercise. But they don't find the slapstick excesses of "The Hungry Angry Show" worth laughing at, so something new is going to have to be developed. The first attempt is just a bunch of people in clown makeup throwing pies and dumping buckets of water on each other, with the occasional pratfall. The low-drives aren't having any of it; they're just as uninterested in the frenetic zaniness as they were in watching people screw or throw pie filling around. I did crack a sour smile at the protective gear that Priest and Deanie were wearing while filming it; their suits made it look like they might have thought clowning was contagious or radioactive.

In the control booth for Sportsex, Priest drops by before a show and winds up talking about humor and why people laugh with Nat (who has Misch and his other coworker pegged--Misch finds anyone that isn't like her ridiculous and amusing, while the other guy in the broadcast booth likes to see someone other than him get inconvenienced or embarrassed). Priest says it's the "fruit skin" principle. When you see someone else slip and fall on a fruit skin you laugh because it wasn't happening to you. Misch's attempt at wordplay and silliness fails to stir any kind of reaction from the low-drives as well. But when Kin Hodder tries to break in live and show his artwork to the viewers, he slips and has a fatal drop from the rope he was hanging from; it's caught live by the cameras and sent worldwide instantaneously. And, finally, something gets a laugh out of the low-drives watching as the test audience. Ugo Priest says, ominously enough, that they just found the fruit skin to amuse the proles.

In the wake of the fatal broadcast, Nat is stricken--he thinks he helped get an innocent man killed, while Priest thinks that they've found the next great leap forward for apathy control. The low-drives saw something unexpected and fatal, are glad it isn't them, and they have a great big laugh. The perfect solution to the problem of trying to get the brain-numbed organ bags to have a big giggle, and Kin Hodder had to die in order for the solution to present itself. While discussing how to duplicate that reaction without killing someone off on TV every night with Priest and the others in the control booth, Nat comes up with a possibility:  Putting people in an old-world situation where nothing was planned and anything could happen. The audience watching it would be amused by any mishaps and subtly educated about the old ways and why they needed to be abandoned during the lulls in the action. And somewhere along the line it turns out that Nat and Deanie have decided they want to be the "performers" for this brand new type of show (much to Misch's dismay).

Priest runs the pertinent variables through the computers and comes up with an island location that's not too hot or cold, but where both Nat and Deanie will have to work for their survival--building fires, making shelter to keep the weather out and growing or hunting their own food (at some considerable risk; without the danger, the program will be worthless to the network because the low-drives won't want to watch it). Nat is thrilled, since he's got a way to try something utterly new and also channel his growing discontent with his society into helping it. Priest does try to warn the pair that the isolation from their society and comfort will be something they won't know how to deal with at all. But as Nat points out, in the regimented world that's been built for them, nobody knows anyone else. Or even themselves. For the chance to really connect with Deanie and with his own soul, Nat's willing to take the risk.

The preparations for the show are made; it turns out that Nat's second in command (whose name will eventually be revealed as Lasar Opie) will be in charge of things on the technical side. The island's going to be wired for picture and sound with multiple hidden cameras, and once the pair of "performers" are living on their own they won't be in contact with anyone back in the advanced world. It'll be called The Live Life Show and it's going to broadcast continually, 24 hours a day, on its own special channel. Nat and Deanie pick up their daughter and try to explain to her that they're all going to be leaving for somewhere else, and that their living arrangement is something that can only be explained with an old-time word that nobody uses any more:  "family".

On the island, there's an old stone house provided for the trio to live in; they take a moment to marvel at what grass looks like on the ground, and Nat leaves to haul all their necessary gear inside. A small audio device gives Nat instructions about how to set a fire (which he's never had to do in his life) and other ProTips on living out on his own for the show. He's thrilled at things like feeling the wind on his skin--which he's also never experienced--and doesn't quite have the words to explain what the clear glass panels on the wall are, or why the view from them never changes like all the other screens that he, Deanie and Keten have seen at every other point in their lives.

The first night, Keten can't sleep because the wind outside is making her anxious, and Nat and Deanie talk about their finite and dwindling supplies; neither one of them knows how to make more candles, for example, and they need to plant their vegetable garden if they're going to have anything to eat once their rations run out (I also think this part of the planning was pretty slapdash; on the other hand, it's not like the network won't be able to tell if the family's going to need another supply drop and it isn't in their economic interest to watch the three starve to death). Deanie finds herself thinking about the main camera in the ceiling and dislikes being watched all the time; Nat and her retire to bed and snuggle for warmth. And Deanie expresses her faith in Nat as well as her own abilities to make things work before they drift off.

The next morning Nat surveys the area, finding a flock of sheep placed on the island for their eventual use as food and skins; the audio instructions tell him to kill them, which is a word that makes Deanie melancholy and Keten's never heard it before. The trio explores the island, which has steep rocky cliffs at one point (and a really great shot, where the camera keeps pulling back and back and back to show the family as tiny little specks on the outcropping; whatever percentage of the film's budget went into that one shot, it was worth it--after seeing the three claustrophobic city sets for more than an hour it's a breathtaking sight). When they get back to the cabin, Nat points out the vegetable plot that's been started, and Deanie's delighted to think that they can feed themselves without having to kill rabbits or sheep.

And back in the cabin there's two people waiting for them--a man named Grels and a woman that doesn't get properly introduced; the man says he lives on the other side of the island and saw the film crew setting things up for The Live Life Show. The man promises to teach Nat how to catch seafood and survive in their situation, but when the pair leaves Nat accosts the main camera and tells Lasar that they had a deal, and nobody else was supposed to be on the island. In the control booth, Priest asks Lasar what's going on and the showrunner tells him that something has to happen on The Live Life Show in order to give it a sense of narrative; Grels is the setup for that. Both Nat and Priest mention that there was a deal in place; looks like Lasar doesn't particularly care about that.

Grels and Nat work together to harvest crabs and edible plants and pick up driftwood for the stone house's fireplace; their activities would be as new to the studio audience as they would be for Nat, which means that in a way the low-drive audience and the high-drive performer would have something in common. Back in the cabin, Keten's been injured. She saw something--or someone--outside and fell against the rocks while trying to find out what was going on. The wound is too severe for anything that Nat or Deanie can deal with, and Nat smashes the ceiling camera in rage when he realizes that his daughter's injury and possible death is a laugh for the audiences at home.

Which is why it's so worrying that Lasar switches to the secondary, hidden cameras in the house and tells Priest that the real show can start now that Nat thinks he's not being observed. Back at the house, Grels is nailing boards over the windows and telling the woman with him, Betty, to boil crabs for everyone. Grels says he's been on the island for as long as he can remember and for all the viewer knows he's telling the truth. He's certainly handy with his gaffer hook and strides around like he owns the place.

At night, Keten wants a story from her father, but his life has left him utterly incapable of telling one, or making up a fiction. He gives it his best shot but tapers off when he realizes he can't figure out how to make a narrative. But he does tell his daughter "I like you" over and over--the closest thing that the language of his society has for how he feels. She drifts off to sleep as he keeps repeating the simple phrase.

Back in the control room, Lasar is watching the audience watch the show, and realizing that the low-drives are fully capable of handling "tension"--that for the first time, they look engaged and interested with the program rather than just bored. He's got a certain mad-scientist gleam in his eye as he realizes that they might not just tolerate tension in their televised narcotics--it looks like they actually want it. And they'll have plenty to work with--Keten's wound is going bad and she's got a fever. The only thing Nat knows to do is build up a fire to keep his daughter warm and when Deanie goes outside to get water she gets startled by Grels, sleeping in their doorway. Nat is happy to see the other man, because he's utterly out of his depth with Keten's fever but when he asks Grels for assistance he just gets a blank stare in return. When Grels finally does speak, it's to say that Betty's gone, and that she might have fallen down to the rocks while gathering gull eggs. But when he's saying this, it sounds more like he's trying to come up with a plausible story than to explain something that happened.

And when we get another look at the control room, we find out what Grels' story really is. He killed his partner in the Sex Olympics a dozen years ago and was exiled onto the island for lack of any other ways to deal with him. Both Priest and Lasar have a stiff, nervous chuckle about how unfortunate it was that Grels didn't commit rape and murder on camera, because it would have been a massive boost for the ratings. And Lasar exults in the emotions on display in the cabin, with Deanie displaying rage, terror, despair, worry and pain while watching her daughter get sicker and seeing Nat incapable of helping her. And, as Lasar says with a TV-megawattage grin, it looks like soon enough they're going to see an old-time emotion called "grief". And he's right; as Keten doesn't make it through the night and Deanie and Nat struggle to articulate their feelings to each other--they might be high-drive but they were raised in a society that never prepared them for the situation they're in.

The audience finds it hysterically funny, though, so at least their child's death wasn't a total loss. The camera zooms in from afar while they're digging the grave for Keten, the frame intruding on their grief voyeuristically. The audio device says after filling in the grave there's nothing more to be done, but Deanie silently places a driftwood marker for her child. And during the impromptu ceremony they hear rocks clattering; Deanie returns to the house where Grels is waiting--and the door slams shut once she's inside. She screams as Nat tries to break the door down with the firewood-cutting axe, and when he finally makes his way inside he strikes Grels dozens of times, leaving him a blood-spattered ruin on the cabin floor (and the blocking of this scene is amazing--the attack is shown via the viewscreen in the broadcast control room, so it's framed in a way that diegetically prevents the audience from seeing the axe actually strike another person and lets Tony Vogel let loose with insane fury without having to worry about hitting anybody else during the shoot).

His homicidal rage and grief are the absolute funniest thing that the low-drive audience has ever seen, but better than that, the high-drive people in the control room are laughing just as hard. It's a smash hit, the ratings are at their peak, and Lasar announces via voiceover that another series of The Live Life Show will be starting soon while Priest shivers and mutters to himself, wondering what they've done.

What an amazing film, and what a way to absolutely not deliver on that title in the best way imaginable. Nigel Kneale, from what this movie tells me, must have absolutely hated his job writing for the BBC. Or, at least, he hated the aspects of it that had to be made accessible to the lowest common denominator. I can see how that would give him ulcers--the creator of Bernard Quatermass having to write scripts that the original audience for Benny Hill would like is making me a little nauseous just from thinking about it. It's a damned shame that I can't see what the goofy-ass costumes all looked like in color, but even in its bonsai form on DVD it's really worth checking out. I hope the people who tuned in back in 1968 expecting something titillating got their feelings hurt SO BAD. It's a scathing, brutal indictment of the loathsome tastes of the television audience out there, and an even more excoriating look at the professionals who pander to them for money. I thought I was going to be watching 100 minutes of Nigel Kneale griping about youth culture and wanting people to get off his lawn. He was much more interested in burning every bridge between him and the television industry that he could reach. I hope he enjoyed the taste of the hand that fed him.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  You're Next

Yes, I Know:  The Yellow Sign

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 24: Xtro (1983)

Story by Harry Bromley Davenport and Michael Perry
Written by Iain Cassie and Robert Smith
Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport

Philip Sayer:  Sam Philips
Bernice Stegers:  Rachel Philips
Simon Nash:  Tony Philips
Danny Brainin;  Joe Daniels
Maryam d'Abo:  Analise Mercier

One of my favorite B movie genres is the coattail riding ripoff. Think of all the movies you've seen where a bear (or a killer whale or an alligator or a devil car or an octopus or a bunch of little carnivorous fish) works its way through the template established by Jaws. The filmmakers' assumption is that if enough people liked the big blockbuster movie, they can siphon some of that good will and box office mojo by doing the same thing, but cheaper and nastier. Roger Corman is the acknowledged master of this technique (his Jurassic Park ripoff Carnosaur actually beat the movie it was ripping off into theaters, starring Laura Dern's mother, no less). And now there's at least one direct-to-DVD studio with a business model based on making movies that easily confused people will rent or get from Netflix because they sound pretty close to existing A-list properties. And while Dreamworks SKG was finding its footing in the late 90s, it used the same technique to get Deep Impact and Antz into theaters before Armageddon and A Bug's Life. Looks like Steven Spielberg took that Carnosaur lesson to heart.

And that brings us to today's film--I don't quite know what chain of events led someone to think "I've got it! We'll do a cheap, nasty body-horror ripoff of E.T. and make millions!" but I'm so glad it happened. Even the tagline on the poster points out what movie you're supposed to be thinking of in case the title didn't quite serve as a signpost. And, wonder of wonders, it's actually a rather solid movie that didn't have to be nearly as competent as it is in order to get butts in the seats (or people renting the VHS or buying the DVD). I can remember walking past the videotape cover hundreds of times without checking it out when I was Kid Telstar, but plenty of other people had to have taken the bait because the film has not one but two in-name-only sequels, and a third has been promised.

The movie doesn't waste any time getting started. A family (Sam and Rachel Philips and their son Tony) are at an English country house. Rachel drives off to do some errands and the other family members remain home. When Sam throws a stick for their dog it freezes in midair and then there's a flash of light. The sky goes black and a bright light and wind come out of nowhere. Tony gets warned away from the epicenter of the effect by his father, who gets yanked into the sky and taken away.

Flash forward three years. Rachel's moved on with her life as best she can, moving in with a photographer named Joe Daniels; Tony, for his part, is thought to be delusional and traumatized thanks to his father abandoning him when he was so young. His "a bright light came out of nowhere and Hoovered my dad up into the sky" story is thought to be some kind of fantasy projection he created to soothe his mind when his father ran out on him. For that matter, Tony's convinced that his father still loves him, and will return for him some day. his relationship with Joe is pretty bad because of this--although, to his credit (and the filmmakers'), Joe is a very patient man who realizes that Tony's a very young kid who had a life-altering case of abandonment trauma and he's doing the best he can to be supportive and kind.

And what do you know--the kid's right on both counts. One night a bright light lands in the English countryside by that cottage from the prologue, setting trees on fire and disgorging a creepy skittering alien creature (realized by a bodysuit constructed so the person wearing it is crab-walking backwards with the alien's face on the back of his head; I really like seeing creative solutions like this in my low-budget horror movies). The alien monster beast thing walks towards the cottage and has the amazingly bad fortune to travel hundreds of billions of miles only to get hit by a car within half a mile of the house. When the driver goes looking for whatever the hell it was he smashed into he finds it and gets stinger-tongued to death. The woman in the car gets murdered to death by the alien as well, somehow getting her foot caught in the steering wheel during her assault.

Meanwhile, Tony has a weird dream and walks in on his mother and emergency backup father figure having sex; he gets sent back to bed where he will have odd dreams and wake up covered in blood (and when a doctor is summoned, it turns out the blood isn't even Tony's--where it came from is a mystery to every character in the film, but soon enough they'll have other things to worry about). The doctor is at a loss to explain what happened, but says if it was Tony's blood he'd be in shock and need a transfusion. He also thinks sessions with a child psychologist wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, regardless of what's going on with body fluids.

The alien creature makes its way into the cottage and forces an ovipositor into the throat of the woman living there, so it turns out that Alien is among the movies this one is stealing bits and pieces from. The woman wakes up with blood caked on her mouth and goes for a glass of water, getting waylaid by horrible abdominal cramps accompanied by stretching sounds that soon enough turn into tearing noises and finally cracking and splintering ones. She collapses to the ground, her stomach swollen grotesquely and gives birth to a fully-sized Sam Philips (who bites through his own umbilical cord as the last nasty moment of his delivery). This is instantly fatal to the woman, who never even gets a name in the film. Sam rinses the blood off his body at the sink and makes a call to Rachel; he can't make his vocal cords work yet and accidentally melts the phone handset (!) so he can't try again when all his systems are working. He also strips the clothing off the driver that smacked into his delivery vessel monster and dresses so he'll blend in a little better in England.

The next morning, Tony's playing with a soldier doll at breakfast and doesn't appear to have any memory of the "covered in blood" incident from the night before, though it might just be that he's smart enough to know that saying more stuff about dreams, his father, and assorted weirdness results in adults not listening to him anyway. He goes off to school, accompanied by the au pair girl Analise (and watched by the Sam-replicant from a distance). A van driver bumps into the car Sam used to get there and finds the woman from the first act eviscerated in the passenger seat when he goes to apologize and exchange insurance information.

Analise bumps the rating to R by having sex with her boyfriend while she's alone in the Philips / Daniels apartment. Meanwhile, Rachel leaves Joe's photography studio to go pick Tony up at school. When she gets there a teacher says that Tony's father just picked him up, and Rachel flatly tells the woman that's impossible. She searches on foot, finds Sam quickly, and gives him a slap in the face that is richly deserved from her point of view. Sam says that he's come back, but cannot remember from where. Rachel's not willing to let him back into her life (or Tony's) quite yet, again very understandably. But she does allow him back to the apartment so he can at least get a shower, shave and change of clothing. Tony's overjoyed, of course, and introduces his father to his pet snake, Harry (who just laid a clutch of eggs; I'm thinking maybe Harriet might have been a more feminine name).

While talking to Joe and Rachel, Sam says the last thing he remembers from three years ago was being held in the light that came from above. It was hot and the wind was blowing, and then everything went blank. Some extremely stilted polite small talk ensues between the three adults, but when Rachel leaves the room for a moment Joe drops all pretense of affability and asks Sam point-blank what he wants. Sam wants to be home--and Joe doesn't want him in the apartment. Rachel, probably against her better judgment, believes the amnesia story and Joe doesn't trust the returning man at all. If he saw Sam crushing and eating the snake eggs the next day, he'd certainly trust him even less than he does already. Tony flees the apartment and Sam follows; meanwhile, Harry escapes his tank and slithers off unobserved.

All of Joe's suspicions and Rachel's fears appear to be confirmed when they get home in the evening and neither Tony nor Sam is in the apartment. They run out to search (again, on foot; doesn't anyone call the cops in this movie?) and Sam finds his son hiding in an alley. He explains that the aliens changed his body so he could live on their planet and that he needed the snake eggs for some reason. He appears to have been selected randomly by his abductors but he's convinced them to let him come back for his son. Then, when he hugs Tony, he injects something (snake egg paste?) into the boy's neck from his mouth. It raises a huge, nasty, throbbing blister when he does it but Tony doesn't appear to be feeling any pain.

When Joe and Rachel return to the apartment they find Sam and Tony in the living room; Sam explains that they went out for sweets and seems properly abashed when Rachel gives him the ProTip that leaving a note would be nice, so that nobody thinks he kidnapped his son. Some plot threads get advanced; the downstairs neighbor, a mildly disagreeable old woman, watches a news report about the eviscerated woman found in a parked car and Tony finds that night that he can make a toy top spin without touching it. And at dinner that night Joe announces that he and Rachel are going to put a ring on it; Sam tosses a wine bottle at him. Tony calls for his daddy and both Joe and Sam stand up; Sam stares the other man down and goes to talk to his son. It turns out that he's the one Tony needs to talk to because the kid's a little weirded out about developing telekinesis. Sam explains that through concentration and will, he can make things happen in the world. He says it's their secret for the time being, and worryingly enough tells the boy not to "damage" Analise.

Meanwhile, the escaped snake slithers down the chandelier over their downstairs neighbors' dinner table and lands in her salad; when she discovers it she beats it to death with a meat tenderizer and returns it (in a plastic baggie full of blood and chunks) to Rachel, saying she thinks Tony's obviously too young to take care of a pet. Tony gets furious and stares at his soldier toy--and Sam tells him "No," first, but then also the single word "Later". That's the same day that Rachel reveals she never threw out Sam's old clothes. She gives him some more of his old things to wear and obviously was either expecting or just plain hoping he'd return some day if she hung on to them.

That night Tony has another weird dream and mumbles in his sleep. He turns a wooden clown toy into a dwarf clown that does yo-yo tricks to entertain him and the downstairs neighbor thumps her ceiling with a broom handle in annoyance. The soldier doll gets telekinetically turned into a life-size plastic war toy that breaks down her door and bayonets her as she hides under her sofa (and the mime performer in the plastic costume settles pretty comfortably right in the center of the Uncanny Valley for this scene).

In the morning, Sam is looking through old family photos while Sarah finds a photo of another woman in the jacket Sam was wearing. What the audience knows--but she doesn't--is that the woman in the photo is the woman in the car that hit the alien in the beginning of the movie; the Sam-thing didn't check the pockets when he put the jacket on so he missed the photo and a gigantic bundle of currency. When Rachel asks him about those items he doesn't have any answers--not even an obvious lie or an evasion.

Rachel goes to Joe, notifying him that she's taking Sam to the cottage in order to try and jumpstart some of his memories; she also gives Joe the photo (and Joe's explanation is extremely likely:  The woman in the photo is the person Sam left his family for, and has now dumped him). While they're off on what could optimistically be termed a holiday, Analise and her boyfriend are at the apartment; Analise is watching Tony (which means she's playing hide-and-seek with him until the clown doll figure drops down on her from the elevator ceiling, knocks her out, and drags her back to the apartment where Tony injects something blue and nasty into her stomach from his mouth). When the boyfriend goes looking for her a toy tank goes all Killdozer on him and a panther fatally attacks him. And in the bathroom, Analise is stuck to the wall, all webbed up and spitting out eggs from a fleshy tube at the base of the cocoon.

At the cottage, Sam is shivering and cold and Rachel's concerned for him. She calls the apartment to see if everyone's all right in her absence but nobody answers. Back at the apartment, the clown is mixing up some glop that he puts into the refrigerator (which is knocked on its back to provide easy access to its inside); the alien eggs go in the glop and get ignored till the end of the film. The building's handyman gets a call from Rachel and promises to look in on Tony; he winds up getting his throat slashed by a yo-yo blade instead. And when the handyman never calls back Rachel calls Joe to check on her son.

Before Joe leaves for that errand he sees the headline MACABRE CAR PARK SLAYING on the Daily Heil and notices the victim's picture in the paper is identical to the woman in the photo from Sam's jacket. He charged off to pick Tony up and drives him to the cottage, where Rachel and Sam make love until the unfortunate woman notices the gigantic suppurating wounds on his face and back. His skin is flaking and peeling off in chunks when Joe and Tony arrive; Joe finds Rachel (with an immense bruise on the side of her face) in the cabin and they agree to leave. Tony's left the car, though, and his father strokes his hair tenderly as his skin and flesh rot away.

Joe and Rachel see a light in the woods and run towards it; when the Sam-creature sees Joe he screams inhumanly loud and Joe bleeds from the ears until he dies. Rachel sees Joe's body and walks on, just in time to see a fully transformed Sam and Tony walk into the light and get collected by a boom tube or something. She's left utterly alone and returns to the apartment the next morning, where a cheapass ending occurs (one of the fridge-goop eggs hatches and kills her) and then the credits roll.

Crap ending aside (Rachel didn't do anything that deserved a death sentence, even by the standards of a horror movie), this one has a lot to recommend it other than its bent premise. The makeup effects are extremely creepy and gruesome on a limited budget--if that's your sort of thing you'll really dig Xtro. And, wonder of wonders, the storyline isn't just killing time between gooey setpieces. Actually, the setpieces don't make a hell of a lot of sense (what were the eggs for if Sam and Tony were getting picked up by the aliens at the end, anyway?) but they're nasty and look good. But the performances--especially Bernice Stegers as the conflicted Rachel--hold the viewer's interest more than some of the alien sequences. I wasn't expecting a low-key drama about Rachel choosing whether or not to let a former husband back into her life, but that's what I got and it's a very welcome change of pace to the "spend ten minutes burning celluloid between horror sequences" plot outline that a lot of movies have.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Xtro II:  The Second Encounter

Yes, I Know:  Xtro II:  The Second Encounter

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 23: The Woman in Black (2012)

Written by Jane Goldman, from the novel by Susan Hill
Directed by James Watkins

Daniel Radcliffe:  Arthur Kipps
Ciaran Hinds:  Sam Daily
Janet McTeer:  Mrs. Elizabeth Daily
Liz White:  Jennet Humfrye

Well, thanks to the alphabet and my existing DVD collection, I got to review two Hammer Studios films back to back this HubrisWeen. I should have looked for one from the beginning of their existence that started with U so I could go for a triple play. Ah well, I'm perfectly satisfied with one Hammer, two Hammer, old Hammer and new Hammer.

I know I've said repeatedly in my reviews that fads drive trends in horror movies; there was the slasher boom in the 1980s and the zombies taking over pop culture in the 2000s (when Brad Pitt can make a $200,000,000 zombie movie they're officially part of the mass culture). Today's movie is defined much more by its opposition to the early 2010s horror trends, rather than its use of them. It's a period piece about an angry ghost in England, and the horror is focused on the survivors of the supernatural attacks rather than the victims. The protagonist is a grieving career-minded lawyer trying to save his job. In short, nothing at all like the "quit hitting yourself" serial killer in the Saw series and even less like the found footage scares in the Paranormal Activity franchise. And, thank Cthulhu, not a single sparkly vampire to be found at any point in the film. It's odd to say this about a movie with a vicious homicidal ghost in it, but it's a real breath of fresh air.

The film starts with slow-motion (and therefore eerie) silent footage of three girls in clothing reminiscent of the early 20th century having a tea party in an attic; they look at something in the corner in unison--the camera occupying the space of whatever it is they've seen--and then stand up, walk to the windows, and leap to their deaths. All silently, all in lockstep with each other. Seconds after they disappear from view, a woman's voice screams in grief and fear. Now that's a heck of a beginning to a horror movie.

After the credits, we fade to a view of Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer getting ready for his day. Maybe it's just me, but I think he's holding his razor against his throat a little too long while looking into the mirror (and the cinematographer makes amazing use of Daniel Radcliffe's face--he looks like he's going to cry at any second, and with his pale, drawn countenance he looks haunted long before he finds himself investigating the spirit world). He has a glimpse of a woman in white behind him in the mirror who isn't there in the long shot when he turns around but he seems more resigned than frightened. And when he's packing a suitcase to go wherever it is he's planning to go there's some important-looking papers on top of his clothing, all stamped OVERDUE in a font that can't be good news.

He has a brief moment with his son in which it's revealed that Kipps is a grieving widower (the woman he saw in the mirror is undoubtedly his late wife), and holding himself togther badly enough that his son's crayon drawings show him with a frown because that's how he looks all the time. He's got to go out of London for several days for work, but promises his child a train ride to the countryside and a weekend together in the fresh air. At his office, his superior Mr. Bentley gives him the kind of talk only a rich barrister a short distance from the Victorian era can give--the firm recognizes that Kipps is grieving, but they are not a charity so he's got to either get his mind right or be sacked. Nice to see job creators are the same the whole world round.

Kipps is being sent to the wonderfully named Eel Marsh House to clear up the last will and testament of a reclusive widow, Mrs. Alice Drablow. It's been years since anyone at the firm has been to her house and Bentley needs to be assured that the will they have on file in London is the most recent one before going through all the legally necessary motions to distribute the late Mrs. Drablow's property. Kipps has got three days to dig through the mountains of disorganized paperwork at Eel Marsh House and confirm that everything's in proper form.

On the train ride towards Basingstokeshiremeadowsmewsforest, Kipps sees a newspaper ad for a spiritualist that can contact the departed and has a flashback to a memory of his wife dying in childbirth (although, thanks to the prevailng social mores of the time his memory is of pacing back and forth in a waiting room while he hears the screaming and crying from the birthing bed). After an uneasy dream that further explores the same memory Arthur wakes up and sees a beefy guy wearing country tweeds and fondly holding a small dog in the seat facing him. The man knows he's from London and looking to sell Eel Marsh House and in the best traditions of signpost characters he says that there won't be a local buyer for the property. But it's still England, so instead of the snarling half-mad Crazy Ralph that one might get in America the man introduces himself as Arthur Daily and offers to give Kipps a ride to his hotel rather than make him walk all the way from the train station in the pouring rain, as well as a dinner invitation the following day.

The innkeeper tells Kipps that there's no record of his reservation and that they're full up anyway, but the man's wife declares that they can't turn the lawyer out in the storm. The hotelier raises the stakes by saying the attic is the only room available. His wife doesn't back down and shoes Kipps to his room (and it's safe to say that Arthur knows that something's up but not exactly what--at this point he's probably chalking it up to Mrs. Drablow being unpopular in town). A little bit of conversation between the woman and Kipps on the stairs lead to a caged myna bird imitating the phrase "sea mist", which probably comes up in conversation around the moors and the shore quite a bit.

And, as you probably guessed, the attic room is the one that the three little girls jumped out of at the very beginning of the film. Kipps has no idea and therefore settles down for the night as best he can. The next morning as he heads to Eel Marsh House a random villager sees him walking and sends his three children inside with a single word to them and not even a syllable of explanation to the lawyer. The village solicitor, a Mr. Jerome, is extremely brusque with Kipps and even says that he contacted the firm in London to tell them not to send anyone down. He hands Kipps an envelope that might hold up to thirty or forty pieces of paper and wishes him well on his trip back to London. When Kipps says he'll be inspecting the paperwork at the house Mr. Jerome and his wife have a brief, panicky conversation through telepathic eye contact and the solicitor says that won't be possible, denies the possibility of sending a telephone call, telegram or letter to Kipps' home office and then shoves him out the door and wishes him a good day. Kipps, of course, has one chance to save his job so he bribes the coachman six shillings to take him to Eel Marsh House instead of the train station.

The mansion turns out to be on a rocky piece of land that's an island during high tide; the coachman says he'll return for Kipps at five that evening, since that's the earliest that the winding, desolate road will be above the surface of the water. The house is a fantastic location, pale stone overrun by creeping ivy and overgrown gardens. The inside is dusty and dim sunlight barely penetrates the gloom to illuminate miles of cobwebs. There's a brief jump scare as the kitchen faucet vomits lumpy brown water into the sink. And something was inside the upper floor looking at Kipps as he arrived, which is not a good sign for the future at all.

Kipps gets to work, opening windows in the hunting trophy room and working his way through stacks of disorganized and irrelevant paperwork, with birthday cards lumped in together with the death certificate of a seven year old child named Nathaniel Drablow. Poor Nathaniel drowned in the marsh and his body was never found. Right after he sees the death certificate Kipps hears noises from upstairs and goes to investigate (NOTE:  do not ever do this). There's a jump scare with a Spring-Loaded Crow that flies out of an empty fireplace, and right after he gets startled by that Kipps opens a window and looks outside, noticing a woman dressed in funereal black (including a veil) standing in the estate's graveyard. The crow distracts him and when he turns back, the woman has vanished.

When he goes outside to look for the woman, Kipps hears a coach and terrified horses as well as a woman screaming in panic. It's too foggy for him to make anything out in his search and Kipps starts to imagine the carriage accident that claimed Nathaniel Drablow's life. He screams for the coachman who brought him to the manor, and the man turns out to be right there in the mist. Back at town, Kipps tries to report an accident at the local police station and gets the usual "nobody has been there today and for that matter people don't go to the creepy abandoned house at all over the last decade because they don't want to" speech from the desk sergeant. When he reports seeing a woman at the estate the cop excuses himself and leaves just in time for two boys the bring their sister into the station looking for help. Their sister drank lye a little while ago and Kipps winds up being the one who holds her in his arms as she dies. She's one of the kids that Arthur saw while going through the village earlier that day--out of the seven children that have shown up in the film so far, three jumped out a window and one drank caustic materials.

Back at the Gifford Arms, Kipps hears a woman sobbing upstairs and goes to offer what help he can. It turns out to be the myna bird, which has to have heard an awful lot of crying in order to imitate it so perfectly (this scene worked like a buried time bomb in my mind when I realized just what it meant for a mimicking bird to be able to perfectly duplicate that particular sound). The innkeeper's wife tells Kipps not to go back to the mansion but won't tell him why. He is bound by his love for his son to keep working the job even though every experience in the village has ranged from creepy to off-putting to horrifying.

That night he goes to the Daily residence for dinner; the man of the house is reflecting outside the family mausoleum when Kipps arrives. Sam Daily tells Arthur that he's comforted by the vault on his estate--there's a place there for his wife and one for him, so one day he'll be reunited with his late son. I realize that mortality rates were high before antibiotics and rural areas have their own hazards to life and limb, as do seasides, but it does certainly seem like being a child in Gifford is about as dangerous as being Charles Bronson's friend in the first act of any of his movies.

Before dinner, Sam Daily warns Kipps not to bring up the subject of the dead girl in the village, and not to talk about children in any context if he can avoid it. Elizabeth Daily, Sam's wife, extends an offer to Kipps to stay at their home since the inn has turned him out and brings "the twins" to dinner--who turn out to be a pair of small dogs. The inset shot of Sam taking a quick drink to steel his nerves is a quiet but welcome joke in this scene. The dinner conversation turns bitter as Elizabeth says that the Dailys are the richest family in their entire county but don't have any heirs. This in response to Arthur saying he has a son; apparently there's a lot of emotional baggage about children in the Daily household indeed.

In the middle of dinner, Elizabeth mentions that her late son Nicholas wants to draw a picture for Kipps, and goes into an automatic-writing trance, gouging the table with a knife while Sam tries futilely to prevent the seizure. Sam Daily winds up having to chloroform his wife to bring her out of that state; after dinner, Sam and Arthur talk about spiritualism and whether or not there's anything to that particular interest sweeping the British isles. Daily insists (possibly more to himself than to Kipps) that after death, the soul ascends to another plane--it doesn't stay on earth and doesn't try to make its existence known to the living. Which does raise the question of what that trance or seizure meant when Elizabeth Daily had her episode, and why the picture looked like a crude representation of a woman in a dress hanging from a noose.

The next morning, at Jerome's law office, the lawyer is nowhere to be found but noises downstairs lead Kipps to discover a girl behind a locked door who yells at him to go away when he sees her, accusing him of killing Victoria Hardy, the girl that drank lye the day before. On the drive to Eel Marsh House there's a knot of men blocking the road, and here's where Kipps (and the audience) get the first major piece of the puzzle. A tearful man tells Kipps that he saw the woman at the manor house, and now his girl is dead. Daily, as sympathetically as he can, says that superstitious nonsense won't help the grieving father at all and the innkeeper (who, let's remember, has three dead daughters as well) says that Daily's own son was killed by the same supernatural entity. And I never want Ciaran Hinds mad at me based on the look he gets on his face after hearing that.

Daily's sympathetic to the men, but hearing his son used as a weapon against him pisses him off enough to drive through the men blocking the road (they are smart enough to get out of the way, having seen the F-5 Hate Face that Daily threw at them). Kipps gets dropped off at the house for another day's labor and Daily says that he's actually doing everyone in the village a favor. Once the house is sold, everyone can move on to another chapter rather than being stuck in the past like they are at this point. It's probably also telling that the character who owns a motorcar is the one looking to the future while the village (which depends on horse-drawn carriages) are most concerned about whatever happened in the past.

Daily is a genuinely good person--he gives Arthur a sack lunch since he'll be stuck on the island once the tide comes in and even loans his dog Spider to the lawyer for company in the big creepy house. And warns Kipps not to go chasing after shadows while he's supposed to be working on the Sisyphean paperwork task. Which he does, although when he sees a hand slap against a windowpane set into a door he certainly wants to see what's going on. It turns out there's nobody there after all (although Kipps also sees an eye looking back at him when he looks into a zoetrope as it spins, so either there's something really there or he's letting the fantastically creepy cluttered rooms at Eel Marsh House get to him). He finds papers with angry declarations written on them in red ink, but before he can peruse them all that much the dog starts barking and leads him out of the house.

Kipps goes to the graveyard (and the camera reveals something watching him from the woods), but when he looks around he doesn't see anyone. One of the graves in the lichyard is for Jennet Humfrye, listed on her monument as Alice Drablow's sister. When he walks back to the house, Kipps sees a pale cadaverous face in one of the upper windows looking down at him before it recedes into darkness. He goes up to the room to look for whoever--or whatever--it was, but there's nobody there that he can see. There is someone that the audience gets to see in the reverse shot, though, supplying the most effective jump scare in the film.

Kipps finds a sheaf of old letters in a box in the room where he saw the figure and starts sorting through them instead of doing what he was sent to Eel Marsh House to do. Like many seekers after knowledge in horror movies, he finds it. It turns out that Nathaniel Drablow was Jennet Humfrye's son and that after Humfrye was declared mentally unfit to be a mother, the Drablow family adopted Nathaniel. From the venomous tone of Jennet's letters, there may have been something legitimately wrong with her, but regardless of whether or not she was insane originally she appears to have gone utterly mad by the time she wrote her final letter. The one blaming her sister and brother-in-law for Nathaniel's death, cursing them for leaving his body in the marsh mud, and vowing never to forget or forgive them for saving themselves from the coach wreck and leaving Nathaniel to die.

The next document that Kipps finds is Jennet Humfrye's death certificate; she hanged herself in the nursery in Eel Marsh House. And it's right after Arthur reads that certificate that a door opens by itself behind him. He dozes off in his chair--demonstrating a greater commitment to sleep than I think I would be able to demonstrate in a creepy drafty haunted house, and the vengeful spirit of Jennet Humfrye manifests behind him. The ghost approaches Kipps as he sleeps but the dog apparently dispels it via barking. That just leads the ghost to up her game; rhythmic creaking and thudding noises draw Kipps over to a locked door that opens itself when he leaves to look for a hatchet to break it down. The room in question is the nursery, and contains a rocking chair moving on its own (although the audience gets to see its occupant during the reverse shot). Radcliffe looks like he was born to star in a Hammer film in this scene, moving through the house with a hatchet and a candle in search of the unknown, face alive with fear in the flickering yellow light.

Kipps sees a tear in the nursery's wallpaper and removes the top layer, to show identical wallpaper underneath it with YOU COULD HAVE SAVED HIM written in blood. Just at that moment a windup toy monkey (playing maracas rather than cymbals) does its thing, which is the ghost-story equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. The scene is capped off when Kipps sees the ghost of Nathaniel Humfrye rise out of the marsh during a downpour and walk slowly towards the house. One ghostly screaming face later, there's a knock at the front door and the knob rattles and turns. Of course there's nobody to be found when Arthur opens the door, but outside in the rain he sees a crowd of ghostly children in the forest, and recognizes Victoria Hardy among their number. Back in the house, a trail of muddy footprints lead upstairs towards the sound of a merrily chiming music box.

The footprints go into the nursery, so Kipps goes into the nursery. In what cannot be anything but a positive sign, all the windup toys in the room are going through their mechanical paces. Something moves through Kipps' peripheral vision and WAAAHHGGH IT'S THE WOMAN IN BLACK HANGING HERSELF AND LOOKING RIGHT AT HIM! He drops the candle, which goes out; I probably would have had a coronary on the spot. And that's not the worst thing that Arthur sees in the room. Apparitions commence and Kipps flees for the door, only to find that Sam Daily has arrived to drive him back to the mainland. I appreciate that the only part of Kipps' description of his night that appears in the movie is "You don't believe me, do you?"; we just saw it. We know he's going to tell Daily what he saw. It keeps the momentum going.

They arrive in the village just in time to see a knot of people outside a Mr. Jerome's home and office on fire, and Mrs. Jerome screaming and sobbing over what's happening to her daughter Lucy (that they were trying to keep sheltered in the locked basement room). Kipps charges into the conflagration and breaks down the door to rescue Lucy, who looks to the corner and a familiar black-clad apparition looks back to her. The girl calmly shatters an oil lamp at her feet and stands silently as she immolates herself. Two burning roofbeams fall into the frame and Kipps is forced to retreat if he wants to live.

The next day, Kipps talks to Elizabeth Daily and she sees from looking into his eyes that he's encountered the vengeful ghost. Mrs. Daily tells Arthur not to blame himself for disregarding the advice of everyone in the village and going to the house; he doesn't understand why she's telling him that. Then she drops the bombshell on him:  Every time someone sees the ghost--even for a fraction of a second--a child in the village dies. And given that there was a crowd of young spirits in the forest around Eel Marsh House, it appears that the vengeful spirit is even preventing the children from moving on to Heaven and being reunited with their families.

Elizabeth goes into a trance state and explains (with a child's voice overlaid over her own) that the spirit compels children to kill themselves in her revenge against the world, and that she has seen Arthur Kipps and is coming to exact vengeance on him, then scrapes an imitation of Kipps' son's crayon drawing of the train ride to Gifford and the pair of them standing together. The trance breaks and Kipps races to send a telegram to his nanny and son telling them not to come down to the countryside. The grocery store / telegraph office is closed, so Kipps hatches a desperate plan in lieu of passively waiting for his son to be murdered by a vengeful spirit.

He (and Sam, and Sam's car) are pressed into service by the marshes. He remembers the spot where he saw Nathaniel's body rise up from the muck and ties a rope around his waist. He'll submerge into the bog, find the carriage that was lost years ago, tie the rope to it and Sam will haul it out of the slime, hopefully before Kipps dies. They'll be able to find Nathaniel's body, since the peat bog will have preserved it. And wonder of wonders, this plan actually works (in a scene played out in the dark of night; they pair has to work when the tides are out and are in an understandable hurry). Sam Daily, the consummate rationalist, sees a few apparitions and becomes an instant believer while stuck in a room with a door that won't unlock. This leaves Arthur alone with the ghost before they can break open the slab covering Jennet Humfrye's grave and inter Nathaniel's body with her.

But--as Kipps should know better than anyone, having read her letters--Jennet Humfrye said she'd never forgive her sister for letting Nathaniel drown. And never is a very, very long time. If death itself couldn't stop her rage, simply being reunited with her son won't be enough either.

And the train bearing Arthur's son is due to arrive. I know I usually go up to the end credits with these reviews, but if you want to know exactly how this ends, I'm not telling you. It's Hammer's first ghost story in the half-century they've been making horror films and it was chilling enough that I want other people to experience it themselves.

I think this movie plays out better at home than it did in the theater (though I truly enjoyed the experience of hearing teenagers that just thought they were seeing the movie with Harry Potter in it getting terrified repeatedly). The soundtrack in the theater was deafening and really oversold the LOUD NOISES OUT OF NOWHERE! jump scares when a little less would have worked so much more. But the real star of the film is the fabulously dim, cobwebbed, creepy and dank Eel Marsh House. Cluttered with objects like a Satanic take on the House on the Rock, there's a lot of great fun suspense as the camera glides around like a sedate British cover version of Sam Raimi's hyperkinetic cinematography.

Daniel Radcliffe acquits himself very well, and his youthful appearance serves the story--it's easy to believe that Arthur Kipps would be out of his depth and outmatched by the spirit haunting the manor. It's great to see so many grownups in the movie as well, all of them displaying the telltale signs of British Character Actor Face. The horror in the story isn't about something bad happening to Kipps; other than when he puts his own life at risk he's never really in danger from Jennet's wrathful spirit. Instead, it's a horror movie about trying to protect someone that you love. The survivors left behind by the children's deaths will be haunted for decades if not generations, and that's certainly more affecting than the thought of being torn apart by a serial killer's rigged trap (not that being dropped into an acid tank sounds like a fun evening, mind you).

Lastly, it overjoys me as a horror nerd that Radcliffe's first choice for a film after the Harry Potter series was a sedate period piece Hammer flick. He could have done literally anything and he wanted to make a film for The House That Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Built. And the film does indeed have its subtler moments to go with the Spring-Loaded Crows and shrieking ghosts.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Wolfen

Yes, I Know:  We're Going to Eat You