Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The Movie: Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne (Dennis Price), tenth Duke of Chelfont, sits in his cell on the night before his execution for murder. To pass the time, and to make sure posterity knows the truth, he writes his memoirs of what brought him here.

Louis tells us how his mother (Audrey Fildes) was a member of the noble D’Ascoyne family; but how he grew up poor because she eloped with an Italian opera singer (Dennis Price again). However, his mother brought him up on his noble birth and the histories of his family. This planted a dangerous ambition in him.

After his mother’s untimely demise, Louis decided he was going to reclaim his birthright and become the duke. Unfortunately, there were eight other people (all played wonderfully by the late Alec Guinness, although to his dismay most people only remember him as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars) in his way. Louis ambitiously decided to remedy this.

But as the bodies piled up and Louis place in the world began to improve, some complications crept in. First there was his growing love for Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the young widow of one of his first victims. Even more potentially disastrous is Sibella (Joan Greenwood, who also did the voice for the villainess in Barbarella), Louis’ mistress and former childhood friend, who is married to his childhood rival Lionel Holland (John Penrose). Sibella has her own designs on Louis once she starts to realize what he’s really worth.

While Louis did obtain the dukedom, the unseen complications wound up getting him the murder charge as well. Now he awaits his execution, wondering if he might possibly obtain a last-minute reprieve…

The Review:

Now, in those days I never had any trouble with the Sixth Commandment

There is one, and only one, good thing that has ever come out of censorship. It is simply this; the artist is forced to be much more clever, creative and innovative than he would normally be without that impediment. This little fact was driven home for me when I was on the school newspaper in high school. My school was run by morons who constantly created and enforced extremely stupid and destructive policies. Unfortunately, we on the newspaper were not allowed to say anything critical of the school or the Powers That Be, even (actually “especially” would be the more appropriate word) when it was the gods’ honest truth. However my journalism teacher, probably second only to my parents as the worst influence on my life, didn’t care for them either and she provided me with the answer. “Nathan,” she would constantly tell me, “we can’t say that. But if you phrase it this way….”

Now, I have always had a passion for language and words; word games, innuendos, entendres, double meanings, and that most demonized of arts, the pun. As a result, writing for the paper became a game for me. I had a lot of fun seeing how critical I could be of the morons in power in ways that they couldn’t prevent. I had numerous successes and failures, but it was an educational experience that proved extremely useful when I entered the world outside of high school.

In the past few years I have seen a lot more of the older movies; specifically, ones that were made in the age of the abomination known as the Hayes Code. Admittedly, on their surface such movies seem quaint and tame; especially when compared to what you can see in films that came after the Code was ended. Also, it is true that the Code hamstrung quite a few movies that would otherwise have been good. However, there were quite a few more that were nowhere near as tame as they might appear to a modern audience. If you look and listen closely, you’ll notice that they’re playing the exact same game I played with my high school newspaper; and once you recognize that, you find some truly twisted and irreverent stuff.

At the time, Britain didn’t have the same kind of formalized code for what you could put into movies. However, the British government censored its country’s films just as harshly; and both countries kept the others’ censorship statutes in mind so they could sell their movies to each other. I am of the opinion that British humor is very adept at this kind of censor tweaking. The British have a way of saying one thing in a casual deadpan manner while conveying something else entirely that American humor has never quite gotten right.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy that perfectly exemplifies this method of humor. This movie is full of all sorts of twisted, irreverent, socially unacceptable behavior and raunchy humor; even by today’s standards. However, it is all played out in a strait faced manner that simultaneously serves to both hide the happenings from the more literal minded and emphasize them even more for those who are paying attention.

Take Louis and Sibella’s affair for example. Now, in those days sex, especially illicit sex such as adultery, was a definite no-no to the censors. The way the movie handles it as a result is pure genius. The most we actually see are a few passionate clinches and the fact that Sibella visits Louis’ apartment unchaperoned, which in the time of the movie’s setting would have been a major scandal. However, listening closely to the dialogue tells you what your eyes don’t. For example, one of my favorite lines is when Louis approaches Lionel at his and Sibella’s wedding and tells him “you’re a lucky man Lionel, take my word for it.” The line is spoken so casually that the more literal minded will probably not think much of it; Lionel certainly doesn’t notice anything. But if you’re paying attention, that seemingly innocuous phrase has worlds of ulterior meaning.

Then there’s how the movie handles Louis and his murders. The character of Louis, himself, is an amazing bit of dramatic sleight of hand. Throughout the entire course of the movie Price is never outwardly anything but reasonable, civil and seemingly decent. At the beginning, it’s very hard not to sympathize with him. The D’Ascoynes did wrong him and his mother, after all. Also, the majority of Louis victims are arrogant, obnoxious and/or self centered. It’s very hard not to cheer when he offs them.

And yet, as the movie goes on, we begin to see what a bastard Louis truly is. He still seems the civil, reasonable man we started out with; but his words and actions tell a very different story. By the end, much as we enjoyed seeing Louis dispose of the D’Ascoynes, we cannot help but feel that his own ambiguous fate is very much deserved.

Overall, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a very well made movie with a very talented cast. However, one actor stands far above all the others; Alec Guinness. Guinness plays eight very different roles throughout the movie; an arrogant young rake, an old and senile clergyman, an earnest and friendly young photography enthusiast, and a gruff and arrogant baron to name a few. What’s more, he nails each of them perfectly. In fact, it can be hard sometimes to believe that they’re all played by the same man.

Most people today remember Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars, but the truth is he had a very long and distinguished career before he played that role. In fact, by all accounts he really hated that role and refused to acknowledge any mail from Star Wars fans. What’s really impressive is that it seems Guinness regularly played multiple complex roles in a single film. In the original script for Kind Hearts and Coronets he was only supposed to play four characters, but asked if he could do eight instead. The fact that he could do eight different parts as well and convincingly as he did speaks volumes about his talents.

In conclusion, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a wonderful film. Admittedly, on the surface it might seem tame and sedate by today’s standards. If you pay attention, though, you will see that it’s about as twisted and subversive as film as one could come across; it just hides it under a thin veneer of civility. If you’re into subtle, subversive cinema, seek this one out.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Humble Attempt at a Eulogy for Jean Rollin

On Friday the 17th of December, 2010; I learned that one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, passed away two days prior. Presented here is my humble attempt at a suitable eulogy for the great man.

I am very good with words, everybody tells me so. However, I’m not exactly sure how well this eulogy will come out. Truth to tell, I’m still just getting to know Rollin and his work. I first learned about him roughly two years ago. I was searching the internet for oddball movies that I had never seen, and I came across one website. It had a few movies that looked very interesting. As per usual, I missed the name of the director, or even that they were all done by the same man. I finally learned this when I checked the name of the director for one of the movies and then looked him up on Netflix. I found that I had already watched, and enjoyed, nearly all that they had by him. Thus my fascination (if you’ll pardon the pun) began.

I don’t feel I know all that much about Rollin because, due to DVD formatting, there is still much of his work that is unavailable to me. However, what little I have seen has definitely caught my imagination. The most notable thing about him is that he is a true artist with his own unique vision. What’s more, he was a man who was determined to get his vision out to the public, whatever hardships he had to face to do it. Even when he faced bankruptcy, or had to do other projects that he did not wish to do, such as directing hard core pornography, to fund his own visions; Rollin was still dedicated to his work.

One of the things I really like about Rollin’s movies is how un-commercial they are. They are almost nothing like conventional mainstream films. Admittedly, this can make them confusing and somewhat intimidating at first. I tend to think of his films like I would a dream; viewed externally they tend not to make much sense, but taken on their own terms they have their own internal logic. Rollin’s movies show us realms and vistas that we might not actually inhabit, but that we instinctively know exist just out of sight.

Rollin’s films, to borrow a comparison from somebody else, are more akin to poetry than prose. Most, if not all, of them have a sleepy atmosphere about them that gives the impression of either a waking dream or a living nightmare. Sometimes both. He tended to dwell on feelings of loneliness and alienation, but there’s a sense of wonder as well. Whether it’s the need and fragility of human relationships, or the limits of mortality, Rollin employed themes that stay with you after the movie is over. Every Rollin movie I have seen, whether or not I thought it worked, has had the director’s mark very clearly on it. Even if his movie was only a partial success, it was still wonderful for being something so unique.

One thing very noticeable about Rollin’s movies is his focus on women. Females are almost always the protagonists; it is rare that he has male heroes. Admittedly nudity and lesbian scenes are in great supply, but it rarely ever feels truly exploitative. For one thing, the heroines are given definite personality. What’s more, they are usually the strong ones, whoever they might be up against. Even today it’s rare to have movies that center around strong, capable, female protagonists and antagonists. I do think he got a bit carried away with the theme of having his heroines tied up and whipped, but overall I think he handles his female characters with much more respect than most movie makers, past or present.

I cannot begin to fully describe what I get out of Rollin’s movies. Rollin has shown me cinema that is very different from what I was able to imagine before I encountered his work. It is through Rollin I was introduced to such individuals as Joelle Coeur or the Castel Twins; now ranking highly among my fantasy women; or Brigitte Lahaie, who very quickly rose to just below Mary Woronov as my favorite actress. Most of all, he helped me realize that it is still possible to create something truly unique in art. As an artist myself (albeit a different medium), that is a priceless lesson. It is my hope to one day create something that equals a fraction of what he was able to accomplish. Rollin, you will be missed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Re-Animator (1985)

The Movie: Aspiring doctor Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) seems to have it all. He is top of his class at Miskatonic Medical School, and held in high regard by Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson). He’s also engaged to (and, unbeknownst to her father, bedding) the dean’s nubile daughter, Megan (Barbara Crampton). Sure he’s a bit obsessive about his work, and he lets the people in his life dominate him; but he’s a good guy. Unfortunately, all that’s about to come crashing down with the arrival of a new roommate.

Herbert West (the amazing and prolific Jeffrey Combs, in his first starring role) has come back from independent studies in Switzerland. It’s clear from the beginning that West is trouble. When introduced to the respected brain surgeon Doctor Hill (David Gale), the school’s main source of grants and West’s soon to be professor; he immediately initiates a pissing contest with the man, calling him a plagiarist to his face. For us viewers there’s also the movie’s opening scene, which shows the disastrous end to the experiment that prompted West to leave Switzerland.

It turns out that West has been experimenting with dead tissue reanimation; and he has created a serum that will restore life to newly dead organisms. He convinces Dan to help him perfect the serum by demonstrating its effects on Dan’s recently deceased cat. Dan jumps at the opportunity of such a great medical discovery.

Unfortunately, there are a few bugs. As the formerly friendly pet’s return to life as a homicidally psychotic fur ball shows, the subjects lose a lot of their old selves in the reanimation. Also, when Dan tries to inform Dean Halsey of West’s discovery, the dean is convinced that Dan has lost it. Things go from bad to worse when the dean barges in on an experiment in progress and gets killed by the rampaging specimen. His subsequent return to life doesn’t improve matters much, although West is able to convince the police that Halsey has gone insane.

West, it turns out, was right about Doctor Hill’s character. Hill is a plagiarist. He’s also long harbored a barely concealed lust for Megan. With his old “friend” under his care, Hill is able to determine that Dean Halsey is really dead. He attempts to blackmail West out of his serum, but loses his head in the process. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for everyone else, West has his serum on hand.

The decapitated Doctor Hill proves to be Herbert West’s most catastrophic success. Retaining all of his memories and cognitive facilities, but now completely psychotic, Hill overpowers West and steals his serum. Hill has big plans involving that serum, as well as an invention of his own. He also has equally unpleasant plans for Megan Halsey….

The Review:
You’ll never get credit for my discovery, who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a side show!"-Herbert West

This is it ladies and gentlemen; this is the movie that forever spoiled me for mainstream Hollywood fare. Around late junior high, early high school; I became obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft. I read about Re-Animator in a book on horror movies and was fascinated. I talked to a friend of mine who, it turned out, had seen it in his young and impressionable years (explains a whole hell of a lot); and he told me about the infamous “giving head” scene between Gale and Crampton. I had to see it. Fortunately, the local video store had a copy of the unrated version.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. By this point I had seen a few R-rated horror movies, but most of them had been rather tame gore-wise. I had definitely never seen anything like the infamous sexploitation scene mentioned above. Young, impressionable me ended up seeing a film that was wild, twisted, repulsive, bizarre, and very socially unacceptable. Oh gods did I love it.

I have seen many attempts at “horror-comedies,” movies that attempt to be both funny and scary. Unfortunately, they present a very difficult tightrope to walk. You have to do it just right, or otherwise either one of the two elements will overshadow the other, or they will both cancel each other out. Re-Animator is one of the few movies I have seen which manages to nail that balance perfectly. It has a really warped sense of humor throughout it. However, at the same time, it has some truly scary and unpleasant moments that aren’t overshadowed by the humor at all. And then there are a few moments, such as the notorious “giving head” scene, where you’re not sure whether you want to laugh or scream. So you try to do both.

On a technical level Re-Animator is masterfully done. The effects are all too convincing, and used in ways contemporary Hollywood movies probably wouldn’t touch. On the commentary, the cast talks about taking a trip to a morgue to understand what dead bodies look like, and that shows in the movie’s walking corpses. On my last viewing, I took notice of how you could actually see the rigor mortis on Dan and Herbert’s first disastrous experimental subject. That’s a detail you almost never see in most walking dead movies.

This is even more impressive when you consider that Re-Animator was done on a low budget. Most of the extras are apparently crew and family members, and the director even stood (to be pedantic, lay) in for one of the corpses a few times. This was all done on the cheap, and yet all of the settings and the effects are absolutely perfect.

The script is also very well done. The only part of it that doesn’t really jell is Dean Halsey’s reaction to West’s experiments. However, the movie has such momentum, and Sampson pulls the dialogue off so well, that you don’t really notice it until afterwards.

The whole cast is just amazing, but Combs is the one who carries the movie. Jeffry Combs is probably my all-time favorite actor, and he has held that position for quite a while. I have seen him in some of the worst movies and given some of the worst roles; yet so long as he has something, anything, to work with, he always manages to do something engaging with it. Overall I find him a pretty amazing actor.

Re-Animator is Combs’ first starring role; and in my humble opinion it remains his best. He is given all of the best lines in the movie, and he delivers them perfectly. What’s more, Combs takes what could be a two-dimensional caricature and turns him into the very best part of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to deal with Herbert West in person even if he wasn’t reanimating corpses. On screen however, Combs makes him fascinating, engaging, and a lot of fun.

For the most part, Bruce Abbot’s role as Cain is mainly to play straight-man to West. However, the straight-man role is needed, and he pulls it off very well. What’s more, Abbot makes Cain identifiable and sympathetic. As Cain is our point of view character, this is essential for the movie to work.

Crampton’s role pretty much just requires her to do three things; scream, get in trouble and get naked. However, she does all three very well. Also, she actually makes Megan likeable and sympathetic. We the viewers actually care about her, and horror movies really don’t work unless we care about what happens to the protagonists. It’s sad how few directors and studios seem to realize this.

Sampson does a good job as Dean Halsey. In fact, he effectively plays two parts; the living dean and the reanimated corpse. Both of them are effectual, and he even manages to play an effectively mindless corpse while still investing it with a personality. That’s talent.

Finally, Gale is wonderful as the villainous Doctor Hill. For the first half of the movie he comes across as slimy and distinguished, just barely holding his desires in check. In the second half, when Doctor Hill loses his head in both the literal and figurative meanings of the expression, Gale goes into full psychotic mode. He presents us with a repulsive villain who we love to hate. Even more impressive, as a foil for West he actually makes it easy for us to forget what an unpleasant character the latter man is.

In total, Re-Animator is one hell of a ride. It is bizarre and outrĂ©; yet director Stuart Gordon keeps such a tight hold on all of the outrageous elements, and drives them with such energy and momentum that they hold together effectively until the very end. If you have a fairly strong stomach and really really warped sense of humor, Re-Animator is highly recommended. If that doesn’t describe you, I would suggest moving in the opposite direction as fast as possible.