From Black and White

Psychological Cracks and Shadows of Polanski in Darling

Darling. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, John Speredakos, Brian Morvant, & Al-Nisa Petty. Glass Eye Pix/Alexander Groupe.
Unrated. 78 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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Mickey Keating is one of my favourite writer-directors over the past few years in indie horror. While the low budget charm of his pictures now and then needs a little boost, most of his work is incredibly engaging because of his willingness to attach a very human element to the themes in which he traffics. His second feature film, Ritual, is what initially drew me to his body of work. That was a great little flick that worked despite any of its flaws. From there he moved on to even bigger dread with the family drama-cum-alien horror Pod – a tight little indie that draws you in then drags you through its terror, including an excellently accomplished alien design that is both eerie and also impressive considering the film’s budget.
This past year Keating released Darling. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, the film hinges largely on the central performance of Lauren Ashley Carter, whom many fans of independent horror likely remember from Jug Face, a fun, freaky movie in its own right. Using Carter’s talents, the haunting cinematography of Mac Fisken, and his own horrific screenplay, Keating gives us the hypnotic, savage vision of a woman unraveling, the influences of everything from The Shining to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion to Eraserhead shows. But don’t be fooled – any influence on or homage  by Keating is only aesthetic. This is a terrifying psychological horror crafted around Carter’s performance and a screenplay that facilitates a descent into paranoid madness.
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Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) is a young woman living in New York City. She’s all on her own in the wide city landscape of darkened alleys, crowded streets, neon lights. Soon, she becomes the caretaker for a large, old mansion with a long history of supposedly being haunted. Madame (Sean Young) sets her up with the job, introduces her to the house, and then Darling is left all alone, once more. Except now she’s there with the house, its possible ghostly or demonic presence lurking all around her.
And as the time whittles on, Darling discovers the whispers in the halls follow her outside into the world. When she meets a man at a bar, one whom she recognizes from somewhere, the mansion’s influence begins taking hold. What follows is a dive headlong into the darkness of the human heart, what trauma and mental anguish can do to a person, as Darling fears she may be losing her mind.
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Aside from the obvious black-and-white, the aesthetic of Keating’s film is aided by two major, impressive elements: score and editing.
First, the editing is where I’m reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It doesn’t rip off anything, but Darling captures pieces of the same mental deterioration Lynch had examined in his 1977 midnight movie classic. With completely different subject matter, editor Valerie Krulfeifer (whose other work includes previous films of Keating; so obviously they work well together) conjures up reflections of Lynch, while not directly taking anything from him. Whereas thematically this movie matches up closely to what Polanski did with Repulsion, the actual atmosphere, to me, feels closer in kin with Eraserhead. The editing helps keep us on edge. Nothing is ever certain for a minute of the film’s runtime, and that’s in big part due to the style of editing. It doesn’t always go a mile a minute, but sometimes it does and that creates the frenetic feeling of being stuck inside Darling’s noggin.
Added to that is both sound design and score. Not all movies get it right, and certainly there are many indie horrors which focus too closely on blood, gore, or exploitation to pay any attention to the aspects that help make a film become beyond mediocre. Composer Giona Ostinelli steeps almost every last moment of Darling in tension. The suspense is incredible, and Ostinelli makes you jump more than Keating and the cinematography together. Even the ringing of a phone becomes something nerve jangling, something that unnerves and throws us off balance. Again, in this way we’re placed directly in the mind of Darling, whose reality isn’t particularly stable. So we’re constantly offset by the score, as well as the sound design. Ostinelli’s music is the sort that burrows beneath your skin and totally keeps you imagining something horrible behind every coming corner. There’s even some nice electronic work steeped into the mix that rears its head now and then, above the uneasy string arrangements and the ominous little piano keys banging around.
But the cinematography – oh, it is gorgeous. Mac Fisken helps Keating achieve a really gorgeous to look at black-and-white picture. Even better, between them both there’s such a beautiful symmetry to many of the shots, it’s hard not to also be reminded of The Shining and Kubrick’s attention to symmetrical shot setups. Moreover, Fisken keeps Carter’s face so perfectly close at many moments, which is another way her perspective becomes the audience’s own, further drawing us into her world of paranoia and terror. There’s this one scene after certain things have happened when Darling’s world is literally turned upside down (as seen in the picture above), it completely captivated my soul; Fisken has the world flipped, the city is upside down, in the black-and-white with a fog in its distance it is one of my favourite shots in any film of recent memory. So beautiful and haunting all at once.
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The main performance from Carter is wonderful, delightfully devilish. We disintegrate alongside her character, feeling our brain wash away with hers, too. More and more with each passing scene her grip on what is real and what is not slowly loosens. We’re never sure exactly what has happened, or what is about to happen either. But best of all, Carter genuinely makes the character’s experience one of horrific nature. Seeing her go through the motions of her own mental breakdown helped along by the idea of being caretaker in a haunted mansion is a scary process. Like Polanski’s protagonist in Repulsion or that of The Witch Who Came From the Sea, the boundaries of reality stretch for Darling, opening wide, as we’re tasked with figuring out exactly what’s really happening. Of course those two films are very different, with completely other end results than this one, but their female leads are all highly reminiscent of one another, in an appropriate way. In these movies, Darling included, women are pushed to the brink by the men in their world, or simply the male-dominated world they inhabit. In addition, the main character in Keating’s film contends with a very present ghost story, so the supernatural is an element that can’t totally be written off. It’s up to the audience in the end to decide whether Darling went crazy on her own. Nevertheless, each step on the journey towards the film’s haunting and violent conclusion is paved by a strong, daring performance from Carter.
Another worthwhile film out of Keating. Darling is a 4-star horror. It has a quiet and creepy essence, which at times flares up in horrific, violent ways. But Keating and his band of merry friends create a truly hypnotizing picture with a solid screenplay, black-and-white visuals that will stick with you for days, and a score to compliment all the various macabre scenes to which there will feel there is no end in sight. Definitely my favourite of Keating’s movies so far. Can’t wait for Carnage Park and more of his work.

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The Birth of a Horror Fad: The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project. 1999. Directed/Written by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez.
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
Haxan Films.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
Horror

★★★★★
blair_witch_project_ver1I don’t know how people my age look back on The Blair Witch Project now 16 years since it first hit theatres and completely scared the life out of, most, everyone. Personally, as a 14 year old kid when this came out, I remember begging mom and dad to get it for my birthday. Actually it would’ve been on my 14th birthday when I officially saw this film because I believe it was released in the summer of ’99; I turned 14 that October. So honestly, the first I ever saw this the finale especially frightened me to death. I couldn’t go to bed without thinking of someone standing in the corner, facing inward, I was always thinking of that haggard basement, wondering who or what was lurking around its corners. I mean, say what you want but I think this is still one of the best found footage horror movies that has ever come out.
Now, I will concede to some people who say that The Blair Witch Project capitalized on being the first big, mass marketed found footage horror movie. Of course along with that is going to come some part of its fame; whether fame or infamy, time tells. Before this there was the savage horror Cannibal Holocaust – a film so nasty, raw and real in 1980 that  Ruggero Deodato actually had to prove he didn’t kill the actors during its making. That I guess is technically the first found footage. There are others after it and before this one. For instance, 84C MoPic is a little independent fake documentary styled film about a missing during the Vietnam War. Then only a year before Blair Witch, there was The Last Broadcast, which could’ve been one of the top found footage films along with this, however, the climax/end completely ruined everything to come before it; unfortunately so, really disappointed me because I thought it was going to be incredible all around.
So The Blair Witch Project is not necessarily overly innovative in its usage of found footage. That being said, this movie benefited from the way it was filmed in that the actors basically were just given minimal script direction, then sent into the woods to be messed with by the film crew and directors. As well as the fact this film was marketed perfectly. Just as the internet took real life and became an entity of its own, sprouting into a near living, breathing thing – right before Facebook and everything else was poised to come alive too – The Blair Witch Project sucked people in with websites, marketing campaigns, and a realistic feel to the film, all combining to leave a huge impact on us culturally in terms of how horror movies would evolve; from how low budget filmmakers would go on to begin breaking into the business in a new way, to how many horror movies would come to be marketed by production companies for years and years to come.
the-blair-witch-project-376471lThe film follows Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard – three student filmmakers – who during 1994 head into the Black Hills surrounding Burkittsville in Maryland to do a documentary. Their subject is a legend around those parts concerning an entity supposedly named The Blair Witch. Stemming from local stories involving a frightening old woman, as well as a man who committed murder by offing numerous children, Heather and her two companions collect interviews and stories about events that may have involved the witch.
After Heather, Josh, and Michael go missing, their footage is discovered one year later. Once the footage rolls and it is all over, the viewer will be witness to what happened on their fateful trip into the woods. As the three friends walk further and further, it seems they can’t find a way out from the trees, only falling deeper and deeper into unknown territory. First, Josh goes missing when the other two wake and find him gone. Moving on without him, Heather and Michael are scared of what may have happened. Then one night there comes screams from the darkness: it’s Josh. His voice calls out for them, but they can’t figure where it’s coming from. What follows is pure terror.
fullwidth.43a1f2f5 12826bFor me, ultimately, what I find so effectively scary about the film is that it does feel real. To me, anyways. I know it’s not, obviously. Man – if you can’t tell that, especially nowadays in 2015 onwards, then you ought to reevaluate how the hell you’re even watching films.
What’s most real to me are the relationships between Heather, Josh, and Michael. They’re three friends and they have a common bond, they want to go out and make a little documentary; they’re students and they want to do something artistic and fun and interesting and cool. I get that sense from them, as they go on the road, traipse through the woods. Then it’s clearly obvious when things start falling apart they’re friends, because friends always get so vicious and the like when friction like that happens between one another. It all comes full circle anyways, as Heather accepts the blame and gives her video confession. So I thought this was something that helped the film all around. Without a group of people who feel connected and who seem to have relationships – essentially without people who don’t feel REAL – then there’s no way for the suspense and tension of a found footage horror to play out properly.
projet-blair-witch-1999-07-gFrom the first time I ever saw this movie, right to now as I watch it again, the final scene kills me. When Heather and Michael head into the house, even the look of how rundown it is strikes me as creepy. Plus, there are all the handprints of children littered throughout; on the walls, everywhere. It’s definitely chilling. Not to mention you can hear the moans and cries of Josh somewhere within, but just like his two friends we’re lost and stumbling.
Right at the end, though, is where I’m always creeped out to the fullest lengths. We know about the story of the children being put in the corner, avoiding the eyes watching as he kills the other child – now Michael stands in the corner, facing in, as Heather approaches and then she also tips over, the camera falling and the screen going blurry. I’ve always thought that part came off highly unsettling. There’s some quiet and subdued in this part of the scene whereas before things get pretty chaotic. I like the little lull in pace and intensity as Heather and Michael enter the house and look around, just before the last punch of terror. It’s perfect, if you ask me. Quality ending. In fact, I’ve seen some say it was boring up until the final 10-15 minutes. Maybe to some, I just say the tension and suspense got treated correctly and built up in an appropriate way. Nowadays so many found footage horrors try and go for the jump scares when The Blair Witch Project uses virtually none – you might consider the final shot a jump, however, I don’t at all. Simply a jarring end. I like that this movie went for a slowburn approach. In my opinion it worked and continues to work on me today.
the-blair-witch-project-DI-02I’ve got to mention how awesome the production of the film is, in the sense that the actors were sent out into the woods and terrorized at points without really having full knowledge of exactly what was about to happen. I’m sure a ton of films have emulated it before in certain ways, and certainly plenty afterwards in their own right, but The Blair Witch Project is one of the first found footage movies to take that to another level. You can genuinely sense the fear in the actors at certain times as they’re careening through the woods, holding cameras, rattling at high speed while they push out into complete darkness with only the camera’s light to guide them. Honestly, if you can kid yourself into believing a ton of this is not real fear in their voices/faces/reactions, then you’re blind! I’m not saying every last bit is all natural, but you can bet your ass there is a good deal of the emotion in this film that came about honestly and in a genuine manner. That’s a big part of why this is such an enduring horror movie, and why it will always be touted as the forerunner of the found footage movement. Not because it was the very first – it was not at all – but merely because of the lasting impact it has had on audiences and the horror genre, as well as the way in which it was acted and filmed.
bl3From the moment I’d stopped watching this movie for the very first time, after the credits rolled and I was fittingly terrified, I knew this was a 5 star film for me. Tonight, as I watched again and revelled in the perpetual terror of those last 15 minutes or more, I counted this again a perfect horror. Maybe it isn’t for others. Maybe some, or many, have gotten plenty sick of The Blair Witch Project by now at this juncture in the genre’s evolution. My opinion is that this will last the test of time, this is always going to scare me and it’s always going to scare a lot of people.
I wish that I could come back to The Blair Witch Project with fresh eyes for the first time, all over again. This is one movie I’ll never forget where I was when I’d seen it, how I felt, so therefore I can’t deny its personal impact on me. It’d be incredible to experience that sort of thing over again, anew once more. Either way, I still get that same old fright with each and every viewing. Of that, I can never ever complain.

Kevin Smith’s Whacky Creature Feature: Tusk

Tusk. 2014. Directed & Written by Kevin Smith.
Starring Michael Parks, Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, and Johnny Depp. Sony Pictures Releasing Canada.
Rated 14A. 102 minutes.
Comedy/Horror

★★★★

First of all, a lot of people seem to misunderstand Tusk as a film overall. It’s meant, above all else, as a comedy and a drama. Yes, there is horror, and it is a horror film, but the comedy and drama trump everything. Just a little over halfway through the movie, things get divisive because a lot of people think it gets ridiculous, or silly, or whatever.
Me – well, I think differently.tusk-poster

Second, I just love the premise of this movie. Kevin Smith is not particularly one of my favourites, though, I really love Clerks (the first one – I don’t dig the second so much), MallratsDogma, and Red State a lot. His move into a bit of horror while still holding onto the comedy roots he works so well with really is spectacular. Red State was a lot of fun, and I’ve re-watched it a bunch of times since the first; for me, it holds up time after time.

The story of Tusk follows Wallace Bryton (Long), a rising podcast star, who interviews weird and wild people everywhere; he travels to different locations, interviews different characters, and then retells his experiences for Teddy Craft (Osment) who never travels. There emerges a side story involving Wallace’s girlfriend Ally; the two share a bit of a rocky relationship, as we see both Wallace’s infidelity, as well as Ally’s eventual, secret at first, indiscretions, too. Wallace goes up to Canada to interview the Kill Bill Kid – a young man who chopped off his own leg with a sword accidentally – but once he arrives in Winnipeg, he discovers the kid has taken his own life, and the story is quite literally now dead.
Unfairly pissed, Wallace heads to a bar before moving on home. In the bathroom he discovers a wanted ad: an old man, once an adventurer at sea, has a room for rent, and stories to tell. Out in the woods of Manitoba, Wallace finds Howard Howe in a beautiful, sprawling estate type home. Howe seems just a little eccentric at first telling stories of being at sea, meeting Ernest Hemingway (even claiming one of old Ernie’s most famous quotes about drinking was first quoted to him personally), however, soon enough it’s really damn clear the old man doesn’t just want company. He misses an old friend, and Howe is determined to bring him back by any means necessary.
TUSKOnce Wallace goes missing, Ally and Teddy wake up to a frantic voicemail he left them both; he claims Howe has kidnapped him, and wants to turn him into a walrus. Worried, they seek out the police, who are of course sceptical (I spell it that way ’cause I’m Canadian, eh). They then meet a man named Guy Lapointe (played hilariously by Johnny Depp). He has been hunting a serial killer across Canada, and it turns out this is most likely Howe. They join together hoping to track down and save Wallace.

A lot of people have trouble with the way Tusk shifts gears between horror to drama to comedy, and back, and forth. I don’t necessarily see the problem. If either of these genres were being inappropriately served up, then I would understand, but to my mind it’s all carried out pretty well. The horror works. Some may say the “transformation” is silly. I understand. I mean, the comedy of Long’s “transformation” is not lost on Smith – he knows it looks a bit funny. Aside from the initial laugh it might get, the “transformation” (I say that because I don’t want to outright describe anything and give it away) is pretty fucking disturbing. Especially when you couple Long’s appearance with the shrieking and moaning he does after being transformed. After awhile it really gets grating on the nerves. Not in an annoying sense. It grates on them hard and makes me uncomfortable. Watching Parks’ character rant at Long, transformed into a hideous thing, feeding him, making him eat; it’s awful. But awful in the best sort of way.

The bits of drama worked into the storyline served things well. Once you get to the end and look back at the drama Smith infused into the screenplay, they really add to one another. The ending (I won’t give it away) sort of makes you look at how both Ally and Teddy feel about Wallace, deep down, regardless of everything which came before. Some might see the ending as foolish, or whatever – I don’t see it that way. There’s a real sentimental angle at work that serves the dramatic storyline well. It isn’t just an attempt for a goofy/happy ending to a horror-comedy. It’s how Smith closes out the emotional angle he’d been playing at with the Wallace/Ally/Teddy story. I thought it was probably the best way for Tusk to end. In a way, it’s sentimental, yet still a bit horrifying.
Kevin_Smith_s_Tusk_could_be_the_scariest_horror_of_2014__Or_the_funniest__Or_bothThe comedy really works. I’m Canadian, and I thought a lot of the Canada jokes were hilarious. The ‘aboot’ thing is a bit overworked in film/television generally, but other than that it’s really funny. I thought the ‘double double’ joke was pretty funny because I’ve heard lots of people actually say things like that. Some might misinterpret the joke as Smith not understanding what a ‘double double’ actually is, but it’s the opposite – he knows, and he’s making fun of Tim Hortons lovers. At least that’s how I see it.

Also, near the opening Long’s character goes through the airport, and one of the Canadian guys working there is just so ridiculously funny it makes me tear up – plus, his beard is gnarly as all hell.

The performances in Tusk are what really make things chug along wonderfully. Of course people will talk about Parks because he did a great job, as he did in the previous outing with Smith on Red State. And he was fascinating. Really creepy, especially in the early dinner table scenes opposite Long. Some very ominous stuff.
Even Just Long, who I’m admittedly not huge on really, does a good job with the material. He is a perfect fit for Wallace, and was pretty funny at times, especially in his banter with Parks, as well as with the two young girls at the Canadian convenience store (played by the daughter duo of Depp and Smith’s girls). There are a few really creepy points where Long does a fantastic job after his “transformation”; his vocalizations are really god damn scary at times, to me, and I watch a lot of horror. He could have simply wailed, but you could really feel some of Wallace’s fear by the way Long screamed and pleaded for help.
227Mainly, though, I really want to talk about Mr. Depp. A lot of people like to say he isn’t actually a great actor, he only takes a role depending on the hat he gets to wear, he sold out, blah, blah, blah. I think that is a load of bullshit. Depp is not only an extremely talented actor, he absolutely blows the screen to bits in Tusk. First off, his portrayal of a French Canadian Quebec accent (for those who don’t know, yes, there are other French people in Canada aside from the people of Quebec..) is so awesome. Even just his speech patterns, let alone the accent, are perfect. Loved it. A lot of times we see Depp in roles where he’s got a sexy sort of edge to him; even his dirty, fiendish Jack Sparrow was meant to have a kind of sex appeal to him. Here, Lapointe is just a really awesome dirtbag. He’s lovable, but good lord is he strange and sort of gross.

One of my favourite parts of the whole movie is when Lapointe mashes down a slider, nearly flat against a table, reminiscing on the only downfall of the great people of Quebec, and then eats it up (special note: wait until after the credits before you leave the theatre or turn off the film – there is a fun little post-credit scene with Lapointe recalling his love of the slider). Plus, there are plenty of other little bits where Depp absolutely sucks the marrow out of every bit of the Lapointe character. Anyone who says he “ruined the movie” or some such nonsense is a hater. Depp is hilarious here. For a second, I almost didn’t recognize him. Once he speaks, of course you’ll know. Before that, though, the prosthetics and the facial hair and the accent almost conceal him. I loved every second of his performance.
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I really have to give Tusk a 4 out of 5 stars. It isn’t a perfect film. There are points where things sort of drag a little. I don’t know if the switch between genres had anything to do with pacing – I really liked the genre mashup here – but it’s possible that maybe a little less of a stark contrast between the genres in Tusk might appease more fans. Regardless, this film really hits the right notes. As I said, Smith finds a way to loop all those dramatic elements back together into something tangible while still hanging onto all the comedy and horror of Tusk. Not to mention Smith shot the film gorgeously. His eye for shot composition has only gotten better with time, film after film.
People will say it’s too funny to be all out horror. I say bullshit. People say the “transformation” is too silly to take seriously – I say, you’re watching a movie about a man wanting to turn another man into a fucking walrus, stop acting like it’s an Ingmar Bergman film. Sit back, enjoy Tusk for what it is – a horror comedy with dramatic elements and a few really awesome, creepy, and fun performances to boot. I really can’t wait for this to finally get out on Blu ray because I will most certainly be picking it up. Smith continues to impress me with his horror efforts on this second outing after his initial dip into the genre with Red State. I like the way he approaches horror. Looking forward to some more.

Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock & the Birth of the Slasher

Psycho. 1960. Dir.  Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Joseph Stefano; based on the novel by Robert Bloch.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and John McIntire. Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Rated PG. 109 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)

For my review of the sequel, Psycho II, click here.
For my review of the third installment in the franchise, Psycho III, click here.

For those who don’t know, Psycho tells the tale of Marion Crane who decides to take off on a whim with $40,000 trusted to her by her boss. While tired on the road, Maron stops off at the Bates Motel to get a room for the night. There, she meets a young man named Norman Bates; he lives up on the hill in the big house next to the motel. Norman seems fine, albeit a bit quirky, so Marion even has a low key supper with him at the motel.
However, Norman isn’t quite fine. See, Norman lives with his mother, just the two of them, and their relationship is, well – a bit odd to say the least. Once Marion goes missing, her sister, lover, and the police start sniffing around, and Norman starts to see a little more traffic at the Bates Motel – much to his dismay.

4714189672_84517b7ab2_o1-450x876This was my first introduction to Alfred Hitchcock. It’s funny – the movie is rated PG, directed by one of the most famous (arguably the most famous) filmmakers of all-time, contains definitely the most famous murder scene ever filmed if not the most famous scene period, and it’s classified as a horror.
In fact, a lot of people would say Psycho is the most influential horror film of all time, giving rise to the modern slasher in some respects (you can’t totally give this film all the credit because other films like Peeping Tom, and much later John Carpenter’s Halloween, really were a large part of that as well).

I just find it amazing how Hitchcock was able to put such a disturbing story on film, including the infamous shower scene (though the scene itself really isn’t graphic especially in terms of modern audiences and how desensitized we all are from not only film but the barrage of insane videos we now see on everything from CNN to YouTube), and yet still keep the rating PG. Of course, the ratings system has changed a little between now and then. It’s still rather amazing.
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The story of Psycho itself is incredible. I continually find it exciting even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, I know how things will play out, and yet viewing after viewing it holds up. I still feel a rush of panic for Norman (even though I clearly shouldn’t – a testament to both Bloch’s novel and Hitchcock’s filmmaking) as he tries to clean up Marion Crane’s room after Mother has had her fun. Just the way Perkins rushes around and frantically tries to cover things up. Just thinking about the time it was written, the time it was set, I love to imagine what it must’ve been like for serial killers pre-media frenzy surrounding people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, et cetera. Poor Norman was ahead of his time. He didn’t know how these things were supposed to go. Watching him try to navigate the rough terrain of being a killer while still obviously being a fragile boy, almost a man-child, is really good stuff. It’s a disturbing tale, but Norman really does elicit both fear in us, as well as some form of pity; even on the most base of levels. And just the way in which Marion and Norman end up meeting, a real chance moment in time, is brilliant. The first time I saw the film, I was really surprised at how their two storylines converged, and suddenly it all became about Norman. Wonderful storytelling. No wonder Hitchcock was drawn to Bloch’s novel. Stefano really took the novel and turned into something his own, which Hitchcock in turn worked very well with; their picture of Norman Bates, as opposed to Bloch’s, turned the character into a much more sympathetic type person, and this really worked for the film’s plot quite well.

The entire film is one of those truly beautiful collaborative efforts. Everything here comes together to make a perfect movie. The cinematography, the sound, the script – I love it. Hitchcock weaved an intricate film here out of what could’ve been a simple effort from another lesser filmmaker.
For instance, on the Blu ray release from Universal there is a feature which looks at the infamous shower scene how it is presented in the finished film, and also a look at the scene without its music. Right there, it is so perfectly evident Psycho could not have been what it was if it hadn’t used all of its elements together to create the fear, shock, and tension. While the shower scene is still very disturbing without the score over top, there’s something extra that comes along with the score. In the quiet, you can hear Janet Leigh breathing, you hear the water falling from the shower head, all of it. With the score, you watch everything happen while the orchestral score behind the scene pounds out, creepy and loud, reinforcing all the stabs, the gasps, everything. Works so god damn well it’s fiendish.
4021As a film, Psycho is a perfect, flawless work of art. It isn’t hype. This is not a film you hear about all the time, being raved about and drooled over, just because it’s by Alfred Hitchcock, or just because it is considered classic. This is a magnificent piece of work, all around. There is no hype – what you see is what you get. Hitchcock was a master, no doubt. This film, while influential and all that, is just a cracking good piece of movie history. Full stop.

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One of the most famous dissolve shots in the history of film

The Blu ray release from Universal Studios Home Entertainment is one of the better titles sitting on my shelf. It is packed to the brim with extras. Though I don’t care for the Truffaut interview (I think his films are wonderful but his opinions are often divisive in a negative way and, in my humble opinion, sort of bullshit at least when it comes to the original novel Psycho by Bloch), the rest of the features here are just so sweet.
There are the typical Making Of featurettes, however, the major one here goes through everything from the story, how it was adapted and found, et cetera, to pre-production, production, and post – the whole nine yards; it’s a 90-minutes documentary that is totally worth the time to watch. There’s a nice feature about the sound of the film, including how they restored everything for the Blu ray. My favourite, though, is the Shower Scene breakdown I mentioned before – you get to see the scene back-to-back in its finished form with the scene having the score taken out, as well as great little storyboards by Saul Bass. These are absolutely brilliant pieces of extras to include. Fascinating stuff. The commentary is done by Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’.
All in all, this release deserves every single bit of 5 out of 5 stars. There’s no way it deserves any less; it needs more. There are enough features here to keep you long busy after purchasing Psycho. On top of that, the transfer is pristine, and you’ll marvel at how beautiful it looks in glorious black and white.

I recommend every fan of this movie, every Hitchcock fan, go get this Blu ray now, sit down, and love every last single solitary, picturesque moment of it. There is nothing like this film, even today, even when so many other great films are made. Psycho itself is a classic, and always will be. It deserves to be remembered until the end of human existence – it’s one of those films.

Read my review for the second sequel to the original, the underrated Psycho III.

Seconds: The Future of Identity

Seconds. 1966. Dir. John Frankenheimer. Screenplay by Lewis John Carlino; based on the novel by David Ely.
Starring Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, and John Randolph.
Cinematography by James Wong Howe. Edited by Ferris Webster.
Paramount Pictures.
Rated R. 106 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Mystery

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Criterion Blu ray release)

John Frankenheimer has directed a few incredible films, which includes Birdman of AlcatrazThe Manchurian CandidateThe Iceman ComethBlack Sunday, Ronin, and the fabulous sequel to the amazing French Connection. Despite those fantastic offerings, I believe Seconds is his best. It is a horrific vision of the future brought forward by an excellent central performance thanks to Rock Hudson, and a tight script by Lewis John Carlino adapted from David Ely’s original novel. Frankenheimer does a bang up job directing this film with some great help.
tumblr_mks6exfBm61qzr8nao1_500Seconds tells the tale of Arthur Hamilton who has lost interest in life. He has everything, seemingly, and isn’t happy. He comes across The Company. They specialize in giving those wealthy enough to afford it a type of transplant: they effectively transform a person into someone else, transplanting them into a new life. Eventually, Hamilton wakes up after a long debacle as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). From here, things get especially strange. His adapting to the new life is strange. Eventually at a party he has too much to drink, and starts rambling about the man ‘he used to be’. Things start to spiral out of his control.
He wants out of this new life, this second chance.

secondsI think the story itself is scary enough on the surface. There are so many different sci-fi horrors I can think of straight off; so many things could go wrong. It’s like how people think of being invisible as a great thing, making you capable of so much, but they forget that the capabilities can also be horrible instead of positive. In fact, the final seven minutes of Seconds gives us one of the more unsettling endings possible for such a story. As Hudson is being brought to his reassignment, after not being able to adjust to the new life he was given, we suddenly realize all the cruel implications of such a service. I think the last few minutes of the film are some of the more creepy and terrifying moments I’ve ever seen, in any film. It doesn’t need any outright horror, no blood or violence. All this finale needed was the talents of Hudson and the incredibly bleak, and wonderful, writing of its script.

seconds_cOne of the most notable things about Seconds is the cinematography. Right from the very opening scene we become aware this is a distorted view of reality. It is in our faces. The camera shows strange angles. Shots are edited at a fast pace. It’s evident from the start this film is anything but typical. There is no wonder James Wong Howe got an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography (Black & White) because for a film made during the 1960s the camerawork is astonishing, and refreshingly original. While a lot of filmmakers were going the way of Kubrick [not saying this is a bad thing – I love Kubrick’s films, as do many – this is simply his school of film thought, in my opinion], that is to say many of them were focusing on framing scenes symmetrically and the like, Frankheimer and Howe chose a unique way to present the film. It helps the themes found in Seconds. The odd angles come at perfect times.

For instance, at a party when Hudson’s character has too much to drink, he starts spouting off about his former life. Unfortunately for Hudson, others who’ve undergone the same procedure as him are there, and they are watching him, keeping an eye on things, as they say. A bunch of men try to silence him. They drag him away, pin him down, and tell him what’s what. This scene could have been filmed in a very traditional fashion. Instead, we get fish-eye type views of the men, all gathering around, holding Hudson down. The camera makes it all frantic. You feel as drunk as the character, you feel as isolated and held down, both figuratively and literally. All in all, the camerawork really lends itself to the atmosphere and mood of Seconds, and the feelings it produces of being an outsider, or better an alien in someone else’s skin, in their life.
Seconds-2As a film, Seconds is absolutely a 5 star classic of a film. No doubt in my mind. There is not one thing wrong with this movie, and this is a reason why Criterion has chosen to preserve it. This film provides a masterclass in several areas of film: directing, writing, cinematography, acting. The whole masterpiece is a testament to collaborative effort. Without the work James Wong Howe did, for instance, there would be a hole left in the film. Likewise, the adaptation of Ely’s novel by Carlino is a solid work of writing. Without it the film wouldn’t have moved and flowed the way it does. Everything here is here for a reason. The whole machine works flawlessly. The story is absolutely incredible. I would rank this up there with any other psychological horror. This can also be seen as a real sci-fi horror, but it works so well as a psychological & dramatic horror I can’t help referring to it that way. Not to mention the fact Hudson is in this film; his own identity feels tied up in the role he plays, very much, and I think that adds a whole other level to Seconds.
F3.largeThe Blu ray Criterion release for Frankenheimer’s masterpiece serves the film quite well. There are a few wonderful interviews including Frankenheimer’s widow, Evans Frankenheimer, Salome Jens, and a great new interview with Alec Baldwin who knew Frankenheimer well. Of course there is also a visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance, and in the case itself Criterion provides a booklet which features an essay on the film by David Sterritt. Most Criterion releases are amazing. This is no exception to that rule.
The release certainly gets a 5 out of 5 rating. They could not have improved on the film technically any more. The picture is absolutely incredible. Black and white can sometimes transfer over to look choppy, but the transfer here is pristine; the picture comes across beautiful, each and every image stays striking and noticeable. I cannot complain whatsoever.
Particularly I have to mention the camerawork and how evidently gorgeous it looks on this release. Frankenheimer’s wife actually discusses a few of the more brilliant moments. Howe uses really sharp focus in a few points that really blows me away. Also, she references the scene with the diamond-shaped hallway, the strange look of it all, the dreamy & nightmarish qualities within. All of these bits come out in beautiful picture. The look of the film is just a revelation here. That alone is worth the price of this Criterion title.

See this film.  Seconds is a marvelous masterpiece.  I rave about it.  There are too many moments to discuss in writing.  I could sit with a group of people and talk about this one for hours.  Maybe even days.  Not only the look of the film, the camerawork, and all of it, but the story and all its implications.  See this immediately, and get the Criterion Blu ray – you will not regret it.