Adam Wingard's DEATH NOTE adaptation has some people up in arms.
And it should. 'Cause it's fucking awesome.
Adam Wingard's DEATH NOTE adaptation has some people up in arms.
Adam Wingard's DEATH NOTE adaptation has some people up in arms.
And it should. 'Cause it's fucking awesome.
The Godfather. 1972. Directed & Written by Francis Ford Coppola; based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name.
Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, & Rudy Bond. Paramount Pictures/Alfran Productions.
Rated 14A. 175 minutes.
The Godfather is one of the rare films I believe is better than its source material. I read Mario Puzo’s novel a long time ago when I was about eleven or twelve years old, one weekend as I was in the woods hunting and fishing with my grandfather and uncles. It captivated me every waking moment when I wasn’t busy hauling gear or casting a line. The violence and sexuality and the raw language of Puzo struck me. Something I never forgot, as a reader and as a young man who eventually went on to become a published author himself. Part of reading that novel always stayed in my mind. Then when I’d finally seen the movie adaptation not long after it made me understand there was a way for film to improve upon its origins. Francis Ford Coppola and his ambition made this into a worthwhile project. As is evident, he’s a director that never backs down. Many of his choices throughout the production weren’t exactly what the studio and producers imagined, everything from the dark, shady look of the cinematography to the casting of Al Pacino. Luckily, Coppola’s iron will seems to eternally capable of winning out, and we’re left with his choices. Undeniably the best ones possible. Not every last classic of American cinema is as classic as the critics and audiences who love it want us to believe. That being said, certain classics are considered exactly that for a reason.
The Godfather nails every last bit what it aims to do. There’s not a single moment of bad acting, nor is there ever a misstep in the way its shot. If this were made like every other picture at the time, the end product wouldn’t be near as fascinating. Rather for a movie that’s considered classic, as if to signify it’s part of a type or a set of movies from that era that are alike in some way, this one is very much different from other films from the 1970s. Coppola dared to take on a dangerous story, one that accentuated the underworld of Italian-American crime while taking a legitimate look at the real people caught up in its Black Hand. Further than that he didn’t settle for making a blockbuster that appealed to the specific demographics Paramount Pictures had in mind. He came out with something more visually beautiful and intricate than an average Hollywood picture. This let the whole film industry and its varied audiences know that even the major studio productions can keep their artistic heart without being an independent project. Forever, I’ll consider Coppola – for this and Apocalypse Now particularly – a reason for why directors can still be artists within a studio system.
Let’s talk about oranges! We’ve all heard about this one, so take a deeper look.
First scene is between Tom Hagen and Jack Woltz, a bowl of them sits at the table. This is the first sinister event where the oranges give us a foreboding look at what may soon come. Of course, we know what ends up in Woltz’s bed not too long after. A gruesome scene. This sets up the whole element of oranges signifying something bad about to happen, which extends through the film, as well as its sequels. One of those nice little pieces of symbolism that makes this movie feel more akin to great literature than great movies, though it’s clearly one of the latter above anything else.
Second scene comes just prior to Don Corleone being gunned down in the street. He goes to buy some fruit, oranges to start, and this ominously lets us know there’s about to be a tragedy.
I love that Coppola decided to use this little system because it gives the whole thing greater depth, along with the good writing in general and the nicely fleshed out characters. In every way, the director makes sure this becomes more than a big studio picture with dollars in its eyes. Best part is that the orange symbolism goes on throughout the trilogy, not only a part of this first film.
The cinematography from director of photography Gordon Willis is all around fantastic. As is the editing. These aspects collide in such a perfectly classical way. Francis Ford Coppola exerts such great, effective control as director, which is in part due to him taking on the screenwriting duties, as well. The look of the scene where Don Corleone is gunned down has to be one of the best in the entire trilogy. Without a doubt. The darkness almost seems to encroach the sky, as the deadly scene commences. Then the overhead shot of Vito being shot, falling on the car, the guns going off, it’s so effortlessly gorgeous and well blocked that you know how everything is laid out came about meticulously. Some shots can appear accidentally. This is not that type, whatsoever. One example of the eye Coppola has for framing. That’s a reason why the overall film is so damn good. Every bit of the darkened camera work, the shadowy lighting, all those thoughtfully considered shots and the precise blocking, it all makes this better than any average big budget adaptation of a novel. The directorial choices out of Coppola are impeccable. Not every director can block well enough to make it evident. A guy like Coppola does so to a point of feeling like a theatre director, making his shots stand out at all angles.
So much acting talent to take in. Even during the most seemingly insignificant moments and scenes this whole cast makes everything interesting, at times powerful. Partly Coppola, through the original writing of Puzo, is able to convey gangsters in a more three-dimensional view than they’d ever been seen before onscreen. Gangsters have been around the Hollywood stories since as early as films were being made. Yet this movie takes us further into the psychology of these men. You don’t always agree with the way these characters act, nor that they’re so involved in such dastardly criminal activity on many levels. Although you will find yourself a little more informed, at least in the way they do things. The characters themselves and the performances take us into the human beings behind the business. Again, these actors won’t make you necessarily empathise, but they will always, always keep you hooked to the story and the intensity of the plots.
Above anything else, The Godfather is entertaining. The characters and the plot, every inch of the story rivets the audience. Marlon Brando is at the pinnacle of his career, no matter what other great, epic roles he’s taken. Likewise, James Caan and Al Pacino are both fantastic in their respective roles as the Corleone brothers; distinct personalities, each part of the same crime family and subject to its effects, so while they feel real different they are also just like real brothers. Add to these lead actors guys like Abe Vigoda, Richard S. Castellano and others only round out the cast making the story rumble right off the page. Oh, and Robert Duvall can never be forgotten. He crafts Tom Hagen into just as classic a character as the rest, often overlooked simply because of the other star power bursting through the screen.
If you don’t dig this movie, that’s fine. You cannot, however, claim this is not a classic. And not a perfect one. There are so many amazing aspects to The Godfather, from the powerful acting to Coppola’s adaptation of Puzo to the downright saliva-worthy cinematography. Each time I watch it, and until this writing it’d been a good seven or eight years, there’s a new love I find somewhere between those luscious, dark frames, all the brooding Pacino looks and the well delivered dialogue. This is one movie that will never fade in its awesomeness. Until the end of time it’ll remain one of the greatest in cinematic history.
Secret Window. 2004. Directed & Written by David Koepp; based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King from the collection Four Past Midnight.
Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou, Joan Heney, John Dunn-Hill, Vlasta Vrana, Matt Holland, Gillian Ferrabee, Bronwen Mantel, & Elizabeth Marleau. Grand Slam Productions/Columbia Pictures Corporation/Mel’s Cite du Cinema.
Rated 14A. 96 minutes.
While I do love Stephen King’s full length novels, some of his deeper, more penetrating work is found in the novels and short stories with which he fills the rest of his time aside from writing epic, sprawling books. I’ve read almost everything King has done, except for a few books here or there. As far as the short story and novella collections, I’ve run the gamut. So many great tales, such compelling writing. The collection from which Secret Garden is adapted, Four Past Midnight, also contains The Langoliers, which has also seen a tv movie treatment. It further has two more novellas, though neither of those has been adapted on film or for television.
The novella Secret Window, Secret Garden tells the story of Mort Rainey (played here by Johnny Depp), a novelist who one day is visited by a man named John Shooter (the ever wonderful John Turturro) accusing him of having plagiarised a story of his own. Mix in a failed marriage, an ex-wife (Maria Bello) that cheated on him that’s currently in a relationship with the same man, Ted (Timothy Hutton), and there’s plenty of psychological tension, as well as real life horror. Although there are a few portions of the movie that could have been tighter, some dialogue that doesn’t work properly or well as it should, Secret Window improves on a couple aspects of the novella, mainly the ending; I do like the source, but this adaptation makes things more sinister, more eerie. Not everything works. What does work is the gradual sense of reality slipping away, as the script leans deep into the perspective of Mort and Depp is able to carry that with a top notch performance. Even if there wasn’t enough to ultimately feel as scary as it ought to, writer-director David Koepp does well by coming to a different conclusion than the original story and at least pulls the tension tight for most of the runtime. Far as King adaptations go this is absolutely better than most.Something I love about both the writing of Mort’s character and the performance by Depp is that the feeling of being a writer comes across effortlessly. As someone whose days have been filled before by naps, the lure of that comfy couch, food, cigarettes (and before I went sober, booze and so on), Mort feels impossibly real. Of course that comes from King as an author himself, putting what he knows into the character. He knows exactly what it’s like. More than that, Depp ingrains a sense of that writer’s life in the performance. This could actually come off easily as a standard character, and in a way he is, but Depp allows for more than that and brings his talent to the table in spades. Just how he sulks, heading back to the couch for comfort, picking away at his food, and even laying on the floor with his dog, all in lieu of actually being productive and doing some writing.
Overall, the cinematography is solid, courtesy of Fred Murphy (Auto Focus, The Mothman Prophecies, Stir of Echoes & more). The look of the film has a rich look, and at the same time the colours are muted; not too bright, yet not muddled either. It goes well with the mood of the story. On top of that, Murphy captures certain shots interestingly, and Koepp makes nice choices as director to keep the visual aspect of the movie exciting. At times, you could almost see this falling into a melodramatic tv-styled production. What saves it is the production value itself. In addition to the nice look, the score is phenomenal. There are foreboding scenes filled with tension, suspense enough to choke you, and a large part of this is due to the music from Philip Glass and Geoff Zanelli. On one hand, Zanelli is more of a blockbuster type composer, some nice titles under his belt. On the other hand, Glass has done some large scale stuff, but his strengths lie in the smaller, more heart-filled stories, working on everything from the recent Leviathan to Errol Morris’ groundbreaking (and life changing) The Thin Blue Line. Somewhere between the two men their talent converges to become a pulsating wall of sound. Many moments are the typical mystery-thriller sounding pieces. At other times Glass and his sensibilities ring through, an ambient and soft glow of music hovering around the scene, and then there are those unexpected bursts of sonic goodness which are expected of the unusual, talented composer.
A lot of people, that don’t read his books enough, usually peg King as a horror writer. As if he does nothing else. Secret Window doesn’t contain much horror, other than the psychological sort and a slice of existential dread. Most of what becomes scary in this story concerns watching poor Mort try and distinguish what is reality, and what is fiction. There’s a large focus on the theme of fiction blurring into reality, which ultimately plays into the very end of the plot. Before that we already see how the story Shooter confronts Mort about parallels the life of the author, his failed marriage and subsequent divorce, the paranoia and suspicion, et cetera. Best of all is that psychological deterioration of Mort into which Koepp allows the viewer to fall. His talents for character and plot are what makes him capable of actually adapting King, a task not many who take on one of his stories are capable of achieving. He doesn’t write it all perfectly, some of the comedic elements come off too cheesy even for King. But the mystery and the thriller elements of the screenplay are well done. You may predict how some things play out before the end. Regardless, getting there is mostly a treat.
This is a better novella than it is a film. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, and it’s definitely worthy of 3&1/2 stars. There’s something missing, which I can’t exactly put my finger on. I really dig King’s writing. Again, that novella is a solid read I’ve gone through a couple times. And I even enjoy the adapted end Koepp comes up with better, as I mentioned. So why is it that Secret Window comes up short? Depp’s performance can’t hold up everything. The look and feel of the movie is good, the score comes off fantastic. Yet other than a sequence nearing the end when Mort figures everything out, there isn’t any overtly innovative filmmaking at play, nothing other than a bit of interesting camera work to compliment the storytelling. No matter how good some of the shots are and despite the atmosphere, the nice colouring all around, Secret Window is mostly just the Depp show. Were there more interesting, bold choices by Koepp, aside from the changed ending, this could be great. The directing isn’t bad, at all. King and his storytelling simply deserve more than run of the mill thrills. I can say all this, and still I own the DVD, I pop it on once every so often. It isn’t bad. Just could be much more.
The Dark Half. 1993. Directed & Written by George A. Romero; based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Kent Broadhurst, Beth Grant, Rutanya Alda, Tom Mardirosian, Larry John Meyers, Patrick Brannan, Royal Dano, Glenn Colerider, Sarah Parker, & Elizabeth Parker. Orion Pictures.
Rated R. 122 minutes.
I’ve long said that George A. Romero and Stephen King go together like coffee and pie. Is that a thing, is that what people say? Well, I like coffee and pie. A nice treat. Just like I dig some Romero and King. They’re sweet together, as sweet as horror can get. You fans know what I’m talking about. Usually people associate Romero with the zombie sub-genre, and rightfully so: he single-handedly reimagined the zombie in modern terms giving birth to a trend that’s still going on today, which will undoubtedly continue until the end of time. Yet Romero made some really good work outside of the zombie structure. Long before 1993, too. But The Dark Half is one of those King-Romero collaborations that isn’t only interesting on paper. The whole film is a dark, gorgeous joy. Previously the two powerhouses of scary shit did well working on 1982’s Creepshow. Most will say that’s their best work together. I love that one, have it on the shelf alongside this and other Romero, as well as other King. I have to say, this one is my personal favourite of the two movies. Most of all because the book is so good, and for better or worse this adaptation nails most of the important aspects right on the head. The visual style is quite what we come to expect from the master of horror in Romero. King’s story matches the darkness of the director in his story examining duality, the lure of addiction in the sense of it creating an entirely other identity in one person, a quasi-monster movie about a man’s evil side literally appearing out of thin air. This is on the top of my lists for favourite King adaptations. There’s a lot to enjoy, even if it isn’t perfect. In the second half of the film things get riveting. Romero always goes for the jugular, this is no different.
Love the idea of duality. We’ve seen it many times before in literature, most famously in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. What’s most interesting about the King novel and this adaptation is how we look at the dual identities of George Stark v. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton v. Timothy Hutton). This is a parallel of several things. Of course on the surface there’s the idea of literally mirroring King and his own pseudonym, Richard Bachman. This whole film can act as a metaphor about how King and his feelings of the success involved with Bachman’s writing, in that it became this whole other entity that needed to be dealt with, and King’s wild imagination concocts this whole story. On a deeper level there’s the fact King wrote The Dark Half right before going sober. His own feelings of the drugs and the booze taking over, the addiction becoming an entire entity all of its own, his need to rein in control as himself and be a sober man going forward, these are the biggest drive for the ultimate differences between Thad and George.
The whole visual difference between Hutton as Thad and George is awesome. When I read the book I really got such a feeling of uncanny terror when imagining the two versions of this one man. Particularly later on when things get very intense, the practical makeup effects used make the divide between Stark and Beaumont bigger. Added to all that there’s Hutton. Now apparently he was a horror to work with, even quitting the production at one point. Can’t say he doesn’t play the part to near perfection. He has the feeling of a writer torn in two from the start, not sure whether to keep riding on the success of a part of his identity which clearly causes trouble in his real day-to-day life. Then as we get further into the plot Hutton’s able to seamlessly transition from just a writer in distress to a man having one devastating existential crisis.
Something I’m very interested in personally is the Eastern belief in the concept of tulpa. Essentially, this is the concept that the mind is so powerful that it can will something into existence through pure thought. Further than that there’s often the idea that collectively, enough people might be able to will something into existence due to the amount of people expending mental energy on conjuring it up. Such is the case today with phenomenons like Slender Man and others. Certain occult thinkers might suggest these entities can become real, of flesh and blood, if enough people believe in them and will it so. In a way, George Stark is such a tulpa. Thad has not only thought him up, he’s effectively become a real person in that Beaumont hands his work over to the pseudonym, making him a part of the world. Then there’s the fact Thad had a malformed twin in his skull as a boy, this plays into more ideas about duality and further almost twists this into a monster movie – horrific images in the mind conjured up concerning a leftover bit of brain, bits of human matter not fully formed, waking up and growing into a whole man, wreaking havoc on a town in Maine. King, adapted well by Romero, takes a wild look at what happens if a murderous, hateful, vengeance seeking guy like Stark were to be willed into existence. There’s an equal part of camp much as there’s depth to the story. It’s all great, though there is quite a good helping of a sort of 1950s-style. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mostly it comes in the form of Stark who is appropriately a sort of typical 50s gangster with a razor blade, a slick-haired, leather jacket wearing, kinda Elvis copy. He’s no West Side Story sort, he’s much more dangerous than that. Along with his creepiness comes an awesomely throwback sense of camp that adds a dark humour to many of the kill scenes. All in all, the way King’s story and characters bring out the idea of the tulpa is lots of fun. Romero does his best to make that work and does a bang up job.
I can forgive a movie’s mistakes if most everything is compelling enough. King wrote a great novel, one to which I found myself glued until the last page turned and that back cover slapped shut. The Dark Half is in good hands with Romero. His directorial choices match his capabilities as a writer, each side complimenting the other. More than that I think he does well with adapting King. Not everyone can fit a novel of his into one screenplay properly, though I’m inclined to feel as if Romero does just that. Rather than make this into a half-assed attempt at jamming every little idea King had in the novel into the script, Romero opts to choose the best material, condense it, then make sure the lead character and his story gets brought out powerfully. The adapted screenplay works, and Timothy Hutton sells the Thad Beaumont character, in turn doing a fantastic job with George Stark in a highly opposing role; all the duality rests on him here, he carries that responsibility nicely. Throw in some nice effects, a couple nasty horror kills and blood to boot, this keeps things on the level for those genre fans out there. I forget how good this movie is then each time I put it on I remember, so quickly. If you’ve not seen it and call yourself a King fan, or one of Romero’s legion, then get on it, now. This is better than many will try and tell you.
Cell. 2016. Directed by Tod Williams. Screenplay by Adam Alleca & Stephen King, based on King’s novel of the same name.
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacey Keach, Joshua Mikel, Alex ter Avest, Griffin Freeman, E. Roger Mitchell, & Wilbur Fitzgerald. The Genre Co./Benaroya Pictures/Cargo Entertainment.
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Cell is one of the few Stephen King novels I’ve not yet read at this stage. He’s one of my favourite writers, as well as a huge influence on me as an author myself. His influence is large and encompasses generations of weird kids who read his work growing up, whose touch made us more confident in mining the darker regions of our minds. Not only does he inspire readers, writers, he further has left a mark on horror directors, many of whom cut their teeth in the genre first by reading his books. Regardless of who you are or what you do, King is able to get to you. My mother was an avid reader. Then she passed his books on down to me, as they always interested me on the shelf and she’d say “Not until you’re a little older” and so eventually I read them all, devouring each page until there was nothing left. Now, 31 at the time of this writing, my bookshelves at the home which I share with my girlfriend are filled with a small library of solely Stephen King books. His writing is almost like a family tradition between myself and my mother. His work transcends genre, which is funny because those only familiar with a few of his stories always peg him as a horror writer, or that guy who writers creepy stories, and other descriptions. But he is capable of crossing genres and while captivating you with scary moments King always has something bigger happening underneath.
With the film adaptation of Cell, King had a hand in the screenplay alongside screenwriter Adam Alleca (wrote the remake of The Last House on the Left). Some King films suffer because his writing isn’t always easy to adapt for the screen, so I’m inclined to give the movies he’s more involved with a better shot. A Good Marriage was, to me, enjoyable even if it wasn’t great. Because the writing was good, even if the casting wasn’t spot on. Here, I can’t judge versus the book. I can only come to this adaptation with fresh eyes. Although it can’t be too bad to take another ride into creepy King territory with the likes of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, right? Add in Isabelle Fuhrman, who was amazing in Orphan, and that’s a solid three leads to keep things grounded.
One of the more initially unsettling moments is just after the half hour mark. A bunch of the infected people scream in unison, their mouths open, and it’s super eerie to watch and hear at the same time. Quite Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a nice homage without being a rip-off. A trippy, brief scene that only gets creepier right afterwards. The imagery shows us the horde of people together in a scary huddle, then the shot goes up, fading into the cell tower, and then we cut to a beautiful waterfall. There’s an excellently juxtaposed feeling of nature v. man-made structures, further in that we’ve perverted nature and now this return to a primitive state has thrust people back into a more basic, more savage world. Subtly, the camera work takes us through that amidst the small trio’s efforts to understand the situation around them. Not long after is the terrifying scene where Charles Ardai (Stacey Keach) introduces the stadium full of infected, laying in piles, all lulled by the cellphones. Almost a parallel to those hordes of people out on the sidewalks, walking with their heads down and face, eyes, everything stuck on a screen. That’s the wholly intriguing aspect to this King story, in either form. It takes on our nearly disease-like addiction to technology in an appropriate way. Sure, this takes the form of what we’ve seen many times before, another zombie flick, another form of the same story, the same types of characters. A certain amount of that still applies. Something I dig is that these characters are a little atypical, in that they’ve come together more randomly than other movies – another one I like in that regard is the Dawn of the Dead remake. So you’ve got less of that stale family first ethic, instead focused on just a bunch of people, all with their own fears, emotions, thoughts, plans, hopes, et cetera.
Another scene that got to me was the nightmare Clay Riddell (Cusack) had – the imagery all around was scary as hell. Loved it. Not only that it leads into them all having a collective dream about the same character, one that Clay drew in his comics previously. But simply that brief scene where Clay finds the red hoodie man getting a blowjob in a decrepit bathroom, the tear in the man’s cheek, the blood, his odd demeanour, everything adds up to be totally unnerving.
I do think Alleca and King wrote a decent screenplay. There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. However, disappointingly enough I feel like neither Cusack nor Jackson does anything worthwhile with the characters. You can’t say there’s nothing interesting about the characters themselves. First you’ve got Clay, he’s a guy who draws comics, he has a tough family life with a son he loves, and all kinds of personal stuff. Problem being maybe we’ve seen this character type too many times from Cusack, and no longer is there anything to mine from that starved patch of ground. Secondly, Tom McCourt (Jackson) is a Vietnam veteran, he’s a tough son of a bitch. And maybe again, we’ve seen this style of character from Jackson so often that seeing him in a zombie-type story to boot only makes it more cliché. However, that’s meant to be the power of an actor, if they can make you believe them and their portrayal, over and over. Though I do love both Cusack and Jackson in their own rights, having performed a ton of great characters between them, they don’t give us what we need here.
That task is left to Isabelle Fuhrman. Her portrayal of Alice Maxwell is really good. She doesn’t always get the right amount of time to do her thing, but when she does it’s solid work. If only her character were given more then it’s possible that could have made the movie better than it comes off. She’s a talented actor who I hope will get some bigger, better roles. Here, she’s able to root us emotionally before destroying us after the arc of her character breaks your heart.
Ultimately, I’ll say Cell is about a 3-star zombie flick. There are a couple elements that make it less typical, mainly in its approach to the entire infection sub-genre of horror. Stephen King and Adam Alleca adapt King’s novel into a decently creepy piece of work. Plenty of flaws to boot and there are definitely lacklustre performances out of Cusack and Jackson. At the same time, I found myself creeped out at times. More would be better, but the terror King’s story is able to bring out makes this better than most low budget zombie movies floating around out there. In addition to the writing, there’s great atmosphere; some nice cinematography, as well as a score that’ll keep you on edge while it swells and falls and sucks you in.
Some scenes will stick out, from the one in the bar to a short time later when Clay unmasks an infected man he – for a moment – believes to be his son. There’s enough to enjoy and to make this worth watching. Plus, I really enjoyed the ending. Not near one of my favourite King stories adapted to film, though. Perhaps I’ll enjoy the novel more once I get around to giving it a read because the premise alone is horrifying. The execution of the film is what leaves much to be desired.
American Psycho. 2000. Directed by Mary Harron. Screenplay by Harron & Guinevere Turner, based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis.
Starring Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Bill Sage, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Jared Leto, Willem Dafoe, Cara Seymour, Guinevere Turner, Stephen Bogaert, Monika Meier, & Reg E. Cathey. Am Psycho Productions/Edward R.
Pressman Film/Lions Gate Films.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
The director of I Shot Andy Warhol, as well as episodes of excellent television shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz – Mary Harron – takes on Bret Easton Ellis’ most well-known and definitely most controversial novel: American Psycho. What I find interesting is that this novel has been lambasted for being too horrific, disturbing, as well as having a hot streak of misogyny running through it. And yet here is a proud woman director, who before and after did very female-centric projects, taking upon herself the heavy duty of giving Ellis a big screen adaptation. And it’s because so many seem to misunderstand the original novel, Ellis’ own intentions. While it definitely serves up a nice heap of horror, American Psycho is mainly an allegory about the murderous rampage of empty-headed capitalism and those it sweeps up in its hideous wave of destruction.
The main character Patrick Bateman is an enigma. At the same time he is beyond predictable. He is a man who wants to be better than everyone else while simultaneously hoping to be just like everyone else. Thus the reasoning for such a title, nationalizing the phenomenon of psychosis here, as Bateman represents the perfect microcosm of psychosis involved in the American Dream. While the movie alludes further than the novel to what Bateman experiences as possibly all part of his own delusions, there is still a ton of visceral horror here with all that psychological madness. In a place where the hallucinatory and the corporeal meet lies American Psycho, ready to confuse, terrify, and pull out a few dark chuckles here or there.
People are more concerned with appearance than anything concrete everywhere you turn in this film. When Bateman supposedly drags a corpse out to a taxi, an acquaintance sees him, but pays no mind to what might be in the bag Patrick is dragging – he only wants to know where he got the fabulous overnight bag. Hilariously, Patrick replies “Jean Paul Gaultier” before heading off. Frequently new business cards destroy the souls of those with their same old cards still kicking around from last printing; this is perhaps the epitome of consumerism evident throughout the film. Another funny moment is when Patrick and Evelyn (Witherspoon) are at a restaurant together later – he’s breaking things off with her, actually admitting to mass murder, and she is too busy checking out a friend’s watch across the room admiring its quality. The screenplay is peppered with these bits everywhere along the way, making not only Patrick a victim of 1980s Wall Street consumer culture, but also everyone in his world, as well.
But above all else there are many little clues and hints along the way that the events of American Psycho – the serial killings – are all a product of the protagonist(/antagonist?)’s rotten mind. He becomes an unreliable narrator to the entire experience. For instance, as Patrick drags his supposed overnight bag out through the apartment building a streak of blood follows behind, staining the floor everywhere – yet the doorman only shakes his head, and a shot from outside of Patrick leaving the building shows there’s no blood anywhere to be found. Of course, as the film wears on these instances are more frequent and also much more noticeable. It’s very likely Patrick is dreaming up/fantasizing about these murders especially once we see him running naked, covered in blood, brandishing a running chainsaw through the halls of his apartment complex. Nobody heard any of that? Not likely. Because as opposed to Leatherface, of whom Patrick is a fan (he works out while watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Patrick does his hunting not on the backwoods rural roads of small town U.S.A, but rather in the heart of the urban jungle that is Manhattan. So he doesn’t have a lot of privacy, certainly not to do these types of things. That’s a large reason of why the novel and the film are both excellent in their own rights, the lines between reality and hallucination, fantasy and the truth, are blurred to the point of black and white distinctions no longer being even remotely possible. Bateman and these Wall Street types life in the grey zone anyways, so it’s no surprise Patrick heading off the deep end puts him in another morally grey zone to boot.
It’s many of the little things which make Patrick an unsettling man. The intersection of horror and sex in his life is more than disturbing. Essentially, aside from the thrill of making money – which then is even further down the ladder than appearing powerful/wealthy – a man such as Bateman is left with only the thrill of sex and murder to satisfy his deepest urges. Then there’s the fact just about the only thing Patrick can discuss at any length is either music or anything else pop culture related. He’s so unoriginal and devoid of any personality or true wit that his only go-to excuse for people is “I have to return some videotapes.” Moreover, he only relates to any real, true emotion through music, whether it’s Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis. Everything he is comes through a construct: music, his apartment, his clothes, his business card and suit and tie. Further than that, Patrick’s identity almost becomes this fluid state simply because he is often mistaken for somebody else. A man at a building’s reception desk calls him Mr. Smith. He’s mistaken for Paul Allen, too. Later on he gets mistaken for someone named Davis. In this light, you can see his ‘killing’ of Paul Allen as a way for him to kill off that identity in order to make room for his own; a plea, a cry for recognition.
Of most importance is Patrick’s narcissism. We see the narcissistic ideals of these Wall Street guys, fawning over business cards, ties, dinner reservations, so on. They’re all about status. It’s all about being the center of attention, and in turn the center of that economic stratosphere in a hierarchy of financial crooks. So what better way to gain attention and be the center of a circus than to go on a serial killing rampage? Even better if it’s all in his head.
Christian Bale breaks through the often sickening (though awesomely intriguing) subject matter to make Patrick Bateman into a complex serial killer; one that Bret Easton Ellis created then Mary Harron and writing partner Guinevere Turner expanded upon in this masterpiece of an adaptation. It isn’t for everybody. Then again, the novel wasn’t either. And maybe I’m biased, because as much as I find Ellis slightly obnoxious as a personality, his writing is often emotionally shattering and downright remarkable. Love the novel, love the film. Harron does a nice job with directing, making the Ellis novel somehow palatable and at the same time horrific as you’d imagine. It took forever to get this to the screen after a ton of pre-production nightmares, so obviously Harron was the one able to get things in the proper place as director. Using Bale’s charismatic and terrifying performance Harron crafts this Ellis adaptation into 102 minutes of pure madness, ending on an ambiguous, unsettling note.
Because whether Patrick killed those people is ultimately futile – we have no idea where he’ll go, what he’ll do after these final moments. Will he take what he’s learned from hallucinating those murders, if that’s the case, and get better at being a serial killer? Has this basically been the pregame warm-up to his big spectacle? We don’t know. And not knowing is the scariest part.
The Shining. 1980. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick & Diane Johnson; based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King.
Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson, & Tony Burton. Warner Bros./Hawk Films/Peregrine/Producers Circle.
Rated R. 146 minutes.
Let’s get one thing straight: I love this movie. Fanatically.
I’ve also got problems with it.
There are vast differences between the source material of The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. For a man who mostly got close to horror in a psychological sense before this 1980 horror classic, it’s a strange pick for the master director. At the same time, it’s also a good fit. While this is mainly a ghost story, the clinical way in which Kubrick attacks the subject matter and thematic material really brings out the horror of the human drama at its core. Famously, Stephen King has said the movie is “cold” whereas his book was “hot“, and that Kubrick wasn’t capable of telling the story how it was meant to be told.
And in part I agree with Mr. King. Because the book is better. However, I do find Kubrick’s film a slice of terror. Further than that, to me the supernatural element of King’s original novel is still there amongst everything. It’s simply that Kubrick takes that all and envisions it in very human terms. We absolutely see the haunted elements of King here, there’s just a completely different element to this film and how it perceives the story of Jack Torrance’s madness.
If King’s novel is about the supernatural forces of The Overlook Hotel taking its toll on the Torrance family, Kubrick’s film is a ghost story that’s most of all an allegory for personal family troubles, the failure of people to face their problems head on until they all but literally haunt them, as well as the attempts of many to bury the dark secrets of their past like the various murdered souls haunting the halls of The Overlook.
Perhaps a straight adaptation, such as the lesser but still enjoyable TV version King had a hand in, is more enjoyable to some. And though there is a part of me that faults this movie for not going directly at the source material, because there’s some great stuff there that didn’t make this cut, Kubrick most definitely made an impressive horror film that not only contributed to the genre as a whole, it also left an indelible mark on many moviegoers. To this day, I can close my eyes and almost imagine the entire film front to back because of how many hundred times I’ve seen it.
One of my biggest beefs is the change to the character of Wendy Torrance. I find Shelley Duvall an intriguing actor, and she gives a knockout performance here. Still, the character bothers me. In the book she is nowhere near as waif-ish and frail as the Wendy which Kubrick and Diane Johnson wrote. And that boggles my mind, really. Because there’s absolutely no reason to change her character into such a “dishrag“, as Mr. King so eloquently puts it whenever asked. What gets me most is that this Wendy does not seem the type to stand up to her husband. She talks of having asked Jack to stop drinking, or else she would leave, and this doesn’t strike me as genuine with this character. She can barely hold steady ground in a conversation with her husband. Let alone confront his violent temper and alcoholism. In fact, the way Kubrick and Johnson have written Wendy is, as King again has noted, fairly misogynistic. There are barely any moments of strength in Wendy, which bothers me. It is so far from the character in King’s novel that it makes no sense. Changing the themes and focusing more on the human drama of alcoholism, the effects it has on a family, the bad decisions of the patriarch looming over his family, so on, all that makes sense to me. An adaptation doesn’t always need to follow copy-for-copy the source material. Many adaptations do well to stray a little. But this character change doesn’t come as genuine, as if Kubrick and Johnson solely wanted to focus on Jack and his son, and so they let everyone else fall to the wayside.
The character of Jack remains virtually the same across King and Kubrick’s respective visions. Again, though, I do agree partly with King. I love Nicholson here. He kills the performance, no doubt. I just can’t help imagining the role with someone less Nicholson-like. In that Jack definitely looks a bit off right from the beginning. That signature Nicholson look, the eyebrows, the sly smile, it reeks of insanity too early. This takes away part of the impact, in my opinion. Furthermore, the screenplay as opposed to the novel doesn’t give us a lot of time with Torrance before he’s going mad. He’s very quickly a dick and then soon a real terror in this movie. It’s no less shocking how insane Jack Torrance gets over the course of the film. However, if a lesser known or different-looking actor were given the part it might’ve been an even larger surprise when he goes off the deep end later. Still, I can’t fault Nicholson; that’s all in the casting. For his part, he turns Torrance into a deeply troubled man, one whose intentions are good but whose execution leaves something to be desired. And regardless of Nicholson’s crazyface, he is able to draw us in. Specifically, the scene in the big lodge room where he backs Wendy up the stairs is EPIC. During a theatre class in high school, I recited that whole speech and had great fun. It is a superb, small monologue that Nicholson really nails, allowing us to fall headlong into the madness of Torrance. As the film picks up faster and harder towards the end, Nicholson definitely frightens and his performance will always rank high on any list of spectacular acting from horror movies.
The macabre beauty of The Shining is part of its everlasting appeal. All of the imagery is so well shot by Kubrick, photographed by John Alcott. Having a horror film captured through the eyes of Kubrick is magical. From the sets and the meticulously composed shots to the score and soundtrack, this film is every bit a classic. Maybe it doesn’t follow all the rules of horror set before it. Maybe it doesn’t follow King exactly. But I’ll be damned if it’s not amazing. And the horror itself is almost vicious. That scene where Jack finds the woman in the bathtub is something that has scarred generations of film fans. Even as a seasoned horror veteran I find that one moment intense and scary. There are moments of dreadful suspense throughout The Shining that, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, still hold me in fear. The elevator of blood is an iconic piece of imagery because it essentially sums up The Overlook, as a hotel completely immersed in blood, so much so it pours down from the floors above. Just the fact they accomplished that shot is enough to make it utterly mental. But over and over, Kubrick manages to derive absolute horrific madness out of his scenes through the way he captures things, right down to editing; the bathtub woman scene is so profoundly shocking because of how it repeats itself like a memory several times as the corpse reaches out after Jack and he backs away. There are so many fine touches which make this a work of horror that stands the test of time.
Much as I love The Shining, there are certainly issues. Some can pass off Stanley Kubrick’s mistakes by saying certain things to point to his hidden meanings, the deeper layers. Bullshit. As great as this horror is, as much as its done for the genre overall, there are faults. You can still find a movie incredible while admitting to its mistakes. And I don’t always agree with Stephen King, though here I do and find the book much better. Still, Kubrick’s The Shining is chilling, it is meticulously drawn out with great cinematography, practical special effects, and the eerie sounds sitting below all the engaging, terrifying imagery. Despite its flaws, this is and always will be one of the classic pictures in horror bringing Kubrick and his sensibilities to an unlikely genre.