In '97, Anish needs his mother to send his novel by e-mail. But getting it done over the phone could prove a brutal experience.
The sweet revenge of a man left for dead comes at the end of a sharp, shiny hook.
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.
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.
High-Rise. 2016.Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Amy Jump, based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard.
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, & Tony Way. Recorded Picture Company/British Film Institute.
Rated 18A. 119 minutes.
Almost from the opening, High-Rise caught me as impressive. Part of that is because I find J.G. Ballard’s writing beyond thought provoking. The other is because Tom Hiddleston commands an audience’s attention similar to the old school Hollywood leading man. And finally, a large part is due to Ben Wheatley. Ever since I had the chance to see his debut feature Down Terrace there was something worth the attention in his directing. It only got better as he moved through an excellently varied catalogue of films including Kill List, my personal favourite of his Sightseers, A Field of England, as well as some other projects. While each film is vastly different from the other his style is one an auteur. In each of his works there’s an existential question, of some sort, whether that be about family, loyalty, love, work, and much more. Writer Amy Jump has written several of his features, alongside Wheatley. She is also a great writer with an uncanny ability to look into human nature honestly, whose talents are solo here in adapting Ballard. A job she does well.
Together in High-Rise, using Ballard as the foundation and source, Jump and Wheatley explore an earlier view of the future. Yet for all its madness this story is certainly a great analogy for the war of classes in society, at any point. Particularly, though, in a day and age where billionaires are profiting the most, paying the least for their transgressions, as the poor end up footing the societal and economic bill, this is a book and film that holds as much if not more weight than first when Ballard conceived it.
Dr. Laing: “The facial mask simply slips off the skull”
It’s literally dog eat dog now. Or man eat dog. From the beginning, Wheatley shows us the resulting chaos. Similar to how Hitchcock spoke of showing his audience ‘the bomb underneath the table’, and then for the rest of the film letting people sweat it out wondering… when will it go off? So it’s a perfect place to start the journey. Now we’re left to watch as Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) and all the other inhabitants of the towering titular high-rise complex descend into the madness of their isolated, socially divided existence.
One of Ballard’s interests as a novelist lies in the convergence point between society and technology, between human psychology and technical advancements. In Crash, he examined a very physical space of body horror where the human body and the metal of cars meet in a disturbingly erotic nature. High-Rise examines a more psychological and moral space than anything physical. As everyone of all kinds is mashed together in the elaborate complex, which for all its space becomes more claustrophobic over the course of the film, the moral compass of its various residents and their respective concern for fellow people in different social classes begins to spiral. Downward. So in effect, Ballard’s main themes are that the higher we get in terms of technology, often the lower we get in social skills, but more importantly in social and moral empathy.
Laing is completely oblivious to his class privilege. He tells a cashier to keep the change, but she can only reply: “There isn‘t any.” Brief little bit of Jump’s excellent adaptation. A little later he’s completely humiliated at a fancy costume party where everyone’s dressed in centuries old party clothing. Then thrown out. A great juxtaposition of moments for Laing to experience.
Three big characters in High-Rise have significant names. Royal (Irons) – the main sitting at the top of the throne. Wilder (Evans) – the primitively violent man, arguably the first to fully succumb to the influence of the divided complex. Then there’s Dr. Laing himself, whose name is lifted from psychiatrist R.D. Laing, which connects with his concept of schizophrenia as a type of self-defense mechanism against certain social situations and events. They all play pivotal roles, as the isolation and almost blissfully ignorant nature of high-rise living (a microcosm of social structures) takes its toll in so many intensely brutal ways.
Wheatley often works with cinematographer Laurie Rose. In fact, if I’m not mistaken he’s essentially shot all his feature films. His eye for composition, alongside the directorial choices of Wheatley, always serve the best interest of the subject matter. Plus, he captures everything so rich and full that it jumps off the screen. No matter what type of things he’s shooting. From the bigger, more grand scale shots to the close, tight moments, Rose has a wonderfully classic sense of filmmaking. At times he and Wheatley go for experimental sequences, but mostly they craft a beautiful, old school-looking film that’s modern in theme. It’s a story that was written back 1975, likely started a little earlier, so Rose and Wheatley bring this interesting ’70s vibe to their atmosphere and look while exploring the modern themes in that space rather than update it completely to a contemporary setting.
You could easily see some filmmakers shooting this, as well as writing this, in a complete vision of future today. With the trio of Jump, Rose, and Wheatley, the J.G. Ballard adaptation they give us is the one which the author imagined, as a vision of the future in the 1970s. Everything, right down to the set design, is absolutely astonishing.
Then there’s Clint Mansell, whose work many recognize from his various collaborations with Darren Aronofsky among other scores he’s composed. He does fantastic things with a bunch of orchestral pieces, as well as the iconic electronic pieces he’s known for, too. The opening sequence is accompanied by some nicely fitting orchestra. Later, electronic scores pulse us towards the violent finale. Having Mansell a part of this team only makes the film more effective.
For me, this is a 5-star cinematic experience. Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump, Laurie Rose, as well as every one of the actors involved, particularly Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans, each do a perfect job bringing this J.G. Ballard adaptation to the screen. Notably, this was previously deemed ‘unfilmable’ in Hollywood. So take that, big wigs. Wheatley continues an impressive career. He is a visionary director and every bit deserving of his status as an auteur filmmaker. Jump brings her wonderful writing to the table, and along with Rose’s keen eye they’re able to make Ballard palatable, exciting, and every bit as brutally engaging as his original novel. This is available as of this writing today on VOD. But I’ll also be heading out to see it on the big screen as soon as it shows up here. High-Rise is the type of film I’ve seen on VOD, I’ll see in theatre, then be damned sure I’ll buy up on Blu ray. Great cinema, great minds, great actors.
Lamb. 2015. Directed & Written by Ross Partridge; based on the novel of the same name by Bonnie Nadzam.
Starring Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Weixler, Tom Bower, Scoot McNairy, Lindsay Pulsipher, Jennifer Lafleur, & Joel Murray. The Shot Clock/Silent Helicopter.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
This is a difficult movie, in every sense of the word. It’s hard to rate. It’s hard to understand, both in intent and in the message it puts across by the end. Although I’ve never read the novel Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam, there are bound to be things lost in translation from book to film. Even seeing only this adaptation I can understand why so many book reviews compare Nadzam’s protagonist(/antagonist) to Humbert Humbert in Nabokov. However, the comparisons can’t be too close, as there are significant differences in theme.
Lamb is a terribly difficult confrontation of love’s dangerous possibilities. At the same time, the film explores this through the eyes of a lonely, washed up sort of man whose intentions are never fully clear. What director-writer-star Ross Partridge does is craft an atmospheric drama that also plays much like a thriller. The closer to the edge of morality Lamb takes us, the harder it is to pull away. And even in its most tense moments, no matter how it makes you feel, the characters will make you question just how you’ve gotten to that point.
David Lamb (Ross Partridge) just lost his father, as well as his marriage. Everything is falling apart at work, too. One afternoon, sitting on a curb and ruminating on his shit life, David is confronted by a young girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence). When he tries to be a father figure they begin a friendly relationship. But then he decides to invite her on a road trip. Except her parents don’t know. Nobody does.
So off they go. And as their trip to the mountains begins the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t slowly blurs.
David also heads out onto his own journey of self-discovery, which is never, ever easy. He and Tommie discover things about life they’d never once imagined.
The one scene that actually made me feel downright frightened is when David spills coffee on Tommie, then insists she get in the bath. While the spill of the hot coffee wasn’t intentional there’s part of you that wonders if something like that wasn’t coming all along, at some juncture of the journey. But his insistence, his refusal to leave the bathroom even when the curtain’s drawn over the tub, his turning on of the water, so much of it speaks to that control men with paedophilic tendencies seek to gain. He slowly but surely pushes through her boundaries.
People want to debate whether he did anything sexual to Tommie. Sure, you can definitely consider it a debatable topic. However, my offer of proof is David’s breakdown later when he says: “If you discover that one day you hate me and you‘re angry with me and that I‘ve ruined your life, at any time, if I‘m 90, you‘ll tell me, won‘t you?” He gets even worse, more angry towards himself in the scene. To me, and this is merely personal opinion, David has admitted right there and then that something not right has occurred. Now maybe that’s not sexual, maybe he just feels the boundaries were pushed too far in general. Not sure. But something certainly happened, whether it’s simply the overall tone of their relationship, or something further than we saw onscreen went down – who knows. There’s just something about that speech from David, the emotion in him, which really says he’s done a bad thing. Plenty of his previous behaviour already speaks to that. This later moment is probably the most overt of them all.
Perhaps, above all else, David/Gary’s exertion of control and power over young Tommie is due to his narcissism. He may not be a paedophile at all. He could simply be the loneliest man on earth. Driven to, essentially, kidnapping a child just to reassure himself, just to have someone to love him – to make someone love him. After his life collapsed he needed something, anything. Whether he was sexual with her is up for debate, but either way his disregard for Tommie’s feelings and her innocence and childhood is horrific.
What’s most interesting, despite the tough subject matter and themes, is how Partridge manages to make this an emotional drama. There is a quiet beauty to the entire work. Even when I was horrified at the implications of many scenes, the way it’s presented comes off incredibly mature and written, performed, directed with great care. This movie is one tough sell. For some it may repulse them immediately once the plot kicks in. For others, the odd charm of its danger will lure them through to the finish. Patridge directs elegantly with the luscious cinematography of Nathan M. Miller at his side. There are so many gorgeous looking moments for such a morally disturbing and challenging story.
Both Partridge and young Miss Laurence do a fantastic job carrying a difficult piece of cinema. The final moments, regardless of how unsettling the relationship was, completely tear out your soul. Without someone young and charismatic like Laurence, this role would never have been filled with life. She managed to make it into a performance of depth and essence, not a small feat for a child actor. For his part, Partridge’s ability as an actor has impressed here because he makes you wonder, he keeps you guessing, and never are the inner workings of his mind too evident. There’s always some part of him to keep you off balance. Their chemistry is undeniable and made this movie into drama with weight.
A veritable 4-star experience. Put to the side your judgements, let it flow through you. See what happens.
Room. 2015. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel of the same name.
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, William H. Macy, Randal Edwards, & Justin Mader. A24/Element Pictures/No Trace Camping/TG4 Films.
Rated PG. 118 minutes.
I’ve not yet seen director Lenny Abrahamson’s 2014 film Frank, but awhile back I had the chance to see his earlier film What Richard Did and found it incredibly thought provoking, as well as intense and visceral. Abrahamson certainly has a knack for tackling darkness, and from the looks of Frank he also traffics in weirdness, too. Which is great because his latest directorial effort, a screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, is equal parts odd, heartwarming, and boasts a heap of darkness (though not in a horror-ish sense). With a true story serving as the jumping-off point for Donoghue, her story tackles the life affirming relationship between a mother and her son, despite all odds. And yet, as I’ve said, the dark aspects of the plot are constantly worming in and out of the story as it goes. I’ve never read the novel, but I hear great things. If it’s even half as good as the film (luckily the author adapted the screenplay herself; usually a plus), the book is bound to make me run the gamut of my emotions. With a sparse yet engaging style, Abrahamson takes us through this whirlwind story, finding aid in an incredible pairing of Brie Larson and child actor Jacob Tremblay. If you’ve heard lots of hype about the film there is a reason for it. The hype is very real and every last bit is well deserved.
Loosely inspired by the real life case of Josef Fritzl, Room tells the story of Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who live together in a small ten-by-ten room; a shed, essentially. Inside, they live out life one day at a time. They have the basics: a place to use the bathroom, to cook, to wash dishes, a place to sleep, too. That’s about all, though. Their keeper, a man they simply call Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) – the one who kidnapped Ma and brought her to Room – comes down from time to time to sexually abuse Ma, as Jack hides in the closet. Occasionally, when needed, Nick brings supplies like food and other things to the family of two. It is a bare, horrible existence. Jack doesn’t know anything of the outside world, except what he sees on television.
After he turns five-years-old, Jack begins to learn about the world outside Room. But he doesn’t exactly like what he hears, as it breaks down his preconceived notions of what the world is, being the four walls around him. As Ma tries her best to help Jack understand, she also formulates a plan. She wants her boy to help trick Old Nick.
Thus begins the hopeful escape of Ma and Jack. And it’s only the beginning.
One impressively tragic moment early on is when Jack tells his mother “next week when I‘m 6” she’d better get real candles. She has to correct him that he means next year. Right then and there we understand how blatantly obvious the damage done to him is, as in he’s unable to determine between a week, a month, a year. Because in Room, time is nothing, it is a measure of something the child can’t begin to comprehend. Outside, time goes by, but in there they’re stuck living the same day, over and over. Only minor changes happen. I love that within such a short frame of time we’re already able to understand the isolation.
Later, when Ma has to explain to her boy about the outside world it is intense and sad. It hurts to see Jack unable to get “what the world is.” He thinks it’s all a part of an awful process called growing up. He doesn’t get that the world is out there, they’ve simply been shut off from it by the hideous man known only as Old Nick.
My heart officially broke, yet opened wide, as Jack finds himself for the first time in the outside world beyond Room. Laying in the pan of a pickup truck, he looks directly into the sky and watches as the vast blue ocean above him passes by. It is one of the most emotionally intense scenes I’ve watched in awhile. At once, you’ll be so happy and simultaneously you’ll feel everything shatter. Honestly, it’s rare a drama gets to me so thoroughly and deeply. The way Abrahamson shoots this sequence is so powerful; it plays with your emotions, though, not in a way which tricks you. It is a pure and raw scene filled with beauty of the deepest kind.
The writing is incredible. I’m sure the novel is a powerhouse, because Donoghue adapts it well for the screen. One part I enjoyed so much is the narration by Jack, especially after they make it out of Room and into the world. He talks about being “in the world for 37 hours“, as if he was never actually in the world locked in that shed, which of course he really wasn’t, I suppose. But the way Tremblay talks, his way of expression, the inflection of his voice, it is so crazy to imagine he’s a child. It’s as if a grown man is inside him acting. And Donoghue’s words shine through him. The way she explains things via the Jack character is exposition, but it doesn’t feel that way. We really get life from his perspective, as it would likely be if a kid was hidden away for his entire first six years then suddenly released into the outdoors. Even the way we literally see shots from Jack’s perspective, it holds the excitement and wonder of a little kid, something we all can remember looking back on the early years. So combine Donoghue and her writing with Abrahamson’s directing style, and everything converges into such a perfect mix. The screenplay’s basic and honest storytelling is complimented by the way Abrahamson pushes things forward with an equally honest, compelling view into the life of all these people affected by tragedy. It is not an easy story to tell, in any sense, yet these two artists, along with a great team, make Room into one of the best movies of 2015.
A flawless 5-star film. Perhaps it isn’t everyone else’s cup of tea. Maybe others may expect more outright darkness, but that’s just not this movie. Room tackles a difficult story, one loosely based in real events. It tackles the difficulty with grace, subtlety. The main actors, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, knock their characters out of the park; their chemistry is unreal at every moment, in every last scene, and you’d swear they lived together for a year before filming. All cylinders pump from the moment Room begins, to the minute the credits roll. Not often am I visibly affected by a drama, though, every now and then one comes along that captivates me, takes me to another place emotionally, mentally. Room is one of those very films. It won’t be soon that I forget it, either. Neither will you, I suspect.
Beasts of No Nation. 2015. Directed & Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor, Andrew Adote, Vera Nyarkoah Antwi, Ama K. Abebrese, Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Kobina Amissah-Sam, and Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye. The Princess Grace Foundation/Red Crown Productions/Participant Media/Come What May Productions/Mammoth Entertainment/New Balloon.
Not Rated. 137 minutes.
Cary Fukunaga is destined to be a classic director of this generation. His first feature, Sin Nombre, embraced a similar danger to the terrifying things Beasts of No Nation explores, and right away that initial debut showed both his skill as a director, as well as his impressive abilities as a writer. From there, he directed an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and later graced HBO (and us) with one of the greatest debuts of any television series in True Detective alongside the acting talents of many including Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Now, Beasts of No Nation comes to us, amazingly as the first full-length feature from Netflix. And it is every bit what I expected.
Fukunaga – perhaps due to his father being born in an American camp where the Japanese were held after the Imperial Japan bombing of Pearl Harbour – has a soft spot, so to speak, for stories concerning children, the young, and generally anyone drawn into the internal conflicts of where they live. Even in True Detective, the less obvious of his work in this respect, there are many instances of people torn apart by the changes in New Orleans. Of course there’s Sin Nombre, which tracks two young people mired in the world of MS-13 and all its death, gang violence, drugs and more. In Beasts of No Nation we watch an even sadder tale, if that’s actually possible. Here we have the story of a young boy indoctrinated into a rebel army while trying to survive in the African wilderness, all after his father and others are unfairly executed by a group of military men. With the adapted screenplay by Fukunaga carrying tons of emotional weight and tons of questions about morality, how we view child soldiers and the nations which produce them, as well as the acting talent of young Abraham Attah and a powerhouse performance from Idris Elba, this is one gripping and ultimately brutal look at the desperate lives which some are forced to live in this world.
The debilitating wars of Africa come to us quickly, as the character of Agu (Abraham Attah) is thrust into it. His father and others are executed in his village, but Agu gets away. He runs into the wilderness and crawls through the forest, feeding off what he can, even getting sick at times because of not knowing which plants to eat or not. Struggling on his own, Agu comes across the NDF – a rising rebel army in the African jungle. Running this faction is a man known only as Commandant (Idris Elba). He takes the young boy under his wing almost immediately. But soon, we discover it is not of the goodness in his heart. He recruits child soldiers, those who must survive and will do anything for their chance to do so.
Not long after Commandant takes Agu in, the man asks the boy to initiate himself into the NDF. His task: kill a man with a machete. After he does, Agu is changed. Completely. To his core now he has become someone else. Though he knows murder is “the worst thing“, Agu is unable to turn and run.
For the time being, the boy must survive the war. By any means necessary.
For the entire film I found myself thinking: how is Abraham Attah this god damn good? Honestly, I love to experience a great performance from a child. There are a ton of amazing young actors out there who put in solid performances, which continually surprises me because especially when they’re very young it’s impressive they can even reach the depth needed to play certain characters. Such is the case with Attah here. There’s an aged quality to his eyes, to the way which he delivers lines: “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.” Scene after scene, revving up in the last hour, Attah shows us the range he can attain. There are subtle moments, many of them, where the character of Agu and his pain comes through. Others, the youthful childishness still inside him is very evident. Yet all the time you’re aware that this young boy is acting circles around some of the adult performances in 2015. Attah truly blew me away with this role and I do hope he’ll continue to take roles as tough and as intense as this one down the road. He deserves to be a star.
Then there is Idris Elba. He has always interested me because of his quiet nature. Even in roles where he’s required to be loud and brash at times, there’s some sly quality about his performances which always stick out. From Stringer Bell to the titular character of the Luther series, I’m more often than not sucked into the world of a film or television series by his acting. As Commandant, in this film Elba brings out a monster of a man. There are several very excitable and near deafening moments where he shows Commandant as a vicious, brutal and inexplicable type of individual. We also find Elba capable of extremely low-key, subtle scenes which express how vile and morally corrupt Commandant is, without having to resort to anything too graphic or explicit; for instance, there is a dark and quiet scene between Commandant and Agu a little past the hour mark where we finally see how despicably sick the man is, and it doesn’t require anything overtly nasty, still getting its point across with force. Part of the impact isn’t only from Fukunaga’s cinematography and the editing from Pete Beaudreau/Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, it comes from the way Elba talks, the way his eyes move under the slight darkness, how he moves slow and steady. He is worthy of every bit of praise that comes his way.
A full-on 5-star experience. Some were supposedly disappointed with the ending, as if it weren’t dramatic or exciting enough. But why must it be either of those things? Beasts of No Nation is about the perpetual cycle of abuse, rape, violence and war which African countries are facing on a daily basis in certain areas. The ending only goes to show that while there are glimmers of hope now and then, the wars rage on, the children are forever thrust into a warring life from day one and it’s only luck which ones end up holding an Ak-47 with a machete, and which ones either die or somehow escape.
Agu and Commandant represent two sides of one situation – the former is the child soldier brought into a way of life by older and more cynical men, the latter a molder of boys who turns them into killing machines in order to further his own cause and line his own pockets. This story is one of devastation and of a viciousness many of us will never ever know. I left the film changed slightly, seeing the conflicting view of child soldiers through the eyes of the character Agu, and I also felt the emotional weight of what these boys go through lie heavy on my chest for days. It isn’t easy to ignore how powerful Beasts of No Nation can get. This boasts excellent cinematography, direction and a tight screenplay from Cary Fukunaga, plus a solid and exciting score by Dan Romer, as well as the foundational performances of Attah and Elba, which comes together to make one of the best feature films out of 2015. Hands down.
Peau Blanche a.k.a White Skin. 2004. Directed by Daniel Roby. Screenplay by Daniel Roby; based on the novel by Joël Champetier.
Starring Marc Paquet, Marianne Farley, Frédéric Pierre, Jessica Harris, Julie LeBreton, Lise Roy, Joujou Turenne, Raymond Cloutier, Marcel Sabourin, and Jude-Antoine Jarda.
Rated 14A. 89 minutes.
I’ve been a longtime user of the Internet Movie Database, though not a fan of the message boards; mostly I dig trying to level out the ratings even in the slightest sense as one man, as well as doing shorter reviews for a few choice films here and there. As someone who’s seen 4,100 films and counting, I find it hard to just ask people “Hey can you suggest a movie for me?” because honestly – not trying to be grand here like a know-it-all, not trying to impress – but after that many movies it is damn near impossible for most people I know, who aren’t film buffs, to come up with something I’ve not seen. So, I end up turning to a lot of lists; other than a good friend of mine, a filmmaker by the name of Ben Noah, not many people in my circle(s) of friends are actually huge into movie watching.
Many lists, horror and otherwise darkly toned, end up suggesting La peau blanche (English title – which I’ll use from here on out: White Skin). The cover art alone always stuck with me, very literal with the white skin yet intriguing nonetheless. The guy on the front is white but a little less so, his eyes extremely blue. All contrast against the woman, her gingery near blonde hair flowing, then her face and neck almost disappearing into one as a wave of white skin, reddish lips around the middle. I’m often reeled in by interesting artwork for movies, some times this doesn’t work at all. But there’s something about a cool looking poster that can get me interested immediately. Not only that, when I hear words like cannibalism, vampire, succubus – these sorts of things – I tend to perk up even more. Add to all this the fact White Skin is a Canadian film, you’ve got yourself an interesting bit of work.
Thierry (Marc Paquet) and Henri (Frédéric Pierre) end up in a hotel with a couple hookers one night. During their encounter, one of the women attacks Henri, leaving his neck bloody and wounded. While Henri’s family is out for justice, neither he nor Thierry obviously wants to pursue things any further due to the fact of what they’d actually been up to.
A little while later, Thierry ends up seeing a woman in the subway playing the flute. Strangely enough he finds himself attracted to her, even though he earlier admitted to one of the prostitutes that redheads make him sick, all due to their incredibly white skin; he says seeing the veins under the skin turns him off. Yet somehow this woman, Claire Lefrançois (Marianne Farley), turns out to lure him. One night he sneaks in to watch her play piano at a recital. Further and further he’s drawn to Claire, until they start to see one another regularly. Despite the fact she insists they ought not see each other any longer. Thierry falls harder by the minute, almost to the point of physical deterioration. Mentally he begins to slip, from school to everyday life. He discovers Claire has cancer. Of course he stays right by her side.
But once there are even wilder, more dramatic revelations, Thierry discovers an entirely different world existing right below the one he used to know.
“We could discuss what’s eating you”
The U.S. title for this movie is awfully on-the-nose. Too much. Part of the enjoyment here is the slow build. You know there’s something not quite right. Very clearly once Claire starts telling Thierry he should forget her, it’s apparent. But getting there, the journey is what’s important. Cheesy, and true. Not only is there an excellent plot development happening over the course of the film, the weird love story itself is pretty good. I’ve seen complaints in reviews online that this was an area where the screenplay lacked. Now I’ve never read the original novel this is based on, so perhaps that’s got something to do with it in comparison. However, I find the movie has a few amazing scenes where the love story comes out. You might say the entire thing is a love story. It’s more of a mystery, filled with drama and horror. Definitely a dark fantasy sort of feel at times, like a modern day fairy tale. So to each their own. White Skin definitely has an interesting story at its core, as well as it surprised me at times when I had no idea where things were headed.
Even more than all that, the relationships are solid. Particularly I loved Thierry and his friend Henri. They have such a complex dynamic, not usual in a lot of films; something Canadian movies are always doing, the unusual in such a perfect way. There are numerous tense moments between Thierry and Henri, though, they feel like actual friends, as opposed to two characters written into a forced relationship. There are both sides of the coin – good times, bad times. So I think in a short time this friendship comes across well, the actors and the screenplay together make for proper character development between the two.
When all the horror aspects come flooding out, the movie gets fairly tense. Consistently I was never sure what might happen next. And man – did the ending ever catch me by surprise! It’s an odd finish to the film, yet at the same time it was fitting. Completely. It’s as if everything tangles into a big mix near the middle, then the last 15-20 minutes becomes pretty wild in moments, as well as some blood/gore sneaks in. All in all, I found the good relationships + the entire screenplay built up excellent tension. Afterwards, all the mysterious horror which breaks through only serves to be the cherry on top, so to speak. In the end, that big jumble of themes and character/plot development unravels into a nice finale.
I’m giving this a 4 out of 5 star rating. White Skin is a film all Canadians should see, simply to support homegrown cinema. Furthermore, it does a great job with all the elements from drama to mystery to horror. The movie is low budget compared to Hollywood, clocking in with one million dollars. At the same time, I don’t feel there are many instances where the budget shows in a bad sense. Most of the film is shot wonderfully, the actors are pretty much all competent at the very least, so anyone who says this is “too low budget” is only being foolish. Check this one out if you’re into semi-cannibalistic/vampiric stories, dark fantasy, or even if you just love a nice little mystery. Give it a chance. I was very happy with the DVD purchase – rare film, so I found it on eBay. Soon I’ll do a good DVD review, as there are a few quality special features included.
The Sentinel. 1977. Directed & Written by Michael Winner; based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz.
Starring Chris Sarandon, Cristina Raines, Martin Balsam, John Carradine, José Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Miles, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Jerry Orbach, and Beverly D’Angelo.
Universal Pictures/Jeffrey Konvitz Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.
When I really started to become a horror hound years ago, The Sentinel is a haunted house horror movie I’d heard about yet could never get the chance to see. Years later, finally, I was able to and it blew me away. Personally, it’s my favourite haunted house-style film. There’s an intimacy to its depiction of haunting that really gets to me and lingers; sort of how I feel about Robert Wise’s The Haunting, another haunted house movie I feel is built on an intimate feel of perspective. Even more than that, Michael Winner’s movie is such a creepy, slow burn style horror, as well as the fact it draws on religious elements to achieve its supernatural thrill.
Haunted house movies are incredibly common. It’s hard to set a movie aside from the pack and say “This is the best.” So many are actually good, too. In my mind. You’ve got the aforementioned Wise film, The Legend of Hell House, The Shining (even if it’s not as good as King’s book), The Changeling, and the list goes on. What makes The Sentinel special for me is its pacing, the interesting and slow building screenplay Winner adapted from the Jeffrey Konvitz novel is tight. Then there’s all the imagery.
Trust me, this is a hellish ride.
Model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) and boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) are on the verge of marriage. However, Alison would rather be independent and have a place of her own instead of moving in with Michael. Just in case. So she rents an apartment in a seemingly ancient New York brownstone, where the landlady gives her a nice price and all the eccentric neighbours come out for a visit. Though, after a little time in her new home, Alison starts to feel strangely. First, her own motor skills start to cease functioning correctly causing bedlam all over the place from home to work on photo shoots. Then she begins to witness eerie happenings throughout the apartment, the apparition of dead people from her past, and it only begins to get worse.
Eventually after some investigation Michael starts figuring out what’s been going on at the apartment building. By the time Alison clues in it may or may not be too late for her to do anything about it.
The brownstone may have its new Sentinel yet.
Immediately the score from Gil Mellé is noticeable. Such a lush sounding composition from the start, as we’re introduced to Alison (Raines). Then suddenly Mellé spins everything down in this strangely appropriate dark twist. You’re almost jarred out of place by the music, explicitly made aware there’ll be spookiness to follow. A required element for any proper haunted house horror is a chilling score. I mean, okay, it’s not required, but I think they benefit greatly from having a refined sound behind it.
The score works so well at other times because it isn’t just a bunch of single pieces linked together. Mellé incorporates his compositions into the sound design – shrill strings whittle away at your nerves in certain moments of suspense, other scenes have an ambient swell surrounding them and an electronic feel, then he also brings out the church bells and other ominous sounds to mix their presence with everything else into magic. This is one horror score I could easily sit and listen to, completely out of context; not many of those out there aside from John Carpenter’s scores and maybe a handful of others. The music here becomes its own entity, and without it the tension and suspense of many scenes wouldn’t be as effective.
When Alison first comes across the ghost, or zombified ghost, of her father it’s full-on terror. Some impressively executed practical effects here, as she hacks at his face with a knife, slicing him and cutting off a chunk of his nose; it’s vicious stuff! You don’t expect it to happen, really. Nice surprise. These macabre aspects continue throughout, though, that’s probably the most outwardly violent thing to happen.
Except for later, once things get worse and worse for Alison, her mental state deteriorating almost exponentially day to day. At one point we get a glimpse of the two strange lesbian women apparently feasting off the dead corpse of a man, bloody leaking out, some on their faces and mouths. So, I suppose the cannibalism would be even more violent. Still, I think probably the best moment is the previous one between Alison and her dead father. Just such a visual jolt I’d not been expecting; always the best kind. And the way her father sort of shambles out of the shadows at her, his face revealing in the bit of light, it’s a subtly effective horror technique instead of going for a ridiculously nervous jump scare.
Overall, Winner does such a nice job crafting the screenplay with intense visuals, from the look of how its shot to the actual horrific elements. I love the beautiful, vibrant colour in this movie; particularly I find the scenes in the church stick out, with the heavy burgundies, the wood tones of the pews, and so on. Cinematographer and director of photography Dick Kratina does the film justice by capturing it so well. Not is there just nice looking visuals on a surface level, some of those spooky bits throughout are all due to the way Kratina manages to frame the scenes – his use of shadow at various points, from Alison’s first walk around the apartment at night to when Michael (Sarandon) explores the entire building alone, is very good and casts everything in an unsettling light.
Once the final ten minutes begin, especially after Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) calls out to the other ghosts, The Sentinel evolves into pure terror. There are deformities, burn victims, rotting dead corpses, the lesbians cannibalizing Michael’s body, and more. It’s an intensely visceral sequence, which again pits Alison against her dead father; his makeup is scary, he creeps the hell out of me whenever I see him. Just the whole finale, it works on you and it does my head in every single time I watch this movie. Winner paces this scene so perfectly, too. He could have had a very frantic set of shots, typical modern styled horror we see too often nowadays. Rather, instead of going for the adrenaline he makes your pulse pound, he makes the suspense ramp up in your gut and the tension tickle your veins, and by the time we hit the finish Winner has the audience in the palm of his hand. Again, Mellé’s ominous sounding score comes out in an amazing wave that builds up to a crash, really putting the cherry on top. Couldn’t ask for a better finale. It’s weird, it has a bit of blood and unnerving shocks, there’s pure emotional terror at work, and the plot’s conclusion kept me wanting more in the right sort of sense.
5 stars for Michael Winner and The Sentinel. This one has all the greatness of the best haunted house horror, as well as the fact it’s got plenty of unique charm. We get a heavy dose of classic horror, plus Winner brings innovation to his adaptation of the source material and gives us an odd, quirky piece of terrifying cinema. There are lots of practical effects to gorge on – something of which I’m a massive fan – and then the spooky moments will genuinely make you uncomfortable and scare you proper. You’ve got to see this soon because it’s an underrated and lesser known gem from 1977, before some of the best known haunted house pictures.
Thomas Harris told through the colourful eyes of American auteur Michael Mann.