A (Halloween) Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) 10.18.15

One could say to some degree of authenticity that William Friedkin’s original “The Exorcist” (1973) is the “scariest” horror film of all time. It could also be said that Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is the most “well made” horror film of all time. If both of these are true, which I personally believe them to be, than Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) is the most disturbing horror film of all time.

What a lot of people don’t know, or think of when they think of the great Polish director Polanski, is how significant of a contribution 3 of his films were that he made across the sixties and seventies. In fact, his 1-2-3 punch of “Repulsion” (1966), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “The Tenant” (1976), otherwise known as Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. Are maybe the three single greatest examples of psychological horror that were released following on the foot heels of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) — still considered by many to be the first psychological horror film of all time. But of the three, “Rosemary’s Baby” was Polanski’s most successful film (it was made on a modest (even for then) budget of 3.2 million and brought home 10 times that at the box office) as well as his being his most highly regarded. But what really became clear and true to me upon this viewing, the first time I had ever seen it on the big screen, was how timeless the film actually seems. Even now 47 years later it doesn’t even in the remotest bit seem outdated at all. And still packed just as much of a wallop now as one could only imagine it did then.

Since most people I know have either a) never seen this film or b) haven’t seen it in many years or in some cases decades Iike me (I think my first and last viewing of it before this night was as a teenager in the mid nineties) I will provide a short synopsis. The story revolves around Rosemary Woodhouse (the excellent and superb Mia Farrow) and her husband (the great director and actor John Cassevetes) who move in to their dream home apartment in an upper crust section of New York City. The two are trying to get pregnant with their first child, and seemingly want to be left alone. That is until they meet their neighbors (played by the effectively creepy Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon — the latter of whom’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination and win for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars the following year). In fact, they start to meet a circle of friends, and as their life grows increasingly complicated, particularly that of Rosemary’s, when they start to feel surrounded and everything seems to be mysteriously linked, out the door goes their idea of marital security and as the story progresses it is revealed that everything isn’t what it seems and those people around them just might have other ideas for how they want Rosemary’s pregnancy to go once she does find out for certain that she is pregnant with her first child.

Polanski here tackles a number of different themes, some of which would become his signature trademark ones, but those in which up to this point in film history, had never been explored on-screen. Betrayal, corruption, marital trust, the illusion of friends and family, the boundaries of sanity, the mysteries of women’s psyches, as well as urban hysteria, all are expertly interwoven into Polanski’s Oscar nominated adapted screenplay. Many of the film’s iconic scenes and characters from the film are etched into viewers minds forever. Farrow hunched over a kitchen sink gnawing raw animal flesh, the dreamscape rape/consummation which is far more unsettling for what is suggested than actually shown. Ruth Gordon’s evolving over the film from friendly elderly neighbor to something much more sinister, and the film’s grand finale, with Rosemary entering “the gathering” of people in her apartment building with a knife. But even despite these completely and totally unnerving scenes, it is the overall Satanic aspect of the film that really makes your skin crawl and taps into some of our own’s most visceral fears.

Polanski’s magnificent weaving together of these elements as well as his masterful manipulation of these existential fears are what gives the film’s its true raw power. As previously hinted at, time has done nothing to diminish the film’s taut and meticulously focused building sense of dread and unspeakable horror. And for those of you who like me that are previously familiar with the film it can only keep them in awe of Polanski’s fine attention to detail, his rhythm and pacing, the skill in which he films his actors and the performances he gets out of them, and the fine script he adapts for the screen. Which all make it a landmark achievement and contribution to the horror genre, and truly one of the finest examples, certainly one of the first and most daring, original psychological horror films ever put on-screen. One that will go down in history as one of my top 3 favorite horror films of all time.

[A+]

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2 (Halloween) Trips To The Movies (One Current, One Back): “Crimson Peak” (2015) and “Street Trash” (1986) 10.17.15

Guillermo del Toro sure has had his share fair of both hits and misses throughout his now 20+ year career making movies. He started off making films in his original country of Spain with his debut film — 1993’s “Cronos” — still my second favorite of all of his movies but more importantly the very first film that caught the eye of many people and put him on the international filmmaking spectrum. Then came his first English language film — the mostly lousy and disposable “Mimic” in 1997. Only for him to follow it with a film that found him going back to his native country, and what’s still tied for my favorite of his — 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone” — which, for those of you who have seen it, would know that it was and still is a very solid entry to the horror genre. Then del Toro followed up another hit with another miss by coming back again to America to make the second entry in the “Blade” series (2002). Following this he put out his first of his two what I like to call “superhero” movies in “Hellboy” (2004) which, despite my unlikeness of the genre, was actually pretty entertaining with Ron Pearlman (a frequent del Toro collaborator) breathing new life into a somewhat unconventional superhero. Then came “Pan’s Labyrinth” which was his biggest box office and critical success yet – again, which had the writer/director shooting in Spain, and brought to audiences an incredibly unique and visually stunning film that wound up going on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Oscars. “Pan’s Labyrinth” catapulted del Toro into legendary status, and if you look at almost anybody’s list of “best films post-2000”, you’ll find it on there. Then he returned back to America like most foreign directors do following an overseas hit and he made the second film — “Hellboy 2” — in his “Hellboy” series. A film, again much like the first one, which wasn’t necessarily the typical kind of film I like as it incorporated superheros but like the first one that I found myself having a lot of fun with. Then came 2013’s “Pacific Rim” — again another film I was apprehensive to see at first but because it was a “del Toro” film, I wound up seeing and that surprisingly impressed the shit out of me, and wound up on my Honorable Mentions list (10-20) of that respective year. Then came this film, which admittedly I thought looked like something that looked like a true visual feast for the eyes, similar to something like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, combined with a Gothic horror vibe that immediately caught my eye and piqued my interest. So I decided to see it opening weekend, like I do with most directors who have put out a couple or more works that I admire. Because I find myself chasing and hoping that I’m going to find something almost or equally as good as their best work.

The story revolves around Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist; who in an early impressive scene, is warned by her dead mother to beware of ghosts (or better put – “Crimson Peak”). The film then jumps 14 years later, to where Edith is now an adult, and she meets a young Aristocrat Thomas (the still relatively unknown but always impressive Tom Hiddleston), who’s visiting her father seeking investors, and whom she eventually falls for despite her father’s disapproval. You see the father thinks the young Thomas is a hack, and as with most wealthy families, particularly in the 19th century in which the film takes place, he forbids Edith from marrying Thomas. Thomas’ sister Lucille (played by the lovely but increasing “hi I’m in every movie” Jessica Chastain) is also seemingly against their relationship, but for reasons unknown except that they appears to have an almost incestual-like relationship. Completing this triangle of disapproval is Edith’s childhood friend now doctor, Dr. MicMichael (“Son’s of Anarchy”‘s Charlie Hunnam), who’s gut tells him there’s something sketchy about the relationship between Edith and Thomas. Despite everyone’s warnings, Edith moves to England and marries Thomas, and winds up in their rather mightily impressive mansion living together under the same roof as Thomas’ sister Lucille. This house is built on the red clay that Thomas, the investor, was initially trying to sell to gain investors. And well, at this point forward in the story, nothing really is as it seems.

“Crimson Peak” winds up reflecting many ideas, styles, and tones that are lifted from some of del Toro’s earlier works, particularly that of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and is simply without a doubt his most “impressively looking” and shot film to date. I found myself in full on jaw gape mode as I looked at the many astounding set pieces and designs (both Edith’s own house that she’s shown living in as a child into adult and the house she moves to with Thomas in England) reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Almost as if they were a separate character of their own. The stark use of vibrant colors with the “red clay” motif shot against the white snowy wintertime is a visual feast for the eyes. As was the creature makeup, which I personally found to wholly original and genuinely scary when we get the several sites of the ghosts in which Edith encounters throughout. It’s probably del Toro’s most visually impressive film to date, even more than “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and contains a visually arresting Gothic flair in both its production and costume design.

However, where it ultimately fails is in allowing much more for the story other than its technical components. Some of which I’ve listed above. The story is bogged down by a slightly weak and wooden sounding script co-written by del Toro. The actors themselves – Wasikowska, Hiddleston, Chastain, and Hunnuam all do their best but sound like their pulling too much weight off of their acting talents to try to elevate an otherwise weak script. As for the story, it’s a bit predictable as soon as the young investor Thomas courts the wealthy industrialist’s daughter Edith, the viewer will most likely be able to predict what direction it’s going to head in. It’s also a bit of a slo-burner, and takes much too much time overdeveloped story in which we can already predict after about the first half hour where it’s headed in.

In summation, it winds up being an exercise in style over substance. But if you, like me, like to look at the technical side of things and enjoy del Toro’s visually stunning set pieces, design, and costumes. Then you just might find it worth it for those reasons alone. It also retains a pretty nice “creep factor” throughout, and as mentioned above, the film’s creatures and ghosts are genuinely pretty scary and there’s quite a few well shot and executed “jump” scenes. And even despite a strong ending, where the naive Edith begins to learn the real story about her husband’s house and relationship with his sister and takes matters into her own hands, it still all comes at just a little too late. This is a worthwhile effort from del Toro simply because its most technically impressive film to date, but which barely makes up for a lack of a good story, plot or character development, and weak script. For diehard del Toro fans, this warrants a recommendation. But for others, they just might find its exercise in style over substance to be just a tad bit underwhelming.

[B-]

Guillermo del Toro’s – Crimson Peak

Saturday, Oct 17, 2015, 1:30 PM

St. Johns Twin Cinemas
8704 N Lombard St Portland, OR

9 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind Crimson Peak. From the imagination of director Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy”, “P…

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The second film of the day I caught as part of one my local $3 theatres in town – who are doing a welcomed tribute of horror Grindhouse films leading up to Halloween. These films, otherwise known at the time as being labeled “Exploitation” flicks, are known to be the cheap, artsy, made on a shoestring budget crop of films from decades ago. They’ve been described as the “gross”, “mean-spirited”, “ugly”, and “distasteful” films of their time. But along with that, there’s always been a very large underground demographic or resurgence of people (evidenced by the almost sold out showing I caught in Portland late Saturday night) who gravitate towards and really get into this type of thing. I for one have admittedly never been a big fan of the genre, but in trying to keep up with and being as much of a well-rounded student of film as possible, I try to keep myself interested in any and all types of films. And in the case of this film – I went out on a bit of a limb and took a chance in a type of film that I’m normally not used to. The kind of interactive, so bad it’s good, “B” film, that you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into, even if you’re even if like me, you’re slightly familiar with what to expect. These were and still are the types of midnight independent horror films you get together with your not for the faint of heart friends for while over a pitcher of beer and hoot, holler, and laugh at the grotesque and deplorable display of images that are being projected onto the screen. To give you a better idea of the “type” of film I’m talking about here was the more commercialized (if you even want to call it “commercial”) film that came out a few years back — Jesse Eisener’s “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2011) starring Rutger Hauer — a direct homage and paying tribute to pretty every “Grindhouse” picture to have come out before it. It’s maybe that I owe this picture some gratitude of debt in that it familiarized myself with and became interested in these lost hidden gems from a time long ago where people liked their films cheap, violent, and uncompromising. It’s like being a part of a movement, like the film equivalent of punk rock, where you think you may know but you never really do wind up knowing what to expect.

“Street Trash”, a picture I was previously unfamiliar with, wound up being a great late night Grindhouse feature that expertly blended elements of horror and comedy. It’s the type of film whose main purpose is to get the crowd interactively rowdy. The story itself is totally off-the-wall, as it involves a group of homeless people who inhabit the back of a junkyard (yep) and whose favorite liquor store owner happens to stumble upon a seemingly ancient crate of liquor which he dusts the cobwebs off of and sells the bottles each for a mere dollar. Creating a sort of buzz around the homeless community in where people start to buy the magical elixir in droves (a scathing commentary on Reagan-era American consumerism). And once said elixir is drank, it melts its victims into a gooey mess (yep, again). Which pretty much sums up the gist of its plot.

Like the title suggests, this is a trashy, grotesque, and vile affair. But one that does exactly what it sets out to do – which is to completely gross out the audience and make them both laugh and cry like the many of us who were in attendance did. So in this sense it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. This film had more violence, gore, gratuitous sex and nudity, and underlying humor, in almost anything I’ve seen in a while. Along with the crowd “interactive” aspect which is half of the fun. It wound up being a great slice of trash from the eighties which I’m sure was just as offensive then as it was now. Though this is not the type of film to be analytical about, it’s simply a film to have fun with, and if you can find it at the bottom of your going-out-of-business video store’s bargain bin, it might just be the most fun with a film you should feel bad for having had such a good time with. I know for me personally it’s a film and an experience that I will both never forget.

[B/B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “The Babadook” 12.27.14

As we enter the new year I’m going to be making some more changes to the site. Some feedback I’ve gotten is that my reviews have a tendency to be a little bit too on the lengthy side. So rather than give descriptive overviews of what I like about a director or actor I’m going to trim that section down to make it a bit more accessible for the reader. I will still continue to give a brief summary or synopsis of each film, hopefully without giving away any spoilers, but moving forward you will see more of an emphasis on the aspects I either liked or disliked about the film, with just a short explanation of why I decided to see a film, my thoughts on the director or actors previous efforts, what the “experience” was like for me, etc. And try to come up with something that reads like more of a somewhat traditional movie review than an essay.

The anticipation was high for Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s new horror film “The Babadook”. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than it fell into the horror genre, was garnering a lot of attention and gaining a great critical reception reflected by its high scores and good reviews, on top of the fact that the godfather of horror – director William Friedkin (1973’s “The Exorcist”) himself called it and I quote “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen”. Quite a dubious endorsement indeed by one that horror fans worldwide heard and took note similar to that of myself. So with that being said I made plans several weeks in advance to see it, at the smallest and most intimate theater here in town, in hopes that I would be paired up with a sold out audience (which turned out being the case) where it would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop (which didn’t happen to be the case). Though truly the only way to see a horror film such as this. But more to come on that further down.

The story starts off showing the turbulent relationship between a recently widowed mother Amelia (played by Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman). Samuel seems to be obsessed with ghosts and other supernatural things that he swears he can see but his mother begrudgingly cannot. Samuel has developed such an obsession that he has constant temper tantrums and acts out incessantly, which distances both he and his mother from the local townspeople, the school which Samuel attends, and Amelia’s family. As his excessive talking about evil spirits and ghouls turns most everybody away from the mother and son. One day though, Amelia receives a strange velvet red what appears to be children’s book titled “Mister Babadook”. At first it just seems cautionary, as there are several warning signs within it, similar to that of something out of Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992) or Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” series (1987-present) where opening up the book is like opening up some kind of Pandora’s box. But then Amelia starts to see images that apparently her son has been seeing all the time, and starts to get convinced that maybe the two of them are experiencing some kind of similar supernatural spirit, one that has the ability to take over a person’s mind and body. The stakes get higher when Amelia receives a “second” “Mister Babadook” book. Except unlike the first book, this one contains a much more grisly tale that actually maps out the future of both the mother and child with very alarming predictions. It is at this point where a paradigm shift takes place in the film, and to continue to discuss it any further would require me to divulge important plot details.

My filmgoer partner and I had only one word to describe the film when the house lights came on and the credits rolled – “underwhelming”. We also both agreed that while disturbing and a bit unsettling at points, there was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that was even in the slightest bit remotely scary about this film. What we also agreed on is that if you set out to make a true modern-day horror classic it has to be at least scary to hold any sort of credibility. Almost the entire last row in the theater was laughing throughout most of it. Which I at first found annoying, but then I thought to myself “wait, the outrageousness of it all was actually pretty funny”. So that gave them reason to laugh. Sure it serves up some chills, particularly in the performances of its 2 leads which I thought was the best thing about it. Other than that I thought it wore its influences on its sleeves, paying equal homage to movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1981) which mirrored 2 of the relationships in that film. I also think it owed quite a fair amount to Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge” (2002 and 2004) in terms of its images and execution of the horror. It also can’t be discussed without discussing 2013’s far more scary and terrifying – James Wan’s “The Conjuring” containing within it a far superior better tale of demonic and supernatural possession. It also owed just as much to Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” (2012) in terms of the creature department, Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” (1992) (replacing name chanting for silly knocks), and finally, another Sam Raimi film – 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell” which this film’s ending almost reflected exactly how that one did. But enough with the comparisons – I just really had a hard time getting into something that didn’t feel even remotely original. What I will say is is that writer/director Jennifer Kent does a pretty good job here in creating a creepy mood, tone, and atmosphere as I was slightly captivated by some of the shots and the use of lighting. However despite that I never thought its psychological tone ever really took off and brought me into the territory that only some of the best psychological horror films do. For your average Joe this would be a worthwhile rental when it comes out on DVD. For others I know who are pretty seasoned horror fans I’ll finish by saying this – “don’t believe the hype”.

[C+]