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 Even now 47 years later it doesn’t even in the remotest bit seem outdated at all.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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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+]

#4: ‘The Conjuring’ (2013)

The Conjuring Movie Poster

James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is almost about as good as it gets as far as American horror films go these days. Wan is arguably the godfather of the post-aught American horror film. His groundbreaking and undeniably influential “Saw” (2004) made him an overnight star and proved to the international film making scene that we had a new auteur on our hands. Not only that but to top it off (get this) he was only 27 at the time of filming. Being in that “Saw” was so successful and Wan set the bar so high, both artistically and commercially, it was only somewhat inevitable that his next film couldn’t possibly hold up. And they didn’t. He released 2 films back-to-back in 2007 – “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence”. Both which failed miserably at the box office and with audiences. Enter 2010 after a few years away from the film making spectrum and Wan releases his 2nd most successful movie to date – the downright creepy and chilling “Insidious”. Marking a return to form and putting him once again in the hot seat as America’s most artistically commercial horror director. Then another 3 years later and Wan gives us what might be the 2nd best horror film post-2010. What I and some other people I know consider to be his masterpiece.

There are so many elements to talk about in regards to “The Conjuring” that its hard to break it down to just a few. But I will try my best. First things first, it is impeccably shot. And I rarely use that adjective to describe a piece of film making (I picked it up from Steven Spielberg in an interview when he once described the look of the films of the late, great Stanley Kubrick). Wan is in complete control here and it comes through in just about every frame and shot. It’s one of the most confident and assured pieces of film making from a directing standpoint in American horror since the great films of the 1970’s like William Friendkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) or Tobe Hoopers’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). The way in which he zooms in and out and sweeps through the corridors of the inhabited home is purely the work of a master. Secondly, in what I refer to as Wan’s “bag of tricks”. He utilizes just about every horror technique we’ve seen in the history of the genre. His arsenal bag of tricks contains everything from a grandfather clock, creaking doors and stairwells, white noise, evil spirits, old tape recordings, saturated lit archival footage, a game of “clap and seek” (remind me never to play that), haunted cellars, the scariest doll since “Chucky”, and what I find to be the most terrifying piece – a wind up corkscrew jack-in-the-box (used beautifully in the film’s closing shot). Last, and certainly not the least, is the all out, balls to the wall, horror show freak out that is the third act. It features some of the most haunting images that will forever be etched into my brain. To say he really brings it as the film comes to a close would be a huge understatement. The last half hour to 45 minutes contains some of the most pure, unadulterated horror that I’ve seen put onto celluloid since Brad Anderson’s brilliant and overlooked “Session 9” (2001). My one very minor criticism of the piece is that it follows the whole exorcism movie trope formula just a tad bit too closely. But again, a very minor criticism. Outside of that this is about as good as modern day horror gets. And solidifies my statement that James Wan is the Christopher Nolan of the horror genre.

[strong B+]