2018년 11월 13일 화요일

Il cento notti di orrore Part 2: DEVIL'S DOORWAY (2017), THE SUPER (2017) and HALLOWEEN (2018)

Finally catching up with the second installment of Il Cento notti di orrore or The One Hundred Nights of Horror series, here it is.  I am just as crazy-busy as I was a month ago but that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, and meanwhile I need my weekly or at least bi-weekly doses of horror/SF/fantasy cinema.   

As before, the rating system is done with a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points.  
3. Devil's Doorway (UK-Ireland, 2018). A Northern Ireland Screen/23Ten/yellowmoon/KEW Media Group Co-Production. 1 hour 16 minutes. Academy ratio 1.33:1. Directed by Aislinn Clarke. Screenplay by Martin Brennan, Michael B. Jackson, Aislinn Clarke. Cinematography by Ryan Kenaghan. Makeup by Liz Boson. Edited by Brian Philip Davis.  Music by Andrew Simon McAllister.  Purchased: Scream Factory Blu Ray, 2018.  Devil's Doorway is another recent IFC Midnight pickup.  The company has displayed good taste in showcasing a bunch of low- to medium-budget horror cinema, hailing primarily from Europe and Latin America.  It looked like for a while that the found footage craze, along with torture porn, would spell the death of horror genre in the last decade and a half. But interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, the former sub-genre has shown more resilience than we had any reason to expect, adapting to different forms of media (such as ubiquitous surveillance cameras, smartphones, laptop screens, etc.).

This UK-Irish production adds a new wrinkle to the subgenre, as well: the "found footages" that constitute the film are deliberately archaic 8-mm film and magnetic tape recordings, with all the unexpected flares and splices as well as bumping and grinding noises left intact.  The "documentary" is being filmed by a young Catholic priest Thornton (Ciaran Flynn), who, along with the more seasoned Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy, who played the town drunk in a fun monster-fest Grabbers [2012]), sent to investigate an incident of possible miracle at a Magdalene Laundry, one of the Catholic charity organizations for the homeless, infirm and "fallen" young women (based on the real-life Magdalene Asylums, the Dublin branch of which became scandalized when a mass grave of 155 bodies was discovered in 1993 in the convent grounds).  The Laundry is managed with an iron hand by Mother Superior Mary Campbell (Helena Bereen), who expresses no interest whatsoever in the verities of an allegedly miraculous event-- a Virgin Mary's statue shedding tears of blood.  Soon, Thornton is plagued by what appear to be ghosts of dead children-- most manifestations of them are captured in the films and recordings we are privy to as the viewers-- while Father Thomas expresses his despairing loss of faith in God. 

In fact, some of Devil's Doorway's strengths is derived from its serious engagement with Catholic theology. This being a film made in 2018, it has a notable subtext regarding the church's mistreatment of women and sexuality running through it, with Mother Superior hurling some barbed comments at the hypocrisies of the male-dominated church at one juncture.  The cramped and murky setting and positively primitive technologies used to record the supernatural goings-on actually help the debuting director Clarke maintain the atmosphere of dusty oppression and darkness liquefying into muddy, foul underground trenches.

The film is pretty scary for most of its short running time (one hour and 16 minutes), but missteps when, unlike William Peter Blatty's Exorcist series (and Paul Schrader's Dominion [2005]), it abandons its Catholic concerns and submits itself to the by now well-worn shock tactics familiar from The Blair Witch Project and its successors.  Father Thomas's secret relationship with the Laundry also fails to resonate, although Lalor Roddy's restrained performance restores some urgency to a rather conventional climax.  I will concede that Devil's Doorway is a strong debut feature that makes us welcome Clarke's next project with anticipation. ☆☆☆★   

4. The Super (US, 2017). A Fortress Features/Wolf Films/Saban Films Co-Production. 1 hour 30 minutes. Widescreen 2:35:1. Directed by Stephan Rick. Screenplay by John J. MacLaughlin. Cinematography by Stefan Ciupek. Production Design by Kaet McAnnery.  Rented: Amazon Prime Video.  You know that your film is in trouble, when one of its most compelling elements turns out to be the wizened Val Kilmer as a Ukrainian building superintendent, decked with a pair of granny-style bifocal glasses, and intoning portentous mumbo-jumbo.  And he is not even the protagonist of the film, even though I assume the title refers to his character.  The actual protagonist is Philip (Chicago P. D.'s Patrick John Flueger), a nervous ex-cop who, along with a sullen teenage daughter Violet (Taylor Richardson) and her cute but domineering preteen sibling Rose (Mattea Conforti), moves into an old NYC apartment as a security personnel after the tragic death of his wife.  The viewers already know-- via a disastrously out-of-control prologue sequence that just goes on and on-- that the apartment is haunted by a vicious killer, and his daughters are his possible targets, and yet the manager Johnson (Paul Ben-Victor) pays no heed, keeping himself busy covering up the physical evidence of the bloody shenanigans, one of more than one insensible plot developments in the film.  

The Super is produced by the bigwig behind the Law and Order franchise, Dick Wolf, and written by a notable Hollywood scribe MacLaughlin (Black Swan, Hitchcock), which explains some of the familiar faces among the supporting cast, but not its bewildering incompetence.  It is in fact one of those bad Hollywood films cobbled together from the elements that, when isolated and observed, appear to be either ingredients for a sure-fire hit or at least for a serviceable entertainment.  

Was the screenplay the culprit?  I don't know if this was MacLaughlin's unproduced early work that had, at one point, resonated with the NYC residents in the way Andrew Kevin Walker's work apparently did with the makers of Se7en, although whether his original conception or vision survives intact in the finished product is unclear.  I can only judge by the available evidence, and as far as I can see, The Super suffers from a very familiar symptom of making the viewers slog through numerous red herrings and false starts, in order to maximize the impact of the Big Twist near the end, which then completely fails to pay the dividends.   

However, I can only blame director Stephan Rick for his work with the actors, seemingly directed to act as sulky, unfriendly and self-possessed as humanly possible, completely cancelling any emotional investment on the part of the viewers.  The horror effects are plentiful, if mostly obvious and routinized: the film could really have used the kind of pizzazz or even downright perversity that energizes the lurkings, grabbings and stabbings in, say, a comparable Italian or Hong Kong production.  Those who have made this film obviously had talents bigger than those displayed in the screen: here is my hope that they have successfully moved onto better projects.  ☆☆★★

5.  Halloween (US, 2018). A Universal Pictures/Blumhouse Productions/Rough House Pictures/Trancas International Pictures Co-Production.  1 hour 46 minutes. Aspect ratio 2:39:1. Directed by David Gordon Green. Screenplay by David Gordon Green, Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride. Based on the characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Produced by Malek Akkad, Jason Blum, Bill Block. Executive Producers: Jaime Lee Curtis, John Carpenter, Zanne Devine, Ryan Freimann, David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, David Thwaites, Jeannette Volturno.  Cinematography by Michael Simmonds. Special Effects Makeup Supervision by Stephanie A. Ford, Christopher Allen Nelson, Vincent Van Dyke.  Production Design by Richard A. Wright.  Music by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel A. Davies.  Watched: AMC Emeryville Theater.  The horror specialty outfit Blumhouse and Universal team up in their latest bid to revive one of the most popular American cinematic horror franchises, Halloween.  As you all know by now, it managed to become a megahit, having opened on this year's (2018) Halloween day, earning whopping 157 million dollars in three weeks, no doubt paving way for further installments.  I am actually pretty non-commital to this prospect, given that I have never been a huge fan of either Carpenter's original film (1978)-- among his earlier low-budget opuses, I vastly prefer his poetic-macabre The Fog (1980) or even the crude but brutally Hawksian Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)-- or the series itself (which I have not followed since the Halloween III: Season of the Witch [1982]).  Perhaps for that reason, I rather like this 2018 iteration of the Michael Myers mayhem, taking place at the suburban town of Haddonfield, Illinois, as opposed to those who remember Carpenter's original as a kind of classicist or minimalist masterpiece. 

Granted, the original is solidly put together by a very talented director (unlike, say, Friday the 13th), who is also a supreme wrangler of actors, an aspect of Carpenter's talent often underappreciated, and it certainly is a pretty scary hoodoo.  But is it really a modern horror masterpiece? 

I will concede, with little to begrudge, that the original Halloween is a stripped-down, lean and mean killing machine with the muscular simplicity of a good campfire story. Maybe its non-ironical, non-hipster approach was the key to its widespread appeal, especially to the suburban teen demographic, who probably appreciated its almost primal, uncomplicated scares-- just a guy in a William Shatner rubber mask, wielding a knife, and killing you for no reason whatsoever (Neither Carpenter's original nor this film really "punishes" teenagers for engaging in sexual activity or some other socially frowned-upon behavior, contrary to the usual misconception).  Michael Myers is indeed a prototypical slasher, a monster who has been pared down, distilled and essentialized into a figure of random murderous violence.  No motives, no logic, no character tics, no colorful, smart one-liners: when the viewers, critics and even characters in this film speak of him as "pure evil," I have a sense that they are actually referring to the fact that Michael signifies nothing. He is not a metaphor for psychological perversity, social ills, the ethnic "Other," conservative political ideology, or conversely the ressentiment of the oppressed classes.  He is a "pure" bringer of death, a hulking reminder that all deaths, no matter how much we want to justify or rationalize them, are ultimately pointless, and beyond our comprehension.   

It is this unknowable, almost spiritually blank character of Michael Myers that David Gordon Green (Joe [2013], Manglehorn [2014] and Stronger [2017]) brings back in his take, a strategy markedly different from the quasi-Jungian, mythopoeic one assumed by Rob Zombie in his own reboot attempt (2007). Zombie's Halloween was in fact a not-bad try, but in retrospect too cluttered and stylized, very obviously taking place inside a horror film universe.  Gordon's version, instead, is firmly grounded in the character-oriented naturalistic world of his previous works (and therefore, recognizably real-life and small-town), wherein the lethal violence already arrives with both everyday banality and startling arbitrariness (see, for instance, the scene in Joe in which the teen protagonist's alcoholic father casually murders a fellow drunk, all for the possession of a bottle of liquor).  Throughout the film many characters, including the supposedly "disposable" supporting ones, receive close-ups that occupy a large section of the film's expansive scope visual field, and this intimacy accentuates the essential decency and moderation of Halloween's personages, especially the three generation of women unprotected by a succession of male authority figures, Laurie (Jaime Lee Curtis), her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and sympathetic granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

I am guessing that one of the reasons for Curtis's commitment to this project-- she gives a fully rounded, powerful performance as the original's sole survivor Laurie-- had to have been Green's decision to entirely abolish the family relationship angle between Michael and Laurie (amusingly but tellingly made fun of in the film's dialogue).  And thus, the new Halloween, especially in its third act, inevitably becomes a treatise on the victimized women's need for mutual trust and solidarity (in the face of the utter uselessness of male authority figure's gestures toward "protection").  The climax, a riff on the final sequence of Silence of the Lambs, emphasizes Michael's positionality as an invader of not just the private spheres of women but also their consciousness: the original perpetrator who keeps exercising his hold over his victims, largely due to the inability of the society to heed their stories.

I do not think Halloween rewrites the rules of the commercially viable Hollywood horror, or transcends its identity as an updated slasher film, with its just a bit too much reliance on gross special effects makeup, which was wholly unnecessary.  For these reasons, I cannot quite give it the ringing endorsement I have given to Hereditary or Get Out.  Yet I believe the film speaks to the anxieties of the young demographic of today just as eloquently as the 1978 original did to its fans.  ☆☆☆★★

2018년 11월 6일 화요일

Voting papers in their wrinkled, callused hands

 No long diatribe or preaching today. 

Let this old black and white photography eloquently speak for me.  This is from a Kyonghyang sinmun report dated May 24, 1971, showing a Korean rural village members waiting patiently in line to cast their votes for a National Assembly election.

As the result of this election, the military dictator Park Chung Hee's Democratic Republican Party, established in 1963, still held the majority, but despite the disarray suffered by the opposition New Democratic Party it managed to garner 44.4 per-cent of the total votes, as opposed to 48.8 per-cent for the ruling party.  

Did this election end Park's dictatorship?  No.  But the NDP gained more than 11 per-cent of the electoral support compared to 1967.   

Incremental changes.  One step, one vote at a time. 

These cumulative changes eventually produced South Korea of today, a fiercely democratic nation that, despite being in a state of war against a hostile, potentially nuclear-armed military regime, successfully impeached and brought down a corrupt President just last year. 

So never say your vote does not matter. Nor say that, despite your vote, the bad guy still won, so it was for nothing.  Your vote does matter, and it was not for nothing.  Histories of all societies and nations that have ever become functioning democracies will tell you that. 

(Photo source: http://db.kdemocracy.or.kr/isad/view/00733142)