Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Collection Project Capsule Reviews: We Knows What We Knows and We Keeps it to Ourselves

From Beyond the Grave (d. Kevin Connor) - This was the last of Amicus's series of anthology horror films, and it's a classic, in its way. I wouldn't claim that From Beyond the Grave is as consistently involving as earlier such films, either by Amicus (like, say, Asylum) or not (Dead of Night, which probably has yet to be beat, in this horror subgenre), but it sticks to a strong and proven formula by pulling its stories from the work of a single horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes (Robert Bloch seemed to be Amicus's go-to for this sort of thing, but not here), and gluing everything together with a thin, but still intriguing wrap-around story, which features Peter Cushing as the proprietor of an antiques shop who seems to judge people based on whether or not they wish to talk him down in price. Either way, though, if you buy something from his store, or even plan to buy something, then your goose is most likely cooked.
The quality of the stories is a bit sporadic, with the worst coming in the third out of four -- it stars Ian Carmichael as a man who talks Cushing down on a snuff box. As Carmichael leaves the shop, Cushing says "I hope you enjoy snuffing it", which gives a hint that this story is going to be the "funny" one, which was unfortunately part of the routine, more often than not. The gist is that Carmichael now has an elemental hanging around on his shoulder. An elemental is an invisible and malicious spirit, and Carmichael's, upon his return home, tries to murder his wife (Nyree Dawn Porter). They call a clairvoyant (Margaret Leighton), who Carmichael met on the train home, and whose warnings about the elemental were blithely dismissed. Well, now who looks stupid. Leighton is given the sorry role of trying to be funny without having anything actually funny to say, and much of this story, breezy as it is, comes off as a chore. What's strange about it, though, is the ending turns out to actually be quite creepy, shifting from a light-hearted tale of haunting to, in its final moments, one of genuine demonic evil. It's hard to tell if this tonal shift really works, but it's nevertheless appreciated, as it makes From Beyond the Grave's weak middle-to-end pretty bracing, in a chilling sort of way.
Meanwhile, the best story, and by far the strangest, comes just before, and it stars Ian Bannen as a sad-sack office worker whose wife despises him. He shows kindness to Donald Pleasance, an old soldier selling a meager trade on the corner, and even seeks to impress the old man by claiming a military past for himself. This lie draws him to Cushing's shop, where he tries to buy a medal to prove his past, and claims, to Cushing, that he's replacing a medal he lost. But he needs a particular certificate to show he's due such a medal, and not having one, can't buy the medal. And he never gets it, but that doesn't stop the curse of Cushing's shop from dragging this already sad man down even further into the weird and blackish world of Pleasance and his daughter (played by Angela Pleasance), a grinning, big-eyed void of a girl who somehow draws Bannen to her, due likely to her general niceness and availability.
This one, the Bannen/Pleasance story, is, as I said, quite strange, and beautifully played by Bannen and the two Pleasances. There is something about Bannen that makes him seem particularly undeserving of his fate, and the idea that Cushing's shop might only punish those who've sinned (however small that sin might seem to us) is smashed to rubble here. Cushing's shop is called "Temptations, Limited.", but poor Bannen is tempted only to go outside of his family to find someone who might be nice to him. He just didn't know how deeply within his family the bad blood actually ran.
Spider (d. David Cronenberg) - Speaking, as I was recently, about transitional films in the career of David Cronenberg, Spider, his adaptation of the Patrick McGrath novel about a deeply disturbed husk (Ralph Fiennes in the film) newly released from an insane asylum only to find his past rising up to remind him why he was locked up in the first place, strikes me as especially important. If you've read McGrath's novel, you know that it's not entirely lacking in the kind of grotesque imagery that a younger Cronenberg would have made a meal of: for instance, there's a potato that, when you cut it, bleeds, and a jug of milk in which Spider finds a tiny, shriveled, lifeless fetus (he drinks the milk anyway). McGrath has said that when Cronenberg signed on for the film, he was very excited to see how the director would execute some of those images, but Cronenberg fooled everybody by not filming any of it. Instead, Spider is almost relentlessly quiet and patient, because while co-stars Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, both excellent, kick up a storm playing two or three versions of their characters, every so often in the same scene, Fiennes barely speaks. At least, he barely says anything you can understand, instead communicating largely to himself in whispered mumbles, and scribbling in his diary, in an alien alphabet. His hallucinations are almost functional in that they deal specifically with who he is and why he is where is, and where that is. Cronenberg has stripped away the strong indications of madness McGrath supplied him with, and instead focused on evidence that is somehow both more clear and more obscure.
Spider is the kind of story that has a twist, but in this case, instead of rendering what's come before irrelevent, everything seems so much sadder at the end. Fiennes' stunning performance isn't a show-boat "I'm crazy!" piece of acting, but instead so completely removed from general humanity that unless the camera is pointing right at his face or nicotine-stained fingers, you might think he's simply bled out into the background. Cronenberg has dotted the film with a number of strong supporting actors -- such as Lynn Redgrave as Spider's unsympathetic landlady, and John Neville as his eternally fascinated and also-mad fellow tenant -- and has even made room for some of his often ignored humor ("I got a letter today from that Sophia Loren." "Oh, and what did she want?"). But most interesting of all is the realization that Cronenberg's previous film was eXistenZ, which was full of meat guns that shot teeth and fleshy game controllers whose penises you plugged into your spine. With that film, he seems to have washed his early work completely out of his system. I'd say "for better or worse", but Spider is one of his very best films, so I'm not sure there's an answer to give, or a choice to be made.


Tony Dayoub said...

I think I waited until the end of this year's blogathon to write a piece on a film which may have been overlooked during the course of the event. Though I had been hoping it'd be DEAD RINGERS it ended up being SPIDER. It made me apprehensive because I hadn't seen it since its original release, which at the time hadn't impressed me. But damn if I wasn't glad I got it after revisiting it.

SPIDER is sorely neglected by Cronenberg fans (as is FAST COMPANY, but for different reasons), but the film really is a transitional one as you say. In it, Cronenberg avoids the obvious hallmarks like his propensity for gore like you say, and internalizes the character's aberrations. He still explores the sex as infection theme, but almost as a valedictory in a particular way I can't quite put my finger on. It just seems like all of those familiar qualities to his work are played much more subtly here and on through his subsequent films.

bill r. said...

It's a great movie. Sorry I didn't get this in under the wire, but, you know, time, and all that.

But anyway, yeah, even though I haven't heard Cronenberg say as much, I think he was very consciously putting his past behind him here. The kind of imagery he normally trafficked in was served to him on a platter here, and he avoided it, and has avoided it ever since.

He still explores the sex as infection theme, but almost as a valedictory in a particular way I can't quite put my finger on.

I have to say, I don't quite see that. The first part, yes, but not the "valedictory" part. There's not really a valedictory moment in the whole film, that I can see.

I've still never seen FAST COMPANY, by the way.

Tony Dayoub said...

That's okay, I've never seen VIDEODROME (which viewing lapse is worse). But I plan on changing that soon, since I believe Criterion will be announcing its December release on Blu-ray later today or tomorrow.

You don't think he's leaving the "sex as infection" theme behind in this film? I suppose one could argue that Tom Stall infects his son with the seed of violence through gene inheritance in HISTORY. Or that Armin Mueller-Stahl infects his illegitimate baby with the legacy of violence in PROMISES, but I sort of think those are a stretch.

bill r. said...

Sorry, I'm an ass. I was incorrectly defining "valedictory" in my head -- I was changing it so it meant "triumphant", or something. Forgive my lapse.

So, yeah, I can see your point now.

Also, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that the guy who just hosted a Cronenberg blogathon has never seen VIDEODROME.

Tony Dayoub said...

I guess the fact that it's the only feature of his I haven't seen doesn't make up for the fact that it's his most representative?

It's sort of like if I said the only Scorsese film I haven't seen is RAGING BULL, or the only Tarantino film I haven't seen is PULP FICTION (seen them both, of course... or I'd have my cinephile card revoked).

You have to have a film skeleton like that in your closet.

bill r. said...

Oh, please! I have dozens! I haven't seen fucking NOSFERATU! I wasn't judging, honestly. I was just surprised.

Greg said...

I've seen Videodrome and Nosferatu. Also, Peter Cushing ROCKS! Maybe I'll do a Cushing blogathon soon.

bill r. said...

I'd be up for that.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Aw geez, VIDEODROME is great! As are both versions of NOSFERATU! Hell, VIDEODROME is one of those movies I almost wish I hadn't seen, just so I could have my mind blown by it again.

Nice write up of this film, particularly its end. To me, that's the definition of a good twist ending---where it renders everything that came before richer and more interesting (as opposed to bad twist endings, that make everything previous seem irrelevant). What really gets me about SPIDER is the mood of crushing sadness that pervades it (and is maybe the most "English" thing about this very English movie). The films I'd slot it with are CRASH, DEAD RINGERS, and NAKED LUNCH, movies that have plenty of horror elements, but which replace the lightfooted jump of shock with pure, leaden sorrow.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Fuzzy. I honestly don't remember thinking SPIDER was quite as good the first time around as I did this time, but it's really great. I can see why more than one critic at the time said it was the best piece of direction Cronenberg had ever done.

And personally I'd pair SPIDER with THE FLY, not because the titles match so nicely (although that's sort of interesting, too), but because they're the two truly emotionally engaging films of Cronenberg's career. NAKED LUNCH is very good, but I found it too full of intellectual turns and shifts to be genuinely emotional, and CRASH and DEAD RINGERS (which might be my least favorite Cronenberg's, though I definitely need to watch both again) were too cold. SPIDER and THE FLY (hey, lookit that!), on the other hand, just break your heart.

And VIDEODROME is indeed great, as is Herzog's NOSFERATU. Which I have seen. I've seen THAT one, but not Murnau's. I know, I know.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

It's funny, I can see where CRASH and NAKED LUNCH come off as cold---CRASH is visually pretty much at sub-zero blue the whole time! But I find them both tremendously emotional movies, somehow, practically throbbing with loss and loneliness. Spader's haunted yearning to connect which is never quite successful (and all those long, lonely drives), and Bill Lee's wrenching loneliness (only made more intense by the fruitless manipulations of those around him) somehow hit right in the gut. Even the "talking asshole" monologue in NAKED LUNCH packs an emotional wallop for me---not for the content of the dialogue, but for the sight of Bill, crammed in a car with four people yet somehow making himself more alone the more he moves his mouth.

Will Errickson said...

Fuzzy Bastard, you bastard! You encapsulated CRASH and NAKED LUNCH wonderfully. I've only seen SPIDER once and felt it was more like a polite exercise for Cronenberg than a full movie, but seems I need to rewatch it. I still think DEAD RINGERS is his greatest, but EASTERN PROMISES really blew me away. I may have said this before, but his "body horror" motif has never been more in effect than that nude steam bath fight to the death. Also, Cronenberg knows how to *end* a movie, don't he? Hit that emotional peak, hold for a bare second, then--black.