Sunday, November 2, 2014

Capsule Reviews! The Return of Them!

It's been quite a while since I et cetera et cetera. Onward!

Werewolf Woman (d. Rino di Silvestro) - In 1971, the English poet Thomas Blackburn published his one and only novel, called The Feast of the Wolf, about a professor and writer whose failing marriage, alcoholism, and encounters with fringe, troubled members of society combine to either send him off the deep end or to invigorate a latent lycanthropy. Werewolf material is mixed with vampire lore and psychology, which is mixed with painful autobiography (the very personal elements of the novel are supposedly elucidated upon in Blackburn's subsequent memoir A Clip of Steel, which I have not read yet), and it all adds up to a very messy piece of fiction which Blackburn nevertheless pretty clearly had to cough up onto the page. Somewhat unaccountably, it's this novel I was most reminded of while watching Werewolf Woman, Rino di Silvestro's extremely sleazy, and I suspect not remotely personal, bit of horror exploitation from 1976, which was just released by Raro Video.

Though the plot is gussied up with lots of jibber jabber between a cop and a doctor about what really is going on here, the basics of Werewolf Woman are all that matter, and they are these: a young woman named Daniela (Annik Borel) was raped some years before the film begins, a trauma that has badly damaged her mental health. She's come to believe that a distant ancestor, who legend says was a werewolf, has passed on her curse to Daniela, and this, combined with the trauma, leads her to seduce and murder men (though she finds it within herself to murder a couple of women, too, one of whom, living in the same psychotic ward in which Daniela is confined at one point, attempts to sexually assault her as well). The film doesn't really play around too much with the question of whether or not she really is a werewolf, and is stronger for it. Its ambitions to be a more-or-less straightforward rape-revenge film are about all it can handle anyway.

Calling this a "straightforward" rape-revenge film is not to say that in the general way of things Werewolf Woman is in any way straightforward (it should also be remembered how bizarre rape-revenge movies, particularly of this era, tend to be). For one thing, Borel spends most of the film nude, and not just so she can be leered at by any potential attackers, or even to lure in potential victims -- at one point while two other characters are having sex, she's watching them while masturbating. Needless to say, this isn't film in a way to make the viewer think this is a disturbing act, but rather in a style that says "Hey fellows, get a load of this pretty lady!" This all despite the fact that she's a deeply troubled rape victim. So Ms. 45 this is not. Nor is it even Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave, which for all its questionable aspects cannot be accused of being soft in its depiction of rape (Werewolf Woman predates both of those anyway; however, by the end it wouldn't mind if you picked up on a nod towards Straw Dogs, a film I'm pretty sure Werewolf Woman didn't understand). Pretty much every scene in Werewolf Woman that involves sex, and that's a lot of them, is intended to be erotic; it's just that, as would eventually become the standard for slasher movies, some of those scenes end with a fury of blood-letting. So this is not a reputable film, nor a very good one, but most standards. I do not "recommend" it. But I'll tell you, for an exploitation actress with only a handful of film credits, Annik Borel isn't phoning anything in. The ceiling for her talents may not have been that high, but then again, who knows? When it comes to playing Daniela's madness, and especially her violent frenzies, she doesn't hold back, and if ever this aggressively insincere movie actually means what it says, it's because Borel is saying it.

Curtains (d. Richard Ciupka) - Halloween being the time of year when you pick up a random horror film you've never seen before and say things like "What the fuck, I guess I'll watch this one," I recently checked out this Canadian slasher film from 1983. And I was struck by certain things. Where even to begin. I guess I'll begin with this one bit of meta nonsense I didn't realize until just recently, which is that the task of directing this film was credited to "Jonathan Stryker," though the work was actually done by Richard Ciupka. The choice to use this credit may have had something to do with the fact that Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson fought terribly during production, but whatever the case "Jonathan Stryker" is also the name of the egocentric, amoral film director played by John Vernon in Curtains. So you can see what they've done.

But snide remarks aside, Curtains is kind of an interesting thing. The story is, Stryker is making this movie called Audra, and it's just going to be the best movie, so a bunch of actresses are vying for the title role. One actress, the very famous and admired Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) was going to play the role, and even had herself committed to a mental hospital as research, was instead screwed over by Stryker, and after escaping the hospital (this is all somewhat contrived, I'll grant you) she crashes the weekend getaway/audition at Stryker's pad, where he will be auditioning/bedding a variety of women who desperately want to play Audra, including Lynne Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson. Maury Chaykin is in this briefly, too. It's extremely Canadian.

Anyway, so, some lunatic wearing a disturbing old lady mask starts killing people, but as was often the case in the early array of less locked-in slasher films, this one sort of takes its time about slashing anybody. As Lynne Griffin points out in the commentary track for the Blu-ray, these horror films were closer to being murder mysteries -- like giallo, but also less extreme -- than what slasher films would eventually become. I mean, this thing is practically a melodrama for much of its run time. Of course, the original Friday the 13th took a while before it started killing people, but once they started they carried forward in earnest. Curtains spaces it out with that melodrama of the women being psychologically abused by John Vernon. If it's not great, it's very interesting historically, and it is a pleasant watch as a mystery -- Curtains has more than one turn in its plot that genuinely surprised me. Plus it's slightly goofy, and the melodrama, which I keep bringing up so I should clarify, isn't exactly Douglas Sirk. But it's like the slasher film in utero. And of course, there were tons of these, but we only remember the super violent ones that took place near lakes and such. It's a shame.

Nightcrawler (d. Dan Gilroy) - This one has been sort of talked about. It has what one might refer to as, if one were so inclined, "buzz." Since the Toronto International Film Festival, to be specific, when it sort of sneaked up on everybody. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of Tony Gilroy of Michael Clayton and the Bourne films fame, who serves here as a producer, Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, an unnerving, bug-eyed man who we first meet robbing a construction site. Eventually, he will seek employment in the world of "nightcrawlers" (I'm happy that Gilroy only gives the literal explanation of the film's title once, as far as I remember, but I sort of think even that's one time too many), by which I mean the underground world of freelance crime photojournalism. You get a police scanner, a video camera, and GPS, you tool around Los Angeles until something comes over the scanner and then you go, and hopefully you're the first one there, shooting the accident scene or crime scene, the fire, the victims, talking to bystanders, then selling the footage to the local news stations. Bloom is a sociopath, and he considers this the work he was always meant to do, so after some fumbling around he starts making sales to Nina, a local news producer (Rene Russo), he hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), and has soon blown right by seasoned professionals such as Joe Loder (Bill Paxton).

Nightcrawler's big show is Gyllenhaal's performance -- it's what people were talking about after the TIFF screening, it's mostly what people are talking about now, and it's the primary thing about the film that deserves to be talked about. He's pretty outstanding here, shedding enough weight to look somewhat insectile, his hair just long enough to be the wrong length, his smile just wide enough to be spooky. The character is almost always in control of whatever situation he happens to be in, and of himself, and it's that control that Gyllenhaal plays so beautifully because it's so often so inappropriate, which is to say that a person who enjoyed better mental health would, in these same circumstances, betray some uneasiness, some nervousness, some fear or empathy or pity. Gyllenhaal's Bloom never does, and his professional success stems directly from his lack of humanity. Which is what's great about Gyllenhaal's performance, and the big problem with the movie as a whole.

Messiness in a film is not something to be avoided at all costs -- it all depends on how messy and in what way the messiness shows itself. But Dan Gilroy pretty obviously wanted none of that, and his script is hammered straight and squared off to a degree that the resulting professionalism of the whole endeavor has a whiff of phoniness about it. Everything is so easily charted: Bloom is struggling. Bloom witnesses Joe Loder doing this job and decides to do it himself. At first he makes a fool of himself. Then he makes one big sale. Then he makes another big sale, though in gathering the footage he sells he crosses a line. But it's a big sale! Now the montage of success. Then a situation begins to arise that may require more lines to be crossed. WILL HE CROSS THOSE LINES. This is a dark and cynical film, so sure he will, but you know that anyway because the script has told you it would. Or anyway winked at you in a way that made everything perfectly clear. One character exists in this film only to be killed. How they will die and in what context may not be clear, but he or she nevertheless might as well have the knife sticking out of their back when they first show up on screen. In Nightcrawler, nothing is ever in doubt.

There has been some disagreement about whether Nightcrawler is or is not a satire. I agree with those who say that it is not. However, if Dan Gilroy had been successful in obliterating all messiness from his film then it would have been perfect, and since it is not perfect, Nightcrawler is ergo a messy film, and one of the ways in which it is messy is, first, the fact that it clearly wants you to think about Network, which was a satire, as well as Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, which is not. So I fully understand why some are calling Nightcrawler satirical, because it is my belief that some early version of the script was satire, and then Gilroy remembered how Dr. Strangelove was originally supposed to be a drama before Kubrick changed directions and turned it into a madcap satire. So he thought "Hey I'll do that with my movie, but in reverse." This is all speculation, but even if I'm wrong I think I've nailed the spirit of the thing, and anyway the result is that with all this mish-mash of influential films, some satire, some not, crowding in, a ghost of a satire is left behind, quite awkwardly. Satire is something you should probably commit to. Using it as a seasoning is possible, but brother, you'd better know what you're doing. And whatever you do, do not invite comparisons to Ace in the Hole, because you just can't win that game.


Anonymous said...

I actually saw CURTAINS in the theatre. I was dragged to it grudgingly, as I was never a fan of "slasher" movies. This film only served to strengthen that impulse.

bill r. said...

Well, it's not a great movie, but I did enjoy watching it. Sort of, to a degree.

John said...

(I'm happy that Gilroy only gives the literal explanation of the film's title once, as far as I remember, but I sort of think even that's one time too many)

Given that "Nightcrawler" is its title, I reckon it should open with a close-up of a hectic mass of worms squirming around in muck and such, for a bit of a subtle metaphorizing on the intertextualization between the themes of the movie and that there title.