Monday, November 7, 2016

Capsule Reviews for November? Indeed So.

Here are reviews of things.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (d. Tobe Hooper) - Though I count myself among the many horror fans, and film lovers in general, who consider Hooper's original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be one of the great masterpieces of the genre, and as an admirer of other Hooper films (I consider The Funhouse to be especially underrated), I have nevertheless been resistant to Hooper's 1986 sequel. In fact, prior to this past Friday, I'd tried to watch the film twice before and failed to get through it. My problem has always been, essentially, that amping up the comedy isn't something I thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre especially needed. And while I realize that there is a lot of black humor in that first film, it's never been the thing that really appealed to me. In many cases, the jokes, such as they are, in that film played differently for me. If you ignore the joke Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel were going for in a given moment (which, and this may seem an odd thing to say, given that I've said I love the film, is easy enough to do because I don't really think the jokes are funny), the horror of that moment remains. And that's what works for me.

But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is beloved by many, so I had to finally bite the bullet. And I don't know what put me off those other times. Well, yes I do: the comedy, which is located much closer to the surface, in that it is right there on top of the surface, than it was in 1974, still didn't strike me as actually funny, or even interesting. Setting that aside, which I found surprisingly easy to do, as a mad, alarmingly graphic (far more so than the original, which fans will never stop telling others is actually surprisingly bloodless), brilliantly designed, and propulsively ruthless bit of slasher insanity. The plot (ripped off by Rob Zombie for his awful The Devil's Rejects) involves an obsessed cop named Enright (Dennis Hopper) hunting the family of cannibalistic killers we met in 1974 (with some changes, including a new actor, Bill Johnson, as Leatherface, and a new family member, Bill Moseley as Chop Top; only Jim Seidow, as Drayton, makes the transition from the first film to the sequel). The two murders that open the film are witnessed, in a sense, by a night-time DJ named Stretch (Caroline Williams, in a performance that struck me as potentially as exhausting to give as Marilyn Burns's in the original), who provides Enright's best lead in years, and becomes his, sort of, partner. And off we go, ending up in a very long sequence set in the family's phantasmagorically nightmarish underground lair of tunnels and skulls and skin and shadows.

Among the pleasures of the film is seeing Lou Perryman, who I know best from Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match, another major piece of Texas cinema (and whose fate in this film is both awful on its own terms, and even worse when you know Perryman's own terrible end), and also Hopper's performance, which is better and more committed than I, unfairly, would have expected him to bother shooting for in a film like this. By saying "like this" I'm accusing Hopper of a kind of snobbery I have no actual reason to believe he actually felt. Anyway, he's real good here, is what I'm saying. And that long last set-piece is, as I've suggested, one lunatic visual after another. Even if it recreates the original's climactic dinner scene more specifically than it probably should have, it makes up for that with other, different insanities. Personally, I consider this to be a film completely separate from the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To me, they're both just riffs on the same idea, with different tones and employing different styles. Both valid, both terrific.

Carnage Park (d. Mickey Keating) - The films of Quentin Tarantino have been enormously important to Mickey Keating. Which is weird, since judging by Carnage Park he hasn't bothered to think at all about any of them.

Masques (d. Claude Chabrol) - The above shot is unquestionably my favorite from Masques, Claude Chabrol's 1987 thriller about about a young mystery writer named Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) who for whatever reason wants to write the authorized biography of the famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret), and for a period of time is a guest in Legagneur's expansive estate, so that he may interview the older man for the book. During this time, Wolf meets Legagneur's servants, which include a mute chauffeur/chef named Max (Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud), a flirty masseuse (Bernadette Lafont), etc., and most importantly, Legagneur's goddaughter (her parents having died in a terrible car accident when she was a child) Catherine, played rather brilliantly by the luminous Anne Brochet, a young woman, we're told, who is recovering from a strange illness the treatment of which left her briefly paralyzed, and is now terribly nervous, afraid, panicky, and sensitive to light. That's her up above. As Roland's motives become perplexing to the audience -- when he's hanging out in his room on his first day at the estate, we see him unpack a gun and randomly say the name "Madeline" to his reflection in a mirror -- it becomes clear that whatever mystery is about to unravel before us, Catherine is the key to it all.

That shot (look up) isn't static, it's a camera move, and I don't want to spoil what it signifies to the viewer, but it is so elegantly done, so precise and smooth, artful at the same time it is utterly free of ostentation. Though I wouldn't rank Masques among Chabrol's greatest films (of those I've seen), I would not hesitate to cite this shot as evidence that Chabrol was a brilliant director (and Brochet a terrific actress), or even film itself as a uniquely powerful artform that can depict true human emotion in its most naked and simultaneously most subtle forms. If you know the film and think I'm overstating things, I understand. But sometimes these moments can be so thrilling that I can't help myself, and I imagine it's the same for you.

What's interesting to me is that as much as I enjoyed Masques (I enjoyed it a great deal), it's probably the lightest film of Charbol's that I've seen -- it ain't exactly Pleasure Party, for example. There's one completely goofball shot showing Wolf, alone in his room, after an encounter that has left him feeling either happy or smug (which one is up to you). He was getting ready for bed when the thing that occurred occurred, and he's wearing a gray shirt. That's all we've seen of his outfit, until the camera pulls back to reveal that he's wearing cartoonishly colorful boxer shorts. It's an odd choice, but one that indicates the level of playfulness Chabrol's trying to get at. And which he gets at. Masques isn't unserious, but it's fun, more than anything. It's playing around so much that I think it loses track of itself now and again (I don't know what the point was of a revelation about one character), but any missteps are small. And they're further dwarfed by an ending that actually sort of recalls Network, but with an even better stinger of a last line.

Venom (d. Piers Haggard) - Speaking of significant shots, how about this one? While not significant to Venom in the same way that the shot in Masques I wouldn't shut up about is to that film, the snake in the liquor cabinet rather neatly symbolizes one reason, perhaps the primary reason, that Venom is such a cult favorite. Which is that somebody at some point, or maybe several people working together, decided that the best way to get this suspense film about a group of ruthless criminals who kidnap the young son of a wealthy family, only to find themselves penned into that family's home not only by, eventually, the cops, but also by the presence of a deadly black mamba snake loose among them, was to cast a giant handful of the most psychopathic alcoholic hellraisers in motion picture history: Oliver Reed, Sterling Hayden, Nicol Williamson, and Klaus fucking Kinski all star in this crazy thing. Very early on in Haggard's commentary track for the Blue Underground disc, the director says that he took over from the original director (Tobe Hooper, as it happens) who, Haggard says, may have suffered a nervous breakdown during his time on the film, though he's not sure about that.

This was more or less all I knew about Venom before watching it, and what's unfortunate about this undeniably alarming and curious fact about its production is that it suggests the film probably isn't very good and is nothing more than a curiosity. But the truth, as I see it, is that Venom is actually a pretty terrific little film. Whatever drove Hooper back to the US (this being an English film) isn't on-screen. As unpleasant as it must have been to actually spend time with that quartet (my guess is that Hayden was, on average, the most palatable), they were each, to begin with, immensely talented actors who all showed up to, at least after Haggard called "Action", do the work they were paid to do. Reed in particular is pretty superb, as the dumbest, most cold-hearted of the criminals, while Kinski, as the boss, tamps down on his natural, and probably genuine, psychopathy to play the smart (but probably no less evil) one. Williamson is the cop on the case, and Hayden is the grandfather of the little boy who, with snake scientist or whatever Sarah Miles, are the people in the house trying to keep things from spiraling out of control, have the least showy roles among this cluster of madmen, but their performances are just as good, in their way (plus Michael Gough is in there too, and Susan George, as the criminal partner of Reed and Kinski).

The weirdest thing about Venom, really, is that it's almost a riff on Dog Day Afternoon, with Nicol Williamson in the Charles Durning role, and Klaus Kinski in Pacino's (I suppose this would mean that Oliver Reed is John Cazale's Sonny). But man, this thing plays like gangbusters, because Haggard, who off the top of my head I only know from The Blood on Satan's Claw (a good movie!), knows how to put together a damn movie. If the premise is goofy, no matter: Haggard and screenwriter Robert Carrington (and, in fairness, perhaps also author of the original novel Alan Scholefield) know how to make it plausible, immediate, and even frightening. And the whole film hinges, in truth, on the first death by snakebite. It's prolonged, because nobody realizes, at first, how serious being bitten by a black mamba actually is. But the character who was bitten is starting to get an idea. Though the character is quite unlikable, their death is horrifying (and beautifully acted). At that exact moment, if not before, Venom is on rails.

Fear of Fear (d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) - Some time ago, and I honestly don't feel like linking to it, but some time ago I wrote, in another post collecting a handful of capsule reviews, about Francis Ford Coppola's Gardens of Stone, in which I said something to the effect of, Coppola has never considered any era of filmmaking style, from the earliest silents to whatever year he happens to be making a given film, out of date, or unavailable to him. It's not a matter of homage; it's a matter of exploration, curiosity, and a complete refutation of the idea that a mode or style is "dated" simply because some audiences are born later than others. The same, more or less, goes for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I say "more or less" perhaps out of ignorance -- the man made a jaw-dropping number of films in his short life, and I've seen a mere handful -- but not as a criticism: Fassbinder wanted to rescue melodrama from the trash heap. Weaned on Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder's approach to that sort of classic Hollywood "women's picture" wasn't to recreate the florid style, as fellow Sirk enthusiast Todd Haynes has done on occasion, but rather to recreate it in his own image. When Fassbinder traveled this road, the results were a wild mix of that melodramatic intensity of Sirk and others, and a kind of grainy naturalism. You kind of can't just start watching Fassbinder blind. More than most filmmakers, it helps to know what's what.

Fear of Fear, one of four pictures Fassbinder made in 1975, is quite illustrative of all this. The film's title is seen over a dolly zoom, the shot Hitchcock invented for Vertigo, his masterpiece of what you might kind of have to call melodramatic suspense. What's being dolly-zoomed is an image of what might under other circumstances be seen as a moment of domestic calm, but which that particular camera move has informed us, on a primal level, is in fact soaked in dread and depression. Starring the great Margit Carstensen as Margot, a housewife with one young child and, as the film opens, pregnant with a second, whose grip on her life and happiness is threatening to slip away, Fear of Fear manages to be both frightening and sympathetic to characters you might not expect it to like very much. I'm thinking of Ulrich Faulhaber as Kurt, Margot's husband, who is initially ignorant and insensitive, perhaps even, at first blush, detestable, but Fassbinder allows him to become someone who we understand loves his wife, and who is truly scared that what seems to be her genuine madness might have been something he could have stopped in its tracks had he not been so self-absorbed. Other characters, such as those played by Fassbinder stalwarts Irm Hermann and Brigitte Mira, who make it their mission to make Margot feel as bad about her parenting abilities and as guilty as possible about the ways in which she tries to grab some happiness out of her day, aren't afforded quite as many levels, but if everyone in this world was at worst secretly nice, none of us would ever feel miserable.

It ain't a perfect film, though. One danger, the big one, I'd say, in what Fassbinder did is to confuse style with formula. It's a trap he was often able to escape -- look at Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or, better yet, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The idea of narrative formula is, I've always said, a bit of received wisdom that needs to be stuffed in a bag and drowned, and I think on some level, at least in Fear of Fear, Fassbinder received it a bit too happily. But definitely consciously and knowingly, too, so there's that. Anyway, there's the added touch of eerie mystery revolving around the character of Bauer (Kurt Raab), who seems to haunt Margot like a ghost, though until the end she doesn't seem to understand the meaning of it. Though she probably will, eventually, after the credits.

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