Sunday, April 26, 2009
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) - The Director's Cut/ Fan edit D. John Boorman Warner Brothers 1.85
For years I have heard nothing but how this movie is an unmitigated disaster. One of the worst sequels ever made and just a train wreck of a film from beginning to end. Misguided, miscast, incomprehensible and just plain unwatchable, unless taken as a comedy. Being that I consider The Exorcist one of the greatest films ever made, I just didn't want to sully that film in my mind and so I never bothered with this one. Now, that never stopped me from seeing The Exorcist: The Beginning, so I really have no arguable point to my madness. Also there have been many alternate cuts to Exorcist II over the years, with the final DVD that Warner's released being the longest one. this apparently was the same as the version that Warner's released to theaters in winter of 1977 that was universally panned by audiences and destroyed by critics. So much so that director John Boorman agreed to the film being pulled from release and personally recut the movie from 117 minutes to a much tighter 110 minutes and re-arranged much of the storyline, using some stills and footage from the original film to make it flow better.
This fan edit that I watched tonight originated from the tracker site Demonoid and was put together from a cat named PhineasBg who has lovingly reconstructed that 110 minute "director's recut" from the available DVD and an ancient VHS tape. His goal to replicate what many consider to be John Boorman's true directorial cut of the film. I have no frame of reference as to whether or not he succeeded in doing so, except to say that I thought the movie was far better than people have led me to believe over the years. This was in no way the flaming pile of shit people have accused the film of being.
After an awkward opening explaining the incidents of the first film through still frames and voice overs we are introduced to Father Lamont, played by Richard Burton. He is in Africa on missionary work but confronted with an exorcism of a local woman that goes horribly wrong. seems the woman was a local healer but the demon won't let her go and she dies in a wall of flames. Back home the Church sends Lamont to investigate the death of Father Merrin from the first film. He discovers Reagan McNeil (the now quite gorgeous teenage Linda Blair) in some sort of experimental hypno-therapy with a new age Doctor played by Louise Fletcher. The three of them begin to use a new strobe light driven device to go into deep hypnosis trances to get at Reagan's memories of the demon possessions only to realize the demon's themselves are very much still alive in her.
So far so good. A little Sci-Fi heavy, very New Age, but a very interesting take on the material. Not scary, but headed into a different direction and in no way rehashing what we have already seen from the first film. Then the film takes a hard left turn that has left many audiences really cold. It delves hard into the African native cultural beliefs dealing with things like plagues of locusts destroying the land, being driven by demons and taking on spirit animals to confront such demons. The film mixes these native approaches to spirituality with the new age hypnotism therapies, and a constant questioning of faith in Christianity. Christianity starts coming up very short by the end of the film. But the elements that seems to put people off, at least among my friends, is the dealing of spirits with representational animals and insects. The locusts, which throughout the bible have stood for the destruction of the land, are prominent in this film representing damnation. they represent the spread of the demons and the force of evil. The image here being, literally, a large locust flying around leading hordes to the next bit of prey. We get to see James Earl Jones as a tribal Priest dressed in the skins of a giant Locust whose spirit animal is a giant Leopard who is able to control the locusts. when it is revealed he is not a God at all but a scientist that has studied locusts a lot of the imagery that has come before falls into place. He explains how the locust spread destruction when they are agitated and angry, especially in large packs. He then explains how they have bred a new locust that will have the power to calm the other locusts. Something we see a local native boy who was a faith healer trying to do, when he falls possessed earlier in the film.
The whole while Pazzuzzu the demon inside of Reagan is trying to become unleashed but is battling the positive side of Reagan as well which will become the Black locust, the healer. Which we see in action when she, without trying, heals an autistic child just by talking to her at the psychiatric hospital earlier. The final battle will be between the Evil doppelganger Reagan, possessed by Pazzuzzu and the healer Reagan, the Black Locust. With poor Lamont having to fight the final battle to tear the heart from the demon to stop it once and for all.
What we end up with here is really a film that is quite unlike anything else. A child progeny of the drugged out, coked up, weed smoking late seventies, when people were wearing crystals, checking out new religions and questioning anything and everything to do with faith and the universe. While the first Exorcist movie was in essence a very Catholic film that re-enforced Christian and Catholic dogma and morality at the end of the day (I still love it anyway, and most people totally miss that it is a very moral, and pro church film) Exorcist II is looking in a completely different direction. Here the director (and ghostwriter with partner Rosco Pallenberg) are exploring the conceits that maybe organized religion isn't the answer when faced with raw evil. The film rather smartly pits Catholicism against science, against new agism, and most importantly what many would consider outright Paganism with the African magic and tribalism. By the end of the film it is the African Tribalism that has the answers, leaving all the other systems of worship and faith trialing behind. If the film is watched carefully it is as much a conical of Father Lamont's spiral out of his faith as it is a weirdo horror/fantasy about demons and Locust Spirit Guides.
Still the movie is far, far from perfect. It's over ambition renders several scenes on the pretentious side, and even cut down to 110 it is a bit too long. Richard Burton was reportedly drinking quite heavily during production and his still performance and profuse sweating shows this to be true. There are a couple of scenes that are clearly supposed to be directed in a dreamlike manner but just come off as goofy instead.
But most of the movie is a visual feast, with breathtaking cinematography, great locations, both on site and in studio. an incredible score by Ennio Moricone, solid acting form most of the cast, and Linda Blair right as she is hitting her stride into adult hood. There is a lot to appreciate in this film. Is it an appropriate movie to be a sequel to the classic The Exoricst? Probably not. Is it a good film, ripe for rediscovery, full of mental stimulation, incredible imagery, and lots of interesting and challenging ideas? Yes sir, that is exactly what it is. And I will take that.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Last House On The Left (2009)
D. Dennis Lliadis
It is really hard to go into a remake of a classic (well kinda classic) film with an open mind. There was a movie critic here in Dayton that a friend and I were talking about recently, that I also had as a teacher a long time who was very wise when it came to reviewing films. People would often talk to him about how a movie should have done this, or been this way or that. But his theory was that have to review the movie presented to you, not the movie you wished you had seen. He called it the movie "within the frame". I'm terrible for that sometimes because being a filmmaker I tend to want to reconstruct things I feel are not working, or in cases like this one, when they are remakes I almost cannot help but to flashback on the originals for a comparison. This was exceptionally difficult while watching the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, because a) it is such a seminal and groundbreaking work in the horror genre, and b) it is a film that I have int he past thought about how I would remake myself. But about midway through this film I found I was able to turn off my brain and find the film "within the frame" and appreciate it for what it was.
The movie at hand is not substantially different from the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. The tale is about two teenage girls who end up abducted but a gang of criminals, abused, raped and killed. Then by twist of chance (well not so much in this version) end up spending a night of refuge at the home of one of the girl's parents who figure out what has happened and exact revenge for their daughter. That's the general idea anyway. Well that is really the plot synopsis of the original film, here the movie is about two teenage girls who are captured by a gang of criminals, one is killed, the other is raped and left for dead. Through clever maneuvering on the girl's part it turns out the atrocity took place literally in the woods behind her house. Because the car they had stolen is wrecked the gang go to the first house they come to for help. Not knowing it is the parents of the girl they raped and think is dead. She makes her way back, the parents figure out what has happened, but are basically trapped in this remote summer home with these psychopaths who have hurt their daughter and killed her friend. So they take action. Somewhat in revenge but just as much in defense.
At the end of the day the movie is surprisingly compelling and well made. The trailers that everyone say made the movie look much more cheesy than it actually is. everything is played super straight, with no bullshit humor or over the top theatrics. There is some terrific acting from Tony Goldwin (remember him from GHOST?) and Monica Potter as the parents. The gang isn't bad either though I think Garret Dillahunt was Krug was cast more for his hunk good looks and chiseled chest than anything else. He's fine in the film, but I always felt like he was acting like a badass instead of was a true horrible badass. The girls fare a bit worse, Sarah Paxton is the focus of the film as Mari Collenwood and she basically is a blank slate to me. Martha MacIsaac is most recognisable from her role in SUPERBAD plays the best friend Paige and is much more spunky and identifiable as a character, but is so woefully underwritten that she barely registers at all too. In fact both girls characters are underwritten to the degree that when the bad stuff starts happening I felt less tension than I should have for them. I do however give props to the producers for hiring young actresses that look like actual people and not some cattle call for some WB drama. On that front I liked both girls. They just needed a bit more meat to chew on before their ordeal started. Riki Lindhome as Sadie is basically the sex appeal of the movie as she several times shows her boobs, but she has a unique look to her face that is rather odd and appealing. Once again her character is not really very defined (one minute she is into the rape and killing, the next she seems not to be, but not much is ever said or done with it) which is unfortunate. Though her topless fight scene is appreciated.
What the movie has going for it is that it is a well oiled machine. It gets from point A to point B, to point C economically and swiftly. When it is time to get mean and dirty it doesn't pull too many punches. The pivotal rape scene that the movie should hinge on (more on that in a moment) is there and present and suitably ugly and repulsive. There were 3 walkouts in the theater tonight, making me wish I had went and saw this the weekend it came out in a theater packed with unsuspecting teenagers who thought the wretched FRIDAY THE 13TH remake was the height of terror. I would have righteously enjoyed watching crying teenagers crawl out of the theater because they couldn't handle what they were watching. I give this movie big props for not succumbing to the a post modern, goofy approach to the material. Only once in the final minutes of the movie does it go over the top in a way that most modern films like SAW or HOSTEL do and the scene is clearly something that was added to appease either a studio or test audience who demanded more gore and a more resolute finale. It clearly doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the film at all and in some ways deflates a lot of what has come before it.
So does the film work on its own "within the frame"? Yes actually it does. It is not a great horror film. The characters are a bit too thin, and in my eyes it isn't mean enough. It is meaner than most modern horror films even think about being. But...
It gets way too soft in the last third by having Mari and Justin both survive the events of the night. (Justin being the son of Krug the bad guy). the whole idea of bad things happening to good people is still there and accounted for, but the family ultimately will be okay after this. yes scarred by the incidents, but they survived it. They overcame. And by changing the focus of Mari dying to her living and the parents having to fight off the bad guys because they are more or less trapped in the house changes the film from a rape/revenge horror to a more of a survivalist horror or home invasion horror which is almost a different genre altogether. Which in turn renders the rape almost a mute point. Structurally in the way the movie is set up now there is no real point to the bad guys having raped Mari because the real reason the parents are fighting them is because they are wanting to make it through the night and get their daughter to safety. Revenge is secondary at best. If she had died and the parents sole purpose was to kill them then it becomes a revenge film with all the moral dilemmas that come with it. Which I get the feeling the filmmakers were trying very hard to avoid.
Now the real test. Does it hold up to the original film? Of course not. Though I do not consider the original film a perfect movie by a long shot. It is deeply flawed and has considerable problems. Many of which this remake gets right such as getting rid of the horrid comic relief which sinks the film on several occasions. This time they also get rid of any police characters, another extraneous detail that is simply not needed. They eliminate Krug's son being hooked on heroin. But the biggest elimination is most of the violence during the all important violation of the two girls. In the new film only one of the girl's is raped on only by Krug. The other girl is not raped or molested at all. There is no "piss your pants" moment. There is no carving of the name in the chest. No severed arm. No disembowelment or Sadie playing with the intestines. And most importantly no shots of the gang trying to wipe the blood off their hands of the incident or standing there dazed after the orgy of violence. We DO get Sadie looking kinda bewildered and then it starts to rain and maybe tears streak her eye make up, or maybe it is the rain. That is as close as we get to moral uncertainty for the characters. But there is not an orgy or horror comparable to the original. I'm not saying what is there isn't horrific. It was enough to drive people out of the theater. But comparatively speaking it is weak tea to what we got almost forty years ago.
But with that also comes the fact that this new version really isn't saying anything either. It is arguable that the original is or isn't this big message film about the death and destruction of life in Vietnam (which Craven and Cunningham claim it is). I've never bought that line of thinking. But it is clearly trying to say something on violence, the sudden nature of violence, and how it changes us. How we as humans react to the taking of a life of someone we care about and is it justifiable to react violently to that initiative? I've always found the final scenes of the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to ring false when the cops come in and the parents are suddenly reminded of how vile they have become due to their revenge. Which is why I have always preferred I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as a revenge film since it doesn't go all soft in the final reel. But I think both films discuss those impulses very well. I think this remake goes well out of its way to sidestep the issue altogether and stack the deck so it doesn't have to deal with it. Which is unfortunate to say the least.
So at the end of the day, it is a decent and entertaining, mean little film. With surprisingly good performances. I can recommend it if you can watch it with the original cleared from your head. which I know is very hard to do.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Hell Squad (1987?)
D. Kenneth Hartford
MGM Home Video
When the USA is working on a new and improved version of the Neutron bomb the Middle Eastern terrorist organizations take notice. One of the American diplomats in charge of the program has a son who is morally opposed to the creation of the bomb and is pretty vocal about it. Naturally this gets him into a fight with his pops and when he angrily storms outside unguarded he is kidnapped by some wiley unnamed Arabs. Since any kind of action on the part of the United States would be considered political suicide or an act of war the diplomat puts any kind of solution into the hands of his ASSistant, who comes up with possibly the most cockamamy scheme ever. You think Iron Eagle was goofy? Check this out!
This gooftard decides to round up a troupe of spunky Las Vegas showgirls (I.E. strippers) and put them through a several week crash course of assassination training to make them super soldiers. Then send them into the Middle East (looking a lot like the outskirts of L.A.) to grab his boss’s son. And the big boss dude goes for this bullshit! They’re out of options, so they have nothing to lose!
So we get a sweet, sweat filled montage of these young ladies in tight shorts and white tank tops firing guns, running through tires and climbing walls. A drill sergeant puts them through their paces and whips them into shape and in no time they are ready to go into battle! Lots of lycra covered boobs bounce their way through basic training.
When they get there they check into the hotel and find a bathtub that is big enough to fit all nine of them, so they immediately climb in together for a hot bath, until they get their call for instructions. Then they go blow up some terrorists encampments but no son to speak of. So it's back to the bathtub. Rinse lather and repeat. Meanwhile the son is in some dark hole chained up next to a dead guy. The terrorists come in and tell him that because of the Geneva Convention they have to give him food and water and then proceed to dump the water on him and throw the food on the floor. Those EVIL bastards! Always breaking the Geneva convention! Does that sound like anyone we know?
Eventually these girls figure out they are being lead around by their tampon strings and get on the stick to finding the homeboy and blow some more shit up that looks a lot like stock footage, before heading back home to crack the case wide open. There is one fairly good stunt sequence of all of them running to get into an actual moving airplane.
The IMDB says this was made in 1987, but I just can’t believe that. I’d be shocked it it was made anywhere after 1978. It just has that feel of the late 70’s no budget potboilers like Policewoman, or Superchick that Crown International put out. 1987 is about a decade too late for that craze. By then the movies coming out to VHS were a LOT slicker than this movie is, or way more low budget (shot on tape). This is pretty low budget but still has some props, costumes, planes, jeeps, guns, and girls to take off their tops. The sight of these girls with fetish army costumes, high boots and machines guns is something to behold. As is the opening scene at which the neutron bomb has been tested and flunkies in banana suits are clearing up the charred remains of the animals they used in the blasts. They are picking up pieces of ropes or collars and saying ” Dude this used to be a dog!” “Oh man this one was a whole elephant. And now its just…gone!” I mean, that’s what a neutron bomb is supposed to do, but it doesn’t make the dialogue any less fucking goofy.
Lastly, I am amazed Quentin Tarantino hasn't leapt onto one of his coke fueled bandwagons and put the hot tracks onto remaking this thing. It's the perfect film for him to do it with. It has action, violence, politics, beautiful woman who can become empowered as the story goes by. This film is pretty much bloodless and only has a little bit of boobs. But you could remake it, go for broke and make it dead serious, hard R rated material. If he doesn’t want to do it, then fucking call me and to produce and I will direct it! I KNOW I can make a kick ass movie out of it!
Oh yeah I forgot to mention the guy who gets his face eaten off by a tiger. That was pretty cool.