Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BURIED (2010)

This may be a strange thing to say, but thank god for the creation of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Broadcast on ABC from 1998 to 2001 (retitled as the less-ponderous Two Guys and a Girl in the second season) seemingly run-of-the-mill sitcom was never a huge hit, but it was one of those in-offensive, young-white-and-mid-twenties best friends “making their way through the world” comedies that will dominate the airwaves until the cockroaches take over. It was pleasant and occasionally offered up out-loud laughter, but there wasn’t much to set it apart from the likes of Friends, Wings and whathaveyou. Today’s equivalent is likely How I Met Your Mother (which actually shares many of the same incidental traits with Two Guys and a Girl, what with both shows having indecisive architects in the forefront). What it had was a core cast of actors who had great chemistry together, playing people you more or less liked and rooted for, who took chances with their timing and characterization. Most importantly, Two Guys and a Girl introduced us to two hunky superheroes the world knows and loves today: Captain Malcolm Reynolds and our new Green Lantern, aka Nathan Fillion and Ryan Reynolds. At the time, neither of these two guys stood out particularly as “stars”, but their talent was obvious. And they were fun, self-effacing guys on and off screen (at least as far as Entertainment Tonight revealed), easy on the eyes and a big hit with the ladies. But even the biggest, diest-hardest fan of Two Guys and a Girl would have scoffed at the idea that one of these two could sustain an entire movie, all by themselves, for 90 minutes. And if scoffing hadn’t occurred, the smart money may have been on Fillion first, with Reynolds a distant second in the two-man race.

And yet, in 2010, after appealing turns in equally-disposable comedies like Van Wilder, The Proposal and a scene-stealing appearance in Wolverine (as fan-favorite “Merc with the Mouth” Deadpool), where tall, blonde wiseguy Reynolds proved beyond argument that he could hold his own against most competition, and, amazingly, could keep eyes glued to the screen all by himself in Buried.

Written by an under-the-radar screenwriter named Chris Sparling, produced by Peter Safran (a guy with as strange a resume as Bob Clark with such “classics”—but undeniable money-makers—as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans under his belt) and directed by an award-winning but relatively unknown Spaniard named Rodrigo Cortés, Buried premiered in September, 2010, and starred Reynolds and Reynolds alone. His costars include various voices on a cell-phone, a pair of glow sticks and a very confused little snake, but for 90 minutes, it’s just “Berg” from Two Guys and a Girl. And not only does he hold our attention, he creates such sympathy for his character that we too, as the single organism known as “the audience”, are trapped right there with him, in a very small box, buried under the ground in very hostile land.

Reynolds plays a truck driver named Paul Conroy who takes a job with an American convoy to haul food and goods across Iraq. His employers are not affiliated with the military on either side and Paul has no particular political point of view. He just wants to earn enough money to provide a better life for his family. It may not have been the best of ideas, to state the obvious, but as he points out in an early phone conversation, with the economy “back home”, choices were few and hard to come by. But Paul’s convoy has been attacked and he wakes up in pitch black. After some panicked searching (which we hear but cannot view—no cheating on the part of Cortés), Paul finds his lighter and discovers himself bound hand and foot inside a crate that is only slightly larger than his own body. Sand trickling through the gaps in the slats tell him that he’s been buried alive. Then a cell phone rings. It’s not his—it’s been given to him by his abductors, who tell him that he’s being held for ransom. He argues; he’s not a soldier, he’s never done harm to the people who are holding him, but it doesn’t matter. He’s American. He’s being held responsible.

The first third of the film is intense panic as Paul dials frantically for anyone who can help him. His wife’s cell phone is off. His employers insist he call the “safety number” he was given, despite the fact that his abductors had taken it from his wallet. Finally, he reaches Dan Brenner with the State Department. The government won’t negotiate with terrorists, will not pay the demanded $5 million dollar ransom for him, cannot trace his cell phone but will still do “everything they can” to help him. Brenner insists that they’ve rescued people in similar situations, include a recent “win” with a man named Mark White. There is still hope—thin though it may be, but aside from the few things buried with him, hope is literally all that Paul has in that box with him.

The situation, the claustrophobia, the darkness, the brief fight with the snake that finds its way in through a hole in the crate—these are the things that make Buried a thriller. But it’s the underlying anger, frustration and general indifference towards Paul’s plight that makes Buried a horror film. If there’s ever been an argument in favor of the relentless masked killer, the gory thrill ride, it’s Buried. This movie’s story is a nightmare from start to finish, no matter what side of the political spectrum you take. Some viewers may argue that it’s liberal hysteria; others may find the unseen conservatives to blame. Regardless, at its core, we have Paul Conroy, average citizen, our everyman, caught between the stubborn ideology of multiple sides who created an unwinnable situation. If you’ve ever felt disgust or helplessness at the state of the world, this movie embodies it all.

In the classic scenario of “the ultimate bad day”, every call to or from the outside world worsens Paul’s situation. To avoid paying insurance money to his soon-to-be-widow, a bureaucrat from his company terminates his contract because of a loophole based on an untrue breach of protocol. Our country’s stance on non-negotiation reduces Paul Conroy to a statistic, a pawn in the game. To his abductors, the natives of the country who never asked for our “help”, use Paul as a scapegoat for the horror visited upon their people. There is no side of the nonsense left unargued and even all of the faceless voices are humanized, from the human resources guy (the familiar and officious Stephen Tobowlosky), to Robert Paterson’s Brenner, they’re all just people caught up in Paul’s horrifying day, told to do jobs they don’t want to do, forced to carry out orders with the worst possible consequences. In the case of the H.R. guy, he has to distance himself from Paul, has to make him the bad guy in the situation. Brenner wants to keep Paul’s hopes alive, but doesn’t wish to lie to him either. To others on the stateside end of Paul’s lifeline, all they can do to keep their sanity is to take umbrage with his panic-stricken tone.

In a conversation I had with one viewer, I was told that there could be no sympathy for Paul because he’s so unlikable. “All he does is yell at people—I wouldn’t want to help him.” And that’s the audience’s emotional dissonance. Paul’s situation doesn’t give him permission to “be an asshole”, as my conversationalist put it. And there’s the desensitization of our modern day society. A man buried alive is still expected to keep a polite tongue in his head. His panic isn’t our problem. A quick check of Netflix and IMDb posts backs up this theory. Paul isn’t “always” likable. Of course not—as portrayed by Reynolds, Paul Conroy is a fucking human being. Human beings aren’t always fucking likable.

But because he yells, loses his temper with a disinterested or bored secretary, some audience members can keep themselves out of that buried box, that very realistic hell. For horror fans, there’s no comic relief or cheesy effect providing a trap door out of the horror. This is something real that could happen to any of us, because of things we don’t understand, created by people who don’t particularly care about “the little guy”. Simplistic an attitude that may be, its what most political imbroglios boil down to: the bottom line of money, power and jingoistic ego.

Buried is a very angry movie. It’s not pro- or anti-Iraq or the United States. It’s not misanthropic—it’s holding us all responsible. If you want to make the argument that it’s one-sided because we have a white American as our protagonist, then you’re missing the point. We are human beings—we shouldn’t do these things to each other. We shouldn’t allow the innocent to suffer for political, economic or—let’s be honest—genital-centric means. All war is a pissing contest, and the wrong people are always caught in the splash zone. While it is disingenuous to think that a movie like Buried, with it’s hunky superhero front and center, could possibly solve any of the world’s problems, at least Cortés and Sparling decided that they had something to say that did not deserve to go unsaid. If you don’t feel for our fictional Paul Conroy on any level, for whatever reason, then you are somehow responsible for the deadening of human emotion. If for one moment you don’t feel like you’re inside that box, there’s a good chance you’re not part of society. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

BELLS (1982)

There’s a madman on the loose, killing people seemingly at random, all from the comfort of his own home. Yes, our twisted genius has figured out how to kill people over the phone, using a deadly oscillating frequency that causes (surprisingly gory) cerebral hemorrhage, eye-socket bleeding and electric feedback. Basically, he’s shooting high-pitched lightning at the unlucky recipients. And admit it—do you know a single person who doesn’t wish he had the same capability. (I have ever since I first saw this convenience displayed in John Frankenheimer’s 1977 Black Sunday). Where’s our app for that, AT&T? Where’s our app for that, AT&T?

After a former student is killed answering a ringing payphone in a subway, uber-liberal professor and environmentalist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain) discovers that she was just an unlucky victim, at the wrong place at the wrong time. The bigger picture is that there’s a disgruntled former phone company employee on the loose, hellbent on revenge against his employers. And the phone company itself—still a giant monopoly prior to the government dissolution of “Ma Bell”—is covering the man’s tracks, lest the rest of the world discover that it’s their technology, funded by the Defense Department (naturally), that’s responsible for creating this monster. So the last thing they need is some nosy former-hippie on their asses, screwing everything up in the name of “Truth and Justice”. Doesn’t he know there’s a war on? Or will be eventually?

Bells is another of those great VHS gems long forgotten in the digital age. Logan’s Run director Michael Anderson took the reins of the Canadian tax shelter film, and despite the relatively simple story, he’s working with a script authored by three screenwriters (Michael Butler (Pale Rider), Dennis Shryack (Turner and Hooch), John Kent Harrison (Shock Waves and the director of A Wrinkle in Time) built on a “Story’ by no-less than four scenarists (James Whiton (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and George Armondo(his only credit, which implies he stopped by the office one day and said “The killer could use a rotary phone too!”). Surprisingly, the result is less incoherent than you might expect and moves along at a pretty decent clip. And with Chamberlain and Orson Welles’ buddy John Houseman heading the cast, the performances are above par, to say the least (one exception being Gary Reineke as a cop who seems to think that he has to shout every line—insert early ‘80s phone reception joke here). The oppressive atmosphere is aided by a better-than-average John Barry score.

Most revelatory of Bells is its unabashed bashing of corporate culture. Though early in the Me-Generation “Greed is Good” ‘80s, we have our do-gooder Democrat as one of the sole Jedi Knights of honor up against the faceless companies hell-bent on ruling the world. Anderson makes great use of towering skyscrapers to remind us all that we’re all under the monolithic thumb of Big Business. While this is nothing new of today’s world—between the paranoia of Yahoo! News message board posters, movies like Eagle Eye and The International reminding us just who’s in charge, and let us not forget the Supreme Court granting sentience and human rights to corporate entities—in the early ‘80s, this was still the stuff of the conspiracy-minded, who saw a Watergate-like scandal behind every brand-name. Which, of course, turned out to be nauseatingly prescient. Of course, Bells isn’t the first movie to tie the phone company juggernaut in with the shadowy forces of the government (1967’s satirical The President’s Analyst comes immediately to mind), it doesn’t make the implications any less chilling. And now we’re all-too aware that no industry has any of our best interests in mind beyond their bottom line, it’s depressing that this message was delivered—and ignored—by an ostensibly disposable horror/thriller: “We can’t let the public know one of our former employees is murdering people using “safe” technology—think of our stockholders!” It’s actually surprising that Hollywood hasn’t already remade this film for present day, capitalizing on the throwaway line that “there will be 1.4 trillion phones in the world by the year 2000”, incorporating ubiquitous cell-phones, skyping, blue-tooth and the like, and we’d have a game-changing paranoid genocidal nightmare making Luddites of us all.

During its initial release, Bells didn’t fare too well at the box office. Released in the U.S. under the title Murder by Phone, it became a staple of mom-‘n-pop video stores, hidden amongst the teen-slashers, and is mostly forgotten today. But just like its cheesy and misleading box-art, Bells’ cheap veneer hides an unsettling underlayer, dated yet relevant, and deserves to be rediscovered. Not currently available on DVD, and not even that easy to find from your friendly neighborhood bootlegger. 

Monday, March 21, 2011


The first rule of independent filmmaking is use what you have. It’s an axiom employed by such geniuses as Robert Rodriguez and Ray Dennis Steckler. Think about what your assets are while keeping your limitations in mind, and you can make the latter become the former. If you have a bulldog and a motorcycle, use them for your movie. If you do not have something, like, say, a Sherman Tank or a herd of camels, don’t put them in your script, that way you won’t look stupid when it comes time to shoot the “Sherman Tank chases the herd of camels’ and none of those things have materialized. You can just shoot the “bulldog rides the motorcycle’ scene instead.

Without knowing anything about the production of The Killing Jar, I can make the reasonably-educated guess that writer/director Mark Young (Tooth and Nail) understood that his limitations were likely to be budgetary. By confining his tense story to a single location ensured that he could concentrate his funds on hiring terrific actors to populate the story. Setting the movie in that classic noir “out of the way diner’, rather than, say, in the Taj Mahal, Young could afford solid performers and fan-favorites like Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Drones), Harold Perrineau (Lost, Oz), Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects), the one and only Danny Trejo (Machete), Jake Busey and “Crazy Uncle Mr. Blonde” Michael Madsen. This cast also helped Young hedge other bets. If, at times, his script weren’t bullet-proof, water-tight or whatever other phrase you’d prefer, at least the cast would keep the story propelled forward.

Late one rainy night at the Copal Grill, two strangers arrive and throw the “nothing ever happens here” tedium out of whack. One moment, it’s just Deputy Lonnie (Temple) and trucker Hank (Kevin Gage) listening to waitress Noreen (Benson) fight with Jimmy the cook (Trejo) over the lack of air conditioning. He threatens to fire her; “Haven’t you fired me enough for one week?” she asks. One night like any other. Over the radio, the DJ announces the kick-off of the County Fair and then breaking news of the gruesome murder of a family in the next town over. The killer was seen driving away in a black pick-up truck. Enter two strangers: John Dixon (Perrineau) in his ill-fitting suit and sales convention name tag, and “Doe” (Madsen), a hulking, surly man in black leather jacket. Doe’s tense and unfriendly demeanor leads to an awkward confrontation—more a battle of machismo and control—with Deputy Lonnie. Doe storms out of the diner but returns moments later. Murdering two with an enormous shotgun, he corrals the others and holds them hostage, giving no indication of what he wants or what he’ll do next.

Soon, a third stranger arrives with a suitcase full of money, to pay the man who carried out the murder of the family mentioned on the radio. “Mr. Green” (Jake Busey(!) doesn’t know who he’s there to meet and Doe might not be the man he wants—but if not him, then who? Someone in the diner has a secret.

The Killing Jar should be required viewing for all indie filmmakers as a guide to overcoming limitations. Simple without becoming simplistic, Young makes good use of his space, the familiar story and allowing established actors to bring their own takes to archetypical characters. While the script offers few surprises, it’s never less anything than entertaining. It avoids the existential meandering of Headless Body in a Topless Bar as well as the tedious moralizing of Albino Alligator, and there’s none of the hipster pandering of the last two decades worth of straight-to-video Tarantino knock-offs—except for some repetitious back-and-forth dialogue, particularly in the third act, that does become momentarily grating. Young’s movie is precisely as advertised: a straightforward, neo-noir thriller, free of irony or tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that’s actually very refreshing.

Where The Killing Jar subverts expectations is in the performances. Since the characters are little more than utilitarian “types”, there is plenty of room for the actors to play and bring their own little quirks to the roles and thus avoiding stereotypes. Casting blonde, blue-eyed Benson as the small-town-girl-with-big-city-dreams waitress Noreen, the viewer has the instant recognition and understanding of the character’s job in the film, but the actress brings both the vulnerability but also the unexpected strength and human personality to the stock “type”. We’ve all seen Madsen scary and crazy, and he brings his playfulness along as well during the intimidation scenes, but he’s also perfect during the big “reveal” scene—which is also an aspect of Young’s script that can really be appreciated. “Doe” had no plan; by his own admission, he was having a bad day and just “snapped”, then could never turn back. Madsen makes that perfectly believable. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, right down to the two ancillary “Romeo and Juliet” runaway teens who serve no purpose but as additions to the body count, but they still feel like real human beings because of the performances. Strange as it is to say, by avoiding twists or tricks, Young’s movie is actually much stronger for it. By not trying to subvert the audience’s expectations, he actually manages to do so effortlessly.

Young should also be given high points for his direction, particularly in the manner of blocking. I could be completely off-base, but it seemed to me that The Killing Jar had a tight production time working around the tight schedules of his stars. By corralling the main players in the rear of the diner while Madsen takes certain characters aside for one-on-ones, Young is able to hide the fact that there are very few scenes where everyone is present at the same time. (Trejo, for example, never interacts physically with any other character, and dead bodies are dragged behind counters so that the actors aren’t simply corpsing around wasting valuable shooting time and money.) He and Cinematographer Gregg Easterbrook also utilize the over-the-shoulder to great effect—the best way of having a stand-in during shot-reverse-shots and a perfect money-saving technique. Best of all, he avoids calling attention to these limitations with tight, claustrophobic camera set-ups and only eagle-eyed viewers will catch these short cuts. (Of course, I just drew attention to the mind behind the curtain, but out of respect and not maliciousness, I promise!) Again, these are all valuable lessons to budgetarily-limited indies, who should definitely take note: let your actors do their jobs, think ahead, figure out the best ways to keep your movie moving. As Young also served as editor, it can’t be too absurd to think that he shot with the final edit in mind as well. Oh, and another lesson: hire Lisa Reynolds (Zombieland, The Walking Dead) for the special effects because The Killing Jar has some of the best on-screen blood of any move in recent memory—from pooling to spatter, there’s never once any of that give-away beading so familiar to the modestly-budgeted.

In fact, the only blatant misstep of The Killing Jar may be in its title. Referring to the container entomologists use to suffocate insects (as illustrated during the non-sequiter title sequence), The Killing Jar has no relation to the story told, and the only explanation I was able to summon is the suspicion that Young at one time hoped to use the moody song by Siouxsie and the Banshees for a credit accompaniment. But in its place, we get a perfectly lovely number sung by Benson herself to go along with the enigmatic title, so in the end, it’s just a shruggable element.

Best of all—and rare for this column—The Kiling Jar is readily available on DVD for your viewing pleasure. So if you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned thriller without any of that troubling post-modernism that’s become de rigueur, this one comes recommended. Official Site.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Those who consider themselves collectors and/or historians have an affection for old technology. In the music world, vinyl records are once again in vogue, the black-plastic discs are selling in second hand stores better than almost ever, turntables are back in fashion and indie bands who want to improve their cred will press their own singles and 7”. At the same time, this nostalgia hasn’t been revisited upon the 8-track or the cassette tape, but a quick glance at the gamer world reveals a yen for the simpler time of chunky 8-bit Atari games and even text-based adventures ala Zork. And though Betamax died a painful, lingering death (much like HD-DVD), for movie buffs there will always be love for the Laserdisc, no matter how blue our rays may be. But for lovers of trash, the obscure, the grotesqueries and hidden treasure, no format has endured at conventions and on Craig’s List like VHS. In the ‘90s the DVD boom ensured that these sturdy plastic bricks with their colorful sleeve covers filled landfills across the world by the millions. But because of the staggering home video revolution of the decades prior, it will be a very, very long time before the format vanishes from the face of the earth. VCR/DVD combos continue to sell at Wal-Mart right next to top-of-the-line DVRs and “Cash-In Culture” stores all over the US line their shelves with videotapes, the covers sun-drenched and color-drained, their recorded images fuzzy and smeary, often the tracking has been shot to hell. But like the imperfect pops and hiss of vinyl recordings, there’s something comforting and familiar about VHS. Maybe because its understandable or maybe because it was so essential to the formation of the Gen-X film-lover’s DNA. As we of the Reality Bites generation approach our forth decade on the planet, we sway in our rocking-out chairs and reminisce about the glory days of the mom-n-pop video stores with their Nirvana of oddities that you just can’t find on DVD.

Which is likely the crux of the VHS phenomenon. Because of the home video boom, stores were desperate for content. In the ‘80s, when YouTube was something beyond the scope of even the great visionary George Lucas, the hunger for near-instant satisfaction was growing. The phrase straight-to-video was concocted out of sheer necessity. Lorenzo Lamas’ entire career hinged upon it! The format brought forward rainmakers like Tim Ritter, Kevin Lindenmuth, JR Bookwalter, Ron Bonk, Jeffrey Arsenault. A whole new industry of entertainment (and “entertainment”) thrived during these years. “I have to return some videotapes,” wasn’t just Patrick Bateman’s catchphrase, it was a declaration of responsibility, maturity, and independence—you were taking your own entertainment requirements into your own hands. Sure, the porn industry was the real pioneer of this era, but it was the zeitgeist seized by low budget horror that propelled it forward. As far as labels like Vestron were concerned, every VCR-owning household in America should have a pneumatic tube system installed right next to it, so that the latest goreflic—Truth or Dare, Killing Spree, Blood Diner, Woodchipper Massacre, The Video Dead—would just suck away the minute it was kindly rewound, to be replaced just as quickly with a satisfying plunk. Wouldn’t that have been heaven, ‘80s babies?

For all its technological wonder, DVD never reached the frenzied heights—or depths—of the VHS era. So those bricks of the by-gone days filling under-the-table cardboard boxes marked “$1 each”, ubiquitous at garage sales and flea markets, are truly archeological finds. And for every die-hard horror fan, there’s a personal holy grail. For some, it’s Killer Party, for others, it’s Curtains.

At a time when slasher movies were a dime-a-dozen, renting Curtains would have netted you change. Despite the grotesque cover—often the best part of these VHS treasures (I’m looking at you, Richard Corben’s painting for Spookies)—the back of the box didn’t promise much. A killer in an “old hag” mask, a hand-held sickle, Samantha Eggar. So far, not sold. But hell, it’s in, it’s a three-day rental, and you have friends coming over. What the hell? Maybe there will be some good gore.

What we get, after the FBI logo and the requisite trailers for other offerings of low-rent joy, is an opening credits sequence involving Eggar berating someone off screen. She points a gun into the air and as the camera pulls back, she’s revealed to be alone on a spotlit stage. Her antagonist stands in the shadows behind the balcony klieg, urging her to go farther, to find “Audra”. Eggar is acclaimed actress Samantha Sherwood, and with her director, the extremely intense Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), she’s about to embark on some unique research for what will surely be the role of her career. To play the emotionally-damaged “Audra”, Samantha allows herself to be institutionalized, with Stryker signing as her executor, so that she can study the other inmates of the asylum.

But then Stryker pulls a dirty trick on her. He abandons Samantha in the grim little nuthouse and turns his remote cabin into a beautifully-furnished casting chateau, inviting six eager starlets to a week-long audition session, so that he might “find the right ‘Audra’.” Among the invitees are stand-up comedienne Patti (Lynne Griffin), aging soap star Brooke (Linda Thorson), casting-couch regular Tara (Sandee Currie) and figure skater/aspiring actress Christie (Lesleh Donaldson). In addition, there’s a dancer with little dialogue, a potential leading man with no lines (Michael Wincott, who gets a hot-tub sex scene with Tara but no close up) and a sixth woman into rape games who never makes it to the party. She’s stabbed to death soon after her “whatever works for you” fun-n-games, and the murderer steals from her room the creepiest, most horrible-looking china doll ever created. The doll pops up throughout the film at the moment of someone’s death—which is preferable than looking at the miserable-looking porcelain waif. Stryker’s biggest surprise comes when Samantha shows up completely unexpectedly. It’s revealed that she had managed to escape from the asylum and has no intention of Jonathan casting anyone but her in the part of the demented ‘Audra’.

As is the normal course of action, one by one, each of our little budding ingénues gets picked off in increasingly-violent manners by a killer wearing an “old hag” mask that Stryker uses in acting exercises. The highlight best-remembered by the ‘80s gorehounds is Donaldson’s ice-skating routine interrupted by the hag on her own pair of skates, dashing towards the shrieking Christie like an deleted scene from Slap Shot.

Unfortunately, the movie bounces here and there without much thought towards either suspense or resolution. When he isn’t seducing his actresses, Stryker’s humiliating directing methods would make Josef Von Sternberg say “dial it down”. Meanwhile, those not being seduced, humiliated or murdered pontificate about the “type” of woman “Audra” might be and what they would do to get the part. “I was so eager to get into pictures, I slept with a guy from Fotomat,” says Patti during her routine. “You know how they say your pictures are in and out in 24-hours? He was in and out in 24 seconds.” Laughs, applause. And when there isn’t pontificating, characters vanish for long, long periods of time. Eggar, our prime suspect, is missing from the screen in order to cast suspicion upon herself. Others just stop being in the movie here and there. Wincott’s character is last seen driving drunkenly into the woods on a snowmobile, while Patti…who knows. Takes a long bath? Gets caught in the pantry? Explores the wonders of nature? For the last act of the film, she ain’t there.

The admittedly-tense and off-putting climax involves Tara in an annexed props warehouse, hiding from the hag amidst hanging costumes and mannequins, all the well fully aware that the hag is in there somewhere too. The claustrophobic setting, the creepy lighting, the misdirection, all elements for a perfect climax! But as more than one reviewer has pointed out, by this point, it no longer matters who the killer is because it could literally be any of them. We’re given nothing to hang our hats on in terms of character development and the actresses are clearly on their own to make the most of their roles. By the time Christie’s head pops up in Brooke’s toilet, the viewer is actually hard-pressed to remember just who that Sani-Flush-soaked face belongs to.

As it turns out, this befuddlement isn’t really the movie’s fault. The movie tries hard. The performers did their best. But Curtains, apparently, had a very troubled production history. Filming began in 1980, with Prom Night wunderkind Peter Simpson as producer, and acclaimed composer Paul Zaza behind the piano once again, to conjure moody musical atmosphere, just as he had done on other Canadian chillers like My Bloody Valentine and the aforementioned Prom Night series. At the helm was cinematographer Richard Ciupka (Atlantic City) making his directorial debut, with a script in hand by Robert Guza, Jr. (General Hospital and, oh yeah, Prom Night). Considering that Prom Night was such a moneymaker, this seemed like the perfect team to recreate slasher magic.

Problems began when Ciupka’s original choice for Brooke, Celine Lamez (The Initiation), reportedly “pulled a diva” on set. The pair allegedly had problems relating to each other on a professional level, but the final straw came several weeks in when she refused to do an agreed-upon nude scene. Production shut down, Simpson and Ciupka recast Linda Thorson, and much of the film had to be reshot, restaged, or scrapped. During all this, director and producer also, allegedly, clashed over the type of film they were making. Simpson, apparently, wanted another Prom Night, a money maker. Ciupka, however, also apparently, wanted to explore the psychology of actresses and their relationship with demanding directors, and how far “the method” should be employed by emotionally unstable thespians. Ciupka wanted long, langorous tracking shots (and many survived); Ciupka wanted the smash cut, the startle, the scream. In the end, Ciupka’s contract was cancelled, his directing credit is billed to the fictitious Jonathan Stryker (nice of ol’ Jonathan to continue directing even after he’s murdered in the third act), Simpson and his producer brother Richard finished the film as quickly as possible and, as a result, Curtains is a bit of an opening-night closure.

And perhaps, in the end, Simpson was right. When Curtains concentrates on the stalk-n-slash elements, the movie excels. The gore is minimal, but the scenes build with suspense and bring those familiar giddy chills so familiar from its VHS horror ilk. When the movie focuses on the brief and protracted relationships between Stryker and the actresses, the pace flounders, as if the movie itself is uncomfortable with this part of the story. There are also numerous plot holes shot through the narrative due to the mangled production schedule—the most glaring involving an exposition scene with Samantha not too long after her escape from the asylum, where she feeds the actresses’ headshots into a fireplace while discussing her escape and plan for revenge with a woman hidden half-off screen, allegedly her accomplice in the escape. This scene is never followed-upon and never referenced again. So, of course, because we horror fans are such typical humans, this now-throw-away scene is the most intriguing aspect of the story.

According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Echo Bridge released Curtains as part of the Midnight Horror Collection: Bloody Slashers DVD collection in 2010, but with crummy, non-lurid cover art, a lousy transfer (likely from a VHS dupe) and a handful of other movies that may have been cool to discover on some dusty back room, but not necessarily worth digging around in a discount bin to retrieve. Because of the troubled production, or perhaps because of other rights issues, or perhaps just due to lack of interest, Curtains remains in its VHS limbo. Copies can be found, if this is indeed your Grail, and it is fun to watch overall. But its status as “lost gem” may stem more from its unavailability than its content. Still, the DVD boom was definitely the poorer of the gold rushes due to its distinct lack of little oddities like this. Sure, Blockbuster shelves were filled with DVDs of Daddy Day Care, but post-Gen-Xers never experienced the little thrill of finding something weird and lurid lurking near the back of the brightly-lit, corporate and sanitary store. The big business of DVD just didn’t appreciate shadows in its stores. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Ironically, fandom by and large is fascinated by minutae. “Ringers”, as Tolkien fans are sometimes called, are encyclopedic in their knowledge of Middle Earth and its history. The same goes for fans of Star Wars, Marvel and DC comics, Star Trek and Harry Potter. (And Twilight, too, but those little girls should be outgrowing that triviality soon.) These obsessions aren’t limited to fictional worlds either, as any Civil War re-enactor, WWII buff, or Renfaire griper will demonstrate at the drop of a date. If an enveloping history contains multitudes and layers, there is someone—or a club of someones—eager to explore it all.

1979’s Murder By Decree, directed by Bob Clark (whose own bizarre and diverse oeuvre--Black Christmas, Porky's, A Christmas Story--deserves its own graduate-level study), combines the obsessive loves of the “Ripperologists” and the “Sherlockians” by combining two fascinating off-shoots of Victorian London—Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, the world’s greatest detective vs. history’s most elusive villain. By bringing the fictional exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth and his real-world London into the seedier underside of a London even more real, director Clark and screenwriter John Hopkins merge the dizzying, labyrinthine details of both mythologies.

Cliff’s Notes for those unfamiliar with either scenarios: Sherlock Holmes is the world’s only “consulting detective”, a brilliant misanthrope and likely “highly functioning sociopath” (as he describes himself in his latest incarnation in the BBC’s Sherlock), finds joy only in pitting his vast intellect against baffling mysteries. One person in the world can stand to be around him: his only friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson. Under Doyle’s direction, Holmes and Watson embarked on dozens of adventures in the foggy, gaslamp-lit streets of London during the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria. In real life and during the exact same period (1888), an unknown man (or men) was running around the poverty-stricken slums of London’s Whitechapel district, murdering and mutilating at least five prostitutes and may or may not be responsible for another half-dozen more. The details surrounding the “Jack the Ripper” case have been sifted through not only by the police force at the time (headed by Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Aberline), but by obsessive-compulsive historians over the following hundred-plus years. Because the crime was never solved, it seems the best and most-natural fit to involve Holmes, in what will certainly be his greatest mystery!

Taking its cue from the popular scenario put forth by author Stephen Knight in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Holmes deduces that the five victims possess knowledge that could damage the Monarchy and are being silenced by a governmental assassins. With this game afoot, it’s up to Holmes and Watson to protect the last potential victim, Marie Kelly, and put a stop to the madness—even if it means bringing down the government and its shadowy Masonic machinations!

Despite even the best efforts of brilliant detectives throughout history, including FBI profiler John Douglas, who makes only a “best guess” in his book, The Cases That Haunt Us, and because we’re creatures who need to believe that someone has to be in charge, be they benevolent or malevolent, or else all is chaos, it’s too tempting to believe in a Machiavellian conspiracy involving Albert Prince Regent, an illegitimate child, and a quintet of prostitutes blackmailing the Queen, leading to their elimination by any means necessary. Mixing in the secretive Freemasons and adding a dash of occultism only sweetens the delightful stew. Despite a truckload of evidence against this story, it still makes for the most irresistible of solutions for many scenarists, not the least of which Alan Moore, whose holistic approach to the apocalyptic time of 1880s London resulted in the mad and wonderful graphic literature From Hell, and its bastard offspring film version featuring Johnny Depp as a too-young Abberline and Heather Graham as a too-clean Marie Kelly.

Placing the great Sherlock Holmes in the midst of one of the most notorious unsolved murders in history gives the viewer—obsessive or no—a sense of closure, if only temporarily. Murder By Decree, of course, wasn’t the first time Holmes was set upon the ripper’s trail. Other cases were recounted in the cinematically so-so (but excrutiatingly marketed—“Biff! Bang! Crunch! Here comes the Original Caped Crusader!”) A Study In Terror (1965, starring “Baron Munchausen" John Neville as a serviceable Holmes, and Frank Finlay as Lestrade—who also plays the Inspector in Decree). In print, we have the notorious and, to some, indefensible The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Diblin (in which Holmes himself is the Ripper!), as well as the better-received and Doyle-heir blessed Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lindsay Faye. In any of the above cases, the pairing is natural and even necessary. We as a species abhor loose ends but adore our climactic showdowns with our greatest heroes and villains. So both intricate narratives weave together quite beautifully without ever—or necessarily—being true.

At least, for the casual viewer.

For the obsessive “Ripperologists” and anal-retentive “Sherlockians”, Murder By Decree may prove a bit maddening. If the viewer happens to be both, by the time the end credits roll, sedatives may be required. Utilizing the much-debunked Royal/Masonic Conspiracy theory will already cause some pain, but it gives Hopkins script a great amount of breathing room. While Knight’s solution implicates 1st Baronet and Royal surgeon-in-ordinary Sir William Gull and his coachman John Netley, Hopkins changes their names to protect their maligned identities. A few events are shuffled around further and much more is made of the institutionalized Annie Crook (played here by a splendid Genevieve Bujold), alleged (by the theory) to have wed Prince Albert in a secret Catholic ceremony which would have eliminated him from the ascendancy to the throne.

More damning—or, okay, perhaps “darning” might be the better phrase—is the portrayal of Holmes and Watson by Christopher Plummer and James Mason, respectively. For hardened fans of the classic acerbic Holmes or the cinematically bumbling Watson (thanks ever so much, Nigel Bruce), the heroes in Murder By Decree may come as a complete—though not unpleasant—surprise. While the events of the case take place during the height of Holmes’ and Watson’s careers, their relationship is presented as comfortable and broken in. Holmes and Watson banter affectionately with each other (best exemplified in the “You squashed my pea, Holmes” scene - and seem more like a married couple than a crime-fighting partnership. It could also be argued that the actors are two old for the time-period, but that’s what you get for fighting with the experts. My personal biggest complaint is that Holmes does so little detective work. He acts on hunches and intuition, lets suspects go far too easily (as evidenced in the scene involving “psychic” Robert Lees—played here by Donald Sutherland—who is allowed by Holmes to avoid implicating either himself or the real culprit he “envisioned”). 

But the movie excels in atmosphere—the thick fog of the streets, the dank horror of Bethlehem Hospital (aka “Bedlam”) where Annie Crook is held, the absolute tweediness of the costuming. And before one starts to think that Holmes might be too much of an old nellie, Clark stages an exciting climax pitting the Ripper’s sword-cane against the weighted ends of Holmes bolo-scarf. It also feeds us our cake and allows us to have it too, as an appeal to Holmes’ (characteristic, considering that he shot a "VR" for "Victoria Regent" into the wall of his apartment) sense of Queen-and-Country provides us with both the solution of the murders and the reason behind the Great Detective’s own silence regarding the matter.

What it all comes down to is exactly what lies at the nucleus of all movies: if you buy the premise, you buy the bit. If you’re a stickler and nitpicker, Murder By Decree may drive you absolutely batty. If your only Holmesian frame-of-reference is Guy Ritchie’s “Bam! Bang!” redeux with Robert Downey, Jr., you may find Clark’s take a bit too slow and old fashioned for your taste. But if you’re somewhere in the middle, if you’re neither a Sherlockian nor Ripperologist—or if you can divorce yourself from facts and canon—you may find yourself thoroughly entertained by Murder By Decree