Thursday, October 29, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: THE HAUNTED PALACE

at 2:00 PM
Our Halloween "Spook-tacular" is now underway! We'll be checking out three movies loosely premised on the Dracula model (foreigner in a haunted castle preys on society people of the late 19th century), starting with the brand new CRIMSON PEAK (2015), ending on DRACULA (1931), and stopping midway in between for THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963). Here we get a taste of Roger Corman's Poe cycle, starring Vincent Price as his own ghoulish ancestor hell-bent on coming BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985).

Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft

THE HAUNTED PALACE in one sentence:
Yourself: Two Vincents for the Price of one.

Golem: Vincent Price possesses Vincent Price.

Here's a story about me and THE HAUNTED PALACE:
Yourself: As any sane person living, I'm an avowed Vincent Price fan. I'm also the kind of nerdling that makes my friends read At the Mountains of Madness, though I have yet to convince any of them to like it.

Golem: I loved HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and this is more cool Price.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: So the running joke of this movie is that it's called "Edgar Allan Poe's THE HAUNTED PALACE" but Poe's actual "The Haunted Palace" is a like 40-line non-narrative poem that even in its tendentious link via a central castle is more concerned with transformation than the eternal purgatory presented in the film. The stanzas recited in the film's bookends suggest an "inspired by" angle - and one can certainly see how classic Poeisms like "A hideous throng rush out forever / And laugh—but smile no more" could do just the trick - but that notion too is fairly quashed by the opening credits' acknowledgement, "oh yeah, this is based on H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward".

So whether you choose to blame the scarcity on the namesake or Lovecraft's trademark thin plots, what you have here is a script where very little moves. Charles Dexter Ward (which my fingers are desperate to type as Charles Nelson Reilly and then I want to read that as John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor) and his wife poke around Arkham and old Curwen Castle and find unpleasant things. As their discoveries become more grotesque and start to weave a greater tapestry, the characters gradually mentally disintegrate until we reach one great crescendo of "agh!". As in the most successful of Lovecraft's work, it's not that final "agh!" that makes the cake, but the completeness of the hill leading up to it.

Hey a sweet analogy just occurred to me: Lovecraft is the Godspeed You Black Emperor! of horror stories. He's certainly equally divisive.

Golem: The later IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS also adapts Lovecraft; its stark visuals go a long way to portray eldritch horrors and ominous darkness, and this itself is the strength of MADNESS. We get to witness everything through our hero.

THE HAUNTED PALACE focuses on Charles himself. We watch Charles confront his past, caught up in a half-struggle where part of him doesn't recognize the danger he's in and another part is dragging him towards darkness. Charles is pulled by his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and Joseph himself is pulled by offscreen deities, so we do have a link to the supernatural, but it's way off in the background. Instead, the plot centers on Charles' struggle, fleshing out the influences that pull him one way or the other.

It's a nice balance, keeping Cthulhu's crew in a vague background with precious few creepy details, like some plot about impregnating townsfolk over a bubbling pit. The plot also gives Vincent Price lots of time to interact with a lots of characters in a variety of ways: Charles being genuine, Joseph overtaking Charles, Joseph imitating Charles - Charles has a different face for every character and every context.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Painterly, in accordance with the impressionist portrait of Joseph Curwen hanging in the central (whatever) chamber of the castle. The sound-stage-bound filming elides realism and instead depends on distinctive strokes like a foregrounded lone tree in the court/graveyard, a confining balcony whipped by wind, even the painting itself. The best set-piece for my money is the wooden scaffold staircase featured on the poster, leading down from the castle proper to the dungeon of rituals below. They're more functional symbols than you see in say CRIMSON PEAK; used to construct the space and form of the world, they casually represent say the transition between dual worlds, minds, personality, and history in say the case of the scaffold.

Golem: The cinematography enjoys broad, static shots, lending the film part of its "stagey" feel. We do have a few shots inside tiny tunnels, their impact all the stronger for their rarity. The town itself has that stereotypical old timey feel (stone houses, cobblestone streets, etc.), and we get to hang out in the town tavern quite a bit (I wondered if the townsfolk ever did anything but drink).

To be sure, though, the castle takes the cake. It's lushly decorated, with suits of armor and a huge fireplace and a gorgeous bed with a canopy and just too much to list. Honestly, the castle itself is a treat to take in, and characters make good use of it. Remember when Ann Ward peers at her husband from the stone staircase?

Both Yourself and I wanted the great Vincent Price painting.

I almost forgot! THE HAUNTED PALACE also enjoys an excellent score, which does a wonderful job of underscoring the ebb and flow of a mystery drama. And, at its swells, it reaches the gravity hinted by Joseph Curwen's darkest plots. Note to self: thank Ronald Stein.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: When is it not fun to see an actor playing against themselves? And when is an actor not better off being replaced with Vincent Price? So it's to be expected that the Good Vincent / Bad Vincent stuff here is utterly delightful. The prologue starts us off with a tease of Price in full evil mode: Joseph Curwen is the kind of villain who stays up til the witching hour to psychically woo a local virgin to his dungeon for elder god copulation, then, caught shucking the catatonic teen by a torch-wielding mob, retorts "No I didn't". It's not an ambiguous or subtle performance in any way - you can see the light-switch go off when kind ol' Charles is replaced by "shut up and go to hell" Curwen. In particular Curwen's distaste for poor Ann Ward is hilarious in that domestic-violence-is-fun-for-villains way.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up in a side role as Curwen's Igor-like assistant, sporting a hulkish pallor that may or may not actually be green face-paint. His quiet creepiness offsets Price and allows the latter to become more authoritative than assholish.

Golem: Frank Maxwell comes out of nowhere to make Dr. Willet a memorable character.

At first, Edgar Weeden (played by Leo Gordon) steps up to antagonize Charles Ward, immediately suspicious of Joseph Curwen's descendant. He starts off rude, and he's totally ready to escalate to violence. Charles (or is it Joseph?) nips that in the bud by arranging his death. By the way, he would've done a great job; he's got a deep voice with angry, if self-righteous, delivery. It goes well against Vincent Price's delicate manner of speaking. But, without an external antagonist, Vincent Price is left to fight against himself, and the supporting cast fleshes out that fight.

Dr. Willet, on the other hand, takes a moderate stance. He makes as if to plant his feet in logic, wanting to believe that Joseph Curwen's curse has no basis in reality. However, at tiny moments, he lets on that he's afraid of it like everybody else. He's pulled in these two directions, allowing him to sympathize with Charles (also pulled in two). Weeden's lashing out drives Ward right to Curwen, but Willet gives Ward and his wife genuine understanding. He actually stands a chance of preventing Ward's transformation.

Frank Maxwell as Dr. Willet firmly states his belief in logic, giving us a character to rally behind as Charles loses himself and lending the character's insecurities subtlety.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Though it is perhaps the cheesiest horror movie moment in the film, I found the march of the mutants to be surprisingly effective. The mutant children are harbingers of the town's guilty nature, its unshakeable damnation, yet their nature and behavior is never clearly explained. In the scene in the town square, when Charles D.W. and his wife find themselves surrounded, we see that the mutants function as one, as part of Arkham, grimly closing in as the fate of the Wards is sealed. Among their cheap-looking latex make-up, the one consistent deformity is the absence of eyes - they are deprived of humanity, deprived of knowledge, deprived of means to distinguish who it is they haunt. Like the other supernatural elements of the film, the mutants are an unreasonable, unstoppable mass, too human to be discarded but too damned to be pitied.

Golem: Disturbed by voices, Charles wanders his castle at night, eventually leading him to the fateful tree where Joseph Curwen burned. (Would the tree have burned down?) Charles is yanked by unseen forces this way and that throughout the film, especially when he gazes at the painting of Curwen. This scene in particular gives Vincent Price the opportunity to make a full-on mime act out of it (well, not literally, I mean). We get to hear the voices that Charles follows, which is a rare glimpse into his slipping mind.

I wonder if this scene would be more or less effective without the voices. On one hand, it underscores the horror that Joseph drags Charles towards. On the other hand, without those voices, would Price's performance have given a stronger indication of insanity? I think both sides have merit here, but I do prefer the scene as it is, since we already have a sense of Charles losing himself. Instead, the scene gives us a reason to root for Charles. He really is up against some creepy stuff here! Plus, THE HAUNTED PALACE is sparing enough with its horror that I would regret taking out any of it.

Towards the end of the scene, Charles grips that tree outside of the palace. It plays a passive but pivotal role at Joseph's burning and at Charles' final transformation in the film's closing scene. Is it just a convenient stage element? The more I think about it, the more I realize I have no reason to think anything of the tree, and the more that tree creeps me out. Maybe I take a little after Dr. Willet.

What does it all really mean?
Golem: THE HAUNTED PALACE paints a world ruled by the past. We can spend our lives in eternal fear, like Edgar Weeden. We can spend our lives in total ignorance, like Charles Dexter Ward. It fits well in a film based on largely off-screen forces such as ancestral spirits and elder gods. The past sneaks up from behind Ward and takes over without his realization. It's a vague force, something we can kind of feel without ever looking directly at it.

While THE HAUNTED PALACE is a thorough movie, this is the nugget at the center of its horror. We don't see Charles in a fair struggle. He never sits down to arm wrestle Joseph Curwen. Instead, he just feels the slightest inexpressible agitation, and he can't manage to put the feeling to words before unspeakable horrors engulf him.

THE HAUNTED PALACE loves these unfair fights. Even Edgar Weeden, ever pugnacious, is cut down before he can muster the proper aggression.

Yourself: Eternal insolubility and the worthlessness of free will are Grade-A Lovecraft themes, and here they come home to roost in the company of as few tentacle monsters as most people are surprised to discover his literature contains. The monster at play here is hubris in the face of fate, the townspeople struggling against the damnation their ancestors bought as Charles Dexter Ward fights the corruption he walked right into and called home. His wife Ann struggles to bring back her husband, knowing full well the man she's seeing isn't him. They all know and they all still fight, and the movie does not end well for these characters who cannot face their guilt and willfully simplistic nature.

The castle "brought over stone by stone from Torquemada", the portait of Curwen, and the tree where he was burnt function as pillars of eternity, symbols of the everlasting corruption summoned by Curwen, corruption that outlasts human lives and permeates all that dare to touch it. Thus without any magical explanation at all, it makes sense that Curwen's grip is broken when his portrait is destroyed - it is the realization that forces beyond human comprehension are at work and compassionate reason will not defeat them.

Note to future self on watching THE HAUNTED PALACE:
Yourself: This is a hella chill and mood-setting flick that serves as a great introduction to Corman, Price, gothic horror, period pieces, 1960s, Torquemada, Edgar Allan Poe, cinematic experience, Bryan Cranston, and torches. It is the best direct Lovecraft adaptation I've seen and does his oeuvre better justice than any film this side of J.C. (John Carpenter).

Golem: The characters here are loud and expressive, making the film immediately engaging. They pulled me in, but the setting and atmosphere kept me engaged. Meanwhile, the plot builds towards horror in careful and gradual steps.

Come back next week for the finale of both our Halloween special and MYASS Series 1, featuring a special guest interview with Bela Lugosi as DRACULA!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: CRIMSON PEAK

at 2:00 PM
Our Halloween "Spook-tacular" this year is now underway! We'll be checking out three movies loosely premised on the Dracula model (foreigner in a haunted castle preys on society people of the late 19th century), starting with the brand new CRIMSON PEAK (2015), ending on DRACULA (1931), and stopping midway in between for THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963). Along the way we'll be menaced by two of the most popular horror actors of all time along with a third who has a chance of entering those ranks.


Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins

CRIMSON PEAK in one sentence:
Yourself: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for goth babies. (hey, that was a real description!)

Golem: The story of a crush on Tom Hiddleston.

Here's a story about me and CRIMSON PEAK:
Yourself: For an outright not-fan, I've seen most of del Toro's films. Okay IMO, the only strong opinion I have about the guy is I wish I had a stronger opinion.

Golem: Tom Hiddleston seemed okay in THOR, but I blame that on THOR itself. I went in curious how he'd fit in a serious film.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: God I'm having a cerebral infarction just trying to decide where to start. Which is as good a signal as any that there is way too much plot here - not in the sense of being broad and unfocused, but in complexly tripling down on every single thematic point. It's the kind of plot that feels bloated with fanservice for the nonexistent novel or comic book origin.

The turgid plotting doesn't bother me so much as the busy feel it gives the movie. For instance, Edith listening to three disjointed recordings while looking at pictures is a really rough way to deliver information and creates a huge off-screen movie that my brain doesn't have space to dramatize. If you're finding the best vehicle to deliver information is the most compressed medium short of a Post-It (TM) note, you might ask yourself how critical that information can be. Especially when getting that delivery mechanism into the narrative necessitated ghosts. It's kinda the silly criticism I throw at TNG for its resident "empath" Deanna Troi: if you reduce her to shouting "something's wrong here!", everyone else still has to do their job.

I'm fine with Edith being bland as hell, allowing that she's a weather vane for the movie to spin around with other characters' passions ("ghosts"), but under romantic pressure that soullessness gets leaky. Thomas plays fantastically against his twister sister Lucille, but I didn't follow how Edith melts his heart of clay, except for "something something America is great". The dude has killed like eight wives already, so we're left to our own devices to conclude what's so special about Edith. She's a snazzy dresser I suppose.

Also, if Cumberland doesn't have butterflies, but it has black moths, and black moths live off butterflies, then do the black moths also take a boat to America to collect their prey? While we're at it, the night isn't really darkest just before the dawn. It's darkest in the middle. C'mon screenwriters, they don't grow cheese on the moon for nothing!

Golem: The prologue feels prologuey and not act 1-y (am I splitting hairs here?) because the film takes so long to explain what its supernatural deal is. By the time I realized what the ghosts were up to (nothing at all), the film had long been in its stride. On reflection, the opening drama of the film in America makes perfect sense now that I realize it's a weirdo grosso fake love story.

CRIMSON PEAK's pseudo-horror angle also confuses me with its use of jump scares. Creepy things come out and lurch towards and grasp at poor Edith, and naturally we're scared. After the first few times, I began to wonder what the point was. When a film frightens you into thinking something bad might happen, there's usually a payoff where that fear is justified. Instead, the plot takes us on a journey to learn that ghosts are on Edith's side, subverting our expectation. While not flawed in theory, I just didn't follow the film here. It felt more like I accidentally tripped over the plot rather than discovering a twist. Sometimes I get the feeling I watch movies wrong.

Which is a shame, because there is an alright plot at work here.

Oh yeah, and the climax has like a million stabbings. But I thought that was an homage to melodramatic 19th century novels. Taken seriously it gets silly.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Drippy. Color bleeds from the atrophying mansion and its cannibalizing inhabitants, moths sluggishly beat their wings, leaves and snow drift in through the roof. From the walls of the mansion oozes scarlet clay; the deadest existence sinks into a mire of brilliant raw material. The almost-glowing clay is fucking gorgeous. For all the film's ornate style, it is that simple blood-red play-doh that is ultimately most attractive. I want a vat of clay in my basement just so I can go swirl it around with a stick!

The decrepit manor perched atop great depths of material follows from the openly endorsed "not a ghost story, a story with ghosts in it", but like Allerdale Hall, del Toro's movie needs that fantastical foundation to stand, and he too is a little bit consumed by it. Or, put in less douchey terms, the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too. Scenes where ghosts chase down Edith or jump-scare the audience switch the movie into full-bore horror, betraying the emotional core even when they are technically progressing the mystery. The creatures are brilliantly designed, their arresting color and material schemes elevating their fundamental emotional nature over human detail, but they work better sprawled in a bathtub or hovering in a stairwell than jumping out of closets. The scare scenes contribute to the busy information blasting I just whined about - they're so dedicatedly horror that it's hard to grasp any substance until the next morning when the events can be rehashed.

Golem: It's easy to groan at modern movies. The monochrome shtick gets old very quickly, and CRIMSON PEAK isn't afraid to keep itself to one or two colors onscreen at a time. But then, I can't help but feeling that this is what everything else wants to be. I wish I had words for it, but there's just something to color in CRIMSON PEAK that works.

I can say this: the color choice draws on the weather. Hanging out in the park at noon, you're bathed in light; saying goodbye to Edith's father in the late afternoon, it's deep orange; in the snow at Allerdale Hall, color is absent.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Loki is pretty memorable yeah. Golem asked me before the movie if Tom Hiddleston was the Vincent Price of our age, and I said that's an unbelievable stretch, but he's a real creepy charmer, so you gotta give him that. He's got that kind of broad gleeful smile where you think his eyeballs might fall out on the end of springs (?). I'd probably like to not have seen him in a sex scene, and taken with his final appearance I'm convinced he could never play anything but a villain, but hey, redemption doesn't mean he's not a villain. I will murder the next person that assaults me with the word "antihero".

Jessica Chastain as Lucille is really fucking menacing and a well-earned counterpoint, soaking up all the charm to be the coldest cold-hearted bitch this side of Jack Frost. Her spilled breakfast scene lands. Yet she aims her villainy so well and grounds it so personally that Lucille is perhaps the tragickest goth of all (in a world where Bauhaus would look like ZZ Top).

Golem: Oops! I wish I could talk about anyone but Hiddleston or Chastain. But if you're gonna focus your movie on two cold-blooded villains, you would have a hard time pulling off something better.

Tom Hiddleston nails Thomas Sharpe better than the script. His charm and elegance in the role makes it all too easy for Thomas to slip densely layered lies under a veneer of romantic promises. And you can watch Thomas' blood gradually thaw under Edith's influence, as he hesitantly lets the dog in and less hesitantly agrees to stay at the post office place whatever that was. I'll give Yourself that I don't get Thomas' transformation, but Hiddleston steps into the role and makes it happen.

And Jessica Chastain, oh my god. She spends the entire time with an impenetrable demeanor. Is she just pissed off at everyone? Or is she a robot? Do they have emotions in Europe? But then she flips out in the much-touted Spilled Breakfast Scene, and I was ready for Edith's block to get knocked off. Out of all the ghosts and creepy stuff, Lucille's raw fury in that scene is the most likely to make you pee your pants.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: The violent climax in the white-out has an otherworldly sensibility, a realization without ghosts of the heightened Romantic atmosphere of the movie. With the simplest possible chase scenario and an ostensibly tiny arena, the POV shooting and dread pace create the tension of a labyrinthine... uh... labyrinth.

Golem: Thomas Sharpe faces Edith on her house's staircase: him below her, her father at the bottom of the stairs, and the crowd from their dinner party gawking (presumably popcorn in hand). Thomas tells her off, lets her have it about how her writing is dreadful and how she'll never understand love and how he's read fan fiction better than her trash.

Thomas is surrounded, forced to throw away love he doesn't want (Edith) to win a check that he doesn't want. Thomas plays such a long game in that scene, it's crazy, and your head will spin if you try to list all of the lies that he's juggling. Maybe the best one, though, is his fake criticism for Edith, which culminates in accusing her of never knowing love. In retrospect, that's what he comes to learn of himself.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: CRIMSON PEAK grounds itself in a sort of Brontë-sisters feminist romance and then Dracula called and he said he's comin' over tonight and I said okay. I mean, Edith* can say "the ghosts are a metaphor" all she wants, but lemme break it down for you: vampires are a metaphor too. So it's not really outside the box, but lampshading the box does set the table for hardcore symbol-fixation, which is where the movie comes back to reap the fruit of its overripe plot. The clay, the mining machine, the butterflies/moths, the hole in the roof, the winter, etc. etc. All there so del Toro can do every metaphor fifty ways.

There's some kind of theme of passion vs. aristocracy, but I gotta say that is a theme I don't care about and that feels more like an aping of not so timeless literature from 100 years ago. I mean I'm not saying it's not a good thought and all but there is a reason that high school kids get into Heart of Darkness and not Wuthering Heights - and I doubt it's the gender of the author (as this film jests!) (although it probably is that HoD is like a hundred pages!).

But honing in on Lucille and Thomas and snipping out Edith and Dr. Name Not Worth Remembering (let's say "Seward"), there's also a core of moral decay, that Catholic note that always gets thrown at del Toro. The Sharpes stray closer to demons than sociopaths with their lustful lifestyle and nebulous descent, not to mention the "real" ghosts their deeds have summoned. Once again, the manor in ruins (death of aristocracy) is just the tip of the iceberg, an elevator to ride down into the depths of crimson clay mines of sin.

The jar of scarlet clay Dracula brings to his business meetings in America reminds me literally and figuratively of the canister of green Satan-juice from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but welcome to my personal hell of no one wanting to talk about the second most awesome John Carpenter movie.

*Edith Cushing = Edith Wharton + Peter Cushing (Van Helsing in the old Hammer Draculas)

Golem: CRIMSON PEAK definitely feels at home with Henry James' Europe: a world that is one giant Lying Contest, and whoever can stack the most lies on top of each other is the winner. And just like in Henry James, there's a poor American who Jengas the lies and ends up in a pile of lie-bricks. Or, put into English (ha), the heartless aristocrat uses lies and romance to ensnare someone naive in the name of a perverse conquest. In particular, I think of The Portrait of a Lady, but James wrote tons of stories on this idea. Granted, Mr. James doesn't go so far as to put that perversion at the level of incest, but hey, whatever you're into.

The idea being that it's not about where you end up, but how you get there.

Note to future self on watching CRIMSON PEAK:
Yourself: Real-talk: I was in a pissy mood when I saw this and I no longer trust my initially "meh" exit opinion. We were in a "dang homeboy don't go in dere!" theater and my neighbors were a.) using both armrests b.) particularly squirrely and c.) at least one of them had bad breath. The movie adds up a lot better in my memory than it did at the time, and if I could just care about the prologue (that I didn't even care about enough to mention, but that is 20+ minutes long!) I might get behind it.

Golem: If the overstuffed plot pays off with symbolism, you might wonder what meaning that symbolism has. CRIMSON PEAK is a pretty movie, and its plot structure works better in retrospect, but I'm going to need a compelling argument to watch this again.

Come back later this week to find out what Greg and Greg think of THE HAUNTED PALACE, an older take on the same story starring none other than Vincent Price.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: PSYCHO

at 1:00 PM
The long-awaited. If I had to describe to you how much hatemail we got as a result of delaying PSYCHO for almost two months, I would describe it as almost none at all.  You know for whatever reason that poster reminds me of video game boxart

PSYCHO (1960)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch

PSYCHO in one sentence:
Yourself: For almost a decade, the advertising slogan of Candy Corn was "We all go a little mad sometimes.".

Golem: One man's ventriloquist act goes too far.

Here's a story about me and PSYCHO:
Yourself: Supposedly the MPAA of 1960 was as worked up about the toilet flushing as it was about the stabbing, but it's the sandwich hovering millimeters from Marion's lips that gives me the willies. Stop breathing on your food like a goddamn animal.

Golem: I actually went into this film without knowing the plot! Hooray!

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: As this is the movie that single-handedly invented the spoiler, I did not share the delight of witnessing PSYCHO in the dark. The first act dragged for me, not because it was poorly paced or poorly made but because I was in the theater to see Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. But Lord Almighty is that not to say that Marion is some generic slasher meat; her conflicts are set carefully enough to persist even after Janet Leigh has been gone for an hour.

That there are so many memorable scenes from this first half is a testament to a.) the formal strength of PSYCHO and b.) how little the story and characters actually matter. Which I think is pretty securely the point of the film, and also perhaps related to the genre madness it precipitated. But let's not say things about history we can't evidently back up.

Golem: Marion isn't your typical slasher victim, but her plot plays out a lot like the predictably-doomed protagonists you see in film noir (or just '40s thrillers). PSYCHO's spin is that we get to see the effect her fate has on the world. Going in and expecting the film to be about Marion, that's how I watched it after her death. The film dwells on her murderer, her sister, and her boyfriend dealing with the impact of her theft and death. It reminds me a little of CITIZEN KANE, but only at a high-up abstract level, given that KANE is much more character-centric. (I got the whole story from... his sled.)

Or you might say PSYCHO has trouble picking a main character, which is the fun of the movie. After Marion's death, we spend a quiet minute with Norman, watch Arbogast as he takes over the film, and finally rest on dividing our attention between Lila and Sam. Norman Bates has an interesting character in him, but he doesn't get the screentime necessary to take the picture over from Marion. Instead, the film bounces from character to character, which keeps events moving at a nice clip without disorienting me.

The funny bit is that it's all pinned together by the $40,000, which Norman never notices.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Black and white is really throwing my aesthetics radar. But, to leverage that to my advantage, I could say that PSYCHO looks very little like DOUBLE INDEMNITY. We see many of the sets at multiple times of day - which feels like a dumb observation - separating light and color from location and reinforcing how much time is passed in the same place. Our main locale is the Bates Motel, subdivided between the office, the units, and the caretakers' house, and we watch as characters walk from one to the next. This establishes a clear space for the film, mundane and static, just the opposite of DOUBLE I's character portraits amidst disintegrating darkness.

The narrative lingers at the Motel as if chained on a leash, given only a small playground to watch whatever characters or events cross by. There's a voyeurism inherent to the constant character shifts, a pronounced dehumanization that separates the drama from the people inhabiting it. It isn't Marion that drives Norman to be a peeping tom - the hole in the wall was already there. He just lucks into catching some skin. And it isn't her deeds or her nature that drive him to murder, but the simple fact that she is there. The lurking camera plants the viewer in Norman's isolation, but not in his mind - we aren't asked to sympathize with his perspective any more than with his antagonizers. That dissociation is compounded through the destabilizing camera, its exaggerated and unexpected angles, zooms, and cranes mimicking the splintering effects of psychosis, creating, dare I say, a very different kind of "psychodrama".

Golem: Marion initially spends her time in the city, surrounded by people. The film's opening shots gaze upon Phoenix, a giant city and a far cry from the solitary motel 15 miles outside of Fairvale. When she's got something to hide, she sleeps on an empty highway, squirms under the gaze of a creepy police officer (who eyes up her car from the outside, trying to gaze into Marion herself), and stops at an empty motel. When she cuts herself off from the world, she finds Norman Bates, the town hermit.

Which is to say, the city becomes friendly, open, and orderly, while the rural becomes scary and shady. There, you find a monument to solitude: a big house with no one to live in it. Norman hides his psychoses in it in the same way Marion tries to hide her one moment of madness by avoiding people.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: PSYCHO is surprisingly funny. Much of that is accomplished through suspense gags like the car sinking, and much of it is accomplished through Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. He hits all the right stutters and awkward pauses as Norman cobbles together the worst lies imaginable under interrogation from Arbogast. It's not laugh-out-loud funny but it's that kind of giddy amusement you get in the best fumbling klutz performances. Norman is never anything except completely likable. It's fun just to watch him sit in a jail cell!

Golem: Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) would be another fun performance if I didn't need a shower after he hits on Marion. He finds a way to take over any shot he's in. Marion walks into her boss' office to ask him a question, and this happens. His deep, boisterous voice is crucial, and he says his lines slowly and deliberately. He's a great counterpart to the delicate George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), too.

I don't know if this is a Hitchcock thing, but everyone seems so lively. Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) kills me when she rattles off her dull list of calls, along with the way she says "flirting": "He was fliirrting with you!"

Honorable mention goes to Lila Crane (Vera Miles) for getting fed up with BS, having a good sense of intuition (40,000 means your sister was here... well, okay!), and sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. She drags Sam Loomis (John Gavin) by the ear for the second half of the film, and it's great. Her forthright-to-a-fault personality makes her the perfect character to uncover Mrs. Bates, contrasting her with the anything-but-forthright Norman.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Well, virtually every single shot in PSYCHO would qualify for this category, with nearly a half-dozen frames that rank among the most famous in filmdom (although tbch I am not yet onboard with the most iconic, perhaps for the same reason it takes a handful of album listens to recontextualize and appreciate overplayed singles).

So with that said, there were two really weird shots that caught my eye. The first comes during Arbogast's interview with Norman after the disappearance of Marion. Norman is standing across the office desk from Arbogast, creating a sort of deliberate distance from the record book. When Arbogast points to a name, Norman cranes his neck and we get a lengthy close-up of his adam's apple, filling the entire screen. This is not a movie of weird insane close-ups, and the shot feels like a flick on the nose to pay attention.

The second grabbed me with its technique, because I'm getting kinda film geeky. Late in the film, when Norman rushes to grab his mother from her bedroom and carry her to the basement, we see a shot from the hallway pointing at her bedroom door. Before Norman comes out, the camera pulls up and away, angling downward, moving in one continuous motion from pointed at the door at eye level to pointed straight down at the staircase from ten feet up. I imagine this was done with a crane, but it must've also involved some disassembling of the house. Very cool movie magic.

Golem: After Norman cleans up Marion's room, the camera often rests on her hidden $40,000 in the foreground with Norman in the background. This happens three times:
  1. when he rushes in after the murder
  2. when he closes the door and shuts off the light before deciding to grab cleaning supplies
  3. when he brings in the cleaning supplies
Each time, the camera sticks behind the newspaper and pivots to show Norman as he walks between the doorway outside and the bathroom doorway. These shots lend irony and tension. Irony, because Norman has no idea what's in the newspaper, and tension, because he goes so long without noticing the newspaper. He almost misses it, and he only notices it when he does a double-check of the room after clearing everything out.

The $40,000 also sticks Marion to the Bates Motel, setting in motion the private eye who finds the motel. We watch Norman scurry around the room, trying to remove all traces of Marion, while the money just sits there. Even though it's all but forgotten in the second half of the film - a maguffin that's named only because it has to be - that money ties the two halves together.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Once upon a time, a friend and I were naively skeptical of the claim that opening credits should present the thesis of a movie. I believe the filmic expression we were indulging on that particular night was TOTAL RECALL, and as a result I will always remember its streaky red titles. As the years wear on I'm increasingly deferent to that little hint as a launching point for thematic analysis. (It probably helps that I've moved from watching predominantly Arnold movies to predominantly genre classics). PSYCHO has some of the most idiosyncratic credits you'll find, not least of all because of the magnetic score (the one that predicated Danny Elfman's entire career):

I suck at music terminology, but is that higher pitched melody that comes in around 0:14 a counterpoint? The way the song alternates thrusts between that shrill line and the deeper pitch echoes the fracturing of the titles, the split motif that dominates the entire film. It's the Mrs. Bates taking over Norman's mind intermittently, the weird cuts interrupting our perspective. Since this is the most transparently Freudian movie I've ever seen, I won't go into the id/superego stuff. More interesting is tracking all the dramatic story and visual splits, from the split titles to the split plot to Norman's split personality to split shots, like the one with Lila descending the stairs to the basement and Norman going up to the bedrooms.

So let's talk about the plot split. Boy is there a lot to love about such a simple decision. Because it isn't a twist, or at least it isn't a plot twist. I mean, we can get down in the trenches and fight a semantics war on hackneyed terminology, but as far as I'm concerned, a twist is an unexpected story event that - very key point here - re-contextualizes the preceding story. Revealing Mrs. Bates death is a twist: suddenly every scene she's in needs a second look to figure out what the hell a mummy would be up to and if there's anything Brendan Fraser can do about it. To the contrary, Marion's straightforward crime tale is utterly independent - at least narratively - from its premature conclusion. She may as well have slipped in the shower and broken her neck for all it says about her character and her world. The death is a hard break, there to give way for a new story: essentially, Marion's flight was the cold open. That Marion isn't actually the protagonist and this isn't her story is a metatextual reveal, and very much a post-modern twist: the audience is invited to re-evaluate their own relationship with the first half of the film and their expectations of narrative media.

Golem: The film manages the viewer's perspective in order to maintain the split Yourself mentions. In Marion's plot, the film has a central perspective. We always know what's on her mind, and sometimes we even hear her thoughts literally. The camera never strays from her side until Norman comes into the picture. Of course we're ill at ease when Norman peeps on Marion, but it's all the more unsettling because we're divorced from Marion's perspective for the first time in the film.

But PSYCHO doesn't take up Norman's perspective as a replacement. Our hearts are in our throats when Marion's car almost fails to sink, so it feels like we sit behind Norman's eyes, but he's eerily silent to us. Later, as he wriggles under investigation, we definitely part from him while collecting information from Arbogast, Lila, and Sam. Norman would never suffer the Sheriff's observation that Mrs. Bates was dead, for instance.

But of course, Norman knows that his mother is dead. Which brings us to the point of the film: Norman is locked out of his own mind. Marion's plot, aside from being a pretty sweet trick, also lends a counterpoint to Norman's lack of center.

Note to future self on watching PSYCHO:
Yourself: There's nothing that can be neatly summed up about my initial experience of PSYCHO. Most fascinating to me is its insistence on form, on providing a unique and compelling film experience without relying on traditional mores of act structure and character arcs. It is Hitchcock envisioning a purer cinema, one which spurns literary posturing in favor of technique and delivery; a statement about interactivity so bold and pointed that it still feels against the grain. And that connects with me a lot as a viewer, as someone who has always been a little wary around the truism "good movies are about characters".

Golem: PSYCHO is a great roller coaster, with catchy cinematography and fun characters. When the sheriff says AR-BO-GAST, say it with him.

Come back next week as Greg and Greg kick off the Halloween season with the god of ghouls himself, Vincent Price starring in THE HAUNTED PALACE.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen (filler week): GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS

at 1:00 PM
I swear we watched PSYCHO though. Golem said he didn't want to write it this week as a show of respect for the pope coming to America.

AKA: Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris
Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko
Written by: Kazunori Itô and Shûsuke Kaneko

GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS in one sentence:
Yourself: Iris? Iris... Iris! IRIS?! IRIIIIIIIIIISSSSSS!

Here's a story about me and GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS:
Yourself: I still can't watch these without wishing it was Godzilla instead of Gamera, but at least this trilogy makes for far more consistent popcorn entertainment than its hair-pullingly stupid Toho counterpart. Who would've known a writer/director can make better creative decisions than a boardroom of executives? Not Nintendo, that's who! Zing! Video game satire!

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: Erm, like usual we have one protagonist too many. GAMERA 3 is really the story of teenage orphan Ayana's hatred of Gamera, but she only hangs around til the midpoint. I will at least give the script that it's sticking to the series formula - sidelining Iris' human avatar when the monster takes over is exactly how GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE handled Gamera's avatar, Asagi. I can appreciate the structural consistency, even if I consistently don't enjoy watching boring bird-watching de facto protagonist Mayumi.

It is not necessarily a failing that the series doesn't scale the stakes linearly over three movies, but it certainly threw me in terms of traditional trilogy pacing. In retrospect, LEGION was really the climax of the Gamera story and IRIS is more of a prolonged denouement, addressing the emotional aftermath of the previous two films.

I appreciate the injection of a high-ranking government official who apparently belongs to some Gyaos-worshipping, Gamera-hating cult. It is never directly addressed as such, but Asakura's presence certainly seems to hold a cardboard sign by the side of the road reading "Hey. Maybe this is why the military keeps inanely treating Gamera as an enemy."

The aesthetic [of the monsters] is basically:
Yourself: Iris is more fantastically batshit demonic weirdness, flinging tentacles and lashing obscenely as a weird sort of phoenix/squid hybrid. There is the unifying sense that these are ancient deities more than monsters, their bodies purposefully evocative of historical aesthetics and stylized reinterpretation of natural form. The Nazca lines come to mind. Iris, Legion, Gyaos, and Gamera could belong to the same pantheon, and the movie even briefly suggests as much.

Gamera sadly seems to have gotten a downgrade. He's far from awful, but just compare the suit in that poster to the one from ATTACK OF LEGION. The neck is longer, the snout shorter, the shell oversized, and it just looks way more like a person than a turtlesaurus rex. But more importantly, the sweet original flame-based attacks continue (again, I won't spoil the final move, but you may feel encouraged to shout the name of a particular fighting game special).

It is also nice to see a brief return of Gyaos, though forgive me for being too rusty to distinguish this new mutation from the original. Gyaos gets particular credit for providing fodder for some of the more gruesome practical effects, first when one is revealed rotting in the sun, later when another is mauled by Gamera. I almost felt a little bad for the bird boys, they were getting horrifically murdered so frequently. In fact, the first two movies occasionally flirted with gore, but IRIS is the first that gets legitimately nasty. There are lots of cocoons and fluids and such gushing around, even a bit of body horror when Iris essentially grafts itself to Ayana. I would not necessarily show this to a kid.

But the elephant in the room this time is CGI, as there is simply so much (more than the previous two films combined) that it needs to be mentioned. The big showcase fight between Gamera and Iris is aerial, and that means 100% CGI. It just looks really weightless, scaleless, and unclear, and as a result I never got the sense that flying Iris was the same character as grounded (man-in-suit) Iris.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: While neither were exactly showcases, ATTACK OF LEGION was a lot campier than GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. It made sense in the most Gamera-centric of these three movies - there's not a lot of subtle emotion that can play on the same screen as a screeching giant turtle. GAMERA 3 wants to ground things in human drama again, and while I continue to temper my compliments, Ai Maeda's central performance as the brooding Ayana does exactly that. Ayana is kind of unpleasant and not all that likable. She's quiet, frowny, and standoffish. Even if I can't attest to that as a documentary-quality portrayal of a bitter teenage orphan, it is at least in keeping with cinematic convention, and she is first and foremost sympathetic. I get the character. Mayumi on the other hand....

But then, a couple actors seem to wholeheartedly believe they're in GAMERA 2, and I don't know what the hell Kaneko was thinking leaving the door open to such clashing tones. The two cultists, in their broadcast evil manipulation of Ayana's hatred, are basically supervillains. Dreamcast hobbyist Kurata in particular is maniacally laughing in almost every scene, including as he dies. The performance is theoretically fun, but majorly distracting set against the dour Ayana and plain Mayumi (so's the treatment of Dreamcast as an open software development platform, but don't get me started).

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Just to go with a brief shot, it's pretty bitchin' when Gamera lights up a Gyaos over Tokyo and the immolated corpse delicately falls to the ground. That is some sweet dramatic tension, breaking from the action to a solitary shot against a black sky that slowly carries us along back into turmoil.

Oh hang on, my mental notes remind me the one I wanted to write about is this scene in a forest where a young couple's picnic is rudely interrupted by tentacles. It is true slasher movie fare, complete with Monster Vision, and a testament to the not-ripping-off-ALIENS-anymore nature of the brief horror segment of the film before Iris is fully unveiled.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Whelp, in "Jesus the Giant Turtle" moments, Gamera brings a girl back from the dead. To demonstrate forgiveness.


Note to future self on watching GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS:
Yourself: The only thing I expect a daikaiju movie of this vintage to provide is cool monster fights, and IRIS has two out of three monsters and two out of three fights that are cool. Even the CGI waste and weaker Gamera suit are easy to forgive alongside human drama strong enough to hold things together. This is not to say (as many have) that the movie is a return to "characters before action" GODZILLA '54 form, as the emphasis still leans heavily on the battles. It's just the rare iteration of the post-VS. formula that doesn't need to be saved from itself.

[UPDATED 10/13 because the original edit came across way too negative for a movie that I very much liked]

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg's new excuse not to be covering PSYCHO will be.