Movies reviewed this week: Ganja & Hess, Dracula, The Perfection, Carrie, Vampyr, The House of the Devil, A Taste of Honey, August 32nd on Earth, and Phenomena.
10/11/2022: Ganja & Hess (1973): ****1/2
Bill Gunn made a complex, textured, thoughtful movie like this in 1973 and he never got any more film work? That’s a fucking crime, because this is a treasure.
Gunn uses the basic framework of the vampire movie as bones, but he stacks so much more on top of that skeleton. It’s a movie about the black experience, obviously, touching on religion and poverty and class. It explores assimilation in multiple directions: Hess and Ganja are rich, dining literally under the gaze of European art, but at the same time Hess is in touch with his African ancestry while his driver preaches at a gospel church.
And man, there’s this one musical cue where we go from African chants to European classical as Hess wakes up. It’s really something.
Gunn’s also confidently experimental with his style. He has no problem letting the action play out at the corner of the frame, or just off screen. There’s an entire conversation in which we never see one participant’s face. These bold directorial choices, along with the dissonant raw soundtrack, leave us off-kilter and uncertain throughout. Which is perfect, for vampires.
Man! And I haven’t even touched on addiction. It’s explicitly about addiction, but again it’s layered and deep. It’s easy to say a vampire’s addicted to blood. It’s harder to incorporate the selfishness of addiction, but we see it here. Hess makes choices about spreading his addiction, swears to be there forever, then… isn’t. That’s an addict for you.
Someone might tell you this is just a blaxploitation horror flick. They’re lying.
Prompt: watch 2 1970s regional US films
10/14/2022: Dracula (1958): ****
Well now we’re talking. This was a vast improvement over Hammer’s The Mummy: tightly plotted, rampant sexuality, and we get to see Christopher Lee’s face throughout. It’s great watching the movie that spawned so much of the modern Dracula mythos.
It’s also got some genuine chills. The bit where they realize where Dracula is hiding? Excellent.
Prompt: watch 2 Christopher Lee films
10/15/2022: The Perfection (2018): ***
Someone somewhere used South Korean revenge flicks as a touchpoint for this and yeah, that’s about right. It doesn’t hold together when you think about it too hard, which is a problem for a movie that relies on showing you a thing and then showing you the thing behind the thing. It’s also one of those movies where being abused makes you stronger, sort of.
On the other hand I think part of the point is that abuse breeds abuse and the final shot certainly doesn’t make me feel like anyone’s been liberated. In the end I probably would have liked it more if it was as batshit as it seems like it’s going to be a third of the way through.
Prompt: 1 film with a musician or band in it (A real life musician or band)
Oh, huh, we screwed that prompt up — it was supposed to be a real musician or band. Well, Allison Williams had that one song on YouTube. It counts.
10/15/2022: Carrie (2013): **1/2
Competent but not necessary. The acting is good enough to save it from being a waste; Julianne Moore and Chloë Grace Moretz play off each other really well. Ansel Egort is also a treat as the jock who’s too dumb to know that he’s leading Carrie on. The pre-catastrophe prom sequence is genuinely nice and tragic.
On the flip side, the movie doesn’t seem to know why Carrie’s an outcast. That same prom sequence falls into the dull ugly duckling trope, but that’s not what’s going on here and you don’t need to try and convince us that people thought of Moretz as ugly. She’s an outcast because her mom’s a scary religious weirdo with mental health issues. Egort should be getting over that and seeing Carrie as her own human being, or you’re wasting a lot of good setup.
Prompt: 1 Stephen King adaptation that is not the first go around
10/15/2022: Vampyr (1932): ****
Worth it for the coffin sequence alone. Dreyer’s decision to position the camera inside the inexplicably windowed coffin yields many fruitful moments: the candles, the sudden appearance of Marguerite, and the shots of the church. Found footage movies owe a debt to this film, whether they know it or not.
Dreyer may be known for his slow patient pacing, but that shouldn’t obscure the technical fire he brings. And how about that use of shadow?
It was fascinating how many of the key actors were amateurs. I think Jan Hieronimko as the doctor impressed me most. You could say he just had the right look, allowing his mustache and wild hair to carry him through, but I think he brought a little bit more than that to the role: there was a calmness about his servitude that I really liked.
I’m not sure this is a horror movie, though. I think this deeply spiritual director was filming a meditation on evil, and the ending can’t be interpreted as anything other than the triumph of light. Our monsters are dead, and our protagonists have passed out of the fog into clarity and light. (Intercut with Hieronimko quite literally being buried and thus losing all ability to see.) It’s a parable — or, yes, a fairy tale — and while it certainly thrills, I think it’s more designed as a moral lesson.
10/15/2022: The House of the Devil (2009): ***1/2
Now that’s the horror talent I’d heard about! I grew up in New England in the 80s and the sense of place here was spot on. The pacing was pretty brilliant; West has a great sense of where he wanted to drop the shock moments. I particularly appreciated the return to a slow burn after the first death.
Prompt: see five films by Ti West (et al.)
10/15/2022: A Taste of Honey (1961): ***1/2
It’s nice to see a British New Wave film focusing on women for a change, although I know it’s not gonna be a trend. Still interesting, and this film tackles homosexuality and race as well. It’s not about minorities in any real sense, but I think it must still have been a step forward to acknowledge they exist, and there’s a sort of matter of fact air about both Geoffrey and Jimmy.
That matter of factness is also… hm. I’ve noted that some of the other British New Wave films in the Criterion Channel’s collection take a very observational look at the lower classes. Yes, it’s progress to take them seriously as the subject of movies, but a few of these early ones also punish their protagonists for daring to think about class mobility. A Taste of Honey doesn’t fall into that trap; some of the characters are a bit broad, including unfortunately Jo, but I never felt like the movie was laughing at them.
As a movie, it shows its origin as a stage play. Richardson didn’t entirely shed that talkiness. It probably didn’t help that the actors were new to their craft — I liked Rita Tushingham fine but she didn’t have the naturalism I think this material called for. Dora Bryan is a marked exception to this; she has to walk that line between sympathetic and cruel and I think we wind up feeling the connection between her and Tushingham more strongly than between anyone else.
I’m picking on the flaws a bit. It is a good movie, and it’s touchingly emotional. This is I think my third Richardson movie. He’s got a good sense of family dynamics, for both good and ill.
10/16/2022: August 32nd on Earth (1998): ***1/2
All that pressure not to waste a single day, as fate rolls the dice with our futures, and for what?
It’s imperfect but Villeneuve’s eye for images is already there. He reaches a little too hard here and there, particularly in the third act, but for a first festure film? It’s impressive.
Pascale Bussières and Alexis Martin have charisma to spare, and can both act as well.
10/16/2022: Phenomena (1985): ***
100% an Argento experience (for better and worse) but it replaces the occult overtones of the Three Mother movies with psychic powers. The visionary approach is present in full force; the acting is perhaps not. Jennifer Connelly is early on in her career, and Daria Nicolodi is clearly about ready to be done with Argento’s bullshit, both on and off screen. Solid helping of gore, of course.
And now for a non-obligatory helping of speculation!
Argento filmed this movie with the intent of setting it in a world in which the Germans won World War II. “It’s a world where the Nazi order won. If the movie is watched attentively, then it is obvious that, from that perspective, whoever made it was working from this principle.” I think this is worth exploring a bit.
First off, there’s a moment where Morris Shapiro is unavailable because it’s Passover. That isn’t framed as remarkable or anything, and I don’t think it signifies anything about the world we’re in, but it’s a little reminder that Judaism exists.
But what about the explicit connection the villain draws between physical disability and shame? Is that, perhaps, a reference to Nazi ideals of physical perfection? And did Argento put Donald Pleasence in a wheelchair to signify that those ideals are false? He’s the smartest person in the movie, after all.
He’s also taken the time to nurture an emotional connection with a literal chimpanzee, who’s presented as nearly human in her ability to think and live with humans. That’s a repudiation of Nazi ideology as well, intentional or not.
I mean I might be stretching here. Daria Nicolodi later criticized Argento for his ableism, and as Argento’s partner she was certainly in a position to know. But I’m not sure what else in the movie Argento could have been thinking of by that comment.
Prompt: 2 insect centered films