Movies reviewed this week: Satanic Panic, Panic in the Streets, The Kid with a Bike, The Unbelievable Truth, The People Under the Stairs, Under the Skin, Walkabout, Dracula 3000, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
9/19/2023: Satanic Panic (2019): 1/2
Edit: aw, fuck, what a repellent sexist set this was. Wish I’d known; this explains a lot.
Yep. Welp. One of the things about Hooptober is that it really rounds out my rating curve. The Grady Hendrix screenplay seemed OK, but it’s buried under a lot of indifferent acting and a budget that wasn’t up to showing us the most interesting kill. Which, come to think of it, happens fairly early on, so from a gore perspective it’s all downhill from there.
I like a good class-conscious horror film. I do not like it as much when the bad guys are all women and they spend all their time betraying each other. There’s a misogynist undertone here that could have been eliminated with a bit more thought.
There was a good emotional moment and Rebecca Romijn was an exception to the rest of the bad acting. Some of it was funny. Otherwise there’s not much to recommend it.
Prompt: a Satan/Devil centered film
9/22/2023: Panic in the Streets (1950): ****
The seediness of Kazan’s New Orleans is palpable. At first, I thought the contrast of Barbara Bel Geddes’ suburbia was a mistake. It wasn’t: it’s the canvas for metaphor, as the spreading plague is mirrored by the strain on her marriage to Richard Widmark.
That strain doesn’t last, because Kazan’s not the kind of director who doubts the power of the American Way. Worth it for the scene where Bel Geddes lays down the law. Widmark’s playing a hero, no doubt, but he brings subtlety and flaws to it. It’s a nuanced performance. Bel Geddes matches him during her limited screen time.
Lots of other good stuff here. Jack Palance had menace from day one, as it turns out. The poor reactions to the pandemic seem prescient from our point of view; I think perhaps it was rather that the Spanish flu epidemic was a mere thirty years past. It’s an excellent little noir.
9/23/2023: The Kid with a Bike (2011): ****1/2
Phew, that hits like a ton of bricks. I’m only sometimes a sucker for kids gone wrong movies; this was one of those times. I think the factor that tilts the scales is the way the Dardenne brothers marry their powerful social realism with a fairly classic mystery (in act one) and a skilled thriller (in act two). It provides tension to match the tragedy. Act three is just a deeply empathic character study, but by that time it wasn’t like I was going to look away.
I don’t want to step on the end. I think I can safely say that the story is about the potential for Cyril’s redemption, and no accident could get in the way of that.
Cyril is a remarkable performance from Thomas Doret. He is at the center of the screen for almost the whole movie, and always at the center of the moment. He carries it. Cécile de France is equally strong as Samantha, but she had rather more experience acting. There’s a moment — one of the few without Cyril — when she has to accept the possibility of failing him. It’s one of the moments when I teared up.
And this is an average effort for the Dardennes? Fuck me.
9/23/2023: The Unbelievable Truth (1989): ****
I am pretty sure that, now that I’ve seen a couple of his films, you could sit me down in front of a lost Hal Hartley movie and I’d know it was his. Maybe the Beowulf pastiche will shake my confidence. In the meantime I’ll be over here writing slightly over baked, elliptical reviews. His dialogue kind of sticks with you,
So it’s a teen romance taking place at the uncertain border between high school and college. I can’t help but wonder if Hartley wasn’t reacting to John Hughes at some level. Towards the end, there’s a sequence of physical farce which would fit into Hughes’ Chicago high school angst just fine. If so, it’s one of those reactions that is nonetheless its own creation.
The acrid certainty that the world is ending is a strength.
9/23/2023: The People Under the Stairs (1991): ***1/2
Eat the rich! It’s awfully fun watching Wes Craven really, really let his qualms about the American family show. He’s not subtle in the least, but Reagan/Bush era capitalism doesn’t deserve subtle. Extrapolations to the present day are left as an exercise for the reader.
Back to the movie: other than the politics, the thing that makes this one really stand out is Craven’s sense of place. It’s a phantasmagorical movie, as comedic horror flicks tend to be. Craven’s precise understanding of how his house of traps works grounds the weirdness and keeps the level of menace high.
Nadine and Big Ed as the landlords is a bonus for Twin Peaks fans. Apparently the Twin Peaks roles got them cast in this, so it’s no coincidence.
Prompt: see five films by Wes Craven (et al.)
9/24/2023: Under the Skin (2013): ****1/2
There’s a shot towards the end of the movie that makes me think the alien has come to think of Earth as a home. It’s tender. The moments of tenderness in this movie are precious.
9/24/2023: Walkabout (1971): ****
I’m hard-pressed to think of anything more perfectly filmed and edited. Roeg’s camerawork — without the benefit of drones or modern lenses — still holds up. Those early shots of the outback which slowly reveal two young Europeans lost in the vastness of the desert are incredible.
He also manages the montage trick so many failed at after him: from nature’s beauty to her horrors, interwoven with the oppression of civilization for bonus difficulty. I think this is important in this movie, because it might otherwise be the parable (the cliche) of the noble savage. I’m not sure he doesn’t still slip into that from time to time. Jenny Agutter skinny dipping is not prurient, per se, and it’s certainly as beautiful as the rest of the movie. But it goes on for a while, lingering. Nudity as innocence as enlightenment?
This lingering discomfort keeps me from calling the movie perfect. In the end, both Agutter and David Gulpilil are ruined. Roger Ebert says it’s a failure to communicate, not inherently a statement about civilization. That seems overly kind to me: the contrast between Gulpilil, who hunts for survival, and the white hunters, who kill for the fun of it, could not be any clearer.
Roeg is condemning civilization here, which is not to say it doesn’t deserve it. However, he’s also saying that the aboriginal natives are too weak to withstand contact with the most harmless representatives of colonialism. It’s an anti-colonialist statement that’s predicated on inherent fragility. Compare to the work of Claire Denis, who knows there’s strength on both sides of that equation.
And despite the discomfort (which I nailed down in the process of writing, so thank you for indulging my process), it’s spectacular. It’s easy to see why Gulpilil became internationally known after this. As a piece of artistic design, I could ask for little more.
9/24/2023: Dracula 3000 (2004): 1/2
Worse than Howling: New Moon Rising. Absolutely no redeeming value. You don’t need this movie to tell you that vampires in space have potential; it doesn’t even get points for sparking cool ideas. Hooptober X has a lot to answer for and I am very sorry for my fellow participants, because this is gonna be a popular answer for this prompt.
Prompt: the worst Dracula film (by Letterboxd rating) that you haven’t seen and can access
9/24/2023: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): *****
I’d be captivated by a Hallmark Christmas movie using those sets. Happily, it’s way better than that; along with influencing just about every horror and thriller that followed, it’s an excellent story. I loved the way the layers build, lulling the audience into Caligari’s fever dream. By the final act, I’d almost lost track of that peaceful alpine village where we began.
Prompt: films from 6 countries (Germany)