Pan’s Labyrinth: film of dark fantasy, horror and historical drama that inspires hope and courage

Guillermo del Toro, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
This is an excellent film that successfully combines dark fantasy and horror with historical drama set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944 to inspire people with hope and courage. The Spanish Civil War has ended several years before 1944 with the triumph of General Franco and his forces though rebels still hide in the forests, building up an underground network of resistance. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) brings his heavily pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), to his country homestead. Carmen is severely ill and in no fit state to travel but Vidal insists his son must be born “where his father is”. Where his father is means hunting down, capturing, torturing and/or killing the rebels with as much savagery as dear old Dad relishes. Literally hitting the odd rabbit poacher around the face with a bottle and killing him is par for the course. Reading bed-time stories to Junior must be out of the question, which would kill any attempts on big sister Ofelia’s part to be acquainted with the baby as she fills her life with books of fantasy, in particular one about a princess who left her underground kingdom to live in the world above, got lost, aged and died. The underground realm is still open to the return of the princess’s spirit if she were to undertake three tasks to prove her identity and worth.
Hey, hey, Ofelia discovers she may be that princess as a couple of insect-fairies introduce her to a monstrous faun (Doug Jones) living in a circular labyrinth deep in the garden next to Vidal’s homestead. The faun commands her to perform the three tasks within a certain time period. They turn out to be dangerous and difficult as they mirror her knowledge and experience of the world around her and take on aspects of the brutal and severe society she lives in and of the values and beliefs she has been taught. In one task, she just manages to escape being eaten by another monster (also played by Doug Jones) and the faun, on hearing the details surrounding that escape, tells the girl she is not fit for her tasks and refuses to deal with her any more.
In the meantime her stepfather Vidal lives out his own fantasy about creating a new Spain and bringing up his son to know of his father and grandfather’s deeds, grand to Vidal but horrible and undeserving of celebration to viewers; he fails to see that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Carmen’s doctor (Alex Angulo) are secretly helping the resistance. Eventually the two are caught: Mercedes manages to mutilate Vidal and escape but must leave Ofelia behind; the doctor is executed. Carmen gives birth to a healthy son and dies. Ofelia is left alone with Vidal, the faun comes back to her with the third task, and from this point on, Ofelia and Vidal’s respective fantasy worlds draw closer to the inevitable collision.
The actors play their roles efficiently but they are only playing stock characters as the film’s focus is on celebrating hope and imagination in situations and environments where people, institutions and governments actively or passively repress creativity and intelligence and turn populations into expendable robots. This applies as much to contemporary Western societies where people’s thinking and imagination are shaped and dictated to by distant unseen individuals and corporations with hidden agendas as it does to societies where the brainwashing and repression are more obviously blunt, brutal, clumsy and at times backfiring on the regimes’ objectives. It’s easy to criticise Baquero’s blank and stoic portrayal of Ofelia but viewers must consider such a portrayal as a distancing device among other things (for example, being po-faced would not attract the attention of a hated step-parent); likewise, Lopez’s portrayal of Vidal which can be theatrical and makes him as much a comic and pathetic character as a black-hearted sadistic villain has to be seen in the same light. The scene where Vidal tries DIY surgery is full of black humour: it shows just how insecure about his own masculinity Vidal is, that he refuses to ask for help. Perhaps this says something about the nature of repressive authoritarian regimes: they look secure on the outside but on the inside, who knows how really fragile they are?
The adult female characters Carmen and Mercedes are worth mentioning as complementary opposites. Carmen is a helpless mother, symbolic of the common people whose only function is to do the bidding of the political and social elites, represented by Vidal’s dinner party guests who include the local gentry and padre; her death in childbirth demonstrates her complete exploitation (she’s only useful to Vidal as incubator of his heir) and by implication that of the people she represents. Mercedes is more of a mother to Ofelia, promising to rescue her, but can’t help the girl even when she keeps her promise; I see her as representative of the common people’s resistance to oppression which, however heroic, can be fallible and sometimes wavering.
Ultimately when two fantasy worlds clash, one survives, the other crumbles and apparently disappears. Ofelia is confirmed as the true princess of the underground kingdom in a self-sacrificing act that recalls Christ’s crucifixion. Vidal’s wishes for his son to know his father and grandfather and for the child to continue his ancestors’ deeds come to nothing in a scene where he gives the baby to Mercedes that demonstrates how truly far gone in his fantasy world Vidal is. Yet the reality is that Vidal’s new Spain continues for another 31 years while Ofelia’s world disappears with her with only fragments left behind. After 1975 it seemed that Vidal’s Spain had gone forever but with the country now on the brink of bankruptcy, the Zapatero government preparing to send the army in against striking air traffic controllers at this time of writing (7 December 2010) and various sectors within Spanish society clamouring for a rehabilitation of Franco and asserting that he “saved” the country from its “enemies”, can we really be sure that Vidal’s fantasy world simply isn’t lying underground, waiting to grow again?

Let Me In: Reeves “lets the right one in” to smother his version’s potential

Matt Reeves, “Let Me In”, Hammer Films / Overture Films (2010)

Once upon a time about 25 years ago in a small town somewhere in Reagan-era America, there was a lonely 12 year old boy called Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) living in an apartment block with his mom. Mom had just broken up with Owen’s Dad and was trying to cope with the trials of being a single parent in that particular historical period by imbibing equal and large amounts of alcohol and religion. Owen had problems too: his parents were too wrapped up in their issues and inability to cope, shouting at each other over the phone; everyone else in the block kept to themselves; and at school, there were these teenage bullies, Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his friends, all older than Owen, who bothered the other kids some but reserved their bile for Owen, on one occasion nearly raping him, and most of the time mocking him about being a little girl.

Little girl? One night Owen sees new neighbours – a girl his age and her Dad – moving into the apartment next door to his. Over the next several days – or nights, rather – Owen gets acquainted with this girl, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), and though at first they don’t want to be friends – Abby actually warns him off, and he thinks she smells bad – they each discover they have lots in common: they’re lonely outsiders and they need an ally to cope with modern life. So Owen helps Abby adjust to her new life in town and Abby advises owen on how to deal with Kenny and his pals.

Meanwhile the town – Los Alamos, by the way – is hit by a series of gruesome murders in which victims get strung up on trees and poles and drained of their blood by a serial killer so the local police detective (Elias Koteas) investigates and links the murders to Abby’s “Dad” (Richard Jenkins) who winds up in hospital with injuries sustained in a car crash and his face disfigured by acid. The police officer tries to interview the patient but gets called away to the phone by the ward sister; while the fellow’s gone, Abby visits “Dad” through the window, he offers his neck as apology for his recent failures, she drinks his blood and he falls to his death ten storeys down.

Yes, by now you’ve guessed: “Let Me In” is the American version of the Swedish movie “Let the Right One In” and in parts is a remake of the latter movie. Not surprising really, seeing that it’s based on both the novel and the Swedish screenplay, both written by John Ajvide Lindquist. You’d think the US movie would benefit from the best of both worlds, the direct and the indirect approaches, along with some original American touches and details. The result though is a movie that is both weaker and more powerful than its Swedish predecessor: the weakest parts are where it copies the Swedish movie scene for scene, shot for shot, or waters it or the novel down; the strongest parts are the original ideas that are absent from the Swedish film and novel.

There are two themes present that could have lifted “Let Me In” to greatness beyond the Swedish film: to take the first, the relationship between Owen and Abby is more heartfelt and emotional than what Oskar and Eli had; and Abby, at once more girly and more obviously feral than Eli, appears a more complex character than Eli which adds poignancy to Owen’s dilemma when he realises too late that she’s a vampire. Early scenes between Abby and her “Dad” suggest she’s a bully too and a photograph of them that Owen sees suggests she’s been using her “Dad” since he was a young boy. Unfortunately Reeves doesn’t pursue the suggestion of Abby as both sweetheart and cruel mistress hard to the very end so the film’s coda, which could have been the film’s real climax, powerful and ambiguous yet “true” to the novel and the film – Owen only needs to fish out that photo of Abby and “Dad” after tapping out Morse code on the box where Abby’s hiding and start crying – remains an enervated imitation of the Swedish film’s feel-good fairy-tale ending.

The second theme not present in “Let the Right One In” (novel and film) is the notion of escape: Los Alamos seems an uninteresting, generic American small-town where locals apparently care little about its history as a centre of nuclear energy and weapons research and development, and Owen tells Abby that he plans on leaving the place forever one day. If Reeves only realised what a goldmine this is, he would have made Abby the one chance Owen has of escaping to a richer, more fulfilling world, and so Owen’s dilemma of whether to stay with a dangerous friend or not becomes more multi-layered. We would also have seen the attraction Abby held for her “Dad”, holding out a similar promise of freedom. The train trip Owen and Abby take at the film’s end would become a flight to freedom. The escape theme is a distinctively American culture motif and it is hard to understand why Reeves doesn’t make anything much out of it.

Child actors Smit-McPhee and Moretz are excellent in their roles – Smit-McPhee in particular reveals considerable emotional depth in what must be his first lead role. Moretz balances the light and dark aspects of her role well but rather than just being resigned to a monotonous salty liquid diet, she could have been directed to feel conflicted about what she has to do to stay alive, maybe even dislike the taste of blood. The adult characters are under-developed but three should have stood out, even as one-dimensional stock figures: Koteas’s prying police officer should have been a framing device for the whole film right to the very end – the novel itself has such a character – and perhaps he would have provided an objective viewpoint on everything that happens and some comment on the nature of US small-town society and how it deals with violence, crime and social problems. The other two potential stand-out characters are Owen’s apartment block neighbours Virginia and Larry: a couple of early unspoken scenes with them, perhaps detailing their fighting and making up while Owen spies on them with his telescope, could have established them as a counterpoint to Owen’s battling parents. Larry could have provided fodder for Abby as his Swedish twin Lacke did for Eli, freeing the police officer (spoiler alert) to investigate the strange incidents at the swimming pool centre and deal with a missing child report, as in the novel.

Ah yeah, the climactic swimming pool showdown: Reeves relies heavily on the Swedish film for inspiration, using Owen’s viewpoint underwater, and this is a big mistake. For thugs such as Kenny and Co, the way that Reeves deals with them is unsatisfactory, given that this is a Hammer film where subtlety is a foreign concept and we’ve already seen Abby get stuck into several previous victims. I’m of the view that the audience should see Abby rip into the boys with suitable amounts of relish, gore and violence without Reeves’s jumpy cuts and quick edits: this would have been a cathartic moment, good for the audience if too good for the bullies themselves.

Ultimately in trying to make a film that meets the cool Europeam sensibility of “Let the Right One In” and at the same time fulfil commercial expectations and values, Reeves loses the chance to make a great film with a distinctive style, informed by layers of myths and history of midwestern Americana, and melding horror and violence with loss of childhood innocence and the minutiae of everyday life. In its own way “Let Me In” could have been a comment on American social conditions of the 1980’s, some of which still exist today.

Rosemary’s Baby: does it reflect women’s oppression by modern life?

Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

Who doesn’t envy young couples these days who dream of having a nice 3-bedroom house or apartment in the city close to work, shops and various cultural attractions, and of being able to rely on one or two incomes with steady and reliable weekly pay-packets that can cope with paying off a mortgage on low interest rates over 25 years and accommodate a major holiday every year and unforeseen expenses? Unfortunately too many such couples are being squeezed by some combination of miserly employers, governments hacking into health, education and social services to pay for expensive overseas wars, and greedy unforgiving banks wanting to maintain their profits in a depressed economy, among other things. Understandable then that some people might be willing to sell their souls or their first-born kids to the Devil or, in the case of this movie, hire out the missus as surrogate mum to the Anti-Christ if they thought such sacrifices were necessary to achieve their goals and dreams. Put yourselves in the shoes of Guy Woodhouse (played by John Cassavetes), husband of Rosemary (Mia Farrow), and ask yourselves: if I’d been a struggling actor for several years and now my one big chance of getting a career break and going to Hollywood depends on one actor, to whom I’m understudy, not being able to perform his role in a play, and that chance will never come again, wouldn’t I want to sell my wife to Satan if he agreed to toss that chance to me?

Over forty years ago when the movie was first released, the premise of a woman impregnated with the seed of Satan was so scary to many people that they spoke of the movie in hushed tones. Since then, the “horror”, which was probably talked up and exaggerated by the media at the time, has dissipated and what we have is a clever movie that starts out as a soap opera and turns into psychological thriller in which naivety, gender politics and isolation combine with fear of the unknown as a young woman experiences a major life transition (becoming pregnant, being a first-time mother) into paranoia and potential mental breakdown, and this is where much of the film’s “horror” actually derives. The fact that Rosemary’s fears and beliefs about her baby’s conception and identity come true is really neither here nor there; the baby, once born, is not so horrible after Rosemary has seen him and her memory of her difficult and painful pregnancy and the frustrations that came with it fades away.

Employing actors with proven track records on stage and screen in carefully selected or recreated urban settings and following the original novel closely result in a polished and carefully crafted film for the horror genre in which cheap sets, inexperienced starlets, hackneyed and melodramatic plots and sometimes slapdash direction used to be the norm in those days. In common with many of Polanski’s movies, a strange sense of humour is always present and this movie could be viewed as a black comedy. That perhaps is an injustice to Rosemary who is a naive though intelligent young woman whose fault is to have been born and brought up in a world where a married woman’s place is in the home tending to her babies and trusting in her husband, doctor and neighbours to look out for her safety. As Rosemary fears, these are the very people who give her up to Satan and endanger her health and life. (Interesting therefore, that the movie is based on the novel of the same name written by the same fellow, Ira Levin, who wrote “The Stepford Wives” which itself has been made into two movies. Levin obviously hit onto something about women’s oppression by modern life that university academics took up later.)

As investigations into being an outsider, paranoia, isolation and mental breakdown go, “Rosemary’s Baby” is not nearly as good or intense as some other movies Polanski made in the 1960’s and 1970’s – “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” spring to mind – but this is still a good movie about how even the most mundane and ordinary aspects of life that people take for granted can harbour evil. In a time when marriage and community still counted for something and kids were free to ride their bikes on the streets from sunrise to sundown and only show up for dinner and bed-time, the notion that your spouse and neighbours, and even the building you live in, could be part of an evil conspiracy must have been breathtaking. Unless you happen to be US-Japanese artist Yoko Ono whose husband John Lennon was shot dead in 1980 in front of the building, the Dakota Hotel, that appears in the opening and closing shots of “Rosemary’s Baby” and which viewers may assume is the building where the Woodhouses own their apartment. The apartment itself though consists of recreated sets as filming has never been allowed inside the hotel.

It’s perhaps also significant that at the time “Rosemary’s Baby” was first released, the civil rights movement in the US was on the rise and receiving much media publicity. The Black Panthers movement was also in the spotlight. The more governments granted equal rights to racial and other minorities, the more emboldened people became to raise issues of past discrimination and correcting history about how people had been treated in the past. With equal rights and the breakdown of racial barriers come racial inter-mixing and the possibility of white women having children with … non-white men? EEEEE-AAAAHHH-OOOHHH!!! … racial miscegenation, maybe that’s the real horror  “Rosemary’s Baby” hints at!

Let the Right One In: first, the Swedish version is allowed in

Tomas Alfredsson, “Let the Right One In” (2008)

Often when a novel is translated to the screen, the result is a superficial imitation of the printed word: the novel has an extra aspect or sub-plot that can’t be translated successfully to screen. In the case of the vampire novel “Let the Right One In”, about 30% of the book didn’t make it to film and I’m happy that it didn’t because most of what John Ajvide Lindquist left out – he wrote the screenplay based on his novel – is a trashy, gory sub-plot in which a minor character becomes a rampaging zombie. Stripped of this sub-plot and with another sub-plot considerably trimmed down, the movie becomes a concentrated and subtle investigation of pre-adolescent angst and alienation within the vampire horror sub-genre.

The plot revolves around a young boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), bullied at school by his class-mates and unwilling to fight back yet seething with inner rage at his tormenters: in the evenings when he’s home from school, he reads up on serial killers and broods over his knife collection. He and his mother live in a dreary set of flats in a generic suburb of Stockholm. One night, two new people move in next door to their unit. These mysterious new neighbours keep to themselves: they don’t even change the window blinds every morning and every evening, let alone meet and greet the other tenants.

Until one evening when Oskar is loitering in the playground: one of the two new people, Eli (Linda Leandersson), a girl about his age, joins him on the playground equipment. Strangely, though snow is all around them and the temperature must be below zero Centigrade, Eli is very lightly dressed. Although she advises Oskar that they can’t be friends, over several similar evening meetings they bond and form a friendship of sorts. In the meantime, Eli’s companion Hakan (Per Ragnar) tries to obtain blood for Eli -yep, she’s a bloodsucker – he manages to kill someone but is interrupted while trying to milk the corpse for blood and he is forced to flee. Eli later has to kill a man Jocke (Mikael Rohm) for blood and this sets up a sub-plot about Jocke’s friends who meet regularly at a pub.

As the movie progresses, Oskar and Eli become closer and eventually Eli starts offering advice to Oskar on how to deal with the bullies. Oskar starts working out at the local sports centre and takes up swimming lessons, eventually becoming confident enough to fight back when the bullies start abusing him again. He also discovers Eli’s true nature in scenes that can be very shocking, one of which provides the title to both the movie and the novel. The bullies aren’t happy with Oskar sticking up for himself so they lift their taunting to a more dangerous level by recruiting an older boy and plotting to lure Oskar into a trap at the swimming centre where he trains.

Meanwhile the pathetically tragicomic Hakan continues searching for more victims but ends up having to mutilate himself to avoid identification; he ends up in hospital where Eli later finds him and he ends up falling to his death. At this point the movie and the novel diverge with the novel diving into the zombie sub-plot and criss-crossing from that to Oskar and Eli’s relationship and the other sub-plot about Jocke’s friends.

Filmed mostly in a town in northern Sweden, the movie features beautiful and sometimes bright snowy landscapes which contrast sharply with the bleak lives of many characters in the movie: the minimal furnishings and buildings beloved of Ikea brochures and magazine articles on Scandinavian design and architecture look dull and banal in many scenes, and Jocke’s friends are revealed as struggling working-class people who’ve had more than their fair share of setbacks, desperation, hard times and plain bad luck. The acting comes over as minimal or matter-of-fact so that when gory or shocking events occur, they seem so much more extreme, particularly in the climactic swimming-pool scene which for many viewers will sum up everything about the movie’s style: at once sparing and restrained on the surface yet on further reflection, layered with meaning and open to many interpretations. The scene itself is set up to look beautiful, even poetic, so the sudden violence that enters is a real eye-opening shock. The camera then pans around the swimming pool in silence to reveal a boy sobbing quietly among various dismembered and bloodied remains. The equally dialogue-free denouement which follows – Oskar is travelling alone on a country train with no attendants – looks like a fantasy scene and I can well agree with one interpretation of this scene that Oskar may have actually died and is on his way to Heaven with Eli being his one faithful link back on Earth.

I can’t find much to fault about the film: the main criticism I have is that the sub-plot revolving around Jocke’s friends treats them as diversions from the main plot and could have made more of the anguish one friend feels when she discovers she has become a vampire and must decide whether to live or die. Otherwise there’s much to commend this film to the general audience and film students alike. The camerawork, using a track-mounted dolly and a fixed camera with no reliance on handheld cameras, is steady and calm and enables the use of wide tracking shots that reinforce a particular mood or emphasise an important moment or event in the plot. Such shots add to the mystery and apparent complexity of the film’s plot and themes. Hedebrant and Leanderssen work well together as Oskar and Eli and are convincing in the way they gradually build up their friendship and look out for each other despite the danger Eli must pose to Oskar. The use of voice-over and special effects for Eli’s character to demonstrate that the character is otherworldly is very subtle and believable in a world that’s otherwise bleak and mundane.

Above all, the use of the vampire horror movie sub-genre to explore subject matter that otherwise might not attract audience attention – bullying, family breakdown, pedophilia, surviving in a world that grinds you down and where your choice of friends might literally be a matter of life or death – is an original idea that has potential to reinvigorate the sub-genre itself with new life. Oskar, if he is in Heaven, would be pretty happy at that news.

Splice: spliced-together movie unravelling at the joins

Vincenzo Natali, “Splice”, Dark Castle Entertainment (2010)
 
Fans of former Oscar Best Actor winner Adrien Brody must be wondering how their man came to be slumming it in this Canadian sci-fi horror flick about a Generation Y scientist couple Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast (Brody and Sarah Polley) who work for a genetics corporation splicing DNA from various animals to create chimeras whose hormones and other products can be manufactured and patented by their employer by day; and at night work on their own experiment splicing animal and human DNA to create a Frankenstein who among other things will substitute for their inability – or rather, Elsa’s unwillingness – to have their own child. (And the corporation, feeling the cruel pinch of the Global Financial Crisis, will no longer countenance its star employees using company resources and equipment for pursuing personal projects.) At first the hybrid, named Dren, is very cute: she’s a mixture of human, bird, a bit of rodent here and a scorpion there, but she’s a fast grower as well as a fast learner and eventually the couple have to move her out of the company basement and storage areas and into a country farmhouse where Elsa spent her childhood. There Dren grows into a weirdly beautiful adult (Delphine Chaneac) in double-quick time and suffers the problems of adolescence in double-quick intensity: she’s not only intelligent and perceptive, she’s rebellious and wants freedom to move and explore, find her own identity and niche in life perhaps. Her complicated genetic inheritance kicks in, presenting all manner of weird and wacky parenting problems and Oedipal complexes for Clive and Elsa to cope with. The results are devastating if perhaps predictable – previous company-approved experiments with two slug chimaeras whimsically named Fred and Ginger prime the audience for what’s to come – with the tantalising possibility of a Z-grade sequel in the manner of the Species films where each succeeding chapter gets progressively sillier with a new batch of actors being punished by the mutating monster for sacrificing their artistic integrity for a few hundred extra measly bucks
 
In a way this isn’t a sci-fi film as the technology to splice DNA from different animal and plant species to create new kinds of genetic beings has existed for many years and corporations like Monsanto are already making billions out of this activity. The general idea though – know-it-all specialists wanting more secret knowledge in their specialty, conducting risky experiments to get that knowledge, reaping the early rewards but also suffering from the inevitable fall-out – qualifies “Splice” as a member of the Frankenstein category of science fiction / horror. “Splice” is also “splice” in the way it tosses in elements of romantic comedy – a scene where Clive and Elsa argue and the two stomp back and forth between a car and the barn illustrates this nicely – and of psychological thriller horror once the action moves into the farmhouse where Elsa grew up and was abused by her mother. A sly dig at companies that initially profess horror at unorthodox staff projects and punish the employees severely yet eagerly scramble for the money-stream such projects promise easily slots into the plot.
 
This is very much a character-driven film as the two scientists start out masters of their particular universe but end up being driven by it as one bad decision leads to another and the mess just gets bigger and bigger. Ethical issues about personal, parental and corporate responsibility are brought up without being hammered over and the lead actors do an excellent job portraying arrogant, fallible human beings whose weaknesses are exposed as they grapple with the consequences of their decisions and actions. It becomes obvious that Dren, for all her intelligence and perception, is an innocent victim of her particular cosmopolitan genetic make-up as it expresses itself and viewers will pity her pain, confusion and inevitable demise, and feel disgust and contempt for her fat-headed creators and their sponsors at the same time.
 
Unfortunately as the movie progresses, it starts to feel shaky as the action flips from glossy cutting-edge sci-fi to rustic isolationist farmhouse horror and the stitching of various genre elements becomes less than seamless. The action descends into a predictable rut as Fred and Ginger’s doom starts playing itself again, big-time this time with Dren, Elsa, Clive, his brother and their immediate work supervisor unwillingly drawn into its consequences. Maybe a little too much genre-splicing has gone on here and the movie threatens to turn into a monster itself. The original plot sketch must have fizzled out and the director, actors and film crew had to improvise the rest of the story as best they could, tie up all necessary loose ends and salvage a total schemozzle by tacking on what looks like a twist ending. Though the director probably had this ending in mind originally; the problem is how to get there. At once funny and disturbing, the conclusion recalls mediaeval horror stories about demons visiting male humans in their sleep, making a few quick adjustments and then visiting female humans in their sleep … I shan’t elaborate further but this was how the Anti-Christ was supposed to come about.
 
Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether “Splice” might become a cult film: the underlying theme and the issues it raises scream cult-film potential and ongoing cultural relevance, and there is an edgy unpredictability early on that piques the interest. Some extra thought to fleshing out the plot-line more and some back-story to Elsa, her uneasy relationship with her mother and how that impinges on her actions toward Dren might have strengthened the whole movie.

Inside the Cabinet of famous German Expressionist film

Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” (1920)
 
Seeing this German Expressionist silent film classic at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival showing in Sydney recently was an opportunity too good to pass up. I did expect that this film would be an “arty” film in the sense of having stylised acting by actors in distinctive make-up that emphasises their roles and moods and the general tenor of the movie’s theme, whatever that would be. I already knew the movie was famous for its sets and use of lighting which were unusual for its time. What I wasn’t prepared for was the clever plot which addresses mental illness and explores fear and horror through hallucinations, and how the technical aspects of the movie were not just ends in themselves as they sometimes can be in self-consciously experimental art films but were an integral part of the movie’s subject and intended to communicate something to the audience about the nature of the plot as it unfolded.
 
Two men – one of them a young man called Francis – are sitting in a garden: Francis begins to tell his story of the horrific murder of his friend Alan and of the attempted kidnapping of his fiancee Jane. Francis traces the murder and the foiled kidnap to a sinister elderly man, Dr Caligari, who has come into town to exhibit his remarkable psychic somnambulist called Cesare at the town fair. Francis does some further investigating and discovers that Dr Caligari poses as director of a mental hospital with a research sideline on how to mentally control sleepwalkers like Cesare and force them to commit abhorrent acts. Dr Caligari finds his cover blown so he attempts to escape justice … We later return to the garden scene where the action carries on from there into the twist ending which throws all the foregoing action into a completely different light.
 
The sets, props and backgrounds with their sharp angles, geometric and irregular shapes, and a bold painting style that might bring to mind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “The Vampire” paintings, effectively externalise the fears, emotions and pain of a mentally ill person who has completely retreated from the real world for reasons unknown. The main actors, in particular Werner Krauss who plays Dr Caligari, wear make-up that emphasise their natures (well-meaning and earnest for Francis, pure-hearted and innocent for Jane, evil for Dr Caligari) and they act in a style that might be described as exaggerated pantomime to convey thoughts, feelings and intentions. I had never thought that silent films could be demanding to watch: the action is constant and the pace brisk, and the whole time my gaze must flit from the actors’ faces to their movements, to the backdrop and props, and back again. Minor actors usually move in a natural style and the contrast between the way they move and the main actors’ movements must be a deliberate ploy emphasising the whole suffocating world in which Francis, Jane and the villains move. There is such a lot of visual activity and richness going on all at once!
 
I can’t help but think that once films acquired sound, the world of cinema lost a lot of its early creativity and the opportunities for actors to showcase their dramatic skill and range of expression shrank very … well, dramatically. On occasions though, we still have movies being made where the action is demonstrated completely by action complemented by atmosphere, appropriate visual backgrounds and sets, and perhaps music, and dialogue is completely absent or at an absolute minimum, and such moments may be the most remarkable part of the film.
 
“The Cabinet …” is early proof that a genre film can be both commercial entertainment and experimental high art. I understand it is considered an important film in the development of German Expressionist films in the 1920s and it has had some influence on film noir and horror. Operas and radio plays based on the movie have been performed. The film has also been an influence on Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” on which Martin Scorsese’s 2009 film of the same name is based. In particular the characters of Dr Caligari and Cesare respectively establish the stock figures of the mad scientist villain intent on controlling human nature and the dehumanised “robot” who must obey the master’s commands and carry out the most vile acts, in a context that provided (in 1920) a psychological buffer between the movie’s implications and its original audiences. It’s not a little ironic therefore that 20 years after the movie’s release, people in Germany found themselves in a similar somnambulist role to their government; and of the actors involved in the movie, Krauss supported Adolf Hitler’s government and was made an Actor of the State by Joseph Goebbels while Conrad Veidt who played the somnambulist left Germany in 1933 in protest at the Nazi government and went to live in the UK and later the US, in which countries he re-established his acting career.

The Hunger: glossy and glamorous but in need of a remake anyway

Tony Scott, “The Hunger” (1983)

One of a number of 1980s-made movies in the remake production line, this glossy flick was Tony Scott’s directorial debut about a love triangle of two vampires searching for immortality and a mortal human who originally was part of the search. Miriam and John (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) are two lovers who have been together for a couple of centuries now, subsisting on human blood and presumably moving long distances from time to time to avoid suspicion and detection, ending up in New York City in the late twentieth century; but John finds old age rapidly encroaching on him and they both hear of medical specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who has done research with monkeys on sleep disorders and ageing, so they seek her advice and help. Unfortunately the doctor fails to respond at first and is too late to prevent John’s rapid deterioration – an early scene in the consultation room perhaps should be required viewing for those doctors and other professionals who keep clients waiting – and she ends up falling under Miriam’s seductive spell and being primed to replace John as lover. John himself ends up trapped in a coffin shoved into an attic room along with the coffins of Miriam’s previous lovers, all of them victims of her lie that she can give them eternal life.

When first released, the movie garnered negative reviews and it’s easy to see why: the very sketchy plot moves very glacially for most of the film’s running time and only towards the end does the pace pick up and the tone changes from subdued to melodramatic. Much of the movie is dominated by long camera shots dwelling on background details, ostensibly for the sake of mood and atmosphere and to establish Miriam and John as refined sophisticates who inherit and pass on the best of European high culture to the people they live among in New York City. Before he became a film director, Scott’s background was in advertising – he ran an agency together with older brother Ridley who also became a film director, only more famous – and the influence certainly shows in the glamorous, glossy style of the movie which these days looks rather twee and not a little ridiculous. I would rather have seen a movie that spent less time lovingly dwelling on transparent white curtains swaying near windows and more on the history of Miriam and John, and how it is that while Miriam can remain youthful and vital indefinitely, her lovers decline after two centuries and end up trapped in shrivelled bodies in coffins, hidden out of sight. More time should have been spent on some character development, just enough to make Miriam’s seduction of Sarah credible and for the audience to feel some sympathy for the three main characters, however repellent their behaviour. The actors have little to do and I have the sneaking suspicion that Deneuve and Bowie were hired more for their ethereal beauty than for any acting ability. Bowie especially just walks on and off but his problem may be due to the way the original eponymous novel by Whitley Strieber, who incidentally wrote the screenplay for the remake commissioned by Warner Bros, ended up translated to the screen; I understand much of it fell by the wayside and the bits that did involved John’s character seeking vengeance on Miriam. The film compensates for the loss by tacking on a very flimsy and undeveloped sub-plot about a police search for a missing teenage girl but this has the nature of being an afterthought and just doesn’t tie into the main plot or provide any tension or direction to the movie at all.

The best part of the film is in its opening scenes where Miriam and John prey for victims in a Goth-themed nightclub to the tune of 1980s UK band Bauhaus’s song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”: a hard edge to the movie is established with sharp lighting and the actors in shiny black leather and dark glasses glide through the crowds, pick their victims and take them home for dinner. It’s all action with just two or three words spoken and just a few quick but effective camera shots are needed for the audience to see how the vampires dispatch their victims. In a movie where the “v” word is never mentioned, Miriam and John enjoy no physical advantages over ordinary mortals: they need knives to kill, they must dispose of the bodies themselves, they have to hide evidence that points to them as killers. If the whole movie had been more like its opening scenes, which alone made the movie a cult must-see among young people, in style and pace, it would have been a great movie as it’s not without its assets: yes, it’s very beautiful to watch, very melancholy (too much so, perhaps) and richly layered with details redolent of culture and past times that only immortal creatures can appreciate. Miriam and Sarah’s love-making scene is erotic in a tasteful way and the violence can be quick and shocking, almost demonic.

The appealing aspect of “The Hunger”, which Scott could have made more of, is the notion of two individuals pursuing indefinite life who have only each other and who by their nature must stay their distance from human society yet are compelled to interact with it and negotiate and test its changing boundaries and extremes through time. They acquire art and culture and learn to act as refined sophisticates and social leaders according to the host society’s conventions; they may become world-weary and sad at the passage of time (and the growing coarseness of society around them) but their essential nature remains savage and ravenous, and they will always be dangerous wherever they are.