Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Night of the Hunter

            The Night of the Hunter is one of those films that leave one with a feeling of awe and despair at the same time. The awe comes the fact it is a beautifully shot black and white film that use the shadows of German Expressionism and Silent Era Hollywood to create grand spectacle and spiritual enlightenment. The despair comes from the fact the plot is a bleak fable about false prophets featuring one of the most despicable Reverends of storytelling history.  These clashes in tone reveal the film’s theme dogma, knowledge, and peace and how they oppose each other, which makes this film a horrifying yet beautiful oddity.  The Night of the Hunter famously flopped due to its blunt and incendiary outlook on its themes but that is the very reason that makes it so relevant today.
            The story mainly revolves around two children and their trials but the main attraction is the vile Rev. Harry Powell. Played intensely by Robert Mitchum, Rev. Powell is the definitive wolf in sheep’s clothing.  He is a charismatic and handsome man who uses his status to marry and then kill his wives as well as spread his perverse teachings. The character’s actions alone make him a memorable villain but the fact that he uses religion to justify his mad behavior is shocking because it rings true today.  Everyday brings a new violent story about a cult of personality like Westboro Baptist Church who pervert their scripture for personal gain; The Night of Hunter nails the psychopathic nature of the “hidden false prophets” through Rev. Powell, nearly fifty years before the trend seemed relevant.  
            This very real horror is greatly emphasized by the fact that the main characters were just little kids. It is one thing if adults had to face someone like Rev. Powell but little kids? That is pure hell.  These are kids that are in need of a true guardian but the adults either side with or get cornered by Rev. Powell.  Their story is one of pragmatism, learning that they should think for themselves and find the difference between the dogmatic and the honest.
            If there is one slightly alienating issue with The Night of the Hunter is the film looks dated, even for the 1950s. The film borrows lots of elements from German and American silent cinema with very minimalist sets, location shots, exaggerated lighting and very hammy acting; especially Robert Mitchum, who sometimes looks like Bela Lugosi.  Yet this is also part of the appeal because gives the film the elegance of a nightmarish fairytale. The film is shot in stark black-and-white and is filled thick shadow that gives the film its horrific tone but also an ethereal look that even smart filmmakers fail to achieve, let alone Hollywood.
            The Night of the Hunter is a special kind of horror that bravely tackles the topic of religious dogma and does so with a sense of honesty, even when it seems so surreal.  The inescapable Rev. Harry Powell proves to be one of the most frightening villains ever by presenting himself as someone almost too real for comfort.  The story of the children who face this false prophet is as harsh a Grimm fairytale but is as profound and beautiful as gospel.  The Night of the Hunter is not just a great horror film but also a great spiritual one. It is a film not afraid to reveal the flaws of religion whilst promoting its philosophical and meditative practices.  The film knows that religion is not perfect, which is why it feels so honest and even enlightening.

            (The Night of The Hunter is available on DVD/Blu-ray via Criterion Collection)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Cabin in the Woods

            Man, what an awfully generic title for an otherwise fantastic horror film. It is so generic that it almost explains the entire plot.  Some hedonistic kids decide to go to hang out in a cabin that is, coincidentally, in the woods and it is haunted… for the most part.  The trick with the title is that it provides a false expectation for a film that is a dangerous and funny satire about the horror genre. The writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who was also the director) are men on a mission to eviscerate the horror genre and The Cabin in the Woods is the glorious result.
            Honestly the biggest downside of The Cabin in the Woods is that it is heavily reliant on twists, meaning it is difficult to write about it without “spoiling” details of the plot.  So for that of keeping the vagaries intact lets spoil Scream instead. Both films are famous for their use of meta-fiction; in the case of Scream, the main characters are horror fans that talked about the rules of surviving in a slasher film.  The rules include not having sex, never say, “I’ll be right back” and et cetera.  Scream was a fairly solid film but it never exceeded beyond meta-commentary for the sake of humor.  The film likes to talk about the rules but it hardly bends the rules, let alone break them.  In contrast, Cabin in the Woods spend most of its time detailing the rules, victim archetypes, the monster, the creative process, and even it audience and uses the final act to absolutely destroy it all.  Such devotion to detail and willingness to actually break the rule makes for a more enriching and purposeful film.
            The conclusion of The Cabin in the Woods is when it truly reveals its brilliance because it calls out the interchangeable nature of horror films and utterly defies it.  At that point The Cabin in the Woods changes from an ironic horror film, like Scream, into a post-modern statement about the stagnation of a once creatively prosperous genre.  To describe it fully would spoil the fun beyond being an absolutely badass moment of imagination just pouring out like a bloody floodgate.  It is a horrifying, ludicrous and funny moment that will make one wonder why nobody has ever tried it before, and importantly, how can anyone top it.
            The Cabin in the Woods is a satire that deconstructs the horror genre so radically that it nearly renders the genre moot.  This is a film that was lovingly written by two powerhouses that clearly wanted to bring imagination back to the horror genre.  But most of all it is just a fun and wonderful movie to watch.  Beyond being a grand statement the film is an insane and clever ride that will leave anyone giddy.  Forget Scream, this film is the best meta-horror comedy of the modern era.

            (The Cabin in the Woods is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Some Like it Hot

            Oh my. Some Like it Hot takes place in 1929 where two Chicago jazz players (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) accidently witness the Valentines Day Massacre.  Desperately, they dress up like ladies just to hitch a ride with a traveling all-girls-band, starring Marilyn Monroe on the ukulele.  The premise of the film is hilarious on its own but it is not as lowbrow as it seems.  Director/writer Billy Wilder and co-writer I.A.L Diamond riffs on everything from gangster films to jazz to sex & sexuality with amazing bite.  It also helps that it has quite possibly the best comedy ensemble ever, especially Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, who give some of their best performances ever.  The result of the layered humor and performances is a hysterical film that actually gets funnier with each viewing.
            Written by partners in crime Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond were arguably one of the cleverest duos in Hollywood because of how effortlessly they can change the tone on a dime.  It starts out like a trashy mob flick but then becomes a screwball comedy for most of the film. They also defy the audience’s expectations; for example, the conflict does not come from the leads looking unconvincing as women are but that the other men around them do not notice at all. If anything, most of the guys think Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon look very attractive, especially Jack Lemmon.  This leads to them getting the same perverted treatment that most women characters get in a sex comedy and it a nice reminder that women tend to get “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Beyond that the film is mostly about how love is better than lust, which is cliché but it is so well written that it is hard to complain about.
            The best part of Some Like it Hot is the cast, without question.  Tony Curtis is wonderfully sleazy lead but his co-star Jack Lemmon just steals every scene that he is in. The fact that Lemmon is stuck in a dress the longest just allowed him play up his despair and confusion in a way that would make Costello proud.  As a comedienne Marilyn Monroe is one of the most undervalued players in Some Like it Hot.  She is very raw but so bubbly and enthusiastic one cannot help but smile and laugh in her presence. Yet of all people, Joe E. Brown is the one who gives the most laughs as Lemmon’s goofy unwavering suitor.  The brilliance comes from how surprisingly hard it is to read the character; one would expect his arc to go in one direction but by the end he will spin the audiences’ heads so hard that they will fly off their seats laughing.
            One of the biggest treats in life is a joke that never gets old and Some Like it Hot is filled to the brim with them.  The screenplay was lovingly written by a great duo of filmmakers that were not afraid of going into daring and even trashy territory yet handled it with wonderful style.  Even better is a group of actors that were more than willing to work greatly with the material without fear or shame.  There are many other reasons that smarter people have stated that make this film so brilliant but it honestly says a lot that this crew put this much care into something so seemingly lowbrow.

(Some Like it Hot is available on Blu-ray and DVD.)