Monday, November 17, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #2: The Last Wave

Okay, after a brief trip down Seagalogy lane it’s time to get back to Australian horror. In my last entry I talked a little bit about director Peter Weir who is arguably the grand daddy of Australian horror directors. While I think Picnic At Hanging Rock is his masterpiece, his follow-up film The Last Wave (1977) is nothing to sneeze at. The film stars Richard Chamberlin (Shogun, the Allan Quartermain films) as a Sydney lawyer tapped to work pro bono on a murder case involving a group of five aborigines. The crazy part is that the cause of death appears to be drowning, although there was nothing more than a tiny puddle at the scene. To make matters more difficult, the group won’t be forthright with Chamberlin so he’s forced to go against the current (let the water puns flow). As he continues to work on uncovering the mystery of the case, he begins to have apocalyptic visions involving water. His transformative journey will take him from the rainy streets of the city to its ancient underground passageways, ultimately culminating in an event that may herald the end of the world. Heavy duty stuff indeed.

One filmmaking technique I find particularly effective in horror films (and other genres for that matter) is when a film opens with an exclamation point. This usually involves some sort of cool setpiece that sets the stage for the events to come, and really gets the viewer’s attention from the word go. The Last Wave opens at a remote schoolhouse in the outback, where small children are happily playing at recess. Amidst the frolicking a massive hailstorm suddenly erupts with not a cloud in the sky. The children are quickly rushed into the rustic school building as baseball sized hail pounds down, rocking the structure to its foundation. The storm then dissipates as suddenly as it arrived, leaving a bewildered teacher and a room full of terrified children. Words don’t do justice to this scene, as it is shot in such a way that you feel you are there. The hail seems to be unleashed from some otherworldly force intent on demolishing the building and those inside. If you have a fancy stereo setup, this is probably every bit the rival of something like Earthquake . . . total Sensurround territory. It’s quite an adrenaline pumping sequence, and is completely successful at capturing your complete attention.

Now fantastic openings are all fine and good, but many a film has managed to have an awesome beginning only to fall apart along the way. Thankfully that is not the case here. Weir creates a good pace that moderates between providing story and character information, punctuated with Chamberlin’s nightmarish visions (which are the visual highlight of the film). As I mentioned in my review of Hanging Rock, Weir’s style of filmmaking leans toward the dream state and The Last Wave is no exception. If anything it’s even more pronounced in that regard than Hanging Rock. Events unfold slowly and there is much that is surreal, to the point that one questions what is real and what isn’t. In the wrong hands that can be a recipe for boredom, but not so in this case. Like other great horror films that utilize the nightmare logic of dreams (Phantasm, Inferno) The Last Wave plays with perception and narrative, creating a mood that lingers over the viewer long after the credits have rolled. As solid as its other elements are, this aspect of the film is perhaps its most memorable quality.

In terms of themes, The Last Wave explores issues relating to the intersection of modern culture and the native Australian environment and peoples. Instead if colonial era mores (i.e. Hanging Rock) this time the focus is on urban sprawl’s impact on tribal society, with the plunder of nature as a secondary theme. While Weir highlights some of the negative behaviors and attitudes of the modern contingent, I appreciate that he doesn’t fall into the trap of making them cardboard villains. In a lot of environmental “message” films it is totally cut and dry that those on the side of “progress” are the equivalent of The Simpsons character Montgomery Burns. Pure, concentrated evil. That’s all fine and good when viewing cheesy exploitation fare (e.g. Day of the Animals), but every once in a while it’s nice to see a more balanced portrayal. Here the character representing the urban contingent is the well-meaning Chamberlin. Although he’s very much a part of the society that has imposed itself on the native culture, he is sensitive to the fact that there are many sides to the story. He readily accepts the murder case that lands in his lap, and makes every effort to understand and help the accused - even going so far as to have them to his home for dinner and share family stories. With Chamberlin as our guide and emotional center we have a complex individual, rather than a blatantly disconnected caricature who sees issues with hard boundaries. This is critical to involving the viewer in the story on a deeper level, and is a big factor in distinguishing The Last Wave from its fellow 70’s environmental horror brethren.

Okay, so what about the horror. Not to fear (ha!) because there’s plenty of that to be had. Just like Hanging Rock this is one of those films that get under your skin. I wouldn’t say it has any over-the-top cold chill moments as when the girls disappear in Hanging Rock, but rather it has a creepy buildup to a truly unsettling finale. It’s one of those movies that really need to be seen late at night when you’re a little tired to have the full effect. Hovering in and out of a sleepy state is perfect to tap into the dream that is this film. As far as proclaiming this an artsy film a al Hanging Rock, The Last Wave doesn’t have any period costumes so you’re probably out of luck in trying a bait-and-switch on your Masterpiece Theatre watching friends. Even so I think they’ll probably like this one. It has a distinguished world director in the form of Weir, and a star in Chamberlin that has fairly broad appeal.

One other thing I’ve found interesting in reading up on The Last Wave is that quite a few people have claimed it to be Lovecraftian. I’ve seen my share of filmic Lovecraft adaptations and tributes, and honestly I think this claim is stretching it just a bit. The film does make reference to an ancient power, and certainly Chamberlin’s character fits the mold of the hapless, accidental hero common in Lovecraft tales, but the connection is subtle at best. Truth is I wish I could count this one as a Lovecraft film because it’s such a great piece of filmmaking, whereas most straight Lovecraft adaptations are pretty awful. That said, I’d love to hear anyone who has seen The Last Wave throw in on that issue and make the case that this is a true Lovecraft tribute.

In summary , if you have a phobia of water this movie probably isn’t for you, but otherwise any fan of world horror cinema would do well to check it out. It’s a great capper to Weir’s horror run in Australia, and is probably the best thing you will ever see Richard Chamberlin in (I’ve always thought his movies were pretty weak, although I did dig his cowardly character in The Towering Inferno). And if you are into the tenuous Lovecraft connection that’s great too : ) For my next installment on Australian horror I will be tackling Long Weekend, which is sort of the Citizen Kane of 70’s when animals attack films!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fantasmo Episode 42: Can't Stop the Music Vol. 3

It’s hard to believe, but another year of Fantasmo is coming to a close and you know what that means faithful Superfans . . . you Can’t Stop the Music! Yes it’s time once again for our annual holiday show featuring the Village People’s cinematic tour de force (not to even mention the important contributions of Steve Guttenberg and Bruce Jenner : ) Like fine wine some things only get better with age, and that is certainly the case with this much maligned 80’s musical classic! If you’ve never experienced this film at Fantasmo, it’s an absolute must . . . and I know those of you have witnessed its magic need no additional encouragement. What’s always the big question mark at the holiday show is what Rob and I will pull up to pair with CSTM. While there have been instances where we’ve really gone off the subject of music (e.g. Superman II: The Donner Cut), generally we aim to screen a like-minded film. Last year we had what seemed like the ultimate perfect partner in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band starring The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. Rarely has there been a film so disastrous and reviled by the general public! It was a great pairing to be sure, but this year we think we’ve managed to top it with . . .

Xanadu!!!! If ever there were a guilty pleasure on the order of CSTM this is definitely it! One of the greatest misfires in cinema history, this film managed to crush the careers of 70’s icon Olivia Newton-John and Warriors star Michael Beck. It even left a little bit of tarnish on the memory of screen legend Gene Kelly (what was he thinking?!?). To be fair the project, which combined the then hot trend of roller disco with golden age musical sensibilities, probably seemed like a great idea. After all Grease, which celebrated another bygone era with modern panache, was one of the 70’s biggest blockbusters. Bringing its female star to a similar project would be a no-brainer right? Wrong. By 1980, the year in which both CSTM and Xanadu were released, disco had been declared dead. Bands like Duran Duran, Human League, Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, etc., were all the rage, leaving little room for The Bee Gees, Village People, and their disco comrades in arms. Instead of ushering musical films into a new era, these two films managed to pound the nail in the coffin lid of modern musicals for quite some time (although Fox studios would unsuccessfully try to relaunch the genre in 1982 with the Kristy McNichol vehicle The Pirate Movie).

So what are you getting into with Xanadu? It’s basically the story of a struggling artist (Beck), and a washed up musician (Kelly) trying to open a roller disco club with the help of a mythical muse (Newton-John). All done to the tunes of Electric Light Orchestra and The Tubes, and even featuring a wildly unfortunate Don Bluth cartoon midway through. It’s easy to see in hindsight that this was pure lunacy, but let me assure you that despite all it has going against it Xanadu is truly a magical film. Much like CSTM there’s something about Xanadu which hooks you and never lets go. I think it’s probably the innocent feelgood attitude it (and CSTM) sports with a vengeance. The relentlessly positive spirit of both films is infectious, and keeps one returning again and again. Now I should state for the record that I generally don’t like old school musicals. I think that’s why, even though their plots are clearly derived from the golden age of musicals, these appeal to me personally. They integrate a somewhat edgier attitude in line with their times, and are loaded with kitschy qualities that contribute to numerous jaw dropping sequences . . . and the songs are incredibly catchy. This last point can make a world of difference, as horrible songs keep the 1980 Canon film The Apple (the subject of a memorable screening at our second Schlock-O-Thon) from reaching a similar beloved status.

With that little pep talk fresh in your mind, here are your 2008 holiday episode details:

When: Friday, December 5

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 P.M. – Can’t Stop the Music (1980) – Rated PG

10:30 P.M. – Xanadu (1980) – Rated PG

So there you have it Superfans, perhaps the greatest holiday show lineup yet! We’re going to have some real trouble topping this next year, so you definitely don’t want to miss this one! See you there . . . and remember you Can’t Stop the Music so don’t even try : )

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Steven Seagal is Kill Switch!

Okay, I’m taking a very brief pause in getting back to Australian horror to give a review of the latest Seagal offering. A couple of folks have asked me what I thought of Kill Switch, so I figured I’d go ahead and post a review. For those of you relatively new to the blog, last Christmas I received a book called Seagalogy as a gift. The book examined the work of Steven Seagal and put forward an argument that he should be viewed as a true auteur, given that each film bore his personal stamp and creative trademarks. I then plunged headlong through Seagal’s extensive filmography to see if Seagalogy author Vern was correct in his assertion – and I can honestly say I believe he was. My journey ultimately culminated in a Fantasmo this past summer which featured two Seagal films, an aikido demonstration, and a live interview with Vern. Truly superior!

Those of you who attended that momentous occasion may recall that Vern provided us an advance review of Kill Switch, which wasn’t due out until October 7. I was particularly interested in this review, as Vern had (in my opinion) accurately asserted that Seagal’s last two direct-to-video (DTV) films (Urban Justice, Pistol Whipped) marked a return to higher quality work. As such, it was somewhat disheartening to hear from Vern that he felt Kill Switch represented a step backward for Seagal. Well, I’ve now had a chance to see Kill Swtich and can say I’m of two minds. On the one hand it is a step backward in terms of moving in the direction of competent, polished filmmaking, but on the other hand it’s wildly entertaining. Let’s look closer . . .

First a brief breakdown of the plot from the DVD cover per Amazon:

“Detective Jacob Stillwell (Steven Seagal) is one of the most celebrated homicide detectives in the country. His brutal delivery of street justice is legendary among the men and women of law enforcement. But on this latest case, he may have finally met his match Lazerus, a cunning and perversely violent killer who is on the loose and terrorizing the inner city. Stillwell s desperate pursuit of Lazerus takes him into the dark, depraved Memphis underworld of street sex and senseless violence.”

I’m always fascinated by Seagal’s DTV cover synopses because rarely do they reflect with any accuracy what the film is actually about. This one is fairly decent for a change. Seagal is in fact a homicide detective, and he is somewhat celebrated. Well, that may be an overstatement of the case. He’s a known quantity in the Memphis police department, and with the FBI (who think he’s crossed the line). And a waitress in a bar recognizes him from local television. So if that counts as celebrated then so be it. And in many instances he certainly does deliver brutal street justice (he really makes good on this point). There is also a perversely violent killer named Lazerus, although I would take issue with the cunning part as Seagal manages to capture him after a brief visit to the local library for research. On the one hand it speaks well of the library as such a wonderful resource, but even I have to admit it seems like it would take a little more than that if this guy is that cunning. More on the depiction of libraries in Kill Switch in just a moment. The final piece here is that Seagal is actually named Jacob King (not Stillwell), so that minor detail is erroneous.

So by and large you have some notion of what you’re getting into with Kill Switch based on that. There are some more relevant details though. We also learn from flashbacks that Seagal’s little brother was murdered by a serial killer (actually listed as “Flashback Killer” in the credits) at a childhood birthday party while Seagal watched, and this may or may not be the reason why he is so intent on pursuing such criminals and enacting brutal street justice. Truly these flashback scenes are a little bizarre, and the fact that they are never discussed forces the viewer to make some leaps in filling in the gaps. That’s par for the course in Seagalogy but it still seems unusual that it’s never discussed, particularly given that King isn’t actually a lone wolf type. He has a loyal partner/best friend in the form of Storm Anderson (Chris Thomas King), and a live-in girlfriend who’s also on the force (in whom he curiously shows little interest). Either way, the guy’s got a history and he seems to be exorcising his inner demons through the medium of police work.

An additional plot thread that has to be mentioned is the fact that King is also on the trail of another serial killer (intriguingly named Billy Joel) who likes to embed explosives in his victims, and for my money the guy is far more cunning/tough than Lazerus. He survives (with a couple of cuts) perhaps the harshest beating ever inflicted by Seagal on a perp in the opening minutes of the film, which ends with him being thrown out of a high window onto concrete. He then manages to get released from jail on a technicality, kill his legal team, kill Seagal’s live-in cop girlfriend (spoiler), and stalk Seagal throughout the film. Your mileage may vary, but that’s far more accomplished than a serial killer who gets apprehended as the result of a trip to the library by Seagal! To be fair Lazerus also apparently has a sideline writing music lyrics, evidencing some artistic ability, but that just doesn’t raise him to that “next level” if you ask me.

Hopefully the above gives you a pretty good idea of what’s going on during Kill Switch’s 90-minute run time. On the surface it’s a hunt for the serial killer(s) by a rogue cop with unconventional methods, who has a troubled past driving him. As with all Seagal DTV outings though, the surface is just an excuse for a deluge of outlandish (and often inexplicable) plot threads and events. Not to mention some outrageous artistic choices on the part of Seagal. Here are some standout elements to look forward to in Kill Switch:

#1 – I mentioned that the film is set in Memphis. For those of you who have been checking out some of Seagal’s later work, this is probably already ringing danger alarms. You see, at this point in time Seagal has mysteriously adopted a heavy Southern accent (both on and off screen from what I can tell). Now if you’ve at minimum seen some of his early stuff (e.g. Above the Law), you will know that this is not his native tongue. Furthermore, his track record at successfully carrying off accents is questionable at best (e.g. Out for Justice). Speculation is that he’s become so into his blues/music career, that he has wholly adopted the culture (dialect included). In his past few films the accent has been prominently on display, but here in the heart of Memphis it has been taken to a staggering extreme.

#2 – I’ve seen a lot of action movies in my time. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT. I have never in all that time seen anything like the editing used in this film. As many viewers have noted, a great deal of the DTV Seagal films employ heavy use of stunt doubles for Seagal during fight scenes. Past attempts to obscure this fact have used the expected pony tail and clothing accessories, along with quick editing cuts to hide the double’s face. In Kill Switch the quick editing is taken to an extreme that, in my experience, has never before been witnessed in the history of cinema. The cuts are made in such rapid succession that it makes for a stomach churning ordeal, and I do mean stomach churning. Whenever these fights would start I became nauseated.

I don’t say this lightly. Stuff like Blair Witch and Cloverfield didn’t cause me to even bat an eye as they did with some. This goes beyond shaky cam though. It’s so quick it’s almost a strobe effect in Kill Switch. It’s no exaggeration to say that it makes the pacing of a Michael Bay film seem like Ingmar Bergman. Worse still the tactic doesn’t even work. They still have inserts of Seagal’s face that clearly do not fit into the context of the fight. In some respects it’s worth seeing Kill Switch just to see this novel (if ill-advised) approach to filmmaking, but be sure to take a couple of seasick pills beforehand.

#3 – There’s a totally unnecessary moment in the middle of the film where King’s partner Storm tells a story in flashback mode about how he and King hunted down a serial killer/cannibal dressed as a clown. It’s not that the flashback is poorly done or anything (in fact it’s quite bizarre), it’s just that the film comes to a screeching halt to have this moment that connects to nothing. Trademark Seagal DTV era madness.

#4 – I alluded to this earlier, but Seagal has an attractive live-in girlfriend who’s also on the police force. This would not be so unusual in and of itself (although as is customary in the DTV era the girlfriend is MUCH younger than Seagal), except that he seems to have no interest in her at all and she serves no real purpose. You could make the argument that her death at the hands of Billy Joel would provide some sort of dramatic moment, but upon Seagal’s discovery of her death it seems more like an inconvenience than anything, much less the impetus for rage driven revenge.

#5 (Major Spoiler) – Perhaps the most insane moment in any Seagal film ever. No kidding. Throughout the entire course of the film we are led to believe that King’s life is pretty much confined to Memphis and his own circle of friends, colleagues, etc. He has a partner who he appears to have spent many years with, a fantastic apartment, a devoted girlfriend, and a history as a celebrated homicide detective. There is not even the most remote hint that there is anything beyond that life for King. He is well established as that guy. Okay. After King kills Billy Joel (spoiler) he leaves a note at his apartment letting his partner know he's leaving the force and town. Why not? I mean he’s been through a lot. Maybe he’s tired of chasing down killers and delivering brutal street justice. Who wouldn’t be?

The thing is King does not go off to start a new life somewhere from scratch. Not in a DTV era Seagal film, no sir. Instead he drives to a country manor which looks to be far removed from Tennessee, where he has a blond (young) Russian wife and several children. She greets him at the door without missing a beat, and takes him upstairs to the bedroom. End film. The previous record holder for an ending this unexpected/unexplained was Today You Die. But even in that film there were dream sequences and images that the ending recalled, even if it made no sense. Here the Russian wife and kids has no foreshadowing. It’s just plain jaw dropping, which is no small feat at this stage for a Seagal film. In fact, it actually helped to cement an idea that had been forming in my mind . . .

You know how there are formulas that get recycled over and over again in film? For example the mismatched buddy cop movie (e.g. Lethal Weapon). Basically you have a tried and true setup in which you just plug in new characters. I had a little distance behind me between my Seagal immersion program and watching Kill Switch. This perhaps helped to provide a bit of perspective. You see what struck me during Kill Switch was how familiar it all was, despite the fact that the goings on were entirely ridiculous from the acting, to the story, to the execution. Having seen so many of these DTV films, I truly believe there’s a pattern to the madness. Nutty accents, dangling plot threads, obvious stunt doubles, leading ladies who are far too young, etc. The uncalled for ending was the icing on the cake. These elements, while seemingly random and unprofessional, are far too common and predictable at this point to be unplanned. If you had just watched something like Seagal’s Submerged or Attack Force and had never seen another DTV era movie you might think the whole thing was a jumbled mess. But no! I submit that the chaos is a finely tuned machine meant to defy categorization. It may score on the point of not being pigeonholed, but since these Seagalian touches are becoming predictable it’s hard to classify these films as novel anymore.

That being said, Kill Switch is still a lot of fun. Unlike say a Submerged which is boring in addition to being crazy, Kill Switch never ceases to be entertaining (although the nauseating editing gives it the old college try). In fact, I think this is one of the better absurd/surreal DTV entries. It may not recall Seagal’s glory days the way Urban Justice did, but it is pretty satisfying nevertheless. Another facet I thought interesting was that this one is written by Seagal. Considering he’s adopted a philosophy of non-violence in his personal life, and is enmeshed in blues culture, it’s surprising that he would pen a gritty, ultraviolent crime piece such as this (and it is absolutely one of the most violent Seagal pictures to date). Particularly odd are the touches such as the cannibal clown and Russian wife ending. Vern posited in his book that On Deadly Ground represents the ultimate Seagal film as he wrote and directed it. Consequently it is “pure” Seagal. That may be true, but it makes me wonder where this one falls. It’s possible the director demanded the cannibal clown and non sequitir epilogue, but that seems hard to believe. I’m thinking that is also “pure” Seagal . . . which raises a whole other set of questions.

One last bit I have to mention which really strikes home. Earlier I made reference to the fact that Seagal is able to track down Lazerus as a result of a visit to the Memphis Public Library. There’s a little more to it than that. He goes to the library and asks a Goth outfitted female librarian for assistance. She rudely points him to the stacks where he finds some occult literature that figures into Lazerus’s M.O. Later she approaches somewhat apologetically and lets him know she’s heard a band using some of the lines he’s researched as lyrics, and brings up Lazerus. This ultimately leads Seagal to Lazerus. Afterward, she randomly happens to cross paths with Billy Joel (the mad bomber not the piano man) and gets together with him for a fling . . . and then subsequently gets killed.

As a librarian I’m always fascinated by the way libraries/librarians are portrayed in film. More often than not it’s as an older authoritarian type. With that in mind, I was pleased to see Seagal breaking the mold by putting a hip young person in as the role model. That good will was a little squelched when he portrayed her as rude and unhelpful. Of course then she was entirely responsible for helping him catch Lazerus. But then he has her get together with a stranger (not The Stranger) who brutally dispatches her. What in the world is the message here?!? The way I read it is that librarians, while indispensible in terms of providing accurate information, are rude and dangerously poor judges of character. I have to say I disagree with that depiction. Let’s hope that Seagal does a better job on that front next time (of course it could be he doesn't like Goth culture or had a bad experience at the Memphis Public Library who knows). Despite this not insignificant shortcoming, Kill Switch still gets a solid recommendation!