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Under the Radar: Brian Cox in “Red” (2008)

This is the first entry in an ongoing series by Parallax View contributor Jeff Shannon, written in appreciation of lesser-known films, performances, film-related achievements or other newsworthy items that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

Don’t get me wrong: Red is a not great movie, or even a very good one. But if you’re looking for a minor gem that won’t waste your time, you might find (as I did) that Red will grab and hold your attention, and that’s a lot more than you can say about the mostly-redundant, higher-profile crap coming out of Hollywood these days.

red-poster2
Tagline: "They Should Have Told the Truth"

More to the point, Red is a worthy showcase for an exceptional actor who’s earned plenty of critical praise but relatively little public appreciation. Brian Cox first came to American critical attention for originating the role of Hannibal Lecter (then spelled “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), by which time the burly Scot (b. Brian Denis Cox, Dundee, Scotland, June 1, 1946) had been working in U.K. television and movies for over two decades. His career boosted by his cleverly sinister performance as Lecter, Cox has been in demand ever since: Among his 141 acting credits currently listed on IMDb, my personal favorites include his memorably villainous turn in Rob Roy (he also appeared in Braveheart the same year, 1995); his complex and enigmatic portrayal of pederast “Big John” Harrigan in Michael Cuesta’s risky-but-rewarding L.I.E. (2001); and, more recently, his flamboyant yet melancholy turn as traveling showman Jack Langrishe in the third (and sadly final) season of HBO’s Deadwood (2006).

Those were all serious roles, each blessed with the subtle humor that informs many of Cox’s performances. Occasionally that humor is delightfully less than subtle: Cox is one of the better reasons to watch Super Troopers (2001); he scored an Emmy nomination for an appearance on TV’s Frasier (1993); and his line deliveries in The Ringer (2005) are pee-your-pants hilarious.

Now we can add Red to the roster of Cox’s finest work to date; it’s “under the radar” because it’s been little-seen beyond its Sundance premiere in January 2008. (I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t happened upon the film’s one-night preview on HDNet Movies, on the eve of its brief U.S. theatrical release in a handful of east-coast cinemas.)
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Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel

For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers weren’t represented. Well, there’s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, here’s a second set of 13.

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John Carpenter and Alan Howarth: "Prince of Darkness"

13. Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1987.

This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. There’s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.

12. Orson Welles’s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.

For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.

11. Cannibal Holocaust, Riz Ortolani, 1980.

Ortolani, who remains best known for “More,” the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.

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“The Midnight Meat Train” – The Pitiless Order in Clive Barker’s Horror Universe

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The Midnight Meat Train. What a perfectly descriptive and accurate title. The name alone should have secured this Clive Barker adaptation a theatrical release. In a youth film culture that has embraced increasingly violent and sadistic horror films, especially those that linger on acts of inhuman brutality and excruciatingly endured mutilations (quite accurately dubbed “torture porn”), what’s not to like about a film about a silent butcher who bludgeons the passengers of a late-night subway ride, preps the carcasses like slaughtered cattle and hangs them like sides of beef? Lionsgate, which turned the trap-and-torture Saw series into a lucrative franchise, apparently thought this was too much and dumped it directly into a hundred or so second-run theaters last fall, a nominal theatrical release in advance of the inevitable unrated DVD. Because the film was released direct to sub-run houses without a press screening, most newspapers never bothered to review the film. Most of the commentary comes from fan-ish websites and online genre hubs, where the focus is largely on the film’s effects and scare tactics.

Not to make too much of the film, which I caught up with via the unrated DVD, but it’s a gnarly little horror that delivers the grotesque spectacle without the usual brand of sadism. The Butcher, a silent, imposing slab of a man played with impassive focus by Vinnie Jones, kills his victims quickly and efficiently by design (a few put up a fight and take longer), dispatching most with a single blow from a steel hammer. Neither homicidal maniac nor bloodthirsty ghoul, he’s an unspeaking, unemotional servant, a man on a mission that he executes without pleasure or remorse.

Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train
Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train

The Butcher (identified as Mahogony in the credits but unnamed in the film) is the film’s bogeyman, an ominous golem who patiently and deliberately stakes out his space in the chaos of activity around him. Leon (Bradley Cooper), a street photographer who chases police calls for a living but prefers to document the underbelly of urban life (“I want to capture the heart of the city,” he explains to coolly powerful art world maven Brooke Shields), is the nominal hero. In terms of this film, it means he becomes obsessed with the Butcher, shadowing his movements from home (a gloomy hotel) to work (a commercial slaughterhouse hidden in a dinghy alley) to his nightly nocturnal rides on the subway. His waitress girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) is disturbed by his obsession, which takes root in his mind like an infection. Or maybe it’s a kind of vaccine. After surviving one run-in at the slaughterhouse, Leon follows the Butcher on a midnight ride and catches him in the act on a subway train, and is in turn caught by the Butcher, who… lets him go. With a rune carved in his chest. A warning? Or part of a transformation? (The ordeal has already given this once-vegan a taste for beef. Cooked rare.)

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“Videodrome” – Long Live the New Flesh

Just a few years into the 21st century, Olivier Assayas wrote in The Village Voice: “Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.” It’s been 25 years since David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece drilled its mutant images into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, and Videodrome is as contemporary and relevant as ever.

"Videodrome" - love you television
"Videodrome" - a slave to the signal

You can trace David Cronenberg’s meditations on technology, disease, addiction, and mutation in the body human all the way back to his earliest shorts (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and features (Shivers and Rabid). Like George Romero before him, Cronenberg’s earliest films brought horror out of the past and into modern life, breaking taboos and barriers of good taste along the way. He makes his ideas physical and visceral, in a way that you can see and almost feel. It only becomes sharper and more resonant with his remake of The Fly, where he charts the transformation in gooey detail that looks like some diseased attack on the human body (it’s been called a metaphor for AIDS) and eXistenZ, a virtual reality game made flesh, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t so much blur as dissolve and overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality.

Even his most recent films explore the same ideas, only instead of some outside agent, he focuses on the way violence and emotion play upon our minds and our bodies. In Spider, the human mind creates a reality for its main character because the truth of his actions are too much to handle: psychosis as a kind of evolutionary fail safe, and this reality created from within is as real to him as the physical world. In A History of Violence, the past that the hero Tom wants to ignore and deny, his repressed history of violence, emerges like a dormant virus when he and his family are under threat. And it emerges without thought — it’s pure instinct, like a hardwired reflex kicked into action with the surge of adrenaline. An essential part of Cronenberg’s genius is making his concepts physical, visceral, alive. It’s what makes his ideas so powerful.

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Together again for the first time: “Exorcist” prequel shows the franchise past its expiration date

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies. Growing up in a family and a small town that buried all the bad stuff under silence, politeness and euphemism, I took guilty pleasure in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring all the pillars of community to death. Scared me, too, but deep down, I confess I was primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves and aliens broke all the rules. What delight when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!

The Beginning"?
Father Merinn facing his demons in "Exorcist: The Beginning"?

But even if her Peter Pan’s one of the beautiful and damned Lost Boys (1987), Wendy must grow up. And growing up means learning how few movie-monsters wear anything like the real face of evil. That’s because the most toxic spillage of evil, as Hannah Arendt tellingly observed, is often everyday, slow, banal, gray — so humdrum it’s the rule, not the exception. How can a movie express such an unremarked blight?

Exorcist: The Beginning reminds one, with a vengeance, that most mainstream films don’t tackle Arendt’s brand of evil — and the kind they do take on is generally silly, phantasms born of infantile imaginations. By their very nature, movies aim to make moral-ethical states visible, shaping the inner journey into palpable adventure. That’s especially true of American films, designed primarily for entertainment rather than epiphany.

Horrorshows like this prequel to 1973’s genuinely scary The Exorcist have become ever more literal and physical, dominated by a Grand Guignol fascination with the myriad ways the human body can be mutilated.

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George Romero Surveys the Dead

[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. This is an abbreviated version of a piece that was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]

Dawn of the Dead was a sly and very funny satire of consumer culture. Land of the Dead is an even more scathing political satire of class conflict. Do you think there something inherent in horror films that is effective as a frame for political and social commentary?

Don’t you think that fantasy has always been that? Or should be that? The biggest disappointment to me is that people don’t use it that way. I’m sure the first tales that we told each other, when we first learned how to make fire, were scary tales: “What do think that sky is? What do you think that thing is up there, that comet screeching across the sky?” I just think that it’s really right for using it as parables. The biggest disappointment to me is that people don’t do it, you know? It’s always a guy in hockey mask with a knife. It’s just about trying to make you jump out of your seat. I think fantasy has always been and should be a canvas for, if not satirizing or commenting or criticizing, at least a snapshot of what’s going on.

Do you think the physical portrayal of extreme or transgressive violence on screen tends to lower audiences defenses to the subtext?

"Night of the Living Dead"
“Night of the Living Dead”

It might. When we made Night of the Living Dead, everyone said “You’re really pushing the envelope.” There was no MPAA in those days, and what we had in mind was “Why does everyone cut away right when the guy is being torn apart?” I grew up on EC comic books where people were being torn apart. They ripped a guy’s heart out and used it for home base in a baseball game. That stuff just made me giggle, so I don’t flinch at that. Maybe this is a justification, maybe it’s unwarranted, but I remember Robert Altman’s theatrical version of M*A*S*H. You laughed your ass off for 90 minutes and then all of a sudden you’re in the operating room and there’s blood all over the walls. It’s sort of a slap in the face. So, first of all, I don’t object to it and I don’t think it causes imitative behavior on the street, particularly when it’s in a fantasy context. And people expect that from me so I try to deliver it.

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The Light That Failed: George Romero’s “Dead” Rock On

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, July 5, 2005]

“Send some flowers to the cemetery,” growls the head honcho of a zombie-killing expedition at the beginning of George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

"Land of the Dead" zombie squad: John Leguizamo, Simon Baker and Robert Joy

Then scarlet fireworks bloom in the sky and every shambling corpse in what used to be a Smalltown, USA—complete with rotting park bandstand and picket fences—turns his/her/its milky eyes upward, mesmerized by … what? Images that trigger a half-remembered Independence Day, when American history and holiday pleasures were surely celebrated in that very park? Or do those bursts of light simply mirror the random, involuntary firing of synapses that so mysteriously reanimate the dead in Romero’s cemetery movies (previously, Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Dawn of the Dead, 1978; Day of the Dead, 1985)?

The zombie-maker’s movies have always operated as a kind of termite art, chewing away at the surface fictions that make it easy for us to coast happily through our July 4th, secure in Fortress America, full of faith in family values and the belief that the disenfranchised can always be “rendered” harmless. Romero flays our pretty pictures to the bone, exposing nasty stuff like racism, class warfare, Darwinian appetite, unbridled materialism. And on the spiritual front, Romero’s erasure of death as an ending or transition undermines the promise of something more than solitary, eternal confinement in flesh, perpetually driven by the need to consume.

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Thirteen Landmarks of Italian Horror; or, There’s Always Room for Giallo

A mysterious stranger stalks a lovely young woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera lovingly recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo, a distinctly Italian twist on stalk and kill horror genre, could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo combines a poetic, haunting beauty with grand guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity.

“Black Sunday”

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.

For more on Mario Bava, see my overview/appreciation Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death.

Black Sunday (1960), Mario Bava

Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, spits curses with hellfire as a spiked mask is slowly placed over her face. Suddenly a massive mallet pounds the iron mask and the credits explode in fire. Even in his directorial debut, Mario Bava knew how grab an audience’s attention, and he doesn’t let it go. It’s not really a giallo, but it is the first great Italian horror and the feature debut of the man who would define the giallo over the next decade. Steele only starred a couple of Italian horror films, but her distinctive, unusual beauty seemed to capture something primal in the mix of sex and sadism, innocence and corruption, victim and victimizer. She is terrifyingly lovely in a double role as the vengeful witch burned at the stake and her guileless descendant who unwittingly resurrects her with a drop of blood, and she’s both innocent and devilishly wicked with equal fervor. The moody, macabre, hauntingly beautiful cult classic of cruelty marked the beginning of great talent and the first great work of Italian horror.

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“The Descent”: In the destructive element immerse…

[originally published in Queen Anne News, August 2006]

I was telling my friend about The Descent, one of the most authentically terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years, when she called a halt to my rhapsodizing about its scare tactics. She wasn’t kidding. Movie stuff that comes oozing up from the darkness behind the brain seriously freaks her out. So how come I’ve loved hair-raisers since forever? What’s in it for me?

Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but genre classics) … and coming back alive. A film like this breathtaking British stunner works like a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving The Descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that, rephrasing Dylan Thomas, we do not have to go gentle into that bad night.

"The Descent" - into the caves
"The Descent" - into the caves

The Descent opens with instant kinesis: a trio of women, high on risk and adrenaline, fighting their way down extreme rapids, while a man and a little girl watch from a nearby bluff. Director Neil Marshall clues you in from the film’s exhilarating get-go that his tough, resourceful heroines are larger than wives and mothers. Forget the sidelines: these women game hard, testing their physical skill and courage to the limit.

Scant time, after leaving the river, to chill out before what feels like a scene of riskless calm is horrendously shattered. You’ve hardly settled down from mastering those wild rapids before getting body-slammed by a terrible tragedy out of the blue. The movie nails down — in your nerve-endings — the difference between courting danger in extreme sports and the way everyday killing violence comes unbidden, without warning.

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Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death

Mario Bava turns 100 this week. In tribute, Parallax View is pulling up this feature from the archives.

[This is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published on Greencine, April 3, 2007]

Italian poster for "Black Sunday"
Italian poster for”Black Sunday”

Mario Bava is a horror original.

A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door.

Bava was born into the movies in 1914. Italy was at the height of its epic historical spectacles and his father, Eugenio Bava, was one of Italy’s top cameramen; he shot, among others film, the lavish blockbuster Quo Vadis. Mario trained as a painter but soon followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of Italy’s most in-demand cameramen (Bava disdained the term “cinematographer”) and special effects artists, often working uncredited. He’s said to have made unsigned directorial contributions to such productions as Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1955) with Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (1959) with Steve Reeves, and Raoul Walsh’s Estherand the King (1960) with Joan Collins.

Legend has it that Italian genre veteran Riccardo Freda “pushed” his friend Bava into the director’s chair by abandoning not one but two projects for his frequent cinematographer to finish (it’s hard to verify the real reason that Freda left the projects, but it makes for a good enough story to justify printing the legend). Based on his uncredited direction completing Freda’s I Vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, plus his imaginative work as cinematographer, special effects artist, and assistant director on Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining muscleman movies Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Bava was offered a shot a directing a project of his choosing. He chose Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” and made his official directoral debut, at age 46, on The Mask of Satan, renamed Black Sunday for the U.S. release.

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Keeping Score – Scary Music for Scary Movies

In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a list of 13 movie scores that stand out as landmarks in the honorable tradition of writing music designed to scare the pants off the movie viewer.

13. Jaws, John Williams, 1975.

Any responsible list of scary movie music has to acknowledge the achievement of John Williams and Stephen Spielberg in making the accelerating repetition of a simple two-note motif into a fundamental component of pop-culture history. By most definitions, Jaws is more a suspense thriller than a horror film, but it gave us one of the most heart-stopping, breath-holding, unnerving musical ideas in the history of cinema.

Jerry Goldsmith: "The Omen"

12. The Omen, Jerry Goldsmith, 1976.

Serial Oscar nominee Goldsmith won his only Academy Award for The Omen’s powerful choral/orchestral score. Simultaneously savage and quasi-religious, it broods, threatens, menaces, and finally stages an all-out assault on the listener.

11. King Kong, Max Steiner, 1933.

For a movie about a big monster, Steiner created a big score, filled with suspense, romance, power, and fear. Steiner repeated—and arguably exceeded—the achievement in 1935’s She. Both scores appreciate the importance of quiet, lush, romantic moods in setting up counterpoint for real musical terror; but for epic scale and innovation, Steiner’s exotic and aggressive music for King Kong set the standard. From the very beginning, the eight-note descending principal motif captures the power of Kong while predicting his fall. Steiner runs this motif through an astonishing chain of variations—romantic, horrific, even the ceremonial dance of an unspecified tribe that exists solely in the realm of imagination. Peter Jackson reprised Steiner’s music to score the Broadway stage appearance of the captured Kong in his recent remake—the only thing in that film that truly honors the original.

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