Monthly Archives: January 2016

surprise of the last 6 months: SPRING (2014)

I just stumbled on this film last weekend. I seemed to miss its release and to my ex-post disbelief I’d never even heard of it.  The story is something like this: a young man, who has just lost his mother to cancer, departs to Italy to find himself. Whilst there, he falls in love with a woman, who is actually a two thousand year-old shapeshifter who ‘regenerates’ every 20 years. 

The film is hard to allocate to a genre, being a genuine mix of romance, horror, drama and black comedy. Set in a small Italian coastal town, it’s a handsomely shot and well-performed movie. I’d give particular praise to a poignant sun-rise in Pompeii which draws the film to a great close.

A real Lovecraftian treat – and the less you know beforehand, the better. 

Unloved Hitchcock 4: I Confess (1953)

Justifiably held as one of Hitchcock’s most serious films – alongside THE WRONG MAN (1956) – I CONFESS is loaded with religious symbolism and sports one of the great director’s best openings; the camera pans along narrow streets and through the open window of a house to reveal a dead body lying on the floor.

It’s all based on a theme so familiar to Hitchcock fans, that of an innocent man held to be guilty by those around him. In I CONFESS said man is a priest (Montgomery Clift) and instead of doing “a 39 steps” and going on-the-run, he stays to face the music, unable to reveal the true identifity of the murderer due to the convention of confession.

The use of B&W photography endows the film with a noirish zest, heighted by the frequent utilisation of dutch angles to frame the emotional disintegration of the cast. This is perhaps a picture of which Welles or Reed would be proud. Clift and Karl Malden (as the chief detective) give the movie an authoritative presence and Dmitri Tiomkin’s hearty soundtrack emphasises the moral pendulum at the heart of the plot. The French critics, led by Truffaut, regarded this film as one of the very best of Hitchcock’s career. A mightly accolade given his cannon.

Much like the now-forgotten STAGE FRIGHT (1950), most characters in the screenplay are hiding behind masks. On the surface Clift is a pious priest, Anne Baxter a doting wife and Otto Hasse, playing the real murderer ‘Keller’, a hard-working migrant. Underneath these fronts things are much more complicated. The most sympathetic character is that of ‘Pierre’ (Roger Dann), a helpless husband to a woman whose love is not for him but for our celibate priest.

In terms of the religious undertones – though such a phrase does no justice to the overt themes within the movie – they are in stark contrast to those in the pseudo-documentary THE WRONG MAN (1956). Here, praying does absolutely no good and it is the guilt of Keller’s wife that provides the redemption for Clift’s priest. Indeed, contrition is a major driver of events in several key Hitchcock pictures – think of Farley Granger’s penetant ‘Philip’ in ROPE (1948) or Olivier’s broken widower ‘Maxim’ in REBECCA (1940). In THE WRONG MAN (1956) and somewhat out of nowhere, it is precisely a solemn prayer which supposedly brings about the capture of Fonda’s doppleganger.  Likewise, in I CONFESS as in other Hitchcock works, the Church as a physical space is no safe place; indeed’s it’s both the ‘home’ of the killer (and his wife) as well as being the stage for the cause of the turmoil on screen, the confession itself. This theme started in the original (and I’d wager the superior) THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) where our gang of kidnappers and assassins hold up in a London church as cover; and would be dramatically revisited via the masterfully choreographed bell-tower death sequence in VERTIGO (1958).

It’s not all positive. Most glaringly, what lets the film down slightly is a discourteously romantic flashback sequence. It’s an important plot device but seems to fit awkwardly amongst the rest of the picture. In my view, it would have been far better to leave this out and deepen the ambiguity as to the history of Clift and Baxter’s sexual relationship.

Some have criticised the film for the unusual lack of light humour relative to Hitchcock’s more successful movies. It’s quite true that I CONFESS is close to VERTIGO (1958) in playing things straight but that’s not a bad thing. After all, according to the critics and whilst I personally don’t concur, is not VERTIGO (1958) the cinematic meridian of his catalogue ?

Overall, this is one of Hitchcock’s more mature movies adorned with few set-pieces but plenty of depth. Well-worth seeking out but perhaps not as an introduction to Hitchcock’s work. For that it’s seemingly best to start with the innovative REAR WINDOW (1954), the dynamic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) or the menacing STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1952).

Hotdog rating: 8/10

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) – a few observations

Renny Harlin’s take on Paul Schrader’s source material is a completely different film. Harlin’s version is a much more straightforward horror picture with graphic gore and a blunt demonic villain. Clearly there was a desire to spice things up over-and-above the content of DOMINION and there’s some half-baked CGI nasties which give the film a tinge of a video game.

Merrin’s redemption , the supposed subject of this entry in the series, is more acute here and far less interesting. Despite this the film succeeds as producers Morgan Creek intended as a shock piece. No little part is played by a cast of strong character actors and a fast-pace.
It’s not as emotionally sophisticated as Shrader’s DOMINION (nor marvellous EXORCIST 3) and cuts short the chilling WW2 courtyard execution scene from Schrader’s effort, but The Beginning was arguably what a decent chunk of exorcist fans were after. The finale is botched but is compensated for by the ancient imagery and swooping camera of the film’s opening scenes of a brutal battlefield between good and evil. 

To use an analogy which hopefully makes thing clearer; THE BEGINNING is to THE EXORCIST  as DAMIEN: OMEN 2was to THE OMEN. In other words, it’s by no means the lame duck that many critics judge it to be. 

Hotdog rating: 6/10

WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972)

Aldo Lado’s giallo is striking in its similarity to horror classic DON’T LOOK NOW (1973). The thing is it was made a year before.  

The film is unforgiving in its treatment of Venice – it seems a hotbed of perverts, murderers and rapists with a culture gloriosuly rotten to the core. There’s a lot going on with the themes of the film and the plot is complicated if convoluted. But perhaps unusually for a Giallo the script actually does make sense. There are many red-herrings and the murder mystery aspect of the picture is gleefully handled to keep the audience guessing.

It’s a brave picture with a uncomfortably brutal child murder at the opening and then the relentless stalking of a little girl by a woman with a black veil. The biggest thing going for this film is the atmosphere which is intoxicatingly thick and jealously creepy.  Lado’s direction provides us with some great sequences and camerawork. The scene with the body discovery is an exercise in style and owes something to Hitchcock’s brazen FRENZY(1972). Other cinematic highlights include the slow chase through the tourist-packed streets of Venice shot from high above the city and the scene which mirrors the iconic “dressing-after- sex” montage in DONT LOOK NOW (1973). 

For sure, there are problems. Morricone’s companion music to the killer’s presence is overdone and gets annoyingly repetitive. Thats not to belittle the score attached to Lado’s film. The title music is a haunting nursery rhyme which chills to the bone.  Common to films of the era, I’d be lying if I said some of the editing wasn’t suspect, particularly in the version available through the “Shameless” label (I’m sure a minor plot development is missing as it’s in the trailer available as an an extra but removed from the feature version on the DVD). 

What the film really depicts is a criticism of established Society and like Fulci’s DONT TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972) the killer turns out to be a priest. More than a few fans have drawn a parallel between Fulci’s film and Lado’s effort but there are vital differences. Lado’s movie departs in subtext from Fulci’s greatest thriller, here it is not the repugnant Church (Lado’s killer is only masquerading as a man of the cloth) thrust under the spotlight but the envied upper echelons of Italian society (lawyers, politicians, art dealers etc.).  In Fulci’s film, the Church is the literal killer of children whereas in this film we have the rich-and-famous involved in a elaborate cover-up to silence those who are privy to their immoral excesses. 

A vibrant and artistic giallo which gets better with each viewing.  Whilst not as polished, this is up there with Fulci’s Duckling and  Argento’s Deep Red as one of my personal favourites in the genre. 

hotdog rating: 9/10