Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Bravados (1958) & the best of CinemaScope 

The Bravados is a “vengeance” Western starring Gregory Peck and about as far removed from a “popcorn” Western as can be. Peck plays ‘Jim Douglass’, a brooding and unhappy cowboy, who journeys to a small town in order to watch the hanging of four outlaws. Why>? Well, Peck believes they raped and murdered his wife. When the outlaws break free of the town jail the stage is set for the quintessential chase for which many films in the genre are known.

Peck gives a tormented turn as a man completely consumed by ill will. That alone is worth the running time but there are a number of reasons why this movie is so different to standard horse-opera fare.  The film was shot in CinemaScope and looks emaculate. The lighting and set-design is out of this world; with much of the action taking place at night the utilisation of blue-filters gives the picture an atmospheric hue which is more or less unparalleled in the genre. There are some perfectly composed shots which frame our characters beautifully in this kind of light.  The first half an hour is nothing less than an exercise is the display of ravishing visuals, set to a haunting score. 

The depth here is also unusual for the time – there’s a strong theme of Catholic retribution and soul-searching which pours out of the film’s late plot twist:  our four outlaws are actually not responsible for the death of Peck’s wife, despite the fact that Peck has already executed three of them. These outlaws are well-cast; Stephen Boyd is the nastiest of the bunch, although when he meets his end at the hands of Peck’s unforgiving gun in a Mexian cantina, he has the look of a frightened boy.  Genre stalwart Lee Van Cleef plays the villain most on-edge and casts a woefully-panicked figure as he is blown away whist praying at Peck’s feet. Henry Silva is the most sympathetic of the group whose unflinching honesty – surrounded by his young family –  finally convinces Peck of the gang’s innocence. 

Parts of the film are near incredulous, most obviously the huge church which looks more like a small cathedral than a house of God in a dusty border town. Joan Collins is also rather unbelievable as Peck’s old flame – she never could act – but these are minor gripes. This is an alluring and resplendent picture, which can be sold on its aesthetics alone.

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The Darkness (2016) and the fall of haunted house movies

Over the last decade there has been an outpouring of haunted house movies. Some of the better ones have included INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013), but the vast majority have been flat imitations of past genre hits. The standard formula is simple: step 1. Child sees ghosts; step 2. Family hear noises,  step 3. Mum calls in a psychic and step 4. Showdown. Probably the finest example of the formula – 1982’s POLTERGEIST – was not the first to use it but what’s happened recently is that haunted house movies have simply applied that formula again and again in a war of attrition against movie-goers. The horror genre has form here – with the 1980s slasher cycle setting the bar for repetition – but the relentless ‘bump in the night’ scare is nauseating in its unoriginality and those utilising it are becoming irritating in their comatosed lethargy. The point at issue here is essentially that scenes from any one of these movies could be cut and pasted into any other, without the audience noticing any difference or distinction whatsoever. When you have reached that pit of filmmaking, and when there are so few unique features of individual movies,  it’s time to re-assess a genre for sure.

THE DARKNESS (2016) is the latest case. I went to the cinema last night to see this film and the adherence to the formula set out above is unyielding. Kevin Bacon’s family pick up some Native American demons whilst on vacation and bring them home to their suburban dwelling. The demons bring out ‘the darkness’ in people and cause them to turn against one another – that’s the starting-gun for a family breakdown driven by bulimia, infidility and alcoholism. For much of the movie, you’d forget this was a horror picture and wonder whether you’re watching a melodrama. That’s no bad thing in itself but when the scares do come they’re feeble and affectingly banal. It’s just the usual creaking doors, noises in the attic and taps turning on on their own – you’ve seen all this a hundred times before (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, BURNT OFFERINGS, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE CHANGELING etc.). Of course, Bacon’s autistic son has a special bond with the demons and spends most of the running time starring at the wall in his room whilst counting to 3.  It seems said demons want to take him away through a portal in his bedroom – much like Reverend Kane wanted Carol Anne to enter his dimension in the POLTERGEIST franchise; but that’s not where the comparison ends. The medium who comes to Bacon’s rescue even looks a little like Zelda Rubinstein’s character and to make things worse, the cinematography at the beginning of the movie takes more than a hint from the fantastical opening to (the under-appreciated) POLTERGEIST 2 : The Other Side (1986).  It’s a job of pure parrotry and a straighforward ersatz movie made to dupe, not to entertain.

The DARKNESS (2016) is in no way frightening, and neither is it stimulating. There’s frankly nothing here of genuine individualistic merit and the whole thing feels like a dull cinematic commute. The filmmakers are quite content to recycle and regurgitate, leaving us no choice in feeling melancholic for a genre which is fast approaching its lowest ebb. The only saving grace here is that director Greg McLean doesn’t take the found-footage approach.

Hotdog rating: 3/10 (3 points for the cast alone, who do a professional job despite the failures)

On “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Robert Aldrich’s pulp noir/sci-fi mystery is something of a mixed bag. It’s got a fierce reputation as one of the best thrillers of the 50s but for me such a view is just too generous.

Whilst visually impressive – the opening scene of a female hitchhiker running breathless along the road – the script is pretty poor and Ralph Meeker’s turn as Detective Mike Hammer is uninspired to say the least. There’s a full patchwork of characters, mostly gimmicky stereotypes, but they add little to the overall picture. Frustratingly little time is spent on Albert Dekker’s villain whose only notable scene is a metaphor-mixing and excruciating example of poor scriptwriting.

You can certainly appreciate it for the ambitious genre-bending and apocalyptic ending but it’s not the classic many would assume.