DePalma’s BLOW OUT (1981)

A movie about movie-making. That’s how I would best describe this Brian DePalma film. First time around, BLOW OUT disappointed at the box office but has since undergone a revival which I reckon is mostly down to critics and cult movie fans.

The film is popping with genre references and homages, exquisitely photographed and fluidly shot; I’d argue that this is DePalma’s technical best with full credit also going to cineamtographer Vilmos Zsigmond. We are treated to the full arsenal of tricks from DePalma’s cinematic circus: split screens, deep focus photography, slo-mo steady cam and crane shots are all lovingly in here. But it’s not simply the director’s technical toolbox which make BLOW OUT a stand-out piece of cinema; the cast are also very strong. John Travolta, John Lithgow and Nancy Allen are on top form whilst Dennis Franz’s sleazy photographer is a cringingly good bit-part. More specifically, Lithgow is undeniably unnerving and deliciously creepy in his role as the killer; Travolta gives one of the best performances of his career, particularly in the film’s depressing ending and Allen is charming naive as cheap escort caught up in a conspiracy. 

There are some elements of the film which are exhilarating for the fan-boys. The pre-credits sequence, really a ‘fake’ start to the film as we watch a low-budget horror film (Travolta is providing the audio for this piece of horror trash), is a joy and almost like an ‘easter egg’ hidden within the film itself rather on on a DVD menu. The shots in this segment are out of the sync, the acting reprehensible, the steadi-cam anything but and the music bluntly unimaginative. It’s a ‘bad’ movie filmed magnificently well by DePalma. 

At its heart, BLOW OUT is really about film identifying truth in the world – it’s the production of a film along with audio which is key to exposing the corruption of the elite, and it’s also highlighted that the abuse of this medium can have serious sequences. In terms of the relationsthip to DePalma’s other thrillers, BLOW OUT is less violent than both 1980’s DRESSED TO KILL and 1977’s THE FURY.  On the other hand there is one scene which I found particularly horrific and that’s where Lithgow garrottes a prostitute over a toilet stall, her feet panickily jamming against the wall. It’s not that you see this graphically in front of your eyes but it’s the hint of the concealed visuals which are most unsettling.

If you’re look to pick holes in BLOW OUT, I guess you can take issue with the unsophisticated nature of the story and the script. This is clearly one of the more straightforward thrillers – in terms of narrative – of all the films in DePalma’s cannon. Does that really matter though? Not when a film is this well put-together and executed. 

Thinking about White of the Eye (1987)

Donald Cammell’s film was more-or-less marketed as a psychological thriller / slasher movie; or in other words, a non-Italian Giallo. To be sure, a rudimentary description of the plot would lead you to such a conclusion but that’s a rash way to assess what films are really about. On the face of it, the movie concerns a serial killer – diligently working his way through the rich ladies of Arizona – and his family. Underneath its slasher overcoat, White of the Eye hides a sensory marvel and, from what I can gather at least, an involved tale of the passion to destroy and its grip on the male psyche. This is all built on a bedrock of the age-old story of infidelity, the spark which lights the film’s tinder box.

Cammell is a cinematographer by trade and it’s the visual aspect which is clearly the focus of his energies. The opening murder sequence, whilst substantively inspired by Argento’s set-pieces, is a tour-de-force of ocular technique. The sequence uses a grand total of 55 shots fitting into 140 seconds, all blanched with exotic colour and off-the-wall imagery. The film doesn’t let up from here and Cammell’s camerawork stays true to the standard established in the first few minutes. The visuals are so stark that much of the picture feels like a music video driven by Nick Mason’s compositions and with the score sounding somehow aligned with another dimension, it gives sun-baked Arizona a hue of an alien and foreign land.Not only are the exterior shots so convincing and enjoyable but the attention to detail in the set-design and voyeur-like perspective of Cammell’s camera make the interiors of Arzona’s well-healed community quite hypnotic. 

At its naked least, White of the Eye is a pitifully sad movie and I liked the genuinuity of  a husky-voiced Cathy Moriarty as Joan White – wife to David Keith’s deranged killer. I note that others have been less kind to her performance, but it’s her acting which gives the love story within the film its heart. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of Cammell’s film is to drastically shift the focus from David Keith’s killer to Cathy Moriarty’s wifey in a seemless way. That said,the mood completely disjoints from a tortured marriage tale in the finale and we end up with sticks of dynamite, blazing guns and Apache legend – all thrown together in an ending which evokes some reminiscing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It has to be said that Cammell did not achieve a balanced movie here. 

 Furthermore, patches of the story are undeveloped and some key characters are left looking unwanted. The frustratingly sporadic use of Art Evans as a homicide detective with a gut instinct for White’s madness gets me down; but there’s also a healthy serving of mumbo-jumbo scriptwriting likely to put some viewers off.  Whether I will ever go to the bottom of some of the mumbo jumbo, I really couldn’t say but what it does do is hook you to the film’s themes in a manner which can only illicit repeated future viewings. With multiple ways to interpret the events and motive depicted on screen, this is a film to revisit time and again. To be certain, I am still asking some perplexing questions as to the meaning of some of the sections in this film.

In summary and having seen this film a number of times in the past few years,  White of the Eye’s aesthetic glare gives an oddly scary example of what can be done with a camera. For that alone, seek it out and all the better if you can immerse yourself in the guttural themes on display. If you decide to do the latter please do get in touch, I have some ideas I’d like to test with you about some of the subliminal and not-so subliminal messages.

Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980)

William Peter Blatty will forever be known as the author and writer of The Exorcist, but it’s his 1980 directorial debut which is arguably the more interesting contribution to cinema. To date, Blatty has directed only one other film; the deeply intelligent and thought-provoking “Exorcist 3” (1990).

Often thought of as a mysterious slice of eclectic cult cinema, Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is based on two versions of his earlier novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane”. It’s a film hard to assign to any particular genre, embodying elements of a psychological thriller and the darkest of comedies. Ostensibly, the plot is based on a US army psychiatrist, Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), who is sent to a gothic castle housing officers claiming to be crazy; his task to ascertain whether these patients are truly insane or whether they are ‘faking’ it to avoid tours of duty. Blatty confidently pitches the whole thing as a pseudo mash-up of “Once Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” with the meta-physical themes of good and evil seared into his Exorcist mythology.

Initial impressions of the film usually focus on the vibrant selection of actors that make up the cast of patients. First up is Capt. Cutshaw, played by a wild-eyed Scott Wilson in a career defining performance. Here’s a former astronaut whose crisis of faith drove him to abort a NASA mission to the moon during take-off (“And what if I got there – got to the moon – and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies but I am afraid to die alone, so far from home. And if there’s no God, then that’s really, really alone”). Then there’s Jason Miller’s ‘Reno’, something of a side-kick to Wilson’s Cutshaw character and his idiosyncratic condition leads him to canine recreations of the works of Shakespeare.  Robert Loggia as a cerebrally batshit lieutenant and Moses Gunn in a superman costume are delightful additions and that’s without the cameo of Joe Spinell. The staff at the facility include the ever-dependable Ed Flanders as the medic and a youthful Tom Atkins as one of the guards. 

This is a mighty collection of character actors, clearly having fun with the flinchingly funny script and the theatrics of it all. Despite the feel of a screwball farce, there’s heavy symbolism beneath the comedic charade. The film asks some resolute questions about man’s motivations for good and his relationship with a seemingly uncaring and detached God. It may be difficult to imagine genuine celluloid tension emanating from these kinds of venturesome themes but Blatty pulls it off, demonstrating an incredulous ability to build suspense from the philosophical dialogue sequences peppered throughout the screenplay. Here’s a choice-cut of dialogue from early on in the movie:

Colonel Kane: You’re convinced that God is dead because there’s evil in the world?

Capt. Cutshaw: Correct!

Colonel Kane: Then why don’t you think he’s alive because of the goodness in the world?

Much of this antipathy is developed in the confrontational scenes between Keach and Wilson who play the dynamic brilliantly with Wilson’s Cutshaw probing Keach’s Colonel Kane to find just one example of genuine, self-less goodness. But really it’s the ‘bar scene’ in the film’s final 15 minutes which earns the greatest accolade for suspense as Keach hits breaking-point to validate the motivation of goodness in this world.

We later find out – SPOILERS – that Colonel Kane himself is not quite who he appears to be but is instead a cold-blooded killer who returns from Vietnam under the mental illusion that he’s his brother, a real army psychiatrist (and castle medic Ed Flanders), in order to cope with his mental instability after he’s gone full-postal in Vietnam. The staff apprevehensively let Kane act this fantasy out in the hope that it will give an indication as to how to cure both himself of the evil he’s committed and act as a remedy to his fellow patients’ delusional parananoias. 

This would all be sufficient to make a timeless film but aesthetically it also gives in spades. The photography on display and visual imagery throughout the film is arresting and dashingly beautiful. The most obvious example being an iconic and jaw-dropping lunar crucifixion of Jesus, but it’s difficult to single out one scene when so many showcase the aesthetic skill of Gerry Fisher’s cinematography. The gothic ambience of the castle’s exterior – executed in the highest-order during the film’s opening credits – may suggest the picture’s horror credentials, but they are just a canvass for a movie which is resolutely not out to scare you but to exercise your mind. 

The closing coda is touching and brings the film full-circle, perhaps authenticating the idea of a life after death; albeit with some ambiguity depending on the cut of the movie you’ve seen.

The Ninth Configuration is spunky, it’s deep and often unfathomable but it’s a film to dwell on, perhaps for life. 

Hotdog rating: 10/10

The Invitation (2015)

Logan Marshall-Green  (some may remember him from Prometheus) stars as Will, a man invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife, Eden, and her new partner. Amongst other guests are their shared friends and two new additons his ex met on holiday in Mexico.  There’s a harrowing sub-plot as to why Will is no longer married but that’s not let on early. 

Gosh, this a tense picture. From the awkward prologue in which a couple run over a coyote on a hillside there’s a a seat-shifting awkwardness to the proceedings which doesn’t let up. In that way, you can draw parallels with Joel Edgerton’s THE GIFT (2015) although this movie is more straightforward in terms of narrative. 

Giving out too much information before you see the film will diminish what is a rare occurrence these days – a thriller which slowly but surely walks up your spine. This is one of the most suspenseful films I have seen in years. The reason the gambit works is that it feels so realistic and although I am quite sure many will find its tortoise-like pacing arresting, stick with it because there is a quick-fired payoff in the final 15 minutes.

With quite a few red herrings; long dialogue sequences of debate and one completely stand-out set piece, the film feels like an inverted cocktail of Hitchcock’s SUSPICION, 12 ANGRY MEN and something out of a Stephen King short story.  Technically there’s some glorious photography and set-design, showing just how the rich elite in the Hollywood hills can live but it’s the completely believable cast and torturing score which propel it over the finish line. I’d single out Michael Huisman who plays Eden’s partner David as one of the charmingly creepiest guys I have seen on screen in a long while. 

The one drawback is that when the twist does come, it’s not as unpredictable as earlier parts of the movie where Marshall-Green’s paranoid performance is sufficient to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of the audience.  But I am picking holes in a B-movie picture which kicks the socks off 95% of the thrillers put out by the major studios.

Cool, unnervingly realistic and solidly gripping from start to finish. I don’t know what more you can expect from an independent thriller.

NB: The film is available on Netflix in the UK at the moment.

Hotdog rating: 8/10

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.

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.

The Big Combo (1955)

Synopsis:

Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde), possessed by a desire to save a dame (Jean Wallace), attempts to bring down mob-boss Mr Brown (Richard Conte) and his colourful syndicate.

Review:

Bluntly embossed with quintessential characteristics of the genre, the big combo feels like a last hurrah for vintage noir. From the opening frames of Jean Wallace fleeing her mob-boss-lover only to be chased down by the hawk-faced Lee Van Cleef and his partner, this film keeps giving.

Unusually cruel by the genre’s standards there is scant room for comic relief. The personification of mob brutality is Richard Conte’s villain, Mr Brown, perfectly sketched against a montage of smoking guns and burning cigarettes. The sequence where Mr Brown tortures Lt. Diamond is perhaps the most memorable feature of this now-forgotten movie – and it’s the scene which solidifies Conte’s character as the bastard he is. All silver-tongued and delivering lines with acidic wit, Mr Bown is one of my favourite noir bad guys.

The black and white photography here is remarkable; mainly because the film is near only shot at night. Throughout the picture, faces are slyly hidden behind shadows until revealed brazenly by the sporadic use of bright light and silhouettes dance in and out of the foreground. It seems like you are watching a live comic book, beset with choice cuts of mob dialogue. The script is professionally water-tight: “first is first and second is nobody!” spits Conte on more than one occasion. “You can’t tell a jury a man’s guilty because he’s too innocent!” howls the world-weary police chief in charge.

The themes here are all about red-blooded obsession and dangerously unsaturated ambition. The fate of those harbouring the latter is universally adverse for them (Conte and his scheming old-school deputy) whilst those endowed with the former fare with mixed fortune in the screenplay (Lt. Diamond does rather better than his infatuated bit-on-the-side Rita).

There are lots of little touches which turn this from a darn good film into a justifiable classic. Van Cleef’s Fante and side-kick Mingo are Conte’s favourite heavies – these are the chaps who carry out a killing when needed. But what’s interesting is the screenplay implies that these two have a relationship which goes beyond simple friendship.

The close of the movie is accomplished; fog enshrouds an aircraft hanger as our silhouetted (of course) detective hounds a fatally corned but desperate to elope Conte – bathed in harsh spotlight against a rugged corrugated-iron wall. The final shot sees the outlines of the femme fatale and besotted detective disappear into the mist.

A real gem which is worthy of rediscovery by all.

Hotdog rating: 9/10

The Killers (1946)

Robert Siodmak’s noir classic rightly deserves its place as one of the centrepieces of the genre’s heyday. 

The opening segment – where our title characters approach a small-town diner to murder Burt Lancaster’s clapped-out fighter – is close to cinematic perfection: the shadows of the killers falling on the outside of the diner and the threat established by the wincing dialogue would be sufficient. However,  what really hits the mark, is the culmination of the first act in a shot comprised of a stylish thunderstorm of lights and bullets hailing down on Lancaster as his hands slip down the bed post in pitiful resignation. 

The history of Lancaster’s character – in true ‘smouldering’ mode and the reason for his murder is then told via a series of  extended flashbacks from different characters. These help assemble the layers behind the thinking of the life insurance investigator, superbly played by a young(ish) Edmond O’Brien, who represents the perspective of the audience. 

Bluntly depressing and morally arresting,  the nihilism of Siodmak’s film is deafening. Ava Gardner’s femme-fatale entraps all around her – always the subject of Lancaster’s gaze and the cause of his misjudgement. From the moment Lancaster sets his eyes on Gardner, we know there is no hope for him. In a similar vein, we know the other members of the heist gang are equally doomed – the deaths of Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and co are never in doubt, the only consideration is how much of the double-cross they’ll uncover before their demise.

The sadness of the situation is made harrowingly worse when the screenplay bears all about Gardner’s scheming diva in a final death scene, where instead of comforting her expiring husband, she begs him to lie to save herself from the law’s clutches. This prompts my favourite line from the timeless script: an unsympathetic detective spits “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell…”

Aside from the aforementioned welcome to the film, there’s a marvellous tracking shot along a bar towards the end of the movie, as the camera pans across the faces of the barflies to reveal our title characters once again, who this time are after insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) as he nears the labyrinthed truth. 

It’s tough to think of where this movie makes a wrong-turn, and that’s because it’s a genuine rarity – stylishly shot with a defining cast and – most importantly – an utterly engaging screenplay. This is why ‘old’ movies should never be forgotten.

Hotdog rating: 9/10

The Boy (2016)

The opening of this film is straight out of a Hammer House of Horror episode; on a cold winter’s day a taxi meanders to an isolated and historic country house in the middle of nowhere, a young American nanny in the backseat. The ‘house’ is rather like a castle and has a little more than a whiff of  Del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” (2015) about it. 

Lauren Cohan plays the nanny who must look after a porcelain doll, not an actual boy. You can guess where the destination is and the unoriginality in the script is not something you’d have an easy time vouching for, but this is not a repulsive movie.  The gothic theme is kept up for the entire movie and with its lack of violence and disdain for vulgarity,  this is a muted and thoughtful horror picture. Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle are well-matched – if stereotyped eccentrics – in the role of the elderly couple who dote on their doll. 

It’s also true that at times “The Boy” evokes the chill factor of the ventriloquist tale in the yet-to-be-bettered “dead of night” (1945) but unforgivably throws everything away in the final 15 minutes as the screenplay dives knee-deep into standard slasher fare.

There are other positives, particularly Daniel Pearl’s brilliant cinematography, and stand-out sequences such as a neatly-orchestrated shower scene and a pitifully-sad double suicide.  But in a mystery film – which essentially is what “The Boy” is – the reveal of what’s behind the curtain is all-important and here it’s sadly just a run-of-the-mill psychopath that we’ve seen so many times before. 

Hotdog rating: 4.5/10