Most of my contact with film theory is purely incidental. I try to avoid being saturated with theory and analysis as it completely changes the way you watch films, making it harder just to sit back and enjoy the show. Even so, I am aware that vast amounts of literature have been dedicated to the subject of the meaning of the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film. It’s a critical debate somewhat akin to literature’s search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw – e.g., the source material is so rich and open-ended that the matter will probably never be resolved to everyone’s liking. Being rather joyfully ignorant of the criticism, I know only some of the broad, high-level ideas of what the birds supposedly symbolize in the film – the most common arguments saying such things as they represent nature’s unwillingness to be subjugated, the struggle between repression and sexual freedom, etc. (I actually came across a very insightful blog this past year that summarized in one place all the major schools of thought regarding the meaning of the birds, but alas, it looks like said blog has since disappeared from cyberspace, leaving behind no trace.)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it a few times now and have started to notice new things, but I actually found myself with a somewhat critical mindset when I watched the film thebirds2.jpgwith Wifey this past weekend (by the way – it’s getting to be that time of year where more and more creepy films might be showing up on this blog) and was wondering quite a bit about this ever elusive meaning of the birds. In particular, I was pondering what connection, if any, there was between the bird attacks and the personal relationships of the film’s main characters. It was this line of thinking that really got me to thinking about how the concepts of space and boundaries are used in the film. At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are my two bits on the subject, which I’m sure have already been said more eloquently and in more detail elsewhere. . .

Have you ever noticed how much Hitch plays with space and boundaries in the film? The entire film is full of scenes of birds in cages, people hiding in the confines of cars or phone booths, people barricading themselves in houses and reinforcing the windows and doors, etc. From the very get-go, with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in the pet shop, the conversation deals with all the birds trapped in their cages – one of which Melanie accidentally releases, causing a little comedic foreshadowing of what will become a much darker theme throughout the film – i.e., the inability of these manmade boundaries to hold. This impulse of man to set boundaries is evident throughout the film – not only with physical enclosures, but also the psychological and social boundaries people try to set. The subplots involving Melanie and Mitch and his family all deal with variations of this issue. Is Melanie too free in her flirtations and would it be right for her to be more restrained? Is Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), too protective of Mitch, and is that better or worse than Melanie’s father, who abandoned her while she was still young? Bodega Bay itself is a geographic representation of this need for boundaries. It’s a town physically removed from the business of San Francisco (a city described at one time in the film as “an anthill up the foot of a bridge”), and the small hamlet is full of people highly suspicious of outsiders.

As is often the case in Hitchcock films, the conflicts highlighted in these subplots echo the main action of the film. Much as many of the characters try to enclose themselves within narrow social roles and closely guarded rules of propriety, birds.jpgthey also seal themselves indoors, trying to protect themselves from the viciousness of the bird attacks. In both cases, the film seems to come to the conclusion that such manmade boundaries – whether they be physical enclosures, social roles, or just the metaphysical lines of Linnaean taxonomy – are useless. Despite its self-enclosure and isolation, Bodega Bay is not safe from the chaos of the outside world. The birds do not stay in their little pigeon-hole man created for them in the power structure. The boarded up windows and barricaded doors cannot keep them out. Melanie is not as free-spirited and incapable of being a responsible mother figure as we thought she was. Nor is Lydia as heartless and cold.

At any rate, that’s my little ramble on the subject. I just did a quick browse of some of the existing criticism on the Web (it’s plentiful and not hard to find), and it doesn’t look like I’m that far off from what many others have said. Looking at space and boundaries is just one way of looking at what appears to be a major school of thought on the film – one that argues that the film demonstrates how man’s carefully constructed world is always just teetering on the edge of chaos. At any rate, I apologize for the long-winded analysis today. It’s just that The Birds is one of those films – like so many of the great ones – where it is so thought-provoking that it’s tough not to start forming elaborate opinions about it. It’s an interesting subject, and if anybody else has opinions about it, please feel free to share.

Dark Water (2005)

November 1, 2006

With rare exception, I think remakes are a bad idea. Having said that, I think that some of the remakes of J-horror films in recent years, such as The Ring and The Grudge, have equaled, and arguably even surpassed, the originals. This is likely due, at least in part, to the way these films did not deviate far from their predecessors; they mostly just made moderate alterations to accommodate for the cultural differences between American and Japanese audiences. Thus, it was not without hope that I decided to watch the 2005 American remake of the 2002 Japanese film, Dark Water.

Sure enough, the American version remained somewhat faithful to the original version, but I was disappointed to find that the changes that were made, small as they were, noticably changed the focus of the film and overall were for the worse. As I mentioned in my review of the 2002 version, the original film is not without its flaws, particularly in its pacing. Presumably in an attempt to fix this, the American version added several more visceral scenes to enhance the film’s creepy atmosphere and emphasized more strongly the protaganist’s (played by Jennifer Connelly) troubled past and fragile psychological state. This 49m.jpgemphasis takes the focus away from the emotional connection between the mother and the daughter, which is what really made the original film engaging and different. Without this emotional charge, you’re left with a film that’s rather nondescript and ordinary (although I will mention that John C. Reilly and Tim Roth both do well in their supporting roles). The American version also attempts to tie up many of the loose ends that were left undone in the original’s storyline, which only takes away from the haunting, unsettled feeling the first film did a pretty decent job of creating.

The American remake of Dark Water isn’t bad. It’s just that the original Japanese version wasn’t perfect either, even though I did like it a lot. There’s probably no real reason to check out both films, so if you’re going to see one, you might as well see the better one and watch the Japanese version. The features that distinguish it from the remake make it a much more interesting film.

Dark Water (2002)

October 27, 2006

I can see why some people give mixed reviews of the original 2002 Japanese version of Dark Water. For those only familiar with the J-horror genre through such offerings as The Ring and The Grudge, this film will probably darkwater.jpgnot be what they expect. Dark Water is not as scary as these movies, or rather, it’s scary in more subtle, refined ways, relying much more on psychological and atmospheric horror. In this way, it’s more like the original Japanese version of Pulse. While I was not a big fan of Pulse, however, I actually sort of liked Dark Water.

Like many of the J-horror films, the supernatural terrors lurking in Dark Water are effective because they are based in fears found in everyday, contemporary life. Pulse, for example, contemplates some of the fears inherent in the increasing isolation of the human spirit in the technological age. Similiarly, The Grudge looks at the inescapable and cyclical nature of domestic violence. In the case of Dark Water, the horrors are based upon the hardships of a single, working mother and her fears that she will be unable to provide for and protect her daughter. The film unfolds two parallel plots simultaneously – the one involving the daily struggles of Yoshimi Matsubara as she is embroiled in a heated custody battle for her daughter Ikuko; the other involving a supernatural presence that lives on the floor above them in their new apartment building. It turns out the presence is the ghost of a young girl about Ikuko’s age who inexplicably disappeared a few years earlier. As events begin to take their toll on Yoshimi’s already fragile psychological state, the viewer begins to wonder if the supernatural occurrences are real or if they are merely reflections of her internalized fears as a struggling parent.

The film is directed by Hideo Nakata, who also directed the Japanese version of The Ring (Ringu) and its sequel, as well as the American remake of the sequel. As he does in those other films, Nakata does a pretty good job of creating a dark, suggestive atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is, however, a little slow paced, and even though it kept me engaged throughout, I sometimes found myself wishing it would get to the point with just a little less tedium.

What I think sets Dark Water apart the most is its story. Based on the novel by Koji Suzuki (who also penned the Ring trilogy), the script so effectively interweaves its supernatural aspect with Yoshimi’s struggles as a parent that it probably is one of the saddest horror films I’ve ever seen. darkwater2.jpgUnlike other horror movies, Yoshimi isn’t simply in a life-or-death battle with horrific forces. Rather, the supernatural forces she faces – be they real or imagined – are representative of her fears as a parent, and her success or failure as a parent is dependent upon the outcome of this conflict. Having seen her relationship with Ikuko and how much she cares about her, it’s difficult not to pull for her as she faces her own inner demons.

Dark Water isn’t without some flaws, and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s one of my favorites in the genre. It is, though, a well done film with a mature, complex story, and it’s brave enough to take some chances and do something a little different from the status quo.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

October 20, 2006

British writer and director Neil Marshall has received a fair bit of attention due to his 2005 sophmore effort The Descent, which was recently released in U.S. theaters and has done pretty well.  dogsold.jpgI haven’t seen The Descent, but I have heard decent things about Marshall and so decided to check out Dog Soldiers – his directorial debut from 2002. It follows a group of military soldiers who are in the Scottish wilderness for a routine exercise when they discover they are being hunted by a pack of ravenous werewolves. While I’m not typically a fan of the creature movie subgenre of horror films, I decided to check it out anyway and was fairly entertained by it.

There’s not a whole lot to say about Dog Soldiers. While usually categorized as horror, it could just as easily be an action film, as it has more fights and explosions than it does scares. It doesn’t have an overly complicated plot, but its energy and surprise twists will likely keep you engaged throughout. Marshall has been coined as a member of the “Splat Pack” – a term describing some of the modern directors making rather violent horror films. I’m not typically a fan of excessive violence, but I honestly didn’t find that to be too much of a problem with this film. There are a few gory scenes, including one rather disturbing one, but overall, it wasn’t as bad as it is in so many other contemporary offerings. In addition, the effects fit with the overall story and plot, so the violence never really feels gratuitous or forced. 

Dog Soldiers isn’t great cinema by any means. Nor is it one I’ll probably watch over and over. It was, however, a decent film to watch when you just want to be idly entertained for a while.

Castle of Blood (1964)

October 19, 2006

I need to preface my review of Castle of Blood (La Danza macabra) with a disclaimer. I ended up watching this film in a somewhat irritated mood due to the particular DVD production I was watching. Most descriptions of the film describe it as an Italian film by the Italian director, Antonio Margheriti. castle.jpgThus I was slightly surprised when I started watching it and discovered it to be an inexplicable mixture of English and French. And I mean inexplicable – a character would be speaking in English and suddenly switch to French for a few sentences and then go back to English. The English was an obvious dubbing, as the words didn’t come close to matching the movement of the lips, but it didn’t even seem like the French was matching up entirely either. I’ve since done some research, and this is my best guess into the matter. Castle of Blood apparently was an Italian-French co-production. I don’t know what exactly that means, but I’m guessing maybe they did it originally in Italian and then, perhaps, dubbed a version into French. I’m not sure. At any rate, the DVD that Netflix sent me apparently was the American version dubbed into English. Then, because the American censors removed several scenes, the scenes originally deleted have been reinserted using the original French track. The result is a very confusing and disorienting production that you can’t fix no matter how many times you attempt to return to the DVD’s language menu. Thus my irritation. I say all this because I know some people really like Margheriti’s work and Castle of Blood in particular, but I only had a so-so opinion of the film – so I think there’s a chance that my mood affected my overall take on the film. 

It seems somewhat random, but Edgar Allen Poe is one of the characters in Castle of Blood. The film opens with him having a discussion with a young journalist named Alan Foster, who doubts that Poe’s stories have any basis in truth. A third gentleman present then challenges Alan to stay in his haunted castle that very night, which happens to be All Souls Eve, a night when the dead are purported to relive their deaths. Alan takes up this challenge, but will he survive the night?

Parts of this film were really good. In particular, I really enjoyed it when Alan first arrives at the castle. The camera work obscures the surroundings so that, like Alan, you can only see what’s in the candlelight’s immediate vicinity. Things certainly don’t seem to be quite right in this initial investigation, and Margheriti really does a good job of building the tension. I also thought the ending, which I won’t give away, was pretty good. It was the intervening middle part that I didn’t enjoy quite as much. The best way I could think to describe it was as a Halloween version of A Christmas Carol, as Alan must witness reenactments of past murders but is unable to do anything to actively change the events. These events are important to the story, but they are slow to develop and they seem to distract the viewer from the tension of Alan’s present predicament.

Castle of Blood certainly wasn’t a bad film, and in fact, it’s better than many of the castle2.jpghorror movies coming out today. It’s also interesting from a historical perspective to see some of the scenes that were deemed inappropriate for American audiences. In particular, there is a brief scene of lesbian intrigue that is somewhat unexpected in the film’s Gothic setting. And yet, I certainly wouldn’t say this is a must-see film. If you haven’t seen it and you’re wanting to check out something new, then it’s probably worth a viewing. . . particularly if you enjoy a multi-lingual aspect to your scary movie experience.

So I had never before seen House of Wax and was sort of feeling creeped out as I started to watch it. Then, my wife informed me that I was not watching the version featuring the thespian talents of Paris Hilton, and I instantly felt more at ease . . . No, indeed, this was houseofwax.jpgthe 1953 version starring one of the all-time greats of classic horror films – Vincent Price. In the film, Price plays an artist named Henry Jarrod who sculpts beautiful wax figures for his wax museum. Although Jarrod is left for dead by a greedy business partner intent on getting insurance money by burning down the museum, Jarrod somehow survives the fire and attempts to start from scratch with a brand new wax museum. At the same time, however, a mysterious disfigured man has begun to run amok, killing Jarrod’s ex-business partner and several others. Soon, the corpses of those murdered begin to disappear and the figures in the wax museum begin to look even more lifelike than they did before. . .

Overall, I thought House of Wax was a pretty creepy film with a really good story. It was as I was watching it that I suddenly remembered that Warner Brothers originally did this as a 3-D film (it was actually the first 3-D film to be accompanied by stereophonic sound). Many of the shots were rather obviously choreographed (the ball-and-paddle scene is perhaps most conspicuous) to have some of those dramatic shooting-towards-the-camera motions that work so well in 3-D. Using such a gimmick for this particular film seems somewhat ironic considering that Price plays a character who doesn’t want to give into the values of shock and sensationalism that has saturated the day’s popular culture.

Indeed, it is the artistic conflicts of Jarrod that give the film some depth beyond just a run-of-the-mill thriller. Jarrod is a Pygmalion-like character, unable to find beauty in the world except through his art. The thwarting of his attempts to remain commercially and artistically pure is what seems to drive him over the line, as he finally caves and starts creating the popular shock-effect shows. This caving, however, is apparently accompanied by an admittance that there is absolutely nothing good about reality. In fact, to Jarrod, life is now worth destroying if it can lead to the creation of art, which remains his one source of beauty. The film doesn’t develop these themes as much as I would like, price.jpgand indeed, the viewer has to fill in several of the blanks for him/herself to understand Jarrod’s motivation. And yet, though I haven’t viewed the newest version for myself, I have a strong feeling that the 1953 version treats such themes to a much greater extent than the recent 2005 incantation, which sounds like it strayed far from the Price version and is more just your ordinary modern scare-fest (late in his life, Price actually criticized such modern horror films for being just shallow glorifications of violence).

One final note, just to show I’m not totally against all remakes. Our Netflix DVD actually was a dual-feature that also contained the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum upon which the 1953 film was based. The 1933 film featured Fay Wray, who would capture the admiration of King Kong later that year, and was directed by Michael Curtiz, who later in life would go on to direct such classics as Casablanca and Mildred Pierce. However, other than some really nice overly stylized sets and the opportunity to see what an early film done in Technicolor Process 3 looked like, there is little to recommend viewing this film. The 1953 film is superior in almost every way – better acting, better script with a more sensible plot, etc. It is an example of a remake done well, taking the germ of a good story and further developing the worthwhile themes while cutting off the needless excess. It’s too bad modern remakes are rarely so successful in their efforts.

As I mentioned before, I enjoy watching horror films around Halloween. It can be one of my favorite genres when done right. That said, I’m very particular about the type of horror I like. Certain ones, especially the classics and certain foreign films, are based on quality stories that really challenge the imagination and our perception of the way things are. I like those. To me, all of this seemed to start changing in Hollywood night.jpgaround the 70s or so, when the story became more of an afterthought, and horror movies thinned into nothing more than gratuitous violence and disturbing plot points (think of the whole slasher movie phenomenon). While there were of course exceptions to the rule, this was unfortunately the trend I noticed until about the past decade or so, when these films once again started noticing the importance of having quality, mind-expanding stories as their basis. I’m saying all this to that it might help explain why it is I had mixed feelings about Night of the Living Dead.

Considered a classic of the genre, Night of the Living Dead was directed by George Romero. It follows a group of strangers who become trapped in a house surrounded by flesh-eating zombies. The story sounds cliche now, but that’s because this was pretty much the granddaddy story by which all other subsequent zombie films would be measured. The film has a lot going for it. First, it’s low-budget, which typically helps horror films (consider, on the other hand, modern horror flicks’ unfortunate overreliance on slick CGI graphics). Second, the basic story is pretty strong, even making some surprising social criticisms – most prominently on race but also on other issues such as the breakdown of the community. Finally, though the acting is fairly b-movie level, one tends to forget this while watching the complex dynamics of the various character relationships unfold.

If these aspects helped draw me in, however, there were several others that turned me off. One can easily see how Romero’s film helped usher in the modern era of horror movies. The film turns in the last third or so to some rather graphic imagery and shocking plot-twists. I believe Romero is trying to demonstrate a complete breakdown of community in the face of adversity, as even family member turns against family member. Though it’s likely a matter of personal preference, I find the shock value takes away from what could be a bit of eloquent social commentary rather than enhancing it. But what’s worse is one can see how this film helped introduce a new trend of horror movies. Unfortunately, many of the movies that followed, unlike Romero’s, were content to disturb for their own sake and without any sense of artistry or irony.

Night of the Living Dead is original, and it transformed the horror genre. I can even see why so many people like it. Viewed independently, I would say it’s a pretty decent film. However, for me, I can’t view it independently. It’s too much of a bridge between one era of filmmaking and another, and I simply can’t go into the new without missing the old.

Unlike the TV networks and cable channels, which tend to show only a week or so worth of good Halloween programming each year, I typically get in the mood where I watch several weeks worth of scary movies leading up to the holiday. So it looks like I’ll be starting to watch and review some horror movies sometime in the next couple of weeks. If anybody has any favorites of the genre they’d like to recommend, please feel free to pass them along. In keeping with the theme of the blog, I’ll be looking primarily at classic and/or foreign films (which are much better than contemporary Hollywood’s horror anyway).