horror

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE WOLFMAN

USA, 2010

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The intention was that it would be different. Nothing makes the powerful within Universal Studios gnash their teeth more than remembering how the small time British stole the Dracula and Frankenstein monsters that Universal Studios had blessed with movie fame in the 40s.  Twenty years later British thieves presented the monsters as their own brand and persisted through decades of profit making success.  The imitated decided to imitate the imitators.  Universal would remake their 1941 hit The Wolfman and simultaneously prepare a couple of sequels. Joe Johnson met the moneymen who had vengeance in their hearts and he was hired to direct.  Johnson knew how to integrate special effects because creating them was how he first earned his living.  His previous films had also enjoyed significant commercial success.   And just in case anybody would suspect cheap motives the producers would recruit classy actors and the film would be introduced with the original Universal logo, more a badge of pride than an advertisement.

But life is not fair. The Wolfman cost $150m to produce but critics thought the remake uninspired and audiences preferred other films in other cinemas.  Horror fans and cineastes were disappointed but nowhere near as much as the moneymen in Universal who had expected to build a bigger and better gravy train than that steered by cheapskate Hammer Film Productions. The top men at Universal remembered those pathetic British efforts and cardboard sets and lousy matte shots.  Somehow across the Atlantic serious money had been earned.

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Before he directed The Wolfman Joe Johnson had made one decent movie.  It also had a good title, October Sky.  This was a heartfelt biography of a working class young man who became a physicist.  The end of the movie dries the throat and inspires thought about social class and its consequences.  The rest of the time Johnson has produced nothing more than popcorn for the eyes.  It has earned him a more than comfortable living. These films have revealed logistical command but been short on real flair.  The nostalgia in the inoffensive Captain America, though, has attracted some fans.   In retrospect it is obvious.  Joe Johnson had spent too much time reading comic books and getting rich at the Walt Disney Company to ever make a success of a confused lycanthrope.   Horror requires paranoia and dark skies. It is present in The Wolfman but Johnson is at his best creating adventure under American sunshine.  October Sky is a fine sensitive film but it examines success.  Nothing could be further from Gothic fatalism than the optimism of practical technicians.  And nothing in horror represents fatalism as well as the werewolf.  He is the equivalent of the doomed hero in film noir.  One bite and you are finished.  Even unscrupulous vampires sometimes get a second chance.

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In The Wolfman the monster creates mayhem when it runs riot across London.  The sets and special effects are a tribute to skilled effort and hard cash.  Yet it is difficult not to imagine Mary Poppins landing on the shoulder of the werewolf and pushing the end of her umbrella through his chest.  It is that kind of artificial London.  Indeed, Mary Poppins is the darker film. Her songs and jokes may be fun but Ms Poppins understood the punishing side of existence. She warned the family about how lives can be wasted earning cash.  The best Joe Johnson can manage in The Wolfman is to remind us not to be bitten by a wolf. The Disney feel of the picture means that the violence, when it does occur, is risible.  The legend of the werewolf is gloom laden.   Violence that is not taken seriously undermines the suspense and drama and even the poignant romance.

Novels are different from movies.  Much of the fiction we read is written by the uninspired and the dim witted.  It has to be that way. Publishing is an industry that needs product in order to make money.   Exceptions always exist but accomplished rather than successful novels are not written by the talentless.  Movies contain many elements and demand effort from an army of contributors and each has specialist skills.  Sometimes the talentless can produce classics and the gifted embarrass us with duds. The Wolfman neither has sufficient terror nor romance to be great but somewhere in there amongst its not always obvious objectives there is accomplishment that has to be acknowledged.   The film is not unlikeable. The contribution of the actors is important.   Benicio Del Toro has eyes that always look ready to leak tears, and Emily Blunt appears to be an independent spirit and a woman who would find it impossible to lie.  Anthony Hopkins has seasoned as well as an Iberian ham and, true, he can leave a similar aftertaste but he does have a physical presence. His characterisation in The Wolfman is eccentric and a little daft but it adds grit.

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If the creation of London is misjudged, the, shadowed streets and urban comfort in brightly lit rooms remain impressive.  In The Wolfman there is a strong sense of Victorian luxury and the comfort that it brought to the privileged.  The Tower Bridge in the movie is more spectacular than the one that exists.  The British landscape consists of both real scenes from Derbyshire and Wiltshire and fake shots of mist and sunsets but these elements do not clash.  No attempt is made to exaggerate the scenic splendours with higher hills than normal.  Instead we see endless moorland and out of reach boundaries.  Some of the images in The Wolfman deserve to be retained as still photographs. The moment when Anthony Hopkins uses his lantern to inspect the detail on the tomb of his wife is fabulous, as is the scene on the side of the Thames when Del Toro recovers from his transfiguration.  Inspector Aberline is added to the plot.  Those who worry about whether the failure to identify Jack The Ripper weakened the London detective can be consoled by knowing that in The Wolfman the policeman has acquired the skills of a horse rider and a marksman.  This is not uninteresting but again it adds to the Mary Poppins dimension that weakens the film. Neither can it be a coincidence that the love of the Wolfman, Emily Blunt, has been selected to play Mary Poppins in the new version.

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Still, credit has to be given to Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote the script. Not everything is perfect, and none of the main actors make the whole journey back to the 19th Century.  Walker avoids howling anachronisms but his dialogue somehow echoes modern colloquialisms. While he retains much of the original plot his additions enrich the textual themes within the story.  The werewolf Lawrence Talbot is now an American actor. More than one reference is made to acting.   Inspector Abberline, understandably desperate to identify the killer, wonders what is inside the head of a man who has played murderers like Macbeth and Othello.  Sir John Talbot tells his thespian son, ‘You’re not the only one in the family that can act.’   The inference is that acting and the responsibility of impersonation will leave a performer with the sinister presence of others in his or her identity.

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Changes are also made to the original roles of the father of the werewolf and the woman he loves.   With the help of well-bred Emily Blunt the devoted Gwen moves up the social scale.  It enables her to be more independent and spirited.   Sir John is a much darker character than in the original 1941 film, and this facilitates a more complex Oedipal tale.   Rather than the emphasis being on sexuality as it is in An American Werewolf In London the savage animalism of the werewolf instead enables Lawrence to commit the act that many sons must at some point undertake. This is the destruction of the father, the brute that has ruined the mother adored by the son.  The Greek myth fits the werewolf legend rather well. The sexual elements identified by Freud are not emphasised but there is phallic significance in the walking stick that is left in the railway carriage by Max von Sydow near the beginning of the film. The scene was so brief and inconsequential to the plot it was cut from the original theatrical release. Von Sydow, though, was hired for a reason. The presence of the Bergman stalwart connects our subconscious to the agonised frustrations expressed in 60s sexualised Swedish cinema.

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The talented actors Anthony Sher and Brian Glover were hired to represent what was available to support the mentally ill in the 19th Century.  Both overact and ensure that The Wolfman for all its knowingness tips into failure. Glover is obliged to be sadistic and charmless. It is not in his nature, and he is not convincing.  Anthony Sher is either off his head or too inspired by the Mary Poppins London backdrop.  A more subtle and restrained performance would have revealed a savage approach to mental illness taken by a rational man.  But if the recreation of the 19th Century British approach to healthcare is wild and extreme, it will do no harm if The Wolfman reminds us of the primitive alternatives being planned for the NHS by the present Government and its oligarchical amigos.   There could be more howling at the moon before we are finished.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HUSH

USA 2016

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Mike Flanagan has powerful friends. Writer Stephen King and director William Friedkin think that the latest film by Flanagan is great. Stephen King said that Hush is way up there with the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark.   Hush is not fabulous but it is superior to the mechanical and uninspired Wait Until Dark, which is not way up anywhere.   Now we are here something has to be said about Stephen King. The American writer is rich and famous and deserves to be. He is prolific and has a knack for ideas that attract interest from readers. But a gift for abundance and modest premises transformed into tales that have moments but few genuine surprises do not constitute exceptional literary merit.

In 2013 Mike Flanagan wrote and directed the interesting Oculus.  Initially, the achievements of Hush appear to be restricted to mechanical mastery and directorial flair. The tale is simple. Maddie is a writer. Because she had meningitis when she was 13 years old, she is now unable to hear or speak. She lives alone in an isolated house.   A serial killer knocks on the door or rather he drags to the window the attractive neighbour he has just killed. For the rest of the film the audience watches the struggle for survival between likeable Maddie and the not so pleasant serial killer. Hush is a horror movie, and Flanagan is a fan perhaps devotee of the genre.  Some of the violence is explicit, and the lone woman fighting against the home invader is typical fare for horror fodder. Yet the confrontation in Hush also has elements of the Western.   The fight on the wooden terrace at the front of the house resembles the climactic gunfight in Man Of The West, the classic revisionist Western by Anthony Mann.  More significant is how Flanagan pays obvious homage to Scream by Wes Craven.   The killer stalking Maddie even wears a similar Halloween type mask.  Hush does have merit, and director Flanagan is an obvious talent, but the never to be forgotten terrorisation of poor Drew Barrymore makes the attempt at suspense in Hush seem pitiful.

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This happens because Flanagan attempts the impossible. In Scream the confrontation between the human invader and solitary female occupies a few minutes of the film. In Hush it is almost everything. Most people will expect Maddie to survive the terror. What might make them anxious is the doubt that Flanagan will be able to stretch his idea for the length of a whole film. There are serial killers who mean business and the others who mess about. The psychopath in Hush would make striking a match look complicated. Director Flanagan makes the most of limited material but so he should because he wrote the script with the help of his wife Kate Siegel who appears as Maddie. When the serial killer hesitates about invading the home and explains his ambition is to prolong the suffering of Maddie, we realise what is really happening.  Flanagan has just written a tame excuse for why the film will last 87 minutes. Once we hear the creepy killer reveal the basis of the film we have to settle for an academic exercise.

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Academic application, though, is not without appeal. The action is confined to a house where bright lights are taboo.  Maddie cannot hear anything and somehow has to survive. Despite her lack of hearing she has to match a serial killer armed with a crossbow, a sharp knife and two good ears. Two of the violent confrontations have ordinary elements. We witness a stabbing and an attempted strangulation. Nevertheless these encounters are given a strong sexual edge.   Near the beginning of the film the killer stabs the female neighbour while he observes Maddie in her kitchen. Mike Flanagan is not the first director to recognise the symbolic potential of a long knife. In Hush the stabbings are phallic thrusts emphasised by how the victim is held and the lust we see in the face of the assassin. The final violent confrontation is not complicated.  Two people struggle for supremacy but the almost coital climax that violent death brings is memorable.   The sound design is also exceptional. It alternates between muffled murmur that represents the world of Maddie and a detailed soundtrack that reminds us of what Maddie cannot experience.

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Mike Flanagan had intended to make the film with no soundtrack but decided it destroyed the suspense in the action scenes. This makes sense but there was another option. We could have heard everything but the dialogue. None of it would have been missed, and we would have still had a sense of the awkward world of Maddie. If the dialogue is not always impressive, the cinematic skill of Flanagan elevates a basic story. This may be why Stephen King likes the film. He recognises a kindred spirit who has similar ambitions. At the beginning we see a Stephen King book on a bookshelf.  Hush was sold to Netflix. Since then Flanagan has adapted the Stephen King novel Gerald’s Game. This film, which is also available to Netflix subscribers, has supernatural elements but feels like reworked Misery and Hush. This alliance between King and Flanagan may not have a happy ending.

But, and this is where the film becomes interesting, there may be a good reason why the serial killer in Hush hesitates so much. Maddie is struggling to end the book she is writing, a book in which the narrator may be killed. What happens in Hush may be nothing more than a writer exploring an imagination. At one point she discusses what will happen next with her other self, the author, the person within Maddie that has a voice she can hear. She also imagines being killed by the home invader.  This fanciful scene is the most vicious in the film.   There are absurd moments in Hush and a meandering serial killer who is too complicated to be vicious. But interpreted as the development of a plot in front of our eyes the film becomes conceptual. It feels like a cheat, and, whatever way the film is viewed, the lack of credibility or reality punctures the drama and suspense.  Yet Hush also obliges us to think again about what we are watching. For that, Mike Flanagan, whatever his intentions, deserves some credit. The title of the film could refer to what all authors would like to silence, the ideas that have to be imagined and then abandoned.

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The comparison that has been made with Wait Until Dark is misleading. Audrey Hepburn played a blind heroine in a film that was a glossy suspense thriller, a weak attempt at Hitchcock thrills. Hush has moments that we associate with slasher movies.  Maddie has to not only struggle against a serial killer but also compete against all the other ‘final girls’ that survive horror films.  Flanagan may be being sly because Maddie, unlike her competitors, begins this film as a ‘final girl’, a female warrior who has already survived meningitis.   At times the film lapses into Tomb Raider moments.   Put a crossbow in the hands of an attractive brunette, a woman who already knows that she is a ‘final girl’, and you take that risk.  Indeed, Maddie has a facial resemblance to Lara Croft.  It all helps us to think more about Hush the cinematic construction than the fate of Maddie. Hush is an artefact that required effort to make, and, whether we like it or not, we are obliged to relate it to other movies and artefacts so that we have some idea of the creative process.   More than most Flanagan provides a helping hand. Maddie is an uninhibited author. At the beginning of the film she shares the creative process with an admiring neighbour and throughout the film she reveals more of how she works than we realise.   At one point the voice of the author inside Maddie asks, ‘You can’t run, you can’t hide, fight. What are you going to do?’ The answer Maddie gives is inadequate because there is nothing she can do and any response requires an alternative logic. The real answer is buried underneath a deliberately inconsistent narrative and in the imagination that created the terror. Neither can the viewer assume that the imagination of Maddie and the existence of the unnamed killer are exclusive.

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Such sly tricks are not restricted to the cinema. Politicians have created a world that also has its own alternative reasoning. In political debates we hear strange utilitarian arguments that have nothing to do with reality and listen to politicians who are unable and unwilling to aggregate the suffering of their citizens.   Foodbanks continue to expand in the UK, and child poverty and homelessness increases.  Financial grants to City Councils and local authorities have since 2010 been cut year after year. Liverpool has had its Central Government funding reduced by 60%.   The treatment of Tory local authorities has been less savage but because of their ageing populations the Councils are flirting with bankruptcy. People were burned to death in a tower block because private contractors thought it clever to reduce unit costs. Yet we are told by a Government Minister that people are happier than ever with public services.   It is, of course, nonsense but a permissible utterance because Government now exists as an independent and almost irrelevant artefact. Like Mike Flanagan, our Government expects us to admire and evaluate this alternative world as an independent creation. How their actions increase the suffering of bewildered citizens can be ignored or so they think.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.