Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Family Plot, 1976 (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Great directors’ late works tend to get met with a mixture of extreme defensiveness or a queasy, we don’t like to talk about that avoiding the subject. For all that a late or last work will have a cheering section, there are those that are met with “well it doesn’t tarnish what came before.” And few last films from a major director have met a chillier reception and reputation than Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. This is a shame to say the least, because it’s one of his warmest, funniest films. And shows that one of Hollywood’s most venerable directors could adapt as adroitly as he had before during his decades long career.

Family Plot’s story concerns Barbara Harris as daffy phony psychic. Bruce Dern is her quarrelsome lover and partner in crime. They hook a big fish in a wealthy woman ensconced in a Tudor style mansion belonging to a Columbo villain of the week and overflowing with bric a brac. The woman wants the pair to track down a missing heir to the family fortune. On the way home Harris and Dern argue over what to do next and nearly run over a blonde wigged Karen Black, dressed like a killer from a Gialli. She’s on her way to make a ransom pickup. She is one half  of a much more malevolent crooked couple. Her partner is William Devane playing a magnificently oily creep who wears a smile like a threat. As is the way in mystery stories these two seemingly disconnected threads will soon become dangerously entangled.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at Hitchcock’s curtain call was that it looked and played more like a TV movie than a feature from The Master of Suspense. Forgetting that Hitchcock had already done terrific work on TV, helming some of the best episodes of his own series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As well as forgetting that  the seventies were the harvest golden age of the TV movie format. Family plot is rich in details like the grubby knick knacks cluttering Harris’ shabby home. And full of interesting shots such as a crane shot of two characters playing cat and mouse through the overgrown, labyrinthine paths of a cemetery. It’s best to view Family Plot as a great chef preparing comfort food. It might just be mashed potatoes and meatloaf but it’s likely to be some of the best mashed potatoes and meatloaf you’ve ever had.

It’s also a pleasure watching Hitchcock working with a New Hollywood cast like Harris, Dern, and Black and getting rewarded with terrific performances from all involved. Harris and Dern have a magnificent, bickering chemistry. They clearly adore driving each other crazy. Black is excellent as a Femme Fatale learning her limits when the game turns to murder. And Devane is great as a sociopath all the more unnerving for be able to pass for a respectable businessman. It’s one of the most seventies thing about the picture. Everyone is a crook and working an angle. The question becomes do you take from those who can afford to lose. And Hitchcock’s sympathies lie with Dern and Harris. They’re con artists but they’re working class con artists, cooking hamburgers and having to break dates because the boss insists they have to cover a shift.

Hitchcock is also helped greatly by Ernest Lethem’s sparkling, witty script. And John Williams turns in one of his most off model scores. It’s a mix of TV movie sounds from the period, lots of horns and harpsichord, mixed with a wah-wah pedal funk track and Williams’ trademark strings and angelic choruses. Rather than reveal that Hitchcock had lost his powers Family Plot is a solid, well made mystery. The kind Hitchcock began his career with. And there are few better images to close a career on than Harris’ delicious wink to the camera. A sweet acknowledgment that movies are one of the biggest, longest con games running. And that they are irresistible fun, for audiences and directors alike.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Out of the Labyrinth: Some Thoughts on Crimson Peak and Guillermo Del Toro

(This post discusses the plot of "Crimson Peak". If you haven't seen it, do! It's great! And then come back and read this.)

I was in my mid twenties and things had fallen apart. I was floating from one crappy job to another, still living at home in the small town I'd wanted so badly to escape since I was eighteen. I had grown to hate my imagination, and my habit of day dreaming. It was a part of the rickety, prone to burning out lemon that was my brain. That my brain had betrayed me was a slight I would not forgive. I had prided myself on how much more intelligent I was than my classmates. And now mood swings and anxiety had eaten me and my future alive. I had tried so hard to make myself be the girl I kept seeing in my mind's eye and failing spectacularly. And my attention span was dissolving, I'd rent movies, the great important ones, from Netflix and return them three weeks later unwatched. The world had turned into a gray wall of indifference and a buzzing that felt like a swarm of angry hornets filling my chest every morning when I woke up. And it's in that state I went to the movies in early January of 2007.

It seems ridiculous to say a movie saved your life but Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" did. I watched it and felt seen. In Ofelia and her beautiful, tragic end I heard the message, "you are not alone." That terrible things could visit you and you could overcome them. It didn't mean the happily ever after you might have expected but you were author of your own life. You shaped the pieces into the tale they needed to be. It was if my mind was a creaky house being opened for spring. The windows thrown open and the heavy drapes replaced with gauzy curtains. It had reminded me, as so many of my favorite stories do, that all winters end.

And it's fitting that a creaky house is the center of the latest Del Toro film to take me in. "Crimson Peak" is a beautiful Gothic horror film, were the love story, stories really, at its heart are the true wellspring of the terrors inside. And there's that same shudder of recognition and relief in a seemingly purely fantastical tale in laying out a way to live. Because Mia Wasikowska's Edith Cushing is someone beautiful for abuse survivors like me.

One of the most radical and interesting touches in "Crimson Peak" is the presentation of basic decency and goodness as heroic. Edith is very much a woman of her time, in her struggles against the Victorian era's limitations on women to her own ignoring of her own misgivings when the mysterious Thomas sweeps her off her feet and takes her live across the Atlantic. She is smart and kind, and it's those very qualities that drive her to try to make her marriage work and attempt a cordial relationship with Thomas' visibly hostile sister Lucille. And it's those qualities that nearly end her life. And yet she isn't punished for trusting people. For believing that things could work out. The film firmly understands that abuse is never the fault of the victim. Nor does the film suggest that she deserves what happens to her because she should have seen the plot against her life coming.

The film even extends a measure of sympathy to her would be murderers, Thomas and Lucille. They are the sorrowful result of the abuse they suffered at the hands of their monstrous mother. Turning to incest to comfort each other and then murder to save their failing family business they are all too recognizable human monsters. They are trapped by fate and circumstance but still responsible for the choices they make when they decide to harm others. Ultimately Thomas is able to free himself from the cycle at the cost of his life. The film's most touching moment is when his spirit looks at Edith with all the love and regret for a life that could have been with her. Edith reaches out to tenderly stroke his face and he disappears into the air, free from Allerdale Hall at last. Lucille damns herself by refusing to abandon violence and we last see her black ice apparition sitting in front of the piano in the great hall , stiff backed and unforgiving for eternity.

Allerdale Hall is a terrific metaphor in itself for how keeping terrible secrets rots the self out from the inside. A hole in the mansion's roof lets in snow and dead leaves. The walls leech blood red clay from the mines underneath the house. Currents running through the vast space feel like the house itself crying out. There's a terrible knowing in that feeling. The trauma that leaves its filthy footprints over your body and psyche. Where you begin to feel a stranger to yourself. But it's only by returning to the body can taking inventory of the scars and survival begin. And you can survive with scars. Scars show you were stronger than whatever tried to harm you. Edith limps out of Allerdale Hall with a broken leg and a gash across her cheek. But she is alive. And she is the author of her story.

In the film's closing conceit we see that the novel, called Crimson Peak,  that opened the film was written by one "Edith M. Cushing."  Edith reclaims her life by writing her story down. And there is untold power in that. I own what happened to me. It is an awful belonging but it's mine. And when I write, the events become less drenched in existential dread but part of my story. Good and bad are uncomfortably close traveling companions. But it's only because winters are so terrible I notice how beautiful the flowers are in spring. I think that's a fact of life Del Toro is well versed in. And why his films, with their often terrible acts of violence and skinned wraiths, are so strangely therapeutic for me. I know the evil that can lurk behind a smile that never reaches the eyes. I need to be reminded and often that the story doesn't end there.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Small Screen Tales: Night Slaves (1970)

One of the benefits of the digital age is the flood of destined for obscurity 70s TV movies that have turned up on YouTube in decent to quite good uploads. They are some real gems among the crowd. And even on average they are solid, well told and made stories, done with a professionalism that now seems as alien to our age as the clothes.

"Night Slaves"  was directed by veteran TV director Ted Post ( who also handled the occasional feature like "The Harrad Experiment".) The script was by Everett Chambers ("Moon of the Wolf") and Robert Specht ("Ark II") based on a novel by Jerry Sohl who had written for the original "The Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits", and the original "Start Trek"  (including the classic episode "The Corbomite Maneuver".)

It concerned the story of James Franciscus and Lee Grant as an unhappily married couple who go to the country after Franciscus suffers a catastrophic car accident that leaves him with a metal plate in his head. They make one of those fateful decisions to stop in a quite literally sleepy little town for the night. Franciscus wakes with a start to witness his wife and the townspeople walking in a trance to be loaded onto trucks and driven out of town. He barely has time to register this before he's startled by laughter coming from the corner of his room. An enigmatic young woman is sitting there, smiling. She leads him on a chase. She has a way of answering questions that seem to only raise more ones. The metal plate in his head is what's protecting him from whatever is affecting the rest, and he's drawn closer to her the more he struggles to find out what exactly is going on.

It's interesting to see the sixties counterculture start to affect the resolutely mainstream world of TV. There's talk of "drop outs" throughout, Franciscus proudly says he's becoming one as he ditches his cushy office job in the moments before his accident. The accident involved another car, and haunted by guilt he seeks escape. "Night Slaves" also shows a remarkable sympathy toward a marriage falling apart. Lee Grant is in love with another man, a mutual friend of the husband's. The movie is  non condemnatory, rather showing a weary acceptance that some people aren't meant to be together.

The condition of the upload strangely adds to the effect. The wan colors, save for Grant's fiery hair, give the effect of a faded paperback cover. One of those worn copies you'd see at the library or a thrift shop, take a chance on and be surprised by a surprisingly effective story. There are interesting shots peppered throughout, one of Lee Grant filmed through wildflowers in a meadow particularly staying with me. If you're looking for sci-fi off the beaten path, and have a weakness for hippie talk of leaving the physical shell behind for a higher consciousness, give this one a shot.