Interview: Robert Blake, Mystery Man of the "Lost Highway"

Making Your Blood Run Cold, Again.

Robert Blake has made a career out of playing realistic, believable characters, whom audiences can relate to as regular, ordinary people – whether a poor young boy in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE or a streetwise cop BARETTA. In fact, in his most famous (and chilling) feature film performance, he portrayed a real person in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel IN COLD BLOOD.Therefore, it is a bit of a shock to find this actor suddenly playing not a regular Joe but a surreal character who may or may not exist only in the mind of a demented protagonist. His small but pivotal supporting performance in David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY is one of the film’s many highlights – almost as unnerving, in its own way, as his role in IN COLD BLOOD, though with a strange overlay of dark humor. Of course, the fact that the Mystery Man (as he is billed in the credits) doesn’t exist makes him somewhat less frightening on a visceral level that a real-life psychopathic killer. But the unreal element adds its own layer – a sense of the uncanny, of dread all the more frightening because it is so unspecified and mysterious.
No one was more taken aback by this unusual bit of casting against type than Blake himself. “I was surprised David Lynch called me,” said the actor. “I would have thought that he’d call Dennis Hopper or one of his guys. But he just said, ‘Hey, I want you to play this.’ I have no idea why! I read the script like nine fuckin’ times, and I didn’t understand one fuckin’ word of it! I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to play this? I’ll be the most cooperative actor in the world, because I have no fuckin’ opinion on anything of what the hell to do!’ I made this mistake once of asking him what my character was, and I realized that he really is too much of an artist to be that specific about things. It was an extraordinary experience. He really is a rare commodity in America. In Europe and other places, you find film authors, or you find them in colleges or at Sundance, where somebody takes an 8mm, four dollars, and goes out and makes a movie. But this guy does it as a professional and really makes the whole film, everything.”
Blake found that his director was resistant to providing analytic explanations for his bizarre characters. “I don’t think he knows!” exclaimed Blake. “He doesn’t come from that place at all. As a matter of fact, when you work with him you have to be really ready to come to him as a child. You work with Sidney Pollack or Mark Rydell, and they want the spine of the character and the subtext, the conflict, the psycho-neurotic mumbo-jumbo, and all of that. David Lynch doesn’t – and I understand it now, because I found out that he was a painter, an artist. He really speaks an entirely different language. He’s very creative, but he doesn’t speak the normal cinema language. If you don’t like him and trust him and get up off of your own shit, it can be a disaster, because he’ll do things: You never find Martin Scorsese or Sidney Pollack walking up to you and saying, “Okay, turn and look at me. Now tell me how you’re going to say the line.’ And I start to turn to the actor I’m working with, and Lynch says, ‘No, no, no! Look at me! Say it to me.’ Directors don’t do that. They let you work off the other actor. He’d see me walking to my dressing room and say, ‘Robert, how are you going to say that line?’ And you just have to go there with him, or it will be a fucking nightmare.”
Blake added that this approach was totally the opposite of what one learns in acting classes, about “working off the other artists, taking it from them. You never give an actor a line reading. You don’t tell him to scratch his nose when he says this word. But David is like that, and you have to be loose enough and trusting enough of yourself to say, ‘You know, I don’t need all that other shit. I don’t need that Method. I can do this. I can do this just the way a child could.’ So then you’re okay. Otherwise, he’ll throw you all day long, because he doesn’t do anything that directors, as such, do.”
Blake refers to this process simply as “letting go.” He was able to find a basis for this trust in his own early career, as a child actor. “I come from the 1930s, 1940s,” he recalled. “I grew up at MGM, and I worked with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, all those people. And I went to Warner Brothers, as a child, worked with Bogart, [John] Huston, and those people. Tracy said, ‘The two most important things in acting are a child’s imagination and a sense of truth.’ That’s what you have to bring to David. You have to get rid of all that acting technique, the classes, the books, and all that bullshit, and just bring him a child’s imagination and a sense of truth, so that you can make true whatever it is that he wants you to do.”
Blake found that verbal communication often didn’t work with his director, who preferred visual modes. For example: “I said, ‘David, I have some ideas about how this character should look.’ He said, ‘No, no, no! Just show me. Use your imagination.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what Tracy said.’ I went off with the makeup people, and I got into this whole weird, fuckin’ Kabuki-looking guy with ears [sticking out] and stuff. I was imagining in my own strange world those times I have seen things that weren’t there, when a ghostly appearance occurred. I knew it was my imagination; I wasn’t really seeing something. But I sort of knew what the Devil looked like; I knew what Fate looked like. I used to have this image of myself that would come to me sometimes. I’d go out to the desert and get involved in some strange, isolated kind of thing, and all of a sudden I would come to myself as this white, ghostly creature. I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my conscience talking to me.’ So I started going with that. I cut my fuckin’ hair off, and I put a crack in the middle of it and all this shit. And the makeup people said, ‘You’re going crazy, man! Nobody in this movie looks like that; everybody looks regular!’ I said, ‘Leave me alone; just give me some shit.’ I put this black outfit on. I walked up to David, and he said, ‘Wonderful!’ and turned around and walked away. Now, you could never do that with a regular director, take a film where there’s all these people who look absolutely normal and say, ‘I’m going to go completely away and make an entirely different film. My film will be separate from Pullman’s, Arquette’s or anybody else’s. I’m making a surrealistic, oriental film!’” – he laughs – “And I did! Imagine how strange his thinking must be to look at me looking all weird like that and [with] all these other straight-looking people, and say, ‘Oh, yes. That’ll work’ You’d never even think of doing that with Sidney Pollack. You wouldn’t walk on his set like a Kabuki dancer. But Lynch just said, ‘Use your imagination. How do you see this guy? What the hell is he?’ Because I asked him what the guy was, and he didn’t answer me!”
Blake added that Lynch “immediately led me to believe that he didn’t deal in those terms, any more than you would walk up to Salvador Dali or Chagall and say, ‘What do you mean in this painting.’ ‘What the fuck do you mean by “What do I mean”? I painted the painting: you get what you get out of it; I got what I got out of it.’ I’m really convinced that Lynch is that way. You know better than to do that with a painter. Nobody goes up to a painter, especially an abstract painter – you don’t ask Heronimous Bosch, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Because he would simply say, ‘If you don’t get it, I can’t tell you. If it don’t mean nothing to you, get the fuck out of here!’ You can’t go up to a great musician who’s just finished an abstract impression of what the tune was and say, ‘Now, what were you doing?’ ‘I was doing my thing.’ David just does his thing.”
Blake’s Mystery Man (as he is called in the credits) is the first intrusion of the preternatural into what has up until that point been a fairly concrete, if somewhat mysterious, narrative. The question then was: how would the normal world react to this portentous, corporeal apparition? “The character does some surreal things,” said Blake, “but I was very curious as to what David was going to do with the way I looked, how was he going to have people react? Normally, when you see somebody who looks that way, you say, ‘God you look weird, man! What the fuck is your story?’ I thought, ‘What is David going to do when I walk into this party scene?’ And it’s very interesting, because he told everybody, ‘React to him like he’s a butler. Don’t look at him and say, “Boy, is he weird!”’ He made all of them behave as though I looked normal. That was just a choice he made at the spur of the moment. I didn’t have Bill Pullman go, ‘Hey, you look crazy!’ He just turned around and said, ‘Hi, how are ya?’ David didn’t have anybody refer to the way I looked throughout the whole movie. No one was surprised or repulsed. He just said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do with this character: I’m going to have everybody deal with him like he looks normal.’ And I never asked him why he did that, but I probably wouldn’t have it I was directing. I would have had people ‘behave’ around that makeup, but he didn’t do that.”
Of the final result, Blake said, “I saw the film, and I liked it the way I like Ingmar Bergman, but I didn’t understand it. What you enjoy is the experience of seeing it. I remember when I was a young man; we always used to go to Bergman films, WILD STRAWBERRIES and all these strange films. Everybody would come out, sit there till three o-clock in the morning, smoking dope and discussing the movies. I would, too, except I knew I was full of shit!” – he laughs – “‘Well, I really think that when Max Von Sydow was doing this, he was really doing that.’ It was bullshit. It’s the same with David. I don’t understand it; you just have to groove with it. He takes a realistic character like Robert Loggia’s character and all of a sudden he stops a guy on the highway and beats the shit out of him for following him too close. Where the fuck did that come from, and where did it go to? You just have to roll with it. Like I said, if I was looking at Heronymous Bosch and finding one corner of the painting and saying, ‘Well, if there’s a squirrel over there fucking a cockroach, I wonder what that means?”
Although working with Lynch was a different experience for Blake, it is one that he would not mind repeating. “I would like to work with him sometime where I have a chance to act,” he said, “When you’re doing something so obtuse and stylized like that, I think, personally, the best thing is not to go with it: you let the makeup, wardrobe, character, and the dialogue speak for themselves, and as an actor, your job is almost to be the narrator. Like in the first scene, walking to Bill Pullman: the whole situation is so macabre and so menacing that the thing to do as an actor is to leave it alone. If you start going with it, then it’s going to go over the fucking top; it’s going to become a joke to the audience. So you don’t get to do much acting. If I came in to play a scene like ‘Hey, you fucked my girlfriend, so I’m going to kill you,’ I get to act that. But if I come in dressed in this Kabuki outfit and all this shit, then the best thing for me to do is nothing. I could have made a big deal out of taking the gunout of Pullman’s hand and pointing it at Loggia and killing him, but everything else was cooking, so the less you do, the better it’s going to be. Otherwise, it’ll be all over the fuckin’ place. When I came in to see Pullman, I could have had a whole lot of weird, strange shit going on, but then it would be all fucked up.”
Blake explains this approach by pointing to his early apprenticeship. “I was trained by very good actors,” he stated. “I was on the set when I was five years old with Spencer Tracy. A lot of what I learned growing up in terms of artistry is very clean, very tidy, very organized. If you look at the great films of Warner Brothers or Metro, you don’t see anything like you would see in a film like CASINO: there’s nothing loose; the dialogue is clean; you get through taking, and then I talk and look at you. What I was trained on, by Gable and all those people, was a tremendous amount of economy, simplicity. It was all like a Picasso painting. When I did TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and I watched Bogart work, even though he had scenes where he absolutely went insane, you didn’t see him – what we call – chewing up the scenery. He wasn’t banging off of walls and doing all this stuff; he was very clean and very specific. I like those kinds of actors. I think Anthony Hopkins has become that. The more he works, the less he does. By the time he did Hannibal Lecter, he was doing very little. He just looked – very clean, very economical. He wasn’t all over the fucking place. He wasn’t climbing the walls, wandering around. He didn’t use his arms or hands. He didn’t use any outrageous makeup. He was just clean, tidy, and fucking brilliant. Don’t give it to the audience; leave it to the audience. Which is what I was doing with the Mystery Man. Less is more, until finally was doing nothing except putting the words out.”
Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).
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Interview: Barry Gifford Deciphers David Lynch's Labyrinthine "Lost Highway"

gifford3.jpgDavid Lynch has often been quoted describing ERASERHEAD as “a dream of dark and troubling things.” Since that 1978 debut, he has gone on to adapt his dream-like sensibility to far more accessible narrative structures. No matter how arresting the imagery is in The Elephant Man and Dune, and no matter how weird things get in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, the audience basically knows who’s who and what’s happening. In Wild at Heart, Lynch even took a story, from a novel by Barry Gifford, and managed to graft on surreal images without ever quite losing the thread of the main narrative, the “story of Sailor and Lula” (as the book is subtitled).
LOST HIGHWAY, co-written by Gifford, seems to take a similar approach at first with Robert Blake’s Mystery Man intruding upon the otherwise normal, if not altogether happy, life of Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison. But when Madison, imprisoned for the murder of his wife, Rene, metamorphoses into a new character (Balthazar Getty) and then meets Alice, a blonde doppelganger of Rene (both played by Patricia Arquette), the story begins to spin beyond any kind of rational understanding on the part of viewers, who no longer know who’s who or what’s happening.
Many viewers (including critics like Roger Ebert) did not understand what had been sprung on them. “In fact, both Lynch and I thought it was a very easy story to understand and that it made perfect sense,” Gifford claimed. “I think David, especially, was upset by the fact that so many people seemed to have a problem understanding it, saying ‘Oh, this is nonsense. These guys are just being perverse on purpose.’ That was the conclusion of a lot of people, especially people who only saw the movie once, or were pushed out of shape by what they thought was our fucking with their heads.”
Lynch himself has no desire to enlighten viewers via interviews; he wants them to take their own meaning from what they see on the screen. Gifford, on the other hand, is not so reluctant to discuss his intentions. So what is his explanation for the strange narrative?
The answer, of course, depends on the question, and the question that Lynch originally posed, as Gifford recalls, was: “What if one person woke up one day and was another person?” Gifford said, “We had to create a scenario to make that plausible.”
To explain the film’s labyrinth logic, Gifford points to a psychological condition in which a person invents a new identity for himself. “We discovered a clinical, psychological condition which fit our premise a ‘psychogenic fugue,’” said Gifford. “It’s as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identity for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person. There are different kinds of fugue states, and a psychogenic fugue takes place only in your own mind you don’t really go anywhere. It’s a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. This was something I researched with a clinical psychiatrist at Stanford, so we had some basis in fact here. After we found that freedom, more or less it was just a matter of creating this surreal, fantastic world that Fred Madison lives in when he becomes Pete Drayton.”
This explains how Fred Madison, locked in a prison cell, awaiting execution, transforms into a new character with his own past history. “It’s as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identify for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person,” said Gifford. “It’s a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. The basic thing I can tell you is that Fred Madison creates this counter world and goes into it, because the crime he has committed is so terrible that he can’t face it.”
The fugue is a kind of escape that Madison ultimately cannot maintain, because unpleasant reality keeps impinging on it. “The fugue state allows him to create a fantasy world, but within this fantasy world, the same problems occur,” said Gifford. “In other words, he’s no better at maintaining this relationship, dealing with or controlling this woman, than he was in real life. This woman isn’t who he thinks she is, really, so all the so-called facts of his known life with Renee pop up again in Alice Wakefield.”
In this interpretation, the appearance of the Mystery Man is the first hint of the psychotic break that Madison will eventually suffer. “He’s a product of Fred’s imagination too,” said Gifford. “I think the phone call scene at the party is pretty interesting. A lot of work went into it. It’s supposed to be seamless; it’s supposed to look easy and sound normal. But there’s a lot that goes into writing this kind of thing. It’s the first visible manifestation of Fred’s madness. No one else can see the Mystery Man.”
Director David Lynch, on the other hand, prefers not to provide pat answers to the many questions raised by the script’s convoluted narrative contortions. “Barry may have his idea of what the film means,” said the director, “and I may have my own idea, and they may be two different things. And yet, we worked together on the same film. The beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take. Nobody agrees on anything in the world today. When you are spoon-fed a film, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t do any good for Barry to say, ‘This is what it means.’ Film is what it means. If Barry or anyone else could capture what the film is in words, then that’s poetry.”
In his own defense, Gifford responds, “In fact, I never told people what it meant. I did mention this business about psychogenic fugue, as did David, in many interviews. We did agree that we would never explain the film, and we haven’t, to my knowledge. It’s for each person to make up his own mind about it. He’s absolutely right, except that that phrase was in fact used in the promotion in the film, so I wasn’t talking out of school.”
Lynch, for his part, insisted he was not playing fair with the audience, providing the necessary material for them to make their own interpretations, not just generating random images. “There is a key in the film as to its meaning,” said the director. “But keys are weird. There are surface keys, and there are deeper keys. Intellectual thinking leaves you high and dry sometimes. Intuitive thinking where you get a marriage of feelings and intellect lets you feel the answers, where you may not be able to articulate them. Those kinds of things are used in life a lot, but we don’t use them too much in cinema. There are films that stay more on the surface, and there’s no problem interpreting their meaning.”
So, has the mystery (not to mention the Mystery Man) been explained away? Well, the film is consistent with this reading; however, it does not go out of its way to tip audiences off to this interpretation. For example, there is no obvious stylistic shift when Madison enters the fantasy world of Pete Drayton; if anything, the narrative and visual are more concrete at least until the alternate reality starts to break down again. “If you read the screenplay, it’s easier to see,” said Gifford. “I suppose you could have gone into black and white just as if, on the page, we could have gone to different type, like italics.”
To grasp Gifford’s take on the story requires, perhaps, a second viewing. “I agree, because there’s so much menace the first time you see it,” said the writer. “I don’t know how you felt, and it’s hard for me or David to talk about it, because when you live with a thing for so long and David had to go through the post-production on it, which is monumental in his films, because of the care he takes with the soundtrack and every element of it it’s hard to be objective about it.”
After an initial test screening with a hand-picked, 50 person audience, 25 minutes were cut, bringing the running time down to 130 minutes. “Some people didn’t quite understand things at first, especially in the longer version,” said Gifford. “My youngest son, who’s 21, got it all he’s amazing that way. Some people had some resistance, I think, just because they were trying to make sense out of it, but if you keep an open mind, the sense comes to you; you see what it is; and you can interpret it several ways.”
Despite its willful resistance toward offering easy answers, LOST HIGHWAY is never less than entertaining. For those unable to make sense out of it, the film resembles a bad dream about mysterious forces manipulating a hapless protagonist. “I think the fear of being out of control is a very real one that most people do have,” said Gifford. “Seeing a spirit or a presence or having—I don’t want to sound clinical—a psychotic episode, seeing the Mystery Man, whom nobody else can see, and having conversations with him this is all really an element of losing control. It’s all right there, and it’s not often that you would see it on the screen, especially in this way. There have been other examples of this thing, but never close to being filmed in this way.”
Of the critical reaction, Gifford said, “We went out on a limb with this thing and just let everything out. When you do that, people don’t generally like this sort of stuff, so you know you’re going to get slapped around to some extent. However, here we are, years later. It’s still shown all around the world all the time. There are books written about it and college courses devoted to it. So it provoked interest in some way.”
Ultimately, Gifford thinks viewers should not feel obligated to come to a definite interpretation of what the film means. “This has a lot to do with the idea of entering a movie theatre and surrendering, as you would unto a dream,” said the writer. “The idea is that the images and the sound wash over you, and you submit. Now if you don’t like what you’re seeing—if it’s a bad dream, as I’m sure LOST HIGHWAY was for a lot of people, especially the first forty minutes—you can get up and walk out, unlike having a bad dream while you’re asleep. But that’s the whole sense of seeing it in a movie theatre and seeing it in a correct way: entering that dream world and trying not to analyze it, trying not to think about it while we’re watching it. I know that’s a difficult thing for a lot of people to do, but it’s really crucial, especially when dealing with certain films, like Lynch’s. LOST HIGHWAY is certainly one of those. I think it’s a shame when a film is over-analyzed.”

Gangster's moll Alice (Patricia Arquette) has an affair with mechanica Pete (Balthazar Getty)

Gifford also prefers to avoid attaching labels to the film. Asked about the film’s noir styling and the script’s hard-boiled elements (such as the dangerous romance between young mechanic Pete Dayton and gangsters moll Alice Wakefield) he responds, “I don’t think it’s ‘hard-boiled at all,” adding, “Certainly, there are the iconic images, like the Patricia Arquette character, Alice Wakefield, resembling Barbara Stanwyck as she looked in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. So you can see how it fits, but I never thought of it as film noir, any more than I thought of it as science fiction or horror. It’s scary, but it’s psychologically frightening, and there isn’t much gore. I hope not everybody feels like they were in a bad dream. That certainly wasn’t my intention. I just don’t think of the word ‘bad’ in connection with it. It was sad more than bad.”
Gifford concluded that what he sees in the film “is a sadness really—terror, certainly—and it’s a kind of a metaphor for our time: a sort of fractured existence, of the pressures that people are laboring under at the very end of the 20th century. In other words, it’s not so easy to cope. I think that LOST HIGHWAY is really reflective of the time. There’s a big revolution in terms of the demand on your brain; it looks like there’ll be no end to it things are changing so fast it seems like you can’t keep up with it. I think, for us, it exists as a metaphor. I don’t want to presume to speak for David in that sense, but for me that’s how it feels.”
Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).
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Lost Highway (1997) – Film Review

click to purchase LOST HIGHWAYThis 1997 effort from David Lynch (co-written with Barry Gifford) is one of the director’s better efforts, but it failed to earn the same rapturous critical reception as BLUE VELVET. Reviewers seemed to see only a rehash of familiar Lynchian motifs, and ignored how expertly orchestrated and synthesized the themes had become in this film. Admittedly, LOST HIGHWAY may lack the shock value of BLUE VELVET (by this time, viewers were trained to expect weirdness from Lynch), but the film is every bit as fine a piece of work, and its demented darkness actually coallesces into a strange kind of giddy joy – not unlike the rush of adrenaline one feels after a brush with danger.
By the time he made this film, Lynch had become so well known as America’s premier Dark Dreamer that the mantle Read More

Cinemagination

By Steve Biodrowski 

Have you ever wondered about those quotes you see in movie ads – you know, the ones from critics singing praises of glory as if the film were a major event in cinema history? Well, there is reason to wonder, as you will see if you turn to the capsule reviews page this issue and examine Dan Cziraky’s commentary on BARB WIRE. You will notice that it doesn’t conform to the quote that appeared in Gramercy Pictures’ newspaper and television ads, attributed to a writer at Cinefantastique. Read More

Barb Wire (1996) – Film Review

Click to purchase BARB WIREBy Dan Cziraky

Is there some law that only DC Comics can make decent film adaptations of their comic books? After striking out with DR. GIGGLES and TANK GIRLS, Dark Horse Comics tries again, this time with futuristic female mercenary BARB WIRE. David Hogan’s film stars Pamela Anderson Lee’s breast, derriere, legs, and face. There are some other folks in it, too – a supporting cast of familiar faces, in fact: Clint Howard (Ron’s brother), Udo Kier (ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN), and Steve Railsback (LIFEFORCE).

Chuck Pfarrer’s so-called script is basically a distaff version of CASABLANCA (!) with Lee playing the Humphrey Bogart role in 2017, when America is controlled by the neo-fascist Congressionalist Army. Barb Wire (Lee) runs a bar in Stelle Harbor, the last “free” city in the country. Back into her life comes former lover Axel (Morrison), a resistance fighter now married to rebel leader Cora D (rowell), who carries the cure to the government-crated super-HIV virus in her blood. Axel asks Barb to help him recover a pair of contact lenses that will allow Cora to get past the government’s retinal scanners and into Canada, where they can synthesize the vaccine. Wire tells him to get lost but changes her mind when her blind brother (Jack Noseworthy) is killed by Railsback’s insanely evil Congregationalist officer. Read More

Twister (1996) – Film Review

“intense depiction of very bad weather”* 

Well, the film is out, and the reviews are in. Predictably, the critics carping over TWISTER’s alleged failings have proved that they don’t appreciate the wonders of cinema magic, for this movie is a wonder to behold. Working from a simple premise (storm chasers pursue tornadoes in the hope of gaining information to build a better warning system), the film builds itself up almost solely out of action surrounding its title phenomenon. As one would expect, DeBont directs the affair almost exactly as he staged SPEED: the action starts in the opening frame and never lets up. What’s surprising is that, after an overwhelming opening sequence that stuns its audience into silence and then appreciative applause, the film actually manages to sustain this intensity level (unlike CLIFFHANGER, which opened with its best scene and fell downhill from there). Read More

James and the Giant Peach: Film Review

james_and_the_giant_peachJAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH may be fashioned from a variety of film-making techniques, but there is one intangible element that holds the film together: pure imagination. Springing to life first in the fertile mind of author Roald Dahl and then planted like a seed in the equally fertile mind of stop-mo¬tion director Henry Selick, JAMES is a unique film. Like all great fantasies from THE WIZARD OF OZ to TOY STORY, it has the ability to spark imagination in the mind of its audience.

Director Henry Selick, having already proved himself proficient in the arduous realm of stop-motion with 1993’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, now adds this impressive notch to his artistic belt. The film opens in live-action, telling the tale of young James (an excellent performance by newcomer Paul Terry), who is forced to live with his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (over the top villainy from Miriam Margoyles and Joanna Lumley) after his parents’ death. Selick wisely chose to give these sequences the surrealistic look of stop-motion, which not only sets up the nether¬world quality of the film but also makes the transition into the world of stop-motion less jolting.

When James enters the giant peach and encounters the humanized insects, the story pulls out of the slight stall laid upon it by the down¬beat opening sequences. From the beginning, the animation is nothing short of a knockout. The hand craft¬ed images are blended seamlessly with computer graphics to create such startling sequences as a battle with skeletons aboard an underwater pirate ship (a possible nod to Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARG¬ONAUTS), and another sequence in which the peach, tethered to a flock of sea gulls while floating at sea, comes under attack by a mechanical shark (this may be one of the best action sequences you’ll see at the movies all year). Selick also uses JAMES as an excuse to experiment wonderfully with other animation forms, such as a hallucinogenic dream sequence, accomplished using cut outs a la Monty Python.

With such scenes, JAMES could have fallen into the same “style over substance” trap that turned many off to NIGHTMARE. But unlike the residents of that film’s “Halloween¬town,” who at times seemed like nothing more than set dressing, the insects in GIANT PEACH are fully-developed oddball personalities, similar in many ways to TOY STORY’s toys. Providing even more dimension is a great voice cast: British character actor Simon Callow gives just the perfect “veddy British” tone to Grasshopper; Susan Sarandon plays the sultry Miss Spider as Greta Garbo (she even says, “I prefer to be alone”); and Richard Dreyfuss pulls off a scene stealing performance as the Centipede, with his “Brooklynese” and off-the-cuff one liners.

The insects also add a great deal of depth to the story, warming up to James and helping him to overcome his fears (which are represented by the image of a Rhino-shaped storm cloud). The insects also perform the film’s most poignant song “We’re Family,” one of five new composi¬tions by Randy Newman, each fitting nicely into the plot, many of them infectious, including the gospel-like “Good News,” which closes the film.

JAMES falls just short of being a perfect film, but its failings are small-such as in its conclusion, which combines live-action and animation in a way that seems clumsily executed and strangely out of joint with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is a satisfying experience that’s perfect for anyone who needs a quick fix of pure imagination.

Click here to read a review of the 2010 Blu-ray disc of JAMES THE THE GIANT PEACH.

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Producers: Denise DiNovi, Tim Burton. Executive producer: Jake Eberts. Co-producers: Brian Rosen, Henry Selick. Director: Henry Selick. Camera: Pete Kozachik, Biro Narita, A.S.C. Editor: Stan Webb. Music & songs: Randy Newman. Production design: Harley Jessup. Conceptual design: Lane Smith. Animation supervisor: Paul Berry. Art direction: Bill Boes, Kendal Cronkhite. Costume design: Julie Slinger. Sound design: (Dolby), Gary Rydstrom. Visual effects supervisor: Kozachik. Screeaplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Blood, from the book by Roald Dahl. 4/96, SO mins. Rated PG. Cast:  Paul Terry, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves, Miriam Margolyes,  Joanna Lumley,  Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis.

This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.

James and the Giant Peach – Capsule Review

Don’t be surprised if, much like the titular fruit, you feel you’ve been cast adrift in this live-action/stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic. The story of a boy’s fanciful trip to New York City, accom¬panied by the insect inhabitants of a massive peach, seems to have been a victim of an historic round of studio second-guessing, marked by a formless story (What lesson does James acquire from his flight across the ocean – well, he does at least learn one way to avoid the inconvenience of a trip through customs), flat characterizations (only Susan Sarandon’s coolly seductive spider hits any depth past the obvious and the treacly), and an overabundance of truly hideous and completely pointless songs (hey, I admire Randy Newman as much as anybody, but while a song like “Eating the Peach” – in which the insects exult over all the effluvia and offal they have ingested in their lives ¬ must have sounded great when delivered in the composer’s irony-laced monotone, it’s practically unbearable in its final, jolly incarnation).
As with THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, director Henry Selick’s animation is wonderfully expressive and impressively surreal – the film features many stylistic nods to Selick’s far more fascinating short film, SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS. Looks can go only so far, however, and without the benefit of Tim Burton’s sardonic instincts (not to mention Danny Elfman’s minor-key proficiency), JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH sinks in the mire of its own syrup.

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH
(Walt Disney, 4/96, 80 mins. ) Director: Henry Selick. With: Paul Terry, Susan Sanodon, Richard Dreyruss, Joanna Lumley.

This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.

Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Anime Film Review

Existential angst in the form of cyberpunk anime from Japan. A form of artificial intelligence has become self aware, and now it`s seeking a way to escape from cyberspace into the real world. Ironically, the special forces tracking it down are formerly human beings whose bodies and brains have been so enhanced with modern technology that it`s hard to say how much of their humanity is left. The film explores weighty issues like: What is identity? Can artificial intelligence have a soul? Consequently, it often feels closer in spirit to an art house film than to a typical science fiction thriller, despite the great action scenes. Unfortunately, the story occasionally sags under the weight of its philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, this is an exciting effort, with an interesting premise, a strong plot, and involving characters. It ranks among the best animated features ever from Japan, easily on par with the best that live-action science fiction has to offer. Read More

Species (1995) – Science Fiction Film Review

It is no masterpiece, but after some of the schlock seen this year, it is nice to see a science-fiction horror film that delivers. Basically, this is “ALIEN on Earth,” featuring some of the best on-screen visualizations of H.R Giger’s work since Ridley Scott piloted the Nostromo to stratospheric box office success.
The hunt-and-chase plot offers a conventional, audience-friendly plot that keeps the sci-fi proceedings believably grounded, and the cast manages to make some sense of the pursuit teams’s character interaction, even when the script is thin. Ben Kingsley takes the genre material seriously, and it is nice to see supporting actor Michael Madsen given a chance to shine as the cool-headed professional brought in to track down the alien menace that literally threatens the survival of the human race. It is hard to say whether Natasha Henstridge is an actress of great depth, but she perfectly embodies that menace in the human guise of the seductive Sil. Read More