James Bond is 50.1 Wow, who thought the old boy would ever make it this long? After all, the “misogynistic dinosaur” should have been irrelevant after the end of the Cold War, right? Apparently not. In fact, James Bond is probably the longest running franchise in the history of cinema: beginning way back in 1962 with DR. NO and extending to tomorrow’s release of SKYFALL, Agent 007 has weathered numerous changes in pop culture and geo-politics, with no end in sight.
What is the secret to Bond’s longevity? Well, the obvious things I suppose: sex and violence never go out of style. However, there is more to the story. To begin with, the producers have been smart about adapting to the times. Even at the very beginning, in the early 1960s, the films downplayed the anti-communist of Ian Fleming’s novels, in favor of highlighting the secret organization known as Spectre (which – contrary to the book- was responsible for the devious events in the film version of FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE ). A decade later, when relations between East and West began to thaw, 007 could even team up with his Soviet counterpart in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). Was this move politically motivated? No, the filmmakers just wanted a property that they could export everywhere in the world. Whatever their motivations, the result helped avoid fixing 007 in a context that would trap him in the past.
Recasting has certainly helped. Fans of a particular generation (just before mine) probably still regard Sean Connery as not only the first but also the best James Bond. However, when the spy routine was starting to seem worn out in the early 1970s, and the series moved toward self-parody, Roger Moore was there to put tongue in cheek and play the whole thing for laughs. Many purists have never forgiven Moore for this, but the move toward overt comedy actually preceded his arrival; though he never matched Connery’s lethal poise, Moore could deliver a one-liner as well as anyone, and he truly was what the series needed at that time.
Later, Pierce Brosnan tried to fuse the strengths of his predecessors; along with his natural inclination for light comedy, Brosnan attempted to weigh in with greater dramatic force, but the scripts he worked with were a bit too tied to the old formula, adding perhaps a serious touch or two but always undercutting them with a laugh, whether appropriate or not. Still, there was an interesting idea lurking just beneath the surface: at the end of the 20th century, the films suggested, all-out war was too dangerous a proposition; the only sensible way to fight our battles was through covert means, avoiding the kind of full-blown military confrontations that could lead to WWIII. This made Bond relevant again.
Most recently, we have the Daniel Craig Bond, who is unfairly derided as a Jason Bourne clone. In fact, Craig’s version of 007 harkens back to the conception presented in Ian Fleming’s novel. His Bond is vulnerable and fallible; he can put on a tuxedo and sit down at the casino table, blending in with high society around him; but underneath the polished facade, he is a stone-cold killer, who takes his job very seriously. The occasional quips (when they do come, which is not so often) are like explosive exhalations from a pressure-valve – spat out because they can no longer be contained.2
Finally, the last explanation I will offer for 007’s continued presence on the screen is this: he is the ultimate embodiment of grace under pressure. As a culture, we are perhaps a bit more cynical these days about noble heroes doing the right thing for purely altruistic purposes, but we can always appreciate someone who keeps his cool even under the most dangerous circumstances. There is something pragmatic about James Bond – almost working class (at least in the Connery and Craig incarnations). He’s not exactly one of us (how many of us know the difference between shaken and stirred?), but he is what many of us imagine we would like to be, in our fantasies if not our realities.
In a world in which old-fashioned warfare seems out-of-date and inadequate to the dangers we now face, the 50-year-old James Bond seems perfectly suited to the times. With the hope of global peace and harmony still a distant dream that will not likely be realized in our lifetimes, I suspect 007 will be with us for a long time to come. FOOTNOTES:
Strictly speaking, it is the film franchise that is 50 years old. Bond himself was “born” in 1954, with the publication of Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel, CASINO ROYALE.
I don’t mean to slight the two other Bond actors, George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton, who never quite caught on. I think both of them deserve more credit than they get, but neither was around long enough to make an indelible, lasting impression that would contribute to the character’s longevity.
This article has been corrected to state that CASINO ROYALE, published in 1954, is the first Bond novel – not DR. NO, which was published in 1958.
I haven’t been paying close attention, but if media reports are accurate, the U.S. just averted the Zomney Apocalypse. Hopefully, Joss Whedon will not be too disappointed, even though Spam has its own key.
While posting “Anatomy of a Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead” yesterday, I was struck by something that has occurred to me several times over the years. In case you have not yet read the article (which was originally published in the printed version of Cinefantasitque magazine – Volume 4, Number 1 – back in 1975), it features a round table discussion with Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, and John Russo, essentially staking a claim to their share of the credit for the 1968 horror masterpiece directed by George Romero. Among other things, they deny any allegorical aspect to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in regard to the casting of black actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben.
[RUSSELL] STREINER: Getting back to the question you asked earlier about allegory in the film. A lot of people have read in some meaning to the casting of Duane Jones, a Negro, playing the male lead in the film. The simple truth of the matter is that he just turned out to be the best person for the part. He would have gotten the part if he were an Oriental or an American Indian or an Eskimo.
Elsewhere in the article, interviewer Gary Anthony Surmacz presses the allegorical issue slightly, asking whether symbolism could have developed on an accidental, unconscious level. Streiner’s reply is: “It could happen but it didn’t happen with this film.”
This has been the party line for decades. No allegory was intended; therefore, none exists, except in the minds of over-imaginative critics. During an appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2001, Romero himself offered a somewhat more flexible variation on this theme. Acknowledging that some unintended thematic content might have emerged in the film, he recalled:
We weren’t actually trying to use NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a forum for our socio-political leanings. They simply crept in through the back door. Perhaps there is some back-handed credit due for not shrinking from our views, for letting them show. The lead role of Ben was played by an African-American. This wasn’t a politically motivated choice. Duane Jones was simply the best actor among our friends and acquaintances. Here again, we might deserve some back-handed credit for not changing the script once Duane was cast. The script never defines Ben racially but assumes that he was a white middle-American. It never addressed race at all, anywhere in the story. I take points away from it for that.
During the shooting of our film, I realized that while we were rather proudly ignoring racial differences, we shouldn’t have been, because they existed….
What struck me upon re-reading Anatomy of a Horror Film was that I believe both Streiner and Romero are wrong, although in different ways. What Streiner ignores is that authorial intentions count for only so much; works of art that endure as classics, do so because they are open to audience interpretation, which keeps them fresh from generation to generation. The script for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD may not have intended any racial statement, and the casting of Duane Jones may have been a color-blind decision on the part of the filmmakers, but when the action plays out on screen, with Jones’ calm black man confronting the hyperventilating hot-head Harry (played by Hardman), the racial animus is palpable – and all the more intense for being unstated.
This brings me to my second point – what I see as Romero’s mistaken belief that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD should be dinged for not addressing racism openly. Had the film done so, I fear that it would, today, seem hopelessly dated – an interesting artifact of the radical ’60s, but probably not much more than that. By keeping the subtext submerged, Romero and his team – whether by accident or design – created a riddle that the audience must answer for itself. And the very nature of a riddle demands that the answer not be stated. As Jorge Luis Borges puts it in his short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”:
… “In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited.” I thought for a moment and then replied:
“The word is chess.”
Whether intentional or not, racism is the answer to the riddle that is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The fact that it is not stated openly has made the film more relevant over the ensuing decades, during which racists in our society have learned to cloak their attitudes behind more diplomatic language. For example, President Ronald Reagan never literally said that “welfare queens” were black. More recently, in 2001, when a caller to CNN’s Larry King Live told Senator Jesse Helms that “you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers,” Helms – a proud segregationist – objected to the word but not to the sentiment, saying, “When I was a little boy, one of the worst spankings I ever got is when I used that word, and I don’t think I’ve used it ever since.”
So, yes, racism is never mentioned in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Harry never drops the N-bomb (no doubt, his father spanked him when he was young). But that’s the way racism works today, denying its own existence, hiding behind rationalizations – the same way that Harry rationalizes his conflict with Ben, while never admitting the true, underlying nature of his resentment against this black man who is ordering him around.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is far from a perfect film; it is loaded with technical problems (jump-cuts, continuity lapses). Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece. Its greatness as a genre piece lies in its uncompromising depiction of believable, documentary-style of horror; its greatness as a piece of cinema lies in the unstated subtext that allows viewers to make their own interpretations.
You may not agree with my interpretation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that elasticity is what keeps the film alive today. As Dario Argento said to me, “When you watch a movie, you understand your truth. It’s not my truth maybe, but your truth is okay.”
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will be “okay” for generations to come, because it leaves room for us to find our own unstated truths.
I might as well warn you up front that I have nothing original or perhaps even very insightful to say about the terrible tragedy that took place at 12:39am on the morning of Friday, July 20, when James Eagan Holmes opened fire on audience members watching a midnight premier of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in an Aurora, Colorado theatre. Incidents such as these shock our sensibilities in such a way that our minds reach out for answers and explanations – or at least insights. The apparent chaos pulls back the veil from our sense of ordered reality – revealing, we fear, an empty void, the existential abyss that we seek to ignore or camouflage in order to main the illusion (if not the reality) of peace of mind.Whether or not nature abhors a vacuum, we – as a species – do. Humans want answers, not the hollow empty echo of questions asked in darkness, with no reply offered in return.
Unfortunately, I have no answers to the big questions arising from the terrible event that took place inside the Century 16 movie theatre, shattering what should have been a joyful moment of shared communal experience. When I look for words of comfort, I find none of my own; inadequate to the task, I reach elsewhere, seeking wisdom from others. In particular, I keep coming back to an excerpt from the speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
For my part, what I want to address here, in my own small way, is the search for answers – the quest for meaning that will somehow make sense of it all. We want some kind of understanding that will help us take our fractured reality and glue it back together. It doesn’t matter whether the cracks show; these metaphoric scars become, ultimately, honorary medals – tributes to our resilience in the face of physical and emotional devastation. This quest is vital and necessary; unfortunately, it is so desperately necessary that it can sometimes lead us down dark alleyways that may reveal more darkness than light.We jump to conclusions or accept explanations that easily fit into pre-framed narratives.
I do not want to indulge in idle speculation about what motivated the killer, nor will I reach conclusions about what moral lessons we should extract. (Would more stringent gun control have stopped Holmes before he started, or would a couple dozen armed members of the audience have brought him down when he first opened fire? Is violence in movies to blame for violence in real life, or as Michael Moore pointed out, would it make as much sense as blaming bowling for what happened in Columbine?) My narrow focus – trivial, perhaps, in the light of the tragedy – is the weird intersection of art and life and how events such as the Aurora mass murder affect our perception of both.
I use the word “trivial” because discussions of a film’s aesthetic merits seem trivial, in light of real-life suffering and grief. What film could possibly be worth the loss of life? What entertainment value could possibly outweigh the value of another day on this Earth, another moment shared with friends and family?
And yet, regardless of the inadequacies of a fictional film to counter-balance actual death and destruction, film as a medium is not trivial; it rightly holds a place among the arts (in fact, as the “liveliest art,” according to the title of my late professor Arthur Knight’s book on film). Life is important, but life is more than mere survival; love, philosophy, religion, a sense of purpose and/or higher aspirations – all of these help make live worth living, and so do the arts, including film. And film, with its immersive quality, holds a special place among the arts, as our shared dreamland.
We are stunned by the violence that interrupted THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, because movies represent to many of us an escape from reality. In actuality, film, like any art, can and should be a great deal more than that. As novelist John Gardner noted:
Art is essentially serious and beneficial – a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. […] Art builds temporary walls against life’s leveling forces, against the ruin of what is splendidly unnatural in us: consciousness. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.
Yes, movies are “popular entertainment” – a phrase that suggests what Gardner would call a certain “frothiness:” an ephemeral oasis from ennui, a brief vacation from the ordinary – but cinema, especially cinefantastique, can be wonderfully “serious and beneficial” – and invigorating and inspiring. For those of us in the non-reality movie community (i.e., those with an appetite for horror, fantasy, and science fiction), the movie screen is a magic window revealing mystical vistas, electronic labyrinths, and oceanic alternative realities, all of which ignite our Sense of Wonder – the buzz inside our brain, the fire inside our souls, that makes us reach out to the stars, yearning to become one with the universe, able to believe if only for a moment (but hopefully much more than a moment) that “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
When the ugly outside reality intrudes, it is with the hideous impact of a nightmarish Freddy Kruger disrupting what should have been our communal dreamscape. The luminous glow is extinguished as the crude matter is torn mercilessly asunder. We are left feeling not merely shell-shocked but spiritually diminished. The void opens before us. The Lovecraftian Crawling Chaos threatens to consume our souls. We find cold comfort, if any at all, the the empty-sounding promise that time heals all wounds. With no great faith or insights to offer, it is really only a willful act of refusal on my part that keeps me from surrendering to despair, that keeps my Sense of Wonder alive. “It’s what I choose to believe,” as scientist Elizabeth Shaw says in PROMETHEUS, echoing the faith of her father – a faith that she willfully maintains, in spite of the grizzly events and damning counter-evidence she endures.
That the dreamscape of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES includes violence is not necessarily indicative of any profound lesson about life imitating art, even though there are indications in this case. (Holmes had dyed his hair bright red or orange and apparently identified himself to police by saying, “I’m the Joker,” a reference to the villain from the previous Batman film, THE DARK KNIGHT [whose hair, by the way, is actually green.) This point of connection, however tenuous, does drive home an inescapable fact, one that normally goes unnoticed – or, more rightly, goes without saying: life and art – at least our perception of art – are inextricably intertwined. To discuss works of art solely in abstract aesthetic terms is to overlook the obvious visceral connection we make when we recognize bits and pieces of our world and ourselves up on the screen.
In one of his essays, the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges wrote something about literature that applies to film as well: no work can be exhausted, because the passage of time brings new context, which changes our perception of the work, opening up new avenues of interpretation. (Borges also illustrated this premise in his story “Pierre Meynard, Author of Don Quixote,” in which a 20th Century author attempts to rewrite Cervantes classic – word for word – but the meaning of the resulting work is entirely different, because of the context in which it was written.) Films do not exist in a never-land, separate from our perceived reality; whether films reflect reality or not, our perception of reality affects our perception of films. Thus, to cite one example: on September 10, 2001, GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS was a light-hearted, entertaining fantasy with lots of “ain’t-it-cool” destruction; after September 11, 2001, all those collapsing buildings became painful reminders of actual horrifying devastation.
However cosmically unjust it is, however much we despise this terrible truth, James Eagan Holmes created a new context for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and to ignore that context suggests a form of self-imposed myopia. As fans and critics of cinefantastique in general and director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy in particular, we at Cinefantastique Online could find ourselves nervously twisting rhetorical utterances into convoluted knots (much as the art critic at the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial twisted her handkerchief into knots, while praising the photograph’s work for its symmetry and shadow – and simultaneously ignoring its deliberately shocking content). We may try to resist the ugly reality, but we would be foolish to do so. Good or bad, great or indifferent, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES now exists in a reality distinctly disjointed from the one in which it was made and meant to be enjoyed. Classics have weathered such changes, but on a more gradual scale of time. How Nolan’s film will fare in the long run remains to be seen, but not having been made in answer to the events of Aurora, Colorado, it cannot address the issue directly, cannot likely offer us any answers or comfort regarding the tragedy now attached to the film. A few images – a crowded football stadium full of fans suddenly reduced to abject terror, SWAT teams responding to unexpected violence on a disturbing scale – will strike chords of recognition in our hearts, but the Batman’s latest adventure can never salve the wounds of those directly affected by the Aurora massacre, nor perhaps can it even do much to assuage the feelings of those of us who know the event only indirectly.
What it can do – or at least try to do – is what any work of art can attempt: to offer us some entertainment, stir our emotions, make our lives feel a little bit better for a few hours – and perhaps, if it is a great film, for a long time after that. We can watch it, and try to enjoy it, because our enjoyment keeps chaos hidden behind the veil. But the distant echo of gunshots reverberate in our minds if not in theatres, and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to the living and the dead.
Last night I attended one of the nationwide Fathom screenings of THE EXORCIST (1973), featuring the new documentary TO HELL AND BACK, which charts the making of the classic horror film. Never having attended a Fathom event before (it’s a bit like watching television in a theatre, with digital image projected on select screens around the country), I am pleased to report that the picture quality was very impressive: with colors that were sharp and clear, the film looked as good as it ever has. It is also reassuring to note that not too much digital restoration has been performed: the photography retains the slightly grainy 1970s look that lends a documentary atmosphere to the proceedings. Assuming that the upcoming Blu-ray disc and iTunes download (which become available on Tuesday, October 5) are transferred from the same source, this bodes very well: THE EXORCIST has been preserved, not cosmetically embalmed.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the documentary TO HELL AND BACK. Not that I expected it to be bad, but after decades of reading about THE EXORCIST, I doubted there was much new to learn – especially after the wonderful behind-the-scenes features on the 25th anniversary DVD. However, TO HELL AND BACK has a devilishly good ace up its sleeve: besides interviews with producer William Peter Blatty, director William Friedkin, actress Linda Blair, and cinematographer Owen Roizman, the documentary includes never-before-seen screen tests and behind-the-scenes footage shot by Roizman on the set, depicting how many of the effects were done (the projectile vomiting – a brief startling shock in the film itself – goes on for what seems like minutes during rehearsals). Again, the presence of this short but insightful featurette bodes well for the home video release; though I already own two versions on DVD (the 1973 original and the 2000 “Version You’ve Never Seen”), I am seriously considering triple-dipping on this one.
All that, however, is secondary to the experience of revisiting THE EXORCIST on the big screen, along with an appreciative audience. In a way, the screening was something of a personal achievement for me: it was the first time I was able to sit through the film without becoming seriously disturbed. (For the record, I almost achieved this in 2000, but then the new footage – i.e., the Spider Walk – showed up, and my nerve faltered once again.)
I suspect that modern audiences will wonder what all the screaming was about; is this really the film that allegedly made people pass out and/or throw-up? But as William Friedkin told me, people who go just to get off on the effects, don’t. THE EXORCIST works because it takes a serious approach, asking you to buy into the possibility of possession – and, by extension – the existence of God and the Devil – on a deep, dramatic level.
Now that that shocks have worn off after all the years, it is pleasantly ironic (for those of us who were there when the film made its debut) to note how subtle THE EXORCIST is, in many ways. There are long stretches when little happens, except for the recurring sound of rustling in the attic. Big chunks of screen time are occupied with the personal lives of the characters, such as Father Damien Karras’s trip to see his mother in New York. Much of the horror derives not from demonic possession but from the medical science used in a vain attempt to locate the etiology of Regan’s illness.
I also remain impressed with the way the William Friedkin managed to avoid going archetypal while depicting THE EXORCIST’s battle between Good and Evil. There is a fine review of Moby Dick – written by D. H. Lawrence, I think – that praises Melville for keeping the novel grounded in the semblance of a believable story about a hunt for a whale, even as the book piles on metaphors and symbolism that could have rendered the whole tale as an abstract allegory. Friedkin achieves something similar here: THE EXORCIST, we can see clearly now, is a film about people, who feel lost and helpless, who are trying to do their best, whether or not they are certain that God is watching over them. The film has a very scaled-down, credible tone, quite different from the adult fairy tale stylings of, for instance, HORROR OF DRACULA.
This leads me to my final point. From time to time, some critic will complain that THE EXORCIST’s view of evil is too small scale to mean anything (Stephen Thrower in his book Beyond Terror: The Flims of Lucio Fulci, comes to mind). Why, they ask rhetorically, does the Devil waste time tormenting a little girl in a room? The very fact that the question is asked shows that these viewers have missed the point.
Leave aside for a moment that the revised 2000 version (which is the one screened last night, which will be available on Blu-ray along with the original cut) offered an explanation in a restored bit of dialogue between Father Merrin and Father Karras. Focus instead on the entire vision of the world as it is presented in THE EXORCIST.
Everywhere the camera turns, we see examples of Satan’s work: the former alter boy, now a drunk sitting in his own urine and vomit in a subway; the pathetic inmates of an insane asylum, staring into space, helpless and lost in their own psychosis; the priest-psychiatrist – Karras – who has lost his faith because he has seen too many wounded souls that he could not repair. As if that were not enough, THE EXORCIST throws in a film-within-a-film, depicting campus unrest (with hints of potential political violence). Although never mentioned, the echo of Vietnam reverberates silently somewhere in the distance, and the the Georgetown setting tacitly reminds us of corruption in Washington, D.C. (this was the era of Watergate). Evil, if we only open our eyes and look, is everywhere present; the Devil’s fingerprints are scattered everywhere throughout the film, as the Evil One strives to breed despair in the human race.
Even if we do not believe in a literal Devil, the symbolism is clear: Evil is at work in the world. What happens to Regan Theresa MacNeil is only one manifestation, a small microcosm that brings the larger world into clearer focus. That’s what good dramas do. Although I dislike the oft-heard claim “It’s not a horror film,” in the case of THE EXORCIST I can accept it to the extent of saying, “It’s not just a horror film.” As shocking as it once was, hopefully we can now see more clearly that it truly is, as Friedkin has often said, a film about the mystery of faith – a faith all the more mysterious when set against the weary world view depicted in THE EXORCIST.
Back in a review of VAMPIRES SUCK, I noted that we are in the era of movie-going as tribal identifiers. Purchasing a ticket is less a matter less of seeking entertainment than of supporting the group with which you self-identify. The problem manifest in this approach is clear: bad STAR WARS prequels, indifferent HARRY POTTER adaptations, and insipid TWILIGHT films attract huge audiences regardless of their actual quality, because fans feel obligated to prove their loyalty to the franchise – a bit like high school students who show up at the football game to support the home team, no matter how badly they lose.
The horror genre is no stranger to this phenomena, as I was reminded on Tuesday night when I attended the Los Angeles premiere of HATCHET II. This was quite a high-energy event: fans mingled with members of the press and the cast and crew, eagerly awaiting the sequel to HATCHET (2006), which had breathed some welcome life into the moribund slasher formula a while back.
Writer-director Adam Green was understandably giddy with delight. HATCHET had taken a tortuous path to the screen: There was trouble finding backers because it was “not a remake, not a sequel, and not based on a Japanese one” (these words, from a rejection letter, became the poster tagline during the film’s festival run). After the film was made, few distributors were interested. When HATCHET did get released theatrically, there was little or no promotional support, and the film was heavily re-edited to earn an R-rating from the MPAA.
In spite of all these travails, HATCHET somehow found an audience, who dubbed themselves the “Hatchet Army” and supported the film, turning it into a hit on video. Consequently, there mere existence of HATCHET II is a triumph – a vindication of the effort Green put into making the original.
The problem with this kind of success story is that it creates a narrative that overwhelms the film, as those who enjoyed it become emotionally invested in the success of the franchise and want to show their support. Yes, it’s great that the first HATCHET turned a profit. And it’s great that Dark Sky Films has the nerve to release HATCHET II unrated. And it would be really wonderful if this set a precedent, proving that unrated releases are viable, allowing filmmakers to bypass the MPAA so that viewers could see their work uncensored on the movie screen.
But here’s the catch: the film itself has to deliver; we should not have to support it just because we are good tribe members swept up in the triumphant narrative, whose satisfying conclusion demands a huge success for HATCHET II. What if the film, on its own merits, does not deserve success?
I will leave that question for a separate review. My point here is not to criticize HATCHET II; it is to note the extent to which the filmmakers and their supporters are trying to exploit movie-going as a tribal identifier. On Tuesday night, Green exhorted fans in the audience to go and pay to see the movie again on opening weekend, in order to raise the per-screen average and send a message to Hollywood. Uncle Creepy, of Dread Central, introduced the evening by announcing his excitement over helping to promote a film that could change the course of horror filmmaking. Publicists are currently sending out press releases advising me and others to support unrated horror.
The underlying message in all of this is: we’re all part of the tribe, and we want our tribe to win, even if that means turning a blind eye toward the film in question. Green can be given a pass for supporting his baby after all the work he put into it. But what about the fans and the genre press? Is it really their job to push a movie just because it is going out unrated? At this point, is there any way that someone like Uncle Creepy could criticize HATCHET II without being denounced as an apostate? (Come to think of it, can I writer this editorial without being branded as a spoil-sport critic who is not really a horror fan?)
At the premiere, Green noted that the Hatchet Army is not just about HATCHET; its members have supported other films, too, such as DRAG ME TO HELL. Sadly, this is another film that really works only as a tribal identifier – a way for fans of director Sam Raimi’s debut, THE EVIL DEAD (1982), to confirm that they are still part of the tribe, over 25 years later. The release of HATCHET II is being followed, one week later, by the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, which is also going out unrated. Will the Hatchet Army support that as well?
And what about the rest of us? Should we feel obligated to purchase tickets just to prove our bona fides in the horror film fan base? Or would we be better off watching DEVIL instead?
You can guess my answer. Tribalism leads to insular film-making at best and bad film-making at worst. The feedback loop of fans blindly applauding whatever they see is not conducive to the sort of reflection and self-improvement that lead to growth as a filmmaker. What we need is not tribal support for idols or for unrated horror. What we really need is to demand quality horror and to hold our idols to the standards they they have set for themselves with their best work.
In November of last year, I was contacted by representatives of Canada’s History Channel to be interviewed for a documentary they were making about vampires. At long last, the project has come to fruition: THE REAL VAMPIRE FILES will air Tuesday, September 7 at 8:00pm. I haven’t seen it, and the last time I was involved in one of these was E Channels TEN VAMPIRES WE LOVE, which cut my hour-long interview down to two sound bites, so for all I know I have been squeezed out by more luminary names such as David Skal, who really is the go-to guy for this subject.
Here is a description from the project’s Facebook page:
Dracula, Nosferatu and now Edward are all part of cinema history and the Vampire legend, but is there any truth behind the spine-chilling fiction?
At first bite, the vampire seems to be just the product of our heated imagination, a dark fairy tale. But some folklore’s do hold truths, explain some fears, and satisfy some desires. Indeed, this terrifying monster’s beginnings is a lifetime away from the 21st century vampire – those real people living amongst us who drink human blood and purposely embrace the darkness.
The Real Vampire Files explores the evolution of the age-old myth that has truly become a blood-curdling reality.
Most of my discussion centered on the evolution of the vampire from folklore through literature, cinema, and television, not on any so-called real vampires; hopefully, it provides a little context for the public’s changing attitude toward the subject matter.
Debased franchise yields a startlingly brilliant gem
With all the artificial hype designed to sell PIRANHA 3D as the horror hit that delivered for audiences (despite a sixth place bow that barely topped $10-million), now is a good time to pay homage to the film that truly delivered for fans of cinefantastique: PREDATORS. Thought the film has not been universally hailed by critics (it rates 64% at Rotten Tomatoes, compared to PIRANHA 3D’s 81%), it did find a bigger audience, earning over $50-million in American theatres and over $109-million worldwide. This is one of those interesting examples of popular taste proving more accurate than critical consensus: PREDATORS is, in my humble opinion, the summer’s best sci-fi, action, horror flick. Not only that: it’s the most entertaining genre film released so far this year.
That’s more praise than I ever expected to lavish on a PREDATOR sequel. I don’t expect much from the franchise: the first PREDATOR is the only good movie; the sequel PREDATOR 2 was just more of the same, and the crossover films (ALIENS VS. PREDATORS and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM) were even worse – just mindless junk.
PREDATORS reverses the trend. Not only does it match the original; this is the first PREDATOR movie that is good enough to be considered more than just a fun popcorn film. Rather like the first ALIEN (1979) PREDATORS is good enough to stand on its own as a piece of cinema, not just a genre film. Or to put it another way, I would recommend PREDATORS to people who are not into monster movies, because it has some good qualities that will pull in an “outside” audience of non-fans.
What makes me go so far out on a limb for a film that seems as if it were made only for the geeks? My joke response it to call PREDATORS the “Feel Good Movie of the Year.” Despite – or because of – the bloodshed, death, and terror, this film presents a scenario that is ultimately optimistic, with a surprisingly humane point of view toward its characters (and by extension its audience).
This interesting attitude toward humanity is about the last thing one would expect in a film that seems all about using humans as target practice for some bad-ass alien hunters. However, PREDATORS takes characters who are in many cases the worst of the worst – assassins and mercenaries, thugs and murderers – people whom the planet Earth is better off without – and the script and the performances combine makes the this despicable crew engaging, even likable.
These are people who talk tough, seem to be out for themselves, and at least initially are as likely to kill each other as team up against the common enemy. But as the story proceeds, that changes in ways that are entertaining and even uplifting without every descending into bathos. PREDATORS pulls this off by presenting its story in hard-boiled terms that hide the sentiment beneath a flinty veneer that applies to both the individual characters and the film as a whole. (In one of the film’s funnier moments, convicted killer Stans (Walton Goggins)”s objection to the death of Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) is brushed aside by Adrien Brody’s character* with a casual “You wanted to kill him this morning,” to which Stans angrily replies, “This ain’t this f-cking morning!“) Of course, we expect the characters to bond after initially disliking each other; that’s a standard plot development. But PREDATORS is going after bigger game. The characters are going through their process of recovery that ultimately leads to – dare I say it? -redemption. Although this theme is expressed mostly in secular terms, the religious allegory lurks just beneath the surface. The familiar scenario (trap a group of characters in an isolated location and bump them off one by one) recalls TEN LITTLE INDIANS – but in more than just plot mechanics. The underlying point of the original Agatha Christie novel (mostly abandoned in the film adaptations) is that the victims deserve what they get: they are all killers who have escaped the law. The same is true here; however, these characters – at least a few – will have a chance not merely to survive but to earn expiation for their sins.
PREDATORS cleverly lays the foundation for this interpretation in an early scene, when one character guesses that they might be in Hell. The suggestion is quickly contradicted by the facts of their situation (they have all been mysteriously parachuted onto an alien planet, which turns out to be a game preserve for the Predator species), but metaphorically speaking the initial assumption is not quite so far off: the characters may not literally be in Hell, but they figuratively seem to be in Purgatory. On this strange distant world, these inhumane humans come face to face with the crimes they committed on Earth. Time and again, individuals are able to guess what the Predators are doing to them, because these terrible actions remind them of atrocities they themselves perpetrated on others. In effect, their kharma has come back to bite them on their collective ass.
The Predators of course are not demons, but they fulfill a similar narrative function, forcing the human characters to make stark moral choices they may have avoided before. It is as if the actions of the Predators reflect the characters’ failings back upon themselves. Putting this in psychological terms, the humans are being faced with their Jungian shadow, which they must confront in an externalized form and destroy – and in the process, destroy that evil part of themselves, thus emerging at the other end as better people. Thus, PREDATORS says that, even in the worst of us, there is something good that is not beyond hope, something worthwhile that can emerge. It’s a positive message that is quite unexpected in what could have been just another action-packed bloodbath.
There are parallels here with THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (the 1932 movie rather than the original short story), which also featured a doppleganger theme in which the hunter reflected the hunted, and our hero realized the errors of his ways – even while those violent ways provided him the means to survive when the tables were turned. One of the fews ways in which PREDATORS may be deemed deficient is that it lacks the sort of overt philosophical conflict that gave THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME its kick. By virtue of its set-up, PREDATORS cannot have Adrien Brody and his alien counterpart engage each other via dialogue in order to debate the morality versus the aesthetics of hunting (as Rainsford and Count Zaroff do in the 1932 film). But in a way, this fault has some small virtue, to the extent that it leaves viewers to mine the thematic ore without having it laid out in the open.
This hard-boiled thematic approach to showing the sensitive soul beneath the cynical exterior may seem generic, but director Antal and screenwriters Litvak and Finch make it work in a spectacularly satisfying way. Ironically, their achievement surpasses the more superficial approach seen in the directorial efforts of producer Robert Rodriguez, who tends to depict cartoony violence lacking in any real resonance (with the exception of the hard-boiled SIN CITY). The result – a wonderful distillation of the macho ethos, of characters lost in the existential universe who must define themselves by the actions they take, without any assurance of a God in heaven to tell them whether they are right or wrong – stands comfortably alongside work by the most famous practitioners in the field: John Woo, Michael Mann, Beat Takashi, Christpher Nolan (at least the Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT if not INCEPTION). It’s as if Jean-Pierre Melville had directed a PREDATOR movie.
Redemption is an old-fashioned, cornball concept that many modern filmmakers would not touch with a ten-foot cattle prod (I’m talking to you, Alexandre Aja). To traffic in this kind of story, you run the risk that cynical viewers may laugh at your sincerity; after all, the audience has paid to see predation, not redemption. So I think that producer Roberto Rodriguez, director Nimrod Antal, and especially writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch deserve credit for not taking the easy “it’s only a movie” approach.
To be honest, the filmmakers do hedge their bets but in a way that adds a nice edge of credibility. When Edwin (Topher Grace) mocks Brody’s character for a last-minute change of heart, ironically calling him a “good man,” the reluctant hero replies, “I’m not good – but I’m fast” while dodging a sneak attack from behind. The emphasis on professionalism rather than morality sounds in-character, but we in the audience still see that, in the end, the avowedly anti-social mercenary did the right thing. Only then can he finally reveal his name, Royce, signaling the return of the humanity kept well hidden beneath the cynical survivor’s metaphoric armor throughout the rest of the film.
Of course, thematic analysis can be deceptive: films can be filled with great ideas without being particularly well executed. Fortunately, PREDATORS delivers on the gut level. The music score effectively enhances the beautiful location shooting. Special effects are not over-abundant (or at least not visibly so), instead paying off at key moments, such as a wonderful matte painting of the sky that finally proves to the characters beyond any doubt that they are indeed no longer on Earth.
On a plot level, the film follows a well worn track, but it’s the right track, one that leads where the narrative needs to go. Although not loaded with surprises, the script works in a nice twist with one character who turns out to be not what he seems (he wants to embrace the predators as brothers in spirit). There is also an interesting bit with with Adrien Brody’s character trying to forge a brief alliance with a “Classic Predator” (who is victimized by a different type of Predator introduced here). Something similar happened in ALIENS VS. PREDATORS, but the idea is executed to much better effect here. Despite its virtues, PREDATORS is not perfect; there are some missteps. The exciting shot in the trailer, suggesting that Brody’s character will be targeted by multiple Predators, shows only one laser sight on his torso in the movie – a terrible disappointment thanks to unmet expectations. The low point arrives via Laurence Fishburne’s appearance as Nolan, a survivor from a previous group transported to the planet. Dramatic convention necessitates a brief respite, which allows the audience to catch its collective breath before heading into the big finish, but this lull is a little too lulling, breaking the tension that suffuses the rest of the film. And as fun as it is to see Fishburne show up in a PREDATOR movie, the sequence gives him little to do except act as an obvious “Johnny Explainer” who provides exposition; his only noteworthy personality trait is a tendency to talk to himself. At least this provides one bright moment: when Nolan, still babbling as if to an unseen other, tries to kill his new friends, Brody’s character fires a gun at him, while delivering a quip that cleverly paraphrases SCARFACE: “Say goodbye to your little friend!” Fortunately, it is easy to overlook the occasional stumbling when the film delivers beautifully choreographed action built upon a solid dramatic foundation. One memorable highlight is a great set-piece that deftly combines Kurosawa with Tarantino: Hanzo (the Yakusa character played by Louis Ozawa Changchien) remains behind to cover the escape of his comrades. On the one hand, the scene is pure cinematic contrivance – an excuse to stage a fight scene between a Predator and a man armed with a samurai sword.
But it becomes something larger, almost mythic. When Hanzo sheds his suit, it is as if he is attaining archetypal status, becoming a larger than life character (like Will Munny at the end of UNFORGIVEN). He is shedding the man he was – the Yakusa assassin – and becoming the samurai warrior of legend, no longer a killer for hire but a soldier laying down his life for others. It’s an awesome transformation, and though it may be hokey, it is the kind of trascendant melodramatic moment that makes movies worth seeing. It’s the rapturous ecstasy of of losing oneself – and perhaps one’s better judgment – inside the land of cinematic make-believe. And the beauty of it is that it is utterly predictable, in the sense that the perfect outcome – the only satisfying outcome – is the outcome that had to be. This leads to a nicely staged finale that deliberately echoes the ending of PREDATOR: Isabelle (Alice Braga) has earlier delivered exposition based on a debriefing of the character that Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the previous film, and Brody’s character puts the information to good use. The interesting thing is that, despite the repetition, the sequence works because we are now seeing the action performed not by an action star but by an actual actor. PREDATORS is all about transformation, about becoming something better, and nowhere is it visualized more perfectly. You cannot watch Brody on screen without remember his Oscar-winning turn in THE PIANIST (2002). If Adrien Brody – man who ran away from Nazis for two hours, the man who was a useless wimp in KING KONG (2005) and was completely pussy-whipped in SPLICE earlier this year – can suddenly morph into a muscle-bound sinewy titan with the speed, agility and strength to take out a Predator, then truly there is hope for all of us.
In conclusion, I want to admit that, in a summer that contains Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster INCEPTION, which is immensely popular with both audiences and critics, I may be exposing myself to potential scorn by raving about PREDATORS. But the simple fact is that I found INCEPTION to be a technically astounding but emotionally empty exercise in visual effects; as much as I wanted to enjoy the ride, the film lacked the underlying substance that made Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT so great.
PREDATORS, by virtue of its franchise association, is not the sort of film that earns respect; the fans just want to have fun, and most critics probably don’t even want to know about it. And yet, for me, the film worked in ways I did not anticipate. That sense of surprise might have overwhelmed my better judgement; I will have to see the film again to determine whether it holds up to a second viewing. But for now I am willing to risk derision and stand by my declaration. In case, the heavy-handed analysis above leaves you in any doubt, I think that PREDATORS offers viewers a great time, fulfilling the basic requirements while offering something more; and judging by the justly awarded audience applause that concluded Hanzo’s duel with the Predator, I don’t think I’m the only one. UPDATE: My designation of PREDATORS as the year’s “most entertaining genre film” may seem confusing in light of my having called SPLICE “the season’s best filmed science fiction.” Let me clarify: I see the relationship between the two films roughly the way I saw the relationship between MOON and STAR TREK last year. MOON was the best cinematic science fiction, because it carefully examined a science fiction concept in a fascinating way; however, STAR TREK was the most entertaining science fiction film, because it provided a joyously good time at the movies. In the same way, I may rank SPLICE slightly higher as an artistic achievement, but I find PREDATORS to be the more thoroughly satisfying piece of entertainment. Making distinctions between art and entertainment may be a dubious business, but in this case I think it makes sense. FOOTNOTE:
The character played by Adrien Brody does have a name (Royce), but since he reveals it only at the very end of the film, it seems misleading to use it throughout this article. Hence the awkward use of phrases like “Brody’s character.”
PREDATORS (20th Century Fox, July 9, 2010). Produced by Roberto Rodriguez. Directed by Nimrod Antal. Written by Alex Litvak & Michael Finch, based on characters created by Jim Thomas & John Thomas. Cast: Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurenc Fishburne, Danny Trejo, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Carey Jones, Brian Steele, Derek Mears.
This article has been clarified since its original posting.
This upcoming release of THE LAST EXORCISM on Friday has fans of cinefantastique thinking back, inevitably, to THE EXORCIST (1973), the Oscar-winning horror classic that really upped the ante in terms of mainstream movies willing to pull no punches when it came to shocking viewers. (THE LAST EXORCISM even contains a clever dialogue reference to the older film: the minister Cotton Marcus [Patrick Fabian] notes that, when it comes to exorcism, the Roman Catholic Church gets all the press, “because they have the movie.”) However, THE LAST EXORCISM actually bears a stronger similarity to THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), in terms of setting, circumstances, and tone. In particular, both films strive to unnerve audiences by playing with the concept of “reality”: THE LAST EXORCISM is presented as a faux-documentary; THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE IS presented as “inspired” by a true story. This breaking down of fictional barriers adds an extra layer of tension, but in the end the makers of THE LAST EXORCISM do not seem intent on presenting their film, a la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as if it were the genuine article. What about the makers of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE? Since the possibility that movies may be “real” seems to hold endless fascination for viewers (judging from the number of hits this website gets from visitors seeking to learn whether PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a “true” story), I want to take this opportunity to delve into that question.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a serious, sincere effort to combine horror with the structure of a courtroom drama. The result is that the story is told with a level of conviction often missing from modern horror films, allowing viewers to become emotionally involved and thus far more vulenerable to the scares when they strike. Perhaps the film works so well on viewers because of the true story claim, as much as its own inherent qualities, and this is where I start to draw the line. The attempt to make a believable horror film is laudable; the fact that the horrific events have consequences for the characters (instead of serving simply as gratuitous set pieces) lends the story credibility. However, we should not let that fool us into thinking that what we see on screen really happened.
It didn’t. At least, not the way it is portrayed in the film.
I have no problem with filmmakers taking inspiration from real life and then fictionalizing it (that’s what William Peter Blatty did with THE EXORCIST), but there should be no pretense that the fictionalization is in any way authentic.
My objection to the “true story” conceit of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is that the story is framed as a courtroom drama. We all know that Hollywood never lets reality get in the way of a good story, but generally speaking, you can usually depend on films about court cases to be a bit more accurate, because trials have official transcripts that can be used as a basis for a screenplay, providing an accurate account of what was actually said under oath. By presenting the story in flashbacks, based on what we hear from the witness stand, the filmmakes seems to imply that they are giving us an accurate account of what was said to have happened. The film then portrays many of these scenes in different ways, according to the interpretation of each witness. In a sense, the filmmakers seems to be saying: we are offering up the facts of the case and leaving you to be the jury who decides whether Emily was sick or possessed. Which would be okay if we were getting the actual facts. But we’re not.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE EMILY ROSE has a credit at the beginning, telling us that the film is “based on a true story.” Before the closing credits, there are also a few title cards, telling us what happened to the characters next. One even informs us that one of the characters in the film cooperated with an author who wrote a book that served as the basis for the film. Yet the actual credits for the movie’s script reads “written by” rather than “screenplay by.” The Writers Guild of America makes a clear distinction between the two credits: “screenplay by” is used for adaptations of existing material; “written by” is used for original scripts. In other words, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is an original story, not an adaptation of a non-fiction book.
To their credit, Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (who also directed and produced, respectively) are honest and forthcoming when discussing the extent to which their film is fictionalized, making it clear that there was an actual case that gave them the idea of making a “courtroom horror film,” which they then developed, creating characters and using ideas derived from other research into the phenomenon of possession.
When asked at a recent preview screening about the misleading title cards (which seem to suggest that the film’s characters are real people), co-writer Paul Harris Boardman replied, “Many people have remarked on the epigraphs at the end of the film. Even though it’s inspired by a true story, the characters have been fictionalized. That [title card] only really says how [the defense attorney played by Laura Linney] facilitated getting case files to a person who wrote a book that inspired the film. Those were actually very true to the underlying [story]. Erin Bruner’s character was almost completely fictionalized. There was a female defense attorney in the case. She did help the author of the book get information—that’s about all we know about her, so she’s completely created. In terms of the others, there are a lot of instances in the film that parallel things that happened—a lot of the broad strokes of the exorcism things, the manifestations of the possession, the behavior she had. The structure of the story, the way it unfolds, is very much what we created. Through some other sources, we had researched some real exorcisms to pull some things about how these exorcisms unfold and what characteristics the people would have. It’s pretty close. We tried to be true to a lot of what [we researched].”
Curiously, Boardman did not mention the book’s title. When I asked him why, he explained that the book is actually titled The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and although he and Derrickson did purchase the screen rights to the story, the people involved in the real case wanted to keep the connection to the film quiet. Although a doctor involved with the case is given a screen credit, the story of the film does not have much in common with the book, except for the general outline of events. (For example, only one rite of exorcism is performed in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE; in the Anneliese Michel, daily exorcism were performed over a series of months).
You can read details about the real-life case here: “Was the real Emily Rose Truly Possessed?” and “The Real Emily Rose.” Both articles seem to be regugitating the same basic information; I’m not sure which was written first, but I recommend you read at least one to get a good idea of how different the film is from its source material. (Surely the more amusing of the two articles is the first one. The author, a self-proclaimed paranormal investigator, claims there is “no evidence whatsoever for the idea of demonic possession.” This would not be amusing in and of itself, but it becomes amusing when he immediately follows up by insisting that there is “good evidence” for ghosts,hauntings, Big Foot, and other psychic phenomena.)
In the end, what Boardman and Derrickson have done is not all that different from William Peter Blatty, who told me during an interview (as he has told many others, before and since) that he was inspired to write THE EXORCIST by an actual cases of possession he had read about in 1949. “I was a graduate at Georgetwon University at the time,” he recalled. “It stuck in my mind. I thought, ‘If I ever do go ahead and write, I’d like to write about this, non-fiction.’ But I never wrote a word.”
Blatty, despite what you may read on the Internet (including the usually reliable www.snopes.com), never pretended that the novel he eventually wrote was a true story. And neither the book nor the film of THE EXORCIST made any such claims, either in the advertising or in the credits. (Director William Friedkin may have made a few careless statement to the effect that the novel was based on a true story, but he never pretended he was making a docudrama.)
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a good film that seeks to address the topic of faith in a manner somewhat similar to THE EXORCIST, presenting us with horrible events that may or may not be supernatural in origin and asking if the presence of the demonic, ironically, does not also suggest the existence of the angelic. Although the film cannot hope to match its historic predecessor (director Derrickson calls THE EXORCIST his favorite horror film of all time), THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE stands on its own feet as a worthwhile successor. Not only is it better than the ghastly rip-offs that followed THE EXORCIST (e.g., BEYOND THE DOOR), it is much truer to the spirit of THE EXORCIST than last year’s official sequel, THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, which tried to turn the material into a typical special effects horror franchise. THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is not a true story, but it is a very believably-told story. That is an all-too-rare thing in the horror genre, and it makes EMILY ROSE perhaps the best horror film of this year.
This article is updated from an earlier article, copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski