Sense of Wonder: Why is Christina Ricci not a horror star?

Christina Ricci attempts to prove that she, not Liam Neesons mortician, is the scariest character in AFTER.LIFE
Christina Ricci attempts to prove that she, not Liam Neeson, is the scariest actor in AFTER.LIFE

The recently released AFTER.LIFE is intended as a thought-provoking horror film, but the only lasting thought it provoked in me is the question: Why is Christina Ricci not a horror star? She is easily the best thing about the film; although playing what turns out to be essentially the victim role, she surpasses the chill-factor of her supposedly creepy co-stars (at least, their roles are meant to be creepy), projecting not only a melancholy gloom but also an eerie allure perfectly suited to the genre – one that goes beyond the surface and registers at some deeper, authentic level. She is obviously beautiful, but more than that, she is beautiful in the femme fatale sense that author James M. Cain meant when he had a character Serenade state that “true beauty has terror in it.”
I am perfectly well aware that Christina Ricci might not want to be a horror star (few actors want to be trapped in a genre like a helpless victim sealed inside a castle dungeon), but if the coffin fits, why not try it out?
Christina Ricci as the allegedly living corpse in AFTER.LIFE
Christina Ricci as the allegedly living corpse in AFTER.LIFE

AFTER.LIFE suggests that the fit would be perfect. In it, Ricci plays a woman who wakes up on a mortician’s table, apparently dead and bound for the afterlife but not quite ready to relinquish her mortal existence. The casting is perfect: Ricci’s dark-eyed countenance is at once attractive and disquieting, suggesting a morbid undercurrent beneath the character’s surface; she is every sad-eyed dreamer’s fantasy of a mysteriously alluring Goth girl, but she pulls this off with affectation – it’s part of her nature, not a matter of adopting a sullen, artificial pose.
With this kind of screen persona, Ricci should be top-lining a string of horror films and/or Gothic-romances; she would certainly be a welcome addition to – and a big improvement upon – the current crop of “romantic” vampires polluting cinema screens. That she is not is a mystery to which I do not know the solution, although I suspect it is part of the genre’s evolution away from horror stars in favor of concepts, makeup, and special effects. There is really no modern equivalent of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee, so why should we expect a modern version of Barbara Steele?
I’ll tell you why: because we deserve something more than Jigsaw and torture porn and anonymous remakes of ’70s slasher movies and tired retreads of J-horror hits. When you have a wonderful resource, tap it to its fullest potential; don’t let it waste away.
Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams
Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams

Not that Ricci’s career is wasting away. I just wish the horror genre would make use of her more often – and treat her better when it does use her. She certainly got off to a great start with her darkly comic turn as the young Wednesday Addams in the two amusingly creepy ADDAMS FAMILY films. She held her own opposite seasoned performers like Raul Julia and Angelica Huston, creating a memorable portrait of a sinister but lovable “outsider” who is adored precisely because she does not fit the traditional mold of a cute and cuddly film kid. This truly was a character – and a performance – that any horror fan could love.
This should have launched her into a long and successful career in the genre. I had hoped to see her cast as Claudia, the child-vampire in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, but the role went to Kristen Dunst instead. Maybe this was some kind of turning point; although Ricci continues to work consistently,she is not always getting the roles she deserves, while Dunst is starring in big-budget genre blockbusters like SPIDER-MAN. (Typically, when the two actresses crossed paths in 1998’s SMALL SOLDIERS, Dunst had the female lead, while Ricci supplied only a voice for one of the talking toys.)
Having missed out on a serious horror film, Ricci next appeared in another creepy comedy, the rather juvenile CASPER (1995). As the young girl whose father moves her into a haunted house, she comes across a bit like a younger version of Winona Ryder in BEETLEJUICE, but the film is too family-friendly to indulge in the dark wit that made ADDAMS FAMILY so memorable.
Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp
Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp

Ricci eventually got her chance to appear in a well-received horror blockbuster: after playing the title role in LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, a 1997 short subject adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale, Ricci was cast in  SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999). With its old-fashioned Gothic atmospheric approach to horror, complete with period setting, the film was a perfect match for Ricci; unfortunately, her role as an innocent love interest (and just barely a red herring in the murder mystery) did not exploit her talents to their fullest, and director Tim Burton had her hair dyed blond, softened her into a rather conventional looking leading lady. Ricci is not bad, but her own particular, foreboding charm is little in evidence. Why use the actress if you’re not going to use her strengths that enhance the genre?
Christina Ricci senses a new wolf-life side to her nature
Christina Ricci senses a new wolf-life side to her nature

Next year Ricci was in BLESS THE CHILD, starring Kim Bassinger – a mess that probably all involved would like to forget; I certainly have forgotten it, and I wasn’t even in it. CURSED (2005) at least had the smarts to play with  Ricci’s potentially lethal allure, but the potential inherent in the casting is wasted. Ricci certainly looks great as the young woman who senses that she has acquired a new predatory nature, but Kevin Williamson’s tongue-in-cheek werewolf script has the character come across like a watered-down, feminized version of Jack Nicholson in WOLF, and director Wes Craven has Ricci perform some silly actions (such as sniffing her way through an office building when she discovers her new-found ability to detect scents). Another opportunity lost.
Since then, Ricci’s cinefantastique films have trended toward fantasy. She played the title role in PENELOPE, a self-described “fairy tale” about a woman with the nose of a pig. And she was Trixie in the Wachowski Brothers’ bloated live-action rendition of SPEED RACER. Even if she is good in these films, they don’t do justice to what she truly could achieve if some Hollywood genius would finally craft a vehicle that played to her strengths.
Which is why (among other things, admittedly) AFTER.LIFE is such a disappointment. The film casts her in a starring role for which she is perfectly suited, and for about the first third it seems as if it will work, the camera’s gaze treating her with the reverence of a connoisseur appreciating an object d’art. Suspended between life and death, Ricci displays the unreal vampire-like beauty of a carefully carved statue, an effect amplified by the cool photography that paints her skin in alabaster hues (the better to contrast with the bright red satin slip that is her costume throughout most of the running time – when she is not fully unclothed, that is).
Christina Ricci contemplates a passage that may lead to the afterlife.
Christina Ricci contemplates a passage that may lead to the afterlife.

In effect, she is the living embodiment of the ineffable Romantic ideal, too perfect to exist in our crude mortal world, and hence doomed to death and whatever lies beyond. She could be Poe’s Lenore and Annabelle Lee, lost loves now abiding with the angels. At one point in the film, she “walks in beauty like the night,” as Byron wrote of the raven-tressed woman who combined “all the best of dark and light.” More darkly still, she could be Baudelaire’s TheVampyre, the evil seductress “seeking whom she may devour.”*
The thrill that AFTER.LIFE sustains but – unfortunately – never fulfills is that Ricci’s character will embrace this new nocturnal existence and emerge reborn into darkness as some variation on Théophile Gautier’s “La Morte Amoureuse.” That the film fails in this regard is only the latest example of the horror genre failing to crown this dark princess as its rightful queen.
FOOTNOTE:

  • In one of AFTER.LIFE’s mildly amusing moments, Ricci’s character, a school teacher, issues an order to some misbehaving kids, who hesitate before obeying. As she stares at them, you half-expect her to say, “Do what I tell you, before I drink every drop of blood in your bodies and devour your souls.”

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Cursed (2005) – Film & DVD Review

The real curse is upon the unfortunate audience.

What can you say about a horror film when its spookiest cast member plays the innocent victim? You can say that it’s only one of many obvious missteps in this misbegotten attempt by writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven to apply their patented SCREAM-style approach to the familiar werewolf clichés.
Of course, the SCREAM films were never quite all they were cracked up to be. Their chief cleverness lay in openly acknowledging the slasher genre they were mining: this gave them a license to trot out all the established tropes, while critics who normally would not be caught dead in a horror film, could sing hymns of praise to their self-referential, post-modern sensibility. It’s a one-trick approach with little scope, so it’s no surprise that its application in CURSED suffers from the law of diminishing returns. What is surprising is that Williamson and Craven could have miscalculated so badly that the film entirely failed to click with audiences when it was released in theatres.
The story begins with a pair of women receiving a dire warning from a gypsy woman (like in THE WOLF MAN, get it?) Soon thereafter, brother and sister Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) and Ellie (Christian Ricci) see one of the women (Shannon Elizabeth) killed by a wolf-like monster after they ram into her car. Both Jimmy and Ellie are bitten and/or scratched in the struggle, and gradually come to realize that they are “cursed” with the Mark of the Beast; that is, they are turning into werewolves.
Unfortunately, this “curse” turns out to be a mild annoyance at most: the central dilemma never registers, because they never really seem in danger of turning into animals or losing their humanity. Instead, the film stumbles through a jumble of ideas: Being a wolf helps you get girls in high school like in TEEN WOLF; it gives you increased sensory awareness in your dog-eat-dog workplace like in WOLF; it gives you a craving for blood and sexual charisma (a detail more appropriate for vampire films like THE LOST BOYS); but never fear, as in the TV show WEREWOLF and the movie AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, you can save yourself by severing the bloodline — i.e., killing your werewolf progenitor.
Despite Jimmy’s reading from a few mythology books, we never really learn the “rules” by which these lycanthropes abide. Do they transform at will or involuntarily? Only at night and during the full moon, or anytime they get mad? And how long do Jimmy and Ellie have before their condition becomes irreversible? Without these plot points clarified, the story becomes just a pointless exercise, never generating any real suspense or mystery.
Another part of the problem is the attempt to integrate Ellie’s love life into the story. Her sputtering relationship with boyfriend Jake (Joshua Jackson) seems entirely gratuitous (not to mention dull), but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that it wouldn’t be in the film if it weren’t going to tie-in with the plot’s big mystery: who is the Top Dog — or, in this case, the Alpha Wolf? In order to hide the all-too-obvious answer to this question, Williamson’s script not only throws in a character who acts suspicious for no good reason (refusing to show evidence that would exonerate him) but also adds a second werewolf (just like SCREAM created a “surprise twist” with its two killers). As is too often the case with Williamson’s scripts, the revelation of the culprit is a disappointment because the killer is not particularly interesting. The story-telling rational seems to be: “Well, it had to be somebody, so why not this character?”
The story is hardly enlivened by its cast, most of whom would seem more comfortable on a television show like DAWSON’S CREEK. The sole exception is Ricci, who clearly deserves to be better utilized here. Her dark and moody attractiveness (she’s ready to graduate from Wednesday to Morticia Addams) makes her look like a Vampire Queen who could round up these mangy werewolves into a slave-herd forced to do her bidding — but the film gives her a hapless victim role while decidedly unscary actors are cast as the monsters.
The action, when it comes, too often disappoints. The werewolf makeup is good, but the computer-generated effects are often terrible: shots of the werewolf leaping and transforming from its human shape, look like something out of a videogame. Even more ridiculous, the werewolves seem to know karate, for some inexplicable reason. They frequently throw their victims (giving them a chance to escape, so that scenes can be prolonged well past the point when suspense runs out) and almost as frequently kick them, using Hong Kong-style wire work to show the bodies spinning through the air. (A few years ago, Wes Craven expressed an interest in doing a fantasy action film in this style; too bad he opted force those visual ideas into a story where they obviously do not fit.)
Not as ridiculous, but more confusing, most of the action (including the entire, interminable, tacked-on final fight) takes place with the villains in human form. Didn’t anyone think that an audience, having paid their money to see a werewolf movie, would want to see werewolves?
To be fair, the film does have some good moments. The obnoxious high school jock-bully is transformed into a sympathetic character when he comes out of the closet and admits his pose is an act to hide his homosexuality — and the transformation seems heartfelt and sincere. And there is one great scare scene midway through, when the werewolf attacks a woman in a parking garage and pursues her into an elevator. Like a staking sequence in an Italian giallo film, it works as its own mini-movie, a nice little self-contained unit of fear.
Overall, however, CURSED is a misfire. Not a complete disaster, but a film whose flaws require no great perception to discern. One suspects the filmmakers had some sense of this, since they resort to lame comedy relief in an attempt to excuse the story’s shortcomings as parody. Perhaps the most memorable image, in fact, is of an angry werewolf flipping off the camera. Sadly, the gesture seems directed not so much at the other characters as at the audience.

DVD DETAILS

CURSED is available on DVD in two versions: the PG-13 theatrical and an unrated director’s cut (with a few more minutes of gore, which probably would have earned an R-rating). The additional footage is, frankly, of the “aint-it-cool” variety that should please gore-hounds. Unfortunately, it’s so far over-the-top that it seldom frightens; it feels forced and desperate, in a “can-you-top-this?” kind of way.
The theatrical cut DVD is without bonus features, while the unrated version contains four featurettes and audio commentary for four selected scenes.
The first featurette is “Behind the Fangs: The Making of Cursed.” Like many so-called “making of” featurettes on DVDs, this tells little about the film’s actual making. It consists mostly of press junket type sit-down interviews, and no one even mentions the film’s troubled production history (which included a halt in shooting, allegedly to allow time for new technology to provide better special effects).
“The Cursed Effects” mostly features an interview with Greg Nicotero explaining the extreme gore for the sequence wherein Shannon Elizabeth is bisected by a werewolf.
“Creature Editing” featured Patrick Lussier discussing how the film was trimmed down to get its PG-13 rating in an attempt to reach a broader audience (it failed: mainstream audiences stayed away from theatres, and gore-hounds waited for the unrated DVD).
“Becoming a Werewolf” is a mock documentary with Eisenberg and Nicotero pretending to do research on “real” werewolves in order to figure out how to do the makeup. There are some chuckles, but the laugh-to-length ratio is low.
Greg Nicotero and Derek Mears (the man inside the wolf suit) provide audio commentary for four selected scenes (which you can access individually, without having to sit through the whole film again, thank god): Shannon Elizabeth’s death; the Parking Garage scene; the Tinsel nightclub sequence; and the Final Fight. Some of their comments duplicate material heard in the “Effects” featurette, but overall the two are informative and amusing.
Perhaps the most memorable moments are their disparaging remarks about the CGI work. Nicotero criticizes the human-to-werewolf transformation shot for the bizarre decision to begin with hair falling out (a human should grow — not lose –hair, when morphing into a furry wolf). He remarks that the killer “turns into an alien first, then a werewolf,” while Mears pretends to be manipulating the cartoony CG-creature with a videogame controller. Nicotero also laments CGI manipulation that places an actor’s face on a dummy severed head with unconvincing results. It’s nice to know that somebody who worked on the film is capable of seeing and acknowledging mistakes that are obvious to the audience. Now if only some of that self-awareness would manifest itself in the people who write and direct this stuff, we might see some needed improvements in the horror genre.

CURSED (2005). Directed by Wes Craven. Written by Kevin Williamson. Cast: Christina Ricci, Jason Eisenberg, Portia de Rossi, Shannon Elizabeth, Joshua Jackson, Scott Baio, Craig Kilborn.