Lady in White (1988)

Frankie Scarlotti (Lukas Haas) gets a front row seat to a ghost story. "Lady in White."

Written and directed by Frank LaLoggia. Produced by Frank LaLoggia, Andrew G. LaMarca. Photographed by Russell Carpenter. Edited by Steve Mann. Production designed by Richard K. Hummell. Starring Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, Katherine Helmond, Jason Presson, Renata Vanni, Angelo Bertoloni, Joelle Jacobi, Jared Rushton.

Details. I think one of the biggest factors that separates a bad story from a good one is attention to detail. Yes, theme and character and plot are all necessary ingredients to the soup of storytelling, but attention to detail can go a long way towards redeeming a run-of-the-mill narrative, and tilting it towards quality. Details tickle me in that sweet spot that all audiences members have, because they illustrate a sense of observation, a wry wit, a quiet method of world-building that will often elevate a concept into a full-blooded story, in unanticipated ways. And  they just plain communicate passion. I would rather listen to a heartfelt tale that has some problems than a cynical cash-grab that is technically flawless, except for its lack of soul.

Lady in White is a film more like the former. It’s the kind of movie where you can make a little list, if you were so inclined, of things it does oddly, or ham-fistedly, or in a way that’s unrefined. It’s clearly the work of a director with not much experience, and a production with not very much money. It sometimes reads a little flat, whether via the occasional actor who feels disconnected from the story, or an emotional beat that’s drawn out just a little too long. But you see, these aren’t exactly fatal flaws; they’re quirks that reinforce a homespun, gentle quality to it that provide an effervescent sense of good will. I can imagine a slicker, more expensive version of this material from Hollywood, but not one that would retain its innocence. Though maybe their resources are thin, this movie is clearly made by people who haven’t been enslaved by the studio system into making product. It’s pure.

Lady in White is a horror film, the kind of quiet-whisper ghost story that gets a lot more play in books and campfire tales than in movies (and indeed it is based on a classic urban legend of a ghostly woman who haunts Rochester, NY). Perhaps this kind of story is so underrepresented on film because movies believe horror must usually come with a gory and mean-spirited component. Instead, it’s told in a minor key, a kind that Stephen King would approve of: one that gets involved in family dramas and small-town concerns first, and then deals with the presence of a mysterious ghost and a killer. This strategy is not often employed in horror films, perhaps because it requires patience and talent, but its rewards are vast, because it shows lives that are pulled aside by the supernatural rather than marking time waiting for it.

The time is 1962, and the star of the film is Lukas Haas, who played an Amish boy witness to a murder in, erm, Witness (1985) and here watches an entire town grapple with violence and buried secrets. Why did he get selected for both roles? I credit his eyes: wide, almost anime-style peepers that seem to drink in the world around him (even when wearing a Halloween mask) while everyone else is distracted. Haas is now a grown actor, and a good one, but back then he was good too, playing Frankie Scarlatti, the kind of kid who tells imaginative stories in front of class, earning him disdain from bullies but adoration from the cute girl with braces. That girl with braces, man…every class had one, didn’t they? Anyways, the setup here, involving Frank’s relationships with his family and peers is nicely realized, as are the moments held by Frankie’s grade school teacher, who is not cruel or oblivious, just keenly non-fluent in the language that kids have to communicate troublemaking. Haas’ own abilities as a young actor carry an extended sequence where bullies lock him in a school cloakroom overnight, in a cruel prank.

Two key events will flavor Frankie’s overnight stay in the cloakroam: firstly, an apparition that shows Frankie the death of a young girl, and then a flesh and blood masked man, who seems fixed on doing something with a metal grate in the floor before discovering Frankie and attacking him, which is a chilling moment because it jars so resoundingly (and intentionally) with the opening moments of small-town sweetness. When Frankie is later discovered and visits the hospital before being sent home, we are relieved to see that Frankie doesn’t have the typical horror movie parents: you know, the kind that make stupid decisions and give their children carte blanche to run around at night and get killed. Instead, his dad (Alex Rocco, in a genuine and terrific performance) is concerned and sensitive.

What this crime kicks off is a mystery, and so I will be careful not to ruin plot details, but I will say it involves an investigation into Frankie’s assailant that seems to link with a murder mystery from several years ago, one that definitely has a connection with the girl who keeps appearing in visions to Frankie, asking him to solve it. And it definitely seems connected to the family friend Phil (Len Cariou), or the titular lady in white (Katherine Helmond), who lives alone in a decrepit house as a living shrine seemingly dedicated to Miss Havisham. Indeed, you could make the argument there’s a lot of Dickens in the movie, with its put-upon young hero who meets a criminal, its colorful characters, its environs that turn gloomy, and its non-intrusive attention to social issues: here, there is a pause for a little subplot about racial profiling that is made all the more poignant for both the way it ends and for the time it takes place.

The mechanics of how everything gets resolved of course I will not say, not only because it would be spoiling, but also because it’s beside the point. Mysteries, in and of themselves, are not interesting. But a mystery as a vehicle to look at an environment? Ah, now there you have something. A mystery is in fact the perfect mode to tell a story that is about a place, because only by sorting out the particulars of that place and understanding it can a protagonist have that eureka moment. And so that’s what happens here as, the writer/director, Frank LaLoggia, captures the rhythms of small-town life as he traces through a police investigation, town outrage, and the story of a family that doesn’t want ghosts or murders in their lives, thank you very much (there’s a nice scene where Rocco involves himself in the police investigation, convinced they’ve arrested a scapegoat—and his words feels like an elegy for lost innocence). The disparity between innocence and murder is conveyed without cheapening either.

I mentioned the sense of detail, and it’s present in spades: in the costumes, the props, the period cars and the gee-whiz sensibilities that never become too cloying. The cinematography by Russell Carpenter is nicely understated, bringing a gauzy, dreamlike quality to the scenes as they navigate between recollection and nightmare. And the script finds little moments that connect with us through the artificial barriers of time, like the recognizable way Frankie’s brother Geno (like many brothers) is sometimes a pain, sometimes sincere, and sometimes both at the same time. And the way people in small towns seem to live on each other’s porches. And also the way it precursors The Sixth Sense, another intelligent ghost story, in the way it depicts a spirit that wants to see a purpose fulfilled, not just haunt people for no reason. Many ghost stories are simply about restless spirits being scary, but this one is more humanistic and sees them for what they are, lives cut tragically short, that cry out for solace.

Since there are indeed ghosts in the movie, there are of course special effects. Special effects are a curious thing, however, because their quality can greatly become influenced by the story they are in. I, personally can put up with a lot of flaws in effects when I’m nevertheless persuaded by the flow of the storytelling, which is why the original King Kong, which speaks with such a crude but significant authority, has not been made obsolete by newer models with flashier effects. The effects in Lady in White are, on face value, not very good, but since we’re dealing with ghosts anyway, what is believable and what isn’t? Think about it. Sure, a climactic moment looks obviously done with matte lines and an optical printer, but who really wants a realistic-looking ghost, and what would that even mean? And anyway, by this point, the ending is so deeply intertwined with the power of the storytelling that you forgive. Even the film’s framing sequence, of a grown-up Frankie, now an author, coming home and reminiscing while standing over a grave, is maybe a mite over-earnest, but also plays the way good fiction reads, slowly drawing us into a yarn.

It may sound like I’m making excuses. Well, perhaps I am. I think we are allowed to do that in our critiques, as long we are honest with ourselves. True, Lady in White has its aspects that many would scoff at, including its honoring of time-honored mystery clichés, right down to its ending that involves a gathering of unlikely people at a high cliff, as if they knew the ending requires one. But Lady in White is heartfelt and sweet, and even when it brings in Italian stereotypes like Frankie’s whatsamattayou uncle, they are delivered with more integrity than one would expect. So, yes, there are flaws…but it’s difficult to care too much about that.

Lady in White is a little movie, doesn’t have much spectacle, sometimes a little frail in its direction and acting. If this were work from Martin Scorsese, we would give him what for. But it’s also clearly a labor of love, and that does a lot to make it a pleasant experience, one where we just savor a good story, divorced from hype. We live in an age that is obsessed with pop culture, and there are a lot of problems with such an existence. But here is one of the bonuses: being allowed to go back and find something, and discover that is a buried treasure. Lady in White is kind of like that, too–a little buried treasure. And if it has more than a little dirt and rust, that’s ok; in fact it makes us like it just a little bit more. It’s allowed.

GRADE: B+

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1998 – Shakespeare in Love

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1969 – True Grit

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Alien (1979)

Ash (Ian Holm), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt) view a readout about the atmosphere of another planet. An “Alien” awaits.

Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Photographed by Derek Vanlint. Edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley. Production designed by Michael Seymour. Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm.

There are several factors that make Ridley Scott’s Alien so masterful, but its most crucial ingredient is intelligence. It’s cerebral. It asks questions. Instead of following an impatient need to get to shock surprises, it values deliberation, expressing genuine curiosity for a ship and crew, the nuts and bolts of long-term space travel, the genuine eeriness of an extraterrestrial landscape, and the creature that is eventually found there. It observes specific people doing their jobs, and notes how that reveals things about them. Even after a threat is established, the crew tries desperately to stay collected: when panic finally takes control, we witness the professionalism slip away. This strategy of Alien, to depict characters reacting smartly to a mounting terror, is key. It treats the cast as more than props, and it raises the stakes: instead of being about morons who are picked off one by one, it is about clever people trying to deal with a crisis with the tools they have, the best they can.

What also makes Alien work is its tone—cool and a little detached (note the opening sequence, where the camera walks through spaces and literally waits for things to happen in them). It’s unromantic, placing it worlds away from Star Wars (1977) and more towards the area of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the “hard” science fiction of Joseph E. Campbell, where the heroes are scientists and realists that solve problems with cold logic rather than melodrama. When attacks occur, the moments are never oversold, as if the movie doesn’t care too much if everybody dies. And when considering the infinity of the cosmos, it barely matters if they do, a point which is underlined by long shots that heighten the characters’ insignificance. After one major sequence, the expected sentimentality is avoided: instead of grief, no one has anything to say. It even gives a voice for this clinical perspective with the character of Ash (Ian Holm), who says about the alien: “I admire it’s purity, it’s sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This is a point-of-view that the film sees as unfortunate, but not unsympathetic.

The result is a horror thriller with a curious pull. Some movies overtly try to draw you in, but Alien doesn’t really seem to care. That gives it a special flavor, since we end up being drawn in anyway. It borrows the aloof methodology enjoyed by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and some plot points from Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951, based on a story by the aforementioned Campbell). But it raises these elements by adding an element of bafflement: not just towards the physiological make up of the alien creature, but also its origins. It appears to originate from a sophisticated culture, which makes its brutal behavior even more frightening; the dichotomy itself directly teases human comprehension, as if we do not deserve the answer to this paradox. As long as we’re piling on Alien’s obvious influences, let’s put at the top the work of horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft, who was not so much a great writer as he had great concepts he liked to write about, on the edge of human understanding. Certainly Alien’s central conceit, of an extraterrestrial creature who’s mere existence corrupts and destroys the humans it touches, would have made him smile. Yet the film is more than a compilation of references—it’s a skillful picture that frankly, deserved to start one of the most iconic horror franchises ever, regardless of the quality of that franchise itself.

Alien is frequently described as “truckers in space.” That’s not the plot, but it is the aesthetic: one of mercenary trade workers living in an adopted home. The opening scenes work hard, and yet appear effortless in how they ground the story in a realistic milieu: the Nostromo is a commercial vessel towing 20 million tons of mineral ore, and its seven crew members are awakened from hypersleep to groggily realize that they are not near Earth, but instead have been diverted to an unknown planet. The captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) consults with the shipboard computer, MOTHER, and learns they have been ordered by their employers (“The Company”) to investigate a mysterious signal that may indicate an alien intelligence. The crew cares not a whit about the signal, or aliens, or anything but their incomplete, lengthy journey home. But the option to ignore the signal is dismissed when Ash, the science officer, stipulates in no uncertain terms that not obeying the order would cause a forfeiture of their shares. The dialogue in a lot of the early scenes is, frankly, standard. What makes it sparkle is the actors, who regard each other with familiarity but not camaraderie, and pepper their lines with hints of buried histories and past greivances. They feel like an actual working group of professionals, especially in the way they half-sell the pretense to each other that they work well together.

Their landing on the planet is a complex and nerve-wracking team effort, even with their experience. The planet itself harbors a violent storm and a disquieting terrain, and when Dallas, Lambert (Veronica Cartright) and Kane (John Hurt) venture out into the cold, they are dwarfed first by their own landing strut and later by the landscape itself, which is gray and craggy, like a boneyard. The particulars of the Nostromo’s endeavor are sold by little moments: the damage done to the ship by the landing, and the way the search party is isolated by interference that neutralizes radio contact. The first sign of a crashed (?) alien ship, which is massive. Then, the vast interior corridors which are dark, confusing, and don’t conform to any human sensibility. Back on the ship, the arbitrary class divide is referenced when Parker and Brett (Yaphett Koto, Harry Dean Stanton), the engineers, resent the presence of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who comes down to supervise their repairs before being distracted by the mission. Of the early passages, perhaps the most quietly unnerving moment is when Ripley decodes the mystery beacon as potentially a warning, not an SOS, and Ash rightly rebukes her attempt to go after the landing party, with fatalism: “What’s the point?” By the time she catches up with them, after all, they’ll know if it was a warning or not.

A different film would answer that question about the warning, and also try to explain the sight that greets them inside the alien ship, the skeleton of a massive “space jockey,” his chest pierced from within. The chest bit is explained, eventually (natch), but much of the story of the ship remains oblique; the film’s central mystery is pushed aside when the story becomes about survival: Kane, in his unsettling trip to the alien cargo bay, comes across a hold full of eggs, one of which opens to reveal a creature that attaches itself to Kane’s face. When they return to the ship, Ripley refuses to open the hatch, fearing a biological contagion. Again, smart. You’d think something like that is narratively pointless (they get in anyway), but it tells us a lot about Ripley: her authority, her ability to be cold. She doesn’t take it personally when Lambert accosts her, and her later confrontation with Ash about why he let the organism in is a matter of safety, not pride. She’s a good officer, and with what they’re up against, she will need to be.

Ash’s fascination with the creature is shown long before its commented upon; he’s frequently talking about it, analyzing it, rebuffing Ripley’s attempts to quarantine or destroy it when it finally detaches from Kane’s face. It is later suggested that he may have a buried motivation for his interest in the creature, but that explains his manipulations, not the intellectual thrill he seems to receive from it. How can one not be fascinated by an acid-blooded monster that inseminates a host through its mouth and causes the seed to briefly incubate into a tiny new life form, which emerges from the stomach of the victim with gruesome finality? Alien’s power to shock and disturb definitely grows organically from the way it depicts an alien that co-opts human biology with sex, leaving Kane to give birth to an evil…thing with a phallic head and tiny, clenched teeth dripping with mucus—the Freudian inspirations here are…undeniable, without even taking into account one character’s final appearance on screen is when a tentacle slithers up their pant leg. H.R. Giger, the alien’s creator, describes his monster as “the embodiment of the fear of rape,” and indeed the alien’s behavior plays on this fear by making the act gender-neutral, escalating it into a primal metaphor.

This becomes more apparent in the last hour of the film, When the alien, now fully grown. Even then, however, it keeps to the shadows. We never get a full look, instead getting just hints at its overall shape, or close-ups that don’t mollify our concerns about its viciousness. The film keeps its distance from the alien, sometimes out of fear, yes, but other times the camera seems to emanate a bit of awe and wonder—as if this is an event documented not by a human but by another intelligence that didn’t quite know how to feel about what is happening.

Characterizations are lean but not thin—the movie never resorts to unwelcome backstory, but refuses to cynically turn them all into ciphers. The screenplay is effective in how it views the characters as individuals: Dallas is a good captain but too trusting, Brett is monosyllabic and grim, and Parker is fun-loving and avaricious, which underlines the increase in tension when his smile finally fades. Cartright, as Lambert, is stuck with the role of the woman who crumbles under pressure, but this has value, too, as it reinforces the notion that these are normal people reacting to incalculable pressure. The scene that follows Dallas’ disappearance is today a little lesson about how to successfully graph a horror film: notice how each character reacts differently: Lambert despairingly, Ash silently, Parker with insubordination, and Ripley with a fraying sense of control.

The film is astonishingly well-made, utilizing ‘70’s-era lighting that evokes environs that run hot and cold: from the womblike computer room (of MOTHER) to the steely blues of the command center to the near-monochrome alien surface. The photography, by Derek Vanlint, captures details that flesh out the spaceship as lived-in: gas valves and steam, dirt and grit, fingerprints, and when the alien comes aboard, it sheds its own trail of slime and skin in its wake.  Scene after scene features arresting compositions, from the floodlights filling the thick fog of the alien world to the long takes that make the ship’s layout understandable. It’s one of those movies that is so good looking, it feels like its own portfolio of concept art, and you’re tempted, at times, to forget the story and watch it like a painting.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is an interesting case. It works wonderfully in the movie—but then, much of it that was recorded was not used in the film: many were re-scored and several cues were actually replaced (or “tracked”) with Goldsmith’s music from different films. I’ve heard the Goldsmith music on album, and it’s terrific. But Ridley Scott and editor Terry Rawlings removed a good deal of it, and I can’t say they were wrong, because Goldsmith’s cues are intrusive and pushy—they insist on the tension rather than suggest it. Take his main title, for example, which originally was majestic and grand, and in the film is creepy, filled with obscure chattering and timid woodwinds. The film approach is better: more appropriate, more reflective. It doesn’t try too hard. The only time I think the film’s music selection fails is during the scene where the crew tracks the acidic alien blood eating through multiple decks of the ship–the music is too spritely and jarring.

There are a lot of strengths here, but the biggest is Weaver, as Ripley. It would be no surprise to first-time viewers of Alien that the story eventually boils down to being entirely hers—by making her the only survivor, she became the star of the franchise. Everybody knows this. What’s intriguing about the character is that it was decided after the script was written that Ripley would be a woman—all seven characters were conceived to be either gender, but by making the lead female, it shifted the direction of the story and, in my estimation, made it work: there’s lovely irony in Kane, a man, being the one who gives birth and Ripley, a woman, being the most determined to destroy it. Ripley is prone to emotion, but not overly so, and Weaver’s performance possesses a commanding toughness that goes against the grain for horror films, where most of the time women are victims or sex objects. Even when Alien puts her in a t-shirt and panties, it’s done to make her vulnerable, not break the momentum with eye candy. Between her turn here and in the follow-up, Aliens (for which she got an Oscar nomination), Weaver cemented the ability of a woman to open an action picture, and has influenced the  pop-culture zeitgeist ever since, establishing a cottage industry of mainstream entertainments feature ass-kicking women. The Bride, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, Yu Shu Lien… All heirs to Ellen Ripley.

Ellen, of course is a name not mentioned in Alien—Ripley doesn’t get her first name until James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which is a sequel that is plenty fun but not quite in the same league as the original. The series continued with David Fincher’s mean-spirited, modestly intriguing follow-up Alien³ (1991) before dribbling into irrelevancy with Jean Pierre-Jenuet’s misguided Alien Resurrection (1997). (The two Alien vs. Predator films are best ignored.) Even at its worst, however, the series holds a unique interest, because each entry bears a maker’s mark quite different from the others—no one would confuse Cameron’s feminist war parable with Fincher’s ode to nihilism, or Jenuet’s efforts to make a self-parodying medical shoot-em-up. Nor would any of those approaches be mistaken for what Ridley Scott does here, creating a creepy aura that favors mysteries and quiet contemplation. This approach recalls film school exercises where several directors are asked to shoot the same script—it becomes rather exhilarating to watch talented directors take the same material and put their own, unique spin on it.

For Ridley Scott, life would never be the same. Scott was 41 when he made Alien—in other words he was certainly a late bloomer, since this film jump-started his career (after his debut, the barely-noticed The Deulists). He would go on to be a prolific and valuable director, one of our most adventurous and smart, going on to direct the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, as well as Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and the intelligent Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. He has made weak films (Gladiator), and he has made bad films (Hannibal, Black Rain, 1492, Robin Hood), but even then he has never made a boring one, because he gives a subject his all. With Alien, his oft-criticized dispassionate directorial style is a perfect companion for this story, evoking not just the necessary fright, but also the awe, the nervousness, the loneliness of being adrift in a universe capable of springing surprises as nasty as the alien.

What is striking about Alien is that it hasn’t really dated. There’s a few effects shots that are no longer impressive, and its computer science these days looks no more an extension of our present than From the Earth to the Moon. But its scare strategies, its abilities to induce fear, are timeless. The approach and style are correct for the material, and the film savors craftsmanship: character development, plot, theme. History has shown that a bad horror film can still make a killing at the box office, but Scott wasn’t interested in that–he wanted to make a good one, and he did. Recent rumblings have stated that Scott is interested in going back to Alien, perhaps directing a prequel. I wish him the best. I just hope he has the good sense not to delve too deep in the buried mysteries of Alien, and even if he does I hope he has the good sense not to try to answer them. I don’t really wish to know where the space jockey came from, or the origin of the creatures, or any of that stuff. Some things man was not meant to know. Just fear.

NOTES: There are two versions of Alien, the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2003 in-name-only “director’s cut.” The director’s cut makes some unfortunate editing choices that sap the energy out of some of the suspense sequences and makes some unfortunate here-and-there cuts. It also adds a scene towards the end that gives more information on the alien biological process, adds more screen time for Tom Skerritt as Dallas, and answers Lambert’s earlier question of what happened to the alien ship’s crew. But it breaks up the momentum of the third act. I recommend the theatrical cut.

I give cursory attention here to the sexual undertones that permeate Alien. For more analysis, I recommend Tim Dirks’ detailed review of Alien at filmsite.org, and David McIntee’s book Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to the Alien and Predator Films (2005, Telos Publishing). Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of Alien helped inform some of the research and discussion points for this review–I’d be remiss not to note it.


The Descent (2005)

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) battles her own demons and some actual ones. "The Descent."

Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Produced by Christian Colson. Photographed by Sam McCurdy. Music by David Julyan. Edited by Jon Harris. Production designed by Simon Bowles. Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is such a splendid thriller—lean, atmospheric, intense—that it becomes somewhat of a letdown when the flesh-eating monsters finally show up. Up until then, this British production is practically a textbook example of well-made, creepy survival horror. Afterwards, it still remains a tight and engaging scary pic, but its seventh-inning commitment to being just a straight-up creature feature does undermine the inherent fascination, just a touch. It’s common practice to set up your horror film with simple, sharply-drawn individuals and plunge them into a nightmare plot, but The Descent is so good at realizing its early stages that its concluding ones, featuring screaming women running through caverns to escape a screeching, slimy menace can’t help but seem a tiny bit uninspired. It remains an absorbing, effective experience the whole way through, but I can’t shake the feeling it could have been a little more.

But let’s start with the opening stuff, focusing on six female thrill-seekers. Already this is unusual, since it’s tantamount to a law in Hollywood that women can’t cluster together onscreen without being prepared to discuss men, shopping, fashion. You know, girl stuff. Not only that, The Descent is about women who are confident, tough, independent and loyal. The movie embraces feminism—not shallow empowerment clichés, but the real thing. So committed is The Descent to its vision of strong female characters that it only allows a single man into the cast, simply that he can die in the first scene. So, we’re done with him. If you need a Y chromosome on screen, get your coat.

The man is Paul, husband of Sarah (Shauna McDonald), who is merry-faced right up until the moment when Paul and her daughter Jessica are tragically skewered by debris in a car crash. A year later, Sarah, still grieving, reteams with her circle of friends in a cabin somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. She hopes to restore their bond, but she finds herself aloof and alone in the midst of their easy camaraderie, which bounces between Beth (Alex Reid, the good friend), and the sisters Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Burning). Then there is the Scottish, punkish Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and the impetuous Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who is their de facto leader. These early passages hinge on two things: the script, which briefly introduces these six characters with color and distinction, and the acting, which avoids “women’s picture” clichés, finding a modest realism, even for characters in a horror plot. How nice to see a shock picture that can actually pass the Bechdel Test.

Juno, unlike Ellen Page’s Juno from…er, Juno, is headstrong, and just a little bit scary in her determination. She seems like she’s hiding something, and when she apologizes to Sarah for not being around after Paul’s death, it’s the kind of apology that still has the air of self-justification to it. What’s she hiding? No matter. It is Juno’s idea for the group to reforge their friendship by going caving in a nearby tunnel network. The women are challenge enthusiasts, they enjoy each other’s company, and this is what they do. So they bring moderate supplies and some basic equipment, prepared for a pleasant afternoon in the caves. I think I’m spoiling nothing if I write the following plot summary: You know that whole “pleasant afternoon” thing? It soooo does not happen.

The portions that follow will provide the centerpiece of the film—not just for the characters, who will go through hell, but for director Neil Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, who together create an underworld that is dangerous, dark and cruel…and also quite lovely. There’s plenty of queasy close-ups as the women peer into the darkness or panic in the middle of cramped tunnels. But then it opens up for lovely shots set in expansive galleries and bottomless caverns, formations older than man itself. The women wander the frame in compositions that are painterly and expressive. Sometimes the camera is close enough to catch all six in long shot, and sometimes it’s seemingly a mile away, regarding the women as if they are infinitesimal. Their flares provide thick red glows that bounce off the cave walls, making their surroundings warm and womb-like. Later, saturated blues and greens will work their way into the color palette – through both phospherecent glows and a nasty surprise that is seen on a camcorder monitor. I can’t labor the point enough that Marshall and McCurdy pick a visual strategy that is absolutely perfect for the material—early moments that capture dust falling in the path of a flashlight beam run counterpoint to later sequences that are slick and wet, and their use of negative space create in-universe “iris” shots, emphasizing choice details, like a silent film. Rather masterful.

This approach will support the narrative drive of the film’s midsection which is, simply put, one damn thing after another: rumblings, cave-ins and unsettling applications of their trade tools: pick-axes, pitons, ropes. Soon, comes an growing sense of hopelessness when it becomes clear that Juno, in her excitement, purposefully led the group to an unexplored cave system—never a good sign. They’re lost. There are bumps in the dark and blink-and-you-miss-it visual cues, and the mounting dread that they may run out of supplies or fall, entombed forever in the Earth. Later, their collective attempt to travel between two underground cliffs is tactile, vicious, and highly effective.  It’s dark and slimy and wet, and there are injuries. And what’s with the discovery of climbing equipment that’s over 100 years old, in a cave system never before explored? Uh-oh.The personalities of the characters become crystallized here, not just in little dialogue breaks between set-pieces, but in ways that inform their decisions even during the frenetic action sequences. Even while using standard tropes, the film never goes on autopilot.

But it does come perilously close in the concluding sections. When the monsters finally come out to play, they are artfully revealed, and the make-up work, supervised by Jennifer Harty and Vicki Lang, is incredibly well done as it visualizes a race of disgusting, two-legged beasts that look like a cross between Gollum and that iconic overgrown tapeworm from that episode of The X-Files. They can crawl across the cave walls and ceilings, their pale complexions and pursed lips are nasty. They are bloodthirsty as all get-out, leading to the inevitable question of what these things usually do for food, since six fleshy girls wandering their lair is presumably an infrequent occasion.

So now you know where this is going, and so does the movie, as it retreats to the well-worn formulas of slasher films as the characters are picked off one-by-one, despite doing a very good job of peering behind rocks and laying low, except when they’re screaming their lungs off.  Other moments are trucked in from the classic horror grab-bag of gewgaws, including the inevitable scene where one character looks in direction A, and then direction B, and decides the coast is clear, until…but you know how it goes. During one bit of dialogue amidst the carnage, they determine the biology of the creature as being entirely dependent on sound, and of course the payoff for that is when Sarah finds herself right in the middle of their lair, and has to watch them eat and snarl and spit and prowl, while staying very very quiet. Don’t get me wrong–the execution is faultless. All of this is done as well as it has ever done before. But it’s been done before.

So it becomes a little rote, but what saves it from being boring is the acting, especially that of Shauna McDonald as Sarah, who over the course of the film progresses from sunny to barbaric (common), and does it with a persuasiveness that is thoroughly compelling (rare). With her trauma and the pressure she’s under, there’s even the possibility that the entire experience is only in Sarah’s head. Close study of the film disproves this, but it has fun toying with the idea. Interesting how Sarah’s descent (get it?) into primal rage is so well-prepared, and how a viewer can be left sharply divided about their sympathy regarding her final actions. She’s perhaps the best horror heroine since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and The Descent shares a similar celebration of hard-edged femininity with James Cameron’s Aliens, but goes beyond that example by planting its hero in an environment dripping with female imagery – the damp, tight tunnels scream birth metaphors, and it not a coincidence that their safety in the womb-like caverns is stripped away by the appearance of white-colored predators. To liken the women and monsters to eggs and sperm is, in this case not too much of a stretch, I think. Also not coincidental: a late surge of power that occurs right after an impromptu swim in a pool of blood. Strange, how The Descent is just as graphic and gory as any other typical modern horror film, yet Marshall’s direction somehow finds a way to be elegant. Plus, there is something about a British accent that can find a way to be almost civilized in the face of death and gore, which also helps give The Descent a refined sheen.

If I have any lasting problem with The Descent, it is that it runs out of surprises too soon, although its last is not the one you’re thinking of. It becomes just a tad predictable towards the end, which is a shame, since Neil Marshall has made a film that is alive and confident. And I musn’t overlook its specific qualities—it looks great, the six personalities are entertaining and distinctive, and the screenplay resists the hypnotic sway of formula for as long as it can before finally giving in. And give the film credit for not allowing any of its all-female cast to be demoted into eye candy, which is a welcome rebuke to American films, which tend to over-sexualize everyone. It’s also refreshingly fatalistic, even when…ah, but that would be telling. (By the way: in my opinion, you should avoid the compromised “American” theatrical cut and go for the unedited British version, trust me.)

For director Neil Marshall, The Descent is his one qualified success. His other films veer from self-conciously quirky horror (Dog Soldiers) to mile-high carnage (2010’s Centurion). And lets not forget his apocalypse/war/sci-fi/action/exploitation/what-the-hell-is-this epic Doomsday, which is actually kind of fun, but impossible to justify. Marshall is definitely a film geek, and he often makes movies that are too hungry, too overstuffed with homage, too Tarantinoesque. They’re movie-movies. The Descent also has antecedents as long as a long arm, but its done with style and conviction, even when it becomes a tad routine, and it’s electric viewing, especially when watching it on a good set with a great surround system. Could it have been more? Certainly. But for what it wants to be, and what it is, it is every ounce as good as it could be, and that is no easy feat.

GRADE: B+

NOTES: A special note of attention to sound editors Matthew Collinge and Danny Sheehan (with Michael Marroussas on sound effects duty). Together, they created the entire soundscape of monsters and caves from scratch, since the film was shot on a squeaky Styrofoam set. Not only would you never know it, but if you’ve already seen the film, you may not even believe me when I tell you. But it’s true.

Also, The Descent is certainly not to be confused with 2005’s The Cave, which is a similar story told badly. And I’ve never seen the sequel 2009’s The Descent, Part II, because its existence scares me.

Also, if you’re claustrophobic, this movie is…not for you.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1979 – Alien

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1999 – The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Heather Donahue (herself) is lost in the woods. "The Blair Witch Project."

Written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez. Produced by Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale. Photographed by Neal Fredericks. Music by Tony Cora. Production designed by Ben Rock. Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams.

If all people were terrified by the same things, the world would have fewer psychiatrists in it. That’s why horror stories operate differently compared to other genres. A drama will attempt to move, and a comedy will try to get a chuckle. But horror is designed to prey upon deeper layers of our own psychological make-up: to touch on childhood fears, buried traumas, paranoid suspicions. They strive to slip through our defenses and unnerve us on the most protected and powerful level, which is, crucially, different for every person. So, I recognize the supreme subjectivity on display when I make the following statements: I hate the woods. And I really like The Blair Witch Project, which is a film designed to prey upon fear of the woods. Make of that what you will, and no name-calling, please.

Thanks to a decade of too-cool-for-school dismissal, it is now extremely difficult to frame enjoyment of The Blair Witch Project as anything more than contrarianism. This little indie movie was made for about half a grand, and was a huge hit at the time. That was perhaps ensured by the film’s canny construction and brilliant marketing campaign, which both sold a conceit that this was an actual documentary chronicling a doomed trio of film students. But if you put your finger on the pop-culture pulse at the time, you would be forgiven for thinking that the film was, after the money subsided, a failure. That floods of people felt betrayed and used by the movie’s misleading marketing, that it didn’t live up to the hype, that it was not scary, etc. This certainly wasn’t helped by the disaster of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), which we will not speak of again. Anyway, in a truly odd circumstance, Blair Witch is one of the most profitable films (in terms of a return on investment) ever made, and yet its defenders these days have to be almost apologetic with their praise. Aside from snide “it sucked!” remarks, Blair Witch is not often discussed these days, which is a shame, because it is a unique experience. And, yes, frightening.

The Blair Witch Project is a movie that you must accept on its own terms. It has no CG special effects, no action scenes, no artificial “suspense” sequences, few “traditional” horror cues of any kind. It is impossible to enjoy “ironically,” which is a condition we tend to value very much these days. Its approach is minimalist. It does not hit every beat of a “conventional” narrative, and it even informs you how it’s all going to end right from the start. I think to enjoy Blair Witch, you must believe in horror; you have to be willing to give in to the emotion of fear, because that is its strength—not dialogue, not art direction, not theme. It is a meditation on fear, using the tiniest of elements to scare. If you aren’t interested in those elements, it isn’t for you. If you don’t want to be scared, it isn’t for you. If you’re the kind of viewer that insists on applying cold logic even in a story that pointedly rejects such things, then it isn’t for you. It’s about creating an emotion within you. Take it or leave it.

Blair Witch’s structure is that of a found film—that is, it’s culled from discovered footage. It alternates between grimy video and ghostly, black-and-white Hi-8, representing the A and B cameras of a three-man documentary team led by Heather Donohue (playing herself, just like everyone else here). Heather, a grad film student at the University of Maryland is, shall we say, a typical film student director: controlling, ambitious, and unknowingly ill-prepared. She arrives at the town of Burkittsville, MD (formerly Blair) with her team in order to film material for her thesis, a documentary about the town’s cherished legend, known as the tale of the Blair Witch. There was no Blair, MD, and the legend presented in the movie is false, and that very obscurity already casts a spell, because it taps into our own private knowledge that every place in America possesses its own secret mythology.

The early passages hit just the right notes as they show Heather’s all-too-notable lack of imagination: the crew pulls people out of a diner to get on-the-spot recitations of half-remembered folklore.  For research, she brings a book or two, which are never read.  She grabs juicy interview footage of the bizarre Mary Brown, and later joins the crew in mocking the woman, cynically ignoring the content of said interview. And Heather poses for on-the-nose stand-ups in cemeteries and haunted locales, the film subtly mocking her as it juxtaposes her serious, tabloid-esque  “professionalism,” with candid footage of her exploitative, prissy side. Heather’s a bit of a fake.

The other cameraman is the wiry Joshua Leonard, who seems to be invested in their work mainly for the grade, and resents being corrected by Heather on how to use his equipment, even though she is right. The third member of the team is Mike Williams, a sound recordist, who is intrigued by the subject matter but suspicious of much, including Heather. As the trio venture into the woods, their traits will become clear:  Heather talks too much and tries to keep her troops in line with phony authority. Mike is snide and the most easily frightened, while Josh stays laconic but keeps wells of sudden anger hidden in reserve. Are any of these characters “likeable?” Perhaps not, but the question is irrelevant, because likability isn’t the point—these are three people who have their own lives, their own concerns, and aren’t interested in being the one-dimensional heroes of a horror movie. The acting is naturalistic and convincing, and we accept the events as reality. This creates an inherent fascination that circumvents any complaints of their accessibility. Even if they’re jerks, then so what? Sometimes people are like that.

Something very odd is about to happen to them out in the woods—in methodical, chilling steps. It begins with levity and playful kidding. Then, one of them reports hearing a cackle overnight, which is only barely taken seriously. They hear curious, immersive cracking sounds in the dark. The two men begin to visibly lose faith in Heather’s abilities as a leader. Their map is lost, their compasses stop working. The strange sounds increase. A collection of creepy stick figures is found hanging from a group of nearby trees. Eventually, the relationships fracture as the scheduled days become a week, and Heather is clearly shown to be unprepared and incorrect in several regards. The very real concerns of jobs, school, family and friends worrying about the filmmakers take a back seat to the sheer survival aspects at play. They may starve. With the rain and cold, they may freeze. Tempers flash, and violence is not out of the question. The forest is foreboding and indifferent to their plight, but something is preventing them from finding a way to leave. Then their tent and gear is attacked. Heather at first wants to get this all on film, but as things progress, that turns to a desperate need, a recklessness that she is eventually confronted with. The situation disintegrates as the group realizes they are trapped, helpless, and being toyed with.

This may sound like it’s moving too slow, but not for me, because Blair Witch lingers over the details, aided by cinematography that switches between naturalistic (the video segments) and unsettlingly abstract (the high-contrast film portions).  The reason the film does not need a physical supernatural presence for the witch is because the idea of her lingers in every scene, and also because her presence supplements the horror of being lost in the woods without overshadowing it. The trees are dead and the color palette is bitter, evoking an experience that is cold, wet and clammy. And menacing. The antagonists are both an invisible force and nature itself, and the film’s visual strategy is so effective that it does not matter that it cheap. The film’s visuals bolster the reality of the film, and creates a sense of dread by conjuring the most powerful of all horror themes, that reality is an illusion. The camera insists that their situation is real, so how can three people walk in a straight line and wind up right where they started?

The creepiness is sustained and heightened due to the fact that the “found footage” premise justifies harsh edits, and little hints of events that would mercilessly chronicled if this were a traditional piece of fiction. The camera’s sometimes in the wrong place. Reconciliations sometimes go unseen. The camera is turned on in the middle of events, creating eerie images in the mind’s eye of the group sharing a growing horror, before deciding to share it with the sleeping camera. Heather, ever the skeptic, steals one of the stick figures, but she does not film herself doing so—we work that out later. Josh has an emotional breakdown that is only given cursory attention. The viewer is forced to frequently re-orient themselves, some bits seem to have no purpose at all, and as a result nothing ever plays like “a scene.” This helps create the illusion that the every bit of the film is captured, not performed, because we get a sense of the stuff on the edges of the frame and timeline that we aren’t allowed access to. An extra charge is provided by Heather’s instincts as a documentarian: when there are artfully composed shots, they symbolize her increasingly frantic attempts to find some semblance of order, to make reality “not quite reality,” to use Josh’s words. Her mental state is perfectly reflected in a late scene where Mike tries to agree with her on which direction to go in, and she frames him like an ant being crushed by the sky.

The film’s sound design is similarly artful, as the film exploits the limitations of video and microphones that we are familiar with. When we hear eerie sounds, they draw power from our own inability to determine how close they are. Some sounds are chilling simply because they’re difficult to identify. The crunching of leaves enhances the sense that this cheerful expedition has become a death march. Eventually, the sounds of crickets die out, replaced only by sole cawing birds, emphasizing the isolation. To dismiss the film’s aesthetic as slapdash is a mistake–there is true craft here.

The performances are impeccable as the characters go through, amicability, irritation, fury, denial, mania and, in the most touching sequences, despair. The arguments are inarticulate and feel genuine, and subtleties hint at the buried themes of three skeptics being challenged and punished for their irreverence. There’s something hauntingly pathetic in a formerly arrogant student yelling for help in the middle of nowhere, while another begins to cry. Other moments like Heather’s emotionless face as she examines a broken compass, or Mike’s simple joy as he finds a few remaining smokes, prepare us for maximum empathy when—in possibly the film’s scariest moment—Heather has two terrified reactions, first to a sound coming from the woods and second to the contents of a package left in front of the tent. Heather gets the film’s freaky iconic shot, an extreme, phlegm-filled close-up as she films her own apology on the last night. As she treats the camera as her only confidant, Donohue gives a mesmerizing performance for minutes, made all the more frightening when we, as an audience, realize that this is the climax. In essence, it’s already over.

Is The Blair Witch Project a flimsy conceit? Maybe. All horror movies are conceits. Hell, all movies are, for that matter. But is Blair Witch only a flimsy conceit? A gimmick? No. It creates an filmic experience that stays with you, rather than remaining trapped on screen via an ironic distance. It crafts an atmosphere of foreboding and never lets up, because it gives us believable characters and places them in an inescapable vise, one that we even know about going in, and yet by the end we feel trapped by it as well, and feel it, despite it never fully revealing itself. The supernatural stuff is spooky, all right, but I think the real reason Blair Witch works so well is because it is about three individuals, keenly-seen, who are put into a natural and supernatural machine—one that is designed to torment, humble and break them, and to bring them to their knees for a killing stroke. Like many horror stories, it is about nature itself turning against us, because this is nothing less than our foremost safety blanket being stripped away, and if we can’t believe in it, then there is nothing to believe in, at all.

That is frightening, folks. Period.

GRADE: A

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2005 – The Descent

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD:  1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) enjoy each other's company. "The Silence of the Lambs."

Directed by Jonathan Demme. Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Produced by Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt. Music by Howard Shore. Photographed by Tak Fujimoto. Edited by Craig McKay. Production designed by Kristi Zea. Starring Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald, Kasi Lemmons, Diane Baker, Frankie Faison, Dan Butler, Lawrence T. Wrentz.

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (based on Thomas Harris’ truly frightening book) is maybe the oddest film ever to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Here is a movie about dark shadows, gross details and arcane rituals, graphic perversions and psychotic evil. And yet it won five Oscars, two BAFTAs, a DGA award, a Golden Globe, critical acclaim and “classic” status. In an era of homogenous Hollywood product, it gives one hope to think of a time when a film this strange not only was made, it flourished.  But it is not just Silence’s peculiarity that gives it strength. It is the high quality of its presentation. Not just the acting (although it is brilliant), and not just the filmmaking (though it is expert), but the whole package together, and how the individual parts interact. It is a special film like Silence that has my favorite attribute to watch for in a motion picture, which is poise. First it knows what it wants to do, then it knows what it’s doing, and then it knows what it did, and all throughout it operates with grace and precision.

One might think it is difficult to obtain a fresh perspective on Silence (one free of its award baggage), but in a certain respect it is not so difficult, because it dovetails with the actual film, which is all about contrasting perspectives. Not just the obviously different mindsets between a sane woman and crazed serial killers, but also about how Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enters an underworld far removed from the controlled confines of the FBI Academy, one that is ruled by murderers. And also in how Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), though he is seen as a monster by his captors, is well-spoken, refined and insightful, even when discussing his evil past with absolutely no remorse. And also in the way Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the privileged daughter of a senator, is ensnared through her own kindness by the sadist Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and goes from a cushy apartment to being half-naked and stranded at the bottom of an old well. It even plays with our own perspective as audience members, as when sly editing suggests that the FBI is seconds away from apprehending Buffalo Bill, when in actuality they are not, and the far-away Clarice is instead the one in immediate danger.

Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography reflects this strategy, adopting specific vantage points at any given time, frequently implicating the viewer in the film’s action (and it frames said action with an autumnal palette—the time of year when living things die). Sometimes the camera adopts Clarice point-of-view, where a subject will talk to her by staring directly at camera, or lengthy pans where she, offscreen, drinks in her surroundings. Other times, we are over her shoulder, behind her, catching little details that she may be aware of, even though she does not specifically see them. Awkward glances, looks, and leers are constantly thrown towards Clarice Starling, and the photography notes and dismisses them, as if sharing a guilty secret with the audience. Still other times, Silence‘s visual technique makes literal the film’s buried themes of subjugated women, such as when Clarice enters an elevator full of tall, intimidating, uniformed men, or when Catherine begs for mercy from her descended prison, and Buffalo Bill towers over her. And it gives us the first visual clue for Clarice (and us) to perhaps admire the menacing Hannibal Lecter: notice how in their first meeting, he stands while she sits, and yet as the two actors are intercut, Lecter’s gaze is always straight ahead. He never looks down on Clarice Starling, which is more than can be said for any other man in the film.

Silence is tactful with the way it navigates tricky themes of sexism without being exploitative. Part of the way the film operates is to scatter little clues that seem invisible—until you see them, and then they’re undeniable. Though she is not verbally abused or harassed at the FBI, Clarice is certainly placed (and places herself) in plenty of awkward situations—the leers, the come-ons, the patronizing manner in which she is treated in the field, her soft-spokenness, her short stature, the way no one listens to her due to her lack of confidence. Even the story’s impetus sexualizes her to a degree, as Clarice is an FBI trainee who is cherry-picked by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), agent-in-charge of Behavioral Sciences, for the assignment of interviewing Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. It’s strongly suggested she is given the task due to her uncomfortable demeanor and good looks (“He hasn’t seen a woman in ages,” smirks Dr. Chillton, Lecter’s smug snake of a warden). Clarice’s task is to pick the brain of Lecter, and her job is, apparently, to appear so inexperienced and alluring that Hannibal will be disarmed, refusing to take her seriously. She holds her own in their first meeting, but he is nonetheless cruel and dismissive of her…until, on her way out, a vulgar patient named Miggs (Stuart Rudin) throws semen in her face, which appalls the good doctor and prompts him to help her. The fact that the film’s fundamental relationship is forged through sympathy for the victim of an act of sudden, degrading sexual violence is certainly not incidental.

This points to the secret of The Silence of the Lambs, which is that Hannibal Lecter is not a bad man. Certainly he is an evil man: capable of it, willing to do it. But “bad” indicates he is without positive qualities, which is inaccurate. In addition to his intelligence and manners, he has a streak of compassion that is endearing. There’s something almost perversely chivalric about the way he retaliates against Miggs’s attack by convincing the inmate to swallow his own tongue in shame. Nasty, yes, but such is the life of a civilized killer. The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, which becomes deeply intimate and semi-paternal, is wonderful not simply because it subverts our expectations for how a serial killer would behave, but because it doesn’t cheat, and sees both the FBI trainee and the cannibalistic predator strictly on their own terms. And also because by making Hannibal, a focused manifestation of the world of serial killers, so unexpectedly charming it grapples with the thematic underpinnings inherent within Thomas Harris’ novels. In Harris’ stories, professionals must immerse themselves in the culture of monsters in order to catch them, but the crucial, disquieting purpose is how in the Harris books, that universe can have it own sway, offering disturbing psychic rewards, even to the good-hearted. After all, if evil was simply ugly, no one would ever do it. To say that Hopkins and Foster are brilliant in the film is perhaps to belabor my point, but, well, it must be said that they are (and they both won Oscars for their trouble).

Lecter is actually not in the movie very much, maybe about fifteen minutes of screen time, which is wise because too much of him would dilute his power (as the 2001 sequel, Hannibal, makes abundantly clear). He is such a strong figure anyway that he lends his essence to scenes that he is not in, like a dark cloud. He sends Clarice on errands based on stray clues laced in his speech, leading to several scenes where we admire Clarice’s pluck in forging ahead even when we worry about her (the scene that takes place in a storage facility is somehow deeply scary, despite the fact that we doubt something will happen to her). Clarice grows as a person throughout the investigation, becoming more authoritative and forceful. She gathers her resolve to order men out of an autopsy bay (the smile Crawford gives her after she does so–I’ve never been able to decide whether it is prideful or condescending). And she discards her standard defensive combat posture by the end of the film, even in a pitch-black basement, hunted by a murderous creature that is toying with her. It is through her relationship with Lecter that she finds her strength, as she gives and gets via his game of quid pro quo. He questions her methods, delves into her personal history, and latches onto her formative motivations. These scenes of makeshift psychotherapy are inherently compelling, maybe because they speak to how well both characters are put together. Clarice’s backstory is touching, and also we note that Lecter is supposedly an esteemed psychiatrist; even while imprisoned, we can see why.

Lecter’s scenes with Clarice are vital not only because they illuminate the mind of a serial killer and speak dread secrets, but also because they reinforce the sickly notion that Clarice has found strength through the help of a monster. She is warned that she doesn’t want Hannibal in her head, but in time he forces the issue, and she compromises herself, in a way that she wrestles satisfaction from. It is one of the great subtle ironies of the film that Clarice is herself a victim of objectification, just like Buffalo Bill’s captive, and yet she herself quietly objectifies Catherine by conflating her rescue with her own desire to be accepted by the bureau, and getting an award for her trouble. By the end of the story, we don’t doubt that she will become a successful FBI agent, but perhaps at the cost of a bit of her humanity. Perhaps just a tiny bit of Hannibal rubbed off on her. These are tricky moments, and while every review singles out the brilliant Hopkins as Lecter, let me take a second to praise Foster, how well she conveys the nervousness, the fragility, the inner steel, the raw need of Clarice.

There is a lot of talk in The Silence of the Lambs­—addictive talk that creates a special charge, when it becomes clear that these characters are allowed to discuss things in distinctive voices. Ted Tally’s screenplay is literate in its dialogue, but also terse—rather than lingering over the scenes of Hannibal and Clarice together, the script realizes a little of it goes a long way: it would rather be brief than ever give into pretension. And it even knows when to shut up, wringing maximum fear out of the closing sequence where Clarice stumbles in the dark, as Buffalo Bill watches her—objectifying her, trying to touch her, all before the exciting release of the kill. It’s no coincidence that the smartest thing that Clarice does in this climax is to use the skill that she cultivated during sessions with Dr. Lecter: she listens. Very closely.

The film is a perennial, and it rewards repeat viewings with effortless little grace notes. Like Hannibal’s restraints and cold mask, which make him paradoxically even more frightening than in the moments of violence. Or the odious voice of Dr. Chillton, who stretches out his words as if he wants them to snap. Or the way a corpse sighs when a moth cocoon is extracted from its throat. Or the way Hannibal is sometimes lit harshly, like a demonic presence, and other times softly, like a figure that belongs in front of a classroom. Or his quiet command of necessary posture, as if in constant recoil. Or when Pilcher (Paul Lazar), one of the bug geeks, nervously admits that he’s hitting on Starling, giving a slight chuckle that seems, for just a moment, to well up from the same mental place that Buffalo Bill lives. Or the way the camera regards Bill himself, not really passing judgment, as if he operates outside of our moral understanding, like an alien. And it has an ending that provides a chilling sense of closure, since Dr. Lecter, miles away, informs the moment where Clarice is awarded for her bravery—it feels pointedly cheap, since by catching one murderer she inadvertently helped a worse one escape. One step forward, two steps back.

The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps one of the most influential films of the past twenty years: it kicked off an era of serial killer films through its own official sequels (Hannibal, Red Dragon, the deeply unfortunate Hannibal Rising) and spiritual successors (Se7en, Zodiac, and some films best forgotten) and was acknowledged for heavily influencing one of the defining TV series of the 1990s, The X-Files, in addition to being an important milestone in the history of stories about killers that includes newspaper reports about Jack the Ripper, In Cold Blood, the novels of Caleb Carr, Dexter, and many others. These stories interest us, I think, because they are horrors we hear and read about frequently, and we as a society are hungry for understanding the predators in our midst, because so often such people harbor our own thoughts and desires—amplified, twisted, and unhinged, but recognizable just the same. History mentions maps made when the world was new, where unexplored portions were labeled “here be dragons.” For FBI Behavioral Sciences today, it is possibly much similar, except the map is the mind, and some are tasked with walking on the edge every day. And some days, all it would take to fall off the map, into another world altogether, is the tranquil, wise voice of Hannibal the Cannibal.

GRADE: A

NOTES: Another great example of Tak Fujimoto’s insidious photography is the entire, chilly first walk to Lecter’s cell. In one moment, as Clarice and Chillton pass the camera, we linger on the hallway for an extra frame as a shackled inmate suddenly comes into focus, and then disappears as we cut to a different shot, as sudden and unexpected as an act of violence. Moments later, Chillton and Clarice reach the entrance of the basement security room, which is framed by a red gate, justifying a sudden, soft red light across the entire frame. The gate slides open, but the light remains unchanged, to create a hellish feeling as Chillton shows Clarice a photograph of one of Lecter’s victims. What a well-shot film.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1999 – The Blair Witch Project

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1984 – A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) arrives for a Janet Jackson video--I mean, nightmare--in "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

Written and directed by Wes Craven. Produced by Robert Shaye. Music by Charles Bernstein. Photographed by Jacques Haitkin. Edited by Patrick McMahon, Rick Shaine. Production designed by Gregg Fonseca. Starring John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Johnny Depp, Charles Fleischer, Joseph Whipp, Robert Englund.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of those movies that is difficult to survey after twenty-five-years-plus of pop culture osmosis. Some film series reinforce their legacies when viewed with fresh eyes, and others seem imprisoned by them. Thanks to parodies, rip-offs, satires, remakes, Halloween party discussions and the like, the lessons of A Nightmare on Elm Street have become ingrained into our horror-movie psyche, even to Nightmare virgins. Rather like a peach sucked dry, it offers little to discuss because the movie only exists to exploit its own gimmick: a serial killer can enter dreams, and kills people. Even the movie’s ripped-from-the-pages pedigree, that it was inspired by a Los Angeles Times article about refugees who died in their sleep while suffering brutal nightmares, belies Nightmare’s slightly exploitative edge. Is it about themes? Cursory ones, perhaps, which are underdeveloped. Is it about  characters? No. Is it scary? No.

Yup, I said it. Sorry.

Moving on.

Nightmare is a slasher film, which means it focuses primarily on creative ways that kids can get skewered, diced, disemboweled, etc. It’s not a subgenre that I’m a particular fan of, because they put me off with their cynicism and bloody-mindedness: they have no purpose in existing other than depicting murders. Unlike a good horror film, slashers are shallower and more formulaic, because they treat their characters like props rather than individuals. One by one, they are established in broad, limited strokes and then set up to be vanquished gruesomely. In classier horror, there is often death, but there is just as often humanity, and subtle dread, and a sense of people living actual lives that are hijacked by evil.

The lines are, I admit, very blurry between “slasher” and “horror.” To take a semi-recent example, the 2005 film The Descent is a horror film, because even though it focuses on a group of characters who are picked off one by one, it takes its time, and colonizes its plot with sharply-drawn, particular people. Slasher movies have no such ambitions and precious little of that curiosity, and if that sounds like an elitist label to differentiate between films that I like and ones that I don’t, then I apologize, and perhaps agree, but I don’t take it back. In the end, if you’ve seen one slasher film, you’ve seen them all, and aside from gimmickry, slashers have trouble distinguishing themselves even from each other. Strip away the window dressing, and it all ends with just some plain ol’ corpses of teenagers. Sometimes they’ll throw in a nasty, arbitrary twist at the last minute, just for merry fun. Whee.

Why do these movies always focus on teens? Probably because teendom is the most promising and juicy place to position a coming-of-age story, which nicely complements the horror trope of ordinary people falling into a frightening world they don’t understand. The adolescence metaphor practically writes itself. These stories are often about characters growing up, finding wells of bravery within themselves, steeling their resolve as the world turns against them. Often this is done without the help of parents, who are either lying to their children or, at the very least, unable to protect them. Many of them are parables about values, not only because they depict sweet young people becoming acquainted with evil, but also because the ones that shuck their purity (whether it’s by killing someone or—gasp!—going all the way with a boy!) are punished. And even if you’re lucky enough not to be killed, it’s because you’ve sown the seeds in your life for paranoia, mistrust, and the foremost knowledge that the world you inhabit dances on the razor’s edge of a frightful abyss below. These are standard horror themes, and they are deployed in A Nightmare on Elm Street perfunctorily. The film is in far too much of a hurry to make this cohere into a tight, thrilling story.

I think the big problem is that we never establish a good baseline for the horror elements. In the opening, sequence, we’re immediately in a nightmare, and we’re introduced to Freddy (Robert Englund) the spectral boogeyman who—as we all know—has knives for fingers, scars on his face, and a striped sweater. It’s all well-shot and competently edited. We meet Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), who is being menaced by the evil Freddy. It’s a very bad dream. He strikes! Ahh! Cut to her waking up, and finding three perfect knife wounds on her nightgown. Already we have a scary monster and a life-or-death situation, before getting a sense of what he is playing against. The scenes that follow—Tina sharing this experience with her friends, and learning they had their own—feel apathetic and rushed (including one scene that is a barrage of badly-dubbed, flat line readings). We meet some quickly-sketched secondary characters, put one of them in bed with Tina, and then she’s killed horribly. End of act one. Nightmare is far too eager to jump into the horror pool, and isn’t nimble enough to create a sense of reality before it shatters it, so we already feel adrift. The tension between the mundane and the terrifyingly fantastic is what gives the horror genre its resonance. Here, it’s glossed over in favor of shock surprises. It’s all pitch, no wind-up. I value wind-up.

Nightmare does have one nifty narrative trick up its sleeve, one lifted directly from the Psycho switcheroo playbook. Since we meet her first, we’d be forgiven for thinking that Tina is the protagonist, but she’s not, which is made clear when she’s found in a pool of her own blood. The actual heroine is Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who, in a cleverly meta bit of plotting, finds herself graduating from “best friend” to “lead.” She’s sympathetic and likeable, and once in a while there’s an attempt to color her with a bit of character development, but these moments are fleeting, and they don’t stick. Nancy, I think, is by large meant to be less of a character and more of an audience surrogate, and thus is intentionally left ill-defined, providing a hole for us to fill in our own feelings of dread and vulnerability. Personally, I tend to respond more strongly to specificity, whereas Nancy is a cypher.

Here’s another thimble full of plot. Tina’s boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri) is suspected of the girl’s murder and is arrested, but before he is he pleads innocence to Nancy, who starts to get a bead on this Freddy Kruger figure. After being tormented by him in numerous dreams, she goes to dream therapy and learns that she is not necessarily powerless when asleep, and has the ability to pull objects out of dreams and into the real world. (There’s something humorously clunky about the end of her first dream session, where she awakens to find a crumpled hat in her hand). And before long she gets the truth from her parents (John Saxon, Ronee Blakely). Under drink and duress, they identify Freddy as a child murderer from the past, who was killed by vengeful parents when the law failed them. All of this is punctuated by more threats and more slashings, including one involving Nancy’s boyfriend Glenn (a young Johnny Depp), in which…well let’s just say that his room gets drastically redecorated. And then, there’s the big showdown between Freddy and Nancy, who is at least aided by the fact that she has a small power over dreams.

Wes Craven, to his credit, can be a smart director, and I think from this framework he tries to be smarter than his own material. Freddy’s nightmares, for example, are littered with Freudian symbolism, including the one highly suggestive moment where his deadly hand emerges from her bathwater, in between her legs. And, of course, Tina is murdered right after having sex with Rod, almost as if their desire to be bad is what unleashes evil on their friends (common horror trope about stolen innocence taken to an extreme). And then there is the story of the parents, who collaborated one night to commit murder in order to ensure their suburban town was a nice place to live, a nice irony that isn’t given enough development. In fact, all of these elements don’t have their proper weight, probably because they underline a plot that is thin, uninvolving, and kind of mean. At least in John Carpenter’s Halloween (also not a favorite, but I see more craft within it), something was felt when characters died. Here, they’re all dull cannon fodder, and the deaths mean nothing.

That’s part of the reason why the film doesn’t strike me as frightening, but the other part is…that Freddy is just not a very good villain. His appearance, his way of toying with his victims, his choice quips…everything about him tries way too hard. In addition, too much effort is given to literalizing him, especially when his backstory is revealed. Freddy is, in essence, an evil spirit, but he’s governed by human motivations that are trite and ordinary. Once you explain a monster in human terms, he stops being a monster, and we start relating to him more as a weird human who can do magic, which isn’t nearly as powerful. I suppose it’s inevitable that the story must declaw the seemingly-omnipotent predator as early as possible, since he must be capable of being defeated…and then come back, and get defeated again, and come back, and, and, and…However, I strongly feel that horror works best when human sensibilities are confounded, not agreed with. Freddy is too human, campy, and relatable. Even at his most vindictive, he’s kind of silly.

Craven is talented, and he has a lot of fun in Nightmare with the way he shoots dreamscapes, even when they’re buried in mundane boiler rooms. But he’s clearly in the process of growing here, still cultivating his skills, still struggling with eliciting maximum performance from his actors. Since then, Craven has made a lot of duds, but also some clever and effective horror pictures, including Scream (which deconstructs every possible slasher cliché) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Those films, both of which make reference to this one, are better, wittier, hungrier. And they have fun as they tap dance on the line between fiction and reality (the relationship between which all horror stories are, in essence, about). New Nightmare, which stands outside the whole of the Nightmare series and comments upon it, also features Langencamp, playing herself, and the contrast couldn’t be more striking, because in that film she feels like a real person with actual problems, who finds herself in a horror scenario. Nancy, on the other hand, seems like a stick figure positioned for pithy female empowerment gestures before being cruelly dismissed in a seriously cheap denouement. The effect is rather nihilistic and grim, which is interesting when that effect is earned, but just depressing when it is not.

I am well aware that Nightmare has legions of fans, and I don’t wish to condescend. Some of them might have an answer ready for some of my criticisms, so I’ll do their job for them and admit the inevitable: I don’t get it. I don’t get why this is so much fun, I don’t get why this mythology is so fascinating, I don’t get how some can see this a fine soup and I see a bowl of broth. And I’m fine with not getting it, and I’m fine with the possibility that you might. There’s lots of things in life that I don’t get, including professional wrestling, lox, and Jersey Shore. We’ll just chalk it up to everyone having their own thing, and that’s great, and I wouldn’t dream of ever getting in the way of that fun. Pay me no mind. Nightmare on Elm Street certainly does what it wants to do: kill a lot of teenagers. Once you dispense with the special effects, there’s just not that much to discuss about it. It’s ok, I guess. Not awful. But the moment it’s over, it evaporates from the mind, as if it were never there. Kinda like a dream.

GRADE: C-

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1964 – A Hard Day’s Night

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Linda Blair is haunted by both a demon and a mean-spirited Al Hirschfield sketch in "Exorcist II: The Heretic."

Directed by John Boorman. Written by William Goodhart. Based on characters created by William Peter Blatty. Produced by John Boorman, Richard Lederer. Music by Ennio Morricone. Photographed by William A. Fraker. Edited by Tom Priestly. Production designed by Richard Macdonald. Starring Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty, Belinda Beatty.

I certainly would not be the first to suggest that there is a fundamental problem with most horror sequels. Aside from the standard diminishing returns that you get when you add the number two into a title, there’s also this: when you bring back ultimate evil for a second round of fun, you almost invariably cheapen it. Since if it was defeated once before, it has by definition lost some of its power to intimidate. If true horror is fear of the unknown, then we as audience members risk a venture into the absurd once we begin to know the adversary and anticipate its movements, and that can happen when it keeps appearing in sequel after sequel with the regularity of special guest star Charles Nelson Reilly popping his head in to preside on “Hollywood Squares.”  All of this is a roundabout way of suggesting that Exorcist II: The Heretic had its work cut out for it, particularly as a follow-up to one of the most successful horror films ever made. It was bound to be disappointing, so let us acknowledge the film’s big achievement: it’s not merely disappointing, it’s an complete and utter disaster. It’s always nice to see a movie willing to go the extra mile.

Oh, yes. Exorcist II is terrifically bad. It’s badly written, flatly directed. The acting is cringe-inducing, the effects downright laughable. The story doesn’t defy description, but it does do its best to frustrate it. And one of the saddest mistakes it makes is to completely misidentify what made the original film work. I’m sure at some later date I will have the freedom to discuss The Exorcist (1973) at greater length, so let me just touch on the fact that the key to that brilliant film’s effectiveness is its surgical command of tone, and its realistic details that both further character and create a very recognizable stage for its horror to play out upon. Most thrillers are anxious to get to the freak show antics, but what makes Exorcist great is the way it lingers over scenes of a mother worrying about her “sick” daughter. They both feel like genuine people, and their supernatural guest seems like a real intruder, not a horror movie conceit. One of the most chilling scenes in the original, for me, is where Chris McNeal (Ellen Burstyn) sits in a conference room with dozens of defeated doctors and specialists, none of them having the first idea what is happening, or what to do, or where to go. It’s frightening to see our societal crutches like science and reason dissolve, and it provides a welcome baseline for the film’s horror elements, so that we accept them even when they grow ridiculous. Exorcist II has a dissimilar strategy, perhaps because it assumes the first film provided all the grounding that this franchise needs: instead of starting small, it is ludicrous from the word go.

Already anticipating the inevitable devaluing of a horror heavy that comes with the long haul of a series, Exorcist II is proactive and officially demotes the series villain, from being Satan himself to an evil demon named Pazuzu. Never mind the fact that the possessed Regan called herself Satan in the first film, apparently identity theft goes on even in Hell, which makes a lot of sense, actually. The existence of Satan is indeed an open question for the Catholic Church in Exorcist II: their revised dogmas make no reference to Satan as an entity, and therefore the late Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), with his heretical writings about the Devil, is being brought up on posthumous charges of heresy (ahh…there’s the title). It’s up to Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) to clear Merrin’s name, so he hops on a plane to New York to meet Regan McNeil, now fully recovered from her experience a few years ago…or is she? (Pencils down, class: no, she’s not.) Regan, played again by Linda Blair, seems ok, is living with her guardian, Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn) in New York. She’s being monitored by a psychiatric institute, under the watchful eye of Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). Tuskin, brilliant mind that she is, has invented a new tool for psychiatric care called a “synchronizer”: it puts subjects under a deep hypnotic trance, and then allows a second subject to match that trance, effectively allowing them to share a hallucination of repressed memories. Strangely, at no point does anyone ask to see Dr. Tuskin’s credentials. Just between you and me, I don’t think she’s a real doctor.

Through this “synchronizer,” Father Lamont gets a deeper understanding of the circumstances of Father Merrin’s death, and his life, because it puts him into contact with the evil Pazuzu, and puts Regan into danger. At least…that’s what I think happens. Trust me, I was paying attention, and yet Exorcist II is a seriously convoluted film that I’m not sure makes the slightest lick of sense. The film’s implications on what exactly Pazuzu is doing, and why, and to whom, are murky, let alone the question of when and how he shows up. It is implied that Dr. Tuskin’s invasive mind therapies with Regan are partially to blame for awakening the dormant demon, but does that mean Pazuzu is simply a repressed memory? Doubtful, given the backstory we are spoon-fed about Pazuzu and Merrin’s previous confrontation in Africa, with the soul of a sick boy in the balance. While I appreciate the screenplay’s efforts to maintain the original’s ambiguity over whether science or faith is the key here, I think the cards have already been dealt, and we are firmly in the camp of “it’s the devil.” So why be coy?

And there are more questions. If Regan is indeed a target of Pazuzu, as she was several years ago in Georgetown, why did he never actively try to possess her again, instead being prompted by quack psychotherapy? Was he waiting in Hell, trying to rack up enough frequent flyer miles to come back? How did Satan feel about Pazuzu pretending to be him? How lame does a story have to be before we’re questioning the motivations of a demon in human terms, anyway? If Pazuzu does have control of Regan, why is it that the best he can manage is silly games of almost making her walk off a rooftop? What does Pazuzu want with Father Lamont, anyway, or does he care?

The movie does at least have an explanation for some of Pazuzu’s actions: he’s trying to rub out a select group of individuals (including Regan) who have developed magical abilities to heal the sick, and also see the future. That’s why the boy formerly possessed, Kokumo, was able to shake off the demon (literally), and that’s why Regan seems to have the ability to heal the sick, like in that cloying scene where she gets an autistic boy to come out of his shell! See, these people truly have been touched by the grace of God, and must be eliminated by the forces of evil. It all makes sense!

Um. Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, Exorcist II.

So this is bad enough. It’s not helped by Blair’s performance as Regan, now about sixteen and still acting like a twelve-year-old-girl. I know it’s meant to be juxtaposed against the evil thing inside her, but there’s contrast and then there’s overdoing it. She’s so chirpy and sweet that after five minutes with her, you can’t wait for her to turn evil, just so she’ll stop being so insufferable. Not that she’s given much support: her first conference with Dr. Tuskin is astonishing in its banality, this scene between a girl who was once possessed by a demon and the woman who once played Nurse Rached. There are so many flat line readings and indifferent facial reactions that it almost plays like a self-aware parody of how to annoy audience expectations.

But none of them fare like Richard Burton. There’s no way around this: Burton gives a thoroughly rotten performance as Father Lamont, oozing such contempt for the material, barely even seeming to try. He’s not helped by a script that gives Lamont no back story, no motivations, no reason for existing other than being the prop priest in an Exorcist movie, which gives him a hall pass to fly around on the church’s dime, first to New York, and then to Africa (actually just a lousy set made to look unconvincingly like Africa). Whether he’s battling a demonic storm, visiting an African witch doctor, or leering inappropriately after Regan McNeil, he constantly conveys the attitude of an actor who does not give a damn, and is offended that you expect him to. If you ever want to see one of the most hilariously bad bits of acting in a big studio film by a respected actor, pop in your Exorcist II DVD and go to about 25 minutes in, right after Lamont sits in on a synchronizer session, and then grabs the device’s headset to go on his own trip. He recounts his experience thusly: “It was horrible. Utterly horrible…(portentous pause)…and fascinating.” Then he stares right at the camera and zones out for a full beat, like he’s forgotten his lines. Louise Fletcher, skilled actress, gracefully tries to get the scene back on track, but the damage is done; it’s positively hilarious. My only explanation is that director John Boorman selected which dailies to print without looking at any of them.

You know, there’s more…lots more to the movie, and yet much less. It involves ancient tribal dances,  a swarm of locusts, James Earl Jones in a weird African headdress, the importance of being positive even when being beset by hellish monsters, and an apocalyptic finale imported from Poltergeist, as if a bunch of special effects showed up in the lab mysteriously, and the filmmakers were intent on putting them in the movie somehow—it’s so tonally wrong. Lamont’s creepy fascination with Regan reaches its pinnacle during the climax, when Pazuzu takes the form of a succubus (also played by Linda Blair) and compels Lamont to kill Regan and “join” with her, which he tries for a minute. The moment where Lamont gives into temptation and lustfully falls into bed with a demonic eighteen-year-old Linda Blair is really weird, and unpleasant, and squicky, and makes one feel unclean. (That was the probably the point in the script in which, Burton, reading it, got that look on his face that he retained throughout all of filming.) After the surefooted confidence of the first film, the pervasive desperation on display couldn’t be more jarring.

But you know what? All of this is dancing around the real issue here, which is that Exorcist II is frightfully dull, talky, and never seems the slightest bit concerned about working up a legitimate scare or two. And that’s just so painfully reductive; if the original Exorcist treated evil seriously (even during its more exploitative moments), Exorcist II reduces Satan’s presence to a cheap, schlocky parlor trick. Honestly, The Heretic may be the very best recruitment ad the Catholic Church ever made, if only because it presents Beelzebub’s star quarterback not as an entertaining presence, but as an ineffectual, unfunny party guest who refuses to leave. What a terrible shame; this is a horror sequel that not only fails to live up to its legacy, but also drunkenly insults everyone it can and then tumbles down the stairs in disgrace. Who knew the company of Satan could be such a colossal bore?

GRADE: D

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1958 – The Hidden Fortress

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1940 – His Girl Friday