Sunday, October 28, 2012

Soul Selling Mermaid

Once upon a time, there was a boy, a girl and a turtle...

Is she a poem of the sea
A sailor's reverie
A shadow of the deep
And if I doubt that she is real
then what is it I feel
that makes me so in love
Have I imagined holding her
Was it a dream my loving her
Still feel the warmth of kissing her
I'll spend my lifetime missing her

-Jules Bass

The haunting song, Jennie, and the beautiful shot of Connie Sellecca framed in a natural archway provide a potent opening to the wildly muddled, yet unforgettable, made-for-TV fairy tale from 1978 known as The Bermuda Depths.

Despite having grown up in the 70's and being a fervent made-for-TV movie acolyte, I somehow missed this odd Rankin/Bass & Tsuburaya co-production until Warner Archives released it a few years ago. Those who were awed by the movie as youngsters will testify to its strange, enduring quality. Having come upon the odd amalgamation of science fiction, fantasy and fairy tale 30 years late, I couldn't help but notice the numerous intrinsic flaws in the production, yet I was still as mesmerized as any 10-year old experiencing the movie for the first time. There are basically five elements that not only help the film in overcoming its multitude of cinematic sins, but actually make it a memorable, haunting piece.

1. The Song
Without a doubt, the Jules Bass composed song Jennie is the most valuable thing in the film. Used in conjunction with the opening credits and underwater establishing shots of Connie Sellecca swimming around the real Bermuda depths, the song is a beautiful, haunting, almost noir-sh composition that immediately hooks one in. Bits of it are subsequently used throughout the film to evoke Sellecca's character and the melody continues to work its magic for the duration of the story. If not for the song, the film would be crippled with a substantial loss of atmosphere.

2. The Bermuda Location 
Although it was only partially filmed on location, some of the shots, like a sunken ship's cannon and a bird's eye view of the city are terrific. Without these kinds of atmospheric shots, the film would have lost all sense of place and felt very studio-bound.

3. The Historical Fairy Tale
Jennie Haniver is a name that refers to a fabricated mermaid fashioned from a monkey's corpse and headless fish, or a dried and altered skate or ray. 

However, there is also a legend involving a woman named Jennie Haniver who lived in the early 18th century and ran off to Bermuda to escape an arranged marriage. She was subsequently found by her intended, but was lost at sea on the trip back. Her ghost was said to have later been seen haunting the area. This legend is used quite well in The Bermuda Depths as it sets up Connie Sellecca's Jennie as a spoiled, vain, rich girl who upon seeing her inevitable demise, disregards her fellow shipmates and makes a pact with an unknown power to live forever thus retaining her youth and beauty. The pact works, but the catch is, she must live in the ocean for eternity. This is a really nice twist on the legend, and it's delivered very quickly and efficiently in a flashback scene. 

4. The Underlying Theme
In a way, this film is kind of a serious romance for dudes. Every guy can identify with wanting to meet the adult version of that little girl he had his first childhood crush on. This film delivers that dream but as a cautionary tale about obsession. The theme not only resides in the lead character Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) who is obsessed with Jennie, but in his pals Eric and Dr. Paulis, who are hunting an oversized see creature (hello Herman Melville). Jennie, of course, has her own obsession with remaining forever young and pretty. Interestingly, the only character to make it through the film unscathed is the one that learns to let go. Pretty heady stuff from the Rankin/Bass boys, and it boosts the film from just an amusing oddity to something with a little more, well, depth.

5. Captain Carl

Yep, Carl Weathers. One thing the film would really lack without Apollo Creed is a charismatic actor. Sellecca is more mysterious than charismatic, McCloskey is kind of a pouty bitch, and Burl Ives is, well, Burl Ives - and unfortunately, being a cranky, old coot does not engender magnetism. Even though the script, director and fellow actors occasionally hang him out to dry, Weathers still comes armed with both that winning smile and the world's largest spear gun. How can you not love the man?

But for all its strengths, the film is riddled with flaws. Make no mistake, just like 1/3 of the IMDb users who rated this film a 10, I really love it. However, there are a multitude of problems that my adult, non-nostalgic eyes could see quite clearly.
TV directors aren't known for their stylish camera skills or soliciting great performances from actors and Tsugunobu Kotani, who directed the Bermuda Depths as well as other Rankin/Bass junk, is no exception. It's clear the actors are often struggling for direction with Leigh McCloskey appearing totally lost in several scenes and Burl Ives going from holly-jolly, cheerful, old man to raving lunatic at the drop of a hat. To say that the acting is alternately strained and improvised is an understatement. In one scene, Carl Weathers wrestles with a fishing net, much like Martin Landau's Lugosi takes on an inanimate octopus in Ed Wood. I can just imagine Kotani's instructions to Weather's as 'Hey Carl, just jump in the water and pretend like that thing is killing you'. The scene should foster fear and suspense but it elicits only unintended humor as Weathers struggles mightily with a small portion of fishing net. In another blunder during a conversation on the bridge of a boat, two characters speak to each other through portholes even though they're in the same room. It looks ridiculous and was obviously done to pick up an interior shot without actually setting it up. Finally, for every nicely framed shot, there's a poorly angled one to match. Several times, only a corner of the boat can be seen and characters are often unintentionally blocked from view.

The special effects are a near disaster with Rankin/Bass obviously relying on Tsuburaya Studios to cover this area with the result being a lot of toy in bathtub shots.

The sad part is many of these shots are redundant and unnecessary. At one point, we see a long shot of the real boat which is followed needlessly by a shot of the not-nearly-matching toy boat. The editor could have chopped a lot of the effects shots and it would have actually improved on the movie.
The script, while not horrible, does contain characters that show up once and disappear like Ruth Attaway's voodoo-ish Delia. There is also the age-old McGuffin engine known as The Bermuda Triangle which is mentioned once as a catch-all explanation then dropped and forgotten.

But for all of the amateurish issues the film has, it still somehow manages a unique charm and haunting romantic quality that, coupled with it's unconventional ending, make it something special. Yes, there is a turtle vs helicopter fight that's inept and ridiculous, but there's also a haunting love story and a strong message about letting go of destructive obsessions that makes the movie a worthwhile watch.

Score 6.5/10

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Attic Dwelling Monster

Once upon a time, there was a brother and sister who lived on the American prairie...

As I continue to look at these modern day fairy tale/horror movies, I've noticed a similar story concept that seems to repeat itself in each tale. The condition of forced solitude, or even outright abandonment, has taken place in each of the previous three films I've posted on. In Jack Be Nimble, the brother and sister protagonists are first emotionally, then physically, abandoned by their biological mother. In Viy, a seminarian is forced to spend three nights alone in a church. In Kaun?, a woman is left at home alone with a serial killer on the prowl. The notions of abandonment and solitude are without a doubt amongst the most frightening and anxiety provoking conditions that humans have had to deal with throughout their existence. It should come as no surprise that they serve as fuel for fairy tales, horror stories, urban legends and such.

These conditions are explored yet again in Danny Daneau's 2008, low key, western, fairy tale, thriller The Attic Door, wherein two children are left alone in their remotely located, frontier farm in turn-of-the-century America. 

As the film opens, we see 12-year old Caroline has been left in charge of her younger brother, Darrell, along with the family's isolated farm while their parents are away having a baby. A list of chores has been posted for them to do as well as an admonition not to leave the farm due to the dangers outside of it. As the days pass, and their parents do not return, the children find something menacing is hiding behind the farm's boarded up attic door attempting to break free.

The immensity and remoteness of their location offers little hope for the brother and sister in terms of a safe haven. Indeed, when the unknown thing in the attic nearly gets out, the siblings retreat to a discarded covered wagon they have dubbed "The Fort".
Ultimately, Caroline and Darrell return to the house, but it appears only a matter of time before they must face what's in the attic.

The first time I watched the film, with its great rural setting, photography, deliberate pace and understated score, it brought to mind Terrance Malick's Days of Heaven. Although not as ambitious as that film, I was surprised at how great looking and well written The Attic Door was for a micro-budgeted ($200K) independent movie. Shot in Kanab, Utah, director Daneau and cinematographer Scott Uhlfelder take maximum advantage of the wide open, desolate bluffs and prairies not only for their natural beauty, but to juxtapose the children against this vast backdrop and accentuate their vulnerability and isolation.

The photography around the homestead is also quite good with single establishing shots doing wonders to create atmosphere and place.

Daneau, who co-wrote the film with Eric Ernst, wisely limits the dialogue and lets the excellent atmosphere do the talking. At the same time, the script is quite literate and felt much like a Henry James short story. The two child actors, Madison Davenport and Jake Johnson perform quite credibly with Davenport doing especially well in the more emotionally driven scenes. I wondered how much the ending twist affected their performances as it casts the characters in a completely different light. On my second viewing, I thought I saw some acting that spoke to the twist, but it could have been wishful thinking on my part. Finally, the sparse, understated piano and cello driven music by Kristin Øhrn Dyrud also adds a forlorn note to the proceedings without becoming over-cued or sting-like. I noticed the score come in unobtrusively a few times, but was pleased how often the film used silence as a counterpoint.

Ultimately, this is an odd little hybrid of western, drama and fairy tale that's more of a psychological mood piece than outright thriller or horror movie. Still, like many fairy tales, it is unsettling, sad and beautiful all at the same time while addressing the age old fears of abandonment and isolation.

Final score: 8/10

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Menacing Visitor

Once upon a time in India, a woman was visited by the oddest man...

When Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1978, he explained that he no longer did horror films because of their diminished quality. He proceeded to show three fake trailers, performed by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, as examples of the decline of modern day horror. The faux movies had such humorous titles as, The Island of Lost Luggage, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Rogers. The other fake trailer, The Thing That Wouldn't Leave, concerned a clueless houseguest, played by John Belushi, who had overstayed his welcome at a young couples home. As he obliviously ignored dropped hints he should leave and instead asked for more chips, a horrified housewife, played by Jane Curtain, screamed in terror. 

It's not really the most funny or terrifying premise in the world, but Bollywood director Ram Gopal Varma actually manages to wring humor, suspense and horror from the same concept in the 1999 Hindi thriller Kaun? (Who's There?).

The strikingly beautiful and perky Indian actress Urmila Matondkar plays a never-named, young woman who is apparently home alone with only her cat for company. Early on, a television news report of a recent murder committed by a serial killer in the vicinity causes the young woman anxiety which is subsequently amplified by the appearance of an unexpected and unwanted visitor.

Manoj Bajpai plays the clueless lost visitor, Sameer, who manages the near impossible feat of being obsequious, goofy and menacing all at the same time. It doesn't become obvious until near the end of the film whether Sameer's ingratiating plea of "Ma'am, Ma'am" is meant as the slightly servile begging of a stranded traveler, or the cat-and-mouse taunt of a serial killer. At times, the credibility of this character is stretched as when he exclaims he hates cats in one breath, then picks up the woman's cat and begins fawning over it. But, overall, Bajpai does a great job of making Sameer a harmless, cheese-sandwich-loving buffoon in one scene, and a dangerous menace in the next while still maintaining believability. To really appreciate Bajpai in this role, one need only see him in a more conventional movie like Satya where he quite credibly plays a savvy gangster leader.

Initially, the woman will not let Sameer into the house, despite his pleas and a steady downpour outside. Eventually though, he is allowed in and immediately turns up the creepiness. Things get more complicated and suspenseful when yet another uninvited house guest subsequently shows up.

The ending stretches the plot a little beyond reason and nearly changes the story to an urban legend-type fairy tale, but it was a large part of the fun for me. With all the previous twists, I knew one more was coming and it did. Some will have issues with it, but I liked it despite the associated logic problems.

Besides the credible acting, there are a couple of other elements that help the film immensely. One is the economical length (by Bollywood standards) of 100 minutes which serves as more than enough time to introduce the characters, set the mood and execute the twists. The short runtime does come at the expense of the usual obligatory musical numbers save for the opening and closing title song which is actually a nice little hip-hop-like ditty that fits the film's tone. Another aspect that boosts the film is the set decoration and design. With only three characters (outside of a dream sequence crowd) the film invariably would carry a stage-like feel, but the incredible set design and decor vest it with a very photographic, cinema friendly atmosphere. The woman's house is filled to capacity with stunning art and furnishings and it really gives the camera and viewer a lot of colorful things to look at when the story slows. The beautiful interior is accentuated by the constant, steady rain outside that can be seen on the windows or creating shadows on the walls. 

Overall, Kaun? is an aesthetically pleasing, well constructed and evenly acted thriller that also brings some humor courtesy of Manoj Bajpai's performance. The story is not the most original and maybe has one too many twists and the music has the typically overbearing horror cues but the film is otherwise executed so well that these minor flaws are easily overlooked. 

Final Score 7.5/10

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Piggybacking Witch

Once upon a time in Russia, there was a young seminarian who stumbled across something evil...

Viy or Spirit of Evil is most notable for being the first horror movie ever produced in the old Soviet Union. The film was made in 1965, but being a period piece with minimal dialogue, it feels almost like a silent film at times and definitely carries that aesthetic especially in its more fantastical parts. 
It's a simple plot that starts out light in tone with a group of seminary students clowning around while waiting to be dismissed on break. The story quickly establishes that the young seminarians are typical brash, carefree, irresponsible and somewhat foolish young men, particularly the lead character, Khoma, a young philosopher played by Leonid Kuravlyov. 

A big part of the theme of Viy involves the consequences of dodging moral responsibility - a surprisingly daring message to focus on for a film made in the USSR. The seminary and subsequent church settings are also eyebrow-raising considering the official party stance on religion. But much like science fiction, a lot of juicy subversiveness can be cloaked in the guise of horror and fantasy.

Throughout the tale, Khoma, attempts to flee responsibility and obligation only to be thrust right back into the position of dealing with the problem he helped create. He only reluctantly agrees to aid one of his seminary's benefactors, a local Cossack chieftain, when threatened with punishment by the seminary's head priest. Similarly, the chieftain's peasant workers, who come to collect Khoma for their boss, joke about having to tie him up to insure they get him back home. This craven irresponsibility doesn't necessarily make Khoma unpopular or uncharismatic. Indeed, even the peasants, who've been assigned to watch over him so he doesn't run off, take an immediate liking to him. But most of the characters seem to implicitly understand that unpleasant tasks and obligations are just an unavoidable part of life - something Khoma has yet to learn.

The initial set up and character building are fairly lighthearted and leisurely take over half the movie to play out. Once the story reaches the three nights of vigil at the church, however, it really raises the intensity level. And, although the first two night's events are concluded all too briefly, they involve a very well choreographed dance between the actors and camera that's quite captivating and enjoyable. The scenes are also aided immeasurably by the strikingly beautiful actress Natalya Varley as the witch/daughter. Her facial expressions and mime work are very engaging.

Finally, it's the third night of vigil at the church that is a visually creepy delight. Coupled with the increasing tension of the previous nights,  Khoma's ever more desperate desire to dodge the last night of vigil really ratchets up the suspense. Although some may carp about the slow burn trip to reach the ending, the payoff is quite satisfying both in terms of imagery and plot. 

My guess is most modern day horror fans would not like Viy as it is far too tame and art-house-y. On the other hand, I think a lot of kids may like the fairy tale aspects of the film if they can get past a few subtitles.  For a cool atmospheric double bill, I'd suggest watching Viy with Leslie Steven's Incubus as both have similar, strange, otherworldly feels about them in addition to some excellent imagery.
Lastly, there is a remake of Viy in the pipe that has finished filming and is set for release in 2013. Judging by the trailers it looks like a lot of fast cuts and CGI nonsense, but the scene in the church looks intact and somewhat faithful to the original. Here's hoping...

Viy final score: 7.5/10

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Flickering Candlesticks

Hey, it's October, and that can mean only one thing - being pummeled with a multitude of horror movie reviews on blogs, podcasts and whatnot. I'm afraid I'll be joining in on the lemming-like march toward Halloween horror mania with some seasonal reviews of my own, but hopefully, they'll be under-seen and under-appreciated enough to be of interest. Toward that effort, I thought I'd focus on horror that had some kind of fairy tale aspect to it. Also, I wanted to pick films from around the world to add some flavor. So without further ado:

Once upon a time in New Zealand, there lived a boy named Jack...

Long before hiding in the bathroom with a hand cannon in Pulp Fiction, or dating one of the coeds in Threesome or robbing banks with the James brothers in Frank and Jesse, Alexis Arquette starred as an Auckland boy named Jack. Now, as tough a time as Arquette's characters had in those previously mentioned films, they are nothing when compared to Jack's difficulties in the New Zealand horror movie, Jack Be Nimble. As the story begins, Jack and his big sister Dora are separated from each other when their mother has a meltdown and they are given up for adoption. 

Dora is adopted by a kindly couple, whereas Jack gets adopted by a different couple who, judging by their appearance, seem like they might be nice...

...well, maybe not so much. But hey, there's good news in that Jack has four, count 'em, four new sisters and that's not a bad trade off at all, is it?

Well, maybe not so much. But hey, everyone eventually grows up and gets over their sibling rivalries and lets bygones be bygones and...

Um, nevermind. The truth is, Jack's upbringing is the stuff of nightmares and he grows up with more than a little chip on his shoulder. Meanwhile, his estranged sister Dora is not having the best time either. Although her parents are decent, she's picked on at school and still yearns to have her lost brother back with her. To make matters worse, after being injured in a schoolyard fight, she begins hearing voices and having visions.

From here, I'd hoped things would get better for Jack and Dora. But being this is a story absolutely drenched in dark fairy tale tropes, I felt it unlikely. There are some good twists and surprises, but to its credit the film never loses that dark edge and keeps the fairy tale ingredients in play right through to the end. At the same time, it never loses its believability due to the imaginative writing and direction of New Zealander, Garth Maxwell. The acting is superior as well with kiwi stalwarts like Bruno Lawrence and Elizabeth Hawthorne, and Aussie icon Tony Barry backing up the leads Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy who plays Dora.

Lawrence, who is always solid in the anti-hero role, puts in another interesting performance as Teddy, Dora's would-be boyfriend. Teddy is not a bad guy, but he is a bit of a selfish prick which is a nice departure for a character who is otherwise empathetic. Tony Barry, who usually plays good guy roles, and whom I loved in Goodbye Pork Pie, is quite believable as Jack's adopted, drunken, sadistic father. But it's Elizabeth Hawthorne, best known from The Frighteners, who is actually the most bone-chillingly evil character in the film.

Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy both do excellent jobs in the lead roles with Arquette alternating between suppressed rage and emotional hurt throughout the film. I haven't seen all of Arquette's work, but this has to be one of his best performances as he puts on an emotional showcase all the while using a passable kiwi accent.

My only problem with the film is that the below average cinematography and lesser film stock got in the way of what could have been some great shots. The cheaper, muddy look works with the country location of Jack's family but it really does damage with the city skyline or ocean shots that appear later in the film. New Zealand, of all places, demands top notch, crisp photography.
Overall, the film is a rare horror fairy tale in a modern setting that actually works extremely well and is quite disturbing. Why it hasn't received more attention is a mystery but it is a perfect movie for Halloween.

Jack Be Nimble score - 8.25/10