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Saturday, 16 January 2016

In Memoriam

I wrote these reviews with the plan of them constituting my Monday Night Roundup on the 18th, but it quickly became obvious that every one of them represented a tribute to an actor who had died. It's been a tough year thus far. After losing Lemmy at the end of 2015, two weeks of 2016 hit us with David Bowie, Angus Scrimm and Alan Rickman. Each of the films covered here is reviewed in tribute to them.

Now Dan Haggerty has joined that number, but he chose a couple of films for my Make It a Double project, so I'll post those two reviews at Apocalypse Later over the next week.

The Hunger (1983)

Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon
The world lost David Bowie on 10th January, less than two weeks after it lost Lemmy, two genre-spanning musical icons whose stature is immeasurable. In tribute to Bowie, we watched The Prestige and The Hunger as a double bill, which was an interesting experience. He may be the weakest link in the former, playing Nikola Tesla, but is perhaps the most resonant performer in the latter, even though it features a lesbian scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

I’ve seen The Hunger before, but not since it came out and I’d forgotten the entire story, remembering only that it was a vampire flick put together with a particularly unique style by mainstream filmmaker Tony Scott. Perhaps that’s because the story is by far the weakest angle, Scott and his scriptwriters only paying lip service to Whitley Strieber’s source novel and then riffing off it in cinematic experimentation.

It’s that style that shows up first and dominates throughout. The film begins with Bauhaus performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead in a club, which is an astoundingly good way to kick off a vampire movie. Cutting back and forth between Peter Murphy performing from behind a wall of chicken wire and the young and beautiful getting their groove on is a touch of class. Everything here is stylish to the degree that these aren’t actors playing characters but performance artists eliciting an effect. There are visual devices in and amongst all this, so that we’re given an impressionistic connection between sex and violence in a fetishistic way. ‘Forever and ever,’ Bowie tells Deneuve in the shower after they kill a young couple and drinking their blood. It’s like the conclusion of a ritual.

Scott’s film doesn’t go into the background that Strieber’s novel does, as it never seems particularly interested in that sort of thing. It merely highlights that Deneuve is Miriam Blaylock, an elegant and ancient vampire, if a wooden one who sometimes reminds of one of the ancient marble busts in her shadowy and underlit house. Bowie is John, her husband, who she turned once upon a time. We have to read up on the background to discover that she’s an ancient Egyptian and he’s merely a French cellist whom she fell for a couple of hundred years ago.

The plot revolves around Strieber’s concept of inheritance in which, while Miriam may well be immortal, those she turns are not; they’re merely long lived, but once age starts to catch up with them, it catches up quickly. That’s happening to John as we join his story and he’s scared. After two full centuries of apparently being thirty years old, he doesn’t like the idea that he’s not going to remain young for much longer. Miriam gives him a week and she’s optimistic, so off he goes to see Sarandon.

She’s Dr Sarah Roberts, a gerontologist studing progeria, a disease that prompts aging at an unnatural rate and kills children of old age. The vampires know of her book, Sleep and Longevity, which suggests that ‘age is a disease which can be cured.’ Of course, they can’t cure it yet as, while her team at the Park West Clinic are good, they ‘can’t promise everlasting life.’ What they can’t imagine, of course, is that there’s someone out there who has already conquered the aging process, at least in herself.

Probably the best scene of the film has Sarah leave John in the lobby because she thinks he’s a kook, only for him to age decades in the couple of hours that pass. He’s struggling to pass for thirty when he goes in but, two hours later, he looks like a Stan Lee cameo. The make up effects are superb and Bowie sells the progression magnificently. His dismissal of Sarah when she finally realises that he’s for real is stunning and he keeps that standard up until he’s too old to do anything. Later that day, when Alice, his violin student of a year, shows up at the house, he’s aged so much that she thinks he’s his own father. When Miriam gets home and he calls her on ‘forever’, it comes out as a croak because he’s more like a hunchback Dr Phibes.
Apart from Bowie, there’s little acting going on. I’ve seen what Deneuve can do in other films, so have to assume that she underplayed Miriam deliberately, perhaps because she’s frustrated at losing another lover to age and refuses to deal with it, knowing that if she ignores the situation it’ll go away quickly while she focuses on finding a new lover, namely Dr Sarah Roberts. I understand that Sarandon is a skilled actress too, but I’ve never been a big fan and she left me dry here as well. There are much more sexy and erotic vampire films out there for me than this one, even if these two get behind Scott’s omnipresent fluttering transparent curtains to get down and dirty. I think I enjoyed the brief appearance of Bessie Love, one of my silent film favourites appearing in her very last role, and an almost as brief appearance of Willem Dafoe, very young but much more recognisable while earning only his second credit, more than the two leading ladies.

There’s even less story going on. I love the concepts in play here, but they all belong to Strieber rather than Scott and nobody involved with the film seems remotely interested in exploring them.

For a start, the idea that a vampire story should involve someone professionally studying how aging works ought to generate an interesting progression, but it doesn’t here. The idea that a vampire is stuck in the vicious cycle of seeking out lovers, turning them, spending centuries with them, only for them to leave her through a process that she’s conquered but is unable to truly gift them, is a sad and brutal one. I was reminded of the treatment that Highlander took, where Connor Macleod was advised against taking a mortal lover because they’ll age and die when he wouldn’t. This is even worse, because the process isn’t consistent but merely an unknown time followed by an abrupt ending. At least the Highlander could prepare! Yet again, this is avoided almost deliberately, John being Miriam’s focus until, well, he isn’t and, well, Sarah is. That rejection is an utterly brutal thing, as is what she the ndoes with him and did in the past with his predecessors. The idea that she has no power over this is yet another one that’s woefully underdeveloped.

The positive side is almost entirely on the stylistic front. There’s style everywhere here, but it ends up being almost entirely over substance. The film is very dark, less in the thematic sense than in the one that there’s very little light. Unless the characters are outside, the lighting is turned down low and nobody seems to care. Perhaps it’s just to make Deneuve look younger than she was. The point isn’t to play with shadows in some expressionistic way but just to render the whole picture moody. It’s also bathed in blue, maybe to play to the age motif by reminding of a tinted silent movie or maybe to subtly play up the connection between erotica and the colour blue. Scott paints this like a modern dream rather than the old masters that his brother Ridley is so good at staging. It’s thoroughly eighties in its feel.

And that’s about it. The worst thing is the end, because the regular finalé is shot poorly, albeit with very good effects work, and the actual finalé was pointlessly tacked on by the studio and makes no sense whatsoever. Leaving the film in such a poor way merely reminds of how well it started and how it just gradually slid from one extreme to the other throughout. I enjoyed it thoroughly until I didn’t, then it merely passed by until I realised how poor it was and, finally, the ending underlined that. Just because a cult following has built around The Hunger, mostly because of its slow but stylish visuals and the use of lesbian vampirism, doesn’t mean that it’s any good.

RIP Mr Bowie.

Phantasm

Director: Don Coscarelli
Stars: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester and Angus Scrimm
Another actor we lost recently is Angus Scrimm, who died on 9th January, another horror genre icon to leave us after Wes Craven and Gunnar Hansen. Scrimm acted in more films than David Bowie, which will always make me wonder which two movies he might have picked for my Make It a Double project, but he was more tied to one role, that of the Tall Man in the Phantasm series, which he played five times if we include Phantasm: Ravager, which is currently in post-production. I’ve reviewed this film before but back in 2007 when I was mostly writing notes for my own benefit, so, in tribute, here’s some better coverage.

The film starts well for Tommy, given that he’s getting some from a blonde number in the Morningside cemetery. It doesn’t continue so well, though, given that she promptly stabs him to death with a knife. From that point on, writer/director Don Coscarelli seems more interested in setting a freaky tone than unfolding a story and he does a solid job by setting us up with a whole host of freaky components from which he can hang that story when he’s ready to start telling it.

There’s a huge white funeral home, the exterior of which we only seem to see from a distance. There are a lot of freaky passages inside that are lined with identical memorial stones with reflective labels. There’s an odd thirteen year old called Michael who rides a dirt bike between the gravestones, stalks his brother and spies on people through binoculars because apparently he has no life. There are little creatures in robes like jawas which chase him and infect his dreams. There’s a tall man whom he watches effortlessly lifting a loaded coffin into a hearse on his own. There’s a blonde in lavender who seems to like to make out with guys on top of gravestones. There’s a repetitive but catchy theme that sounds very much like a riff on Tubular Bells, which had worked so well for The Exorcist. There’s a sign with only a red hand on it, outside the home of an old wheelchair-bound psychic woman who looks rather like Ozzy Osbourne with her black clothes, round glasses and a star on her forehead; she lets her granddaughter speak for her. There’s an ice cream man who’s bald on top but wears a short ponytail like he’s a lounge lizard. There’s even a bar, the Dunes Cantina, with a horse on the balcony; not a real one, but still.

Half an hour in, we still have no idea what’s going on but we know it’s going to be freaky. This isn’t like any other franchise horror flick we’ve seen before. It’s no slasher film, it’s no monster movie and it’s no serial killer flick. It’s something a little different that clearly tells us that there’s something going on at Morningside and if we we’re horror nuts, we just have to know what it is. Inquisitive little Michael has to know too, so he breaks in to find out and that’s when the infamous metallic ball, the most memorable icon of the series even over the Tall Man, shows up. It flies of its own accord, generates blades to stick into people’s skulls, then extrudes a drillbit to siphon the blood out of their bodies until they’re dead. I adore this little thing; it’s genius design and it ratchets up the freaky factor to new levels.
The freakiness is a good thing, not only for its own sakes but because the budget is clearly low and the acting hardly a major achievement. Most of the cast members tend to appear predominantly in Don Coscarelli movies, which highlights that they like to work together but also that they either don’t have a heck of a lot of ambition or other people aren’t that interested in hiring them. Both ideas are believable, because most were amateur actors hired for a cheap independent production and they combine coarse acting with slow and methodical delivery and minimalist sets of expressions. A few even play characters with their own names.

Michael Baldwin is surely the best of the cast as the precocious Mike, even though the studio blocked Coscarelli’s plans to bring him back for the first sequel. He was only fourteen when he made this movie but he’s believable with his weird obsessions, in his growing terror and in his determination to face it. Sure, he’s a little annoying but having a sort of young Marty Feldman flavour actually makes that work. By comparison, Bill Thornbury sleepwalks through the film as if he’s a cardboard cutout of Han Solo and the various young ladies, refreshingly all wholesome girl next door types, don’t do much at all beyond looking like wholesome girl next door types. Reggie Bannister gets a little substance as the ice cream vendor, though, and I can’t fault Scrimm for looking and acting agreeably sinister. Coscarelli cast him because he’d been intimidated by him on a previous film and felt that he would make a great villain. He was right.

The freakiness that’s everywhere does gradually coalesce into a story, which is minimalist but weirdly compelling. The dialogue is cheap and oddly sparse, but there’s no arguing that this is one of the more original genre movies of the era, however little budget it had to play with. It plays as a dreamlike horror movie throughout but betrays science fiction sensibilities (the placement of a Roger Zelazny paperback on Mike’s bedside table has to be deliberate) and it ends up as a philosophical meditation on death and the mourning process. I won’t spoil why, but keep your eyes open for the ending. This mashup of genre elements is heightened by the editing and very deliberate camera movements that include zooms and pans for specific effect. Coscarelli took care of all that himself because he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.

It was released in 1979 and sits well in that no mans land between the psychological seventies and the gory eighties. That’s one reason why it stands up today but the biggest reason is surely Don Coscarelli, who had the imagination to write this script, the dedication to direct it as an independent movie and the will to continue with a concept that strongly connected to people through three sequels thus far and a fourth to come. I’m a confirmed fan of his unique output, especially this and Bubba Ho-Tep but also John Dies at the End and even Survival Quest, so I really ought to delve into the relatively few other features that he’s made thus far.

RIP, Mr Scrimm.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Stars: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Robin Sachs and Patrick Breen
Finally, we also lost the great Alan Rickman, almost the template for British Hollywood villains and so much more, on 14th January.

It feels very strange, given how many conventions my family and I work, attend or run nowadays, to think that the last time I watched Galaxy Quest was so far back that it predates my attending one. Autographs at $15 a pop? Clearly I discovered them too late.

What this means is that while I understood the film intellectually back then, I didn’t grok it. I didn’t realise its depths and understand how David Howard, who wrote the story and turned it into a screenplay with Robert Gordon, got most things very right indeed. Nowadays, even though I’m no trekker, I’d like to think that I understand a lot more.

The concept is rather like The Last Starfighter squared. Instead of a young man who’s trying to escape from a trailer park, only to get a lot further away than he dreamed when his video game playing skills brought him to the attention of an alien race fighting a space war, here we have the cast of a sci-fi TV show who are trying to escape their success, only to get a lot further away than they dream when their fictional exploits bring them to the attention of an alien race fighting a space war.

The humour, of course, stems from the fact that unlike Alex, who with a stretch of credulity, actually has the skills needed to fight Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada, the cast of Galaxy Quest have no skills to bring to bear at all because they’ve just been acting all this time. Or do they? This is the same idea that would later drive My Name is Bruce, but the different genre changes up the humour. Instead of R-rated horror, this is sourced from PG science fiction and digs very deep in its exploration of Star Trek and what it has meant to people over the decades.

Howard’s story is the biggest reason that this film succeeds. It finds the humour in geek fandom without ever offending the geek fans and it presents it in such a way that it found an audience beyond fandom, albeit not as sizeable an audience as it deserves. It’s also backed up by one of the most appropriate casts that I’ve seen assembled.

I’m not a Tim Allen fan by any stretch of the imagination but he plays Jason Nesmith perfectly, the actor who plays Capt Peter Quincy Taggart on Galaxy Quest. As a womanising egotist who had the world in the palms of his hands because of one iconic character, but has only found depression since the show was cancelled and he couldn’t play him any more, he’s both William Shatner and Tim Allen. While the trekkers would focus on the similarities between Taggart and Kirk and between Nesmith and Shatner, I’d argue that it’s actually the parts where Allen is playing himself that resonate the most because they bring a sadness to the character that is all too true. It’s not Jean Claude van Damme in JCVD, but there is a connection.

And, of course, Taggart is the star of the show so Nesmith is the star of the cast and it’s naturally to him that the alien race of Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula reach out for help. They are real aliens, octopoid creatures who can disguise themselves as humans, and they have no concept of fiction. When they show up at a Galaxy Quest convention, they don’t understand that it’s all made up. They picked up broadcasts of the show out there in space and, believing the episodes to be ‘historical documents’, fashioned their entire culture around the philosophy and technology that they saw. Now, with Sarris, a powerful warlord, about to destroy them, they are reaching out to their last hope, the legendary Taggart and the legendary crew of his legendary ship, the Protector.

That crew is superbly cast. Sigourney Weaver is Gwen DeMarco and Lt Tawny Madison, whose entire job on the Protector is to repeat what the computer says. The part says a lot in itself, and she looks good in blonde, but casting Weaver also invites comparisons with the character which she’s played most on film, Ripley from the Alien series. Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane and Dr Lazarus of Tev’Meck, the token alien crewman with a culturally odd weapon and a overblown catchphrase. Again, beyond the part saying much in itself, Rickman personifies the traditional Hollywood treatment given to British Shakespearean stage actors and he nails his disdain as only a craftsman of his calibre can. ‘I was an actor once,’ he repeats and it resonates.
Tony Shalhoub is Fred Kwan and Tech Sgt Chen, even though he doesn’t look remotely Asian. He’s magnificently matter of fact throughout, even though everyone else is utterly thrown for a loop by the discovery that the world they occupied in fiction is also real. He has one minor crisis of faith but it’s quickly solved and he even falls for one of the alien women, tentacles and all. Daryl Mitchell, who I didn’t know at all, is strong as Tommy Webber and Lt Laredo, filling both the token black spot and the token child prodigy spot, having begun his role as the pilot when very young indeed. He’s the least prepared because he never took the role remotely seriously and one of the best scenes is the extended scraping of the Protector 2 as he only just manages to navigate it out of the docking bay.

In addition to these core crew members, there are three other major players.

Sam Rockwell is gifted with a magnificent part as Guy Fleegman, who we meet as an MC at the Galaxy Quest convention, and only discover later when he’s transported up to the Thermian ship with the crew that he was a redshirt in one episode. This gives him a great deal of opportunity, which he lives up to superbly. While his companions are trapped within their famous Galaxy Quest roles, the show is his only claim to fame. While they are inherently invulnerable as major crew members, he feels imminent death just because he isn’t. And he gets to be the one guy that nobody knows, nobody recognises, nobody acknowledges. He doesn’t even have a surname. While Galaxy Quest the TV show is all about them, Galaxy Quest the movie is, in many ways, more about him.

Robin Sachs is hidden behind some superb make up effects and prosthetics as Gen Roth’h’ar Sarris, the villain of the piece, named for the film critic Andrew Sarris. He has very little substance, as was the norm for such sci-fi TV show villains, but he gets to bellow and posture a lot, all of which is notably cinematic. The character design is magnificent, a cross between insect, lizard and human, a B-movie creation with A-movie quality.

And, finally, there’s Enrico Colantoni, who steals the entire show in my book with an absolutely fantastic performance. He plays Mathesar, the leader of the Thermians not only in title but in fact; they all follow him at every point and in everything. He has a memorable look, a memorable voice and a memorable way of moving, all of which they copy. The voice is best of all, but close behind it is his inability not to smile, even under insane danger. He plays Mathesar like he doesn’t quite understand the human body and how it works, which is appropriate for an octopus that is merely appropriating the form. I adored his entire performance.

There’s a lot of success here for a film that could easily be written off because of what it appears to be. It’s actually one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen from Hollywood, a clever drama in science fiction clothing and a meta piece that works on a number of layers. It’s telling that a Star Trek convention actually voted it the seventh best Star Trek movie, but it’s also better than merely being something obviously related to that show and its appeal should be wider than merely those who understand that Tim Allen’s bathroom scene, where he overhears fans explaining how he’s a joke and doesn’t realise it, was a real life scene for William Shatner back in 1966.

It’s perhaps most successful when riffing on the connections between actors, the characters they play and how fans perceive the two as the same thing. However it’s less successful when delving deeper to themes from the golden age of science fiction, which, after all, had prompted the creation of Star Trek to begin with. I was reminded of Robert A Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, in which the human race invents the solution to a problem only because they believed that it already existed and it was being withheld from them. This applies very much to the Thermians, but runs much deeper than Mathesar’s inevitable discovery that he already is what he’s trying so hard to copy. In focusing so much on the people, it fails to develop the ideas properly, resulting in a fun, touching and affectionate but ultimately nonsensical finalé.

Galaxy Quest might look like a simple Star Trek pastiche, but it’s much more than that and it deserves more attention that it’s been given. However, it could have been much more again, only to find that it didn’t quite look far enough.

RIP Mr Rickman.

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