Wes Craven’s New Nightmare


One of the neater tricks in recent memory was Wes Craven’s reappearance in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, once again holding Freddy Krueger’s puppet strings. The directorial possessive is deserved here, since the filmmaker has made a movie about the making of one of his movies. I can’t think of another film that casts its own director and studio executives — let alone its own actors — playing themselves in addition to their characters.

You follow? The concept is that once New Line stopped releasing movies in the Nightmare series (remember, the previous entry was titled Freddy’s Dead), the very real evil that was embodied in Freddy’s character has been stripped of its outlet in the movies. As a result, it’s crossing over from the world of fiction into the real world, apparently giving creator Craven some very bad dreams. To stop it, he has to make another movie in the series, with the original star — a reluctant Heather Langenkamp. If the film’s execution lacks the stuff it struts in conception, it’s still quite a concept, and a unique, cerebral horror film.

On laserdisc, the concept goes one step further, with a movie-length commentary from Craven himself on one of the supplementary audio tracks. Quite a treat.


Elias Koteas in Exotica

After the final reel of Exotica had unspooled, like a slender key filling the last hole in a wooden puzzlebox, a woman at the New York Film Festival screening last year had a question for director Atom Egoyan. She wanted to know what happened at the end of the movie. Visibly perturbed at the question, Egoyan dodged it. Heads craned as the woman pressed for his answer. She explained that she had seen each of Egoyan’s previous films, had enjoyed them tremendously; it was just this film, she said, this was the one that she didn’t “get.” Finally, Egoyan gave in and answered her question. Here is what the last scene in the film meant, he explained, his four- or five-word declamation a stark and numbing negation of the gentle, almost languid spirit of the film, which invites the audience to its own discovery. The “what happened” is simple enough to explain, but you can’t really understand it unless you’re fully caught up in the cinema when it unfolds in front of you.

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Pennies from Heaven


<i>Pennies from Heaven</i> key art

How cynical can a musical be? Director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Dennis Potter did a neat job of distilling the British TV miniseries (also written by Potter, who died last year) into the length of a U.S. feature film. Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, an unpleasant idealist who sells sheet music (or “songs,” as he puts it) during the American Depression. When Arthur falls in love with schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters), he abandons (then returns to) his wife, who is less accommodating sexually, but does have an inheritance that Arthur wants to exploit to open a record store. In glimpses into characters’ minds, the actors dance and lip-sync with canned recordings from the era to bizarre and ironic results, as when Vernel Bagneris mouths “Pennies From Heaven” in front of a photographic blow-up of Depression-era homeless. Later, Christopher Walken (yep) puts on a show-stopping version of “Let’s Misbehave.” “I want to live in a world where the songs come true,” Arthur tells Eileen (now Lulu), in a tableaux drawn from an Edward Hopper painting. “There must be someplace where them songs are for real.” Only in your dreams.

Shallow Grave


There’s a guaranteed audience these days for the “sophisticated thriller.” In genrespeak, that’s the movie with a self-consciously twisting and turning plotline, overtly intelligent characters, and a calculated streak of nastiness allowing the viewer to feel truly decadent, giggling along with the filmmakers. Shallow Grave is such a movie, a British import about a trio of flatmates who conspire against their own better judgment to take advantage of someone else’s ill-gotten gains. When I saw it, with a “sophisticated” crowd on Manhattan’s upper west side, the folks to the left and right of me were swept up in the movie, cackling evilly or burying faces in hands when the proceedings on-screen became particularly gruesome. No doubt about it, this movie is a manipulator and a crowd pleaser. Continue reading

In the Mouth of Madness

Sam Neill (center) in In the Mouth of Madness

Horror films have always been prone to navel-gazing. Often neglected and sometimes maligned, the genre has tackled more than its share of Imponderables: what scares us, and why? What happens when you stick a knife into the tender underbelly of faith? What is the face of evil? What does it mean to be a storyteller, and what is the nature of film itself?

John Carpenter has done as fine a job as anyone at exploring these issues. From his landmark Halloween (whose unforgettable final moments offer up a chill that is pure cinema) through such underrated strokes as the paranoiac’s bedtime story The Thing, the anti-Reaganite They Live, and the sublimely creepy Prince of Darkness, Carpenter’s films have been smartly crafted with a real story to tell. It comes as no surprise that his newest horror picture, In the Mouth of Madness,, taps the offbeat yet ubiquitous Sam Neill to anchor a wacked-out tale that pokes sly fun at the Stephen King phenomenon while at the same time offering an odd picture of mass culture.

Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator sent on a mission to locate best-selling novelist Sutter Cane. Cane writes horror novels, the kind that make fans of “literary” fiction wrinkle up their noses. We get the impression that he’s a sort of amalgamation of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, with a rabid contingent of fans who grow inexplicably violent — they break windows and bloody one another’s faces scrambling for copies of Cane’s new book at the local shop. A few of those readers, among them Cane’s former agent, wander the streets with bloody hatchets, drooling and raving. The problem is that Cane has vanished, after delivering just a few chapters of his newest manuscript to publisher Arcane. Trent sets off to look for Hobb’s End, the presumably fictional New Hampshire town where many of Cane’s stories take place.

Trent finds Hobb’s End, all right, a small town torn from the pages of Cane’s novels that’s not on any map. And he finds Cane there, as well (Jurgen Prochnow, having great fun as the messianic novelist banging out pages on a manual typewriter as the walls around him sweat and breathe). The story takes a Twilight Zone spin as Trent and Linda Stiles, his companion from Arcane, discover that the good townsfolk are acting out their parts in the books of Sutter Cane. The author is manipulating reality, and he promises that his new book will drive the entire world stark-raving mad. What about people who don’t read books?, one character asks at one point. Well then, he’s told, there’s always the movie (starring John Trent, of course).

Shot for the wide screen and brilliantly visual, In the Mouth of Madness is great fun to watch, with even the requisite cheap shocks doling out a good jolt. Sam Neill is always a pleasure, even when it seems that he’s hardly trying, and his staid characterization is balanced by a slew of icky demonic crowd-pleasing creations that fly in the face of his pronounced skepticism. The down side is that the movie isn’t really about anything, save perhaps the power of the media and the purported dangers of paying too much mind to pop culture phenomena (yawn!). Another old horror hand, Wes Craven (who has been savaged like few other filmmakers for his brutal debut feature,The Last House on the Left), did the genre a bigger favor last year. Even though both films empower the artist, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare went a bold step farther, offering a clever and impassioned defense of the horror film when it needed it the most.

In fact, one might suspect that Carpenter has been sleeping with the neo-conservative enemy, offering up a critique of the mania that could ensue when people read too many scary books. Still, the director is on record opposing censorship, and has always stood up to critics who called his films (The Thing, especially) too violent. We can only interpret the new movie as a love letter to horror fans, a brotherly nudge and wink toward our own cathartic experiences as we sit in the dark, waiting to be scared. At any rate, it’s a tremendous improvement over such Chevy Chase fodder as Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and we can hope that in his next film (a remake of Village of the Damned), Carpenter’s incisive, critical vision will snap back into sharp focus.

Nobody’s Fool

Melanie Griffith and Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool

This gentle film may have been the biggest surprise of 1994. I’m not usually one to get all warm inside over dramas of small-town relationships and redemption starring folks like Paul Newman, but Nobody’s Fool is nearly perfect from start to finish. Newman’s never been sharper than he is as Sully, a loser from way back who’s still coming to terms with his botched history and trying to put together what’s left of his life — which includes a recently returned son and grandson. Bruce Willis is unbilled in his best role to date, and director Robert Benton coaxes a warm and charming performance from Melanie Griffith, on whom I had given up completely. Capped by the regal presence of the late Jessica Tandy and based on an award-winning novel by Richard Russo (who was solicited for input on story changes), Nobody’s Fool qualifies as a minor masterwork, and should be perfect fare on some fragile, snowy night.

Pulp Fiction

Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction

Forget Oscar®-nominees Travolta and Thurman. And forget the rancorous claims that Tarantino stole his best ideas from the last quarter-century of action moviemaking in America and abroad.* Samuel L. Jackson is the beating heart of Pulp Fiction, and his performance alone would make this well worth your while. Jackrabbit Slim’s bores my ass off, but I get a giddy rush from the mesh of violence and high comedy; the urgency in Jackson’s voice when he insists, “I’m trying real hard to be the Shepherd”; the arrival of Harvey Keitel, liberated from that Bridget Fonda movie; and the way that Tarantino’s narrative folds back on itself almost delicately, a self-conscious counterpoint to the excess of it all.

 * Note to anyone who’s never seen a Hong Kong movie: watch Pulp Fiction one more time, and then rent John Woo’s The Killer and turn your world inside out all over again.

Three Colors: Red

Irene Jacob in Three Colors: Red

They don’t make movies like this anymore. Even the most self-conscious of European films, destined to be widely promoted in America with dull trailers, tasteful posters, and an art house blitz, aren’t as unapologetically indulgent as the recent films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. His The Double Life of Veronique offers an oblique meditation on the properties of light alongside a metaphysical study of Veronique, a French woman who inadvertently photographs her perfect double (Weronika) while visiting Poland. Blue casts art-house standby Juliette Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Damage) as a mopey French widow, and features a rich and overwhelming orchestral score and arresting imagery (a sugar cube touched to coffee fills the movie screen as the white crystals turn brown) that literally bring the film to a halt time and again. White is a neatly comic film about marriage and capitalism that travels from France back to Poland and offers up at least one show-stopping visual metaphor — the screen blazes white in illustration of Julie Delpy’s orgasm, reducing audiences to gasps and titters.

Kieslowski’s harshest critics maintain that the films sap the sympathies of an irredeemably gullible audience. They accuse him of arranging for fashionable Frenchwomen to traipse through his very European landscapes, murmuring New Age platitudes, sleeping with sensitive New Age guys, and pouting for the camera. The director’s newest film, Red, the culmination of his Three Colors trilogy which also includes Blue and White, they insist, is overblown claptrap, substituting notions of Fate and Destiny for credible filmmaking. The new issue of Film Comment (November-December 1994) juxtaposes a rich essay on the trilogy by New York Daily News critic Dave Kehr with a tirade against it (by Phillip Lopate) which insists that the film’s supporters have been aesthetically “bamboozled.”

Kieslowski’s audience is neither gullible nor easily amused. The concluding scenes of Red, which may represent the conclusion of the director’s career, tie the three films of the trilogy together so perfectly and unexpectedly that their themes resonate in a viewer’s head for days afterward. The films ostensibly examine the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but they do so in the service of a much broader agenda. Kieslowski has integrated three very distinct pieces into a triptych that folds in on itself and contemplates its own nature. In the process, his characters determine one another’s destinies, even as the director plays God.

Irene Jacob, the uncannily radiant star of Veronique, is Valentine, a Swiss model who we see shooting an advertisement for (of all things) chewing gum. In the film’s most memorable visual trope, her face is to be reproduced on a huge banner and draped against the side of a building in Geneva. Accidents and mishaps drive much of the action in Kieslowski’s films, and the most important relationship here is catalyzed when Valentine, trying to tune in a distant radio station on her car stereo, hits a dog in the street. The dog, named Rita, is bleeding, but alive, and Valentine tries to take it back to its home. Valentine finds Rita’s owner, the retired judge Joseph Kern (the perfectly crusty Jean-Louis Trintignant), who hardly seems to care whether the dog lives or dies. Kern leads a solitary life, but has a radio set up so that he can monitor the telephone conversations of his neighbors. Valentine initially finds his aural voyeurism repugnant, but a strange bond grows between the two characters as they relate their life stories to one another.

The film contains a great many telephone conversations, and indeed Kieslowski investigates the ways in which we humans communicate (or fail to communicate) with one another. It’s telling that the relationship between Valentine and Kern (they could be lovers if not for their age difference) is the only one in which two people seem to be gaining knowledge and support from one another (Valentine has a boyfriend, Michel, who is in England and who she plans to visit, but throughout Red she only communicates with him by telephone). It would be unfair to give away further details, since much of the film is wrapped up in the intricate relationships that color the lives of both Valentine and Kern, and an odd sort of “double life” that Kern himself is living. The film, and the trilogy, culminate in an act of God which hinges on the intrusion of the director himself, who decides the final fate of his characters.

Although Kieslowski obviously finds something fascinating in the face of Jacob (which is honestly the glue holding this film together), one is tempted to draw the conclusion that it’s Trintignant’s misanthropic old judge — who conspires to manipulate his own cast of characters — that the director feels the closest affinity with. It’s a very good sign, then, that the embittered judge finds some measure of satisfaction and redemption at the end of Red (which, incidentally, Kieslowski claims is his last film). Kern has a pointed conversation with Jacob at one point, asking her why she stopped to pick up the dog and take it to a doctor. Was it to help the dog, he wants to know, or was it to make herself feel better, less guilty? By the end of the film, the judge will be asking himself the same question about his own contrivance, one that is key for Kieslowski, who has said in interviews that he has come to believe people are inherently selfish.* Critics have complained that Kieslowski’s films are reliant on coincidence and overblown ideas about Destiny, but it’s a moot complaint when the director is so honest about his role as grand manipulator of his own world, weaving his presence thematically into the work. The culmination of his masterful Three Colors trilogy suggests there is Something Larger than Kieslowski’s characters. Whether that is the Deity or simply the Director is left for us to decide.

* See the discussion of Red in Danusia Stok’s excellent collection of interviews, Kieslowski on Kieslowski, published in the U.S. by Faber & Faber. ISBN: 0-571-16733-0.