Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.
Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.
There are bad movies and there are tantalizingly bad movies, and Saturn 3 is the latter–the type of bad movie that tickles the imagination and demands an explanation. On first blush, there’s nothing unusual about it. Released in 1980, it was clearly trading on the post-Star Wars mania for sci-fi movies. The casting of Farrah Fawcett, at the time a big star, was a reasonable commercial gambit. And the release of Alien a year earlier certainly explained the idea of a monster movie set in space. If you look at the credits, you simply get a sense of older Hollywood types–director Stanley Donen, actor Kirk Douglas–striving to keep up with the prevailing trends.
But then you watch the movie, and you wonder: what the hell happened here?
The first of two low-budget films that John Carpenter wrote pseudonymously and directed in and around downtown Los Angeles in the late-1980s, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is one of the creepiest movies ever made. Underrated at the time by critics who called it “cheesy” (Vincent Canby) and said “[it] stinks” (Richard Harrington), Prince of Darkness was clearly made fast and on the cheap, and it’s roughly crafted by Carpenter standards. Still, it’s a triumph of mood. Filling out a mystery-of-the-ancient-artifact yarn with a cosmic-horror mythology, Prince of Darkness lives in a sweet spot between religious thriller and Satanic potboiler where science is the way, the truth, and the life, for better or worse.
At a certain point about a third of the way into the home invasion thriller You’re Next, in which a wry indie comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering is interrupted by a wry indie slasher picture, a meathead sitting in the row in front of me started applauding. It was a slow clap. On screen, a man wearing a lamb mask had just punched a woman, hard, the force of his blow pushing her through a window. The meathead chuckled appreciatively before putting his hands together for the psycho. The woman crawled on the broken glass until the man in the mask pushed the sole of his boot into the top of her head, his axe following the arc of a golf swing before finding its mark. The meathead tittered delightedly about this and muttered something that I chose to ignore.
Didn’t want to miss this after hearing the stories from Sundance, but as it turns out I didn’t like this any better than McKee’s other films. Tarted up as a feminist parable, the film is a little too gleefully judgmental of a certain category of women that it believes are complicit in their own exploitation. At any rate, the patronizing gender studies mesh poorly with McKee’s slapdash directorial technique, and the slow-moving film is saddled with a jarring rock-and-roll song score and an ersatz 1970s editorial style that verges on self-parody. The best thing about McKee is the women he surrounds himself with, and the line-up of Angela Bettis, Carlee Baker, teenage Lauren Ashley Carter, and smoldering savage Pollyanna McIntosh, in a purely physical role, makes this easy enough to watch without quite dispelling the puerile didacticism of the whole affair. Sean Bridgers, too, playing a candidate for World’s Worst Dad, has some moments. The performances tug at the story’s more interesting undercurrents, trying to pull something up to the surface, and I kept imagining the myriad ways another director might have made something better and more urgent than McKee’s awkwardly sunlit mix of deadpan humor and grim endurance test. I’ll bet Rob Zombie’s The Woman would be something to see.
For the purposes of my devotion to Alien as perhaps the greatest horror film ever made, I pretend the sequels never existed — especially James Cameron’s take, a sop to the gun lobby that brought Ripley’s character in line with pop-culture convention by forcing her into surrogate maternity, as if her main character flaw was the absence of a child sucking at her tit. David Fincher’s Alien3 wasn’t exactly a great movie, but it was at least a welcome return to tough, uncompromising form. It pleased me that the story was set up with a middle finger raised in Cameron’s direction, so that you could essentially pretend that Alien3 picked up where the first movie left off.
There are very practical reasons why the edit is a fundamental unit of film grammar. For one thing, good storytelling generally favors it — few tales demand to be told in real time, without cuts and dissolves to compress the narrative. Conventional filmmaking practice makes good use of the edit by incorporating coverage, the various angles on a scene that allow the film editor some latitude to assemble and disassemble the action. And Eisensteinian montage techniques use the edit to express an idea purely through the juxtaposition of two images.
It’s feeding time for the monsters again in director Aldo Lado’s 1974 quasi-gialloNight Train Murders, which sees the young and lovely Margaret and Lisa (Irene Miracle and Laura D’Angelo, respectively, making their film debuts) cross paths with violent criminals while travelling overnight by rail from Germany through Austria to Italy. The stage is set as Pacino-esque stickup man Blackie and his harmonica-blowing sidekick Curly (Flavio Bucci and
Gianfranco De Grassi) mug an alcoholic sidewalk Santa Claus in Munich’s Marienplatz. Menace! With that kind of element loose in the cities, why would two girls choose to ride some skeevy midnight train into Italy instead of opting for a sensible air flight? From one mother to another, via telephone: “Planes are never on time these days.”