This no-frills film-festival favorite from Greece is a single-family scenario. Like last year’s excellent Belgian film Home, with which it shares a certain dark comedy (but not the earlier film’s reluctant optimism), it features a wife and children who exist largely apart from the larger world into which the male breadwinner ventures on a daily basis. But where that separation in Home was generally a question of geography, in Dogtooth it’s a matter of patriarchy.
In later seasons, The Sopranos would too often threaten to disappear up creator David Chase’s asshole as he ruminated, sometimes vigorously, sometimes ponderously, on the mysteries of American family life. But the first season has none of that leisure, expertly modulating stretches of comedy and drama en route to those crucial moments that leave you gasping.
Either it runs in the family or Jennifer is one hell of a mimic, because there’s an unmistakably Lynchian undercurrent to much of the goings-on in Surveillance, which lends some juice to a somewhat pulpy yet dry and familiar scenario. During the opening scenes, as Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond show up at a tiny police precinct wearing the kind of blue suits that denote FBI badgeholders, the younger Lynch adds an otherwordly soundtrack drone to the activity that flashed me right back to the first reel or so of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the film or its reputation, let me give you an idea of just how disreputable the 1972 Wes Craven version of The Last House on the Left really is. I saw it in film school, in a horror-film class that was being taught by a professor who had stepped in at the last minute, after the one who had actually programmed the syllabus fell ill, so he was unfamiliar with some of the films that had been scheduled. The semester went pretty well went pretty well until the day we screened The Last House on the Left. The prof — a fine teacher and an expert in film in his own right — stood in front of the class afterward and declared that he had always considered himself a First Amendment absolutist. Until that day. Screening Last House for the first time, he said, had convinced him that there was a good case to be made for censorship. His argument was essentially that the film was sadistic and utterly worthless, the product of very small minds, a debasement of not just its cast and crew but of the audience members as well. I complicated matters somewhat by raising my hand and noting that The Last House on the Left was based on an Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring. As a defense of the film goes, I admit now that’s pretty weak sauce, but it’s what I had. And it worked, to a degree. I don’t think it necessarily changed his mind about the film, but it altered the tenor of discussion. Slightly.
Let’s see. Half an hour out of the screening and I’m already forgetting what transpired. Severed ear, check. Decapitation, check. An arrow through the head, check. (Did it come out through the eyeball? I can’t quite remember.) Axe, thrown, to the upper back, subsequently shoved through chest from behind, check. Machete to the head, check. (Think this may have been a direct crib from the Savini stunt in the original Dawn of the Dead.) Meat-hook hanging, check. (Swiped from the original Texas Chain Saw.) Death by campfire? Check. Double-impalement coitus interruptus? File under missed opportunities, along with the inexplicable lack of a 3D version. Hockey mask, check. “Sister Christian,” check. Naked tits, check check check check check check.
The story was strangely fascinating for people who
follow weird-news sources like Romenesko’s Obscure Store and Reading
Room: a woman driving at night had struck a homeless pedestrian with
such force that he tumbled headlong over the hood of the car and
straight through the windshield so that his body slumped across the
dashboard, impaled on the shattered glass underneath it. Amazingly,
the woman kept driving. She drove all the way home and stashed the
car in her garage, where she left him to bleed for death.
(Authorities said that if the woman had sought help after the
accident, he probably would have lived.) Finally, she sought the help
of friends to dispose of the body and ruined, blood-stained car.
The John Rambo character, played three times by Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s, filled a specific niche. The brutish, lethal ex-soldier, betrayed by a country full of wishy-washy bureaucrats and politicians, was an antihero for conservatives — defying authority and following his own moral compass, Rambo was a symbol of how American strength, courage, and cunning (plus firepower) could make the world a better place. Two decades later, the fourth movie in the series picks up more or less where the others left off. Rambo is working as a surly snake-wrangler in Thailand when he’s approached by a small group of Christian missionaries seeking his help getting upriver into violence-ridden Myanmar. Reluctantly, he escorts them into the country — and, naturally, eventually ends up rescuing them from an exceedingly nasty predicament. Fans of down-and-dirty action may get a kick out of this — Rambo is outrageously gory, with arms, legs and even heads getting vaporized at machine-gun pace — but it’s pretty shallow stuff. The film may actually help raise Western awareness of Southeast Asian atrocities, though it’s not clear if Stallone thinks the U.S. should go to war there, too. Rambo’s Burmese adventure only seems to confirm his character’s world-weary pessimism. C+
The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a 1971 horror melodrama from English genre studio Tigon, lacks the moral underpinnings of Michael Reeves’ cautionary classic Witchfinder General but resembles it in setting and atmosphere. Where Witchfinder General was all about the villainous official played by Vincent Price who saw witchcraft in every corner – or, cynically, used accusations of witchery to advance his own personal and political aspirations – The Blood on Satan’s Claw clarifies the relationship between wickedness and virtue by showing how evil, in the guise of rebellious children and especially a seductive teenager, can be vanquished by vigilance and bravery on the part of Christian men. It’s the kind of movie where the cranky old judge who ducks out of town at the first signs of a supernatural dust-up returns in the final reel, empowered to vanquish the devil himself.