Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Rosemary's Baby

I asked, you voted, and last Tuesday, I did it: I watched Rosemary's Baby for the very first time.

La la la laaaa la la la la la....
There really was no telling which way I would go. I've always read that it's a classic, but I knew a lot of people that either couldn't finish it (too dull) or just plain didn't like it (too dull). Still, I'm in love with the horror genre, it's a part of cinema history, and I follow Mia Farrow on Twitter. Besides, you lovely people (out there...in the dark....) kindly asked it of me.

Let me start at the end, for Rosemary's Baby's is perfect. I love it because I hate it so much, because I should have seen it coming (that Polanski!), because a part of me did see it coming but hoped for the best, because I fell in love with Rosemary.

Wouldn't you?

Certainly if there's a film that puts you completely in the headspace of its protagonist, Rosemary's Baby is it. Farrow is in every scene; I believe the only shots without her are from her P.O.V. We, too, doubt what is real and what is a nightmare; we, too, delude ourselves into thinking that she's going to have it under control. And so that ending, inevitable though it may be, causes the floor to just drop out from under you. I swear I felt my heart sink. It's not just that she's impossibly beautiful, or that hurts to see innocence like that lost, to see a good Catholic girl put through all that. No, it's that Farrow makes Rosemary such a lively, relatable person -- not a character, but a human being. It's probably the best thing I've ever seen from Farrow, and I was already a fan.

Then there's Ruth Gordon, who won the Oscar for her portrayal of loud, nosy, elderly Minnie Castevets, Rosemary's neighbor. I'm reminded of when Goldie Hawn told Taraji P. Henson that a great supporting actress is one that, every time she re-appears, we realize we've missed. That's Gordon here. Every time she appeared on screen, I got excited, and I have to say it's mostly due the wonderful characterization she brings. I lived near and worked in Boca Raton, Florida, for 22 years -- do you know how many Minnies, how many elderly, shrieking, kindly-yet-badgering, nosy, heavily-made-up, New Yarrrrk biddies I've known? ALL OF THEM. While the makeup and costumes certainly help, Gordon's whole physicality is perfect. My absolute favorite shot of the film has Guy bringing the Castevets over to congratulate Rosemary on her pregnancy:

"Naaaaaaaoooooowwwww, that'th what I kawl gud nyooooth!!!"

Minnie enters first, raising her fists triumphantly before moving in for the embrace, all in one smooth glide. It's a very typical reaction that becomes unsettling when put into full context. It's this same familiar approach throughout the film that makes Minnie such an intriguing character.

Let me not solely credit Farrow and Gordon for this, though. Polanski's kept everything grounded in reality. The cinematography isn't distractingly Spooky, the decor and costumes are not overly-stylized to emphasize Good and Evil, the actors aren't playing wizened or sinister. While the score is the only indication of any eerie-ness, it bookends the film with a tender lullaby. Polanski comforts us with the familiar before invading our space with his witches and demons. It makes the horror more palpable, and worse -- more possible. It can happen here!

Because that's what horror is, isn't it? The familiar becoming strange? John Carpenter's The Thing isn't just horrifying for the effects, but for the idea that the people you're surrounded by twenty-four hours a day are not who you think they are. The Elm Street movies are popular because you can no longer escape in your dreams. The original Black Christmas posits that even at home under police surveillance, you are not safe.

And ahead of the pack is the film that made us believe that it's not the weird neighbors we need to worry about. Spooky, kinky, haunting: Rosemary's Baby is a masterpiece. Five out of five black cats.

And ten out of ten Castevet Curls
 Now for the main event: The Casting Coup!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Dracula

Let's flashback all the way to my childhood -- say, third grade, probably second. I had FINALLY discovered cinema proper, thanks to my local library and the Universal Studios MONSTERS Classic Collection. (Remember those ads? "Classic monster titles...with a haunting new look...at a price...TO DIE FOR!") I put this movie on...and a sense of deja vu came over me. I seemed to have a vague memory of posters at my grandmother's house...a book with photographs...my parents watching a movie in the middle of the night.... Although I hadn't realized it when I first got the film, the 1931 Dracula was as permanent a part of my life as my surname. Yes, Nana did have reversible posters of the Universal Monsters. And yes, our only copy of the novel was illustrated with photos from the film (including deleted scenes!). I still know that it was Aunt Barbara who bought me the VHS for my 10th birthday. I have memories of being Bela Lugosi for Halloween when I was eight -- not Dracula, but Lugosi. There's even a copy of the shooting script at my house!

Suffice to say, Dracula impacted me in a significant way. It was the first film I really fell in love with, making it pretty much responsible for my film degree, blog, and L.A. residence. I've never read the novel -- I find it difficult to get into those journal entries. Curiously, too, I haven't seen a great many other Dracula films. Not Coppola's, not Hammer's, not Warhol's. It's a curious blind spot, though perhaps I just have trouble picturing anyone but Lugosi in the role.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm unwilling to try. Indeed, Dracula is also the movie I most wanted to remake when I was younger, because admired so much the original. This is a reason I've never had a problem with remakes: I understand that it's not always an attempt to make a better movie, but to be a part of your favorite movie. It doesn't always succeed, but God love whoever tries.

In other words, God love me. Let's give it a whirl:

Who is He: A cockney attendant of the sanatorium. Frequently loses track of both Renfield and common sense.

Originally played by:
Charles Gerrard (Journey's End, A Political Party)

My Choice:
Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Attack the Block)

Who is She: A friend of Mina's, she finds herself beguiled by the Count when she meets him at the opera. She later dies mysteriously, only to be seen throughout the city luring away children.

Originally played by:
Frances Dade (The Constant Nymph, Daughter of the Dragon)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award/Hollmann Award Nominee/BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actress [Drama], SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (An Education)
Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go, Drive)
Yes, Mulligan, if only to get her back to that engaging flirtiness she brought to Pride & Prejudice. Besides, you wouldn't expect someone like Mulligan to buy it so early on, would you?

Who is Head: Runs Seward Sanatorium, property that neighbors Carfax Abbey. Becomes concerned when his daughter Mina starts exhibiting the same symptoms as Lucy. Eventually, he calls upon his old friend and colleague Van Helsing.

Originally played by:
Herbert Bunston (The Lady of Scandal, The Richest Girl in the World)

My Choice:
Ciaran Hinds (The Rite, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Who is He: A real estate agent who visits Transylvania to close the Carfax Abbey deal with Dracula. And then he is turned into a crazed, bug-eating servant of the count. He winds up in Seward Sanatorium, where he tries to warn the others of the evil powers of the vampire.

Originally played by:
Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein)

My Choice: BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Queen), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Frost/Nixon)
Michael Sheen (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Midnight in Paris)
Sheen's amazing versatility fits here, where he can play both straight-laced and utter bonkers.

Who is He: Fiance of Mina. Doesn't believe in all this vampire hokum, just thinks everyone's acting weirder than usual.

Originally played by:
David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat)

My Choice:
Ben Whishaw (I'm Not There, Bright Star)

Who is She: Seward's beautiful daughter, engaged to Harker. After Lucy's death, Mina, too, starts to fall under the spell of Dracula. Her nightmares and trances begin to worry her, though, and she soon entrusts herself to the care of Van Helsing.

Originally played by:
Helen Chandler (The Last Flight, Christopher Strong)

My Choice:
Emma Watson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, My Week with Marilyn)
She's getting better with each film. Like Mina, she has a lovely innocence about her...but surely that snog in the penultimate Harry Potter film shows she possesses an untapped carnality, as well. Perhaps she can go there when Mina's under the spell...

Who is He: Austrian colleague of Seward's who believes in vampires. The hero of the story, Dracula's only real equal in mental strength.

Originally played by:
Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary (Encounters at the End of the World)
Werner Herzog (The Grand, Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

Who is He: The King of the Vampires!

Originally played by:
Bela Lugosi (Son of Frankenstein, Plan 9 from Outer Space)

My Choice:
Alexander Skarsgard (Straw Dogs, Melancholia)
With that foreign accent and those ivory good looks, doesn't he look like an undead count already? Not to pigeonhole him with the whole "True Blood" thing, but there's a reason. There is a reason.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: The Exorcist

I remember seeing The Exorcist in the middle of the afternoon with my family in high school. All I could think about afterward was that face and the line, "Fuck me Jesus." My parents weren't strict, but there were certain films we were not allowed to see at certain ages, so imagine my surprise when such a scene was considered appropriate viewing for my fourteen-year-old self. (Then again, Mom and Dad were always willing to break their own rules if they felt it was a quality film -- thus Ed Wood in elementary school and Rocky Horror in middle school). There was much of the movie I forgot over the years, but those graphic images of Regan masturbating with the cross never left. It was weird. It was scary. It was horrifying. So, of course, it had to be one of the greatest horror flicks of all time.

As it turns out, it's considered more than just one of the greatest horror flicks, but one of the greatest films all around. Winner of two of its ten nominations at the Academy Awards, number two at the box office, considered for placement among AFI's 100 Greatest Films (both the original and the anniversary), and still rated in the Top 250 by IMDb Users, the film's got legs. Almost forty years later, it still has the potential to shock and amaze. How did they do that? one wonders, usually followed by a Oh my God oh my God what's happening aaaaaccccckkkk!!!!

Last year, The Exorcist returned to select screens for a one night engagement. My best friend/roommate and I were only two of the twelve people in the theater. It was even better this time around. I finally appreciated the sound design, the cinematography, the writing, the performances. Jason Miller in particular startled me as Father Damien Karras, the priest-psychologist dealing with the death of his mother, his loss of faith, and a possessed 12-year-old -- it just hurts so much to watch him. Meanwhile, we brought a friend with us who had never seen it before. Needless to say, she was clutching the armrests, covering her eyes, and I think I heard her praying. That's fine: so was I.

The film is lightning in a bottle, often imitated, never duplicated. Yet here we are, doing a Casting Coup for a film that is already pretty perfect. Why?

Because we can!!!

Who is She: Chris's assistant. Keeps the MacNeils' life in order and cares for Regan while Chris is on set. Understandably upset when things take a turn for the demonic, she nevertheless remains.

Originally played by:
Kitty Winn (The Panic in Needle Park, The Exorcist II: The Heretic)

My Choice:
Stella Maeve (Transamerica, The Runaways)
Oddly magnetic presence in The Runaways, with a natural, modest performance that sometimes stole the show away from some the more mannered co-stars. Not on purpose, she just seems so natural and chill. I appreciate comfort like that, especially in assistants and babysitters.

Who is He: A Georgetown priest, he counsels Karras after the death of his mother. He remains good friends with Karras, and quite an entertainer besides: he plays piano at one of Chris's parties, as he's helping out on the set of her film.

Originally played by:
Father William O'Malley (real priest, but he also wrote the song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me", one of the great Christmas songs; great actor, too)

My Choice:
Bryan Cranston (Little Miss Sunshine, Drive)
Truly would not have thought of this if it hadn't been for my two viewings of Drive, but damn Cranston is impressive. So why such a small role? Because it's an important one, and Cranston is a phenomenal character actor. Also, I don't know any real priests off the top of my head.

Who is He: Chris's director and friend, an eccentric little Englishman who likes to loosen up with a drink. Things take a turn for the weird when, while staying at the MacNeils' to look after Regan, his body is found at the bottom of the steps outside her window. Almost like he was hurled out of her room...

Originally played by:
Jack MacGowran (Cul-de-sac, Age of Consent)

My Choice:
Eddie Izzard (The Cat's Meow, Valkyrie)

Who is He: Aging policeman investigating Burke's death. Understands that there's a connection between a weird girl, a dead director, and a desecrated church. Kindly and wise.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (On the Waterfront, The Brothers Karamazov), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (12 Angry Men, Come Blow Your Horn)
Lee J. Cobb (Exodus, How the West Was Won)

My Choice: Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (Scent of a Woman), BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actor (Dog Day Afternoon/The Godfather: Part II), DGA Award Winner for Best Director - Documentary (Looking for Richard), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Drama (Serpico, Scent of a Woman)
Al Pacino (The Godfather, Cruising)
Pacino still gets to play lawmen, so I figure this might be a good way to retire that. It's an interesting role that would give him a chance to underplay. He's so great at that.

Who is She: Chris's daughter, a nice twelve-year-old girl who becomes possessed by a demon named Pazuzu.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee/Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actress (The Exorcist)
Linda Blair (Hell Night, Repossessed)

My Choice:
Kiernan Shipka (Carriers, "Mad Men")
Well, she's already dealt with some very adult themes on "Mad Men". Just add a cross! Ok, tasteless joke aside, she really does have a natural presence, and she looks like she could have come from my Chris MacNeil. Speaking of...

Who is She: Regan's mother, a divorced actress living in the Georgetown area so she can shoot a new picture. While not a religious woman, Chris has no fucking clue what else to do, especially since the doctors and medicos have no idea what's up with Regan.

Originally played by: Academy Award/BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actress (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy (Same Time, Next Year), Indie Spirit Winner for Best Actress (Requiem for a Dream), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actress (Requiem for a Dream) and Best Ensemble (How to Make an American Quilt), Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Actress (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore)
Ellen Burstyn (Resurrection, Lovely, Still)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe/Indie Spirit/SAG Award Winner for Best Actress [Drama] (Monster), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (Monster, North Country), Indie Spirit Winner for Best First Feature (Monster)
Charlize Theron (The Astronaut's Wife, Young Adult)
Never thought of anyone else for this role. Actually thought while watching The Exorcist: "Damn. Charlize would be great in this."

Who is He: Priest, archeologist, exorcist. He's dealt with the demon Pazuzu before, most notably while in Iraq, and so is fully aware of the dangerous power he's facing. Merrin charges forward, even with a mouthful of green vomit. Merrin is so awesome.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (Pelle the Conqueror), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama (Hawaii) and Best Supporting Actor (The Exorcist)
Max Von Sydow (Minority Report, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (The Great White Hope), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama and Musical/Comedy (The Great White Hope, Claudine), Indie Spirit Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Matewan), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor (Cry, the Beloved Country)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, The Lion King)
I wound up with a copy of the original screenplay, and while reading it, I kept picturing just Max Von Sydow, now old enough to take on the role without makeup. But that would be silly, I thought. Is there another elderly actor who I would believe as a scholar, a savior, an exorcist with a voice that could cast out the Devil? Of course, the answer is yes.

Who is He: The real protagonist of the film. Having just lost his mother, who he feels he neglected, Father Karras begins to doubt his vocation and his faith. How can he be the psychiatrist of the congregation if he himself is plagued with such doubts? Well, he winds up meeting Chris, and assists Father Merrin in the exorcism of Regan MacNeil.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting [?] Actor (The Exorcist)
Jason Miller (The Ninth Configuration, Finding Home)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Revolutionary Road), Hollmann Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (The Runaways)
Michael Shannon (Bug, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done?)
Shannon is actually just as magnificent when he dials down the crazy, as in Take Shelter (for the most part, anyway).  Like Charlize, his was an automatic no-brainer. If anyone was to take the reins from the magnificent Mr. Miller, it has to Shannon.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cry, Little Sister: Shocktoberfest, Week Un

So, what have I been up to with the Shocktoberfestivities? If you follow my Twitter (and really, why wouldn't you?), then you've been seeing my little capsules. Now, that isn't exactly fair for the rest of my readership out there, so let's catch up, shall we?


From that first shot sweeping into the carnival to an eerie carousel theme, I knew I was in for something fun; I knew I would probably fall in love with the credit "and Dianne Wiest" came up.

I don't think I'm alone in believing that horror movies hit a kind of stride during the 70s and 80s. The bad hair, kooky clothes, and love of synth add an extra element of eerie- and otherness, a world where the young heroes are as odd-looking as the punk vampires, a world where watching sweaty men rock the saxophone is what passes for young nightlife. It was a weird decade, is what I'm saying.

Though their women were impeccable
 Schumacher, so often derided for his insistence on going big, is a perfect fit here. When your finale features exploding heads, a stereo inferno, and blood bursting out of all the plumbing, subtle is so not the way to go. And yet! -- he also gets layered, hypnotic performances out of hunky hero Jason Patric, deliciously evil Kiefer Sutherland and ethereal beauty Jami Gertz (the Coreys, in their first film together, are of course tops, along with under-appreciated Jamison Newlander and Queen Dianne herself, but it's really about those other three). Also give him props for that scary/beautiful moment where the vampires are hanging from the train tracks with Patric in the fog...genuinely unsettling.

In the end, I would give it 5/5 black cats.


Our follow-up was not as successful. Hell Night apparently wants to go for the moody and the spooky, with long sequences in which our heroes walk around a candlelit mansion to investigate the bumps in the night. Instead, the pacing and poor lighting make it an exercise in curing insomnia.

I can get behind the set-up -- four pledges are challenged to stay the night in a "haunted" mansion, where a disfigured killer is on the loose. Yes, killer-in-an-abandoned-estate movies are a dime a dozen, but horror has always been more about the execution (and executions!) than the story. For example, last year we screened The Burning, in which a disfigured killer targets summer campers and their counselors. Been there, done that, but the execution -- a large ensemble, creative deaths, mass murder, actual funny humor, and a largely unsympathetic Final Boy -- set it apart from the rest, and it's among only three Shocktoberfest films that I even remember from last year (the others are Suspiria and The Devil Rides Out). Then there's the man-inherits-haunted-house thriller House, with a typical setup but a disturbing, thought-provoking, atypical execution. Screened on a whim our inaugural year, it's become a standard, and we watch it every year with the equally-awesome House II: The Second Story.

Which is all a long way to say that it's not the cliches that bugged me about Hell Night. Actually, Hell Night tries as hard as it can not to fall into cliches, as it develops its two leads, takes a slow pace, and allows its Final Girl to drink alcohol and bang boys. There are even some genuinely spooky moments! But I'm afraid it's all left me cold. When all but two characters are dead and there are still twenty minutes left, that slow pace starts to feel less a creative choice than a necessity to get the film to feature-length. And while it develops its two leads, the rest of the cast is colorless and annoying, underlit bodies waiting to become swathed-in-darkness corpses. I'm as happy to see Linda Blair as the next guy, but couldn't we get her in a better movie?

Still, its heart is in the right place, and the first twenty minutes are fine, so I would have to give it 2/5 black cats.


Elvira answers the age-old question, "How many jokes can you make about one person's bust?" The answer: about 96 minutes' worth. No, that's not fair, there is a plot: Elvira inherits her dead great-aunt's decrepit home and spellbook in a small New England town that has its own Morality Committee; naturally, they don't take to her, nor she to them, but there's bigger fish to fry when dead auntie's evil brother comes looking for that spellbook. The movie never pretends to want to be more than just great fun...and it is! There are some eye-rolling moments, be they in the form of jokes, effects, or that wooden romantic interest, but if you can't embrace camp and kitsch, you probably shouldn't be watching Elvira.

Besides, Edie McClurg plays a character named Chastity Pariah. Give it 3.5/5 black cats.


And if one is going to be pleasantly surprised, Shocktoberfest is the time to do it. What was I epecting from The Craft? Some 90s wackiness? Melodramatics from forgotten stars? Attempts at "cool" moments that played awfully cheesy fifteen years later? Oh, The Craft, you failed to bring me any of this, and instead brought me a legitimately cool, sexy thriller with fully-developed characters, eerie moments, great visual effects...I loved it!

Ok, so the film follows impossibly beautiful new girl Robin Tunney as she arrives in LA and attends a Catholic school. Mind, Tunney isn't just your run-of-the-mill gorgeous heroine; she's got some..."abilities", shall we say?...that make a trio of social outcasts take notice. Neve Campbell has burns all along her back that she covers up in layers of clothing; Fairuza Balk is of easy virtue, from a broke and abusive home; Rachel True is black. Together, they are "the Bitches of Eastwick", and they bring Tunney into their teenage coven to complete the circle. Then things get scary/awesome/eerie/unsettling/BAAAHH, because this isn't a group of girls skimming books on Wicca and wearing black nail polish. These bitches are witches.

Witches who hate sea life, apparently
 Then the movie just sort of follows them as they perform their magic. First it seems all they want is for their lives to get better, or for the bully to feel their pain, and that's cool. That's teenage stuff. Then some dark powers are inevitably released and Fairuza Balk's leader goes straight to Crazy Town (and I'm not talking being someones butterfly, sugar, baby). Evil is embraced, and Tunney must stop it!

And so far all I've done is summarize, but oh my God! this movie is so awesome! I love that the film sometimes leaves the main character so it can develop the other girls in the circle, refusing to settle for ciphers or stereotypes. I love that there are genuinely disturbing things happening, like beached sharks en masse or snake fingers or MURDER. I love Tunney's line readings, with all the confidence of a great actress and all the awkwardness of a real teenager. I love the lack of judgment on this alternative spirituality, that we even get some real education from the mystical Lirio (Assumpta Serna).

Most of all, I love Fairuza Balk's absolutely cray-cray performance as unhappy evil mega-bitch super-witch Nancy. Nancy, you and your movie get 5/5 black cats.


On the one hand, I love Jamie Lee Curtis in this film. Laurie Strode is now living under an assumed name, the headmistress of a private school, with a 17-year-old son played by Josh Hartnett in his film debut. Still haunted by Michael Meyers, her worst nightmares are realized when he comes back...to KILL! Curtis is phenomenal in the role, cementing her status as the Scream Queen. Whether a worried mother, sexy lover, frightened escapee or exhausted avenger, Curtis plays every beat magnificently. The famous scene where she actually looks at Michael from the other side of a door is dynamite -- that is a fear that you feel, deep in your bones.

Like this!
 On the other hand, the movie is much too short. At under 90 minutes, the film hastily dispatches its characters with little regard to pacing or atmosphere. It's especially surprising given the slow burn pre-titles sequence. It's doubly especially surprising given how much time is devoted to developing Laurie and her son, how fixated it becomes on the sexy shenanigans being setup by the four teens at its center. But we barely get to know who any of these people are before they are quickly, albeit awesomely, knifed out of the story. I wish I'd gotten to know everyone so I could at least feel something. I don't need backstories for everyone, but it would have been nice to get to know everyone a little more. Hell, we barely got any time with third-billed Michelle Williams!

Still, it is Jamie Lee's show, and in that respect it's damn respectable. 3.5/5 black cats for you.


Can I just mention the best part of this screening? While watching the end credits of this early 80s-stylized flick, my friend notices the special thanks to eBay. "Wait, eBay was around in the 80s?" he asks. So perfect was the execution, he thought we were watching a genuine shocker from thirty years ago. Writer-director Ti West and his entire production team can take a bow.

Actually, take a bow for the film as a whole. This slow burn is leagues away from the doldrums of Hell Night. Made for under a million dollars, House of the Devil has everything I could ever want from a horror flick. It's all very simple, following a college sophomore desperate for money who takes a mysterious babysitting job out in the middle of nowhere during a total lunar eclipse. Oh, and it's all preceded by a title card explaining the Satanism scare of the 1980s. Methinks this does not bode well. Man, all we see for the majority of the film is the girl in the house, watching TV, ordering pizza, listening to music, hearing mysterious noises, being watched from the window, unable to get anyone on the phone...

House of the Devil had all the potential to be a boring, pretentious mess of a film, and it just refuses to give in to that. We get to spend some time with Samantha before she even accepts the job -- turning in her paper, hanging with her best friend, trying not to "walk in on" her roommate. That is to say, Ti West and leading lady Jocelin Donahue allow us to identify with Samantha as an actual person, sans exposition, before abandoning her in that remote spookhouse. It makes the tension all the greater, because we -- take note, horror filmmakers -- have sympathy for the character!

And speaking of tension, good God! All those windows looking out in pitch blackness is unsettling, constantly gearing you up for some outdoor horror-show or shock! Eliot Rockett's cinematography makes eerie, wonderful use of long shadows and limited lighting.

 We become so petrified of what we think is about to happen that the wide shots are the most claustrophobic! Jeff Grace's score is period-perfect, fitting well into the quietly disturbing milieu. And Tom Noonan's off-kilter kindness as the man who hires Samantha makes your skin crawl. Look no further, friends: when it comes to heart-racing, throat-closing, claustrophobia-inducing tension, The House of the Devil has it in spades.

Which makes the finale all the more disappointing. Stylistically and tonally, it doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Suddenly we're getting quick cuts, a cliched chase sequence, and an ending that is both obvious and illogical. If only that last scene hadn't happened at all! I'd have had the same caveats regarding editing and the chase sequence, but at least we would have gotten a shocking, unforgettable ending. Alas, such is not the case.

SPOILER ALERT The problem, of course, begins as soon as she escaped the Satanic altar. The scene is still slow and eerie, but once she starts fighting for her life, we are left with the typical movie villains who either attack one at a time or ignore their captor. We also see too much of the demon performing the ritual. Such choices after a methodically-executed 90 minutes are bizarre, too say the least. END SPOILERS

I cannot deny the overwhelming love I have for The House of the Devil as a whole, though. It showcases two promising talents -- the filmmaker and his star -- and while the ending is disappointing, it's not completely botched. 4.5/5 black cats to you.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesday: Carrie

Remember in Cinema paradiso, how that kid's great mentor ran the local moviehouse and introduced him to cinema and kept all the kisses the Vatican made them cut out? I like to think Andrew was that mentor for me in college. He furthered my knowledge of film noir by introducing our class to Kiss Me Deadly, The Reckless Moment, One False Move and a whole semester of other under-seen classics. He encouraged my love of the bizarre and the campy through screenings of Myra Breckinridge, The Jezebels, and For Your height Only. He introduced me to martial arts films like Master of the Flying Guillotine and The Crippled Masters, my first forays into this little-respected genre. He really is the Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel-san.

Among the great things he did for me was add, at the very least, two films to my all-time favorites list. The first is Xanadu, which quickly rocketed up the ladder to get into my Top Ten of All Time (one day I'll list my top 100, but that's for a day when I see enough movies...maybe when I'm 25 or 30). The other is the subject of today's Casting Coup: Carrie, the 1976 film directed by Brian de Palma.

 Starring Edie McClurg as Helen, the unlikeliest of popular girls

I'm a lover of horror films. It's a genre that can always be tweaked and toyed with, so broad that any number of thrillers or dramas could also be considered horror, in one way or another. Many times, we get a horror film that is big on gore and blood and teens in peril, but not so big on characters and atmosphere and suspense. Carrie delivers on those fronts, but it's always a bit curious because, truthfully, there is no real "horror" until the film's famous climax: the prom. The fact that social outcast Carrie White is telekinetic seems like a bizarre throwaway device -- like Javier Bardem's ability to communicate with the dead in Biutiful -- for much of the film. Rather than get all spooky and weeeeeird about little ol' telekinesis, the film focuses on Carrie the Person, walking on eggshells whether at school with the mean girls or at home with her religious fanatic mother. Ok, the movie does have freaky telekinesis scenes sprinkled throughout, but they grow as Carrie grows...until public humiliation turns her into an unholy monster.

I loved Carrie from the first frame. I have the soundtrack, I quote it with friends, I bought the three-pack that also includes The Rage: Carrie 2 and the TV movie version with Patty Clarkson, and I watched Snake Island just because William Katt (nice guy Tommy Ross) was in it. Actually, I'm such a huge fan...I even adore the Broadway flop. Yes, I have a bootleg soundtrack -- there was never an official one -- and I play it constantly. It's terrible and amazing, and when those powers combine, Captain Planet can suck it.

In my re-casting of Carrie, I kept the musical in mind, and with the exceptions of Billy Nolan and Sue Snell, all the cast members have proven musical chops. As for Megan Fox's desire to lead the recently announced remake...honey, can't you just toss on a baseball cap and rock the Norma Watson?

All original cast images come from Aveleyman, a great source for screencaps and cast pics.

Who is He: Chris's boyfriend, a thug who helps plan Carrie's humiliation. Billy helps to "collect" the pig's blood.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actor (Pulp Fiction), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Musical/Comedy (Get Shorty), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor (Pulp Fiction) and Best Ensemble (Get Shorty, Hairspray), Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Hairspray)
John Travolta (Staying Alive, Old Dogs)

My Choice:
Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four, Beastly)
Pettyfer's not a bad actor, he's just more effective as a jerk. In Beastly, at least, and that's fine, that's a career. Look at Christopher McDonald! A role like this really allows an actor to loosen up, too, without any of the restraint of having to be likable.

Who is He: Sue's boyfriend, a track star and academic, an all-around nice guy. He takes Carrie to the prom on Sue's request, hoping to do a nice thing for a misunderstood girl. Then, of course, everything goes to hell.

Originally played by:
William Katt (House, Jawbreaker)

My Choice:
Chord Overstreet ("Glee", The Hole in 3D)
Unless something happens next season, Overstreet is the poster-boy of nice guy athletes on Glee. I'm always hoping those kids get more work outside the show, and he's great so far.

Who is She: The resident mean girl, finally punished for making Carrie's life hell. After being banned from the prom, she makes a plan to get Carrie elected Prom Queen so she can exact her revenge.

Originally played by:
Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill, RoboCop)

My Choice:
Selena Gomez (Ramona and Beezus, Monte Carlo)
One of the strongest Disney actresses, actually. While she's hinted at snottiness and being a "bad girl" before, I'd love to see her go all-out vicious. She's so cool.

Who is She: At first, she's teasing Carrie with the other girls. But since Sue is a pretty nice girl, she comes up with a plan to help her: persuade Tommy to take her to the prom. Sue also happens to be neighbors with Carrie, so she knows what kind of family the girl comes from.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Yentl), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy (Crossing Delancey), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Traffic)
Amy Irving (Tuck Everlasting, Adam)

My Choice: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
Ellen Wong ("Combat Hospital")
Her turn in Scott Pilgrim was impressive; now we need to see more of her. Sue is a very different person from Knives Chau, but I feel like we saw a bit of Sue in Wong's final scene.

Who is She: Girls' coach...obviously. She tries to educate Carrie and make her feel more comfortable with herself. Coach is even suspicious of Sue and Tommy's plan, not wanting the little outcast to get hurt.

Originally played by:
Betty Buckley (Tender Mercies, Another Woman)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee/Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress [Musical/Comedy] (What's Love Got to with It?)
Angela Bassett (Waiting to Exhale, Meet the Browns)
I immediately felt that she was the perfect woman for this role. First, I'd listen to her no matter what position she held at the school: she's so authoritative! Second, those arms. Of course she's an athletics director.

Who is She: Carrie's religious single mother. And I mean crazy religious, to a point that Jesus would find excessive. She sees Carrie's period not as, you know, normal, but as a sign that the girl is as cursed as she once was. Because after the blood come the boys, sniffing around.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress (The Hustler) and Best Supporting Actress (Carrie, Children of a Lesser God), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actress (The Hustler), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Carrie)
Piper Laurie (The Faculty, Another Harvest Moon)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress, SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress and Best Ensemble (Good Will Hunting)
Minnie Driver (The Phantom of the Opera, Barney's Version)
I had my Carrie settled, so then I just needed a great actress who looked like she could have birthed my Carrie. I surprised myself by settling on Minnie Driver, but damn it feels so right. She's such an underappreciated actress, and I feel like she could bring the crazy without being unbelievable. I mean, Piper's shoes are tough to fill, but Minnie's up to the challenge.

Who is She: Our telekinetic heroine, a social outcast whose powers actually give her some confidence, up until the pig's blood fall son her.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actress (Coal Miner's Daughter), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (Coal Miner's Daughter, Missing, In the Bedroom), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy (Coal Miner's Daughter, Crimes of the Heart) and Drama (In the Bedroom), Indie Spirit Winner for Best Actress (In the Bedroom), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actress and Best Ensemble (In the Bedroom)
Sissy Spacek (The Straight Story, The Help)

My Choice:
Emily Browning (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sleeping Beauty)
 Because she has that odd kind of beauty that can be believably plained up (like The Uninvited with Elizabeth Banks). She's a neat actress, too, one who plays confidence and distinct lack thereof with equal ease. Look at her in Sucker Punch, ably playing the innocent until it's time to take action. I would love to see her play Carrie.