Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Life and Loves of Alfred Hitchock

When I was a kid racing home from school to watch Dark Shadows and staying up late on Saturday night to watch Shock it to Me and Scream In, our local sci-fi/horror double feature in glorious black and white, I was as much a fan of Alfred Hitchcock as I was of Lugosi and Karloff, and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Television showings of Psycho and The Birds were not as common as Hammer Horror and Universal Monsters films. We had afternoon reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but at a young age I had not yet developed a taste for psychological thrillers and usually grew bored with the stories between Hitch’s on-screen appearances.

I can’t think of any other film director in my lifetime that became such a public icon the way Hitchcock did. Everyone loved his movies, from the romantic thrillers to the horror shows. Everyone recognized his face. Many loved to imitate his voice.

It’s “the voice” that actors Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock and Toby Jones in The Girl pull off with panache, and pull us – somewhat – into the mind of the Master of the Macabre. I watched the two films over two consecutive days, and am glad I did. Chronologically, The Girl is a continuation of Hitchcock and ultimately takes us further into the mind of a genius but deeply disturbed artist.

I had previously read Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius, as well as Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. The Rebello book, chock full of trivia about the making of one of the finest American horror films ever made, is the source material for the film, Hitchcock. From the search for the perfect vehicle for his next film to the notorious moment when Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Revel, tells Hitch he can’t release Psycho as is….because Janet Leigh blinks while laying murdered on the shower floor, Hitchcock manages to touch all bases within a mere 98 minute running time.

Despite my personal annoyance with several shots where the prosthetic chin is painfully obvious, I was sucked in by Hopkins’ performance and frequently forgot I wasn’t watching a documentary of the director appearing as himself. It was also great fun to see the cast who portray the familiar participants in Psycho – Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, James D’Arcy as Tony Perkins, a fabulously beautiful Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Ralph Macchio in a cameo as screenwriter Joseph Stefano, and a terrific supporting performance by Toni Collette as Hitch’s assistant, Peggy Robertson. Hopkins, of course, has the juiciest lines in the movie, tossing off one macabre one-liner after another which had the audience at my viewing tittering with laughter throughout. Hitchcock gives us a fiendishly entertaining portrait of the brilliant director as the loveable imp we remember from television talk shows and his appearances as host of his own TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Despite its source material and marketing campaign, Hitchcock is ultimately a story about Hitch’s relationship with wife Alma. In a way, so is The Girl, although in the second film, Alma takes a back seat to the director’s obsession with creating the perfect blond movie star from scratch.

HBO’s offering, The Girl, dares to go beneath the public persona and give us a portrait of a genius with bizarre fetishes and dangerous sexual obsessions. Based on another Spoto book, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, as well as the personal memories of star ‘Tippi’ Hedrin, The Girl focuses less on the actual making of The Birds and Marnie, instead placing the emphasis on Hitchcock’s self-destructive obsessions. There are a few “behind the scenes” type sequences including one highly amusing scene showing gull wranglers chasing down stunt birds along the coast of  Bodega Bay, providing levity to what is an otherwise grim and often shocking film. Perhaps the most telling moment of just how far Hitch would go with his malignant obsession and corruption of directorial authority is the planned one-day shoot using mechanical birds (the scene at the end of The Birds when Melanie Daniels goes to the attic room of the Brenner farmhouse). Hitchcock actually filmed the scene with live birds attacking the actress over and over…for a period of five days. Understandably, Hedrin collapsed from exhaustion and was hospitalized.

The Girl is riveting, and despite the Mad Men-era period detail, not a pretty film to watch. Toby Jones and Anthony Hopkins are two very different actors but as with Hopkins’ performance, I surrendered completely to Jones’ interpretation.

So, which is the better film? That’s a question I can’t answer. As a lifelong fan and Hitchcock trivia nut, I’ll be buying both on DVD. I will probably shelve them separately, however. Hitchcock will enjoy a place of honor next to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. The Girl will be slid into place next to that other classic of sexual fetishism, Blue Velvet

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Séance (2001)

As much as I enjoy J Horror I don’t want to stray too far from the subject of The Midnight Room. With Séance, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 television film based on the Mark McShane novel, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I think an exception can be made. The original 1964 British film starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough may already be known to fans of classic Gothic thrillers.

Briefly, the original story concerns a medium who strives for validation by coercing her husband into kidnapping a little girl whom she will then “find” through her psychic powers. While the original is certainly fodder for the psychological exploration of the two main characters, Kurosawa reinterprets the character of the wife and medium, Junco Santo, as a woman frustrated by living in the shadow of her more successful husband. Kurosawa adds an interesting new subplot: a child molester is the one who attempts to kidnap a charming little girl in a vibrant green dress. The child manages to escape and hides inside an empty equipment trunk belonging to Junco’s husband, a sound recording engineer who, not knowing the girl is inside, locks the trunk and takes it back to his home in the city.

Junco has been working with a young university student hoping to prove his theory that psychics are of value in police work. The police seek her assistance in discovering the whereabouts of the missing girl. It’s a fairly contrived plot development that the missing girl just happens to be in a trunk on the floor in the garage...and unfortunately not the film’s only plot hole. Though still alive, the couple conspires to take the girl to an abandoned location and ultimately Junco will “find” her using her psychic powers.

Well, you guessed it. Plots of this sort always go horribly wrong and next thing you know the child dies and her ghost torments her accidental murderers in true Japanese style, complete with long black hair covering her face.

Next to Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water), Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of Japan’s leading horror film-makers, but like Western directors such as Alfred Hitchcock whose name is synonymous with horror on the strength of only two films in his oeuvre, Kurosawa’s films transcend the confines of the horror film by nature of their psychological elements. Séance, Charisma, Pulse, Doppelganger, and my personal favorite, Cure, are all outstanding examples of Kurosawa’s style. His framing is formal, but what is left outside the frame is often more important than what the camera sees. The same holds true for his scripts. The screen stories have an unnerving sense of ambiguity, which brings to mind Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation on Don’t Look Now. Though the visual aspect of Kurosawa’s films are devoid of luscious Gothic eye candy, they manage to be bleak and moody, and at their core are disturbing psychological thrillers involving any number of paranormal element and thus deserve a special place upstairs in The Midnight Room.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

When It Rains It Pours: Dark Water (2005)

From the opening shot of the 2005 ghost story, Dark Water, we know we are in for a wet ride - so wet that I wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just go ahead and set it in Seattle. But the Roosevelt Island setting is, in fact, one of the standout elements of this often reviled American remake of a Japanese horror film.

Both films are adapted from the same source material, a short story by Koji Suzuki who wrote the original novel The Ring. Japanese horror flicks became wildly popular among horror fans in the 2000s after the successful American remakes of The Ring and The Grudge… so much so that they coined the nickname of J Horror. Displaying an overwhelming sense of unoriginality over the past twenty years or so, Hollywood has a way of plundering anything and everything it can get its hands on, so that by the time Dark Water arrived in 2005, fans of original foreign films were ready to ipso facto hate anything that had an English language remake. Take a look at customer reviews of Fincher’s version of TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo on Amazon if you don’t believe me.

Prejudice in favor of foreign originals aside, I think part of the reason Dark Water has a bad rep is that it isn’t horror movie – not in the contemporary sense of the word. It is a ghost story first and foremost, with all the traditional elements in tact… and beneath the surface story lies a superb example of the Psychological Gothic. For my money, ghost stories work best when these two elements walk hand in hand. The Haunting (of Hill House), The Woman in Black, The Changeling – each a brilliant ghost story with a strong psychological undercurrent. In these stories, the lonely and bereaved are highly susceptible to supernatural manifestations.

In Dark Water we have a young mother, Dahlia (played with utter conviction by Jennifer Connelly) trying to raise a seven-year-old girl on her own while suffering through a nasty custody battle and a borderline addiction to sedatives. Connelly’s performance shows us a woman with a battered soul, already hanging by a thin, psychological thread, so that during the first half of the movie we wonder how much is in Dahlia’s head and how much is “reality.”

While Dark Water does not feature the old Gothic house which plays a starring role in the films mentioned above, the setting of the low income, industrial housing complex on Roosevelt Island is as dreary and depressing as any crumbling manor house. It is this visual element of urban decay which gives Dark Water much of its strength – an urban dwelling has not been this menacing since Rosemary’s Baby.

Dark Water hits my buttons on many levels. It’s the sort of movie that makes me say, “I wish I wrote that.” Hopefully, with the passage of time, Dark Water will be considered less an offense to J Horror enthusiasts and given the respect it deserves as a beautifully wrought Gothic ghost story.