Amoeblog

Having A Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: The Genius of Dan Curtis

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, January 15, 2019 07:00pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi, where I review recent Blu-ray Trilogy of Terrorreleases. This month I review three movies created by the brilliant Dan Curtis.

Dan Curtis was one of the most successful director/producers in the history of television. History will always remember him as the creator of the long running TV show Dark Shadows but that was just one of many major achievements. He also produced and/or directed some of the biggest movies in the history of television. Three of these films just got deluxe Blu-ray releases. One of his two biggest films was Trilogy Of Terror, (Kino Lorber Studio Classics). This is a fun little horror flick but no one could have predicted that it would be one of the most watched TV movies of all time. It held the record until Roots was televised later that decade. The movie tells three horror stories that are connected by the main star of the film, the magnificent Karen Black. She pretty much makes this movie. She is the main character in all three vignettes and chews up the scenery so mightily that everyone else in the picture is little more than a bit player. In the first segment she plays a mousy professor exploited by a blackmailer, in the second she's a pair of polar opposite sisters, but it's her role in the third segment, "Amelia," that history will remember her for. "Amelia" is one of the best little horror movies ever made and it scared the viewing public to a degree that few could understand in this jaded day and age. Karen Black's portrayal of the vulnerable, psychologically fragile Amelia makes the horror she suffers even more visceral. The story is fairly simple and all takes place in one tiny apartment. Amelia finds a Zuni fetish doll in a second hand store and buys it as a gift for her anthropologist boyfriend. The doll comes with a curse and, when she gets back to her apartment, Amelia unwittingly brings it to life. What ensues is one of the scariest things I've ever seen on television. This segment really holds up even after all these years. It's tense, harrowing, and genuinely scary. Being attacked by a doll could easily have been laughable, but in Curtis's skilled hands the story becomes utterly terrifying. This was one of the most memorable movies of the seventies and it left an indelible mark on everyone who saw it.

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"As If Richard Matheson Had Written a Terrence Malick Film": Stake Land (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 1, 2011 11:55pm | Post a Comment

Following last week's release of Kelly Reichardt's languorous westerner Meek's Cutoff, we get Jim Mickle's not quite as languorous (or, even, as) post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land. It has more visceral violence (and vampires, of course) than the former, but enough contemplative wide shots of trudging through dull colored landscapes to capture the imagination of the average boring-film cineaste -- the kind who uses terms like poetic realism and lyricism, and, when reaching for the sublime, suggests Terrence Malick (or, if really wanting to prove his or her bona fides, Tarr, Tarkovsky, or Bresson). Vampire films aren't exactly made for this type (excepting maybe Carl Dreyer's Vampyr), but Mickle tries by -- according to many reviews that dealt with his supposed literary precedents -- grafting the subgenre onto Cormac McCarthy's sci-fi bildungsroman The Road, an ideologically boring version of growing up after the apocalypse. To wit:
  • Now, it's perfectly true that the story of Stake Land is strikingly similar to that of The Road, the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel that reached the screen last year by way of Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat (except with that film's portentous, minimalist allegory replaced with an actual story). -- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon  
  • Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find much to enjoy in this sombre and nerve-wracking post-apocalyptic horror film[.] -- Bruce Jones, The New Yorker
  • Add vicious, voracious bloodsuckers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you have Stake Land[.] -- Maitland McDonagh, Film Journal International
The odd man out here is O'Hehir, who takes a stand for good old genre plotting over "minimalist allegory," which is another way of saying aestheticized tedium. As it happens, his evaluation is correct, but not because of plot always trumping boredom. I love minimalism too much to not believe in the aesthetic value of monotony. David Foster Wallace was on to something in detailing the drudgery of IRS accountants in his last, incomplete and posthumous novel, The Pale King: that even their work can be interesting and meaningful if one looks long enough. But others might suggest that the author's suicide before the book was finished calls into question the value of studying ennui (as Jonathan Raban says in the link, "a brute denial of all that he intended" the book "to stand for"). Nevertheless, Hillcoat's film adaptation of The Road lost a great deal by abbreviating McCarthy's longueurs. The hardship of a long travel through a barren wasteland feels more like walking a few miles, thereby betraying the meticulously constructed effect of McCarthy's desiccated habitus in which the post-apocalyptic bodies must endure. Much like Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the film leaves its audience with a focus on plot and action when neither is what is particularly important to the story being adapted. Contrary to O'Hehir, the problem with Hillcoat's The Road wasn't too little plot, but too much. Because Stake Land has more of a plot to focus on, it's a more successful film.

Where Mickle's film fails is in its overreliance on the generic contrivances of plot, which I guess is what some of the critics are getting at with their use of the Malick meme:
  • The Terrence Malick approach may be novel, but it probably isn't right for this material -- or at least not in the hands of this director. -- Josh Bellfilmcritic.com
  • An odd, ambitious and only partially successful fusion of Terrence Malick poetics and 28 Days Later viscera[.] -- Scott TobiasWNYC
  • It’s an ambitious hybrid, grafting the ethereal, landscape-driven, light-infused beauty and naïf narration associated with Terrence Malick onto a tale in which struggle against supernatural forces is just one challenge of coming of age[.] -- Karina LongworthThe Village Voice

Personally, with the exception of Badlands, I've not found Malick's works to be anything more than kitsch with some fetching tableaux. (He's begun two of his four extant feature lengths with twaddle about the beauty of savages living undisturbed by the sea, for example.) In place of Stake Land failing to live up to a vampire film directed by Malick (or McCarthy's novel), I'd suggest it fails to live up to its most obvious source material, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The story is set in Matheson's world with its zombie/vampire hybrids, only moved westward and in a time just prior to his novel when more humans were still alive. Matheson's book doesn't have any more of a plot than The Road, focusing instead on the daily routines of its protagonist, Robert Neville, trying to stay alive. There's an entire chapter (the best one, in fact) devoted to Neville's earning the trust of a dog, the only other non-vampire still alive in New York. Unfortunately, Matheson is filed in the horror section, McCarthy in literature, so mentioning the former doesn't carry as much cultural capital. Though both authors convey how routinization serves to constitute and retain a sense of humanity, no one asks what The Road loses by taking out the vampires (e.g., Matheson's dialectic between racial ideology and genetics in the allegorical struggle between the last remaining man against a new race). Likewise, I don't expect to see any critics wondering how much better Malick's films might be if scripted by Matheson. Stake Land was in the position to ask such questions, but reverts to another man against monster plot, which it manages to diminish further by giving it a personal revenge twist, saying not much about man, monster or the boy having to grow up in this milieu.

RAHOWA: I Am Legend (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 15, 2007 06:29pm | Post a Comment
   

There was to be a great joke played out in the latest film incarnation of Richard Matheson’s novel of the last surviving man on Earth.  The old racist movie cliché is that if a black man is one of the central cast, he’ll be the first to die.  So casting a black man as the last surviving man in Matheson’s tale seemed like perfectly mad twist given how the book ends, a joke that would do Renny Harlin’s DEEP BLUE SEA, where LL Cool J is the lone survivor against smart shark attacks, one better.   However, Hollywood’s commercial belief in soothing heroic endings turns the casting of Will Smith as Robert Neville into something of a sick hoax where the old cliché is given new life for the current generation.

In the book, Neville is described as a white scientist with blue eyes and blond hair, weighing in at 200 and some odd pounds.  While having an English name, he’s also of Germanic origin.  The Master Race parallel was obviously intentional, given that the story is about our species' one lone survivor indiscriminately killing off the now dominant competitors.  'Indiscriminately,' because although his rivals in this Darwinian competition look the same, have the same feeding patterns, similar totemic fears of garlic and religious icons, and the same nocturnal behavior patterns, they're of two types: a more bestial, lower order form and a mutant human-vamp hybrid capable of highly rational thought.  Neville is a classic tragic figure, holding on to the last vestiges of our civilization’s rationality by pathologically trying to find a cure for vampirism even though he’s immune and more than willing to annihilate the Other through a more physical remedy while it sleeps.  His success via the latter means has made him a fearsome legend in the hybrid community as the ravager of their race. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Ridley Scott wanted that Teutonic slab of manhood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to play the role in his version, which ultimately faltered for budgetary reasons.  Despite his Aryan taint – or the cynic might say because of it – Arnold is what The Industry calls a likable star, enjoyable to watch, regardless of how many ethnicities he might be mowing down.  Money in the bank.  So seeing him playing out Matheson’s hero as the chickens come home to roost would’ve made for a great ironic tale, but alas you’re only as likable as your last picture, and his previous few didn’t do so hot.

Enter Will Smith, as likable a star as Hollywood currently has, even more so than Tom Hanks.  When an actor was needed to play controversial figure, Muhammad Ali, Smith was a natural choice given Hollywood’s ratiocination.  I’m sure it went something like he’d help us all identify with Ali during his most divisive period.  White America has never warmed up to the Nation of Islam, after all.  It’s barely reading between the lines to see how “likable” translates to “bankable” and “bankable” translates to “appeals to white audiences” and “appeals to white audiences” translates to “tends not to bring up any racial issues that might disturb said white audiences.”  Thus, if you’re going to change the racial makeup of Matheson’s last man on Earth, let it be a black man who’s very likable.  Helps us identify with him.  Mighty white of the producers.

Whatever machinations might have existed to place Smith in the role, he has the chops to carry off the extended quiet scenes of a very lonely guy whose only companion is his dog, Sam, and a bunch of showroom dummies (a big surprise to me, I must admit, since I’ve never found him any more prone to nuance than Arnold).  If tv movie reviewers aren’t already talking about Oscar nods, it’s only because his performance is in a sci-fi flick.   I resisted seeing director Francis Lawrence’s last picture, CONSTANTINE, for some like-minded changes that were foisted on comic book character, John Constantine.  Presumably for purposes of identification (this time meaning to an American audience), the thoroughly dark British Sting-lookalike became the more likable American star, Keanu Reeves, and his struggle in the wicked arts was transplanted to sunny Southern California.  Casting Smith, on the other hand, promised some new and interesting commentary on its source material, rather than making hash of its symbolic structure.  And had screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich, kept to Matheson’s basic story, it would have, but they didn’t.

Spoiler!

Imagine a black man behaving in the same way as Matheson’s white hero, futilely trying to eradicate the Other as if it’s another form of virus, or degenerate vermin.  When Neville is captured by the hybrid race and has to come to terms with his mission being not much more than some perfunctory last ditch effort at eugenics, the film would’ve played out like a version of “only I’m allowed to call my brother an asshole.”  Like the recessive genes that lead to the phenotypes of blue eyes and blond hair, Neville, black or white, possesses a natural immunity to vampirism.  And when the biological chips are down, the illusion of race gives way to an irrational, biologically derived need to protect the species, side with the family that’s neglected you for years.  It might’ve proved a disturbing tale to those who believe a history of oppression and lack of cultural power obtains an intrinsic trait of morality to minorities and/or those people who have been oppressed.  Any of those differences in people that exist today would prove to be not much more than empty signifiers when humanity itself is a minority of 1.  Now that’s what I would call a valuable use of identification. 

But this film is a blockbuster aimed at the December market, so what we get are vampires who are, at best, beginning to function on a level slightly above that of Bud in Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD.  They’re capable of following indexical commands through deep-level growls (supplied by Mike Patton) and can duplicate the actions of Neville (copying his Rube Goldberg traps, but not inexplicably his ability to drive the cars placed there by Ford’s advertising department).  This keeps the evolutionary struggle between Neville and vamps somewhere on a par with lions chasing deer (both of which are shown running around in sequestered Manhattan), rather than exploring the ontological implications that Matheson’s vampires have for humans.  Neville is still fastidiously trying to find a cure, but he doesn’t much hunt for vampires during the day, except for the occasional test specimen.  Most crucially and most stupidly, Neville’s encounter in the book with a hybrid female who dupes him is replaced by an encounter with a real woman and child with a promise of salvation in a hypothetical community of humans living in Vermont.  Neville is shown being a devout Christian in flashback, but one who has come to reject God in his solitude.  When the mysterious woman, Anna, and the child, Ethan, save him from attempted suicide, she reveals that God told her of the commune.  He yells at her, giving her empirical reasons for why there’s no reason for hope, but the audience know it’s just about Christmas and science never wins these debates in popular fantasies. 

Just as vampires are invading Neville’s house, he and Anna discover that his cure is working on a captured female vampire.  It’s at this point where the movie begins to truly make mincemeat pie of just about every significant philosophical aspect of the novel.  As the vampire hordes are crashing in on the humans, Neville gives a sample of the recuperating vampire’s blood to Anna, puts her in a safe room of some sort and sacrifices himself by blowing the horde up with a grenade, all  for the salvation of humanity.  The hoax to which I alluded at the beginning of this essay is that Anna and the child, both white (well, alright, she’s Brazilian), survive in a movie purportedly about the last man on Earth who also happens to black.  Compound this stupidity with her arrival to the commune, whereupon big iron doors are opened to reveal what is by and large a bunch of fucking white people in a town’s square looking like Mayberry, with a big symbolic white steeple dead center in the screen, and you get a backwards racialist and religious fabled-styled ending; one that could only be inadvertently created in our sensitive times through just the right mixture of identity politics, generic feel-good naïveté and economically determined choices.  The filmmakers might as well have replaced Anna’s voiceover at the end with the West Texas drawl of Sam Elliot saying, “We hear tell of this legend, some black fella who sacrificed hisself so that we might survive.  That’s right noble of him and we all sure wish we could thank him.”  It’s not quite as offensively hilarious as 300, which didn’t even try to be decent, but it comes close.  Keep hope alive.