This Week in Geek (30/10-05/11/17)


At home: The main threads in Gotham Season 3 include the Court of Owls (snore), a blood virus that makes people super strong and insane (how they stopped themselves from calling the arc Bad Blood instead of Mad City, I'll never know), and the positioning of the Penguin and the Riddler as a terrific double act, one emotional, the other intellectual. The Mad Hatter is more or less the third villain in line. All of them benefit greatly from the show's set-up, more interesting by a mile than any previous iteration, and I'm counting the comics. The Sirens, especially Barbara Keene, feel played out to me, but they keep being players. Poison Ivy likewise doesn't really work. Regardless, the season moves at a reasonable pace towards its final money shot. The DVD includes some deleted scenes, a fun and bouncy Comi-Con panel, and a couple of brief making of featurettes.

The Constantine TV series was, I will agree with its hardcore fans, killed before its time, and mismanaged by NBC (pulling a Fox) to make it happen. At least one episode broadcast out of order (not fixed on the DVD), relegated to late Friday nights, and so on. It's really too bad it wasn't allowed to bring its Rising Darkness plot to a proper conclusion, as the show offered a pretty strong horror plot every week, though once I understood the formula, the back half didn't feel as fresh as the front. And like other DC shows, promised to bring to life a variety of the comics' mystical stars, like Dr. Fate and the Spectre. Matt Ryan's John Constantine is a pretty good summation of the character as portrayed in Hellblazer and, given the amount of magic "gadgets" and tricks he pulls out every episode, the more recent version as well. While the writing and acting are good, his look did seem fake at times. The acting chops in his crew is more limited, but the intriguing back stories overcome most flaws. So yes, a shame John has been relegated to guest-starring roles in the Arrowverse, while his world remains fallow. The DVD includes a trailer, a behind the scenes featurette that might as well be another trailer, an excerpt from a Comi-Con panel, and that big Comi-Con panel with all the DC shows, which you can find on various other DC releases - not much Constantine in there.

Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) is a 1960 French horror-thriller about a surgeon obsessed with finding a new face for his disfigured daughter, even if it means pretty young girls must die on the operating block. Definitely on a slow burn, the film is more concerned with creating an eerie and disturbing atmosphere than, say, jump scares, though there is more gore than one would expect for the time. But this is horror as art film, the young woman with the unmoving mask, her beauty frozen in time and a prison, echoed in the surgeon's equally odd kennel. The surgeon's desperate attempts to preserve or restore a past that is precious to him is at the heart of the film's poetics then. But poetry tempered with a clinical proceduralism that creates a frisson as we linger almost too long on things distasteful. The film's big weakness is the role of the police in the thriller, which isn't resolved very well, but that's all forgotten in the final, haunting sequence.

Deborah Kerr is once again cast as a governess in The Innocents, but this haunted house movie based on James' The Turn of the Screw gives her a very different role to play. As the charming but puritanical daughter of a minister, her finding something sinister in the playful behavior of the children in her charge should seem suspect, and yet, told from her perspective though it may be, there really is something disturbing going on. The ambiguity is merely an extra layer to a creepy tale of possession that works even on that surface level. Director Jack Clayton is on par with Hitchcock and Welles in his image-making. The lighting, the music, the production design, the choice of shots, the acting (even by the juvenile actors), everything works to sell the idea that Kerr would fall in love with these kids, then have reason to fear for their souls.

Hammer Horror could hardly have chosen a better project for their first color film than The Curse of Frankenstein. It's terrific. Victor Frankenstein, as played by Peter Cushing, is the real monster of the piece, at first amoral, then sinister, and finally, evil in his pursuit of crafting his creature (Christopher Lee in his first monster role). It's a performance that completely avoids the potential tedium that comes with waiting for the monster to show up, and we might event resent the screen time Lee's lanky, uncoordinated creature gets as a result. With Frankenstein the real villain, the film gives us his sometime-mentor and friend Peter Krempe (Robert Urquhart) as heroic figure and necessary contrast. Curse's villainous reinvention of Dr. Frankenstein easily puts this in my personal top 3 Frankenstein films.

Hammer Horror's 1959 version of The Mummy remakes Universal's classic movie with a couple of major differences. First, the action is moved from Cairo to England. Second and more importantly, the eponymous mummy (Christopher Lee) isn't an immortal wizard, but an evil god's murderous tool, a walking, silent undead, despite retaining his origin as a love-lorn Egyptian high priest. This allows Peter Cushing to play the comfortable role of monster hunter and makes for a more traditional monster film, delivering, perhaps, what I would have expected from the original. Though it works quite well as that type of horror film, it is nevertheless confused about its pacing - slow at first, the running to the finish, after not one but two long flashbacks stuck in the middle. The mummy's origin back in ancient times is a lavish show-stopper, but I unfortunately mean that both ways.

Catherine Deneuve stars as a depressed manicurist in Roman Polanski's Repulsion, a harrowing portrait of a woman repulsed by sex for reasons the audience can only guess at (at least at first), and is visited by disturbing rape nightmares. To make matters worse, she's a beautiful woman in the 60s, so surrounded by men who want to get under her skirt, with good intentions and not. Psychological horror is rarely done in films, the need for a supernatural or psychotic monster usually wins the day. Here, we're presented with a quiet, mostly silent performance that speaks volumes about mental health. Deneuve's listless depression gives way to sudden upswings of nervous anxiety, both leading her to sabotage her life. She's in practically every scene, except when we move to a sort of locker room chorus that represents the misogyny she's up against. Sadly as topical today as it was in 1965.

Dracula and blaxploitation meet in Blacula, in which an African prince (the awesome William Marshall) is made into a vampire by Dracula, who then names him BLACULA. Then cut to the modern day for an urban crime thriller in which the blaxploitation hero (here a fist-fighting M.E. played by Thalmus Rasulala) tries to solve the case of a vampire epidemic in L.A.'s black community. So by rights, this should be complete, ridiculous, absurd camp. And for the first act, it seems to be. But quite frankly, Marshall is too good as the tortured undead who falls in love with a duplicate of his lost wife from a century before, and the blaxploitation tropes, like the White Man keepin' you down, are more subtle than in most movies of the era. Nice funk/soul soundtrack too. So surprisingly effective once you get past the expectation that it should be a comedy.

The Ghost Ship is a minor Val Lewton production set aboard a boat that only meets the title's promise obliquely. The thriller's non-supernatural menace is actually the ship's captain whose God complex proves dangerous for the crew. When his new third-in-command dares question his methods, he may put his life, and that of others, in danger. While that's a strong premise, and the ship an unusual and original closed environment, the film suffers from a theatrical, written (not to be as uncharitable as to use the term wooden) delivery from all the actors. A matter of style, perhaps, but unlike other Lewton horror/thrillers, the direction doesn't add film noir panache. Instead, additional oddness comes in the form of a voice-over from an unusual source, but that alone isn't enough to make The Ghost Ship rises to the top.

It's not easy to give The Witches of Eastwick a capsule review. Objectively, the film is a tonal oddity. Rooted in reality at first, with a big helping of feminist metaphor, it could have stayed in that space and been a terrific comic fable. That it instead goes completely wild with supernatural elements means it's too absurd for that, but I can't deny how fiercely entertaining it is as a result. Jack Nicholson as the Devil has a lot of fun, that's obvious, though it's basically a prequel to his Joker. He comes into a small town, accidentally summoned by three women (Cher, Susan Serandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer) whom he seduces. He unlocks their power, claiming a feminist stance, but can't help standing in as a domineering patriarchy. The underlying metaphor is more or less allegorical. Historically, witches were merely autonomous women said to have "married the Devil", but in reality, were connecting to something entirely feminine (the Satanism lie vs. Wiccan truth). And that plays out in the film, though it's covered up by complete and utter cinematic madness.

The Secret of NIMH is a Tom Bluth animated film (his first) based on a children's book, about a mouse trying to save her sick child when the plow chases most every animal from the field. Her only hope, the technologically adept rats of NIMH. The level of animation is quite high, and the world created detailed and beautiful to look at. The mix of science and magic (not in the book) gives the story a fairy tale quality, but is more than a little odd, and while the cast is rich (and features many big names), it creates a number of helper characters who may or may not have enough screen time to truly justify their roles. Still, I can't fault the film's world-building. Those "defects" give it extra layers, depth and scope. Between that and the ruthlessness of Bluth's vision - cute critters or not, death is very real - he's created something kids can keep coming back to well into their adulthood.

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: James Wan's Insidious, about a family (headed by the dependable Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) with one of three children who is overcome by a mysterious coma. After a strong start, it proves to have three completely different acts, a structure that undercuts its potential. The first is a creepy supernatural mystery about a haunting, that may or may not be linked to post-partem depression. The ambiguity is dispelled in the second act, which introduces super-science and comedy - the paranormal investigators are a hoot! - which I admit to still liking, as a twist on the formula. But the third act plays like a surreal epic struggle and frankly, a bit of a frenzied mess. Not enough to do irrevocable damage, but I would have gladly kept watching either of the two films unspooling before that point. The DVD's few short featurettes are interesting.
#OscarPoolResult: I generally like James Wan's work, and this appears to be a good, if uneven entry in his filmography. Will keep.

Doctor Who Titles: Based on an Evangelical novel by Frank Peretti, The Visitation is a cheaply made supernatural thriller about a town suddenly beset by miracles, some apparently the work of a farmhand who might be the Second Coming of Christ. A former pastor and a veterinarian are the unbelievers trying to discover what's really happening. The direction has some ambition, but if the film really wanted to make the truth a surprise, it wouldn't have telegraphed it on the poster, and might have cast someone less creepy as the Messiah. Despite the lack of ambiguity, the film is still pretty effective and never dull. If there's a surprise here, it's that for a Christian film, it is happily free of sermonizing.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 10th Doctor and Rose, fresh out of The Satan Pit, investigate a faith healer who may not be what he seems. Having watched as much Doctor Who as I have, I can confirm there's technobabble to cover this stuff.

Books: Outside In Makes It So - 174 perspectives on 174 Star Trek The Next Generation stories by 174 writers including myself - may well be my favorite of the four "TV episodes from an odd angle" books in the Outside In series. At least, I read it at the most devouring of paces. Perhaps it's that I've read fewer think pieces on TNG than I have TOS and before that, Doctor Who. Perhaps by sheer volume, there were more pieces that touched something in me (whether emotional or intellectual). Off the top of my head, some favorites include Where Silence Has Lease's portrayal of deaf people, Lower Decks' ode to the redshirt, The Best of Both Worlds tracking changes in how television is delivered, and on the more humorous side of things, articles written by Spot and Riker's beard. If I weren't going off the top of my head, I'd probably be name half the articles. My caveat: Having been written in 2017, the anti-Trek abomination that is the Trump presidency looms large and several texts felt the need to take shots at it, which was a problem for me. I'm just so sick of seeing him referenced in everything, even attacks I agree with tend to annoy me. An imagined visit with Boothby after Insurrection still feels like required reading on the subject, however. I wish Deep Space Nine were next, but Buffy's 20th Anniversary beckons...


Anonymous said...

I am always baffled at how much time you have to review things all week long. Grateful, but baffled.

People who dismiss "Blacula" as blaxploitation are really doing the film a disservice. Yeah it's got some blaxploitation elements but it's seriously got a lot going for it too, including (and some of this you mentioned but I want to re-emphasize):

1) I"m pretty sure this is where the concept of "tragic vampire" starts. Prior to "Blacula", Dracula and his kinds were all monsters. This is the first vampire I'm aware of who started out as a good man, was cursed against his will, and is eternally in love / in mourning. If you can think of any tragic vampires who preceded this, I'd like to know about it; but as far as I know, this is where it starts.

2) William Marshall NAILED Memuwalde, as you point out.

3) I really like the angle that Memuwalde started by trying to contact the crowned heads of Europe to try to do something about African slave trade. That makes a lot of sense. That puts it in a real-world context and says something about Memuwalde being a smart, responsible man and leader rather than just some possibly inbred aristocrat. It's just Memuwalde's bad luck that the first European he contacted is a certain Balkan count who enjoys making puns in English.

4) Gordon Pinsent. Gordon F-ing Pinsent! That's the ghost dad from "Due South", that one guy on "Red Green", and all sorts of other roles. Gordon Pinsent is a Canadian national treasure, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

Siskoid said...

SBG behind the scenes featurette: It's surprisingly easy to watch a movie a day while eating dinner. In this case though, I had Halloween off and decided to chug horror movies, mostly off my DVR, all day. Watch the number go down by half next week.

You may be right about the tragic vampire thing, as the trope was mostly used with werewolf stories in the past.

And yes, young Gordon Pinsent! I almost didn't recognize him.


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