Pallid Adaptation

Director Richard Stanley’s long-overdue return to feature filmmaking, Color Out of Space (based on the 1929 Cthulhu Mythos tale by H.P. Lovecraft) has generated a lot of buzz in recent months. Having finally caught the film myself (it’s now streaming on Shudder), I regret to say that my high hopes going in ended up undercut by disappointment.

My biggest issue with Color Out of Space is that it stars a terribly miscast Nicolas Cage. The actor, in fine, Razzie-worthy form here, does his typical shtick, throwing an over-the-top temper tantrum seemingly every ten minutes. While these tirades aren’t particularly funny, they do succeed in compromising the tonality of the film. I’m pretty sure that when Lovecraft wrote his piece, goofy wasn’t the note he was going for.

Paradoxically, the same aspect that makes the film noteworthy also works against it. The updating of Color Out of Space into a modern-day context no doubt makes it more accessible as a cinematic narrative (Lovecraft’s nearly century-old, pulp-era story might seem too outdated now if strictly translated onscreen). Nevertheless, the repeated manifestations of post-meteorite-crash alien menace in the form of disrupted technologies–garbled cell phone and TV reception, deadened car engines–prove too formulaic and familiar to be effectively unsettling.

There are some terrifically trippy visuals here, as well as grotesque effects reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (Color Out of Space begs the creation of a new Oscar category: Most Disgusting Scene Featuring Alpacas). Ultimately, though, the film (despite the spectacular pyrotechnics of the climax) fails to establish itself as a work of the cosmic horror subgenre. The palpable sense of dread that Lovecraft was so adept at inducing in his reading audience is largely absent here. A pair of voiceover monologues bookending the film capture this element of Lovecraft’s work perfectly, but I wish everything heaped between in this lengthy and uneven film managed to do so as well.

For all his pop-cultural prevalence, Lovecraft is a quite difficult writer to adapt, and “The Colour Out of Space” clearly presents special challenges. Richard Stanley deserves credit, for example, for visualizing the source text’s explicitly indescribable color as a gruesome fuschia. At the same time, the representation of the inchoate monstrosity lurking in the Gardner farm’s well in the form of a winged alien insect seemed too specific and reductive (marring the fear of the unknown upon which Lovecraft traded). Color Out of Space is a laudable effort, but unfortunately a less-than-successful one.

 

Dark Turns: Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts

Today is the 62nd birthday of the Macabre Republic”s preeminent filmmaker. In honor of the occasion, here is a countdown of Tim Burton’s top ten directorial efforts (i.e. the list excludes works for which he was only a producer, most notably The Nightmare Before Christmas).

 

10. Beetlejuice (1988)

The effects are now quite dated, and I’ve always found Michael Keaton’s performance more grating than entertaining. No film, though, has ever made more inspired use of Harry Belafonte, Jr. Charmingly cartoonish, Beetlejuice brims with mordant wit, and puts Burton’s fertile imagination on full display.

 

9. Vincent (1982)

This short film from early in Burton’s career is long on greatness. The stop-motion animation ranks with any of of the director’s later feature-length efforts, and Vincent Price’s narration is pitch (black) perfect. The story–centered on the Price- and Poe-obsessed, morbidly imaginative seven-year-old Vincent Malloy–has a fullness, and resonance, that belies the narrative’s six-minute runtime.

 

8. Dark Shadows (2012)

This film tends to be underappreciated, perhaps because it’s not quite what people expected. While adapting the characters and main plot points from the popular Gothic soap opera of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it presents a much different tonality. But the quirky wit that Burton infuses is fantastic, and the Collinwood Manor setting is astounding.

 

7. Batman Returns (1992)

No colorful shenanigans from Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and no Prince-ly “Partyman” playing in the background here; this sequel is much darker (and more adult-humored) than the original Batman movieNot since The Nightmare Before Christmas has there been such a dark carnivalization (courtesy of the Red Triangle Gang’s strategic attack on Gotham) of the Christmas season. Batman might get title billing, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman forms a fine feline femme fatale, but one senses that Burton considers Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (an unforgettable grotesque embodied by Danny DeVito) the main attraction of Batman Returns.

 

6. Ed Wood (1994)

Any lover of Monster Culture can’t help but be enthralled by the portrayals here of such figures as horror hostess Vampira and Tor Johnson (played, in a brilliant bit of casting, by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele). And Martin Laundau gives a career-defining, deservedly-Oscar-winning performance as a long-in-the-tooth Bela Lugosi. Burton’s black-and-white biopic presents an endearing portrait of the oddball director Wood and the outre troupe who assisted him in creating some of the most legendary bad films in the history of cinema.

 

5. Corpse Bride (2005)

While no doubt overshadowed by The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film arguably features sharper animation, more memorable songs, and a stronger storyline than its popular predecessor. The foray into the Land of the Dead is quintessential Burton, a vibrant vision of a realm populated by a slew of offbeat characters. Underworldly nuptials have never made for a more rousing ceremony.

 

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

A Universal monster movie reset in a retro California, Edward Scissorhands offers both a cutting satire of suburban banality and an amazing array of sight gags. It is also the most moving of Burton’s films, with its message of overlooking difference and embracing otherness. Hands down, the best (if most understated) role of Johnny Depp’s career.

 

3. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Never before or since has Burton put together a more stellar cast (Jack Nicholson even plays dual roles). But the film–a hilarious spoof of Golden Age sci-fi/horror–trots out its cast of human characters only to do most of them in, in spectacularly violent fashion. Delivering yuks and “acks” aplenty, Mars Attacks! splashes black humor across the screen in bright comic-book colors.

 

2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

What at first sounds like a recipe for disaster (Johnny Depp doing showtunes?) ultimately turns out to be a smash hit as both a musical and a horror film. Thanks to the source material’s rooting in revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd constitutes the darkest and most relentlessly grim of any of Burton’s cinematic narratives. (For further discussion, see my piece published in the 2011 volume Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film [reprinted as a Free Read here on my website].)

 

1. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I have written extensively on what I believe to be the crowning achievement of Burton’s career as an auteur (check out my essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sleepy Hollow‘s release). So there’s not much more left to say here, other than the fact that Burton takes Washington Irving’s legendary story (the best known and most renowned spook tale in all of American Literature) and reworks it into an ultra-atmospheric film that proves just as enchanting and widely influential.

 

Not Sure About “Shirley”

My reaction to Shirley–the quasi-biographical film focusing on one of our greatest writers of American Gothic, Shirley Jackson–is decidedly mixed. There is a lot that I really liked about director Josephine Decker’s 2020 effort. The performances are superb; Elisabeth Moss unsurprisingly shines as the title scribe, and brings Jackson to onscreen life in all her moody reclusiveness, eccentricity, and complexity (Shirley proudly declares herself a witch, yet also appears wounded by her shunning by the Bennington, Vermont, community). Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) gives a terrific performance as Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley’s overbearing, lecherous professor of a husband. I also enjoyed the dramatization of Shirley’s struggle to write her next book (after becoming a cause célèbre for her controversial–and now-classic–story, “The Lottery”). The film’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of the development of the novel Hangsaman make for some compelling sequences.

At the same time, there were aspects of the movie that I found problematical. While I had no issue with the interpolation of a fictional couple (the graduate assistant Fred and his pregnant wife Rose) into the Jackson-Hyman household, I was bothered by the fact that the film presents Shirley as childless. In reality, the author’s uneasy role as mother/homemaker was a key aspect of her life and writing (leading to such books as Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons), so the absence of children here seemed like a convenient deviation from biographical truth. My bigger issue, though, is that I was never quite sure how the film wanted the viewer to respond to Shirley, whether to feel sympathy for her or to recoil from her rough edges (for Shirley, there’s a very line between a smile and a sneer). This ambiguity no doubt is part of the point, illustrating what a multifaceted and not-easily-understood figure Jackson was, but I nonetheless found it tough to find my emotional footing throughout.

At times, Shirley doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be–a possible murder mystery (Hangsaman is based on the disappearance of a young girl from the same college at which Stanley taught); a lesbian romance (the strange bond developed between Shirley and Rose); an indictment of the sexism of the times and the small-mindedness of small-town communities. The plot tends to meander, with no clear through-line, and Decker grows over-reliant on artful, enigmatic imagery. It’s not that I was expecting to watch a suspenseful thriller, or even a standard biopic, but I do wish the film had proved a little less obtuse and muted (I suspect that Susan Scarf Merrell’s source novel provides a more accessible narrative).

For fans of the author Jackson or the actress Moss, Shirley (now streaming on Hulu and also available to rent or purchase on Amazon) is definitely worth checking out, but the film ultimately serves as a quintessential example of the sum adding up to less than the parts.

 

Del Toro Post Mortem

Don’t be alarmed by the post title: renowned filmmaker and author Guillermo del Toro is alive and well. He also recently did a terrific interview for the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. Over the course of 79 minutes, del Toro delves into such topics as: how his Catholic upbringing spurred his monstrophilia; his early influence by legendary make-up artist Dick Smith; the challenges he faced in the industry as a Mexican filmmaker; the difficulties of shooting Mimic for Miramax; his upcoming remake of the carnival noir film Nightmare Alley. I find del Toro a fascinating speaker for his wonderful accent alone, but this interview also demonstrates the immense erudition he possesses when it comes to genre films in particular and the arts in general. A must-listen for fans of his work.

 

Decayed Flesh Freshened

The 2019 zombie film Blood Quantum (now available for streaming on Shudder) has a lot to recommend it. The buildup to the outbreak is handled very effectively (creepiest use of salmon I’ve ever seen in a movie). The gore effects are shockingly good for a film that didn’t have a summer-blockbuster budget. And there are some really inventive zombie kills (yet the carnage never descends into mood-spoiling campiness).

What really distinguishes Blood Quantum, though, and makes it such a significant entry into the zombie film subgenre is the fact that the story is told through the perspective of Indigenous peoples–the inhabitants of the Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow in Canada. For whatever strange reason (the film doesn’t delve too deeply into explanation), anyone of First Nations blood proves immune to the plague that causes the rest of humanity to revive as the carnivorous undead. Immune, however, does not mean safe from harm, as the film’s POC heroes are still vulnerable to sheer savaging by the fast-moving hordes of “ZEDs.” The violent encroachment of white people onto native land allows the film to make an interesting colonial critique, and to director Jeff Barnaby’s credit, such subtext is woven in seamlessly and never verges on preachiness.

Blood Quantum isn’t a perfect film, for certain. In the middle third (when the time jumps “six months later” in the apocalypse), the plot tends to meander. There are also some brief animated sequences interpolated into the live-action that end up being more distracting than they are worth. The acting won’t receive any Oscar nods, but overall this is an entertaining zombie film, one that provides a fresh perspective onto a traditional scenario. Not settling for typical cannibalistic excess, Blood Quantum gives viewers plenty of food for thought.

 

Iconic and Oft-Copied

Yesterday marked the 85th anniversary of the release of The Bride of Frankenstein (here’s a cool article commemorating the occasion). A terrific film overall, it is perhaps best remembered for its climactic unveiling of one of the greatest monsters in the history of horror movies. Though she only graced the screen for a few minutes before perishing, the Bride unquestionably has left an undying mark. Here’s a pictorial ode to the most famous fright hair ever styled by a Hollywood studio–a look that has since permeated pop culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@#$%&!

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I am not a big fan of The Exorcist. But I do recognize its historical significance as a horror film, and was definitely intrigued when I learned it would be the subject of the first episode of the Cursed Films series that recently premiered on Shudder. I never knew that The Exorcist had much of a reputation for being cursed; after watching the documentary, though, I realize there’s not much reason to think so.

The episode begins promisingly enough, sharing an eerie anecdote about how a fire broke out during filming, destroying the sets yet leaving Regan’s bedroom mysteriously untouched. But I started to lose faith when the episode addressed the injuries that the actresses Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn suffered in the course of filming–stunts gone wrong are an everyday and easily explained part of moviemaking and don’t create a sense of some supernatural curse. Nor does the fact that an extra in The Exorcist went on to commit a murder years after the film was made. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of material for Cursed Films to draw on here, which perhaps explains the questionable decision to spend nearly a third of the episode interviewing a real-life, modern-day exorcist and showing his performance of the ritual for the purportedly possessed. Much more interesting is the idea of how The Exorcist became a bane for Linda Blair following its release (her life made hellish by audience identification of her with her demonically-possessed character). Unfortunately, this topic gets glossed over, in no small part because of Blair’s own refusal to discuss details of her ordeal when interviewed for the episode.

Cursed Films gets off to an inauspicious start, but subsequent episodes in the five-part series do prove more rewarding (I particularly enjoyed the coverage of Poltergeist and The Crow). I think this project might have been better served, though, by being condensed into a single documentary rather than divided into individual segments (that tend to be filled with distracting tangents).

A final sidenote: The Exorcist episode relates the claim Billy Graham made at the time that the devil existed in the very celluloid of the 1973 film. Naturally, I dismissed Graham’s notion as a bunch of evangelical babble. But as I was streaming the episode of Cursed Films, it suddenly skipped ahead to the next episode with five minutes still remaining, and no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t get the first episode to replay. Cyberspatial snafu or a big FU from Pazuzu?

 

Wednesday’s Best

I have to admit, I was a Munsters kid growing up, and never really got into The Addams Family. Nor did I pay much attention to the film adaptations of the latter that came out in the 90’s. Recently, though, I watched both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, and absolutely loved both movies. The cast is uniformly terrific, but my favorite is Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams. She’s adorably mordant in the first film, and steals the sequel with her deadpan delivery of a slew of gags. Here below are some of her best lines from the films.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the value of gallows humor grows more evident. Black comedy can offer release/relief–we make light of death because it is such a grim and inescapable reality. Death is a relentless bill collector that dogs us from the moment we’re born, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lead him on a merry chase!

 

Wednesday: Pugsley, get in the chair.
Pugsley: Why?
Wednesday: So we can play a game.
Pugsley [climbing into electric chair]: What game?
Wednesday: It’s called…[straps Pugsley in]…”Is There a God?”
(The Addams Family)

 

Girl Scout: Are you sure they’re real lemons?
Pugsley: Yes.
Girl Scout: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy a cup [of lemonade], if you buy a box of my delicious Girl Scout cookies. Do we have a deal?
Wednesday: Are they made from real Girl Scouts?
(The Addams Family)

 

Margaret: What are you, darling? Where’s your [Halloween] costume?
Wednesday [dressed in her usual outfit]: This is my costume. I’m a homicidal maniac. They look just like everyone else.
(The Addams Family)

 

Wednesday [standing on the roof, and holding her baby brother Pubert]: Pugsley, the baby weighs 10 pounds, the cannonball [Pugsley is holding] weighs 20 pounds. Which will hit the stone walkway first?
Pugsley: I’m still on fractions.
Wednesday: Which do you think?
Pugsley: The cannonball.
Wednesday: Very good. But which one will bounce?
(Addams Family Values)

 

Morticia: Children, this is Miss Tellinsky, your new nanny. What do we say?
Wednesday [holding a blowtorch]: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Debbie: Look at you, all cooped up in this house with a new baby. That’s not easy, is it?
Pugsley: No.
Debbie: Why, I bet sometimes you wish it was still just the two of you.
Wednesday: Or less. [turns and stinkeyes Pugsley]
(Addams Family Values)

 

Amanda: Hi, I’m Amanda Buckman. Why are you dressed like that?
Wednesday: Like what?
Amanda: Like you’re going to a funeral. Why are you dressed like somebody died?
Wednesday: Wait.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Morticia: Wednesday’s at that special age when a girl’s only got one thing on her mind.
Mrs. Buckman: Boys?
Wednesday: Homicide.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Amanda: Is that your bathing suit?
Wednesday: Is that your overbite?
Gary: Now one of you will be the drowning victim, and the other one gets to be our lifesaver.
Amanda [eagerly]: I’ll be the victim.
Wednesday: All your life.
(Addams Family Values)

 

[Pugsley shoots and kills a bird during archery practice at summer camp]
Becky: It’s an American Bald Eagle!
Gary: Aren’t they extinct?
Wednesday: They are now.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Ambiguity in Black and White

Admittedly, I am late to the party when it comes to The Lighthouse. I somehow missed the film in theaters, and then the DVD remained stuck at the top of my Netflix queue due to lack of availability.  Having finally seen this acclaimed sophomore effort (following The Witch) from director Robert Eggers, I now understand why there was such a long wait. Allow me to wax ecstatic about the film for a few paragraphs…

While written by Robert Eggers and his brother Max, The Lighthouse feels like a collaboration between Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. Broadly allusive, the film gives nods toward such classic texts as Moby-Dick, “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and The Shining. For all the homage it pays, though, The Lighthouse still manages to work its materials into a startlingly original mix.

The black-and-white film’s stark visuals are astounding; a sense of creepy and inhospitable place is clearly established. A storm-pounded, barren moonscape of an island (seemingly devoid of life save for the flocks of evil seagulls that torment with their pecks and squawks) furnishes the sinister setting. Wind howls spiritedly, a foghorn repeatedly bellows in the background with the tenor of an ancient saurian beast, and the towering light sweeps across the seascape like some revolving, cyclopean eye.

Sent to work (which might just be another way of saying “stranded”) on this rocky speck of a setting are a pair of lighthouse keepers whose enforced intimacy in such close and unhomely space breeds paranoia and deadly rivalry. Complexly drawn, these two characters carry the film. Both Willem Dafoe (as a crusty old sea dog prone to delivering speeches of Ahab-ian grandeur) and Robert Pattinson (as a taciturn assistant with a dark past, and a thoroughly unreliable viewpoint) give nothing short of career-defining performances.

It’s on the level of plot, however, that The Lighthouse most fully resonates. This is a film where the viewer is never quite knows where it is heading–and still isn’t sure where it arrived at when the closing credits start rolling. Making fine art of ambiguity, The Lighthouse encompasses multiple interpretations, and can be approached through a variety of explanatory frameworks: the natural (excessive alcohol abuse–ultimately including kerosene-and-honey cocktails–is bound to lead to derangement), the psychological (madness results from extended isolation from civilization, not to mention the churning guilt over past misdeed), the supernatural (Ancient-Mariner-type curses; cosmic wonders too awfully sublime to behold), the mythic (symbolically–and perhaps literally–the shapeshifting Greek god Proteus forms a key figure here), and the existential (the idea that hell is repetition isn’t limited to the Sisyphean drudgery of lighthouse-keeping labor).

Arguably not since Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has there been a work of horror that has made such masterful and captivating use of ambiguity. Yet this is no genteel ghost story, and brimming with earthy humor, the film proves not just artsy but (actually) fartsy. The Lighthouse haunts with its imagery and implications alike; it is a beacon to fans who enjoy smart evocations of the macabre (that don’t yield up easy answers), and a shining example of why the present-day horror film genre has entered into a golden age.