Wednesday, May 20, 2009

CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)

Over the years, CITY OF THE DEAD has gotten a lot of play under the title HORROR HOTEL. There isn't a city of the dead in CITY OF THE DEAD--it's set in a broken-down little town in some New Englandish Middle-of-Nowhere--and there really isn't a "horror hotel" in it, either, though a peculiar inn plays a prominent role in the proceedings. What the film does have is fog. Not just a little fog. We're talking major clinging, oppressive accumulations of it, swirling through a town on the edge of reality where the sun never seems to shine. It's a town where the dominant ethnic group seems to be ghosts. Not just any ghosts. They're the spirits of witches, pitilessly burned at the stake by fanatical 17th century Puritans. They're hungry ghosts, we soon learn. Exactly what they hunger for forms the substance of CITY OF THE DEAD, a neglected minor masterpiece of atmospheric horror that emerged from the same year that gave us Hitchcock's PSYCHO.

That last is a significant little factoid, because the film employs an unusual narrative gimmick also used in PSYCHO, and there's been some speculation, in the last few years, as to whether one ripped off the other, and if so, who did the ripping. I don't think the question is particularly important. The movies stand on their own merits. Hitchcock is much praised for this gimmick; I think it works a lot better in CITY OF THE DEAD.[*]

And no, I'm not going to say what it is, on the off chance that some poor, unschooled soul reading these words may be unfamiliar with the subject. Watch both movies--you'll be glad you did.

As all that darkness and swirling fog suggests, CITY OF THE DEAD is about atmosphere. Menacing atmosphere. A persistent sense of unease and even dread. Old school horror at its best, and of a breed that's almost a lost art these days. One suspects a part of the reason it's so near to extinction is the falling out of favor of its genre of cinematography. CITY OF THE DEAD is shot in glorious black-and-white, and it's a great example of why the format should be called glorious. This is a film that simply wouldn't work in color. The black and white and all the greys between are integral to the atmosphere it generates. Light and shadow. What is revealed and what is concealed. Register my standard complaint: The loss of appreciation for black and white, these days, is most unfortunate.

The film stars Christopher Lee, in an early role, as a college professor who directs one of his students--studying the history of witchcraft persecution--to this very mysterious town, and the plot deals with the events that follow, but this is definitely a case where the plot isn't as important as the air of foreboding the film invokes.

That air is the emission of director John Llewelyn Moxey, who manages it like a master, and on what we're told was a rather modest budget. Moxey's career hasn't lived up to the promise this effort showed, but he did go on, a decade later, to direct the excellent NIGHT STALKER movie that first introduced television audiences to Darren McGavin's truth-seeking, monster-battling Carl Kolchak, and garnered, in the process, the highest ratings a television broadcast had ever achieved up to that time.

Some other good news about CITY OF THE DEAD is that one can get it just about anywhere, and for cheap. There are probably hundreds of "grey-market" DVD editions floating around, usually under the title HORROR HOTEL, often priced at $1, and, unlike so many such releases, most of them offer prints that are quite good, but I would strongly recommend to both fans of the film and those seeking it out for the first time spending a little extra and getting VCI's "Undead Collector's Edition" disc. It has as good a print of the movie as you'll find anywhere, and it's loaded with great extras. The major goodies are a feature-length commentary by director Moxey, a feature-length commentary by Christopher Lee, and interviews with Moxey, Lee, and star Venetia Stevenson. The Lee interview is particularly good, running nearly an hour and spanning his entire career. Put simply, one couldn't ask for a better DVD presentation of the movie. It's one of those rare discs about which it can be said, without any hyperbole, that "no horror fans' collection can be complete without it."

--j.

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[*] One filmmaker who, some years later, did do some ripping on CITY OF THE DEAD was Italian hack Lucio Fulci, who definitely saw the end of this one before making his own CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (ever the bold plagiarist, Fulci barely even changed the name).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

W. (2008), Oliver Stone's Bush Countermyth

Life hasn't been a lot of fun for me this year. Since February, it's been a painful, stressful, frustrating soap so ridiculous that, if I wrote it as a fictional tale, no one would believe it. My health has taken a hit--I lost 26 pounds in a matter of weeks. In the prosperous, porkulous Civilized World, most people would no doubt be elated by this development but they definitely wouldn't want to go through what I went through to lose it. Things have gotten pretty bad. So fewer entries here. Owing to these circumstances, this one may not be among my best. I suppose I'll know soon enough:


For an upbudget, big Hollywood kind of guy, Oliver Stone can be a very interesting director, often a great one. The major focus of his work throughout his career has been historical subjects, mostly big historical subjects, mostly of recent decades. W. is his attempt at a profile/biopic of George W. Bush, one of the worst presidents the United States has ever seen, who hadn't yet left office when the film was completed and released. When the project was announced, it was assumed in most quarters that Stone, a well-known lefty, would use it to seriously strip the bark off Bush and his administration.

Those expecting that sort of well-earned thrashing will be terribly disappointed by W..

Stone has an unfortunate habit--in his historical films at least--of falling in love with his subjects. Perhaps "love" isn't exactly the right word. He doesn't always like them but he tries too hard to find personal psychological motivations behind their actions and ends up making them too sympathetic; in his quest to humanize them, he ends up essentially lying for them--making them into much better people than they are. He did this with JFK (with Jim Garrison), he did it with NIXON and he's done it again with W.. The film has massive holes and they're present because Stone is trying too hard to make Bush understandable. Most of the uglier parts of Bush's early life--his drunken driving arrest in the '70s, his defense of horrific student hazing and so on--are left on the cutting-room floor, while Bush's service--and more particularly, his lack of service--in the Texas Air National Guard, which he used to escape Vietnam, are obliquely mentioned in only a single line.

Stone's thesis--that in Bush-as-President, we're presented with a moron who was completely out of his depth--is quite correct and Stone is right to present, as the defining moment of Bush's presidency, the infamous press conference wherein Bush, when asked, can't think of a single mistake he's made or lesson he's learned while in office. Where Stone fails is that, in trying to humanize Bush, the director sanitizes him by presenting him as virtually a clueless child being led around by ill-intentioned (or foolish) advisers. But a moron isn't necessarily an innocent. A moron can also be ill-intentioned and Bush is the best example of it. The incredible cynicism of that administration is almost entirely absent from the film.[1]

Most of the portions of W. dealing with the Bush presidency is devoted to the buildup to the Iraq war and on that subject, its sanitizing of events is most egregious. In the film's dialogue, the public pronouncements of Bush's cabinet principals are just ported directly over into their private conversations. In this way, the Bush gang's cynical manufacturing of a case for war from practically nothing is simply sent down a Memory Hole. Whether Stone intended it or not, he gives them a pass on this, which renders a rather pernicious lie most of the portion of his film dealing with the Bush presidency.[2]

That isn't to say an historical film must be entirely historical. Very few of them ever even try to be. Strict adherence to history is, for a number of good reasons, usually problematic to dramatists. What the best of them try to do is distill the essence of their subject; to get to a truth about it, even if every event isn't presented exactly as it happened. In W., Stone failed at this and it's a movie that's hard to judge as a standalone drama without reference to the events it portrays. It's easy to watch, well-paced, technically competent, as one would expect. The cast is certainly top-knotch in every respect. Josh Brolin becomes Bush. Richard Dreyfuss is at least as solid as Dick Cheney. He gets one of the best scenes in the movie when Cheney explains, with great vigour, his Grand Plan for the Middle East. The script offers a number of well-written scenes like that. Unfortunately, they don't cohere very well. The film is stitched together like a patchwork quilt, jumping between various moments in Bush's life without much of a common thread (other than Bush himself) holding the scenes together. Without reference to the real-life events they portray, these scenes aren't much of a drama and with reference to those events, they aren't much of a history. At the end of the day, they don't really add up to much of anything. In that respect, they're like Bush himself, so I suppose one could argue Stone got some little something right after all.

--j.

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[1] Stone presents Bush, for example, as a committed evangelical Christian. It's a matter of public record though, that the fundamentalist community to which Bush appealed with his public professions of faith was openly mocked within his administration, the office of "faith-based initiatives" blatantly used as a publicly-financed campaign apparatus of the Republican party. At the very least, this adds an important perspective to Bush's professions of faith, a perspective missing from the film.

[2] Bush isn't the only one sanitized when it comes to Iraq. In one scene, Bush suggests to British PM Tony Blair setting up Saddam Hussein by trying to get the Iraqis to fire on an intentionally mismarked plane in order to act as a pretext for war. Blair reacts with barely disguised disbelief. This was a real conversation that happened in early 2003 only weeks before the war was launched. Bush really made this suggestion. Blair was not stunned by it. It's a matter of public record, in fact, that he and Bush had, by that point, been involved for months in a conspiracy to try to goad Saddam into some sort of action that could be used to justify a war.