Whenever you think of zombies you're probably thinking of the George Romero kind, that devour the living and spread their virus far and wide. It wasn't always like that. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies were more of the Voodoo variety, focusing on people resurrected from the dead as slaves for nefarious human masterminds. Tonight I'll be looking at four such films...
Neil Parker and his fiancee Madeleine Short have just arrived in Haiti for their wedding, to be held at the estate of Charles Beaumont, a plantation owner. Beaumont is in love with Madeleine too, and conspires with the feared Voodoo master Murder Legendre to make her fall in love with him. They accomplish this by drugging her with a poison designed to cause death-like symptoms, and Madeleine is later dug up, and made into a mindless zombie. Wanting her for himself, Legendre turns on Beaumont, and it's up to Neil and a friendly local missionary to save his paramour and stop the diabolical madman before its too late...
White Zombie is a mixed bag of a movie. Some elements are considered classic, and it's possibly the first zombie movie ever, but some issues drag it down a bit, which I'll get into later.
Some sequences are brilliant! There are quite a few almost dreamlike scenes with little to no dialogue that rely entirely on interesting visuals, such as the one of Neil in the bar, despondent on 'losing' Madeleine, and reacting to shadows. The use of sound is likewise great, such as the uneasy repetition in the zombie slave mill. The direction overall is interesting, with many very well shot and realized moments!
I also really dug that the movie was about real zombies, instead of being fanciful. Not that I would've minded more magic-based zombies, and Bela's hypnotic skills do veer a little into fantasy territory, but for the most part it's about the real life practice of drugging people into a deathlike state, letting them be buried, then digging them back up again to be a mindless doped up slave.
My biggest problem with White Zombie is that the plot feels a little underwritten, and not quite enough happened to my liking. Also annoying is the short length, which adds to the previous negative.
Another big issue with White Zombie is that the acting...uh...leaves a little to be desired. Bela Lugosi is fine, but the script somewhat lets him down, and he doesn't get a great deal to do other than stare. Boy is he great at evilly glaring though! The heavy eyebrows and devilish goatee all help make him look super evil. The rest of the performers range from ok to not so great. Never terrible, though, except for the old tribal man who may or may not have been a white dude in blackface!
The dialogue isn't that great. There's some good stuff here and there, but most of it's pretty standard and unremarkable. A couple of lines stood out, and not for the right reasons! The first was Neil's line of "Surely you don't think she's alive? In the hands of natives?! Oh no, better dead that that!". Dude, not cool! The second, markedly more amusing, was in the same scene, when Neil finds out all about zombies, and that his wife may not be dead after all. His response is a simple "Boom!".
The score is quite good. It's suitably ooky in some parts, but a little too jaunty in others.
White Zombie isn't a perfect film, but there is a reason its reputation had endured for over 80 years, and it's not exclusively because Bela Lugosi stars (though that helps).
Revolt of the Zombies
During World War 1, soldier Armand Louque has met the Cambodian priest Tsiang, and learnt about the secret to creating an unbeatable zombie army. After Tsiang is murdered, an expedition is mounted to the ancient region of Angkor to find the lost knowledge of zombies...
Revolt of the Zombies is actually quite an interesting movie, but sadly one that's very nearly sunk by its tedious and confusing first half. It seems to start off midway through the story, and the plot we see makes no sense. One minutes the top brass want to destroy the 'recipe' for zombies, and the next they want to keep it for themselves to win the war, then in the same sentence they'll say how they want to destroy it. Their opinion on whether Tsiang the priest is an ally or an enemy also changes often, depending on the scene. Then characters who've only just met are having an engagement party in the very next scene, all while Armand and his friend are damn near impossible to tell apart! For this first stretch, the film is more concerned with soap opera love triangle antics than telling a spooky story involving zombies!
Now we come to the interesting part. The lead Armand is really the villain! Hypothetically you grow attached to the protagonist, liking him, and only once this has happened does the turning point occur, and you realize he was never the hero. It would be a brilliant twist if not for the bad taste in my mouth from what came before, but it still does work to an extent. The first half hypothetically spends its time developing the characters and their relationships, then you're hit with the revelation once the second half begins, and the film takes a turn for the spooky. The problem is that not only is the first half of the film hard to follow, but the characters are all unpleasant jerks, and you don't know at this point that that's intentional. It comes across as simple bad writing. Secondly, the apparent main villain (who looks like Snidely Whiplash) appears so little you almost forget he exists, so that misdirect doesn't work as well as it should. It's also not the sign of a good horror when pretty much the entire first half of it doesn't have a single scare.
The title is disappointing for a few reasons. The zombies do in fact revolt, but it's only in the climax. This means that for almost the whole movie you're annoyed the zombies aren't revolting, and once you've finished, you're pissed that the title spoiled the ending! Secondly, where are the zombies?! They're right in the title, but aside from one brief scene, they don't appear until over half an hour in, and do very little but stand around until the end. The ending also comes across more as 'Revolt of the Humans', but that's not a problem with the movie, necessarily, as zombie meant something different back then. But then again, none of these people are even so much as undead, so...
Speaking of a different time, the word 'robot' is used to describe mind-controlled zombies. People in the 1940s were weird! At least they don't pronounce it 'ro-but' here.
This is labelled a semi-sequel to White Zombie, but it isn't really. They're both made by Victor Halperin, and are about zombies, but they're completely different in every single way, even down to the cultures springing up the undead. The only carryover is something I'll get into below.
For a film set primarily in Cambodia, you maybe wondering how Revolt of the Zombies does on the race front. Eh, not too terribly well, I'm afraid. Tsiang the priest seems to be getting a pretty big role, but unfortunately he's killed only 8 minutes in, and the only other Asian characters we see are servants. Also, one particular scene gives off the impression that the expedition is so racist
they have to bring their own white exotic dancers with them to Cambodia! The main servant character we see does become awesomely independent in the conclusion though, which is a small plus.
The effects here are ok. One improvement Revolt of the Zombies has over every other movie in this post is that when the zombies are shot, the bullets actually make marks! In all the others, characters shoot, but just because the zombies can't die, I guess they've also got metal skin, and remain completely unmarked. The film is lazy in one respect though-Its re-use of Bela Lugosi's hypnovision eyes from White Zombie whenever characters are hypnotized.
The Cambodian scenery on display also looks pretty gorgeous, though it sometimes gets a bit obvious that rather than film the movie itself over there, the directors just went ahead on their own, shot some footage of the country, then went back and had it rear projected in front of the actors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the hilarious wading scene! Besides that though, it never looks too bad.
The acting is all pretty ok. Not that great, but not terrible either. The leads are all pretty dull. Roy D'Arcy is pretty fun as the over-the-top misdirect villain, and I wish he was actually the main antagonist, as he's having a ball (and the villain we do get has the indignity to refer to Robert Burns as Bobby Burns! That's just wrong!). Also, he looks Asian, but apparently isn't? I don't man to say he's a white actor in yellowface. I mean he actually looked somewhat Asian at first. Meanwhile, the very English-y named William Crowell actually is Asian! As is Teru Shimada, who plays the main servant character. He's entirely wasted until the climax, where he finally gets to actually do something.
I may have used the word 'jaunty' in this post too early, because it's much more suited to the opening theme for this movie than White Zombie's score! The remainder of the soundtrack is ok, but unmemorable.
Revolt of the Zombies is an almost neat film, but it's sadly a failure in many respects, and not really worth watching. You'd do much better to stick with White Zombie. I do dig that poster though! It's WAY better than the film deserves...
King of the Zombies
'Mac' McCarthy, Bill Summers, and the manservant Jeff are flying to the Bahamas when their plane experiences difficulties, and they're forced to crash land on an island below, where they were able to pick up radio signals from. Despite a bumpy landing, the trio survive with only a few scrapes and bruises, and are met by the sinister Dr. Miklos Sangre at his foreboding mansion. While Mac and Bill are at first only slightly suspicious of their seemingly-accommodating host, Jeff picks up on what's really going right away, as the servants of the house tell him of the zombies that prowl the island...
King of the Zombies is a decent film and it tells a fine story, but there are certain aspects that go too unexplored for my liking, such as Mrs. Sangre's condition and her apparent motivations coupled with how she can act on them despite her condition. Then there's the villain himself, whose personal motivations are pretty unclear. I mean, we know that he's a nazi agent (though they never actually say that) wanting information from a kidnapped U.S. admiral's head, but he doesn't really have a reason for doing this besides being generally evil. I also feel not enough is done with the zombies or the Voodoo until the relatively brief climax, and by that point it almost feels a bit too little too late.
Another problem is that it feels like there are scenes missing. There's one character I suspect only survived due to a last minute
rewrite, as they're never seen again after an apparent death, and the
denouement feels empty without them if they did survive. I'm tempted to say this is a film that could've benefited from being longer than just 67 minutes long, but actually if some prior scenes had been cut and replaced with something better, the runtime might've been fine as it is. As for the mixing of the horror/comedy and spy genres, that's done marginally well, albeit hampered by the previously listed faults.
The characters are mostly a bit bland, but a few are more memorable. The villain is a neat one, even if he isn't played by Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre, as originally planned. Also, as if you couldn't guess he's the villain from the get-go by his general ooky demeanour, there's when he pours out "some of the finest brandy in Europe", but only in three glasses, with Jeff getting a handful of nothing when he goes to grab one. Racist prick!
The direction by Jean Yarbrough (who I'm constantly disappointed isn't a woman) is good, and he frames spooky scenes really well, making great use of shadows too! One of the best is the candle = at midnight! The production looks great for a low budget picture, though we never really get a feel for the island as a location, presumably because the sound stage posing as one only had so much (read: so little) space.
Popular African-American actor Mantan Moreland absolutely makes this film! He is indeed the main character, which is a relief, and he's as funny as usual, singlehandedly pulling the movie from 'somewhat bearable but mediocre' to 'quite watchable'! He gets plenty of funny dialogue, like when he mistakes the distant beating of Voodoo drums
for his heartbeat, "Quiet, will ya? What you tryin' to do, wake up the dead?", or "Whew, if it was in me, I sure would be pale
now!", On zombies, "That's what they is. Dead folks who was too lazy to
lay down.", "I never dreamt a dream like that in my wildest
nightmares!", and the hilarious closing lines!
There was a stereotypical archetype in some spooky films of this time which tended to portray black characters as exclusively perpetually frightened wimps. This is usually groanworthy, but it works here and doesn't come across as racist or problematic, for a few reasons. There's a wide variety of black characters in the film, from the sassy maid Samantha, to the nefarious butler who seemingly holds more power than first apparent, and a Voodoo high priestess. Because of this, Jeff being scared at spooky stuff doesn't come off as a stereotype, but rather a character trait exclusive to him. One good example is when he sees zombies for the first time. He runs away like a scaredy cat, but Samantha who casually told him of the zombies and called them in is as cool as a cucumber. Also, despite being scared (and he frankly has good reason to be!), Jeff is also a quick-witted and proactive character.
The rest of the acting is all fine. The two other leads fare decently, while Joan Woodbury is ok, but the movie doesn't give her much to do, and it almost feels like her character and her quest to discover what's happening to her mother was meant for a different script entirely. Henry Victor is quite good as the antagonist, however he too is let down by the script. Margeurite Whitten is great fun as Samantha, working well with Moreland, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan is a delightful presence, though also not used a whole lot.
What I'd like to see is a remake of King of the Zombies, about a very urban American black lead who doesn't know head nor tail of African/Caribbean cultures falling into a Voodoo-infused adventure in the West Indies/around that region. It might be an interesting idea, and a potentially neat way of remaking this!
While it may have its flaws, King of the Zombies is definitely a fun time, and I recommend it! It's probably one of the best early zombie films out there, even if there is room for improvement...
Revenge of the Zombies
Scott Warrington and his friend Larry Adams, along with the servant Jeff, and the local doctor, head to the estate of Dr. Max von Alterman. Scott's sister Lila (also von Alterman's wife) has just died under mysterious circumstances, and Scott and co. suspect foul play. Jeff is the first to pick up on the freaky nature of the estate, while the others learn soon enough of the true horrors afoot, and the reason why Lila's body keeps disappearing...
While I've heard it labelled as a sequel, Revenge of the Zombies is more a remake of King of the Zombies if anything, but thankfully it's a good kind of remake. It takes the base story, but changes up the setting and characters, enough so that it's different, but not so much that it's unrecognizable from the source material. Howfuckingever, I do NOT appreciate a remake, even a well-handled one, coming out a mere two years after the original film!
The two leads here have more interesting motivations than the previous film's duo, but there's one thing that the heroes of King didn't share-They're dicks! I was hardly endeared to them thanks to their treatment of Jeff, which is in complete contrast with King. In that movie he may have still been a servant, but you get the impression that Jeff and the other guys are friends, and he's not just subservient help to them. In Revenge, however, the leads are all too happy to unconsciously belittle him, and all-round ignore his very existence.They barely interact with Jeff, and noticeably never invite him in when they visit people, instead just leaving him outside like a dog, and he's immediately put to work in the kitchens of the von Alterman estate once they reach it. Just goes to show how tolerant and accepting King of the Zombies was, because in Revenge, Mantan Moreland is stuck in a stereotypical role, getting almost nothing to do but holler and be scared. Depressing that this came out later, not before! Thankfully Jeff is able to briefly shine come the end, Shining style.
More problems with the 'heroes' are that they're terrible investigators, as they spend nearly the whole movie unaware of the truth of what's going on at the estate, which is especially stupid considering it's positively crawling with the undead! Discounting that for a second, they're rubbish investigators when it comes to their much simpler suspicions about von Alterman, making very progress over the course of the film.
The villain is quite good, while the supporting cast range from decent to meh. The love interest is pretty dim and barely contributes. There's barely even a romance, yet she and Larry still become an item come the end of the film.
The dialogue is mostly tolerable, but there are a couple of funny lines from Mantan Moreland. "I don't know where you at but 30 seconds from now I'm going to be 11 miles from here!", "Well my head keeps telling my feet there ain't no zombies, but my feet ain't convinced.". I also liked the amusingly Southern dialect, with lines like "Sho'nuff", and "Ah 'sspect". One line REALLY rubbed me the wrong way though. After being rescued from a fix by Jeff, Larry responds by either saying "Thanks boy, you're here in the nick of time", or "Thanks! Boy, you're here in the nick of time".
If he said the latter, the actor is just guilty of very poor enunciation. If
the former though, the movie and I need to have some words!
Revenge of the Zombies starts off somewhat intriguing, but devolves once it turns out the villain's mysterious motivation is a much simpler 'workin' for the stinkin' nazzies variety'. Thankfully the concept of a mad nazi scientist making an army of zombies to conquer the world is still an awesome one, if a little too high-concept than the low budget (or indeed the writer's imagination) can show.
The plot itself is actually good, but it's the script that lets it down. This is a film that could really do with a remake. Problems aside though, the climax is great! Horror perfection. The ending is also pretty funny, with a sweet denouement for Jeff and Rosella the maid.
Unlike the 'prequel', this isn't a comedy at all. It's straight horror with no laughs outside of the occasional amusing line from Moreland. There is one scene with a hilariously unsubtle disguise an enemy agent uses to masquerade as an American sheriff, complete with a cowboy hat and ridiculously huge cigar! Trouble is, I don't think it was meant to be funny!
The acting here is all ok. Robert Lowery and Mauritz Hugo are pretty milquetoast. Mantan Moreland is good as usual but not particularly prominent. Now, believe it or not, John Carradine was actually young at one point, and this has indeed been caught on film multiple times. He has fun playing the typical mad scientist. Gale Storm is ok as the secretary and sorta-not-really love interest, but nothing special. Veda Ann Borg is decent but her delivery is a tad monotone. I'm not sure if that was unintentional, or if she was deliberately talking like that given her zombie status. It's likely to be the latter, so I'll give her a pass. Playing the head servant/head zombie Lazarus is James Baskett, who I quickly noticed has a very distinctive voice, thinking 'This guy sounds like a regular Geoffrey Holder', so I decided to look him up, and as it turns out, he's Uncle Remus from Song of the South!
African American actress Sybil Lewis is in much the same role Marguerite Whitten had in King of the Zombies, but sadly she's not used nearly as much as Whitten was there. Madame Sul-Te-Wan (the only other returning cast member next to Mantan Moreland) was likewise underused at first, but gets a really good scene near the end.
Revenge of the Zombies is certainly watchable. Not great, not as good as King, and perhaps even guiltier of wasting a good premise than said predecessor, but in any case it's not awful. Really its biggest sin besides the wasted potential is the criminal underuse of Mantan Moreland!...
Those who prefer modern day zombies of the flesh eating variety may be disappointed by the stark difference and relative bloodlessness of these old Voodoo ones, but then again, the opposite might be true. Any zombie fan who's gotten a bit tired of the modern stuff might relish something as far out different in the genre as these flicks. For those people I definitely recommend White Zombie and King of the Zombies, but Revolt and Revenge are both skippable.
Speaking of my selection, funnily enough two of them are technically sequels, but barely, only holding on by the tiniest of threads. So really I've been looking at four random zombie movies of the period, which is good, as that allows for looking at a wider variety of films from the era rather than if they were all part of the same series. All in all, this is an interesting sub-genre for sure, but not one used to its full potential in these particular films, some less so than others...
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Good evening my friends, and you are all my friends. For your consideration, we shall today, on this prestigious April the 1st, be looking at the artistic merits of the unsung classic How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. Hark, does that appellation not doth give you chills?
Beach enthusiast Frankie (Frankie Avalon) is out in South East Asia on navy reserves, where he's banging every native girl with a pulse, yet doesn't want his girlfriend Dee Dee cheating on him, so he goes to a witchdoctor Bwana (Buster Keaton), to get a spell done to make sure that no man goes near Dee Dee. The spell takes the form of Cassandra (Beverly Adams), a beautiful, yet clumsy bombshell, who's meant to distract all men from Dee Dee. The plan would work, if not for ad exec Peachy Keane (Mickey Rooney) discovering her and hiring her for his new girl next door ad image. A worker for the company, Ricky (Dwayne Hickman) is attracted to Dee Dee, and the two hit it off really well. Meanwhile, biker and head of the Rat Pack Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) falls for Cassandra, and as the two team up, they and Ricky and Dee Dee are in for a motorcycle race to decide the girl and boy next door...
The subject for tonight's essay shall be on the somewhat precarious mental state of one Eric von Zipper. Despite his mean biker-ish exterior, he's really a big huggably wholesome man-child in a sense, and perhaps this contradiction is a good showcase of his fractured and splintered personality. Never lucky in love, and not seeming to have found the right path in life, he ends up meeting his dream woman-Cassandra. She is everything he thinks he wants in a partner-Stunningly beautiful, smart, and klutzy just like him, but never while with him, because their natural clumsiness cancels each-others' out. It truly sounds like a match made in distant Aidenn, but alas, the problems are apparent with Cassandra's true nature, and that is she doesn't really exist...
Cassandra's secret is that she isn't really one with our physical plane of existence. I know this may come as a shock to those of you who saw the movie and didn't pick up on this, but bear with me. Let's start with the pair's first meeting. From the first moment he sees her, von Zipper joyously declares that she is his idol. Why would he say such a thing when he's literally only just met her? Simple. He does already know her in a sense, in the respect that she's always been a part of his subconscious.
There's further evidence of her nonexistence, such as how she pops in out of nowhere, following her bikini by only a few seconds, or how she makes very little impact on the plot herself but rather events unfold around her, almost like she's not really there. And then there's the climax, and THAT'S why von Zipper is disqualified at the final bike race! You see, I thought it didn't make sense that the race for who gets to be the girl next door is contingent on the man winning the race, and if the woman is riding while their bike passes over the finishing line, they instantly lose! That's patently unfair! What monstrous sexism...Or is it! You see, if Cassandra never really existed, then of course Eric didn't win, because if the nonexistent Cassandra was riding it, nobody was, and thus he was declared ineligible.
'But how is any of this possible?' you ask, 'Cassandra clearly has a physical presence on this realm, as she was noticed and picked up by Peachy and co., and she's briefly with Ricky at the end. Well there's a simple explanation. Eric von Zipper's delusions warp reality! 'Of course!' you say in a startled tone, 'It all makes sense now, like a jigsaw puzzle expertly coming together. Why the gosh hell didn't I think of this before?!'. I don't blame you. This is challenging stuff, and hard to take in on first viewing, but there's clear evidence of it. And this is a film set in a universe with magic, as well as ghosts, aliens, and mad scientists so it's not too out of the ordinary.
Another question you may have is 'How can these events be reconciled with Cassandra clearly being created by Bwana?' Well that's simple! That's all a delusion by Deedee, who subconsciously wants to imagine her boyfriend Frankie is being unfaithful to her despite a complete lack of evidence. She chooses to imagine that fiction to feel good about finding another partner, and the magically appearing Cassandra fits right in with that worldview. How about Frankie magically appearing to her at the end? Well that too was imagined, and that along with her breakup with Ricky was her way of coming to terms with accepting that her boyfriend is worth holding onto, despite whatever hardships the couple face. As for Cassandra, she vanishes on Ricky at the end despite Bwana specifically saying that wouldn't happen! If Bwana himself is only a figment of Deedee's imagination, that contradiction suddenly makes perfect sense!
Back to Eric von Zipper, we see more of the discontent he feels when he strives to change his image and be a new man, dressing up in very classy businessy attire and trying to act civilized. His friends are shocked and dismayed at first, but keep faith in him, and soon join in, if only to help Eric feel good about himself. The unconscious desire von Zipper has to be someone else is key to his mental roadblocks. He's displeased with the way things are, not because anything's actually wrong, but because he's not sure if it's the right path, and he's anxious the bottom will all fall out, so he constructs this new identity, with the catch-line of "If there's an image to preserve..." then it's this new one, trying to delude himself into being someone and something else. There's still a lingering sense of doubt though.
Now we come to the finale, once the race is done, and the race is lost...but all is not lost for Eric von Zipper, as he has finally made the key internal realization, and is happy. He discovers that Cassandra isn't the one for him. In his own words after they lose the race, "Don't feel too bad about this, young lady, because you're gonna go a long ways", and she responds with "Farther than you think.", "Only I ain't gonna go with you.", "That's what I meant". The meaning is clear. Being part of his subconscious, Cassandra already knows of his intentions and is at peace with them, and the couple amicably break up, knowing they simply can't be together forever.
Having faced up to his insecurities, Eric rediscovers his own self worth with the epiphany of "I am my ideal, and the Rats are my idols". von Zipper realizes and admits to himself that his delusions of romance aren't necessary, and not only is he already a complete person unto himself, but he's got a band of 7 loyal and faithful friends he can always rely on. Plus, two of them are female, so he finds out the reason he's unlucky in love has nothing to do with how the fairer sex views him, but is rather just bad luck-Bad luck he knows he will one day overcome.
Eric von Zipper has not necessarily led an easy life a times, but it's the road he chooses to tread, and he does to in the company of true friends. May we all be as lucky as this roguish rapscallion and his revelous...band of compatriots!
In closing, I hope this most illustrious essay has helped to inform any of my readers about the true meaning behind this entry in the 60s beach movie canon. I am here to serve and teach, now and always...
Thursday, March 30, 2017
At this stage I guess I could say I know a little bit about Iranian cinema. Not nearly as much as I do about Italian or Turkish, or even Mexican, but I'm beginning to learn more, be it from the works of Jafar Panahi, the Makhmalbaf family, The Cow or the early days of films in Iran. Today, for Fritzi of Movies Silently's Early Women Filmmakers blogathon I'll be looking at the 1963 documentary The House is Black...
This film is set at a leper colony, and it shows the residents in their daily lives, from prayer, to receiving medical treatments, taking care of their children, learning, singing, and engaging in activities such as playing games as best as they can. Throughout we see people coping with their deformities, and learning to manoeuvre as they could before despite their disabilities.
There's not really a 'story' as it were to this documentary. It's not but rather simply showing these unfortunate souls in their day to day life, with poetic verses narrated to us from their point of view, as well as actually by them. There's poetry written entirely by Farrokzhad (I think) as well as some slightly rewritten (again, I think) Quran verses. The writing on display here is very good, and sets the tone very well, establishing a tone of gloominess and despair, but pared with shades of optimism from certain things we see on camera. Perhaps the most important and hopeful line present is the simple statement from a doctor of "Leprosy is not incurable".
A big recurring theme is religion among the people of the colony, and how they keep their faith despite the cards they've been dealt.
Despite its relatively short runtime, The House is Black is definitely open to plenty of interpretation, in many different ways, and that's certainly a fine achievement!
One random thing to note is that this movie is not for the squeamish, but I hope that doesn't put off anyone who is, because it's still an important watch/viewing experience.
Onto the woman behind the camera-Forough Farrokzhad. Not only did she direct the film, but she also edited it, wrote and read aloud the poetry we hear throughout, and God knows what else! I can imagine she presumably had a big part in the production of the movie too.
From what I've read, Farrokzhad was so moved by the plight of those afflicted with leprosy that she adopted a child from the colony as one of her own, and took care of it, which shows the kind of person she was. Sadly things didn't turn out well for Forough, as in 1967 she was caught in a car accident and killed.
At only 32 on her death, she may have only been around for a few short years, but Forough Farrokzhad certainly seems to have left one heck of an impression on Iran, and even outside for those in the know of foreign poets. As for her lone movie, it may be a short documentary, but its importance can't be overstated, as it was one of the precursors to the Iranian New Wave, which saved cinema in Iran as we know it, and has produced many fascinating artistic products, which stand on the shoulders of giants such as Farrokzhad...
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I'm going back to Australian cinema for this review, which is always something I'm up for! Too many films are American! The subject in question is the 1975 adaptation of Joan Lindsay's book Picnic at Hanging Rock...
On Valentine's Day 1900, the students of Miss Appleyard's School for Girls go on an excursion to the area of Mount Macedon, nearby the ancient natural formation known as Hanging Rock. Despite warnings to stay away from the dangerous and craggy mountain, four girls led by the alluring and mysterious Miranda go anyway. After a few hours, something unexplainable happens, and three of the girls go missing, and the other runs away screaming. Searches are undertaken by the police, as well as locals, but nothing can be found, and the girls remain lost, along with one of their teachers. A young aristocrat from Britain who feels an emotional attachment to the case tries, with some luck, but not enough to solve the mystery, which might stay such forever...
There aren't that many movies where I've discuss the score before I do the story or other such elements, but in this case, it's justified. The iconic soundtrack in this film is definitely something special, particularly the pan pipe music courtesy of Gheorghe Zamfir. The score is beautiful, yet eerie, and really makes the movie, along with the weird noises Unfortunately the two big pieces of the score are repeated quite a bit, which kinda dampens their power a tad near the end.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has often been misunderstoof as a true story. It isn't, but it's not hard to see why people might think it is. The film is presented in a true-to-life way, especially with little touches like the text at the beginning, or the voiceover at the end.
The story makes no effort to dwell on the cause of the mystery itself. Rather, the freaky things happen, no-one knows why, and we see life going on for everyone in the area. This is actually a good decision, as had the movie focused deeper into the mystery, it'd be more frustrating when it inevitably doesn't give any answers. The flipside though is that because of the somewhat lacking final half hour, the movie feels a little...listless? Back to the positives brought about by this structural decision, there's how it makes the film feel genuine. Unlike a supposedly 'based on a true story' film that might see fit to embellish the events in order to give a narratively satisfactory answer, Picnic at Hanging Rock feels like it's accurately portraying real events, because of how it never speculates directly what the cause of the disappearances might be, or tries and give its own answer.
Another praised elenent is the character of Miranda. She barely appears, yet her character permeates the entire film. It's just a shame she and the others disappear so early on, we don't really get much time to get used to their presence and characters before they're whisked away.
The ending is a bit weird (in a bad way) and confusing, as well as extremely abrupt. In fact, abruptness is a problem in other places too. When the three girls disappear, for example. The sky seems to turn a shade of red, and Edith runs away shrieking, while bizarre sounds are heard over the soundtrack...and then the scene almost immediately cuts to Miss Appleyard's office later that night. I wish the scene had've lingered a little longer, and transitioned less suddenly to such a different feel and location. Another annoyance is that we never see Miss McCraw's disappearance. We just hear about it after it happens. Because of this, I didn't know she was the teacher who had disappeared on my first viewing.
Another problem is the brother-sister relationship between two random characters who never meet. It just seemed like a pointless addition, since nothing came of it. I felt similarly about the sort-of lesbian subtext, which for me seemed too unexplored, resulting in it being a bit superfluous.
An interesting question is whether or not Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror movie. After all, what's the base requirement of horror? That it should scare the audience, and this movie certainly does that. It's incredibly haunting and eerie. However, a lot of the story is focused on the effects the incident is having on the residents of the area, in what feels rather like a character drama. Whatever one's thoughts on the matter are, it's definitely an interesting thing to talk about, which is yet another reason the film is great! It just keeps provoking more and more different discussions about its nature.
Peter Weir's direction is fantastic! The camerawork is great already, but what really helps is the way the film was shot. Weir and crew deliberately filmed at certain times of the day when the sun shined/shone through the trees best, or by putting lace over the camera to achieve a more ethereal look to the movie.
Finally, onto the acting. It's all good, with some great performances. A lot of the performers come across like they're real people, which sells the 'true story' feel. Anne-Louis Lambert is great in her relatively small but important role as Miranda, while Dominic Guard carries large portions of the film well, as does a young Jon Jarratt. Rachel Roberts does very well as Miss Appleyard, capturing both her severe nature and also more vulnerable moments, and the very Aussie Helen Morse's French accent doesn't sound unconvincing to me, someone who doesn't speak French, nor can pick up on such subtleties, whatever that's worth.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a great example of Australian cinema, as well as low-budget cinema, and is still a revered film over 40 years on for very good reason. I wholeheartedly recommend you watch it! With luck, it'll creep you out and make you think...