The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)

2018 #207
Bill Condon | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Portuguese | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

And so we reach the final book in the Twilight Saga… but not the final film, because Breaking Dawn hails from the era when Young Adult adaptations routinely split their final book in two, all the better to make more money fully adapt the story. Sparked by the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, said “era” lasted all of five years, taking in Twilight and The Hunger Games, before the two-part adaptation of the Divergent series’ finale was cancelled halfway through due to poor box office.

But back to Twilight. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 starts with an event promised by the end of the previous movie: the wedding of human Bella (Kristen Stewart) to vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson). Sorry, Team Jacob; but let’s be honest, he never stood a chance. The double-length running time afforded this book means the film can spend its whole first half-hour indulging in the nuptials, which I imagine is the kind of thing fans of this series would revel in, so fair enough.

Then Bella and Edward head off on a romantic honeymoon, and after spending three movies being an analogy for the wonders of chastity, the lead couple getting married means they can finally get. it. on! PG-13 style, of course (I believe some thrusting was cut to retain the teen rating in one or both of the UK and USA). Nonetheless, Edward’s so vigorous that he completely destroys the bed — well, the poor guy has been waiting for about 100 years. He also leaves Bella with some cuts and bruises, making him reluctant to go again. This leads to an extended montage where the newly wed girl desperately tries to get laid while the newly wed guy does his best to avoid it. It’s almost transgressive in its role reversal, except Twilight is too coy to present this quite explicitly enough to really nail that gag. Besides, if you’re looking for a human-vampire relationship that nails the sexual politics of teen relationships, Buffy got there over a decade earlier.

PG-13 fucking

Despite the paucity of their lovemaking, and the fact that one of the pair is technically dead, Bella winds up pregnant, with the baby growing in super-double-quick time and sucking the life out of her. Well, it is at least half vampire — that’s kinda their thing. All this means trouble for Bella’s life, but she insists on keeping the foetus — or baby, as one character forcefully points out when another refers to it as a foetus. Hm, I wonder what the conservatively-minded author might be drawing parallels with now? In fairness, it depends a certain amount on how you choose to read it. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has said she is pro-choice and wouldn’t have agreed to do the film if she felt it violated her beliefs, while acknowledging she had to find a way to not offend the beliefs of “the other side”. So, almost everyone tries to dissuade Bella from sticking with the pregnancy, but they let her make her own choice… and (major spoilers!) it ends up killing her. So they were right, basically.

And that’s the entire movie, more or less. Well, it is only half the story. I think it’s the knowledge of it being only half the book that led many critics to describe the film as slow and light on content (you always see such comments about multi-film adaptations of single books), because while it’s hardly fast-paced, I didn’t think it was notably less incident-packed than previous Twilight movies. Mind you, that probably says less about the pacing of this film and more about how little actually happens in all these movies.

Angry like the wolf

However, despite choosing to adapt only half the story, it still feels like the plot is making jumps at times. For example: Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his werewolf buddies factor into things because they want to kill Bella’s devil-kid, but there’s also the matter of a treaty between the vampires and wolves (which I can’t remember the details of, so don’t ask). The film makes a point of emphasising that the wolfpack leader doesn’t want the treaty to be broken, then later on it’s stated that in his mind the treaty is broken. Now, okay, we can connect those dots ourselves, but really it’s missing a scene where the guy undergoes this about-turn of opinion. And yet, despite such missing links, director Bill Condon finds time for numerous sequences where people do nothing while a mournful song plays.

On the bright side, Condon does manage to create a sequence that is the nearest this series has ever got to being an effective horror film (well, apart from Edward being a creepy stalker in the first film). It’s basically the ending of the movie, so, again, massive spoilers. So: Edward eats the baby out of Bella, who promptly dies, forcing Edward to flood her corpse with venom by biting her all over, which seems to do pretty awful things to her organs — that’s the scary bit, though it doesn’t sound particularly terrifying when you put it like that. Potentially more emotionally scarring is that, meanwhile, Jacob is off falling in love at first sight with Bella and Edward’s baby. That’d be their creepy CGI baby, which is roughly as convincing as a plastic one in a Clint Eastwood movie.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” “I think it's... pixels.”

Not that the acting of the humans is much more convincing. Kristen Stewart had a promising career before Twilight, and seems to have managed to reignite it as something of an arthouse darling afterwards, but here she’s just a personality vacuum. The film starts with her delivering a couple of lines of voiceover, and even from just that she manages to sound terminally bored. Later she asks, “why can’t you see how perfectly happy I am?” Probably because you’re not putting any effort into your performance, love. And yet, the less said about the rest of the cast, the better. Lautner doesn’t even get to wheel out his surprisingly-effective comedy chops this time.

But for all the terribleness, I sort of feel I can’t hate it, because the rubbish bits are too funny, and the mad bits too bonkers (for a movie that is primarily aimed at romantically-inclined teenage girls, at least). While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, it was entertaining to sit through — kind of like The Room, for example, only still not quite as transcendently appalling.

2 out of 5

Join me this time next year when I finally finish this thing off. Unless I decide to do it next month, because Part 2 is currently sat on Netflix going “finish meeee”…

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The Purge (2013)

2018 #5
James DeMonaco | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

The Purge

When The Purge first came out, I ignored it because its premise was inherently daft. Then they made some sequels, which I ignored because the premise was still inherently daft. Then two things happened: one, some people who I think are worth listening to said some decent things about it; and two, Trump came to power, and suddenly that daft premise doesn’t feel so far outside the confines of what’s possible.

The aforementioned premise (for those that don’t know) is that, for one 12-hour period each year, all crime is legal. There’s some gumpf about how this was a policy designed to alleviate crime the rest of the year, blah, blah, blah, but really it’s just an excuse for a horror movie — a kind of home invasion action-thriller, essentially, but with twists and some effective moments. Although it has plenty of lump-headed, convenient-for-the-plot moments too, but I shan’t delve into spoiler territory here. Let’s just say some of the bigger twists are achingly predictable.

I think writer-director James DeMonaco was hoping to land some kind of political commentary, possibly even satire — I mean, it’s inherent in the concept, right? And the film leans into it, mostly in a race-related way, with a black guy on the run and antagonistic prep school kids. But it’s maybe not as clever as it’d like to be, and I’m not sure it’s actually got anything to say — again, it’s a violent thrill-ride with some window-dressing.

They're coming to get you, Ethan

The other thing about the premise is… they’ve made four of these movies now, plus a TV series, and from what I can ascertain they’ve all focused on “murder and violence is allowed” — but if all crime is legal, well, wouldn’t people be stealing company secrets, breaking NDAs, filing their tax returns…? Crimes against the government aren’t allowed or something, so I guess that’d probably cover the last one. But still, I feel like there’s potential to produce more variety than just “12-hour murder spree!” again and again.

Anyway, it is what it is. I generally liked it enough while watching it, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to post-viewing intellectual scrutiny.

3 out of 5

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

2018 #153
Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

4 out of 5

The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.

Happy Death Day (2017)

2018 #43
Christopher Landon | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Happy Death Day

How much does pure originality matter? Happy Death Day is a high-concept slasher movie that could be described as Groundhog Day meets Scream via Legally Blonde. Normally those kind of “X meets Y” descriptions give a general sense of tone or some coincidental similarities, but if you could put those three films in a blender, Happy Death Day is almost certainly what would come out. (There’s probably a more apposite sorority comedy than Legally Blonde for the third ingredient, but that’s not my subgenre of expertise.) But while there’s no doubt that Happy Death Day is derivative, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

The film introduces us to college student Tree (Jessica Rothe), who wakes up hungover in a stranger’s dorm room on what turns out to be her birthday. Later that day, she’s murdered… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Later that day, although she takes steps to avoid it, she’s murdered again… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Yes, she’s in a time loop — one which, she theorises, can only be stopped if she finds and stops her killer.

It’s a clever conceit — yes, borrowed from Groundhog Day, but utilised in a different way. For me, the plot/structural similarity is easy to overlook because, hey, it’s a great idea, why not recycle it with a different kind of story? This variation is enjoyably done, too — not an outright comedy, but with enough wit to make for a fun movie. There’s a very real danger of it being repetitive — repetitiveness is baked into the very concept, obviously — but, like Groundhog Day, it dodges that with amusing variations and intelligent filmmaking. Okay, the logic is sometimes a little askew (for example: no matter how quickly or slowly Tree leaves the dorm room at the start, the same random events happen outside), but that’s storytelling expediency rather than a major problem with the film’s logic, in my opinion.

Screaming groundhog

In the lead role, Jessica Rothe is excellent. She fills what could’ve been a pretty standard slasher movie heroine with different levels of reconcilable personality and a surprising amount of heart. She’s a likeable, root-for-able character to spend the day with over and over (and over) again. And when you know how the movie was filmed (i.e. like almost every other movie: not chronologically, but by location, having to shoot scenes from different time loops side by side), the way her performance is accurately nuanced becomes even more impressive.

In my opening comparison I picked Scream specifically because Happy Death Day has the feel of those late ’90s / early ’00s teen horror movies — the heyday of franchises like Scream, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. Back then this surely would’ve been a huge hit, but I feel like very few people were talking about it when it came out last October. That said, it achieved a respectable Rotten Tomatoes score (70%), grossed $122.6 million (off a budget of just $4.8 million), and this week they made headlines by announcing the sequel’s title, Happy Death Day 2U, which seemed to go down rather well. So maybe I just missed everyone celebrating it first time round.

I hope it continues to find a wider audience, because I think it’s a lot of fun. It may be built from blocks borrowed from other films, but they’ve been arranged in such a way that I think it still feels fresh, and they’ve been assembled skilfully enough that it’s enjoyable either way.

4 out of 5

Happy Death Day 2U is scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day 2019.

Seoul Station (2016)

aka Seoulyeok

2018 #184
Yeon Sang-ho | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Seoul Station

Before he made zombie masterpiece Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho was an animation director with several features to his name. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, to accompany his aforementioned live-action debut, he also helmed this animated prequel.

Apparently set one day before the events of Busan (there’s no obvious indication on screen of how the films’ timelines line up), Seoul Station depicts events as the zombie outbreak expands at the titular transportation hub. Through this we follow Hye-sun (Shim Eun-kyung), a young runaway struggling to make ends meet living with her good-for-nothing boyfriend, Ki-woong (Lee Joon). Hye-sun’s father, Suk-gyu (Ryu Seung-ryong), has finally tracked her down, but arrives just after his daughter and Ki-woong have an argument and she runs off — and then the zombie thing happens. As Hye-sun struggles to escape the undead hordes, Ki-woong and Suk-gyu team up to search for her.

Like Train to Busan, then, Seoul Station revolves around a struggling father-daughter relationship — though this one’s of a very different sort. That’s apparent from the off, but to say too much more would be a last-act spoiler. Suffice to say, it all comes to a very dark, grim ending, with none of the redemption or hopefulness of the main film. It also continues the live-actioner’s theme of other humans being the real villains, with the actions of selfish cowards being as much a threat to survival as the flesh-eating monsters. It feels like Yeon is being critical of Korean culture, taking potshots at the treatment of the homeless, the uselessness of the police, and more. Most of that stuff plays universally, mind, but the film hardly connects with it in a meaningful way. For example, we see one homeless guy struggle to get help for his injured and dying brother, as person after person either refuses help or begrudgingly does the least they can. “They should do more,” the film implies. But if they had, what would change? In this scenario, nothing — the guy’s been infected by zombie-disease; they’d all wind up undead too and it would spread faster.

Police brutality

Half-assed social commentary aside, there are some really neat, original ideas in here, like a scene where Hye-sun must hold her never as she precariously tightrope-walks across the empty shell of a building, while behind her the mindless zombies throw themselves off the building onto the structure, their lack of dexterity leading most of them to plummet straight through it… but not all of them. Plus, as alluded above, there’s at least one solid twist. On the down side, it’s a bit slow — it takes 20 minutes for the zombie outbreak to start, for no particularly good reason; and though it mostly picks up after that, it occasionally loses focus again. The animation is of variable quality, too: some of it is very good, but at other times it feels kind of floaty, and there’s a very bizarre motion-blur effect applied to character movement.

Unlike Train to Busan, Seoul Station can’t quite coalesce its good ideas into anything more meaningful than a zombie thriller. Plus, the ultimate grimness of the finale feels almost mean-spirited and cruel rather than pointed. It’s not a bad zombie flick by any means, but there’s an even better movie waiting to be refined out of its best ideas, and so it’s not as transcendentally great as its live-action forebear.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Seoul Station is on Film4 tonight at 11:15pm.

A Quiet Place (2018)

2018 #177
John Krasinski | 90 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / American Sign Language & English | 15 / PG-13

A Quiet Place

Not, in fact, the directorial debut of John Krasinski (aka Jim from the US remake of The Office, aka Mr Emily Blunt, aka Jack Ryan Mk.V later this month), but the first one that’s really gained any attention (to the tune of a sizeable $332.6 million off a budget of just $17 million), A Quiet Place is a post-apocalypse survival movie cum horror thriller. In the near future, the human race has been seemingly decimated by a race of aliens that hunt via sound. The film introduces us to a family — parents Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, kids Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward — who have managed to survive by living on an isolated farm and communicating via sign language, which they’re fortunate to know thanks to a deaf daughter. Naturally, their carefully-constructed safety is threatened when Something Goes Wrong and the creatures are attracted to the farm.

A Quiet Place’s USP is the “must stay quiet” aspect, which reportedly led to less chatter and popcorn-munching during cinema screenings. If only all moviegoing experiences were so blessed. Of course, a similar conceit was only recently deployed in Don’t Breathe, but here the threat level is upped by the almost supernatural enemy. The film’s PG-13 rating in the US means it occasionally pulls its punches on going all-out terrifying, but, as the UK 15 certificate may indicate, it’s still loaded with sequences of tension and suspense.

Fingers on lips!

Some have questioned the film’s adherence to its own rules, or the practicalities of the characters’ decisions, or the ‘luck’ of them having a deaf child and so being able to communicate via sign language. I don’t hold much truck with any of those criticisms. In the latter case, is it not logical that those who already know non-verbal communication have an advantage when it comes to silent survival? Maybe everyone who didn’t know sign language just got killed already. In the first, I think the film sticks closely enough to its conceit: small or disguised noises can go unnoticed, but anything big or obviously human is going to attract attention. Besides, there are only two or three of the creatures in the area — even with their super-hearing, surely some stuff is going to pass them by.

The issue with the characters’ decisions perhaps comes down to the fact that the film leaves a lot unsaid (ho-ho) when it comes to their relationships and thought processes. Big events and the emotional fallout have occurred offscreen, leaving the family in the position we follow them for most of the film. Those viewers demanding 100% foolproof logic from every aspect of the movie are clearly left out in the cold by the lack of exposition, but more creative minds can fill in the blanks. Arguably it leaves the film wanting as a character drama, even as it strives for the kind of subtly and understatedness that is usually lauded in such a genre.

The family that stays together fights sound-hunting aliens together

But, really, it’s a horror-thriller, designed to have you biting your nails and on the edge of your seat as you wonder where the monster will spring from next and whether the characters can survive the assault. As a genre piece of that kind, half the running time is the film’s climax, and it’s an effective one at that.

4 out of 5

A Quiet Place is released on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD in the UK this week.

Train to Busan (2016)

aka Busanhaeng

2017 #140
Yeon Sang-ho | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Train to Busan

Zombie movies have really risen to prominence this decade, for whatever reason (the success of The Walking Dead is an obvious culprit, though it would seem to have begun slightly before that, with Zombieland coming out in 2009, for example). You’d think that would result in the subgenre feeling played out, and there are certainly plenty of lesser efforts churned out, but films like the exceptional Train to Busan show there’s still quality to be found.

The film centres on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager living in Seoul with his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an). Seok-woo’s work-focused attitude has left his relationship with his daughter strained and distant, so he acquiesces when she requests to visit her mother in Busan. As they board the train — alongside other passengers that represent a cross-section of society, natch — a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Initially safe in their carriage, the passengers must hope they can make it to safety.

The family that fights zombies together...

As you might expect, the mismatched group of passengers fall prey as much to their own infighting and prejudices as they do to the zombie hordes, and the situation works wonders for the father-daughter relationship of the lead characters. Despite that apparent predictability, co-writer/director Sang-ho Yeon and his cast earn our sympathies and create an attachment to these characters, such that we’re along for the journey with them. Whether or not you guess the letter of the plot is beside the point if you feel it along with the characters — when you’re on edge to see if they can make it, upset by their failures, and cheered by their victories. This also contributes to some effective suspense sequences, and the film is also peppered with intense, pulse-racing action scenes that have been impressively mounted. World War Z may’ve seemed to corner the market for “zombie movie as action epic”, but there are sequences here that give it a run for its money.

Train to Busan shunts aside any tiredness you may feel about zombie flicks to demonstrate that, however overdone a genre may seem, there’s almost always room for fresh voices and creativity to produce remarkable work.

5 out of 5

Train to Busan placed 14th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

And that completes the reviews of my 2017 viewing (at last!)

It (2017)

aka It: Chapter One

2018 #118
Andy Muschietti | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

It

The highest-grossing horror movie of all time, It is the story of a bunch of teenagers in small-town America coming face to face with an ancient evil… who looks like a clown. Well, it can look like other things too, but mostly it’s a clown. Why did it stick with that form? I dunno. Maybe coulrophobia is even more common than we think.

Adapted from a novel by Stephen King (which was previously filmed as a miniseries), It actually only tackles half the book, meaning they get to crank out a sequel too (currently due next September). This actually works in the film’s favour, however: the novel takes place across two timelines, and, rather than just adapt the first half of the book, the film only adapts the earlier timeline. That means it makes for a complete experience in itself, rather than feeling like you’ve only got half the story.

It also focuses our view of the characters. Rather than seeing them at two very different times in their lives, it becomes a coming-of-age tale… albeit one where they come of age thanks to having to battle a supernatural horror. “It”, aka Pennywise the clown, is effectively and unpredictably scary, because he’s able to turn up at any time in any form. It seems almost like a cheat — a free-for-all excuse for the film to be scary whenever and however it fancies, without the need to follow any monster rules. At the same time, that makes the film less predictable, and therefore more effective, at the headline goal of a horror movie, i.e. scaring you. Also, if we’re parsing this as a coming-of-age tale more than a monster movie, it allows It’s various forms to further develop the characters: each identity it assumes is custom-made to terrify the individual being targeted, and the only rule is you defeat It by overcoming your fear, an act which is (in this movie at least) explicitly tied to growing up.

I've got 99 red balloons and this is one

Plenty of people will line up to tell you It isn’t actually all that scary, a level of assessment that is to watching horror movies what boasting who can eat the hottest curry is to dining. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary. I found some of it to be suitably unsettling and disturbing, and the “any time, any place” aspect keeps you alert and on edge. The downside is that, for the first chunk of the movie, the film just seems to be a series of unsettling scenes without much of a plot. It gets over that when the gang really comes together, but I can see why the movie ended up being so long: there are too many characters, and because It assaults each with their own personalised horror, we have to wait while the film gives them all individual sequences. Not that any of it is bad, but it threw the pacing off for me. Maybe it would’ve been better if they reduced the size of the gang by deleting a character or two.

One thing that did get ditched between page and screen is one of the most infamous scenes in King’s novel: a ten-page pre-teen orgy. Though, as it occurs during a section of the plot that we don’t actually see depicted on screen, I guess you could imagine it still happened, if you want. Ironically, while the film may have removed that overt sexuality, it still very much male-gazes the gang’s only female member, Beverly: there’s a scene where all the boys ogle her as she sunbathes in her underwear, and she begins the film’s climax as a “damsel in distress” who has to be rescued by a “true love’s first kiss” kinda deal. She’s not completely useless or without agency, but there’s room for improvement.

The Losers Club

What’s perhaps most baffling is that, by the sound of things, the early drafts for this movie (which were rejected and rewritten after original writer-director Cary Fukunaga left the project) did a lot to modernise that stuff. For example, there’s a scene where Beverly flirts with an (adult) pharmacist as a distraction, but, in the original draft, one of the other kids just faked a medical emergency for the same result. No, that’s not the most egregiously sexual thing they could’ve put in (child orgy!), but it’s still putting her in the position of being an object of lust. I guess, much like the scariness of the horror, your mileage will vary on how distasteful this stuff is. Ultimately, it’s a fairly small part of the movie.

Even if the film runs a little long, I mostly enjoyed It. Its scary scenes are unnerving enough that it works as a horror-show ride, while its coming-of-age aspect is bolstered by really good performances from the young cast, and clear thematic stuff about overcoming fear and the value of friendship. Which almost makes it sound like a kids’ film, but, yeah, don’t go putting this on for younguns — coulrophobia would be the least of their problems.

4 out of 5

It is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), the give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales, without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

The Monster Squad (1987)

2017 #43
Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The Monster Squad

When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

Frankie comes from Hollywood

That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

3 out of 5