Sep 2, 2020

ANOMALISA (2015)


Every single film so far in writer/director Charlie Kaufman's oeuvre has been about the longing between human beings, and the inevitable heartache and/or failure to which it leads. Anomalisa may have ditched those same humans in favor of an array of handmade puppets, but the humanity of the piece is still hugely present. Puppets aside, and to parrot some of the more on-the-nose critical notices that Anomalisa has received, this really is the most human of Kaufman's films so far.

Written and co-directed alongside Duke Johnson, Anomalisa is impressive on every single imaginable level--from the immediately obvious technical to the poignancy that slowly accumulates as we witness our lead character, Michael Stone, encounter a sea of sameness: the same faces, the same voices, the same disconnect. That these characters are brought to life with swappable faces isn't just some gimmick--it's essential to the story both thematically as well as logistically. Originally a "sound" play performed live for audiences during an extremely rare two-night event, that Anomalisa has been reimagined utilizing stop-motion animation and handmade puppets sounds like something doomed for failure. But as Kaufman has proven with his intimidating imagination time and time again, he's taken the most absurd of concepts and turned it into something oddly compelling and surprisingly emotional.


Perhaps Kaufman could have fashioned a live-action screenplay and used actual human actors on screen. Perhaps Tom Noonan's face could have been super-imposed on every single secondary character, and his voice dubbed over every single secondary line of dialogue. And as strange as it sounds, Kaufman could have pulled this off--with the same amount of sincerity balanced with absurdity. (If he did it with puppets, than anything is possible.) But it also would have been a page out of his Being John Malkovich (also about puppets, in a sense), and Kaufman doesn't like to do the same thing twice in the same way he doesn't like to make the same film twice, common themes notwithstanding.

As impressive as the puppetry is, what brings them to life is the phenomenal (and extremely limited) voice cast. David Thewlis presents Michael as sad and alone right off the bat, even when he speaks on the phone with his oppressed wife and indifferent son. Jennifer Jason Leigh (a refreshing reminder of her talents following her agonizing turn in Tarantino's insufferable western The Hateful Eight) plays coy and shy remarkably well, imbuing Lisa with believable mental scars as well as physical ones. But the performance of the hour belongs to Tom Noonan, whose calm, monotone voice is somehow simultaneously anonymous and instantly recognizable. It was an utter stroke of genius to cast him as "Everyone Else," being that his voice, with little manipulation on his part, easily suits the array of characters--male and female, young and old--that Michael encounters during his stay at the Fregoli Hotel. (Wikipedia describes "Fregoli syndrome" as "the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who is in disguise.") Noonan reads most of his lines with utter calm, easily garnering laughs during the more ridiculous dialogue, but also achieves laughs just as worthy during, say, the scene where Michael overhears a bickering newly wed couple swapping profanities that he passes in the hotel halls. Captured in the ideal way, all three voice actors recorded their lines during a reading of the script, each existing in the other's space to feed off the energy from their performances. This wasn't a case of their lines being recorded separately and pasted together later, and this helps to convey the relationships being established--or destroyed--during Anomalisa's running time.


It's easy to see that many potential viewers will write off Anomalisa before seeing a single frame of it simply because of the way it was made. But those potential viewers with small minds don't deserve to experience something so beautiful. Let it remain a secret for those who want and desire something far more emotional and significant than what can be found right now at the local multiplex. Anomalisa is a gorgeous film with a heartbreaking message at its core and just might be Charlie Kaufman's most personal and revealing film yet. 

If you're even a casual fan of Charlie Kaufman (if such a thing exists--you either love him or hate him), Anomalisa is the next step forward and upward for the acclaimed writer/director. It's a revealing look at the humankind disconnect, our at-times frustrating inability to communicate who we really are, brought to life by things that have the look of man, but not the soulfulness. For its ingenuity, innovation, and humanity, Anomalisa gets the highest recommendation.


Aug 31, 2020

THE CHANGELING (1980)


The ghost movie has become my favorite faction of the horror genre over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the more visceral thrills of seeing some masked ‘80s psycho remove a handful of teen heads, but if I want to feel unnerved and creeped out, I’ll go for the ghost flick every time. Either filmmakers are getting more refined, or the firewall of horror I spent my entire life reinforcing is being pared down as I get older, leaving me more vulnerable to those cinematic ghosts invading my psyche and giving me the super creepers.

In the pantheon of the haunted house film, 1980’s The Changeling easily joins the ranks of the original Robert Wise classic The Haunting as being one of the classiest ghost flicks of all time. Staffed exclusively with adult actors (gasp!) — legendary ones like George C. Scott at that — and made by an honest-to-gosh filmmaker, Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, Romeo is Bleeding), this modestly priced Canadian production doesn’t just hail from the old school approach of less is more, but exemplifies it. Much like The Haunting, which used off-screen noises, dramatic camera angles, and eerie ambiance to flavor its tone, The Changeling relies on restrained techniques and not a single large set piece or moment of gore or violence. It relies solely on the talent of its lead actors, Scott and his real-life wife Trish Van Devere, and Medak’s assured hand to wrench every possible scare from a scene.

As you might assume, in a film about a haunted mansion, the production design is astounding. The house, haunted or otherwise, and very run down in spots, is beautiful, including its artificial facade. Scott rides high on a career of having played very domineering and intimidating characters (Patton— enough said), so to see him traversing the wide, dark hallways of the Chessman Park house with fear in his eyes as he investigates a phantom pounding sound makes the audience even more afraid. If the guy who played George S. Patton is freaked, then we, the audience, really should be. Still, Scott’s John Russell is a quiet, docile, haunted, and gentle man — in stark contrast to some of the more acerbic characters he’s played in the past. In a few small moments, he lets his grief get the best of him, staringly forlornly at a painting or sobbing quietly in his new bed in his new home as he continues to come to grips with his newly severed family. He even only does the infamous George C. Scott yell once — once!


The film’s plot unfolds in the most realistic way possible — or, at least as realistic as one can be when your plot involves ghostly apparitions and noises, telepathic communication, and political conspiracies. The origin of this screenplay, however, is allegedly based on “real events.” From Wiki:
The film’s screenplay was inspired by mysterious events that allegedly took place at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Cheesman Park, Denver, Colorado, while playwright Russell Hunter was living there during the 1960s. After experiencing a series of unexplained phenomena, Hunter said he found a century-old journal in a hidden room detailing the life of a disabled boy who was kept in isolation by his parents. During a séance, he claimed, the spirit of a deceased boy directed him to another house, where he discovered human remains and a gold medallion bearing the dead boy’s name.
Believe as much or as little of that as you wish. It definitely won’t take away from your enjoyment of the film these so-called occurrences directly inspired.

If you’re a devotee of the haunted house sub-genre, it’s nearly impossible not to see how The Changeling inspired filmmakers like James Wan and even Hideo Nakata: the auto-writing scene with the paranormal investigator plays out very closely to Wan’s own Insidious; the strange music box, which enjoys the final shot of the film is straight out of The Conjuring; and then there’s the body-in-the-well revelation from Ringu, which unfolds the same way. Classics, even when they’re not heralded as much as they should be by mainstream audiences, never fully go away, so long as their inspiration carries over to the next generation of filmmakers. The Changeling proves this.


Aug 29, 2020

A DARK SONG (2016)


At some point after 2002’s The Ring, ghosts made a spirited (haw!) return to cinema, regaining their stature as one of the world’s first on-screen horror villains. Whether it was the pillaging of J-horror creepy wet ghost girls, or remakes of much more high-profile Hollywood films (The Haunting, for example), those undead, wispy/willowy, ectoplasm hurling specters were intent on scaring the dickens out of audiences. (I used the word “dickens,” so you know I mean it.) Sometimes it was a parapsychologist searching for emotional retribution, sometimes it was a bunch of hapless kids seeking the truth, and sometimes it was just a person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hardly ever was it someone going out of their way; risking personal health, comfort, safety, and even pride; paying a ridiculous amount of money, and dedicating MONTHS of shut-in living not just to see a ghost but to conjure one using dark magic. But that’s what A Dark Song presents, taking the well-worn concept of a big creepy house and a one creepy ghost but reinventing the “how” in an eerie, disturbing, and icky way.

A Dark Song introduces itself as a slow-burn, Polanski, Repulsion-like thriller, taking its time establishing the rules and mood of this universe. And as the ghostliness begins to unfold, all the trials and tribulations our poor Sophia has endured weighs heavily on our minds, leaving us to wonder if what she’s experiencing is real, or if she’s finally cracked under the pressure. Relying very little on bloodletting (there’s really only a goblet-sized amount – literally) and more on tension and intensity, A Dark Song has a very specific way it wants to tell its story, and it’s intent on not scaring its audience using cheap means.


A Dark Song only falters in its familiarity – the ghostly figure passing by unseen in the far background, the footsteps in the house, the bad omens that present once the rituals have begun – but it handles this familiarity well, teasing them rather than leaning on them. And it builds to a nutso finale that takes inspiration from the Hellraiser series, Jacob’s Ladder, and even Michael Winner’s little seen oddity The Sentinel – your personal diet of horror consumption will determine how unnerving this sequence is.

A Dark Song takes place in a dim, bleak, dreary mansion in the middle of nowhere. Not much for color, although any sequence relying on candlelight in a dark room (there are lots of these) look very striking. The sound design makes full use of ambiance and ghostly sounds to unnerve the viewer.

Those looking for Conjuring-type scares may not find much to grasp onto until the finale, which for most of these viewers may be too late. But for those with the patience to see it through, A Dark Song promises a new twist on an old classic and packs somewhat of a punch by its end.



Aug 28, 2020

THIR13EN GHOSTS (2001)


Critics like to say that the horror genre was basically dead in the ‘90s, with most long-running horror franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street going dormant, replaced by quiet direct-to-video stuff or the bigger glories going to prestige thrillers like The Sixth Sense, Seven, and The Silence of the Lambs. Being that I’m one of those folks who believes the horror genre never goes away and can’t die, I still have to admit that the genre seemed to be on life support during that ten-year stretch, with very few notable exceptions like Candyman and…Pet Sematary Two (lol). After Scream came along in 1996 and kick-started the slasher sub-genre, that was nearly the only kind of horror flick to get the greenlight. When news came down during the late ‘90s that Hollywood super producers Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, and Gilbert Adler were going to be forming Dark Castle Productions, with its aim to create big-budget remakes of director William Castle’s filmography, it felt like an event. It felt like they’d somehow already earned the reputation that Blumhouse began to enjoy after years of home runs – but without having made a single movie. 

The first of these productions was 1999’s House on Haunted Hill, directed by William Malone and starring the likes of Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan, and with Geoffrey Rush stepping into the shoes previously occupied by the legendary Vincent Prince. Except for a disappointing finale hampered by too much (terrible) CGI, House on Haunted Hill was an excellent update on a famous property, resurrecting Castle’s penchant for over-the-top spookshow-isms but now adorned with Malone’s own penchant for eerie, Jacob’s Ladder-like imagery. In the right frame of mind, it was both visually scary and even kind of a mind-fuck. Horror fans weren’t the only ones pleased, as the flick did great business at the box office, boding well for the brand new Dark Castle’s future. Not wanting to tempt fate too much, they moved forward with their next William Castle update, and another to have starred Vincent Price: 1960’s 13 Ghosts – one that, in keeping with Castle’s proclivities for gimmicks, required audience members to wear special glasses (read: 3D glasses) so they could “see” if the movie’s ghosts were trying to come off the screen. And with the announced cast of Tony Shaloub, Matthew Lillard, and none other than F. Murray Abraham, it seemed a safe assumption that the newly dubbed Thir13en Ghosts would be every bit as successful as House on Haunted Hill

It wasn’t.


Instead, Thir13en Ghosts proved to be the walking, screaming, over-edited, and over-produced definition of the sophomore slump, trying to take everything that made House on Haunted Hill work as well as it did and dialing it up to eleven while allowing everything else to fall by the wayside. Instead of there being one cumulative ghostly threat with a name and face (Jeffrey Combs's Dr. Vannacutt), now there’s thirteen; instead of there being a fascinating gothic house with a lot of character, thanks to its twisting hallways where people can get lost and disappear, now there’s a house that’s forced to actually embody a character and made entirely of see-through glass…where people can still get lost and disappear, anyway; instead of the amped up guy from SNL playing the neurotic comedy relief, there’s the even more amped up guy from Scream playing the neurotic comedy relief. Thir13en Ghosts was trying way too hard to replicate what House on Haunted Hill seemed to do so easily – preserve the plot of the original movie but with a twist, design some creepy spooks, and offer us a handful of characters who earn our sympathies without the need for an exploitative painful history. (Mom dead, details later.)

The characters in Thir13en Ghosts are paper thin, from the mourning widower/father Arthur Kriticos (Shaloub) to his two kids, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth, who is incapable of playing a real person), and Bobby (Alec Roberts), the youngest, most precocious member of the family, and you can tell he’s precocious because when things go wrong, he’s weawwy sowwy. And please, let us not forget Maggie (an early 2000s relic known as Rah Digga), the family’s housekeeper and nanny, who, in the course of 90 minutes, never washes a single dish or folds a single piece of laundry, who literally sits at the kitchen table with rollers in her hair filing her nails as Arthur trips over a wayward toy left in the middle of the floor and who makes no attempt to pick it up, who doesn’t do a single maternal/domestic thing for either child, and who even loses Bobby within minutes of the family entering the infamous house and after being told by Arthur not to let him out of her sight. “Aunt Maggie doesn’t do windows!” she jokes after seeing the family’s new, inherited all-glass house, but it’s not much of a joke because Aunt Maggie doesn’t seem to do anything. Though the family is bland, Matthew Lillard does his damndest to inject some life into the movie, trying on the new archetypal funny/manic character that Chris Kattan had seemingly created in House on Haunted Hill. He is nearly Thir13en Ghosts’ sole heartbeat, along with Embeth Davidtz (Army of Darkness) trying the most as Kalina the ghost activist (don’t think about this too hard) and the esteemed F. Murray Abraham, who still manages to radiate menace and chilliness even though you can tell he’s definitely not into this. 


The showpiece of Thir13en Ghosts was meant to be the glass house where the majority of the movie takes place, built with winding hallways and filled with pre-war curio and mystical occult paraphernalia. On paper, this sounds interesting. The problem is the movie fails at establishing the geography of this very house from the very beginning – how big is it? how many rooms are there? where the hell is it, anyway? – and with every hallway and bedroom and study being framed with glass etched in scrolling Latin script, everything looks the exact same. Unless you see a golden telescope or an old-fashioned porcelain bathtub, it’s almost impossible to know where anyone is, or where they are in relation to everything else. 

Director Steve Beck makes his directorial debut after having established a respectable career as a special effects artist in notable titles like The Abyss, and though he exercises some flair behind the camera, as evidenced by the opening shot panning across a single room that goes from happiness and joy to death and despair, once the novelty of seeing ghosts appear and disappear a few times in the same few frames, you realize that’s the only trick he’s got. Soon after, the flick’s so-called entertainment value comes from watching shallow characters wander hallways and run from ghosts, the designs of which look cornier and cornier the longer they’re on screen (except for ‘The Princess’– she’s legit creepy from her first Shining-inspired appearance until her last).  


Still, like its predecessor, Thir13en Ghosts opened well to big business, but unlike its predecessor, audiences weren’t too thrilled with the results. For some reason, following the poor reception from audiences and critics, Dark Castle tweaked their original mission statement and never did another William Castle remake again, filling their slate with original content (Ghost Ship, Gothika), a remake of a non-Castle property (House of Wax), and, eventually, non-genre stuff (Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla, Ninja Assassin). I should mention, though, that they also produced 2008’s Orphan, a movie so viciously stupid and stupidly vicious that you have to see it to believe it.

I’ll be honest when I say that, even though Dark Castle produced far more losers than winners, I miss them as a brand. Though, as mentioned, Blumhouse has taken over and delivered far more consistency to theaters, either with their resurrections of older properties or with original ideas, I miss the era when studios were actually okay with throwing multi-million-dollar budgets together for R-rated horror productions. It was a short-lived era, and one we’ll never see again thanks to the roaring success of micro-budget horror, but the genre has always existed in a cyclical fashion, so maybe they’ll come back one day and remake The Tingler with Jon Hamm or something. Until that day, there’s always revisiting House on Haunted Hill, because these Thir13en Ghosts are about thirteen too many.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Aug 27, 2020

HOUSE (1985) AND HOUSE 2: THE SECOND STORY (1987)


Director and Producer Sean S. Cunningham has never really played coy about his earliest beginnings in film. Following upon the success of The Bad News Bears, he and screenwriter Arch McCoy saw fit to rip it off with Here Come the Tigers, another foul-mouthed comedy about an unruly little league baseball team. And following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Cunningham called up his screenwriter Victor Miller and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money – let’s rip it off” (actual quote), and Friday the 13th was born.

With his producing role on the first of what would become a four-film series, it’s hard not to look at House as an attempt to recreate the do-it-yourself monster approach consisting of equal parts horror and comedy that Sam Raimi took with the first two Evil Dead films. Built upon a foundation of sincerity, but chock full of schlocky and fantastical creature designs, both the Evil Deads (well, more so the latter) and House want to horrify and disgust but also titillate and muse its audiences in equal measure. On the supplements included in this release (specifically for the first film), star William Katt describes House as the perfect gateway horror film for the young – something that boats horrific imagery, but nothing so deadly serious that they would be left traumatized. And he’s right. That’s the level of horror the unsuspecting can expect from the first of four House films.


Unlike Here Come the Tigers and Friday the 13th, House manages to establish its own identity thanks to its off-kilter tone; though it borrows its concept about a guy who ends up battling demons/monsters/somethings in an isolated environment, it’s willing to be more playful with its horrific imagery, in gross contrast to the very bloody and at times mean-spirited set pieces that littered the Evil Dead series (including the very stupid Army of Darkness). And it definitely gets points for highlighting a post-war condition that hadn’t yet gone by its official title: post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the very playful nature with which House is presented, its lead character, Roger Cobb (played by Katt), is carrying around a lot of spiritual demons. Not only did his time in Vietnam see a fellow soldier (Richard Moll) killed in action, but he’s also dealing with the disappearance of his young son and the subsequent it took on his marriage. His effort to stay in his late aunt’s palatial Victorian house to work on his new book – a non-fiction look back on his time in the war – awakens either the ghastly creatures that live behind its doors, or which live inside his mind.

Directed by horror veteran Steve Miner (the first two Friday the 13th sequels; Halloween: H20; the atrocious Day of the Dead remake), House is a mixed bag of humor that doesn’t quite work and horror that’s intent on being more foamy and cartoonish than outright terror. For some folks this is enough, as House definitely has its fans, but for others weaned on Ash Williams cutting off heads of the possessed in similarly amusing situations, it just ain’t enough. House boasts some of the same ingenuity and unorthodox creature designs, but very little of the darker gore gags. The practical creature effects and creations are definitely creative and impressive considering House’s modest budget, but moments like these are unfortunately too few and far between. Although, credit definitely goes to the zombified soldier which stalks Roger during the third act, as it’s a legitimately excellent creation, right down to his articulated facial features. House perhaps could have used more of this and less of the behemoth woman demon with pearls — aka, more of an emphasis on actual terror.


Following the surprise success of House, distributor New World Pictures was quick to green light House 2: The Second Story, which boasts perhaps the greatest title of all time. Unfortunately that’s about all it boasts, as House 2 is borderline unwatchable, dialing down whatever horror was present in the first film and amping up the humor, turning it into something more akin to the first Troll. This time around, the action is set in a house that looks like something from an unused Indiana Jones set, complete with spooky basement that houses a literal crystal skull (holy shit). This skull resurrects a ghost cowboy, or something, who is the most depressed ghost I have ever seen in film, and I think he coughs dust or something. Bill Maher shows up playing a gigantic asshole, which Bill Maher manages to do quite handsomely (and this is coming from someone who legit loves Bill Maher). Keeping the Friday the 13th connection going (with returning producer Sean Cunningham), Lar Park Lincoln (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) plays a kind of unlikable lead opposite far more likable Arye Gross (Minority Report), who together engage in a plot that can’t even be broken down because it makes very little sense.

To be followed by two sequels.

The House films are friggin’ weird, but there’s no denying that’s part of their appeal. The first two films — though their levels of quality can be debated — remain the two most beloved and will make you feel right at home haw haw sorry!



Aug 26, 2020

PRAYING GHOST

PALERMO – News of a ghost of a praying nun on the church of Santa Maria della Mercede al Capo bell tower has created a lot of buzz in Palermo. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the church. Some of them were there to pray, others just for curiosity. 
Everything started with the publication of a photo on social networks.

The ghost seen in pictures is most likely an optical illusion, but as every good ghost story, the history of the place seem to support the mysterious theory.

In fact, in the area there are the forgotten Catacombs of the Capuchin Sisters, built on top of an early Christian cemetery in 1732. The nuns used these catacombs for burials until 1865.

The crypt and the early Christian cemetery still remain unexplored. The entrance to the catacombs has been walled up, hiding hundreds of buried nuns bodies forever.

Is really the restless spirit of a nun wandering inside the church?


Story and image source.