Sunday, 23 November 2014

Willow Creek (2013)

Comedian-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait’s unlikely but durable directorial career began back in 1991 with Shakes the Clown. Goldthwait has largely extended his scabrous, artfully crazed persona from stage and screen into an aesthetic sensibility, with harsh satires and black comedies looking at the seamier side of the modern American sensibility and the nation’s eddy of fragmented subcultures. Willow Creek, as a horror film, seems like a departure from that fare, leaving behind outré pretences. This proves not entirely true, as he annexes a modern legend to zero in on other kinds of legends of a more personal nature, and divisions in society and gender, myth and reality, that intrigue him. He does so via a remake-cum-burlesque on The Blair Witch Project (1999), taking on the much-used and much-abused “found footage” style, similarly spinning minimalist tension in presenting footage supposedly shot by would-be documentary filmmaker Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). This faux-relic depicts Jim’s determined journey to the site of the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in the deep woods of northern California, to work through his own fascination with the legendary beast, and Kelly’s equally determined humouring of Jim’s venturesome projects and posturings. 

At this point the very mention of the phrase “found footage” might fairly make us wince, and the tropes of the style are largely honoured by Goldthwait in the course of Willow Creek, who doesn't exactly stage a send-up of the genre. But Goldthwait brings humour and impudent élan to the project, mostly by making his central couple a pair of smart-alecks who provide their own stream of drollery that often doubles as their footage's own commentary track. Jim and Kelly’s joshing humour, clearly their chief bond as a couple, is turned on the scenes and people they encounter with casual snark that’s not exactly mean-spirited but offers a very common sort of blithely self-justifying mockery. That mockery is then steadily twisted and aimed back at Jim and Kelly, particularly as Kelly’s jokes – posing for her own “missing person” photo and pretending to perform sex acts on a Sasquatch statue – prove to be foreshadowing with a cruel and clever edge. Goldthwait never has any doubts how to use the pseudo-amateurish camerawork to sustain dramatic engagement, with Jim and Kelly's semi-professionalism justifying a reasonable level of camera proficiency, and how to weave in substantive characterisation, where most found-footage cinema seems designed to paper over the filmmakers’ lack of any ideas in this regard. 

Jim and Kelly travel out of their world by stages in a fashion long familiar to horror aficionados. Early scenes of the couple driving quickly clue us in on the dynamics of the couple’s relationship, their shared sense of humour apparent and their charm as good-looking entertainer and would-be artist apparent. Also on display however is Jim’s mix of attentive curiosity and unthinkingly entitled boorishness, like a former frat boy who’s outgrown youthful hijinks but isn’t yet quite the sensitive artiste he thinks he is, whilst Kelly half-deliberately dims her sharp instincts for the sake of being with Jim. We’re quickly given a discomforting glimpse of this when Jim makes Kelly hold a microphone he’s testing whilst she’s steering them along a winding, vertiginous highway. Goldthwait, via Jim and Kelly, notes with good humour and some satiric bite the swirl of all-American commercialisation that has grown up around a charming myth: the eponymous town has branded itself thoroughly with Sasquatch mystique, complete with giant fresco depicting the Bigfoot, image of the threat and mystery of nature, as a placidly tamed helper in the great American project of colonialism. Importantly, Goldthwait blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking in a way most other found-footage movies have avoided, because he wants in part to document the weird and entertaining little subculture that has grown off the legend, and implicitly studies its place in the modern American cultural landscape. He offers, neo-realist style, segments of Johnson in character as Jim interviewing with some real-life colourful characters and regional oddballs, like the “Bob Dylan of the Bigfoot community” Tom Yamarone, who happily participate in the mystique, and Nita Rowley, who works in the Willow Creek Visitor Centre and amusingly denies any belief in the creature her job relies upon. 

Goldthwait quickly and efficiently notes the patronisation Jim and Kelly turn on their hosts and the double-sided exploitation going on, as Jim just like them wants to fashion the straw of backwoods legend into personally enriching enterprise, but with more slickly knowing presumptions, and obliviousness to real problems, as when the pair fail to note the import of a missing woman’s poster. There's a peculiar, communally-derived warmth inherent in the idealisation of Bigfoot for commercial purposes, a face painted on the wilderness that gives it a value it might not otherwise have. But that mythos, as evinced around the Willow Creek locale, might mask a different blend of these two impulses, as the couple are alerted to the possible dangers of redneck pot growers who exploit the rugged locales for their own ends. An alarming encounter with a quickly angered man (the aptly named Bucky Sinister) on the road to the film site thus presents the possibility that in the course of their adventuring, they’ve blundered into a place that is genuinely dangerous beyond the immediate threat of unforgiving terrain, in ways we know Jim and Kelly are not prepared for. Jim’s romance with the idea of the Bigfoot is however plainly rooted in his concept of himself as a frustrated manly-man and adventurer into the unknown, foiled ever so relentlessly by Kelly’s mordant humour and looming career necessity of moving to Los Angeles. That is a move cool Jim claims he won’t stomach, but capitulates to rather than accept complete defeat in her delicate rejection of his marriage proposal and substituted suggestion of cohabitation. 

Nonetheless by the film’s climactic scenes, the couple pass through stages in relationships in hypertrophied speed, including what Jim might well have been hoping for, as Kelly is reduced to quivering and clutching his arm, before they devolve to mutual, frantic berating and disillusionment as circumstances close in, and then become, finally, a besieged, mutually reliant duo surrounded by dark and monsters, standing back to back, armed and ready. Willow Creek could well be one of the more quietly incisive romantic comedies of recent years. Officially, however, Goldthwait’s film sits squarely in a contemporary school of horror cinema. In its themes and settings and even in some plot refrains, Willow Creek also calls back to the small but engaging glut of regionally-made, no-budget US horror films of the ‘70s, some of which featured Bigfoot, like The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), Creature From Black Lake (1976), and Sasquatch (1978). The film’s long, deceptively casual lead-in, with its ambling, humorous vibe and pseudo-authenticity proves to have been sterling conditioning for a more traditionally intense last act, once Jim and Kelly arrive in the forest. They set up camp and divert for some skinny-dipping before returning to find their camp ransacked: “What’s one of my socks doing in the tree?” Jim questions as they return, a great gag that’s also the warning sign this lovers’ jaunt is about to get menacing. 

And so it does, in an epic sequence accomplished entirely in static shots, which merely offers Jim and Kelly straining their ears and cowering as something seems to stalk their camp outside their tent, recorded by Jim only to keep a record of the freakish and frightening moment. A proliferation of strange sounds, from wild howls to branches being bashed together, seem to spell visitation of the very beast they’ve sought but haven't really believed in, or, at least, have never paused to consider what it might act like and want. But what’s making the sounds like a woman’s sobbing? Johnson and Gilmore’s acting is plainly vital to the slow-building force of the sequence, but also Goldthwait’s conceit is matched here by his cunning, his ability to force the viewer to share only the extremely limited viewpoint and paranoia of his characters, with only the bare minimum of cinematic devices, quite detached from the barrage of camera and special effects so many recent horror films offer. Goldthwait takes care to offer a choice of explanations for the events that unfold, and although he presents a weight of evidence that finally favour one, doesn’t entirely spell things out and ruin his dichotomy. The film’s last twenty minutes offers a curtailed version of the sort of herky-jerky, impressionistic survival flight most found-footage movies offer at length, but Goldthwait has an actual, coherent, very dark punch-line to offer without ever violating the entirely suggestive approach he’s taken, and also makes sure that his mordant final note works however one interprets the circumstances leading up to it. Kelly, having resisted falling in thrall to her chosen mate’s self-written mythology, seems now about to fall victim to much less gentlemanly attentions, and be they from cryptid ape-man or redneck man-ape, she’s screwed.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

To Be Cont'd: Movies as Games and Puzzles

For anyone interested and who did not catch it earlier this year, I present the four-part conversation my estimable colleague at Ferdy on Films Marilyn Ferdinand and yours truly penned for the quality film site To Be Cont'd in June. We were invited to discuss a topic, and the one we chose after much dithering and tithering was prompted by Marilyn's perturbation at a question from a film screening she attended asked by a young student, a question that cut to the heart of the mystery of cinema, and our presumption that what we see in a cinematic narrative is a form of "reality". Our busy discussion on a current predilection for unstable realities in cinema and the changing relation of the movie creator with the audience's expectations thus unfolded in haphazard but lively fashion...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, 2013)

I admit that much of Roman Polanski’s later oeuvre has left me cold. Sometimes I wonder if this offers me an overly-easy psychological exit point from contemplating Polanski’s infamy in artistic terms, but the fact remains that most of what he’s done since Bitter Moon (1992) has to me lacked the potency of his early career, as he’s often left the zone of queasy psychodrama that was his specific, ingenious stock-in-trade. The self-evidently second-rate material he’s often worked with hasn’t helped much, from the excessively theatrical and obvious Death and the Maiden (1996) and Carnage (2011), to the minor but diverting The Ninth Gate (1999). The Ghost Writer (2010) was made with sublime poise but proved a film as a cheaply, shallowly cynical as Chinatown (1974) was brilliantly, devastatingly so, whilst his heavy-duty prestige work in The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2006), scarcely left any impression on my memory, seeming more like competent TV movies by smooth artisans than works by a man who was once a high-tensile stylist and bitterly incisive wit. Venus in Fur seemed set to be a reprise of Carnage as another adaptation of a recent, fashionable stage work, a minor aside from the ageing, embattled director. And yet Polanski uses it to stage his most invigorating and amusing plunge into psycho-sexual folly since, yeah, Bitter Moon

That very “minor” status of the project helps. The set-up is limited, the theatricality again unbound, a folie-a-deux of role-playing and art-life null-zone where the denouement is obvious from five minutes in, and yet it prevents a perfect stage for Polanski’s scourging humour and obsessions to take root, evoking his early work in spades. The enclosed setting and intensely sadomasochistic gamesmanship of Knife in the Water (1962) and Cul-de-Sac (1966), particularly the latter’s gender kink, except that whereas Cul-de-Sac showed a weak man claiming potency but leaving himself more isolated than ever, Venus in Fur shows a self-appointed emperor falling under the heel of a tyrant and loving it. The subject is playwright-turned-debuting director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), who’s staging his own adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s pivotal tome “Venus im Pelz,” but can’t find an actress to fit the part. He’s just on the verge of giving up for the day and leaving the cavernous theatre he’s all alone in on a dull and stormy eve, when in walks a seemingly ditzy candidate, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). She soon proves a slippery character with a rare and remarkable grasp on her role, and starts claiming the high ground over the hapless auteur. Polanski kicks off with pointed satire that hits several targets, as Amalric’s jerk-off anti-hero rants over his mobile phone to his fiancé about the immaturity of the actresses who auditioned for him, and bemoaning the absence of classically mature femininity: he invites the audience to laugh with a touch of knowing agreement with Thomas, but also primes the audience then to share in his take-down. 

But another theme is already percolating, as Polanski reflects on the way closeness to death has defined ideas of maturity in social mythology until recently: Thomas laments that a woman the age of Wanda, Sacher-Masoch’s antiheroine, would’ve had “a husband, six kids, and tuberculosis by now” when the actresses who audition for him are all in the state of perma-adolescence we’re now familiar with. An irony is also already implicit: Sacher-Masoch’s tale came to a conclusion, interesting today and radical in its time, after all the fetishistic roundelay, that men and women couldn’t become real companions until granted the same privileges, and yet Thomas’ project smacks of a desire to revel in retrograde ideals. At least three levels of adaptation are implicit: Polanski adapting David Ives’ source play, which riffed on Sacher-Masoch, poking holes in his dated assumptions but annexing the power of his ideas, and of course Thomas is the representing interlocutor. Little of the dreamy fantasia that was integral to Jesus Franco's loose take on the novel is present here. Vanda gives Thomas his wish as she steadily transforms from caricature of the sort of contemporary airhead he despises into his ideal Wanda, seeming to fulfil his artistic ideal but actually, simultaneously sniffing out the wish-fulfilment underside of the art in the artist. The fact that Seigner is Polanski’s wife and Amalric, who’s long inspired double-takes from me because of his resemblance to the director, is his image, primes us for a sense that Polanski’s offering a comedic but genuine self-portrait here. But the possibility that Polanski is baiting us is equally strong. Nonetheless, as with Tess (1979), Bitter Moon, and Death and the Maiden, the sense that Polanski is diagnosing his impulses to both criminal and victim is implicit, amidst his familiar mordant and tar-dark observations of human behaviour. Venus in Fur doesn’t aim for the same degree of discomfort and threat as his greatest works do, except perhaps for a faint edge in the very climax, and yet it lurks beneath: after all, the plot is quite similar to Takashi Miike’s Audition (2000) as it portrays a women who uses her ability to turn herself into the image of a powerful artistic man’s desire to entrap and abuse him.

Polanski stops well short of Miike’s end-point for such a paranoid, sadistic misandrist fantasy, in part because his subject is officially about the perverse nature of desire and how it contradicts surface behaviour and even personal will: Thomas in the end wants to be dominated. Seigner readily played the unspoilt naïf encouraged to grow into a untameable monster in Bitter Moon for Polanski, and the angel from hell in The Ninth Gate, and Venus in Fur works as partial self-satire in this regard, the conceit of the duo stepping in and out of the roles in the play allowing for instant auto-criticism and meta-commentary. But Polanski knows far too well how easily the force of intense emotion subsumes attempts to rhetorically corral them – indeed it’s the essential assumption of his career, as well as an ugly truth about his life – and that Vanda and Thomas are locked from the get-go in a journey to an inevitable end. Polanski plays at peeling back layers of reality nested in the apparently straightforward tale, as Vanda proves to be not just a superlatively manipulative actress but one with a different motive, logically related to Thomas’ current situation and his simultaneous desire to find safe ground and indulge his phantom tastes. The suggestion that Vanda in fact might even be Venus or one of the Bacchanals who tore Dionysus to pieces, and thus a genuinely strange and cruel goddess, is mooted more than once.

Venus in Fur is littered with neat jokes about theatre and role-playing, smirking at a phallic cactus left on the stage from a production of a stage version of Stagecoach (doubtless with all its phallocratic colonial machismo intact) that becomes Thomas’ crucifix-cum-rack in the end, a joke reminiscent of Ken Russell. The protagonists steadily take on the costume and then personalities of their characters. Most hilariously, the couple suddenly turn with a few tweaks of setting and costume into a patient and psychoanalyst, as Vanda reveals alarming insights into Thomas’ fiancé and his state of mind that prove later to not come from mere insight. But Polanski often seems to be digging into something slightly apart from the usual life-art stuff, as he investigates a problem he sees as inherent in his artform(s), the theatrical and cinematic worlds, which usually congratulate themselves on their tolerance and progressiveness and yet still often cede awesome power to individual egos, who are then given carte blanche to manipulate others into fulfilling their designs, one usually caricatured popularly as a dominant man wrangling diva actresses into line. Venus in Fur sees Thomas getting what he secretly wants by steadily losing agency, as Vanda proves to be a genius in all forms of theatre, becoming not just mistress of Thomas but director.

Polanski settles for the most part to film unobtrusively and subtly manipulate whilst pretending to lurk under Vanda’s wing, quietly tweaking camera angles and lighting effects to render his characters progressively less familiar and stylised. The director’s gift for both wielding the effects of horror cinema and simultaneously burlesquing them is on show as Thomas becomes a glowering shadow wanderer and burning-eyed wraith, before Vanda reconstructs him as a kind of drag-queen Frankenstein monster, and then finally turned into an S&M version of Cesare from Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), whilst Vanda emerges in the end as leering, high-camp vision of dominant female sexuality, wrapped in fur and dancing in Grecian style whilst leering like the daughter of Joel Grey and Divine to tease her mate/prey, a climactic moment that blends the eccentric, the unsettling, and high camp humour with careless pleasure. The pathos of George in Cul-de-Sac, who likewise submitted playfully to a coolly manipulative woman’s gender-bending games, has become here sarcastic punch-line. Brisk, deft, taunting, and sinuous, Venus in Fur is satisfying on some wicked level.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Mysterious Doctor (1943)

Cheap, brief, daft, and blissful fun for old B-movie spelunkers, The Mysterious Doctor is jerry-built pulp fiction from the midst of WW2, combining mild horror spun from already long-hoary story tropes and regulation wartime messaging. The setting is the perpetually foggy corner of a Warner Bros. approximation of Cornwall. The eponymous doctor, Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews), comes lurching out of the mist, supposedly on a walking holiday, and fetches a ride from a peddler driving a wagon to get him through the murk. The peddler is, naturally, nervous about the locale and won’t tarry long in the nearby village of Morgan’s Head, home to a legend of a roaming headless ghost who has staked a deadly claim to the local tin mine. The doctor is greeted at the door of the town inn by the proprietor, Simon (Frank Mayo), who wears a black hood and doesn’t provide the warmest of welcomes: Holmes purchases the amicable company of local blabbermouth Hugh Penhryn (Forrester Harvey) when he buys the inn’s clientele a round of drinks, and learns the hooded host was badly disfigured in an accident with dynamite. Reports of a German parachutist landing somewhere out on the foggy moors brings the yokels to the door of Holmes’ hotel room demanding to know who he is and where he comes from, with eminent local personage Sir Henry Leland (John Loder) taking charge. The good doctor’s explanations satisfy them for the moment, and he thrills and perturbs the crowd by announcing he will plumb the mystery of the silver mine.

The actual plot involves one of those fake hauntings so popular in the comedy-thrillers of the ‘20s and ‘30s – The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Bat (1926), The Phantom Light (1935), Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) – where the guises and tropes of supernatural melodrama are both exploited and subverted, by having those tropes prove to be masks for more earthly nefarious ends: this sub-genre would have its most famous day transmuted into animated television for Scooby-Doo. In the heyday of that mode, it was a blatant metaphor for dispelling irrationalism in the face of modernity’s glare, making light of the darker fantasies inherited from European traditions and plied so memorably by the continental Expressionist cinema of the time. But the baddies of most of those movies – usually smugglers, gangsters, jewel thieves and the like – were much less urgent villains than Nazi spies. The theme is only really adjusted to the epoch insofar as the ore from the mine is a valuable war resource and so the motives of the bad guy involve keeping the resource from being exploited, and the doctor proves to be a mineralogy expert sent by the authorities to assess the mine’s worth. What makes The Mysterious Doctor interesting lies in the way it plays with the mode's conventions by playing some twisty games. Richard Weil’s scant script fills out the film’s incredibly crisp 57 minute running time with a surprising number of sharp turns, in a model of the kind of narrative economy this kind of filmmaking could offer.

Most engagingly, Weil’s screenplay keeps changing expectations of who the protagonists are going to be. The “mysterious doctor” at first seems to be a likely villain, then prospective hero, but seems finally to fall prey to the headless ghost. Other potential heroes and villains rise to the fore. Leland, who seems to be the solicitous squire, has some questionable family roots. Lt. ‘Kit’ Hilton (Bruce Lester) and Letty Carstairs (Eleanor Parker) are introduced as the regulation clean-cut young lovers, with Hilton speechifying to the miners about wartime duties and leading the hunt for the doctor’s killer. Letty protects the town’s unstable loner Bart Redmond (Matt Willis, best known for playing the hapless werewolf slave of The Return of the Vampire, 1944), who’s been beset by mental troubles since his parents' mysterious death and has become a favourite butt of teasing by schoolkids, and becomes Hilton’s main suspect for the killing of the doctor, in a sub-plot that stumbles into proto-Ryan’s Daughter (1970) territory. The viewer, however, already knows that somebody or something inhabits the guise of the headless ghost, seen stalking through the mist and tracking the doctor in the mine, as does Simon, who momentarily bares his disfigured face to put on a gas mask to follow the doctor in the mine. The film then pulls a neat, if not exactly surprisingly switch about who proves to be under Simon’s hood by the end, after the bluff of just who does get killed in the mine and who eventually saves the day.

The headless ghost itself is wonderfully goofy, with torso jutting high to hide the head of the actor, but at least it is supposed to be fake insofar as it’s a villain’s costume rather than an actual wraith, and its attacks do have a certain charge, particularly when it stalks the heroes in the depths of the mine with silent, remorseless progress. 21-year-old Parker, stunningly beautiful, is obvious star material playing a likeably defiant heroine who combines elements of the classic Gothic romantic heroine, of the type Parker would essay four years later in The Woman in White, and the chipper, can-do wartime woman like Penelope Dudley Ward played so well in The Demi-Paradise (1943), or Elizabeth Allan in Went the Day Well? (1943). Her instincts alone prove correct in a narrative that makes, in its quaint and incongruous fashion, an urgent point about being too quick to attack strangers, outsiders, and scapegoats in the context of such a paranoid epoch. Letty has the spunk to protect Bart not just from angry townsfolk who want to lynch him, but also from her pompous boyfriend’s self-righteous manhunt, in a manner that amusingly undercuts his status as appointed military patriot, even interfering with a shot he takes at the fleeing Bart. As with a lot of movies actually made during WW2 rather than retrospectively, there is no single, infallible leader: the social context and part to play for all is emphasised. The finale is breathless and ridiculous, involving secrete passages into manor houses, the young lovers held captive in a room full of dynamite, and superhuman heroism on the part of unlikely characters. Former comedy short and Fox quickie director Ben Stoloff gives you all the menacing silhouettes and dry-ice mist swathing fake trees you could possibly ask for.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Prophecy (1979)

This much-maligned but hugely enjoyable eco tract-cum-monster movie by John Frankenheimer is one of the most sublime junky pleasures I’ve stumbled upon in a while. Frankenheimer’s unmoored, gun-for-hire phase in the late ‘70s, though reputedly bedevilled by a drinking problem, had already produced his rock-solid thrillers French Connection II (1975) and Black Sunday (1977), and Prophecy quickly declares pretensions above and beyond the glut of Jaws (1975) rip-offs it surely belonged to. An opening credit sequence presents an oddly abstracted series of shots of lights drifting in the dark, accompanied by the slowly composing sounds of boots thundering across the earth and dogs howling: hallucinatory ambience turns into frenetic motion and urgency, as the lights are revealed to be torches in the hands of rangers on the hunt for a missing lumberjacks and Native American eco-terrorists, only to find themselves at the mercy of a malevolent and inimical force in the dark. Frankenheimer shifts to a daylight shot of mangled, half-eaten corpses lying near pellucid Arcadian waters, the first of many refrains to an almost David Cronenberg-esque obsession with physical destruction and perversion of natural forms, but contextualised in a seemingly Edenic locale, where the industrial travesties are invisibly leeching into the earth and the body, and the by-product is now lurking in the bush ready to eat you.

The hero is Robert Foxworth’s glumly dedicated, lefty do-gooder public health inspector Dr. Robert Verne (after the previous year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, health inspectors were having an Indian summer as Hollywood heroes) who’s burnt out his conscientious spirit ministering to inner city tenements. He and his orchestra cellist wife Maggie (Talia Shire) head to a forested area in Maine (although obviously actually filmed in British Columbia), as an EPA pal asks Robert to help arbitrate in a dispute between a paper mill and the forest’s owners, who call themselves Original Peoples, or “Opies.” Robert and Maggie are quickly treated to a glimpse of how heated the conflict has become as mill boss Bethel Isley (Richard Dysart, warming up for more monster business in The Thing, 1982) tries to barge through a cordon thrown up by Opie leaders John (Armand Assante) and Ramona Hawks (Victoria Racimo), resulting in a chainsaw-vs-axe duel between John and Isley’s goon Kelso (Everett Creach) that almost gets John killed. Isley gives Robert and Maggie a tour of the parent company’s logging activities and the mill, where all seems above board. But Robert soon sees unnaturally huge salmon and tadpoles, before killing a maddened, mutated racoon that invades his and Maggie’s cabin. He connects with John and Ramona, and they show him multiplying evidence that something grotesque is happening to both their fellow tribal members and to the local wildlife, leading to the discovery of a bear cub that’s been born as hideously mangled and tortured as the mutant baby of Eraserhead (1977). 

What’s all this got to do with the local legend of the baleful, protective demon Katahdin, which Ramona’s elder grandfather, Hector M’Rai (George Clutesi), claims to have seen, and describes as having “part of everything in God’s creation” in its obscene physiognomy? Plenty, it turns out, because the mill’s actually been dumping mercury into the lake, which sinks to the bottom and won’t show up in water testing but has seeped into everything and has, with its mutagenic properties, created dragons. The notion that Native American myth could coincide with a very real threats standing in for natural payback for man’s ravaging  of the Way of Things was pretty common in post-Jaws monster movies, including in Claws, Orca (both 1977), and The White Buffalo (1978), and even, in a different fashion, the magnificently whacko The Manitou (1978), and Prophecy might have felt a bit old-hat in that regard by the time it came out. Prophecy also treads similar territory to Grizzly (1976) and Claws in turning the woodlands into a claustrophobic place where any stray bush might hide a terror. More interestingly, the script by David Seltzer has telling similarities to his prior big hit as a screenwriter, The Omen (1976), in playing on paranoid fears about modernity’s tense relationship with ethical codes inherited from pre-technological societies – the wormwood star of The Omen’s obsessive source text Revelation has surely fallen in this film – and parental anxiety over unborn children. 

For most of the first hour, Prophecy feels like a melodrama about marital tensions and environmental and land rights issues, Red Desert (1965) reset in the woods. Robert’s ambivalent intensity smoulders and Maggie is increasingly tormented by her secret pregnancy, knowing that Robert doesn’t want to bring children into a troubled world but unable to face an abortion. The film’s efforts to seem important and timely, drawing on the terrible Minamata poisonings in Japan as inspiration for mutant monster shenanigans, are more than a touch heavy-handed. And yet the theme of natural perversion, with an edge of body-horror grotesquery apparent in gruesome visual fragments and pervading the dramatic landcsape, gives the film a disquieting punch rare to the usually clean-cut monster genre. This aspect dovetails with the theme of parental unease and intensifies it with sadistic glee, once it becomes clear that in drinking the local water supply Maggie has placed their unborn child in danger of the mutagenic toxin. In the film’s final phases she’s stuck playing clinging mother to the misshapen bear cub, tied to the wailing thing that’s an actualisation of every parental nightmare imaginable. This touch adds to the film’s ghoulish intensity, which builds and combusts suddenly in a third act that ranks high in the pantheon in fight-and flight thrill-rides, and the scarcity of monster action before this, whilst a touch puzzling as it plays out, helps the film in this regard. 

After the opening, only one sequence showing the Katahdin’s deadly work intrudes before the relentless last act, as the beast is heard as a dread rumbling in the woods overheard by the hiking Nelson family on a bucolic afternoon, before father (Burke Byrnes) and his two kids (Mia Bendixsen and Johnny Timko) are attacked in their night camp. Young Timko in his sleeping bag is grabbed up by the monster and then hurled against a rock, which explodes in a shower of stuffing feathers. This moment is the film’s most well-known image, generally regarded as a goofy moment of strangeness by genre fans, but what’s interesting about it is that Frankenheimer here works a variation on the more famous moment from The Manchurian Candidate (1962), when Senator Iselin is shot in the heart through the milk carton he holds, the milk pouring out in a startlingly odd simulacrum of flowing blood. Here the feathers again stand in for blood and guts Frankenheimer doesn’t want to show and replaces it with something rather surreal and redolent of symbolism for slain innocence. That’s not to say it works, exactly, as a visual flourish, but it’s not just random weirdness. There is a kitschy quality to some aspects of the film, with the dated make-up and animatronic effects, particularly in the Katahdin’s look, which suggests a rough sketch for Chris Walas’ Brundlefly crossed with a melted Barney the Dinosaur. And yet the hefty budget and all the scope for staging that allows for once wasn’t squandered, because Frankenheimer and his editor Tom Rolf give the film a pulp vivacity as well as a veneer of committed artistry. 

The odd, stylised tone of the opening for instance is justified later as Frankenheimer inverts the early structuring, when the real monster business gets going, as the Katahdin, which is actually a grossly deformed and mutated bear, attacks a gathering at Hector’s tribal encampment. The beast forces the humans to flee into underground storage tunnels for a scene where Frankenheimer uses sound memorably, attuning the audience to the desperate panting of the terrified people who listen to hideous ends for those trapped above and then crane their ears trying to detect whether the monster’s still waiting above, whilst surveying the actors’ faces in clever multi-plane shots and then zeroing in to read their individual, sweating terror, before a gleefully nasty punch-line when the first to stick their head up gets it ripped off. Frankenheimer might have been trying to prove desperately that he wasn’t slumming in loading the film with such showy effects mixed with self-serious themes, and yet he leapt happily into pure horror territory when the time came. 

The last half-hour is therefore compulsively gripping as Robert, Maggie, John, Ramona, and sundry other players have to try to escape the remote woods and elude the Katahdin, which proves devilish in both its invulnerability and predatory cunning as it tracks the protagonists, driven to destroy in its wounded rage. Isley makes a mad dash for a remote antenna array to try and call in aid, whilst the others, in a marvellously tense and relishable sequence that seems to draw on The Wage of Fear (1953) for inspiration, crawl their way to town on a painfully slow-moving truck, scanning the forest with searchlights in vigilance for the beast that lurks in the dark. The very climax throws in silhouetted maulings, beheaded men, a fog-shrouded pier, underwater monster breathing, and a brief besiegement in a cabin as the remaining heroes make a stand, with breathless verve. There’s even one of those black-out shocks right before the end credits, capping off the film with a gloriously cheesy switchback that underlines its final absurdity in just the right way. The casting of Shire and Foxworth is a nice reminder of a time when actual adults were allowed to star in this sort of thing, and indeed the film as a whole, in its belief that this sort of fare could sustain audience interest through such character drama, seems a bit of a relic now. Young Assante all but oozes charisma and has dash to spare, and yet he’s just as enjoyably overripe as ever, somehow managing to overact even with his eyes as they stare through the substance of material things and invite martyrdom by chainsaw. Prophecy isn’t exactly what you’d call reputable pleasure, and yet it is, in its way, a quintessential monster movie experience.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Two Faces of January (2014)

Hossein Amini has had a variable but mostly strong career as an accomplished, professional film writer, penning excellent scripts for Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1995) and Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove (1997) back when, and recently scoring big hits working on Drive (2011) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), as well as the not-so-big 47 Ronin (2013). Undoubtedly the hits helped him make his feature directing debut, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. The Two Faces of January delves into territory inevitably reminiscent of her Tom Ripley novels, although the theme of two men locked in a criminal folie-a-deux is more reminiscent of her Strangers on a Train. The setting is Athens, 1962: Oscar Isaac is Rydal, an American in self-imposed exile in Greece subsisting as a tour guide, petty scam artist and lover boy for good-looking Yankee girls. Rydal strikes up a relationship with the rich and pretty Lauren (Daisy Bevan), but has his eye drawn by a couple, Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst), at first because Chester reminds him of his father. Rydal resisted returning home after his father’s recent death because he was still sitting on lodes of intense resentment for his demanding intellectual regimens and emotional detachment. 

Drawn into casual friendship with the couple, Rydal soon finds himself sucked into Chester’s multi-continental criminal escapades: having fled the US with the profits of a stock scam, Chester is confronted by a private detective, Paul Vittorio (David Warshofsky), who’s been sent by extremely unhappy investors to collect the proceeds at gunpoint. Chester manages to attack Vittorio, who dies in the melee, but he manage to fool Rydal, who catches sight of him dragging the body down a hotel corridor, into thinking that he’s dragging a drunk back to his room. Chester however soon makes most of his situation plain to Rydal and appeals for his help so he and Colette can flee Greece. Rydal arranges for false passports for them, skimming some of the profit for himself, and then volunteers to escort the couple to Crete for the several days it will take for the passports to be ready. Rydal’s motivation in this is clearly beyond money, and his designs on winning Colette away from Chester seem pretty blatant, even as the two men maintain another, loaded, uneasily Oedipal relationship, false father and untrue son tussling for control of woman and fortune.

Amini’s direction displays gifts for economy in the first twenty minutes that call to mind a good classic Hollywood director tackling the same sort of material: mid-career Anatole Litvak, say, or Fred Zinneman before he got prestigious, quickly sketching character outlines, situational underpinnings, basic relationships and the stakes of the oncoming drama, before getting busy with a sudden swerve into plot. Amini pieces together some decent suspense sequences, avoiding the kind of prestigious bloat that afflicts a lot of this brand of “old-fashioned” thriller film. Whereas Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mister Ripley (1999) lumbered on for two and a half hours, Amini offers a reasonably brief and concise running time whilst remaining open to the landscape the setting provides, capturing a sense of bleary dislocation and washed-out romanticism when his bedevilled trio awaken by the sea after a night of anxious drinking, and using a stony plain they walk along to communicate the jagged desolation that fills their psychic horizons. An eerie sequence that pays off in violence and tragedy is staged in an ancient Minoan ruin, with frescoes depicting ancient, dangerous bull dancing rituals reflecting the gnawing psychological battle entangling the protagonists. A fine chase through an Istanbul bazaar late in the film sees Mortensen dashing through gullet of shadowed mazes, where metalworkers pounding away in infernal abodes. 

The crisp, muted yet definite colours of Alberto Iglesias’ photography suspend the characters in a world existing in some Venn diagram mid-point between period tourist postcard and that small genre of midday noir, of which Rene Clement’s take on Highsmith, Plein Soleil (1960) was a major example. That film was surely a strong influence here, whilst the suspense sequences, from Chester trying to hide the dead private eye’s body to the final chase, clearly have more Hitchcockian pretences, although here perhaps the aesthetic seems more in line with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) than Strangers on a Train (1951). And yet there’s something oddly laborious about Amini’s direction and the film as a whole, and the qualities which I praised above ultimately conspire to dampen the film. Amini’s approach to building scenes is a literal as his screenwriting, spelling out whilst never developing a convincing mood of neuroticism or contorted reality. The material does feel partly at fault too, which treads territory too well-worn in Highsmith’s oeuvre, whilst her redeeming on-page psychological subtlety and control of viewpoint slips out of Amini’s fingers. There’s a difference between generating a sense of tragic inevitability and just plain predictability, and Two Faces doesn’t quite know it. The intrinsic theme of the two men competing over the woman is as old as the hills and even the skill of the three actors can’t make it feel anything more than obvious. 

Moreover, although generational conflict is wound into the story, the film is set in the past without feeling convincingly of its past nor of its generations as players in their time. Amini offers a brief exchange between Chester and Vittorio, where the private eye ruefully notes that he’s been sent back to Europe after never giving a damn about it when he was here as a young soldier: this moment is loaded with a sense of middle-aged regret, the shared understanding between the two men of what time has done to their expectations in life and sense of the world, and is more convincing and telling in the thirty seconds or so it takes to play out than anything we get between Chester and Rydal. Rydal stands in for the disaffected sons of the WW2 generation, a beatnik escapee feeding off the loose change of the post-war plutocracy – except that Amini doesn’t engage with these men on any such level, preferring to invoke different class backgrounds to supply the asymmetry to their yearnings and resentments. Where the immediacy of sexual and fiscal jealousy can believably propel a story like this, the underlying sense of both rivalry and connection between Chester and Rydal required to make both the more complex psychodrama work, not to mention the finale, is communicated too bluntly and scantly to convince. Two deaths occur in the course of the story, both essentially accidents that nonetheless clearly stem form a landslide of bad decisions, and a sense of quiescent dread of when eventually the situation will combust is built, only to defuse awkwardly, with one character’s final redemptive act seeming more than a little wimpy in narrative terms. The Two Faces of January might have become a mercilessly Sartrean thriller about hell being the people we’re stuck with, even an Antonioni-esque story where thriller stakes mask contemplations of the godforsaken things people do to one-another, but it finally remains too much in thrall to its own classiness and literate poise. Still, the film’s pleasures are worth noticing, most particularly Mortensen’s reliably good performance as a professional charmer with a desperate streak who finishes up destroying almost everything he loves. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)

James Franco’s journey from Spider-Man co-star to multifarious would-be Renaissance man has culminated in a small bombardment of film projects in the past eighteen months. These labours have included two Faulkner adaptations, last year’s As I Lay Dying and the upcoming The Sound and the Fury, and a gruelling, unfiltered, but somehow compelling version of Cormac McCarthy’s hillbilly grunge epic Child of God. Franco officially co-directed this oddity, although Interior. Leather Bar. seems to be more the brainchild of collaborator Travis Mathews, chiefly a documentary filmmaker whose subject is the more confronting zones of gay life. Blending meta-narrative and art-happening stunt, Interior. Leather Bar. meditates on the nature of acting as a way of grazing the edges of personal reality, in the context of confronting cultural depictions of unfamiliar sexuality. The film supposedly depicts, documentary fashion, Mathews’ attempt to recreate a legendary 40 minutes’ worth of hard-core footage cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). That film, shot on location in New York’s leather bar scene, had a troubled production and reception owing to the controversy of its depiction of that milieu, which was viewed through Friedkin’s delirious, infernal conception of modern urban life. Censorship only seemed to confirm institutionalised homophobia, turning what was authentically recorded of the era’s real niche gay life by the film into shadowy, culturally redacted netherworld. Cruising’s problematic achievement as both document of the period, exploration of the dark side of human sexuality, and polarizing product of a time when such reassuringly squeaky-clean, mainstream-friendly queer fare as Beginners or The Kids Are All Right (both 2011) were unheard of, has made it, whether one approves of it or not, a totemistic moment and a battleground to this day.

So Mathews and Franco set out to recreate the texture of the era’s hedonism, like art historians rebuilding some shattered monument to plug the hole left in a cultural landscape. Franco explains at length that he’s taking on the implicit rendering of gay sexual activity, or indeed any non-normative behaviour, as a realm of taboo otherness, a construction of unfamiliarity which creates prejudice as well as being a product of it. Much of Interior. Leather Bar. purports to be a making-of record of the recreation project, of which only relatively brief snatches are seen. Whilst depiction of gay sex is crucial in the film, on another level this is fundamentally about acting, in terms of personal identity, and the creation of false realities that serve the needs of an audience. Actor Val Lauren, who starred in his biopic of Sal Mineo, Sal (2011), is cast here as stand-in for Al Pacino. Like Pacino the man and actor who worked on the original, perhaps, and certainly like his character in the original film, Lauren is called on to perform in contexts where the acting must at some point confront a personal limit, where the straight actor’s reflexive disinterest or even distaste in the gay sexual activity might snap in – or, prove non-existent, per macho anxiety. Thus Lauren's internalising of the gay panic of thirty years ago seems at first a little old-hat, but one question here is how much have we really evolved, culturally speaking, since 1980, in terms of what we allow representation on screen.

Tackling that question, Mathews and Franco set out to normalise the verboten heart of Cruising’s expressive lode in portraying raw homosexual behaviour. But they also explore how an audience relies on actors to transmute our fantasies into performance, a creation of observable experience. To achieve the full recreation of the Cruising sex scenes, the filmmakers need performers who can actually do them - that is, gay actors or men willing to perform sex acts on camera. For the actor, playing a movie role entails actually doing a thing, or a simulacrum of a thing, that allows vicarious pleasures and pains for others. Though the capacity to slip in and out of such identities is precisely the one thing we pay and prize actors for, there is always going to be a limit of distance on what an actor will and can do to suppress their own identity. Val and another actor who says he’s straight stumble clumsily through preparations for the extended stunt whilst feeling each-other out - cruising, in a way - about their feelings in this situation. Interpolated throughout are shots of various actors and actuals who say their little piece about their motivations for getting into the project, whilst Lauren chats on the phone with his agent and his wife to release his discomfort and confusion. 

The very final shots suggest that in the same way that Lauren is expected to become Pacino, who is in turn expected to play a character who is trying to fit in in an environment where his alienness must sooner or later be revealed, Mathews and Franco are interested in chasing Cruising’s fascination with psychological dissolution, a common theme of Friedkin’s. Interior. Leather Bar. remains mostly a theory for an interesting exploration of this theme, aping Cruising’s driving notion of identities becoming blurred in close contact with new languages of flesh, without going anywhere with it. Mathews and Franco's filmmaking mimics Friedkin’s in an act of appropriation that rhymes with what the performers are asked to do, multiplying realms of media reality, a reflection within a reflection. And yes, Mathews and Franco do a good job recreating the specific, grimy, almost neo-expressionist look and sound of Cruising, seen in short sequences composed of staccato edits punctuated by vivid, hardcore shots. Such shots bluntly earn the film’s spurs as transgressive fare. But the film threatens to devolve into a rather trite moral, that watching gay sex up close will make you chill out generally on the subject. Franco’s participation borders on self-congratulatory as the inherent riskiness on making such a film is reiterated several times, but his method of playing confrontational provocateur is here more sophisticated than in Child of God’s gauchely contemplated necrophilia. The perpetual, invisible quotation marks that hovered around Franco’s participation in a mainstream variation on the same ideas, This Is The End (2013), always feel present here too, however, and the film as a whole distanced me from the very idea that I could see the "real" Franco or Lauren in this context; they play dramatically convenient projections of themselves, and want us to know that. The hour-long run time means that the film ultimately feels more essayistic than dramatic, in spite of the genre-blurring, and ultimately it feels caught between two different modes of expression without satisfying either.

The project succeeds at least in its gazing, presenting as a climax (in both senses of the term) an extended lovemaking session between a couple of leather daddies with a masturbating voyeur in the scene and a crew of filmmakers beyond the scene, a real sex act performed for aesthetic recreation transmitted through layers of watching. This casts a weird spell through the purposeful attempt to remove precisely the aesthetic that was key to Friedkin’s film: the thudding dance music, stroboscopic lighting and editing, and grinding hysteria give way instead to a kind of zoological documentary, with the act of detached third-person viewing, represented by Val-as-Pacino-as-cop/outsider, taken by Mathews as more important than the sex acts themselves. How the viewer responds is the phenomenon under study; the dividing line not just between gay and straight, actor and audience comes under question, but divisions of intimate and public behaviour, art and pornography, capturing not merely the surface reality of something usually kept under wraps but privileged with a glimpse of a strange zone of nullity where no such demarcations apply. Interior. Leather Bar. doesn’t forge any grand, new territory for the perverted arts, but it does have a surprising breadth of ambition, and it tackles those ambitions with enough balls to achieve a minatory grace.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Conquest of Space (1955)

Conquest of Space is perhaps the most of obscure of major 1950s science-fiction films. Clearly intended as an apotheosis, both cinematically and thematically, of the series of films in the genre producer George Pal had been making since his production Destination Moon (1950) essentially kick-started the genre craze, Conquest of Space was however roundly rejected by critics and audiences of the time, and has remained poorly regarded ever since. Pal retreated into straight fantasy with tom thumb (1958) before returning to sci-fi with 1960’s The Time Machine, whilst he wouldn’t work again with his fittest directorial collaborator, Byron Haskin, until The Power (1968), when their moment had most definitely passed. What went wrong with the brand, and the film? Unlike the Technicolor sturm-und-drang of When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and The Naked Jungle (1954), with their feverish vistas of destruction and epic-scaled action, Conquest of Space followed Destination Moon in emphasising a realist approach to sci-fi spectacle. Pal and Haskin annexed two popular speculative non-fiction books by Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun as a basis for an attempt to create a believable portrait of what future space exploration might look like, and utilised the artist who had illustrated Ley’s book, Chesley Bonestell, to help create that portrait. One problem with Conquest of Space is that, in spite of its futuristic (to 1955) setting and more expansive ideas, it’s essentially the same film as Destination Moon, ending a gruelling journey across space with a big spaceship mock-up sitting around on a sound stage edition of an alien landscape, with astronauts milling around without anything much to do. SEE! the amazing trek of the heroes to collect rock samples! THRILL! as these pioneers of the stars collect…more rock samples!

Conquest of Space has more ambitions than only offering mere theoretical authenticity, and it anticipates a lot of subsequent spacefaring adventures, including, unavoidably, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with which it shares the desire to express awed fascination with the idea of life in the final frontier, rotating space stations, and deep space explorers, as well as Nebo Zovyot (1959), through to Sunshine (2007) and Gravity (2013). Considering that even the most basic manned space flight was still six years away when this movie was released, many of the images, particularly of the astronauts working in zero gravity and the paraphernalia of their work, culled from the pages of the source books and illustrations from a plethora of ‘50s magazine articles, reveal how most subsequent space technology was already blueprinted by this time. The special effects do show their age now, as the models are over-lit and bland-looking, and the matte work shows at the seams by comparison to the far more convincing but also more time-consuming front projection work Kubrick used on 2001. And yet there’s still an attractive, pictorial beauty and vividness to the visuals, particularly in the spaceship’s close encounter with an asteroid and landing on Mars. The fact that Pal and Haskin were able to get Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston to fight off bugs in The Naked Jungle but could only get third-string, competent but unexciting B-movie actors for their sci-fi endeavours says a lot about how ghettoised the genre was at the time, or at least how much of their relatively limited budgets was soaked up by the effects team. But the real problem with Conquest of Space lies in its inability to find a way to glean real excitement or dramatic capital from its storyline. 

The film’s most interesting angle is its portrait of humankind struggling to deal with the fear of the infinite and the physical and psychological extremes of a new environment, anticipating the major theme of Alex Garland’s script for Sunshine, as a crewman goes mad and becomes determined to prevent a blasphemous encroachment on the universe. The setting is sometime in mid-1970s, on a space station manned by an international service with a quasi-military hierarchy. The station has been built partly to facilitate the construction of a large, recently-completed interplanetary spaceship. The space mission is led by Colonel Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke), an experienced leader whose John Ford-esque adjutant Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy) has been serving under him in “Korea, Africa, and China” (raising some intriguing, and disturbing, alternate-history possibilities), before directing the construction of the station. Also aboard is Merritt’s son Barney (Eric Fleming), who’s chafing at having been separated from his wife for a year in following his old man on this boondoggle venture, and, more subtly, from living in the shadow of a legendary father whose dedication came at the cost of his family’s happiness. Mahoney hero worships Merritt unabashedly with near-religious fervour whilst disdaining Barney. Whilst the station is manned by functionaries dressed in light brown overalls, the specialist team of space engineers intended for the spaceship’s moon mission dresses in blue. They’re mocked roundly by the others for their special diet of protein pills and strict regime. One of the team, Cooper (William Redfield), freezes up during an extravehicular mission and knows, to his chagrin, that he’s washed out when he’s given a proper meal at dinner time. 

The others in their select unit include blue-collar Brooklynite electronics expert Jackie Seigel (Phil Foster), wry Japanese Imoto (Benson Fong), and Eastern European Andre Fodor (Ross Martin), who are asked by Merritt to accompany him when he is ordered to launch the spaceship not for the Moon but for Mars. Barney, on the verge of going home, tears up his transfer order and joins the team, but Merritt rejects Mahoney as too old. Mahoney nonetheless stows away aboard the spaceship, which has to dodge flaming meteors in its voyage to the red planet. The notion of international cooperation in an interstellar future has the clear ring of Star Trek’s idealism, and Conquest doesn’t belabour the point, except with an odd but interesting moment when Imoto makes a speech taking his own national history as cautionary example, suggesting that shortages of resources partly drove Japan to aggressive acts. He wants the mission to Mars to succeed as Earth’s resources are depleted and the possibility of exploiting other worlds will prevent future conflicts. The real problem with Conquest lies in its script, which is, apart from Imoto’s key scene, flatly and dully written, even passing silly at times, as when Seigel is outraged by his girlfriend Rosie (Joan Shawlee) appearing on a news report dolled up and bathing in his heroic spotlight whilst obviously seeing another beau. Apart from the study of Merritt as a crumbling paternal-authority figure reminiscent of John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in Red River (1948) and echoing back to Captain Ahab, the characterisations are stereotyped, and the acting styles and interpersonal relations are mostly pitched on the level of a low-budget war movie.

The scenario was written by a battery of writers who had impressive experience in writing fantastic tales, including Them! author George Worthing Yates, and former Val Lewton collaborator Barré Lyndon, but the screenplay, actually written by James O’Hanlon, is so heavy-footed it would make Godzilla on a bender seem twinkle-toed. Conquest anticipates much later special effects-based cinema with frightening alacrity in that regard, the time and effort spent on those effects unmatched by the dramatic level and engagement with the human level. And yet Conquest isn’t hollow, as it offers a study in the potentially overwhelming nature of space travel and confrontation with the infinite, and with more care might easily have been another Pal and Haskin classic, indeed perhaps even their best work. By touching on an early version of generation gap angst that the era’s teenagers would have understood intuitively and soon would become a basic cultural given, the film sets in play a father-son conflict that binds with the theme of exploration as a process of divestment as well as achievement, threat of loss as well as discovery. Old, patriarchal religious sensibilities and certainties clash with modernity’s revisionist urges and arrogant, all-conquering spirit, raising the spectre of minds and philosophies that haven’t moved fast enough to cope with such extremes. Pal’s sci-fi productions tended to emphasise a brand of safe, pious sentiment agreeable to his mid-’50s audience, particular in The War of Worlds where that element contradicted H.G. Wells’ pitiless logic and yet also helped power the film’s feverishly poetic apocalypse. Merritt, who’s hiding the effects of “space fatigue,” a malady that has already washed out Cooper, begins to unravel when confronted by deep space and new, strange horizons. The death of Fodor in a shower of fiery meteor fragments lays the seeds for Merritt’s complete disintegration.

Merritt devolves into a religious mania, convinced they’re committing an act of sacrilege by invading a domain not prescribed for human use as per Biblical instruction, and eventually becomes determined to prevent the mission landing. He almost foils the touchdown, and then attempts to sabotage the ship once on the Martian surface, even firing bullets at Barney to stop him, leading to a tussle which results in the older man’s death. Mahoney, who arrives during the fight, is appalled and, with his blind loyalty to Merritt, swears to make sure Barney will be court-marshalled and hung for the killing. The flavour of this moral drama is appropriately bald and Oedipal, fit for the founding of new worlds and myths, but the film lacks the authorial snap to make it truly momentous. Conquest does to a certain extent see the atavistic import behind a seemingly super-modern act and interrogates how we might respond to such widened vistas: indeed Conquest works as a parable of relevance to the modern world as so many, faced with new ways of understanding the universe and our place in it, retreat into older ways and a kind of wilful blindness that reaffirms we humans as the centre of things. But Conquest also counterbalances the theme of future shock by offering up visions of transcendental grace in unexpected environs – a funeral in space that sends a body floating off into the blazing light of the galaxy, a cross assembled from junk on the blasted Martian surface, a tiny sprout from a plant on the Martian surface appearing out of a grave, and a seemingly miraculous Yuletide snow falling from the red planet’s sky.

Such fragments of marvel arrive thanks to Haskin’s direction, with his quietly baroque visual sensibility and gift for wrangling cramped budgets to conjure films that seemed somehow vast and visionary, offering frames cut into geometric forms by the curlicues of his set design and adroit camera placement, and expressive use of colour in creating a vivid pictorial sense of otherworldly extremes. Nicholas Meyer acknowledged the debt owed to the funeral sequence for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Paul Verhoeven, fan of The War of the Worlds, may well have remembered this for another similar scene in Starship Troopers (1997). The film’s moments of corporeal suffering still have a surprising punch, like Fodor’s wide-open mouth as a red-hot rock shoots through his suit and body, flash cuts to the faces of the crew during the emergency take-off from Mars, each man with blood flowing from his face as they’re pummelled by G-force, and the sight of Fodor’s dead body, tethered to the spaceship whilst drifting, has a haunting sense of vulnerability and pathos in the face of an inimical universe that anticipates where Kubrick, Cuaron, and others would aim for. Where Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were cleverer in their take was in finding a way to dramatize the deistic fantasies and fears of engaging with the cosmos whilst maintaining a rigorous approach to the microcosmic detail. By contrast Conquest quells its dramatic conflicts too early and leads to the same anticlimax that has dogged real space exploration for the past forty years: after you’ve landed on some big ball of rock in the void, what then? Haskin returned to Mars for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), a semi-sequel that leapt from Melville to Defoe for inspiration and expanded on this film's hints of desolate beauty.