Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Cat And The Canary (1978)



The year is 1904, and on the grounds of Glencliff Manor a cat is hung to death before it can snatch the oh-so-tasty canary that hangs above its head (surely not a metaphor?).  The adolescent killer goes undiscovered.  Thirty years later, the remaining relatives of rich eccentric Cyrus West (the magnificent Wilfrid Hyde-White) gather on the estate to hear the reading of his will.  But there’s a catch.  If the initial beneficiary is declared insane or deceased (and old Cyrus know that his clan is predisposed to insanity, so either way is a safe bet) within the next twelve hours (say, over night), a secondary beneficiary will be named.  Oh, and a psychopath who thinks he is a cat has escaped from the local mental institute.  Let the games begin.

So goes the plot for this, Radley Metzger’s adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 play, The Cat And The Canary, arguably one of the most famous examples of the Old Dark House subgenre.  Generally speaking, they center on a group of characters forced to stay in said house, and they get picked off one by one until the killer is usually unmasked at the finale.  Tonally, they are predominantly a mixture of Comedy and Thriller (the 1939 version of this story starred Bob Hope, just to give you an idea).  They are also loaded with characters almost all of whom have some deep, dark secret which makes them a suspect at some point of another.  The Old Dark House is also considered quaint, even antiquated, not only because of when it was prominent, but also because of when they are typically set (roughly the same time periods, but generally accepted as the first half of the twentieth century).  This attitude is reinforced in this film by the symmetrical, traditional compositions.  But the real star of this type of film is the house itself.  It is loaded with sliding bookcases, hidden staircases and rooms, and is gothic in the extreme.  Characters will often be pulled offscreen from behind some false wall as some other character occupies him or herself, oblivious to the goings-on.  Without the mysteries of the house, these films wouldn’t be what they are, and they wouldn’t be as fun as they are, the same as luchador films wouldn’t be the same without luchadores.

The manor and its riddles are all about the unknown, and its clandestine nooks and crannies reflect the unraveling of the characters’ secrets.  The characters don’t even have to be inside the labyrinthine conduits in the walls.  So, as the Cat scurries around behind the scenes, we discover things.  For example, Harry (Daniel Massey) was on trial for accidentally killing a patient while he was intoxicated.  Cicily (Olivia Hussey) shot and killed an employer who allegedly attempted to rape her.  Of course, our hero Paul (Michael Callan) crows the most about how bad a person he is, while actually being the lily-whitest of the bunch.  It should also be noted, that Callan is consciously channeling Hope in his delivery as the heroic poltroon, but he really doesn’t hold much of a candle, to be honest.  Metzger’s (and cinematographer Alex Thomsen’s) camerawork favors low angles and long shots (very often extreme long shots), making the people small in frame.  The house looms over all of them, a reminder of their past mistakes, that which has brought them to this state and formed their lives and livelihoods.  Similarly, the Cat is the punishment for the sins of the characters, as well as being a sinner.  Essentially, the house is the mouth; the Cat is its teeth.

I came to the work of Radley Metzger fairly recently, and I think it bears stating that this particular entry in his filmography contains absolutely no nudity (with the exception of a bit of Carol Lynley’s cleavage) or sex for those only familiar with his name in the realm of erotic pictures.  Outside of the fantastic visual sensibilities the man displays (in what few films I’ve seen), he also has a fascination (which I share) with film and reality in a metatextual sense.  This notion is incorporated into The Cat And The Canary, as well.  Cyrus announces his beneficiary at a dinner he hosts for the house guests.  How does he do this, you ask (being the decedent and all)?  He filmed his part in the dinner years prior, and this is projected (along with synchronized sound via a cylinder phonograph) onto a screen at the head of the table.  Cyrus is framed in such a way that, outside of his being in black and white, he does appear to be present at the meal via the magic of intercutting.  He also dictates the menu for the meal, controlling the reality of the characters from the beyond by way of film.  There is also an absolutely marvelous piece where kindly, old housekeeper Mrs. Pleasant (Beatrix Lehmann) moves behind the movie screen and appears onscreen, serving Cyrus with exceptional timing and orchestration.  Then, as she paces off screen-left, she emerges back into the real world.  She not only crosses the time barrier in this way, but she also makes herself part of the film, and the film, because of this interaction, once more lays claim to the reality of the story.  During this scene, there are shots focusing on the projector and phonograph in the foreground, while the actual humans in the scene are blurred out in the background.  Cyrus may be onscreen, commanding their attention, but the true master sits behind them, unnoticed as anything other than a machine, though without it none of this would be possible.  This is further cemented by the instances when Cyrus will pick up and flip through cue cards in the event the sound fails.  In other words, even if he can’t be heard, the film’s mastery of this world will still be felt because he can be seen, and his confidence in sight over sound is telling.  Interestingly, Cyrus also insists that he doesn’t want to be remembered forever, yet his recording of himself for the future testify to at least some small nod to immortality.  Ironically enough, the effort needed to preserve film does mark its impermanence, and these films, having served the whole of their purpose, will likely be discarded.  Not immortality, but an additional thirty years isn’t too shabby a number to tack onto a lifetime.

MVT:  Metzger takes it, hands down.  I can’t speak for his oeuvre in total, but from what I have seen, I’m shocked he isn’t recognized more widely for his talent and skills as a filmmaker.  I suppose it’s part of the stigma of his work in pornography, and I think it’s a damned shame, frankly.

Make Or Break:  Watching the dinner scene play out was mesmerizing for me.  Ostentatious?  Maybe.  But mesmerizing all the same.

Score:  7/10 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Intruder Within (1981)


What is it that attracts a person to want to live and work on something as remote as an oil rig?  I’m sure there is any number of “Reality” shows detailing the lives of people compelled to choose a life of solitude, from long-haul truckers to fur trappers in Antarctica and everything in between.  But we’re not using them as exemplars, because one, that would make this a very short introduction (and something of a mercy, I’m sure), and two, anyone who believes what they see on such shows should be discounted from the conversation to begin with, in my opinion.  I tend to think that, outside of those people looking to run away from their problems and responsibilities (real, imagined, or illegal) or those who choose the high risk lifestyle simply for the payout, there are some who do jobs like this out of some form of romanticism.  They chase after a sort of nobility that can only be found in testing themselves against the elements, against nature, and even (I’m sure in no small part) against themselves.  Coming out the other side, they’re transformed, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse, but they certainly become a different person from where they started.  It’s the journey of life, concentrated.  None of us (or maybe just few) will die the same exact person we were born, but the change is gradual.  For the vast majority, it takes decades to arrive at our death beds.  The hastening of the metamorphosis, the flirtation with the quickness of death from jobs such as these, I suppose in some ways adds onto your life.  Not in quantity of years, surely, but in quality more likely than not.  And then, I’m sure, there are folks who would try it for a week and just say “screw this crap.”  Just something to think about.

Jake (Chad Everett) is the boss man on an oil rig somewhere near the South Pole.  Toiling away with his crew, drilling at extreme depths on the orders of on-site geologist and Zortron Oil lackey Scott (Joseph Bottoms), the gang dredge up an odd batch of samples; small rocks unlike any the team have ever seen.  As various characters come in contact with the stones, the rocks begin to reveal their true nature.  It all builds up to…some kind of climax.

Peter Carter’s The Intruder Within (aka The Lucifer Rig, and which started its journey to its “Friday Night Movie” slot on ABC under the title Panic Offshore) was spawned in the wakes of both Jaws and Alien.  While it does take things from both, it certainly steals far more from Ridley Scott’s film than Steven Spielberg’s.  Generally, the ambience, the escalation of the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, and the water-logged setting are the shark film’s contributions.  On the cosmic film’s end, you have the working class men isolated from civilization angle (actually, this one is shared by both).  You have an alien being (though from within the ocean’s floor rather than the depths of space) that riffs (and largely fails, though if you were a kid watching this for the first time, you’d be impressed, trust me) on the late, great H.R. Giger’s groundbreaking Xenomorph design.  You have the (semi-) heroic woman in the form of Collette (Jennifer Warren).  You have the corporate minion more interested in the possibilities in exploiting the threat than in the welfare of the crew.  You have the impregnation of a character with a monstrous embryo.  The list literally goes on.  I can’t say precisely when Alien made its television premier, but The Intruder Within cashed in completely on the craze the former film had created.  It just did it in ways that were more palatable (read: friendly to the network’s Standards and Practices department) to a family-oriented audience, though (kind of surprisingly) not entirely without teeth (of some form or another).  

One of the sharpest divides between this film and its 1979 forebear is in its treatment of sex and sexuality.  In Alien, you see the characters in their skivvies, but outside of that there’s really no romantic subplot, and to my recollection, no love scenes at all.  The Intruder Within takes a different tack.  Robyn (Lynda Mason Green) is the pretty, young bookkeeper aboard the rig (I assume; her job description is nebulous at best, but she never mans the drill, so…).  The first time we see her, she complains about the cold and says she’s going to take a shower.  She then peels off her pants and bends over, showing off her thermal-underwear-clad lady bits.  Robyn, however, is oblivious to the effect her actions have on the crew (like taking off your clothes in front of a family member), though the men pay the strictest attention.  Later, she fixes her sights on new recruit Harry (James Hayden) with an eye towards getting a little action.  Naturally, this will come back to haunt her, and I was rather surprised it went as far as it did, considering the film’s origin.  Collette, the other prominent female character, was harassed on the last rig she manned.  This doesn’t stop her from developing a relationship with Jake, and the two display a sense of mutual respect for each other.  It all plays out in fairly clichéd manner (and involving a lot of food and coffee), but it worked for me.

Another thing in the film that appeals to me (and will always appeal to me), is its portrayal of its hero and how he resolves his predicament.  Jake is the sort of protagonist who works with his hands for a living.  Like so, so many heroes from this time period, he wears a winter vest over a plaid flannel shirt (what the hell happened to that look, huh?).  He doesn’t try to find the deeper meaning of what they find in the water.  His breadth of wanting to understand the monster starts and ends with how it can be killed.  In many ways, Jake (and characters like him) just wants to maintain the status quo.  He’s not looking to become a millionaire, he’s not looking to unlock the secrets of the universe.  He wants to work, get paid, and keep himself and his crew alive and uninjured.  It is this blue collar outlook that defines how Jake will approach this (or any) problem.  Unlike today, where all of the characters in a film of this type seem to either possess all manner of superpowers to pummel each other with or somehow find the most ostentatious method of dispatching a beastie (only after the tension of the film has ridden across its highest peaks for a duration rather than building up to a singular climax), Jake and company have to use what’s at hand.  They will live or die based on their resourcefulness and what they can lay their mitts on within the scant time they have to prepare (if they have any at all).  I’ll just say it.  This is the type of finale I get misty-eyed over, since it’s such a rarity these days (perhaps it just feels that way from my cynical perspective).  Films like this one, The Car, Piranha, Grizzly, Alligator (notice a pattern?), and so on all had this quality.  It makes the ripoff aspects a little easier to digest.

MVT:  The tone of the film is actually pretty dark for a television movie, and it does it all with nary a drop of blood (okay, maybe one from old Sam [Paul Larsson]) or a naked female nipple to be seen.

Make Or Break:  The first shots of the monster work decently well.  This is because we get very few straight glimpses of it, and it is photographed in a hallway with a flashing red light.  It obscures enough to maintain a little mystery as well as spackling over some of the costume’s shortcomings.

Score:  6.25/10                

Monday, July 14, 2014

Episode #296: Pit Stop of the Eye

Welcome to an all new episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week we are sponsored by diabolikdvd.com and it was Sammy's turn to pick the selections this month. We cover Pit Stop (1969) dorected by Jack Hill and White of the Eye (1987) directed by Donald Cammel. 

Direct download: ggtmc_296.mp3 
 
Emails to midnitecinema@gmail.com

Adios!!!



Episode #295: King Drummer

Welcome back to another fine episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week Sammy and Will return after a crazy week for both of them personally with reviews of Ex Drummer (2007) directed by Koen Mortier and King Boxer (1972) starring Lo Lieh!!!

Direct download: ggtmc_295.mp3

Emails to midnitecinema@gmail.com

Adios!!!



Saturday, July 12, 2014

Instant Action: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)



All of that over a vanilla twist ice cream cone!

Written By: John Carpenter
Directed By: John Carpenter

The real highlight of Assault on Precinct 13, for me at least, was the score from John Carpenter. His writing and direction as pretty great as well, but his score for the film is fabulous. It’s the height of economical mood setting. I’ll readily admit that I’m usually not a fan of synth scores, but the score for Assault on Precinct 13 hit me hard, right out of the gate. It sets the tone for the film, and supplies Assault on Precinct 13 with all the atmosphere it could ever need.

Beyond the score the atmosphere of Assault on Precinct 13 was my favorite element of the film. It’s oppressive, and in an odd way very dirty. When we first see the gang members sitting at a table they are nowhere near as sweaty as the atmosphere made me think they were. That’s a trend that continues throughout the rest of the film; the atmosphere takes over the film in many instances.

The action in Assault on Precinct 13 is a befuddling aspect of the film. On the one hand it’s set up rather well. On the other hand there are moments within an action set piece where the characters appear to be shooting off into nothingness. There is one particular moment when Bishop fires off a couple of rounds from his rifle and the bullets fly straight at a guy despite the fact that his rifle was pointed six feet in the other direction. Still, taking the action as a whole into consideration I did enjoy the way it’s implemented and carried out.

I found myself concerned near the end of Assault on Precinct 13 that the film was running out of steam. It started at about the time to the cutaways to the patrol car began to pop up. They serve a purpose within the film, but it seemed like every time they came back from one of those cutaways the film had to work like heck to gain back its momentum. Luckily the cutaways weren’t many, and for the most part the film is able to use its atmosphere and score to keep the film moving at a brisk pace.

There’s a certain amount of depth to be found in Assault on Precinct 13. I’ll be honest though, I didn’t care much about the depth in the film. It’s present, I know it’s there and I recognize it, but I wasn’t drawn to it like I was the other elements of the film. I don’t think Assault on Precinct 13 is as cognizant of its thematics as, say Halloween or Escape from L.A., but it does know that it has more to say and it says more when it needs to.

Assault on Precinct 13 didn’t blow me away like I had initially thought it was going to. I had a fun time with the film, and I loved the score to death. That being said, I was left cold by some elements of the film. Not enough for me to not consider Assault on Precinct 13 great, but enough for me to not be completely in love with this film from John Carpenter.

Rating:

7/10

Cheers,

Bill Thompson