Saturday 23 June 2018

The Village of the Damned (1995)

There are certain movies that I tend to go out of my way to avoid seeing, for varying reasons. One of the movies I’ve avoided is John Carpenter’s 1995 version of The Village of the Damned. In this particular case my reasons for avoiding the movie were quite clear-cut. First off, I liked Wolf Rilla’s 1960 version so much I couldn’t see how anyone could possibly improve on it. Secondly, I’ve always disliked movies that Americanise English subject matter. In this case my second objection is even stronger than usual, given that John Wyndham was perhaps the most quintessentially English of all science fiction writers. And The Midwich Cuckoos was the most quintessentially English of Wyndham’s novels. An adaptation of that novel set in the United States sounded like a seriously poor idea.

Nonetheless the 1995 version of The Village of the Damned is a John Carpenter movie and I do generally like John Carpenter movies, so I have set aside my prejudices and here I am reviewing it.

One day everybody in the town of Midwich loses consciousness. All the animals lose consciousness as well. Some hours later they all regain consciousness. No-one has any idea what has happened or why. The government has sent Dr Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) to investigate. While she’s certainly a doctor it’s reasonable to assume that she has some intimate connections with the intelligence community.

It soon becomes apparent that every single woman of child-bearing age in Midwich is pregnant and they all fell pregnant on the day of the unexplained blackout. It’s obvious that something very strange is going on. There is simply no possible way that some of these women could be pregnant, but they are. And they all decide to keep their babies.

The children grow up very fast. They are extremely bright but lack any kind of empathy. They’re not actually emotionless - in fact they display an excessively emotional need for revenge if they suffer any injury or even a minor inconvenience. This is one of the elements in the story that worked fine in the 1960 movie but seems inconsistent and meddled in this version.

Dr Verner is still hanging around and giving the impression she knows more than she’s prepared to reveal publicly. She seems to have been added to the story to give it a bit of an X-Files vibe, with a vague suggestion that maybe the government knows more than it’s prepared to let on as well. She chain smokes through the move so you could describe her as the movie’s faintly sinister Cigarette Smoking Woman.

The children become more obviously evil. It’s not just Midwich’s future that looks bleak, these kids could be a threat to the whole planet.

There are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s no subtlety in the portrayal of the children. Right from the start they are clearly Demon Children From Hell and their evilness is so blatant you have to wonder why everybody else in the town doesn’t just leave. For the story to work it’s necessary that the women should make serious attempts to bond with the children and should be genuinely emotionally conflicted about them. Nobody could be emotionally conflicted about these little horrors. It’s also necessary that the strangeness of the children should be revealed slowly, so that at first it’s still possible for people to convince themselves that they’re just normal kids. All of this was done successfully in the 1960 film and the 1995 film fails on every count.

There’s a much bigger problem. John Wyndham had a deep love for traditional English society, and he felt that things were changing rapidly and not necessarily for the better. The Midwich Cuckoos is a kind of allegory of the rise of soulless mass society. The Midwich of his novel was a creation that the author cared about and the reader cannot help feeling emotionally involved in the tragic fate that seems to be the village’s destiny. All of that is lost in Carpenter’s film. His Midwich is already soulless so why would anybody care if it’s threatened?

The characters are dull and the acting is dull. Terrible things happen to the local doctor, Dr Chaffee, but Christopher Reeve’s performance is so colourless and uninvolved that Dr Chaffee is even more robotic than the demon children. The other actors make no impression whatsoever and their characters are so uninteresting that I found it difficult to keep track of them.

Kirstie Alley tries to be cynical and sinister but she doesn’t really have the acting chops to make Dr Verner anything more than a cipher.

The special effects are OK but they’re not really any improvement on the 1960 movie.

There are some minor changes to the story, notably in regard to the David character, but they’re muddled and unconvincing.

By 1995 Carpenter’s once promising career was definitely on the skids. He no longer had enough commercial clout to be given the level of creative control necessary to do something interesting with the material and he knew it. He didn’t want to make The Village of the Damned and he didn’t have final cut and he had major disagreements with the studio and it seems likely that he just lost interest and was only thinking of the pay cheque. It’s ironic that the commercial failures that derailed his career were in fact some of the best and most interesting movies of his career (movies like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China). This must have been more than a little disillusioning. Unfortunately The Village of the Damned was not the sort of movie that was going to get his career back on track.

The overwhelming impression I get from this movie is pointlessness. It’s inferior in every way to the 1960 film and it adds absolutely nothing of value to the story.

I found myself not caring what happened to Midwich or its inhabitants who seemed no more convincingly human than the evil alien children.

I really can’t think of any reason whatsoever why anyone would want to see this movie.

Wednesday 13 June 2018

The Bat (1959)

By 1959 the Old Dark House movie was getting rather long in the tooth as a concept but it was a genre that seemingly just wouldn’t die. The 1959 The Bat, directed by Crane Wilbur and starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, was yet another version of the venerable stage hit written by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. There had been a silent version in 1926 and a sound version (with the title The Bat Whispers in 1930).

Agnes Moorehead plays popular mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder who has rented a spooky mansion called The Oaks. She and her secretary Lizzie (Lenita Lane) are alone in the house because the entire domestic staff has quit. They’re afraid of The Bat, a mysterious killer who has been terrorising the local community. They’re also afraid of actual bats, following a newspaper report that the bats in this area are infected with rabies.

The Oaks belongs to the local bank president, a man named Fleming. He’s gone off on a hunting trip with his physician, Dr Malcolm Wells.

A very large amount of money has been embezzled from the bank and the nice young bank vice-president, Victor Bailey, has been arrested for the crime.

There are at least three major sub-plots and the connections between them are pretty tenuous.

There are all the standard ingredients of the Old Dark House film. There are secret passageways and masked villains and lots of running about and screaming.

It’s Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead who make this movie worth seeing, insofar as it’s worth seeing at all. The other cast members are distinctly unmemorable.

Price gives one of his more understated performances but of course he still manages to be pretty creepy.

Moorehead was a much admired actress and this film gives her a rare chance to play a leading rôle. And she has a great deal of fun as the feisty mystery novelist.

Crane Wilbur, who write and directed The Bat, had a lengthy career in film, starting as an actor and moving on to directing. A lengthy career, but not a particularly distinguished one.

Creaky is the word that is inevitably going to be used when describing this movie. Not only does it belong to a genre whose glory days were the 1930s, it really does feel very 1930s stylistically as well. There’s a heavy reliance on shadowy outlines of sinister figures to provide scares. Compared to the horror movies that were being made by Hammer at about this time it must have seemed pretty tame even to contemporary audiences.

Of course any Old Dark House movie is going to have that problem of feeling dated. It’s an inherently very old-fashioned concept. The original play made its Broadway debut in 1920, so it actually pre-dates what we think of as the golden age of the detective story. The difficulty with trying to revive The Bat as a movie in 1959 is that it was either going to feel very old-fashioned, or it was going to end up with a high camp feel. The movie mostly ends up just being old-fashioned.

I personally like old-fashioned things, and I have a certain fondness for the genre but even back in the 30s Old Dark House movies were something of a hit and miss proposition.

There are numerous public domain version of the his movie floating around. Surprisingly enough it’s actually had not only an official DVD release but a Blu-Ray release as well. The version I saw was a public domain copy and the quality was atrocious. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you would bother spending real money buying the Blu-Ray or the apparently excellent Anchor Bay DVD. This really is not the kind of movie you’re likely to watch again and again.

If you’re a hardcore fan of Vincent Price or Agnes Moorehead you might get some enjoyment from this movie, otherwise you’d have to be a pretty enthusiastic devotee of Old Dark House films to bother with this one. If you want a really good Old Dark House movie, check out One Frightened Night or Tomorrow at Seven.

Friday 1 June 2018

The Fog (1980)

The Fog is an early John Carpenter film that manages to be classic gothic horror whilst still having a very contemporary feel. It’s an old-fashioned ghost story but with some of the techniques of the slasher film. When the movie was completed it was realised that a 1980 audience was going to expect much more overt thrills so extensive reshoots were done. The movie ended up doing surprisingly well at the box office despite being a bit of a hybrid.

The little seaside town of Antonio Bay in northern California is celebrating its one hundredth birthday. Antonio Bay is a quiet little town. In fact the last time anything exciting happened here was a hundred years go when a ship called the Elizabeth Dane was wrecked in the bay, the disaster being caused by a mysterious fog. That event led to the foundation of the town.

Gothic horror often involves a curse, and the curse is often a collective one, falling upon an entire family. In this case it’s the entire town that is under the curse. That curse is the consequence of certain terrible things that happened exactly a century ago.

It starts with odd things happening. Car alarms going off for no reason, windows shattering, lights inexplicably flashing on and off. And there’s a fog, just as there had been in 1880. The fog is heading straight for a fishing trawler, the Sea Grass.

The local priest knows what’s going on. He’s found an old diary that recounts the events of that night in 1880 and reading that diary has almost sent the good priest over the edge of madness.

Now the unearthly fog of 1880 has returned and there’s something evil and deadly in that fog.

Carpenter started making horror movies at a time when a certain amount of gore was pretty much required if you expected to get a commercial release. While Carpenter didn’t seem to object to gore he didn’t really need it. He was good enough to scare us without the gore. In The Fog he doesn’t overdo it. In fact there’s a lot of implied gore. There are ultra-violent killings but you don’t really see much at all. The violence was mostly added in the reshoots.

What Carpenter did have was a very fine talent for atmosphere. In The Thing he uses the Arctic wastes and the horror of snow and ice with terrifying effectiveness. In The Fog his setting is a picturesque California seaside town but he still manages to build some incredibly creepy atmosphere.

And Carpenter certainly had the technical skills. He keeps the tension ratcheted up very nicely and when he throws in his scares they do scare.

The Fog has a pretty decent cast. Adrienne Barbeau as the radio station owner and operator (effectively it’s a one-woman radio station), Jamie Lee Curtis as hitch-hiker Elizabeth Solley, Janet Leigh (who was of course Jamie Lee’s real-life mom) as Antonio Bay’s chief civic booster Kathy Williams and Tom Atkins as the closest thing the film has to a conventional hero are all very solid and Hal Holbrook is fun as the well-meaning whisky priest.

The location shooting is impressive and even includes a couple of scenes shot at locations used by Hitchcock in The Birds. The radio station in the light house is a rather cool idea.

Carpenter’s biggest cinematic influence was not a horror director but Howard Hawks. Carpenter’s career has essentially been an attempt to do horror, sci-fi and adventure movies in the Hawks style.

Carpenter also cites Lovecraft as a major influence on The Fog, and there are certainly some Lovecraftian touches.

The Fog is a low-budget movie (it cost just over a million dollars at the time) but the special effects are very effective. Carpenter is smart enough not to try anything too ambitious. It’s better to stick to simple effects that work and that’s what he does. The ghosts look very creepy. The fog looks mysterious and menacing.

The Region 4 DVD offers a nice anamorphic transfer. The film was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ration that Carpenter preferred (and used with such skill). There’s a lively and chatty and very worthwhile audio commentary by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill. Carpenter is a guy who gives the impression that he absolutely loves doing audio commentaries for his movies.

The Fog manages to combine the visceral thrills of the slasher film with the moodiness and spookiness of the traditional ghost story and it’s a blend that works very well indeed. One of Carpenter’s best, and certainly one of the best horror movies of its era. Highly recommended.