Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 20

As the night of Halloween drawls closer and closer, I find myself with a lot less time. Sorry about missing the last two days. I'll try to do better.

The Hitcher (1986)
This movie is amazingly effective. When I first saw it a few years ago, it managed to catch me completely off-guard and had me jumping several times. For a jaded horror fan, that’s a pretty big deal. But would it hold up, I asked myself as I put the DVD in the player? Well, I still found myself glued to the television, completely sucked into the suspenseful world of “The Hitcher,” where nothing is certain and you are never, ever safe.

All of which is weird, since “The Hitcher” isn’t really a horror movie, now is it? The majority of the film takes place in the hot, sun-soaked afternoons of the Texas desert. It’s cat-and-mouse story is more thriller and the car chase antics that make up a large portion of the film’s most exciting sequences are right out of seventies carsploitation pictures then straight-up horror. Though there’s plenty of blood, most of the actual murders take place completely off-screen. When the violence does happen, it’s startling and unexpected, like the glass behind the driver suddenly exploding, along with the driver’s head. But it’s hard to classify “The Hitcher” as anything but pure horror, if for no other reason then it successfully places the audience in the seat of it’s protagonist. A protagonist who is being endlessly chased by one of the most effective villains in movie history.

Yeah, I said that. John Ryder is one of most effective bogeymen ever committed to film. As far as we know, he’s never come back from the dead, isn’t a vampire, an alien, a robot, or anything but an ordinary man. And yet, he’s completely unstoppable. In most any other film, the sight of a man shooting down a helicopter with a handgun from the comfort of his driver’s seat would come off as completely ridiculous and utterly improbable. But it works here, strictly because the film makes Ryder both seemingly inhuman but oddly relatable. He could literally be anywhere and do anything. I don’t think there was ever a better role crafted for Rutger Hauer’s steely eyed intensity then this one. His performance is soft-spoken and mysterious. He doesn’t have to yell or shout to let us know how easily he could destroy anyone of us. We never find out anything about him. His name is all we know and that could easily be a pseudonym. He appears out of the desert like a phantom and disappears back just as well. Despite his seemingly supernatural aptitude, he is very human. The film implies that he is a man with nothing to loose. He wants to die but cannot self-terminate, so he chooses victims at random, in hopes of finding someone who can take him down. Jim is a normal kid. There’s really nothing extraordinary about C. Thomas Howell’s performance other then what a perfect audience cipher he makes. His freak outs over the ever escalating situation seems genuine. The reason Ryder fixates on him is simply because he’s the only person to ever face him and live. Clearly, this is the kid for the job. The movie suggests a connection between hunter and prey and eventual switch of the two positions. (It also suggests something else too. This is the second movie I’ve seen this season with a hearty gay subtext.)

“The Hitcher” is also extraordinarily well shot. It’s not surprising to read that the director got his start as a still photographer. After Ryder has been kicked from Jim’s car, the camera glides up the road towards the leering murderer, dawn slowly breaking over his head. It establishes the man as a living legend, the urban myth of the murderous hitchhiker brought to life. And the car chases, man! The chase with the cops, and the pile-up that follows, has got to be in the top ten best car chase scenes ever. I’ll admit to having a soft spot for old-fashion car stunts and, boy does this movie ever deliver. When it isn’t slamming fenders into fenders, the movie is building shadowy suspense. The scene of Ryder sneaking into our heroes hotel room and abducting his love interest (An underdeveloped role built up by a feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh performance) is dark and mysterious, like a dream building into a nightmare. And the fate that follows for Leigh’s character, which I will not spoil for those who have yet to see this one, should be in film-class textbooks as the way to build and payoff suspense in a movie. I also love the little detail of a tiger’s roars layered over Hauer’s face as he leaps from moving vehicles to car hood, another potentially campy, clich├ęd moment the movie pulls off fantastically. It’s a shame that director Robert Harmon’s never really did much anything else of note. This is a fantastic start for a directorial career. (He did bring us “Highwaymen,” which plays like a much goofier version of “The Hitcher” but delivers similarly intense car battle action. I might also have to reevaluate “They” now.)

Enough gushing. “The Hitcher” kicks ass! See this movie! Definitely do not see the remake or the sequel, both of which are blasphemous. (9/10)

Faust (1926)
The pretentious film geek in me wants to say something like, “Silent cinema is true cinema.” That’s an easy thing to think, since silent movies had nothing to rely on but the visual aspect of movie-making. But it’s not really true either, since it implies silent films are inherently better then modern movies. This is the problem when dealing with classic cinema. The great movies survive and are talk about forever. Nobody remembers all the shitty ones. But, right from the very first opening scene, “Faust” got me. The image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding through the heavens is haunting and mythic. They are obviously puppets but, the way the sequence is shot, ladles on the foreboding atmosphere. “Nosferatu” clearly wasn’t a fluke. F. W. Murnau sure knew how to capture shadows, fog, the creepy, and the disturbing on camera. Much of “Faust” feels like a half-remembered nightmare. Seems like all of the demons in this film have gleaming eyes. An early appearance by what we assume to be the devil himself, hidden in shadow, has oddly unnerving glinting eyes. In maybe the movie’s creepiest moment, Mephisto appears, not in a dramatic plume of red smoke, but as a strange beggar in the streets, nothing unusual about him save for his glowing eyes. (And his tendency to reappear everywhere.) In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, the devil looms large over the city as a black smog sweeps over the populace, infecting everyone it passes with the black plague. (Murnau was clearly terrified of the plague and considered it synonymous with evil. Just as Graf Orlock brings bubonic carrying rats with him to London in “Nosferatu,” the devil’s presence is identified here with a sweeping epidemic.) In another fantastic scene, a monk begging the people to turn to God and the church, is shouted down by a swarm of hedonistic partiers, their shadows cast over him. “Faust’ is both a visual feast and a fantastic mood piece.

At least for the first fifty minutes. The evolution of “Faust” from a story about how dirty pagans die horribly to a story of good intentions paving the way to hell to a story about how love saves and God forgives is a pretty wild path. The film seems to start out going with the second version, as Faust is portrayed as a god fearing alchemist who takes Mephisto’s offer strictly to save his village from the plague. But then he is tempted by pleasures of youth and Mephisto, who up to that point was dress in commoner clothes, switch into a flashy red evening wear. What follows is a long, mostly pointless but at least visually interesting scene of Faust seducing a princess. He then goes back to the village of his youth and falls in love with a maiden named Gretchen. The film then falls into a very long rut. Despite this being Faust’s story, his name is right there in the title after all, the movie spends an awful lot of time developing Gretchen and her family. That’s fine I suppose, but then there are long comic relief sequences involving an old woman’s attempts to seduce Mephisto. After another very long scene in which Faust is framed for the murder of Gretchen’s brother, the movie begins to focus on her exclusively. This leads to a forty minute long section about how much her life begins to suck, from being shoved into the stocks in her town, rejected and mocked by everyone who ever knew her, becoming a single mom, becoming homeless, nearly freezing to death in a snowstorm, her baby definitely freezing to death in a snowstorm, and then being sentenced to burn at the stake for letting her child die. This section plays a lot like melodramatic misery porn and, worse yet, has nothing much to do with our main character’s story. Right before being sentenced to death, Gretchen cries out for her lover, her face sweeping across the sky to Faust, who has apparently just being hanging out somewhere all this time. He rushes to her, rejects the devil, and meets up with his girlfriend just in time for both of them to burn to death together. But it’s not a downbeat ending, because loves saves and God forgives. Man, the devil got kind of screwed on that one. “God cheats at cards” is another moral you can take from this.

It’s a shame the movie is almost sunk by this meandering subplot. Otherwise, it’s fantastic. Emil Jannings is perfect as Mephisto, glowering like an imp while being as slick as a used car salesman. Gosta Ekman successfully portrays both an old man and his younger self, showing a lot of emotion on his face. More then that, the film is a visual triumphant. I understand why it’s a classic but a wavering story cements “Nosferatu” as Murnau’s real masterpiece of horror. (I really wish his version of the Jekyll/Hyde story, "The Janus Man," starring Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi wasn't a lost film. I'd be tempted to make my own Faustian bargain to see that one.) (7/10)

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