“Maggie” is a project that’s been floating around for a while. I first became aware of it when Chloe Moretz was briefly attached to play the titular character. On the heels of Irish indie “Colin,” “Maggie” was also described as a zombie movie from the perspective of a zombie. At some point, Moretz was traded for Abigail Breslin. More importantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the cast as Maggie’s dad. Following this, something rare happened. I was actually rooting for a small indie film to be dumbed down into a stupid action move. Imagine Arnold blasting hordes of zombies, “Commando”-style. By the time the trailers hit, it was apparent that “Maggie” wasn’t that kind of film. Instead, this was obviously a low-key character study, Schwarzenegger in a sensitive mood and the zombie genre being exploited for drama, instead of cheap thrills.
“Maggie” is set towards the end of the zombie apocalypse. Through quarantines and curfews, the government has mostly contained the outbreak in the city. The countryside is a different matter. Wade Vogel is a simple farmer and a widower. His daughter, Maggie, disappeared into the city weeks ago. When he finds her, she has been bitten by a zombie. Now, Wade must watch as his daughter slowly succumbs to the virus, transforming into an inhuman monster before his eyes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger many times before. Arnold’s films have a weird way of reflecting on his life. In his autobiography, he refers to the affair that broke up his marriage, the betrayal of his family’s trust in him, as the biggest mistake of his life. Schwarzenegger has played a family man on-screen before, in many of his later nineties films. In “Maggie,” he’s a family man who is loosing his family. Arnold does not blow anything up, quip pithy one-liners, or show off his buffness in “Maggie.” (Amusingly, another character in the film says “I’ll be back,” not Arnold.) Instead, he’s an old man, a life time of decisions and loss weighing heavily on his wrinkled brow. With his wife gone, his daughter is the only connection to his former, happy life. Watching her condition worsen weighs heavily on his mind. Most of the film is devoted to Wade debating about what to do with his sick daughter. Schwarzenegger invest fully in the performance, carrying huge amounts of sadness on his stern shoulders.
“Maggie” isn’t just a subversion of what you expect from a Schwarzenegger movie. It’s also approaches the zombie genre from a different direction. There are no mass chow-downs, torn-out guts, or hordes of moaning undead. Instead, the film exploits the zombie for body horror. Watching the disease take over Maggie’s body is truly horrifying. The bite wound on her arm turns a deep black color. Black veins grow all throughout her body. Her thumb turns black one night, causing her to chop it off the next day. Cataracts grow over her eyes, her skin becomes paler and sickly. Abigail Breslin in excellent in the part, the character maintaining her strength even as she grows worse. When you’re so use to seeing gut munching and flesh gnawing, it’s interesting to see a zombie film tackle a far more personal, if no less visceral, brand of horror.
Judging a movie’s reception by its IMDb message board is always a mistake. If it’s anything to go by, plenty of people where expecting Arnie to murder a crap ton of zombies. And, yeah, that probably would have been a lot of fun. It certainly would have been more fun then the depressing “Maggie.” Yet there’s also something worth admiring about a film that cast the world’s biggest action hero as a bereaved father. The film is certainly effective, a sad and touching story of sickness and familial love. [7/10]
Target Earth (1954)
The most unlikely of themes have emerged for this year’s Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-thon: Movies about individuals unknowingly thrusts into apocalyptic situations, while slow-moving extraterrestrials threaten them. Turns out, yesterday’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” is practically a remake of an earlier film, 1954’s “Target Earth.” Both take place in a city that is suddenly empty. Both focus on the handful of survivors. In both, the event is the work of slow moving robotic invaders. Made a decade earlier, “Target Earth” is far more entrenched in the clichés and conventions of fifties sci-fi then the edgier, later film.
Following an argument with her husband, Nora takes some sleeping pills, never intending to wake up. When she awakens, the entire city of Chicago has seemingly been emptied. She meets up with a handful of other survivors, like brawny Frank and partying couple Vicki and Jim. Soon, the group realizes who is responsible for the suddenly vacated city. An army of robots from Venus has invaded the city, with plans to wipe humanity out. While the few remaining people in the city attempt to survive, the military outside searches for ways to defeat the machines.
Once its cast of characters is gathered together, “Target Earth” falls into a similar pattern. First, Nora meets Frank, played by fifties sci-fi stalwart Richard Denning. Next, the two run into Vicki and Jim, a care-free couple who see the apocalypse as an oppretunity to get wasted. The movie even throws in a human villain, in the form of Robert Roark’s psychotic Davis. A huge portion of “Target Earth’s” middle section is devoted to this group hanging out in an empty apartment. They’re a decently entertaining collection of characters. Kathleen Crowley is both beautiful and fragile, a compelling damsel. Denning is fun to watch as a more down-to-earth hero. Virgina Grey and Richard Reeves are both amusing as the drunken couple. That’s fine. However, focusing so much energy on what’s happening between these guys, when there are killer robots outside, seems like misused time. I like the characters and even I would prefer to see the Venusian death machines.
Instead of focusing solely on survivors, “Target Earth” also focuses on the military trying to save the day. Unlike “The Earth Dies Screaming,” the invaders only take the city prisoner. Though there’s some sort of shield above the city, preventing planes from entering, the military are still able to capture a robot. What follows are a series of incredibly dry scenes of the military scientist practicing weapons on the robot, trying to discover its weakness. That weakness turns out to high frequency sounds that shatter the machines’ interior tubes. Basically, what this amounts to is a clumsy deus ex machina, the military rushing in with their secret weapon just when it’s needed. The scene seriously drags the movie down.
“You, Murderer” is the most experimental episode of “Tales from the Crypt” likely ever made. It’s not the plot that stands out. The episode is about a successful ad executive who is secretly an on-the-run criminal who had plastic surgery to change his face. While at work, he receives a phone call from the woman he abandoned in his old life. Turns out this ex-wife and his best friend, the plastic surgeon who changed his face, plan to murder the man. They succeed and the episode is told from the perspective of his corpse, narrating events as they happen. This being “Tales from the Crypt,” the bad guys get theirs, in a nicely morbid and unexpected way.
It’s not just the first person perspective gimmick that distinguishes “You, Murderer.” The episode “stars” Humphrey Bogart, forty-eight years after the star's death. Series producer Robert Zemeckis directed the episode. Implementing the same digital technology he used in “Forrest Gump” (which is mocked in the Crypt Keeper wraparound segments), he inserted Bogey into the episode from beyond the grave. Confusingly, the episode references Bogart and his films several times. You can tell the technology was far from flawless. The first-person-perspective gimmick was obviously designed to hide Bogart’s face. The voice impersonator is not exactly convincing. When we do see Bogart, it’s in a mirror or reflective surface, his mouth moving only slightly more then a photograph would. So “You, Murderer” less stars Bogart then it stars half a dozen flashes of his face. Zemeckis is notorious for taking advantage of technology before it’s really ready. Look no further then those creepy motion capture movies for proof of that.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
The very first Edgar Allan Poe story I ever read was “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Considering that first encounter was in an English textbook, I suspect it was that way for many people. Like every devotee of macabre fiction, Poe means a lot to me. For these reason, “The Tell-Tale Heart” remains a personal favorite. The story has been adapted to screen many times but the most respected film version appears to be this animated short, made in 1953 and nominated for the short feature Oscar that year. The short follows Poe’s plot precisely. A man is compelled to murder by an old man’s glaring eye. After burying the dead body under the floorboards, and foolishly inviting cops into his home, the deed is given away by the beating of the dead man’s heart that only the killer can hear.
Such fidelity to the source material is appreciated but not what makes “The Tell-Tale Heart” special. The animation is atmospheric and experimental. The people and places are shot through an expressionistic frame, reduced to harsh shapes extending up into the night sky. A man’s cuff links become a fluttering white mouth. When we’re introduced to the old man’s milky eye, a flash of images follow: A white tea kettle, more glaring eyes, and a full moon dissolving into a chewed away rock. The sequence devoted to the murder is especially spell-binding. A cascade of shadows give way to spinning, multi-colored sheets, climaxing in the newly dead man’s face. Afterwards, his bedroom seemingly explodes out into the darkness of the night. When the cops arrive, they’re shown as dark shapes with their own judging, constantly starring eyes. The beating of the hideous heart comes suddenly and quickly. Thumping strings appear on the soundtrack. Red spiral emanate from the floor boards. The film’s final image, a jaundiced hand slamming down on a jail cell door, certainly makes an impression.