Monday, October 30, 2017
Halloween 2017: October 29
I first heard of “Seconds” many years thanks to some website – I don't remember which one – posting a list of the twenty scariest movies of all time or something like that. Among the usual suspects of “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” were titles I had never heard of, like “Repulsion” and this film. By the time I finally got to see the film, I knew it wasn't exactly your typical scare-fest but, instead, a good example of what I call “existential horror.” The film is considered the third part of director John Frankenheimer's paranoia trilogy, following “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May.” Of the three, it was the least successful upon release. In the time since then, it's developed a reputation as a classic.
Arthur Hamilton lives what some would consider a good life. He's a high ranking executive at a bank. He's been married for many years, with an adult age daughter he never sees. Arthur, however, isn't happy. One night, he receives a mysterious phone call from an old college friend he thought had died. This puts him in contact with the Company. They promise to give Arthur a new life. His death is faked, via a hotel fire. He's given extensive plastic surgery, completely remolding his appearance. His identity is changed to Antiochus Wilson, a successful painter. He's young and rich. He quickly gains a beautiful girlfriend. He's placed into a life of sex and parties. Happiness, however, continues to elude him.
“Seconds” is, ultimately, a movie about emptiness. Arthur Hamilton's life is void of feeling. He shares no passion with his wife. The Company persuades him by pointing out the lack of warmth in Arthur's life. Yet there's also a lack of feeling in Arthur's decision to join the Company. After becoming Antiochus, he gains no further happiness. He's reluctant, at first, to embrace his new life. He spends a lot of time alone. When he finally gives into the hedonism of a rich life, during a wine festival Frankenheimer shoots like an unnerving documentary, he's elated at first. However, this soon gives way to deeper loneliness. He still feels empty inside, still feels like he's living a life designed by other people. That's when he decides he wants to start over for a third time but, by then, it's too late. Fulfilling desires just exposes oneself to further meaningless. This is further emphasized by the distant, cold approach Frankenheimer brings to the movie.
The film was made during a period when Rock Hudson was trying to shed his image as a romantic comedy star. Around the same time, he would star in thrillers like “Blindfold” and “Ice Station Zebra.” “Seconds” is a raw performance from Hudson. As Arthur/Antiochus begins to recognize the emptiness of his life, he cracks up, getting drunk and depressed. (If you're willing to read into Hudson's personal life, you can suspect that the story of a man hiding his true self might've interested him.) John Randolph plays Arthur. Randolph's presence provides some more real life subtext, as the actor was still blacklisted at the time. Randolph's projects the a hollow sadness from behind his eyes, disappearing into the role of a depressed man.
We are the Flesh (2016)
Horror is a genre that's very attractive to provocateurs. Probably because it's the only cinematic genre – aside from straight-up art films and pornography, I guess – where pushing the envelope will actually attract an audience. About once a year, we get a new extreme horror movie promising to be more fucked-up than the fucked-up shit you saw last year. Usually, I opt out of such experiences, as I need a little more from a movie than baseless provocation. Occasionally, we actually get something like “Martyrs,” that actually has a reason for existing besides shocking you. This year's extreme horror model hails from Mexico and is called “We Are the Flesh.” I wasn't going to watch it but it was streaming on Shudder so I figured why not? I haven't been properly disgusted this Halloween.
A pair of homeless siblings, Lucio and Fauna, break into an abandoned building. They soon find the place is already inhabited. A man named Mariano has made the place his home. He allows the brother and sister to live there, even feeding them, as long as they help him with a project. The trio transform the building into cave or womb-like structure. Afterwards, Mariano's requests become more disturbing. He demands that the siblings have sex. Fauna is more receptive to the man's sickening demands. Soon, both siblings are inundated into a world of depravity and madness.
Despite going out of its way to gross out the viewer, “We are the Flesh's” messed-up themes of family kind of appeal to me. Initially, Lucio and Fauna aren't sure what to make of Mariano. The old man frightens them but they are slowly won over by his extreme tactics. Eventually, the trio evolves into a bizarre family of sorts. The performances help sell this unusual dynamic, as there are few characters in the film besides the trio. Maria Evoli, as Fauna, is successful as a seemingly normal girl that is quickly overcome by strange desires. Diego Gamaliel, as Lucio, starts out just reacting to the weird shit around him but quickly develops a more interesting relationship with his deviant behavior. Noe Hernandez, the closest the film has to a name actor, is unnerving as Mariano.
I'm really not entirely sure what to think about “We are the Flesh” but, if nothing else, it is interesting. I'm going to be thinking about it for a while. Some people have already attempted to find a deeper meaning within the graphic sex and gore, wondering if the film is a reaction to the political turmoil and rampant crime Mexico has been experiencing for quite some time. The movie is destined to be one of the year's most divisive films, which is entirely appropriate, considering the content. Yet I applaud the filmmaker for having a vision, even if it's a frequently repugnant one. [6/10]
Freaks of Nature (2015)
A few years ago, I remember reading about a movie called “The Kitchen Sink.” This was when our culture's love of vampires and zombies were at their peak. The idea was to throw together every popular modern monster archetype into a goofy horror/comedy. This was to be the first vampires, zombies, aliens, and werewolf hybrid feature. The movie rolled into production and then seemed to disappeared, a theatrical release never surfacing. Then, last year, a friend of mine started describing a film called “Freaks of Nature.” I told him that the movie sounded a lot like the elusive “Kitchen Sink.” A little internet research revealed that “Freaks of Nature” is “The Kitchen Sink,” that the high-profile project ended up going direct-to-video. I guess that's a better title.
The town of Dillford, Ohio is famous for two things. It's home to the Riblet, an addictive fast food sandwich. It's also town shared between humans, vampires, and zombies. The three cultures are integrated. They all go to school together and the teachers are even mixed. However, it's an uneasy peace. The zombie's brain-eating tendencies are kept under control with shock-collars. The humans often resent the vampires' bloodsucking and special abilities. When an alien spacecraft appears above the town, the unrest explodes into full-blown violence. Human Dag, recently turned vampire Petra, and zombie Ned most navigate the chaos, instill some reason in the adults, and defeat the alien invasion.
My main reason for wanting to check out “Freaks of Nature” is because it's a monster mash. In this day and age, it's not too often that you see a film willing to throw together so many different monsters. Some of this monster-on-monster is amusing. A fight between zombies and vampires tear through a suburban home, the two tearing into each other. When the vamires are staked through the heart, they explode into a bloody mist. A recliner is utilized in staking a vampire, in one clever moment. The special effects are genuinely good. The zombies are detailed and decayed. The aliens have a cool design. You can see the vampire's veins through their translucent skin. It's obvious some money went into this, further indicating that Sony dropped this on video because it's not very good.
“Freaks of Nature” was recommend to me by JD, my podcast co-host. This is not the first time he's told me to watch something I thought was really stupid. I guess I should just realize JD has pretty bad taste. Then again, I understand why it might seem like I would enjoy “Freaks of Nature.” Setting monster archetypes in a high school setting is something I've done in my own writing. Monster mashes are usually a can't-fail proposition for me. Yet “Freaks of Nature” is a deeply dire affair. By the way, this was another script that began life on the Blacklist, the annual list of the most marketable unproduced films. Like seemingly every blacklisted film I've seen, this one ended up lousy, proving once again that “marketable” and “good” are not synonymous. [4/10]
The Sandman (1991)
In high school, I read E.T.A. Hoffman's short story “The Sandman.” I was immediately enamored by the story, which weaves together childhood nightmares, fears of going insane, and a mechanical woman into an beguiling brew. Hoffman's version of the Sandman, usually an innocent childhood figure, was decidedly not so nice. Hoffman's Sandman is a spectre who lives on the moon and throws sand in disobedient children's eyes until they fall out. That last detail would inspire an stop-motion animated short in 1991. The short follows a young child who doesn't want to go to bed. He has good reason, as the bird-like Sandman is stalking him. After the boy finally falls asleep, the inhuman creature comes for him.
Hoffman's “Sandman” would've made for an amazing, German Expressionism silent film. This short is probably the next best thing. The eerie sets are reminiscent of Expressionism, composed of harsh angles and deep, dark shadows. A shot of the little boy heading up to his room, where the hallways seem to extend outwards, is especially effective. The Sandman, as depicted here, is unforgettably wicked. He takes pleasure in tormenting his victims, dancing around the boy's bed, appearing and disappearing often. The final reveal of what the Sandman does to the boy is fairly horrific. Even in an exaggerated, animated style, a monster plucking a little kid's eyes out is still a ghastly sight. A brief shot after the credits also implies that this has happened many times before as well, a chilling thought.