Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, October 19, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 18

Manhunter (1986)

Last year, I read Thomas Harris' “Red Dragon,” after buying it from a closing book store probably ten years prior. Though Hannibal Lecter has been a cultural icon for a long time, I had never actually read any of Harris' original books. The literary “Red Dragon” definitely belongs to the airport read genre but was, nevertheless, pretty damn effective. It's easy to see why Lecter, Will Graham, and Francis Dollarhyde would prove irresistible to filmmakers. Infamously,  six years before “The Silence of the Lambs” swept the Oscars, Michael Mann adapted “Red Dragon” as “Manhunter.” You've heard all the tired takes about how this film's approach to Harris' famous characters differs from the better known, later version. At this point, “Manhunter” is established as a film nerd favorite, having grown from the underrated and underseen prototype to a cultishly beloved masterpiece in its own right.

Will Graham is retired. After working as a profiler for the FBI, and barely surviving an encounter with notorious cannibal killer Hannibal Lecktor, the mental strain of the job got to be too much. That's when FBI supervisor Jack Crawford asks him to come back. A serial killer, nicknamed the Tooth Fairy by the press, is murdering families. Graham is reluctantly drawn back into the game. He meets with Lecktor, who is communicating with the Tooth Fairy, and inspects the scenes of the murders. Attempts to capture the killer fail and Graham's own family is endangered. Graham must go inside the mind of the madman if he hopes to stop him before he kills again.

What makes Thomas Harris' cop-vs-killer thrillers so compelling is how pathological they are. Francis Dollarhyde is driven by more obsessions than seems possible. He fixates on mirrors, William Blake's “The Great Red Dragon,” his own facial deformity, the act of watching his victims, and the full moon. Will Graham is similarly vexed by thoughts he can barely controlled, pulled into solving the mystery because he has to. This same sort of neurotic need is applied to the police procedural element of the story. We see evidence being gathered and studied in labs. Every step of the FBI's plan to capture the killer is detailed, shown being formulated. Lecktor contacting the outside world through a hacked phone is shown in meticulous detail. Harris' novel is built upon this stuff and Mann's film shares many of these feelings.

“Manhunter” is also a movie build around that old chestnut about how cop and criminal share many of the same desires, how both seek power and control. Mann's film provides a more than superficial take on this idea. Will Graham sees the world the same way the deranged killers do, allowing him the unique insight that makes him so good at his job. This takes a terrible toll on his mental health, which his family is all to aware of. (And shown brilliantly during the supermarket set scene where he explains his breakdown to his step-son.) Will dominates the first half, Francis Dollarhyde staying off-screen for a long time. In the second half, Dollarhyde takes over the film. Mann then shows the sad, isolated world the killer lives in, the brief hope a romance with a blind woman gives. This makes it clear how similar he is to Will Graham. Both are tortured by their compulsions. Dollarhyde must kill to satisfy his, while Graham's conveniently serve the law.

Michael Mann's particular directorial style has won him a passionate fan following. The neon aesthetic that made “Miami Vice” a hit is certainly visible here but it's bent into a more opulent, gothic direction. Shots of Graham walking through a courtyard of Dollarhyde's lover standing with a friend in her doorway combine both that eighties glow with a grander form of theatrics. There's even a warm, sensual quality to Mann's direction. The throbbing electronic musical score, and a number of practically erotic songs from Shriekback, further emphasize this intimate feeling. Yet there's also an immense energy to Mann's work. His camera often glides through scenes. These two approaches combine in the finale. Set to the blazing sounds of “Inna Gadda Da Vida,” Mann deploys multiple tricks – slow-mo, stylized editing – to make the finale hit with as much impact as possible. It totally works and “Manhunter's” finale is spellbinding.

Three fantastic performances anchor the film. William Petersen plays Will Graham as a deeply tortured man, who carries the mental toll of his work on his face. He is mostly quiet when with his family, not wanting to weigh them down with his problems. Only when he works, when he studies the killer's methods and tries to see through their eyes, does he seem truly energized. Tom Noonan as Dollarhyde is terrifying, when waxing poetically on his transformation or stalking his prey. Yet he's also deeply sympathetic, ruined by shyness and abuse that is only hinted at. Lastly, Brian Cox appears as the first cinematic Hannibal Lecter. (Spelled Lecktor here.) Cox's take on Hannibal the Cannibal is cold, detached, and chilling in his psychosis. As in Harris' book, Lecktor only plays a small role in the film. As in the book, he certainly makes an impression on the viewer.

Combining horror, neo-noir, and action elements, Mann turned “Manhunter” into an intoxicating experience. Disturbing, thrilling, and exciting, the movie still holds up fantastically to this day. Comparing it to “Silence of the Lambs” is silly, since both movies are so different, but they are perhaps of equal greatness. Of course, the film would receive a deeply inferior remake with Anthony Hopkins many years later. It's a bummer that Brett Ratner's “Red Dragon” was so lame because a lot of fascinating stuff from Harris' book didn't make it into Mann's movie. Maybe that “Hannibal” television series utilized that material better? [9/10]

Mama (2013)

When the trailers for “Mama” debuted in 2013, I didn't think much of it. The film looked like another disposable, PG-13 horror movie about a vengeful ghost, dumped into theaters in the dead of winter. Really, Jessica Chastain in a short goth wig was the only thing abut the movie that truly caught my attention. The film's critical and fan reaction was slightly more positive than movies of this sort usually receive but I remained skeptical. Not even a gleeful recommendation from Guillermo del Toro was enough to change my mind. However, in the aftermath of director Andy Muschietti actually doing a pretty good job with “It” last year, I decided to give his “Mama” a look after all. Maybe the low expectations helped because I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

A banker name Jeffrey has a breakdown, murdering his coworkers and wife. He grabs his two daughters, three year old Victoria and year old Lily, and drives into the Northern Virginia woods. His plans to kill his daughters and himself are interrupted by a supernatural intruder. Several years later, the girls are found, feral but still alive. Jeffrey's brother, Lucas, chooses to adopt the girls. This is not well received by his girlfriend, punk rocker Annabel. The girls are mentally scarred by their time in the woods... Because they weren't alone. A feminine spectre, which they call Mama, was taking care of them. The ghost adopted the girls. And she has no intention of letting them go. Annabel must uncover the mystery in time if she hopes to rescue Victoria and Lily.

There's no getting around one big factor. “Mama” is a movie full of jump scares and CGI. Muschietti utilized these same tools with “It,” albeit more effectively. The titular ghost is a creaky, shriek-y computer generated creature that herk-jerks around like a professional contortionist. Surprisingly, the movie has little fear about showing its monster off, revealing it early and often. Frequently, Mama leaps out of the shadows, grasping with her spindly claws, accompanied by loud noises or music. However, “Mama” seasons its teenage audience friendly loud scares with some decent atmosphere. The movie is surprisingly pretty, full of cool blues and picturesque locations. Muschietti uses color correction and CGI to create an artificial, almost dream-like tone.

Moreover, some of those jump scares work pretty well. Associating Mama with decay was a good decision, as the ghosts is proceeded by a black mold like substance. She has a habit of phasing down through the ground, only her ratty hair floating up above the surface. That's a decently unnerving, unusual sight. Another clever bit is an attack in a dark room, the ghost ripping a man apart illuminated only by a flashing camera bulb. Though the CGI isn't super convincing, a rotting ghost lady who bends her body at odd angles makes for a thoroughly creepy villain. (Considering Murschetti inserted a creepy, thin woman into “It,” I'm going to say this is a personal phobia of his.) The ghost's origin are explained through nightmare sequences, shot in a first-person perspective, that are surprisingly effective. My favorite moment in the film concerns Annabel assuming one of the girls is in their bedroom before we find out that girl is actually downstairs. That's a quieter brand of spooky and one the film probably should've leaned on more.

What really surprised me about “Mama” is that it's actually a little deeper than your typical studio spook show. The theme of motherhood is introduced early on. Anabel's first scene has her being relieved with a pregnancy test coming up negative. She's reluctant to accept the kids, in contrast with their clingy, supernatural mother. By the end, she's won over by the girls, choosing to love them. I don't know if I totally dig that aspect, as it correlates a woman's worth a little too much with her willingness to become a mom. However, I do like that the titular ghost is treated fairly sympathetically. Mama is a figure of fear but is pathetic too, a mad woman desperate to love something and be loved in return. She even gets a happy ending of sorts, a truly surprising conclusion. (Helping matters is the strong cast, as the young actresses make the little girls genuinely lovable.)

Something that really appealed to me, personally, was that the film seems to draw some inspiration from a local legend. The story is set in the fictional Clifton Forge, Virginia, which is a very similar name to Clifton, VA. Considering the role a spooky train-overpass bridge and a mental institution play in Mama's backstory, it seems likely to me that the film was partially inspired by the legend of the Bunnyman Bridge. Some of the flourishes the filmmakers add to the myth – like the role of butterflies – are inspired in their own right. I guess the filmmakers decided a spindly, corpse-like ghost woman was scarier then an axe-wielding lunatic in a rabbit costume. “Mama” doesn't rise above its status as a PG-13 jump scare-fest. However, it's a more sophisticated film then I expected, with a script that has some genuine intelligence and heart to it, as well a director with a strong visual sense. [7/10]

Mamá (2008)

Thanks to the internet, spooky horror shorts can now go viral, convincing producers and studios to fund feature versions. Before “Lights Out” and “They Hear It” followed the exact same path, “Mama” started the trend. Andy Muschietti's original “Mamá” – note the accent mark – is a three minute long short. It's told from the perspective of two girls, one waking the other after being told their mother is home. As the camera follows them through the house, we the viewer soon learn that their Mama is actually a twitchy ghost lady. Muschietti would recreate several shots from the short in the feature., though the premise obviously underwent a lot of changes between here and there.

“Mamá” scared Guillermo del Toro so much, that he agreed to produced the feature adaptation. Which is honestly hard to believe. The short “Mamá” is hokey as shit. Okay, the entire film being one quasi-long take – it's pretty easy to see where cuts could've been hidden – was clever. So is shooting it at the same height and position of its young protagonists. The girl's mother being an angry wraith might've been a nice shock, if the subsequent feature adaptation hadn't completely ruined that surprise. While Muschietti's form is strong, the titular entity simply isn't scary here. It's a hazy CGI image that leaps towards the viewer in a way reminiscent of Youtube screamer videos. And the entire short is building towards that jump scare. That an even half-way decent feature, not to mention Muschietti's promising career, sprung from such an uninspired short is very surprising. Unlike “Lights Out,” which lost a lot by getting longer, “Mamá” is an example of an underwhelming short film being turned into an alright feature. [5/10]

Wolf Creek: Return

The final episode of “Wolf Creek: Season Two” returns to Mick Taylor's lair for the first time since the original films. Rebecca and Brian arrive at the killer's home, a re-purposed old mining camp, unaware that he's following them. Rebecca heads into the labyrinth underground tunnels, searching for her husband and Kelly. Brian stays above ground, finding fuel for the truck. When Mick catches up with them, all hell breaks loose. Becca finds the others but at the cost of injuring her foot. Brian reveals himself to be an even bigger bastard than previously assumed. Mick continues to play sadistic games with all of them.

“Return” is a fairly tense hour of television. Mick's underground lair is a claustrophobic setting, made more so by the way the camera follows Rebecca's face as she searches through the tunnels. The scene where she steps on a strip of nails is cringe-inducing. Besides the setting, the episode hearkens back to the original film, in that it's mostly a cat-and-mouse chase between Mick and his prey. Long stretches of time and spend arguing and battering.

However, “Return” mostly left me with some pretty mixed feelings. The reveal about Brian is kind of dumb, considering the way he's been acting throughout most of the season. (His death is probably the most satisfying murder on the show, I'll give it that.) The way Nina is tossed away without much emphasis is disappointing. The pyrotechnic filled climax is a nice touch but it proceeds an ending that feels a bit like a shrug. Kelly, my favorite character of the season, gets away but her final fate is left a bit ambiguous. A post-credit scene gives us some hope but, even then, Mick Taylor is mostly triumphant.

This certainly fits in with the brutal tone established by the first “Wolf Creek” film. However, film and TV are very different mediums. In most movies, you're only spending two hours or so with the characters. In a TV show, you're spending many hours with them, meaning you get much more attached to them. In this context, the environmental fatalism inherit to the series plays much differently. It feels a bit like the showrunners were just being needlessly cruel and, I suppose, that was intentional. Of course, we all know the real reason why Mick Taylor is left alive: So they can make that third film Greg McLean occasionally talks about or another season of television. Considering John Jarratt is going to trail soon, it's entirely possible those sequels will never materialize. Meaning season two of “Wolf Creek” ends on a downbeat note for all the wrong reasons.

That “Wolf Creek” ends in such an unsatisfying place is disappointing. Over all, season two was a big improvement over the first. The cast was much more likable. The pacing was stronger. The writing was generally improved. Mick is just as cruel and oddly charming as ever, while he was provided with an entire bus full of worthy adversaries. Season one had a better theme song, as I much preferred the creepy take on “Who Killed Cock Robin?” over the slowed-down acoustic cover of “Down Under,” but the second season set out to resolve a lot of the first season's flaws. If only it had a better ending... [Return: 6/10] [Wolf Creek – Season 2: 7/10]

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