Friday, September 15, 2017

Start Making Sense – THE BEYOND

In the world of cinema, Italian Supernatural Gore films are rare and magical beasts.  They were only created during a small window, between the mid ‘70s to mid ‘80s.  Born from a heady mix of extravagant set pieces, dream logic, and excessive violence, they could simultaneously be wildly unexpected and thoroughly predictable. Plot took a backseat to atmosphere and spectacle.   Sometimes plot took a separate car altogether, and made frequent rest-stop breaks.  Concepts like continuity and coherence were afterthoughts.  Was it all an excuse to string together a bunch of gory deaths, or do you just have to be crazy to follow them?  Probably the former, but I’m concerned that after multiple viewings of Lucio Fulci’s most inexplicable masterpiece, THE BEYOND, I’m starting to make sense of it.  

The Capsule:
New York gal Liza Merril (Catriona MacColl) jumps at the chance to reinvent her life when she inherits a historic hotel in New Orleans.  Unfortunately, she finds the Seven Doors Hotel in need of a major overhaul.  The shutters need fixing, the electrical system is wonky, it was constructed on one of the seven gateways to hell, and it badly needs dusting.  Her new spooky blind friend Emily (Cinzia Monreale) tells her the hotel went downhill 60 years ago when a torch wielding mob got mad at this painter for reading a weird book and crucified him in the basement.  Liza decides to tough it out and stay, despite all the people around her having random accidents like falling from a scaffolding or having their face eaten by spiders.  Her jerky doctor pal John (David Warbeck) thinks she is going nuts when she starts having horrific visions of mutilated corpses and the Book of Eibon, but Liza fears it may already be too late to avoid a one-way ticket to The Beyond.  

Let me start by admitting THE BEYOND is my favorite Fulci, and I like a lot of Fulci.  I hold it in higher regard than ZOMBI 2, my love of which has been well documented.  The entire film is smothered in a thick, invasive atmosphere of doom.  It is filled with stunning, haunting images.  Make no mistake, though, this flick is baffling.    The sepia toned opening gives the impression this will be a straight forward cursed house movie, perhaps in the vein of Fulci's also delightful HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (released in the same year!).  The deeper we get into the story, however, the less coherent it becomes.  Nothing ties together and more crazy elements get added as we go.  Who is this Eibon guy, and why is his book important?  Why mention seven gates to hell if you are only going to talk about one.  Did that plumber open the gate, or was it already open?  By the time we hit the surreal, elliptical ending, you could make a quilt out of all the loose threads.  

Catriona MacColl plays a perfect surrogate for the audience, a woman destined to be overwhelmed.  Liza starts off cool and in control, determined to make a go of restoring this hotel she’s inherited.  We never find out who she inherited the place from, but that’s the least pressing question in the movie.  A lifetime New Yorker (despite her hybrid British/Southern accent), she thinks she is prepared for anything.  She takes the first few accidents in stride.  Painters occasionally fall from their scaffolding, plumbers sometimes get their eyes gouged out while fixing a pipe.  Things like that can happen in any restoration.  

The tale really starts to get strange when Liza meets the mysterious Emily.  If there is a face of THE BEYOND, it’s Cinzia Monreale (credited as Sarah Keller).   The former model had an ethereal quality even before donning the most painful looking contact lenses ever made (seriously, they look like broken china plates covering her eyeballs).  In full makeup, Emily looks like a vision out of place and time.  She’s introduced just as dramatically, standing in the middle of the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, with her seeing eye dog, right in the path of Liza’s car.  That seeing eye dog is terrible at its job, in my opinion.  Emily fills Liza in on the sordid events that happened in the hotel 60 years ago, though she doesn’t mention the part about her being there when it happened.  It’s never made clear what Emily is supposed to be (ghost? witch? ghost witch?) or exactly why she is there.   She is like the personification of the film, an unknowable beauty. 

Emily also warns her never to go into Room 36, the crucified painter’s old room.  Naturally, the next scene is of Liza busting open the door to Room 36.  From then on, she is tormented by visions of the painter’s corpse and other inexplicable sights.  She gets no support from her studly love interest, John.  Dr. Condescending practically pats her on the head when she tells him about the clearly supernatural events happening around her.  At one point, he even accuses her of setting the whole thing up just to mess with his head.  There’s an open gateway to hell to deal with, John, it’s not all about you.

THE BEYOND shares several similarities with Dario Argento’s gorgeously bizarre INFERNO.  Both are about haunted high occupancy dwellings.  Both have prominent mysterious books that don’t really amount to anything.  Most of all, both are relentlessly confounding, emphasizing the parts over the whole.  Specifically, they are all about the fantastical set pieces.  Fulci never had Argento’s eye for striking composition and color, though.  His magic comes in the form of inventive, unconventional, and profoundly excessive gore effects.  Fulci doesn’t film death scenes, he creates blood operas.  They are so elaborate and audaciously staged that it doesn’t matter if they are utter nonsense.  

Many of the deaths in THE BEYOND are from supernatural happenstance, along the lines of THE OMEN.  This gives Fulci the excuse to really go wild.  Take the unfortunate demise of Liza’s interior designer.  He is high up on a library ladder when he makes a startling discovery about the hotel’s floorplans.  We never find out what he discovered, since a sudden crash of thunder makes him fall to the floor.  The fall seems to have paralyzed him, so there is nothing he can do when a swarm of Louisiana Squeaking Tarantulas noisily crawl over him and—in exactly the way spiders don’t—chew his face off.  They don’t just eat it, though, they slice his mug to pieces with their pincers (?) like a retiree cutting coupons from the Sunday paper.  The camera lingers on the dissection in close-up, paying special squirm inducing attention to the eyeball (eye trauma is the Fulci calling card) and the tongue.  There is no part of this sequence that is not insane.  In that sense, the obvious cheapness of the effects (a prominent spider appears to be a windup toy) only enhances the spectacle.  

My favorite set piece is less absurd and more beautifully grotesque.  A mourning wife of one of the hotel’s victims goes into the stark white hospital morgue while the doctors are away and finds her husband’s body on the slab.  Clearly under a tight timeline, she starts dressing the corpse—mid-autopsy—in his funeral suit.  Something (again, we never get to see what) frightens her so much she either passes out or dies.  Hopefully she died, because her body hitting the floor sets off my all time favorite preposterous horror gag, the uncovered container of acid perched precariously on a high shelf.  The container tips, and her creepy daughter (by law, all children in Italian horror are creepy) walks in just in time to see her mother drenched by acid.  It must be a deceptively large container, since the acid flows in an unending stream until the woman’s entire head has melted.  If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the frothy blood puddle expands across the whole floor as the little girl desperately tries to avoid getting her mom’s face on her shoes.  For such a horrendously violent scene, it is strangely serene, like really gross performance art.  

Don’t worry, that scene does not involve any physical harm to the child.  Fulci saves that for the climax.

I always thought THE BEYOND was best enjoyed by simply surrendering to the madness of the story, just float along and take in the sights.  Imagine my surprise this time, on probably my sixth watch, things suddenly started to fall into place.  That place is still Crazytown, and it is filled with gaps and mysteries, but I think there might be a (semi) rational story under all the blood, fog, and cobwebs.  

I won't go into my theories here (you're welcome).  There is no way of knowing if my interpretation is what Fulci had in mind.  It's highly likely he just said, "Let's make a movie where some spiders eat a guy's face."  That's fine, too.  THE BEYOND is wholly unique and wondrous any way you slice it.

 But seriously, does anybody know the deal with this Eibon guy?

C Chaka

Friday, September 8, 2017

Mighty Fish Brains - DEEP BLUE SEA

I tend to be biased about decades.  Not intentionally, it just happens.  I’ve come to regard the ‘70s as the greatest era in modern cinema, and I’ve always thought of the ‘80s as the most fun.  I even respect the strange dance between meticulously crafted blockbusters and tiny, heartfelt indies of today.  For some reason, I can’t even think of the 2000s as a decade, probably because it can’t be shortened into a cool sounding range (don’t even try to call it the Aughts, that’s just stupid).  Any scale has to have highs and lows, even arbitrary ones, and for me, the ‘90s gets the low.  Which is ridiculous, because an ocean of great movies came out in the ‘90s.  Tarantino came from the ‘90s, for god’s sake.  Objectively, I know this.  Some of our strongest held opinions come from the gut, though, and the gut is most often full of shit.

My unsubstantiated disdain likely comes from the changing theatrical landscape.  Local theaters and drive-ins were replaced by multiplexes.  Horror had withered and died on the big screen until Wes Craven reinvigorated the genre (again), but most of the glossy, over produced shockers than followed SCREAM felt toothless.  B-movies were squeezed out of the theaters and mutated into DTV (Direct to Video), which was harder to navigate because the Bland Photoshopped Floating Heads movie poster style made all DVD covers indistinguishable (you are not getting off the hook for that shit, The ‘90s).  The rise of the Indies might have brought loads of adorable quirk, but the decade felt devoid of the weird, cheap, inexplicable stuff that I love.

Again, I am totally wrong about that.  Weird stuff was still being made in the ‘90s.  I’ve covered a ton of it, (THE DARK BACKWARD, anyone?) in fact.   It mostly lived in the low budget, under the radar corners of the ´90s (as it did in every era), but the weird would occasionally crop up in a (modestly) big-time studio release.  For proof of this, look no further than the works of quintessential ‘90s director Renny Harlin.  Specifically, look at 1999’s smart shark adventure, DEEP BLUE SEA, because that shit is nuts.

The Capsule:
Billionaire adventurer Russell Franklin (Sam Jackson) gives chilly geneticist Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) 48 hours to convince him that her shark based Alzheimer’s treatment research is worth all the bad PR (over-privileged Spring Breakers almost getting eaten and the like).  She takes him to Aquatica, the fancy sea lab he paid for, to see the results in person.  He’s introduced to her mismatched team of oddballs, including equally serious scientist Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård), less serious facility engineer Tom Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), and utterly ridiculous chief Preacher (LL Cool J).  Franklin also meets the head shark whisperer, Carter Blake (Thomas Jane), right after he’s done showing off by wrestling a 12 foot tiger shark.  McAlester and Whitlock succeed in wowing Franklin, all thanks to the genetically enhanced brains of their three pet mako sharks.  Shockingly, it turns out that making massive, saw toothed killing machines really, really smart might not be the best idea after all when a disaster traps everyone in the rapidly flooding sea lab.  The crew desperately races to escape rising water and hungry jaws, while the brainy sharks might have more in mind than just snacking on scientists.

Renny Harlin was always a Hollywood outsider, even when directing big budget action blockbusters like DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER.  He walks the line between delivering on expectations and subverting them.  He'll deliver the goods, just not always by the obvious route.  It's what makes his movies stand out.  THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT was his masterwork (with generous help from Shane Black's whip smart script).  Not even the smartest shark in the ocean could compete with Charly Baltimore, but DEEP BLUE SEA is such an entertaining mix of clever and stupid that it works all on its own.

From the showy, bombastic double punch of disaster action that gets the ball rolling—the slow-mo fury of a hurricane directly transitioning into an orgy of explosionsit seems like we’re in for a pretty, yet predictable, Jerry Bruckheimer style outing.  Once inside the sinking lab, however, everything becomes claustrophobic and palpably tense.  The half-submerged environment highlights the disadvantages of being human: they move slowly through water, they can’t see what’s coming, they are soft and chewable.

The movie is filled with fun, left field moments, but the kicker is undoubtedly Sam Jackson’s Hero Speech.  Roughly halfway in, when the survivors are bickering and demoralized, Russel Franklin steps up and takes charge.  Every eye is on him as he reveals his tragic backstory and the hard lessons it taught him about survival.  If they want to get out of this alive, he explains, they must bury their fear and work together.  It’s all very inspirational, right up to the point where [Spoiler] a shark jumps out of the pool behind him and bites him in half.   It’s a hilariously shocking moment, and while it has lost some of its impact from the countless times it has been copied, I still get a giddy charge watching it.

Not everything works.  The CGI effects are laughably outdated (the storm waves are on par with a Playstation 2 cut scene).  The three sharks are indistinguishable, and their  proportions vary wildly depending on the scene.  Michael Rapaport, the official mascot of the ’90s, runs his bro-y New York pessimist routine into the ground within minutes and literally cannot get killed fast enough (sorry Michael, you were great in COPLAND and BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, playing basically the same character).  LL Cool J, on the other hand, unself-consciously owns his comic relief status and become one of the most entertaining parts of the film.  I love that Harlin was bold enough to give him a potty mouthed parrot sidekick and smart enough to get rid of it just before the gag gets tired.  

His character of Preacher fares much better, as well, continuing the maxim that the safest person to be in a ‘90s horror/monster movie is a rapper.  This was a direct reaction to the criticism that black guys always died first in horror movies (a huge exaggeration, the black guy always died first in action movies, not horror).  Like Ice Cube in ANACONDA and LL again in HALLOWEEN H20, DEEP BLUE SEA teases his death mercilessly.  In probably the best sequence in the movie, Preacher narrowly escapes a shark chasing him through his flooded kitchen by climbing into an industrial oven.  Obviously, this is not the best place to hide, but as long as—goddamn it, the shark turned on the oven (just the gas part, the movie isn’t completely sadistic).  The joke's on the shark, though, because not only does Preacher manage to escape the oven, he uses the gas to blow the brainy bastard up.  LL might be the comic relief, but he gets his share of badass moments.

The most dangerous thing about the sharks isn't their super intelligence or their toothy maws, but that all three, including the female, are total dicks.   You can tell right from the beginning because all the smart sharks eat are other, dumber sharks.  Once they start dining on the crew, it’s not enough to just kill them, the jerks turn each death into a big bloody display to rub it in the survivors’ faces.   “Ha ha, I’m eating your friend!”  

The worst indignities go to Skarsgård’s poor Dr. Whitlock.  First, he gets his arm bitten off while celebrating a successful demonstration.  Then the medevac helicopter accidentally drops his gurney into the shark tank.  Before they can reel him back up, the sharks zoom off with him, dragging down the helicopter in the process.  That crash results in a firestorm that kills a bunch more people and starts flooding the lab.  Wait, there’s more.  While everyone below deck tries to figure out what the hell just happened, a shark swims towards the window, Whitlock’s gurney its jaws—complete with a still conscious Whitlock in a breathing mask.  The shark sends the terrified scientist smashing head first into the window, right in front his girlfriend, no less.  What an asshole.  

Harlin wisely emphasizes the absurdity of the super intelligent sharks.  They are practically elevated to the level of a Bond movie mastermind.  They can work as a team, pick locks, and set traps.  They even sabotage the lab’s only sub, the nautical equivalent of the killer disabling the teens' car engine in a slasher.  The crowning moment is when Carter Blake realizes that the ENTIRE string of events was orchestrated by the sharks so they could escape into open waters.  I’ll bet even the hurricane was part of their plan.  My one regret is that the boss girl shark didn’t fashion some sort of telepathic Speak & Spell gizmo so she could deliver a villain monologue.  “What’s wrong, Mr. Blake?  You’re looking a little…green around the gills.”

At its heart, DEEP BLUE SEA is more Frankenstein fable than Sharksploitation.  While super entertaining, it has the same problem I have with in all Frankenstein fables, the Science Is Bad sermon.  When Dr. McAlester makes the effort to save her research, work that could bring about an end to mental degenerative diseases, one of her coworkers takes the moral highwater and asks if it was worth the lives of her whole team.  Not to sound insensitive, but yeah, in that case it actually is.   I’ve always been pro-mad science, but McAlester clearly had noble aspirations, if not the best execution (maybe you should have given the big brain to a nurse shark instead of a mako).  Save your shame for the guys who make dangerous creatures for the sake of amusement parks.  The movie definitely favors street smarts over book smarts, as far as survivors go.  On the other hand, McAlester gets to use her ivy league brain to safely electrocute a shark while in her underwear, so science has its advantages.

Clearly, I have no right to be down on the '90s.  That decade of filmmaking had a style just as distinct and authentic as any other.  Great works were made.  Next time I doubt it, I need look no farther than the DEEP BLUE SEA credits, where LL Cool J performs the movie's theme song, Deepest Bluest, from the shark's perspective.  Nothing sums up the '90s more than that.

C Chaka