Hey folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. It seems like spring has finally arrived in my neighborhood, so I hope you’re all enjoying the blissfully temperate weather as much as I am. I’ve also been feeling pretty upbeat about my article progress; I finished an essay I’d been poking at for weeks, knocked out a couple ambitious notes projects, and have got a sizable Why It Works column arriving next Monday. My bounty board is looking more manageable than it has in some time, and in the meantime, I’m still sneaking in as many films as I can to power-level my cinema stats. I started off this whole review business with full points in literature and not much else, so I’ve been doing my best to rush the cinema study endgame, and feeling just a tad more attuned to the breadth and history of film with each new article. Seeing connections and influences emerge in real time is an immensely satisfying process, and I’m doing my best to feed all that study back into my critical work. But for now, let’s just poke at some interesting films, as we run down one more Week in Review!
First up this week was a Francis Ford Coppola feature, as we explored his rendition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve reflected in the past on how Hollywood cinema often seems limited by its loyalty to realism, in comparison to the more elaborate and expressive styles employed by Indian, Italian, or Japanese cinema. As such, I was delighted to see Coppola abandoning any deference to reality in illustrating his story of Dracula, embracing a style of costuming, set design, and even performances that evoked the golden era of Universal creature features. Rather than attempting to conceal the unreality of its sets, Dracula embraces the unique aesthetic charm of an obvious sound stage, the perfect platform for his larger-than-life characters to boast, seduce, and lament.
Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins embrace the spirit of the material with relish, each of them chewing the scenery magnificently in their dueling roles as Dracula and Van Helsing. The two share a unique quality in that they are both genuine acting masters and also able to go broad as hell, their performances modulating in nuance and intensity depending on what the scene requires. Between their natural harmonization with the alternately heartfelt and garish material, the fact that Keanu Reeves is so professionally outmatched actually feels like a reflection of his character’s position, with his wooden line reads doing little damage to a film that’s already as far from cinéma vérité as possible. Coppola’s Dracula is ornate and indulgent to a glorious extreme, a master’s tribute to the shaded castles of Karloff and Price.
We followed that up with another epic film, John Sturges’ The Great Escape. A film like The Great Escape really puts the lie to any claims that classic cinema is too slow for modern audiences, or lacks the hooks to keep television-addled viewers interested. I mean, listen to this pitch: after suffering from countless delays owing to hunting down escaping prisoners, the Germans elect to “put all their rotten eggs in one basket,” and dump all their multiple escapees into one heavily guarded super-camp. Led by their mastermind “Big X,” these talented escape artists will risk it all to break free of this super-prison, and embark on a perilous journey back home.
Doesn’t that sound fun as hell? And the film is fun as hell, with multiple escape attempts within the first half hour, lots of crunchy tactical drama to get invested in, and plentiful action-packed highlights. It’s also just completely overstuffed with great performances; Steve McQueen plays the perfect smart-mouthed American, Charles Bronson makes for an oddly lovable tunnel manager, and old hand cowboys like James Coburn add just the right touch of smoldering bravado to all the panic and desperation. The Great Escape is inventive, propulsive, and dazzling in scale, blooming into a continent-wide chase scene the moment you think it might be ending. It possesses all the tasty payoffs you expect of a work of pure entertainment, but tempers those rich flavors with powerful character acting, ambitious set design, poignant digressions, and an acknowledgment of life’s cruelty that makes its hard-fought victories taste all the richer.
After that I checked out a vintage British feature, Black Narcissus, wherein a group of young nuns are tasked with a difficult mission. Journeying deep into northern India, they are to establish a school and clinic among the peaks of the Himalayas, taking a general’s former pleasure palace as their new convent. Beneath walls painted with lascivious delights, these nuns will find their vows and identities tested, as they attempt to integrate into a world beyond their understanding.
Often characterized as the “first erotic thriller,” Black Narcissus offers a steaming procession of temptations for its hapless nuns. Given this film was released way back in 1947, you might expect it to embrace some form of the “lusty native people” stereotype, but their native associates are actually quite reasonable people. Instead, Black Narcissus mostly interrogates the strange alchemy of suppression that must be undergone in order to transform a human being into a child of god, and how easily those treatments are undone by exposure to the natural world.
There is a sensuality emanating from every shot of Black Narcissus, an inherent sexual charge borne in its ornate sets, majestic palace venue, and particularly the endless sky of the Himalayas. Whether or not you’ve seen the film, you’ve likely seen its iconic shots of nuns ringing a bell on the edge of the world, with no barrier between them and surrender to oblivion. The film’s weather-worn sets and gorgeous matte backgrounds simultaneously evoke a sense of earthy, material reality and starry-eyed longing, all of the dreams and feelings surrendered through obeisance to the church. Ultimately, the world they are sent to master is too real to be tamed, far more real than their desperate litanies and fevered flights from temptation. Fleeing the palace grounds, they are forced to classify it as “unknowable,” for fear of witnessing the unknowable portions of their own hearts.
Next up was a dynamite work of folk horror, the recent Indonesian feature Impetigore. The film centers on Maya and Dini, two young women who are hoping to rise out of their menial jobs and start a business together. When Maya learns she may be the inheritor of a mansion in a remote village, the two head off to secure her inheritance, only to find a village wracked by death and secrets. As it turns out, the family who once owned that mansion performed some truly terrible deeds in this town – and even now, their curse lingers, compelling the villagers to hunt down that family’s descendants.
Impetigore is just top shelf folk horror by any metric, blessed with strong lead performers, plenty of inventively horrifying ideas, and absolutely phenomenal cinematography. A good half of this film’s shots are marvels of layered composition work, succeeding both as stately works of symmetry and implications of terrible secrets. Impetigore’s focus on a local form of puppet theater both grounds the film in a specific cultural context, and also facilitates many of the film’s most stunning visual moments, with silhouette and implication often taking the place of outright gore. That said, the film absolutely doesn’t skimp on conventional horrors either, and takes the idea of a human-skinned doll in some delightfully uncomfortable directions.
Folk horror is my favorite subgenre of my favorite film genre, and at this point I sort of figured I’d run out of its unseen top-quality attractions. Impetigore gives me great hope that that’s not the case; it’s basically a perfect folk horror experience, and highly recommended to fans of films like The Witch or The Wailing.
Our last feature of the week was the original 1973 Westworld, starring Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as two newly arriving park guests, and Yul Brynner as an oddly persistent robotic gunslinger. Given the popularity of the recent TV series, I assume you’re all familiar with the film’s premise: an amusement park where you can live out fantasies of wild west adventures, surrounded by a population of obliging robots. Rather than the recent series’ focus on questions of AI and identity, the original Westworld proceeds like a crowd-pleasing rollercoaster, fully embracing both the perks of the park in full swing, as well as the chaos when it all goes wrong.
I was interested in checking out this film for one overriding reason: Yul Brynner as the terminator, essentially playing an evil robotic version of his character from The Magnificent Seven. Brynner has one of the most commanding presences of any 20th century actor, serves as an electric addition to any film that will have him, and unsurprisingly steals the show all through this film’s second half. Constrained to a languorous automated cowboy strut, his confident approach predates the alienating implacability of Mike Myers and his brethren, topping a horror movie ghoul with one of the most distinctive faces in Hollywood. Westworld is bawdy and generous on the whole, but Brynner’s presence is something else entirely, like a ghost of the old west come to punish these hedonistic sinners. He is truly one of the greats.