Summer 2022 – Week 5 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome the heck back to Wrong Every Time. How are you all enjoying the advent of August? Though I’m certainly not happy about the speed with which yet another summer is slipping through my fingers, I can at least appreciate the dissolution of our boiling planet’s latest heatwave. As for more personal affairs, I’m currently in the process of hashing out the early beats of my first me-led D&D campaign, and am having an incredible amount of fun with all of it. I’ve been wanting to get back to writing my own fiction for years now, and hammering out area descriptions, side characters, and narrative beats has served as a delightful return to the world of pure creation. I’m taking this opportunity to indulge in my own favorite flavors of storytelling, so I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the campaign will be commencing during a Wicker Man-style harvest festival. I’ll keep you all posted on that as it develops, but for now, it appears we’re due for the Week in Review. Let’s run down some movies!

First up this week was a Kurosawa feature, Throne of Blood. The film is Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, which has always struck me as a particularly fun entry in the bard’s catalog. Not in terms of its overt comedy or anything – Shakespeare has plenty of outrageously and intentionally funny plays, and Macbeth is not one of them. But in terms of its narrative trajectory, it’s always been amusing to me how unlike Shakespeare’s other tragedies, nothing about “The Tragedy of Macbeth” feels destined or unavoidable. Macbeth isn’t undone by his hubris or pride – he’s undone by the fact that he married the most bloodthirsty, power-hungry woman in all of the land, who whispers nefarious nonsense in his ear until their entire castle collapses around them.

With me being me, I’m sure it’s no surprise that I have great fondness for the unapologetically evil Lady Macbeth. She’s basically that “I want a girl who hates me and will kill me” meme in literary form, possessing no end of bloody schemes and absolutely no redeeming qualities. It is this contrast between the alleged inevitability of Macbeth’s downfall and the clear fact that simply saying no to his wife would have prevented everything that is so charming to me about this play, and the key players here are perfectly chosen for their roles. Isuzu Yamada exudes a sense of menace and malevolence all throughout her performance, while Toshiro Mifune’s usual larger-than-life persona is reduced to anxious obsequiousness in her presence. And of course, Kurosawa’s compositions are as impressive as ever, dazzling both in the scale of his battle scenes and the precise contrasts of his intimate moments.

For much of its runtime, Throne of Blood proceeds like a genuine horror film, with Spider Web Castle’s ominous forest and dark spirits evoking a tone of menace and mystery. Inside the castle, Mifune is haunted by first his wife and then his regrets, roaring at shadows and brandishing his sword without provocation. Yet by the end, I felt that Kurosawa’s perception of Macbeth wasn’t too far from my own – rather than being framed as a sobering tragedy, Macbeth’s downfall is all farce and slapstick, as he bulges his eyes and dances away from fleets of arrows. It’s a wild thing, how fiction can flatten the arc of time’s passage, and make us feel close to creators stranded decades or even centuries apart. Watching Throne of Blood felt like sharing drinks and jokes with Shakespeare and Kurosawa, the time separating us evaporating through our mutual amusement at Macbeth’s wacky adventures.

Next up was Halloween II, a sequel written and produced by the original John Carpenter/Debra Hill pair, but directed by Rick Rosenthal. If you’re much attuned to cinematography, you’ll notice the shift immediately – Halloween II entirely lacks those ominous held shots of the original, where Myers is lurking in some distant part of the scenery, and instead leans on more conventional tracking or perspective shots. But what the film lacks in photographic finesse, it does its best to make up for in senseless violence.

Halloween II is essentially “what if we made an entire movie in the tenor of the original’s last ten minutes,” and I kind of love it for that. Both Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis are back, and with the story picking up just moments after the original’s conclusion, it’s able to carry on the tension of the original’s manic conclusion. With a full hospital of victims before him, Myers has a delightful time mincing his way towards his quarry, indulging in kills ranging from Sauna Too Hot to Needle Too Close. Far less essential than its predecessor, but nonetheless a successful slice of slasherdom.

We followed that up with a far worse horror sequel, scraping the bottom of the Texas Chainsaw barrel with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. I’m such a sucker for folk horror that I’ve basically churned through the entire Texas Chainsaw library, and out of every one of them, this is undoubtedly the worst.

The problems start with the film’s visual design. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was drenched in a scuzzy filter of ‘70s grime, creating a sun-bleached sense of decay and despair before anything even physically happened. On the other hand, this version is produced by Michael Bay, and thus looks like every Michael Bay movie: utter saturation of blues and oranges, pristine visibility, and a lack of confidence in the material that forces every violent punchline front and center in the frame. Tobe Hooper’s vision has been rarely paralleled in horror cinema; Bay protégé Jonathan Liebesman doesn’t even try, and thus this movie mostly looks like a car commercial for violence.

Along with its profound aesthetic shortcomings, The Beginning is also just a cruel, pointless, and ugly exercise in the least valuable narrative style: explaining why every element of some other story was the way it was. Did we need to know how Leatherface’s father became a sheriff? Not really, and in fact, the answer mostly just dispels more of its predecessor’s mystique. Did we have to know how Leatherface’s uncle lost his legs? Of fucking course not, and in fact, the answer is so contrived that it only draws attention to this film’s misguided objectives. I’m not sure there’s a less artistically valuable motivation for creating something than to explain away the intriguing ambiguities of its predecessor, and it breaks my heart that this has become one of the principle hooks of so much recent cinema.

Next up was an anime film I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Bloodlust is an ornately designed slice of gothic action drama, featuring sinewy character designs and creeping shadows that actually do a fine job of evoking Yoshitaka Amano’s impossibly detailed illustrations. The film’s plot is straightforward: a noble’s daughter has been “kidnapped” by a vampire, and the half-vampire hunter known as “D” is hired to retrieve her (alongside a cadre of other hunters and mercenaries). As all parties race towards the vampire’s ancestral castle, D will contend with a variety of supernatural threats, only to learn that his allegedly stolen quarry actually left for love.

D’s narrative is simple and iconic, with convoluted background lore quickly giving way to a world whose aesthetic is so powerful it convincingly argues for itself. Its mix of post-apocalyptic tech and gothic magical flourishes is distinctive and often beautiful, and the shading and linework of its characters is remarkable. The very complexity of its character art means there’s not the most active animation, but that works fine for a story like this – characters looming or menacingly addressing each other is what gothic fiction is all about, and D nails that tone with total confidence. And the action scenes are impressive nonetheless, complimenting the film’s aesthetic strengths with a Ninja Scroll’s worth of brutal violence. Bloodlust feels like an essential watch for anyone scoping the breadth of anime cinema, and also an easy recommendation for any fans of gothic fiction or dark fantasy action.

Our final screening of the week was Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone’s tribute to the garish excesses of mass media. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis star as Mickey and Mallory, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde whose fame is almost as impressive as their kill count. As the camera lurches sickeningly around them, embracing wild saturation or black and white photography seemingly at random, our antiheroes cut a killing path across the southwest, attracting plentiful police and media attention along the way.

Natural Born Killers’ aesthetic is deeply tied to a particular moment in American TV culture, when MTV was still a cultural juggernaut, and a single salacious story could capture all of America’s attention. In the post-truth era of online information saturation, its commentary on pop culture feels like an urgent dispatch from another world – on the other hand, its delirious aesthetic, rich in ostentatious visual collage and restless camerawork, still feels wild and vital today. Stone swings at basically every pitch in terms of visual disorientation, and his strike rate is actually pretty good, given that nearly every scene feels like it’s evoking the back end of a bad acid trip.

The film further benefits from its excellent main cast. Woody Harrelson is one of the finest actors of his generation, and gleefully sinks into the blood-drenched romanticism of unrepentant killer Mickey. His grandiose late-film interview (conducted by a delightfully overeager Robert Downey Jr.) is both a riveting spectacle and an ode to the film’s central theme, its condemnation of how TV culture has made a religion of degradation and self-importance. And Juliette Lewis is one of the all-time best at playing characters who’ve been broken in some fundamental way, and whose attempts to evoke authentic human behavior only stretch the seams holding their mask together. A generous and defiantly erratic piece of exploitation theater, and a vivid time capsule of a specific era in TV culture.