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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the ending, so
I've included one spoiler-free review for people who intend to see it. Do
not read the second review if you are one of the latter
The less you know going into this movie, the better, but generally it deals with the complicated relationship between two adolescent sisters, one strikingly attractive and undergoing an initiation into adult sexuality via a persuasive and manipulative law student (but I repeat myself), the other overweight and cynical, observing her sister's experiences with alternating envy and contempt. It's pretty turgid going for the most part, and its treatment of sex leaves one a little queasy, but contains some memorable characterization and at least one very startling twist in the narrative that make it ultimately worthwhile. Rest assured you will be wide awake when you leave the theater.
I was really very tired of this movie by the time the final sequence came around. I found the dialogue overwritten (and overabundant) and the characters undeveloped, and the whole thing dragged itself along at a maddeningly slow pace. The actors are brave, and they do the best they can under Breillat's incessantly voyeuristic gaze which, if nothing else, evoke the carnality and emotional maelstrom of adolescent sexuality quite well (despite the aforementioned leaden dialogue), but in such a clinical and dispassionate way that one feels bad for the actors not because of the explicit nudity and sexuality, but because the inertness of the presentation sucks up all of their emotions and makes you feel as if you're watching the characters through a cage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's very uncomfortable to sit through.
THEN comes the final sequence, presaged only by a vaguely ominous long highway driving sequence that carries on for several minutes, perhaps so that the audience will sympathize with the characters and nod off. It has previously been established that the mother is not used to driving, and the trucks bearing down on her at top speed suggest that a car accident is in the cards. Instead, they pull of the highway, and the audience relaxes. And then comes as shocking an explosion of violence as I can recall seeing in any movie.
In the context of all that comes before, it feels like a cheat, and my first impression was to say, "What a gimmicky cop-out." But it can't help but stay with one, and I am hard pressed to find a film that reproduces as effectively the shocking suddenness of death, which often DOES come out of nowhere as it does here. It's a shattering, nightmarish and profoundly disturbing scene, which trivializes all that comes before it (although much of it seemed pretty trivial to begin with). The coda vitiates the impact somewhat (it's implausible and considering what came before, leaves a bad taste in one's mouth), but without this final sequence I wouldn't recommend this movie to anyone I know. Breillat pulls it off with a flourish, but between her calculatedly callous treatment of the characters, her tedious dialogue and the fact that as effective as the ending is, it is still a gimmick, I have some reservations in extending more than modest praise.
This film made me miss Roger Corman movies. Utterly absurd and
action-packed, you can see the machinery start to creak heavily about
halfway through, but there are enough clever moments and quirky acting bits
(my favorite is Keenan Wynn, as the Babbling Codger) to make this a
completely enjoyable ride. The genetically engineered piranha which are
released into a mountain river and terrorize the waters (they're cross-bred
with salmon, apparently, and intend to spawn downstream) are much more
frightening when they are not seen, as in the creepy opening skinny-dipping
"Jaws homage", so once you start actually seeing them dashing towards their
victims the broad humor aspect of the movie is played up, thanks in large
part to Paul Bartel as the Authoritarian Summer Camp Director, Bradford
Dillman as the Grizzled Mountain Man, Kevin McCarthy as the Good Mad
Scientist, and, of course, Barbara Steele as the Evil Mad Scientist, whose
huge, shifty eyes are a punchline in and of themselves.
The broad humor doesn't really sit well with a genuinely unpleasant attack on a bunching of swimming children or its bloody aftermath, and the following attack on a resort is anticlimactic (practically identical to the attack on the children), if in line with the film's politics (military experiment backlashes first against the nature lovers, then the children of the middle class, and finally the middle class itself, while the right-wing authoritarian and capitalist structure prevents the tragedy from being averted). But it's all done with palpable enthusiasm, and should certain push the right buttons in those of us who dread feeling our legs brush against foreign objects while underwater, especially when those foreign objects have little razor-sharp teeth and make whirring noises. Highlights include the scene where a piranha frenzy dismantles a raft and the climactic heroics from Dillman, whose character has supernatural lung capacity.
Well, you know it's going to be hokey. The slimiest, crawliest and scaliest of the marshland fauna revolt against Ray Milland, who apparently thinks he's doing one of Faulkner's lesser known characters, and his money-drunk clan, in retaliation for a long history of pollution and casual animal abuse. Fortunately, rugged salt-of-the-earth good sense is present in the form of manly, ecologically aware Sam Elliott, and after an hour and a half of not-so-Steadicam closeups of frogs and snakes, the greener of the house's guests manage to evade the critters while the decadent class gets what's coming to it. Unfortunately, everything is a little too random and way too cinematographically shoddy, and occasional squirm-inducing moments (an attack by alligators is particularly effective) do not disguise the fact that movie goes on for way too long, and works visibly to do so. If you want good acting, run.
I've always counted Brian De Palma movies as guilty pleasures, and none of
his films lives up to that designation as much as DTK, a labored but
gorgeous contribution to the straight-razor fetish school of cinema. It
certainly isn't his best film (Carrie, for example, is far better in
virtually every respect), and for those who want to seek out its flaws it
wears them proudly on its sleeve, but I've always had a fondness for this
one; I even have a fondness for the moments I wince at bad dialogue or
cloyingly elaborate camera setups.
But to respond truthfully to this movie, I have to admit something: I'm not terribly fond of Hitchcock movies. Yes, they're technically masterful, but so often they're icy, mechanical and coy. If I were to go to a hypothetical video store and have to choose between DTK and Vertigo which one I want to see, I'll pick the ripoff; like a Dario Argento movie, you know that you're in the presence of somebody who lets their reach exceed their grasp, and it's kind of refreshing not to have to see so much control. And speaking of Argento, it's not unrealistic to believe that De Palma saw a couple of his movies before conceiving this one. I think it's safe to say that once one accepts that De Palma's plots and technique are not entirely unique, it is still possible to appreciate them on their own merits, and dismissing them out of hand as Hitchcock ripoffs is a copout.
DTK is fittingly dressed up. All of the main characters are bourgeois, outwardly civilized and fashionable, which plays off of the inherent sleaziness of the plot mechanics and visual excesses. Of course, there's also De Palma's trademark callousness (after her murder, Dickinson is more or less totally forgotten, except for a few fleeting references...in particular, the character of her son seems notably non-distraught) and a great deal of narrative contortions that do not stand up very well to inspection. But De Palma's self-indulgence is a harmless, fun kind of self-indulgence, a genre film fan making genre films for genre film fans. It's there in the long, LONG, but hilarious museum pursuit scene; in the subway chase (OK, how did the killer know she'd be there? Never mind.); in the curiously effective split-screen and split-split-screen shots which are almost unique to De Palma; in Nancy Allen's disarmingly unconflicted prostitute; in those yes-all-right-we-get-it-now shots of Michael Caine looking into mirrors; in the climactic shower stalking (that nurse must have had really big feet). And it looks bloody terrific the whole way through.
There's something scary about the thought of a deranged soldier coming after
you, and that effective image gives this standard slasher film what kick it
has. Nobody remembers this movie for its plot, which is just as well,
because it has My Bloody Valentine's plot. It also has strong similarities
to Friday the 13th, Part 2, especially in the final scenes (all three films
came out the same year, so it's hard to tell who's ripping off who). What
stands out in this film is a set of some of the most graphic murder scenes
in the relatively short-lived slasher subgenre, every one of them giving
long, lingering gazes at some of professional bloodletter Tom Savini's most
piquant handiwork. Furthermore, they are protracted (at least in the uncut
version) to extremely uncomfortable lengths, and brutal enough that it's
almost masochistic to watch them.
Joseph Zito must have liked making movies about human exterminators; he would go on to make Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter and Missing in Action, and he knows how to make an adequate amount of suspense out of the setups. The movie goes to the well too many times with Final Girl Vicky Dawson fumbling with locks (every door in the building - and there are a lot - appears to be locked from the outside), but the sequence in the pool is genuinely unsettling and the finale (if one ignores the resemblance to every other slasher film's finale) is competently staged.
However, there is nothing resembling pace to be found (there is a lot of dead space, primarily due to the fact that they make the hero and heroine aware of the prowler's presence way too early in the movie). Those who look for this movie would probably be more interested in the carnage, and the murder scenes have a real charge to them. It's strong stuff; one scene in particular - a nude girl is run through with a pitchfork - has a very disturbing sense of misogyny and sexual violence to it. Not surprisingly, most of the longer, more drawn out murder sequences are directed against the female characters, who are portrayed as promiscuous and hedonistic (in an amusingly blatant early scene, one girl talks about her plans to have sex with her boyfriend and another girl comes in and asks for rolling papers - consecutively breaking the sex and drug laws of the genre within about five seconds and marking themselves for execution), set up to be reprimanded by the representation of socially acceptable male violence. The movie sets itself up as a mystery, but it's so obvious who the killer is that the idea of its being a mystery is almost insulting, and many extremely meaningless red herrings are introduced to pad out the already slim running time. Some scenes come out of nowhere and stop the movie dead (a motel clerk stalling the hero's attempts to notify the sheriff of the murder spree - this is played for laughs), while a buildup to the uncovering of a body in the graveyard becomes almost hysterically anticlimactic.
Basically, one's enjoyment of this movie is proportional to the amount of enjoyment one gets from watching relatively realistic murder scenes. Those with strong stomachs will find a proficient, if lazily plotted, old dark house slasher setup with extra Karo syrup.
The Gallic pseudo-sophistication runs pretty thick through this wafer-thin comedy, featuring Miou-Miou as a woman who decides to make a profession out of reading aloud to people. What transpires, of course, is that her sensuality and life-affirming giddiness enter into and transform the texts for her clients. It all has a certain well-measured charm, even if the whimsical wordplay gets overbearing quite often, and ultimately it loses this charm when it is decided that the character Marie is maintaining her dignity when refusing to read aloud pornographic material by de Sade for a geriatric judge and his friends, while finding no moral objection in allowing herself to be seduced by another client. At this point, the movie, which had been discreet in its treatment of sexuality, suddenly whacks the viewer in the face with closeups of the actress's naked crotch, and the whole exercise starts appearing more conspicuously misogynist: ultimately one gets the sense that neither the character nor the actress is in on the joke. This is not aided by the gratingly winsome yet flaccid performance by Miou-Miou, who does not thrive in this kind of role - there is really nothing to play here. There is really nothing to watch, either.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
That most basic and archetypal setting for the horror film, the forest
primeval, gets milked for every branch and twig in this culty slasher
The ostensible setup is a New Yawk summer camp, where a startling
counselor-to-kid ratio is visible, but one of whose charges unwittingly
summons a hulking axe murderer to the premises. This allows for a series
increasingly longer and longer scenes where counselors go wandering
the forest. The almost ritualistic, blue-lit, vaguely dreamlike scenes in
the woods feature virtually every character, doing exactly the same thing,
with the gory payoff greater and greater each time. The odd thing is that
it's somewhat successful; this film has much, much longer stalking scenes
than most, and manages to sustain a great amount of suspense.
This film has, of course, two notably laughable scenes: a clumsily inserted soft-core hot tub interlude (which, much like the stalking scenes, goes on for an eternity) and a scene in which a victim hides in a refrigerator. Essentially, it's a clumsy frame for the oneiric forest sequences. In a similar vein, Sleepaway Camp and The Burning explored the terrority, tying the threat represented by the forest more closely to the emergence of adolescent sexuality, but did not log nearly as much screen time in the heart of the woods. Here, the characters are adults, although the specter of sexuality lingers heavily over the few perfunctory characterization scenes (in Sleepaway Camp, the murder scenes only serve to facilitate the deep sexual pathology at its center), only to cast the adult characters in the childlike position of innocent in the woods. If one is prone to identification with characters in this sort of film, it can be something of a test of endurance (Blair Witch Project understood that perfectly) to strand the characters in the forest, with a concrete menace aware to us but not to them, and simply let them wander. In the end, the result is the same (in this film, all of the main characters die), with the counselors hanging as trophies on the wall of the monster's forest cabin.
Madman does not have many of the "touches" that make slasher films distinct; more intense that most, but cut as close to the barebones plot as conceivable (there's really no time for anything else...the forest scenes are that long), it nevertheless has developed something of a reputation. Nowhere near as effective as Sleepaway Camp in the slasher-in-the-woods category, but it certainly does what it came to do.
Bava's last feature film is an incoherent but sporadically effective psychological study which lifts the back story of the haunted villa from Profondo Rosso (along with that movie's lead actress) and throws creepy, if random, manifestations of a malevolent force living in the house at its increasingly hysterical protagonist. It outstays its welcome, to be truthful, as although Bava's films have never been too heavy in the way of plot, they mostly have enough visual flair and inherent pathology to compensate, while this one flails along with a bare minimum of plot until its gory climax; all dressed up with sinister atmosphere, and ultimately nowhere to go. Daria Nicolodi is, as usual, very good, but by the end is given little to do besides scream.
Repellent, if surprisingly professionally made, and marketed slightly misleadingly as a slasher film (it certainly has more than its share of graphic violence, however), this oddity was apparently a labor of love for Joe Spinell, who wrote it and appears in every scene. However, Spinell's rather overwrought attempt at a serious portrait of a disturbed man is offset by the fetishistic, almost pornographic, display of nasty violence in excruciatingly realistic detail. Easy to dismiss (and this film has inspired visceral negative reactions in many viewers), but it's a capably made exercise, despite its questionable content.
A thoughtful character study with supernatural tinges, misleading marketed as a straightforward horror film due to Romero's reputation, this film raises more questions than it can answer but is involving despite its leisurely pace. Certainly a more honest confrontation of suburban anomie than the likes of American Beauty, anyway, it boasts a well-modulated lead performance from Jan White, as well as arresting dream sequences and an overall well-sustained quiet tension throughout.
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