Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Maniac (1980, William Lustig)

Part of the 80's Project

Much like it’s main character Maniac is a schizophrenic film. Equal parts exploitative 1980’s slasher film, show-offy gorefest for the talents of its make-up artist extraordinaire Tom Savini, intimate character study courtesy of its star and co-writer, the great character actor Joe Spinell (probably best known for his roles as Will Cicci in the first two Godfathers and Tony Gazzo in the first two Rockys) and grimy cheap late 70s/early 80s New York independent art vibe (I’m thinking Abel Ferrara territory).

The first shot immediately reveals its intention to put the audience in an intimate relation with Spinell’s character, Frank Zito. The very first image is a shot of one of those beach pier telescopes you put a quarter into, the next shot is a subjective POV through the telescope’s lens at a couple frolicking about who will be the film’s first victims. A slasher film opening with the subjective POV of its killer is nothing unique, even as early as 1980, having been done beforehand most famously in Halloween (lil’ Michael Myers attack on his sister) as well as another 1980 film featuring the work of Tom Savini, Friday the 13th. However, we never get to follow Myers or Mrs. Voorhees having a post-murder schizophrenic conversation with their dead mother as we do in Maniac. In these scenes Spinell gives a fearless, personal and an intimate, some, hell most, would say uncomfortably intimate, performance. We always call actors like Charlize Theron “brave” for gaining weight, wearing bad make-up and not washing their hair for a couple of weeks in Monster, but Spinell’s turn as Zito earns that distinction because this is his actual body and he allows Lustig to film it in unflattering close-ups, in all his flabby stomach, sweaty balding head and acne scarred faced glory.

The first half hour or so of Maniac is structured thusly: Zito picks a target, follows that target around until they are in an isolated location and then kills them in a graphic manner (thanks to Savini). What’s interesting is Zito’s improvisational process of killing people. In the Friday the 13th sequels, Jason mixes things up from time to time, but he’s a machete man at heart, Myers usually sticks to the tried and true kitchen knife, but Zito is the type of guy who sees what he has around the house and says to himself “hey, that’ll do”, as a result we get strangulations, shotguns to the face, even a sword as murder methods.

An interesting aspect of this structure is that while he's stalking his victims we stay with Zito’s perspective, but once we get to the chase our perspective shifts, and we find ourselves in the victim’s shoes, not knowing when or how Zito will strike. I’m not sure exactly whom we are to sympathize with. We have spent more time with the killer and know him more intimately, but then again, he is a maniacal killer, I mean it’s in the title! But due to the nature of his random victim selection there’s less character definition with them than we’d have if we were introduced to them earlier, like the typical camp counselor in a Friday film, and yes, that is the first and only time a Friday the 13th movie will get credited with any form of character development.

After awhile it must have occurred to Lustig, Spinell and co-writer C.A. Rosenberg (who has no other film credit, is it a pseudonym for Lustig or Savini?) that 90 minutes of Zito going around killing someone and going home and having conversations with his dead abusive mother would seem repetitive and go nowhere. So we are then introduced to a fashion photographer who will become Zito’s “love interest”. This part drags the film down, not because there’s no murder, but due to the fact that a.) it’s more than a little unbelievable that this trendy, beautiful, popular woman would have any romantic interest in Spinell, even when he’s playing “normal” he still looks like Spinell and has more ticks than Norman Bates, and b.) the filmmakers seems indifferent to these scenes. Spinell saves most of his acting energy for the schizo scenes, Lustig shoots them boringly, saving his savvier cinematic tricks for the suspense and kill scenes, and Savini is not around. Eventually Zito decides that he’d rather be a serial killer than an arty New York hipster and while it’s a commendable choice, his attachment to her and the fact that he attempted any sort of an emotional relationship with a woman who is not his dead mother ultimately costs him.

Despite borrowing liberally from not only Halloween, but also aspects of other horror classics such as Psycho (killer channeling and conversing with his dead mother), Carrie (let’s just say hands pop out a grave at one point) and Dawn of the Dead (in a dream sequence, Zito gets torn to pieces by his zombified victims, where Savini pays tribute to one of the great horror make-up artist, one Tom Savini), the sum is greater than its parts. If you’re a fan of the genre, and have a strong stomach, Maniac is definitely worthy.

Extra Spoiler Type Comments Below:

Maniac receives runner-up honor on my list of idiotic work by police officers in a horror movie climax. The winner is of course Black Christmas (don’t make me have to specify the original) where after Olivia Hussey survives the traumatic experience of being stalked and nearly killed by her boyfriend (or was it?) everybody leaves her asleep alone in her sorority house bed. With, it turns out…the real killer…duh duh dun! Well in Maniac, after Frank unsuccessfully tries to kill his fashion photographer girlfriend he returns to his apartment, has the aforementioned dream that he’s torn apart and apparently dies from self inflicted stabbing wounds. It turns out his lady friend didn’t cotton to being nearly murdered and ratted him out, so two Serpico wannabes bust into Zito’s apartment only to find him dead (or is he?). So what do they do? Shrug and leave. Of course after they leave, it’s revealed that duh duh dun…he’s still alive! Seriously guys, I know its pre-cell phone, but you have a CB radio in your car, right? The correct procedure, I am guessing, is not going “well, shit happens”, but rather having one of the cops stay in the apartment as the other goes to contact a coroner or one of them CSI guys. Hell, if you don’t have a CB radio, find a goddamn payphone, man. Its 1980, they still exist, plus you just found the killer that has been plaguing New York for a few months, I’m sure your boss would accept a collect call.

I guess what the Strokes said about New York City cops in that one song was pretty spot on.

Extra Special Random Fun Fact

While this was definitely Joe Spinell’s biggest role of 1980, probably biggest role ever, it was one of 8 films and 1 TV movies featuring a Spinell performance in the year.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Trailer of the Week: Colonel Mortimer’s Policy Trailer

If you attended a movie at a Syufy theatre (better known as the Century Theatres) sometime in the 1980’s or 90’s you no doubt remember the floodlight policy trailer that preceded every film. Movie-theatre-going-wise, I was lucky enough to grow up in San Jose, CA and pretty much the entire film going of my formative years were at their landmark “dome” cinemas, Century 22, 23, 24 and the crown jewel of them all, Century 21, the great single screen theatre that was also the first of the Syufy chain to carry the name “Century”, christened as such because its futuristic design (circa 1964) was heralded as be the type of theatres that one would presumably expect to be the norm in the 21st century (unfortunately that was not to be the case).

Sometime in the early 90’s the Syufy corporation officially changed it’s name to “Century Theatres” since pretty much every post-Century 21 was subsequently labeled as a “Century”. With the name change, the popular floodlight policy trailer was scraped and replaced with something more non-descript.

What makes the floodlight trailer stand out is the interaction it inspired amongst loyal crowds. On YouTube it is labeled: The Syufy Clapping Trailer. And yes, clapping is what I associate most of all with it. Psyched film fans witnessing the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, James Bond and Indiana Jones would form a cacophony of claps to its syncopated beat. There even floated around rumors and stories of people who would stand up to simulate the floodlight movements with their arms (though I never personally witnessed or participated in that particular activity). I remember attending a matinee of A League of Their Own with my mother and even a crowd of middle-aged soccer moms clapped along (to be completely honest, at the time I thought it was kind of lame that adults had so blatantly co-opted “the clap” that their children, if not invented, perfected, if the phrase “jump the shark” existed at the time, I’m sure I would have applied it to the events of that summer afternoon in 1992).

I realize that this posting originates from a place of nostalgia, but it’s not necessarily just for the carefree days of my youth or the kitschy retroness of the trailer’s design, but rather a time when film going represented something a little more special: a sense of community, something that has been lost a lot what with the ever-decreasing quality of Hollywood filmmaking, crowds who seem more interested in their Blackberrys than the film they paid to see, and the fact that movies open so wide that on any given day a film can play on as many as 10-15 screens per town. Sadly, the Syufy/Century theatre is partially responsible for this, opening multiplex after multiplex and cutting some of it’s domes in half to increase screening capabilities (the 23, 24 and 25 included) instead of focusing on larger one or two screen theatres, resulting in the abandonment of the quality of the theatres and their designs in the process.

Last year, Cinemark bought out the Century Theatre corporation with one sole exception, the three original domes and their drive-in screens which will revert back to operating under the Syufy name. And for discerning San Jose movie fans, there still is no better place to see the latest hit films. Now let’s hope they bring back the floodlight policy trailer!

Thanks for reading the long preamble, it’s now time for today’s featured entertainment. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Changeling (1980, Peter Medak)

Part of the 80's Project

Since it's been about a month and a half since I actually watched The Changeling, I am going to do something a little different here, instead of forming some kind of cohesive review (not to imply I've ever written a cohesive review) I am just going to go through notes I took during and after the film and just bulletin point my thoughts. Act like it's one of those progress reports your boss makes you waste time drafting, just try to refrain from coming into my blog and shooting the place up like you've been strategically planning the last fifteen years.

SPOILERS AHOY! (*especially the ending!*)

* General plot synopsis portion: George C. Scott plays a classical pianist whose wife and daughter die in a car accident. He moves from New York to a quiet Washington (Pacific Northwest, not District of Columbia) town where he teaches music at a university (and is wildly popular for some reason, like 500 kids crash his first class, I guess Washington is wild for their mourning classical pianists) and moves into an old house with a mysterious history. Creepy stuff starts happening, stuff like for an example an antiquated wheelchair appears out of nowhere and moves by itself and a rubber ball very dramatically falls down the stairs. Ends up this house is haunted by the spirit of a dead boy. Through copious amounts of research and mediation with a spiritual we discover that the boy’s father stood to inherit a significant sum under the one guideline that it would actually go to the boy, but since this kid suffered a fatal disease one night the father drowned his son, secretly buried him and hightailed it to Europe with no one ever the wiser, in Europe he adopts a similar looking kid who he brings back to America a few years later and cha-ching gets the inheritance. In the present day, the adopted son has become a Washington state senator and one cannot help but speculate his first initiative in office was some kind of inheritance reform. George C. Scott decides to stay at the house and help the kid gets some form of vengeance (we'll discuss this a little later), but it kind of comes back to bite him in the ass since after the boy's vengeance is satiated, the house burns down. Hope Scott had insurance! (I did say there would be Spoilers, right?)

* The film begins with a great opening sequence and title card. George C. Scott's wife and daughter are killed in an auto accident in the snow while Scott watches helplessly in a phone booth. Close-up on Scott's grieving face...and...FREEZE FRAME...The Changeling. What I especially like about the film is it‘s non-explotative nature concerning the death of Scott‘s family, evidenced by the fact that his assisting the child offers him no emotional resolution or cathartic reconciliation with the spirit of his deceased loved ones (a la this year's 1408), obviously their death inspires him to help the boy but that’s more a character trait than a plot contrivance.

* The fact that this film continually pops up on various "Scariest Movies of All Time" list is due to the deft direction, sound design and quiet atmosphere director Medak--a journeyman director who resume includes on anarchistic British satire (The Ruling Class), many television credits (ranging from Tales From the Crypt to Seventh Heaven to Magnum P.I.), neo-noir (Romeo is Bleeding) and one of the crappiest films in the history of films (Species 2)--employs. The house is quiet and so is the film, until you know, shit goes down, Medak effectively mines suspense by contrasting the silence and Scott's character classic piano playing with loud disruptive sounds. Today it's a cliche, I know, but it’s always effective when done right. Too often filmmakers hijack their own suspense by wallowing in poor sound design filling what should be quiet moments with lame rock songs that serve only to attempt to sell the soundtrack (this is a Miramax specialty) and avid farts editing style (copyright Vern), Saw and those horrible Michael Bay produced remakes being primary offender.

* The best scene of the film occurs when a psychic comes to the house to communicate with the spirit. The acting and direction remains contained. Nowadays, the woman would be portrayed like a Zelda Rubenstein type kook and the scenes where she communicates with the spirit would be over-edited with flashes of some ghostly images too you know, freak you out. Instead we get a nice drawn out scene which is treated not like a crazy event, but rather a woman nonchalantly just doing her job, sure her job involves being in a trance like state and communicating with the dead, but hey to her, it's just another fucking Tuesday.

* But what I find most interesting about The Changeling is that the ghost of the kid is actually a bit of a jerk. I’ve already mentioned how after George C. Scott helps the kid out by finding his skeleton and confronting the senator/impostor he repays him by burning down the house. “Thanks, bud, that'll be the last time I ever try to assist spirits of murdered children.” But the whole act of vengeance on the senator/impostor is kind of petty. Yeah, it sucks that this guy got your fortune and is now a senator, but hey, money alone didn't ascend him to his position, it's mentioned that he's served several terms, so hey, people liked him enough to re-elect him. Hell, the senator doesn't even know the truth about his past until the film's climactic scenes. So he ends up dying for the sins of his father, only it wasn't really his own father, but his adoptive father. On the flip side he had a fairly long and prosperous life and was able to avoid any Dickensian-like orphange abuse and calling everybody "guv'ner" all the time. All in all, the measure of payback perfectly gels with what the five year old mindset would consider fair.

This wasn't really much shorter than most of my reviews was it? At least I still have the lack of cohesion thing going on.
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