The Toolbox Murders (Donnelly, 1978)
The Toolbox Murders (Donnelly, 1978)
A gut-wrenching experience in horror. This movie is completely screwed up. Now that I’ve gotten those atrocious puns out of the way, how good is The Toolbox Murders? Not very, but it’s more ambitious than I expected and contains some pretty effective moments. Oddly enough, some of what makes it effective actually ends up undermining the more adventurous sections.
The movie starts off like an ordinary slasher picture, and works pretty well in these sections. There are a few touches that distinguish it. First, aside from some cryptic flashbacks to a girl dying in a car accident and the ranting of an angry (seemingly deranged) preacher, we are plunged out of the blue into the murders. While the level of identification with the killer could be problematic, this lack of context or characterization for the victims makes the murders feel more senseless. Combined with the way the camera will linger on auxiliary details rather than the gore (which is deployed liberally), the film’s seeming indifference to these kills comes off as more unsettling than if it had played them up. The first half hour plays quite strongly as a result, and it isn’t until later when the film starts introducing more story, with the family of one of the victims and a cop investigating the case coming into the plot.
The movie isn’t really directed stylishly, but there are some flourishes I appreciated. The film will occasionally pull out some interesting shot compositions, such as the way the camera will hone in on objects adjacent to the action (like in the murder sequences I discussed earlier). The use of music during the murders attempts to evoke poignancy rather than just terror. There is also some editing that comes off as awkward in its execution but at least goes for more interesting effects – the cuts to the flashbacks are strikingly handled, and there’s an orgasmic series of edits during a bath scene that’s inspired if a little goofy. The moment that stood out the most to me was a sequence a few seconds long where the mother of one of the victims is working in a bar and her face is lit up by a flashing Miller High Life sign, accentuating her sadness.
Unfortunately, these are mostly in the first (and better) half. The film’s second half goes into stranger territory, transforming from a slasher to a perverse take on wholesome family values. This turn is genuinely unexpected, but it’s not pulled off successfully. The lack of character development that made the first half so effective undoes the second half, which is much more dependent on that sort of thing – it’s a lot harder to buy these characters as crazy or interesting when the movie spent so little time on setting them up. The direction is also a lot more pedestrian in the second half, with little of the visual invention of the first half showing up again, and it never captures the luridness necessary for the material to work. The movie also forgets about the cop and the mother (who I personally found to be the most interesting character), and throws in a lame last-minute attempt to make us care because it was a “true story”. It feels as if the movie thought that the twist would be strong enough on its own and put no effort into executing it properly. And this fumbling of the latter sections is especially unfortunate because the earlier sections and the nature of the twist showed some real promise.
Dead & Buried (Sherman, 1981)
Dead & Buried (Sherman, 1981)
Dead & Buried (Sherman, 1981)
Picture us driving through the country, soaking in the scenery. Sounds awful pleasant. In keeping with the project title, why don’t take a relaxed detour through a cozy little town right up on the coast. Say, Potter’s Bluff? Nice little name for a nice little town. Seems like the perfect place to kill a few days in the middle of this trip. A beautiful view of the sea, and the people seem real friendly too. Why, it’s Robert Englund! What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, according to this movie. Dead & Buried opens with a very surprising murder and makes no effort to hide the identity of the culprits, but even with this reveal, it manages to pull some real surprises. It starts off as a fairly standard, old school horror story and escalates it into more pervasive paranoia and in its final stretches, poignancy, only to end on a hell of a kicker. It has similarities with The Wicker Man, with their untoward happenings in a small town, but it has its own unique flavour and it proves to be a compelling horror film in its own right. What Dead & Buried manages to do with tremendous effectiveness is to take a wholesome, welcoming atmosphere and imbue it with an overwhelming sense of dread. Everything here is a little too cozy, from the constant fog to the townspeople who are just a little too friendly, something that is definitely helped by the casting choices (okay, maybe not Robert Englund, although this was before the NOES series). The nights are pitch black, the hum on the soundtrack a little too low, the shadows constantly threatening to take over the screen. Even the grain structure of the film feels oppressive.
An extremely pleasant surprise with this film was the strength of the performances and characterizations. While I wouldn’t say the other films I’ve seen for this project are badly acted, they aren’t character-driven to the same extent. It was nice to get a character to root for all the way through the story, and James Farentino puts in strong work as the lead, a cop who seems just as confused and unsettled as we are. But the best performance here is from Jack Albertson as the coroner and mortician. Best known as Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, he is the smartest casting choice, an actor who seems so harmless that we are genuinely shocked to find that his eccentricities might mask something more disturbing.
As the film progresses, the things we took for granted to be safe prove less and less so, and any feeling of security we’ve had has been thoroughly subverted. And I wonder if this is why the film ended up on the Video Nasty list. Of the films I’ve seen so far, this is by far the most tame, employing little gore outside of a money shot that’s quite an eyeful (this is supposed to inspire a droll laugh). (Stan Winston’s special effects aren’t always convincing, but they are quite creative, especially a sequence which shows the mortician at work.) But the way it renders sinister anything we had deemed to be safe perhaps makes it more unsettling, dangerous even, than the horror that comes from the more obvious (if not necessarily less effective) sources in the previous films. Yes, flesh-eating spiders and mad slashers are dangerous, but what about your friends and family? For if you can’t trust your neighbours, your wife or Robert Englund, who can you trust?
Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack in Cannes
Werner Herzog on the set of Cobra Verde (1987), courtesy of fuckyeahdirectors. The film depicts the life of a fictional slave trader. It was filmed in locations in Brazil, Colombia and Ghana. Klaus Kinski died four years after the release of Cobra Verde, and the film would stand as the last of his collaborations with director Werner Herzog.
It’s totally clear in that film that it’s a real ship and that the ropes are straining. If you look at Lord of the Rings for example, they have people in a chain stretched across mountainsides, and they’re obviously special effects. But in Cobra Verde, your film in Africa, you had a message that was being passed down a line of people for miles and miles, and it was really happening. The people were there in an endless chain on the hillsides. It’s clear that it’s really happening, and it’s extraordinary.
WH: There is a certain quality that you sense when you move a ship over a mountain. It was 360 tons and I knew I would manage it. But I knew that it would create unsightly things that no one would expect. There were many huge steel cables that are five centimeters in diameter, I mean as thick as this table. They would break like a thin thread. When you tap them before they break, when you touch them and tap them, they sound thick, they sound different, and when they break, there’s so much tension, there’s so much pressure, that the cable is red hot inside, it’s glowing inside. That was one thing I didn’t show in the film but I’ve seen it and many of you things that you see in Fitzcarraldo were created by the events themselves. I’ve always been after the deeper truth, the ecstatic truth, and I will always defend that, as long as there’s breath in me. —A conversation with Werner Herzog by Roger Ebert
The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema. —Werner Herzog’s No-Bullshit Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers and Creative Entrepreneurs
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Taxi Driver (1976),
This review contains major spoilers.
The first two films I selected for this project could be considered objectionable for the explicitness of their violence, but morally speaking they were on pretty safe ground. This one, which has been compared to The Last House on the Left in just about every review I’ve stumbled across (a film I have yet to see, so I will refrain from such comparisons), is centered around a vicious set of rapes and murders. This is a considerably touchier subject than those of the previous films I watched, and I’m generally hesitant to say too much in these cases for fear of saying something ignorant or insensitive. That being said, as I thought up this project, I was at least partially interested in the morality of exploitation films, which is one of the reasons I picked the Video Nasty list in particular. So treading with caution, how do I think the film fares?
Quite respectably, in my opinion. The film is certainly confrontational (as a film with this subject matter probably should be), but it has greater concerns than whatever immediate thrills its scenario might have offered and manages to avoid the sadism it could have become mired in. The film uses a fair amount of stylization, but not in a way that sensationalizes the proceedings. Much of the second act, when the rape and murder of the protagonists occurs, is bathed in steely blue lighting. This has a fairly unsettling effect, but I think Lado manages to keep the empathy with the heroines. By cutting away during the acts to some disorienting camerawork and leaving us with only the anguished voices of the heroines, any possible titillation is drained away and we’re left to ponder the gravity and consequences of these actions.
And this is an appropriate choice, given that Lado genuinely seems concerned with the effects of violence and how it damages everyone it touches. The rape and murder of the heroines is shown to be entirely senseless because there is none of the moralizing that tends to accompany a lot of the violence in horror movies, where characters get punished for “immoral” behaviour. The heroines here shown to be ordinary – one is a virgin, one is not, but this is handled in a precisely nonjudgmental way – so the violence seems especially cruel and tragic. And when the film enters its third act, where the father of one of the girl’s exacts revenge on the perpetrators, the film doesn’t shy away from the explicitness of the violence, but the focus is on the toll that it takes on him and not in providing an easy catharsis from the villains’ deaths. The film achieves a real poignancy in its handling of these events, and it falls in line with the theme that violence begets violence and that it corrupts everyone.
Inferno (Argento, 1980)
Inferno (Argento, 1980)