Saturday, August 16, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 54: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977) :

This short-lived horror anthology series, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (known by Brits as Twist in the Tale) was praised by none other than horror authority Stephen King in his non-fiction study of the genre, Danse Macabre (page 249) back in 1981. King termed the disco decade effort "interesting" and made note of one particularly scary episode involving the dead returning to life on a murderer's TV set.

Unfortunately for the obscure series, Stephen King is just about the only horror scholar or reviewer (besides me!) who actually remembers Tales of the Unexpected at all! This obscure Quinn Martin venture ran for just eight hour-long episodes in February, May and August of 1977, airing on Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. It then disappeared...never to be rerun, never to be seen on the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S., never released on VHS (save for a two-hour episode called "The Force of Evil," released by Worldvision in 1987) and not yet released on DVD. Call it Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unremembered.

Narrated by the late William Conrad, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected is a color genre program that offers a different tale of the macabre each week, one that almost universally culminates with a shocking (or not so shocking...) twist or "sting." Many of the stories deal explicitly with the vicissitudes of human nature, but many of the episodes also rely on "stock" genre elements and therefore lack a necessary element of originality or freshness. Sometimes, the series seems as slow as molasses...

At an hour in length, the derivative nature of each of the tales combined with the snoozy pacing actually made them somewhat less than unexpected. More like Tales of the Predictable. Ironically, a low-budget show from Australia - The Evil Touch (1973) - in syndication a few years earlier than Tales of the Unexpected aired - boasted a deeper understanding of horror, not to mention better pacing, and covered virtually identical territory in terms of narrative and themes. Still, I'd like to see a release of this series on DVD for the simple historical value of the show.

Among the eight episodes in the canon here is a re-write of The Invaders' opening story ("Beachhead"), now re-named "The Nomads" and featuring David Birney in the Roy Thinnes role. The plot follows a Vietnam veteran who witnesses an alien race landing on Earth and preparing an invasion. Naturally, he has trouble convincing anybody that his story in true.

Another episode, the aforementioned "The Force of Evil," is a diluted 1970s TV version of the 50s' feature, Cape Fear, with a character named Teddy Jakes (William Watson) assuming the stalking duties of an ostensibly unavailable Max Cady. Lloyd Bridges (in the Gregory Peck role) watches helplessly as Jakes terrorizes his family, kills the family pet (a horse), and creepily befriends his daughter, The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb. One confrontation scene even occurs on a house boat(!), as if the other story similarities to Cape Fear aren't obvious enough. What the long-winded "The Force of Evil" adds to the Cape Fear mix is the notion that the stalker villain may be supernatural, a kind of "walking dead" back from the grave and ready to party.

"A Hand for Sonny Blue," another Tales of the Unexpected episode, recounts the misery of Dodgers pitcher Sonny Blue (Rick Nelson) when his right hand is crushed in a car accident, and he receives a transplant (one that narrator Conrad informs us does not originate from God, but from [presumably evil] science!!!). Turns out Sonny boy's new right hand is pretty darn bad. It oncebelonged to a criminal (a murderer who robbed a liquor store...) and is now up to its nasty old tricks.

Based on the short story "The Hand That Wouldn't Behave" by Emile C. Schurmacher, "A Hand for Sonny Blue" was directed by the great Curtis Harrington (Who Slew Auntie Roo? and The Dead Don't Die) but even his remarkable talent couldn't bring much originality to the oft-told tale of a transplanted limb possessed by evil. The story's surprise climax (presaging Bobby Ewing's appearance in the shower by the better part of a decade), was the ultra-annoying revelation that the entire story was...a dream. D'oh! "There is no present, no future...only the past...and it happens again and again," suggested our omnipotent gravel-voiced narrator in a closing commentary that made no sense and seemed to bear no empirical connection to the tale that preceded it.

During it's brief spell on network television, Tales of the Unexpected also featured a story about a reporter (Roy Thinnes) undercover on death row, called "The Final Chapter," as well as the tale of a man (Bill Bixby) caught in a time warp, entitled "No Way Out." Other stories included "Devil Pack" (about hell hounds) starring Ronny Cox, "The Mask of Adonis," about the eternal quest for youth, and "You're Not Alone," which pitted Joanna Pettet against a stalker.

I pretty much love anything that aired on television in the 1970s for nostalgia's sake, but I can't really make a very powerful critical argument in favor of this particular anthology. More tedious than thrilling, Tales of the Unexpected is a perfect example of what can happens when a non-horror guy (Quinn Martin) produces a horror show without really understanding the terrain. The plots are familiar and hackneyed, the twists aren't really twists at all, and the scares are few and far between.

That said, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected features a great opening credit montage and pulse-pounding theme song.

Anyone out there remember this one?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Sorcerer (1977)

In the mid-1970s, William Friedkin -- a director at the top of his game following such box-office blockbusters as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) -- led an international cast and crew (headlined by Roy Scheider) deep into the jungle to make his next feature. It was a remake of the 1953 Yves Montand film, The Wages of Fear, but re-titled Sorcerer for modern consumption.

The film was plagued by myriad difficulties: the first director of photography got fired half-way through, Friedkin reportedly didn't get along well with star Scheider (he'd wanted Steve McQueen for the lead...), and the movie went dramatically over budget (ballooning in cost from 15 to 21 million)

The film's luck didn't improve with the timing of the premiere. Sorcerer was released in the summer of 1977 - the summer of a little movie called Star Wars -- and not surprisingly, this gritty and realistic Friedkin effort promptly bombed with critics and audiences, grossing less than 10 million at the box office.


However, thanks to the advent of home video in the 1980s, Sorcerer has earned a cult following over the last few decades, and has recently been excavated for serious study by a new generation of film scholars. Many critics now insist this is Friedkin's "lost masterpiece," (an opinion the director reportedly shares), and one that suffered unduly from the fact that it didn't fit in with a surprise shift in movie trends (from anti-heroes like Dirty Harry, Harry Caul, and Popeye Doyle to more innocent "nostalgia" fare like Star Wars).


Sorcerer
depicts the gritty, unromantic story of four men, all from different countries, who - because of fate's whimsy - end up together in an unnamed South American country taking on a very dangerous assignment...for the money. One man is an assassin, having arrived from a job in Vera Cruz. Another is a Palestinian bomber, escaped from Israel. A French man named Serrano -- one involved in fraud -- is the third man. Finally, American Jack Scanlon from Queens (Roy Scheider), who was recently involved (and injured) in a robbery, is our last protagonist, though I use that term loosely here.

These four anti-heroes - taciturn, secretive and dangerous - have been selected (after proving their driving skills...) by an oil company man to transport two trucks worth of damaged dynamite to a raging oil fire some two-hundred miles distant. The dynamite is so volatile, however (the nitroglycerin is actually leaking...) it can't be flown to the site by helicopter or plane.

Instead, the four men (two to a truck), drive old vehicles (named "Sorcerer" and "Lazaro") across the most treacherous jungle landscape you can imagine in hopes of collecting 8,000 pesos. Among the colorful obstacles: a suspension bridge with several floor planks missing (traversed by the trucks - naturally - during floods and a pounding rain storm), armed guerrillas, fallen trees, and more.

In the end, just one man survives the journey, but it turns out he's a marked man anyway, fate having long ago conspired against the entire quartet; the survivor included.

I've written in previous Friedkin Friday entries about this director's uncanny penchant (and skill) in creating narratives that feel very authentic; a quality I connect with the artist's early history making documentaries. What enlivens Sorcerer so powerfully is the "reality" of death that Friedkin crafts in the film. What I mean by this statement is that the violence is sudden, shocking, brief and utterly horrifying. It's a punctuation, not a sentence; a burst of terror, not a sustained fireworks show. There's nothing glamorous or stereotypically Hollywood about how the violence is portrayed, and so when brutal things happen, it's actually traumatic.

For instance, a car accident early in the film is staged with stunning ferocity and accuracy (reportedly a dozen cars were pulped before Friedkin was satisfied with how it looked), and the accident leaves a lingering impact on the psyche. Roy Scheider -- the getaway driver -- escapes the scene, a chaotic wreckage of metal, blood, water and (stolen) money.

Later, an explosion at an oil well is just as jarring and upsetting. It's not a typical movie explosion, but something horrific, gruesome and bracing. This style of filmmaking is disturbing, to be certain, but it raises the stakes and helps to make the movie extremely suspenseful. Here, violent actions have consequences and it's a bloody, ugly world.

Which brings us to another quality of the film: a finely etched sense of place; of location. In the South American (fictional) country where the bulk of the film occurs, Friedkin spares us nothing. We see squalor. We see poverty. We see death and desperation. This is appropriate, pf course, because all four protagonists are desperate men...where else can they go? Their last stop before death is a kind of purgatory; a miserable place where they hope to escape and start again.


The exceptional location detail (no studio work here...) also serves to hone some of Friedkin's underlying thematic points. In one unbelievably affecting and upsetting scene, Friedkin depicts rioting locals as they receive their dead following the fire at the American oil well. The corpses are wrapped (barely) in plastic. and hoisted off a pick-up truck, where they are left to the mourning families. The feeling here is not of a specific country per se, but of the authentic "Third World" in general, and specifically the manner that America (and American companies) exploit the resources (and people) there to line their own pockets. When these people die, they are dying for pennies...but it's the only work in town. This is also an important clue as to the nature of the oil company...and what it will do (or won't do...) to save money.

The first half of Sorcerer lingers a bit long on elaborate introductions of each of the four anti-heroes (in Vera Cruz, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey), before they arrive at their community fate in the jungle, but the last half of the film is a whopper: a series of tour-de-force set-pieces that will push you to the edge of your seat. One set-piece, involving nitroglycerin and a fallen tree, is handled brilliantly with a minimum of dialogue and some good performances, but the absolute show-stopper (pictured on the movie poster above...) is the crossing of that rickety old suspension bridge; water raging below; wind blowing it from side to side like a swing; rain falling incessantly. It's here that Friedkin is able to visualize and enunciate some of the core idea of the film most successfully, particularly that no one can escape fate; and perhaps more importantly; no one can explain fate.

Two trucks (carrying the unstable substance...) must pass across this bridge, in relatively short order. Four men aboard two trucks. Nature against them. Fate against them. The tension mounts to a mind-blowing level as natural debris blows across the bridge, as the floor planks buckle, as the bridge sways from side to side and a truck starts to list, then actually tip over, 10 degrees...20 degrees... Then the rope holding-up the bridge starts slowly - ever so slowly - to fray. And all the while, nestled in the rear of the truck is that unstable dynamite, just ready to explode if the truck takes too big a bump.

How can I put this so it won't sound like hyperbole? This is an absolutely amazing, heart-stopping sequence, and even if you don't like William Friedkin, you should see Sorcerer just for this virtuoso scene. Hitchcock couldn't have staged it better. It's the reason we see films: to be thrilled; to be captivated; to bite our nails. I haven't seen a great scene like this in a movie in a long, long time...it will absolutely jangle your nerves. Kathryn couldn't stay sitting down on the sofa while it continued, and continued, and continued...because it is absolutely nail-biting not just in intensity, but in the way it builds to a crescendo.

Some survive the truck trip in Sorcerer, some don't, but what I find most fascinating about the film is that even at the end of the hellish ride, there is no sense of release; no feeling of catharsis. Looking like a zombie (and clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress), the final survivor -- sans a vehicle of any kind -- carries the last box of dynamite to the oil well in his tired arms, barely able to walk. He is white-faced, ghostly. And the camp he walks into is Hell itself, a giant plume of apricot flame illuminating the night forest and night sky. This character survives the journey, but the end of the film makes plain that fate has marked him, just like his dead compatriots.

And that death is catching up with him. Fast. He is a zombie. He died before he began the trip. Someone else saw to that.

Sorcerer transmits this plot point without dialogue, without explanation. You have to pay close attention to the last moments of the film to understand what is going to happen to this man; and the conspiracy that has risen up around him to prevent him from collecting his hard-earned money. There's no indication of this is what is said; only in the images, and in Friedkin's ruthless compositions and editing.

Why is this movie called "Sorcerer?" For the truck? Well, Friedkin has stated that in this film fate is the "sorcerer," wielding it's terrifying magic, and that notion - of fate as sinister, mysterious, inscrutable wizard - is what ultimately makes this a movie worth remembering. Why do some people survive? Why are some obstacles traversed while others are not? Why do some people die when they do? Why do others survive? Why do...tires blow out at inopportune times? How has destiny marked these men? How does it mark us?

There are no answers in this existentialist, gritty adventure. There are no heroes, either. And definitely no happy endings.

In the final analysis, ironically, it was fate that also played a cruel trick on this film (not to mention Friedkin, whose career as an A-list director never fully recovered from Sorcerer's failure with critics and audiences). Yep...a celebrated director crafted a brilliant, timeless adventure film, one true to the spirit of the reigning 1970s anti-heroes, but as it turns out, people were watching space princesses, wookies and light saber duels.
Who saw that coming?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Silver!

Sy Fy Radio announced the Sy Fy Genre Award Winner for "Best Web Production" of 2008 last night (as selected by you - the voters) and The House Between...came in second!

Wow! Wow! First, it was a great honor to be nominated, and second, I want to thank every individual who voted for the show.

There were over 50,000 votes cast in the contest and The House Between finished exceptionally strong, almost neck-and-neck with the winner.

In the end, we lagged less than one hundred votes behind the victor, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. We placed ahead of the professionally produced and budgeted Sanctuary -- now a series on The Sci-Fi Channel, -- as well as the Star Trek New Voyages adventure with Sulu, "World Enough and Time," and also Star Trek Odyssey.

Although The House Between fell a little short in the final mile, I still view our unexpectedly strong showing as a victory for a no-budget little show which is produced far from Hollywood, stars no "name" actors from Star Trek or Stargate SG-1, and is not part of a franchise with huge name-recognition that has been around for almost half-a-century.

It is my fondest hope that The House Between's success here, even at second place, will encourage the creation of other original, independent web series in the genre.

Congratulations to Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols (who star in Of Gods and Men), director Tim ("Tuvok") Russ, and all the technicians, supporting actors (Alan Ruck, Ethan Phililps, Chase Masterson, etc.) and writers who created the winning Star Trek adventure!

As for The House Between -- watch out for us next season, Star Trek!! We'll be back to chew quantum bubble gum and kick ass (and we're all out of bubble gum...).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Hatchet (2007)

Hatchet's amusing tag line is: "It's not a remake, it's not a sequel, and it's not based on a Japanese one." The movie promises -- succinctly -- just one thing: "Old school American horror."

After watching the dreadful remake The Eye, I figured that some Old School American Horror might be the very medicine the doctor ordered.

Boy was I wrong!

This is a movie so mind-numbingly awful it makes The Eye look like the greatest horror film ever made. The tag line quoted above is approximately a million-and-one times more inventive than any dialogue, situation or visual featured during this low budget effort's scant running time (84 minutes).

I know the idea here was to create a movie that evokes the slasher films and cliches of the 1980s -- believe me I get it, having written Horror Films of the 1980s recently -- but if Hatchet is a paean to eighties horror, then the filmmakers must have been thinking entirely of Troma's output during the Reagan Era.

Yes, it's that bad.

Hatchet's
story involves a group of college kids at Mardi Gras in New Orleans (this is pre-Katrina..). Ben is depressed over a break-up with his girlfriend of eight years, and his friend, Marcus, indulges Ben when he says he wants to go on a night-time tour of a local swamp. Also taking part on the bayou tour are two slutty girls (one is Mercedes McNab!) making a "girls gone wild"-style video with a sleazy producer named David Shapiro, an older "tourist" couple, and the beautiful but mysterious MaryBeth. The tour guide is a charlatan named Shawn, and early into the swamp odyssey, he runs the tour boat aground on a rock.

This is bad, because the tourists have come ashore near the secluded home of a local legend named Victor Crowley, a monstrously deformed man who kills people with a hatchet, but who might also be a malevolent ghost. MaryBeth is aware of the entire Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder) "tall tale" because she believes he is responsible for the disappearance of her father (Robert Englund) and brother (Joshua Leonard) the night before the tour.

For the last thirty-five minutes or so of Hatchet, Victor Crowley murders the interlopers one at a time in extremely gory fashion, proving himself (like Freddy, Jason or Michael) utterly indestructible in the process.


All the cliches of eighties films are present and accounted for in Hatchet. There's the "breast part of the movie" cliche, wherein beautiful young woman disrobe for the camera. There's the Crazy Old Local - the Cassandra Figure - who warns that "You're all going to die" (but whose warning is ignored). There's the flashback "crime in the past" that describes the transgression against Victor Crowley that turned him into a murderer. There's even the gory coup de grace: here, a decapitation. And of course, there's the sting-in-the-tail/tale wherein the killer returns from the dead for one last strike.

I enjoyed seeing all these genre conventions put back into play for 2007, but Hatchet is such an entirely art less, clueless, merit-less effort that you don't get the laughs out of them you would hope to. For all their various and sundry deficits, the Scream films at least turned these familiar slasher conventions on their head, surprising you with when/how/why they were deployed. Hatchet is merely content to stage these chestnuts as you've seen them before, as if their inclusion is a priori humorous. Nudge nudge, breast breast. Get it?

As far as being a "comedy" horror film, this is a far cry from such classic eighties efforts as Evil Dead 2 (1987), Fright Night (1985) or Return of the Living Dead (1985). It's much more in the league of the aforementioned Troma fare, or Return of the Living Dead Part II (1987). The scenes that are supposed to be funny are actually just shrill. The humor here is about on par with Not Another Teen Movie (2001), except it's more aptly Not Another Dead Teen Movie.

I mentioned the humor first, because I would have happily forgiven the film many of its genre trespasses if it garnered a lot of laughs. But the horror aspect of the film is as absolutely terrible as the comedy: there's not a single successful scare in the whole film, and even the make-up (on Crowley) is bad. He's not a menacing villain in the slightest, and the attack scenes are staged clumsily: he just runs into frame, hacks away, and keeps hacking. The blocking, scene compositions, even the choice of shots (almost always medium shots) reveal what a sub-par effort this is. The director, Adam Green, has absolutely no flare for staging scenes of either the comedy or horror genre.

Here's an example. In John Carpenter's original Halloween (1978), Haddonfield itself became a kind of character in the play. The early parts of the film showcased the terrain where Michael would strike, and viewers were treated to long, evocative shots of the tree-lined suburban streets. There was a sense of place. Of geography. Of location.

By contrast, In Hatchet, all the horror action takes place in a bayou - an absolutely great location for a horror movie (see: Southern Comfort [1981]), yet Green utilizes eye-level medium shots so often -- with the actors filling the frame in packs -- that the audience gets no sense of the terrain or location. There's not a single long shot of the group making their way through the bayou, and so Hatchet not only lacks a sense of place, but a sense of scope. There's nothing cinematic in the visuals. Again, the material he's mocking, say a Halloween II or a Friday the 13th Part II -- for all the cliches in evidence -- made exquisite use of the frame, of wide-screen. These films looked good...Hatchet doesn't.

The film is sloppy in so many ways. In one early scene, we see the tour boat moving across the swamp. We cut back to Ben and Marcus sharing a private discussion on the rear of the craft, and it's clear as they talk that the boat is not moving. When we go back to the wider shot, the boat is still moving. Again, all this stuff is quite forgivable in a low-budget production if the acting is good; if the script is smart; or if it's funny or scary.


But here the script is dreadful, and the performances are generally amateurish. Adam Green apparently encouraged his actors to go way over the top, and Tony Todd and Robert Englund fare especially poorly under his misdirection, hamming up their cameos to a cringe-worthy degree. Of all the performers, only Mercedes McNab (playing a boob named Misty) emerges unscathed. The things that work in the film do so because of her good performance.

I was really looking forward to what Hatchet promised: a scary, funny, unpretentious good time at the movies; one that didn't take itself, its premise, or the horror genre too seriously. What I got was a poorly-written, poorly-shot, tour of genre cliches we've seen a million times. If you appreciate horror (even silly horror, like Snakes on a Plane), this movie will insult your intelligence.

Unfortunately, Hatchet is a hack job.

Theme Song of the Week # 22: The Tomorrow People (1973-1978)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Comic Book Flashback # 12: Star Wars # 15: "Star Duel" (1978)

The Marvel-produced Star Wars comic book of the late 1970s wasn't always good. That's for sure. The series suffered from a distinct lack of direction immediately after the adaptation of the blockbuster film; particularly in regards to a silly regurgitation of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven involving Han Solo and other mercenaries (including one who looked like a giant green Bugs Bunny...) combating a giant behemoth on Tatooine.

But when the Star Wars comic-book series was good, it was very good indeed.

Case in point is one of my favorite issues, numbered #15. It's titled "Star Duel" and was first published in September of 1978 (just months before I would soon turn nine years old).

This issue completes a lengthy, multi-issue story arc involving Luke Skywalker and a war on a distant water planet, as well as Han Solo's deadly rivalry with a menacing, scarlet-bearded villain called Crimson Jack. "Star Duel" is written by Archie Goodwin and the artists are Carmine Infantino and Terry Austin.

As "Star Duel" picks up, the planetary war is over, but Crimson Jack -- a space pirate with a stolen star destroyer at his command -- has finally caught up with his Corellian nemesis, Han Solo. At Jack's side is a gorgeous but conflicted space pirate lass named Jolli. She claims she wants Solo dead too (for a recent betrayal when he was her prisoner...), but the fact is...she's in love with him.

As the issue commences, Jack plans to launch an aerial attack (led by Jolli) on the sea-berthed Millennium Falcon (which is undergoing repairs by Chewie and C-3PO). Jolli pilots a Y-Wing against Solo, and this issue features several good character touches for her, including a brief flashback to her tragic youth; one that explains how Jolli became a space pirate and why she's always felt she needs to be "harder," and "tougher" than "any man around her."

The pitched battle between Han Solo and Crimson Jack rages from sea to air to space (with Luke manning the Falcon's turret guns again...), to a final one-on-one outer space quick draw finale -- a blaster duel - involving Solo and Jack. But it's Jolli who ultimately casts the deciding laser blast here, in a great (and uniquely touching...) finale. The issue's final panel, involving a tender kiss (Jolli's first and last...) is an emotional showstopper. If you love Star Wars, and if you love these characters (especially if you've been following the comics...), this one packs a wallop.

Although undeniably scientifically inaccurate (Solo and Jack don't wear pressure suits during their duel in space, only masks - kinda like the Mynock scene in Empire...), this story nonetheless has much going for it. There's some great (and forward-looking...) attention to detail. For instance, the droids are depicted in one panel on the exterior hull of the Millennium Falcon - making repairs during space flight. I may have forgotten something, but I don't think we actually saw such a thing happening (besides R2 in his bucket back seat on an X-Wing...) until The Phantom Menace in 1999.

"Star Duel" also reveals an assortment of captured spaceships re-purposed by Crimson Jack...and one of them is a TIE Bomber. Again, my memory banks may be failing me here (rough night: I was up with my two-year old from 11:00 pm to 3:00 am...), but I'm pretty sure we didn't see that make and model on screen until the asteroid pursuit of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980...over a year after this comic issue was released.


These instances of cross-media saga continuity certainly warm the heart of my inner geek, but the tragic love story of Han Solo and Jolli, played against the larger-than-life villainy of space pirate Crimson Jack - speaks powerfully to my romantic side.

I have fond memories of being very young and reading, re-reading -- and then reading again -- this entire Marvel Star Wars story arc. I felt then, and I still feel now, that the climax of "Star Duel" really brings everything home in a wonderful and poignant way. This is a good story about human characters and the choices they make. It may be set against a cosmic landscape of combat, yet it feels intimate and personal. When Star Wars is at is finest (Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of The Sith), I think such a mix is precisely what the franchise does best.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Eye (2008)

If The Eye offends thee, pluck it out of your Netflix queue.


Two weeks ago, I naively assumed the trend of Americanized remakes of Asian horror flicks couldn't produce a film more desperate, derivative or dreadful than One Missed Call.

But after watching The Eye (2008) -- the absolute nadir of the genre (so far) -- I fear worse is still coming. This 2008 Jessica Alba vehicle is frankly the pits: an overlong, stultifying sojourn through the flotsam and jetsam of genre cliches, stock characters and tepid scares. There isn't a an original thought, composition, or special effect in the whole affair, an extremely half-hearted, PG-13 remake of the 2002 Pang Brothers film, Jiàn Guǐ.


The Eye
dramatizes the story of a sensitive blind violinist named Sydney (Jessica Alba). At the behest of her sister, Helen (played by a slumming-it Parker Posey), this young woman undergoes a seemingly successful corneal transplant surgery. Unfortunately, Sydney's new eyes soon cause the musician no end of troubles.

For one thing, Sydney begins to see (and hear; and feel...) unearthly, ghostly visions...ones that appear to foretell the deaths of people around her. Before you can whisper The Sixth Sense (1999), she's also seeing dead people, and -- in an apparent homage to Patrick Swayze -- walking right through them too.

Sydney's hunky doctor believes Sydney's eyes are simply having a difficult time differentiating between important and unimportant things, but Sydney fears she is experiencing something else, a bizarre phenomenon called "cellular memory." Sure enough...she's right, and Sydney learns that her new eyes once belonged to a young woman from Mexico -- a so-called "witch" named Anna Christina. Now, Sydney must investigate Anna Christina's life (and death...) to learn why this Cassandra's transplanted eyes are intent on showing Sydney a world of horrific imagery.


If you think I'm going to deride the film for the hoary premise of organ/body part transplant gone wrong, guess again. It's a derivative genre convention, to be certain, one featured ad nauseum in films such as The Hands of Orlac (1960), Body Parts (1991) and John Carpenter Presents Body Bags (1993). On TV, you've seen it on Circle of Fear (1972) as "Spare Parts" and on Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected in 1977 as "The Hand of Sonny Blue." As goofy (and familiar...) as this old chestnut is -- that transplanted organs carry the memories and the evil of their donors -- I accept it. Why? Because, as critic Roger Ebert often remind audiences, it's not what a movie is about that determines the relative value of the piece, but rather how the movie broaches that material. I consider that an axiom.

And indeed, it's in the "how" that The Eye proves it just doesn't have it. For instance, consider this factoid: Sydney's unearthly visions always include unearthly sounds, and -- every now and then -- the sudden manifestation of blistering, tangible wounds (like burns and scratches). I have a big problem with that. Technically, Sydney shouldn't hear anything out of the ordinary just because she happens to have creepy new eyes. I mean, if she gets the whole sensory package just from the new eyes, then any organ could have provided her these monstrous visions. Right? This movie could have just as easily been titled The Liver. Or My Left Foot.

If "The eyes" are the important organ (and they are, if the title is to be considered valid) then the horror sequences should be limited to sight, not democratically sprinkled across the whole smorgasbord of touch, taste, smell and sound. The cynical part of me fears this is a set-up for a sequel. Who knows what other body parts Anna Christina might have donated before she died? Are we being subtly set up for The Eye Two: The Nose Knows?

You might argue that the sounds and the tactile "feel" of the vision are for cinematic and dramatic effect, and I understand that point, but the film can't have it both ways. For example, there's a very dramatic scene late in the proceedings in which Sydney storms through her apartment and breaks all the light-bulbs (why she didn't just use the light switch is an unsolved mystery...) so it remains dark and she can't see the visions. Then, she ties a red blindfold around her eyes, further disrupting her sight, to keep the pesky visions out. Well, if she can also hear them (and they can touch her) -- as has been clearly established at this point -- then a blindfold isn't going to do a very good job keeping them away...
Like One Missed Call, The Eye also lacks even the most rudimentary sense of consistency in its approach to the supernatural. Sometimes the apparitions appear to be the herky-jerky style we've grown accustomed to in films like Silent Hill. Other times, the ghosties appear normal, yet float a few inches above ground. Sometimes Sydney's visions go right through her body, and sometimes they actually touch her (thus creating burns). Sometimes the visions seem to be all in her head (she sees someone else in the mirror staring back her; but others don't), and sometimes the visions leave behind evidence in the real world (like a hand-print in a pile of spilled sugar...) that could be observed by third parties. Sometimes the visions are related to a central mystery and sometimes (as in the ludicrous case of a ghostly Chinese restaurant), they are totally random. Sometimes the visions are about the past (the Chinese restaurant again) and sometimes they are about the future (a bus accident).

A movie isn't a salad bar. The director (or screenwriter) can't just pick and choose anything he wants and hope that it all fits together coherently in the end. Especially if it is a mystery that the audience is supposed to feel a part of (or curious about.) Now, one might make the argument that the director is asking us to do the same thing as Sydney here: select with our eyes what is important and discard the rest. I would buy that (for a dollar...) if I felt in my heart that the movie always knew where it was headed, as well as the point (or theme) of the narrative. The film's valedictory voice-over, however, makes clear that The Eye has no idea whatsoever.

So here's the deal: All along Anna Christina has wanted, apparently, for Sydney to save a bunch of innocent people involved in a deadly road accident. That's what the visions have really been about (just forget the Chinese take-out place, okay? It didn't happen...). But the reason that Anna Christina died (she hanged herself) was because she was "ultimately powerless" (verbatim...) to "prevent" the death she predicted. But -- huh? Sydney ended up having the same visions and saving everybody!!! So there's no "powerlessness" about it: Anna Christina was obviously just an underachiever. The point of the whole movie is supposed to be, according to the dialogue, that death is unchangeable; that fate is immovable and therefore the gift of insight (as in the case of the mythical Cassandra) is both a "blessing and a curse." But then the movie has Sydney succeed in her rescue mission, proving that fate is actually changeable (like the movie itself). Whatever.

What's the real message of The Eye? Whether you're in the market for tomatoes or eye transplants, don't import 'em from Mexico...
I usually refrain from noting in my reviews that a film is dull. I'm a believer that to say a film is "boring" is only to acknowledge my own failures as a critic. It's the equivalent of saying that -- basically -- I wasn't open to it. No film is "boring" if one attempts to engage with it. But here's a film where truly not much happens for most of the running time, and thus it qualifies as the exception to my long-standing rule.

The Eye is boring as hell.

It takes one hour and three minutes to get to Sydney's realization that her eye donor might be the key to solving her "visions" mystery. D'oh! That's a long (long...) time to go with no forward momentum in narrative; with just the specter of helter skelter visions appearing and disappearing to keep you company.

I perked up precisely once in the entire film: when Jessica Alba's character was in the shower. But even here the movie denied our eyes anything stimulating. God damn you, frosted glass...