Friday, November 18, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of Mars Attacks! (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in 1999 with the triumphant Sleepy Hollow, a dark fairy tale powered by the pervasive millennial angst of the era. 

Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future.  Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism?  Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?

Widely recognized as an example of "gorgeous filmmaking," (Rolling Stone), Sleepy Hollow was lauded upon release for its lush production values and colorful, autumnal imagery.  Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, for instance, aptly termed the film a "visual seduction."

That's an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film's persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history.  It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegaic about the world it creates: the last spell  perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film's nature.  Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand.   As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting -- and wonderful -- moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood.

The joke is not only an example of inside baseball, so-to-speak, but an indicator that Burton has fashioned his entire 1999 film as an homage to the output of Hammer. As Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin write in Flickipedia, the director “continues his unique, idiosyncratic, and very personal career project: to re-experience and revivify the toy chest of pop-culture effluvia that sustained him – and many of us – through our ‘Nam era childhoods.” (Chicago Review Press, 2007, page 21.) 

Or, as Wesley Morris wrote in The San Francisco Examiner: "what Burton does perhaps better than even Steven Spielberg: transport you to a nook in your childhood, be it around a summer campfire or smack in front of a TV set on a Saturday afternoon."

In the visual language of a Hammer Studios film then, the impressive Sleepy Hollow asks its audience to contemplate the nature of life on Heaven and Earth.  Is science the key to understanding it?  Or is there room, yet, for magic in this world?  In scenes both lyrical and poetic (particularly those involving Lisa Marie as Ichabod's mother), Burton's Sleepy Hollow seeks the answer.

Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton's earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top "tier" films in the director's canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.

"It is truth, but truth is not always appearance."

The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken). 

When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci).  The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane's mother (Marie) was also witch.

As the mystery of Sleepy Hollow deepens, Crane wonders if someone is summoning a dark, malevolent spirit for monetary gain, and if so, who it could be.  He realizes that to learn that answer, Crane must not depend on science alone, but open himself to the possibilities suggested by his mother; the possibilities of magic.

"The millennium is almost upon us..."

Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s.

Not only does this film feature familiar horror actors from the Hammer stable, including Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, it is also, like the works of that studio, largely set-bound, and it embodies a similar, heavy sense of Gothic romanticism.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” ("Headless in Sleepy Hollow," November 1999, page 38.)

Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film's canvas: "Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, "Sleepy Hollow" creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds."   Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)

Crane has put his faith in technology and reason, and believes that “to detect the guilty” science is the best tool.   He disdains the fact that he seems to be the only one "who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques."

That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysicism) is the real thematic terrain of the film.

Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: "Here's Your Head, What's Your Hurry?" December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town.   The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod's way will dominate the human race.  Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in "modern" New York...a realm of science.

Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does-- at least partially --  seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.

Though whip smart, knowledgeable and clever, Ichabod suppresses his own “natural gift,” the one handed down to him by his mother: his capacity for belief in something greater than the resources and wonders of man’s mind. In this sense, one might gaze at Sleepy Hollow as a tale of one man’s spiritual, even religious, awakening. Crane comes to see that he can't depend on science alone, but also must understand the rules of magic; on his instinctive sense of wonder. 

And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie's dialogue about nature vs. supernature.  The  Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast.  Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane.  The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges.  His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words  Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

Uniquely, Ichabod's journey may also be a reflection of how cinema (particular the horror cinema) had grown cold and clinical in the 1990s.  This was the era of 1,001 police procedural horrors, roughly (The Silence of the Lambs, Jennifer 8, Se7en, Kiss the Girls, Resurrection, Copycat, The Bone Collector, etc.) and such films reduced the great act of "monster"-hunting to a science, a forensic science. 

Ichabod is clearly in the mold of such CSI-styled investigators (nay a progenitor of their mold...) and yet in the end it is not forensics that saves the day in Sleepy is the investigator's natural gift, his ability to countenance magic.  One might easily see this conceit as Burton's embedded critique of the increasingly stale take on horror at the turn of the millennium.  With its beautiful fairy tale forests and deliberate Hammer Studio artifice, Sleepy Hollow seems a deliberate and almost elegeic throwback to an era of imagination and theatricality instead of gritty psychological realism.

At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually "bewitched by reason," and that comment perfectly captures the film's questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation.  And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film...undeniably one of his finest.

Next Week: Big Fish.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Villainy wears many masks, none of which so dangerous as virtue."

- Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) in Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Frozen (2010)

It's an understatement to declare that I didn't care much for director Adam Green's first feature, Hatchet (2007).  In fact, I called it a "hack job." 

In short, I felt Hatchet was a poorly-executed skit involving the slasher film paradigm, a one-dimensional, tongue-in-cheek exercise that never managed to establish, even minimally, a legitimate sense of place despite being set in a picturesque Louisiana bayou.  The film never offered a compelling or believable reality and instead seemed like an overlong and obvious joke.

But today, I'm singing a (happy) new tune regarding Adam Green's work because I just screened his extraordinary 2010 horror film, Frozen.

Unlike Hatchet, Frozen settles down immediately in a well-drawn locale, and Green here reveals  a fine eye for detail, nuance, and character.  In the first fifteen minutes alone, the director imbues his film with an authentic sense of anticipation and dread.

More than that, this inventive horror movie doesn't attempt to be cute or precious by directing audience attention to familiar genre conventions.  Instead,  Frozen dramatically eschews all such post-modern trappings and depicts a simple, harrowing narrative of survival in a fashion that -- as the title indicates --makes your blood run cold. 

In Frozen, three college students, Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore), Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell) take a weekend ski trip to Mount Holliston.  Then, as the sun sets, they decide to make one last night-time run on the slopes. 

Because of a simple misunderstanding and shift change, however, the employees at the lodge shut off the ski-lift while the threesome is in mid-passage to the distant summit.  The machine grinds to a halt, and the three students become trapped on the lift. 

At first, Lynch, Dan and Parker try to dismiss the gravity of their situation high above the mountain, in hopes that they will soon be discovered and rescued.  Before long, however, the college students realize that it is Sunday evening, and that the park doesn't open again for five days...until Friday. 

Worse, a storm is coming.  If they don't find a way down from the immobile air-lift (where they sit side-by-side like sardines), they are certain to freeze to death.

What follows this grim realization is roughly forty five minutes of pure, gut-wrenching terror as one attempt after another to reach safety goes horribly, wretchedly awry.  Challenges and dangers lurk everywhere.  On the ground, for instance, hungry wolves soon begin to gather.  And high-up, ensconced on the lift, Parker develops a bad case of frost bite. 

Dan suggests jumping to the ground far below, but that avenue carries significant risk of grievous bodily harm...

Soon, Frozen's protagonists make fateful decisions in an attempt to stay alive, and survive the increasingly unfriendly elements.

So forget the colorfully-named Three on a Meathook (1973), this is Three on a Ski-Lift

While watching  Frozen, I was pleasantly reminded of Open Water (2004), another take-no-prisoners horror film about unlucky people attempting to survive in an inhospitable location, in that instance the deep blue sea.  

Both films represent the brand of horror film I really and truly admire the most: those which deal explicitly with the cruel application of random fate.  As if to suggest the wheels of fate or destiny forever spinning, Green commences his film with close-up views of the ski lift's whirring, over sized gears.  These gears work efficiently and endlessly,  but also without consideration for human concerns, these compositions appear to assert. Much like Mother Nature herself.

To put this bluntly, Frozen revolves around the big, unanswered questions of our human existence (and the reason why so many people seek the comfort of religion):  why do terrible things happen to us , or to the people we love?  How can a seemingly perfect day turn on a dime and become a horrible nightmare?  What does it all mean?

Likewise, in Frozen, the three intelligent and likable protagonists could not --- at the beginning of the day -- have possibly imagined where they would be at the end of the same day.  They embark on a rather terrible "wrong turn" and must suddenly reckon with their very mortality.  Their previous concerns, which include Joe acquiring and remembering a girl's telephone number, suddenly seem incredibly trivial.  This is a reminder that we take our lives pretty much for granted every single day.  We go about our tasks and our hobbies without real regard for the fact that, out of the blue, it could end.  The shadow of death is upon us, whether we see and recognize it or not.

As Dan, Lynch and Parker grapple with their rapidly worsening situation on the ski lift, drastic measures eventually become necessary, and it's fascinating -- and terrifying -- to watch as they broach such life-and- death decisions.  For me, this aspect of Frozen represents the very beating heart of the great horror movie aesthetic.  When you separate the genre from its mitigating and ameloriating fantasy elements like vampires, monsters or aliens, this is precisely the equation you're left with: a palpable recognition and fear of impending death. 

The battle for survival is all, and intractable, uncaring nature itself is the enemy.  All along, watching a film such as Frozen, the audience meaningfully ponders the idea "there but for the grace of God go I..." because any one of us, could, reasonably speaking, end up in a similarly dangerous situation, forced to make painful choices. 

Who is going to live and who is going to die?  Is there a pecking order in terms of survival?  Who should be the one to jump from the chair? 

Even, how am I going to take a piss up here?

One of Frozen's best and most moving moments involve a character's final act as he is set upon by a pack of very angry-looking wolves.  Without a word, this character pulls his hat down over his eyes so he can't see what's coming, and the simple gesture feels very, very real.  There's little else to do in that moment, but to look away from the inevitable.  Frozen is unblinking about death, but the film's human protagonists, appropriately, are not.  Again, this gesture is pretty darn metaphorical: we all pull the hat down over our eyes in regards to the fact that we don't really control nature.  Or the fact that one day, for each of us, this ride towards an unknown summit is going to come to an end.

So make no mistake, in reckoning with all of  this existentialist angst, Frozen is unrelentingly grim. 

The characters in the film inevitably debate the worst way to die, and then even discuss the traumatic horrors of 9/11. 

By film's end, the same characters are contemplating the fact that their pets could very well starve to death if they don't get down from the lift.  It's not exactly a mood lifter.

The cast in Frozen is pretty terrific, but Shawn Ashmore as Lynch is the stand-out.  Early on, we can see that Lynch feels guilty as the "odd man out" when the threesome must decide who should jump from the lift.  He doesn't want to be the one to jump, but it's clear to him that he should, morally, be the one to do it, since he is not part of the "couple."  This doesn't mean he does the right thing.

Later, Lynch deals with recriminations over his actions (and lack of action) and recounts some humanizing stories about the lost opportunities in his life.  Rarely, if ever, do these revelations feel like the machinations of a writer, but rather like real life human expressions of regret as the end, inevitably, nears.  Green utilizes a lot of close-ups to tell his tale which is an appropriate tactic for fostering empathy.  We're clearly meant to sympathize with these protagonists, and  Lynch, Dan and Parker are not extraordinary in any particular way.  They aren't heroes and they aren't assholes who "have it coming."  Instead, they are just like you and me: people who are living their lives, not really thinking about matters such as life and death. 

As you probably know by now, I often very much enjoy films that accomplish a lot with only a few resources.  The low budget Frozen is basically a three person show occurring in just one setting.  But it's never dull, the ending is never pre-ordained, and Green masterfully sustains tension throughout the full hour-and-a-half running time.  This is no small challenge, but Green, in vetting his story well, reminds the viewer how all our lives hang by a thread (or a metal cable, perhaps).  Sometimes, we don't realize that fact until it's too late.

A note to the squeamish: Frozen is pretty gory.  There are only three primary characters, and one scene of intense gore proved so disgusting and upsetting that my (patient) wife actually leapt up from the sofa and refused to sit back down.  I had to freeze the movie and literally talk her back down. I had to convince her to watch the rest of the movie with me...and -- believe me -- it wasn't easy.   My wife's reaction was absolutely appropriate, of course.  Something so awful happens to a truly likable character here that you'll be tempted to tune out and say "enough's enough."

But of course, the chareacters in the drama don't have that out, do they?  Instead, they have a front row seat to a friend's horrible and violent death, with no opportunity to protest the absolute unfairness of the situation.   In exploring that situation -- that human truth about our mortality -- Frozen proves damned serious business.

After the film, my wife and I debated it rather heatedly.  She said Frozen was depressing because it was just about watching nice people suffer and die.  I countered that I never find a well-done horror movie about the human condition depressing, because at least it's about something important: how we face existence and its inevitable end.  The films that I find depressing are the ones that don't mean anything at all; that just waste my time (like Hatchet). 

Frozen definitely won't waste your time.  It won't exactly make you happy, but it won't waste your time, either.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Cult TV Faces of: Amnesia

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: George Reeves as Clark Ken in  The Adventures of Superman: "Panic in the Sky."

Identified by Anonymous/SGB: Anne Francis in The Twilight Zone: "The After Hours."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: "Kirok" (William Shatner) in Star Trek: "The Paradise Syndrome."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Mark Harris (Patrick Duffy) in The Man from Atlantis.

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Donovan (Marc Singer) in V: The Series: "The Deception."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Lois Lane/Wanda Detroit in Lois & Clark.

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) in Millennium: "Walkabout."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: The Scooby Gang in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Tabula Rasa."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: John Doe (Dominic Purcell) in John Doe (2002).

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Clark Kent (Tom Welling) in Smallville.

Identified by David: Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in Alis: "The Two."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: The cast of Angel: "Spin the Bottle."

Identified by Chris G: Veronica (Kristen Bell) in the pilot episode of Veronica Mars.