Friday, December 23, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Batman (1989)

"I don't know if it's art, but I like it!"

- The Joker, in Tim Burton's Batman (1989)

Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman character has gone through nearly as many cinematic and television incarnations, perhaps, as Bram Stoker's Dracula or Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The Adam West Batman TV series of the 1960s showcased a colorful world of campy characters, stereotypical comic-book affectations (ZAP!) and obsessively-labeled Bat gadgets and devices (like the Batcave's clearly marked "Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City").

Contrarily, Christopher Nolan's currently in-vogue interpretation of the mythos adopts the opposite tack, grounding absolutely every aspect of Batman's universe in kitchen sink, War on Terror Age reality.  Here, the Batmobile is more Hummer than hot rod, an all-terrain military vehicle adapted by the Dark Knight for urban use.  The Caped Crusader's costume, according to Batman Begins (2005)  is actually a "Nomex Survival Suit" not a mere "costume," and Gotham City appears to be a very real, very grounded metropolis (actually Chicago in The Dark Knight [2008], if memory serves).

Between these opposite poles of  tongue-in-cheek comedy and naturalistic, gritty realism, director Tim Burton presented his own unique take on the Batman legend in the final year of the 1980s.  Given what we understand of Burton's aesthetic at this point in our retrospective series, it's not at all surprising that his vision for the Caped Crusader is largely expressionistic; one that distorts reality, essentially, to create an overwhelming sense of mood or psychological and emotional experience. 

In short, Burton's blockbuster 1989 film largely concerns two men (Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier) who  owe their very identities (and their mutual senses of alienation...) to the failed city-state where they dwell.  Batman and Joker could conceivably exist, according to this film, nowhere but in Gotham City.  The city -- heir to skylines like those seen in  Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) -- functions  itself as a character in the drama, and as an important player in the action.  In some ways, the very architecture of the city  reflects the mental landscape of the Joker and Batman.  All three "characters" are strange, jumbled, "new" edifices (psychological and concrete) built upon old, shaky, crumbling and "dead" personalities or foundations.  Or as Jack Napier notes, "decent people shouldn't live here."

If you remember the summer of 1989 at all, you'll likely recall the "Bat Frenzy" that seized the nation upon release of Burton's film.  It was an authentic and unforgettable Zeitgeist moment. Although many fans had grown concerned about the casting of "comedic" actor Michael Keaton as Batman, most complaints evaporated once the film was screened.  Never before on-screen had Batman been taken so "seriously," and his world rendered so impressively and expensively.

Accordingly, most critics raved about the picture and the power of Burton's vision.  Ken Hanke, writing in Films in Review, called the film "a work of brilliance" (October 1989, page 480), and David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor commended Batman's "haunting tone." (June 29, 1989, page 10). 

For me, those things that remain so vital and and impressive about Burton's Batman are the canny psychological underpinnings.   Batman becomes an understandable/relatable personality only because Burton erects the Caped Crusader's universe from the ground-up.  In other words, Gotham is indeed the "prime actor" on Batman's psyche, and the very thing responsible for making one man "The Bat" and  another The Joker.   In focusing on the surrounding universe (rather than merely the people inhabiting it), Burton's Batman more readily functions as an epic fantasy than either its comedic antecedent, the Batman TV series, or Nolan's big-budget pictures, which are basically action-films played straight, with few fantastic or fantasy elements at all.

Burton's Batman also thrives on its two central performances: Michael Keaton as a man dwelling in the past and wholly absent-minded about the details of the present, and Jack Nicholson as a monster who leaves behind day-to-day matters of concern (like his physical appearance) to dwell on a more abstract (if terrifying...) plateau; that of a "fully functional homicidal artist."  These men, joined by their twisted "origins" -- or more accurately their twisted resurrections -- fight to control Gotham City, and also the love of a woman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).

"Haven't you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?"

In crime-ridden Gotham City, crooks and thieves fear a new presence in town, the nighttime avenger known as "The Bat." 

Actually, criminals fear Batman, the alter-ego of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who each night patrols the mean streets of Gotham and recalls (and relives?) the crime that robbed an innocent child of his parents.

As a nosy reporter, Knox (Robert Wuhl) and a beautiful photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) plot to learn more about the mysterious Batman, Gotham's Underworld undergoes a dramatic shift.  After a confrontation with Batman at Axis Chemicals, thug Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is transformed into the mad Joker, and murders crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance).  He assumes control of the Grissom operation and begins a reign of bizarre terror.

While Bruce and Vicki embark upon a romantic relationship, the Joker terrorizes Gotham with his deadly Smilex toxin.  After Batman unravels the Smilex puzzle, the Joker challenges Batman to meet him during the nighttime parade celebrating the 200th anniversary of Gotham City.  For the people of Gotham, the big question is: who do you trust?  The clown, or the man in a bat suit?

"You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs."

The Batman character first appeared in May of 1939 in an issue of Detective Comics.  Importantly, Burton's Batman film seems to seize on that era of American history (say 1939 - 1945) and to forge a sense of reality with that epoch as its creative basis. 

Accordingly, the Gotham City featured in Batman is one in which the Art Deco and "futura" style of the late 1920s and early 1930s has given way to the terrors of both fascism and more utilitarian architecture.  The beautiful deco Gotham -- representative of elegant, stylish and streamlined modern architecture -- has been "built over" willy-nilly by a melange of industrial grunge and blight.  It's as though someone constructed a beautiful contemporary city in one decade, and then just kept building and building upon it randomly for generations, with no thought or strategy about how to expand.  And each expansion is uglier, less stylish...less optimistic than the last.

You can detect the late-1930s early-1940s touches not merely in the architecture featured in Gotham in Batman, but in the costumes as well.  The policemen wear leather jackets, and male citizens are adorned in fedoras and other hats.  Also, aspects of the dialogue purposefully play up this era of American history.  Knox (Robert Wuhl) talks like he's out of a snappy, 1940s-era Howard Hawks movie (perhaps His Girl Friday [1940]) and Joker's base of operations is called Axis Chemicals.  As other critics have rightly pointed out, "Axis" is the name of the military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan circa 1936 - 1945, and so again, a particular era of world history is alluded to, at least sub textually, in Batman.

If we remember what was happening in the world at the time of the Axis Powers perhaps we can understand why this reference is important to an understanding of Burton's Batman.  After the defeat (or death) represented by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was "resurrected" as a global player...and terrifyingly so, as a monster; as the much-feared Nazi movement. The Joker's journey in the Burton film actually mirrors Germany's in some odd fashion  Jack Napier meets his Waterloo (or Versailles) at Axis, and is resurrected from the toxic (primordial?) goop as the Joker...only to ascend to greater power and tremendous madness.  Like Nazi Germany, he nearly wins his battle for domination too. 

Thus, in some sub textual fashion, Batman seems to be about the idea of a "good" world going very, very wrong, taking a nearly fatal wrong turn; of art deco modernity giving way to industrial blues, and the rise of fascism.  Incidentally, this is also the very production design pattern that George Lucas utilizes in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), showcasing in that film how a chrome, Art Deco Republic transforms into a  utilitarian, totalitarian state, where the ugliness of the movement is reflected in the ugliness of the new architecture.  In both cases, production design and wardrobe represent audience cues to express for us something important about the film's milieu. 

Another way to explain this aspect of the Burton Batman:  It's as though the film maker's took a snapshot of Batman's world in 1939, on the comic book's very parturition, and expanded that snapshot into a full-length film.  Also encoded in that "snapshot" is the idea of one "free" man (Wayne) utilizing his resources and wealth to challenge a system that isn't working.  In Gotham, the police are mostly helpless and citizens cower in fear because of the rampant crime.

In 1939, as America saw Nazi-ism rise overseas and countenanced the ascent of a more socialist state in America, some people would have viewed a capitalist crusader Batman as the express antidote to both: an entrepreneur using his own resources, by his own will, to restore justice.  Some no-nothing hipsters have (only half-seriously, no doubt...) suggested that Batman is actually the "Nazi" symbol in this movie's equation, though that interpretation ignores the obvious fact that the Joker is explicitly linked to Axis; that he ascends from a terrible defeat (like Versailles) and then, afterwards, grows more powerful than before (as the Joker), and -- finally -- that, at the Art Museum, he defaces works representing mainstream Europe (the Allies, essentially).  All these incidents suggest that the Joker is a grotesque, fascist threat to the Art Deco order.

Interestingly, both Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier are depicted in Burton's Batman as victims of what Gotham City has become.  Even as an adult, Bruce remains obsessed with the death of his parents in Gotham, a result of out-of-control crime and the failure of the establishment.  To  characterize this on-going obsession, Burton features at least two similarly-staged scenes.  In the film's opening scene, Batman arrives (too late) to save a family of movie-goers as they are accosted by criminals.  Later, Bruce remembers the death of his parents (in flashback) after a similar night at the movies, and an encounter with young Jack Napier.  These scenes are very similar, right down to the single-child nature of the family, and they suggest that Bruce is caught in a kind of endless, obsessive loop, unable to put the past down.   His nightly ritual of crime-fighting is in fact an attempt to exorcise the images he can't get out of his head: the death of his parents.  A third scene adds meaningfully to this conceit, showcasing Bruce brushing off the optimistic present (a date with Vicki) to return to the alley where his parents tragically died, and lay flowers at the spot where they expired.

This approach is intriguingly contrasted with Bruce Wayne's inability to focus on the details of the present.  He can't be bothered to pay attention to a gala being hosted at his house (in support of the 200th anniversary of Gotham City), and is glib about his wealth and belongings, even offering Knox a "grant" for his work, seemingly off-the-cuff.  A later scene involving Vicki and Bruce on a date at Wayne Manor, in a vast dining room, purposely seems to reflect a famous scene in Citizen Kane (1941) that -- through the spatial gulf across a colossal dining room table -- expressed the idea of marital alienation between an obscenely wealthy man and his emotionally-desolate wife.  Here, the scene reveals the gulf between Bruce and his present.  He can't quite reach it; can't quite touch or embrace it.  Again, notice how the focus in this Batman is upon the psychological state of the characters; on an expression of their interior dilemmas.  And also notice, please, how a visual film allusion to Citizen Kane also functions as a call-back to the time period I mentioned above, say 1936 - 1945. 

It all fits together.

In Burton's Batman, Bruce as he appears now was "created" in the crucible of his parent's death, and has never been able to step outside that person.  He can't live in the present.  He can only live obsessively in the past; the past that Gotham City made for him.  In fact, Bruce has used all his considerable resources to trap himself in a cage, a technological cage in which he becomes a strange alter-ego; one who is always seeking to avenge the one act he cannot undo.  He can't quite reach across that dining room table to Vicki, even though a part of him desires that outcome.  "Are we at least going to try to love each other?" Vicki asks Bruce at one point, and his answer is determinedly a "no."  He's got work to do; a job to do.  Avenging the past.

By contrast, the Joker cannot live in the past.  After being dropped into toxic chemicals and suffering botched plastic surgery (in a very dark, very creepy scene...), the present doesn't interest the Joker.  What interests him, instead, is the very act of creation, or perhaps, more accurately, of transformation.  He focuses on what he can make of himself, the world, and other people around him, like his unfortunate girlfriend.  The Joker realizes that he can be an artist: skilled at the very activity (with some sensitivity and imagination) of destroying and resurrecting lives.  The past is dead to the Joker, and he is characterized in the film by his need to "re-paint" or tarnish the present, which we see during his efforts at the museum.  The Joker survives his pain -- like a true artist -- by making the world share it with him. 

For this reason alone, I must confess that I prefer Nicholson's Joker to Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight.  Nicholson's Joker is engaged in the act of becoming; of transforming the world into a nightmare reflecting his own point-of-view (again, remember the fascism/Nazi subtext I noted above). By contrast, Ledger's Joker seems more like a force of pure chaos; one whose only purpose is to have no express purpose; destruction for the sake of destruction.

Both performances are powerful, but for me, Nicholson is both funny and terrifying, whereas Ledger was merely terrifying.  The powerful idea underlining a villain like the Joker is that he both attracts and repels; he's both charismatic and totally untrustworthy.  You can readily believe that Nicholson's "showman" Joker would inspire followers and "believers," whereas that's not exactly the case with the character in The Dark Knight.  Also, Burton expresses the hows and whys of the Joker's parturition in this Batman, granting the character a distinctive world view as a "homicidal artist."  The character in The Dark Knight, in my opinion, remains a bit charmless and opaque, if undeniably menacing.  Again, people of good will shall differ on favorites, and perhaps the bottom line is that Nicholson's Joker can exist only in Burton's vision for the mythos, just as Ledger is appropriate to Nolan's vision.

The idea or resurrection looms large in Burton's Batman.  The once beautiful Gotham City has been resurrected as an industrial nightmare of out-of-control crime, Bruce has taken his obsession with is parents' death and resurrected himself as Batman, and out of the battle at Axis Chemicals Jack has been resurrected as that homicidal artist, the Joker.  Each character suggests what happens when a trauma isn't diagnosed or handled, but merely scabbed or built over.  The results, in all cases aren't "exactly normal" to quote Vicki's description of Batman.   The intertwining of Joker/Batman and Gotham is made explicit in the Batman screenplay as Joker and Batman fight atop Gotham's abandoned cathedral and argue "I made you?"  "You made me."

Batman premiered near the end of the pre-CGI age in terms of special effects, when miniatures, animation and other older creative tools were still widely in use.  For some audiences, the effects will seem dated, but for others, they will feel appropriately more tactile and bizarre, in some fashion, than what we have grown accustomed to in the digital era.  Like so many Burton films, this is a messy, organic effort.  We see acid burned on human faces, the bloody instruments from a botched plastic surgery, sweat-drenched criminals and other distinctive horrors.  There's always very much a feeling here that these horrendous events are real and happening, not fleshless, gravity-less affectations superimposed after the characters were actually there.  This fits into the psychological underpinnings of the film, the idea of people living in a nightmare state, in a nightmare city.  You can't achieve that effect that so easily with green screens, or CGI blood spurts.  This movie is about making us feel we live in Batman's world, and for that reason, it's very successful as a work of art.

Back in 1989, I had a high-school friend whom I absolutely loved, named Amy, who described Burton's Batman -- humorously -- as "pretty darn plotless," and perhaps there's some truth to that complaint.  The film is about a  lengthy grudge match between two men in a place "synonymous with crime."  The narrative details are less crucial than the expression of the locations, and the emotional, psychological particulars of the two combatants.  Danny Elfman's magnificent score adds to the aura of a moody, introspective rumination, one overcrowded with ideas, and in some cases, authentic horrors. 

I realize that Batman is far from Burton's favorite film, and yet it does, quite readily, reflect much of his nature as an artist, stressing visuals as psychological symbols of fractured and damaged mental states. The film also diagrams the story of misfits and outsiders, a frequent Burton leitmotif.  As Bruce Wayne might characterize Batman in terms of Burton,  "some of it is very much me," and "some of it is not."   Though there's much of the film's director personal taste evident in the mix, Batman Returns (1992), in some ways,  is an even more perfect representation of the director's aesthetic.  It's weirder and wilder, even, than the gruesome sights on display here.  That film, in my opinion, is some kind of twisted Christmas, Burton high-point, a second run at the Batman legend that improves on the expressive, psychologically-adroit ruminations of this admirable 1989 effort.

[Note: After two months, we've come to the end of the Burton Brief schedule I originally set out, even though we're a week behind and I didn't get to Batman Returns.  I hope you've enjoyed this retrospective on Burton, and rest assured, we'll get to Batman Returns (and Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) in time for the release of The Dark Knight Rises. 

In terms of Burton rather than Batman, I'm very much looking forward to his adaptation of Dark Shadows, which, of course, concerns another misfit outsider:  the vampire Barnabas Collins.  I think what I took away from this Burton series -- and which I did not expect going in -- is that there is really a method to his madness once start gazing across his work.  It's very easy to casually dismiss Burton as weird-for-weird's sake, but while reviewing many of his projects, I've begun to see the discipline and psychological touches he imbues each project with.  I hope you've noticed them too.]

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (2 Days Left...)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I now do what other people only dream. I make art until someone dies. See? I am the world's first fully functioning homicidal artist."

- The Joker (Jack Nicholson), in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), to be reviewed here this weekend.

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (3 Days Left)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Pulsar's Life Systems Center (Mattel; 1976)

In the year 1976, toy companies across the U.S.A. rushed to compete with Kenner's super-successful The Six Million Dollar Man toy-line.  Mattel, for instance, devised PULSAR, "the ultimate man of adventure." 

About the same size as the Steve Austin figure, PULSAR came outfitted in a nifty red and black uniform, but when you took off his shirt you could see all of his chest organs -- heart and lungs -- pumping awat. 

Also, PULSAR's head could flip-up, and different mission disks could be inserted into his brain.

PULSAR's enemy was the evil HYPNOS, and the hero's base of operation was this ultra-awesome Life Systems Center. 

The packaging described this base as a "re-energizing and reprogramming machine" and it features an x-ray screen, a "power pak and scanner," a "brain probe light," a "mission programmer," "control dial" and "remote activator."  With the Life Systems Center you could double-check X-rays, "light-scan" PULSAR's brain, "set all systems" and activate "vital organs" (which always help on a secret mission, I guess.)

Designed for "ages over 3" this Mattel toy ran on 2 AA batteries (not included).  I still have PULSAR, HYPNOS and the Life Systems Center, though the center is missing many parts (including some tubing and the actual X-Ray screen).  Mine doesn't function at all, either, and as you can see from the photos, the box is pretty badly damaged at this point.

Still, I love the whole PULSAR line from Mattel, even though I'm not entirely certain what's so special or adventurous about a guy who shows off his internal organs for all to see, or can be controlled by a disk drive in his brain.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fright Night (2011)

Tom Holland's original Fright Night (1985) is one of my all-time favorite vampire movies.  Scary, sexy and funny-as-hell, the movie highlighted a number of terrific genre concepts. 

On the one hand, the  movie knowingly connected itself to the great tradition of Gothic vampire movies (as evidenced by the output of Hammer Studios in the 1950s - 1960s), both paying tribute to cinematic bloodsuckers of yesteryear and gently mocking them too. 

At the same time, the 1985 film played on the relatively new notion (in the eighties) that Americans -- so transient in the new age of cheap air travel -- could not always know or trust their neighbors in suburbia.  The man living next door could be sexually promiscuous, homosexual (gasp!)...or even an evil bloodsucker.

The Holland film really played lightly and beautifully with such thoughtful notions.  The vampire Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) posed a significant danger to the adolescent characters in the film, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse) and Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys).  Yet this danger did not arise merely from Dandridge's creature-of-the-night ways, but from the fact that he was explicitliy offering something "new" and "different" in Reagan's traditional, conventional, and uptight America. 

Jerry, a stylish  -- metrosexual? -- man moved into Charley's neighborhood with his live-in "friend," Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark), and director Tom Holland frequently positioned the two men together in the frame in poses of submission/domination suggesting the act of fellatio.   The idea wasn't merely that Jerry was homosexual, but sexually omnivorous, offering the young Amy and Ed membership into the tribe of adulthood through promises of physical and sensual pleasure.

In some situations, Jerry offered seduction (as is the case with Amy, who longed for her boyfriend, Charley, to be a "man" with her in the bedroom), and in other cases, Jerry offered something else: a new brand of companionship for someone who was bullied and treated as different.  Before turning Ed into a vampire, Jerry told him  "I know what it's like to be different.  They won't pick on you anymore.  Or beat you up.  I'll see to that." 

Dandridge's implicit promise to Ed was to make him belong somewhere, with someone, and not be the perpetual, derided outsider.  That promise was depicted in the original Fright Night within a sexual (in this case, homosexual) context, but Holland's visual and thematic approach added a layer of meaning and ambiguity to the film.  Dandridge was evil...and yet he also clearly felt love.  He wanted to make vampire brethren, and yet he also promised to protect Ed.  The film wasn't only a case of black and white, good and evil, vampire and human.  It was more layered than that.

Lest you think I'm reading too much into this 1985 horror film, I'll refer you to an interview I conducted with Fright Night editor Kent Beyda that appears in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).  Mr. Beyda stressed with me that the film's sexual overtones were "all very conscious." 

Furthermore, he added "It was all planned out.  When the kid [Ragsdale] is looking through his window at Chris Sarandon, his assistant goes down on his knees in front of Chris.  That was deliberate....He [Holland] wanted to explore that part of it [of vampirism] in addition to everything else.  The vampire myth is always very sexual and I think he wanted to go into every aspect of sexuality..."

Outside the film's Gothic overtones and sexual subtext, Fright Night also offered a criticism of the then-current slasher film movement, with vampire killer Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) lamenting that audiences were no longer interested in vampire films, only in masked killers hacking up young virgins. 

McDowall himself gave the film a solid grounding in heartfelt human emotions, portraying Vincent as a cowardly man who must summon all his strength (and faith) to defeat Jerry Dandridge.

Well, flash forward to 2011, and here we have a remake of Fright Night written by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and directed by Craig Gillespie. 

Where the original film saw itself as a point along the continuum of horror cinema (commenting on Hammer films and slasher films along the way), the only vampire title this movie can think to reference is Twilight (2008). 

Where the original film featured Gothic touches (mist-laden mansions, women in diaphanous gowns, a repulsion/attraction to Evil in the form of flamboyant Dandridge), this film more or less eschews the Gothic aesthetic and makes this modern incarnation of Jerry Dandridge a blunt serial killer vampire, one with a secret "dungeon" in his house, where he keeps his victims. 

Where the original film gave us a Peter Vincent with a lifetime of useful/useless experience as a B-movie, Hollywood "vampire killer" and reminded us of icons such as Peter Cushing or Vincent Price in the process, this movie gives us David Tennant as Peter Vincent, a relatively young man headlining a vampire show in Vegas.  Alarmingly, Peter Vincent has even been given a wholly unnecessary, "tragic" back story.  His parents were murdered by vampires, you see.  In fact, Jerry Dandridge is the very creature of the night who murdered them years ago, but Vincent has repressed that knowledge...until now.

Convenient how that all fits together, isn't it?

In the original film, Jerry spent much of his time attempting to seduce Amy.  In one of the original film's trademark moments, Jerry slow-danced with Amy in a crowded nightclub...and things got a little naughty.  In the new version, Jerry (Colin Farrell) has no time to romance Amy (Imogene Poots), and he doesn't dance with her at all.  Instead, he gets her "high" on his vamped-out blood -- a tiresome drug addiction allusion --  and carries her off to his Vegas dungeon as she slips into unconsciousness. 

No time for love, Dr. Jones.

The fact that the new Fright Night never attempts -- even a little -- to cast a romantic (or even particularly sexual...) spell fits in well with the somewhat perfunctory nature of the remake.  For example, you'll notice that every time a vampire burns up on screen, his ash embers are digitally imposed, and thus never touch down or alight upon a single character.  Nope, the ashes were added in post-production, with no thought at all to the fact that the burning ash should actually, you know, land on characters' clothes and skin, and thereby dirty them up. 

In this sense, the new film also lacks the visceral, messy, organic feel of the original, which added a moral ambiguity to the act of killing vampires.  There was a scene in the original during which Vincent staked Evil Ed (as a wolf) and then had to watch, seemingly for minutes, as the boy went through an agonizing, horrible death.  McDowall's labored reaction shots might it plain that what he was witnessing was horrible...the monstrous death of a young man.  There was sympathy there, in other words. 

There's no such dimension to the vampire deaths or the vampire terror in this 2011 remake.  Indeed, the creatures of the night are even self cleaning as they die, and the heroes never really get very dirty or have to confront what killing vampires means in terms of morality.

Perhaps unwisely, the film also chooses to recycle some of the memorable dialogue from the first film: "You're so cool, Brewster," for one.  But the worst line reading goes to Colin Farrell, who says "Welcome to Fright Night for real..." with such half-heartedness that your heart just sinks.  Chris Sarandon's full-throated recitation of that line in the original encompassed humor first, then soul-chilling menace.  Farrell rattles it off so quickly and lamely, it would have been better left omitted all together. 

And so considering Fright Night, we must once come to a debate about the nature of remakes in general.  Should remakes offer only a variation on a theme? Or should they tell the same story, with the same meaning, that the original depicted? 

Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to that question. I try to take remakes on a case-by-case basis, liking some and disliking others based on individual merits. 

When we consider how often Hamlet has been adapted,  for instance, we can  recognize that, in all cases, the meaning of Shakespeare's words -- his intent -- remains.  Individual visions may feature more action (think Mel Gibson) or less action, but the "heart" of the drama universally remains intact.  This new Fright Night observes the surface qualities of the original cult film, but doesn't tread nearly as deeply into the underlying thematic content.  The heart of the original isn't successfully transplanted.

However, this Fright Night does a very good job of crafting a modern day "world" around Jerry even while eschewing so many organic qualities of the original.  For instance, it's nothing less than an inspiration that the new film is set in post-Recession Las Vegas.  Here, as the movie points out, a vampire can operate freely because of all the foreclosures and a constantly moving population.  And because people work at night and sleep in the day in Vegas, the nocturnal vampire doesn't stand out or draw attention to himself.  The first scenes in the film reveal a tract neighborhood in the middle of the desert where "For Sale" signs are all over the place, evidence of the economic disaster.  Here, a vampire like Jerry can have a field day.  This isn't a neighborhood, it's a killing field.

I also very much enjoyed the moment wherein Charley's Mom (Toni Collette) staked Jerry with the sharp end of a For Sale sign, another Recession-Age updating of Fright Night's original context, a composition which suggests that Jerry lives by the sword (or the "for sale" sign...) and dies by the sword too. 

The film also features one terrific jolt moment, which I don't want to spoil, but which involves the spontaneous combustion of a character you may not realize, initially, is even a vampire. 

Colin Farrell, wearing a dirty wife-beater undershirt, is relatively effective as the scent-obsessed Jerry in the portions of the film that don't require him to reach for theatrical grandiosity (like the "Welcome to Fright Night" line), and David Tennant is very amusing indeed as the new Peter Vincent, even if he doesn't engage the human heart like McDowall did, instead only tickling the funny bone.  Both men give serviceable performances, and Anton Yelchin does a nice job anchoring the picture.  No one here is incompetent.
The real question remains this: Should a new Fright Night be more than just an amusing thrill ride?  In remaking the film, has the original meaning and subtext been sacrificed?  More personally, do you seek merely a good time at the movies, or a good time plus some (not too heavy) social commentary?  Isn't the latter always preferable?  Wouldn't you always rather get both?  I know I would. 

The original Fright Night featured a great thematic conceit about "dangerous" adult sexuality, and then used specific visual compositions -- the very tenets of film grammar -- to reflect and express that content.  The new version of the material pays dialogue lip service to the vicissitudes of adolescence (Charley wonders if he is growing up only into a "dick") but it doesn't back up those words with expressive, meaningful visuals.  Accordingly, the remake automatically functions in one less dimension than the 1985 original did.

Bottom line: if you just want a roller coaster ride, the new Fright Night (2011) isn't an embarrassment, and in fact, it's kind of fun.

But the original Fright Night is a roller coaster ride too, and as added measure it was actually about real life matters too.  And the form of the original film expressed that content beautifully. Even today, the first Fright Night possesses a vision about what it means to be a teenager, or an outsider, attempting to navigate treacherous adulthood.  The new movie observes the specifics of the post-Recession world, but doesn't connect the milieu to anything meaningful about the characters or their journey.

Thus the Fright Night remake is a lot like that digital vampire ash it showcases so frequently: showy and glowy but ultimately leaving no trace it was ever there, or meant anything at all. 

Dust to dust.

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (4 Days Left)

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Cult TV Faces of: Christmas

Identified by David Colohan: The Twilight Zone: "Night of the Meek."

Identified by Joanna: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Messiah on Mott Street."

Identified by SGB: The Six Million Dollar Man: "A Bionic Christmas Carol."

Identified by Hugh: Tales from the Crypt: "And All Through the House."

Identified by David Colohan: Lois & Clark: "Seasons Greedings."


Identified by SGB: Star Trek: Voyager: "Death Wish."

Identified by David Colohan: The X-Files: "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas."

Identified by Adam Chamberlain: Millennium: "Midnight of the Century."

Identified by Adam Chamberlain: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Amends."



Identified by Adam Chamberlain: Dr. Who: "The Christmas Invasion."

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (5 Days Left)