Sunday, October 14, 2007

eastern promises & the dark

Today after my radio show (week 7 of the 13 weeks of Halloween, and getting spookier and raunchier every week), my friend and I took the chance to go check out David Cronenberg's new film "Eastern Promises." Though not horror, I felt it worthy of inclusion here because, well, mainly just because it's a movie I've seen and felt like writing about. But of course it does tie-in to the Halloween horror postings since Cronenberg first made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s directing some of the most original, visionary horror and science-fiction movies ever made. "Shivers," "Rabid," "The Brood," "Scanners," "Videodrome"...the list goes on and on. He hasn't made a specifically genre film since 1999's "Existenz," but Cronenberg is still Cronenberg. He's one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, and in my book he's never missed. Ok, maybe "M. Butterfly" was a bit dull but that's about the worst I can say about it. "Eastern Promises" plays a bit like the European sequel of Cronenberg's last film, "A History of Violence," with Russian gangsters in London standing in for Irish gangsters in the American heartland. It's full of all the things that make Cronenberg's film so unto themselves- there's violence, of course, but it's all part of a greater sense of human physicality, of humanity itself, identity, family, birth and death. Sensuality- not just sexuality, but the experience of the sensual world- sex, food, hospitals, enviornments...It's visceral but humane, stark but full of mordant humor. My friend, perhaps an even more die-hard Cronenberg follow than I am, called it "goofy," and in some ways it is, but also quite serious, and emotionally resonant. Viggo Mortensen is without a doubt one of the best actors the contemporary American cinema has to offer, and he's backed quite ably by an international cast including Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl and even filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (director of one of my personal cult faves, 1971's "Deep End"). If you love Cronenberg, go see it now. If you don't love Cronenberg, I guess you just don't love movies (possibly exception being film theorist Robin Wood, who obviously does love film, but in his essay in the great "Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan" just doesn't seem to get Cronenberg. So, ok, you can love cinema and not love Cronenberg, but I'd see that as perhaps kind of a joyless marriage).

Last night's horror selection was "The Dark," a 1979 film by stuntman/actor/filmmaker John "Bud" Cardos. This film has some odd credentials. It seems to have largely come out of the music and radio biz- "American Bandstand" star Dick Clark was a producer, as was Igo Kantor, who produced a number of film but was mainly a composer (he did music for many of Russ Meyer's films). Radio personality Casey Casem has a small role. Clark produced a surprising number of horror and exploitation movies, and also had a hand in John ("Halloween") Carpenter's "Elvis" TV (also from 1979) and even one of my favorite action films of the 1980s, "Remo Williams- the Adventure Begins" (actually one of my favorite action films IN the 80s, as a kid I loved that one. Fred Ward is awesome. He should be in a David Croneberg movie).

According to the extras on the disc (including an interview with the very gracious and likable Cardos), the original director of "The Dark" was Tobe Hooper, of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Fame," though he was fired after only a few days of work. I'm really curious about Hooper and his career. After the success of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" he never really hit that right note again, and seemed to have alot of career troubles throughout the late-1970s and early-1980s, including well-publicized clashes with Steven Spielberg, producer Hooper's "Poltergeist," on which some reports credited Spielberg has more directorial control than Hooper. A quick look at imdb also reveals that Hooper was fired as director from "Venom," our film from a few days ago. Was he on drugs? A difficult personality? An excessively exacting directorial tyrant? Something tells me not, just intuition, but rather Hooper was victim to a string of self-perpetuating bad luck. After a few big budget flops later in the 1980s, and about a decade or more of mainly direct-to-video work, he seems to rebuilding his cult reputation with frenetic horror pics like the in-name-only remake of "The Toolbox Murders" and "Mortuary." I hope his sting of good films continues...

Also mentioned in the Cardos interview is the fact that "The Dark" was originally about a mentally retarded man-giant, who after years of isolation by his family, is accidentally released into the world, where he begins to wreak havoc. Instead, presumably after the success of "Close Encounters" and possibly "Alien," which came out the same year, it was re-edited to make the killer some kind of alien, though it's never really explained. He shoots laser beams out of his eyes. Why? I guess, why not? This presumably came at the behest of the production company, Film Ventures International, the company also behind such horror flicks as "Grizzly," "Mortuary" (not the Hooper one) and "Incubus" (starring John Cassavetes and John Ireland, who should have been in more movies together). They were also behind Bill Lustig's 80s action classic (in my book anyway) "Vigilante."

In and of itself, "The Dark" is nothing special. It looks great, there's a really strong visual sense, and I suspect that this was Cardos' main contribution. The story seriously drags. In fact, there isn't much of a story to speak of, just many scenes of people talking about what may or may not be going on with the killer, occasionally interrupted by a killing, and an incomprehensible subplot involving a psychic who has some connection to the crimes. It all culminates with a fairly impressive shoot out, where the alien takes on dozens of cops. Still, there's a lot of dicking around to get to an mostly just adequate finale.

A good cast does a primarily half-assed job, mainly William Devane, so good in Hitchcock's "Family Plot" and drive-in classic "Rolling Thunder," really just sleepwalks through his part here. Cathy Lee Crosby fails to make much of an impression, despite also having some strong parts throughout her career. The always reliable Richard Jaeckel is reliable as always, but his part is poorly written. One of the few bright spots is Keenan Wynn, a great character actor who always brought a certain special energy to all of his roles, be it in major productions like Boorman's "Point Blank," mid-level productions like this, or bottom-tier things like "Laserblast" (kind of an awesome film in its own right, though).

Too bad, "The Dark" feels like a lot of wasted potential. I probably would have preferred to see what Tobe Hooper would have done with the material, and I think the original story would have made a much more interesting film, but Cardos' able direction made me interested enough to want to check out more of his directorial efforts.

In the end, skip it. See "Eastern Promises" instead. Until tomorrow...

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