Thursday, January 22, 2015

Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) (Cocteau. 1946)

"Belle, you mustn't look into my eyes. You needn't fear..."

Sometimes movies can be so magical that they stand the test of time no matter how "unwatchable" they may seem to current audiences. Here we have a black-and-white, French film from the 1940s. But nothing about the poet Jean Cocteau's cinematic masterwork is dated. Noting about Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) is cheesy. In fact, it is more like a dream. It inhabits a part of your mind that never evaporates with age. It could be the first film chronologically after Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon to truly capture all the things that make film an exciting medium. Many people have many opinions on what film should be, but I say the best films are the ones that can get you to escape to another place. Cocteau takes us to places unseen before in Beauty and the Beast. The magic of movie-making is nakedly on display with every camera angle, line of dialogue, and special effect. 

This film has an interesting ability to make me feel like an excited little kid. Watching it is just a really satisfying experience. I recently had the pleasure of watching the film for just the second time in my life - and nothing about my reactions had changed since the first viewing many years earlier. Cocteau must have known that his adaption of the traditional fairy tale of the same name, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, would have this impact on full grown adults, as he actually broke the fourth wall at the very start of the adventure. After the opening credits, the audience is warned about what they are about to see:

"Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.

I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame": Once upon a time..."

Belle's father is caught picking a simple red rose from a garden. That garden is on the land inhabited by the Beast. This is where we see the Beast for the very first time. The costume itself is a treasure in film history.  After catching the father with rose in hand, the Beast demands that the father either die for his crime, or send one of his daughters to the castle where she will live forever. Belle, having asked her father to bring her a red rose, feels that this is all her fault, and decides on her own to leave home and move into the Beast's castle.

Anybody familiar with the 1991 Disney adaption should be at least somewhat familiar with the plot of the this film. Though the overall feel will remain unfamiliar to any viewer expecting to see singing teapots or dancing napkins. Instead, the audience is transported into a world of fantasy and horror. The Beast's castle hallways are lined with human arms serving as light fixtures, and the statues in the castle have eyes that follow the happenings of the inhabitants. Even the doors are able to open and close on their own. The castle is, for lack of a better word, alive in this film. It reminds me of an extreme cross between Eraserhead and Salvador Dali. 

Something understated, but definitely present, is the sexual tension between Belle (Josette Day) and the Beast (Jean Marais). As soon as Belle enters her new home for the first time - she can be seen gliding through the hallways like a ghost. Magical forces may be at play, but it seems as though she is drawn to her captor in more ways than one. There is an early dinner scene where Belle is toying with a knife, but not in the way a young woman would normally toy with a knife. Even when the Beast is freed from his curse, Belle is not immediately thrilled with her prince charming. She misses the Beast. So does the audience. Their chemistry is every bit as magical as the rest of the film. Like with many of these writings, I am intentionally being brief with the points of the plot. I do not want to spoil any of the elements that differentiates this surreal classic from Disney. 

Cocteau made several films in his life, but was never considered to be a filmmaker. He was an artist, a poet, who made poetic and artistic films. Images, sounds, and facial expressions tell more of this story than any spoken word. We feel what the characters feel because we understand the concepts of want, desire, and self-consciousness. Interestingly enough, the filming of Beauty and the Beast was made hellish for Cocteau due to a near crippling skin disease that required a dose of penicillin every three hours. The fact that the artist prevailed through pain and made one of the most magically childlike films in history is absolutely astounding. The movie is perfect. That's right. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect movie. 

La belle et la bête: A+ 

Jake's 10 Perfect Movies

1. Pulp Fiction
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Suspiria
4. WR: Mysteries of the Organism
5. La belle et la bête

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Equinox (Woods. Muren. 1970)

"You will not escape! In one year and one day, you will be DEAD!"

A lot of films claim to be cult classics. It has gotten to the point where pretty much any movie that is not successful upon initial release can gain new life years later by claiming to be loved by small audiences nationwide. The idea of the "cult classic" has been watered down for many years. That is how you know you have found a real gem when you find a film described as "a minor cult classic". Those are the words used by the Criterion Collection to describe the longstanding impact of a film that has stayed below nearly every radar. Equinox (originally known as Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural) is not a very good movie, but I have not enjoyed a viewing experience more than this one in a long time.

The film was originally a concept from the mind of special effects guru Dennis Muren. The future 9 time Academy Award winner was studying at Pasadena City College in the late 1960s when he and a group of amateur filmmakers (both of whom went on to have impressive careers in stop-motion animation) were able to muster up a measly $6,500 to make a fun-filled homage to the creature features that they grew up watching at drive-ins throughout their childhood. The result was a short science fiction film that was liked enough by Tonylyn Productions that they were willing to distribute the film after making some changes. They hired Jack Woods to direct and shoot new material that altered Equinox just enough to make it a feature length film. Though the story, special effects, and most scenes were crafted by Muren, the studio only credited him as the producer rather than co-director. 

The completed version of the film follows four friends who travel to the woods of California for a picnic and to visit one of their professors. They come across an eerie book, written in a variety of languages, that seems to contain details of a supernatural "other-world" that exists alongside our reality. The story is told in flashbacks from the woods by the sole survivor of the ordeal. He has been admitted to a mental institution, and it does not take long for the audience to see that these events happened exactly one year prior to his telling of the story. 

During their trip, the teens are antagonized by a park ranger and attacked by a variety of cleverly created claymation monsters. The stop-motion animation may not be what we are used to in this day and age, but the effects in Equinox still hold up with many of today's low-budget affairs. There is a certain "throwback" energy to these monsters, and the fight/chase scenes are by far the most interesting parts of the film. In a day and age like today where we rehash old ideas constantly - it is refreshing to watch something so organic. George Lucas was said to be a fan of the film effects - which is one of the reasons that Muren was selected to be a part of the Star Wars special effects team later in the same decade. 

A group of friends travel to the canyons of California in order to enjoy a nice picnic. They stumble upon a strange book that reveals details of a monster world that exists alongside the human world. After reading from the book, the friends accidentally unleash a slew of monsters. Sound like something you have maybe seen before? Special Effects and Makeup Artist from the Evil Dead movies, Tom Sullivan, talked about the comparisons and similarities between the two films in an Equinox Criterion insert. He says:

"I had seen Equinox at least twice in drive-ins before making Evil Dead. I don't recall having discussed it with [director] Sam Raimi, but the similarities are remarkable. I think they come from the low-budget nature of both films. That is, a few characters, an isolated, inexpensive location, and ambitious special effects. All in all, Equinox did inspire me to continue my goal of making movies. 'If they can do it...'"

Equinox was released thirteen years before Sam Rami's Evil Dead franchise, and though the plots are very similar, the campiness in Dennis Muren's independent directorial debut cannot be matched. If you are in the mood for something life changing, this is not your movie. If you're looking for a fun, impressive, and simple way to spend an hour and twenty minutes, it may be hard for you to find a better option. The story greatly lacks depth, but the effects continue to inspire artists in the world of science fiction.

Plus, look at this guy!! Spooky stuff! 

Equinox: C

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Carnival of Souls (Harvey. 1962)

"In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again..."

Herk Harvey only directed one feature film in his entire career, and it was not well received when it was first released as a B-movie in the 1960s. In fact, it took artists like David Lynch and George Romero siting Carnival of Souls as a major influence before the film started to be taken seriously by cult audiences. I am pretty lame when it comes to B-movies. I mean, I like comedies to a degree - and I can get into campy fun, but most B-movies are actually just....well....bad movies. This one is different. Here we have an example of a film that achieves its goal without needing (or being able) to resort to tropes or effects. The film now garners a variety of praise from new audiences for its ability to use suspense rather than action to strike fear into the viewer. Personally, I am pretty stoked about the opportunity to show this movie at pretty much every Halloween party that I throw from this point forward.

I mentioned that Herk Harvey only directed one feature film during his career. Though this is true, it did not make him an inexperienced director by the time he made his $33,000 magnum opus. After working with Centron Films making a variety of short industrial, educational, documentary, and government films for about ten years, Harvey started to notice that his colleagues were making extra money directing low-budget "B-movies" that were meant to be piggy-backed with a more major release and shown in theatres as a double feature. After having an epiphany while driving through Utah en route to his native Kansas, Harvey brainstormed and wrote Carnival of Souls.

The film follows a young woman named Mary (played by the Lee Starsberg-trained Candace Hilligoss) who somehow survives a drag racing accident. Mary has very little memory of the accident, but seems to be unharmed. She starts a job as an organist at a church in Salt Lake City, Utah where she also takes up a strange interest in an abandon amusement park near town, and is continuously haunted by macabre spirits. These ghouls do not talk, but their arrival introduces many questions into the action. This all leads to a climax that would be considered predictable by today's standards, but the sleek direction (meant to emulate the look of Bergman) and foreboding feel anchor Carnival of Souls and cement the film as something surprisingly fresh.  

For me, this is an almost perfectly crafted horror film. It has some campy moments, it was shot on a very low budget, and it has the feel of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. The story simply follows a young lady who somehow survived a horrible accident. Sometimes simplicity is the scariest factor of them all. She is alone, and that feeling is not only palpable, but understandable. Intrigue and empathy are as effective as screenplay and directorial style when it comes to helping this film graduate from cult movie to horror masterpiece. Carnival of Souls could possibly be the most underrated B-movie film ever made. Not bad for a guy who only made one movie. 

Carnival of Souls: A

*NOTE* - For a reason not known to me, Carnival of Souls is a rare example of a film where the "Director's Cut" (84mins) is actually shorter than the original release (91mins). The version that I am writing about is the 78min Criterion release.