For Reel

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
April 29, 2017, 7:19 pm
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Director: Sean Branney
3 Stars
The Whisperer in Darkness.jpgIn their previous feature film outing, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society crafted an homage to the world of silent film with The Call of Cthulhu and the effect was undoubtedly convincing. In addition to bringing the first truly faithful Lovecraft adaptation to the screen, the project also took great advantage of the tonal qualities relating to the art of silent films. That is, the mystifying and the unknowable seemed tailor-made for the world of German expressionism, which similarly prides itself in forging logical gaps. The Whisperer in Darkness, the production company’s equally ambitious follow-up, mimics the style of 1930s and 1940s horror in the way it uses a melodramatic score and bathes its sets in shadow (complete with the requisite nighttime thunderstorms), but unfortunately the filmmaker’s desire to meet more modern demands breaks the spell. An early lecture scene is quickly-cut, alternating between shots of at least four significant figures as well as the audience while the camera roams throughout the auditorium. If recreating the style of an old film is an unabashed gimmick, audiences will accept it if the filmmakers totally abide by those rules. In this case, however, the bizarre mix of contemporary pacing and old-fashioned aesthetic is a barrier to entry. The middle section, in following Lovecraft’s work faithfully, finally starts to gather steam as it unveils the disturbing implications of man’s sheer lack of knowledge regarding the world he inhabits. Turning the last act into a standard SyFy film translates better than one might think—Matt Foyer’s smug scholar turned action hero heightens the sense of desperation—but an attempt at character building towards the end happens a little too late to be fully convincing or effective (as it is, it plays as so forced that it becomes more than a little creepy). If The Whisperer in Darkness is not as enchanting as The Call of Cthulhu, however, it is equally enjoyable to watch for fans of the author, and the pair of films remain the key faithful adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
April 29, 2017, 7:10 pm
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Director: Andrew Leman
4 Stars
The Call of CthulhuThat The Call of Cthulhu was produced by an independent company known as the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society tips off that it was a labor of love more than anything else. What surprises is that, in addition to paying justice to the eponymous story in keeping nearly all details the same (the twist that the narrator is driven insane by the findings only brings the film closer to the spirit of the writer’s fiction), it is just as dedicated as an homage to filmmakers such as Murnau and Lang. Using what the filmmakers dubbed “Mythoscope”, the film incorporates both vintage techniques such as the use of miniatures and stop motion animation and more modern, computer-focused practices. Therefore, the film not only uses impressively scaled, abstract sets in the vein of The Cabinet of Caligari, but can precisely and convincingly use special effects to allow actors to inhabit several parts of the set in a way that seamlessly conveys depth and scale. As a filmed narrative, the film suffers in the same way the source material does—the episodic nature of the plot feels less like a steady investigation and more rambling, whereas Lovecraft’s more linear works tended to develop the themes of madness and dread with a sharper sense of progression. Regardless, the filmmakers’ care for technique elevates this beyond what would expect of a “fan film”—in some sequences, the effort recalls the films of Guy Maddin, who similarly uses the silent film aesthetic in achieving a tone of madness.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
April 29, 2017, 7:05 pm
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Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
3.5 Stars
Belladonna of SadnessAt the time of its release in 1973, Belladonna of Sadness was such a financial disaster that it bankrupted the pioneering Japanese animation studio that released it. Now, with its reissue over four decades later, the film remains… well, equally inaccessible. At once a psychedelic, orgiastic sexploitation film in which genitalia morphs into animal forms and a deeply disturbing rape-revenge story, Belladonna of Sadness is loosely modeled on Jules Michelet’s 1862 study of medieval witchcraft. Shortly into the film, a peasant woman is brutally raped by a king and his henchman. The act is as disturbingly rendered as has been put to film, and expressionistically honors the unthinkable violence of the act—in the film, the perpetrators are little seen, but rather the victim is depicted as being torn in half in pulsating rips. After the brutal act is committed, the woman is visited by a phallic devil that becomes her abuser and mentor, and before long her powers create a plague in which images of decaying bodies and obscene sexual acts coexist. These later scenes, which would make the LSD-addled flora of Pink Floyd: The Wall blush, are the film’s weakest. If they have a hypnotic quality, they largely exist by the merits of their surface-level pleasures, harmonizing pleasure and pain in increasingly absurd images. But the first half, upsetting as it is to watch, is genuinely moving, and the way that the film conceives sexual pleasure as a means of thwarting oppression and sexual violence makes it a radical, under-seen feminist film of the period. Director Eiichi Yamamoto’s intentions are occasionally questionable—Satan’s seduction of the protagonist is eroticized to the point where the invasiveness becomes kinky—but the way he depicts open female sexuality as a literal demonic force plays as sharply satirical, turning erotic art into something that is decidedly anti-authoritarian in nature.

Radio Days (1987)
April 29, 2017, 6:59 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3 Stars
Radio DaysOn the heels of one of his most narratively ambitious features (the much lauded Hannah and Her Sisters), Woody Allen released this equally ambitious piece of nostalgia that serves as a series of anecdotes about what it was to grow up in the 1940s. Santo Loquasto’s set design recreates a crowded, rambunctious house of the period—a place where the radio was always on, its legends inevitably burrowing into the inhabitant’s psyches. Allen’s wistful voiceover confirms that the film’s ambition is to serve as a sharing of memories rather than to string the audience through a typical narrative, and as such Radio Days admirably suggests the ways that memories (already prone to half-truths) can intermingle with media in unusual ways. That is, as much as it recounts what it was like to grow up in the 40s, Radio Days spends much of its runtime detailing anecdotes relating to radio, such as the fact that a famous gunslinger could actually be voiced by a man with the stature of Wallace Shawn. And yet, if the radio could lie to the listener, it was a lie that its devotees truly believed in—a relationship not far removed from the ways we interact with our own histories. If Radio Days is successful in independent vignettes, however, its aimlessness comes to its detriment. Memories are founded not only by the “tone” of a specific period, but by the hopes and dreams of the people you surround yourself with. In Radio Days, the supporting characters are largely comical afterthoughts, whose interactions with the Allen stand-in are largely forgettable. For a film that celebrates humanity, none of the people in it particularly resonate. We can take Annie Hall similarly as a film about memory, and if that film lacks the obsessive tone control of this one, it more profoundly deals with how our interpersonal relationships shape the people that we come to be.

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008)
April 26, 2017, 4:51 pm
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Director: Frank H. Woodward
3 Stars
Lovecraft - Fear of the UnknownIn Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, a handful of well known genre storytellers are tasked with defending Lovecraft’s work and giving a brief account of his life. At its best, the documentary academically tracks the progression of Lovecraft’s writing from his earlier, Dunsany-inspired pieces to his radically unique later efforts. In considering the man, however, there are some unfortunate gaps. The interviewees are open in discussing Lovecraft’s neuroses, however more of a specific delving into his mental health might have been fruitful (with how prolific of a letter writer he was, the documentary could have explored these accounts more thoroughly). As regards his xenophobia, there are a few interesting arguments that in no way dismiss how deplorable it is, but do suggest that the way that theme develops in his writing is slightly more complicated than one imagines at first glance (that is, the foreigners in Lovecraft’s work are always the most enlightened—while this promotes the fact that their “otherness” is intermingled with evils, it nonetheless affords them a position of power and responsibility). The documentary won’t teach a viewer much more than a casual glance at his Wikipedia entry would, but something must be said for intelligent, creative people espousing on the merits of one of their chosen favorites.

Kong: Skull Island (2016)
April 26, 2017, 4:45 pm
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Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
3 Stars
Kong - Skull IslandThe King Kong franchise resurfaces every so often to showcase the height of contemporary special effects. Most recently, the Peter Jackson adaptation was treated as a curio in the way that it continued the use of the new motion capture techniques that were innovated in the Lord of the Rings films. It diminishes some of the series’ sense of spectacle, then, that Kong: Skull Island has nothing more spectacularly imagined than what is seen in the average blockbuster these days—even bloating the beast up to a heretofore unseen scale barely makes one’s eyes widen. Forgoing the burden of “prestige”, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wisely uses Kong mythology merely for the purposes of developing an unashamed light adventure film that dishes out a new monster every twenty minutes or so of screen time. If it feels rather ordinary among the crop of Hollywood adventure stories, it is never suffocated by the same weight that hampered Jackson’s vision. Vogt-Roberts demonstrates some personality in the filmmaking—the 1970s period detail provides for both an engaging classic rock soundtrack and the occasionally inspired period-specific touch of wit (including the frequent cutaways to a Nixon bobblehead during an impressive early set piece)—but other sequences, such as Tom Hiddleston slashing through monsters with a samurai sword, are total misfires.

Fantastic Planet (1973)
April 24, 2017, 8:08 pm
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Director: René Laloux
3 Stars
Fantastic Planet.jpgOn the planet of Ygam, a subservient race of pint-sized humanoids known as Oms are both kept as pets and eradicated by the ruling Draags, colossal cyan beings who frequently engage in unusual meditations. By the end of the film, an educated Om comes to learn that the Draags intend to completely eliminate their kind, and so the Oms must fight against their rulers until a harmony between the two races can be reached. The way the film deals with fascism, genocide, and racism gives it broad, worldly relevance, but Fantastic Planet is moreso known for its wholly unique visual style. Aside the straightforward narrative are the numerous cutaways to Ygam’s plant and animal life—in one scene, a reptile-like creature emerges from an egg and is quickly met by an approaching beast that maternally cleans it with its tongue just before devouring it. Similar, bizarre plant life reaches with tentacles to attack passing creatures, and in settling disputes the Oms attach beaked monstrosities to their chests as their choice of weapon. Roland Topor, the Polish animator who designed the universe, had teamed with Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 1960s with the ambition of creating a new surrealist movement, and in framing this bizarre, hugely allegorical story in an animation style that resembles the moving picture books of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the film became a vision that remains easily identifiable by any snapshot.