Night of the Lepus (1972)

March 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’m telling you, if you need to class up a B-movie about killer rabbits the size of wolves, use the latin word for rabbit. It also doesn’t hurt to have fairly recognizable actors like Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh (best known for Psycho in 1960) and DeForest Kelley, best known as Dr. McCoy in the original run of Star Trek, from 1966 to 1969. Someone should do an article on Trek actors dabbling in seventies horror after the cancellation of the original show and before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the revival of Trek made all that unnecessary. Aside from DeForest Kelley in this film, Shatner made Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and Leonard Nimoy had a prominent role in an impressive update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

I watched this mainly for Kelley, and he seems to have tackled this in a relaxed but professional manner, sporting a moustache and chatting about what to do (and, there’s a lot of dull chatter here), or wearing a funky brown leather jacket and blasting away at a rabbit (sorry, a lepus) with a shotgun. The special effects are limited to actors reacting to close-ups of rabbits, quick shots of guys in bunny suits pretending to maul someone, or actual rabbits bumping their way through a model farm.  To be fair, there are also a few effects shots where people are briefly in the same scene as a giant rabbit, but however seriously the film runs with this, there’s simply no way to make rabbits frightening. It goes without saying it’s a film to see with a few friends and a few drinks, unless like me you’re a fan of Kelley.

A few scenes are devoted to the genetic tampering that helped create the problem. I sometimes wonder about the collective impact of so many science-fiction / horror films like this — as often as they suggest we’re a little too free and loose with science and in danger of making horrible mistakes, they also always seem to suggest we’ll improvise some sort of solution. My favourite scene actually comes near the end, when it’s finally time to create a corridor and try and herd the rabbits over the electrified train tracks. An officer pulls up to the front of a drive-in film, gets on the bullhorn and announces the following:

“Attention, attention — ladies and gentlemen, attention!  There’s a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help.  Roll up your windows, turn on your lights and follow the police car at the entrance to the theatre. Please keep calm and cooperate with the authorities. Do you read me?” And everyone immediately honks their horn and starts up their car. Because you know, this is the sort of thing that happens, right?

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Watchmen (2009)

March 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

For the uninitiated, Watchmen presents an alternate but oddly familiar 1985 where superheroes are real, but are largely people who were loopy or determined enough to simply put on a mask.  It’s a world where Nixon is still the president and the cold war threatens nuclear annihilation. There’s one truly powerful, nearly godlike superhero, who goes by Dr. Manhattan. And somehow, despite his helping America win the Vietnam war, America is spiritually running on empty and masked vigilantes of all kinds are outlawed, so they either retired or became hunted and bitter. And it’s all based on a graphic novel, which was a mini-series of comics published in 1986 / 1987.

So, got all that?  Now here’s what to expect: film noir with superheroes.  Rorschach (a man with a constantly changing Rorschach blot on his mask) narrates much of the first two-thirds of the film while skulking through back alleys and rain, finally taking the audience on a tour of some memories that make The Dark Knight seem fairly mild. Eventually, even some of the more supposedly well adjusted heroes slowly reveal that they drink too much, are guilty of rape, or whatever else. Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan is powerful and serene, but increasingly distant, and becoming some kind of cosmic Buddha.

Is there a point to all this? There is, and without going into the ending, it’s something about the slow, faulty movements in the direction of progress and the tremendous costs, both in terms of wasted energy and lives lost. For a comic book (or graphic novel, depending on how much respect you’re willing to award the whole genre) Watchmen does have something to say about the larger struggle, and something it thankfully doesn’t want to spell out too much, either.

The film has a tidy bundle of interesting moments, as well as a pile of entertaining ones, though I think this particular story ultimately works better as a graphic novel. Been a while since I read it, but as a comic it isn’t quite so obvious it borrows from film noir, even as a comic made in the late eighties is just that, even if it happens to have been reprinted later. A movie made for 2009 seems a little out of place in an era where climate change and lack of bio-diversity are bigger concerns than nuclear war, and a time when a lot of people would say the president seems like a pretty decent guy. It works well that there’s a cast of relative unknowns here, but the whole idea that they’re regular folks (and in addition to that, regular folks who haven’t suited up in years) is hurt by the eventual Matrix-like action scenes that don’t even seem to leave them winded. At other times, the faithfulness to the comic appears to have been a little too strong — it’s fine to have shots designed to reproduce specific frames or art, but there’s one sex scene that’s broken down into a series of disjointed, fairly typical moments, and between that and the cheesy music, people actually laughed.

I did find myself personally wishing the film was a little more balanced. Part of the appeal with costumed heroes is their duality: Bruce Wayne chats pleasantly at parties but Batman descends into alleys to beat up sleazeballs. In subtle ways, I think it comments on the duality of the real world. After all, we need both warm family homes and cold warehouses. Watchmen is strong on dismal material, and only offers a few glimmers of hope at the end. And forget Bruce Wayne aching for his lost parents, there’s a lot of domestic hostility in occasional flashbacks. At one point, Dr Manhattan sits on Mars contemplating if he’ll help mankind, looking out over the pristine landscape to ask how it would be improved by an oil pipeline or a shopping mall. It’s really an irrefutable and devastating argument. He comes up with a few lines about beauty managing to emerge out of chaos, but nobody states the only possible reply to his original question: certainly, it isn’t worth it for an oil pipeline or a shopping mall, but it might be worth it for a symphony or an act of kindness. Both as a comic and a deeply faithful translation into film, Watchmen takes the view that we may need to endure any number of irredeemable moments to fluke into one progressive step forward. It may not be my cup of tea as a world-view, but I certainly can’t fault the film for declining to make a statement.

Let the Right One In (2008)

March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Several months ago I began hearing about an inventive Swedish vampire film with the intriguing title Let the Right One In.  It sounds like a poetry book, or a novel — certainly a far cry from the titles of most horror films. The plot concerns Oskar, a sensitive 12 year old in a perpetual state of distress, constantly picked on at school by a small gang of three kids.  In a scene where one of the kids is told to whip Oskar by their leader, the kid does it, but bursts into tears partway through the task — and I have to say, it’s a thoughtful film that makes it clear without spelling it out that bullies thrive on spineless followers as much as their own anger. I won’t say too much about the film and ruin it for others, but Oskar meets Eli, a 12 year old girl who appears to be rather special, and the two form a bond, as they’re both already old enough to instinctively know something about loneliness.  It’s beautifully shot, with excellent performances, a minimal score (at least, I don’t remember a score) and a unique take on vampires. Much is made of the old idea that you need to invite a vampire into your home before he or she can enter, and it becomes symbolic of carefully choosing the people that are close to you.

The film reminded me of Habit (1997) a somewhat clunky but ultimately mesmerizing low-budget New York film where vampirism is a metaphor for clinging people and needy relationships. It’s directed by Larry Fessenden who also plays the lead character, falling hard for a vampire named Anna (Meredith Snaider, in her first and only film) and finding the relationship like quicksand — he simply can’t seem to untangle himself. Both films take the well-worn idea of a vampire and use it as a springboard to get to other ideas. Habit is the colder and harsher film, outlining various ideas (sometimes in speeches by the characters that seem a little too direct) but thankfully never really spelling out the needy relationship metaphor. Let the Right One In, on the other hand, takes the vampire premise and grows a sincere and touching story around it, making its point through more subtle emotional content, so that it’s ultimately the more successful of the two.  At the same time, I sincerely appreciate any fresh take on such an old idea, and Habit is not to be missed.

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