Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jump Cuts: Psycho, The Fog, Dead Ringers

Full reviews aren't right for all films - movies that seem past the point of timely comment, movies I can't find an interesting angle on, movies I just don't feel like explicating. Some are better off with bite-size opinionating. I call them "Jump Cuts." In this edition: my Halloween screenings cup runneth over.

Psycho (1960)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

4 out of 5

Psycho may have lost much of its ability to shock through cultural saturation via clip shows and parodies (not to mention relaxed standards governing movie violence), but Alfred Hitchcock's stab(!) at cheap grindhouse thrills still manages to terrify over 50 years later. This, in spite of the fact that the film devotes a lot of time to the humdrum procedural side of cracking the criminal mind. Yet keeping Anthony Perkins' creepy Norman Bates offscreen is as integral to his spooky mystique as his piercing gaze and his straightforward declarations about the joys of taxidermy. It's a minor miracle that Janet Leigh's ineptitude as a law-breaker doesn't telegraph Hitchcock's true intentions, but she's never meant to be a femme fatale in the classic sense. Psycho is the work of a slumming suspense sophisticate encouraging brand confusion by lending his luscious visual aesthetic to a dime novel story. There's a fastidiousness to this film that trumps its inherently freewheeling, trashy nature, a curious disconnect that somehow makes everything seem more unsettling than it should.

The Fog (1980)

Dir. John Carpenter

2 out of 5

Janet Leigh also pops up in distracting form in The Fog, John Carpenter's maritime ghost story featuring vengeful spirits that float in on eerie luminescent fog to terrorize the small coastal town of Antonio Bay. The film never delivers on the promise of its setup, hampered by glacial pacing despite a running time less than 90 minutes and the ineffective use of a large ensemble featuring Leigh, Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Atkins (whose icky onscreen romance with Curtis is tossed in with casual disregard for the fact that he is twice her age). Their non-interaction enhances the movie's claustrophoic sense of isolation but, on the other hand, also speaks to its general lack of cohesion. Hal Holbrook delivers a wonderfully batty performance as the priest who figures out the fog-monsters' motives, but it's not the best sign when the bar on a slasher's tension level is set early by monologues from elderly authority figures. Sandwiched between two stone-cold classics in the Carpenter canon (Halloween and The Thing), The Fog feels distinctly like a great conductor cracking his knuckles between movements.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Dir. David Cronenberg

3.5 out of 5

Identical twin gynocologists - both played by Jeremy Irons - enjoy playing the old switcheroo in their professional and private lives in Dead Ringers. Based partially on a true story, the film portrays the most twisted of fealties and determines that not much separates loyalty and addiction. Irons is terrific in his dual role, though one is markedly meatier than the other - the meeker of the twins, Beverly, who unwisely continues a romance with a pill-popping actress with a rare reproductive deformity (Genevieve Bujold) that was initiated and quickly discarded by his more confident, sharkish brother. Usually the organic scare-monger, director and co-writer David Cronenberg goes for deeper psychological chills here. Still, the best bits are derived from his trademarks - nightmarish transformations, kinky romance, and the horrors wrought upon the human body by technology (a delusional Irons has an amusingly dispassionate sculptor make him a set of grotesque gynocological tools "for use on mutant women"). Cronenberg doesn't see much value in developing the world around Irons as secondary characters hover offscreen until they are needed to advance his psychosis. But maybe we can just attribute that to the poisonous narcissism inherent in the concept of the doppelgänger. Once you spend too much time with yourself, no one else can possibly compare - and no one else is to blame if things get messy.

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