NOTE: This review contains some spoilers for the film. Proceed with caution.
Ah, the seventies?the golden age of what has come to be known as the Satanic Panic film, though the repercussions of same would not be felt until the eighties and early nineties, when Satanic Panic leached into American culture, with shysters coming up with all sorts of things to keep a newly-freed-from-Red-Dread country checking under their beds for boogeymen at night. Instead of commies, we were told, we needed to watch out for devil worshippers kidnapping and molesting our children (or even doing it right at the day care [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMartin_preschool_trial]). All of it absolute bunk, of course, cooked up by the morally bankrupt in order to make themselves a few bucks. And as a result, I feel like I should take every Satanic Panic movie made in the seventies to task for foisting these monstrosities on us. But instead I watch a movie like The Initiation of Sarah and I just wonder to myself, ?people eventually thought this sort of thing really happened?? (An amusing side note: I did not know until just now that the movie had been remade in 2006, starring Mika Boorem and Summer Glau. Satanic Panic has indeed returned, at least on celluloid.)
Sarah Goodwin (House's Kay Lenz) is a newly-minted college freshman at a campus where greek life is everything. (For those of you who went to bigger schools and don't believe such things exist: when I was a college freshman in 1986, 95% of the males at my school were in a fraternity. The women weren't yet because (a) my class was the second to be coed and (b) sororities were not chartered on our campus until 1989.) She goes through rush, but as something of a wallflower, she is for the most part heckled or snubbed... until she finds her niche in the polar opposite of the Mean Girls-esque sorority that pledges her glamorous sister Patty (Gypsy's Morgan Brittany). Now, we already know something is up with Sarah, since she used telekinetic powers (without understanding what she was doing) to prevent her sister from being raped in the very recent past...but let's forget all that, shall we? Oh, well, until the sinister house mother (Shelley Winters) and some of her creepier housemates discover Sarah's talents and decide to put them to good use humiliating those stuck-up chicks.
The good part?while this is (obviously) somewhat derivative of certain earlier movies (*cough*Carrie*cough*) whose names we won't mention, there's that other supernatural aspect to it that sets it apart somewhat. That's the good part. The bad, well...how is it that a made-for-TV movie feels cut? That makes sense in the days of the DVD, where the ?made for TV movie? has an unrated director's cut waiting in the wings to be released a week later, with all the f-bombs not dubbed and the extra half-mil in special effects not cut out to make room for deodorant commercials. But in 1978? The final sequence, especially, feels as if it had been cut to shreds, with some implications that are never fully spelled out, and a few characters who would have done exceptionally well given another two minutes of epilogue. Still, there's enough of the final sequence, or what was the final sequence (I hope), to give you an idea that you think you know what happened. And hey, maybe there's a director's cut waiting in the wings. Hey, they made a remake, right? ** ½
The Ceremony is an interesting little film, the kind of thing that makes Netflix Instant (note: it is no longer available there as of this writing) such a wealth for those of us who like trolling the internet for horrifically low-budget student films made by guys with a camera, a script, and a dream. In this case, that person is James Palmer, who wrote and directed the film, and has not been heard from since. That doesn't make sense to me, because despite seeming to have had almost no budget, The Ceremony is an effective little movie; it shows its limitations every now and again, but anyone with one eye and a pulse can see what Palmer is capable of here, I think.
Plot: Eric Peterson (Scott Seegmiller in his only screen appearance to date) is about to graduate from college. He's accepted a prestigious position in Korea; all he has to do is get through his final weeks of school and away we go. In preparation, he's staying on in the house this weekend while all of his roommates have gone. He's taking the opportunity to do some cleanup, and when he gets to the attic, he discovers a weird ritual scene involving an old book and some candles. Note to self: if you stumble upon this in your house, do not read the book in question. It can only lead to creepy things happening. Eric soon becomes convinced that those creepy things are eventually going to add up to him shuffling off this mortal coil unless he figures out how to break what is, in essence, a curse.
You haven't heard from Scott Seegmiller, either, and that makes even less sense; while The Ceremony is not entirely a one-person film, it's as close as dammit. Now, coincidentally, we have another excellent example of an attempt to do a one-person horror film in recent memory, La Casa Muda. (The American remake doesn't work, since it minimizes the amount of time Sarah spends alone.) Now, I liked La Casa Muda, up till the last twenty minutes of the movie, and much of the reason had to do with Florencia Colucci's performance, but, to put it kindly, Seegmiller blows her out of the water here. Every minute he is onscreen, he is credible as a character facing an incredible situation. Palmer heightens this feeling with the aggressively mundane nature of the set (one assumes he filmed it in his parents' house or the like), which is totally going to contradict my next few sentences, but there you go.
Like I said above-sometimes the limitations of the low budget come through. The best filmmakers capitalize on this (Ricardo Islas does a fantastic job in that regard, as one example), and I think Palmer did a credible job of that here, but the movie does suffer from a little student-film-itis in trying to overcompensate for that. (The mirrors, the mirrors, the mirrors, and some camera angles that left me scratching my head in befuddlement, and did I mention the mirrors?) Those are ultimately minor considerations, and I would be thrilled to see what Palmer and Seegmiller do next. Except that it's now been five years with no word at all. Hopefully that will change soon. ** 1/2
The Gift (Sam Raimi, 2000) [originally posted 26Nov2001]
Poor Sam Raimi. It doesn't matter what he does to try and avoid being labelled a horror director; every film he makes will be compared to The Evil Dead. But then, in a perfect world, perhaps every review of every film ever made would contain a comparison to The Evil Dead, which is possibly the world's best example of what you can do with fifty grand and a whole lot of beer.
So if you're going to get compared to The Evil Dead for the rest of your life, do what Sam Raimi did: go back to the Evil Tree motif. Gotta love evil trees.
In this case, the evil tree stands in the yard of Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a fortune teller in a small town in Georgia. Wilson has a seemingly-thriving business telling fortunes for local folk, dispensing a kind of half-presaging/half-advice to her clients. When her oldest child gets into trouble in school, she meets the principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), and his fiancee Jessica (Katie Holmes, looking as much like Ashley Judd as cosmetics can make her). Jessica soon goes missing, and Annie, psychic that she is, starts having some rather nasty visions. Imagine the twisted branches of the tree as a cinema screen and away you go.
The plot and characterization are pure Billy Bob Thornton; lots of Southern redneck drawl, lots of mental defectives, lots of people doing incredibly stupid things that they don't think through that come back to haunt them. The film is perfectly cast, including a number of choices that seem odd on the surface (especially Blanchett; hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth as poor white trash, but it works), but that click quite well. The cast is high-caliber from soup to nuts, and they all play their roles to the hilt, including Giovanni Ribisi as an on-the-edge mechanic, Keanu Reeves as the jealous, abusive husband of Hilary Swank, and Gary Cole in his usual slimy role, this time as the town's prosecuting attorney. J. K. Simmons (Dr. Skoda on Law and Order) turns up as the town sheriff and shows us once and for all that he really isn't the open-minded psychiatrist he's typecast as.
This one didn't get nearly enough screen time when it came out. Now that it's available on video, do yourself a favor and rent it. ****
Now this is a Ben Wheatley comedy (viz. Down Terrace review), a movie that skewers the conventions of the rom-com, the road movie, and (the spoiler alerts begin thick and fast?when will you learn to heed that stop sign at the tops of my reviews?) the intelligent serial killer film?by ?intelligent? here I'm talking Kalifornia and Man Bites Dog instead of, say, Final Exam or The Burning, by the by?while still manageing to remain true to every last one of them. Combine that with Wheatley's eye for a script containing bang-up characters and you've got... a movie that's half muddled mess and half brilliant, at least. It is, to date, my favorite Ben Wheatley movie by a whisker.
Plot: Tina (The World's End's Alice Lowe) has recently started dating Chris (Kill List's Steve Oram?also note that Lowe and Oram co-wrote), and the two of them have decided to take a caravan holiday around England to see some of the more offbeat sites. Things start off swimmingly, but take a nasty turn when Chris accidentally backs the caravan over an obnoxious tourist (Down Terrace's Tony Way) who'd been on a tram tour with them just before. From there, Murphy's Law begins to reign, and every stop they make is plagued by weirder, dumber, more obnoxious people.
The reason that stop sign is up there is that it is impossible to even begin to talk about this movie without spoilers, since everything worth talking about occurs once all that gets off the ground. More importantly, these characters really start coming alive once this movie becomes Natural Born Caravaners. Chris is a fun guy, you'd want to go drinking with him, but once you know what's going on there's no elision at all in your thinking; it works perfectly, aside from one scene that is liable to jar if you weren't paying really close attention earlier. But, well, did you ever read Robb White's Up Periscope? (If you didn't, go do it now, I'll wait.) There's a scene early on in the book where a nasty drill sergeant has revenge got upon him by the recruits he's been training when they build a trap inside a trap, and he falls for it but good. Tina is the trap inside Chris' trap, and it is the evolution of Tina's character throughout the film that makes it as absorbing as it is. You may not realize what you're getting until you actually get it. And then comes that final scene, which manages to be both shocking and utterly predictable, and I still don't know how that works. This is good stuff, this; Wheatley really started coming into his own as a filmmaker right about here, methinks. *** ½
Four men walk across a field. One of them carries a pike; the other three are unarmed, which is somewhat odd considering that all four of them are, in various degrees, deserters from a battle taking place on the other side of a hedgerow from where they initially met. (What battle this is, presumably, I have been unable to figure out; the First English Civil War was over by 1648, but Cutler specifically mentions Oliver Cromwell at one point; I think Cromwell at the time was over in Ireland quelling the natives there in 1648.) One of them, Whitehead by name (Shaun of the Dead's Reece Shearsmith), is an educated man, apprentice to an alchemist, and he is on a mission. The others-Jacob (Starred Up's Peter Ferdinando), Friend (Malevolence's Richard Glover), and Cutler (Velvet Goldmine's Ryan Pope)-he's the one with the pike-are all men who had been more directly involved in the combat. But here I'm getting ahead of myself; at this point, the four of them are simply walking across a field. That scene, a long, stationary take about fifteen minutes into the movie, reminded me strongly of a similar scene, coming at roughly a similar time, in Meek's Cutoff, where the three wives are walking in a very composed, very studied diagonal line behind the covered wagon. That sort of deliberate composition pervades A Field in England, as well, more so than any of Wheatley's other films to date. It is a film that revels in its artifice, and because of that, I think, it's going to end up being polarizing; those familiar with Wheatley will find it either his best feature or his worst. I fall on the former side, just as I did with Meek's Cutoff.
As I said, the four of them are no longer a part of the battle. Cutler, the pragmatist of the bunch, recognizes that the four of them are basically deserters, then proposes the four form a band of their own, and cement the bond over a good meal at an alehouse in the area he knows of. They agree and start off across the field. (It is here that the scene described in the opening paragraph takes place.) They cross a line of mushrooms and, with far to go still, stop and work on filling their empty bellies. That, it turns out, may not have been the best idea, both because the mushrooms themselves would seem to be hallucinogenic, and because they are part of what would seem to be the border of England's largest fairy ring. However, during the meal, Whitehead asked the other three to help him on his mission: he is looking for a rogue alchemist, O'Neill (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), who stole some valuable documents from Whitehead's master. If only it were that easy.
It would be simple, though inaccurate, to categorize A Field in England as an exercise in style over substance. There is certainly style to it, and in spades; this is Wheatley's most distinctive feature yet, stylistically, and that's saying something for the guy who came up with the final fifteen minutes of Kill List. But Wheatley has a lot to say here (and not just about indiscriminate ingestion of hallucinogenic substances); his trademark sharp, finely-observed characters, and the friendships that develop between them, lend the movie a weight it would not otherwise have. Wheatley also comes up with some inventive ways to get around what were likely budget limitations; the obvious example here is the delivery of the dialogue in the climactic scene. (I'm not trying to be obtuse, I want to stay on the safe side of spoilery. When you see it, you'll know it.) The main criticism I have seen levelled at the film, that it raises more questions about its plot than it answers, is accurate. I do not see this as a weakness. Your mileage may vary.
As a side note, the trailers for the film have made a pretty big deal of the war aspect. As a service to those who lack an interest in war films, I will note that the battle is a framing aspect that serves to fix the time of the story, at no point do we actually see any of the battle, though guns firing can be heard, and musket-smoke is visible behind the hedgerow, for the first five to ten minutes of the film. Unlike, say, Pan's Labyrinth, which switched back and forth between the reality of the war and the fantasy world, Wheatley gives us a few minutes of character introduction, as it relates to the war, and then spends the rest of the movie in the titular field.
Ben Wheatley has gotten better with every film so far. This made me look forward all the more to his next project (as of this writing, he's in the middle of both the Ideals feature and an adaptation of J. G. Ballard's novel High Rise). But until one of those comes out, hunt this down and give it a look. *** 1/2