Taking a Shot: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)

There’s a moment in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu that can be praised as an example of the creativity that often underpins practical effects. However, I think the shot is interesting not just for how it is achieved, but in how it is used.

Lucy Harker sits at her mirror; all is normal, and then her door is opened by what seems to be a shadow.

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It slowly advances, closer and closer…

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And then someone more solid than a shadow appears. It was Dracula all along.

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The first shadow was cast by another man, while Klaus Kinski stood to the right of the camera, waiting to step into view. The effect was a matter of getting everything positioned in the right place.

Of course, Dracula does not cast a reflection. We’ve seen this in plenty of other vampire movies, but hopefully have forgotten it as we are drawn into the surprise and horror that Lucy feels. Imagine if the scene played differently, if Dracula and Lucy were in a room, and she glanced into a mirror and screamed at his lack of reflection. That would probably get little reaction out of us jaded viewers, but Herzog makes better choices here. The advancing shadow is far creepier and, like Lucy, we don’t immediately understand what is happening. This moment is creative in more ways than one.

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Olivier vs. Caine: Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)

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Sleuth is a gimmick movie in which the gimmick actually works. Adapted from a play by Anthony Shaffer, it’s a two-hander between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Olivier is Andrew Wyck, a mystery writer with too much money and too much spare time who is obsessed with puzzles and games. His estranged wife, Marguerite, is on the verge of marrying Milo Tindle (Caine), a mild-mannered hairdresser who’s the son of an Italian immigrant. Upon learning this, Wyck invites Milo to his country mansion, and their congenial chat turns into a confrontation, which turns into a game, which turns into another game, with escalating consequences. Wyck’s plans for Milo don’t go perfectly, however, and he soon finds himself partaking of a new game, at his own expense.

For the most part, this film only involves two characters. It’s worth seeing simply for how well it manages to do this; it makes sense for most of the action to be contained within one set, and the plot twists keep the story interesting. Even if the audience is a step ahead of the characters, there’s still small details or double meanings to appreciate. There’s also too many clever lines to pick up in one viewing.

Olivier is ideal in the role of an irritating old ham, but handles the weightier moments better than Caine, who at this point in his career was better at yelling than crying. Caine mostly plays to type, but does get to stretch himself. He would return to Sleuth in 2007, playing Wyck this time, opposite Jude Law. The idea is irresistible.

My main issue with this film is that it veers towards being too self-indulgent. It becomes its most stagey when it’s aware of its own gimmick, and allows Olivier and Caine to perform and show their interplay rather than pushing the story forward. The dialogue can become too dense, with a feeling that the film is running on the spot. It’s 133 minutes long; although it does a remarkably fine job of being engaging despite its narrow focus, it could have been better with the script edited down.

Still, Sleuth is near-essential viewing for how well it succeeds at its gimmick. Two guys in one house, talking for more than two hours? It can be done.

Franchise film holds its own: The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)

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It’s hard to believe that there could be a worthy followup to a film such as The Exorcist. Indeed, the first sequel is famously atrocious. The Exorcist III, while not able to stand alongside its predecessor, can still hold up its head as a thoughtful and well made film. A good deal of credit for this must go to director William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist and also Legion, of which The Exorcist III is an adaptation. This film manages to feel like it has a certain pride in itself that makes it more than a cash grab. More surprisingly, it has a confident and distinctive style that’s inseparable from the story – not bad for someone who only ever directed one other film, an adaptation of his own The Ninth Configuration, a decade earlier.

Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer return in this film, played this time by George C. Scott and Ed Flanders, respectively. They’re not quite the same as they were in The Exorcist; we have to imagine that Kinderman and Father Karras were closer friends than they appeared to be, close enough that Kinderman commemorates each anniversary of the fatal plunge that Karras took down that flight of stairs. We can presume that Dyer took up Kinderman’s offer to go see a movie in The Exorcist’s final minutes, because he joins the policeman on these grim anniversaries. He also takes the opportunity to try to assuage Kinderman’s lack of faith. However, Kinderman has seen too many horrors to be convinced that God exists, especially now that a string of murders are being committed in the exact method of The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) – who was executed fifteen years ago.

This summary only hints at how closely this film ties into The Exorcist. The way in which this happens is one of the film’s best shocks, so I won’t spoil it. Another of them is how and when The Gemini Killer makes his appearance. The first hour of the film circles around these matters, at a mannered pace, creating a heavy atmosphere as it does so.

The Exorcist III has a smaller scope than the original, but small things (dead birds, dripping taps, gusts of wind) can unnerve. This film is full of horrific images and ideas, but approaches them with patience. They accumulate steadily, giving a sense that the world is full of ever-present evils. Many sequences are restrained, in which the lighting, often involving unnatural colours, shifts as though to indicate the movements of unseen forces. Near-inaudible rumblings and repetitive sounds do the same. There’s moments of gore and a few sudden shocks (this one has a well-deserved reputation), but they’re earned.

Some themes recur from The Exorcist. Setting much of the story in a hospital enables Blatty to continue to explore the indignities of old age and illness. More than that, he includes a dream sequence that envisions the immediate afterlife as a cross between a train station and a hospital, with ineffectual angels as the nurses. There’s a blackly humorous streak throughout, which was also present in Friedkin’s film but was easy to overlook. Still, Catholicism is taken as seriously as ever; to do otherwise would be to compromise the story’s gravity. The Exorcist III is all about the ugliness of human existence, which contributes to an argument concerning the nature of God that Blatty also explored in The Ninth Configuration. (Or so I’ve gleaned from reading reviews of that film; it’s a little hard to get ahold of.)

In a filmography filled with degenerates, crazies and murderers, The Gemini Killer still manages to stand out as one of Brad Dourif’s most intense roles. The character should not be particularly interesting; he’s confined by a straitjacket and chained to a wall, delivers dialogue that frequently involves exposition, and largely appears in just two scenes. However, the film anticipates his arrival so well that encountering him is something to dread, and Dourif handles his restrictions masterfully. The Killer is unpredictable, going from vicious to amused as a schizophrenic madman does. (At one point, while explaining something to Kinderman, he glances away and asks, “Is this true?” The novel was called Legion, after all.) He gets several long takes in which the camera shows a POV shot so that we, along with Kinderman, feel like we’re within reach of the Killer’s wayward spittle. Every motion the character makes is significant, especially when he gets to his feet and moves closer to the camera.

The most interesting thing about the performance is the way that Dourif controls his voice. When describing what the Gemini Killer did to a particular victim, he edges his pitch higher and higher, making his near cartoonish tones a mockery of the victim’s pain and intensifying the agony that Kinderman feels in listening to this. Then he drops his voice back down again, because there’s no real rhythm or sense to this character.

Less well-cast is George C. Scott. Yes, he was in a great horror film, The Changeling, a decade earlier. He also does bear some resemblance to Lee J. Cobb. At a hard-worn 63, however, he looks beyond weary. Perhaps the character is supposed to seem ill, but it is a constant distraction. Fortunately, his performance still works, even if he’s not the ideal actor for the role.

Expecting The Exorcist III to be in the same league as The Exorcist is an impossibility; that’s something few films in this genre can hope to be. Nonetheless, it’s more than a throwaway sequel. It’s an emotionally satisfying (if upsetting) continuation of this story, made with what seems to be sincere dedication by Blatty. Dourif’s performance is memorably insane, even for him. There’s a number of standout moments delivered in a restrained yet vivid style, and a well-constructed mood in the service of thoughtful ideas. It’s impossible to separate The Exorcist III from the first film in this series, but comparing them too closely would only lead to overlooking what this film has to offer.

On Rotation: Lost in Translation Soundtrack, The Damned, Le Tigre

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Various Artists – Lost in Translation (2003)

This soundtrack is an incredibly cohesive standalone album, especially considering that it was integral to the film, and that it features contributions from 11 artists. All the songs fit together to create a unified mood with different shades of feeling. Including Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” just wouldn’t have been right.

Favourite track: The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey.” I always look forward to this one. An inspired way to end the film, and a fine closing track.

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The Damned – Phantasmagoria (1985)

Is it awful that my only experiences with The Damned come from Phantasmagoria and their appearance on The Young Ones? This album is a strong one, with a playful feel, but only a couple of the songs are standouts. These include the country-ish “Shadow of Love” (the longer mix included here even snatches a riff from “Ghost Riders in the Sky”), the Madness-esque “Grimly Fiendish,” and…

Favourite track: …opener “Street of Dreams.” Excellent saxophone here, which combines to great effect with pounding drums and ghostly vocals on the chorus.

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Le Tigre – Le Tigre (1999)

Seeing The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, set me off on buying up her back catalogue. I already own Le Tigre’s debut, though, so gave it another spin.

Favourite track: “Deceptacon.” How could it not be?!

Inessential Ghibli: Ocean Waves [Umi ga Kikoeru] (Tomomi Mochizuki, 1993)

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Ocean Waves is a little known Studio Ghibli film, made for television, that has no particular flaws but also few strengths. It’s a slice-of-life drama set in Kōchi, a city on the coast of Shikoku. The protagonist is Taku (Nobuo Tobita), a schoolboy who finds himself in a love triangle involving Matsuno (Toshihiko Seki), his best friend, and Rikako (Yoko Sakamoto), a transfer student from Tokyo who causes a stir at their school with her bad manners.

If Ocean Waves were not an animation with a certain amount of Ghibli style and charm, it would seem still more insignificant. It’s low key in a way that will only make much of an impact on viewers who feel a personal connection to the situations the characters experience. It’s pleasant enough to watch, but the Shikoku setting (the biggest draw for me) isn’t used to its best advantage and the whole film is markedly unambitious. One for Ghibli completeists only, perhaps.