Whoopi’s post-The Color Purple blues: Fatal Beauty (Tom Holland, 1987)

Fatal Beauty is a messy, obnoxious, and really quite stupid movie. There’s something fascinating, though, about its tonal mishmash and sheer 80s loudness. Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, an LA cop who’s bent on cleaning drug dealers off the streets, any way she can. When a botched batch of coke lives up to its name, Fatal Beauty, and starts killing everyone who tries it, she has her sights set on meteoric businessman Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin). Kroll sends his head of security, Mike Marshak (Sam Elliott), to keep her in line. Disbelieving Rizzoli’s suspicions about his boss, but quickly growing to like her anyway, Marshak takes his orders seriously and is a great help in her encounters with psycho dealer Leo Nova (Brad Dourif). Rizzoli hates Kroll enough, however, that she tries to stay resistant to Marshak’s charm.

Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.
Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.

Goldberg made several action comedies after her Oscar win for The Color Purple, none of them good. She’s given a raw deal with this script and barely manages to carry it. I want Rizzoli to be a tough, capable cop who’s devoted to protecting vulnerable women, but the movie quickly shows she can’t be both. Disguised as a hooker, Rizzoli blows a sting while defending one of her female informants from a beating. More than that, a guy kicks the crap out of her while using the N word with quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Charles Hallahan and M. C. Gainley onscreen at the same time? I’m freaking out!
M. C. Gainley and Charles Hallahan raise the film’s character actor quotient.

Fatal Beauty fails almost totally as a comedy, in no small part because Rizzoli faces constant, brutal misogyny and racism. The put-downs she deals out in return rely on lazy jokes about dick size, leaving me exasperated both at how she’s being treated and by the writers’ inability to make her a genuine wise-ass. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s jokes fall flat; a facial expression from Elliott that did make me chuckle was quickly followed up with a line that over-explained something he’d just capably expressed on his own. There’s also some racist jokes about Mexicans and the Japanese that show just how blind the writers are to what they’re doing.

Is this outfit supposed to impress me? I can’t tell.
Is this outfit supposed to look good? I can’t tell.

Fatal Beauty’s thoroughly dated style must be the first thing the viewer notices. The soundtrack has a typical 80s sound while having no distinctive songs whatsoever; it’s stock music with lyrics. The costumes, meanwhile, are a neverending cavalcade of neon, sparkles and spandex. The hair, of course, is big all round. You won’t be able to look away.

Despite the movie’s silliness, the subject matter gets quite bleak. Dozens of people are killed by drugs, and many more are gunned down. Rizzoli’s back story is as dark as it gets, even if the writers’ decision to have her reveal it all in one exposition-dump monologue makes it as hard to take seriously as Phoebe Cates’ famous scene in Gremlins. Fatal Beauty isn’t a gritty cop drama, and it isn’t a fun comedy. It wants to be both, and the conflict between them tugs the movie in too many directions.

A few actors in the movie seem to know what they’re doing. (Goldberg just about has the right attitude, but the aforementioned terrible jokes let her down; she does better in scenes that rely on tension instead.) Elliott in particular is giving his role far more credit than it deserves. Rizzoli treats Marshak worse than she needs to, but Elliott sells Marshak’s growing affections for her, as well as his moral conflict.

Checks and houndstooth? We're dealing with a madman.
Checks and houndstooth? We’re dealing with a madman.

The other actor of note in Fatal Beauty is Brad Dourif. One of the big problems with the movie is that there’s not enough of him, in fact. There’s too many needless characters in the script, and it’s not always clear which villain is the real threat. It’s got to be Dourif: he’s the one who manages to be funny and threatening, who fits best into this live-action cartoon of a movie. Kroll isn’t interesting at all, and the other villains can’t get the right goofy/nasty balance. If the subject matter was lightened up a bit, and the story was centred around Leo, Fatal Beauty would be much more coherent and enjoyable.

The writers seem to have some sort of grasp on the fact that Leo is the most arresting villain here; he’s the last one standing. His final line is undoubtedly the best thing about the whole movie. Seriously, go here and skip to 11:15. Creepy, crazy and hilarious. Rizzoli’s retort is pretty good, too.

Okay, I like this outfit.
An outfit with genuine style.

Dourif would have the last laugh. A year later, Tom Holland made Child’s Play, with Dourif in the role of Charles Lee Ray, or rather, Chucky. It was Holland’s experience with Dourif in making Fatal Beauty that led to this casting. With his obscenity screaming and running-while-shot acting, there are some similarities between what Dourif’s doing in both movies. There’s no puppet here, though.

Chucky became a horror icon, but who remembers Fatal Beauty? To its credit, it is entertaining. This is a movie where people don’t die without letting off a hail of bullets first, and where you can’t see the lead character near a swimming pool without intuiting that she’ll wind up punching someone into it. The romance involves her shooting out the guy’s tires, turning down his gift of a $5000 dress, and punching him in the crotch. Meanwhile, several of the actors do good work regardless of what’s going on around them, and of how well the script serves their characters. Fatal Beauty isn’t boring. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be but sure makes a lot of noise doing it.

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.

Taking a Shot: Bride of Chucky (Ronny Wu, 1999)

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There’s some interesting things going on in this shot. Plotwise, Tiffany is learning that Charles Lee Ray, AKA Chucky, never intended to marry her before he was killed, as she believed. Motivated by love, she’s spent ten years searching for the doll housing Ray’s soul, only to hear him laugh at her.

One of the best things about Bride of Chucky is that the relationship between Chucky and Tiffany has a great dynamic, and that Jennifer Tilly and Brad Dourif (with his voice, at least), play off each other so well. They take the characters seriously, exaggerated as they are, and the movie is all the better for it.

Ronny Wu emphasises Tiffany’s emotions here by using a diopter lens, so that Tiffany and Chucky are both in focus at once. I don’t always like this type of shot, but the image’s unreal quality suits the heightened nature of the movie, and what Tiffany’s feeling.

Wu’s strong sense of style elevates Don Mancini’s script. Perhaps inspired by Wu, Mancini used a range of visual techniques, including similar diopter lens shots, in his next two Chucky films, which were both self-directed. Seed of Chucky and Curse of Chucky had weaker stories than Bride, which was more of a problem than how they were filmed.

By some slip up, this camera was not fitted with a filter that Tilly jokes is the due of “a star of [her] stature.” As such, we can see the textures of Tilly’s skin, which, apparently, we would otherwise have been spared. These kinds of filters have been used thoughout the history of cinema and aren’t inherently bad, but it’s always worth questioning why conventional female beauty must be so unattainable for any woman, star or not.

More than a stoner comedy: Humboldt County (Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, 2008)

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Humboldt Country is more or less a Garden State for the US’s West Coast, but although describing it in this way emphasises the fact that Zach Braff went nowhere near it, which is certainly a plus, it also does it something of a disservice. This film is unassuming and does not demand attention or appreciation, and yet is remarkably endearing in the way it simply does not feel the need to try too hard. It’s about Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong), an emotionally destitute medical student whose life is reinvigorated when he becomes involved with the free-spirited Bogart (Fairuza Balk) and her pot-growing family, residents of Humboldt County.

This film is a little comedic, a little beautiful, and a little quirky, and becomes slowly but surely ever more immersive as its story progresses. It is greatly helped by a cast full of strong actors who fill their roles solidly and believably, avoiding the superficial wackiness of their characters. The prime example is Brad Dourif as Jack, Bogart’s adoptive father, in perhaps the best of his post-Deadwood roles. (The fact that there’s little competition is some kind of crime against art.) For a change, he’s playing an outright lovable character. Jack is an eccentric, and Dourif makes him at turns intimidating and supportive. The character seems so sure of himself and his place in the world that his concealed self-doubt, and his eventual heartbreak, hit all the harder.

The other parts are just as well cast. Strong makes his film debut here, bringing just the right amount of blankness and confusion to Peter. Balk seems to effortlessly fill Bogart with vitality, and Chris Messina constantly shows the internal conflicts bubbling away within his character, Max, that will eventually come to a boil. Twelve-year-old Madison Devenport as Charity is a fine child actress, capturing the character’s precociousness without losing her innocent qualities, while the more experienced Frances Conroy as Rosie shifts from airy indifference to confused turmoil and back again with ease. Peter Bogdanovich is an odd casting choice as Professor Hadley, Peter’s father, but works as a reasonable though distant authority figure.

Humboldt County gradually reveals the complex relationships of Bogart’s family, and in doing so, refutes the film’s seeming premise that these people live in a pure paradise. The county has its own problems as much as anywhere else, but still has something of its own to offer to the right person. There are no easy answers for any of the characters, and the connections and similarities between them are subtly drawn. For instance, both Professor Hadley and Jack (himself a runaway academic) hear their children say they love them, but the context, and the way they respond, says everything about who they are as parents.

Humboldt County is not a great film, nor a essential one. Nonetheless, it has a better understanding of human nature than the stoner comedy it appears to be. With quiet confidence it can endear itself to you, if you’ve the time to spare.

Glamour, grit and bad plotting: Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

Faye Dunaway is Laura Mars, a photographer who sees more than she should.

Despite being an ultimately unsatisfying film, Eyes of Laura Mars has a lot going for it. Laura Mars is a renowned fashion photographer, known for producing violent and sexual images, played by Faye Dunaway. She begins to have psychic experiences in which she can see through the eyes of a killer – a killer who seems to be getting ever closer to her. While Detective Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates, Laura is surrounded by suspects, including her ex-husband, Michael (Raul Julia), her ex-criminal chauffeur, Tommy (Brad Dourif), and her manager, Donald (Rene Auberjonois).

Though Dunaway shows some of the over-acting she’d become infamous for in Mommie Dearest, she makes Laura likeably compassionate and intelligent. The film takes concepts of objectification seriously and tries to explore them through Laura’s work. I don’t think it’s especially successful, but it’s still interesting to see Laura’s attempts to make people acknowledge violence by linking it with beauty and sex.

FASHION!

Laura Mars is a fascinating film to look at. It shows the grittiness of late 70s New York’s streets and waterfronts as well as the glamour of the city’s fashion industry. The photoshoots, accompanied by disco music, are full of energy. Laura’s photos were supplied by Helmut Lang, and having this fashion giant’s work in the film gives it added authenticity.

70s New York: not all pretty.

The costumes in Laura Mars are not only stylish, but have strong character touches. Laura often wears clothes that wrap around and conceal her (including an outfit that manages to combine two types of purple plaid), giving a sense of her introversion. (Though there’s plenty of shots of Dunaway’s legs, of course.) Donald dresses for drama, especially with the suit he‘s wearing at the beginning of the film. Tommy, meanwhile, clearly emulates some of his musical idols with his clothing and hair. He has a chauffeur’s uniform for special events, and that he would wear the cap with his regular clothes when he feels the need indicates how seriously he takes his job, and his wish to be respected.

Rene Auberjonois: fabulous when called for.

The best part of this film, I would say, is that it gives great character actors Auberjonois and Dourif substantial parts. Donald is camp and funny, but is also authoritative. Auberjonois makes him a good friend and manager for Laura, while still keeping him a suspect. Tommy is devoted to Laura, but has a mad-eyed desperation that marks him as a wild card. We know, in the present day, that Dourif is typecast as dangerous crazies – but given that this is an early role for him, should we make this assumption about Tommy? These two actors are always a pleasure to watch, and the charged dynamic they create between is other is on its own enough to make Laura Mars worthwhile.

Brad Dourif’s crazy eyes: character clue, red herring, or did he just sit on something?

On to the film’s downside. Its script, penned by John Carpenter, is badly in need of a few more rewrites. It’s far too dependent on a romance between Laura and Neville; I suspect this is in there to try to make the film more appealing to women, but it’s totally uninteresting. Jones’s performance is a bit of a dud, and his scenes with Dunaway lack believability.

Tommy Lee Jones: not very good in this.

The film’s resolution is where it falls apart. This concept has a clear and satisfying inbuilt way for Laura to deal with the murderer: if she’s holding a gun while he heads towards her, she would be able to see through his eyes and know where he was, and where to shoot. It would be a reversal of the other times in the film where her second sight makes her helpless, and a great way to end the story.

Unfortunately, Laura Mars whittles its suspects off until only one remains. Then it reveals information that the audience could not possibly have guessed, and that depends strongly on further suspension of disbelief. As well as being a stark contrast to the way the film carefully explained Laura’s abilities earlier in the story, it’s poorly paced and it’s unconvincing on an emotional level. This is only a bigger shame because Laura Mars, with its its intriguing concept, interesting characters, and great style, so clearly had the potential to be better than it is.

Auberjonois, Dourif, and their 70s hair are better than you. And this movie.

The dictionary definition of “misguided”: Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007)

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It’s tempting to say that Rob Zombie has completely misunderstood why John Carpenter’s Halloween is a classic. Giving us Michael Myers’ origin story goes against everything that made the character frightening; he’s not meant to seem like a person formed by his environment and experiences, but like an ill-defined figure filled entirely with evil. There’s a reason the character was originally billed as The Shape. I’ll try to give Zombie some credit, however. It’s possible that he could have shown us a slant on the original story that was more interesting than a slavish remake.

The problem is not that Zombie took a different tack – it’s that he adds very little of worth to the story. So Michael’s from a turbulent household and was bullied at school? That makes him a character no different from many others we’ve seen onscreen before, and not even a partway interesting version of the type at that. The first half of this film, before Michael sets out on his Halloween rampage, is simply dull, and the second half can be all too easily compared to the original in an entirely negative way. At no point is there any atmosphere or tension; all we get is bursts of pointless violence inflicted on barely written characters. The final insult is Michael’s climactic pursuit of Laurie, which is so interminable that I watched it on fast forward.

Zombie was extremely fortunate to get Malcolm McDowell for this film, because McDowell makes Doctor Loomis the only interesting primary character. He doesn’t play the role with the you’re-really-not-helping-yourself levels of crazy that Donald Pleasance brought to Loomis. Rather, this Loomis genuinely cares about Michael and wants to cure him. In seeing Loomis spend so much time trying to cure Michael, we can also believe that he understands how dangerous the killer is.

Aside from Brad Dourif, Danny Trejo, Udo Kier, and Danielle Harris (all of whom are underused), McDowell is surrounded by poor actors who are nowhere near as capable of wringing any sort of believability out of this script. The worst has to be Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie, if only because she contributed to the character by agreeing with Zombie that girls as shy and naive as the original Laurie don’t exist in the 2000s. I’m not going to say that Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie was particularly complex, but Taylor-Compton doesn’t give her character anything to make her worth caring about.

I’m so befuddled by Zombie’s choices that I really would watch the four hour making of documentary if I could get my hands on it. I’ve had to settle for some less detailed extras, but it turns out that the bloopers are much more interesting than the actual film. Though I’d heard that McDowell is bonafide nuts, I now feel like I’ve seen actual proof. In between making Sheri Moon Zombie laugh helplessly, spouting rather offensive nonsense about Nazis at Udo Kier, and generally seeming very unprofessional, he gets in some hilarious adlibs. And my life is genuinely the better for knowing that Brad Dourif’s response to being yelled at in a cockney accent is to respond in kind. Still, I’m not going to give Zombie any credit for that.

A surprisingly effective remake: Nightwatch (Ole Bornedal, 1997)

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Nightwatch is an adaptation of a Danish film, Nattevagten, that managed to hang onto its original director, Ole Bornedal. With a screenplay by Bornedal and Steven Soderbergh, it keeps a European-feeling sensibility towards sex and death. It stars Ewan McGregor as Martin Bells, a weak-willed law student who gets a job as a nightwatchman in a hospital. Checking in at the morgue every hour would be chilling enough even if it didn’t hold the victims of the local serial killer, or without the rumours that a former nightwatchmen was a necrophiliac. That’s not all that’s troubling Martin. His best friend James (Josh Brolin) is a thrillseeker who’s getting ever more reckless and cruel. Inspector Thomas Cray (Nick Nolte), a weary cop, is a little too interested in Martin, while the Duty Doctor (Brad Dourif) takes an instant dislike to him. And Martin’s girlfriend Katherine (Patricia Arquette) doesn’t seem to trust him anymore.

Nightwatch’s mystery may be a little predictable if you’re trying to stay a few steps ahead. However, the story involves so many pieces regarding which character knows what and how they’ll react to what they know that it’s still suspenseful. It doesn’t even matter that an explicit sex scene that put Martin’s semen in an incriminating place was cut from the movie to get it a lower rating. There’s enough going on that the story still fits together, wihout seeming too neat.

The movie lays on a disturbing atmosphere from a start. Martin’s trepidation towards the hospital will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a place a fraction as creepy, and the camera shows his fear through its positioning and movements. The story escalates to an unexpectedly violent climax that, effectively, relies upon surprising but appropriate character development.

Nightwatch has an interesting collection of actors. McGregor brings a familiar youthful vulnerability to Martin (though his accent is rather shonky), and has strong chemistry with Arquette, who makes Katherine a believable person. Nolte is stonily grave as Cray, and Brolin makes James thoroughly unlikeable. Alix Koromzay gives a tragic turn as unlucky hooker Joyce. And Dourif tries his damnedest to steal every scene he’s in (of which there aren’t nearly enough), even when he’s not in focus.

Nightwatch is the kind of edgy thriller that seems to get more critical praise when they’re made in a language other than English. As it stands, though, it’s a strongly put together movie that’s hard to shake off. Maybe the original’s better, but that doesn’t mean this one’s not worth a look.