Sublime: Drácula

Drácula (1931)
Directed by George Melford, Enrique Tovar Ávalos
Written by Bram Stoker, John L. Balderston, Hamilton Deane, Garrett Fort, Dudley Murphy, Baltasar Fernández Cué
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., Paul Kohner
Starring Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Eduardo Arozamena, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, Barry Norton, José Soriano Viosca
Every evening succeeding Tod Browning’s diurnal photography of Universal’s premiere adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel found that production’s sets again occupied by an international cast and alternate crew who staged and shot a Hispanophone variant of the horror classic for Latino markets that both accommodated and reflected the ethos of its target audience. Melford was a veteran of the silent era whose broad framing better exploited the magnitude and stygian severity of those gloomiest stage settings than Browning’s efforts, and a latitude consequent of his movie’s secondary priority and the liberality of its intended demographic enabled him to intimate the tacit salacity of Stoker’s romance and define his characters with greater depth in a running time exceeding that of its similitude by near twenty minutes. As Browning couldn’t speak Spanish, uncredited journeyman Ávalos directed the cast, whose comportment is decidedly more theatrical than that of their Anglophone counterparts. Villarías’ Dracula hasn’t the ominous suavity that secured Lugosi’s legend, but he swimmingly alternates from allurement to monstrous menace. Likewise, Tovar’s luscious objet du désir (here Eva to Helen Chandler’s Mina) exudes a playful sensuality unimaginable in the English pic, while Rubio plays lunatic lickspittle Renfield with derangement of a shrieking delirium that Dwight Frye never mustered. Contemporary reappraisal often favors this as the superior picture; while its comparative merits are contestable, no viewer can deny that Melford’s vision disbosoms far more of Stoker’s spirit.

Favorites: Dirty Pair: Project Eden

Dirty Pair: Project Eden (1987)
Directed by Koichi Mashimo
Written by Haruka Takachiho, Hiroyuki Hoshiyama
Produced by Shigehiro Nakagawa, Masanori Ito, Hironori Nakagawa, Yoshihide Kondo
Starring Kyoko Tongu, Saeko Shimazu, Katsuji Mori, Chikao Otsuka, Toku Nishio
Disaster ensuing disorder attends every assignment of Haruka Takachiho’s feisty dyad, and in this sole theatrical feature succeeding the delirious televised adaptation of his novelistic series, their calamitous concomitance is accordingly magnified as a spectacle of detonation, mutation and oenophilia. Dispatched to investigate acts of sabotage that threaten the uneasy peace between two rival governments exploiting a planet’s invaluable and plethoric resources, Kei and Yuri encounter a dashing thief in pursuit of a potable antique, an unhinged, geriatric geneticist determined to advance the evolution of a rocky, dormant species and his natty henchman. Not a costive moment stays the celerity of this riotous, ridiculous adventure vibrantly rendered with florid detail and scintillating effects, wherein the Lovely Angels hazard hitherto unfamiliar dangers…none of which represent thematic or tonal freshness! A few amative interludes hardly spoil this mission’s blistering pace by intimating some rare emotional depth. Not a tittle of it amounts to anything and the Pair are typically no more responsible in action than culpability, but the denouements of their escapades are ordinarily peripheral to their significance, and neither the toothsome twosome nor their exploits were ever so gorgeously animated before or since.

Execrable: Four Minutes

Four Minutes (2006)
Directed and written by Chris Kraus
Produced by Alexandra Kordes, Meike Kordes, Sabine Holtgreve, Chris Kraus, Bettina Ricklefs, Georg Steinert
Starring Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung, Richy Müller, Sven Pippig, Jasmin Tabatabai, Stefan Kurt, Vadim Glowna, Nadja Uhl
Upon the altar of his own sophomoric sensibilities, Schlondorff protege Kraus sacrificed fine performances and the promising premise of an elderly piano preceptor (Bleibtreu) convinced that she can rehabilitate a virtuoso (Herzsprung) incarcerated for murder by further nurturing and rarefying her talent. Kraus’s cockamamie narrative is bloated by a peripheral subplot (at this late date, why are National Socialists still malefactors in every fifth German genre flick?), and he needlessly belabors his protagonists, heaping progressively preposterous asperities upon Herzsprung’s convict that culminate in perhaps the single clumsiest, most absurd and abashing construct of a pianistic, avant-garde impromptu in cinematic history. Herzsprung’s gloriously tetchy, refractory, vivacious as the embattled, peppery pianist, effortlessly hurtling laughable lines to convince her audience that she deserves this role in a superior picture. As a technically sound production that’s adroitly acted and ultimately undone by miraculously daft chimerae and pretenses, this could be the archetypic contemporary German drama.

Mediocre: Halloween II

Halloween II (1981)
Directed by Rick Rosenthal
Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Produced by John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Barry Bernardi, Joseph Wolf, Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad, Dino De Laurentiis
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Dick Warlock, Charles Cyphers, Pamela Susan Shoop, Jeffrey Kramer, Hunter von Leer, Lance Guest
Carpenter and Hill were no slouches as power couples come, producing a few original, indelible contributions to cinematic genre corpora until their divorce and subsequent career divergence propelled them to greater individual successes. Howbeit, this competently crafted yet sluggish sequel to their classic slasher hit won’t be recalled as one of their best efforts: their pedestrian script, the score by Carpenter and frequent collaborator Alan Howarth and Rosenthal’s perfunctory direction all resound but feeble echoes of the antecedent movie’s potent and idiosyncratic horror. Commencing contiguous from the prior pic, lumbering, implacable, inexplicable mass murderer Michael Myers slowly stalks Curtis’s effete schoolgirl while amassing a fresh body count, himself pursued by Pleasence’s increasingly crazed and prehensile psychiatrist. It should be riveting, but despite a few chillingly grotesque murders, this plot plods pari passu with Myers himself, and the fine cast merely replicates their activity (and in Pleasence’s instance, his exposition) of the previous outing. Moreover, a laughably stale consanguine revelation cheaply undermines the antagonist’s mystique. It’s a tolerable slasher, but by ’81, a battalion of flicks glutting the genre created by Clark and popularized by Carpenter were yielding much more intriguing and bloody offerings than this rather limp iteration.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Halloween.

Palatable: April Fool’s Day

April Fool’s Day (1986)
Directed by Fred Walton
Written by Danilo Bach
Produced by Frank Mancuso Jr.
Starring Deborah Foreman, Amy Steel, Ken Olandt, Pat Barlow, Clayton Rohner, Mike Nomad, Leah Pinsent, Deborah Goodrich, Thomas F. Wilson, Jay Baker
At the invitation of their skittish friend (Foreman), a collegiate septet visit the insular mansion conditionally devised her during spring break for a casual jubilee; when their number commences to contract by murderous attrition, gaiety turns terrifying. Walton’s last successfully exoteric picture typifies the mode and caliber of production that Mancuso propagated with hits like the Friday the 13th sequels and television series: photogenic, plausible players tackle Bach’s crafty and often riotous script with a flip, funny gusto sadly absent in most contemporary slashers. Comfortably conventional yet compulsive for its winding plot rich in red herrings, this lightweight love letter of a waning genre reserves a few frolic surprises for its seasoned and jaded audience.

Sublime: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Directed and written by Werner Herzog
Produced by Werner Herzog, Hans Prescher, Daniel Camino
Starring Klaus Kinski, Del Negro, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling, Edward Roland, Cecilia Rivera, Daniel Ades, Alejandro Repullés
Amalgamated from the butcherly mania of Zanzibari revolutionary John Okello and misadventures of doomed conquistadors Gonzalo Pizarro, Pedro de Ursúa and Lope de Aguirre, Herzog’s breakthrough classic agglutinates by his fevered imagination myth and historical fact to communicate the lunatic folly of seditious ambition in the face of impending annihilation. Toting artillery and palanquins through rampant rainforest and wetlands, a corps led by Pizarro (Repullés) of Spanish soldiers, clerics and aristocrats aided by indigenous slaves seek the apocryphal gilt city of El Dorado. When their rations wane, he dispatches a contingent led by Ursúa (Guerra) and Aguirre (Kinski) to locate their destination with representatives of the clergy and patriciate in tow: opportunistic priest Gaspar de Carvajal (Negro) and bloated prince Don Fernando de Guzman (Berling). This party peregrinating the Amazon upon rafts suffers attrition by ambuscades of autochthonic assailants, natural perils, mishaps, disease and treachery: resolute in his quest, Aguirre soon wrests command of the troop by suasion, slaughter and cajolery, appointing Guzman nominal governor of their band and emperor designate of El Dorado in defiance of the Habsburg crown. Whilst coping with herculean challenges compounded by a hostile climate and his truculent leading man, Herzog worked wonders with a minuscule budget, crafting a journey of epic ambit from the sprawl of Amazonian vistas and immensity of Kinski’s barbarous presence, the best imaginable to convey his conquerer manqué’s mad arrogation to imperium. Savagery internecine and otherwise is beheld through the same precise and dispassionate lens as meditative lingering shots of rapids, placid waters, the conquistadorial train wending along precipices and its expedition’s restive members, whose passage was perceived by Herzog an obverse to that of his tiny crew, a dedicated ogdoad who abetted the realization of his vision in a wilderness ranking among this world’s most dangerous. Dread and madness glaring onscreen reverberate in the baleful tonal sonority of Popol Vuh’s music; in this miasma, Germany’s most accomplished living filmmaker submerged himself to incarnate a primal depravity as historic figures whose evanescence was sped by the Amazon’s ravages in equipollence to its lowliest creatures.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Apocalypse Now.

Favorites: Le choc

Le choc (1982)
Directed by Robin Davis, Alain Delon
Written by Jean-Patrick Manchette, Dominique Robelet, Claude Veillot, Robin Davis, Alain Delon
Produced by Alain Sarde, Alain Terzian
Starring Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Etienne Chicot, François Perrot, Catherine Leprince, Philippe Léotard
Weary of his sanguinary craft, an urbane, veteran assassin (Delon) purposes to exit his lucrative billet in pursuit of legitimate forays to the reprehension of his employers, who apparently resort to extremes to recover his services. Few leading men were so apposite as Delon for the impassive suavity of his role, which he justifies with an understated, polished portrayal that indues credibility to his protagonist’s Bondian savoir faire; as the fetching spouse of a loutish turkey breeder (Léotard), Deneuve radiates vulnerable sensuality as his predictable love interest, and Chicot is again and condignly typecast as a dour reprobate. In concert with genre journeyman Davis, Delon enhanced the pedestrian premise of an obscure novel with an investment of slick action sequences, novel interiors, wry raillery and its gorgeous, middle-aged leads’ potent, prurient chemistry, elevating what might have been a routine suspense feature into a superbly engaging outing. For viewers weary of farcically hyperbolic action pictures, this may suffice as a refreshing alternative to silly drivel concocted by the likes of Besson or West.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Le professionnel.

Execrable: Black Christmas

Black Christmas (2006)
Directed and written by Glen Morgan
Produced by Glen Morgan, James Wong, Marty Adelstein, Dawn Parouse, Victor Solnicki, Steven Hoban, Ogden Gavanski, Kent Kubena, Satsuki Mitchell, Mike Upton, Marc Butan, Bob Clark, Mark Cuban, Scott Nemes, Noah Segal, Todd Wagner
Starring Katie Cassidy, Lacey Chabert, Michelle Trachtenberg, Kristen Cloke, Andrea Martin, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Crystal Lowe, Robert Mann, Oliver Hudson
At the crest of American cinema’s hateful horror remake trend, Morgan shamefully begat this detestably deviling, uninspired retread of Bob Clark’s festal, deviously pioneering slasher cult classic, in which a bedlamite telephonically terrorizes while attritionally slaughtering the inhabitants of a sorority house, as showy, senseless, scareless dreck. Enigmatic spree killer Billy is loudly heard and scarcely seen in the original, but here fully, artlessly expatiated and disambiguated in extended, exhaustively expositional flashbacks that negative every last scruple of the antagonist’s mystery or dread. In lieu of the compelling performances, visionary plotting and operative horror that distinguished Clark’s movie from its many imitations, Morgan assails his audience’s sensibilities with spat, witless dialogue idiomatic of a Gilmore Girls episode replete with stale one-liners, Shirley Walker’s mincing score, CG flame on a roasted marshmallow and unremitting prognostics via cliched cues and composition of every feeble attempt to evoke fright. Martin’s the sole sorority sister of the precedent movie present, cast as Marian Waldman’s housemother and faring slightly better with her doltish dialogue than most of her fellow professed performers. Gorgeous, gifted Winstead and Trachtenberg also retain some hint of dignity as they tread the histrionic water of their characters’ kiddie pool; predictably, neither quite lasts an hour. Marred by a grating voice (with which she slurs her every uttered sibilant, often unintelligibly), the jutting anteriors of her meretricious mug and a downright destitution of appeal, Cassidy’s unfit as a supernumerary, much less a leading lady — a disgrace to her mad, masterfully suave grandfather — and can’t elicit a whit of sympathy as the designated Last Girl. A few gory enucleations, dismemberments and impalements are ably actualized with messy practical effects, but so idiotically ill-conceived that they scarcely warrant notice. Nearly nine minutes/one-tenth of this feature’s excruciating eighty-six were alloted to its end credits, in which a lengthy list of administrative and insurance contributions abound to eclipse those of its predecessor’s entire cast and crew as an appropriate emblem of this industry’s irredeemable dysfunction. Morgan persists in the production of pap, but thankfully hasn’t helmed a pic since.

Mediocre: Act of Vengeance

Act of Vengeance (1986)
Directed by John Mackenzie
Written by Trevor Armbrister, Scott Spencer
Produced by Frank Konigsberg, Larry Sanitsky, Jack Clements, Iris Sawyer, Barry Jossen, Jules Schwerin
Starring Charles Bronson, Ellen Burstyn, Wilford Brimley, Robert Schenkkan, Ellen Barkin, Hoyt Axton
Commissioned at the injunction of United Mine Workers incumbent president Tony Boyle, the execution of UMW district president and presidential contender Joseph Yablonski was a powerful catalyst that precipitated comprehensive reforms of his categorically corrupt union and the coal industry alike, and probably deserved a better enactment than this middling televised presentation. Coal miner’s scion Bronson is both ethnically and culturally felicitous as Yablonski, and Mackenzie’s technical direction is unexceptionally capable, but his guidance of the leading star is demonstrably feckless: Il Brutto acquits himself satisfactorily whenever he isn’t struggling to muster exasperation, but his delivery of poorly-scripted commination is amateurishly stilted, years after the likes of Aldrich and Winner aroused memorably livid grit from the screen veteran. Brimley fares faintly better as the fatuously venal Boyle, but can’t quite surmount his own schlocky dialogue. Ultimately, the ladies prevail in this thoroughly manful movie; Burstyn lusters as brightly as ever or possible in the confines of her part as Yablonsky’s staunch, steady, cultured spouse, and Barkin generates a palpably sleazy sensuality as the sluttish, conniving daughter of a UMWA official who obliges her husband (Schenkkan), a gutless gunsel and house painter who she’s cuckolding, to consummate the assassination with palaver and fellation supererogatory beyond his defalcated payment. Apparently intended as black comic relief, the antic ineptitude of Yablonski’s murderers is almost risible, especially when Keanu Reeves (in his adorable River’s Edge phase) accompanies them as an abettor on their umpteenth visit to dispatch the labor leader. Footage shot in Pittsburgh contributes to the production’s realism, as does its modest yet effective period details marred by only a few anachronisms (TV remote controls!). Most disquieting when adumbrating and portraying its protagonist’s grisly end, this account would have benefited from more revealing collocations of the union administration’s luxuriant lifestyles and those grueling of the proles they profess to represent; what glimpses we’re afforded of this contrast infuriate.

Palatable: Abuse of Weakness

Abuse of Weakness (2013)
Directed and written by Catherine Breillat
Produced by Jean-François Lepetit, Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira, Nadia Khamlichi, Adrian Politowski, Nicolas Steil, Gilles Waterkeyn
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christophe Sermet
Compulsion trumps cognizance when a veteran director (Huppert) incapacitated by ictus relinquishes a small fortune intended to fund her forthcoming production to an infamous grifter (Shen) who she’s cast in a bloody lead role in exchange for his repellent consort. Breillat’s bamboozlement by celebrity swindler Christophe Rocancourt enkindled first her roman a clef afore this adaptation in abidance of her entrenched autobiographical proclivities, and seems as much an explication as a depiction of her muddled credulity whilst disabled. Once again, she’s exploited her recherche knack for casting an experienced, masterly histrion opposite a talented amateur as leads to tremendous eclat: Huppert perfectly realizes the throes of cerebrovascular and epileptic seizure (and all their debilitating attendant symptoms) with no less conviction than Breillat’s caustic humor in barbed chaff with Shen’s loathsome, calculatedly prickly fraud, whose noxious taste and apparently fatuous comportment serve to brace the dissemblance of his practiced guile. Huppert’s as identifiable as any of the anterior actresses Breillat’s selected to play her similitudes (Alexandra, Laffin, Parillaud, et al.) but her co-star’s portrayal courts condign calumniation: nobody could reasonably confound glib, handsome Rocancourt with the comparatively crude confidence man personated by pug-ugly Shen. If it isn’t an entirely satisfactory revenge, Breillat’s still devised graphically penetrative pictures of her maladies, the oddly platonic infatuation by which she was mulcted, and the maladjusted victim complicit in her own ruination.