Hitchcock and horror.
First up, I rewatched two films in which Ingrid Bergman plays an intensely honorable dipsomaniac. This may have been an expectations game, but I was surprised to find that I enjoyed Under Capricorn more than Notorious this time around. On an intellectual level the relationship in Notorious makes sense to me: Cary Grant’s character hides his true feelings because of emotional repression, and maybe also because he thinks undermining the Bergman character’s confidence will commit her more deeply to prove herself through her mission. He’s a mess, and she responds to his mess with a kind of spite-virtue indistinguishable from self-loathing, and in theory I like that; I also like the showy camera angles, especially because they make it so clear that whenever Bergman’s on screen we’re within her character’s pov and on her side. But I just did not feel any chemistry between our leads. Bergman always tends toward the stiff and actressy, and Grant just didn’t strike sparks off her.
Under Capricorn is more melodramatic and so Bergman’s acting style fits in better. It’s got all the Technicolor pleasures a soundstage can offer, and high-stakes moral arcs aplenty. But what made the film for me were the performances, and the way the camera captured them. Hitchcock here has this trick of holding the camera on a face for just long enough to unsettle you, to demand that you look closer and speculate on what might be happening under that rugged surface. Usually the face is Joseph Cotten’s, who’s phenomenal as a rough-hewn emancipated convict in 19th-century Sydney: possibly a walled garden of sinister secrets, possibly a stoppered fountain of self-sacrificing romance… possibly, violently, both.
Michael Wilding is also ridiculously good as the ne’er-do-well cousin of the new colonial governor. His role could have been heavy–this whole movie could have been heavy–but Wilding brings a weird comic streak, edgy and uncomfortable and impulsive, a real hint of Gene Wilder in both his looks and his manner, and so he leavens the whole movie.
Now for three 90-minute horror flicks, available streaming, which are okay for popcorn night but feel like pieces of a single excellent movie. All three were found, one way or another, via the Deadly Doll. All of these are good enough that I am interested in seeing more from their directors; none of them touch the emotional depths of a Pumpkinhead or the surprising artistic vision of a Hell Night.
Crush the Skull: A group of ill-assorted thieves break into a house which turns out to harbor a serial killer. The plot is perfunctory and I disliked the director’s habit of suddenly pushing the camera in on a character with a jerk, then cutting. It felt showy without adding any insight or deeper connection to the character. The script is often funny, but way too often it undercuts what should be a moment of genuine emotion with humor. Don’t be afraid to let your audience be sad! Give us a whole beat to feel sorry for somebody!
That said, the characters are fantastic. They’re the reason to watch. Ollie (Chris Dinh, who also co-wrote with director Viet Nguyen) loves the criminal life, but knows he’s up against California’s three-strikes law. The opening sequence lets him make a hard moral choice, and he screws up in a way that’s funny and poignant and, as the Deadly Doll notes, immediately gets us firmly on his side. So good. His girlfriend Blair (Katie Savoy) dreams of a life beyond the next score. They’re both funny and sweet–and competent, unlike the other two members of the crew, the loser brother Connor and the dim-bulb sidekick Riley (Chris Riedell and Tim Chiou). The film gets plenty of laughs out of the moments when Connor and Riley are dumber than a box of hair, but it doesn’t hold them in contempt. You’ll feel for them as much as you shake your head at them.
I loved spending time with all of these characters. I just wish they weren’t the only aspect of this movie which felt like it got enough attention.
The Deadly Doll’s review has some nice notes on the making-of, explaining why the characters are so strong.
Haunt: An xxxxxxtreme haunted house where the kills are real! Lay it on me!!
The good: I enjoyed this haunted house a lot! We saw enough of the scares (the lighting is clear even when the characters are in darkness) and the house felt like a thing that might exist. Haunt also spends quite a bit of time in that tilting mindset where the characters don’t know they’re in a horror movie, where they’re genuinely uncertain what’s real and how they should react, and it handles the increasingly-tense rhythm of fear and relief really well.
The meh: There are basically three story elements here and they never join forces. There’s the haunted house (awesome!). There’s the reason for the haunted house (either supernatural or like… a cult of extreme body-modification nerds??? very very dumb either way imho). And there’s the childhood memories of abuse experienced by the only character we get to know. Her background does play a role in the house’s setup at the climax, but until then the scares don’t seem at all related to anything in the characters’ psyches; there’s no creeping feeling of, Does this place somehow know me? It feels, tbh, like she’s given a painful history so we root for her, rather than because the writer/directors (Scott Beck & Bryan Woods) have thought through how her background affects her, how she relates to the metaphor of the house or the whole phenomenon of scared-for-fun, how her background might affect her relationship with the friends she’s known since high school, etc. It’s tacked on. And the fact that these elements never really add up, never multiply one another’s impact or relate to one another on a deep level, makes the whole movie feel kind of pointless.
Hell Fest: An xxxxxxtreme Halloween fair where the kills are real! Lay it on me, I guess!
The good: Gosh the colors are gorgeous. Just so much scarlet and so many shades of glowing blue. This is a great movie to look at. Score by Bear McCreary, very classy. Some nice fakeouts where you think a character is safe and then: surprise!
The meh: We don’t quite see as much of the fake scares here–there are too many of them for us to spend the time with each one that Haunt does. But mostly the problem is that literally every character, from the killer to the heroine, is a cardboard cutout, a playing piece to be moved around the board of the fair. None of these people have hopes or dreams or specific fears! Once you’ve made that decision, there’s no way that your creepy fair can relate in any way to their psyches, because they haven’t got any. It’s just a bunch of gooey stuff.