Until not too long ago my favourite film western of all time was Back to the Future III (1985). Recently John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) has taken over that mantle but as a budding film buff I still thought it was time to expand my Western viewing experience. The focus of this post is on some iconic films and figures of the genre. I think as a genre, the Western is a distinctively American one. As an outsider it is easy to get an appreciation of the cowboys and indians, gunfights and bar brawls. But the role and importance of the frontier in American history is something that is essentially lost in the Australian experience. I think that the best Westerns are able to capture the sense of the frontier and communicate it to a broad audience in their narratives. Whilst on the surface a simplistic genre, by including themes such as the frontier, and ones contemporary to the film’s making the best Western’s can rise above their generic conventions to deliver a satisfying experience. Lets see if these most iconic examples can achieve this.
Red River (1948) stars that most iconic of all Western stars, John Wayne. It was directed by Howard Hawks, one of the greatest directors of all time and according to the American Film Institute is the 5th greatest Western of all time. Personally though, I find little to recommend in this film.
It starts out relatively promising, with a real ‘frontier’ feel to it. John Wayne’s Tom Dunson leaves a wagon train to start his own cattle ranch, in the virgin Texas countryside. A brilliantly fast paced battle with the local Native Americans (of course referred to as Indians in the film) follows soon after. Hawks frenetic editing here is way ahead of its time and works a treat, ramping up the action. Following this a young boy walks out of the wilderness, the rest of his companions having already fallen victim to the Native Americans and joins Dunson and his offsider. The action then skips forward 14 years. And it’s an unfortunate skip, with the film losing the real frontier feel that was an asset to it early on. The young boy is now a grown man, Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth, and Wayne’s Dunson has clearly spent the last 14 years getting suitably grizzled. As a result of the Civil War there is no money for beef in Texas, and as a result Dunson, Garth and their men have to transport their 10,000 head of cattle all the way to Missouri. It is this ride that takes up the remainder of the film’s narrative.
Red River abounds with Western cliché. That in itself is not a bad thing. A film like Stagecoach is essentially one long cliché, but it does it with a freshness that is sorely lacking from this film which is really quite tiresome. Even the interesting elements, the looming mutiny amongst the men and Dunson’s loss of control, are not handled in a way which draws the viewer in. Generally speaking the acting is melodramatic. The exception is Montgomery Clift who is fantastic and is one of the film’s saving graces. Wayne is average, even though this is supposedly on of his finest turns, to me it seems he is ‘phoning it in’ to use modern parlance. After the cracking start he makes with the opening showdown with the natives, Hawks errs often. Montages over the top of pages turning are weak. And a tendency to begin momentous moments with close-ups of all the men is distracting and uninteresting – when they first set out on the drive all the men get a close-up where they get to give the camera their best “YAHOO” in what is frankly a cringe-worthy moment. There are a number of times the narrative threatens to break out. Matt seizing control of the ride when Dunson goes too far – but all to quickly it reverts back into the blandness that dominates the film. There is no emotional investment in the characters, the late love interest section is almost laughable in it’s rendering for example. If you wrote the ‘high points’ of the storyline down it would look like you had a cracking tale on your hands, but it is the in-between bits that are just so utterly boring to sit through that is the issue. The film’s climax sort of summed this whole film up for me. I could see the idea, I could see what they were going for and could see that it should work. But it didn’t. It was hollow and just did not ring true.
This film escapes the dreaded ‘Schooner of Tooheys New’ rating for a couple of reasons. There are a few flashes of excellence. Most of the film is so mundanely paced that the sequences where it picks up really stand out. The initial confrontation with the Native Americans that I have already mentioned and a later stampede are really excellent action set-pieces that make you mourn for the rest of the film’s pedestrian-ness. The second half is somewhat better than the first. And Clift’s performance is also wonderful. But overall this was an intensely disappointing experience. If this is the 5th best Western in history, I am a bit worried about sitting through the rest of them (a fair amount) on the 1001 list.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
After the decidedly average experience of watching Red River, the next film I turned to was Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winning Unforgiven (1992). Eastwood has directed some films I have really loved, Changeling (2008) and Gran Torino (2008) were both excellent (I definitely recommend you seek out the first one if you haven’t already seen it), and some which I thought were rubbish, Absolute Power (1997) for example. So let’s see where this acclaimed modern Western fits in.
The film has a simple, but fine central storyline. An enraged cowboy viciously slashes the face of a prostitute after she giggles at the size of his “pecker”. The other whores put a $1,000 bounty on the attacker’s head, and that of his offsider. A young man keen on the cash enlists grizzled, retired gunslinger Bill Munny played by Eastwood to claim the bounty. Bill, now a reformed single father begrudgingly agrees because he desperately needs the cash. However he remains steadfast in his determination to honour his deceased wife who reformed him, and not revert to his former life of boozing and killing. Along the way two becomes three when Bill’s former partner Ned Logan played by Morgan Freeman joins the fray. Our odd threesome ride into the town of Little Whisky looking for the cowboys with the bounty on their heads. The town is patrolled by sheriff Little Bill played by Gene Hackman who runs the show with an iron-fist, not allowing guns in his town and enforcing this ordinance violently.
Some of the character establishment in the film is somewhat questionable. The over the top attempts to depict Eastwood’s Bill as a klutz are laboured and fail. Scenes of Eastwood repeatedly falling in the mud when mustering his pigs, and comically time and again trying to get on his horse are silly, and don’t work as well as the simpler scene of him practicing with his gun for the first time in what must be a while. These comic flourishes, which are a semi-regular occurrence through the film’s first half, are merely distracting from a strong, serious narrative. The young hothead, The Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett is likewise a little forced initially – we get that he is meant to be young and impetuous but the point is laboured. Once this is established, the character gets more interesting, at times it seems his motives have developed further than money into a care for his older companions, then this is quickly shut down as well. I think the most interesting character in the film is Gene Hackman’s Little Bill. He is not the arch, evil presence often seen in a Western. I guess he is the bad guy, but a lot of what he does is simply attempting to maintain law and order on his beat of Little Whisky. A lot of the time he is enforcing the law, albeit in an extremely violent manner, aiming to make an example of anyone who dares to sully the atmosphere of his town. Not to say he’s a good guy, but definitely a more nuanced bad dude than the norm. I think the characters (and by extension the film) work best when avoiding humour or self-awareness. The latter is embodied by the superfluous character of English Bob and his biographer. The biographer hangs around even after Bob is run out of town by Little Bill. To me, the whole ploy of having the biographer follow Bill around, idolising him smacks of revisionist self-awareness that is neither humorous nor did it add anything to the film. It seems a half-cocked attempt to update the straightforward Western story that is really unnecessary. Others may disagree, and in reality it is not a major part of the film, but a gripe nonetheless.
The occasionally meandering first half/two-thirds of the film gives way to a crackerjack second part where the tempo picks up in a good way. There is a wonderful siege sequence when the three men have tracked the first of their targets and are attempting to shoot him, which takes place amongst some unforgiving rocky formations. Ned is crushed when he realises he has lost his nerve and no longer has it in him to pull the trigger, that he is no longer the man he once was who revelled in that lifestyle. Even the moments we know are coming (the revelation that the kid has never shot anyone, Bill reverting to drink once again) are handled well, and importantly add something to the story above and beyond cliché. I was really excited when Bill started hoeing into the Whisky because you knew the final confrontation was coming, and it had been built very well by the film up until this point. And the final sequences are excellent, balancing delivering what the audience wants with a genuine uncertainty around how things are going to end. The film’s latter stages reveal an obsession with the theme of death. As Bill says to Schofield “We all have it comin’ kid”, and this obsession is nicely handled being both prominent but not overwhelming.
This is a film that really rises above its flaws. It definitely restored my desire to check out more Westerns. As I think I have made pretty clear the second half especially is a fine fine piece of work, avoiding the aspects that grated for me in the film’s first. It may not have claimed its place as my favourite Western, but it’s up there.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
The Great Train Robbery (1903) directed by Edwin S. Porter is generally regarded as the very first of all Westerns. Porter is one of the great innovators of film history, especially in regards film length, narrative construction and editing. But in reality he was more of a technician than a filmmaker in a contemporary sense. He did not direct too many films before leaving the creative side of the industry to focus on the technical side of things. The Great Train Robbery remains his most famous film and the most famous Western of the silent era. Some have countered the claim that this was the first Western arguing either that there were Westerns before it, or that the film is not a Western at all. I do not have the knowledge to counter the first of these suggestions, but in my opinion the film is definitely a Western, it features gunfights, crime, big hats, good guys vs the bad guys. More than enough to qualify. I would imagine that much of the iconography that came to prevail in the Western genre was established in this quite fantastic film.
First of all the film is easily accessible on Youtube. There are a whole bunch of different versions. This three parter is the one I prefer (the quality isn’t great, but it’s the closest in length to what the film was originally shown as, suggesting the frame rate is about right):
There are many amazing things about this film. The shooting of the film externally, on location stands out amongst early film. The high paced chase sequences through the forest toward the end are especially interesting, the kind of location shooting that seems so commonplace today. Who could imagine a Western shot on a soundstage? We may have this film to thank for that. The distinct scenes were also innovative in their day. The manner in which the action shifts from the initial holdup, on to the train, inside the train and then finally into the forest is wonderful. The scenes on the train utilise some wonderful shifts in camera angles. Initially, whilst on top of the train the camera is positioned directly behind the robbers as they attack the men working on the train, beating them up and throwing them off. The next scene, inside the train is almost the opposite. This time the camera is directly side on, almost like an old 2D video game. The thieves work their way from left to right, beating up the men before letting off explosives. This kind of thoughtful shot composition is also reflected in the film’s opening scene where the robbers beat up the signal operator. As their attack continues the train can be seen pulling into the station through a small window in the top right of shot.
The action in the film is excellent as well, with the rather cold-blooded violence helping to build tension. This is no twee exercise where the good guys save everyone and the baddies are totally inept at inflicting any damage. During their early rampage the robbers throw a man from the top of a moving train carriage, then later they shoot a civilian in the back as he attempts to flee. Similarly the long takes (whilst also lengthening the film in the days of a stationary camera) allow scenes to develop and heighten expectation. The film flies by and seems in some ways like an epic production, the aforementioned shooting on location, as well as a substantial cast of extras make this short film a full, substantive work. And of course, no discussion of this film is possible without mentioning the most iconic shot in the history of the Western. The film’s final shot (it was actually released on a separate reel so could be played at the start or end) sees a gunman fire his gun point blank at the camera. It is an audacious piece of filmmaking, and still wows people today. It wows me anyway. I think it is a fantastic way to finish off a fun, innovative and beautiful film.
I really love this film. Not just in an it’s an interesting relic of early film kind of way, but in that I genuinely enjoy sitting down to watch it kind of way. All film lovers have a lot to thank Edwin S. Porter, and innovators like him for.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
My initial idea for the last film in this piece was to review a film that chronicled iconic, real-life iconic events from the Old West. However whilst searching through the ‘1001 Movies’ book I stumbled across the entry for Shane (1953) which states the film is amongst Westerns “surely the most iconic”. I thought that sentiment seemed to fit rather well with the scope of this blog.
A reaction to this film really centres on a reaction to two characters. Firstly there is the painful little boy Joey, an incredibly annoying character whose characterisation could only be less subtle if he spent the whole film with the words PLOT DEVICE scrawled on his head with permanent marker. This character manages to detract from the film as a whole, the entire way through. Then there is Alan Ladd’s titular Shane. You want to talk iconic, this is by far the most iconic character in any of these films, and surely in all Westerns. He’s silent and brooding, women desire him, men either respect him or fear him, he’s a sharpshooter who’s reluctant to use his gun. The camera looks up at him in ‘hero worship’ mode and music soars when he appears onscreen. Alan Ladd is able to convey this silent hero type extremely well, not needing to resort to histrionics, and delivering Shane’s tough guy dialogue in a believable way that demands respect rather than titters. Shane is a rebel with a cause – to help and protect a family that he has literally just met. Before you know it, the men have taken their shirts off and are working as a team to remove that stubborn stump from the top paddock. The film’s plot centres around this – Shane being gradually incorporated into the Starrett family unit as they battle against the local land baron Emile Meyer and his cronies the Ryker boys trying to take them over. If I was a small-time farmer who wanted protection from a big evil corporation, this is the dude I want on my side. And to counter his presence the big evil corporation eventually brings in a similarly evil character to do battle – Jack Wilson played by an extremely young Jack Palance. This is the great Jack Palance at his best here. He does not spend a whole lot of time on screen, but the time he does spend sees him embodying evil, clad in all black, cold, seething and deadly. The result when this force, meets Shane’s in the film’s climax makes for some intense viewing.
This is a really nicely shot film. The opening shot, looking down over an expansive, picturesque valley sets the tone. The scenery is not overdone though, with these sort of images contrasted with the claustrophobic, sparse dwelling the Starretts inhabit. The film is shot in really snappy technicolour, which looks really vibrant and makes the film look like it was shot at least 20 years after it actually was. The action is just as competently shot as the scenery, and this movie features the best fistfight I have ever seen on film, better than any boxing film. Shane and his foes duke it out for what seems minutes with punches to the face landing left right and centre, in a scene that is exciting and realistic to look at. Then, just as you think the scene is almost over Joe Starrett comes to Shane’s aid and turns into a 2 on plenty brawl. But director George Stevens remains always in control and is able to stop it from becoming a shemozzle at any point. This movie is well worth watching just for this sequence. It’s beautifully well controlled, and pretty brutal as well. I have no idea how this manages to be a G rated film with that sequence in there. Much to my girlfriend’s embarrassment, I take notes whilst watching films for this blog. But sometimes the thoughts I jot down there are the most accurate ones. Just after this sequence I wrote “fucking masculine film”. And it is, the men are real men who feel the pressure to provide for their families in this brave new frontier land and to have the respect of their fellow blokes. However to say it is a masculine film is not to say that female characters are neglected or that females would not enjoy the film. Without exception every single one of the men in the film is hopelessly devoted to his darling wife. They make decisions on what is best for her. Not because they are nagged or feel pressured, but because their love for these frontier women (what a life) is so deep. What’s more the women are independent and willing to stand up and fight for what or whom they believe in.
Like many genre flicks Shane has multiple layers of social commentary to peel back if you wish, most of them pretty relevant to our 2011 world. One of the reasons Joe Starrett is so determined to hold on to his plot is because he believes his small-scale, open range farming is sustainable whereas Emile Meyer will just brutalise the land for short term monetary gain and then move on. A problem that plagues our modern world. The place of guns in a society is also examined. Despite obviously being a sharpshooter, Shane is extremely reluctant to utilise his weapon until circumstances make him believe there is no other option. Restraint that the world needs more of. He tries to teach Joey to shoot as the youngster is desperate to learn, but is stopped by Marion Starrett who scolds Shane by saying that “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” It is clear that gun control was a concern of filmmakers of the 1950s, not just filmmakers today. Another contemporary concern that the film confronts is an economic one. The demise of the little guy so to speak. The ability of the large corporation to bully them into submission and take what is not rightfully theirs. Emile Meyer thinks just because he owns a lot of land and has a lot of money, he can force the Starrett’s and their friends of their lands using underhanded intimidation. Land ownership on the frontier was obviously a complicated question. If no-one ‘owned the land’ (obviously most of it was inhabited, not that you would know from this film, I don’t think one Native American makes an appearance), then who could claim it. And how could you stop someone else coming along and claiming it over the top of you?
Thankfully the iconic Shane is able to negate the effects of the miserable character of Joey. Probably the best endorsement I can give for this film is the emotional connection that it built up in me with most of the characters. By the end of the film I was cheering, desperately hoping for a happy ending. This is definitely my favourite of the feature-length Westerns I watched for this piece, and joins Stagecoach atop the list of my favourites of the genre overall.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
I am not a big horror film fan. Quite the opposite, in fact I don’t think I have ever seen a horror film in a cinema. I genuinely do not see the appeal in having the shit scared out of me by a film, I would much rather be exhilarated or reduced to hysterics by one. But I am rather fond of a good creature feature. Those over the top pieces that occasionally transcend their B-movie roots and turn out to be something much more. I decided to check out three supposedly great ones from very different eras to see what they could offer.
The Wolf Man (1941) recently received the big-budget Hollywood remake treatment starring amongst others Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt. When the remake came out a number of retrospective reviews appeared on the original. The ones I read were in general not overly positive. Whilst not deriding the film outright they did state it had dated quite badly, was inferior to other creature features of the time and was basically quite average. Well, unsurprisingly for a film close to 70 years old, it has dated a lot. But that was the only thing that I agree with from these reviews. This movie was a very big, very happy surprise for me. Firstly, the central performance by Lon Chaney Jr in the role of Lawrence Talbot/Wolfman is one with few peers in film. His performance is towering, emotive and close to perfection. Physically he is a large, lumbering man but manages to convey everything from kind-hearted tenderness to lustful yearning to uncontrolled animalistic rage with ease.
The story opens with Lawrence returning to the family home. His brother has passed away and there is clearly a lot of tension between Lawrence and his father, resulting from Lawrence’s actions in the past. These tensions are put to bed early in the film allowing Lawrence seemingly to get on with the task of wooing the attractive Gwen from across the road, and focusing on his employment with his father. Things go downhill fast for him though – The lady across the road turns out to be engaged, he hears legends of a werewolf from numerous sources and in fighting off a wolf that is attacking a friend during a tense scene, he is bitten in the exchange. Suspicion is aroused when under examination his bite wounds appear not to exist, and an elderly gypsy man is found dead where he felled the wolf. Our hero Lawrence is now a fully fledged werewolf. Strangely for a Hollywood film there is very little hope for our hero. The only way for a werewolf to be killed is by a silver bullet (or being bashed to death with a silver implement). No alternative way out is offered for Lawrence and in the end he attempts to flee in order to protect those he loves, like Gwen and his father. The story is fantastic, simple yet dripping with emotion, conflict and tragedy. Narratively it does seem a little wonky. The first appearance of the Wolfman is not until two-thirds in. But the result of this is that when Lawrence does suffer this inescapable curse, the audience cares so much more.
Somewhat surprising for a creature feature, this is a very well made film. It is atmospheric with abundant shots of the forest, all shadows and slanting light. Director George Waggner renders some real tension in a number of scenes, notably the initial wolf attack and the excellent finale. Whilst the film is not at all scary for a modern audience, this finale does manage to shock. The final attack on Gwen is quite vicious and the fact the Wolfman is killed by his father is also somewhat ironic. It also manages to surprise, after a sense of inevitability has built up due to the doomed fate of the Wolfman. As mentioned earlier, the performance of Chaney Jr is truly special. He brings a wonderful humanity and vulnerability to this ‘monster’. Chaney Jr essentially nails two roles here. The out of control beast and perhaps even more brilliantly done, Lawrence in non-wolf form as he exhibits the descent of a man wracked by mental illness. The performances throughout the film are excellent, Claude Rains playing Chaney’s father Sir John Talbot is also excellent. A character whose motivations are at times uncertain and who develops a complex relationship with Chaney’s Lawrence. In the end though Rains is able to convey the father’s love that Sir John feels for his son, and exhibits in the ultimate way in the film’s finale. The big moment for any werewolf film is the ‘transformation’ scene. How do you go from wolf to man? Lacking the technology required for a full-frontal transformation as seen in a film such as An American Werewolf in London (1981), Waggner gets around this creatively. At the point of each transition he zooms into Chaney’s feet. Using primitive time-lapse photography the feet sprout extremely long hair. The camera retreats to a full shot of Chaney, now clad in the Yak hair trimmings of the Wolfman. It sounds pretty bad, but works excellently, with the feet sprouting hair a wonderful touch. If only this sort of creativity and lateral thinking was not exhibited more often today, rather than resorting to mindless CGI.
This film drew me right in and then blew me away. The core trial that the main character was going through felt very grounded and real, even though it had the fantastical trimming of the fact that he was turning into a werewolf. The acting was absolutely fantastic with Chaney’s one of the best performances ever committed to film. I also felt that this didn’t suffer from some of the corniness issues that plague other monster flicks of his vintage, not being afraid to ramp up the violence or deliver things the audience did not necessarily desire plot wise.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
David Cronenberg’s remake The Fly (1986) was the director’s breakout film and one which established his name in mainstream film circles. It tells the story of scientist Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, who is developing a teleportation device, and his short-lived romance with the gorgeous “Particle Magazine” journalist Veronica Quaife played by Geena Davis. Brundle is fused genetically with a fly when one makes its way into one of the pods the first time that he attempts to teleport himself. This initial teleportation exposes some pretty cartoony special effects which really show the film’s 25 odd year age. The script exhibits some pretty snappy dialogue early on, which definitely brought a smile to my face. When Veronica is interviewing Seth on tape after an early failure (preserved for all time on Betamax) she repeatedly asks what he is thinking, to which he retorts “Fuck is what I’m thinking.” These early scenes also show some flashes of real gore. I didn’t find the film continually gory, but there were some gross out scenes sprinkled through. The first comes when Brundle’s teleportation device manage to turn a baboon literally inside out because it can’t handle the breakdown and reanimation of flesh. My personal favourite of these gory inserts in the film comes when Seth, on the prowl for a bedfellow who is willing to be teleported, challenges a man to an arm wrestle in a bar. He beats the thug comprehensively when he snaps his forearm, breaking the skin, which Cronenberg chooses to show unflinchingly. This scene also leads to the film’s most iconic line when Veronica warns the woman that Brundle has picked up to “be afraid, be very afraid.”
I didn’t find the central romance all that believable or well drawn. It would take a bit more convincing for me to believe that Davis’ smokin hot journalist would fall for Goldblum’s uber-geek that quickly. She essentially throws herself down and begs him to take her. It just doesn’t ring true. The immediate disintegration of their relationship following Seth’s teleportation is better handled though. Some of the film’s more chilling moments arrive here, with Seth trying to force Veronica into the telepod to undergo the same “purifying” that he has undergone. In his mind you are only half a person until you have undergone the procedure. Echoes of modern sentiments which promote the latest surgical procedure or drug to make you jump higher, fuck longer and look hotter. From here much of the film shows Brundle’s transformation into Brundlefly, or for those who haven’t seen the film, the fly aspect fused to Brundle begins to take precedence over the human one. Pretty soon Goldblum is unrecognisable under the layers of prosthetics he is covered in. These prosthetics, whilst impressive, are at times rather comical. Today these scenes would probably be done with CGI, who knows if that would be any better (we may all know soon, supposedly Cronenberg himself is planning a remake). Aspects throughout this period are touching. Veronica refuses to give up and is continually trying to help Seth. No matter how grotesque his appearance becomes, she does not shy away from him either physically or personally. This culminates in her giving him a reassuring hug after his gnarled ear falls off.
The three central performances are all good. Davis is bright and bubbly, and probably delivers the films standout performance. When her character becomes pregnant with Brundle’s child, Davis delivers one of the film’s more famous scenes when during a disturbing dream sequence she gives birth to a larva. Goldblum likewise is good with what he is given, although personally I found his character to be a bit of a cutout. He could have done with some more nuances, especially after undergoing his transformation. I recognise that he is meant to be losing some level of his sanity, but his treatment of Veronica straight after the incident doesn’t marry well with his behaviour beforehand, or the attempts by him to make peace with her later in the film. John Getz is also excellent as Stathis Borans although his character suffers from similar issues as Goldblum’s. Initially he is the sleazy, ex-boyfriend boss, breaking into Veronica’s apartment and stalking her. And Getz plays this character really well, I personally was cheering for his downfall. Then with a click of the script’s fingers he is Veronica’s shoulder to cry on, trying to help Brundle and trying to win the girl back, but with none of the sleaze he previously displayed. If you can get over his earlier actions, Stathis becomes a hero to cheer for in the film’s second half. He bravely enters Brundlefly’s den to rescue the kidnapped Veronica at the film’s conclusion.
I was expecting The Fly to occupy a similar philosophical space as The Wolf Man, the main character going through existential dread as he realises his inescapable fate, and attempts desperately to fight against it. But in reality this was a minor concern of the film, although it does come up when Brundle briefly begs for Veronica to help him. For the most part the more and more mentally unstable Seth is content with his newfound physical attributes and embraces them. One similarity between the films is the sexual overtones. In The Wolf Man Lawrence’s transformation into the Wolfman is preceded by his pursuit of Gwen, who is already engaged. Seth’s great power that he acquires following his experiment manifests itself as an insatiable sexual appetite. Much has been made of this film being a love story between Brundle and Veronica. Personally I think this is overstated. If anything I think the great love throughout the film (especially its second half) is the love and devotion Stathis has for Veronica. The film finishes with Seth attempting to carry out a Frankenstein-esque experiment to create the “ultimate family” by genetically fusing himself, Veronica and their unborn child together. These late attempts by Brundle to regain his ‘human-ness’ are quite interesting. For me, the whole film overall would have been a much better piece if there was more of this, rather than just trying to show of a succession of prosthetic masterpieces.
Whilst this is a good film, for me it never really rose to any towering heights and falls short of being a classic. But the performances are good; Goldblum as Seth Brundle, and Geena Davis is absolutely outstanding as Veronica Quaife, making you wish she was seen on screen more these days. With its lashings of gore, and innovative prosthetics you can see why this is a bit of a touchstone for 80s horror film, but it only stands up ok nowadays.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
The final stop on my chronological journey through the creature feature brought me to the South Korean film The Host (2006) directed by Bong Joon-Ho. This film made a pretty huge splash when it appeared, garnering a whole lot of critical acclaim and in addition making a whole lot of money, becoming the highest grossing South Korean film in history. So does it match the hype? Well early on it does. The highlight for me comes around the ten minute mark. In a fantastic and unconventional scene the monster is revealed. For starters, the boldness shown to reveal the focus of the film so early works brilliantly. Instead of giving us glimpses and shadows for an hour like many films would, this one hits you between the eyes with it straight away. Next, this scene happens slowly and in broad daylight. It is not cheap shock that is being aimed for. The amphibious being stretches out from the underside of the bridge it is clinging to and slowly drops itself in the bay. Whilst the attempt is not to shock, this initial glimpse of the creature does make the skin crawl. The amphibious being, whilst clearly fake but still looks exceptionally cool. And the violent rampage that follows, featuring gnarly tail whippings, shows us this is not a creature to be messed with. This is the best clip I could find of it (unfortunately it cuts off some of the brilliant initial slow reveal):
It is a shame that, at least in my opinion, the film does not hit these heights again. But then again most films, of this genre or otherwise, never manage to soar that high even once. In fact the film starts brilliantly. The scene preceding the one I have described above sees two fishermen fishing in the bay as ominous Jaws-esque music plays in the background. One fisherman catches a strange looking fish in a cup which he eventually lets go. The inference here is obviously that this strange looking fish goes on to become the film’s beast. This is only a little detail, but for some reason I love it. The fact that the creature could have been nipped in the bud before growing larger than a fish is a wonderful notion to ponder.
The story follows a single father trying to locate his only daughter after the monster takes her. The heart-wrenching scene where his daughter is taken is beautifully done, with no sound until the final, emphatic splash of the monster entering the water with her in its jaws. Along the way he and his dysfunctional family (father, sister, brother) are hindered by the Korean bureaucracy and the American military. The father figure is a strange choice for a horror movie hero. He clearly loves his daughter terribly and will do anything he can to make her proud, such as saving up all the coins he can steal from his father’s shop to buy her a new phone. His parenting attempts are also occasionally misguided, such as when he informs his daughter that its “time for a cold one” and cracks open a beer for her. As the film goes on we learn more about his backstory which explains a lot of these inadequacies and his tendency to fall asleep at pretty much any time. I found the characters of his brother and sister less endearing, and I am not sure that I was meant to. They acted horribly toward him, blaming him for the loss of his daughter and also acting as if she is more important to them, than to her father. This is definitely a B-movie though. Some of the acting (especially by a number of the American actors) is pretty woeful and at times the action scenes can be pretty average. Even worse are the occasional attempts at humour which fall ultra flat, see the man in the biohazard suit falling slipping over repeatedly for example. The film struggles when it gets too far away from the monster which is its real strength. The hospital scenes, whilst chilling, go on far too long. Something that is going for the film are the settings, especially the grimy, industrial sewers where the monster maintains it’s lair which really ramps up the atmosphere. Another standout scene takes place here where the girl tries to use the sleeping beast as a ramp but gets plucked out of the air by a tentacle.
There is much social commentary littered through this film of you’re into that kind of thing. There are plenty of anti-American pot shots and some interesting commentary on environmental issues. Some of it very heavy-handed, but equally some is nicely done. The first scene in which the monster is revealed sees the crowd on the bank rather than flee in terror, instead pelt it with rubbish. The monster is created through Americans dumping toxic chemicals and the role of the American military once they get involved is not portrayed in an overly positive manner. More interesting to me were the constant references to the notion of ‘seori’, where people steal out of necessity. How malicious is the monster really? It is not killing for fun, just to feed and stay alive. Not really any different a man stealing food to feed his family.
This is a film with some wonderful aspects, but I don’t think that it’s that much of an essential one. It is best when defying convention such as in the early sequences, and in not giving the audience the happy ending we are expecting. It does feel like it drags a bit though, and when away from the monster the B-acting and script can be a bit disappointing.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs