Sunday, November 25, 2007

Senses Of Cinema reviews: The Devil Rides Out, Volcano High, Hanussen

Senses of Cinema THE DEVIL RIDES OUT review

[Originally published online for Senses Of Cinema's Cinemateque Annotations (February 2003) Melbourne, Australia]

The Devil Rides Out/The Devil's Bride (1968 UK)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Hammer Prod: Anthony Nelson-Keys Dir: Terence Fisher Scr: Richard Matheson, based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley Phot: Arthur Grant Ed: James Needs Art Dir: Bernard Robinson Mus: James Bernard

Cast: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Paul Eddington, Sarah Lawson

Horror aficionados will recognize the term “Hammer” with a warm fuzzy feeling of generic familiarity, or dismiss it as being “too British”, which I can only imagine means “not American enough”. I tend to side with the Hammer purists; when the name of a British production company becomes synonymous with a generation of horror films from the late 50s to the early 70s, you know there’s a defining “something” about its work.

Heading the great Hammer Horror Revival was Terence Fisher, the director whose adaptations of the Universal horror classics, The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), (1958) and The Horror of DraculaThe Mummy (1959) sealed the studio’s fate as the leading producer of British gothic horror for almost 20 years. Throughout the 60s, while half of Hammer’s output were rather silly adventure yarns (The Viking Queen, The Vengeance Of She) and lazy exercises in generic conventions (Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb, The Old Dark House), Fisher created more adult-oriented horror - psychological, almost Freudian horror (The Gorgon, Frankenstein Created Woman), drawing on the sexual conflicts of the repressive English social climate starting to fray at the seams. Fisher’s final film, Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1973) is British horror at its bleakest - a deeply disturbing and amoral portrait of amorality in the figure of Fisher’s greatest creation, Baron Frankenstein as essayed by Hammer icon Peter Cushing. Over twenty years after his death he is still regarded as Britain’s greatest ever horror director.

Fisher began work on The Devil Rides Out, the first of three Dennis Wheatley adaptations, in the summer of 1967. From the opening credits, an indecipherable mass of occult symbols appearing out of a red mist punctuated with James Bernard’s ominous orchestral score, screenwriter Richard Matheson (I Am Legend author and scriptwriter of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe series) sharpens Crowley’s prose to create a frighteningly real world of dark forces at work beneath the genteel surface of the English aristocracy. At a reunion of old friends at a country estate, occult expert the Duc de Richelieu (Christopher Lee) and his well-meaning but impulsive lantern-jawed sidekick Rex (Leon Greene) discover their young comrade Simon (Patrick Mower) has become involved in “astrological society”, a thinly-veiled satanic cult lead by the charismatic Mocata (Charles Gray). Richelieu and Rex kidnap Simon to prevent his Devil’s baptism, but he escapes. Mocata then uses Richelieu’s friends Richard (Yes Minister’s Paul Eddington) and his family, and Tanith (Nike Arrighi), a young French beauty also marked for baptism, as bait to lure Richelieu to his destruction.

For a studio defined by its reworkings of Dracula and Frankenstein, Mocata is one of Hammer’s most frightening monsters. Veteran Shakespearean actor Gray, best remembered these days as the Bond villain in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), conveys the palpable menace from his cold, unflinching steel-gray eyes and his carefully modulated voice, a master of hypnosis and mind control no doubt based on real-life characters from Wheatley’s days in British Intelligence (some say Mocata is smoother version of the “Great Beast”, occultist Alistair Crowley, whom Wheatley was acquainted with). Matheson’s script changes the Mocata character from a swarthy European figure of Word War 2-era intrigue into an English “gentleman”, more forcefully underpinning the tension between England’s exterior pastoral elegance and class respectability, and its repressed bacchanalian urges. Wheatley, a British author best known for his black magic tales and costume adventure stories, was an avid collector of occult esoterica and was reportedly delighted with the film, as Matheson’s script had expanded on his own research his Black Magic rituals with an eye for detail, drawing on Crowley’s writings as well as Sumerian and Egyptian legends, occult and pagan texts.

Of course the film’s focus is on the imposing figure of the six foot four Christopher Lee, by 1967 a genre superstar having played Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, Rasputin, even Sherlock Holmes. Lee had in fact pressed Hammer to purchase the rights for Wheatley’s novel, and was delighted to play a character on the side of “good” after a decade typecast as Dracula.

Hammer films are characterized by relatively low budgets, compensated by taut direction and expert characterization, and a winning combination of tight studio sets and English country exteriors. The Devil Rides Out utilizes its stagebound scenario to chilling effect: Simon’s cold gray observatory turns malevolent purely by adding scratching noises from a cupboard. The budget only lets the film down in its two major setpieces; both the final sacrificial ceremony at Mocata’s mansion and the Grand Sabbat, supposedly a grand ritual orgy for Simon and Tanith’s intended baptism, veer toward poorly-staged pantomime. When Mocata invokes Satan (“The Goat of Mendes - the Devil himself!”) at the Sabbat, the sight of a rather wretched figure with pin-on horns and raccoon eyes tends to blunt the scene’s horrific implications. Indeed the film’s scariest scene is set in an empty room; Richelieu, Rex and the family take refuge inside a chalk circle and are confronted by a series of apparitions conjured by Mocata. Again the scene is only marred by the final ghastly figure: a horsebound Angel of Death, whose mask drops to reveal a cheap-looking grinning plastic skull.

The Devil Rides Out was an artistic triumph but not a commercial success. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar tone of the film, or the fact Christopher Lee had his fangs filed down; two further Duc de Richelieu adventures starring Lee, Strange Conflict and Gateway To Hell were abandoned. Hammer’s next venture after The Devil Rides Out, The Lost Continent (an ambitious reworking of Wheatley’s Jules Verne style adventure novel Uncharted Seas) went wildly overbudget and Wheatley was not impressed, citing a number of plot changes by director Michael Carreras. The third Wheatley adaptation, a grotesque updating of To The Devil A Daughter with Richard Widmark and an embarrassed Christopher Lee, was Hammer’s horror swansong in 1976, and the company sank soon after. Maybe it was the curse of Dennis Wheatley after all - still, for us horror iconoclasts, we still have The Devil Rides Out, a film that remains after 35 years one the finest examples of the gone but never to be forgotten house of Hammer.

Senses of Cinema VOLCANO HIGH review

[Originally published online for
Senses Of Cinema's Cinemateque Annotations (April 2005) Melbourne, Australia]

Volcano High/Hwasan Go
(2002 South Korea 99 mins)

Source: Madman Entertainment

Prod Co: SBS/Shin Seung-soo Productions/Sidus Pictures/Terasource Venture Capital Co. Ltd

Prod: Cha Seung-chae, Kim Jae-weon Dir: Kim Tae-gyun Scr: Heo Gyun, Jung Ahn-choel, Park Heon-su Phot: Choi Yeong-taek Ed: Go Im-pyo Art Dir: Jang Keun-yeong, Kim Kyeong-hie

Cast: Jang Hyuk, Shin Min-ah, Kim Su-ro, Kwon Sang-woo, Kong Hyo-jin, Jeong Sang-hun

A teacher blasts an innocuous piece of chalk towards a student’s head – he turns the chalk midstream and sends it hurtling back toward the teacher.

Thus opens Volcano High, a Korean Harry Potter for manga nerds and computer game freaks, set within a carefully fenced-off and vaguely futuristic microcosm inside the crumbling buildings of a South Korean high school. Now 17 years into an ageless struggle between order and chaos known as the “Great Teachers Battle”, Volcano High is split into warring feudal camps of students and administrators – the dark forces of Jang Ryang (Kim Su-ro), leader of the Weightlifting team and known as Dark Ox of the Ox Clan, and Yoo Chae Yi or “Icy Jade” (Shin Min-ah), the Princess Leia of the school and head of the all-girl Kendo group. They all seek the lost Secret Manuscript, the holder of “truth” and the end of all chaos, which only the strongest student may possess. Jang Ryang poisons the Dean, leaving the true keeper of the manuscript in a trance, and tries to snare the reluctant hand of the ice maiden Yoo Chae Yi as his Queen; the corrupt Vice Dean, also in cahoots with Jang Ryang, imprisons the manuscript’s secret master, librarian Song Hak-kim (Kwon Sang-woo) and calls in a group of brutal disciplinarians known as the School Five to wage further chaos.

Into the schoolyard battle comes the Chosen One; the bleach-blonde Kim Kyung-Soo (Jang Hyuk), expelled from eight schools for reluctantly using his burdensome super powers, including the chalk incident featured at the start. Both Icy Jade and Song Hak-kim believe Kim Kyung-soo will lead the Forces of Light to victory and encourage him to connect with his extraordinary abilities. Song Hak-kim tries Morpheus’ (played by Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix) trick by taking Kim out of the Matrix and into his mind to help prod him along. Later, a thawing Jade stumbles on a naked Kim in the locker room shower as he begins to harness his power over the streams of water, in an incredible special-effects set piece. This ultimately leads to the film’s final, 30-minute wire-driven showdown between Kim, Jang Ryang and the School Five – trust me, you’ll need patience forged from steel and the Extra Large popcorn for this one.

The South Korean film industry has truly come into its own over the last six or seven years. No longer the poor cousin living in the shadow of the titanic Japanese and Hong Kong film factories, its films are becoming world-class with decent distribution and vocal praise from audiences and critics alike. With Volcano High, brash film pup director Kim Tae-Gyun attempts to out-do all Korean films before his, catering to a young, “hip”, internationalist, Hollywood-centric audience. He claims to have created a unique spin on martial arts fantasy films by throwing every comic book cliché into the mix; the result is a kind of post-modernist masala, a now-familiar concoction from many generations of East/West genre cross-pollination. Westerns and Samurai epics, Hong Kong wire fantasies and Japanese animation, not to mention computer games, John Woo actioners, and the Hong Kong-influenced Hollywood effects films (Dark City, 1998, and X-Men, 2000, to name a few), teen comedies and juvenile delinquent films – they’re all present and accounted for. It can be argued that too much of a good thing is bad for you, and restraint is hardly Kim Tae-Gyun’s byword. The “less is more” approach would have made a much less cluttered film. The filmmakers are just a little too keen to show you their bag of tricks.

From a technical point of view, Volcano High is an impressive achievement for a small, post-natal film culture. The film’s painstakingly composed shots took a staggering 11 months to complete, all carefully corrected into the genre’s regulation colour scheme of greys and dull blues, with the occasional splash of colour from Kim’s shock of blonde spiky hair and Jang Ryang’s red mane. The comic book feel is amped-up by enthusiastic overuse of split-screen, exaggerated angles, and fairly standard wire work, not to mention the predictably two-dimensional characters. But remember, kids, high drama is not Volcano High’s concern. It’s a live action anime, a purely technical exercise in genre-splicing and effects-mongering; a Korean Matrix with a bleach-blonde Keanu Reeves. It’s also quite amusing, if you dig the oddball, grimacing Korean sense of humour.

The Matrix connections are signposted in huge neon arrows – in case you failed to notice – but the similarities run much deeper. The heretical Gnosticism, a shadowy parallel religion to Catholicism and Protestantism with a strong element of Eastern mysticism, and the founding belief of Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, is often trotted out in the fantasy and science-fiction genres for an alternate spiritual basis. The “order out of chaos” mythology and the Mergovinian Neo character is utilised in the Gnostic underpinnings of the Matrix series, and Volcano High mixes it with more localised mysticism: the dragon iconography, the yin-yang duality of the cardboard characters and their mastery over the earthly elements (fire, water, air). There are Teutonic overtones to the warring clans, and one character makes a deliberate reference to King Arthur – in fact, in its imagery, the Secret Manuscript is deeply reminiscent of the Holy Grail. There’s a vivid moment amidst the wreckage of the school stadium’s girders during the showdown between Kim and the head of the School Five, Mr. Ma, where both figures rise into the air Christ-like with arms outstretched, for the final confrontation between good and evil. If the Matrix series is seen by many as a Gnostic reworking of The Bible, then Volcano High should provide a field day for religious conspiracists still reeling over the one-eyed messiah from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

I suspect, however, that Volcano High was never meant to be read as such. It’s visual popcorn, pure and simple. At 99 minutes, the film thuds along at a relentless pace, accompanied by a pounding Korean electro-metal score, and you’re not expected to catch your breath as you move from one action set-piece to the next. Tiring? Absolutely. Enjoyable? Ultimately, yes, if you forgive Kim Tae-Gyun’s endless array of dog tricks designed to impress. Just pat him on the head, and hope he has a muzzle on his next one.

Senses of Cinema HANUSSEN review

[Originally published online for Senses of Cinema’s Senses Of Cinema's Cinemateque Annotations (June 2005) Melbourne, Australia]

Hanussen (1988 Hungary/West Germany/Austria 140 mins)

Source: Goethe Institut

Prod Co: CCC Filmkunst GmbH/Hungarofilm/Mafilm/Mokép/Objektív Filmstúdió Vállalat/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) Prod: Artur Brauner Dir: Istvan Szabó Scr: Péter Dobai, Istvan Szabó, based on Erik Jan Hanussen’s autobiography Phot: Lajos Koltai Ed: Zsuzsa Csákány, Brigitta Kajdácsi, Bettina Rekuc, Éva Szentandrási Prod Des: József Romvári Mus: György Vukán

Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Erland Joesphson, Ildikó Bánsági, Walter Schmidinger, Károly Eperjes, Garzyna Szapolowska

There’s a stunning moment in Bob Fosse’s film version of Cabaret (1972) in which the rise of fascism - and thus the death of freedom, or more specifically the dwarfing of the individual human spirit under the Nazi’s Hegelian juggernaut - is captured in film’s closing frame in the reflection of a single Nazi uniform in the sleazy nightclub audience. Hungarian director Istvan Szabó’s film Hanussen is riddled with such moments, a beautifully shot and brilliantly executed portrait of mounting doom as Germany succumbs to the eerie prophecies of Austro-Hungary’s most famous clairvoyant.

Szabó emerged from the Hungarian New Wave of the Sixties with a series of deeply moral works which show the deep psychological wounds from his war-torn upbringing. One of Hanussen’s themes - the apolitical nature of the artist in the face of overwhelming political evil - is already evident in Mephisto (1981), the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, in which German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer plays a stage performer who, against his better judgment, rises to great acclaim under the Nazis. Szabó’s two follow-ups with Brandauer and cinematographer Lajos Koltai, Colonel Redl (1984), the story of a German officer court-martialled for homosexuality, and Hanussen (1988), were both nominated for Academy Awards, and are often regarded as his wartime trilogy.

An earlier version of Hanussen from 1955 stars Klaus Kinski as a more manic wide-eyed prophet Karl Schroeder, haunted by premonitions since he was shot in the head during WWI. Klaus Maria Brandauer, in an outstanding performance equal to Mephisto, is a much more controlled and multi-layered Schroeder who, as Szabó’s idealized vision of the Individual, appears swamped by the tides of history, powerful forces that are within his sight but outside his grasp. While recuperating in a military hospital, he comes under the influence of Jewish psychologist Dr Bettelheim (Erland Josephson), who guides him through the subtle art of hypnotism, and Captain Nowotny (Karoly Eperjes), who teaches him how to market his bizarre gifts with a new name and image.

With his new knowledge and seemingly magnetic power over men and women, Schroeder bursts forth into a post-war Europe in flux, both politically and spiritually; a continent consumed by pagan return-to-nature cults, the spiritist movement and Eastern mysticism, all mirrored in its nemesis Adolph Hitler’s almost pathological obsession with astrology and the occult. Reinvented as a suave turbaned mystic with the vaguely pan-European moniker Erik Jan Hanussen - a significant move at a time when national identity and racial purity were paramount - he quickly moves into influential circles of groups and individuals all vying for position in the post-war chaos, but declares his interests are the acquisition of knowledge, not political power. It is this very position which allows him to be both a pawn of the powered elites, and a dangerous figure to be feared by those screaming “fraud” and “charlatan”. He declares (in his customary non-partisan fashion) that the country is on the threshold of a new era: of order, and of the triumph of the will. Whoever achieves order, observes Hanussen, controls Germany. He predicts Hitler’s rise to power and the burning of the Reichstag with frightening accuracy, much to the horror of those with secrets who plot his chilling demise.

Through the decadent parties and elaborately reconstructed “happenings” inside halls and theatres that harken back to Mephisto, Lajos Koltai’s photography using diffused light and Szabo’s expert eye for period detail perfectly capture that very sense of post-war gestalt. And despite the fatalism and inevitability of Hanussen’s predictions, his state of grace at the end gives the film a sense of hope for the plight of the individual, and that’s where Szabo’s unmuddied vision squarely rests. Even his recent work Sunshine (1999) on the plight of several generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, and Taking Sides (2003) in which Stellan Skarsgard plays Hitler’s favourite conductor, display a battle-scarred European artist still trying to make order out of chaos, and gunning against the odds for the triumph of the human spirit.

No comments: