Don’t Look Now

Just an outright list of reasons to watch one of my very favorite autumn horror films, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier story by the same name. At time of posting, it is currently included free to stream with a Prime account, if you have access to one of those.

1. Don’t Look Now is unsettling and atmospheric and creepy and striking, but not due to jump-scares or gore. Of course everyone has different things they’re frightened by in movies, but for me at least, this is a horror film I have described as “not scary-scary, just eerie.” This is not a movie designed to make you cower with dread, it is a movie designed to make you keep asking softly, with disquieted wonder, “what the heeeck…”

2. It stars young Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in capital 1970s Transatlantic bougie intellectual chic, playing a married couple who have recently lost one of their two small children in a drowning accident.

3. And they then go to VENICE, a city of water!! Obviously the haunting watery imagery is everything you’d want it to be. The reason they travel to Venice is because Donald Sutherland’s character is not simply one of cinema’s many architects, but specifically an architect who restores cathedrals. There could hardly be a better movie career. The combination of artistic, academic, and material know-how here…bellissimo.

4. Anyway it is of course, in the way all good horror movies are “really about” something, really about grieving.

5. I think there are three main components of my love for this movie: the filmmaking style, the setting, and the central couple. Let’s go backwards since we were already talking about them:

5. a. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are so good in this. More so than a lot of movie spouses these two actually feel like they’re married, and it’s partly what was scripted but so much of it just comes from their performances. It’s a relationship I always enjoy watching, whether they’re at odds as they struggle with the strain of their terrible loss, or being close and familiar and cute with one another in a very longstanding kind of way. I feel for and root for them, which is an important piece of investment to have in a movie that is only going to further and more strangely bedevil this pair as soon as they reach Venice.

5. a. i. (Don’t Look Now also features one of film history’s more infamous and influential sex scenes)

5. b. VENICE. I’m obsessed with the Don’t Look Now Venice, a sombre ghost city of little waves quietly lapping against stone, the bare, chilly streets with seemingly more pigeons in them than people. It is late autumn here, not the tourist season, the hotel they are staying at set to close for the winter as soon as they check out. It feels bleak and damp and old, perfectly enhanced by that particular taupe & cigarette smoke, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy palette of this period. This is a quiet, half empty Venice, haunting and haunted. If you watched The New Pope, think the Venice of Episode 7—an episode I am now super guessing might have been deliberately referencing Don’t Look Now. Or think the Bruges of In Bruges, which Martin McDonagh said he wanted to function the way Venice does in Don’t Look Now, a movie his references in numerous ways thematically, formally, and of course in the metafilmic moment where Clémence Poésy’s character directly names it as the inspiration for the movie that is currently shooting in the city. Bryan Fuller would also cite Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as one of the reference points of the loss-haunted Italy section that begins the third season of his Hannibal adaptation on NBC—though if we keep going, the amount of filmmakers who have been influenced by this movie is nearly numerous enough to become comical if listed.

5. c. And that is mostly due to the sheer calibre of film craft being deployed here. It is a movie of vivid visual symbolism without feeling overbearing, of experimental editing without feeling remote. Practically any scene in this could credibly be someone’s favorite, they’re all just that good. The way the shots are laid out, the pacing, the finesse with which a plot line that will in time be entirely interrelated with our story begins unfolding first as just a piece of background texture (god I’m so into that!)… The first time I watched Don’t Look Now I immediately watched it again, because I just wanted to appreciate it a second time.

7. “One of the things I love about Venice is that it’s so safe for me to walk. The sound changes, you see, as you come to a canal. And the echoes near the walls are so clear. My sister hates it. She says it’s like a city in aspic, left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone.”

★★★★★

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

EXTRAORDINARY. WHERE TO BEGIN.

You know maybe all the way at the actual beginning, because I had seen this movie before, but when I was 18, and for CLASS. Not a real class though, a fun wintertimes class as part of my college’s January term. It was called ‘Victorian Monsters’ and we read Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Dracula, and talked a lot about how the true monster was [insert social concept] all along!!, and also at one point were encouraged to give the 1992 Dracula a gander. The main sense memory I’d retained of it could probably be summed as “DRAMATIC,” all-caps, along with a vague recollection of my classmates, mostly other tiny freshman, being like, ahaha whaahahaat?, and our professor, this fantastic old woman who made her own ceramic jewelry, casually declaring that something this magnificently ludicrous and hornéd was the only valid interpretation of this material—rather foreshadowing the tone of what would later be my equally casually assured pronouncements about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

But I don’t remember us talking all that much about Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, probably because again, this wasn’t exactly a hard-hitting academic course, the whole of Winter Study being designed to give both us and the professors a bit of a break for a month. This was the kind of class where I think our grade came from simply class participation and a loosely defined final project to just produce whatever the Victorian Monsters spirit moved us to. And clearly impacted by the sexual energy of this film, 18-year-old me wrote a dark slashy fusion fic combining Dracula and Frankenstein, well before I had the terminology to know that’s what I was doing. I got an A. The real project you should be excited about though was that of my friend Sean, who now does math for Google, who made AN ENTIRE BOARD GAME (out of card-stock and tape, mostly) where the objective was to escape Count Dracula’s castle, involving numerous meta-aware jokes about the literature. As soon as she saw it our professor was like hold up—this is the best shit I’ve ever seen—and immediately halted class (“class”) to play through Sean’s game in its entirety. 

The point is: I may have been kind of perfectly set up by that distant yet memorable college experience to finally rewatch the Coppola Dracula this year, now as an adult with the resources both mental and physical to truly appreciate what this baby has to offer while draped on my couch in the October night surrounded by taper candles. 

All of which brings me here to you to report that Professor Case was right: this Dracula rocks it totally.

For starters, the attitude this work has toward adaptation is one of my very favorites, where it takes care to include a good amount of arcane nerdy details right from the text, while on the other hand going completely off the shits in art direction and boldly adding a new plot element whole cloth—that nonetheless dovetails with and contextualizes plot points of the original story. It’s actually a really interesting adaptation!

It also rules because it is grand bloody-minded lunacy. The filmmaking here feels like you’re paging through an antic, lushly drawn storybook, for ~adults~. It is so strange and grotesque and sumptuous and Catholic, with all these unusual in-camera special effects that give it this hokey yet innately magical quality—a real stage magician was even contracted to advise on some of the visual tricks. Throughout I kept quietly exclaiming that it was like Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête yet technicolor, only to learn afterward that in fact that was very much one of the reference points! The other primary reference point I think we can just call “costume designer Eiko Ishioka,” the ravishingly brilliant artistic mind who also designed the costumes of Tarsem’s The Fall, and whom Coppola wisely let just fly free. “Bring me things that are weird,” he would reportedly ask everyone.

Relatedly, this cast. Exquisite marquise-cut gothette Winona Ryder paired with oddball dialect boffin Gary Oldman, sure, a sort of crazy-like-a-fox brilliance there actually. My poor angel Keanu Reeves staggering in exhausted after just shooting three or maybe even four other movies back to back, trying to finagle a British accent he has no comfort with, and turning in just the most bewilderingly out of tune performance, oh honey. The scene where you realize you’re watching Tom Waits as a bespectacled madman in a cell acting against Richard E. Grant, playing curiously against type as, relative to everyone else, kind of a normal man?? Normal and doctorly enough that I didn’t even recognize him until his second scene. Then, Cary Elwes. Cary goddamn Elwes as Lucy’s posh fiancé, a role he could do in his SLEEP, but that doesn’t mean we’re not elated to see him. Finally, finally, rather deep into the runtime, Sir Anthony Hopkins rolls in as fucking Van Helsing, in what I think might be the nearest performance of his to his eventual turn as Thor’s Odin, but specifically in Ragnarok, where Taika Waititi infamously once asked him to maybe tone it done just a tad.

NOTHING in Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic romance is toned down, and bless it for it. Dracula, like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House: not sane, is a darkly fantastical tits-out vampire operetta on a fever dream scale, and I can’t believe I haven’t been watching this ornate night-tale every Halloween since Winter Study.

★★★★½

Little Shop of Horrors

Medium to light spoilers here, by my standards, though I am careful to avoid going into detail on the different endings

The thing about Alan Menken music is that I am INSTANT GOOSEBUMPED. And I didn’t know that in Little Shop of Horrors, I would have the opportunity to be goosebumped by Alan Menken compositions in a Howard Ashman penned non-Disney property, very much a non-Disney property, music & lyrics by Menken & Ashman coming right out the gate with a Greek chorus of ‘60s gals singing to the camera about how you better look out, because things are about to get WILD.

Oh my god I loved Little Shop of Horrors! Every choice is delicious. A space-scroll Voice of God prologue about an eclipse— putting an elevated train in downtown New York City just for the hell of it— Ellen Greene’s breathless smitten squeaks— the way Rick Moranis swings his arms as he long-strolls down the sidewalk in his flashback— “Oh my gosh it’s peculiar!”

It’s so jokey, it’s blithe it’s stylized it’s a musical, but yet I felt real affection for these people, and that’s what I ask for in my comedies. Characters to be strange and funny but also engender genuine pathos in me as they topple around this incredible set of Skid Row, Fantasy New York, that they built entire on a huge soundstage, because you can leave the off-Broadway theater but the off-Broadway theater doesn’t always leave you, and neither do we want it to sometimes!

Although in fact, those elements did transpire to give this movie a curious place in film history, as part of the select club of those with alternate original endings. This was actually one of the few things I did know about Little Shop of Horrors beforehand, because I was so fascinated when I read this that it embedded in my brain even though I knew nothing else about the show. The story goes: when they played the movie for test audiences, the ending from the stage show, which had been a hit with the theater crowd, went over terribly at the test screenings. The theory of the movie’s director, puppetry legend Frank Oz, is that the more fatalistic (in…every sense) ending was easier on the theater audiences, because they got to see those characters they loved again when the actors came out for the bow, got to cheer them a farewell—a moment they didn’t get from the movie version. There is a further fascinating theory that the nearest corollary film has to what the curtain call gives theater audiences psychologically, is the blooper reel, but that’s another story. In our story, Oz and Ashman write up a new ending, a happier one, and this plays much better and is what the movie is released with in cinemas in 1986, and subsequently on VHS, where the movie’s popularity really takes off.

The footage of that original conclusion was still out there though, and in 2012, a Director’s Cut of Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors with the stage musical ending fully restored was officially released by the studio. When I streamed Little Shop of Horrors (HBO has it at time of publishing), the entire Director’s Cut version was linked to the theatrical release as a “special feature,” so I was able to watch the shorter theatrical cut first, and then go on an extended journey with the more macabre ending I OBVIOUSLY preferred, being who I am. But beyond just my taste for stories that end very um, finally, the ending that this show was originally written with, to no surprise, has just gobs more thematic & narrative resolution. It is better in absolutely every way!

I’m avoiding specificity for those who haven’t seen any version of Little Shop before, but a few of the elements that are perfectly brought to fruition (PLANT PUN INTENDED), include:

The premise of this story, which I cannot believe I am just now getting to: a sincere, be-shambled flower shop worker buys a small unusual plant he finds on the street, and thanks to a prick on his finger from a rose thorn (!), discovers that the plant eats human blood. The whole notion of this man Seymour—a wonderfully endearing Rick Moranis, no matter how dark his storyline gets—feeding this plant with his own blood is a concept I found frankly RIVETING, on its own merits but also for its intriguing position near but askew from the classic vampire story. The nature of the power differential and the motivations here are different from how how your usual Dracula-type tales go, but there are echos of the visual motifs and attendant emotional elements in things like seeing little bandages multiplying on his gradually more enervated fingers.

Though the arrangement does quickly start, ahem, growing (I’LL NOT STOP, apparently), and in what is in sound and structure absolutely the seduction song of the musical, the plant, which we should mention he has named Audrey II, after his coworker crush—wacky willowy genius Ellen Green, voice work insane—develops a hell of a baritone and begins cajoling him with the Jareth the Goblin King tack of promising to be your slave if you’ll only do what they say and sacrifice things to them. “Feed me, Seymour,” Levi Stubbs drawls, “Feed me aaallll night long.”

The pronounced psychosexual undertones introduced from really the moment Audrey II first started doing anything have definitely graduated to FULL OVERTONES by the time we meet eager masochist Bill Murray, who appears midway through to have a one-sided yet transparently erotic experience at the hands of sadistic dentist Steve Martin, but I’VE SAID TOO MUCH ALREADY.

Anyway perhaps the worst thing about the way I’ve structured this review, is that it’s only here at the end that I bring up that ultimately this musical is an overt allegory for the evils of capitalism. With everything that has come before that line there is really no way for that to not sound like a joke, but it is in fact true! Audrey II, a “mean, green” menace, represents capitalist enterprise growing ever bigger feeding off the blood of the people, and whose greatest weapon is in convincing you that you that your own path to success is only through becoming complicit in its growth and helping it drain those around you. But again, I’ve already said too much..!

So if you’re looking for a creature feature this October, watch Little Shop of Horrors, the charming, kinky, 94-minute (depending) plant-based dark comedy whose second song is a banger about economic disparity! It’s great!!

★★★★★

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

SPOILER ZONE

I wish this could have just been a weird poem movie. GOD I wish this could have just been a weird poem movie. I was so down for this as a loopy, uncomfortable, open-ended horror film loosely about the idea that you can never go home again, and also you should break up with your boyfriend. Just a disjointed nap nightmare you have on your parent’s couch on Thanksgiving weekend. That would have been cool with me! Love when things make me say “What!” out loud twenty times in an hour, not wanting an answer!

But no, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things had to go and answer things. Based on a 2016 novel, I have since learned, this movie turns out to have something between a twist and a thesis, and more annoying than either: the eventually unavoidable fact that despite being our protagonist, Jessie Buckley is just a figment of Jesse Plemons’s imagination, and it was all about the neuroses of one sad, bad man all along. To his credit Charlie Kaufman doesn’t present this as a ‘gotcha’ surprise, mostly because it’s not really presented at all. For me I just got to a point, probably somewhere in hour two, where I just had to accept that there was just no other conclusion I was going to be able to come to. That this whole movie we had been driving down a snowbound one-lane road in the dark, and the turnoffs I was still looking for were never going to come.

I think mostly I found the imaginary girlfriend more artistically frustrating than necessarily misogynistic. Because she is the anti-manic pixie dream girl, rather in the mode of Kate Winslet’s character in Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She spends a lot of time mulling in voice-over about how she’s not really getting anything out of this relationship and how, say, she feels like her role in it is to just prop up a man through letting him be associated with her own accomplishments through the mere fact of dating her. Well-observed. And again, she’s definitely the main character here, it’s her point-of-view and narration that we receive, the film has absolutely been about her. So then the ending is confusing, and I don’t mean because of the Oklahoma! performance—it’s emotionally confusing to have to spend the last 15 minutes recalibrating to prioritizing this guy and his feelings instead. For instance, now that we have to accept that he has just dreamt her up, then are we supposed to retroactively feel respect and sympathy for his self-awareness that he could so accurately imagine these previous two hours’ worth of damning indictments of his own shitty attitudes? All my whats shifted to much less enjoyable whys; ironically, the less inconclusive it got the more I wondered what was the point of all this.

Everyone gets to Act in this, capital A, so there’s that at least. Unfortunately this ultimately frustrated me too though, because the reason why they all get to Act is because they’re all playing flights of fancy, even this Jesse Plemons is just an imagined form of the older one—Jake, he at least does have a name I can use—and because the whole thing is a warped daydream of continually changing scenarios where no one’s really real, there’s little consistency in any of the characters. They’re by nature mercurial and unpredictable and actors seem to enjoy being able to play in this way, but I don’t know, watching things that heavily feature these kinds of roles has become more and more taxing to me in recent years. I don’t particularly care about a character’s big emotions if I have no understanding of how they got there due to the inconstancy of their internal landscape, because the work would rather keep surprising you with a character’s behavior than let you develop empathy for them. And the reason why I find I’m Thinking of Ending Things uniquely frustrating in this regard, is that Jessie Buckley (smartly) plays her role like maybe she would want to be someone we could get to know, but is prevented from it by the fact that she’s been imagined by this guy who keeps rebooting her demeanor and interests like he’s trying on different shirts.

Anyway. The things I most enjoyed were all the parts that were the most stylized and (therefore?) most free of the baggage of trying to be about something, my highlights of those portions being:
– dream ballet obvi
– the fake film within the film being directed by ROBERT ZEMECKIS—surreal, mystifyingly mean, surreal again, and by that point I’d rapid-cycled into hysterics

★★½

Rope

Bullet journal of my rewatch of Rope (1948), which I’ve decided is my favorite Hitchcock because that feels like me.

– the EXTENT to which these two are a couple, god watching Hays Code gays makes me feel HIGH sometimes

– you know they’re really unhinged because now they’re drinking champagne out of martini glasses in the middle of the afternoon

– registered homosexual John Dall said I will be playing an evil queen

– but this distinct, dysfunctional, now deadly relationship where everything that’s going on has to be kept just below the surface….the drama here, it’s tenfold

– the DOOR SHOT, the WILDLY FUN SWINGING DOOR SHOT. I let out a little yell!

– what makes this movie so good is that it’s got it all: the suspenseful creepy plot where fancy mid-century boyfriends murder their old schoolfriend and then invite his friends & family over ~just for the aesthetic~, and the bold artistic conceit of styling it like it was all shot in one real-time take, and, dark puns

– oh Janet has now entered the chat, girl you are a fantastic addition

– Jimmy Stewart has just lit his cigarette by picking up an entire taper candle—J Stew has ARRIVED

– it’s been ten years since I first saw this but it is ultimately going to resolve as an anti-eugenics movie right?

– god I love a classical unity, now we’re watching night gradually fall outside the floor-to-ceiling windows! the color shifting, the little lights in this soundstage model of the city coming on…! the craftsmanship, wonderful. the changing clouds were made of spun glass, enchanting

– Phillip’s playing changing with the tension of the dialogue and Rupert’s sly adjustments of the metronome, again, the CRAFTSMANSHIP

– every time we return to Farley Granger looking just miserable….chef’s kiss

– aannnd it IS an anti-eugenics movie, whew we made it

– oh, oh yes, this sublime waiting business as the camera slowly pulls back like a curtain fall—Brandon just silently fixing himself a drink, Phillip sitting down to play piano.. this spooky doomed posh bitches energy! absolutely

★★★★½