Horror Scenes I Love: Klaus Kinski and Bruno Ganz have dinner in Nosferatu


Nosferatu (1979, dir by Werner Herzog)

Since today is Klaus Kinksi’s birthday, it makes sense that he should be featured in today’s scene of the day.  In this scene from Werner Herzog’s 1979 film, Nosferatu, Klaus Kinski and Bruno Ganz have dinner.  Of course, in this scenario, Bruno Ganz is Jonathan Harker while Kinski is Dracula.

(In the original, silent Nosferatu, Harker’s name was changed to Thomas Hutter while Dracula was called Count Orlok.  By the time Herzog shot his version, the characters were in the public domain and there was no longer any need to pretend that Nosferatu wasn’t an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.)

Enjoy!

The International Lens: The American Friend (dir by Wim Wenders)


The 1977 German film, The American Friend, tells the story of two men.

Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) is an American.  He’s also a very wealthy criminal.  He wears a cowboy hat almost everywhere he goes and always tends to be a little bit too forceful when he talks to people.  Because he’s wealthy, he is tolerated by high society but everyone seems to view him with a bit of suspicion.  And perhaps they should because Ripley actually has a pretty good scheme going.  Working with an artist named Derwatt (director Nicholas Ray), Ripley sells forged paintings.  He goes to auctions and bids on these paintings, artificially driving up the price.  When Ripley isn’t selling forged paintings, he’s traveling around the world and speaking into his tape recorder.  He’s an existential cowboy, one who doesn’t appear to have any morals but who is still capable of exclaiming, “I’m confused!” with real anguish in his voice.

Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) is a German art restorer and picture framer who has a beautiful wife, two children, and a lovely shop.  He also has leukemia and is obsessed not only with his impending death but also his fear that he’s going to end his life without really doing anything memorable.  When Jonathan meets Ripley at an art auction, he refuses to shake Ripley’s hand because he knows about Ripley’s shady reputation.  Ripley is offended but slightly forgiving when he learns, from a mutual acquaintance, that Jonathan has been sick.

Back at his mansion, Ripley receives a message from a French gangster named Minot (Gerard Blain).  Minot wants Ripley to murder a rival gangster for him.  Ripley, however, tells Minot that he should contact Jonathan and offer him the contract.  Ripley then spreads a rumor that Jonathan’s illness has gotten worse and that both his doctor and his family are keeping the truth from him.  Now believing that he’s on the verge of dying and desperate to make some money so that his family won’t be helpless after he’s gone, Jonathan is far more open to accepting Minot’s unexpected offer to become a hired gun.

To his shock, Jonathan is able to carry out the murder.  However, Minot is not content to just have Jonathan kill one man.  Minot is concerned about the activities of an American gangster (played by director Sam Fuller) and he expects Jonathan to keep killing for him.  Meanwhile, Ripley, feeling a bit conflicted over his part in Jonathan’s new career, take it upon himself to help Jonathan out in his latest assignment.  And so, on odd friendship is born….

The American Friend is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game (which, itself, is a sequel to oft-filmed The Talented Mr. Ripley).  In Highsmith’s novels, Ripley was always portrayed as being suave, well-spoken, and never suffering from self-doubt.  Dennis Hopper plays Ripley as a cowboy who appears to be in the throes of an existential crisis.  It’s quite the opposite of the literary Ripley but it works perfectly in the world created by The American Friend.  At times, there’s something almost child-like about Hopper’s Ripley.  As played by Hopper, Ripley is an unintentional force of destruction, one who targets Jonathan on an impulse and then, just as impulsively, decides to help him out.  It’s one of Hopper’s best and most multi-layered performances.

Dennis Hopper is equally matched by the great Bruno Ganz, who plays Jonathan as being a gentle soul who is as shocked as anyone to discover that he’s capable of murder.  Though he is morally offended by Ripley’s reputation, he still can’t help but try to help Ripley out when Ripley unexpectedly shows up at his shop.  Even towards the end of the film, Jonathan seems to be so happy to finally be doing something unexpected with his life that his joy is almost infectious.  You’re happy for him, even though you know things probably won’t turn out well for him.

As directed by Wim Wenders, The American Friend is a perfect mix of existential angst and film noir homage.  While there’s undoubtedly a political subtext to the film — one gets the feeling that Ripley’s destructive friendship with Jonathan is meant to represent the way that America views Europe — The American Friend works best as an homage to the glorious B-movies of the 40s and 50s.  (It’s probably not a coincidence that both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller have prominent supporting roles.)  There’s a sequence on a train that’s the equal to Hitchcock at his best and the story’s conclusion will stick with you long after the film ends.

Sadly, most of the principle members of the cast are no longer with us.  All of them are at their best in The American Friend and Wim Wenders gives them all a terrific showcase in which to display their talent.  The American Friend is definitely a film worth tracking down.

International Horror Film Review: Nosferatu, the Vampyre (dir by Werner Herzog)


Agck!  The rats!

Nosferatu, Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the F.W. Murnau’s classic silent vampire film, may be best known for Klaus Kinski’s feral performance of Count Dracula but, for me, I’ll always remember the rats.

When Dracula first comes to the city of Wismar, he travels via a boat.  Spending the day in his coffin, he arises at night to kill the crew of the ship.  (Eventually, the captain’s dead body ends up tied to the wheel to ensure that the boat’s course is not altered.)  In order to keep the people of Wismar from realizing that they have a vampire in their midst, Dracula travels with thousands of rats and forges the ship’s log to make it seem as if the crew has fallen victim to the plague.  When the boat docks at Wismar, thousands of rats flood into the streets.  When Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) later walks through the streets of the Wismar, it becomes obvious that the rats have conquered the city.  The remaining people are too busy burying their dead and preparing for the end to do much about the rats.  One group cheerfully eats a lavish meal while thousands of rats wait behind them.  Later, the rodents have taken over the table.  The people are gone but the rats remain.

Werner Herzog has often cited the original Nosferatu as one of the films that most inspired him as a young filmmaker.  His remake is both a respectful homage to the original film and also a uniquely Herozgian work.  Much as the Spanish expedition at the center of Aguirre, The Wrath of God ended with the raft being conquered by monkeys, the city of Wismar is conquered by both rats and mythology.  Even towards the end of the film, when it becomes obvious that a vampire has come to town, the people refuse to believe it.  Some wait for God to save them.  Some just decide to celebrate the end.  But only Lucy, who we are told is pure of heart, is willing to sacrifice herself for the people of Wismar.  And yet, the film leaves us wondering if that sacrifice would really be worth it.  Are the people of Wismar worth saving?  This version of Nosferatu suggests that perhaps they’re not.

 

Lucy is the wife of estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz).  As with almost every version of Dracula, Nosferatu opens with Harker traveling to Dracula’s castle, dismissing the claims of local villagers are being mere superstition, and then eventually meeting the count himself.  Klaus Kinski may be made up to look like Max Schreck from the original film but he still turns Dracula into a uniquely Kinski-like creation.  Kinski’s Dracula has little of the old world charm of Bela Lugosi or even Christopher Lee.  Instead, he’s like a feral animal, hissing out his dialogue and almost always hiding in the shadows.  It’s been such a long time since this Dracula was human that he no longer knows how interact with them.  Instead, like an abused animal, he cringes when Harker attempts to speak to him.  There’s a loneliness to this Dracula and an unexpected sadness in his eyes.  Asking him to control his thirst for blood would be like asking a wild animal not to obey its natural instinct to kill.  The only time that this Dracula doesn’t seem to be full of self-loathing is when he’s actually hunting blood.  Then he moves like a calculating predator.

As one might expect from a Herzog film, Nosferatu moves at its somewhat odd but deliberate pace.  (Harker’s lengthy journey to reach Dracula’s remote castle will remind you of Klaus Kinski trying to conquer the Amazon in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.)  The imagery is surreal and dream-like.  I already mentioned the rats and the scene of Kinski stalking the captain of the boat feels like it was taken from a filmed nightmare.  It’s also impossible to forget the images of black-clad men, marching down the streets of Wismar and carrying coffins on their shoulders, all ignoring Lucy as she begs them to understand that there is something even deadlier than the plague at work in Wismar.

Both the original and the remake of Nosferatu are classic vampire films.  I suggest watching both.  Herzog shot two version of Nosferatu, one in German and one in English.  Though both versions are essentially the same, I recommend the German version just because, in the English version, it’s obvious the actors are occasionally having trouble performing in a foreign language.  The German version feels more authentic.  Since the film is basically a visual poem, it’s effective even if you’re watching it without subtitles.

 

Film Review: The House That Jack Built (dir by Lars von Trier)


(SPOILERS BELOW)

The other night, I watched 2018’s The House That Jack Built on Showtime and I have to say that, sitting here the morning afterwards, I kind of wish that I hadn’t.  It’s a well-made film and there’s a bit more going on underneath the surface that some other reviews might lead you to suspect but, at the same time, it’s also deeply unsettling and, even by the standards of Lars von Trier, disturbing.  It’s not a film to watch right before you go to bed, nor is it a film to watch at the beginning of a long week.  I’m still feeling the after effects of having watched this movie and I imagine I’ll probably be jumpy for the next few days.

The title character, Jack (Matt Dillon), is someone who loves to talk about himself.  He’s an engineer but he wishes he was an architect.  He thinks of himself as being an artist and an intellectual and he has no hesitation about informing you that he’s smarter than just about everyone else on the planet.  He’s annoyed that he’s not better-known.  He feels that his work is underappreciated.

The House that Jack Built runs two and a half hours and, as a result, we spent a lot of time listening to Jack talk.  One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Jack knows a lot but he understand very little.  He spends a lot of time talking about Glenn Gould, Goethe, and Nazi architecture but his thoughts on them are rather shallow and predictable.  When we see flashbacks to Jack’s youth, we don’t see any signs of the intelligence that he claims to possess as an adult.  Instead, we just see a scowling country boy who used to abuse animals.  Jack may insist on calling himself “Mr. Sophistication” but there’s really nothing sophisticated about him and one gets the feeling that his faux intellectualism is something that he developed to justify the fact that he’s a sociopath and a serial killer.  Jack claims to have murdered at least 60 people and he also says that each murder was a work of art.  If art reflects the time and place in which it was made than how can we condemn Jack for reflecting the soullessness and cruelty of the real world in his own creations?  The answer, of course, is that we can very easily condemn Jack.  Jack uses the state of the world to justify his actions but that doesn’t mean we have to buy what he’s selling.

The House That Jack Built is built around a lengthy conversation between Jack and an enigmatic character named Verge (Bruno Ganz).  Jack shows Verge the “five incidents” that, over the course of 12 years, have defined who Jack is as a person and a serial killer.  The five incidents feature Jack killing everyone from a stranded motorist (Uma Thurman) and a grieving widow (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to a terrified mother and her two sons.  Jack has a brief and toxic relationship with one of his victims (heart-breakingly played by Riley Keough) and it leads to an act of violence that’s so disturbing that I don’t even want to relive it long enough to write about it.  Throughout it all, Jack tries to justify himself while Verge continually calls him out on his bullshit.  Watching the film, I found myself very thankful for Verge.  The film would have been unbearable if it has just been Jack bragging on himself, unchallenged.  Verge not only calls out Jack but also anyone who would idolize someone like Jack.  At times, the film itself seems to be ridiculing the whole idea of the Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer.  There’s nothing suave or witty about Jack.  He’s just a loser with no soul.

Even though I was watching the R-rated version (as opposed to the unrated director’s cut), the murders were still disturbingly graphic.  But what really made the film unsettling was its peek into Jack’s nihilistic worldview.  As much as he may try to convince you otherwise, it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing going on inside of Jack’s head.  When Jack isn’t suffering from delusions of grandeur, he’s mired in self-pity.  (Listening to Jack, one is reminded of the infamous BTK Killer, who spent hours in court describing his murders without a hit of emotion but who later broke into tears when informed that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.)  Unlike most movie serial killers, Jack doesn’t have a flamboyant origin story or any sort of trauma-related motive for his crimes.  He kills because he wants to.  Jack is capable of being superficially charming.  As a sociopath, he’s learned how to put people at ease.  But there’s nothing behind that charm.  When he performs some post-mortem surgery to give one of his victims a permanent smile, the results are grotesque because Jack has no idea what a real emotion looks like.  (Jack weakly waves at the body, as if he’s trying to teach himself how to act like a normal person.)

Throughout the film, we get a lot of stock footage.  (It’s justified by the fact that Jack is talking about art and history, two subjects about which he only has a surface knowledge.)  Interestingly enough, we also get several clips that were lifted from Von Trier’s previous films.  At one point, Jack passes a cabin that some viewers will recognize from Antichrist.  While Jack tries to dispose of a body, David Bowie’s Fame plays on the soundtrack and it’s hard not to be reminded of how Bowie’s Young Americans played over the closing credits of both Dogville and Manderlay.  We’re left to wonder if Jack is meant to be, in some way, a stand-in for Von Trier.  Much like Jack, Von Trier is often accused of using his own artistic pretensions to justify a nihilistic and misogynistic worldview.  It’s easy to imagine Verge as a stand-in for some of Von Trier’s fiercest critics.  What then are we to make of the fact that the film also portrays Verge as being correct and Jack as being (literally) bound for Hell?  Is Von Trier telling us that, as much as some people may dislike him and his work, at least he’s not a serial killer like Jack?  Is Von Trier attacking himself?  Or is Von Trier perhaps satirizing his own controversial persona?  Perhaps all three are correct.

By the film’s end, Jack is in Hell.  Interestingly enough, the portal to Hell is found in a house that’s made up of the bodies of Jack’s many victims.  Verge — short for Virgil, of course — gives him a tour.  When Jack sees a broken bridge, Virgil informs him that it once led to Heaven but it can’t be crossed now.  However, Jack is convinced that he can climb over a cliff and make his way to Heaven.  Virgil assures Jack that many have tried but none have succeeded.  Jack, of course, tries and, needless to say, he doesn’t make it.  In the end, redemption is impossible and yet you wonder how, in a world with Heaven and, one assumes, God, Jack even came to exist in the first place.  If Jack had channeled his sociopathic nature into something more productive than murder, would he have been allowed into Heaven?

As I said, it’s a well-made film but it’s also deeply unsettling.  I’m probably going to be jumping at my own shadow for at least a week or two.  At the very least, I’m not answering the door for anyone….

 

Review: Unknown (dir. by Jaume Collet-Serra)


In 2009 Liam Neeson began a new phase of his career as an actor. Before 2009 he was always put into roles as the father figure and mentor to a younger protagonist. He did quite well in handling these roles. Most of the time he was the only good thing about the films he was in and it was due to how he handled the supporting role given to him. But 2009 changed everything as Liam Neeson arrived on the film scene as a bonafide action hero in his role as a former CIA Special Activities Division operative in the action-thriller, Taken. That film surprised many and Neeson’s badass portrayal of a father out to save his daughter opened the eyes of many filmgoers who always saw him as the calm, wise elder. He has taken on the mantle of older, action-hero characters from Harrison Ford who lived off and became rich doing roles such as the one in Taken.

Two years later we have another film where we get to see Liam Neeson in another role which cements his place in the action-hero pantheon. Also like Pierre Morel’s film, this one takes place in Europe and directed by another European filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood, Jaume Collet-Serra. It would be disingenious to say that Collet-Serra had it in him to direct a film as tight and fast-moving as Unknown. His two Hollywood productions were the remake of the classic horror film, House of Wax, and the underappreciated horror film from 2009, Orphan. With this new action-thriller, Unknown, Collet-Serra and Neeson create a film which owes much of its film dna to Hitchcock and his mistaken-man classic, North by Northwest. I would also say that this film also owes much of its action and characters to one of the early 1990’s best sci-fi action films, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall.

The film begins with Neeson’s character, Dr. Martin Harris, and his wife Liz (played by Mad Men‘s January Jones) arriving in Berlin to attend a biomedical conference. Right from the start Neeson makes us believe in Harris being an everyman. The good professor doesn’t seem the alpha male-type. But after certain seemingly random circumstances and events puts Harris in a coma for four days we begin to see signs and glimpses that Neeson’s character may have more to him than meets the eye.

It’s when Harris’ awakens from his coma that the meat of the film’s story begins. We know going in that Neeson’s character knows he’s not crazy and that someone out there has made things appear as if he is becoming insane. Maybe the accident in the beginning of the film have given us a false perspective on the film. What we might be seeing could be a manifestation of Harris’ mental breakdown from the accident and subsequent coma. But little clues in the film’s dialogue keeps things vague, but not so much that our initial stance that Harris’ is being manipulated won’t be the final endgame.

It is the endgame in the film which may make or break the whole production for some people. The screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cromwell is not the strongest out there and it tries to be too complex with its red herrings when trying to keep it simple would’ve sufficed. One could almost sense that the two writers were trying to be too Hitchcock that they lost sight of how Hitchcock’s films were simple affairs which only appeared to be complex. Yet, despite some necessary leaps of logic that audiences needed to make to continue believing in the film, Unknown manages to keep the core story moving forward to it’s inevitable conclusion.

The performances by everyone involved is what keeps this film from spiralling out of Collet-Serra’s capable hands. One would almost certainly point out the strong work by Neeson as the Harris. January Jones’ Liz Harris, at first, seemed like an extension of her Betty Draper character from Mad Men, but as the story moves forward we get to see more layers of personalities in her character to make her interesting beyond the dutiful and supportive wife. But the standout performance outside of Neeson has to go to Diane Kruger as Gina, the taxi driver who was involved in Neeson’s character getting in his accident in the beginning of the film.

Kruger arguably is one of Hollywood’s classic beauty, but she has an ability to actually keep that beauty in check with her acting that we believe her to be the “everywoman” in some of the roles she plays. Beauty doesn’t come into the Gina character’s personality. Kruger does a great job of playing the pawn in a much larger game being played on Neeson’s character. Her reluctance to help him gradually crumbles as she soon realizes that her own safety and survival is now inextricably linked to unraveling the mystery of who Martin Harris really is.

Unknown is one of those films that actually has an advantage being released in the so-called dead season which runs from January and into March. It’s a film season when studios put out films they have no faith in being a major blockbuster which means summer and Holiday season release are out. It’s not prestigious enough to be put out in the Fall and early Winter. But as a piece os well-done escapist fare it’s perfect for this so-called dead season. Jaume Collet-Serra has shown that even when working from an average screenplay he knows how to get the best out of his cast to sell the film to the audience. He also has a firm grasped on pacing and how to handle action sequences.

In the end, the film still loves or dies by how the audience reacts to Liam Neeson’s character. While his Martin Harris is not the Bryan Mills from Taken, by the time the final scene fades to black we begin to see how similar the two characters really are and how much they share. Until the big name films start dropping in beginning in March (blockbuster season seem to come earlier and earlier with each passing year), Unknown is one of those films that should help make this early months of the film season more entertaining than it usually is in year’s past.

As an aside, for those who know their films would understand why I say that, in addition to this film having aspirations of being Hitchcockian, Unknown definitely borrows or has been influenced by some of the story and character developments of Verhoeven’s Total Recall. I almost half-expected for a half-mutant seer named Kuato to make an appearance to explain it all to Neeson’s ccharacter.

Lisa Marie Does The Fouke Monster And Five Other Trailers


Isn’t he cute?  That happy little fellow is The Fouke Monster and he’s here because he’s the star of the very first trailer in this week’s edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers.

1) The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

Before I talk about this trailer, allow me to share a few facts: my family used to live in Fouke, Arkansas!  I’ve been down to Boggy Creek!  I never saw the famous Fouke Monster but I went out looking for him a few times!  Anyway, this is the trailer for The Legend of Boggy Creek, which is a documentary about an apeman that supposedly lives in the area (though, according to Wikipedia, he hasn’t been spotted since ’98 so maybe he drowned or moved to Missouri).  This film is somewhat infamous because it features reenactments of various monster sightings, some of which star people who actually lived in Fouke at the time and who play themselves (and a few of them later sued once the film came out).  It was also the first film directed by Charles B. Pierce, who directed a lot of independent films in Arkansas and North Texas, including the classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown.  Sadly, Pierce passed away last year at the age of 71.

2)  Mean Mother (1974)

This is one of those trailers that I discovered while randomly searching Youtube and, I have to be honest, my first thought was that it was a parody trailer.  But no, after researching the manner, I can say that Mean Mother is a real movie.  It was apparently yet another one of the cinematic offerings of the late Al Adamson.

3) The Night Child (1976)

This Italian film is one of the countless Omen/Exorcist rip-offs that came out in the 70s.  Actually, The Night Child is an indirect rip-off of those two films as it’s actually a rip-off of a previous Italian version of the Exorcist, Beyond The Door.  What I especially love about this trailer is the “Keeping telling yourself, she’s only a child,” line which is obviously meant to recall the “Keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie…” tagline from Last House On The Left.

4) The Young Nurses (1973)

“Meet today’s women…beautiful, liberated, and ready for action!  They’re the young nurses and they’re growing up fast!”  I love the narrator of this trailer.  I’ve heard his voice in several exploitation trailers from the early 70s and he just has a way of delivering the sleaziest lines in the most cheerful, harmless way.  I’d love to know who he was and if he’s still with us.

5) Nosferatu The Vampyre (1980)

Oh.  My.  God.  Okay, I saw this movie a few years ago and I was watching it by myself at 3 in the morning with all the lights off while there was a thunderstorm going on outside and there was this howling wind that kept on making all the windows shake.  I got so scared, it’s not even funny.  This is a remake of the silent classic.  It stars Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, and Isabelle Adjani and was directed by the one and only Werner Herzog.

6) Julia (1974)

“Why don’t you come along and see me this week?  And bring your girlfriend…”  This trailer was specifically designed to promote this film in Australia.  Needless to say, that’s not actually Sylvia Kristel providing the voice over.