Mediocre: John Carpenter's The Ward

John Carpenter's The Ward (2010)
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen
Produced by Peter Block, Doug Mankoff, Mike Marcus, Andrew Spaulding, Adam Betteridge, Rich Cowan, David Rogers, Mischa Jakupcak, Hans Ritter
Starring Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, D.R. Anderson, Lyndsy Fonseca, Laura-Leigh Claire
Never mind its trademark titular credit, for any major studio's unimaginative hireling might've helmed this tepid thriller as professionally and perfunctorily as did Carpenter for hire at the conclusion of his cinematic career. Not an idiomatic flourish is to be savored through a dreary slog initiated by a young woman's (Heard) arson of a farmhouse and subsequent consignment to a psychiatric hospital where a rotting, roughhousing revenant menaces she and her fellow inpatients (Gummer, Panabaker, Fonseca, Claire). More interesting than the predictably prosy plot is an occupation of opposite extremes by the progeny of famed leads: the most frantic inmate, Gummer's as hammily horrid as hideous, while Harris exudes sangfroid skillfully as the facility's chief psychiatrist. With mixed success, otherwise photogenic players contend with their script's daffier dialogue and considerable cliches; Heard's as able as forgettable, and thusly fit for a picture notable only for its directorial berth and satisfactorily restrained period detail of attire and appointments. His fans may wince at momentarily successive dissolves or a cribbed conclusive shot, but the auteur can scarcely be blamed for the clumsy conventions of a project for which he invested minimal creative input before collecting John Carpenter's Final Paycheck.


Sublime: The Babadook

The Babadook (2014)
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent
Produced by Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere, Pete Best, Julie Byrne, Jan Chapman, Jeff Harrison, Jonathan Page, Michael Tear
Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Chilling pop-up illustrations and threatening text in a supposedly juvenile storybook read by a working widow (Davis) to her strident son (Wiseman) herald a grotesque abomination's residential intrusion to terrorize both by minacity. Exhausted by her feverishly fractious offspring's shrill demands, frequent flaws and homemade weaponry, she ascribes to delusion the monster's visitation, but its pestiferous, unrelenting encroachment can't be ignored. Is the obscure bogeyman exciting to exploit or merely symptomatic of unresolved dolor and maternal rancor? Kent pulls neither punches nor cheap tricks in her fearsome first feature, adeptly meting sparing, stygian special effects with her leading powerhouses' performances. Not only a potently petrifying horror, her collocation and conglomeration of the mundane and macabre therein examines the anxieties of single motherhood, maddening insomniac prostration and the redemptive power of grievous catharsis and filial love. A precision of pace and frame expose artistry with style on loan from silent cinema and Williams Blatty and Friedkin, actualizing Kent's burdens and characters with a mature and practiced invention one might expect from a much older hand. Professionally produced on a moderate $2.5M raised through independent investment, donations via Kickstarter and sale of the movie's horrific, handmade book, it's yet another economic filmic foray well beyond what any Hollywood studio could generate with cash a hundredfold...and a hundredth of Kent's prowess or profundity.
Recommended for a double feature paired with The Exorcist.


Palatable: Creep

Creep (2014)
Directed by Patrick Brice
Produced by Jason Blum, Mark Duplass, Josh Braun, Christopher Donlon
Written by and starring Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Neither a minute nor budgetary dollar of this tense, terse microproduction was frittered by Brice, playing a videographer summoned by a Craigslist ad to a secluded mountain town to shoot what an affable aberrant (Duplass) with a penchant for surprises purports a postmortem memento for his unborn son in the wake of his coming, cancerous demise. Manipulating his commissioned pigeon with scares and blandishment, his actual intentions are less innocent, but no less fatal. Two guys with a digital video camera and a skeleton crew excogitated extempore a feature more funny and frightful than any horror picture churned out by Hollywood in the past quarter-century with good performances, old tricks and voyeuristic technique working simple hand-held and stationary shots with an uncommonly unnerving naturalism. Playfully personable as the unstable subject of Brice's first-person footage, Duplass' mercurial menace and vulnerability relies on his adroit timing, vulpine stare and faintly hinted homoerotic gestures played slickly against his director's terrorized foil. Prefiguration abounds during the first ten minutes, some of which may be missed by whoever blinks afore a second viewing. Intimately awful little movies like this are the best (if not only) answer to superior fare from Japan, Korea, Italy, etc. with which miserably mediocre major studios stateside can't compete.


Execrable: Practical Magic

Practical Magic (1998)
Directed by Griffin Dunne
Written by Alice Hoffman, Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, Adam Brooks
Produced by Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord, Bruce Berman, Mary McLaglen
Starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic, Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexandra Artrip
If he learned anything at all from the filmmakers (Landis, Scorsese, Heckerling, Zieff, et al.) for whom he's performed or his famed father Dominick, it's how to gratify an audience; obviously less deft behind than before a camera, director Dunne aimed low at an easy target by adapting fluff penned for hausfrauen in the vomitous vein of the siblings Marshall to appease that very demographic. Descended from a line of witches ostracized in their insular Massachusetts town, and so beshrewed that every man with whom they share true love is iced by some mishap or other, sisters Bullock and Kidman cope fecklessly by converse means, the former eschewing sorcery to raise her daughters (Wood, Artrip) in dull domestic placidity as the latter wantons trashily in the southwest. Conventional abuse, a resulting manslaughter and demonic possession reunites them as predictably (and adorably!) as the crow flies. Scarcely bearable (albeit wildly overproduced) during its first hour, this chick flick shot by numbers shifts insufferably from a menstrual to menopausal milieu during a third act wherein an exorcism conducted to expel the wraith of her murderous beau (Visnjic) from Kidman's body assumes the inanity of a Tupperware party certain to spellbind suburban shrews and repulse all others possessing an IQ exceeding '98. Everyone present save Quinn overacts with sufficient sustained pressure to burst blood vessels, especially Kidman and Channing, the latter of whom apes an especially deviling Hepburn impression. Alan Silvestri's saccharine score (in the idiom of his music for The Odd Couple II) drips like drizzled treacle from this cloying Halloween fruitcake surfeited with exposition and explicit in its focus on male expendability for witless women bound for the spinsterhood this story inadvertently promotes, if not some other household malaise. Where's Witchfinder General Vincent Price when we need him?


Favorites: La Cérémonie

La Cérémonie (1995)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Ruth Rendell, Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff
Produced by Marin Karmitz, Christoph Holch, Ira von Gienanth
Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, Valentin Merlet
Over shared secrets, scuttlebutt and dudgeon, an industrious and taciturn housemaid (Bonnaire) and pertly obtrusive postmistress (Huppert) bond at the convergence of their scandalous lives shortly after the former's hired by a gallerist (Bisset) at her husband's (Cassel) Lucullan rural estate. Under the clerk's impertinent influence, her only friend's limited occupational relations deteriorate with a swell of recusancy until jaundice peaks to a bloody fever pitch. His distinctly Marxist merger of the Papin sisters' notorious murders and Rendell's popular novel A Judgement in Stone bespeaks Chabrol's inspiration via Sartre's politicized interpretation of the former, but this is no cheap or simple dogmatic allegory: notwithstanding their unintentional condescension, his wealthy victims are as bountiful as beautiful, erudite and evenhanded, while the unhinged yet animate antagonists of the underclass reject responsibility with contumelious abandon. Instead, Chabrol imputes detriment to division of class; despite all her employers' best intentions, Bonnaire's peripheral domestic is an isolate at a social margin, while Huppert's dominant intimate is as much a creation of neglect as of madness. Not since his derided, deliberately desipient Tiger series had Chabrol's style so plangently echoed Hitchcock's, and never ere so elegantly: players step to close-ups, conspiratorial zooms emphasize unabashed confessions and confrontations, interstitial shots are framed in residential and vehicular interiors, pans repeat subsequent to dissolves and overhead shots rotate in ascent. Sparing, subtle foreboding's manifest in verbal suggestions, creepy little surprises and the direful strings of a fine score penned by Chabrol's son and preferred composer, Matthieu. As fans and others familiar would expect, the leads are sublime for their elan; without a word, relinquishing her vanity and nearly uglified by gauntness and a heinous, proletarian haircut, the usually beautiful Bonnaire evinces heart-rending frustration with tearful contortion and gall by glares, a fitting foil for jabbering Huppert as an impenetrably unrepentant accomplice in a part that any lesser actress would likely overplay. Neither might a false note be heard from their co-stars -- Bisset's infallible even under the baton of hopeless hacks, but her painstaking presence and nuanced delivery couldn't feel more natural. At an age when he'd all but abandoned ideology, Chabrol concocted to almost universal acclaim a work of sneeringly sophisticated agitprop and blackest humor that may be enjoyed as an acute crime drama, but whose implications publicize the concerning conspicuity of servitude, humiliation ensuing crippling ignorance, and consequences of indigence. Worse, his perverse pair personify every sick or uncultivated little girl permitted to grow into a mundane monster.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Rope.