About a third of the way through Kong: Skull Island, Warner Brothers latest bid to recapture the franchise crown from the house of mouse, marooned Second World War airman Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) yells how happy he is that a military expedition has finally arrived to save him – ‘I heard you were coming, they told me you were here’ he feverishly exclaims. The problem with this exchange is that he is alone on the remote pacific atoll of Skull Island, exiled since he crash landed almost thirty years ago, apart from the standard issue deployment of a primitive tribe whom have also just discovered the expedition, mere moments before. His potential saviours are a reassigned Vietnam Marine unit – this film is set in the early 1970’s for no qualitatively discernible reason – captained by a standard issue Samuel L. Jackson blustering lazily through his usual blockbuster bricolage. That such a elemental disregard for narrative script logic has surpassed the studio QC test speaks volumes of this productions disregard for the audiences intelligence (who are they, exactly?), the incremental tip of an insulting iceberg, in what I am afraid to report is this year’s worst movie so far – and I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge.
So let’s rewind a little and outline the plot, as much as there is a semblance of such things. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is the senior executive of the secretive government organisation codenamed Monarch, a unit charged with investigating the mysterious and clandestine caverns of the globe. Despite being enveloped in a mysterious, permanent storm which obscures any satellite penetration (not to mention defying the laws of physics) he has spent years lobbying for an expedition to Skull Island, a remote archipelago situated in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean, which due to its unique qualities has never been crawled over by scientists like a phalanx of curious climate attuned toddlers. So finally, despite being ignored by centuries of inquisitive homo-sapien exploration Randa finally convinces the powers that be to assemble a B-Movie battalion of character tropes to see what’s going on, and whom, or indeed what might be roaming around this Eukaryoteic eden.
Quite how you waste an ensemble cast of Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchel, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Terry Notary is a gargantuan achievement, as no attention has been aimed at assembling any sliver of adventurous creation, Hiddleston in particular being spectacularly miscast as some roguish adventurer in a desperate grasp for Han Solo symbiosis. Second lead Larson as Mason Weaver, a self-proclaimed ‘anti-war’ photographer recruited to the mission also yields no internal instruction or arc, no political purchase or indeed personality, but she does get the ‘best’ line in the film when she reports for duty and a surprised military attaché exclaims ‘Mason Weaver? But (dramatic pause, scrolling through the ship deployment manifest)…but…you’re a woman?’…’Last time I checked!’ she retorts. Alas, I am not joking.
After half an hour of this tedious stumble through the labyrinth of lazy Hollywood engineering I recalibrated my expectations accordingly, as even if we can’t have anything resembling fun characters or dialogue, any graze of excitement or energy we can at least reel in some scintillating CGI and mirthful monster mayhem, right? Wrong. Blockbuster brawlers such as Guillermo and Jackson have consistently and correctly reasserted that an essential element of any monster movie is to invest your creations with some semblance of personality, a trait that is fully absent here, there’s just no there there beneath the CGI carapace. The main draw of the movie, the almighty Kong who squats atop the pinnacle of American monster movies since 1934 in this incarnation is simply boring to behold in all his supposed simian stupendousness – it’s all inertia, with no metaphoric gravity nor heft. That critical, fatal flaw is reinforced in the design of the perfunctory flora and fauna of Skull Island that assail our heroes, the supporting characters are picked off red-shirt style with no human dimension nor consequence, as we progress through a plot untroubled by interest or consequence. Sure, I am fully aware that you should perhaps check in any concerns of reason or logic at the ticket collection booth – this is a big, loud, brash blockbuster intended to deactivate the cerebellum – yet the flippant lack of quality or design in any other dimension of filmmaking, the set pieces, the SFX, any sense of exotic adventure or mysterious investigation, they all render this movie as mediocre par maximus.
Predictably the wider movie references are speared throughout the film like a postmodern skewer (including a nod to this), but the obvious antecedent is Apocalypse Now which I detected from the initial trailer and the colour palette, period soundtrack and those images of mosquito framed choppers shrouded against a blazing oriental sun. A cold opening of Marlow’s initial arrival on the atoll in 1944 is pinched from Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific when a Japanese airman is also marooned along with Marlow, a plot point which is suitably set up and then thoroughly abandoned. Gentle reader, given the deliberate historical locality I’m not necessarily expecting some squirming subtext of an arrogant battalion of Westerners invading an exotic oriental locale, raining napalm and ordinance on the denizens and arousing the wrath of some ancient, gargantuan, elemental wrath, but a movie on this scale has to be fun on its own genre terms, and on that front Skull Island fails abysmally. Once again the studios have drafted in a talented Indie director, Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts (helmsman of 2013’s charming Kings Of Summer), and ruthlessly crushed any potential flourish or notable technique, as all must be in thrall to lowest common denominator blockbuster banality personified in the near ubiquitous and groan inducing post credits sting – see also Jurassic World. Doug McClure must be spinning in his volcanic grave, as taken as a franchise inceptor or mere creature feature Skull Island is a colossal disappointment;
So then my accursed minions, let’s dust off the cobwebs, stagger nervously through mist drenched marshes, summon up a posse of pitchfork and brasier wielding peasants and give 2013’s first programme a resurrecting blast of cobalt electricity, *distant booming spectral laugh* yes you hunchbacked fools it is time to exhume the Universal Monster movies of yore. Having received the glorious Blu-Ray package for Christmas, officially the best horror themed release of 2012 according to numerous genre specialists and aficionados I knew that this could form the spine of another ambitious season of reviews and articles, and this time my insane plans may have just gone too far, or at least that’s what the superstitious fools down in the village would have you believe. Although there are eight core movies in the box-set the entire Universal cycle encompasses no less than 27 pictures, or 30 if you include Abbott & Costello meeting Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, or the Mummy. So my inhuman experiment is this – to compose capsule reviews for the 27 ancillary movies, and fully fleshed articles for the central octave of monstrous darkness, a programme that should eclipse my expansive Hitchcock season and should give me enough to chew/gnaw/feast upon for the next twelve months. I already have some other strands planned so fret not if you sacrilegious cretins have no interest in this moody material, I’m making my inaugural 2013 visit to the BFI this afternoon and a very interesting screening has cropped up at the Stratford Picturehouse next week. But let’s stay on subject so here’s a reminder, ‘the abyss gazes also’ and all that eh;
First things first, I realise that the Wikipedia article cites something in the region of 40 films belonging to the cycle, these things are always open to debate (is The Hunchback of Notre Dame really a horror film?) so my 27 is culled from the list inscribed in the box-sets supporting booklet, even I won’t have the time for 40+ plus reviews if a few plans come together in the next couple of weeks. Anyway, you have to admire Universal’s commitment to their heritage in this their centenary year, these creatures and their movies are no doubt the studios biggest licensed money spinners over the decades when you consider their iconic status and the copyright fees they must accrue when reproduced in media around the world, but nevertheless it is good to see a studio devoted to maintaining their legacy which stands in contrast to the approach of some of the other major studios who landfilled or simply sold off their memorabilia due to a succession of corporate mergers and philistine executives – and who’s heard the recent scurrilous rumor that Warner Brothers have accidentally destroyed the original camera negative of Days Of Heaven? That’s scary stuff. Anyway let’s get started with the first strand of the cycle, the 1925 first silver screen iteration of The Phantom Of The Opera, this terrified audiences way before some rich Tory munchkin got his grubby paws on it and made some bloody awful West End musical out of the original Gaston Leroux novel;
Starring the near forgotten Lon Chaney this horrific tale in the mould of contemporaries Edgar Allen Poe concerns a deformed ghoul who haunts the gothic chambers, concealed infrastructure and Seine soaked catacombs of the Opéra de Paris. After falling in love with Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) whom he has secretly coached from the cloaked shadows from understudy to prima donna he kidnaps his muse, setting his will against Christine’s tenacious lover Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). During a masked ball which echoes The Masque of The Red Death the Phantom ignites his wicked plan to despatch his adversary and win Christine’s love.
You really do get a sense of the changes in the art form when revisiting the Silents, the pacing and static camera, the way that scenes are covered in mid-shot with few edits, the exaggerated figure movement and Intertitles supplanting dialogue, and if you peer closely the lavish production design, set dressing and costumes can be discerned through the boxed ratio focused, murky and malodorous, shuddering images. The Grand Guignol stylings are appropriately macabre, I’m going out on a limb in terms of my knowledge but I’m also sure that a 1 hour, 47 minute run-time would have been quite lavish for the period, thus this was probably quite a prestige production for the infant studio under the dominion of the now legendary Carl Laemmle. This is certainly less moribund and languidly paced that many Silents of the era I have seen, it dances along with a grotesque grace, and some of the Phantom’s moral traps could even be discerned in more modern fare almost a century later – I think you know what texts I’m talking about. I distinctly remember that chilling skull visage of Chaney as the Phantom from the photo captures in many of the Horror handbooks I accrued as a child, it’s still a little unsettling today so I can only imagine the swooning and fainting it provoked amongst the more refined punters back in 1925;
Lon Chaney is a criminally overlooked figure in early horror cinema, whilst fans dote on the films of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, James Whale and Tod Browning we tend to overlook one of the pioneer physical performers and make-up geniuses who established some early parameters of the genre, and I shamefully include myself in that estimation. Fascinating article here on his techniques, a pioneer of make-up artistry that paved the way for Jack Pierce through to the modern grotesques of Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini, maybe one day his sorely missed London After Midnight will finally surface, just like the full version of Metropolis and recent rumors of Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle there is hope. Next up we tackle the ‘Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make…’, but before that on the horror front look what else is slowly materialising out in the twisted woods…..
Sometimes the story behind a film can be far more interesting than the final ‘product’. Take a look at this;
….then read this. A few sentences jump out at me, quite apart from being ‘proud of the incestual masturbation scene’ the fact that this dude spent eight years putting this together is hilarious, and the desperate fumbling of internet marketing sanctioned by a so-called master of the industry is illuminating. It reminds me of a great anecdote from Roger Corman – can’t wait to see this by the way – after he’d just seen Jaws. Corman’s strategy throughout his career was maximum returns on minimum outlay, understanding that the teenage crowd who flocked to the flicks and drive-ins every weekend regardless of material demanded a minimum quota of nudity and gore, and when he saw that sliver of aquatic carnage he got very worried that the big guys had finally cottoned on to his money-spinning paradigm. Never forget, this is the guy who launched the career of (this list from the top of my head) Bogdanovich, Coppola, Nicholson, Demme, Ron Howard, Scorsese, De Niro and numerous other Oscar recipients, not to mention a certain James Cameron whom is otherwise known as the director of the two most successful films of all time. Besides, can any film featuring the genre bookend Sid Haig be all bad? Well, yes, it probably can. I dunno, I watched this again this week;
….and quite frankly it was quite an ugly movie from a narrative perspective, stupidly shoehorning in dumb scenes and links to bring the creatures together so they appear in frame in the most clumsy ways, but it was still terrific fun, with an appropriately scant 71 minute run-time. Sometimes you hanker for a lightly marinated Kobe steak, sometimes you wanna chow down on a cardiac inducing KFC. So I’m off to see Hanna, a movie about an adolescent assassin from a Oscar nominated filmaker who earned his spurs on a critically acclaimed translation of a literary favourite – so it goes….