Monday, April 15, 2019

THE CRUSH

The Crush is Trash Cinema in its purest, most uproariously unregenerate form. For try as I might to ascribe seriousness of intent to this overheated opus involving a neglected teen’s serial attachment to surrogate father figures; accredit forethought to the extended Frankenstein metaphor wherein accelerated physical and intellectual development fatally presumes a corresponding emotional maturity; or even shoehorn in an indictment of our culture’s tolerance for the sexualizing of adolescent girls…it’s all for naught. The Crush is never more than what it aspires to be in the moment, and utterly what it appears to be on the surface: a 100% empty-calorie, all-cheese buffet with nary an ounce of socially redeeming value to be found in its economic (nay, rushed) 89-minute running time.
The MTV-era lovechild of Cinemax and the Lifetime Network, The Crush is a high-concept, low-class I Was a Teenage Fatal Attraction cash-grab calculated to ride the crest of that ‘90s wave of benign-appearing psychopath-style thrillers popularized by Basic Instinct, Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Poison Ivy. A campy, by-the-numbers genre thriller about a precocious 14-year-old who develops an obsessive crush on the 28-year-old journalist renting her parents’ guest house, The Crush is sleazy as hell, yet manages to show—for an exploitation film, anyway—surprising restraint. Sure, its pervy screenplay mines every wishful-thinking “jailbait” cliché known to man, yet it somehow manages to avoid falling prey to the kind of distasteful explicitness and easy vulgarity its porny premise suggests (or its producers would have liked).

In lieu of explicitness, The Crush instead opts for a kind of moral schizophrenia that's committed to playing both sides of the film's Penthouse Forum scenario. On the one hand, the film aggressively sexualizes the character played by 16-year-old Alicia Silverstone and invites the viewer to share its leering, ogling gaze. Yet at the same time, the film tries to convince us it also condemns the hypersexualization of young girls and their bodies (none too convincingly, I might add). Thus, I can only presume the other hand—primed and at the ready—is left free for wrist-slapping when viewers figure out that they've been made complicit.

The debut feature of Disney Channel director Alan Shapiro, The Crush was filmed in Vancouver, B.C. on a budget of $6 million and featured no marquee names in the cast. Alicia Silverstone was making her film debut, and star Cary Elwes, who was somewhat hot at the time, had appeared to favorable effect in The Princess Bride (1987), the Top Gun spoof Hot Shots! (1991) and Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). But I'm not sure if The Crush represented an ascension or a downslide in his career trajectory. I say this because The Crush has the feel of one of those interchangeable straight-to-video erotic thrillers in which you expect to see either Shannon Tweed or Richard Grieco. I suspect The Crush avoided such a fate due to its timeliness. It came out at the peak of the public’s feeding frenzy fascination with the sordid Joey Buttafuoco/Amy Fisher “Long Island Lolita” sleaze-fest that clogged the media and dominated tabloid headlines in 1992.
Cary Elwes as Nicholas Eliot
Alicia Silverstone as Adrian/Darian Forrester
Jennifer Rubin as Amy Maddik

Having landed a plum writing gig at trendy Pique Magazine, hotshot investigative journalist Nick Eliot (the British Elwes, on the losing end of a battle with an American accent) packs everything he owns into the back of his vintage Plymouth Valiant convertible and moves to Vancouver--standing in for Seattle, Washington, I think. In no time he rents a picturesque above-garage apartment in a tony suburban neighborhood from a busy professional couple with a precocious 14-year-old daughter (Silverstone) named Adrian...or Darian if you’re a lip-reader) who almost immediately develops a crush on the new tenant. The adolescent flirtation that starts out innocently, if invasively, enough with the besotted teen gifting Nick a set of clip-on sunglasses (sweet), moving on to surreptitiously rewriting one of his magazine articles for the better (out of line), culminating in her pouring her heart out to him about how tough it is to be a pulchritudinous, 14-year-old virgin genius who’s also a piano prodigy, seasoned equestrian, and entomology expert (creepy).
For his part, Nick goes from flattered, to annoyed, to empathetic, to finally settling firmly in on idiocy. The latter to the point of allowing things with Adrian to go as far as finger-sucking (who among us hasn’t let an infatuated middle-adolescent tongue our cuticles?) followed by a wildly inappropriate kiss. Snapping to his senses, Nick is quick to establish firm, distinct boundaries for the teen…but only after circumstance and his own profound stupidity have him sneaking into Adrian’s house, catching a gawking glimpse of her discarded panties, and “accidentally” watching her fully undress from the vantage point of his hiding place inside her louvered door closet.

Now more convinced than ever that her feelings for Nick are fully reciprocated, Adrian the Equestrian comes to regard his eleventh-hour protestations and capitulations to propriety as little more than what they probably are: guilt-based, locking the barn door after the horse has bolted, ploys (or zipping the fly after the…well, you get the idea). Alas, by the time Adrian’s feelings have grown so strong that she feels comfortable greeting the judgment-challenged writer with a cheery “Hello, Nicholas darling!” Nick has moved on past unintended teen teasing and has embarked on a more age-appropriate romance with an associate from work, photojournalist Amy Maddik.
"Nick, I've been there. You have to be the adult. you can't blur the line."

Stinging from the potential threat of Nick’s new girlfriend (“Oh, don’t worry, Amy. Some guys really like girls with small breasts!”) and seething with resentment over Nick’s rebuff of her advances (“Too busy kissing ass to care about me, is that it?"), Adrian Forrester, is left with no choice but to go full Alex Forrest (her homage namesake Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) on the pair.

Consistently silly and flagrantly derivative (it’s Fatal Attraction by way of Lolita and The Bad Seed ) it perhaps goes without saying that I find The Crush to be also ceaselessly entertaining and irresistible as all get-out. Serving up sizable chunks cheese, sleaze, and of lurid camp, The Crush is absolutely fabulous without ever really being any good. It's a film that cries out for the MST3K treatment and one whose entertainment value increases exponentially in direct proportion to how many other people you see it with. It's a guaranteed good time so long as you take care not to allow certain things to intrude upon your viewing experience that might tend to spoil your fun…like your brain.
Adrian and her friend Cheyenne (Amber Benson) spy on Nick.
Teenage crushes have really come a long way since The World of Henry Orient (1964)

I didn’t get around to actually seeing The Crush until it was released on VHS cassette in 1995, by which time not only had word got around that the film was a tawdry hoot, but Alicia Silverstone had gone on to become the queen of MTV by way of a trio of heavy-rotation music videos she appeared in for the band Aerosmith. The Crush wasn't very popular on initial release (it has since developed a cult following) but MTV's shameless hyping of Silverstone was instrumental in her landing two MTV Movie Awards (Best Villain and Best Breakthrough Performance) for a movie nobody saw. Things picked up for Silverstone when she was cast in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), and just as quickly went south for her when she appeared as Batgirl in the deservedly ill-fated Batman and Robin (1997).
The movie is about Adrian's crush on Nick, yet it's her body that's the most consistent object of the camera's objectification. We're granted just one scene in which we're invited to share Adrian's POV: as she spies on Nick naked in the shower. 

I wasn't terribly surprised by how much I liked The Crush, for I'm one who never got over Mamie Van Doren’s retirement, mourned the demise of the Reform School Girl B-picture genre, and pine for the days when underground films by Andy Warhol and John Waters spoofed Hollywood trash, not Hollywood itself.  Happily, Silverstone's pouty pariah seems to be channeling Ann-Margret in Kitten With a Whip (1964) by way of Joey Heatherton in Where Love Has Gone (also 1964. It was a very good year for bad girls). And while the menace of Silverstone's characterization never reaches the delirious heights of kung-fu Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls; by way of compensation, we get to read a lot into the way she's been directed to tilt her head a lot and peer over the top of her sunglasses.
In the VHS copy of The Crush I saw lo those many years ago, Silverstone’s character was named Darian. That's because director/screenwriter Alan Shapiro based The Crush on an actual event he experienced when he was a struggling writer renting a guest-house from a family in Beverly Hills in 1982. When the family’s teenage daughter (who happened to be named Darian) developed a crush on him, his snubbing of her attentions resulted in the retaliatory act of her carving an obscenity into the paint of his car (a scene recreated in the film). Shapiro left not long thereafter, but he used the incident as a springboard for his screenplay for The Crush, even going so far as to keep the girl’s name the same (understandable, given how it suggests Damien, the name of the Antichrist in The Omen).
What's in a Name?
The digital transformation of Darien Forrester to Adrian Forrester is smoother than the dubbing.
None of the original actors were brought back to rerecord their lines.
But verisimilitude has its price. Especially when said teen is depicted as homicidal and seriously off her nut. Sometime after the film's release, the parents of the real-life Darian hit Shapiro and Warner Bros. with a libel lawsuit, a term of the out-of-court settlement being that the character’s name had to be changed in all subsequent prints. Thus, in future VHS copies and once The Crush began showing up on TV, Laserdisc, and DVD, Darian became Adrian and all references to and appearances of it in the film had to be dubbed over or digitally altered. I can’t imagine this costly development didn't piss the producers off (You mean to tell me you used the girl’s ACTUAL NAME?!), which might go explain why Shapiro’s directing career came to a grinding halt after directing just one other feature: Flipper (1996).
"Some friggin' kid will be standing there with a hardon sticking out of his pants!"
Kurtwood Smith as Adrian's father wields a pair of pliers as he engages Nick in a cringe-creepy conversation about how his daughter has "blossomed physically" over the past year and how he dreads the day suitors come a-courtin'.
Maybe we've found the source of Adrian's psychosis.

Before I saw The Crush, the purposeful evocation of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) in both its marketing campaign and the casting of Sue Lyon lookalike Alicia Silverstone had me wondering (fool that I am) if perhaps the thriller might be some kind of a subversive upending of the whole Lolita Myth (the sexually predatory child who looks and behaves older than their actual age). Maybe even a parable indictment of our culture’s endorsement of the sexual “adultification” of adolescent girls (à la Brooke Shields and Nastassja Kinski) and blaming them for enticing hapless, innocent men. 
Boy, was I barking up the wrong tree.

Alicia Silverstone was 15-years-old when cast in her debut film (16 when production began)
Sue Lyon was 14-years-old when cast in her film debut (15 when production began)

The truth is that The Crush is like the Reefer Madness of The Lolita Myth. Female and male are vixen and victim in a stacked-deck narrative that has the character of Adrian depicted as a child only when the film wants to play up the taboo, schoolgirl fetish angle of the story (her ultra-girly bedroom, overflowing with stuffed animals and floral patterns, looks like it belongs to a 10-year-old). In all other ways, the viewer is encouraged to see her as a woman.
Because we never see her interact with boys her own age (ostensibly because they find her intelligence off-putting) and because her attractiveness and healthy interest in boys/men are never contextualized, Adrian's budding sexuality is never framed in terms of adolescent normalcy.
Attractive Nuisance
The Crush understands and exploits (but has no opinion about) the fetishizing
of youth and how it feeds into the taboo allure of adolescent sexuality

The non-logic of The Lolita Myth never faults the tempted...all blame falls to the object of desire. A young, attractive girl who dares recognize her own sexuality is seen as a risk and a threat simply by her existence. Even without action on her part, a woman or girl's body is imbued with the power to bait, tease, lure, and temp. The Crush ratchets up the absurdity of this misogynist conceit into a worst-case-scenario fantasy in which assertive female sexuality is not only toxic, it's homicidal.

The photo of Nick's journalist grandfather is actually The Crush's cinematographer Bruce Surtees with his grandchild (judging by the different lighting, I'd guess with the head of Elwes as a child grafted over the little boy). The late Oscar-nominated Bruce Surtees (Lenny - 1974) also shot the films Night Moves, Play Misty For Me, and Sparkle

While the film plays fast and loose with making Silverstone look girlish or womanly depending on what message they're trying to send to males in the audience ("You lucky dog!" vs "Better stay away from that young stuff, they're nothing but trouble!"), its treatment of Cary Elwes is pretty consistent: he's a dope who gets duped.

Though Nick has the professional reputation of being a bulldog investigative reporter (suggesting shrewd intelligence and a certain assertiveness), Adrian is the one with all the guile and cunning. Outfitted with goofy spectacles and dressed in oversized clothes that make him look like a little boy who's raided his father's closet, Nick may sneak peeks at Adrian sunbathing, or need to take a shot of vodka to clear his head after getting all hot and sweaty after a don't-stand-so-close-to-me encounter with a girl half his age; but in the lunatic confines of this thriller, he's Little Red Riding Hood, she's The Big Bad Wolf.
In a nod to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951),
a merry-go-round figures into the climax of The Crush

Guileless to the point of being a bit of a dunderhead, it’s made clear that Nick has no real interest in Adrian (her crush flatters his ego), just as it’s also obvious finds her attractive: Nick - “If you were 10 years older….” Adrian - “You’d what?”
But the film sympathizes with Nick in a way it never does with Adrian, its attitude being: what’s a healthy, red-blooded, American-British boy to do when confronted with a steady stream of provocatively exposed flesh accompanied by shy flirtations?: “Nick…ever do a virgin? I know you want to.
Movie tradition allows for leading men to wear glasses only when a character is called upon to look older, smarter, or vulnerable. Cary Elwes' owlish spectacles have the effect of making him appear harmless, bookish, and younger. He reminds me of the animated character Milo Thatch from Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Were The Crush a better-made movie, I think I’d have found its alarmist view of female sexuality obnoxious. Instead, the film's cluelessness (heh, heh) winds up being its asset. A work of glossy slickness, The Crush reminds me of the time my sister sought to extend the play life of her older, balding, Barbie doll by removing its head and replacing it with a newer one. It's hard to be offended by The Crush because it isn’t really about anything; it’s just Fatal Attraction with a younger head attached.
Possession Obsession
An homage to Fatal Attraction's iconic "lamp switch" scene. 

Complete with stuffed bunny rabbit 



BONUS MATERIAL
If you're a fan of thrillers and are in the market for a movie that head-on confronts all the subtextual creepiness The Crush sidesteps, I'd recommend Hard Candy (2005) starring Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson. Not for the faint-of-heart, but a real jolt of a suspense thriller.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, March 11, 2019

RETURN FROM THE ASHES 1965


Independent of what one might ultimately come to feel about Return from the Ashes after seeing it, no one can say it isn’t a bargain. Helmed by Oscar-nominated director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone -1962, Cape Fear - 1962, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud - 1975) and written by Julius Epstein (Oscar-nominated co-writer of Casablanca - 1942), the stylish and undeniably entertaining Return from the Ashes gives you three movies for the price of one. The first being a drama about a Holocaust survivor readjusting to society after 5-years internment in a concentration camp. The second, a deception melodrama centering on a couple’s plan to persuade a lookalike stranger to impersonate a deceased relative in order to claim an inheritance. The third is a romantic crime thriller involving a love triangle, a fortune in money, and a complex murder plot…complete with double crosses.
 Shot in moodily atmospheric, close-up intensive, high-contrast B&W by veteran British cinematographer Christopher Challis (Two for the Road – 1967, Evil Under the Sun - 1982), Return from the Ashes drips nourish élan and mystery from every frame. And why shouldn’t it? Its delicious mélange of a plot is essentially: A Woman’s Face meets Mildred Pierce meets Vertigo meets Anastasia meets Diabolique meets The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Ingrid Thulin as Dr. Michelle Wolf
Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin
Samantha Eggar as Fabienne Wolf
Herbert Lom as Dr. Charles Bovard

A gripping pre-credits sequence establishes the place and time as postwar France, 1945 (make sure to drink it all in, for it’s the first and last instance of the film making any kind of serious attempt to accurately depict the era) while simultaneously setting the tone for what will be the film’s dark exploration of moral relativism, solipsism and survival, and the way what happens to us shapes who we become.
On a train traveling from Germany to France, a child in a crowded compartment is making a nuisance of himself by repeatedly kicking an exit door and fiddling with its latch (Mother: “[pleadingly] If I give you another bar of chocolate, will you stop then?” child: “[kicking intensifying] Perhaps”). When tragedy strikes in the form of the door giving way and launching “mein schrecklich kind” out into the darkness, the passengers all react with appropriate shock and horror. All but one.
The individual closest to the now-yawning chasm that claimed the little brat…er, boy, is a gaunt, graying woman whose face bears a scar, upon whose wrist are the tattooed numbers of a death camp, and whose haunted eyes stare without seeing…a past witness to horrors far worse.
The Holocaust survivor and titular Phoenix returning from the ashes of Dachau is Dr. Michelle Wolf, a Jewish radiologist en route to Paris in hopes of reclaiming her life. Presuming there’s still a life to reclaim, for Dr. Wolf is presumed to be dead by all who knew her. Gone but not forgotten by confidant and medical colleague Dr. Charles Bovard (Lom), a plastic surgeon whose feelings for Michelle run deeper than friendship. 
Recalled (less than fondly) but not missed by the rancorous Fabienne “Fabi” Wolf (Eggar), Michelle’s estranged, neglected step-daughter from an earlier, widowed marriage. And beholden but unmourned by her handsome, penniless younger husband, Stanislaus “Stan” Pilgrin (Schell), freelance chess master and master freebooter who wed Michelle mere moments before she was seized by the Gestapo (suspicious, that), granting the otherwise homeless fortune-hunter legal access to Michelle’s now-vacant home. 

Well, not vacant for long.
Out of shared grief (not), Stan and Fabi take up residence as lustful cohabitants driven mad with frustration by a law prohibiting them from collecting on three hundred million francs bequeathed to the presumed-to-be-dead Michelle due to the absence of an identifiable corpse.

Michelle’s return from the ashes is not immediate—transformed internally by her ordeals in Dachau, she waits until she can be transformed externally by plastic surgery to restore her former beauty—but is most definitely seismic. With scores to settle and amends to make, Michelle’s return sets into motion the labyrinthine machinations and stratagems outlined earlier. Schemes Stan himself describes as “Bizarre, grotesque…” leading Michelle to feel “Revolted, curious, shocked, even thrilled…all at the same time.
Which just so happens to be exactly what some critics felt about Return From the Ashes in 1965.
You Had One Eye in the Mirror

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
A problem I once had with the glut of sound-alike, ersatz film-noir erotic thrillers that sprang up like weeds in the ‘90s in the wake of Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, and Basic Instinct, is that they always seemed to happen in a kind of void; never occupying a recognizable world nor appearing to be tethered to anything other than the absurd, gimmicky requirements of the genre. 
Return From the Ashes is convoluted and often far-fetched, but it works so beautifully and never feels as contrived as perhaps it should because everything about its conception—from its visual style to its setting to its characters—are of a thematic whole. The characters and the world they inhabit are an extension of one another.
Perhaps unsubtly, the game of chess is not simply the activity that brings the two lead characters together, it’s both a metaphor and symbol. 
Through a flashback, we learn that on an evening in 1938 when most of Paris is off listening to news of the French Prime Minister’s meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich, Michelle and Stanislaus meet in a near-deserted chess club. The two individuals are immediately linked by their self-interest and apathy regarding the perilous state of the world.
The good/bad morality contrasts suggested by the black and white chessboard is stylistically referenced in Michelle's expensive clothing (which contrasts significantly with Stan's modest pullover and tie). When invited by Stan to play a few games for money, Michelle (exposing and embracing her dark side) removes her stark white evening jacket to reveal its jet-black lining and her elegant, funereal frock.
"You have the advantage."
And indeed, she does. All the game-playing strategizing and manipulations of chess serve as both motif and thematic through line in Return From the Ashes. As the two strangers play their first game, the charming and penniless Stanislaus (who, significantly has the black pieces) thinks he is fleecing yet another unsuspecting older woman, but it is Michelle--essentially making a down-payment--who is setting the cash bait necessary to lure the handsome young man. Audiences who know Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin from her many films with Ingmar Bergman are apt to be reminded of Bergman's
The Seventh Seal (1957) and its iconic scene of a medieval knight playing a game of chess with Death.
"If there is no God, no immortality, no heaven, no hell,
no reward, no punishment...then everything is permissible."
Indicative of her own flawed character, Michelle begins to fall in love/lust with Stanislaus (note the candle stroking) as he expounds on his amoral personal philosophy, paraphrased from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Return From the Ashes is a melodrama that utilizes the stark contrast of black and white to tell a story of evil and moral relativity.  Set in the era of WW2 and German-occupied France, the sociological fallout of Hitler's dominance forces the collision of ethical principles and survival instincts. In a world where the stark contrasts between right and wrong have been blurred and minimized, the film asks us to look at its dissolute characters not solely as individuals inherently good or bad, or even victims; but as individuals imbued with free will who are shaped, scarred, and perhaps reclaimed by their circumstances.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Return From the Ashes takes place roughly between the years 1938 and 1947 (just how much time transpires between Michelle's release from Dachau and eventual return to her former life is rather murkily conveyed), but the film is almost hilariously disinterested in making any of the lead characters look remotely period-appropriate. Michelle's lacquered flip hairstyle and pale lipstick recall Sixties-era Dina Merrill; Fabi's long, flowing locks are pure Carnaby Street Jean Shrimpton: and Stan walks around with a traditional '60s Rat Pack cut that makes him look like John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby.
Although the practice of setting a film in the past and wholesale ignoring historical accuracy in everything but automobiles and dress extras, is very common in sixties films, yet it still throws me now and then. I found I had to keep reminding myself at crucial points just when all this was supposed to be taking place.
Let's Do The Time Warp Again
SS agents from 1940 confront a stylish couple from 1964.
This reminds me of that musical number in  Xanadu where the '40s blend awkwardly with the '80s.


PERFORMANCES
The characters in Return From the Ashes are so morally unpleasant, it becomes a considerable compensation that they are all so strikingly beautiful. I’ve always liked Ingrid Thulin, an actress capable of conveying strength, intelligence, and heartbreaking vulnerability. Her Michelle Wolf is a startlingly modern character, written in a dimensional manner that allows her to be independent, smart, selfish and self-possessed, weak, willful, and ultimately empathetic.
Return From the Ashes was released four months after Samantha Eggar made her star-making (and Oscar-nominated) appearance in William Wyler's The Collector. As the delightfully devious and unhinged Fabienne Wolf, Eggar is all petulant malice and emotional greed. She makes for a romantic rival while managing to bring a pitiably wounded quality to her character's rigid self-defensiveness. In the key role as the unapologetic cad so charming that two women are willing to overlook his black heart and shameless self-interest, Oscar-winner Maximillian Schell (Judgement at Nuremberg - 1961) gives an assured, witty, and utterly fascinating performance.
Capturing all the ambiguity the role embodies, his Stanislaus is a real charmer who is never all villain, never all hero, and always maddeningly hard to read. (Though the always-welcome Herbert Lom has Stan's number from the start and never passes up an opportunity to let us know.)

Vladek Sheybal as Paul, the chess club manager
Familiar from several Ken Russell films, Vladek Sheybal, portrayed
 chess master Tov Kronsteen in the Bond film From Russia, With Love (1963) 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Return From the Ashes wasn’t a success when released, and I think it disappeared from theaters rather quickly. It most certainly seems to have disappeared from people's minds. Studios tend to bury underperforming films when it comes to TV broadcasts, and Return From the Ashes bore the double burden of having been marketed as a film for adults, so perhaps that's why I don't have a memory of it cropping up on The Late Late Show when I was a kid. I don't even know if it ever even had a home video release. I do, however, remember being scared out of my wits by the TV ads that ran when it opened in theaters. They couldn't have been all that explicit, but I was only about 8-years-old or so and distinctly remember hearing the sinister-sounding title and leaping to the conclusion that it must have been a ghost story or vampire film. All other details are vague save for the kindertrauma warning "No one may enter the theater after Fabi enters her bath!" and a shot of a shadowy figure opening a bathroom door. Yikes!
Taking a page from the William Castle promotion playbook while drawing intentional parallels to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Clouzot's 1955 film Diabolique (It was Clouzot who initially owned the rights to the 1961 French novel Le Retour des Cendres by Hubert Monteilhet upon which, the marketing campaign for Return From the Ashes sold it as a shocker. I can imagine taking this tack roused a lot of initial public interest, but it's just as likely to have resulted in considerable disappointment as well. Moviegoers attending Return From the Ashes expecting edge-of-your-seat thrills and a Samantha Eggar bubble bath equivalent of Janet Leigh's shower couldn't help but feel a tad misled when presented with a somber crime drama more character-driven then sensationalist.
In spite of my fearful awareness of the film as a child (between this and Psycho, the family bathroom became a chamber of horrors for me...I have no idea how my mother ever got me to bathe at all), I didn't get around to actually seeing Return From the Ashes until it became available through made-to-order DVD around 2011. But even now it's rare that I come across someone anyone familiar with the title, rarer still to meet someone who's seen it.


BONUS MATERIAL
Return From The Ashes - Theatrical Trailer
Too lengthy to be the TV ad that terrified me as a child, still,
you get a good taste for how this movie might have come across to an 8-year-old. 
 

Hubert Monteilhet's novel makes for only the first third of the film adaptation. Many of the film's most sensational elements are the intention of screenwriter Julius Epstein. If you're interested in how the film deviates from its source novel check out a breakdown of the novel HERE, where you'll also find information on a 2015 feature film remake/adaptation titled Phoenix.







Talitha Pol as Claudine
A year after appearing in Return From the Ashes, actress/model Talitha Pol wed John Paul Getty Jr. and the pair became major style icons of the hippie-chic jet-set '60s. The color pic is from a 1969 Vogue photo shoot of the hard-partying couple by Patrick Lichfield. Pol died of a heroin overdose in 1971.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, February 28, 2019

HEREDITARY 2018

"When you get older there isn't a lot left to be frightened of."
Mrs. Ada Quonsett  Airport (1970)

I was an easy scare as a kid. Afraid of the dark, I posed little challenge to older sisters who loved to leap out at me from closets and shadowy rooms; their shouts of “Boo!” eliciting the usual shriek of terror or tearful outburst (often both) followed by the to be expected threat-yelled-in-retreat, “I’m gonna tell momma!”

When not being terrorized by siblings, I did a pretty good job of terrorizing myself by habitually (read: masochistically) raiding one sister’s collection of horror comic books; the macabre stories on the pages of The Witching Hour and House of Mystery ensuring that more than a few nights were to be spent with bedcovers pulled completely over my head. From television I learned at an early age that fear comes with its own soundtrack; consequently, whenever I felt frightened, my mind obligingly supplied the background music: i.e., John Williams’ nerve-jangling Suspense Theater theme or that creepy whistling intro to Journey to the Unknown.
Toni Collette as Annie Graham
Gabriel Byrne as Steve Graham
With the waning of the 1960s, the make-believe horrors of Wait Until Dark (“What did they want with her? What did they want with her?” screamed the films poster ad copy--to my abject terror) and Rosemary’s Baby (“What have you done to its eyes?”) vied with the real-life variety (Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the Zodiac Killer, & the Manson Family) for dominance over my exposed-nerve psyche; puberty ultimately claiming final victory as my teens ushered in a phase of such acute self-consciousness, all other anxieties took a back seat. No doubt out of a need for cathartic release, it’s around this time that I began to actively seek out the vicarious thrills of horror movies, happily, of which there was no shortage in the ‘70s. The strenuously orchestrated scares of The Exorcist, The Omen, Burnt Offerings, and The Sentinel gave my burgeoning id an outlet while providing me with ample opportunity for stress release and a risk-free exposure to jeopardy and fear.
Alex Wolff as Peter Graham
Milly Shapiro as Charlie Graham
While I don’t tend to think of myself as a fan of horror movies, I am most definitely a fan of movies that seize my imagination and draw me into their reality. When this occurs, I become engrossed in the narrative, intrigued by the characters, and invested (emotionally or psychologically) in their fate. It’s an exhilarating sensation when this happens with any genre of film, but when it happens by way of the fright flick experience—where tension, mystery, suspense, anxiety, and all the other forms of delectable discomfiture that come with exploring the unknown from the safety of a movie theater seat…well, it’s a pleasure unique for the film fan who’s come to appreciate the adrenaline rush of a good, scary horror movie. 

But I haven't been that easily-frightened kid for some time now. Maturity (OK, old age) and life experience have significantly reduced the number of things that frighten me; while a steady diet of movie consumption has resulted in an over-familiarity with the tropes of the horror genre. It feels like all of sudden it's become very difficult to find a movie I consider to be genuinely scary. And by scary, I don’t mean those formulaic fright franchises that toss a goulash of gore, jump-cuts, and amplified sound at me as a substitute for not understanding how horror works. I mean scary as in that certain “something” that happens when a film grabs you on some visceral level, taps into some hidden, subliminal, nameless anxiety, and then takes you on a journey where your inner voice is screaming you don’t want to go.
I love when a movie can make me feel that way, but it doesn’t happen often these days.
Ann Dowd as Joan
It happened in 2017 when Get Out, the brilliant feature film debut of director/screenwriter Jordan Peele, chilled me to the bone with the canny ingeniousness of its horror premise; a perfect nightmare metaphor for benevolent racism’s daily micro-terrorisms. And it happened again in 2018 with another film by an emerging talent making his directing/screenwriting debut: Ari Aster’s Hereditary; the first movie in ages to reawaken that pleasurable unpleasantness known as being truly scared by a movie. 
The Dollhouse Effect
Hereditary toys with the concept of perception. Physical reality, visual perspective, psychological cognizance, and even auditory recognition are manipulated to create a sense of unease and disequilibrium. 

I came to Hereditary without foreknowledge of its plot, merely the awareness of Toni Collette--an actress I can watch in anything--being its star. I’d just finished binge-watching Collette in the limited BBC One series Wanderlust on Netflix, her extraordinary performance in that program leaving me clamoring for more. Always intrigued when an actor of her caliber appears in a horror movie (Collette’s only Oscar nomination to date was for her supporting role in 1999’s The Sixth Sense), I purposely avoided reading anything about Hereditary beforehand and thus dove in blindly with eyes wide open, curiosity piqued, and with a great deal of enthusiasm.
I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I’m not sure it's actually even possible to be disappointed by Hereditary; for it doggedly refuses to be what you think it will be, go where you assume it will go, or in any way deliver the expected. (From what I’ve read of those who didn't care for Hereditary, a significant degree of dissatisfaction seems to stem precisely from the film failing to conform to what one has been programmed and conditioned to expect from horror movies.)
Portrait in Black

Plot: The death of a family matriarch is the catalyst event sparking an interlinked eruption of remorse, reflection, and revelation that ultimately sends an already loosely-tethered family spiraling completely and horrifically out of control. Annie (Toni Collette) whose mother it was died in hospice after a long, grasping illness, is an artist who copes with her troubled childhood (a mother who suffered from dissociative identity disorder, a father whose clinical depression led him to starve himself to death, an older brother who committed suicide when she was just a teen) by recreating traumatic life events in breathtakingly disturbing miniature dioramas.
Annie hasn’t exactly escaped her family’s legacy of mental illness, intimated in the film by her having married her therapist, psychiatrist Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne), and later disclosed explicitly by Annie herself when she confides to a friend how, two years earlier, during a sleepwalking incident linked to a nervous breakdown, she doused herself and her two sleeping children in paint thinner, awakening only as she heard herself striking a match. As a result of that harrowing incident, her relationship her with 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff) has grown strained and contentious, while her 13-year-old developmentally disabled daughter Charlie—who shared an unnaturally close relationship to the deceased—is emotionally remote and (like Annie) channels her dissociation into the creation of unsettling, pagan-like works of art.
Milly Shapiro
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Afflicted with a lethal allergy to nuts, Charlie's sweet tooth and love of chocolate
turns every member of the family into around-the-clock sentinels 

The stage has thus been set for an intense drama of familial dysfunction set in the aftermath of a tragedy, exploring the complexities surrounding how each goes about the business of processing loss. And there’s plenty of complexities to go around. Bereavement: at the loss of her grandmother, Charlie is (peculiarly) fretful that there is no one now to take care of her. Conciliation: Steve straining under the (self-assumed) burden of always having to be the steadying force and take the placatory role in family conflicts; he turns to drink. Blame: Peter, feeling unsafe with his mother and holding her responsible for their estrangement, retreats into drug use. Guilt: While harboring concern for her own sanity, Annie tortures herself with the fear that she has passed along her family’s legacy of mental illness to her children. Reluctant to compound what she sees as a burden already placed upon them, she has no one to open up to and represses her resentment of that fact.
Intimate Strangers
Hereditary is a family drama cloaked in a horror film. Using the tight, closed-off spaces of dollhouses as a visual and emotional motif, the film shows us a family that shares a great deal of trauma, yet they shut themselves off from one another. Barely speaking to one another, they all remain in their separate, isolated spaces, developing isolated ways of processing their pains and fears. Hereditary is smart enough to place the emotional conflicts dead center of its story, daring enough to take grief and loss seriously, but audacious enough to stretch its narrative to the most grotesque limits of the truly horrific.
Like the sinister sculpture that stands near the stairwell of the Graham house (another of Annie’s grim works of art, it’s a depiction of three deteriorating houses sinking, one atop the other, deep into the bowels of the earth) director Ari Aster presents us with a damaged family slowly sinking into the quicksand of personality pathology, and stacks upon them compounding layers of crisis and catastrophe worthy of Greek Tragedy. When the film erupts into nightmarish chaos and preternatural hysteria, it feels expected (from the beginning the tone of dread is so pervasive, it's as if we are being primed for the worst) yet totally catches you unawares. It's an experience that left me feeling both shaken and stirred.
And oh, so delighted to be surprised at the movies again.
Gabriel Byrne, Toni Collette, and Alex Wolff


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I'd given up hope that it could happen to any more, but after seeing Hereditary I was so unnerved that for a day or so after I saw it, I experienced that apprehensive sensation of being subliminally over-aware of things like shadows, vaguely seen shapes in the darkness, creaky noises, dark rooms, and too-quiet outdoor areas at night. Just like when I saw a scary movie as a kid!
When film critic Pauline Kael titled her 1965 collection of reviews I Lost it at The Movies she was (wittily) referencing the loss of innocence (intellectual, illusions, spiritual, emotional) that happens every time one sees a film. What the title doesn't address is that while the film enthusiast does indeed grow and develop with each movie consumed, to remain receptive to the art form they must also find ways of reclaiming that lost innocence...their "fresh eyes," if you will...each time they embark upon a new film experience.
Milly Shapiro and Toni Collette
Of late, achieving the level of emotional and intellectual surrender necessary to acquire the suspension of disbelief demanded by most horror films has become a task Herculean. But whether due to the persuasiveness of the performances (believable characters are the key to making the impossible plausible) or cleverness of its concept, Hereditary impressed me with how often it caught me off guard. Like so many of my favorites from the ‘70s, Hereditary tells its story its own way, with its own voice, and with a distinct world view. This uniqueness of perspective makes for a compelling and thoroughly engrossing filmgoing, full of surprises. And though it’s easy to forget what with Hollywood grinding out something like 90 iterations of Halloween, Friday the 13th, or The Amityville Horror, the element of surprise is still a good thing in a horror movie.
A layered and masterfully modulate exercise in tension, Hereditary is not just a film so good you want to see it twice; the way it's constructed it demands a return engagement simply to sort out all that your senses have been bombarded with. The family drama element is so painful and tortuously actualized, that's the part that brought me back for a second (and a third) viewing. Add to this the film's hypnotic production design (the eerie shade of bluish green that floods nearly every scene) and the nerve-janglingly good sound editing, and you've got a feast for the eyes and ears--the music is wonderfully creepy, too). Each frame is crammed to overflowing with information, clues, and foreshadowing, but the film—blissfully free of exposition and spelling things out—leaves it to you to discover these pieces of the puzzle for yourself.
Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne


PERFORMANCES
OK, we all know horror films, like comedies, rarely get any respect come award season. And given the long and impressive list of films and performances that have been overlooked over the years, it's hard to get too worked up over any of it. But, seriously, Hereditary was robbed. Toni Collette is al raw, exposed nerve endings in what I think is the best performance of her career to date.  I'm just gonna say my own personal Le Cinema Awards would go to go to Toni Collette and Alex Wolff, and then from there, I take in direction, screenplay, cinematography, sound, and art direction/production design.
Hereditary boasts superb and sensitive performances from its entire cast, but Toni Collette is nothing short of astounding. The strength of the entire film rests on the push-pull antagonism between Collette and Wolf, and the explosive, symbiotic contrast of their achingly tormented performances amounts to some of the finest acting I've ever seen. In saner times the dinner table scene alone would have won Collette a nomination. Similarly, Wolff's agonizingly recognizable depiction of adolescent grief is unforgettable. There's a brief moment where he's seen silently trying to gather the courage to simply enter his house, and it's simply heartbreaking. Hereditary is full of beautiful, painful scenes of people just trying to cope, but they're tragically alone.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Should New Wave cinema’s long-dead Auteur Theory ever be revived, singular-vision horror films like Hereditary and Get Out would make a persuasive case. The 5 years it took for Ari Aster to bring Hereditary to the screen finds it to be a work of uncompromising individuality bearing the stamp of a distinct world view and unflinchingly naked emotions.
The visual style adopted for the film play off of the dollhouse/diorama motif, drawing upon themes of restriction, fate, and predestination.
The compositions of shots, both interior and exterior, trick the eye and suggest the isolated and claustrophobic spaces of dollhouses. Annie's art installation dioramas were created by Steve Newburn, Hereditary's stunning production design by Grace Yun. Everything from Colin Stetson's shivery music to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski's eerily burnished images (which, when combined with Aster's sculptural blocking and emphatic use of stillness, turns the characters into mannequins) work in concert to formulate Hereditary's unwavering atmosphere of uneasiness.
The members of the Graham family move about from one isolated space to another. Even when they leave the confines of their homes, they merely find new places to be alone.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
If such terms as “humane horror” or “eerily empathic” exist, Heredity would fit the bill. Horror films are hollow films without an emotional core to which to attach the mayhem. For me, the mark of a truly effective horror film, a quality evident in favorites like Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, or Don’t Look Now, has always been its ability to make me feel something for the characters. To get me to relate to and/or empathize with their circumstances to the degree that I care what happens and I’m engaged in whatever conflicts—emotional or psychological—arise.
Annie finds someone outside of the home to whom she can confide 
In its study of a family in a state of disintegration, Hereditary is as heart-rending as it is horrifying. A horror film that gripped me from its first images, and one that I was sorry to see it end. I got so caught up with the life of these people that once the horror elements began to reveal themselves, I was actually afraid for them and found myself hoping for their deliverance. To get you to care that much for its characters is a major achievement for a film. To also scare the bejesus out of you in the process is a triumph.

Unsafe Cinema
Nothing's more terrifying than a horror film that takes death, loss, and grief seriously



BONUS MATERIAL
From 2008 to 2010, Gabriel Byrne played psychologist Paul Weston on the HBO series In Treatment. Alex Wolff portrayed his son in the show's last season.
Father & Son (again)

Modern Family / Ordinary People 
The original cut of Hereditary ran 60-minutes longer than the theatrical release.
The original shooting script is available to read HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson