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Posts Tagged ‘The Uninvited’

Personal Shopper – A Ghost Story for the Digital Era

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a brilliant, hypnotic film – a ghost story for the modern era.

Pictured above are actress Kristen Stewart, and writer/director Oliver Assayas, who first teamed several years ago for Clouds of Sils Maria, another enigmatic, haunting film. Here, Stewart plays Maureen, who is – as the title plainly states – a personal shopper living in Paris whose interests lean more towards art history and personal discovery than the quotidian nature of her daily grind, as she zips from one high-end emporium after another, picking up jewels, designer clothing, and accessories for her demanding boss – Kyra, a high fashion model (Nora von Waldstätten), whom she almost never sees.

When Kyra wants something, she phones or texts, and Maureen runs and fetches, with little thanks and much haggling over her fee, leaving the items in Kyra’s apartment. But that’s just one strand of the film; all the while that she pursues these meaningless errands, Maureen is haunted (literally) by the death of her twin brother Lewis, a medium who made a pact with Maureen that he would reach out after death to make contact with her. Both Maureen and Lewis have congenital heart defects; in Lewis’ case, his heart gave out in his early 20s, and Maureen knows that her heart, too, could stop rupture at any moment, causing instant death.

In the cold, brutal world of the film, there’s no such thing as friendship, and even love is often deeply suspect, inasmuch as all the characters with the exception of Maureen are engaged in a deeply commercial, throwaway life style, in which dazzle counts for more than substance – as if they had any substance to begin with. In the film’s first third, Maureen alternates with nightly visits to Lewis’ now vacant house, in the hope that his spirit will manifest itself, intercut with endless trips on her motorbike on this or that errand for Kyra.

To say more would be to give the game away; let’s just say that as real and empty as the world of high fashion is in the film, so too is the supernatural domain, which is rendered in some eerily spectral special effects reminiscent of the unearthly inhabitants of a similarly dilapidated house in Lewis Allen’s classic ghost story The Uninvited (1944). As with Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is a revelation, and while she seems to nicely balance her career between mainstream films and even music videos for the Rolling Stones’ latest album, I certainly prefer her work here, given a role she can absolutely inhabit, in a performance which keeps her on screen for nearly every scene in the film.

Personal Shopper was actually shot in 2015; premiered at Cannes in May, 2016, where Assayas won Best Director for his work on the film, and is just now bring released in the United States on the art house circuit. In world in which everyone seems fixated on the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, a thoughtful, suspenseful, and intelligent film is something of a rarity – more’s the pity – and fans who know Stewart from her work in the Twilight series and other commercial work will probably be disappointed in the film, which builds slowly and carefully to a superbly executed climax.

Much has been made of the fact that the film was “booed” by some audience members at its first Cannes screening, and this has inaccurately been reported as the sole audience reception at Cannes. Not so: as Chris Gardner wrote in The Hollywood Reporter right after the official Cannes premiere, “Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, received a four-and-a-half-minute standing ovation Tuesday night at the psychological thriller’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Following the screening, a happy Stewart, who changed into sneakers after walking the red carpet in heels and a Chanel dress, was seen hugging her co-stars and the film’s director, Olivier Assayas, while the crowd applauded.

The Paris-set ghost story triggered both boos and applause when it first screened for critics on Monday. In the film, Stewart plays a young American in Paris who half-believes she’s in contact with her late twin brother. While discussing the Cannes competition entry during the festival, Stewart said: ‘It’s a ghost story, sure, but the supernatural aspects of it just lead you to very basic questions.’ As for the boos, Assayas, who also directed Stewart in 2014 Cannes competition entry Clouds of Sils Maria, said ahead of Tuesday night’s premiere, ‘It happens to me once in a while, where people just don’t get the ending.’ He added, ‘When you come to Cannes, you have to be prepared for everything.'”

And that includes people who want everything spelled out for them. If you want something that’s easily digestible, by all means head out to see The Fate of the Furious. But if you’d like something more thoughtful, and more elegantly constructed, with multiple layers of meaning and significance to peel back, please go go to the nearest art house and see this film. It’s a tonic in an age of empty glitter and flash; a human story set in an inhuman age, where machines – a prominent feature in the film is the endless array of digital gadgetry Maureen has to contend with everyday to get her work done – are the ultimate arbiters of our destiny.

Click here to see the trailer for this astonishing film.

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen‘s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm‘s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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