Friday, June 4, 2010

Movies Worth Googling: Strange Movie Reviews by Jenny Orosel

Are Kangaroos Scary?

By Jenny Orosel

So last month I mentioned "Not Quite Hollywood", a documentary about Australian films of the 70s and 80s. I have a little problem when I watch movies about movies-they turn into a checklist where, if I haven't seen the flick yet, I suddenly want to. Within a week or two I found I had a to-be-watched list filling up with Aussie flicks. To lump them all into one style or umbrella description would be like trying to put all horror flicks under a handful of adjectives-I guess you could pull it off, but it would do a disservice to the movies.
"Not Quite Hollywood" had a good time ripping into one of the most famous Australian exports, a quiet little movie called Picnic at Hanging Rock. I will say their poking fun at the delicate horror and eerie symbolism of Hanging Rock is unfounded...somewhat.

Director Peter Weir adapted the Joan Lindsay novel about 3 girls and their teacher going missing at the titular Australian landmark on Valentine's Day of 1900. What happened to the girls, or even why, is not the focus of the movie. Instead, the drama (and what little horror there is) lies in how people react to their disappearance. However, since this movie is supposed to work on a symbolic level, the characters are all representative of abstract ideas rather than three-dimensional people. There is rigidity, beauty, loneliness, gluttony, the philosophical and the romantic. The problem is, people change-nouns don't. Hope remains hope, pessimism remains pessimism. What you are left with is a very pretty movie about pretty girls in pretty dresses against very pretty backgrounds, where very little actually happens.
(One note-the version I saw was the Criterion Director's Cut. From what I understand, he cut a full seven minutes from the theatrical release, and many fans say it is a lesser movie. I have yet to see the original edit, so I can't comment on that one).

A polar opposite, and a movie heavily featured in Not Quite Hollywood, was Howling 3: The Marsupials. My husband saw this years ago and thought it was one of the dumbest movies he'd ever watched. But as he sat through their profile in the documentary and realized there was nothing remotely serious in this flick, it made perfect sense. And that is the most important factor in watching The Marsupials-it is a big joke. The plot is simple-lycanthropic marsupial wolf-people living in the Australian outback, and the humans that want them dead. Yes, there are little subplots of romance between the species, but they're window dressing. Really, the whole reason to watch this movie is for the change scenes, the battles between the were-folk and the people, and for one very strange marsupial birth of a wolf-creature. If you look at it purely as a comedy with horror elements, it works fantastically.
Oddly, Hanging Rock and Howling 3 do have something in common-both succeeded at being the very movie it wanted to be. While the former wanted to be an intellectual exercise, The Marsupials was meant to satirize both the werewolf subgenre as well as Australian stereotypes (you mean, not every animal in Australia has a pouch?). One of the funniest scenes has a lycanthrope changing in the middle of a ballet performance, feasting on the flesh of her fellow dancers while still in her leotard. There are plenty of other laughs to be had, whether from the clueless director of a low-budget horror movie (no, not a shot at Aussie filmmaking, not at all), the wise and slightly weird Bushman, the bumbling scientists and cops...The Marsupials does have a good time with tropes and types, with barely enough bloodshed to keep a splatter fan happy. Will you grow intellectually from watching this? Not in the least. But you will have a good time for an hour and a half, and that is just what the movie wanted.

If you don't want to go silly with your horror, a flick to keep in mind is Harlequin, released in the U.S. as Dark Forces. While not as purely intellectual as Hanging Rock, Harlequin is nowhere near silly. It takes the story or Rasputin and puts him in 1970s Australian politics. Nick Rast is on his way up in the Senatorial game, with much help from a few "benefactors". He and his wife have a cold relationship, and his young son Alex is dying of cancer. One night, a stranger named Gregory Wolfe enters the house and cures little Alex. Within days, Wolfe has ingrained himself into the household, becoming mentor to Alex and best friend and confidant to the wife. His magic and parlor tricks win him praise at their dinner parties, and his reputation grows. Everybody loves Wolfe...except Rast's political "benefactors". As Rast learns more about their actions, and learns more and more about who or what Wolfe could be, he is forced to decide whether to follow the path of good or....
Harlequin owes its plot to the story of Rasputin, the Mad Monk. And actor Robert Powell relishes the updated role, playing somewhere between David Bowie, Dr. Frank N. Furter and a Christ figure, making that bizarre combination weirdly believable. He is the very reason Harlequin works. The other performances, both Carmen Duncan as the wife and the young actor who plays the son, are solid but forgettable. Powell is the treat here, just stopping short before his Wolfe gets too flamboyant or saintly.
Yes, there are some downsides to Harlequin. David Hemmings, famous to horror fans from his turn in Dario Argento's Profundo Rosso, has a tendency to chew the scenery whenever he's on screen. The special effects are few and far between, but when they do appear, they remind you that this film was made in the late 70s with very little budget. However, neither of these minuses are enough to totally remove you from the world of Harlequin. This is a movie I will heavily recommend. Even if you aren't familiar at all with the Rasputin story, there is plenty here to keep you creeped out.

Harlequin, Howling 3 and Hanging Rock all rely heavily on the supernatural. Any horror fan will tell you, though, that the real world has enough stuff that will scare the bejezzus out of you. And thus is the source of the frights from Long Weekend. An unhappy couple on the verge of divorce goes to the Australian Outback for a long weekend in a last-ditch effort to rekindle any kind of romance. Within the first few minutes it's easy to see why they want to split up-there's neglect, infidelity, being mean to their dog and generally boorish behavior. Not only that, but they don't give a damn about the nature to which they're running away to. They toss lit cigarettes out the window, litter, take eggs from eagles' nests as toys and shoot various animals simply because they can. These are not characters you like. And while they are the two main characters, and for most of the movie the only characters on screen, they are not meant to be ones you are rooting for.
As they both figuratively and literally piss on their environment, nature begins to exact revenge. Unlike other environmental-message-movies like Prophecy or Food of the Gods, Long Weekend stays realistic in its animal behavior, and therein lies the horror factor. The eagle whose egg was taken attacks, the teased possum fights back, taunted snakes strike. These are all things that can, and do, happen. And when they happen, we both cheer for the animals for fighting back, but we're also a tad bit frightened because those people, with all their overblown flaws, could easily be us. This is, by far, the strongest of the four movies. The performances, in all their ugly glory, are dead on, there are no goofy effects to take you out of the story, and the frights continue even after the last frame. A definite recommend.
Every now and then we all fall into movie-watching ruts. I know I'm guilty of this on a regular basis. One way to get out of that pattern is to find a "checklist movie" and try to work your way through them one at a time. Not Quite Hollywood is fantastic for that, as is Terror in the Aisles (IF you can score a copy) or if you want to go beyond genre flicks Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession are chock full of good ones, some easy to find, some that take a bit of hunting. You may not like them all, and you might not even find some of them, but it will certainly shake up your movie viewing for a little while.

WHERE TO FIND THE FLICKS: Picnic at Hanging Rock is in print with the director's cut from Criterion. Howling 3 and Harlequin are both readily available and in print. Those three are available at Netflix. Long Weekend, however, is not Netflixable. It is in print, although not at every video outlet (you may have to order it online).

--Jenny Orosel