U: Upstream Color (2013)
A lot of us know about Shane Carruth through his first feature, Primer. If you’re any kind of a science fiction fan, you’ve probably seen it. If not, well… it’s currently not on Netflix Instant, which is where I first encountered it, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, a time travel story that’s brainy, dense, and remarkably free of the usual claptrap that surrounds such stories. Also, like the best Nolan movies, you need to pay attention every minute, and your gray matter is going to get a workout.
Now take that and square it, and you may be ready to approach Upstream Color.
Any attempt at a synopsis is going to get nightmarishly complex. Check out any of those on various streaming media, and you will find yourself wondering, “What movie did they watch?” I’m no better, but here goes:
A guy called only Thief (Thiago Martins) has found a worm that lives in certain exotic orchids; if a person ingests it, the parasite makes them instantly docile and extremely susceptible to brainwashing techniques, which he uses to steal every cent they have and cover his tracks… in case they survive the harrowing aftermath. At the beginning of the movie, he does this to Kris (Amy Seimetz), leaving her dazedly trying to cut out the worms scurrying under her skin with a butcher knife. Another mystery man called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) attracts her to a remote location with electronic music that is also coaxing normal earthworms out of the ground. He uses a crude but effective method to get the parasites out of Kris and into an anesthetized pig. The next day, Kris awakes as if from a nightmare, and attempts to try to put her completely destroyed life back together.
Eventually Jeff (our auteur, Shane Carruth) becomes attracted to her, and a relationship forms. Jeff, it turns out, has a similar black hole in his life, in which he abused his position as a broker to embezzle a lot of funds. They start finding out they have a lot of things in common, and a lot of things they shouldn’t have in common, because their identities are still fractured and bleeding into each other. The Sampler is not as beneficent as he seems; he has a whole herd of pigs, all carrying parasites from other victims, and he uses the connections these parasites still have with their former hosts to sample their lives.
That is about as bare bones yet cohesive as I can get. Like Primer, there is a hell of a lot of grist for the conversation mill here. Where it’s going to differ from Primer, though, is that much of that is so much more abstruse than its predecessor. The motivations of The Sampler are still beyond my comprehension, and that may in fact be the point: our lives are frequently shaped by unknowable forces, by people who we will never meet but nonetheless have power over us. I found it hypnotic and engrossing; others are just going to be pissed off.
One of my major frustrations with fiction is a perverse one – I love having a mystery to ponder, so much so that I feel let down when that mystery is solved (probably the main reason I liked Lost so much, even though most people use it as a swear word these days). I’m still chewing on Upstream Color days later. I like that. Some people won’t. I’m okay with that. (This being the Internet, I also find that this tolerance is not reciprocated, and I expect I will soon be told why I am an idiot. Whatever.)
V: Vampyr (1932)
Carl Theodor Dreyer was looking for a more commercial property after his Passion of Joan of Arc was a critical and box office failure. (It is now, of course, widely regarded as a masterpiece) So hey, why not a horror movie? Remembering the problems Murnau went through with Nosferatu and a litigious Florence Stoker, he derived his inspiration from a collection of stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, In A Glass Darkly, which had recently gone into the public domain – so odd to consider that at the time, these things happened automatically 50 years after a creator’s death.
Supposedly Vampyr is based on the famous story “Carmilla”, which Hammer Films would go on to milk some forty years later. I say supposedly because the only thing the two have in common is a female vampire – and after gender, we draw the line.
A young traveler, Alan Gray (Julian West) stops at a remote inn; he is visited by a man who tells him, “She must not die,” and leaves him with a small package that is labeled “To be opened in the event of my death”. Gray investigates, and soon finds himself embroiled in the woes of a family being afflicted by the title creature, aided by the village doctor. The man who visited him (the father of the victim) is assassinated by one of the vampire’s henchmen, so the package is opened: it contains a book about vampires, which turns out to be damned handy, as it even name checks the woman who is causing all the trouble.
There is a delirious, dream-like quality about Vampyr, even before its most famous sequence, when Gray, pursuing the doctor into the night, passes out because he’s still weak from a blood transfusion given to the dying victim. He has an out-of-body experience in which his body is sealed into a coffin with a window over his wide-open eyes, and taken to a churchyard to be buried.
Besides the constant barrage of dream imagery and labyrinthine buildings for our protagonist to wander through, Dreyer’s camera is often in motion for very modern, swift dolly moves, at times feeling like a chiaroscuro Shining without benefit of a Steadicam. Most of the movie is silent, with the very few pieces of dialogue recorded by a still-experimental method; the silent parts show all the power and expertise of Dreyer’s mastery of that form.
The vampire storyline itself is pretty standard stuff these days, after almost a century of such tales. What sets Vampyr apart is that marvelous visual palette, and the embellishments wrought by Dreyer: shadows detached from the bodies that cast them, a vampire that is so obviously an old woman, certainly not the Ingrid Pitt Carmilla.
The major fun I have in considering the movie is that “Julian West” – actually the film’s financier, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg – looks a little like H.P. Lovecraft, and the villainous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko, a Polish journalist – Dreyer liked using non-actors) has a passing resemblance to Albert Einstein. I like to think of the two of them as pals, filming a movie with borrowed equipment on the weekends, Lovecraft playing hookey from his writing and Einstein from his chalkboards. That, though, is a silly thing, and shouldn’t take away from my admiration for Dreyer’s final product.
W: White Zombie (1932)
In a Haiti with a curiously small black population, Neil Parker (John Harron) has brought in his lady love Pamela (Madge Bellamy) to get married. On the boat over, Pamela encountered rich scalawag Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who wants Pamela for his own. Under the guise of letting the two marry in his mansion, Beaumont sets to work trying to steal her from her man. When this doesn’t work, he enlists the help of local witch doctor Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi).
Using a drug Legendre gave him, Beaumont poisons Pamela on her wedding day. She apparently dies, is laid to rest in a tomb, and is later exhumed by Legendre and his hit squad of zombies, all former enemies he has now enslaved. Beaumont is troubled by the fact that the woman he wanted is now a blanked slate, a zombie herself, which leads Legendre to poison him, too, Meanwhile, Neal rouses himself from his multi-day drunk to take on Legendre with the aid of a sympathetic missionary (Joseph Cawthorn).
White Zombie has some memorable images – the one you see quoted in documentaries whenever the movie is mentioned is Legendre’s zombies toiling away in his sugar mill, with one zombie slipping and falling into the cane mill’s blades, without the other zombies noticing or caring. But really, the movie belongs to Lugosi, at the height of his powers, before he became a cliche over-used by hack directors. He has several moments of cold-blooded villainy that will simply take your breath away.
The movie gets points from me for employing “the zombie drug” alluded to in Serpent and the Rainbow, offering up a somewhat rational explanation for the goings-on, even if that goes out the window with Legendre’s psychic power over his zombie slaves, embodied in the “zombie grip” of his two hands clasped together. White Zombie has another thing in common with Vampyr, too, in that the older character – the missionary here, the manservant in Vampyr – does all the heroic stuff. Take that, you young hooligans.
Is it my imagination or is that Criswell doing the narration on this trailer?
X: Xtro (1983)
Sam Phillips (Phillip Sayer) is abducted by a UFO in full sight of his young son, Tony (Simon Nash). Three years later, Sam returns, but in a spectacularly gross and gruesome way that results in the death of three people. He shows back up at his old apartment, claiming amnesia. His wife (Bernice Stegers) is understandably confused but sympathetic, her new boyfriend (Joe Daniels) is pretty pissed off, and the au pair girl (Maryam D’Abo, debuting here) just wants to screw her boyfriend. Tony is ecstatic to have his dad back, especially once Dad infects him with some alien DNA and he starts getting psychic powers.
As if his bloody, mutating return didn’t make it obvious, Sam is no longer human. His main mission seems to be retrieving his son, but there is a much darker purpose to his visit, and it involves eggs laid in Maryam D’abo. By the kid.
Xtro is beloved by a lot of people, because it is pretty weird in all the right ways and gooey in others. The initial return, a costume utilizing a man spidering around with a face glued to the back of his head, is suitably freaky; but just as effective are more subtle scenes, such as Sam turning on a gas heater but not lighting it, contentedly breathing in the toxic fumes.
Where the movie starts losing me is when it falls into the 80s trope of becoming a body count movie, with Tony using his newfound psychic powers to get rid of busybodies and interlopers. The alien has a dozen different ways to kill people (and uses them all, just to keep the proceedings fresh) and the kid can apparently create matter at will, using the power of his mind. Why all the subterfuge? If these aliens are so immensely powerful, why do these things in secret?
There are at least two sequels, but unless I’m desperate again for an X movie, there nothing here to interest me.
Y: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
This is a rah-rah end-of-the-Depression years John Ford movie with all the fixin’s, produced under the steely eye of Darryl F. Zanuck, and starring Henry Fonda (with a fake nose and trick boots to make him taller) as the Great Man. And God, is it ever good.
This takes Abe from his early days running a general store (when a family who can’t pay for any provisions off-handedly mention they do have a lot of worthless old books in the back of their wagon, oh how his eyes light up); it skips over his time in the legislature and gets right to his days as a “jackleg lawyer”, operating only off the knowledge he’s gleaned from those “worthless old books”. He’s not doing bang-up business, either, until a murder at Springfield’s annual picnic gains him a client and a mission to save two young men from the gallows, not to mention a lynch mob.
This is period-piece myth-making, a form at which Ford truly excelled. Though the case is based on an actual one, Lincoln was not the attorney, and he probably never pulled a 19th Century Perry Mason act either, dramatically revealing the true murderer at the last moment. But dammit, he should have, and I don’t mind being told he did. It’s an early example of the central tenet of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s not a documentary, nor was it ever claimed to be; but in this era of gritty reboots and revisionism, I don’t mind being told a figure I’ve admired across the ages actually might have been an okay fellow.
Z: Zatoichi (1989)
Yep, I saved one for this. Also known as Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally, this is Shintaro Katsu’s swan song to the character, and it fell outside the scope of the Criterion Box Set I ran through a few months ago.
I’d like to give you a nice plot summary here, but there actually isn’t one. There’s the usual essential elements of a Zatoichi movie: a young and ruthless yakuza assassinating his way to the top, a thoroughly corrupt official, and… eventually… an attractive young lady for the official to attempt to force himself upon. Of course, a ronin who is impressed by Ichi, and is tasked with taking Ichi down. Groups of guys show up occasionally to kill him. We’re never really sure who’s sending them. Maybe it’s a subscription service or something.
Ichi meanders from one of these elements to another, once more trotting out his scam at a crooked gambling house where he makes the less scrupulous gangsters bet on dice that have fallen outside the cup, only to show that the real dice they should be betting on were inside the cup all the time. As usual, this results in a bunch of bilked baddies trying to kill him, but a high-ranking female yakuza chief intercedes. Later, she’ll have a dalliance with the aged Ichi in a bath, and we find out that “bring our efforts to fruition” is period slang for “simultaneous orgasm”.
Well, it’s an Ichi movie, so we know he’s eventually going to kill the corrupt official to rescue the innocent girl, then go up the street to kill all the local yakuza, who have been obligingly cutting their numbers in half with a turf war of their own, anyway. The thing is, Ichi’s dealings with these gangsters has been minimal, so that really is how it seems: he’s in the neighborhood, sword-cane’s out, might as well slaughter a hundred guys.
It’s an unfortunate, more-of-the-same end note for the character, or at least Katsu’s version, which was also the only version for nearly thirty years. One really hopes for more, but one also has to realize that not every cultural icon gets to make a Shootist or an Unforgiven. More’s the pity.