Friday 20 September 2019

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

De levende døde
The birth of the modern zombie. No less will do.

“Night of the Living Dead” is more than a cult classic, it is the mother of all zombie movies, the starting point of a franchise and an entry into modern pop culture few other movies can match. Finally, I got to watch it as well.

This, my final movie for 1968, was one I had been looking forward to see for a long time and one that I thought I knew a lot about, yet as it turned out, all I knew was its legacy, but practically nothing of the actual movie.

“Night of the Living Dead” is a true low budget movie. As I understood it, even the actors had to pitch in with financing the movie and all sorts of short cuts were made to reduce costs. It shows, but actually in a good way. It forced the producers to be creative and to emphasize story and dialogue for gory effects, something many of its descendants could have benefitted from. The acting is surprisingly good for its budget, especially Duane Jones as Ben and Judith O’Dea as Barbra, were convincing in roles that were key to how the movie would work. I have watched some horrid results of cutting a low budget, but “Night of the Living Dead” managed to avoid most of those flaws.

By far most of the movie takes place inside what looks like an abandoned house. Barbra is on the run from the zombies that has already taken her brother and seeks shelter in the house. Soon after Ben arrives at the house, also seeking shelter as his car is out of gas. Their responses to the zombie attack are complete opposites. Ben is calm and resourceful and, using whatever is at hand starts turning the house into a fortress. Barbra on the other hand goes into shock and becomes catatonic. As frustrated Ben is with her, he also has enough understanding to let her alone.

As it turns out the house is not as abandoned as it first appeared. In the midst of the zombie siege people start coming up from the basement. Harry and Helen Cooper with their sick daughter Karen as well as the young couple Tom and Judy has sought shelter in the basement and are lured out by the noises Ben is making. Harry (producer Karl Hardman) is a particularly annoying character who is opposed to everything Ben is suggesting. Tom is more cooperative, but a scheme to fuel his truck goes… horribly wrong.

In fact, all except Ben eventually become zombie food and Ben, well, zombies are not the only dangerous creatures.

“Night of the Living Dead” is a very dark movie. There are practically no light moments. The lookout for the group in the house is bleak and most of what they do is futile. As such it feeds into the apocalyptic genre, where the evil we are facing is just too big to fight. This is a tradition that hearkens back to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and is almost tradition today. Not having to aim for a happy ending gives horror movies that extra dimension and here it is exploited to the full. What I also liked about the movie is that some of the real demons are not flesh-eating zombies, but normal people under stress. There is a lot of group dynamic going on here and that is pretty cool.

Still we cannot avoid discussing the zombies. I have seen a lot of zombies in movies, like gazillions of zombies, so it would take a lot to convince me, yet, despite the poor budget the zombies work pretty well. Ironically, part of the reason for that is that many of them look like ordinary people in sleep walk. It is the ordinariness that makes them scary. Children, women, grandfathers banging the doors and walls and munching warm flesh. They are not alien, but people like you and me. Uh, that freaks me out.

“Night of the Living Dead” is a must see. Not just for its impact on pop culture and not just for horror movie fans, but because it is simply a good movie. Some of those participants who had to help financing it must be pretty pleased. The movie earned its budget over 250 times!

And thus ended 1968. On to 1969.


Tuesday 17 September 2019

Targets (1968)

Peter Bogdanovich is one of those characters that keep popping up in the extra material to old movies in my collection as one of those director-movie nerds together with Martin Scorsese, but I actually know very little about his own production. “Targets” may be the first movie I have seen knowing that he did it.

It is an odd movie, so it probably fits him. Odd, not entirely good, but certainly interesting, with themes that has not become less relevant over time.

“Targets” actually consists of two movies that only merge in the end and I am not entirely certain if they actually merge.

Story one centers on Byron Orlok, played by Boris Karloff, who essentially plays himself. He is an old horror movie icon who can feel that his career is winding down and has decided to stop making any more movies. He even turns down an appearance in a drive-in cinema to promote his latest movie, but is eventually talked into showing up after all, not lest because of his assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh) and a young director Sammy (Peter Bogdanovich himself).

Story two features a young man, Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) who is obsessed with guns. To all appearances he is a nice and respectable boy, yet one day he goes on a killing spree. He kills his wife, mother and delivery boy and then moves on to shoot random people at the highway from atop a silo. When the police finally takes an interest in him he escapes to a drive-in cinema where he continues to snipe random people.

This is where the two stories meet, because this is the very movie Orlok is visiting. In the chaos there, Jenny gets shot and Orlok walks up to Bobby and knock the gun out of his hands. That is the connection.

Story two is the easy story. A mass murderer out of nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere, the kid has got a ton of guns, but hey, this is America, obsessing about guns is not at all connected to start shooting left and right… I will let that stand a moment… The thing about this part of the story is that it is filmed with so much detachments that it seems like an almost casual thing to do to go shoot people. He gets a snack and has a cozy time doing it.

Story one on the other hand is more difficult to see the point of. We spend a lot of time with Orlok, but it seems that his only purpose is to tell that reality has become more horrific than his movies and so there is no more reason for him to continue making movies. I guess that is a fair point, but it also feels… too simple. Or maybe not. Today this sort of pointless killing is old news, but maybe in 68 this was not so, and in that context, this is a prophetic movie?

I am not so sure, though. I am left with the feeling that this movie is a half-baked idea of something that could have been good. Still, I was interested enough to rush through the movie and it is well enough made.

The name Orlok is a little Easter egg for movie buffs. Try look up the movie “Nosferatu”.


Thursday 12 September 2019

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1968)

When I recently reviewed Bergman’s “Skammen” I mentioned that that one was probably the most accessible of Bergman’s movies. “Vargtimmen” (Hour of the Wolf) is at the other end of the spectrum. This is a very difficult movie to watch and to parse. I am still not certain what it is I have been watching.

A synopsis of the movie would not make a lot of sense unless it is so rudimentary that it does not convey what is actually happening, so let me start with what I can tell. There is a couple in the movie, Alma (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Max von Sydow), who live on an island. Johan is a painter of some fame, but also suffering from some sort of mental disease. Alma tells the story of how Johan succumbed to this disease in a series of flashbacks. It is very difficult to connect these flashbacks, which may or may not be chronological, as they get increasingly fantastical. A lot of it is hallucinations, of people appearing in Johan’s mind to somehow torture him, but they seem to appear to Alma as well, which is rather confusing. There is a theme of people preying on the artist, some sexual haunts and a lot of self-loathing. This would not be Bergman without a lot of that.

Eventually Johan disappears in a forest, but not before he has killed a boy, revived his dead ex-girlfriend and watch a countess take off her face.


So, what do you do when you have no idea what you are watching? Well, the Book offers some interpretation and so does Wikipedia. This is supposed to be a horror story about vampires… okay… well, horror makes some sense. Stories of people losing their minds are per definition horrific, but the only vampire here seems to be in Johan’s mind as he sucks his own life out.

There is also supposed to be a criticism of the public treatment of artists, which also baffles me. Again, the Johan is the tormentor and tormented at the same time and obviously he feels that everybody wants him, his work and his achievements.

There is also some Mozart, or supposed to be…

I found the movie incredibly hard to watch because it made so little sense. As soon as personal madness is in play, anything is possible and very little of it has to make sense. That is why it is called madness. In the fantastical genre there is a rule that the internal logic must be obeyed. Whatever rules that apply must be followed. With madness there are no rules and without this internal logic everything we watch can only be interpreted as symbols. In this case symbols of Johan’s self-destructive mind.

There is also supposed to be a connection to Skammen, but I really cannot see what that connection is, except if it is about humans being subjected to forces they cannot control.

I do not think I would recommend this to anybody but die-hard Bergman fans and certainly not to those looking for classic horror. There is a certain masochistic market for insanity movies, which may explain the large number of that kind of movies available and “Vargtimmen” may have an audience there.

Sunday 8 September 2019

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Rumrejsen år 2001
Near the end of 1968 Apollo 8 flew around the moon taking humans to that place for the first time ever. As dramatic this may have seemed (the picture Earthrise from that mission is celebrated as one of the most remarkable ever) cinemagoers had already been there and near Jupiter too earlier that that year in Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable “2001: A Space Odyssey”. When I say “been there” I actually mean it. Never before in cinema has a movie conveyed the experience of space travel this detailed and realistic, so amazingly done in fact that some conspiracy theorist still claim that the actual moon landing was filmed by Kubrick in a studio.

I have seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” before, of course I have, I love good science fiction, but I do not think I ever before was as prepared to watch it. I knew what I was going into and I knew what I was not going to get and that is important in this case. If you are looking for Star Wars space opera, you will be terribly disappointed. What you get instead is… an expressionistic, sensory experience of humanity in contact with space, machines and the divine. No less.

Knowing this, I was not disappointed. On the contrary, it was a very fulfilling experience.

The movie consists of four chapters that almost operate as four separate movies with their own themes. They do connect, but on a higher, thematic level. The first is the dawn of man where we watch primates do what primates do: Eat, sleep, fight. Then a mysterious black monolith appears with that mysterious choir sound and the primates make a quantum leap and start using tools. Also Sprach Zarathustra at full volume.

Jump to the near future (well, the past for us, we were supposed to be well established in space in the year 2001…) where Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is on the way to the moon in a space liner. Yeah, just like first class on an airline, but in space with weightlessness and disorienting directions. The spaceship docks with a huge wheel of a space station and everyone who has played “Elite” on a C64 or Amiga back in the eighties know what that means: An der schönen blauen Donau while spaceship and space station dance in lockstep. Floyd continues to the moon where a monolith has been found hidden there some 4 million years ago. Again, spectacular design as the team flies across the lunar surface and into the pit to watch the monolith.

Jump to the Discovery spaceship where astronauts Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea) spends their time on the way to Jupiter with the supercomputer Hal 9000. There is not a lot for them to do until HAL decides that humans are a threat to the mission goals, and so tarts killing off the humans. More iconic scenes when Bowman tries to get back into the spaceship and to get HAL to open the door only to be answered with “I am sorry Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that”. The one line you do not want your compute to say. Eventually David do get in and disconnects the computer.

Jump to Jupiter orbit and the part most people have a problem with, the psychedelic scenes where David Bowman approaches the monolith in Jupiter orbit in his pod and travel through… something with a lot of colors and shapes. Bowman ends up in a white room where he gets old and then, with the help of the monolith becomes a fetus traveling to Earth and some more very loud Also Sprach Zarathustra.

It is obvious that this movie should be watched for its themes rather than narration as mentioned above. There are many, very clever interpretations of what this all means, though my own tends toward the more simplistic but not less grand. It sets humanity into a grander scale as something bigger. That there is something, an alien force, guiding us and that humanity in on the road to something, while machines is a blind alley, a detour that is a threat to us. I am not a religious person, but I bet the religiously minded would get a lot out of that. Is the transcendence divine or alien? Benign or hostile? Inevitable or through achievement?

I am not the right to tell. What I do know is that I thoroughly enjoyed just sitting back and watch the slow-moving scenery in space. No rush, just a state of mind.

And yeah, I did try to stand in that primate scene in the desert, throwing a bone at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in Berlin in 2005. Awesome.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Shame (Skammen) (1968)

Watching Ingmar Bergman’s “Skammen” (Shame) was a weird experience. Not because of surreal symbolism like in “Persona”, but because I watched people in Sweden exposed to war. Now, that may sound odd, but war is something I always associated with, you know, war zones. Second World War sites, Vietnam, the Middle East or more recently Syria or the former Yugoslavia. Sweden is like the entire opposite. I think the last war they have experienced must have been one of our failed invasions in the eighteenth century. Watching Swedish soldiers battling it out on Swedish soil with civilians subjected to all the terrors of war was downright surreal.

Except, all those scenes are so very familiar from many other parts of the world and seeing it happen in Sweden just reminds us that it could happen anywhere.

The point of view here is from a young couple, Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max von Sydow), who lives secluded on a island, almost oblivious to a war that is raging. While not exactly bliss, their life is quiet and simple, and they talk of getting children. Sure, they are no longer musicians in an orchestra, but they get by and they have each other. Then as the war truly arrives to their little world everything is tossed upside down. In that process they are compelled to do despicable things and the change makes them self-loathing and angry and they come to despise each other.

It is this personal development that is at the heart of the movie, while the war itself is a strange, undefined monster that is simply there. We never know what anybody are fighting for, but that they do, and that fighting brings up the worst in people. With guns you become powerful and in the war context you can abuse that power freely and with the erosion of the moral foundation this power is more and more freely abused to the detriment of the human soul.

Eva and Jan experience getting abused for propaganda, to be arrested and interrogated. They have to suck up to those in power to give them what they want so they can survive, and they get their home destroyed by people looking for plunder. Jan degrades to the level where he kills for a pair of boots and Eva prostitutes herself to those with power.

The final scenes where they are refugees, drifting helplessly in a boat in open water ties up to our current reality, and symbolizes how alone and ruined they have become.

I consider this one of the better of Bergman’s movies, mostly because it is easier to decode than most and successfully brings home the points it wants to make, but also because it is a more difficult movie to make. A typical Bergman movie will place a handful of people in a room to act it out. Here there was an elaborate setting that played along. We did not in any way lose the personal and existential aspect, but the external played a part too. It is also successful in that it is truly disturbing to watch, even downright depressive. Nothing good comes out of war, not for the people inflicted by it and Bergman’s story does not pretend anything else. Watching people’s humanity get eroded and eventually stripped from them is not amusing, but it does not change that this is a good movie that works very well at what it is trying to say.

I would definitely recommend this movie, especially to those not used to Bergman’s movies, but it is not for a Sunday afternoon with the children.