The Amityville Horror (1979)
★ / ★★★★
A twenty-year-old murdered his entire family and left the cops bewildered due to his lack of motive. Only a year later, George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) decided to buy the house where the gruesome murders occurred. Kathy had three kids from a previous beau but George didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he loved the kids as if they were his own. But there was something strange about the house. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) and Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey) felt a malevolent presence once they stepped inside. They heard voices that threatened and ordered them to get out. Inspired by a true story and based on Jay Anson’s book, “The Amityville Horror” was a whole lot of noise but it wasn’t particularly scary. At its best, it was creepy with the flies, obviously signifying death, that appeared only in one special room, the creaking floorboards when someone was alone in the house, and the dog desperately trying to dig up something from the basement. I took on a certain passivity as George’s hair began to grow longer. Over time, their neighbors claimed that he started to look like the boy who killed his parents and siblings. Notice I mentioned “passive.” George’s descent into madness lacked dimension. While he did look meaner and he became prone to snide remarks, his demeanor wasn’t that much different from a very stressed out person. Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ intent. However, I had serious doubts that it wanted to take the subtle path because, especially toward the end of the film, it became generous in terms of its special effects like blood seeping out of the walls and the rise of something buried in the basement. And, of course, the final confrontation had to happen in a dark, stormy night. The picture would have been stronger if it had rooted its horrific elements in little accidents. For instance, one of the son’s hand being stuck in a window that wouldn’t budge or the babysitter who got trapped in a closet as George and Kathy attended a wedding. When we were left in the house with just our imagination, it was scary and somewhat realistic. After all, a rocking chair that seemed to move by itself was probably just triggered by the wind or a natural tremor from the old house. Another weakness I noticed about the film was it had too many scenes that didn’t have anything to do with the family. When the camera was not in or around the house, the tension subsided because it felt less personal. Instead of a gradual increase in rising action, there were noticeable dips that borderline somnolence. “The Amityville Horror,” directed by Stuart Rosenberg was not as chilling as it should have been. To most audiences, it may seem old-fashioned or tame because it didn’t show us much for the majority of its two-hour running time. I believe it shouldn’t have shown us anything at all. It would have been an entirely different experience if it had challenged us to use our preconceived notions of haunted houses.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) decided to move into a New York City apartment with a strange past involving women who ate children. Rosemary was enamored with the decor and Guy thought the area was a premiere place for his career as a budding actor. They lived next to Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), an elderly couple with whom Rosemary and Guy quickly grew fond of because they were so friendly and accommodating. But the couple’s happy existence was shattered when Rosemary had a dream of being raped by Satan and learned some time later that she was pregnant. Based on a novel by Ira Levin and directed by Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a masterful understated horror film with a possibility of witchcraft at its center. It worked in two ways: Either Rosemary’s suspicion that the apartment complex was full of devil worshippers was indeed correct or it was simply that Rosemary didn’t know how to handle her pregnancy (after all, it was her first child) so her mind succumbed to paranoia over a period of nine months. Its brilliance was in the fact that we didn’t know which possibility was true until the final few scenes. When we finally found out, it almost didn’t matter because Rosemary’s journey felt complete. The picture capitalized on expertly rendered scenes of increasing creepiness. It ranged from Rosemary hearing weird chanting from behind the walls of their bedroom, her husband’s increasingly suspicious behavior, to our protagonist actually eating raw meat without her conscious mind’s control. I loved the scenes when the very pregnant Rosemary ran around New York City in broad daylight yet so much tension and horror surrounded her. With most horror pictures being set at night, especially their climax, Polanski proved that being surrounded by people in the middle of the day could be as terrifying as long as the elements were perfectly aligned. When the main character was in a phone booth waiting for an important call, we felt right there with her, wishing the phone would ring as soon as possible. We cared for the main character because Farrow instilled a certain fragility in Rosemary, not just because she was carrying a child, but because it felt like everyone wanted to control her. This was clearly shown when Minnie would imposingly wait for Rosemary to drink a special brew she made using plants from her herbal garden. We felt, like Rosemary, that there was something seriously wrong especially when the obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), wouldn’t prescribe her any pills after months of feeling pain in her stomach. “Rosemary’s Baby” is a thinking person’s horror film and the rewards are found in the way we interpret the images we see and sounds we hear. Imagine looking at the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. You stare long enough and you get the unsettling feeling she might be staring back.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Jaws,” based on a novel by Peter Benchley, started off like a romance picture with two teenagers eyeing each other by a bonfire and their eventual decision to swim in the ocean. The boy, drunk, never made it in the water and the girl never made it out because a shark had taken ahold of her lower limbs. We observed her being dragged across the water like a ragdoll as her high-pitched screams turned into deafening silence. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” was a success because the horrific images we saw matched the horror of images we did not see. Sometimes we relied on the characters’ expressions and the words they used to describe what they saw. It was the Fourth of July and Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) was asked to look into the dead body. His instinct told him it was a shark attack but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) was convinced it was just a boating accident. The mayor wanted to protect Amity Island because its economy relied on summer vacationers. The cop was more concerned about people being shark bait. Spielberg was careful with revealing too much early on. For instance, when the girl’s mangled body was washed along the shore, we could only see her hand surrounded by small crabs and the rest were covered in sand. A less controlled film would have showed blood and intestines all over the place. We didn’t lay eyes on the shark until an hour into the film. It gathered tension by allowing us to imagine how big the shark was especially since it could easily take down jetties and small boats. After a few more victims, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) was called to help with the investigation. He clashed with Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a local fisherman who agreed to catch or kill the shark for the right price, in terms of how to deal with the situation. Quint didn’t like what to be told especially by someone who was educated. He saw it as a sign of condescension. Their interactions were often amusing which served as a nice contrast with the horror surrounding them. The humor found a way to sneak up from behind us and just when we thought it was safe, the shark appeared and we were back to being wide-eyed and gripping onto whatever was near. I admired the progression in the shark attacks. In the beginning, we couldn’t see the shark at all. Toward the end, our characters were literally inches away from it and, with John Williams’ memorable score, we could see its gargantuan stature and the power it generated in such close proximity. If I were to make a list of must-see summer movies, “Jaws” would be on top. I was impressed not only because of the horror, but because it captured how it was like to relax at the beach. It got the small details right like the sounds of the wind blowing in our direction, the screams of joy when children played, and the way the sounds were muffled when we dunked our heads underwater. I love being in the ocean but one of my biggest fears, reiterated every time I see this film, is opening my eyes in the water and there happened to be a hungry shark coming my way.
Paths of Glory (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In World War I, a French general (Adolphe Menjou) ordered his men to make their way through German fires and seize the Ant Hill from the enemy. General Broulard thought such an action would be the key to victory and his glory. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) rebelled against the idea because he knew it would be a suicide mission, but since he was lower in the ranks, he had no choice but to lead his men in the attempt. In the thick of battle, some of the troops refused to leave their trenches and in doing so resulted to the failure in capturing the coveted Ant Hill. General Broulard, in blind fury, decided to make an example of the troops, a lesson in the repercussion of cowardice, by selecting three random men (Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Richard Anderson) to be assassinated through a firing squad. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” surprised me in many ways. It was a moving story because it dealt with humanity’s place in the chaos of war and the powers that controlled or motivated them. There was a divide between the good and the bad. The good were the troops miserably placed in those trenches as they endured the flying bullets and the explosions of the grenades. They saw their friends meet their demise in one incorrect move or a major miscalculation by their officers. The officers were the bad. They enjoyed parties, dancing, and eating succulent meals in elegantly decorated rooms. They discussed about their triumphs in the battlefield despite the fact that they observed from a distance. When they did visit the trenches, they exuded an air of confidence; when a soldier expressed his fear about the war, he deserved to be slapped around like a child or an animal. Kubrick knew the importance of images and he used such contrasting elements to make a powerful anti-war statement. As we plunged into the battlefield, all we could distinctly hear were the firing of the guns, men’s bodies hitting the ground, and yells to improve morale or perhaps to mask their fear of death. The extended scene in which the troops made their way toward enemy lines was especially memorable. The director framed the scene in such a way that it felt like we were there with the dispensable men. One way I could describe it was like being stuck in the middle of two big waves in the ocean. There was anticipation mixed with a sense of panic and dread amidst the heavy confusion. I would most likely have stayed in the trenches as well if I was one of those soldiers. The last scene with the German woman singing and the soldiers joined in was a very touching moment and it was a perfect way to end an ultimately tragic reflected reality. “Paths of Glory” is a great example of how powerful war pictures can be. Indeed, a great leader is defined by the way he treats his inferiors, not his equals.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” followed psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) to a space station orbiting a planet that had the strange ability to create bodies of human beings based on one’s memories while sleeping. I saw Steven Soderbergh’s film prior but there were very few similarities between the two. While both were purposely slow in pace, the classic “Solaris” was more concerned about specific details that aim to creep out its audiences. Despite its close to three hours running time, I was consistently fascinated with what was happening because of the images it had to offer. The first kind of image was what the audiences saw on screen. There was something genuinely unsettling about the planet’s human version of us. In this case, Kris’ wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who passed away years prior, was extracted from Kris’ memory more than once. Although she initially did not have any memory of who she was (she didn’t even know what she looked like until she looked in the mirror), she was a learning being, eventually able to mimic certain behaviors like sleeping or feeling guilt. She tried to be human but she simply wasn’t. She was eventually able to copy very human characteristics like selflessness but does that make her human? I noticed that even though the planet had the ability to replicate images from the mind, it managed to create incorrect details like a dress not having a zipper or a lake’s water not moving at all. The second kind image was in the stories the characters told. In the beginning of the film, a pilot described his experiences while exploring the planet. The way he talked about the evolution of the planet’s water and his eventual encounter with a giant baby was frightenening. His words were so alive, I felt like I was there with him. Directed by Andrey Tarkovskiy, “Solaris” successfully tackled questions about humanity through encounters that defied the norm. The filmmakers had a great challenge because they had to keep the material creative while not simply giving easy answers. In the end, I still had questions such as the filmmakers’ use of black and white in some scenes, their purposeful way of defying the laws of physics in specific scenes when we knew what was happening was occuring in reality and not in the mind, and the fates of the crew like amicable Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and practical Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). Despite my unanswered questions, I could not help but respect the film because it, too, treated me with respect. I watched it with a careful eye and it rewarded me with possibilities. Who’s to say that a planet like Solaris isn’t out there in the universe just waiting to be discovered?
Annie Hall (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Annie Hall,” written, directed and starring Woody Allen, is considered one of the best romantic comedies in film history even though the couple did not end up together in the end. Alvy (Allen) wanted to determine what went wrong in his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) so we were taken back in time and given the chance to observe the major and minor events in their journey. The film was undoubtedly quirky but its intelligence and insight about how it was like to be in a relationship was what took this film from greatness to being a pop icon classic. My favorite scenes were when Allen decided to use elements that could have disrupted the narrative. For instance, I had loads of fun with the split-screen when the director wanted to compare Annie’s WASP family to Alvy’s Jewish family during a meal. The former was reserved, everyone masticated with their mouths closed, and had perfect posture at the table. On the other hand, the latter, like my family, consisted of many overlapping voices, gossip became a source of entertainment, and all sorts of etiquette was thrown out the window. Allen’s willingness to take risks showed me that he was confident about his project and that’s a key ingredient to make a successful picture. I also admired the film’s many references to pop culture and literature and the energy that drove them forward. I did not live in the 70s nor do I read a lot of classic novels. I did understand more than half the jokes but when I did not, I did not feel dumb or left out. That was when the energy became essential because there were about ten jokes in under a minute so I didn’t have a chance to linger on the fact that I did not “get” something. Furthermore, I loved that the director injected various types of comedy in the material. Some of the comedy were slapstick (the lobster scene), anecdotes (when Alvy vividly described his childhood experiences), blunders (a Freudian slip by Annie), and even some repartee between the two leads in the bedroom and the issue of sex and gender roles were put under the spotlight. Alvy and Annie could have easily been caricatures in less capable direction. Instead, the protagonists had great depth. They surprised us because of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and actions, they kept us watching because they spoke of and did things we, one way or another, had thought of and done, and they moved us because it was like watching two good friends deciding to go their separate ways. Clever in its approach in which irony penetrated every scene, “Annie Hall” was not simply as ode to romance but also an absolute love for creative and inspired filmmaking.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.