Monday, May 2, 2011

More Great Performances

Before we begin, I have to report on a disturbing story I saw online this morning. The mummified remains of Yvette Vickers (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches) were discovered by police in her Los Angeles home last week after a neighbor reported seeing cobwebs in her mailbox. It's estimated that the body was laying undisturbed for anywhere from many months up to a year. Jesus! Cobwebs in the mailbox? Broken windows and piles of trash? And no one thought to look in on her?

So sad. She was 82 years old.

Now on with the show. It's been over a year since our first installment of Great Performances, so let's now take a look at some more actors who made an indelible impression in a particular horror/weird movie role.

1. Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker has worked steadily since his debut in this landmark 1986 chiller (including "The Walking Dead"), whose director, John McNaughton, hasn't really delivered on the promise he showed in this film. It's made on an extremely low budget, but that only adds to the disturbing realism McNaughton managed to attain.

Based on the real-life story of grotesque serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, this is an uncompromising look at a drifter/murderer (Rooker) who can barely summon human emotions when interacting with others and even seems bored with the whole killing game. The film opens with a series of clinical—yet horrifying—shots of his victims, photographed in such a way as to make the viewer feel what he feels...numbed weariness with an undercurrent of unspecified rage.

It's only when he meets Otis (Tom Towles) and his sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), that a feeble spark of life seems to rekindle inside him. Becky is so desperate to have a relationship that she immediately sets her sights on Henry. In Otis he can sense a kindred spirit, and soon he's tutoring him in the ways of murder.

The key to the film's effectiveness is Rooker's performance. He's stoic, but he's by no means a brick wall. Rooker gives us glimpses of the madness inside Henry, and his remorseless momentum as a killing machine is perfectly realized. He just exudes danger. The supremely nihilistic conclusion, which I won't reveal here, can't be bettered. According to IMDB, Rooker stayed in character for the entirety of the shoot and was the only cast member to have his own dressing room, reinforcing the sense of isolation he needed to portray Henry. It certainly worked!

2. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now. Christie, wasted in the execrable Red Riding Hood, was given a property far more deserving of her talent in Nicolas Roeg's 1973 mindf**k Don't Look Now, a Venice-set thriller that's equal parts Hitchcock and Argento, and a prime example of high art as entertainment. Christie and Sutherland star as Laura and John Baxter, a married couple mourning the recent accidental drowning of their daughter.

John works as an art restorer, and he is hired to renovate a decaying church in Venice. Laura joins him on the trip in an attempt to get over their loss. She is still very depressed, but when they meet a strange pair of sisters (Hilary Dwyer and Clelia Mantania), one of whom is blind but possessed of psychic abilities, she draws comfort from that sister's claim that she can "see" their daughter, laughing and happy, in the afterlife. John shrugs it off as nonsense even as he's having visions of his own. And when the sister claims that John is in danger himself, he really goes into denial, leading to tragedy.

The film is magnificent. Roeg, who began as a cinematographer, brings indelible imagery to the Chinese Box plot. Christie and Sutherland, for their part, bring naturalism to their roles. There's a lovemaking scene early in the film (controversial for the time) that alternates between the act itself and their fond recollections later as they dress for dinner. The sex is amusingly athletic and authentic at the same time. It's a memorably voyeuristic experience.

Their character arcs are terrific, too. Christie is the grieving mother who seems to be increasingly unglued as she becomes dependent on a strange woman for reassurance while John, determined to get their lives back on track, ignores his own tormenting visions. Meanwhile you, as the viewer, don't know what to believe. Check out the trailer:

3. Arnold Schwarzenegger in... (just kidding).

3. Christina Ricci in Addams Family Values (1993). Ricci has proven to be a fearless actor, appearing as Charlize Theron's lover in Monster and the white trash homewrecker in The Opposite of Sex, but one could see her unusual talent on display in The Addams Family (1991) and especially Addams Family Values (1993), made when she was twelve years old.

The first film, scripted by Tim Burton favorite Caroline Thompson, was too restrained for my taste, but the sequel, written by Paul Rudnick, really pushes the envelope, delivering a banquet of campy requotable lines, many of which were delivered by Ricci, whose Wednesday is hilariously grim. When she and Pugsley are sent to the horrible summer camp for privileged children and meet the obnoxiously perfect Amanda (Mercedes McNab), Amanda asks, "Why are you dressed like you're going to a funeral? Why do you look like somebody died?", Wednesday quietly responds, "Wait."

She even gets a taste of summer love with the terminally allergic Joel Glicker (David Krumholz) who tells her about all the ways he could easily die, which turns her on. And when he says, "I'll never forget you," she asks hopefully, "You won't?", to which he responds, "You're too weird."

The penultimate scene arrives when the horribly peppy counselors (Christine Baranski and Peter MacNicol) demand that Wednesday "fit in" with the rest of the children, and she attempts a smile that proves so horrifying that everyone recoils in horror. Just wonderful. Next time you watch it, look fast and you'll see an amazing array of cameos, including Nathan Lane, Charles Busch, David Hyde Pierce and Tony Shalhoub.


Anonymous said...

Your Great Performances are such a wonderful reminder of films to revisit. Do more of these. Insults directed at Arnold are always welcome, too!

Tony Heywood said...

Don't look now is an amazing film. It kept me on my toes when I visited Venice!

Wooden Shutters

The Goose said...

Tony, I hope you steered clear of those narrow passageways!


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