I respect the hell out of Ben Wheatley for his drive to make new film. A good 90% of what he’s done, for better or worse, is actual original cinema — not an adaptation of a beloved novel, not a bastardization of a classic film, not a superhero flick that takes bits and pieces from comic books and cobbles them together into a weak installment of some neverending box-office-driven franchise. A Field in England and Sightseers are sort of the pinnacle of this criteria for Wheatley, with Field as a particular achievement — weird as hell, quite unlike anything you’ve seen to date, but importantly a cohesive experience that you can mine for deeper meaning and rewatch ad nauseam without feeling like you’ve exhausted it. Field does more with five or six actors and a muddy pasture than most movies do with $250 million, and so the prospect of Wheatley returning to ragtag roots with his latest film In the Earth was a promising one.
This is largely due to his most recent efforts: a workmanlike remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca this past year, in which Armie Hammer wore the same yellow suit in like nine different scenes; High-Rise in 2016, an ultimately joyless adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel; and Free Fire, an original movie which zips along on first watch and positively drags on subsequent viewings. If each of these films was successively bigger — in budget terms, but also in scope — they also felt less and less like the scrappy Wheatley who made A Field in England in 12 days on just £300,000.
As is the case with the work of many a cinematic genius, the filmography of Orson Welles is especially revealing when considered as a whole. Hits, flops, stretches of obsession, gaps of inactivity, passion projects and moneygrabs — in some ways this kind of retrospective review can tell us more about the filmmaker than the films themselves. It’s the “God’s-eye view,” to steal the name of an aerial shot favored by Welles, and it serves to highlight the ideas that the writer/director would experiment with, return to, or transform entirely in successive efforts. The other edge of the sword, of course, is that each individual film inexorably loses something when viewed alongside a slew of cinema which may otherwise share little by way of plot, theme, style or cultural impact.
The best case-in-point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 Nazi-hunting thriller. It was either his third or fourth feature outing, depending on whether you account for one technicality. His first two were Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, utilizing a special technique called setting the bar high. But studio meddling with Ambersons soured Welles on Hollywood, and so his work on 1943’s Journey Into Fear is that aforementioned technicality. Tied up in a tussle over the final cut of Ambersons, Welles received no directing, producing or screenwriting credits in Journey, only appearing in a minor acting role as a Turkish inspector. In actuality Welles directed and wrote portions (at least) of Journey, and the theatrical poster seemingly has no issue declaring this as “ORSON WELLES’ Production…Starring ORSON WELLES.” Coincidentally or not, Journey Into Fear is a fairly feeble thriller that barely justifies a brief hourlong runtime.
Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to the optical point-of-view shot, inserting a camera into the heads of his characters in nearly every film throughout his career. The Master of Suspense knew that this shortcut to conveying a character’s experience could be a powerful tool if used artfully. In Vertigo, this artfulness resulted in one of the greatest POV shots of all time, the discombobulating push-in-zoom-out (technically a “dolly zoom”) that simultaneously suggests our hero’s unbalanced frame of mind. More importantly, Hitchcock routinely tied these POV shot choices to significant narrative moments. In Vertigo this served to heighten the most intense action scenes by placing us directly in the action; elsewhere, the POV shot served to convey vital information, revelations, twists and — you guessed it! — suspense:
With Rear Window, Hitchcock structured an entire film around this single technique. It may not register on first viewing just how much of the movie is comprised of true POV shots, mostly because there’s a consistent pseudo-POV gaze out of Jeffries’ (Jimmy Stewart) apartment toward those of his neighbors. Insofar as such a thing can (or even should) have one unwavering, concrete definition, this analysis will define a “POV shot” as one that is truly mirroring the vantage of the character. There are a number of sweeping pans during Rear Window in which we see much the same thing Jeff is seeing, but many of these end up incorporating Jeff into the shot and are therefore technically objective, “false” POV shots.
What’s your favorite shot from Goodfellas? I know, I know. It’s like asking which of your children you love the most. The sheer rewatchability of the seminal mafia film is largely due to the intimate composition of each shot, the flow of one into the next, the exhilarating pace of it all. Goodfellas arguably has more flashy camerawork than any other Martin Scorsese film, but it never feels out of place or discordant with the story. It helped that the Director of Photography was the legendary Michael Ballhaus, a cinematographer who worked frequently with Scorsese. In fact, it helped that pretty much everyone on the production was at the top of their game.
So the time has come: the pick of the litter, the crème de la crème, the nonpareil of Goodfellas shots. There’s the slow-mo Tommy Gun shot, the red-lit trunk shot, the explosion as Young Henry dashes into the foreground. There’s The One Where Samuel L. Jackson’s Stacks Gets Shot Out of Nowhere. Guns are pointed directly at the camera twice, and either time could qualify for short odds in this cinematography round robin.
There’s the Vertigo shot, one of the more drawn-out examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous camera trick:
Halloween might be the most imitated, riffed-upon, winked-at American horror film in history. To say nothing of multiple novels and comic book series starring the serial killer Michael Myers, the film franchise itself now stands at ten installments, of which — you guessed it! — nine are pretty much crap. Judging by the box office landscape of the next few years, it won’t be long before Halloween 11: We Can Out-Sequel Saw hits a theater near you. But outside of the canon there are hundreds of Halloweens, from subtle copies to straight-up rip-offs, especially with the original being the film that most credit as the start of the slasher genre (“what about Hitchcock?!”).
One case-in-point is It Follows, one of the most recent nods to John Carpenter’s first true horror flick (although we sought out the elements of horror in his feature debut Assault on Precinct 13). The similarities are numerous and unmistakable, from the suburban setting to the shot of the classroom to the sense that this thing is stalking only the protagonist with everyone else standing in as collateral damage. That Michael Myers is a thing or an it — certainly not a him — is made clear by his psychiatrist Sam Loomis, and the idea of the human form as a vessel for something more sinister is also at the heart of It Follows. The music by Disasterpeace, too, is just one more obvious piece of evidence of the influence of Halloween in movies like It Follows; go listen to “Playpen” and try not to picture a flickering jack-o’-lantern against a black backdrop.
There’s a building on a quiet alley in a rundown part of the city that’s almost abandoned, draped in shadow and disrepair. Inside the building is a collection of individuals from vastly different walks of life. There is a supervising lieutenant freshly assigned to the job. There is a grief-stricken father in the throes of shock after discovering his murdered daughter. There are two dainty secretaries wearing sweaters (one orange, one yellow). There are three hardened criminals, one of whom is sick with a possible virus. Each of the people inside the building is an individual with an individual story. Outside is different. Outside is a creeping evil, a legion of hunters that is nonetheless a single faceless and motiveless mass, no individual stories to be found. The hunt is all.
…sounds like a horror movie, right? Like the kind John Carpenter might make? Even beyond Carpenter, this is not at all an unfamiliar formula for fright-fests — strangers unite against mysterious evil — serving as the entire premise of movies like Cube and Saw. The idea that something lurking out there will inevitably attack each stranger regardless of their differences is an inherently scary notion. And even though Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t necessarily a horror movie, it’s at its most effective when it operates like one.
Now that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, a.k.a. the “Defining Moment” of the Lord of the Rings saga, is nearly upon us, it’s time to acknowledge that this series has been the longest con in cinema history. Peter Jackson has pulled the wool over our eyes, and it’s about time someone blew the whistle. He’s not the David Lean of fantasy he’s made us all believe him to be. No, Peter Jackson, ladies and gentlemen, is the sick freak behind slapstick zombie horror Braindead.
Dead Alive, as it’s known (or not known) in the States, isn’t even his most deranged work–just wait till you see Meet the Feebles. But it does have the infamous reputation of being the most violent movie ever made. Obviously, Jackson had greedily set out to make a name for himself right from the beginning, though it wasn’t “Lord CG-Crowds” or “Sir Most-Number-of-Endings-Crammed-Into-One-Film” just yet. The fact is, before cannibalizing Lean, Jackson had latched onto the coattails of the Masters of Horror.