Oculus (2013) – Peeping into Antiquity

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Oculus stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as Kaylie Russell and Tim Russell in a supernatural, psychological horror story that’s as much psychological as it’s supernatural. The movie covers two stages – when they’re 23 and 21, the present (2013), and when they’re 12 and 10, the past (2002).

As we’d realize later, a 10-year Tim is taken under custody for patricide. Just before that, however, he and Kaylie promise to destroy the artifact that they believe is the precursor to all these occurrences. When Tim returns home after 11 years, Kaylie and Tim give it one last try – to destroy the antic mirror that their father bought in an auction. The mirror, for them, is the cause behind countless homicides. Their family only plays a small part in the mayhem initiated by the possessed mirror. Their pact? To finish it off.

In Latin, oculus means eyes. In the movie, the people lured into demonic acts by the timeworn mirror find their eyes transformed into mirrors. It could symbolize that the mirror forces these people to divert their reflections and only realize the vision of the mirror itself, or quite simply – we could infer that our eyes mirror what we see, subjective reality, and we act based on those subjective instincts, for good or bad.

Mike Flanagan sits on the director’s chair again after Absentia (2011), yet, he’s mostly known for directing the well-received student movie, Ghosts of Hamilton Street (2003). In Oculus, Flanagan opts for a non-linear approach. Intercutting between two different time spans within the same house, we see a repeat of the tragedy that panned out 11 years ago in Kaylie and Tim’s quest to destroy the mirror and salvage the souls entrapped in it. As the movie progresses, the adults take precedence to the children forming a compelling revelation of ghostly destruction.

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Although the movie isn’t long, it does take a while to build the anticipation. The initial 45 minutes revolve around Kaylie reminding Tim of their childhood. These adults relive what happened 11 years ago and prepare themselves for what could happen today, 11 years later. Yet, tackling the mirror is tricky. The mirror has a shady, dangerous history and it works categorically by distorting their perception, destroying their rationality, and injecting an overriding sense of hopelessness in them.

Flanagan doesn’t go the traditional route with scares as much as he goes for atmospheric creepiness. With the mirror slowly possessing Marie and Alan, parents of Kaylie and Tim, (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), it coaxes them into becoming one with it – overruling them with a Them vs. the World mentality. Pointing to decay as its theme, the mirror first clasps its victims by decoying their inner desires, if it’s by seducing them, torturing them, or poisoning their minds, and after it gets hold of them – it unleashes the monster it has created to ensue destruction.

The story of Oculus isn’t as interesting as much as the presentation of a relatively overdone concept: possession. Fans of horrors may like it, or shun it, but it’s still interesting and didn’t turn me off. The movie is more discreet than outright scary. The scares are well timed and it tries to blend a movie like The Shining (1980), for example, and an outright slasher like Nightmare at Elm’s Street (1984) maintaining a dwindling mood throughout.

The pseudo-investigation that Kaylie and Tim carry out of the mystery is the best part of the movie. It keeps you guessing and doesn’t distract you. As Kaylie and Tim continue to dig deep, within themselves and of the peculiar manifestations, revisiting their escapades as children, the movie treads deeper into dread, which is quite interesting to watch.

For a standard medium-budget horror movie, Flanagan does a good job of trying to walk on a thin rope of tradition and not falling prey to its oddities. The elements are present, of course, with the script timed well into convention, and the plot points being similar to horrors of the past, yet the treatment makes the difference.

Oculus has decent performances by the cast. Karen Gillan is adept as Kaylie and her authority remains on show throughout the movie. She’s pretty to boot if off, and through her we actually get a character that is able to command and lure whenever she deems fit. The rest have done okay, even though they’re not as commanding as Karen is.

Oculus also looks good visually. It’s something you’d expect from traditional horror movies set inside modern Victorian-styled houses. The way makers play with hallucination, illusion, and reality is also worth noting, even though the ending is predictable and is subject to the conventional trap of horrors. It does leave the space open for sequels, but with that intention to boot, it’s quite difficult to appreciate the movie. Flanagan seems to have one eye on the future. That makes sense economically, but it gave the movie a defunct ending. Audiences would feel underwhelmed by the anti-climax and that drags the movie down. It did for me.

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Oculus had a high ceiling. It doesn’t quite get close to touching it, but it’s a decent watch. I doubt non-horror fans would appreciate it, or even majority of horror fanatics—a shame because the movie had so much potential.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) – It’s a Beautiful Day

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An existentialist road movie from the master of crime does sound strange. But when it’s from a visionary, it tends to work out as Alice would substantiate. Sandwiched between Mean Streets (1973) and the cult Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese tried his hands on a low-budget feminist drama about life by peeking through the journey of a single-mother, her displaced son, and their adventures trying to earn a living and a slice of fame through austerity and honesty.

After her alcoholic husband (Billy Bush) passes away one mournful morning, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) has no support system. She has nowhere to go, nothing to do. A generic homemaker, Alice has spent most of her life under guidance of her parents and later her husband. Her only skill, per se, is music. But she has to cope with a new life, especially with her nagging pre-teen son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), her sole responsibility.

Alice decides to sell whatever’s left, keep the tidbits, and leave Socorro for Monterey to revive her singing career and presumably become the new Alice Fay. Yet, money doesn’t compromise and they’re forced to lodge in Phoenix. There she applies for jobs that require singing. For her, applying means knocking door-to-door offering her musical talent, but luck’s a hard bird to catch. With proper marketing, she does catch it, only for it to crumble down after her brief association with the suave, yet abusive husband of her next-door neighbor.

The mother and son flee again. This time, they reach Tucson. Lady luck strikes, Alice gets a job as a server at a fast food. It rolls smoothly there. She comes across peculiar characters, but hey–she’s working, she’s earning, and she has a wonderful son. Time rolls on for Alice until David (Kris Kristofferson) comes by. They fall in love, yadda, yadda. Again, Alice being the naïve country girl, she stumbles upon another setback, with her lover here. This time though, she doesn’t elope, but holds firm and continues her work.

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Alice is a bittersweet tale about the journey of a woman in an age when feminism was sharply rising. Scorsese picks an unassuming, simple woman to tell a story of a single-mother striving to survive, in a largely patriarchal society, with her son stuck within the four corners of a house. Perhaps, Scorsese added something of his own to the character of Tommy. By his own admission, Scorsese was an indoor child during his early days and spent much time watching TV and subconsciously learning the craft of filmmaking. There are good similarities between Martin Scorsese’s childhood and the childhood of Tommy, except he doesn’t live in nearby gangster town filled with mafias and wise guys. But, there are similarities…

Through this drama though, Scorsese previews the aftermath of tragedy for a housewife—who had no career of her own, not much in the name of property, and was all alone, with a young son, in a distant society. The story of Alice is about coping up and trying to create a niche for oneself. Alice and Tommy travel from here to there in search for a dignified life amidst strangers and demons. The purpose for Alice is to find work that would enable her and the son to live cozily, and would help her realize her childhood dream. In this small quest for dignity, they come across different people in different settings. Yet, they strive on together as candid buddies amid some amusing circumstances.

At the end, people do need support systems. All Alice is doing is seeking one—for her and for her son. And, Scorsese shows this with unwavering simplicity, a country charm, and unfiltered nobility. Alice doesn’t Live here Anymore is arguably the most underrated film from Scorsese, and throws a revealing reflection of what’s in store from the maverick filmmaker. It’s all easy to say that now 30 years after Alice, but for a select few, Roger Ebert comes to mind, they’d seen the legend of Scorsese before even Scorsese envisioned his role as an unparalleled storyteller.

Scorsese fans would no doubt love Alice for it’s unalike most Scorsese movies since then. It’s a refresher and I’d doubt many could guess that Alice came from Scorsese if they ignored the rolling titles, which serves Scorsese well. One of the criticisms against him have been lack of variety in his movies as opposed to Kubrick, Wilder, Spielberg, et al. Rather naïve to say that for people mistake his archetypical vision and stamp for lack of variety. He’s shown variety in plenty of movies, in diverse genres, Alice included.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a beauty. A gusty little story told with ease, the movie is warm, charming, and adorable just like the character of Alice. Ellen Burstyn carries the movie on her shoulders for which she deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress, even though she’s known more for another classic, The Exorcist (1973). Other actors are in fine form, especially Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed server, Flo.

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Alice comes across as a simple documentation of  life. For those who admire existentialist dramas, coming of age movies, or the lovely liberty of a second chance, or for film buffs, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a fine experience and a swift watch encompassing the spirit of life’s tangibility and exemplifying that if life throws lemons at you, just make lemonade. After all, you’re only as healthy as you feel, no?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – In Bedlam

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The trampled Lovecraft and his insane stories…

John Carpenter pays homage to HP Lovecraft and his extraterrestrial sagas with In the Mouth of Madness. The name itself is inspired from Lovecraft’s own, At the Mountain of Madness. It takes extra liberty from Lovecraft’s most popular story, The Call of Cthulhu and other similar stories. Consequently, In the Mouth of Madness contains elements typified by Lovecraft—insanity, unknowable powers, inconceivable horror, extraterrestrial powers enslaving humans, and of course—the dampening, sickening degeneration of people thanks to the unknown.

When filmmakers pay tribute to their favorite authors, especially in horrors, they walk on a thin rope. Roger Corman, with his favorite actor Vincent Price, did a fine job of respecting Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories and poems in the 60s. They’re generally popular as B-grade classics. Vincent Price (one of my personal favorites) always made these movies appear larger with his inimitable persona and a piercing voice. Roger Corman is a handy director too—not avant-garde, but he’s okay.

In cases when other filmmakers have adapted horror classics, there have been instances of inventiveness. The Innocents (Henry James, adapted by Clayton), The Haunting (Shirley Jackson, adapted by Wise), Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, adapted by Polanski), The Exorcist (William Blatty, adapted by Friedkin), The Shining (Stephen King, adapted by Kubrick), and of course Misery (Stephen King, adapted by Reiner) are some of the most brilliant examples of a movie propelling the book into folklore.

In the case of Madness, Carpenter, whilst being a phenomenal presenter of violence and destruction, just doesn’t seem to bring his A-game. You can’t doubt Carpenter for the brilliant visuals here, but the story itself is loopy, pretentious, and Lovecraft’s obscurity is misguided, even though authentic. Take even The Fly (both versions – Newmann and Cronenburg); both movies use the story by George Langelaan to present a discreet view of powers in imprudent hands. The unknowable matches well with the unknown, and such a combo terrorizes viewers. In terrorizing them, the makers are honest.

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The honesty is lacking from John Carpenter in the third installment of his Apocalypse Trilogy. The first two are The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). There’s a major point when the entire movie could have been thrown to water, if only the powers to-be acted in best interests of the society. If Sutter Cane’s (Jürgen Prochnow) book was notorious in driving his readers insane, why doesn’t anybody just ban the book, or abolish it? If that works against freedom of expression, well, we don’t have the right to drive people crazy thanks to freedom of expression.

Sure, if all of what John Trent (Sam Neill) experienced was sheer hallucination, which it was—the movie fails again in its ploy to pretend as a hopeful psychological thriller along the lines of The Innocents (1961, a bona-fide classic). With such an intriguing plot—books of a bestselling horror writer driving his readers crazy—Carpenter fails to hit the mark, big time. Poor writing and ineffective treatment would be the reasons. It could have been a masterpiece as a psychological thriller, or a surreal drama, yet the monstrous horror on screen allows few chills, but ultimately fails to invoke any sense of connection with the characters or the story.

Viewers will realize that sanity is fragile, and at any given moment, we could lose it. Sure, that’s a nice start, but what next? Carpenter sends us to the allegorical town of Hobb’s End just to manifest his brilliance as a master scarecrow—scaring us with disgusting beings (Lovecraftian elements) and presenting a redundant drama on the possibility of people ardently believing in the myths present in horror books.

Horror writers do have a knack of deluding themselves with what they write. Stephen Kind openly admitted how he had nearly lost himself while writing The Shining. Here, the writer Sutter Cane seems to lose his own grip of reality, but how is that supposed to make sense when the character he bases the book on, John Trent, himself is lost in a hallucinatory whirlpool?

We get it – they’re all insane and end up believing in what they read and write. Cane is taken over by the monsters he creates and Trent by the monsters he reads in those books. But it’s not just stimulating, let alone enjoying or thought provoking. When you look at Carpenter’s previous classics, especially Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), it’s amazing how he loses the plot here.

What makes this even worse is how Carpenter toys with themes of duality and phenomenology in his chaotic world. Trent experiences the world, as it is, through Cane’s books and by the end, he starts seeing the world that way. If there’s a positive in the underbelly of Madness, Carpenter highlights the line between reading a book (or, watching a movie) and being obsessed with it. And that’s the sad part because the premise is so damn good, the movie could have been foundational.

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In the Mouth for Madness can be scary at times. Carpenter masterfully creates an uneasy atmosphere and his control over the visual elements is excellent. Yet, that’s where it ends. With a weak script (written by Michael De Luca) and formulaic execution, Madness is just madness from Carpenter. It’s one of those movies that you either love or hate. I didn’t like it, but I know a handful that would, so all is not lost.

Madness is twisted and sickening and that’s about it to say. Maybe it doesn’t help that I don’t find the works of Lovecraft intriguing either, but hey – at least you could try.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – When the Phantom Meets Dorian Gray in a Faustian Affair

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The ever notorious Brian De Palma builds his gothic drama on the foundation of three classic novels—Gaston Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the German legend, Faust, popularized by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. As it goes, De Palma does the seemingly impossible by creating a perfect transmutation of three novels featuring the devil, the man who sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian trade-off, and the unlikely musical genius, the Phantom.

Despite borrowing the premises from these classics, De Palma manages to present a shrilling satire on the booming entertainment industry of the 70s—revealing the private lives and behaviors of music artists and recording studio executives. The overarching dominance of corporates over art serves as the central theme. That’s only the beginning though as Phantom of the Paradise treads over mayhem and chaos—disorganization and catastrophe.

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In this devilish drama, De Palma uses his archetypical violence in telling a story of a naïve music composer, Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), who is robbed and destroyed by the executive of Death Records, Swan (Paul Williams)—only to come back as the devil’s double. Jessica Harper stars as Phoenix, the unrequited lover of the Phantom, but De Palma doesn’t spare her either. Her life spirals down to chaos as her fame increases, as people go crazy over her sultry voice and girl-next-door avatar. Leave it to the Phantom to save her though. He secretly writes songs for her. She gives them life and that’s all the Phantom wants. Nevertheless, we have a villain in the perplexing Swan—who does things his way or the highway, and when the Devil himself faces off against the Devil’s Double, we’re in De Palma territory.

Phantom of the Paradise is content-driven and includes themes from the trio of novels, yet also manages to give a commentary on fandom, the entertainment business, monopoly of recording studios, degeneration of artists, frantic stampedes, and the manufacturing of music stars to meet the needs and demands of these studios. Musicians-cum-artists may create magic, but the magic is all in the hands of these moguls who retain it and reuse it as they deem fit, as it fits their agenda.

For a movie that says so much, Phantom of the Paradise is a breezy ride, which is nothing short of sensational considering the gravity of the themes De Palma explores and the novels he bases this fantastic story on. Paradise contains all of De Palma’s idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker. There’s love, sex, violence, treachery, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption—making this film a thesis on De Palma and his thrilling style.

Then, there’s overindulgence (Swan) and there’s under-indulgence (The Phantom). On one side, we have the power of control. On the other side, we have the virtue of a genius. In the middle is the struggling singer, Phoenix, in oblivion to all of this—trying to create a path to musical glory. Along the way, she loses track, but her omnipresent guardian angel is always there for her, looking out for her—trying to rescue her from the dirty business and attempting to introduce her to the sound of music.

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De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996) might be more popular than Paradise, but with no qualms, one can safely assert that Phantom of the Paradise is his seminal classic. It’s brutal, gory, and tragic, with some unforgettable scenes shown with a bittersweet touch. It tells a fascinating story of polarities, yet it’s very entertaining. In questioning the underbelly of the music business of the 70s, De Palma not only informs, he entertains. He makes this a joyous watch defying stereotypes. Considering that Paradise is a musical tragedy, the mere fact that it’s warm despite being cold, it’s fun whilst being sad makes this an exemplary piece of art.

What makes Paradise worth it is the fairytale-like presentation. De Palma executes this grave movie with light undertones and sets a fanatical mood. Whatever you see is light-hearted. The gory scenes are shot comically. They’re powerful, but filtered. The villain is what you’d expect from a Disney cartoon—smooth, yet with his own quirks. The Phantom, the unlikely hero, is like Popeye who’s a go-lucky guy that reaches another plane when he smells the air of music, when anybody questions is ingenuity, when people try to plagiarize his compositions, or when they set their evil eyes on his ladylove. His life and his music are only for the Phantom, and more importantly, Phoenix.

None of the actors in this movie really outgrew Paradise. William Finley stars with bravura and naivety as the unlikely Phantom. Jessica Harper steals the show. Three years later, she’d star in Dario Argento’s tour de force, Suspiria—one of the finest horrors ever made, but it’s sad to see that she never reached her true potential as an actor. Paul Williams, a real life musician, probably climbed his highest peak with Paradise. He’s brilliant as the suave, cunning, and quirky Swan—a role, it appears, designed for him.

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Complimented by terrific performances, a brilliant script, and De Palma’s unwavering artistry, Phantom of the Paradise is total non-stop action. Taking you to De Palma’s frenzied world, it clutches onto you and doesn’t let go. A fine addition to New Hollywood of the 70s, Paradise is a mixture of love and hatred forming an untouchable pact that carries the film’s legacy until today. The scar-faced Phantom in a match against the Devil, dressed to kill, all equipped to blow you out – a feat, mission impossible to topple.

Rear Window (1954) – Peeping Tom

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Rear Window looks into a close-knit neighborhood—diverse people engaged in personal endeavors, occupied by trifles, and immersed in living.

When ace photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is bound to the confines of a wheelchair after an accident, he has to ease into a temporary cast and remain indoors to heal and recuperate. In those long, boring days, he passes time by surveying the activities of his neighbors, observing their lives, and empathizing with their conditions. He’s the poster child of Peeping Tom and loves, notoriously, to peep into the lives of people irrelevant to his.

One night, deep awake, Jeff notices something bizarre from his window. A married man stuffs something in his briefcase and goes out of the house many-a-time. Next day, he finds the wife missing and suspecting this man for murder of his wife, James begins a couch-based investigation – using his binocular, long-focus lens, phone, camera, and his sophisticated girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played by the dignified Grace Kelly. But, James has a major problem: he doesn’t have rock solid proof against the man. His girlfriend and personal nurse (played by Thelma Ritter) do seem to buy his story. Is that enough though?

Based on a short story by Cornell WoolrichRear Window is a suspenseful crime drama. It’s cramped into the flat of Jeff, with the movie revolving around this bubbly community. A ballerina living opposite to Jeff, a musician to his right, a loony woman a floor below the mysterious couple and of course—the point of attention, the man accused of murdering his sickly wife, living beside the odd couple; these people have their own untold stories and a unique life – amusing and revealing for the temporarily invalid photojournalist.

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Viewers observe the life of a ballerina living in practice, indulging in food, and becoming a prey to man-hunters. The couple upstairs lead their own isolated life, but their tiny dog connects them to the rest of the society. In the same manner, the newly married neighborhood romantics enjoy and engage in amorous activities until they start growing sick of one another. The woman below, who’s lonely and oh so seeking a life partner, finds no respite, whereas the musician—sick and tired of solitude—seeks to find the perfect hymn to instill his life with melody. Not to ignore the couple that most intrigues Jeff, the sickly wife bed-ridden and the husband tired and exhausted, could he have been the one to eliminate this perceptual thorn from his life?

Rear Window opens up a world, a microcosmic reality within society, and tells of the different tales people would witness if only they observed. All you need is to peep around, listen not hear, watch not look, and contemplate not analyze on people’s lives around you to reach an enlightening climax and gain profundity on people and society.

Jeff evolves from the drifter he was initially to a responsible man with a sense of duty when the film climaxes. For Lisa, the elegant socialite, she stands very much different to Jeff’s rogue ways. Yet, love bonds them together – romance sparks a light above their heads. She evolves from the sophisticated Lisa Fermont to the adaptable woman who’d gain from the best experiences of both worlds.

Masked as a thriller, Rear Window is actually a satire, a social drama on the various elements of life. Only when we stand to observe can we really relive life and only when we’re held together by a cast in a predicament unchangeable—can we excel and evolve. It is the law of nature.

The movie is slow at times, but very profound. With minimalistic locations and a tight, claustrophobic charm, Real Window is a movie celebrating reflection. The movie came out 60 years ago; it’s amazing how it hasn’t aged a bit and stands the test of time, unlike many other Alfred Hitchcock classics. The storytelling is crisp, the performances natural, and the world as it is.

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One of Hitchcock’s great films, Rear Window is similar to Dial M for Murder that coincidentally came out later that year, but is shot with a different lens—told by a different narrator. It’s up there with Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960),and The Birds (1963), and has its own unique stamp as one of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers for Rear Window isn’t merely about a crime; it’s about crime and punishment, about actions and consequences, about cause and effects.

If you’re an admirer of Hitchcock’s vision, Rear Window is just what you need to peep into. It tells a lot about Hitchcock and through him—about those around us.

Dial M for Murder (1954) – Textbook Plan

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Based on a stage play, Dial M for Murder is like a play exclusively screened for the curtain. Much of the action revolves around the house of Mr. and Mrs. Wendice. The movie rarely treads out of the house amidst murder, deceit, and treachery—making excellent use of spatial elements. Frederick Knott penned the screenplay that is adapted from his own play.

When ex-tennis player Tony (Ray Milland) finds out about his wife’s affair with common friend, Mark Haliiday (Robert Cummings), he chalks up a petrifying plan to kill his wife and inherit her property. Blackmailing one of his old college friends (Anthony Dawson), Tony envisions a foolproof plan of getting rid of his wife, Margot (played by the classy Grace Kelly). But things do not go as planned for poor Tony after which he improvises another plan to eliminate his wife. In a moment of sheer epiphany, Tony uses the gnarls of law to send his wife into a sentence, thereby, inheriting her estate and taking his willful revenge.

Just like Tony’s plan, Dial M for Murder is a well-planned, meticulous, and an intelligent movie. It builds on the underlying psychologies of the characters and clutches viewers in the home-centric drama of Mr. and Mrs. Wendice. Dial M is quite similar to Rear Window (1954) as both movies appear claustrophobic and entangle in mysteries surrounding wives. While Rear Window is more passionate less tactical, Dial M, on the other hand, is more tactical, less about passion.

What’s unique in Dial M is the mise-en-scene environment. If we ignore the camera movement, Dial M almost feels like a stage play. It has a well-drawn set—the Wendice Apartment—and 95% of the action occur within the confines of this cozy-looking home. Yet, extending beyond this space, the mind does go off for a saunter and Hitchcock does, what he does best—create riveting tension and build towards an imploring climax.

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Despite the themes of deceit and greed, Dial M remains classy. Tony Wendice is a man of elegance. Margot Wendice is a woman of virtue and charm. Mark Haliiday is an empathizer, a detective fiction novelist and journalist—he’s aware of most murder mysteries and the intricacies of planning a perfect murder. His profession does have a major role to convey during the latter sequences of the film—rounding off his character with sincerity.

The star of the show, of course, is Ray Milland for his smooth reprisal as Tony Wendice—the silent assassin who has his way with words, manners, and etiquette. He can think on the spur and can generate ideas with ease. It was almost the perfect get-away, but as they say with crime and punishment—the criminal always leaves behind a trace.

Grace Kelly is her usual elegant self as in most Hitchcockian thrillers. As a free spirit, as the vocal woman, and as the companion of Tony, or the secret lover of Mark, she is on her game—with vivacity and a powerful screen presence. The rest carry off their roles smoothly. Robert Cummings does not have much scope due to the nature of his role, but does a fine job. John Williams, as Chief Inspector Hubbard, is somber yet penetrating and decisive, and he steals the show.

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Dial M for Murder is trademark Hitchcock. It’s jumpy and intriguing despite being a notch below other Hitchcock classics. It can get a bit slow at times, but Hitchcock’s mastery as a storyteller is enough to carry it off to an edgy climax—keeping viewers anticipated and enthralled for most parts. Not to ignore the brilliant extension of time and space, of mise-en-scene elements, and of subtleties only a master could transport with minimalism.

Fright Night (1985) – A Parody of Dracula

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“Welcome to Fright Night, for real.”

Instead of Jonathan Harker procuring a new home for the blood sucking and lip smacking Count Dracula, his highness Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) acquires a new house himself for his retreats in Tom Holland’s horror comedy. When high school hipster and ardent gothic horror fan Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) discovers that his new neighbor is in fact a vampire, he has nowhere to run. Nobody believes him and this Lord Vampire is after him because he is the boy who knows too much.

The characters of Fright Night are all based on Bram Stoker’s magnum opus, Dracula. The boy trapped in this muddle is the Jonathan Harker of Fright Night. His girlfriend, the innocent, Amy (Amanda Bearse) is none other than the pious Mina Harker enchanted by the eyes of Dracula. Their common friend, Evil Ed (Stephan Geoffreys), the subservient of Mr. Vampire, reflects the madness of the insane scientist, Renfield. And, the biggest marvel, vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) takes up the avatar of the legendary Dr. Abraham van Helsing – adding his own touch of cowardice over the chivalry of Dr. van Helsing, his phoniness over the ingenuity of the legendary philosopher.

Like Dracula, Fright Night squeezes the supernatural, with pinches of melodrama, romance, and adventure. It’s smart, witty, fun, fast-paced, and entertaining. You wouldn’t know when it started and when it ends. One wild marathon from start until the end, Fright Night is perhaps just be an episode in the life of fictional vampire hunter turned into real life vampire predator, Peter Vincent. And for all those factors, it works.

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Using traditional vampire elements created by Bram Stoker, we see plenty of garlics, crucifixes, wooden skates, holy water, mud, and coffins. Holland also enthralls viewers to special appearances by Vampire, the Bat and Vampire, the Wolf, with the inciting role of Lucy (in the novel) adorned by two hookers that Charley notices arriving at this Count’s hermitage. In the subsequent days, both go missing creating frenzy in the small town, but Charley knows why they’re missing and takes it as his responsibility to save the town from this undead monster. But how does he do it? With the help of his friends and a flop television personality of course, but there’s a problem – nobody believes him.

Fright Night plays on the myths and symbols of vampirism. It’s not merely a satire, it’s a parody of Dracula and it’s damn entertaining. Chris Sarandon takes the role of the vampire and he’s a natural. Suave, vicious, charming, and neat – Sarandon treats this role like his own and makes a perfect vampire. A Dracula fan would perhaps be mildly disappointed with the lack of chivalry of this beast, but in the flow of events, it turns out well. Vampires, after all, aren’t chivalrous creatures, are they?

In some ways, Fright Night resembles Coppola’s Dracula (1992), with the ethereal romance between Jerry and Amy. Only here, it’s rushed and underdeveloped, whereas in Coppola’s masterpiece, the love story takes the center stage. It would appear that Mr. Coppola was more inspired by the undeveloped romantic saga between two time-separated lovers here than from the actual book by Bram Stoker, where such suggestions only bode down to racy imagination.

Not since Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) has there been a horror comedy so enchanting and entertaining as Fright Night. Unlike other serious movies on vampires though, Fright Night relieves the viewers instead of alarming them; it amuses them instead of scaring them away.

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A memorable parody of Dracula, the novel, Fright Night is an easy watch and a perfect movie on a slow day. It’s unexpectedly good and wildly engaging. Craig Gillespie remade the movie in 2011 with Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin (playing Jerry and Charley), but the original remains a must-see, especially for fans of vampires. It’s also a nice addition to the folklore of vampirism.

Watch this clever comedy for the thrills and the mayhem; it’ll relieve you of your duties, with a smile that is.

Gone Girl (2014) – Gone baby, Gone!

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David Fincher adapts the bestselling book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, in his latest outing and as you’d expect from the master storyteller, he crafts it with full-on Fincher traits. It’s dark, it’s brooding, with an animosity that could spike you into mayhem, and it’s so vengeful; David Fincher might have just given a new dimension to another bestseller after Fight Club and Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. The movie is a fascinating watch; uncloaking of a marriage in peril, or a marriage in bliss, or perhaps a marriage gone awry—maybe just maybe, the perfect marriage!

Retaining much of the first-person narrative of the book, David Fincher constructs an atmosphere ardently using varied color tones to set the tone of visuals right from the moment Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne questions those latent tendencies of a marriage. The opening scene, with Nick Dunne stroking his wife’s blonde hair simultaneously worded in a monologue rearing to know the inside of his wife’s mind kick-starts this saga with a sinister hook. His wife, Amy Elliot-Dunne, played by the pretty Rosamund Pike, is the focal point behind the mystery in this spine-chiller—a saga of a couple in the wake of realization.

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When they first meet though, Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot seem like a match made in heaven. Both writers, they dash off against each other one night and from there on, there’s no looking back. Blissful in marriage, Nick and Amy are super intimate and seem to love caressing the union. As with every marriage, their marriage too hits the mountain—where one ought to work hard, or else wrought to chaos. Nick and Amy aren’t really like those couples. They’re distinct; they’re cool until catastrophe strikes when both find themselves redundant in the professional scene. During the same time, the creators of the terrific comic franchise, Amazing Amy, the parents of Amy find themselves in a financial rot and want her trust fund back, deep in debt. As if it couldn’t get worse, Nick’s mother is diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and he has to shift back to his hometown, Missouri, to be with her. But remember, Missouri has the death penalty.

Intertwined in a proverbial twaddle, Nick and Amy’s affection decrease, and coldness and isolation increase. It reaches to a point where Nick isn’t even aware of Amy’s personal life and Amy is aware of everything—like every damn thing. On the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears (kidnapped/murdered/held hostage—you could suppose) leaving behind a glorious disarrangement in their house. Nick Dunne, confused and unaware of his emotions, informs the cops, with detectives coming home to investigate the disappearance, but the problem…? You guessed it! Nick Dunne finds himself prime suspect for the murder of his lovely wife, the Amazing Amy, and if he is to plead his innocence, he needs to prove that he is innocent. Tough luck, Nick.

Gone Girl is very well written story, with Flynn having a cult following for this immaculate thriller. David Fincher snatches this thriller off Flynn and sticks it on the screen to create a typical Fincher movie—tight and gripping, with mysterious characters and a pinch of suspense so deep that it would leave you in a state of slipups because they just so happen to be slick.

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The characters have to be the best aspect of the movie. The unassuming, everyday-Joe husband played by Ben Affleck is perhaps the weakest character, but he’s not weak for lack of fleshing, but simply because the character of Nick Dunne lacks spine. He’s such a clay figure that anybody could sway him, and he’d remain this bemused guy who really isn’t certain about anything. On the other hand, Amy Elliot-Dunne is somewhat of an enigma. She could be the dream wife for any suitor, but when you get to bottom of her character, she’s as good as they come—and to not risk spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book, in short, she’s the cerebral pillar in this gutsy thriller.

In Gone Girl, Fincher and Flynn don’t merely explore the external mystery, but get right into the psychological dispensation of both characters. As the movie rolls, viewers get closer and closer to the psychic manifestations of both Nick and Amy, and what you discover through them is mind numbing. Both the writer and director are meticulous in how they plot the thriller; Flynn adapts her own book into a screenplay with finesse and Fincher has the same ‘ol duteous bravura in revealing his stories and character psychologies.

Essentially, Gone Girl is a story within a story. The first layer of story is the perceived life of this couple. The second layer zeroes into the inner conscience of Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. The third layer is the climax—that’s an external story within the internal stories of the couple manifesting into one defiant climax, unpredictable for those who haven’t read the book. Hence, the last 30 minutes of Gone Girl is like the aftermath of a rainstorm.

The rain stops, the storm subsides, but the sheer carnage of the rainstorm allows the atmosphere to carry the smell and taste of the storm, which is what Fincher achieves—with excellence—in the last 30 minutes. The actions before allow those last 20–30 minutes to merely float by and the entire sequence forms a penultimate dénouement right from the moment viewers receive the final twist. It’s very impressive, but also a testament to the prowess of Fincher as a storyteller.

For what it was, the climax of Gone Girl is poetic, and with poetry—it not only has a rhythm to it, but also is alarmingly a sneak peek into the future for the bewildered Nick Dunne and the colossal Amy Elliot-Dunne. “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” Sounds about right.

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Gone Girl is slick—backed by great performances, a rich story, and a taut staging of a marriage gone wrong. All of this is embroidered by Fincher’s trademark styles. For those who’ve read the book, it allows a different perspective and for those who haven’t, the movie is one of the most vicious thrillers of recent years and the viciousness of the story matches the viciousness off the story. Together, these two come off as one heck of a combination that’s sure to startle you and keep you gone into the world of this girl, Amazing Amy, and her boy, Not-So-Amazing Nick.

The Lake House (2006) – When Love Calls

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A dreamy story about two time-separated romantic loons, The Lake House pitches Sandra Bullock (Kate Forster) opposite Keanu Reeves (Alex Wyler) in a love story spanning several years for one (Wyler), mere months for the other (Forster). When Kate leaves her beautiful lake house for better pastures, she slips a letter for the new tenant of the house requesting the would-be tenant to forward her letters, if they fall into the box, to her new address. The recipient of the mild gesture, Wyler is somewhat startled by her letter since nobody has lived in the isolated lake house for years. The two exchange their precarious understanding of what all of this could mean before realizing that they are separated by two years. Wyler, in 2004, is renovating the remote haven, while Kate, in 2006, has left the bliss of the lake house and moved to work as a medical practitioner in nearby Chicago.

You could say paradox is the key in understanding this unrealistic, but engaging movie. The Lake House isn’t about reasoning as you’ve already sensed. You have to feel it. Some may feel it. Some may find it forged and pretentious. Wherever you stand, you’re probably correct. The Lake House falls in those categories of movies that are sure to upsurge polarizing appraisals; some seem to hate it, some just love it. Seems apt for a movie that crushes logic apart and locks viewers in a state of emotional awe thanks to the vivid sentiments oozing out of the screen—perplexing and soothing as a whole, but not entirely flawless.

Alejandro Agresti clasps the themes of relating and retrospection by drawing symmetry between the characters. Their underlying states resemble each other. On one side, Wyler has a bleak relationship with his single-father (Christopher Plummer) and on the other side, Forster is in friendly terms with her single mother (played by Willeke van Ammelrooy). At the same time, both, Wyler and Forster have special confidents—for Wyler it’s his brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and for Forster, it’s probably Anna (Shohreh Aghdashloo). These extraneous characters slice up the psychology of the two lovers, which enables viewers to understand the lovingly absurd predicament of Alex and Kate. Yet most importantly, it gives us a peek into their state of mind—and somewhere deep within them, their yearning for something to happen.

These interactions also aid in understanding their backstories. Wyler carrying an unassuming persona of a man unable to forgive his father—his father’s insatiable ambitions derailed their family and ultimately led to the demise of his mother. Forster’s one-dimensional and pragmatic approach to life, although painful at times to watch despite the fanatical, subdued romance not bound to time and space, reflects her glooms and a sturdy predicament of a lonely woman stranded amidst the hustle and bustle of Chi Town.

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A very good analogy of the circumstances of Wyler and Forster would be the lake house itself. Located away from the crowd of Chicago, isolated and abandoned, the two lovers share the same tranquility and the innate detachment with their surroundings akin to the lake house. Inside them, one would perhaps find a whirlpool of retrospection alienating them from the present, from reality, hence, forcing their hand into trying something supernatural, something fantastic, which would suggest their out worldly romance. Both people bound by time and space, yet fighting against the same dynamics; how fitting that they discover solace in a true romantic saga straight out from the lands of fairytales. As a tangible story though, it comes from South Korea (a remake of the beautiful Il Mare). As such, the story doesn’t have to make sense logically. In the realm of the movie, the romance beyond time is a fitting complement to the time-ruptured states of two people who build and protect—whether it’s lifeless physical buildings or full-of-life souls within the physical.

Talking of this romantic melancholy, the soulful, almost timeless, background score adds a rich ripple to the movie (music by Rachael Portman), if one could borrow the liberty of relating the movie to the lake itself. Through each swing of musical notes, the viewer moves deeper into the psyche of the story and this makes for a resounding experience of emotional scrutiny—almost awe-inspiring, the visuals on the screen and the musical harmony off the screen collaborating to paint a wonderful drama about relating, waiting, and understanding.

Behind each of these painted frames is one world so abundant and artistic that in itself gives a warm feeling and a stylish look—romantic in its own way. The world of the movie and the cuddling warmth, the wonderful use of vibrant colors, and the cinematography (Alar Kivilo) mainly emphasizing long and mid shots of Chicago’s architecture, whilst creating an atmospheric setting is a major plus and strengthens the already strong spiritual tie with the drama on-screen.

For what it is, the story is loopy and it demands unwavering attention from you to understand what’s happening. Even though the concept is simple, it gets confusing at parts. Some of the major plot points seem unconvincing, which may bug the viewers—but one has to ask, when has romance ever made sense, or when has there been a consistent pattern to romance? I watched Lake House with an open heart and I loved it—probably a bit more than I should have, but it was touching, ironically relatable, and even melting.

It’s not for everybody, but the few takers of this movie would appreciate the mood it creates. Not a classic, but it’s not as bad as the reputation it has garnered. The movie gives a lucid picture of the timelessness of reality, but underlying all of this is the truth of the inevitability of time, and the span of action that only time decides and nothing else.

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With a captivating story that is beyond realism and a true saga of hope and redemption, it might just be a perfect date movie, or better, a movie that sums up everything inconsistent about love and relationships. Utterly sweet, mindlessly sensible, dreamy, heartfelt, and oh-so artistic, The Lake House is a guilty pleasure. If you’re dreamy, try this. It’s beautiful.

The Fly (1958) – Help Me

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David Hedison as Andre Delambre
Patricia Owens as Helena Delambre
Vincent Price as François Delambre
Herbert Marshall as Inspector Charaz
Charles Herbert as Philippe Delambre

Although people remember the 1986 version of The Fly (David Cronenberg) mainly due to its stark take on the mangled blending of a human and a fly, the original classic from Kurt Neumann, who had specialized in making low-budget Sci-Fi movies, looks into this dreadful condition with a delicacy lacking in the remake. In doing so, the story treads a simple path that focuses more on the drama for the people related to the genius than on the consequences of the horror accident on the genius himself. Similar to the movies from related genres in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, The Fly is dramatic, not gory; it’s subtle, not crude; it emphasizes on human emotions, not events—and shows the trauma of such an unwanted supernatural occurrence on the family of the victim rather than the victim.

The start of the movie we see a woman crushing a man on a hydraulic press and fleeing the scene. Her name—Helena, she subsequently calls her brother-in-law, François, and admits to the murder of her husband, Andre. Inspector Charaz arrives at her house for investigation and later, during which, Helena narrates the story of her genius, yet tragic husband and his mercurial invention – a teleportation device.

Andre is a genius electrical engineer. He discovers an apparatus that could make teleportation a reality envisioning that it could end famine, poverty, whilst collapsing distance and shrinking time. Showing his newfound invention to his wife Helena, Andre works on resolving the minor errors that come along such transformational inventions. Obsessed with his work, Andre decides to up the ante and become the Guinea pig in this experiment. [plot point ahead] He succeeds the first time around, but in the second incident, a fly—by accident—flies into the teleportation device and the results are disastrous: the atoms of the fly and Andre mutate during the process. Andre comes out with a fly’s head and arm. The fly, on the other hand, carries off Andre’s head.

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Of course, Helena is narrating the entire story to the Inspector and her brother-in-law, so we don’t get to see the actual occurrence per se… Precisely why, it’s safe to call the movie an attempt to elaborate on the exterior effects of such an occurrence to those around the man and not an attempt to show the internal effects of the disaster on the man himself.

The Fly has a nice, smooth flow. It keeps the story interesting, even though you don’t get into the meat of the action until about half an hour into the movie. This could be interpreted either way, but ideally, Neumann directs the scenes brilliantly keeping us engaged—anticipating with curiosity the antecedent behind the starling behavior of Helena. The suspense slowly uncloaks, and when we see the reality—a bad, guilty feeling of regret takes over forcing us to hope-against-hope that Helena is successful in her mission, and Andre could revert the mutation and become the normal genius than the hideous half-fly, half-man. The scene when Helena uncovers the head of Andre is almost disgusting and grotesque—seeing this great human have a gigantic head of a fly. Almost puke-worthy and considering the time period of the movie, this has to be amongst the most daunting images up until the movie.

What tops the daunting image of Andre with a head of a fly would probably be the fly with Andre’s head! The final utterings “Help me! Help meeee!” in the shrieky voice of the fly-with-Andre’s-head just before becoming a spider’s meal may have heaved this movie as a yesteryear classic, and a science fiction that opened the door for many such movies in the future. Some found the climax whimsical, whilst some find it creepy until today. For today’s viewer, it wouldn’t probably be as disturbing as it ought to have been for the viewers of the 50s and 60s. Yet for some, it’s still haunting and is one of those lasting imageries that remain with you even after the credits roll.

Behind all of this, the story takes a philosophical stance into the enigma of Nature. Sometimes you just cross the limit and you don’t know until it’s too late. Play with Nature, but do so at your own peril as it’s not always wise venturing into unchartered territory… That’s the main message of The Fly—sound and profound, as a drama and as a concept.

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The Fly is well shot and moving. It’s unusual and raises funny questions from within existentialism to science, but at the end, it’s a masterfully rendered Sci-Fi that is both provoking and fascinating, terrible, yet magnificent.