Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Apparently we’ve reached the end of another year, though with all the fires of 2020 still raging, it certainly doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. Biden has settled into the bemused indifference of most modern democrats, COVID is still running wild, and the environment is in chaos; so far, so normal for our apocalyptic era. With the external world maintaining its all-seasons horror show, I’ve mostly been marking my time in art consumed, which frankly isn’t all that different from my usual behavior.
To be honest, the biggest difference is this project right here. With a clear incentive to actually jot down my thoughts on everything I’m watching, I’m engaging in more active thinking about the connections between all these films, and broadening my appreciation of cinema at record pace. Transitioning these articles to my weekly film adventures has been a great boon for both my artistic education and mental health, so I’m thankful to you all for bearing with me as I sail through the history of cinematic storytelling. Let’s break down one more week in film!
We started off this week with an absolute stinker, the tedious Bruce Willis comedy vehicle Hudson Hawk. There is little more excruciating than a comedy written by someone without a sense of humor, and Willis actually has co-writing credit on this one, so we kinda knew from the start that it was going to suck. Hudson Hawk marinates in the insecure bravado of the unfunny macho man, like a two-hour version of a clown doing the “you talkin’ to me?” speech. Its plot involves Willis being commissioned to steal Vatican artifacts due to his expertise as a cat burglar, but the narrative is a transparent excuse to string together a variety of slapstick setpieces, so it’s not really worth explaining the finer points.
Hudson Hawk’s raison d’etre is more a specific kind of tone, the feeling of believing you are Bruce Willis, and that everyone else believes Bruce Willis is funny. He’ll clench out a one-liner on the level of “I’ll have what he’s having” or whatnot, and then Girl Who’s Not Like The Other Chicks will laugh, and the camera might zoom in on a dog making a funny face. There’s not much here for anyone outside of Willis’ dad-going-through-a-midlife-crisis strike zone, but hey, at least Danny Aiello probably pulled in a solid paycheck as his partner in crime. Always nice to see him in something.
Our followup to that was sadly another disappointment, the recent Antlers. I’ve been excited about Antlers ever since it was first announced, and greatly enjoyed the short story the film was based on. The fact of the matter is, I’m just a huge fan of wendigos, and have been ever since I first read a wendigo-centered story in those old Scary Stories to Read in the Dark books. As a New England native, snowy and forbidding forests have always been my default “ominous wilderness,” and wendigos perfectly accent the natural terror of the forest, drawing great dramatic power from the ambiguity of their threat. A scream in the distance, footprints in the snow, and then nothing – only the certainty that something happened here, that a creature of ice and malice drew too close to our fragile, mortal shells.
Antlers does indeed possess a fair density of wendigos, but is unfortunately more lacking in fundamental craft. The film’s script is clumsy and unconvincing, somehow providing less motivation and personality for its heroine in two hours than the original story managed in ten pages. The lead performances are similarly lackluster; the actual child lead is quite convincing, but Jesse Plemons basically mumbles through all of his lines, seemingly indifferent to the terror around him. I’ve seen Plemons put in good work before, so I’m putting this performance down to the director’s poor instruction – a suspicion that’s further enforced by this film’s generally lackluster visual direction. There are gestures towards issues of class, drug abuse, and race, but Antlers doesn’t follow through on any of these ideas, contenting itself to instead just be a slow-burning creature feature. Outside of the lovely long shots of the Pacific Northwest, this adaptation is unfortunately a missed opportunity on the whole.
Fortunately, we rallied from there with an unimpeachable classic, Warner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo sees Herzog reunited with both the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski and the imposing Amazon river, as Kinksi takes on the role of the titular land speculator. Like his earlier Aguirra, Fitzcarraldo also possesses an impossible dream: to build a grand opera house in the heart of the jungle, and bring high culture to this untamed world. But with no money to fund this operation, Fitzcarraldo decides he must first secure and industrialize a length of the Amazon’s tributaries thought impossible to conquer. How will he accomplish this feat? By carrying his steamboat over a mountain pass, and down into the river below.
Oh my lord, how delightful it is to spend time with Herzog and Kinski. While Aguirra was all cold-burning fury, Fitzcarraldo is a ball of nervous energy, practically vibrating off of his boat from the very first scene. His passion and confidence are so great that it’s easy to see why his town’s rubber-drunk barons sign off on his adventure. And though his dream is insane, he pursues it with such earnest conviction that it’s hard not to root for him. Kinski possesses an intensity of presence that I’ve seen in very few actors; his focused eyes are like high beams into the soul, while his silence seems to muffle all noise around him. In Aguirra, he constructed one of the most effortlessly frightening protagonists I’ve seen in film, and here in Fitzcarraldo, he embodies the wavering line between otherworldly ambition and self-destructive hubris.
I could simply watch Kinski emote for three hours and be happy enough, but Fitzcarraldo also indulges its audience with countless gorgeous, seemingly impossible-to-shoot sequences, as our hero goes all-in again and again over the course of his impossible bet. There is a sense of scale, fragility, and specificity in traditionally shot footage that simply can’t be replicated by CG. In Herzog’s hands, the Amazon itself is a source of endless drama, providing much of the same “conflict of inches” appeal as Sorcerer’s winding road. Fitzcarraldo’s journey over the mountain is a wonder of scale and set design, while his journey home exemplifies the strange duality of tragedy and farce. There were so many moments in this movie where either Kinski’s performance or Herzog’s camerawork had my jaw on the floor, and at the end, I found myself only dissatisfied that there aren’t even more Herzog/Kinski/Amazon productions. God damn are we lucky to have this one.
After that we raced forward to a new release, and checked out Edgar Wright’s latest, Last Night in Soho. Like most of Wright’s films, Last Night in Soho is a love letter to the media that inspired him, this time celebrating classic pop music, the tenor of London’s swinging ‘60s, and Italian horror. Thomasin McKenzie stars as Ellie, a girl who’s just crazy about the first two, and moves to London for a fashion design course that sees her caught squarely in the third one. After taking a room in an old Soho loft, she finds her nights consumed by visions of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer luxuriating in the ‘60s glamor that Ellie longs for. But as Ellie’s visions continue, the true darkness of the past comes into focus, and begins to bleed into Ellie’s present life.
Last Night in Soho actually feels a little subdued by Wright standards. Unlike the self-consciously intelligent formal experiment that was Baby Driver, both the camerawork and sound design here are a tad more conventional, seemingly intent on drawing less attention to themselves. As a result, Ellie’s lived experience comes through that much more convincingly, while the visual flourishes that do exist are put to uniquely powerful effect, like Ellie’s Argento-lit bedroom, or the impressive ways her identity is visually blended with Ellie’s.
As a work of atmosphere and aesthetic fusion, Last Night in Soho is an impressive effort, and sees Wright tempering his most self-indulgent tendencies in order to better serve his narrative. Unfortunately, as an actual narrative, Last Night in Soho is one of his weaker stories, and feels a bit too small-scale for his grandiose visual pretensions. Additionally, I felt the film’s horror elements worked a bit better conceptually than in practice. I liked what he was doing in terms of framing, and felt he handled the core “monstrousness” of this narrative with a welcome degree of aesthetic tact, but Wright simply doesn’t seem that good at the visceral, unembellished moments that make for truly gripping horror.
On the other hand, I’m thankful to him for swiftly recognizing Anya Taylor-Joy as one of the most electrifying emerging actresses of the era. Not only is she utterly convincing in roles ranging from beleaguered pilgrim daughter to aspiring ‘60s debutante, she also has the good fortune of possessing a singularly extraordinary look. Her massive eyes and otherwise narrow features facilitate a natural otherworldliness of presence, much in the line of someone like Shelley Duvall. Some people just happen to have interesting faces and the acting talent to exploit them; I’m glad Herzog and Kinski found each other, and I’m glad the world at large has discovered Taylor-Joy.
We finished up the week with a full course crowd pleaser, the found footage horror production Nightlight. The easiest way to describe Nightlight is “what if The Blair Witch, but at night with flashlights, and the supernatural occurrences turned up to eleven.” Many, many films have tried to be the Blair Witch, but almost none of them can match the frantic authenticity of its performances, the tantalizing slow roll of its visual setpieces, or the brilliant way it exploits every inch of its forest venue. Well, Nightlight is the exception that proves the rule, as it seems to understand precisely how Blair Witch worked, and executes its spin on the concept with enough confidence and creativity to immediately vault into the upper tier of found footage productions.
Nightlight’s overarching narrative is frankly its weakest element; the film is constructed around a vague “suicide forest” motif that feels undercooked both in its mythological and personal dimensions, and it’s unlikely you’re going to care about any of the characters. If anything can be said for the film’s writing, it’s that the characters feel like convincingly shitty teenagers, without an ounce of sense or mature confidence between them. That’s okay though, because we’re here for a spooky ride through a dark forest, and goddamn does Nightlight deliver.
Rather than assuming we’re watching the characters’ own video recordings, Nightlight instead sets its viewpoint limitation as artificial light sources – we can see what their flashlights or camera flashes see, but nothing beyond that. This restriction naturally creates an Amnesia-like sense of building tension, as the film steadily unspools a diverse array of night terrors. There are great moments with barely-glimpsed creatures, an effective sense of building calamity, and some truly sadistic held shots, as the characters obliviously blather while Something approaches in the distance. There’s also a genuinely brilliant use of motion sensor lights, a trick so good that I can’t guarantee I won’t steal it myself eventually. Nightlight won’t win any awards for its writing or acting, but its production team have a firm understanding of its forebears’ effectiveness, and that results in a satisfyingly spooky good time.