The Plague: Writers & Director Cut

 

 

This is a cautionary tale. Not just the film, but the story of what happens after the film is made. Hal Masonberg and Teal Minton sold their horror script THE PLAGUE to Armada Pictures (although Screen Gems came on as financier/distributor without their knowledge) in 2002, and thanks to Masonberg's vivid animatic storyboards along with the fact that the pair would not sell the screenplay without him as director, the film was greenlit. Not bad for a 3.5 milllion dollar Clive Barker production, although this film is far removed from the typical Barker film and ultimately became part of the post-production woe. And THE PLAGUE is a cautionary horror tale, the story of what happens when the children of the world fall into a seemingly non-stop comatose slumber. Tom Russel (James Van Der Beek) returns to his town after serving time for a bar fight murder and tries to retrace his steps back into humanity. HIs first stop is his estranged widowed brother, whose own son has fallen into forever sleep. Along with that, Tom's wife Jean (CASINO ROYALE's Ivana Milicevic) struggles to forgive him as does her brother, the wily Sam (Brad Hunt). But soon after Tom returns, more pressing matters arise as the children wake up en masse...and they are not happy.

Suffice to say, violence and bloodshed ensues as Tom finds himself in charge of a disparate group, including his wife, her brother, the kindly sheriff Cal (John P. Connolly) and his wife Nora (Dee Wallace-Stone). Add to this mix the only teens in the town not effected by the plague, Kip and Claire, and lead them across a minor battlefield of the hospital and eventually the church, and you have the makings of a unique, thoughtful and sometimes powerful meditation on the nature of children and the world's violence.

The problem for the filmmakers is that after they finished the exact script that was approved to be made into an under 4 million dollar film for Clive Barker's company in an attempt to expand their horror genre, the producers ended up forgetting what they had paid for in the first place. Masonberg's blanket support eroded in post-production as one of the producer's straight-up told him he only wanted a "killer kid" movie. Which is the farthest thing from the subtle and allegorical story that Masonberg put together for his first cut.

Sadly this is where the story becomes archetypal as the director was barred from the editing room as the producers sought to make a more expedient version. Whole scenes were altered through obvious editing rather the connective visual strands of Masonberg's cut. Worse, even Dee Wallace-Stone's part was practically truncated to shots of her in peril screaming. You don't pull on Superman's cape, you don't mess around with Jim and you don't cut E.T.'s mom out of a movie. There is more chainsaw editing. Character beats are gone, tiny moments make the horror more effective, since you feel more emotionally involved with the people. Effective or evocative shots have been removed at random, and perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, involving one of the only unaffected teens and her deadly sister has been rendered impotent. Since the cinematographer is the legendary Bill Butler (JAWS and THE CONVERSATION among others) this is particularly unfair as the clumsy editing has altered the film's entire visual design along with Masonberg's directorial subtlty.

THE PLAGUE was never intended to be THE CHILDREN (1980) or DEVIL TIMES FIVE (1974), both terrific exploitation films in their own sick right, but it's more in the realm of THE INNOCENTS (1964). The ending doesn't leave you with typical Hollywood explanations, but the clues are there, particulary in the director's cut. This should not be marketed as Clive Barker Hard-Gore Horror, but as a more engaged, suspenseful apocalyptic cautionary.

Masonberg has been very pro-active trying to get his version released and is building up quite a network of support from those who have seen his version of THE PLAGUE. You can sign a petition here and find a wealth of further information, including a articles, plus a revealing documentary on the film featuring interviews with Dee Wallace-Stone, other cast members, and noted genre experts. It's worth a look and worthy to get the word out to preserve the writer/director's unique, unsettling vision.

 

 

 

The Blair Witch Project

Artisan, 1999 / Black and White & Color / 1.33:1 / 87 Min.

 

 

The summer of 1999 was possibly the best year of my life. So far. I was living in Austin, Texas, writing for video games, surrounded by amazing people, even hanging with Tarantino at his QT 3 Fest. Furthermore, 1999 was also one of the best years for American cinema. Just a rundown: THREE KINGS; AMERICAN BEAUTY; THE IRON GIANT; THE SIXTH SENSE; FIGHT CLUB; EYES WIDE SHUT; THE PHANTOM MENANCE (I know, but come on, it was a new STAR WARS movie!); THE MATRIX; THE STRAIGHT STORY; etc. and the icing on the film cake for me that eternal July was the much anticpated release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I had been on top of this film since the first time I read a brief rave in geekspeak on Ain't It Cool News:

"As for movies coming up at SUNDANCE the one to see it "THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT"!!! The most creepy fuckin mockumentary made... ever."

I jumped on the famous website the minute it went viral and made it an hourly pilgrimage to freak myself out in the daylit offices of Ion Storm. I still claim the trailer for TBWP is arguably the greatest in film history, if only because it lays out subject and theme in mere seconds and with frightening effectiveness. The logline is high concept to the core minus any Hollywood sfx trappings. There was some lame controversy over manufactured over-hyping of the film, but there was no way to self-create what became a groundbreaking web publicity campaign; after all, I was a true believer of the movie's identity along with others. Did I ever believe it was real? Come on. And those that did reveal how easy it was to fool some foolish people. But that was part of the film's powerful urban legend meme.

I first saw it 10:30 pm, Friday, July 23 at the Dobie Theater with a sold-out crowd and a group of friends. A person in line behind me said, "I never heard about these kids disappearing." Those raw MISSING posters with the three filmmaker faces did their trick. It was the perfect audience for a Friday night scary movie in the triangular confines of the Dobie as the film worked us over in the collective dark. Perfect end credits. We streamed out in silence, still processing the images. After midnight, I had to walk solo lobo down a deserted side street to my car. Sequestered in my treehouse apartment, I slept little, hearing noises left and right; above and below, culminating in the sound of footsteps crunching over leaves directly under my second story window, followed by a release of urine against the building -- yet no departing footsteps. I lay frozen in the dark for what seemed like an hour waiting waiting waiting for those crunchy footsteps to recede and vanish. They didn't and I fell into a restless slumber that would continue through the year whenever scenes from the film would surface in my eager masochistic imagination. I easily freaked myself out walking along Town Lake in the pleasant Austin afternoon. I scanned ebay at the height of the Blair Witch frenzy in bemusement at the autographed photos of Heather Donohue going for up to 50 plus dollars. The best moment was when the late Neal Fredericks auctioned off the actual 16 mm camera (non-working) for a hefty 15 grand. If I had the cash I might have bought it too. I thought it was great when TIME and NEWSWEEK had competing TBWP covers. For Halloween, I threw on a plaid shirt, cap, hung a stickman on my backpack, and videotaped everybody at Harry Knowles' fun party. Why did I love to be scared by this film?

Internet volumes have been written on TBWP and there are those who hate it or love it. Those that hate claim the camerawork is nausea-inducing, the characters shrill and unlikable. Worse for some, you don't even see the witch -- you don't see much of anything. Which is what those who love it, love about TBWP. Along with THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENTS and REPULSION, this is one of the most primal, psychological horror films in the genre. The terror comes from things felt, yet unseen or overheard: Was that a crying baby outside the tent? What do the bundled stickmen signify? Is that really Josh screaming in the night? The industrial creak of the subliminal soundtrack is one of the film's most creepy effects. If the combination of woods, video, and the supernatural doesn't move you, move along; that shit scares me. Either you appreciate the subtlty of the filmmakers approach or you don't. Obviously I do and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is my favorite horror film of the past 20 years, landing within my top list: HALLOWEEN; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; ALIEN; TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; and THE EXORCIST.

The performances are excellent and deserve more praise than they're given. I say without shame that Heather Donahue deserved an Academy Award nomination for her intense portrait of a filmmaker trying to save her soul and sanity via her never-ending documentary. Although some folk couldn't stand her smug bossiness, she was the pitch-perfect (bitch-perfect?) student director and I knew a few like her at film school. She's certainly one of the strongest female presences in any genre film and her now-iconic video apology is esthetic lightning in a bottle. I would have also nominated Michael Williams for Best Supporting Actor. He's a perfectly realized character, humble and charming, but filled with confused rage and compassion as they find themselves pulled deeper into the woods and their doom. The scene where Williams blindly stomps around screaming for help is one of the most disturbing moments in TBWP. I also dig Joshua Leonard for nailing the uptight camera-dude with apropos slacker gusto. He remains a presence even after his disappearance, leading to the film's one visceral shock: Heather's discovery of Josh's tattered threads hiding a bloody secret.

You feel the atmospheric desperation caught on film and video as the trio lose their way, then their minds. The climax in the abandoned house is perfect and truly unsettling, as Heather rushes pell-mell towards the basement, recording her own plight and screams of helplessness, thus illustrating the film's primary theme: loss of control. As we come to what writer David Calvo calls that "unholy final shot," directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick have already done their jobs with this brilliant cinematic distillation of every campfire ghost story ever told. The summer of '99 is gone but THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is part of film history. Deservedly so.

 

 

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Universal, 1982 / 1.85:1 anamorphic / 89 min.

 

 

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH was the first teen movie of the 1980's to accurately reflect and predict the decade of gel and neon. Based on Cameron Crowe's non-fiction, non-judgemental account of his return to high school disguised as a student (the first excerpt was published in "Playboy" magazine), the book is a loose collection of gentle anecdotes and observations about the sexual and chemical maturation of suburban teenagers amid a shopping mall landscape. Producer Art Linson wisely hired punk filmmaker Amy Heckerling to direct and Crowe signed on to write the screenplay. They assembled a terrific cast of actors, five of whom would become Academy Award nominees. Despite constant struggles with the visionless studio people who wanted a PORKY'S style romp, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH turned out to be when viewed decades later (!) an almost indie style art film that never kow-tows to the conventions of the genre. With a great pop soundtrack buffet, FTARH has a heart and soul truthfullness that avoids the typical sexcapade hi-jinks that would define this genre in the 80's. Crowe's dialogue is funny yet naturalistic and all the actors have their moments. I still remember seeing FTARH at the Roseville Tower theater in the summer of 82 and I became almost nostalgic for my own high school days of backyard pools, hormonal awkwardness and social stratification. Almost. I don't miss the neon pastel.

The Disc is packed like a Spicoli bowl, with an informative "making of" documentary that even includes the reticient Sean Penn happily discussing the role that shot him and his character to iconic fame. The best extra is the terrific audio commentary from Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling. They're honest about the studio difficulties and Heckerling particulary disses the soft California rock sound that was forced on her. She actually had to fight to place the Go-Go's "We Got The Beat" as the opening song -- which instantly pulls you right into the alternative suburban world of the movie. Heckerling's sensitivity is the backbone of the film, and Crowe praises her for insightful touches, like Jennifer Jason Leigh's unromantic POV during her sexual initiation in the dugout. They're so enthralled they keep talking past the credits into black.

 

 

The Quiller MemTorandum - 1966

The Quiller Memorandum

Fox, 1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 105 min.

 

 

I first saw THE QUILLLER MEMORANDUM at QT 3, Quentin Tarantino's semi-annual festival with films from his collection, at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse Theater on February 23, 1999. Each night of the week long fest had a different theme, and Tuesday was Spy Night, a double-feature of THE QUILLLER MEMORANDUM and SOL MADRID, an obscure 1968 tropical intrigue film with David McCallum and Telly Savalas. Tarantino only had a 16 mm non-Anamorphic print, so watching it was not unlike a late night TV experience as my befit my memories of the film. I was always a fan of the John Barry soundtrack, which played against his archetypal James Bond scores, utilizing a zither-like instrument known as a "faxatone" and plinking harpsichords to create a very Cold War Berlin musical fantasia. The film itself turned out to be one of my favorites of the fest and I added it to the pantheon of great 1960's serious spy movies (DR. NO; FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE; THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD; THE IPCRESS FILE). There was some discussion after the film on what the final scene between George Segal and Senta Berger meant, with Tarantino offering a theory that Segal had been...more on that later.

After far too long, Fox released a definitive Anamorphic DVD in 2006 and it was a treat to revisit THE QUILLLER MEMORANDUM. Michael Anderson, an impersonal director of disparate films (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS; LOGAN'S RUN), did a fine job here with much credit going to his cinematographer, Erwin Hillier, who captures post-war Berlin with a beautiful wide screen lens, emphasizing the modern Bauhaus architecture amid the remains of Hitler's fossilized Germany. Released in 1966, a time of still hot tensions between West and East, Capitalism and Communism, Pop and Art, Sex and Drugs, THE QUILLLER MEMORANDUM jettisons all the mod trappings of the decade to focus on an existential battle between unsettled, dangerous ideologies.

Quiller, played with gusto and command by one of my favorite actors, George Segal, is a brash American agent working for Britain who must track down a den of neo-Nazis responsible for the deaths of two previous agents. A simple story made complicated by the suspicion that Segal is being played by both sides. This is made rather explicit by Quiller's boss, Alec Guiness in a terrific fey performance, as he compares Quiller to a raisin trapped between two muffins, one of the film's highlights. And mind you, this is not a film of action. The tension comes from the sparse clipped dialogue courtesy of famed playwright Harold Pinter, hired in a masterful stroke of producing epiphany.

This is one of the few spy films whose writer's contributions are equal or beyond that of the filmmakers. Pinter is famous for pulling out the unspoken truth behind banal exchanges (a stylistic trait that influenced David Mamet) and though I've never been a fan of his work, when applied to a genre film, Pinter has found a match for his method. It's apropos that these paranoid government figures would speak in code, keeping their real intent obscure and the dialogue perfectly captures this paranoid tone. There's also a satirical undercurrent to the events, typified by British officer George Sanders, who is as interested in his companion's dinner as he is blase about the fate of another murdered agent. Quiller's attempt to woo a schoolteacher, played by the luscious Senta Berger, are amusing too, as he removes her inhibitions by repeatedly asking if she's alone, or sleeping alone.

Although George Segal might seem miscast on first glance, keep in mind that before he gained more fame as a comedic actor, Segal was first known for drama with his turns in SHIP OF FOOLS (1965) and his Supporting Oscar nomination for WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINA WOOLF (1966). And he is certainly not James Bond; after all, he doesn't even carry a weapon ("If you carry a gun, you're more likely to get killed."). Segal has brains, charm and attitude -- Tarantino called him "Mr. Swinging Dick." This layered spy uses his bravado and Ugly American status to ensnare the neo-Nazi's into coming out in the open after him. There's a great reveal later when you find out that this Quiller cat knows more than he lets anybody know and you see how he would be considered an unorthodox but effective cold warrior -- without firing a shot. As you understand the character, Segal's subtle performance becomes more appealing and effective. He more than holds his own with masters such as Guiness and the always brilliant Max Von Sydow, who plays Oktober, the head of the fascist organization. In the film's best scene, Segal is captured and interrogated not by torture but with a truth serum. Or is it more than that? Sydow breaks down Segal's glib defenses as they play cat-and-mouse word games with each other. You have to give credit to Pinter and the filmmakers for not resorting to cliche spy tropes, and the ominous vibe is perfectly established by a nifty tracking shot of the silent henchmen amid the basement lair where Quiller is trapped.

Eventually Quiller is left for dead -- but oddly turns up alive albeit battered. This is an interesting moment and a key to the film's opaque narrative as the last line heard before we see Quiller's body is Sydow telling his men to "Kill him."

Suffice to say, THE QUILLLER MEMORANDUM is a terrific, thinking person's spy thriller that holds up nicely in today's hot war world of modern terror. The transfer is gorgeous, with those amazing wide screen compositions so integral to the 60's film and there's a host of cool trailers for uber scarce films (remember PEEPER with Michael Caine and Natalie Wood from 1975? Me neither!) The audio commentary by Lee Pfieffer and Eddie Friedfeld from the very cool Cinema Retro magazine is engaging and informative as they talk extensively about post-war German-US relations to wisely educate younger viewers, but they end up overlooking some interesting scenes. Curiously, Pfieffer offers a rather reductive perspective on the CIA being too restricted in the 1970's all the way to 9/11, which ignores their unchecked odious operations of past decades, including a liaison with one Osama BIn Laden and its penchant for administration approved torture. Pfieffer also goes after Harold Pinter for his recent comments on George Bush and Tony Blair and calls the Nobel Prize winner a "self loathing capitalist." But then Pfieffer connects Clinton to the hamstringing of the CIA and the path to 9/11...Yet part of the film's thesis is that working too close with evil can be contagious. But Pfieffer and Friedfeld both clearly know the secret agent genre and they have a good debate on whether Segal is miscast: Pfieffer thinks he's too befuddled and Friedfeld argues that he's playing many roles. But there is another possibility which they don't note, namely Quiller has actually been brainwashed by the neo-Nazis in the interrogation scene -- that's why they let him live so they can track him further. This makes some sense considering Segal's subdued lack of emotion after he finds himself alive. As for Tarantino's theory on the final scene between Segal and Berger, to tell more would be like giving away minor state secrets, so I won't.