Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classical Film Review: Halloween [1978]

Filmed in 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween is younger than some of the other films we have looked at for the Classical Review. But… it is Halloween and this is a genuinely scary, yet also extremely tastefully well-crafted, horror cult classic.

As low-budget and rushed as the filming may have been (it was shot in just 20 days), this fabulously stylistic slasher invented many of the genre’s clichés and grossed Fifty Five million dollars worldwide. It was one of the most successful independent films ever made with its effects seen in films such as the Friday the 13th series, in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Scream and most modern horrors!

In an apogee of filmic manipulation, the suspenseful stalkings and morbid killings are seen from the subjective vantage point of the killer- a few times while looking through his mask. Other scenes are viewed through the characters in danger’s illusory point of view, accompanied by the heavy breathing of murderous peeping tom Michael Myers, who is referred to as ‘the bogeyman’ or “The Shape” in the credits.

I shalln’t talk much about the storyline because it doesn’t actually matter and no one really cares for the minutiae.

Importantly, however, this film set in motion the Puritanical, psycho-pathological principle that one’s survival was directly proportional to one’s sexual experience. Sexual awakening means not just the death of innocence but actual death! They should teach you THAT in Sex Ed- hello reduction of teen pregnancy rates. In this film, murders often occur after sexual encounters when victims are distracted and off-guard.

Steadicam is extensively used throughout the film, lending it a yet more disconcerting palpation. The audience is left spending every scene feeling disjointed, insecure, unsettled and… well, plainly paranoid! Around every corner lurks potential danger- every shadow, noise or space is treacherous- safe havens will betray you in an instant…

Carpenter deliberately pays homage in various ways to Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense’s Psycho; Halloween’s characters have names taken from the film, and the screaming babysitter Jaime Lee Curtis is the daughter of Psycho’s poor Janet Leigh, so memorably stabbed in the shower.

Often nothing is revealed when something is expected, but sometimes the unexpected is shockingly exposed!

Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classical Film Review: Dr. No [1962]

Mysoginistic and martini swilling, brilliant and brutish, he is, nonetheless… disturbingly charming. British spy James Bond first appeared on cinema screens in 1962’s Dr. No, in which he is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent. The trail leads him to the underground base of Dr No, a nefarious evil villain with prosthetic hands and stiff gait, who is plotting to disrupt an American manned space launch with a radio beam weapon.

Although it was the first of Ian Flemming’s Bond novels to be made into a film, Casino Royale was the literary debut for the character. It was made on a low budget and became a financial success that still independently makes money half a century later. Equally, whilst critical reaction was mixed upon release, over time the film has gained a reputation as one of the series’ best installments.

Dr. No launched a genre of ‘secret agent’ films that flourished in the 1960s and is obviously the base rock that established many of the iconic aspects of a typical Bond film- which then went on to be aped in all of these other secret agent films. And which, really, we can see in many of today’s supposedly unrelated ‘secret agent’ films; There is a grotesque and ingenious villain threatening the peace of the world; casual sex and sadism (not always at the same time); wisecracks in exotic locations and the fabulous theme music.

Thanks to its low budget Dr. No is a more down-to-earth affair than subsequent films in the series as Bond is forced to rely on his wits to get his job done… and actually be good at his job. No flashy gadgets and gimmicks here.

Dr. No was the sixth book in the James Bond series, marking the end of the realistic and well-plotted first half-dozen of the novels. After this book they became rather baroquely fantastical, with megalomaniacal villains. Of course, the film version was already headed that way but at its heart is a tough, stylish, and charming hero who is calmly brilliant at his job and enjoys pursuing women. It should be noted that unlike in later films her doesn’t actually attract women like knicker-dropping flies drawn to his magical magnetic honey. He works for it.

And we all remember the first Bond Girl, Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder.

Sean Connery playing Bond in this film is confident but not arrogant and a harbinger of major social change in class, fashion and behavior. He isn’t part of the aristocracy joining MI5 for fun or because it is what ‘the family’ has always done. It isn’t a knowing or selfconscious performance because there was no Bond before and he can do with the role as he darn well pleases.

During the film he shows fear, panic and disgust as he spends a large portion of time being captured, brutalized and humiliated. There is no campness here…

Which, personally, I find rather a shame. I happen to quite enjoy a Bond who knows exactly what is about to go down and throws out a witty one liner once he has inevitably won.

Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classical Film Review: Seven Samurai [1954]

The Seven Samurai is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s finest work and made an easy transference into a Western, The Magnificent Seven, six years later. A Samurai answers a village’s request for protection after he falls on hard times. Kurosawa’s characterization of the six Samurai and the farmer’s son who wants to join them is peerless- as is his direction of the samurai and cavalry action.

Don’t be put off by the surface of an almost four-hour, black and white, subtitled film set in sixteenth century feudal Japan- The Seven Samurai is not only a great film in its own right but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. Film critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission- a theme we can see in films right from the early Westerns to modern films such as ‘Fast and Furious’ and even ‘The Avengers’.

Despite the length, the film moves quickly thanks to clear and defined storytelling and action scenes with a thrilling sweep. Kurosawa photographs men in action near better than anyone- one of his trademarks is the use of human tides, the camera sweeping through the action as people move, flowing from high to low rather than cutting into separate shots.

There are visual patterns within the film- at the start of the first battle with the bandits, the villagers rush around in panic and Kambei orders his samurai to calm and contain them, herding them under cover. Later, as just one bandit has been left, the villagers rush forward with delayed bravery to kill him. Now the samurai hurry to push them back.

This is a blockbuster in every sense, being the most expensive Japanese film ever made after everything was shot on location. It is also an epic period film (called a ‘jidaigeki’ in Japanese) that pits Takashi Shimura’s wise, zen-like leader against the wild intensity of Toshiro Mifune’s son-of-a-farmer samurai. They are employed along with five other swords-for-hire (of mixed ability) to protect a farming village from raiding bandits.

The film is also funny- occasionally darkly comic. When asked how many enemies he’s recently killed, one samurai responds: “since it is impossible to kill them all, I usually run away.”

Director Kurosawa was from samurai stock himself and wasn’t afraid to demolish the mythical status cinema had attributed to samurai figures.

Although the film is anchored in ancient Japanese culture it argues for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. The samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix- indeed these villagers have previously been hostile to samurai. Yet the bandits are an even greater threat and a value is added to the samurai along with resentment as the villagers are forced into hiring them.

The Samurai live through this resentment and open hostility as they risk their lives because that is the job and nature of the samurai. The bandits equally persevere, despite the village now being well defended. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them- a masochistic dedication to the implementation of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan and Japanese cinema. The characters perform the roles they have been assigned.

Yet, two of the movie’s significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. The boisterous showoff, Kikuchiyo, was not born a samurai but jumped caste to become one- he can barely ride a horse because his childhood gave him no opportunity to learn. There is also a forbidden romance between another samurai and a village girl but a farmer’s daughter could never marry a ronin!

When their relationship is discovered towards the end of the film, on the eve of the final battle, there are arguments in the village to “understand the young people”- although the appeal to romance is deigned for the modern 1950s audience and unlikely to have been uttered in the 1600s!

Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the fifty years of his career arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.