The Shining and Manifest Destiny

Few films have been analyzed as much as Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological horror film The Shining. Although the story itself is fairly straightforward, there are so many mysteries in the text and subtext that viewers can keep finding new things to analyze. Some of the analysis is fascinating, while some of it is utterly insane.

The 2012 documentary Room 237 explores all kinds of theories about the greater meaning of The Shining, and it’s kind of hilarious how far some of these people reach. One guy suggests that the whole story is a metaphor for Kubrick helping fake the moon landing footage, all because in one scene Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater.

shining36

Another woman rambles on about how her son once drew a picture that resembled something in The Shining, and I’m frankly not even sure what she’s getting at. Is she suggesting her son wrote The Shining? There’s a guy who played the movie forwards-and-backwards at the same time, another woman obsessed with a poster of a Minotaur that’s not even a Minotaur, and all kinds of nonsense to pad the thing to 90 minutes. In fact, there are only two theories in the documentary that seem to be pulled from someone’s head. The first is that Kubrick’s film is about the Holocaust, and while I don’t think there’s enough evidence presented to form a solid argument, I can see where the theory stems from. The other is that the film is about the slaughter and removal of Native Americans, and this is the one that has always intrigued me.

Bill Blakemore is interviewed about this topic in Room 237, and you can read his article from the mid ’80s here. The YouTube channels Rob Ager and Collative Learning (both created by Rob Ager) have videos suggesting similar theories. What’s interesting about the Native American theory as opposed to so many others is that it’s not just subtext—It’s text. In a single seemingly-throwaway line during the family’s tour of the hotel, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) says, “The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.” Inside the hotel’s Colorado Lounge, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) notices Native American artwork which she asks Ullman about…

shining20

…and we see more of this kind of artwork throughout the film.

shining19
The ground floor while Ullman is giving the tour.
shining26
Floor 2 as Danny is headed towards Room 237.

Sure, none of the main plot points involve something directly Native American, but it is there.

That said, my personal theory takes it a bit farther. It borrows pieces from these sources I’ve mentioned, and in my research, I’ve learned it shares a lot with this 2004 article by John Capo. To me, Kubrick’s The Shining is about American imperialism and manifest destiny, and the evils these ideas have inflicted on the world. A major factor in this is the removal and slaughter of Native Americans, so I agree with a lot of the points raised to defend that argument. As with any of my film essays, I will be spoiling the entire film, so make sure you’ve seen it at least once before reading. Unlike some other essays, I will not be breaking the film down scene-by-scene, and while I will mostly be going in chronological order, I will be jumping around a bit.

The opening credits feature gorgeous shots of Glacier National Park, displaying nature’s beauty untouched by human hands.

shining1

However, there is haunting synthesizer music playing, with Jack’s car driving along the highway like a terror creeping up.

shining 2

When Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) meets hotel manager Stuart Ullman, there’s an American flag on Ullman’s desk, and he is dressed in red, white, and blue.

shining 3

His shirt even has red stripes to send the point home. Wendy and Danny (Danny Lloyd) are dressed in similar patriotic colors in their first appearances.

shining 4

I could easily write it off as a coincidence if one was dressed this way, but the fact that it’s all three points to something intentional.

Note how Ullman tells the story about the former caretaker Grady who killed his wife and two daughters with an axe before shooting himself. He tells it in great detail to make sure Jack knows the horrible things that happened at the hotel before he moves there. However, when Ullman tells the family about the Native American burial ground the hotel was built on and the attacks that were fought off in the building of it, it’s merely a fact he gives on a tour. He doesn’t assume people would fear living at the Overlook for that reason, but the death of four white people? That’s cause for concern.

So what exactly is manifest destiny? This paragraph from History.com offers a pretty solid summary of the concept:

Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, is the idea that the United States is destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. The philosophy drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion and was used to justify the forced removal of Native Americans and other groups from their homes. The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.

There is no backing for this idea in the Constitution… or in any religious text… or frankly anywhere, yet it was a belief held by a good number of politicians and public figures, and it led to unspeakable tragedies. An even quicker summation of the concept (granted one written by someone defending it) is in the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” :

America, America, God shed His grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

It’s all summed up in those few lyrics—America is special, God made it special, and therefore ownership of the land is its destiny.

Take a look at the poster for the European release of The Shining. This is one Bill Blakemore’s biggest arguments to back up his interpretation.

shining18

“The tide of terror that swept America is here.” Sure, this could simply mean King’s novel or Kubrick’s film, but I have to agree that “swept America” is a deliberate choice of words, referring to manifest destiny and the terrifying tragedies it caused.

While Wendy and Danny try to make the most of moving to an abandoned hotel for five months, it’s clear neither of them really wants to go, nor do they have much say in the matter. When Ullman asks Jack how his family will take to staying there, he pauses for just a second before saying “They’ll love it.”

shining22

Jack is already clearly an abusive father and husband, emotionally and (at least once) physically, and he pays no mind to whether his family backs his decision. He is moving people he considers less than himself to a place they don’t want to go, simply because it will benefit his own convenience. Now who does that sound like?

The themes of Westward Expansion are brought up during the trip to the Overlook when Wendy mentions the Donner Party, a pioneer group who got snowbound and infamously ate the corpses of their own to survive. It is, of course, also foreshadowing for the Torrances, who will literally be snowbound with the father figuratively trying to eat his young.

There is a lot to be gleaned from the relatively lengthy tour of the hotel that the Torrances get on the last day of business.

shining23

Note how Ullman glosses over the details of the Native American artwork that Wendy notices, but will go into every detail about the rich people who stayed at the Overlook. Wendy asks if the Native American art is authentic, and Ullman says it’s “based mainly on Navajo and Apache motifs.” That’s. Not. Authentic.

When Ullman is talking about all the people who have stayed at the Overlook, it’s interesting that he points out that four Presidents have stayed there. Now, this line is in the book too, but here Ullman just says “four Presidents” and moves on, where in the book he lists Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon. The reference to “four Presidents” brings to mind another controversial landmark built on Native American lands, which just happens to be a shrine to manifest destiny.

shining 5

When Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is giving Wendy and Danny a tour of the kitchen, Danny begins to go into a trance and communicates with Hallorann telepathically, the “shining” referenced in the title.

shining6

As we zoom in closer to Hallorann, we see a can of Calumet baking powder, clearly placed in full view. In fact, if you follow the camera, which presumably follows Danny’s eye line, it is clearly zooming in on the Calumet before it switches to Hallorann. I think the Calumet is what is sending Danny into his shining mode, not Hallorann.

shining7

Calumet of course features a Native American as its logo, and the word is a French one for a Native American ceremonial pipe, called a “peace pipe” by European settlers, due to its use when a treaty was signed. Here, it can represent both the treaties that were broken between European settlers and Native Americans, and the recurring theme of planting yourself on someone else’s culture. Like the Overlook and its “authentic” artwork “based mainly on Navajo and Cherokee motifs,” Calumet is a European override of a culture that is not theirs.

Interestingly, when we see Jack trapped in the store room in the third act, the shelf is arranged like this.

shining8

Now the tragedy has been pushed to the front and cannot be avoided.

Before he ever came to the Overlook, Danny saw a vision of a river of blood pouring out of the hotel’s elevator.

shining9

So much blood pours out that the chairs start floating. At first we might think is foreshadowing, and as we learn about shining, we might think it’s the blood of the Grady family, but I think it’s more than that. Only two characters die in the film, and only one of them is killed in a bloody fashion, and the Grady family only had four members. This would definitely not be enough to create a full river of blood, but perhaps the Native American burial ground the hotel is built on would. The fact that the builders had to fight off attacks as the hotel was being built means blood was spilled in the building of the hotel, and it’s always been bubbling under the surface. Even the image of the elevator suggests that the blood is literally rising up from the ground.

In the opening scenes of the film, Wendy, Danny, Ullman, and even Hallorann (to a lesser extent) all wore at least one outfit featuring red, white, and blue. Jack was in fact the only main character not to dress like this in the early parts of the film (Bill Watson does not count as an important character. I’m sorry guy in Room 237 who spends like 10 minutes rambling about him.). However, as time goes on in the hotel, note how Jack and Wendy’s wardrobes change. Wendy, as she grows more into the role of the victim, wears darker, earthier colors one might associate with a Native American wardrobe.

shining10

Her one outfit even features Native American designs on it.

shining11

Meanwhile, as Jack grows into his role as oppressor, he is now the one wearing an outfit of red, white, and blue.

shining12

In fact, this is the only outfit we see Jack wear from an hour in until the end of the movie (save for the final shot).

While Jack should be working on his novel, we instead see him a throwing a tennis ball against the wall… right at a huge Native American-inspired mural.

shining21

Before we even see what Jack is doing, we hear the loud booming and echo of the ball hitting the wall, which suggests cannon fire or gun shots. Perhaps Jack is waking up the ghosts of the past by constantly attacking them.

This fades into a scene of Wendy and Danny running and playing outside, and Wendy’s first line is “The loser has to keep America clean.”

shining35

This is a reference to the anti-pollution nonprofit Keep America Beautiful and its famous “Great American Cleanup.” And what was the famous ad campaign that went with that cleanup?

shining24

Known as the “Crying Indian” ad, the ad campaign featured a Native American man (Iron Eyes Cody) mourning what America had become, particularly in regards to industry and pollution. To send the point home that is what Kubrick is referencing, Danny repeats the phrase “Keep America Clean” twice in this very short scene.

Up until this point, the only supernatural goings-on are 1) Danny’s visions of the hotel, 2) Danny’s telepathic communication with Hallorann, and 3) Danny seeing the Grady girls once in the game room. However, after this, Danny becomes curious about Room 237, sees the Grady girls in the hallway, and finally goes into Room 237.

What’s the thing that leads Danny into Room 237? A tennis ball, presumably the same one that Jack threw repeatedly against the Native American mural. Danny is playing with his cars when a tennis ball rolls down the hallway and winds up right in front of him.

shining27

Danny then gets up and walks down the hallway, where he sees there is a key in the cracked door of Room 237, and he walks in. We don’t see what’s in there though, as the scene fades out.

Jack’s scene at the bar with Lloyd is one of the first scenes that really made me start thinking about The Shining on a deeper level. It’s a shocking scene the first time we see it, because Jack sits at the bar, completely distraught, and seems to will the bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) into existence.

shining28

However, it’s his conversation with Lloyd that is the really intriguing part. When Lloyd pours him his first bourbon, Jack says, “White man’s burden, Lloyd my man. White man’s burden.” While one could assume he is merely saying alcoholism is a burden on him, the phrase itself comes from an 1899 Rudyard Kipling poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” In the poem, Kipling encourages white people to “Take up the white man’s burden” and colonize what he considers to be the weaker, non-white peoples of the world. Kipling wrote it as an ode to the British Empire primarily, but he also shared it with Theodore Roosevelt in hopes that it would win Americans to the side of conquering The Philippines. The poem is inspired by the same ideas that brought about manifest destiny, that white people are somehow better inherently and must spread their greatness throughout the world by conquest.

Jack tells Lloyd he’s the best bartender “From Timbuktu to Portland Maine—Or Portland, Oregon for that matter.”

shining29

There’s that sea-to-shining-sea idea of manifest destiny again, the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific, and the choice of Oregon brings to mind the Oregon Trail. His next line is “Here’s to five miserable months on the wagon and all the irreparable harm that it’s caused me,” which is of course a reference to his now-ruined sobriety, but also references the Oregon Trail, where settlers in covered wagons would travel west on treks that would usually last 4-6 months. It’s interesting that it’s the months on the wagon that have caused irreparable harm, because if it only refers to Jack being sober, what harm has he done in that time? He broke Danny’s shoulder in the past, but that was the last time he drank.

This could very well be nothing, but it’s interesting to me that in the book, Jack’s signature drink is Jack Daniel’s (a lame joke as his full name is John Daniel Torrance), but in the film, it’s bourbon on the rocks. I am not a whiskey snob and will not be getting into the debate about the differences between whiskeys and bourbons, but in 1964, Congress officially declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” I wonder if Kubrick changed Jack’s signature drink to have a little fun with this double meaning.

Even the name of the room Jack is drinking in is important.

shining30

The Gold Room brings to mind the gold rushes that brought so many people west, whether to California or Colorado, where The Shining is set. The California Gold Rush caused irreparable harm to the indigenous people of California, through disease, starvation, upheaval, and the California Genocide. In his book An American Genocide, The United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846–1873, Benjamin Madley puts the lowest possible number killed in this massacre at 9,492, and the 1925 book Handbook of the Indians of California estimates that the indigenous population of California was almost literally decimated by all of these factors, going from as many as 150,000 in 1848 to 16,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.

The next time Jack enters the Gold Room, it’s no longer just him and Lloyd, as the place is full of party-goers from ages past. It is here that he bumps into the ghost of Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), the man who killed his family with an axe years ago.

shining31

There is some confusion (and many theories) about why the man is called Delbert Grady here, but Ullman calls him Charles Grady in the beginning of the film. All I will say is that as far as my understanding of the film goes, they’re the same character.

Grady encourages Jack to “correct” his wife and son in the same way Grady “corrected” his wife and daughters. Grady, a Brit, is passing on his legacy of colonialism to Jack, an American. Despite acting and dressing like a butler, Grady speaks with Received Pronunciation, also known as the Queen’s English, suggesting someone in control of an empire is passing this legacy down.

Then there’s Grady’s mysterious insistence that Jack has “always been the caretaker” of the Overlook.

shining32

I know that a lot of theories about the film rely on this statement (which seems to be backed up by the final image of the film… I’ll get there.), but let’s really look at this. Jack has always been the caretaker? In a literal sense, there is no way this can be true. Obviously, as the movie goes on, any of the Torrances could be unreliable narrators, but we see Jack get hired early on, before everyone is going crazy (even if Jack is halfway there already), and we know for a fact Grady was once the caretaker. Grady also tells Jack this in King’s novel, where there is nothing to suggest that Jack has always been there. I don’t think we can take this statement at face value.

Instead, I think Kubrick includes it to tie back to Jack’s earlier reference to “White Man’s Burden.” Grady is telling him that it has always been his destiny to be the caretaker at the Overlook and to try and kill his family. Keep in mind that Grady says that he knows Jack has always been the caretaker, because he too has always been there. This is also a lie, as the Overlook was only built in the early 20th century. Like the men who built the Overlook and the American expansionists who believed in manifest destiny, Grady is erasing the past and supplanting himself there instead.

Grady also brings it to Jack’s attention that Danny is communicating with Dick Hallorann to help him out. In the book, Grady refers to Hallorann as the n-word and Jack merely says “Hallorann?,” but here, he repeats the word back to Grady. It’s in this scene, where Jack fully accepts what he believes to be his “destiny” and fully embraces his racism, that he fully commits to killing his family.

In the book, Jack tries to kill his family with a mallet used in the game of roque (a variant of croquet), but in the film, it’s an axe. While the reason could easily be nothing more than a roque mallet not being as scary as an axe (Or, if we’re being honest, scary at all), but I think there’s a bit more to it. The image of Jack running with an axe, and particularly the one of him cutting through the door, brings to mind settlers felling trees with axes in the name of westward expansion.

shining33

In the book, Hallorann is only injured in his attempts to help the Torrances, but in the film, he is axed down moments after entering the Overlook. Make any joke you want about the Black guy always dying first in slashers, but Kubrick knew what he was doing here.

shining34

Let’s go back to History Channel’s description of manifest destiny.

The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.

While this ultimately led to the Civil War, for a time it led to more states being created, which in an attempt to please both sides led to more slave states being created. In the name of manifest destiny and westward expansion, more Black people were harmed. Like in so many American tragedies, minorities suffered a disproportionate percentage of the fallout. Hallorann’s brutal and quick death also shows the attitude American expansionists had towards anyone standing in their way.

In the original cut of The Shining, there was one extra scene that was included after Jack is frozen to death but before we see him in the final photograph. This scene was screened at the premiere of the film, but Kubrick cut it out later. We only have the drafted version of the scene, as the scene itself no longer exists, but it involves Danny and Wendy in a hospital recovering and Stuart Ullman coming to visit them. He insists that they come to his house in Los Angeles to stay for a while and get things in order, and at the end, he throws a tennis ball to Danny, the same one that led him into Room 237. This suggests that Ullman was in on it the whole time, and knew exactly what he was doing in hiring Jack. Take a look at this quote from Ullman:

Mrs. Torrance, I’d like to take the liberty of suggesting that you and Danny come and spend a while at my place in L.A. At least until you get your feet on the ground. It would be great for Danny. It’s right on the beach. You fall asleep with the sound of the waves, and in the morning you open the shutters and there you are—ocean—blue skies and sunshine. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all. I’ve got a marvelous housekeeper and two spare bedrooms. I really think this would be the best thing for you and Danny. I won’t take no for an answer.   

If Jack’s was ultimately a failed attempt at a metaphorical Westward Expansion, this is the completion of it. They’ve gone all the way west to the Pacific. Like the American expansionists, Ullman is insistent in his belief, uncaring what others think about it. He won’t take no for an answer, and as the tossing of the tennis ball suggests, his intentions are not good.

Alright, let’s talk about the final image of the film. The picture of Jack Torrance… or a man who looks like him… or his ancestor… or his ghost in a photograph from the Overlook’s July 4, 1921 Ball is one of the most perplexing and debated images in all of cinema.

shining14

Personally, I find this scene one of the most chilling in all of The Shining, mainly because no one should be in the hotel at this point, yet we are clearly following someone’s point of view. We slowly walk the hallway as Ray Noble’s “Midnight, the Stars and You” plays, and we finally zoom in on that image.

Kubrick was a photographer originally, and the image of Jack Nicholson was seamlessly airbrushed in over this Joel Grey lookalike.

shining13

Maybe Jack’s soul is now absorbed by the hotel, or maybe he is the reincarnation of someone who once worked at the Overlook years ago. However, I think Kubrick is trying to show that Jack is now a part of history. Regardless of the terrible things he did, he will now be remembered like this. Just like he was literally frozen in the snow, he is now frozen in history, and people will defend his legacy.

Even in something of a meta sense, inserting Jack into this photo is rewriting history. Like the Overlook itself, Kubrick took something historical and built his own legacy on top of it. Jack was not the caretaker in 1921—He was an abusive father and murderer in 1980—but this is how history will remember him. There’s also the fact that the photo is labeled “July 4th Ball.” Here they are at the Overlook on America’s birthday, quite literally dancing on the graves of dead Natives.

Again, this is a real photo from the ’20s, but obviously Kubrick chose it for a reason. In an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick called every face around Jack “an archetype of the period.” I think it’s particularly interesting how much this man…

shining16

…looks like a young Rudyard Kipling.

shining15

I’m not suggesting the man in the photo is Kipling (who was far older and balder in 1921) or that Kubrick thought it was, but the resemblance might not be a coincidence.

The Shining has always been an enigmatic film, as it subverts or outright ignores so many common horror tropes. It’s an isolationist horror with only a few characters, but the hotel is huge and expansive. It features a mad man with a sharp weapon, but he only creates one victim before biting it himself. It’s a ghost story, but the effect to which the ghosts are real is ambiguous. While I feel pretty confident in some of the points I’ve raised here, others are possibly just in my head. I think it’s intentional that the ghosts start to manifest not long after back-to-back scenes featuring clear Native American imagery, and as things get worse for Jack, the tragedy of the Native Americans is pushed forward, as we see things like the Calumet cans and the river of blood emphasized. Things like wardrobe feel intentional, especially for a perfectionist like Kubrick, and the lines of dialogue that reference Native American culture and colonialism are sometimes repeated in the same scene so we don’t miss them.

Regardless, The Shining is a story about a white man who, for no reason besides personal gain, takes people he doesn’t care about from their home to a place they don’t want to go, where he breaks promises to them and ultimately tries to kill them. Maybe it’s a story about more than just one person doing that.

HOME

The Night of the Hunter: Scene Dissection (Part 3)

 

Well, I’ve covered almost the first hour of The Night of the Hunter, and in today’s post, I’ll be covering the rest of the film.

PART 3: DARKNESS AND LIGHT

54:48-58:03

The children run from Uncle Birdie’s docked wharf boat to the skiff boat he has restored. As they’re untying the boat, Harry Powell rises up and calls to them.

hunter63

Instead of a light rising up from the shadows, he’s a shadow rising up from the light. As he struggles through brush and briar to get to them, the children’s boat takes off just in time and catches the current.

hunter64

This causes Harry to let out a scream so primordial and haunting that you’ll quickly forget it’s actually a scream of defeat. The echo of the scream smoothly transitions into a much more mystical sounding score, as The Night of the Hunter gives us one of the most beautifully haunting scenes of all time.

hunter65

There is so much of The Night of the Hunter that can be analyzed beat-by-beat (as I’ve hopefully shown in my last two posts), but a lot of the riverboat scene is beyond analysis. Between the visuals of the starry night and animals on the shore, and the dreamlike music, it’s a whole experience.

Pearl sings about a fly whose wife flew away, and whose children then “flew away, into the sky, into the moon.” Since John isn’t awake, and Pearl’s voice is strong and dreamlike (the actress was dubbed by Betty Benson), I’ve always imagined this as either Pearl’s dream or at least her internal monologue. Maybe she can’t vocalize what’s on her mind, but this dreamlike song sums up her feelings. In that sense, it’s her version of John’s bedtime story from early in the film. John pictured his father as a king in Africa running from “bad men,” while Pearl imagines her and her brother as flies flying away from danger.

During the song, we see both a spider web…

hunter66

And a frog.

hunter67

Both of these are common traps for flies, and it might be playing to Shelley Winters’ aforementioned description of her character as being like “a fly fascinated by a spider.” John and Pearl have escaped the predator at the moment, but he will never be too far away.

58:03-58:51

We only see the townspeople of Cresap’s Landing twice more in the film, and the first time is for a quick moment after Pearl’s song. Some time later, Walt is reading a postcard from Harry, explaining that he’s taken the kids to his sister’s farm. Once again, we’re told that Walt had his concerns about the sudden disappearance, but once again, Harry Powell’s lies make them go away.

hunter68

This time, however, Walt was worried that “gypsies” came and killed all three of them, also mentioning that one gypsy killed a farmer and stole his horse, but saying that neither the attacker nor the horse was found.

58:51-1:01:15

This transitions rather eerily, via a shaky birds-eye view and zoom-in, to Harry Powell riding a horse across the countryside.

hunter69

He is relentless in his pursuit, not caring that he knifed down an innocent farmer just to take his horse.

Meanwhile, the children stop at a house on the shore to get food, and it’s clear the woman there is worn out from feeding so many people.

hunter96

Along the way, Harry works as peach picker, and can’t help but preach at his fellow men as they’re gathered around a campfire.

hunter70

His topic now, of course, is children rebelling against their elders. These men seem to have no interest in his preaching though, as the only reaction is one of them spitting in the fire. Like at the burlesque show earlier, the men around Harry Powell don’t matter. They’re just ghosts.

On the shores of the river, we see a turtle…

hunter71

and soon after, two rabbits.

hunter72

It might seem rather random at first, and as animal experts will point out, it’s a desert tortoise which is not even native to West Virginia. That said, I believe Laughton is referencing Aesop’s Fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” In the fable, a tortoise and a hare compete in a race, and the hare is so confident of his victory that he takes a nap right before the finish line, letting the turtle catch up to him and win. The children undeniably get a head start on Harry, but Harry is better at using his resources to catch up. The fact that we see two rabbits but only one tortoise backs up the argument that Laughton is referencing the fable, and the children’s next action makes the reference even clearer.

1:01:15-1:05:36

hunter73

The children come to a farm, and John decides they’ll spend the night in the barn. Like Aesop’s hare, they are confident they are safely ahead of their foe, and are taking a respite. The light in the window and the woman singing a lullaby to her child seem comforting and safe, but it’s hard to miss how fake the barn and house really look. This isn’t just skimping on set design or a production flaw. These buildings look fake, because they’re just a facade—in both senses of the word.

The children sleep for some time in the barn, but in the middle of the night, the barking of dogs wakes John up (The concept of dogs detecting evil is a classic literary trope.), and just seconds later, he hears that eerie “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms.” Like the tortoise in the fable, Harry Powell has somehow caught up to them while they were sleeping.

hunter74

John even verbalizes the question we’re all asking—”Don’t he never sleep?” This is such a brilliant little moment, as John awakes from a dream to see the nightmare right in front of him. The whippoorwill calls and the crickets chirping just add to the effect, as the mood quickly goes from calming and naturalistic to terrifying.

Thankfully, unlike the hare in the tale, John wakes Pearl, and they quickly get back in the boat and escape again.

hunter75

1:05:36-1:13:58

At one point, both Pearl and John drift off to sleep, and the children’s boat is pulled (by tide or divine intervention) to a bank where Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) finds them the next morning.

hunter76

Rachel is a tough foster parent to the children she takes in, but she does care for them deeply. One of the things that makes Rachel Cooper the only helpful adult in the whole narrative is that she understands that silence isn’t a bad thing. Think about all the other adults in the narrative and how they relate to children. Harry can only monologue about his twisted version of Scripture, Icey Spoon never shuts up, Uncle Birdie means well but is just hung up on the good old days, and even the woman whose home the children stopped at earlier just told them to go away when they said they didn’t have any parents. Rachel asks John and Pearl where they’re from and where their parents are, and she tries to get an answer out of them, but when they don’t answer, she just smiles and says she has “two more mouths to feed.” She recognizes that they’ve been through something tough and probably are not ready to speak yet.

John is the only boy among the children, but we learn that Rachel has a rather strained relationship with her own adult son. When Rachel pulls out a Bible and begins telling the story of baby Moses being found at the banks of the river, John leaves the room, afraid she will be just like all the other religious hypocrites he knew in Cresap’s Landing (Or even worse, a sociopath like Harry Powell), but unlike them, Rachel lets him do his own thing. She doesn’t say “Mind your manners, come inside,” or go on a long-winded rant about how horrible children are. She merely tells the story to the girls, and once she’s sent them off to bed, she tries to connect with John.

hunter77

John tells Rachel that his parents are dead, and merely that he’s from “upriver.” He worries that if he tells the whole story, no one will believe him, so he tests it out by telling her this much. Instead of talking at him, Rachel simply believes him, and they hold hands in silence for a while until he asks her to help him understand the story she was telling.

1:13:58-1:17:02

We haven’t seen Harry Powell since John saw him from the barn, and we haven’t seen him up close for longer than that. The mood definitely changes once John and Pearl wash ashore, and while this is a bit jarring, it makes sense from a realistic storytelling perspective. John and Pearl are now safe, and this time it’s not an illusion or facade. Harry obviously has to return to the story, but we do go quite a while without him.

When he does re-appear, it’s in town, where he talks with Rachel’s oldest foster child Ruby (Gloria Castillo), who is clearly attracted to him. He uses this to his advantage, and finds out that John and Pearl (and the doll) are at Rachel Cooper’s house.

hunter78

I’ve read the Davis Grubb novel of the same name that The Night of the Hunter is based on, and honestly, it’s not that great. A lot of the same things happen, but Laughton presents them in such an innovative way, and he really brings the themes out far better than the novel does. One of the most uncomfortable things about the novel is the portrayal of Ruby, who Grubb uncomfortably sexualizes and treats pretty much like an adult, despite the fact that she’s thirteen. Her age is not specified in the film, but actress Gloria Castillo was twenty-two, and I’ve always assumed the character was somewhere around sixteen or seventeen. Even more so, the film goes out of the way to show her as a victim of both the creepy teenage boys who leer at her, and Harry Powell who flirts with her just to find out about John and Pearl. Rachel doesn’t punish her for being out on the town when she said she was at a sewing lesson, but merely tells her she’ll grow up to be a strong woman.

hunter79

1:17:02-1:20:05

The next morning, Harry Powell rides up to Rachel’s home to try and get the kids back. Unlike everyone else in the movie, Rachel is immediately suspicious of him.

hunter80

First, Harry attempts a sob story about how hard he’s struggled to find the kids, but Rachel just notices his knuckle tattoos. He thinks he can win her over with the style-over-substance LOVE and HATE story he always tells, but she quickly interrupts it and asks him more questions. When she asks where the children’s mother is, he says she “ran off with a drummer.” At first, I assumed this was a joke about conservative Christians hating drumbeats in their music, but it goes deeper than that. In the ’30s, a drummer was a traveling salesman who would go from town-to-town and “drum up” excitement for whatever product he was selling. A successful sale usually relied far more on the presentation itself than the product that was being sold. Essentially, in Harry’s story, his wife ran off with a woman who is exactly what he is—a salesman who goes from town-to-town giving a showy presentation and hoping the naive will buy what he’s selling. It’s such a great little throwaway line.

Unlike Icey and Walt, Rachel points out the contradictions in Harry’s story. In his story, the children would have come downriver, when in reality they came upriver. Icey would have believed whatever excuse he offered, but Rachel isn’t having it. When the kids are brought out, Pearl understandably goes right towards Harry, but John stands his ground. When Rachel tells John to listen to his dad, he gives her a sly, knowing look and says “He ain’t my dad.” Rachel confirms that she is the lone helpful adult he has encountered by saying “No, and he ain’t no preacher neither.” John lunges for the doll and hides under the porch with it. Harry pulls out his knife, but Rachel comes onto the porch with a shotgun and makes him leave.

hunter81

He rants about how terrible Rachel is as he makes his way to his horse and threatens to come back “when it’s dark.” It’s not very smart for a criminal to announce when he’ll be coming back, but up against someone like Rachel, Harry is weakened. It’s also something of a fairy-tale motif for a villain to make a threat like this.

1:20:05-1:24:19

hunter82

That night, Harry Powell sits outside the house and sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to make his presence known. Inside the house, all the lights are off so Rachel can see him illuminated on the porch, as she sits waiting with a shotgun.

hunter83

She proves that she is a worthy competitor to Harry when she joins in his singing of the hymn with the “Leaning on Jesus” response in the chorus.

hunter84

Here, in an inverse of usual symbolism, we have the villain illuminated in a bright light, and the hero cast in a black shadow. He may come off as a smooth, godly hero, and she might come off as rude, but appearances can be deceiving.

Rachel is unwavering in her actions, planning to stay right in that spot so the wolf doesn’t get in the house. However, Ruby hears Harry’s singing outside and walks up to Rachel with a candle.

hunter85

The way the candle blurs the outdoor shot so Harry can break into the house is just brilliant. Rachel quickly blows out the candle, but Harry is no longer in sight. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez said that Charles Laughton was one of the few directors who truly understood light, and this is one of many scenes that brings that out.

We cut to an owl sitting in a tree, watching a rabbit and finally flying down and attacking at the perfect time.

hunter86

Like the owl, Harry is a nocturnal predator who will wait as long as it takes to strike on his prey.

Rachel lines the kids up and paces back and forth in front of them with a shotgun, knowing Harry could very well be in the house.

hunter87

This doesn’t stop her from teaching them a Bible lesson though, as she tells them the story of Joseph and Mary escaping the slaughter of the innocents by running to Egypt. Understandably, stories about young children or adults with young children running away from danger is on her mind.

She hears a noise and sees Harry’s shadow, and tells the children to run. She points the gun in the direction of where she thinks he is, and he pops up right in front of her.

hunter88

Rachel shoots him, and he runs out of the house, screaming in pain comically like the Big Bad Wolf in Disney’s The Three Little Pigs.

hunter89

Like the wolf in the story, once he’s up against someone that poses an actual threat, he’s not all that scary. When Rachel calls the police, she simply says that there’s something “trapped in her barn.” Powell has been compared to animals all throughout the film, but now he’s nothing more than a pest that has to be removed.

1:24:19-1:25:50

When the police show up to arrest Harry, he tries to make a pathetic last stand by holding his knife up, but he’s so badly injured that it’s in vain.

hunter90

Seeing the police apprehend Harry Powell causes John to finally release the emotions he’s been holding onto since his father made him swear not to tell anyone where the money he was. He runs towards Harry and shakes the money out of the doll, saying he doesn’t want it anymore. The burden his father put on him was just too much.

hunter91

Although almost universally regarded as a classic, The Night of the Hunter is sometimes criticized for its pacing, and I can’t say I don’t understand where these criticisms come from. The main thriller aspects are pretty much resolved when the kids land at Rachel’s house, and Harry’s story is finished when he runs into the barn like a wild animal. John’s arc undeniably ends here, as he gives the money up and is released from his oath. So why does the movie keep going after this? Well who’s the next character we see?

1:25:50-1:28:51

hunter92

While technically this scene involves John on the witness stand, unable to talk about what has happened, the first person we see is Icey Spoon shouting “Lynch him!” in the middle of a trial, and riling up the entire gallery to do the same.

I’ve read some defense of Icey in this scene, suggesting it’s a kind of redemption, since she has now turned against Harry Powell, but I don’t think that’s what Laughton is trying to get across. She still has to be the loudest person in the room, and she still has to be the one leading the lynch mob. If she really cared about Harry Powell being brought to justice, and if she really cared about Willa Harper’s kids like she claims she does, she would not interrupt a trial while John is on the witness stand.

Later that night, Rachel and her foster children are eating dinner at a restaurant, but Icey, Walt, and the lynch mob run in, and Icey loudly shouts “Them poor orphans!”

hunter93

Rachel and the children have to escape out the back door and try to avoid the Spoon-led mob that is now wreaking havoc on the town.

hunter94

This is where we leave Walt and Icey, and by extension the entire town of Cresap’s Landing—falling in line with someone they think is doing the right thing, but completely unaware of the damage they’re doing to everyone around them. In short, nothing has changed.

1:28:51-1:32:33

The final Christmas scene is a little overly-sweet, but I think it’s an attempt at a realistic version of a happily ever after. If Laughton is going for fairy tale motifs, the sweetness here makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t feel right for a thriller, but I don’t think this is some magical “Everyone is fine now.” John was still silent on the witness stand, and while he definitely is starting to trust Rachel, he is still a bit cold and restrained. It’s going to take time, but hopefully with the right influences, he’ll grow into a well-balanced person.

hunter95

If you think the movie is overly-saccharine here, the book just goes on and on about how John will never have any trouble again because Harry Powell is now gone. It’s clearly written from the perspective of someone who has no understanding of PTSD or childhood trauma (or honestly, concise endings), so this is definitely an improvement. The film ends more on Rachel’s hope for the child that it does on anything definite, and that’s good.

I hope you’ve been able to find something new in this timeless classic as I’ve broken it down. It’s really one that benefits from re-watches and analysis. Some parts will make you think, and others are so absorbing that you just have to let the move take you where it will.

HOME

 

The Night of the Hunter: Scene Dissection (Part 2)

In my first post on The Night of the Hunter, I took a look at the film’s first 25 minutes and how Harry Powell quickly won over the naive people of Cresap’s Landing. Today, I’ll continue breaking down the movie’s scene-by-scene as the children realize they can’t trust anyone.

PART 2: A TOWN FAILS ITS CHILDREN

24:40-25:39

Sometime later, John is at Uncle Birdie’s wharf boat listening to him play a song about the good old days on the banjo.

hunter31

John tries to interrupt his song to ask when the skiff boat will be ready, knowing already that Harry Powell’s presence could mean he’ll have to run away, but Birdie ignores him until the song is done. The child is thinking ahead, while the adult is the one singing childish songs. Even then, Birdie assumes John wants to go fishing with him on the boat, which isn’t wrong, but he has no idea that John is also thinking of more serious things.

25:39-27:33

John walks home from Uncle Birdie’s and passes his mother at Spoon’s Ice Cream Parlor celebrating with Icey.

hunter61

When he gets home, he sees the light on and assumes someone is there, but doesn’t see anyone until Harry Powell corners him in the hallway. He’s going out of his way to intimidate the boy, and he does get John to say he’ll never tell, confirming to him that John knows where the money is.

hunter62

This scene reminds us that despite being wiser than the adults in the town, John is still just a young boy. He shouldn’t have to be thrown into this situation, and he is going to make mistakes. While he might not forgive himself for making a mistake, it is not his fault, but only the fault of the useless adults who put him there.

Harry tells John that he and Willa are to be married, and that Willa has told him that he should break the news. We can infer that it was really Harry who insisted on talking to the boy, representing Willa’s loss of agency. By clinging to this man who thinks women have no value, she loses any individuality she had, especially in terms of a relationship with her son.

There’s a great piece of Walter Schumann’s score that plays when John runs up the stairs. It starts as something dramatic and tense, like he’s running away from a monster, but it transitions beautifully into something peaceful and lovely as the following scene is Harry and Willa driving off to their honeymoon.

27:33-31:10

On Harry and Willa’s wedding night, Willa checks herself in the mirror and looks in Harry’s coat pocket. Seeing his knife, she immediately smiles and says, “Men.” The Willa of a few scenes ago has begun to transform into this naive, subservient character. On a rewatch, we know that this is the weapon that will soon kill her, adding to the disturbing irony.

hunter32

When she walks over to the bed and sees Harry extend his hand, she plans to take it, but he instead clenches it into a fist and points at a window shade that he’d like her to fix. He insists he was praying and then verbally uses her for wanting to have sex, going on a long rant about how women have corrupted men since Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Interestingly, Icey was unknowingly right about Harry Powell when she said at the picnic, “A husband’s one piece of store good you never know ’til you get it home and take the paper off.”

Instead of acknowledging something is wrong, Willa instead submits to Harry’s wishes and prays a very telling prayer: “Help me to get clean, so I can be what Harry wants me to be.”

hunter33

There’s no mention of God here, but only what Harry wants her to be. Unfortunately, what Harry wants her to be is a victim.

31:10-32:13

hunter34

We get a brief scene of John and Uncle Birdie fishing on the river, mainly to establish that the boat he’s been working on restoring is usable now. It also shows us that despite Willa completely changing into the kind of woman Harry wants her to be, John remains unwavering. Uncle Birdie asks John if he minds him swearing, since his step-father is a preacher, but John says no. It’s interesting that Birdie pretty much just assumes people will change under these circumstances, but he’s definitely relieved that John won’t.

32:13-33:11

hunter35

At a fiery revival service that is lit a lot more like Hell than Heaven, Willa tells the audience how it was all her fault that Ben Harper robbed a bank and killed two men, and that the Lord stepped in by having Ben throw the money into the river. In the script, this scene happens right after Willa prays that she will be what Harry wants her to be, showing ironically that her prayers have been answered, but it’s also effective to have the light scene of fishing interrupt the two dark scenes.

Now Willa has completely become the kind of woman Harry wants her to be, which is reflected in her wardrobe which is now entirely formless and unglamorous. It’s noteworthy that the point of the sermon isn’t “The Depression is so bad that good men are doing bad things” or even the more cut-and-dry “Don’t rob and murder,” but rather “Look what a woman made him do.” In the version of the story Willa tells, Ben walked right up to her with the money and told her to buy the clothes and makeup she had been bothering him for, but then threw it in the river when God spoke to him. While she has convinced herself that the “throwing it in the river” part is true, Willa knows as well as we do that Ben never even spoke to her after committing his crimes. He stole the money to feed his family, because he was worried his children and wife would go hungry. Just like Harry twists Scripture to fit his message, has has now twisted the story of Ben Harper to fit it.

The way this scene is lit is harrowing, as the people in the back row are almost entirely shadows, similar to the burlesque show earlier.

hunter36

The lighting in this movie never attempts realism, instead drawing from the exaggerated visuals of silent films and German expressionism. It works beautifully, as it keeps with the “Dark fairy tale” theme that Laughton is going for. The extreme lighting and music unsettle us, but it’s never style-over-substance. The two work together in perfect harmony to great a gorgeously haunting film.

33:11-35:12

hunter37

One night, Pearl is playing with her doll out on the front walk and cutting up a few of the bills inside. She tells John that what she did was “a sin,” because she’s been hearing the church buzzwords from the time she was born, but she has no understanding of the concepts. She only knows it’s a “sin,” because it’s upset someone, which isn’t too bad if a young child has reasonable and moral parents, but will spell disaster when a monster like Harry Powell moves in and expects obedience to his code.

When Harry sees them playing, they quickly clean up the money, and Harry pulls John aside to threaten him in a passive-aggressive manner.

hunter38

He says that it doesn’t matter if John tells his mother about the money, because Willa believes Harry. In the next scene, we see that Harry is unfortunately right.

35:12-36:03

hunter39

Willa asks John why he would make up the lie about Harry asking about the money. It’s a very short scene, but just look how tired and worn-out Shelley Winters looks and sounds here. Willa has been constantly worn down by an abusive husband, not to mention the town that wouldn’t let her grieve for the first one, but she blames it on herself and her son.

When leaving Spoon’s Ice Cream Parlor on a night not long after, Willa tells Walt and Icey, “I’m needed to keep peace and harmony betwixt them. It’s my burden, and I’m proud of it, Icey.”

hunter40

Obviously she is doing anything but keeping peace and harmony between her son and his step-father, but she has been gaslit so much that she believes it. Note how even her language here has changed, as she uses the word “betwixt,” which fits more with Harry Powell’s King James English than her own modern way of speaking. The scene ends in a particularly eerie fashion, as the camera lingers on Willa taking a long walk into a dark, foggy night. Even first time viewers know something horrible is lurking on the horizon.

hunter41

36:03-38:13

At home, Harry Powell interrogates John and Pearl about the money.

hunter42

When Willa arrives, she listens outside the house and hears Harry yelling at Pearl and threatening her if she doesn’t tell where it is. Willa stands there in disbelief—It’s not shock, but she’s just shaking her head and trying to smile, knowing this doesn’t line up with the lie she wants to believe is true.

Willa walks inside as Harry is chasing Pearl. I love how Harry’s expression changes the moment she walks through the door.

hunter44

Willa again nods in disbelief, like she is constantly trying to convince herself this isn’t happening. Winters says so much without speaking a single word in this scene. Instead of hearing Harry’s side out, she simply follows her daughter into (presumably) a closet.

38:13-38:35

hunter45

In a very brief scene, Walt discloses to Icey that he’s concerned about Willa’s safety and that he feels something isn’t right about Harry Powell. She of course downplays it and insists he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but the scene really says more about Walt than it does about Icey, as we already know how she feels about it. Walt has an inkling that is undeniably correct, yet he 1) is already apologetic before he says anything, 2) cannot pin down why he feels this way, and 3) refuses to actually do anything about it. The only defense he offers is that he has a right to feel this way, but apparently it’s nothing more than a passing whim.

38:35-40:11

We cut to later that night in Harry and Willa’s bedroom, where Willa is finishing her prayer.

hunter46

Note how this is an inverse of their wedding night, where Willa was the one standing the corner waiting, and Harry was the one in bed praying. She now knows that the money isn’t at the bottom of the river, but she’s still delusional about Harry Powell and God’s will. Even after Harry slaps her, she continues to monologue about how wonderful it is that the money brought them together, and how it’s impossible that Harry could have only married her for the money.

Meanwhile, Harry is completely ignoring her as he raises his hand to heaven and seems to be waiting for “God’s” blessing to kill Willa.

hunter47

The exaggerated lighting and set design make the room look quite like a church, with the bed being the altar and Willa being the sacrifice. She may not be bound physically, but she is emotionally. She knows what is happening, but literally takes it lying down. Even if she doesn’t care about her own life, she’s so weak by this point that she doesn’t take into consideration what she’s doing to her children. Ben Harper said he robbed a bank so he would never have to see his children roaming the countryside begging for food, but this is now literally what they’ll have to do.

40:11-43:39

In the middle of the night, John wakes up to hear Willa’s car being driven away. He wonders what’s going on, but goes back to bed.

The next morning, Harry is at Spoon’s Ice Cream Parlor, feigning grief at Willa’s disappearance.

hunter48

Icey insists that Walt go speak with him, but when Harry takes a verse out of context to say how terrible women are, Icey just has to run and comfort him instead.

Again, Walt is not entirely convinced that the story holds up, but he doesn’t do anything about it. Sure, he asks some questions, but either Harry’s answers are good enough to convince him, or he really is so weak-willed that he knows something is up but refuses to do anything.

Harry’s story about Willa running off has clearly not been well-thought-out, and it seems like a lot is made up spur-of-the-moment, but it convinces Icey (and possibly Walt), which is all he needs to do.

hunter49

Note how contradictory the spiritual aspects of Harry’s story are. First, Icey asks “What could have possessed that girl?” to which Harry quickly replies, “Satan.” Icey of course agrees with this. However, just a minute later, he says, “Maybe it was never meant for a woman like Willa to taint their young lives,” and that it even was “ordained that way.” Then, at the end of the scene, he switches back and says “The Devil wins sometimes.” Well which is it? Is it the Devil working or is this God’s will? It can’t logically be both, but again, he looks like a preacher and talks vaguely like one, so they’re satisfied. He talks about the Devil working and about God’s will, and even though they inexplicably overlap in this story, the people are happy.

43:39-44:49

In one of the most famous shots of the film, we see where Willa’s corpse actually ended up. In a truly cruel case of irony, she has now been thrown into the river, where Harry had convinced her the money was.

hunter50

In this silent scene, we see Uncle Birdie discover her corpse while fishing, but we don’t see any more of that for now. Instead, we hear Harry singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” long before the scene cuts away. It’s always impressive if a movie can take an existing, popular song and make you only think of the movie when you hear it, and Robert Mitchum’s creepy, baritone voice singing the hymn might just be the ultimate example of this.

44:49-48:16

It’s amusing that this scene transitions into one of Harry Powell literally leaning against a tree.

hunter51

There are some brilliant night scenes in The Night of the Hunter, but it does the daylight horror just as well. It’s already been established how easily Harry can get away with things in Cresap’s Landing, so even a scene of him standing outside the house in broad daylight and calling for the children is creepy. This is also, surprisingly, the only time he says “Children, chillldren” in that now famous, sing-songy way. It’s such a memorable moment that you would probably think it happens throughout the movie, but it’s just this once.

As Harry walks right past the basement window, the camera zeroes-in on John and Pearl hiding out in the basement.

hunter52

It’s a tribute to the camerawork of silent films, which Laughton was intentionally drawing from when making The Night of the Hunter, saying he wanted to “restore the power of silent films to talkies.” Realism in film can be used very effectively, but there’s something mystical about the silent horror films like Nosferatu and Haxan that didn’t carry over to a lot of films in the ’30s and ’40s. Sometimes dreams are scarier than reality, and a lot of great horror movies have this dreamlike effect that’s lost when you go for absolute realism.

John and Pearl are hiding out in the basement, and John tries to explain to Pearl that they’re in danger, but knows she won’t understand everything. The only explanation he can give about what happened to their mother is that she went to Moundsville to see their father.

Meanwhile, Harry is now searching the house relentlessly for the children.

hunter53
I do appreciate the irony in the monster looking under the bed.

With Willa out of the way, his mind is set entirely on one thing—finding the money. If he has to kill the children to get it, he gladly will. As he is walking down the stairs to the basement, he’s interrupted by Icey Spoon, dropping by with some food for the poor, poor family. At Icey’s insistence, the children come out of the basement and upstairs, and she goes on and on about how horrible she feels for Harry before leaving.

48:16-49:16

That night, an intoxicated Uncle Birdie wrestles with what to do about finding Willa’s body. He talks to a picture of his dead wife and says the law will think he was the murderer if he reports what he saw.

hunter55

From an editing perspective, it might seem a bit odd at first for Laughton to put this scene where he does. The dinner is dropped off and Icey leaves, we cut to Uncle Birdie, then we cut back to Harry and the children sitting at the table. Why wouldn’t we just see Birdie debating it in the same scene we see him discover the body? First, it gives the impression that he’s been wrestling with it for a long time. He discovered the body (presumably) in the morning, and now it’s dinner time and he’s still struggling. Second, and more importantly, Laughton places the scene immediately after Icey leaves the house. The two adults in town who think they’re doing good are both face-to-face with pure evil and do absolutely nothing about it. If we have any hope of Icey catching onto Harry’s evil, or Birdie going to the law, it’s extinguished here.

In Birdie’s slight defense, he’s probably correct that the town would quickly turn on him. Even if they believed him at first, you can just see Harry Powell quickly working out a story that’s convincing enough to win the townsfolk over. It’s not an excuse for Birdie’s actions, but it’s definitely an explanation of them.

49:16-54:48

hunter56

Now that he’s alone with the children, Harry promises them they can eat if they talk about the money. (Interestingly, he refers to the obviously baked chicken as “fried chicken,” which is either proof that his misogyny is so deep-seated that he refuses to know anything even tangential to cooking, or it’s just a mistake.) He pulls out his knife, and makes it very clear it will be used on them if they don’t talk.

John lies that the money is hidden in the basement, but Harry is smart enough to know that it could be a lie, so he makes them go down first (also a nice call-back to Ben and Harry discussing the “A little child shall lead them” verse in prison). When Harry is about to kill John for lying, Pearl screams “It’s in my doll!” which saves John in the moment, as Harry backs away for a second to ponder it, but gives Harry no reason to keep the children alive, as he knows where the money is now. John thinks quickly and makes the contents of a shelf fall on Harry’s head, and the kids run up the basement stairs. Harry trips over a can, but regains his composure. As he chases them up the stairs, he reaches his hands out in a shout-out to the famous Frankenstein’s monster walk.

hunter58

When the kids slam the door on his hands, he lets out a very cartoony “Ow!”

There’s a lot going on in just a few seconds, from the sillier cartoon slapstick to the monster imagery, but make no mistake—it’s all intentional. This is often a grim and nightmarish movie, so Laughton obviously knew when something looked silly. In fact, this scene foreshadows something that Laughton touches on more in the third act, which is that Harry isn’t the world’s smartest serial killer. He intentionally preys on the weak because he isn’t that strong himself. He makes stupid decisions, relying on emotion instead of logical thought, and he loses his temper so quickly (particularly in regards to women) that hiding his evil nature is pretty difficult. Sure, to the children at the moment, he is Frankenstein’s monster, something horrifying and inhuman out of their nightmares, but up against any real threat, he’s something of a joke.

From the very first scene of the film, Harry Powell is called a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, a comparison that stays with him throughout the whole film. Harry also often refers to the children as “Little lambs,” which both wins over the biblical-minded people of Cresap’s landing and demeans the children, but it also speaks to his wolf-like nature.

Tex Avery’s classic 1943 cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood re-imagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood, setting it in modern times with Red being a nightclub singer and the wolf being a sexual predator obsessed with her. Some of Harry Powell’s bug-eyed expressions are reminiscent of the wolf’s, and even the scene of him visiting the burlesque show might be a shout-out.

hunter59

Also, Harry’s loud “Ow!” when the door slams on his fingers is reminiscent of the Big Bad Wolf’s howls of pain at the end of Disney’s The Three Little Pigs, but more on that in the final part. Most tellingly, (and honestly this is something I just noticed) after the cellar door is closed and locked on Harry, an animalistic growling is heard. In just a few seconds, he’s back to his “Open the door, you spawn of the Devil” material, but it’s as if for a quick moment, he reverts to his purest lupine form.

The children run out of the house and to Uncle Birdie’s boat, but he has passed out drunk.

hunter60

The town has completely abandoned them, and their only hope is the river.

HOME

The Night of the Hunter: Scene Dissection (Part 1)

Poster2

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: SCENE DISSECTION

There are few films that benefit so much from re-watches as The Night of the Hunter. I find myself watching it more than once a year, and I’m always coming across something I didn’t notice before. Over the next few posts (fitting it all in one would be too much), I’m going to break down Charles Laughton’s classic film scene-by-scene. I’ll put a rough timestamp at the beginning of each section so you can follow along. Obviously, watch the movie all the way through at least once before reading this, or you’ll be really confused.

PART 1: PREDATOR AND PREY

0:00-2:00

hunter28

Like a few other great films I’ve talked about on this blog, The Night of the Hunter is not a musical, yet music plays a crucial part in the film. While some films benefit from starting right in the action, I will admit I much prefer an opening credits sequence like this. Right out of the gate, the movie blares us with the theme that plays when Robert Mitchum’s character comes to town. It’s dark and imposing and immediately puts us into the mood for the film. We then hear a children’s chorus singing the lullaby “Dream, Little One, Dream,” perfectly showing the film’s contrast between dark terror and childlike innocence. The dreamlike nature of the music and lyrics is complemented by the starry night sky.

Before the movie starts proper, we see Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) teaching a Bible lesson to some children, projected against the night sky.

hunter2
We see some of these children later, but not all of them. Don’t think too hard about that one…

02:00-2:45

Before we see the character of Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) on screen, we are introduced to him by Rachel’s warning about a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We zoom in on a quaint little town where some children are playing hide-and-seek, only to stumble upon a dead woman, a victim of Harry Powell.

hunter3

Like in the opening credits music, the contrast between the childlike innocence and the grim reality is extreme. Their child’s game—and effectively their whole childhood —is ended in this instant.

02:45-4:03

hunter4

Harry Powell has been doing this for so long that he doesn’t even remember how many women he has killed. He will show anger later in the film, but he’s just as scary when he’s calm and collected, driving off to where he believes the Lord is sending him. His talk with “God” here is quite chilling, but it’s also a way to reveal Harry Powell’s entire motivation in just a matter of seconds. He says that God is fine with murder as “Your book is full of killings,” but insists that God hates women. Harry can’t even talk about women for a few seconds without the disgust showing up in his voice and mannerisms.

If The Night of the Hunter was made today, it would probably have some explanation as to why Harry is the way he is towards women, but in this case, not knowing is scarier. There was apparently some controversy about portraying a minister as a cold-blooded serial killer, so Charles Laughton and screenwriter James Agee had to make sure that Harry Powell wasn’t actually an ordained minister, but what does it really matter? He believes he’s doing God’s will, he goes from town to town preaching his interpretation of the Gospel, and people fall in line to see him preach. I guess any individual denomination is off the hook, but it’s such a specific qualification that I’m surprised anyone even bothered.

4:03-5:10

Interestingly, we cut from Harry Powell ranting about how much God hates women to a burlesque performance where he is in the audience. Maybe he told himself he was there to find another victim, but that doesn’t really seem to be his modus operandi.

Harry’s knuckle tattoos reading “Love” and “Hate” are such a cliche now, but only because they’re used so effectively in the film. His hatred of women and his lust for them combine in a brilliant moment where the camera zooms in on Harry’s “Hate” hand while he’s watching the burlesque show. He clenches it into a fist, sticks it into his pocket, and his knife pops up in a very phallic manner. The heavenward gaze and expression on his face afterwards really send the point home.

hunter6

I love the way this scene is lit too, as the other men in the audience feel like ghosts. Harry pays them no attention, not finding them sinful, but only the woman on stage—the only other person who is lit. However, his time at the burlesque show is brief, as he is arrested for driving a stolen car and thrown into the Moundsville Penitentiary for 30 days.

5:10-7:37

In the first scene where we see the town of Cresap’s Landing, West Virginia, there’s a really nice birds-eye view and some incredibly warm music playing.

hunter7

We’re introduced to the children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) as they play with Pearl’s doll in a quaint field of flowers.

hunter8

Then, John’s childhood naïveté is immediately broken when their father Ben (Peter Graves) comes home. Even before Harry Powell comes to town, John sees a glimpse of how bad the world is. (I won’t argue that Pearl’s childlike innocence is gone because she is so young that she doesn’t really understand her father’s actions.)

Ben Harper has robbed a bank to provide for his children and his wife Willa (Shelley Winters), and in the process, killed two men. Before the cops get to his house, he hides the $10,000 in Pearl’s doll and makes his young son swear he’ll never tell anyone where the money is.

hunter9

John seeing his father arrested should be the end of his childhood innocence. Instead, John is stuck in limbo between being a worldly-wise adult and an innocent child. His father makes him take an oath like he’s an adult, and while John is old enough to understand what this means in a literal sense, he’s not mature enough to understand the effects that a life of hiding stolen money will have on him. Even the place where the money is hidden—his little sister’s doll—symbolizes this unfair combination of childlike innocence and adult problems.

Ben Harper may think he’s being a good father, but take a look at this shot right after John swears his oath.

hunter10

Yeah, he shakes his son’s hand with a hand that is holding a loaded gun! Just a little moment like this shows how careless Ben is being without even realizing it. The gun is now pointed at his son, as he’s now given him something people will kill for.

7:37-12:14

When Ben Harper is sentenced to death, he is thrown in the Moundsville Penitentiary in the same cell as Harry Powell. Harry sees this as a blessing from God—a soon-to-be-widow and a stolen $10,000 not yet found.

hunter29

While the film is undeniably about both Harry Powell and the people he relentlessly pursues for money, it is also about the kind of town that would fall for such an obvious wolf in sheep’s clothing. Take for example the scene that immediately follows Ben Harper’s off-screen hanging. We see Bart (Paul Bryar), a prison guard, say goodbye to his co-workers, and we follow him home.

hunter11

He checks on the kids and talks with his wife about going back to his old job in the mines, as watching executions is getting to him (Gee, I wonder why.). However, she insists he can’t do that, because he would be at too much risk. After this, we never see Bart again, save a brief line about Harry’s own execution at the end. It’s a curious little scene that might seem out of place on first viewing, but it’s one of the clues that The Night of the Hunter is making a statement about a society instead of just telling a story.

Bart’s sexism isn’t as obvious as Harry Powell’s, but it is undeniable nevertheless. As we see with Walt and Icey Spoon later, Bart only addresses his wife as “Mother,” suggesting that he doesn’t see her as a person, but only as a role.

hunter12

It’s a brief scene, but all Bart does is talk about himself, never acknowledging his wife’s desires or even asking how her day was. In the entirety of the scene, she doesn’t even move away from the stove, giving us a perfect snapshot of how the town views women.

This scene transitions into one of a group of young children singing a mocking song about Ben Harper being hung. We even stay on Bart’s face as the song starts, showing his own guilt for what has happened.

hunter14

12:14-13:25

Here we have another example of childhood innocence being corrupted. “Hing Hang Hung” is a song about a very adult subject, but it’s being sung like a nursery rhyme.

hunter30

Pearl and John walk away from the singing children and over to a store, where a woman steps out and mocks them about their “poor mother” and asks them what their father ever did with the money.

hunter15

By placing these incidents back-to-back, Laughton is showing us that the little children who sing mocking songs grow up to be the adults who mock the dead in slightly different ways. When Pearl walks away singing the song, John tells her she shouldn’t sing it, not because it’s wrong or inappropriate, but because she’s “too little.”

13:25-14:12

In the next scene, we meet the character who best sums up the town as a whole—Icey Spoon.

hunter27

Perhaps to those not raised in church, Icey could come off as an over-the-top caricature, but anyone who’s spent considerable time in a small church has known at least one Icey Spoon. Actress Evelyn Varden really goes all-in with the vocal fry and annoying mannerisms to make her an incredibly unlikable character. She’s so insistent on everyone having the same views on religion (and frankly everything) as she does that she won’t stop bothering Willa until she marries Harry Powell, even though Willa is clearly conflicted about falling in love with someone so soon after her husband’s death.

Take a look at Icey’s introductory line:

Willa Harper, there is certain plain facts of life that adds up just like two and two makes four and one of them is this: No woman is good enough to raise growin’ youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two!

Right out of the gate, we learn everything we need to know about this character. This is not long after Ben Harper’s execution (likely the day after) and Icey is already talking about getting Willa married again. This discussion (or lecture more accurately) presumably goes on for a long time, and is inter-cut with shots of a black train rolling into down as the four eerie notes that make up Harry Powell’s theme play. The way Walter Schumann’s score is used brings to mind the “symphonic fairy tale” Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev where each character is represented by a short little theme that plays to announce their entrance. Interestingly, Harry Powell also sings the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” many times throughout so he kind of has two themes—One suggesting that danger is on its way, and one announcing it’s here.

14:12-15:39

That night, John and Pearl are in bed, and Pearl asks John to tell her a story. He makes up a story about a king who gets taken away by “bad men” and tells his son to kill anyone who tries to steal his gold. It’s obvious where John gets his inspiration from, but in the middle of the story, Harry Powell’s huge shadow is cast on the wall.

hunter17

This isn’t our first introduction to him, but it is the children’s, and he appears to be a monster out of a child’s nightmare. He completely overwhelms the room with his dark presence, but when John looks outside, he says that it’s “just a man.”

hunter16

I suppose during the Great Depression, a random man standing outside your house wasn’t that uncommon, but we the audience know what’s going on here—The predator has chosen his prey.

15:39-18:10

The only real friend John has in town is Birdie Steptoe (James Gleason), a homeless old sailor who lives on a docked wharf boat.

hunter18

Birdie was a friend of Ben Harper’s, and he promises he will always look out for John if he’s in trouble. He’s been fixing up Ben’s old skiff so he and John can go fishing, and while he is undeniably a good man at heart, he’s too weak-willed to actually do anything. He catches on that something is up about the mysterious man that said he knew Ben Harper from the penitentiary, but he only shares the information with John.

hunter19

Uncle Birdie also has a musical cue, a grand, sweeping nautical theme that sounds more like how the man envisions himself than how he actually is. His theme merrily plays as John leaves the riverboat and walks into Spoon’s Ice Cream Parlor where Harry Powell is chatting with Willa, Icey, Walt, and Pearl. At this moment, the score immediately switches to the four-note Harry Powell theme, completely overwhelming Uncle Birdie’s, and hinting that he’ll be entirely powerless to help when his time comes.

18:10-20:40

As John walks into the ice cream parlor, he sees how easily Harry Powell can win over people. Harry shows his now famous knuckle-tattoos of LOVE and HATE and tells a story about how love defeats hate.

hunter20

The thing about the story is that it’s almost entirely performative. Harry makes a biblical reference to Cain and Abel, but it’s all style and no substance. His deep voice and theatrics are what sells it, and Walt, Icey, and Willa all stand in awe of him.

hunter21

20:40-24:40

It takes no time at all for the traveling minister to win people over, and by the next scene, it seems that the whole town is smitten with Harry Powell. He looks like a preacher, and has a bellowing baritone singing voice, so he fits the part well enough for pretty much everyone to be impressed.

hunter23

Shelley Winters’ acting in this scene is particularly brilliant, as Willa is clearly trying to hold back any attraction she has to Harry, both due to the fact that 1) She’s concerned he could be after Ben’s stolen money, and 2) Everyone (particularly Icey) wants her to fall in love with Harry.

hunter22

Shelley Winters told director Charles Laughton that she viewed her character as “a fly fascinated by a spider” but one who “very willingly walks into this web.” She knows the concerns she has about him are valid, but she convinces herself (with the help of some serious gaslighting by Harry and, unknowingly, Icey) that they aren’t.

Even before she loses her independence and is controlled by Harry, she is essentially controlled by Icey in this scene, as Icey immediately yells for Harry to come over so he can make Willa’s concern about the stolen money go away. The scene looks perfect for Icey, which is all she needs.

hunter24

In fact, it looks just like a painting, fitting Icey’s idealized version of what’s happening between Harry and Willa. In fact, the bit we do hear of the conversation is Willa asking if Ben talked about the money and Harry rhetorically asking if she knows where it is. It’s anything but assuring for Willa, but she convinces herself it’s good enough anyway, conforming to Icey’s point of view.

Instead of actually being concerned about Willa’s security, Icey instead lectures the other women on her views regarding relationships. In one of her most unpleasant moments, Icey declares that Willa’s first marriage wasn’t love, but just sex. (Her chosen innuendo of “flapdoodle” is quite amusing.) She continues rambling on that God never wanted women to enjoy sex, saying that she just lies there “thinking about my canning,” humiliating her husband who is standing right there. The other women listening might strongly disagree with what she’s saying, and if you watch the woman on the left of the screen, she is clearly uncomfortable with Icey’s ramblings.

hunter1

It doesn’t matter though, because the problem is that no one is stopping her. There might be some good people listening, but they’re too passive to do anything. Just like Willa who clearly has her concerns about Harry but doesn’t do anything, they just let Icey run things. For whatever reason, Icey is a respected member of the community and the church, and if she talks, people listen. No one questions her theology, even though it is clearly not based in Scripture (Something tells me she hasn’t turned to Song of Solomon lately.), and no one even does as much as walk away. Her husband Walt (Don Beddoe) will occasionally show signs of intuitiveness, especially in regards to Harry Powell being a tad sinister, but his wife always shoots him down and he doesn’t stand up for himself. It’s not that every person in town is as naïve and annoying as Icey, but there is no adult in town strong enough to stand up to Harry Powell and actually do something.

There’s an interesting visual contrast we see in the picnic scenes. When Willa and Icey are sitting on a bench talking, we see John and Pearl playing by the lake, suggesting childhood blissful ignorance to the adult conversation.

hunter25

The camera gives equal focus to both, not blurring those who are farther away. However, when Harry Powell has his little talk with John at the end of scene, and both Harry and the audience know John knows about the money, we see Willa and Icey in the background, behaving like schoolgirls.

hunter26

Now Willa is the childlike one, putting aside her valid and adult concerns for Icey’s more simplistic view. John is again being forced into the role of adult, because there are no responsible adults to look out for him.

I argue that The Night of the Hunter has the most perfect first hour (1 hour, 8 minutes technically) of any film of all time. Well we’re through the first half of that hour… almost.

HOME

Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot: Todd Phillips has “Greatly Improved,” ‘Marriage Story’ is “Not Original.”

ballot

Every year at this time, Inside Hollywood magazine likes to bring you an anonymous ballot from a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, just so you can see where their head is at when they vote. This year, our team sat down with a male director who has been in the Academy for many years. For the sake of the article, and despite his nonchalance, we have left him anonymous.

BEST PICTURE

You know, ever since they started nominating eight, nine, ten films for Best Picture, I never have time to watch them all. I always makes sure to skip one. Go back to the old rule of five: 1 great biopic, 1 average biopic, 1 comedy-drama, 1 white racist gets better movie, and one wildcard. It was better that way.

This year, I skipped Ford V. Ferrari because there has never been a good movie with “Vs.” in the title. I’m sure Christian [Bale] gained or lost weight and Matt Damon did an accent. Good for them. It was no Bullitt. Greta Gerwig is a great actress, loved her in To Rome with Love, but she’s not there yet as a director. Did we really need another adaptation of Little Women? Look at a great adaptation like The Maltese Falcon. They didn’t need to do that more than once. It was perfect. Little Women had so many jumps-in-time that I couldn’t keep track. I texted my friend every time the timeline switched just so I had a record of it, and it was many. Why do you need to tell the story is this weird criss-cross order? I mean, Meg [It was Beth.] died and then we saw more scenes with her. I was confused. Marriage Story? Meh. It felt like a retread of all those old Neil Simon comedies from the ’70s. I mean, I’ve been divorced three times, so I didn’t need to see it. I kind of skipped over the middle part. Same with The Irishman. It just felt like mob guys doing mob things, and we’ve seen it all before. I think I fell asleep with 45 minutes to go. Plus there was all this text on the screen when a character was introduced. Show don’t tell, that’s what I always say. Marty [Scorsese]’s always putting narration and reading in his movies, and I’ve never liked it. Parasite was the same, just too much reading. Film is a visual medium, you know?

1917 was fresh and innovative. You see so many World War II movies, but not many about World War I. I wasn’t alive in 1917, but my father was, and from the stories he told me, it was accurate. Jojo Rabbit? I’m fed up with this notion that Hitler can’t be in a comedy. Of course he can. Look at The Producers, but we can’t give another Hitler comedy an Oscar, so that’s out. Joker really felt like it was saying something, I don’t know.  It had a little bit of all of the issues were facing: politics, mental health, talk show hosts, poverty, all of it. That said, my favorite has to be Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I was in Hollywood in the ’60s, and Quentin Tarantino nailed it: the actors, the actresses, the murderers, the feet, all of it. I was right back in Hollywood. [Here we reminded the director that he watched the film in Hollywood.] Meh, it was different. Trust me.

MY VOTE: (1) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; (2) Joker; (3) 1917; (4) Jojo Rabbit; (5) Ford V. Ferrari; (6) Marriage Story; (7) The Irishman; (8) Parasite; (9) Little Women

BEST DIRECTOR

I’ve never been a Marty [Scorsese] fan. We started around the same time, and his movies are all the same. We get it, the mob is bad. Also, I really wanted to direct that Cape Fear remake. What he did with it was so predictable. [Here we insisted that this was irrelevant, but he mumbled something about the lighting in the prison scenes.] Parasite was a nice looking film, but the words distracted me, so that’s out. They ruined the shots. Sam Mendes has won before, so we should give it to a new guy. Look how far Todd Phillips has come. Just a few years ago, he was making those average male-driven Hangover comedies, and now he’s making above-average male-driven dramas. I love to see the change. Nothing against Quentin [Tarantino], but he’s always been great. I’m voting for the biggest improvement.

MY VOTE: Todd Phillips, Joker

BEST ACTOR

I do love Antonio BanderasNo Country was great stuff. [We told him this was Javier Bardem, but we don’t think he heard us.] Marriage Story, so what? It’s a guy getting divorced, we’ve all done it. The Two Popes was a nice little film, but [Jonathan] Pryce didn’t really have much to do, no screaming or speeches, so he’s out. Joaquin Phoenix did all of those things many times over. However, Leo [DiCaprio] is a good actor playing a bad actor who’s secretly a good actor. That’s just next level stuff. It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a beautiful script.

MY VOTE: Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

BEST ACTRESS

Harriet didn’t feel realistic to me. It’s what the fourth Harriet Tubman biopic by now? It could have been more interesting. I hated Little Women, so no disrespect to [Indiscernible garbling that doesn’t sound remotely Irish] Ronan, but it can’t be her. I love Scarlett Johansson, but she was pretty much just playing herself. Charlize Theron was great, but I credit the makeup more than anything in making her Megyn Kelly. Renée Zellweger takes it for me. It was like watching Judy Garland.

MY VOTE: Renée Zellweger, Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Look, I didn’t grow with The Mr. Roger Show or whatever  [We let him have this one.], so I can’t say if Tom Hanks emulated the guy, but there’s just no way someone is that nice. It’s not believable. What was with his hair in The Da Vinci Code? It was like a mullet and a comb over, anyway that doesn’t factor in. Love Al [Pacino], worked with Al in [Movie that would give away his identity omitted. He really didn’t care about anonymity, but we’re trying.], but that wasn’t Jimmy Hoffa. His hair wasn’t like that, his voice wasn’t like that. The de-aging was distracting too, really took away from the performances of him and [Joe] PesciBrad Pitt was just so likable. Like, it didn’t even matter if he had other things to do like fix a TV antenna or kill his wife, he was gonna be there for Leo. I loved that.

MY VOTE: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Haven’t I seen this one already? [We informed him that even though one actress and two movies were on both lists, they were in fact, different lists.] Well not Scarlett Johansson then, she was up for that other one. I think Laura Dern was in the part of Marriage Story that I skipped, but I saw her in Little Women, so that’s out. Florence La Pugh is out for the same reasons. [He didn’t put on a French accent, so we don’t think was a Looney Tunes joke.] Margot Robbie was good in Bombshell, but she looked like every Fox News correspondent, so what was she really doing? I’ll give it to Kathy Bates

MY VOTE: Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

I hated the way Little Women kept jumping around in time. It’s a classic novel, and there’s no need to do it. Imagine if they did that with Slaughterhouse-Five or some other classic. It’s pretentious. I enjoyed Two Popes, but it was pretty safe. What if they had to be pope at the same time for a little while? There could have been interesting conflict there. “Hey I want to allow homosexuality.” “Hey I’m still the Pope until June.” That kind of thing. Just a thought. They should have called it The One Pope Followed by One Other PopeThe Irishman bored me. I could have read the book in shorter time. Jojo was fun and all, but Joker just had so much going on. It was like everything all at once. The most things happened in Joker.

MY VOTE: Joker

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Knives Out was like Agatha Christie meets Christie Tiegen, and I don’t like either of them. [We don’t know either.] Marriage Story was based on true events, so how is that original? It’s adapted from life. I’m sure Parasite had a good screenplay, but I don’t want to read it while I’m watching the movie. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt so fresh. What if the Manson murders never happened? What if two heroic action stars actually existed in real life and killed the killers? I can’t stop thinking about what else would happen in that world. What kind of movies would get made? Would shoes ever be needed again? It opened up a world of imagination in a way that no other film this year could.

MY VOTE: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Four Toy Story movies? How long does it take them to get out of that Salvation Army bag? [We all just stared in confusion until one of us did a Google search and discovered he was confusing it with an episode of The Twilight Zone.] They haven’t trained the dragon by now? Is anything here not a sequel? I turned on Klaus hoping it was about a Norwegian fisherman or something, but there it was, another Santa Claus movie. It’s gonna confuse the kids if he has like 12 backstories. Don’t tell them how I decided, please. [At this point, he flipped a coin. We’ll not reveal the denomination, so as to honor his request.] Missing Link. Why not?

MY VOTE: Missing Link

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Irishman? Really? The de-aging effects looked awful, especially those blue eyes on Robert De Niro. The Lighthouse was too funny to be in black-and-white, so who cares if it was well-shot? I didn’t expect to laugh at a black-and-white horror movie. What does lobster have to do with anything? Like it’s just two guys sitting in a lighthouse? Why doesn’t the boat come back? All the buildings in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt right out of the ’60s that I remember, and the soundtrack was great, but the way they just made 1917 feel like one continuous shot? How could anyone pick anything else?

MY VOTE: 1917

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

I mean, there were two scenes of the guy dramatically putting on makeup. Sure, maybe the hair wasn’t great, but he did that all himself. It’s got to be Joker.

MY VOTE: Joker

BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM

I’m not sure I understand this category. The Academy knows I hate reading, and yet they sent me these five screeners. I watched Pain and Glory a while back so I didn’t again, but I’m still not sold on that Mark Wahlberg guy. He’s just not a good actor. [We knew there was no chance of him actually watching a foreign film, so we let it slide.] Why isn’t 1917 up for this award? [Sam] Mendes is British. It’s got British actors. That’s the best foreign film of the year. [We explained a write-in vote wouldn’t do any good, but he was adamant.]

MY VOTE: Cinematic Equivalent of Jill Stein

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

You mean to tell me the Star Wars score qualifies as original? I’ve seen them all, and that is the same music in all of them. Alright, so I fell asleep during Phantom Menace, but I heard the fanfare at the beginning, and it was the same song. Nine times now I’ve heard that song. I wanted to like the score of Little Women, but it kept jumping to the middle of the song, back to the beginning, then it was at the end? I don’t know. Alexander Desplat, what kind of name is that anyway? I can’t stand Randy Newman, so Marriage Story is out. 1917 had a nice one, but the score in Joker was just so innovative. That little guitar piece when he danced on the stairs? I’d never heard anything like that from a film score.

MY VOTE: Joker

We didn’t get to the other categories, but he insisted no one cared about them anyway. “They don’t even air them most years,” he promised, which isn’t true but we’ll let him believe it. After he kept insisting we had to watch The Birth of a Nation to truly understand where he was coming from, we just left. We’re not sure if his ballot was officially submitted, but it’s probably for the best if it wasn’t.

HOME

My 15 Favorite Films of the 2010s

Well we’re at the end of the decade, so I decided to throw together a list of my favorite films of 2010-2019. Please keep in mind that I don’t get paid to watch movies, so I have not seen the majority of films that came out in the decade. Also, I am not saying these are the best or most important films of the last ten years. They’re just my favorites. With that in mind, let’s get started.

15. Bad Times at the El Royale

2019 1.png

Director: Drew Goddard

Year: 2018

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervo, Jon Hamm

I was stuck between two dramatic thrillers for my number 15 spot, but when it came down to it, I enjoyed this one just a bit more than 2015’s The Gift. Featuring a brilliant cast of stars (Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth) and a marvelous performance from newcomer Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale is a wild, colorful ride with a lot to offer.

A group of strangers checks into the desolate El Royale hotel on the Nevada/California line, and while each of them has a story, no one is ready to tell theirs. We learn everyone’s backstory over the course of the film, and there are just the right number of twists and turns, always revealed at the perfect time, to keep us glued to the screen. It is without a doubt the fastest two-and-a-half hour film I’ve ever seen, and writer/director Drew Goddard definitely has more in mind here than just what’s on the surface. Some of the greater meaning is pretty obvious, some a bit more subtle, but it all comes together wonderfully. It is probably the most entertaining film of the decade, but then you get to the stuff under the surface, and you realize it’s just a great film all around.

14. The Florida Project

2010s 2

Director: Sean Baker

Year: 2017

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite

A stark, realistic portrayal of life at a long-stay motel near Disney World, The Florida Project somehow got lost in the great run of 2017 films. It’s gutsy to make a slice-of-life film focusing on such young kids, but all of the child performances are wonderful and natural, particularly Brooklyn Prince as Moonee. Willem Dafoe plays the motel manager Bobby, giving one of the most subtle, understated performances of his career, and newcomer Bria Vinaite brings such a tragedy to her role as Moonee’s mother, Halley, that we empathize with even her most unlikable actions.

Visually stunning and bright, but thematically dark and mostly hopeless, The Florida Project is told almost entirely from the perspective of a child, and it nails it. There’s the childhood wonder, the misunderstandings, the exploration, the friendships, and everything in between. The ending sequence may be divisive, but I think it is the perfect cap on the film, capturing what is probably a child’s imagination covering up for what is about to be an incredibly dark day.

13. The Descendants

2010s 3.png

Director: Alexander Payne

Year: 2011

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

A movie about grief is one thing, and it has been done well many times over, but a movie about complicated grief is different. The Descendants explores the life of Matt King (George Clooney) after his wife Elizabeth is in a boating accident and is rendered comatose. While their marriage wasn’t quite on the outs, it was clearly headed in that direction, as Elizabeth was having an affair, and Matt was mostly absent. Now, he has to deal with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller), his father-in-law (Robert Forster), and even his wife’s boyfriend and his wife (Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer).

In the background of the story is Matt’s family, distantly related to the founders of Hawaii, most of them looking to make some money off sale of the land. It’s a balance between two stories that works really well, and the beginning and ending narration from Clooney really sends the point home. I love how realistically it portrays Matt as someone who often has no clue what to do, yet he has to hold things together. There are a lot of questions, and the answers aren’t easy, so he’s just doing the best he can.

12. Lincoln

2010s 4

Director: Steven Spielberg

Year: 2012

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field

A three-hour historical drama that is surely not for everyone, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln completely absorbed me. Its sense of time and place is obsessive in its detail, led by famous perfectionist Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Despite a huge supporting cast, Day-Lewis is the best part of this film, constantly bringing out the humanity in a figure who history presents as so larger-than-life that it seems impossible. He nails the reedy, tenor voice that history has written that Lincoln had, despite his great stature and historical standing suggesting a deeper one.

It’s called Lincoln, and Abraham Lincoln is the main character, but the film is really about the passing of the 13th amendment. This brings an incredibly colorful supporting cast into the mix from Tommy Lee Jones and Michael Stuhlbarg to James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson. Sally Field brings a complexity to the oft-stereotyped Mary Todd Lincoln, and David Strathairn is the perfect choice for voice of reason William H. Seward. It’s a Spielberg film, so a great John Williams score is almost inevitable, but in my mind, this is one of his best ever, and the use of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” after the bill passes is breathtaking. Sometimes I do feel that there are too many biopics these days, especially when they’re made as Oscar-bait, but if they were all half-as-masterful as Lincoln, we’d be just fine.

11. Motherless Brooklyn

2010s5

Director: Edward Norton

Year: 2019

Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin

My anticipation for Motherless Brooklyn was almost so high that I worried the film, even if was great, could never meet it. Edward Norton is one of my favorite actors working today, so the idea of him starring and directing a neo-noir mystery film with a star-studded supporting cast including Willem Dafoe excited me as soon as I heard the first word about production. Somehow, against all odds, it met and even exceeded my expectations.

Norton’s film captivated me for two-and-a-half hours with its interesting characters, fascinating story, and its incredible setting and style. Norton’s Lionel Essrog has Tourette’s Syndrome in the 1950s, a time when it doesn’t even have a name, yet his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) knew his value. When Frank is murdered, Lionel knows he has to solve the puzzle. What is interesting about the mystery at the heart of Motherless Brooklyn is that we pretty much know who the villain is, but the questions are more in the vein of “Why?” and “Who else?” Like Chinatown, it displays absolute power in a horrifying light, showing that good people like Lionel and Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are helpless to stop it. I hope more people seek this one out on home video and digital streaming, because this is the kind of movie we need more of.

10. The Lighthouse

2010s 6

Director: Robert Eggers

Year: 2019

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

The 2010s were a return to form for horror films, and the second half of the 2010s gave us some of the most unique and unsettling horror films of all time. This year’s The Lighthouse is completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It simply follows two lighthouse keepers off the coast of New England who gradually both go mad (or madder, depending on your interpretation). Both Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) have endless ambiguities to their characters, giving each viewer a different experience. I’ve spoken to a handful of friends who have seen this one, and no one interprets the characters in quite the same way. I love that.

The film is shot entirely in black-and-white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio that immerses you in a different place and time, and to me, it brought to mind old pictures you’d see in a lighthouse museum. It completely swept me away with its sense of isolation, and Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is a huge part of why it’s so great. I realize this is my third Willem Dafoe film on the list (It’s the final one, too.), but he offers one of his finest performances as the gloriously over-the-top Wake. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York or Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he takes a long-dead stereotype and fully fleshes it out a human character. Pattinson is fantastic, but Dafoe is astounding. Every note is perfect.

9. Hell or High Water

2010s 7

Director: David Mackenzie

Year: 2016

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

As a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, I was concerned that Hell or High Water might try too hard to emulate the brothers’ signature style, but when I saw it, I was blown away. It definitely draws from their films like No Country for Old Men, but it is entirely its own beast. The story is pretty bare bones, as two brothers (Ben Foster, Chris Pine) try to save a family ranch by robing the bank that screwed their mother over, and two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) try to hunt them down.

The characters are incredibly textured, all likable and sympathetic in their way, and the scenery in the background is stunning. In contrast, we have the dying towns and suffering people, and we constantly see signs for cheap ways out of debt. As the brothers grow closer to their goal, and the Rangers grow closer to their target, we know things aren’t going to end well However, there are still brutal and shocking moments, and the final scene is perfection. Bridges is such a likable and easy-going kind of guy that it’s interesting to see him play a crusty Ranger right before retirement, and his repertoire with Birmingham is constantly funny. Pine and Foster are fantastic too, and there is a particular scene with a steakhouse waitress that stands out as one of the funniest of the decade.

8. Hereditary

2010s 8

Director: Ari Aster

Year: 2018

Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff

It takes a lot for a horror film to get under my skin. Sure, there are things that can frighten in the moment, but what’s really creepy is when it sticks with you. More so than any horror movie I can think of, Hereditary got under my skin.

What works so well about Hereditary is what works so well about so many classic supernatural horror films—It’s about so much more than just the supernatural. In the same way that both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are about motherhood and loss of control, Hereditary is about grief. More so than others on this list, it’s one that I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t seen it, but the film takes some turns early on you may not be expecting. The stuff that sticks with you isn’t just the supernatural horror, but the realistic, brutal depiction of a family falling apart. It is hard to watch, but Toni Collette’s performance is so good that you won’t be able to look away. Hers is one of the finest performances of the decade, and the Academy missed it. If you saw it and didn’t know quite what to make of it, watch it again. There is a lot to be gleaned from rewatches.

7. BlackKklansman

2010s 9

Director: Spike Lee

Year: 2018

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier

I’ve never had a theatre experience quite like Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman. The film is constantly moving from the deathly serious to the laugh-out-loud hilarious, but somehow does it perfectly, and the packed theatre reacted appropriately. When it ended, everyone burst into thunderous applause before exiting the theatre in complete silence. To me, that perfectly sums up my feelings on the film. It is both wildly entertaining and incredibly harrowing and haunting. In hands less deft than Spike Lee, it would have failed miserably.

Loosely based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), BlackKklansman is about the first black man to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. With the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), he goes undercover in the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t know what came over Spike Lee to cast Topher Grace as David Duke, but it’s an absolutely brilliant piece of casting, as Grace completely disappears into the role. Laura Harrier is also great as Ron’s love interest Patrice, with whom he has discussions about the moderate vs. radical civil rights positions. The ending could have been too tidy, but we get hit with a brutal but necessary double whammy about the true nature of racism in America. Without these scenes, this film wouldn’t be on my list.

6. Lady Bird

2010s 10

Director: Greta Gerwig

Year: 2017

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein

High school movies have never really done much for me. I mean, I was in high school once, and I don’t really like to think back on it too much, but most of the classics in the genre don’t relate to me in the slightest. For whatever reason, Lady Bird hit me and hit me hard.

Maybe it’s the brilliant performance of Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, maybe it’s the incredibly realistic and slice-of-life story, maybe it’s the theme of loving yourself instead of re-inventing yourself. The friendships and relationships feel so natural, never overdramatic or overdone, always having the exact right amount of emotion. Lady Bird’s relationship with her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) is also done quite well, from her mother’s angry outbursts to her father’s kind understanding. Metcalf’s portrayal is a realistic portrayal of an overbearing and strong-willed mother who clashes with her equally strong-willed daughter, and there is finally understanding between them at the end. Greta Gerwig’s film is undoubtedly one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, and for me, the greatest film of a year filled with great films.

5. The Death of Stalin

2010s 11

Director: Armando Iannucci

Year: 2018

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin

My favorite comedy of the decade is Armando Iannucci’s wild, darkly comedic satire of Soviet Union leadership. With a brilliant cast of comedic actors including Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Andrea Risenborough, and especially Jason Isaacs, I was laughing non-stop in the theatre. Often I was crying from laughing so hard, and many times I was still laughing at one joke when the next one hit.

Sure, it’s not quite as funny as his brilliant 2009 film In the Loop, but that would be saying “It’s not quite as funny as the funniest film I’ve ever seen.” Everyone has moments that will crack you up, and I think Risenborough is particularly underrated as Stalin’s naive daughter Svetlana, but it’s Isaacs as General Zhukov who completely steals the show. He’s so over-the-top and loud-mouthed that every line he says is pure gold. Iannucci is brilliant at mining comedy out of the darkest and most awkward situations, ultimately painting these Soviet elites as immature and petty man-children who have trouble getting anything done, with Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev being the most intelligent pretty much by default. It is about as dark as dark comedies can get, and while it may not be for everyone, I think the tone is pretty perfect. Take for example a scene in which Stalin can’t get medical treatment because he’s had all the good doctors killed. It’s a classic case of comic irony, and it’s also incredibly disturbing, but since it’s happening to a monster like Stalin, it’s hilarious. It never eases up on the dark moments, but it also never eases up on the laughs, and it’s a winning combination.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis

2010s 12

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Year: 2013

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake

I’ve mentioned them already on this list, I did a whole other list ranking them, and two of their films made my list of my favorite movie scenes, so it should come as no surprise that the Coen Brothers are my favorite filmmakers. While I knew this one was my favorite of theirs this decade, I did consider both Hail Caesar and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for this list, but they ended up just missing it. Ultimately, I find this bleak and beautiful portrait of a depressed folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village to be one of their best.

I wrote a much longer entry on Inside Llewyn Davis on my Coen Brothers’ list, so I won’t rehash it all here. Above all else, Oscar Isaac is brilliant. Llewyn is not a great person; he’s selfish, apathetic to the world around him, and pretentious, yet Oscar Isaac brings such a humanity to him that we like him anyway. He definitely has sympathetic moments, but Isaac brings them to life better than most actors would. The rest of the cast is phenomenal too (He even sings a song with Adam Driver about going to space two years before Star Wars.), with John Goodman in particular standing out (big surprise, I know). The other thing that really stands out to me is the music, which should be a given, but it is so beautiful and captivating that it has made me re-visit a rather depressing movie many times over. Like with any Coen Brothers film, I find something new every time.

3. Birdman

2010s 13

Director: Alejandro Iñárritu

Year: 2014

Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton

It’s been five years since it came out, and I still haven’t seen a film quite like Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman. Sure, it’s made to appear almost entirely like one single shot, and yes there’s the subtext of Michael Keaton playing an actor sick of a superhero typecast, but that’s just set dressing. If the story wasn’t good, those would feel gimmicky instead of innovative.

Michael Keaton gives the performance of a lifetime as Riggan Thompson, a film actor best known for playing superhero Birdman, but who now is attempting an incredibly pretentious Broadway play. Keaton takes on the kind of self-deprecating and meaty role that actors love, and he relishes every moment of it. Emma Stone is somehow even better as his troubled but sympathetic daughter Sam, and the supporting cast of Edward Norton, Zach Galifinakis, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, and Andrea Risenborough (Interestingly enough, the only actor to make the top 5 twice) is pitch perfect.

Like with The Lighthouse, a lot is up to interpretation, especially the ending. Actually, both films’ endings could be interpreted as a direct shout-out to mythology. I won’t say more than that, because it would take a whole essay of its own (Maybe I’ll get to it sometime.). Whether you’re someone who lives and breathes film and theatre, or if you’re just a casual moviegoer, Birdman has something for everyone.

2. The Witch

2010s 14

Director: Robert Eggers

Year: 2016

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickey

I’ve always found the early days of American history, especially pre-Revolution, fascinating, so setting a horror film during that period really intrigued me. Director Robert Eggers loves to fully immerse you into a setting, right down to the dialogue, so while it may be a bit challenging to hear every line the first time, it’s worth the challenge. The family of Puritans, led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), never feel like actors playing Puritans. It really feels like you’re watching people from the 17th century.

The horror of The Witch comes from isolation more than anything. William is willing to ruin his whole family’s livelihood simply due to his radical beliefs, which makes it hard on his wife (Katie Dickey), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the rest of his children. The scares start out shocking, as a baby is stolen and murdered by a literal flesh-and-blood witch in the first ten minutes, but then it slows down to an eerie and unsettling mood. It swings for the fences in its third act, and while certain things happen that should never work, they work perfectly in The Witch. It is a feat unmatched by any horror film this decade. Not unlike Hereditary, it’s about a family falling apart, but without saying too much, it’s someone’s fault here. William is not a monster, but he is a bad father and worse farmer, so the blame can be placed squarely on him, some directly and some indirectly. Even if you don’t like horror, it’s a fascinating historical character piece.

Honorable Mentions

A lot of lists will include the entire run of Twin Peaks: The Return, since it was shot essentially as an 18-hour movie. Since it aired on TV, I’m not including it, but if I was, it would be very, very high on this list. I am yet to see Little Women and Knives Out, but I have quite a good feeling about both, so if I was to make this list a few months from now, it might be different. I’ll also give some assorted honorable mentions to Toy Story 3Downsizing (massively underrated), Get OutThe Babadook, Selma, Silence12 Years a Slave, Nightcrawler… I’ll stop, but you get the idea. Anyway, my #1 film of the decade is…

1. The Irishman

2010s 15

Director: Martin Scorsese

Year: 2019

Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

Yes, I know Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic just came out last month. That said, I have seen it three times already, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is my favorite film of the decade. I even like it better than Goodfellas, which is a masterpiece.

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have met on screen three times, not counting their separate stories in The Godfather Part IIHeat was very good, and while I never even bothered with the apparently-underwhelming Righteous Kill, I’m sure it was never like this. Al Pacino is the perfect actor to play Jimmy Hoffa, because the character requires you to play him as both larger-than-life and as a flawed and fully-fleshed-out human. Pacino absolutely nails both aspects of the performance, completely dominating the screen every time he’s on it. It’s also interesting seeing De Niro play such a cog in a machine instead of a powerful leader. Frank Sheeran is just a hired gun, important to some guys, sure, but with no real agency of his own. Joe Pesci rounds out the lead cast as the smart, calm, and very un-Pesci Russel Bufalino. There’s an enormous supporting cast as well, with memorable turns from Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, and so many more.

What really struck me about The Irishman is the banality of mob life. Films like Goodfellas and The Godfather have their own ways of showing that crime doesn’t pay, but there are undoubtedly aspects that look enjoyable. In The Irishman, it’s just another job. When we meet a minor character, the text on the screen displays the often-horrible way they went out, not only showing us that it rarely ends well, but making it feel like a statistic. Hey, this guy got blown up in his house, so what? Even if you do everything right and stick to the alleged gangster code, what it’s for? Everyone’s dead anyway. The ending scenes in particular bring a tragedy never before explored in the genre, and I am so glad Netflix let Scorsese make the exact movie he wanted to. It’s perfect.

HOME

A Christmas Carol (2019)

carol1

  • Year: 2019
  • Director: Nick Murphy
  • Starring: Guy Pearce, Andy Serkis, Stephen Graham

Like I said in my review of White Christmas, I had to change up my final review for this year. I just watched the new miniseries version of A Christmas Carol, which aired on FX in the United States and BBC in the UK, and I have so much to say about it that I’m just going to review it.

As I’ve made clear, I love Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as my first series on here was reviewing ten separate versions of the classic work, and I genuinely think two of the versions (from 1951 and 1984) rank among the greatest adaptations of any literary work. Even the versions I liked less still offered something unique and memorable. There may be countless versions, but I’m always up for a new take. If there’s one things the trailers for this one promised, it’s that it would be dark. It would be the darkest version yet. Apparently this ghost story where a lonely old man is shown his own death and the death of his employee’s handicapped son has been too whimsical and lighthearted. We’re gonna do a dark Christmas Carol.

The first thing you’ll notice if you watch online is the run time. Despite being a mere novella (around 30,000 words) that is constantly being adapted into movies that are 90 minutes or less, this adaptation is an almost 3-hour miniseries! Even the longest version I’ve watched, 1970’s Scrooge, runs for just under two hours, and it has musical numbers that never end. What could this possibly add?

This version of A Christmas Carol starts out just like Dickens intended—with a child urinating on the grave of Jacob Marley!

carol9

You know, if they really wanted to hammer the point home, it should have been the grave of Charles Dickens. What happened to the subtlety of “Marley was dead to begin with”?

Anyway, the child’s urine falls through the grave and onto the corpse of Jacob Marley, and this somehow wakes him up!

carol10

Marley (Stephen Graham) shouts “The inscription says rest in peace!” somehow missing the obvious “not rest in piss” joke, because hey it’s dark, no humor. Unless this is some deep joke about the dangers of trickle-down economics, what is the point of all of this?

After this urinary diversion, we do finally meet Scrooge, played by Guy Pearce.

carol11

Pearce does a good job here (not the first time he’s acted well in an uninspired literary adaptation), but he’s got very little to work with. You know, it’s amazing Scrooge and Cratchit get anything done in the office, seeing how darkly it’s lit. Hey, just because you want the story to be dark doesn’t mean you have to make every frame so dark it’s near-impossible to see. I have a theory that the studio executive read the first draft of this thing and sent back a one-word memo written in Sharpie.

CAROL2

He didn’t care why or how. He just wanted it darker. The cinematographer apparently took this memo as seriously as the screenwriters. Maybe someone told him they were adapting Bleak House instead of A Christmas Carol.

Unlike most Scrooges who are just cold and bitter, this one goes out of his way to mock Bob Cratchit (Joe Allwyn) for his performance and general attitude. Scrooge also does his best Clint Eastwood impression by monologuing to an empty chair where Jacob Marley used to sit, because we’ve got three hours to fill.

carol12

When Scrooge’s nephew Fred shows up, he admonishes Fred for telling him that Christmas is Christ’s birthday. Scrooge then monologues about how the Bible never clearly states what day Jesus was born. What is this, Ebenezer Scrooge’s Saving Christmas? What does this have to do with anything? Scrooge isn’t shown to be particularly religious at all, so why does Fred treat him like he is?

It’s really hard to get invested in this thing when Scrooge doesn’t leave his office until the 40-minute mark! How many ways can Scrooge say he hates Christmas? Let’s see what’s going on in other versions of A Christmas Carol at the 40-minute mark. 1951?

carol3

Scrooge is well into the Christmas Past sequence, watching the scene where he and Jacob Marley bought the company out from the corrupt Mr. Jorkin. Now, this scene too was not in the book, but it actually added something to the story. It was meaningful and entertaining, and offered an insight into Scrooge’s evolution into the man he is in the present. Monologuing about how much he hates Christmas doesn’t do that! We know he hates it. Where’s the George C. Scott version 40 minutes in?

carol4

He’s watching his own heartbreaking separation from Belle. The George C. Scott version is a bit longer than some, living in its world and getting a feel for the period. It works, though, because it’s colorful and creative, not gray and grim. Finally, where’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol 40 minutes in?

NO IMAGE AVAILABLE

Oh right, it ended 15 minutes ago. Moving on.

The first 40 minutes aren’t just spent in Scrooge’s office, because we have to spend time with Marley. We see a literal bell-tolling, which is laughably unsubtle, but when we look at it, we see it has PURGATORY written on it. Marley meets with a metal-worker who makes his chains, because apparently we needed to see that origin story.

carol13

No longer is it “I wear the chain I forged in life.” Now it’s “I wear the chain some dude made for me in a completely unnecessary scene that exists to pad this story out to three hours.” Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not as poetic.

Marley gets thrown in a random grove somewhere where he is reunited with his childhood rocking horse. Thanks, this is really relevant to the story. He sees a mysterious giant throw it onto the fire, which leads to the unintentionally hilarious line “I have no idea who you are, but why did you just burn my rocking horse?” How are you supposed to say that line with a straight face?

carol14

Anyway, we finally get a good look at the giant…

carol5

who is apparently the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis). Why would you make him look like the Ghost of Christmas Present? Well apparently they were going to make the ghost more like his book description, but the studio executive got wind of it and came back with a thoughtful and well-crafted note.

CAROL2

Why have any mystery in regards to why Marley has come back to give Scrooge a warning about himself? Just show it all! Subtlety be damned. (To be fair, this would be a much more interesting adaptation if Marley was trying to save subtlety from damnation instead.)

The Ghost tells Marley that his ultimate fate is tied to the repentance of Ebenezer Scrooge? Why? Is it true in reverse too? Why is Scrooge the one they pick? I mean, I get that he’s the one that’s alive, but what if Marley is genuinely remorseful for what he’s done? Does he have no chance except Scrooge getting better?

When Scrooge gets home, we get the iconic image of him seeing Jacob Marley’s face on the doorknocker.

carol6

However, they even manage to screw this scene up! The book makes it clear that Scrooge had not thought of Marley since his mention that afternoon, so as to rule out any reader’s theory of “Marley was just on his mind.” In this one, Scrooge had a whole conversation with an empty chair where Marley used to sit. Now to be fair, it happened in the morning so the book’s text still holds true, but the idea is gone. If Marley has been on Scrooge’s mind, it defeats the idea that there is no earthly explanation for him seeing Marley. Second, doorknocker Marley cries a single tear, or at least I hope it’s a tear considering what we saw happen to him in that first scene. Third, when Scrooge goes to grab the doorknocker, Marley’s “mouth” falls off. When he does meet Marley later, part of his mouth is missing. Wow. For being the “darkest” and “edgiest” adaptation, you sure are being the silliest.

To be fair, as with Guy Pearce, Stephen Graham does a fine job as Marley (save the rocking horse line which no one could save). He gets far more scenes than the average adaptation, but at least we get a sense of camaraderie between the two men that is surprisingly missing in most adaptations. It’s a minor thing, but I’ll give credit here.

Like in all versions of the story, Scrooge tries to deny that Marley’s ghost is actually in the room, but it goes a bit differently here. First, Scrooge tries to say that it’s a vision brought on by hunger. Sure, fine, that’s a reasonable excuse. Then, after Marley leaves, he goes back to the book dialogue and suggests that Marley is a “piece of undigested beef” or “uncooked potato.” It can’t be both! If you didn’t eat all day, that’s not gonna be in your digestive system. Did this thing have two screenwriters who never met?

Marley meets back up with Christmas Past, and tells him that Scrooge said the whole thing was a humbug. However, since this is a 3-hour ordeal, he spells it out. Great. Real meaningful use of screen time there. Maybe wanna squeeze some Christmas joy in there, instead? No. Alright, a spelling bee then.

Instead of immediately showing himself to Scrooge, Christmas Past has a few figures from Scrooge’s past enter his house. First, the rat Scrooge’s sister gave to him as a childhood Christmas present appears, and he begins monologuing to it, because he thinks this is the ghost.

carol15

That’s right, this painfully drawn-out rendition of A Christmas Carol has someone monologuing to a rat. I don’t know, this scene was far more interesting on The Sopranos.

Next up, Scrooge’s verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive father walks in. Now, every version will show Scrooge having a troubled relationship with his father. Whether it’s emotional abuse or not is up to the adaptation (The George C. Scott version in particular heavily suggests this.), but Scrooge Sr. is always portrayed as a cold and distant man, whether or not he’s on screen. This can lead to moments of great subtlety and reflection for Scrooge (Again, the Scott version), and while I understand the desire to play him up as brash, loud, and outright abusive, it definitely loses any nuance.

Of course, since that studio executive wanted things darker, we get to see Scrooge’s father decapitate the rat just for funsies. Thankfully, it’s only reflected in shadow, but come on. I understand that they’re trying to be dark and show that Scrooge’s father was really, truly terrible, but he comes across like a cartoon villain. He also says that the little toy piece of gold that hung around the mouse’s neck means the mouse was richer than he was, which I think is an attempt to make fun of a Donald Trump quote in the same vein, but I could be reading too much into it.

Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Past enters and transports Scrooge back to his boyhood school. However, the Ghost turns into Ali Baba (Kayvan Novak).

carol7

Now, believe it or not, Ali Baba does appear in the book as one of Scrooge’s childhood fantasies, but here he guides Scrooge through the past. I’ve got a feeling that they really wanted Andy Serkis to play Christmas Past, but they could only get him for a day or two, so they quickly improvised the Ghost changing into other people to make up for it.

We do get an inspired little sequence where childhood Scrooge gets so lost in the story of Ali Baba that he actually sees him standing in front of him for a brief second.

carol16

However, this sequence can’t go on for too long, because like the studio executive said…

CAROL2

The schoolmaster enters and immediately reveals himself to be a child molester. Apparently this still wasn’t dark enough for the studio executive, because it’s also revealed that Scrooge’s father was aware of this and cut a deal with the schoolmaster for Scrooge to stay behind every year.

I don’t want to make jokes about this, because it’s the wrong subject matter with which to do so. I’m not saying this couldn’t have been done well, but to me it feels like this was added just to make the story grimmer. Scrooge’s childhood was bad, we get it. Making him a victim of childhood sexual abuse just feels like they wanted to add one more thing to the terrible childhood checklist.

Thankfully, in the year Scrooge and Ali Baba are watching, Scrooge’s sister Lottie came to take Scrooge home. The schoolmaster obviously doesn’t want Scrooge to go, but unbeknownst to young Scrooge, Lottie pulls a gun on him.

carol17

This of course gives Scrooge a newfound respect for his older sister. He even mentions to Christmas Present (Andy Serkis again) that Fred might be extra forgiving of him because of his childhood trauma, but it’s never brought up with Fred! Those two screenwriters really should have met each other.

Alright, we’re 90 minutes into this thing, and there hasn’t really been a single light moment yet, but that’s OK. It’s time for the scene guaranteed to bring even the darkest adaptation some levity—Fezziwig’s party. We get to see a Christmas party where everyone is having a ball, where Scrooge looks back on the young man he was and the kind of benevolent boss he could have been if he hadn’t grown so cynical. It’s always a lovely scene… and it’s not in this version. Hey, it’s one thing to add scenes to pad this thing out to three hours, but cutting scenes? Come on. So you’re just not going to suggest that Scrooge was ever even somewhat idealistic? You’re just going to cut out all of the light from this version of the story? Fezziwig doesn’t even get a mention, which suggests Scrooge went from cruel businessman to… still cruel businessman. Nice character arc there. The book works because it balances the dark and the light! The past has both, the present has both, the future only has dark, because it’s the one Scrooge wants to avoid! This version only has darkness. There’s no good self for Scrooge to even return to.

Instead, we get to see a mine explosion where a bunch of people from Scrooge and Marley’s company were killed, because they didn’t do good business.

carol18

Although Scrooge’s job is never really specified in the book, he clearly has a wider reach in this adaptation than most versions, having employees as far away as Bombay. It shows that Scrooge is lazy and uses cheap business practices, but we don’t really get a sense of Scrooge the evolving character from this. At one point, Christmas Past just lectures him about profit, because this is now Scroogehouse Rock all of a sudden. He adds that accounts are now Scrooge’s Ali Baba, which makes less sense the more I think about it. Sure, he was once obsessed with fantasy stories like he is now with money… but Ali Baba wasn’t real? He has sworn off fantasy because he only likes things that are real. They’re the anti-Baba if anything. There’s also a scene where Scrooge falls through the ground like it’s a trap door, because I guess they thought this was scary?

Now for the uncomfortable part. Oh no, not those other uncomfortable parts. THE uncomfortable part. We’re still in Christmas Past, because this movie is not only painfully drawn out, but the pacing is also all over the board. Christmas Past takes Scrooge to Christmas seven years ago when Jacob Marley died. Nah, I’m just kidding, Marley died seven years ago in the book. Here it’s just a year, because that’s a necessary change. Anyway, seven Christmases ago, Tiny Tim was on the point of death and needed money for lifesaving surgery. Mary Cratchit (Vinette Robinson) came to Scrooge’s office, before her husband got in, to ask Scrooge for a loan.

carol19

He refuses, but agrees to give her the money if she’ll sleep with him. Yep, it’s going that route. Scrooge is a sexual predator. Merry Christmas Everybody.

Well thanks for joining me for another year of Bad Christmas Specials. We’ve had… What? I have to keep going. Alright then.

Scrooge tells Mary to come over the next afternoon, and once she has taken her top off, he tells her that he has no interest in sleeping with her, but that wanted to see if she would go all the way as a form of human experiment. This is the man we’re redeeming everybody. In the year 2019, we’re getting an adaptation of A Christmas Carol where a sexual predator gets redemption. To make it worse, he threatens Mary that he will tell Bob all about it if he ever wants to quit the firm. I’m almost at a loss for words. I’m not suggesting that someone who does this kind of thing could never change and become a better person, but read the room, guys, and it definitely couldn’t happen in one night. Scrooge in the book was lonely and miserly and generally unpleasant to be around, but he didn’t conduct human experiments to sexually humiliate women. I’m pretty sure if Dickens intended that to be part of his character, he’d have included it.

Oh and there’s just one more horrible thing about this scene. Mary suggests that she is the one who calls on the spirits to visit Scrooge. Great, one woman of color in the cast, and she’s into witchcraft. Nice going.

We finally get to the end of the Past scenes, but who cares anymore? Scrooge is a vile, odious predator who is outwardly awful to everyone, not the sad lonely man of the book and literally almost every adaptation. Why are we supposed to care?

Since the Ghost of Christmas Past looked like the Ghost of Christmas Present, this version’s Christmas Present is Scrooge’s sister Lottie (Charlotte Riley).

carol20

Fair enough, I see where they’re going with this. They’ll go to Fred’s house, Lottie can see her son be happy, Scrooge can feel a closer connection with both of them.. and you know where this joke is going. They don’t go to Fred’s house in this version! You had three hours of time to fill, but I suppose showing Fred’s party would have been too light and joyful for the self-proclaimed DARKEST. VERSION. EVER.

There’s obviously no joy to really be had in the Cratchit home either, because now we know what’s hanging over their heads involving Bob’s boss.

carol21

They make the most of their Christmas anyway, but it’s still incredibly grim to watch. Where is the color in any of this?

Scrooge is shown the annual memorial service for the people who died in the mining accident, and while I get the idea they’re going for (Christmas Present does visit miners in the book, but in a different context.), it’s already been hammered home once. I guess they’re trying to add that the grief never goes away for these people, but could have accomplished the same thing with Christmas Past telling him they do this every year, and spent the time visiting Fred’s.

Lottie tells Scrooge to stop making excuses about all the bad things he’s done, because the third ghost is the one who will decide his fate. Why does everything have to be spelled out? Hey, at least the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has a cool design. Let’s see that poster again…

carol1

Very cool. Let’s see what he looks like in the movie…

carol8

WHY? He looks ridiculous. He’s just a pale human with a sewn-shut mouth. What, is a cape too dark for your darkest Christmas Carol ever? Suddenly afraid you might be going too far by following the book?

The Christmas Future scenes play out relatively quickly, at least in comparison to the others, but they’re effective enough. Scrooge sees Tiny Tim die in an ice-skating accident (Someone was a fan of The Dead Zone.), and sees his own dead body a few years later. He even gets one more scene with Marley, which Marley says the spirits have granted him.

carol22

Scrooge tells Marley that he rejects redemption because he doesn’t deserve it (He’s right.), which shocks Marley. He says that his only request is that Tiny Tim survives, but this is enough for the spirits to judge Scrooge as worthy of redemption, and he gets it.

The Christmas morning scenes would work in an adaptation where Scrooge wasn’t this vile, because Guy Pearce really does bring a believable happiness to the new Scrooge.

carol23

However, he stupidly goes to visit the Cratchits on Christmas morning. Yes, Christmas Present told him Bob was going to quit, and yes Scrooge is shutting down his corrupt business, but don’t visit the woman you sexually harassed seven Christmases ago. Just don’t. Thankfully, Scrooge does admit he has a long way to go towards actually being a better person, and the story ends without any confirmation that he did change his ways. We get it. It’s the darkest version.

Wow. While from a technical standpoint, I suppose I can’t call this the worst version of A Christmas Carol I’ve ever seen, from a storytelling point of view, I definitely can. This just has no understanding of its source material, and I’m not even sure if it wants to. It’s as if they just liked that the story had ghosts and ran with that. It either cuts out the story’s most joyful characters (Fezziwig) or reduces them greatly (Fred, Belle), which leaves one of the bleakest re-imaginings of a hopeful novel imaginable. I genuinely have to say this is one of the worst adaptations of any novel that I have ever seen. It really left me feeling unpleasant and downhearted, which is the opposite of everything Dickens intended. I can’t quite put it in that bottom slot, but it’s close.

10th.png

Well there you have it. I’ll be back soon with some final thoughts.

MATCH-UP HOME

HOME

White Christmas (1995)

white2.jpg

  • Year: 1995
  • Director: Keith Scoble
  • Starring: Melissa Sindon, Jimmy Hibbert, Ed Bishop

So there’s no way a Christmas special would dare to call itself White Christmas, right? It’s a beloved Christmas classic. It would be like calling your special Miracle on 34th Street or Eyes Wide Shut (Come at me, I don’t care.).

white1

There it is in all its PowerPoint wrap-around effect glory. Unsurprisingly, I can find very little on this special. Surprisingly, it did get the rights to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Imagine if they had just played a cover and spent the money on story or animation.

We open on a family on Christmas Eve where the kids are writing their letters to Santa.

white6

Wait what? The kids are writing to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve? What sense does that make? Well I guess it doesn’t really matter because they’re just writing the same line over and over again (Like I said, the animation budget needed some love.), so maybe they’re asking Santa for more fluid motion. Also, that boy’s mouth hangs open for an uncomfortable period of time.

This girl is Dorothy, because oh yes she’s going to have a wild adventure in a far-away land that may or may not be a dream. She says she has everything she wants and only writes Santa asking for a white Christmas. I would presume she only thinks of this because the song is playing on the radio. Wow, what if “Blue Christmas” was playing? That would be an interesting special. What if it was “Xmas in Jail” or “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas?”

Her brother Peter (he of the agape mouth and endless letter) says he’s never even used his sleigh. This suggests he’s never even seen snow! What kind of world do they live in? I mean, if they’re in Florida or something, fine, but why would his parents get him a sleigh if there won’t ever be snow?

Dorothy leaves out a cookie for Santa, but also leaves what appear to be two ice cream sandwiches.

white8

There’s a fire, and it’s clearly somewhat warm out. They are going to melt.

When Santa comes, he gives Peter literally everything he asked for even though he had no time to prepare (I guess he could read his mind.), and he’s sad he can’t give Dorothy her white Christmas.

white7

However, he decides he can take her to Weatherland, where maybe the weather gods or whoever can do something about it. Of course, Peter and their dog Scratcher come too. Scratcher was also the name of the rejected reindeer in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Outside, the reindeer are just kind of dangling above the roof.

white10

Well, I suppose if they can fly, they can also hover. Santa takes the kids in his sleigh to Weatherland…

white9
Phew, that was close. He almost ran into the moon.

And drops them off at Cloud 9. He warns them to watch out for the Odd-Job Man, but gives them no other instructions! Real helpful there, Santa. Just drop two kids off on a cloud somewhere in the universe and give one minor piece of advice. Dorothy says they shouldn’t be able to be standing on clouds because her geography teacher told her they were made of water droplets. Your geography teacher taught you about clouds? Did your science teacher help you with your state capitals?

They immediately meet the Odd-Job Man who promises to get them a white Christmas.

white11

He creates a contraption that will drop sugar from a cloud, but that’s not what they want, so they keep walking. Next, they meet Windy the Weather-Man, who must have been an elf Santa fired or something.

white13

However, all he can do is create wind, so he directs them to Jack Frost.

white12

WHY IS JACK FROST SHAPED LIKE THIS? What mythology does this connect to? The Gumby Cinematic Universe? Also, his voice is an incredibly overdone gay stereotype. I don’t seem to recall any of this being in Bing Crosby’s song. Wait, Jack Frost was also in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. What’s with the weird connections here?

Jack insists that he can only make it slippery instead of snowy, and they have to go to the Snowmaster. Why is there a different character for every specific weather condition? Is there a Sleet Guy? Hail Woman? Freezing Rain Fella? The twins Partly Sunny and Partly Cloudy? This seems quite convoluted.

Jack Frost takes them in his plane (Just go with it at this point.) to see the Snowmaster, a polar bear, but he’s going on vacation.

white16

For some reason, it sounds like the guy voicing him is doing a bad Ed Sullivan impression. I… don’t get the joke. They get back in the plane and keep flying, but the Thunder and Lightning brothers get in the way, and Peter falls out of the plane and onto this…

white14

Cloud poop? Jack says that these are Storm Demons, and they’ve captured the boy. Um… so Santa warned them about the Odd-Job Man, but not the Storm Demons? Maybe that would have been a decent warning there, Santa.

Next up, they meet Slusher the Snowman, who Jack says can only give them a gray Christmas.

white17

This special is 25 minutes long! Why does it have more characters than The Godfather? Slusher tells them that they have to see the wizards in the emerald… um… mountain.

white3

The Storm Demons take the dog too, and keep him and Peter in a cage. The Odd-Job Man comes back and unfreezes the cage with a portable hair dryer, because this is really just a commercial for batteries.

Eventually, they make their way to the weather wizards Pitter and Patter.

white18

Wait a second, this special has a Scratcher and a Slusher, and now a Peter, a Pitter, and a Patter. Have some creativity with your names! If you’re not going to, at least do an Abbott and Costello routine where you make fun of how similar all the names are. I know you’re trying to fit 90 minutes of nonsense into 25 minutes, but maybe try a joke!

The Weather Wizards explain that while, yes, they are in charge of the weather, they can’t make it a white Christmas because they’re only in charge of quantities of weather. WHAT? I guess they never took math class, because zero is still a quantity. (To be fair, I assume math is taught by history teachers in this universe.) If there’s one inch of snow, that’s more than zero. Why can’t they fix this?

The Weather Wizards take the gang to the storehouse where they keep all the snow. This is fine and all, except it’s currently snowing in there! It’s snowing… inside a building.

white4

Anyway, the Odd-Job Man creates a contraption that can bring the snow to Dorothy and Peter’s town. I’m not sure how it ever snowed before this, or why they couldn’t just go back to having it snow that way, but hey, it’s a happy ending. Just be glad it’s over.

What was the thinking behind this thing? It’s just character after character directing our heroes to another character until they find the characters they need. There’s no humor, no charms, and no real story besides being a Wizard of Oz knockoff. It’s entirely pointless. But hey, at least they shelled out the money to use the Bing Crosby version of the title song. We’ll put White Christmas at third worst for the moment.

white5.png

For my final review, I’m going to have to make a change. I just saw FX’s new version of A Christmas Carol, and I have to talk about it. I’ll save The Nutcracker for another year, because I have many thoughts about this.

MATCH-UP HOME

HOME

The Three Wise Men

wise.jpg

  • Year: 1976
  • Director: Fernando Ruiz, Adolfo Torres Portillo
  • Starring: Carlos David Ortigoza, Jorge Sanchez Fogarty, Azucena Rodriguez

So, I have to make a confession. Sometimes accidents happen and they are for the better, and this is one of those cases, but I’ll own up to it. I watched the wrong movie. This is the Mexican The Three Wise Men movie I intended to watch…

wise2

But this is the one I ended up watching.

wise

I suppose the animation should have been the tip-off, but I figured it was one of those cheaply animated films that put some juiced-up animation on the cover to draw people in. That said, the film I watched is absolutely bonkers, so that’s the review you’re getting. I’ll get back to the film I intended to view some other time.

wise3

We start with some figurines of the Wise Men as the narrator talks about the tale we are about to hear. Apparently it was told to him by a potter child, which sounds like a clever way to defend the poor storytelling. Hey, a kid told me this! You want to hate on a kid?

Some trippy animation transports us back to Israel where the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah. However, since those kids watching are already distracted one minute into this thing, he has to crash through the window. Great, you’re doing slapstick 60 seconds into the movie. You really have faith in your audience.

wise4

Also, unlike The Nativity, Mary asks the proper question to Gabriel, which is “Who are you?” I would tend to ask the same thing if a sandal-wearing winged creature crash landed through my window. He explains everything to her and says it’s “In the Bible.” Um… I don’t think it’s called that yet, Gabe, but whatever. I guess she gets the gist.

We get another slapstick gag as Gabriel tries to fly away but catches fire on Mary’s fireplace. I suppose catching on fire triggers some bad memories for an angel and all. He also says his feathers are burning, which is a strange word to use. I would say those are wings. (It’s not bad subtitling either, he clearly says “pluma.”)

Mary also tells Joseph about a thing she saw in a dream that was like a comet… or a butterfly… or a star. She can’t really decide. To be fair, when we see it, it is sort of all of them at once.

wise5

WHAT IS THAT AND WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS? Who animated this? Terry Gilliam? This star sings a weird song over an animated acid sequence, because that’s what this Nativity story needed.

Alright, so before this thing launches into its opening credits sequence, I need for it to answer me just one question. What drug was used in the creation of this film?

wise6

Close. So close.

We cut to the palace of King Melchior, where he is watching the stars (Yeah I hear kings have lots of free time for that.), when he sees that trippy comet/star/thing in the sky, and he immediately says “The Star of David.” Wow, you knew that thing was The Star of David? Never read that description in The Bible.

In another kingdom, King Gaspar sits with his son…

wise22

Son? Really? I guess between the white beard and young kids at an old age, he’s kind of the Kenny Rogers of the Magi. They too see the star, and Gaspar is called to seek out the Messiah. Now, neither of these two kings have really said where they are from, but Gaspar does say Noah was his great-grandfather. Um… I’m assuming he says that to mean “ancestor,” because wow that would make this guy old. I know President John Tyler still has grandsons living today, but come on.

Now for the king we do get the location of—Balthazar. He is described at one point as the “King of Africa,” which makes me think Drew Carey was probably the screenwriter. Africa is a continent, not a country. I can’t believe I have to point that out. Let’s take a quick look at what his kingdom looks like and move on, because I’m sure this won’t be racist…

wise7

Wow. Not only do you have stereotypical ‘70s Fat Albert style animation, you also have some people who look like they’re wearing blackface! Thankfully Balthazar is not drawn like this, and in his defense, he is consistently portrayed as the wisest and most resourceful of the wise men, but this is just awful. Even worse, this is his royal adviser.

wise8

Let’s just move on. Please.

As we meet all three of these kings, we see this ugly bat-looking creature who watches as the star talks to them.

wise23

No, he’s not secretly a spy for Willy Wonka out to give a morality test to every king who gets a golden ticket. He works for, get this, The Devil. That makes this the second Mexican Christmas film I have reviewed where Satan is the villain. Is he a beloved Christmas character there?

pitch2

Alright, alright, he doesn’t go by “The Devil” in this one, but rather Prince Olbaid. Get it? It’s Diablo spelled backwards. That is Troll 2­ levels of creative. Interestingly enough, his alias was not changed in the subtitles, because I suppose Prince Lived doesn’t have the same ring to it. At least Olbaid kind of sounds like a name.

wise11

I mean, maybe tone down the cape and goatee. I have a feeling that kind of gives your true identity away there, Prince Olbaid. Also, we later learn that this guy is one of King Herod’s advisers. Doesn’t Herod realize that one of his advisers is a Prince of a country he’s not aware of? That would be a minor red flag for me. Who hires a foreign prince as an adviser? That said, his other three advisers are quite dopey, but hey, one of them is that guy from Counting Crows.

wise12

I’m a little confused by Satan’s motive in this one. If he’s the Devil, the archenemy of the God whose son is being born, why is he going after the wise men? Why isn’t he going after Mary and Joseph? It doesn’t matter if the Messiah is born, forget that. If these three guys see him, all is lost. To be fair, he does try to get Herod to carry out the Slaughter of the Innocents, but again, he’s the Devil! Why isn’t he trying to nip this in the bud? I’m not saying God would allow him to succeed, but I mean, you think he’d at least try. Instead, he disguises himself as Prince Natas and tries the most convoluted scheme in a Christmas special since Winterbolt.

Herod is played as a buffoon here, which is fine, but he looks like Ebenezer Scrooge. Well that’s kind of confusing in a Christmas special!

wise10

Again, the movie thinks kids can’t concentrate, because instead of Herod just waking up, it shows him getting electrocuted awake by Prince Reficul here.

wise24

First, why would you keep a guy around who electrocutes you? I mean, unless you’re into that, in which case whatever. Second, shouldn’t they be announcing the discovery of electricity? Just maybe? I feel like Herod would be better remembered by history if he discovered electricity instead of murdering babies.

Since this is mainly about the wise men (and the Devil for some reason), Mary and Joseph are kind of out of focus. To make up for this, every few minutes or so we get a jaunty song about someone refusing them a room at a hotel, told entirely through still images.

wise16

It’s more or less the same song every time, but one time it has some added brass that makes it sound like “Yakety Sax.” Can we get the Wise Men running around the countryside in fast motion please? For some reason, we get not three, not four, but FIVE variations on this song (Including the one where someone lets them in). Come on, “The First Noel” took a shorter time to tell its story. You need to have this song five times? Also, the song seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph are going to different cities (including Jerusalem), only ending up in Bethlehem because they had the stable available. They went to Bethlehem because of the census! You talked about the census earlier in the movie! That’s why they’re on the road to begin with.

The bat tries to stop the wise men along the way, but of course he’s just a comic relief character and constantly gets thwarted by spider webs and the like. Balthazar is tempted at one point by a mermaid, because I guess this wanted to be a biblical version of The Odyssey all of a sudden, but he eventually resists temptation.

wise14

To pad this thing out even more, we get some pointless antics between Herod’s three advisers. One of them is even obsessed with finding the philosopher’s stone!

wise13
In the American dub, it’s the sorcerer’s stone.

What does that have to do with anything? Why is this thing almost 90 minutes long? It could have easily been 30 or 45. Or you could have actually had a story with Mary and Joseph! People constantly slipping and falling does not good comedy make!

Eventually Prince Bubezleeb realizes his bat minion is completely incompetent and decides to go after the wise men himself. Again, he could be doing something about Jesus, but hey, let’s go after those guys going to visit him. It’s like if Lee Harvey Oswald went after JFK’s driver instead. So what’s the Devil’s big plan? He’s going to get the wise men drunk!

Meanwhile, the bat storms away singing a song about how much the Devil annoys him.

wise21

It eventually turns into him realizing he’s not a very good demon at all, so he reconsiders his life. It’s a whole character arc in like 3 minutes, and it’s quite bizarre. He finally builds all his anger to its breaking point and yells “Go to hell, fat Devil!” So clever. I’m sure the Devil is properly owned by that.

Prince Selehpotsihpem decides to tempt the wise men in the most cliched way possible—a mirage in the desert!

wise27

What’s worst of all is that they fall for it. Sure, you should totally believe this random fourth king who wants you to join him in his tent that totally wasn’t there before, especially when he looks just like the Devil! Even worse, they’ve made it clear they know the Devil is watching them and wants to stop them. Melchior even once recommended they be as subtle as possible, but I would say that wearing your crowns as you travel is a bit of a giveaway. Sure, the Devil lures them in by discussing the flat/round earth debate, but how do they fall for this? He insists it’s round and says “I can prove it to you in my tent.” Um… maybe don’t follow that guy in there. Just a suggestion. No one has ever said “I can prove it to you in my tent” with good intentions.

Despite Balthazar’s hesitations, they go inside the tent, where it turns out Satan has beanbag chairs!

wise25

Are they going to play video games? Maybe settle in and watch the George Clooney classic Three Kings?

They’re given some wine, and for being wise men, two of them are really not wise at all. Balthazar finally realizes that Olbaid is Diablo spelled backwards, and Gaspar says the hilarious line “You go to hell with your presents!” which sounds like a line from a Santa Claus action film. After a long fight, Balthazar stakes the Devil with… something sacred that God presumably puts in front of him…

wise17

And they banish the Devil. Oh no, his evil plan is completely thwarted, and now they can make their trip again. What would God have done without them?

They think Gaspar died in the fight, but his camel comes over and licks him and cries on him, and suddenly he’s better.

wise15

Gaspar says the water of her tears has put out the fire of the Devil, which to be fair is a less creepy resolution than true love’s kiss, even if that’s more likely here.

Anyway, the conflict is solved, and we cut to the wise men at the manger scene.

wise20
That’s a reindeer. I don’t know anymore.

The bat converts to Christianity, and is turned into an angel instead (still an ugly one, because it’s not magic).

wise19

Despite the Devil having told Herod to carry out the Slaughter of the Innocents, it never gets into that, even though that seems more like a plan of Satan than inebriating some travelers but whatever.

I do not know what to make of The Three Wise Men. It’s kind of hard to get across only in writing, but this thing is so nutty and frenetic, so weird in every decision it makes, that I have to call it the worst thing I’ve seen this year. The animators clearly did record amounts of LSD before creating this thing, and like all wonderfully bad films, there’s a strange amount of heart and dedication to an incredibly bizarre vision. Despite how awful it is, I almost have to recommend it just to experience it.

wise26.png

MATCH-UP HOME

HOME

I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown

charlie5

  • Year: 2003
  • Director: Bill Melendez, Larry Leichliter
  • Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Ashley Rose Orr, Adam Taylor Gordon

A Charlie Brown Christmas is an undeniable classic of the holiday season. I review horrible Christmas specials annually, but I know a good one when I see it. That said, there are a lot of Peanuts specials, and no I haven’t seen them all, don’t ask. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is wonderfully charming, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is pretty much known for this one image.

Charlie6

However, that’s where my Charlie Brown familiarity ends. I never got around to It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown and She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown (While I make a lot of jokes, these are real.). Today’s special, I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown is actually the fourth Charlie Brown Christmas special, but I’m told it’s the worst, so here goes nothing.

Despite its title, I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown mainly focuses on Rerun van Pelt (Jimmy Bennett), the younger brother of Lucy and Linus who wasn’t even alive yet for those famous specials I mentioned above.

charlie7

Apparently when he was born, Lucy thought it felt like a rerun of Linus’s birth, so Linus named him Rerun. At first I wondered why the parents didn’t name their own child, but I guess the doctors didn’t like their suggestion of Wahwah van Pelt.

Remember how A Charlie Brown Christmas was all about anti-commercialism (despite being sponsored by Coca-Cola) and never about the tangible things of Christmas? Well this one begins with “I Want.” Rerun wants a dog for Christmas. His mother doesn’t want him having a dog. This thing goes almost twice the length of A Charlie Brown Christmas! Why?

I know this was made 50 years after the original special, so obviously the voices won’t be the same, but Lucy (Ashley Rose Orr) sounds nothing like the Lucy from the classic specials.

charlie8

Are they even trying? Imagine if Mickey Mouse was suddenly voiced by Sir Christopher Lee. Obviously it’s not that drastic but you get the idea. Charlie Brown (Adam Taylor Gordon) sounds a lot like the classic voice, but like I said, he’s not all that important in this one.

One day in his kindergarten class, Rerun tells a girl that they should go on a trip to Paris (She’s not given a name, because this is Peanuts and only the main characters can afford names.).

charlie9

The next day, he’s sent to the principal’s office and is suspended. Wait what? He’s in kindergarten! Can you even suspend a kindergartner? And he’s being suspended for telling a friend they should go to Paris together? I mean, sure, maybe give the kid a talking to about hopes and expectations, and perhaps tell him not to bother the girl (although he says the girl didn’t care but her mom did), but suspension? That seems a bit drastic. Somehow, this isn’t even the worst part of it. Brace yourselves. Rerun getting suspended is played out like a workplace sexual harassment incident. Yep. Isn’t that what you wanted in your Charlie Brown Christmas special—workplace sexual harassment jokes? When he gets home, he tells Lucy he was “fired” for harassment. WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? Did they think this would be relatable for adults? I know that sometimes in Peanuts, the joke is that the kids act and talk like adults without realizing what they’re saying, but why would you put this in there?

You may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with wanting a dog for Christmas, which is a good question. Well, I did some research and found some rejected titles for this special that reflect this plot line. Let’s take a look.

charlie2

Too safe. Let’s see the next one.

charlie3

Alright, that’s not bad, but I think they can do better.

charlie4

That’s the one. Why wasn’t that the title?

Oh and there’s one more thing about Rerun’s suspension. It’s the last day of school before Christmas break! They suspended him for half a day from kindergarten the day before Christmas break began! What a punishment there, school. Nice going.

There’s also this weird running joke where Rerun rides in an attached cab above his mom’s bicycle every time she goes out.

charlie10

It always ends badly because they’re gonna make some woman driver jokes in 2003. How clever and not sexist.

Rerun sees how great of a dog Snoopy is and decides he wants one too, despite his mother refusing to get him for one for Christmas due to her own aversion to them.

charlie11

He asks Charlie Brown if Snoopy has any brothers and sisters, and apparently Charlie Brown knows about all of them. It’s a cartoon, but they do realize that dogs don’t just hold family reunions right? Apparently these siblings are recurring characters in the Peanuts universe (again, limited knowledge on my part), especially Spike, Snoopy’s desert-dwelling, mustachioed brother.

charlie12

Eventually Snoopy tires of playing with Rerun non-stop, so Rerun asks Charlie Brown if Spike will come and be his pet.

charlie13
Does Snoopy want to play inflamed basketball?

When Spike gets there, he comes carrying his own cactus. Is that cactus… I can’t believe I’m saying this… is that cactus his wife? He takes that thing everywhere.

charlie14

He carried it all the way from Arizona to… where is Peanuts set? Some ambiguous Midwest town? It was a long trip… probably. When Lucy greets him, she says he’s “As thin as a promise,” which makes me think Lucy’s got some trust issues. Maybe if you want people to be more trustworthy, you should take the first step and actually let Charlie Brown kick the football once in a while. (Look, I tried to call him Charlie instead but it just doesn’t sound natural.)

There’s also a subplot where Lucy is in love with Schroeder (Nick Price) and keeps pestering him while he’s playing piano.

charlie15

Is it just me or is Schroeder kind of a jerk in this one? Rebuffing her advances is fine, but more than once when she’s leaning against the piano, he lifts it off the ground and throws her off! Maybe physical abuse isn’t the way to go, Schroeds.

Spike and Rerun bond pretty well, but as was the issue before, Rerun’s mom doesn’t allow him to have a dog. You knew this was the problem before. You invited a dog up to visit and be your dog. Your mother still doesn’t want a dog. Isn’t this just engaging conflict? Also, this is a Christmas special apparently! Remember the original? It was actually about Christmas! Oh OK, well in this one, Spike does decorate a tumbleweed with ornaments, and there is one brief scene from a Christmas pageant they’re all in, but that’s really it. Christmas feels like an afterthought, especially compared to that other Charlie Brown Christmas special, where it was kind of the focus. Also, in the one scene we do see from the Christmas pageant, Pig Pen has a very Ms. Velma-esque delivery.

charlie16

Since the Van Pelts can’t keep Spike, Charlie Brown goes from door-to-door trying to pawn the dog off on one of his friends. First he tries Violet (Thanks Peanuts Wiki)…

charlie18

…who finds him disgusting. Next, it’s Franklin, with whom Charlie Brown has quite an awkward exchange.

charlie17

Charlie Brown asks him if he needs a watchdog (Odd that he doesn’t ask any of his white friends this), and says Spike would be the kind of dog he might like to have when he goes out at night. Franklin responds, “I sure wouldn’t want to be seen in the daylight with him.” What? He just said he’d be a good dog to have at night, either to guard your house or keep you safe outside. Who said anything about daylight? Are you saying that you could deal with him at night but would be embarrassed by day? If so, expand on that. You have 40 minutes in this special. You could have cut the sexual harassment plot line from this Charlie Brown special to fit that in (a sentence I really never expected to say). Schroeder also refuses the dog because Beethoven never had one. Um… at the end of his life, Beethoven couldn’t hear either. Are you planning on following this road to its logical conclusion? I bet Beethoven never threw a woman off of his piano.

Since Spike can’t find a home, he decides to return back to the desert. He gets a sweet send-off, and eventually he and his cactus-wife hitch a ride on a skateboard all the way back.

charlie19

Rerun and Snoopy begin to play a bit together again, and Rerun settles for this for the time being. I guess the moral is “You may not get what you want for Christmas, but even if you do, your parents won’t like it, so just play with what your friend has instead.” That’s… a tad complicated.

At the end of the day, I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown still has some of the Peanuts charm. Snoopy and Spike have some cute moments, and of course the jazz score is wonderful. If this had been 25 minutes long instead of 40, it would have been more tolerable. They at least could have cut the out-of-left-field sexual harassment jokes. As it is, it’s really not that good. It drags, has weird humor, the voices are hit-and-miss, and it doesn’t have any of the heart of the classic Christmas special. I’ll put it in that 8th slot for now.

8th.png

MATCH-UP HOME

HOME