Sunday, May 05, 2013

Mysteries wrapped in enigmas

I originally posted this in 2010; with slight editing I am presenting it again.

The past couple of days I watched some DVDs I borrowed from my local public library. Despite the different subject matter all three were essentially mysteries, and all ended without resolution. In the past that was a strict no-no. The thinking was that a mystery had to be solved or the audience would be unsatisfied. Actually, it’s the other way around. If you leave the audience wondering then they have more fun making up their own ending.

Black Christmas was made in '73 and sank at the box office. It was released later to television as Silent Night Deadly Night, and over time attained cult status. Why? Because it predated by half a decade other movies with the same theme, like John Carpenter’s Halloween. Movie fans love this kind of thing because it's the sort of trivia they can haul out at a party, make themselves sound hip. “Did you know that the first slasher movie was a little known Canadian film from 1973 called Black Christmas? It was directed by Bob Clark, who went on to make Porky's...” Yep, I can hear them now at a party. I should know. I'm one of them.

At the end of the movie Detective John Saxon thinks he has the killer, but the killer is still out there. Boo! So who is the killer? We don't know.

The movie, when viewed in context of what movies followed, is fairly standard fare. Sorority girls have a killer in the house who is murdering them. Olivia Hussey, who was Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, plays the lead. Margot (Lois Lane) Kidder is a second lead, even though John Saxon is listed as star. Saxon doesn't show up until late in the story, after all the buildup.

Kidder is easily ten years older than she should be to play a sorority girl, and probably should have played the house mom instead. Hussey said, in an interview included with the DVD, that she was given the opportunity to make the movie, go to Canada and leave her new baby for a month. What? Leave your newborn? And you admitted it? Here's your Mom-of-the-Year Award, Olivia!

Black Christmas is good for its genre, creepy and effective for its time, even innovative compared to its imitators. It's not a great film like the cult film fans claim, but it is well made and gets a high mark from me for its creative use of electronic filtering and voice alteration for the killer's voice over the telephone, and the POV shots, which were made with a special harness for the camera operator. Only the killer's hands are shown, and they are the hands of the real-life cameraman.

I’ve written about Cloverfield before. It’s a monster movie told in a POV fashion through a video camera. I tried not to think of the moving camera, and it was easier on television. Some people got motion sickness in the theater, so beware. At the end of the movie we still don’t know where the monster came from, why he rampaged New York City, or why the hell the movie is called Cloverfield, the worst name ever for a monster movie. The ending is left open, just like its inspiration, the events of 9/11, were  resolved after the fact. In the movie the guy hauling around the video camera, Hud, speculates on the monster: maybe it came from a trench in the ocean, maybe it came from outer space, maybe it’s something to do with the government! The others shush him. They have more important things to worry about. At the end the main character, Rob, speaks into the camera saying that if someone is watching the tape they know more about what happened than he does, even though he’s in the middle of the action. In the 1950s monster movies invariably had a scientist who stopped the film dead with some sort of boring explanation of why a giant gila monster/scorpion/lizard/ants, blah-blah-blah, have appeared. As an audience we don’t really care. The producers thought we cared, which is why they included those types of explanations. We just want to see the monster, please. Send the scientist home, we don’t care why the monster is there, we just want to see him stomp people and cars.


 The Bourne Identity is the third film I watched. It was the first of a trilogy from Robert Ludlum, involving a CIA killer with amnesia, Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon. The reason for all of the goings-on and incredible action sequences is resolved at the end of the trilogy, but the end of The Bourne Identity the mystery is left open. There is a resolution of sorts, as Jason gets back together with Marie, whom he met under less than ideal circumstances, but who was drawn into his dangerous life. At first it was against her will and then she went willingly. Isn't that just like a woman? Falling for the wrong guy?

So all three movies had in common that we really didn't know what had caused the havoc we had just spent a couple of hours watching. For me that's OK; I had some good endings made up in my head. For Black Christmas the killer was the guy with a 35-mm helmet-cam. In Cloverfield the monster was Godzilla’s love child with Mothra...or Gamera...or whoever else it was Godzilla had the hots for, and in The Bourne Identity it was hardly a mystery at all. It was a secret government program that created Bourne. When in doubt always go to the government card. It's always the government who is the source of all things sinister, all things dangerous. We know that from dozens of movies and TV shows over the past 30 years. It’s the stuff of which paranoia is made.


Kirk said...

I've seen Black Christmas. It's better than most of the slasher films that followed, but its cult status puzzles me, too.

Steve Martin is a fan of the film. He once told Hussey he'd seen it 72 times.

Postino said...

Seventy-two times!!?? It's obvious Steve doesn't have enough to do.

I think cult film status grows out of someone believing someone else when they say something is a cult film, rather than on its particular merits.