Wes Craven’s “Deadly Blessing”

Deadly Blessing marks the transition between the confrontational cruelty of Last House on the Left/The Hills Have Eyes and the more allegorical, elegant later works by Wes Craven. Unfortunately, it’s a flawed film, it doesn’t achieve harmony between the very distinctive genre conventions it’s rooted on, its overall mysterious tone is continuously brought down by the banality of the slasher bits, by their rough, lifeless construction (the movie’s low points, accompanied by a typically overwrought score by James Horner, it doesn’t help), contrasted with a mostly truncated but daring experiment in supernatural horror. As I said, this unpolished quality is partially due to the director deliberately distancing himself from what could be directly linked to his infamous exploitation efforts, but that’s what makes it appealing, and there is one particular scene I would put among Craven’s best and most revealing moments.

Instead of the progressive and slow deconstruction of a mundane space into a short glimpse of hell, as we see in the movies of Mario Bava and a few others, Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and his subsequent films are unique because of the quick transitions between these spaces, the ordinary and the ones tainted by an underlying reality, by occult horror, done with incredible ease, in Deadly Blessing we can see that effect attained almost in a single shot. A shot that indicates both the exterior and interior of the barn, the life of the community and the unknown. Those transitions are always physical, a very common aspect in Craven: interiors, or home, is where the guiding rules of a society will be disputed, where the hidden truth behind misunderstood external problems will be disclosed and change its structure, heal it or destroy it. Everything becomes uncertain, an entirely different world also exists in the ideal suburban neighborhood of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a gruesome one, the same goes for the practices of the strange religious group and their relation to “the forbidden barn”.

In this scene from Deadly Blessing, it takes just a focus pull to turn a nightmare image for Sharon Stone’s character into reality, an image of the only path to leave the terrifying place, and a very simple technique brings another dimension, that simplicity is what is extraordinary, a good example of the close connection Craven makes between artifice and the subconscious, why it must be always precise, because it’s easy to get whimsical and senseless, just look at the Nightmare sequels for proof, it’s surprising how wild his movies get in their fantastic elements without ever losing contact with their basis in real-world problems, a mistake even some masters of the genre occasionally make. I think it’s a great scene lost in a largely erratic film, maybe a sketch for greater things, in Shocker or The People Under the Stairs, something this good will appear every 10 minutes, but there’s mastery here.

Christofer Pallú

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Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal”

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I like Ridley Scott, he is as uneven as everyone says, maybe the case of an artisan who thinks is an artist, a filmmaker whose stylistic affectations, often misguided, can be simultaneously terrible and fascinating, can destroy a movie but also generate interest where it wouldn’t exist with a more direct and modest craftsman. There are two modes in which he normally operates: (1) A heavy-handed director used to build his entire aesthetic around graphic design, who attempts to convey an interpretation of his themes in very stylized lighting, eccentric textures and scenography, with editing concerned more with rhythm and immediate effects than meaning, maintaining coherence in the presentation of such design but often subjugating the drama itself, sometimes at the cost of the necessary confidence in the interactions of people, it’s maybe the only case where I understand the ridiculous criticism of style over substance, both Alien and Gladiator are examples of this, to very distinct results. And (2) that kind of talented and modest craftsman dedicated to a text he believes in, that doesn’t need the common and excessive ornamentation to make the audience comprehend the ideas insinuated or explicitated in the script, one recent example of this side would be The Counselor. The problem is that Scott rarely finds a balance between both, and neither takes them to the extreme, in terms of pure imagistic experimentation and its conceptual results, like his brother Tony did, but when he achieves that equilibrium, we are rewarded with Blade Runner, the vastly underrated Black Rain, and this one, Hannibal.

In Hannibal, there are many points in which he nearly crosses the line to overindulgence, as in the sort of monotonous manner Giancarlo Giannini’s character is initially presented, it ends up serving a bigger purpose than simply alluding to a symbol, to a single significance of his actions, since his meeting with Hannibal after learning his true identity is a complete break from the behavior we have previously seen from the corrupt policeman, the subtle confrontation that occurs in the dialogue is not only enhanced, but given different meanings through the arrangement of the bodies, their positionings are delineated in an inquisitive way, accentuated by the distance between camera and actors when a more conventional coverage certainly would come closer while the conversation’s subdued tone fades away, it goes on the opposite direction, even the sudden light changes and contrasts are there to help substantiate the drama that is primarily observed in people and are not a superficial substitute for transformations we can not see. This is just one example but most of its scenes are constructed similarly, Scott’s approach ranges from lucid and perspicuous to almost completely cacophonous, like the pursuit in the shopping mall and the dinner scene, but these weirder moments are still controlled and always created in service of the characters, and not in spite of them.

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One aspect that makes Hannibal quite exceptional, and that should probably be credited to David Mamet’s initial involvement, is its structural concision and the acceptance of those figures as archetypical, preventing the subtextually charged material from becoming too literal on the screen, from overly psychologizing the procedures (as did Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs). Scott makes a clever choice in emphasizing the abundant references to the long Italian tradition in representations which blurry the line between horror, beauty and the grotesque, associating it with the narrative’s batshit grand guignol and occasional discussions of the philosophical or theological implications behind those prevailing images, in the entire city of Florence, as ignored as the people living in it (there is a moment in which a man is murdered in a crowded street, someone looks, but nobody stops, and the policeman can wash his bloody hands in public as if nothing happened, the subsequent killings, even of completely unimportant characters, are given the same unusual attention).

The lost interest in the underlying values of those works reflect a much larger problem, as all institutions are shown to be corrupt and lacking any ethical basis, maybe everyone, as the scenes mentioned above could suggest. Therefore, Giannini’s death scene is fundamental, not just cheap, gratuitous violence. A disemboweled body appears hanging from a balcony, a group of tourists immediately laugh at the incident, then screams are heard and a final shot of the square shows the bystanders perplexed with the view. Suddenly, the representations become a bewildering and horrendous spectacle in flesh and blood, and a forgotten, subconscious understanding of such problems clash into the surface.

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In America, the invasion of the modern world by these displaced and almost mythical expressions is even more overt. The same kind of acknowledgement is made in the neo-gothic figure of the villain and his surroundings, portrayed as a deformed monster living in a recluse castle, with faithful servants (the police included) to do the dirty work, in short, Dracula, while Hannibal fancies himself as some sort of savior (and yes, Christ imagery follows), an outlaw punisher who desires the incorruptible purity he sees in Clarice Starling. Their relationship is explicitly related to Beauty and the Beast, to Tristan and Isolde (Wagner’s overture is quoted on the soundtrack at the final encounter), thus, having a deranged love story between investigator and murderer told as a violent fairy tale at its center, it becomes easier to see the parallels with the gialli.

Hannibal‘s inheritance from Dante Alighieri is the same of Mario Bava, but it doesn’t mean Scott tries to simply emulate the Italian masters, which is impossible to anyone who takes the genre seriously, for they are essentially works of criticism. Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci were all film/art critics, none of their best work should be considered mere reproduction, and I think Scott does something very close here, besides the clear awareness of their common aesthetic principles, which is probably what motivates the departure from his vices in other more stylized efforts, oriented by static and saturated images, as opposed to Hannibal‘s more harmonious movements, elegant camera work and gorgeous use of chiaroscuro lighting. And even Hans Zimmer’s main theme sounds like a nod to Goblin’s Suspiria.

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Hannibal must be the director’s greatest accomplishment since Blade Runner, and I hope it gets the same critical revaluation after the general dismissal of the film upon release. And to think that something this risky, an outright insane black comedy, constantly refusing to play safe, was put out as a blockbuster by a major studio, with big stars, and done by a director who is far from willing to take big chances most of the times, only 14 years ago… A production like this is unimaginable today, and that is really sad.

Christofer Pallú