What does IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS offer that hasn't already been said? Virtually nothing. It counts down the decade, year by year, looking at some of the most provocative and influential titles of the time. A bunch of talking heads discuss their involvement with specific titles, while others recollect their own experiences as young viewers. It is essentially the same old format that we've seen so many times, only this one runs at a whopping 4 HOUR running time.
Retrospective horror documentaries peaked with 2000's The American Nightmare as far as I'm concerned, and few have contributed beyond what that film had to say. Mark Hartley's Not Quite Hollywood and Andrew Monument's Nightmares in Red, White and Blue are two examples of films that did, indeed, reach beyond the common knowledge of most fans, however most other docos have simply retraced the same steps.
Before passionate genre fans come at me, it must be said that I am not referring to film-specific documentaries, of which there are countless beauties. I am a staunch advocate of those, however when it comes to so-called “comprehensive” entries, they are little more than gratuitous fan-service, offering what I can best liken to as mass-audience-reach-arounds.
IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS produces a good amount of talking head subjects to help its narrative, however they've not been choses wisely. Those who are welcome include the likes of Brian Yuzna, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Caroline Williams, and Mick Garris amongst others. Credit must also be given to director David A Weiner for bringing fresh faces to the table with the likes of Fangoria editor-in-chief Phil Nobile Jr, Ryan Turek from the Blumhouse stables, Heather Wixon of The Daily Dead and Fright Rags founder Ben Scrivens. Their participation helps to break up the monotony of the arduous running time, albeit only slightly. Others who have not been selected thoughtfully are Ken Sagoes (actor, Elm Street 3 & 4), Diana Prince (actress, Bunnyman Vengeance) and James A Jenisse (Dead Meat webseries), with the former two offering little to no insight and limited knowledge and the latter being an overly theatrical, ego-driven, try-hard flog. His voice permeates the majority of the film and is mostly in audible contrast from all other participants, and Weiner lacks the co-ordination and rhythm to edit his screen time effectively. The camera, all too often, lingers beyond the final statements of many players, leading to awkward moments before cutting to subsequent guests.
Looking beyond the negatives there are still plenty of positives to take away from IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS. For one, it was crowd funded and credit should always be given to those who workout outside of the formal funding bodies. Secondly, it is an impassioned exercise, which celebrates a mutual love for its subject. Even though it is clunky and poorly constructed, it attempts to delve as deep as possible (something that Weiner would have achieved with more success had he not focused on the multiple sequels of several franchises, or referenced the same titles at multiple points throughout the film). And finally, the fact that it is destined to be a much easier watch on home-entertainment, as opposed to a marathon theatrical sitting, can only bode in its favour. With the benefit of stop and pause, this documentary would be a tolerable exercise.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS is a blatant fan-service, which offers nothing that hasn't already been said. Its target audience will already know the stories being recollected and will not be taking anything new from its narrative. And in turn, with its 4-hour running time I cannot imagine new audiences taking to it in a hurry either.
In the truest larrikin style another film titled WILLS AND BURKE: THE UNTOLD STORY was made concurrently and told an alternative and comedic version of the story. It was released just one week before the historical drama and was met with a mediocre response, both critically and financially. Yet, as with so many Australian films of that era, it would later gain a cult following and become something of a comedy gem (to some).
Adhering to the same storyline and overall structure of the other film, WILLS AND BURKE countered each marker-point with ridicule. From puerile sight gags to clever situational jokes, the film threw as much comedy at the wall in hope that some of it sticks. Some did and some didn't, but for every misfired quip there is a backup of wonderful witticisms not far behind, finessing the film into a satire ahead of its time.
It must be said that WILLS AND BURKE is a time capsule and holds no footing with today's social standards. It is an outrageous and fiercely satirical lampoon that shuns political correctness and will be considered insensitive and racist by most people today. Of course it was also racist then, however its sharp wit and social derision eluded most viewers at the time, who misunderstood its true nature and failed to recognise that the white man was, in fact, the butt of all jokes. The same can be said for today's audiences, whom I can only speculate might misinterpret the humour and identify victims of bigotry.
It is true that various ethnic groups and cultures were stereotyped and ridiculed - from indigenous people to Indians and Arabs – but it is also true that the payoff for such behaviour was the white men's ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. Legendary actor Garry McDonald (Norman Gunston) played Burke as a bumbling nincompoop, whose lack of education and experience lead to a calamity of mishaps. As their party passes by ancient indigenous drawings, he condemns people for vandalism and disrespecting the land, calling for a clean-up crew to restore the rock's beauty. And where one aboriginal man's body-paint is (hilariously) that of a necktie, the joke is – again – on the white man as a family of natives casually collect fish from a waterhole while a white guy sits for hours at the end of a fishing line.
The cast included an alumni of Australian heavy-weights including Kim Gyngell (Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Heaven Tonight), Chris Hayward (Razorback), Peter Collingwood (Picnic At Hanging Rock), John Hardy (Mad Max), Mark Little (Neighbours) and a young Nicole Kidman. They wore their comedic hats with pride and were never afraid to make fools of themselves. One sequence has Kidman wearing a moustache as she pretends to piss at a gentleman's urinal. Another moment has Collingwood stripping naked and throwing all of his belongings (including his false teeth) to a non-existent crowd who he thinks adore him. It is all very silly, yet all rather topical of the time.
With WILLS AND BURKE receiving a recent DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment, the film might earn its overdue credit for being a legitimate comedy classic. The best way to describe its style would be to compare it to Mel Brooks and Monty Python. Throw in a tipple of Young Einstein and a hint of Zucker Brother lunacy and you might get the picture. It's a slow burn comedy, for sure, but it's also one that deserves more attention.
It’s a shame, because many of the horror elements of this movie are strong and some of the comic-horror is genuinely funny. But the rest of it just feels dated and uncomfortable.
It starts off well enough, on Halloween (of course) in 1976 when two local cops from the hilariously named town of Gooberville are locked in a gun battle with a bunch of marauding dolls in (you guessed it) the old abandoned doll factory. But before too long (less than two minutes, in fact) we’ve had a condom joke, an ‘I had sex with your girlfriend’ joke made to a dying buddy before we meet wide-eyed, jive-talkin’ clichéd African-American character of Darius Grumley (Boo Gay in an afro wig) who has a supernatural book with which he can exert some power over the terrifying dolls, keeping the town safe from them.
Jump to present-day Halloween and we meet our seven heroes - Mark (Justin Herman) and his girlfriend Kay (Nicole Elliot), Blake (Will Allday) and his date for the night, Erika (Jade Warren), lothario in a devil costume, Derek (Eric C Schneider), comic relief Miguel (Marc Penarubia) and Alison (Tracy Collins) who has somehow found Darius’ supernatural book (seems her mother is a Wiccan and had it in the closet). After a round of sex banter, scoring girls out of ten and the odd genital joke, Kay’s ex-boyfriend, a nasty piece of work named Ian (Nasir Vilanueva) turns up and the gang decide to ditch the party and head down to the old doll factory to see if Alison’s spooky book is any good at conjuring up ghosts. Of course, they inadvertently re-animate the sleeping dolls and all hell breaks loose. For a little while we get some gory and funny evil doll action as some of our more expendable heroes meet gruesome and bloody ends, but then the comic-horror that’s been slowly building is undercut by a gear shift to more sex jokes with Erica and Blake and the return of the somewhat older (but still jive-talkin’) Darius Grumley who the surviving heroes enlist to help defeat the dolls.
And it’s these dolls that are the real stars of this production. Hats off to Jeffrey Birney for coming up with a doll design that is simultaneously comic and hideous. And there are hoards of them, which just amplifies the humour they bring, not to mention their stilted way of moving around (reminiscent of the Zuni fetish doll in the best chapter of Dan Curtis’ 1975 made-for-TV horror classic Trilogy of Terror). Plus, they have funny voices and increasingly inventive and gory ways of dispatching their victims. This is where the film is at its best. Somewhere along the way, we discover that the dolls are the creation of the sinister Doll Factory owner, Yegor (played with relish by Breaking Bad alumnus Patrick Sane) who went mad in the 1950’s and killed his whole family. The climax of the film centres around a final face-off with Yegor which, for a time, moves us away from the undergraduate humour of the sex gags and back into some half decent horror tropes.
Given the sensitivities of the post-Weinstein/Trump era, it’s hard to tell whether the sexist and racist humour of this movie would have felt less jarring in 2014 when it was made, but I suspect in any 21st century timeframe those elements, in addition to being unfunny, simply serve to eclipse the potential of the promising comic-horror movie that is hiding in there somewhere.
2019 | DIR: ANG LEE | STARRING: WILL SMITH, MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD, BENEDICT WONG, CLIVE OWEN | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
Since Scott's passing in 2012 many names have been attached to the project including Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) and Curtis Hanson (8 Mile) and finally the film arrives, delivered to the screen with absolute ambition by Academy Award winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi) who has carried on the tradition of spreading the screen with all style and no substance.
Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, a middle-aged government assassin with unrivalled skill who has his heart set on retirement. The CIA's idea of retirement is a lot more permanent, however, and they commission the only human capable of out-gunning Brogan... his 20-something year clone. Aligning himself with a female assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a former colleague (Benedict Wong) Brogan hop-scotches around the world to uncover the truth about his junior counterpart while avoiding endless assassination attempts. And thus is the crux of Gemini Man, a 90's inspired action movie that is the equivalent of The 6th Day, Looper and Replicant... pureed.
As advertised, the glaring point of difference with Gemini Man is Ang Lee's obsession with advancing cinema into the future, and following his ambitious - yet jarring – drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, he has picked up where he left off by further exploring the capabilities of higher frame rates. Shot at 120 frames per second (regular films are typically 24 fps) the effect on the viewer is an extremely high clarity that gives the impression of watching reality unfold before your eyes (essentially as though the screen were a stage with the actors present). The downside to this resolution is commonly known as “The Soap Opera Effect”, which often occurs on hi-def televisions when the motion-smoothing function is active. True to that moniker Gemini Man looks more like Days of Our Lives with it's lack of Hollywood veneer and the uncomfortable sense of voyeurism that comes with the high frame rate.
The frustrating facet of Lee's new craft is that his ambition abandons the audience. He's so focused on technological advancement that he's oblivious to how it translates. I applaud his tenaciousness and dedication to cinema, however I am certainly not onboard with it. If this is his vision for the future then I'm out! Gemini Man is a jarring experience that looks more aesthetically aligned with a behind-the-scenes documentary than it does a feature film. The story is generic, featuring lacklustre performances and an uninspired production design, offering only a handful of genuinely exhilarating moments to pad the space. This is a galaxy away from his former glories of Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and even HULK.
As for the elephant in the room, the film also boasts a supposedly photo-realistic computer-generated Will Smith Jr. As opposed to ageing Smith backwards with computer trickery they've chosen to recreate him entirely from scratch, much like Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were posthumously rendered in Rogue One. We are supposed to ogle at the mastery and celebrate their achievement, and yet this strange animation only serves to offer more discomfort to an already dissociative experience. There is no masking the imitation and Smith Jr adorns the screen like a humanoid with robotic expressions and unearthly dexterity.
Had Gemini Man made it to the screen as intended in the late 90s, the effect would have been achieved with a combination of split-screen, digital augmentation and prosthetics. It would have hit cinemas without much fanfare and, in turn, found its audience on home video. It would be a movie we remember with guilty fondness - like Demolition Man or Face Off – and we'd regale those days when practical effects reigned supreme. As it is, the movie has arrived 20-years too late and serves little more purpose than being Ang Lee's play toy.