Old Timers’ Review: The Super Cops (1974)

supercops1974_678x380_10052012113842The Super Cops is a police drama along the lines of Serpico, which was released a year earlier, with more emphasis on action and humor and less on retaliation within the police force. It’s an underappreciated, almost-forgotten gem that’s carried by the charismatic lead characters, played by Ron Leibman (now known as the voice of Ron Cadillac in the FX series Archer) and David Selby.

Leibman and Selbey play new cops Greenberg and Hantz who quickly tire of traffic duty and begin to solve crimes and bust crooks in their spare time. (No, really.) They accomplish this by thinking outside the rule book, in particular the one with the unwritten rules. They refuse to take bribes or grease palms. They receive assistance from convicted criminals. They stake out drug dealers in a giant cardboard box. All of this earns them some high profile busts and the enmity of pretty much every other cop in their precinct, particularly their new direct supervisor, Lt. O’Shaughnessy (Joseph Sirola).

I realize this sounds like what’s now a typical buddy-cop movie: a pair bucks the system to do what’s right. And it sort of is a progenitor to those films. But look here, this story, based on the book by L. H. Whittemore, was a bit more groundbreaking than all of those Lethal Weapon clones we’ve seen over the past two decades. The cops aren’t always good guys? They can make mistakes and have lapses in ethics? No one wants to see Greenburg and Hantz succeed, not nobody, not no how! But they do their best anyway, even if it means no advancement. They’ll work in a crappy precinct for a jerky boss, even on desk or traffic duty, and then work cases in their spare time. Their spare time! The other cops try hard to dissuade the dynamic duo – nicknamed Batman and Robin for their comic-book-like exploits – from messing around with their traditional system of not caring (particularly after the shift’s over). Meanwhile, Greenburg and Hantz just want to clean up one of New York’s worst crack-infested areas, The Man be damned. They’re crazy like foxes, is what they are. How crazy? They try to take down one baddie while the building they’re in is being demolished. Pretty awesome scene.

The Super Cops is available on DVD, finally. Seems the great Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) raved about this lost classic, and that somehow spurred the powers that be to release the movie to the public. So it’s out there, and it’s well worth your while.

The Super Cops: ***

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Funny reviews of crappy, crappy movies

This site hasn’t been updated in a long time, which is a shame – there’s some hilarious stuff here. C’mon, Rinkworks, get on it!

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Old Timers’ Review: The Night Walker (1964)

Image from monstermoviemusic.blogspot.com

Image from monstermoviemusic.blogspot.com

You know, William Castle didn’t do just gimmick-laden horror movies. He sometimes did genuine thrillers. Take The Night Walker. A woman, kept housebound by her wealthy, elderly, blind husband, suffers from vivid nightmares of a tall, dark stranger who’s just out of reach. Her husband records her talking in her sleep and concludes she’s having an affair with a younger man. The old man tries to enlist his attorney to find out more but instead dies in an on-site lab fire. Now the woman still has those dreams, but there’s a new guest – her dearly departed husband.

Is Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck, in her final film role) cheating on her husband? The audience learns the answer in quick order. But who is this strange man in her dreams? She doesn’t recognize him, doesn’t know his name. And the dreams feel incredibly real. She’s visited, embraced, taken places familiar and yet unknown to her. Her sleep is restless, her pysche unstable.

Irene turns to attorney Barry Morland (Robert Taylor), and it’s clear she has a bit of a thing for him – but he’s not the man in the dream, either. What’s more, some nights she feels as if she’s not in a dream at all but is an active participant in a surreal romance. It gets to the point where poor Irene can’t easily tell the difference.

There are some Castle trademarks. There’s an emphasis on the nature of sleep and consciousness, and to illustrate how mind-warpy that concept is, Castle treats us to spiraling animation and his own actors’ melodramatic acting. But this isn’t Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket; Stanwyck is commanding and alluring as the victimized Irene. Also of note is the terrific score, although with no soundtrack listed it’s hard to tell where the music comes from. (Vic Mizzy, who composed music for The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Green Acres, was responsible for the tunes here.)

There’s also a nifty twist at the end that most sharp viewers will catch, but it’s still satisfying. Taylor, Lloyd Bochner (as the “dream” lover), and Hayden Rorke (as the jealous husband) offer fine support. The film’s well shot, making excellent use of low-lit interiors to convey a sense of claustrophobia and general fear. This is quite the unsung Castle classic.

The Night Walker: ***

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The Seven Films That Can Still Win the Oscar for Best Picture

From The Atlantic:

The Seven Films That Can Still Win the Oscar for Best Picture – The Atlantic.

The article’s right, of course. There isn’t really much buzz. Maybe later. I’m sure we have more festivals to go through yet. I do hope Boyhood is among the eventual nominees.

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Holiday seasons, they almost here.

Not even Halloween yet, you say. You’re right. I’m terrible, I know. Because the holiday I mean isn’t Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. No, it’s Christmas. Or Hanukkah.

Anyway, if you look at the bottom of this post (assuming I did it right), you’ll see an Amazon link. (It’s buried under words about helping the site grow.) It’s not just an Amazon link, though, no sir! If you click on that link and then buy something from Amazon – doesn’t matter what – then this site gets a teeny percentage!

And I’ll guarantee this – 100% of the proceeds, should there be any, will go to maintaining this blog and not at all to buying a nice big-screen, 3D TV.

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Old Timers’ Review: The Black Vampire (1953)

Image from cinefania.com

Image from cinefania.com

I saw a stunning movie last night. El Vampiro Negro, an Argintinian film whose title translates as The Black Vampire, is a remake of Fritz Lang’s legendary M, starring Peter Lorre as a child killer. But this is no shot-for-shot remake. The acting is astonishing on all fronts, and the plot is tight and fraught with dread. And the look! Although the movie was released in 1953 (and almost never seen in the U.S.A.), a bit past the classic noir era, there’s a distinct look of those gritty dramas afoot.

Teodoro Ulber (Nathan Pinzon), known as The Professor, is on trial for murder as the movie begins. After his attorney asks for confinement to a mental institution and the prosecution asks for the death penalty, a flashback reveals how Ulber made it to this point. Outside a dance hall, a short, portly figure drags the body of a little girl from a worn sack and throws it down a sewage shaft. The next day, a homeless man, deep within the sewer tunnels of the city, comes across the body. He alerts the police, who (of course) toss him in jail as a possible suspect, and the manhunt is on.

But Ulber’s actions didn’t go unseen. Through window in the basement of the dance hall, a young performer named Amalia (Olga Zubarry) spies the wretched little man. But she keeps quiet, at the behest of the club’s unscrupulous owner. The owner fears he’d come under too-close scrutiny, and Amalia fears that she’ll receive unwanted publicity – for, although she’s a dancer of ill repute (!), she does have a sweet young daughter whom she’s been able to send to a private school, at her own great sacrifice.

What’s more, one of Amalia’s coworkers, Cora (Nelly Panizza) is actually acquaintances with Ulber, who awkwardly pitches woo at Cora. Without realizing that Ulber is indeed the Black Vampire, Cora and Amalia aid in his escape from the police (led by prosecutor Bernar, played by Roberto Escalada), which only opens up the possibility of more children being murdered.

This is by no means a gory film. In fact, there’s almost no blood at all (and none anywhere near a child). But the harsh camera of Anibal Gonzalez Paz tells a story all on its own: the desperate vulnerability of Ulber, the jaded countenance of Bernar, the shadowy streets and tunnels and back alleys of the city. Gonzalez Paz artfully direct the viewer’s attention not to what is present but to what may be coming just around the bend.

The movie premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 1953 but didn’t make it over to the States until January 2014. 61 years! 61 years before this masterful work by Roman Vinoly Barreto could be seen (with subtitles) over here, and more’s the pity. El Vampiro Negro is a tremendous accomplishment that’s not to be missed.

Huge thanks to the Film Noir Foundation and to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland for making this screening possible!

El Vampiro Nego: ***1/2

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Review #770: Housebound (***)

Image from popculturebeast.com

Image from popculturebeast.com

Yet another movie from the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival – Housebound! Read about this terrific thriller at The Critical Critics!
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Old Timers’ Review: Side Street (1949)

Image from outofthegutteronline.com

Image from outofthegutteronline.com

Anthony Mann’s Side Street, another Farley Granger noir, is about a young man who steals money with the best of intentions, only to see his one transgression turn into an avalanche of ever-constricting situations.

Granger is Joe Norson, a part-time letter carrier in New York with a pregnant wife at home. Delivering to a law office, Joe sees a couple of hundred-dollar bills fall to the floor. The dropper gives young Joe a glare and tells him to beat it. A day or so later, Joe notices that the office is temporarily vacant. He busts open a nearby file cabinet and retrieves wads of cash. It’s more than the $200 he thought he was going to snag – it’s more than $30,000. And it’s not exactly clean money.

Returning to the scene to give back the money doesn’t work (the bad guys think he may be trying to lure them to the cops). And when people connected with the law office start getting themselves strangled, Joe finds himself neck deep in some serious problems. Can he get out of New York? What will become of his wife Ellen (Cathy O’Donnell) and their newborn? Why are the cops involved, anyway?

A solid supporting cast helps: James Craig, Paul Harvey, Jean Hagen (as a sultry lounge singer), Adele Jurgens (as a blackmailer). Not people on whom you’d want to turn your back, even if they were holding an infant and a puppy. They’d probably throw both at you, anyway, then shoot all three of you.

The best comes last, a harrowing car chase around New York; a cab pursued by the cops. That the cab is also carrying a newly dead person, right there in the back seat, makes the ride all the more terrifying. And because this is a noir film, chances are pretty good it won’t end well for most of the characters. Side Street is an excellent example of a film noir, with the usual stark photography, dismal tone, sense of hopelessness, and not-exactly-benign characters.

Side Street: ***

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Review #769 – The Shower (**1/2)

Image from dcfilmdom.com

Image from dcfilmdom.com

Heading to a baby shower in the near future? Uh…

New review posted on The Critical Critics!

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Review: They Live by Night (1948)

Image from unseenfilms.blogspot.com

Image from unseenfilms.blogspot.com

In Nicholas Ray’s seminal crime drama They Live by Night, injured bank robber Bowie (Farley Granger) falls for the independent young rancher’s daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and the two use Bowie’s ill-gotten gains to distance themselves from the authorities and the rest of Bowie’s gang.

Bowie is the gang’s wheelman, and when he’s injured during a getaway, it’s his newfound companion Keechie who gets to nurse him back to health while the others – Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) – make themselves scarce. Keechie doesn’t think much of her patient and his lifestyle. And make no mistake, Bowie feels little shame in his role, which has included murder. No bright-eyed neophyte, he. But there’s something about Keechie, her deliberate movements, her slinky smile, that really appeals to Bowie, and the two slowly fall for each other.

The first shot by Ray (in his directorial debut) is an early helicopter angle, as the bad boys speed down a rural road as they escape from jail. In fact, it’s the first helicopter action shot, as previous uses of the vehicle were simply to shoot landscapes to set a scene. In any event, a tire is blown and the gang heads toward a farmhouse, where they meet farmer Mobley (Will Wright) and his daughter Keechie. There’s chemistry just dripping between Granger and O’Donnell; both seem more naive than they truly are, and although each pretends to dislike the other, it’s not long before them old hormones come a-knocking, although not too much, because this is 1948, after all, and the movie’s set some 15 years earlier. On the run they go!

Ray’s first feature is strikingly shot. Aside from that iconic opening helicopter shot, there’s also a great little scene of the gang pulling off a job – from Bowie’s perspective as the driver. A bystander tries to engage Bowie in conversation just as T-Dub and Chickamaw run out of the building, earning him a rough shove to the face. That’s noir film for you. Watch your face!

O’Donnell and Granger work very well together (no surprise, since the latter recommended the former for the role), although I think most of the appeal comes from O’Donnell, who turns in a graceful, passionate, and unique performance as the trusting Keechie. Granger, appearing in only his third film (with Rope on the horizon) was never really that good of an actor, and so many of his lines are delivered in an almost nonchalant monotone that you wonder if some lessons weren’t in his immediate future. At least no one can accuse him of hamming it up.

And do you know who produced this masterpiece? None other than the great John Houseman, who most of us remember from his old Smith-Barney commercials but who was also one of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre performers back in the day. The man knew talent, and he picked Nicholas Ray to direct without input from the studio. It’s to Houseman’s credit that the movie’s as good as it is – which is to say, a true noir classic. There may not be a Bonnie and Clyde ending, but we’re not talking about a Disney finale, either. Bonus cameo – the jeweler who sells Bowie a watch is played by none other than Will Lee. Yes, the same Will Lee who would go on to play Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street.

They Live by Night: ***1/2

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Review: Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

He just wants to be loved. And given a new brain. And maybe some dental work. Image from theolddarkhouse.com

He just wants to be loved. And given a new brain. And maybe some dental work. Image from theolddarkhouse.com

Here we go again. In the grand tradition of Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) comes the fourth in Universal’s series. This time around, the crazy doctor of the title is Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the brother of Basil Rathbone’s character in Son of and the (other) son of Colin Clive’s original Dr. Frankenstein in the original and Bride of movies.

A generation or so has passed since the villagers last destroyed the Monster in a sulphur pit. But, of course, he’s only mostly dead, and his old pal Ygor (Bela Lugosi) holds vigil outside the old Frankenstein castle, hoping the creature will revive himself. At the same time, angry villagers are mobilizing; they decide that there’s a Frankenstein curse that’s prohibiting their crops from growing and businesses outside of town (named after Frankenstein, for some reason) are refusing to deal with them. The curse must be broken, so off the villagers go to burn down the castle. The explosion indeed wakes up the preserved Monster, and he’s reunited with his old pal Ygor.

There’s another Frankenstein a village or so away, as the crow flies – Ludwig. Ludwig, who runs an insane asylum out of his house, also works for the police; when the Monster is captured and put on trial, the good doctor is called in to deal with the situation. But Ygor, he’s a cunning sort, and he persuades Ludwig to get the Monster remanded to Ludwig’s own castle so that Dr. Frankenstein can work on giving the Monster a nice, new brain. (There appears to be some brain damage for the big guy; he can’t speak, as he could – haltingly – in previous films, and simple logic isn’t his forte.) Ygor, he of the broken neck from being ineptly hanged, wants his own brain to be placed in the creature’s cranium.

The setting is as eerie and stark as in other Universal monster movies. Hidden rooms, long staircases, vaulted ceilings – it’s a realtor’s dream. Ludwig also has a grown daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers, another Universal staple), who’s probably named after Elsa Lanchester, who starred in Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa’s boyfriend is Erik Ernst (Ralph Bellamy), who’s stuck between the mob rule of the town and his fondness of the Frankensteins. Lionel Atwill plays one of Dr. Frankenstein’s doctor associates. Lon Chaney, Jr., by the way, grunts his way around a macabre set as the Monster itself.

For a movie that’s the fourth in a series, Ghost of Frankenstein (so named, perhaps, because the ghost of the original Doctor appears) is competently acted, directed, and shot. No, more than that, it’s expertly done. There’s some overacting (Ankers), to be sure, but overall it’s a very well realized hidden gem among Universal’s many horror movies of the early 20th century.

Ghost of Frankenstein: ***

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Review #768 – Annabelle (**)

Image from aceshowbiz.com

Image from aceshowbiz.com

A large vintage doll, possessed by a demon bent on reaping a fresh new soul, brings death and disorder to a young married couple in the early 1970s. The scares and jolts seen in its predecessor, The Conjuring, aren’t nearly as prevalent this time around, to the point where one begins to relax or even doze off.

Annabelle is about the events leading up to the events that lead up to those in The Conjuring. Mia and John Gordon (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton) are about to be parents. John is harried by his stressful life as a med student, and to make up for aloof attitude he locates and purchases an old, large doll for his wife, who’s been searching for the doll for years. But this fairly tale story is quickly shattered when, in the middle of the night, the Gordons are attacked by a crazed duo who injure the pregnant Mia before themselves dying by bullet or knife. One of the attackers is the estranged daughter of the Gordons’ neighbors, the Higgins, who have also been slaughtered. The Gordons move to a new place, as would we all.

Confined to bed rest for the final month of her pregnancy, Mia experiences some strange happenings. She hears whispers. She sees things. She nearly dies in a kitchen fire. It’s the doll, I tell you – it’s always something material. How else would a demon house itself while waiting for a soul to take? It’s just logic. In any event, John and Mia enlist the help of their local priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola), who is himself badly injured when he attempts to take the doll into his church for safekeeping. Yes, it’s clear to all that demons are at work here.

While watching this, I waited and wondered for the good stuff to come, the genuine scares. The first hour or so contains little of what might be considered a scare. It’s not that the frights are inexperly presented, it’s that there aren’t any to speak of. A lot of exposition appears instead. I began to hope that this would all be a setup for a cathartic finale.

Mia becomes friends with a local bookstore owner, Evelyn (Alfre Woodward), who also lives in the Gordons’ apartment complex. Coincidentally, Evelyn had lost a child following an auto accident for which Evelyn feels plenty of guilt. This becomes important during the finale, which is over almost before you know it’s begun.

There’s some nifty sleight of hand in Annabelle, but since everyone in the movie (as well as the audience) agrees wholeheartedly that the demon does exist and that Mia isn’t imagining things, there’s no real suspense to be found. Even husband John goes along with things eventually. Such an understanding husband. Because everyone knows in their heart that these weird things are actually happening, there’s no ambiguity about whether Mia is losing her mind. She’s not.

Short on horror and long on talk, Annabelle is a medium-low heat setting on a gas grill. Your food will get cooked eventually, but you may fall asleep waiting for it to come to its inevitable conclusion.

Annabelle: **

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Review: Maniac (1934)

Yep, mad scientist. Or Henry Kissinger, whichever. Image from 366weirdmovies.com

Yep, mad scientist. Or Henry Kissinger, whichever. Image from 366weirdmovies.com

This is one of those cheapie “horror” movies that can be good for a few laughs, but nothing more. It’s another Frankenstein-esque plot, with stereotypical mad scientist Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) claiming to be able to revive recently dead folks with a mere injection. Yes, no more of waiting for a huge thunderstorm to get enough electricity to jolt a corpse! Just one hypo is all you need.

The good doctor is assisted by a former vaudevillian named Don Maxwell (William Woods) who does impressions. Not of famous people, mind you, but of people like the guards at a mortuary – the better for the duo to sneak in an snag themselves a body. They grab an alluring young woman who just committed suicide and revive her, but the woman spends most of the rest of the movie offscreen, for some reason.

Maxwell, who’s also on the lam from the cops, decides to impersonate the doctor and take over the experiments, at which point wacky hijinks ensue. At least I assume they did, given the poor lighting and unintelligible voices.

Interestingly enough, there’s brief nudity. This would be before the infamous Hays Code that prohibited just about everything – at least until the sixties or so.

Maniac, also known as Sex Maniac, isn’t worth your time. Also, if spot the name “Phyllis Diller” in the cast, rest assured that it’s not that Phyllis Diller.

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767 – Carrie (***)

This is not someone you want to anger. Image from abcnews.com.

This is not someone you want to anger. Image from abcnews.com.

Stephen King’s 1974 novel has been filmed three times so far. I didn’t catch the 2002 cable version, but I can compare the 1976 theatrical release with last year’s offering from director Kim Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), and my feeling is that the newbie acquits itself quite well.

You’re probably familiar with the plot, since the book has sold millions of copies worldwide. A teenage girl, living with her religious-zealot mother and suffering the scorn of the cool kids at school, discovers she has telekinetic powers that she then uses to exact her revenge for her years of mistreatment. This time, our titular protagonist is played by Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), who looks like Amanda Seyfried’s slightly younger sister. Carrie has always been viewed as an outsider/freak by most of the school, but things go really far south in the very first scene, when the poor girl gets her first menstrual period – in the middle of the shower in the girls’ locker room. This comes as a major surprise, since her mother (Julianne Moore) has never brought up the subject before. Think the other girls are sympathetic? Brother, you don’t know high school girls.

After the girls have had their fun at Carrie’s expense, their gym teacher Mrs. Desjardin (Judy Greer) confronts them. As their cheerleader coach, she informs them that they can either run laps (and plenty of them) or be suspended from school for their part in the harassment. Most of the girls comply, because suspension means no prom, and no prom to a high school girl is unthinkable. One girl who doesn’t comply is Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday, Youth in Revolt), who has a boyfriend from a different, rougher high school and who is probably from the wrong side of the tracks to begin with. Chris rebels and is consequently suspended, which means no prom for her. Where do you think she places the blame for her situation? Poor Carrie White.

Another partipant in the hazing incident is Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), who feels genuinely guilty and ashamed about her part; this leads her to ask her BMOC boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom instead of Sue. Tommy needs to be talked into it, but in the end it’s what his girl wants. But things don’t go as he, Sue, or Carrie plan.

Chris and Sue, two close friends, react quite differently to their punishments (did I mention that video from the locker room was later posted on YouTube?). Sue, immediately remorseful, decides that not only should she not go to prom, as punishment, she should convince her beloved Tommy to take the tormented Carrie in her stead. Sue, hostile and vindictive, is meanwhile out for revenge, perhaps at any cost.

A minor quibble might be Moretz. Not her acting, mind you (or that of most of the cast), but rather her appearance; Moretz seems to me to be too attractive for the role of Carrie White. At no point here does Carrie look like an ugly duckling, even before she becomes a swan. Sissy Spacek, in the 1976 version, had more of that plain-Jane look than Moretz can pull off. Still, at least Moretz was still a teenager when this movie was made. Even Doubleday, as Chris, is 26.

I found Carrie to be appropriately terrifying, much as King probably imagined it when he originally put words to pen. The denouement is spectacularly staged, as are the culimation of the prom and Carrie’s interactions with her fanatical mother. The telekinesis scenes are fantastic, a step up from the ’76 version. And there’s lots of blood. Sure, most of it’s came from a pig, but it’s blood nonetheless.

Carrie: ***

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Review: Antichrist (2009)

I wouldn’t say that Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is hard to watch, but early on there’s some porn-level graphic sex and later on there’s genital mutilation. This just means that this film, like most of von Trier’s movies, is an acquired taste. Nothing, it seems, is verboten. It’s not really for the faint of heart.

An anonymous couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, suffer the loss of their toddler, who’s fallen out a window a few stories up. Each grieves in his own manner, with the woman leaning on drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist and the man holding it all in. Finally, they head to a lakeside cabin, just the two of them, in order to best work through their pain. And then things get weird.

It’s not a standard horror film, despite the remote setting, but it’s explicitly violent. von Trier received quite a bit of criticism for his perceived misogyny displayed here, but I’ve come to believe that the film is more misanthropic than anything else. There’s a subplot moving within the story’s firmament about women from centuries past who were believed to be actual witches, but the connection to the woman is teased out to us. In the end, that subplot behaves as filler that ambiguously explains the cause of the previous 90 minutes of carnage.

Some scenes demand close attention. The man’s earnest attention to his wife’s troubles seem to hide his own panic and terror. He tries valiantly to guide his wife back to sanity, but he’s in over his head. There’s something about their cabin, too; named Eden, it seems to be both the source of and the answer to all of their problems. Perhaps because something intense happened there the previous summer when the woman visited with the couple’s son.

It’s safe to say that Antichrist is a gruesome mind trip. There’s deep symbolism afoot, sometimes with subtlety in the form of woodland creatures and other times a lot more bluntly, as in blunt instrument. A psychological horror film, Antichrist is a fine road-not-taken, sublime horror.

Antichrist: ***

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