27 September 2016

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles Overstays Its Welcome
by Kristin Battestella

Following the 2014 Lizzie Borden Took an Ax Lifetime television movie, Christina Ricci and Clea DuVall reprise their roles as the acquitted murderess and her homely sister for eight episodes of the 2015 The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Four months after her infamous trial, Lizzie and Emma find returning to the quiet life in Fall River difficult now that Pinkerton Charlie Siringo (Cole Hauser) is investigating the suspicious violence always following in Lizzie's wake...

The rhyme is made ye old for the “Acts of Borden” premiere of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles while prim ladies giving Lizzie dirty looks, kids spying through the window, slow motion jump rope, and surreal ax blows remind us of the previous forty whacks– as if we have forgotten so soon. The sisters are still wrangling with their late father's debtors, but herky jerky camerawork and seizure-inducing montages immediately try for audience cool with intrusive contemporary music to match. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles goes for grit via fast action, on the move dialogue, and flashes of crimes past and present with every blink. This is also a reset, with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles placed before the end scenes of Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, adding an initial confusion amid unnecessary music transitions and blaring rifts. I love westerns – cowboys really need to make a comeback – however The Lizzie Borden Chronicles inexplicably attempts to be Deadwood instead of Penny Dreadful. There is no build upon the innate character creepy and precious few still moments between the sisters, but a Borden brother drops by and there's Victorian pornography. Our Pinkerton doesn't feel the open and shut cases in “Patron of the Arts” are resolved when every murder always benefits “thee” Lizzie Borden, who's visiting the New York theatre as more music montages combine the high society parties, dead bodies, and alleyway rescues before another investigation montage. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles plays at girl power or lesbian teases as our titular spitfire smiles over her teacup, charms women, and kills big bad men. Putting the acquitted and her new Pinkerton adversary face to face should be a wonderful battle of wills, but the sloppy angles and distracting camera interferes, rushing any good conversation in favor of the next kill of the week music video. Characters may endeavor to move on, but the attempted scandalous drama always returns to repetitive kills, pointless boudoir photos, and jarring rock music.

While the first two episodes set the series off on the wrong foot, director Russell Mulchay (Highlander) adds the potential for cinematic suspense in “Flowers.” The camera should never call attention to itself or a cause lack of immersion – especially in a period piece. Here, however, the camera stays still for a conversation, letting the shrewd fully build alongside creepy coffins and pimps. Viewers are able to follow the story, spend time with characters, and revel in consequences from the past and more twists to come. We know certain players are on borrowed time, so stewing in Lizzie's wrath is more fun than a fast whack or two. There are still noticeable zooms, but the movement matches the tense one on one scenes. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is divided into four blocks with directors doing two episodes each amid five show writers. Such a limited series with so few players should have been more tightly focused with one director and one writer. Instead, this short attention span design is too on the nose with an in your face hip trying to avoid some dreaded period piece yawn. The sociopathic camp is creepy enough in “Welcome to Maplecroft.” Who wants to wake up with Lizzie at the foot of your bed offering you a breakfast scone? Nope! The abundance of neat crimes in Fall River are the perfect way to assure nothing is suspected – but Lizzie is too neat, buying up all the neighboring properties via a generous sale or other, accidental means. The audience has to enjoy the systematic way everyone around the Bordens drops like flies, because having the townsfolk unable to follow the trail back to her is insulting otherwise. Blackmailing thugs are right to fear any “ax of Borden” retributions, and high and low conflicts make the supporting players more interesting – The Lizzie Borden Chronicles might have been neat from the Fall River perspective. Fortunately, the twisted drama unfolds naturally, with firm threats unfettered by intruding rock this episode. Background saloon music, tender strings accenting a romance – The Lizzie Borden Chronicles needed music that would invoke the setting, emotions, and vengeance. Chases about the ominous dark house, gunshots, and clock chimes build suspense, and scenes with interplay rather than camera flair do best.

Convenient falling down the stairs mishaps in “Cold Storage” lead to arrests, inquests, self defense claims, and speculative testimony. Naturally, audiences can't complain about the accuracy of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles as it obviously diverges from history and never professed to be anything but sensational. So-called rough interrogations, however, are weak – character back stories and blackmailing the good catholic over his not so devout proclivities are much more delicious. Unfortunately, the drama is revealingly thin without the busy camera, music montages, and choppy editing. The meaty scenes with the main cast are best, but such moments are too brief to sustain the entire forty minutes. Viewers expecting macabre instead of melodramatic affairs will be disappointed – even the killer twists become routine, and with such transparency, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles might have done better as half hour webisodes. After all, it isn't a persecution complex when Lizzie really has orchestrated this death tally in “Fugitive Kind.” Swift trials leave little time for prosecution tension – the courtroom consequences are over before the title card – but seeing pathological liar Lizzie swearing to tell the truth on the witness stand is a winking irony. Sadly, important scenes seem left on the cutting room floor, and critical information is dropped in quick throwaways, leaving the viewer to question what just happen or presume the details – a very slip shod way to tell a story. Despite ditching the wham bam music video format, the pace drags with who's on who's side or which guy is beating up the other guy this week filler. Jealously, murderous plotting gone awry, and the reaction on Lizzie's face are better than such back and forth, but the writing on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles really doesn't give the cast a chance to bring it. Brief confrontations can't be fully appreciated because Lizzie makes anyone who sees her for what she really is disappear in an episode or less. Besides, it's no fun when she pays thugs to off her intended in dark, chaotic scenes rather than her own DIY.

Kids daring to ring the doorbell and covered furniture add a spooky whiff to “The Sisters Grimke,” but it is awfully late in the game for The Lizzie Borden Chronicles to switch from Massachusetts to Maine and Nevada with boys will be boys rock outs, unassuming school teacher disguises, and resetting cowboy vendettas. We're just getting into psychosis reasonings now? Reporters in the middle of nowhere want headlines but where were the yellow journalism muckrakers when the heads were rolling in Fall River? Chopped up bodies, catatonics, institutions – we know murders about campus and electroshock therapy are coming and the disturbing hospital horrors are good. Unfortunately, leap frogging the times and places compromises the development of the series regulars, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles tacks on Tom Horn and Bat Masterson in some kind of Lizzie Goes West potluck. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles suffers from the same structural problems as its precursor film with little rhyme or reason to its presentation. Again, why not space out the Fall River aftermath, New York actress mayhem, alias move and institution, and Pinkerton investigations in four more telemovies? This series gets off to a very rocky start, provides some suspense potential in its middle, but devolves with another move to Boston in the “Capsize” finale. Recovering from shock therapy and turn of the century traveling move fast amid madhouses run amok, slo-mo shootouts, Irish mob families, Russian roulette, gunslingers, and gangsters. Say what?

Lizzie Borden – who prefers “former Sunday School Teacher” to “ax killer” – knows how to solve problems and enjoys intimating children claiming they are not afraid of her. While Lizzie says she's glad to be a grown woman on her own with no intention of having a husband, she'll flirt and seduce for her murderous gains. Lizzie won't sleep with a guy and further tarnish her reputation, but she'll bludgeon him hot diggity! From buying a new mansion after eliminating her creditors to playing dress up with a rescued hooker she treats like a pet, Lizzie loves pleasing herself on the party scene. Girl kisses happen fast on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles as well, with Lizzie ready to pounce on her latest BFF in the dressing room so long as it suits her agenda. Although I wish The Lizzie Borden Chronicles had maintained the nude or scantily clad killing theories and going to bathe or naughty whatnot after the thrill, Lizzie commits a lot of bloody acts in some pretty expensive, fashionable clothes. Despite her finery, she's apathetic and casual, unfettered by the violence she causes. After telling her lies so many times, Lizzie genuinely believes she is not a monster. Ironically, we like Lizzie – Ricci looks the cute but crazy look and viewers know to take all she says with a heap of salt. This could have been a truly fun performance, but Ricci doesn't seem onscreen very much save for the same act three death strokes each week. Modern dialogue makes Lizzie's threats feel invalid, and blurry focusing with rock music punctuation is unnecessary. After all, what's the point of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles if we can't see all her killer camp?

Unable to revel in their infamy, Clea DuVall's Emma Borden reads aloud for fun and calls what happened to her younger sister “The Unpleasantness.” She tries to do her church going Christian best to see the good in everyone but distrusts their wayward brother and can't understand why Lizzie enjoys being the star of her own little circus. Emma is aware their family seems marked by tragedy, but rather than having room to become the audience's moral center, it's again odd that The Lizzie Borden Chronicles takes places before the coda of the film – confusing the sisters' timeline and erasing Emma's subsequent knowledge about Lizzie's killings. This backtrack dumbs Emma down, going from a woman who leaves her sister alone to one dreaming of having her own husband and happy to have any romantic prospect. Unfortunately, she can't escape all the skeletons in her closet – wink – and such macabre scandals are forgotten, left unexplained, or throwaway used in as needed contrivances instead of steering any actual character development. Emma's frumpy, meek style is also more to visually contrast with flashy Lizzie than show personality, and quiet conversations about Emma raising Lizzie are more interesting. She can't exactly be proud of the woman her sister has become or move on with her life and leave Lizzie alone. Emma tries to vindicate Lizzie and get to the bottom of the violence in their lives, but those answers won't be coming any time soon. Ultimately, she can't be bothered to hide her feelings – it's tough to be an upstanding woman when Lizzie Borden is your sister! However, I'm unsure how The Lizzie Borden Chronicles would have continued with Emma if there had been a second season. Nor I think did they after backing either an unwanted character into a corner or rightfully loving Clea and trying to give her more if silly storylines.

There's no doubt we need more Pinkerton dramas. However, the inclusion of Cole Hauser (Rogue) as the unwelcome real life bounty hunter Charlie Siringo with his free rein badge shooting people and asking questions later sends mixed signals on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. He's hired to review the Borden case, but locals are reluctant to go back to the infamous past. Siringo sees through Lizzie's current crimes, but politically minded officials give him an uphill legal battle. While tension between Siringo and recurring ladies and twists on why he is in Fall River add depth, he seems too invested in persecuting Lizzie – to the point that we know almost nothing else about this wild historical figure. Siringo's rough past is told rather than seen with no careful battle of wills or accumulation of evidence, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles resorts to extreme outlaws, shootouts, and half cocked attacks to bring down the character. Numerous guests should have stuck around longer on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles as well, including rival businessman James Heard (Home Alone) and Andrew Howard (Bates Motel) as disowned brother William Borden. Unfortunately even the supporting cast appearing in six or more episodes serve as little more than their stereotypes, such as hustler Bradley Stryker (iZombie), nasty doctor Ronan Vibert (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), abusive hotel owner John Ralston (Flash Gordon), and former friend to Lizzie Olivia Llewellyn (Penny Dreadful). Not that the Bordens bode well for friendly officer Dylan Taylor (Copper), Nance O'Neil based actress Jessy Schram (Nashville), and mobster matron Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) either.

Fortunately, the gloves and muffs add a refined, little lady would never kill vein alongside hats, parasols, feathers, lace, and puffy sleeves invoking fine ladies silhouettes. Lanterns and candlelight create a golden patina, however the camera never stays still long enough to steep in the atmospheric attention to detail, making The Lizzie Borden Chronicles feel nondescript despite being a period show. Brief focuses on cursive writing will be tough for millennials, and the editing moves blink and you miss it fast over the shock reveals, skeleton accents, and dead babies. Zooms and hectic handicam photography almost feel like a deliberate covering up the cut production corners technique. Pull back so viewers can see the autumn leaves, snow on the ground, Victorian carriages, and architectural facades. Thanks to either cheapness or television ratings, there's only mild splatter and brief gruesomes, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles name drops Bleak House and Sherlock Holmes instead, hitting home the currently renowned then-entertainment as if the audience can't be trusted to like the turn of the last century. Again, especially now having seen the series, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax should have been the household up to the forty whacks with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles recounting the courtroom aftermath and any manor of Victorian horror, mysticism, or Massachusetts witches with homicidal Lizzie at the center of it all.

While bemusing for a drinking game, weekend marathon, or fans of the cast, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles never lives up to its potential and fails to provide a coherent, binge worthy plot. The first episode of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is faulty, and the series grows a little too preposterous with fast conveniences and weekly guests becoming just another notch on Lizzie's ax handle. Despite a fun predecessor and the charming Christina Ricci, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles retains the haphazard flaws from Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, snowballing into an all over the place one trick pony used eight times too many.


16 September 2016

Ghostly Frights Trio

More Ghostly Frights!
By Kristin Battestella

Be it continental classic, retro pastiche, or period made modern, here's a trio of phantasms, spirits, and hauntings that can be enjoyed any time of year. 

The Conjuring 2 – Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson return as the Amityville investigating Ed and Lorraine Warren before crossing the pond to battle the Enfield Poltergeist in this 2016 sequel. Ouija, ticking clocks, errant toys, and strange noises in the UK parallel stateside séances, doppelgangers, violent trances, and out of body visions. At times however the Amityville shoehorning and “London Calling” scoring the trip to England feels cliché. The accents are also odd with Australian Frances O'Connor (Bedazzled) and Irish Maria Doyle Kennedy (The Tudors) putting on a faux pip pip cheerio – all these “me bloody brilliant” exclaims are clearly written by Americans. Fortunately, the 1977 period is felt via cars, classic ring ring phones, and a shabby house with ugly walls save for those attention to detail Starsky & Hutch posters. There's a giant remote clicker, too, and scary TV action like adjusting the antenna! The first half alternates between the Enfield scares and talk show hot water Warrens – bonus old reels and black and white screens let the frightening mood build with possessing voices and innate sound shocks rather than hollow jump scares. Not that there aren't recoiling moments, however, thanks to long camera shots allowing the viewer to creep over the shoulder of the victim. The younger cast looks genuinely terrified over flying furniture, phantom bite marks, evil nuns, and freaky paintings. Naturally, there's potential for fakery, but we're too caught up in the ghostly Q&A and faith building crosses, carols, and Christmas trees. Obviously, this is styled more for fear than The Enfield Haunting, but its interesting to see two such dramatizations. Both are good for different reasons despite neither being super accurate. Unfortunately, the practical effects here look like bad animation, and the Warrens facing their own demons (hee, pun) leaves mixed signals on what actually needs vanquishing. Is this about the nun, the old man, or the crooked man? Plumbing dangers, teleporting, levitating, knives, and lightning strikes add to the busyness, but tender family moments alleviate the scares amid the big final confrontation – letting the people rather than anything crass deliver the horror. And there's Bee Gees music! It's an out of context “I Started a Joke” but sixties pathos not disco glory. Yessss!

The Ghost – Skulls, storms, candles, deathbed cripples and melancholy music to match immediately set the Gothic mood and Scotland 1910 period stylings of this colorful 1963 Italian haunt starring Barbara Steele (Black Sunday). The dubbing is off kilter – the occasional dubbed Scottish accent is especially bemusing – and the innate video quality isn't the best. However, syringes, séances, poisons, and risky medical research mixed with black magic possibilities add to the up to no good atmosphere and twilight surreal. Illicit meetings, gin, revolvers, straight razors – the scheming lovers are getting desperate and antsy waiting for those in the way to die. Steele is divine in white furs and lace to start before switching to black mourning veils for the reading of the will. It's tough not to hear her voice, but some sensuous melodrama accents the suspenseful tone, tolling bells, howling dogs, and foreboding Psalm 23. Is the missing key to the safe in the dead and buried's coat pocket? Eerie sounds, shadows, and wheelchairs moving on their own escalate to ghostly callings and spooky music box playing while the hysterics, a suspect housekeeper, and creepy apparitions intensify the macabre treasure hunt even when there is only one person onscreen. Contemporary viewers may find the ninety-five minutes slow, and this is rough around the edges – a derivative scandal and haunting that should have been tighter. Too many late but wait there's more twists border on preposterous, yet the increasingly trippy specters do make for a few surprises. The audience dislikes the phantom, but turnabout upon the adulterers is fair play with chilling irony, mysticism, double crossings, crypts, and coffins. We know a set up is coming, but it's tense good fun in getting there thanks to some ambient captions such as “Sound of someone knocking,” “Creaking Door,” “Sound of Footsteps,” and “Clap of Thunder.” Oh yeah. 


Witchboard – A Ouija board and one bad yuppie party leads to the release of a malevolent spirit in this 1987 scarefest. Granted, it doesn't say much when Tawny Kitaen (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of Yik-Yak) does the best acting here as both her rival male suitors are lame and full of their own bromance, manpain, and perhaps a whiff of latent innuendo. There's unintentional comedy, too, with heaps of eighties fun including wild hair, punk styles, one earring, and waterbeds. I mean, you don't see rainbow colored mohawks every day! Old technology such as microfilm, payphones, and cool Cobra cars are pleasing as well despite a lingering hokey, dated Valley lingo, laughably bad special effects, and contrived leaps to advance the plot. Fortunately, eerie hospitals, cemeteries, and foggy dreams add atmosphere while askew wide lenses and overhead whooshes provide a poltergeist perspective. Creepy Ouija movements, solo reading sessions, and freaky séances build suspense alongside pregnancy twists, zany psychics, and violent ghostly attacks. Who knew just spelling out with the planchette was so intense! Lovely architecture and retro styles feel eighties does forties, and there's a reason for this throwback tone. The spirits also remain mostly unseen – except when the evil is ax happy that is. Because ghosts can wield axes, FYI. There is brief nudity and language, but this simple story does a lot without resorting to bimbo extremes or cheap fouls. Dockside mishaps and shower perils top of a goofy but fitting finale, and though of its time, this remains fun and entertaining.

14 September 2016

More Rural and Residential Scares

More Rural and Residential Scares
by Kristin Battestella

Be it the middle of nowhere, isolated communities, or dangerous households, such environments are a big how about NO when it comes to these frights and thrillers.

The Commune – Celtic music and disturbing hospital room self-harm open this 2009 creeper before going back nine months (wink) to tell of an ingenue sent to visit her hippie zen dad. A DVD introduction with writer/producer/director/stripteasing co-star Elisabeth Fies (Scream Queen) is also included with commentaries and bonus scenes. However, there are no subtitles for the poor dialogue, and goofy dances, amateur acting, and modern style hurt the attempted seventies feeling. Hectic camerawork may echo the weird afoot, but the flashing dreams are jarring – naked meditations, awkward hugs, vagina symbols, and stag motifs are discomforting enough. Knockoff moon goddess robes, bright colors, hazy purple hues, tarot card warnings, and blended Celtic and Egyptian designs invoke a better heady. Wise viewers will recognize the free love gone wrong thanks to names like Pomegranate and Puck with bonus weak teen moments, guitar playing wannabes, “Frodo Rules” stickers, and a born on the solstice destiny. Everybody seems flaky or suspicious, but the chores and sustainable rustic wouldn't be so bad if not for, you know, voyeurs at the window, naughty moonlight shenanigans, waking naked, poolside weird, and visions of a potentially nasty past. There's enough skin, minimal technology, and a whiff of humor – “You reek of french fries!” – yet no real likable spark or personality. The ninety minutes moves as expected, remaining familiar despite increasingly dark visuals reflecting the would-be psycho-sexual throwback, rapacious rituals, and cult sacrifices. This picture seems mislabeled in its lack of suspense and gives itself away from the start. The grassroots production needed an outside perspective even if being filmed in a commune with family support adds to the weirdness at hand. Yes, it could have been better, but it's not bad if you're looking for something naughty, offbeat, and indie obscure.

Late Phases – A pleasant, mature ensemble including Ethan Embry (Can't Hardly Wait), Tina Louise (Gilligan's Island), Karen Lyn Gorney (Saturday Night Fever), Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks), Tom Noonan (The Monster Squad), and Lance Guest (The Last Starfighter) battle the werewolves afoot as blind veteran Nick Damici (We Are What We Are) moves to a fishy retirement community in this 2014 tale. Headstone shopping, senior discounts – it's expensive to die, and such issues acerbate the grief, discomfort, and difficulty adjusting to new surroundings nevermind ominous hooded visitors, suspicious animal attacks, or finding a gunsmith to make silver bullets no questions asked. Cranky encounters with nosy old ladies build humor and drama, investing the audience with a likable protagonist and quips about old people all smelling the same before dog door scares, shadows at the window, and werewolves breaking and entering. Granted, some will be put off by the hokey wolf suit. However, darkness, smart camera angles, and suspenseful canine versus lycanthrope action hide most of the monster design while good gore, echoes on the fallen telephone, and violent sounds on the other side of the wall add fear. Monthly preparations mount as neighborhood clues and a keen sense of smell could identify the wolfy during the countdown till the next full moon. The cops may be tired of answering elderly calls and family ditches their defenseless parents, but those left behind must grapple with religious redemption, Vietnam fallout, and haunting sacrifices – familiar topics not often discussed in horror. Yes, there are some flaws here with confusing logistics, poor editing, and weak effects. Fortunately, this grown up Silver Bullet and endearing last hurrah makes its scares and emotions felt with horror and mystery amid a refreshing real world honesty.

The Passion of Darkly Noon – The titular Brendan Fraser stumbles injured upon the unwittingly tempting Ashley Judd and her mute but charming boyfriend Viggo Mortensen in a surreal wood for this 1995 psychological thriller. While the DVD has low volume and an odd aspect ratio, there's a golden glow and crisp country white to match the pretty outdoors and should be quaint cottage. Minimal music parallels the natural cricket sounds and rainstorms – but the idyllic springs and hidden grotto are no match for ostracized Judd's tight tops, tiny dresses, and sweaty mellow. Extremist Ma and Pa picked my name from the Bible Fraser stutters over past cult persecutions. We don't see the trauma he recounts but immediately sense the disturbed attraction and late blooming Oedipal complex as “Lee” remains buttoned up in the heat and standoffish, not hearing the notion to leave strict religious groveling for not necessarily sinful ideals. There's much to explore, a fresh start on a new homestead, but he's too distracted by the nineties Skinamax. The naughty atmosphere rises with obsession turning into mea culpa harm, but Viggo (“He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!”) does well with no dialogue as the tensions mount. Backwoods colloquialisms add to the kooky yet friendly characters, but what's with the literally flaming, giant, glittering shoe floating down the river? A Circus, elephants, apples, religious stewing – viewers must be in the right mood to digest this slow burn symbolism. Here tell of who's crazy, a witch, or the monster of the woods adds to the secrets and rival testimonies. Is it an evil bewitchment when your husband has a heart attack over a tempting woman appearing in the forest? Fear mongering, curses for one's sins, justice, punishment – where's the happy medium beyond the escalating blood, barbed wire, and bizarre visions? The brooding drama becomes increasing unreliable as this purgatory cycle repeats, for each fanatical person entering this Eden-like grove ruins it a little more. A savage siege leads to red warpaint, hellish flames, and howling in a fine performance from Fraser, who is perhaps more known for his comedies rather than dramas. While this could have been totally horror or straight steamy, some serious, tender, or scary scenes are dated, laughable, and bemusingly infantile. Fortunately, this character study on passion as both sex and sacrifice is an interesting in limbo morality play with saucy fun and temptation extremes perfect for a late night trippy.

09 September 2016

I, Claudius

I, Claudius Poisonously Good Drama
by Kristin Battestella

Everybody – and I mean everybody – who's anybody makes an appearance in the 1976 BBC saga I, Claudius. Based upon the books by Robert Graves, these super-sized twelve episodes pack in plenty of history, ruthlessness, scandal, and irony, remaining delightfully cutthroat and timeless television.

The senile emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi) writes his autobiography and reflects on his turbulent fore-house with grandfather Augustus (Brian Blessed) and grandmother Livia (Siân Phillips). Heads certainly roll as Claudius recalls the degenerate reigns and decadent times of Tiberius (George Baker) and his successor Caligula (John Hurt). Poison and ambition lead to unceremonious ends for most of his kin, not to mention prefects Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) and Macro (John Rhys-Davies) as well as Messalina (Sheila White) – Claudius' own much too raunchy wife. Despite a rocky start to his leadership as young Claudius plays the fool to stay alive, his peaceful reign will yet meet with more fiery relations to come.

I, Claudius debuts with “A Touch of Murder” as the late in life and paranoid Claudius fears spies in Rome. This writing his memoirs narrative frame gives the presentation a stage-like telling rather than showing slow to start design. However, fine performances and strong delivery anchor this slim television structure despite numerous names, quick exposition, and head hopping inner monologues. The audience must pay attention to the talkative scene chewing for who is who as men and women gossip at the gym or the bath. The orchestrated deaths or arranged marriages sometimes play like a soap opera, but the action picks up in 24 B.C. with Roman feasts and testy political talk waxing on a return to the republic versus striving for the dynastic. Everyone watches all they say and do or brown noses for the senate and against rival heirs, complete with poisonous – er medicinal plans for the sickly. Be it a cameo appearance, historical brevity, time transitions, or nefarious intervention, I, Claudius packs a lot of people into this pleasing ninety minute start, which aired as a two-part opening with a second half titled “Family Affairs” for the thirteen episode PBS airings. More mysteriously late successors, horoscopes, omens, and prophecies accent “Waiting in the Wings.” Where will the unfortunate young Claudius fit in to such schemes with his troubles? His grandparents grumble no one would marry Claudius while they secretly mastermind a network of lovers and spies to dispose of anyone in the way. Banishments, unheard pleas, threats – whatever it takes to get one more person gone. Some may find the melodrama hokey at times, but I, Claudius spices up the betrayals with juicy tit for tat, quiet personal moments, and guilty revelations alongside bemusing but not vulgar adultery and saucy affairs. While it's tough to tell who is going to be important or last more than one episode with wrong-sayers being tossed off cliffs and suspicious boating accidents, these budget friendly offscreen demises add to the scandals in “What Shall We Do About Claudius?” Deliciously unlikable complaints about Claudius the twitching idiot fainting at the gladiator games pick up the action alongside shrewd manipulations, fatal whispers in the ear, and reinforcements ready to literally stab commanders in the back. On I, Claudius, one hurried soldier's pointing to the decimated map and reporting massacred German legions, false intelligence, and military fallout in Gaul builds more suspense than if we had seen some now dated battlefield spectacle.

Time also moves fast on I, Claudius with five years later bickering, travels to Corsica, and confrontations between father and son peppering “Poison Is Queen.” Unsuspecting Claudius inadvertently usurps ascension plans while scrumptiously tricked vestal virgins could sway the fate of Rome. There's nothing wrong with two women in a tiny little conspiracy, using someone else's imperial seal, or breaking a few vows for the cause, right? Deathbed premonitions and celestial signs add humorous doubts, too. Does that one hundred mean you'll die in a hundred weeks – or is it months? Maybe you'll live to be one hundred instead! Tender moments, unfortunately, are few and far between on I, Claudius. The elderly grasp for late amends and dignified departures, and watching the face of the dying while the ruthless confess makes for an excellent finale with award winning performances. The suspicions of witchcraft and toxic tampering continue in “Some Justice” with senate trials, missing witnesses, and incriminating letters to match the creepy effigies, eerie omens, and falling on sword disgraces. Poison professionals complain about not being able to practice more while the court of public opinion, superstitious victims, and a little belladonna help dispose of emperors. Cowards, scapegoats, which “little shit” coughcaligulacough is setting the house on fire – I, Claudius has a sardonic perspective countering the empires hanging in the balance. Another stunning finale leads to more entertaining, drinking, and treason ten years later in “Queen of Heaven,” where ladies must comply to beastly behaviors as the nudity, kinky dialogue, astrologers, weeping mothers, and suicides mount. It's surprising such foul language and sensitive topics were so dramatically filmed in this seventies television adolescence, but republican ideals, commitments to decency, and the proper Roman lifestyle have given way to impeachment, public arrests, amoral affairs, and the drugging of one's husband, as you do. Crowded marketplace scenes add to the shocks, however, no sweeping music or fancy editing is needed for meaty dinner conversations or handy rundowns on who was who, who killed them, and why. I, Claudius brilliantly serves Rome's epicness via small, disposable, flawed little people full of their own self-importance. 


Narrating bookends catch up on the many sins of the father and mother coming back to haunt one and all in “Reign of Terror.” To some, family members are nothing but pawns – which makes them everything to others. Shackles, whippings, exile, or worse punishments are doled out as Claudius must use his literary work to reveal traitors who put ambition over integrity. Those speaking out against the emperor are coerced into signing confessions with torture and no trials. It's tough keeping up appearances when you can't wait for one emperor to croak so you can have your turn – leading to superb assassination attempts and ruthless downfalls sparing no one. Caligula has become emperor for “Zeus, By Jove!” and his unstable, diva ways show. Comas, metamorphosis, gods in disguise as mere mortals – I, Claudius adds more humor this episode to alleviate the prior head rolling while Claudius must grovel at the demented divinity to save his own neck. There's some nudity, naughty shenanigans, and incestuous drama, however I, Claudius provides more heady in warped soliloquies or wild analogies – the sun burst a shooting star into her womb and all that. Rome goes from bad to worse, and powerful offscreen suicides contrast the subsequently censored worst with class and grace. Brothels are set up in the palace for “Hail Who?” and reluctant doorman Claudius struggles to tame the scantily clad orgies, carousing boobies, and gay romps in all definitions of the term. Rebel rousing, mutinous armies, and conspiracies are everywhere thanks to the emperor's mischief – although Caligula's interpretive drag dance and lingering depravity are somewhat slow compared to earlier, more heavy hitting episodes. Fortunately, screams and sound effects make a terrifying impression, giving I, Claudius another deadly fine topper.

"Fool's Luck” adds more dangerous times as Claudius finds himself in the unlikely and precarious position of Emperor Elect. Friends and foes come out of the woodwork, wondering if the so-called hard of hearing half-wit will be any more fit to leadership than his relatives. Meddling wives and selfish aides are all around, leading to precious little trust, affairs, turning weaknesses into smart politics, and a few slaps in the face for good measure. Greedy builders, swindling businessmen, assassination threats, and lingering seeds of republicanism add more trouble alongside crocodile tears and history coming dangerously close to repeating itself. This is a bit of a reset episode for I, Claudius with less scandal, new players, and not a lot of cast left, however Claudius' rocky start takes a turn for the worse in “A God in Colchester” thanks to his infamous wife's embarrassing sex challenge. Though probably tame today, the nudity, on the back races, and prostitute guilds provide raunchy toppers and pillow talk to match. I, Claudius has witty conversations and juicy double entendres amid serious drama, execution plots, and talk of the Jewish Messiah. Unfortunately, old friends are long dead and there's no one to help against scandals or usurp attempts. The dramatic head choppings aren't enough for young Nero, either, who can't wait for Claudius to kick the bucket in “Old King Log.” These last two episodes have more manipulation than Claudius himself as the narrative now meets his final years. This winding down lags slightly, but creepy mama's boys, gross relationships, and old prophecies accent Claudius' surreal end. Old republic hopes, visits from the not so dearly departed, and conversations with Sibyl make for an excellent end. The ferrymen have come, the old guard is gone, scrolls are burned, and books buried – so much for posterity.

At first, the old age makeup on Best Actor Derek Jacobi (Cadfael, Vicious) is a bit hokey, and Claudius talking to himself establishes his wavering, elderly state of mind better – even if I, Claudius begins with his telling of events before he was born. Claudius inserts himself into the action to comment or transition time jumps and bookend each hour, however his bumbling, absent minded, more hermit than emperor is endearing rather than humorous. Sir Derek's voice is strong, but most pay the young, stuttering, club foot Claudius no mind except to insult him. Not as stupid as he seems, quiet Claudius spends his time in the library – he's swiftly self-taught and able to better his elders with sardonic conversations. His stammering isn't annoying but believable and charming, accenting the punchlines when playing the fool or studying those poisonous family ways. Claudius reads Etruscan and writes dismissed histories while everyone laughs at his long engagements and awkward wedding. Fortunately, Claudius himself sees the humor in his circumstances, and he stands up to Livia – unless she's inviting him to dinner, that is. His cousins respect his wisdom, and Claudius give nasty little Caligula a good talking to about why sisters aren't for marrying, doing his duty even when he's appalled by what Rome has become. Initially it's a sincere understanding, but Sheila White's (Oliver!) Messalina wraps Claudius around her finger with sob stories and resorts to using her body to get what she wants. Though fooled and in love, we sympathize with Claudius as he mourns, bitter and ready to eat the wrong mushrooms. Claudius becomes almost a confessor, an absolver of sin for those who have gone before, and his only solace is in hoping that the truth doesn't die with him.

Best Actress winner Siân Phillips (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) has the style, poise, and slightly severe look needed for the deliciously merciless grandmother of Claudius, Livia. While she compares herself to Cleopatra, Livia's power must come through the men her life, and she intends to see her son succeed just as she only married to be an emperor's wife. Slick with a dry wit where she says one thing then does the devious opposite – Livia's gladiator pep talk insists on no pussyfooting because she wants her money's worth. She disposes of popular potentials and would be successors, positioning players to keep the family in line or avoid scandal. Livia is vain, claiming she was once the most beautiful woman in the world before prophesying her own divinity. She vows to keep her forked tongue in everyone's business right through her deathbed, and the amazing makeup designs match her cruelty toward Claudius as she calls him a twitching jackass who should have been exposed at birth. She's aware she deserves hell even if her terrible doings have saved Rome, but Livia is sincere when she asks Claudius to make her a goddess and forgive her sins. Despite her deceit, Livia gives a great rundown of her crimes and regrets, making the audience surprisingly sympathetic at her end. George Baker (The Ruth Rendell Mysteries) as Livia's son Tiberius, by contrast, is impatient and hating his life. Others go off to fight while he's meddling at home regretting his arranged marriage, but the depressed and ready to leave Rome Tiberius becomes tired of others dominating his life. He's angry at waiting for Augustus to name him heir, and Tiberius soon becomes greedy once he's in power. Popularity eludes him as he grasps for control with heavy handed trials, and at times, Tiberius wonders whether he or his mother really holds the empirical power. He invites important daughters to his kinky room with erotic art and naked slaves, and the aged makeup designs echo Tiberius' murderous, insufferable, and corrupt depravity with pockmarks or worse.

Brian Blessed's (Z-Cars) Augustus, meanwhile, is a fast and loud talker – a strong voice who's used to having what he says goes. He knows his rule is only as secure as his heir and favors each coming and going successor, but Augustus is often blind to Livia's doings or his daughter's indiscretions – making for an angry, embarrassing, and powerful exposé. At once comforting and cruel, Augustus wonders if his family is cursed and admits he doesn't tell Livia everything. He doesn't want to know what's really happening – later coming to realize he deserves his fate for looking the other way to the orchestration in his house. But hello Captain Picard has hair! Patrick Stewart's Sejanus is slick and seemingly so polite when done up in his centurion finery, but he isn't afraid to stab someone and enjoys the subterfuge. Tiberius doesn't see the opportunistic power of his right hand man – Sejanus has his own spies, uses Livilla, and even commissions statues and merchandise in his likeness. He tricks Claudius, using him for marital connections and higher imperial ties. Sejanus orchestrates himself very well indeed – but his popularity doesn't go unnoticed when he's willing to romance both mother and daughter to increase his standing. John Hurt (Alien) as Caligula, however, takes the cake in naughty family relations on I, Claudius. As a boy, Caligula aides in the poisoning of his father and claims he was born a god. He shares erotic scrolls and crafts a charming facade but keeps secrets from Claudius and at times does show his monstrosities. Caligula gives his aged great-grandmother Livia one heck of a kiss on the mouth complete with a major tit grab, but he's much more cruel on her deathbed and later gleefully pounces at the chance to snag the imperial ring off Tiberius' dead hand. Caligula's pasty look is albino and unnatural, matching his sickly delusions of his own glory. He dresses like Cupid, and his attempt to be like Zeus ends in despicable, bloody results. John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings) as Praetorian prefect Macro spews a lot of crap on Caligula's whim, too. Fortunately, he's more than happy to undo Sejanus or, you know, smother one with a pillow as his emperor needs. Like most of the players on I, Claudius, Macro will do whatever it takes to stay at the top.

Of course, everyone and their grandmother really is in I, Claudius including Margaret Tyzack (The First Churchills) as Antonia Minor – the reserved daughter of Marc Antony and mother of Claudius who can't love her son. Antonia grows disgusted by the behaviors during Tiberius' reign but treads carefully after all the madness she has witnessed, ultimately apologizing to Claudius for not being a better mother. Such subdued longevity creates a pleasing parallel to all the debauchery as seen with Frances White's (May to December) Julia. The oft-married, slapped, and passed around daughter of Augustus becomes bitchy and gluttonous – making a name for herself by gossiping and getting it on with her son's best friend before Livia takes care of that. Fiona Walker (The Asphyx) as Agrippina stands up to creepy Tiberius' hypocrisy as well, but her ambition for her children can only go so far and David Robb's (Downton Abbey) Germanicus runs back to Augustus with all the details since there isn't a lot of time or money for I, Claudius to show his campaigns outside Rome. Instead of spectacle, more coming and going stars such as Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean), Ian Ogilvy (Witchfinder General), and James Faulkner (Da Vinci's Demons) pepper I, Claudius alongside another Lord of the Rings alum Bernard Hill. Numerous players visit for two, three, or four episodes while other fine performances spotlight an episode or less. While it's frustrating when likable people depart, this rotating cast proves that everyone in I, Claudius' scope is fair game.

It's short, dated, and oh so British, yet the slithering snake, opening tiles, and tense music from composer Wilfred Josephs perfectly set this cut throat era. Scrolls, togas, robes and reclining amid the oil lamps, goblets, and fruit add that Roman feeling – along with naked tribal dances, sheer orgies, and nude bedroom romps, because, of course. The muted yet colorful designs are probably seventies cheapness at work, however the quiet palette matches our ruinous, long time ago, archaeological perspectives. While the obviously staged outdoor scenes are brighter with senate steps, marketplace bustle, greenery, and fountains, the gladiator locker room is hokey with near toy looking swords and shields. On I, Claudius, we hear tell of a rhinoceros and clashing sounds of the games but don't see them. Up close camerawork hides the cut corners affordability, and echoing speeches, large temples, and hefty statues accent the hedonistic drama. Lyres or harps and simple pipes create diegetic music, keeping I, Claudius from straying into over the top soap opera crescendos. Whether the ladies' jewelry is cheap or inaccurate, the gradual aging make up, graying hair, and progressing wrinkles on the surviving cast throughout series are amazingly well done. Today's vanity would see most stars unrealistically remain the same age, but these designs set off the bittersweet, decades spanning performances. The titles of the episodes are also spoken lines from each hour, but subtitles are a must for the confusing names, secret conversations, and uneven volumes on the elderly whispering or booming speeches. Names and dates onscreen would have been tremendously helpful to those unfamiliar with the source material, too. I, Claudius moves fast – perhaps too fast when we are accustomed to several seasons of twelve episodes with more Roman folly to tell. While some people or events are glossed over and historians may find places to nitpick the liberties taken, I, Claudius packs major punch alongside bonuses found on the 35th anniversary DVD and the 2002 I, Claudius: A Television Epic retrospective documentary.

I, Claudius provides heaps of Roman mood, flair, and ruthlessness – we'd like to visit but by choice or poison, not many people linger. Despite dense material to adapt and a revolving cast door, the middle episodes here are especially exceptional. I, Claudius ties its generational saga together by putting the bang for its buck in the superb casting. The structure may be so seventies in presentation and design, however I, Claudius remains modern in its cutthroat politicking even if the majority of the series is little more than people standing around in the same few sets arguing. We think we know the history of it all and that this will be a quick, casual weekend viewing, but I, Claudius excels in can't look away drama at its finest.

31 August 2016

Writers and Rural Horrors

Writers and Rural Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

Literary paranormals, writerly investigations, isolated forest frights, and wooded vacations gone awry – nature time and being an author don't bode well for the pen-wielding or the backpacking in these recent scarefests.

The Eclipse – Widower Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones) encounters a horror writer and ghosts in this surprisingly charming 2010 Irish tale. The accents or slang may be tough for some, however candlelit receptions and picturesque churches add an ethereal pleasantness to the town literary festival and talk of nearby haunted places. Celtic chorales, seaside isolation, ruined abbeys, graveyards, and rainstorms invoke an off-kilter, sleep with the lights on, in limbo feeling where the creepy is possible amid the real world bustle. Pretty greens and almost black and white visuals echo the metaphorical light and dark schemes – our single father lingers over pictures of his late wife while trying to mend his relationship with his ailing, in a home father-in-law. Are the scary dreams, voices in the night, and sleepwalking grief or something more? Is it just wishful thinking when jumping to a paranormal conclusion? Screams outside and unusual dog behaviors suggest something is really afoot, but what? Conversations sharing childhood ghost stories recall the supernatural as both terrifying and an intriguing curiosity, creating tender but eerie moments as visions of the dead and soon to be deceased mount. Are these premonitions or attachment to past happenings? Do we go about our lives with unseen spirits about all the time – or do we make up a ghostly connection to feel better? There can be closure and even writing inspiration with this mature blend of adult themes, but drunken bore and miserable hack Aidan Quinn (Elementary) adds romantic conflict as a rival author. Here men are allowed to be weak louses or have frank comfort in crying or sadness. There are several dark, driving transition scenes, however these lead to character revelations and dramatic plot builds. Such quiet and personal makes it all the more scary when perilous apparitions do jar the melancholy. Viewers can believe the spiritual line is blurred, and we have to decide whether to let it be, move on, or despair our dreams away. At times, the pace may seem slow or uneven – perhaps this should have been either a straight drama or more overt horror. Fortunately, the supernatural potential is heartfelt and realistic, making for a hopeful, lovely little film.

Sinister – Writer Ethan Hawke (Training Day) researches a local murder and missing child case in this 2012 supernatural thriller. While the punk tween son, whiny little girl, and unwelcoming sheriff are typical, old photos and authentic reel footage accent the testy banter, marital strain, and tense family dynamics. Finances hinge on this next book being a success, and their new house is realistically modest – save for the hanging tree in the backyard, of course. Ironically labeled Super 8 reels found in the attic feature pool drownings, lawn mower mishaps, fiery bound and gagged victims, and more murders through the decades and across the country. Who could be committing and filming these crimes? Should our desperate author turn over the snuff evidence or keep going deeper, drinking and obsessing over this scoop? The pulsing music is unnecessary, as are extra shocks, loud bangs, and breaks in character point of view just to call attention to the jump scare for the audience's benefit. Power outages and blackout scenes add to the ominous investigation, however the picture is often too dark to see anything. Child attacks, night terrors, creaking doors, and suspicious movements about the house add better fears, and Hawke's performance keeps the viewer invested as the fantastic possibilities slowly build over the first hour. Snakes or scorpions indoors, eerie film figures, and fire burning away critical frames match the parallel kid drawings and supernatural incidents consuming the home. While meandering ancient information and occult lessons via Skype feel ham-fisted, the frightening photos, unexpected twists, and footage playing by itself seem more organic. Our writer forces himself to watch the gruesome to solve the crime, unaware or too fanatical in his research to see the surreal to which he's subjected his family. Granted, some audiences will like the paranormal turn while others may wish this stayed a straight thriller. The nearer two hour time could have been tighter rather than shoehorning in shock value try hards – triggers aside, the killer footage won't be that shocking to desensitize viewers. Can kids today even appreciate the whir of a film projector versus digital laptop transfers? It's also surprising old notions on the camera stealing the spirit or more recent smartphone instant videoing isn't discussed. Fortunately, the in the can framing story is much nicer than found footage gimmicks, and this is a fine puzzle where the audience must pay attention to the rising paranormal undercurrent. Despite some quibbles, this remains an entertaining little piece. I mean, why would a Babylonian deity need to move into the new millennium by filming his victims in the first place? Ancient gods be waiting for the invention of Super 8, booyah!

Split Decision

Cabin Fever – Dead animals, buzzing flies, and rowdy coeds finally free of campus requirements disrupt the golden forest, fallen leaves, and lakeside sunsets of this 2002 scarefest along with too many pop cues, the obligatory drive to the inevitable, and padding opening credits. I'm not really a fan of writer and director Eli Roth (Hostel), and it is tough to like this cliché group of characters who use “gay” as an insult – a jerk in a ballcap, the horny couple, and an innocent guy trying to take it to the next level with his girl BFF. The sex and cozy cabin are intercut with humor and stupidity, but the dock make out scenes feel derivative of older seventies and eighties horror. Naturally, there are cell phones out of range, vehicle mishaps, and typical arguments over how to handle the contagiousness amid stalling flashbacks showing the campfire tales being told as an excuse for pointless gore and a quick boo moment. An assy appearance by Roth himself complete with pot lures our intrepid group, too. Fortunately, sick locals, slaughtered pigs, errant gunshots, a shady deputy on a bicycle, and a tainted water supply add interest. Blood in bed and drastic divisions step things up halfway through – crazy neighbors take matters into their own hands, and it's fun when folks turn on each other or get what they deserve. Who's infected? Who's next? This had a lot more potential, however red dream inserts and slow motion dogs call attention to a try hard aesthetic or become laughable. The dialogue is basic and not much happens as these vignettes and strung together scenes fade in and out – there's a lot of set up but no scary atmosphere. Gruesome body parts and shootouts are thrown at the screen, leaving nothing but distractions from the premise. Let's stumble upon a body torn in half! Let's hit a deer! Let's find yet another group of drunk coeds in the woods! Too many endings don't really go anywhere, with yet more tacked on in the final fifteen minutes – hospitals, cops, new infections, a town hoe down. This may have ushered in a new wave of indie, R-rated horror for new millennium, but today it seems fairly standard and amateur throwback in its haphazard. If that kind of midnight movie splatter is all you are expecting, then this fits the bill.

Skip It!

Preservation – Wrenn Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire) leads this 2014 cliché ridden wilderness romp written and directed by Christopher Denham – whom I loved on Manhattan. From a driving montage over the opening credits and pretentious cell phone love/hate to redneck jokes, redundant “Are we there yet?” questions, and lots of alcohol mixed with firearms pride; this horror of two brothers and one woman in the woods is going to be same old same old. All you need are a dog and a gun for emergencies – unless your wife isn't up for the experience thanks to a strained marriage, band-aid pregnancy, and a vegan excuse not mentioned until after the deer is being strung up for dinner. The immediately problematic script double talks with hollow quotes and cop out contradictions in an attempted hipster cool, laying it on thick with nostalgia the brothers repeat for the audience and protests from the missus reluctant to go hunting – after we've already seen her enjoy hunting. Viewers have no reason to like this trio, and pretty outdoor photography quickly turns into unpleasant killing footage and dead animal imagery hitting home the man kills for sport motifs. PTSD and kill or be killed for survival adds to the derivative and unbelievable turns. It's 100 degrees with no food or water yet a tiny pregnant woman can rough it just fine barefoot with no map? The conflict and creepy is lame – noises in the woods, unseen observations, missing gear, deceptive directions, and X marks on their foreheads suggest the real scares lie in the hidden killer perspective. However, distant Peeping Tom camerawork and baiting the unprepared yuppies can't compensate for the stupidity of hiding from your attacker in a port a potty or the bored, text messaging kids on bicycles who have nothing better to do but kill. Naturally, one needs an inhaler, they have to get home or they'll be in trouble, and a call from mom comes just in the nick of time! Meanwhile, our insipid heroine uses a dozen flares for a smokescreen rather than blow up a wrecked car as a mighty help signal – the turnabout here comes far too easy and Eden Lake did this better. Why do people turn away from the killers and never make sure the bad guys are dead?