More Writers in Peril
by Kristin Battestella
Once again it's time to ditch pen and paper as these vintage novelists, retro reporters, and contemporary screenwriters face murder, ghosts, aliens, and writer's block. You know, the usual.
Black Butterfly – This 2017 thriller opens with handcuffed to the chair foreshadowing before vintage typewriters and booze for bearded, graying, and stressed screenwriter Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro). The picnics and missing women are a little piecemeal to start with a driving montage because of course, but the pleasing greenery, misty dew, aerial photography, and log cabin pans build the Denver outskirts, no reception isolation. This for sale but messy bachelor pad is in need of repair, our writer can't pay his tab at the country store, angry phone calls from his agent want him to go along with script changes or else, and Paul spends more time hunting – procrastinating since his wife left him in this secluded writing retreat. The fifteen year age difference between our leading man and lady is cliché, but lunch with realtor Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) strikes out before radio reports of murdered women and unexpected road rage. Instead, Paul offers mysterious drifter Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) a hot shower for his act of kindness, lulling the viewer into a casual tour of the home amid older jadedness versus young cynicism quiet burn chats. Our guest cooks, cleans, and makes repairs for free, but saws, axes, and guns suggest an ominous – Jack swims in the cold pond, his tattoos are part of the plot, and Meyers is always at his best in such ambiguous, half-crazed roles. The camera moves with the cast rather than creating an unneeded, false hectic, but the outdoors are traded for increasingly congested interiors with filming through railings, windows, and doors questioning who is on which side of the threats, slaps, or paranoia. We're suspicious but this handyman is actually helpful in telling Paul to pour out the bottle and write – a well cast irony with Meyers' past addiction problems adding to the meta instead of trite twenty-somethings battling unrealistic frights. This frank play within a play addresses how dismissed writers often are with only the title kept as their story changes into cinematic veneer, winking but not underestimating the audience as our drifter suggests Paul's write their story with the regrets, embellishments, and surprises needed of course. Was their meeting pre-planned or are these hostage threats merely script fodder? Where does what's suppose to be on the page and the secrets we see diverge? It's just a story and nothing happens unless the writer says so, right? The ending is what you make it, isn't it? Natural sounds, blank laptop screen glows, gunshots, and failed escapes play into the jokes on film fakery – the ease in hot wiring a car, the time people have to plead for their lives, inconvenient deliverymen arrivals, or a girl hurting her ankle on the run. That broken glass to cut those binds is certainly convenient, and the pieces keep us guessing with attacks behind closed doors, screams we thought we heard, and gunshots we thought we saw. The upfront twists don't pull the rug out from under the audience yet we're invested in the game being played. It's sad that this impressive cast and its winking frights need a dozen different film by who, production of, in association with titles at the beginning because such small thrillers are so financially strapped when they are often better than mainstream releases. Some things here may be obvious to shout at the television viewers, but that overkill is part of the dark satire, keeping this an entertaining thriller on the art of deception and that onscreen hiding in plain sight we love so much.
The Nesting – A mystery writer moves into the spooky mansion of her titular novel with cluttered bookcases, a typewriter, and tea on the balcony but this 1981 psychological slow burn lays on the fearful staircases, distorted city streets, paranoia, and agoraphobia. Up close camerawork and out of body overlays reflect tense therapy and warped dreams as relaxation cassettes don't help against visions of glam parties, saucy soldiers, boas, long stem cigarettes, shattering beads, sweet jazz, and gunshots. Are the familiar mirrors, candlesticks, verandas, perfumes, and visions just deja vu or something more? Phantoms bangs, noisy pipes, no phone, and electricity in only one room add to the stunning architecture alongside ominous orange lights, great silhouettes, and maybe maybe not outside looking in windows. There are vintage station wagons and roadside perils, too. You gotta roll up the car window faster, girl! Storms, flashlights, old fashioned lamps, and four poster beds make the patina tangible as objects dreamed of are found thanks to attic footsteps, dangerous spires, superb rooftop suspense, and fatal twists. Morbid birds, quality shocks, and lighthearted jokes alleviate the simmering mood with a cranky handyman and kooky grandpa John Carradine (Bluebeard), and there's nudity of course – a lady has to feel herself up in front of the bureau you know! Unfortunately, Robin Groves' (Silver Bullet) therapist thinks ghosts and any quantum physics versus paranormal debates are a bunch of hooey. Is this hysteria or an interconnected phenomena? Although the phantom whooshing, stereotypical town creeps, and fiery ghost fake outs can be laughable amid evident brothel history and old people who were there scoops; the rough assaults, bloody surprises, and lakeside terrors invoke wicked ghostly responses. This won't be anything new for old school horror viewers, but the now doubled nostalgia accents the eerie mystery atmosphere. The ghostly ladies of ill repute are out for revenge, and all kinds of shady pieces in this sleepy inlet puzzle are brought to light. Lengthy chases lead to creepy farm buildings, pitchforks, sickles, and impressive gore with freaky spectral revelations coming full circle for a violent finish.
Could Be Better
A Kind of Murder – Fedoras, typewriters, newspapers, and record players invoke a seemingly classy mid century time for writer Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring) and his realtor wife Jessica Biel (The Sinner) in this 2016 Patricia Highsmith adaptation further accented with retro skyscrapers, vintage travel, neon lighting, and a sweet mod house. Unfortunately, there's talk of murders on the radio, the bookstore sells nefarious brown bag magazines, and back alley stairs lead to segregated jazz clubs. Cigarettes, swanky melodies, and husky mellow voices fittingly contrast the pearls, white gloves, pillbox hats, and concern about fancy shoes getting wet in the snow for an interesting mix of the changing times. Our would be novelist is feeling the new sixties with his mod turtlenecks and wanting to do it in every room in the house – but his cold, porcelain doll fifties wife won't see a therapist and belittles his stories in favor of his real architect job and Frank Lloyd Wright references. The Mrs. wears pink and white like a little girl, and Biel looks out of place in the fifties dress up, which may be intentional thanks to the character's diva fakery with a giant bun, false eyelashes, and making bitchy jealous accusations out of nothing in a rocky four year marriage. The colorful lighting, bright snow, and interior patinas are well done schemes reflecting each mood, but the choice reds to signify anything saucy or scandalous are a little too obvious. The tale also intercuts between an obsessive, Dragnet dry detective making us too aware we are watching a picture emulating a specific cinematic era and the more interesting writer using the wife killer crime in the news for inspiration. Is he fantasizing about how to kill his wife or just writing a story? Sleeping on the couch, suicide attempts, and divorce threats lead to guilt tripping traps, suspicious deaths, juicy alibis, lying phone calls, and too many did he or didn't he coincidences. Whom do we trust in this murder or suicide shady? Although the audience might enjoy figuring out how these crimes don't add up, the uneven pace plays it's hand by revealing the suspense and drawing out boring casework. The “they know that we know that they know that we know” yadda yadda loses viewer interest as our would be writer cum murder suspect chills with his martinis, lying to cover up his illicit and giving a different story every time he tells it. He'll act weird but won't get a lawyer because that would mean he has something to hide, and the cat and mouse drags on until everyone is chasing their tails. Just because he wanted his wife dead does that mean he killed her? Or if he walked away from helping her is her death his fault? The plodding speculation underestimates the audience, and the who killed their wives and why details, blackmail confrontations, and questions about whether it is proof or doubt that seals the deal build to a showdown that runs out of time. This has a fine noir mood complete with well filmed silhouettes in dark alleys and a Hitchcockian double chase finale raising tension. However, the mystery remains run of the mill despite the period flair, and the ending doesn't quite give viewers the finish needed.
An Unfortunate Skip
The Dark – Reporter Cathy Lee Crosby (Wonder Woman before Lynda Carter was even Wonder Woman) kind of sort of teams up with a psychic and a detective to solve some serial killer mutilations in this 1979 alien mishmash with a hokey opening scroll warning of animal defense mechanisms and extraterrestrial chameleons. Passe music, laser eye beams, and poor voice effects add a slow to get going old TV movie feeling while that titular near black screen makes it often impossible to see the back alley attacks. The gay jokes are lame, the case exposition's wooden, and a white bearded old boss jumps out shouting “Boo!” just to get his kicks by scaring our lady reporter. Old lights, green hues, and colorful skylines going dark build better ominous as a young girl is said to be beheaded in the creepy morgue as family gags over the unseen victim. Retro video designs, projectors, and forensic evidence accent elevator scares, flashlights, and zombie or vampire conjecture – but wow, fifteen cents for the newspaper and needing to put another quarter in the payphone before the operator interrupts! The streets and pool halls look even seedier because of the low budget Los Angeles realism, but white cops less interested in black crime with the jive and epitaphs to match their “38 caliber justice” is unfortunately not dated. One obnoxious ass asks if color can be told by the alien blood samples, and cranky cops disbelieve the medium even when they have nothing else. Today audiences are so accustomed to investigative dramas that this law enforcement seems particularly stupid – although a captain more worried about family pressure, public panic, and avoiding media scandal remains all too common. Wise people counter that obscuring such freedom of the press is wasting time while the killer strikes again, but the tacked on alien connection ruins any would be statements. Everyone is so dry and too much time is spent away from Cathy Lee when she should be our viewpoint anchor. Choppy editing doesn't know where it is going between attacks, culminating in a logistically nonsensical shootout. The fantastic clues and psychic visions are underutilized, and the drama is better when the spooky, journalism, and law come to a head. This had potential – I kept waiting for this ninety minutes to get going – but there's not enough science fiction, horror, or procedural actually happening.