“Dark City” (1998) Throwback Thursday Film Review

The “thinking man’s Matrix.” That is how fellow critic and senior producer of One Movie Punch Joseph Dobzynski describes this underrated neo-noir science-fiction film that predates The Matrix. For the weekly film screening with my cinephile friend Leon in Germany, he selected Dark City. Truly visionary and incredibly rewatchable! I don’t know about you, but I had never even heard of it before. Perhaps that’s because I was so young when it came out. But I am glad that we watched it. It’s now among my favorite neo-noir films.  Never before have I seen a film take the stylistic techniques of film noir and extended them into the realm of fantasy, delivering a motion picture that is highly artistic and cerebral. Perhaps the film was ahead of its time, and that’s why it does not receive the fanfare that The Matrix gets. Between the two, objectively this one is more thought-provoking and artistic. Directed by Alex Proyas, this Fincher meets Scott neo-noir successfully fuses a classical film noir/detective mystery approach with futuristic fantastical allegory. One of the elements of early horror and film-noir that I feel gets lost today is the extension of the plot into the setting itself to the degree that the setting becomes a defacto character. Just as a human is more than the sum of his or her parts, so a setting can be more than the sum of its physical dimensions and time. I would have loved to have experienced watching this one on the big screen to get the full surrealist effect of being completely immersed in this volatile world. Hey Fathom Events, put this one on your list!

John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub in an unfamiliar hotel just to find out that he is wanted for a bizarre string of murders in a cult or serial killer fashion. One problem, he has no memory of committing the murders, nor much of a memory of anything save a place called Shell Beach. Thinking that he may have completely lost his mind, Murdoch begins to connect the pieces together in order to solve the twisted riddle of his identity. After a bizarre run-in with someone claiming to be his wife and a persistent detective, Murdoch continues to unravel the mystery surrounding the entire unnamed city. Never could he have imagined that his investigation would lead him to uncovering the presence of ominous group of aliens that have taken over the city. The truth that he uncovers will blow your mind.

Next to horror, film-noir is my favorite genre. And yes, we could all too easily debate film-noir‘s status as a genre as it only existed for a moment in cinematic history; and anything more modern is considered neo-noir, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept film-noir as a genre. There is a beauty to this film that does not exist in The Matrix. And that beauty runs incredibly fluidly from page to screen as is made evident from the brilliantly crafted setting, characters and conflict. There is a Metropolis-like quality to the setting and characters in Dark City. Even before Inception blew our minds with its ability to completely immerse us in the world of reality manipulated by the boundless imagination, Dark City transformed the landscape of this city in perpetual darkness. Some of the cinematic characteristics of film noir are found in the lowkey lighting, architecture inspired from German expressionism, and often a character playing the role of a detective. Whereas detective/mystery is a separate genre, there are several films with overlap between noir and detective. If you pay close attention to the production design, you will notice that the buildings grow more elongated and twisted the closer Murdoch gets to solving the mystery; furthermore, the buildings grow more slanted as Murdoch reaches the edges of the city. On a meta level, the setting is an extension of the mind of Murdoch and reflects his memories or lack thereof, more precisely the unreliability of memories. Just as his [Murodoch’s] memory is unreliable, so is the cityscape in which he resides. Characters and settings change and display broken collective memories, even when remembering how to get to Shell Beach. The design of the setting demonstrates Proyas’ attention to the stylized visual components of building this hybrid noir/sci-fi.

Whereas the neo-noir characters and world, in which they live, are very much a product of a reimagination of the film-noir genre, the conflict and plot (after the very much noir first act) are a deconstruction of the noir genre through a science-fiction plot. One of the dangers the many science-fiction screenwriters encounter is that he or she spends way too much time on constructing the science-fiction world and technology and quickly writes characters for the world. The error: starting with the world instead of with the characters or plot. Proyas demonstrates a strong commitment to his characters and plot, followed by the world. He was able to masterfully craft both because he used the world from one and the plot from another. Think of this combination of noir and sci-fi elements as Walt Disney’s patented multi-plane camera (last used on The Black Cauldron). Instead of elements mixed together, they were layered on top of one another in order to increase the depth of story. The plot remains simple; but the conflict, characters and world built on top of it gives the illusion of a complex plot. The screenplay stays true to a simple plot and complex characters. Through this visionary approach of fusing a film-noir setting to a science-fiction plot, Proyas provides the characters (and by extension, audience) a thought-provoking means of exploring reality in a most cinematic fashion.

There are considerable similarities between Blade Runner and Dark City in terms of the setting, score, and cinematography. And this is to be expected from a director who has demonstrated an admiration of Ridley Scott’s brilliant film. In retrospect, there are prominent earmarks of Muholland Drive by David Lynch as well. The meta nature of this film can be observed in the city itself. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the city is glorified set–not so different from a film set which changes throughout production in order to capture each and every scene. Just as a mood ring supposedly visualizes the emotion of the wearer, the set serves as an extension of the paranoia of its inhabitants. Capturing the madness experienced by the characters, specifically Murdoch, in the setting and cinematography adds to the experience of watching this film by creating an immersive environment as much for us as it is the characters. As this film is a means to deconstruct a film-noir through a science-fiction plot, we have the trademark characters such as a love interest and private eye; but instead of a central character who is experiencing a type of psychosis, the central character of Murdoch is the only character who has complete control of his mind and thus sees the cracks in the world created for him by The Strangers. This inverse of the central character injects this story with innovative ingenuity.

I would be remiss to not analyze the characters of opposition led by Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), with a notable chief of his version of the KGB, Mr. Hand played by the legendary Richard O’Brien (the writer/director of Rocky Horror Picture Show). While Mr. Book is the leader of The Strangers, the alien species whom have kidnapped these citizens of earth to place them in this futuristic experiment to analyze what constitutes the human soul, we spend most of our time with Mr. Hand. To borrow from Game of Thrones, Mr. Hand is the hand of the king. While these aliens resemble humanoid lifeforms, they are in actuality a jellyfish like species that uses human bodies as hosts in order to interact with humans. For all the power that their telekinetic abilities give them, water and sun is their greatest enemy, hence why Shell Beach is nowhere to be found and the city is perpetually in darkness. Just like Murdoch is an inverted noir central character, The Strangers are inverted humans as they have a great fear of water and sunlight, whereas humans require water and sunlight to remain healthy. I cannot help but wonder that Star Trek TNG and Voyager’s The Borg was influential in the development of The Strangers, as they both share the hive-like mind and pale skin. Of course, a chief difference is The Strangers’ ability to adopt some unique traits to blend in with the humans.

In retrospect, this is a much stronger film than The Matrix. Both share a similar premise, but the original expression of the shared premise in Dark City is far more timeless than the more famous of the two. And I am not merely talking about the visual effects, of which they hold up better in Dark City than The Matrix; I am talking about the comprehensive execution of the two films. Had James Cameron’s Titanic not dwarfed Dark City, then it may have been seen as the superior film to The Matrix by wider audiences than the strong cult following it currently has. But why do I feel that Dark City is superior to The Matrix? Simply stated, it comes down to the writing and direction. There are so many more layers to the writing and direction that makes it a cerebral film. I would not characterize The Matrix as a thinking man’s film, but I would Dark City. You can liken the two to Star Wars vs Star Trek (TV series). Star Wars is action-driven whereas Star Trek is largely character-driven. One may even go so far as to call The Matrix high concept and Dark City low concept. On the topic of visual effects, virtually all the effects in The Matrix are CGI; conversely, Dark City contains a beautiful fusion of practical effects (including miniatures) supplemented with digital effects. Dark City feels so much more real, tangible. It’s that authenticity that makes it the stronger of the two and warrants far more rewatches.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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All the Horror: Women in Horror Month

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month! During the month of February, a group of mostly podcasters plus yours truly are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Visit the Promote Horror website for all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 4th, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror films, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. Enjoy!

  1. Clarice Starling (Feb 4)
  2. Ellen Ripley (Feb 11)
  3. Nancy Thompson (Feb 18)
  4. Annie Wilkes (Feb 25)

Clarice Starling

When I think of strong female characters in horror, one name instantly jumps to the front of my mind, Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is she, in my opinion, the single most important female character in all horror, she is one of the most influential and important female characters in all of cinema! Perhaps there is no greater example of a dynamic, unassailable female central character in a horror film. Not only is the character one to be revered and admired, but Foster won the Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Clarice. Incidentally, The Silence of the Lambs is only one of three films to win the Big 5 Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). But we are here to analyze the character of Clarice.

Even before we learn anything about Clarice’s wit and intellectual prowess, we witness her hard-working nature on the obstacle course in Quantico, VA, well-known for being the home of the FBI training academy; her status as an FBI academy student is solidified by her shirt. Furthermore, we observe her holding her own in a field dominated by men. This opening sequence of shots is important to visually convey Clarice’s raw determination to achieve what she wants. We don’t have to know the particular area of the FBI in which she wants to specialize, all we need to know is that she will stop at nothing to realize her aspirations. Even when she dies in a simulation, she does not excuse her lack of response, but she states why she died in a purely objective way. We learn later on in the film, that Clarice is haunted by a childhood trauma of a combination of her father dying during a burglary and the slaughter of lambs at her uncle’s ranch. She is driven by her desire to protect and free the innocent from dangerous humans in the world. Hence why she pursues a career as a special agent in the FBI. Her career aspirations are a means for her to overcome the emotional chaos of her childhood by stopping at nothing to land her position in the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI under Jack Crawford.

One clear motif throughout these opening scenes is this idea of a woman in a man’s world; moreover, it’s the depiction of female agency. Although not one of the most memorable quotes from the film, Clarice’s line “If he [Buffalo Bill] sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up” this is the line that highlights this often overlooked theme central to the plot of the film. Moreover, there is recurring imagery of the male gaze and the defiance thereof from colleagues, superiors, officer counterparts, and Dr. Lecter. Entire articles have been written on cinema and the male gaze, and I don’t have time to go into all the details in this character analysis of Clarice; but for the majority of its existence, cinema has reflected heterosexual male dominance–objectifying women–whether its overt through action or subtle through subtext. However, The Silence of the Lambs combats this practice by subverting the voyeuristic male gaze by forcing the audience to see Clarice (and all women in the film, by extension) as unique individuals and not objects.

One of the most admirable aspects of Clarice is her well-rounded nature as a character. She shows signs of strength, vulnerability, innocence, determination, independence, and a willingness to learn. By way of the manner in which Director Jonathan Demme chose to have the male characters, friend or foe, look directly into the camera lens when addressing Clarice and Clarice looking just off camera when responding predisposed us to identifying with Clarice’s character–we place ourself in her shoes. As the male characters look into the camera addressing Clarice, we feel that they are gazing at and addressing us. But my Clarice looking away from the camera lens, she visually subverts the male gaze as she becomes the one with the power in the scene. Great way to visually communicate this theme to the audience. But it’s more than just communicating a theme, this action gives Clarice power often attributed to male characters therefore increasing her level of dominance.

Clarice is everything that we want in a horror or thriller protagonist. And the beauty of this film is that it is both a horror and suspense thriller. And she works as an admirable, brave, and authentically human for both. More than a strong protagonist, she is a feminine icon who needs no qualifiers. Simply stated, she broke the mold of what was expected of female protagonists in general, and specifically horror. All the while she is working diligently at tracking down Buffalo Bill and learning how to best work with Dr. Lecter, she faces both overt and subtle discrimination but does not flinch a muscle. It’s her sheer chutzpah, authenticity, and respect for Dr. Lecter that endears her to him. Has she shown weakness, a facade, or patronized Dr. Lecter, it’s entirely possible that he may not have taken a liking to her. He realized that she was truly a match for his wits, a worthy opponent. Continually, she displays strength of character and impressive intellectual prowess. Well written central and opposition characters often have a symbiotic relationship (that was partially highlighted in David Gordon Green’s Halloween), one cannot truly exist without the other, or at least one is not as interesting without the other. The more interesting Clarice is, the more interesting Hannibal is. They both display traits that complement one another. It’s this complementary nature that Dr. Lecter finds intriguing and worthy of his admiration. And in the same way, Clarice is attracted to certain qualities of Dr. Lecter that prompt her to respect him as an individual despite his heinous crimes.

A couple of examples from the film in which men feel threatened by or undervalue the level of excellence that is found in the person and career of Clarice can be found in Dr. Chilton and the sheriff’s deputies in the funeral home after the body of Buffalo Bill’s first victim was discovered at which she is sidelined by Crawford and gawked at by the deputies. When Dr. Chilton learns that Clarice was able to connect with Dr. Lecter in her brief when he’s been selfishly attempting to for years, he seeks to subvert Clarice’s efforts, to no avail thankfully. His masculinity was threatened by a female, and Chilton was not about to have that. Good thing he got his comeuppance. When in the funeral home/morgue of Frederica Bimmel, Crawford intentionally sidelines Clarice because he felt the details were too disturbing for her; she shows him by taking control of the room by forcing the sheriff’s deputies out of the room because she has it under control and gets up close and personal with the victim. This is also the scene where she finds the telltale death’s head moth that has become synonymous with this film. In that scene we witness Clarice recognizing her unequal treatment, and rises to the occasion to show that she would not stand for it because she was objectively qualified to continue in her work without hand-holding or patronization.

Outside of the two etymologists, the only male character to not show any signs of misogyny nor gender discrimination is Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself. As highlighted earlier, he recognized her as a formidable opponent in his mind games. Although he certainly tries to get in her head, make her feel uncomfortable, and face her past demons to silence the lambs, nothing he does is motivated out of sexual desire or gender discrimination. Nothing in her role is truly defined by her gender. In fact, much like the character of Ripley in Alien was originally slated for a male character, the character of Clarice Starling could also be a male. I am glad it wasn’t because the narrative would lose some power. But the point is, that she is in no way defined by her gender, instead is defined by her integrity, character, and intelligence.

Even when taking on “masculine” traits and existing within a male dominated field of work, she never ceases to remain a feminine character. She and Alien‘s Ripley share this in common.  Jodie Foster states in reference to her iconic character, “Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, intuition, her frailty, and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.” The character of Clarice Starling is one that should serve as a model for other female central characters. She contributed significantly to the world of cinema, but specifically the American horror film.

Ellen Ripley

This. Is. Alien. You are with. Sigourney Weaver. Aboard–the starship–Nostromo. Caution. The area you are en-ter-ing is extremely dan-ger-ous. Something has gone wrong… If you get why I punctuated that the way I did, then you remember the Alien scene on the former Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (oh how I miss that attraction). We cannot talk Women in Horror without analyzing the boundary busting, glass ceiling breaking Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece that convinced us that “in space, no one can hear you scream” is still the definitive science-fiction/space horror film. Sitting between Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came as a surprise for the horror genre because it countered the direction that the horror genre was going by reimagining the emerging slasher genre in a setting that is more terrifying and limiting than a house or town in which a serial killer is slaughtering teenagers. The strength of this movie is not in the Xenomorph, the effects (albeit great), or even the first characters you spend time with in the film, the strength of this film is in the ineffaceable character of Ripley.

Although she is, for all intents and purposes, not even on our radar for nearly 45mins into the film, following a tragedy, she is thrust into the forefront of this mission. Scott’s Alien dared to challenge the status quo in order to deliver the first female action hero, and place her in center stage. The long and short of it is that Ripley subverts the typical science-fiction hero trope to embody both the feminine and masculine to redefine what a hero is within the sci-fi/horror genre. Breaking gender norms for the time, she was neither arm candy, simply a side kick nor required rescuing by a male character. Her character and actions were not defined by gender. She is our final girl, and so much more. Not only did the character of Ripley contribute significantly to horror, she also broke ground for female heroines in the world of cinema at large.

Your central character need not always be the first or second character we encounter in a screenplay. This is true with Ripley as she emerges as the central character midway through the film. However, we are given hints at her destiny throughout the first act in subtle ways. It was important to the plot to establish her as a woman in order to make her actions later on in the film so kickass and assumption shattering. Had she been seen as “masculine” or strong from the onset, then we would not be as impressed with her actions–we would expect them. Part of her power as a strong female character in horror is taking what we assumed about her (or a female character in general) and subvert our predisposition. Whereas Ripley is not the first female heroic character in a horror film, she is one that never becomes subjected to the male gaze or becomes some fantasy version of a woman. Even though female heroic characters who wear sexy clothes, wield phallic guns, or use their bodies as femme fatals can be strong characters, they are still some heteronormative fantasy for a male screenwriter or director.

Essentially, the aforementioned female characters lack an authentic humanity. Ripley is strong, vulnerable, independent, scared, mortal; these elements that make her believably human. There is so little suspension of disbelief in her character that she could nearly exist in real life. Furthermore, her character is incredibly complex; she exhibits strong intuition and intelligence, chutzpah, is brash, talks about PTSD, outspoken, rigidly wants to go by the book instead of saving a man’s life, has a natural beauty but doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup. All these traits portray someone who has incredible depth and dimension. She is a survivor. No matter how grizzly, messy, constricting, or frightening her soundings become, she remains steadfast, collected, and brave. As the 1970s saw many changes in censorship, ratings, guidelines, etc., the ability to show gorier, more visceral body horror special effects, and on screen violence allowed Scott to confront the character of Ripley with cinematically innovative ways to test her resilience and survivorship.

The character of Ellen Ripley is also a strong pillar of the American horror film by virtue of her representation of gender politics. Even before it became popular, in more recent times, to use both male and female characters in motion pictures as a conduit to comment on the state of affairs for a particular group within our society, Ridley Scott crafted a visual masterpiece that did just that. Highly innovative, forward thinking, and progressive. The subtext of the film confronts us with a woman trying her best to fit into a man’s world. In addition to that subtext, research into the screenplay for this film shows that all the characters were written as gender neutral. Interesting stuff, right?!? Another gender-related observation in the character of Ripley, is her both metaphorically and physiologically clothing herself in masculinity all while remaining a women. In one scene, Ripley steps into a space suit. And this space suit can be read as Ripley playing the role of a man while remaining a women at her core in order to challenge the patriarchal system to prove that she is capable of anything that a masculine hero is.

Ripley is a highly intelligent character, realizes that about herself, and does not allow herself to be patronized or undermined. She does her job aboard the Nostromo like a legit boss. She knows procedure and protocol, and will follow it in order to protect her crew. Figuratively, she is protecting the ship from being willfully penetrated by a foreign object. This could be read as a commentary on rape. She is forcefully overruled, and we all know what happens next. Further commentary depicts male characters “forgetting” that Ripley is the senior officer. But because she is female, they feel they know better. I bet they wish they had followed her orders. Although much of what I’ve written deals with the masculine qualities of Ripley, her character would not have been as powerful a character if it wasn’t for her feminine side as well. When all hell is breaking loose, she soothes the nerves of the crew and offers comfort. Exemplary motherly qualities. Had a man been in her role, then he would most likely have not exhibited such love for the crew. Her success as a hero has as much to do with the touch of a women as it does the chutzpah of a man. Another motherly quality found in Ripley is her persistent urge for the crew to function as a group. Through the brilliant cinematography, we are consistently shown a group that is fractures and continually fails to band together until it is too late. Interestingly, each character meets his or her demise because of a tragic flaw and failure to group together to function as ONE crew instead of self-centered individuals. Had the group functioned as one, then more may have survived. This hypothesis is witnessed in the Ripley in Act 3 because she essentially embodies all the good qualities found in the other characters (think Captain Planet). She combines what everyone did well into one character. That is why she is the final girl. Only by combining all the qualities of the crew was she able to go toe-to-toe with the Xenomorph killing machine.

There are actually three prominent female characters in Alien. Ripley, the Xenomorph, and The Nostromo. Although Ripley is our central character, I would be remiss to not mention the other two that could be analyzed individually themselves. Much like Ripley exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics, so does the Xenomorph with a mouth that oscillates between vaginal and phallic in nature. And finally, The Nostromo ostensibly gives birth to all the astronauts at the beginning of the film; and therefore could be referred to as the mother ship. Playing around with gender does not stop there. The facegrabber impregnates a male character and he gives birth to the Xenomorph. Underscoring so many elements and conflicts in this film is this idea of subverting gender identity with the intent to horrify by tapping into primal heteronormative fears. And let’s face it, child birth is terrifying. Unfortunately, all the sequels failed to live up to the substantive nature of the original and devolve into a generic futuristic action-adventure series; but the original Alien delivered a nightmare-inducing “haunted house” movie set in the far reaches of space where “no one can hear you scream,” and provided us with the breakthrough character of Ellen Ripley.

Nancy Thompson

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” More than a final girl, Nancy is a live girl. While Halloween‘s Laurie Strode often gets credit for being the original final girl, and with good reason, a solid argument could be made that A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) is the OG final girl. For my third character analysis for Women in Horror Month, I want to explore the character of Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unlike the previous two analyses, Nancy is not yet an adult, pursuing her career in law enforcement or the far reaches of space. She is an every-man with whom we can identify, because we were all, or maybe still are, teenagers facing everyday struggles with our relationship with our parents, love interests, and our friends. With death surrounding her on all sides, she powers through the grave conflict, to face her nightmares, and defeat the Dream Master himself Freddy Krueger. Well, set him back anyway. Haha.

Unlike Laurie Strode, Nancy is not the final girl by default; she completely Home Alones Freddy and continually fights back without ever backing down. She takes an active role in ensuring her survival. Furthermore, no one comes in to aid in her rescue or the defeat of Freddy; Nancy is alone in her endeavors. Despite her strength of character and resilience, she is largely overlooked by fans. Her co-star Freddy Krueger (played by the incomparable Robert Englund) steals the spotlight. Although Freddy is my favorite horror slasher villain, I often wonder why Nancy doesn’t get the same treatment that Laurie gets in Halloween. Making her debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy appears again in Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare (as Heather, but she is still very much Nancy). Grab your coffee, and stay up with me as we explore Nancy Thompson!

We aren’t given much insight into the degree to which Nancy excels in school, but she is undoubtedly quite the scholar! Not that whether or not she is a member of the honor society makes a difference, but it does aid in showing us that she possesses superior critical thinking skills. If not for her brilliant combination of street and book smarts, she may not have survived this very real nightmare. Unlike many final girls who are often on the defensive, she spends much of the movie on the offense–she goes looking for Freddy. Who does that??? Nancy, that’s who! We witness Nancy read books to learn more about dreams and newspapers to learn more about Fred Krueger; furthermore, she experiments with booby traps and methods to remain awake or force sleep. Resilient, resourceful, and ready. A great alliteration to describe Nancy. Her survival does not happen by default or through a deus ex machina, she survives through grit, determination, and a willingness to learn and place herself in harm’s way. It’s this notion that she transcends what we think of as a final girl to even go so far as to subvert our predispositions. Whereas typical final girls merely survive, Nancy takes control of the Freddy conflict in a revenge fashion to win. “I’m into survival,” as Nancy so brilliantly puts it.

Nancy is not concerned with innocence or following the rules to maintain the status quo. While she still may be a “good girl,” she is not concerned with playing the good girl card in order to somehow survive Freddy. On display in this film is the cinematic and literary construct of the maiden turned warrior. We witness a psychological growth arc paralleling a physiological transformation, in the character of Nancy, that takes her from everyday teenager, complete with the angst, to heroine. And her inner-personal journey is not without its own obstacles and conflict. At every step of the way, Nancy encounters loved ones in her life (be they family or friends) who consistently do not believe in her–until it is too late. All of Elm Street doesn’t believe her, but she knows that Freddy is killing the Elm Street kids in their nightmares, and she is going to prove it and stop him.

One of the messages that I preach to my screenwriting class is the importance of communicating character thoughts and feelings visually (only write what you can see), and Wes Craven does precisely that to communicate how everyone feels about Nancy’s claim that Freddy is back. For example, Nancy’s mother violates her body by subjecting her to sleep tests and even making her a prisoner of her own home with the bars on the windows. A close reading of the imagery associated with the trauma Nancy experiences can be read as a metaphor of adolescence, transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Whether experiencing direct or implied trauma from Freddy, her family, or friends, she endures gaslighting, imprisonment, mental rape, and attempted murder all within the confines of the home–and more specifically–the intimacy of the mind. Not only does Nancy prove that she may in fact be the definitive final girl, though overshadowed by Laurie, by her active role in ensuring her survival against Freddy, she also survives psychological and physiological trauma enacted upon her by loved ones. Her voice was silenced, her path to escape was barred, and her claims that Freddy returned from the dead into the dream world were completely dismissed. This parallels what many women face every day–they are not taken seriously or they are patronized. Her character is a metaphor for what many women face daily.

One may conclude that Nancy lacks the vulnerability and (heteronormatively speaking) feminine nature that is required, traditionally speaking, of a final girl. Certainly the preceding paragraphs skew toward ultimate horror badass, but the beauty of Nancy’s character is that she grows from a vulnerable female teenager into the final girl that we know today. Her all-too-human feminine vulnerability is shown through her white pajamas with pink roses, her teenage angst, crying when she is upset or feels dismissed, and she experiences the emotional rollercoaster that we all, but especially teenagers, ride. After rewatching A Nightmare on Elm Street in the cinema for a 35th anniversary special one night only screening, I was reminded of just how much of a girl she is throughout the whole movie. Not only does she get scared and cry and even take cover behind Glen early on in the film, but she also wears clothes that reinforce the idea that she doesn’t need to take on masculine traits in order to defeat evil. Her character transformation occurs in the mind and she proves that a girl can do anything that a guy can do. She does not allow the constant barrage of dismissal or people telling her that she’s crazy to detour her from what she knows to the nightmarish truth.

Further distinguishing Nancy from other final girls is the manner in which she does defeat Freddy Krueger. Whereas we assume she hasn’t had sex with her boyfriend Glen and does not appear to use illicit drugs or undermines authority for her own selfish pleasure, she does not defeat Freddy because she is a “good girl.” Nancy relies upon resilience, wit, and confidence; ultimately, she defeats Freddy by refusing to give him anymore of her emotional energy (a feminine trait) instead of wielding some phallic weapon like a knife, machete, or bludgeoning tool. Unlike other final girls whom become a de facto male character during the showdown, she remains committed to her femininity. Unlike the gender politics of Alien, the character of Nancy doesn’t oscillate between feminine and masculine. Instead, she transforms from normal, innocent teenager with many of the same familiar and friendship conflicts we face to the brave, determined, proactive smart heroine that defeated Freddy (temporarily anyway), all while never shifting from her typical female behaviors and identity.

After Freddy’s Revenge (and you can hear my review of this installment on Cocktail Party Massacre), Nancy returns in Dream Warriors as a graduate student working and studying at a psychiatric hospital. She may have exchanged her pink rose pajamas for 80s power suits, but she is still the same Nancy. The Freddy experience has certainly had an effect upon her, but she has taken that traumatic experienced, harnessed the power of it and channeled it in a positive direction to help others who are experiencing psychological trauma that has real world physical traits. Specifically, she researches the mental and physical effects of nightmares. Without diverting into a plot analysis of this tertiary installment in the franchise, she is able to successfully transfer her strengths to the Elm Street children. Completely unrelated to the character of Nancy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Freddy quote of all time that appears in this movie, “welcome to prime time, bitch!”

Even before meta horror became popular, and Wes Craven himself would write and direct the definitive meta horror Scream two years later, he returned with full creative control to the Nightmare franchise to write the final chapter (until Freddy vs Jason and the awful 2010 remake) in the reign of Freddy, he gave us New Nightmare. Despite her death in Dream Warriors, “Nancy” stars once again in the Nightmare on Elm Street third chapter New Nightmare. Nancy is in quotes because it is the actress Heather Langenkamp as a character in this meta Nightmare film. She is Heather but very much Nancy all at the same time. In addition to Heather playing herself playing Nancy, Robert Englund plays himself playing Freddy. Other actors/characters from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street have appearances as well. In this film, Heather faces her reality fracturing as a nightmarish specter from her past comes to haunt her. It looks like Freddy, but it is much more sinister. What I love about Heather/Nancy is the fact that she channels her Nancy from the original and Dream Warriors. But she doesn’t phone in her performance or give us the same character. Her “Nancy” has grown. One of the biggest differences between Nancy and Heather is that Heather is now challenged with protecting her son at all costs. Through her passion, wit, confidence, and unyielding ability to face the darkness head on, she confronts Freddy to once again, become the final girl.

Annie Wilkes

Do your ankles hurt just at the thought of Annie Wilkes? Well, they should because she is one of the most terrifying Women in Horror ever. Perhaps you do not remember her by name, but you most likely know the film Misery. Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, Misery is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars then-newcomer Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Playing opposite Kathy is James Caan as celebrity author Paul Sheldon. Just a quick note, the sultry Lauren Bacall also makes an appearance in this horror film as Sheldon’s agent. While my other character analyses for Women in Horror Month focussed on final girls, for this final entry, I desired to explore a truly sinister female character whom captivated us with her outstanding performance. In a quintessential Hitchcockian fashion, Rob Reiner crafts a phenomenal adaptation of the King novel that mostly takes place in one location. But this one location houses two indelible characters, one of which is a wildly disturbed and frightening fangirl. Annie convinced us that anyone who claims to be your No.1 fan may actually be your No.1 worst nightmare. Next time a nondescript motherly figure invites you to her picturesque cabin in Colorado, you may want to consider staying at the local Holiday Inn instead.

Talk about a character with incredible depth! Annie Wilkes is one of those exemplary characters in horror that provides ample opportunity to apply critical lenses to analyze her psychology and sociology. Clearly she displays signs of psychopathy, but there is so much more to her character. And those layers are what makes her one of the most terrifying characters in horror film history. On the surface, she is a monster-like human; but beneath that sociopathic behavior, she is clearly suffering from severe mental disorders brought on by past trauma. Collectively, we can surmise that Annie’s past traumas left her feeling that everyone and everything is out to get her. Therefore, she runs a countryside farm in mountainous Colorado away from everyone. Her only interaction with outsiders is when she has to run to town to pickup food and supplies. In addition to her mental disorders, she also displays signs of agoraphobia. Although some of her mental disorders have direct impact on her violent nature, other disorders are largely indirectly responsible, such as her likely obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Evidence supporting this can be seen in her immaculately clean and organized house. Her OCD contributes significantly to her obsession with Paul Sheldon. The only joy in her life comes from the romance novels that she reads–a vicarious way to experience a full life–namely the Misery series by Paul Sheldon. Essentially, she is the perfect storm of psychological and emotional disorders all wrapped up in a an unassuming citizen of a small Colorado town. She could very well be your neighbor or one of your social media followers. Perhaps she is YOUR No.1 fan.

Although screenwriter William Goldman adds in a subplot of the town’s sheriff investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon, which works very well for the film even though it was not in the novel, the story is about two characters (representing two sides of the same coin) trapped in a room together, locked in a psycho-social battle of wills. Ostensibly, this story features two characters whom represent the creative mind of Stephen King during his real addiction to alcohol. I mention this real-life time of darkness in King’s life not to glorify it because it helped inspire one of his greatest novels turned film (need I mention Velvet Buzzsaw), but it helps us understand the depth and power of the character of Annie Wilkes. Both Sheldon and Wilkes work so well because they represent real life villains in the life of King. King’s real battle between his healthy mind and drug-induced state parallels Paul Sheldon’s battle for freedom with Annie Wilkes standing in his way. In a most brilliant fashion, the sadistic former nurse Annie is the manifestation of how controlling a drug addiction can be–how it makes the user a prisoner of one’s own mind and body. This subplot is strategically woven into the main action plot then delivered through the character development and character-driven scenes in the story.

Annie is not completely evil. Early on, she shows us that she cares about victims as she could not have known that it was Paul Sheldon that she was rescuing from the car crash. Being his No.1 fan, as soon as she saw him, she knew precisely who he was and therefore her obsessive nature takes over. There is a moment that encapsulates one of the film’s themes that is often overlooked. Prior to caring for Paul, Annie takes his attache full of manuscripts and tucks it under her arm thus symbolizing that Paul’s work is more important than Paul’s life. But that doesn’t confirm her psychopathic nature. Even upon the more formal introduction of Annie, she shows us that she cares about Paul’s recovery as she crudely splints his broken legs. Why not take him to the hospital? Well, because she is his No.1 fan and no one can take care of him the way she can. She goes on to shower Paul with accolades. Claims to have read his Misery novels several times, even committing them to memory. Furthermore, she closely identifies with Misery Chastain (the series’ central character), so cares deeply what happens to her. Albeit being hospitalized in a stranger’s private residence is a little disconcerting, Paul grows to trust and even like Annie. He trusts her so much that he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript for the final Misery novel. And this is where things take a turn for the worse, Paul’s hospital is about to turn into a prison ran by the sinister warden from hell.

During Annie’s rage over the offensive swearing in the unpublished manuscript, she spills the hot soup on Paul and we begin to see the signs of her mania, twisted morals, paranoia, and negative effects of OCD. Obviously, we learn more about her psychopathy as the scenes unfold, but in retrospect, we witness the signs in big bold letters from this moment on. But she doesn’t continually behave in such a neurotic manner. She oscillates back and forth. This oscillation is an important aspect to her character because it drives up the tension and suspense because we don’t know when or where to expect her dangerous behavior. There are moments that we anticipate a violent outburst, but then she fools us by not delivering. By the same token, there are moments that we don’t expect it, and she terrifies us. The character trait of Annie’s that makes her one of the most terrifying in the Blockbuster of horror is her lack of feeling. Everything she does, she rationalizes without regard for quality of life or humankind. The very definition of sociopath.

The psycho-social disorders affecting the behavior and psychology of Annie are never confirmed, and don’t need to be. We don’t need to know precisely why or what causes Annie to behave the way she does. Because if we fully understood her, she would cease to be as nightmare-inducing as she is. It’s important that Annie Wilkes remain a type of Boogeyman. However, we can gather from the film that she suffers from a form schizotypal personality disorder, OCD (which I’ve mentioned), and meets most of the criteria of borderline personality disorder. A trifecta of disorders that creates the monster that we encounter in the film. She copes with these disorders by executing numerous defensive mechanisms including denial, projection, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and more. Whereas we often talk about her psychopathy and sociopathy, we often neglect to recognize her highly intelligent mind. Too bad her intelligence isn’t matched by empathy and and human kindness. Her intellect is observed through how she anticipates Paul’s movements and knowing when he’s been out of his room. And an intelligent villain is the most dangerous and unpredictable of all.

Aside from her disorders, unpredictable behavior, and lack of empathy, attributes that can be found in other horror villains, she stands out because she is a women. It’s her feminism that enables her to stand out against similar villains such as Norman Bates, Jack Torrance, Buffalo Bill and others. When we typically think of female characters or women in general (and I realize I am over-generalizing), we think of someone whom is kind, hospitable, nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Annie subverts those notions in so many ways, many of which have been outlined in this analysis. She makes Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Brady. As out of control as Annie behaves, she is very much in control. She IS the one holding all the cards and calling the shots in this prison. While other characters (male or female) with similar disorders or backgrounds that parallel Annie’s have lost their minds, Annie knows precisely what she is doing, and is supremely strategic when she does it. We may be cheering when Paul finally kills her with the typewriter, in brilliant ironic fashion, but she is an incredibly strong female character who can hold her own, backs down to no one.

Not only is Misery one of the top psychological horror films ever made, but Annie is a noteworthy female character in the horror genre. While the final girls get most of the attention when we talk Women in Horror, it’s important to not forget that horror has given us terrifying women as well. Whereas so often the most interesting villains (or characters of opposition) get to be played by men, this film would not be as powerful is the roles were gender swapped. The fact that this psychopath is a women makes her all the more disturbing. She crafts such overwhelming sense of dread that is more frightening because we aren’t used to female characters as the main villains. Kathy Bates was a perfect choice for this role, and she has gone on to play all kinds of roles but the horror community gets extra excited when she plays a horror role. While horror doesn’t often win awards at the Oscars, Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her work in Misery.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Jurassic Park” (1993), Sci-Fi Horror NOT Action-Adventure

In honor of Jurassic Park‘s 25th Anniversary, I want to revisit why the film works so incredibly well, and never gets old. Just like Dr. Alan Grant states at the beginning of the film, “raptors have far more in common with present day birds than they do with reptiles,” that same analogy can be drawn with the original Jurassic Park and its proximity to horror compared to action-adventure. Borrowing from Dr. Grant, the original Jurassic Park has far more in common with scifi-horror than it does with action-adventure, hence why it has held up over the years and continues to be a favorite film for many cinephiles and fans alike. While all the sequels, including Jurassic World are far more action-adventure than the original, Jurassic Park can be likened to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The latter is a quintessential space scifi-horror with action-adventure sequels just like the former. And like Jurassic Park, the original Alien is considered far superior to that of the sequels. But why is this? There are many reasons from script to director to cinematography; but at the end of the day, it’s the fact that both these critically acclaimed and admired films have their respective roots in the American horror film and not action-adventure movies. More so than any other genre, horror is (1) uniquely American and (2) the most time tested, given it can trace its roots back to the 1890s and was perfected by Universal Pictures in the 1920s and 30s.

So what separates Jurassic Park from the sequels? Both have life-threatening dinosaurs, both have action, both have adventure, etc. But, only the original carries with it social commentary, rich subtext, and well-developed themes told through a brilliant combination of horrific frights and believable sciences taking place within a world of fiction grounded in reality. Furthermore, the focus in both Jurassic Park and Alien is largely on the drama between the characters and the oppositional forces in the film. The sequels in both franchises place far less emphasis on well-developed conflict and drama, and instead sacrifice those golden elements of cinematic storytelling for high-concept CGI-filled adventure movies with lots of dinosaurs or aliens. The proliferation of gimmicks and effects is often used to hide a weak story. Fortunately, Jurassic Park provides audiences with a strong plot told through exceptional cinematic storytelling.

Jurassic Park‘s screenplay benefitted from being penned by the award-winning author Michael Crichton who also wrote the novel by the same name. Often times, when the author of the novel also writes the screenplay, the screenplay forms a stronger foundation upon which the technical elements can be build. A more recent example of a brilliant screenplay adaptation of a novel is Gone Girl, the author of the novel was the screenwriter. Although a screenplay is visually driven whereas a novel is internally driven, when a novelist with a penchant for visual storytelling writes the screenplay for the movie adaptation, the screenplay tends to contain better developed characters, strong subtext, effective conflict, and excellent dialogue. Crichton created incredibly memorable characters who each spoke with their own voice. Casting the right actors to portray the characters is obviously important–and the cast for Jurassic Park is exemplary–but even before the actor steps into the character’s shoes, the character has to be created. Each character in Jurassic Park possesses unique traits, strengths, weaknesses, dialect, and behaviors. Instead of the conflict being arbitrary, the conflict develops through the interpersonal relationships between the characters and the relationship between the characters and the opposition–human and nature.

I was in elementary school when the movie hit theatres in the summer of 1993; and although under 13, my parents allowed me to go see the movie. It was my first PG-13 film, and what an experience! Not unlike Dr. Grant’s reaction to his first encounter with a dinosaur in the film, my reaction to Spielberg’s masterpiece was eyes-wide-open, mouth gaping wide, and racing endorphins. And then comes the macabre contrast in Acts II and III. “Ooo, ahh–that’s how it begins, and then there’s running and screaming” (Dr. Ian Malcolm, The Lost World). Aptly stated. The opening scene hooks the audience with a disaster, but does not reveal much about the dinosaur in the secured transport–brilliant. Because this scene did not show a dinosaur, the audience’s curiosity is pricked which creates an eagerness to see a dinosaur and a degree of nervousness or apprehension accompanying that curiosity. We wanted to see more. If you’re familiar with Hitchcock’s bomb theory, he states “you must never let the bomb go off.” More than simply shock audiences with the death of that employee at the beginning of the movie, this scene serves as information more than a glimpse at that which would be horrific in real life. This delay of seeing a dinosaur forces the audiences to pay more attention to the characters, dialogue, and conflict than looking for the next dino. Furthermore, the delay in seeing a dinosaur, perfectly setup audiences for the grand reveal on the way from the helipad to the Visitors Center. Interestingly, if you add up all the screen time that dinosaurs receive in the film, you’ll find that they are only on screen for about 20-minutes. Just like Hitchcock transferred the terror from the screen into the minds of the audience after the Psycho “shower scene,” Crichton and Spielberg did the same with Jurassic Park.

It’s the soft introduction to the man-made dinosaurs that makes the horror of the dinosaurs feel so much more intense later on in the film–and make you scream! In terms of the type of science-fiction horror film Jurassic Park could be classified as, it shares many commonalities with man vs nature and man vs technology horror films. Crichton is known for his believable science within his works of fiction. It is obvious that genetics and paleontology were researched enough to use real, hard science to inspire a fictional science that feels just out of reach of the current trends in the science, technology, and engineering fields. Pair that with horror, and you have a solid cinematic film. The brilliance of horror films is how they can creatively comment on or provide a different perfective on a anthropological or psychological observation; moreover, it can be helpful when exploring philosophical questions. And these topics are visually explored through the movie and externalize the themes. One area that separates popcorn action-adventure movies from horror films is the cultural significance of the subtext and themes. Typically, action adventure movies do not carry with them social commentary nor significantly pull on our emotions and tap into our most primal fears. Jurassic Park contains all of this. There is something about horror films that beckons the audiences to find enjoyment in, that which in real life, would not be enjoyable—and not only see it once, but repeat it. And furthermore, find the unfamiliar and grotesque fascinating to behold as what should remain hidden comes to light. Certainly the dinosaurs in the movie should have remained “extinct,” but were brought back to life and engaged in violence in which we find enjoyment. 

Some of the themes found in Jurassic Park that are told through the visceral horror and tense dramatic moments are: man vs nature, foolishness and folly, greed, wisdom vs knowledge, man vs technology, and parenting. Why don’t the Jurassic films have the chache that the original does? You try to find to find rich themes such as these in the subsequent films. They don’t exist. Why? Because it is far more difficult to explore what it means to be human and social constructs in a scifi action movie than in scifi horror. An action movie would be ill-equipped to tackle questions of a philosophical nature because the focus is largely on the action itself and not necessarily the characters, and almost never the subtext and theme. For an action film to delve into that which causes the film to take on an intellectual nature, it would lose the attention of those who simply want a good popcorn movie. Don’t get me wrong, there are excellent action-adventure movies that contribute to the world of cinema in exceptional ways. Indiana Jones Raiders, Doom, and Last Crusade do that. Obviously, the inability to reconcile nature’s resistance to control is one of the most important themes of Jurassic Park. Dr. Ian Malcolm tells the group that “life finds a way,” and it immediately becomes the film’s mantra (and a quotable line), true in every demonstrable, measurable way; the dinosaurs survive outside their design and engineering, the lost children survive with the help of a kid-averted paleontologist who discovers his parental side, humanity survives despite meddling in the natural order of things by playing God because that’s what we do–we survive. Every character in the film either understands or is reminded of this–some of them, by force when it’s too late–through the course of events.

Jurassic Park uses horror film techniques in a brilliant fashion to force its audience into considering the larger philosophical questions mentioned in the previous paragraph. It reinforces those questions with clever parallels: Dr Grant’s way of paleontology is about to go “extinct” due to the rise of computer technology (the line “don’t you mean extinct” came from a comment behind-the-scenes regarding CGI encroaching upon animatronics, puppetry, and special effects); the power of the natural world is exponentially magnified when the park’s technology failure is combined with a disastrous tropical storm; money causes literally every ill in the film, even when it is being used for supposedly admirable purposes; and “you were so pre-occupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” The inability to reconcile nature’s resistance to control is one of the most important themes of the film, of course. Ian Malcolm tells the group that “life finds a way,” and it abruptly becomes the tale’s rallying cry, true in every conceivable way; the dinosaurs survive outside their engineering, the lost children survive with the help of a paleontologist who discovers his paternal side, humanity survives despite its meddling because it’s what we do. Every character in the film either understands this, or is made to by the course of events.

Beyond exploring themes, it’s the intent of the film that determines whether is a thriller (suspense) or horror film. The films speak for themselves. If the intent is to horrify, then it’s a horror film; if the intent is to thrill, then it is a thriller. In all fairness, Jurassic Park is borderline; but it’s the level of shock, fear, and dread that may just be enough to tip the scale toward horror instead of thriller, and certainly evidence enough to prove that it is NOT simply a dark action-adventure movie. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Scott’s Alien, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is also an intellectual film. Whereas an action-adventure movie would have provided audiences with a few minutes collectively of some surface-level chit-chat above ethics in order to technically give the film a theme, Jurassic Park provides audiences with an entire film about ethics that will have them talking about the various dilemmas and challenges facing the characters throughout the film. It’s brilliant! And quite the rarity these days. The hand of Spielberg’s penchant for horror (Jaws and Poltergeist) is seen in Jurassic Park from requesting that Crichton rewrite the original screenplay to be more cinematic and less internally driven because Spielberg desired to take the novel and adapt it to screen as a Jaws on land. If his intent was to make a sequel to Jaws, then we have to conclude that his intention was to horrify audiences in some measurable amount.

With a film as dynamic as Jurassic Park, it may be nearly impossible to prove that it is a horror film at its roots; but, the body of information provided in this article help to support the thesis that it is a horror film based upon the intention, conflict, themes, and visceral terror. “Well, there is it.”

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“All the Money in the World” film review

A spellbinding thriller that will hold hostage your attention. Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated historical neo-noir drama depicting the infamous kidnapping of the favorite grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty All the Money in the World is an incredibly suspenseful drama that is every bit as good as you’ve been hearing. Probably the highest profile Christmas season motion picture release after the–quite literal–last minute recasting of living legend Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty I, this film is a non-stop search and rescue of epic proportions. The most notable element of the film is the aforementioned casting; however, there is so much more to this movie than the role played by Plummer. This film has an incredibly organic feel to it–all the way down to the practical blood effects. Although many of the roles in the film are one-dimensional, don’t let that dissuade you from buying your ticket to see it on the big screen. Each and every character in the film is played with excellence by the respective actors. No slowing down in this film, the pacing is incredibly quick but works brilliantly for this nail-biting drama that will have your attention for the entire runtime of the movie. If there was ever a real-life Scrooge, J. Paul Getty would be a contender for the famed Dickensian character. Witness the lengths a mother will go to find and free her son despite being cut off from her father-in-law’s unparalleled fortune. Love, logic, and profit are at war in this fantastic motion picture that is sure to grab the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A king’s ransom. That’s what J. Paul Getty III (grandson of J. Paul Getty I) demand of the Getty family. All the Money in the World follows Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) and ex-CIA special operations Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) on their perilous journey to locate and retrieve Paul. Only one small problem, Gail’s ex-father-in-law is oil tycoon and ruthless J. Paul Getty, and he refuses to pay the ransom demanded by his favorite grandson’s kidnappers. With Paul’s very life in danger, Gail and Chase, otherwise unlikely allies because of his ties to J. Paul Getty I, are forced to team up in order to locate Paul and secure the ransom money from her former father-in-law who refuses to do anything with his money and time unless there is some sort of monetary profit in it. After Paul’s ear is found in the mail, Gail realizes that her only hope is to get J. Paul Getty to somehow agree to pay the ransom for his grandson.

From a storytelling perspective, the most notable aspect of this motion picture is the aggressively nonlinear storytelling. We begin in (then) present-day, go back to Paul’s early impoverished childhood, fast-forward to him a little older, then to the months prior to his kidnapping, back to the present-day again. We also take a look back at J. Paul Getty I in the early days of his oil business in the middle east. Although I am not typically a fan of flashbacks, it works very well for this story in order to truly understand the dysfunctional family dynamics. While his children live a life that barely gets by financially, J. Paul Getty I lives the life of the wealthiest man the modern world had ever seen. Still, J. Paul is also the embodiment of Ebeneezer Scrooge in every way shape and form. Every moment moves the story forward. Never once will you feel that the more than two-hour film is stagnated or treading water just to fill time. You will also encounter some of the most gruesome moments that Scott has ever put on screen.  The diegesis of the film is constructed with extreme precision, and it creates an overarching exemplary work of how powerful a historic crime drama/thriller can be.

But what kind of film is this? Is it a crime drama? Historic drama? Thriller? Or even classically structured and shot film noir? Often times, when writers or directors set out to create a hybrid film (meaning, more than one genre) run into the problem of the film being in a state of identity crisis. Each main genre has certain pillars and structural supports that need to be met in order to tell the genre story effectively. That doesn’t mean that you cannot have a film that has elements of more than one genre but it does mean that the more genre elements that you have, the more difficult it is to weave them all seamlessly together. Fortunately, Scott’s All the Money in the World written by David Scarpa is a masterpiece! Scarpa showcases his ability to utilize the best of the genre tropes that are in this film to tell a completely new story with a unique experience. If I were to select a genre that this film is best suited for, it would be film noir, in the vein of my review’s opening lines. For all its other elements, All the Money in the World is most closely aligned with film noir because our main character of Gail is in over her head, the non-linear storytelling, dark places and themes, Gail’s exquisite attire, and it’s a story filled with gloom, ill-fated characters, fear, and betrayal.

For those who have been to the famous Getty Museum in Los Angeles (I went a few years ago, and still remember it vividly), you will have a better understanding of how he acquired all those artifacts and art pieces, and how the museum came to be. Perhaps, much like The Founder may have caused you to call into question whether or not you want to support such an infamous legacy, you may also debate whether or not to support the museum that bears his name. Even though J. Paul Getty was a ruthless man, he did provide treasures for the American people and visitors to the states to enjoy for all time. For those who enjoy further reading after watching a historical drama, you’ll find that the Getty family continued to suffer and Paul never recovered from his kidnapping tragedy. His life was cut short after a drug overdose. This is the kind of film that you will want to watch again because of the powerful philosophical punch that pits love against money.

“Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) Film Review

The classic Hollywood style mystery successfully pulls into the station. Grab your ticket from the box office and board the legendary Orient Express with this all-star cast. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the timeless Agatha Christie novel is as bold and elaborate as Hercule Poirot’s famous mustache. Feel as though you are traveling aboard the famous transcontinental train as you attempt to put all the pieces together to solve the mystery right along with “quite possibly the greatest detective in the world.” Hollywood style movie mysteries are nearly a thing of the past, but Branagh stokes the fire in the engine of the once popular genre and conducts an exciting journey through the classic whodunit plot. The film’s namesake is a novel that has inspired so many mystery novelists, and hopefully this film inspires a new generation of filmmakers to create their own movie mysteries fit for the big screen. Because the 1974 version including a cast ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Anthony Perkins to Sean Connery has not stood the test of time as well as it was thought to have done, this cleared the tracks for Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel.

After he successfully solves the mystery of the theft of precious religious artifact from the Wailing Wall area of Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is beseeched to head back east to solve another mystery. Over the years, Poirot has made many friends, and one of these friends is the son of the railroad tycoon who owns the opulent Orient Express. When a passenger doesn’t show, Poirot is given his seat and boards the transcontinental train bound for western Europe. Although Poirot was promised a rail journey free of crime, a nice break, and to be pampered during his travels, he finds himself solving the most peculiar of mysteries–a most gruesome murder. The victim: an unscrupulous man with many enemies. When a freak avalanche forces the Orient Express to stop on a breathtaking, precarious stretch of track, Poirot finds the time to interview each and every one of the suspects—confined to the twelve first and second-class passengers who might have had access to the victim’s cabin. When each piece of evidence opens one Pandora’s Box after another, and the web of lies and connections between the passengers grows to Poirot’s mustache proportions, Poirot faces a complex mystery that prompts him to call his very approach to crime solving into question.

Nevermind the solution to the tentpole mystery novel is one of the worst-kept secrets in British literature history, Branagh crafts a cinematic mystery full of intrigue, revenge, lies, deceit, and the central murder. The plot revolves around a seemingly perfect crime committed on a railcar with no access to the outside, and only the passengers and crew on board the suspects. But even Poirot is stumped at the who, how, and why. Whether you know the ending or not, this film provides an excellent example of a genre that harkens back to Hollywood’s golden era. There was once a time that mysteries and musicals were a staple of the industry, but times change. Still, Branagh shows audiences that the timelessness of an old fashioned whodunit cannot be overstated. Since the ending of the mystery is known by so many people, Branagh was challenged with providing the audiences with something different, something that creates a new take on a well-known story. He accomplishes this by throwing in some additional subplots, character connections, and evidence that suggests that the solution may turn other otherwise than it does in the novel. The changes he brings to the story are organic and fit in well. The end result is a fantastic film that keeps your attention from beginning to end, even for those who know–or think they know–the solution to the mystery.

From the sweeping landscape shots of the Alps to the wide variety of shots to bring the audience onto the train with the rest of the passengers, the production design is excellent. The attention to the detail and visual elegance of the story are treated with creative precision, just as the Christie plot is woven together. Production designer Jim Clay’s meticulously recreated Orient Express is truly something to behold. Unfortunately, despite Branagh’s decision to shoot on 65mm film, there are times that the train set feels almost too perfect–a little artificial–similar to The Polar Express. Although there are times that the production design is not being showcased to the degree that it should to increasingly immerse the audience into the world of Poirot, there are plenty of beautiful shots that serve as a testament to the opulence of rail travel that once was. Of the few weak areas of this film, the cinematography is the weakest because it could have been used to truly create a visually stunning film and not fall victim to surrealism. Patrick Doyle’s score complements the film by feeling like an extension of the plot itself, in time and space. The combination of big band, jazz, and orchestral music immerses the audience into this world. All the technical elements work effectively to transport you from your seat to a compartment on the legendary train.

Branagh’s screen adaptation of Christie’s characters is brilliantly entertaining and developed well. Each character represents a different type of person, a different walk of life. No two characters are alike, which makes great for interjecting some social commentary into the mystery. From a professor spouting pro-Nazi sentiments to a nurse turned missionary, you will find the characters intriguing in and of themselves, never mind how they may be connected to the victim. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are perfect appointed extensions of the characters that wear the authentic period clothing. Each costume was designed to be as much a part of the respective character as the accents, hairstyles, and backstories. Josh Gadd proves that we can successfully play a serious role, which will prove to bolster his career, Willem Dafoe is perfect as the professor, Dench portrays the princess in only a way that she could so successfully accomplish, and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Coming in a close second to Branagh’s screen time, as the iconic inspector Poirot, is the beautifully talented Michelle Pfeiffer as the widowed heiress Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall’s character in the original). She truly showcases her talent for adding depth to the characters she plays in order to make them complex and memorable. The diverse cast of characters is incredible to watch and couldn’t have been deleted better for this highly anticipated film.

Climb aboard The Orient Express for the whodunit that started it all. Branagh’s fresh take on the classic tale would satisfy even the harshest of critics Agatha Christie herself. He treats the source material with the respect it deserve, all the while, adding in new material to craft a new experience for those tho have read the novel and/or seen the original film adaptation of this story. Do yourself a favor and don’t ask anyone whodunit, because you need to experience the solution for yourself. Perhaps you can solve it more quickly than Poirot. Don’t let the train leave the station before you pack your bags and travel back to a time when trains went full-steam ahead into adventure and intrigue.