Monday, 28 May 2007

James Martin reviews his ten favourite films, Part 1

The Shining
USA 1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenwriters: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson, Stephen King (novel)
Runtime: 119 mns

Certificate: 18
DVD distributor: Warner Home Video

The Shining is one of the most poignant horror films I have ever seen. In 1999, when I was going on sixteen, it unexpectedly scared the living daylights out of me. Some critics thought that Kubrick's portrayal of an insane writer attempting to slaughter his wife and son in a deserted, snow-bound hotel was over the top. Author Stephen King was appalled and felt that the director had made an incompetent hash of it. Critic Jacob Levich, despite having bestowed four stars upon it, wrote: "Nicholson's performance is too much. By the time of the climactic chase, he's lurching around like a cut-rate Quasimodo."

Harsh criticism did not detract from The Shining's success and it is easy to see why. Slow aerial opening tracking shots of Torrance's (Nicholson) car cruising through the wilderness of rural Colorado immediately emphasise how isolated he, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be. The doleful, ominous brass score gives a sense of impending doom, while the contortions of the little boy's face, whenever he has premonitions of drowning in blood or self-regresses to become sinister imaginary friend Tony, are eerily convincing.

Best of all is the never ending, suspense-laden shot along a corridor, with the camera closing in behind Danny on his tricycle. The rumbling background music, coupled with that nauseating impression of moving along the hypnotic, vertigo-inducing patterned carpet is enough to make the viewer travel sick, when the scene suddenly climaxes in a vision of the mutilated twins beckoning him.

Nicholson's demonically possessed character comes unsettlingly natural to him and his "I'm not gonna hurt you, I'm just gonna bash your fucking brains in" is creepy and effective. Picture yourself in his victim's shoes. This movie may have lost much of its chilling appeal by now, but of its genre it is undoubtedly the most memorable for me.

Mommie Dearest
USA 1981

Director: Frank Perry
Screenwriters: Frank Perry, Robert Getchell, Christina Crawford (autobiography)
Runtime: 129 mns
Certificate: 12A
DVD distributor: Paramount Pictures

To be engrossed by Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) screaming like a banshee and thrashing a wire coat hanger at her two innocent "darlings" must be something akin to sadism. Certain scenes are so cruel they are unbearable to watch, yet director Frank Perry never ceases to ensure that the attention of the viewer is forever consumed by morbid curiosity. Based on Christina Crawford's controversial autobiography, Mommie Dearest catalogues a childhood allegedly rife with emotional and physical abuse endured by Christina (Diana Scarwid) at the hands of her pernickety, obsessive and violently temperamental adoptive mother, in their lavish Hollywood mansion.

What makes this picture so intriguing is that Crawford genuinely appears to love both Christina and her brother Christopher, yet overreacts unimaginably and always vents her frustration on the girl, justifying it with a mere "I don't want her to make my mistakes." The story, if true, makes one wonder what psychological insecurity might cause somebody to treat a child so inhumanely. Dunaway, aptly done up for the most part like a monster in a face pack, epitomises how a lifetime in the cut-throat "shitty movie business", if taken too seriously, can make one embittered, insanely jealous and ruthlessly competitive.

Several years and events later, the ending is the cherry on the cake. Crawford is dead and "for reasons well known to them" leaves her foster children with nothing. Joan "has had the last word as usual". "Has she?" Christina retorts coldly to Christopher, as the camera focuses on the girl, dissolved in thought. This is a touching and disturbing film, which although excruciatingly one-sided, does every justice to an autobiography with a bone to pick. The delicious quirk is that Joan's apparent life-long insistence on "being unbeatable" will backfire with a vengeance, in the form of a poisonous memoir.

Read Part 2 tomorrow!

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