Ga, ga – Chwala bohaterom (1986)

Ga-ga bohaterom - Poster.jpg

Dir:- Piotr Szulkin

Starr:- Daniel Olbrychski, Jerzy Stuhr, Katarzyna Figura, Leon Niemczyk, Maria Ciunelis, Krzysztof Majchrzak

Scr:- Piotr Szulkin

DOP:- Dariusz Kuc

Put quite simply, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom is a low-budget absurdist sci-fi masterpiece from the tail-end of the Communist era in Poland. Director Piotr Szulkin made a number of fairly inventive and daring movies during the 1980’s, including Golem (1979), Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecje (1981) and O-bi, O-ba – Koniec cywilizacji (1984). Yet since the end of the Communist era in Poland his cinematic output has been limited to a 2003 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. In many ways this is a great loss to Polish cinema, as the Gdansk-born Szulkin is one of the most distinctive Polish directors outside the holy trinity of Kieslowski, Polanski and Wajda.

Set in a bleakly grim futureworld in which prisoners are put to good use by being blasted out into space, supposedly to discover and claim new planetary terrain, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom plays out like some twisted blend of Dark Star (1974), Mad Max (1979) and Monty Python. The hero (or bohater) of the title is played by Daniel Olbrychski, one of the premier stars of the Polish screen (and an actor who in more open times would have almost certainly become a significant Hollywood presence). Olbrychski does sullen, Eastwood-like terseness almost as well as the great man himself and in Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom he wanders around the hellish ‘western’ civilization he has ‘stumbled’ upon, seemingly unwilling or reluctant to engage with anything, or anyone. What he does discover, fairly rapidly, is that the idealised notion of interplanetary discovery that both the government and the prison authorities are putting across is a lie. Rather than being sent to dangerous new planets the prisoners are sent to one particular planet where they are greeted as arriving heroes by the depraved human population of the colony. However this hero-worship has a hidden and sinister purpose that becomes increasingly apparent to Olbrychski, who appears to have simply swapped one type of prison for another, more dangerous, one.

Szulkin, who must have been working on a shoestring budget, manages to convert areas of Łodz (Poland’s heavily industrialised second city and cinema hub), particularly the Widzew stadium, into truly terrifying frontier terrain. At times the film has a close visual feel to the night-time sequences from the cult Australian movie Dogs in Space (1986), laced with a little of the working-class surrealism of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. One of the most impressive visual metaphors throughout the film is the way in which the old and stately rubs shoulders with the brash and modern. Christmas lights seem to illuminate every shop or bar sign, advertising various iconic American products, such as Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. In the bar hotdogs are sold (inexplicably made from human fingers), whilst immense pride is taken by the bureaucrats of this hell-hole in the form of transport they drive around in. Inside the hotel Olbrychski as a visiting hero has to inhabit, there is a chaotic assortment of sculptures, busts and artworks, as if the place were a lapidary cemetery, or decaying museum, in which the forgotten history of a culture has been haphazardly stored away. So much of the landscape of the planet is familiar and obviously Earth-like, yet Szulkin is circumspect enough in his framing of each shot, that it unnervingly becomes an explicitly alien terrain in which humanity seems to have become hideously degraded and morally deformed.

Ga-ga bohaterom - One True Hero
If you could only find a way to commit a massacre with this toy piano then you’d be our one true hero.

Alongside Olbrychski another titan of the Polish screen Jerzy Stuhr – Amator (1979), Seksmisja (1983), Kiler (1997) – features as the camp and craven local bureaucrat, who seems at first to have only Olbrychski’s best interests at heart. There is a certain ‘theatrical’ style of acting that comes through in some Polish cinema and television and resembles a milder form of the deranged performances extorted by Andrzej Zulawski in his 1981 horror film Possession. At its worst this manner of performance can be seen as an irritatingly ineffectual and heavily signposted anti-realism, that seems to turn every role into a cabaret comic turn. However, when given the right narrative conditions, and when executed with the sophistication of a figure like Stuhr, this type of performance can significantly escalate the absurd comic energies of a given film. Here Stuhr puts on a whining, wheedling, brilliantly brown-nosing display that comes to encapsulate the passive-aggressive implacability of ‘officialdom’. This comes across most effectively in one brilliant sequence in which Stuhr arrives, unannounced, in Olbrychski hotel room to shower the ‘hero’ in gifts of a most disturbing nature.

The depravity of the frontier terrain that Szulkin has created in the movie has a hysterical and blackly comic tone to it. Gangs of whooping and screaming individuals ride around on converted motorbikes and sidecars, letting off firecrackers and lighting eerie flares. Sex is a prime source of corruption, with Olbrychski being inundated with different perverse offerings from the very moment his spaceship lands. Stuhr’s bureaucrat presents the first of these offerings to Olbrychski in the form of a youthful Katarzyna Figura, who plays an ‘innocent’-looking prostitute called Once. Later in a wonderfully demented sequence involving Maria Ciunelis’ malevolent harridan of a whore, Stuhr’s slimy authority is called into question as he is verbally chastised by Ciunelis with the kind of inventive cursing that is so rarely heard in everyday Polish. Aside from sex, there is an obsession with violence and brutality in this frontier world. The ‘heroes’ are meant to participate in this society by committing a suitably grisly and sickening crime, so that they can then be publicly executed in a truly horrendous and highly comical manner. Having left behind a brutally oppressive and dehumanising prison life on planet Earth, Olbrychski is more and more mortified to discover that far from having the lonely freedom of deep space welcoming him, he rather has an even more distorted and disturbing version of Earth to navigate through.

Ga-ga bohaterom - Naughty Hero.jpg
Now who is a good little hero then. Play nice.

 

Szulkin’s film is an extremely funny one, but underpinning, and in many ways fuelling, this humour is a satirical bite that doesn’t need a specific understanding of late-Communist Polish realities to make its mark. The subversive way in which it ennobles Olbrychski’s prisoner figure by showing him to have far more humanity than either the prison authorities who deal with him upon earth, or the citizens of this ‘Depraved New World’, is further complemented by the manner in which government methods of policing and bureaucracy are frequently shown to be corrupt fabrications of idealised ‘authority’. In one particularly effective, if slightly heavy-handed, sequence Krzysztof Majchrzak’s military policeman first antagonizes Olbrychski, then provokes him into committing an absurdly violent act, before finally ensuring that the necessary evidence of wrongdoing is obtained by framing the scene. It is as coy and playful an interpretation of the average Polish citizen’s relationship to authority as you’ll find in Polish cinema, lent even greater poignancy by Olbrychski’s baby talk protestations (from which the title of the movie is derived) that seem to suggest that the only way to respond to those who wish to infantilise you is to become truly babyish.

Being a Polish director Szulkin cannot resist also involving elements of Catholic religious symbolism in his work and in Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom the implicit waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is found in the arrangement of objects in trinities, one on the left, one on the right and one in the centre. On a couple of occasions in the film this religious metaphor accrues an additional political meaning, as Olbrychski’s character refuses to select between left and right, but rather looks toward the middle option, the central way (neither adhering to the failures of either extreme, but seeking to balance one against the other). In this way Olbrychski’s character could be interpreted as a lone voice of reason, in a world of fanaticism and extremes. Szulkin tends to write these exchanges so that they resemble a particularly portentous take on Beckett, straining for elusive ambiguity. This is a rare false note in an otherwise energetic, sharp and wholly original addition to the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. Even the naming of the planet on which Olbrychski lands has a degree of ironic sophistication, it being a new-fangled formulation of Australia, that colonial dumping ground for all those dissident elements of ‘British’ society. This excellent film is well worth unearthing and has been handsomely boxed alongside two of Szulkin’s other 80’s films in a recent Telewizja KinoPolska release, replete with English subtitles

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Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Poster

Dir:- Jack Clayton

Starr:- Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Ellen Geer, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson

Scr:- Ray Bradbury

DOP:- Stephen H. Burum

Producer(s):- Peter Douglas, Dan Kolsrud

Between 1976 and 1984 Disney attempted to diversify from their patented brand of wholesome family fare. During this period a raft of movies were released that although still aimed primarily at children were clearly much darker in both tone and content. The 1983 adaptation of Raymond Bradbury’s classic Shakespeare-referencing, carny horrorshow novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, sits alongside the likes of Escape from the Dark (1976), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), The Black Hole (1979), The Watcher in the Woods (1980), Return to Oz (1985) and The Black Cauldron (1985) as emblematic of this awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. At the time Disney was not alone in this trend toward the maturation of kids films. The early-to-mid eighties, in particular, saw bleak works like The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) and The Neverending Story (1984) brought to the big screen during holiday season. Whilst blockbuster fare like The Goonies (1985) and Ghostbusters (1984) (as well as the essentially adult Gremlins (1984), by Joe Dante) pushed the envelope in terms of what constituted family entertainment. This made growing up in this period akin to a late-Victorian childhood, where a moral education appeared most effectively conveyed through the restrained use of horror and pathos (think Dickens, Le Fanu, M.R. James, M.P. Shiel and the later Edwardians like Algernon Blackwood).

Ray Bradbury’s source novel is a remarkably dense and allusive work that deals primarily with the mutability of good and evil. It was inspired by Bradbury’s own youthful encounters with a travelling carnival and has much of a child’s curiosity and wonder at its core. Bradbury had initially conceived of the novel as a film script for his good friend Gene Kelly, but failure to attract the necessary studio backing led Bradbury to flesh out his narrative idea into a novel-length work. Disney bought up the rights to the novel from Bradbury in the mid-seventies and commissioned the author to work upon his own adaptation. They also gave Bradbury a degree of artistic control on the project that saw the producer/director Jack Clayton – who famously directed the eerily compelling The Turn of the Screw adaptation The Innocents (1961) – employed to helm the movie. Clayton was hired on Bradbury’s recommendation, as a result of having developed a good working relationship during their time together on the 1976 adaptation of Moby Dick. With this in mind it seems odd then that one of the biggest difficulties that Something Wicked This Way Comes faced, during production, was Bradbury and Clayton’s increasingly divergent conceptions of how the finished film should look. For Bradbury it was essential that the movie retained the core of the novel’s moral incertitude. Clayton, however, was much more pragmatically focused upon making the material accessible enough to as wide an age group as possible. As a result of this creative conflict the finished film has an unevenness of tone that somehow manages to capture the essence of the novel, without staying all that faithful to it.

The film is set in a bygone forties-era, small town America of barbershops and soda fountains. Two teenage boys Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), one blonde-haired and one black-haired, bond over their frustrated affections for their fathers. In Will’s case his father Charles (Jason Robards) is a world-weary, bookish and fearful man, riven with regret, who cannot bear to spend time with his son since he embarrassingly failed to save him from drowning in a fast-flowing river. Will was rescued, but by Jim’s father Harry, something that Charles seemingly cannot forgive himself for. Jim has an equally problematic relationship with his own father, as Harry has absented himself from the family home and has not been seen by wife, nor son, since. These withdrawn, or absent, paternal figures seem to have defined their own children’s adventurousness and strength of character. Will embraces action to almost the same degree that his father recoils from it, whilst Jim has the kind of reckless courage that stems from his father’s own example.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Marching
The devilled eggs chase the bacon round the frying pan. Jonathan Pryce as the darkly dangerous Mr Dark.

 

The town they inhabit is the very definition of idyllic, as it is a place where little of consequence seems to break the sweet slumber that has fallen over its residents. The adults of the town all seem to be somnambulists. From the barber Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) to the matronly school teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), they seem incapable of affecting change in themselves and initially repress their desires for a different life under the prevailing benign contentedness that pervades the community. It is this deep-rooted and unacknowledged dissatisfaction that brings Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his Pandemonium Carnival to town. Dark is a demon, if not the devil, who animates a beguiling Dust Witch (Pam Grier) and sets about giving the townsfolk what they truly desire. Yet these acts are by no means altruistic, as they are simply cunning illusions engineered to enslave the townsfolk within the diabolical carnival, allowing Dark to feast upon the marrow of human misery and despair. Both Will and Jim stand in Dark’s way, as they are self-possessed youths who have yet to feel the crippling doubts and fears of their elders. Their curiosity, their vitality is the very thing that Dark most fears, as it contains the potential for lightning and love, the powers that can destroy the dour and depressing illusions of the carnival. In this way a crucial ancillary role is that of Tom Fury (Royal Dano), the lightning man, who goes around selling conductor rods that channel lightning away from buildings. Fury manages to sell one of his rods to Jim, which acts as a vital defence against the very worst that Dark can do and ultimately brings about the storm which is Dark’s downfall.

Such, almost allegorical, narrative ideas can seem more than a little muddled when transferred from book to big screen and in fact Bradbury (and an uncredited John Mortimer) jettison much of the novel’s explanatory material, making the film all the harder to follow. Yet one thing that Clayton and Bradbury have been able to capture and transport from page to screen almost perfectly is the rather intense atmosphere of dread and fear that runs through the core of the source material. James Horner’s wonderfully chilling soundtrack supplies much of this intoxicating mood. However, there is also some impressive visual horror that seems all the more authentic in light of modern CGI blandness. One particularly horrific sequence involves an invasion of tarantulas that is up there with the insect infestation sequence in Creepshow for the sheer, visceral repulsion it evokes. Pam Grier’s silent performance as the malevolent Dust Witch is also queasily evocative of Poe’s best work, her veiled beauty occasionally morphing into a Munch like personification of evil and anguish. The carnival set features two extraordinary elements. The first of these is the Mirror Maze, that ultimately serves as the scene of the final encounter between Charles, the boys, the Dust Witch and Mr. Dark. The second is the Merry-go-round, upon which people either grow rapidly younger or older. In the Mirror Maze Bradbury seems to combine elements from Hesse and Snow Whitethat Clayton then reproduces in a similarly disorienting manner to the famous closing sequence of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). On the Merry-go-round, when Bruce M. Fischer’s Mr. Cooger is reduced to a small child, the film uses a highly effective hallucinatory visual trick that harks all the way back to the very origins of cinema.

Despite the film’s plot failings it is a striking work of cinema because of this focus upon the origins and defining characteristics of the medium, namely as a source of illusion. The opening sequence that has a train approaching the screen in the dead of night, plumes of steam billowing from the engine stack, a bright white light piercing the darkness, is a direct reference to that most exhilarating of cinematic moments L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), seeming to act as the blackened mirror image of that moment of technological magic. Later on in the movie various visual effects are deployed that make the viewer all too aware of the artifice and illusion of the film itself, most impressively in a stippled lightning effect, toward the end of the film, that seems to convert an empty field into a threatening alien landscape. When these moments of visual virtuosity are allied to the disturbing spectacle of a carnival promenading down the town’s main street, Jonathan Pryce marching at its front decked out in black top hat and tails, cane in hand, then the film appears to be self-consciously using the form as a means of examining ‘strangeness’.

There are familiar elements in the movie that hark back to works like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Clayton’s own earlier effort The Innocents. Yet, one surprising aspect of the film is the way in which it seems to serve as a visual blueprint for the far more sophisticated Hungarian work The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), from the legendary cinematic auteur Béla Tarr. Perhaps, it points up an unrecognised, or unacknowledged, Bradbury influence upon the novelist, and Tarr collaborator, László Krasznahorkai. In another cultural crossover, the singer Tom Waits also seems to be pilfering a little of Pryce’s devilish magnetism in his promo video for the song ‘In the Neighbourhood’, from his career-changing album Swordfishtrombones (1983). There are also parallels to be drawn between the smooth visual darkness of the film and later ghostly eighties works such as Tim Burton’s uproarious Beetlejuice (1988) and Frank LaLoggia’s sombre fable Lady in White (1988).

Something Wicked This Way Comes - The Dust Witch
The female of the species really is more deadly than the male. Pam Grier as the beguiling Dust Witch.

 

As well as the unique look of the film, Clayton also manages to elicit some very strong performances from the likes of Pryce, Robards and Grier. Robards was always most impressive when playing characters who combined a mixture of stoic resolve with resigned world-weariness. His turn here as the emotionally stunted librarian and father Charles Halloway, is one that manages to work out almost every imaginable permutation of despair and regret, without engaging in the fanciful histrionics of a born-again Hamlet. Robards’ still central performance could have allowed Jonathan Pryce to run amok in the hammiest of ways in the role of Mr. Dark (maybe Stephen King was thinking of Pryce’s performance when he wrote the character of Leland Gaunt in his 1991 novel Needful Things). However, Pryce is far too subtle an actor to grandstand Pacino-style. His performance is remarkable for the way in which it suggests menace whilst exhibiting so much restraint. Perhaps the most insidious of all images in the film is that of the seductive Pam Grier. Her performance as the Dust Witch is one that is so powerfully effective precisely because she does so very little. The slight gesture of her hand, or faint nod of her head become quiet little moments of horror, that force the viewer to watch on whilst all the time indicating that indeed something wicked this way comes.   

 

Changeling, The (1980)

Changeling, The - PosterDir:- Peter Medak

Starr:- George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos

Scr:- Russell Hunter, William Gray, Diana Maddox

DOP:- Jon Coquillon

Producer(s):- Joel B. Michaels, Garth H. Drabinsky

The Changeling is a slow and ponderous movie, featuring a rather leaden central performance from George C. Scott and absolutely no overt horror sequences. However, the film’s strengths lie elsewhere. Underneath its stolid surface it is in fact an intensely chilling and atmospheric haunted house movie, with elements of Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes (1999) spliced into the mix and some fascinating cinematography from Witchfinder General (1968) DOP, Jon Coquillon.

English-Hungarian director Peter Medak [The Ruling Class (1972), The Krays (1990)] veers away from his standard blackly comic fare to deliver a brooding, chilly and utterly po-faced entry into the horror canon. Scott plays John Russell, a musician who has just lost his wife and daughter in a tragic road accident. Returning to his alma mater in Seattle, to teach advanced musical composition, he is leased a sprawling, palatial property by the local Historical Society. Russell strikes up a friendship with the Historical Society associate Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere, Scott’s real-life wife) who is dealing with this property. Before long strange occurrences are alerting Russell to a potentially malevolent presence in the house, that brings Claire and himself directly in contact with the spirits of a century old mystery.

Changeling, The - Staircase
Not since Hitchcock has a stairwell being used to such horrifying effect in a film.

 

Remembering that the end of the seventies had seen a real growth in supernatural horror, it is understandable how The Changeling may have been ignored in favour of the more hysterically terrifying pyrotechnics of The Omen and Amityville movies. There is little in the film that immediately grabs your attention. Yet once Medak and Coquillon have mapped out the external landscape of Seattle (including some excellent establishing shots of the strange geometry of the city’s architectural landmarks) and the internal layout of Russell’s leased property, the film creates an understated atmosphere of dread and foreboding that is unlike almost any other post-seventies horror movie, with the possible exception of The Blair Witch Project (1999).

What Medak seems to intuitively understand of the genre is that less is invariably more. As a result, The Changeling is one of the leanest horror movies I’ve seen, with only really the denouement reaching out for the kind of outlandish bombast beloved by the aforementioned films. Another impressive judgement call on Medak’s part is to do with the amount of information the audience is given throughout the film. Again Medak resists literality, often skipping over pieces of narrative explication so as to enhance the ‘weird’ tension in the film. Scott, one of the great physical performers of the sixties and seventies, is taut, restrained and prickly. It’s a performance that superficially seems ill-conceived and lifeless, as if Scott was simply collecting a pay-cheque. However, the manner in which he closes down the role of John Russell, suggests hidden reservoirs of grief and guilt, that makes the character a second site of haunting within the film.

The way that Medak sets about confidently exploring the horror genre can be evidenced most clearly in the cinematography of Jon Coquillon. This Dutch DOP had a track record of capturing moments of cinematic terror in films like Witchfinder General, Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and Straw Dogs (1971). Under Medak’s direction Coquillon uses his entire arsenal of cinematographic tricks to turn the interior space of the house into an imposing, threatening and utterly claustrophobic experience of dread. Utilising long, smooth, seemingly POV (but whose point of view is the troubling question here?) tracking shots, Coquillon lays out the schemata of the property as if it were being excavated from memory. It gives the film much of the feel of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which would be released later in the same year. Aside from these impressive mobile camera sequences, the use of extremely high-angled shots throughout the movie, as if suggesting the presence of things, unseen, in the nooks and crannies of the property, imbue almost every internal scene with a sense of intense anxiety and paranoia. Even when Russell and Norman are out and about in Seattle, Medak and Coquillon frequently resort to the use of the same vertiginous establishing shots, only in these external settings the camera position tends to be reversed, with extremely low-angled shots craning upward, placing the actors within a landscape of imposing structures. So much of the film is, in this way, carefully constructed to point up the extreme insularity and remoteness of Russell’s bereaved husband and father.

Doesn’t Daddy want to play ball?

 

The use of darkness and shadow is also exemplary in The Changeling. Russell’s initial forays into new, hidden, parts of the property, are often framed within darkness, with only glimmers of light creeping through from obscure sources in the shot. Medak’s mis-en-scene suggests a man groping around in the dark spaces for answers to terrible, unspoken questions. A sequence late on in the film in which Russell convinces a woman that her daughter’s room is built above a grave is eerily captured from above, detailing a gaping black hole in the centre of the room, out of which some light may finally be cast upon the mystery at the heart of the movie. The suggestiveness of language and story is also displayed to full effect by Medak, as frequently the horrors of the film are spoken about, before they are ever actually seen, if they are even seen at all. This is an identical technique to that used in The Blair Witch Project, where story and conversation plant the seeds of the terrifying bounty, that is harvested late on.

I’m guessing this may be labelled conceptual art.

 

As with all movies of this ilk The Changeling has its silly sequences and plot implausibilities (the wheelchair pursuit close to the end of the film, or the manner in which the house can kill some people, but not those who would bring about a resolution to the haunting), but most of these are kept to the periphery of the movie’s action by Medak’s complete investment in atmosphere and suggestion. Whereas in most haunted house movies there is the nagging question as to why the inhabitants don’t just cut their losses and move on, in The Changeling Russell has no financial commitment to the property and should be even freer to move away when the house begins to reveal some of its more disturbing peculiarities, yet there is a perfect logic to why this character may feel compelled to linger on and explore the dark corners of the house. In Russell, Medak has a character who has been deeply wounded and although these wounds may now have begun to heal, scar tissue has been left behind that he cannot help but pick away at. Just as this character is immersed in external horrors as a means of reconciling his inner grief, so the audience undoubtedly becomes ensnared in one of the most fully realised portrayals of supernatural terror ever brought to the cinema screen.