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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark; I Don’t Know How She Does It; Devil’s Angels

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Three Stars)
U.S.: Troy Nixey, 2011 (Sony Pictures Home Entertaiment)

What’s that noise over there? What’s that knocking in the walls? Those ashes stirring in the fireplace? Ah, it’s nothing, it’s nothing. Don’t worry. Even though you’re all alone and I know you’re anxious…that there may be something…wrong. Or something unreal. Or something dangerous. But no, it’s just your imagination, running away with you. Maybe you’ve been watching too many horror movies.
Lesson Number One: A really effective horror moviemaker is usually one who not only scares others, but is highly susceptible to a good fright themselves.
At the age of nine, Guillermo Del Toro — the chubby Mexican chill-maestro who, as an adult, made the horror masterpiece Pan‘s Labyrinth, as well as the good grisly shockers Cronos, The Devil‘s Backbone and Hellboy I & II — was scared silly by a 1973 made-for-TV horror movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
That frightening event took place when he was a little boy under the highly Catholic influence of his grandmother, a woman he describes as being a lot like Piper Laurie, when she played Sissy Spacek’s religious fanatic mother in Carrie. Apparently that fear-jolt stayed with him, and Del Toro has spent years trying to get on screen a new version of the 1973 original — a Gothic, fear-drenched story of a family bedeviled by evil little creatures who live in the walls and fireplace of their creepy Victorian mansion. Here it is.
It’s a good, old-fashioned scary show — old-fashioned, as I keep saying, in a good way.
The old TV version starred Kim Darby of the 1969 True Grit, as Sally, a wife seemingly losing her mind over those creatures, who were actually real, actually in the fireplace, though only she could see them. Jim Hutton, later TV’s “Ellery Queen,” played her more literal-minded husband — and the show was directed by John Newland, best known as the director of the ‘50s Loretta Young Show, and the director/host of the paranormal series (a contemporary of The Twilight Zone), One Step Beyond. I’ve never seen the TV Afraid , though it’s available on Warner Archive — but other people swear it scared the hell out of them too.
Hear them? Skittering? Knocking? Just ignore it…
The new version — which didn’t scare me all that much but which I enjoyed — stars Guy Pearce as an ambitious divorced architect Alex Hurst, who is pursuing fame and architecture magazines by restoring a genteelly dark and spooky old mansion, once owned by a celebrated creepy fantasy writer named Blackwood (Barry McDonald). Alex moves in there with his new mistress, Kim (Katie Holmes) and his little daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), and, in the Del Toro version, it’s little Sally who sees the creatures, and is disbelieved by almost everybody, except the crusty old caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson), a part or type played in the first version by William Demarest.
Someone is screaming! What happened?
Bailee Madison is an unusually empathetic child actress, and she convinces us that Sally is seeing something. But she doesn’t have to. The creatures are on the screen, gray-colored special effects jobs, and they have that maniacally amused, cute-and-creepy, fiendish, mad-goblin look of the creatures in the Spielberg-Dante 1984 Gremlins, and it might have been better not to show them so much, because they’re kind of funny.
As the story proceeds, as more and more gory things keep happening, and as Alex keeps ignoring or rationalizing them, you get more and more irritated with him — though Pearce can be such a narcissistic-looking actor, it’s easy to accept his obtuseness as something more than a plot device. Katie Holmes’ Kim isn’t a very good role, a nicey-nice older sis type, but she makes something out of it. Jack Thompson touches us. Madison’s Sally on the other hand, helps scare us, because she seems, in a way, more adult than her father, and less vulnerable to fantasies — and therefore we believe her more.
It’s obviously a Del Toro touch to make a child the center of this movie, rather than an adult who seems to be going crazy — and I’m not sure it’s the right choice. Del Toro’s youngster/protagonists, in Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth as well as here seem to live so firmly in the fantasy worlds that appear around them, that we never doubt that those worlds are actually there. And maybe, for the sake of the shivers, we sometimes should.
There’s something in the walls! I can hear them! I can see them! But I’m not mad! I‘m not…
Well, it’s a good horror movie, but not a great one — although it’s certainly a cut or bludgeon above most of the empty-headed slasher/basher horror stuff that keeps screaming out at us these days, especially in cutthroat blood-drenched series like the Final Destination and Saw franchises. I get tired of a lot of these new gory, sadistic movies, precisely because they don’t work enough on our imaginations, on our sense of what may lie beyond the real. Del Toro always does, and that’s why he’s a master horror moviemaker, rather than just another blood-and-guts-spiller.
Del Toro produced and co-wrote the new Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (with co-writer Matthew Robbins), and I wish he’d directed it too. But Del Toro’s choice as director, comic artist Troy Nixey (making his feature directing debut), has lots of visual style, gifted collaborators (production designer Roger Ford and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, of The Grifters) and a fair scene of pace.

The movie begins with a grisly scene, ends with some more. The opener shows us Blackwood’s submission to the little monsters, and the scene looks like a fusion of Roman Polanski and Tim Burton’s supernatural styles with the old Hammer Horror Terence Fisher creepy mansion stuff — and maybe Del Toro should have included more scenes like that, more sequences where Little Sally goes down into that world, communes with those creatures, as little Ivana Baquero did in Pan’s Labyrinth. But at least he managed to do what many of us don’t: He realized his obsession.

      Do you still hear the noises? There, behind you? Well, I’ve got news for you. You’re right to be scared. Life is scary — sometimes in a good way. Sometimes not. Your name is Guillermo. You’re nine years old again. You’re calling for Sally. And your Catholic grandmother is holding out the shoes in which she‘s put crushed glass to mortify your flesh…Don’t be afraid of the dark though. It’s only a movie review.
Extras: Featurettes; Conceptual Art Gallery.
Also available on Warner Brothers Archive: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (U.S.; John Newland, 1973) Kim Darby. The Original Version. 
I Do’t I I Don’t Know How She Does It (Two Stars) 

U.S.: Douglas McGrath, 2010 (Weinstein Company)
You think you’ve got problems? Let me tell you, you don’t know what “problems” mean until you’ve had a peep at the Perils of Parker in the movie I Don’t Know How She Does It, Sarah Jessica’s latest cinematic power point presentation of the life and high times of a glamorous big city working girl — excuse me, working woman. Uh, make that working mother.
Power Points
* Problem Number One: Ms. Kate Reddy (Parker) works as an investment analyst at a high-powered Boston investment company, where she‘s a pet of her acerbic boss, Clark Cooper (Kelsey Grammer), and also the fair-haired lady of the company, and probably pulling down a high six figure salary. (I don’t know what these guys pay: something huge, I bet. Maybe she gets a million, maybe more. Maybe not. And maybe also one of those outrageous banker bonuses they damned well don’t deserve.)
*Problem Number Two:
She’s married to nice bright, affectionate husband Richard (Greg Kinnear at his most papa-puppyish), and she has two, of course, adorable kids — and since Richard is irregularly-employed as an architect, he has plenty of time to house-husband the place, along with the family’s sexy nanny, thereby freeing up Kate for other crucial aspects of mom-hood, like dropping off her daughter (Emma Rayne Lyle) at school and buying balloons and pies for parties and school events, and paying the bills, and oh, lots of stuff.
*Problem Number Three:
Unfortunately, due to the joint pressures of financial analysis and architecture, Kate’s sex life with Richard has dwindled, to the point where, when they make an assignation for bedtime, she falls asleep. He doesn’t wake her up. (Now, that’s a problem.)
*Problem Number Four:
Kate‘s mother is played by Jane Curtin, and she’s the only ‘70s “Saturday Night Live” alumnus in the movie.
*Problem Number Five:
A nasty but glamorous looking mother who also has children at her school — Busy Phillips as blonde bumshell Wendy — makes nasty remarks about Kate, mostly while on an exercise machine.
*Problem Number Six: Kate gets a brilliant idea for an innovation in fund investment, and prompts boss Clark to send her off to Manhattan, alone, to iron out the kinks in the plan and sell the project, working with a higher-up who looks just like James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and who starts flirting with Kate almost immediately. He’s a widower, his name is Jack Abelhammer, and, at one point, she mistakenly sends him a suggestive message about blow jobs on the computer, which he manfully ignores.
Now, with a name like Jack Abelhammer, you may have dire presentiments of what’s to come. But No: Jack is apparently falling as sincerely and unselfishly in love with Kate as hubby Richard — though he may not be as willing to play housekeeper. (He‘d hire one. Maybe Oddjob in his declining years. Or Jonathan Pryce as a butler.)
*Problem Number Seven:
There’s a little weasel named Bunce (Seth Meyers) who’s angling for Kate’s job, and who says nasty thinks about her right on camera, right to us, just like that meanie Wendy. (On the other hand, Kate’s buddy Allison, played by Christina Hendricks, says good things about her on camera.) It’s okay though. We know this clown Bunce couldn’t replace Kate, even if they gave him her big lice scene, a date with Wendy, and all of Sarah Jessica Parker’s wardrobe — which is pretty amazing, even by “Sex and the City” standards.

So there we are. Talk about an impossible life. Talk about unsung heroes. Talk about the trials of Job! Whew! I just don’t know she does it, or how any married financial analyst or executive manages to get through the day without having a nervous breakdown.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t wish headaches like that on my worst enemy. (And we haven’t even talked about the lice attack or Kate’s botched power point presentation or Wendy‘s wisecracks about her pie.)
Luckily, Parker has weathered worse, for years, on TV. Working here in a movie adapted from the international bestseller by Allison Pearson, she rises to the occasion, though sometimes just barely. Parker’s persona on “Sex and the City” inevitably bleeds into her role here. Anyway, wherever the movie goes, she remains a first-rate comedienne and world-class clothes horse who throws herself, Prada and soul, into her parts, and mostly gets what there is to get from them — not always a lot.
I Don’t Know How She Does It is smart in some ways, silly in others, diverting in some ways, annoying in others. And it basically works, when it does, because of its cast, notably Parker and Olivia Munn as Momo, her icy assistant, who proves to have a heart of gold — or whatever it is G. Gordon Liddy sells these days on TV.
Everybody else is pretty good, but sort of forgettable. The direction, by Doug McGrath, who co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway, with Woody Allen, and directed Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is slick, but forgettable. The script, by career woman comedy specialist Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 17 Dresses) is pretty slick too — but juat as forgettable.
I suppose I Don’t Know deserves credit for making a heroine out of a working mom. Take credit, guys! But — having had a working mother myself, someone who worked at least twice as hard and twice as well (as an art teacher and draughtsman) as the people here, was twice as smart (I don’t know how she did it), was poorly paid and harassed at work by her (male and female) bosses, and who made brilliant art and brilliant jokes on a level these slick, slick, six-or-seven-figure characters could only vainly dream of, I wasn’t impressed. Not even by Carrie/Kate‘s wardrobe, another of the many things my beautiful working mother never had. (She never even had Kate’s balloons.)
Side Issue: His Girl Friday
Still, it’s nice to see a working gal movie that has His Girl Friday playing on somebody’s TV, as it does here on Kate‘s and Richard‘s, the Howard Hawks-Ben Hecht-Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell-Ralph Bellamy classic putting the younger movies around it to shame. But it’s not the actor’s fault; they just work here.
Rent it; don’t buy it. Or better yet, rent His Girl Friday. A suggestion: Maybe the smart audience doesn’t want to see movies about gorgeous investment analysts and comical investment managers and studly moneymen, juggling their busy but cushy lives — unless they‘re financiers or aspiring financiers themselves, and their idol is Donald Trump, or Donald Trump‘s investment analyst. The dopey audience is probably at some other movie, maybe Friends with Benefits or Conan the Barbarian or The Smurfs. And they’re probably having a better time. and more power to them. Hell, I don’t know how they do it.

Devil’s Angels (Three Stars)

U.S.: Daniel Haller, 1967 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Limited Edition)

In 1967, I liked to go out on limbs, and celebrate the disreputable. And one of my favorite “bad” movies that year was the deliberately tawdry American-International picture Devil’s Angels, one of a huge brood of motorcyle gang sagas spawned by the success of Roger Corman’s 1966 The Wild Angels. Wild Angels was also an American-International release, and that movie eventually led to 1969’s American international sensation Easy Rider — a movie that would have also been an A.I. release too (and produced by Corman), if the actual American International executives had had a brain in their heads.

Devil’s Angels is the same sort of story as The Wild Angels. Both are about a biker gang heading for doomsday when they pull too many outlaw gags and piss off too many citizens. Both movies were written by Corman mainstay Charles Griffth, both were very well shot by Richard Moore, both have lively but sometime corny surfer-style scores by Mike Curb, both were based on the exploits of the notorious real-life motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels of Venice, California (subject of Hunter Thompson’s book “Hell’s Angels”) and both are heavily influenced by the classic Marlon BrandoStanley KramerLaslo Benedek motorcycle gang classic The Wild One.

The major difference between the two movies  — and Wild Angels has always been regarded as the better of the two (though not by me) — is the presence of Devil’s Angels’ ace star, John Cassavetes, who plays Cody, the leader of the pack, boss rider of The Skulls, and a man whose main objective is to get his gang safely to a Hole in the Wall modelled on the celebrated hide-out of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Unfortunately both Cody’s own edgy crew (once 200 strong, now down to 26) and the straight citizens of the town where they camp out, have low boiling points. Doomsday is imminent.

Cassavetes’ presence is the major advantage of Devil’s Angels over The Wild Angels and it’s a big one. He’s terrific, though he doesn’t seem to be trying. (He probably wasn’t). As in his own films (especially Husbands), he  conveys a wired-up macho nerviness, a weariness, a tightly reined exasperation and a twisted sense of responsibility, that give this cheap little biker movie instant drama, instant tension and surprising humanity. (It’s almost a suprise when we see Cassavetes in the Skulls’ swastika-bedecked digs, the preferred interior design of the Angels.) The rest of the cast, a standard biker movie esemble full of wolfish looking young actors, includes Beverly Adams (as Cody’s old lady), Mimsy Farmer (as a susceptible townie), actor-screewriter-tough guy Leo Gordon (as the somewhat sensible sheriff) and Maurice McEndree of the Cassavetes troupe, as a sidekick.

Since director Dan Haller (“a sweet guy,” according to Cassavetes) was Corman’s regular production designer and art director, before becoming a prolific director (mostly for TV),  I’ve often wondered if Cassavates didn’t have a hand in some of the direction of the very active, very unbuttoned Devil’s Angels actors. (I’ve also wondered that about writer-director Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, an actors’ masterpiece  costarring Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ned Beatty.) It seems to me at least plausible that Cassavetes “helped” with both Devil’s Angels and Mikey and Nicky, two movies that both have a Cassavetes feel in many scenes — as well as some others. That might make my 1967 judgement seem less eccentric.

 On the other hand, who cares whether you’re eccentric? Cassavetes didn’t, and it’s one of his glories as a filmmaker. As another great biker/actor once said (his poster is on the door of the Skulls’ clubhouse), when asked what he was rebelling against, “What have you got?”

No extras. Made on demand and available from Amazon and other web venues.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon