Sunday, August 2, 2009

Past Lives

I like scary movies but not torture porn. For example I was spooked by “The Blair Witch Project” because it was so inventive for its’ budget and it went for the root of what scares us: “There’s something out there in the dark trying to get us!” I also enjoyed the original Japanese versions of “The Ring” and “The Grudge”. Yet American horror movies of today are a dime a dozen, full of soundtrack jolts and cheap scares. To confess a guilty pleasure, I do TiVo all of the paranormal stuff for easy entertainment. I especially love ridiculous shows like “Ghost Adventures” where Scooby Doo is recreated and ghost teams startle each other on night vision camera.

One ghostly documentary “A Haunting in Connecticut” was made in 2002 but still airs frequently. It was genuinely spooky following a family who move into a large house which is offered at a surprisingly cheap asking price so that their son, who suffers from cancer, can be closer to his treatment hospital. The house which is next to a cemetery is actually an old funeral home and the sick boy who sleeps in the basement discovers that this is where the mortician did his thing. Needless to say as someone whose childhood home was also nearby a cemetery, I found this show scary. The main ghost even wore those black contacts which on its own freaks me out. So hoping for the best I rented the Hollywood film version which was recently released on DVD. My worst fears were realized as even the credits were filled with the quick cuts and soundtrack blasts that earmark the worst horror films of today. Virginia Madsen and Elias Koteas are two actors who try to ground all the unnecessary CGI vainly. Lifetime movie vet, Martin Donovan is featured as always playing the well meaning dad. (Spoiler) When the house burns the end titles tell us it was rebuilt and stands there to this day. Well the house does stand because it was never burned and therefore never needed to be rebuilt. Since “based on a true story” means nothing to Hollywood versions of ghost stories they obviously feel no shame in rewriting history like this, kind of like Fox News. It’s a shame though since as I say the original story was spooky before they rewrote. See the original version if you can.

Past glory is also what haunts the title character of “The Great Buck Howard’ played by the great John Malkovich. The story here however is not Howard himself but that of his assistant played by Colin Hanks. Based on the real life experiences of a former assistant to “The Amazing Kreskin”, Howard is a mentalist who performs mind reading, hypnosis and the like before finishing up with a few cornball songs. His act is dated, his audience dwindling and Howard is constantly repeating stories of his salad days, especially his appearances on “The Tonight show with Johnny Carson”. (I do love it when Buck calls Leno Satan!) The film wants to be quaint old-fashioned fun but is actually kind of predictable and dull. Hanks is likable enough but doesn’t seem to have the charisma of his dad Tom to pull off this one-dimensional character. (Hanks Sr. appears here briefly playing, of course, his father) The Howard role seems custom made for Malkovich but yet it is too cartoony and underwritten. Involving has-beens do make for interesting stories (“Sunset Boulevard”, “Raging Bull”, “All about Eve”, “My Favorite Year”. “The Wrestler” etc) but here the magic just isn’t there.

In the film version of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” there are haunting scenes of the crazy Miss Havisham still in her wedding dress trapped in the past, living in her rotting mansion. In 1975 the Maysles brothers made a bizarre documentary about a mother and daughter living in similar conditions. Edith Bouvier Beale was nearly eighty and her daughter “Little Edie” was in her fifties at the time of filming, both living in the squalor of their rotting East Hampton mansion. Both women were obviously mentally ill with “Little Edie” being absolutely manic doing dances with her head constantly wrapped in a makeshift scarf. It was a sad film to watch and yet the subjects seemed perfectly happy in their little world, delusional as they were. Their home and the film was perfectly named “Grey Gardens

This year HBO returned to these subjects making a dramatic film that attempts to fill in the blanks on the plight of these women. Also titled “Grey Gardens” the filmmakers do a great job at recreating scenes of the original doc between flashbacks of the characters affluent earlier years. Drew Barrymore who has made some bad films really shines here playing little Edie from her teenage years into her fifties. She totally nails this character and has a great time doing so. Jessica Lange playing the elder Edie also brings to life the desperation and increasing madness of her character. Both women, along with Ken Howard who plays Mr. Beale and Jeanne Tripplehorn as a shell-shocked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the womens’ famous cousin) have been nominated for well deserved Emmys. I think this film is best viewed after seeing the original documentary but in any case it is as haunting as the original. See it and then clean your home.

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