Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Sacrifice of the Holy Fool

Edward Woodward died on Monday at the age of 79. He had many movie roles, including two authentic classics in Breaker Morant and The Wicker Man, but will be remembered primarily as one of the most prolific British TV actors ever. Most Americans probably remember him best from the 80's TV hit The Equalizer, as a retired secret agent using his deadly skills and barely repressed righteous fury to defend the weak and downtrodden.

To genre fans though, he will always be remembered as Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highlands Constabulary, stolid, priggish and utterly dedicated to his Christian duty.

The Wicker Man was made in 1973 (For the love of God avoid the disastrous remake starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Neil LaBute, a misogynist hack and the most over-rated film-maker ever.) it tells the tale of a dedicated police officer who comes to a remote Scottish Isle searching for a missing child and discovers mystery, sensuality and a jovial yet sinister population who all seem to be in on a joke that he is left out of.

The joke, of course, is on him.

Despite the delightfully malevolent presence of Christopher Lee as the mysterious Laird of Summerisle and the pulchritudinous unclothed charms of a young Britt Ekland, the movie depends above all on the performance of Edward Woodward.

He doesn't disappoint. The rigidly self-righteous Sgt. Howie shouldn't be as likable as he is with his dour and disapproving Christianity and his quivering tight lipped fury at the sin and debauchery he encounters at every turn on an island where Christianity has long since been supplanted by a much older faith.

Woodward doesn't play Sgt Howie, he becomes him, and after multiple viewings you can still find yourself hoping against hope that he'll get back in his police seaplane and leave the dark mysteries of Summerisle behind. But events unfold with as they must, bringing him inexorably to a windy seaside cliff and his unavoidable destiny.

The movie is a study in bizarre tonal shifts and discordant atmosphere. It's a mystery, a comedy, a horror movie and a character study. Sprightly traditional folk songs contrast with a steadily building menace. Audience expectations are toyed with expertly - particularly via a sudden shift to a traditional action movie chase sequence late in the game that suddenly becomes a cruel jest on both protagonist and audience.

I can't recommend The Wicker Man highly enough. Its a great way to remember an actor's actor who brought a commitment to every role he took inhabiting the skin of baffled angry men with just enough self knowledge to make them tragically flawed icons of victimized everyman.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It's in the Blood

Vampirism is almost as flexible a metaphor as Zombies can be. Vampires have represented teen alienation, addiction, class elitism and of course sex. Most recently legions of enthralled teenage girls have utterly internalized getting bit by a vampire as corresponding exactly with 'losing it' in a series of rather dim novels and now movies.

But the correlation at the heart of the myth and implicit in Dracula, the Ur text of the genre, is vampirism as disease.

In Stoker's Dracula, Vampirism is a blood born taint being fought by science. The supernatural element is of course present, but as others have observed its really a book about Syphilis. In Victorian England before antibiotics drove a stake into it, Syphilis was what AIDS was until recently; an incurable, barely treatable blood disease. Nice people didn't talk about it, it was spread by 'beastly' behavior and the sufferers would die slowly and grotesquely being marred with ugly stigmatizing sores and wasting away and going mad as the disease ate at their brains.

In that context, Bram Stoker's Dracula with its emphasis on blood borne evil and modern (for the time) medical methods like transfusions becomes a very different beast than it is to modern readers.

Nosferatu the first unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's tale made the disease metaphor explicit. The vampire is a horrific deformed creature with rat like teeth bringing plague and swarms of vermin with him as he invades the comfortable reality of modern Hamburg.

And now film-maker Guillermo Del Toro and co-author Chuck Hogan make the disease metaphor explicit again with the first in their new trilogy of novels The Strain.

The hero is a doctor for the Center for Disease Control brought in to investigate a mysterious plague that has wiped out an entire airplane full of passengers - or has it? The medical mystery element is played well, but the underlying monstrous evil of the vampire begins to unfurl as the story goes on. Disease becomes unearthly evil gradually but utterly.

In this age of SARS and H1N1 and the world wide unease that we are due for something makes The Strain as timely and unsettling as any horror novel you've ever read. The fact is that a deadly killer flu strain seems to hit the world every 4 decades or so - and the last one hit us in the 60's. If SARS or H1N1 aren't it that doesn't mean it isn't coming.

The airplane opening in The Strain is a reminder that in our modern globalized world, the next killer virus could be burning in the bloodstreams of the worlds capitals for days or weeks before we even realized what was happening to us. This is a modern unease that The Strain captures very well.

Del Toro, of course, is the film-maker responsible for Pans Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone and the Hellboy movies among others. He's currently in New Zealand working on the Hobbit with Peter Jackson. If you've seen and enjoyed any of these films - and enjoying them pretty much goes hand in hand with seeing them - then you will love The Strain. I'm looking forward avidly to the next book in the series, and after reading it I think you will be too.

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