Man Bites Dog & Eyes Without A Face

While I was partying at All Tomorrow’s Parties in New York this past weekend, I was able to catch a couple of movies. Criterion had a room where they were playing a wide variety of movies they’ve released over the years. Both of the ones I saw happened to be black and white French movies and very very weird.

The first one I saw was Man Bites Dog (aka It Happened In Your Neighborhood) and it was easily one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen. It’s filmed as a documentary but it certainly doesn’t portray facts. And as much as I hate this term, there’s no denying it gets the point across: Man Bites Dog is a mockumentary. The premise is simple. A small film crew follows around an eccentric serial killer, BenoĆ®t. Most of the time, Ben talks at great lengths about everything under the sun: art, family, society, music, and in the opening scene, the best way to keep a dead body submerged under water. Very often, the crew films him as he murders and rapes various people and even though you know this isn’t real, it still brings to mind many questions. How can they possibly make an unbiased movie? Should they ever intervene to help the victims? If they don’t help, are they automatically accomplices? The lines are very blurred and the questions aren’t easily answered. The way the creators of Man Bites Dog make these questions easier to swallow is that the movie is a comedy. It’s easy to brush off such heavy topics when you’re laughing. “Of course this isn’t real. So why bother thinking about it?” Apparently, this was very controversial when it came out in 1992 and won the SACD Award at Cannes. I give this film a high recommendation.

Eyes Without A Face is a French horror/thriller that conjures terrifying images from the title alone and the DVD cover only helps to provoke those fears. It’s about a doctor who is experimenting with strange skin grafts and when his daughter has an awful accident that, um, removes her face, he attempts to put a similar looking woman’s face skin on his daughter’s. This movie has made it into many critics “Top Horror” lists and with good reason. It is by far one of the creepiest movies ever. It’s a horror film that would be ridiculously unsuccessful if it came out this year. It’s not the kind of movie that really scares you or makes you jump and scream. It’s actually really hard to describe. Instead of watching it with your hand over your eyes, it’s more like you stare at the screen wide eyed with your jaw hanging open. That’s the best I can do. Trust me, Eyes Without A Face is a true horror movie but likely not one that you’re used to. And even with the occasionally cheesy effects, this is still a very worthwhile movie.

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The Cube Trilogy

The three movies in the Cube trilogy (Cube, Cube 2: Hypercube, and Cube Zero) are a bunch of psychological horror/thriller/sci-fi B-movies. I don’t know many people who have seen them. If they sound familiar, maybe it’s because you saw them on the shelf of your local video store or a friend mentioned them to you. You wouldn’t be faulted for not picking any of them up. There’s no well known writers, directors, or actors, and they all had very limited theatrical/festival runs, if at all. But I wouldn’t bring up some unknown thrillers from years ago without reason. With the exception of the third (prequel Cube Zero), these are really good movies.

Cube

Cube

Cube. The first. The best. It came out in 1997 (11 years ago!) and is still one of the better movies of it’s genre. 6 people are thrown into an enormous cube, made up up thousands of smaller cubes (about 14x14x14 feet). Some of the rooms are safe, but some contain deadly booby traps. Obviously, these victims want out, and thus try their luck going from room to room, always hoping the next one is the exit and wondering what the hell is going on the whole way through. We get to see the true nature of each person as little by little, they lose their sanity. The movie was actually filmed in a single 14x14x14 foot room, using various colors and angles to make it appear like they’re in physically different rooms. Actual claustrophobia, what a great way to get actors into character.

Cube 2

Cube 2

Cube 2: Hypercube gets an extra dose of sci-fi and dials down the gore. The cube in Cube 2 is much more different than the original. First of all, it’s not just a cube, but a hypercube (or tesseract), which is a 4 dimensional cube. I’m not even going to bother explaining it, but they attempt to give some sort of reasoning in the film (and you could also try reading the Wikipedia entries on hypercubes and tesseracts). In addition to adding an extra dimension, the cube also looks different and has very different booby traps. Everything is bright and white, as opposed to the dirty, dingey cube of the original. And gone are the blades and flames from the first, here we have an entirely new set of traps that aren’t easily explained. They involve a different type of physics which allow for things like rooms with variable time speeds and centers of gravity. The second film in the trilogy isn’t quite as good a movie as the original, but it makes up for it by going crazy with the whole 4th dimension thing. Honestly, Cube 2 could have been a much worse movie than it actually is and I would still love it based on the premise alone.

Cube Zero

Cube Zero

Cube Zero (released in 2004, only 2 years after the second film) was kind of a dud and a sad way to end the trilogy. There’s still some of the same “people in the Cube” thing, but we get the added dimension of outside people. We see the regular guys who keep an eye on things in the Cube and I think we’re supposed to feel some pity for them, or at least not hate them, because they’re not directly at fault for such torture but rather they’re “just following orders.” If Cube Zero had to be made (which it didn’t, the mystery was part of the allure), it still had such potential, answering everyone’s questions about the who/where/why/how, but unfortunately, not many questions are answered (not the right ones anyway). And it’s far too cheesy. The writer was either trying too hard, or not enough. I’m not sure which. The two workers we see for most of the time have such forced dialogue, it’s absurd. And their characters are sooo cliche. If you’re going to watch these movies, it’s probably better if you skip this one. Unless you are really grasping at straws for some answers, in which case, have fun, but don’t expect much.

As great and original as these three movies were, I think the idea has been exhausted. There’s only so much you can take of watching a handful of people go through the same booby trapped rooms over and over again. It was fun while it lasted, and we got something of an explanation in the end, but please don’t do any more. Not that that’s stopped film makers before, but here’s hoping they leave this one alone.

The Last Winter

I saw an ad for The Last Winter in a magazine and, not having heard anything prior to that or even gaining any relevant information about the movie from the ad, was immediately interested and knew I had to see it, regardless of what kind of reviews it had. The reason being it starred Ron Perlman and the ad was gorgeous. If the movie was to look anything like the ad, I would love it on that basis alone.

Turns out, The Last Winter is a horror movie of sorts. Kind of like a cross breed of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. If that sounds like a weird combo, you’re right. Here’s a quick sum up of the storyline. An oil company is attempting to dig for oil in Alaska and sends an environmentalist (a scruffy James LeGros, the same guy who played McBeth in the fantastic and relatively unknown Scotland, PA) to keep on eye on the crew (led by Perlman). They’re unable to bring in the heavy machinery necessary for oil drilling because the temperatures are too high and the permafrost is melting, making the ground too soft. And that’s when strange things start happening.

The Last Winter isn’t like The Thing where you actually see the monster but rather takes a more psychological approach. Being out in the middle of the tundra for weeks on end tends to take it’s toll on people, and eventually they can go a little crazy or get “big eye” as they call it in Winter. So at first we’re never really sure if everybody is going insane or if there are actual beasts attacking them. I really love it when the director leaves plenty to the imagination of the audience, allowing us to get sucked deeper into the story.

So The Last Winter is successful on that front, and it is gorgeously filmed, especially the outdoor shots. Wide expanses of nothing but white, so much so that the horizon becomes nearly invisible at points. Beautifully minimal, it really emphasizes just how alone the characters are. Sadly, though, Winter ultimately screws up. And in a really big way. The audience is given way too much information at the end. ***minor spoiler*** Instead of leaving us with the assumption that almost everyone has died, we’re given a cheesy and ridiculous ending that looks like the beginning of 28 Days Later. Someone emerges from a hospital and finds the town in chaos, deserted. ***end spoiler*** It’s completely unnecessary and pretty much destroys everything the movie built up.

Sometimes it’s important to know when to say when. I doubt writer/director Larry Fessenden had too much pressure from the higher ups to end it the way he did. I feel like he just thought it was better that way. But when you have such a subtle, delicate movie, it seems so wrong to disregard it all just to over-explain something that couldn’t possibly be explained to begin with.

Regardless, I still recommend The Last Winter. The first 85 minutes of the movie are great, with wonderful performances by most actors and beautiful cinematography. If you don’t mind being let down in the last 15 minutes, then I say go for it. Or better yet, don’t bother watching the end. You won’t be left with a sense of closure but with this kind of movie, you don’t need it.