#106 - Do You Like Movies About Gladiators?

Dedicated To
Peter Graves
1926 - 2010

Added 3/24/10

Hello, team. This is running late again this week, for which I most sincerely apologize. So without more delay, let’s leap into this week’s flicker shows.


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

I like to think I see quite a few foreign-language films. Certainly by the standards of the average American movie-goer, who will likely see fewer than a dozen in his or her entire lifetime, I see a ridiculously large number of them. But I’m as guilty as anyone of not supporting them theatrically. I’ll typically see one or two foreign-language pictures a week on DVD but only one or two a year at the Cineplex. I’m hoping to change that this year and I hope you will too, before every theatre in the country is dedicated exclusively to 3D and Imax. Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, based on the international bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson, is exactly the kind of film that deserves to find a wide audience in the States. It’s a dense, intelligent mystery that delves deep into the heart of darkness, far deeper than the eventual American remake will likely dare.

Michael Nyqvist stars as Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter who has been publicly disgraced and found guilty of libel after an expose about a powerful industrialist turns out to be based on fraudulent, planted sources. Before beginning his jail time, he’s hired by multimillionaire Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to look into the 40-year-old disappearance and presumed murder of Vanger’s favorite niece, Harriet. Before taking Blomkvist on, Vanger had done an extensive background check performed by a brilliant but deeply troubled computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Convinced of Nyqvist’s innocence in the libel case, she continues to access his computer. She becomes intrigued by his new story and, after cracking an important clue, reaches out to him. The unlikely pair combine their efforts, uncovering a string of grisly murders stretching back to the 1940s.

By necessity, this is a lengthy and involved film. There’s a lot of story to get through here, which is not the same as saying there’s a lot of plot. Director Niels Arden Oplev takes his time, including seemingly tangential but vitally important sequences that tell us who these people are and why they behave the way they do. Odds are good that much of this will be toned down or eliminated entirely from the American version. If so, they will have reduced it to the level of an episode of Cold Case. Michael Nyqvist is an intelligent, sympathetic and highly likable hero but the film really belongs to Noomi Rapace. As the pierced, tattooed, chain-smoking Lisbeth, Rapace projects a ferocious strength. But her wounded, vulnerable eyes give hints to the traumatic life she’s led. Lisbeth is an endlessly resourceful young woman and her distrust of men is certainly not without reason. The role requires an actress of great complexity and no fear. Rapace proves herself to be all that and more with this performance.

While The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is occasionally quite graphic, it’s important to note that it is never exploitative. It handles sensitive subjects in a forthright manner and nothing here is superfluous to our understanding of these fascinating characters. But Oplev never loses sight of the fact that he’s making a thriller and the mystery elements of the film are handled expertly, teasing out the plot and keeping the audience thoroughly engaged every step of the way. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a top-notch piece of filmmaking and as engaging a movie as you could ask for in any language. (* * * ½)


The House Of The Devil

I get a lot of horror movies recommended to me for Tales From The Queue. This is hardly a shock, since my affinity for the genre is well-documented. And once a horror fan finds another horror fan, a flood of recommendations is sure to follow. Horror fans see lots of relatively obscure titles but they don’t feel comfortable recommending them to anybody unless they know for certain that the other person loves the genre as much as they do. I think all of us who love horror know the experience of recommending a movie to someone who hates the genre, only to have that person come back and tell us what a sick, deranged freak we are. At first glance, Ti West’s The House Of The Devil seems like it might be the sort of movie one could recommend to people who don’t care for the genre. It isn’t particularly graphic and its scares are more psychological than visceral. But its very deliberate 80s aesthetic makes it the kind of movie you can only recommend to fellow horror fans.

Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student in need of funds to move out of the dorm and into her first apartment. Desperate to raise cash in a hurry, she responds to a babysitting ad. The house is out in the middle of nowhere and once there, she learns that it’s not a child she’ll be looking after but an elderly woman. She reluctantly accepts, thus sealing her fate. She later discovers that the married couple she’s working for (the great Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are in fact practitioners of a satanic cult. Needless to say, young women who babysit for devil worshippers don’t usually fare well.

Writer-director Ti West painstakingly recreates the look and feel of low-budget 80s shockers, from the font of the credits to the film grain to the music. He achieves what he sets out to do and by that measure, I suppose the film is a success. But I fail to see the point of such an exercise. This type of fetishistic recreation of older movies is a relatively recent development that doesn’t make much sense to me. I enjoy 80s horror movies as much as anyone and can even see being inspired by them. But why would anyone work so hard to only make a movie that’s as good as the movies you’re mimicking? For years, I’ve felt that the horror genre is stagnating and a big part of the reason is that new horror filmmakers aren’t raising the bar for themselves. They know horror movies inside and out but that’s it. They aren’t inspired by literature, music, other forms of filmmaking or, heaven forbid, real life. The House Of The Devil is an extreme example of the genre swallowing its own tail. As an exercise in style, it works. As an engaging and frightening movie that can stand on its own, it’s utterly hollow.

I wanted to enjoy The House Of The Devil and bits and pieces were fairly entertaining. Tom Noonan can always be counted on to deliver a memorable performance and he’s fun to watch as the soft-spoken Satanist. Mary Woronov is equally solid, although I was disappointed that she didn’t have more to do. But despite the best efforts of the cast and West’s undeniable technical skill in capturing an 80s vibe, I was never persuaded that this was worth caring about. At every turn, I sensed that the motivation behind the movie was a desire to make an 80s-style horror film. That’s simply not good enough. If you have a solid story you want to tell first and then think, “Hey, it might be effective to shoot this like an 80s film,” that’s fine and might produce a memorable flick. But The House Of The Devil thinks that style is the horse that pulls the story along in the cart. As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be farther from the truth. (* * ½)

Thanks to John Wao, Brian Canio, Laurent Hasson and others who suggested this week’s TFTQ movie! As always, let me know about any and all under-appreciated movies, horror and otherwise, that come your way. Drop me a line or join the JET Facebook page, where you can also play along with JET’s Most Wanted: Forgotten Films Not Available On DVD. Good times. Great oldies. Who could ask for anything more?

Your pal,