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When All Your Dreams Come True, But Your Heart Is Still Broken: Dearest, the Film

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Child trafficking is a huge problem in China: 20,000 to 200,000 children are sold every year. Sometimes, the biological parents sell their own children because they are unable to pay the fines for having 2 or more children. “Families ill equipped to pay penalties on top of the costs of raising a child—food, school tuition, etc.— sometimes opt to sell their offspring.” More often, however, children are stolen — snatched off the streets — and sold to orphanages or to wealthy childless families for adoption, sometimes for international adoption. The US State Department named China one of the world’s worst in child trafficking in 2017, and while the Chinese government acknowledges the problem, it refuses to release any statistics about its high abduction rates.

When children go missing, government officials often avoid investigating, or, worse, are complicit in aiding kidnappers by giving wealthy families who buy kidnapped children the appropriate legal documentation to explain the presence of multiple children in a country where the government has regulated births since 1980, and though the one-child-per-family law is now defunct, its legacy continues in high child trafficking rates. Worse, parents of kidnapped children are often persecuted as a “nuisance” and a “threat to social stability” for continuing to search for their children and for accusing the government of inaction and complicity in the kidnappings.

You wouldn’t imagine that a film about China’s child trafficking problem would be anything but grim, but director Peter Chan’s Dearest (Qin ai de, 2014), based on a true story of parents who are reunited with their kidnapped child several years later, turns the tables on viewers’ expectations by putting an ostensibly happy ending in the middle of the film. After the parents are reunited with their abducted child, the film becomes more gripping and powerful  as it explores the pain and heartbreak of everyone involved in child trafficking, from the grieving parents and the presumably guilty adoptive parents to the kidnapped children themselves. Though some of its subplot are irrelevant,  Dearest is one of the most scathing and brilliant stories of a painful and horrifying topic.

Huang Bo as Tian, Dearest ©

The first half of the film concentrates its story on the divorced parents. Father Tian (Huang Bo) runs a small internet cafe in Shenzhen and has many arguments with his ex-wife Lu (Hao Lei) over the best way to raise their three-year-old son Pengpeng (played by multiple child actors).

Hao Lei as Lu, Dearest ©

When Tian is distracted by a group of teen boys fighing in this store, he sends his son Pengpeng off to play with some neighboring children. The little boy gets distracted and tries to follow a car he thinks is his mother’s, and he gets snatched off the street (which is apparently a common way for kidnappers to abduct children in China).

Huang Bo as Tian, and Hao Lei as ex-wife Lu, Dearest ©

Somewhat reunited by their guilt and despair, parents Tian and Lu begin an initially fruitless search for their son. Since police and other officials are downright obstructive, the couple joins a support group for parents of missing children. Some of the most frightening scenes in the entire film deal with the way the group handles members’ grief, the violence that erupts in these grieving parents when they confront suspected kidnappers, and the terrifying “group-think” when these hopeless parents follow a truck they believe may carry kidnapped children wrapped in burlap bags in the back.

Zhao Wei as “adoptive” mother Li (kneeling), Dearest ©

About halfway through the film, Tian and Lu are told that their son has been located, and despite the fact that this seems as if it should be a happily-ever-after moment, Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy, who not only does not recognize them, but who fights to remain with his “mother,” Li (played by renowned Chinese actor Zhao Wei).

Zhao Wei as Li, Dearest ©

From that moment, the film becomes a more morally complex and painful examination of good and evil as it focuses more on the disingenuously naïve adoptive mother Li, who insists to officials that her now-deceased husband only brought home “abandoned children” whom he found, and as the film focuses on the children Li “adopted” and raised as her own.

Zhoa Wei as Li, Dearest ©

Even without my being fluent in Mandarin, it was obvious to me that the most powerful actor in the film was playing the mother who was accused of raising kidnapped children. After Li loses her son (who is, indeed, Tian and Lu’s son Pengpeng) and her daughter, whose parents cannot be identified, Li begins a legal battle to adopt the daughter rather than leave her to be raised in an orphanage with hundreds of other children.

two of the actors playing the kidnapped children in Dearest ©

The few sub-plots, such as that with the lawyer and his dementia-afflicted mother, distract slightly from overall narrative, but the film as a whole is gripping and intense. Knowing that the parents find and “rescue” their kidnapped son does not detract from the power of the film. Instead, the film becomes more gripping the instant it flips its protagonists and antagonists: when biological parents Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy Pengpeng themselves and run from villagers who are trying to rescue him for his screaming “mother,” Li.

Some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes involve not the parents but the two young children: neither remembers any mother but their “adoptive” one and neither can understand why they are no longer allowed to live together even though they are “brother” and “sister.”

Compelling and morally disturbing because it deals with both the victims and the offenders of child trafficking, Dearest won awards for Director Peter Chen and for Best Actress Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Dearest is available to rent ($1.99-2.99 SD/HD, free for Prime members) from Amazon.

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Searching for the Meaning of Life on the Danish Island of Dr. Moreau: Men & Chicken, the Film

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H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a memorable tale of horror and misguided human aspiration to create a perfect race or, at the very least, an improved kind of human-animal. Moreau, a medical doctor forced to leave England because of questionable experimentation, lives on a remote Pacific island where he continues his morally dubious experiments trying to turn animals into humans — The Beast Folk — or turning humans into animals when they interfere with Moreau’s “research.” Whether or not such a thing is actually biologically possible, even with the introduction of human DNA into the animal surgeries as portrayed by the 1996 film version, the novel was published at a time when the discussion around the morality of vivisection (experimenting on living creatures) was becoming more vocal and public.

The Island of Dr. Moreau explores not only vivisection and Darwinian evolutionary theory but imperialism at its most rudimentary level. Though Moreau, an educated, white Englishman, is not colonizing the island or exploiting its natural products to enrich himself or his countrymen, he clearly considers himself superior to most other humans and certainly to any animal. His attempts to make the island population of beasts into “improved” human-like animals backfires, however, because he fails to take each species’ own inherent natures into consideration. For example, Moreau teaches his Beast Folk that it is bad to go on “all fours” and to hunt, kill, or eat anything else that goes on four legs, thoroughly ignoring the Beast Folk’s primary drives to survive. Though Wells himself called the novel “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” it is a powerful exploration of human attempts to interfere with nature, cruelty to non-human species, and moral responsibility, especially in the matter of genetically “improving” a native culture or species.

Brothers Gregor, Franz, and Josef (back row), with Elias and Gabriel (front), Men & Chicken, Photo courtesy of Danish Film Institute

In the dark Danish comedy, Men & Chicken (Mænd og Høns, 2015), written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, viewers are taken to the island of Dr. Moreau’s geneticist counterpart long after he has successfully completed several experimental atrocities. Beginning and ending with narration reminiscent of a fairy tale, the film depicts five brothers’ unsettling discovery that they have the “most twisted family tree since Hamlet” (Variety). Though its premise is sinister and “suggests a cult horror movie,” Men & Chicken is, instead, a “staggering account of family dysfunction, secret-hoarding, and tragedy.”

The film has a “dry eccentricity that is entertaining and absurd,” with terrific ensemble acting. Though at least one critic found the film “creepy, weird, and condescending,” resembling The Island of Dr. Moreauvia Kierkegaard,” the film’s broader comedy eventually settles down into an intense investigation of the meaning of life, the purpose of civilization, and an exploration of what it means to be human. Men & Chicken begins as almost atrocious slapstick but ultimately becomes a poignant exploration of the meaning of life, family, community, and love.

Mads Mikkelsen as Elias and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken, © Danish Film Institute

The film begins on simultaneously tragic and comedic notes. Gabriel (David Dencik, above R) sits at his dying father’s side in the hospital, waiting for his brother. By the time brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen, above L), arrives, talking more about his blind-date with a psychologist he met online than their dying father, the old man has passed on, leaving his two sons a videotape that reveals he is not their biological father.

As if that weren’t distressing enough, Dad tells them that they did not even have the same mother. Elias, a sensitive thought slightly dim-witted compulsive masturbator, is more concerned about being abandoned by his little brother Gabriel than he is about learning that Dad was not their biological father. Gabriel, a professor and author with an uncontrollable gag reflex who has just been abandoned by his latest girlfriend because he cannot have children, wants to go meet their biological father, who is said to be alive and working at a sanatorium on the island of Ork.

On the trip, we learn more about their personalities, including Elias’ short temper and hatred of being interrupted, and Gabriel’s loneliness for a wife, along with his seemingly infinite patience. When the two brothers arrive at the appropriately creepy sanatorium where their father supposedly lives and works, they meet three other men, all of whom have harelips,* as do Gabriel and Elias. In no time, the three other brothers prove that they are siblings in personality traits as well as biological heritage.

Søren Malling as Franz, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Franz (Søren Malling), who carries around his taxidermy animals, has the same type of temper as Elias. The only brother with pronounced facial scarring beyond the harelip, Franz is also the only other brother with enough education to be a teacher, as is Gabriel.

Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, and Nicolas Bro as Josef, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Despite having no formal education, Josef (Nicolas Bro, above R) is as intellectual and philosophical as Gabriel, but rather shy, more like Elias.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, and Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

And Josef (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, above L) is as affectionate and desperate to have sex with women as Elias, but as brave and independent as Gabriel.

David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Because Gabriel is injured in the initial meeting with the three siblings at the sanatorium, he and Elias are invited to stay, at least until Gabriel recovers. Though the two brothers cannot see their father, ostensibly because he is ill, the two quickly become interested in staying on.

Bedtime stories with (L-R) Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, Nicolas Bro as Josef, Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, and Søren Malling as Franz, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Elias becomes emotionally attached to the three siblings, playing badminton in tennis whites, and hunkering down in beds pushed close together so the brothers can listen to bedtime stories.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Meanwhile, Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering why all the brothers look so much alike, despite their having different mothers, and why there are so many animals living in the sanatorium with the younger three brothers who were raised by the biological father. Gabriel is determined to meet their father, Dr. Thanatos, and to learn about his genetic research, despite Franz’s warning that Gabriel will end up “in the cage” for misbehavior or other infractions of the rules.

Ole Thestrup as Mayor of Ork, Bodil Jørgensen as daughter Ellen, and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

When the brothers finally do learn about their biological heritage, along with their father’s mysterious and terrifyingly illegal behavior, their fragile emotional connection to each other is strained to the breaking point, causing the island’s fellow residents to get actively involved in the brothers’ personal drama.

Absurd, darkly comedic, and ultimately surprising, Men & Chicken is a poignant exploration of what it means to be human, to be in a family, and to truly love others. Though the ending might be considered happily-ever-after by some viewers, the conclusion of the film has very tragic undertones. After all, what goes on in the basement is the dark lining that makes this film a drama rather than a comedy of grotesque errors.

In Danish with English subtitles, Men & Chicken was one of three films shortlisted for Denmark’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Films: its ensemble acting is outstanding, as is its satire and irony.

Available for rent ($1.99-2.99, SD/HD, but $4.99 from iTunes) from Amazon (free for Prime members), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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* The harelips caused some viewers to remark that Jensen was mocking people with disabilities or different appearances.

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The Citizen Kane of Noir Film: The Killers

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Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane begins with the titular character, Charles Foster Kane, on his deathbed, whispering “Rosebud” just before he dies. A reporter then investigates Kane’s life in an attempt to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Though the reporter learns virtually everything about Kane’s life, which is revealed, in flashbacks, from the perspective of virtually everyone who knew Kane but never from Kane himself, the reporter never does learn the meaning of Kane’s last word. The alert viewing audience, however, does know it meaning: Rosebud is the name of Kane’s sled, from childhood, and represents the only time Kane was ever happy, the long-ago childhood time before his mother, who became wealthy after a goldmine was discovered on her property, sent Kane away to live with a stranger and be properly educated. Citizen Kane, shot in black-and-white with dramatic shadowing and lighting, has long been considered one of the best films ever made, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for its multi-perspective, flashback narrative. “Citizen Kane is particularly praised for its cinematography, music, editing and narrative structure, which have been considered innovative and precedent-setting.”

Burt Lancaster as Swede, The Killers © Universal

The 1946 Noir film The Killers, “a neglected screen classic from director Robert Siodmak, is an intense, hard-edged, stylish film noir of robbery, unrequited love, brutal betrayal, and double-cross.” It has been called the Citizen Kane of Noir because of the film’s
structure, “a fractured puzzle of multiple narrations,” which closely mimics that of Welles’ famed film. The protagonist of The Killers — The Swede — carefully played by Burt Lancaster in his film debut, is just as baffling and flawed as Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane, though the audience itself is left to determine the meaning of The Swede’s enigmatic final words: “I did something wrong… once.” Lancaster’s subtly nuanced performance is only one of the elements that elevates this film to its classic status.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as the contract killers in The Killers © Universal

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive, idiosyncratic dialogue (which then disappears from the film: the remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original). Two professional killers walk into a diner just before 6p.m. and terrify everyone there by openly announcing that they’ve come to town to kill someone called “The Swede” and may just decide to kill everyone in the diner while they’re at it. Nick Adams, a recurring character in Hemingway’s stories, has a very minor role in the film. A coworker at the gas station where Swede pumps gas and repairs tires, Adams runs to Swede’s boarding house to warn him about the contract killers who are looking for him. Adams is stunned and confused by Swede’s resigned reaction.

Burt Lancaster as Swede, The Killers © Universal

Noir performances are always about the ways people cope with a bleak and violent universe, whether they arm themselves with [icy remoteness]… or with abraded cynicism, desperate defiance, or spellbound fatalism. This last response is distilled by Burt Lancaster in his screen debut, playing the killers’ target, The Swede. It is a surprising introduction for one of cinema’s most physically resplendent and powerful men: we first see his muscular body supine on a bed, his head blacked out by shadows. When Nick Adams comes to warn the Swede about the killers, the doomed man speaks out of the dark, his voice low and lifeless: “There’s nothing I can do.” When his face appears in the light, it is calm, frozen in a mixture of numbness and dazzled resignation—the same expression he wears at many points in the film.

Edmund O’Brien as Reardon, The Killers © Universal

Intrigued by the motive behind the contract hit and disconcerted by the fact that Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him, an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life. (By the time Reardon does seem to have a motive for investigating Swede’s death, he’s already spent a significant amount of time researching Swede’s life story, so the motive of recovering robbery money is insufficient to explain the insurance investigator’s initial interest in Swede.)

Edmund O’Brien as Investigator Reardon, The Killers © Universal

Investigator Reardon, who carries a gun and shoots at people with impunity, discovers that Swede, a former boxer, had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster as Swede, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster named Big Jim Colfax, Reardon is convinced that the girlfriend, Kitty, had something to do with Swede’s death.

Ava Gardener plays Kitty, the film’s “duplicitous, strikingly-beautiful, vixenish, and unsympathetic femme fatale, [and the role] made Gardner an overnight love goddess and star.” Kitty seems to be the stereotypical femme fatale, a gorgeous woman who is “giving a performance of a performance, enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty that satisfies the expectations and desires of their marks,” in this case, the big, dumb brute, Swede.

Virginia Christine as abandoned Good Girl Lilly, Burt Lancaster as Swede, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

The Swede, as written, is truly a big dumb animal, deep enough to feel pain, no deeper. “She’s beautiful,” he states in open stupefaction at his first glimpse of Kitty. As she sings… he stands so close she likely feels his nostril steam on her neck. Later, he emerges from a bed­room and remarks with what seems goofy pride at basic bodily functions, “I fell asleep.” But Lancaster, built to defeat a white T-shirt as well as any man, imbues the animal with existential dimensions by the thwarted intelligence lighting his eyes.

Though no one ever relays Swede’s final words — “I did something wrong… once” — to Investigator Reardon, it becomes clear to the audience that Swede is not, in fact, as dumb or brutish as Big Jim and fellow criminals think. Further, Swede’s stoic acceptance of his fate when the contract killers arrive has more to do with his relationship with Kitty than with any crimes he ever committed, even if Swede never seems to regret the shabby way he treated archetypal Noir Good Girl Lilly (Virginia Christine).

Edmund O’Brien as Reardon, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

And Kitty is even more calculating and vicious than anyone could imagine, even Investigator Reardon. The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The Killers was considered somewhat radical when first released because it departed from the traditional, chronological narrative format, using flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story, but was nominated for four Academy Awards and was a box-office success. Available for rent ($2-99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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I Hate You So Much, I Could Die From It: The Classic Noir Film, Gilda

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The Big Combo ©

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it: shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (and these are sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Many Film Noir of that early period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as these:

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely
Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window)
I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films)
and
Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Popular with audiences, many Noir films were made by renowned directors, including,

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (a disputed title in the Film Noir canon)
Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend)
Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Rear Window)
and
Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face).

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity ©

Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Virtually every character is more bad than good, however, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else. The story involves a Guy, who becomes entangled with a Dame, and the story is really theirs, though others, like the Good Girl or the Unsuspecting Husband, sometimes get crushed under the wheels of whatever is driving the Guy and the Dame to their own destruction.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, Out of the Past ©

The Guy

Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a convict (The Postman Always Rings Twice), an unwary insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), a government investigator (The Stranger), or an unfortunate victim of circumstance (D.O.A.), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. The male protagonist has had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the femme fatale, but the male is almost always portrayed as the victim of the femme. Since Film Noir features Voice-Over narration mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, the viewers are kept clearly on the side of that character: their worldview is limited to that of the doomed male.

Rita Hayworth in Lady from Shanghai ©

The Dame

The Dame of Noir films is the femme fatale, a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl,” the “girl next door,” or “the marrying type,” who loses the Guy to the dangerous femme fatale,

a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations… A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure… In social life, the femme fatale tortures her lover in an asymmetrical relationship, denying confirmation of her affection. She usually drives him to the point of obsession and exhaustion so that he is incapable of making rational decisions.

Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. While the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart. The femme fatale refuses to play expected societal roles.

She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.

One of the most striking Noir films of the 1940s is Gilda (1946), and “No film noir course would be complete without it, in part because it’s at once prototypical and highly unusual.” While gambling in back alleys in Buenos Aires, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) unexpectedly meets a stranger, who rescues Farrell from robbers, then invites Farrell to visit a high-stakes, though also illegal, casino. When Farrell goes to the casino and tries his usual thuggish con, he is brought before the gangster-owner: Ballin Mundson (George Macready), the stranger who saved Farrell in the alley.

George Macready as Ballin Mundson, and Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Mundson admires Johnny’s braggadocio and hires him as his right-hand man. Like any clever crook who wears formal clothes, Johnny quickly rises in the institution’s hierarchy and becomes close friends with the Boss. When Boss Mundson returns from a short trip, he announces that he has fallen in love and impetuously married a beautiful woman, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).

Rita Hayworth as Gilda in Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Gilda and Johnny seem to immediately dislike, even despise each other, though each denies any antipathy to Mundson. Gilda enjoys herself at her husband’s casino: gambling,

Rita Hayworth in Gilda © Columbia Pictures

drinking and dining,

Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and Glenn Ford as Johnny, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

singing,

Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and Stephen Geray as Uncle Pio, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

and dancing, once in a strapless black dress so iconic it has its own Wikipedia page.

Rita Hayworth as Gilda, in the iconic black dress, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

When she begins to enjoy herself a bit too much, dancing too closely to one of the attractive guests, Mundson orders Johnny to keep her in line. Johnny reluctantly becomes Gilda’s “keeper.”

George Macready (standing), Rita Hayworth, and Glenn Ford, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

That’s when it becomes clear that Gilda and Johnny have a previous relationship, and it obviously didn’t turn out well. Gilda is as angry at Johnny as he is at her: viewers don’t know exactly what happened between them, or who broke up with whom, but it’s clear that they really do hate each other.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, that hate is exciting — more so to Gilda than to Johnny — and when she begins to have sexual relations with everyone but her husband, openly flaunting her infidelity, Johnny takes it upon himself to protect the Boss from the Dame by becoming her bodyguard, re-igniting “one of the most erotic and tortured relationships on film” [synopsis].

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Just when you think you know where the film’s story is going, it changes direction abruptly, which is no doubt one of the reasons it’s become a classic. Mundson disappears, and the relationship between Johnny and Gilda takes an unexpected turn. To this point, Gilda has been portrayed as a monster albeit a monster with really amazing hair, but we learn that her seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, is really a

layer of bravado that masks deep insecurity… [and] it’s strongly implied that Johnny’s behavior in their prior relationship is largely responsible for her twisted psyche.

After Mundson’s disappearance, Gilda’s vulnerability is revealed, as is Johnny’s innate ruthlessness and cruelty. In an unusual twist for Film Noir, Gilda, the femme fatale, becomes the sympathetic protagonist while Johnny, the supposedly doomed male, becomes the unrepentant and quite horrific villain. And then, when you think you know where this new storyline is heading, the story changes direction again, when an unexpected character arrives.

Noted for its frank portrayal of sexuality, complete with homoerotic hints from the Boss toward the Guy, Gilda is available for rent for $2.99-3.99 (SD/HD) from Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay, iTunes, and Vudu. Available for purchase from these sites as well as from TCM, where Gilda is free for subscribers.

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Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

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The concept of vampires or vampire-like beings — undead who return from the grave and exist by stealing the “life essence” (flesh or blood) of the living — has existed in the folklore of virtually all cultures for centuries. In earliest times, these blood-stealing beings were considered spirits or demons, but they have always been some of the most terrifying paranormal creatures to stalk mankind.

The vampire most familiar to many of us originated in southeastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and counted among its reviled membership suicides, revenants, people accused of practicing witchcraft, people suspected of being possessed, or anyone who might have rebelled against Christian doctrine or Church teachings. During the Age of Enlightenment, “belief in vampires increased dramatically,” and many rituals were developed to both identify and protect humans from these undead creatures, including hanging wreaths of garlic on doors or windows, blessing people, rooms, and houses with holy water, and staking or decapitating corpses to prevent the bodies from returning.

800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod, via Wikipedia

Not only did these undead creatures harm and kill the living in order to maintain their own existence, they often appeared in their human form, albeit slightly changed in complexion and dental work, and lured their own loved ones to the grave. In the 18th century, vampire superstition in Europe sometimes reached mass hysteria, causing corpses to be staked or beheaded to ensure that they couldn’t rise from the dead to seek out more victims.

Originally, vampires were dark, gruesome beings: unattractive and undeniably otherworldly. In the early 19th century, with fiction, vampires changed, becoming less gruesome and more… shall we say, attractive.

The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.

Though vampires have long been a feature of the horror genre, there’s a strange trend in contemporary vampire fiction, and the dramas based on them, including Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series. Vampires, despite needing the blood of living humans or other animals to survive, have been romanticized to the point of being almost totally non-violent. Some of the vampires in these contemporary novels are even more humane and virtuous than most human beings, which may be the point since the novels in which these vampires appear are romances and love stories. It’s a sweet interpretation of vampires: if they love you, they won’t harm you.

The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

But part of the terror of really great vampire stories is that the vampires can harm or even kill you, despite their caring about you. Maybe I’m prejudiced because my earliest introduction to vampires was the dreaded Count of Stoker’s classic Dracula, and horror films where vampires, be they Dracula or not, were dangerous and monstrous creatures that would kill you even if they liked you. I agree with film critic Roger Ebert when he points out that vampire stories, whether books or films, are inherently “tragic” and “brutal.”

It’s not all fun, games, and Team Edward. No lifestyle depending on fresh human blood can be anything but desperate. A vampire, like a drug addict, is driven by need. After a certain point, all else is irrelevant, and the focus is on the craving.

The horror film Let Me In (2010), a remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, returns the vampire story to horror in its most horrifying manifestations. Though some critics describe this film as “romantic,” it is more a coming-of-age story than a romance, and it is a brutal coming-of-age tale. Despite the fact that several of the characters in the story love each other, most devotedly, Let Me In is a tale of isolation, alienation, brutality, helplessness, and the desperate will to survive by any means possible. These themes set this vampire film far above its contemporaries. It isn’t pretty or romantic to be a vampire or associated with a vampire in Let Me In. Instead, it’s downright lonely and scary.

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen, Let Me In © Overture Films

In a fictional version of Los Alamos, a small village in New Mexico, a string of grisly murders causes the community to lock its doors and become uncommonly wary. Twelve-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely social outcast, neglected by his divorcing parents and bullied by his classmates.

Chloë Grace Moretz as Abby, Let Me In © Overture Films

Owen becomes friendly with his new neighbor Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives in the adjoining apartment with a man that Owen assumes is her father (Richard Jenkins), and who seems to have some unnatural, even pedophiliac feelings for Abby.

Richard Jenkins and Chloë‘ Grace Moretz, Let Me In © Overture Films

Owen and Abby communicate by tapping Morse code on the walls at night, and they become extremely close to each other, if only because each is a loner: each is isolated from everyone else at school, and each seems to have a distant relationship with the parent figure in their lives. Though Owen and Abby like each other,  Abby’s father-guardian doesn’t want her to spend any time with Owen.

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen, Let Me In © Overture Films

As the bullying against Owen increases and gets more physically violent, he confides in Abby, rather than in his own mother. Abby encourages Owen to stand up for himself, to retaliate against the bullies, and, most important, vows to protect him.

Chloë Grace Moretz as Abby, Let Me In © Overture Films

When Abby’s father-guardian kills himself, she is as alone in the world as Owen perceives himself to be, and the pair becomes closer to each other. Abby promises to be Owen’s girlfriend.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz, Let Me In © Overture Films

When Owen becomes violent, in self-defense, to the boys who are bullying him, the story of the local murders and of his own coming-of-age combine: the detective (Elias Koteas) investigating the murders has begun investigating Abby.

Elias Koteas as the detective, Let Me In © Overture Films

After Owen sees Abby do something violent, and she asks for his help, he is forced to re-evaluate his own morality. Owen has formed a profound and protective bond with Abby, but he must now consider the possibility that she may be responsible for the gruesome killings that are terrorizing his small community.

[Very] close to the much-loved, critically acclaimed” Swedish original Let the Right One In, and equally critically acclaimed itself, Let Me In is a coming-of-age story about isolation and loneliness, about alienation and a need to connect, about brutality and the primitive need to exist. It’s a coming-of-age story with a paranormal twist. Featuring great performances by the child-actors, and a completely unexpected ending, Let Me In is available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Horror and Suspense Films

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listed in alphabetical order by name of film

Scary Because It’s Possible:
The Bad Seed, the Film

To Make Cynics of Us All:
Devil, The Horror Film

The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself:
The Devil’s Backbone: The Film

The First Award-Winning Horror Film:
The Exorcist

Setting the World on Fire:
The Girl with All The Gifts, the Film

The Demons Within:
The Innocents, the Film

The Plague that Cast the World Into Darkness:
Open Grave, the Film

When Children Scare You To Death:
Orphan, the Film

Not For Children:
The Horror Film The Orphanage

The World of the Living and The World of The Dead:
The Others, the Film

Slasher-Horror as Art Film:
Psycho, The Classic

Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe:
The Raven, the 2012 Film

The World Breaks Everyone:
Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

You Are Now Entering the Cruel World:
Texas Killing Fields, the Film

Hansel and Gretel with a Video Camera:
The Visit, the 2015 Film

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The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

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Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this film, which some say was inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, isn’t really like the book. In The Turn of the Screw, a governess at an isolated estate with two young children in her care claims that she sees ghosts. Further, the governess becomes convinced that the children already know about the ghosts even if they never admit to actually seeing them. Because the governess is completely psychologically unreliable, and because viewers’ perspective is limited to that of the emotionally vulnerable woman, we never know if there are actually any ghosts roaming about the old mansion or whether the governess is losing her mind.

The Innocents (C)

Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents to Alejandro Amenábar film The Others because they say the former is closer to James’ book, and The Innocents is a fantastic suspense film. But for a suspense film that I want to watch over and over, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in The Others (2001), written and directed by Amenábar, which is a combination ghost story and psychological suspense thriller. Like the governess in Turn of the Screw and The Innocents, Kidman’s character is alone in an isolated mansion with two young children, and strange things begin to happen. Strange things that make her character wonder if she’s losing her mind. But unlike either the novella or the earlier film, what’s really happening in The Others is even more horrifying than anything the isolated woman might imagine. You’ll have to watch the film several times to see all the clues you missed the first time, but you won’t mind because The Others is one of the best suspense films ever made.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, The Others © Lionsgate

In a secluded island mansion during World War II, a sad, lonely, and devoutly religious wife, Grace (Nicole Kidman), patiently cares for her home and two children, Anne (Alakina Mann)

Alikina Mann as Anne, The Others © Lionsgate

and Nicholas (James Bentley),

Nicole Kidman as Grace, and James Bentley as Nicholas, The Others © Lionsgate

while waiting for her husband (Christopher Eccelston) to return from the War.

Christopher Eccelston as Charles, The Others © Lionsgate

All the servants have deserted the house, without warning, so Grace and her little family are very anxious and alone. When three servants mysteriously appear, Grace somewhat reluctantly accepts their help. Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) assures Grace that, though they did not come specifically in answer to Grace’s advertisement, the trio has not only been in service, but that they have preciously worked in this very house.

Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills, The Others © Lionsgate

Mrs. Mills will be the housekeeper and cook, the mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) will clean,

Elaine Cassidy as Lydia, The Others © Lionsgate

and Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) will take care of the grounds.

Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs Mills, Elaine Cassidy as Lydia, Eric Sykes as Mr Tuttle, The Others © Lionsgate

Besides the mysterious arrival of the servants, there are some other strange things going on in this lonely house. The children Anne and Nicholas suffer from Xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic disorder in which the body’s ability to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light is deficient. To protect the children, all the curtains have to be kept closed in any room through which the children might pass.

The Others © Lionsgate

To prevent the children from getting horrific burns caused by accidental exposure to sunlight, the doors to each room must be closed and locked before another door is opened. Mrs Mills is not the only one to think things are… well, odd in the house.

Because of the War, or the children’s “condition,” or both, Grace home-schools Anne and Nicholas, though she sometimes forces her own Catholic beliefs on them when they clearly have formed their own, contrary opinions about God, the afterlife, faith, and Bible stories.

Alakina Mann as Anne, James Bentley as Nicholas, and Nicole Kidman as Grace, The Others © Lionsgate

Besides the “returning” servants, the spooky fog that always surrounds the house, and the children’s “condition” which makes almost total darkness and locked doors a necessity, there’s something else really scary and nerve-jangling going on in the old house.

Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, and James Bentley, The Others © Lionsgate

Noises, knocks, bumps in the night, crying, voices, weeping… Grace thinks the children are playing pranks on her. Then she thinks the servants are just being downright unprofessional by making such a racket. But then, slowly, she begins to suspect that there is something even more frightening going on.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, and Christopher Eccelston as Charles, The Others © Lionsgate

More frightening than the behavior of her husband Charles, whom she discovers in the woods around the house, who seems to have returned from the War in body, though not in spirit.

Eric Sykes as Mr Tuttle, The Others © Lionsgate

More frightening than Mr Tuttle’s covering all those graves with dead leaves, which Grace doesn’t even know about yet.

When her daughter Anne begins to insist that she’s heard — and seen — other people in the house — a little boy named Victor, in particular — Grace gets terrified. She’s not afraid that she’s losing her mind, however: she’s more convinced that the house has somehow become haunted, and that, furthermore, the ghosts are determined to hurt her children.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, The Others © Lionsgate

And Grace will do anything to protect her children from harm. Anything at all. Even if it means arming herself to protect her family.

Winner of 8 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards), and the first English-language film to win the Goya for Best Picture without having a single word of Spanish in it, The Others has no special effects whatsoever, but it’s one of the best horror films ever made. Nicole Kidman, who “succeeds in convincing us that she is a normal person in a disturbing situation,” was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA (British Academy Awards) for Best Actress.

The Others is available for rent ($2.99/3.99 SD/HD) or purchase ($6.99) on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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The First Award-Winning Horror Film:
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Scary Because It’s Possible:
The Bad Seed, the Film

The Demons Within:
The Innocents, the Film

The Plague that Cast the World Into Darkness:
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When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

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This story has been recycled a few times: parents who are longing for another child and also to do good in the world — no, not Angelina and Brad — adopt an older, unwanted orphan from another country — in this case, Russia — and bring her home to the good life in America. Where everything starts to go wrong. Where only one of the parents notices that the orphan is not everything s/he seems. Where the parent who attempts to warn others that something is not quite right with the new family member is dismissed as neurotic or overly stressed or… whatever… so no one believes the warnings.

Though at first glance the story in the 2009 film Orphan might seem a bit trite, the mesmerizing performance of Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther overcomes any of the film’s predictable weaknesses. Not unreasonably, however, some adoptive parents and adoption agencies objected to yet another film displaying orphans, especially older ones or children from eastern European countries, as dangerous or seriously flawed. But Orphan puts a totally surprising spin on this orphan-who-goes-bad tale so that it becomes an unexpectedly shocking horror film.

Vera Farmiga as Kate, and Peter Sarsgaard as John, in Orphan © Warner Brothers

Why do parents Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard), who already have two children, want yet another child after Kate has a miscarriage? The movie doesn’t make the couple’s longing for more children clear, though it does paint Kate and John with some typical clichés: Kate is a recovering alcoholic who is inexplicably devastated by the miscarriage, John is über-career-oriented and doesn’t seem to notice how unhappy Kate is, so the miscarriage has strained their marriage and they think another child will somehow heal it.

Vera Farmiga as Kate, and Peter Sarsgaard as John, Orphan © Warner Brothers

Their two children already seem like quite a handful for parents to handle:

Jimmy Bennett as Daniel, Orphan © Warner Brothers

Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) tends to do some unpleasant things with homemade weapons,

Aryanna Engineer as Max, Orphan © Warner Brothers

and Max (Aryana Engineer) cannot speak so must communicate with sign language.

CCH Pounder as Sister Abigail, Orphan © Warner Brothers

Rather than wait till Kate is healed, physically and emotionally, from the miscarriage, Kate and John want another child right now. To fix their disintegrating marriage and expand their too-small family, Kate and John visit a local orphanage. There, under the watchful eye of Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), who warns that Esther is “very mature for her age,” Kate and John become enamored of Esther (Isabelle Furhman), who seems just too-too-good to be true.

Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, Orphan © Warner Brothers

Because, of course, Esther is too good to be true.

As soon as Kate and John get their new daughter home, there are some problems. Though Max immediately embraces her new sister, Daniel is perturbed by Esther. Whether his is already feeling neglected or he fears two sisters will be too much for any boy in any one household to handle is not clear, but Daniel is less than welcoming.

In any event, Esther immediately shows some signs of being… well, more than “very mature.” She shows signs of being… strange. Like wanting to wear clothes to school that are entirely inappropriate for her age and way inappropriate for grammar school, or wanting to wear makeup that would make the average street-walking prostitute look au naturel. Esther gets really very perturbed when things don’t go her way, relly upset when other children don’t immediately accept her, or really angry and violent when… well, I’m sure you already know all this part of the story.

Isabelle Furhman as Esther, Orphan © Warner Brothers

By the time things start to go really wrong with Esther and Mother Kate gets concerned, no one else wants to listen to her. After all, she’s a recovering alcoholic and a grieving mother and…
And that’s about where the clichés in the film end.

Isabelle Furhman as Esther, Orphan © Warner Brothers

Because once things start to really go wrong, once Esther begins to get really scary, Orphan becomes an unexpected horror film with a unique twist. No matter what you imagine is the reason behind Esther’s unpleasant and increasingly atrocious behavior, I doubt you will figure out the real reason this orphan is very angry and wicked. And I doubt you will figure out what she really wants from her adopted family.

Though the reviews are mixed, Orphan was a prize-winner in several Independent Film Festivals, and Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther was virtually universally acclaimed. Some critics compared Fuhrman’s performance as Esther to that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, both of which are horror classics.

On Cinemax this month, Orphan is also available for rent ($2.99-3.99) on Amazon (free with a 7-day Cinemax trial), YouTube, Vudu, GooglePlay, and iTunes.

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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

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To Make Cynics of Us All:
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Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

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It’s October, and that means it’s time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As I’ve gotten older, I find movies where the events could actually happen even more frightening than those supernatural beings of my childhood horror films. One of the scariest is 1956’s The Bad Seed,  which was considered so potentially scary to viewing audiences that all the actors appeared to “take a bow” at the end of the film — much as they had in the stage play of the same name on which it was based — to remind everyone that it was fictional.

The Bad Seed may be fictional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. And the most terrifying part of the film is that it could actually happen. To anyone. So don’t let the fact that the actors “take a bow” at the end of the film keep you from watching this horror classic. Psychologically realistic and terrifying in the extreme, The Bad Seed contains not a single paranormal character or hint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.

Nancy Kelly as mother Christine (L) and Patty McCormack as daughter Rhoda (R), The Bad Seed ©

The film stars Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark, who begins to feel uneasy around her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) after a little boy who’s Rhoda’s school rival dies in an accident. As Christine begins to re-evaluate things about Rhoda’s character that make her uneasy, she is faced with opposition from neighbors and family, all of whom insist Christine herself is imagining things about her angelic little girl.

images-1

Every time Christine manages to convince herself that she’s jumpy and unreasonably suspicious, however, Rhoda does something that’s less than angelic, throwing Christine into doubt all over again.

Nancy Kelly as Christine, The Bad Seed ©

Though the film is a little heavy-handed on the heredity vs. environment discussions, it’s worth watching. The supporting cast is excellent even when their parts are minor, and include Eileen Heckart as the grief-stricken mother of the dead boy,

Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed ©

Paul Fix as the doting crime-writer Grand-dad who thinks his beloved daughter is just worrying about nothing in particular,

and Henry Jones as LeRoy the suspicious handyman who just knows that something is not right with pretty little Rhoda.

Despite everyone’s assurances that Rhoda is a beautiful, sweet, highly intelligent little girl, Christine has her doubts and suspicions about Rhoda’s true nature and potential for violence. After all, not everyone gets to see Rhoda when she’s upset. Or annoyed. Or even angry.

Patty McCormack as Rhoda, The Bad Seed ©

The film’s content is so scary — and so very possible — that even the original trailer had to “remind” viewers that they were watching an advertisement for a film based on a play based on William March’s novel, just so, you know, people didn’t get too creeped out. Further, The Bad Seed was so unusual for its time that it had a notice at the end of the film, asking viewers not to reveal its ending to others.

The Bad Seed, 1956 ©

McCormack as the young girl Rhoda and Kelly as her mother Christine received Oscar nominations for their performances.  60 years later, the film and its exploration of evil remain pertinent.

 The Bad Seed is available to rent for a couple bucks on Amazon, on YouTube, and on Vudu.

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The Demons Within:
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The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil’s Backbone, the Film

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What is a ghost?
A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again?
An instant of pain, perhaps.
Something dead which still seems to be alive.
An emotion, suspended in time.
Like a blurred photograph.
Like an insect trapped in amber.

— Narrator, The Devil’s Backbone

images-7

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Whether as writer, director, or producer, Guillermo del Toro is known for films which mesh fairy tales and horror, among them Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and Julia’s Eyes. Many of his films are classified as  “dark Spanish fantasy” or “gothic horror,”  and his films are, indeed, full of horror. Del Toro has called The Devil’s Backbone (2001) his “most personal film.” Like many of his others, this film features ghosts, orphans, and abandoned children, all tangled together, trying desperately to survive and to figure out what has happened to their previously happy lives. Ghosts and murder, betrayal and tragedy, pain and destiny and loneliness: these are the themes of The Devil’s Backbone, where evil is not so much supernatural as it is a daily human reality. In The Devil’s Backbone, the most terrifying evil is not external but, instead, within the humans themselves.

Marisa Paredes as Carmen, The Devil’s Backbone ©

At an isolated orphanage in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, Headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is an amputee, secretly supports partisans, and has a stash of gold intended to aid their cause.

Federico Luppi as Casares, The Devil’s Backbone ©

The co-director of the orphanage is Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), who has long been in love with Carmen, and who is helping her hide gold for the Resistance.

Fernando Tielve as Carlos, The Devil’s Backbone ©

A young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is left at the Home by his tutor, who neglects to tell the boy that his father is dead, killed in the War. Before Carlos even realizes that he will be permanently staying at the orphanage, he sees the ghost of a boy his own age.

The Devil’s Backbone ©

Though the other orphans speak in whispers in the dark of night of “the one who sighs,” the adults do not even discuss the War with the children, though it has affected all the boys’ lives, let alone talk about a ghost or anything else supernatural with them. The orphans make up their own stories about the ghost and why it may be haunting the orphanage. The orphans do not know the ghost’s “secret,” so they make up reasons for its haunting the Home.

The Devil’s Backbone ©

The adults don’t seem to know about the ghost, but all the adults at the Home have secrets, none more so than the violent and angry caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). He was once an orphan at the Home himself and has returned only to get at the hidden stash of partisan-gold.

Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, The Devil’s Backbone ©

Jacinto terrorizes and abuses the orphan boys. He steals keys at night to secretly search for the hidden gold. He ruthlessly manipulates the women at the school by having sexual relations with several of them, pretending to be emotionally attached to each of them, including Headmistress Carmen and young Conchita (Irene Visedo, below L), who is herself in love with Jacinto.

Irene Visedo as Conchita, and Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, The Devil’s Backbone ©

And this is the place where young Carlos is now trapped, like the ghost that he keeps seeing. Unfortunately for Carlos, Jacinto is not the only person at the Home who bullies the boys. One of the orphans, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés, below L), is just as ferocious and tyrannical as Jacinto.

Íñigo Garcés as Jaime, and Irene Visedo as Conchita, The Devil’s Backbone ©

Jaime, who is in love with the pretty Conchita, takes out his frustrated, unrequited love on the younger boys, especially on the ten-year-old, fellow orphan Carlos.

To deal with his own emotional pain, abandonment, and loss, Carlos decides to overcome his terror of the ghost. He begins to investigate the boy-ghost, hoping to discover the ghost’s secret. How did a mere boy, after all, become a ghost trapped for eternity at the Home? Did the boy die in the War, or did he die in the orphanage itself? If the boy did, in fact, die at the Home — which would explain why the ghost is still there, haunting the other orphans — how did the young boy die? Was he a victim of illness, accident, or murder?

Carlos is desperate to discover the ghost’s secret before he himself is killed — by Jacinto, by Jaime, or by another wayward bomb like the unexploded one in the Home’s courtyard — and becomes a ghost forever trapped in the place Carlos hates most in all the world.

In Spanish with subtitles, The Devil’s Backbone is as much about the perils of war as about ghosts, and as much about man’s cruelty to each other as it is about the things that haunt us, whether they be the pain of abandonment, ghosts that roam the corridors at night, or our own secret pasts.

The Devil’s Backbone is available for about $2.99 for rent from Amazon,  YouTube, and iTunes.

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