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

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There is a long history of stories about humans being influenced or tempted to commit evil by some outside being rather than by their own nature. In Christian translations of Genesis chapter 3, a serpent in the Garden of Eden tells the first woman, Eve, that she will not die if she eats the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Her mate, Adam, joins her in eating the fruit, and they do not, in fact, die after eating the fruit: they are only expelled from the Garden of Eden, which stands as a metaphor for their previous innocence of their own disobedient nature. Despite the fact that the serpent told Adam and Eve the truth, the serpent has long been associated with the evil and with the Devil if only because he revealed the evil that already existed in mankind.

In Christian tradition, the Devil is supposedly the absolute incarnation of evil and is completely separate from God, who is ostensibly all powerful, all knowledgeable, and all good. In most stories that follow the Christian tradition, then, meeting the Devil becomes an encounter with evil. Such a meeting may provide the protagonists with an opportunity to learn that all humans contain both good and evil (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” 1835), to do evil themselves (Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” 1824, which itself was based on 16th century German legends of Faust) or to resist doing evil, perhaps by outwitting the Devil himself (Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” 1936).     

Devil, a 2010 American horror film, is based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, originally written as a “nod to Agatha Christie’s” mystery novel And Then There Were None, where a group of people, each of whom is guilty of something in his past, is trapped in an isolated area and mysteriously dies one at a time. The film’s director John Erick Dowdle changed the original story by adding something he called a “Devil’s Meeting,” which he claims is a based in a legend of the Devil coming to earth to “test evildoers by tormenting them.

I’m not exactly sure why the Devil would “test” evildoers, and I can’t find any outside corroboration for any tales or legends of such devilish tests. Instead, I’d imagine that the Devil would be happy to have humans doing bad things. In The Book of Job, “the adversary” or “the opponent” (ha satan), which is not capitalized, is considered to be merely the opposite side of an argument. In Job, the adversary tests a man who has never encountered adversity in order to test the man’s absolute faith in God. The adversary does not test a man who is already defying God by going against His commandments and committing evil. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the idea of the Devil’s “testing evildoers by tormenting them” makes little theological or philosophical sense, the horror film Devil is actually an intriguing and unsettling suspense film.

Chris Messina (L) and Matt Craven (R ) in Devil © Universal Pictures

After a jumper plunges to his death from an office building, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) comes to investigate, only to be plunged into another mystery when an elevator stops, trapping 5 people inside. The trapped people include a young woman (Bojana Novakovic) who plans to leave her rich husband and take all his money,

Bojana Novakovic, Devil © Universal Pictures

an older woman (Jenny O’Hara) who is a thief,

Jenny O’Hara, Devil © Universal Pictures

a temporary security guard (Bokeem Woodbine) with a history of violence,

Bokeem Woodbine, Devil © Universal Pictures

a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green) who intentionally did not sign himself in at the security desk,

Logan Marshall Green, Devil © Universal Pictures

and a sleazy salesman (Geoffrey Arend).

Geoffrey Arend, Devil © Universal Pictures

When the occupants begin to die, police and others begin to suspect a murderer is trapped in the elevator, targeting the other passengers.

Jacob Vargas and Chris Messina, Devil © Universal Pictures

While one of the buildings security guards (Jacob Vargas) is filling Detective Bowden’s ear with ghost stories that his family told him, based on the guard’s belief that he saw something in the elevator on the surveillance video,

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Bowden (with the microphone, below) is desperately trying to determine why someone might want to kill the others passengers trapped in the elevator.

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Some critics and viewers complained that Devil was too short, was while others complained that the story was somewhat convoluted, by which I  think they mean how some of the characters’ stories were ultimately related to those of others. The film does have some minor elements of the supernatural, but they aren’t as important or scary as the psychological aspects of guilt, good, and evil, which involve everyone in the story, even the detectives who are there to save the trapped elevator occupants.

The film is better than its ostensible supernatural elements, which are so sparse, it’s almost like they were put in more by accident than deliberation. Devil is available for rent or purchase on Amazon, on YouTube, on iTunes, and more.

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It’s Not How You’re Buried That’s Important: 3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

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Cowboy ©

Coming-of-age stories have an important place in art, religion, and philosophy. In Judeo-Christian and other Abrahamic religions, the Bible contains one of the quintessential coming-of-age story: Adam and Eve, innocent and child-like, live in the Garden of Eden until they disobey God by listening to the Serpent, who represents their own temptation, and eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course, once this knowledge of good and evil is attained, it can never be forgotten, and those who have matured into from innocent childhood to adulthood are forever changed. Whether the protagonist mourns or welcomes this loss of innocence depends on each individual story, but no matter the tale, the passage from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to knowledge can never be undone.

Shane ©

Western films, usually set during the second half of the 19th century when encroaching civilization and expanding technology began to eliminate any previously idyllic vision of life in the American west, often feature the iconic loner cowboy or gunfighter as their protagonist. Since he himself represents the desolate environment and its harsh life, he has long since lost any innocence he might have had. Instead, it is the other characters who come into contact with the Loner who lose their innocence and “mature.” Sometimes the other characters suffer by loving the Loner since they are “abandoned” by him when he moves on (Will Penney). At other times, the Loner’s actions, violent or not, force other characters to face their own moral bankruptcy (High Plains Drifter) or compels them to abandon their idealized image of themselves (Unforgiven).

The Cowboys ©

In Coming-of-Age Westerns, where fistfights are as brutal as gunfights, violence is a primary antagonist, whether it appears in the form of the environment (deserts, mountains, drought, storms, fires), animals (unbroke broncs, stampeding cattle, rattlesnakes, bears), or fellow humans. The iconic Loner, whether cowboy or gunslinger, is never what he seems to be, though loyalty to him is expected if the character who loses his innocence is to retain his own honor. America’s violent past, whether dealing with environmental or human elements, forces the innocenti to evolve from childhood to adulthood.

Shane (1953), one of the classics of the Western film genre, portrays a woman and her son — concentrating mostly the young son — who mature suddenly and irrevocably because of the Loner-protagonist’s violence. Cowboy (1958) and The Cowboys (1972) both feature naïve protagonists who are themselves forced into a painful “adulthood” when confronted with the harshness of the American West. These three films are classic coming-of-age Westerns.

Cowboy
(1958)

You’re a dreamy idiot,
and that’s the worst kind.
Reece

In one of his best roles, Jack Lemmon stars as hotel clerk Frank Harris, who desperately wants to impress Mexican cattle baron Vidal, father of Maria (Anna Kashfi), the woman Harris loves. After rough-and-tumble, opera-loving Trail Boss Reece (Glenn Ford) appears at the hotel, Harris desperately wants to join the next cattle drive to prove himself worth of respect and to attain Maria’s hand in marriage.

Glenn Ford, Cowboy ©

After a somewhat slow start detailing every aspect of Reece’s character — spoiled, selfish, demanding, gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking, proud — the film picks up after Reece leaves the swank hotel and returns to the trail. Accompanied by Harris, who has now become a partner by investing his savings to purchase a herd after Reece lost his funds gambling, the trail boss treats everyone harshly, but especially the greenhorn Harris.

Jack Lemmon (2nd from L) and Glenn Ford (2nd from R), Cowboy ©

As the cattle drive continues, the uneasy relationship between Reece and Harris — “master” and “pupil” — becomes increasingly contentious and volatile, leading their comrades to worry about which man will survive.

Part coming-of-age story, part homage to the American West’s iconic cowboy, and part ironic morality tale, Cowboy explores a young man’s spiritual and emotional growth along with examining a mentor’s responsibility for his charges.

Based on Frank Harris’ semi-autobiographical novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, with the screenplay written by uncredited and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the film Cowboy is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon and YouTube.

Shane
(1953)

Shane, come back.
Joey

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer, which based its story on the 1892 Johnson County War between Wyoming ranchers and homesteaders, Shane analyzes that historic conflict by telling the story of one man, Joe Starrett (Van Helfin), his family, and his tiny group of neighbors.

Brandon de Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, and Alan Ladd, Shane ©

Starrett works hard to support his wife Marion (Jean Arthur) and his young son Joey (Brandon de Wilde), but he’s in conflict with local cattlemen who want Starrett’s small homestead. When a mysterious stranger arrives and helps Starrett ward off violence, he and his family welcome the Loner, Shane (Alan Ladd). Little Joey, who’s entranced by all things related to guns and who’s desperate to learn to shoot, immediately falls in love with Shane, partly because of his gun and partly because of his gunslinger past, which Shane never openly discusses.

Jean Arthur & Alan Ladd, Shane ©

As Joe Starrett’s wife and Shane begin to fall in love, the conflict between the cattlemen and settlers increases, and the brutality escalates. After a hired gun (Jack Palance) arrives, Shane must make a difficult moral decision. In the final tumultuous confrontations, Joey reluctantly learns what violence really does to families, to love, and to boyhood heroes.

Jack Palance (credited as Walter Jack Palance), Shane ©

Ignore Ladd’s dorky fringed-deerskin “suit,” silver-conch holster, and ivory-handled pistols, along with the other anachronistic hairstyles and clothes: put them all down to Hollywood’s typical carelessness with historical fiction. What remains is a powerful story about a man’s inescapable past, and about the importance of love, honor, and loyalty. Shane is a moving tribute to America’s violent and frequently romanticized past.

Though playing a gunfighter, Ladd was uncomfortable with guns, while Palance, playing fellow gunslinger Wilson, was nervous around horses. Shane is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

The Cowboys
(1972)


It’s not how you’re buried [that’s important]:
it’s how you’re remembered.
Wil Anderson

After gold rush fever causes his hired hands to desert en masse, rancher and cattleman Wil Anderson (John Wayne) is desperate for help. After searching everywhere — even in the local one-room schoolhouse — for cowboys to help him take his herd to market, he begins to despair. The next morning, a group of boys, including Robert Carradine in his film debut, awaits him outside. Though very young, the boys want to be hired on, and are determined to prove themselves.

The Cowboys ©

Desperate, Anderson trains and hires the boys, even turning down some experienced paroled prisoners who request work. Anderson doesn’t mind that they’ve been in prison, but he doesn’t like liars. When Anderson and his boys leave to take the cattle on the two-month trip to market, the only adults on the drive are Anderson and his cook Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown), who “doesn’t trust boys.”

Roscoe Lee Brown, The Cowboys ©

As if the cattle, harsh landscape, and constant exhaustion weren’t challenging enough for everyone involved, a group of outlaws, led by the parolee Long Hair (Bruce Dern), is tracking the group in order to steal the herd and get rich.

Bruce Dern, The Cowboys ©

Some reviewers were critical of what they termed the film’s “implication that boys become men through acts of violence and vengeance,” but The Cowboys delivers a stronger message concerning the importance of loyalty, commitment, and remembrance as the very young boys mature into young men.

Dern had difficulty finding work after The Cowboys was released, due to the final conflict between Dern’s Long Hair and Wayne’s protagonist Wil. Available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Coming of Age Stories, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Review/No Spoilers, Westerns