Courage and the art of war

Brian Bethune August 2 1999

Courage and the art of war

Brian Bethune August 2 1999

The horror and the humour

Four new movies — two for grown-ups, two for kids—show bigger is not better


Three film students set off to spend an October weekend documenting the legend of “The Blair Witch,” a 200year-old spirit reputed to haunt Maryland’s Black Hills Forest. They never return. Later, their footage is discovered and pieced together, a video diary that serves as their last will and testament. But even though a mock documentary is hardly new, first-time co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have put a fresh spin on it—making The Blair Witch Project one of the most frightening films in recent memory.

One of its great strengths is that it breaks the teenage bloodbath formula. There is not a Jason or a Freddy to be found. Instead, Blair Witch is a thinking person’s horror movie that exploits the imagination’s power to terrify. Like the

best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, its chills spring from an unseen menace.

The audience sees events unfold in real-time through the victims’ eyes. A cast of unknowns (none of whom star in Fox TV’s Party of Five) play the student film crew: director and host (Heather Donahue), soundman (Michael Williams) and cameraman (Joshua Leonard). Armed with just a sketchy understanding of the plot, they camped out for eight days with minimal food and shelter, rarely coming out of character. The actors, who were also trained to operate video cameras, shot the movie’s footage.

The film’s creative team shadowed the cast to psychologically terrorize them. The actors then filmed their unscripted responses to eerie noises or being van-

dalized. Producer Gregg Hale says they hoped to wear down the actors’ “insulation against fear.” The movie’s final scene demonstrates the success of this unusual approach—that sounds like real fear in the actors’ screams. Like a relendess nightmare, The Blair Witch Project closes in on its audience, offering no release until the final credits.

The Haunting, in contrast, is a classic Hollywood horror flick. It stars bigname actors Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and an even bigger array of special effects. But at $ 113 million— compared with Blair Witch’s paltry $38,000 tab—The Haunting proves that the decision to use money instead of the mind can be a deadly error.

Billed as a psychological thriller, The Haunting starts well enough. A professor (Neeson) researching fear assembles a group of insomniacs (ZetaJones, Owen Wilson and Lili Taylor) to spend a week in an allegedly haunted 130-year-old mansion. Visu-

ally, it is a Gothic treat, and the movie’s first half-hour contains some genuinely chilling moments—children’s ghosts whispering in the darkness and statues coming to life.

The movie soon swerves off course. And by the end, it degenerates into the standard special-effects orgy, with Taylor mouthing schmaltzy Hollywood action-movie catchphrases like “Purgatory’s over, grampa. You’re going to hell!” One is left envying the old geezer—at least hell sounds interesting.

Andrew Clark

Of course, not everyone wants to be scared senseless. The following reviews are for those 12 and under—or their parents—who would rather have some nonsensical fun:

One of the many charms of the venerable Muppet franchise is that the amicably squabbling puppets are blissfully unaware that there is anything odd about them. They may live together in one bedlamite boarding house, but they work and interact with humans—some of them are humans. They even carry on their own interspecies romances. Just regular folks. That makes Muppets

from Space almost poignant, as well as very funny, when Gonzo—that would be the blue one with the tubular nose— develops an identity crisis. As the movie opens, he is troubled by a recurring dream in which Noah refuses to allow him on the ark, because there is only one of him. “I don’t want to be alone,” he wails as the waters rise, in a cry any child can recognize.

Gonzo, unsurprisingly, turns out to be an alien, something he learns when his long-lost family begins to communicate with him, via his alphabet cereal. Afterwards, he is seized by a paranoid

government agent, the wonderfully named K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor). Naturally, the other Muppets have to rescue Gonzo and bring him safely to his rendezvous with destiny.

By virtue of its well-crafted plot, Muppets from Space stands out among kids’ films. But its child-friendly messages about loyalty and belonging are also seamlessly meshed with first-rate adult humour. There are nods to many major science-fiction movies— highlighted by a Close Encounters of the Third Kind mashed potato bust of Gonzo—as well as a pulsating sound track of ’70s-era funk. When an en-

tire spaceshipful of Gonzos finally lands, and breaks into Kool & the Gang’s Celebration, it is a perfectly absurd conclusion to the year’s best scifi film.

It’s a far cry from the Muppets to Inspector Gadget, based on the 1980s-era animated series about a dim-witted but highly accessorized cop, itself a direct descendant of a toy-obsessed 1960s film and TV series. Maybe it’s the sheer distance from its creative wellspring, but this thingamajig makes for a profoundly stupid viewing experience. Even the filmmakers seemed to have been bored. For a Disney production, it’s marred by some strange discontinuities—after an evil robot destroys much of the city with fire and explosions, no subsequent scene shows any damage. But technical glitches are nothing compared with the almost complete absence of plot, humour and charm, as the halfman, half-machine hero (Matthew Broderick) and Brenda (Joely Fisher), his creator/love interest, plod through their paces.

What Gadget does have is, well, gadgets, glorious gadgets. Small boys are going to love this film. The inspector’s neck can turn 360 degrees or spiral up three metres; his legs extend even farther; machine-guns the size of cannons pop out of his sleeves and helicopter blades from his hat. Best of all is his Swiss Army hand, with fingers that turn into a lighter, toothbrush, lock-pick or radiophone. And there is also a single tiny gem of a scene screened after the movie proper—in one of those outtake clips increasingly scattered through film credits. Villainous henchman Sikes (Michael G. Hagerty), who has gone straight, addresses a meeting of Minions Anonymous. Among the audience of fellow sufferers are Jaws, the steel-toothed James Bond character; Tonto of Lone Ranger fame; and Kato from The Green Hornet. That’s as good as it gets. Go, go Gadget. Please.

Brian Bethune

Brian D. Johnson