Saturday, September 12, 2015

STALKER (1979)

Running Time: 163 (metaphysical) Minutes

Directed by:  Andrei Tarkovsky

Based Upon: The Novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

Staring: Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy
Nikolay Grinko
Antoliy Solonitsyn

Plot: "This science fiction milestone from director Andrei Tarkovsky takes you into the Zone, a mysterious, guarded realm containing a mystical room in which occupants' secret dreams come true. Stalker, a man able to lead others to this holy grail, escorts a writer and a scientist through this foreboding territory and confronts several unexpected challenges along the way." -Netflix

 How I Discovered It:  Years ago I  found this movie on a list of the top ten best science fiction films of all time.  I immediately put it on my Netflix queue and ended up only getting thirty minutes into it before turning it off.  Since then I have seen it mentioned in a number of lists and articles on the greatest sci-fi films and surreal films from around the world.  Last week I gave it another shot with a better understanding of what I was getting myself into.

Memorable Moment: Stalker is filled with philosophical concepts and discussions on the nature of reality so it's kind of embarrassing to admit that the moment that stands out the most to me was when the three central characters sneak through the military perimeter surrounding the Zone.  This intense action sequence was filmed in black and white which makes the sudden transition into the silent yet color-filed zone all the more shocking

  • According to the Director, Andrei Tarkovsky, the film and the original novel have nothing in common except for the words "Stalker" and "Zone."
  • After a year of shooting the exterior scenes, Tarkovsky discovered that the film had been improperly developed and the footage was unusable.  All of the scenes had to essentially be reshot. 
  • Many of the scenes were actually filmed in locations where the crew was exposed to toxins in  rivers.  There is one scene where snow appears to be falling in the middle of summer.  This "snow" is in fact poison produced by nearby plants or factories.  Several members of the crew (including the director) died from conditions supposedly connected to this exposure.  

Connections to Other Works: 
  • The video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is loosely based on the movie as well as it's source material.
  • This isn't necessarily a connection to another work so much as real life: seven years after the film was completed, the Chernobyl disaster took place.  The surrounding area is called the "Zone of alienation" and many of those who are employed to take care of the abandoned nuclear plant call themselves "stalkers."
Who Should Embrace it:  Anyone looking for a film with heavy philosophical concepts and who enjoys (or doesn't mind) a slow, easy going pace.  This is a film for people who are looking for the next 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris (same director).  

If Hollywood were to make a film about a mysterious area guarded by the military where laws of physics no longer apply the results would probably look a little something like this.  

If I were completely honest with myself, I would have to admit that I'd probably enjoy the Hollywood version more.  That's certainly not to say that I don't appreciate Stalker for what it is.  The film is simply not what most American audiences (including myself) are used to.     

To give an idea of what I'm talking about, Stalker is 163 minutes long and contains 142 shots.  The average length of each shot is more than a minutes and many last for more than four.  (To put this into perspective, Inception's average shot length is just over three seconds.)  Many of these long takes follow the three main characters through fields and tunnels as they discuss the nature of humanity and nature.  This produces a movie that is slower and heavier than your average work of cinema.        

Tarkovsky was reportedly frustrated with people who were dissatisfied with Salker's pace.  He stated, "[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts."

I will be the first to admit that much of the film went over my head.  For English speaking audiences, the dialogue is completely given through subtitles.  I normally have no problem with subtitles, but in this film I got the impression that the translators had to trim vital information because the characters talk faster than the audience can read.  Also there are many cases where the subtitles ran uncomfortably fast.  In many cases following the story would have been easier if it had been told in novel format because re-reading passages is much easier than rewinding a DVD.  In fact, I can think of more novels I could compare Stalker to (The Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment) than movies.       

Okay, so after reading all that you might not be leaping out of your chair and declaring that Stalker is going to the top of your Netflix queue.  It is a heavy, slow film.  In some ways it is one of the most challenging movies I have ever watched.  However, it is a film that has perked my curiosity and I will be watching it again because I do feel like it is a movie that has a lot to say.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS: My favorite Wes Craven movie.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll let the trailer speak for itself:

Or if you're in a place where you can't watch a preview for a horror film, I'll let Netflix do the talking:

Master of horror Wes Craven brings an urban twist to the classic fairy tale in the story of Fool, a 13-year-old lad who succumbs to ghetto pressures to steal from a local house. Fool's instant karma comes in the gruesome form of the house's residents -- an insane, deformed family of murderers. The perils of latchkey kids and warnings about absentee parents are the subtle social subtext as Fool and other victims try to escape the deadly home.

 My first encounter with The People Under the Stairs was when I was a kid and would (like many of us) sneak into the “Horror” section of the local video store to stare at the unsettling VHS covers until I was thoroughly freaked out.  Granted, People’s cover was relatively tame.   

But it was the title that caught my attention.  Not that I was a horror movie expert at the age of 8 mind you, but I thought that they should have names like Vampire Sorority Babes.  

Everything I learned about the way things should be I learned from Calvin and Hobbes

The People Under The Stairs sounds more like a children's story.  It's almost whimsical. 

I never got around to actually seeing the movie until a few years ago.  It was the morning of a wedding (not mine) and I had a couple hours to get ready before my girlfriend (now wife) would pick me up.  I noticed that this movie I’d been meaning to watch was on Netflix instant (sadly it is no longer) and I turned it on just to have something in the background. 

Now typically you’re supposed to watch Horror late at night with a couple of beers while your cats make creepy noises in the next room (at least that's how I watch it).  In this case it was 10 AM on a beautiful Saturday morning, but the movie still sucked me in.  Before i knew it I was sitting on the floor, unable to take my eyes off the laptop while my jacket and tie lay forgotten on my bed.  (Don't worry, we made it to the wedding on time.)

 Granted, this isn’t Wes Craven's scariest film and it probably isn't his best.  What makes it stand out to me personally, though is that it manages to combine typical horror tropes, with serious social issues (that are unfortunately still relevant today) and stick them into the plot of a dark fairy tale.  Also, while I love horror, there are too many cheap films where frankly I just don't care if the "heroes" live or end up hanging on the end of the killer’s meat hook.  This is one horror movie where I legitimately wanted to see them get out and (SPOILER) it hurts that they don't all make it. 

In a way, I'm glad that this isn't one of Wes Craven's better known films.  It has been spared the endless parade of sequels and reboots (although there were rumors) until it’s hard to remember that the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream were  legitimately good movies.