Thursday, March 27, 2008

Last House on the Left vs. Wolf Creek

Roger Ebert loved Last House on the Left enough to give it three and a half stars. That put paid to any notion I had of sensible critiques. All critiques are biased and all critics have pet peeves and prejudices that they cannot lay aside to write review. In fact, perhaps the best critics are the ones who see the movie through their own tinted lenses than pander to popular appeal.

What I cannot for the life of me understand is why Ebert rated this movie so high when he gave the similar Wolf Creek zero stars. Perhaps because pioneer trash is considered classic while modern trash is just trash. Not that the movies in question are trash, but a lot of people do see the horror/slasher genre with lone sociopathic nutcases slaughtering innocents devoid of value. I concur, but have to point out that the genre provides for damn good entertainment. In my guilty pleasure lies its redemption.

Both movies revolve around women who get kidnapped and savagely murdered. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left benefits from an above average plot with a twist: the killers end up in the house of the woman they murdered and the distraught parents proceed to mete out their vengeance on them. Wolf Creek on the other hand, has no such poetic justice or sweet revenge; it is a bleak visual display of the evil that lies in man’s heart.

Both movies claim to be based on true stories, and I would well take their word for it. In this zany world, folks killing each other with no motivation is hardly cause for surprise. Wes Craven’s film, while hailed as a groundbreaking and pioneering oeuvre, hardly gripped me the way Wolf Creek. Granted, pioneering films are not always known for their cinematic excellence; similar films that follow have better technology at their command and they also learn from the mistakes of the past. So while Night of the Living Dead might have been pioneering, Dawn of the Dead is a much better crafted and more effective movie.

So too with Last House on the Left, it perhaps succeeds as a view into the dark recesses of human evil, but as for realism, suspense and gripping terror, it trails behind Wolf Creek. Both films are deeply unsettling, and Wolf Creek is damn near unwatchable. The villains in Last House might be coldblooded, remorseless killers, but they do not give you the jitters every time they are on screen. The Wolf Creek slaughter machine however, is chillingly efficient at raising your heartbeat and your nape hair.

Wolf Creek had a much tighter script, sparse dialogue and numerous scenes that notched up the nerve-wracking anticipation. Last House has a lethargic quality to it, it’s like watching a snuff film shot in slow motion with two bumbling cops who do a lousy job of providing comic relief. People might argue that Last House is less nihilistic, with redemption coming in the form of revenge. The killers do not go scot free. Be that as it may, Wolf Creek is the better film. I wonder how Craven would shoot Last House if he were to remake it today. For a directorial debut it’s not bad, but he’s definitely honed his craft well over the years.He’d do the concept better justice, I’d assume , long as he does not use the same scriptwriters employed for his last directorial outing, Spiderman 3

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

World Without End

Ken Follett has carved out quite a name for himself penning great espionage thrillers; the rare kind of airport novel that are a notch above the rest and worth re-reading. The mass paperback market is the territory of such personages as Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele. Follett inclusion in this list would not merit surprise. But future times will not remember Follett’s Eye of the Needle or The Key to Rebecca as much as they remember his historical epic The Pillars of the Earth. Vast in scope and populated with tremendous characters who encompassed every vice and virtue known to man, Pillars transformed Follett from a purveyor of cheap thrills into a mature writer who could craft a thousand page epic that was as riveting as any of the paperback thrillers he wrote.

Eighteen years have passed since Follett’s magnum opus; years he spent writing fiction, which, while good, would be forgotten in a generation. World Without End, however is a different kettle of fish. I felt it inferior to Pillars, but that is in no way a criticism, considering how good Pillars was. The book is a sequel of sorts to Pillars; it takes place in the same village and the descendants of the Pillars protagonists feature prominently. The priory of Kingsbridge is home once again to the evil machinations and virtuous enterprise of rich and diverse characters.

Our hero Merthin, is an architect nursing grand ambition, great ingenuity and a seemingly hopeless love for the plucky and spirited Caris. Caris is an absolute rebel, and flouts almost every societal rule espoused by fourteenth century England. She is a woman before her time, torn by her desire for independence and her love for architect boy. She also dabbles in medicine, despises authority and her religious beliefs are heretical to the point of atheism. Our villains include Ralph, Merthin’s headstrong, bullying brother whose primary passions are fighting and philandering, Godwyn the stubborn prior whose purpose it is to thwart any and all plans with a semblance of sensibility and Philemon, his sycophantic lieutenant who’s got a severe case of kleptomania. There are a lot more peripheral characters, but Follett does them justice by fleshing them out, giving them significant roles and making sure they contribute to the overall plot. Against the backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, Follett does a masterful job of crafting a vast story spanning many decades. As with most epics, one expects that good will triumph and the gallivanting hero will land the woman of his dreams; but the author manages to keep the element of suspense alive. Mostly, Merthin’s and Caris’ plans are frustrated by mere pigheaded authority, obstinacy, and the superstitions of those in power. Independently, they manage to make enemies of almost everybody who has a say in the running of Kingsbridge and only reason, and their popularity among the more sensible locals will help them in their causes. This book has it all: politics, dark secrets, conspiracies, steamy scenes aplenty, undiluted evil and virtue pure as the driven snow. It was a time when men were real men, women were real women and let us say nothing of Alpha Centuari.

I’d been reading Connie Willis’ Hugo winner The Doomsday Book at the same time I was reading this. Both novels deal with fourteenth Century practices and prevailing social mores in some detail, and the important lesson to be taken away from their perusal is this: the fourteenth century absolutely blows. Not only was there no internet, but also the living conditions were terrible, the people were absolutely filthy, superstitious to the point of idiocy and the plague didn’t help matters any. The church’s near-absolute governance over the people’s day-to-day lives coupled with their absolute ignorance in many matters further exacerbated an already terrible situation. The feudal system and droit du seigneur prevailed; the feudal serfs had about as many rights as the sheep and women had less. Depressing times to live in, but a great backdrop for storytelling. Witness the success of Braveheart, The Seventh Seal & Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Ultimately, World Without End is pure escapist pleasure; a rich tapestry of enormous proportions woven together by an author at the top of his game. He gives you characters that you can identify with and feel strongly about and forces them into crunch situations that bring out the best and the worst in them. In some ways, both Pillars of the Earth and World without End are an allegory of the eternal fight between reason and ignorance in a world that seems to elect its leaders based on the Dilbert Principle.