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2000, Dir. George Romero
2001, Dir. Dario Argento
Both films signal the ends of hiatuses: seven years for Romero and three for Argento. A lot has changed about horror in the years since these men last made films. Horror is sleeker, softer, cuter, and with very few exceptions, not as good. These two films represent attempts on the parts of their creators to get with the times while retaining their creative identities. Both succeed, but that by itself does not a good film make. Each film left me nonplussed after the initial viewing but then nagged me relentlessly, shooting plot points and scenes through my head until I discovered nuances that had slipped by. I watched them both again.
Before I discuss Bruiser, I’d be remiss not to tip my hat to B Movie Message Board comrade Marlowe, for a conversation with him gave rise to many of the points in this review. As he observed, Bruiser makes one think a hell of a lot more than any other current horror picture.
Bruiser concerns Henry Creedlow, a businessman in the employ of a magazine company. He seems to be stuck on the corporate ladder, a position that earns him the disdain of his golddigging wife Janine, who is having an affair with his flamboyant asshole of a boss, Milo. The morning after a particularly emasculating experience at Milo’s company barbecue, Henry wakes to find his face replaced with a blank white mask. He’s also becoming more assertive, and he asserts himself with a vengeance.
In order to enjoy Bruiser fully, you have to forget most of what you know about George Romero; though once you get past the veneer his trademark scathing social commentary and wit are apparent. This is his slickest looking film, full of camera movement and tracking shots, far removed from the more “staccato” (his word) approach of films like The Crazies and Martin. Romero is no trickster, and he doesn’t attempt any flashy Darren Aronofsky stunts, but his sets are astounding and explored fully by the mobile camera. The sets are also fully explored by the narrative, most notably Henry’s unfinished house which is crucial to his character. As he moves past the bare walls, through the plastic sheets hanging in the doorways, and around the scattered symbols of humanity (pictures, appliances, etc.) you get the feeling that he is exploring his own psyche. This symbolism is further illustrated in things that happen around the house. For example the dog (a small, furry embodiment of Henry’s marital frustrations) operating the circular saw via the floor switch, startling Henry who happens to be eating breakfast on it.
Further removing this film from the rest of Romero’s work is the absence of his usual group of collaborators and bit part actors. He still stays away from stars, this time casting recognizable character actors as his leads. Jason Flemyng from Guy Ritchie’s films plays Henry; and Peter Stormare, the stoic psycho in Fargo appears to be enjoying himself thoroughly while hamming it up as Milo. Nina Garbiras plays Henry’s wife and nicely gives a little substance to a role that easily could’ve become a stereotype. Milo’s long-suffering wife and Henry’s confidant Rosie is played by Leslie Hope. Her character progression helps ground the film in Romero’s brand of realism. One past Romero collaborator who makes a strong contribution is composer Donald Rubinstein, whose score may just be his best work.
One of the things you wonder while watching this film is whether or not it was intended as a satire of the slasher genre. While it doesn’t technically fit into either the Halloween style slashers or the Italian giallo mysteries, there are elements that could be taken as pointed references towards either. Firstly and most obviously, the mask. Masks are almost omnipresent in slasher films and more often than not have very few discernible facial features. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is perhaps the first featureless mask, and the tradition appears most famously over the mug of Michael Myers. Of course, the more recent Scream flicks feature the white visage of Edvard Munch’s painting. In all of those films, the purpose of the masks was disguise, but here Romero flips that around. For Henry Creedlow, the mask is a vehicle with which he learns to express himself. As he comes into his own he applies layers of paint to the mask, first humanizing it with flesh tone and then transforming it into a kabuki-esque explosion of his feelings. In place of the unmasking of a mentally and / or physically deformed killer, the disappearance of Henry’s mask reveals him as, finally, a fully formed human being.
Another possible method of satire is the character of the killer. In Bruiser there is never any doubt about the killer’s identity; in fact he is in almost every frame. Like the typical serial killer character, Henry seeks a kind of cleansing or redemption through murder. Unlike said prototype, he does not prey on innocents who somehow represent the bad hand the killer has been dealt. His murders are focused and with purpose. Furthermore, Romero doesn’t present murder as the only method of coping; rather he treats the narrative of Bruiser as the result of one man’s set of circumstances. Henry is even presented with an alternative, one that is heartbreakingly and realistically denied him because of his actions.
Henry’s character is more than a possible method of satire. Understanding the motivations of the killer is key to appreciating the film, and many a slasher has been sunk for underestimating this. Not so here, for even some of the questionable aspects of Henry Creedlow are cleverly and subtly explained by Romero. Some may even have problems with Henry’s seemingly abrupt embrace of nihilistic violence, but the signs are ample up to that point. Essentially, this is a man who has violent fantasies and keeps his gun pretty much out in the open. Keep pushing him and he will snap. Since the world of the film is presented through Henry’s eyes, and we have to accept the reality of the mask with him, his character has to be fleshed out completely. Which is why on my first trip through Bruiser, I wondered why some of Henry’s lines were so corny and unnecessary (“You’ve taken my identity!”). It was later that I realized that this man is only just now learning how to express himself. If you, like me, wrote poetry in high school you’ll know what I mean. It’s nuances such as those with which Romero gives his characters depth.
For all its positive aspects, the film isn’t perfect. Despite Henry’s very straightforward and brazen way of going about things, there is never a sense that he might be caught or have to pay any legal consequences. When Henry’s destiny is revealed in the conclusion, Romero’s heavy irony is undercut by the goofiness of the scene. Given Henry’s new circumstances, (I’m trying not to spoil things) it’s a wonder the mask ever went away.
For the most part Romero has resisted making concessions to the current style of horror film, and that is what damned Bruiser to straight-to-video existence. I’m sure that if the cast of the film were collectively 15 – 20 years younger George would’ve had a blockbuster on his hands. Instead he made a film about middle-aged, real people who more adequately reflect his worldview and ideals. In terms of being clever and thought-provoking, Bruiser stands head and shoulders above anything recent in it’s genre. It succeeds at being a good George Romero film, which is good medicine in the year 2002.
Dario Argento’s Sleepless deals with a murder case that was thought to have been solved in 1983. When a rash of murders recall the case the police go to retired inspector Ulisse Moretti, who thought he had solved the old case. Despite initially shrugging it off, the old cop helps the son of a victim get to the bottom of things. Along the way there are red herrings, grisly murders, and looks back at the legacy of past Argento giallos.
A widely held opinion among genre enthusiasts is that Dario Argento has been in steady decline since his delirious film Phenomena in 1985. Sleepless is a return to form of sorts, but it’s not going to make those fans jump up and down with glee. It’s the classic giallo style with plenty of signature touches and references to his past films, most notably Deep Red and Inferno. What keeps it from being as effective as those films is its lack of Argento’s signature inventive camera work and wild use of color. This therefore exposes Argento’s Achilles heel: the script. He’s never been big on scripts, and here along with his collaborators Franco Ferrini and Carlo Lucarelli he leans heavily on genre conventions and revisions of his past themes. The idea of a retired cop and the myriad conflicts that come with the idea (haunted by an old case, pooh-poohing the new methods, solving the case but dying before he can tell anyone) is trotted out and saved only by the noble performance of the legendary Max von Sydow. Familiar Argento topics such as the significance of animals as clues and the horror of childhood form the crux of the story. Some of the script problems can be attributed to the absolutely wretched dubbing in the Artisan release; one really has to wonder if the murders are so blatantly telegraphed in the Italian treatment.
The acting doesn’t fare much better than the script. Von Sydow makes it through with dignity intact, enduring the afore-mentioned cliches and sharing his most meaningful dialogue with a parrot. I suppose it’s unfair to hold the rest of the cast up to von Sydow, but this bunch of pretty and not-so-pretty young things are fairly unremarkable and further muted by the dubbing. When your psycho killer adopts a voice that sounds like Adam Sandler’s "little boy" voice, the film is in trouble. None of these young performers are Argento’s daughter Asia, whose sole contribution to the film is penning the nursery rhyme that becomes a major plot point. It’s a neat little rhyme in the Edward Gorey tradition, but I don’t see Asia replacing Mother Goose any time soon.
The film is shot in a more realistic style, eschewing any hint of the supernatural. This deprives Argento of his usual techniques, but his creativity shows up in other areas. The pop-up book sequence as von Sydow reads the nursery rhyme is inventive and reminds me of something that Jeunet and Caro would do. Other highlights are shots of the working internal mechanisms of an answering machine, and a long tracking shot along a carpet that ends with a wicked pun on ballet dancer’s feet. In the early train sequence Argento alternates interior and exterior shots, contrasting the claustrophobic aisle with the vast darkness outside.
Like Romero, Argento is for the most part working without the recognizable faces from his past. The only recurring actor is Gabriele Lavia, who appeared in both Deep Red and Inferno. Franco Ferrini has had a hand in writing almost every Argento film since 1985. But the most notable return is that of Argento’s frequent musical collaborators, Goblin. Their sound is bass heavy and slightly beefed up for this film with distorted guitar and pipe organ largely replacing the whacked-out synthesizers of the past. Even though certain aspects of the film can be seen as concessions to the current thriller trends (fresh young faces, an obsession with cell phones, the obligatory dance club sequence) this film does not exist to sell a soundtrack. Goblin’s music is not extraneous and does its part to enhance the film’s atmosphere, which due to the wooden dubbing and suspenseless murders needs all the help it can get.
In an interview about the film, Argento states that the two most common requests he hears from fans are "finish the Three Mothers Trilogy" and "do another giallo like Deep Red". Given Sleepless’ subtle and not-so subtle references to his classic thrillers, it seems that he has fulfilled the second request. Those same references also hurt this film by strongly recalling those past films and reinforcing the fact that it doesn’t measure up. While it’s not just to measure a film by its director’s past, the plenitude of references make the comparisons inevitable. Argento has vowed to make two more thriller films which along with Sleepless will comprise another trilogy in the spirit of his early "Animal Trilogy". Perhaps as he continues to acquiesce his personal style to the current methods Argento will give us something to be truly excited about.
After the second viewing of each film I came to the conclusion that the world, or at least the video store, is a better place with new films by Romero and Argento in it. With Bruiser we have a serial killer thriller with brains, something that hasn’t happened since American Psycho and god knows when before that. Sleepless can be seen as Argento bidding a farewell to his established genre methods before he (hopefully) breaks new ground with his next two films. Even though the films aren’t perfect, they show us that the old guard is not about to roll over in the face of trends. In addition to Argento’s vow, Romero is getting closer to breaking ground on his fourth "Dead" film. So even though the future of horror may continue to be dominated by teenyboppers and T&A slashers, there will be a few bright spots.