DVD Reviews Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae stand at strained points with their husbands.  A letter from a mutual acquaintance, Addie Ross, arrives and informs the women she's taking one of their husbands and running off.  This prompts suspicion and reflection, as all three remember the hard times with difficult to love men.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs A Letter to Three Wives, with the screenplay written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Vera Caspary, and stars Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern.

A Letter to Three Wives has a mean streak as subtle as it is all-encompassing.  It starts playfully enough, with a lovely voiceover telling the audience what we're about to watch "might be fictitious" and any character resemblance "might be purely coincidental."  Barely a minute later, after director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's camera takes a jaunty float through town and comes to rest in front of a gorgeous home, the same woman teasing about the veracity of this tale says the home belongs to Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) - the man who gave her a first black eye and a first kiss.  The playful pretense continued, but I couldn't join in knowing what Brad was capable of, and if he's so genial the rest of the husbands deserved the same suspicion.

The tension I felt in this introduction sustained my interest and racked my nerves throughout the rest of A Letter to Three Wives.  I know that Brad's capable of violence, and with that knowledge I couldn't help but cast a suspicious eye on the rest of the men.  This suspicion grew uncomfortably real in George Phipps' introduction - first because George is played by Kirk Douglas, a man so comfortable dominating the screen it feels as though everyone else has to shirk back by default.  Second because he's trapped visually in a frame made from the car window, and as Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) speaks with him his energy grows to genial if somewhat menacing trapped in that space.


Lake Mungo (2008)

Alice Palmer, sixteen years old and seemingly happy with her life, drowns under mysterious circumstances.  Dissatisfied with official reports, her family begins taking unusual steps to find out what happened to their daughter.  A documentary crew follows, records, and leads the Palmers to revelations they might not want to know.  Joel Anderson wrote the screenplay for and directs Lake Mungo, and stars David Pledger, Rosie Traynor, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, and Steve Jodrell.

Lake Mungo, in concept and execution, may be the most perfectly realized found footage film in existence.  Found footage is fascinating as a mode of cinematic expression because of the implications of its existence.  There's a fictional editor at the wheel, taking bits of people's lives and crafting a narrative for an audience to serve a purpose we can only speculate about.  Writer/director Joel Anderson understands this on an almost preternatural level, witnessing a family torn apart by the loss of their daughter, having those wounds freshly reopened because of technology, and creating a film where its existence relies on wounding the Palmer family one more time for our entertainment.

The affect of Lake Mungo is in its gaps.  Other found footage horror has played with our expectations of empty spaces, that anxiety that something needs to be in shots of empty halls or static bedrooms, then confirming that anxiety with horror.  The gap at the center of Lake Mungo contains no scares - at least not in the way other horror films have used them.  The absence of Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) isn't some distraction so her ghost might pop out of the corners.  The absence is the horror, the realization that she is dead and never coming back, and that our constant need for entertainment and intrigue has put the Palmer family on a traumatic cycle where they'll be forced to relive the loss of their daughter for the rest of their lives.


Martyrs (2008)

Lucie cannot escape her trauma.  It comes at night, when she rests, and in moments of peace.  With the help of her lover Anna, Lucie hopes that confronting the source of her suffering will bring it all to an end.  Pascal Laugier wrote the screenplay for and directs Martyrs, and stars Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui.

We don't believe victims.  When victims come forward with stories of sexual assault or targeted harassment for their skin color, we do everything we can as a society to dull their truth.  How else could we get through the day if we accepted there is more trauma in a city block than any human has shouldered in recorded history.  But martyrs are an industry.  Martyrs give advertisers inspiration porn, stories of people who have every right to lash back at their aggressors while opting instead to forgive, and we get to comfort ourselves in the useful lie that what separates martyrs and victims is the strength to forgive.  Victims are weak, martyrs are inspirational.

Writer/director Pascal Laugier exposes this truth in brutal fashion.  In the propulsive first half of Martyrs, Laugier introduces young Lucie (Jessie Pham) as the sickening sound of her flesh pounds and scrapes against pavement while she runs away from unseen torturers.  The next moment, she's the subject of a television special with a warmly dressed presenter aimlessly speculating as to why Lucie suffered.  Without unearthing a reason and Lucie too traumatized to speculate, there's no martyrdom, and if Anna (Erika Scott) didn't become Lucie's friend she'd be just another victim lost to the orphanage system.


White Dog (1982)

Julie, a struggling actress, decides to take over the care of a large white German Shepard she hits with her car.  After the dog protects her from an assault it seems she has found a perfect protector.  Her perfect protector has a fatal flaw - he's been groomed to have a taste for black skin.  Julie begins searching for a way to keep her protector alive and finds a man willing to try and deprogram the white dog.  Samuel Fuller directs White Dog, with the screenplay written by Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson, and stars Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, and Paul Winfield.

I believe racism can be defeated, and toward the end of White Dog it is - if only for a moment.  What happens afterward, and closes the film, is where Samuel Fuller introduces the last of his many ink blot tests where the confrontational images onscreen forced me into thinking just who is in the right.  Personally, the dog had the correct target in mind just when everyone thinks he has been deprogrammed to no longer be an attack dog.  People who want to bury the sins of racism or consider the violence committed in the name of white supremacy the acts of "lone wolves" are complicit in the next act of violence. And the next. And the next.

Fuller gets to this point by painting a striking portrait of how white supremacy views itself in the midst of White Dog's melodrama.  The simple, strong, and quick-to-action German Shepard is given the action hero treatment.  He's smart enough to figure out how to escape an electrified cage in a sensational slow-motion shot looking up at the dog as he ignites sparks while leaping over his prison.  Then there are his protective actions, fueled by the war movie propaganda playing on Julie's (Kristy McNichol) television, and the dog gets another shot worthy of his heroics as he jumps through a window to attack a man assaulting Julie.


Messiah of Evil (1973)

Point Dune, California is host to an artist's colony and stiff, if helpful, townsfolk.  Arletty arrives at Point Dune looking for her father, and soon discovers there's a whole other side of the town waiting for the arrival of their dark messiah.  Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote the screenplay for and directed Messiah of Evil, which stars Marianna Hill.

My urge to laugh at Messiah of Evil was the most pleasant minute of its run-time.  How could I not?  There's a disheveled man stumbling around in the dark while some cheesy tune singing about messages to the wind and stories to the sea strummed about on the soundtrack.  That urge died as quickly as the unidentified man when he stumbled into pale blue light, under the watchful eye of a stoic girl, who takes advantage of the moment he catches his breath to slice his throat open before the film cut to darkness.

Blue to red, black to white - Messiah of Evil continued working in extreme contrast long after my urge to laugh died.  The tone that kept me terrified throughout is more firmly established in the scene following the excellent misdirection of the opening.  In a blinding hallway, a black figure emerges and starts a monologue about how no one will hear you scream.  Again, potentially cheesy, but the light is so bright that the figure emerges like someone experiencing a reverse near-death experience, and Arletty's (Marianna Hill) scream so piercing that even a nervous chuckle would be cut cold.