Posts Tagged ‘The Poseidon Adventure’


 

gaslight poster

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Gaslight aka Angel Street, The Murder in Thorton Street,  A Strange Case Of Murder  (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard.  84 minutes. ** 1/2

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston.  Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

So here we have yet another stake through the heart of the oft-repeated premise that “Remakes Always Suck.”

This also serves as eloquent argument against the premise that remakes are coming closer together, today, than they ever have before. We’ve already covered the three versions of THE MALTESE FALCON made within ten years, the last of which was the only great one; and, only slightly less dramatic, three versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS made within thirteen years, of which only the last one can be legitimately argued to have gotten the story anywhere close to right. The movies under discussion this time out, made only four years apart, may seem an extreme class, but a couple of the Musketeer movies were that adjacent, and the Falcon movies were almost as much so. Still, four years is an unusually narrow gap. It may not be our all-time record – that would be two POSEIDON ADVENTURE movies made a year apart –but it’s close.

Both films are based on the 1938 play set in the Victorian era about the cad of a husband who, to keep his wife from realizing that he’s a con man searching the attic of their London home for priceless jewels, sets about deliberately driving her insane – or, more accurately, convincing her and the world that she is insane, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. If this seems an unlikely premise, please keep in mind that much of what occurs here presents a genuinely sophisticated understanding of the dynamic between some emotionally abusive husbands and their terrorized wives. In the real world, the household becomes a closed system, where the wife is cut off from any possible reality check on the part of friends and family who might be able to halt her disintegration; she is made to believe that everything that happens is her fault; she is offered little moments of affection and reward that are just as cruelly withdrawn, in a manner designed to make her feel that the blame for the loss is her own. Pathetically grateful for any indication of kindness, as her self-esteem is reduced not just to zero but to negative numbers, a woman in this position can be made to believe the most ridiculous premises, even those that contradict the evidence of her own senses. In 1940 and 1944, the premise might have seemed over the top; today we’ve seen and recognized too many real-world examples where exactly this form of abuse was made to work, and the saddest truth associated with either movie is, frankly, that when each movie’s independent investigator arrives to tell the heroine that she’s not insane and that her husband’s merely been twisting her perceptions to make  her think so, the ladies in question are, if anything, restored to sanity more easily than most. Witness the oft-seen moment from any number of domestic abuse cases, where the wives with the freshly broken nose and the freshly fat lip refuses to press charges, insisting to cops that the bullying subhuman who did it is “a good man.” Of course, the premise that a woman might have the right to defy her husband, or even walk out on him if he treats her poorly enough, was still sufficiently radical at the time these movies were made – let alone the time being written about – that the play hedges its bets somewhat, revealing in its final movements that the cad has another wife and child off in another country, and that our heroine is therefore not actually his wife,  and is therefore free to react as his treatment of her should have been enough to dictate.

The two movies are not identical. Though based on the same play, and including some nearly identical scenes, there are substantial differences between them, down to the plot level. The 1940 version is much more faithful to the play; the 1944 version changes many of the particulars, in large part to better showcase and protect its stars.

Gaslight (1940): Not Really About Her

The 1940 film, half an hour shorter, begins with a shadowy figure sneaking up behind a sweet little old lady, Alice Barlow (who’s embroidering a pious sampler, just to make sure we get the dastardly nature of the crime), and strangling her. Years later, the two upper floors of her now-abandoned home are sealed off, and the rest of the home renovated for new tenants:  Paul and Bella Madden (Walbrook and Wyngard, respectively), who pull up in a carriage, and at very first sight are recognizable to us as not the happiest of couples. Bella looks haunted, almost spacey. Paul seems stiff and resentful around her. There is no clear sign of even theoretical affection between them.

Clearly, he has already started to break her down, to make her the malleable thing he wants her to be. One immediate effect of this is that she is immediately removed from the role of protagonist; that position is taken by B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), a retired detective who worked on the old lady’s murder case and whose suspicions are rekindled now that the house is occupied again. Rough is an older man, and a rather roly-poly one, so any question of actual sexual chemistry between him and Bella, in the latter scenes, is negated. The suspense lies in whether he can get the goods on Paul, and rescue Bella, before the damage done to her is irreversible.

We further learn, from a visiting relative who is denied permission to see Bella, that she has always been a frail person whose health has always been in question. There has never been any strength in her, never any personal will aside from the will she borrows from those who take care of her. We first meet her when she’s already reduced by her husband’s treatment of her and we therefore have no idea what kind of person she could be, if treated with genuine love or kindness. We feel sorry for her, but that’s about as far as it goes, and as far as it’s ever permitted to go.

The revelation, before long, that Paul is the murdered woman’s ne’er-do-well nephew, and that his beastly decision to drive his wife mad began with her discovery of a letter that he sees as possible evidence against him, further removes her from the center of this, her own story. It really has nothing to do with her. She saw something she should not have seen. Before that point she was just a woman who didn’t realize she was the victim of a bigamist. At some point, he either actually liked her or thought she would be useful cover to have around; we honestly don’t know, nor are we given enough evidence to know.

We find out in both movies that Paul’s nightly disappearances from his home are cover, to re-enter the home through the attic by first cutting into a nearby abandoned building, so he can search for the jewels he’s been after all along. In the 1940 film, the explanation for what he does when he leaves at night comes fairly early, to both us and detective Rough. Also in 1940, the sexual chemistry between him and the sinister young maid is explored to a much greater degree than what we’ll get a mere four years later; he actually indicates to her that when his wife is locked up in the asylum, the two of them will be free to rumpty-dumpty, and in fact takes her on an extended date to a show at a London music hall, which doesn’t add as much as to the story as the screen time would seem to indicate but does permit the film to include an extended high-kick dance number, which was considered an absolute good, once upon a time.

The climax reveals that the mind-bogglingly valuable rubies the whole thing has been about, all along, were all hidden in Bella’s locket, which defies plausibility, as the locket is about the size of her thumb and the jewels would all have to be the size of periods on a printed page. It’s hard to credit those as valuable rubies. Those are the chips removed from valuable rubies when the jeweler cuts them into a pleasing shape.

Still, once Detective Rough tells her what’s up, both apart from her husband’s presence and while he’s there fuming to hear it, Bella’s confrontation with her exposed “husband” is a powerful one, in which the weak, fragile, shattered wife actually does look like she’s about to stab him with the knife in her hand, out of sheer loathing. One advantage of not really knowing her character beforehand is that we honestly don’t know what she’s going to do; she is revealed for the first time in those scenes, and it’s a powerful moment. The film is beautifully shot and furnished with sumptuous sets, and though neither quality is quite as magnificent as what we’ll get a few short years later, it ain’t nothing, either. It’s not a bad film. It’s actually a pretty good one, better as a predecessor to its particular classic than the first Maltese Falcon  was to the Humphrey Bogart version. But few people would remember it today, or have any real reason to see it,  if not for its position as footnote to what would shortly follow a few short years later.

 

 

Gaslight (1944): Beware The Attack of Pretentious Gallic Smoothies

The 1944 version – which is, let’s say right off, to an order of magnitude a greater feast for the eyes – offers us a lot more, in the way of substantive changes, than just the introduction of far more charismatic actors.

To start with, the victim of the original murder is not a sweet little old lady making pious samplers. She’s a world-famous opera singer, renowned throughout the world, and the owner of jewels that were bestowed upon her by a smitten crowned head of state; it therefore becomes much more believable that the jewels are priceless enough to have been worth all the to-do made about them. (She doesn’t appear in the story as a character, but we see a portrait of her, and can tell that she was still relatively young and beautiful when killed; and on top of this her character helps inform that of her niece Paula (Bergman), who is here presented as a girl who has substantial singing talent of her very own, who foolishly gives up her ambitions when she falls in love with her future “husband” Gregory.)  Gregory (Boyer) a piano player who once accompanied Paula’s aunt, has pretensions of a great future as a composer, but we soon learn that he really doesn’t have much to offer in that line; he is a non-talent, who is in evil ambitions subverts a girl who, we are made to believe, is a much grander one.

None of this is critical to the plot, but note how well all of it moves the endangered wife to the forefront. In the original, he owns the house and really doesn’t need her around while he searches it; he just begins his campaign to drive her mad because she’s seen an incriminating letter and he was treating her like crap anyway. In this version, she’s the inheritor of the house. He needs her to gain access to it, and so he uses his wiles to first deprive her of her ambitions and then of her property and then of her freedom of movement and then of her sanity; it’s a much greater series of betrayals, and it’s all focused on a girl we know. We may first meet her when she’s a traumatized teen being removed from her aunt’s house in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder, but by the time we catch up with her again on the continent, she’s far away from that tragedy and, though clearly still traumatized by it, a formidable young woman with substantial potential (if not in music, then at least for attaining happiness). We see, in her radiance, the depth of the love she thinks she’s found, in Gregory…and Bergman sells this feeling so substantially, so perfectly, that she’s substantially more beautiful in these scenes  than she was in her earlier hit Casablanca. And she’s not exactly a crone in Casablanca.

Charles Boyer’s acting style has not aged as well, alas – he was a pretentious gallic smoothie then, when that was a good thing, and that has only gotten worse as most screen acting has evolved in more naturalistic directions – but that actually rebounds to the movie’s benefit. Occasionally, a flawed performance is precisely the right kind of flawed performance. For instance, McCauley Culkin was not half the actor his co-star Elijah Wood was, when they played together in The Good Son, a thriller about a murderous, sociopathic child…but the limitations to his affect, and the general off-ness of his line readings, only furthered the impression that his character was a little monster only mimicking the proper emotional responses in order to seem properly human.  Much the same thing occurs whenever Tony Curtis played a con man, pretending at sophistication; the pretense was transparent, and rightly so. There about a million similar examples. To our modern eyes, Boyer is affected and corny…but exactly the kind of untrustworthy guy who might impress a naïve young girl who doesn’t know any better. It is a perfect twist on the material.

With this chemistry, Boyer playing Gregory as the most romantic, smooth-talking sharpie alive, and the first signs of trouble appearing as Gregory insisting to his lady love that of all the possible places where they can now settle, he wants a small house on a London Square exactly like the one that Paula has steadfastly avoided since her childhood trauma…the arrival at the house where most of the action takes place now plays a lot differently. Paula is apprehensive, but believes that she can be happy there; Gregory is clearly manipulating her and just beginning his transformation from eloquent romantic to control-freak, but she is not yet a doormat; she has every reason to believe that she might be happy. Her character begins from a place a lot different than the character from the first film. In this remake, we know her well and like her before she ever enters the house with her creep of a husband. She has a character  that can be broken down. And so it plays at a much higher level when he acts downright unhinged, during a tourist visit to the Tower London; when he starts hiding household objects and leading her to believe that she has stolen them; when he encourages her to believe that she has had memory lapses; when this movie’s sinister young maid (a teen Angela Lansbury, in her movie debut), bullies her out of her plans to leave the house and go for a walk. It hurts to see this vivacious, beautiful, talented young girl having the life sucked out of her. It hurts less to see the same thing happen to somebody who’s already a doormat.

Paula’s connection to music also adds to another key moment of the story. Both films include a scene where the husband consents to her attendance at a high-society party that includes a piano recital, only to cruelly accuse her of stealing the watch which he has hidden away in her handbag, and drive her from the room in tears. In the 1940 version, there is no special reason to believe that Bella is enjoying anything more sophisticated than the rare opportunity to be seen out in public. She seems profoundly uncomfortable, even in her seat.  In 1944, it’s music. It transports Paula. Bergman is able to indicate that her character feels joy at the sound – and the cruelty of then robbing it from her is profoundly underlined.

In this film, there is no indication that Gregory’s dalliance with the nasty young maid goes any further than flirting on his part and yearning on hers; perhaps, despite clear evidence that the husband is a heel in other ways, 1944 Hollywood didn’t want to hinge too much of the story on that hard-sell, adultery. It’s a loss, even if the removal of the dance-hall sequence is a dramatic plus in that it doesn’t take us away from the main story at a point where it honestly doesn’t need to bleed tension.

(The smaller role doesn’t stop young Angela Lansbury, a teenager at the time and still a name performer today, from nailing what she’s given.  She says in an interview among the extras on the DVD set that includes both movies that she was very kindly treated by everybody – which she notes isn’t always the case, for actors of any age, and good luck in particular for the young girl enjoying her first big break.)

The revelation that Gregory is sneaking back into the house after leaving at night takes place a lot later in the story than in the 1940 version, and the solution to the mystery of the missing jewels is much more sensible and therefore much more satisfying. Paula’s confrontation with her securely bound husband, once he’s been exposed, is a killer-diller; after two hours of being reduced to an emotional invalid, she now gets to expel all of her anger and betrayal, and though there’s never any real sense, as in 1940, that she might kill him, the sudden return of the girl who’s been robbed from herself is the story’s heart, and Bergman nails it in one of the great sequences of her career. She won the Academy Award for the part, deservedly.

But the best of the story’s improvements to the play may be the most “Hollywood”; i.e., instead of giving us a fat old retired detective who swoops in to solve the case just to show he can, we get Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a Scotland yard functionary who also, persuasively, serves as possible future romantic interest for Paula.  He’s accused by another character of being in love with her. He very likely is. There is no reasonable way, even at movie-melodrama speed, for her to reciprocate. She only has a few minutes freed of the influence of her “husband.” But it is clear at the end that she is letting her rescuer into her life, and that at bare minimum she has found a friend who will be a positive presence in her days, to counter the loss of the monster who tried to destroy her. This is also more satisfying, if less realistic, than the heroine of the original getting nothing more than the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Cotton, who often played profoundly decent men, serves that function well here, though it needs to be noted that he could radiate evil when he needed to; see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Gaslight was the seventh full-length film of his career, all made in a three-year period, and was astonishingly his fifth great one. Nor was he finished with greatness for the decade; The Third Man was still to come.

This is, by the way, one of those occasional stories that adds to the English language; “Gaslighting” somebody has become a slang term for a pattern of psychological torture designed to get them to doubt their reality, and ultimately get them to blame themselves for their own abuse. It is therefore worth noting that when I recently mentioned on-line that I’d seen this movie for the very first time, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction editor and notable scamp Gordon van Gelder immediately insisted that my memory was failing me and that we’d seen it together. It took me hours to twig to what he was doing. Thanks a lot, Gordon.

The Incriminating Papers

1940 version: a reasonably effective melodrama, marred by remote characters and too narrow an arc for its leading lady. 1944 version: an all-time classic.

*

And now, the wife remembers it differently…!

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Gaslight aka A Strange Case Of Murder (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard. 84 minutes. ***

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston. Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

This is one of those times when I agree with Adam on the ratings of these films.  Both films are well made and for the most part well acted.  But neither one really blew me away.

I had seen the 1944 version a few times while growing up and always felt that the heroine was just too much of a pushover.  I mean first they bundle her off to get her away from London and the murder scene.  Then, some guy she’s only recently met  is allowed to take over running her life and takes her back to the murder house.  Then, some guy she doesn’t even know is allowed to convince her that not only is she not going mad, but her loving husband is nothing more than a murderer and thief.  Talk about a pushover!  And, this is the heroine we are supposed to root for?

I never knew of the existence of the 1940 version or the play until we stumbled across the listing on the cable barker.

I found the 1940 storyline much more satisfying, but constrained by the boundaries set by the stage play. It had a bit more feel of reality when a former police officer recognizes a suspect from a past case, and takes the case open again.  I mean isn’t this what COLD CASE is based on?

I guess I need to spoil everything if I want to state my major gripe with the story.  Guy meets girl/wins girl/moves with girl to supposedly strange (to him) place/begins controlling every aspect of girl’s life/begins convincing her she is going insane/is found out by third party and destroyed all in time to save girls sanity and life! The very idea of a murder occurring and the criminal being so obsessed as to hatch this convoluted plot to get his hands on the property.  It boggles the itty bitty grey cells.  And yet, the 1944 film, following these basic storylines, is considered by many to be a minor masterpiece.

Both films are very set bound and claustrophobic, which intensifies the drama.  The earlier version, just didn’t have the budget or directorial talent to pull off what the 1944 film did.

The Gaslight of 1944 had Ingrid Bergman playing weak with a steel core  and Charles Boyer playing slick and cruel.  One deserved all the praise heaped on her, the other wellll, not so much. Boyer’s stilted stylization in this film was really just an unease with acting in English and unfamiliarity with his co-star nd director. His later roles where he evinced a sly charm, came after much more time had passed and he was more a part of the American movie community.  But here, playing the foreign fella, well, the stiffness comes off as cruelty and “foreigner “ standoffishness.

Both films are well worth the time invested in their watching.  Neither is more, or less, than the set piece it was meant to be.  The earliest a good attempt at interpreting the play, the latter and lush film remembered for one of many roles of an incredible actresses career.

 


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland.  Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute).  * 1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

PeterVincent

You are a rather unremarkable and not very interesting suburban teen with a loving girlfriend, an outcast friend and a single Mom. Your life is unexamined, though it’s safe to say that there’s not really all that much worth examining. You’re not exactly Holden Caulfield. But then one day the vacant house next door sells to a new owner: a fellow who, it turns out, is a vampire intent on making your neighborhood his new feeding grounds. You can’t get anybody to believe you. Your only hope is a local celebrity named Peter Vincent, who incorporates vampire mythology as part of his act and who might be induced to see you as something more than a fanboy who needs to get out more.

This is the premise of two teen horror comedies made 26 years apart, and the first thing we need to say here is that we’re not about to overstate the quality of either one of them. The first one featured a fine late-career performance by Roddy McDowall as the vampire hunter and a smoldering performance by Chris Sarandon as the vampire, but is otherwise not tremendously overflowing with wit, interesting variations on vampire tropes or genuine scares. It’s just a dopey, time-killing, amusing and frequently very fun but ultimately wholly forgettable piece of multiplex fodder. It would only be remade in a remake-mad cinematic climate where vague title recognition is considered more important than, you know, a fresh story. Similarly, the second plays many of the same notes – albeit to lesser effect – and is not wholly devoid of entertainment value, but otherwise doesn’t provide much for audiences who want to remember their movies longer than it takes to drive home afterward.

Both movies have a regrettable void at their center: the character of Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale in the original, Anton Yelchin in the remake), a kid who is just a generically good-looking teen played by somebody not in his teens, whose character is never at any point any deeper than what’s happening to him at any given moment. In the first film, his major issue is trying to get his girlfriend to put out for him; in the second, it’s a desire for popularity so overwhelming that he’s re-invented himself to be one of the cool kids and completely forsaken his nerdy old friend, “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz=Plasse). It’s a minor point, even so, sped past for the benefit of an audience that would rather get to the so-called “good stuff;” it certainly doesn’t make him at all interesting. He doesn’t grow in any particular way, he doesn’t discover himself in any particular way, and though he must act as a hero by the time the action is over, there’s no real sense of him rising to the occasion, as the most satisfying heroes must.

Both Charleys are also intensely stupid, in their way. Here’s an intelligence test: if you find out that your next-door neighbor is a vampire, who has murdered at least one local hooker, do you blurt out “he’s a vampire!” to anybody who can help you, thus making them see you as a delusional crank? Or do you employ more subtlety, showing instead of telling? In the first film, Charley first becomes suspicious of his neighbor when the beautiful young woman who arrives in a cab to visit his next-door neighbor is recognizably the murdered hooker the TV newscast references the next morning. Okay, so this is not the kind of thing you want taking place next door, and Charley does (after waffling about it) call the police. However, blurting out in the presence of a skeptical detective that he search the basement for the vampire’s coffin is clearly not nearly as promising a tactic as what Charley doesn’t do, namely advise the detective that the hooker arrived in a cab and suggest that the cab driver might be able to corroborate her arrival at this particular address on this particular day, mere hours before her body was found. Also, both Charleys, seeking help from their respective versions of Peter Vincent, are adorably certain that the two show-biz figures actually do believe in vampires and actually have experience in fighting them. These are boys who have reached their late teens and still haven’t absorbed the elemental lesson that the people they see on television, playing parts, may not be exactly like the people they play. Their naivete might have made more sense had the two Charleys been about five or six years younger, media-saturated kids who actually believed the shit they watched, but the Charleys we get seem too too old to be  so inept at distinguishing fact from fiction, artifice from reality, in the case of Peter Vincent,  that they seem almost mentally ill.

The 26 year interval between the two films does present us with some interesting contrasts. For instance, watching the old film after an exposure to the new, one realizes that we’ve completely lost what used to be a vital device in cinematic shorthand, to wit: am abandoned  television set showing nothing but static in the wee hours of the morning, thus establishing that nobody was paying attention when the station ended its broadcasting day. Yes, once upon a time, you could really turn on TV at 3 AM and find nothing but snow, rendering literal the standard complaint that nothing was on. This is no longer the state of affairs in a world of 500 channels of 24/7 programming, so this oft-used cinematic shorthand has gone the way of the dodo.

More to the point, the character type McDowall played in the 1985 film no longer existed by 2011. In 1985 Peter Vincent was an old-time horror movie actor, of the Peter Cushing / Vincent Price / Christopher Lee type, who has fallen on hard times and is now employed as a local-TV “horror host” – a personality of the sort who was once used to introduce a station’s horror movies, with some kind of witty in-character banter. There used to be a dozen of these guys (and some girls), up and down the dial – when there were dials – and some of them had followings so loyal that fans tuned in to see the shtick more than the show it introduced. No less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock did a version of the horror host, a cartoonishly macabre version of himself, for every episode of his anthology program, though most of the people we’re talking about were introducing mostly-bad old movies and not original productions like Hitchcock’s. In 1985, Peter Vincent reduced to horror host was an effective, if only barely-explored, exercise in presenting us with the plight of a once-famous man now reduced to cannibalizing what was left of his notoriety. He was such an instantly sympathetic secondary protagonist that many of this viewer’s complaints about the movie would be negated if viewpoint character Charley were removed or given less time, and Vincent rendered the main figure.

But a quarter of a century later, there were no horror hosts, really; some of the older members of the remake’s target audience might have remembered Elvira, but that was about it. So Vincent’s character had to be re-invented completely, and here became a big-time Las Vegas magician, who uses vampire lore as part of his shtick. This was a clever bit of story surgery, and was probably necessary given that the earlier model of the character no longer worked, but…really. In terms of sheer likeability, the difference between a broken-down old actor holding on to the memorabilia of past accomplishments, who has been fired from his TV-host job and is about to be evicted from his home, and a wealthy Vegas entertainer living in a luxurious penthouse along with a super-model girlfriend he treats like crap, is night and day. One is a poor fellow who becomes what he once pretended to be;  the other is a rich asshole who doesn’t even have enough heart to grieve for thirty seconds when the girlfriend he had just been screaming at is gorily murdered.

One would almost forgive that last touch if the second Peter Vincent was supposed to be, not just a rich prick, but an outright sociopath. But no. It’s just unforgivably bad story construction. The movie simply fails to notice that Peter Vincent should feel more over the death of a woman he lived with, even if he didn’t like her much. (Perhaps especially if he hadn’t liked her much.)

The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who as a major contributor to TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer should have done better; we can only guess if what was on-screen reflects her work or if it was mangled afterward. But it’s not the screenplay’s only violation of basic human nature. What follows is a pet peeve of mine. Any thriller where a character’s loved one – or even somebody they just sorta kinda like — dies in horrific circumstances, where those circumstances are later overcome at great personal risk, and where the person who should now finally have time to mourn his loss makes light-hearted jokes with his fellow survivors, just to provide an undiscerning audience with the fake comfort of a supposedly happy ending, is absolute bullshit. Give the ending of the remake more than five seconds of thought and it’s not just bad; it’s downright revolting. (For an example of a movie that gets it right, see the somber mood of the survivors even as they wait to be rescued at the end of the original The Poseidon Adventure.  Ernest Borgnine looks back at the disaster that claimed his wife, and weeps.)

Another bad innovation of the 2011 version: the revelation that its Peter Vincent actually has a vampire-related tragedy in his past (a bloodsucker killed his parents), and has thus spent his life collecting artifacts that include the very same artifacts vital to killing this movie’s bloodsucking fiend.

The major problem with this is that it’s profoundly shitty storytelling.

Why is it profoundly shitty storytelling?

Let us summarize.

What’s more satisfying?

1) A naïve kid who, upon discovering that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire, goes to a vampire-shtick celebrity who happens to live within commuting distance, but who doesn’t have the answers he needs, and who therefore has to overcome his very real limitations to become the hero anyway.

OR,

2) That very same naïve kid making the same unsettling discovery and going to another vampire-shtick celebrity who also happens to live within commuting distance… and who  by sheer convenient coincidence actually does own the artifacts necessary for killing this particular vampire, because he secretly knows vampires exist and is in fact motivated by the childhood loss of his parents and who ultimately finds out that his parents were killed by that very same vampire? Man! That is known as wrapping too much up in a bow. It is known as being fortunate that you have the screenwriter on your side!

David Tennant, who played the 2011 Peter Vincent, has shown in another venue I won’t insult you by naming that he excels at playing flamboyant characters who fight monsters. But this film gives him precious little to do except scream insults at his girlfriend before joining Charley’s fight. He certainly gets nothing to do as satisfying as the seesaw of mingled horror and pity that McDowall so splendidly emotes while watching one recently-turned vampire writhe in its lengthy death throes.  (It’s one of the best performances of McDowall’s late career, though for absolute best you need to check out  a suspenseful little film called Dead Of Winter.)

For some reason, I wrote off Christopher Sarandon as male-model bland in 1985, but seeing the movie for the first time in a quarter-century  appreciate the nuances in his performance now; I especially like a lengthy nightclub scene, detailing the seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), which really is nicely put together. And he shows a significant sense of humor, throughout. I find it oddly interesting that, when first revealed as a vampire, he gives Charley  a chance to just mind his own business before declaring war; I can only wonder why (maybe as a courtesy to a neighbor?), but it is an interesting bit of character nuance. (And I wonder where the story would have gone if Charley had said yes; would we have had scenes of him earning extra money by mowing the vampire’s lawn, while nodding at the latest prostitute to be dropped off by cab?)  Sarandon is certainly a highlight of the first film, almost as important as McDowall is. Colin Farrell’s vampire is by contrast just a smirking asshole, even if he does get at least one somewhat-suspenseful early scene, in which Charley tries to escape the house with a girl who’s stayed to be dinner. The two movies have different bumpy routes to the finale, and each boast effective set-pieces not duplicated by the other – the pathetic apparent death of the vampirized Evil Ed in 1985, a fine attempt to get away from the vampire by car in 2011, a superior nightclub scene in 1985, the sad fate of a victim Charley manages to free in 2011– but, to this viewer, neither really congeal as movies worth falling in permanent love with. It’s simply not worth a scene-by-scene comparison. The stories are not strong enough, not memorable enough, to render the exercise worth the effort.

One thing’s for sure. Remakes can be most confidently dismissed as gratuitous when the first movie isn’t all that great and the remake isn’t either – indeed, when the remake has so few notes of its own to play that it makes a point of ticking off the bad guy’s fondness for apples. Talk about sad.

I do, however, love the name of the 2011 leading lady, Imogen Poots.

*

David Tennant

And now, the wife creeps in through an unguarded door, carrying a stake and a crossbow…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrel, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute). *1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

 

I was so darn excited to get into these films.

I remembered the first film with great fondness.  Not for its greatness in and of itself mind you, but for the sheer fun I had watching it all those years ago.  I remember seeing Chris Sarandon at a Horror convention and thinking not about his truly fun Humperdinck, but only his sexy vampire.  This was how I felt a modern vampire story should play out, and I held that memory as a cherished possession all this time.

Then that memory was soiled by the horrid, poorly understood remake made by folks who DEFINITELY should know better!

Yes, I know, vampires are evil, nasty ratlike creatures, who go for the easy pickings and low hanging fruit, but come on guys!  Where the Sarandon vamp is suave and smooth, the Colin Farrel  one is sleaze personified. Sure they are both great looking, but Farrel doesn’t even bother with seduction, just calling hookers and having his meals delivered.  His threats are clear and unveiled, no trying to just scare the kid off, just let him know that he and his are on the list.  Sarandon’s vampire tries everything to avoid killing the kid, well until the virgin girlfriend comes into his sights.  Even then he still seems to prefer seduction to killing in the overall scheme of things.

And, maybe today’s audiences don’t have the wherewithal to sit through a bit of storytelling, since the new film eschews most of the creepy atmosphere and build up to get right to the attacks and effects. 

Now, let’s compare our Peter Vincents.

Roddy McDowall, aging child/adult star, playing aging former horror movie dude, now relegated to late night horror host.  Got it!  When I was a kid, these hosts were pretty common, not so much now.  I asked a twenty something that I work with about Elvira and she only “kinda thought” she had heard of the character, couldn’t describe her or place her in any way.  I get the need for an update, but unfortunately, as much as I ADORE David Tennant (yes, I am a Whovian), the character given to him is too damn successful to care about the story these kids bring to him.  Come on again writers!  The vampire is the same one that killed his family and so he gets to play vengeance chicken.  Nuuh  Uhh!  No how!  No way!  Too stupid even for the youngest teens.  Did that idea come from the 7-11 school of screenwriting, because my teachers would have blown cannon holes through it all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the new film has no redeeming values.  David Tennant is still great (blinders are removed from my eyes here, I loved his Hamlet too!), despite the limitations of the character.  Colin Farrel seems to enjoy phoning in his vampire thug.  I always enjoy watching Toni Collette play American.  And the kids honestly try real hard to get across the fears.  But again, the original, for all the flawed deliveries and dated material (G-d I hate the look of early eighties hair/clothing), still produces more punch per minute, than the 2011 film can muster in any thirty.


“Why we didn’t fly, I’ll never know.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, others. 98 minutes. * 1/2

Other Related Films: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), sequel, starring Sally Field and Michael Caine, a critical and box-office bomb about salvage crews who discover more peril and more survivors after entering the capsized ship minutes after the survivors of the first movie are airlifted out; and, believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone’s flooded-tunnel movie Daylight (1996), which strands its cast in a situation Irwin Allen originally intended, many years earlier, to befall the various unlucky survivors of the first film, while they’re reunited on a train on their way to testify in court about the disaster. (You don’t wanna travel with those people any more than you wanna share a holiday with John McClain.) There was also an off-off Broadway musical, where an actor playing Mrs. Rosen in drag sings about how, in water, she’s a very skinny lady.

*

So there you are, chilling aboard a luxury liner on New Year’s Eve, singing your Auld Lang Synes, when all of a sudden, a whopper of a disaster hits, and the freaking ship turns upside down. Everything that was above you is now below you, everything that is below you is now above you, conversations about what was where now become comically and horrifically convoluted, and the ocean – motivated, perhaps, by an angry God – starts whipping up bigger and faster ways to kill you and the few others who happen to be left. Your only hope is a desperate climb to the hull, where there might, repeat might, be a way out. But the ship is not cooperating. The ship wants you dead.

This was the premise of The Poseidon Adventure, a bestselling novel by Paul Gallico that has some elements in common with,  but is otherwise very different from, any of the movies derived from its initial premise. It introduces characters like the tough cop Mike Rogo, his sexy but troubled wife Linda, the crusading preacher Reverend Scott, the crowd-pleasing old Jewish lady Belle Rosen, and the Shelby family, whose daughter Susan is here raped by a young crew member driven to temporary insanity by the trauma of the disaster. (She forgives his trespass immediately, tries to stop his subsequent self-loathing suicide, and upon surviving, hopes to keep his child; seriously, yuck.)  In this original version the ship capsizes due to a massive displacement of water caused by an undersea earthquake, and sinks much more slowly, allowing a much larger complement of survivors. It certainly has its degree of religious allegory, complete with a Christmas tree reconfigured as ladder to salvation, an angry Reverend so intent on his activist version of Christianity that he self-righteously knocks the tree over again, after all the people who helped raise it have already climbed, to prevent it from being used by those who hadn’t helped. (Nice guy.)  It, too, builds to a climax in an engine room that has become a vision of Hell, and subsequently to Reverend Scott’s death after angrily denouncing God.

The biggest surprise for the remaining survivors of Reverend Scott’s band is that after they emerge from the hull in tattered clothing, reeking of grease and oil and mourning their various dead, they see a much larger group (the ballroom passengers?) being rescued from the other end of the ship, where it seems not listening to Reverend Scott afforded them a much less troublesome disaster. But there are others. Among other things, Scott turns out to have had a secret sweetheart, who had looked forward to marrying him.

Clergy. Whattaya  gonna do.

This plot, somewhat altered for disaster-movie formula and dramatic license, became the 1972 film, which was such a monster hit it made twice as money as the year’s next biggest contender, Deliverance. Still one of the best films of its type, it was remade thirty years later, not once but twice in rapid succession,  less than a year apart, once as a two-part TV-movie, and once as a special effects extravaganza, both times (spoiler alert), poorly. None of them are high art. All three have capsizing sequences of equivalent effectiveness, within their respective resources and levels of technology. All three have cheesy characterizations and that gremlin of survival-under-impossible-odds stories, the sometimes too-easy-to-predict next person to die. All three present us with a pop song, sung by a contemporary chanteuse, just before the ship turns over on New Year’s Eve. All three have good actors who do everything they can with the material along with others who do everything in their ability to try to sink it.

You will certainly find any number of people willing to present even the original as, at best, a guilty pleasure, and at worst as an icon of monumental awfulness. But the truth is, it tells its story and largely tells it well. It is instructive to examine exactly why the remakes fail to rise to its standard.

The first movie: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Few films illustrate the general decline in the quality of popular filmmaking since 1972 more than the quality of the original Poseidon Adventure, in large part because it was never intended to be great. Granted, it’s got broadly-drawn characters, scenes staged for the highest possible level of melodrama, a couple of impressive non-performances mixed in with the genuinely good ones, and dialogue that occasionally lowers itself to the level of the ludicrous.  But precisely because it was never intended as a great film, but rather as an entertaining potboiler, its strengths stand out in sharp relief opposed to the deficiencies of so many high-concept blockbusters released today. To wit: it takes time to introduce its players, making sure we have reason to care about what happens to them; it pauses regularly during the action, to make the drama about more than outrunning explosions and great walls of water while shouting simplistic catch-phrases; it stages its action scenes with enough clarity to ensure that we know where the people stand in relation to the dangers facing them, and how their actions affect how they survive (or don’t); it has enough respect for issues of life and death to make sure that its people are touched by the tragedies they overcome, and are still affected by them at the end; and it bothers, really bothers, to try to be about something, even if that subtext is calibrated to such a level that many, if not all, of its viewers will fail to consciously register it.

Contrast this to a modern-day blockbuster of similar disposability, where all too often something must be exploding on screen at every available moment, and action scenes are all too often spastically-edited sequences with shots of one second or less where even frequent recourse to a DVD remote’s pause button may not be enough to clarify what’s happening to anybody.  And the level of its achievement, compared to the general decay of the art, becomes frighteningly clear.

We’re not old fogies saying that they haven’t made a good movie in forty years. They have. But most throwaway popcorn movies have certainly gotten worse since the S.S. Poseidon first turned upside down, and there are few better ways to illustrate that than with the various things this throwaway popcorn film bothers to get right.

Take, for instance, the character of Mike Rogo, the tough cop and general antagonist played by Ernest Borgnine in this film. He is very much a “type;” loud, blustering, often wrong, always negative. His courtship of his much-beloved and difficult wife Linda (Stella Stevens), changed from the novel’s Broadway performer to an ex-prostitute who he says he kept arresting until she finally agreed to marry him, is revealed in a few lines of clumsily-delivered exposition, of the sort that has two characters with a shared past discuss facts that are known to both of them just so the audience can keep up. It is not great dialogue. But by the time it’s over, we know the kind of guy he is and we know that he’s not just the story’s designated asshole. Sure, he’s got his rough edges, and he’s uncouth in the way that only a character played by Borgnine (let alone Borgnine lit from below), can be uncouth, but he’s also an emotionally vulnerable guy, a genuinely well-meaning man, and the loving husband to a woman who rides him mercilessly because (we have no problem seeing) that’s the only way she knows how to express love. How much more satisfying is this, than a one-note shithead of the sort we will come to meet in Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon?

Now examine the dramatic pacing. In this film, the rogue wave that capsizes the Poseidon arrives at the best possible time, dramatically: a little less than half an hour in. By then, we have spent a few minutes with each of the important players and have a functional picture of who they are. We know that Reverend Scott (Hackman) is in trouble with the Church for preaching about a God who generally doesn’t get involved with human affairs and who wants us all to solve our own problems. We know about the raucous state of the marriage Rogo, and about Linda Rogo’s self-consciousness over her criminal past. We know that the Rosens are a nice couple headed for Israel to see their young grandson for the first time, and that Mrs. Rosen is a genuinely compassionate woman. We know that the Shelby kids, here traveling on their own for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, bicker in the manner of any infuriating kid and long-suffering older sister. We know that James Martin (Red Buttons) is an affable lonely guy. These are not deep characterizations – and much rests on the shoulders of those performers gifted enough to invest these characters with their own vivid personalities, as opposed to a few like Carol Lynley who are definitely not. But it’s an adequate amount of time.

We also know, in that half hour, that the Poseidon is dangerously top-heavy, thanks to a tyrant from the cruise line’s front office, a stand-in for the Titanic’s real life J. Bruce Ismay, who refuses to let the put-upon Captain (Leslie Neilsen) take on additional ballast.

As audience members, we already know that the ship’s gonna be turning over sooner or later, and may resent the time spent on what we consider soap-operatics. But all of this is very necessary, so the characters on screen take on the appearance of people instead of actors getting out of the way as soon as possible so the stunt men and special effects wranglers can take over.

Then, once the ship turns upside down a few minutes after the coming of the New Year, and the dazed partygoers in the ballroom start to dig out from under the wreckage, the movie takes even more time,  almost half an hour, before the major players complete the process of figuring out what has happened to them, processing the tragedy, discussing what to do, figuring out that climbing to the engine room just might be a good idea, and finally climbing the Christmas tree to begin their fight for life.

Think of that. By this point the movie is almost half over. But nobody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everybody has acted, if not exactly like people act, then at least close enough to how people act to wring recognizable drama out of the proceedings.

And even in the hour that remains, an hour marked by rising water, cliffhangers, explosions, death scenes, conflict between Scott and Rogo, and – as we’re about to see – more religious allegory than you can shake a stick at, the action frequently pauses long enough to allow everybody to interact, to contemplate everything that’s happening to them, to show their personalities and to agonize over whether what they’re doing is the right thing.

It’s flawless pacing, really. Seen for the first time or for the tenth, enjoyed on its own level or as an icon fit for mockery, it has almost no dead spots; everything is there for a reason. Even the water stops rising at the engine room, to accommodate the much-more-important impersonal dramatics at the end.

And then there’s the other element, the one that lifts this film above its follow-up The Towering Inferno and the  increasingly gamey disaster films of the 1970s: a religious subtext that energizes everything in it even for those viewers who choose not to notice it.

Reverend Scott Dies For Our Sins

Stirling Silliphant, who co-wrote the screenplay (and who also worked on The Towering Inferno, to larger but much lesser effect), was no slouch; he had written a genuinely great film, In The Heat Of the Night. He saw the levels of religious symbolism already at play in Gallico’s novel and reconfigured them, to very deliberate effect.

So what we get here is a Reverend Scott who lays out the general thesis with a multidenominational sermon on the ship’s deck: “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way. “

After the disaster – itself a literal act of God — we have the debate over the best route to survival couched in terms of doubt versus belief. The complacent purser thinks help must be coming. The Reverend, prompted by lonely bachelor James Martin, passionately argues that everybody needs to climb out – specifically, toward a spot near the propeller shaft where the hull is only one inch thick, as opposed to two inches. Pinning all their hopes on this slender chance of survival is, for Scott’s followers, an exercise in faith that some other force will provide deliverance once they travel most of the way. 

The first step, which could not possibly be more symbolic: climbing the Christmas tree.

The various adventures along the way include constant arguing between the doubting Rogo and the crusading Reverend, and at one point an encounter with other passengers who are “headed the wrong way.”

Mrs. Rosen dies saving the Reverend’s life, but without getting to the promised land –  not just the engine room, but her intended destination, Israel – herself. Her last bequest, which she begs Scott to bring to her grandson, is her Chai necklace.

The engine room is, as in Gallico, a vision of Hell, complete with leaping flames.

Linda Rogo, the reformed sinner, falls at the last minute to her death in the fires.

Mike Rogo, who has been the voice of doubt all along, cries out in rage at the religious figure who had briefly infected him with faith.  “You! Preacher! Murderer! I started to believe in your promises, that we had a chance. What chance?”

A sudden explosion sends a jet of scalding steam against the wheel valve that is the last barrier between the survivors and the engine room.  Outraged, the Reverend confronts God directly, leaping to the wheel and turning it by hand in an act of personal sacrifice that, given the temperature of the steam involved, must mean burning the shit out of his hands. 

He shouts: “What more do you want of us? We’ve come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don’t fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood?  How many more lives? Belle wasn’t enough. Acres wasn’t. Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”

Tell me that this scene, shown below, is not a crucifixion.

He offers his life as a sacrifice while dangling from something with wounded hands. And, just in case you fail to get the point, the red wheel that closes the steam valve is also hanging there, right above his head, like a cartoon halo. Sound at all familiar?

Rogo, backlit by flames, is lost in his own personal hell until James Martin challenges him to “do something constructive for once.” He turns his back on the fire and rejoins the others in their fight for life.

It is then, and only then, that everybody gets to the room with the propeller shaft, where they are heard by a helicopter crew that has landed on the hull, and who cut through the steel, admitting the light from above. (And finally, the helicopter takes them to safety, which amounts to ascending into the heavens.)

None of this is at all subtle. It is, once pointed  out to someone who has failed to consciously notice it, almost painfully obvious. But it is there. It is perceived on a subconscious level if not necessarily a conscious one by the audience who came to see Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine interact with rising water and explosions. It gives weight to everything here, and gives the story a psychological impact that most disaster films miss utterly.

(Incidentally, if you want to see great acting that you’ve likely never noticed, go back to the moment where Rogo curses the good Reverend, and FORCE yourself to look away from Ernest Borgnine long enough to check out Jack Albertson (“Manny Rosen”) who’s standing right behind him. Remember that, only about ten minutes earlier in the film, Mr. Rosen had lost his own wife; that they haven’t traveled far from the spot where her body fell; and that he can likely see her from where he’s standing. Now it’s just happened to another guy, in front of his eyes…and Albertson brilliantly acts Manny Rosen, desperately wishing there were something adequate to say. Because what Borgnine is doing is so compelling, NOBODY who sees the movie is looking at Jack Albertson at that moment. His performance hearkens back to the time where movies were not just a series of extreme close-ups, unconnected to anything any other actor is doing…but performers reacting to one another even when they were not themselves the center of attention.)

The TV-Movie: The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Three decades later, the vagaries of rights and permissions resulted in not one but two separate and competing remakes coming out only a year apart.

Both fail miserably, but for different reasons, indeed diametrically opposed reasons.

The first remake, a two-part TV movie, suffered all the sins often endemic to creatures of that kind, among them woefully pedestrian direction, of the sort that will never stage anything in an interesting way if the obvious way is available first.

The dialogue is also substantially weaker, and the performers, who include types like C. Thomas Howell as the ship’s doctor and Peter Weller as Captain Paul Gallico (ha, ha, ha), are not up to fleshing out a pale teleplay with the mere force of their personalities.

The pacing is also a problem. The two-part network TV format requires that the film take a pause for commercial interruption every twelve minutes or so, all in service of a story that must delay the actual disaster until as late in Part One as possible, to make sure that there’s plenty of stuff worth tuning in for during Part Two. So the flipping of the ship doesn’t take place until about the fifty-minute mark, and the decision to try to climb out doesn’t take place until about twenty minutes later.

It is, we suppose, more than possible for the show to have filled that long wait with stuff an audience would have wanted to watch (see James Cameron’s Titanic, for a film many hated that nevertheless pulled off the trick at even greater length), but that’s not exactly what’s happening when the chief interpersonal story we have to sit through on the way involves the marital problems of Richard Clarke, a philandering novelist played by Steve Guttenberg. (If you have to lead with Guttenberg, you’ve already lost.)

The rest of the lead-up to the disaster comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the filmmakers, who had read somewhere that tsunamis are only a couple of inches high out at sea and therefore jumped to the conclusion that the setup of the 1972 version was literally impossible. (They were wrong, in that what capsized the original Poseidon was not a tsunami, which indeed would have been impossible that far out, but a rogue wave…which can easily achieve the heights posited by the first film.)

What results from their flailing-about for another mechanism of capsizing the ship is a series of jaw-dropping, self-destructive story decisions.

They resorted to a terrorism subplot, which of course leads to many scenes of swarthy third-world types in the Poseidon kitchen exchanging meaningful looks as they plan to set their charges.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if the disaster was a terrorist plot.

The film’s Mike Rogo (Adam Baldwin) becomes a Sea Marshall working undercover to guard against such a plot. There are intimations of a troubled marriage, but his wife is back home and he is all business, just another steely-eyed, grimly determined hero of no particular distinction.  In place of Reverend Scott we get Rutger Hauer as Bishop August Schmidt, an affable and easy-going man of God who, when the disaster happens and the desperate climb to survival begins, is just another guy working alongside Rogo who is never really at odds with Rogo at any time.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if Rogo and their replacement for Reverend Scott were substantially duller people, who never argued. 

Even as the survivors strive to climb up through the decks, the focus shifts to land-based authorities striving to figure out what’s happened to the Poseidon, to locate it via satellite camera, to dispatch a nearby fishing trawler to its location, and to get a team of Navy SEALS to the site of the wreck in order to rescue people.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if we weren’t trapped alongside the people in a claustrophobic sinking ship, and were regularly reminded that the authorities were bending heaven and earth to send help.

There are uncounted other dumbnesses. This version’s Acre, a replacement for the doomed steward Roddy McDowall played in 1972, has time to indulge Richard Clarke’s aspiring-filmmaker son, a kid who’s attached to his camcorder and is here not only permitted to film his cheesy vampire film in restricted areas of the ship, but who is able to enlist Acre and other busy crewmembers as cast members. Somebody is able to send an e-mail to authorities from the capsized ship’s internet lounge, even though the broadcast towers are now underwater. Wonky shipboard geography leads to badly flooded areas of the ship several decks above areas that still remain dry…not just as the oddity that permits the last act of the original, but as an inexplicable regular thing. Suspense is torpedoed by the crowd in the ballroom not meeting their fates until very late in Part Two, and by a second group of characters leaving that room much after the first and still managing to catch up, thus underlining this movie’s criminal lack of urgency. (The ballroom doesn’t go under until the last few minutes. More bleeding urgency.)

Many of the original film’s set pieces are duplicated here, to much lesser effect because everything around them is so lame. We get the swim through the underwater corridor, the brave sacrifice of Mrs. Rosen, and Acre’s death in the shaft, which are here all unforgivably dull. And the death of Clarke’s mistress in the engine room, under circumstances that echo the prior film’s death of Linda Rogo, here acquires an ugly subtext as Mrs. Clarke seems downright satisfied by it.  (The implication is supposed to be that the marriage is saved, but seriously, if I were a philandering husband and saw that look on my estranged wife’s face immediately after my mistress’s horrific death…I would change my name and move to another state. That bitch is cold, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same bed with her again without endless sweaty worrying about where I put the garden shears.)

The biggest problem, though, is that the makers of this miniseries completely misunderstood why characters with personal problems are included in this kind of story in the first place.

Here is an elementary lesson.  Stories illuminate character; character is put in sharp relief by stories. Even in action scenarios, you must have that or you don’t have a story.

In the original Poseidon Adventure, all that stuff with upside-down staircases and flooding compartments was there, in dramatic terms, to illustrate a movie-length argument between Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine. It is why the water seems to stop rising after Mrs. Rosen’s fateful underwater swim – because the argument is about to come to a head with the death of Mrs. Rogo, and more scenes of incoming water would only muddy the issue. That movie wanted a dramatic climax, not an action one…and in large part that’s what remains so memorable about it today. Please understand that we’re not saying it qualified as great drama, by any stretch of the imagination – but it was a story, dammit. It fulfilled the basic requirements of a story.

By contrast, this movie presents us with, naming one character at random, the reality-television producer played by Bryan Brown, who is so determined to have the little kid capture everything on his camcorder, for a possible future documentary. It presents us with that character and then does nothing of note with him. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. The same thing with the Bishop. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And Rogo. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And so on.

The only real dramatic arc is the one involving the marital woes of schmucky Steve Guttenberg…and, frankly, we know nothing more about his character at the end than we knew at the beginning.  Except that, you know, he had better spend the rest of his life hiding the Krazy-Glue.

There is one good moment, which deserves mention largely because it is the only good moment: a line or two spoken by Belle Rosen to the terrorist personally responsible for bombing the ship. Rogo goes to incredible lengths dragging this one-dimensional, sneering piece of shit up through the various levels of the ship, with an eye to making sure he lives to be interrogated about his backers. In the only words she ever speaks to the man, Mrs. Rosen says, I paraphrase, that her late husband had always told her that there were no evil people, only people in terrible pain. What, she earnestly asks him, hurt you so badly that you would want to do such a thing? He doesn’t answer; just stares back at her with hatred in his eyes. 

It would be nice if he took the bait,  even if his answer turned out to be a load of crap, because her question is the first time anybody in this entire movie comes close to having an interesting conversation. (See, for instance, the self-justifications of Gary Oldman’s evil terrorist in Air Force One. That’s what stopped him from being a one-dimensional villain, and made him a recognizable character, even if he was still so hateful that we cheered when he got thrown off the plane.)

 

The Attention-Deficit Summer Movie: Poseidon (2006)

There’s very little that needs to be said about the final version, except that if the middle one failed in large part because it was ponderously slow, this one failed because it never wanted to slow down.

It should have been much better. Wolfgang Petersen, who directed, is an accomplished maker of intelligent action films whose Hollywood work includes In The Line Of Fire and the aforementioned Air Force One. And he made one of the best underwater films of all time, a genuine world classic, Das Boot.

But his attention span, or his understanding of his target audience’s failing attention span, badly betrayed him here.

Check out the timeline. In this one the ship turns over (from another rogue wave) at approximately the fifteen-minute point, and the team of would-be survivors has started to climb out within the first half hour.

It thus only gives itself only about fifteen minutes to set up its characters, who are here largely defined not by their problems, but by their labels: a completely new set for this film, the beautiful stowaway, the ex-Mayor of New York, the suicidal gay guy, the young lovers, the dashing gambler, and the Designated Asshole.

It is possible for good actors to lend heft to such roles, but they need a certain minimum to worth with, and nobody here (not even Richard Dreyfuss, for pete’s sake), is more than a placeholder, here to shout urgent lines while dodging various dangers.

This is especially true of Andre Braugher, who plays the Captain. He dies early, of course, as the Captain in this story is supposed to, but the gap between a performer’s talent and the thinness of the character he’s been appointed to play has never been so vast. Is this what it’s come to, since Homicide? Doesn’t anybody have anything better for Braugher to do?

The Designated Asshole, played by Kevin Dillon, is a case that deserves special scrutiny. He is not an abrasive but essentially decent guy like Rogo, who causes problems because he has his own opinions. He is just a Designated Asshole. He acts like an Asshole, he dresses like an Asshole, he demonstrates he’s an Asshole, and – after demanding to be the first to cross a rickety structure – he dies, on cue and unmourned, an Asshole. The film doesn’t have any interest in characterizing him, or even the more important characters, any better than that.

There are some impressive set pieces. The struggle to cross a flaming scenic elevator atrium is more elaborate, in staging and in visual verve, than anything in either of the prior films. And the Dashing Gambler saves the day with a stunt that might have been considered over-the-top even in a superhero movie. But so what? With nobody to care about, and dialogue that from this point to almost the end of the film has been reduced to shouts of “Look out!” and “This way!”, it emerges as loud, colorful, fast-paced, and just as dull as the TV-movie.

There are some interesting, original situations. The only scene from this version that emerges as both new to this take and as great as anything in the original film is a period spent trapped in a vertical air shaft, as the people crammed near the top struggle with the grating that keeps everybody trapped in rising water. That’s a killer suspense sequence, and yes, fans of the original will be delighted to notice that they escape that trap by using a cross as a screwdriver.

There’s this, too. Unlike the folks from the 1972 version, these people actually start out with a plan for getting out once they reach the propeller assembly, one that makes sense within the context of the film. That’s good thinking, and in its own limited way an improvement on the original story. (It also, unfortunately, eliminates the faith angle, but hey, it’s a legitimately innovative plot point.)

It is of course woefully convenient for them that the disaster has conveniently left an inflated life raft floating a short swim from where they finally get out, one that indeed even has a working flare gun for their convenience. This is painful even though nothing that takes place before that point is even remotely convenient and it’s arguably just as convenient in the first film for Borgnine and company to reach the bottom of the ship just in time to hear the people walking around on the hull.)

But again: aside from the revelation that fireman-turned-mayor Kurt Russell is willing to die to save his daughter, and a suicidal subplot for the Richard Dreyfuss character that goes away as soon as the ship turns over, there are no character arcs here. These people are not tested. They are not revealed. They are just there.

By forsaking human drama, by failing to give its characters personalities, by eliminating subtext and by reducing almost the last hour and especially the last half-hour to shouting and yelling, with only scattered moments of identifiable human interaction, this version underlines exactly what has gone wrong with popular film since 1972. In 1972, Irwin Allen sank a ship with people on board. In 2006, Petersen sank a ship populated with stand-ins for people. In 1972, there was something going on behind the story. And in 2006, there were explosions going on instead of it.

The Captain’s Log

1972 version, a fine entertainment that looks better every year. 2005 version, three hours of made-for-TV lameness. 2006 version, a headache-inducing mess.

And now, the wife comes edging along the upside-down catwalk…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *1/2

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, Alex Kingston, others. 98 minutes. 1/2

In 1972 I was 9 years old and wasn’t allowed to go to movies by myself quite yet.  My mother, at the same time, needed someone to go see movies that my Dad just wouldn’t stir himself to see.  Bingo!  The weekend and days off school movie duo was formed. Thanks to this mother/daughter bonding,  I got taken to see such amazing fare as “The Bad News Bears” and The Towering Inferno.  But the one that makes this retelling of childhood interdependency important was The Poseidon Adventure.

Now, I can’t remember what day of the week this happened, but I can remember the theater, the snacks and the sound system fritzing in and out during the previews.  My mom threatened to walk out if the sound wasn’t fixed PRONTO! (Actually said from her seat as loudly as possible).  That can really make a film outing memorable.

Well, the sound got fixed, the movie rolled and my nine year old’s brain swore off ship travel for the everlovin’ future.

This film was my Jaws.  I thought that every Ocean liner was going to roll over in the next high wave.  I cried when my grandparents took their next cruise.  That year was absolute water hell for me.

So, did the original film make any kind of impression on me? Naah, not at all.  Just because I didn’t want to get on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues  ride for fear of drowning, had nothing whatsoever to do with The Poseidon Adventure.  Right?

Jump ahead to 2010.  Adam and I are discussing the prospective films to cover in this blog and up jumps good ole Poseidon.  I knew about the film remake, but had never heard (or had completely blocked from my mind) the TV mini.  So, we agreed they were ample fodder for our cannon of comparison.  Then, I won a free cruise.  Boy, can childhood trauma jump back and bite one’s butt.  Adam was ready to cover these early this year, but I begged off the watching until long after we returned from our trip. Did it make any difference?  Not really, but I may have actually enjoyed the cruise a bit more, not having the reminder looming in wait. (And yes, I fear being trapped in high rise fires too)!

OK  Garbage reminisces out of the way on to the work at hand.

Poseidon (1972):  Still a great adventure.  Fully developed characters, great effects and a story that says something about the constant struggle within each of us to balance survival with our humanity.  With the recent rewatch the Wesley effect of the child shall lead is a bit too thick, but I loved it back then.  The film also reminds everyone to never trust the guy wearing the uniform he’s always wrong and will die soon enough. (Show me a surviving crew member here).

Poseidon (2005):  Great idea in theory.  Make a 2-part miniseries (or maxi movie) using the source material.  Great, but what happened to the novel?  Somewhere in developmentland, some brainiac said “ditch the story, blow stuff up and make it less preachy”.  So they did.  They also slowed the action down to less than a turtle trot and added crap that was pure distraction.  Why steal from the original film’s key scenes, if they no longer tie the story together?  Nobody really took the time to read this script front to back.

Poseidon (2006):  Wow.  What can go wrong here?  Everything!  Lose the characters, dive into the emergency and never give your actors a chance to perform.  Here its all stunts and special effects.  Is anybody looking for story anymore?

Its fantastic that we live in an age where computers can seemingly generate anything we can dream up, but letting the effects run ramshod over the story, the settings, the very characters that make up any film is probably the main reason why I prefer the films from  the 30’s and 40’s.  Sure, the whole group of disaster films from the 70’s still fill my heart with nostalgia, but to me now they signal the beginning of the end.  This is when the MEGA movie began to take over and I began to lose interest in much of Hollywood’s output.