Adam's Top 10 Genre Films - Part One
Deciding on which entries to include for this piece was both liberating and challenging. Though it's a freeing privilege to approach such a list from scratch, the availability of options was somewhat overwhelming. While my gut prodded me toward twenty or thirty different movies at once, I was obligated to compose a balanced, varied list which accurately conveys my sensibilities as a viewer. I tried to hold true to what the term genre represents-that is, at least what it represents to me. This helped me a great deal in the effort, not just by giving me a guiding principle, but also by taking the pressure off of the films I'd pick. Because what's wonderful about genre films is that they work on the surface as entertainment, and as such need no blessing by popular opinion or the critical elite to be considered successful. I am an adamant believer in the importance of entertainment in human existence, that it's as valuable as the finer arts, if for different reasons. We need escape from the burden of consciousness, and entertainment is one of the healthiest ways to stay sane. Art enriches and challenges us, makes us think, and we need this every bit as much as escapism. But the truth is that there are very few examples of either "pure" art or "pure" entertainment, the divide between the two is nebulous at best, and the most fulfilling works are usually those that have a special mix of the two. I hope this list of films is representative of that mix. Additionally, this list is not ranked. The first and last entries are no more or less significant than the rest.
The wounds left by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still very fresh in 1954, when the cinematic scab of those wounds, Gojira, peeled himself free and lumbered forever into global consciousness. With a dense aura of doom an foreboding established in its opening moments by Akira Ifikube's powerful, pounding score, Gojira is a warning, a lesson, a radioactive dirge from the age of the atom made by a nation intimately acquainted with its most tragic consequences. Images of rows upon rows of victims of radiation poisoning and destruction are so close to the real horrors that Japan experienced that they barely qualify as fictional. I can scarcely recall having seen a black and white movie with such a disproportionately large amount of black in its photography, particularly during the interminable night of the monster's attack. And what a king this monster is. Though portrayed in glimpses by puppetry and even stop motion, the primary and indelible iteration of Gojira is the work of stunt choreographer and suit performer Haruo Nakajima, along with Katsumi Tezuka, in collaboration with special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. Nakajima would continue to portray the kaiju icon, known in the west as Godzilla, for decades, but one of his great achievements here is managing to evoke sympathy for such a force of nature, particularly at the films climax. It is thought that Gojira was awakened by the testing of hydrogen bombs, meaning that his rampage was a reaction to mankind's reckless, destructive pursuits. He is nature's retribution for the folly of atomic weaponry, and also a symbol of their terrible power. But the movie features another kind of cataclysmic weapon: the oxygen destroyer. It's inventor, Daisuke Serizawa, has kept the device secret out of fear that it will become yet another tool of war and devastation. If only our real world scientists had shown such foresight. Director Ishiro Honda would helm many more films in the Godzilla series, as well as other kaiju and science fiction films-this one being the progenitor of the entire genre as we know it-but few of them would approach their subjects with this level of gravity (though Matango is fairly dark). In fact, after this film-considered by many to be his greatest work-the sequels took on a more escapist, fun, and at times childlike tone, with Gojira himself shifting within the narrative into an heroic figure. What are we to make of this? I like to think of it as a testament to the resilience of the Japanese spirit: the horrors of war transformed and conquered by persistent hope and imagination.
Robocop is both blunt and sharp. As spectacularly and brutally violent as it is witty and subversive, it works perfectly as both sci-fi action spectacle and satire of 1980's corporate culture (satire which is equally applicable today). It also manages to derive real moments of human pathos from the internal struggle of its protagonist, Detroit police officer Alex Murphy. After a pursuit of a particularly dangerous gang of criminals, led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, in a performance as formidably intimidating as it is funny) ends with his apparent slaughter, Murphy's body becomes property of the OCP corporation. The violence which precedes this still disturbs and frightens, with Boddicker's gang surrounding and laughing at their doomed captive. Once resurrected as the cybernetic Robocop, a stunning masterwork of practical effects design by Rob Bottin, latent fragments of the man in the machine begin to manifest, despite precautions taken on the part of OCP scientists to eliminate all traces of who Murphy had been. This is where the concept begins to reveal its brilliance, with a main character who is also seen as a product, a manifestation of corporate hubris. It is revealed that his programming prevents him from arresting top OCP employees, a safeguard implanted to protect the company. Murphy is also tormented by memories of his family, from whom he is now permanently alienated. There is no way to overstate the importance of Peter Weller's performance in the title role. His precise, smoothly mechanical movement in the armor flawlessly conveys, along with superb sound design, the physical weight and strength of the character, while his face evokes the heartache and trauma of a person that has been severed from their loved ones. Director Paul Verhoeven goes for the jugular in every element of his films, and the blood-soaked action here is indicative of that, as Robocop's crusade against savage criminals and their white collar equivalents is a gory one. But at every step, the carnage is matched by clever attacks on the downsides of privatization. It's virtually unheard of, to have a movie that satisfies the primal hunger for righteous violence, while pleasing the cerebral palate with biting commentary. It was once referred to by one of its producers as "fascism for liberals". Perhaps the most amazing thing about this duality though is that the satire never undercuts the trials of its title character. The poster for Robocop reads: Part man. Part machine . All cop. In the end, it's the man that matters most.
Originality is rare in any popular art form. When it manages to sneak in, it can be met with befuddlement. For me, as a fifteen year old sitting alone in a theater watching Alex Proyas's Dark City unfold, it was revelatory. So distinct as to raise the question of how it was funded as a wide release film, Dark City is truly the result of an artistic vision being followed unwaveringly at every stage of production. It was even allowed to carry an R rating. Following up his excellent Brandon Lee vehicle The Crow, Proyas raises that film's level of visual style to stunning heights here, with a world that vaguely suggests 1940's submerged in otherworldly gothic noir aesthetics. The story is equally drenched in strange mystery, with John Murdoch (the superb Rufus Sewell) awaking with only shreds of memory in a city where everyone else seems to be asleep. Everyone, that is, except the strangers. These characters, and their goal in the story reveal the utterly unique brand of science fiction to which this film belongs, where philosophical concept takes precedent over fidelity to the physical laws. It uses the broad tools of the genre to explore existential truth, adhering to the spirit of its strikingly alien and weirdly old fashioned art direction. It doesn't show gadgets and equipment based on how they would realistically look, but how the 1940's imagination might expect them to appear. It's a lot to process both visually and conceptually, and the film was not a commercial success upon its release, but it was a movie-going experience I will never forget. Roger Ebert later included it in a volume of his Great Movies book series, proving that there is an audience for such a work of true genre mastery. That's why I've avoided real spoilers in this entry, hoping that adventurous viewers who read it might seek out the gleaming, black diamond that is this film.
Evil Dead 2
After a brief prologue both summarizes and remakes the original Evil Dead, we pick up where we left off with our protagonist, Ash. Played by Bruce Campbell,-who rightfully ascended to genre royalty as a result of his stylized performance-Ash was left alone outside the dreaded cabin, deep in the woods inhabited by evil spirits, and had just been possessed himself. For some considerable time in its early scenes, Evil Dead 2 focuses exclusively on him, a character who is completely isolated and in the thrall of sinister supernatural forces. It's the first bold and unusual choice of many to follow, which see Ash tormented by animate household objects, battle his own amputated hand, and face off against demonic monstrosities whose appearances go well beyond what might be expected from a possessed subject. Evil Dead 2 has a wildness about it, a manic, liberated creativity that completely vaporized any preconceptions I'd held about the limits of story, comedy, and cinematic style in horror films. The whole affair is so off-the-wall that a friend of mine once told me that he wasn't sure whether it was meant to be funny. In my opinion it transcends comedic horror-it has a vibrant aura all of it's own, never too silly to cheapen the threat of evil, never too horrific to lessen the fun. It's also photographed strikingly, with flying, twisting camerawork that perfectly captures the disembodied supernatural, a force acting without restriction that parallels the daring filmmaking itself. Any distinction between Sam Raimi's role as director and a flying incorporeal entity-whose point of view we as an audience actually see from-that enjoys chasing and pestering Bruce Campbell, is very subtle indeed. In fact, this horror sequel features one of my favorite shots in all of cinema. After being briefly cured of his possession, Ash attempts to flee the cursed woods before nightfall brings the return of the malevolent entities that hound him. He hops into the classic Oldsmobile Delta 88 and drives to the bridge that leads out of the area only to find it a caved in, gnarled wreck. He gets out of the car to survey the damage, and as he stands, panic-stricken, the sun in the sky behind him (an obvious effect, perhaps rear screen projection) sinks with unnatural speed as the foreground darkens. Night comes in a hurry, in a moving image rich with its old fashioned special effects artifice, blatant in its denial of logic, and stunning in its use of transitional light and color. For me personally, nothing beats it. The advantage of working in the B-movie arena is that beyond meeting basic genre requirements, the director has leeway to experiment and take artistic risks. You're under the radar enough to get away with things. Sam Raimi took that freedom to heart and ran wild with it, resulting in a singular, eye-popping, exhilarating classic.
Just as Sam Raimi infinitely expanded my expectations about was possible in horror films, John Woo forever changed my perception of action movies. This was one of my earliest experiences with Hong Kong cinema, and though the underground mystique of an ultraviolent foreign film was an important element in my enjoyment, it's Woo's particular approach to action, and the sorrow and melodrama that he mixes with it, that make this such a pivotal work. The Killer is awash in noir atmosphere in its quieter moments-one of it's lead characters even plays harmonica in smoky dives-but it also features an impressive scene of situational comedy. Hong Kong cinema often presents a range of tones which might seem extreme to western viewers, at times mixing slapstick comedy with serious drama, and one of the most valuable things I learned from this film is that there is no artistic law against such a mixture. It can be exciting, challenging, and satisfying to experience the full spectrum of emotions in a single movie, particularly at the hands of the region's best directors, as is the case here. The other epiphany I had watching the film concerned its action set pieces. The shootouts, which comprise lengthy sequences throughout, are representative of the film's heightened and bloody reality, with combatants absorbing multiple gunshot wounds before succumbing, and where the wake of dead is enormous. The exchanges of fire reach warzone levels, coming on like storms of ejected shells, muzzle flashes, and splintering architecture. The action is so explosive, ferocious, and sustained that it envelops you fully. But you are never adrift in these cacophonous tempests of gunfire, because Woo is a master craftsman, keeping his focus and maintaining spatial geography in even the most chaotic of scenarios. His utilization of slow motion for dramatic emphasis acts as a break in tempo, and maybe even a respite from the carnage. And nearly all of this bloodshed is a result of a professional killer, a man of violence, trying to make amends for unintentionally blinding a bystander during one of his jobs. This is the brilliant, melodramatic irony that fuels the story. Ah Jong, played by the incomparable Chow Yun-Fat, decides to perform one last hit to fund eye surgery for the singer (Sally Yeh), he injured. During this mission he is exposed, and his employer double crosses him, leading to escalating confrontations between the two that also envelopes Ah Jong's eventual ally, detective Li Ying (Danny Lee). The two men are drawn into torrents of bullets as a result of trying to repair the harm done by a single shot. For all of its considerable body count and heroic gun battles, the movie somehow manages to address the terrible and unpredictable consequences of violence without seeming at odds with itself. The level of bodily damage that the heroes of the film endure and dish out made me realize that there is an infinite range of creative choice in the execution of action-firefights can be storytelling in themselves, and the burdensome specter of realism needn't be a concern at all. Equally important, The Killer proved to me that action movies can pack an emotional punch, and its powerful climax has never fully left my thoughts.