Cravenous: Pulse

pulse

I debated a long time whether or not I would include this movie in my Cravenous series. First, it’s clearly taking me a while to get through all of Wes Craven’s films. It’s a matter of timing, really. My work life hasn’t pulled punches in a very long time, so my time to do things I enjoy, like write long-winded blog posts, is very, very, very limited.

Then there is the fact that Craven didn’t direct this film, as originally planned. If you remember from my Craven quote in my review of Cursed, he mentioned that he was supposed to direct the film but the undying nature of that terrible werewolf movie made it impossible. Because of that and other “cursed” kerfuffling, Dimension ended up pulling the plug on Pulse. I have a feeling that the Craven/Dimension relationship really soured with the behind-the-scenes fiasco that was that horrible werewolf movie. In the end, (still) virtual unknown Jim Sonzero ended up directing Craven’s script while Craven went on to make several non-Dimension films.

So why did I decide to review this one? Basically because Craven did write the screenplay. I made a decision at the beginning of this series that I wouldn’t include the movies that Craven produced, since he didn’t really have a whole lot to do with those beyond ponying up the money to make them. Ultimately, I considered Craven’s writing and directing contributions to the horror genre to be the two most important from his career. I even strongly debated the inclusion of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, since Craven was listed as part of the writing team for that film. However, his original screenplay was so overwhelmingly rewritten, reworked, reshaped, and revised by numerous people that I didn’t really think it was fair to include it in this list. Pretty much the only thing that I think was left from Craven’s ideas for that film was the idea of Freddy having grown so strong by that point that a whole group of teenagers needed to defeat him rather than just one. Oh, and it was Craven’s idea to bring back Nancy.

For the American remake of Pulse, however, Craven was only one of two writers listed in the credits. The other credit (minus Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who wrote the original 2001 Japanese film, Kairo) is Ray Wright. He had one credit prior to this movie, and only has three more since, so I’m going to assume that he would have been the second-string writer on this script. Maybe Dimension brought him in to make changes to update it or make it more in line with what the Weinsteins wanted. Who knows. The bottom line, though, is that the script is definitely a mostly Craven product.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of his less well-made products. True, he might have been able to work some miracles with the script had he gotten to direct it as he had wished. He would have had say in casting, in locations, in filming choices, in rewrites as he went along—all things that could have made a world of difference in the final film. We’ll never get to see the version of this that Craven could have made. However, even in someone else’s hands, you can see remnants of Craven’s touch. First, the storyline definitely seems to be something Craven would find fascinating as a man who wrestled often with concepts about death and the afterlife. Plus, the added concept of how our increasing dependence on technology was affecting our daily lives and interactions would have piqued his interest as well, I think.

When watching the remake, you’ll also catch two scenes that definitely carry the Craven stamp on them: One is a scene in a public restroom, with one of our protagonists thinking she hears things coming from the stalls. Hi, Sidney Prescott would like her restroom shtick back, thank you. The second is one that Craven used in two of his previous films: Deadly Blessing and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yes, we get another scene of a female protagonist prone in a bathtub. By this point, it’s tired, and strangely enough, in someone else’s hands, it became sad. Not scary at all. Just. Sad.

It’s a shame, really, that Craven didn’t get to direct this, but I think it was more of a shame that he was on board with remaking another Japanese horror movie in the first place. As much of a supporter I continue to be of the American remake to Ringu, I ultimately think that if you want to see a Japanese horror film? Go rent the Japanese horror film. True, many elements within them carry meaning more in-sync with Eastern sensibilities, but you know what? You learn something while getting scared. It’s a win-win.

The original version of this film is thematically similar, but still quite different because of those subtle Eastern touches. The original is more compelling, more complex, more provocative. Even when the remake tried to recreate scenes directly from the original, it still lost something in the translation that left the redone scenes feeling flat, pointless. Again, it’s difficult to gauge how this could have gone had Craven directed it, but in its final form, it really was a disappointment. Plus, the visual choices made for this film were so distracting. I hate horror filmmakers who feel compelled to make their movies so color- and shadow-saturated that you’re clueless about what’s going on in some of the more integral scenes. I swear, some of these scenes needed their characters to wear miner helmets.

Casting was inoffensive. Kristen Bell was one of the protagonists. Ian Somerhalder played the other protagonist. I personally have no idea who he is, but he looks like Rob Lowe had a son with Cillian Murphy. Octavia Spencer shows up in a quick but entertaining scene, and Brad Dourif rolls in for a quick quirky showing toward the end.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about this film. I think, though, that including it is a nice way of showing an example both of how Craven’s importance was not just to the writing or directing—he brought skill and precision to both elements—and also of how Craven’s input of any kind wasn’t always a solid guarantee of film success. Just as putting up money to produce a horror film didn’t make instant genre hits of any of the films he backed, having a script primarily written by him didn’t guarantee instant box office success either. And even though Dimension didn’t play up his participation in this film at all, critics and fans knew. In fact, many critics pointed out in their panning reviews of this film that not even the Master of Horror could save this film from its less-than-impressive (non-)impact on the horror genre.

Cravenous: Red Eye

I’m going to start off this review by doing something that I’ve tried to avoid until now (pretty much because I can’t control what YouTube keeps and what they remove): I’m going to post the movie trailer.

Pretty spiffy, right? It’s why I couldn’t resist. I’ve spent so much time in these reviews talking about how Craven wanted so very much to break out of the horror pigeonhole and direct something else. And then he got his wish with Music of the Heart, which showed that he could actually do more than horror when given the chance.

Of course, this confused the hell out of everyone. Craven followers didn’t understand why he wasn’t doing horror. Non-horror people didn’t understand why his name was associated with a movie about violins rather than violence (“What’s all this fuss I keep hearing about violins on television?”). Next thing you know, up was down, night was day, left was right, cats became needy and dogs became aloof, and then all of society imploded.

Okay, not really. But I loved how this trailer kind of toyed with the fact that there no longer was certainty that Craven’s name would guarantee horror. But a rom-com? Duke! Don’t you toy with my emotions!

redeye

Of course, we didn’t get a romantic comedy, but I give total kudos to the person who cut this trailer. It’s fantastic in all the best ways. And, of course, we didn’t get another horror movie with 2005’s Red Eye. Instead, Craven gave us his best take at a Hitchcockian thriller, which to be fair? Is a pretty damned good take.

Don’t get me wrong: The overall premise of this film is totally hinky. You kind of have to ignore the main goal of the plot. It might be hard, but ultimately, it’s really good advice.

What should you pay attention to in this film? The fact that this is possibly the most technically precise film of Craven’s entire oeuvre. True, many films throughout his career have critical technical merit. However, this film is so streamlined and so precise and so very focused. It’s definitely Craven’s leanest film, not even hitting the 90-minute mark. However, that just means that every scene, every line, every look (especially every look) has poignancy and purpose.

I mentioned already that this is Craven’s most Hitchcockian movie. Honestly, this could have been called Strangers on a Plane if you wanted to be cute. It’s funny because screenwriter Carl Ellsworth’s next movie after this would be Disturbia, which is basically Rear Window for millennials. Clearly, Ellsworth had a Hitchcockian sensibility in mind when he wrote this script. It’s got that great sense of pacing and purpose, plus killer character interactions that become the everything of this movie.

Honestly, the casting of Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy as the two leads, Lisa and Jackson, could not have been more fortuitous—and I write this knowing that Craven at one point considered casting Neve Campbell in the role McAdams would get. However, he stated in his commentary that he wanted actors who weren’t necessarily instantly recognizable. McAdams was still near the beginning of her acting career and Murphy was just starting to become more prevalent in American movies. Add to this the fact that, minus Murphy’s striking cerulean stare, both actors are relatively chameleon-like in their appearances.

To be honest, it took me a really long time to recognize McAdams from one film to the next. It had nothing to do with her not giving great performances; it was simply a matter of she kept changing appearances and kept taking on varied roles that, true, showcased an incredible acting range, but ended up making it practically impossible for me to keep up with what she was doing next. Same to some extent with Murphy, who prior to this movie had just finished his role as a trans woman in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. Clearly, he had no qualm with completely losing himself in a role as well.

Anyway, McAdams and Murphy’s interaction throughout this film is one of surprising exactitude. Craven stated in his commentary that they skipped rehearsals because both McAdams and Murphy were working on other projects, so even he feared that his two leads might lack the chemistry that these two characters desperately needed to have. He, and we, lucked out supremely. Murphy has a chilling ability to slip from charismatic to brutal instantaneously, which lent his character the volatility and cruelty he needed, all while disguised behind a cool, almost implacable facade.

It’s McAdams, however, who carries this film with admirable dexterity. Her expressions convey an almost incomprehensible amount of information and emotion. Craven talks throughout his commentary on this film about sitting with McAdams on several occasions and perfecting certain looks to match what he wanted her character to tell the audience without words, and you truly get a sense of how intimately detailed both Craven and McAdams were about those looks. She nails this performance so solidly that you can forgive the script for having that hinky overarching plot.

Seriously, it’s ridiculous. Nay, I daresay, it’s ridonkulous.

Craven helps amplify the tension between Lisa and Jackson with some brilliant cinematography. In another Hitchockian nod, most of the action in this film takes place in one location: a red eye flight to Miami. This is the moment where you prove yourself as a director: Can you keep your audience’s attention when your characters are limited in where they can go and what they can do? The answer here is an astounding yes. With superb behind-the-scenes manipulation within the small spaces of their set (which was a set mockup of a plane interior rigged on hydraulics to simulate varying degrees of turbulence), Craven impresses upon us the increasing intensity and claustrophobia and pressure upon Lisa as her emotional and physical states shrink more and more. One of the most intense scenes from this film takes place inside the airplane lavatory, which, according to Craven’s commentary, had to be partially filmed with a camera rigged to a dolly above the actors because there was no room inside. That’s a linchpin moment in the film, that smallest, most confined scene, for several reasons and one that, again, Craven and McAdams worked through with convincing beauty.

Now, I’ve mentioned the commentary track for this film several times. Honestly? If you’ve never listened to one of Craven’s commentaries, you are definitely missing out on some great stuff. He was one of the rare exceptions to the rule I’ve learned, that director commentaries are usually a waste of time. With Craven, however, he consistently went above and beyond with his comments. He had no problem with letting you into all the various facets of his work behind the scenes, whether it was technical or casting or location scouting. He held a wealth of knowledge and he was incredibly generous in how he shared it.

He also brought along others who could provide equally valuable glimpses behind the scenes for which they were responsible. Several of his commentaries that I have listened to for this series, in fact, included Marianne Maddalena and Patrick Lussier, two long-time Craven confidantes. Maddalena’s relationship with Craven dated back to her time as his personal assistant on Deadly Friend. She began producing with his 1989 film Shocker and remained with him right through Scream 4 and the Scream television series that they both produced. Lussier started working with Craven during his television series Nightmare Cafe and remained with him until Red Eye.

Also returning to the Craven fold for this film, music composer Marco Beltrami wrote his fifth score for Craven (Beltrami, in fact, scored all of Craven’s films from Scream through Scream 4, minus Music of the Heart). Yet again, he knocks it out of the park with lush orchestral themes that highlight the on-screen action with glorious precision. Beltrami’s musical versatility is even more impressive when you consider that he had never really watched any horror or thrillers prior to signing up to compose the score for Scream.

Rounding out this superb surprise offering from Craven is an exceptional supporting cast. Craven was always on-point when it came to selecting actors who, though they might not have a great deal of time on screen, know exactly how to use their time to full effect. Highlights in this film include Jayma Mays, who played Cynthia, Lisa’s front desk backup while Lisa was away for her grandmother’s funeral, and instantly recognizable character actors Robert Pine, Angela Patton, and Suzie Plakson. Pine brought comic relief both to help escort us smoothly into the rising action and to help us decompress at the end. Neither Patton nor Plakson had names for their characters, being listed in the credits only as “Nice Lady” and “Senior Flight Attendant,” respectively. However, both women provide beautifully elaborate and cohesive takes on their roles—particularly Plakson, who has facial expression aptitude that rivals the skills of a silent movie star. With either no or minimal dialogue needed, you know exactly what Plakson is conveying with her looks—a talent that dovetailed perfectly with the precision that McAdams brought to her own expression control.

When all is said and done, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Craven should have done more thrillers like this, because his timing for such scripts was impeccable. Here’s to yet another film from this series that I’m adding to my wish list.