The visuals out of space: A critical review of “Colour From the Dark” (2008)

I have always said that movies gotta move. Cinema is, first and foremost, a visual art form; the visuals of a film are the most important part, to my mind, with characters, plot and dialogue taking a close second. This theory has been tested, of course, time and time again, but my counterargument is always the same: Could this have been a book? A play? A painting? If so, why aren’t I observing it like that?

I am also very fond of H. P. Lovecraft (whose birthday it was the other week–I know, I’ll be more punctual next time, I swear), so when I saw a movie called “Colour From the Dark” at my local video store, I knew I had to give it a shot.

“Colour From the Dark”–as any Lovecraft vet can probably guess–is an adaptation of the 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space.” Like so many adaptations of the tentacled one, there have been some changes made. What was New England is now Italy, and what was the 1920s is now smack dab in the middle of World War II. Directed by Ivan Zuccon and written by Ivo Gazzarrini, “Colour From the Dark” tells the tale of Pietro (Michael Segal) and Lucia (Debbie Rochon), honest Italian farm folk living on, well, a farm in Italy with Lucia’s basically mute sister Alice (Marysia Kay). One day, Pietro is digging around in the well trying to get water and unknowingly unleashing some-cosmic-thing from deep within the earth. The entity initially causes all the crops to grow to tremendous size, but soon it’s possessing various members of the family and causing them to do some unspeakable things to each other and to the neighbors; remember, this is an Italian film, so things go from bad to bloody in no time flat.

film does look good. Actually, the film looks really good. This is not a big budget movie by any stretch (Imdb.com guesses around $100,000), but it genuinely just looks better than films with 10 times as much cash pumped into them. Director Zuccon–who doubles as the film’s cinematographer–clearly has an understanding of how things will appear on screen. Couple that with some excellent locations and a good sense of atmosphere, and you have a film that’s simply rewarding to look at. So if a film’s good to look at, and the visuals are the most important part of a movie, it must be a pretty good movie, right? Well, maybe not quite.

The film always seems like it needs a little…more. The dialogue is fairly lackluster, the sound tends toward murky, and the acting varies between “passionate effort” and “community theater.” But there’s more to it than that–or rather, less. Pretty pictures may be the most important part of a movie, but they’re supposed to be there to emphasize the point, and unfortunately, “Colour From the Dark” doesn’t seem to have one.

Lovecraft’s original story explored concepts like what a wholly alien life-form would look like and the gulf between urban and rural living, but none of that really comes up in “Colour From the Dark.” The malevolent entity is never really considered–is it alien? Supernatural?–and the characters are all farm folk, so there is no gentrified or academic counterpart to whom they can be compared (along with a change in setting, the film exorcises the university educated narrator and shrinks the action’s span to a week). Even some of the issues the film appears to ready raise never really get a chance. Setting the movie in World War II and tossing in some shots of Nazis killing fleeing Jews suggests that we’re going to get a “war is bad” message, but that never materializes. Likewise, there’s plenty of religious imagery, but the movie doesn’t do much with it. In fact, what the film does seems contradictory: A possessed Pietro suggests that God and the soul aren’t real, but a possessed Lucia seems mighty pissed off at crucifixes–methinks the lady doth protest too much. As a result, all those pretty pictures, while engaging to look at, feel a bit wasted.

There’s also some kinky sexual meanderings between Pietro and Alice after they get their possession on, which suggests some Freudian, Electra complex speculation, but it never really develops into anything…oh, wait, it’s an excuse to see naked chicks. I think I get the point of the film now. Never mind.

Private traps: A critical analysis of “Psycho” (1960)

I might have a disadvantage over you because I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on a big screen. The master of suspense’s 1960 thriller was part of a film appreciation course I took, a course that focused on the works of Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. And seeing as how it was his birthday last week, I thought I’d dust off the flick and give it a view or two. Not that I needed to be reminded of anything; “Psycho” has been, since the first time I saw it, my favorite thriller. Part of what fascinated me from the get go was the compactness of the film. Indeed, “Psycho” is a psychological exercise in confinement.

“Psycho” is, initially at least, the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), an office worker who steals $40,000 from her employer to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). She makes a quick stop at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother, Norma. When Marion is apparently killed by Norma, Norman covers up the murder. But soon Loomis and Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), start investigating the disappearance.

Hitchcock had always experimented with filming in purposefully confined spaces–confined to the setting in “Lifeboat,” confined to a wheelchair in “Rear Window,”even confined to one long individual shot in “Rope”–but “Psycho” might be his most successful attempt. Everything about the film suggests confinement. The photography of the film is confined to black and white. Bernard Herrmann, when composing the score, confined his orchestra to the string section. The setting, particularly when compared to the nation-hopping sprawl of “North By Northwest,” seems especially enclosed, confined to a lonely stretch of highway from Pheonix, Ariz. to Los Angeles, Calif., which in turn is confined to a small town on the way, which again is confined to a roadside motel. The private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) jokingly notes the Bates Motel looks like it’s “hiding from the world.” He wasn’t wrong.

The film’s most famous sequence is easily the shower scene, whose four tiled walls are one of the most confined spaces in the history of horror. There, Hitchcock violently forces the audience to identify with Marion. He offers no establishing wide shot of the shower; instead, he leads us right inside with Marion and takes us behind the shower curtain with her, even going as far as blasting us with cold water by placing the camera between Marion and the shower head. We are with Marion for every stab, a series of too, too close ups, and the final shot of the sequence is a slow spiral out from Marion’s eye, among the tightest tight shots Hitchcock ever pulled off.

Ah, the shower. Norma’s handiwork. And Norman’s as well. Because Norman Bates is the most confined character of all. He is a trapped in his mother’s shadow, and ultimately, trapped in her identity in a case of empathy gone horribly wrong. It’s as if Hitchcock is suggesting we’re each of us a prisoner of our own psychology, that any effort to escape ourselves is a death sentence. Marion Crane wants to escape herself by escaping her circumstances, and she ends on the bathroom floor. Loomis wants to escape himself in the form of escaping a bad marriage; he joins Lila Crane, not to escape their identities, but to understand what happened to Marion–to empathize–and they both nearly end up dead, and certainly emotionally and psychologically exhausted by the film’s end.

But it is Norman who suffers the most, and the worst part about it is that he’s almost lucid. “You know what I think?” Norman tells Marion before her trip to the bathroom. “I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” By the end of the film, Norman is so stuck in his trap he isn’t even Norman any more. But if Norman can’t be completely lucid for himself, we can be lucid for him. This is part of what makes “Psycho” such a fantastic thriller; the film is far more than its twist, and it rightly bears repeated viewings as we remain confined to the edge of our (home) theater seats.