A Pocketful of Horrors, Some of Them Used…

Citizen X: adapted by Chris Gerolmo from the non-fiction book by Robert Cullen; directed by Chris Gerolmo; starring Stephen Rea (Lt. Viktor Burakov), Donald Sutherland (Colonel Fetisov), Max von Sydow (Dr. Bukhanovsky), Jeffrey DeMunn (Andrei Chikatilo), and Joss Ackland (Bondarchuk) (1995): Solid and somewhat atypical HBO police procedural follows the dogged efforts of a Soviet forensic scientist (Stephen Rea) and his sardonic but surprisingly competent superior officer (Donald Sutherland) as they attempt to track down the (real) Ripper of Rostov, a Soviet serial killer of the 1970’s and 1980’s who murdered in excess of 50 people, the majority of them teenagers or children.

Citizen X hews fairly close to the truth — indeed, the major changes come not to the pursuit itself but to the portrayal of the Soviet bureaucracy, heightened here for informational effect as much as dramatic effect. Anyone who’s read Martin Cruz Smith’s novels of Soviet detective Arkady Renko (Gorky Park being the most famous of those) will recognize the self-defeating levels of the Soviet bureaucratic machine — and the stubborn investigators who seek justice regardless.

The Ripper’s murders stay mostly off-screen and non-sensationalistic. The bureaucratic screw-ups we see aren’t only a Soviet problem — indeed, they’ll remind one of many such politically motivated screw-ups in the history of Western police work. Throughout the film, Stephen Rea is perfect as the quiet, stubborn-bordering-on-obsessed lead investigator. 

Donald Sutherland supplies a cynical, sarcastic counterpoint to Rea’s character, though Sutherland’s C.O. reveals hidden, sympathetic depths as the film proceeds. Max von Sydow delights as the only Soviet psychiatrist willing to help profile the Ripper, and Jeffrey DeMunn is chillingly bland and lucky as the Ripper himself. He’s the quintessential serial-killer-as-nebbish, and a welcome real-world counterpoint to all our fictional serial-killing supermen and superwomen. Highly recommended.

Harry Brown: written by Gary Young; directed by Daniel Barber; starring Michael Caine (Harry Brown), Emily Mortimer (D.I. Frampton), and David Bradley (Leonard Attwell) (2009): English riff on both Death Wish and Taxi Driver sees Michael Caine as the eponymous retired, emphysemic ex-Marine go on a killing spree to avenge his friend’s death at the hands of a bunch of young hooligans.

The movie’s brutal and efficient. Ideologically, it’s ridiculous. And while it references the Hell out of Taxi Driver, especially in its score, it’s really an English Death Wish. There aren’t any moral ambiguities here — the bad guys are terrible and Harry Brown is awesome, lacking only a scene in which he saves a kitten from a tree to make him perfect. So the movie is dishonest in terms of realism but honest if one sees it as a revenge fantasy for retired people who want those punks off their lawn by any means necessary. Recommended.

The Church (La chiesa): written by Nick Alexander, Dario Argento, Fabrizio Bava, Lamberto Bava, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti, and Michelle Soavi; directed by Michele Soavi; starring Hugh Quarshie (Father Gus), Tomas Arana (Evan), Feodor Chaliapin (The Bishop), Barbara Cupisti (Lisa), and Asia Argento (Lotte) (1989): So vaguely based on the M.R. James story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” that I don’t view it as an adaptation, The Church is a highly enjoyable though somewhat disjointed piece of melodramatic, religion-soaked Italian horror. 

After a wild 12th-century-set prologue that verges on Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory, we move to the late 1980’s and a historic church with a very big secret buried beneath it. As this is a horror movie, that secret will be unearthed. There’s some attempt at a slow build in the first 45 minutes or so. That build goes on a bit too long and a bit too slowly. 

Thankfully, the horror that eventually kicks in is lurid and visually shocking. Michele Soavi is a solid director, and he’s working in the traditions of Dario Argento (who helped write) and Mario Bava. Terrible things begin to happen, a couple of them pretty much out of left-field (I’m looking at you, subway train!). All hell’s a coming. And the movie shifts its narrative focus in the last third to a totally different protagonist than the first two-thirds. This is strangely liberating, and not something I can recall an American or British horror film ever doing, though I’m sure there are precedents.

Overall, The Church is startling and worthwhile despite the early slowness and what one could charitably describe as somewhat indifferent dubbing in the English-language version. Sometimes it visually quotes medieval woodcuts, sometimes it visually quotes Boris Vallejo paintings. It’s that sort of over-heated horror-melodrama. The set design, make-up, and sculpture work are all very impressive and very disturbing. Recommended.

The Guilt Trip: written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Anne Fletcher; starring Seth Rogen (Andrew Brewster), Barbra Streisand (Joyce Brewster), and Brett Cullen (Ben Graw) (2012): Formulaic but well-executed film involves a mother-and-son, cross-country road trip by Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. There are some comic surprises and enough drama and funny lines to keep the whole thing merrily rolling along. Recommended.

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