As attacks on the committee-approved, PG-13 flaccidity of recent horror flicks, the shock-'n'-disgust assaults of, say, Wolf Creek and Hostel have been salutary -- the genre badly needs a transfusion, and, if grotty blood works best, well pump away. Still, will the decade's screen nightmares be seen in three decades as reflections of sociopolitical traumas the way we now see 1970s horror opuses as manifestations of Watergate breakdown? Forging a link if not providing the answer, The Hills Have Eyes materializes on cue, revisiting Wes Craven's 1977 drive-in shocker as the new chapter of what could, pace Robin Wood, be tagged The New American Nightmare. Yup, another remake, of considerably richer interest than the revampings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Fog, not the least for having American-heartland horrors viewed through foreign glasses. The New Mexico sands of the opening are as extraterrestrial as Antonioni's Death Valley, although it is Alexandre Aja of Haute Tension behind the camera, and the dolts in radiation suits are in no time ax-picked and dragged away by a briefly glimpsed menace. The credits row, mushrooming detonations and grotesquely disfigured snapshots serenaded by '50s warbling, before Aja cranes down and slithers through a dilapidated gas station ("Last Stop 200 Miles"), the retro-vibe extending to the silver trailer peopled by the dead-meat family headed by ex-cop Ted Levine and ex-hippie Kathleen Quinlan.
The vacationing clan is soon stranded in the crumby, stubbly desert, and a languid zoom from a family prayer finds the eponymous gaze, belonging to a batch of bestial mountain-dwellers disfigured by the government's atomic testing a couple generations before. The entire place is one enormous radioactive crater, discovered by son-in-law Aaron Stanford, who, being a bespectacled democrat dependent on a cell phone, will inevitably be fed through the grinder to grow balls and defend his family; paterfamilias Levine, meanwhile, will go through the ol' crucifixion-immolation routine at the hands of the mutants, one of several bits of business transplanted from the original flick, given Craven's blessing as one of producers. The parakeet-as-snack bit is another, though fuzzy guitar riffs and horrific make-up (Pluto, unforgettably embodied sans any pancake by Michael Berryman in the original, is here a molten-wax Frankenstein monster) are among the additions, along with a dusty ghost town populated by grinning wooden dummies. Deep into this hellish hamlet looking for his kidnapped baby, Stanford stumbles upon the blobby head of the monstrous family, who, after wheezing out "The Star-Spangled Banner," voices the j'accuse: "You made us what we've become." The return of the repressed? The American flag here is most useful for its pointy edge, rammed into one boogeyman's windpipe, yet Aja's slick horror show feels watered down in its transgression next to Craven's original, a less confrontational assault than Last House on the Left that posited a thin line between civilization and barbarism. The remake, subversive lip-service or not, separates Us from Them too neatly.
By the time The Libertine winds down, Johnny Depp, covered in piss, pustules, and rotting teeth, looks like one of the Hills Have Eyes savages with interplanetary monikers, though even the Oscar-thirst cannot completely hide the actor's dreaminess. Brother Venus, maybe? John Wilmot, actually, the Second Earl of Rochester, who reigned supreme over the debauchery in 1670s London, offered in the film version of the play by Stephen Jeffreys as the hangover of the Elizabethan artistic orgy. Depp comes out of the shadows in the prologue to announce "You will not like me," then proceeds to illustrate why with a gaggle of misanthropic debasements, directed against the world and himself. Exiled, as he often is, for his bleary rebellions, he is quickly beckoned back by King Charles II (John Malkovich), who needs a Shakespeare of his own and has hopes that the sneering perv-artist will be "my literary giant." On the chariot ride to town, Depp dips his digits between the thighs of his wife (Rosamund Pike) and then licks the juices; he's soon back with his fellow playwrights swilling wine and ogling cleavage, yet none of it is much fun for him, since, you see, he is really a sensitive artist trying to escape the meaninglessness of life by indifferently rolling in decadence. "I cannot feel. I must have others do it for me on the theatre," so a double circular pan introduces the stage and audiences, as well as actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), whom the Earl will guide, first a wager, then (gasp!!) for love.
Romantic redemption, then? For all the mud, rats, pestilence, "cunt" this and "cunt" that, The Libertine is completely unshocking, a prolix period piece all dressed up to outrage yet a snug fit in the hunger for middlebrow prestige characterizing the Weinstein Co., nihilistic dissolution turned as blandly palatable as gender-identity confusion in Transamerica. Depp's jaded, 17th-century decadent seeks truth, but perversion extends to his own artistic talents, deliberately squandered in boozing and whoring when not channeled into a De Sadean cherry-bomb lobbed at his employer from the stage -- barefoot nymphs dancing, dildos passed among the audience, the author declaring phallic monarchy, "With my prick I shall govern all." (Gazing from the balcony next to the quietly foaming ruler, the ambassador provides his archly amused thumbs-up: "In Franze, he would be ezecuted for zis.") Time passes and Depp deteriorates in the grandest Brando fashion, first losing control of his bladder, then his nose, until finally limping in for the picture's centerpiece, slurring caustically in the king's defense, painted, peruked and with a silver schnoz tied to a ravaged mug; the first-time director, Laurence Dunmore, who keeps the candlelit grain close to Dogma 95 level, struggles to keep the spectacle in focus. As if Quills hadn't been fatuous enough, here's another turgid nose-thumber begging for "liberator" cred; I'll take Depp's surreptitious syphilic clowning and every furious bit with Morton, and simply ship the rest off to Monty Python for spoofing.
Joyeux NoŽl is ample proof of the modern evils of the Academy Awards. It snatched no Best Foreign Language Picture Oscars (the honor went to the even more corrupt Tsotsi, details next week), but the mere fact that Christian Carion's mushfest was nominated (while L'Enfant or Three Times were not) ensures us that, if Kurosawa or Fellini were now making pictures, the Academy would still trade them in for the latest Life is Beautiful bucket of feel-good subtitled swill. More than expected for an institution that's voted Crash the top film of the year, but I digress -- Carion's paean to humanity shared across warring borders should resonate trenchantly now more than ever, yet the insistent, lugubrious treacle of the heartstring-plucking had me plucking back. The front here is the Western one in 1914, made unquiet by Christmas carols belted across the trenches; WWI pauses for an impromptu Yuletide idyll between German and French forces so that both sides can see how much they have in common. The event might have been a source of inspiration for Renoir and Pabst, but here it becomes this year's Motorcycle Diaries, insipid manipulation masquerading as (and giving a bad name to) humanism. Give me back the radioactive mutants with machetes, and merry Xmas to you, too, pal.
Reviewed March 16, 2006.