Classic Review: The Trial (1962)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.


Review:  I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre.  It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions.  Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film.  The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money.  It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.

Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’?  In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn.  What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite.  And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion.  It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent.  I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films.  Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate.  Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.

And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique.  So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy?  It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures.  It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience.  We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay.  Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite.  The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty.  He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls.  ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic.  Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.

So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn?  The roles reverse.  The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity.  ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking.  We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them.  Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy.  There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare.  The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it.  Vicariously, we become the monster.

But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast.  ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself.  It begs for in-depth analysis.  I plan to give it just that in due time.

Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography.  It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community.  It’s wonderful stuff.

Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.

Classic Review: The Shining

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Shockingly effective, if not always horrifying.

Review:  Very strange things take place in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’; and it’s certainly extreme in its depiction of isolation-induced insanity, its suspenseful build-up, and its violent and graphic imagery.  But I’m just not sure if any of it was really frightening.

A young couple agrees to spend the winter caretaking a remote hotel hidden deep within the mountains.  For husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, this seems a perfect place to work on his new novel, with plenty of solitude and time on his hands.  As the winter settles in, however, he begins acting strangely towards his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and it seems he is cracking under cabin fever.  Not only that, but it seems the hotel itself, scarred by a violent and dark past, is calling out to him, sending him twisted visions and messages.  Danny, who possesses a unique telepathic gift called “Shining”, is also receiving strange, horrific visions.  It’s only a matter of time before both the elements and the supernatural push these people to their breaking point.

That’s the gist of the story, but while watching the movie it’s rather difficult to figure out what exactly is going on.  Because of the dual ideas of dementia and paranormal activity, the film has a way of confusing the audience, making them wonder what’s real and what’s imagined.  Are these people really seeing ghosts, or is it all in their heads?  Are evil spirits driving Jack, or has he just snapped under the isolation?  They are interesting questions that are, unfortunately, left unanswered.  Granted, such ambiguity is a trademark of director Stanley Kubrick, so I suppose I can’t be all that surprised.

This is, of course, one of only thirteen films made by Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime, and it certainly shows Kubrick’s strong direction.  He was man of unique ideas and opinions, and they always showed through in his works.  It’s possible he had some particularly weird notions about this film.  According to Kubrick himself, any story involving ghosts was inherently “optimistic” because it seemed to promise a life after death.  In that weird sense, ‘The Shining’ is a hopeful, arguably religious experience.  Do I really think this film is optimistic?  No, the idea of “optimism” in a film about evil spirits, simply because they imply eternal life, is a sad irony, and I doubt Kubrick was going for that.

There’s a lot in this movie that’s gruesome and mysterious.  It has a spine-chilling score and weird cinematography at times.  Nicholson gives a truly creepy performance as Jack grows ever more deranged.  It all should be scary, but I just didn’t think it was.  It’s not that I was bored or uninvolved; I just wasn’t terrified.  Something about the film didn’t tie all the elements together.  Granted, there were some very shocking moments, and the idea of the film certainly has great potential, but the overall story didn’t scare me the way it should have.  Things felt too distant.  The characters were strange and far away to me.  I guess I wasn’t as involved with them as I was with mysteries of the hotel they were in, and it’s hard to feel afraid for characters you don’t feel much for.

Even if it’s not particularly scary overall, this is still a solid, suspenseful, and very entertaining film.  A strong story (based on Stephen King’s original novel) with unique camera work and music, coupled with really great work on Nicholson’s end, make it a classic in my book.  One watch will promise at least a few shocking moments, and you might just find yourself surprisingly engaged in the story, even if you have no problems going to bed that night.