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Blu-ray Review: The Last House on the Left

Arrow Video offers a precise and loving restoration of a daring and legendarily unlovable milestone in horror cinema.

4.5

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The Last House on the Left

Forty-six years after its release, The Last House on the Left remains a ferocious work of sadistic cinema. The film is so unnerving for appearing, on the outset, to have been unintentionally achieved—a flakey, dangerous quality that many contemporary filmmakers unconvincingly attempt to emulate. In his feature-film debut, writer-director Wes Craven oscillates between broadly comic and nihilistic tones and between moments of trashy amateurishness and piercing existential poetry, criticizing the very notion of tonality.

It’s consistency of tone in media—a smooth, euphemistic notion of polish known as production values—that renders anything from a carton of milk to a war marketable, and such consistency is also valued in art, which often tells us what we’re getting and telegraphs what we’re supposed to think. Meanwhile, Craven’s film is a direct assault on notions of consistency and control, seeing them as the sort of distancing mechanisms that distract our country and sanitize atrocity. This is horror cinema as punk rock.

There are more violent films than The Last House on the Left, especially in the post-Nightmare on Elm Street era of the serial killer as ironic rock star, though the violence here isn’t palatable or delivered with the ritualized seriousness that flatters our intelligence for consuming a nasty movie. The scenes in which a gang rapes and murders two teenage women are prolonged and disgusting, as the women are never merely elements in an aesthetic, but viscerally terrified, humiliated humans begging for mercy with unmooring rawness.

It’s the little touches that are the most haunting, such as when the gang leader, Krug Stillo (David Hess), forces Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to piss her pants, or when Phyllis tries in vain to assure her friend, Mari (Sandra Peabody), that they’re the only ones in the forest as they’re stripped of their clothes, hugging her close as the gang taunts them with knives and guns. Such details assert the supreme violation of what we’re seeing, and these moments continue to proliferate throughout The Last House on the Left. When Krug finally rapes Mari, Craven lingers on his face squashed on top of her cheek, saliva dripping out of his mouth as she quivers in shock.

Interspersed with this depravity are scenes in which inept cops try to reach the woods, circling the kill zone while the score (composed by Hess) zips and slides along in a manner that recalls the music of later highway comedies like Smokey and the Bandit. These alternately despairing and flip tones don’t traditionally go together, and this isn’t the first such juxtaposition in the film, as Phyllis and Mari’s capture by the gang in the city is contrasted with a comic moment in which Mari’s parents, Dr. John and Estelle Collingwood (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr), prepare for their daughter’s birthday party.

Not long afterward, Krug and his gang—knife-wielding Weasel (Fred Lincoln), infantile junkie Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), and the lone woman, Sadie (Jeramie Rain)—are driving along in the country in a convertible as Sadie fucks Krug in the backseat. Everyone’s joking and laughing while Phyllis and Mari are imprisoned in the vehicle’s trunk. The scene is disturbing for the gang’s callousness and for Craven’s empathy with their cold jocularity. A conventional director would tonally code the scene as “menacing,” divorcing us from the violation by hewing to formal expectation, though Craven renders the gang’s entitlement and bravado without editorializing.

The film’s seemingly misplaced sense of comedy, particularly in the scenes involving the police and the Collingwoods, communicates a powerful aura of ineffectuality—of clueless complacency in the face of sloppy and spitefully pointless evil. At this stage in his career, Craven was a naïf who brilliantly understood how to use his lack of experience to his advantage. (Later, especially in the Scream series, Craven would become a slicker craftsman, serving up the sort of digestible violence that this film abhors.)

Even formally, there’s an impression here of the insane having inherited the asylum. The Last House on the Left has little “coverage” as one normally considers the term, as a hodgepodge of stolen images takes the place of an orderly sequence of master and medium shots and close-ups. Some of these compositions—like Mari’s tranced-out death march into a lake—have a tranquil intensity that’s worthy of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman. Other scenes are stitched together haphazardly, as in a weirdly beautiful and inexplicable fade from a shot of Phyllis and Mari into a close-up of Weasel’s face. Dialogue is crude, obscene, disreputably funny, and often seemingly pointless—such as continuous riffs about animals that gradually evolve into an examination of how Krug’s gang reduces women to cattle. The film often looks and sounds like the exploitation cheapie that it is, though this lowers the audience’s guard for its vivid sense of social collapse.

Artfulness resides underneath The Last House on the Left’s garishness, and the film has a more intimate relationship with its source of inspiration, The Virgin Spring, than detractors care to acknowledge. Riffing throughout on Bergman’s film, Craven proffers a symmetry that continues to influence the horror genre, contrasting the Collingwoods and the Stillo gang as clans that represent the respective mainstream and fringe of society.

The Collingwoods are a middle-class family that’s marginally aware of the “free love” movement spurred by the Vietnam War and rank government corruption. John and Estelle talk like actors in a public service video, emanating the unearned authority that’s echoed later by the policemen. And the Stillo gang is the roiling underbelly of America—reacting to the privilege of people like John and Estelle, the effects of women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam as well as out of its feral urges to revel in its own filth. When the gang’s members dress up and eat at the Collingwoods’ dinner table, not long after killing their daughter, their resemblance to conventional civilians illustrates the thin line existing between the rough halves of the communal coin. Yet Craven doesn’t baldly wear his intellectualism, tucking it underneath the rough framing and fraught atmosphere.

This symbolic self-consciousness is evident in the rape scenes as well. The Stillo gang’s manipulation of Phyllis and Mari suggests a display of film direction, as the killers revel in their authority over their subjects, bending the women’s wills to suit their own fantasies, fashioning role-playing that blends snuff with melodrama. The Stillo gang offers, perhaps, an immoral funhouse version of the sort of direction that Craven may have given himself, and so the killings suggest a homemade horror film within another homemade horror film—an impression that’s intensified by the unease that the cast still exhibits when discussing The Last House on the Left decades later.

These disenfranchised monsters inadvertently stage a parody of how media spins inhumanity into stimulation, divorcing such stimulation of civil pretenses and indicting those who produce or consume the news and action and horror films with placid disinterest. In the face of such a uniquely self-cannibalizing film, traditional criticism also feels inadequate and part of the problem of bourgeoisie evasion. All reviews, that is, except for the astonishing analysis that Robin Wood offered in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.

John and Estelle aren’t killers until the film’s final act, but they also chafe at revolution and enjoy fruits of suppression. The Stillo gang embodies the Collingwoods’ condescending fear of the “degenerate” element that’s suggested by rock-n’-roll and bra-burning, while acting out the Collingwoods’ subterranean impulses. Violence lurks everywhere in this film, right from the opening, when a nostalgic mailman regards Mari’s birthday cards wistfully only to call her the “finest piece” he’s ever seen. When Ethel rips Weasel’s cock off with her teeth, or when John butchers Krug with a chainsaw, there’s a sense of release—a reckoning with a submerged social obscenity—that doesn’t provide relief. In The Last House on the Left, Craven fashions a cleansing, demoralizing wave of anarchy that he never again matched—that he never wanted to match. By breaching a realm as impregnable as the Collingwood home, Craven renders the American nightmare of class savagery democratic, kick-starting the modern political horror film.

Image/Sound

Per the notes about the transfer included in the package’s booklet, a search was undertaken to track down The Last House on the Left’s best materials, as the original 16mm AB negative has been lost. Ultimately, the 35mm dupe negative held by producer Sean S. Cunningham was deemed the “highest quality element,” and scanned in 2K resolution, while other elements were sought from MGM and Severin Films to complete the new transfers of the Krug & Company and R-rated versions that are also included in this set.

The result is an unusually lively and robust image, with lurid colors that revitalize the film’s nightmarish trashiness. Skin and other surface textures are densely detailed. Image clarity is variable, as one might expect, though greatly improved from prior editions. Also, The Last House on the Left shouldn’t look too good, as that would negate the point of the project, and there are many blemishes that only add to the seamy atmosphere. Arrow Video has delicately toggled a fine line between clarity and the look that’s most appropriate to the film, and this balance extends to the monaural soundtrack, which is a little flat and soft in places, though greatly improved over the mixes of prior editions, especially in terms of diegetic effects.

Extras

This supplements package is comprehensive even by the obsessive standards of Arrow Video, consisting of dozens of featurettes that have appeared on various editions of The Last House on the Left over the years as well as a few choice new additions. Inevitably for a film that’s been repackaged so often, there’s quite a bit of repetition here. Over the course of many archive featurettes and two archive commentaries, writer-director Wes Craven, producer Sean S. Cunningham (of Friday the 13th fame), and the cast and crew discuss working on the film and their subsequent relationship with it.

Fred Lincoln, who worked in adult cinema, says that he’s more ashamed of this film (which he calls a “piece of shit”) than any porn in which he appeared. Many of the actors, who used aliases for this project, are visibly uncomfortable discussing their work, and Sandra Peabody, who has The Last House on the Left’s most punishing scenes, is conspicuously absent. Even Craven evinces skittishness, alternating between rationalizing the film as a political statement and admitting that it’s a genre exercise that might have eluded his control, tapping into something primordially of the moment.

The nuts and bolts of the film’s making are fascinating. Craven shot it in New York and Connecticut, after he got a job in Cunningham’s production office, out of which Cunningham produced “white coat” skin flicks—nudie films with a thin pretense of offering medical information to get around censors. The Last House on the Left’s title was made up on the fly when an advertiser combined words—”last,” “house,” and “left”—that he said would connote unease. The concept worked and made a sensation out of a film that was playing to empty theaters under titles like Krug & Company—a cut of which is included with this disc, as well as the somewhat neutered R-rated version. Helping matters considerably was a canny tag line “it’s only a movie…” which is used in an ad that’s excerpted frequently on these featurettes.

Also included here is an audio commentary with film historians Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes that serves as a terrific one-stop shop for a mammoth package. Ackerman and Reyes dive into the film’s murky politics and observe the convincing and exact character work that’s often ignored. Reyes doesn’t position The Last House on the Left as a feminist work, though she underscores Craven’s often overlooked sensitivity to the female characters.

“Blood and Guts,” an interview with make-up artist Anne Paul, is another notably evocative new supplement, in which Paul tells of auditioning for the roles of Mari and Phyllis only to talk her way into the make-up job. This led to a lifelong career working on legendary people such as Jane Fonda and Bill Clinton. Rounding out this package are a seemingly endless stream of odds and ends, including an unfinished short by Craven, a new book with writing by Stephen Thrower, trailers, radio spots, and a deleted scene, as well as a CD with David Hess’s haunting and controversially whimsical soundtrack.

Overall

Arrow Video offers a precise and loving restoration of a daring and legendarily unlovable milestone in horror cinema. This set offers an exacting and ambiguous portrait of a pivotal moment in American horror cinema.

Cast: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Richard Towers, Cynthia Carr, Martin Kove, Marshall Anker, Ada Washington Director: Wes Craven Screenwriter: Wes Craven Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: July 3, 2018 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

4.0

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Forty Guns

Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.

When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.

Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.

Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.

This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.

The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.

The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.

Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.

Image/Sound

Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.

Extras

The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.

Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.

Overall

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan

The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

3.5

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Let the Corpses Tan

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.

In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.

The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.

The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.

Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.

Image/Sound

On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.

Extras

Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

4.0

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A Dry White Season

The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.

Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.

The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.

In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.

Extras

A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.

Overall

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video

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