Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Heart of Midnight (1988)

Directed by:
Matthew Chapman

I love haunted house films, psychological horror films and especially combinations of both where one element is frequently at odds with the other and you're never quite sure whether there's an actual haunting taking place, the protagonist is going insane or both are happening simultaneously. I also love Jennifer Jason Leigh and think she's been one of the most underrated and undervalued actresses in Hollywood for several decades now. Unfortunately, this movie just didn't do it for me. It's the type of self-indulgent, needlessly cluttered 'art' film the gives me a headache because it was made by someone less interested in crafting an affecting, thoughtful movie than someone preoccupied with showing off how 'original' they are at every turn by throwing in random weirdness for the sake of random weirdness. In 1965, when Roman Polanski utilized surreal imagery to reflect the crumbling mind of Catherine Deneuve's character in REPULSION, he did so with purpose. direction and restraint. This movie attempts to update that same exact story and give it a kinkier whitewash as well as a last minute twist, but it all ends up succumbing to the director's own pretensions. This guy just does not know when to quit.

I mentioned Polanski's film for a good reason: This movie is slavish in its dedication to it. Like Repulsion, it features an aloof, attractive blonde with a history of mental illness possibly due to childhood sexual abuse. Both characters are named Carol and both begin hallucinating and going off the deep end once they're left alone to their own thoughts in a quiet location. This also swipes the cracking walls, the unnerving sounds of water dripping and clocks ticking, possibly imaged sexual assaults and the macabre time passage symbolism (Polanski used sprouting potatoes and a rotting skinned rabbit and this one uses an apple that begins to fester with worms) from Polanski's movie. Of course, so many borrowings could potentially place this in the category of 'rip off' but the director makes it all as blatant as possible because when you're really obvious people will claim you are 'cleverly referencing' a movie and not copying it. Hell, Quentin Tarantino has made an acclaimed career for himself out of just that for the past 20 years.

I won't go too heavily into the plot, just to say Leigh's "emotionally delicate" character, who's spent some time in an institution, inherits 10 thousand dollars and what she believes to be an ordinary, warehouse-sized nightclub from her late Uncle. Against her mother's (Brenda Vaccaro) wishes, she decides to move in and fix the place up. While the first floor of the building is indeed just a regular club under renovation, the second story of the joint is another matter entirely. Upstairs is a red hallway with flickering lights and walls lined with numerous multi- colored locked doors; behind each a room catering to a specific sexual fetish. Rooms have beach themes and library themes, some have mattresses lined on the floors, mirrors on the walls and cameras with monitors. TVs play porn cartoons and sex loops and there's even an XXX video game. The creepiest of the rooms which ends up having the most significance is a some kind of S&M chamber with chains, leather, mannequins and words like "Master" and "Obedience" painted on the walls.

Almost immediately after moving in, Carol begins having strange visions and meets even stranger people whose motivations and identities are unclear. The foreman (James Redhorn) working on restoring the building is reluctant to alter the dead Uncle's original plans but won't say why. A trio of guys (including Steve Buscemi) attempt to rape her, but a police chief (Frank Stallone) chooses not to believe her story because apparently she'd cried wolf in regards to sexual assault in the past. She's befriended by both a rape crisis counselor (Denise Dumont) and a mysterious man (Peter Coyote) who shows up pretending to be a detective but is someone else entirely. As that's all going on - set to a Yanni score no less - the director plies on the bizarre imagery right and left. Doors constantly open and close by themselves, apples appear everywhere, children's laughter is heard, a bicycle flies down a hallway, a giant eyeball crashes through a door and appears inside a water bed, etc. Oh yeah, and let us not forget the last minute appearance of a crazed transsexual for good measure!

Leigh is given an extremely difficult character to play here. She's a sexually repressed neurotic who constantly talks to herself, a chain-smoking former alcoholic, a survivor of sex abuse plagued by flashbacks, a near-hysterical woman suffering from paranoid delusions... the director really piles it on in this one and it's a testament to Leigh's brilliance as an actress that she manages to plausibly play this ridiculously complicated character regardless of all the crazy things going on around her. It's just too bad the performance is wasted in service of a subpar, poorly-scripted film few people wanted to watch then and even fewer want to watch now. The only way distributors were able to even sell this mess was by misleadingly marketing it as an erotic thriller, which it is certainly not.


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