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Star Wars, They're Not
by Lucius Shepard
May 20, 2005

By the time you read this, the Ides of Lucas (May 19) will have long since come, though perhaps not gone. As I write, the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith opening is hard upon us, and would that I were there to exult in the rich cinematic tapestry it doubtless provides; to partake of the sophisticated dialogue for which Lucas is renowned; to be in the theater while a John Williams score washes knee-deep along the aisles, as if a sewer main has broken, releasing a particularly noisome form of bombast; and to re-experience, against the background noise of critics woodling over whether this latest incarnation of GL’s Vapid-O-Thon is too dark for the kiddies (too dark? For children raised on Iraq and Grand Theft Auto?), the cultural phenomenon of America going to the movies, our America, George Bush’s America, a nation of declining intellect and energy expressing its collective will with a unanimity it otherwise lacks, applauding like seals for a fish at the sight of dueling puppets, their glee interrupted now and then by enormous figures dressed as Darth Vader and Chewbacca, who block out the screen as they trundle back and forth to the refreshment stand, toting tubs of popcorn and two-pound packets of Raisinets. But, alas, that pleasure has been denied me, and I have been forced to review a couple of films that, albeit not classics, at least won’t inspire you to attempt self-slaughter by jamming an R2-D2 action figure down your throat.

Robert Pratten’s London Voodoo, a low-budget indie film that will soon have an American DVD release (it received no theatrical one in this country), is something of an old-fashioned girl, a horror movie that builds suspense slowly, meticulously, through character development and story, rather than, as most such films resort to doing, slathering on the gore and the shoddy effects. Lincoln and Sarah (Doug Cockle and Sara Stewart) are a thirty-something New York couple who have relocated to London, where she hopes their marriage will be renewed. Lincoln hopes, on the other hand, that Sara will find London a sufficient distraction to keep her out of his hair while he pursues his career, the very thing that has caused their marital problems in the first place. When Sara, during the process of renovating their new home, discovers a voodoo grave in the cellar, wherein lie a brace of mummies locked in a lovers’ coupling, she begins to change, eventually so drastically as regards her strength and sexuality that she commands the attention of even her career-driven husband.

Pratten, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a neat metaphor here, using Sara’s possession by an African female warrior to emblematize the dynamics of a marriage in severe decline, and, at the same time he has given us the most realistic depiction of the voodoo belief system ever put on film. This is not to say that he neglects the mystery aspect of the plot. Does the new au pair, Kelly (Vonda Barnes), hired to care for Sara’s baby, have anything to do with a voodoo conspiracy? She certainly establishes her sinister bent by methodically crushing a snail and later seems to have developed an unhealthy infatuation with Lincoln, going so far as to poison Sara—a course of action from which she pulls back. Who is the black man who pounds on Lincoln’s door and shouts, “Your family is in danger!” And what part does the local historian play? She’s an elderly woman who reveals the bloody history of the house, most pertinently that two people died in a fire there in 1902, and appears to know a lot more that she isn’t telling. These questions have scarcely been fully framed, let alone resolved, when Sara begins collecting her husband’s hair and toenail clippings, covering herself with food, and seducing a construction worker, an evolution that does not end until she’s armed herself with a makeshift spear, painted her body with mystical designs, and taken to urinating in pots she places on the kitchen floor. And thus the scene is set for a devastating climax.

As mentioned, London Voodoo is an old-school horror movie that calls to mind the Hammer films of the 1970s, though LV is better scripted and has much better acting. Sarah Stewart is absolutely enthralling in her transition from repressed American mom to super-aggressive mojo queen—it’s a caliber of performance that, were it not embedded in a genre picture few will ever see, might well have earned Stewart some serious attention. The rest of the multicultural cast performs admirably in her support, especially Barnes, whose kittenish yet malefic turn as the au pair seems the product of a purer form of evil than does Stewart’s African warrior princess, who mostly seems angered at the violence done her in a previous incarnation. LV is such a carefully thought-out film, its script so reflective of that thought, I have no doubt that this is part of Pratten’s subtext.

When Nochnoy Dozor, or The Night Watch, the blockbuster Russian epic fantasy (which outgrossed The Return of the King at the Russian box office), receives its long-overdue American theatrical release this summer, it will be vastly improved over the import DVD that I happened to see. For one thing, courtesy of Fox Searchlight, the movie will be shown in, reportedly, a streamlined new cut, and for another, the subtitles, which on the DVD were incompetent at best and helped to render more confusing what may seem to many Americans a confusing film . . . The sub-titles will have been redone and, further, will be incorporated into the actual frames, coming across more like word balloons, rather than trailing along the bottom of the picture. It’s such a startlingly simple innovation, you wonder why it’s not been tried before, since this technique will serve to keep the viewer’s attention focused on the screen, not divided between reading and watching. In whatever form one sees it, however, NW is a remarkable achievement, especially in light of the fact that it cost less than five million dollars to make.

The movie opens with a CGI-heavy prologue that sets the scene: It seems that the world we inhabit is composed of human beings and Others, a motley crew of wizards, vampires, shape-shifters, et al, and the Others are split among those who follow the Light and those who serve the Dark (go figure!). A thousand years ago they joined in a great battle that resulted in a truce being made between the opposing sides, the terms of which dictated that, among other things, no one may use magic in public and they must leave humans alone. So as to ensure compliance, the Dark Others patrol the human world during the day, and the Light Others keep the Night Watch. Whether this symbolizes the pre-perestroika relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, well, I leave that to someone with a knowledge of Russian life, someone who can parse some of the subtle cultural references in the film; but the inference seems inescapable.

The actual story begins with a sad-eyed everyman, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), depressed that his ex-girlfriend is now with another man and seeking the help of an old woman who has, she claims, a knowledge of herbs and charms. When the old woman proves to be a Dark Other witch and is busted by the Night Watch for trying to turn Anton toward the service of evil, he learns that he himself is an Other, though not a very powerful one. We jump forward to 2004 in Moscow, a time when the truce has been broken, all the old enmities reinvigorated, and war is threatening to break out, with humanity caught in the crossfire. Now a fully initiated member of the Night Watch, Anton is patrolling the Dark with two colleagues, traveling through the city in a jet-propelled truck (either humans don’t notice it in jet-mode or else contemporary Muscovites have become immune to shock). Using his slender powers of foresight, he’s trying to help a boy who’s being pursued by two Dark vampires and may be the Other foretold by prophecy who will tip the balance of power in favor of one side or another during the final battle. One of the more interesting facets of what is, essentially, standard fantasy cha-cha, is that the forces of the Light are not morally superior—not markedly so, at any rate—to the forces of the Dark, and, in what may be another Cold War reference, folks are switching sides with some frequency.

These materials may seem like nothing special, but director Timur Bekmambetov, who co-authored the script along with Sergein Lukyanenko, who wrote the source novels, does his best to put a fresh spin on them. While he shows his influences—Terry Gilliam and Delicatessen-era Jean-Pierre Jeunet—a little too much, quoting from their films at times, Gilliam and Jeunet are not such bad influences to show when you’re trying to enliven an oft-told tale. The use of Gilliam- and Jeunet-esque hyperkinetic visuals to convey the despair and chaos of a grungy contemporary Moscow populated by vampires, shape-shifters, and so on is artfully apt and allows Bekmambetov to inject a necessary humor into what otherwise would be a thoroughly grim proceeding. Bekmambetov borrows heavily from various and sundry. For instance, Anton is given an owl as an assistant a la Harry Potter, yet unlike Harry’s owl, Anton’s sheds her feathers and is transformed into a long-legged Russian beauty (Harry’s never going do any better than Hermione, I fear). But there are quite a few moments and incidents in the movie that are pure Bekmambetov-Lukyanenko: a wizard named Zavulon whose spine, when removed, becomes a magical sword; the jet-propelled truck, used primarily as a humorous device; an apartment building, in which a cursed woman lives, that is circled constantly by thousands of crows; a battle with vampires who fade in and out of visibility that surely ranks among the most idiosyncratic fight scenes ever filmed. There are also flaws which, hopefully, the new edit has addressed. Most significantly, Bekmambetov’s camera tends to wander about during scenes involving large numbers of actors and, while this adds (occasionally) to the visual style, it doesn’t help much with continuity and negates the effect of an establishing shot.

For an American audience, accustomed to the trails of boulder-sized breadcrumbs used to mark plot points in films by American directiors, NW will take some getting used to. The film doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer, and if you’re not paying strict attention, it’s easy to lose your way. Hints of a larger story, one with an even wider scope, are salted throughout the film, and these compound the confusion. It should come as no surprise that NW is the first film in a trilogy, the second of which is currently in post-production (Fox Searchlight ponied up the funds to enable the completion of the final two films). So, for you trilogy buffs out there, for those of you who felt cheated when the Matrix turned into a bad dream about Hugo Weaving, for those who felt like pulling a Gollum and diving into the Crack of Doom after the One Ring, for those who never recovered from an attack of the clones and for whom Darth Vader as George Bush came too little, too late, this smart, funny, flawed but audaciously mounted Russian epic fantasy might be something of an upgrade. Of course it’s no Star Wars, but then . . . what is?