Tag: Veronica Cartwright

Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver is last woman standing in Alien

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert)

For decades, space was seen as a place of wonder. But Alien reminded us it was also a place where no one can hear you scream. We dream the vast void out there contains life: but what if the life we found was a relentless killing machine, a seemingly invulnerable monster literally having humanity for breakfast? Ridley Scott’s Alien took science fiction and ran it through the blender of horror, turning its space ship into a terrifying haunted house with an alien straight out of slasher films. It’s still a landmark today.

In deep space, the Nostromo’s crew is pulled out of hypersleep early – long before arriving back in our solar system. A strange distress call from an unidentified vessel needs to be investigated, on standing orders from “the company”. The seven-strong crew lands their ship and a party heads out – only to return with third officer Kane (John Hurt) with a strange alien creature attached to his face. The creature can’t be removed until it detaches itself of its own accord. All seems well until an unfortunate dinner party – at which point the crew finds itself being hunted one-by-one by a relentless alien monster.

Scott’s film is so famous today it’s very hard not to forget your foreknowledge of what’s going to happen and to experience it as its original viewers did. But it still works brilliantly – even if almost everyone watching knows only Ripley is getting out of this alive. The film is a masterpiece of slow-burn tension punctuated by moments of shocking horror. The final Alien itself doesn’t appear until almost an hour into the picture – but before then we’ve had our nerves more than jangled by the unsettling disquiet of the film’s mood. From the Nostromo, to the storm-laden planet they land on, and the vast alien ship – now a tomb of dismembered corpses with an unsettling organic look, like a giant carcass – everything in the film is designed to put us ill-at-ease. You can’t watch this film and expect anything to turn out for the best.

The camera prowls around the dank, grimy and run-down ship – space travel has rarely looked this unglamorous – like the predator that will hunt the crew. It’s slow, stately lingering on the crew, their faces, the eerily unsettling sounds and score, all serve to act like an advance funeral. Every single beat of the film stresses claustrophobia and dirt. It looks like a horrible trap already, and the film embraces a sense of grim inevitability. The observational style of the editing and shooting as we follow the characters, overhearing their bickering and functional work-based conversations, also helps add to this mounting sense of unease. It’s a surprisingly quiet film for much of its opening act, ambient noise and unsettingly lingering music dominating.

There is a poetical eeriness about the whole film. This is also partly from the sense of the ship being a society in microcosm. Much of the bickering is around bonus pay shares, the working-class engineers of the ship (one of whom is also black) bemoaning their smaller shares. The officers sit at the top, a mixture of entitled, distant, officious and daring. They have their own feuds over status, professional boundaries and personal rivalries. The captain is a laissez-faire professional, who offers only a general guidance and could really be just another member of the crew. The ship is like a giant oil-rig in space, with the crew basically a group of “truckers”. The film is as much about interpersonal tensions as it is about an alien monster who hunts people down.

But it is mainly about an alien monster that tears people apart. After almost an hour of deeply unsettling and unnerving build-up, when the monster (literally) rears its head, it’s a terrifying sight. We usually only see it briefly for small shots, but what we see is pure nightmare fuel. The creature is terrifying in its violence and power. It is partly human but also completely revolting. Covered in slime, it looks like a bizarre mix of a man, a giant penis and a vagina (its designer, HR Giger, reasoned nothing would be more unsettling and disturbing to us than seeing a beast that’s partly inspired by our own sexual organs). It creeps in corners, embraces the many shadows of Scott’s set and its capacity for violence seems unstoppable. Sharp editing and suggestion elaborates the visceral horror of its extending jaws punching through bone and flesh. It moves like an interpretative dancer and leaves a trail of blood. It’s unstoppable and infinitely cunning. It looks like your worst nightmare.

It’s all washed down with body horror. An alien that smothers its victims and shoves an egg down their throat which hatches through their chest becoming a slaughtering beast. There is an uneasy sexuality about this, right down to the “birth” of the creature being a grotesque parody of childbirth. The “birthing scene” is a masterpiece, the first moment in the film when the tension between the crew has eased – and the film itself seems to have relaxed for a moment from the knot of tension – that turns into one of the most memorable moments of body horror ever. The actors were allegedly told what would happen – but not how graphic it would be – and their horror-struck disgust (Veronica Cartwright was nearly knocked over by a powerful jetstream of mock blood and guts) and and shock gives the film a priceless realism.

Watching the film, it’s striking to me how much John Hurt’s Kane is shot as the hero early in the film. It’s he who wakes first from hypersleep. It’s Kane we follow the most for the early part of the film – he’s the one piloting the ship, volunteering to answer the distress call, urging his crew mates on as they investigate the alien vessel – it’s Kane who seems to be the hero. Making his brutal demise even more of a subconscious shock. On the other hand, Ripley is introduced as an officious, unpopular, by-the-book officer who it seems few other members of the crew like (Sigourney Weaver’s praetorian attitude helps a lot with this) – if you had to bet on someone to bite it early on, you’d pick her. The film continues to defy expectations. Characters who seem like they might be invulnerable are slaughtered early. Those who looked vulnerable survive until late on.

It’s a very strong cast. Weaver magnificently grows in authority as the film progresses, turning her abrasiveness into strength of character and moral determination. Hurt is very good as the unknowing victim-in-waiting. Kotto, chippy and defiant, is another stand-out. The finest performance through might well come from Ian Holm as science-officer Ash. Precise, cold, distant – but always hiding his own secret agenda – it’s an unsettlingly controlled performance that leads to a pay-off reveal that still works brilliantly today (and the character would have one of the most memorable death scenes in film, if he wasn’t in the same film as the most memorable death scene).

Scott’s filmmaking is brilliantly controlled, and the film is a horrifying masterpiece of tension and terror. The monster is skilfully shown at its worst (you’d never even guess in actuality it’s little more than a Doctor Who man-in-a-rubber-suit) and its design is faultless perfection. It’s not completely perfect – its build up might be ten minutes too long, and a late sequence that sees Weaver wearing little more than her undies looks hideously dated today – but it’s pretty close. Science fiction has never been scarier than it is here – hell the movies have rarely been scarer. In space no-one really can hear you scream.

The Birds (1963)

Tippi Hedron has a bad day at the birdcage in The Birds

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Tippi Hedron (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitch Brenner), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Charles McGraw (Sebastian Sholes), Lonny Chapman (Deke Carter), Joe Mantell (Cynical Businessman)

Alfred Hitchcock is often seen as the master of technique, the doyen of suspense, the master of the shock twist. Perhaps it was his love of this sort of material that led him to this radical reworking of Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds. After all Hitch had already directed the greatest ever du Maurier adaptation (Rebecca), so working with du Maurier was hardly new and turning this English suspense story into a sort of post-apocalyptic, tension-filled plot-boiler was right up his street. The Birds is a master-class in the director’s craft, and a curiously empty experience with barely a human heart in sight.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron), a slightly spoiled heiress, arrives in a small coastal town in California in order to play a practical trick on lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Deciding to stay the night, she quickly realises that she has chosen the wrong weekend to get away as, while sparks grow between her and Rod, they also grow between humanity and the birds, as our feathered friends (enemies?) begin a series of escalating attacks on the population of the town that eventually lead to multiple deaths and destruction.

Hitchcock’s film is as masterclass in the slow-burn, deliberately the slowest film the director perhaps ever made. Hitchcock prided himself on his films in suspense being the awaiting of an event to happen. The bomb you know will go off on the bus. The plane circling Cary Grant that seems ripe to attack. The Birds takes this to the nth degree. The film’s very title all but tells you that the birds are going to attack, so Hitchcock takes it nice and slow, letting scenes play out with a breezy lack of pace, almost like a low-rent romantic comedy. But somehow this long unwinding of not a lot happening works well, because every scene somehow becomes a corkscrew as tension as every single bird in shot becomes suspicious. 

This atmosphere is increased by the wide open locations and remote locale the film is set in, with these all-American small town sites seeming to stretch on forever around the characters only serving to stress their isolation and vulnerability in the middle of all this deadly nature. Hitchcock also carefully stripped out all musical score from the film, instead providing a sound track of natural noise complemented by slightly exaggerated bird noise (created by use of a Trautonium, supervised by master composer Bernard Herrmann). The often makes the film eerily and unsettlingly quiet, with the soundtrack only punctured by the frequently (perhaps deliberately) mundane dialogue. Suddenly with this brilliant combination game, the entire film becomes a tense waiting game for the unleashing of avian attacks, every frame a tense waiting for the bang you all know is coming. It’s Hitchcock using every aspect of his reputation, and the film’s promise of violence, to create an overwhelming effect that is deeply unsettling no matter how many times you see the movie. 

Hitchcock also gives a slow build to the bird violence. Events escalate quickly, from the unsettling gathering of the birds in several places (most notably along telephone lines and outside a school playground) to subtle messages about chicken’s refusing food, to first Melanie and the other characters colliding with or being bitten by birds. It all builds to a grim reveal of a local farmer who has been attacked over-night, with Rod’s mother stumbling across the mutilated old man, Hitchcock’s camera delightedly cross cutting onto the man’s pecked out eyes. It’s the most grotesque shot of the film – and coming before we’ve seen our first mass bird attack, leaves us in no doubt as to the danger of these animals.

And when those bird effects come they have a real unsettling violence to them. In a blur of both real birds and super-imposed images (I will admit that the special effects of this film do now look a little dated, with the mixture of real, model and photo trickery birds rather jarring) the birds fly with an almost unimaginable aggression at the human beings. Flocks descend, pecking, biting and clawing, leaving human bodies maimed, blinded and bloodied. Crowds of school children are attacked while fleeing their school. A gas attendant is brutally set upon leading to a firey conflagration. Passers-by and those unable to get refuge are beaten to the ground under a flood of winged assailants.

The film changes tack in its final sequence into a tense series of sieges as Melanie, Rod and his family hole up in Rod’s house by the lake, barricading doors and windows as the birds peck relentlessly at doors and windows, slowly forcing their way in. Rooms that fall to the birds become whirlpools of deadly flying creatures, a tornado of wings and pecks that few can stand against. Hitchcock’s camera cuts rapidly from the flood of birds, to ever increasing pecks at hands and arms, to hands thrown up to protect eyes – a brilliant call back to the eye horror shown earlier in the film that immediately inspires. The birds attack in unpredictable waves, their attacks dying down at moments as the sit calmly and placidly only to expectantly burst back into violence.

It’s just a shame that Hitchcock’s film is so enamoured with its undeniable technique that it neglects to feature any heart or soul at all. The characters are a stock collection of forgettable tropes, most played by forgettable actors, or mute ciphers. The film almost deliberately throws together a truly trivial collection of stories and character motivations to pepper the centre (perhaps this bland self-interest is what pisses the birds off so much) of the film, that frankly are not that interesting. Rod Taylor is a solid but uninspiring performer, Jessica Tandy is saddled with a truly pathetically weak role. So many of the other characters such little impact that they barely warrant names. Rarely in Hitchcock films have the human characters felt so much like devices, square pegs in square holes, totally subservient to the Master’s whims. Put frankly, for all the tension of when the birds will turn, you’ll care very little for any of their victims. 

A lot of focus on the film has been on Tippi Hedron, in particular her accusations of ill-treatment (routed in frustrated sexual obsession) from Hitchcock. These stories – and Hitchcock’s subsequent description of her as little more than an attractive prop (a feeling he tended to have for lots of actors) – have drawn attention away from the fact that she is actually very effective in The Birds, and that her brightness and intelligence makes her the only person who feels real in the whole film. It makes it all the more sad that the final sequence renders her into a mute, shell-shocked victim – but Hedron’s promise (never fulfilled due to Hitchcock’s sabotage of her career) is clear here.

Hitchcock’s film finally ends on a truly nihilistic, Armageddon tinged ending that speaks volumes for the post-apocalyptic nuclear anxiety prevalent in the West in the 1960s. The birds rest, triumphant, over the chilling silence of the world as what remains of our heroes beat a retreat. It’s a chilling flourish in a film that is a stylist’s triumph but lacks any real heart. It’s a film that haunts the memory but it doesn’t win the heart. If Hitchcock really did hate actors and most people, this film makes a good case for arguing that’s a pretty honest insight.

The Children's Hour (1961)

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine are victims of scurrilous rumours in The Children’s Hour

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Martha Dobie), Audrey Hepburn (Karen Wright), James Garner (Dr Joe Cardin), Miriam Hopkins (Lily Mortar), Fay Bainter (Mrs Amelia Tilford), Karen Balkin (Mary Tilford), Veronica Cartwright (Rosalie Wells), Mimi Gibson (Evelyn), William Mims (Mr Burton)

The Children’s Hour was William Wyler’s second stab at directing an adaptation of Lilian Hellman’s play of the same name: a story about  two young teachers at a private girls’ school, and the destruction wreaked on their lives when a malicious pupil spreads rumours the two are in a secret lesbian relationship. His first attempt from 1936, These Three, kept as many of the themes as possible but carefully deleted every single reference to homosexuality in the script. This second film version restores this core theme in a carefully structured, well directed, respectful film adaptation that, with its careful analysis of the danger of rumours and snap judgements, still feels relevant today. 

Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) run a private girls’ school. Karen is engaged to Dr Joe Cardin (James Garner), and this prolonged engagement is part of the arsenal used by a bitter, bullying student Mary (Karen Balkin) when she decides to start spreading innuendo about a scandalous relationship between the teachers, painting Martha as consumed by sexual envy. Mary’s story is believed whole-heartedly by her grandmother, doyen of the social scene and Joe’s aunt, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter). Thoughtless words from Martha’s aunt Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins) make things worse. In no time, the school is ruined, the children all gone and Martha and Karen face a desperate battle to prove that there is nothing to this but gossip.

Wyler’s film is a strange mixture at times, in part a commentary on prejudice, and also a scorching condemnation of jumping to judgements. The film plays out all this with calmness and a general careful avoidance of histrionics and lecturing. The removal of the children from the school is brutal and cowardly – with none of the parents having the guts to say why they are doing what they are doing until finally confronted by Karen. Amelia Tilford goes about her campaign of moral righteousness with a holier-than-thou superiority while constantly stressing that she takes no pleasure in this. In the latter half of the film, the abandoned school seems to be constantly surrounded by smirking men.

The film carefully outlines that this sort of moral judgement is inherently wrong, and it brings out some true moral judgement on many of the people involved. It draws out a brilliant Crucible-like indignation at the rigidity and hypocrisy of how those who are judged to be different are treated. The film’s finest sequence is at the centre of the film, where Martha and Karen make a (failed) attempt to nip the scandal in the bud by confronting Mary at her grandmother’s house. The scene zings with a burning sense of injustice, as Mary’s lies are believed, doubled down on and then confirmed by a blackmailed fellow student, all while the audience knows that everything that is being spun is florid, innuendo-filled rubbish.

Mary is a bitter, twisted, angry little girl whose face seems permanently screwed into a furious frown. She also has the sharpness and ruthlessness of the natural bully, successfully blackmailing a sensitive, kleptomaniac student to endorse all her lies at every turn. Wyler carefully demonstrates that she has a natural manipulator’s deviance and that half-facts and muttered comments carry more conviction and force than carefully stated arguments ever would.

But Mary’s actions partly stem from Karen’s own forceful treatment of her – and Karen’s moral inflexibility and personal certainty is just one of the many character flaws that this lie brings closer and closer to the surface. Well played by Audrey Hepburn, using her occasional slight imperiousness to great effect, Karen’s lack of compromise, her domineering personality and her own moral superiority help to make her both an unsympathetic victim to many, and a person who manages to drive wedges (inadvertently) between herself and her two closest friends, Joe and Martha.

That wedge spins out from the fact that the more sensitive Martha (a sensitively delicate performance from Shirley Maclaine) does have romantic and sexual feelings for Karen, feelings that she has carefully suppressed (or perhaps not even understood) and confesses to late on in a wave of guilt and shame, mixed with an almost unspoken hope that Karen might respond to this confession with more than silence and a quiet assurance that it won’t change anything. Neither of which is what Martha wants (or needs) to hear. 

MacLaine was critical of Wyler for removing from the film scenes that showed Martha’s love and affection for Karen in a romantic light. Perhaps Wyler was still slightly squeamish about the likelihood of America accepting a lesbian character presented honestly and sensitively. –But MacLaine has a point for, while the film does suggest it is reprehensible to  make judgements about other people’s private lives, it falls well short of suggesting that a lesbian relationship is as normal and valid as a straight one, or that Martha’s feelings for Karen are the equal of Karen’s for Joe. Karen will let the idea slide, but she is hardly thrilled by it, meanwhile Martha is made the more passive and hysterical of the two women, and her feelings for Karen are a source of tragedy in the story. While it’s of its time, the film still shies away from the idea that a lesbian relationship could ever be without a tinge of scandal. Unlike, say, Dirk Bogarde’s gay barrister in Victim, there is always something “not quite right even if we shouldn’t judge” about homosexuality in the film.

It’s why the film is at its strongest when showcasing its outrage for the many selfish and self-appointed moral guardians who ruin lives with sanctimonious self-regard. Miriam Hopkins is eminently smackable as Martha’s appalling aunt, whose love of gossip pours fuel on the fire. Fay Bainter is very good (and Oscar nominated) as Amelia, whose reluctance and unease about her self-appointed role as the moral police, only partly tempers her rigidity and inflexibility. Words of support and encouragement from others are noticeable by their absence, and even the long-standing loyalty of Joe (a rather charming James Garner) is eventually tinged (forever for Karen) by a moment of doubt. 

Rumours and innuendo are dangerous and cause real and lasting damage to people’s lives. It’s a fact the film enforces strongly – and it’s an idea that perhaps is even more relevant today at a time when social media sends moral judgements that ruin lives around the world even faster than Amelia Tilford’s phone can. A well-made film with moral force, that could have gone further, but still went further than many others dared at the time.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Donald Sutherland is lost in the soulless world of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Director: Philip Kaufman

Cast: Donald Sutherland (Matthew Bennell), Brooke Adams (Elizabeth Driscoll), Leonard Nimoy (Dr David Kibner), Jeff Goldblum (Jack Bellicec), Veronica Cartwright (Nancy Bellicec), Art Hindle (Dr Geoffrey Howell), Don Siegel (Taxicab Driver), Kevin McCarthy (Running Man)

Sometimes, as we look around our office-based world, it’s hard not feel that most of it is taking place on a weary treadmill. That we are going through the motions with no engagement or feeling, that we are all cogs in the same machine. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like all great science fiction films, taps into this sense of individuality being lost in our modern age, and mixes it with a brilliant dose of Cold-War paranoia. Like much brilliant science-fiction, it offers a window on our world that makes us pause and reflect on our own lives.

Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a health inspector (has there been a less sexy job for a hero?) in San Francisco. One day his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) confesses to him that her boyfriend, dentist Geoffrey (Art Hindle), has changed so much that he feels like a completely different person. Turns out she’s not alone in the city – many people are reporting their loved ones have become distant and changed. While Matthew’s friend, celebrity psychiatrist Dr David Kibney (Leonard Nimoy), laughs off their concerns, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicec are keen to listen – especially when they find a copy of Jack growing in their home. Can the people of San Francisco really be being replaced by copies in an alien invasion?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not just a great remake, it’s a great piece of film-making in its own right. It takes the ideas of the original and ramps them up into a Nixon-era paranoia fest, to create a creepy and unsettling film. It’s a film that perfectly understands the one thing all people value, perhaps more than any other, is their individuality and ability to feel and experience emotions. These are the two things the Pods take from you – in all other respects, the people are unchanged, they’re just unfeeling drones. 

What Philip Kaufman does really well is fill the film from the start with unsettling moments, and hints that things are wrong. The film opens with eerie visuals as the Pods arrive from space and slowly infect the vegetation of the planet. Unusual camera angles and lingering shots pick out people in the frame, behaving suspiciously robotically. Robert Duvall has a wordless (uncredited) cameo as a priest on a creaking swing in a playground – the sound and visuals both insanely unnerving, especially considering Duvall’s wordless intense stare. 

Pod people go about their work of taking over the earth with a relentless, eerie silence. Do they cling to silence so much, so that their piercing screams when they detect a rogue human can be heard? Late in the film, we see several instances of Pod people, freeze, point rigidly at an unconverted human, and then let out an inhuman shriek (it’s unsettling beyond belief). When pursuing humans, the run with a wild pack abandon. Throughout the film, the camera hovers on moments or scenes, asking us to wonder what’s going on. A floor cleaner mindlessly moves his cleaner across the floor and the camera lingers on him for what feels like ages – is he a pod person? Or is he just an ordinary Joe going about his work? Kaufman sprinkles moments like this throughout the film.

He and screenwriter WD Richter also tap into a sadness of the late 1970s – the world of the hippie, where it felt the world might change, is passing. Matthew, David and Jack all feel like old college buddies – you can imagine the three of them hanging out at Woodstock. Jack and Nancy have clung to their hippie lifestyle, but are reduced to running a mud-bath and trying to peddle Jack’s poetry to the bored and uninterested. David has repackaged himself into a soulless, impossibly vain and self-important TV psychiatrist, dishing out cod-advice and lapping up praise at swanky book launches. Matthew is a slightly grubby civil servant. Kaufman and Richter do a great job of suggesting the younger, more idealistic roots of these characters with minimal dialogue and action. It adds a rich theme to the film – are the Pod people and their mechanical, soulless routine just where the human race is going anyway? Is it any coincidence that the invasion takes places in hip San Francisco?

Kaufman shoots the film with an eerie off-kilterness, helped a lot by Michael Chapman’s excellent cinematography. Ben Burtt’s soundscape is also brilliant – from the creak of the swing at the start and the shriek of the Pod people, to the deafening silence late in the film of the almost completely converted San Francisco, as the Pod People go through the motions of their old lives, devoid of emotion. The design of the pods, and the growing replacement humans, is horribly eerie. This creepiness helps hammer home the sense of paranoia as more and more people are replaced by Pod people – leaving us, like the characters, constantly questioning who is “real” and who isn’t? Who can we trust?

Donald Sutherland is the perfect lead for this – he has both a slightly ground-down world-weariness but also a strong sense of maverick individuality. He’s an interesting, challenging actor and he’s very easy to empathise with. A lot of the film’s emotional force comes from the deep friendship (which could perhaps be more) between him and Brooke Adams (also very good). Leonard Nimoy offers a subtle inversion of his Spock persona, taking elements of Spock’s logical coldness and inverting them for both maximum smarm and creep. Goldblum and Cartwright are just about perfectly cast, with Cartwright especially good (and reaffirming her scream-queen skills) as a woman with a surprisingly sharp survival instinct.

Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is easy to overlook in the list of great American 1970s thrillers due to being both (a) a remake and (b) a science-fiction film. But this is an unsettling investigation of an America on the verge of changing from one type of generation to another. It’s unsettling, intriguing and gripping – wonderfully made and very well acted. It’s a film that understands paranoia, isolation and our love of our own individuality more than many others I can think of. It’s one of the great American 1970s films.