Not quite October yet, but Halloween is in the air. Or at least the whiff of morbidity, cheerfully, enchantingly extended to necrophilia by Tim Burton's latest, Corpse Bride. His second bit of beguiling perversity this year, following Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the stylization pushed even further ahead -- or perhaps backwards, towards Nightmare Before Christmas for baby-goth, stop-animation puppetry and unexpected depths of emotional intensity. Even then, however, the technological leap is obvious -- its gadgetry, camera gliding over mock-Victorian sets in the opening, is far smoother than the 1993 effort, to say nothing of the sinister jerkiness of the Brothers Quay, fellow dark pranksters and old-school conjurers. Was CGI sneaked in? The stop-animation process can be a bitch (vide the 75 minute running time), and, indeed, Burton here is sharing directorial chores with Mike Johnson, at least in the credits, for this is Burton's baby from the get-go: Charles Addams mordancy, Danny Elfman tunes, and a stable of fetish-actors (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee, and Michael Gough) laying the voices. It could be a fan's thesis-tribute, if it weren't so clearly the heartfelt follow-up to Vincent, the auteur's debut short, and his maiden journey into the transcendently freakish.
Vincent was about Vincent Price, the lure of death, the search for a soul, claymation and Poe -- all under the nose of Disney. Corpse Bride retains all motifs in less concentrated if no less obsessive form. "Can the living marry the dead?" A frisson out of Mario Bava, though mortality here is elastic, inversed in its vitality: the living world is desiccated, corseted, and chalky-white, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remade by Merchant-Ivory; the palette brightens considerably in the underworld, as its cadaverous dwellers hold jazzy, happenin' balls, yeah! Never shall the two meet, at least until the naïf-hero, timid Victor Van Dort (Depp), stumbles upon the title's wedding-gowned cadaver (Carter) in the dark, expressionistic woods surrounding his monochromatic village. He's set to marry sweet Victoria (Emily Watson), whose parents (Finney, Joanna Lumley) are ruined snobs looking to cash in on Victor's tacky, nouveau riche folks (Paul Whitehouse, Tracy Ullman); repeatedly fumbling the vows during rehearsals, he runs to the forest and, at last getting them right, absent-mindedly places the ring on what looks like a gnarled branch, really the Bride's skeletal hand. Up she rises, still in her tattered ceremony veils, ribcage fetchingly peeking through a hole in her blue skin; she leads her dazed new groom to the groovy land of the dead, while "Little Miss Living" upstairs gets courted by the same Bluebeard (Richard E. Grant) who jilted Carter.
The spiritual-world dichotomy is set to Elfman's busy score, organ-pipe severity for the joyless living and Oingo-Boingoing boppiness for the uninhibited corpses, but based on the number of macabre gags alone, there's little doubt which floor Burton prefers -- PG-versions of Evil Dead puns, severed limbs for sale at a "second-hand" store while a decapitated noggin handles duties as "Head Waiter," and a green maggot with Lorre's peepers and purr dispenses advice literally from inside somebody's head. The insistent jokiness hardly leaves elbow room for as sublime a passage as Jack Skellington's cathartic sleigh ride in Nightmare Before Christmas, yet what other mainstream filmmaker today could wring so much tenderness from a forlorn body singing "I know that I am dead/But it seems that I still have some tears to shed"? Who else would have punctuated the dead invading the world of the living with a twee boy approaching a skeleton and wondering, "Grandpa?" And who else still prefers his effects hand-made and lovingly detailed when everyone else merely has them pixeled through a computer? Indeed, Corpse Bride, wispy but lovely, is a Victorian musical as danse macabre, a graceful resurrection of the flatlining art of stop-animation and, with skeleton pooch and soulful butterflies fluttering into the moon, another Burtonesque blur of wise-guy nudging and romantic exhilaration.
At the outset, a horny couple fucks around in a parked car; one of the teens leans out the window to look at the moon, just in time to see the scythe racing for the neck. Basically the set-up for every '80s dead-teenager thriller, though the victims here are both hunky guys: HellBent arrives sold as the "first ever gay slasher," yet, despite this conceptual come-on, it's a much richer (and more enjoyable) consideration of horror tropes than the recent, hetero Cry_Wolf, or, for that matter, the facetious-seminal Scream. The anonymous killer is a gym-minded "walking hard-on" under a horned-devil mask stalking a quartet of gay pals during Halloween, each decked in purposely clichéd homo-uniform -- main pin-up Dylan Fergus is in policeman blues, Andrew Levitas dons skimpy Old West garb, Matt Phillips queens it up in a glitzy gown, and shy Hank Harris goes out as Leather Boy. Shot in porn-tacky DV, Paul Etheredge-Ouzts' no-budget effort is no less self-reflexive an exercise than High Tension, but less sadistic, more interested in raising issues of sex, identity and the genre's elusive old standby, the Gaze. Walls get splattered with blood in between boy-gazing; by the time Etheredge-Ouzts uncorks the Suspiria-meets-Un Chant d'Amour climax, the film has snowballed enough subtext for five Robin Wood dissertations. I'm hoping, against all odds, that it will dodge the not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that condescension of reviewers and find an audience.
While HellBent at least injects some energy into the horror film, Dear Wendy virtually spells doom for the medium. American Idiocy According to Lars Von Trier, again, though little more than time-making before his Manderlay comes to town -- this time, lil' Lars only wrote the script, leaving directing duties to Dogme '95 bud Thomas Vinterberg. Estherville is the faux-Americana hamlet, evoked in European sets and, décor notwithstanding, as abstractly reductive as the chalked-in spaces of Dogville. The title suggests the romantic inanity of It's All About Love, Vinterberg's previous film, but it's really a boy-meets-gun tale: Jamie Bell, whose miner dad kicks the bucket near the beginning, fondles his pistol like a Bowling for Columbine cartoon, then bands up with the town's other troubled, trigger-happy youngsters, billed as "The Dandies" and mocked up as Roy Rogers for their increasingly tense clandestine meetings. "She's Not There" played for implosive teen anomie, oafishly staged showdowns, Bill Pullman as a sheriff drawling on about cupcakes -- wasn't stupidity one of the no-no's for these guys' laundry-list manifesto? Blame Bush, but Von Trier and Vinterberg are dim provocateurs, their wiseass ignorance missing the political-racial tensions at the root of all-American bloodlust and bloodthirsty arrogance. Death in Corpse Bride is an emotional state, while in HellBent it's a visualization of personal insecurities; in Dear Wendy, despite its allegorical pretensions, death is all too literal. Only it's cinema that's dying.
Reviewed September 29, 2005.