Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things Happen In The Night

These days, Marvel has the golden touch. Everyone with rights to a fictional franchise wants to emulate their successful model of a shared universe in film and on TV but no one else quite has the knack to achieve it. It was a much different story in 1989, though, when the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk debuted to tepid response.

Back then, even the goal of using the established character of The Hulk to spin another Marvel character into their own live action series was a bar set too high. The second of three Hulk TV movies made after the cancellation of the show in 1982, Trial continued the trend started in The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) of pairing ol' Jade Jaws with another Marvel hero in the hopes of launching them into a show of their own. Both movies failed in that regard but while Returns badly botched the introduction of Marvel's God of Thunder with its poor depiction of Thor, the street level Daredevil fared far better.

Shortly after David Banner (Bill Bixby) leaves his latest job as a farm hand for fear of Hulking out against a bullying co-worker and arrives in the big city (which we assume to be The Big Apple but it's not specified whether the movie actually takes place in New York), he becomes involved in an incident on a subway car in which two thugs in the employ of Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies) harass a female passenger (Marta DuBois) and incur the wrath of Banner's gamma-powered alter-ego in the process. Post-transformation, Banner is picked up by the cops and finds himself in jail, facing charges of attacking the woman on the subway. Banner's plight brings him legal counseling in the form of Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil (Rex Smith).

Thanks to his heightened senses, the blind lawyer senses David's innocence (as a bonus, he also knows the real criminals are in the employ of Fisk, who Murdock is gunning for) and is determined to help clear his client while David can only worry about what the stress of a possible trial would do to his raging alter-ego (which leads to the only time in Trial that the Hulk actually appears in court - during a nightmare suffered by the anxious Banner, a cheat that led many fans to cry foul).

After Banner has Hulked his way out of jail, post-nightmare, Matt tracks him as Daredevil and reveals his true identity to David as a gesture to gain his trust. Eventually Matt also learns the truth about David's cursed nature and while the Hulk's unpredictable nature makes a true team-up impossible, Banner and the sightless superhero do join forces in order to rescue DuBois' damsel in distress (who finds herself as a prisoner in Fisk Tower) and to take down Fisk as well.

Meant to serve as a pilot to a Daredevil series, Trial was no more successful on that count than Returns had been in spinning off Thor. But in terms of being a respectable adaptation of the character, Trial is no embarrassment to DD. No, it's not nearly in the league of the best of what the comics had accomplished, but it treats the character with respect and the warm bond that develops between Bixby's Banner and Smith's Murdock is a highlight of the Hulk's TV legacy.

Written by Gerald Di Pego and directed by Bixby himself, Trial is strictly a meat and potatoes affair. There's nothing fancy about it and it isn't out to service fans with shouts out and Easter Eggs referencing the wider Marvel U. But like the best episodes of the Hulk series, it has an adult tone and doesn't condescend to the audience. Comic book adaptations are more ambitious now and take much more care to hew to the comic's mythology but, as much as I appreciate that, I like the simple attention to telling a good story that Trial represents.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk made its debut on May 7th, 1989 to high ratings but also to fan grumblings due to a lack of screen time for the Hulk, rightly regarding it as more of a Daredevil movie than a Hulk one. Adding insult to injury, Tim Burton's Batman arrived in US theaters on June 23rd and seized the pop culture zeitgeist that summer, leaving Marvel's chintzy TV movie to be regarded as a joke.

On the upside, Marvel's done a good job of catching up since. And, you know, that chintzy TV movie isn't so bad. Or actually bad at all, in my opinion. Marvel's live action adaptations have become far more sophisticated since but there's a charm to how rudimentary Trial is.

It's a nice reminder of a time when this kind of stuff was not at the forefront of popular culture and when fans were grateful for any live action appearance of their favorite characters. True, Trial bears evidence of all the weaknesses of superhero adaptations of the time but yet it has a number of strengths to recommend it and while nostalgia surely plays a part in my own feeling towards Trial, I don't think you necessarily need rose-colored glasses to appreciate it.

After Fisk has been momentarily vanquished (if not brought to bear for his crimes) and David and Matt have said their goodbyes (with Banner finding himself a little less alone, telling Matt "I have a brother in the world now."), Trial ends with Matt Murdock's office mates at the window of their legal firm, observing that the skyline of the nearby Fisk Tower seems to have been altered (we the viewers know that it's because a structure fell away to allow Fisk's flying car to take off, leaving an enraged Daredevil stymied yet again). Not being able to "see" the topic of discussion himself, Matt nonetheless joins his friends at the window and wryly observes, as they stand in the warm glow of a new day, that "...things happen in the night."

It's the last line of dialogue of Trial and the last time that anyone would see this live action incarnation of The Man Without Fear. It's a shame that this DD didn't get his own series as Trial shows that he had plenty of potential. As derided as the black ninja costume he sported was by some at the time, it was later adopted by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. when they did their Man Without Fear miniseries in 1993 and which in turn influenced the initial look of Daredevil in the new Netflix show. If nothing else, it would've been great to see what the title sequence for an early '90s DD show would've been like.

Back in the day, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk didn't do much to advance the cause of Marvel on film but I think time should render a kinder verdict to it. To that, I say "case closed" or rather, "Excelsior!"

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Worth Following

If David Lynch had directed Halloween, the result might look something like It Follows, the dreamy, unnerving sophomore feature from writer/director David Robert Mitchell (2010's The Myth of the American Sleepover). Set in a Detroit suburb, It Follows tracks the plight of Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty teenage blonde whose new boyfriend (Jake Weary) has made her the target of a deadly, inexplicable specter of which little is known except follows.

Making explicit the cautionary themes of the '70s and '80s slasher boom wherein kids were advised of the perils of getting it on, the titular stalker of It Follows is put the the trail of new prey through sex (which marks this as a ghostly cousin to David Cronenberg's 1975 shocker, They Came From Within). Jay's new boyfriend is trying to shake "it" thanks to a previous sexual encounter and he sleeps with Jay in a deliberate bid to give the ghoul someone new to pursue.

What this ghoul is or what its weaknesses (if any) may be is knowledge that the kids in It Follows don't have access to. It's normally a given in horror films that whenever a monster or any supernatural force is introduced, an expert will eventually come along who knows what it is and all the rules that come with it. Or else there's at least someone around who's smart enough to put all the pieces together. But It Follows has none of that. There's no sage mystics, no experienced hunters, not even any helpful Google searches. There isn't even an attempt to bring in the cops or any parental figure. It's a refreshing break from convention and the fact that these kids don't always make the best decisions (including a climatic attempt to dispatch the ghoul that seems both logical and entirely daffy) can simply be attributed to the character's youth.

Some viewers will surely look at the actions of the kids in It Follows and believe they could do better if put in the same circumstances but I only judge the actions of characters in horror movies based on whether I think their actions are believable, not whether they're successful. And I found the kids in It Follows to be very believable.

I also found them to be likable, something I'm rarely able to say about modern horror films. But as with the young cast of last year's Ouija, the kids in It Follows show a genuine interest and concern for each other and I hope this'll prove to be the new norm in genre films.

For years, it's been a given that if there's a horror movie with a teen cast, there always has to be at least one major jerk among them (usually more) but that's not the case with It Follows. Some bad behavior does occur but no one's actions ever seems born out of everyday mean-spiritedness and, for me, that goes a long way.

While Mitchell works very well within the scope of his low budget (the film is wonderfully photographed by Mike Gioulakis), occasionally his ambitions exceeds his means - as with a lake side skirmish between the kids and the invisible entity that can't help but look ridiculous. But yet I found that the film's chintzy, low-tech moments only added to its charm. There's so much slickness in films today that it's endearing to me to see a movie that isn't afraid to wear its limited resources on its sleeve and go the extra mile at the same time. The Paranormal Activity films are also low-budget affairs, of course, but I think that they've always been a little cautious when it comes to doing more than their budget would allow.

Here, there are some attempts to extend past what the budget can convincingly deliver. That it doesn't always work seems forgivable in the spirit of showmanship.

I'm also willing to cut It Follows a pass for whatever faults it may possess simply out of gratitude for bringing a much-missed sense of melancholy back to horror. That's a quality that used to be common to the genre but which steadily evaporated once the '70s gave way to the good times of the '80s and a party atmosphere began to prevail.

In the manner of '70s horror, It Follows exudes a quiet sorrow, observing its teen protagonists as they drift aimlessly through their directionless lives (the only characters we see holding down jobs are stuck at a rinky-dink ice cream shop and there's never any talk of ambitions or plans for the future) all while they're trailed by a death-dealing entity that they can neither understand nor fully anticipate. They only know that it's out there and getting closer all the time.

While these kids may lack the vocabulary to be able to articulate or explicitly acknowledge their existential dread, the words of T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky are up to the challenge and are woven into the film in a way that feels organic (a portion of Eliot's "The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock" is heard in a classroom scene that purposely echoes a similar scene in Halloween) and never forced and pretentious.

With Mitchell showing an intuitive understanding of the genre that stretches well beyond just knowing the simple mechanics of springing a scare, his film not only honors the classics that came before it, it also sets a high standard of its own for other filmmakers to follow.