There must be a reason why certain myths or fairy tales suddenly resurface in popular culture. Blancanieves was one of three movies made last year based on the story of Snow White. It is the best by a considerable margin – the other two contenders being Mirror, Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman – two prime examples of the malaise into which Hollywood’s big budget productions have fallen.
The original Snow White made her first appearance in 1812, in a volume of bloodcurdling tales by the aptly named Brothers Grimm. Yet we can thank Walt Disney for the version we have imprinted on our minds. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) was the world’s first full-length animated feature, and in box office terms one of the most successful films of all time.
Everybody knows Disney’s squeaky-clean Snow White, and the dwarves which got their names in this movie. We recognise inane tunes such as “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go!” There was even talk of the Disney company sueing Tom Waits when he recorded a variation on this song that made it sound like it was sung by slaves condemned to the salt mines, rather than cartoon characters filled with the joy of labour.
Snow White is the embodiment of virginal innocence. The wicked Queen, her stepmother, is the ultimate symbol of the envy felt by declining middle-age when confronted with the beauty and vitality of youth. This may be the key to the ever-renewing popularity of the story: it deals with a conflict between generations that never goes away. The dwarves who rescue and protect Snow White are individually small but powerful as a group. They resemble a hard-working minority who have learnt to live and co-operate with each other, even though they may be outcasts from the mainstream.
In Hollywood terms generational conflict and minorities are prime subjects for comedy. The wicked Queen is a mother-from-hell, and the dwarves are still a vaudeville routine. The updated Snow White is a teenage lust object, although personally – and comically – immune to the lures of sex and drugs.
Pablo Berger has taken a contrary approach in Blancanieves, a film that is quintessentially Spanish and darkly romantic. As if this wasn’t striking enough, Blancanieves is a silent film shot in a stark black-and-white. It follows on from a lesson Michel Hazanavicius taught us with The Artist (2011): there is no reason why a silent film can’t tell a story just as effectively – perhaps more effectively – than a conventional ‘talkie’. The silent treatment eliminates a lot of distractions, focusing our attention on the narrative in an unusually vivid manner.
Berger had been planning this film for eight years when The Artist came along. He initially felt that his project had been scuppered, but soon realised he would benefit from the widespread acceptance of that movie.
The story begins in the 1920s, with the celebrated matador, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), preparing for a corrida in which he will fight no fewer than six bulls. Idolised by the masses Villalta has all the style and arrogance of a mythical hero. On the fateful day, however, he is distracted by a photographer’s flashbulb and badly gored. While he lies in hospital in a critical condition his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him with a daughter – inevitably named Carmen.
Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Antonio marries Encarna (Maribel Verdú), the nurse who looks after him. But as soon as she takes possession of Antonio’s mansion she locks him in a room and becomes a domestic tyrant, exercising her S & M fantasies with a sinister chauffeur. When the young Carmen comes to live at the house, Encarna keeps her away from Antonio and makes her sleep in a barn. In time, Carmen will sneak in to see her father and be coached in the art of the matador.
As Encarna grows more spiteful she decides to do away with both father and daughter – the latter having grown into a beautiful young woman. After a botched murder attempt Carmen is left for dead, only to be found by a travelling contingent of six (not seven) dwarf toreros. She has lost her memory, so her new companions christen her “Blancanieves”. She discovers, almost by accident, that she has an aptitude for bull-fighting and becomes the star of the show – Snow White and the Six Dwarf Bullfighters. As her fame grows the wicked stepmother plots her downfall.
Macarena García in the role of Carmen is as fresh-faced and virtuous as the Disney Snow White, but with a steely commitment to the bloody sport of bull-fighting. The scenes in the ring are thrilling to watch, animated by a soundtrack of surging flamenco music. The entire production is a magnificent piece of entertainment, saturated with a macabre humour, a sense of fantasy and tragedy that is characteristic of Spain. Had Goya been able to direct a film it might have looked something like this.
Spain/France/Belgium, rated M
Written & directed by Pablo Berger; starring Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ángela Molina
Richard Franklin’s Aussie horror flick, Patrick (1978) is a twisted little fairy tale from an era when Australian directors ventured into the realms of low-budget sex and violence in search of quick returns. That burst of cheerful vulgarity which gave us films such as Alvin Purple, Long Weekend, Turkey Shoot, and the Barry McKenzie sagas, was chronicled with loving care by Mark Hartley in his 2008 documentary, Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation.
That film was researched in the kind of exhaustive, manner which denotes a true fan. So when it was announced that Hartley would direct a remake of Patrick, the prospect was intriguing.
The epitome of a ‘cult’ film, the original Patrick remains relatively obscure to all but the most dedicated horror buffs. Remaking this movie wasn’t like trying to remake Psycho, although Richard Franklin still has plenty of admirers, including Quentin Tarantino, who praised him warmly in Not Quite Hollywood.
The story concerns a patient in a coma with mysterious psycho-kinetic powers. Although he lies motionless on his bed at a private clinic operated by Dr. Sebastian Roget, Patrick’s eyes are always open, staring fixedly into space. It is only with the arrival of a new nurse, Kathy Jacquard, that we find Patrick is not the piece of “dead meat” described by the doctor.
As he becomes ever more fixated on Kathy, who shows him kindness, Patrick’s powers and his malevolence increase exponentially. Anybody who seems to threaten his relationship with nursie, including her estranged husband, Ed, and aspiring boyfriend, Brian, will feel the effects of his jealous rage. Patrick’s interventions begin in small way but reach a fearsome crescendo towards the end of the film.
In the original Patrick, Richard Franklin made a neat job of slowly cranking up the tension. Hartley is much more impatient to clobber the viewer with cheap thrills and shocks. His reboot begins with a new, grisly murder and continues in much the same vein, inserting the requisite lashings of gore that seem to be a staple of contemporary horror films.
Hartley’s Patrick is given an even more extraordinary set of powers, while Dr. Roget and Matron Cassidy – who were sinister enough in their original incarnations, are turned into psychopaths. It’s partly a matter of casting. The first Dr. Roget was played by Robert Helpmann with an ineradicable aura of camp. The updated version is Charles Dance, an austere, aloof personage. Likewise, Rachel Griffiths’s Matron Cassidy is far less of a caricature than the figure portrayed by Julia Blake. The inert Patrick, played by a bug-eyed Robert Thompson, has been replaced by the handsome Jackson Gallagher.
The key role of Kathy is given to Sharni Vinson, who seems to be settling into the horror genre, her two previous films being You’re Next and Bait. Sharp-featured and willowy, she is a complete contrast to British actress, Susan Penhaligon, who played the first Kathy. It’s a curious fact that Penhaligon was once known as “the British Brigitte Bardot”, which says a lot about Engiish notions of sex appeal. Even in 1978 she looked as if she’d be more at home in a woolly jumper and a pair of jodpurs. Hartley renames Kathy’s husband “Ed Penhaligon”, in her honour.
The Roget clinic is essentially the same building as in 1978, but it has been transported from the inner suburbs of Melbourne to a lonely coastal road. It has also become dark, dingy and unhygienic, more like Dracula’s castle than an exclusive private hospital.
This is all too symptomatic of the changes made in this story, which includes twists and turns that draw on a wide range of horror cliches, from Hammer Studios to the Italian giallos. Dr. Roget becomes the standard mad scientist, while Patrick’s eyeballs glow like twin video games when he gets up to his evil tricks. No-one can cast a glance at a glass or a mirror without seeing something shocking and unexpected – at least for the first dozen times.
Brian May’s score of 1978 had its bombastic touches but it seems positively minimalist alongside the efforts of Pino Donaggio, known for providing the music for films such as Carrie (1976) and The Howling (1981). The musical over-emphasis makes every finely tuned cliché stand out even more sharply. It’s relentless, it’s self-conscious, and it leaves one nostalgic for the simpler, less gruesome period piece of the original Patrick. This new version may be the work of a fan, but Hartley seems to be one of those dangerous admirers whose affection threatens to kill the thing he loves.
Australia, rated MA
Directed by Mark Hartley; written by Justin King; starring Charles Dance, Rachel Griffith, Sharni Vinson, Jackson Gallagher, Peta Sargeant, Damon Gameau, Martin Crewes
Published in the Australian Financial Review, October 26, 2013