Friday, May 27, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #19: JENNIFER EIGHT
It's been less than a month since my biography of Lance Henriksen came out. We kicked things off with a blogathon that went beyond my wildest hopes, followed by a book launch party that went beyond my wildest hopes. We made our first west coast convention appearance at L.A.'s Weekend of Horrors and are preparing for our first east coast convention at Baltimore's Monster-Mania. In the meantime, we've been signing books, shipping books, and talking about the book with everyone who expresses an interest. At this point, you'd think that I would be ready to talk about something other than Lance Henriksen...
But I find myself returning to my woefully-neglected blog with a desire to pick up exactly where I left off a few weeks ago. When we wrapped up the blogathon, there were still a few Lance Henriksen films that I felt had been overlooked. At the top of that list was Bruce Robinson's film JENNIFER EIGHT. I've had a strong affinity for this early 90s thriller ever since I was a teenager working in a small town video store. For some reason the video store had a VHS copy of the movie without a slipcase, and so I felt the need to tell people about it... I suppose that's what I'm still doing, though I think I have a better grasp now on what works about the film.
The first thing the viewer notices about JENNIFER EIGHT is the music, which kicks in as soon as the Paramount logo appears onscreen. The piano-driven score is by a guy named Christopher Young, who's one of my favorite film composers. Young has scored well over a hundred films, big and small, and dabbled in a lot of different genres, but (surprise, surprise) I'm particularly fond of his work on horror films. He's responsible for what is arguably the best horror film score ever produced -- for Clive Barker's HELLRAISER. Although the music in HELLRAISER is very unconventional for a horror film (it sounds surprisingly classical), I can't imagine a better way of introducing people to Clive Barker's visions of hell. The operatic score makes Barker's nightmares every bit as complex as they have to be: dark and terrifying, sure, but also beautiful and exotic, hauntingly ethereal, hopelessly entrancing and ultimately overwhelming.
Young also did the score for George Romero's film THE DARK HALF. In my opinion, it's a flawed film that lacks the subtleties of Stephen King's novel (George Stark shouldn't be all monster... the real horror in King's work comes from the fact that "Mr. Hyde" is in more likable than "Dr. Jekyll"... even to Jekyll's own children), but it benefits tremendously from a breathtakingly beautiful score. I've read that the studio ran out of money at the end of filming and Romero wasn't able to shoot his original ending, but personally I think that Young's music makes the existing ending as poetic as anything we could hope for.
Young has also done some exceptional work for filmmaker Sam Raimi (THE GIFT, SPIDER-MAN 3, DRAG ME TO HELL) and, more recently, an excellent score for the underrated Bret Easton Ellis adaptation THE INFORMERS. I could go on and on... In fact, I did go on and on when I met Young briefly at a signing for the DVD release of the NEVER SLEEP AGAIN documentary. (It turns out that Young also wrote the music for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2... but we didn't talk much about that one.)
I digress. Back to JENNIFER EIGHT, which boasts an opening credit sequence that effectively lulls the viewer into a dream world. The first image is of Andy Garcia driving. His face is partially hidden by shadowy reflections in the windshield, and his eyes hidden even deeper behind dark sunglasses. The subtle layers of light and shadow set the tone of the film perfectly. On the surface it's a film about literal blindness, but on a deeper level you could say that all of the characters see the world of JENNIFER EIGHT as "through a glass darkly."
Garcia's character is headed to Eureka, California - a coastal town with the stereotypically gloomy weather of the Northwest. (We won't see sunshine until the final shot of the film... and then it comes streaming in, so sharply that we're blinded by the light.) No doubt the aesthetic and the storyline were partially inspired by SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which practically reinvented the horror genre in the early 1990s. Instead of monster movies, everyone with darker desires was making "psychological thrillers." This was the era of Hitchcock-plunderers PACIFIC HEIGHTS, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, FINAL ANALYSIS, THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, MALICE, BLINK, and of course SE7EN. (I have to say that I'm looking forward to John Muir's upcoming book Horror Films of the 1990s, to see what he makes of this subgenre.) What makes JENNIFER EIGHT stand out from the pack, I think, is the performances.
Let's start with Lance Henriksen. When I first saw the film, I was well aware that Henriksen mostly played heavies... and, as Lance himself points out, that makes his character the most obvious suspect in a whodunit. That said, I never suspected that he was the killer in this movie. In fact, if the twist ending had revealed that he was the killer, I don't think I'd be writing about JENNIFER EIGHT today. I'd feel too cheated. Henriksen's character, Freddy Ross, is just too damn likable to be a killer.
In an interview with Fangoria writer Ian Spelling, Henriksen described his character this way: “I’m a regular guy with a slight drinking problem. He loves his wife, but he’s in denial about the drinking. He’s still a good cop, and he walks right into the biggest crisis of his life.” The simple exchanges between Ross and his wife, played by actress Kathy Baker, are beautiful because of they way the two actors play off of each other. As a viewer, you know right away that this couple has been married for a long time, because they don't have to talk... They can apparently read each other's minds. From their playful exchanges (Lance stealing a drink and pretending to get away with it; Kathy smirking knowingly in response), it's clear that they love and respect each other enough to embrace all the little quirks, foibles and even weaknesses. Their onscreen relationship is not so much about what they do, but what they don't do... They don't communicate with each other in obvious ways. They do it in very small, subtle affectionate gestures. They do it instinctively, effortlessly. You see those kinds of relationships all the time in real life, among people who've known each other forever, but it rarely happens between actors onscreen.
Henriksen's rapport with Andy Garcia works the same way. In their first scene together, the two men are digging through a garbage dump in the rain, searching for decomposed body parts. It's a grim scenario, but they play off of each other so casually and naturally that it's surprising when, at the end of the scene, we realize that they haven't worked together for years. Right away we understand that they are the type of friends who can go without speaking for months or years, and then pick up exactly where they left off. They're the type of friends who know and trust each other so implicitly that they can say whatever they're thinking, even if it's critical or unflattering, without having to choose their words carefully. For example: When Andy falls for Uma Thurman, Lance jokes: "Isn't she a little young for you, bro? You really think she's going to go for an old dog like you?" The line doesn't quite work because Andy Garcia appears to be in his prime (which is exactly how the character smugly responds to the question), but there's no question about the rapport. Later, when Andy has become obsessed with a murder case, Lance plays big brother again by taking him out drinking and insisting that "we're not talking the talk tonight." He's not making a criticism; he's showing genuine concern. Again, that's something we observe more often in real life than in films.
For me, the heart of the film is the story of these two friends rather than the romantic relationship between Andy and Uma. The most devastating scene in the film is when Ross gets killed... all the while believing that his best friend is pulling the trigger. Garcia's character never quite recovers from that one. In the next scene, he's matching wits with a callous police interrogator John Malkovich (in an utterly brilliant love-to-hate-him kind of performance) and beginning to unravel. We've already been told that Garcia's character is an obsessive cop with a propensity for unnecessary violence, but this is where he begins to show his true colors. If pushed too far, he might even become as destructive as the man he's chasing.
When I first saw JENNIFER EIGHT, I felt that Garcia's performance was a little over the top... The fact that he could go from smoldering intensity to hot-headed rant in a matter of seconds seemed unlikely to me... and there's not much anyone can do with lines like "I wish you ill." That's not a criticism of Garcia's acting ability. I honestly believe that he's one of the most underrated actors of his generation -- I remember going to see Sidney Lumet's NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN (anybody remember that one?) in the theater and thinking that he was right on the cusp of superstardom. Years later, I saw his performance in another unjustly overlooked film called THE UNSAID, and I have since changed my mind about his performance in JENNIFER EIGHT. In THE UNSAID, Garcia has to react to the suicide of his only son - and his "monk's wail" is truly chilling. As an actor, he completely sheds his self-consciousness and goes for broke. The same thing is true of his best moments in JENNIFER EIGHT, and you have to admire that kind of dedication.
Uma Thurman also gives a notably complex performance as Jennifer. She imbues her character with strength (when she meets Garcia for the first time, and calls him out on his smoking, and especially in the scene where she convinces him that she was in fact visited by the killer), innocence (particularly in the boat scene, where she is laughing in the rain), vulnerability (wearing high heels at the Christmas party) and of course beauty. It's hard not to fall in love with her.
Finally, it would be unfair if I didn't assume that writer/director Bruce Robinson was partly responsible for the subtleties of all these characterizations. From what Lance has said, I gather that the director scrutinized every line and every movement the actors made during filming. I don't think it's going too far to suggest that, on some level, he helped Lance to start developing his career-defining role as Frank Black. Henriksen had played cops before, but he remembers that his research for JENNIFER EIGHT made an impression that he carried with him until the TV series MILLENNIUM. Robinson had arranged for him to ride along with a Los Angeles homicide detective to prepare for the role. Henriksen remembers the detective distinctly: "He imparted something to me that affected me while I was doing MILLENNIUM. That was that I started seeing innocent street corners full of possible dangers and possible scams going on. We would go into certain situations, just hanging out, and he would see everything so differently than I did. I started sort of slipping into that a little bit."
If Bruce Robinson didn't quite craft a thriller of Hitchcockian proportions, he certainly created a character study that's worthy of repeat viewings. JENNIFER EIGHT is one of those movies that I can always go back to. In some ways, it's like a late night call from an old friend.
Labels: Lance Henriksen