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Quality family films have become an endangered species. The industry that once took pride in releasing first-rate movies that viewers of all ages could enjoy—the Buster Keaton and Marx Brothers comedies, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Yearling, The Crimson Pirate, Friendly Persuasion—now doubles its profits by producing dumbed-down kiddie fare that grown-ups endure out of parental duty and adult features unsuitable for children.
Director David Kellogg bucks this trend with his lightning-paced, high-tech comedy, Inspector Gadget, which offers something for everybody. Kerry Ehrin and Zak Penn’s screenplay, based on a television cartoon series, functions as little more than a framework on which to hang a collection of zany jokes and imaginative special effects.
Matthew Broderick stars as John Brown, a warmhearted security guard at a robotics laboratory who dreams of becoming a policeman and harbors a crush on brainy, fetching scientist Dr. Brenda Bradford (Joely Fisher). When the lab is invaded by archvillain Sanford Scolex (Rupert Everett), John follows in hot pursuit. Their confrontation results in Scolex’s losing a hand (which he replaces with a minatory metal claw) and the virtual shattering of John’s body. To save his life, Brenda retrofits him with thousands of computer-chip-controlled mechanical implants, transforming him into Inspector Gadget, a human Swiss Army knife.
Kellogg borrows elements from both early and experimental cinema to create his quasi-android crime fighter. His protagonist recalls the nemesis of Louis Feuillade’s 10-part 1915 serial, Les Vampires, a shape-shifting thief who outwits authorities by employing a battery of prostheses and disguises. (The Turner Classic Movies cable channel recently aired Feuillade’s extraordinary 420-minute silent masterpiece.) And Kellogg’s witty manipulation of mechanical parts—springs, screws, bolts, etc.—draws on the experimental films of Jan Svankmajer (Alice) and the Quay Brothers (Street of Crocodiles). Inspector Gadget’s pixilated opening credits sequence could easily be mistaken for the work of these contemporary masters.
The cast members, like the screenplay, function as secondary elements in Kellogg’s visionary design. Broderick, the maturing male ingenu whose lack of authority weakened Election, is engagingly boyish in the title role, and Everett, who has a gift for impersonating characters of every genre and sexual orientation, clearly relishes playing the evil Scolex and deserves to have been allotted more screen time. Fisher charmingly heads a strong, if underused, supporting cast of comics including Andy Dick, Cheri Oteri, Dabney Coleman, and D.L. Hughley, who supplies the voice for John’s jive-talking Gadgetmobile.
Inspector Gadget’s real stars are the designers, puppeteers, animators, and stunt persons who dazzle us with a cascade of magical images. Pittsburgh, where the film was shot, deserves special kudos. Once regarded as a drab, smoggy industrial metropolis, the city has experienced an extraordinary architectural renaissance—notably, with mirrored skyscrapers at the center of its downtown Golden Triangle—that makes a contribution as distinctive as any of the movie’s post-production wonders.
Kellogg’s film is too ramshackle and emotionally undernourished to qualify as a family classic. But with gags and fantastic effects popping up every 10 seconds, it’s guaranteed to delight children, and it contains enough inside jests (Everett’s parody of the late George Sanders, sly allusions to Gidget and The English Patient, even a mild jape aimed at Disney, which financed the project) to keep adults amused. Make sure to hang around through the end of the closing credits, which are interspersed with bonus jokes. At the movie’s fadeout, the temporarily vanquished Scolex ominously asserts that he’ll return. Should the movie do well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, I will, too.
The Haunting, Hollywood’s latest unnecessary remake (how many moviegoers yearned for another Gloria?), recycles Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. In 1959, Jackson scored a runaway success with this moody tale about anthropology professor Dr. John Montague’s investigation of a haunted mansion. Abetted by a trio of assistants—Eleanor, a neurotic spinster; Theo, a lesbian with psychic powers; and Luke, a ne’er-do-well descendant of the edifice’s builder—Montague takes a lease on Hill House, which ultimately claims a member of his entourage.
Although the book is a bit too genteel and self-consciously literary for my taste—too many allusions to Shakespeare, a long, leisurely buildup that fails to deliver a sufficiently electrifying payoff—it served as a fruitful inspiration for Robert Wise’s 1963 screen adaptation, The Haunting. Two years after winning a Best Director Oscar for West Side Story, Wise took on the project to pay homage to his early mentors, Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Echoing Welles, whose masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons he edited, Wise employed deep-focus photography of a baroque mansion. From Lewton, who produced Wise’s early thrillers Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, he adopted the principle that audiences are more frightened by unseen menace than explicit terrors.
The original Haunting (which the invaluable TCM broadcast in a sparkling letter-boxed print last Sunday afternoon) tightens and in many ways improves upon Jackson’s plot. Although excessively talky, it features gripping performances by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, and respects the viewer’s intelligence by never disclosing whether Hill House is truly haunted or its disturbances merely projections of its inhabitants’ twisted psyches. Above all, it is a triumph of atmospheric production design and low-key black-and-white cinematography. (With its dark, claustrophobic rooms and grotesque decor, Hill House, even unhaunted, would give any visitor the creeps.) Over the years, Wise’s The Haunting has achieved minor classic status. I doubt that anyone could make a more effective screen version of Jackson’s book.
Jan De Bont’s new remake doesn’t even come close. The filmmaker, whose directorial career has plummeted from the pulse-pounding silliness of Speed to the stupefying dullness of Speed 2, succumbs to the stylistic overkill that Wise wisely eschewed, flooding the screen with a fusillade of intrusive, overblown special effects. Anyone who questions the modernist adage “Less is more” will become a believer after sitting through this display of cinematic excess.
Screenwriter David Self retains Jackson’s characters but scrambles her narrative. This time around, the academic, rechristened Dr. David Marrow, sneakily conducts an experiment in fear under the guise of researching sleep disorders. The characters have been stripped of their psychological complexities, as has the ambiguity of Hill House’s “sickness.” The mansion had to be possessed by evil spirits in order to accommodate visual effects supervisors Phil Tippett and Craig Hayes’ computer-generated pyrotechnics.
De Bont leaves his actors to their own devices. Liam Neeson’s Dr. Marrow is as stolid as fossilized zucchini. As Nell, diminutive Lili Taylor, the Meryl Streep of the indies, pops her eyes and works her mouth as if she were a hyperthyroidic organ grinder’s monkey. Catherine Zeta-Jones (Theo) and Owen Wilson (Luke) make the most of their limited opportunities to inject traces of personality and wit into their underwritten characters.
Production designer Eugenio Zanetti’s spectacular Hill House is eye-catching in all the wrong ways. With its coliseum-sized public rooms, extravagantly decorated, domed bedchambers, brightly hued parquet floors, and glittering hall of mirrors, it resembles the lavish dwellings commissioned by silent screen stars but conveys barely a hint of menace. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub creates some colorful images—to no avail. If ever a movie demanded monochrome photography, it’s The Haunting.
In the film’s closing reels, De Bont entirely abandons Jackson’s narrative to focus on a barrage of visual effects that have little relationship to the characters and their plights. Wise’s movie, like the novel, climaxes with a chilling death, but, in keeping with contemporary Hollywood’s cynical optimism, De Bont ends his version with an angelic aerial ballet.
This DreamWorks production sports the tagline “Some houses are born bad.” Some movies are, too. CP