Demons are slumbering fitfully in the Alpine town of Tolzbad, which would be prophetic if Careful were what it frequently looks like, a German movie of the ’20s. Actually made recently in Winnipeg by oddball auteur Guy Maddin, Careful draws on the style of the German expressionist film (notable examples: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and the mountain film that followed soon after (notable example: The Blue Light). It was the latter genre that made a star (and a director) of Leni Riefenstahl, but among world-shaking German-speaking men of the period, Maddin’s interested not in Hitler but in Freud.
Maddin has called Careful a “pro-repression movie,” and certainly the Oedipal acting-out of central characters Johann (Brent Neale) and Klara (Sarah Neville) is disastrous. Yet the most consistently entertaining portion of the film is its prologue, which introduces the tightly buttoned-up village of Tolzbad, whose residents live whisperingly under the constant threat of avalanche. “Absolute silence is required of us,” warns the narrator, who explains how the locals cut the vocal cords of their animals lest a stray bark or bleat lead to everyone’s being inundated with snow and ice, and tells the hilariously alarming story of Johann’s late father, blinded in one eye and then the other in a series of absurd mishaps. Seemingly parodying the most overwrought forebodings of public-interest groups, do-gooders, and overprotective parents, this foreword both cautions against calamity and suggests it’s inevitable.
There are plenty of things to keep quiet about in Tolzbad. Johann and Klara become engaged, but both hide secret incestuous passions—he for his mother Zenalda (Gosia Dobrowolska), she for her father, Herr Trotta (Victor Cowie). Klara, meanwhile, is as jealous of her favored sister Sigleinde (Katya Gardner) as Johann’s younger brother Grigorrs (Maddin regular Kyle McCulloch) is of him. Zenalda has a third son, the crippled and (of course) mute Franz (Vince Rimmer), who lives in the attic rejected and unseen by his mother, who nurses a lingering passion for local aristocrat Count Knotgers (Australian director Paul Cox, who’s used Dobrowolska in his last several films). Both Johann and Grigorrs are in training as butlers, the profession that requires the ultimate in discretion, and hope to get jobs with Knotgers. (While the brothers demonstrate their butlering skills to their mother, Johann offers, “If we make any mistakes, feel free to cane us.”)
The first character to ignore the narration’s edict of carefulness is Johann, who wakes from a powerful erotic dream with an overwhelming lust for his mother. He drugs her, partially undresses her, and caresses and kisses her, only to recognize his impropriety; he punishes the body parts that touched his mother—searing his lips, lopping off his fingers—and then jumps off a mountain. As an intertitle announces, this is the end of Part 1.
Part 2 is more complicated, involving the rekindled romance of Zenalda and Count Knotgers, a new alliance between Grigorrs and Klara, the latter’s plans for revenge on her sister and father, and a duel between Grigorrs and Knotgers. Careful‘s second section provides many visual pleasures and lots of stylistic play: The Draculalike lifestyle of Knotgers allows Maddin to expand on the Nosferatu references he’s been making all along (the shots of ominous shadows are clearly derived from that film) and the castle offers the sort of angular sets typical of Caligari. Still, the film’s themes are pretty well played out in its first section, and the developments of the latter part (including the inevitable avalanche) restate rather than expand them.
Those who’ve seen them all say this is the most narratively direct of Maddin’s three features, but the director clearly invests his style with as much meaning as his script. Shot on very stagy sets in vivid, overexposed monotones that range from cool blue to garish yellow (though some scenes are in an unearthly full-color) and featuring scratched emulsion and scratchy sound, Careful attempts to make something transfiguring out of the technical limitations of early cinema; it renders the “realism” of today’s movies as suspect as the contemporary taste for letting one’s psychological demons range freely. For the pro-repression Maddin, it would seem, it’s tightly constricted places and forms that best allow him to express himself.
You have to credit Addams Family Values for being a rare sequel that actually improves on the original, but that doesn’t mean returning director Barry Sonnenfeld and new scripter Paul Rudnick have done anything rash. They’ve made this installment (in what may well become an extended series) a shade darker than its predecessor, and given more screen time to the first film’s principal attraction, Christina Ricci’s deadpan Wednesday. Still, this effort doesn’t quite remedy the first one’s sluggish pacing and unfocused narrative; where The Addams Family was an overlong sitcom episode, this one loosely interweaves the plots from what could have been three episodes.
Holding most of the credits till the end, Sonnenfeld gets off to a galloping start, introducing a new Addams (baby Pubert) before the title even appears. The baby precipitates plot complication No. 1—sibling rivalry, as Wednesday and bro Pugsley plan various demises for the newborn—which leads to Complication 2—the arrival of Debbie (Joan Cusack), hired as a nanny but actually a “black widow” murderer who plans to marry and then ice Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd)—which leads to No. 3—Debbie persuades Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) to send the older kids to summer camp so they won’t interfere in her plans. The three plot strands never fit together so well again, though, even when they intersect: Wednesday insists she must leave camp to attend Fester’s wedding, for example, but nothing much happens there, and Fester and Debbie simply head off for their honeymoon while the kids return to Camp Chippewa.
Rudnick has actually made an effort to live up to the film’s title, and the film is sort of a rebuke to Dan Quayle and other heralds of nuclear-family normality. Unfortunately, it’s neither a particularly savage nor lucid one. The Addamses (notably Gomez and Pubert) begin to lose their character when deprived of Fester’s presence, but the film never explains why this didn’t happen during Fester’s much longer absence in the first flick. Things get better when the family members are reunited, but that’s not sociology, it’s just Hollywood.
The more curious ideological agenda is to establish the Addamses (specifically Wednesday and Pugsley) not as bizarre ghouls but as just another neglected minority, victims of WASP oppression and exclusion just as surely as people of color, religious minorities, and the physically challenged. Enlisted to portray Pocahontas in a Thanksgiving-theme musical written by the summer camp’s insanely chirpy proprietors, Wednesday gives an unscripted pro-Indian speech and then leads her troops (including a kid in a wheelchair, the camp’s sole black, and her provisional boyfriend, a Jewish asthmatic who’s allergic to almost everything) in terrorizing the blond-haired kids and burning the camp down. Such expressions of mongrel solidarity weren’t especially convincing when offered by such comedies as Animal House and Stripes, and they make even less sense here. Wednesday’s appeal, after all, is that she’s genuinely weird, not that she’s a member of minority group dispossessed by white-folks’ privilege.
The melting-pot moral rings hollow in a film that includes such genuinely squirmy gags as the live burial of a kitten. As a fan of Over the Edge and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, I’m always partial to films that end with some institution of childhood torment being torched, but Addams Family Values is more convincing cracking jokes rooted in old Hollywood (“I’ll get you and your little hand too,” vows Debbie after Thing helps Fester escape) or even the French Revolution (“Woe to the Republic,” laments Wednesday after Pubert escapes the guillotine) than treating the trashing of a latter-day Camp Runamuck as a pro-diversity statement.