Eastern Shore filmmaker Eric Walter told me that he reads films more than he watches. He doesn't just mean screenplays or subtitles. No. He visually analyzes the scenes and picks them apart to see how they're done. Clearly, he's a dedicated filmmaker who wants to study his craft.
As a film critic, I read films too. I visually analyze the scenes and story to see how they're done, but without interviewing the filmmakers, I also want to know why they're done. As a goal, I also try to judge if what was done was worthwhile or not.
Walter lists about a dozen or more films as his absolute favorites, films that I'm sure he's read several times over. I recently screened four of his favorites. I wanted to understand his sensibilities more, to get a better idea of what kind of things interested him. Through reading these films, I hoped to try and read him.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) - Unlike with one of Walter's heroes, Alfred Hitchcock, this low budget, horror film isn't as grand and deliberate as a typical black-and-white studio picture, and strangely it's the film that Walter cites as his most influential.
Even in one of Hitchcock's grittier films, "Psycho," the British director was still mannered, regal, ornate, and steady. Here, director George A. Romero is uncouth, rustic, severe, and sloppy. Of course, this is a perfect description for Walter's work on his last project, "The Lumberjack of All Trades," but I believe what Walter appreciates more in Romero is his artistic aspect, which is actually in full display here, despite the subject matter.
Much like in Hitchcock's "Marnie," the musical score is integral, if sometimes overwhelming. Some music cues were supremely too intense and too intentional. Yet, Romero knows how to work in hushed tones, accentuating natural sounds, be it footsteps, the wind, groans, a voice from a radio, or simply silence.
For about the first half, Romero continually uses the technique of locking down the camera in a fixed position, opening to a wide-shot, and having the actor either walk toward or sometimes away from the lens.
Throughout the thread, Romero employs shadows. In fact, there are quite a few scenes where most of the frame is darkness or black, as if you were watching a Frank Miller comic, and you can barely see anything. Romero scares you by showing us not much. The initial zombie attack, even though in daylight, is from a man who you never get a good look at. An extreme wide, his backside, or a quick glimpse during the fight and the car chase are all we get.
When I hung out with Walter on the first day of shooting of his latest film, he told me that he was "trying to go for a more expressionist cinema type feel... a lot of dark shadows... a lot of dark tones... this story is more about what's not there... so when they're watching [the audience] we want them to imagine more than what they see on the screen."
This quote didn't become clear to me until I watched this favorite film of his. Gradually, Romero amplifies and solidifies the threat until we feel it is a real terror. The build-up is slow, but it doesn't drag, much like Romero's monsters. Confined to a claustrophobic story, Romero peppers the conflict, not with external tidbits but instead internal ones until eventually it's not just dog eat dog outside, but a little cannibalizing inside as well, metaphorically.
Romero doesn't satisfy with instant shock value, having creatures jumping out of closets, or from out of nowhere. He establishes tension and anxiety with just the idea of people who are trapped, who then have to rely or turn on each other. Though we know what the monsters are, or we come to know them, a lot of this movie remains as mental games.
Walter told me on his set, just before he went to go direct his first scene, as he pointed to his head, "That's what I'm trying to do as a filmmaker is to keep everything up here for the audience."
THE LAST WAVE (1977) - Walter seems to have gotten a taste for psychological horror, more than mere visceral horror, but when speaking of building terror in unconventional ways, Walter became enthusiastic about how unnerved he was by this film by favorite director, Peter Weir. Weir is the acclaimed Australian auteur who went on to be Oscar-nominated six times, most recently for "The Truman Show" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."
Like with those two fantastical stories, this 70s original film also has water as an integral element to the plot. Although here, water has a more apocalyptic presence, a definitely more haunting one.
The first twenty minutes are probably one of the most creepy uses of water as precipitation that I've ever seen, where, more or less, water was a character. Weir upends a schoolhouse filled with children by first pouring rain in bright sunshine and then attacking them with golf-ball-sized, large hailstones.
Weir brilliantly portends the possible deluge with a sinister shot of water slowly creeping down a staircase, leaking like Noah's flood, but actor Richard Chamberlain, is unsure from where it's coming. It's creepy. His character dreams of a man standing in the rain. A man is chased from the fluids of a raw sewage plant and then drowned.
A group of Aborigine men is accused. The film initiates us into this strange mystical and mythical story. There is great use of Aborigine wood musical instruments fused with at times 70s techno and orchestral sounds, which were common in many sci-fi/horror films of that time like "Blade Runner."
Sadly, what starts out strong seriously slows down and in my opinion grinds to a halt. It's odd to pat a movie on the back for its ridiculousness, as I did for "Night of the Living Dead," and, on the other hand, criticize another movie for it, as I'm about to do here.
The fact that Chamberlain's character, a corporate tax attorney, would be assigned to a murder case on a whim, is preposterous. In the one and only trial scene, Chamberlain's character provides over-the-top, showboating tactics that make absolutely no sense, and bear no resemblance to what a defense lawyer would say when his client is on the witness stand.
The wife is unsurprisingly unhinged by everything that happens, but there is a scene towards the end where she explodes at her husband, and it just rang as unbelievably false. The acting of this reaction seemed highly uncalled for and took me out of the movie.
While I thought it was admirable that Weir brought to the screen this tale involving tribal Aborigines in a way that never has never been done before, the film becomes too ominous for its own good. Not enough happens that made me feel any real danger or concern. It becomes more or less, a mood piece, which for me can be hit or miss.
REDS (1981) - One of the quotes on Walter's MySpace page is by Warren Beatty who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this tour de force, which received an impressive 12 Oscar nominations, about the last five years of writer and political activist John Silas Reed, also known as Jack Reed.
This epic story, over three hours in length, follows Reed, played by Warren Beatty, as he works as a journalist in the United States during World War I, mixing it up with big city social liberals and echoing Marxist and Bolshevik rhetoric, who begins a relationship with Louise Bryant, herself a journalist and artist, played by Oscar-winner Diane Keaton.
The perfect dialogue, the moving montages, which breeze along gorgeously, the sweeping cinematography, and the powerful acting between Beatty and Keaton, charting the ups and downs of their love affair, are all superb. Reed jumps into the middle of the Russian Revolution and becomes obsessed with bringing recognition to the American Socialist Labor Party, but we're never bogged down by politics.
At its heart, this film is a romance with war and politics as a backdrop that rises to the level of "Gone With the Wind." One of the most memorable scenes is the train sequence towards the end, especially at the end when Louise is walking along the edge of the locomotive watching men get off. There's a moment when Louise thinks Reed is dead. Yet, when she sees him, finally, after what seems like a trek that lasts forever, it's heart-breaking.
Not that I think Walter is a romantic! No. The film appeals more to his fascination with Russian history and I think it also goes to that Beatty quote, "There's no point in making a movie just to be making a movie." Beatty in his life was very political, very outspoken, and used this film definitely to speak a message, and while I don't think Walter is that much political either, I do gather that he wants his films to have messages too, not just be flashes in the pan.
CONTACT (1997) - After Walter was done shooting his short, I later interviewed him one-on-one, and he talked about doing films his own way and having it be personal, but he also talked about playing the game, and not making unwatchable material. Certainly every filmmaker wants to create work that's entertaining, and not audience-discriminating or cinematically esoteric. The amazing adaptation of Carl Sagan's glorious book, which charts a lonely scientist getting back in touch with her humanity by reaching out into space, would seem to be that.
While this film by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future") didn't have all the intense action or over-the-top special effects of blockbuster rivals like "Men in Black," which was released two weeks before this film, and "Alien: Resurrection," released four months later, it still has the fun and charm of a movie that Walter would say plays the game, appealing to those who simply want to be entertained, and in no way informed.
This film resembles to me the same spirit as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), Spielberg's epic story of human-alien terrestrial exploration, and "The Arrival" (1994), Charlie Sheen's role as an astronomer who stumbles upon a communique from outer space. The film stays true to science and to common sense at every step, never going out of bounds of logic or reason. It even naturally gives us the obvious ideological struggles, as there would be with the inherent religious implications.
It's spirituality versus technology. It's faith versus science, all of it anchored by a great character personified wonderfully by Jodie Foster. Foster embodies the curiosity of Sagan so beautifully, not only his curiosity but also his awe and wonder, as well as his appreciation. Walter, if nothing else, also embodies that same spirit, that same eye into the unknown and wanting to explore it.
Walter is not secretive about his interest in paranormal investigation. He's written and spoken extensively about his fascination with the Amityville case, and other true crime cases, as well as the occult. His favorite TV shows are "The Twilight Zone" and "Unsolved Mysteries."