Sunday 16 April 2017

Resurrection (1999)

Director: Russell Mulcahy
Writers: Brad Mirman and Christopher Lambert, from a story by Brad Mirman
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Robert Joy, Barbara Tyson, Rick Fox and Leland Orser

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

In our modern consumerist culture, it’s easy to see the holiday of Easter like Bill Hicks described it: ‘commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.’ However, to Christians, it’s one of the cornerstones of the liturgical year, the end of one season and the beginning of another, and it’s serious stuff indeed. It follows the season of Lent, during the six weeks of which many Christians prepare for Easter by fasting or giving up something to symbolise sacrifice. Lent ends with Holy Week, which is rich with key events: Palm Sunday marks the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, Maundy Thursday remembers the Last Supper and Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. This all ends with Easter Sunday, which begins Eastertide with a great celebration, because it’s when Jesus rose from the dead after three days in the tomb. After Jesus’s birth, marked at Christmas, his resurrection is the most important event in the Christian year.

In fact, it’s so important that people have been arguing about it for millennia: what theological significance it bears, its tie to the Jewish holiday of Passover and even the date on which it should be celebrated. Controversies over when the correct date should be date back to the second century and trawl in the First Council of Nicaea and the Synod of Whitby. Things only got worse when the western world shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and they’re not even squared away yet. As recently as 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed reform, suggesting that Easter should be celebrated on the ‘first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon following the astronomical vernal equinox, as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem.’ Had that been adopted, it would have taken effect in 2001, a rare year in which the Western and Orthodox dates for Easter coincided. The fact is that it wasn’t adopted and people will continue to argue about it for the foreseeable future.

Given this history, it’s almost surprising that we haven’t seen a whole bunch of religious horror movies revolving around Easter; after all, death, resurrection and immortality are popular subjects for both lunatics and Hollywood screenwriters. Well, here’s an interesting such attempt, made by some interesting people who seem to work well together. The story was conjured up by Brad Mirman, who wrote and directed the memorable comedy Crime Spree in 2003. He’s known more as a writer than a director, with a string of screenplays to his name of films that starred Christopher Lambert: Knight Moves, Gideon and Highlander III: The Sorcerer for starters; Lambert co-wrote this one with him and stars in it himself. The director is Russell Mulcahy, who had made him famous with the original Highlander and infamous with its inept sequel, Highlander II: The Quickening (which Mirman will be ecstatic to say he had nothing to do with). It’s fair to say that this isn’t as original as the former but is a good shot at redemption for the latter.

Lambert is a cop, John Prudhomme by name, who moved from New Orleans to Chicago after the accidental death of his son. He’s apparently a decent detective but he’s not well liked, presumably because he still hasn’t come to terms with his loss. It affects his relationships with his wife, Sara, and his colleagues on the force and it affects us too, because Lambert is notably stiff in the early scenes and we wonder if we’ll have to watch such awkward acting throughout the film. Well, we don’t, because a tough case does the job of getting him emotionally invested and that awkwardness fades with our proximity to the killer, epitomised by how the detective’s reactions change to the constant jokes of his partner, Andy Hollinsworth. Initially, he fails to even acknowledge them but he eventually joins in and, as bad as his jokes are, they’re what he needs to belong. The very ending of the picture, after the case is solved, is emotionally manipulative but it’s OK for a change because Lambert has built up to it for ninety minutes.
This case is why I’m reviewing Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Someone is killing people in Chicago and they’re taking body parts from the corpses. I don’t mean hair clippings as souvenirs, I mean large body parts: Peter Belcoeur’s right arm, Matthew Leeson’s left and James Ordway’s head. In return for taking things so substantial, the killer leaves behind Roman numerals carved into their skin and not small ones either; think CXIX or MMCDXXVII. It takes three deaths for Prudhomme to figure out the key to the case. Each victim is 33 years old, the age of Jesus when he was crucified. Each is murdered on a Friday, the day on which that happened. Each has both the name and occupation of one of his apostles. The numbers are bible references, each chapter and verse covering the return of Jesus. Clearly this imaginative serial killer is re-constituting the body of Christ and there are three more weeks until Easter Sunday, when the Christian church recognises his resurrection. One message, painted in lamb’s blood, reads, ‘He’s coming.’

This is a fantastic setup for a dark thriller, especially as the obvious comparison, even from the early scenes, is to David Fincher’s Se7en, the pinnacle of dark thrillers. Needless to say, this can’t match it, but it comes a lot closer than most. It’s missing the brutal ironies, the attention to detail and the nested twists (though it does have one excellent twist that I didn’t see coming until almost the moment it was revealed and one neat irony whose depth mirrored the film’s). What it does have is a strong sense of pace, an admirable feel and some clever red herrings. It also has some powerful visual set pieces, including the killer’s body part montage and the final showdown between cop and killer, with an impressive third party to that clash who adds a great deal of tension to a scene that was already tense. Gareth Wilson, who was a set dresser for films as varied as Videodrome, Naked Lunch and Quest for Fire, is credited for set decoration but the whole art department deserves praise.
The closest the visuals get to Se7en are when we discover the third victim. He’s somewhere beneath Chinatown, in a location that appears to be built out of narrow corridors, naked women and rats. The cops’ journey through the former is a claustrophobic one and a sense of real danger accompanies them. When Joe Mantell advised Jack Nicholson to, ‘Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,’ it was up there on the surface with plenty of space around them. Here, Christopher Lambert and Leland Orser, who is highly believable as his partner, descend into a creepy netherworld, increasingly far from safety, in which nobody was witness to a man beheaded, drained of blood and posed for effect, not to mention the killer’s escape, presumably through those very same narrow corridors, with the victim’s head. In at least one way, this is more realistic than the more stylised set-pieces of Se7en, because everything we see is in muted colours, a Chicago constructed from rain, terror and the colour grey, with only hints at more.

The one aspect I wanted to see the film explore at much more depth is the religious aspect which is, after all, the entire point. As soon as Prudhomme realises what the numbers mean on the flesh of the Numbers Killer’s victims, we’re in religious territory. As the inevitable FBI profiler suggests, this murderer doesn’t see what he does as murder; he’s simply making sacrifices to God. His habit of taking body parts only when their owners can feel what he’s doing deliberately echoes the suffering of Jesus on the cross. There’s more than one meaning to the word ‘passion’ but it’s never highlighted here, even when a key character is set up to walk in similar sandals in a neat little trap. Instead, the only time that the police force ever decides to seeks religious expertise is when Prudhomme goes to see Father Rousell, his former pastor who’s offered help to combat his grief, to find out who the ‘boanerges’ are that the killer references in a fax to the cops.
I found this problematic because this is 1999, so the internet existed and was relatively easily available to look up anything that a dictionary couldn’t provide the answers to. I remember it well and it wasn’t what it is now, but it would have been fine to obtain an answer to a simple question like that. What it wouldn’t have done is provided deeper insight into the why behind the case, an explanation of what the killer was attempting to do and why he was doing it in that particular way. Those the questions that the detective should have taken to the priest for answers, but none of that happens at all. This particular police department is rather insular when it comes to research, its cops only grudgingly talking to the FBI profiler who shows up to offer his services, and the biggest gap is the religious one. The scene with Fr. Rousell works because it provides a lead to the next target, a rare instance of the filmmakers not trusting the telegraphing of religious points. Those without religious background may miss the rest.

Given the actor who plays Fr. Rousell, I was hoping that the character would have played a larger part in proceedings as our guide into the religious aspects of the case. He’s David Cronenberg, the acclaimed writer/director who proved himself as an actor back in 1990 in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Some posters, such as those from France, where Resurrection was exhibited theatrically (it was a straight to DVD title in the States), list Cronenberg prominently above the title, alongside Lambert and Orser, suggesting that he has a huge part to play, but it’s really little more than a cameo. He gets two scenes, one to further the plot and one to help bolster Prudhomme’s character. He deserved more than that and so did the script. The same could be easily applied to Barbara Tyson, as Prudhomme’s wife, Sara, and Peter MacNeill as his boss, Capt. Jack Whippley; both are really only in the movie to add depth to his character and help to firm up his story arc as we move forward through the case.
Cronenberg aside, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t recognise any of the supporting cast. Some are familiar, as they’re character actors notching up another entry in their sizeable filmographies, but I couldn’t identify them and that works really well when the characters they’re playing are cops. In particular, Leland Orser, who seems highly recognisable, has appeared in a whole slew of movies from which I failed to recognise him. He’s in all three Taken movies, as well as genre pictures like The Bone Collector, Alien: Resurrection and Piranha, as well as blockbusters like Independence Day, Saving Private Ryan and Daredevil. Ironically, he was also in Se7en, playing ‘Crazed Man in Massage Parlor’. Robert Joy, who plays Greg Wingate, the FBI profiler, was a CSI: New York regular, which utterly slipped my mind. His fifty features include titles as varied as Ragtime, Waterworld and Harriet the Spy. Both are just what their roles required, being highly talented actors who don’t have star power enough to overwhelm their characters.

Even Christopher Lambert, whose diction is as recognisable as his face, manages to immerse himself far enough into this picture that we start to forget that he’s a star. For all that Se7en does what it does better than Resurrection, we’re never able to forget that we’re watching Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey. Even when we dip into the supporting characters, the same often applies. Barbara Tyson is more believable as Sara Prudhomme than Gwyneth Paltrow was as Tracy Mills, not because she’s better but because we don’t recognise her. The same goes for Peter MacNeill and R. Lee Ermey; the latter is inherently recognisable but the former isn’t. Ironically, that may be partly why Resurrection flew under the radar in 1999, four years after Se7en shocked us all. It’s inherently less recognisable and less memorable. However, it has much worthy of praise and deserves not to vanish into the black hole of capable movies that people overlooked. This Easter it deserves a resurrection.

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