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Just Paying Attention: Denzel Washington uncovers a plot to plant a corporate-owned vice president in the White House--so what else is new?

Red Scare

'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'The Village' offer a double bill of good ol' American paranoia

By Richard von Busack

What is this thing called synchronicity? During this uneasy summer of 2004, Jonathan Demme's remake of John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and M. Night Shyamalan's original film The Village open on the same date. One is a straight-out political thriller set in the future; the other is an allegorical horror movie taking place in a mythic past. Yet both have something to say about our nation's fearfulness.

The village in question is a sheep-raising community--prosperous and cooperative, without internal-combustion engines. Under the calm leadership of a town council (William Hurt plays Edward Walker, the eldest of the elders), the village conducts self-criticism sessions and strives for perfection.

The village idiot, Noah (Adrien Brody), serves as the only reminder of human fault. Walker's daughter, the blind girl Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the surviving virgin for the third act of the film. She loves a shy village lad, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), who hopes to leave some day.

This unnamed town draws a wall between its residents and outsiders. The border is marked with a row of guard towers and mustard-yellow flags--the town is always under yellow alert. In the autumnal Covington woods surrounding the town exist hell-creatures known as "Those We Don't Speak Of."

We see one early in the film. It has long claws and enormous porcupine spikes protruding through its dirty scarlet cloak. These carnivorous beasts love the color red and are repelled by yellow. The village has banned all things red, but the color bursts out in the compound--in wildflowers and scarlet berries. A red scare grips this village.

The 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate addressed our own national red scare. The new version likens the war on terror with the Cold War. Thus The Manchurian Candidate presents itself as a radical entertainment--or rather, it would be a radical entertainment in a world where Frankenheimer's original film didn't exist. Even so, the movie counts as one of the few overtly political thrillers since John Carpenter's They Live.

Demme's version seems to be set a couple of years in our future. The war on terror has gone badly. U.S. troops are in Indonesia, and our planes are bombing Africa. Suicide bombers are blowing up buses in Denver, and a Muslim student has just been lynched at Yale.

Trying to solve the riddle of a recurring nightmare, a deeply troubled Gulf War vet named Marco (Denzel Washington at his sad-sackiest) uncovers a conspiracy. The Manchurian Corporation, an all-powerful multinational, is trying to create its own vice president. Its candidate is an estranged congressman named Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Schreiber is excellent, particularly when his cold-fish face dissolves into a creepy placid smile whenever his controllers turn on the juice.

Lawrence Harvey played the part in the original, and what do Schreiber and Harvey have in common? They were both celebrated Hamlets on the stage. Memories of Hamlet's wrath at Gertrude heighten the psychological clash with the story's villain. She is one bad mother: an unnatural political witch (Meryl Steep) with dreams of dictatorship.

Demme goes psychedelic where Frankenheimer went crystal clear. In Frankenheimer's black-and-white version, the characters were pinprick-pupiled from the white-hot lights. As in The Silence of the Lambs, Demme's flair with dank, orange-red impressionistic horror is first-rate. He chills you with a madman's wall-sized mural: Bic pen drawings illustrating the nightmares Marco and the rest of his "lost patrol" have been having ever since they were "rescued" by Shaw. For all its paranoia, Demme's movie is warmer and fuzzier than Frankenheimer's. That Demme wants to deliver a message is obvious from the title theme: Wyclef Jean's overwrought cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son."

The first Manchurian Candidate anticipated the 1960s as the decade of assassination. "With all Americans, I had contributed to form the attitudes of the assassin; and the assassin, and Americans like him, had contributed to the attitudes which had caused me to write the novel." That's author Richard Condon, as quoted in Greil Marcus' study of The Manchurian Candidate.

This time, Demme takes it to the corporate elite, and this time one chokes on the hook. We all know how the corporations forge themselves political candidates today. Writing checks to a PAC is a lot more efficient than kidnapping and brainwashing.

To re-create the shock of the original, the brainwashers in Demme's version should have been urbane Muslim terrorists, jolly and polite like the 1962 edition's Communist villain, Khigh Dhiegh--"of the Pavlov Institute in Moscow."

Frankenheimer's essential theme was that red-hunting McCarthyists were deliberately weakening America. Wouldn't Demme's film have more punch if it implied that American hawks were secretly in cahoots with the terrorists, trying to bleed our nation through wars of aggression and by spreading our armies too thin? Tell that, and all you could do is pray your audience would get the joke.

The Village's point about America's siege mentality is similarly blunted, probably because of Shyamalan's soft heart. The director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs deserves credit as the only living analogue to Val Lewton. Like that producer of low-budget, cerebral horror films in the 1940s, Shyamalan believes that fear ought to arise from quiet, careful buildup, using pity and sadness. He opposes the easy way, the shock edit, the gross-out and the pop-up. Using America's past as a source for horror is a fine idea--so is turning Pennsylvania into Transylvania.

And yet Shyamalan's dark side is more like a beige side. The Village is almost about the American paranoid streak, but Shyamalan really admires these simple clean sons of the soil, the type who have never existed outside a movie theater. And the wedding scene looks like something you'd put on for the tourists. Stuck between allegory and straight horror, The Village is often dull. Shyamalan's starchy, earth-toned direction overcomes the story. As always, he has almost no sense of humor.

Just as Demme makes Raymond Shaw in the new Manchurian Candidate a sensitive tragic character--he was a shade more of a prig and a patsy in the original--Shyamalan doesn't see the ugly underbelly of these good-hearted farmers. Wouldn't their isolation make them proud and remote? It's a pity, because Shyamalan almost touches on the essence of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales--horror stories about New World colonies of saints who discovered that they still hid Satan in their hearts.

Separately, these two entertainments vamp on the theme of American terror, of enemies from within and without. Michael Lerner's book The Populist Persuasion charts the variations in this "enemy" over the centuries: Indians and the devil in the pioneer days, Communists in our parents' time, corporate pigs and liberal baby-killers in ours. Addressing this constant state of fear, neither movie really breaks new ground--as political satire or effective horror. Still, the tensions in these movies are true mirrors of our fears of fear itself.

The Village (PG-13; 120 min.), directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Joaquin Phoenix and William Hurt, plays countywide. The Manchurian Candidate (R; 130 min.), directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, photographed by Tak Fujimoto and starring Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber, plays countywide.

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From the August 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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