Depravity, wild animals, and "Carnival of Souls," just in time for Halloween

Early on in the grim, Cormac McCarthy-penned movie “The Counselor,” a spiky-haired nightclub owner (Javier Bardem) explains to his lawyer (Michael Fassbender) that the people involved in the U.S.-Mexican drug trade are not to be taken lightly. One of their methods of assassination, he says, involves a motorized wire that’s dropped around an unsuspecting target’s neck—tightening until it severs the carotid arteries and sprays blood everywhere, killing its victim instantly.

And once this sick little device has been placed around your neck, there’s nothing you can do to stop it—just like this film.

Inevitability is a theme that is foreshadowed, warned about, and then played out in grisly fashion throughout “The Counselor,” which is crammed with so much nihilistic philosophizing that it makes the fatalistic tirades of “Killing Them Softly” (another bleak neo-noir co-starring Brad Pitt) seem like “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Fassbender’s title character deals with criminals in El Paso every day. He seems decent enough, but perhaps mingling with powerful clients has given him a sense of false bravado. Eager to do something extraordinary to please the woman of his dreams (an innocent Penelope Cruz), he invests in a shipment of drugs traveling from Colombia to Chicago. It’s risky, as he is constantly reminded by various depraved characters in extended monologues, but he made up his mind a long time ago.

“The Counselor” contains much of the same existential terror of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation “No Country for Old Men,” but little of its cinematic panache. Like that downbeat 2007 Best Picture winner, Bardem again takes on the flashiest role here, but rather than a film made up of superbly crafted moments of suspense like “No Country,” “The Counselor” instead settles in on an overall feeling of dread.

Ridley Scott is a director with a slick visual style, but in “The Counselor” he’s mostly relegated to disquieting, two-person conversations, so his flourishes are few and far between. What he does effectively is create a suffocating atmosphere that mirrors the journey of Fassbender’s counselor. McCarthy’s screenplay is overly careful not to explain everything, relying on the viewer to draw its own plot connections with varying degrees of dramatic tension.

“The Counselor” is frustrating viewing by any standard, especially someone expecting a riveting crime thriller. There’s plenty of time to reflect on one’s own life-changing decisions as its characters pontificate about the consequences of one’s choices (“You are the world you have created,” says another philosophical drug kingpin played by Rubén Blades), only to be snapped back into the film by the inevitable brutality of McCarthy’s imagination.

Horror Remix: Beast!

Horror Remix: Beast! by Eric Melin

If the hard-boiled depravity of Cormac McCarthy isn’t your idea of a fun night out during the Halloween season, maybe two hours of evil animals will raise your hackles. Monday October 28, The Bottleneck continues its Horror Remix series with “Beast,” a compilation of ridiculously over-the-top moments from B and C-level animal-themed horror pictures from the 70s. As usual, admission to the 9pm event is free, and the feature presentation is edited together cleverly with various short films and hijinx from Horror Remix’s puppet MCs, Cheesecake and Thunderclap. Whether its sharks, grizzly bears, tigers, or the family pet, the all-killer-no-filler presentation of “Beast” is likely to leave you panting for more.

“Carnival of Souls,” the low-budget 1962 horror movie from producer/director Herk Harvey that was partially filmed in Lawrence, has gained notoriety in recent years to become a classic of expressionistic cinema. (Its number 63 in The Criterion Collection and Roger Ebert said in 1989 that “it plays better today than when it was released.”)

Shot for around $33,000, “Carnival of Souls” was an artistic labor of love for Harvey, who was employed at the time by the Centron Corporation, where he made educational and industrial films. On Friday November 1, the KU Department of Film & Media Studies is showing the cult classic—which is heavy on spooky atmosphere and ingenuity—in the very studio where some of its interiors were shot.

All proceeds from the screening at KU’s Oldfather Studios at 1621 W. 9th St. go to the department, and tickets are $10 at the door.

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