Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel, The Lodger, based on the grisly Jack the Ripper killings in turn-of-the-century London, has been grist for the movie pulp mill ever since its publication. Knockoff versions of the story trace the history of film, from Pabst's Pandora's Box and all the way to mad psycho James Spader in Jack's Back and Daffy Duck taking on the Shropshire Slasher in Deduce You Say. The most famous version of the novel itself was the first Hitchcock-style Hitchcock film, the 1927 silent The Lodger starring Ivor Novello, who later recreated his role in a 1932 sound remake. The most atmospheric version of the tale was John Brahm's 1944 Fox redux with the creepy Laird Cregar as the notorious murderer.
Now writer/director David Ondaatje
has come along with a contemporary version of the story, updated to the mean streets of L.A. in 2009. And this new version of The Lodger also has atmosphere in spades.
Ondaatje fractures Lowndes' novel into two jagged, schizophrenic halves -- a hermetic story about a hateful young married couple (Hope Davis
and Donal Logue
) that rent out their guest house to an enigmatic writer (Simon Baker
), and a police investigation by two deeply disturbed detectives in the LAPD (Alfred Molina
and Shane West
) who are following a series of murders of prostitutes in L.A. whose killings mimic the Jack the Ripper murders of old. Ultimately, the two stories intersect and shatter. Article continues below
Ondaatje remarks in the press notes as being influenced by Hitchcock in the making of The Lodger and sprinkled throughout the film are visual allusions to Hitchcock, from Ellen (Davis) watching her husband (Logue) slice bread and only hearing the word "knife," to in/out tracks reminiscent of scenes in Vertigo and Psycho, to a tribute to the Simon Oakland psychiatric explanation at the end of Psycho. But Ondaatje smears The Lodger with a burdensome style that is less Hitchcock and more the oppressive Brian De Palma
1970s retreads of Hitchcock (Obsession, Dressed To Kill, The Fury), which were all style and no substance. Ondaatje further fractures the style by dipping heavily into the Godfrey Reggio bouillabaisse of Koyaanisqatsi with sped-up, color-saturated shots of L.A. traffic and quick-motion room cleanups. Ondaatje even mixes in some M. Night Shyamalan
for good measure.
Unfortunately, the measure is not all that good.
The film unfolds in a movie universe, and the closest Ondaatje gets to the real is his homages, which, of course, are not real at all. It is ironic since Ondaatje amasses a great cast of indie film actors (Molina, Davis, West, Baker, Logue, Philip Baker Hall
, Mel Harris, Rebecca Pidgeon
, Rachael Leigh Cook
) but all for naught, with the actors given unforgivable dialogue to recite ("Pull up anything you can on Jack the Ripper"). Even the much admired Hall, as head of the feds, has nothing to do but run around dogging Molina as if recreating his library cop role from Seinfeld.
Ondaatje delivers a distancing, expressionistic slasher film of the disturbed mass mind. In The Lodger it is, indeed, mass madness. It is hard to be too concerned about a psychotic serial killer since everyone in the film appears to be psychotically screwy and any character here could easily be taken for a killer. Molina's Chandler Manning character is clearly teetering on the edge and has some serious issues with his daughter and wife Margaret (Mel Harris), whom he has seemingly driven insane and who now resides in a mental ward. Bunting (Logue) and his wife Ellen (Davis) are one step away from killing each other with a knife... knife... knife and Bunting has to keep reminding Ellen to take her anti-psychotic medication (although he could probably use a prescription himself). Of course, the new lodger Malcolm (Baker) insists on removing the portraits in his room because he doesn't like the paintings staring at him.
At the end of the film, when the killer is revealed, it's startling -- not because it is any big surprise (it isn't), but because you half expect to see the entire cast locked up.
As Cagney remarked in White Heat, "Stark, raving nuts."