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Stylish 'Animation' takes clever risks

Director John Hancock's imaginative thriller, with an unpredictable script by his wife, Dorothy Tristan, is a triumph.

October 31, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Back in 1971 director John Hancock made an uneven psychological suspense-horror picture: "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," in which Zohra Lampert's portrayal of a woman recovering from a mental breakdown was strong enough, coupled with the film's effective atmosphere, for the picture to score an unexpected success.

After a sporadic and offbeat career Hancock has now returned to the genre with "Suspended Animation," a bold and unqualified triumph, nifty trick and treat for Halloween that is, arguably, his best film ever, surpassing even his potent heart-tugger, the 1973 baseball drama "Bang the Drum Slowly." Hancock's wife, Dorothy Tristan, has provided him with an extraordinary script, highly unpredictable yet incorporating an array of genre motifs, themes and situations. She brings a perspective to the material that constantly hovers between tragedy and comedy, and Hancock in turn runs all the way with this vision, giving weight and dimension to a plot that with one false move could turn preposterous.

"Suspended Animation" is scary, stylish and compelling.

A successful Hollywood animated feature director, Tom Kempton (Alex McArthur), is holed up in a cabin in the wintry wilderness of Northern Michigan, grappling with his next project when his wife (Rebecca Harrell) urges him to take a break and join friends for a ride in their snowmobiles. An accident separates Tom from his pals, and he ends up taking shelter in the large, isolated cabin of the Boulette sisters, Vanessa (Laura Esterman) and Ann (Sage Allen). He very soon discovers that he has become a captive of two homicidal crazies who seem to have a particular hatred of men.

Tom's instincts for survival and for art kick in, and he is able to see in the wraith-like Vanessa, who claims to be a former ballerina, an inspiration for his next film. He in fact is able to capture the imaginations of both sisters long enough for Hancock to be able to show these two Grand Guignol monsters as tragic human beings, just as it was possible to see the same in Bette Davis' demented former child star in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

The film is so full of nervy, unexpected developments that it would be a shame to reveal more of the plot. Tristan deliberately brings in hoary old notions of tainted bloodlines and resulting bad seeds, and Hancock rises to the challenge of making them pay off through an array of notable portrayals in well-developed roles. McArthur is the film's sturdy anchor, an attractive, charming middle-aged man of clear talent and intellect who has the curiosity and caring to want to know and understand the source of the sisters' madness. Allen and especially Esterman sustain beautifully the cursed Boulettes in all their tragicomic horror and pathos. A major linchpin in the film is Maria Cina's lovely aspiring actress, in denial over how deeply troubled her teenage son (Fred Meyers) really is.

"Suspended Animation" is charged with an interplay between constantly shifting -- and at times intermingling -- creative and destructive impulses. It has pace and variety and, best of all, it consistently has the courage of its imaginative and daring screenplay. "Suspended Animation" goes right up to the edge but resists going over the top.

*

'Suspended Animation'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Considerable Grand Guignol horror violence, language; too intense for young audiences.

Alex McArthur...Tom Kempton

Laura Esterman...Vanessa Boulette

Sage Allen...Ann Boulette

Rebecca Harrell...Hilary Kempton

Maria Cina...Clara Hansen

A First Fun Features release. Director-producer John Hancock. Executive producer Carey Westberg. Screenplay by Dorothy Tristan. Cinematographer Misha Suslov. Editor Dennis O'Connor. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Costumes Richard Donnelly. Production designer Don Jacobson. Art director Brian Adams. Set decorator Kathy Glesser. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Fairfax Avenue), (323) 655-4010.

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