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Werner Herzog's "On Death Row" Premieres Tonight

Werner Herzog premieres a four-part miniseries tonight (Friday, March 9) on Investigation Discovery at 10pm ET/PT. It's dark, and smart, and well worth your time -- as long as there are no kids in the room.

A Question of Retribution

On Death Row is the story of five death row inmates, as told through in-person interviews by Werner Herzog. Herzog seems fascinated by these people, who are almost by definition unreliable witnesses to their own lives. He treats them with respect, gently questioning them about their (often horrific) crimes. In the first episode, we are witness to a very strange story arc concerning James Barnes, an inmate in Florida: we start out thinking, "This guy may have repented," but after Herzog lets the man talk (and also talks to some family members), Barnes digs his own grave. It's a curious thing to see a person whose own death is certain -- even scheduled -- talk about death. These men and women are in a unique position to share their emotions regarding death, and Herzog is in an extraordinary position to sit there and speak with them.

A theme Herzog returns to repeatedly is the question of retribution, which is the central notion of capital punishment. While the series doesn't spend a lot of time directly dealing with politics, Herzog does make a point of asking various stakeholders (like Barnes's defense attorney, whose last name, bizarrely, is Burden) what the intent of the punishment is; Herzog clearly doesn't buy any arguments that the death penalty is a deterrent. But rather than argue with people or pursue his agenda, he lays out his position briefly (Herzog is against capital punishment), then lets the subjects talk. Watching the discomfort on the faces of everyone involved is wrenching, and is the heart of this series of hour-long films.

Progressive Disclosure

Any good drama withholds some information at the beginning, progressively disclosing it along the way. Herzog doles out details over the course of each hour, allowing the viewer to piece together the story of each inmate. I found myself repeatedly surprised by these stories, as they change the viewer's perception of the inmates as you go along -- things that seemed normal before become sinister, once you know more details of the person's story. In other words, if you watch the episode twice, the second time will be much creepier. Further, Herzog treats the inmates as human beings and relates to them, even sharing jokes on a few occasions. This is an emotionally interesting interaction, mainly because these exchanges are quickly followed by grisly details of murders.

In addition to the examination of death offered as the text of this documentary, there's a rich subtext here: this is in large part a study of psychopaths. We can see how the inmates think about their own crimes, and how they interact with Herzog, and we can glimpse their emotional lives (such as they are) through their attempts to interact with this gentle German man with a camera. Look carefully, but be aware that what you see will be disturbing. Also, note the care with which Herzog corrects his interview subjects when they prevaricate, and that he repeatedly points out that the people who are on death row have arrived there for a reason -- even if he disagrees with the fundamental premise of capital punishment.

Several of the inmates have been executed since they were interviewed for the series (and for Herzog's feature film Into the Abyss). These are not people who are caught up in endless death row legal limbo: they are facing imminent death by lethal injection.

Herzog Shooting in Texas

Florida and Texas as Creepy Deathscapes

I grew up in Florida, and the first episode is about a Florida man and his various murders. I remember them. I recognize the area of I-95 they show onscreen and mention as a dumping ground for a body, and I remember when much of this stuff happened. For those of you who haven't been to Florida, let me tell you: it's full of crazy stuff that's not about fun in the sun. Herzog does a great job of using Florida as a landscape, even though it's not available to the subject of the film (he's locked up behind a series of bars, such that he can barely even see a window). We see glimpses of Florida, but they are brief and suitably creepy.

One of Herzog's early questions for Barnes is about what Barnes can see of the outside world, and whether he misses it. Barnes talks about how he loves hearing the rain (a daily occurrence in the Florida summer), how he misses feeling the rain, and gives a date (now a decade past) when he last felt the rain. This is the kind of visceral detail anyone can relate to -- I miss the Florida rain too -- and it allows the viewer to engage at a physical level with what's going on onscreen.

Herzog returns to this question when interviewing a pair of Texas inmates -- he asks them, in classic Herzog fashion, about their dreams. Of course, they dream (or at least speak of dreams) that are set outside of prison. In that sense, this documentary speaks to the issue of geography and location: here we have people who are forced by circumstance to inhabit the four walls of a prison. Many of them yearn to escape (indeed, the Texas inmates have death sentences because they did escape, and killed a police officer while on the outside), but others are just marking time until death...which is another form of "escape" these inmates think about quite a lot.

The topic of Texas as another sun-drenched setting for murders comes up in later episodes. It's extremely reminiscent of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line -- more on that in a bit.

James Barnes

Who Should and Should Not Watch This

Let me say this emphatically: keep all children away from this show. This is material for adults, and likely only adults who can handle graphic descriptions of murders and footage from real crime scenes. Now, there's not much shown onscreen that's particularly unusual (at least for true crime programming), but descriptions of murders are always terrible, and I found myself double-checking the deadbolt on my door after watching the first hour...and again after each subsequent hour.

Further, I imagine there's a segment of the viewing populace who would not want to see an interview with a murderer, simply because of what that person has done. If you fall into that category, I urge you to watch at least one episode of this series: it may not change your mind (that's not the point), but it will certainly engage you at a deep level.

Is This Film, TV, or What?

On Death Row occupies an odd space, as it's a documentary miniseries that's closely related to Herzog's recent (and acclaimed) cinematic documentary Into the Abyss. The films share footage, a theme, and lots of other material. This cross-pollination is a wonderful thing, frankly: the sheer quality of Werner Herzog's work elevates "true crime TV" to the level of serious documentary. Herzog was reportedly given serious creative control, and it shows.

What makes On Death Row different from Into the Abyss? Two things: first, it's on television, so it does have a few (surprisingly minor) affordances to the medium: pre-commercial bumpers by Paula Zahn that really should have been left out, but hey, it's true crime on TV; and bleeping curse words. Second, because each episode focuses on one or two interview subjects, Herzog can spend extra time on each inmate and his or her crimes -- details you might not spend as much time on in a documentary in the theater.

As a group, the On Death Row films complement Into the Abyss, and if you're up for a deep investigation of the topic (or you're a Herzog completist), you should watch all of them.

Further Viewing

Herzog is working in an area that overlaps the work of Errol Morris, specifically Morris's films The Thin Blue Line (about the nature of the justice system and the reliability of witnesses) and Mr. Death (about capital punishment, a man who makes equipment that kills people, and...some other stuff I won't spoil). You should go watch both of those, but be aware that Mr. Death is very upsetting. The Thin Blue Line is only upsetting in that it didn't win Best Documentary, because the Academy apparently didn't believe dramatic recreations could be used in documentary. (Oh, how things have changed in the past quarter century! And we have Morris to thank.) If you're curious about the interaction between Herzog and Morris, check out Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, about a bet the two made in the late 1970s.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for this review. I requested and received a rough cut of the miniseries, after hearing that Herzog was working on a companion series to Into the Abyss. All photos above are courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

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Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
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Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
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11 Magical Facts About Willow
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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