I spent my vacation catching up on movies and finishing off last entry's cliff hanger by watching Death Defying Acts. And, well, I didn't die watching it, but I wouldn't say I thrived.
I think the biggest misstep the movie made was trying to have its story both ways. It starts off with Benji (Saorsie Ronan), the daughter of Catherine Zeta-Jones' Scottish medium, Mary, describing that she has a gift to see things other people don't. But, she says, as she's grown up, she's lost the gift just as her mother said she would. So they set it up straight from there that they are not magically psychic, but maybe they kinda are? It's confused from the start.
Then they show that mother and daughter are con artists, with Mary doing literally everything from pick pocketing and music hall performance, to letting randy librarians peek up her skirt. Benji is her accomplice in most of this, especially the music hall performance, where they perform a standard issue psychic show. They present a man with a watch from his dead wife "on the other side" (which is of course a watch they had earlier fished out of his pocket).
Houdini arrives in Edinburgh and presents the big challenge: He will award $10,000 to any medium who can tell him the last words his mother spoke to him on her death bed, proving his skepticism wrong and the Spiritualists right.
Cue hilarious montage of people applying for the test while a bored Houdini watches. Then Mary shows up, and spouts off some generic details about his mother that Houdini's manager, Sugarman, calls shenanigans on immediately. And though he agrees, Houdini is instantly like "HER! I WANT HER TO DO THE TEST! AND IT'S CERTAINLY NOT BECAUSE SHE'S SMOKIN' HOT."
This comes off as a huge issue to me. Mary is routinely called out by the manager for being a scam artist, yet Houdini would have been the loudest decrier of everything she did. But in the movie, he's so smitten with her that he's taking her to dinner, dancing with her, frolicking with her and Benji, and all around utterly forgetting his carefully cultivated image that he falls for a major deception that I don't think he would have ever fallen for. But more on that later.
I couldn't get a screen cap or find the image, but the musicians in this scene are blindfolded for no good reason, other than to add mystery to Houdini. But really, it just makes it look like he's going to kill her later because he's a complete lunatic.
Houdini and Mary fall in love, bond over being poor (or formerly poor in Houdini's case) and get to know each other well, which Mary warns against since it could be considered "cheating" when it comes to the test. And all the while, she's uncertain about if she should go through with it. Benji and Sugarman urge her on, and Sugarman even sneaks her the key to the mysterious trunk in Houdini's room that holds the secrets to Houdini's personality and the secret to guessing his mother's final words.
The trunk contains Houdini's mother's wedding dress, photos and other mementos. Then they go down the weird path that a lot of Houdini stories want to go and point out, "Hey, his mom looked a lot like you Catherine Zeta-Jones!" They even say "He doesn't want me, he wants his mother!" and other things to basically imply that Houdini was obsessed with his mom, in the extreme Freudian sense (think cigars and tunnels). To get rid of the meddlesome Scots and get his client back on the road, Sugarman tells them the secret to Houdini's mother's final words: Harry was touring when his mother passed away, and so there were no final words that he would have personally heard. That is very true, and was in fact one of the biggest regrets of his life.
To really drive home the ick factor, the day of the test, Mary wears Harry's mom's wedding gown, to "channel the energy." Like Houdini would have EVER believed that!
Mary starts the test by entering like she's walking down the aisle, like some kind of sick wedding ceremony. I understand their point, but I think this was a little much. Mary sits in a chair, and starts referring to Harry as Ehric (his real first name) and acting very possessed. Abruptly, she decides she can't do it, and hops out of the chair. Everyone is shocked, and that's when Benji drops to the ground and starts speaking in German-accented English. "Ehric, where are you? I need you Ehric, Why are you not come to me?" she asks. Harry gets on his knees in tears and apologizes in German and English to his mother. Then Benji sits up and cryptically warns him to beware of the angel with fire red hair, the sun will go black and to be careful.
The test ends and reveals to the press that Houdini was never at his mother's side when she died. And Houdini seems to buy ever moment of Benji's demonstration, and it's fairly convincing, since to Houdini's knowledge, Benji's never claimed to be a medium. But having read everything I read and having seen some of his correspondence in museums, it's hard to believe that he would have ever been taken like that. I feel like he would have found out that Sugarman leaked the information. Also, Harry's mother spoke NO English. None at all. And Benji's performance featured a lot of English from the ghost of dead woman who only spoke German.
Anyway, they win the money and Houdini and Mary have sex. Then he leaves in the morning for Montreal. Benji and Mary watch him go, and Benji mentions that she did the little poem about the angel just like her mother told her to, indicating that it was all a fake and they successfully duped Houdini. Mary walks away sadly, lamenting the great love lost.
THEN they go another step and have Benji narrate that the psychic ability she claimed to have lost in the beginning, she never really lost. Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhh!
The movie is still not over at this point by the way, and they begin the sad montage Houdini in Montreal, greeted by spectators. Meanwhile, Mary and Benji are presenting themselves as psychics in Edinburgh. The clock strikes noon. Mary faints. As she faints, a red headed man in Montreal (hey! angel with fire red hair coming full circle audience!) comes through the crowd and delivers the fatal blow to Houdini. He dies on the steps of the theater in Montreal (not true). Sometime later, Benji and Mary are watching a newsreel on Houdini's death, crying silently in the movie theater.
So, Benji was faking being psychic by being actually psychic and successfully fooling Houdini with her mother's help. WHAT?
I understand that the filmmakers were aiming to get past the man, the myth, the legend, but the myth and the legend were heavily cultivated by the man himself. He was his own greatest hype man. If he were a rapper, he would somehow magically be the guy on his own song shouting, "YEAH!" and "WHAT!" at every opportunity. The manager shuttles him around and seems to be very controlling of Houdini, when I've never had that impression. As the manager points out, Houdini was spreading the message that he had been there and heard the final words, so the movie is aware that he's his own hype man, but it seems to downplay how incredibly skilled he was at it. They made it seem almost more like he was just a pathological liar instead of a savvy showman.
It also committed the same sin that every magic movie ever makes.
Mary: How did you do that?
You've gotta be kidding me. To quote a superior magic movie, "A real magician tries to invent something that's new!" (The Presitge will be an entry unto itself, believe me.)
So concludes part two of the Houdini two-parter on Oh My God Rewind That! It was worth checking out since it's the only modern Houdini movie I'm aware of, and didn't receive much attention in America. Which is odd, considering how American Houdini and his persona were.
Up next, I'll look at the joys of horror movies, Disney, the mafia, and the saddest movie ever.
And look for more regular posting, I promise this time!
And look for more regular posting, I promise this time!