Few cinematic idioms are more tiresome than “magic”. Directors as magicians, wielding a bag of tricks and devices to subsume the audience into a collective, supplicating trance. Metaphors for cinema in general vary in degrees of egregiousness, but this “carnival”, “magic show”, or “hall of mirrors” thread consistently reeks of cheeky self-satisfaction.And then there’s Russell Mulcahy, whose cinema is a magic show. A carnival. A hall of mirrors. The Australian Russell Mulcahy, like many other filmmakers, entered mainstream cinema through music videos. His music video filmography covers a plethora of recognizable 80s hits: Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (technically 1979), Spandau Ballet’s “True”, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, and many others, including a large amount of work with Duran Duran and Elton John. These videos reveal a consistently imaginative conjurer of images, although one shouldn’t jump too quickly to praise, the music video genre being rife with pretty, vacuous images as it is. Still, Mulcahy’s particular body of work in the format shares a very distinct relationship with his feature cinema.
One of Mulcahy’s most celebrated and infamous videos, for Duran Duran’s The Wild Boys, is very emblematic of his work in both feature film and music video formats. It’s largely a stringing together of “provocative”, “atmospheric” images, catering to (while baroquely upping the stakes of) the dominant form of music video expression. It is especially instructive in understanding Mulcahy, however, because of its deep silliness—the fine line it walks between expressive and gaudy. Like most of the other music video auteurs turned feature filmmakers, he places too much faith in outlandish imagery. But unlike, to use contemporary examples, Mark Romanek or Spike Jonze, he has not attempted to parlay this particular image-bent filmmaking into notions of profundity and subtlety. Romanek and Jonze’s preciously crafted cinema speaks to an entirely different silliness. Mulcahy, rather, has festooned this notion of “evocative imagery” to largely unrepentant pulp. His faith in these images is that of a child’s, a prog-rock-addicted stoner’s, or a magician’s. When combined with his legitimate (although increasingly inconsistent) talents for crafting B-storylines and constructing well-oriented spatial relations, Mulcahy becomes a director of formidable expressivity.
Mulcahy’s strongest work (The Shadow, Razorback, Silent Trigger, portions of Highlander II: The Quickening) is the stuff of illusions, trapdoor images, warped mirrors, and rabbits in hats. He’s at his best with literal ambiguities and spectral presences. Illusion is not a subject, but rather a trade, his method for guiding the audience into the quasi-surreal morasses of his film’s worlds. The Shadow, perhaps the only superhero film to achieve genuine mysticism, is a fantasy of Classic Manhattan: romantic but hinged with Feuilladian criminal underworlds. Razorback takes Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright and runs it through MTV, resulting in an Outback of purely hallucinogenic quality. Silent Trigger, it’s cheap budget worn on its sleeve, concocts a drab, single-building setting, and contrasts it with zany flashbacks to a war-torn Europe. Highlander II, while tainted by the first film’s embarrassing pretensions, gives in to complete prog-fantasmagoria, each setting possessing its own unique textures of light and set design.
1984’s Razorback, the first major Mulcahy film, adopts Psycho’s false-protagonist first act. Journalist Beth Winters (Judy Morris) travels to Australia to document the hunting and slaughtering of wildlife, but is quickly killed by a colossal boar—from whom the title of the film is derived. It is this first act that is the most effective, and represents our first glimpse of Mulcahy’s particular talents. The razorback is rendered an abstract, ghostly image, barely glimpsed. A frightening early image finds Beth spotting the silhouette of the beast through her camera, its hulking form splashed against the oranges and golds of sunset. The image is presented rather plainly; Beth looks into her camera, then a POV from the camera’s view, then the image of the boar. Instead of an emphatic jumpscare, Mulcahy presents the first sighting as a lumbering inevitability.
Later in the film, after Beth’s husband Carl (Gregory Harrison) has arrived to investigate her demise, we get the most thoroughly Mulcahy sequence in the entire film. Carl, having been abandoned during a nighttime kangaroo hunt by two insane Outback dwellers, must wander through a barren wasteland to find salvation. What was brush-spotted Outback becomes scalding salt flats, peppered with skeletons that spring into animation. Carl’s hallucinations, born of dehydration, exhaustion, and heat, give Mulcahy free reign to indulge in his most wild formal and conceptual ideas. And it gets damn silly. Razorback, coming in the middle of his music video phase, is thoroughly dominated by an overabundance of surrealist imagery, and the desert wandering sequence epitomizes it. The film does regain its footing. Although the central creature loses power in its translation to definite physical presence, Mulcahy’s pacing and eye for grimy brutality allow the film to ground itself definitively in the character of Carl.
It is in 1994’s The Shadow that Mulcahy produces his greatest, most seamlessly modulated work. It is a film of deft balance; successfully weaving plot, performance, action, and, perhaps most importantly, Mulcahy’s magician’s glee, into a comic book world. It is, by far, his best cast film, led by Alec Baldwin in the role of Lamont Cranston, and colored wonderfully by the supporting performances of Tim Curry, Ian McKellen, and Peter Boyle. Most notable of all is John Lone’s performance as the villain Shiwan Khan, capitalizing on the underdiscussed character actor’s strange, muted menace so integral to Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, while adorning it with a snake-like wit. Much of the fun of the film results from The Shadow’s encounters with each of these actors, and one is hard pressed to name a better superhero-nemesis relationship in Hollywood cinema than the one forged between Baldwin and Lone.
Fittingly, the film is about two masters (Cranston and Khan) of illusion, mind control, and hypnosis. Mulcahy, rather than indulging in overdesigned images, dials himself back, allowing more simple gestures and clever sleights of hand that emphasize the near-dreamscape in which these two characters keep their respective acolytes. Perhaps the most stunning, subtly employed moment comes when Khan, in an effort to use the hero’s potential lover Margot (Penelope Ann Miller) as an assassin, hypnotizes her by utilizing a cigarette billboard (billowing smoke, a wonderful touch) to infiltrate and take command over her mind. How succinct a moment this is for understanding Mulcahy’s cinema, which, at best, boils down to a sly seduction. He has the traits of both a bad and good magician. He either “tricks” obviously (the desert wandering in Razorback) or seduces with graceful illusion (the hypnosis of Margot).
The Shadow’s climax literalizes the film’s play of illusion and hall-of-mirrors funhouse abandon by staging the final confrontation in, yes, a hall of mirrors. Where Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon employed this device to externalize the inner conflicts of Bruce Lee’s hero in his final battle, suggesting ultimately his mastery over the illusions of unwieldy passion in battle, the mirrors of The Shadow and infinitude of reflections make tangible the false realities and dreams peddled by the two central super-magicians. We witness their bodies transferred into the substanceless nature of reflection, the movement and perception of light, and reach into the mystical core of the film through direct representation: a metropolis itself as a hall of mirrors, a playground for an ever-shifting and transforming perception of reality. If it is metaphorical for all of cinema, it is almost certainly unintentional, but functions beautifully regardless. What better representation of the panelled world of comics than the infinite panelling of hero and villain through reflection?
Since the mid-90s, Mulcahy has gradually shifted to primarily television work, directing both TV movies and episodes of various series. And while his television works since, and Resident Evil: Extinction, show some of the early sense of play and energy of his work, he has largely lost the magic.