Friday, July 24, 2009

Great Acid Movies #21: UNDER THE VOLCANO (1980)

What it Gets Right:
"Theresh nothing betterr.. to sober one uhpp... than beer!" that's a line my friends and I would quote amongst ourselves when surrendering to the grim alcoholic gallows humor of this John Huston adaptation of the "towering" Malcolm Lowery novel (which I've never been able to get more than 5-8 pages into) about the last day in the life of a British consul in Mexico in the 1930s. We'd talk in Albert Finney's eloquent slur for days on end, digging that our mirth was rooted in a violently escalating alcoholism we too shared, a black humor joke where we too were the punch line. And we wouldn't have it any other way, baby. Neither would Albert Finney, who regularly reaches out for the shimmering Jacquelyn Bisset as his ex-wife who comes back from Europe wanting another chance, like she's a mirage of longing sexuality (see also Susan Strasberg in THE TRIP), and then shrugging her off like the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint and resuming his wide-eyed stare into the awful abyss.

His brother Hugh has been taking care of Finney in his darkest hours, giving him strychnine to taper off with and listening to his endless impersonations of pirates, but he's also very creepy and laden with suspicious agendas, ala Bruce Dern from THE TRIP (if Dern was after Strasberg instead of Fonda). There's no acid in the film (though surely that would be good to "shober up with" as well) but I assure you that being drunk for days on end will get you pretty much to the same place (even if it kills you first) and this movie has the same ability to transcend opposites and point towards the terrifying ambiguity of the real.

Finney's slur is much more decipherable under some sort of influence, but there's little that can help with Huston's cuts from Finney in Dark "skull eye socket" glasses and tuxedo to "Day of the Dead" wooden skeleton souvenirs. The comparison never quite gels, and it seems to drive Huston crazy (it's because Finney's not thin enough).

What it Gets Wrong:
It misses something being so clear on the Criterion DVD, as on the muddy VHS tape I had (old and heavy and faded) the tracking was bad and the image blurred to an extent that Finney in his many close-ups seemed to be always dissolving into wormy abstraction - a perfect symbol for the characters' own unstoppable deterioration.

The Criterion DVD restores the film's sense of period piece over-craftsmanship, making every scene packed with prettiness, no matter who's throwing up, showing that even Huston can make the mistake of assuming that just by filling a drunkalog with polished old cars and conniving Nazi sympathizers the story will add up to anyting that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." The video cover (pictured at left) hints that Bisset's infidelity with Hugh (reflected in Finney's skull socket shades) is the wound for which booze is the cure, but really the whole film is a kind of remorseful drunkard rationalizing, which makes sense considering Huston's own legendary propensity for indulgence... and Lowry's of course. Now that boy could take a drink or two!

Dwarfs: Yes, a dwarf whoremaster!! Played a Mexican actor named Rene Ruiz (I think he was a regular villain on WILD WILD WEST).

Peak: Staring off into the abyss as Bisset and his younger brother Hugh (with whom she had an affair once) try to reason with him, trying to urge him to get help. He rears back and says, "Hell.... is my natural.... habitat!" A perfect battle cry for those of us trying to eat a dinner that's slithering all over or forks in waves of pulsing angry energy while trying to appear nonchalant because we're in a public place... with our parents.


  1. At what point does an alcoholism film turn into an acid movie? In THE LOST WEEKEND, I think it's the point when Ray Milland starts hallucinating cracks in the ceiling and bats.

  2. Exactly, C.J., there's a crucible of madness where hardcore delusional alcoholism, psychedelics, spiritual enlightenment, and schizophrenia all meet.

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