Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hallowed be thy Shakes: The 3 Macbeths


Shakespeare's Macbeth is super psychedelic Halloweenish expat hallucidoses. It's got witches! It's got real Hunter S. Thompson-esque fear and loathing. It's the thriller from Scotland's Hillas and there's three great film versions by three titans of cinema - Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa.

A tale of woe, blind ambition, remorse, hallucinations, drinking, wife-on-husband nagging, archetypal psychology (Lady Macbeth is a great paranoid/inner critic anima), ghosts, floating daggers, cold-blooded regicide, Macbeth captures the 'wait until your dad gets home' dread, that feeling of coming out of two day black-out alone in bed with one shoe still on, and your girl asleep on the fold-out in the living room and there's magic marker all over your face, and, consumed by bottomless regret, you reach for the one friend still with you in the universe, that half-empty whiskey bottle under the bed. And yeah, and the play itself is cursed! Norotious for wreaking havoc on its cast and crew, Macbeth carries a RING-style meta aftershock. Those damned witches all but call you on the phone after the final curtain and let you know it's time to meet your Banquo.

Lady Macbeth and Mr. Macbeth also happen to have one of the most fucked up yet strangely beautiful romances in all Shakespeare, the one perhaps most like the real evil parents we all know, the dysfunctional libertines who flicker to life only when pondering murder on behalf of corporate advancement. Macbeth sends a message on ahead to his lady, alerting her to the the witches' freaky prophecy and he barely gets off his horse and kisses her hello before they're conspiring in hushed whispers like kids on Christmas eve. Maybe their sex life isn't so hot. That would explain her cold insistence that she'd smash her own baby against a rock before letting her man chicken out.



Say what you will about that kind of attitude, it beats mopey Hamlet's, or self-loathing Othello's. From evil to guilt to tumbling madly into the abyss, Lady Macbeth and her man never waiver in their devotion to each other, even if they may hesitate before their nasty deed or regret it after. Wracked by guilt, paranoia and regret as they both are, they never rat each other out, nor blame each other, but when the jig is up, each face their own demise with brave and wild-eyed willingness.  In short, they're the UK's first Syd and Nancy!

There's three really stellar Macbeths in cinema thus far: Orson Welles' Republic studio-bound western-on-acid watching IVAN THE TERRIBLE version from 1948, which is my favorite, even though it's nowhere near as good as the other two: Polanski's 1971 naturalistic sex and gore and pretty people version and Akira Kurosawas's heavy yet delightfully weird THRONE OF BLOOD (1957).


Even if  the whole butoh theater thing is not new to you, BLOOD's sheer ghostly otherness puts you in a high art trance, occurring mostly in wooden box rooms and across terrifyingly strange landscapes of volcanic ash, it's Kurosawa's great triumph that his windblown images resonate straight through all their age and culture barriers like a sword through a paper walls. Toshiro Mifune in Satanic beard and crazy black hat, was born to look stricken by ghosts and guilt. I love how he stands there in these wacky butoh poses, his eyes bugging out, his crazy mascara eyes alight with that 'holy shit' waking up from a three-day black-out expression.  We can read every thought that passes across his brow from 30 yards away. Meanwhile, Kurosawa is artfully arranging his shot like a moody, foggy, rock garden.

Derek Malcom at the Guardian on THRONE OF BLOOD
"It was, for what it's worth, TS Eliot's favourite film. The drama is presented with stark economy, its words subservient to the slow exposition of its plot, and the characterization admittedly less subtle than Shakespeare's. But I doubt the Bard would have turned in his grave. Kurosawa's parallel eloquence matches Shakespeare's so completely that it even outshines that of Verdi's musical version."

So I love THRONE OF BLOOD, but wish the English version had kept the original title "Spiderweb Castle." I probably would have seen it sooner, imagining spider rampages. As it is I've grown comfortable with Orson Welles version and that's surely my favorite. I dream of being able to go back in time and see his Voodoo stage version of the 1930s that made him a star in Harlem. But he didn't star in that production, and if e'er an Illinois ham war born to play Macbeth, drunkenly unspooling vast gusts of Shakespearean wind, Welles war.



The main set for Welles' version, a mishmash of found objects from Republic's western scenery department, consists of the side of a rocky cliff with trails for the horses propped up by columns,  like some Escheresque mind trap. Welles' sweaty face foregrounded against the processionals of horses makes them drip like ghost cops from a SHOCK CORRIDOR dream sequence drainpipe. Dig this perceptive piece from a professor named KJ:
Part of its mastery is its use of voiceover for most of the speech. That, combined with Welles' magnificent camera work (including angles, shadows, and focus—or out-of-focus—effects) give us a Macbeth who is more disoriented than evil. Welles seems to have taken Macbeth's inability to sleep and extended it into all aspects of the character. At first, he appears to be playing Macbeth drunk. Upon consideration, he's playing Macbeth as sleep-deprived. As a college teacher, I recognize this as method acting worth of Stanislavski himself!
Polanski's is great but I need to see it again. I've seen Orson's version probably twenty times. Over and over again once while convulsing alone in my apartment in November 1998 after an alcoholic relapse. It's also the closest Orson got to making a horror movie. But Polanski made a horror movie or two before doing his Macbeth, so there's a kind of crossroads of Polanski themes a lurking: the madness of beautiful women (Repulsion); the meta connection to brutal, sudden violence ala Manson and the Nazis; and the all-consuming horror... of the elderly. (Rosemary's Baby).


Suffice it to say, Lady MacBeth (Francesca Annis) in the Polanski is a hottie, unlike the Macbeth of either of the other films, and the witches number in the dozens and are naked and kinky and only about half are old like a Castavet. Everyone else is young and pretty and the bloodlust that wells up in the breast of our MacBeth (Jon Finch) seems more a madness born of Apollonian narcissism and flipside paranoia rather than sleep deprivation or, in the Kurosawa case, supernatural fatalism and schizophrenia. Take your pick, or pick 'em all, you can't go wrong. Just kill the king... when I draw the Queen of Hearts, my dear breast-nursed serpent. There is no cooler name to say while drunk than... Banquo.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

And that's how you play get the guests: SCORE (1974)


The title above is a line from WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), delivered by Richard Burton after he demolishes the entire foundation of another couple's marriage (my review here). One thing that's nigh un-demolishable is the WOOLF itself, a great film based on a great Edward Albee play, which proved a reliable blueprint for Jerry Douglas's all-nude 1970s stage play Score, AKA No One's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, (no doubt jumping into the foamy wake of Oh, Calcutta!'s surprisingly big splash) answered Albee's titular question, at least for the pre-AIDS era. Douglas' play must have been a success because it had a film adaptation, via auteur erotique Radley Metzger, the 1972 classic SCORE.  With its discontentedly sexual quartet-takes-acid plot, the film reimagines the equations of Albee's original for the age of swinging suburbia.  This is what would happen if George and Martha were druggy bisexuals instead of bitchy drunks, and Liz Taylor went after Sandy Dennis and Burton punked out George Segal and they all got high and did poppers and Valium and god knows what else...


My main issue with softcore 1970s films, or sex movies in general, is that for some reason sex isn't sexy once its 'present' onscreen. It can be a forbidden thrill to think about, but without special skill behind the camera and maybe half a roofie chased with a quart of whiskey you may either fall asleep or find yourself having an anything-but-sexual fantasy while waiting for the soft focus and slow gropes to die away and an actual movie to appear. The 'wallpaper' camp factor lasts around ten minutes, and unless the music is good, like sitars and bongos, it can grate on your nerves, but why am I even mentioning all that when discussing Radley Metzger? He's a rare a diamond in a thorny rose bush. He's classy; he's artistic; he's a little bit mad, and smart enough to know you can put Shakespeare into smut just as easy as you can put smut into Shakespeare. 


SCORE is a gem not only in the Metzger canon but in the world of risque adult entertainment, marking a genuinely subversive high water mark above the usual lowbrow hetero-male-centric sexual rubric. It's a gay seduction film for straight men, or a bi-curious film that satisfies curiosity how other quarters halve, like a cat killer that raises cats from the dead. This is the movie that should have gone on while Elliot Gould was brushing his teeth at the end of BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE (1969). He'd have run screaming from the screen!

As the head hedonist Martha-type, Claire Wilbur is strangely reserved (she played her role originally onstage) and kind of manly, which suits the role. As the hotter younger gamin, Lynn Lowry is cat-eyed (she was 'Ruthie' in the 1982 CAT PEOPLE remake) and convincing. She seems to be really having fun and rolling along with the story wherever it may go. As her squeamish new husband, Calvin Culver is kind of too gay from the get-go to convincingly be seduced out of his straight programming, but he looks good without a shirt and has a sweet smile (sadly, he died of AIDS in 1987). Gerald Grant as the worldly, knowing Jack was in only a handful of other films: both his haircut and acting are uneven, but Metzger's tart dialogue carries him through and he seduces like he's played 'get the guests' all his life. SCORE, thou shalt score again!


Not only is this an important movie for anyone anxious to learn the ABC's of seduction strategizing, it's also a feel good movie for the gay matchmaker in us all. Many's the night I've helped counter the odds as a lesbian wingman back in the 00's. Between my hot AA lesbian sponsee and me in my peak condition, all the exits were covered. Still, that didn't mean we always caught our quarry, espec. if she was straight and sniffed out our Dangerous Liason-style game like a frightened deer. Sometimes you can turn 'em, most times you can't, but it's a great team-building exercise. Before all that, whilst still drinking, I lived in Hoboken with a hot bi swinger, and I'd feel a vested interest in her seduction stratagem as well. I'd work to keep her prey entertained but when said prey ran hurriedly off with mixed signals and tedious straightness intact to catch the midnight Path train back to Manhattan, we'd drown our collective sorrows.

Watching SCORE reminded me a lot of that, except, well, the title says it all! Path trains not an option.

So while on the one hand you are rooting for this pair to seduce this younger couple, on the other hand, 'gulp' if you are a straight male you are kind of put in the position of having to imagine all sorts of 'new sensations' which straight males are not often forced to reckon with while being too high to object and too vulnerable to being wooed and flattered by some hot hairy... shirtless... male. If you're not gay, maybe this movie will prove you wrong. And at least do your hosts the credit of inhaling some freakin' poppers before you make up your mind.


Could part of 'straight' middle America's rabid hate/fear of gay marriage and openly gay soldiers be similar to the reticence and denial of the younger couple in this film? Is it a metaphor? Or is it that our reign on our straight imaginations is so tenuous we can't help imagining acts that then freak us out and repel us sexually? We don't like to imagine our parents doing it either, for example, and generally they respect that by not talking about their sex life in our presence. Can we put two and two together and realize fear of homosexuality is fear of our own imagination, of the way we can't let mental images go, the way we become obsessed by threats that don't exist, all tied into our own conception of our primal scenery? If we don't repress our cultural gayness, in short (according to our subconscious' bundled anxiety portfolio), we may have to watch our parents have sex, and that would be horrific. Better to not be born, better to inhale our own amyl nitrate birth and exhale into a whole new self, one more open... and more opened.

All I know is, gay people who don't admit it to themselves are a misfiring piston in the roaring Chevy engines of bi-ness, straightness, and gayness. If you're always telling people the elaborate non-gay reasons you have for not having an opposite sex lover, then forget it, come out and be the best gay person in the world, rather than the lamest straight person. And then come over for dinner (in 1992) so my roommate can sleep with you! SCORE strikes again! Open up the pepper shaker and roll another number.


There is a minor issue I have with the SCORE soundtrack, particularly an obnoxiously off-key Yardbirds impression song "Where is the Girl" that repeats way too much in the beginning. But the big climax scene that's the last 20 minutes or so rocks with a funky bongo and distorted electric cello score that gets the blood racing.  Similarly, the actors are also a bit stilted in the beginning but come into their own pretty quick once that cello starts, especially cat-eyed Lowry, who taps into a kind of sensational wickedness as she begins to take some control and play along; a natural born swinger just now blossoming as the pot, pills and poppers kick in.

And of course that slow coming into their own also parallels WOOLF, wherein Burton's character starts out all old and tired and set in his set fusty history prof ways and as the night heats up and the drinks fly down, he catches fire and comes alive with wit-fueled malice. SCORE though, is in the end much nicer. Because no one is bemoaning lack of children, or being mean to one another. The games of 'get the guests' here have no malice, just a kind of refreshingly even-keeled bravado, by which husband and wife stand as well-matched opponents in a friendly game of 'turn the newbie on'. Nothing warms my heart more than seeing someone 'open up' into new realms of being... while doing weird drugs.

And SCORE's big finale climax is methodical and ingeniously edited so that when the seductors agree, each in their separate killing chambers, that midnight will be the 'game's' deadline, everything begins to heat up in crazy crosscuts, to the point of no-return right at the stroke of twelve, cooking like no one's business, until the separate seductions bleed together and the will they or won't they becomes a tied-up, twirling funhouse mirror blur of identity that rockets SCORE out of the WOOLF-ish woods and right into the rarefied air of menage-a-troisteur Donald Cammell's PERFORMANCE


I also love that the film follows only one 24-hour period, in these people's lives, from one hung-over morning/afternoon picking up ashtrays, spent popper tubes and flung underwear, to the next. I love those kind of parties! People sing about goin' on and on to the "breaka dawn," but don't often show it in movies. With his attention to the real-time rhtyhms of seduction and horizon-widening, Metzger shows his love not only of WOOLF but of Eric Rohmer! And drug orgies! Like the best of Rohmer's sun-dappled moral tales, the chase and the near misses become so hot with SCORE that even after hooking up or not the passion still undulates. And like all the best drug movies, the contact high is potent.

Incidentally, the stunning new DVD being released this week from Cult Epics is fully restored and uncut, which means... oh I shan't spoil the surprise. Let's just say, if you see just one 1970s uncut sex movie this semester, make it SCORE. And since this is a time for new things, my friend, just relax... relax... and when that first popper comes rushing through your brain, keep repeating "it's only a movie, it's only a movie.." being projected.. onto my tight sailor pants.

Look closer...at far right

Friday, October 22, 2010

Halloween Fever: Acidemic Horor Writing Collection

As I prepare to pack up my lair and move to horrifying Park Slope, here's a Halloween horror film writing round-up of my online writing from the past seven years or so... Don't be traumatized, just be scared! It's healthier! 

Argento Family Reunion: MOTHER OF TEARS
(2007) Dir. Dario Argento / Starring: Asia Argento, Udo Kier, Dario Nicoldi
"The end of this film, which is basically watching gallons upon gallons of yucky ooze get poured onto Asia as she climbs to freedom, is something that, taken at an incestuous Elektra-complex meta-textual level, would be at home in Eraserhead"  (Bright Lights, 2008)

An Unsawed Woman: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
(2004) starring Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, R. Lee Emery
"The family of crazies that inhabit the terrain are, as with the original, mostly nonsexual or coded homosexual, and are interested in Erin solely as meat product or art supplies for their bone sculptures. Indeed, it's only the men we see getting hooked and abused, kept alive in Leatherface's dirty basement to be tortured, skinned, and defiled. It's Kemper's face Leatherface wants to try on, not Erin's. This actually only further reduces her power, as her sexual hotness holds no value either on the Texas flatlands or in Leatherface's dank, drippy basement workshop." (Bright Lights, 2005)

There ought to be freaks: THE SENTINEL
(1977) Starring: Cristina Raines, Beverly D'Angelo, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles
"If it's not quite in the same league as its 1970s compatriots (like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), THE SENTINEL'll do until some other movie with Bevery D'Angelo as a creepy lesbian masturbating in a leotard comes along. And as for the poor freaks, I am sure they appreciated the humanitarian concerns of not being exploited after this film, but they probably missed the paychecks."

What it Takes to Make a Softie: THE LEOPARD MAN
(1943) Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Prod. Val Lewton
"In Lewton's films, the horror/evil element stands at an abstract crossroads where psychiatry, the unconscious, and their exterior manifestation — the supernatural — fade into one indistinguishable form. The supernatural always "exists" in these film, if not in our consensual reality then in a reality that is just as valid, if not more so." (BL 2005)

Someone to Fight Over Me: Feminism, S&M and the Daemonic in TWILIGHT
(2009) Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson
"Compare how in their second life on DVD, the decadence of seventies Eurosleaze auteurs like Rollin, Franco, and Vadim seems almost quaintly nostalgic compared to the ferocious enjoyment — the nearly unbearable jouissance — caused by Twilight's total chastity. Who in the early 1970s would have thought that abstinence would one day be sexier and more revolutionary than freeform drug-fueled debauchery?"  (BL 2010)

Un dionnee mangifique: SPIDER BABY
(1968) Director: Jack Hill. Starring: Jill Banner
 "No one can climb into the lap of a tied-down uncle Peter (Redecker) or mix girly baby doll sexuality and creepy murderousness like Jill Banner."

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET: Cinebolcally Dario
(1971) Director: Dario Argento
"Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons--usually mental illness caused by brutal child abuse, and police hardly matter, except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition."

Halloween Recommendation: TRICK-R-TREAT
(2007) Starring: Brian Cox, Anna Paquin
"Clearly a labor of love for writer-director Michael Dougherty (he wrote X-Men 2), it's the kind of thing that can turn you completely around on Halloween and horror films, the way THE WARRIORS can turn you around on urban grime!"


"Why Don't You Call Your Insects?" PHENOMENA!

(1985) Director: Asia Argento, Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Brian Cox
"It takes all the hot topics of the early 1980s/late 1970s and mashes em up real nice for a tasty b-movie stew: chimps avenging their slain masters (with a razor found in the park trash can), THE SWARM-style bug attacks, CARRIE-esque telekenetic revenge against bratty schoolmates (replete with wind blowing the hair back ala FIRESTARTER), deformed Jason-like freaks, flaming lakes, beheadings, maggots, POV killers shots with a knife on a pole ala PEEPING TOM, etc., all scenically filmed around the base of the Alps in what wheelchair bound Donald Pleasance dryly refers to as "the Transylvania of Switzerland."

Get in my Arachnid Black Belly: BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA:
(1971) Music by Ennio Morricone
"It would all be just much ado about nothing, except for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here: all crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) Twilight of the Betamax


Halloween is heating up down at Acidemic. As our mangy staff prepares to move to Park Slope Brooklyn before the zombies reach 14th St., now, more than ever, we need to hold onto the classics. If you had to take only one horror DVD with you to your new pad, leaving the rest to fall into the hands of the undead hordes, would there be any other logical choice than DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)?

An artistic peak in the midnight movie genre, it's the crossroads of horror cinema, the end of ends, a work of superb apocalyptic acumen that just gets better and better with repeat viewings. Not only does it metatextually foreshadow the death knell of the small town art houses and drive-ins (where such a film was meant to be be seen), it announces the rise of mall multiplex and the end of 'live' entertainment altogether. 


Zombies have become the cultural touchstone of the 21st century, just as, thanks to expired copyrights, anyone can make a film based on Poe, Shelly or Stoker, or Romero -- anyone with a pint of Ben Nye's mint flavored stage blood can make a movie about the rising of the dead from their graves to eat the flesh of the living. This, as it turns out, is a very good thing. The undead seem to bring out the best in us. They remind us that life is a day-to-day struggle; they force us to remember our countless previous lifetimes as hunted prey-- gazelles, rabbits, little fishes--forever on the run from hungry predators; they force us to confront our mortality by removing "the dubious comforts that a funeral service may provide."

Unlike other threats, such as sharks, the cool thing with zombies is they cannot be escaped --they are the social order with its mask off, as inseparable from our bodies as our own organs. Sooner or later you're bound to slip, get careless, get bitten, die, come back. You can let go of the idea of reaching old age, no worries about retirement, and providing for future generations, and taxes. Freed from the restraints and castrations of the now obliterated social order, citizens are forced to prioritize and move fully into the moment.

We all have that 'desert island disc' fantasy if we're the collector types, and the terrors of the undead help us to 'let go' of our burdensome collections. As I pack box after box of books, LPs, CDs, DVDs, VHS, ETC., for my Brooklyn move, I dream of civilization collapsing so I can just grab my laptop, DAWN and of course, Electric Ladyland, oh wait, and... no way, I need to bring all this... and that.. and then CHOMP you hesitated at the shelf of favorites, and now you are no more.


The opening scene with Gaylen Ross holding her head against a beautiful dark reddish orange soundproofing studio wall carpet (top) is my favorite opening of all horror - she looks like she's wrapped up in a Dario Argento wall blanket, waking up from SUSPIRIA and already thinking about the hands coming out of the wall in Romero's third entry, DAY OF THE DEAD (1984). I love how civilization's collapse is so neatly depicted in the way the TV crew on the local live 'black' talk show she's producing gradually abandon ship and flip off their progressively more annoying and frenzied station manager. I love the way the host tries to accuse the white government representative of racism in association with mandates about disposing of dead bodies. We see all the kernels of what's going to bring us down and its okay because we realize maybe there was no 'us' to begin with. The ones who survive are those who can look out for themselves and maybe the ones around them--those who aren't panicking and acting like brats--and can let go of all the rest of the 'humanitarian' concerns, can abandon all hope of any reliable bastion of military protection, as each sanctuary falls before the name of the town even finishes scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

William S. Burroughs had an analogy for it, that of holding onto the string of a helium balloon that suddenly starts lifting you in the air. Are you the type to let go of the string right away--while it's 'hot' so to speak--or are you the type to instinctively hang on until you're so high up in the air you can no longer let go without falling to your death? Some people can't let go of their identity within the social order, can't drop their whole worldview and social position on a dime and just flee to the hills, and those are the ones that get eaten.  It's all summed up in the way the distraught girlfriend can't accept her man is a zombie (below) during the projects section, even as he's biting her shoulder off. That's America! Its shoulder being chewed off by corporate-controlled government, still munching even as the whole shithouse goes up in oily flames... all right!


When the four essential cast members get off the ground and away, the film becomes a consumerist fantasia, depicting conspicuous consumption not unlike pre-revolutionary France, with the humans standing in as royalty, enjoying all the luxuries suburban America has to offer, while outside, the unwashed (or in this case, undead) masses clamor hungrily at the gates.


While this sociological statement was intentional, the film’s equally trenchant relevance to film history could not have been, for Romero couldn’t have guessed the extent to which secular iconoclasm and religious/cultural disparity (as reflected in the opening SWAT scenes) would be ground down to suburban mush, made tasteless to as not offend the masses’ palate. In other words, movies like DAWN OF THE DEAD would soon no longer be able to operate like carny sideshows, moving from town to town, outside the constraints of standard cinema distribution patterns, unhindered by television's sitcom groupthink censor rulebook, but would now be bound to 'up the ante,' bidden find ever-new way to shock, to cater to the deadening of the senses brought about by the sudden surge of sex and violence coming into the American household with the arrival of cable and home video.

To flashback, 1979 was a time when cities like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and especially New York City, housed specialty theaters--often full of great old landmark-style 20's art deco theaters gone to crumling, with moldy red velvet curtains, listing balconies, drafts and sticky, warped floors--that would show independently-made genre films. Outside the city limits, the small town residents would flock to the drive ins to see triple bills that might start with something new and studio-backed, then gradually lean back into the really out-there independents. A film like DAWN or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could play for years this way on a handful of constantly circulating prints, starting as the first film on the bill and gradually working its way back to the third, in a now-tattered version with scenes missing and thick splices.  In their spinning round film cans, the movies rolled across the country, gradually getting chewed up by backwoods projectors.


Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine zombies ever not eating the flesh of the living, yet this trait originated with Romero’s first in the series, shot in areas outside Pittsburgh, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, in 1967. That film put Romero on the map and helped DAWN gain a decent budget, courtesy producer Dario Argento, who was a big fan of the film and used the bundle he made with SUSPIRIA (1977) to back DAWN, even loaning out his SUSPIRIA house band, Goblin, for the score.

But suddenly and significantly, just as NIGHT began it, DAWN came along and symbolically ended it. VCRs and cable TV took over and suddenly you could get "the little somethin' that ya can't get at home" (1)... at home.


Before the VCR/cable revolution, DAWN, which was rated X, had been almost impossible for anyone under 18 to see in the theaters, but two years later and all you needed was your parent's membership card and you were good to go. Parental ratings concerns were shunted aside by the sheer novelty of it all, the mad headlong stampede by teens and adults on all the lurid stuff they never wanted to risk getting their car stolen to see on the big screen in the bad neighborhood crumbling theater. Cannibalism, zombies and violence were suddenly spilling into family living rooms. Frankly, the 1970s permissiveness was still enough in effect that no one thought twice about watching X-rated films with the whole family and if we were traumatized it seemed un-hip to admit it. The first movie I ever rented at 13 or 14 or so: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971, below), it was my first rated X.

I was cured, all right!


The problem was, of course, that in the original exploitative use of it all, gore and sex was meant more as an enticement to the theater, a scary sell -- something you'd never seen before and was bound to traumatize the hell out of you -- it took some courage to attend, like going on a roller coaster, or skydiving. And as you weren't able to pause and freeze frame on an exploding head or an alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest, and were out with an audience who were also wincing and gasping it became more frightening each time you remembered it or told your friends about it. Having gone to see CARRIE or SUSPIRIA or THE OMEN was a marker of bravery and we heard willingly of the tale. But with home video, 'forbidden violence' lost a lot of its terrifying mystique and mythological cachet. Now you didn't get to imagine the film in your head while being told the entire story by some kid at recess. Now the kid just tapes it for you, and rather than reeling with a brain ablaze from campfire ghost primordial goosebumps, you came away with a headache from the tracking issues of his second generation dupe.

It was a big fall from innocence, especially if you watched the wrong movie at the wrong time, unaware, unprepared, like I was when I saw the end of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), one day on cable, thinking it was ANNIE HALL, when it showed up unannounced on the Movie Channel one Sunday afternoon, well, I watched it. By myself. At 13. If you can be molested through the movies, GOODBAR molested me that day. And of course, there's no one to arrest when it's only a movie. And as far as horror films go, GOODBAR has no mythical cachet, no warning for that traumatic, brutal, insane ending. It's too mature, too much a women's lib commentary singles bar adult anti-feminist moralizing-disguised-as-artsy drama picture to ever be considered a horror film. Most of it is a single's bar tale, there's no mention in most descriptions of the horrifying end. In short, its less an initiation into adulthood and more a violation, a rape of the soul which you can't tell anyone about because no one understands and so rather then kick you into adulthood like DAWN might, it freezes you in the amber of final girl sexophobia. The other kids are all going to get killed out there, and you'll be the last one left, clinging to your virginity like a thorny lifejacket. Meanwhile Tom Berenger is still free. But I'm still locked up in the strobe light hell that Richard Brooks and the Movie Channel put me in all those years ago.


Cable eventually reigned itself in, realized its soft-focus "aerobics" videos weren't helping anyone get fit, and the video rental outlets became stricter about renting hardcore XXX videos to minors, but before that all was put in place, in the early, early 1980s, things got really, really crazy on the TVs of America. And I can't help feeling this little bloody spike in the average American family's movie diet helped usher in the backlash of the Reagan era. It's as if all America suddenly realized its mid-life crisis manic elation was just a middle-aged country's foolishness, and thusly turned vindictive, disillusioned. We wanted to see all the sex and violence we had been missing, and suddenly we had seen enough, too much, and it kept coming.  It made us laugh at first, but slowly, over time and sequels, chilled us to the core, robbed our innocence and left us depressed and afraid to go outside at night, even to take the trash to the curb. 

We didn't learn the lesson the older countries like France and England had learned, which was that hot sex, gore, nudity and over-the-top violence lose their 'kick' very quickly; some things are better left unseen, imagined, and deferred, because sooner or later the zombie in the mirror beckons, and you start seeing monsters around every corner of your inner city eye. America's obsession with apocalypse is a mid-life crisis: cougars and Humberts desperate to shed their skin and start over, ageless, without all those ungrateful children to worry about, and provide for. Instead of carrying forth our glorious legacy, the little buggers stab moms and moms-to-be with trowels, and write "Piggies" on the wall in their blood, and watch movies like FACES OF DEATH and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. 

So in our haste to feign ambivalence, to ride the coaster of cine-trauma, we allowed our minds to be closed-off, faded, warped and jaded en masse. The country fell into a state of depressed, homogenized ennui. The only cure for this disaffection, naturally, was going to the mall. At least the mall gave you something to do, somewhere to go, and you didn't have to explain why you came there. All that mattered was that you needed... something... anything. Moms got outfits and fabric just to return later, just to have a reason to go back, to get out of the house and exchange a receipt with an information desk worker's sympathetic ear.



Thus it came to pass that 25 years or so later I saw the fourth in Romero's series, LAND OF THE DEAD (2005) at a Myrtle Beach mall multiplex on a rainy Sunday matinee. The theater was about half full, with glazed-eyed popcorn eaters age eight to eighty. When the gore and the ripping and the flesh eating began in earnest onscreen, the families around me flinched here and there, but no one emerged after the film looking shaken to the core. The old man in front of us, for example, was already complaining about missing the start of 60 Minutes as he and his wife shambled slowly toward the Exit. 


Twenty years ago and those same people would have freaked out, thrown up, been refused admittance due to being underage (no one under 18 was admitted to an X like DAWN, or even an X like CLOCKWORK or MIDNIGHT COWBOY). We were scared of even seeing gore, scared of watching bodies being ripped apart. It's not that the films bothered us so much, but we imagined the sick audiences who must 'get off' on them, the guy in a raincoat sitting behind us, staring at the back of our head like its a melon they very much want to explode and we locked our doors tight to keep out the misogynists and monsters who we were sure watched these films all the time and cheering the violation and suffering of women. Anyone who watches such trash and likes it must be evil. And since people liked them enough that so many of these films existed... we needed to hide.
 
If today we seem to be rapidly approaching capitalism’s zero saturation point, if man’s devouring of man seems soon to hand, perhaps we will know exactly whom to blame; and when we’re ready to wreak our vengeance we will all march on foot towards that giant box-like building that has destroyed our once free spirit, sucked every last drop of mystery out of life, made even old-fashioned malls outdated, devoured Main Street and now the world, and so down the endless parking lot plains to Wal-Mart we will shamble to eat the flesh of our oppressors and loot the stereo section for expensive blu-ray players that won't work since the electricity is long gone, the grid destroyed, the banks toppled. Until then, we can watch DAWN OF THE DEAD in any of its myriad fine versions, and see how it all began, in a single shopping mall at the beginning of the end of the world, when a few hearty souls took control, and fought the onslaught of American sameness... and lost. Go now, while you still can. Take only what you can handle, and leave only footprints... and place your shoes, your brains, and your tender, still-beating heart in the trash receptacles at each side of the doorway as you exit the theater. Wait for me on that bench while I return this scarf and then we're going home, to dinner, and Mike Wallace.. on 60 Minutes. And be grateful. There are starving children in India, and even some obese ones from Jersey, and they're right outside the door--clamoring, knocking and moaning like the damned--and asking if you want to come over and play Resident Evil. Don't go. 

NOTES
1) Tom Waits lyric from "Pasties and a G-String" - Small Change (Island Records)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Sweet Cesspool: PSYCHOMANIA (1971)


This month Severin releases the seminal entry in the once ubiquitous zombie biker genre, PSYCHOMANIA (1971) a British production in which Hammer's sometime director/writer Don Sharp made sure the cuts matched and the pacing didn't lag. Alas, somewhere along the line the negative of this amazing film was lost, so we'll never get to see this in super duper high... def. On the other hand, who needs it? The story of bikers who commit suicide and return as zombies who look and act exactly like they did when they were alive, PSYCHOMANIA is a film best seen with your glasses off, the image refracted through rows of empty bottles, and one eye covered so you don't see double. I mean that in the best of all possible ways. Apparently this film scored a cult following in spots where it played a lot on late night TV. I can imagine stumbling on this at three AM and getting that super giddy Columbus kinda feeling.

What strikes me as super strange about this film first off is the notion that a bunch of birds and laddies on motorbikes can ride through workaday British shoppers and harass the locals and only one bobby e'er shows up to stop 'em. Special note to bakery delivery guys: don't try to walk across the lane with a stack of freshly baked bread while bikers are roaring their engines around, terrorizing the populace right outside your shop. And if you're up on a ladder in the middle of the lane, get down! Then again, reality is not high on the menu in PSYCHOMANIA. Instead it flatters the palate of the sugar-addicted adolescent, making up in vandalism and chipper death cult romance what it lacks in meat, fiber, and coherence.

And it still begs the question: if our pale redheaded heroine Abby is so worried about her leader of the pack late boyfriend being back from the grave and urging the gang to kill themselves so they can come back immortal and indestructible and all, why does she too participate in all the hooligan destruction? She's a 'good' girl! Aye... And since when do hippies terrorize locals and/or punk rockers sing like Donovan at the Renaissance Faire? What is wrong with these kids today? Only the toad in the mirror knows..."ribbit."

"Lick me and see the world."
Through the unholy power of said 100-year old graveyard toad--plucked at the gang's Stonehenge-ish graveyard hang-out spot--and the tutelage of his family's Satanic butler (a post-stroke George Sanders), Tom is able to rise up from his grave on his motorcycle and run down a passing pedestrian on his way to bigger slaughters, all beautifully rendered in bloodless offscreen violence. You would think being covered in dirt and decaying for awhile, possibly even filled with formaldehyde (aye, there's many a hundred-year old froggy's suffered that fate more'n once) his white scarf might at least be weensy bit dirty. Or, were the make-up man to e'er stir from his slumbers, Tom's face might evince a ghastly pallor. But this isn't that kind of zombie movie. In fact, without everybody saying so, you'd have no idea Tom has been dead at all or anywhere but to his tailors to get his leather pants tightened.

Not only in this but countless other areas does Sharp's vision betray a semi-refreshing lack of familiarity with actual bikers, mods/rockers rivalry, Satanists, zombies, or hippies, whether in films, books, or real life. He does know solid British TV detective thriller pacing, so there's competent camera, interesting plot twists, and quite a bit of panning over craftily posed but decidedly unmangled or overly bloody corpses, making PSYCHOMANIA kid-friendly, at least in this lone surviving print, if you don't mind your kids beholding super fake deaths, and you shouldn't.


That's another thing: a motorcycle, a relatively small one especially, is not a particularly good murder device. I doubt that baby in the carriage about to get run into in the grocery store invasion (above) will do anything but scream in delight over being slammed against the meat and dairy aisle. Any idiot with a little toreador experience can just step to the side, hold out the arm and smack these upstarts right in the helmeted kisser and send them cartwheeling into the frozen foods. Instead they cower and scream; then again, realism has no place in the world of PSYCHOMANIA. It rides to its own destination. No... wait, now it wants to go somewhere else. Brummm BrumMM!

The whole biker film genre has always ranked fairly low in my esteem, just above the bottom rung of WIP (Women in Prison) films and 1980s sex comedies. I never understood the appeal of watching a bunch of motorcycles ride this way and that, hearing them make loud nosies as their riders set about harassing innocent beachgoers, sexually assaulting housewives and driving Cameron Mitchell to retaliatory violence (I'm referring naturally to 1970's THE REBEL ROUSERS). I got nothing against motorcycles other than they're too loud and if I'm riding on one I can't stop thinking about what would happen to my lovely skin if I crashed. The bike culture is too metallic for my morbid acuteness of the senses, smells too much like leather and axle grease, reminds me of my brother, Fred, who has two, plus a jeep, and three other cars. That's his world, and I leave it alone; he's got it covered. I mean it would be different if these Living Dead lads were realistic bikers. Real bikers work on their bikes, like all the time, covered in motor oil stains and signs of hard living. These Living Dead yobs all have clean fingernails, maybe even manicures. They don't get soot on their white scarves from riding around without a windshield. Their little skull eye visors (at right) are cool but clearly a detriment to peripheral vision, something usually all important for any self-preserving motorist, or if they're already dead they might at least select better targets for their rampage if they were able to see...

And where you gonna go with it? Most biker films end when the bikers all go 'too far' and someone is dead, and it's your fault, Society! The friend of the leader is usually shot by the cops or killed by the leader himself in a heroic last-minute rejection of his gang's sadistic credo. Well, PSYCHOMANIA decides to go way past that marker, crashing through the black magic looking glass windshield into places only Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley, and Kenneth Anger know of, and since none of these guys are in, or were involved with, the film, you could say that yes, it doesn't know where it's going. The body count is probably around 60 by the end of the film, but we don't see a single death, or moment of Zen maintenance.

Luckily there are more than a few saving grace elements at work here: Sanders' old butler makes the youth-age divide less a factor in who's cool vs. uncool, since even at 64--slurring from his debilitating stroke and deeply depressed--he's still twice the badass of any of these young 'Living Dead' louts. Sanders was so badass in fact he actually committed suicide a year after finishing the film. That's meta, baby, meta. And he left the second best note in all of Hollywood:

Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.


Thanks George, we'll need it. And your last film seems to prefigure your sad end as it is all about suicide being painless, and considerable celluloid is unspooled happily detailing the methods of each member: One jumps out of a high rise window; another fails to link up his parachute; the annoying red-haired stepkid jumps off a bridge into oncoming highway traffic; Abby uses pills, and has the most psychedelic and scary of interludes after she's overdosed and suddenly can't tell if she's dead, dreaming, or has come back from the dead, is awake or asleep, and meanwhile George raiseth a sacrificial knife over her heart, while she stands to the side, two places at once! She's being replaced, or will being killed while undead return her to the living? Or was it all a scam cooperated by the devil to steal her soul? Is she going to be buried alive with only a smiling George Sanders to know the undead Abby is not the real undead one? Dude, that is so Salvia!


So there is  some great druggy subtextual stuff at work here, including a nice if derivative rock score (70's cop show funk rumbling in the garage with sitar-tinged fairy folk revivalism) and interesting, almost Buffy-esque, twists that tie the horror in with social anxiety, i.e. what if your suicide doesn't work and you get left behind by your gang of undead biker friends?

Tied to Kenneth Anger by Hollywood Babylon suicide, biker subculture, and black magic, PSYCHOMANIA would be good on a bill with both LUCIFER and SCORPIO RISING. In its alchemical melting pot a triple feature like that might get the mods, rockers, spacers, heads, kids, wankers, punters and snottabies together like only Cyrus (the one and only) could have in the Bronx in 1979, if goddamned David Patrick Kelly hadn't shot him, and then blamed it on another cross-pollinated sub-cultural outfit, THE WARRIORS.  


The 'Living Dead' gang beats out the Warriors however as the most glaringly guilty of voting 'undecided' on its sub-cult policy, especially during Tom's wake, presided over by barefoot hippies and a barefoot minstrel warbling a little tune about a mighty hero who went too fast too soon for this uncaring world. Hippie-o, you freak, Tom was, on every level, a grade-A dickaholic, and now you sing his praises like he was James Muthufuggin' Dean?  Put down that guitar and pick up a meat cleaver! Kill some random pedestrians like a real zombie biker, instead of just kind of brushing by the cliche'd establishment signifiers with your scooter and hoping they'll kindly pretend to fall over dead. What do I pay you kids for? Most of these actors aren't going to kill themselves! Chop! Chop!