Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or at least 16:9

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Finger the Moon and Quaff Much Laudanum: GOTHIC (1986)


Readers know I look askance upon adoring fetishistic biopics, the auteur often covertly trying to align their own stars with their heroes whether its conscious or not, and in the process making, as they say, a movie about--to borrow Zen koan-- a pointing finger rather than about the moon. Ignoramuses! What do they know about great art and suffering? They love to make a gorgeous finger and presume the moon will magically appear. Well, for Ken Russell, it may be thrice as true as for others but he at least goes for broke - he's all in. He'll show you the moon, and then stick that finger in its deepest crater. Such a crater is GOTHIC, the 1987 all-out wild night in during a storm with Percy and the future Mary Shelly and her swinging mystical half-sister Claire at Lord Byron's 19th century Swiss chalet while quaffing laudanum, indulging in rock star sensuality and wordplay, conducting a seance, trying to contact Mary's dead baby, etc. and conducting a ghost story writing contest. Mary winning in the long term with Frankenstein (with Percy's help) but Byron's personal physician Dr. Polidori wrote The Vampyre (with Byron's help), creating the first work of vampire fiction. So you could cite this long druggy night as the birth of the gothic style of horror fiction and the first salvo towards the Universal pantheon. BUT here we're a long way from normal narrative, more like a creative lunatic ground zero, reminiscent of what an intimate group sex acid trip might be if held at a swanky mansion done up with creepy haunted house carnival ride tableaux and wild sound effects.

We can see this kind of pre-MTV yen for adding surreal pre-music video imagery to musician, artist and film star biopics in his whole 70s output: Valentino, Lisztomania, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah, Mahler, and Oscar Wilde attending a performance of his Salome's Last Dance at a high-class brothel. The results erring all-too-often on the side of the bawdy and grotesque, often leading to pretentious and unwieldy dialogue, with the subject and a taste for bizarre imagery and no real way to make them cohesively match. It's not to say he couldn't deliver, especially when given an actor able to actually sound natural in his artsy waxing, like William Hurt in Altered States or Oliver Reed in The Devils, wherein a handsome, brooding star kept the revolutions on some kind of firm axis.

For Gothic we almost get that. There's Natasha Richardson as Mary, very good in the tense agonized sweat-sheen fear states but upstaged in the looney-tunes Anita and Marianne-style cool glimmer twin reflection department by Miriam Cyr as her nympho-mystical half-sister Claire, shagging Lord Byron (who isn't) and pregnant with his child; Julian Sands comes off probably the best of them all as strung-out Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), totally haunted by a terror of death coupled to regular bouts of opiate withdrawal (though based on the plentitude of laudanum seems unlikely). Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron comes of just so-so. One expects a little more as far as leaning into the madness rather than seeming like merely a smooth-talking cad. His demons seem to consist of dimly realizing the human damage his bisexual orgiastic take no prisoners approach to sex has wrought upon his partners. Lastly, there's Timothy Spall, overacting the roof off as Dr. Polidori, gamely keeping everyone high off their asses while eschewing the orgy in favor of banging his hand on the nail that holds the cross over his bed (presumably to keep himself from masturbating -- a mortal sin!)

Since this is a Russell movie, the sex and drugs are all urgently leading to something, that old devil moon again. Here it all hinges on a seance where, they believe, they accidentally summon a vampire spirit into the chalet during a seance (guided by Claire, a medium). It howls from without, laughs from within and mocks them from the next room, driving each character deeper into the strange bowels of the villa, and into their own labyrinthine minds.

The main thing is, though, in a house stocked with servants and guests all in different rooms, who would be surprised to see a shadow or hear a voice laughing in another room while trying to sleep? These things are where Russell shows a surprisingly tenderfoot awareness (exhibited in his earlier Altered States) of the effects of the drugs being taken. No one really high on laudanum is going to give a shit about someone laughing in another room, or get the heebie jeebies about death - that's for the next night, after the laudanum runs out. It's the same sort of confused thinking that leads some writers to confuse the DTs with drinking instead of with not drinking. The DTs being the result of alcohol withdrawal rather than overuse.

The wild unhinged supernatural whooping might have been easier borne with a better druggier sound mix (ala recent works like Climax and Spring Breakers), there's the feeling none of these actors might have done drugs except maybe Julian Sands, who has a kind of kinetic sexy madness with his poesy lines (never forget how perfect he was in Naked Lunch, this is a guy who knows how to seem like he's being seen through a psychedelic prism, full of creepy come-ons where you find yourself being led by him into strange alleyways when part of you is screaming to run but another part is enthralled. Here he's an opium addict who needs higher and higher doses to keep the poetic madness and fear of the grave from reducing him to a howling, gibbering (but still shockingly loquacious) thing. Luckily Sands makes it very sexy and has a fine moment standing naked in the storm atop the roof shouting about electricity. Cyr, for her part, a muse not a writer (the Anita Pallenberg of the group) does a bang-up job as the one with a mind more open to the supernatural forces. Sheends up the movie on all fours, covered in mud with a dead rat in her jaws but everyone realizes she's the only sane on in the group.


Still. no one in the grips of full bore withdrawal or laudanum intoxication can say complicated mouthfuls like "I was almost conscious when the smell of the damp earth hit me! There was an oppressive weight on my chest!" without slurring or jumbling the words. And if you compare their rantings to other 'all in a night' dialogue-driven movies about single nights amidst a small coterie of intoxicated artists, such as Performance, one comes away with the same impression of Russell one gleans watching Altered States. If he has done psychedelics, he darned well didn't do enough.

Certainly they all make a good foursome, grinding against each other. But there is also Timothy Spall's sexually frustrated, closeted Dr. Milidori who keeps them all high as a kite with his ministering, and eventually smashes his hand repeatedly on a nail to stop himself from masturbating (since it's a sin). Good grief. By the end of the night he's bathed in sweat, head shaved, bloody and babbling -- sigh, anything for attention. I know this type well. The same acid trip that lifts the rest of us up to a higher plane leaves them an insecure wreck. We can feel the crippling self conscious emanating out of them like an uncouth discharge.

Russell films with a lot of fisheye lenses as character run in and out of mostly empty rooms, the kind with clean wooden floors and maybe one old piece of furniture in a corner covered with white linens, evoking any number of Kate Bush videos. Another issue is that, this being the age before electricity, this huge mansion is way too brightly lit for the circumstances. It's not flat TV lighting per se, but it's a far cry from the gorgeous use of blacks we get in other, similar movies. Russell has a gift with setting up good actors in wild sets with florid dialogue, but falls apart in the pacing element. While compulsively watchable, Gothic is wildly disjointed and ridiculous. Horrors merely tumble on upon the other with no rhyme or reason. We never get a sense of where anyone is in relation to anyone else. It all ends with an unborn baby floating beneath the depths, as close in head shape to Karloff in Pearce's makeup as the lawyers will bear.

One interesting note is the way homosexuality is handled. Though there are the two ladies, both available for whatever, the terror of the (female) vampire spirit they conjured steeps the latter half in a kind of unbridled horror of the female body. Byron continually makes his female lovers wear gender neutral masks  (including his housemaid) or cover their faces with sheets (even Mary), and Percy's big fear is a woman's breast with eyes for nipples. Cyr's Claire is regularly deemed a kind of combination coquette and animalistic shaman: "She's locked in sleep! Trapped like a dreaming human form." Meow!

Since I've had wild night like this, and indeed first saw this film via a rental watched around 3 AM during an acid trip with my bandmates and girlfriends, I have a kind of proximal responsibility towards Gothic, as if it's a page in a scrapbook. It's so almost great. I wonder what wildness might have resulted in its stead if, before setting down to write the script, Russell could have taken a bunch of shrooms with some cool artsy college kids and then taken them to a double feature of Suspiria and Performance. Dude, it might have changed his whole perspective. But instead with Gothic it seems he's taking the long way around. Instead there's exchanges like this:
"But God is dead!" - Percy
"But haven't we raised the dead?" - Mary
It's nice that these decadents do gaily grind to each other but the problem is that these relationships never develop nor give us much of an arc, they start at a 9 and go up to 10 and stay there for the bulk of the film. Mary isn't a fan of Byron's strange hold over Percy and her sister Claire. She tells him Claire is pregnant (in real life she'd have his child) and Byron's response is a flippant "I'm sure even Polidori can perform a simple abortion" which seems so needlessly cruel and anachronistic it takes us out of the vibe. Mary grieves for her own dead child (thus the submerged baby brought back by electricity that will be you-know-who). We learn she's the least into the ghost story challenge, and, in a sly, backhanded way, the film almost robs her of sole authorship of Frankenstein, implying it is just as much the product of her lovers' frustrated homosexual drives: The repressions of the time giving birth to monsters as gay artistes force themselves into heterosexual pair bonding and bring the wife to a lot of weekends with other brooding "Byronic" artistes like themselves for some laudanum quaffing and what goes on in the Alps stays in the Alps.



The good part is the intended similarity between this magic night and the correct way to take LSD, i.e. in the right set and setting, in a big safe space full of cool rooms to run through, with a bunch of cool artists who aren't going to take advantage of your dislocated mind, at least not anymore than they have already. To do it right you need plenty of space to run around facing your own demons, having wild sex with phantoms, and/or taking a shower with your clothes on. To that end, there's plenty of well staged weird little scenes, not unlike as if God or the chalet's decorator had arranged it all to evoke a haunted attraction, where each room has some bizarre sculpture that moves (there's someone inside it!) or has an boa constrictor coiling around its neck, or whatever.  

As for Halloween it's the perfect party movie, as I remember from seeing it really drunk with a bunch of people, all of whom were cool and high and able to spout poetry without it sounding much too measured, scripted and aware of its immortal importance. Yet here we are.  The moon is just as far away as ever. Maybe the gift of memory is that one is free not see how it all may have looked from the outside, from the aghast dorm room neighbor trying to study while you run shrieking down the hall raving about eternal life, dripping beer and rain water while feeling yourself a blessed mad poet angel dripping sunshine and brilliant wordplay down upon a grateful continent. 

---SPECIAL NOTE:
-- Sorry if this is rambling - my cat Olive died in the middle of the night last night. I'm still in shock. There's a huge Prime list of films for Halloween coming my next post, but I had to give you a taste. If you're still there. The stream of consciousness writing eases my tortured brain. She was the best cat in the world, and watching her die in my girlfriend's arms after her death moans woke us at 3 AM will haunt me the rest of my days, so much like nightmares and dreaded thoughts I'd had lying there with her between us, basking in her magic unifying love. But I think of her goodness. The good times. And let her spirit depart for whatever cool cushion may wait for her in the next realm. Death is a fuckin' nightmare to watch happen. I'd never seen it, a being I dearly love gasping in a seizure of fear and pain then going totally dead before you even fully wake up, panicked but irrational, unable to even read the phone in a frantic scroll for help, glasses off, seeing double on the screen and then -----a living cat changes to dead tissue with a silent gasp, before we could even..... Powerless, dreaming of a way to just shock her back to life via the thunderbolt of a compassionate Zeus or Franklin, like Shelley with her dead child in the sea. There is nothing so horrible as watching a being you love dearly, suddenly, with a shudder followed by a stillness you've never seen in a creature you've cradled in your lap for so long, go so very dead. Remember the good times. That dewey look she gave. We love you Olive. xoxoxo Thank you so much for being with us. xo


Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Crazy, Cool, and Catty Sue Cabot: SORORITY GIRL (1957), MACHINE-GUN KELLY (1958)


Raise the roof! Shout Factory TV via Prime have dislodged some of the long buried Corman gems from the late-50s beatnik Corman AIP days wedged up in the ceiling beams, including three of his very best: THE UNDEAD (1957), SORORITY GIRL (1957) and MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958). Long unseen by anyone not expressly looking (never on DVD), the sudden availability of these three gems should be great news to Corman fans like myself: the writing is go-for-broke inspired (Undead being a crazy riff on Bergman's Seventh Seal crossed with a Bridey Murphy hypnotist angle that prefigures The Terminator) and Corman's genius hipster acting regulars are all here, including: Barboura Morris, Dick Miller, Richard Devon, and --of course--the divine Susan Cabot. She's not in The Undead but she leads the pack in Girl and Gun, and though she's the bad guy in both we root for her most every step of the way. Cabot plays these characters with such in-the-zone confident relish, such modulated catlike finesse, we don't blame Corman for letting other details slide. As he would do in the next decade with Vincent Price, he spots a star making magic, and lets 'em loose. He knows magic when he sees it, especially the affordable kind. Thus Cabot gets almost as many lines, even though she's not the title character, in Machine-Gun Kelly as co-star Charlie Bronson.


I kept trying to get really good screenshots for this post but it's hard to nail down Cabot's expressive features, as she has a way of running through an array of moods and sly glances while doing a kind of restless movement thing with her head bending low and snaking up as she inches towards her prey. Both playful and a little macabre, the way she goes from mildly worried when, for example, someone threatens to rat her out to the dean in Sorority Girl, to a kind of brief animal rage, knocking the rat out, to determination while rummaging through her things, to triumph when she finds some incriminating evidence that will hold the rat's tongue in a blackmail quid pr quo, to playful cool once she has the rat under her control. What matters isn't the evidence itself, or the idea someone could get kicked out of school for spanking a pledge at a sorority house--which seems ridiculous--it's the irresistible way Cabot has with controlling a scene, with goading the other characters into pushing back, then taking their slaps or incriminations with a cat who swallowed the canary smile. It's theatrical, but it's a special kind of movie theatricality that scriptwriters can't often predict - suddenly their lines take wing as someone like Sue Cabot susses out all the fissures and peaks and moments the writer maybe didn't even know were there. 

She got a contract with Universal earlier in the decade; they loaded her into the background of a bunch of forgettable westerns, so she went back to NYC to act on the stage. Corman saw a tough confidence in her, tough enough to be sensitive and open, that kind of courageous raw nerve that lets her saunter up to a cop and make small talk while her man's in the bank next door, if you know what I mean. He put her in the lead, Sorority Girl, then she stayed with him to make six films within a three year period of 1957-59: Sorority GirlViking Women and the Sea Serpent, Carnival Rock, War of the Satellites, Machine Gun Kelly and The Wasp Woman. I've seen and reviewed them all (for defunct search engine Muze) and at least half are pretty good. The two released by ShoutTV onto Prime however are the bona fide best when it comes to punchy cool scenes that manage to use a single room set as background for so many tense and riveting exchanges, conversations so layered with turnovers of power and threats of immanent violence we can feel the young eyes of Tarantino glued to them.

Tough enough that she could play complex villains and flawed heroines. She was believable as an aging-- and then younger-- owner of a thriving cosmetics line in The Wasp Woman; and as a scheming harridan --the only brunette in a tribe of Viking women (and marked therefore as the villain)--in Viking Women and the Sea Serpent she could be the girlfriend of a tough guy like Charles Bronson and not even gripe or sob if he socked her for taunting him and teasing him in front of the other guys, and she could be manipulative sadistic sorority girl determined to abuse her hazing privileges to ridiculous degrees. And she could win our admiration almost in spite of ourselves, every time.

SORORITY GIRL
(1957) Dr. Roger Corman
***/  Amazon/Shout Image - A

From the title, we kind of expect a bunch of malt hops and mixers with Tab Hunter giving our heroine a pledge pin and maybe getting her pregnant the night Chubby Checker or Bill Haley come to town to play at the big beachside fraternity party. But the mysterious credits, a surrealist figure alienated from the bunch, reacting with a cat o'nine tails, becoming a kind of surrogate harpy, leave a different, eerie impression. What Corman is bringing us under that innocuous title is a strangely sexy psychodrama about a disturbed young woman named Sabra (Cabot) from an affluent but loveless home who struggles with her deep Sadean impulse to hurt and destroy. Clearly she should see a shrink but we must remember back then shrinks were considered a shameful secret. If it got out you'd been to one it could ruin your reputation (a stigma that persisted through into the 70s), and chances are it would be some smug male who'd decree she had 'lady part issues' and needed to get married or, on the other side, have electroshock treatment and be committed. I mention this to temper the scenes of her begging for help from her distant loveless mom, to the point we shout at the screen: go to the shrink and get some anti-depressants! But antidepressants are still decades away. Pity them, the fucked-up children in a time before Prozac.

Until then, well, she tries, in all the wrong ways to connect. I can certainly relate, and maybe you can to, to not realizing that your mistreatment of the dopey B-list pledge who does want to hang out with you, is the reason you are shunned by the cool kids. With her schemes and bizarre psychosexual sadism she prefigures Tippi Hedren in Marnie and Sara Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions. And during a surprise visit home to beg for help and/or affection from mom, we don't need our Penguin Freuds to see where Sabra gets her inability to tolerate or express affection.

Thanks to the insights of her voiceover and the visit home, we have endless sympathy for Sabra, which makes her odious behavior all the harder to accept or understand. What sets all this above the average 'co-ed' movie (even Corman's later nurse pics for New World) is the sober intellect and overall supportiveness of the student body amongst each other. The fear of public gossip---this being the age of strict codes of conduct, where getting pregnant can mean disgrace, when abortions are illegal, and the level of prudish gossip vs. actual practice is just a few rings more moderate than Peyton Place, making blackmail and other nefarious evils all too easy--
 seems unfounded as the only mean spirit around is Sabra. The one weak element here is that there is no one else in the whole Greek system who seems as vile and Mean Girls-ish as her.

One of Corman's ingenious tricks is to plant his films with a very strong and entertaining centerpiece scene, usually it only has a moderate amount to do with the rest of the film but it packs in sex and tough, awesome talk, as if Russ Meyer took over for a middle reel. Here, it's an extended scene that goes from Sabra trying to steal her roommate Rita's (Barboura Morris') man (Dick Miller, modulating his /beat swagger to seem like a gadfly about town trying to stay cool even as his girl is moving into politics) downstairs in the drawing room of the sorority house, after all the other sisters leave for a pledge rush party (he's late picking her up), to trying to help dowdy pledge Tina (Barbara Cowan) lose a few pounds by forcing her to do some crunches / sit-ups, to becoming so incensed by Tina's defeatist childish attitude, she reaches for the sorority pledge paddle.

 What follows is a very erotically charged sorority paddling, ingeniously edited to focus on Cabot's face, lost in a haze of suppressed lesbian (?) and Sadean desire, worth of Petra von Kant, especially considering Tina's complicity: she meekly submits, lying face down on the ottoman. Tina could easily say f--ck you, and go back to her own room, but there's clearly some darkly erotic Freudian/repressed sapphic undertones as she submits to this paddling and a kind of sub/dom unspoken sublimated lesbian outpouring erupts like a repressive hysteric symptom within the drably heterogenous confines of the sorority house (once all the girls are gone, the social sphere disappears).


Corman films from two angles-- behind Cabot and looking down to the side at the submissive pledge and then an upward angle from her position of Cabot's face, which seems to be hiding an unholy mix of sadistic lesbian relish, all done very subtly (there's no moaning or screaming in pleasure or pain). The quiet sobbing of the pledge afterwards sounds more ashamed of some secret masochistic enjoyment. In this repressed world, paddling is about the only means of sexual contact these two women are allowed, and even then, it's so warped by social repression (cruelty is less abject that lesbianism). Through close-ups from below of Sabra's face as she swings the paddle, to the quite sobbing of Tina on the ottoman, there's an unspoken release on both sides, some strange suppressed sublimated sexual desire (neither one has a boyfriend or seems interested in such things - they are the two outsiders, bound in a coded sapphic master-slave relationship neither one quite understands).

Though she's sobbing afterwards, the next time we see Tina she's still hanging out with Sabra--the closest thing she has to a friend. Later, on the beach, they are still sitting together. Tina is doing sit-ups and even dryly noting she's gotten tougher. She's used the incident in a productive manner. It's toughened her up, in a way she may never have become.

Perhaps Cabot drew from experience, having grown up in a series of 13 foster homes in Boston before getting married at 17 in order to escape the havoc. We can feel in her eyes the round-and-round mix of need/desire for acceptance and companionship ever at odds with a total contempt for weakness and loathing for any kind of physical affection indicative of growing up in an environment void of physical affection.  When Sabra drives home, hoping in vain to get some sympathy from her mother (Fay Baker), it's as if she's forgotten what a bitch her mom truly is, not outright sadistic that we can see, just unavailable, contemptuous of weakness, not wanting a child's needs to interfere with her plans for cocktails by the pool later with the Joneses. It's a devastating, stand-alone scene that tells us everything we need to know and instills the utmost sympathy for this "evil" sorority sister. It's easy for the other kids, bouncing gaily through life with boys, but Sabra lacks the ability to express affection in any other way but the paddle. Growing up, we sense, she didn't even get that. 

In addition to Barbara Mouris, we get Dick Miller as a bar-owning man about campus who rejects Sabra's advances so she blackmails his waitress (June Kenney) into blackmailing him, even though they both know he's not the one who got her pregnant. The music is by Ronald Stein and Monroe Askins' photography brings an airy depth to the sorority house close quarters, and a misty mountain marvelousness to the climactic beach scene. The print on Shout TV/via Prime, is ungodly great. And so welcome. Barely clocking in at over an hour, there's not an ounce of fat on this strange cinematic event, which had a male military school version with even more kinky sadism and blackmail, also in 1957, The Strange One, starring the comparable Ben Gazzara. If you saw them both as a double feature you'd never send your child to school again! 

 MACHINE-GUN KELLY
(1958) Dir. Roger Corman
*** 1/2 / Amazon Stream image - A

Though Charles Bronson gets the title billing, it's made very clear throughout that Susan Cabot is the real show, the real leader of the gang, and she has a field day! Her character, Florence "Flo" Becker, is based loosely (one presumes) on the real-life Kelly's wife Kathryn: the brains of the organization and apparently the one who styled her husband's public image, even convincing him to use a machine gun as a talisman. Why isn't she the title character? Because she was too smart even for that. Instead, well, Cabot's Flo gets as many if not more lines than Bronson's Kelly--who all too often is undone by a big streak of fear. She's way more courageous, witty and pro-active than everyone else in the film. She keeps reminding Bronson he's her "little baby," and her "gun arm," and she chose him because he was so weak and pliable! She tells him that in front of the other members of the gang, including the Morey Amsterdam as a dime-dropping fink mad at Kelly just because he threw him against a cougar cage and his arm got ripped off.

Bronson plays Kelly with kind of tough with just a hint of functional sadism over top of the fear, but he can be nice too--it's a full 3D performance and Bronson shows why he deserved to make it big, with his mix of Pennsylvania steel mill-style stoicism, breaking it up when Richard Devon tries to rape Barbara Mouris (their kidnapping victim's nanny) and even playing paddy cake with their kidnap victim.

Some elements of the true story have been shifted around (here Kelly and co. kidnap a rich guy's child -- in real life they kidnapped the rich guy himself) and it's a bit rough with our modern sensibility to see cougars and other beasts in these tiny cages, meant for tourist gawkin', but Corman films it all with a punchy, vivid urgent style so there's no time for feeling glum about anything. This is no plodding origin story where we need his whole arc. This is just a few crazy heists, and then the cops get 'em, the end. Bang! Corman has no time for tedious art or Big Statements, and in the process of stripping things down he's way more insightful and illuminating than most of the overblown prestige gangster pics.

To get back to Cabot's Flo, what lets the audience know she's the real leader of the gang is the way only she seems totally at ease with danger. And she's always dressed to the nines, sauntering in and out of the hideout trailing her fur stoles while the men all have to lay super low, bickering and playing cards.. As luxuriant and catlike as one could ask for in a super moll, she's the one casing out banks, drawing out maps, flirting with the guards for the inside dope. Kelly is prone to freezing and running away out when confronted with any memento mori, coffin, skull paperweight, or obituary column.  He needs constant teasing and reinforcement to get him to man up and wield the gun. She gets him to man up by flirting with his outlaw cronies (none of them have molls), and yet during a heist he's thrown off his timetable by the sight of a coffin being loaded into the funeral home basement near the bank. He freaks out, misses his cue, and his partner (Jack Lambert) ends up holding the bag and having to shoot his way out. This leaves Kelly gangless and with a new enemy for setting him up, prompting Flo and Kelly to lay low at Flo's mom's house, a whorehouse, as it happens. Mom is a badass madame played with real moxy by Connie Gilchrist. Savvy and cool, she brooks no umbrage from Kelly, unfazed by his tough guy veneer, realizing he's no good. We see where Flo gets her her scathign wit and her lack of fear when it comes to tough-talking, hard-hitting men.


Cabot is as brave as Flo, relishing her character, investing so much playful nuance and force it's amazing. Part of it I imagine is her theatrical background, the ability to play extended single takes covering a lot of different emotional moments, and she does it daringly well. Unlike most 'moll' characters in crime movies, her Flo enjoys the life of crime. She's a long way from being just eye candy, sulking around on the couch eating bon-bons and occasionally whining about how much she misses being able to out dancing, irritating a pacing James Cagney as he plans their next escape or break-out. Here it's just the opposite. She's the one going out and doing all the work. And at the end it's she who is toughest, ready to die shooting it out with the cops, using the kid as a shield, etc.  And when push come to shove she's the one ready to go down swinging. Kelly just--well I shan't spoil it.

Gerald Fried whips up some really peppy rich jazz for the score, a million miles from the phoned in Dixieland ragtime generic nonsense usually played in the 70s during their 20s-30s nostalgia kick. I mean, man, this stuff rips, I found myself unable to stop snapping my fingers and at one point was lifted out of my recliner as if on the wings of Gene Krupa. And Corman makes sure it's all edited tight on the ones as bank heists and elaborate getaways come off like clockwork tied to the precision jump-back crackerjack flap the pack rack rhythm of the band. Fried had just done the score for Kubrick's The Killing a couple years earlier and the buzz was still generating. It's 61 years later and he's still working! Every day is Fried day!


Alas, aside from this small period of working with Corman (six films in three years: 1957-59), Cabot never really made the lasting mark she should and could have. Cabot went back to NYC and Boston after The Wasp Woman to do mostly theater, and then, her tragic death (1). As for that, well, I don't like to dwell in my favorite stars' murky home lives, lest some detail or other ruin their viability as a screen for some archetypal projection, such as Cabot is, to that mix of anima, trickster, cougar and devouring mom I have deep in the collective cinema unconscious. Cabot could embody all these archetypes and more, in a single scene, perfectly modulated, all with a catty class and oomph that reminds us strong cool women come in all decades, shapes, and sizes, that a short brunette with shark eyes, clunky shoes, and a weird smile can wow us to core, even in a B-list gangster movie, or a sorority sister psychodrama meant to fill in a B-slot at a drive-in. Greatness always finds its way to the light!


NOTES:
1. See Tom Weaver's piece "The Life and Tragic Death of Susan Cabot" for the full sad tale
2. And to prove the powerful effect of this kind of strange, deeply Freudian scene, Corman recreated it 13 years later in Bloody Mama this time in a holding cell between Bruce Dern and Robert Walden with a wet towel instead of a paddle, and the desire/fear-paralyzed Walden gently singing a religious spiritual as the 'whacks' come down.  In getting at the deep Freudian root, in these two scenes Corman creates moments we find confusing in their eroticism. We're hypnotized and dimly--on a subconscious, precambrian level--even turned on, albeit in the way we may have been as a child imagining such punishments inflicted on others. So often in film these kinds of incidents are filmed all wrong. An auteur like Bunuel or Von Sternberg focuses more on the psychological sort of masochism, and some, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, get too hung up on the bondage gear and class. In these two examples, Corman somehow manages to stage the abuse in a way that captures all the Freudian intensity without ever tumbling into the void of either Shades of Grey softcore tackiness or Girl with a Dragon Tattoo misogynistic trauma. See: Taming the Tittering Tourists: 50 Shades of Grey for the one type (tacky), Butterfly Moanin' - Duke of Burgundy and Fairie Bower Cinema (inert) for the other.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Til Human Voices Wake Us: THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (1978)


Hurricane Dorian spiraled over the Bahamas over Labor Day as I watched the ABC Friday Night Movie THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (from 1978) via Warner Archive DVD-R. Its crystal blue skies and clear crystal water, lovely reefs full of vibrant life, normal sea levels, white sands, giant turtle rising like Moby Dick x Gamera to bump his head on an unconvincing helicopter perfect beaches and beautiful young lovers, and climate still fecund with life, all made nice contrast with the wide-eyed barometrically-hip denizens of 'Weather Underground' on The Weather Channel (on cable). The world is dying; the Great Turtle is gone, a myth, its innards a ghost museum, but in the meantime, one thing I remember from back in 1978 was that the whole nation was "that way" about the Bermuda Triangle. We loved thinking about that triangle and what might be hoovering up half the ships and planes that dared traverse it. The name alone had a sexy sea spray currency, right up there with Spencer's Gifts, Chariots of the Gods, and Playboy Magazine. Bermuda --the name alone had magic, like some strange expensive boutique water that promotes male potency. It's quite a film, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, especially, regularly contrasted with flips back to the Weather Channel, back in 9/19, the best time for 1978 to open up like a vortex ark to lift you clear of Waterworld 2020. 

The meteorologists, standing before giant maps, caressing the predicted motion lines of swirling energy, pressure, precipitation, electric with the anticipation, repeating themselves and their predictions, like a coven of witches chanting national scientific barometric incantations, trying in their way to guide and shape a thousand Moby Dicks worth of water and air, full of impersonal fury. 



When I saw The Bermuda Depths over Labor Day, Dorian was circling around the Bahamas, twirling and twirling as if to bring it to some monstrous extinction level vaginal vortex orgasm, a Cenobite maenad rending apocalyptic event, smashing of the prison of psyche. The linked necklace of basic comforts that chokes us in the trap of civilized leisure, the orgasm that drowns and destroys and leaves drowning souls clamoring at Noah's moss-slick sides, pairs of serpents coupled in the portholes to nip the toes and fingers of the damned as they try and climb - until they drown, growing Satanic tails themselves, squiggling towards a giant moon/egg/eye in the center of the center of the rift. The weather people cut over to B-roll of Floridians busy buying out the bottled water by the Price Club forklift-load. I cut hit play on the DVD player at the commercial, back ... to The Bermuda Depths and to.... her. 

I was mostly alone that weekend, couched in that special warm glow only watching hurricane coverage on a cloudy weekend can bring. But The Bermuda Depths was something else, harnessing the electricity of the storm and the WU's giddiness to a myth so deeply lodged in my equatorial trench of Self I could feel my whole soul vibrate apart like my psyche's tectonic plates were dropped on one of those old electric football game boards. 

Today its weeks later --I just caught on my way to work that hurricane Humberto, the next in the chain, was heading for Bermuda, but chickened out, skirting up and around the "Triangle" rather than daring to go through and take its chances. Poor Humberto, just a lot of colder air on warm water after all. But more are always coming. It's hurrican season, announces Dr. Knabb will protect it, through my ardent love of Connie Sellecca as Depth's mysterious sea nymph Jennie Hanniver.

Have I only imagined her?
I still the feel the warmth from kissing her
I'll spend my whole life missing her 
Jenny....
Jenny....
When she appears, at first like a distant black flame, framed in the picture window of a rocky outcrop; walking closer through the eye of the island where Michael Pitt-lipped wanderer Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) naps, she brings her own theme song--the indelible guitar of Vivaldi's"Concerto in D major for Lute and Strings" RV:93 Largo" and gazes down at him with loving eyes, evoking a stirring flashback of their time raising a giant sea turtle and her eventual swimming off on its back, without a word, and he almost drowning trying to swim after her. And then, the night his marine biologist dad decided to conduct some ominous experiment in a grotto under their house, some unseen monster knocks half the foundation on top of him. So many questions, but save them. Slow it down, baby... we got commercials coming and anyway, the music is gorgeous, there are no clumsy voiceovers or scrawls, and no words spoken or read at all for the first 12 minutes of the film- only Vivaldi, and that achingly lyrical folksy theme song (a signature of production team Rankin/Bass)... already burrowing into our souls and leaving us with a plaintive spiritual ache for our own lost ocean loves... Jenny....

Note similarity in outline of the rock to his hatted head as he sleeps,
Jenny emerging from his pineal gland, or where land meets ocean;
(female/dream/ocean vs. conscious/man/sky.
The folksy wide-eyed black housekeeper (Ruth Attaway) tells our brooding (grown-up) Magnus that Jennie was so vain and beautiful back in the early days of colonial Bermuda that all the men on the island loved her. When her ship was caught in a storm in the Triangle and about to go down she made a deal with "the other god", the "one who swims below" to stay beautiful and young forever, in exchange for an eternity of 'service' to the leviathan's murky aims. She lives "out there" in the sea, "what you folks call... the Triangle" If Magnus is comparing notes, he keeps them under his hat. He refuses to believe his Jennie could be a ghost (until that is she reminisces about when her father used to host 'quadrilles' and invites him to dance to her ever-present Vivaldi).... but she's connected (the same as) that turtle. And is it the same turtle that crushed his dad and house? NOoooo! 

ABC Friday Night TV movies like Depths made deep and lasting impressions on us who were children at the time --a movie so weird and wondrous those who hadn't seen it wouldn't believe the wild stories of those who had. It lay dormant for decades, unseen and gradually considered to be a folk myth. But through the giant claw machine of the Warner Archive, it is exhumed, and it is a treasure. Bermuda has never seemed so beautiful, Jerry Sopanen's brilliant cinematography plus a color restoration (?) results in a blue sky, clear water, white sand, tanned limb clarity that leaves a hole in the heart, evoking among other things, Dali's magical paintings of magical Costa Brava. 

A kind of oceanic ghost story it sails the same currents as Night Tide and even Beach Blanket Bingo and the unforgettable romance between Bonehead and Lorelei. Maybe it's because I'm a Pisces, but I'm even haunted by the theme song. I was dissatisfied with the end but, after I switched back to the Weather Channel watched the twirling storm still just hovering over the Bahamas, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and her--Jennie-- with her raven hair, perfect olive tan, waterproof no-smudge eyeliner and the ability to reflect light from her eyes so they glow like an inhuman creature.

With perfect blank naturalism, Sellecca gives room for anima projections (contrast other actrresses
too self-aware to be enigmatic; the anima can find no screen in such a one.
Their screens are already too full.... of themselves
It's not an easy role to pull off well, as one needs to be--in a sense--a blank screen, to nudge the viewer's anima into using the coiled energy of the far-off hurricane to fire up its projector and WACK! focus right in on Jennie, to get the pining ache that comes from one of the male psyche's all-too-rare reunions with our ever undersea/seen animas. How could I blame the film for being true to the anima's nature, and all too quickly shutting the projector off again? Dreams where the anima appears operate on the same principle. One can only pine for her to come again. And this is--alas--the relationship at its purest. The anima appears so that her absence may be felt. For she does read our letters, even if she doesn't answer. In a way, she even helps us write them - for we're a projection of her unconscious as well.

It doesn't matter anymore. I am glad I bought this on DVD, and that the image is so gorgeously clear I can count the water rivulets down Connie Sellecca's luxuriant gamin limbs. I applaud the way the giant turtle is used so sparingly - appearing mainly at the climax, and fading away with an unforgettable dive into the depths and all the ensuing Tarot-card ready references that connect The Bermuda Depths with the arcane language of the collective unconscious.

My early childhood anima - the mermaid girl from the old Marine Boy 
anime, that used to be on when I was around 3-4. I was so
enthralled I think I cried when the show stopped airing. I still
remember her vividly, though not her name.
Though this dream girl aspect ("have I only imagined her?") often irritates me in other films, it works here as there's plenty of evidence she's more than just a male fantasy or a psychotic hallucination. The men who don't believe she's real are--after all--trying to catch a turtle the size of a Victorian mansion on a boat barely the size of one of its flippers. And besides, she's real to Magnus, and to us, watching. We never see him through other people's eyes talking to the air, for example. She's never seen by anyone else - she only comes out when he's alone. Eric (Carl Weathers) and Poulis (Burl Ives) have no doubt about the turtle, but don't believe Jennie is real. If the Jennie thing was all done as some kind of Harvey-Walter Mitty style fantasy we wouldn't even be having this conversation because, ugh. If there was some big reveal where a mad scientist is behind it all and/or it's a scam and the scammer would have got away with it if not for those rascally kids, or really if it relied on any rational or even metaphysical 'explanation' it would undo the spell, and be cheap, I'd be out. But the way it's all filmed, the way the story goes down, it never loses its Jungian "one-the-one" beat, where the film itself is a dream within a dream, and there is no waking, only a renouncement of one layer of the dream, which may or may not be a transition to adulthood.

The problem is, his buddies--the Apollonian 'group' to the Dionysian pair-bond-- won't leave Magnus alone - they find him wherever Jennie brings him, even to a secret, gorgeous grotto (his dad, whom he learns was 'eaten' by marine life, was washed out to sea; his mom--we learn--was lost at sea earlier). Why did he not hide, not heed Weathers' manly call, as if a friendly but nonetheless cockblocking Captain Bligh rousting Christian from his languid island hammock. Without a second thought, presuming she'll be waiting when and where he deigns to look, Magnus leaves his ghostly love to go fishing with Eric and Dr. Poulis, as they set about trying to catch a creature so massive that there is no boat big enough to do anything but be grateful the thing stays down below.

Earning his masters in marine biology while spending the summer with Poulis, Weathers' Eric mispronounces "coelacanth" but he's letter perfect as the kind of guy whose energy is like a magnet for lost boy souls like Magnus, after pointing out he and his father used to laugh at Magnus as a boy with his imaginary friend, he then shrugs it off "you're all right, you're home," with a brusque masculine kind of fraternal protectiveness that Magnus is clearly drawn to or he wouldn't be on the boat. Weathers is clearly having a great time here in Bermuda on this shoot, and improvs feely (it seems), cracking open beers and filling in Magnus on how he and his father would laugh at his talking to the air. The idea that Jennie is all in Magnus' mind though never quite washes since there clearly is a giant turtle, and when Magnus mentions carving the initials on its back it's enough to wipe the smiles from both Eric's and Poulis' faces. For all their talk of biology, this pair are clearly monster hunters, a kind of logocentric Appolonian analyst couch. As Poulis tells Magnus over dinner: "Even in this space age we have yet to explore the real depths!" Those depths are both the ocean and the unconscious. They carry monsters, sure, but also Jenny... where she comes, "the other god" follows.

Like Tera (Valerie Leon - left) in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb via gloomy Andrew Kier, his daughter (also Leon), my own anima (1) was arranging the vision of herself, using the crackling energy of Dorian to start the projector to life again, beaming herself onto Jennie. I longed for her as Magnus does (he spends his time with the boys brooding over her, talking about her to them even as they shrug her off as a figment of his imagination, which is a very rude way of mentioning it). She commands you, in your fibrous core, to choose her or over your salty sailor brethren. Do so and there will be no need for words --thoughts are told in currents, shifts in oceanic temperature, and a kind of perpetual mix of whale cries muted through waves that seems to light up the soundtrack the way sunlight lights the waves in the film's many day-for-night shots. 

Is my anima the dreamed or the dreamer who dreams herself real through dreaming up a dreamer to dream her? James Villers in Blood would probably purr that we already know the answer to that one, don't we? (CinemArchetype #2)

It doesn't make any sense--that Poulis and Eric would dismiss Jennie but think they can catch a deep sea leviathan with a tug boat and a little net, but that's part of the dreamlike unease to the film is the idea though that Dr. Poulis and Eric believe they have a chance in hell of single-handedly capturing the beast heightens the dream suspense, the futile cockblocking element that always crops up in ur-otic dreams involving the anima. She will always be ours forever but first you have to just go do one little thing. Don't go away! Wait here and I'll be back. But of course she's never there, or you never make it back. Not for years.


Magnus, too, is an archetype, he is the young fisher king, the Parsifal (and McCloskey does a great job with this vague role --imagine Tom Cruise or, say Jason Patric as Magnus, and shudder); Burl Ives is once again the fisher king (see #12 of CinemArchetype 24) and he does it so well. There's also the hanged man (literally, in a tarot sense, as man is dragged to the depths by his foot - those are pearls that were his eyes, etc.); the anima, her monstrous familiar (in a Gamera-logical sense) and even a wild/wise woman (Attaway's amazing one scene as the black housekeeper / conjure woman / folksy exposition provider).

This choice, to run off and go fishing rather than roll in the ripped ruined mansion's depths, or sleep with the fish, is one typical of a certain stage of adolescence, at least it was for me, actually right around 1978, when I was 12. Having to choose between your girlfriend/s and the boys, trying to drag you off to do guys things while she waits and gets pissed-off and/or you never see her again. BUT it's because he does go that this becomes myth. If he didn't, he'd be snared in the faerie bower of amor, of eros (1), Aphrodite's scallop shell closing down on them like a submersible honeymoon coffin (ala that thing Bond and Barbara Bach end up in at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me where it eventually turns all Corman Poe). In the dream the dreaming ego always goes off with the guys - he always has-otherwise there is no myth, only an enchanted knight slowly dying of hunger under the poppy trees, ministered to by a dozen doting fairies with no idea what humans eat but a refusal to let him crawl away.


Some call him Kurma
The production team behind the Depths are Rankin-Bass, names familiar to kids all over the world for the puppet-animated catchy tune-spattered Xmas specials we all saw every December, like Rudolph and The Year without a Santa Claus; and the first two animated catchy tune-spattered Tolkien specials - The Hobbit and Return of the King), so they clearly knew a few things about how to tap into the deep strain of Jungian archetypal myth that can structure kids' merging into the adult sphere. With the same Japanese crew and director: Tsugunobo Kotani, with whom they'd teamed up with for the more-conventional The Last Dinosaur TV movie from the year before. But while that movie stayed a 'boy's life' Hemingway meets Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of macho affair, The Bermuda Depths is infinitely more even-handed and light in its touch. Trying to talk about it, as Tyrone Power says in Nightmare Alley, "is like trying to put the ocean into bottles."  Like the waves going in and out on those beautiful white sand Bermuda beaches, all things are momentary. These are opportunities to practice the fine art of letting go, for one must let go. The sea nymph must return to the depths, lest she melt into a skull ala Sandra Knight in THE TERROR (1963) and the Vivaldi concerto end, replaced by... Diamanda Galas...


As with all great anima-scapes, when there are so many great elements it's almost better that they don't add up. After all, dreams never do. Too often these affairs get hung up on small details of logic, which your anima, the artist designer of your dreams, realizes rightly are the soul-killing logistics that make daytime so much less wild and thingee than the night. The best TV movies of the era took advantage of the fact that there was no videotape, or reruns, no chance to rewind and go "did that even happen?" so they could do as the dreams did, and leave out whole chunks of logic, presuming we could fill in the blanks while we refilled our glasses and ran to the bathroom, much as the dreams themselves try to fill in what's missing in our day-to-day thinking. We made our own connections over the commercial breaks, and the TV movie relied on that relationship, and as a result were primed to deliver long-lasting myth. By the next morning at school, our own telephone game embellishments might already be added, and no way to prove them wrong - so any holes in its mythic sail were already patched. Decades later and once grim myths / rites of passage like Suspiria and Carrie are known by heart, no embroidering possible. But things like Bad Ronald, The House that Would Not Die and Bermuda Depths became the "I'll have to take your word for it" living myths, more scary and strange with every re-telling... gradually peeling away from the land where any normal film made of celluloid and blood could ever do it full justice. 

SPOILER -

Depths may, it's true, lean a lot on that unsaid commercial break dream logic for its power; lot unsaid in this far from perfect film, but that's its weird charm. The main part: the lack of any clear villain or negative emotion. We root for the turtle of course - it's not like it creeps up on land to kill people - oh.. aside from early on killing Magnus's dad, but he started it by tampering in the forbidden... Bermuda Depths --oh yeah, I see. Far more interesting is the unusuual and barely relevant fact that the cast is perfectly balanced along racial and gender lines, and how in the end, the only one with a clue to the events transpiring is the housekeeper for Burl: she knows enough to see the skull behind Magnus's eyes, and to realize he's the bad guy, because he gives up on the love of his life just because her turtle familiar wipes out every other male in the cast in its stubborn effort to stay alive. That he didn't die himself should be cause for his to not be such a shit about turning his back on the ocean, and throwing his shell necklace back into the sea. He turns his back on her, and the sea, to get even with it, for what, not giving up its secrets? Is Dorothy to be shunned by the scarecrow, lion and tin man for refusing to let them dissect Toto, transplanting his brain, heart and spleen to these needy training wheel animuses (see CinemArchetype #3, stage 2)?

--END SPOILER

Enter 3 meteorologists, tracing their batons back and forth around the barometric reading map like junkies combing the carpet after the last grain is licked off the table, or conjure wives summoning demons from the depths of their cooking pots, roiling like the sky, the steam from the stew like the coiling clouds from her wooden spoon. Gesturing at the mimetic map as if to move the vortex.

Is Bermuda's cosmic bill paid or will the hammer come down? No amount of blowing or fanning will change its mind. The world ends and the giant turtle comes up for air. This is in revelations. This is coming. Up at Niagara, the Native American art museum is shaped like a turtle... they know the score. It's been vacant for 22 years. I was there in 1989 with my girlfriend when it was open and full of Iroquois turtle imagery, the turtle carrying the world on its back, the incessant Falls, the force from which it gains its mighty roar...... my girl, her raven hair and crystal blue eyes... the turtle with the world on its... am I still there? Am I ghost wandering that stricken empty shell?

Life was always going to be fleeting. We're all just waves that crash on the shore and leave only children, maybe, and photos of ourselves and mentions on the web that are only really 'there' if someone reads them. 
see: Godasiyo, the Woman Chief

We were more used to that in the 70s, because TV shows came and went, irretrievably, forcing us to accept the fleeting nature of things. The only way to record was to put your cassette tape recorder by the speaker and hope for the best. You'd at least have the audio. My first mix tape was made this way, holding my tape player up against the radio as favorite songs came on: Fleetwood Mac and Abba mostly, missing the first few seconds of each. Never did I tape the Eagles  --they were, frankly, terrifying. "Hotel California" chilled me deeper than my spine could reach. So did the words "Bermuda Triangle" - it was if the words themselves could suck you under.
The Bermuda Depths' theme song knows that horror, yet is sweet as any Rankin/Bass folksy theme. It might be friendly but it knows the power music had in the age of holding tape recorders up to TV speakers, how we are so anxious to capture these fleeting images of our beloved we take photos of the TV, to somehow 'own' a reflection, knowing how futile that is. The sadness in the song "only imagined her" knows the almost religious importance we placed on things like 8x10 glossies, trading cards, pictures cut out of magazines, and paperback novelizations. Now, in this age, she's harder to find for being so available. We are flooded with potential anima screens now, like the parade of hurricanes rolling out from Africa and around the and up the Florida coast before peeling out east  towards Bermuda or Nova Scotia, the Weather Channel crew tracing and commenting and gesturing, but there is no making her come, only letting her go... when she's ready... until then, she just sits there off the coast, in the deep, twirling in place... 

 It's only in her absence that she stays with you forever. That's the anima. 22 years later and the Niagarara Great Turtle museum still stands. If you see her, say hello, but do not linger, lest your consciousness, your 9-5 and button-down bumming, be dissolved in the saline solution of the sea, and then bubbled up, devoured, and forgotten---an echo in its empty shell hull hall--as she makes way for the next drowning man. But isn't that you, too? You try to answer but your voice is only clacking keys...
I still the feel the warmth from kissing her
I'll spend my whole life missing her 
Jennie...


NOTES:

Relevant Archetypes:
2. The Anima
4. The Hanged Man
5. The Human Sacrifice
6. The Intimidating Nymph
10. The Wild Man
11. The Wild-Wise Woman
15. The Animal Familiar
25. The Fisher King


(Note: the key to this power is the image - Keep the old tactile 'real' photos of her on the beach or in front of the Falls from when you were young. Never look up her virtual pixel image on Facebook decades later, she will not look the same. No empty turtle shell still immortal just absent this time -your anima will shriek as if you caught it in the morning bathroom before it put its 'face' on. The true Jennie Hanniver at last.. Now your old photos just seem 'dead' - the anima has gone from this screen forever. That's Hollywood, and it's your problem. You looked back. And now your gaze itself is salt. 

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Happy Birthday Luigi Cozzi! HERCULES (1983), its Sequel (and the Cozzi Canon)


Luigi Cozzi is 72 years.... young today. Though he's not made a film in some time, how nice is it he's lived to see his most fertile period become immortalized, his place in the pantheon of trash auteurs assured thanks to the rise of cults like Alamo and boutique labels like Shout Factory? Truly a birthday wish denied to those who died too soon, like Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. Ignored, too poor to stay high, as if their cults couldn't rise except like not-so-virgin springs from their self-despoiled corpses. Today Cozzi drifts merrily through the DVD extras, palling around with Quentin and his great and terrible canon is, for the most part, available to all mankind (barring a few later works like The Black Cat/Demon 6 [1991]). Two are even on Prime (US). 

I mention Ed Wood for a reason: like his Bride of the Monster, Plan Nine and Night of the Ghouls, Cozzi's most iconic work was released in a very short period, approx. 1978-83--Stretching from Star Wars-influenced Starcrash in 1978 through to Alien-influenced Contamination in 1980, to the Conan-influenced Hercules in 1983 (and its sequel in 1985)And, as with Wood, we laugh at some of these film's bizarro anti-narrative flights of imagination, but it's the best kind of laughter for it's in a joyrful realization that the filmmaker genuinely loves his genre, maybe more than he should. He aims for the stars and so far and wide succeeding in total narrative 'immersion' on the part of the viewer is never fully demanded. We cheer the way his movies go racing through gonzo set-ups with clear love of the sources they borrow from (recognizing nods to Golden and Seventh Voyage(s) of Sinbad, the 1936 Flash Gordon, and Clash of the Titans.) We can watch Cozzi's films, over and over in ways we may not be able to do with the originals, or 'better' movies because his love of those referenced films is so palpable. More than just rip-offs or homage, they become like pagan idols, some kind bowing to down to the celluloid image, the kind of thing we see in the DIY recreations in Michel Gondry's work, or that 1989 Mississippi homegrown student film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Not to say his work is amateur-ish, but rather it makes a kind of reverential ceremonial mimetic magic of celluloid. Unlike so many of his less genius contemporaries, Cozzi would rather fail on a cosmic stage than just show some fake-breasted frizzy-haired lady racing around an empty warehouse away from a shambling rubber monster. Cozzi's films never skimp on planets and ideas. He zips around from planet to planet, from labor to labor, packing vignettes with savages, monsters, gods, demons, and scheming bearded kings, and most of all... lovely women in strong roles. 

Cozzi loves strong women. There might be cleavage, but its not leered at, and it comes couched in stylish restructured costumes, and attached to strong, capable characters with Bechdel scores that outpace his better-known contemporaries. Far ahead of the curve on that aspect, Cozzi gives us a bevy of strong women space captains, CDC colonels, witches, queens, goddesses, and agents of chaos magic. For that alone, he deserves a special lionization.


So here's wishing you the best of birthdays, Luigi Cozzi. And to celebrate, a deep look into one of my recent discoveries, an unfairly ignored and forgotten relic from Cannon films in the wake of the post-CONAN sword and sorcery craze 

 HERCULES (1983)

When your only takable umbrage with a Cannon neo-peplum is a tacky corset worn by Sybil Danning (above) as the evil princess Adriana, then you know you are blessed by the refreshingly primitivist and un-tacky Coates once again.  File it, as I did, in my emergency reserves, right next to Plan Nine or Mesa of the Lost Women, something to bring on your laptop over Xmas when you need a break from your brother's loud shouting at Alexa to play various "An Eric Clapton Christmas" over and over. Most Hercules films are unpleasant to see once, let alone often (unless the gym muscle rainbow is enuff). But you can see Cozzi's Hercules over and over until the end of time. To get to the perfect 'all-flaw' gem facets of lovely classics like  The Car, The Devil's Rain, and Ghosts of Mars a sword and sandal film needs to have a wild imagination and a love of movies that overrides limitations. Cozzi would rather try for a time lapse change from an old witch face to a lovely enchantress than to just cheat it out with a reaction shot the way lesser directors would. No matter if it doesn't quite work, and better to have a hydra --even if it only has three heads, none of which move, except to slightly raise or lower the necks to breathe fire--than to have no hydra at all. Better to have Hercules stand semi-transparently in the middle of outer space, flexing his mighty self, then to just see him rolling around in the dust behind De Paolis. In each of his 'effects' Cozzi all but salutes some older movie he's clearly in awe of. Like Tarantino, he's a true fan of the genre/s. And if you have find memories of making movies as a kid (or now) and love seeing the seams, ala Ed Wood (like a magic show where the wires are visible), then you love Cozzi.

By now you guessed it. I love Ed Wood, and Cozzi  too. I got the double-sided disc of Cozzi's Herc films only last summer and I've already seen them both four times.

Alexa, play "Erich loves a Cozzi-clastic Christmas!"

The lightbulb claiming credit for electricity-
don't trust it's wattage down the mossy stair
to the couch-warm coffin,
where the slightest misstep is certain life!

Cozzi, the Coates-holding footman never snickers.
The electricity from his cracked glass shell,
the brilliance from his busted filament's flicker,
carries Tesla madness, not Edison's argon sanity!
Heed his gonging clarion bell,
the way to the woe-free Lite-Brite star-flecked city!

If you are afraid to eat the peach,
Cozzi cushions your woeful rise,
like dough left in a proving bin but briefly,
yet as as as leaden as the zeppelin's air,
(by which I mean hydrogen)
Each new pair of eyes
flying up by fathom-steep dark stairs, in shock, in awe,
in some surprise. What the fuck has Cozzi left there?

Mirella D'Angelo (Tenebrae) as Circe, the witch
disciple of Athena who helps Hercules
See, Hercules isn't just about a muscle-head smashing foes, there's also lessons in astronomy: we learn the planets were formed from broken shards of Pandora's water jar; we learn how the constellations got their names and shapes (they're all things Hercules threw into deep space during fits of rage), and that the four elements are: night, day, matter, and air. These planets and jars are all shot through with color spectrum prisms, flashing lights overlay people so they all fade like Bert I. Gordon giants. (If you get that reference, this is the movie for you).

We learn that the gods were the first beings fashioned on the earth, and they settled on the moon to better observe and judge the tests of mankind. Thus we find Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli!) refereeing a bout betwixt the astringent Hera (Rossana Podesta) and the compassionate Athena (Delia Boccardo) over Hercules' journey, sending in their respective servants on earth to aid or abet Hercules on his epic quest. Perfectly cast as the mighty Hercules, with his huge jaw, dead set against the world, Lou "The Hulk" Ferrigno (well-dubbed by familiar voice artist Marc Smith) has a gift, a way with seeming deep inside himself, unfazed by threats or challenges, but then reacting to stimulus with the sudden reckless energy of a five year-old. His eyes squint to indicate focus on some magical spectacle and widen when roused to sudden violence. When he hears his mother has been slain he drops his harness and shouts "WHAT?" like he just saw his car getting stolen, and goes racing across the fields with these little but super fast steps like a six year-old might run from a barking dog. He reacts quick, like a prize fighter as opposed to a dancer. In short, he is the perfect choice for Hercules because we like him, and he's not a good enough actor to hide his real self from us, so we know he's trying hard, giving it his all, but not trying so hard he casts a dour pall over things.

As Herc's romantic lead/ princess-in-distress, Anderson spends most of her scenes in sexy hanging white linens, wearing a trippy golden crown, natural breasts tastefully cupped by scallop shells (no leering, but beautiful side boobs seen only in passing) "sweet and submissive" thanks to the 'black lotus' (mmmm) waiting to be burned alive as "a bride" of Minos' captured firebird/phoenix. But both evil (agent of Hera) Danning and good (agent of Athena) D'Angelo are very much active in Hercules' life, as is, indirectly, Eva Robins as a glam chaos agent named Daedalus (above, left), with the ability to raise up giant monsters from an erector set series of toys atop her giant waxy head in the land between time and space. With her bat-winged gold lamé skullcap and a gold codpiece (carrying weird echoes of her 'heel'-work as the possibly trans girl in the flashback sequences of Tenebrae) its suitable that Daedalus, representing "chaos in the name of science! Science in the name of chaos!" collapses sexual boundaries while staying all the time beguilingly pretty, alighting the eyes of evil king Minos (William Berger) with the macabre delights of her monsters. As Daedalus tells him, time and space are relative, so that miniature mechanical toy monsters made by figures atop a normal skull size head can still grow as large as houses once 'subject' to the atmosphere of earth.

Though Cozzi stacks his decks with strong female characters there are also some cool characters on the male side, though their faces are often obscured by unconvincing beards: Gianni (Sartana!) Garko shows up in a crazy red and gold-winged refurbished centurion costume; William Berger (5 Dolls of an August Moon) is the evil Minos; Cassinelli should be familiar to Italian crime genre fans (though with his droopy white beard as Zeus he carries a kind of Linus Roche-ness); and Bobby Rhodes (the pimp in Demons) is the King of Northern Africa, who shows up on a rocky beach for one scene, after being called forth by Circe, to make a deal: Hercules will build his people a waterway in exchange for the magic chariot stashed in yonder cave ("and that's how, with the help of the Gods, Hercules created the great continents," intones the chorus-like narrator, "by separating Europe from Africa"). Rhodes has a pretty cool elephant skeleton litter, but Cozzi's budget couldn't swing a Pegasus, so mighty Hercules has to throw a big temple boulder out of orbit and have Circe fashion a magic rope to tie it to the chariot (there's a great stop motion bit where the rope ties itself into a very cool sailor's knot, seriously, that is some wild-ass knot). Soon Circe and Hercules are soaring across the solar system, completely out of our planetary orbit, being pulled along in an open air chariot by a giant.... rock. Does it get any better?  Lesser directors would never even dare try to get away with that, or using erector sets to make stop motion monsters (i.e. the budget didn't allow the clay most animators would put over the erector set frame).


As he did with Starcrash, Cozzi somehow even manages to get an A-list composer to deliver a dynamite full-bodied score to something that would normally be subject to "library" tracks. He got John Barry to outdo John Williams in intergalactic bombast with Starcrash. Here he gets the legendary Pino Donaggio to deliver a prime mythic, hugely entertaining, even more bombastic score, full of Rocky-style coliseum brass and moody deep string ominousness. Did Cozzi prevent him Donaggio from seeing the movie during his composing, like he famously did with John Barry? I'd almost wager... Otherwise they would have, at the very least, lightened the heroic mood. But it's just that heroic mood that makes it all work. A single wink and the whole thing would deflate like a soufflé.

The dubbing too is all first-rate too, even the minor characters get professional well-recorded treatment, with Donaggio giving every absurd action the benefit of the doubt. This is a film never tries to be realistic, it gets that it is myth in its purest form, and evoking the gods is seldom far from any characters' lips, as it would be in any Greek tragedy. The Gods sometimes even seem to address the camera directly, as if this pre-ordained saga, reflected in macro and micro dimensions as surely as any archetypal myth. This approach explodes the barriers between accidental Brechtianism, intentional Greek myth chorus-style theater and a child showing off his toy collection. Cozzi throws everything he has in the box at us, including Zeus-knows-what kind of filters and pieces of rainbow-reflective mylar held over the lens, mismatched matte paintings overlaid with multi-colored stars (white, red, blue, yellow, green, even purple). It's never too much or not enough; it is, in its sublime perfection, the very nature of magic and exactly what (Greek writer) Ado Kyru meant in his famous quote (1). It belongs in a Criterion Channel triple feature between Godard's Les Mepris and Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera. 

Then the sequel in 1985. Lots of light effects, overlays, fan art inspiration, clips from the last film, and everything a-nice.

ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1985)

Six viewings in and I'm still trying to stay awake through it all, and I don't mean that as uncomplimentary. For me, it's like falling into a peaceful dream, one punctuated by occasionally druggy reveries and name-that-influence excitement, like you'd get from a child proudly waving his tracing paper drawing of the Sinbad cyclops. My only caveat is the tired look of surprise in the 'Colin Ferrell as an old queen trying one last time to get into Studio 54 but his heart isn't in it'-red feather glam of the evil priest (Ventatino Ventinini) 00 but he's only around in a few scenes. Stay awake, and you'll get through him! There's also fire monster animation that seems rotoscoped from Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id (i.e. tracing a trace) and when Hercules sends in his mojo to battle Minos they becomes a similar rotoscoped outline King Kong fighting the T-rex and the snake in the 1933 version!); there's also a claymation Medusa ala a DIY fan art version of the one from Clash of the Titans and plenty of Tron-like light video game effects. None of it seems like stealing, but homage in the most openly reverent form (like Ed Wood). The music is still great but the dubbing is way too-over-the-top and badly mixed and its jarring to hear different voiceover artists dubbing the same actors from the first film (Lou Ferrigno keeps Marc Smith, thank goodness, and he stays refreshingly deadpan). Once again there are no stuntmen or fight coordinators, so the battles have a home movie primitivism.

One other issue: all the costumes have grown massive shoulders, their costumes so layered and bulky they look like fairy tale theater refugees, cleaning out the soundstage costume dept. on their way off the lot. Dad Zeus is still played by Claudio Cassinelli but is not dressed as he was in the first film, and more's the pity. Instead of his simple tiara and droopy Merlin-style white beard, here he's encumbered by a big 'Santa Clause does Catholic christening' robe, a way-too-bushy Santa-style beard and a weird yarmulke crown. Not a good look. For anyone. Ferrigno however stays shirtless.


Daedalus and the evil Minos are back as the main villains, and played by the same actors with most of the same costumes, though they too look like the intervening three years have widened them (as in Deadalus' crazy grey cape, above). The lady playing Hera is different and suddenly we get Laura Lenzi (the cute mom in Manhattan Baby) as the goddess "Flora" (?) who thinks it's a good idea to revive the evil Minos (via that old upside down blood donor trick no doubt gleaned from Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness) as he too has a grudge since Hercules killed him in the last film. Lots of rebel gods zap in and out of the dimensions of time and space, or stand on giant surrealist mesas above bubbling matte paintings and below rainbow starred outer space, evoking the weird trans-dimensional zones of 60s Jack Kirby comics. When mortal characters step outside space and time they wave their arms around to give off trippy trails, supporting my theory on where the many arms of Hindu deities come from (see my post on Dvinorum Psychonauticus).

In short, it's a gem with tons of hand-painted lasers and crazy light of effects, and a cast that's at least 3/4 women and none are ever being overly sexy or maternal (Bechdel A+!). Sure it's a step down for the mighty Cozzi after the 'heights' of the previous film, but priceless lines like "Quick! Step inside the stone mouth!" and "Grow, Hercules! Growww!" help smear over the wounds, as does the feeling of drifting dreamlike abstraction, the way it seems to veer at times off its own axis into the land of hazily remembered Saturday morning cartoons, albeit tinged with an indescribable mournfulness for the loss of big screen outdoor venues its like once greaces. If Cozzi's the Italian Ed Wood, this is clearly his Night of the Ghouls! Look fast for a shot of the rock-pulled chariot from the first film pulling into view from behind the moon during one of the many astral zip-arounds. Is it a sign Cozzi is using the same footage, or is Hercules truly outside of time and space, so the past and future exist simultaneously? Both? Hurrah for Cozzi!



 SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1989)

Lou Ferrigno is back in Cozzi country for this dopey but impossible to dislike entry in the pre-CGI fantasy genre. His dubbing is different, his hair makes him seem like a juiced-up Eric Bogosian (with earrings) and the sound is strangely mixed and burdened with an overly 'mommy'-like mom (dubbing Daria Nicolodi) narrating to her treacly child via a storybook, but it's still great - a mix of typically looney-tunes Cozzi (he shares the billing) and action-packed Enzo G. Castellari (1990: The Bronx Warriors and Warriors of the Wasteland). Castellari started it, I think, and the earlier (relatively) ornate village scenes and Thief of Bagdad setup seem his. My Cozzi-holic guess: the great Coates took over from around the 1/4-in point in, when suddenly Jaffar whisks Sinbad onto a wild fractured voyage to liberate various gems from inside various monsters (ala Zeus's thunderbolts in Herc 2!) so we got lots of crazy scenes of monster fighting with very little in the way of connectors and establishing shots (fine with me). Sometimes the dialogue and performance of John Steiner as the evil Jaffar veers far too close to self-aware camp, like telling his female bodybuilder ally, "you're really spoiling my biorhythm." And the implication is once again homosexuality as villainy, but they have a good time doing very little but toddering around a giant weird red geodesic set while watching Sinbad's adventures via crystal ball.  Ferrigno gets to do lots of flexing, as when he wrestles with animated bird cage (a very long sequence in which Ferrigno gives his all) or knocks heads off rock monsters, and has the habit of throwing his sword away at the first sign of trouble, so he can use his fists (though he can't be punching hard, as the foes just bounce back up and attack again). In the most justifiably famous climax, he fights himself --which side won? We did!


Alessandra Martines is the gorgeous princess Alina, whom Jaffar tries to make fall in love him by immobilizing her under conglomeration of tubes pumping red water which enable her to watch her own true love, Prince Ali, try to stand up to the awful temptation of the Amazon queen (Melonee Rogers), part of Jaffar's elaborate evil network. Sinbad gets his own girl, Kyra (Stefania Goodwin - Bronx Warriors), the fun and capable daughter (with refreshingly endearing, natural-voiced dubbing) of a terribly overacting Depp-x-Mike Meyers-ish wizard (with ze ridiculous mustache). There's some great footage inside what must be an actual balloon floating over the water, but just barely, while Sinbad blows into the balloons to keep them from sinking, and then spying Sinbad's boat below them, clearly real people on a real slim period boat, filmed from a real balloon, with the real actors in it.

 Little person Cork Hubbert is another comic relief member, and though forced into some ridiculous contrivances, is at least treated with relative dignity (that I remember); the crew is, as with most crews, a little too 'colorful' for their own good, each trying to make sure you get that this one is a Viking or Asian or Scottish, but hey, they all fight with rollicking good cheer and relative skill (were they stuntmen?) and they don't get in the way when its time for Ferrigno to do some wild feat, like break chains, run and swim in slow motion, knock a horse to the ground, climb up a ladder made of snakes, fight an empty suit of armor that shoots lasers out of its eyes, and fight various monsters, and the temptation of the Amazons!


And most importantly, as with other Cozzi gems, there are a lot of strong female characters, literally, in the case of the bodybuilder friend of Jafar's. Though she never actually gets to throw a punch (her arc fizzles out), Martines is a knockout even if all she does is lay around, and Kyra is a brawler, not afraid to deliver some serious punches and kicks in the battle with the gooey lepers. Did I mention the Amazons? Cozzi forever!!!! As with Starcrash (also with Amazons), the main issue that undoes it, Kyra's aside is a badly-mixed English dub that makes everyone sound like they're right up close to the microphone (i.e. voices not mixed in relation to character's distance). On the other hand, the cinematography is great, giving it a far more expensive patina than one would expect, the boat and balloon are real, right there on the water, and the scenery is gorgeous, that two tier red metal banded supervillain play pen / set is brilliant, and the colorful Middle Eastern decor is psychedelic, and, as ever, Ferrigno is impossible to dislike. So just get over it, whatever's bothering you, and savor the Sinbadness!


--


COZZI CANON CONT. 

STARCRASH (1978)

Starcrash moves so fast from cliffhanger to cliffhanger it has less to do with its obvious 'inspiration' and more in common with one of those compressed feature film versions of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (right down the helmets, and the hero's escaping his/her stint shoveling fuel into the enemy blast furnace) crossed with the Golden and 7th Sinbad Voyages. And it has even less to do with actual science, which is a relief. The John Barry score is far better than John Williams' score for Star Wars; the sets, guns, and costumes are all super kinky and wild; outer space is laden with lava lamp overlays and stars as varied in color and size as a drunk Xmas tree. Christopher Plummer--decked out in a kind of Versace sci-fi hallucination-- gets to shout out to a far off space ship that he will now "freeze time itself!" and as his son, David Hasselhof has never looked prettier. Clearly Cozzi lavished attention on weird details like kinky cool costumes, crazy sets, and wild giddy imagination, but left choices for the clunky English dub, and editing, in less wondrous hands. The cast is great but only half of them, since the extra value they would have brought doing their own voices is lost. (Plummer keeps his though). There's also the issue of Marjoe Gortner who comes off like a tooth-whitened Vegas magician crossed with an over-caffeinated animatronic Peter Pan (and his hair is curly). Stella has a lot of sexy and slick outfits though, with wide Vampirella collars. The diaper/chastity belt thing is not a good look however. Released in America by New World Pictures, so as with their other films, it has to clock in at under 90 minutes irregardless of how many sets and action set pieces are going on, leading to a giddy rushed feel (Star Wars lest Roger forget, clocked in at a healthy 2+ hours)  (full review here)

CONTAMINATION (1980)

This Italian ALIEN-inspired sci-fi adventure gets a bad rap in some circles but I adore it. Rather than just have some amok alien eating crew members, this keeps itself on Earth in the present, and decides to focus in on the pod-to-stomach-stage, with rows of ugly watermelon slime pods that explode when ripe and cause instant explosions in the stomach of everyone in horseshoe vicinity. I dig the obvious phone book size padding under the victim's shirts before the explosions; I dig the traumatic Freudian-cave-on-Mars flashbacks; the unearthly humming whale-ish noise the pods make when they're fixing to blow. I dig the vibe between the NYC cop who discovers the initial shipment (Marino Mase), the female colonel (!) of the Army's special disease control unit (Louise Marleau) and the traumatized astronaut (Ian McCulloch). The three team up in a sexy 'gentleman's agreement' synergy and head down to Colombia where they're soon ensnared up in a big slimy alien's world domination plan, ala It Conquered the World. 

Louise Marleau's heroine finds a worth opposite number in lovely blonde Gisela Hahn as the evil mastermind's right hand, and I love the alien itself, especially that bicycle reflector eye and the glistening artichoke coloring. Lastly, what really earns my goofball admiration is the Goblin soundtrack. That late-70s-80s European prog rock style has aged well. I don't know what else you need to make you love this dumbass film the way that I do. Whatever's missing, you don't need it.

THE BLACK CAT 
AKA Demons 6: De Profundus  (1989)

A parallel program to the Argento-Bava-Soavi school, this unofficial metatextual sequel to Argento's Suspiria (and sixth in the catch-all Demons series) factors in post-modern self-reflexivity to keep you guessing, including the Mater Suspiriorum  source of sources (Thomas de Quincey's Confession of an Opium Eater). Argento is name-checked and there's even some familiar Goblin cues from Suspiria.Screenwriter Marc (Urbano Barberini) writes a treatment for the story of a witch named Lavania. He thought he made the name up. But there was a witch by that name, and she's rising from her grave a little farther every time the word 'Lavania' is spoken. Her face and hands are grotesque pustules (ala Lamberto's first two films), but she begins to take over the mind of Marc's wife, Anne (Florence Guérin) and causes her to hallucinate guts flying out of the TV. A hot local psychic encourages Marc to change the character's name to something else, but he won't.  Meanwhile, without even knowing the story he's writing, new mom Ann starts to demand to play the role, saying she "is" Lavania. How would she know? But what about sexy Caroline Munro, who starts luring Marc into the sack for the Lavania part? Michele Soavi plays the director. I didn't even have time to mention the undead financial backer! Confused? Join the club. Still I'd rather go on a Cozzi ride-- even if its bumpy, and dangerously near collapsing--than play it safe on some competent piece of junk like Lost Souls or Stigmata -hai capito? (full review here). 


NOTES:

1. "“I urge you to look at bad films, they are so often sublime.”– Ado Kyrou
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