Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Tripping Cabalist - THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

You know a weird old Polish movie is worth hunting down when Jerry Garcia loves it to the point he helped fund its restoration. Even though its black-and-white, made behind the iron curtain, three hours long, even bedecked with the 18th-century powdered wigs and tricornered hats most of us associate more with being bored to a caged frenzy in history class, and even convoluted to the point of bedevilment, The Saragossa Manuscript rocks with elaborately trippy self-reflexive moxy, as if discovering the then-emerging counterculture via a book written on bar napkins by an old Polish general who ended up shooting himself with a silver bullet to avoid becoming a werewolf. The movie centers around the titular book, discovered in a bombed out chateau during the outer framing device; it contains many stories about storytellers whose own stories include flashbacks to other stories being told, until eventually a character may well hear about the events that involved them only a few nights ago, enabling them to finally understand what the other person was shouting at them from behind a rock or something. Confusion will be thy epitaph! 

But if you watch a few times, under the right frame of mind, the frames become clearer; your brain starts to expand as it grasps a new form counter-linear narrative; all roads eventually lead back to the same starting point - under the gallows.

From the first we're put in an unsteady place, following a slightly aimless senior officer during a heated street-to-street battle circa mid-1800s. He distractedly looks through the debris of a ruined house while his army races on without him, only to surge back into control moments later. Within the wreckage doth the officer find a a strange, large book. He is almost taken prisoner by the opposition when the front line retreats back past him in the other direction, but he doesn't even look up from the book; the opposing side officer tries to take him prisoner then becomes obsessed with a big strange book as well; their armies skirmish around them but the transfixed pair wave them away, without looking up, puzzling instead over the strange illustrations and narratives - and one part of the book written by the grandfather (?) of the officer! This pair of opposing officers--their battle forgotten in favor of mutual awe and confusion-- themselves soon may well become images pored over in later eras as well, for the book abides, with no clear single author. 

"Only an uneducated man who sees the same thing every day thinks he understands it"

The outer story main story centers around the one officer's grandfather, a captain of the Spanish Royal Guard, Alfonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who takes an ill-advised shortcut through the haunted Sierra Romena mountains on his way to a post in Madrid, much against the advice of his two servants, who bail the moment he falls asleep. At the first woebegone inn he comes to, a pair of sexy Muslim ghost-sorceress sisters invite him to dine in a surreally vast basement. Alight with booze and lusty cheer, his eyes twinkling with the mix of 'can't believe my luck' and 'try not to blow this windfall by saying something stupid' that evokes both Bob Hope in the harem in The Road to Morocco, the girls seduce him with tales of their willingness to share a man in their bed; but his wine must be drugged for no sooner as he taken a draught then Worden wakes up in the blazing light of midday, on a bed of skulls, under a sun-bleached gallows. He can't even remember if he scores with them in the oh-so-important-for-young-male-stud-vanity menage a triois sense. Were they spirits? Where can he find them again and does he want to? 

Well, the Inquisition somehow gets word he's cavorting with Muslim princess and he's soon captured and nailed into a steel devil helmet, only to be rescued by a the Zolta brothers, the hung gypsy bandits he woke up beneath only that afternoon, and their sisters, the two girls from his basement dreams (and after another dinner and slug of--presumably--drugged wine, he wakes up under the same gallows). Is there a direction through the Romenas he can take that doesn't involve being seduced and drugged and waking up under the gallows? Maybe a traveling cabalist can help. From there it gets even weirder; Worden first finds the book at the cabalists' lovely mansion; it's about his own father! A troupe of gypsy troubadours stop by to regale the gathered throng with their interlocking tales of courtship and woe, some of which involves Worden's father, a duel-happy aristocrat who spends most of his life either dying of sword wounds or being healed by water from a lovely wandering Muslim maid who would become Worden's mother (one assumes). 

Things go deep into the strange and yet mundane once we get to the cabalist's castle, which is visited by a flock of gypsy storytellers that night, leading to a melange of tales that Von Worden realizes all tie into him or his father, who marries a possibly Muslim sorceress (Worden's future mother?) who rescues him with a timely drink of water while he's suffering from a duel wound. Her sudden appearance out of the distance with a jug atop her head carries an even more mystically 'other' vibe than Alfonse's two Muslim princesses. It all makes sense only after a few viewings when it kicks in - Worden is cryptically half-Muslim on his mother's side. That makes him a kind of in-between figure - both sides try and claim him, or kill him, or initiate him.

Another aspect the interlocked stories share is setting, with time and again the same inns, mountain passes, and city streets coming into play at different eras (with the sets aging, crumbling, and becoming young again, as the stories are told). Narrative tentacles touch on everything from the Spanish Inquisition to the tales recollected by gadabout balladeers, loafers, romantic idiots, and drinkers. We hear willingly of Alfonse's father's many duels. We hear of bed-hopping lovers and their drunken go-betweens. We meet inn keepers, pashas, monks, maniacs, merchants, brigands, and occult cabalists. Stories are told by characters inside stories being told to the later teller of a different story explaining the first, to the point Von Worden declares “I’ve lost the feeling of where reality ends, and fantasy takes over.” Totally, bro. Sooner or later we find the answer to questions posed by other characters well before the newer tale was begun. In this maze might one character hear, as illustrated dinner table gossip, of exploits they themselves experienced from a different angle only the night before, the mystery of events that went on that night only now finally making sense from hearing the other side of the encounter ("that could drive an experienced person insane!"). In one instance Alfonse is stopped from reading the titular book he finds in the cabalists' library (still unaware he wrote it in the future). "If he read to the end," notes the scorpion-haired cabalist to his buxom servant girl, "the events which are to follow will make no sense." You know it's all tripped out When the titular book one is discussing has already been partially written and sitting in the background of a scene it has not quite begun to depict.  

As a result of this and its non-linearity, the film takes several viewings to fully unravel. God knows how incoherent it must have been when Jerry saw it, though there certainly are stretches that, in my opinion, don't do much to help the overall narrative. Actually, depending on what was cut out, the version Jerry saw may have made more sense than this whole three hour affair. Honestly, it can be trying for first time viewers, especially after the more-or-less recognizable amorous maybe-ghost story, in the vein of A Chinese Ghost Story and Ugetsu of the first part gives way to a tangled amor-fou roundelay amidst the mercantile class, bringing to life images from saucy 17th-century European woodcuts and classical Spanish art while looping back around on its own intermediary-dependent 'storyteller telling stories about storytellers telling stories' loopy chain. The crazed synth score underwriting the ghostly seduction scene gives way to fruitful classical and the money begins to flow, to the point a banker ruins his fortune by suing an investor for not taking back his doubled investment. The son the banker sends into the world to return the money will have no interest in any of it, preferring to read romance novels and become a love-afflicted dilettante. Meanwhile ghosts and duelists, and survivors of duels relate the stories of the parents of the man they killed in a duel, or fatally wounded in a duel, and all in the same town or road. The work of Bunuel, Cervantes, Swift, Pierre Louÿs, Huysmans, and one's owns story's meaning goes into another's so that a man's penance is cut short when his go-between realizes one of his busqueros got the wrong window. Then there's the odious Count Pena Flor, a made-up character invented by the wandering-eyed gorgeous young wife to make her aging nobleman husband jealous, to the point he pays a handsome layabout to find and kill him; only for his young wife to later pretend to be "Pena Flor's" vengeful ghost to scare him into taking a long pilgrimage so she can get it on unimpeded... with the same handsome layabout! Genius, thy name is Potocki! Elsewhere, a wise old hermit monk tricks a giant into herding and milking his goats in exchange for exorcising him of evil spirits. 

 Some parts occasionally get bogged down in the crowd shots, with characters wandering from one set to another. But stick with it and what seems to be a voice from God, booming out in answer to questions about life after death asked during a crackling thunderstorm in one person's woeful tale turns out to be the voice of someone who misunderstood the question in another. Eventually things become an ever shifting dream; so that a traveler might find objects he left behind from the night before at places he just arrived at. 

Thanks to a uniquely Eastern European sense or deadpan absurdity, these sunny Spanish tales-within-tales avoid the stuffy bourgeois airlessness that often accompanies 'respectable' film adaptations of revered satiric classics (i.e. the urge to cake the actors in so many wigs and costumes they can barely move or speak, or worse, move too close to the other end of the class spectrum, and cake them in grubby peasant realness). On The Saragossa Manuscript, we may notice the similarity between a shot in a tavern and a painting we recently saw at the Met, but what of it?- there's no big art highlight marker traces; no one is aiming for accolades - this is art skittering under the radar. Every scene is wild with rocky patterns into which one might hallucinate things into existence without the party censors even knowing they were there. Stories all take place at the same locations over time; the action regularly doubles back around to the same sets and rocky exteriors, passageways between rocky formations, such as the one below - framed by a Satanic-looking standing cattle skeleton, horns intact, the yoke still around its bony shoulders; in the middle ground, a cow or maybe mammoth rack of rib fossil indenting the rock at left; at right foreground , the splintered remains of a boat hull, or fallen roof? is it a giant loom, or a piano interior harp? Note the nearly transparent ghostly pitcher in the left foreground. Is it there or not there? In one shot, we see a discarded sketchbook in the lower foreground, their lines seeming to etch their way off the page and into the nearby half-ruined gallows (that's a different morning than the below, which has no sketchbook, but keep your eyes open to every corner). This use of cinematic space that is neither interior nor exterior but a place that refuses to be either in-or-outdoors, with walls dripping with trippy mold patterns, evokes Tarkovsky.

In the version Jerry Garcia had only seen in some Haight-Ashbury theater, the film ran only two hours; nearly an hour had been chopped out by American distributors trying to get i more focused on the supernatural menage-a-trois; a full three-hour version was hard to locate. Did it even exist? Garcia hooked up with fellow fans Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola to find (behind the iron curtain), restore and subtitle all the missing elements. Then, as if to punish him for his band's devil-may-care name, Jerry died before he could see the finished final three-hour cut. 

It's an irony that befits the irony-crammed film and writer Count Jan Potocki's original manuscript. The more widely read version, published in 1805, was shorter and more focused on a linear, lighthearted supernatural lighthearted version; the longer complete one, with more digressions and dead ends, which--tell me this doesn't sound ironically familiar--was published in its entirety only after Potocki's death (by silver bullet suicide to avoid the lycanthropic curse - for serious!). In other words, neither Jerry nor Potocki ever got to see the full three-hour version.  These coincidences are important to ponder in the meta framework which this frame story inevitably encourages us to incorporate. And if, at end of this massive tome, we're left with only the vaguest sense of narrative completion, with no real climax of denouement (unless you count a vague nod to the final shot of Von Sternberg's Morocco), and with certain last minute confessions seeming almost like a 'last call' hack-twist rather than a legitimate and satisfying wrap-up, well.... you can always try watching it again, real soon. Chances are, it won't even be the same movie. I've seen it three times now and the interwoven strands still lead me into knots, just trying to explain or write them down makes me dizzy in the best possible way. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Shark Weeks and Triangle Weekends: AnAcidemic Summer Reading List

 It's Shark Week on Discovery; and the ingeniously original "Sharkfest" on Nat-Geo (Streaming on Disney+!), in other words, more than ever, it's the right time to stay home in the AC, reaching to the slimy bottom of of your nigh-empty COVID excuse bucket to ward off pool and beach invites. By now you've gleaned summer is my least favorite season, I loathe the sticky heat (being half-Nordic). I am a big fan of doing the Huysmans A Rebors style beach trip, i.e. moving my easy chair so I can doze off with the afternoon sun hitting me square in the face through a (closed) window, coconut oil below my nose (to give the illusion of suntan lotion), eyes closed, the roar of the shark show surf swimming in my ears... the resultant sensory canvas all but gives me that sudden drop ghost feeling you get sometimes while dozing off after spending a long time frolicking in the surf, all with the AC blasting.  So you know the drill. I'm a big fan of the shark week and the shitty-CGI-hottie-scientist Syfy channel shark movies, which have been slyly crushing the Bechdel test right in front of the unwitting faces of 'the Man.' I could write everything I've written all over again, but instead, to make it easy for you, dear reader, I've rounded up a list of everything you need to surf.... safely limb-wise, but dangerously psyche-wise:

(Nov. 2013)

The point is, SHARKNADO comes along, and a Ferris wheel rolls into the side of a four story international style apartment building like it's no big deal. Charlton Heston might drag that Ferris wheel roll out to three hours, but this film rushes along past it. Sharks in the bar, sharks in the traffic jam; "It's like old faithful!" as water shoots up from the sewers. "We're gonna need faith to get through that" over a flooded dip under an overpass. A douchebag boyfriend of the sulky daughter says: "Even if it is the storm of the century, Beverly Hill's rescue services are second to none!" And then he looks out the window, sees a shark in the swimming pool and before he can react a wave crashes through into the living room and his head gets bit off. And there was much rejoicing. If you ever played the game as kids where you had to be halfway up the stairs or on a chair or couch to avoid getting eaten by a carpet shark then yes you are in bad movie heaven. If the leader of the survivors, Finn, is a typical bleeding heart idiot who has to stop to help everyone, even school buses that look empty. "This is your problem, Finn!" bemoans the weary ex-wife (Tara Reid) - and we kind of agree, but then Boom! Turns out --there's scared kids in there, and a TJ Miller-ish bus driver way out of his depth! You saved another busload from the shahks, Finn! (more) 

(August 16, 2014)

That Fin was an ex-lifeguard gave him an excuse for his chronic rescuing out west. His idiot desire to rescue his family before they knew they were in danger was offset with a Hawksian sense of real time and tidal surge momentum. We followed the incoming flood from his bar on the beachfront to the boardwalk, the parking lot, downtown, and inland and up into the Hills. A tangible rainy vibe was to be found in their impromptu getaway car; the windshield wipers and radio traffic delays, snarls and very LA dialogue about traffic ("I hate the 405") meshed perfectly with the conversation on where to go from there, creating a vibe familiar to anyone who's ever left a drunken party with a new maskeshift tribe piling into the car to head off to a second location.  We had John Heard as the comic relief, bashing sharks with his barstool; barmaid Nova (Cassandra Scerbo - above left) brandishing shotgun and shark scar backstory; wingman Jason Simmons helping with the heavy lifting and car rentals; Finn doing the posturing. Together they raced with the inward tide as it filled the streets and stalled highway traffic with sharks and flotsam, leading to exit ramp winch rescues, and various members of his party being eaten. 

In short, SHARKNADO had a lot of things going for it the sequel lacks. (full)

July 27, 2015
Subtextual pro-NRA ultra neoconservative Army recruitment tool or no, watching Tara Reid give birth while falling through Earth's atmosphere inside a giant flaming shark, Fin cutting a whole so the parachutes can get through, it's tough to stay mad at America. Reid's skin looks much better, by the way, than in previous episodes. And it's great to see Nova again, especially all militarized like that. I just hope the Syfy/Asylum brain trust wise up and give Nova her own local girl vs. shark series. She's that old animal flesh creeping back again, a thumb in the eye of the CGI Moreau! Second Amendment 4-Eva! (more)
(June 30, 2016)
It used to be just a hodgepodge of dull oceanographers tagging and mapping trans-oceanic migrations, puncture-aided by AIR JAWS, which was three or four great "strikes" of a whale-sized Great White breaching up and clomping down on a stack of seal-shaped tires, over and over, which is bound to be aggravating for the shark, wasting much energy (I always feel bad - were the sharks compensated for their effort? Were substantial fish subsidies paid from the stern?). But the whole week has been getting better every year, with shit aimed so close to me and stoners of a certain age group that it's like Discovery Channel has been reading our dinosaur minds or admiring the numbers on SHARKNADO. Every year there's more cool shit--including endless tie-in advertisements and cross-channel synergy-- aimed so precisely at my demographic that I feel like I'm getting high with all of America. Eli Roth hosts shark talk shows. Andy Samberg does weird trickster post-modern count-downs. SHARK CITY chronicles dishy encounters between a few residents of the local food chain in and around a sunken freighter. Mmy favorite so far: SHARKS OF THE SHADOWLAND and its trio of badass New Zealand government conservationist divers subjecting themselves to the ceaseless group attacks by weird-looking sharks called sevengills, all in the name of battling sea weed plagues!  (more)
(August 15, 2018)
Consider Angie Teodoro Dick as the wild neopagan she-shaman with the spear (above), leader of the rogue New Orleans voodoo style outpost, who deals with the advancing shark issue by a kind of savage STOMP!(TM) performance on the floating docks, drawing the sharks in so she and her warriors can stab them with old-timey whaling harpoons. The warrior's spirited growling and chanting and thumping goes on about three minutes too long, but the bad vibe created by their eventual senseless shark slaughter is interesting in context.. (more)
(August 2, 2019)
For reasons known only to them, Syfy isn't deluging us with their Asylum and Offshoot giant and mutant shark movies this summer. Maybe because they don't have a Deep Blue Sea 3- Blewing Deeper, or an Arctic Sharktadon vs. Lobsterdamus (the visionary lobster who predicts a scalding, buttery armageddon), or Sharknado 7 - Drowning Around. It doesn't matter, as no fan of this genre would remember having seen all their back catalogue, even if they had. And most are still either Syfy 'on demand' or Amazon Prime. So just play catch up and leave it to me to make the notes, together we'll remember everything worth remembering... which is nothing. Isn't it (finally) wonderful?..(cont)

(Sept. 18, 2019)
...if the Jennie the Mermaid element of the film was all done as some kind of Harvey-Walter Mitty style fantasy, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. I would have never watched it. Unless it's Sherlock Jr., I have no interest in movies about the cinematic dream lives of workaday schmucks. Instead, by revealing nothing whatsoever the Depths delivers the full mythic power of an actual dream, the kind spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to. The Bermuda Depths is one of the few films to ever tap fully into the true power of anima projection. The filmmakers know that if there was some big twist at the end, i.e. 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 if the film relied on any rational or even metaphysical 'explanation' for the mysteries, it would be totally lame. But the way it's all filmed, the way the story goes down, it never loses its Jungian "on-the-one" beat, where the film itself is a dream from which there is no waking, only a renouncement of one layer of the dream, which may or may not be a transition to adulthood, for another. (more)

"Furthering the sunglasses and turquoise Florida ecstasy-dilated forward kinetic momentum of Spring Breakers, Korine keeps rolling even though he's too old to party with the club kids. They're exhausting, and so violent, so he's moved into the headspace of a grizzled old stoner, bopping down the Keys, click-clacking the words, and spreading poetry instead of violence. Unless you count poetry as violence, or think the occasional cold cocking of a cripple is somehow immoral. Moondoggie (Matthew McConaughey) doesn't and if Harmony disagrees, he ain't 'breakin." He and the Doggie are sailing with the ocean wind at full speed and damned the too torpedoed to keep up with the headlong momentum of a poetic madman high on an everything that comes his way. Swapping out Breakers' Saint Pete for the party-hearty Key West - a 24/7 raging town where everyone knows and loves the Moondog (no relation to the famous NYC street musician - except perhaps subliminally), the mood is strictly amniotic and delusional. Here's a guy famous--in Florida no less--for being a poet!" (full)

(re; UP FROM THE DEEP): Longtime Corman scriptwriter Charles B. Griffith directs with a nice leisurely (i.e. fairly inept) hand, figuring that if he follows the Jaws chalk marks while sneaking in hipster gags and soaking up the tropical charm (it's shot in the Philippines, but set in Hawaii), he can coast by without barely doing a thing at all. But his camera is so sloppily placed it seems like half the movie is going on in the background while the foreground lingers on a couple of tourist stereotypes shooting the shit (post-synced) at the lobby pamphlet rack. The action picks up once the death toll is so high that greedy hotel manager Forbes can no longer hissy fit it away so he ingeniously offers a cash prize for the monster's head, prompting a run on the Tiki lounge's decorative spears; visiting the gun counter at the local pawn shop. That's when it gets real Mad Magazine: a Japanese salaryman busts out a samurai sword, doing moves out on the rocks while two guys in full frogman suits walk backwards down the hotel stairs, and so on. It would almost come off like a savage satire of American second amendment zeal if it was filmed with a bit more panache. (more)

(on BLUE CRUSH) "The common critical response to the film at the time was that the awesome photography more than made up for the trite story and bland acting, but most (male) critics have a hard time accepting truly free girl character. If you can look past the surface colloquialisms this is practically a Howard Hawks film for young women: overlapping dialogue, strong camaraderie, a  good sense of continuity; issues of courage, maturity and nobility. Best of all, the issue of romance getting in the way of your dreams–yeah you heard me, ladies: romance getting in the way of your dream, instead of romance being your dreams-–is handled with care and ballsy skill." (more)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Free to Be You vs. Me: SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

There's been an exciting upswing in the media presence of trans and/or non-binary young people these days, not merely activists or carpetbaggers but genuinely cool, free, unique types better than both boxes checked together; I wouldn't dare name some and by error omit others, but I think they can perhaps be measured in their coolness by their response to Sleepaway Camp, which in today's climate might be deemed 'problematic' in its association with what is and isn't horrific (or further, how a girl might change her sex due to a boat propellor or if that even fits into anything.) I think it bodes well for the future that the heroine of the film is also a murderer and has gone on to become a kind of gender-bending icon, as well as a kind of de facto female Freddy/Jason for the slasher set. We need more like her! 

There's a lot going on in this strange, intentionally disjointed film we choose to call Sleepaway Camp, especially the much ballyhooed shock ending. I only recently finally saw it, having lifted my self-imposed ban on all early-80s slasher films (the feminizing scars of my squirmish 80s boyhood finally healed) and was amazed how well it captures the vibe of my own experiences at summer camp. Watching one lazy Sunday afternoon, I fell under its spell and began to feel like I was actually there, thanks to its languid pace and crowded mise-en-scene. Most importantly, it gives us the coolest pair of kids in all of camp slasher moviedom: Ricky--played with  tender but unshowy ferocity by Jonathan Tiersten--and his catatonic cousin Angela (the indelible Felissa Rose), who barely know each other but are packed off to summer camp as one unit by their very weird guardian (Desiree Gould, who makes Deborah Reed in Troll 2 seem restrained) after a weird boating accident. 

Summer camp is terrifying until you get through the first few nights; after that it becomes a mix of giddy anarchy, boredom and relentless dirtiness. If you've already been there, maybe you aren't so apprehensive. Ricky was at the same camp last summer -- he's a legacy! He made friends there! But it's the first time off in the boonies for cousin Angela. Not exactly shy or terrified per se, while Ricky renews acquaintances, Angela just sits around, quiet and unassailable as the Mona Lisa, doing, saying, and eating almost nothing. She doesn't even seem to be miserable, she gives the world around her nary a clue as to her inner life, causing most of the other campers and counsellors various degrees of consternation. Initially attracted by her mystery, the more hormonal idiot males circle her like predators, irritated by her lack of reaction to their overtures and provocations. The girls in turn are irritated by the attention she gets from the boys they mistake her impassivity for snootiness. In one way or another, everyone is provoked and then irritated by her serene disinterest. Counsellors try to make sure she's fed and unmolested but even they wind up on the outside. If they push too hard, bad things tend to happen. If they just let her be, no one mysteriously dies.

Ricky, in the complete opposite camp, comfortably ensconced with his rowdy but cool boys-only clique, doesn't care if his cousin doesn't want to engage. Whatever she wants is all right with him. He lets her sit there, and only steps in if someone starts bothering her. He protects but doesn't engage. This rote proximity-respectful chivalry is a great character detail that gives Ricky a kind of untarnished nobility. He doesn't have to understand her. As far as he's concerned, she's all right as she is.

Being a slasher movie, plenty of offensive people at this camp don't respect Angela's space, and soon end up dead. But it's not with the murders that Sleepaway Camp earns props from me; it's not just because of the 'shock ending.' 

For me, it's the curious way the male counsellors are all Italian muscle guys in super tight  shorts and white tube socks (the style of the time). It's the campers, the vivid ugliness of the way white socks look with grubby sneakers and shorts, over legs just beginning to sprout hair; it's the young cast's richly lived-in semi-improv vibe; it's the slovenly look of the group cabins--awash in snack bags wet bathing suits, towels, floor stains, clumps of clothes, late sleepers--and the almost von Sternbergian way kids race in and out of the ratty screen door at the edge of the frame, to quick grab their swim suits or baseball gloves, laughing at something we didn't hear, and then racing out again. The many daytime scenes and lived-in mise-en-scene make it more of a summer camp movie with slashing rather than a slasher movie with camping. Its characters breathe and bicker like actual people and when they die it's not because they have 'transgressed' but because they wandered off the real people reservation. When they cease being original and real and become a camp stock cliches--bully, pedophile, mean girl, date rapist, blackmailer, etc.--it makes the subsequently inflicted violence more rewarding than scary. Unlike most slasher of the era, the moral is not 'stay a virgin' (these kids are too young for that), but stay a true character, fluid and 3/D--keep it real or face the consequences.

Ricky, especially, never falls into cliche- and he stands as a refreshing holdover from the kids of the 70s movies, who were often badass little punks (see CinemArchetype 23: the Wild Child), like Matt Dillon, Jodie Foster, and Jackie Earle Haley, i.e. the days when characters like that were the good guys. This was a time when junior high schools had student smoking areas. It wasn't until E.T. that kids all became doe-eyed saints. Before then we would have taken Tobey Maguire and kicked him into a trash can. It's no wonder most of us (male moviegoers) wind up conditioned to wince whenever a new boy shows up for his first day of school in a movie. He's generally pushed into a locker before he even gets to his first class. Never is there a boy we can identify with and admire and trust to take care of himself regardless of whatever new hell he's packed off to. But now and again we have a scrawny nerd who relishes the chance to throw down against some idiot twice his size--ala Dreamcatcher, Over the Edge, Bad News Bears, Brick --and man, it's such a relief! A kid like this may get their ass kicked, but they never lose their moxy or our respect. All bullied kids need to see such things, to learn it's not if you win or lose it's that you're not cowering, or avoiding, or pussying out--that cowardly avoidance echoes throughout the remainder of your life as the default settings for your behavior when forced into any threat or conflict. Even picking himself out of a trash can, Bad News's little blonde Tanner (Chris Barnes) is more of a badass than all the Karate Kids combined because no matter the size or number of the other kids, he won't back down. They have to throw him in the trash just to be sure he doesn't follow them and slash their hamstrings with a homemade shiv.

Nowadays, this fighting spirit is so repressed and shunned it can only explode in ballets of high school gun violence. Even then it's only by armed loners, never by fed-up masses of kids determined to fight back against curfews and petty institutional persecution or over-parenting. In fact, these kids today, they don't know how bad they have it, because they're whisked into child therapy the moment they fight back. 

For my generation--who ran wild in the 70s with a degree of freedom that would terrify parents and children of today--badass kids in films gave us ideals to strive for; they provided a compass for the chaos. Jan Michael Vincent teaching Jackie Earle Haley to drink beer and to drive a futuristic tank-trailer in Damnation Alley; Jackie Earle Haley tooling on his dirt bike,  and smoking a cigarette in Bad News Bears; Claude pounding a 1.75 liter of bourbon on his way to a party in Over the Edge... Nowadays? the Haley equivalent can't get on a motorbike without a helmet and elbow pads, even if the diegetic child protective services is long-since nuked.

A lot of the lamer adult filmmakers think kids identify with, and like to see, other kids in movies. It's one of the great tragic mistakes of pop culture history (and that goes double for sidekicks - i.e. Robin, Short-Round, etc - any kid who has a poster of Short Round, or Robin, or Superboy [1] on his wall - run.). There's only one kid we--as kid viewers or badass adults who remember being kid viewers--want to identify with:, the Wild Child. We saw them running amok in films like Logan's Run and--of course--the "Bop! Bop!" street gang in Star Trek. We don't want to identify with the goody-two-shoes kids our own age. We want to be older. We wanted to be Han Solo, not Luke. We may identify with the scared first day kid getting passively shoved against the lockers, but we don't want to. And we'll hate any movie that tries to shove this little pisher down our throats. The badass wild child, on the other hand, he's all right. He's got guts, and sometimes guts is enough, even if he ends up getting beat up and shoved into a trash can, he's all right. 
END TIRADE (sorry, ahem)

Why this is all worth mentioning is to praise by contrast a dirt-encrusted kid like Ricky, who can get along with most of the kids without being either the showboat center of attention or a bully, is a great fresh air blast in a sea of one dimensional stock kid types; he had a girlfriend the previous summer, and she's back but dating another dude, so he's hurt but tells her off and gets over it. He holds his own against the bully contingent--he bullies the bullies, if you will. Neither a nerd nor a Ferris Bueller smartass, Ricky quickly re-establishes his pack of cronies and starts going about his summer camp activities, keeping his troubled cousin always within eyeshot, but always leaving her to do her thing, which is...what? Sitting still and watching? It's her thing, man, leave her alone!

Is she in a kind of fugue state? What's Angela's deal?  Is she doing some weird act in a VC Andrews style plot? It's as if the camera hypnotizes her in place. She only comes alive when the camera isn't looking for her or at her, at which point the killer's POV takes over, craftily hiding in tight spaces and waiting for the perfect macabre "accident"opportunity to present itself: a drowning, a hornet nest tossed into the shower, scalding vat of hot corn-cob boiling water in the camp kitchen... all befalling the deserving. When it can't be blamed on freak accident anymore, the knife comes out. People get it right through the thin lining of shower stalls. Meanwhile Angela's taciturn disaffect seems like a red flag cape, inviting hormone-amped teens to charge at her, which in turn gives valid reason for their deaths. It's a kind of hormonal Mona Lisa Venus fly trap of projector screen anima-bivalence.

Man, those socks are so on point.

Ricky is no saint either - and in a unique centerpiece we see him and his boys play a very relaxed softball game that seems to go on for about ten whole diegetic minutes of the movie without building to a victorious climax or agony-of-defeat downer one way or the other (it's lulling without being dull). Getting the real rhythm of a summer camp softball game is hard--the way the distances between players necessitate different styles of throwing, the hit-or-miss at the bat, the satisfying 'thwump' of a base hit, etc., the bucolic real time of it casts a nice mood we wouldn't get in either loudly-scored exaggeration like Bad News Bears or misty Rockwell nostalgia like The Sandlot.  We're spared even the cliche of the kid busy playing his electronic game and missing the key fly!  Here he actually manages to put his boxing game away and go "oh shit!", put his glove on and catch the fly -- all without slow motion and cheering and swelling horns.  If anything, the victory is in the way it captures the leisurely stillness of an actual game, the peculiarly laid-back rhythm of the sport itself. In fact, to make it all the better, Ricky's a bit of a bad winner, rubbing the losing team's face in their gambling loss, deliberately inviting retaliation from the other camp's team so he can have something to retaliate back to, getting into a brawl for no reason other than the game's yin demands an uproarious yang. Watching I could feel that itchy constant of phantom wet socks under grass stained pebble-soled Keds. 

I don't know how or why Hitzik figured a slasher film could really benefit from all this real time softball business, but it works. Each daytime scene is crowded with kids running around in and out of the frame in an almost Von Sternberg level of movement from all directions and angles; every cabin is laden with a very real-looking color-blind melange of socks and discarded camp shirts, sleeping bags and kids crashing in and out of the front screen door to pick up or drop off jackets, change into swimsuits, etc. Campers race into the bunks to either shed a sweater or grab one depending on the weather change, then zip out as if they're keeping a game waiting, all hopped up on kid energy for the activity at hand. Friendships are struck or missed out on in each brief contact. On the whole, these campers are nice, normal, trying their best. Most make an honest effort to break through Angela's haze, and don't hold it against her that they can't. It would be much easier to just have a few campers in each shot, but this camp is thriving and on the whole, benevolently run without being mawkish or overly "nice." The head counsellor, is a muscle-bound Italian-American dude in tight shorts who looks like he should be bullying a guy named Eugene or combing his hair in a gas station mirror but he's actually a stealth sweetheart who makes a concerted effort to find Angela something to eat in the kitchen after she refuses to eat anything at dinner. He seldom leaves a medium or wide shot, just materializes in and out of frame to try his best to make Angela comfortable, then sails on in a seamless Hawksian flow. 

Even the few bad apples are--a few loathsome creeps aside--really just restless, seething with hormonal surges they can't control, taking out their energy in a way that, deep down, is probably well intended. Her enigmatic silence proves such a challenge to the hormonally unhinged older male campers they all but try attack her yet they barely make a dent on her serene distance (not sure if that was written into the character other than making it seem like actress Felissa Rose was struggling to keep a straight face. It's so refreshing not to worry about either of these two groovy wild kids: they take care of themselves just fine. We're put in the position of feeling bad for boisterous, creepy, bitchy, and horny idiots who unwittingly sign their own death warrants just because they can't abide that sphinx impassivity. It's so refreshing it's like a plunge into a cold lake after seemingly decades trapped in stale unairconditioned cliche classrooms.

Other characters in the film also defy cliche: I like that the camp manager Mel (Mike Kellin) with his cigar is cool without being callous, and amiable without being soft ( He watches the boys fight while talking to some counsellor girl - barely interested in either the fight or chat with the girl but keeping an eye on everything- to let the drama play (he'd probably intervene if they brought out weapons or he saw real blood). 

That's another great thing, the welcome anti-pedophile sadism, as when the scalded would-be rapist cook screams in agonizing pain and the other cooks and the camp manager just kind of stare glassy-eyed--without knowing for sure he had it coming just sensing it by the unseen audience's rapture-- and all the doctor can do is leisurely imagine the agony he must be in, lamenting that his morphine can't cover all the pain at hand. It's icky but soooo much nicer than getting there through the cathartic engine most exploitation filmmakers rely on, wherein they have to 'out-traumatize' each other in depicting misogynistic ultra-violence in order to 'earn' the climactic cathartic revenge (as in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Here we get the correct ratio - a pound of retribution for an ounce of offense. 

Us cool nice dudes know that being castrated in the movies invariably implies you deserved it.

To paraphrase Naveen Andrews line in Planet Terror: We don't need the reason, sweetheart, just your balls.

The counsellors (the nice Italian stallion head counsellor Ronnie --Paul DeAngelo-- is in the red track suit)

The killer of Sleepaway Camp operates on a modus even more precise than the alienation caused by watching your friends or older siblings drift off for casual sex, leaving you--the only one who senses danger all around as you're not yet blinded and deafened by horomones-- alone at the campfire, or out swimming, or trick-or-treating. This hormonal call was Jason and Michael's trigger switch, their knifing and slashing marked a steadfast refusal to enter the realm of adult sexuality, either as an a priori rejection or a post-shaming after some fumbling attempt to alleviate their budding biological imperative. (The final girl's own pre-sexual wariness made her more aware of the killer's).  Blaming the killer's socially stunted sociopathic inhumanity on stunted sexuality is to get it backwards. What makes us 'human' is our resistance to the harsh whip and carrot of our body's biological urges. The scourge laid onto our backs is never consistent enough to become mere background noise. Our only salve is sex or killing, either is a welcome relief. Meanwhile, grace of kindness and support comes from somewhere more benign, not a carrot but a salve that reminds us we're more than just sex drives and latent violence. Like Ricky watching out for Angela--a higher power keeps us from reverting fully to the savagery our body relentlessly craves. 

But at the same time, why else are we at this stupid camp if not to kill kill KILL? Angela gets that. In the end, she is us, and her own spectator, which is why her kills are all conveniently POV. We can't even be sure she did them. There's more than one way to get a head.... or other appendage. 

1. Marvel doesn't have kid sidekicks --Stan knew the score, there's almost no recurring children characters in the whole MCU

Friday, June 04, 2021

Acidemic presents: Erich's 4 AM Favorites - on Youtube!

Erich Kuersten's "4 AM Favorites" as 4 AM is a curated list for the magic hour whether you are just waking up or staying up all night. People not alive to the moment are asleep, There is no pressure to do or be something as the people who pressure people are absent. If they woke up they'd try and drag you to bed with baleful eyes. Film bingers well know this hour, it's often where we first saw an Ed Wood film on TV in the 60s-70s. Stewed to the gills, hopelessly high and twisted, coming home from a night and early morning on the town or waking up as a child to sneak downstairs because you can't sleep, it's all the same. We 4 AM film watchers are all in it together. For me, it's the best time of all to be alive and in front of the screen. Your superego checks out at three AM prompt. Now you got nobody to shout over. Magic is afoot.

Here are some of the weird and wondrous films meant for those hours, now culled onto a youtube list, so you can just press play, open the browser window wide, bust another jug, tune up the couch and let the magic flow... and flow... til dawn and beyond. Perfect for on the road traveling, when all you got is a laptop or phone. Not as good as having the DVDs and a big screen, but sometimes emergencies. Sometimes there is no DVD to have, as in some of these like GET CRAZY, NADJA, MURDER BY THE CLOCK and the 1957 TV version of HEARTS OF DARKNESS. Sometimes there's a buggy. Etc. 

(PS none of them were uploaded onto youtube by me. I'm just curating! My own films--LACAN HOUR, QUEEN OF DISKS, et al-- are elsewhere, on the Erich Kuersten channel. It's different, and I do mean different.)

PPS - The original posting of this list was removed by either youtube or my employer (it was on a work gmail, oops!) So I had to redo the channel, which means it's not exactly the same as it was, more streamlined for the weird and the not readily available elsewhere, a perfect combination. I kept the original line-up in the links below (you can always find those films on the tube if so inclined). If you subscribed to the old one you may have to resubscribe to the new one; I am sorry!

Also, been reading the new BLEEDING SKULL book (on 90s), so adding some recent finds (thanks to the book's high praise) here, like Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo and Empire of the Dark, which has the funniest running by the most miscast leading man in the history of 35mm movies. 

Subject to change (as stuff is taken down by the man) but here are some writings on the films on my super
suede channel:

PONTYPOOL (2008) - since removed
FINAL CURTAIN (1961) - review coming soon! 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Somebody's Sins: SAINT MAUD, VIY

One subtopic of horror cinema that never grows stale (when done right) is folktale-sourced religious mania. I don't mean the dull misogynist witch burning and repressed hysteria, I mean the hallucinating, stigmata-and-schizophrenia ecstasy and torment of the holy fools. I also like the literal interpretations of bygone era's living mythology, ala 2015's The Witch, transferring to the audience the mentality that may well leave us all to believing witches were real. and the Catholic Inquisition saved humanity from a pervasive barbarous pagan evil that might otherwise have rendered mankind into a state of perpetual fear and savagery (instead of just being sexually frustrated maniacs unable to tell when they're projecting because Freud is still centuries away). 

Myth is more alive than ever; just check out the supernatural documentary on the Tavel Channel, the plethora of ghosts, aliens, shrouds of Turin exposed to radiation, miracles and youtube videos run through idiotic talking head commentary. Ghosts, demons, sea serpents, yetis, and aliens hover ever on the edge of scientifically consensual reality. Like true mythology, the best shows never quite cross over to fiction (and being dismissed as hoaxes, paredoloia or mental illness) or scientifically-consensual reality (and moving wholesale into some world-shattering new reality paradigm). The best supernatural horror films tap into that 'maybe' - ala The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist. As long as there's no ultimate signifier 'real' to contrast our protagonist's experience, we never know what is real or imaginary (i.e. if Shelly Duvall walked past the Gold Room and saw Jack at the bar, talking to an empty Shining air, for example, which would put a damper on the scary ambiguity.  Without that outsider/sane viewpoint, the first person experience of our main character has to be taken as real, in a vivid way we can experience in the safety of the theater or couch. We can, during this sacred temple space/time, believe everything we see kind of. The best campfire tales are the 'true' ones, the ones that happened to a friend of a friend, you swear it; even if we're 95% sure it's just an urban myth, the lingering jolt of fear wakens one's sleeping senses. When we know for sure you just made it up, that you're making it up on the spot--it loses a lot of its cachet. Watching a film, we can feel it's real even when clearly fiction; the same does not hold true in direct experience. 

When there's even the remotest chance it's real, Death becomes externalized and thus we become immortal, weightless, enraptured and divine. When there's no chance it's not real, our mortality crushes down on us like a great weight. 

Myth, then is truer than reality, because it creates a coherent language out of the randomness of direct experience. In myth, the devil literally lurks within every temptation, appearing in a cloud of smoke when someone mentions selling their soul for a drink. You can't say that devil is purely fiction. After all, the end result is the same. Just because he acts invisibly, his dark energy infusing its way into one's soul via fermentation rather than sulfur and smoke, doesn't make him any less effective. The extremes of light and dark breathe in myth the way they never do in reality (unless you're manic, schizophrenic, insomniac, tripping, and/or an alcoholic). I can't speak for schizophrenics, but I've been or am all the others on that list, and have seen both angels and demons, I've ridden the snake and walked inside the dragon. Once, for several weeks, I experienced that super rare 'pink cloud' where a flickering rose-tint infuses personal perception. AA members who stick the landing long enough to find the 'pink cloud' can tell you the same thing: the same Monday night meeting that at first was kind of a sad shuffle of broken nicotine-scented boredom and percolated coffee one week suddenly glows with a pink-hued love that makes just being there akin to paradise the next. Which one of the two is 'real'? 

Knowing these things can happen from firsthand experience, it make sense that the best movies I've seen in all of COVID--the age of internationally mandatory cabin fever--are about saints and spiritual pilgrims. The 2019 Irish horror film SAINT MAUD, one of the few newer films I've seen lately, is a slow-build minor masterpiece (written/directed by the improbably- named Rose Glass!) about a home care nurse (Morfydd Clark) sent to live with and care for Mandy, a terminally-ill dancer/choreographer (Jennifer Ehle) in a big artsy seaside mansion. Deeply lonely and an undiagnosed, the ascetic Maude gets these sexual current waves of pleasure when praying to her Catholic god; when the waves stop, she falls into a harrowing depression and puts broken glass in her shoes or kneels on pebbles for atonement, olidifying with ascetic intensity the link between modern self-cutting high schoolers and Middle Ages flagellants.  When Mandy grows afraid in the dead of night she she momentarily rides the Maud god train, and even catches one of the waves (maybe) while they kneel together. Taking this as a sign, Maud takes it on herself to ward off the dancer's partying lesbian hustler (a kind of anti-Maud) in a move I'm sure she doesn't realize is the sort of thing abusive caregivers do. But if you think she's going hobbles and starves Maud, or and makes her write with a broken typewriter or serves her cold parakeets, you're mistaken, I'm glad to say.

So where is this going. Maud, what are you up to? 

 We can never be sure 100% she's not a modern day Joan of Arc since we see only see and hear what she sees and hears. Thus we know there's no evil in Maud, just what we presume is her unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic hallucinations, misinterpreted as godly messages and interventions (as they often are). We feel for her especially if we've suffered from manic-depression or drug or alcohol addiction. She's addicted to the thrill of the touch of God, and when it dries up, she reaches out for booze and sex like she's drowning. 

Saint Maud veers with deft drunk savant brilliance out of the path of the typical cliches and snags that so often ensnare neo-horror psychotic female-protagonists, avoiding--though exploring--torture porn obsessions with, auto-mutilation / self-cutting (The Skin I'm In, Thirteen), romantic desperation (May), performance/ persona intertwining (Persona, Always Shine, 3 Women, Clouds of Sils Maria, Mulholland Dr.) or incapacitated victim/mentally-ill caregiver endurance tests (Baby Jane, Misery), Saint Maud's only cliche'd element are the usual smash cut ruts (1). The film's dusky cinematographic beauty and wild, cathartic transfigurative ending makes up for any stale passages. And if we've recently seen Dream No Evil (1970) and longed for a Ridley Scott cut (i.e. remove the pedantic voiceover).

VIY is the other of my new mythic religious faves, a 1967 Russian comic-horror piece about a young monk and a witch he winds up ensnared by after a spring break sleepover at a peasant barn.  Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, Viy has the rock hard power of genuine myth behind it and a great, wild-eyed hero in clowning Leonid Kuravlyov. A monk in seminary school (with the terrible bowl cut and burlap robe to prove it) he finds himself forced to read prayers over a beautiful dead girl by a cossack landowner whose word is basically law, at her dying request. It does not go well, and by the third night the witch is calling out the big guns, enough trippy demons coming out of the walls to trigger any bad salvia flashback. Luckily, there is an endless supply of vodka... at least if you live until the cock crows. 

Though we can see it working just as well in a trilogy ala Black Sabbath (1963), this short  (70 minutes) never seems dull even during the many day and morning scenes of the Philosopher's incessant escape attempts. The Russian folk horror detail is so point we feel like we're hearing this told by the fireside after a hard day at the harvest - deep in the vastness of rural Russia, where the closest law enforcement might be a three days drive away. Scenes such as when the Philosopher (as he's called by the cossacks) is ridden by an old farmer hag through the fields and the dosed sky like a human unicycle, have a fairy tale surrealism that both beguiles and amuses. There's an almost Hemingway-esque--contrast between the cool, ghost-filled nights of terror and the idyllic pastorale of central Russian farm life: singing, whining, and napping in the warm sun, with big peasant food spreads laid out and a never-ending supply of breakfast vodka. The Philosopher keeps trying to escape, but there's only emptiness outside this weird daytime paradise/nighttime Hell. It kept reminding me of being at summer camp in the Maryland woods in the early-80s when our nights were spent in terror of the Goatman, rumored to be loose in the woods, and that terror making every moment of sunlight seem extra precious. 

The only drawbacks to Viy are perhaps how short it is (barely over an hour) and the over-the-top English dub (which is the only option on streaming). Me, watching it on Shudder inspired me to get the Blu-ray so I could watch it in Russian - much better. It reminds me of those days at camp, the way fear of the Goatman in the dark made us laugh and sing in the daytime, made Jesus alive in our hearts. We all slept with our bibles (it was that kind of camp) and the power of the Jesus made us alive with the kind of love and light that only those truly terrified of the dark can have. We heard the Goatman in every rustle of leaves, every noise in the night; we never saw him directly, but he was there.  Viy and Saint Maud both get it. Believing is seeing. It's never going to be the other way around. 

1. You know what I mean, where boy meets girl with a kind of impersonal hello at some dingy bar and we smash cut to the last few seconds of some joyless hand job or mutually demeaning doggy style. Yawn. Maud, you're better than that!!  

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How the Hell Was Won: DEMONOID (1981), CRUISE INTO TERROR (1978)


Blame it on the foundation-rattling popularity of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby if you want, but the 70s was occult down to its bones, wilding out adults and children alike (if we were too young to see them in the theaters, we caught them edited on TV). The devil was--all through the 70s--kid-friendly; he carried a current of underground electric jouissance that connected our elementary school playground gossip chakras in a unified field of ouija boards, vividly recounted movie plots, slumber party telekinesis and deep dish absorption of TVMs like Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Crowhaven Farm, Horror at 37,000 Feet and the discussed in this issue, Cruise into TerrorThe uncanny magnetism of the neighborhood covens often depicted in these films acted as a sort of tribal mask obscuring the mysteries of adulthood, which lax (in hindsight?) parental guidelines enabled us to often witness firsthand, even with inflexible bedtimes preventing us from seeing them to the end (denied closure, we'd lie in bed and dream the endings, and lurid and dark those endings were, way more lurid and far darker than the chaste denouements rattled off for us by a half-asleep mom the next morning). 

I forgot to mention the preponderance--as holy children's writs---of scary 70s paperbacks. These were so important because if you saw a movie either on TV or the big screen and you loved it, you had to accept the fact you might never see it again. The only way to 'own' it would be to buy the novel or soundtrack album (or the bubblegum cards). The child of the 80s could have his mind blown by the 'horror' aisle at the video rental store, but for the kid of the 70s, it was the supermarket checkout paperback rack that promised the 'real' scares. While mom shopped we'd stand hypnotized by the beguilingly cryptic occult covers, that underground jouissance current snaking right into us.

That all changed in the 80s, of course, when we could at last own these films, as well as rent stuff far too gruesome or sexual to have ever even graced out TVs before; But today... now... these final days, for some of us, The Car,  Beyond the Doorand The Devil's Rain and The Legacy, abide. 

Oh yeah, and....these two...

(1981)- Wr./Dir. Alfredo Zacarias
*** / Prime Image - A+

DEMONOID might technically be from 1981 but if you melted down a 70s shelf full of occult paperbacks, then wrapped the result up in a mix of R-rated nudity and gore + PG-rated TV movie covering, Demonoid would be what was left. Here we have at all, packed into a 92 minute thrill ride: a severed hand racing around, possessing one person after another; crazy train/car chases involving possessed victims; subliminal flash cuts of the severed hand's accompanying demon, its clawed hand raised with a mighty sword; dazzling fashion juxtapositions such as Eggar's mixing hardhat and high heels); absurd lines and misguided hamminess; Stuart Whitman's half-hearted oft-vanishing Irish accent as the priest doubting his faith; a whole TV mini-series worth of crazy twists and ridiculous contrivances welded into 92 nonstop minutes full of a familiar prime-time ABC TV movie innocence that makes the moments of nudity and goofy gore all the more startling.

But best of all, for bad movie lovers like me: talented actors trying to be convincing wrestling with a rubber hand. No one beats this hand; its demonic aura affixes to the next victim, now both evil and inexplicably driven to sever their own hand and, if possible, offer it to Samantha Eggar on a silver tray. It was her who discovered the original hand--last affixed to a Mexican Inquisition-era topless hottie-- buried deep in her husband's Mexican silver mine. The hand belongs to her. Do you hear? It crawls up her leg while she's sleeping and tries to initiate a ménage à trois with her drunk miner husband Mark (Roy Jensen). It possesses him for a consolation and soon he's leaping from his grave after Haji (Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill) sets him on fire for winning on 24 consecutive tosses at a Las Vegas craps tables. He cuts his hand off by slamming it on the car door of the cop called to investigate, then the cop drives off in a hurry to go make a plastic surgeon cut off his hand, at gunpoint - no anesthetic, while forcing Eggar to watch. The movie has barely begun and we're already in such fucked-up awesome territory one finds oneself longing to smash their hand in the doorjamb to join the party.

Devoted readers know I'm a fan of evil mummy hand movies, especially Hammer's 1973 gem  Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (the best of the many adaptations of Bram Stoker's 1903 novella "Jewel of the Seven Stars"). This is kind of a Mexican-Spanish Inquisition riff on those adaptions, with the tomb discovered accidentally and the hand being far busier. It's its own thing, baby - and it zips fast. The giddy flavors of De Palma's Fury are here coupled to some of the spiritual tropes of The Exorcist, It's got it all. 

Dopey Stuart can't believe any of it, even God's holy power seems beyond his belief system. Will he, like old Father Karras ("how can I be of service when I have such personal doubts?" he actually says this during his opening prayers - I mean c'mon! And instead of running track like Karras, Stuart works out at the local boxing gym), make the ultimate sacrifice? Who cares? As the hand makes its rounds, its chosen hosts get so frisky and loco, even after being burned down their skeletons, that you can't help but applaud the reckless high-wire idiocy of it all, reserving eye rolls only for the half-assed soul searching of Whitman's continuously wrong-headed padre (does he really think a security detail --a pair of cops in their car outside her apartment---are going to protect her from a disembodied hand? ("What are they gonna do?" quips Eggar, "arrest it?"). 

Eggar is perfect in the role. Smart as a whip and never totally scared, only horrified. When she watches as the priest blow-torches off his evil hand while staring at her in an impressively unwavering, shadowy leer (above) it's as if great and terrible acting meters merge in the gas tanks of some tailspinning biplane and somehow keep it aloft for whole minutes after it should have crashed. When she widens them in horror, which is often, her eyes become almost perfect circles, so bright they shine right through the spiderweb spiral ironwork (top) from which she watches Stu blow-torch his hand while staring at her in shadowy, inscrutable Satanic gravitas. Richard Gillis' uneven score at times evokes the ominously advancing synths of Carpenter; at other times it's fairly generic TV suspense-ville, but if you love good-bad 70s TV movies, but all the sublimer for it, covering many abrupt tonal shifts and sublimely meshing with the nice cinematography, the shocking gore, and the environs of the different victims. It calls for us! As Sgt. Leo says, "In the name of evil, you and I must obey." 

------speaking of evil-confronting 70s priests, check out:

(1978) Dir. Bruce Kessler
ABC TV movie - **1/2    

Here's a Friday Night TV movie nearly every kid remembers from the tumultuous year of 1978 on ABC. I think I just got braces on or wisdom teeth out or had a throat infection or something as I have a memory of excruciating pain and lovely pain killers in alternating currents, which elegantly gelled with its narcotizing mix of what was by-then the well-trod formula of cushy Love Boat drama (sunny poolside bathing beauties, sunny Caribbean scenery, adultish situations amongst a guest list of has-beens and TV actors) and mild horror or disaster drama. There's also the reason we all remember it, for it has a unique spin on the mummy: here we never see a mummy or a ghost of a mummy; we see instead a child-size breathing Egyptian sarcophagus... possessing a sexy passenger list on a sexy cruise to Mexico. It may make no sense but its ominous synth version of "Dies Irae" predates Carlos' version in The Shining by two years, but it's a truly original, nonsensical idea, probably born from some writer dropping acid at the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit which was then all the rage. Whatever the origin story, I knew I could at last see the film again even though I'd forgotten the title and everything else about it, just by googling the words "breathing sarcophagus." See? We all remember.

Still, I was too giddy and/or sick to remember if I liked it at the time (probably not) but it turns out this is a cute little gem worth rediscovering for those with the fondness. Would there was a Warner Archive DVR or some such thing the way there was/is for Bermuda Depths or Terror at 37,000 Feet (the film incidentally fits between them in terms of watchability), if for no other reason than the scenery, and attractive women gamboling to and fro on deck. It would be great eye candy, as relaxing as a lazy hammock Sunday. 

Robert "Charles Townsend" Forsythe is a hieroglyph-reading missionary priest on a cruise with his sexually frustrated, lingerie-wearing wife (Lee Meriwether). Noted archeologist Ray Milland is on the ship, headed for sunny Mexico to prove his thesis there's an Egyptian tomb there. A physicist, assorted babes, and first mate Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica) are aboard as well, and they're expecting you... ooh...ooh.

No Love Boat this, though there is some bed-hopping (Starbuck is very busy) and sunny days scuba diving in beguiling bathing suits. What is the strange curse hanging over the ship, causing accidents and freak encounters, some fatal (amongst other 70s occult crazes was a fascination with the Bermuda Triangle). One of the near misses is a harrowing encounter between three lovely snorkelers and a "vicious" (small, blue) shark (any self-respecting child of the post-Jaws late-70s scoffed at the tourist's overreaction to this harmless specimen'). Then, the ship breaks down and leaves them anchored in the middle of the ocean, conveniently right over the spot where archeologist Ray Milland needs to dive for his missing Egyptian tomb, thanks to a handsome physicist named Matt Lazarus (Frank Converse) recalculating Ray's figures and tells him the tomb he's looking for is actually sunk below the waves, "two degrees off our present course!" Captain Andrews (Hugh O'Brien) can't say no to a dive when the ship stalls out over the exact spot. Everyone wants to dive for the treasure and be rich! Freak storms and accidents abound. Let's go diving!

Ripe for some Love Boat style ship corridor of shame cabin-creeping, the guest roster includes several cabins full of foxy ladies and hot-to-trot wives whose husbands are either frigid (Forsythe's priest) or too focused on work (Christopher George's wheeler/dealer stock broker). The others are mostly single: Stella Stevens, Lee Meriwether, Jo Ann Harris, Hilarie Thompson. Lynda Day George (with Christopher--her real-life husband). They're both still hot and bucking at the seams (George's crack about "I can still look at the menu" when the other bikinis pass by is the kind of passive veiled crack that makes a couple's single friends roll their eyes and snort like impatient stallions). Looks like Starbuck has to step in again with more late nights on, in the code used by him and the captain, "the 'entertainment committee.')

If you're a fan of 70s bad films you know the 'disparate slice of humanity forced to work together plotline was almost inescapable thanks to the popularity of Airport, Poseidon Adventure and 1977's Day of the Animals. And you know it's he 70s when virile men can rebuff the sultry come-ons of foxy ladies without judging them one way another; players like Dirk Benedict's first mate aren't depicted as sleazes in need of canceling so much as guys doing their manly duty to please the perfectly acceptable and natural desires of the passengers. If in our current climate you think that can't possibly be true, catch an episode of Love Boat, where the crew are all basically allowed and encouraged by the captain to bed down with the guest stars -- it's practically part of the job!-- and you have an inkling of how sex-positive we all were in the 70s. The national obsession with right-wing prudery had momentarily abated and mainstream America had what Alexander D'Arcy's gigolo piano teacher in 1937's Awful Truth call "a continental mind." 

That's one reason  70s TV movies are so fascinating, and remain so-- the openly sexually liberated prime time zeitgeist. 

As reverend Mather, Forsythe struggles just as much with seeming like a prude as he does with seeming to understand hieroglyphics (this was, after all, "Charlie").  When he reads an engraved tablet dredged up from below and exclaims"It's a serpent-headed bird!" or--reminding them of the fate of those sorry and/or dead archeologists who opened Tut's tomb and woke the "curse of the pharaohs"--demands the passengers not "mar that tomb!" can't help but draw laugh. Just like a buzzkill censorious reverend of the pre-code era, he seems determined to steer this vessel as far away from interesting and titillating as he can get it. On the other hand, at least he's not also having a crisis of faith  like Whitman in Demonoid or sulking and making shitty remarks like the mighty Shat in 37.000 Feet). Keenly aware of his limits as an actor, Forsythe never tries to hide himself in a 'performance' -- he knows his limits. 

And anyway, his priest is soon proven right. No sooner has the sarcophagus come on board than the cast is going full greedy savage arguing over where to sell the booty and how to split it, the evil spirit growing in strength the more bad vibes it sows. First its ruby eyes start to glow, then it breathes. We never even see it open! What is inside it? We never find out.  Its ruby eyes flash and cause sudden storms when someone tries to injure it, spooking everyone not under its malevolent sway. As more and more of the cast become sensually liberated agents of evil, the film gets funnier and freer. When Thomson snaps at her mousy friend Debbie (Jo-Ann Harris) for being too scared to even shoot a flare gun up in the air ("I'm scared, Judy!"). A flare gun for god's sake, if you'll pardon the expression. Of course Judy snaps! Finally and forever, full of devilish brio saying basically "stop following me around!" It's supposed to be the effect of the ancient evil at work (as in Exorcist) but it feels more like the effect of good, liberating shrooms. 

So does a sudden contempt for weakness and morality and unreserved attraction to earthly delight and fiery power make one evil, or just cool? Countering Forsythe's bland gospel is Milland ("I do not believe in biblical fantasies!") The captain (Hugh O'Brien) tries to explain all the deaths and storms and ship failures as coincidence, though it gets harder and harder as the freak events accumulate. 

Still, there's no arguing with a skeptic, and sometimes that's a good thing: "There is a devil --it's in here, all of us --his name is greed, fear and all of the ugly things we can never face." So deep, bro. He even has a fancy poem to send us all to bed in a cautionary mood:

There is a devil, there is no doubt,
but is he trying to get in us
or trying to get out?
Gee dad, why can't it be both? As a Pisces, I'm comfortable with that kind of ambiguity.

The 70s will all end soon enough, the age of Pisces gone deep to Davy Jones', where it began- splattered like a glass goblet on the sidewalk outside the Dakota. (1).

But was the evil of libidinal freedom vanquished, or was the good of libidinal freedom stifled?


Some Other Good Occult Movies of the 70s:
1. The first Dakota death-- Terry Gionoffrio in Rosemary's Baby in 1968 (the first attempt at impregnation, inside a fiction that manifest in culture as a televisual reality) to Lennon in 1980 (in a reality dictated by fiction) - in each case a metatextual rupture - the devil's favorite kind, though the early 80s Satanic panic hysteria effectively drove him underground by then, back under the rug of our collective unconscious, the covens replaced by a sea of slashers, just as the paperbacks were replaced by video rentals
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