Thursday, October 30, 2008

Terrifying Commercials from Childhood: Silent Night, Evil Night (AKA Black Christmas)

I can't remember exactly why, but I was alone in the house on an average autumnal afternoon in Lansdale, PA in 1974 - and I was half-asleep on the couch watching TV... probably Dr. Shock! I would have been around seven years old.

Suddenly it was as if a nightmare opened up in front of me like a yawning chasm, as if the hell of my most feared childhood nightmares had been in the basement of our suburban corner house all the while (our basement, rough and unfinished with cement and mud walls, was terrifying in itself, I always ended up running back up the stairs, regardless of the time of day or nearness of my mom). But this basement was different, it was someone else's and the thing in it was now free, and had locked its eyes with mine.

On TV, a window with long billowing curtains at night - maybe broken glass - flash cuts to a girl being suffocated with a plastic bag (which we'd all been taught to fear in kindergarten). The window was practically my front door, for suddenly the lights seemed to go out in the world outside; the door kicked open. The curtains blew. Whatever was out there or down there was now up here and in here.

Then the title came zooming out: "Silent Night.... Evil Night...." - Christmas was canceled.

I thought I was about to be murdered, seriously, like the first step is that your sacred TV is turned against you. This was how it happened. It was the longest, scariest stretch of time in my young life up to that point. I was too paralyzed by fear to get up and switch the channel (no remotes in 1974).

Looking at this trailer from the distance of an ironic 34 years later on youtube, I can't be sure if it's exactly what I saw (it was called Silent Night, Deadly Night in my mind; the narration was different, that I remember) but it sure was LONG, or so it seemed. It was like a whole separate mini-movie - too long for an ad, too short for a film, but long enough that I wasn't sure it would ever end. Maybe that was just how life was now....

Remember, I was watching a monster movie at the tim. I was a confirmed monster freak, with all the Aurora glow in the dark monster models, and a die-hard fan of local TV creature features, but there were no VCRs, no way to "capture" a film you liked; everything was ephemeral, one-time only...

And this was the only time I saw the commercial for SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT. It sort of fell into the realm of dream... a nightmare. Then, when I saw BLACK CHRISTMAS years later, I suddenly had a brief chill like deja vu. Then, seeing the commercial above rather randomly, it flooded back -that one moment when nightmares and reality merged to the point of personal apocalypse, and then was gone.

But even now I have a hard time even looking at the BLACK CHRISTMAS DVD cover. Do they really have to show the chick with the plastic bag on her head? Just looking at it, my lungs feel panicky...(which is why I'm not showing it; you can link to it, though, here).

That's the end, I guess. Funny how that happens. Maybe that means there is a god, that once in awhile we're given a glimpse of true personal terror, just to scare us straight?

It didn't work, but maybe it never does.

Monday, October 27, 2008

As a Sinner He's a Winner: The CITIZEN KANE of Timothy Carey

The cable TV event of the century--more or less--happened this weekend with the 2 AM screening on TCM of Timothy Carey's more or less forgotten classic, THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER! (1962) If you don't know about it, imagine Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD if it was edited with a sling blade by the cross-eyed stepchild of John Cassavetes and Ed Wood, with a soundtrack by a pre-famous Frank Zappa and narration by Paul Frees (as the devil).

Carey plays an insurance salesman who has an off camera spiritual awakening and becomes convinced he's God and everyone is immortal or will be if they follow him. He shoots up the ladder of success by becoming a rock star and the blasphemy escalates until his ultimate cosmic comeuppance, or doesn't it?

SINNER is truly disjointed and cacophonous, with no connecting tissue between the studio set-bound "sound-engineered" scenes and the MOS hand-held outdoors (with the Frees' narration) and badly-miked crowd shots, making it herk and jerk around like so much indie drive in cinema of the age (i.e. H.G. Lewis). But Carey is hilarious and even touching as a sort of a slovenly Brooklyn-accented mumbler gone messianic. The method beat lummox-ishness of the great Carey fits the slovenly picture so that he seems like some big dumb Phraedo/Lenny-style brother to the young Brando/James Deans of better-made films. You can imagine him trailing behind them, screaming look Mikey, I made me a pitcha too, right? Not as pretty and fancy as yours Mikey, but Mikey! Mikey, it's fa ME! FAH ME!

Of course, the messiness of it all is just fine. We're here not for connective narrative tissue but to see Carey shake and rattle like a Santeria serpent god swallowing an electrocuted Elvis, and that's what he does. He's also sweet and fatherly at times, nervously maniacal at others. His truck with deviltry has the same desperate ring as it does for Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT or Captain Cutshaw in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, men who rant and rage against God because they desperately need a sign He existeth. For that kind of spiritual blasphemy / acceptance to work, you need an actor of titanic scope, who can be the whole show, an evangelist still ranting even as the tent catches on fire and collapses atop him.

That said, carrying the whole tent on his shoulders is clearly a strain on old Tim. A weird-talking method maniac in general, Carey in SINNER has the weary look of someone who's running himself ragged. Directing and staring in a low budget film at the same time clearly is much more difficult than one would think, even when just shooting on weekends or in-between paid big studio character actor jobs. He appears exhausted in some scenes and manically elated in others. One worries for him. But a lot of the time he's... perfect. Gamboling around the staage, lapsing into brilliant oration ala Willie Stark in ALL THE KINGS MEN, he's got that X-factor in spades.  Mostly playing strange-talking beat freaks and mob enforcers, one would never guess his deeply humane, affectionate side. He clearly loves his horse and regards all humans with a sleepy naturalistic affection. I especially like how he calls everybody "deah"--as in "No, my deah, you don't need insurance."And in between the studio shot scenes and live concert ranting, the film finds plenty of time for him to nuzzle with his wife and menagerie (he also has a snake and a Great Dane), which helps the whole thing drift towards family album status. It's if, to make it to feature length, Carey had to use every scrap of film in his attic, including home movies.

Doesn't matter - it's all priceless.

His new religion is never quite fleshed out (just how is he going to make everyone immortal?) but it's worth playing along, humoring his conceits, just to watch him make out with old rich lady sponsors and-- most of all--to shake his flabby frame on stage during his frenzied rock orations: half in a voodoo trance, half Corman-esque Elmer Gantry-channeling beatnik (his assistant urges him to glue on a fake goatee because it makes him look "better"). Sure, even that gets repetitive but at least it's never phoned in. It's a mess but, like the man himself, a true original. 

Hmmm, come to think of it - Robert Duvall produced THE APOSTLE and there's some similarity. I totally support actors who want to get their  megalomaniacal desire to be adored and adulated out onscreen and have the balls to go for it all the way, to let the demons out in the name of love rather than sublimating and subtextualizing and cuddling it down like Kevins Spacey and Costner and of course Robin Williams, which to me is treacly and suspicious, especially when compared to the ravenous and infectious madness of Duvall and Carey.

Maybe that's the difference between the real nuts and those who just pursue nuttiness the way a man with no mouth pursues a glass of water. It all boils down to love. It's the difference between those who love you and those who want you to love them. Tim Carey loves you. If he had his way he'd pull you into the celluloid and start making out with you, no matter who or what you are. I think he French kisses just about everyone and everything in this movie, but he does it out of love, not as some tawdry prelude to groping, and so it's pure. Do you hear me, Spaceys of the world?? PURE!!!!! 

Those who want to live forever must do so through othahs.  

As Carey puts it in the film, "yer all gods, and ya gonna live forevah.."

 I can't watch the whole mess in one sitting, but I believe he means it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Walter Huston goes KONGO (1932)

My eyes are still popping out of my head after seeing Kongo (1932) which ran on TCM earlier this week (and for you who missed it will hopefully run again or be seen on DVD sometime in the GODDAMN CENTURY, Jesus X Christ, what are these studios waiting for?) I begged into the winds of blogginess last spring that the powers that be would release a special Forbidden Hollywood Pre-Code Set: Jungle Horrors! With White Woman and Island of Lost Souls, but those two titles are like Shirley Temple musicals compared to the gleefully over the top sadism that runs rampant in KONGO! After Kongo I'm so sweaty and drained I hope they NEVER realease any of these lurid jungle horrors on DVD! They're EVIL!

Based on a play that originally ran in 1926 with Walter Huston and Virginia Bruce, (who also star in this film version), Kongo is also a remake of the Lon Chaney silent film West of Zanzibar. Silent film devotees might laud Chaney, and/or say Huston is channeling Chaney here, but I'd say it's more the reverse since Huston originated the role in the theater. Plus, if you love Huston as I do, you will know he would never just emulate someone else or walk through or just ham around in a role where he's the center stage tyrant. Lupe Velez is in the Jean Harlow role of good natured floozy who lives at Flint's trading post/bar, where she spreads her charms liberally and gets drunk with Flint's two dimwitted white flunkies. All is "well" until Flint makes his move for revenge... involving pulling a sweet innocent white woman played by Virginia Bruce out of her Cape Town convent and dragging her into the pits of HELL!

Infamous for his tight control of a vast 80 mile section of the Congo, Flint hoards ivory and controls the local tribes via displays of magic tricks all while planning his OLDBOY-style revenge against the guy who carved up his face and left him crippled to die. This plan involves Flint taking custody of his enemy's daughter and putting her through an all girls convent school, only to pull her out on her 18th birthday and throw her into a Zanzibar brothel for a year or two (it wouldn't any fun if she grew up debauched and had no height to fall from; Flint gets her all holy virginal before tossing her to the crew, as it were). After she's sufficiently debauched he drags her out to his godforsaken corner of the jungle, gives her "black fever" and strings her along on booze and beatings. Meanwhile, a white doctor (Conrad Nagel) in the throes of addiction to some kind of local opiate root shows up, and Flint tries to get him clean (via leeches!) so he can operate on Flint's back. But Lupe Velez secretly risks having her tongue cut out in order to bring the doc all the root he can handle in exchange for sex. And that's not all! A parade of sadistic horrors are either narrowly escaped from and/or inflicted offstage while Huston roars in sadistic laughter; and what about the native practice of burning women alive on their dead husband's funeral pyre? GOOD GOD! This was made in 1932!? It's actually too much to handle, even for a pre-code junkie like me!

In short this movie has everything! Man, I haven't felt this traumatized after a 1930s film since catching the unedited Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1933). Part of the pleasure of the pre-codes is in trying to fathom just how X-rated and lurid they can be; we're just conditioned from childhood to think of old black and white films as being safe, innocent fun. When we see something like Kongo or Jekyll, it's like having the bottom drop out on all our socialized expectations; like being all prepared for a boring three hour lecture and having the professor start shooting up speed, passing around brandy and reefers, flogging the latecomers, and cutting off the tongues of anyone who talks without raising their hand.

Bruce and Huston's performances here are beyond "riveting"-- each feels very "lived in" (thanks probably to their time spent together in the 1926 play version); like they've been dragged through the ringer, hating at each other like tomcats tied together by the tails. If you've had a chance to catch Huston's wild-eyed cattle patriarch perfection in Criterion's The Furies, you know how ably this man can embody a super-manipulative, authoritative nut job, roaring in laughter when a man tries to shoot him, weilding his whip like a cross between Indiana Jones and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, and playing with his weird chimp companion or awarding bottles of brandy as rewards for debased behaviors. Like Brando in Streetcar, you hate him for crushing the spirits of the weak, but love him for his canny bravery and raw animal humor. (as opposed to, say the just plain shitty Rocco in Key Largo, who wont give his poor alcoholic mistress a drink even after she debases herself by singing - that I will never forgive). For her part, Bruce is a powerhouse who matches Huston in sheer seething rage, and despite all her torments, she still possesses a sense of humor and a grip on sanity and dignity that can't be destroyed; for all her ranting she's much more an Anna Christie than a Broken Blossom.

With typically detailed MGM production design, Kongo's action doesn't play out in the jungles so much as the bar and bedrooms of Huston's compound - and holds just enough stock footage (probably taken from West of Zanzibar)to make it interesting: The only animals you see are crocodiles, snakes and spiders! No boring zebras or antelope herds. More than anything, Kongo is a valuable window into a time when "going native" in the mind of Hollywood and post-Victorian morality meant being a law unto yourself and indulging in whatever capricious and kinky cruelty suited your mood. The implied notion of Africans as inferior savages to be manipulated and abused runs strong and deep, and once the flames of sadism get going, the white woman is next! We see in pre-code jungle horrors like Kongo that the tortures and degradations of SAW, HOSTEL and their ilk are nothing new. Though this kind of kinkiness was abolished during the bloodless reign of "the code", before 1934 there was still a place for drugs, sex, slavery and sadism... it was called the jungle.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

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