Friday, October 30, 2009

Into the Velvet Darkness: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

When it comes to seasonal horror movies, there are two kinds of creepy - the Jason Voorhees/zombie creepy and the Boris Karloff-Vincent Price creepy. The latter is what I prefer, for it comes with a sly wink that lets you know when the bodies are counted yours won't be one of them. Price and Karloff make the viewer an insider, a friend in the RICHARD III tradition of horror. The horror of Karloff and Price in other words, is inclusive. Part of this comes with possessing the theatrical "voice" of villainy. As I live near the the Lee Strasberg School of Acting (just north of Union Sq.) I'm daily reminded of its slogan: "We entered the theater on the wings of a dream." Price, by contrast, enters our dreams on the wings of the theater. He dispels nightmares by the force of mellifluent theatrical ham diction; an inherent giddiness in his velvet voice makes him seem always as if it's somebody's special birthday and a surprise party is imminent. 

By contrast Jason or Michael would lose a lot of their menace if they spoke. Their silent treatment is scary, but it's a depressing all-too-real kind of scary. With his fiendish laugh Price really just pretends to be scary. He lets you in on the joke and in doing so eliminates the real scariness of the slashers, which is why his films are above all, delightful, not traumatizing (WITCHFINDER GENERAL and a few others being the grim exceptions). The zombies of Romero and his imitators just eat you; unlike le gourmand Price, they don't give a shit how you taste. Nothing slows them down as they stagger and chomp. If you want to get Price off your scent, just toss him a piece of scenery; he'll gladly chew it in your stead.

In MASQUE especially, Price is the picture of perfection as the devil-worshipping Prince Prospero. He's having a ball, albeit one with a guest list of gluttons, slavering toadies and ennui-ridden perverts. Being the only one with anything close to a genuine wit in the whole place (aside from Hop Toad), Prospero relies on his higher purpose--the serving of his dark master Satan--to keep him from getting depressed. Prospero might indulge himself with vice occasionally, but it's always for a point, a spiritual debasing as suits his dark lord's whims; his macabre jests indicate an aesthete beyond petty concerns of greed and lust. Like many a Corman antihero, he's driven to find what lies beyond pain and pleasure, to get to some terrible, usually fatal, level of truth. It's not just lip service. In a way he's like a super-famous rock star, the type for whom all doors are open, all women willing, and everyone catering to his whims, leaving him arrogant but isolated. With all wants catered to the mind is free first to succumb to despair and then to focus in on one's craft, or.... one's god.

Of course, there's a hardened production code burden this Prospero must bear with. For all his freedom, he can't show us any nudity or severed limbs. And all Patrick McGee's evil Alfredo has to do is suggest there's "other things" to be done in the name of evil besides silky talk and he's basically marked for death. Underneath the evil veneer, Prospero is a gentleman; he's genuinely disgusted by the lip-smacking Alfredo's leering. And he likes his little person entertainer, Hop Toad. When Hop Toad dresses Alfredo in an ape suit, ties him to a chandelier and raises it above the laughing throng and then sets him on fire, Prospero is delighted. When you find Hop Toad give him ten gold pieces as reward for his magnificent jest! He gives Alfredo quite a reward just for smacking a tiny dancer, Esmerelda. Not that it's not worth some retribution, but the man in red seems to think he's good enough to survive. All things are relative. 

In short this is the movie that THE PARTY and THE WILD PARTY and THE WILD ANGELS (Corman, 1966) try to be, but don't have enough of the devil on their side to quite fathom. MASQUE's Prospero and ANGEL's Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) actually have a lot in common: each is a charismatic natural leader forced to endure the uncouthness of their brutish minions, bound to lead packs of dimwitted trogs who've mistaken unrestrained gluttony and lust for true freedom. Compare the hilariously disturbing scene wherein Prospero orders his guests to roll around on the floor (like the filthy animals they are) to the climax of ANGELS where the gang trashes a church in a drunken orgy of destruction. Heavenly's admonition to the priest, "We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man... and we wanna get loaded... and we wanna have a good time." is not dissimilar to Prospero's decrees, such as: "If a God of love and light ever did exist, He is long since dead. Someone... some...thing rules in his place."

We like Prospero the same way we like Heavenly Blues: we relish their graceful wielding of power and admire their lack of insecurity, their ability to be beyond good and evil, genuinely searching for something rather than just spouting hipster credos, their self honesty and complexity. Caught between the dull conformity of good (Zzzz) and the banal destructiveness of evil (zzzz), they find themselves alone and aching for amusement. Too jaded to be satisfied with the gauche pleasure indulged in by his pack, Prosper's budding relationship with Francesca (Jane Asher) the innocent peasant redhead, prefigures the special bond between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in LOST IN TRANSLATION. It's beyond some kind of older man lechery or young woman father complex. It's a connection of mentor and mentee fused to a kind of twin star orbit that illuminates the bond between the two actors as well as their characters.

For me and some of us in the rock group I was in, the lifestyle around sex, drugs and rock and roll were a way to expand the mind and get loaded. For a lot of our hairy fans it was just a chance to get heheheh fucked up! Wooo! Mexican Mud! Yeah! In that sense, Prospero prefigures Timothy Leary, the acid generation, and the later 'e' generation. And thus MASQUE is one of the most legit psychedelic horror movies until Corman's X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES, and THE TRIP! Do you doubt it? Can you look at Corman's MASQUE and not think of some far away rave or acid test of your dreams?

Consider the Satanic initiation of Hazel Court in the film: desperate to regain Prospero's favor after the arrival of lovely Jane Asher, Court undergoes a private ceremony where she is "stabbed" by a series of shamanic figures from throughout the ages: there's an Egyptian, Japanese, African, and Russian shaman/ghost, all waving their scythes and knives over her prostrate immobile heaving buxom figure, distorted through sheet metal reflection and green tinting. With it's thumping Rite of Spring-y David Lee score, this scene should be familiar to anyone whose ever dropped hardcore psychedelics (or had a really bad fever) and had to undergo similar panic-soaked hazing rituals at the hands of mortality's "threshold dwellers" before they could be totally free. "I have survived my own death," she later announces. She has known terror and moved past it. As experienced meditation practitioners and trippers knpw: once you face those grinning demon dervishes and the impure and selfish/fearful parts of you ripped to shreds symbolically, you are free...

Until the hawks of monkey mind ego chatter comes swooping back in.

Similarly, anyone whose ever tried to have a cultivated evening of psychedelically enhanced dancing, talking and group sex only to have the vibe ruined by the late-inning arrival of pinks, townies, burnouts, jonesers and/or wallies will cheer (at first) when Patrick McGee's (left) beady-eyed little ballerina molester receives grisly retribution at the hands of Hop Toad (Skip Martin). And who can fail to notice how Charles Beaumont's clever screenplay casts the humble Christians of the village as dull whiners (and hypocrites) while Prospero remains ever-complex and witty? Like Richard III, Prospero may be "evil" but he's the one taking the trouble to invite you along and to keep the film you're watching full of interesting bits of business. That is, until Death comes for him and he has to face the ultimate threshold dwellers all by himself, all while covered in red paint and forced to participate in modern expressionist dance!

If you still doubt the lysergic glory of this movie, remember five things: 1. It's got one of the best Corman scores ever (Corman had to use a Brit, so Les Baxter was out, though I thought it was Les for years - as a comment below points out, it's David Lee) / 2. It's genuine Poe - which means you can smell the absinthe from across the sea of time / 3) Nicholas Roeg does the cinematography (lots of great camera movement); and 4) Jane Asher was once engaged to Paul McCartney. 5) It ends with a trippy modern dance. The whole rainbow spectrum  of various robed Deaths is a little pretentious but The Seventh Seal had been very influential a few years earlier and this was--after all--happening after death. Tripping, you can always imagine when things get super weird, like everyone turning red and freeze-framing, that you may have died and not known it out there on the dance floor. The part where all the crowd's red hands are reaching out at him as Prospero tries to escape in a kind of Batman villain sideways dance move captures just what it's like when you're trying to get out of a packed Dead Show on too much acid, or Liz Taylor at the beach in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Asher is pretty good as the girl who feels her morality gradually crumble in the thrall of Prospero's seduction strategies. Though on opposite sides of the divide, the pair share an "only two real people in the room" connection that evokes, in a weird way, that between Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. The only other person really to stand out as a cool character is Skip Martin, who brings a great deep voice and a crafty blend of manly complexity to Hop Toad. His utterly macabre vengeance, his sly way of admitting to Alfredo that his costume will probably "get a little warm," or the mad grin when he snaps the whip commands "get back!" show why Prospero is so considerate of him (even bowing back when he and Esmerelda--the tiny dancer--are introduced as the evening's first entertainment.

In real life, Asher knew something of this weird relationship. She broke off her engagement with Paul' McCartney when she realized he was way too much of a libertine. She wanted something more old-fashioned and monogamous. Somehow it's very apropos to the film, don't you think? Are the Beatles not in their way as thoroughly famous and kowtowed to as Prospero, and Asher like an innocent inspiration / the one person neither inclined to kowtow nor act the groupie, hence made desirable? As she says early on, "I have no learning!" Here, at least, is a girl who refused to get hitched to the cute millionaire first, then get a juicy alimony arrangement after catching him in the act of libertinism. It's that kind of integrity that Asher radiates. She is innocence at its most seductive to a decadent. What devil could refuse such a challenge, even knowing in advance he was likely to lose? What else are challenges for?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shroom Amongst the Stars: MATANGO: AKA Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)

A bunch of Japanese libertines on a yacht get lost in a freak storm (ala Gilligan's Island) and wind up marooned on a strange island populated only by a derelict cargo ship run aground along the rocky coast and.. a population of growing, giggling, intelligent super-fungi. The derelict ship's log reveals the mushroom in question has harmful "nerve" effects, but man, is it filling and delicious! Those who take a nibble soon go insane and like to frolic in the rain with their red-capped brethren. PS- there's nothing else to eat on the whole damned island.

The best scenes in the film involve the mushroom people with their pitch-shifted slow mo laughter and the amazing, corrosively sexual sight of the mushrooms growing out of the moss, larger and larger, breathing in and out, like inflatable penis dolls. Whoa, was that too much association for you? Grow up, these are Japanese! The first girl to get in the groove talks about Japan's familiarity with "the laughing mushroom" and tales of how local natives would take them and dance by the fire.  You know what Cibo Matto sang:

We were born in the 60's
You made war with the Vietnamese.
We love LSD! We die easily!
Can we just say c'est la vie?

Do I digress? Cibo Matto are my age, they know the drill. We were born in the late 1960s and we're still wondering where the hell the party or the war or the drugs all went. MATANGO, dig, was made even before the party really started even for the hipster parents of Cibo and me, 1963.

Alas, those awesome scenes of the breathing shrooms are only a small portion of the film. The psychedelic aspect is kind of subsumed into the horror of transformation, as those who eat the fungi become the fungi, but wait... not to kill the others, but to kill their souls... slowly... and rather than explore that change we concentrate instead on the intolerant last man standing, the narrator relating his story in the Ishameal-esque framing device. Thus we sidestep many lightshows and hallucinations (though there are a few) to focus on quick-moving, exposition-filled narrative, one familiar to horror fans: a yacht with class-related tensions between crew and rich hedonist owner; a freaky sudden hurricane-level storm; an uncharted, seemingly uninhabited island; mounting sexual tension; and hidden monsters. True to horror movie form there's a lot of exploring - we spend quite a bit of time looking around moldy freighter interiors, and fighting over dwindling food, the lack of nutrition bringing out the worst in everyone, except for some reason the square hero. but there's lots of great outdoor rain scenes of everyone digging roots or hoarding turtle eggs. And then the monsoon rains come, and the shrooms grow big.

Overall, the greed and "collapse of decency" elements trump the trippy stuff more than I, personally, would like; on the other hand, the end more than makes up for it all with a blatant pro-drug message that succinctly damns modern society as being far more corrosive and wrong than any entheogenic Japanese version of ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS mind-meld (and this was 1963, a solid four years before the Summer of Love-- did I say that already? And I quoted Cibo Matto? Dude, my brain...).

I remember seeing this on late night UHF TV a lot in the 1970s, in a butchered, dubbed edition known as ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE at a cool all-night slumber party with the kids upstairs working the Ouija and the truth or dare and the parents swinging and swapping below and us all welcoming the dawn together, so it has a special spot in my heart, even though I was too young and disinterested to follow it. But seeing MATANGO now on beautiful widescreen DVD, I wonder what the hell was going on in that old Philadelphia local TV UHF version? Was it on purpose that it made no sense? Then again, I was very young, and usually half-asleep; the slow-mo shrooms seemed to us to be following American GIs into their tents, which means the lateness of the air combined with the stamen's lacivious breathing infatable motion to hypnotize me into a moldy funk. If you were ever funky like that, you'll want to score yourself some MATANGO.

PS - It would make a 'good' triple bill with SHE DEMONS and MESA OF THE LOST WOMEN! Don't ask me how I know... Oxnard

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Acid and Giallo: Drive-In Dream Logic, Italian-style!


By the 1970s, the drive-in had become synonymous with two things: teenage sex in cars and Italian horror movies. Lord knows how many young women lost their virginity while Dario Argento movie Goblin-soundtrack cues echoed tinnily from the ominous prison gray speakerbox hanging on their half-opened car window. As some nubile victim got brutally murdered in splashy colors, American girls in backseats became women. And now, their children can enjoy the same film baptism on DVD.

It's endlessly amusing to hear mainstream film critics complain about what we Italian film fans call "dream logic" and what they call "incomprehensibility." They don't understand dream logic, or won't, because, most likely, they're outside major cities for whom the "Tower of Babel" effect is unknown, so they don't appreciate the need for non-lingual story-telling devices, and/or they didn't see the film first at a drive-in while on acid or erection-enhancing stimulants purchased under the counter at a local pharmacy... If they only saw THE BEYOND or SUSPIRIA sober, they never really saw it at all... or saw too much of it, which might be worse. Cinema is not always meant to be studied under a magnifying glass for waterproof storytelling cohesion; sometimes a movie needs to just be there, doing its own thing, providing you the scant light to pick the seeds out and find the sticky side. An Italian horror movie wants to provide a nice canopy of gore and rock music for you to hide out under and to freak you out regardless of whether or not you can deal with dubbing or if you missed the first 40 minutes and aren't even sure which of the three movies on the marquee you're currently even seeing. If you decide to look up and pay attention, WHAM! it's instantly ready to pounce on your nerves and never let up. In case you came in halfway through, as one did at drive-ins or 24-hour continuous grindhouse theaters like the Roxy, the credits of these films often repeated the title of the film, i.e. "You have been watching SUSPIRIA." Their goal: be shocking enough to make sure your mom doesn't insist you take your little brother along; have senses-sharpening moments memorable enough to describe to your friends; and get your date to grab your arm in fearful exaltation. As Time Out Film Guide puts it, SUSPIRIA is what kids imagine scary movies to be when they're too young to see them.

From that standpoint, the strung together gross-outs of Lucio Fulci in films like ZOMBIE or THE BEYOND make total sense. There's an unspoken assumption in most drive-in fodder that viewers are going to miss at least 40% of what's onscreen (these films were made before VCRs and "pause" buttons); they're going to be off at the snack bar; looking for an elusive condom in the glove compartment; or hanging with friends by the swing set under the screen, doing whippets and ripping one-hits and eating popcorn and drinking. Super loud rock scores function to drown out conversations from other cars, to reach you through steamy, cracked window panes and hormonal surges, cars coming in and out of parking spots next to you, or honking to each other, perverts creeping up to your windows and trying to peep through the passenger window and so much more. Lastly, the films need to work even for the kids watching the screen through binoculars from their bedroom windows uphill from the highway (as I used to).

That's all fine with Fulci and Argento. Their goal is to deliver a spookshow the way 2001 was a "Space Odyssey," or FANTASIA an animation extravaganza. No linear plot is needed when the theater space has become a show unto itself. Like dreams the films make no logical coherent sense but tap into unconscious drives so murky they can't be experienced another way. The connection I made earlier between the blood of the hymen in the car seat and the blood onscreen is not made lightly... there's a direct connection. Sex is terrifying, brutal and strange, a reminder of our own icky connection to biology, like having your computer invaded by some virus that takes it over--lust driving us into unconsciousness, the ultra-violence onscreen heightens our senses in the same way. Haven't we all killed and been killed, if not in past lives then in our inherited DNA, the genes of the marauders and usurpers, the conquerors and the conquered.

At the drive-in, the mere fact that a film could be scary at all was testament to its over-the-top power. The harder it tried to be logical the more boring and forgettable it became. You don't criticize your own nightmares for being nonsensical, especially if they're scary enough to wake you up, in a sweat, screaming, so don't do the same for these films, just let the room be dark, the drugs prescribed by a reliable physician and the volume loud enough to wake the dead. Hear them now rising from their graves at the sound of a newly opened womb? Like it or not, you remember that journey... you made it a thousand times and just forgot, like a dream. It makes no sense, but you know it's truer.


Cinebollically, Dario: FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET
"Argento's films--even at their worst--are never "safe" and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons--usually mental illness caused by brutal child abuse, and police hardly matter, except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition."

"Why Don't You Call Your Insects?" PHENOMENA!
"It takes all the hot topics of the early 1980s/late 1970s and mashes em up real nice for a tasty b-movie stew: chimps avenging their slain masters (with a razor found in the park trash can), THE SWARM-style bug attacks, CARRIE-esque telekenetic revenge against bratty schoolmates (replete with wind blowing the hair back ala FIRESTARTER), deformed Jason-like freaks, flaming lakes, beheadings, maggots, POV killers shots with a knife on a pole ala PEEPING TOM, etc., all scenically filmed around the base of the Alps in what wheelchair bound Donald Pleasance dryly refers to as "the Transylvania of Switzerland."

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

An Argento Family Reunion: MOTHER OF TEARS
"Having Asia Argento in the film is a major key to unraveling the mystery of how to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. She's a mess in this movie, looking weary and bemusedly resigned, like the cool older sister you drag through the haunted house you've made in the basement rec room, — the sort with candles and blindfolds, where you make them stick their hands in cold spaghetti and tell them it's brains. We did that a lot in the 1970s, and Argento's family probably did too."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bad Acid's Greatest part 2: The 70s Savagery Switchpoint

Every time I see a horror film with besieged campers or cowerers in closets as slashers hack away at Venetian blinds, I instinctively and fervently hope they'll let go of their civilized trappings, shed their veneers and get physical, fight back against their assailants and not pule and snivel. Usually these snivelers eventually pick up a crowbar and fight back and pretty soon instead of seeing the victims react to scary noises we see the killer react to scary noises! The worm has turned! The hunter has become the hunted. Of course, that's the whole movie, isn't it, the waiting? We all want to see that but if they shed that veneer from the get-go, would it even be a horror movie?

Even so, how long must we wait until that 'switchpoint' in the 'good' character's de-evolution? How much endless whining and waiting for the cavalry must we endure before the fighting back can begin? Is this some kind of a metaphor or subtextual neo-con brainwashing or liberal artsy rationalization for lurid thrills, or what?

So I saw WRONG TURN (2003) a by-the-numbers hillbilly horrorshow with Middle Earth connotations (the scenery is beautifully photoshopped and one of the mutant inbred killers even looks a bit like the Gollum) and plenty of endearing character development. Or so somebody thought. Our handsome, straight toothed heroes run and cover a good deal of attractive West Virginia mountain country before they decide to stand up and slug it out with their mutant cannibal assailants, and at that point the picture changes to a grotty smack-down, replete with Eliza Dushku barb-wired to the bed while our square-jawed Desmond smacks mutant latex with his bare knucks. Don't forget to steal the shotgun! Oops, they forgot. Too bad the editor can't just trust a single shot to play out for more than half a second, and has to endlessly cut back and forth between a bunch of different fight scenes all going on at once all over the woods, something that always cuts tension down to a guitar pick. D.W. Griffith would rise from his grave if he knew how much of a cheap crutch crosscutting has become!

A good editor knows that it's much harder to edit within the real time of a single scene with multiple shots and perspectives--some of which may not match or otherwise suck--than it is to match one good shot in one scene right over to a shot from another scene and back again, a strategy that eliminates any need to match shots. you don't even need a decent fight choreographer, because we never see a complete fight, just one gesture or reaction smashed into another from somewhere else. Well, some might say that's pretty sloppy. But I say to err is human, to forgive divine. Right, Spats? Bring out the cake!

I took a long time seeing THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake because I despised the implied sexual subjugation in the poster art--(above left) which I had to walk past in the subway, to and from my train to work, every day for months.  It reminded me of the sleazy detective magazine covers from the 1960s-70s that have since disappeared but were genuinely misogynistic and disturbing (lots of photos of half-naked females in bondage, their eyes wide with genuine fear, a male hand with a knife at their throat, etc. For examples, take a deep breath, be over 18 and click here).

I remember the 1974 Wes Craven original HILLS from a midnight college screening in the late 1980s and I remember it displaying a kind of contempt for violence in its manic-eyed freeze frame fade-out when the civilized father turns savage to defend his family with a hammer. It's a phony contempt Wes Craven displays like a pretentious art student rationalizing his objectifying misogyny to an irate feminist studies major at a thesis crit. It's hypocritical, too. If you show cathartic revenge that gets the audience cheering every slice and crunch, it's exploitation. But, if you then make the audience feel bad about it, it's art. A true college boy, Craven thinks such contempt shows he's cognizant of Vietnam; when he makes a broken down camper suburban dad howl like a lunatic as he's bashing a mutant to death with a hammer, think of Mai Lai! As General McAuliffet said to the Germans at Bastogne: Nuts.

After all, we lost Vietnam because we were afraid to go all the way. Colonel Kurz went all the way. Never get out of the boat, absolutely goddamn right, unless you were going all the way. And he was, by golly, going all the way. And so it is: accessing the inner savage is something every man must do occasionally, and in war quite often, lest he get all soft like Tobey McGuire in SPIDERMAN or dear, dear Master Frodo. The brass, all sheltered in their mobile headquarters seafood luncheon, get weak and they have to send Willard upriver to seek the holy grail. People get weird and we need people like the Angels to keep people in line, but Angels, you don't go around bustin' people in the head. Yeah, right, Slick. Kurz would have impaled those hobbits on stakes and used them as tiger bait. As Mrs. Zombie said in THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, "it's all mental!"


And let's think for a minute of the simple cannibals who are just hunting for food and when all is said and done are truer capitalists and therefore more American than their soft suburban prey. I love this reach out to the mutant cannibal community from James Rocci (Cinematical):
The hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community has never – really – gotten a fair, nuanced portrayal in film; it's just the stereotypes you see in the movies coming out of Hollywood...
While the plight of the mutant cannibal community leaves me relatively unmoved, I do feel personally connected to this whole savagery point motif of which I speak, and the liberal need to condemn it as savage. When civilized trappings and fear -- the "waiting for mom or the cavalry to come" passivity in the face of danger -- finally disappears and is replaced by lunatic ferocity and animal cunning, one actually becomes more mature. Remaining dependent on the police department for any kind of help is typical behavior for a particular kind of wuss who overall is resentful of cops, shouting about human rights if a cops so much as points out a fire hydrant. Then, as soon as they feel threatened by something, they whine for the cops, girls in horror films especially tend to think if they just cower pathetically enough, help will arrive--it's a bad precedent to let them survive. As a kid who grew up terrified of slashers and depressed about their abundance on screens (see my FRIDAY THE 13TH Blogathon entry), I always had knives and blunt instruments close to hand when I was alone in the house. My inner savage was ready, bro! But never did I think to have the phone close by. Calling for help was for snitches. And cops in NJ would just blame you anyway; if you were a teenager (for it was also the height of Nancy Reagan Just Say No drug and drunk driving hysteria) you were guilty automatically.

On that note, I'll share some savagery switchpoint techniques I've gleaned over the years. If someone comes at you with a whip or axe, for example, don't strive to stay at exact cracking distance like all the simperers in horror cinema. Just wait for the first crack, then run at them, close the distance, and get right up in their face. A whip or axe is useless up close. It's the same with crowbars, sticks, pipes and axes. Ever try to chop off a head with an axe when the person is two inches from your nose? Impossible, you need swinging room, you can try to bash the person with the handle, but at close quarters you have just as much a chance of bashing them with it as vice versa. Yet what do these civilized victims do when confronted by a crazy killer with an axe? They run away or stand still at good swinging distance. No my friends, you need to run RIGHT AT THE KILLER! Then you kick him square in the nutz or jab him in the windpipe "sweet spot" or palm his nose upwards into his brain to stun him. Then you cut off his thumbs. No thumbs = no weapons, no strangling, no threat. (Severed hands can still strangle, crawl into your car and get you at the denouement). It's the only way... be crazier than the killer/s are. And don't bother just shooting them, because killers just get up after a few minutes no matter how many bullets you pump into their chests. If you're gonna shoot, empty full magazines into the brain until their head is completely obliterated.

On the other hand, if you'd rather cower away in the corner, you will just remind me of the NYU kid buying beer at my bodega the other night. This kid started crying like a little bitch when a cop confiscated his fake ID, which he was dumb enough to flash right while the cop was at the register!  "Call my dad! Talk to my dad! He'll tell you! He's a lawyer!" the kid screamed, trying to shove his cell phone at the cop with a shaky, panicked hand. Can you imagine? Yet that's what these slasher and cannibal movie victims do: they crawl to the phone or radio and plead and whine to the confused operator for help. They can't give coordinates where they are, or explain what's going on; they can only cry and moan and plead for the Big Mom in the sky to come and rescue them. (See my review of THE STRANGERS on Bright Lights for more of my ranting on victim mentality). I can imagine that kid trying to get Michael Myers to take the cell phone and talk to his dad right before he's killed. It's sad but there it is.

If I had more time I would clock the exact amount of crawling and screaming done by our sidetracked normies in all these movies, and how each movie handles the bridge between this wimpering and finally hacking back with a lusty howl. How much torture must be delivered before their inner Burt Reynolds shows up with his bow and arrow ala the original hillbilly rapist movie, DELIVERANCE (1972)?

What if Burt never showed? Not everyone flips the switch. A lot of characters just stand there and cry and shake, and/or squeal like a pig until they're killed or rescued. This flummoxes any self-respecting killer since it's basically committing suicide through self-sabotage, you become so afraid to die that the fear itself kills you. It takes some of the fun away when they go so meekly. But the ones who fight back, how long does it take for them to transform, to shake off the dust and remember their hunter-killer roots? Half the movie? Can you imagine if you were bleeding to death in the street and-- rather than help you--your friend screamed and shook and went into shock at the sight of your blood, ala, say, Fredo when Vito gets it at the fruit stand? What good are people that, except, perhaps, as pot roast for a needy family? Or the fishes?

We all must learn to fight together, and to be kind and generous to our opponents, CROCODILE DUNDEE style, understanding that all battles are inner ones, and there is no lasting death. We are all as actors in a flashy remake of C.H.U.D. Let us see beyond duality and false morality, let us be as Bruce Willis in PULP FICTION, picking up the samurai sword going back down into the basement to save the guy he was trying to kill mere minutes earlier. No matter what our disagreements as people, we can all come together when it comes to wreaking bloody vengeance on inbred yokels.

The bottom line is this, and it's something that LSD always illuminates: The true American is free of both civilization AND savagery. He can just as easily peel off someone's face as eat a peach but would rather have the peach... this time. His is an America where the discordant blue and red state halves are finally aligned. I am American... WARRIOR! Safety and civilization is hard won for you by an active military, home militia border patrols, NRA members, cops, firemen and the US Coast Guard. But when the shit hits the fan, those guys will all be busy battling the tentacled demons leaking out of the trans-dimensional rifts. You are going to have to battle the mutant cannibals of your township all on your own until that rift is closed. Are you ready? Do you have pepper spray and a meat cleaver in your "go bag"? May I recommend a night of rural mutant cannibal movies to encourage just this sort of preparation? Zombie defense prep won't work: zombies aren't real --George Romero and his buddies invented that whole mythos and it's just caught on. Their zombies can't hunt with bows and shotguns like our inbred cannibal brethren. After the apocalypse you'll want to seem tough so you can join the roving gang of mutant scavengers that initially accosts you. Service Equals Citizenship!

But for now, when you see the cannibals coming, go for the whites of their eyes and don't stop swinging 'til all you see is red and your arm is finally frozen in mid-blow behind the Craven credits. If Wes gives you any shit about enjoying the carnage, tell him he's next if he don't respect. In the name of Kitty Genovese, we need to make peace with our knack for violence.


Collateral Torture: Vacancy
Tonight: On a very special episode of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
The Brave One

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Surf the Maelstrom: POSSESSION

One of the cool things about Europe (and Buenos Aires) as opposed to the US is that trends seem to come and go more slowly, with an innate, even mature, ability to stay cool that shows up the reactionary youth market-kowtowing of America for the panicky insecurity it is. After the US had foregone 70s mature horror ala Let's Scare Jessica to DeathThe Exorcist and Alien in favor of teen-sucking 80s slashers, there were still sexy, druggy, fucked-up adult horror movies coming out of France, Poland, and Germany. If they came to our shores, such as happened with the truly disturbing genuinely adult Andrzej Zulawski film, POSSESSION (1981), it was only released here, apparently, in a severely truncated, nearly incomprehensible edit aimed at VHS shelves and back ends of drive-in double bills. While America was cowering at home in their stone-washed denims, Europeans--who had way had more legit reasons to hide at home and be freaked out than we ever did--were still dropping acid and going to the art house cinema..

Europe had been through the war right in their own backyard; the dividing between sunny tranquil capitalist west and dour, psychotic grey unrestored east ran right across their Berlin lawns.. Aside from Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Americans still haven't had a lot of shit get blown up in their faces while they tried to read the paper. Considering the trauma endured just from those two single day events, can you imagine watching your whole country more or less go through a giant Nazi thresher machine, for the first five years of your life?

It might make you a little twisted.

Polish director Andrzej Zulawski was born during just such a time and place: nightly bombing raids became like a lullaby for him (he says); part of the comforts of childhood, like a night-light or teddy bear. This weird amniotic death hybrid explains much of POSSESSION's full-spectrum insanity. If you've wondered what it's like to be high on acid while having a miscarriage alone in a Paris Metro station after having to leave a European history lecture because you started frothing at the mouth, this is your movie.

Zulawski get it: when you're gone on strong drugs, baby, none of the old signifier chains apply -that's also art, the Antonioni signifier melt-down. With a head full of mescaline you are just like a child, new to the world, free from labeling and judging your sensory impressions, things are neither this or that, good or bad, they are all just new and 'weird.' Without judgment, it's all good, until you gradually realize it's all bad, because it's gnawing on your leg... and working its way up to your crotch. Whatever it is, better kill it quick, and eat it for its placenta nutrients. Second chakra sacral wheels alight in twisted backfiring surges of desire and loathing, rust and dried blood flaking off the re-ground gears. Eat or be eaten, and don't hesitate. If the cops come in and see you've been eating a helpless old neighbor who came to the door to borrow some flour, well, eat them too. You're on a roll - and you taste great. Or at least it tastes intense.

If you never experienced all that, man, you might not dig all of POSSESSION. But for some of us, those who can still hear colors and see sounds, the ancient, semi-ancient, and recent history of the human race is always clattering on the kitchen floor of our collective mind like a dropped casserole dish that grows Rob Bottin spider legs on contact with linoleum. European border tensions live in our sacral chakras, interlocking serpentine tentacles connect every groin, mouth, and fingertip in the whole of existence, to the tip of our extremities, which is not more infinite than a tomb, and our breathing. The flushing of the toilet sounds like the diving of Stuka followed by VE day revels as the tank refills. But is that American jubilation in the west VE or the screams of East Berlin women being mauled by drunken Russian soldiers? Don't judge, man - you were doing so well. Here, do this shot.

Even if your knowledge of post-war European social psychology and bad trip acid horror iconography is incomplete well, there's bound to be something in POSSESSION still able to suck you down with the cigarette butts into the tangy blood-flavored mud of 70s Euro-horror, which is the same really as just shrugging your shoulders and sashaying toward the exit while the huns are distracted.

POSSESION is set in West Berlin, in an apartment with windows that look out over towards the Wall (so you can see East German guards smoking and looking at you in the distance, feigning neighborly disinterest) But meanwhile everyone speaks English all the time, except when Adjani speaks French while torturing a girl in her ballet class in a super 8mm movie that Neill's fellow cuckold, a sexually fluid and tantric fellow named Heinrich (from the East side), sends over. My point? Less.

And when Adjani moans up at the cross in a church, unleashing a prolonged, piteous whine, one senses Harvey Keitel stirring from his noon feeding, and making a mental note that would lay buried for 10 years until BAD LIEUTENANT.

Still, even if you're type of crazy psychedelic surfer who used to watch the R. Bud Dwyer suicide tape over and over on acid, fascinated by the suddenness of it (one split second Dwyer's in the room, and then BAM - he is completely gone - where'd he go?) even then, that hardcore as you are, Adjani's prolonged miscarriage in the tunnel scene might be too much.  Her convulsive jerkiness might be read as an interpretive dance, encompassing the history of mental illness--from electroshock to the miracle of Clozapine--it's mind-bogglingly fearless and fully committed in ways I just don't think it's possible for American actresses to ever be, nor would they want to, for certainly it won't win them an Oscar. Adjani could give a shit about your Oscars; she just goes for it with more gusto than most American actresses ever dare muster without an A for 'Art' burnished on their chest, not this isn't artsy. Has America ever had any women either this beautiful or this crazy? Nein. The English have maniacs like Kate Winslet, Australia has Judy Davis, who was originally attached to POSSESSION since Zulawski and his casting director loved MY BRILLIANT CAREER (which was why they cast Sam Neill) and maybe her wanting to do it is why she gamely wound up in a similar legless monster sex scene in NAKED LUNCH ten years later.  (it all fits, doctor, since the whole creature / pregnancy angle--a kind of symbol-made-flesh ala 'psychoplasmics' in THE BROOD--was done by Cronenberg two years earlier, with super crazy (Brit) Samantha Eggers). But whom do we have? No one --our actresses can afford good SSRI meds and the best clinical care Beverly Hills ha$ to offer. Their health is Hollywood's loss.

Perhaps it's because the terrifying freedom of flying fast and loose atop the ever-inward spiral of the maelstrom is just not an American thing anymore. It used to be. We had Poe and we had Melville. In the former's "A Descent into the Maelstrom," for example, a sailor finds himself on a damned ghostly boat hovering ever on the edge of a vast never-ending whirlpool wave, trapped in a time loop. Our hero eventually escapes and is rescued only to find his ship mates no longer recognize him: "My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now."

Sometimes that change of countenance has to happen: you've seen too much; you've peered beyond the veil and the veil has left its gnarly mark. Or you've aged 100 years in a goddamn 13-day bender. Or just got old, suddenly, as it always is when you dare to take the voyage into the maelstrom or walk that yellow "brick" road. Some of us are called to the curtain and bid look beyond, and some do, and they get white hair, if not a diploma. I've never seen a film before or since that made the color white such a violently post-modern wrenching force (not even in KieĊ›lowski's WHITE or Argento's TENEBRE) except maybe--in a humorous and romantic way--ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, wherein white swallows up whole bookstores and kitchens of Jim Carey's memory of Kate Winslet.

In fact, the hair and split subject aspects of POSSESSION are there in SUNSHINE's mind washing machine, with Sam Neill trapped in inescapable loops with the same woman in different forms, with Winslet's hair changes and bi-polar mood swings reflected in Adjani's careening back and forth between the sterile apartment she shares with Neill and their son, Bob, and this decayed East Berlin apartment building with its goop-covered floor and writhing tentacled lover, looking like a decayed animal carcass swathed in glistening rainbow brown blood / oil paint palette runoff and being devoured by long large white worms. "He's very tired, he's been making love to me all night," Adjani says before bashing a cop's brains in with a paint can.

At such times as these, Adjani makes Klaus Kinski seem dull as Walter Pidgeon.

By this point in the film, Neill has more or less detoxed and is playing the clean-cut parent, subject to fits only when Adjani comes careening back to put laundry away (in the fridge) and throw some cold cuts from the pantry into her suitcase and carve herself up with an electric knife while shouting and convulsing like she's not in their kitchen at all but receiving electro-shock therapy in a mental hospital while performing a MACBETH monologue. Now split between two opposite roles (either two characters or a fragmented persona), one is a nurturing elementary school teacher / potential love interest  (ala Susan Hogan and Egger and in THE BROOD) the other is the homicidal birther/fucker/self-mutilating/cop-killing painter of her own monster, a blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying an array of colors all over the Metro, as if dissolving a painting in her womb and reproducing it as performance art. (there's a kind of mention that she brought the ejected fetus whatever-thing over to that apartment and its been her sickly lover ever since).

Is this monster a metaphor for her art, the way a true artist is in a state of exalted frenzied madness when working on their project, giving themselves over completely, maybe never to return, except in the form of that immortal art? A squid. Three Olives. A feather. A dead bike messenger. bombs.

Oh yeah, SAM... whom I never liked much in films like DEAD CALM or THE PIANO (or worst of all, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS). He's just somehow dislikable, though that's inevitably why he's often cast, there's just something about him that if you're a dog you'd want to bark at him. Often his characters need to be cock-blocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, in order for his wormy smug petulance to have context. But when delivered from being just a weird side platter of Pierce Brosnan /Anthony Perkins surf-and-turf, when given a part that calls for truly insane and giddy grace, and looking young and actually handsome, he's suddenly big as all the ocean. He makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you, or show you his new razor from your insides out. What makes him such a good secret agent (his last mission was something across the Wall where he'd been sizing up some scientist defector in pink socks) lies in his ability to ride this tide of lunacy with confidence and eye-for-eye madness glint. Wherever Adjani's crazy boat's going, he's going to be on it, bob for bob. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, absorbing everything and everyone he sees. From his son's crashing toy airplanes to his rival's 'love of everything,' he's always reacting and seeing deep, surfing the crest of that Poesy maelstrom.

Whoa, bro, now that I do the math I realize Neill hadn't even yet tried to compete with Zane or Keitel when this film was made. 1981: the same year he rocketed to the bottom as the adult Damien in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT -- in which he was cast at the request of co-star James Mason who loved him in MY BRILLIANT CAREER! Now we realize the inevitable truth, it's all James Mason's fault and it makes sense, since-- in acting style--Neill could be like Mason's psychotic younger brother. His accent here and the way he can start refined, and wind his way down slow spiral staircase into jealous madness by the end of the scene, is reminiscent in many ways of Mason--especially in LOLITA, such as in the scene where he must be restrained by hospital orderlies after Lo flees, for example, which finds a methamphetamine mirror in Neill's being piled on by the entire staff of 'Cafe Einstein' after chasing Isabelle Adjani out the door in a whirl of empty wooden chairs. His nose and face strangely cleft, teeth crooked, Neill's still got a bit of Timothy Spall floating around his features, as if the mirror halves of his face didn't quite line up, like it's ready to split down the center, to open like an egg hatching some newfound man. But he knows how to fucking act. During his big initial meltdown, for example, he seems to be suffering from serious withdrawal of either heroin or alcohol --the latter I've experienced, and I handled it very similar to how he does, shaking and twitching, barely able to talk, trapped in isolation. Good times.

And like Neill, Mason is a guy who you can never quite trust no matter how refined and loquacious his character is onscreen. Well, maybe you do trust him for a few reels, but then he takes that cortisone again and he's at you with a knife.

So there's your moral: sometimes you can't get at the audience with a razor, so you have to use the only thing you can find that's even sharper, and sometimes that thing is named Sam Neill. POSSESSION stabs us with him until even the screaming sound of Stukas dive bombing his neighborhood to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby and the scorching beauty of Adjani is like a freezing of the blood in the veins and on the floor. Lick it up, like a good dog.. (tape cuts off)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Killing diese Kindern: TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)

With its ingeniously interlocked multiple story narrative and eliptical framework, TRICK-R-TREAT is the CRASH, or even PULP FICTION of horror films: Dylan Baker rocks his HAPPINESS cred as the sort of dad who packs razors into candy bars, then "does things" with the dead fat kid on the doorstep. His next-door neighbor is a hilariously grouchy (and putty-nosed) Brian Cox, who has to tangle with the crazy little demon Sam (seen on the posters), and that's not all: there's innocent virgin little Red Riding Hood Anna Paquin and her crazy buxom friends looking to "score" at the big country solstice costume party (wherever this town is, you'll want in) and a group of kids heads off to the fog-enshrouded quarry where a busload of Lecter-esque psycho-children once did plummet. The eerie quiet of these kids in their ugly deformed masks all chained up in the school bus is pretty unforgettable. It's all given the comic book framing and gorily ironic climaxes we've come to expect from horror anthology films, but a lot more besides, at times maybe even too much. The movie studios do many baffling things, but no worse in recent memory is their shelving of this dynamo Halloween insta-classic! Why did it get shelved? Probably because, um, they kill a lot of kids in it? Awww... hawhaahah!

I love anything that makes studio heads "uncomfortable" and slaughtering children in horror films is supposed to do just that. Meanwhile of course, torture adults for hours in tedious scenarios and the ratings board barely bothers to slap an R on you. Why are the SAW movies always so successful on Halloween? They have nothing to do with fall, as far as I know. It's because they have the field all to themselves, since the other studios are chumps. I've never actually seen any of the SAW movies, but I've been forced to endure their dispiriting trailers and soul-crushing subway posters. I remember when anti-porn activists would put up pictures of violent torture porn in front of their tables on the street and I always thought it was so horrific --it's like, great, children walking by can see this, and they can't really otherwise, so you crazy ladies are actually spreading the very thing you seek to condemn. Shit disturbed me, man.. deep.

Meanwhile TRICK 'R TREAT is a life (and death) affirming gas with almost no torture porn, just lots of fun, crazy, Halloween-empowering spookshow ghoulshit! So what if it's a little overstuffed with elaborate pumpkins and set decor and adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and leaves the fate of a poor doggy all but forgotten? That last part does bug me, but you can't ever perfect everything to have.

I mean, let's face facts: a lot of anthology horror films suck, and why? In my opinion they don't invest much care on the sometimes lengthy set ups for the shock twist endings. In other words, they're not in the moment: they presume no one is paying attention to the character development and just waiting for the pay off, so why bother crafting good shots or decor or characters? TRICK 'R TREAT is a film where every moment counts. Writer-director Michael Dougherty (he wrote X-MEN 2) makes it the kind of thing that can turn you completely around on Halloween and horror films, the way THE WARRIORS can turn you around on urban grime!

The good news is that all this shelving and sitting on it has helped the film turn into something of a cause celebre with the geek circuit (it screened at a lot of horror and monster conventions), and apparently the DVD pre-sold well enough that a sequel is in the works, or at least running through Dougherty's mind.

So if you really wanted to love CREEPSHOW but just couldn't shake the feeling that it was all too trashy and predictable (aside from the "I want my cake, Bedilia!" opener), then take off your mask, open up your chest and lie down. Dougherty has a comfortable coffin idling...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition

"White guys take acid. White guys take acid and go see the Exorcist." -- Richard Pryor (Saturday Night Live, season 1, Dec. 1975)
I was just eight years old when Pryor said that on my new favorite show, Saturday Night Live. Even then I "got it" - white guys were sick thrill seekers for whom extreme horror (and THE EXORCIST was considered the ne plus ultra extremis for the time) wasn't enough, we had to boost it up with this dangerous mind-melting drug, LSD. We liked to plunge into the heart of darkness abyss with eyes wide open, screaming. Pryor had yet to set himself on fire from freebasing and he was way ahead of the curve as far as openly discussing, live on TV, an array of drug effects without  condemnation. He made me want to be that brave. He planted the seed for this site. I was naturally far too scared and too young to even think about seeing THE EXORCIST but I never forgot Pryor's statement. As a white man I knew seeing EXORCIST on acid was my destiny. Twenty years later, home alone with a VHS, that destiny was fulfilled.

Now, if you think The EXORCIST would be less scary on acid then you don't understand acid. You might be afraid of your shoe, but no film can tap an unconscious dread that's already tapped. In point of fact, EXORCIST becomes funny on acid, if the film is no longer riding a zeitgeist wave of shock, which on acid you can tap into like an electric socket. The film was still in theaters when Pryor said those words, and it was considered the ultimate test of courage to go see it even dead-straight. It was considered cursed in a way, like the Samara's RING video (see my 2007 opus, Mecha Medusa and the Otherless Child.)

A good acid trip can change your life forever. You transcend notions of time and history. You notice how how we're all one giant orgasmic organism of consciousness that transcends illusions of time, space, and permanence. You realize that you're in a cosmic prison and only love can set you free, and it does... until around Tuesday, when you wake up depressed, the big payback for your endorphin expenditure. But for just awhile there's this exaggerated awareness that transcends the mundane minutiae of your setting. Everything is alive with potential danger and it's impossible to judge a true threat from a misidentified everyday happening. Someone pulls out a pen, and you jump as if it was a sword. Someone pulls out a sword, you laugh as if its a rubber chicken. Someone pulls out a rubber chicken, you suddenly get very serious... what are they hiding?

Now if it's a bad acid trip, on the other hand, all you see is dying and how humans are like decaying blood bags floating through a knife factory. Everyone's just waiting to be punctured, oblivious to their decay. A horror film seems relatively sobering by contrast; you feel every stab on the screen more vividly than you would if you were really stabbed (if you were tripping). It's cathartic because it distracts you from your own mortality, which thanks to acid is now staring you in the face like a member of the audience in a black robe who wont move his scythe so you can sit down. In that state you probably wouldn't even notice if you yourself were stabbed by some dope addict behind you in the Times Square grindhouse. You'd probably apologize for getting in the way of their rubber chicken, never harboring them any grudge.

The best 1970s horror films capture this metaphysical disconnect, the thousand yard stare of those gone beyond (or to Vietnam) and back again and the way not knowing if things are real or not can make you delusional. In LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1972, above) a schizophrenic young woman and her condescending bald husband (and a third wheel Meathead-type) move into a big old Victorian house out on an island off of New England, to "get away from NYC" which overstimulates the emotionally fragile and empathic Jessica (Zohra Lampert); she hears strange whispers in her head, and has an eerie interest in making brass rubbings at old graveyard. She comes to the New England island where their new home is, to make things extra "is she really dead this whole time?" weird, she's riding in the back of a hearse, the two dudes up front! When she sees a barefoot child staring at her during one of her many graveyard walks, she's scared only until other people see the child too. When the boys in her orbit see the weird shit she sees first, she smiles and acts like it's a personal victory; her fear of being thought of as nuts overrides her fear of the supernatural. When she doesn't know the right way to react, and we feel her pain, especially if we've ever had the LSD world tour of schizophrenia that is a bad acid trip.

Made at a time when psychedelic drugs had changed the face of American culture, LET'S SCARE .... DEATH (or LSD!) is nothing short of elegant in the way it blurs the line between subjective and the “real" to demonstrate how paranoia can bend the nature of reality itself, exposing even the most realistic objectivity as a paranoid conspiracy. Polanski set the bar high for this in ROSEMARY, by having Mia Farrow's paranoia be utilized to cast doubt on the reality of her situation (maybe she's just hallucinating!) at the same time as we know the supernatural is behind it all (she's not!). Polanski and the makers of JESSICA prove you can unsplit the difference between the real and the delusional, and that in fact, the difference is--as quantum physics proves--literally all in your head either way. Terrifying yet intelligent, supernatural yet psychological, poetic yet realistic... and just plain straight-up spooky, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH has it all. Even the enigmatic Dr. Mystery agrees with me from his Zombie Bloodbath blog: At once a fine example of the 1970s American film; a post-Manson, post-Altamont cultural fear of post-1960s life; a compassionate and empathetic portrayal of mental illness; a fine character study; and a freaky-ass scary movie, Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be more widely seen.

One thing Altamont taught us was that following your lovelight too trustingly can really lead you down some dark dangerous corners. That's what the LSD horror movie is all about, in fact I think it can be broken down into a few key points:

1. A lead character who can't distinguish reality from fantasy, leading to ambiguity (is she really trying to kill me? Or is she coming onto me? Or am I just nuts?)
2. A feeling of helpless dependence on the establishment gradually giving way as said patriarchy collapses.
3. The "pod people" feeling, that those around you don't understand or are in on some massive conspiracy. They're all laughing at you, or planning to replace you.
4. Fear of children going wild or becoming possessed or endangered or a threat and not knowing how to save them, stop them, or get away from them.
5. Feminist subtext!

THE EXORCIST plays to nearly all these phenomena, as we slowly are made to realize the patriarchy has no clue how to tame the wild unconscious of a fatherless girl as she reaches the age of menstruation and poltergeist projection. Ditto CARRIE (1976), where again a fatherless child (Sissy Spacek) has to deal with menstruation issues and the latent unearthly powers they bring. In EXORCIST, the single mom (Ellen Burstyn) is the hero; in CARRIE, the single mom (Piper Laurie) is the villain, and for my mind, CARRIE is the more painful of the two to watch, just because poor Carrie has nowhere to turn; not even home life can help, as her insane mom is waiting to dispense draconian punishments in the name of keeping Carrie's soul "pure." At least Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST is, like, cool. But at the same time Carrie has her night of vengeance and dies to fight another day. All Linda Blair can hope for is a level seven memory wipe.

Aside from devouring moms, devil children, and traumatic menstruation, feminist heroines had to contend with their disbelieving, condescending husbands. THE STEPFORD WIVES (above, 1975, from the novel by ROSEMARY scribe Ira Levin) finds Katherine Ross trying to avoid being replaced by a passive android after her robotics engineer husband moves them into a closed, flower-strewn upscale community. In THE SENTINEL (1977), fashion model Christina Raines is roped into becoming a zombie nun on behalf of those who would keep the demons in their place. Similarly, fashion photographer Faye Dunaway finds herself seeing through the eyes of her would-be killer in EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), as a kind of punishment for her masculine fascination with violence. And in THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (1976), Millie Perkins can't tell if she really killed the men whose deaths she sees on the news, or someone else. All she knows is that their being on TV means they are as gods. Her memories of her seafaring father are clouded in nautical mythology that clears only to realize macabre horrors (like--in the most genuinely surreal and chilling scene--dad waiting naked for her to return home from school by hiding naked in the closet where she hangs her coat) that show how father-daughter incest is like driving a mirror shard straight down the center of a girls' psychosexual development, where reality is even more horrific and surreal than the fantasy generated to cloak it. Her cutting off men's testicles in bed is both a rebellion against sexual conscription and a mythological reference to the birth of Venus (after Poseidon's testicles were cut off and cast into the sea).

In short, women in these 70s horror films find freedom from patriarchal encirclement only to wind up in some new level of hell (i.e. LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, 1977), as if what awaits women who reach beyond the white picket fence is a freedom to succumb only to pagan sacrifice, either as victim or perpetrator, and the whole point of such sacrifices--in a way--is to erase the distinction.

A really cool and relevant TV movie, I think (my parents made me go bed before I could see the ending), that is currently unavailable on DVD, is THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1978) starring Bette Davis and a very young Michael O'Keefe and Rosanna Arquette. This one is awesome because it's not a patriarchy, but a matriarchy! The women rule things and make, um, sacrifices? to ensure the harvest? You dig? Camille Paglia-style? We wouldn't see another good matriarchy movie for another couple decades (i.e. JOHN CARPENTER'S GHOSTS OF MARS ) so for god's sake, send the harvest home... to DVD! Tell me you read this and I'm not just talking to a voice in my head from taking too much acid while watching... you know... the world turn like a worm through an empty skull socket universe!
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