Thursday, January 31, 2013


"Fog... darkness.... surrounds us like a prison," intones John Barrymore  to a row of aviation board trustee silhouettes, "but no more!" Above him glows a giant topological map of South America, like a comforting artsy lighthouse beacon. He's sending brave pilots like Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery over and through and around the Andes, up and down the South American coast from Rio down to Buenos Aires, even with zero visibility in the dead of night and he's prepared for the inevitable crashes but not for a minute lateness or a single mechanical slip-up. The mail must go out on time! This is history! This is happening!

The trustees wince in fear -- Buenos Aires is fogged-in and the Andes are dangerous even in clear daylight due to treacherous wind currents  -- but flights leave on schedule even in ceiling zero! And the planes aren't all fancy like the poster above, they're bi-planes, and Andes' air currents hit them "like an elevator!" (there's some exhilarating aerial footage of Mongtomery's little plane bobbing up and down in the wind currents over endless white caps). Gazing contemptuously one last time in their piddling humanitarian direction, Barrymore snarls at the row: "In spite of ya, night flying is going on!" adding "if it wasn't for me you'd still have one plane, a ferry service across the river to Montevideo." Yo, I took a real ferry across that river! Montevideo is a real mess, and it's huge- the ferry took three hours -- and its entirety is light coffee brown! When the water sprays up it turns the whole  sky a surreal setting sun pink...

Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic and modern meditation, full of great cool midnight moments, particularly Robert Montgomery, who comes in from nearly dying in the valley between two mountains with a kind of calm benevolence, the realization he's lucky to be alive, that's contagious. Unfolding over one long night it has curious poetic-noir fairy tale qualities-- a film spent in the pajamas, if you will, occurring in a land where most everyone else is sound asleep, recalling They Shoot Horses Don't They? and nothing else. So there's Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction--clears the fog and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in a radio station of tango orchestra music on his operator's headphones, and looks up at the moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Just our luck if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust! And now he's got the divine Myrna Loy, and he leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting. Her endless sobs invite the same sort of passive sleepiness as the drone of the planes. "Like an elevator!"

Better moments: Robert Young's slow, careful dismounting from his plane after he nearly crashes deep in a canyon. Bumming a cigarette from the prop man and slyly kissing of the ground, Young tells him "air current... dropped me into a canyon... just missed the rocks. It's as if the mountains were crouching ready to spring at ya.... not a thing moved... almost too quiet.... as if a secret..." and he catches himself, pulling back from conjuring a silent demon incarnation of the Andes. Again the moment is leisurely, dreamy, Young makes vivid the high strangeness of what it feels like almost dying in the middle of nowhere without a creature stirring for hundreds of miles and how the landscape itself starts to seem like some giant, sentient ambivalent god (maybe if you've ever driven alone through an empty stretch of Montana or Wyoming while almost out of gas in the dead of night know too wanting to kiss the ground). "It's too good to be alive... on such a night." Young says, and his gratitude-drenched sardonic laugh feels real and beautiful. He even goes to dinner with Lionel Barrymore, an old codger who can't stop scratching his eczema and fining pilots for being even ten minutes late in the darkness, fog, and wind. But Young says he's "not half-bad" and you feel some joy because hey, life is precious when death is so daily courted and maybe that's why it makes such a dreamy, fascinating, hypnotic film. Meanwhile the wives and girlfriends pine at home, fretting every unreported hour. And Dr. Irving Pichel waits in Rio for the medicine to come by plane - which a child needs or he won't live the night!

But oh, there are some worried wives, the coolest of whom is Myrna Loy (of course) married to most uncool man (Gargan) and the most uncool (Hayes) inhabiting big ether-misted greenhouses of monologues, bugging Barrymore to bring her man home in one piece, as if he can somehow stop the weather or the night. Even if he could, Barrymore refuses to let sentiment get in his way. He doesn't even know that package of medicine waiting in a foggy Buenos Aires for the Rio-bound plane, but he does know only a ruthless iron determination can create the impossible dream, and that night flights are already going on in Europe and North America and we have to keep up! Up! UP!

Aside from the beautiful muted poeticism there's a giddily unabashed look towards death that reminds me of The Little Prince, which makes sense since that book too was written by aviator-poet Antoine de Saint Exupéry; you can tell its written by someone genuinely in love with the moon, the night, flying, the Andes and living on the lip of death. I like death too films that occur in the middle of the night--that say fuck you to normal sleep schedules--really soothe my ruffled brow, and I love that for some stretches there's no talking in Night Flight at all, just the tick-tock of clocks and metronomes, the whoosh of turbulence, and weird ethereal vocalizing in amidst the lullaby soundtrack, it's like my white noise machine in film form. Even the wives pining at home are helped by the deep dark spaces; their shadowy boudoirs are like big warm airy wombs. And as they all hover between life and death, love and loss, goodbyes and going back to sleep, a really dreamy, opiate sense of floating coheres.

While it's packed with MGM stars, ala Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, any sense of Night Flight being an ensemble film is undone by how seldom two stars share more than one scene. The pilots are off on their own, up in the clouds, bathed in darkness, fog, and moonlight; their wives are home alone, eating dinner and crying into their champagne; over at the Buenos Aires air station, Barrymores try to hold it all together while gazing up at the big board, lecturing abstract silhouettes, and fining sleepy pilots, as if each actor only imagines the others exists but in reality they're all asleep and the empty night sky is the dream canvas. At home, the silence and dark tendrils of sleep seem to creep around whining Helen Hayes and gorgeous Myrna Loy like loving arms of night. In the air the moon is the like a big comforting mother cradling the plane like a baby, and the BA tango music picked up on the radio is perfect in its ghostly lullaby allure.

Some of the comments around IMDB encapsulate what is wrong with the film as far as conventional drama, and they are all quite right, but for me personally these same 'flaws' are why the film's so cool and beguiling. Michael Elliot writes:
I think the biggest problem is that the screenplay really isn't all that impressive and most of the drama never comes because the story never builds up any emotional connection to any of the people we meet. The Gable character is meant to be the backbone of the drama yet we never get to really meet him and we certainly never get to know him as all of his scenes are in the air and he's given very little dialogue.

But Michael, that's the point! These characters we meet in this period are all isolated, adrift in their little pocket of the world, sleeping in dark art deco rooms or crying in front of the nervous maid, waiting weeks for their husband to drift home for a few days where all he does is sleep and look wistfully out the window at that old devil moon. It's like the modern age is being born before our eyes and the sad faces of the old widows and brides as their men take off to sea in Moby Dick are here frozen at their fullest blossom in nightshade honey and spread across die dunkelbrot nacht

So thanks, TCM, for rescuing this film, and assisting in getting the licensing issues between Exupéry and MGM resolved, allowing it to emerge from its 75 years inside the dark cloud legal limbo like Amelia Earhart. We can almost feel the lack of eyes that have been laid on this, the way it feels is like a person comfortable with being a lonely artist, most awake and productive in the hours between midnight and dawn, when everyone else is asleep so they don't clog the airwaves with petty junk, and he can subliminally harness their dreamy calm. Many critics and fans who've wanted to see it for decades were perhaps expecting too much, I wasn't expecting anything except that it wouldn't measure up to the brilliance of another film about treacherous night flying over the Andes, Hawk's Only Angels Have Wings. And perhaps it's in the comparison, as the Fail Safe to Wings' Dr. Strangelove. In fact the two airlines could very well be connecting to each other along the South American flight plan! They might never meet, either, just a pilot once in awhile comes through Barranca, buys some drinks, waits til the storm clears, and takes off again.

And you can find much breadth of vision between the two if you compare the warm camaraderie of Hawk's film, which takes place almost entirely in the cozy bar/saloon/airfield owned by Sig Rumann, with the shadowy isolation of the command center of Night Flight, wherein the only 'fun; moment occurs when Young and Dorothy Burgess drunkenly sing "How Dry I Am" as they drive up to the runway in her convertible. It's a single moment of merriment like a daring final laugh in the face of mortality, vs., say, "The Peanut Vendor" in Angels, or the various macabre toasts, "Hurrah for the next who dies!" in The Lost Patrol (see my analysis of the WWI anti-war aviation films of the early 30s).  In this one, the song comes when the sun is just coming up, and Young puts his flight suit on over his tuxedo and gives his girl in the convertible a farewell kiss, and off he goes into the horizon, still drunk off his ass. Even in these early days of commercial cinema pilots went to work drunk! Why not? It's not like there are pedestrians or stop signs in the sky, and you're already taking your life in your hands just going up there. You need courage, by the quart if needed. And god knows you can't even be nice to Lionel Barrymore's inspector, lest brother John hear about it and break up the friendship with petty fines, so that it will be easier sending the boys into their death. What a dick.

But now that planes can fly fly fly up high enough to coast right over the Andes, thanks to pressurized cabins (and even heroes like Denzel get dragged over the coals for cockpit drunkenness) the opportunities for a man to sneer at mortality are far between. And the weird disconnect between all the stars' big scenes (like each actor was shot in a day or two on a soundstage where they didn't have to run into each other) is perfect for the subject matter. In careening through the inky blackness of the night sky instead of coasting through the inky dark dreams of sleep with their Argentine wives, these brave men of the air mail routes are, just like Exupéry's Little Prince, unbound up by the laws of gravity, sleep schedule convention, or the normal routines of human relationships. Refusing to choose life over death or home life over the air or vice versa, if they go down, they go like men, with only bobbing jellyfish parachutes for gravestones, free forever of their overbearing bourgeois wives.

Some more lines from Moby Dick maybe encapsulate the true kernel of poetic treasure within the seemingly disparate scenes of Night Flight:
"There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar."
Like those birds on the plain, other MGM star-studded prestige pics like Dinner at Eight may soar critical esteem but they're in familiar ground, while Night Flight--even when it nosedives, is way up in its own gyre. Where conventional airplane dramas tend to just take a spin around the void, throw in some flares and then ride off back to safety, Night Flight plunges straight down into the black abyss, landing lights off, harpoons at the ready, all to get the postcards and insulin to Rio at the scheduled time. Call it crazy, call it suicide, but it's the kind of black art that stirs me up like Ahab's electric oratory. It's no surprise then that I'll defend the lonely black night beauty of this film, though it crushes me to the core like gravity's ticking metronome....

And, like flying itself, is often boring.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"I Hope it's Originality": The Parallel Universe of Ray Dennis Steckler

By (guest writer) Matthew Coniam

Ray Dennis Steckler lost out twice. He made films in an idiom sure to be ignored by serious critics, who for most of the time he was working weren’t looking for the kinds of things he was offering anyway, even if they knew he was offering them. Then, by the time the big paradigm shift happened, and everybody on Steckler’s side of the tracks was suddenly up for maverick genius status, he got a bit of the attention he was due but it didn’t stick, because what he had to offer wasn’t so easy to label as the stuff Russ Meyer or HG Lewis were selling.

“I’m not saying I’m a great filmmaker or anything; I try to just be different,” he explained in Vale and Juno’s Incredibly Strange Films. “It’s so easy to copy someone else, and I just don’t do that.” Therefore it is insanely reductive to describe his films as exploitation, because exploitation, if it is anything, is the art of sublimating or even repressing one’s personal instincts in the interests of saleability. The trouble with Steckler was that he was different from everyone.

Ed Wood might have been the closest comparison, but Ed Wood, for all his instinctive artistry, was essentially delusional. The effects he achieved were the accidental alchemical consequence of filtering ordinary Hollywood aspirations through an extraordinary psychological prism, on not enough money (a bit like a meth high). Alter the balance by changing any of the variables and the effect would be lost. With a proper Hollywood gig his unique qualities might easily have been submerged in generic conventionality, and what’s more, he’d have been the happiest man in the world. In a sense, his greatest dream as an auteur was to make a film that nobody could instantly identify as an Ed Wood movie. His signature was his burden.

Though he never got the chance to prove it, it is surely beyond question that the same could never have been said of Steckler. Note his own attitude to Wood’s work: a staunch defender of it against the Golden Turkey bullies, as alert to the psychological nakedness with which Wood personalised stock genre material as to the poetry of the result, he nonetheless knew better than to make any grandiose claims for the man in terms of advance planning.

Steckler himself was different: he loved cheap movies, he loved western serials and PRC horrors and the Bowery Boys, but it was life’s irony alone that forced him to recreate his ideas in the same basic industrial conditions. Given the breaks of a Bogdanovich, a Coppola, or even a Lynch, the whole world might have been talking about the guy who made Poverty Row mainstream and took a chunk of the zeitgeist along with him.

He would certainly have shown just how technically competent he was (and my God he was: a great photographer, a great framer, a great composer of imagery) but the films would have been thematically identical, and he would have balked at not being able to shoot and plan them the same way too. There have only been a few times in Hollywood’s history when the big studios truly gave away the kind of freedoms he took for granted: Hopper’s Last Movie, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, possibly Heaven’s Gate. (And note that on those rare occasions, whatever other faults or merits they possess, the results always seem to be elephantine, where Steckler’s are tight as a drum: the lesson may be that self-indulgence is a luxury permitted only to those who can’t afford it.)

That’s probably why the writers and critics behind the reclamation of exploitation cinema as alt-art only ever really flirted with him: he was too unusual to fit in any of the traditions being exhumed and venerated. Furthermore, those elements of his films that did slot neatly into the exploitation framework were plainly not the essence of him.

Unlike Wood’s his vision is deliberate, the effects he achieves are the effects he wants to achieve, and if he was ultimately every bit as eccentric in thinking that what he had to offer might tally with what the greater public went looking for, he was vastly more articulate and convincing when it came time to make a case for his legacy. Asked in a TV interview to define the essence of his contribution to cinema, he replied disarmingly: “I hope it’s originality.”

If, somehow, you can’t see what’s great about Steckler’s movies on a first viewing, read the interviews with him in Incredibly Strange Films and you’ll catch on straight away. Here is a film artist, no question: a man steeped in film, its grammar, its history, its power and potential. His work does not speak for itself in one mouthful, like Lewis’s or Meyer’s. It’s a dense tapestry of self-invention, self-justification and self-allusion; it can be delved into deeply, and it rewards close analysis and comparison. That hip reflexivity for which Tarantino is even now periodically lauded, the replication of mass culture as an index of individuality, is done so much better by Steckler: I can’t imagine anyone watching The Thrill Killers and still caring too much about True Romance, or finding much to hail in the generic mood swings of From Dusk Till Dawn after exposure to Rat Pfink a Boo Boo or The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies.

Steckler’s films are fun, but he’s not laughing at us when he makes them: the biggest difference of all from Lewis. He’s creating real work, which just happens to adopt an incurious attitude to the range of materials and ideas through which that work can be created. That made him tricky; because the first rule to being an artist in the exploitation arena is don’t really be one. But Steckler comes on unashamedly like an auteur; he makes claims for the work. (“I look at it every two or three years, and there are two or three scenes that are probably as good as anything ever done in the movie industry,” he says of his rarely seen detective movie Body Fever in Incredibly Strange Films.) His eccentricities sounded great in précis, in a big book about the wonderful wacky world of exploitation films, but he never got to single volume status: it takes too much work to pin his films down.

Plus, he doesn’t play any of the expected exploitation games. The most shocking thing about his signature titles may be the self-imposed restraint with which they mask nudity and shy from bloody violence. (The lurch to pastiche that characterises both Thrill Killers and Rat Pfink may well have resulted in part from his unwillingness to sustain their initial grim intensity.) On one of his DVD commentaries, he says how a viewer came up to him once and said that he liked his movies, but that they were surprisingly un-gory, and he’d like them a lot better if he put more gore in. But Steckler didn’t much care for gore, and for the squarest possible reason: he didn’t think it was necessary. Hitchcock never needed to use a lot of gore, he explained, and it’s hard to think of any line better able to alienate him from the fraternity that was poised to hail him as a counterculture hero. (When they asked him what his favourite films were, he would often talk about Casablanca, too!)

Doubtless Lewis had no burning passion to dismember people and tip their guts on the carpet either, but his commitment was to lowbrow demand. Steckler is following a vision that, even if it runs contrary to demand, will not be contained. He did do porno, towards the end, to make a buck, and he certainly wasn’t ashamed of it, but there’s no way of incorporating it into his legit oeuvre, because it’s not the same man behind the camera. He’ll be anonymous if there’s no hope of being himself, but the pure Steckler is only ever his own man: a true artist, though he fools around with junk concepts.

The proof of that is in the filmography: there aren’t a lot of titles there. Raising money wasn’t easy for Steckler because he didn’t have much to sell: he cheerfully recounted stories of how real chances to get into Hollywood movies were frustrated because he clung obstinately to his bizarre story ideas (he once tried to get the rights to Batman so as to turn it into a musical); even in his own domain he baffled potential backers with idiosyncratic decisions, like switching casts mid-movie, or opting to shoot a slasher movie as a silent because he had decided it didn’t really need much dialogue. But if a big studio had offered him big money to do it the same way, of course he’d have taken it.

He’s an ideas man; and his films are more subversive than anybody’s (except perhaps Paul Morrissey’s) because they deny those who swim only in the mainstream the standards they demand, but also the out of towners the hooks they need to be at home in the wilderness.

He may have just sounded pragmatic when he said he had to improvise because circumstances demand that kind of flexibility when you’re on next to no budget - until you remembered the kind of decisions he was actually talking about. Steckler changed entire plots, and switched the whole mood and style and genre of the piece mid-production, if some opportunity emerged to go another way or because the intended path had been denied by circumstances. And those circumstances can be anything, right down to and very much including changes in the weather.

He thought of himself as a nuts and bolts realist because he had the idea to turn a kinky crime thriller into the adventures of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, to perk up a narrative that had run its course too early. He never quite saw that only an insane filmmaker would do that, that what he took for practicality was a species of creative lunacy that no other filmmaker – no matter how strapped or compromised – would even consider.

And that’s the paradox: the complete willingness to compromise, to subvert his vision utterly, to let circumstance dictate his ideas is his unique gift. The thing that makes his films so awe-inspiringly inventive, and so very personal, is the thing that he deems the most accidental and beyond his control. I cherish the dream of him working for Universal’s dollar, coming in one morning and telling the suits and the crew that he had completely changed the whole thing overnight. (Shades of Fields in The Bank Dick: “Instead of it being an English drawing room dray-ma, I’ve made it a circus picture!”)

The unspoken heretic truth about outsider art is that once you start calling yourself an outsider it gets much easier. It’s one thing to hide ideas within a commercial milieu, the way Hitchcock and Welles and suchlike are supposed to do, and it’s one thing to challenge mainstream standards within an exploitation frame, the way all those you-know-whos are supposed to do. But when the ball is kicked so far off the pitch that a Herschell Gordon Lewis can be hailed as maverick for giving them what they want exactly how they want it, and not even with an audible voice, then clearly a man like Steckler is not playing by either criterion. This is the nowhere his films inhabit: they are not layered; they are what they are, but what they are is something nobody else was doing, or asking for, and in the end, you run out of artistic criteria they piss on, and have to start inventing new ones.

Actually, there is one, just one, that they don’t violate: they look gorgeous. Thrill Killers, Incredibly Strange Creatures and Rat Pfink – the triumvirate on which his reputation primarily rests, or should - are beautifully photographed and beautifully composed films. They contain some of the most astounding imagery, and not just on the conceptual level: they are realised cinematically with rare but conventional precision too. They have great title sequences. And they are blessed by the presence of Steckler’s muse, Carolyn Brandt (above), an actress of true Hollywood luminosity content merely to shine on her husband’s ante-world, stunningly if untypically attractive, and never more so than in Rat Pfink.

Ultimately, any discussion of Steckler settles down to the subject of discontinuity and of juxtaposition. This is his defining element. If Hitchcock is the master of suspense, Steckler is the master of WTF.

I have this dilemma when introducing newcomers to his films: how much do you tell them first? Take Rat Pfink. Do you show it to them totally cold, so that they get that incredible feeling of shifting tectonic plates when it gets to halfway: that strange unease when a heretofore tense, pretty sexy, pretty creepy, pretty rough crime thriller (with rock and roll numbers) has now, at a crucial moment, shown the two male leads going into a cupboard… and now he’s showing the doorknob turning ineffectually, and there’s comic dialogue about the door being stuck and each of them standing on the other’s foot… and now – with the unimagined inevitability of death – the door is opening and they are dressed in the cheapest, stupidest home-assembled approximation ever of a Marvel superhero costume. And then the film doesn’t even switch into superhero adventure mode, but daffy comedy, with a near-endless chase as our heroes pursue the villains in a motorcycle and sidecar, an encounter with an escaped gorilla, and consciously spoofy dialogue. (“Remember, Boo Boo, we only have one weakness.” “What’s that, Rat Pfink?” “Bullets.”)

And yet it’s not a betrayal, it’s not a collapse, and it’s not even lazy: it’s just a different way of doing things. And it has you: the damned thing has you gripped. It works, just the way the crazy fucker thought it would. You can’t look away; you don’t want to. You know you are in the presence of something unprecedented, in the mind of someone unique.

But if you come to the film, as most people these days must, knowing what’s going to happen, and knowing how definingly Stecklerian it is that it does, and knowing what the title means and how it ended up that way, and loving and digging and looking forward to all that, you’re not quite having the cinematic experience that Steckler had in mind for you. You’re watching it as a cineaste, not as a punter.

It’s hard to get a grip on where his immense ingenuousness ends and his immense sophistication starts. The title both gives away the fact of its narrative leap and at the same time withholds it, because the actual on-screen title is not the strange but plainly anticipatory ‘Rat Pfink and Boo Boo’ but the entirely meaningless ‘Rat Pfink a Boo Boo’. But again, there’s Steckler’s innocence: he’s not playing games with us. Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is a simply magnificent title, one of the finest ever coined, but there’s no need to doubt Steckler’s explanation as to how it came about: the guy designing the titles got it wrong by mistake and it was too expensive to change. (Regardless of the fact that the expense would be irrelevant to every other filmmaker on the planet with a new film in their hands that they are trying to sell to the public: it’s simply not an option to risk putting it out with such a meaningless title.)

As with the title so with the movie. It’s very difficult to guess what kind of an experience Steckler wanted his audiences to have, or thought he was giving them. He thinks he has made a super hero comedy, because that’s how it ended up. How it ends up is what it is. Never mid that there’s no hint of any of that stuff for the first forty minutes, never mind the tonal shifts so severe they’re more like tonal ruptures.

This isn’t just a plot that doesn’t make any sense, the way his beloved Poverty Row and exploitation horror plots usually don’t make sense. Neither is it simple juxtaposition, in the way that Thrill Killers begins as scary psycho horror and turns into a horseback chase movie, or Incredibly Strange Creatures splices horror film and musical as if so weird a forced marriage was in itself a selling point. It is the conscious rejection of narrative convention, a kind of experiment in how far you can get it right by deliberately doing it wrong. These are ‘what if’ movies, and they are intoxicating.

The most important point to make about the first halves of Thrill Killers and Rat Pfink is that they work damned well on their own terms: as well as any other low budget thrillers you can think of, because Steckler’s a fine low budget filmmaker. And he truly had no idea where they were about to go until he took them there, so they never wink at you ahead of time. Everything’s in place for a low budget sleeper hit, and then they willfully go bananas, and for Steckler it’s just all part of the show.

In that cult directorial twilight, where so many discrete careers and trajectories jostle for attention in one glutinous assembly, some names loom larger just because they were bigger personalities, or did something first, or with wildest abandon. Few really cut their own track like Steckler. That’s why he’s a great loss. He would never have stopped surprising us. And he was a wonderful raconteur, and an articulate advocate for his vision.

DVDs of his films, with their extensive interview and commentary supplements, preserve more of the flavour of the man than we have of most directors, far more than we have any right to demand, but it’s obvious that this is a guy you could spend forever listening to. He had some great stories: about nearly killing Alfred Hitchcock, getting sued by Stanley Kubrick, being asked by Harpo Marx why he was shooting Eegah on his private property… I don’t condescend to Steckler’s movies: I venerate him the same way I venerate Antonioni and Fellini and De Mille. No Steckler movie is worthless, a lesson I taught myself on a film-by-film basis, always assuming that I had now seen all the good stuff, and that what remained would be a pale shadow. But Body Fever and The Chooper and The Lemon Grove Kids are all essentials, all feeding into the same single self-reflective oeuvre. There are in-jokes, allusions and endless cross-pollination that are played not for the joy of recognition but because that’s what total immersion in a world apart breeds in a man like Steckler, a kind of heroic, bloody-minded insularity entirely at home in its own dream world. Steckler may be the least famous director to ever act as if he was playing to a captive analytical audience; one that he knew didn’t exist even in his own backyard. And yet that is his future, of course: playing to just that audience.

Matthew Coniam also writes for Movietone News

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


As our new century rolls ceaselessly onward, women in the workplace are transcending their place as 'imitation men' and using not just feminine wile but intuition, outside-the-box thinking and relentless determination to get things accomplished that men, with their tendency towards inertia and blind trusting of routine, find aggravating. For men the law wasn't created to make sense but to create a false sense of security. For women, the law is just a dumb thing men like, with no real currency in the modern world. Eventually the women always get their way. Put them in charge of ending a war and they'll end it, which is the last thing men want --we still have all these bullets!

So when CIA systems analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) stumbles onto weird leads in Kathryn Bigelow's  ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) her first obstacle is to convince the higher-ups that she's not just grasping straws so the ten years of her life devoted solely to hunting Bin Laden won't be a waste. It's her confidence and hotness that paradoxically wears down male inertia, inspiring them to roll the dice, as if subconsciously trying to impress her. And of course her hunch is correct. If it wasn't, the mission would have been a disaster and the movie wouldn't be made, and feminism wouldn't have to contend with this double bind. As it is, she's a heroine, yet her name can never be known. Thus a woman's work is never recognized unless another woman is around to tell the story and keep her real name anonymous.

Chastain plays Maya as a woman existing in a single powerful inhale of iron will. It's not until Osama brought to her literally on a tray, like John the Baptist, that she can finally exhale and realize her life no longer has a goal for that iron will to bind around. Kathryn Bigelow has directed other movies about war and masculine violence--STRANGE DAYS, HURT LOCKER, NEAR DARK--but this is the first one really since BLUE STEEL to focus on a woman as the major protagonist, and while STEEL was about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose .357 magnum gets stolen by a scuzzy yuppie thrill-seeker (the odious Ron Silver), ZERO DARK is much more favorable in its depiction of female strength. Maya is no rookie, and in a land where violence can erupt at any time, with bombings decimating her limited stock of drinking buddies, excuse our heroine if she doesn't wince over the waterboarding.


That the attack on the Osama compound is finally ordered reflects how the rhetoric of the upper echelon males in the CIA and White House staff is more for their own benefit, to screw their courage to the sticking place (a failure could end their career) while crimson-haired Lady Maya Macbeth dwells with complete confidence in her mix of female intuition, tenacity, and hard data-crunching. She needs no courage to go for the jugular. Her youth, beauty, and balls, create an inescapably maternal drag the men have no choice but to surrender to. It's something about that Chastain jawline (1), that shockingly red hair that always falls perfectly in the Pakistani sunlight, sending in its firey splendor ripples of terror through us. As I wrote in my review of TREE OF LIFE, in Chastain's close-ups (on a big screen) you can see the 'signature' stamps of alien DNA on her Celtic pale skin, that bonny moss-swept coastline fairness that, if you look closely, reveals blue webs of capillaries just below the translucent skin, flushing with blood when hot emotions come across her face, making her glistening red gums that much redder when they flash into view beneath her canines. Wrapped in scarves, her pale bonny redness is like a Joan of Arc torch against which no man or group of men can stay unmoved, unassailed, unwilling to follow its blood orange reflection like a glimmering yarn orb into the minotaur maze. 

Ariel in THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) is of course a little different, but I kept thinking of her while watching ZERO DARK THIRTY, probably because of the red hair and the idea of an obstinate father-defying girl following her instincts to the surface, making deals with devils and triumphing over patriarchal prejudice with the help of her animal coterie. As with Maya, Ariel refuses to bow to the edicts of the patriarchy, shrugging off whatever prejudices her towering father tries on her to get her to marry a nice merman and settle down, leading in the end to progress and the inevitable re-drawing of boundaries. Sebastian the Crab's comment, "Someone's gotta nail dat girl's fins to de floor," sounds like the most patriarchal and oppressive of edicts --isn't this, after all, the exact methodology of the Taliban? To nail their women's fins to de floor and thus halt their culture's progress dead in its tracks?

Another redhead, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is actually blonde-ish in Homeland --but those of us who know her from other things know her real color. Like Maya in ZERO DARK, Carrie's brilliance carries the CIA almost single handedly into victory, with her mentor the fatherly (bearded) spook Saul's (Mandy Patinkin) belief in her aiding in the drive to move the CIA chiefs unwillingly towards the notion Sgt. Brody is a double agent. It begs the question: in the world of spies and agent-flipping, isn't someone suffering from bi-polar paranoia the ideal analyst? Time and again we see in the series how men believe whatever narrative will let them feel in charge, that nothing can slip by them; they fall in love with caution, the ritual of work, the process, the secret handshakes. Women threaten this steady safety not only by diluting the male bonding epoxy with their estrogen and logic but by their incessant pointing out of the men's blind spots. The men don't want to think outside the box, but if needed for her own success, women will drag them out, breaking the bones and resetting them correctly like a patient but resolute (and possibly sadistic) mother.

In the black-and-white era such heroines were few and far between, but one thrived through a whole mystery series, and her name, tellingly enough, was Torchy. She was a brassy, wiley reporter, played with wit and street-level verve by ace Warner Brothers gal sassy-smart-type Glenda Farrell. Her Torchy solves crimes so she can get the scoop, and regularly feeds her findings to her swell dolt of a fiancee homicide detective (Barton MacLane). The series was a hit, and the idea of a redhead reporter outsmarting the cops, crooks, and audience was taken in stride even with the code in effect.

By 1938 the Torchy Blaine series was so well established that BLONDES AT WORK could devote less time to the mystery and more time to the dynamic of ace reporter Torchy scooping other papers, betraying police naivete, and sparking gender warfare; while the men follow obvious clues as to the murder suspect and make pedestrian snap judgments, blind to the limitations of official procedure, Torchy draws a bead and zeroes in, even dropping false leads to rival papers to advance her own rep for scooping.

The women in all these films aren't necessarily smarter than the men, it's just that the men don't want to think outside the box. Natural laziness, fraternal loyalty, and respect for the chain of command compel them to lean on protocol rather than hunches, to relax and enjoy the dopey chase --it is, after all, their job, so may as well take their time and look busy when their boss is around but never when he's not. To this ethos, Torchy is a threat. In the opening of BLONDES AT WORK, for example, it's become clear Torchy needs to cool it. The top guy on the police force is tired of hearing complaints from other newspapers about Torchy's engagement to Barton granting her insider access. In real life there had to be laws invented just to stop this obsession with scooping, apparently, the reason illustrated in one film's final court scene when the judge learns of the guilty verdict from the shouting newsboy before the jury even re-enters the courtroom. Compare such law-mocking behavior to, say, Kate Hepburn flustering stodgy Spencer Tracy in ADAM'S RIB, or Ariel ignoring her stern father's laws and going where she may, heedless of how her reckless behavior forces her dad to shrink to a wussy worm for devouring by the sea hag, or that of Maya, the torch-red torturer in ZERO DARK THIRTY, insisting and demanding and fighting through the maze of males all busy playing war, so she can.... well, just mow a path straight through, so to speak: Torchy, Ariel, Maya, Carrie, they all knock the board over if there's a chance they'll win by default. It might be effective strategy, but what's the point? Why disrupt man's game, which is all he has? Men need something to do, bottom line, to make up for their inability to give birth; we need to create something. We invented business and work and even wars as reasons to get out of the house, to get away from the suffocation and ceaseless belittlement of (first) our mother and then (second) our wife... and (third) mother-in-law.

In ZERO DARK, when Maya demands time and attention be paid to following seemingly unimportant leads we naturally side with her in the film because we already know how what's coming, but what is fascinating is how eventually, even factoring the risks, the men all decide to roll the dice, based largely on her confidence. They surrender to the apron string tentacle in the name of a holy target, in a way transmuting the maternal nag lead into chivalrous joust gold through the weird alchemy which most men learn when they first fall in love and find their balls have not shrunk but grown like a lion shaking his new mane. The same goes for the CIA of Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Her manner of pitching her hunches is so wild-eyed and hysterical only a fool would trust her. That they do anyway transcends feminism and becomes more like the French army's blind allegiance to schizophrenic Joan of Arc. It's that it makes no sense to follow someone so cracked that in doing so they transcend themselves and achieve victory. Carrie's madness is understood to be the fall-out of her Cassandra-like gift of prophecy. Her madness doesn't prevent the prophecy from being an inescapable fact, for her madness fits, like a Cinderella shoe, the deformed foot of the terrorist world.

But not all female characters in these examples are Kali goddess chess board knocker-overs. Two classic example of the polar opposite of the outside-the-box woman can be found also on Homeland: Brody's wife, whose main role in the show is being angry if Brody stays out saving the world or trying to blow it up rather than being home at a reasonable hour so he can fawn over her and suffer her alienating pangs; and his daughter, a tiresome nail-biting do-goody drag. But that's where the show reveals its ancestry to network prime time stuff like 24 and Lost, rather than forward-thinking feminist yarns like Zero Dark Thirty or Blondes at Work where there's no time for such Betty Draper / Loretta Young rulebook-clutching, inside-the-box normality. Smart girls know that whole 'normal family' thing is only for the weak. Realizing it doesn't really exist is the key to true 'professionalism.'

Recently on TCM: MEN MUST FIGHT (1933) has a relevant scene wherein futuristic bi-planes are sailing over NYC while a rich matron and her son's wife gaze upwards from the flower-bedecked miranda, waving at their son as he flies overhead to war, discussing how one day it will be they, the women, will be in charge of the governments of the world and all this dumb man bloodshed stuff will be abolished forever. How naive! The only reason there even is a government is because of men needed to get away from women. The world is full of men who create and run businesses while the women are at home, and the women who come along demanding they get to run a business too, like a pesky little sister crashing your football game. If women ran things men would just start their own things, and tell the women they were going off to bowl or golf or poker if they asked, which of course they would, and try to invite themselves along.

Still, Men must Fight is a p2retty wild if didactic film, predicting versions of TV, Skype, and  and WW2, and showing New York City being bombed from the air, the Empire State building shattering like so much balsa wood. I mention this horror only for the last lines, stating that when the women run things, things will be done right (I paraphrase). Until then, men must fight. Yes, men must.

But women are better at something else -- winning, or at any rate ending the game.

When analyzing the roots of war it always pays to study the Australian aboriginals. Like many other indigenous groups with strong mothers, the men are often at a loss of what to do with their down time, or how to give their lives meaning once the food is stocked and the women are all busy nursing. So they fight wars, agree on some issue of contention to create conflict between the tribes, using only blunt arrows and slender branches as non-lethal weapons and spending time with elaborate strategies, councils, and sneak attack/retreats. Welts are bruises are the mark of a man being hit rather than bullet holes. He might get a welt or a cut but there's no need for a medic. Somewhere along the line, this non-lethal aspect of war is always forgotten, and we also forget why we fight in the first place, we fail to honor the warrior ethos and it comes back to bite us. But we can imagine a similar 'reason' for the Bush war in Afghanistan and Iraq-- Osama bin Laden being alive and allegedly in an Afghanistan cave provided the Bush administration with a reason to stay at work instead of being dragged to church and dinner with the pastor. Naturally it would be a woman who just slides in there and finds Bin Laden in Pakistan instead and wastes a perfectly good enemy. Sorry boys, war's over, now take out the trash and eat your spinach, mom's got to out and see the sea witch about getting you some goddamn new nutz. She just ate your last pair.

1. For what it's worth, I tripped a lot with a similarly freckled redhead my sophomore-senior years of college, and wrote in my journal entries of how her strange jaw /mouth darted crazily when she laughed or raised her voice, to resemble the mandibles of a terrifying spider (if you've ever watched a spider dismember its prey, well, it was pretty similar.)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Radium Girls Vs. the 1%: Eva Green in DARK SHADOWS, Carole Lombard in NOTHING SACRED

It's always a good idea to lay massive curses upon the rich --haven't they deserved it since the dawn of time? Haven't they, in a way, already cursed us? Their ancestors robbed ours and left no evidence of the crime, leaving our forefathers poor while theirs grew rich, for you need money to make money. So we fight back the only way the poor can, magical curses and chicanery. In two films made in wildly different but eerily similar decades, 1930s and 2010s, two downtrodden women lay down some nice curses on the rich, in cinema: Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg in 1937's Nothing Sacred and Eva Green in 2012's Dark Shadows remake. Damn, are they twins? Or is it just that I saw them both in the same day?

So the big date 12/21/12 came and went with nary a tremor; I'd been hoping some major disaster would wipe out the uncouth and leave we chosen angels with a chance to start again from scratch. But the greed of the mega-rich is still strangling us too slowly to count as apocalypse: hypocritical politicians leave our east coast to suffer in the mud just because we ignored their own states' disasters. Australian moguls using patriotism against our own American yokel; dogs in the wind and casts of Cats living to--you know the drill, it's the same damn one, slog swamp, slog...

NOTHING SACRED recently released on a sparkling Blu-ray reminded me that my bitterness over the loss of the illusion that our half-strangled human culture was about to end makes me like Oliver Stone, furious that Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard, top) is not really dying of radium poisoning. Nowadays it may be hard to imagine such a un-fact-checked farce playing out in the local papers, but it happened, I think, a lot, presumably, or Ben Hecht wouldn't have written this movie, nor Capra MEET JOHN DOE. At any rate, the media circus surrounding young girls dying of radium poisoning was no fantasy, even if old news by '37:
The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them; some also painted their fingernails and teeth with the glowing substance.

Five of the women challenged their employer in a case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers. (WIKI)
 But the girls who won America's hearts as they shambled to the stand were hideously deformed (here) while Lombard comes to the city unmarred and super hot and in robust health so the German specialists called in at great expense are instantly, ow you say, zuss-PISH-iouss? Still, if Hazel was as sick as a real radium girl she'd be far too tragic to parade around New York City. The hooplah-spinning Morning Star reporter Frederic March falls in love with Hazel, and his own words praising her and what he reads into her wide blue eyes as courage in the face of death when it's just desperation to get out of her crappy homespun Americana New England town. He's mad but also thrilled to learn she's just faking to get out. And anyway, fake or not, her story is life-affirming just like my precious, lost apocalypse.

I've always felt that doomsday anticipation makes life post-Scrooge precious. It fills me with gallows' gratitude and Fight Club ("it's only after we've lost everything that we don't fear anything") euphoria. But as I recently learned ("cough") there is a downside: that sense of horrible disappointment when the world keeps turning after the expiration date. In the end you can use up all your pre-death euphoria credits and have nothing left for when they're truly needed. Hecht knows this all to well. His  TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) found Lombard giving a tearful goodbye to her young college boy lover as she boards her train for New York, only to groan in annoyance when he decides to come along regardless of her tearful farewell scenes: "George, you bore me!" In NOTHING SACRED, the power brokers of New York all wince in despair when they learn Flagg's faking her radium poisoning. They've already used her 'plight' to advance their careers and don't want to give up the gains. Girls have been exposed to radiation poison for real for less (SILKWOOD).

A similar exploitation of a scheming harridan by the elite occurs in the Tim Burton DARK SHADOWS (2012), wherein the haute bourgeois Barnabas (Johnny Depp) sleeps with and then coldly spurns the housekeeper's daughter, Angelique (Eva Green). A spurn is bad enough in itself, but to spurn a woman who was born into the same house as you around the same time and yet is expected to live a life of servitude while you live it up, that's pretty piggish, Barnabas! For all we know, his dad might be Angelique's father, too, like with the Schwarzenegger family. So I couldn't really muster much sympathy for him even when Angelique kills his parents via her witchy spells, confines him to a coffin for 200 years, and reduces his estate to a crumbling relic for future generations to waft through. Hey, some of my great great great great great great great aunts were New England witches so naturally I'm on her side. And say what you like about Robert Stack in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, at least he knew he was a shit, you could see it in his desperate, rolling eyes. Depp doesn't even shift his arch posture a whit. His boorish snobbery and thoughtlessness are not even something either Burton or Depp seems to notice. They're too busy capturing the imperious posture and Gothic lingo, doing that old sly bag of 70s era art direction tricks first seen in ZODIAC and RON BURGUNDY. 

One scene is very telling early on concerning the dirty class inequality lurking underneath the soapy gloss of Burton's film: after spurning Angelique's professed love, Barnabas starts showing up at the house with a doe-eyed Gothic Windswept Barbie (Bella Heathcote), pledging love to her while Angelique is scrubbing the floor down on her knees, in the same damned room. Even while alive Barnabas doesn't imagine her feelings might be hurt. Once he's dead, Barnabas is even more oblivious. Declaring himself a family man and reading his latest bland doe-eyed waif-carnation Jonathan Living Seagull (a good way to make her understand what 200 years in a box is like) and positing himself as somehow superior to Angelique, while slaughtering (blue collar) locals and passing hippies by the vanload, anyone that might be a threat to his vast fortune.  He sates his thirst like a camel, apparently, spending whole montages of cannery restoration as a kind of saintly captain of industry revitalizing the neighborhood, then wiping out a whole love child traveling hippie enclave after not even trying their joint. There's a kind of snobby cluelessness at work here that lets us know very little about the subject but a whole lot about how tons of money and artistic freedom can sometimes bring a star like Depp and an auteur like Burton way too far away from how reality really is, or was. They have much more in common with the clueless mega-rich than they maybe even realize. They think they're part of the disenfranchised barbers and street urchins, but they're the Marie Antoinette offering cake to the bloody starving throngs.

Victoria, the big-eyed waif reincarnation of his old love (also Heathcote), unwittingly sours the situation even more. For a 'true love' she's very one dimensional, passive, a valium Jane Eyre, the Audrey Long in TALL IN THE SADDLE rather than the Ella Raines. She seems dubbed-in by a different actress--one much more mature and self-assured-- a voiceover artist milking emotion from every syllable while Heathcote shyly peeps. Being the victim of icky mental institution flashbacks is no excuse, though she could be frickin' James Dean and it wouldn't matter: no mortal woman can compare when Green's voice gets deep and throaty in a Hawks heroin chain-smoker purr (or the very slight American twang snakes through her voice when talking to the locals). As Green noted in an interview:
"Angelique is a woman who has changed with the times. During the 18th century, Angelique was a dark-haired servant girl. As Angie, the CEO of Angel Bay, she’s a successful blonde businesswoman. “Tim wanted her to look like the American dream,” says Green. “Everything about her is perfect. Too perfect. Perfect makeup, red lips, platinum hair." (Inquirer)
Damn right. And Barnabas and Angelique even get in on again in their new incarnations as monsters, trashing her office in a fit of demon craziness set to some 70s hard rock song we all remember, or better remember since it surely cost a pretty farthing. This scheming witch and murderous vamp clearly belong to one another and so it's hard, very hard, to root for Barnabas in his endeavors to drive her from his ancestral town in favor of Heathcote's doe-eyed doormat, especially when Angelique is initially so thrilled to see him and races to his mansion for a reunion tryst, all grudges forgotten, his debt  paid, in her mind. But he, apparently, forgives nothing while demanding total sympathy with his hypocritical yen for banal family values.

In better films that's more or less what happens, the wild man and the wild woman find or settle for each other and eschew the staid mannered rivals, ala SHREK or KLONDIKE ANNIE or TALL IN THE SADDLE or BRINGING UP BABY. But this is more of a film like KISSING JESSICA STEIN or BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS or even STEPMOM or STEEL MAGNOLIAS, or JUNO, wherein the conventions of pro-dogma pro-life patriarchal conservatism are served on the sly. Man, 200 years of being locked in a coffin is a stiff price to pay just to preserve your social conservative trust fund dickheadedness.

How is Barnabas conservative? He holds a grudge and he takes the moral high ground no matter what sordid things he does on the sly, just like the Republicans. Barnabas can't help himself, you see, she cursed him by draining his precious... bodily fluids. Even though she doesn't kill anywhere near the amount of innocent people that he does (those construction workers he killed probably had children! families!), it is she who must be burnt at the stake for this to be a proper happening. The true Neo-conservative doesn't care about the dead workers, after all, unless they're in his direct family. Drinking the lifeblood of labor and youth while presuming we'll root for him anyway since he has such good family values is sooooo 1%. Meanwhile he's so eager to become a man again and cleanse his soul he seems a bit like Gomez Addams dreaming of becoming Herman Muenster, i.e. a rich eccentric longing to be a suburban nuclear family patriarch. Ick. Meanwhile Victoria flashes back to her sweet banal childhood ruined by parents quick to label her psychic ability as mental illness and shuttle her off to institutions so even there, Burton feels somehow apologetic for his own tastes... like he's ashamed of his need to be scary, in other words he's making a goddamned MGM horror movie rather than a Universal.

This kind of belief system, if left unfucked with, inevitably leads to a people's revolution! Barnabas shouldn't be reading Erich Segal's Love Story but rather Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States!

Me, I'd take the lusty strong, slightly crazy fallen woman, be she fair in looks and enterprising in drive, over some waif who look like a Nina Friday or Jasmine Becket-Griffith painting come to life but has nothing else really to offer. Rejecting a badass babe with the power to destroy him and his loved ones is not only short-sighted, it's why--when push comes to shove--this film will never quite becomes an enduring classic like GHOSTBUSTERS or the TV show version of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. At least those had the courage to ride to the end of the subversive road they started on. DARK SHADOWS makes a hard U-turn and heads to a different world, one where Mitt Romney won and women are still expected to faint at the sight of blood, even if here she does at last wind up in a kind of very special place - the Barbara Steele-ish crossroads between the endings of every Corman Poe film ever made, and her surrounding art direction is always stunning, putting the best 70s romantic-Gothic paperback covers to shame.

from top: Bella Heathcote; Jasmine Beckett-Griffith; Lombard
But 2012 is over, man. Barnabas Collins' attitude of mystified old world 'ruling class' entitlement resembles Mitt Romney's, and Romney lost. There's a new kid in town, Barnabas, they're called the minority collective, and their blonde sorceress Hillary Clinton aims to unbuckle you from the throne. Victoria's passive dullness meanwhile is reminiscent of past Victorian (get it?) heroines who study how to be completely vacant so as to not alienate their shallow man, and stand straight up to hide the fact they've become addicted to morphine. Preferring her to a real 3-D hussy like Angelique would be like if March preferred a dead but honest Hazel Flagg to a live, lying, laughing, punching, slugging Carole Lombard.

The ending of NOTHING SACRED though has no intention of doing any Burton-Disney pussying out. Instead of Hazel granting New York the grand tragedy of her funeral she leaves a note saying she's off to die alone, and the end finds her incognito on a boat with March. Isn't that just what all the doomsday soothsayers are doing right now, myself included? Instead of a raging Eva Green Kali whirlwind solar storm apocalypse of human sacrifice on the altar of populist journalism we face yet another 200 years or more of the same damn bloodsuckers we've always had.

SHADOWS is still pretty entertaining, fast-moving, and there's slew of strong, beautiful women in hot 70s clothes and pale white skin to ease your suffering over Barnabas' unrepentant tea party douche baggery and Victoria's wan torpor. The ubiquitous Danny Elfman's score is, for once, inspired, with those willowing woodwinds so indicative of 70s supernatural TV shows (I never saw the original DARK SHADOWS soap, but I played the board game) reminding me of everything from the original Charlie's Angels to Night Gallery and Satan's School for Girls (though once more Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" shows up to indicate hippie freedom - see "WATCHMEN Dig my Earth"). 

But fun as it is to watch, DARK SHADOWS leaves me very dissatisfied. I don't mind rooting for the villain if he knows he's the villain. But here Barnabas is the most entitled, snobby psychopath who thinks he's the good guy since Dustin Hoffman in the original STRAW DOGS.  He's like those slimy male scientists who wore lead aprons and goggles while insisting the buckets of radium paint they were giving the girls to paint watch hands with was completely harmless. Compared to this kind of villainy Angelique and Hazel Flagg are bastions of blonde decency --at least they know they're evil. The real tragedy is that 200 years of entombment did nothing whatever to wise Barnabas up to others' suffering.  Ah well, the apocalypse may not have happened in real life but at least civilization's descent into moldy decay is still visible onscreen... if you care to blast for it.

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