Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Genealogy of Flies: LORDS OF SALEM (2013), HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2008) + My own Salem Witch Connections

"Only bad witches are ugly." - Glenda

Much as I love WIZARD OF OZ there's something messed up about Glenda's shallowness. Look at these bangin' old broads (above) bringing tea and cookies, and hell yeah the tea's probably spiked with tannis root but when these sexy evil bitches show up at your door you should be fucking honored. They're not there to get all petty on you with who's good and who's bad, ugly or pretty. Glenda's the ugly one for perpetuating a stereotype started by the church to keep a sister down. In Salem, for example, a horde of hot witches were hung for their presumed evil, including some of my ancestors.

If they weren't evil before you hung them, they are now, o paranoid projector of your own subconscious devils!

Now they're coming back, in my DNA, arm-in-arm with every kid whose life was ruined for getting caught expanding his mind in the Reagan-era 80s. Fear us, then, o descendants of the evil and corrupt Salem and Texas judges, all smug in your hypocrite robes and stetsons. We are watching you as you sleep, through Meg Foster's crystal blue orbs. Your time shall be soon.

In other words, sons of sinuses blocked and lungs a-resinated, hail the new flesh and toad of newt, hail MacBeth, Val Lewton, the Cramps, Bob Dobbs, Nic Cage, Sammy Davis Jr., Lamont Cranston, D.H. Lawrence, and John Doe.

LORDS OF SALEM (2012), Rob Zombie's nearly abstract, post-vaguely-modern 70s devil film, tosses cauldron-ward the old 'conspiracy to impregnate unwitting chick with the devil's child' thing-- already tossed back a few years earlier by Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL - 2009)-- adds the actual Salem and spoon of film references, heats to overflowing, goes in the other room to change the record, becomes obsessed with finding the right cauldron stirring Velvet Underground song, and never comes back (1). Does it end up a stew? Well, what is it trying to be? If it was trying to do for devil movies what SCREAM did for slashers, then it failed. If it wasn't trying to do that, if it was trying to be a SHINING for New England, then why the tattoo-parlor ambiance? Why the vintage punk thrift store symbolism that means nothing? Why the EXORCIST-cycled dialogue, (bringing "cunting" back home)? Why the carny ride haunted house tableaux that go nowhere, as if we're meant to glance their way, gasp, clutch our date's arm, and walk on through the dry ice fog and strobe lights to the next attraction? Aside from the goofball cranberry juice elevator flood, and the climactic gold room of dusty corpses, Kubrick would never be so obvious. So what is LORD OF SALEM really trying to be, aside from a showcase for Rob's tattoo and customized neon artist Florida posse to display their wares?

It's being Rob Zombie, the Kubrick of the Daytona trailer park, the Neo-pagan who goes on a killing spree at Burning Man, and everyone mistakes it for performance art.

Dude, they were so high, those who mistook it. Take it from me.

You can't take it from them. They're all dead.

Or hungover.

Left to its own devices, without all the post-modernist post-punk flippancy royalties can buy, LORDS does generate some hypnotic power, some echo of that great stretch of THE SHINING, set to the avant garde vocalizing drones of György Sándor Ligeti, involving 'the woman in room 237.' Zombie's own version of that same ominous inexorable creep towards some dreadful finish has a uniquely palpable abandon; the psychic force of the gathered middle-aged actresses--heavily and picturesquely filth-encrusted--creates a combined psychic release. Compare this with most lame attempts to create a Satanic ceremony: wherein half-asleep actors gather in black robes, read Latin, light candles and splay a topless virgin on the dais rather than do real research on altered states of consciousness achieved through hallucinatory herbs, smoked and drunk, taken in conjunction with prolonged periods of group chanting.. Like Ken Russell before them, those who'd depict witchy states of consciousness just show flashes of weird sick MTV images and a bloody Jesus and a nun naked but for bloody habit, strobed over a dosed pupil... and hope for the best.

Only bad witches are ugly... yeah, right (Glinda in the Jezebel fire) - collage 2015 by-EK 
Zombie does well in portraying this ceremonial ghastliness, the bad witch ugliness, but for it to resonate we need a stark contrast of beauty, which we don't get. In THE SHINING, the movie Zombie apes, the beauty comes from the hotel decor and from the devouring omniscient ambivalence of the Colorado Rockies. They loom like giant fangs, like the Overlook is in the mouth of a giant arctic Venus flytrap. They provide a stark coldness which makes even the unfathomable vastness of the cavernous hotel interiors warm by contrast.

But when a gold-flecked theater shows up at the end of SALEM (referencing Overlook's 'Gold Room' and MULHOLLAND DR.'s Club Silencio), though it offers quite a show, it conforms not to Kubrickian displays of mind control, nudity and submission/surrender, nor stark terror/beauty, but back to those old images of evil that are speckled with the cruel dust of the demonization process begun a thousand years ago by the Catholics. As Moncure Daniel Conway's Devil Lore book notes:

The great representations of evil, whether imagined by the speculative or the religious sense, have never been, originally, ugly. The gods might be described as falling swiftly like lightning out of heaven, but in the popular imagination they retained for a long time much of their splendour. The very ingenuity with which they were afterwards invested with ugliness in religious art, attests that there were certain popular sentiments about them which had to be distinctly reversed. It was because they were thought beautiful that they must be painted ugly; it was because they were—even among converts to the new religion—still secretly believed to be kind and helpful, that there was employed such elaboration of hideous designs to deform them. (c. 1879)
Of course Zombie makes sure that same damnation is applied equally to the hideous Puritan torturers, here re-imagined with big pointy caps and excessively unguided facial hair. In other words, both sides are twisted, evil grotesques. Then--in modern Salem--our protagonist Sherri Moon is supposedly descended from the judges, but is in practice just a smarmy, skin deep-pagan, and so is Zombie apparently, for he forgets we have to believe these torturers of witches were genuinely under psychic attack if the witches are to be actually evil, too. You can't have it both ways! If you try, the whole thing falls apart, for there's no clear 'side' you necessarily want to be on. Puritan evil vs. Heathen evil leaves no tension, so we may just admire the artsy detail of the tableaux, clutch our date's arm again and follow the crowd off to the next tableaux, already wondering where to eat after we leave.

The turf is ours by right...

This spectacle might keep our interest more adroitly if the lead actress was stunningly beautiful, like Jocelin Donahue in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, or Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY, or Cristina Raines in THE SENTINEL, or even just interesting, vivacious, charismatic, but the leading actress in Zombie's film is of course his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie. And she was all those things a few years ago, in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and DEVIL'S REJECTS. Now gettin' too old for this shit. As Glinda might say, a hard-lived life leaves no loveliness.

Decked out like a Williamsburg hipster, Moon's character, Heidi Hawthorne is an enigma only to herself. Way too old to either believe in the supernatural or stop dressing like an extra in ALMOST FAMOUS. She considers herself a badass, clearly, and has a good job as a Salem radio station DJ. She still snickers like a dirt bag middle-schooler at any hint of genuine insanity, balls, magic and/or evil--such as when the metalhead from the band Lords of Salem is a guest on her show. She's the type of girl who has Celtic symbol tattoos but openly sneers at anyone who tries to point out what the markings mean. She is just the sort of person any self-respecting punk rock contingent recognizes as a slumming poseur and ostracizes a priori just as she des the truth behind all the witchy symbols she surrounds herself with. She's got nothing going on but thinks she's all that, and that's the biggest red flag of all.

Of course we know why we're supposed to be so intrigued by Heidi: the director still loves her, and he mistakenly presumes we're as bewitched as he is. Well we were, Rob. Ten years ago, she was freakin' sexy as all hell. But Rob we're fickle. Ain't no ring on our finger. And that's part of the problem when you cast your wife all the time; sooner or later she's going to be too long in the tooth to play the babe she still thinks she is, and you're going to be the one to have to tell her, and then you'll have to start auditioning younger leading ladies all while dodging hurled frying pans.

This kind of short-sightedness is all over SALEM; we can tell what 70s devil movies Zombie likes and wants SALEM to be but he misses key subtexts. Like a carny trailer camp cargo cult, he imitates the surface and adds his own trashy aesthetic and crosses his fingers the two will gel into a religion. I'm not knocking him because I admire him for that last part. He clearly loves all this shit. His obsessive yen to recreate these lightning moods is admirable and must be appreciated by any classic horror fan. It's the meaning that eludes him. For example, he goes for an Antonioni/Miike vibe in longly held static long shots of Heidi walking her dog on a lonely street or in a park in late-afternoon or playing records with her bearded buddy, but fails to inject genuine observation and complexity into these long shots the way Miike would, nor can he generate uncanny frisson even in his Kubrickian Steadicam POV shots, injecting them instead with anemic attempts to make Salem a goth Austin with just a smidge of Detroit decay. He misses the chance for some great 70s-80s Italian synths in the LORDS' score, and instead goes for an annoyingly minor key two-note piano of the kind that made the back half of EYES WIDE SHUT so annoying. He misses the chance to make Heidi herself interesting: she's supposed to be a recovering drug addict but any AA or NA person will roll their eyes at how un-an addict she is. She even drinks at one point, super dangerous behavior from any kind of recovery (did Rob not bother to learn that?) though it doesn't strike the film as a big deal; and her apartment is way too clean for someone in early recovery. Why isn't she smoking or chugging coffee like a real AA-er counting days? I got a headache just watching her get up and walk her dog without a coffee first. If Heidi's an addict I'm John Paul Jones (the Zeppelin bassist, not the seaman... you got a dirty mind).

The Moon wanes: 1000 Corpses (2003), Rejects (2005), Salem (2013)
I mean no disrespect to Sherri Moon. I love her in DEVIL'S REJECTS. Her line after bluffing a room of hostages with an empty gun ("it's all mental!") is my personal mantra. She displayed a great relish for evil in that film and had great stringy-sexy hair and a flash of gleeful malice in her eyes and nice curves and an ease with using them to drive a man so crazy he forgets to defend himself (you could see why Zombie married her). Her thin lips weren't even an issue then, but now they're even thinner, too thin for the big screen; she seems tired, and way too old to be riding on an URBAN COWBOY-style electric goat in neon flames (her poor bones!), or going down on strange priests in the midday pew (unbecoming!). She seems to be a middle-aged woman trapped in a tricked-up spiral of horror iconography, determined to stay unaware of the maturity that at last has found her.

I know what it feels like to make out with thin-lipped women. It's like kissing a skull. Scary! Is that why he puts her in skull makeup paint? I hope he's trying to convince her to use some collagen. None of these 18 paragraphs would exist had she done so. You think I'm a fucking lippist now, but if not me, whom? And who else are collagen lip-augmentation shots for if not for her? Who but a classic horror fan may say so, may hold her to the same barroom benzedrine social standard the rest of stardom is bound unto? I'm no fan of collagen but just 'cuz some girls overdo it to ducky extremes doesn't mean a small dose should be shunned by those who need it. Her later skull make-up helps her look like some scraggly skate punk who got caught in the rain on his way home from a Stockholm death metal show (below) muttering "fråga inte!" to his parents as he drips up to his bedroom." as he passes his parents on his way upstairs. But I doubt that's the look she wanted. It's just the look she had, so she ran with it - again not an un-admirable motive, that old Buddhist saying: when you're falling, dive.

Pastiche Without Purpose

Maybe SCREAM auteur Wes Craven had it easier since he focused on 80s slasher films, so ignored horror history prior to HALLOWEEN and after SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Zombie goes back to the silent era's HAXAN through to the occult crazy 70s, Kenneth Anger's LUCIFER RISING, ALUCARDA, every Spanish and Italian Exorcist rip-off ever made, then buzzes THE HOWLING, and various old films Heidi watches while asleep in her apartment like KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and CAPTAIN KIDD.

Burnin' up his fuse up here alone
There are a million ways these textual links could have been made to resonate, such as having Heidi actually evince some knowledge of classic film trivia, to be able to quote them or talk about them, to fold quotes into her lexicon. Instead they seem like these tapes were all left behind by an ex-boyfriend and she just has them on to remind her of him, and because she's too passive to pick a channel.

That's what made SCREAM so unnerving; these characters knew what was coming--they'd seen it in the movies. As kids kept awake at night all through the slasher 80s, vowing in our slasher-fueled anxiety that we would never drop the knife by the killer's prone body, we resonated with those SCREAM kids. SCREAM used the dread inspired by those earlier movies, which had by now settled in our collective dream unconscious, and re-activated it, showing even a kid who knows HALLOWEEN by heart and has already thought through his bedroom defense, might be killed anyway. It was a terrifying thought.

Zombie can only admire that collective unconscious and that terror from a safe distance. He's a fan, not a player. He doesn't know why he likes them - so he just apes the box covers. He's the R-rated Tim Burton, i.e. for a director he makes a good set designer. They both gravitate towards familiar narratives--remakes of their favorite films--because they have no gift for story structure or pacing: they just want to create the fantasy setting they dreamt of inhabiting as children. Once they do, it's like one of those Halloween parties where people in fancy costumes just stand around awkward all night.

Luckily Zombie is free of the awful whimsy-packed orchestral pomp of those Danny Elfman scores Burton uses. Now you think I'm whimsist!? Fuck yeah, because it pollutes the real madness. Whimsy is the way an insecure artist of the macabre, or MST3000, chews your food for you.

Oddities seems such a lonely world
Sadly, what the mise-en-scene of Heidi going through her day most resembles is the Science Channel's reality show, ODDITIES. I've got nothing against the Oddities Store itself (down the street from where I used to live) but the customers and employees on the show are way too sane and boring, which makes their yen for weirdness strangely sad (to me anyway). They cover themselves with tattoos and piercings and wear red white and blue dreadlocks, old-timey mustaches, and tall stovepipe hats and fang implants, but when push comes to shove, perhaps, some of them might be overcompensating for an inner lack of... what? True insanity? Nic Cage only needed one symbol of his individuality in WILD AT HEART, his snakeskin jacket. But Cage 'really' is a badass ---the eyes, Manolo, they never lie. Some people choke themselves with symbols of badassery and yet turn pale at the sight of a cigarette. They'd have been too scared to use the bathroom at CBGBs, but then they'd be wearing their CBGB souvenir T-shirt proudly for the next 20 years, they'd even wait in line for tickets when the same (now cleaned and laminated) bathroom shows up as an exhibit at the Met, and recall the good old days when punk music was, like, real.

Now you think I'm an anti-faddist. Well no. It's just that I'm really crazy. And while I don't trust carnies and their little hairy hobbit hands, their undiagnosed Hep-C and permanent smell of diesel oil, I trust normals even less. Dude, the truly crazy try to be normal. They fail! And the result of their failure are the real eccentric tics; the vice versa are only sad - or am I jealous of 'stability?' Around 1983, vefore I started wearing black fingernail polish, growing my rat tail, and wearing combat boots with white circles I painted on them in white-out, I guess I was similar. Are you calling me a poseur now? Yeah, maybe.... but I escaped it, through psychedelics, alcoholism, and being in a band, and... hmm, no, that's it. Just those three things. Goddamn it! I was depressed, is the thing, undiagnosed - as was all the depression not suicided over. That level of depression will make you reckless in what you do, you scramble for the intense experience, and CBGBs and City Gardens are like soothing beach trips. When you're a drunken acidhead, it's the same, but now you're free.

CBGB's: Smell on Earth
Rob Zombie's clearly a real wild man in that sense, but he covers every inch of his mise-en-scene with so much hillbilly dirtbag neo-pagan blood chic you wonder what lack of true insanity he's hiding. None of what he films looks like a real place, with age and use proper to an old city like Salem, the way the sticky thickness of 30 years of rock band promo stickers and graffiti are layered like redwood rings at real college dives. And too much detail all 'of a piece' as they say, looking new and pre-fab rather than real isn't scary. Carpenter created the first HALLOWEEN with a spray-painted white Shatner mask, a trash bag full of painted leaves, a butcher knife, a knitting needle and a few suburban houses.  Zombie had carny parents. He lived on the road; he didn't know from suburbs, so he's excused in that sense. Carnies vouchsafe their authenticity only through their oddities collections, like sheepdogs for a sheepherder. And who cares if the more obnoxious gawkers get sewed screaming into the next exhibit? Rob Zombie understands if we don't, either.

But Heidi is a tourist.

There some indications here that Zombie can make the post-modern jump, and that's what's frustrating. He jumps but doesn't stay on the other side of the line long enough for the ref to take a measurement. He just decorates the jump-off point in punk rock iconography and gestures off into the fog and whoosh -- he's gone onto the next wild attraction. But in one great scene, Heidi is chilling out at her friend's house and suddenly she's coughing up blood, and faceless doctors appear in the room and Charles Laughton's voice on the TV jibes with the demons almost as effectively as in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE or the films of Nicolas Roeg or Alex Cox. "This just may be to your benefit," Laughton says, as the merciless CAPTAIN KIDD (above). For this tiny stretch, it's sublime work.

Later her bonding with the weird fat devil baby (whose lopsy-topsy mutatedness is a perfect dark evil mirror to Laughton's leering image onscreen) mirrors that of TV and viewer, umbilical extension cords plugged right into us and hell, and with its embryonic red eyes and slit middle you'll wonder if this demon embryo is a metaphor for an abortion or if his froggy face is supposed to be the ski mask in TORSO, and the priest looks like he might be a reference to the stitched-into-eternity Dr. Freudstein in Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)... but we have no clear idea why or if its conscious on Zombie's part, or the make-up guy's.

Top: Salem / Bottom: House by the Cemetery
My Mary Easty/ Rebecca Towne Nurse Connective Genealogy 
(on my Dad's Mother's Mother's Side)

For an aside: I have to mention, as always when discussing Salem and genealogy (characters here are descendants of the hung witches and/or judges and executioners) that all these descendant movies are fascinating on a personal level for me because the one side of my family tree that kept immaculate records is from Salem, having arrived in Boston in 1631 (with fellow passenger Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island): This side of my tree includes nuggets like these (copied direct):
The family of John Perkins 1583-1654 - freeman 18th May 1631
Married Judith Gates, born Newent, Gloucestershire, England
1. "Quartermaster" John - b. 1614 0 d. Dec, 14, 1686
2. "Deacon" Thomas 1616-1686 (not the witch hunter, he died before that)
3.  Elizabeth 1618-1700 / married William Sargent (5 children)
4. Mary 1620-1700 - "She was accused of witchcraft, sentenced, but the execution delayed and the citizens recovered from the delusion." (+5 more)
The Family of Elisha Perkins (born - 1656 - Topfield) died - 1741 in Methuen
Married Catherine Towne - 1680
(9 total), including: John (third son) born Aug. 12, 1685 - died June 22, 1750
married Mary Easty (whose mother Mary Easty and Aunt Rebecca Towne Nurse were hanged for witchcraft) --etc.
I have other relatives farther up in the years worth mentioning: Joseph and Ichabod Perkins, who "were in Capt. James Jones' Company which marched to Concord at the alarm of Paul Revere in 1775. And 34 other Perkins of Topsfield and Ipswich and cousins of Goulds fought in Revolution (MP)." Etc. I didn't even know Ipswich was a real place! I wish there was a reason for me to research a paper there, and find the population to be a hideous bunch of fish god cult worshippers. And then grow gills m'self and swim off with a fine bonny lass!

This branch of my family tree owned a lot of property and decent fortune up in the Boston area, but lost it all when it was inherited by two brothers who whored, gambled, and drank away in a few years what it had taken their forefathers five generations to accrue. If women had been allowed to inherit property, I might be a rich scion making my own damned horror movies today!

Alas, the same streak of olde Enlgish alcoholic mysticism that would help me be a 'good' horror auteur prevents my actually getting it together to do so. My whole freaking life is jerry-rigged in this fashion.... how is that for a lingering curse and/or inherited magic, o Rationalization Guru? Do you not see yet the link between chemical dependency, magic, and right-brained visionary artistic ability? Why are all great writers tripping alcoholics, and all hacks cursed by sober sanity's boundaries?

Top: Horror Hotel / Bottom: Alucarda
I know that in all likelihood these ancient aunts of mine were not really witches, but falsely accused by the children of a family wishing to possess the Perkins' wooded bordering acres. But like most Fordians I say print the legend. Maybe my ancestors and the other witches were likely just sexually repressed settlers who found an outlet in the darkness at night, dancing and humping trees. But that's not as fun to imagine, and what else gives history any interest aside from the possibility for something still unknown, something still hidden from us by the dry, dusty historians who get to mould our past? We wouldn't even care today if they were just falsely accused of, say, adultery. So if they weren't necessarily witches back in the day, time has made them so, time and three dozen horror movies that let me know as a 300 years-later ancestor the grisly events might repeat themselves any moment --that all I'd have to do is draw a pentagram on a solstice and Aunt Mary Easty would come roaring up from wherever to make me party with her on her persecutor's grave like in the under-appreciated WITCHOUSE and countless others. Not that I would, because what if it worked, or worse, didn't?

From top: THE DEVILS, SALEM, SHINING, SHINING, SALEM, SALEM, ROSEMARY'S BABY, young Ruth Gordon publicity shot.

Another redeeming trait of the film is just how GILF-ish are the three witch sisters (see CinemArchetype #20): Judy Geeson (GOODBYE GEMINI) has still got it and delivers her bloodthirsty lines with relish, as only a saucy older Brit lady can -- you should check out her amazing half-forgotten 70s sci fi TV series, STAR MAIDENS (my analysis here); also slamming it home with crisp hot fire, Dee Wallace (THE HOWLING) and Patricia Quinn (the gonzo maid in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) as the palm-reading sister Megan. And as the dirtiest and most evil witch coming back from the past, Meg Foster. As we've seen them in younger incarnations (doing the time warp / "again"), their aged state seems temporary; soon they shall drink the blood of the 'young' and--with a mere press on the magic wand DVD remote--return once more to their former lovely selves.

WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH (but too pretty to eat) 
I also like that Zombie's main idea of 'a devil' seems to be the aforementioned Baby Bok Choi, a two umbilical cord-cabled Weeblo of the highest order, cunting up the idea that Satan is the original Nephilim rebel, the James Dean of our ancient creators: Lord Enki to some, maybe Merlin, maybe Im-Ho-Tep or Amon Ra or Set or Odin, to others. Here he's more like the failed abortion attempt of  a Nephilim, a baby the Watchers tried to drown with the Great Flood but succeeded only in burying under so much silt he just ended up tunneling downwards and finding sanctuary in firey subterranean caverns, which he decided he'd call "Hell" and rule in, because that would really piss off his parents. Hey his mother still lives up on the moon! Don't believe me,  feast your ears and eyes here!

From top: Moon Maiden Mummy Mother of Lucifer; alien grey, LUCIFER RISING, 2001, LORDS OF SALEM, TWILIGHT, Aborigine drawing, 2001, SALEM

Also, check out my review of the History Channel's documentary, The Gates of Hell, which I loaded with pretty intense photographs from the 70s occult revival.

As for actual Hell, Zombie does well imagining the way our own death is linked to rebirth and transfiguration instead of just the same old Heaven/Hell polarity there's some aspects of Buddhist mythology with Hell being a bardo wherein impure souls are like dirty swords cleansed by thrusting deep into a fiery forge. It's not permanent--it just feels that way if you fight it. Submit to the flames with compassionate non-attachment and soon you will be hammered anew into shape for admission into Valhalla, or wherever (now I've moved over to Conan's riddle of steel but whatever). There's a little of that concept floating through Zombie's film, but it would have been better if he'd bothered to have one unsoiled image, one un-ugly person, one heavenly beauty.

The only sympathetic characters are an exposition-mouthing scholar and his wife, living in a beautiful apartment that looks like it will resume being a Brentano's as soon as filming is finished.

I'm no fan of Ti West's, not after he subjected me to the awful hipster hair and cheap shocks of THE INNKEEPERS (2011), but HOUSE OF THE DEVIL has a few things going for it, some ideas which Zombie might have gleaned but didn't. The main thing Zombie really needed, which Ti West is clearly a proponent of, is tick-tock momentum. That's the 'honest' way of building suspense, wherein dread builds through the careful setup of a particular place over a single evening or 24-hour period, in linear time with no flashbacks and minimal cuts across time and characters. As in its most textbook example, the original HALLOWEEN (it stems from Carpenter's main influence, the great Howard Hawks). After a prologue or night before or a few set-up scenes, the momentum of the remaining bulk of the film usually starts in late afternoon as the sun begins to wane and cast ominous shadows, and the editing seems to slow the progression of time down. Rather than the constant flashy cross-cutting back and forth and sudden wake-ups from nightmares that 'cheat' on situations, tick-tock momentum is a style of storytelling most horror filmmakers never pick up on, even when they rip off HALLOWEEN. West, however, does. Zombie doesn't. Yet these two films have such similar plots they warrant close comparison. They should get together and compare notes.

For example, unlike the relentless "oddity" parade of SALEM where it all seems weird but isn't (the definition of tacky), in HOUSE the setting seems normal but isn't (the definition of the uncanny). All the believable little early 80s-late 70s details are there, and the film is twice as creepy because of them. In SALEM, by contrast there's something a little too lush, too big for Heidi's pad to believably be part of a quaint boarding house, and unless she has a maid there's no way a recovering junky like her should have such clean floors. And she would smoke cigarettes and drink a ton of coffee, or something...

The girls in HOUSE by contrast are believably tied up in petty matters that seem huge to them because they're broke and/or just starting to take care of their own finances. They're believable, and they're girls in a dark autumnal college in upstate New York, where every sunset comes earlier and earlier and bring a deeper and deeper chill the moment the night falls (with a thud).

The girls in HOUSE rule: Gerwig sports some great feathered hair and a cozy college sports shirt and in her late afternoon fast food joint scene with Samantha (Donahue) you feel the ache of an upstate New York fall winter in your bones and want to be able to curl up with them both in a cozy dorm room and not have to go anywhere; you feel the sense of desolation creeping up like tendrils of cold around her broke buddy Samantha for needing to take this babysitter job so badly. Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace (double dose of Dee!) are on point, stunt casting-wise, of course: they were born to this

Alas, in HOUSE the mean fail. The 70s-80s Satanic panic tick-tock momentum vibe of West's mise-en-scene is undone with the sudden arrival of a distinctly modern crustpunk (A.J. Bowen), who comes rolling up on Gerwig's car like an angry Williamsburg hipster fresh from teeth gnashing class. And another anachronistic blow follows with the the old man who hires Samantha, played by Tom Noonan, who is just way too mumblecore, too naturalistic. He has that 'gentle' voice no actor in the 70s or 80s would ever use at least not when trying to sound normal, like a man, like an adult. His blank slate stare and flat wispiness worked in MANHUNTER, where he was trying to seduce a blind girl by being all Fred Rogers, and it might even have worked in SALEM as one of Sherri Moon's dopey fans, but not HOUSE, which is already too subtle.

The combination of him and Bowen derail all the careful build-up provided by the women and setting. Add this pair up alongside the insufferable twerp (Pat Healy) with the terrible hipster hair in West's follow-up, THE INNKEEPERS, and you get the feeling he is insecure around his male actors. They seem like they didn't get the memo of whatever the film is about, or what upstate NY is about, or what the 70s-80s was about, or what acting is really about, outside of twee mumblecore rom-coms. They know nothing about projecting themselves into a room or a situation. Ti West should just keep all men out of his films, like I do, until he finds an actor with some gravitas he's not afraid of, like Scorsese found De Niro, or Tarantino found Samuel Jackson.

The Right: Greta Gerwig note correct hair and clothing)
The wrong: A.J. Bowen (note anachronistic townie hat, beard, and clothing)
Both the scores are also problems: I would love HOUSE OF THE DEVIL twice as much if it had some Carpenter-style synths instead of its creepy but familiar orchestral passages; when analog synths do come across its clear the composer is overthinking them, and doesn't know how to underplay, minimally, and that electric guitars are never good for establishing retro-80s mood. LORDS has moments with kind of making like a Morricone and other times of just sucking with a banal two-note minor key piano. But the hypnotic devil album they play is pretty great, like it's trying to break your sound system and leap through the room and crack open a cold-brewed abyss --a whole slew of great ideas in regards to how one might use the radio to impregnate listeners' minds with Satanic brainwashing come washing across us like a growling Juno synth wipe.

 But then Zombie shuts that aside, too. Maybe he presumes we've already seen PONTYPOOL? We haven't!

In the end, West may be too cool for his own good, and cowed by manly-voiced men; and Zombie is still a music video maker who hasn't yet figured out the rhythms of narrative, but hey! Kudos to both for their subject matter and attention to detail. West's HOUSE wins handily as the post-modern devil pastiche of choice, though LORDS is solid and gorgeous to look at, with more consistency in the cast. These old Brit ladies give it their all and make us gradually lose all interest in the by-then scabby and deranged Heidi as she moves forward into the Satanic mass as via airport moving walkway. Indeed I can see this film ruling like hell if 40 minutes were cut out and Sherri was ten years younger, and the whole thing was timed to the complete Velvet Undergound and Nico like LUCIFER RISING is timed to Bobby Beausoleil's masterfully celebratory soundtrack. But otherwise, what are you left with, in either film, besides admiring Zombie for finding the true Satanic Mass sturm und drang of "All Tomorrow's Parties" and admiring West for his loving recreation of a time and willingness to plunge deep and impressively into tick-tock momentum despite a composer and two male stars with no idea what decade and state they're supposed to be from?

So my advice: West, don't be afraid to put some real men in your films once in awhile, and Rob, that narrative momentum thing will come your way yet. You're already better than the late great Ken Russell. Almost. At any rate, you're already way better at mix-tape movies than Cameron Crowe (see my rant on mix tape movies, Aural Drag). And West, you're the only guy doing tick-tock momentum these days, period. Not even Carpenter still does it!

So, be proud.
As the shrouding darkness crowds the burial mound
and the score carpets the surrounding ground, and the sisters wake
and bake
and bait the beguiled bear to deep and dark despair, be proud.
Peel the newts and stir the baby bok choi in its bubbling cauldron bathwater, til tender
enough to breathe to life. And dry behind / the door.
No witch or cultist ever ages except between shoots (or after shots); no soul is worth stealing once its stolen a million times over by the camera. Magic disappears with the ability to constantly rewind. availability and scrutiny creates demystification. Karl Malden has all the time in the world to lift the shade from the lamp to get a good look at Blanche's wrinkles. Only one place is left where the black arts still occur: that foreboding wet hot jungle corridor deep within each of us...

Long as we're women.

PS - The dog lives! Kinda!
1.  A descendent of mine, a Boston seaman in the War of 1812, was also almost "eaten first, due to his young tender flesh" when he and his crew were shipwrecked. Apparently that's what one did back then, ala the Donners. Only one didn't make such a fuss about it. Luckily they were rescued almost at the last minute before they actually killed him. I'm sure that trip home was plenty awkward. Anyway, I can joke about it now.... because my family lived through it. So this sheet says. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Terminator Looking Glass: THE KEEP (1983), DARK ANGEL (1990) and Planet Arous

(1983) Dir. Michael Mann

Director Michael Mann is so busy with capturing the way backlit German soldiers cast weird light and shadow as they slow-motion run through the fog to the sound of a haunting two chord synthesizer that any semblance of story in his only non-crime opus, The Keep, sinks deep beneath the ocean of consciousness. Not that said ocean of consciousness ain't worth seeing (and hearing, via a droning hypnotic Tangerine Dream score), even though the pre-Terminator-meets-WW2 style outline coheres a little too patly, despite all the mystic portent. Fresh from playing a sympathetic U-Boat captain in Das Boot, Jürgen Prochnow once again proves he's very good at doing a war weary (i.e. sympathetic) German officer who'd rather be home mit die frau un kindern than blowing up convoys or killing Russians. This time he plays a Wermacht officer whose platoon is assigned to a remote and very old stone fortress/cave on the Carpathian mountain-border between Romania and Russia. He finds himself, for reasons forgettable, butting heads with hardline SS guy Gabriel Byrne, who easily forgets the Romanians are actually Germany's allies and not just more peasants to crush underfoot, especially when their staff start disappearing. It seems their new outpost was built thousands of years before recorded time (it's 'always been there') and --while the colorful Romanian villagers bring the food and sweep up the corridors and wear crosses for der mutter's sake by day--they never visit after dark, and advise the soldiers not to sleep there. Their warnings go unheeded!

The first night a couple of sentries decide to dig the silver cross out of one of the walls (a big no-no, according to the peasants), and what happens next will blow your mind, Mann hopes, so that you don't notice how most of the rest of the film--too--is blown...
... Blown... like dust in the slow motion wind,
sparkling like diamonds in cross-shaped rays of ambient light,
illuminating dark empty spaces vaster than the ocean within the stone blocks of the walls...
there is no bottom.

As you no doubt guessed, backwards blowing slow-mo fog machines have been absorbing German souls, using their dark energy for incarnating a grey giant with glowing red eyes and a body that slowly beefs up from accumulated evil soul steroids. Prochnow doesn't see the thing himself but does notice his men are vanishing, and Byrne, overacting mightily, never ceases busting his balls about it. Bottles are opened and drunk in existential despair. Then, a break: bloody graffiti in an ancient vaguely semitic language turns up on a wall. Only an old Jewish archaeologist-linguist named Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), currently cooling his wheelchair in a nearby concentration camp with his hot daughter (Alberta Watson) can decode it. They brings the pair to the Keep, which leads to attempted rape by German guards who are promptly absorbed into our monster via a lengthy shot of more backwards-flowing fog machine fog while Tangerine Dream howls in the bones of your face. Is this the fabled Jewish golem, or the original Dracula or have they always been one and the same? Soon Dr. Cuza is being re-endowed with youth; he can suddenly walk and looks as young and spry as Ian McKellen was at the time, relatively speaking. What a country.

Meanwhile, the Hebrew Sex God equivalent of Kyle Reese (Scott Glenn) senses a disturbance in the force and charters a slow boat. Scored to hypnotic synths as the sky above the flowing waters of the Elbe streaks red with the dawn, this long, extraneous sequence lets you know all you need to about Mann's future Miami Vice series. Mann is a man who likes shots of boats zipping up rivers under red skies while excellent hypnotic electronic music plays. He'll figure out how to shoehorn it all into a story later, for now, make with the boats!

Sorry if that sounds snide of me to say. If I wasn't stuck seeing the film on a crappy full-frame crop on the web, I might have just swooned away as I did watching Mann's Miami Vice feature film on Blu-ray. The man loves him some sunset/sunrise skies reflected on bodies of flowing water. As long as the image is HD, restored, and anamorphic, hey- so do I.

Anyway, the being wants out, and promises to wipe out Hitler in the name of the Jews if Ian helps free him. Scott Glenn's been making sure this being stays in the Keep, for centuries, and even if it means Hitler won't be devoured in a dust storm, Glen's got to stop him from leaving.  Maybe he can shag McKellan's daughter in the process, for his no sourpuss Christian god. Man I love Jewish women!

The last time I tried to see this all the way through was in high school when my buddy Alan rented it when it first came out - he and his girlfriend (and mine) came over and we played hooky and hung out all day fooling around while my mom was out, barely paying attention. We all judged the film as terrible kind of sight unseen, just because it was so dark on the old VHS, and slow. Well, now we can see it but even so, it's still too slow --even on lots of SSRI meds. Michael Mann's career is, however, impressive enough, that we can now admire it as a fledgling auteur's first attempt at transformation, even if its ultimate hook--that all morally-compromised men and women are done in by their own unconscious manifestations of their darkest fears and desires--has been done to death and back again (if you substitute the Keep for a mysterious planet or spacecraft you have Galaxy of Terror, Sphere, Event Horizon, Solaris, and even to a certain extent Forbidden Planet). But unlike some of those films, which get way too solemn and 'respectable', for all its pomp and fog, Keep still has the mighty monster, a tall giant gray Joe Kubrick-esque juicehead with coal red eyes and charcoal shoulder muscles, and a ruthlessness towards fascism that even fascism itself might think extreme. 

Maybe if it was a shade less opaque, or Mann leaned just little less on slow motion, it would be a classic. Even flawed as it is, it's worth any price to see Ian McKellan, who is now as old as the character he plays at the start of The Keep, suddenly cast off his current age and be young again. Imagine if that were true and we were guaranteed another 30 years of magnificent sexy performances from him! Now that we so belatedly know and love him, we would not waste un minuto del McKellan

Another benefit this film has going is its accurate portrayal of some complicated interrelation between the German army, the SS, and their Romanian allies. WWII historians watching this with their less-sophisto peers can use the events of the film to pompously explain the friction between the relatively sane Wermacht and the conclave of sociopaths in the SS, and why the Romanians signed on with the Axis (to help them fight off the Soviets) which makes an interesting corollary to the deal between this golem monster and McKellen.

I'm a big WWII and horror fan and used to read a ton of comic books and this film reminded me of one of my pet imagination projects, an adaptation of DC Comics' Weird War Tales. The Keep would make a damn good middle entry in a trilogy. Its story could cut down to 30 minutes with ease. I think that's how long it would be anyway if Mann just sped it back up to normal speed. Either way it's weird enough (and played straight enough) to just about sneak by coherency's dozing sentry. And it's good enough to make me hope some day we'll get a Blu-ray HD restoration and be able to fathom what it was about this imagery that was holding Mann's attention so glacially... aside from that boat.


AKA "I COME IN PEACE" (1990) Starring Dolph Lundgren

Speaking of muscleheads, what about Dolph Lundgren? A Swede with nary a trace of accent, he plays a tall anti-authoritarian cop, so cliche'd in his nonconformity--cliche lines, a cliche lady cop girlfriend (angry at him), and a cliche uptight yuppie partner to annoy--he makes conformity seem like cool, in Dark Angel, AKA I Come in Peace.  Luckily, the killer is a total original: a Germanic Alec Baldwin-meets-Christopher Lambert type with Wuxia hair, shoulder pads, and serious Lugosi-at-the-end-of-Bride of the Monster platform shoes. On Earth to harvest our opiate-spike brain chemicals (they fetch a high price back on his home planet), he kills a mess of drug dealers with a flying CD, steals their stash, then uses it to shoot up random civilians via his crazy wrist snake device, and THEN then drills a hole in their forehead to harvest the ensuing mix of dopamine gushes, then accumulates it all in little crystalline vials in a wrist pack for future off-world export. Man, that's about as un-cliche deviation from the standard alien drug dealer as you can ask for.

It wouldn't be a post-Terminator film if there wasn't also a cop alien, lagging behind and always a little confused, coming after the drug dealer with all sorts of sci-fi fire power with which to turn LA. "into a war zone!" There's also a conglomerate of great evil yuppies that get shot to pieces in a satisfying side plot (always a comfort) and the end is a long cool chase through an abandoned smelting plant ala the end of Terminator 2, and just about everything is thrown into an all-out brawl that's pure Dolph!

I didn't know much about old Dolph prior to writing this, but was shocked to learn he's a Fulbright scholar and brilliant engineering student, a former Swedish Olympic karate team leader, still married to the mother of his children and looks like a damned cool dad. Check him in this picture below teaching one of his daughters some karate moves while on a family vacation!

It would have been great if he'd been allowed to act the full breadth of his Swedish ubermensch intelligence in more films, as anyone can play a dumb cop with a gut instinct for crime who refuses to play by the book, especially by 1990, the pinnacle of lame catchphrase buddy cop action comedy saturation. Alas, the drive-in era was dying by then, and where was a film about a 'think from the gut' cop--the type who finds out anything he wants to know by going to a seedy strip club and shaking down the perennial sniveling snitch, Michael J. Pollard--going to go? It had to wait until now, on the Shout disc, bathed in the neon hue of 80s nostalgia, to shine crazy diamond-style.

All that aside, if you're willing to bask in this 80s capstone's sheer muttonheadedness then you can appreciate the weird aspect of the alien drug peddler avoiding junkies (since their glands are often burned out) and saying "I come in peace" before launching his dope attacks. The film works best when trying to not be clever -- the action is easy to follow and the only distraction is how the editor prides himself on a million little clever smash cuts, from someone opening a car door to someone opening a bottle, for example; there's also the issue of the shrill yuppie smug FBI partner to get past, and the way the roundhouse kicks are filmed is such that one instantly looks for stunt doubles, which makes no sense. If your lead can do his own martial arts it pays to live in the wide shot.

But hey, it was the end of the 80s, the final entry in a long line of Terminator-aping films about heavies from another time, planet, or dimension pursued by an agent of good from the same dimension (ala everything from The Hidden to Trancers and The Keep all the way back to The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). Now that's a film you should see, oh alien brain word receiver. It's cheaper than a Jack Benny doorman tip, but John Agar, in dark contact lenses, ranting about world domination whilst under the possession of evil brain Gor? That's something even a Fulbright can get behind.

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