Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

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, Vane of Cawdor! All hail Val Lewton, the Cramps, Bob Dobbs, Nic Cage, Sammy Davis Jr., Lamont Cranston, D.H. Lawrence, and Mike Watt.

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 work? Well, what is it trying to do? 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, the vintage punk thrift store symbolism, 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?

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.

Left to its own devices, without all the post-modernist post-punk flippancy royalties can buy, LORDS does generate some hypnotic power, some of that great stretch of THE SHINING set to György Sándor Ligeti, the stuff with Room 237 and the witch. Zombie's own opening ceremony builds brilliantly to a palpable abandon; the psychic force of the gathered 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, or figure out how magic and the power of suggestion actually work. Like Ken Russell before them, they just show flashes of weird sick MTV images and a bloody Jesus, 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 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, and provide an even starker coldness that makes the geometric splendor and unfathomable vastness of the cavernous hotel interiors warm by contrast, which is where the creepy comes in. A gold-flecked theater shows up at the end of SALEM, referencing Overlook's 'Gold Room' and MULHOLLAND DR.'s Club Silencio, and though the theater offers quite a show it conforms always to 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 that damnation is applied equally to the hideous Puritan torturers, re-imagined with big pointy caps and excessively unguided facial hair, but the evil judge's direct descendent, still in Salem. Sherri Moon bears no ethical resemblance to either judge or condemned. She's a 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 that date's arm again and march off to the next tableaux again.

The turf is ours by right...


This spectacle might keep our interest 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, but the leading actress in Zombie's film is of course his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie. And she's gettin' too old for this shit, as Glinda might say.

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, but 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. In her mind, the Neo-pagan trappings of the Lord of Salem guy are the worst kind of college experimentation. She's the type has Celtic symbol tattoos but openly sneers at anyone who tries to point out what the markings mean, and all but throws rocks at anyone who actually believes the mythos behind them. She is just the sort of person any self-respecting punk rock contingent recognizes as a slumming poseur and ostracizes a priori. She's the type to buy a CBGBs shirt at the Hard Rock Cafe and boast about how she was into them before anyone.

Of course we know why we're supposed to be so intrigued by Heidi: the director still loves her, and presumes we're as bewitched as he is. Well we were, Rob. Ten years ago she was freakin' sexy as all hell. But we're fickle, Rob. 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.

The films Zombie likes--70s devil movies and Kubrick's Shining-- are present in the style, tone, and look of SALEM but he doesn't seem to know how to read deeply into them. So he imitates the surface and adds his own dirtbag tattoo parlor aesthetic and crosses his fingers the two will gel. I'm not knocking him because I admire him for that last part. He clearly loves all this shit. It's the art and meaning and narrative parts that elude 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 can, nor can he generate uncanny frisson even Kubrickian Steadicam POV shots, injecting them instead with anemic attempts to make Salem a goth Austin with just a hint of Detroit decay. Zombie misses opportunities time-and-again to cohere a masterpiece from the disparate elements. 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, too. For example, he makes her a recovering drug addict but it doesn't resonate beyond an AA terminology name check. She even drinks at one point, super dangerous behavior from any kind of confessed addict; and her apartment is way too clean for someone in recovery. Why isn't she smoking or chugging coffee like a real AA-er? 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: From top: 1000 Corpses (2003), Rejects (2005), Salem (2013)
I mean no disrespect to Sherri Moon. I love her in DEVIL'S REJECTS, like a sister. 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 in 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, and she seems tired, and way too old to be riding on an URBAN COWBOY-style electric goat in neon flames, or going down on strange priests in the midday pew. She seems to be a middle-aged woman trapped in a tricked-up spiral of horror iconography, like her next stop is working a booth at a Philadelphia monster convention, signing glossies and taking pictures. Man, I know how that feels.

I know what it feels like to make out with lipless women before, too. It's like kissing a skull. Is that why he puts her in skull makeup paint? He's trying to convince her to use some collagen up in there? You think I'm a fucking lippist now, but if not me, whom? Whom but a classic horror fan
l
`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 out of insecurity doesn't mean it should be shunned by those who need it, even if only to get back to their former lip level. Her later skull make-up helps her look like some death metal kid who got caught in the rain on his way home from the Stockholm punk club. But I doubt that's the look she wanted. I thought it was a picture of some snotty skate punk boy on the subway ad.

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, like I used to leave.

That's what made SCREAM so unnerving; these characters knew what was coming, like we all did. We, who were kept awake at night all through the slasher 80s, vowing in our anxiety that we would never drop the knife by the killer's prone body. SCREAM used the dread inspired by those earlier movies, which had by now settled in our collective dream unconscious, and re-activated it.

Zombie can only admire that unconscious 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 bedroom they dreamt of as children, over and over.

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 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 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? Balls? Crazy madmen nastiness? True insanity? Nic Cage only needed one symbol of his individuality in WILD AT HEART, but he's 'really' a badass ---the eyes never lie, Manolo. Some people choke themselves with symbols of badassedness and yet turn pale at the sight of a cigarette. They would have freaked out going to CBGBs when they saw the filth and smelled the smells and viddied the icky crustpunks. They'd have been too scared to use the bathroom, but then they'd be wearing their CBGB souvenir T-shirt proudly for the next 20 years, nodd knowingly when the bathroom shows up at the Met, and recall the good old days when music mattered... man.

Now you think I'm an anti-faddist. Well no. It's just that I'm really crazy. And I don't trust carnies and their little hairy hobbit hands. But I trust normals even less. Dude, the truly crazy are the ones trying to be normal, and failing; the vice versa are, hmmm, depressing? Maybe they remind me of me as a teenager before I started wearing black fingernail polish, growing my rat tail, and wearing combat boots with white circles I painted on them in white-out. 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!

CBGB's: Smell on Earth
Rob Zombie's clearly a real wild man, the LSD variety, but he covers every inch of the territory with his signature hillbilly dirtbag neo-pagan blood chic until 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 CBGB's. And too much detail all 'of a piece' as they say, isn't scary. Carpenter created the first HALLOWEEN with a spray-painted white Shatner mask, a trash bag full of painted leaves, "a couple of knives" and a few suburban houses.  Zombie had carny parents. He lived on the road, didn't know the middle class burbs from Adam. Carnies are excused from needing to vouchsafe their authenticity, and their oddities collection pays the bills. A carny's oddities are excused for that reason, like sheepdogs for a sheepherder. And who cares if the more obnoxious gawkers get sewed screaming into the next exhibit? The sewers are the artists Zombie understands, ala the Firefly films.

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. He just decorates the jump-off point in punk rock iconography and gestures off into the fog. 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).

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)

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 it's 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):
The family of John Perkins 1583-1654 - freeman 18th May 1631
Married Judith Gates, born Newent, Gloucestershire, England
Children:
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
--
Children:
(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)

I have other relatives farther up 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.

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! 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, o Rationalization Guru?

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, everything from crisp little low key Brit thrillers like HORROR HOTEL (1959) to bombastic overkill like Ken Russell's THE DEVILS.


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 (ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) as the irresistible 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 their aged state seems temporary; soon they shall drink the blood of the 'young' and become their former celluloid selves. As a great writer once said, "film is black magic."

WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH, 
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. 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. In Buddhist mythology, Hell is the place dirtied souls go to be cleansed by fire. It's not permanent--it just feels that way if you fight it. Submit to the scraping with compassionate non-attachment and soon you will be clean for admission into paradise. 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, aside from the scholar and his wife, living in an apartment that looks like it will resume being a Brentano's as soon as filming is finished.
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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 which Zombie might have gleaned but didn't. The main being tick-tock momentum, wherein dread builds through the careful setup of a particular place over a single evening, in linear time with no flashbacks or disorienting cuts across time and characters. The momentum 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 flashing 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 when they rip off HALLOWEEN but West does and Zombie doesn't. Their films have such similar plots they warrant close comparison. They should get together and compare notes as each has flaws the other doesn't share.

For example, in HOUSE the places seem normal in that sickly unironic way (dig the couch and painting below), 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.. other than booze.

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 out taking care of their own finances.


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, so 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. I went to school in Syracuse, so maybe I relate. The evenings there are so oppressively gray they don't need Satan lingering in the edges to be mega ominous.

Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace (again) are on point, stunt casting-wise, of course: they were born to this. Alas, West is still an auteur subject to bad decisions: the 70s-80s Satanic panic tick-tock momentum vibe of his film isn't undone with excess of flair but with the sudden arrival of a distinctly modern crustpunk (A.J. Bowen), who comes rolling up Gerwig's car like an angry Williamsburg hipster fresh from teeth gnashing class. And another blow follows with the old man played by Tom Noonan who is just way too mumblecore, too naturalistic, with that 'gentle' voice no actor in the 70s or 80s would ever use, to be menacing, disarming, or anything (that blank slate stare worked in MANHUNTER, and it might even have worked in SALEM, but not HOUSE, which is too subtle to not have him drag the mood down into anachronism).

Add these two boys up alongside the insufferable twerp in THE INNKEEPERS and you get the feeling that Ti West has a stand offish relationship to his male actors. They seem like they didn't get the memo of whatever the film is 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's emotionally a man himself. (I'm still not, but hey, I'm not pretending).

The Right: Greta Gerwig note correct hair and clothing)
The wrong: A.J. Bowen (note anachronistic hat, beard, and clothing)
Both the scores are also problems: I would love HOUSE OF THE DEVIL twice as much if it had some Goblin-style synths instead of its creepy but familiar orchestral passages; when period synths do come across its clear the composer is overthinking, 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 interesting, it sounds almost like it's trying to break your sound system and leap through the room and crack open a cold-brewed abyss. And a whole slew of great ideas that could be played off the radio as a way 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?


In the end, West may be too cool for his own good, and afraid to cast men less wussy than himself, 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 of course 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 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 genre and being able to plunge deep and impressively into tick-tock momentum despite a composer and two male stars with no idea what decade their supposed to be in?

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. 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, be proud. Your heritage is ours, o brothers in the cauldron of Satanic panic culture and 70s-80s homage cinema. So peel the newts and stir that literal baby in its bubbling cauldron bathwater, proudly. Your witches are proof of the black secret by which no witch or cultist ever ages, except between shoots (or after shots).

The problem with it all is, of course, that video itself prevents Satanic magic from actually happening. What soul is worth stealing once its stolen a million times over by the spectral reduction of the camera? Only one place is left where the black arts still occur, the wet hot jungle corridor deep within each of us... as long as we're women.

PS - The dog lives! Kinda!
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NOTES:
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 on a foodless island. Apparently that's what one did back then, ala the Donners. Luckily they were rescued almost at the last minute before they killed him. I'm sure the rest of the trip was plenty awkward. Anyway, I can joke about it now.... because my family lived through it. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

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

THE KEEP
(1983) Dir. Michael Mann
***

Director Michael Mann's so busy with capturing the way backlit German soldiers cast weird light and shadow as they Chariots of Fire through the fog towards no noticeable finish line under a haunting two chord synthesizer in The Keep that any semblance of story sinks deep beneath the ocean of consciousness. Not that the ocean ain't badass, and hypnotic even as a The Terminator-meets-WW2 style outline coheres. Fresh from playing a sympathetic U-Boat captain in Das Boot, Jürgen Prochnow is sufficiently war weary as the Wermacht officer assigned to a remote Romanian fortress that was built into the side of the Carpathian Mountains thousands of years before recorded time. Colorful Romanian villagers bring the food and sweep up and wear crosses for der mutter's sake and never visit after dark, and advise the soldiers not to either. Since the Keep's been there longer than their remembered time, they don't even know why they're so freaked. But Jürgen has his orders! They're moving in.


The first night a couple of sentries decide to dig the silver cross out of one of the walls, and what happens next will blow your mind, Mann hopes, so that you don't notice how most of the rest of the film is blown as well, like dust in the slow motion wind, sparkling like diamonds in cross-shaped rays of ambient light, illuminating mysterious spaces vaster than the ocean within the stone blocks of the walls.


Soon Jürgen's men begin disappearing at  geometric rate. Backwards fog machines absorb German souls for use incarnating a dark giant with glowing red eyes and a body that slowly beefs up from accumulated evil soul steroids. Prochnow doesn't see it but does notice his men are vanishing, and an SS officer, Gabriel Byrne is busting his balls. Bottles are opened, drunk existential despair occurs, and bloody graffiti in an ancient language prompts him to send for an old Jewish archaeologist-linguist named Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), currently cooling his wheelchair in a nearby concentration camp. The linguist brings his hot daughter (Alberta Watson), leading to attempted rape by German guards who are promptly absorbed into our monster via a lengthy shot of backwards fog. Is this the fabled Jewish golem? The original Dracula (this being Romania and all)? Whomever he is, this burly being comes to Dr. Cuza to offer vengeance against the Reich in exchange for a small favor that will enable him to escape the Keep. As an advance, the being infuses Dr. Cuza with youth and he can suddenly walk and looks as young and spry as Ian McKellen was at the time, relatively speaking.


As this weird creature is so muscular he begins to resemble the Terminator if he was made out of the rock from a Metropolis furnace, which then awakens the Hebrew Sex God equivalent of Kyle Reese (Scott Glenn). From far away he senses a disturbance in the force and takes a slow mo boat at dawn up the Elbe at sunrise, scored to hypnotic synths as the sky streaks red, letting you know all you need to about Mann's future Miami Vice series, which began the year after The Keep.  Like so many shots in the film there's really no point to this drawn-out dawn-on-the-Elbe boat shot (besides future placement on Mann's reel). 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.

Anyway, 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 he is no sourpuss Christian god, and everyone knows the Hebrews have never considered sex a crime or shame. Just part of the reason they so damned badass.


The last time I tried to see this all the way through was in high school when my buddy Alan rented it and his girlfriend (and mine) came over and we played hooky and hung out all day having sex in different rooms, which made the film even harder to understand through my ADD brain. It's almost too slow even now, on lots of SSRI meds, but Michael Mann's career is such that we can now admire it as a fledgling auteur's first attempt at transformation, even if its ultimate hook--that all the bad guys are done in by their own unconscious manifestations of their darkest fears and desires in the rarefied realms of the foggy backlit stony corridors--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, Keep still has the mighty monster, a tall giant gray juicehead square with coal red eyes and charcoal shoulder muscles that make the average linebacker look like Ichabod Crane and a ruthlessness towards fascism that even fascism itself might think extreme. 

Maybe if it was a shade less opaque or Mann used less slow motion it would be a classic, but still, 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 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's linguist. 

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 horror-war 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 what was holding Mann's attention so glacially.  


--------

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

Speaking of thick necks, what about Dolph Lundgren? A Swede with nary a trace of accent, he plays a tall anti-authoritarian cop in Dark Angel, AKA I Come in Peace. There are some cliche lines, a cliche lady cop girlfriend who is angry at him for not calling, and a cliche uptight yuppie partner, but the killer is all kinds of awesome: a Germanic Alec Baldwin-meets-Christopher Lambert type on stilts with Wuxia hair, shoulder pads, and serious Lugosi-at-the-end-of-Bride of the Monster platforms. Turns out he's an outlaw drug dealer from another planet, here to harvest our opiate-spike pituitary chemicals. They fetch a high price back on his home planet. First he kills a mess of drug dealers with a flying CD, then uses their supply to shoot up random civilians with a 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 cool a deviation from the standard alien drug dealer as I've ever seen. And brother, I've seen it all. I got lucky having not heard of this before the great Shout Factory Blu-ray, so my first viewing is in crisp HD widescreen where the neon and explosions shine.

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 smashing up downtown LA. There's also a conglomerate of great evil yuppies in a satisfying side plot that allows us to see them getting shot to pieces, and exploded, always a comfort in these harsh economic times, and the end is a long cool chase through an abandoned smelting plant, or something, 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. 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.  It's the same formula used in The Keep, though in that instance it came out the year before Terminator's release. So... maybe it all really began with The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) with Gor vs. Vol. Now that's a film you should see, oh alien brain word receiver thou, descrambling this mess of alphabet called a post. 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 Gor, that's something even Fulbright can get behind.


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