Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tales from the Benway Pharmacy: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE MACHINE

If I ventured into the 'flix stream, between the viaducts of Dr. Benway prescribed drug-enhanced science fiction hallucination dream, would you find me?  Or would there no longer be a 'me' to find, and no difference between you, these words, the future, the past and all constructs of self I may adopt and discard over lifetimes? Yeah, it's the second option, because good films dissolve all difference - self/screen is just the first in an endless banana peel of self.

I dissolved once or twice into that void this week, with the following two films, thanks in large part to modulating, droning and pulsing synth scores linking them to classic 1970s-80s science fiction and horror (rather than the usual orchestras hovering over the action). That makes a big difference, especially this time of year, the autumnal Samhain, Halloween death season. These two films seem to occur in a realm of permanent ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) midnight where dangerously liberated prisoners/patients/experimental subjects break out of bizarro world environments, in the process etching out as fine a metaphor for the dangerous liberation offered by psychedelic drugs, pros and cons, as anything I've seen since PSYCH-OUT (1968).

So, when you're on an all-night weird movie binge, save these two for the late late show slot, i.e. the high strangeness Interzone gateway stretch between 3-7 AM, when the straight and sober are fast asleep so their bland consensual reality can't interfere with your psionic reception, because thanks to Netflix, the future is then!

2010 - written and directed by Panos Cosmatos

A lot of typical science fiction buffs are nerds, man, and they stay that way for one reason: they're scared of psychedelics, scared to lift the throbbing rock of the known and scoop the writhing worms and scorpions from the muddy void and devour them for their sweet psychoactive venom. For most such nerds, this cautious avoidance is a wise decision. Unless you feel the psychedelic zone tug you towards it like a magnet, you're probably not invited, and you would probably not be treated well. As Bill Lee says in Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH, "the 'zone takes care of its own." But others beware. Not everyone is ready to have their ego ripped like a bad tooth from their screaming psyche, to feel the anguish of trying to break up with a clingy, insecure, manipulative lover, to find your self-centered fears lodged like a giant tick in the crown of your skull.  Psychedelics are like calling an exterminator into your brain to flush that ego out like a roach infestation. But you need to know where to spray, and some nerds do not. Their egos aren't solid enough to be killed.

Lick the 2001-legged Monolith
But if the sci fi coterie do make it past their initial fear and enter the void, they tend to run in packs, and when running is done, retreat to the movies (as we all have), geeking it up at 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), because it's the familiar made unfamiliar, as Kubrick's movie is never entirely familiar no matter how many hundreds of times you see it. From there, an adept breadcrumb trail follower will wind up leaving England along Commonwealth solar trade winds and winding up at two Canadian horror films: SCANNERS (1981) and BLUE SUNSHINE (1978), each exploring the long term psychic side effects of prolonged exposure to the wizard behind the wizard behind the curtain. the tentacles of a Lovecraftian elder god coming to get you for exposing its hideous volcanic genitalia, and from there to the MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.

In BLUE a particular strand of LSD makes people lose their hair and go on rampages with knives as soon as their wigs fall off, after exactly ten years elapse. In SCANNERS, it's a briefly marketed pill prescribed to pregnant moms, the side effect of which is that their offspring are born with the power to blow other people's heads apart through conscious projection. I mention all this for a reason, this acidhead tab of Canadian druggie sci fi history is imperative for a deep lysergic appreciation of the 2010 Canadian homage to that golden era of tripping man's Kubrickian-Cronenbergian-Blue Sunshine maker crossroad science fiction, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

The first feature by Panos Cosmatos, RAINBOW stars Michael Rogers as a batshit crazy psychiatrist named Barry Nyle, who keeps a scanner-style mutant girl Elena (Eva Bourne) under sedation in a futuristic white room, then tries to analyze her through a thick protective glass while jotting down 'notes' and slow-as-molasses-style going even more insane. He also has special guards called sentinauts and a weird white triangle device that can deliver sound vibrational (presumed) shockwaves to knock Elena to the ground and (presumably) jam her brainwaves. This is all needed since she's got the power to transmit her thoughts and explode the heads of anyone in the same room; as the crazy score by Sinoia Caves heats and throbs and pitch modulates the doctor and patient engage in a long drug-addled silent treatments and staring contests.

This Institute is housed in a bizarre retrofuturist geodesic dome, which includes the office/drug den of a terminally ill junky, the Buckminster Fuller-ish founder. In a flashback to 1966 we see this guy taking Barry on his deep dish drug trip (LSD was legal then and being used by forward-thinking psychiatrists the provinces over). Barry's trip resembles the 'Beyond the Infinite' section of 2001 and judging by the third eye drawn on his forehead and his patience with letting his face melt and dissolve, we figure he must be ready to transform. But then he's reborn in an oil slick, crawling out of a black circle like a reptile from its egg, and latching onto the woman, some woman... I don't know...his wife? Elena's mother? Does he kill her by ripping her throat out with his teeth, or is that an ejaculation? Is she coasting on an orgasm, or is the light going out of her eyes?

 Meanwhile there's lots of delicious red walls and filters and the sense that time is melting (Barry pops pills from the Benway pharmacy--another nod to Burroughs) and though he's off-putting at first, Rogers gonzo performance grows on me over repeat viewings; he's committed to his work, he should be committed to a rubber room, though, and more than anything he makes being a shrink seem like a pretty awesome occupation for a druggy maniac: you get to prescribe whatever mind-expanding things you want for yourself and go so deep into the void that reality ceases to exist and you finally get a peak 'beyond the black rainbow' all while running riot. Eventually Barry starts running too riotous even for the clinic. He takes off his wig and contact lenses to reveal he's got a bald head and shiny blue eyes like the one BLUE SUNSHINE taker that got away.

If you get confused, just presume this is all meant as an analogy to the mysteries of consciousness itself: Elena is the unconscious anima, Barry is the amok ego trying to keep the unconscious locked up tight; the old man is the repressed superego, dissolving from years of drug use (nothing nullifies a moral compass like addiction) and watching his high watermark 60s utopian vision for the future gradually erode. So remember, nerds: baldness = homicidal madness, and if you can't escape quickly just move so slowly no one can see you except Jim Jarmusch, otherwise... otherwise you're just a hesher.

2014 - written and directed by Caradog W. James

Far less weird and more linear than RAINBOW, the low-budget but highly intelligent (if unimaginatively titled) British sci fi film THE MACHINE has great gloomy electronic momentum (no daytime shots ever, which is great), a beautifully retro Carpenter-meets-Vangelis synth score from Tom Raybould and an overall aesthetic that splices the labs of the Tyrell Corporation to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's Lee Van Cleef sub basement; and a script that mixes some TERMINATOR touches with CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962) post-humanist philosophy. The captivating Caity Lotz is great in a double role (evoking Elsa Lanchester in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and thanks to thrifty use of one giant empty soundstage , lots of Val Lewton darkness, and great artistic (and ingeniously simple) touches like the way the bodies of the artificial beings light up in strange patterns when excited (though the lights are clearly just projected onto their skin, it works superbly), old Caradog's etched out a mini-masterclass of B-movie economy, of those great gems that can sometimes be unearthed digging through the Netflix Streaming, ranking it alongside DIY sleepers like BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, THE ORGEGONIAN, IRON SKY, BOUNTY KILLER, and JOHN DIES AT THE END. And it's short, yet operatic. There's no filler, no corners are cut. Everything fits and it doesn't need trauma or didactic postures to feel justified in existing, though of course there is some of each. Even the bit with the dying daughter sidesteps all the usual cliche'd sentimental pitfalls.

The story begins with bigwig AI engineer Vincent (Toby Stevens --the Richard Branson-ish villain in DIE ANOTHER DAY) interviewing various freelancer-designed artificial intelligence programs via a series of surrealist questions to see which can answer far enough outside the box of logocentric thinking that genuine personality is possible. Ava's (Caity Lotz) program comes closest, and she's cute, sparks fly, so she's hired, and brought down into a deeply buried network of basement level research programs, all funded by the British military intelligence operatives for assassination work in China. Vincent's not a fan of the assassin aspect, but he loves the unlimited funding. It's enabled him to develop software that can scan and duplicate whole personalities via sensitive headsets worn during Voight-Kampf-style questions. Meanwhile, military vets suffering from brain injuries and missing limbs are turned into half-machine monsters, the trouble being they're liable to kill everyone in the room during the slightest existential tantrum. Meanwhile one of them steers Ava towards a possible cover-up conspiracy in the works - these soldiers are being cut off from their loved ones, treated essentially like slaves. She knows too much!

Ava is assassinated by Chinese assassins before Vincent can even work up the nerve to ask her out, not before doing all the tests of course. How convenient! Dennis (DR. WHO) Lawson is the ruthless installation director who wants to make sure this new Eva isn't so independent she'd refuse a direct order, especially since Vincent tells her killing anyone--even Chinese diplomats!--is wrong. She murders a guy in a clown mask during a routine test. She feels bad. Raybould's synth pads swell in mecha-grim portent.

Oh well, it's not hard to guess the rest, and we viewers we don't really give a shit about Vincent's Asimovian ethics, so Lawson needs to to up the stakes via an enforced robot lobotomy and another easy-to-guess subplot with the daughter. But what could be some douche chill sentimental nonsense in non-British hands (such as Guillermo del Toro's) doesn't rankle, and I've got a sensitive rankle meter for that shit.

Slick and dark, but with some genuine AI insight and vintage analog originality to back it up (See also CinemArchetype #13 - The Automaton / Replicant / Ariel), it's a good lesson in how you too can survive the coming robot revolution! Hint: treat the machines with compassion or at least tact, because they'll remember every last kind or derogatory word forever, no matter how far out of earshot you think they are when you say it. They are the past and future, reaching back and forward along your every gesture, like karma's own sweet engine.

Remember us, your future? CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS! 

If you have Spotify, click here for a mix of both the amazing scores of these films.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Fridays this month on TCM are devoted to pre-code Hollywood and, honey, pre-code Hollywood is devoted to its lord most high, its Capitalist King Tut, its Maestro of Satanic bravado and merry carnivore sparkle, Warren William. Until the dawn of TCM and pre-code festivals (like the one that regularly comes to Film Forum here in NYC), Warren William was all but forgotten except as a B-mystery star from Perry Masons and the Lone Wolf films, a kind of hybrid Basil Rathbone-Errol Flynn. Now maybe we feel why, for Depression era audiences, he was such a charming, sinister figure he stole their love for the young moral 'hero' (along with said hero's money) clean away. The juvenile maybe got the girl in the end, but she was pious naive reformer, so who cared? Despite his amok capitalist characters being so emblematic of what tanked the stock market in the first place, William was the great antihero for a nation sick to death of treacly Americana and bootstraps idealism. Steal big and ascend to power -that was his credo, and it was the only one in America that still worked.

He ascended the throne in 1932, the height of American Depression free-fall, part of a global economic death spiral in which there seemed no hope for pulling back up except via the methods of the same crazy capitalists (or crazier) who'd brought the markets so low. Audiences knew William didn't give a shit about their small fry suffering, but he didn't waste time scamming them either; instead he scammed the fat cats who had scammed the small fry in the first place. He robbed from the guys who robbed the poor and may not have given it back but at least he used the money as collateral for bigger loans to get his phallic building higher, higher, and that meant more jobs. Gray-haired, squinty, corrupt old board members vainly harrumphed while William aimed his cigar / wolfish nose-chin combination down at them like a revolver and cleaned their pockets. And if he stole the juvenile hero's girlfriend on his way up, so much the better.

By then we hated the juvenile hero anyway, the types who turned down offers of easy dishonest money because they still believed in the American dream of little guys making good honest wages. They should have been boiling fat cats in oil or dragging them to the guillotine but instead kept dutifully working themselves to death in service of the giant black could Dust Bowl Moloch to afford barely enough company store credits to keep a young wife in hairpins. No wonder she left for Williams' champagne and opium penthouse. You had to be soft in the head--like Joan Crawford or Loretta Young--to think the homespun decent folks Americana small town ideal wasn't a bogus con enforced by the fat cats' sour matron moralist wives in some weird venomous outpouring of stifled sexuality. Guillotine the rich, or work yourself bravely to death like that poor trusting horse in Animal Farm --at MGM there was never a doubt which option their films advocated. You can smell the glue there even now. But at Warner Brothers? hors de leurs têtes!

Alas, sometimes even tough-minded Vitaphone demanded William get a 'conscience' by the end and start doing the right thing after being reformed by some high-handed secretary's refusal to put out, but aside from a glimmer in his eye as he dutifully shed a tear in the name of good common decency, all he ended up with for his trouble was a gut full of self-loathing and a few bullets from the guns of the people he double-crossed. As Handsome Harry once said, "the trouble with people who reform is they always want to rain on everybody else's parade, too."

And anyway, the average workaday joes and handsome college boy heroes these girls ended up with after poor William took a dive were played by annoying little pishers like Gene Raymond (the schmuck in RED DUST), Charles Farrell, Randolph Scott (as the Puritan geologist in HOT SATURDAY), or Norman Foster in SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1933), who relentlessly paws and stalks Maureen O’Sullivan, just because he happens to be her age and social class. The swine! Warren William develops eyes for her himself and who wouldn’t? Look at those legs (above)! And anyway, she works for him and sexual harassment laws are still just a distant troubling tom-tom in 1933. Meanwhile Foster is so full of himself and his presumptive ladykiller charm he literally makes it impossible for her to do her job. I had a guy like that haunting my assistant one time, and I kicked him out of the building and convinced her to file a restraining order! It's a boss's job to make sure his female employees aren't harassed at the workplace, which is why he sometimes needs to protect them, personally... even if takes all night.

1932 - ***1/2

Warren William rules in this fictionalization of the career of legendary mob defense lawyer Bill Fallon. And until some hick virgin puts him noble he's pretty badass. Granted, he starts off as an 'clean' assistant D.A. but, after sending an innocent man to the chair, he joins the other team, defending the guilty in a belated attempt to right his wrong. As in all these type films (William Powell played versions of Fallon for Warners, too, in Lawyer Man and For the Defense), he becomes a big shot gangland defense lawyer and drinks heroically (Guy Kibbee 'tends the 'speak') and sleeps around with impunity (look fast for Paulette Godard as a party girl) while his gal Friday Aline McMahon adds notes of warm complexity as his half-secretary/half-detox nurse / half Leporello crossed with Joan from Mad Men. She's become so adept at her Moneypenny-esque repartee with William that even she can't remember if there's any real desire underneath it, and McMahon's tall enough, and physical enough, that she can believably heave him onto his feet when he's dead drunk.

Aline McMahon: What a gal 
Anyway, they're a great team, and all is well, with a few defense strategies so outlandish they must have been based on real life cases (William here drinks poison to destroy the prosecutor's case, in other versions he throws a vial supposedly full of nitro), but then it all goes to hell when a hick typist in the pool turns down his wolfish advances because she's lousy with the type of small town "integrity" Sydney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker would later sneer at. But, hey, this was 1931, there were only a few years left to even talk about other options, soon that sentimental sunshine malarkey would be so pervasive it would take another world war to shucker out into the freedom of the shadows.

Sidney Fox is the c/hick who sways him, William Janney the naive chump she's sweet on, who (of course) winds up implicated in a crime orchestrated by one of Williams' shifty clients. You can guess the rest. It's all worth it for a giddy stretch in the beginning where William rockets through his day, pausing to lift a $10,000 fee out of an embezzler's stash before returning what's left to the employer on the condition he doesn't press charges. For this one crazy stretch, The Mouthpiece is a masterwork.  It's the role that made William a star. It will make you a fan.

1934 - **1/2

All procedural political machinations, this post-code potboiler plays a bit like Perry Mason wandered into The Glass Key. William plays an ambitious assistant D.A. secretly married to the daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of a framed governor (Arthur Byron). If the public knew about their marriage, it would be conflict of interest! Nepotism! Whatever! It's a little vague, your honor, but the governor can be proved innocent only by compromising William's coming promotion to 'full' DA.

But hey, as long as he's innocent, you have nothing to worry about, maybe.

William is on medium setting here, but that's still a high for anyone else. The cast includes: the always fey and Capote-esque Grant Mitchell; the ever-dubiously allied Douglas Dumbrille; Glenda Farrell as the woman blamed for a murder that Barbara Stanwyck saw happen but can't reveal why she happened to be in Williams' apartment to see it. Courtroom will be cleared while the jury reaches a verdict! The verdict is that this is reasonably engaging thriller that adds up to little beyond its own dated contrivance. How can you go wrong with Stanwyck and William as secret lovers, even if they're not playing to the fullest of their madness? William fans who are wondering if this being made in 1934 means William is defanged, rest easy: he's not, he just doesn't need to bite anyone, so is in semi-asleep mode. William Dieterle directed, so there's atmosphere even if Warners had by then worked the old 'D.A. or Defense Attorney who has to sacrifice his career to protect his lover's honor' horse all the way through the glue factory and back again. (Callback!)

1936 - ***

Before it gets bogged down in needless variations on its The Maltese Falcon source text, it's great fun. Muddled and nonsensical as it may be, fans of the Huston version may savor this as I do, like a jazz riff on the same tune. Effie (Marie Wilson) known here as 'Miss Murgatroyd' below left, is an adorable little ditzy Red Riding Hood who has great chemistry with the big bad wolf Warren William - she's as tall, standing, as he is, seated, which I'm sure made it twice as easy for him to work his charm. And the way she rolls with his wolfish come-ons makes them a perfect pair. She all but grabs onto his fur and rides him to grandma's house.

Made in 1936 (after the code, but Mister, ya coulda fooled me) it co-stars a very young Bette Davis in the Mary Astor role--she's much less coy in this version, and much less bemused by William than most, and instead of the usual blithe flirting they share a conniving sense they're both too used to snowing members of the opposite sex to snow each other, but they just keep trying, like the salesmen in Glengary Glen Ross selling to each other in infinitum. Alison Skipworth is the gender-switch version of the conniving Gutman. I couldn’t find billing for the unsightly Tweedle Dum type who keeps repeating “I told you once, Mister…” as her neurotic gunsel son. He’s no Elisha Cook Jr. Then again, who is? William's Spade (here called Shayne) does a variation on the crippled newsie scene (pulling the raincoat back over Cook's shoulders and grabbing his twin .45s) and plays it out with a beanie he steals off Kenneth's head with a wolfish grin not unlike Lonesome Rhodes chasing a secretary around the Vita-Chex pitch meeting in A Face in the Crowd. 

The best substitution comes with Arthur Treacher as the fey Joel Cairo. A tall, game-for-what-for posh bounder, he brings his own quirky wit to the proceedings and the scene where William helps him ransack his own apartment looking for the 'horn' has a great comedic flow--like Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers in the first three seasons of MASH. Were they huffing laughing gas off camera? It's almost like William has met his match in William-ness, and they feed off each other's energy like long lost brothers. Whether helping Treacher casually break things, repair them, or William's glee at finding on a thought-lost little black book under a chair, their scene could be the drunken grandfather of Altman's The Long Goodbye. Rather than a long stretch of time in Spade's apartment waiting for a package, the big climax meets Captain Jacobi's boat down at the rainy docks for a good old-fashioned shoot-out. Which let's face it is pretty cool, considering Huston's film only talks about a whole mess of events we see being played out here.

Davis meanwhile smokes and wields a piece like a pro, she's even annoyed by Williams' not taking the gun she's jamming in his ribs more seriously. If you can recall the Huston version moment where, after giving Cairo back his gun upon receipt of the two hundred dollars, Cairo turns it on him and says "Clasp your hands behind your head, Mr. Spade..." and he just smiles and laughs, saying "Go ahead! I won't stop ya..." that's how William plays the whole damn movie. And unless you're like Davis, a serious actress, trying to establish her character's duplicitousness before the short running time elapses, than Williams' fun is contagious. If you've seen Huston's remake a few dozen times (if not, better start!) then the use of so much of the same dialogue under such bizarre, nearly Godardian tweakage is startling. While the whole cast (Davis aside) seems to bounce merrily on his lap, William has such a good time he can barely remember his lines. Who cares though? He may just as well just read the book aloud and mix some more drinks. I'd watch it.

1932 - ***1/2

Three girls meet while at a Brooklyn public school (allowing for plenty of ethnic stereotyping - oy vey) and stay friends even after going separate ways up and down the New York City economic ladder (pre-code Warners loved showing their adult subjects as children first --God knows why, and maybe social workers). Joan Blondell winds up in a reform school; Bette Davis learns to type and settles into a nice cog-in-the-machine-shape for the duration; Ann Dvorak marries the rich guy (Warren William) and becomes a nymphomaniac alcoholic who feels strangled by the touch of any man dumb enough to treat her with respect. They end up running into each other and sharing the ominous match on a post-lunch round of cigarettes. Dvorak has Williams' kid, then goes running amok with smooth-talking idiot Lyle Talbot, who gets them both in deep with some low-down mobsters (Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Ed Arnold) who figure they can collect big by holding the kid for ransom. With the 24/7 carrying on (and only cocktail peanuts for meals), the poor kid becomes a seriously neglected urchin, all while William looks desperately for the boy, finally procuring the help of the now reformed Blondell and Davis, who by then has nearly typed herself sexless. She must have really loved being relegated to glorified extra. But hey, she gets to be the kid's nanny when all's said and done, if that helps any. If it helps, in 1933 she could still hold her own in a bathing suit. Better get it on record, darling. In a few decades you'll be back on that beach in a very different seaside ensemble, toting a malnourished Joan Crawford instead of a finally-fed Dickie Moore.

What a double bill this would have made with the same year's MATCH KING, wherein we learn the shady truth behind the "three on a match" superstition. Here they take it seriously and if its "vignettes through the ages" narrative style is clunky, the pre-code luridness and game cast makes up for it: Blondell is her usual reliable self, good-natured and morally flexible, inherently decent without being a drag about it; Dvorak's big tragic spiral out of control is awesome, believably self-centered and trapped in a terrible addictive cycle where the only time she's in a caring loving mood is when she's too high to get out of bed, leaving her kid Dickie Moore suffering from neglect to the point even Bogart's slimy gangster is concerned (he makes a wry cocaine nose gesture to indicate what Dvorak's doing in the other room). If even your child's kidnappers are more concerned about your kid than you are, that's shocking stuff, pre-code to the nines, second only to the deprivation / starvation of the kids in Night Nurse, the kind of thing we just wouldn't see after the code, and it's those post-code kids that gave kids a bad name in the movies since we all know kids aren't saints, they're complex little heathens! Dickie Moore can be unbearably cutesy pie in the wrong hands, but throw him into the next room during an all-week all-night gangster poker game while his mom lies drunk and unconscious for days at a stretch, now he's legitimately heartbreaking. FINALLY!

William meanwhile is just the sugar daddy here-- a noncomedic variation on his role in Gold Diggers (he wound up with Joan there, too) as the sensible Daddy Warbucks for the gang. That's the way it was in these punchy mellers from the WB though; the whole thing rips past your stunned eyes so fast you can barely light your twentieth cigarette before it's all over but the scraping off the sidewalk. 'hiccup.'

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Misterioso Blu Review: PUMPKINHEAD (1988), LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."                                                                                    --- Nietzsche
(1973) Dir. John Hough
Like a serious-minded, less campy, grumpier, more sexually experienced ground level update of House on Haunted Hill, Legend of Hell House (based on a Richard Matheson novel) was once just a solid little spook film, seen mainly by kids like me in the 70s on the late show after creeping each other out with the Ouija board and with sound on low to not wake parents. We seldom made it to the end before falling asleep or losing our UHF reception, but now, with Shout's new Blu-ray, Hell has taken over the adult wing and expanded to a big dark, beautiful monster ready for close inspection. With its dark (in both senses) atmosphere, decadent art design and red bathed color scheme, cinematographer Alan Hume's almost Bava-esque level of warm, dusky, painterly light, the translucently pale skin of two beautifully alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper women-- sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive--all the problems with narrative are easily forgiven. While the plot seems kid stuff--a disparate group of people paid handsomely to spend awhile in a very haunted house--it's not just for 70s slumber parties anymore.

Since the principle cast is only four people, they need to carry a lot of dramatic weight on their shoulders to make this work, and they do: Pamela Franklin proves herself a master of slow simmer emotional build-up as Florence, the psychic (is this a sequel to her role as the child "Flora" in The Innocents (1961). Am I the first to make that connection? Hell, it might even be the same house); Gale Hunnicutt (very hot and dangerous) is Ann, the prim (and therefore open to sexual possession) wife-assistant of Dr. Barett (Clive Revill), a self-righteous prig, buzzkill dickweed parapsychologist who thinks ghosts are just psychic energy without personality or form, easily dispersed by a magnetic pulse generator, which he's bringing over later; and--in the Elisha Cook Jr. role (i.e. he's the only survivor of the last such party, who spends most of the film drinking and tossing off cryptic remarks)--Roddy McDowall. They've all been hired by a dying millionaire to spend a week in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," the Winchester-ish estate of sadistic, decadent (and long-dead) munitions magnate Earnest Belasco. Past investigations have been calamitous, but when has that ever stopped an intrepid ghost hunter earning $100,000.? To determine once and for all if there's life after death to some dying old bastard, they figure a week in a haunted house will answer it once and for all? Hilarious, if it wasn't played so grouchy-dead straight.

Fans who hate when a movie wastes time getting to the good stuff will rejoice over Hell House, for--like Castle's Haunted Hill--the credits have barely begun appearing before the chosen four are creaking open the gate and entering the very fog-bound manor, which looms above them via very low upward camera angles. It's plenty ominous, instantly establishing itself as ideal for the aforementioned late night post-Ouija slumber parties and drive-ins, where once you settle in and/or stop making out or adjusting the speakerbox you can step right into it and get rightly scared, and not have to wade through piddly-ass subplots or those cliche patronizing fake-outs where the monster in your room disappears before the witnesses can answer your screams so they all think you were only dreaming. Or what about those tired scenes of incompetent detectives being called in, or sunny daytime shots trudging out to the local church, to see stodgy vicars in terrible bowl haircuts? Or Cockney horse trainers skulking tiresomely around the grounds, peering around corners while holding pick axes? Not this house, sisters. And it's all based on what might one day be real life paranormal events. In a forward blurb, Tom Corbett, 'psychic consultant to European royalty' notes: “Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” Or as Criswell says in Plan Nine, "Can you prove it didn't happen!?"

As the allotted week of investigation goes on, the days and times click by on the bottom of the screen in a kind of countdown of dread, approaching and passing Dec. 25th, though no one mentions Xmas. The randomness of the dates and times adds to a feeling of authenticity and also enhances the sense of endless night and gloom; it might only be 3 PM or 9 AM breakfast, but it all feels like night in this mostly windowless, dark strange mansion, which they mostly never leave. Kubrick was undoubtedly inspired by this sense of time's irrelevance for his sporadic use of of similar 'time stamps' in The Shining. 

Another thing I love in a ghost film is when it totally doesn't waste time debating whether ghosts are real or just figments of a suggestible mind, which is usually a big problem in American and British films. Here the supernatural is a given-- even Dr. Barett believes something's happening,-- so the argument can finally move from an 'if' to a question of whether actual personalities survive beyond death or just a form of psychic residue which we instinctually anthropomorphize. Dr. Barett thinks it's all just projected psychic energy and accuses Florence of creating it, unconsciously or not. Florence thinks the activity is being generated by the spirit of the evil Mr. Belasco's walled-up son. Meanwhile Mrs. Barett sleepwalks as a possessed nymphomaniac. When she glides down the stairs or makes sudden appearances in the far corner of the frame, in flowing hair and nightgown she generates an autonomous sultry frisson. Sexually frustrated by her cold fish husband while conscious (why did he even bring her?) asleep she tries to seduce McDowell and get him into an orgiastic menage a trois with Franklin, modulating a slow burn from smiling self-possessed enigma to furious flesh-rending maenad cannibal. McDowall just stands frozen in these scenes like he's not even tempted by this hot babe in her ghost-flowing lingerie, waiting patiently until she's at maximum pitched intensity to slap her. You're barking up the wrong tree, honey, again! No wonder British women are so sexually assertive, with such men as these for pickings. And why is Roddy even here? Mainly he stands around and waits until most everyone else is dead before he steps up and shouts whole pages of denouement at the ghost of Belasco. Wind howls, doors rattle, and finally you can sense the phantom residue of Vincent Price rouse from its chewed-scenery nest.

Too bad Revill's smarmy know-it-all doctor makes sure up until then no one gets along, bonds, or laughs. You could offer him a coffee and he'd snarl at you for your stupidity in believing caffeine is the answer when it's merely a placebo for the feeble minded. He curtails all attempts at camaraderie and as a result the cast all keep to themselves, reacting to each other's presence only with shouts and slaps, demeaning disbelief, and worried condescension. It's enough to make one long for the cozy lesbian flirtations between Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson in The Haunting remake. In fact, I know it's heresy, but I'll see that movie again any time, while this this film forgets to be 'fun' as if forgetting scariness and comedy work well together; hungover bitchiness never helps anyone.

The Shout Blu-ray helps allay the damage by bringing out the full gorgeous eerie textures and depths of the film. Extras include a genial 'talking shop'-style interview with John Hough, wherein he notes that Disney hired him to direct Escape to Witch Mountain based on his work in Hell House, and there's a repetitive if interesting commentary track with Franklin. She mainly says that Hunnicutt and McDowall kept to themselves while, surprisingly, she and Revill got on famously and that the cinematographer took forever with his lighting, using every single light he had in every single shot, to the point the crew would start hiding lights from him in the cupboards. Though the time spent was clearly worth it, as every shot is suitable for framing.

The other great aspect is the throbbing echo-drenched diegetic distortion score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hogdson of 'Electrophon Ltd.' It's somewhere between Forbidden Planet's 'electronic tonalities' and the avant garde echo-cussions of 70s thriller-period Ennio Morricone. In short, sublime.

1988 - dir. Stan Winston
Lance Henrisken is (unsurprisingly) strange, muted, a tad poetic and A-gaming through this EC comics-esque B-backwoods monster tale. As the woodsy general store/gas station owner and bereaved single parent Ed Harley he's the type of character we usually only see in the beginning of a horror film, cryptically warning the teenage weekend campers not to go too far from the highway, before spitting tobacco at their feet and wiping his hands on a filthy oil rag. This time the equation's reversed: the visiting teens are the bad guys, kind of, killing his son (by accident) and spurring old Ed to backwoods vengeance. Surprisingly complex for a monster film, director Winston lets us see both the rudeness of the snotty suburban teen interlopers through the local's eyes and the sheer grimy otherness of the locals through the suburban teen eyes --in fact there wouldn't be a more even-keeled look at the rural-vs.-suburb/city divide in horror until Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. 

The down-ramp of all that though is the usual 'get to the monster already' agitation, that is, unless we're wise enough to lean back and absorb the incredible lighting and lived-in detail, which we can more easily do with Shout's gorgeous new Blu-ray. Now we can see the full breadth of magic hour brilliance of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, how he makes the outdoors seem like indoors, makes the backroad country seem pregnant with menace the way Dean Cundey did to the suburban streets in the original Halloween. The first sight of the old witch's cabin as the sun sets, with its orange light shining through the windows and the uncanny stillness in the air-- as if the whole natural world is hushed and waiting--is a small masterpiece of dream state mood. Using natural candle light and lanterns in rustic cabins for orange flame light flickers, Bajelli conjures a very Halloween-ready mood that's never really carried over to the small screen before this edition. Now we can savor how how the poetic-realist folktale touch is gradually applied, luring the story from rural revenge saga afternoon to dark setting sun fairy tale to nighttime blue-filter monster action, a kind of slow steady momentum past the point of no return. I don't mind that it seems to take forever to get started now that the photography glows so duskily and the vast spooky graveyard pumpkin patch can be pored over like we're right there in it, and the withered old crone with the demon-raising mojo glowing in the firelight in a makeup that makes her look like Freddy Kruger's blind aunt crossed with Sir Roderick Femm in The Old Dark House (1932).

The casting is pretty interesting too, now that some of the actors have become minor stars: Devon Odessa (Sharon in My So-Called Life) and Mayim Bialik are barefoot backwoods children a-teasing their small brother with the Pumpkinhead poem chant and; as final girl Tracy, Cynthia Bain is luminous and resourceful: her youth and beauty in stark contrast to the dirt-stained roughness of the locals and even the lesser mortal sheen of her teen co-stars. The pastel 80s fashions and terrible headbands are a nice contrast to the timeless hick earth tones around them. I well remember how we 80s punks hated those damned Springsteen bandanas, jean jackets, aerobics wrist bands, and stone-washed seamless jeans but now I rejoice to see them, signifiers as they are of pre-CGI monsters to come. Fx legend Stan Winston doesn't disappoint on that front either: the seven foot-plus tall demon with its long weird arms and expressive face (and several different incarnations) makes any cross-cutting confusion forgivable.

But even then, the real reason to see the film is Henriksen, with his ever-strange otherworldly air working in full step with Bazelli's color filters to make the overly familiar backcountry milieu neither hostile nor friendly in conventional ways, but as uncanny as an alien landscape. That his character's southern accent comes out strongest when he's really angry or upset is the mark of a truly subtle actor, as if the rest of the time his Ed Harley is trying to mask his mountain man roots.

That said, if the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts it's because, perhaps, it tries to be too nuanced. As with Hell House, it's not the kind of 'fun' ride that leads us to demand sequels (though they sure came). If the film stuck with the teenagers and they were kind of cool and nice and trying to do the right thing and the demon was loosed on them for some ridiculously small slight--one of them shoplifted a candy bar or something--it would chill us far more more. And the idea that a backroads boy wouldn't be keenly aware of the path of those motorbikes, wouldn't be asking to ride one, or at the very least keeping his eyes peeled, watching in awe as they jump (it's not like they're quiet or he was wearing headphones) is just hard to believe. (It would have worked far better if it was a stray bullet from a drunken backyard target practice). And it never makes sense why Harley wouldn't go to the cops, or the local boy bar contingent of his, especially him being a small business owner where success depends on being sociable and developing repeat customers, or wouldn't first try confronting the kids directly, taking revenge himself, or at the very least find some other recourse to be exhausted first. Not to make light of losing your kid, but that demon conjuring would be the first choice and only logical option to deal with the issue courts imbecility. Even worse is Harley's second guessing himself, trying to welsh after the first grisly murder, and running back to the witch to demand she lift the spell, then to his neighbors to demand they help him, this after he demanded they tell him where to find the witch in the first place and they tried not to. I don't blame them a bit for keeping their doors barred. You made your bed now lie in it, Ed Harley!

Though the script seems a little under-cooked, my qualms tend to melt away once one sees the film a few more times and learns to just appreciate the folktale aspect: the devotion to minute atmospheric detail, the sparingly ominous synth music and the myriad facial expressions and unique movements of the monster. Using the lifeless bodies of victims to smash in doors and windows, pausing to destroy a crude wooden cross and traveling with his own Evil Dead x Fulci's City of the Living Dead-style whirlwind of leaves, fog, and crackling lightning, Pumpkinhead is a pre-CGI master class in  himself. Extras include a lively fun commentary track with the special effects guys, and you can tell they had a blast making the film and love pointing out all the strangely-placed puppeteer eye holes, mechanisms and dummies used, and that the guy wearing the monster suit in some of the walking scenes was trying to move in the style of Harryhausen's Ymir (i.e. aping stop motion animation!) and that in certain spots his sneakers were visible and had to be masked out. There's also a dozen or so talking head interviews, including one with a moist-eyed, breathless, possibly insane Richard Weinman, some great VHS tape monster suit test runs, and a tribute to the late, great Winston.

All in all, Shout's loving care (via their Scream Factory offshoot) and Blu-ray remastering help make these two minor horror films into 1080 HD works of art. Maybe in the end all the needless killing has been worth it, for we are living the dream of every movie lover who died before the advent of this format. I know I dreamt of such things as a monster lover kid. I even wrote a paper in junior high school advocating the importance of creating a widescreen TV, dreaming of perfect vivid picture and giant screens while reading Famous Monsters of Filmland instead of playing kickball out back. I wonder if I'll have to pay some hellish price for my wishes coming true... Whatever it is, I'll lay in it, Ed Harley! 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Beyond the Green Inferno: HERZOG: The Collection (16 film blu-ray collection) - Review

Francis Ford Coppola's disastrous decision to cast Brando as Colonel Kurz for Apocalypse Now (1979) is by now a true Hollywood cautionary tale of amok ambition and dangers of trusting in the improv skills of titans: Coppola was losing his Godfather fortune, and sanity even before Brando finally showed up. He was already stretched past endurance by typhoon season, drugs, malaria, wayward helicopters, Martin Sheen's heart attack, and Dennis Hopper's mania. Brando arrived overweight, befuddled, expensive, pissing away millions while he mumbled incoherently along, utterly and in every way unprepared--and this final straw took years off Coppola's life. The entire shoot dragged on for two years, and Brando wore Coppola's genius down to such a low point he's never gotten it back, never made a great film again (he admits it). His films have tended towards the safely set-bound ever since. Never in a million years would he work with Brando again, let alone bring him back to Philippines in ten years for Apocalypse Now 2. 

Let this tale be testament not just to the dangers of jungle location shooting and hiring egotistical maniacs as stars, but to the gonzo madness of Werner Herzog, who went back again and again to his jungle, and worked with his egotistical maniac--who made Kurz-era Brando seem a model of professionalism--no less than five times, with much better results. Such masochism is surely indicative of a personality that would have thrived in the very same madness that consumed Coppola on that woebegone shoot, would have welcomed the miseries that destroyed Coppola, would have saw it all as a welcome relief from the terrifying existential crisis proffered by German 'sanity,' and maybe would have put a gun to Brando's head and said snap into it or die here, right here and now. Maybe Coppola needed to be German to find that heart of darkness, maybe he needed a German actor like Klaus Kinski as his Kurtz.

Kinski starts deep in the darkness heart, already deeper in the blackness that Brando could ever reach, not if he mumbled and hid in the shadows for ten thousand takes. And Klaus just goes deeper from there.

In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)--their first collaboration and the film that put Herzog on the map--Kinski plays a wayward conquistador searching for El Dorado. His Aguirre doesn't just usurp his royal commander on a side trip down the Amazon, he usurps the King of Spain himself, and sails ever onward into the jungle, eventually ruling over a raft full of gibbering monkeys after everyone else has been picked off by unseen natives or quietly run off on his crazy ass.

Insane or no, while the other actors make their marks and look around nervously, Kinski's Aguirre is making friends with the insects, imitating the movements of wind through the fronds in every little gesture. His giant frog eyes dilating, seething, and lolling back on a tide of bi-polar narcissism, Kinski seems eternally adrip and atrip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex - the kind of psychosis you can't fake. Magnetic, tragic, and terrifying, it's almost like he can see us watching him, through the screen, from across time and media formatting. His eyes meet ours and we shiver in our safety shadows. No matter his character or period, Kinski is alive in the moment and in the film and in the room with us. We feel his breathing in the clatter of trash cans and whir of sirens in the distance outside the window; he's in our blood like a fever, and he knows it.

And now, thanks to a gorgeous and essential set from Shout Factory, we have the whole story of Herzog's existential sanity with and without Kinski's foam-at-the-mouth madness, colliding in the middle of the South American jungles and German hamlets of the mind: Herzog: The Collection gives us 16 films on stunning Blu-ray, covering a 30 year period--from his black and white cult slice of mayhem Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to 1998's My Best Friend, Herzog's documentary about his five films with Kinski (all of which are included in the set). All in all, it's a three decade-spanning Götterdämmerung of low key brilliance, fictional films, documentaries, cinéma vérités and semi-faux documentaries. It's one of the most well-constructed sets I've ever seen, no annoying slipcase or crackable plastic, all beautiful thick pages with the DVDs fitting perfectly within thick paper pages, dark colors bled to the edges, all pulsing green photographs from the films. The dark images perfectly capture the moody existentialism, Germanic emotional peaks and harrowing crevasses of Herzog's style, the intentional blurring of the line between documentary-reality--with himself onscreen as narrator and shaper of action--and historical recreation and/or other fiction. And each fiction movie is likely to include a documentary of its making, it's own DVD extra in a matter of course, with commentary tracks abounding, the least a death to nature.

Maybe like me you've seen some dusty PAL or VHS copies of these in the past, but these Blu-rays are a whole different world; we can now make out every blade of grass, every drop of flowing river, and every dirty fissure in Kinski's extraordinarily expressive face. Challenging, disturbing, beautiful, tragic, and sometimes downright boring, watch them all and feel your senses slow and widen and dilate to better behold God's all-seeing blindness.

And through all five of their collaborations, Kinski's willingness to throw himself off a cliff at the drop of a hat provides the perfect orbiting satellite for Herzog's implacable planetary sanity. There are also several documentaries and two films with his other insane star, Bruno S: 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (a true story of an abused man with eerie parallels to Bruno's own dark childhood as subject of Nazi experiments), and Stroszek (1977). According to imdb: Bruno "was very difficult to work with... sometimes needing several hours of screaming before he could do a scene." If anyone was going to be able to work with him, to wait out the screams and/or get them on film, it would be Herzog.

Bruno, you look the picture of health
Needless to say, the extras are not all successful (Where the Green Ants Dream, for example, has a commentary track but it's in German mit out subtitles, was ist los mit dir, Shout?). But all the extras add to the self-reflective post-modern sense of dreaming and waking up into a dream far more vivid than localized reality.

Brother, you said it

In addition to the stunning and essential Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and their final collaboration, Cobra Verde (1987), Herzog made two, more German, small scale masterpieces with Kinski in 1979. Wocyzek is an adaptation of a German play about a soldier who kills his wife after he's endured mind control experiments: claustrophobic, hypnotic, glacially slow and tragic, it provides the chance for Kinski to bounce off the walls and cave on in himself in high Germanic style. It's also a more effective horror film for my money than Nosferatu, which seems airless and beery compared to most Herzog films, partly no doubt due to the bland, soft-bellied somnambulism of Bruno Ganz's Harker. Though the's making a fantasy-horror film, a remake of a silent vampire classic, Herzog is unwilling to abandon his beloved docu-realism and uses found settings to replace the dream expressionism the tale so clearly demands (and Kinski's little baby doll fangs are ridiculous). Shooting on location in Bavaria and Carpathian towns in centuries old buildings seems a good idea on paper, but the budget wasn't there to paint things in cobwebs and Gothic air, so the slick white sealer lathered onto the brick walls of old inns and castle interiors (used to keep the dampness out) gives them a dead museum air (my feet hurt in sense memory of being dragged through boring historical tours on elementary school field trips). Put Herzog in the jungle and he comes alive, but on European soil he drowns in ghosts, the centuries of history strangling him in a Germanic noose he cannot film except through terrible period haircuts, beer-puffed German faces and costumery seemingly borrowed from a local stage play.

Adjani is--however--a great expressionistic Mina. With her darkened eye rings and pale skin and jet black hair, she seems straight out of--not just Murnau's original, but Cabinet of Caligari or Lang's Mabuse. But better.

CONFESSION: Having only seen (all the way through) Aguirre, Nosferatu, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and At the Top of the World before diving into this set, I kind of felt Herzog's obsessions with dreams seemed a kind of knee-jerk raison d'être for his continued docu-wandering. I thought he was insufferably dull. I was however drawn to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence which I knew in the end would be soul transforming, and truly it's been a long, soul-warping awe inspiring yet deeply troubling, at times, yes, maddeningly boring, 25+ hours of jungles and paranoia.

Another Herzog issue: I've always been put off by some of his more jokey titles, especially Even Dwarfs Started Small and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, not to mention the subject matter, the former seeming exploitative, the latter masochistic (as an ex-POW recreates his tortures on location in moments recalling William Devane's similar demonstrations in Rolling Thunder) and yet at the same time boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Dwarfs could pass for something by Alejandro Jodorowsky or a drunk Bunuel, filmed in black and white it's a bit like the end of Over the Edge stretched to feature length with little people playing the kids, only not as good.

And Little Dieter Needs to Fly turns out to be a deeply moving true story of the only POW pilot ever to escape his captors and be rescued in all of the Vietnam war, this after being shot down over Laos and held prisoner for two years, suffering terrible tortures at the hand of the Viet Cong until he made a great escape through the uncrossable jungles. With Herzog in tow, Dengler revisits the locations, and in one great scene puts his forgiving arm around a former torturer. The look in that ashamed guy's eyes is so profound, their connection so glorious, it almost makes the whole war worthwhile. Dengler is a bit larger than life via his sheer gratitude to be free and continual fascination with planes and food and the joy of being able to open doors. It's catchy.

As Herzog's camera follows, Dengler talks us through his ordeal in modulated perfect flow of English, words cascading over the rocks and trees, and he never seems to need to take a breath. Through it all, Herzog--a bastion of sanity begging to be eroded by the fertile fecund jungle--watches and learns of nature's bloody initiation that opens the gate to wonder, the vision of horsemen angels rolling towards him through the clouds, signaling his death approaching. As Dengler goes on, one realizes he's a great writer --it's all facts and recreations, no wasting time with describing emotions or feelings, and when he mentions his dreams and hallucinations they're described in the same matter-of-fact style.

It's through these moments that one discovers the root of Herzog's genius. Physical reality, to him, is just the eventual manifestation of the unconscious. Twisted up as we are, raw and full of mysteries, dreams have more in common with reality than our emotions or feelings. Herzog eventually filmed a more dramatized version of the story, Rescue Dawn (2006), starring Christian Bale, but it's Dieter that packs more punch for being such a gentle, forgiving film in image and speech, conveying at the same time such deep horrors and inhumanities on both sides, but never with judgments.

Another example of this unique documentary approach is Lessons of Darkness (1992), which shows the horrors of Kuwaiti oil fires in the weeks after the (first) Gulf War, the oil blackening the sky and pillars of flame illuminating everything in all directions. Letting the faces of Kuwaitis, the amniotic droning of the music, and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration, he guides our response only, as it were, to the precipice. At the end, when the oil firefighters, having extinguished most of the fires and capped the wells, re-light one, Herzog doesn't concern himself with getting to the rationale behind it. He's only looking for his own answers to, like all his questions, the nature of dreams, madness. He describes the sight thus:
"Two figures are approaching an oil well.
One of them holds a lighted torch.
What are they up to?
Are they going to rekindle the blaze?
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
Others, seized by madness, follow suit.
Now they are content
Now there is something to extinguish again."

In the end it's this kind ambivalence and moral ambiguity that makes Herzog endure. His narration in the documentaries makes no plea for tolerance or recycling. He doesn't try to understand if there's a valid reason Dieter Dengler was bombing Laos or being starved by his captors; he doesn't judge the oil workers lighting the gushing untapped oil back up after working so hard to put it out; he doesn't judge the mining company finally winning the right to blast the green anthills apart in Where the Green Ants Dream. He knows any judgment would automatically reflect his own prejudice. He lets instead the camera finds its way to a zone where poetry and truth operate free of imposed meaning. Within these jungles and hellish landscapes, Herzog is like an astronaut letting his camera find some unknown new planet while he obediently follows, bringing only a gold record of Wagner's "Siegfried's Funeral March" along for company. Even if the planet is 400 degrees he will gamely step into the pyre, refusing to judge the flame as it consumes him. Get this set, then, and wade in to there with him. As your screaming ego melts down around you, you will see the light at the end of the dark tunnel, glorious and godly....

And if you keep melting and moving deeper, you will see a new, stranger darkness waiting behind the light, the darkest heart, the one Coppola's camera could never quite catch.
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