Monday, March 02, 2015

Young Jack in the Post-Poe Po-Mo Hellman Hole: THE TERROR, THE SHOOTING

The legendarily muddled Roger Corman Poe-ish Gothic horror THE TERROR (1963) famously came together spur of the moment when, supposedly, Corman still had two days on Boris Karloff's RAVEN shooting schedule and-- not wanting to waste them--shot Boris in a different wizard costume, walking around in various parts of the same castle sets, interacting with RAVEN co-star Jack Nicholson,  talking about killing his young bride after coming home from the war, and now her ghost is around, or being tormented by her ghost in the nicely lit family crypt, trusting a film could be built around it with minimal effort. He was right about the minimal, but that's just part of the film's shaggy dog-eared charm, its inscrutable but eerily poetic ambiguity. Corman sent Francis Ford Coppola up to Big Sur to shoot some exteriors and add some folk horror realism, and then later, Jack Hill as writer and Monte Hellman as director came along to reshape, rework, and reconfigure, shooting in and around Playa del Rey, Leo Carillo Beach, and what was then the AFI. So there's a lot of hands in the mix here: the final product hits all the traditional Corman/Poe Gothic beats but adds something else, too, the voice of a younger generation who could keep one foot in Roger's Gothic/Poe dream wold and one in the zone of artsy mid-60s California mythopoetic magical realism (the zone that also gave us INCUBUS and NIGHT TIDE).

There are some critics who dismiss THE TERROR as a jumbled mess, they're right that it's jumbled, but they're wrong to dismiss it. Maybe they never saw the complete version in the right environment, and in the right mood, and on the right print, and in the right edit, in the right aspect ratio. Seen 'correctly' it's more than the sum of its occasionally contradictory parts. One shouldn't get hung up on what the correct 'sum' is, as there isn't any way to know; there's no clear single auteur by which we might decode it. Or is there? Maybe we can find the auteur stamp via a process of elimination. Corman's hip-but-never anachronistic Poe-Gothic voice is partly there but there's no existential Matheson wit or silvery Price slink; Coppola's voice isn't quite formed yet, aside from a focus on art school naturalism; Jack Hill's future balls-out stealth feminist drive-in moxy isn't there yet either...

But Monte Hellman's vanishing point identity and existential narrative-dissolution? That emerges, like a 4-dimensional pupa. 

In fact, THE TERROR fits beautifully in the Hellman canon; and his two later acclaimed existential works, THE SHOOTING (1966) and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) actually become easier to read as well, the three click together like puzzle pieces to form graspable mythic trilogy; they become scrutable!

Jack and an enigmatic girl in The Shooting layered under Jack and an enigmatic girl in The Terror (by me)
While the Hellman style wasn't yet a recognizable 'thing' in 1963, after seeing his more well-known works you feel that innate "Hellman-ness" in THE TERROR's dreamy 'edge of forever' tide pools, spinning compasses, the ambiguity of relationships, and the fluidity of feminine identity. Hellman's female characters tend to be nameless (billed in the credits as "the woman" or "the girl") and this anima ambiguity perfectly fits the ghostly figure played by Sandra Knight in THE TERROR as she appears to lost Cavalry officer Lt. Andre Duvalier (a young Jack Nicholson) at various points along the shore or cliffs, sometimes luring him to near to death like a siren (to quicksand or rockslides), sometimes swooping or circling overhead as a falcon, or --depending on who's turn it is at the auteurist telephone game--she's either an air elemental hawk/girl spirit, a normal human girl who thinks she's a ghost thanks to hypnosis coordinated by the mother of the son who the Baron killed when he found her in bed with Ilsa, or the spirit of Ilsa incarnated through the witch's black magic as a kind of bewitching golem/ghost combination). If that melange of answers seems a vague nebula, remember that Hill and Hellman were coming in for the second half of a project begun by Corman as a straight Poe-ish Gothic and, rather than unifying and completing/circumscribing it with Coppola's witch hypnotist revenge folk tale, brought it farther out into the murky depths, wherein fantasy, reality, love, and dehydration-spurred hallucinating become inseparable, the relentless ocean tide whiplash a mirror to eternity's corrosive caress.

Part of the weird sway THE TERROR has on classic horror fans such as myself is that it never seems to tell the same story twice so it can be rewatched endlessly. In order to understand how and why you just have to dial your focus out and consider the film's post-release history (the differing hands at the helm being just one of many aspects). As a title that's long been lapsed into public domain, it has been aired, screened, and sold constantly. It's appeared on diegetic drive-in screens in TARGETS and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD; it's been on $5 video tapes sold on dirty sidewalks and down in record store basements; it's in nearly every budget classic horror collection (the 100 for $10 variety) on the market, next to THE DEVIL BAT and WHITE ZOMBIE. And since there's no quality control, the film often appears edited on TV, duped to blurry streaks, with out-of-order (or missing) reels, faded color, cheap VHS tracking issues (carried over onto cheap DVD burns), scenes cut and added from different prints of different quality, etc. As a result, if you're a classic horror fan, you've seen THE TERROR dozens of times, maybe never even by choice... and seldom all the way to the end without dozing, or being distracted due to its murky opaque quality.  But as the films of Jean Rollin prove, what's wrong with dozing while watching a movie? Some movies are amazing that way. Since it's been around on TV and college horror festivals forever, it's gained an amorphous ability to fade into background, not unpleasantly, as a kind of 'baseline' Gothic horror movie, as ever-present and free of narrative linearity as a white noise machine, makes it perhaps the benchmark for what we fantasy and horror fans call dream logic. Because it's so atmospheric, and fun on so many levels--especially considering Nicholson is so young and sometimes confused--it's endlessly re-watchable even if you're not really watching. You can fall asleep to it real easily, and dream your way right into its unconscious landscape.

Young Jack with then-wife Sandra Knight - THE TERROR;
Middle Jack with Maria Schneider - THE PASSENGER

This has helped in making the film 'great' in the sense that you can watch it a dozen times and never understand it or have any idea you've seen it before, and it never gets boring (or exciting), making it a great gateway into the work of dream logic extremists like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. And if you're a filmmaker of any caliber, TERROR is a call to just grab a camera and go. It's a prime example of how our mind fills supernatural landscape gaps, and how our unconscious savors the randomness our conscious minds resist. From the loftiest Kubrick enigmas to the accidental Brecht of half-listening as your child babbles at you about a film they saw in school while you half watch TV commercials with the sound muted, until they blur together, it all is just a mirror by which one may gaze at the Medusa of one's unconscious mind, a gorgon that, if faced directly, as in a bad acid trip, will turn you to stone, or a babbling schizophrenic.

Hellman finds the third route, neither right nor left but purple; not forwards nor backwards but bird. A viewer can become totally lost in between logical narrative and the placeless locus where dreams cohere and dissolve into a cloud of slow-mo exploding books lapping into seahorses, or a Napoleonic officer separated from his regiment winding up on the coast of Northern California without ever even seeing a boat.

Karloff, making three movies at once just by standing there

And all that is my way of defending the loopy narrative of THE TERROR. I now know, watching it on Blu-ray, trying to understand the plot, that it's the daughter of Isla being hypnotized into seducing her father to kill himself by posing as her own mother, whom he killed 20 years ago... did I get that right?... Erik posed as the count after killing him in an effort to assuage his remorse? And she's actually a ghost because... he killed her too, as she and the count were having an affair? I mean, Erik?And the witch is the girl's mother who brought her spirit back from its hawk habitat to wreak revenge or is she Erick's mother? Is young Jack like one of those smitten lovers who winds up alone as his vampire lover vanishes in the waves at the end of a typical Jean Rollin vampire movie? (or LaRuocco in THE LACAN HOUR?) Supposedly Sandra Knight's Helene isn't really 'Isla, the Ghost of the Baroness von Leppe' but Eirk's real daughter (or wife) whom he tried to kill and so an old witch keeps her around... hypnotizing her? But who is Karloff, then? The servant or the Baron? Substitute a dotty old handyman for the witch, and that's the plot of the similarly elegiac Monogram Lugosi film THE INVISIBLE GHOST (1941), another PD title we all saw constantly on TV back in the 70s and which made no sense at all for kids too young for 'nightmare logic' or Jungian archetypal psychology. But since we didn't understand a thing, in a way, we understood perfectly. The arcane occult coded language of adults was something we had to take on faith would make sense to us eventually, for now we just soaked it up and waited for monsters, if any. Sometimes we came home empty-handed. For GHOST, the best we got was Lugosi killing people by putting his coat over their heads while they slept. Sometimes Lugosi was enough for us all by himself, but not this time. The one thing that registered: how sad it was to see him eating by himself, talking to an empty chair. And meanwhile it never occurs to him the ghost outside might really be his wife, not dead after all.

One guilty patriarch's mad wife in the attic is another's ghost on the lawn

So, yeah, there's a lot of the same contradictions and cross-current enigmas in THE TERROR, but such things make semiotically inquisitive post/modernists like Monte Hellman come alive. And the final cumulative impression of THE TERROR, when you finally do see the whole film, after all these centuries, on remastered Blu-ray, sober as a judge and mature from all your Antonioni and Bergman Criterion discs, is that it's a weird bittersweet reverie on death, memory and how film disintegrates when washed in a salt water flood tide lapping up against moldy stone.


Because in the end there is no right answer to what's really going on or who these people are, and that's the Hellman difference. Hellman is cool with it, he knows how to work enigmas. Every thread doubles back on itself, refusing to pick a side, until the strange and haunting ending, where it's just yet another beautiful girl's youth and beauty slowly peeling away in the tide to reveal eternity's twisted waxwork skull as the soul flies free as a predatory bird in the SEVENTH SEAL dawn. When all is revealed as melting clay returning to the sandy foam of the Pacific, then the world will be seen as it really is, not meaningless but so packed to overflowing with meanings and counter-meanings and alternative deconstructions and author intents and last minute story changes that all meanings are there at once, exposed on the forked rocks.

Ironic then that it had to be pulled from the sludge, cleaned up and digitized before we could savor its analog tactility.


If "Monte Hellman's THE TERROR" still doesn't resonate with a profound metatextual dimension, consider its ambiguous 'collapse of identity' aspect as not accidental, but as creating an ancestry, a back story, for Hellman's acclaimed existential western THE SHOOTING (1966). It was Hellman's first western, and he filmed it back-to-back for Corman (but without Corman's influence or presence), with the more recognizably 'genre-specific' RIDE THE WHIRLWIND, out in the Utah desert. With colors recently remastered for the Criterion Blu-ray, under the eye of Hellman himself, the two films look better than they probably ever have, even on drive-in screens (where they were created to be, as a cowboy double feature). They were the first films Hellman had made in the States since working on THE TERROR (he made two films, also starring Jack Nicholson, in the Philippines). Warren Oates stars as a bounty hunter recruited by an enigmatic young woman (Millie Perkins) to find his brother who supposedly ran over a kid back in town; their journey takes us from nowhere to farther out into the desert wasteland, until all is abstract, and the only constant is death by dehydration or the gun Jack Nicholson a hostile young turk in black who's clearly along to kill Oates' brother, maybe. He's not saying and there's never any connection between Oates and the girl. Oates agrees to handle it, but does she think he did it? Did he and just has amnesia?  Is he really going to let her kill his brother or try to talk her out of it en route? Or does she plan to kill him deep in the wasteland where no witnesses but vultures can see?

She stays a mystery. In this it especially echoes THE TERROR in the way the characters seem adrift somewhere between life and death, outside the normal confines of civilization and its consensual notion of reality. It starts in a recognizable location, a mine, with a tent nearby, but there's never any 'town' with a sheriff, nor bar fight, nor whore house (that we see). There is only alien primordial terrain, characters hoping their forward movement will mask their amnesia. Like Karloff's character in THE TERROR, Oates here may be finding his brother for the alleged crime or he may actually be the guilty one and can't remember, or won't tell us, and one regularly wonders if even he knows the difference. Meanwhile he's threatened by young punk Jack Nicholson, who is clearly enamored of the unknowable 'woman' to the point of murder.

It's this terrain-based amnesia that makes THE TERROR and THE SHOOTING readable as parts one and two of a very strange textural existential genre meltdown Hellman trilogy (along with 1971's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP), a strange mirror to Antonioni's trilogy of BLOW-UP (1966), ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) and--also with Nicholson--THE PASSENGER (1975). In TERROR,  the plot twists are layered back on themselves, then unwound back to separate fibers as if time's moving diagonally backwards; THE SHOOTING's movement is outwards, never back, never up or down, just out into the white blankness of the desert, until its far too late to turn around (or reach any outpost civilization); TWO-LANE BLACKTOP by contrast manages to keep in almost constant motion along America's back roads and highways without going farther than a few inches inward or outward. A marked step up in art house complexity from THE SHOOTING (which was itself a step up from TERROR), in TWO-LANE Warren Oates is back, as a GTO driver who sees each new hitchhiker as a chance to change his backstory. The plot hinges on a weird friendship / cross country race between GTO (as Oates is called in the credits) and the "Driver" (James Taylor) and "Mechanic" (Dennis Wilson). They have no backstory at all, but when the dust finally settles on 70s cinema, it will be TWO-LANE BLACKTOP that wins the pink slip. All else is vanity. (See Stillness in Motion: CALIFORNIA SPLIT / TWO-LANE BLACKTOP).

Mystery thy Name/less Woman

Sandra Knight ("Helene / Isla The Baroness Von Leppe")  - THE TERROR (1963)
Millie Perkins ("Woman") - THE SHOOTING (1966)
Laurie Bird ("the Girl") - TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)

Again as in THE SHOOTING and TERROR, the enigmatic multiple readings confound but intrigue. This time we wonder whether Hellman's love of open-ended existential landscape wanderer identity-collapse was fueled maybe by Antonioni's 60s films, or was there the need to situate Corman's low budget 'shoot first make sense later' raw material in some kind of framework, and nothing lets you cut corners like being 'enigmatic'? When you're falling, dive! Did Julian Schnabel break a dish by accident, and decide to use it in a painting, or did he break the dish on purpose? Answer: Crash!

Either way, a style is born.

"The Patients and the Doctors" (detail - c. Julian Schnabel)

By the end of Hellman's trilogy, we know for sure that he's finally reached the 'break with breaking' point as TWO-LANE BLACKTOP runs into an abrupt and final apocalyptic projector jam celluloid burn (which one day, far in the future, will mean nothing to audiences who've never even seen a film projector, but for whom this movie glows as if brand new), the ultimate fusion of experimental, narrative, pop culture, and metatextual Mecha-Medusa media formatting.

But it's been a long road to that apotheosis along those two fronts, the meta one being a result of the first two films enduring decades of public domain (or in SHOOTING's case, pirated) dupes, and BLACKTOP encountering legal troubles due to lapsed royalties on a Doors song heard for less than a minute, mirroring the decomposition and erosion of Helene's face (or rather, Corman's drizzling carmel syrup on Knight's face to save money on make-up effects) mirroring the billion year-old erosion of the stones in the Utah desert and its scorching emptiness in THE SHOOTING, which mirrors the vacant highways of BLACKTOP, mirroring ever more blurry and washed-out duping, now recently replaced by gorgeous remastered Blu-ray. The vistas in THE SHOOTING are now staggering, dwarfing the people traveling through them while mirroring their actions in the way the stars predict our fates and vice versa.

THE SHOOTING: In nice remastered form
that old Madacy dupe

I remember seeing the shitty SHOOTING Madacy disc awhile ago and imagining how great it would look if ever seen in the proper formatting and with colors restored instead of the muddy muffled blur it was on that crappy disc (Madacy may you die a thousand deaths). But now that this has been done and I have both THE TERROR and SHOOTING Blu-rays, I can't help but feel they miss something that those blurrier 4:3 crops had, and what they miss is the protective fog, the boozy cushion of crumbling, outmoded non-digital reproduction, the protection from real life offered by the abstracting bath of video to video to video-to-video, that oceanic whip of disintegration, the law of the universe of everything disintegrating into chaos until all is white as snow and wan and gone...

From HD to PD: THE TERROR (1963)

If I had the artsy time, I would edit a 'dissolution edition' of THE TERROR into a cohesive 'unfinalized' cut. I'd make an edit that starts for the first half hour or so with the new widescreen HD remaster, then devolves to the widescreen new DVD, then the old shitty PD dupe, and my copy of that old PD dupe, and so on down the ladder of quality and formatting... until it's as impossible to see as those old dupes of dupes that Max and I made in college, while drunk, from our two connected VCRs and then never watched, and eventually threw away. I think, then, it would all make sense, kind of like Bill Morrison's DECASIA, but in reverse:

What initially appears to simply be a surface effect that is not a feature of this world rapidly begins to suggest otherwise: that the decay we see twisting faces, burning bodies, and cutting holes in the world is not just the effect of time on nitrate film stock, but rather an inherent feature of the world itself rupturing the imaginary divide between then and now. The ravages of time apparent on this film are also the decay inherent in the world it depicts, and a part of the world that produced these images." - Michael Betancourt [Dread Mechanics: The Sublime Terror of Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) - Bright Lights 1/14/15)
In other words, as media moves forward into clarity of HD, the past moves into a murk, the dissolving coherence of the image mirroring in nitrate clouds Hellman's vanishing point ambiguity. I'd add that the Blu-ray of DECASIA itself might be factored into this. Very old celluloid after all decays in very trippy ways which on Blu-ray are impossibly beautiful, abstract in ways no lifetime spent learning After Effects or Final Cut could match. The compromise of the media formats of lesser quality in the century between the nitrate of the '10s and the Blu-ray of the our new '10s aren't as aesthetically gratifying: streaky, not aesthetically pleasing or artsy in the DECASIA sense. In fact there's just such a video! VHS GeneraTion LOss! It has its own weird poetry...this is my generation!!

But even that stays incomplete.
The eternal flow will never dry,
but drip Knight flesh-like,
clips from the drive-in TERROR
 intertextually screened there
by Peter Bogdanovich
during the Aurora-esque 

And THE TERROR's exquisite cadaver
refracts ever further from its border.
There's no melting Baroness can end
Post-Modernism's funhouse lathered mirror runoff.
Only Orlok /Karloff, stepping down
from limo seat and screen to
cane crazy Bobby, stalls the carnage.

Even then, no end,
any more than an ever-forking 
hydra capillary river
which--even dried to the flapping whirling played-out reel
and the white block of screen mean an end to all film.
Flooded to the gyre-circled cliff's stark edge,
it never unspools in full,
even breaking the apparatus
only makes a broken apparatus po-mo sculpture display,

destined to run long past it original length, permuting
past its 20s gallery opening, its wrong bent
long since
ceased to shock
and now just boring art history freshmen,
one of interminably endless screened

And still its taloned hawk truth
affixes anima anchor barnacles
to the Big Sur Prometheus, stuck deep into crack.
Hear the groaning and sloshing of the seagull tides
up his old crevasses, and through his cavern eyes?
How twisted deep the bloody shadow path
between his glossy, mossy rocks?
His liver,
like the liquor,
is gone
but still post-modernism's waves
lap / screech on.

 Rewarding only stereogram-staring patience:
the perfect meditation-intent-determination-entheogen-paranoia combination
the perfect showtime...
one night a decade.
Oh Young and Saucy One,
Oncle Promethesarus,
here comes the Orlocked projector...

free yourself with fire, white dupe!
BLAM... "Blam"

You are forgiven
in advance
for living past
the living past.
Whatever you are or aren't,
not while one spare bulb somewhere
in this cold closet waits,
unpecked, unlaid,
for thy cold lens' threading glow--like crows
staving for the gore
of Prometheus' greatness--
there is no end
to decay's grand show.

You are for.....given


  1. Did you ever see Report To The Commissioner? With Michael Morality, stumbling around the space ship air port that is 70's New York? That was a movie that I always caught in the local programming fill in a blank spot times when I was in high school. Come home late, wired on vivarin and beer and weed, and report to the Commissioner would be on, always a copy of a copy, and always in the middle. Like a signal. There was a long scene of a legless guy on a wheelie board going frantically through the sidewalks of Manhattan, Richard Gere has a small part as a foppish pimp, Morality is a psychotic cop who does everything wrong. There is an undercover police woman. That and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Both of those were gritty video duped copies that came to me in scenes and circles and I often thought were the same movie. Loud commercials were cut in with no sense of act structure. Both of them were just bleak, from the first frame you saw they were bleak. No one started some place and ended up dead, they were dead before the camera started rolling, with no Noir Hero sacrifice or divine justice or even lessons learned. I love those kinds of movies. Those are the kinds of movies where I say to myself, yeah, I'm doing alright now, nothing to fret over, and then they come into some corner of my mind like an alcohol demon, cold, scooting across my brain pan with blocks in their hands, hitting every bump. The kind of movie that plays like the kind of dream you remember screaming out in your sleep from, because you wanted to wake up the other players before the bleak catches them.

    1. Yeah! Now you're talkin'!. That was very inspired, Johnny. I'm going to have to unearth it. I have seen Eddie Coyle or most of that, but I think that's Boston, no?

    2. Yeah, definitely Boston, but same time frame, and I don't think Boston was doing much better than New York at the time. Something about the degradation of the tape - and that ambient street sound that was in vogue then, made me think that was what the Great American Cities would actually look like when I visited them as an adult. Another thing, the Fill A Hole movies that would come on during the afternoon or overnight, if a scheduled event came on, they would just stop the broadcast and cut to the "live" event, making these characters seem that much more doomed and disposable. Eddie Coyle had Robert Mitchum, so tired, as if he had survived Out Of The Past, awaiting sentencing for some lame criminal activity, Alex Rocco - an underutilized actor - Peter Boyle, I mean, seriously, wouldn't it be great if someday the faces on Mount Rushmore decayed into these men's faces? They could keep Roosevelt up there, as I think they would all get along. Killing Them Softly was by the same writer - George V Higgins - and it looks like Eddie Coyle, except there is a strong political handover going on, and Brad Pitt narrates and explains the points of view of every character in every scene, but it still works as a continuation of a theme. Except, when there is so much verbal exposition, it makes everything feel like chess piece destiny, whereas Coyle and Commissioner, it's just a bunch of people doomed to keep bumping into each other, no matter where you walk in on the movie or leave it. I hope you had a happy birthday, Erich!

    3. Sorry to come in late but I've just discovered you. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is fantastic. Criterion's blu-ray the masterstroke. Some viewers like my Mother couldn't handle the image of Mitchum as a three strikes loser but no one else could have played this down to his mastery of the accent. Richard Jordan,Mitchell Ryan and the great Peter Boyle make for perhaps the finest early 1970s neo noir of all. Completely without pity.
      I have always been partial to Report To The Commissioner. I even have two copies of Elmer Bernstein's Soundtrack.

  2. - Hey Erich, have you heard of this book? Type 42 - Fame is the Name..."? It's a curated collection of some polarooids taken of TV screens from the 60's and 70's - the time period they made Type 42 Polaroid film. Someone found these photos but has never been able to find who took them. Kind of a Darger/Meier hybrid. They are all actresses, and each one has the name of the movie, TV show, or actress written in the border. Weird fetish objectification before screen caps and the like became the norm. The book was disappointingly small. I was hoping they would blow the pics up, but they didn't, but they are still weirdly great. Cindy Sherman wrote the forward. Worth looking into, just to see how normal you are I guess. Great images. Many from Star Trek and U.F.O.


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