Tuesday, April 28, 2015


As I've written in the past, 1933 was a magical year for movies, and America: it saw the election of FDR, the repeal of prohibition, and 'ahem' the rise of Hitler into power (that last part, not so magical but the war effort did lift us out of the Great Depression). At any rate -- change was afoot, probably akin to our modern years of Obama, legalization of marijuana, and gay marriage. Or worse, or better. And I myself turn to old dark house movies every May or so, because they understand hay fever, the way allergies imitate the first signs of a cold and make the bright sunny day with the calla lillies in bloom again seem a jeweled scorpion, glistening shiny chitinous flowers on the outside and stinging venom within; and by contrast murky AC darkness an opium den refuge of creaking doors, whistling wind and hands coming out from secret panels behind oblivious heiresses. Maybe it's that May is on the opposite end of the year from Halloween, and as such I can see it clear across the circle. Here's five from '33, with my ratings for both film itself and, since they vary so crazily in quality, the transfers I, at least, have seen.

1933 - Dir Albert Ray
** (Retromedia DVD- *1/2)

This weird Allied Pictures cheapie is one of those castaway flicks so big in the silent and early sound era, providing as they did an excuse for (partially obscured) nude bathing, reversion to savagery, (inexpensive) beach locations and ye olde gorilla suit. The castaways always include one indignant rich lady unaccustomed to 'roughing it,' a salty sea dog, a virgin and party girl who bunk together (ala Mary Anne and Ginger) and a comic relief drunk. This time there are also stolen diamonds, and a murder that occurred aboard ship before she sank. The killer is.... right in this lifeboat. Mischa Auer lifts the proceedings from its stasis as a Ben Gunn type, stranded there so long he's started gibbering insanely to the skeletons of former cohabitants, but he's not a monster! Just because he's a crazed castaway with a thick beard is no reason to portray old Mischa as a monster on the poster (below left). He doesn't even do his gorilla impression (seen in My Man Godfrey), just beats up one of the skeletons when the communication gap proves too much. Meanwhile, his gorilla buddy works to keep the girls on edge with intermittent howling.

Of the cast, Auer is the only familiar face (to me) but that can be a good thing because everyone eventually looks like a B-movie version of someone else. Lila Lee seems like the taller, gawkier older sister of Gloria Swanson; Gwen Lee is a Mae West/Pat Kelton-ish gold digger (she gets all the best double entendre lines not that there's many). There's also Monte Blue (who got his start with D.W. Griffith) as the nominal hero; William P. Davidson as the numb nuts copper; perennial lush Arthur Housman as the drunk who's barely feign interest in how his girl (or is it his sister?) is being wooed by the square-jawed hero --I think! Needless to say, he's my favorite. Anyway it's hard to tell who's who when the tops of all the heads are cut off, either by inept camerawork or the shitty Retromedia DVD frame cropping.

Director Ray does deliver one masterful scene: the morning after the shipwreck, when the lifeboat survivors all wake up and--silently--without others noticing--begin to take stock of where they are: each remembering what happened, (or coming out of a boozy black-out) and either forging silent eye-alliances, passing notes to one another about the stolen cache, or getting scared, but quietly, wordlessly, like you might with your buddy while standing in line at a customs check with a pocket full of weed or conflict diamonds. I learned more of the plot in that one silent stretch than in all the malarkey fore and aft. Albert Ray, your silent film roots are showing!

I like too that the girls sleep in the cave on the beach and wake up to find skeletons of past castaways sitting right near them (it was too dark to see anything the night before), and I like the lurid, sexual, almost HBO-level roughie vibe when the rapey killer forces the two girls deeper into the woods at gunpoint, and that it's wild man Mischa's gorilla and the skeleton crew to the rescue, and that on his tiny island with his old age and his wisdom, he cries "Mary!" (that's his skeleton's name). And I like how Housman, the lush, slowly morphs from bleary to tipsy to hungover to competent and alert--like three different separate characters (and all without being grandstanding about it) and that he's so thrilled to be back in the presence of booze after they're rescued by a French steamer that he brings the whole tray, whiskey, seltzer bottle, ice, and all, to the inquest!  Prohibition, thou art repealed!  Hell, it was probably why they were all on that boat to begin with --the old international waters thing that led to lots and lots of three-hour tours and bootleggers hiding behind old ghost legends to keep snooping kids away from their stills...

Mischa and Mary (left)
Retromedia's Forgotten Terrors DVD is shit but hey! Hey! It's a collection of stuff you'd never find in a million years on your own, including Tangled Destinies and The 1931 Phantom! They don't look so good but then again, they're at least made available on disc. (P.S. they're also on on youtube)

1933 - Dir. Victor Halperin
*** (DVDR- ???)

"Life does continue after death," notes Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), the psychologist friend of bereaved heiress Carole Lombard. He wants to experiment on the corpse of soon-to-be-executed murderess/free spirit artist Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a kind of prototype for Catherine Trammell or Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander. Lombard wants to hear from her dead brother, and bogus medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart) can deliver! Expert at delivering the old glowing death mask /blackmail/lost loved one's voice giving banking instructions via a long horn floating in the air, he's forced to kill his drunken blackmailing landlady (Beryl Mercer) after she forgets the golden rule of blackmail: never threaten to expose a creepy fraud when you're alone in the room with him and haven't yet arranged to leave some 'in event of my death' file in your safety deposit box. What do these two threads have in common? Lombard's seance at Paul's pad seems to go as planned, ka-ching, but then she stops at Houston's office for a second opinion right as he's doing electrical experiments on the Rogan's recently-hung corpse.  In one of those left turns of coincidence she becomes possessed by the very same murderess who swore revenge on the medium (he ratted her out)! What are the odds?

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Boris Karloff played versions of the same scenario about a million times all through the late 30s and 40s, indicating America was obsessed with the electric chair, radio waves, curses, and soul transference (in that order) but this one does it first, and better, in its odd way. Sharp eyed fans will note some of the walls from Halperin's White Zombie have been reformatted for Paul's seance parlor, with one great touch: the above ground subway runs right past his apartment window, adding just the right amount of tawdriness.  It's stilted as hell, but the last third of the running time occurs over one long night as the possessed Lombard seduces Paul, her strong sculptress hands ever fighting to refrain from strangling him while they're canoodling out on her yacht. Too bad her dull boyfriend (Randolph Scott) is put-putting to the rescue. Pre-code points should be awarded for the scene when Paul cups Lombard's breast on the divan (the sleazy heat between them leaves no doubt of the film's pre-code year of release). When they sneak into Ruth Rogen's studio apartment to fool around in front of her creepy life-size self portrait, they recall Marcello and Anouk in the beginning of La Dolce Vita. I froze the projector and did two paintings off the moment they embrace (acrylic on canvas -2003), to capture a kind of post-modern ghost refractionnn-ion-nn.... And Lombard shows her true chops by morphing between possessed killer and grieving heiress with sensuous conviction.

Minus points for the sight of a big dog perennially chained in the psychic's house; I'd have liked to see him getting a nice walk or some affection. Instead he conveniently disappears, never to be seen again. I don't have the Universal Vault DVR yet, because I have a pretty solid burn from an old airing, but it's only a matter of time before it too dissolves, warps... wane, as does all matter...

1933 - Dir Kurt Neumann
** / (DVR - ****)

With its use of Swan Lake over the opening credits (also used in Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue) and the presence of Lionel Atwill, you'd think this was going to be a real pre-code Universal horror treat: Atwill stars as the father of Gloria Stuart, who's celebrating her birthday in a big cozy castle while the whistling wind howls outside in the night. What a lame party it is! Three of her suitors are the only other guests (kind of like Lucy Westenra's house, at least in the book). The creepiest part is that dad Atwill doesn't mind having these three fools fight over her right in front of him, or to have them all sleep over, and for who knows how long, etc. Again, they are his only house guests. Instead of ordering them out, Atwill tells her to "give us all a nice birthday kiss." Yeeesh

The one with the best chance at Stuart's hand, the clear winner alas, among the very sorry lot, is an older foreigner played by Paul Lukas (at his flattest); the one with no chance at all is the abashed adenoidal pup who grew up moping after her on the swings (Onslow Stevens); the third, William Janney, considers himself a mystery writer. He bunks with Lukas, even though there's like a hundred rooms in the castle and no one else stays there but servants.

These strange details are way more fascinating than the titular mystery, which involves each suitor sleeping in the cursed blue room, one by one, to prove their courage. Stevens goes first. In the morning... he's gone!

If Stuart and Atwill weren't so imbued with classic horror moxy this would be the smallest, saddest mystery film ever. The cast is utterly void of character details or anything else to talk about beyond the titular ---very predictable and inane--"secret." There are no other guests, and no other women characters aside from a maid. Thank heaven Edward Arnold shows up halfway through as the local detective; his character alone seems to have a life beyond this half-baked mystery story. The ubiquitous Robert Barrat (Babs' pimp dad in Baby Face the same year) is the butler who keeps signaling at the window in a red herring bit borrowed whole from Hound of the Baskervilles. 

Despite these quibbles, it will still be 'catnip' to Universal pre-code horror fans like me after they've already re-run the gamut (Frankenstein, Old Dark House, Black Cat, Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dracula, Invisible Man, etc.) and crave more, like a junky. Seems a bit, though, like Laemmle Jr. was scraping the old dark script barrel, and Neumann's direction is as clueless as a June bride. He seems to think the only time to ever cut a scene is when something interesting or at least atmospheric is just about to happen. At one point we literally have like a full minute of just Arnold and his cops in a bedroom looking at their watches. It's a remake of Geheimnis des blauen Zimmers from the year before, so blame the Germans!

Soon enough, they'd deserve it.

The Universal vault DVR looks great though.

1933 - Dir Irving Pichel
**3/4 (TCM airings - ***)

Seances were all the upper crust rage in the early 30s (the way Ouija was in the 70s) and while most of the mediums turned out to be phonies, there was a general consensus that ESP was scientifically proven and real mediums did exist, as in Charlie Chan on Treasure Island. Here the true psychic is mellow gamin Dorothy Wilson, who makes up in a naturalistic low key sincerity what she lacks in dramatic range. Her trances tell her nearly everything but even when evidence comes fast and furious the cops don't believe her and consider it a favor not busting her as a phony just because her ruthless swindler of a father (Dudley Digges) refuses to refund three bucks to bunco squad undercover man Stu Erwin. Old Stu takes a shine to Wilson, though, and call me crazy (I dislike Erwin on principle) but the two have a cutely abashed chemistry, with Erwin's cop authority helping to offset his patented aww-shucks everyman awkwardness. He might not have been able to stand the strain of Peggy Hopkins Joyce in International House, and he might make Jackie Oakie seem like Arthur Kennedy but he's at least adequate to the task of breaking down a wall and slugging it out on steep stairs with the murderer, and he's not getting sick. Maybe it's that they're both a little anemic, lost artistic souls in a world of crass profiteers and sneering killers.

The plot is the old Bat Whispers bit with hidden loot in an old spooky mansion and assorted seekers posing as heirs or one another and all that. Here an old dying gangster tells the Viennese Dr. Cornelius where he hid his stolen million in the old lady's house. Soon the old lady is menaced by a floating death mask and draggy second floor footsteps. Her old maid/widow/sister/whatever (the pair have a lesbian vibe ala Cries and [or BatWhispers) winds up tighter than a clam about what she may or may not know so that she won't be next.

I love Irving Pichel as an actor--that otherworldly deep voice really sends me--but his direction here (and in 1935's She) lacks momentum and mood. The bland lighting is a long way from the stark expressionist intensity of the Bat Whispers, for example. Warner Oland is magnificent as Dr. Cornelius though, so almost makes up the difference. His owlish spectacles alight with thoughts of "walking off the loot," he's intoxicated with mischief, trying a wild array of approaches to getting the money out of the old lady to the point we can't tell if he's evil or just a shrink playing a guy able to confess he's evil in order to get the money from the old lady and give it up to the authorities. His advanced level head games remind me of my own strategies in my daily job, i.e. if you want to make your patients (or students) open up to you, act crazier than they are. The problem is, eventually you become crazier then they are; I saw it all the time at Bellevue! We know Oland's a great, fun actor, but this is a whole new side of him, seemingly drunk and alight with mischief behind owlish spectacles. And who would imagine old Daddy Digges could suddenly turn so grave and evil, even bullying, to his daughter? It's a spooky sudden transformation from a flim-flammer with a cute daughter in tow (ala Fields in Poppy) to an obsessed monster (ala Mason in Bigger than Life), letting us know Digges had a range larger than his usual alcoholic colonialist trader (or traitor). With better lighting and/or a stronger comic hero, Dawn might have been a classic. At least there's a great dark secret passage climactic stretch down super cool secret stairs to a giant round abyss! Don't quite before the miracle! 

1933 - Dir Ray Enright
*** (Alpha DVR - *)

Just when you thought blurry old Alpha couldn't get worse in their handling of these old independent clunkers, they switch to DVR greymarket format, with blurry color Xerox labels and tracking streaks on the bottom of the blurry image. On the other hand, at least they still put out, making them the old whore of hoary old dark house house preservers.

More important is that, for all its blur, Tomorrow at Seven is worth the trouble: Director Enright surprises with some very modern camera moves, especially in the killer POV opening murder. And there's colorfully hipster druggy inference in the banter between two bumbling Chicago detectives (Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins) is rife with slang-filled pre-code discourse (relating how they got some tips on mysterious villain 'The Black Ace' they mention cutting lines of gold dust for the nostrils of some initially clammed up twist). Whether it's real slang of the period or not, it's quite vivid! When the imperiled (sentenced to die "tomorrow at seven") rich old duffer Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson) admits can't understand a word they say, McHugh tells Jenkins: "these guys don't understand these technical toims." They're all part of a houseful of suspects that have taken Drake's private plane down to his Louisiana mansion to hide out. But of course they're playing right into the Black Ace's hands! If it sounds awfully similar in plot to The Bat and/or The Gorilla, so what? Just dig the surreally mismatched rear projections on the train where Vivienne Osborne (the maniac killer in Supernatural - above) meets Chester Morris early in the film and the strange plane crash.

On the other hand. Jenkins and McHugh must have been hitting the gold dust en route because their comedic sense gets broader and dumber with each passing page of dialogue. When they're reading the identity of the Ace all slow from a message found in a dead man's pocket, the lights go out before they can finish. When the lights. come back on there's no letter, of course this pair of cops are so dumb they start reading anyway... yikes. Oh well. If only they could have read faster or learned to hold onto evidence when the lights go suddenly out, the movie would be over.

Still, we didn't come down this way for originality but to savor the gravediggers of '33. So when Charles "Ming" Middleton shows up as a mysterious coroner we're happy he's there. We also get Virginia Howell as a creepy mute housekeeper (she keeps giving the cops the finger 'in sign language'), and a hulking, genuinely menacing (rare in these fiilms) African-American butler-henchman (Gus Robinson --his only credited role). So give up waiting for a better version, and just make sure to watch it on the crappiest, smallest TV you can find so you can pretend it's four AM and 1975 and you're pulling it down out of the ether on your UHF rabbit ears... gold dusted stew insomniac that you are.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


My last virtual TCM schedule was such an excess they said add another - and I never say no to a menage-a-trois, I just run home to call my sponsor. Or hide in the movies, and no movie hides you better than the three-plus hour opening film chosen here. Which Criterion should release on DVD, but they don't. They haven't. And it's not nor are the other two on DVD at least in North America, not even DVR, and yet all are essential! Let us not forget these brothers in the shadows of the shadows. Alongside my 2012 entry, advocating John Huston's FREUD (1962), Howard Hawks' CEILING ZERO (1936), and two films that have since come out on DVD-R, COBRA WOMAN and DISHONORED.  here she is, my Friday Night Guest Programmer fantasy. May they all come soon, so i can turn over and find a new delusion.

1973 - dir. Jean Eustache

I haven't seen it since it screened at Lincoln Center back in 1999, but even at 31/2 hours and in grainy black and white it stuck in the hearts, minds, and nostrils of a theater full of foul bourgeoisie; it was pretty great, hilarious, touching, and helped break me up with my then-wife by convincing her I wanted a menage a trois with my hot blonde friend from AA, even though I didn't (just wanted to sip the JVS well of masochistic sexual tension) And so denied it, and made her think she was crazy and didn't even hook up with said AA girl after my wife left (the first time). You think I should have gone for it? It's pointless to regret it now! But I will praise this film to high heaven for its effect on my marriage- it delivered me from still waters. And not just because it made me feel all artsy (since I was covering it on my first-ever critic job) before I even knew who the bourgeois were, but because my first long-term post-marital affair was with a beautiful married Frenchwoman who'd come by my place after work for cinq a sept and bring me bonbons and coffees. As for the film itself, it was 13 years ago I saw it but I know I laughed at least once and only had to move three times to different sections of the theater to get away from bourgeois eaters with their clickety dentures, cheeses, and whispering nannies (this was right before the dawn of cell phones, thank god). Luckily the packed Walter Reade was almost empty by the time the film was over. Even cheese-eating bouregoisie have to get up and read their New York Times on the way 3 train in the morning. But not me. I took the 6, to the C, to the G!

Maybe it's so relatively unknown here because Eustache (left) killed himself shortly after completing it, and his only other credits were some slaughterhouse documentaries, so we don't have a pop culture icon face to go with him like we do for Truffaut or Godard, nor a vast oeuvre like we have for Rohmer, but he belongs in their ranks, for this film encompasses in spots all three of their styles: Rohmer's real time naturalistic three-way, Godard's May 68 brick-throwing and 'pop-bang-wiz!' And Truffaut's Jean Pierre Leaud, impossibly young despite Gauloises. And like all three: obsessed with sex, impotence, class-consciousness, and the kind egocentric humanism only the French can make work.

Leaud stars as Alexandre, a Parisian slacker who's still trading on his high profile in the riots of May 68, and keeping an "open" relationship with live-in girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont). A sexy nurse comes along named Veronika (Francois Lebrun),  even more liberated than either of them. The three of them later try to make it as a menage a trois, but mostly they talk, drink, smoke, look good and play endless records on a cheap turntable on the floor, and 215 minutes of running time goes by faster than any five minutes of Last Year at Marienbad. Isabelle Weingarten is Alex's bemused ex, and Jacques Renard Alexandre's his male chum. The English subtitles were the dirtiest things I'd ever seen... up to that time.

1941 - Dir Robert Florey

(POSTSCRIPT: This is showing on TCM - June 20, 2015 -1 AM -EST)

Here’s a classic rarity that used to be shown a lot on UHF TV in the 1970s. If you love weird classic film then you too probably remember the first time you saw and heard Peter Lorre as a kid, it's like he reached across time and the TV with that velvet Siamese purr and starts whispering in your ear with the immediacy of your own wild kid dreams. Rarely did this great actor have a chance to star totally in a film – even as Mr. Moto he had to share to bulk of the screen time with bumbling comic relief, smugglers, and straight-arrow couples meeting cute, so to speak. But for director Robert (BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, MURDER IN THE RUE MORGUE) Florey and a budget of about eight bucks, Lorre gives it his all. Every scene no matter how paltry the set or set-up has a moody jet black pathos that as a kid really resonated with me, and still does.

It’s the classic rise and fall crime story, but the twist is that Lorre starts out just an idealist immigrant excited to seek his fortune through hard work in his new home, New York City. A great early scene is where Lorre's naive friendliness wins over an Irish cop, his immigrant joy as infectious as a dose of Capra concentrate. Instead, his first night in a hotel, he’s horribly burned in a fire and has to wear a thin mask over his face, otherwise he scares and horrifies everyone on the street. The make-up of the mask is ingenious, with Lorre’s face seeming just a little latex stretched over his skin, bunched up at the sides and Lorre's acting so good that in its inexpressiveness his face still says volumes. The deep philosophical and reflexive aspects of this situation seem unlost on either director or actor, who throw away almost everything extraneous, and deliver agonizingly humanistic pathos (with a great turn by George E. Stone as the Ratzo Rizzo type who befriends the shunned pre-mask Lorre). Even with blind girl Evelyn Keyes' love offering a doomed shot at redemption, it's never corny or mawkish (leaving even that Capra concentrate in the dust). Instead, Florey and Lorre take the same low budget of a Sam Katzman or William Beaudine Monogram and turns it into raw poetry, a cross between Sam Fuller punch-and-pathos pulp, Edgar Ulmer dimestore fatalism, and Nicholas Ray underdog dissolution, with Lorre dressed all in black with his hooded eyes, while with the sunny cheerful Keyes he's like Frankenstein by the lake with the girl, or a Bauhaus Weimar Caligari in the suburbs.

And it’s the best Lorre movie. Ever. He makes the most of it. Thanks to his velvety feline vocal delivery and his own weird real life looks keeping him from ever ‘getting the girl’ in films, no matter how many he’s in, Lorre’s scarred ugliness in MASK seems like the next logical extension. Like with Fuller and Ray it's a cinema of polar extremes, the warm moments have value because we know they're doomed, we know the despair of rejection and the joy of finding a friend, someone just as down as you are, but not out. As a kid I saw this movie a dozen times and loved it and yet feared it because it’s kind of a downer, as was another frequent local TV horror movie feature, THE BRUTE MAN, starring real life acromegaly sufferer way cooler because Rondo, God love him, was never much of an actor. It was where I first saw Lorre, as a young child when we got up so early for Saturday cartoons we'd see the second half of the late-late horror movies on local TV. There he was, this little guy with a weird face, tied to an airplane in the middle of the desert, ruefully welcoming the end. It's one of my most vivid and mysterious childhood memories. It's the perfect kid movie because it's all about the importance of being good to the little guy, the ugly kid, the lost immigrant, and raining comeuppance on those who are mean to you.  It's just not something kids would ever see today, anymore, alas, in the age of cable and Netflix. Their loss, just as MASK's digital unavailability is ours.

1983 - Dir Allan Arkush 

One of the greatest crimes of the digital era is the total unavailability of this midnight cult show classic, set during one long crazy New Years Eve at a kind of Fillmore, in a kind of 'everyone shows up to pay their respects to this imperiled classic venue' kind of setting. Allen Garfield is a kind of Bill Graham named Max Wolf, who's ailing and needs a fix of success. Lou Reed is a mercurial recluse rock god who's apartment evokes Dylan's "Bringing it all Back Home" record cover. He sings his "Baby Sister" over the credits, to a transfixed few after driving in a cab all night jamming out and uttering cryptic nonsense.

There's a Muddy Waters-ish blues legend named King Blues (Bill Henderson) who delivers one of the best badass eulogies in the history of funerals and later sings "Mannish Boy" a theme that echoes through the set lists of subsequent performers, like Mick Jagger-Bowie-Jim Morrison lizard king-ish icon Reggie Wanker, played so brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell you want to follow him into the Caligula dawn of drug-fueled moments of transcendental pagan abandon, the wild fury of the mosh pit, and onwards. There's a great Piggy Op-ish animal (Lee Ving) who urges people (including Paul Bartel) to dive off the balcony; a scabby punk rock poetess ala Patti Smith amidst a Runaways style scab band (above); a flooded bathroom with a shark swimming around it; a giant hypodermic; Daniel Stern pausing to inhale some smoke from a $1 hookah hit-sellin' Rastafarian in one of the stalls; a Satanic pimp alien coke dealer shows up when anyone says the magic word; magical LSD winds up in the water cooler; there's a crowd-surfing refrigerator; acid rock hippy freaks and twitchy punks grooving side by side; an uptight fire inspector, and that's just the tip of Malcolm's talking penis. "It's the beginning / of a new age" he notes - and as acid flashback sensory signals turn our saliva electric tangy, we believe him.  Now for gods' sake, solve the dumb licensing issues or whatever's holding this back and let it loose. Ding Dong! The wicked keg is dead!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inescapably Her Iron Age Druid Bog Mummy Telekinetic Alcoholic Hottie Self: THE ETERNAL (1998)

Ireland - birthplace of literary horror and unrepentant alcoholism - full of murky bogs and steamy moors; dark pubs and hellfire-haired hotties predisposed to take a nip or a dip into the tannin-rich peat to preserve their sunken shrouded shamaness bodies across the sodden centuries. And then there's horror author Bram Stoker, Irish as the day is blurred. Some speculate he contracted a horrifying venereal disease while in a London brothel and it perhaps left him equating sex with death and personifications of archetypal malice incarnating in irresistibly charming high-end ladies. And he also did a mummy story, adapted by Hammer in 1972 as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, called "Jewel of the Seven Stars." Director Michael Almereyda used it too as uncredited source material for The Eternal (1998) and it's a similarly fascinating and classic horror film reference-enriched follow-up to hip downtown NYC vampire movie Nadja (1994). The Eternal is an unfortunately generic title for a film that's anything but. Using his fascination with contrasting media formats (Nadja made noted use of a Fischer-Price Pixelvison camera) to depict various incarnations of his druid mummy and her long brown haired hottie lineage, Almereyda unspools an unusual, atmospheric alcohol-enriched saga helped no end by Alison Elliott as both a bog mummy druid priestess and a hipster alcoholic mother prone to seizures.

There may not be any of Stoker's phrenological acumen in Almeryeda's bag of cool tricks, but there are unique and oblique references to horror movie classics stretching from Caligari to Ulmer's Black Cat to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and even Luis Fulci's Manhattan Baby, all shellacked in a Bava-by-Freund glaze. Jared Harris stars as Jim with Alison Eliott as Nora, and they make a very believable and interesting pair of hard drinking but still fun parents Jim and Nora, the latter who is prone--especially lately--to passing out even while climbing stairs. Nora's NYC doctor notes her problems aren't going to get better until she stops drinking altogether. She doesn't like to hear that, so figures a trip to the ancestral homestead, which she fled, under a cloud, before meeting Jim, will do the trick. "You're going to Ireland to dry out?" The doctor replies, bewildered. (He obviously never saw the 1934 Columbia voodoo movie Black Moon or he'd know that ignoring the call of an ancestral homestead results in far worse than blackouts). Irregardless of the illogic, the family heads off to a Baskerville-esque mansion in the moors ("When they got there it was raining, or was about to rain, or had just rained" intones the Irish girl narrator). Of course they stop at a local pub for a pint on the way, and one pint turns to many many many pints and then to a fight and then a crashed car. "Good thing we're not alcoholics" Jim (Harris) says  ("They'd been thrown out of pubs all over the world" the girl narrator says). Soon everyone is either declining a drink with a nervous twitch, accepting one with a sidelong glance, sneaking one or lurching merrily from its effect, which may include 16mm or super 8mm flashbacks of pretty women along Nora's matriarchal line, a line that stretches down into the Iron Age peat moss, before there was even silver nitrate stock to burn it out. Especially welcoming is Christopher Walken as the eccentric uncle. He's recently unearthed an ancient druid, found years ago from out of the bog and kept stored down in the basement, where naturally Nora hides out to drink in peace without her progressively more buzz-killing husband noticing. As it's rinsed off, the mummy looks uncannily like Nora. Could this be why she's fainting all the time? Some ancient ancestor is using up her soul energy to reincarnate? Wouldn't be the first time.

Either way, it's fun sneaking drinks in the basement with the ever-hip Walken. He's way cooler than Andrew Keir in the Hammer version, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb.

From top: Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, The Eternal, Tomb, Eternal
Blood from the Mummy's Tomb offers a more faithful interpretation to Stoker's novel, i.e. the Egyptian version, following the same path: the ancient magical super woman who looks just like some innocent young daughter of the man who discovered her tomb (and surely was 'guided' from beyond to find her body as the stars aligned perfectly).  Super sexy in pale skin and black velvet choker, Valerie Leon remains the primary reason to see it (I've seen it at least six times). Visiting all the exhuming archeologists one by one to kill them for their pieces of the reincarnate puzzle, Leon gets to play three types: archeologist's timid daughter, homicidal swinging mod with telekinetic skills, and ruthless Egyptian queen. But in all other points, The Eternal is the Stoker mummy movie to beat and sadly Almereyda's last horror feature, so far.

The 1990s had already seen one trippy European bog mummy film, this with a male shaman with some still active 'flybane' mushrooms in his pocket reincarnated as a rabid nymphomaniacal Communist with one spoon in her lover's brain (See The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer). But the frothing at the mouth stylizations of Zulawski are hard to sink into as a genre horror film and the rote 'innocent girl possessed by an executed, entombed or defiled soul for its methodic revenge' thing of Hammer a hard rut to get out of. Almereyda mixes the two just right: there's enough druggie acumen to make it decent company next to Jarmusch and Ferrara, and enough wry nods to the classics to fit next to Freund and Lewton.  I don't have to read a Wiki to know Almereyda is a true blue classic horror film lover, for The Eternal pulses with the found value rhythms of Ulmer, the English blood and sexy thunder of Hammer, and the murk of the moody Browning. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows through in a steady bucket trickle. If you know these names, Almeyreda's Eternal is the film for you, Johnny-O. Ignore the bad RT and imdb scores. What do they know about the ancient gems, severed hands, or Iron Age moral compromises? 

Whoa - that sounded like the end of the review, but there's way more. Here's what happened: 1998 Michael Almeyreda, having had a minor critical hit in 1994 with Nadja (see my post earlier in the month), a black and white downtown NYC vampire film with lots of Portishead and cigarettes, took his winnings and doubled down on a color Irish mummy film with lots of Cat Power and whiskey. It didn't find the art house crowd it might have if he kept the black and white. Instead it went for the easy money and wound up in the cut-out bin looking more or less like everything else therein--at least from the cover. I mean look at that thing (above)! It looks like some direct-to-video Japanese softcore ghost story or hack Skinemax exorcist rip with a Waken walk-on ala The Prophecy IV instead of a druggie downtown-stylized old dark house ode to pre-code Universal and 70s Euro horrors. Well, I whipped up some real nice cover alternatives. Trimark--my gift to you:

i.e. "The Eternal Thirst" - the old booze comic Max and I did in the 80s
Here's the record collection, the wee lass, and Harris:

Debits for the ginger, their son. But he keeps his ugly haircut to the back of frame most of the time, which is just another thing Almereyda gets right. See, these parents are cool, in the old school tradition, in that they don't freak out and/or treat their kid like some precious unboiled egg in a relay race. They're partiers--they don't work (she's rich)--and they love to horse around with the kid, but the kid doesn't stop them from getting sloshed at the pub. As for returning to his hot wife's hometown and all the boyfriends she left all of a sudden-like, well, Harris is no Dustin Hoffman "pacifist" pussy but an ever-dancing freewheeling dude who's maybe a hair less charismatic than he thinks, but what drunk isn't? I admire the way Harris incorporates what is probably some dance background into his drunken twirls and rills. First thing he does to prove his mettle when the Straw Doggie skulking townie ex-boyfriend shows up is punch him, picking a fight by the juke box.

It's a great scene not least because they only stopped in there 'for a quick one' after swearing off drinking, and soon its hours later - they're tanked - and the son is falling asleep at the bar from stone boredom. Yikes! Call child services except, god bless it, this is Ireland. They just get ejected from the pub is all. "They'd been kicked out of bars all over the world" notes the yet unseen girl narrator Alice (Rachel O'Rourke), with some veiled admiration. Wait, I said all this already, didn't I? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. Come back here, laddie! I'm still talkin'...

What counts in the meantime is the groovy scenery and how Uncle Bill (Walken) has a great (as in perfect for the kind of square shit older Catholics have) LP collection (well not great, but Jim does find Joe Dolan, and they dance funkily to his one hit, "She was a Good-Lookin' Woman"). Meanwhile the girl with the disaffected expression who occasionally interjects some plot points "your mother was a witch as well," has a kind of worldly calm, she smoke cigarettes and lights one for her deranged grandma (Lois Smith).

It's all right there - in the beginning Alice is a bit like the girl in Don't Look Now (1973) and for awhile she's like Italian giallo go-to redhead moppet Nicolette Elimi with a semi-decent establishing shot matte painting ala Corman's Poe series.

One of the unique subtexts at work here is an undercurrent of pro-drunken anger - as still sick and suffering alcoholic Nora regularly has drinks taken out of her hands by Jim who says "none for us, we're quitting" and makes a big show of enjoying life without it all while nipping from a flask unseen. That kind of balderdash makes me want to retch. And I should know. The way the drinks pass her wide eyes by, or the way she works hard to seem deadpan when getting offered some whiskey down in the basement once Jim's upstairs with the ginger kid --it's the kind of stuff only drunks like myself feel keenly. How nice that there's whole films and wings of Irish literature just for us! No matter how adept his Walken impression, or grace around the dance floor, Jim's refusing drinks on Nora's behalf stings like a slap, and it's meant to. Only Eugene O'Neill really ever wrote scenes that captured the way every offered drink, every vulnerable liquor bottle, warms the alcoholic's blood like a siren call, and every 'no thanks' on their sickly behalf freezes the blood like a gut punch they're not allowed to wince from. And only Hawks and Huston ever understood it well enough to capture it (Wilder doesn't really get it in Lost Weekend); only Hawks and Huston understood how cigarettes and drinks are the currency of cool loyalty, how they bring the world into focus as well as out of it. Almereyda doesn't have time to stretch out on these branches. There's no mariachi band playing the Death Song to steady her nerves like in Rio Bravo; no agony of being denied a desperately needed drink just for 'singing lousy' like in Key Largo. No time; the sub-plot just dries out. Plus, "Why be serious? That's for people in sad countries like Poland or Africa. And anyway, the mummy catches on fire and bursts through the window and gets zapped by electric current just like Hawks' original The Thing. So add the cigarettes (Jim is constantly lighting them and sticking them in his wife's mouth; Alice does the same for the old woman, keeping one for herself) and drinks (and drink awareness) and that's Hawks enough. We don't need soberin'. We need another round. Like a hole in the head.

Other wry references: Jim offhandedly quotes Six Million Dollar Man while building a fire; crazy old bat Lois Smith's hair makes her resemble the crazy old Baroness Graps in Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill (1966), which Eternal resembles for its inter-generational war of the matriarchal sorceresses plot, and the transmigration of souls motif which also ties in with Nadja and its influences like Daughters of Darkness-ness with the dreamy beachside ending.

There's other evidence of Almereyda's artistry and laid back genius for subliminal nodding, as in the way he evokes the idea of a pharaoh's crypt by lighting the cavernous marble foyer with the kind of candle light that evokes a big archeological dig; or the subtle way the cold washrag around Nora's forehead after one of her spells mirrors the head-wrap worn by the mummy (also played by Elliott) Niamh; or how Almereyda uses super 8mm movie footage to nod to home movies for the flashbacks to Niamh's Iron Age tragedy (she let her love for a no-good man weaken her magick power) and the death of Nora's mother, (Sinead Dolan). It might have been a corny touch but Almereyda has been exploring the use of different media within film structures for awhile, as in his Hamlet's intentionally pretentious conscience-of-the-king-catching video art pieces and overwhelmed Blockbuster trips; the Fisher Price Pixelvision in Nadja.  And the grandma (Smith), the dead mom (Sinead Dolan) of Nora; the undead mummy shamaness; and the girl narrator provide a multi-generational matriarchal chain in contrasting film stocks (witnessed in Nora's head accompanying her weird flashback nose-bleeds and bird hallucinations) around which the little ginger, the local lads, and Jim are the only men and always seem a hare's breath away from being killed in a Barleycorn sacrifice. "It was the Iron Age, you had to a do lot of nasty things to get by," Walken says in reference to Nora's question about whether Niamh, her bog mummy ancestor, is good or evil. "She was uncontrollably herself." Jim meanwhile jokes around when it turns out the mattress is stuffed with dead snakes and potato-shaped stones: "The ancient druids used Mr. Potato Head as part of their rituals" he tells his owl-eyed ginger. But is the ginger really his? Straw Dogs skulking in the windows with their deux ex machina timely shots conjure wild scenarios ala 'Her Majesty's Coachmen' in Lady Eve. Then again, do they? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. These shards of Jimmy Dolan albums aren't going to just telekinetically slice into townsfolk's necks themselves!

And as for sobriety... Fuck sobriety. No one comes to Ireland to dry out and. besides, good Scotch functions as snake bite remedy. This is the dawning of the Iron Age of Aquarius, sweet ladies, goodnight. Saint Patrick can boast as he likes, Ireland always keeps serpents handy! And AA big books are by the door, if ye should be cursed with the shit liver of a mainlander. Keep comin' back, it works if you work it, and Keep Watching the Skies! 

Sinead Dolan as Nora's mom, though we never
see her outside these faded 16mm / super 8mm memories, she sure looks familiar,
until we almost miss her ourselves.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

BabaDOOK! Jennifer Kent's Psychotropic Fairy Tale

Films aren't bad just because they're familiar and use overused cliches. Think about it, mate, and you'll see great art sometimes comes in colors so familiar you want to scream in overwrought ecstasy like a glue-high teenage time-traveling John Waters in post-Disney Times Square. Soap operas are often trite, cliche'd and overwrought but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Douglas Sirk; costume dramas are often barrenly obsequious but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Jane Campion; and monster under-the-bed suburban mythopoetic fairy tales are often insufferably whimsical and Danny Elfman-scored but we can't dismiss The Babadook. A quick Sheila can take the Gorey-Addams-Grimm signifiers overused by Tim Burton and go deep into their source, the nightmare parable fore, the zone where men (and boys like Burton) dare not go (it's too close to the, um... you know what). It has to be a resourceful and courageous Shelia to go there, but if she's brave and resourceful enough she can slither her scoop down past the popcorn saltless center for the black brass kernels at the bottom of the lowest ebb nightmare bucket. Mmmm-hmmm, good on ya, Sheila! Tim Burton can't even look you in the eye now.

Such a Sheila is the newest great lady Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, and The Babadook (2014), out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, but crafts from that Gorey-Addams-Burton cloth a Shining-Repulsion (1) collapse of the consensual real. It's the story of a mom and her squirrelly son going totally bonkers--she half-crazy from lack of sleep and sexual frustration and he from prolonged anxiety about his missing father--and co-creating a poltergeist-ish manifestation of their collective unconscious energies, and if--with its magician's hat and bony fingers--the title monster can come off a little This Way the Wicked Kruger Comes Depp-ensian Dr. Caligari Cat in the Hat 'high on mercurochrome- whimsical, it still has more than enough genuine menace to make it closer to Kubrick than Disney... most of the time, anyway. 

Like our daily dreads, the pop-up book Amelia (Essie Davis) finds on the doorstep starts out Gorey-normal but soon evolves into a genuine, disturbing murderous threat, with drawings of Amelia herself, possessed, stabbing her child to death, gone as crazy as James Mason at the climax of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life. (1956), making the book half-R.L. Stine, half legitimate death threat, with pull-tabs.

It works because at the core of this archetypal mysterious ghost intruder lurks a great hybrid archetype, and unassimilated animus for mom Amelia (Essie Davis), representing her dark id/shadow wish fulfillment (to be free of her difficult brat once and for all), and a grim devouring father figure for the boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We all know this nightmare figure, so common to sleep paralysis, usually the opposite gender to us, they wait until we're almost asleep, or trying to spend a little me-time, if you know what I mean, then start thumping on doors or rattling chains, hammering away at our nerves as we try to repress your inner rage, until it breaks off and comes back in poltergeist form and your sense of reality shifts and the border between dreams and reality collapses. 

And Kent gets it--probably better than any filmmaker yet--how gigantic adults seem in the eyes small apprehensive children. I had forgotten it myself, having not been a child in quite awhile, but Kent brings it all back, to ground zero of childhood nightmares, that sense of relative smallness. Even Kubrick never quite dared deal with that monstrously large parent element. The one time Jack Torrance seemed bigger than normal he was looming over a model of the maze and neither mom nor son could see him. But Kent shows how children see themselves as normal size and adults as (relative) giants. As her mood gets blacker, Amelia gradually seems to grow to ogre-size; our perspective changes and she's shot from low angles, and her anger at Samuel morphs her (sans CGI) into some dark evil thing. 

When I was very young I used to have nightmares about my mom creeping into my room like a vampire to drink my blood. I can still remember how she moved, like she was simultaneously swimming in slow motion and moving too fast to run away from.  When I was scared in the dead of night I'd run in to her room to wake her so she could stand guard while I went to the bathroom.  This one time though, she sat up slowly and straight like a vampire rising from a coffin and moaned really low... and it was like my nightmare was coming true. I knelt in submission, buried my head in my hands and started crying and screaming, "I'm your son! I'm your son!!" 

We joked about it for years, but at the time I knew true fear. 

Is there anything worse a very young boy can imagine than his mom, his one true protector, turning evil on him? It's easy to forget you ever feared her once you get past the breakwaters of adolescence; the passage of mom from benevolent giantess to a sweet if nagging allowance-payer is a one-way street and we're glad to not have to look back. We modulate our perceptions so that we presume we've always seen from the same height, but a film like The Babadook can remind us, as good horror movies do, of all the terror we grew so hard to forget. 

As I wrote about The Shining, cabin fever is a very hard thing to study, as just showing up to study it rapidly dissipates it. One is either killed like Scatman Crothers or sucked up into the madness, as with the semi-sympathetic father whose poor brain oscillates between giggling sadism and paternal sympathy for Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Those kind of characters are so rare in horror that when they show up we take notice. Like Frederic March becoming Mr. Hyde halfway through the terrorized Miriam Hopkins' plea for help, Amelia in The Babadook or Ray's ogres in Bigger than Life and In A Lonely Place exhume that fear our source of comfort will turn on us. Having very little (adult) experience reading children's books I can't be too scared of the Babadook book in theory. But I have relied on The Thing (1951) for most of my life to save me in times of trouble, and if I put it on during one of my regular dark nights of the soul and the film had changed, if Captain Hendry was now a sadist in league with Dr. Carrington, and tortured people or something, that yawning terror of my mom sitting up in bed and moaning like some beanstalk vampire giant in the dead of night would come roaring back. Films are great in that sense, they can be edited but they can't really change, especially on DVD. 

But the Babadook terror rolls in both directions: The vulnerability and trust involved with familial love hinges on acceptance of uncanny extremes, for a mother must love even the most loathsome of creatures--the beast, the frog, the rat, the touched and wayward Richard--giving them, at the very least, a kiss, an embrace, a bottle and a place to sleep it off in, in order slowly grow them into a princeIf the mother can't provide this, the child snaps and begins to darken into something worse, trying to create for others the terror he feels as a result of his mom's ambivalence. And the mom, via the uncuttable psycho-umbilical root that connects them even past death, that root no machete or pill can sever, comes tumbling down the well after him, barking at him not to put her in the root cellar. 

(SPOILERS) But while, for example, the horrors of cloistered, sexually dysmorphic animus shadow-projectors, like Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (or Mrs. Bates in Psycho), ended their isolation with their murders and sins exposed, pinned to the patriarchy-enforced consensual reality cork board like still-twitching wasp wings (and old Jack Torrance never quite made it out of his maze), the mom in Baba passes through the Repulsion needle and out of the Overlook cabin fever, past even Ring 2's child services and suspicious neighbors, into the safe press clippings of the Taxi Driver "hero" fantasia. Developing farther in fact than any psychotropic horror character before, Amelia gets all demons safely integrated rather than merely repressed or succumbed to; she learns that madness, once harnessed, becomes genius. If you're not willing to let go of all self constructs, from surface persona right down to your twitching core, you will not not re-merge with undifferentiated consciousness. Amelia's strength as a mom lies not in Ford tough Magdalene invulnerable cloaking and burning as we might expect, but raw Aussie gumption and the power that comes when you finally get down so low, as the saying goes, you can touch off from the bottom and push yourself up to the surface like a rocket, far faster than if you were merely swimming. John Ford had the Depression, war, the harshness of the era, and drink to propel him into genius. Spielberg though, had only his childhood enduring schoolyard bully anti-Semitism, but he was saved by the power of fantasy and Ford's westerns. I've got a personal history with drugs, alcoholism, recovery, decadence, years of undiagnosed depression, spiritual enlightenments and disillusionments, W.C. Fields, Camille Paglia, and Howard Hawks. We all got something to draw on, is my point; childhood trauma informs the choice of comfort. My mom as a vampire translated to a lifetime love of Dracula.

Admittedly, the children's book / nursery rhythm gimmick, while creepy, is also overly familiar: from Edward Gorey (left) and Charles Addams-ish drawings -to everything Tim Burton ever made. But they're all usually tempered with some degree of levity. "Good fright, pleasant screams," as the creepy narrator of The Inner Sanctum radio show used to say. When the death threat implied is tempered with 'just kidding' bad pun, one misses the macabre tone of unedited nursery rhymes or Grimm's Fairy Tales, which offer little Gorey/Burton/Addams-esque macabre winkiness and lots of genuine dread, made all the more chilling by their bland, Hallmark-cheery facade. I was amused by Gorey as a child but now I look at his stuff and think he's way too disturbing for my adult sensitivity. Maybe it's that as children we know where death is, we were just there not so long ago, and so death can't suddenly surprise us. For very young children the big fear is never death--which is too abstract and far away--but of pain, and most of all being lost, separated from one's mother in a strange place, with no phone number or direction to the parking lot. For parents it's that death is suddenly far closer than what might be deemed safe. Babadook's children's book gimmick would be just cliche if not for its blunt unremitting threat, moving slowly and gingerly from playfully macabre to outright hostile, threatening, malicious, obscene even as it never strays from the psychosexual Lynchian ostrich nasal lampshade Joe Campbell crucible in order to harden into what might be a 'next stage in a woman's life" sequel to coming-of-age myths like Twilight, Maleficent, Frozen, and Snow White and the Huntsman.

"I'll make you a bet, the more you deny, the bigger I get!"

All in all, it's pretty Freudian, especially when the pop-ups begin. And the score emphasizes and distorts Amelia's disintegrating mentality; in one great scene Amelia looks for her son and you hear his calling her, muffled and echoed in the mix, making it hard to pinpoint (we're never sure if it's just a hallucination). While the kid is being terrorized, she's downstairs and the cuts back and forth exhibit a profound grasp of the way the repressed emotions and sexual frustrations of a widowed parent can spontaneously generate autonomous external threats, as in Dr. Morphius' monster "from the Id" in Forbidden Planet or (single mom) Jessica Tandy's Birds.

All told, mythically-speaking, Kent and Babadook is what Jane Campion and The Piano used to be, a female furie and her bloody offspring masterpiece, up from down under, come to wade through chthonic swamps of menstrual blood and societal taboo, dragging her son, daughter, piano, canoe, and civilization and darkest shadow id behind her, surrendering to, and then conquering, her darkest shadows as she slouches towards us. In Kent we maybe have found a female Polanski-esque Nicholas Ray to shake the "Yellow Wallpaper" madness and horror back to its primal core, the childhood fear that one day you'll wake up and your parents will be gone, leaving only their demons, their madness, addictions and dysmorphia to babysit you through your slow genetic deflowering. You can't run. You can't hide. You can only endure and stand up, unafraid, unbowed, present your warrior stance, emit your battle cry, and let unflinching courage drain your demons down to shaking junkie shadows. 

Unconditional love: no monster can survive it. And vice versa. 


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