Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Butterfly Moanin' (DUKE OF BURGUNDY and Faerie Bower Cinema)

(2014) Dir. Peter Strickland
"The sovereign being is burdened with a servitude that crushes him, and the condition of free men is deliberate servility." - Georges Batailles 
Emerging from its cocoon as a beautiful Shout Factory Blu-ray, Peter Strickland's Duke of Burgundy is a nod to the 60s erotic reveries of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, only without the vampires and knife-wielding sadists. Snaking forward in a steady hypnotic rhythm, it instead examines the BDSM head games played by a pair of lesbian lepidopterists living in a dream world where it's always autumn, men don't exist, and the Gothic architecture is ever-fecund with overgrowth. The beautiful dusky purples and oranges of the butterflies and lush Victorian interiors match the women's clothes and skin textures as they come and go along their whispered cloistered flight paths, an endless repetition wherein love may be hidden somewhere, but everything else needs a safe word. 

As a throwback to the 'Eurosleaze' genre, only without the sleaze, Duke's dreamlike mood is at once boring and fascinating, eros and thanatos inextricably linked. Like Franco's and Rollin's films, it's best seen while falling half asleep (which its slow pace is guaranteed to help with). It's less a forward marching phallic arc (and its post-orgasmic snooze) and more a repeated lullaby, or the same storybook read over and over to a child in its crib by the giant mommy goddess; the feeling of giant arms and a beaming loving face the size of a large stone idol (relative to our infant height) couple to the terror of being put down, and the lights turned off--but that terror maybe preferable to the suffocating feeling of that giant mom never putting us down at all. Wanting more of mom's love than one gets is as important as having it.

Chanting and ritual create a sense of tranquility by, amongst other things, driving the ego from the microphone of the mind by boring it into surrender. Once it realizes nobody is listening to its alarmist cries, that he's getting nothing from the crowd, like a dying comedian, he finally gives up the mic and vanishing from the room, the way a cigarette snuffs itself out once dropped in an empty bottle. For the ego to deliberately court this annihilation is the secret, spiritual core of masochism, at least on an intellectual / spiritual level! That's why spiritual warriors always accept ask for the most debasing job at the ashram, the one no one else wants. Submersion into 'group' mind, the giddy rush of rioting or delirious dance floor orgies, leads to a kind of open-hearted faith in the power of us vs. them--the trick of all effective cults. The mom's giant arms restored! 

Scarlet Empress, The

That kind of repetition is found best in the films of Josef Von Sternberg with their fetishistic veils, mirrors, and inert momentum; or the ritual hypnotism of Kenneth Anger; or--especially as its so clearly referenced in Strickland's film--the 1963 Stan Brakhage experimental minute-long Mothlight.

I'm a confirmed proponent of the masochistic gaze theory posited by Gaylyn Studlar and Steven Shaviro, so I knew what to look for in Darionioni Nuovo tremolare Strickland's Duke. That's good, otherwise I wouldn't have known my boredom was a valid artistic response. I would have just rolled my eyes and said "this sucks" like my poor girlfriend watching with me said. According to his interview in the Blu-ray extra, Pete Tombs (of Mondo Macabro fame), commissioned the film, wanting a remake of Lorna the Exorcist (a very long awaited Jess Franco title, for those who've learned to wait). Me, I've learned the only way to enjoy Franco (for me at least) is while alone at dusk, falling asleep in my easy chair as the sun sets. In all other ways, certainly as narrative, or any kind of genuine erotica, his films are not very good. But in the right half-asleep or nonjudgmental state, the alpha wave receptivity of deep relaxation or illness, they're genius.

Time and again I've found a masterpiece in the same place I found an unwatchable softcore piece of crap only days before. That place - Jess Franco. 

Here's an example: I recently screened Franco's SUCCUBUS (1967) for a bunch of half-asleep kids at a European horror film class. I hadn't realized just how sex-drenched it was until they shifted uncomfortably at their desks. They hated it. So I explained my secret to enjoying it: amnesia. 

The jet-setting European sixties swinger well knew of it, that mix of language and cultural barriers and the memory-damaging effects of booze and too many parties with too many lovers. When someone comes up to you and says hello again, you don't think they're gaslighting you, you think you were probably drunk or stoned and just don't remember them. So you play it cool, take the social cues their behavior offers, don't let them know you don't remember them, that would reflect badly on you, and alienate them. So you roll with it, trying to suss out what anecdotal facts you can.  

This can even extend to a strange woman climbing into your bed in the dead of night. Maybe she's your lover and you just forgot? Can't kick her out now - it would be so rude. After all, it's the 60s.

from Jess Franco's Succubus (1967)

Maybe we're even married! Best to play it cool and act like I know who she is, and am just playing I don't - add some meta layers on it. 

This viewing strategy ties in with the post-war modernist frisson born of French-speaking critics watching liberated Hollywood films sans dubbing or subtitles in the years immediately following the 1945 liberation, in the gap between Hollywood once again releasing films with French, German, Dutch, Italian, and probably Norwegian subtitles. Starved for film of any kind, French intellectuals made a game of not understanding anything that was going on in the plot. It allowed the critics the freedom from language's structuring of the images and sounds, leading to original conception of the phrase mise-en-scène. What is going on in a film when we can't speak its language? How does it still 'talk' to us, using imagery and sound alone?

Anyway, my Succubus exercise worked. The students imagined the character/s had amnesia and now they loved it. They 'got' it this time, the modernist frisson. That's the kind of magic Franco's (and Antonioni's) best films provide. They're meant for an international audience who needs a freedom from conventional semiotics. And within that anecdote lies the paradox of how a boring film can get better with repeat viewings, especially when your ego is shut off due to repetition or sleepiness (or drugs), or not knowing the language being spoken. We can't 'turn off' into hypnotic narrative when we don't know what's going on. We're free of the burden of interpretation, and the judgments that implies. 

That's the key to Franco, and maybe Strickland too. It's cinema aimed at the unconscious mind, the place where plots and dialogue never add up, and no one speaks in their actual voice, they're dubbed in way too many languages to ever do an 'original' language track In the end that's perhaps why Fritz Lang 'got' it, as did Welles, when most critics sneered at or ignored Franco's work, unable to see past the tawdriness and terrible dubbing. Both are valid responses, and indeed, may criss cross.

This was Europe in the 1960s-70s, the time of commercial jet travel opening all borders to well-dressed imports and varying strength X-rated inserts. Western Europe became the Capital of Amnesia and Babalon Working, a time when a producer, actor, and director may easily have no language in common other than that they all found in Antonioni's Blow-Up, and drugs and alcohol were ubiquitous and there was only one rule: don't say no to psychedelics offered at a groovy party and don't ever demand to go the ER if things get too hairy. When you can't remember how you got somewhere, or the walls are bleeding, or you wake up with a stranger in a strange bed, you can't make a big deal about it. If you freak out and go all egoically clutching for the handrails, you might end up in the sanitarium or prison; worse, you might draw attention to yourself as a square, a tourist, a rube, a wally, and get everyone arrested.

That's the one rule: if things get weird you can't wimp out. There is no safe word in swinging 1967. Ride the snake. And as the mannequins assemble for the sacrifice, presume that your unbridled arrogance will convince them that you're not the designated victim.

And masochistic cinema is really about that very same modernist frisson, the enslavement to the Other that finds true fulfillment only in dreams.

Dreams that they know will end.

For fans of Franco, or Von Sternberg's Dietrich films, the repetition is what cements the film into a favorite. Seen the first time it may be well unsatisfying, dull, irritating. Seen thirty times, it's the voice of a cherished mommy goddess and her absence, the absence that makes the presence bearable. We can want to see it again because we've seen it already.

I know the drill like the back of my molar. Like the older lady in Strickland's film, I--though no sadist--have been called onto to play one in a romantic tryst, many times, and always, each time it was really the verbal descriptions of what I would do--dictated by my lover in very specific details and then repeated in slight variations each time thereafter--that got them off. Experienced that way one realizes that, for most kinks, it's about the show, the whispered declarations of power vs. humiliation rather than the practice, which seems a trite gaudy and ridiculous (maybe I'm a prude?) But I like the JVS/Dietrich films as thye ascribe to the Gaylyn Studlar masochistic filmgoer theory vs. the Laura Mulvey sadistic proprietary male gaze theory, as Z sums it up:
"Where Mulvey views the female as having no power, in a masochist reading, the woman is powerful due to possessing what the male lacks, so pleasure is not gained by “mastery of the female but submission to her” (1985:782). This is in direct contrast to Mulvey’s view, which centres on voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia being a defense mechanism to castration anxiety." (Z- Mediated Musings)

Strickland understands these confusions of gaze; his film delves inwards to where the segmentation of a pupae abdomen circles into a set of winding fecund autumnal purple steps linking the look with the looked upon. Along with his post-giallo contemporaries, Strickland brings the modernist shiver of experimentalism into a head-on collision with the tenets of conventional narrative, letting their momentum derail each other and making something new from the train wreck, something that's neither formal/classical narrative nor avant garde/experimental, but a hybrid at once both invigorating and stultifying. In what could easily be the story of Mulvey and Studlar forever locked in a death/love staring contest, this wreck of a film shakes every pair bond to the core not through any particular eroticism but through the deconstruction of the kind of hermetic universe a loving couple creates within their shared space, a feeling of magic and second childhood, their honeymoon suite becoming an overgrown forest, a private world free of the constraints of time and outside responsibility. The stultifying comes once the outside has been ignored too long, the overgrowth chokes itself into mulch and dead leaves, leaving the stench of plant decay, what was once felt as protection and safety is now a prison, not through some shift of power, but through its own endless repetition.

In that and other senses of course it mirrors the fragmented masochistic obsessiveness of the films of Josef Von Sternberg (all those long slow meditative takes as Marlene walks around rooms, playing with this doll or that and shooting coy looks over her shoulder--as if stalling perpetually for time)--or even Bergman films like Persona (with the young boy in the experimental opening, trapped in the morgue as if reborn and tracing the blurry projection of Liv Ullman's jaw). And from there of course, The Ring and The Birds , i.e. Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child, i.e. the merging of the screen and the eye, the speakers and the ear, the dialogue between one's unconscious and conscious mind finally becoming audible; recognizing the monstrous absurdity of one's own masochistic sex fantasies once translated into action. (See Taming the Tittering Tourists).

Color coding, From Top: Lips of Blood (Rollin, 75); Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (Gantillon, 71); Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 72)
In short, from my own perspective, I don't see a Mulveyan fear of castration in cine-masochism at all in these Eurorotica time capsules- but rather a longing for it, a longing which underwrites my own theory behind the (straight) male's fascination with an all female or matriarchal world (ala Persona, The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay), one that doesn't 'include' the male figure or allow for even a projection of one's own gender based locus into the narrative. If a male figure somehow gets a toehold into this special universe, it's only as a eunuch servant, a blind man at the door who is not invited in, or an outmaneuvered future blood sacrifice ala Daughters of Darkness, the Blood-Spattered Bride, The Velvet Vampire, Girly and Vampyres.

This woman-centric film universe reflects the opposite of male-orgasm-based pornography, for the typical male sex fantasy doesn't last beyond the point of le petit mort. Men's sexuality, unless they are extraordinarily virile, dissipates immediately and drastically after orgasm; the fulfillment of the phallic hero's journey always ends in symbolic castration. This is why he begs and pleads but then, when there's no more barriers, hesitates; each orgasm is a sort of suicide, and the male knows it - once he's able to attain it, it comes too soon. The lesbian erotic scene, on the other hand, goes on and on, stopping time in its fairy tale tracks. There's no worry about premature ejaculations or flaccid impotence. The fairy bower's chthonic overgrowth ensnares and subdues narrative phallic linearity. It's something men just don't get to (or want to) see --we've already left the bed and headed for the kitchen to find a snack.

And so it is that these films show us a variation of sex we are, as single perspective organisms, forever denied in real life. We get to, in a sense, find out what our moms were like before we were born. It's something we'll just never know in real life, except through keyholes, screens (projections, paintings, pictures) dreams, and rebirth. In these films we finally understand, perhaps, why the patriarchy, the male gaze as per Mulvey, is so terrified of the female orgasm. I don't mean the little 'sneeze' or even the cherished involuntary vaginal contraction versions, but the one eternal female orgasm that comes later, and lasts forever, and increases and increases, feeding its own orgone energy flame until activating the alchemical awakening of the Kali destroyer / creator goddess. A withering force as devastating to the phallic tower as a great flood, is achieved; the male gaze is blinded in the flash, and not even Oedipus' stiff braille guide rope can help him find the door, let alone the keyhole.

Elsie Wright -w/ Cottingley Fairies

Rose Bower (Burne-Jones)

The lesbian fantasias of Franco and Rollin aren’t really meant for the chthonic dead end of fairy bower lesbian stasis, but they do draw on the same chthonic morass torpor, the way Antonioni draws on Monica Vitti’s beauty, or Fellini on circus pageantry or Welles on Welles – as a thing fulfilling in and of itself that precludes or prefigures egoic detachment from the mother. The sexuality of Fellini is--as in his best work-8 ½ and La Dolce Vita--exposed and recognized as infantile narcissism even while it's being indulged; Antonioni’s sexuality is like a dangerous ledge over the abyss and Welles’ balloon of titanic ego is inevitably punctured by the realization he can post-dub anyone in his films but a woman. Theirs are not the orgasm moments, the money shots, theirs are reminders that epiphanies, like male orgasms, are short and cheap and then life grinds on, oblivious. The trick with European reverie cinema is that this egoic puncturing never happens nor needs to. In a Rollin film, if a male character shows up who fancies himself the hunter-rescuer of the scene (as in one of Rollin’s endless string of jewel robbers) he’s peripheral --we’re invited to scorn him even as he tries to organize or tame the matriarchal nonlinear experimentalism of the hermetic female fairy bower. Like the forbidding father at the nursery he tries to shatter the fantasy of our total reunion with the mother, the memory of being an infant surrounded by gigantic adoring women, hearing their conversations as strange enigmatic words we do not understand, formatting the blank hard drive of self via the ebb and flow of mom’s attention. He tries to whip the women into linear order, but they of course devour him, like a phallic sandcastle in an incoming tide.

At this pre-egoic stage, we don’t identify ourselves as separate from mother and are therefore ‘female’ regardless of biological gender. The need to differentiate and establish oneself as male and separate from mom is a traumatizing initiation these films undo. Their drawback is their lack of dramatic arc, their inability to finish the initiation and begin journey. The butterfly motif in Duke is the ultimate irony - the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, flies off and dies (male linearity) but here, with these lesbian lepidopterists, the butterfly stays fixed in time, punned on the board, etherized on the fairy bower table– the life cycle interrupted at its peak moment...

My favorite game to play with babysitters in the 70s
Maybe I'm keen on this subject because as a child I was never very coordinated or confident on the kickball field (and hence always picked last for teams, a daily humiliation). I always just wanted to hang out with the girls; I was in love with girls in general, no real sexual desire had cohered along my polymorphic jouissance ley lines, but girls made me feel electric nonetheless. I despised boys on principle. I had one little brother and no sisters, which might explain some of it. When some girl's evil mom didn't approve of my attention, tried to force me outside into the mud with their wild obnoxious dirty foul-mouthed boys instead of upstairs with the girls it aggravated my delicate nerves. I hated those boys! The girls were pretty and sweet and I was enthralled. I also adored all my female babysitters, like they were giant idols; there were these three cool female cousins who coddled me all through my infancy, and then --boom, they weren't around anymore. Never having had a lot of physical affection from my (Swedish) mother after, say, five, I longed for three giant cute girls (relative to my size) and I didn't feel their protective young girl maternal energy again until stumbling on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park (see my first film Erich Kuersten: A Poet's Journey)

Just the right size
As a child in the arms of a girl Alice size, I didn't need to exist, or get affection, or conquer any other phallic arc. I was, in other words, absorbed totally into the state of the passive masochist spectator. Of course this came back to haunt me later as I was often paralyzed when it came to busting the first move, afraid the girls I fancied would flutter away with some spiel about how 'I thought we were just friends.' And also the closer I got to said move the more my knees buckled and I felt I'd pass out. In short, sex and desire were too intense, I wanted to orbit the star, not crash into it - that was for the boys good at kickball.

Duke of Burgundy in a way operates on the same principle. The one hot sex scene is merely spoken, with the mistress struggling to keep her partner supplied with her custom-tailored erotic dom-sub fantasia. But again there's no ego formed, no linear thrust, which is why the film is so boring. But hey, that's part of the masochistic current, the Warholian love of boredom --the result of undoing the need for ego and therefore lacking a narrative arc to guide and hone in our focus the way a child's polymorphous perversity gradually 'settling' in a space beyond the narrative; the love of repetition and ritual (as in the repetitive alchemical rites in Anger's films). The oceanic experience, which the masochistic gaze in cinema mirrors, is the compromise against what the Studlar's theory of masochism admits from the beginning is hopelessly unattainable. To attain the male orgasm, or even to permit the male involvement, would break the spell.
The prince's kiss wakes us up from our dreamy slumber, the opiated medicines of the witch leading us to a sweet stasis which is broken by the kiss that whisks us back into space and time, for better and worse.

The ending is the same either way. Death is just the sign on the door through which the audience exits the theater into the lobby. The only way to avoid going in our out of that door is to become etherized, frozen and pinned to your seat. Either way, the cinema is the same; if you stay for the next show, prepare to be bored. The movie playing never changes. And its that element of inert sameness, the repetition, that works to make Duke of Burgundy both boring and artsy, maybe proves that calling something boring and artsy is redundant, and maybe it even proves that calling a film the realization of the insatiable appetite for repetition is to damn it with high praise, something only fellow post-giallo filmmakers like Helena and Bruno understand (as in the endless variations of the same scene in The Strange Color of your Body's Tears). But who likes it? Almost no one, for longer than 10 minutes at a crack. Still, in this inert symbolic re-death eroticism, Studlar's masochistic gaze is spot-welded to a Crash-style car and sent over a cliff into to the kind of Jungian ego annihilation, liberating the libidinal desires that formulate the structure of the differentiated self, which is really just a nice way of saying it's boring as fuck-all. Don't miss it. Oops you all ready did.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ten Reasons THE LEGACY (1978)

In interviews Sam Elliott called THE LEGACY (1978), a film he co-starred in with Katherine Ross (they met and fell in love on set) "fifteen years behind its time." Well, as so often happens, thirty years later and we're all the way around again to where this weird 30s old dark house 70s devil movie hybrid is right in the moment, eternal as the gleam in Sam Elliott's cowboy eye. Trailing Satanist glory as it descends the stairs, THE LEGACY (1978) has recently been given a genuinely gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade courtesy Scream Factory and, like Elliott's sturdy mustache and his co-star (and future wife) Katherine Ross's shiny auburn hair, it turns out to be right painterly, the kind of film any man would be proud to hang behind his gun rack in the den.

I'd never seen this film until this Blu-ray, but I do recall being pleasantly spooked by its TV spots and the cover of the novel at the grocery check-out as a 12 year-old kid back in '78. I remember the white cat, the creepy hand, the marble pool and the endangered hero's awesome mustache (though in my memory it belonged to Nick Nolte). I never looked for it later on VHS because so many critics at the time had panned it. Well, fifteen or so years later, it turns out those people were wrong! Turns out I love most everything about this great, great terrible movie. I love its roiling roster of British characters, all playing eccentrics, libertines, war criminals, and rock stars that start dropping like flies in various OMEN-like ways almost as soon as Ross and Elliott are shown to their room (like they've been... expected). Far from the dreary drawing room gore slog it's been painted as, this turns out to be a treat for anyone who loves James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE, Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and ROSEMARY'S BABY, in that order.

And most of all, those of us who love badass bitches. This ain't no goddamned Stepford, sister.

(Mild Spoilers ahead)

1. Katharine Ross

Never more beautiful or assured, with that great long straight chestnut hair and autumnal wardrobe, Ross in LEGACY is like the 70s incarnation of Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Babalon Working's Marjorie Cameron, Isis, and Paulette Goddard in CAT AND THE CANARY. And unlike so many of the 70s iconic beauties, she could act when the situation demanded it yet also knew when it was best not to. Mature (she was 38!) and intelligent, swept along in this weird tide of a tale, there's no whining about her wanting a baby or not having one or getting too much sex or not enough or whatever some weak-ass male writer's idea of character development happens to be. She's equal partners with old Sam and when she SPOILER, inherits her powers, her her whole face seems to change shape, expanding into an uncanny extra dimension of glacial stillness which shows why she was so effective in THE STEPFORD WIVES.

2. Sam Elliott

From their very first kiss you can see he's falling for this chick, Sam is--not his character--he's not that great an actor. If he was acting it, he'd be Brando. Instead he's a good-hearted lug of the cowboy mould, who's totally unprepared for the beguiling force behind Ross's witchy magnetism.

This is the era of some real strides in depicting assertive hot women who can believably order men around and sleep with them without emasculating them. If their mustaches were on straight, and they'd smoked enough to get a nice deep live-in voice, such men could even forge a new path, one uniquely 70s, one that's been sadly untraveled the last 30 or 40 years, one of true equality based on individuality and mutual respect for each other's archetypal gender power. It's inspiring as a man watching Elliott slowly bring his American white cowboy male character back from the brink of British black magic feminism's emasculating abyss. A foreigner at a strange party he can never leave, he is--as in some supernatural version of Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade--considered purely ornamental. At first his crankiness seems to indicate he's destined for death or irrelevance, or that his macho genes are straining at being considered the weaker sex (and temper tantrums--the natural male response--only prove the bitches right!). Smashing through windows and wrecking equipment at the big climax, he becomes almost the monster of the piece, like he's going to kill his lady in order to ensure she doesn't outgrow him.

Well, I should have given more credit to old Sam. A warrior from the Iron Age of Manly beauty, Sam's part of the Kris Kristofferson / Jon Voight school of sensitive ass-kickers, a group of men so cool and badass they blazed a whole new trail of how to be macho while helping--purely by not hindering-- the breakout of women's lib, which was erupting all around them and even right in their own beds. These dudes might feel left out and sidelined as whole swaths of their once undisputed power changed hands but--instead of staying sulky and sheepish--they recognized their sulkiness as immaturity rather than something they needed to act on in order to preserve the status quo. At the same time instead of being completely whipped and beaten, they had guts enough to throw down their security blankets and smash their way back to parity, Mary Tyler Moore hat-throwing-style. When it came to learning how to cast off gender oppression, they weren't too proud to take their cue from the girls who'd just cast off theirs.

3. The dusky beautiful cinematography 
brought to vivid 3-D clarity via the Shout Blu-ray

The 3D clarity and glistening deep colors are perfect for the setting, a big weird English mansion with a very bizarre all-white marble swimming pool room. There are a few moments when the couple are wearing all white in this white room, when one think perhaps this is an allegory for heaven, or a halfway limbo ala CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Sometimes a sort of waxiness takes over but overall the dusky great Allan Hume / Dick Bush photography is given full resonant expression: magic hour shadows, deep blacks, extreme angles, vertical and diagonal POVs, lots of looking down from ornate stairs, the creepy nurse's face bleeding into the myriad portraits. I usually hate the way rural England looks in daytime shots--the uniformly sickly grey sky, the landscape all washed out, dreary and depressingly still--but here that same landscape and sky looks plenty ominous, sexy, and cool. I'm so happy to finally make peace with British exterior shots! You don't even know how I suffered, all those sad, washed-out Hammer villages on old UHF TV creature features when I should have been out playing whiffle ball. And that Bentley is hypnotizing in the pristine HD cleanliness.

That said, don't judge by the pics here which I scrounged around the web, for you, Marianne!

And to cement the British Hammer link, Jimmy Sangster co-wrote Legacy's screenplay!

Guts, glory... Ram
4.  Michael J. Lewis' Score
Orchestral and at times predictable, Lewis incorporates synths with stunning affect, and doesn't get too up into the helicoptering 'Mickey Mouse' scoring. Percolating and ooze and sly menace in the Carpenter 'carpet' style, Lewis sometimes browses around a giallo vibe with barbed guitar stings and echo-drenched female vocalizing (that soars briefly into a melody Streitenfeld co-opted for Prometheus). In other words, Lewis keeps it simple and cool rather than showing off his symphonic training every five seconds like certain others who shall be nameless. And there's even a great tacky 70s theme song sung by someone named Kiki Dee.

This is from DEVIL RIDES OUT, but you get the picture
5. Charles Gray
So good as the high priest Mocata in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and as Blofeldt in Bond films and in ROCKY HORROR and... everything - those steely blue eyes, that face like a disguise he's about to tear off, the lordly (but immanently down for a fight) voice, he's one of a kind. And he's grand here as a man "decorated three times by the Nazis." When he's shooting his crossbow with fellow unholy ringbearer Lee Montague while noting Eliot's arrival as 'the uninvited guest' you'll be reminded of Lugosi and Karloff playing chess while David Manners frantically checks the exit doors in THE BLACK CAT. 

 6. Old Dark House Ambience + Giallo-esque Deaths
 A mysterious dying monster behind a white curtain (like the old witch in SUSPIRIA --which came out the same year of THE LEGACY and has more than a few similarities) announcing only one of the assembled six will wield the ring of ultimate black magic power (a Tolkien boom was also in full effect); Katharine Ross it seems is the designated one, and 'Satan's power' isn't just the vast and unfathomable wealth of his sprawling estate, if you get my meaning. And giallo + old dark house is a combo sadly underused in the 70s (SEVEN DEATHS IN A CAT'S EYE, but what else?)

7.  Hauntological British Occult conspiracy and Telekinesis

Reincarnation, witchy genes, unholy ghost power, telekinesis, remote viewing, and a refreshing lack of viable Christian options or outright clarifications of just what sort of black magic is at work (no hail Satan chants and goat horns); it's left to the imagination without being too concerned with subtlety either. A rare combination to get right: bombast and restraint. Even the white nurse / white cat thing is done with minimal glare and Margaret Tyzack brings just the right mood of calm professionalism.

8.  Roger Daltrey chokes to Death

This strange being with the tiny body, little carny hands, huge head and wild mane of hair, is here playing a rock icon much like himself, whose links to this weird ghostly mansion estate indicates black magic got him where he is today - as if  we didn't bloody know. And leave it to a nouveau riche Acton guttersnipe like Roger to give us most of the exposition on how rich and powerful everyone there is. So naturally he dies, choking to death at the buffet. Not that you asked but THE LEGACY is actually the second film from the 70s I've seen where someone dies from choking to death and no one gives him/her the Heimlich maneuver. My own grandmother knew to give me the Heimlich when I was just a child -i.e. the 70s. She saved my life with it, years before this movie was even made! So it was not unknown, at least in Sweden, though according to CNN:
"In August 1974, editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association contacted the doctor who had developed a new method to save someone from choking -- then a major cause of death in the United States. His new technique was saving lives across the country, and they wanted to tell him they were publishing a story about it, and were going to name the procedure after him" (CNN)"
Either way, watching Daltrey choke to death at the buffet table is twice as agonizing as everyone just stands around freaking out. Is that really what they did back then? Heimlich, you saved my life a dozen times, me alone!

9. Town and country weapons and adventure
There's some solidly imagined escape attempt sequences with the estate vividly depicted from the towers down to the stables. All the rustic one lane roads lead back to the mansion; they try to escape via horses, saddled on the sly which Sam does with a relaxed quick assurance of the real cowboy, and their mad ride to freedom manages to be 70s rustic lovely while also scary (the way the score slowly shifts from an orchestral western-style ride along back to menacing again is letter-perfect); the near mauling by the hunting dogs, the crossbow vs. shotgun duel--all very town and country (where double barrel shotgun and crossbow must be continually reloaded as they would be in real life, a truth which seldom engages less imaginative screenwriters). The weapons all fit the location perfectly, creating a much tighter unified whole than EYE OF THE DEVIL which loped along a similar track but--the Sharon Tate scenes aside, was a snooze.

10. Great Ending
  I didn't know whether to hope for Sam's bloody death or root for him. The last thing I wanted was to see him instill some last minute bad faith 'better my girlfriend be dead than a Satanist' edict, or convince her to return unto old patriarchal hierarchies because all she really wants in life is to be bossed around and gotten pregnant. It didn't happen! This was the age of feminist horror and this fits the bill admirably.

It also makes sense that Elliott and Ross met on the shoot, married, had a kid and went on to a groovy life, and are still going strong. I'm not sayin' it takes occult magic to keep a Hollywood couple together for so long but to use one of his LEGACY lines back at him, "whatever he's doin'.... he's doin' it right."

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


(2015) Dir. Adam Brooks

In the beginning there was just the poster... with a lot of strange fake names like Ally Gunning and Ahab Bricks and an image of a moviola running a reel of segmented human intestine or spine or something through the sprockets; it was a kind of EC Comics final twist panel for a movie as yet unwritten. Commissioned for a Canadian "Nonexistent Film" poster art show, it was intriguing enough to commission a trailer, and then, finally, a feature was commissioned from the trailer. That order may seem strange but the crazy horror genre is used to it. Val Lewton famously was given the titles for his films by RKO brass, then had to write a film to go with them. Exploitation auteurs would often use the poster to pre-sell the film to distributors for the money to make it.

And now, comes to DVD/Blu-ray, THE EDITOR.

A zippy, blood and nudity-primary color drenched satiric whirlwind that makes Rodriguez' PlANET TERROR seem pretentious and talky by contrast, THE EDITOR's frenetic pace, along with inextricable layers of cinematic self-reflexivity and metatextual breakdown, can make for quite a blurry ride until repeat viewings bring it all into focus, (presumably). There are so many things to do and see: one can suss out split personality nuance, savor the Argento's INFERNO-esque colour palette, recollect with a flash of teenage bedroom angst the 70s-80s bedroom racing stripes of a thousand Canadian-presents-merging with-Italian yesterdays, and groove to the irresistibly old school analog synth score. Will you make those multiple trips to the Astron-6 quadrant? Will you take my hand... and return it to its rightful owner?

The weirdest thing about THE EDITOR, perhaps, is that it's almost as much a satire of the "post-giallos" made today as the old/original ones made yesterday --those that have become classics and been largely forgiven and absolved from charges of misogyny. THE EDITOR on the other hand, is misogynist as all get out but that's neither here nor there. What'a here is the giallo revival spurred by the availability of color-restored widescreen anamorphic DVD and Blu-ray. Visually and aurally, the synth-amped, psychedelic color-saturated Italian giallos from the 70s and slasher-horror from the 80s have earned a second life (no more pan and scan, muddy colors, lack of audio options). These films demand re-evaluation by once-sneering critics (such as myself)--they seem newer than most 'new' stuff being churned out today. So it stands to reason there'd be an emerging slew of imitators, just as there were back then. And so, in our glorious Blu-ray age, great companies like Blue Underground, Code Red, Scorpion, Synapse, and Arrow release spiffy Blu-rays of 70s-80s Euosleaze, giallo, and horror films that blaze with nowness, while still able to carry a nostalgic jouissance-tingling currency for a generation too young to actually see the originals at the time, but too old to not remember, and be traumatized by, the TV spots and second-hand synopsizing from adventurous babysitters. As kids watching old horror movies on 70s TV, those brief R-rated "theater near you" spots provided glimpses into the fiery sex-death bowels of weird older adults-only horror movies, marking us like initiatory tribal scarring. So now we watch our DVDs of them over and over, half out of a warped obsessive-compulsive disorder, half out of cargo cult-style reverie. Naturally now we want to make our own totemic effigies, just to feel that childhood thrill of terror again, or at least hear some colors and see sound.

So lo and behold, a whole new breed of horror film is erupting, the post-giallo thriller--either straight, artfully fragmented (ala Peter Strickland, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani - as seen in my curated Netflix festival entry, Post-Giallo Nightmare Logic ala Netflix) or--as for THE EDITOR--respectfully satiric. Like some 90s Kids in the Hall-meets-the 80s Argento/Soavi/Bava filmmaking team, obsessed filmmaker collective Astron-6 throw an avalanche of fake mustaches, intentionally "off" macho dubbing, too-watery blood and a layered post-modern style at the screen and hope some sticks. Eye-popping post-modern sights include a man climbing through the screen of a moviola; being attacked by floating eels ala FROM BEYOND; the blind blonde from THE BEYOND, and so on. The vibe is heavily misogynistic but no more so than any HBO drama, like say BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and it has that show's Asia Argento-Jennifer Tilly hybrid of the moment, Paz de la Huerta (above), who does batshit crazy pretty well. She would make a grand Martha in a horror movie update of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF or SCORE! Here she plays the squirming trophy wife of the titular editor, Ray Ciso (director Adam Brooks) and she's so sexually voracious makes Edwige Fenech seem like Annette Funicello.

Whoa, is that reference too inside? You don't know Fenech from Funicello? Then you may be the wrong audience for THE EDITOR. Best you go home and watch CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS and BEACH BLANKET BINGO in alternating DVD chapters until they bleed together as CASE OF THE BLOODY BLANKET or BLOOD IRIS BINGO. Go ahead... We'll wait.... 

We'll be right here, with our massive finger collections drenched under grueful kliegs.

Back? Good. Now you can love THE EDITOR, to a point. I forgot to tell you to see THE BEYOND while you're at it. I'm not surprised the Astrons know THE BEYOND by heart: its strengths and weaknesses are theirs as well: pure dream logic sensationalism at the loss of coherence, or maybe losing coherence is the whole point. I don't know if EDITOR will hold up to repeat viewings as well as Fulci's masterpieces; I doubt I will find out. BUT-- I do love EDITOR's Franco Nero mustaches, and the Negaverse' alternate shadow reality populated by ghosts of the slain, severed fingers, those FB air eels, and swirling black mists. Man have to be blind not to love that.

From top: The Beyond (1981); The Editor (2011)

There's only one real main flaw, for me, that undoes some of the good: the tawdry strip club misogyny. I don't mean the great scene where the cop shows up at his quarry's table during an argument to slap his wife for him--that's hilarious. I mean the puerile mistrust of women characters as a whole, a vibe at odds with the more laid and repressed-but-sexier Italians of the era depicted (i.e. they may have a complex relationship to strong, sexy women, but they love them - I don't get the feeling Astron-6 shares that love. In other words, I feel fine showing SUSPIRIA and even TENEBRE to a hipster feminist, but I wouldn't feel comfortable showing her THE EDITOR. Maybe I'm just a prude, but I can't help but feel all those layers being peeled here should produce a feeling of disoriented self-reflexive paranoia the way it did in THE STUNTMAN or MULHOLLAND DR. rather than leaving me feeling like the lack of a female member of Astron 6 (a Daria Nicolodi or Debra Hill, if you will), negatively affects their final product.

But hey, aside from that sticky wicket, good on ya, mates, cuzza Kier!!

The marvelous Udo

1968- Dir. Guilio Questi

While sensitive souls wait for the day that factory farming is regarded as one of humanity's worst atrocities, for writer-director Giuliu Questi (Django Kill, If you Live... Shoot!) and co-writer Franco Arcalli that day came back in 1968. Catch up! Questi never seems to care if you're going to keep up with him, but he trusts you will and lets the art rip like wet curtains. Abstract dialogue sounds paranoid and enigmatic, like the way Belmondo and Karina sometimes talk in that half-recited way in Pierrot Le Fou ("Moi aussi, Marianne"). Set in and around a surreal white 'coop,' egg factory, the plot hinges in part on the accidental production of a headless chicken, a hoped-for mutation (ala 'Mike') that should guarantee the horrified coop owners a heftier profit margin (and cause the occasionally conscientious co-maestro de pollaio Marco [Jean Louis Trintignant] a nervous breakdown). But that's just the nadir of an already twisty morass of lofty scheming of the bed and boardroom and feathery factory floor variety. 

A glorified trophy husband (has Trintignant ever been more beautiful?) to an older woman chicken magnate wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida), Marco vents his emasculated rage by maybe cutting up prostitutes in a secret hotel room and covering scarves with Zodiac-esque symbols. He's also having an affair with Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, Candy herself), Anna's hot secretary--and it's implied she might be having an affair with Anna as well, and whomever else wants to go for the seven minutes in heaven during one of their cocktail party soirees. During their regular cinq-a-septs Marco keeps pressuring Gabrielle to run away with him, filling her jaded ear with his sulky declarations. She worries--wisely--that without access to Anna's pockets he'd soon be too broke to keep her in the manner to which she's become accustomed. "What different does that make?" he says. "We can always steal, can't we?" Ever the Lorelei Lee, our Gabrielle cautions him: "Love is a luxury." But Trintignant's playing an Italian, and they don't like to be put off their feed (he thinks, rightly, she doesn't love him), so he takes it out on the prostitutes. What a catch he'd make! 

But even he--the possibly murderous Marco--draws the line at the idea of raising headless chickens, not realizing they were created by the accidental introduction of Anna's wrong-stepping dog into the seed grinder. "This is the beginning of those mutations I've been working for!" says the scientist, taking credit. "It will bring radical changes to production." Even if the chickens don't turn homicidal like the cats in The Corpse Grinders, the monstrosity of it all drives Marco into progressively more desperate, quasi-humane misogynist fury!

Questi's seemingly benign tale is rife with weird flashbacks, twists, and ragged editing of an almost Bill Gunn-style sideways termite-Eisenstein off-the-cuff brilliance. Bruno Madera's patchwork soundtrack plunges down in the atonal piano key palm-mash abyss one scene and sashays up with bossa nova and Anton Karras-esque zither the next. Strange voices shout in German over Brazilian violins during the lovemaking; Bruno skulks around the all white henhouse; Bruno skulks around the office, and even the boudoir. There are egg-related objets d'art-decorated offices and plenty of real eggs in rows. Gabrielle and Anna start dressing up like whores and frequenting Bruno's secret haunts to try to get to the bottom of his mysterious tomcatting. Or do they? And why did those chickens cross the road, anyway?

Made before--or concurrently with--Argento 'animal trilogy', Egg follows its own little breadcrumb or chicken seed trail across the road away from Antonioni's Blow-Up blast radius, i.e. the radius of pop art self-reflexivity that ignited Europe's young artists to bring post-modernism to the thriller genre. It's neither Chabrol style nouvelle vague noir nor Argento/Bava candy-colored killer roundelay, nor early Polanski power-trip sexual head game triangulating, nor Sirk-x-Fassbinder bitch-in-the-boardroom Dolce Vita shell-gaming---but it's never not those things either - it's all of them and none of them. There's even a sexy parlor game for the decadent bourgeois revelers at Anna's party, a perfect metaphor for audiences trying to anticipate what will happen next, as glistening honey traps and misread iconography keeps throwing us off the scent. 

And then it... kind of just stops, albeit on a gotcha. The Streaming on Amazon Prime cut is reasonably decent quality for non-HD (I took the above the screenshots therefrom), which makes it worth seeking out if you're high on an early pre-giallo kick and already re-watched all your Argentos and Fulcis like so many reps on your quads. 

(PS - another good 1968 Blow-Up blast radius qua-giallo: Elio Petri's A Quiet Place in the Country). 

Once upon a time there was much variety in action movies and then.... there was Beverly Hills Cop, which made so many dump trucks full of money it became the only kind of movie Hollywood would ever make again. That's why in every post I've ever written I talk about the post-BHC and the pre-BHC era. And in the post BHC era, i.e. the 80s. There was also The Terminator, and Robocop, and there was Lethal Weapon... and of course, Flashdance. Together they made more money than Hollywood ever knew existed. So they heeded what Raul Julia says in The Gumball Rally is the first rule of Italian driving: "what's behind me," he says ripping out the rearview mirror, "is-a not important." 

Once again from the top: Murphy, Beals, Gibson, Schwarzenegger. And if you want to get technical, Jamie Lee Curtis in the willfully forgotten misfire Perfect (1985 - above left), the unofficial sequel to Saturday Night Fever (or was that Staying Alive (1983)? If those involved with it have their way, you will never see Perfect or Staying Alive or even Moment by Moment (1978) or Two of a Kind (1983) in your lifetime. You may be better off, but how would you know?

To crunch the above triptych tomcat tomboy bull roster, consider this as an alternative... even if it is made ten years too late:

(1991) Dir. Duncan Gibbins

There's an 'out-of-sync with its era'-vibe to this 'cool black cop and MILF engineer vs. amok lady android' genre entry.' Can it be explained by knowing that its director died two years after it came out while rescuing his cat during the 1993 California wildfires? Not that such tragedy should affect our affection (or lack of) for such a flatly filmed--but fascinatingly proto-Carol Cloverian-- thriller about an amok female robot, who--as in all terribly written Robocop clones-- finds street crime running rampant wherever she steps, forcing her to kill and/or get a robotic concussion which disrupts her neural network and sends her on a one-woman vendetta against all the men who wronged her sexy maker (since said maker uploaded her own memories to said robot just as Tyrell gave Rachel his niece's memories in Blade Runner), so just imagine this is Rachel gunning for the spider who scared her as a kid, or the boy who showed her his but she chickened and ran.

On the other hand, no mere Blade Runner comparison can explain the presence of Gregory Hines, whose 80s tap dance career somehow qualifies him for leading a thick-necked hulking SWAT team against irrational chick robots. An actor not about to stick his neck into the wildfire by embracing any dumb action movie cardboard cat of a character, Gregory seems to have forgotten there are no small roles, only small actors. And man, that size really fits. Which begs another question: why was Hines even cast, aside from: he's black, has done comedy, dances, people know his name and that's at least two checks on the holy quadrangle checklist above (the Beverly Hills Cop black cop comic; the Flashdance movement coach)? If this film is about a tall Germanic white chick, the producers seem to think, naturally it demands a teensy-weensy black male tap dancer as a cop counterpoint. With his trim little line of a beard, comically oversize 80s suit, and face that looked like someone pulled his nose way way out and then snapped it back so his nose drooped down below his chin like overworked Silly Putty, Hines gives the impression he's a little elf wearing the skin of a larger man, which makes his berating a bunch big-armed mesomorph SWAT guys after they underperform in a hostage rescue exercise the highlight of the film. Shouting at the top of his lungs, voice barely cutting through the thick testosterone and sound of approaching helicopters, Hines sounds more like a fussy choreographer trying to get his chatty dance class's attention, rather than a tough hostage rescue instructor. Is "not cracking up" part of his team's SWAT training? Amok Eve VIII (Renée Soutendijk) should be easy to find and wrangle after that near-impossible challenge.

So all Hines has to do is tell his SWAT guys where to shoot and follow this crazy 'bot down the traumatic memory lane of her 'image and likeness'-style designer, also played by Soutendijk who shares his helicopter. Too bad that--even after all that fussy beration--his men can't shoot (or duck) for shit, so EVE VIII ends up decimating entire ambush parties with a single Mac 10 clip. Next time you want to train some inept SWAT guys, America, call R. Lee Emery!

Soutendijk, a Dutch actress, was in a bunch of Dutch language Paul Verhoeven films neither you or I have probably seen, but have long wanted to (they're OOP in R1 or on youtube without subtitles).  She's the girl holding the scissors in that Fourth Man poster (left) and does a good job believably decimating an array of supposedly competent armed men and sleazy studs as the Eve VIII. It's pretty cathartic when she blasts them all to hell! Verhoeven should be proud. But as that poem goes in Stalker, "it wasn't enough."

I admit I recently bought the Blu-ray of EVE, mostly out of loyalty to a drunken half-remembered night when my brother and I caught it on cable and laughed and cheered ourselves senseless. It's not quite as good sober and alone, but what is? Still, if you're craving a witless 'so-cliche-it's-classic' Terminator-Robocop-clone pre-CGI 80s flick from the early 90s, look no further... than Dark Angel (1990).

If you're still hungry after that, pour on the Hines. And PS: Driving into a raging inferno to rescue your cat? One hundred percent badass. Even if you didn't make it out alive, or make a very good movie, you, Duncan Gibbons, are a man for me. In my heart of hearts I know you made it home through the blaze and you and the cat died in each other's arms. The alternative would be too sad for words--even God isn't that cruel. 

Hines, with tired eyes that convey 'how did I get into this shit?'
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