Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Angels of Groovy Death #IV: Lynn Lowry Special Edition


With her big cat eyes, button nose, wide toothy smile (innocent yet terrifying), long straight hair, and knack for being cast in future iconic cult gems, Lynn Lowry was a kind of unofficial poster girl for the post-Manson hippy- horror micro-genre of the late-60s/early 70s. She was the quintessential gone-homicidal-flower-child, the girl who Middle American viewers dreaded drawing as a babysitter. She was too sweet to say no to, but.... something about her made you uneasy - like she could charm an elderly neighbor at the front door while letting a coven of knife-wielding satanic bikers in through the back. She glowed with a kind of worldly ephemeral inner luminescence that somehow kept her innocent and free even as she was being gunned down by soldiers or cutting off a housewife's hand with an electric carving knife.

We, the small kids of the early 70s, all knew and loved a girl like her. When she babysat us, anything could happen: fun board games, seduction, arson, smoking-- all kinds of mischief, all with a spontaneous air that let us know any second-guessing or hesitation at one of her dares and she'd leave us behind, forever. You either ran with her giddy madness or got left behind to die in the dull roar of the TV flames. We learned to just say yes, no matter what.

Girls like her carried a bad rep. This was the era of a very popular urban legend of the hippy babysitter who was so high on LSD she microwaved the baby and tucked in the chicken. That may sound farfetched, and one presumes it was, but the legend was so embedded in popular consciousness of the time that it shows up in TV movies like Go Ask Alice (1973), in the scene wherein Alice finds out she's been dosed while on a babysitting job by vindictive ex-drug buddies, so rather than risk the baby's safety by succumbing to the lure of the Radarange, she locks herself in the closet. That the film doesn't even need to explain why she does this testifies to that legend's prevalence.

We kids weren't afraid, though. We wanted to have her over every chance we got. So when mom was making the calls, we prayed for all her first choices to fall through.


This innocent serpent flower child was a new kind of femme fatale. Not the sort to go framing you for murder or shaking you down with blackmail like in the 40s-50s; she wasn't even a new version of the old spoiled nympho drug addict waif like Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep. This new homicidal cultist was never spiteful or mischievous --her heart was too full of love; acid had burned out those small minded reptilian fear-desire tail-biting instincts that befell lesser mortals with base fears and wants. And it's this freedom from the usual fears and desires, above all else, that made her so dangerous and unpredictable. Along with everything else, acid dissolved away the morality and impulse control the rest of us took for granted. These tripping waifs belonged more in a comfy psych ward where they couldn't have long fingernails or access to sharp things like pointed scissors... at least until the drugs wore off. But instead of chasing butterflies through leafy fields they were trying to make popcorn --heating lots of oil in a big pot on the roaring stove while we hovered immediately below.

But we were innocent too, and in our love for her, all sense melted away.

Consider this, especially if you're a straight male: Look at that picture below left, for a few seconds, long enough to get a read on all three of their faces. Now... consider if these three girls were to come onto you in, say, the park while you were alone reading the paper on a bench on a sunny 'frisco day. You know that you'd have no problem resisting the ones on the left and right, they're more like sisters or aunts, but the girl in the middle, man, she's cute. If she wanted to go home with you, you'd take her. And you'd be dead by dawn, and she'd wake up snug in your entrails with no knowledge where she was or who you were. Then she'd shower off the blood, eat enough acid to send a rhino to the psych ward, then fingerpaint on the walls with your coagulating blood while softly singing "tralalalala." Does that make her evil? Or are you dumb for letting beauty blind you to danger signs? Were danger signs even there? If evil isn't present, merely a lysergic 'lack' of moral partitioning, then it's just 'temporary insanity' and that's nowhere near the same thing.

"We have no jelly donuts for you today... only death."
The 'Manson Girls,." singing and chanting as one, had become national figures around this time trials (1971) and though I was too young to remember the courtroom hooplah I do remember the fear associated with the words 'Helter Skelter', the baby/microwave thing, and the fear some crazy swinger devil worshippers down the block would put razors in your apples on Halloween. (So we all had to 'check' any fruit, not that we ever got any - if you gave out apples, you were automatically suspect).

This fear of hippies, and the serpent under the hippie flower, so to speak, goosed the 70s along and gave seemingly helpless little barefoot waifs selling peace buttons on the corner a kind mobster street gang clout. No one dared mess with them. And as a kid nosing through mom's record albums, the ones with similarly clad babes (like Peter Paul and Mary and the Mamas and the Papas) all had a queasy bone-chilling dread about them that wasn't there before, and didn't last very long (by the time I became a hippie myself in the late 1980s, I'd forgotten all about it).

Then again, my aunt on my dad's side in Chicago ran off and joined a commune, and we went to visit when I was five, and man that was a hairy place - I tried cat food for the first time, and ran through lots of beaded doorways, and still remember the groovy art, and so forth. My aunt was dating her fourth guy named Randy... four Randys.... in a row... the mind boggled. My grandmother had disowned her.

My parents were just a few years too old for that scene, Ours was like in Mad Men, that bridge club wife swap 70s middle-class golf game / kids walk to school of our own accord / freedom to roam just stay within "Dinner!" earshot type.

We ran amok. We molested the babysitters, not the other way around.

And if you grew up kind of crushing on Susan Dey even if you rarely watched The Partridge Family (Danny was gross; the music horrific), then she might be who comes to mind the first time you see Lynn Lowry; with that downturned lip and sultry eyes and wavy straight hair, Lowry strikes me first as if she's Dey crossed with a cute alien hybrid drawn by a Disney animator unwittingly dosed by a CIA operative. Someone sure should have dosed the Partridge Family. God I hated that redheaded kid Danny, that plagiarizing ginger with his unheimlich neediness.... and wasn't too crazy about Shirley Jones and her sister-wife collars and androgynous hair. She was like that mom who eavesdrops as you try to pick up her daughter than snidely puts you in your place, loud enough for everyone to hear, so that you blush and stammer and run home to sulk with your comic books, and then you never come over again. People, c'mon get happy, yeah right --quit tellin' us what to do. You could tell Mrs. P was one of those hovering mothers that never questions why she's always grabbing things out of her daughters' hands and lavishing them on Keith, whether Keith wants them or not. Feeling badly, Keith waits til mom goes off to pray or something, then gives sis back her shit.

Nice, sweet doomed Keith. He'd make a good sacrifice for the solstice.

On the other hand, Marcia Marcia Marcia was also pretty hot, and had similar straight blonde hair. And that whole family was way cooler, way less locked in their Mormon incestuous death grip. Much healthier sexually. If Mrs. Brady saw you clumsily putting some moves on fair Marcia, she wouldn't shame you, she'd probably just call you into the den, give you some hands-on sexual advice and then kick you back downstairs with a strip of condoms in your hand and lipstick on your forehead like a governmental seal of approval.

Why? Because unlike Mrs. Partridge, Mrs. Brady got laid, really laid. Even us kids could tell that, and her sexually satisfied glow kept the decade alight with a special baseline magic. Mrs. Partridge, if she ever saw how happy they were, would probably call Child Protective Services and make up some lurid lie.

David Lynch would make great use of this terrifying yet sweetly innocuous smile.  Lowry alone knows how to make her untrampled flower child joy indistinguishable from a flesh-rending maenad frenzy
I mention all this only to illustrate how the Partridge Family vs. Brady Bunch dichotomy provided parameters for our collective 70s pre-sexual psyche, and maybe that's partially the idea a Susan Dey archetype untethered from her prim bitch overprotective mom and ginger brother, running away with a Satan-worshipping boyfriend and winding up rabid (ala 1970's I Drink Your Blood --her first movie role) or foaming at the mouth thanks to some new STD (Shivers), chem warfare agent (The Crazies)--or just really speedy acid--rang so many popular unconscious gongs. The times demanded a girl who could slice off a woman's hand with an electric carving knife and still be an innocent, a free spirit cranked to eleven, a girl so pure the needle spins all the way around to the other extreme- batshit homicidal. If you've ever known and partied with the type then you know how rare and intoxicating they are, the sweet sudden shock of dread when what was once a feeling of smitten love and devotion to her sweet beauty becomes sickening blood-chilled dread, the realization you were so far on cloud 9 you made the mistake of letting her get between you and the exit.

give the lady a hand
A sweet, sweet Scorpio (born Oct. 15), she's the kind of friendly animal a Pisces like me would let ride on our back as we swim the channel, but I'm too savvy to ask why she'd sting me to death halfway across - it's not even cuz a man or a sexually transmitted parasite or water-spread virus told her too, or because of acid, it's just her nature. Her long straight hair like wind-stirred gossamer over a denim jacket picturesquely dabbed in a cop's blood, when she starts slowly laughing at the carnage going on down the hill in The Crazies there's a weird schism that marks a great unexplored middle ground between the sane heroes and the 'changed.'  Rather than turn zombie or something, where the line is clearly drawn between normal and 'possessed' or us vs. them, Lowry extends the 'in between' with her contracting and expanding organic circular breathing. She's already scans a "little" crazy, so going all the way crazy is no great stretch, nor is it quite clear the extent to which her incestuous dad's behavior is a result of Trixie (the virus) or just habit. Eventually she's too crazy to know to hide when the military comes. They end up surrounding her, guns drawn, like she's a dangerous maniac even though all she's doing is offering them flowers and singing, just another flower child protester with no concern for her own life as she marches towards the bayonets with a flower in her hand.

Like some Innsmouth elder royal Neptune princess
With that air elemental aura (she'd make a great Ariel in Shakespeare's Tempest), Lowry is both uncanny and inviting, innocent and corrupting, the babysitter from the 70s my little brother and I prayed for as my mom made her round of early evening phone calls. We only got her around 1/3 of the time but when we did our stomachs sank with queasy dread. Whether she'd be in the mood to play her dangerous Go Ask Alice-style games with us rather than staying on the phone all night or hanging out on the porch with some sketchy boyfriend was another story. But if Jupiter aligned with Mars and she was ready to focus her loving laser beam attention upon us, then it was like some magic new dimension was opened in the Kuersten house, like she alone had a key to a secret door in the hallway wall that led to where all the cool stuff was.

Lowry has that same vibe, an open book of forbidden but benign ambivalence that puts her past our reach even while making her as accessible as all outdoors; she can dive merrily into the depths of depravity and horror and escape unscathed, like Daniel in the lion's den. As long as we don't try to pull her out of it, no harm will come to either of us. If we step in, we'll get hurt.

Shivers - during the transformation from sexually available but professional nurse to uninhibited maenad orgiast.
Toots, my darling, I was only eight years-old and didn't understand but I still hated the implied ascension to older man leering implied in the your acceptance of a quasi-derogatory nickname (I was always trying to come up with a different one) clearly given by a much older man, like a pissed off patron of a table she's waiting on at a roadside diner. Toots, I hated having to say that name to address you, my froggy voice stringy anchored by sublime pre-sexual adoration. I still recoil from that same 'ewa' vowel sound in words, like "food" - couldn't even watch Blue Velvet because Frank calls  Isabella "Tits." Took me years, man. Years...

Mom stopped volunteering at that runaway shelter when we moved to NJ in 1980, a fitting analogy. I was 13, so bye-bye cool wild flower power kiss you-on-the-mouth babysitters and hello slasher craze sober virgin final girls making sure we did all our homework and went to bed on time and then we lay  awake, terrified anyway. The early 80s: devil worship wasn't 'fun' with denim babysitters anymore, but the province of icky child molesters at day care centers. The slasher craze had even us once-louche grade school swingers afraid, we wouldn't even dare to go upstairs at night unless mom was already up there, her sewing machine humming the "all clear". Only WW2 saved me from that fear. I stopped thinking about slashers with knives and started thinking about Sgt. Rock, Sherman tanks vs. Panzers, Messerschmidts, Spitfires, B-17s. I was invulnerable when being shot at over Berlin.

Was it some kind of EC/DC House of Secrets/Tales from the Crypt, post-code/pre-code comic book comeuppance, all this terror and tub-thumping? It didn't matter which side of the censorship barrier, what was once shag carpet and wood panelling vivid--once Thulsa Doom snake cult decadent--was now just postage stamp size color pictures in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and John Buscemi Conan the Barbarian reprints. And that was how I wanted it. Whether the one led to the other, in grand macabre twist payback paperback style I don't know. But if both sides want a thing, at least on some level, and if no one else is involved or hurt, can it still be evil, even if it kills them?


It might depend who you ask, but frankly I'd trust Baudelaire as a babysitter over Cardinal Richelieu any day, for he who writes of evil needn't express it, physically. Either way, whether we felt it was evil or not, the fall-out was the same. We may wonder what happened in that Tenderloin peep both in THE HOWLING that caused Dee Wallace to repress her memories. Did that Fiona Apple "Criminal" MTV video cause me to revert back to savagery in the early 90s? Maybe, but by then I was an adult, strung out on a melancholy from never being able to get that delirious first MDMA peak high moment back again. Apple had that certain Lynn Lowry mix of childlike glee and physical corruption. Calvin Klein ran ads that looked intentionally like they were taken in some pervert's basement to send into Flesh World.  The important thing to understand is that dirty old man perversion of today was the gold chain hedonist swinger of yesterday, and if the girl is over eighteen and broke and hot and really into doing your drugs, is it a crime to get involved? Some people sure think so, irregardless. Lynn Lowry--or at least her archetypal hippie Mansonite--doesn't. She forgives you in advance.

We, who were just in elementary school at the time, can't remember if those days were really that deranged, but there's magic and power in the wicked but sweet, terrifying but absolving cat sister mile of Lowry on film which will never fade. Whether succumbing to the mad slavering ecstasy-overdose insane group orgy hysteria of Shivers or giggling in progressive waves of insanity in The Crazies or playing with an electric carving knife in I Drink Your Blood, this strange wondrous actress evokes that 70s post-Manson 'girl next door' anxiety with a flair unrivaled. Some girls are just never far enough away from the fire to know they're burning. Bless them for that, and even if following them drowns you in cop bullets, hitting you like scorpion knife flicker stinging flames of razor wire cat o'nine tails water, how can you keep from singing? Tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....

FURTHER LOWRY READINGS:
"That's how you play 'Get the Guests'" SCORE!
SHIVERS! (capsule review)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Jills of Jack Hill (Part 1): BLOOD BATH, MONDO KEYHOLE, PIT STOP, SPIDER BABY






It's hard to say if Jack Hill 'gets' women. The holy father of Pam Grier and WIP (Women in Prison) films, Hill has never shied from lurid sex-sensationalism, but at the same time never belittled, demonized, or completely objectified even the most minor of his female characters, balancing sensitivity with raucousness, insult with retribution, violation with vengeance and growth over puerility.  Sex in a Hill film is positive and empowering; social change doesn't preclude hedonism while 'morality' and 'the law' fall apart under the avenging knife. In a morally restrictive / excessive country like America in the 60s-70s, he was, even for today, forward thinking, his little murderous cannibal nymphettes are the real heroes, no matter who they kill; the grabby lawyers on the other hand, can never be saved.

Either whether all this makes him a feminist or counterrevolutionary chauvinist, Hill is one of the all-time great drive-in auteurs and stands tall with initial mentor Roger Corman in delivering the drive-in's biggest array of strong female characters. His oeuvre stretches through two decades of variable budgets with many films long available only in shit condition. But life... can be beautiful, and this has been the golden retrospective summer of the mighty Hill. This summer alone, Arrow has given us PIT-STOP (racing), SPIDER BABY (carving), and BLOOD BATH (painting) in black and white. And in bleached color but with vivid reds and greens, SWINGING CHEERLEADERS (pouting) and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (sticking) - Go ladies go!

So many of his films were released on Blu-ray these last two years, courtesy DVD labels like Arrow, Shout, Olive, Scorpion, etc. that we now the entirety of the Jack Hill oeuvre available, cleaned up in--mostly--HD sparkle, and fit to marvel at. Many of these discs feature Jack Hill commentary tracks with Elijah Drenner. In case you're unfamiliar with his work, AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE director and extras-maker Elijah Drenner is a fine, casual but informed interviewer, knows his shit, and is as a big fan of Hill's as I am, or maybe you are, bringing a balanced blend of reverence, wit and analytical curiosity that never muddies over into pompous bourgeois tour guide pretense the way, say, Peter Bogdanovich muddies his Hawks commentaries (1), so that clicking over to the commentary track during one of these great Hill discs is like watching it with the pair of them on the couch, and they're cool. You're comfortable having them there; they won't embarrass you if your girlfriend is half-listening while reading her phone, or chew your food for you, so to speak, by explaining every last witticism until its lumpen cud.

The DVD company Scorpion put out SORCERESS from 1982 this summer, too, Hill's last film, for Corman (or ever) and if you're Hawksian then you're also Carpenterian and thus a Hilliard because if you add Carpenter and Hill together you get Hawks, more or less, and if ever a man was holding a bull by a tail, you're it. So now, there all here. So here they are.

Well, I'm too frazzled with excitement to clarify that enigmatic uttering (if you get the reference, you're a Hawksian), so I'm gonna just lay it all out in the grand style of my cannoneer forefathers, i.e. chronologically. First this post  for his first four features (in black-and-white), then, later, the color. And then when the smoke clears and the flying tiger bat god of SORCERESS disappears back from whence he came in the sky, we will know... if Hill truly 'gets' women. Or die tryin'.

BLOOD BATH
(1966) - ***

It's not perhaps a coincidence that this approximation of a "movie" comes out on Arrow the same summer as their long-awaited remastering of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964). Mario Bava's seminal color-drenched protean giallo quasi-masterpiece, BABL "speaks to" the idea of art's pinnacle being the killing of a beautiful woman - sex and violence so commingled as to be inseparable. Strutting along the line between lurid exploitation and self-aware qua-feminist statement, riffing on the world of the California beatnik artists ala Corman's 1959 epic BUCKET OF BLOOD and prefiguring Argento's groundbreaking BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1968), BATH is more interesting in its larger context perhaps than by itself. Thanks to Arrow's comprehensive packaging and great psychotronic guardians like Tim Lucas, BATH can finally be appreciated both within and without its context, illuminating the way one movie became two and then four (and all four are included). So far, I've only seen BLOOD, as that's the Hill one. But I know from the documentary it started out as a Hungarian spy thriller, with two versions being shot at the same time, one in English by young Francis Coppola, neither any good. Then back home, Corman gave both to Hill, who shot more stuff around it and took the boring bits out, to make BLOOD BATH. Then, later, Stephanie Rothman shot more so it would fit in the TV slots, and it was TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE. Crazy, pops.

William Campbell (STAR TREK's go-to fop) stars in Hill's version as a crazed painter / reincarnation of an infamous descendent (also a crazed painter) who was burned at the stake based on the testimony of his insane (and insanely hot) model/muse. In flashbacks we learn she danced around the fire and laughed as he burned alive, his canvasses providing the kindling. The horror then is twofold: not just of dying but of being assured your work will indeed not live on, will not lead to some century-later museum show like Van Gogh, that's the real terror in that story, for are not all obscure writers and artists comforted by the idea of posthumous immortality? I know I am. If you read this and I'm already dead, then right there, for example - I live!

In the best scenes, Campbell tries to paint various local babes he lures over at his stony loft and each time no sooner as he laid down some base than he sees his ancestor's crazy anima/muse/accuser laughing and sneering at him from inside the canvas' wet surface. In classic Freudian projection, he kills the local babe currently posing for him for revenge, dousing her in hot wax (which he keeps bubbling below his pad) and posing them (his past 'work' just lies around the loft, trying not to sneeze or laugh while wearing what looks like a few dabs of oatmeal on their faces and arms). Meanwhile his "Dead Red Nude" series (painted before or after) sell like hotcakes at the coffee shop gallery in downtown Venice Beach, a dive haunted by a trio of beach bum types (Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze and Fred Thompson), their eyes agog at every new misogynistic abstraction. 

More so even than BUCKET, it's this deconstructing/deflowering of art as misogyny even with this (relatively) decent beatnik trio (vs. their coterie of strong, sexy take-no-crap girlfriends) that foretells what will later be best in the Hill tradition: "you're a little naive when it comes to men," a fellow expressionist/ballet dancer puts it to Sordi's virginal girlfriend (Lori Saunders) at the dance studio, but she's the only one in the film who is. Buxom beauty Marissa Mathes all but devours little William Campbell at his studio (he gets the better of her only via drugged wine); Sandra Knight pursues Campbell until he turns into a big blonde Czech and pursues her, and the demoness laughing in the painting taunts him --in short, the women are tough, and he's a weak, deranged lunatic, driven to kill by his amok demon shadow anima. 

This patchwork recycling of objects and identity all obliquely connects to the openness to the moody old world European footage woven in from Operation Titian/Portrait in Terror: its dark ornate tower chimes and long cobblestone shadows are deftly spliced in to the deserted Venice Beach streets. So as beautiful Yugoslavian women are killed by a burly blonde vampire in stylish artsy tableaux that are clearly not in California, we also get the nonlethal version back in Venice, as Corman/Hill beatniks ponder each other's abuse of their girlfriend models: Haig smears paint all over his girls' face and rubs it around on a piece of paper; Mathes has to endure Max shooting her portrait in the face, with his 'quantum painting' gun. When she pours a bunch of wine on his head though, all he and his friends can do is marvel at its effect dripping down on the paper in front of him.  It's a Hill film all right, sisters might get abused but they don't go docilely onto the next beat. They beat back, and the men don't say shit.

Besides, say what you want about these cats' misogyny, they really do love art. I've been there--all zonked out on whatever, manic, and beholding every random splatter as if its bold newness is polishing the knobs of your soul.  And when push comes to shove these three are the only ones the endangered girls can depend on for help against the weird vampire/Walter Paisley concoction that is William Campbell. Their misogyny is all on the surface, inside their gallant. By contrast, there are no cops in the film and when girls in the burly blonde vampires' sights (i.e. Sandra Knight) try and beseech locals for help said locals are all too drunk and dismissive to help. Knight's futile beseeching of a party of masked revelers who instead of taking her seriously just dance with her, and even try to push her into the vampire's arms, recalls a similar scene in Lewton's Seventh Victim... and my nightmares as a child.

It's that nightmare that really casts a mood, conjuring deep dreads associated with being a kid trying to convince adults around you someone is really hurting you or chasing you and they either ignore you or shrug you off, so locked up in their idiotic unconscious snide doltishness that they can't or won't recognize you're in real danger. The only time they snap out of it is when she tries to jump off the carousel, then they all but throw her back into the arms of her killer before blithely skipping off to their own doltish fates. It's a harrowing, brilliantly executed--if frustratingly fractured--part Herk Harvey, part Jacques Tourneur--moment that marks Hill as a real auteur in the works/ One wonders why he made so few horror films. Really this and SPIDER BABY are the only ones! Damn crime. He could have been a unique beatnik Lewton and cranked out a legion of future bargain classics. Like his and Tourneur's Leopard Man, the murders might be gore-free but they're still hard to watch even today, especially the super eerie European-filmed murders like a concurrent nightmare reality ever slicing its way into a totally unprepared Venice.

For the longest time Blood Bath was confusedly mixed up with its original Eastern European spy film source, Operation Titian, and the English version --partially mulled over by Coppola (to no one's satisfaction) as Portrait in Terror. After Hill's horror remix version came and went in theaters (on a double bill with a Bucket of Blood re-release), it reappeared  as part of a TV package, with footage added by assistant director Stephanie Rothman as Track of the Vampire. But now, thanks to the scrupulous loving restoration work supplied by Arrow (and the amazing research of Tim Lucas), we can unpack it all, and note a fine example of how Coppola may be a genius now but when he worked for Corman all he knew how to do was spend money on developing his signature style, and leaving a mess for a more trash-savvy Jack Hill to clean up. Hill's Bath may not make a lot of sense, but it rocks so hard, bro, and now we have the proof. In its way, it makes for a nice triple feature with two other Venice Beach beatnik horror dream poems of the era, Dementia (1955 ) and Night Tide (1961). All are available on DVD or Blu-ray, so we can still soak up the spell of that frequently-filmed carousel, the strange buildings and the atmospheric area underneath the boardwalk, where salt-soaked wooden columns are lashed by rolling surf, and seaweed-wreathed mermaids wash up and out with the tide and then appear in a basement jazz club with Shorty Rogers or a beatnik coffee house with a gone saxophone as you wail about feeding fishes to the artist, playing out the drag of the current on the bongos.

Sorry if this review's disjointed - why should it be different than the film, man? Look at the sea under that boardwalk during the big sandy brawl with the vampire, that ocean is where Dennis Hopper was almost dragged to his death by Knight in Night Tide. She's also in this film killed on the same carousel Dennis Hopper stares at, and was married at the time to Jack Nicholson! In short, now that we have Blood Bath so refined and fine, it's as if a crucial lynch pin Venice Beach beatnik jigsaw puzzle piece is at last in place.

 DVD Review: A+

MONDO KEYHOLE
(1966) - **1/2

If this was the first "roughie" you saw, you might think it was a pretty reputable and artsy genre. A film Hill made for flimflam man / erotica producer John Lamb, it's a low budget black-and-white little post-dubbed freak-out, the "Psychotronica" disc it's on is non-anamorphic for some sad reason, but it still looks groovy. And under Hill's direction--even if it is about a skeevy rapist pornographer (played with no small amount of gusto by Nick Moriarty)--it's never brutal or traumatizing. Besides, we're never quite sure if these girls (he meets them via personal ads or at his photo shoots) are real or just the equivalent of a Penthouse Forum "true story." Either way, rather than being all Dragon Tattoo of Thrones dehumanizing, the violations take on the surreal impact of a post-sync sound dream art film (ala, say, Dementia or Carnival of Souls) to help us distance it more into some kind of perverse erotic fiction rather than a brutalizing Videodrome "sharpening up." In a way, and I never say this about any film that tries to be, I actually found it erotic. Hill clearly 'gets' the amoral nature of eroticism in ways the merely tawdry or romantic do not, i.e. it's not 'correct' but since when has eros ever been? Ask the French. Know who hot French girls thought sexy? Serge Gainsbourg! This is sexy like him.

And don't worry, he gets what's coming to him by the end, more or less, and his elegant wife (the very sexy and alluring Adele Rein)--up to this point so hopelessly bored and sex-deprived she winds up shooting heroin and making love to herself in the mirror (a very groovy scene)--meets a guy dressed as Dracula at the big costume party climax who takes her to a big orgy, where she loses--and so finds--herself. Aside from her date having one the worst post-sync Transylvanian accent ever, Adele's the film's true victor. In the commentary Hill lets us know the actor who did the accent is really a helluva nice fella, seriously, but that accent is almost as nauseating as the human salad bar or drunken shaving cream pool scene. Why it wasn't re-done in a director re-cut or left out altogether is just one of those things - half-star deduction!

Pros:  Hill's camera captures the moon and string light reflection on the shaving cream coated surface of the pool after all the orgy revelers have straggled off to bed and the ripples stop; its texture reflects the lights like some kind of murky 3-D ant's eye view of a flat ice cream soda idling in a midnight bus boy bin. Adele Rein is gorgeous and our heart bleeds for her - we'd be good to you, Adele! Her crazy groovy house (actually Lamb's) is 60s California architecture at its best.

Despite its issues, this is clearly a Hill film. Between the photography and the gorgeous Rein you're bound to find something you like, and if it gets boring you can listen to the lively commentary between Elijah Drenner and Hill, who explains Lamb's penchant for ripping off pornography mail order customers (based on footage in the movie, it's clear Lamb's behind the mysterious Tortura album that used to be a tripping "favorite" in my old hippie house). Always a welcome presence on a lot of Hill commentaries, Drenner's adroit at keeping the focus on the action onscreen and the pair have a fine rapport. We learn Lamb shot the excellent underwater stuff with a camera he personally designed. He was cuckoo for scuba and big game hunting! Not cool the last one, Lamb.

The lovely Vicky Wren (Reine) in her and Nick's ultra hip 60s LA pad (dig the Brady Bunch style stone wall)
Psychotronica DVD review: B (non-anamorphic but redeemed with great Hill/Drenner commentary)


SPIDER BABY
(1964, released 1968) ****

Flmed originally in 1964 but held up 'til '68, this was then was subject to a rash of title changes, and was supposedly shot for $65,000. over 12 days, I mean shit, I'd pay that out of my own IRA just to have this film in existence I love it so goddamn much, and I know I'm not alone. I bought it on Blu-ray from Arrow and it was worth it even if I already had three or four different versions, each better than the last - and now the Blu-ray and each time it gets frickin' better looking and more and more a classic of the macabre to put all horror macabre comedies to shame. In fact it now rivals with the best horror comedies of all time, maybe the best - certainly my own favorite. I only hope one day we'll see a similar evolution in quality from as-yet only semi-upgraded rarities like Old Dark House (1932) and The Ghoul (1933).

See my piece on it back in the day, with Blu-ray update yonder, though I ain't never yet been able to write about it to my full satisfaction. (full review)

Arrow DVD review: A+


PIT STOP
(1969) ***1/2

The second best movie about drag racing after Two-Lane Blacktop, Pit Stop has a sporadically slurring Brian Donlevy as a shadowy race promoter Grant Willard, who sees star potential in surly drifter Rick (Richard Davalos) after watching him crash through a department store window. Grant gets Rick a job at a junkyard, and tells him to build himself a smashable car for figure 8 racing, which is as dangerous as it sounds, especially around the crossover-middle of the figure-eight-shaped track. Damn cool idea if you love big wrecks! The big ace wrecker/racer of Grant's stable, Hawk Sidney, is played by--who else?--Sid Haig. Hawk gets so mad at Grant for stealing his girlfriend (Spider Baby co-star Beverly Washburn) he beats the crap out of him and then takes an axe to his car! Is it Sid's ultimate craziest moment? He's had so many, how can we know? It's up there, let's say that.

Alas, like Spider Baby (which was filmed in 1964 but didn't get released until 1968) before it, Pit-Stop had a hard time finding an audience on its initial release, as black-and-white was considered passe at the drive-in (unless --like Night of the Living Dead, it offered something too shocking for color), and its a shame, because a lot of those color films from the era/budget look like shit today, but Pit Stop looks geee-yorgeous in this new "director approved" remastered HD Blu-ray from Arrow. Maybe even more so than when it was originally released, the full brilliance of 35mm black and white film is revealed. The silvery grays and deep blacks are so seductive you want to frame every shot and admire it over a period of years. The Blu-ray is maybe up there with Criterion's Blu-ray of Repulsion as far as capturing a late night surrealism that seems to shimmer holotropically with good silver cinematography. Real night (and even day-for-night) is now beautiful, dark and deep (if you have a good HD TV or projector, especially) instead of the glowing gray we've been used to for so long.

As a score there are some generic, but effective, bluesy rock songs played over montages of the lovely little junkyard: tires are hauled in around and hoods and parts and there's even male bonding as the songs grind and sway. I like that Rick actually grows--or seems to--as he moves from combative and surly to being nice and joshing around with the boys--which is an an unusual change for a montage sequence --another element of Hill's ballsy but effective strategy that contrasts Rick's character very well with Sid Haig's wild man figure-8 champeen racer. Tellingly, after parting with track scamp Washburn, Grant hooks up with another rival racer's mechanic girlfriend, this one played by the future Ellen Burstyn (above). Billed as Ellen McRae, her dry, low-key person suits Hill's equilibrium to a Valvoline-splattered tee. You can tell she's going to go onto big things (The Exorcist was just five years away), sharing some romantic clinches amongst the Imperial Sand Dunes that show Hill's mastery of day-for-night shooting, giving it all a delirious, dream-like air.


I'd go so far as it to say that, as far racing movies go, Pit-Stop is more Hawksian than Hawks' own RED LINE 7000... Mind you, it never claims to be better than it is. But for fans of the Hill, it's manna.

Arrow Blu-Ray - A+ - Another great Hill-Drenner commentary, gorgeous restoration, da woiks
--
CONTINUED

NOTES:
1. I  know Bogdanovich loves Hawks, and he knew Hawks, but his explaining 'little jokes' in EL DORADO as if they're some pithy New Yorker cartoon being explained to a bored 12 year-old, sucks the wind out of them, like shellacking a soufflĂ©. Drenner avoids all that,

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Fay Wray is the Devil: THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD


Aug. 5 - Fay Wray day on TCM, a great day to be a man, standing in front of a TV, looking at the most gorgeous of all legs, struggling to escape a giant Kong paw, and knowing, in your heart of hearts, the ache the ape endures. And today tons of her best stuff is screening. Don't miss RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, at 11:45 AM, that's 20 minutes from now!

She was married to the great chronicler of the "hurrah for the next who dies" parachute-less pilots of WW1, John Monk Saunders. She's old enough that even I met her, at a late 90s live accompaniment screening of LAZY LIGHTING (1927). And tomorrow is her birthday and TCM is dotty about August birthdays; and so here we are. It's all gonna fit together in about five minutes... and you too will never be "the same" again. So be the same now and get it out of your system.

Parallel track of reasoning #1: consider the climactic unmasking of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) by Toto (Dorothy's dog) and imagine Toto didn't come to Oz, so no one pulled the curtain, which is what put the Wizard on the spot and got him to give out the free shit. What would have happened if Toto wasn't there to cut through the shit? Those four--brave and true as they were--never would have dared pull the curtain or even noticed it, on their own.

Think about it because it's relevant, man, and answer the damned question: Would that old man have ever come out from behind there, of his own accord, switched off his smoke and mirrors, and given Dorothy and her gimme-gimme hooligans their testimonials, medals and diplomas? Would he go all the way back to Squaresville, Kansas in a very dodgy looking balloon instead of being the all powerful Wizard forever behind his curtain, gettin' all the ladies and ruling the roost, as it were? Would their next challenge be to sign up the witch's monkeys into the Oz home guard, and making war against the Munchkins in order to enslave them as poppy harvesters? To hook the munchkins, and make them toil to make heroin from them for sale through the connections of the junky Lollipop Guild, down into Kansas and using the profits to expand the Emerald City and crush all resistance? Naturally, one has to consider that ordering a flying monkey attack squad to arrange a 'cycling accident' for Ms. Gulch, and dye her eyes to match her gown, y'all, red being her color.

Now second parallel track tangent (shortly to dovetail into Wray's birthday, don't worry): In Altman's SECRET HONOR (1984) we are presented with another man behind the curtain, old Dick Nixon--in one long monologue from an oval office surrounded by cameras and tapes and booze. Played by Phillip Baker Hall, we're presented with a Nixon confessing that he couldn't keep the facade, the green face, for the nation, and so let it turn around and bite him, pulling back his own curtain on Watergate so he could get out from under the shady power players of the Bohemian Grove. We find out that HE was Deep Throat, HE was the Toto, that is the "secret honor" of the title.

We hated Nixon for it--at the time--as we hate curtain pullers like Snowden--because he was not cute like Toto, and the one who peels back the curtain and compels us to realize the truth--that there is no easy fixes--is as reviled as one's Monday alarm clock. The truth is that there is never a single consensual reality graspable in any sense, good or bad. Diplomas and medals and testimonials fade and wind up in file cabinets or yard sales. Their value is purely subjective. They have little resale worth. You cannot use them as payment for your next angry fix.

Now that the poppies aren't free anymore, you're gonna need to steal.

Screening today is a movie that I thinks sums up the entirety of this truth of the problems of that curtain over cosmic existence, called THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD from 1934. It was just restored by the Library of Congress, or something. I forget, they introduced it on TCM and it's very special, not particularly great but memorable as far as its underlying spiritual message - the god behind the curtain.

Miriam Hopkins is the rich one and she's single--she seems a little coded closet dyke-ish in today's more gaydar-attuned definition, preferring to play pool and wear pants and carouse rather than faint at the first sight of blood, etc. Nonetheless, being so rich, she wants to be free of all the mooching hangers-on and gigolo gold-digger contingents, to find a real love, one she knows isn't based on smooth-talking fortune hunters, so she switches places with her poor secretary Fay Wray, who's already engaged to the twit who plays Alfy in the Bulldog Drummond movies.

So at a NYC party Miriam meets handsome engineer Joel McRae, who thinks she's only the secretary to the richest girl in the world; but is Miriam happy with that, is she able let it go and tell him everything and say, Joel, you passed my test with flying colors let me buy you a nice vicuna coat? No, she all but cajoles and forces him onto Fay Wray, reminding him that he previously joked with her that girl's wealth wouldn't bother him as a husband, twisting his every word at first half-kidding around cuz they bond like pals since the pressure's off, but gradually forcing him into it, and Wray too, while Alfy looks on, aghast, for truly he can't compete with Joel McCrea. Who can?

Hopkins' savvy grandfather, or whatever, counsels her: hey give the guy a break; the test is too strenuous, pull the curtain for god's sake. Clearly McRae prefers scruffy Hopkins even as only a secretary but he's going along with it as a gag until he falls for Wray because Wray is super lovely and Hopkins is a little busted here -- which is to her credit; she's not afraid to let her chin double up a bit and everything hang out, to get ugly-drunk and pass out and all that. Meanwhile she's pushing old Joel more and more on Fay until they get engaged.

It's stagey and then over -- what is the god element? Of course Hopkins is God, Wray is the Devil. It's not enough for omnipotent hot rich crazy noble God to have our love, he wants to force us into the choice of Him, in filthy rags and no teeth, or decadent luxury and everything we could wish for all wrapped up in Wray's sensuous evening gown-sheathed legs. Who could resist the latter? Only a chump, but that chump's the one goin' to hell.

Watching, we get angry at God/Miriam for being so mutton-headed--as do her lawyers. The test is too great, they and we cry! The devil displays all the wealth and beauty while God is a street urchin, a mallet, a pox, a buddy, a bro, a plain jane. At 'The End' (or our death), the curtains are pulled back, credits roll, and the devil and God join hands and bow. It turns out the urchin, the sick and suffering alcoholic in and out of the rooms, the wonky ugly duckling, is the rich beauty with all the wealth in the kingdom of heaven. The devil's sensuous evening gown is revealed as moth-eaten and fraying --the body underneath turning to old age and dust; roaches climb out of her eye sockets. If you picked the Wray route, you know you done picked wrong, brother, and it's too late to change; eternity is a looooong time.

It can be hard to stick with this film at time since Hopkins is so intentionally dislikable, but so is God at times, at least in the Old Testament. At any rate, it's to their credit that the American Museum of the Moving Image or whomever restored this valuable artifact, not just for its brave dyke-coding of Hopkins' character, but for the subtextual spiritual message. Next time you're wondering "if God exists why is there so much suffering and war and evil in the world?" think of this movie and you have your answer - God is an insecure closeted neurotic who wants to be sure you'd love her even if he destroyed everything you hold dear, like a jealous wife smashing your bowling trophies, destroying every illusion you cling to in order to avoid her; if the only time your not an atheist is in a foxhole, she'll make sure the wars keep coming. If you want to pull the curtain and see her working all the smoke and shelling, all you have to do is stick out your tongue for the lysergic sacrament, wait 20 minutes for it to kick in, and then run like hell, cuz that bitch is CRAZY.

THE END.

Richest Girl in the World screens at 11:45 AM on TCM - August 4, 2016
See also: BLACK MOON (1933) at 1:30
Mystery of the Wax Museum at 5:15
King Kong at 10 PM
Most Dangerous Game at 3:15 AM

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