Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, July 29, 2016


As I was last night preparing to edit this I was flipping from TCM--THE LAST DETAIL (1973) with dimwit sailor Randy Quaid embarrassed by his premature ejaculation at the brothel--to EPIX. with a paunchy cowboy hatted Quaid in THE WRAITH (1986) noting, "let's clean up this mess and get the hell out of here!" Coincidence? Not on your life. That kind of random allusive irony is one of the reasons I flip indiscriminately in the first place. Still, I always have to land eventually; fuel is limited. That's why in the summer (my most reviled season) I stick to easy watching classics I've seen a zillion times - no surprises but plenty of things still to see. One brand of favorite: the cheap monster movies of the 50s, the kind where the highest levels of government are represented by two old character actors dressed like generals standing behind a barren conference table, a big chart--or, if budget allows, a photo of the Washington Monument posing as a window. For this alcoholic, they are relaxation and air conditioning personified.

Take character actor Morris Ankrum: put him in a scene like that with a general's cap and let the magic flow. Give him another higher up, head of the Navy or something, and set them bickering back and forth with a scientist and his girlfriend, each trying and failing, and trying again, to whip a riveting purse out of a sow's ear scene. "Why don't you do something!?" cranky Jeff Morrow shouts to Ankrum. "We in the military know what we're doing, son," Ankrum replies. "But you need to keep reminding us." That kind of elliptical round-the-bend go-nowhere dialogue roundelay repeatedly moves from condescending disbelief ("another one of your practical jokes!" or "You were probably seeing a shadow of a cloud!") to exasperation, to apology (once the evidence is conclusive) to paternal consolation, to American jingoism, to squawking failure, to  condescending disbelief, around and around again in eccentric circles of blame-outrage-apology-pep talk seldom seen outside Eugene O'Neill plays.

My beloved THE GIANT CLAW is a summer perennial, and gamely folds this all in with copious newsreel stock footage of airplanes, dials, snowy fields, and radar stations, as deep officious narration concerns itself with all levels of government and military procedure. Director Sam Katzman can shovel all the stock footage he wants, long as it's of the frozen north, soothing to my AC-hungry brow. But it's Morrow, Mara Corday, and the two old generals piloting the "B-22" --so obviously a model you can see some kid's glue thumbprint on the fuselage--that save the day. I haven't even mentioned the monster, a turkey marionette given a comically menacing head with googly eyes. I haven't even mentioned hearty Pierre as a random Canuck woodsman. You can't make this shit up. This is Katzman country --you're either a citizen or you're quickly facilitating voluntary self-deportation as fast as your remote can carry you.

And how are you a citizen of Katzman Country? You're born into it. You've grown up with Giant Claw on its endless Creature Feature local TV appearances, and even as a child you laughed at it's absurdity, as if Big Bird or some obscene muppet show cast-off had somehow infiltrated adult military 'serious' programming, like Harpo Marx at the custom's desk.  Now, forty years later, you come back from the doctor after waiting for the results of your first chest X-ray after 33 years of smoking, needing see a monster you can sneer at and safely destroy with some atomic spitballs, something to bring icicle familiarity like a snowman pining puddleward as he meshes into the hot asphalt of your hellish reality. Not that I'd ever drink water (except constantly) but water never runs out.


To enjoy a film endlessly over and over, decade after decade, it must have--as Hawks famously said--a few good scenes and no bad ones. And every year I find new bad ones in some old favorites and new good ones in others. The Big Sleep for example never falters, The plot just becomes clearer until you know who killed whom better even than Chandler himself. And then the preview version, with scenes missing from the version we've seen dozens of times like some cherished noir bible, comes like a gift from some cool hipster god.

But then there's the previous Hawks-Bogie-Bacall joint, To Have and Have Not (1944), which has all sorts of inconsistencies that become apparent around the 20th viewing: First off there's the money issues, which bother me more and more every time: A guy supposedly as sharp as old Bogart's Harry Morgan would never let a shifty American tourist run up an $825 tab on his boat, no deposit, no fishing ability or coolness in evidence. That seems pretty stupid, Harry. It's enough where I'm stressed out in ways old Jeff Morrow and his hearty Pierre never made me. How can such a cool customer like Harry be so naive? If I can't trust Bogie to take good financial care of himself (and others) via advance deposits and pay-as-you-go arrangements, how can I sink into Hawksian male bonding contentment, that 'finally found a worthy alpha male' trust and adoration that relieves the stress of COPD or some other smoking related breathing ailment? Not even mentioning how Bogie himself died--the terrible price of looking so damned cool. 

Making things worse is his insistence on "carrying" booze-damaged Eddie (Walter Brennan), the requisite Faulkner idiot man-child (or shaky old rummy) whose dead bee rants and sickly sweat glaze bespeak a terrible smell of alcohol seeping through unwashed pores, a smell that must hang fetid over the boat, drawing massive flies when the ocean wind isn't blowing, which it never seems to (take it from me, for I've felt how Eddie looks. I was massively hung-over out on boats every summer from 1987-92 - and everyone on the boat could smell me, even after swimming in the salty ocean). Eddie is pretty useless both as a dead weight in the story and Brennan gets irritating as a sometimes-too-hammy character who chews up a lot of screen time with his precious little bits of business ("was you ever bit by a dead bee?"), timethat would be better spent with romantic banter between Steve and Slim, for never was a girl more stunning and radiant and otherworldly cool than Bacall is here. Considering this first meeting of Bacall and Bogie-- perhaps the greatest instant onscreen chemistry in all of cinema--how nice it would be if... well, they could have had a lot fun if... yeah, if they weren't in a waterlogged once-more-to-the-misinformed waters of Casablanca early 40s Warners strait. We can mark the moronic behavior of the Free French--the way a dozen shifty-eyed resistance fighters "inconspicuously" trundle upstairs in a Vichy spy-watched hotel to beseech Bogart to help them, or the way the Victor Lazlo-stand-in is so eager to surrender at the first sign of trouble (getting shot as a result) and this is the guy they want to use to "get a guy off of Devil's Island." Sure, such ineptitude at skullduggery can be read as a subtextual comment on the French army's infamously behind-the-times high command (carried over from WWI, as seen Paths of Glory) mixed with a salute to their dauntless courage when the chips are down and out (at Dunkirk, and in resistance fighters) but there's still some mighty inconsistent things going on here. Why would the oafish American tourist disparage Vichy because a flag is left out past 5 PM? That's pretty stupid, too, like loudly insulting Hitler while in the bleechers at the Nuremberg Rally because you saw an out-of-season hydrangea. 

"I ain't got no stinger!"
It all makes one wonder (presuming they've seen the film a few dozen times, and who hasn't?), if not for the great dialogue and every second Bacall is onscreen, would TO HAVE even be remembered today as anything other than another tired Casablanca retread? What if Ann Sheridan or someone played Bacall's part, the way she almost did Ilsa Lund in Casablanca? One shudders at the sorry state cinema would be in today. Bacall was proof we didn't have to endure Ann Sheridan any longer. Real beauty could exist side by side with wit, warmth and decency and most importantly, deadpan cool.

Lucky for me then that the first time I saw To Have and Have Not was back before the internet could chew it up for me. As far as I was concerned it was just another of my then-hero Hawks' films, and so I got to soak up Bacall and her match 'fresh.'  Man, I was knocked out, kicking the air and howling like that wolf in "Bacall to Arms.

Also, I might add, I was closer in age to Bacall than Bogie then, and now... veering up to my big 50th birthday, I find myself envying the acumen and wit of Bogie, no matter his age, and realizing in a blind flash my brain is giving out on me, making me so much less indulgent of Brennan's manchild drunk thing than I was when drunk or a child, or even a man. Is that dotage? I dislike Brennan's rummy and his whole dead bee schitck like old Hoke would dislike someone stealing his rocking chair at the end of The Searchers.

CLAW For the Morrow

One can't always remember the first time they saw a beloved film, but sometimes they can help us remember farther back than we're even supposed to. For example, there was never a time when I hadn't seen The Giant Claw. I was laughing at that bird since before I could crawl. I was born into it, my love of bad movies forming around it's 5 AM showings while I waited for Saturday morning cartoons to start, the bird materializing with an unearthly screech into being as if magically lifted out of the dumpster behind some deranged puppeteer's workshop. As a kid regularly lost trying to follow adult conversation, a kid who would pretend to read by holding up some novel or something and flipping through the pages, here was a chance to laugh at the adults for a change.

To enjoy the film without that inherited lack of good judgment you would need to have a special yen for moments like Mara Corday in a red-eye passenger (propellor-driven) plane delivering an uncalled-for and condescending rant against Jeff Morro under a shared blanket of comfy twin engine roar; how--with everyone else on the plane dead asleep--she starts shouting at him for showing her his giant space bird orbiting patten spiral drawing. If you ask why Corday is shouting and picking a fight with our Morrow when her own non-intergalactic bird theories don't add up at all, then you're probably not ready for this level of high concept science. Sherlock Holmes said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, is the truth. Corday would shout into your ear that Holmes is a fictional character and therefore his theories are worthless.

But smart women scientists know they too are fictional characters because animus-dominated women 'scientists' lack self-awareness, and Katzman should know. He's cribbing from the best, and the worst, of the sci-fi monster movies that came before, and so Corday seems to be shouting at Morrow mainly because Katzman thinks that's what happens in these kinds of films, not to impugn the character of women in more impressive entries like Them! wherein the same character is an astute and open-minded arthropodologist.  One can no sooner lump the Claw in with Them! as compare a frosty Bergman movie to a Long Beach train station. And in this case Corday is right, because the truth is ridiculous, for not only is the thing that's been attacking so many aircraft and buildings a space bird but its invisibility to radar is to due its an anti-matter shield, and YET we can see the strings! This plus an early scene of Jeff buzzing the American Air Force Arctic Radar Station in one of his jets maybe explains her and the military's preliminary incredulity. Test pilot Morrow's an example of the wolf crier endangering the whole tribe because his valuable wolf intel is, thanks to his previous pranks, ignored. Corday is the opposite: because she can see the wires, the bird's not real, even as it eats her. Women.

Make him a sergeant and give him the booze (THEM)
On the other hand, Owlin Howlin, playfully singing and throwing a sheet over his head, presuming --as any drinking man one would--that the giant ants outside his window are just delirium tremens (above), has the right attitude towards these things. You can always believe the reports of a man who doubts his own eyes over the man who presumes himself above hallucinations. Yet I love The Giant Claw and only like Them! I love all scenes on sleepy red eye 40s-50s passenger planes, for they are early examples of a giant slumber party in the sky, succinctly delineating the appeal such films hold for me, a fusion of nostalgia and late night repetition that would be lost on anyone who's never slept all night in a cross country bus or train and woken up in some stout old black lady's lap, her snoring away above you as if some giant mountain, the usual distance between you dissolved into the rhythm of the all-night rails. Is there any more succinct illustration of the way societal norms are structured? Olivier Assayas gets in in Boarding Gate, but whom else?

There's a reason why writers say they do their best work at five AM. And watching films at four or five in the morning offers the same dreamy poetic freedom from 9-5 adult reality. Whether you're the kid getting up to it or the rager coming down to it, catching The Giant Claw as the sun rises, by chance, changes your life. Joy abides in that space between dark and dawn, kids and stoners unite. The child laughs at the adults for fobbing this ridiculous puppet as a serious monster. And the hipster adult feels he's never been so happy to be an idiot, and the writer is... born?

Stock footage to cool the blood in sweltering pre-dawn summer (DEADLY MANTIS) 
That said, the VHS dupe I made of TGC in the early 80s only started about halfway through (right as the big bird munches on a parachuting pilot) and now on DVD, in full, it's much too clear for such dearth of detail, forcing the poverty of the sets and mismatched emulsion damage of the stock footage to the fore and demanding I re-evaluate my hitherto unswerving loyalty. Considering about 1/4 of the film consists of military stock footage, with shots of running panicked populace seemingly lifted out of the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from Beneath the Sea ("bigger" Katzman productions), I realize it was better when uniformly streaked and blurred, occasionally disrupted by color bursts of "Crazy Eddie" TV commercials or "Creature Double Feature" tags. I prefer not to see the sheen of hungover sweat underwriting the faces of participants in what should be cold climates but luckily some of the good things have carried over. I still have my admiration for Morrow's ease with termite lines and moments--like where he's barely in bed after that flight before the brass is once again summoning him--a tireder actor there's never been. Morrow 'gets' it. His only fault is his flat delivery of "so's my sleep!" when the MP tells him he he needs to come with them because "it's important."

Alive in the frosted cornflakes
Now of course there are 'literally' millions of films that are better than The Giant Claw, and dozens of them even telling more or less the same story, from the Arctic de-thawing / hatching on down that ole map from the North Pole. But those other tellings have Harryhausen or Willis O'Brien animation and/or Jack Arnold direction and/or decent budgets.  But some of 'em ain't as good. Consider the similar Deadly Mantis (same public domain radar installation stock footage) which taps into the same obsession with the North Pole and Canadian air defensive radar shields: "the Pine Tree" and "Dew line" -- tapping into some conception of 'the Cold War' coming from "up there" as we realized Russia would go over the pole, down past Canada, to more expediently nuke us then by going across either ocean, so Canada functions as a kind of go-between and the cold North calls us like a magnet (1). Keep watching the skies, because Canada  hangs above us like Damocles' icicle

The Deadly Mantis, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the six-armed giant octopus in It from Beneath the Sea, and our friend the Giant Space bird all start off way up there--top of the sky map--from the North Pole on down. The Thing, the first, best and smartest/smallest, stayed up there; the rest maraud their way downwards, killing eskimos, pilots, trawler crews, and Canadian lumberjacks, as they  migrate south to a major port city. At first no one believes the lone witness--a shipwrecked sailor or downed pilot-- some narrow-minded doctor even thinks he needs a padded cell; catching wise, the witness changes his story, blames the heat or stress, and so the scientist's hot assistant seduces the truth out of him. The best of the lady scientists work on perfecting the weapon or strategy that stops the creature/s, while the worst roll their eyes and make sandwiches. Deadly Mantis has (its girl) Alix Tilton doing more than her part to help but being belittled as she goes by dopey feints towards Fordian sentiment, like the stuttering radar men asking her to d-d-dance before the inevitable shot of the monster leering through the window trying to cut in. (Claw's Mara Corday is spared this indignity, having already endured it in 1955's Tarantula).

Perhaps it's worth looking again at The Deadly Mantis (1957) but unlike The Giant Claw--which is unforgettable and seems to last five hours--Mantis is the most anonymous film in all of science fiction and over much too quickly. I still can't remember what happens in it. Siphoning the gas tanks of everything that came before it sutures together such a framework of stock footage and stock tropes it could be about any of the radioactively-awoken giant monsters in any of the other films and star anyone (its cast criminally void of any notable charisma or even notable lack thereof). This all somehow makes it too dull to follow but not too dull to turn off, thus it's ideal to fall asleep to or have on while you come down from a panic attack. Watch it 100 times in a row you'll still remember nothing about it whatsoever, yet never be quite all the way bored. It's also the most obliquely para-sexist stealth-feminist of the lot ("we're taking you home young lady," notes the military guy after she's singlehandedly coordinated the 'map of weird 'accidents' which chronicles the bug's trajectory and discovered the pattern). In its disregarding of all that sexist nonsense (Morrow would be the last person to patronize or stop Corday from doing anything), Claw earns its wings, no matter how goofy the effects.

Naturally a few years back when Sarah Palin mentioned she could see Russia from her house I understood at last why all these films were set up there, and at the same time I had to add her to the list of Northern threats ever-ready to rain down montages of panicked citizenry, radio speakers, mobilizing infantry, maps with dotted lines running across various parallels between the US and the North Pole, and cornflake snow hurled in through open portals as people exit and enter the impoverished radar offices. "Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) - able to contact any part of the globe in three minutes." Eskimos point at the sky when the mantis' forelegs get caught up in the fisherman's kayak drying racks; the monster attacking the Washington monument (a favorite Katzman target, reflecting --as I'm sure most feminist horror readers will note--the overlap of red-baiting, tour guide patriotism and castration anxiety).

And in the case of le Claw, there's a great catch-all representation of a French lumberjack loner (Louis Merrill), who--with his faithful dog-- finds Corday and Morrow in the wilderness after they alone survive the latest plane crash deep in the Canadian pines. Naturally he has the name of Pierre. Good Pierre. Jaunty Pierre, He gives Morrow and Corday his homemade applejack while recounting the tale of the a giant predatory flying witch many have seen in these parts and how all those who saw this giant witch died. And before they were attacked the shadow of its giant wings passed over the house --an ill omen, monsieur.... an ill omen.

Fascinatingly, Morrow--who's encountered this giant bird about 20 times already and still everyone doubts him--shouts in Pierre's face as if there's some unseen and unheard waterfall right off camera, "you saw an eagle, Pierre!" Never could the space bird and the old flying witch of local superstition be the one and the same thing. Never! The mind reels, it's like Dorothy yelling at the Tin Man for thinking scarecrows can talk. You heard the wind, Tin Man! The wind!

But again Morrow saves the reel, singlehandedly etching some warmth out of the proceedings by guzzling a second glass of the Pierre's homebrewed jack. A shine beads his eyes, twinkly as the reflection of the bear fat slicking his dark black hair; ending every sentence with the name Pierre, Morrow says shit like "This is great stuff, Pierre" or "that's a superstition, Pierre!" or "another drink, Pierre!" The constant use of his first name keeps him separate from the college educated Corday and Morrow. Rather than deal with their own issues they fuss over him like he's an infant. Eventually, though they all agree: the thing only chases you if you run. Later-- on a revisit-- Pierre runs, thinking he can perhaps outrace a bird the size of a small apartment building. It's the kind of moronic lack of logic that a kid would not notice, but it all fits to make CLAW the classic it is. You see... kids in the 70s didn't need special effects -  our fertile minds filled in all the blanks.

Besides, maybe if they didn't practice clear-cutting, Pierre and company wouldn't have supplied such a perfect space for a massive nest.

But now, 100 viewings later... I wonder what happened to Pierre's poor dog.

"my gun is gone!"
There's so much wrong with CLAW that one loves it like a child; Jack Arnold's TARANTULA (1955) by contrast is good enough that its missteps irk one. Supposedly a doctor, John Agar's idiocy is unrivaled. There's three eaten cattle, mysteriously drained of all meat and the only clue is a huge puddle of strange milky liquid. "Quit worryin' about that white stuff and find out who killed my cattle!" exclaims the rancher. It's as stupid as Morrow telling Pierre he just saw an eagle. Agar and the sheriff (Arnold regular Nestor Pavia) are too dimwitted to either calm him, take a sample of the venom, or do anything else. It has to happen twice before Agar even smells the puddle. "Print this as a straight accident," he notes to his reporter friend. Still, he fails to connect the sudden flourishing of acromegaly to a nearby lab's use of radioactive growth serum when there's nothing else at all going on in a 100 mile radius. It all shows Agar is not the right person to trust as far as a barometer of public opinion. Eventually he does wise up, "we gotta keep our minds open and our mouths shut." Talk about locking the barn after the horse is gone...

But TARANTULA stays off my summer list in general because it's set in the desert --too hot. And I like military stock footage, and hate to see any animal in a cage, even gerbils, man. When I'm in my isolation chamber screening room--my feet in tissue boxes and my nails long and yellowed, gibbering to myself and pressing rewind over and over though tapes are long gone--any film that reminds me too much of the shabby contours of my own querencia is to be avoided. No prisons or cages for Bigfoot. No, dear friend, for the concretization of my frontier's sad closing I need a hero bigger than any giant arm chair arachnid...

I need Hank.

"Never when you're sober"

I've seen Touch of Evil a few dozen hundred times. Another repeater is Psycho, which came out two years later and seems almost a remake, alike as two sister craft - on some level. What unites the two isn't just the post-modern cool of Janet Leigh but the idea of the motel, run by a repressed loner, that's become separated from the main highway, with only one guest.... Doll.

Leigh driving off to a motel... off the main highway, all alone... did Hitchcock see Touch and feel cheated that the Grandy boys (and girls) didn't cut Janet up in the shower instead of lugging her back to some seedy hotel in the company of a "mixed party"?

The main--as in "the"--murder that centers PSYCHO finds a mirror in the third act of TOUCH OF EVIL, the murder of Uncle Joe Grande, his tongue and toupee dangling over Leigh's drugged unconscious sleeping face. The PSYCHO murder was out of the blue, terrifyingly final, with an unseen killer in a motel room in the dead of night. In TOUCH, we feel the mounting dread within little Akim. The killer is a cop we know well; we only begin to realize the extent of his drunk machinations when he starts closing drapes, putting on gloves and and so forth in the room while Uncle Joe tries to keep his cool while backing into corners, like a mouse dropped into the terrarium of a hungry king snake slowly uncoiling from its nap.

But at its core Welles shows his one auteur flaw, one that Hitch lacks. It's the same one that trips Welles devotee Peter Bogdanovich: insecurity masking itself as contempt for the he-man type, as in being forced to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican with "practically cabinet status in the Mexican government" and making him a sexually-panicked virgin desperately avoiding sleeping with new wife Janet Leigh (he's Mexican after all, and that would displease the Southern Markets), while at the same time using her as an excuse for not focusing fully on his job. And then again later, as an excuse for trashing Rancho Grande like an amok bull instead of being alert to her yelling for him out the hotel window. Heston's cop goes around blaming everyone else for his sexual dysfunction and taking sincerity at face value. "Captain," he says of a shaking Mexican suspect about to get the third degree, "he swears on his mother's life." Later, after he's nattered on about the law he decides, "I'm no cop now, I'm a husband!" and uses this as an excuse to trash to the Grande's gin joint. Yeah, Orson sly infers, you're a husband but you're a terrible one, and a lousy cop. No one so into the law should feel they have the right to shunt it aside when it's time to be a husband - if you wanted to be a husband you'd be in bed with her right now instead of pussyfooting around with the leather-jacketed Grandy boys. Don't yell at Dennis Weaver for taking your gun if you're dumb enough to leave it with your wife though she doesn't even know it's there, or she'd surely have opened fire on the Mexican gang bangers. She certainly had time to get it out of the case. "Who the hell does Quinlan think he is? Pinning a murder rap on my wife," Vargas says, showing he's just as sexist as Quinlan is racist.

But hey, at least Hank and Uncle Joe keep her entertained. Us, too.

Vargas on the other hand constantly leaves her behind in the interest of protecting her (he can barely get her an ice cream without incident) and if he's such a high-standing cabinet member why doesn't he find a nicer town for a honeymoon? He's like the president taking his bride to Coyote Ugly for their honeymoon and then getting indignant when girls dance on the bar. Behavior this incompetent we wouldn't see again until Mel Gibson leaves his wife and kids to run barefoot through the woods in the first MAD MAX.

The last time Quinlan sees Heston's Vargas before the final shootout, he appears like one of the cigar box toreador postcards on the wall below the mounted bull behind him, finally lurching him to his feet, the barbs still hanging in the head and ready for his final dangerous charge. The spectacle of the bland young buck of 'the law' made small, up against its unbearably odious other- a massive wounded animal; bureaucracy (Vargas just one of a bunch of bland 'pretty boy' bureaucrats) vs. the ageless and eternal (but mortal and highly iconoclastic) monster. "Vargas is one of those starry-eyed idealists," slurs Quinlan to Pete. "They're the one's making trouble in the world." Hank's famous intuition was right; the kid really did plant that bomb. Vargas would have let it go at "he swears on his mother's life."

And Vargas made all his own trouble from the get-go. He could have just walked away... he framed a lot of people but nobody that wasn't guilty... guilty. Think of how much more crime-ridden things would be in his town without him. He 'made' his partner an honest cop by keeping the secret of his own dirty tricks from those around him. Isn't that what being an adult really is all about?

But Vargas, since he's so mercilessly hounded by Welles' black humor subtext, doesn't bother me enough to keep away. I can watch TOE any old time. I love Quinlan, Pete (always a fan of Joseph Calleia, since his turn as Nick Varna in THE GLASS KEY), Uncle Joe, the boys, and I despise Vargas but not enough to keep away. Certain small, random things, on the other hand, can keep a film out of my rotation of summer stock staples. My Hawks' repertoire doesn't include his MONKEY BUSINESS, for example, purely because of Cary Grant's grey buzz-cut and my embargo on any movie that shows animal testing even if the apes seem to have a fine time (a cage is a cage). Ginger Rogers' as a born-again teenage virgin grates too--she plays it much too shrill and broad, and I say this as someone who loves Ginger nine times out of ten. Mainly though it's Gant's gray hair buzzcut. It itches  the back of my neck just to see it, those stabby little bristles. I can smell the barber shop talc like a slap in the face that takes weeks of humiliation and discomfort to erase, wash out, grow back. What kind of guy associates a military grade crew cut with being young and feckless? I'm no fan of I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE neither. Cutting off a horse's tail to make a wig... ridiculous and unfair to the horse. How's he gonna bat flies away from his arse? The horse I mean.

But hey - Tarantino films for the most part always hold up to repeat viewings, the horses are bedded down real cherry...  though DJANGO is so harsh it's hard to relax with cuzza slavery. On the other hand, I've already seen HATEFUL EIGHT six times. It's perfect for hot summers since it occurs during a blizzard. Sure, there are things that don't work for me, like the high voiced fey narrator (Quentin himself, successfully masking a lot of his vocal tics) who ducks in the second part and the anachronistic White Stripes song (though one anachronistic song works - David Hesse's "Now You're All Alone" in the second to last chapter).

But other shit works great, like the Mexican's "Silent Night" --an out-of-tune but effective rendition  on live piano (his soft "goddamn it" after flubbing a note) gamely counterpointing Samuel Jackson and Bruce Dern's antithetical veering from 'shared a battlefield with this man' post-war bonding ("most of my ponies"), to post-war bitter ("I did better than my damn no-good brothers") to Jackson's harsh gloating tale ("It was cold the day I killed your boy!") to goad him into drawing first (thus making the killing legal). Great writing, elaboration and organic mastery of the way things start one way and wind up the complete opposite in the same setting without any one single noticeable change occurring - a gift lost on 99.9% of screenwriters. 

Morricone's score is one of his absolute best, not even in a 'fond dotage' kind of icon indulgence, with a theme mixing elements of earlier work (the tick-tock watch chime motif from For a few Dollars More) with the relentless low-register cacophonic crescendos of his signature giallo-style and the loping bassoon notes of one of his more playful westerns (part of the 'post'-Sundance Kid wave, where every movie had a recurring romantic flashback set to an 'cute' 70s pop song) and the thud-thud bass under them all. Like the film's theme of real death and forgery patriotism as the building blocks of US democracy, it's a score that evokes his past without leaning on its tropes, not a mere homage but a new classic that uses the old songs like a palette rather than a crutch.

Like those references, each actor's speaking style seems intimately cared for, woven into the fabric. There are deft Hawks references and Anthony Mann pauses in the speaking, and above all the kind of careful diagramming of hostages and killers that makes good movies like Rio Bravo so clearly logical in structure ("If anything happens to us, your brother's liable to be accidentally shot"). Compare Fistful of Dollars (1966) - there's that bit wherein the mean bastard whose been in a familial war with the house across the way decides to just kill everyone in that other family. It's like why the hell didn't the other do that first? It's one of those dumb games that show the disinterest Leone has with the logistics underneath the western, or why duels were even invented. In the hands of someone with western savvy the motivation is clear: lots of witnesses around mean you can't shoot an unarmed man, or someone whose armed but not actively trying to shoot you first. Witnesses for later courtroom scenes abound in the folks lining the streets, so rules must be followed.

For example Rio Bravo and Red River are endlessly rewatchable in part because Hawks knows the kind of prodding by which two gunfighters "paw at each other and see what they're up against." And he knows the way you need the guy you want to kill to be reaching for his gun before you can legally shoot him, hence the gunfighter code of drawing first, or agreeing to draw at the exact same time - Hawks sneers at "killing is wrong" Kramer revisionism (he made Bravo as a response to High Noon) while Leone doesn't really seem to understand either philosophy: the law and self defense and witnesses never enter into it and killing is never condemned except by labels like "The Bad" flashing onscreen. His gunmen are doing it that way because that's the way it's done in movies, and Morricone's electric guitar makes any other gesture but the fatal kind seem half-assed. For Hawks everything is based on hostages, lines of fire, and having guys who are "real good" shots, who don't get all mushy over killing sex or seven guys in a five-second gun battle and if you have the boss in your gunsights it doesn't matter how many of them there are because he'll be the first person shot. We always know the rules in Hawks, so things always make sense -- its the kind of logic that's so enticing it makes us loyal, wins us with ballsy courage, like Arthur getting his enemy to knight him mid-battle in Excalibur, knowing with so many witnesses no other possible recourse is open to his former foe other than future loyalty.

But cop violence and stand your ground etc. has been making it real clear why you always need to wait for the owlhoot to draw first, even if he's black. What makes Hateful Eight so wondrous is that it's not just great in itself but the most hopeful film about the future of the country since Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, so optimistic about the joining of east and west, left and right, urban and rural. And in the process it's also the most sharp-eyed about the reality of violence, and the thin blue line of law cohering out of the twilight of a whiteout. Jackson's character is even based on the real life Bas Reeves, a black bounty hunter working in the Colorado mountains. Here he's also made a murdering cavalry officer who joined the war to "kill white folks" and so his partnering with the future sheriff ex-"Ni--er killer of Baton Rogue" - ex-Confederate officer, has a real optimistic glow. We may have our differences, skin, hate and so forth, but these other guys and girl in their sights slime and on that we can all agree. Russia and America were both horrified by the Nazi camps they were each liberating as they advanced into Germany in 1945, they're common brotherhood in humanity was reaffirmed by their shared horror.... for awhile anyway.

This is the kind of salvo towards peace through an understanding of the importance of violent men that makes it so tragic the cops boycotted this film because of their union, where they feel that to question the behavior of even a few bad apples is to condemn all fruit. What makes EIGHT work for endless revisits is that no one has dominion over nobody and due to it's being shot on 70mm film it's probably the most gorgeous looking work to come along on HD in some time. The dark shadows glowing in a whole spectrum of deep yellows and purples of the sort I hadn't seen since the Criterion clean-up of the RED DESERT smog. I could spend eternity looking at those fields of Wyoming snow, the carriage thundering along to Morricone's ominous twang and sing-song metronome, the bright yellow lining of Samuel Jackson's cavalry jacket, the mix of steam and pipe smoke billowing from the mustached and/or grinning mouths of Jackson and Russell, glowing in the ambient light. Could do without the "Hey Little Apple Blosson" ditty but there's the offhand way Kurt Russell assures Daisy he'll stop her cold with a bullet if she tries to escape and then paternally wipes some stew from her chin with his napkin, or pours her a slug at the bar.

The whole idea of being holed up in this cozy joint during a raging blizzard is a fine inverse mirror to the art of holing up in the AC with your stack of movies during a heat wave. And mostly, I love that Quentin sets up the victims of the Domingray gang massacre in such vivid detail with so few strokes and makes most of them black without anyone calling attention to it, a kind of color-blind casting that works well because we've already heard much about them, and never pictured them black, only dead--and racist (Minnie hates Mexicans), or the cold dispassionate way the gang are all shown first sweet talking their victims, getting them up on ladders, buying candy, speaking French, etc, then shooting them point blank, and looking down at their still twitching bodies and scared eyes with only clinical killer abstraction.

Ya mind seein' pictures yet?
Over numerous viewings too I've come to see how thoroughly Jackson's Major Warren steals the show. He floats in the blood to the top. That's not unusual for Jackson in a Quentin film. He swims in QT's rich language like a cold pool. In DJANGO he had but a few vicious scenes. This role makes up for the shortage. It's a film about eight hateful characters but Jackson is the one who takes command, in that he inspires change and loyalty in Goggins' Confederate, who falls under his sway against fellow (bad) white men makes them a kind of nice mirror to another future black cop/bounty hunter and white crook/sheriff against a lawless horde film, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. See them on a double feature and hey, you'll never spend a better four hours indoors, in the AC, under the shadow of the Hawks, in the dead of night, cuddled next to whomever crawls into your row, be they black or white, thin or fat, rich or poor, we all wake up spooning in a few dozen hours. Whether that's really true or not, whether authentic racial divide healing is just a lot of smoke, it's America, man--it's never just bad apples or all-fresh, it's constant only in its peerless ability to incorporate fiction into its own history, mythologizing itself as it kills it's way through the darkness. Watching it we feel somehow like our own broken psychic bones are knitting, maybe set wrongly and maybe right, but knitting nonetheless.

Of course you may find there's not many places to go afterwards in the summer icicle canon... Carpenter, Hawks, the train, the big bird...

Damn it, you know where, Pierre. We still have... a long way... to go...  but hand... in motherfuggin' hand... we'll get 1982 back again.... not that we want to. Just that it's the only place still open.

Your loving conqueror,


1. Sometimes in deep meditation I can feel my aura being pulled toward the north pole, and I have a theory it acts as a kind of soul energy release transmitter, beaming our unused psychic wave energy off-grid to power you know what.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Angels of Death Summer Viewing List: The Badass Brunette Edition

It's summertime here in the East Coast and if you're a Nordic in genes and temperament it's not your favorite season--in fact it's loathsome: too muggy, humid, sweaty and everyone frolicking about without a care in the world, mocking you and your Swedish allergy medicine depression. That means lots of time staying home and watching old horror movies on TV, the AC blasting, for that special chill cool horror causes. And cool horror means cool women, and if you love dark long flowing hair then you want brunettes, ideally with guns and sharp swords, slightly biker-tough. Blondes are the cornerstone of horror, but your Nordic mom is blonde, and you can't abide seeing a girl who looks like your mom when she was 29 and you were three years old and constantly struggling to get her attention, which to your three year-old emotional state is more precious than gold. Right? And then she comes at you like a wurdalak to drink your blood. You kneel at the base of her bed screaming and crying in terror, and she finally wakes fully up and you realize she was just moaning from having to deal with your three-year old's nightmare nonsense. (True story!) Nothing in my life has measured up to the fear of that three year-old nightmare moment. All the rest of our lives, mom and I used to joke about it, that is... by day. My mom was a mix of Doris Day, Bibi Andersson and Janet Leigh, and they've effectively split up for different parts of my psychic projection -- Doris I have a kind of hatred for, that aspect of mother one must reject and avoid when hitting latent puberty; Anderson, the sensual anima with far-away eyes and Nordic beauty, whose attention I still crave and lack; and Leigh, the vulnerable deer-in-the-headlights, stirring the responsibility one feels when made 'the man of the house' before they actually become men.

Knowing this you can imagine that I was sooo looking forward to Swedish director Nicholas Windig Refn's NEON DEMON; but then I read April Wolfe's review in the Voice. I can't even seem to think about it now without starting to shake in rage, like I did hearing a professor had screen IRREVERSIBLE in class without even a warning. So rather than get livid (which would just raise my heat index, the opposite of why we're here) let's talk cool brunettes, the capable women who win my affection by not depending on it. I see them completely as other - more associated with my dark-haird father, surely, and like him, strong, affectionate and kind of a partying badass.

9.  Arly Jover, Natasha Gregson Wagner 
Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace (2002)
Directed by Carpenter wingman Tommy Lee Wallace, I actually like sequel better than JC's original, which seemed surprisingly misogynistic, way off-note from the usual Carpenter cool. This almost makes up for it as that the main villain is model Arly Jover, sexy but in a sleek lithe dancer way, not a softcore bimbo way. Lightning fast, super strong and mentally unstoppable. Una (Jover) hopes a bizarre priest-crucifying ceremony will enable her to walk in daylight, but the priest has to do it willingly, so elaborate prep is needed. Slinking around so she is invisible to the naked eye, zipping through packed cafes like a breeze, giving playful licks to the neck of lovely Natsha Gregson Wagner, seducing the claustrophobic on-loan black vampire slayer (Darius McCarey) and scaring James Wood's replacement in the Vatican vamp slaying business, Jon Bon Jovi (who's great), and his priest acolyte. They only get to see her if she pauses over her prey long enough that she becomes visible. It's a very cogent and interesting use of that 'quicker than the eye' idea.

Sheathed in a lovely grey lame wrap dress (high fashion meets the mummy, the perfect blend), Jover doesn't get many lines nor need them, but the way, once slowed into view, she moves back and forth like a swaying cobra, turning herself on by tuning into the beating hearts of her impending victims, makes me root for her every step, as well as digging the cute love story between shoot-first ask-questions-never Jovi and "I'm bit but I got pills"- HIV analogy-trundling naif Natasha Gregosn Wagner. And is that future Mexican film star Diego Luna (Et tu mama tambien) as the local kid who signs on with a note from his parents? It is, and even with his weird face and strange manner the kid has undeniable screen charisma; you don't know why but you can smell impending stardom all over him. Blood never lies. 

10. Natasha Gregson Wagner
Dir. Richard Elfman

From VAMPIRE'S KISS, THE ADDICTION and NADJA in the east, and NEAR DARK and VAMPIRES in the west, the 90s was a high time for hipster vampires working blood as an addiction/heroin/schizophrenia substitute and this little honey of a made-for-cable horror has a lot of that vibe. Following vamp Caper Van Diem (showing a real relish for this kind of morale-free bloodthirsty killer romantic) as he cruises back into LA, earning the ire of local party legend Dracula, who's held a grudge against him since he set the wheels of vampire hunting in motion by turning out Van Helsing's sick son. 

The director's brother Danny Elfman delivers one of his better scores of vocalizing and vamping (ala his work on Burton's Ed Wood and Mars Attacks) which fuses nicely with wild panther noises when newbie vamp Natasha Gregson Wagner--strutting and looking glamorous as Hell even in tawdry leather shorts--strikes at her johns and bloodies their cars and nearby alleys. Smokin' hot but sufficiently ferocious not to seem chintzy about it, with her shock of (dyed - hence makes the list) blonde hair, and habit of cartwheeling drunk into trash piles, Wagner just might be the best 'hot mess' vamp of the 90s.

What's so great about this nutty film is that thanks to a gleefully savage script by Matthew Bright, these vamps are portrayed as nice cool folks to party with, but who don't waste their time hunting deer for blood like the Twilight crowd. They go for the jugulars of human beings with cheerful disregard for their screaming and pleading. Seeing naked bound humans terrorized and bled at the local vamp club presented as mere background to the dialogue and typical club exposition is wondrously refreshing after so many films where newbie vamps are meant to recoil in horror from their impending thirst, the way someone might stop eating meat after visiting a slaughterhouse. I mean I'm as sensitive or more so than the next guy, but that kind of honesty is such a relief after so much of the namby-pamby compromise that deadens vamp romances. 

And damn right you'll be IMDB-ing Bright after this, and once you do and realize he also wrote FREEWAY  and DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, then suddenly you're hooked. Who is this guy and why isn't he revered to this day as the blood slicked intersection of Jack and Walter Hill? Not sure. He fell off the map a little bit after this and devolved into druggy dysfunction biopics like BUNDY, which is a drag. As far as made-for-late-night-cable schlock goes, this film is a frickin quasi-gold nugget and yet I'd never have known about it if not for Quiet Cool puttin' me wise. Like me, Bright has a yen for truly dangerous women--the type who don't need to wait to be assaulted by men before they're allowed to kill them. I can sense Bright shares too my hatred of the Stanley Kramer self-inflicted preachy morality of films where newbie vamps suffer tortures of thirst rather than bite some random pedestrian cuz it would be wrong or something (like Near Dark, Lost Boys, Interview with a Vampire)- Dude we're adults, why not have him kill a bunch of people and then feel guilty about it later if they want? That's just life... and death. Be adult! It's so wrong it's so right I forgive even the questionable gangbang scene. A half-asleep Rod Steiger makes a sociopathic yet boring Van Helsing; Udo Kier. Craig Ferguson, Kim Cattrall, and Natalya Andreychenko as the upscale vampires round out a capable cast; there's also a hilarious trio of Crips Van Helsing hires to help him raid nests. Don't miss.

See also: Joséphine de La Baume and Roxane Mesquida
(2012) Dir. Xan Cassavettes
Bearded screenwriter Paolo's (Milo Ventimiglio) smoldering eyes meet those of the alluring but stand-offish Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) at the local video store: movies, connection! But they can only hook up if he chains her to her bed, cuz turned on she grows fangs and glowing eyes. After an impressively short bout of initial disbelief, Paolo's just too turned-on to not unchain her, biting and incumbent vampirism be damned. Hey, it's like when you're so in love you don't bother with a condom. I dig it. This movie gets that, and if vampire heterosexual love seems played out, Paolo and Djuna are so good together, so model-perfect without being smug or arch about it, that it's hard not to swoon. With its impeccable color schemes, all the better to perfectly bring out La Baume's gorgeous red hair and pale skin, the occasional bouts of vivid sex, Steven Hufsteter's mellotron slink and electric Morricone score evoking the Franco-Rollin oeuvre better than either ever managed. this retro-lyrical vampire love story would be a hard thing to fuck up, and this impressive debut from the daughter of John Cassavetes is far from fucked-up. It almost doesn't even matter if it goes so very not far from merely being a romantic fantasy for people too mature for Edward Cullen but not yet old enough for the actual grave. 

In that sense too I like it worlds better than the similarly stylized and better-reviewed Duke of Burgundy which is burdened by a fundamental bad casting decision (to use ordinary looking actresses in frumpy middle age or thereabouts rather than gorgeous clothes horses--an interesting idea but it doesn't work for the Eurosleaze genre - if you're going to do Petra von Kant or Warhol-style aging divas they at least need to be histrionic--as there's nothing else going on to hold our attention, especially in HD). Here the delicately low-key romantic chemistry of La Baume and Ventimiglio intoxicates so much because they're both so beautiful on their own and together transcend mere window dressing or smolder. The result is sublime cinema crack cocaine for the eye, so when Djuna's wild child vamp sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up, needing a place to crash after laying waste to the clubs of Amsterdam, we recoil in frustration like we're Gene Tierney cockblocked by apple-cheeked cherubs in Leave Her to Heaven... or sleepers woken too early on a rainy mellow weekend. What kid of a famous filmmaker has ever made us feel that inclusive intoxication, aside from Sofia Coppola, once? 

12. Alison Elliott as Nora, and the reincarnation spectra of Irish druid generations
(1998) Dir. Michael Almereyda

If Eugene O'Neill adapted Bram Stoker's "Jewel of the Seven Stars" and set it in NYC 90s with the help of Hemingway and Lew Landers, I think we'd have the ETERNAL. I found this gem by being into Almereyda's black and white vampire hipster film NADJA and learning he made this afterwards, another hip salute to classic horror films utilizing contrasting film stocks and speeds to create weird ESP interconnectivity between past, present, human and witchy... Starting in NYC and ending up on a windswept Irish shore, it's about reincarnation and a mummified druid priestess found in the basement and woken up by Christopher Walken right as Nora returns home. Noting her body's been preserved by all the tannin in the peat, Walken's pretty enthralled by his discovery--an ancestor of his family... and therefore Alison's (Alison Eliot) who's been having migraine black-outs and drinking and goes to the homestead in Ireland almost as if called by some unseen force, her fun-loving drunk husband (Jared Harris) and owlish ginger son in tow.

One of the unique subtexts at work here is an undercurrent of pro-drunken feminist anger as pointed as Eugene O'Neill's in Anna Christie. Nora regularly has drinks taken out of her hands by fellow drunk husband Jim who says "none for us, we're quitting" and makes a big show of enjoying life without it all while nipping from a flask unseen. That kind of balderdash makes me want to wretch! The way the drinks pass her wide eyes by, or the way she works hard to seem deadpan when getting offered some whiskey down in the basement once Jim's upstairs with the ginger kid --it's the kind of stuff only drunks like myself probably feel so keenly, and non-drunk directors don't even seem to notice as keenly as others when adapting O'Neill's works. Very few playwrights capture the way every offered drink, every vulnerable liquor bottle, warms the alcoholic's blood like a siren call, and every 'no thanks' on their behalf freezes the blood like a gut punch they're not allowed to wince from, lest they prove just how valid their family's concerns are. I lost my train of thought. (more)

See also: Michael Almereyda's previous hipster/30s horror deconstruct, NADJA (Elina Löwensohn)
See also: Hammer's adaptation of Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars: BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB  (Valerie Leon, above) 
See also: Virginia Christine in: CURSE OF THE MUMMY (1942) 

 2-3. Lili Taylor + Catherine Zeta Jones
(2001) - Dir Jan de Bont

Whenever I feel a close sisterly affinity with an actress I check when and where she was born - sure enough, like me Lili Taylor is a Pisces born in 1967 Illinois. Like me, she's an introverted mirrorer - meaning she can reflect, distort, match and amplify other people in one-on-one encounters; we love one or two people at a time, but we start to lose ourselves the larger the group. We can't mirror everyone at the same time, so we begin to vanish, or freeze, get a panic attack trying to process all the voices. Still, give us time alone with a cool chick reflector like Catherine Zeta Jones, we're like an awesome sexy feedback machine - it's only when the dull boys show up things wonk out. Jones' dialogue, clunky, in their initial meeting, her bragging about her Prada Milan boots and so forth is overcome by her knack for delivering lines with a cheeky delight: "This is so twisted, Susan Foster Kane meets the Addams Family," it's that playful knack Taylor mirrors so well.

An Aires born 1969 in Wales, Jones has a twin sign reflector skill herself. She's never been outshone in any film - always able to reflect her co-star/s' radiance, no matter how acclaimed they are. Put two reflectors together like Jones and Taylor in the first chunk of Haunting- and there's instant lesbian affinity that overwhelms Taylor's character right out of her mousy caretaker role, and delights Jones who in turn is fascinated by Taylor's instant crush on her, then quickly moves on once the rest of the guests arrive. Most hilariously is the way, for example, Taylor echoes the ominous words of the uptight housekeeper ("we lock the gates after dark") while giving Jones a sly grin. If only it was just the two of them, running through the house in all its giddy overdressed splendor (funhouse rooms with mirrors and revolving floors, etc), secret panels, living griffins, imprisoned souls, et al. Haunting would be a total classic. But then comes the boys--Liam Neeson and Owen Wilson--in career acting lows apiece. It's as if--realizing the film's already been stolen by these two raven-haired demonesses-- they decide to just wreck the remaining reels with their smarmy banality.

Jones toys with Owen, bemusedly, partially to get under Taylor's skin, partially out of habit, but always good-naturedly (girls who want guys to stop hitting on them without making them feel angry and dejected should study her deflector skill), and eventually Owen drops the "my smile is so disarming" confident smugness and starts to accept his position in her life as a little brother figure not a possible lover.

As for Neeson, well, he is --plain and simple-- an embarrassment.

As I've written, I prefer this film to the original Haunting - I know its' heresy--and I know the original is a vastly better movie, scarier, better acted, far more artistic and psychologically complex-- but I'm sorry - Russ Tamblyn's little Bronx gremlin face and one-track greed dialogue and hipster "don't give me any of that supernatural jazz" is as wearying as the smug puns, strained exposition ("that's the easiest way to dismiss the supernatural, by pleading insanity or accusing others of it"), diatribes, and shrill shouting. Between Julie Harris' snapping at everyone, the rest of the cast patronizing her so relentlessly, it's hard to tell if they're right and she needs psychiatric care or they are provoking her deliberately for some sadistic 'scientific' effect. Either way, it all aggravates my hangover whether or not I have one. More proof? Compare Harris' dowdy provincialism to say, Deborah Kerr's 'unhinged Poppins' in The Innocents and you're reminded that while some Brit actresses lend oomph, warmth and gusto to even their spinster roles, others--like psychic vampires--just drain the life out of everything but their own repressed bitterness.  On the other hand, the 1963 version has great prowling camerawork, an ethereal paranoia-engendering sound mix, and goddess Claire Bloom. When she's wearing that pendant and black sweater I feel my soul waken from its elder god slumber. When Harris calls her "nature's mistake," implying her lesbian tendencies, I lose all sympathy for that spinster bitch. That never happens with Taylor, even if the film goes way off the rails around her.

Also check Taylor in THE ADDICTION (1991) my favorite of both Taylor's and of Abel Ferrara's- with perfect fusion between her off-the-cuff whispery thrilled aliveness, Ferrara's druggy downtown cool, and screenwriter Nicholas St. John's doctoral thesis in philosophy-on-heroin stream-of-consciousness and the Village at the height of its rock sticker-layered post-punk decadence. I was living on 15th and 7th and used to walk past all these spots, hungover or drunk out of my mind, and lemmie tell ya, it was really like that - all the black tailgate partying on the weekends, Rastas sellin' ganja (maybe), used record and clothing stores every half-step, awesome. All gone now... god damn it all.

4. Rose McGowan
(2007) - Dir. Robert Rodriguez

Now that I've had the chance to see the Hateful Eight three or four times, it's become apparent to me just how much that film belongs to Samuel Jackson--how he 'owns' it and centers it and gets the bulk of dialogue. Similarly, seeing PLANET TERROR seven or more times it becomes apparent just how much Rose McGowan's movie this is - how even surrounded by heavy hitters (Jeff Fahey, Josh Brolin, Freddy Rodriguez)  she OWNS it, gets the most lines and screen time and range, changes the most, and most goes for broke, delivering a wide-ranging tough as nails 'it's go-go not cry-cry' moxy, becoming a comedian, dealing with losing her leg and becoming all she can be all over one long crazy night, spilling gallons of infected blood while running (with one leg and no crutches) a gamut of regular loss of hope (her crying one-legged striptease for a repugnant Quentin) and onwards. 

Part of what makes the film work is its moral twilight where none are good or evil without some part of the other (for example, Marley Shelton plays a terrible mother and wife, but one of the intrepid hero survivors; Brolin is at least a 'great 70s dad' and good doctor ["we're gonna have to take the arm, Joe"] while also being Shelton's murderously jealous husband); Biehn focuses on arresting El Rey ("are you a 'wrecker,' Rey?") rather than focusing on the town going to shit all around him, etc. Only Rey himself and Cherry (McGowan)--the least respectable on paper (ex-con, go-go dancer)--are truly the knight-errants. Repeat viewings reveal McGowan's journey is one shared by every college graduate with no prospects - how to make use of your list of seemingly useless talents to find a life purpose, all while the biological clock is ticking and opportunity windows are closing before they're even all the way open. Sometimes the less options there are, the bigger the yet-uncreated role you were meant to fill. Is that what real heroism is all about? Funny that her and Rey's motto is 'two against the world,' when they're the most unselfish ones of their group, and therefore truly their sisters' keepers and the finders of immune survivors.

See also: Rose McGowan in
(1991)  **1/2

I suppose most people would think of Charmed or Scream  when they think of Rose McGowan (1), but me? I think of Planet Terror and this. I don't love it but I sure can watch it a lot. It's got several things I like (strong, cute women with guns walking down a deserted snowy street, flanked on all sides by mountains; a lowering of the line of the chains that separate walks of life and law so the civilians, the military, cops, crooks, drunks etc. unite against a common foe; a cool monster; a comforting faith in authority figures); and nothing I don't. There are no tedious small town Americana details; no kids and old folks and checker games and moseying along familiar set-ups and corn pone cliches and no feel-bad Kramer-esque liberalism of the 'we're the evil aliens' soapboxing, like Day the Earth Stood Still, Man from Planet X, etc. I love its shades of Carpenter's Thing, and Prince of Darkness  (and that it's set over one long night). And I relate to being all freaked out when a sibling or best friend lures you to their bohunk town for the holidays, and you're all cranky and anxious, dreading being stifled by emptiness and fake hellos, only to find the town empty, dark and seemingly alive inside its own shadow. I like the ominous pipe groans, the readiness of the girls to cowboy up at the sheriff's office. I like it all. 

Rose McGowan is great as the grumpy visiting heroine and some cute chick named Joanna Going is her sister, the local. I don't even mind Ben Affleck as the pleasingly nondescript sheriff or the miscast Nicky Katt and the beady-eyed Schreiber as the deputies. I don't mind that these three New Yorker types are so out of place in Colorado law enforcement that the town takes on an Actors' Studio patina, like the only person in the whole cast who seems believably from the Rocky Mountain area is Bo Hopkins, stealing a scene with O'Toole in a private plane. Affleck's too young and his hair's too slick and short to be believable as a sheriff but he's not all Batman pudgy yet either, so... hey, and there's Peter O'Toole for god's sake! Are you not hooked?

4. Melanie Scorfano
(SyFy series)

Sharknado is the kind of movie Syfy premieres, but they also import cool shows from Canada, where strong female leads remind us that not every country is as repressed and sexist as us. I was a fan of Lost Girl for awhile but it got annoying when Bo started getting all self-righteous and refusing to kill people and suck up their souls. Wynona Earp is comfortable with killing in cold blood, and I like that. I'm also a fan of the star Melanie Scorfano, playing an accursed direct descendent of Wyatt Earp, whose past enemies, whom he hung all in a row, are back to haunt his ancestors, and she has an ornate demon killing gun to help her finally undo the curse. Wynonna's sister Waverly tends bar at the local watering hole and has a lesbian relationship with a cute cop, so there's lots of drinking, casual sex, occasionally on-point Black Hills-ish South Dakota country accents, and the kickass Scrofano could be the cooler little sister of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. Some of the menfolk don't have a full grasp on their twangs, but the main bad guy (Bobo) is at least cool in a Hitchcockian sort of way, even forging a strange bond with Waverly, etc. and there's females in traditionally male roles (like the blacksmith) and so the intersection of newer progressive values and old school western traditions making it all very nice and wry. It's not quite at the totally awesome stage like, say, The Magicians first season was, but it's damned good Canadian, without an ounce of cloying sedimentary sweetness, but plenty of sisterhood, drinking, and weird curses, hellfire, and best of all, Scrofano playing Wynonna with a two-fisted but very womanly gusto (rather than girly soft butch) that's way beyond most American actresses. If any place is stuck in the past, it's surely Hollywood not Calgary.

6. Famke Janssen - WITCH!
(2012) - Dir Tommy Wirkola 
Since I have distant ancestors hung as witches in Salem I'm still sensitive on this issue (that's a joke, how could I possibly remember them - 300 years is a long time, even the ancestral curses have worn off) but you can't call a film misogynist for using the words 'witch' and 'hunters' back to back, though when this first came out I certainly did try, and if there's any unsettling aura of gynocide in this semi steampunk past it's only in dickweed Peter Stormare and his good ole boy constabulary, who try to get rapey with our Gemma Arterton (sister witch hunter) and get smashed up real troll-wise instead. Still we learn not to budge jooks by the clubbers as there's a good witch too (Phila Vitala) and the bad ones are led by the great Famke Janssen, fast proving herself to be such a welcome beauty that perhaps the entire world is as smitten with her as poor Logan in X-Men (and me, and anyone who every loved the John Byrne/Chris Claremont era of 70s-80s X-Men comics --though alas she's played as a youth by a badly miscast Thrones star). We'd follow her off a cliff and director Wirkola (who gave us Dead Sno 2 after this) pulls no punches; it's got so many strong females that if it is misogynist it's also a tribute to the inner resilience of womankind. See also Famke's great work in Lord of Illusions, The Faculty, and fuckin' love you, Famke.

See also by Wirkola:

 Ingrid Haas, and the lovely Jocelyn DeBoer
"Dod Sno" (2014) Dir. Tommy Wirkola
The Bride of Frankenstein of Nazi zombie pictures, it starts in the climax of the last one: Martin (Vegar Hoel), the final boy of the last film now has the the dreaded Colonel Herzog's (Ørjan Gamst) arm sewed onto him, and can raise the dead with it. So he resurrects a bunch of Russian POWs executed by the Nazis and buried in a mass grave 70 years ago (but frozen in the Norwegian mountains), to go up against Herzog's crew. He also gets three American nerds, 'the Zombie Squad' --to fly in to help him: Martin Starr (Party Down, Burning Love), Ingrid Haas, and the lovely Jocelyn DeBoer (above center) as a Star Wars nerd, the type who can have her pick of any man at the San Diego comic-con but probably doesn't even realize it, which makes her just the hotter. So I fuckin' love her man. And everyone plays it dead straight, as nature, science and Nordic tradition demands. Miss it at your own risk. It's in English (not dubbed): the actors speak it, very well but creating an odd juxtaposition if you watch this back-to-back with the Norwegian language first film).

See also with Famke
(1998) Dir. Roberto Rodriguez
This movie came and went in theaters and is easy to overlook, awash as Netflix is in dumped-to-video teen horror films. But I saw this in the theater, and dug the romance between Famke Janssen and the drug-dealing high school brooder Josh Hartnett; there's also a new girl in school (Laura Harris), a mysterious outbreak of body-snatcher's style teacher takeover, and the best use of getting called into the principal's office as a cause for terror ever, and a keenly-felt amount of dread and frustration with parents that just tear apart your room looking for drugs when you make strange claims about alien takeovers. The all-star cast includes John Stewart as the science teacher, Terminator 2's Robert Patrick as the gym coach, Famke Jannsen as an English teacher, Selma Hayek as the nurse, Bebe Neuwirth and Piper Laurie as vice principals, all jumping at the chance to work with Roberto Rodriguez and Scream writer Kevin Williamson (this time he keeps the film references in check, focusing instead on sci fi novel sources) The younger cast includes Clea Duvall is the Aly Sheedy-style outcast (in case you didn't make the Breakfast Club connection), Josh Hartnett as the drug dealer, and Jordana Brewster as a bitchy school newspaper reporter cheerleader bemused by photographer Elija Wood's infatuation with her. To make sure we get Kevin Williamson self-reflexive intertextuality, Duvall explains that Finney's Body Snatchers was a rip-off of Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, and Wood theorizes aliens promoted these themes so that no one would believe it when they happened for real, ala Bruce Rux, etc.)

It all might seem kind of self-consciously satirical, but the attempts of the new student (Laura Harris) to connect are pretty touchingly rendered, her existential loneliness the closest thing to a genuine high school emotion. Oh yeah, aside from stoner crank dealer Josh Hartnett, hottie nerd teacher Famke Janssen, nerdo Baggins, there's Usher! A memorable Marilyn Manson "We Don't Need No Education" runs under the uber-violent football game, connecting the cosmic dread of death with the fascist-pagan ceremonial barbarism of small town high school football. Best of all is how fast the heroes fall prey to the alien take-over: their romances flare up and fade before they get tiresome and it all moves inexorably onwards through to a brief but satisfying running time. Roberto Rodriguez's direction is tight, as it often is when he's not trying to make an auteur statement. This baby came and went in the Kevin Williamson post-Scream gold rush (i.e. I know What You Did Last Summer), by 1999, Blair Witch Project and Sixth Sense had taken over. That's show biz. Sooner or later every form and genre is absorbed and replaced by a possessive alien.

See also w/ Gemma Arterton:

8. Gemma Arterton
(2013) Dir Neil Jordan
Irish director Neil Jordan loves cinema, beautiful girls, cinematic violence and the tawdry vice-ridden tourist traps of the UK seaside --he does them all well and here swirl them together like frosting on the existential women's picture (ala Suzuki not Cukor) yoked sublimely to the Anne Rice-readymade tale of a 200+ year old vampire and her equally ageless daughter (Saoirse Ronan). The film has a rare style: so sure and gorgeous it seems--like the daughter unfixed to any one century--out to ensnare the hearts of the real life Edgar Allen Poe, his child wife/cousin, the Bronte sisters, and 15 year-old Twilight fans all in the same razor-studded wire net. Ferocious Gemma Arterton is Carmilla (!), we see her tossed by an uncaring officer into a brothel back in the 1700s, later following him off to the remote Irish coast island (Hy-Brasil?) where anyone who enters a certain cave and bathes in bats or whatever is imbued with immortal vampirism - a secret kept by an all-male Illuminati-style brotherhood who don't want any girls mucking it up, to the point they've had hit teams on her trail since the day she was turned. By 2013 she's still making her way by turning tricks, drinking her johns, as it were, if they get too bold. Saoirse on the other hand plays angel of mercy by only drinking-killing old folks who are 'ready' to go and who all seem to recognize her as come at last. She's kind of a drip, a bit like Edwina's daughter in Absolutely Fabulous, while Arterton is a force of nature. Though hundreds of years old, she's still just as daft as the day she was bit, and it's odd hearing a working class Brit accent on such a creature but it fits the way her voracious brio for her work, the affection for the gentle, lonely clients of her ancient trade and her rabid relish in tearing the bad ones apart, especially if they impugn her mothering skill or threaten her daughter. If it somehow doesn't ultimately seem to add up, say anything new, and you can see the events and resolutions a mile off, that doesn't mean Jordan's as sure of foot as few others, drawing on his experience with merging vivid working class grunginess, historical costume bodice ripping, fairy tale dream poetics, and poetry with sexual tolerance and forgiveness.

Anitra Ford and Joy Bang
(1973) ****
You can argue the rest of the film is merely a very cool quiet Lovecraft of the Living Dead-style melt down with some very cool wall paintings but you can't compare the strange bond between the two girlfriend's of the sleepy-eyed aesthete (Michael Greer) to any other menage-a-trois in any film (except of course Performance). Though the three are all apparently lovers there's never much sexual chemistry betwixt them or anywhere in the film, but there's a drowsy affection and almost wordless connection that's way more interesting and rarely seen. You get the sense these three people have done quite a bit of driving together, seen some crazy shit, and--maybe a month or so ago--were deeply enthralled with each other, vibing on a communal three-way artistic road trip odyssey that's now coming to its end as organically as it started. Tired from a lot of sex and drugs and monkey-grooming, caught up in the rhythm of the sea outside the windows, they're still close but Anitra Ford, for one (never hotter or cooler dressed with that gorgeous contrast of long, willowy trunk and crazy hot mess of hair) and her associate, cute little Joy Bang (whom you presume Hill and Greer picked up a few states back hitch-hiking and who's become their de facto Michele Breton) are both getting restless and ready to disappear back into the night. Ford gets mildly perturbed when Greer loses all interest in her as Arletty (Mariana Hill) rolls into his sights, and so leaves her man and woman behind to go wander into the night. Her confident slow vanishing into the quiet abyss of the oceanside night is chillingly poetic.... Bang follows awhile later to go to the movies, and is more the unconscious popcorn smacker, but she's young and tender, and for the hungry locals she's a perfect snack before the main feature. In short, though I only got this disc a few years ago, I've already seen it at least six times. So shouldn't you.

65. Anna D'Annunzio as Barbara
(2013) Dir Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Hélène Cattet et Bruno Forlani, of the Darionioni Nuovo take Argento and smash him into a thousand mirror shards for this hyper-surreal Freudian mind-meld. Granted their unique looping style will no doubt prove irritating after about twenty minutes to people who don't know SUSPIRIA and INFERNO like the black of their gloves, and who don't swoon at gorgeous mazes of art nouveau architecture and Jungian psychosexual mythic color-coded resonance. The plot concerns Dan (Klaus Tange), very French middle-aged executive, who returns home to his very cool apartment after a long business trip to find his wife missing and only a series of bizarre clues as to where she disappeared to. Apparently she's either dead or in bed with some sadistic lesbian lover somewhere inside the massive byzantine, super strange building. As we gawk in awe and wonder what parts of this amazing edifice are sets and which actual building interiors, we-- irregardless of the sensual dangers behind every wall--long to move in forever. As strange clues are whispered through vents; elderly neighbors relate haunting story flashbacks that don't ever return to the present; eyes peer through ceiling holes and vice versa, a gendarme detective drops to help Dan knock on doors but no one he's met before is the same person who answers this time so of course Dan looks guiltier than ever.

Going up to the roof for a cigarette Dan meets Barbara (Anna D'Annunzio) and we just know he's found some dark dangerous anima void, the type of girl a man meets only in rare and strange dreams where she hides or waits within rooms within locked rooms and only by sheerest chance do we ever actually meet her face-to-face. She's so hot yet dangerous that death and desire, agony and ecstasy orbit and merge into her aura as time stands whirlpool maelstrom still - she could be the evil daughter of those witches in the Three Mothers Trilogy. How she manages to convey this with little more than a black satin shirt, open collar and long dark hair, dark red lipstick is beyond me, but just meeting her causes a blood chilling sensation in both Dan and the viewer that's like a razor blade dipped in ice water before being run down our backs. A sublime and terrifying anima, we get the feeling that we'll never find her again, or escape her bedroom vortex if we do, except on her own mutilating terms. She may be the one who sliced up our wife (presuming she's dead) and going to bed with her will be a fatal mistake we'd be a fool not to make. Harrowing enough to make Hellraiser's Pinhead reach for his safe word, this harbinger of slashing, glass-eating, and multicolored gem fingernail gashing, is so vividly photographed that sweet pain and unbearable pleasure, intoxicating agony, nonexistent time blow your brains back in right onscreen like a reverse R. Bud Dwyer. Rewind forever, Dan, and learn nothing. 

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