Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Angels of Groovy Death #IV: Lynn Lowry Special Edition


With her big cat eyes, button nose and sudden smile 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 early 70s.
Starry eyed and innocent, no matter what horrifying things she might be up to, Lowry was the fantasy girl in the minds of Middle American viewers who imagined life in a druggy commune as an alternative to their 9-5 button down existence. She glowed with a kind of worldly ephemeral 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.

Even I--just an elementary school kid at the time--well remember the urban legend of the hippy babysitter who was so high on LSD she cooked and ate the baby and put the chicken to bed on acid. This fear was so mainstream that when Alice finds out she's been dosed while on a babysitting job in Go Ask Alice (1973) she locks herself in the closet to ensure she wont end up 'testing' the Radarange. That the film doesn't even need to explain why she does this testifies to that legend's prevalence.

And when we all imagined what that babysitter looked like, she looked just like Lynn Lowry.

Well, now you know... the innocent serpent flower child was a new kind of femme fatale--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 acid waif homicidal cultist was never be spiteful or mischievous, their heart was too full of love; acid had burned out those small minded reptilian fear-desire tail-biting instincts, and it's this above all else that made them dangerous and unpredictable. Utterly without the kind of morality and impulse control that guided the culture, they belonged more in a comfy psych ward where they couldn't have long fingernails or access to sharp things like pointed scissors until the drugs wore off. If you're a guy and you look at that picture below left you know that you'd have no problem ressting the ones on the left and right but the girl in the middle, if she wanted to go home with you, and your wife was't around to shoo her away, she'd go home with you and more than likely 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."

"We have no jelly donuts for you today... only death."
The 'Manson Girls" singing and chanting as one, had become national figures and though I was too young to remember the Manson hooplah I do remember the urban legends about the baby in the oven and the fear some crazy cult would put razors or acid in your apples on Halloween, so better cut them open first. This fear goosed the 70s along and gave seemingly helpless little street-corner waifs and psychedelic flower-covered urchins 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, or electric fros and evil looking dwarf monsters all had a queasy bone-chilling dread about them. I felt towards them as a rabid dam worker might towards a splash of water. Then again, my aunt on my dad's side in Chicago ran off and joined a commune, and we went to visit, and man that was a hairy place - I tried cat food for the first time, and ran through lots of beaded doorways, and groovy art, and so forth. My aunt was dating her fourth guy named Randy... four Randys.... in a row... the mind boggled.

My parents were just a few years too old for that scene, there's was the one seen in Mad Men, that bridge club wife swap 70s middle class golf game walk to school of your own accord freedom type. And after school, TV.

And if you grew up kind of crushing on Susan Dey (from The Partridge Family) even if you rarely watched it (Danny was gross; the music too 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 at a Washington cocktail soiree. Someone sure should have dosed the Partridge Family. God I hated that redheaded kid Danny, that plagiarizing ginger ("he had to save Boa," yeah right) with his unheimlich neediness.... and wasn't too crazy about the mom either. With her sister wife collars and androgynous hair, Shirley Jones was like that mom who eavesdrops as you try to pick up her daughter than snidely put you in your place, so that you blush and stammer and run home to sulk with your comic books, and then you never come over again (one would as her name promises, Shirley Jones for Dey to come out). C'mon get happy, yeah right --quit tellin' us what to do. You could tell she 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 he 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.

On the other hand, if Mrs. Brady saw you clumsily putting some moves on fair Marcia (in The Brady Bunch), she would 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. You could tell, and her sexually satisfied glow kept the decade alight with a special base line magic.

David Lynch would make great use of this terrifying yet sweetly innocuous smile.  Lowry goes for it without hamming, knowing just how to make untrammeled flower child joy and rending maenad frenzy indistinguishable
I mention all this to illustrate how the Partridge Family vs. Brady Bunch dichotomy provided parameters for our collective 70s child's Jungian psyche, and maybe that's partially why the idea of a Susan Dey archetype untethered from her prim bitch overprotective mom and ginger brother, running away with a Satan-worshipping boyfriend and winding up on post-Manson LSD and rabid (in 1970's I Drink Your Blood --her first movie role) seemed a natural progression. She could slice off a woman's hand with an electric carving knife and still be an innocent. She's a free spirit cranked to eleven, then the dial breaks, snaps and spins out of control before the amp catches on fire. If you've ever known and partied with the type then you know how rare and intoxicating they are right at the moment before that happens, and how sublimely chilling after.

give the lady a hand
Lowry's wide-eyed beauty is so 'there' in that moment she can make grown men blush and stammer just by watching her on the screen, as if she can see them and is blushing back, but at the same time she seems to be thinking about killing us, if we're lucky. In that moment we're still protective of her, nervous like fauns we are, genteel-like, the gaze of the camera seems to shudder with the realization it's privilege to some special moment in time and person when it gets her all alone in a private thought.

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 Charlie 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 Lowry 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' in a kind of new contracting and expanding organic breathing. She's already 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 is a result of Trixie (the virus), or was there before. Eventually she's too crazy to know to hide when the military comes; she wants to know the names of the military unit surrounding her like she's a dangerous maniac even though all she's doing is offering them flowers and singing--she won't heed their warnings but really if you didn't know the backstory she'd seem sane--just another flower child protester with no concern for her own life as she marches towards the bayonets with a flower in her hand, only love, and life, and today, which is all there is, far out.

Like some Innsmouth elder royal Neptune princess
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 scathed.

She's so much, man, so much like my old babysitter, who I wonder about today, if she's still alive. She was too pretty and too damaged, without a house or a home, the kind of freedom we all envy until we see that bloom begin to fade and wither, then we turn up our collars and rush home, half-ashamed and dehydrated, unable to swallow, terrified of water. (fire is cold, knives are like fire, and water is like a hard razor wire cat o'nine tails).

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-genital rapture. 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, and terrified anyway. The early 80s: devil worship wasn't 'fun' anymore, but the province of icky child molesters at day care centers in Seattle. By then 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.

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 smile of Lowry. 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 as 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 grandfather of Pam Grier WIP (Women in Prison) films, he's never shied from lurid sex-sensationalism, but at the same time never belittled, demonized, or completely objectified women. Hill's films almost always balance retribution, vengeance, and character growth/catharsis over egregious insult. Sex in a  Hill film is positive, empowering, and social change is always in the works as morality and 'the law' falls apart under the knife. So whether he's a feminist or counterrevolutionary chauvanist Hills 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 empowered 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.

So many of his films were released on Blu-ray this spring-summer, courtesy DVD labels like Arrow, Shout, etc. that we now the entirety of the Jack Hill oeuvre cleaned up in--mostly--HD sparkle, and fit to marvel at. And there's great Hill-Drenner commentary tracks on most of them. In case you don't know his 'Red Shirt' works, AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE director Elijah Drenner makes a great interviewer and is as a big fan of Hill's work, with a perfectly balanced blend of reverence and analytical curiousity that doesn't muddy over into pompousness, unlike say Peter Bogdanovich in his Hawks commentaries, for example. I know Bogdanovich loves Hawks, and he knew Hawks, but explaining 'little jokes' in them as if some pithy New Yorker cartoon to a bored 12 year-old, sucking the wind out of them in the process. Drenner conveys his love for the films without that kind of deflation, so that clicking over to the commentary track during a Hill Blu-ray is like watching it with them on the couch, rather than enduring a lecture at the end of a hard day in a classroom with overhead lighting.

The new best friend of the Hillian, Arrow has returned the full beauty of black and white film to Hill's late 60s opuses depicting man and cute girls engaged in industrious activity. This summer alone they have 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). 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 Hilliard too, 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.

Well, I'm too frazzled with excitement to clarify  so I'm gonna just lay it all out in the grand style of the canon forefathers, chronologically. First this post for the 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...

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 remastered 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 art, riffing on the art of the great beatnik sculptor of Corman's 1959 epic BUCKET OF BLOOD and prefiguring Argento's groundbreaking BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1968, this has William Campbell (the first STAR TREK's go-to fop) as a crazed artist, a reincarnation of a descendent who was burned at the stake at the testimony of his insane (and insanely hot) model, who danced around the fire and laughed as he burned alive, his entire bloody oeuvre providing the kindling. In the best scenes he tries to paint various local babes and sees her laughing and sneering at him from inside the canvas' wet black background. In classic Freudian projection, he kills his the local babe violently, douses her in wax (which he keeps bubbling below his pad, so he can just lower them down and raise them up like candle dipping) and poses them (mostly the babes just pose or lie around and try to look motionless 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 to the local elderly down in Venice Beach beatnik coffee house frequented by a trio of beach bum types, their eyes agog at every new misogynistic abstraction. 

More so even than BUCKET it's the deconstructing/deflowering of art as misogyny even with these dudes that rings best in the Hill tradition: "you're a little naive when it comes to men," a fellow dancer friend puts it to Sordi's virginal girlfriend (Lori Saunders). There are several very strong women here and that's what registers over and above the murders. 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 on the vampire theory, and the demoness laughing in the painting taunts him, all the while he's seen as a weak, deranged lunatic, driven to kill by his amok demon shadow anima. 

This all obliquely connects to the openness to the moody old world European footage provided by Corman's insistence on using footage from Operation Titian/Portrait in Terror all over the film: tower chimes and long cobblestone shadows are deftly spliced in. So as beautiful Yugoslavian women are killed by a burly blonde vampire in stylish artsy tableaux, we also get the nonlethal version back in Venice, as Corman/Hill beatnik regulars Sid Haig, Karl Schanzer, Fred Thompson and Jonathan Haze 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, and Marissa 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 on the paper in front of him - sisters be takin' back the power. Say what you want about their misogyny, it's unconscious and they really do love art. I've been that crazy - all zonked out, 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 girls can depend on for help against the vampires/killers. There's no cops in the film and when girls in the burly blonde vampires' sights (i.e. Sandra Knight) try and beseech locals for help they're all too drunk and dismissive to step in, her running up against a party of revelers who just to try to dance with her and then the vampire recalls a similar scene in Lewton's Seventh Victim. I've had very few disturbing nightmares from childhood appear in movies, but this is one of them 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 them so locked up in their idiotic unconscious blase 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, all but throwing her into the arms of her killer, than blithely skipping off to the doltish fates. 

For the longest time this weird dysfunctional variation on time-worn Corman themes was confusedly mixed up with its original Eastern European cut, Operation Titian, the English version --partially mulled over by Coppola--but to no one's satisfaction, as Portrait in Terror, and then used again by Hill (and changed around with added footage by Rothman later for TV as Track of the Vampire). All in all with the Arrow Blood Bath four movie set we can unpack it all, and note a fine example of how Coppola may be a genius but when he worked for Corman all he knew how to do was spend money and leave a mess for Jack Hill to clean up because this movie may not make a lot of sense, but it rocks so hard, bro, like the other filmed-on-Venice, CA beatnik horror dream poems of the black and white era, Dementia (1955 ) and Night Tide (1961). Using the local carousels, strange buildings and cavernous boardwalk under zones with rolling tides like the sands of time, and the infinite with seaweed-wreathed mermaids washing up dead in the nets and then appearing in a basement jazz club, playing out the drag of the current on the bongos, or whatever.

 DVD Review: A+

MONDO KEYHOLE
(1966) - **1/2

If this was the first 60s skin flick 'roughie' you saw, you might think it was a pretty reputable and artsy genre, certainly Hill doesn't phone it in. A job he took for producer John Lamb, it's in low budget black and white but it still looks groovy. 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. Under Hill's elegant style we're never quite sure if these girls (he meets them via personal ads or through the shoots he photographs for his various filthy magazines) are real or just the equivalent of a Penthouse Forum "true story". Either way, rather than being all Dragon Tattoo of Thrones it takes 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." Eventually our pornographer gets what's coming to him 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) winds up finding a big gross orgy fit for any erotic wanderer (way less oppressive than the sterile dearth of imagination on hand in Eyes Wide Shut), even if she arrives with guy dressed as Dracula and rocking perhaps the most terrible Transylvanian accent in the history of time immoral. In his commentary Hill lets us know the actor's a helluva fella but seriously, it's almost as nauseating as the human salad bar or drunken shaving cream pool party. Even so, ever on the look-out for that beatnik artistic arrest (see Blood Bath, babe) Hill gets the night's reflection on the shaving cream coated surface of the pool after all the revelers have straggled off to bed and the ripples stop, and well, 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. In short, it's dream poetry.

It's not in anamorphic but don't let that dissuade you, darling. Between the photography and the gorgeous Reine you're bound to find something you like, and if it gets boring you can listen to the lively commentary between Elijah Drenner and the man himself, Jack Hill, who explains Lamb's penchant for ripping off pornography mail order customers, as in his sex LPs (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). A great presence on a lot of Hill commentaries, Drenner's adoirt at keeping the focus on the action onscreen and the pair have a fine rapport (as opposed to the kind of commentaries where they get off on long tangents and whole reels fly by with no connection). We learn Lamb shot the excellent underwater stuff with a camera he specifically designed as he was cuckoo for scuba, and big game hunting! What a man, a John Huston crossed with David F. Friedman and better than at least one.

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


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

Apparently this was filmed originally in 1964 but held up 'til '68 and subject to a rash of title changes, man, supposedly shot for $65,000. over 12 days, I mean shit, I'd pay that out of my own pocket 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, from a fuzzy VHS duped it back in 1989, up through the regular VHS in '93 or something and the first DVD in whenever which wasn't so hot, and then the Hill approved DVD that looked terrific in whenever 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, to rival with the best horror comedies of all time, maybe the best. I only hope one day we'll see such a lovely restoration upgrade on other as of yet only semi-upgraded rarities in the zone like Old Dark House (1932) and The Ghoul (1933). What else? (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. I'm always like that about films I love so much I can't distinguish them from me anymore. (full review)

Arrow DVD review: A+


PIT-STOP
(1969) ***1/2

The second best movie about racing after Two-Lane Blacktop, this has sporadically slurring Brian Donlevy as a shadowy race promoter who sees something special in surly drifter Rick (Richard Davalos), to the point he even bails him out after Rick wipes out into a store window during a street race. Donlevy gets him a job at a junkyard where Rick can build something fit to get smashed up in Donlevy's 'figure-8' race track, a combo real race and demolition derby as the track crosses itself in the middle, necessitating traffic driving right through each other and many times not making it all the way without a smashup. Damn cool idea, especially if you find NASCAR incredibly boring.

Like Hill's Spider Baby (which was filmed in 1964 but didn't get released til 1968) the year before, this came out at a time when black and white was dying at the drive-in (unless --like Night of the Living Dead, it offered something shocking and new enough that the b&w worked for it, the way found footage worked for Paranormal Activity) and its a shame too because now on this geee-yorgeous "director approved" remastered HD Blu-ray from Arrow, the full measure of what 35mm black and white film can do is revealed, putting it up there with Repulsion as far as capturing a late night surrealism that seems to shimmer holotropically. The dark of real night (for the most part) is beautiful, dark and deep (if you have a good HD TV or projector, especially).

As for the story, if you don't even like figure-8 eight racing there's a generic but effective bluesy rock score over montages of lovely little junkyard shots as tires are hauled in around and hoods and parts and bonding, the sort that any artsy filmmaker, edgy photographer, or Antonioni if people connected; the snotty Rick's character actually grows as he moves from combative and surly to the other drivers to being nice and joshing around, which is an an unusual character change within a montage sequence, a ballsy but effective strategy to consecrate a more fluid persona within both Sid Haig's wild man racer rival, Sid Haig's girl (Beverly Washburn, his sister in SPIDER BABY), who goes on a date with Rick, so Haig beats the shit out of him and trashes his car - he's a maniac! But when Rick doesn't rat him out to the cops our Haig realizes he's misjudged our boy and apologizes. Little does he know Rick is keenly aware of the proper temperature for revenge. Meanwhile another rival racer's mechanic girlfriend is played by the future Ellen Burstyn (above). Billed as Ellen McRae, she's a wow here with a dry low key persona that suits Hill's equilibrium to a Valvoline-splattered tee, you can tell she's going to go onto big things (The Exorcist was five years away). Their romantic clinches amongst the Imperial Sand Dunes are a master class in how to use day-for-night without it looking ridiculous.


I'd go so far as it to say it's more Hawksian than Hawks' own RED LINE 7000... fuck yeah I'd say that. And it may be Haig's finest hour. 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
--
TO BE CONTINUED

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

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...