Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Death Drivin' America - Part 3: DEATHSPORT, CANNONBALL!


Corman fans like myself are finding--in golden hindsight and reverence for all things 35mm--that many of Roger Corman's New World produced ALIEN / STAR WARS / JAWS-imitations (the one that launched Joe Dante, James Cameron, and Lewis Teague) have held up and improved with age, and even the 'period-period', the post-BONNIE AND CLYDE wave (BLOODY MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, LADY IN RED, BOXCAR BERTHA, etc) still pack a wry punch. But we do ourselves, not the man, a disservice by forgetting Corman too wrote the original FAST AND THE FURIOUS, launched the biker subgenre with THE WILD ANGELS and helped craft the parameters of the wacky outlaw race movie with DEATH RACE 2000 and EAT MY DUST.

In the best of them, like TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, there are sultry glimmers of greatness, and the worst, like SMOKEY BITES THE DUST (1981), there are at least some good crashes. BUT -- remember a few miles back we talked about DEATH RACE 2050 ("the only movie that matters in 2017" - April Wolfe), and talked about how no film could match the original. Well, maybe I missed something - probably not, but there are two movies that explore different aspects of DEATH RACE 2000, a kind of Dougie/Cooper split if you will. Thanks to Shout Factory, whose New World DVD output is one of the great boons to any serious trash collector, we can shuffle back and find out which one has the real juice, if either.

The Paul Bartel-directed 1973 original DEATH RACE hypothesized that in 2000 we'd be living under the thumb of a crazy president (hey!) with a fun old-school (like Roman gladiator) sense of entertainment and population control. In the process all the tenets of 70s life were commented upon: road rage, gas crises, Carter and OPEC; America's big cathartic fuck-you to the next four days of work, Monday Night Football; Detroit demonology, the grease pit grimoire with groovy names like Gran Turino, Corvette, Trans-Am, Mitzy Bishu Gallant, Suzy Bannon the Buick; CB radios (as discussed in the earlier piece on CONVOY)

It's perhaps understandable why one who was a child in that time would return now to the auto wreck bloodsport satire genre as if some rumbling unleaded Rosebud. For our crazy prez, for our crazy country, for the Civil War that turned so cold we grew more Russian the more we tried not to be, and lo! hear the mighty engines roaring for America? Komrade, we need to rev it. Only by blazing fast and furious do we finally not stand stagnant swampish.


CANNONBALL!
(1976) Dir. Paul Bartel
**

There was the drag race juvenile 50s, the biker 60s, and then the New World team jumped lanes and drafted over behind a speeding slew of now semi-forgotten drag racing /moonshiner movies, and cross-country 'rallies,' rooted to actual events, such as the now-forgotten real-life Cannonball Dash, a cross-country race that was set up to protest the 55 mph highway law (set up in 1974) and caught the popular cinematic imagination where it congealed with the once-popular all-star cast ramshackle race-arounds like GUMBALL RALLY, VANISHING POINT and eventually SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. In all of them, the issue of prize money, a bet, the importance of an honor system and all in the game camaraderie is easier to understand (a gum ball machine, for example, is a relatively worthless prize; a truckload of beer doesn't seem worth risking jail and doing all sorts of public damage, etc.). For $100,000. prize in CANNONBALL!, well, that's real money, and it's just too damn easy to cheat if all you need is an LA parking lot stamp at the NYC finish line.  One canny little guy flies his car in a big jumbo jet across country; others sabotage rival cars (with racers too dumb to watch their vehicle or check under the hood); and so forth.

These things bother me; and the film is choked up with actors too much alike to tell apart with your glasses off, all made even similar-er-er for no real reason. Rather than tweak cliches to archetypal amok wresling-style comic book lunacy, here Bartel just delivers them, flat: A smiling polite black dude (Stanley Bennett Clay) racing some nice Goy couples car to NY for them (we know they're deserving of a smashed caddy because they tell him not to drive at night or faster than 55 mph); Gerrit Graham (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE's 'Meat') is wasted as a cowboy singer riding with his mobbed-up manager Mr. Redmond, who's hoping this event will boost his profile (how, exactly?) David Carradine is a 'legend' named Cannonball (so original!) whose breaking parole by driving out of California-- one speeding ticket and he's back in jail with the key thrown away!--is the height of folly, the sort of self-sabotage that dirtbags often confuse with bad luck. Luckily for him, his parole officer (Veronica Hamel) is his navigator/lover. But if you remember her from HILL STREET BLUES than it may not be so lucky for you: her character there was far too professional and competent in that show to throw away her career following such a three-strikes idiot, and so though it's nice to see her wipe the floor with a cadre of good old boys (while Cannonball watches from the sidelines), it's sad that she also seems dubbed... from far away. Faring better in our esteem is the great Mary Woronov who pilots a van carrying two horny blondes in the back (Diane Lee Hart, Glynn Rubin) and David's little brother Robert and Brenda Belaski as young newlyweds. They seem genuinely in love, young and sweet (they brought an acoustic guitar) plus the race makes sense in the terms of their character arc (elopement, money, youth, horniness).

In short, ladies, the 'Trans-America Grand Prix Auto Race" is on! Just ignore the obvious nagging questions about logic and practicality (like how gas guzzling town cars are bad at cross country races, running out of gas way more often out in the cornfields at night), the contradictory rules (does Bartel [and his co-writer Don TOP GUN Simpson] even know how races or gambling work?), and the idiocy of "Cannonball", hiss sycophantic copycat (so annoying), and Dick Miller as his bookmaking older brother, who sabotages other fast cars in the race but then, confusingly, seems to be out to sabotage his brother too (did he become someone else's brother in one of Simpson's rewrites?). He needn't bother in any case, for Cannonball is an easy mark. Never thinking to follow his enemies when they walk or crawl past his car on their way out of the parking lot, he's stunned when his jack later turns up missing or his lights don't work or his gas tanks been ice-picked. When he finally falls asleep at the wheel, you're like fuck, I'm rooting for the wrong guy.

I've barely scratched the surface with how purely stupid and incompetent Carradine's Cannonball (the driver) is, I can only presume crafty Bartel was going somewhere with the idea, some black comic joke between the 'lines' done with Simpson... lost in the nasal cavity of time.

If you can ignore all that, well, go for it: the car stunts are amazing (there's also an awesome jump across an unfinished stretch of highway overpass and plenty of wild spin-outs and crashes - all from back in the day they did that shit for real) and there's a plethora of insider cameos: Corman himself is the Los Angeles D.A.; Don Simpson is his assistant DA; Bartel is a shady fey mobster in the then-popular fey mobster vein (the type who play piano while their thugs (here Martin Scorsese and Sly Stallone) kick the shit out of someone (Dick Miller) for not holding up their this or betraying their that. Joe Dante and Allan Arkush are tow-truck drivers who help out Cannonball with a new car (though I wouldn't trust him with my Big Wheel).


That's okay though, we decided we would let that all go, man. Remember? What matters is that the good guys win, even if the good guys aren't always who you think, or something. And there's a great, grim gruesome freeway pile-up so out of step with what came before it chokes off even the most jadedly sardonic of laughter. Despite the whole sexy van thing there's no puerile snickering or silicone (Fred Olen Ray was still too young, thank god), and there's a big charnel house freeway pile-up that's not to be missed. Bloody, savage, out of place, it's like if Burt Reynolds wound up decapitating some old lady in his effort to Yee-Haw over the sheriff's patrol car and the bouncy harmonica just kept a-boinging. The ever reliable Tak Fujimoto does a good job capturing the stonewashed pink of Cannonball's open shirt and the haze of the open road. In short, America.

Even so, Simpson stopped writing and turned to producing after this, smart move. He died in 1996 and Bartel died in 2000, so there you go. Hell, there we all go...

DEATHSPORT
(1978) Dir. Allan Arkush, Nicholas Niciphor
**1/2

A film for the dirt bike-riding 16 year-old arsonist in all of us, DEATHSPORT was meant to be a DEATH RACE 2000 sequel but instead gives us moody crypto-poetry, blazing fireballs, matte paintings of futuristic dystopian cities, and that old LA desert scrub being ground underfoot by tricked-out dirt bikes and hosses. So many dirt bikes blow up in this film it's almost a pyrotechnic's demo reel. The game, like the Statham DEATH RACE remake or THE RUNNING MAN, helps prisoners win freedom via  motor cross / Rollerball / gladiator mash-up, with no sense of humor about its own absurdity. So you get tired of shots wherein a row of three to five tricked-out 'death bikes' whizz past the camera in single file to a 'zzzzzzzap' sound effect (that's just the same effect loop over and over) but I like the guns, which are like big Pringles can mini bazookas that fire huge laser bolts that vaporize opponents; and the thrift-shop dumpster dive approach to the costumes is never short of astounding. The dirt bikes are all tricked up with white paint and shoot lots of fireballs. I'm glad the film never bothers to explain rules. We're too high from huffing rush and snorting evaporated Nyquil. Just blow shit up! Hell yeah, all the teachers and short Italian burnouts who wronged you in middle school can get theirs by flaming proxy. And girls who disobey the sleazy leader get thrown naked into the room of dangling light strips, or zapped on the color filter table of abstract woe. It would be misogynist if it wasn't hilarious. Girls kind of half-heartedly pretending to get mind-probed by red gel lights is always fun. I never understood this habit some movies have of making the pain and fear of a woman so vivid and realistic it leaves you with a traumatic stomach for weeks, it's why I can't stand Noomi Rapace. Corman and company get the way fake violence is cathartic, a release, a transfigurative way of making the unconscious desires and fears visible and absurdist so they lose their power and we can breathe again. So the electro-lightshow shock treatments given to Claudia Jennings don't leave a scar on our psyche but harken the whole mess back a few years to AIP's DUNWICH HORROR (1971) and Hazel Court's initiation scene in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1968). The weird lighting and enigmatic presence of David McLean's 'Lord Zirpola' as the sick spectator / torturer gives these scenes a weird vibe reminiscent of the conditioning scenes in CLOCKWORK ORANGE or the performances in CAFE FLESH. In this future it's hard to tell where the reality and the diegetic performances separate. Even in their weird cells, Carradine and Jennings are on display, the all-seeing eye of Zirpola a combination of paranoid despot and louche peeping tom.


So the evil empire catches two wandering warriors called in this post-whatever-scape, the 'range guides' (because they lead wagon-train-style herds through the wilderness); they bike their way to freedom through the indomitable skills and have some great soul meld sort of spirit sex even separated by a door so badly drippy white-washed you worry Carradine will get white paint on his chest hair. Later on there's bargain mutants with yellow ping-pong-ball-eyes and camouflage-netting dashikis. It all works because the cast is led by three New World champions: David Carradine plays an amalgam of Kane from ABC's 1972-5 KUNG FU series and of course Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2000 (he must have had a multi-picture contract with New World, like Vincent Price had with AIP); feral playmate Claudia Jennings (similar contract; see THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) is a fellow guide and warrior (as in the best Corman stealth-feminism, she's as tough and wise and able as any of the men - and prettier too, without being trashy or even overtly feminine). Real-life burn survivor Richard Lynch (GOD TOLD ME TO) is the bad guy but he's cool because he's not afraid of death and seeks only the field of honor for a final sword fight.


And it's always amazing the way Lynch seems to wind up in films full of fire effects, considering his history (3). In fact, I'm literally in awe of his fearlessness (2). Burn scars cover almost entire body, yet there he is, striding amidst the fireballs like it's no big deal. I'm in awe. I guess, in the words of the Hephaestus-like blacksmith in MOBY DICK, "thou canst not scorch a scar." (1) And great as Jennings and Carradine are at keeping straight faces, Lynch, as the bad guy / master henchman gets all the best lines, purred in a mellow emotionless forceful calm: "You call me animal?" he declares, "after all I tried to do to make you feel at peace?" Whatever his fall from grace, he's openly admirable towards the memory of Carradine's warrior mother (whom he killed in battle), giving Carradine the ultimate warrior greeting: "Salute your mother for me"



Andrew Stein's score provides a great minimalist mess of wind sound, endless 'zap' effects as dirt bikes speed past the camera in single file and sustained notes somewhere between the Bebe's FORBIDDEN PLANET and faux John Carpenter. When he gets down to melodic refrains on keyboard proper, however Stein can get downright terrible. Jerry Garcia even noodles forth, emerging at the darndest times in and around in the mix, and as anyone who ever sat through a Dead Show more than thrice can tell you, depend on Jerry to lead you out of the caves of aimless noodling and you're going to be in there a long while. That said, all encores end at last eventually and at times the Jerry gets damned surreal as does the comically sloppy (or obnoxiously arty -like with Godard, it can be hard to tell the difference) editing.

Some of the writing is interesting with the whole samurai aspect folded into the stilted dialogue like stealing someone else's clean underwear at the laundromat; the narrator stresses the sacredness of combat, noting the range guides "ow(e) allegiance only to their foes," whom are called "statesmen." And that the greeting between range guides is "Our union is limited." In other words it's Groucho's "Hello, I must be going" all over again, but siphoned of all but the deadest deadpan winks. Another keeper, delivered with the solmemnity through which Carradine won the heart chakras of a generation of strip mall karate kids via TV's KUNG FU: "No one can touch myself," oh man, how true. I wanted to write them all down, but they got away from me. I could no more capture their fleeting beauty without that deep-set eye roll couched in Carradine's intonation than a moon capture the dragon fly's wallet.

In case you can't tell, despite my staggering levels of artsy cosmopolitan breeding and literacy, I got mad love for this terrible movie and all the deadpan jokes Carradine, editor Larry Bock, and replacement director Arkush sneak little into the crevasses, like the way Carradine every so often casts a wry glance at the camera, or the non-sequitur editing. I love the way the mutants hide their faces so we don't linger on the awful yellow ping boll eyes and the way camouflage netting that is both their clothes and their mutations (their shame over being mutated covers the shame of the make-up dept). I love how Jenning's unusual fox-like features are complimented by her white fur collar. I'm not a fan of the grating replaying of the same sound effect over and over as the pursuing bikers whizz past the camera in line along the dirt paths, but hey. Our union is limited. Noodle on, Big Jerry. Noodle on.

The Shout DVD includes the fun Bock and Arkush commentary. a kid fresh out of UCLA Nicholas Niciphor, whose THX13 style sci-fi short senior project won enough acclaim to get Corman's attention. Whatever Niciphor was intending with his initial version, it didn't work; he wasn't asked back, and Arkush was called in to direct new footage, with fireballs, nudity and enough action to make the high concept artsy parts less obtuse and stilted, which he did in spades. Perhaps the best in the world at capturing the giddy anarchic spirit of a truly great rock concert on film Arkush pours anarchic pyromaniac anarchy onto the staid sci-fi conceptualism like the Ramones crashing Vince Lombardi High in his ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. (that Arkush's gonzo masterpiece GET CRAZY isn't on DVD is one of the great crimes of the 21st century). DEATHSPORT is like the cool dude who hands you a one-hit of kind bud right right before you go into juvenile court. Maybe you would have been better off without it, your bloodshot eyes won't impress the judge, but on the other hand joke 'em if they can't take a fuck - rock and roll! Pickle Rick! Meep-Morp.

With the scorched featured and measured tone of the fearless fire elemental Richard Lynch, the always lovely and grounded yet gutsy, literally foxy Jennings, the cracking wry fourth wall eye rolling Carradine, the copious fireballs sending tricked-out bikes flying into the air, and the Arkush commentary, you're guaranteed a good time with the Shout DVD,  as long as you don't watch the second feature, BATTLETRUCK, even if it does have Swan (Michael Beck) from THE WARRIORS in the Mad Max role. He's a long way from XANADU...  Aren't we all? Sandahl Bergman played one of the dancing disco muses in XANADU. We couldn't have known then who she'd inspire next... one newly licensed car-driving Cimmerian who can rent XXX movies at the video store, but still needs mom to buy him R-rated movie tickets, because the Somerville Circle Cinema lady is a total bitch. Mom, Salut! 


SEE ALSO
NOTES:
1. Lynch also played a cult leader who encourages his flock to burn themselves up in BAD DREAMS, and an alien hybrid cult leader who burns himself up in a tenement basement in GOD TOLD ME TO. 
2-3. The scarred skin of Lynch's face is real --he poured gas on himself and lit a match while under the influence of too much LSD in the 1960s. I think youtube has some clips of him talking about it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat Class: THE CAT CREATURE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE




Julie Newmar in the old BATMAN TV show--her lithe playful grace, her tender malevolence with her dopey underlings, her black spangly bodysuit and languorous ease in her own alluring body, the languorous stretching way she'd climb up and dismount the boxes and thrones in her secret lair--even as a seven or eight year old I could feel my still-slumbering hormones stir within me like a sleepy behemoth whenever she appeared (it was a regular after-school rerun throughout the 70s). And so, because of her, we all began to worship cats. Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams; Cat Woman to boys what My Pretty Pony, or National Velvet was to girls, and nowadays Jacob the wolf boy. Animal-human hybrids are a pop culture-raised nations' adolescent sexual surrogates. America the parent sits on our bed, fidgets in its after-work tie, glances at our weird posters, and says "this has been a good talk," then runs from the room confident its role has been passably completed. The TV smiles, rolls its eye and returns to regular cat channel.  We may not know the mystery behind that impassive mask, but that's why it's there - and as a result it's a real relief.



Alas, Cat Woman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali). Other ladies took the role. None the same; what cat can compare to luminous Newmar? Genres change, boys become men, men become wolves, graven images are smashed by heretics' hacking hammers, the beat goes on, and cats come back / the very next day. As Boris says in THE BLACK CAT (1934), "Cats do not die." So can we deny that the crazy old lady with the ton of cats is within us all?

Lately two film ambled forth and struck my gong in this department. Timeless, strange, evocative, ephemeral, mysterious, kind of goofy, and short. What can we do but cherish them, and never try to put them in little cardboard boxes? You heard me, Ollie, in CAT PEOPLE (1942).

THE CAT CREATURE
(TVM - 1974) Dir. Curtis Harrington
***

The story of a strange necklace stolen off of a mummy and the curse that follows it (everyone who handles the piece gets mauled to death by Bast, a mummy cat god), THE CAT CREATURE is solid as far as 70s TV horror movies go--and there were a lot of them. If you were a kid in the 70s (this post is heavily nostalgic, because cats are outside space and time), now you may find you love them, despite their shallow depth slow-amble cop show vibe, their general avoidance of anything like sex or gore, their low budget and clear reliance on commercial breaks for pacing (which makes their video and digital versions seem strangely incomplete, as if 'the good parts' are missing). In their gentle nostalgia-evoking haze they provide a kind of comfort food opiate quality. And when done right, as by Curtis Harrington, they're great sources for bits of classic Hollywood, a way to keep fading B-list characters visible, and evoke the bygone classics while following cop show rhythms and doling out just enough scares and suspense to keep you from changing the channel at the next commercial break, but not enough to give you a panic attack, rob you of your very-70s faith in humanity, or even bum you out. They trade on ambiguity, which is something that Curtis Harrington proved himself a master of straight out the gate with his first film, NIGHT TIDE (1962). Harrington is a true fan of the classic horror era; he single-handedly rescued OLD DARK HOUSE from the edge of the abyss and here he salvages the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard from her decades on the black list, giving her ample room to flash her evil smile and dish out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?). The cast also includes Keye Luke, John Carradine, Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST). CAT PEOPLE's Kent Smith kicks it off as an appraiser archiving the collection of a recently murdered Egyptologist. Smith is soon murdered himself; the investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) follows the trail of a missing cat amulet and the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," run with Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery by Sondergaard


Harrington deftly uses that mellow 70s TV rhythm to parcel out the ambiguous details in the intimate relationship that develops between archaeologist named Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) who Marco enlists to help him ID the stolen medallion, and shy cute newcomer 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter), the new hire at Gayle Sondergaard's occult bookstore (jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than you'll find in any new age bookshop today). Roger and Marco make the scene at the downtown pawn shops and flops in search of the amulet and/or perps. I know this is hard to believe, lieutenant, but the murders seem to have been done by a cat. And then Roger brings up the subject of Bast-- the cat goddess worshipped through human sacrifice by ancient Egyptians--a goddess who was then locked away for all eternity because of her blood-drinking and evil.

Suspiria-prfiguring exterior shot set to eerie percussion and yowling
I confess I liked the teaming of Heddison and Whitman, each with a voice deeper than the other's, and manly gravitas long vanished, sadly, from our post-MTV generations. I also found myself drawn to Baxter's shy new store worker Rena --there is a profound sadness to this character that makes her almost like Amy in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, grown up and out on her own for the first time, history all set to repeat itself. (Rena being clearly taken from 'Irina').


One of Harrington's great skills is in using the commercial break to muddle the "did they or didn't they" fade-out into an actual supernatural asset. The issue of sex with a cat creature (or mermaid) pales in importance next to the emotional involvement, so that one coffee by the shore can evolve into a devotion beyond death through a hazy reincarnation style memory without ever getting to first base - that feeling of "I feel like we go way way way back" spread along the axis of THE MUMMY and SHE and the endless slog of epochs, all without any clear sense of 'how far' things  have gotten. We never learn how far around the bases he got since hooking up with her, and neither-one suspects--does he. Their romance sheathed as it is almost in paternal warmth vs. sexual heat is very 70s--in well-laid LA especially--since once it's had with some regularity, sex becomes just a facet of a relationship, not the be-all end-all; that plus the inherent censorship of prime time equals sex as just a thing that may have happened --this is as it should be. An archaeologist never kisses and tells, and so their romance stays fairy tale abstract and perfect for children, who want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend but who neither know about nor want to know nor should have to know about sex yet. That's the 70s prime time TV movie in a nutshell. Now I sound old, and PG, safe and neutered, but even the dirtiest of the oldest men are soon washed clean by time's scavenging sponge.

Dig some of Harrington's 'uncanny' extras - the lesbians at the Sorcerer's shop,
waiter at the hippie-ish restaruant, "Maybelle" at the hotel, etc.

What's so haunting is that eventually she turns into a monster being devoured by stray cats, sort of - a scene that was clearly difficult to pull off (a hard day those cats put in - god only knows how their wrangler got them to all attack that poor stunt man) and looks like one of those guys in INVADERS FROM MARS if he fell in the mud and was wearing a big clay cat head (the bandages are all very loose). It's odd as its twice the size of little Meredith and adds a whole extra level of frisson. Roger has been hooking up with this monster? Either way, it's still sad - we feel for this poor creature, trapped in darkness for thousands of lonely years- I would have liked this better if Roger was at least tempted by her offer of immortality, but the cops are closing in by then anyway, and so there's more than a hint of the kiss-off in both VERTIGO and MALTESE FALCON.


Robert Bloch wrote the script; there's a solid Leonard Rosenman score (some meowing violins, pensive percussion, slow sustains and yowling gongs). I even dig the creepy credits with the jagged horror font and the chanting. And at a brisk 75 minutes of so it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more, from the plaster Egyptian 'artifacts' to the autumnal color scheme, Harrington ensures every frame is a-drip with classic horror fan / 70s childhood manna (it's streaming through Shudder).

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
(1944) Dir. Robert Wise
***1/2

Just as CAT CREATURE's low-key success hinges on hazy classic B-movie nostalgia, CURSE's success hinges on the Lewton cinematic language, that low-key visual poetry and gift with extended dialogue-free scenes of young girls making their way through a strange night landscapes, the quiet and sudden rush of trains, zombies, busses or (here) snow tires in deep quiet punctuated by sudden shock scares. What do we remember about I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE? The whistle of the cane stalks in the dry wind. What in LEOPARD MAN? The blood under the door. CAT PEOPLE, the shadows in the pool room, and so on. Each is, in its way, a transient event, ephemeral; the supernatural is always ready to dissolve in the salty brine of rational overhead lighting. Often the story itself is rather inconsequential compared to the marvelous little 'touches'.

Famously, Lewton was given his lurid titles by the studio brass and had to make films to match; luckily for us he made sure to honor them even while doing his own thing. For CURSE he bucks the RKO brass-mandate of the title to eke out a weird but quietly beguiling fable that moves through THE SECRET GARDEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER-style mytho-poeticism and builds to a weird climax of faith and wind effects. It's a film with may more women than men (the war was on); but there are no shrill gadflies here (unlike THE WOMEN, for example), just low-key confident professionals, including a cool teacher whose authority on child psychology is delivered in the same calm-assertive manner of Nancy Davis in the Lewton-esque SHADOW ON THE WALL (and sadly can be seen almost nowhere else). Though it's often avoided in principle by classic horror fans (there's no actual cat people, too many kids), there's much more to this sequel than the casual viewer of the first ten minutes will suspect. The story is unique among sequels in that is very faithful to its predecessor as far as cast and continuation, rather than repeat the same formula, as RKO no doubt hoped (but Irina's virginity in the previous film made a literal child impossible, so they had to improvise).

Irina dreams in CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Kent Smith as Ollie the amiable square ship builder, whose pawing drove his late wife--the coded lesbian/feline Serbian Irina (Simone Simon) to murder--has remarried Alice (Jane Randolph), the girl who Irina chased into the pool in the first film and they've had a kid, Amy (Ann Carter),--a dreamy girl more like Irina than Alice. Sir Lancelot (the calypso singer from the previous year's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) is there as the housekeeper/cook and they only have one child. Clearly they're affluent in this upscale Sleepy Hollow bucolic idyll --their normal happy life includes bridge games with the neighbors and drinks and songs with the carolers and the compassion is clear in Lewton's and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen's treatment of their romantic evolution. (We wonder what Alice does all day since Sir Lancelot cooks and cleans and looks after Amy). All should be well. There's even (rare for Lewton) exterior shots filmed outdoors in the sun, full of that insufferably bucolic small town post-code 'charm'. But psychic and inward daughter Amy doesn't quite fit Ollie's uber-generic idea of what kids should be. Irina's ghost shows up to help Amy in her loneliness, as a kind of psychic apology (since Ollie's irrational fury towards Amy's flights of imagination are due to Irina's 'madness')-- in other words, Ollie has become Irina's shadow rather than vice versa. In a way he becomes the villain of the piece - he spanks Amy for sayings she has an imaginary friend, which is kind of horrible, punishing her for imagination, since he considers it Irina's imagination that she was a cat that led to her death. We cheer her running off into the night, utterly abandoned as even her imaginary friend decides to leave her (since she broke the cardinal rule and mentioned her existence to dogmatic Ollie).


We who were kids who came home alone to watch Batman after school and crush on Cat Woman--can certainly relate. Maybe we didn't have a dad who punished us for imagining things, but it felt like that; we related to Amy's desolation the same way we related to Irina's frigidity in CAT PEOPLE. Whether or not she was coded closet queer (the lesbian 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant), her dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware. She knew that the only thing keeping her human was the safety of the camera, our gaze, director Jacques Tourneur's simple but elegant daytime shots of her apartment, the restaurant, and the zoo. When darkness comes and the camera is elsewhere or off, i.e. inside the fade-out when sex happens-- the demons take possession; the animated cats dance in her head. We kids knew this from being brave all day in the sun with our parents around, and then huddling in bed at night, aware of every little sound. Without our parents to name and diffuse them, they took on monstrous life. Imagination is--in the land of children and Lewton--not merely some Spielbergian whimsy, but also a source of unfathomable danger and dread. Irina's fear of sex was like our fear of the dark, a ruptured vein of mythic alchemical change. Since we didn't understand it, sex became an important part of a marriage due to its subtextual absence (it's the thing we don't see - at least in older movies), in other words, the darkened portion of human knowledge, all the things we kids were afraid to find out but were nonetheless drawn to like a magnet, lay behind the wedding veil.

The Women: reflecting the wartime shortage of men by having a strong mostly female cast,
where everyone, even Amy, is more or less a mature adult.
As in SHADOW ON THE WALL, the world of children is one where women carry absolute authority.
Amy's teacher, Ms. Callahan (Eve March), even corrects Ollie's intolerant
behavior; Ollie sends Amy upstairs but he's the brat;
Ms. Callahan sends Ollie up after her, but far more maturely.
Either way, Amy herself is the product of piercing that veil. the evidence of Ollie finally getting laid. But she's dreamy and otherworldly- ignoring her friends to chase butterflies (the sort of thing that clearly inspired PAN'S LABYRINTH); mailing her birthday invitations to magic trees, and calling Irina (Simone Simon) into being. By day Amy goes chasing butterflies and walking past the gloomy old 'haunted house.' Amy's not afraid, an old lady in the window throws her a magic ring wrapped in a kerchief and soon Amy finds herself swept into the drama inside the crumbling Gothic mansion, and swept into a maternal drama between super-creepy Elizabeth Russell (the 'sister' in the first film), whose elderly mom, who an old stage actress (Julia Dean) refuses to recognize as her own daughter (not unlike Ollie with Amy in a less decayed orbit). The maternal triangle, the elder lady lavishing affection on young Amy while her older ignored flesh and blood watches in envy, is almost exactly like MARNIE and one is compelled to realize the rarity of it since these are the only two instances (though it shows up on a more sexual note in, say, Von Sternberg's Dietrich films).

On the other hand, why is this weird daughter hanging around, taking care of her mom and not, seemingly, having a life of her own?



Ann Carter is a very unique actress, with something of Veronica Lake's blonde otherworldliness (she even plays Lake's daughter in the last scene of I MARRIED A WITCH). Hers is a heightened cinematic reality: any fantasy or paranoid hallucination is just as real and vivid as the reality itself.  One of the scarier parts of the film is one level just an old lady telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, but it's the way it's filmed, Dean's commitment to the role, the wide-eyed way she stares directly into the camera while delivering the oration (and in we hear, through Amy's mind presumably, the thunder of approaching hoofbeats), the nervous fretting of Lancelot who's come to fetch her home, all create a uniquely weird and original mood that won't be duplicated again until the big climax.


Though there's no immanent threat, and it's the afternoon, and Edward (Sir Lancelot) is right there to whisk her away, the mood--one imaginative woman's mind to another's--lingers. Sir Lancelot's discomfort can't compete with that kind of wild imaginative prowess, so he fears it. For Lewton fans it's an ironic counterpoint: the last time we saw Lancelot in a Lewton film he was slowly advancing towards Frances Dee in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (below, 2nd down), singing a creepy ballad about the 'trouble' at the plantation, staring into the camera in the same way. Now, a year later, he's shifting with the same unease he generated in Dee; and he's sort of playing the Dee role here, a caregiver to a blonde with far-away eyes - just a touched and wayward girl instead of a zombie.

Don't stare into the camera, lest the camera stare back
Directed with some of Tourneur's visual poetry by Robert Wise, once we leave the daytime shots for the surreal studio snowdrifts and spooky mansion with its rattling shudders and wind billowing through the curtained foyer, flickering the oil lamps, the film finally lets go of its central theme of childhood imagination to focus on something closer to spiritual transubstantiation. We come away wondering if Amy's found a new friend, a babysitter, or at least a friendlier (or at the very least, marginally less hostile) neighbor in Elizabeth Russell. And dad comes around too - at last at which point Irina can safely disappear into the idyll. THE END flashes in an ominous touch, just as it does in Curtis Harrington's CAT CREATURE, without a specific orchestral crescendo, implying the story is still going on, even after the house lights come up. It might be over for us, the 'End' and heavenly 'Exit' calling us forth from our air-conditioned tomb, but cats do not die, nor does darkness.


RELATED: 

America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
At Long Last, Lost Lewtons: FALCON AND THE CO-EDS, ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY
CinemArchetype 2; The Anima
CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar
A Moon, Cat Women, and Thou: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON
“What It Takes to Make a Softie”: Breaking Noir Tradition in THE LEOPARD MAN

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Laurentiis of Drug-rabia: DUNE (Great Acid Cinema #43)



Caught the last half of DUNE on Showtime after a groovy nap and it was good enough I had to watch the first part on demand. I remembered liking its wildly uneven effects and straight-faced self-important trippiness as a college freshman catching it at the Student Union in 1985 but it wasn't 'cool' to show enthusiasm for it. What insecure freshman is strong enough to buck the flow of the masses? But this time 32 years older, unafraid and not fully awake, watching Kyle McLachlan in a sexy ribbed dark black suit riding atop a giant sand worm as the thunder cracked, the sand churned, and finally--like it's been buried under the surface of Arrakis all this time-- an electric guitar from Toto comes cracking through the orchestration like a blazing ray of sun, I knew I was home. Directed by David Lynch, produced by Dino de Laurentiis - a match made in heaven, whether anyone knew it back in the realm before cheap CGI made even unconvincing miniature work forever precious.

Even from the first scene you know you may not understand shit about what's going on, but you've never seen anything like it: a bald sister psychic asked by the emperor to psychically eavesdrop on the thoughts of a 'navigator' (those Metaluna-brained giant newts) escorted by a flock of austere leprous monks with cracked-egg brains--who file into a wildly psychedelic golden throne room carrying a Grand Central concourse entrance-cum- 30s diner train car betwixt them--then the windows open and the navigator swims out of the murk up against the glass to address the emperor via a translator device that looks like a 20s radio microphone. This, you realize, is not common, not hackneyed or trite or cliche, this is the kind of thing Bill Burroughs might hallucinate while on yage in the 50s, watching an old WB movie wherein Spanish ambassadors complain about privatized buccaneers to Queen Elizabeth while in the throes of junk delirium in the back of a decaying Moroccan cinema. In its total otherness it might even be a film actually made on another planet, one where the burnished dusky Art Deco Grand Central concourse oyster bar Illuminati 1939 Worlds' Fair Dali fever dream decor never went out of style, just matured along a separate tributary from the sci-fi we know. Even (or especially) if from certain angles you can see all the gold fixtures (right down to the gleaming highlights) are painted backdrop, this shit's truly psychedelic. Lynch + Laurentiis = batshit crazy

The guitar of Toto made me think of another pic produced by Dino de, FLASH GORDON (1980), with its unforgettable rock and roll Queen soundtrack. The stories are the same, too: the 'deliverer' come to a strange new world to free the people in bondage from Von Sydow's or Jose Ferrer's galactic emperor. CONAN too... with its thunderous De Falla permutations, going against Thulsa Doom. ORCA in reverse. Dino de Laurentiis did them all. Dino! I feel your guiding hand, it's holding an electric guitar!

Now in 2017, aired on Showtime in tandem with Lynch's TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, the true psychedelic yield comes forth, like one of those big 'Guild Navigator' beings, that look kind of like a giant newt with the cranium of a Metalunan mutant and googly eyes of a giant monster squid. Acting as a kind of intergalactic MTA, folding space through their swimming in gaseous clouds of the psychedelic spice, they blow from their icky Burroughsian orifices big plasma balls at images of planets and in doing so dissolve the space betwixt them, a kind of butterfly wing / tsunami / Dustin Hoffman folding a blanket thing. And they expect to have their fog of spice fresh and churning for their troubles. The film doesn't get much help trying to decipher all that, even with Virginia Madsen's coyly apologetic voiceover, you do get some weird-ass sights, giant worms, morgue extras who can't keep their toe-tags still and a five year-old Alicia Witt dancing with a curved knife in celebration of death and destruction like a pint-sized Kali.


PSYCHEDELICS = SPACE TRAVEL

DUNE offers a universe free of trite morality - so a 'concubine' or 'consort' can be a religious lady, choose her children's gender through sheer will, and they're not bastards but heirs to the throne. And trying big doses of spice while on Arrakis leads you to bond with far-off elements of the planet and prolong life -- not feel paranoid your mom will find out or the cops will pull you over. In short, it's an actual sane future, of the sort envisioned in 60s psychedelic mysticism and via practices like remote viewing, and 'going where no man has ever gone before' not including, necessarily, toting your body along. The internal voiceover aspect (we hear people's thoughts) doesn't bother me because for 1) theres so much telepathy and 2) Shakespeare adaptations by Olivier and Welles, both do it. And 3) The use of sound waves to formulate thought and vibrate objects to explode is amazing (though there's no sound based telekinesis - and since supposedly that's how the pyramids were built), it's still never been adequately developed in film or reality - and one side effect of the use of voice as a weapon is to rearrange how we think of language in speaking. People do not blather in DUNE - words carry heavy import - while inner monologues become a whole second tier.


And even stronger than 'the spice' there's a liquid made from the bile of the worms of Arrakis, "the water of life" equivalent to, in a sense, eating the worm at the bottom of the mezcal bottle times a million--all the preparations and anticipation of danger making a fine parallel with smoking, say, DMT or 50x Salvia Divinorum. As with drugs, psychic powers are not belittled and demonized but a part of reality, drugs not treated with disrespect and fear, and psychonauts valued for their shamanic contribution to the good of their house. Is this part of the reason the film was so panned? What about how it shows women in positions of power, as good fighters who need not be babied and protected but who can control minds with their mastery of the "weirding way"? For all its legitimate problems, for some of us, vitriol heaped on a film that features positive views of drugs and women is suspect, bro. Like if a film condones psychedelics and matriarchies, it's a film that must be panned. STAR MAIDENS and ALL THAT GLITTERS are not on DVD. The latter hasn't even been on tape! Free the matriarchal structured sci-fi from uptight fanboy damnation! 


Luckily DUNE, being a 'David Lynch Film' endures. So though we have a straight white male hero Christ figure, his mother, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis - left) is a badass who's taught her son the bulk of his fighting and telepathic skills. He can kill with a word. But it's his mom who taught her. As a super-human genius of the Bene Jesserit sisterhood, she's a figure unique in western literature and film. Only Jet Li's mother in the FONG SAI YUK compares in cool capability. And just having an array of holy sisters in positions of power and authority (a fully matriarchal lineage within the DUNE universe, covering both sides of the clash - there's a reverend mother within even the Fremen) makes the film worth seeing. One of Lynch's great strengths is his comfort around a large cast of female characters whose roles transcend gender norms while still retaining their sex appeal. 

PSYCHONAUTS OF THE GOLDEN CRESCENT

Time has been kind to DUNE politically as well. In 1984 all it reminded us of was LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but today--after 9/11--it seems most prescient. The character weird names all carry a Muslim whiff and the word 'jihad' is even used. We should remember that Lawrence of Arabia was working for the British, and was plenty mad when they betrayed all his promises to the Saudis, but could do nothing about it. He came home and sulked. Osama bin Laden on the other hand, went all the way, like Kurtz. a rich son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, chose to live deep in caves with desert nomads and fight first world super powers (first Russia, then 'us') through sabotage and terrorism, very much like a certain Paul Atreiades. Not that this itself redeems either Osama or DUNE - but it shows the way creative vision always comes from somewhere. The Akashic records, or just the wind of messiah complexes and the Golden Crescent opium trade. A nicely paranoid post (by 'OsamabinladenreadDune) in the Fortean Times notes the worms resemble the jets used to ram the towers and the year of the big change in the story is 10191, i.e. 09/11. Whoa, bro.

Silver Strain - The Jihad of Muad'Dib
I don't think DUNE inspired actual terrorism, but I do believe, at least one fish of my Pisces brain believes, in the Akashic records which anyone who could come up with such an elaborate, dosey world as Frank Herbert, surely accessed. So while Lynch's film may not be perfect, it is 'connected' to a divine source - and if you doubt it. Read the book, or go to the alternate realms of consciousness yourself, and thou shalt know.

LYNCH's ICK FACTOR

Alas, to my mind the main issue with DUNE today isn't the condensed fragmentary confusion of the narrative (that explains itself after the third viewing) nor the STRANGE INTERLUDE-ish inner monologues (they make sense with so much telepathy and mysticism), but the ick factor with the lengthy torture and sadism and gluttonous evil laughing scenes with Baron Harkonen "the floating fat man" - and his family and toadies in their ugly world - the towers of which resemble skyscrapers done up in pre-code two-strip color Warner Bros. horror film pinks and jades, and light from within a giant front porch bug zapper.  In their kinky blue-black outfits, the fat ugly brother (son?) and wild-eyed Sting looking like Malcolm McDowell's Caligula stepping out of the steam bath-- in nothing but his metal jock strap, and let his relatives float around him in a delirious incestuous homosexual spice-fueled mad lust, finally sated only by pulling out the nipple plugs on some little red haired boy. The Italian fascination with red hair goes back to the giallos of the 70s, of course, and here it seems to reach a kind of incestual-ancestral zenith from which it can never return, especially after the grotesque scene with a distressed mouse sewed to the back of a cat, or something (I fast forward past it and don't look - being traumatized by it back at the Student Union), and people eating strips of meat cut from a trussed up dead cow, or cleaning out the open sores and leprous acne from Harkonen's drug-ravaged pan, all for no other real purpose except to provoke disgust and loathing. We can connect these stretches with the stuff like the house where Frank has stashed the son and husband of Dorothy Vallens in BLUE VELVET, or One-Eyed Jacks in TWIN PEAKS or some other den of hyper-intense debauchery (the red stains on the mouths of one people in league with the Harkonens reminds one of--naturally--gluttonous winos) and thus pin them on Lynch's absurdist relish for the grotesque horrors of the fantasmatic 'subconscious' zone (which always have lots of drugs, violence, and maniacal laughing). Here it's even worse, as Baron eats his beautiful boys, or drinks them, and then gloats and laughs in a point of rich hysteria, thus lumping homosexuality in as just another disgust-generating depravity.

That said, one must admire the insane commitment of Kenneth McMillan as the evil baron (though I won't show him as he's too gross) who plays his scenes as if he's peaking on a massive dose of cocaine, each death he watches or engineers gives him a loathsome thrill. Floating around like the kid full of blueberries in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, he and his party milking and crushing and otherwise destroying an array of (actual or puppet) living creatures in an orgy of odious relish, his only real competition in unadulterated odium is perhaps Albert Cole in THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT. I'll always support evil laughing fits and a chance for Sting to wear his crazy eyes but eveb in the 80s, sooner or later even the sickest freak watching this shit goes "Okay, David, we get it - these red-headed creepy Harkonen are the bad guys." On the big screen, a little repulsiveness goes a long way, and one almost senses Lynch expressing his frustration at Dino's meddling by upping the quotient. If he can't inspire us and move our souls to alternate realities, he can at least leave a slightly traumatic and grotesque imprint.


But this can be solved, this Harkonen vileness circumvented as if through magic:
Scroll! Scroll through past the unpleasantries. They're plot is followed easy enough
this way - and to true peace.
Have you On-Demand or the DVD?
Scroll through, Moad Dib, scroll to freedom

And when Paul and his family are all in their capture (up until Paul and his mother are being taken out to the desert to die by two of the Harkonen's men) when it becomes awesome --that's when I stop fast-forwarding; watching Paul's mother seduce one of the guards into cutting her bonds and stabbing the pilot via her use of a deep throaty voice (the 'weirding way') makes all the forwarding worthwhile.

WOMEN and FREMEN

Everett McGill always seemed kind of useless as the sad sack forlorn lover of Peggy Lipton in TWIN PEAKS but here with his deep voice and solemn but not dour manner finds the ornate and no-frills mythic dialogue of Silgur, leader of the Fremen, he's a perfect match. Most people couldn't get across stilted, strange lines like "Usul, we have wormsign the likes of which even Gawd has never seen!" But they McGill makes them work to flawlessly. Sean Young as Paul's lover Fremen molders too with lines like "Tell me of your homeworld, Usul," as if she's learned nothing in all our other post-BLADE RUNENR roles about the craft of acting. But it, too, works, and once her hair is down it stays down; her confessions of love and her concern over Paul's taking the water of life (No man has ever survived it, only women usually take it when advancing levels of the reverent sisterhood - which in itself is badass. Sorry boys, this shit will kill you - have a Shirley Temple.")  And here in the misty dust of the Fremen's underground universe, Francesca Anna's dark eye make-up, hair all loose and half tucked into her tunic, is gorgeous and haunting.


Sean Young's luminous presence, and the cool desert suits bring the art direction to a dusky earthen hue from which the deep blue eyes blaze most becomingly; for the next barrage - and some of the dosed montages seem to be forced to repeat imagery, but the idea of the sister being born prematurely while Paul's mom is taking the 'water of life' and tripping her brains out, and thus sister becoming a wild telepathic super killer is divine, and who could blame her, it's like getting high on all this spice has made Kyle McLachlan so much hotter. Maybe the light is just flattering on this world, but as he grows, as the 'the sleeper awakens' - the baby fat of earlier scenes is gone, replaced by angular leaner jawline. A star is hatching from its egg right before us. He really is the Ashach Backhalcharacn

In other words, dear friends, check it out on demand and see if it's better the second time. If you've never seen it, I'd say go right to the second time and never worry about following the plot. If you can't manage that, well, just relish in the fact that--simply put--there's no jokes or smiles or anachronistic winks at the audience in DUNE, yet it's never sanctimonious or plodding. You can't argue with a messiah who sends his five year-old sister alone into the imperial spaceship of his enemy in order to slice up an evil baron. These things go a long way. So long in fact, you may not appreciate them for 33 years. But now Alicia Witt is older and hot. Kyle is an institution thanks to TWIN PEAKS, and the worm turns through time's beggar king, conquering all, even through endless shots of stunt men being blown up as they run along the sand at night, over and over, and over.

THE WILD (Analog) WORLDS OF DINO DE
from top: Flash, Dune (x2), Conan (x2) Flash Gordon,  Barbarella-

And it's real crime is that in all this while, we've never seen another film where to celebrate victory a child dances in slow motion waving a curved blood-soaked dagger as exultant electric guitar chords twanging her victory. Lynch may not know how to play well with others, and may have let himself be too casually destroyed by lack of final cut, but after all- if not for Dino and DUNE there'd be no BLUE VELVET (Dino funded it). And without that, would there even be a TWIN PEAKS? Without Dino, would there be such a rich CONAN, such Masonic high-weirdness in FLASH?


The great Sean Kelly shared a bit of observation with me about Dino de Laurentiis, noting he so spends lavishly on sets and costumes he runs out of money half-way through production, so what starts out as grand and mind-boggling beauty on lavish sets ends up as convincing miniatures and third rate effects, wires showing, mismatched backgrounds, etc. You can see it, for example, in the way everyone drips sweat under all those furs in what's supposed to be the arctic at the climax of ORCA or the way closer looks at the emperor's golden throne room reveal so much of the ornate gold finishing are actually 2 dimensional clapboard paintings that start to peel and buckle halfway through the scene.

That might have seemed like a problem at the time, but in the age of CGI, the acoustic tactile effect of real shit in real time forgives a whole mess of problems. We can always sigh and moan and wonder 'what if' Jodorowsky's version was made, but hey- his films aren't perfect either. His work is like a sledgehammer to reality-- he reaches in and pulls the guts out--even as it boggles the mind it can cause eye rolls with its puerility and shock-for-shock's sake outrage. This Lynch-Laurentiis-Herbert version might not be perfect, but it rocks. It might be incoherent at times, but it's beautiful. In its unique look and courageous bizarro conviction, it stands alone in a sea of shiite; its only neighbors on its giant hill crest, CONAN, FLASH, and maybe BARBARELLA. What do they have in common? Dino de Laurentiis, whose gorgeous slightly megalomaniacal bliss comes from the ability to act like Catholicism and the War on Drugs never happened. Ruling in a world free of burdensome petty 'proper' morality, he offers something fantasy cinema can find nowhere else, real resonant full-bodied Old Testament Nietzschean moxy. In Laurentiis land, women do their own killing and are fine with it, drugs can exert their effect on consciousness right out in public, the worm is eaten, the tiles glisten serpentine, and the electric guitars break through the clouds, illuminating at long last something. Whatever it is, however much it cost, however cheap it looks in retrospect, doesn't matter, the point is it's really there, and it's really something.

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