Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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

Corman fans like myself are finding--via golden hindsight and reverence for all things 35mm--that many of Roger Corman's New World produced ALIEN / STAR WARS / JAWS-imitations have held up and improved with age, and even the films of New World's mid-70s '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 New World was so much more than riffs on those hit. Corman also had an eye for giddy high-octane satire and we do ourselves a disservice by forgetting Corman also launched the whole (now largely forgotten) 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. And so New World proved it could imitate itself as deftly as it imitated the big boys. Once SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT showered box office gold all over the two-lane blacktops of backwoods America, there was no stopping him.

In the best of these 'backwoods blast-offs', 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, the original was such a surprise hit Corman ordered a whole slew of variants, futuristic car chase movies that, in their way, paved the lanes for the MAD MAX to come.

There are two late-70s movies that explore different facets of DEATH RACE, and I've seen them, and wish to discuss them. 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 trash-talking 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, OPEC; America's big cathartic fuck-you to the next four days of work that was 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) and revolution!

It's perhaps understandable why I-- 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 year of 2017, when America's Civil War turned so cold we grew more Russian the more we ever dared imagine, start your engines!

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.

(1976) Dir. Paul Bartel

With the popularity of the car crash movie (perfect for drive-ins) well established, 2000 director Paul Bartel jumped lanes and drafted over behind 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). That race had caught the popular cinematic imagination to the point that in 1976 it congealed into films like GUMBALL RALLY (1976), SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and--far less remembered--Bartel's CANNONBALL. In the original Dash and other race films, 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). For the inexplicable $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; other drivers 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, like dropping off laundry.  A smiling polite black dude (Stanley Bennett Clay) racing some nice Goy couple's 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 - how dare they!); the amazing Gerrit Graham ambles along 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!) who is breaking parole the moment his car leaves California. One speeding ticket and he's back in jail with the key thrown away! This is just one of Cannonball's terrible choices, the sort of self-sabotage that dirtbags often confuse with bad luck. Luckily for him, his parole officer (Veronica Hamel) is also 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 beloved show to throw away her career following such a three-strikes idiot over the edge. Though it's nice to see her wipe the floor with a cadre of good old boys trying to hobble Cannonball (who 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); David's little brother Robert and Brenda Belaski are also quite good as a pair of young newlyweds trying their luck for the prize. They seem genuinely in love, young and sweet (they even brought an acoustic guitar) plus the race makes sense in the terms of their character arc (elopement, money, youth, horniness) far more than in the others.

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 odds actually work?), and the sheer idiocy of "Cannonball", his 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 the rear of 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 other 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... now lost in the nasal cavity of time.

If you can ignore all that, well, go for it, as the car stunts are amazing. Highlights include: an awesome jump across an unfinished stretch of highway overpass and and plenty of wild spin-outs and crashes (all from back in the day they did that shit for real). A plethora of insider cameos helps as well: Corman himself plays the Los Angeles DA; Don Simpson is his assistant; Bartel a shady fey mobster (the type who play piano while their thugs kick the shit out of someone for not holding up their end of whatever). Martin Scorsese and Sly Stallone are the thugs! Yo Adrian! Joe Dante and Allan Arkush are mid-states tow-truck drivers who help out Cannonball with a new car (though I wouldn't trust that dork with my Big Wheel).

So forget all my annoyed kvetches with the pure idiot illogic of the script. What matters is that the good guys win, even if the good guys aren't always who you think. And a special shout-out to a grim gruesome freeway pile-up so out of step with what came before it chokes off even the most jadedly sardonic of laughter. 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 (had Bartel just seen Godard's WEEKEND?) . Despite the whole Woronov sexy van thing there's no puerile snickering or silicone (Fred Olen Ray was still too young, thank god), 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, Don Simpson stopped writing and turned to producing after this, smart move, Don! Your idiocy and coked-up gumption will poison the 80s with a wealth of attention span-destroying military recruitment videos. He died in 1996, Bartel in 200, so there you go. Hell, there we all go...

(1978) Dir. Allan Arkush, Nicholas Niciphor

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 titular game, like the Statham DEATH RACE remake or THE RUNNING MAN, helps political prisoners (mainly "guides" who help refugees cross a wasteland fraught wiht ping-pong ball-eyed camouflage net-wearing mutants) win freedom via  motor cross / Rollerball / gladiator mash-up. With no sense of humor about its own absurdity, the mix of Arkush-shot action and Niciphor shot pretentious dialogiw wizzes along but there are a lot 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). That said, I like the guns, which are like big Pringles can-shaped mini bazookas that fire huge laser bolts that vaporize opponents, and I love the thrift-shop dumpster dive approach to the costumes, and I'm glad the film never bothers to explain rules. If we're part of its intended demographic, well, we're probably too high from huffing rush and snorting evaporated Nyquil to not think it's our own fault we can't follow what's going on. Just blow shit up! Hell yeah, and let the teachers and short goomba burnouts who wronged you in middle school get theirs by flaming proxy.

Claudia Jennings endures the torture of the light strips

Then there are other weird bits: girls who disobey the sleazy leader get thrown naked into the room of dangling light strips, or zapped on the color filter-lit table of abstract woe. It would be misogynist if it wasn't hilarious. I never understood this habit some movies have of making the pain and fear of a woman so vivid and realistic it leaves you shaken; it's why I can't stand Noomi Rapace! She makes her pain too real, so vivid it ceases to entertainment.  Corman and company get that it's supposed to be entertaining, not traumatizing. It is known: unconvincing pain lightens the heart. The New World violence is always a bit goofy and therefor cathartic. 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, still wet with white paint, Carradine and Jennings are on display before the all-seeing eye of Zirpola--this combination of paranoid despot and louche peeping tom.

David Carradine plays an amalgam of Kane from ABC's 1972-5 KUNG FU series and of course Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2000; lupine playmate Claudia Jennings is a fellow guide and warrior (as in the best Corman stealth-feminism, she's as tough and wise and as combat-proficient as any of the men - and prettier too). Great as they both are at keeping straight faces amidst the madness, Lynch, as the bad guy / master henchman gets all the best lines, purred in a mellow emotionless forceful calm: "You call me animal? 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 after she kicked him out of the league), giving him the ultimate warrior greeting: "Salute your mother for me." 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 just another day at the fair. I guess, in the words of the Hephaestus-like blacksmith in MOBY DICK, "thou canst not scorch a scar." (1)

Andrew Stein's synthesizer score provides a great minimalist mess of wind sounds, zaps, and sustained notes somewhere between the Bebe's FORBIDDEN PLANET and faux John Carpenter. His attempts at actual melody are terrible (they remind me of stuff I've made for my own films), but then---who should appear?-- Jerry Garcia noodles in and around in the mix, coming and going at the darndest times. And as anyone who ever sat through a Dead show can tell you, if you depend on Jerry to lead you out of the caves of aimless noodling, well, you're going to be in there a long while and things might get weird before they start to see the light of melody.

Weirder still is the way faux-samurai ethos are folded into the stilted dialogue, creating an effect 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." The greeting between range guides is "Our union is limited." Another keeper, delivered with the solemnity through which Carradine won the heart chakras of a generation of strip mall karate kids: "No one can touch myself," oh man, how true! I wanted to write every line down, but they got away from me. And without that deep-set eye roll couched in Carradine's intonation, I can no more capture their wry beauty than a moon capture the dragon fly's wallet.

In case you can't tell, 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 termite crevasses. Every so often Carradine casts a wry glance at the camera that Bock and Arkush leave in, and it counteracts the more pretentious serious art elements that no doubt the original director shoehorned in. I love the way the mutants hide their faces so we don't linger on the awful yellow ping boll eyes (their shame over being mutated covers the shame of the make-up department), and 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 the endless shots of pursuing bikers but, after all, our union is limited. Noodle on, Big Jerry. Noodle on.

The Shout DVD includes a fun Bock and Arkush commentary wherein we learn that whatever Niciphor was intending with his initial version, it didn't work; Arkush was called in to direct new footage of fireballs, nudity and enough action to make Niciphor's high concept artsy parts less obtuse and stilted, which Arkush did in spades. He pours anarchic pyromaniac anarchy onto the staid sci-fi conceptualism with some of the same giddy anarchic spirit he brought to ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and GET CRAZY. (that the latter isn't on DVD is one of the great crimes of the 21st century) and so DEATHSPORT becomes 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  joke 'em if they can't take a fuck!

To sum: with the scorched features and measured tone of the fearless fire elemental Richard Lynch, the always lovely and literally and figuratively foxy Jennings, the cracking wry fourth wall eye rolling of Carradine, the copious fireballs, the tricked-out bikes flying into the air, the sly way the actors cover up the budget limitations, and the Arkush commentary explaining it all when you need a break from the Zzzzap sound effects, well you're guaranteed a good time. Just don't watch the second feature on the Shout DVD, BATTLETRUCK. It might have Michael Beck but he's a long way from XANADU...  Aren't we all?  


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


Julie Newmar in the old BATMAN TV show: her lithe playful grace, her tender malevolence with her dopey underlings, her black spangly bodysuit and ease in her own long, languorous dancer's body; the way she'd climb up and dismount the boxes and thrones in her secret lair, stretching out, slowing down dance moves and yoga stretches into cat-style longwise stretches, using her Stooge-like cat creeps as balancing beams. I know I'm not alone in feeling my own unconscious / anima rouse itself from fitful hibernation, whenever she appeared. She had me. All of us. We'd always play fight after a Batman rerun, in the front yard, shouting "Pow" and comically falling over, afterwards.

When Julie Newmar was on, we'd fight for real, to prove our alpha mating potential, though we were but seven or eight.

Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams. To boys like me in the 70s, she was what Jacob the wolf boy from Twilight is to girls the same age today. That's why I "get" Twilight, because of Julie Newmar. Animal-human hybrids are a pop culture's 'safe' pre-adolescent sexual surrogates, i.e. the anima / animus. Long before the shaky parent runs from the room confident their role has been passably completed by some five minute rote 'sex talk', the TV smiles, rolls its eye and returns to regular cat channel. Cat Woman has covered all this before, without the messy biology of reproductive science or messy things like 'real' girls. We may not know the mystery behind that impassive mask, but that's why it's there. It's pagan idolatry at its best. 

As long as it's on, we don't have to worry about not liking what's underneath. Lord knows, we'll have enough of those dates in the early years of AOL.

Alas, Newmar's Catwoman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali) and left us all bereft. Other ladies took the role. But 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 (though hardly knew I saw them with new eyes), cat-related. 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).

(TVM - 1974) Dir. Curtis Harrington

A strange necklace is stolen off of a mummy and everyone who handles the piece gets mauled to death by Bast, a mummy cat god! Written by Robert Bloch, Curtis Harrington's TV movie THE CAT CREATURE is pretty damned solid as far as 70s TV horror movies go--and there were a lot of 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), 70s horror TVMs like this provide a kind of comfort food opiate reassurance for we classic horror fans of a certain age; they're great sources for bits of classic Hollywood detritus, a way to keep fading B-list character actors visible/employed, and evoke the bygone classics while doling out just enough scares and suspense to keep dad from changing the channel at the next commercial break, but not enough to give you a panic attack, or rob you of your very-70s faith in humanity.

A true fan of the classic horror era, Harrington single-handedly rescued James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) from the edge of the lost film void and here he salvages the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard from the blacklist, giving her a job as owner of 'The Sorcerer's Shop' an occult bookstore owner, with ample room to flash her evil smile, dish out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?) and generally carry on in great scenes of Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery. Harrington also gives us Kent Smith, finally getting his comeuppance for trying to keep a kitten in a box all day at work as the dopey architect in the original CAT PEOPLE by getting murdered while archiving the collection of an already murdered Egyptologist collector. Each time... a cat silhouette!

Investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) realizes the murders center around a missing cat amulet; the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," since Sondergaard used to deal in hot jewelry.  Marco recruits a local archaeologist Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) to help him ID the stolen amulet and together they tool around LA, talking to each other with their great gravelly TV male 70s smoker voices. Don't get me started on the high whiny voices of our nonsmoker generation) and searching the flop houses and antique shops in search of the amulet and/or recently flush winos What a unique experience for professor Edmonds! He vibes with the shy cute new clerk at Sondergaard's store, 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter), little guessing the occult connection.

Jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than you'll find in any new age bookshop or TV movie made today, Sondergaard's shop seems like one weird great place to work. Meanwhile, John Carradine, Keye Luke, John Carradine, Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST) saunter past as the suspects or new victims, as Marco and Roger keep orbiting back to Sondergaard's and cute Rena, 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.... !

So much more than just a restaurant - dig the weird waiter and art direction
I love the little weird details here: the skulls and weird old Universal horror props in every corner of the frame; the meowing violins, pensive percussion, slow sustains and yowling gongs in Leonard Rosenman's score; the cool-creepy end credits: their jagged horror font and the eerie chanting that substitutes for exit music. At a brisk 75 minutes it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more. From the plaster Egyptian 'artifacts' to the autumnal palette, Harrington ensures every frame is a-drip with classic horror fan / 70s childhood manna (it's streaming through Shudder). Adding a manly contrast, I like too the teaming of Heddison and Whitman, each with a voice deeper than the other, displaying a manly gravitas long vanished, sadly, from our post-MTV landscape.

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.
Best of all is the profound sadness in Baxter's Rena, in a way she conjures a grown-up Amy from CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (perhaps intentionally) history all set to repeat itself (Rena being clearly taken from 'Irina'). Taking a page perhaps from Lewton, Harrington ably syncs the mellow rhythm of 70s TV to the languid sense of timeless affection that develops between Rena and Marco--evoking that SHE/MUMMY ages-echoing amor. The "did they or didn't they" question is sidestepped in such an ephemeral yet profound way we feel how a casual coffee after work can evolve into a devotion beyond death without so much as a kiss. The affection is there in their mellow loving unconsciously tactile manner with each other the morning after. We saw this too in Harrington's NIGHT TIDE, that ephemeral mythopoetic love, the love you feel and express for that girl or guy you find only in dreams, whom you love totally and without reservation, yet seldom see, and who dissolves into air or sand if you try and hold onto them. Alas, the climax, with its surplus of cats and Rena... well, I can't spoil it. Despite the cool end credits, it may be better if you just go to bed.

(1944) Dir. Robert Wise

Just as CAT CREATURE's low-key success hinges on hazy classic B-movie nostalgia, CURSE's success hinges on the Lewton's unique wartime quietude and visual poetry, his gift with extended dialogue-free scenes of young girls making their way through a strange landscapes at night, menaced by the quiet and sudden rush of trains, zombies, busses or snow tires, the whistle of the cane stalks in the dry wind 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.

CURSE goes Lewton's bucking of the RKO brass-mandate of the title one better, to eke out a weird but quietly beguiling fable that snakes through THE SECRET GARDEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER-style child's eye mythopoetica, building to a weird climax of faith and wind effects. It also has a cast of way more women than men (the war was in full stride) but unlike so many woman-dominated films of the era, there are no types, no floozies and caricatures, 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 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, but rather than repeat the same formula, as RKO no doubt hoped (i.e. some young girl coming of age ignorant of her cat-like ways, headed to a bloodier honeymoon than the censors can imagine), Lewton could cite Irina's sexual hysteria in the previous film made a literal child impossible, so his weird 'imaginary friend' thing would have to work.

Irina dreams in CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Kent Smith (remember him from the above movie, CAT CREATURE?) is once again loping around as Ollie, the amiable but hopelessly square ship builder whose patience drove his late wife--the coded lesbian/feline Serbian Irina (Simone Simon)--to murder. Naturally he's remarried, to Alice (Jane Randolph), the girl who Irina tried to kill in the first film, and it's their kid who's haunted by the ghost of Irina, but it's a good haunting. Irina has found peace in death, and the family has moved to the bucolic paradise of Sleepy Hollow --only Kent is having trouble moving on, terrified that somehow Irina's toxic imagination will leak out and poison his daughter. Maybe he's right to be worried: a only child more like Irina than Alice, Amy (Ann Carter) doesn't mix well with the other kids, preferring to follow butterflies down ominous driveways. Both Alice and Ollie still work at the ship building company, so Amy is minded by Sir Lancelot (the calypso singer from the previous year's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) as a combination maid, cook, chauffeur and nanny. Their normal happy upscale middle-class life includes: bridge games with the neighbors, drop-in visits from the teachers, and drinks and songs with the Xmas carolers. The compassion is clear in Lewton's and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen's treatment of their romantic evolution and the innate goodness (and educated intelligence) of Sleepy Hollow life. That psychic and inward daughter Amy doesn't quite fit Ollie's uber-generic idea of what kids should be however, turns Ollie into the bad guy. Lashing out at any sign of shadowy imagination (he's still determined to believe Irina's condition was all in her head) he's all but inhaled his own ghost, that of some long gone witch-hunting Puritan.

One of the real issues I have with Lewton, especially his later work, is something Tourneur would have probably kept more ambiguous, the line between fantasy and reality. The first two films of Lewton keep the door to the unknown open: voodoo and this ancient Serbian curse could be real and not just vivid imagination. A big 'if' kept them from spilling over into straight-out fantasy or the tired 'it was all a trick' ending that makes horror fans groan (the sign the producer really doesn't like the genre he's assigned). When Irina's ghost shows up to help Amy in her loneliness, we may read it as a kind of psychic apology (since Ollie's irrational fury towards Amy's flights of imagination are due to Irina's 'madness') or just take her presence at face value - that Amy saw a picture of Irina in a book and thought she was pretty, and Ollie blowing up at her for showing it to him gives it a kind of holy cachet.

Either way, if she's just 'an imaginary friend' it kind of errs on the side of whimsy, a whimsy that' compels Ollie himself to become Irina's shadow. When he spanks Amy for saying she has an imaginary friend, we hate him so much it's hard not to cheer her for 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 relate to Amy's desolation the same way we related to Irina's frigidity in CAT PEOPLE. Whether or not she was coded closeted-even-to-herself lesbian (as per the 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant), Irina's dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware - we related, since Kent Smith so ably played a kind of neutered version of the American male it was easy to see how she might presume marriage would be lavender in nature. Since the code is in effect, on a meta scale, it was also as If Irina knew that the only thing keeping herself human was the safety of the camera, our gaze. In director Jacques Tourneur's simple but elegant daytime (studio-bound) shots of her apartment, the restaurant, and the zoo, she was immortal - give her the black night and sooner or later, there'd be no escape from the pawing of the Ollie.

As per the code, it's inside the fade-out when sex happens-- the demons take possession; the animated cats dance in her head. We kids knew this as kids, from being brave all day in the sun with our parents around, and then huddling in bed at night, aware of every little scratching noise inside the walls. 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 alchemy.

And since we didn't understand it, sex became an important mystery initiation, a ritual, notable for its subtextual absence (it's the thing we don't see - at least in older movies - it's what happens in the place no children or cameras can trespass. We only knew that people emerge from this place changed - bonds are somehow stronger in the morning or after a cut to the fireplace or a tower, or the train going through a tunnel). 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, in the dark of the dissolve.

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 disturbed children is one where
women carry absolute authority. Amy's teacher, Ms. Callahan (Eve March), even corrects
Ollie's intolerant behavior towards his daughter; 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 he doesn't get to control the outcome any more than Irina could control her cat conversion. Amy is dreamy and otherworldly, not at all the rational bundle of joy Ollie was blithely expecting all those patient weeks with Irina. Ignoring her friends to chase butterflies, mailing her birthday invitations to magic trees, and calling Irina into being; she also goes chasing butterflies and walking past the gloomy old 'haunted house.' Here Amy show her connection to the mystic. She is 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, 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 and Amy might devolve into if they're not careful).

These visits are fascinating, Amy offering completion of a kind of maternal love triangle that is almost exactly like the one Hitchcock would later depict in 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) as the old woman pampers Amy almost intentionally to drive Russell into a jealous sulk.

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). She bring to Amy a heightened cinematic reality: any fantasy or paranoid hallucination is just as real and vivid as the reality itself - and for the film to work properly we must take them as literal. If we do, one of the scarier parts of the film is one level just an old lady telling the tale of the Headless Horseman. It's the way it's filmed that makes it so eerie: Dean's commitment to the role, the wide-eyed way she stares directly into the camera while delivering the oration (and we hear, through Amy's mind presumably, the thunder of approaching hoofbeats) creates 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.


America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
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" - and to find it necessitated all sorts of button-pushing and scrolling hassles, man, so it must have made an impression! Sometimes naps can change your impression of a movie profoundly. It was the first film I saw on hash at the Student Union- freshman year of college -  and its self-important complexly-incoherent trippiness blew my mind --not that I was secure enough to admit it (in 1985, as in now, it's not 'cool' to love DUNE). But this second time, 32 years older, unafraid and not fully awake even now, I'm man enough to confess that watching Kyle McLachlan in a sexy ribbed dark black suit riding atop a giant sand worm as the thunder cracks, the sand churns, and finally--like it's been buried under the surface of Arrakis all this time-- an electric guitar from Toto crackles through the moody orchestration like a blazing ray of sun - well it blew my mind. 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 or not (they'd find out later though, with BLUE VELVET). Yeah, I may be half-asleep even now - (the dreamer must awaken... later) but there's nothing wrong with approaching surrealist dream cinema in such a state. As in dreams, you may not understand shit about what's going on, but as asleep, you don't care so much, because you've never seen anything like it.

We open on 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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.

from top: Flash, Dune (x2), Conan (x2) Flash Gordon, Barbarella (x5), Diabolik

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, doesn't matter. It is. 

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