Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Spooky Behaviors: 15 Wild Horror/Sci-Fi Films Gallantly Streaming on Amazon Prime

It's that time of year, a curated list of bizarro cage-free horror films casual classic horror fans may not know of, by me, Erich - and where to find them (they're all currently streaming free on Amazon Prime... for now). Sure it might be harder to get on your Fire stick or Apple TV or whatever, but if you love horror, the classic kind, ya gotta git Prime, man. While Netflix sheds almost all its older movies Amazon Prime has been, year after year, amassing a giant catalogue of weird old shit fin to make Kim's Video rise from its grave. Sure, come Halloween we'll all be watching STRANGER THINGS 2 on Netflix. But until then... am I right?

(Post Script 11/17- We watched it already, and here we still are - am I right?)

If the boxes of strange old crap look even fuller lately, it's because some rerelease outfit called 'Sprockets' has added countless lurid, cheaply made 50s-70s softcore sleaze-o-thons, usually barely an hour long, the type that probably packed onto marquees back in the days before hardcore but would barely get a PG-13 nowadays.  They all suck but in the process can help show why Joe Sarno, John Waters, and Russ Meyer are such comparative genius poets. Check a few out and wonder just how girls ever blinked with all that eyelash mascara back in the day. Then promptly exit that theater and come into mine, choose from this weird curated collection and be assured good times. To get the grindhouse effect (the 'three movies in continual rotation, open 24 hours'  malaise) I suggest slotting out three of these films in advance and then starting the first one in the middle, because--if you're old enough to remember--grindhouse marquees seldom had feature 'start' times. They just played continuously, so you'd walk into the theater in pitch dark, feeling your way to a seat, and never knowing which movie was playing when you came in, until the end (which is why so many horror films of the era end with the title, i.e. "You have been watching SUSPIRIA!"). Not knowing what film you were seeing, or what was happening onscreen, allowed for a sense of anything-can-happen danger that's missing when you know what film it is, and what it's about, and what it's rated, in advance. After one film is done, start the next right away, before you can second guess yourself or read what it's about.

Then, when you finish your third movie of the night, start the first one up from the beginning, and when you get to where you 'came in,' you whisper to your asleep viewing partner (or cat): "this is where we came in" and turn the TV off and sashay away (i.e. pass out). Lo! A longstanding grindhouse tradition!

As always with Prime, the image quality ranges from sublime to fourth generation VHS messed, so I rate both the film and the quality of Amazon's streaming print. Some of these reviews have been posted before on this site, they're presented here re-edited (and with new thoughts) but since some of the films discussed on older posts aren't always still avail. I wanted to regroup those that are, all the better to ensnare you. I'm not being lazy, just obsessive! And lazy!

1.  TORSO 
(1973) Dir. Sergio Martino 
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Looking at this now it's hard to believe just how thoroughly the commercial for Torso--which popped up a few times on local afternoon TV in 1973--chilled my six year-old blood. Its key image--of a girl, crawling pathetically through the mud in the woods while a figure in a ski mask slowly approached, relentlessly, her legs twisting in the undergrowth like she was grinding up against the mud in pathetic but aroused abandon, the killer's immobile face behind the orange ski mask approaching, pulling out (as I remember, incorrectly) a chainsaw--opened up my six year-old psyche like a razor through a Mad gatefold. It was probably the dawning of my nascent feminism (forced to contemplate the rancid idea that adults somehow found this all 'entertaining'), a 'locking the barn door after the horse ran off' kind of approach to my sensitive prepubescent psyche.

Since growing up, and finally getting over my preformed prejudice, I found to some shock that Torso plays more like a giallo whodunnit with: hacksaw dismembership (off-camera), suspicious male suspects staring at each other staring; a gang of snickering locals who seem like they could need someone to spit on their grave very soon; beautiful coeds posing on tractors and piazzas; disposable Italian boys zipping around on scooters; pot parties when no filmmaker smoked pot so they all gave it this weird sleazy cachet, etc. Still, once it gets down to the final girl hiding in a bedroom, Torso gets pretty intense and it looks good, with lots of old Rome architecture, and the lovely lips of Tina Aumont (above). Look at that deep burnished wood stain and deep red, her lipstick corresponding to the wall color, her haunted heavy lidded eyes and rich auburn hair, the elephant statue trying vainly to trumpet of impending danger. The music gets schmaltzy and there's some terrible wallpaper and you have to imagine a world where everyone agrees not to lift even one hand to defend themselves against scarf strangulation, or why someone with a huge knife would waste time strangling at all, but I digress. No chainsaws but a thin line between outright leering objectification (lots of exposed breasts, lesbian posturing, short skirts) and a concurrent critique of said objectification, as rural Italian males all gather in the street and stare openly, hostilely, as if any minute a gang rape might break out --in the light of Harvey Weinstein, this shit's got a whole new level of repugnancy about it: chainsaws don't even have to factor to get the blood up, this time boiling over.

(1982) Dir. Amy Holden Jones
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B
If this flows better than most crap in its genre, it's because it's actually directed by a woman, Amy Holden Jones, for distribution via Corman's New World (though even by his standards, it's a mighty low budget affair). The seams of the frame are fraying at the edges but if you ride out the adjustment the stripped-down narrative turns out to be solidly constructed, with some of Halloween boiler plate elements stripped away (backstory, character development Donald Pleasance) but enough of the 'right' parts kept (the single night time frame, the mute killer, the gradual self-reliance and savagery of the plucky female survivor/s) that it remains a model of its budget class. There are far too many fake-out jump scares, and while some of the acting is pretty bad, but in the end there's several final girls stabbing in unison and the killer doesn't have a chance, and I like that. The lurid poster offers the suggestive shots of the drill dangling between the killers legs while girls scream in negligees and there's not much of that kind of thing; locker room puerility is kept to a (relative) minimum (all three of the snickering horny boys who drop by are with due haste dispatched) and the murders are never sadistic or overly deviant-- rather the focus is on the girl's reactions and resolve, the way they tangle with not just fear but paranoia, and the terrible cost wrought by Boy Who Cried Wolf-ish pranks. Thanks to clever framing and Slumber Party delivers all that may be expected from the title, has a real young Brinke Stevens early on, and an effective (if not quite Carpenter-carpet cool) old radio show-style organ score. Next to the legions of terrible late night DTV wastes of time that polluted the VHS rental racks around it, Slumber endures a goddamned miracle: a movie that delivers on exactly what you expect or want out of such a film, and not a penny more.  And not all the hairdos are totally 80s awful.

Like the film, the Amazon print is just about serviceable.

(1982) Dir Tom McLoughlin
*** / Amazon Image - B-

Meg Tilly is a somewhat naive high school student spending the night alone at a spooky mausoleum for initiation into a pretty lame girl gang. A Russian psychic's newly interred corpse is there too, and when the folding chairs from his eulogy aren't put away respectfully he commences to raise the surrounding dead. Made right at the dawn of the slasher era (and incorrectly marketed as such), One Dark compares more to Phantasm or Carpenter's The Fog than Halloween or Friday the 13th which is why it rocks. The way it builds up from the sorority prank scares to the actual ones is pretty seamless, there's no sex or snickering, the dialogue is surprisingly adept, the characters thoughtful, for the most part. The bitchy gang leader (Robin Evans) is grating but her long dirty blonde hair's terrific; too bad her sidekick (Leslie Speights) has the unsightly habit of keeping a yellow toothbrush in her mouth at all times. Whose gross idea was that? Demerit!

As the night plays on, the psychic's estranged daughter, Melissa Evans listens to a tape left by a psychic researcher who lays out the her later father's evil telekinetic talents (which we see manifest at the mausoleum in tandem). Husband Adam West  doesn't do much except poo-poo her own psychic flashes (the men in this film are little more than eye candy) but the effects are cool, plentiful, imaginative and refreshingly over-the-top. The sourced print is fairly washed out but in HD, the vibe is creepy, and young ethereal Meg Tilly is as ethereal as Helen Chandler was in 1931. A whole step above the rest of the cast, you'll understand why everyone who saw this had to cast her, leading to significant roles in The Big Chill and Psycho 2 the following year.

(1987) Dir. Michele Soavi
**** / Amazon Image - A

It's a terrible shame that the great Michele Soavi made so few horror films while working with Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava in the 80s-90s, for he brought out the metatextual in-joke deadpan of their combined style to the point his work compares favorably with that of Antonioni and Godard, layering termite in-jokes so subtly maybe even he didn't know they were there. Even more of a shame is that of his three best films, Cemetery Man, The Devil's Daughter (see Shrouds of Soavi), and Stagefright, only the latter is readily available. I mention this all as it fits - in grand meta style -for this is the behind the scenes tale of a tawdry sex and violence theatrical performance, something clearly meant for off Broadway at the height of the mayor Koch 80s, when sex and sleaze and dance were all of a piece (Bob Fosse meets Abel Ferrara); it's a dark and stormy night, the show opens in a week, an insane killer broke out of the institution down the road, and hid in the back of the lead ingenue's car when she stopped by there to get a sprained ankle mended. She had to sneak out with the caretaker's key, which factors in later. But hey, they can tie in the murder of their wardrobe mistress with the show content and get a million in free publicity. The show must go on! The killer agrees ans is soon offing the cast, who make all the right moves (they stick together, stock up on the set designer's power tools for defense) but still can't compete with this kind of owl-headed madnman. Soon it's down to the cat and mouse between him (still in the owl head) and Barbra Cuspiti, who missed the main slaughter by being conked on the head on the way up to the rafter. Outside in the rain, the cops wait inside their squad car, presuming they can somehow help, but they can't even get inside. So the meta and Hitchockian elements beswirl: the only door key out begins to loom like a giant sculpture mirage, planted between the stage floor boards below the (now napping) killer's feet; weird mannequins gawk idly in the foreground stage right; we see the sax-playing Marilyn load a cassette with her solo into the bowl; the ingenue takes off giant fake bubble breasts; the killer plays his own leitmotif and works the effects (he's a former actor); the idea of being locked in all night with the killer has a goofball old school charm; the male leads follow a ogical course of self-defense; the fat guy tries to buy the killer off with a wad of cash; and you don't put it past Soavi to substitute real actresses in mannequin poses in some shots and not even call attention to it, or having someone below camera level slowly moving them side to side, too slow for the human eye to register; when Barbara Cuispi's shirt is the exact same light green as the backstage dressing room hallway, like; a big no-no in non-camouflage wardrobe that its broken rule aspect is both funny, reassuring and gently tension alleviating, maybe in ways I can't explain; Peter--the Byronic director-- toots blow but does it on the sly so we barely notice.

Soavi buries gems all over; a reel-to-reel tape of the Wagnerian musical score blasted (by the killer) at inopportune times makes Peter's determined vengeance seem like a Roman opera; a broken bottle of stage blood crashes to the ground right when a guy gets drilled through the door, so the two red run together. We don't just see the cops oblivious in the rain but Soavi plays with trying to get us to care or be scared for them as they delve merrily into cop cliche. Wry shit like that just piles up and though plenty tense and scary, the laughs are earned, the acting sublimely exaggerated (except for Cuspiti, who zombies out for the last 1/4, which is preferable anyway as it's suspenseful enough without hammy histrionics), and the layers of meta so interwoven that even after death the killer might manage one last smile at the camera. Amazon image, in full rich HD has such lush rich Italian blue-red palette color it's to swoon for, to the point most of the other films on this list are unbearable by contrast afterwards. (full)

(1982) Dir. Lucio Fulci
***/ Amazon Image - B

Fulci fans come in all shapes and sizes Some love the attention to gore and gross-outs but some of us fancy folks like the discordant dream logic, the way it only makes sense if you let go of all your usual narrative expectations and just admire the framing and raucously ironic Fabio Frizzi synths. For them, us, me, we love the abstract the way Fulci plays on the rhythm of other movies as if a jazz counterpoint (in this case, that would be both the original Exorcist and the sequel). Franco and Rollin make films that flow like idylls dipped in the brush of nightmare, but Fulci does the reverse, he's the quicksand that lets you appreciate the beauty of the flowers even as a shambling corpse filled with maggots pulls your eyes out of their sockets. That's why firm supporters of his House by the Cemetery (see 'Nightmare Logic') should seek out Manhattan Baby, for the cast is largely the same and--hey--it's even less coherent! The plot involves a mysterious amulet given by a mysterious old lady to a girl visiting Egypt with her parents and brother. At night it opens up a stargate between some lost Pharaoh tomb and her and her brother's bedroom in the family's uptown Manhattan apartment. The dad meanwhile was temporarily blinded by the gem's twin that shot him with blue lasers. A psychic tossing them a note from a window lets them know the truth - the amulet is a gateway to evil, possessing children and trapping their souls within its sinister facets. Anyone who gets in the way, including the psychic, a taxidermist, and a louche family friend, all wind up either attacked by stuffed birds, real cats, or an interdimensional doorway that dumps them in Egypt and leaves lots of sand on the carpet after it closes again.

The parents' initial skepticism soon gives way to concern and once the amulet is found - well, it becomes harder and harder to tell what's real, what's a dream (the kids call it 'voyaging') and what's supposed to be happening in real time. If it doesn't bother you that when the wife sees the sand on the floor of the bedroom we can't tell if she's in Egypt looking down from a mountain or New York looking down at the carpet, then this is your movie. Maybe you 'get' Antonioni and the rise of psychedelic post-structuralism in Italian cinema or maybe you can just shrug and think, hey 'dream logic, bitches' - as long as you're open to surreal 'you are there/not there' duality, as long as you stop trying to understand and just think, hey  - the taxidermist psychic is named Adrian Mercata, a reference to ROSEMARY'S BABY (Adrian Marcata), the weird title makes sense at last. (Pair w/ Argento's Inferno for an Italian film shot-in-NYC nightmare logic not-that-great-but-still-OK extravaganza)

(2013) Dir. John V. Knowles
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

This low budget attempt at a candy-colored smart girl Scream meets Heathers / Mean Girls divided by The Faculty horror comedy suggests any suspiciously well-preserved woman who drifts into your small upscale American town advocating celibacy and 'promise rings' may in fact be the ever-young Countess Elizabeth Bathory, organizing groups of girls to drop by her place and become 'part' of her beauty treatment. Under the alias, 'Liz Batho,' Louise Griffiths has a field day as the gorgeous, poised blood bather, effortlessly seducing insecure female students, vain parents, and wide-eyed audience alike with her mix of smart Brit poise, seductive coded-lesbian magnetism, and cheerful disregard for her screaming victims. Sorting it all out are two smart, intimate qua-lesbian best buddies played Alison Scaglioti and Francesca Raisa, one of whom has her eyes on a college journalism scholarship so is always pitching to "HuffPo" and the other is ready for love, but draws flowers on her face to co-opt her terrible acne and, well, is easy prey for Liz, who soon lures her away from her bestie and into the promise ring circle. Meanwhile, all the 'Hiltons' (the popular girls) are planning to lose their virginity in one fell swoop before prom. They better hurry. And our intrepid reporter better sort out whether she's being jealous or legitimately concerned as she snoops out the shocking truth.

As a film it does suffer from low budget relative to its ambitions, and a look and style that dares compare with more big studio fare, so if the excessively 'smart' dialogue doesn't quite seem natural, just remember it's no less mannered than, say, a Diablo Cody-scripted quirkfest like Jennifer's Body and is actually more disturbingly violent and far less coy, especially once the girls start being bled over the sacrificial blood bird bath altar (and there's no guys in tacky eyeliner). Plus gotta love when the imdb cast list is 90% female and the best thing a boy can do is be patient, and follow their orders. The final showdown is all women, with men barely an afterthought. Sure it never seems like there's more than six kids in the whole school, and the contingent of desperate housewife-ish botox-ed up moms are ten shades over-the-top, but taken with a half-asleep grain of salt (or morphine) it's a lovely, surprisingly dark little grrl romp, stolen by Louise Griffiths with a nurturing, sapphic wink that makes her casual bloodletting all the darker.

(1986) Dir. Jim Wynorski
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Big Jim took some time to deliver a film that was--unfortunately--changed in title from Killbots, to make it seem like a gory depressing slasher movie to cash in on the slasher era instead of the post-Terminator amok robot genre.  The film itself spares us limbs being packed in shopping bags (as in the poster) to instead tell the story of after-hours mall security robots accidentally imbued with lasers and malice due to a freak lightning storm. Complicating things: six teenagers --- three dudes who work at the mattress store and their dates (who include Barbara Crampton!)-- decide to spend the night in the store - which if you remember the 1980s makes perfect sense. (Getting away from parents to a place with a bed is priority number one for any self-respecting high-school senior). Interrupticus! The robots decide they're intruders, and a night-long stand-off ensues making this a bit like the original Dawn of the Dead meets Terminator meets Night of the Comet - there's some irritating snarkiness from the dudes early on but at least they can quote the 1951 Thing and the nerd shows Attack of the Crab Monster to his blind date. I've done both those things! Even the designated strapping jock alpha of the group, Mike (John Terlesky of Deathstalker 2) radiates good-natured charisma; the nerdy blind date's a crack shot (Kelli Maroney, who was in Night of the Comet -which I did see in the theater); and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) is an ace mechanic. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with gear looted from the hardware store, crawl through the vents, raid the gun store (named Peckinpah's!) and protect each other. Only sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton whines, but she's pretty great in the earlier set-ups doing the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role. The robots are real remote controlled full scale maniacs on tank treads, GOG-esque, with Gort laser eyes, Robocop-style platitudes--all in all way cooler than you'd expect for such a low budge endeavor with such an ROTM poster. The sight of them zipping down the real carpeted mall promenade in real time-space chasing a fleeing Crampton - is this not straight from the unconscious of any flyover state depressed Space Port-addicted 80s mall rat? The Amazon Image--taken from the recent Vestron HD upgrade--is killer, and theree's also cameos and bits from Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel, and--of course--Dick Miller as--what else?--hipster janitor Walter Paisley. George Romero eat your heart out, and save some for the the dog. (See also: The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya).

(1986) Dir. Ted Nicolau
*** / Amazon Image - A

Good natured mid-80s MTV/New Wave/mall culture/punk horror/sci-fi comedy in the vein of EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, NIGHT OF THE COMET, REPO MAN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and BUCKAROO BANZAI, this Charles Band joint is the story of an ugly but hilarious blob-crab-style alien materializing via the newly installed satellite TV of a looney upscale Malibu family. Mary Woronov and Gerritt Graham are the swinger parents; Diane Franklin is their Cyndi Lauper-ish teen daughter; Chad Allen a tow-head young gun nut under the tutelage of his crackpot survivalist war vet grandfather (Bert Remsen) --who lives in the adjacent bomb shelter. TV horror hostess Madame Medusa (Jennifer Richards) shows up expecting a party, as do a swinger couple (Alejandro Rey and Randi Brooks [above]). Jonathan Gries is great as the daughter's metalhead boyfriend ("too rude!"). They're all on the same page, sitcom-from-Hell overacting-wise, a style that perfectly matches its loud 80s colors and bizarro decor (it's all filmed on indoor sets with psychedelic skies outside the windows). The huge ugly space monster is grotesque but there's also a 'good' alien dispatched to retrieve him trying to convince the family he's talking to them directly through the screen rather than just helming some old monster movie.

This all might be unpleasant on the eyes were you to see it on a faded, streaky VHS, but with the Prime HD image the vibrant lighting makes the colors sing and it's a total rush perfect for Halloween. Underneath the gross-outs and decadence lurks a loving spirit that triangulates its genial signal somewhere between 60s John Waters, 80s Tim Burton, and 50s Roger Corman. Too rude! Or rather, just rude enough. (Full)

(2016) Dir. Anna Biller
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

Anna Biller's fond ode to the early-70s (women's lib-inspired) 'suburban housewife joins witch coven' American cinematic subgenre (and its Eurosleaze erotic black widow variation) is ripe with a pagan Thoth Tarot Deck-inspired color palette and a sense of real danger, diligently spinnereted to Jacques Demy fairy tale romance with a 'Satan's School for Gifted Youngsters' annual solstice pageant primitivism that keeps it from being either too campy or realistic. Comfortably ensconced in the middle ground between power of suggestion paranoia (as in Polanski) and fantasy, we can't really tell for sure where real magic, power of suggestion, and delusional madness divide within the psyche of our beautiful but clearly cracked lead/narrator, which is how it should be if you want your movie to resonate with uncanny frisson, as this does. As the vintage Morricone patches the disparate pastiche elements into a coherent whole, Biller ointments up her broomstick and flies herself up ahead to act as point guard for this whole new flock of new filmmakers, I've written lovingly about, who use the 60s-70s 'Euro-artsleaze' genre as a palette from which to paint uncanny new vistas, and in some cases--such as Billers'--bringing in a whole other level of filmmaking cohesion. Any separation between art /experimental, film, narrative, genre, retro-pastiche, present and past --all gone in the capable hands of this quintuple threat. Even the terrible hyper-mannered acting is so uncanny it resonates in the mind long after viewing is done. (full)

(PS, if you dare, pair w/ Blood Orgy of the She-Devils)

(1971) Dir. Harry Kümel
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

If the Countess Bathory themes from Chastity Bites still got you fidgeting under the collar then you may want to cool down with this slice of elegant perversion, a real benchmark favorite with the ivory-handled lesbian contingent of feminist horror film school lovers, perhaps the most sophisticated and poetic of the deluge of lesbian vampire movies that flooded screens in 1971, easily the best acted thanks to a first-rate Dietrich-esque performance from Delphine Seyrig. This takes themes from the Fanu's Carmilla source text (a bewitching woman seduces young innocent away from her straight lover, or father, or something), with Last Year at Marienbad enigma-xotica (see: Last Year at Marien... something something) with latter Dietrich Fassbinder drag and off-season old world Belgian hotel class belying real forceful menace. The story follows a naive young beauty (Danielle Ouimet) on her European honeymoon with Stefan (John Karlen) who even an American tourist could probably tell is a gay hustler on walkabout. Bathory (Seyrig) and her young full-lipped consort (Andrea Rau) spot the lovers (no one else is at the hotel) and before you can say 'the doorman who remembers her from before the war is beginning to be suspicious that she's never aged,' the countess is luring Stefan into orgiastic discussions of sadistic cruelty in order to drive his bewildered bride to her arms. The enigmatic ending and celebratory murder are both pretty cool and the whole thing has a washed-in-the-tide kind of ambience that does what Marienbad was trying to do with way more charm, old world ennui-soaked sophisticated menage-a-whatever decadence and dry wit. Seyrig imbues her role with such heavy-duty old world menacing charm she could scare Bela Lugosi. There's no escaping her, like death itself and when she wears that spangly disco ball Ziggy Stardust sheathe gown you're powerless to escape her teutonic glam rock gravitas.

ASIDE: Standing tall with Dracula's Daughter and Xena in the annals of beloved lesbian fantasy texts, there's an interesting gay-sploitation moment or two in Daughters of Darkness when Stefan calls his gay sugar daddy, who we see wearing garish make-up while lounging by his indoor pool. Though freakishly presented, we identify with his heartbreak when he learns Stefan is married, the way he tries to keep a stoic face even over the phone, and we're left to imagine the fight between them that led to current state of events, all while the bride playfully unwittingly tries to get at the phone thinking he's trying to talk to his mom and making plans to come visit at the family estate. When you consider the way gay directors could express their own lifestyle only under the promise that they, in a sense, camp it up and mince around, make a freak show out of it, one gets at a terrible truth in the core of the post-vs.-pre-Stonewall struggle: the gay lifestyle can be shown in high camp provided it undercuts with tragic self-loathing. At the same time we're encouraged to fall under Countess's sway and to see Stefan's sense of what's right (the man gives the orders and instigates the sex - the wife submits) as a bullying child's feeble attempt to counter the subtler sapphic machinations of the Countess and her invigorating 'sickness'. Hot stuff, served cold as Belgian fog. Kümel made Malpertius the same year.  

(1977) Dir. William Girdler
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B-

From a different time, when 70s America was at the height of its post-Jaws eco-horror and ensemble cast disaster movie fever, this has a big camping tour group who find themselves adrift in the High Sierras when the hole in the ozone layer causes all animals to go insane and start attacking humans, sometimes in teams. Everything from hordes of mice to carloads of snakes show up and the big climax involves the survivors taking shelter against a pack of wild dogs. Leslie Nielsen is the guy who snaps his animal brain and tries to rape a young girl, rants about Melville's god, makes some old Bronx character actress cry with the realization she shouldn't have followed him when the gang split up, and fights a grizzly, all bare-chested like a white-haired Putin. Director Girdler has no gift for momentum or suspense, but he feels his way along in real time, in real mountain mannish boy's life nature, with semi-real actors (including an adult but very small male stuntman posing trying to pass as a child -- a very grotesque effect) and real animals--especially vultures, hawks, a cougar, a crazy dog pack, and a tarantula--the scene where the hawks and vultures maul the bitchy girl is terrifying because those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and her unease is palpable. The amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion score by Lalo Schifrin.  (Full

(1953) Dir. Ron Ormond 
**** / Amazon Image - C
(see: "So Close to Heaven")
I'm mighty glad that Prime has so many of my favorite late night spider woman films, the ones that get me through everything from panic attacks to the DTs to boredom to not being able to choose anything else to watch and too lazy to rummage. A PD title for decades, quality's always been poor on the Mesa but thats part of its dog-eared charm. I used to have this on a 6-hour tape with Mesa of Lost Women (which I think uses the same giant spider puppet) and Spider Baby,bro, how cool is that? Can you see me now, watching that tape over and over, pounding cheap whiskey under the relentless rain on the flat roof of our Seattle bungalow circa 1990, while my lovely soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend galavanted around with garlic-eating hippie freak contingents, ushered along by some smitten open mike guy who laughed like startled mare? Dude, I know! Great films for it. The whiskey's long gone, so is the girl, so is Seattle (down the rearview mirror hatch), but that 6-hour spider girl tape, well, I still keep 'er around, in case. All the other tapes are long gone but that that one's still on the shelf- just because, because spider women on a mesa. Just knowing they're there, is what's important. Out there, up on that mesa, playing the climax of Freaks with the whole mesa as the underneath of the Emerald City circus wagon? And crazy what's his name, packing a gun and hijacking a flight out of there after shooting a cantina dancer. And that music, that clanging cacophony of piano mashes and flamenco guitar. Ooh ooh! Can I see it again... right now?

(1953) Dir. Al Zimbalist
**** / Amazon Image - A

Al Zimbalist's 'finest' hour is a moody trash heap that manages to create a strangely poetic vibe thanks to the cool beatnik coffee house improv dance troupe vibe of the cat women aliens (who live in a telepathic all-female clique on the moon) and a beguilingly low-key score by the then-just-starting out Elmer Bernstein. The moon seems very groovy indeed - but the astronaut's ship is bolted together sides of sheet metal, sort of halfway between a quonset hut and a trash can, but hey, the cots and hammocks all look relaxing. NASA doesn't yet seem to exist, so one of the astronauts throws in plugs for various products when he gets some radio time, hoping they send him a couple of bucks. He wants hard to make you aware his character only cares about money, baby. Sonny Tufts is the dimwit leader who's dating Marie Windsor, instead of Victor Jory, the seether of the group, who's too busy fuming like a little bitch cuz the cat women stole their space suits to have fun (he packs a 45 automatic, just in case).  The young human radio operator and the young innocent Lambda fall in love (she wants to go to America and have, what you call it, 'a Coke.') And there's a giant spider. No, TWO giant spiders. The kind of film that, once seen, must be immediately forgotten, and/or followed up with Mesa of Lost Women, Spider Baby and/or Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! I had them all on a 6-hour tape compiled from video rentals from a nearby Kim-ish record store near my chosen Seattle state store and watched it over and over in an amniotic blissful bourbon fog (more) all through 1989-90. I still can't move on, mentally, from that (feel like I just talked about that, 'hiccup') and now, thanks to Prime, I don't have to. As for you, your mileage may vary but you'll still find this Moon trip with plenty of goose left, whatever that means, baby. Whatever that means... (I mention it as they've uploaded a really nice print of this film to the Prime site, it looks better than e'er I've seen it. Don't miss it - whatever the damage).

"Wui wan yeh" (1995) 
Dir. Stephen Chow
*** / Amazon Image - A

A huge star in HK and Mainland China, Stephen Chow is mostly unknown in the west, partly because he's not Jackie Chan or Jet Li and his satire skewers a pop culture partially different than ours but if you've seen any Asian horror movies in the last 25 years -- Ringu, Ju-On, Pulse, Dark Water, Suicide Club, Tale of Two Sisters, Audition, A Chinese Ghost Story, etc. or classics beloved of Hong Kong, like The Evil Dead and The Professional, you should get at least 80% of the jokes, and they fly by so fast it won't matter about the others. Chow stars as a crazy ghost hunter Leo, called to a towering HK apartment complex to exorcise the vengeful spirit of a squabbling couple's recently deceased mother. Their cute neighbor (Karen Mok) finds Chow's ghost chaser--with his long black coat, sunglasses and mysterious Chow Yun Fatty ways--intriguing. Soon she's showing up where he lives (a lunatic asylum) and following him around. He lets her carry his houseplant (its stamen acts as a spirit diving rod) and faces off against an evil mom spirit living in the TV who can possess anyone at any time (and the subsequent husband and wife die and become evil ghosts too) and trains her and the guards in ghost detection via a hilarious sequence of tests to remove their fear, as in lit dynamite hot potato. He does hilarious things like performing CPR with a hammer and catching ghosts with saran wrap and a bullhorn.

The overall impression is fairly grimy but the laughs are served with a genuine relentless chill in ways Sam Raimi or Stuart Gordon would approve. It's raucous, witty and moves so fast you're afraid to laugh lest you miss something. It's also relentlessly intense, especially the prolonged climax where the spirits keep possessing random members of the party, including even Leo himself, and coming at them with a chainsaw even while they're flying with paper hats. (In Cantonese w/ burnt-in English subtitles)

(1975) Dir. Shan Hua
**** / Amazon Image - A++

If you were a young kid in the early 70s, you might remember loving the live action Japanese kid/monster shows like Ultraman, Space Giants, Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot, but I bet you never saw this - and it would have changed your life. A baller balls-out super-strange, chop-hoppy Hong Kong Shaw Brothers bananas variation of the theme, 1977's Infra-Man makes up for in creativity in exuberance what it lacks in budgetBest of all, the villain is a sexy woman with an evil, pitiless laugh named Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu). With her crazy horned gold helmet, thigh-high boots, whip, and ability to morph at will into a flying reptile, she's the coolest supervillain since Julie Newmar's Cat-Woman. Ruling an assortment of goofball evil underlings, including another cute girl --Demon Witch Eye (who has eyes in the palms of her monster hands that shoot lasers); a monster with drill hands and a memorably sinister laugh who looks like he's made out of black modeling clay; a Banana Splits-style 6-armed bug monster who can--like Infra-Man--swell to gigantic size if the mood strikes him; an army of guys in skull motorcycle helmets, and an array of other beasts at her command. The good guys are good, as you might imagine, and the fights include lots of jumping around and spinning and falling into lakes. No one just falls down the leap into the air like crazy modern dancer martial artists; wire-work wuxia, crazy spinning high kicks; foam rocks flying, laser beams, motorcycle stunts, and professional wrestling. When something's this good it can access my inner child all over and this had me literally rolling on the floor in paroxysms of jubilation. A few years ago Prime had a shitty cropped dupe up, now this in HD anamorphic widescreen with brilliant colors... Paroxysms I say! Miss it and I will send  Demon Witch Eye to destroy your world!


Saturday, October 07, 2017

BOOZE! Rate your drinking problem through these 12 progressively more harrowing movies.

There are fun movies about drunks like Nick Charles and WC Fields (which real drunks love whether or not they're sober) and there are movies ABOUT the reality of being a drunk, which drunks do not love, as they hit just too damn close to home. I'll confess, as an alcoholic ("Hi, Erich"), I've always loathed Jack Lemmon and his overwrought desperation in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. It's devious - director Blake Edwards + Lemmon equals, you'd think, a Billy Wilder-ish farce with Bronx-born babes in negligees staggering down hotel halls with empty ice buckets and bumping into the man from Nantucket, etc., and it's that expectation that makes it DAYS damned uncomfortable. Booze is a complex issue, so essential to higher mammalian social functions that we get positively genocidal without it. And it IS funny, I don't care what anyone says. It just helps to be on the inside of it, i.e. buzzed, to be able to laugh when things get terrifying.

Generally even non-drinkers can all be amused and a little envious of the 'high-functioning alcoholic', the rest of us either quit or die. Addiction is--in the end--a disease brought around by a combination of genetically-endorsed depression, access to alcohol and an acute awareness of its self-medicating properties. We drunks often feel cut off from the world as kids; we don't even know what we were missing until that first drink hits, the clouds part, the sun shines in color, like Dorothy waking up in Oz. How can she go back to sober sepia after that? She can't, Auntie Em. A few days of depressing black and white (every sepia tint like a dagger of trite ennui), the wet hay and offal is still tinging the nostrils like an accusatory finger, she can't take another minute of wearing those shiny shit-ass black dress shoes (if she can't wear ruby slippers, she's going barefoot), kicks them off, and sneaks to the back of the shed and finds Zeke's still (that funnel on his head in Oz clearly denotes that inside his hollow chest is fermenting sour mash). Technicolor suddenly gushes into the world; she can see the miasma of OZ superimposed over the drab flatlands. But... always a but.. when it wears off in the heat of the next morning's chores, not only is the color gone, but the sepia tint looks muddier, the aspect ratio screwed up, the commercials endless and shrill, the evil Mrs. Gulch's dog-hating machinations that much more demoralizing. You better believe Dorothy's tumbling back o'the shed to that still asap, before the shakes start. A few years pass and Dorothy has to go rehab, but Aunty Em can't afford it. So we all know what happens next. Everything's up to date in Kansas City, including the eletroshock, the brothels and... damn, AA still only an Ohio thing.

Thanks be to whatever higher power you choose, the Wizard, Auntie Em, or just the Emerald City door knocker, AA is everywhere today, there's a meeting that lets out right on my walk to work. It's too early for me to attend, most days, but I pass it and feel jealous of their weird fellowship. Dorothy would love it there; she'd find a whole new kind of half-color Emerald awaiting her in Kansan church basements and coffee and (once upon a time) cigarettes. Provided the wizard remembers to give her a meeting book and a copy of Living Sober. 

But there's movies that are less metaphorical than OZ, that address booze directly, good or bad, and I've seen them all. During my slow inexorable slide towards the rubber room I've realized every step of my journey is reflected within a series of films that, held end-to-end, just might help me, you, or some sick and suffering, poor bedeviled guy on fire with thirst figure out just where he's at, how he'll know whether he should try and stop on his own, or if it's just too damn late in the game to turn around on the road to either death or the detox ward. Rather than lying through another AA BlueBook quiz, see these movies to learn where you're at, where you've been, and where you're headed. Come with us as we examine the cinematic alcoholic scale:

(slurring to sodden - but reversible without hospitalization)

LEVEL 1. Scintillating
William Powell as Nick Charles
Dir. W.S. Van Dyke

He's who we drunks aspire to: he's able to solve crimes while hosting dinner parties and knocking back martinis; he's able to hob nob with the upper crust and knockabout with the lower dregs all in the same night without skipping his groove. Watching the entire series a few years ago on New Years' Eve (see: Notes from the Class and Alcohol Struggle in a THIN MAN Marathon), I was forced to watch even Nicky feel the weight of the world as the series progressed and progressed. Laid low by studio censorship-enforced boozing limits, World War Two rationing, changing times, and just plain getting old, Nick was already the older generation by the time of the final entry, SONG OF THE THIN MAN, where he and Nora are regarded with mere bemusement by the younger beatniks, the harder they endeavored to seem 'with it' the more obvious it was that their style of life, society, culture and even music, would never 'scintillate' again.

Telling Moment: SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, Nick hears Nora shake a cocktail from across the busy NYC street where he's reading the race results to Nicky Jr., alerting him it's cocktail hour and time to come home. I can vouch from experience that almost supernatural sensory perception is no exaggeration. 

LEVEL 2 - Hilarious
W.C. Fields in Everything
"Don't think it's hard to swear off drinking. It's easy. I've done it a thousand times."
He'd crack up probably if he ever landed in a dry county but as long as he's within elbow distance of a bar or flask he's functional and fun, seldom slurring and always in control. He's the drunk we dream of being when we're ready to give up on ever being sober again. He never winds up compromised (puking or passing out) in a way that would put his boozing in an alarming (no longer amusing) light. Fields' hands don't shake, in fact his dexterity and eye hand coordination remain almost supernatural. (1), making him the ultimate in rationalization totems.

I used to modulate that Fields quote above for AA meetings, for when I was on a bender near the end, I would say no to a drink a thousand times before breakfast. After the will power involved with swearing it off the thousandth time that morning--the shakes getting exponentially worse all the while--well, who wouldn't deserve an AM Ale? The shakes instantly aabated... for now. But each morning drink is like exponentially accruing interest on a terrible debt. Sooner or later, you'll be out of booze, and excuses, and saying yes to a drink a million times still won't get you one, because just putting on shoes and finding your wallet is an impossible dream.

LEVEL 3: Existentially Debauched
Terence Stamp as Toby Damnit
Dir. Frederico Fellini

This is the beginning of the end, when the dark portent of death first appears, usually as a shadow reflecting in the water of the toilet bowl as you dry heave, or in silent, recurring faces at parties. Watching you enigmatically across the crowded room is someone you're never quite able to make it over to confront. They smile and evade when you do finally confront them about it in the parking lot. Meanwhile, you start to look pale and bedraggled, still gorgeous, but moving into the zone of rock stars before they either overdose, get haggard, bald and bloated and start canceling gigs and gradually fade away, or get sober. You can still quit without needing hospitalization, but there's no one within a square mile around you who's not an enabler. Managers, agents, fans, they all make sure you have a tumbler in your hand; they fight over who will get you ice. A horde of young girls all want to sleep with you but their neediness appalls rather than excites. How demonic and ghostly they look through your death mask haze! Ironic too, that the more horrified you become by them, the more alluring the women seem to find you, and the more demonically needy they appear. The whole mating courtship thing becomes stripped of all its magical glamor, leaving only a kind of bleached skull grin of want. 

LEVEL 4: Fallin' Apart
Robert Mitchum as J.T.
In EL DORADO  (1966)
Dir. Howard Hawks

John Wayne returns to the town where friend Robert Mitchum is sheriff when he hears he's been on a nonstop bender for a mere six months because of "a girl." Wayne and "Mississippi" (James Caan) concoct a vile mix of purgatives and stomach coaters that act as a kind of organic Antabuse to sober him up - and after a few days and a bath, old JT's as good as new. He's even ready to drink whiskey again by the coda. Oh, to be this guy again, Erich mused as he gleefully loaded it into this DVD player for the zillionth time. Alas, Erich knew his own drinking problem is much farther down this list. Maybe yours is still safely here? Quit now so you can drink again later, or drink now and have to stop forever? Some choice.

Let's not forget that the main difference between all these drinkers on this list might not be self-control and will-power so much as biology and habit. If you're relatively sober most of your adult life and then something happens, like a girl who was "no good" gets off the stage, your first round-the-clock drinking bender might derail you altogether. On the other hand, most of us only get a few dozen benders before we turn into pickles. And once you're a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again (old AA proverb).

 Though god knows we'll keep trying.


LEVEL 5. The Shakes (St. Vitus' Dance)
Dean Martin as Dude
RIO BRAVO (1959)
Dir. Howard Hawks

With Mitchum's JT in EL DORADO, alcoholism is treated as 'redeemable' even comical, as in it's OK to drink whiskey again once the danger and initial pain of sobriety has passed. But JT's bender lasted only six months. Martin's in RIO lasted--we're told-- two years. Trading on Dino's boozer persona, Dude is seen as a master gunslinger  who was Chance's (John Wayne's) deputy until a girl rode into town on the stage and left him a wreck. We find him, in the opening, creeping into back doors of saloons like a mangy dog, fishing silver dollars out of spittoons to buy enough whiskey to get him safely back into the gutter before the DTs kick in. Dude, I've been so low I would have gladly done that for a drink, as it would be easier than going downstairs to the liquor store even though I had cash in my pocket and literally lived right next door. 

Note that while Dude's sobering follows a similar arc to JT's (with a bath scene played for laughs that shows a vulnerable mix of catharsis and rejuvenation), he can't really go back to drinking at the end the way JT can. Now it will take him longer to get back to normal. Maybe a beer or two, but we've all tried to "just drink beer" before. It "didn't do any good." Come on Dude, don't give up. Benzos aren't invented yet, so he has to tough it out. It's not until a piece of Mexican 'death march' music plays, and hips him to the cosmic cool he used to know, that suddenly he "remembers how [he] got into this thing." He's merged back into the tapestry of the Hawksian group; his shakes are gone because they've moved into the walls, and into the knees of enemies, and into the crack of his guns and the dynamite Stumpy tosses.

LEVEL 6: the 'moment of clarity' 
Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen

Though played for laughs, there's a very real pain in Marvin's eyes that lets you know just how bad a shape he's in. The similarity of character, costume and disease to Martin in RIO BRAVO says it all. If there hadn't been a Joe Burdett to sober him up, Dude might still be on the bottle, or gone a-roaming and hiring his gun and contributing to his own legend until... there you go. Joe Burdett is the savior that stops Dude from becoming Kid.

Let's face it, Marvin won the Oscar that year thanks to one great scene, because all the alcoholics laid end to end in Hollywood and the Academy would be... hilarious. They all got the dry sardonic joke: here might be the best illustration of the joys and perils of genetic alcoholism ever in any movie, comedy or drama: Shelleen arrives at Jane Fonda's rranch a hungover bleary mess, starts painedly eyeing the targets laid out for him across the yard; the old guy sympathizes: "you'd like a drink more than a kick in the head, wouldn't ya?" A huge swig later and suddenly the Kid's amazing, a dead shot, brave and true. Filling them with confidence as he fires perfectly, seems to inhabit a cool sober bravado facade (almost like he's back at level one, the Nick Charles charmer); he then finishes the pint, throws it into the air to fire at it, but misses and by the time it lands, he's toast again. "I never seen a man run through a day so fast." someone says. This is about right for this dangerous level - the one right before the point of no return. And Marvin, a drinker who was no stranger to black-outs, nails it perfectly. 

LEVEL 7: Sandbags off!
Ray Milland as Don Birnim
Dir. Billy Wilder

This number is actually a bit arbitrary as Don's alcoholism runs the gamut, a kind of greatest hits, anchored as it is by two things, one being he starts the film more or less sober --albeit in 'white knuckle' city-- and the other that he's got no money to go on a bender with. His brother and his girl, are both conspiring to get him out of the city for a week of fresh air. They know that with a twenty in his pocket he'll sneak off on a spree, and they're right. He has a bottle hanging outside the window by a string so he can pack it in his suitcase when the brother isn't looking. Nice try, Don! But the brother finds it, so--in a truly heartbreaking moment--makes Don pour it all out. Grown men are know to weep at this tragic moment. Undaunted, Don fakes his interveners out by sending the pair off on a music concert without him, so he can relax and get his 'head clear' before the train leaves, and then 'luckily,' the maid comes by for her week's salary; she tells him the brother leaves it in the sugar bowl. Naturally Don pockets it and tells the maid his bro must have forgot. Sorry. Door slams. And he's off! Run, Don! Run!

When Max and I rented it one LBI summer in 1991, six years before I first quit drinking, Lost Weekend was like the creepy herald at the gas station in a horror movie. This baby had my number right down to the neighborhood (NYC) and walking style. It was almost like an intervention. On the other hand, in its effort to run the gamut it fails to really vividly capture the effects of withdrawal. The theremin score is a good place to start but the dance of the empty raincoats with the bottle of rye in the pocket went on too long, like Wilder really wanted to sneak an operetta into things somewhere, that he'd grab any excuse to shoehorn in a little Austrian high culture. And what kind of idiot drunk wouldn't have brought the rye into the concert with him? That's why pints are all thin like that and why suit jackets have inside pockets! And the thing with the mouse and bat was fine and freaky but frankly it was too singular. DTs are more fluid. You wouldn't see just one bat and one rat, you'd see hordes inside the walls, deep and spiraled out, ala the paredolia amok quality of a bad acid trip. That's a common problem with movies trying to duplicate hallucinations in general, though. At least they tried, though I would have loved to see the little turkeys with straw hats the dipsomaniac ward guy Bim's always talking about. And yeah, that alcoholic ward was great - nothing's quite as fun as a hospital bed where other patients are already screaming; hell, you may as well scream too! Let 'er rip!

When it's good it's pretty good
But when it's bad its really bad, and sooner or later it's always bad.
If Don manages to get sober without medical attention it's only through the grace of God and a Good Woman. Though this time he finds the wherewithal to sneak out of Bellevue in the dead of night, if he was just one level farther down this list, would be next to impossible. He needs an Ativan drip, he would have gladly stayed. But it didn't exist yet!

Barrymore as--more or less himself--- DINNER AT EIGHT
There's no way back now without either convulsing at home and maybe dying from withdrawal, or going to a nice sanitarium, detox, rehab or hospital. But in the meantime, enjoy the calm after the horrendous breakwaters. Now there's no sense struggling against the current. You're so far out to sea you don't know which way to paddle anyway. You're fucked, my friend, but for the moment you're also free. The serenity of the truly damned cannot be measured. 

LEVEL 8: Scintillating - Mach 2
John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew
Dir. Coen Bros.

A southern gentleman clearly modeled on Faulkner, a man who also spent some time puking in the bathrooms of the big movie studios and having writer bungalow DTs. The Coens get all that stuff right and we all wish for (or maybe were lucky enough once to have) a Judy Davis to trail after us like a combination stenographer-nursemaid-drink pourer/enabler. At the same time we see the comfy hell that such a place as Hollywood in its Golden Age really was, a juggernaut machine so vast and ever-moving that as a writer you could be unwittingly working on the script of someone else's pet project the next bungalow over and not even know they're there, rewriting each other's work to fit the mercurial mood of hack directors too drunk to tell which end of the camera is up and producers so busy spouting contradicting messages to make any sense. Then again, when you're this far gone, the space between being too drunk to move and too sober to sit still is ever-shrinking. In other words, this is where most great Hollywood writers and actors orbit, any farther and they're stuck in the drain's inescapable vortex. Here at least they are suspended, like the doomed vessel in Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom," they achieve a fixed orbit around the lip of the whirlpool. It's dependent of the loyalty of their enabling girlfriend--or-assistant--or-both, of course, who keeps them spinning like a magic show plate. Sure it will crack when it hits the floor - and it will--but in the meantime, there's a certain tranquility in surrender. It's the moment of clarity that comes when the horizon line of the shore disappears, and it no longer makes sense to struggle against the current. Just float all the way to China.

LEVEL 9: Existentially Debauched Mach 2
Albert Finney as The Consul
Dir. John Huston

"I must drink desperately to regain my balance."

We can all hope we never get stuck with a houseboy as creepy as callow Hugh here, the younger brother and adulterer, patiently plying his rival/sibling with 'cures' for alcoholism like a regicidal lover creeping through the royal garden with his poison earwax candle. We're too drunk to resist him, except for the occasional passive-aggressive jab. We're past those breakwaters, so now on it will be very hard to get along without an enabler or helper, someone to come home from work with 'the shopping' i.e. new bottles (it's not like we can drive, or walk very far). It might be easier in a place like Mexico, where public drunkenness is so common it's unnoticed, and you can always find a handy beggar child to lean on or to fetch you un cerveza or bottle of tequila while you luxuriate amidst the white chickens. I can't say for sure, but I do have experience with this level, and dig how, when Yvonne, his estranged wife, suddenly appears out of the morning mist, after being gone for years, and he dismisses her as an hallucination, barely making eye contact as he rhapsodizes, on and on to the empty air. Is Yvonne even really there? I am not sure from what I read of the book that she is, but Huston does have his most success in that meter anyway, the interiority of a man with alcohol and ego problems.

If a lot of Yvonne's ephemerality doesn't survive the trip to film, the impossibility of returning to normal, of sobering up and being able to make love to his hot wife again, is made all the more painful by his utter dependency on good old Hugh. Both Yvonne and Huge have to dress him like an infant after he naughtily runs through the shower. It would have probably been more enjoyable had someone like Burton played the part, but Finney certainly does have the breadth and depth and booze seems to emanate from his pores in the hot Mexican sun. He is, in short, colossal. Watching him oscillate in a fluid motion between pathetic and absurdist, triumphant and pleading, bitter and humble, celebratory and shitfaced, adventurous and craven, fuming with suicidal self-loathing and a love of the world, constantly turning his conversations into glazed-eyed monologues and rationalizations, boasts, defeats, petty hollering--is to feel both a lysergic tang in the saliva gland and a brutal chill to the bones - here but for the grace of god, or the devil. 

LEVEL 10 - Crackin' Up
Jack Lemmon as Joe Clay
Dir. Blake Edwards

I used to hate this movie on principle, but a recent viewing (in the wake of my February relapse) showed me I was just scared of the neurotic intensity Lemmon brings, and the weird way the combination of Edwards directing and Lemmon seems to indicate this should be a wacky comedy. It is, it's just a terrifying, gut-wrenching, humorless dark-as-pitch one. Lemmon ably captures the staggering sideways mix of befuddlement and desperation that comes with latter stage alcoholism - when you're too fucked up to walk or talk or think but at the same time are about to go into convulsions from withdrawal - it's a terrible combination. The only way to stop the horror of the moment is to postpone it by more drinking, which since you won't remember it anyway never seems to happen, (you just black out and wake up in an even worse condition). The more booze you have the more blank space there is between agonized withdrawal periods -- like a pause button on the alarm clock in the morning of your torture-filled death. Sooner or later the booze is gone, the pause goes off automatically, and the pain resumes, only more so. All booze does is make it later and later- and when you wake up screaming and you're out of booze you're truly fucked. Now the only way you can keep going is if you get a loyal servant, spouse or enabler who won't go all Baby Jane on you in your hours of helplessness.

Lemmon does a pretty great stagger through the campsite trying to find some booze. The desperation with which he breaks into the liquor store is a little trite - no good drunk would be that unused to that level of desperation. Or so I thought. Once. But this last relapse, I remember --there's a window into a real estate office adjacent to my apartment with two bottles of champagne within grabbing distance behind the ground floor window. Just smashing the glass and grabbing them seemed easier to my shattered brain than going down the street to the grocery store to get beer, a trip that involved so many steps and money exchanges I was terrified of falling over, flipping out, passing out in the dairy aisle, or winding up arrested for public intoxication, then cracking up in a holding cell or hospital. But punching my hand through the window of a real estate office? No sweat.

Still, now I avoid DAYS like my life depends on me, because Lemmon's manic desperation is so vivid and intense it chills my blood for days afterwards. I feel the same thing under my crawling skin when I see the shattered eyes of Sinatra in jail in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM as he watches a fellow junky (who's been there longer) enter the throes of withdrawal. If I think about taking a drink now, and follow it through to its logical end, I know the end is here. Maybe.

LEVEL 11: Last Call (Scintillating Mach 3)
Nicolas Cage as Ben
Dir. Mike Figgis

This is it, last stop on the line. There's no way out from here that doesn't involve the detox ward or the morgue, maybe even both. "I came to Vegas to drink myself to death," notes Ben to his last days lover Sera (Elizabeth Shue). Their doomed love affair is so touching, and Cage's performance is so raw and electric, seeing this in the theater with my girlfriend, I came home and starting pounding whiskey like he did for the next several weeks, my girlfriend no longer trying to stop me, for she got the heroism of the 'non-interference' policy.

At the time Ben's decision seemed very strange to me, but my drinking was still safely at level four, the Toby Dammit stage. But now I get it. Stopping drinking at these advanced stages of boozing is a nightmare. The best way I can describe it is via the hangover. Most of us, even the worst drunks in our beginner phases, we drink a bunch of water, down a bacon egg and cheese on a roll with a coffee when we get to work, and by the end of the day we're more or less back to normal, or at least marginally better. We might still feel like shit, but we're better. At the Ben stage, it's reversed, and there's no limit: if that was Ben, by 5 PM he'd be in convulsions, or at least shaking insanely (St. Vitus dance!). The hangover actually gets exponentially worse the longer he's awake and sober, like some unseen hand is slowly turning up a massive feedback volume knob until his whole body is vibrating apart.

At this stage your life becomes purely a series of black-outs punctuated by miserable stretches between waking up and getting enough fresh alcohol into you to stop the shakes and vomiting. Which after a few days of continual bender is harder than it seems. I guess you would shit your pants if you had any solids in your system. Trying to make it back up or down stairs, to avoid getting hit by a car crossing the street, or just appearing in public without winding up handcuffed to hospital gurney is as daunting as brain surgery on a galloping horse. Just getting a shoe on can cause all sorts of vertigo and panic. It can take hours. Finding another one to match is like a needle in a field of haystacks. Socks, forgot socks - an hour each.

And what's the reward if you manage to procure and down enough booze to stop the pain? Bliss, for an hour or so, followed by some period of dead unconsciousness, usually waking up to find your glasses are missing or smashed against your face, and you've broken at least two things, including maybe the coffee table. Sleeping with your head on the cold tile floor (the best!), gasping like a dying fish for hour after hour, hangover slowly getting more intense as the days click by. A single bite of toast takes hours of dry heaving.  These interminable epochs of intense misery are what you remember, what stays etched into your soul deeper than a recording stylus made of wolverine claw. The 'good parts are dim moments of glowing, transcendental love/bliss/joy - a sense of warmth ebbing into your soul like cosmic jacuzzi.


LEVEL12:  Destroyer of Worlds
Clint Eastwood as William Munney, i.e. America
Dir. Clint Eastwood

Sometimes there's a man gets healed by the love of a good woman, the lord, or the people in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sometimes the meeting is canceled or isn't fun anymore, or the lord leaves for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back, or the good woman dies and then some brutalizin' sheriff takes umbrage with your hired gun vengeance, or you just wind up trapped with your drunk brother's drunk girlfriend's drunk family over Xmas and can't find that emergency Xanax - did one of her kids steal it? The nightmare finally swamps your raft and you sink. So William Munny is sober 20 years but is talked into taking on a job killin' some guys what cut up a whore, or something, and when the brutalizin' sheriff beats Will's buddy to death, Munny relapses and it's like Popeye eating some PCP-laced spinach, which is what it's like when you relapse after a long, long time on the bottle. Hell follows with him and he kills everyone in the bar. "I've always been lucky when it comes to killin'" he explains, and Eastwood makes sure we see the US flag waving behind him in the flames, for Munny's 'luck' with killing and his terrible addictions, are America. And when I too fell off the wagon after almost 20 years earlier this year, wasn't I, too, America?

This level is, incidentally, not the 'next' in line from the LEAVING LAS VEGAS category above. The next in line is seldom captured in film because there is nothing afterwards except degraded madness, which is not cinematic. Or it's death, and that's what Munny becomes, like Opie at Los Alamos.

I had a 20 year itch moment this past Christmas, trapped like a cat in a sack for hour after hour with a loud drunken family, something I can't abide when not drunk myself - apparently. Day after day of misery until the final surrender, watching SUICIDE SQUAD with the boys on Xmas Day and pounding down enough vodka it was like tripping after all these years, the warm fuzzy courage filling my sails like the sudden taste of freedom after 20 years in a 10x10 concrete cell. But six weeks of my progressively more belabored attempts at moderation and sobriety later, boom, there I am, slipping from level 1 all the way down to here in about as many weeks. Who can judge but those who know? I wonder what channel I would have requested for my sober cell back under Viola Davis' wing (the lizard guy got BET)- but I don't wonder long, of course it's TCM.

That's why AA is there. Because when you're suffering from the hangover of alcoholic withdrawal, there's nothing fun about it - it's only later, in hindsight, it seems heroic, romantic, even courageous, bitterly hilarious. If you live through it without winding up strapped down to a gurney screaming your head off as the minutes click down to your next Librium dispensation, then kudos. If you don't, how will the rest of us know if you're lucky?

For those of us on the outside, the long road back to 'normal is long, thorny, and often without joy, or hope.

But fear not! There's a meeting near you, or close enough: so check Alcoholics Anonymous online, and don't worry about whether it's a cult or not. Anyone who tries to make it one, or gets culty on you, is not AA-approved, no matter what they say. No one 'represents' AA beyond what's laid out in the literature vis-a-vis the steps. Don't trust the ones who try and go beyond that. Fire pushy sponsors who try to micro-manage your sobriety or take over your life. Just go to meetings and listen, and blah blah, women with the women. Don't get hung up on 13th step nonsense. Never let them push you into something you don't want to do, or take advantage of your weakness .'Hiccup!' Never let them push you into something you don't want to do. I just said that. But be sure you're not wanting to do it isn't fear of facing the truth within yourself. It works if you work it, though! The happy ending to this post is only ever granted one day at a time. Ain't we lucky we got 'em, for now? May God help us all... in the future. 

I think He will. 

1. There was a study in Sweden comparing children of alcoholics with those of non-alcoholics - their eye hand coordination was studied both before and after consuming a shot of whiskey. The non-alcoholic kids lost coordination but the alcoholic ones gained it. It was like they switched places. I learned it in class, but can't remember where... you know why :)

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