Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Spooky Behaviors: 15 Cool Horror Films 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 sexy girl in her underwear 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 an electric razor ripping through a Playboy centerfold and into the base of my spine. That image has imprinted on me my whole life, and 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.

2. SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE
(1982) Dir. Amy Holden Jones
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B
It's directed by a woman (Amy Holden Jones) written by a woman (Rita Mae Brown) for distribution via Corman's New World, so even if the seams of the frame are fraying at the edges, this stripped-down no frills affair turns out to be solidly constructed, with enough of Halloween's less imitated-to-death elements to make it really hum when it gets going, which is right away: there's the single night time frame, the mute killer, the gradual self-reliance of the plucky female survivor/s (female-written dialogue makes a big difference in this regard as it did in Halloween [via Debra Hill] --it all makes Slumber Party a model of its low-low budget class --it keeps its head low and--in grand Corman style--is over before you know it. The lurid poster offers the suggestive shots of the drill dangling between the killers legs while girls scream in negligees, but that's just the poster - there is a drill but 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 crying wolf. A real young Brinke Stevens appears in an early bit, not all the hairdos are totally 80s awful, and there's an effective (if not quite Carpenter-carpet cool) old radio show-style organ score help put it over. Next to the legions of terrible VHS rental rack delinquents hanging around it, Slumber endures as a goddamned miracle: a movie that delivers on exactly what you expect or want out of such a film, and not a penny more, but who wants more? It would be too much.

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

3. ONE DARK NIGHT 
(1982) Dir Tom McLoughlin
*** / Amazon Image - B-

Meg Tilly sobs to stardom as a sensitive high school (or college?) kid whose initiation into a pretty lame girl gang involves a night alone at a mausoleum. The mean girls mount spooky pranks but the corpse of a vengeful Russian psychic rises after they blow weed into his crypt, and he's not playing. It came to theaters during the height of the slasher era--and was incorrectly marketed as one, which kept me from seeing it--but One Dark compares more to Phantasm or Carpenter's The Fog than Friday the 13th --which is only part of why it rocks. The way it builds up from the sorority prank scares to the actual ones is pretty seamless, and there's no sex or idiot snickering. Indeed, the dialogue is surprisingly complex! The bitchy gang leader (Robin Evans) is grating on the nerves (you'd rise from the dead to smite her too) but her long dirty blonde hair's terrific! Too bad her sidekick (Leslie Speights) won't stop chewing on a yellow toothbrush - Demerit!

As the dark night plays on, the psychic's estranged daughter, (Melissa Evans) listens to a tape left by a researcher of her late father's telekinetic talents and gets her own 'shining'-style flashes of Meg Tilly in danger. Her husband (Adam West) doesn't do much to help, so she eventually has to go face her evil father and let loose her own inherited telekinetic skills in a gleefully over-the-top special effects climax!

More than anything though, it's Meg Tilly who stands out. As ethereal as Helen Chandler in 1931's Dracula, she's a whole step above the rest of the cast. You'll understand why every filmmaker in town who saw this had to cast her, leading to significant roles in The Big Chill and Psycho 2 the following year. Prime's print is fairly washed out but in HD.

(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 degrees: Some love the attention to gore and gross-outs but some of us fancy folks dig the discordant dream logic, the way his work only makes sense if you let go of all your usual narrative expectations and surrender to the moment- just admire the framing, the mood, and the raucously ironic Fabio Frizzi synths, the strange way he plays on the rhythm of other movies as if a jazz counterpoint (in this case, the other movies would be both the original Exorcist and the sequel) as well as the narrative tricks of our own nightmares. 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 little girl who's visiting Egypt with her parents and brother. At night it opens up a stargate between some lost Pharaoh tomb and the little girl and her brother's bedroom in the family's uptown Manhattan apartment (this leads to lots of sand on their bedroom floor the next morning - mom's pissed). The dad meanwhile was temporarily blinded back in Egypt by the gem's twin --it shot him with blue lasers when he looked at it too long in a mysterious cave/tomb wall carving. As his eyesight slowly returns, a psychic tosses the famly a note from a window that lets them know they're not out of the woods: the amulet is a gateway to evil that gets off on possessing children and trapping their souls within its sinister facets. Anyone who gets in its way, including a taxidermist, a louche family friend, and the psychic herself--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 there's a difference between being actually in modern Egypt, ancient Egypt, inside the jewel, or a collective dream, don't expect to find it out - just savor the eerie sense of timelessness Fulci culls from his location shooting. If you can do that, and 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. And if you like catching odd little details, like when the dad catches a scorpion to give to his daughter as a souvenir (says his guide: "be sure to tell her it's a symbol of death!") then this is your movie, too. It's maybe because you 'get' Antonioni and the rise of psychedelic post-structuralism in Italian cinema or maybe you can just shrug and think, hey 'in dreams, I'll find you there.' As long as you're open to surreal 'you are there/not there' duality, and 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), then suddenly 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)

6. CHASTITY BITES
(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 that any suspiciously well-preserved female school teacher who drifts into your small upscale American town advocating celibacy and 'promise rings' may in fact be the ever-young Countess Elizabeth Bathory, working to ensure the local female blood supply stays virgin. Louise Griffiths plays the gorgeous, eternally young blood bather, posing under the name 'Liz Batho' she effortlessly seduces insecure female (virgin) students, vain parents, and wide-eyed audience members 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 news to "HuffPo" and the other draws flowers on her face to co-opt her terrible acne, pines for love, 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, for harvest time approaches. And our intrepid reporter better sort out whether she's being jealous or legitimately concerned as she snoops out the shocking truth.

While it does suffer from low budget relative to its ambitions, and 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 cast list is 90% female and losing virginity is no cause for snickering and guilt, but a matter of life and death. 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 (for blood thickenr), it's a lovely, surprisingly dark little Angela Carter-meets-Buffy episode-style sleeper, stolen by Louise Griffiths with a nurturing, sapphic wink that makes her later casual bloodletting all the darker.


7. DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS
(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 European 'art sleaze' perversion, a real feminist horror film school lover favorite, perhaps the most sophisticated and poetic of the vast quantity of lesbian vampire movies that flooded screens in 1971. It's easily the best acted--thanks to a first-rate Dietrich-esque performance from Delphine Seyrig--and one of the most atmospheric--thanks to its off-season old world Belgian seaside moodiness and the beauty of Danielle Ouimet, as a young blonde innocent on her European honeymoon with shifty-eyed Stefan (John Karlen), who might be in love now, abut started the romance as a rent boy on holiday from his rich fey sponsor. As the only other guests in a nearly-closed off-season hotel (ala one of its clear inspirations, Don't Look Now), the ever-hungry Bathory (Seyrig) and her young full-lipped consort (Andrea Rau) spot the lovers checking in and before you can say 'the aging doorman who remembers her from before the second world war is beginning to become suspicious that she hasn't aged in all this time,' are playing kinky head games (Karlen and Ouimet seem clearly cast to subliminally resemble Polanski and recently-murderd wife Sharon Tate) luring Stefan into orgiastic discussions of sadistic cruelty in order to drive his naive bride into her arms. The enigmatic ending and celebratory climactic murder are both pretty cool and the whole thing has a washed-in-the-tide kind of sly magic that does what Marienbad was trying to do ((see: Last Year at Marien... something something), but with way more charm, old world ennui-soaked sophisticated menage-a-whatever decadence, and captures the 'out mit ze old' languid aging-lover Euro love-junky sapphic weirdness of Fassbinder's Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant with far more subtlety. Seyrig imbues her role with such heavy-lidded old world Teutonic charm and menace she could probably scare Lotte Lenya. When she dons that spangly disco ball Ziggy Stardust sheathe gown you're powerless before her glam rock gravitas; you'd jump off a cliff for her, even in that ratty blonde wig.


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 now 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 to tell her 'the good news.' 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 as it were, one gets at a terrible truth in the core of the post-vs.-pre-Stonewall struggle: the gay lifestyle can be shown as stylish only in high shock-value camp, only be sympathetic provided it undercuts with tragic self-loathing and 'foreign'-ness as transgression (i.e. Fassbinder). At the same time we're encouraged to fall under Countess's lesbian sway and to see Stefan's sense of what's right (the man gives the orders and instigates the sex - the wife feebly submits) as a bullying child's feeble attempt to counter the subtler sapphic machinations of the the female orgasm, which is seen as an invigorating 'sickness'.  Hot, quietly insightful and very stylish stuff, served cold as Belgian fog. Kümel made Malpertius the same year. Just don't watch The Hunger afterwards, for it's sad just how lame that movie is by comparison - and it's clear Tony Scott's main and sole inspiration is this film. Instead, I recommend Xan Cassavettes' Kiss of the Damned (2013).

8. CHOPPING MALL
(1986) Dir. Jim Wynorski
*** / Amazon Image - A

Big Jim Wynorski often churns out silicone cleavage-and-snickering dillweed-choked tripe, but in the early days at New World he could still let his better instincts prevail, as in this fun post-Terminator / Dawn of the Dead mall culture New World blast --originally called Killbots--about what happens after hourss at the local mall when a sextet of young mattress store workers and their dates hold an in-store sleepover during the same night a freak lighting storm imbues a pack of newly-installed security robots with Gort-style lasers and evil intelligence (they make fine ironic use of an array of Robocop-style civic duty platitudes). Their pouffy 80s haircuts have dated badly, but the cast includes incumbent scream queen Barbara Crampton, Deathstalker 2's John Terlesky, Night of the Comet's Kelli Maroney, etc. and--best of all--the robots are actually life-size remote controlled little devils zipping around the real mall on fast-moving tank treads, zapping lasers, cutting off limbs, ripping out intestines, and making pity Robocop-style quips. With its in-jokes to scares ratio is almost Joe Dante-level perfect, there's some irritating Wynorski-snark from the dudes early on, but at least they can quote the 1951 Thing with ease and the nerd shows Attack of the Crab Monster to his blind date (a  move I've used myself, so I can vouch that it works); alpha male Terlesky radiates good-natured Bruce Campbell-style wry charisma. As in Night of the Comet, Maroney turns out to be a crack shot; and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) is an ace mechanic, so women come off strong and capable here. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with gear looted from the hardware store, crawl through the vents, raid "Peckinpah's" gun store and protect each other best they can. Only sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton whines, but in the earlier scenes, doing the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role, she shows why she's so long held a hallowed place in horror fan's hearts. The sight of those 'bots zipping down the real carpeted mall promenade in real time-space chasing a fleeing Crampton past the rows of closed-up stores and booths --is this not straight from the unconscious of any flyover state depressed Space Port-addicted 80s mall rat? I was that mall rat! Were you? The Amazon Image--taken from the recent Vestron HD upgrade--is killer, and for the icing on the cake, ye old New World in-joke appearances by Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and even Dick Miller as--what else?--hipster janitor Walter Paisley. Might as well jump - JUMP! (See also: The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya).

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

This would make good New Wave 1986 double feature with CHOPPING MALL (above), it's a MTV/New Wave/mall culture/punk horror/sci-fi story of a gross but hilarious blob-crab-style alien materializing via the newly installed satellite TV of a looney upscale Malibu family (satellite TV must have been the latest thing). What a great 'All American' Family too for a giant ravenous blob from space to invade: Mary Woronov and Gerritt Graham are the swinger parents; Diane Franklin is their Cyndi Lauper-ish teen daughter; Chad Allen is her little brother, a tow-headed 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) looks down from above on TV (the family at first confuses the flickering image of the monster with the film she's showing). A swinger couple (Alejandro Rey and Randi Brooks [above]) are brought home for some hot tub action but all doesn't go as planned; Jonathan Gries is the daughter's metalhead boyfriend ("too rude!") who thinks the monster could make them all famous;  a 'good' alien appears on TV later, trying to convince the family he's talking to them directly and not in some old monster movie. Everyone has the perfect oversize tenor in their sitcom-from-Hell overacting style, and the house, with its loud 80s colors and bizarro decor (it's all filmed on indoor sets with psychedelic skies outside the windows) beautifully conveys a loving spirit that triangulates TERRORVISION's signal perfectly in the center of 60s John Waters, 80s Tim Burton, and 50s Roger Corman.. (Full)

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(2016) Dir. Anna Biller
****/ 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), LOVE WITCH blazes with pagan Thoth Tarot Deck-inspired color palette and a sense of real danger, diligently spinnereted to Jacques Demy fairy tale renaissance faire pageantry, with a 'Satan's School for Gifted Youngsters' annual solstice pageant primitivism that keeps it from being either too campy or realistic. Instead, comfortably ensconced in the middle ground between power of suggestion paranoia and mythic fantasy, we can't really tell for sure where real magic, power of suggestion, and delusional madness divide, which--if you want your movie to resonate with uncanny frisson--is how it must be. As the vintage Morricone passages patch pastiche, Biller ointments up her broomstick and flies herself up ahead to act as point guard for a whole coven of new filmmakers, (whom I've written lovingly about) who use the 60s-70s 'Euro-artsleaze' genre as a palette from which to paint uncanny 'new' vistas. Bringing a whole other level of filmmaking cohesion, Biller makes any further separation between experimental/narrative, real/imagined, present/past impossible. The cauldron bubbles, now and forever stirred by the capable hands of this quintuple threat (Biller also did the costumes). 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)


11. DAY OF THE ANIMALS
(1977) Dir. William Girdler
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B-

The perfect product of a nation that--in 1977--was at the height of its post-Jaws eco-horror and ensemble cast disaster movie fever, this Lalo Schifrin-scored gem (by the man who gave you Grizzly) follows the old Poseidon Adventure playbook in telling the tale of a big camping tour group of disparately aged and stereotyped hikers who find themselves adrift in the High Sierras when the hole in the ozone layer causes all animals to go insane and, periodically, attack humans. Sometimes in staged attacks organized, apparently, by hawks calling shot from above, everything from bears to dogs to flying mice show up, both up in the mountain and down in the town as its overrun by Hazmat suits and the military. The big climax involves the survivors of the expedition finally making it back down the mountain, taking shelter in the now-evacuated town as a pack of wild dogs tries to get at them through cracks in the doors of a crumbling shack (a separated hiker falls prey to a carload of snakes while trying to save a little THEM! girl). Leslie Nielsen is the only human who, too, succumbs to the ozone effect on his animal brain (he's the Borgnine naysayer, challenging the Christopher George/Gene Hackman's leadership, if you know your Poseidon playbook parlance). The film really takes off when he rants about Melville's god once he rips off his shirt in the pouring rain, makes an old Bronx character actress cry with the realization she shouldn't have followed him when the gang split up, kills the young boyfriend of a sexy young thing, tries to rape her and then fights a grizzly, bare-chested like a white-haired Putin. Director Girdler may have no gift for momentum or suspense (or--Melville's god help us--casting) but he feels his way along in real mountain man time, in real manly mountains, with a cast that includes a very small adult male stuntman trying to pass as a small boy (always good for weird frisson), and real animals. The scene where a gaggle of hawks and vultures maul the group's requisite One Bitchy Girl is truly terrifying because we can tell those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and her unease is palpable - how would anyone know if she was really being torn to shreds, rather than acting, during take after take? Unlike Hitchcock though, we can be fairly sure Girdler only did one or two attempts. He's a mountain man, not a sadist or, lord help us, a perfectionist. Schifrin's amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion fills in all the dead spots in between the laughs and the discomfort, so the absence of perfection is barely noticed.  (Full

12. MESA OF LOST WOMEN
(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 being too lazy to rummage. A PD title for decades, quality's always been poor for old Mesa, but thats part of its dog-eared charm. I used to have this on a 6-hour tape with Cat Women of the Moon and Spider Baby, bro, how cool is that? All three are on Prime. Watch 'em back-to-back and imagine you're me, circa 1990 Seattle, watching that tape over-and-over, pounding Old Grand-Dad under the relentless Pacific NW rain (we had a flat roof and it echoed most pleasingly above me) while my lovely soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend galavanted around in some other neighborhood with a bunch of pretentiously open-hearted hippies, courted by some smitten open mike guy in a long black braind (he ran the OK Hotel Open Mike at the time - where I often performed). Yeah, the one who laughed like startled mare? Dude, you remember him? He was terrified of me! Always ran in the other direction in a florid, dancey kind of way - you know, where their feet start running and then, trailing last, their head, the pony tail still fluttering in the air after they've already cleared the first block? I'm fishtailing here. Let's get back to what counts in this simple narrative: Old Grand-Dad (fresh from the U-District State Store), Spider Women movies, good weed, pounding rain, the girlfriend feeling guilty about the other guy so staying away as much as possible and no longer making me feel bad about my drinking = what could be finer? Is it sick that I can't think of a single thing?

Well, family - the whiskey's long gone for me, so is the girl, so is Seattle, but Mesa is still the same - and that 6-hour spider and Cat 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. Why? Because spider women on a mesa in the Los Muertos Desert. Just knowing they're up there on that 'table land', is what's important. And that music, that clanging cacophony of piano mashes and flamenco guitar. Ooh ooh! Shall we see it again... right now? Tell ya one thing, thanks to Prime, it's handy. 

(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 flute score by--who else?--Elmer Bernstein. In short, this 'moon' seems very groovy indeed. The astronaut's ship might consist of genuine quonset hut sheet metal but the cots and hammocks all look relaxing. One of the astronauts throws in plugs for various products on the off-chance they'll send him free samples (working hard to make you aware that, like Russ Tamblyn in The Haunting, his character only cares about money). Sonny Tufts is the dimwit leader who's dating Marie Windsor but shouldn't be in charge as he's a moron; Victor Jory is the buzzkill petulant (he should be in charge and dating Windsor but he's not as tall or blonde). The young innocent human radio operator and the young innocent cat girl Lambda fall in love (she wants to go to America and have, what did you call it? 'a Coke.') And there's a giant spider. No, two giant spiders. In short, it's the kind of film that, once seen, must be immediately forgotten, and/or re-watched ten more times, with Mesa of Lost Women, Spider Baby and/or Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! on in between. 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 in 1990 and watched it over and over in an amniotic blissful bourbon fog (more), I know I mentioned that above, and it's clear I still can't move on, mentally, from that, and now, thanks to Prime, I don't have to. (Even Kill Kill is on here, though you have to get 'Fandor' for an extra $3-4 a month) As for you, mi hombre, your mileage may vary but you'll still find this Moon trip with plenty of goose up and gas-s-s left, whatever that means, baby. Whatever that means....

PS - 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 personal damage it may cause long-term. Whiskey!

14. OUT OF THE DARK
"Wui wan yeh" (1995) 
Dir. Stephen Chow
*** / Amazon Image - A

A huge star in Hong Kong and Mainland China, deadpan meta-comic Stephen Chow is mostly unknown in the west, largely I think because he's not Jackie Chan or Jet Li (less martial arts flair) and his satire skewers a pop culture 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 even English language films beloved of Hong Kong, like The Evil Dead and The Professional--you should get at least 80% of this zippy horror spoof's in-jokes, and they all 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.  The couple's cute neighbor (Karen Mok) finds Chow's ghost chaser--with his long black coat, sunglasses and mysterious Chow Yun Fatty ways--intriguing (he has unique sets of skills, such as the art of performing CPR with a hammer and catching ghosts with saran wrap and a bullhorn). The next night she shows up where he lives (a lunatic asylum) and starts following him around. He lets her carry his houseplant (its stamen acts as a spirit diving rod), and trains her--and the now-thoroughly-haunted apartment complex's bumbling security guards--in ghost detection via a hilarious sequence of tests to remove their fear (as in a game lit-dynamite hot potato). Soon they're all facing off against the evil mom spirit, who's now living in the TV, from which she can possess anyone at any time (and when the married neighbor couple die they become evil ghosts too).


The overall impression is fairly grimy thanks to the industrialized apartment complex setting, but the raucous laughs are served with genuinely dark relentless chills, faster and faster, until they stick in your throat, back up and shoot all over the floor like you-know-what. Fans of Gordon's Re-Animator and Raimi's Evil Dead II will be in heaven. Like those films it's hilarious but 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 that he's convinced everyone are magical. (In Cantonese w/ burnt-in English subtitles)

15. SUPER INFRA-MAN
(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. I certainly do. I still lift a stylus up above my head every one in awhile on the off chance I turn silver and grow to three stories tall. Infra Man isn't Japanese - it's the Hong Kong knock-off, or rather - it's the Shaw Brothers outdoing their ancient foes with a baller balls-out super-strange, pop-art funhouse sets, Seals and Kroft gone homicidal monster sliced madness, and sheer sugar-addled moxy. 1977's Infra-Man makes up for in creativity in exuberance what it lacks in budget and though only a single movie, it zips along like a re-cap of three full seasons of a TV show- pausing only for breath and laser beam mind control tortureBest 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: the sexy Demon Witch Eye (who has a dinosaur helmet, and eyes in the palms of her monster hands that shoot lasers); a monster with drill hands and a memorably deep laugh; 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 on dirt bikes wearing skull motorcycle helmets, and only hell knows what other horrors awaiting Infra-Man if he dares traverse her fortress! The fights include lots of jumping around and spinning and falling into lakes. No one just falls down, even if you hit them on top of the head they leap into the air like crazy modern dancers. There's also plenty of 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 available and it was all but unwatchable, but now, as if by magic: an HD anamorphic widescreen with brilliant colors has discreetly replaced it... Paroxysms of jubilation! 

Demon Witch Eye fixin' to laser beam the nonbelievers
RECOMMENDED on PRIME

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:

1-5 EARLY STAGES
(slurring to sodden - but reversible without hospitalization)

LEVEL 1. Scintillating (First Plateau)
William Powell as Nick Charles
THE THIN MAN (1934)
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
SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (1966)
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, if you can even get to them, for every two steps someone jams a camera in your face or tries to get you to read their book or discuss your feelings on some philosopher, anything to get your attention, a selfie together, whatever. That you're in terrible wild-eyed distress, or nearly hysterical with that mix of boozy euphoria and horror that is the daily seesaw of the semi-functional alcoholic, only means you might be more vulnerable, might need a friend, a glomming remora eel crutch. No matter how rude you are to them, they keep coming. They cease to be people at all, or demons, but cut-out images, or dead frozen tableaux.

Meanwhile, you start to look ever-paler and more bedraggled, still gorgeous, but moving into the zone of rock stars before they either overdose, get haggard, bald and bloated and start canceling gigs  or get sober and fade away. 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. 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 in their supportiveness. The whole mating courtship as second motherhood (with you as the booze-hobbled infant) thing becomes stripped of all its magical glamor, leaving only a kind of bleached skull grin of want. The only thing left for you is speed... go on, bet the devil you can make that jump. 

LEVEL 4: Fallin' Apart
Robert Mitchum as J.T.
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. After a few days, a fistfight, 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 at level 4? Quit now so you can drink again later, or drink now and have to stop forever later? That's 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 self-medication habit. If you're depressed and SSRI meds haven't been invented yet, booze might be your only solace. You might be 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 JT-like 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.

--THE BREAKWATER MEDIAN--

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. Once the dangers facing the McClouds, and initial pain of sobriety, have passed, it's OK for JT to drink whiskey again. But his bender lasted only six months. Martin's in RIO lasted--we're told-- two years. It's rare to see this meridian level of alcoholism so succinctly played, and to compromise such a major part of a major classic, rather than just either Ford-level comical or Wilder-level simplistic (we never actually see him take a drink in the whole film). It's clear the author knows--has lived it, seen the inside of it--rather than just the outside ("I've been there," Chance notes, with the perfect mix of empathy without enabling.)

Trading on Dino's boozer persona, Dude is seen as a master gunslinger who was Chance's (John Wayne's) deputy. A girl rode into town on the stage, he left with her though Chance told him she was no good. He came back a bit later and it had left him a bitter wreck. That's how 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 never been that broke, but 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. And god help you if you're left dry on a Sunday morning in NY state. Even Denny's can't serve you wine until noon, the all night mart can't sell you a six pack either! It's hell.

Note that--while Dude's sobering follows a similar arc to JT's (with a bath scene played for laughs, but that shows a vulnerable mix of catharsis and rejuvenation)--Dude can't really go back to drinking at the end the way JT does. He can still maybe a beer or two, but we've all tried to "just drink beer" before. It "didn't do any good." It never does. But, come on Dude, don't give up. Librium isn'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
CAT BALLOU (1965)

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
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)
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
--POINT OF NO RETURN---
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: Literary High (Second Plateau)
John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew
BARTON FINK (1991)
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
THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)
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 (Third Plateau)
Nicolas Cage as Ben
LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
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.


---
--DEATH--

LEVEL12:  Destroyer of Worlds
Clint Eastwood as William Munney, i.e. America
UNFORGIVEN (1992)
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. 

NOTES:
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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