Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Thursday, August 23, 2018

3 Strange Loves of Kim Hunter: SEVENTH VICTIM, THE; MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, A; STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, A


During a recent TCM  random catch of the last hour of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE for the first time in a few years (I'd been turned off last time around by Leigh's mannered hamminess), I was thrown by the power of one performance I'd never really appreciated in full before, Kim Hunter's Stella. Namely it was the scene after the famous "Stella!" moment. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) finds her sister in bed the next morning after Stanley's slunk off to work; playing down her morning post-coital afterglow in ways Leigh's own similarly-Rhett-ravished Scarlett would have overdone with kittenish sighs and dreamy girly smiles in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven him his brutal outburst and radio smashing of the night before, but for Stella it's just another well-laid morning - sex with an abusive husband when he's feeling deeply ashamed after an outburst is--according to Camille Paglia's research--why so many wives stay with their brutes. High on endorphins from the sting of punches and slaps, they're deeply receptive--nerves enflamed and sensitive--to desire. It's just biology. It goes deep - in all senses.  Next time you see this scene, note the kittenish way Blanche says she was "sort of thrilled" by the way Stanley broke all the lightbulbs on their honeymoon, or the sly fallopian resonance she brings to the line: "only one tube was smashed." Counterbalancing Leigh's southern faded-belle histrionics, Hunter doesn't miss any of the little resonant mythic notes in Williams' dialogue, but--in courtesy to Leigh's strident yammering--lets it seem on the surface as if she's missed them all. Leigh's Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven him, that Stanley's rage has been so completely absorbed by Stella's sexual body. Yet we never feel--as we sometimes do when we hear of women going back to their abusive husbands--that she's a pushover. She's in control; we could see in her, after all, the night before - a possessed pagan fertility god-channeling on those stairs the night before, so turned on by Stanley's bestial excess energy her conscious self all but blacks out as if in a voodoo ceremony. She's even able to put Blanche gently into context: "Don't you think your superior attitude's a little out of place?"


Sure, I knew she'd won an Oscar for it, but it's so ingeniously under-the-radar- so truly "supporting" even as it take a dozen viewings to see how she's overflown those borders. As a kid, seeing it I was usually busy rolling my eyes at Leigh's drag queen Scarlett O'Hara impersonator (Blanche is really Scarlett after she becomes a full blown alcoholic - she was already on the way in Gone with the Wind, though--as Rhett points out--she's pretty good about hiding it), or (in later views) drooling in awe at the rippling back muscles of Brando's Kowalski under Harry Stradling's glistening cinematography (now perfectly transferred into the digital age so every sweaty sinew shines like a limestone stalactite under centuries of constant slow cavern drip). But Kim's who really hung me this latest time. As I watched her straddle between Stanley's savage magnetism and Blanche's delusional Southern Gothic narcissist swoon, I found myself thinking back to her in other roles, and realized, almost despite myself, she'd become a kind of positive ideal for me --not the elusive anima but the obtainable girl - a heart-on-her-sleeve romantic of the sort shy guys love, for they tend to play the courtship game very badly, to show their cards right away and tell us they like us far too soon, so that dating them becomes stress-free; we can skip all the tedious date small talk, not even bother pretending we enjoy rock climbing or bungee jumping --go right to the colored lights portion, sex and laying around in a post-coital cocoon all day, drinking whiskey and ginger ale on the rocks, watching the James Bond marathon on TNT or listening to Columbia era Sinatra until the wee wee hours.

There were only ever a few such actresses who could convey all that with the shy open courage of Kim Hunter --nowadays there are none. Heather Graham had it for awhile and wound up subjected to the casting equivalent of Dogville.  Now there are are only hotties who lazy directors think can pass as 'plain' by putting them in a pair of glasses and a nerdy sweater, and girls who are strictly comic relief. In the forties we had Frances Dee in I Walk with a Zombie (watch it sometime and note the way she unreservedly invades Tom Conway's personal space, or blurts out "I love Fort Holland"). And we have Kim Hunter in everything - women who--in keeping with the tenor of wartime and, later, noir, talked softly, so as not to arouse some sleeping Axis neighbor. These girlswore their hair in smart naturally colored curls so as not to get tangled in whatever factory or WAC job they were doing. Their beauty was subservient not to men or childbirth but to their own desires and smarts; they didn't work inordinately towards looking good (1) but just saw what she could do to look pleasant with minimal effort and did it. A man could fall in love with one easily, but he'd had have to be looking close, for a while; she wasn't out there turning heads and exploding milk bottles as she passed by on the street. A man in love with her wouldn't have to be jealous every time she went out, like he would with, say, Marilyn Monroe on his arm, or wincing like he would with Shelly Winters. Girls like Kim Hunter were never bigger than life-size, and felt no need to stand out from the shadows. And so, in their way, provided the right shoulder to lean on - not a pushover but not weak, sympathetic to a man's woes but not dumb enough to fall for a hustler nor maudlin enough to indulge any wussy tantrum of despair. Soldiers saw the type all the time in field hospitals, opiates giving their nurse's white a special halo-like glow, against the darkening mist of their frail mortality these were angels, but on another level down to earth enough you weren't even embarrassed during your sponge bath.

Hunter, in short, is that rarest of actresses, one minted by the Second World War, projecting an ineffable decency (a cool, whispering decency, not a square Tom Hanks-style 'plain folk' decency) that made her a fixed point of gravity, anchoring all the rotations in a film's constellation like a combination planet Earth and warm-handed amateur juggler. Thus we believe in A Matter of Life and Death that someone could fall in love with her over the radio, simply because she's 'life' and they're 'leaving her' but also --on our end--because of the rosy colors of her radio room that mirror the plane's orange flames. She's so touching you believe that love would stick even in person, without any question of a catfish rejection; and you believe the local doctor with a mild crush on her wouldn't bat an eye in transferring his affection purely to being just a friend and medical advisor when she brings home this new fallen poet. In 7th Victim she can even gently spurn the pathetic advances of another frail tumbling 'poet', refuse the smugly proffered milk at a diner, and impress a Mephistophelean ladykiller shrink while refusing his advances all in the same hour.

Hunter as Zora
And you believe too that, even as an ape, she can call Charlton Heston ugly to his face and not have him take offense.

In short, she's Kim Hunter: electric, but grounded; nurturing yet alluring; homey but not homely; normal yet cool, as intimate as a whispered conversation in the ER at six AM between a nurse and a terminal patient sailing to death on a pillow of pain medication. She's a prime example of the center of the Goldilocks zone of hotness and--above all--steady and supportive yet nobody's pushover. She's life and we're leaving her, but that doesn't mean we want to, suddenly - though we've badmouthed life all our... life, suddenly, with her, we want to take it all back. Don't patronize her like a child, or try and make any practiced romantic overtures (she'll let you know she's interested - you won't be able to miss it).

Face 1-  Stella Dubois-Kowalski for the wild animal Stanley
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
(1951) Dir Elia Kazan / W- Tennessee Williams

Maybe it's really a film about Oscar Jaffe going violently into the good night, raging against the dying of the light as Kazan's Actor's Studio kitchen sink Freudian realism jackboots over Jaffe's overly mannered style of Southern Gothic theater (I keep thinking of Blanche's youth as being excactly like that of Lilly Garland [Mildred Plotka] in TWENTIETH CENTURY, 'ding-a-ling'ing into the chalk line), the exhilarating immediacy of Brando's Stanley, who comes home from work covered in sweat and machine oil, still loud and coiled vs. the fading southern belle airs of Vivien Leigh, robbed of Tara, patriarchal support structure (no Rhett or Kennedy to patiently swoop in and pay the carpetbagger taxes and so forth). Without such a support structure, Blanche falls apart. The well of kind strangers dries up. Though some lewd understanding seems to exist between them, Brando and Leigh grind up against each other like opposing centuries, where one's schizophrenia is another's inheritance of the earth.  Brando's terrifying working class sanity is the new way forward in American acting (and very Marxist for all that, shhhh), operating on the same electric ripple that Clark Gable made in RED DUST in 1932, blowing all the soft-handed 'juvenile' leads (like Gene Raymond) clear back into the category of easily out-gunned naive rivals, the type who bring their hot wives down to savage countries where native drums and monsoons enflame the blood to the point their husband's run away to their separate room in fear of combustion, leaving the way open for men already burning.

Brando's Stanley, susceptible to violent outbursts, never pretends to be better than he is and has a steady job. He might occasionally get drunk and smash a radio and maybe sexually assault a crazy woman, but he'll probably be a fun, fiercely loving father when it's not poker night and he's losing. One can say his hunting down the 'truth' about Blanche's past is mean-spirited, but who can blame him, getting high-hatted in his own kingdom by some penniless hypocrite who alienates his own wife against him while drinking his booze? I'd be furious too, and I too would want to know the truth and not wind up with this vapid broad haunting my parlor every day while her husband and I are off at the plant. It's what any friend would do.

In the midst of this crisis of acting schools and class and alcohol, is the only one who can believably adapt to both the mint julep vapors and the cold beer shouting, Kim Hunter as Stella. She can have a blast at the bowling alley on Tuesdays and make it to the hoity toity jubilee on Saturday;  more earthy than Blanche, more mannered than Stanley; wild about Stanley's animal magnetism, a reflection of the awe she once had for the sophistication of older sister Blanche, used to helping her get tarted up for her ballroom coming-out parties, a kind of divine inheritance that changing circumstances or attractiveness levels, kept Stella from living with the same airy entitlement --except vicariously.

Everyone notes the "Stella! Stella!" scene when doing their Brando imitations, but it's really Kim's scene at least as much as Brando's if not more. Lit unflatteringly but sensually from below (left) as she descends the stairs, she makes no bones about hiding her vaguely plump mammalian herd animal features, the glow sweat and awry hair radiating a halfway reversion to heat-induced savagery, she still radiates such a scornful godlike power, it's as if under voodoo possession by some magisterial fertility goddess; the hungry way her hands explore his Adonis like muscular ripped back is so vivid we can feel his muscles through the screen.

This latest viewing I noticed other interesting termite touches, like the way Brando's "Stella!" shout becomes a musical refrain carried in the far-off music, some singer practicing out his window or selling flores por los muertos. Clearly Stella is right, considering she's a guest in a place paid for by the husband's job, it is out of place, and for all her airs, her snobbery betrays Blanche's provincialism, her lack of nobless oblige. For, as rich snob puts it at the local cantina in Mesa of Lost Women, "the ability to adapt oneself to any situation is the mark of the true sophisticate."

We see the result of clinging to the past and judging and trying to escape while being unable to leave - not living on the 'realistic level' - a common theme in Williams' work (as in Night of the Iguana), that the fantasy life cannot survive in the real world without creating a kind of insane destructive frisson. Consider Blanche in comparison with the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon in Night of the Iguana
At the end of Iguana, Shannon winds up in the arms of the Stanley equivalent (Maxine - the rough earth mother) rather than taking the long swim (the only way left for remaining in the fantastic level). He's lucky that it's Ava Gardner, and the genders are reversed, because the reverse of his acceptance is the refusal of Blanche -she has taken the long swim; if you're a woman instead of a man, the long swim might be barred by arms less nurturing than Maxine's; if you don't stay voluntarily, they will force you to the realistic level and if you still resist, you'll wind up with a lobotomy (like Mrs. Venable wants to give Katherine in Suddenly Last Summer) permanently shattered, and though no one will force you to the realistic level, your dependence on the kindness of strangers will leave you fluttering in the wind once you no longer have access to a single new face.

That's why Hunter's Stella is such a reassuring character, contextualizing the monstrousness of Stanley into something human (she's the cub lolling in the arms of the king of beasts), and grounding her schizo sister as best she can. She's the 'acceptance' - what ideally Shannon will be like in a few days once he adjusts to the rhythms of hammock living and being shacked up with a horny Mexican broad pushing forty with two maraca-playing cabana boys at her beck and call. It's Hunter's resilience that is the ultimate moral in Streetcar, especially if you ignore the tacked-on ending when she runs upstairs vowing to leave Stanley forever (at least she doesn't think twice about leaving the baby in the carriage unattended outside in the street / courtyard before then - so all who pass may gaze upon it, confident that it won't be swiped - the whole of the neighborhood now the loving tarantula arms of the king of beasts).

Face 2: June for the Plummeting Poet Peter D. Carter
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH 
(1946) Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

If the love between Stella and Stanley is earthy and even lower than earth (the fiery furnace), the WW2 love between Hunter's June--a Bomber Command radio operator-- and RAF bombardier Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is literally airborne, high up in clouds, and fog so thick one might fall to the sea and not even get hurt, merely bounce to shore right into June's bike path, their chemistry the radio waves as strong as any ocean's, their magnetism drawing them together inevitably through the fog of war.

Their chemistry in that opening scene is terrific we believe this long distance/right before dying love is possible. They aren't really in the same scene at all, or even the same altitude, but they convincingly fall in love just the same, over the radio. We fall in love with them too, and we're for them 100% right from the get-go - almost desperate for them to be together, certain it can't be possibly happen and in that certainty, perhaps, able to cherish their spark like few others. His poetry-even-in-the-face-of-certain-death gallant sweetness (he dictates a cable to his mother), the way his British stiff upper lip doesn't crack even in the face of certain death and--when he asks if she's in love with anybody and she notes "I could love a man like you, David," she has tears in her eyes, we don't blame her. "I love you, June," he says. "You're life, and I'm leaving you." - And just like 'that' - they're in love. We see her choking up with tears even while--though we don't see them--we're sure there's dozens of other people in the room around her, dealing with the same issues with other pilots. "I was lucky to get you," he notes. He could have received any other operator monitoring the flight, or none of them. As it is, now they're both in love with a voice, each bathed in Cardiff's Technicolor fire - she in pink-lit womanly underground bunker Bomber Command light and he in the fires going on all around him in the Lancaster bomber, and together theirs is a love which they have only a minute to agree has been struck, and there's nothing to do but for him to say 'see you in a minute' to his dead 'sparks' and jump out of the side without a working parachute.


Well, through some miracle not easily explained by the 'is it all in his imagination?' angle, is this heaven, or some in between holding pattern -- he lives, and they wind up in each other's arms, on that beach. And they both know better than to abandon that love--made when just voices under heavy duress-- to the elements, to throw it back, as it were, into the sea. They both know it's what save him, even if they don't know why or how. This isn't one of those films, thank god, where things get awkward in person. It's not Catfish and Kim Hunter isn't some aloof anima figure like Dietrich nor some soapy martyr like Joan Crawford, but real solid 'girlfriend' material, the sort who won't throw love away on some silly point of honor, like their life/death status or their separate classes or nationalities, or that they barely know each other. She just met him but she's willing to die for him - and it seems perfectly natural. As I wrote in Men Who Are Frozen, in wartime there is no room for waffling and being coy. When love strikes, the victims don't wait to give it their whole selves, confessing their love in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity. Then they're off to the front, maybe to never return.  What could be more intimate that total commitment, intensified by the thought of impending immolation? This is love in wartime --there may not be a second date--for anyone, anywhere, ever--so there is no time for taking it slow. If it clicks, you hold on like a life preserver in a stormy sea. If you happen to stumble on a still walking preacher in a still-standing church, you take it as a sign to get married. Your regiment leaves at dawn, so you better not hesitate when you get your handful of hours in the honeymoon suite.

There's only one thing Carter needs to know on that night on the radio: "are you pretty?"

"Not bad" - she answers, with a kind of shrug. If she was prettier she might be offended, less pretty she might feel bad about lying. But she's Kim Hunter, and she's the working definition of 'the Goldilocks zone' (2), i.e. she's "not bad." You can introduce her to the family and the guys round the pub and they'll all like her, without either trying to hit on her, or wincing. She's a keeper. Just hanging out with her and Roger Livesy for tea time - while some other girls rehearse a Midsummer Night's Dream amateur production behind them, all bathed in that delicious Technicolor - is a kind of perfect paradise, one they're even able to appreciate, since they can feel its impermanence.

Strange Love 3 - Mary Gibson for her sister's husband
THE 7th VICTIM 
(1943) Dir Mark Robson, Producer - Val Lewton

Hunter in one of her first featured roles is Mary Gibson, a sheltered orphan searching for her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in the empty-ish wartime lonely noir New York City after spending most of her childhood at an upstate girl's boarding school, her tuition paid for by her sister, who owns a cosmetics company - now vanished. Mary winds up at Missing Persons Office, one of the most desolate and quietly wrenchingly sad wartime moments in B-films, carrying a sadness extra intense for being so subtle, so hard to place- just a long pan across a row of office windows, each occupied by someone reporting a missing loved one. Bulletin boards and clacking and a shifty little detective looking for an easy job, or any job. This is the world - the boarding school with its Ambersons stairwell is at least a lighted window in the gray darkness. The rest of the city must be lit by Mary herself --at the Dante's restaurant she gradually wins the owners over the her aid, and then so forth, one after the other, she lights their darkness with the cause of helping her find her sister. Only the burly (coded lesbian?) figure who now owns Jacqueline's cosmetics company for some reason, seems deliberately menacing, like they won't help the little match girl when her last light goes out. But the city, it turns out, is the match girl, Mary is the light. Her spark will eventually reveal that Jacqueline has got involved with Satanists who now expect her to kill herself because she gave away her secret away to her psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), though how they found out she told him no one knows, unless Judd violated yet another writ of ethics (this is the same Louis Judd who 'treats' Irina in Cat People.) It's all very jumbled up, probably from censorship and rewrites. It matters but not too much. Though without Tourneur directing the mood is less cohesive in its poetry, it's still brilliant, moody but also terribly sad in ways the first films somehow avoided. It's a creeping ennui that will only get worse as the series progresses.

oooh! scary
Rooming above called Dante's (an example of the literary references that would become more and more overt in Lewton's oeuvre), Mary meets an enervated poet named Jason (Erford Gage) who falls in love with her, rather pathetically. She meanwhile falls for her sister's concerned husband, a lawyer named Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), sort of. It's hard to figure out why or how any of these people fall in love with each other, as we all we really get out of the film is as a chill of autumn turning into winter, the vibe when suddenly it's already night and you're still in your bathing suit and no longer remember how to get back to your hotel. There's no real connection, just respect, and a mutual willingness to try for one.


Gregory is clearly more worldly than Jason, and this is the big city yet all these people already know each other, including Dr. Judd, Gregory, Jason - all of them, maybe clustered around Jacqueline -though we can't really imagine why, except that they're all in desperate need of a fixed warm homey point to orbit around, a light in this Missing Person's Bureau wartime universe. But Jacqueline's light has almost gone out (it's hard to believe it was ever on, she's so glum and defeated), and no one even is looking for her fuse box until Mary comes along and pushes them down to the basement. That Mary would still be the only strong character in all of the city, the only one able to offer any kind of sane, emotional support to all these supposedly mature males, speaks quiet volumes about the decayed state of the country as the best masculinity America had to offer was all overseas. Only the tenderfoots remain, those whose life is so sad they think Jacqueline is vivacious, but she's a dying star. She's imploding and the best they can do is gravitate over to Mary. To exhibit any decisive power of their own orbit might mean a draft notice in their mailbox, as if the war, some giant Molloch industrial god of death, could sense their readiness to enter maturity.

It doesn't matter, let the men be how they are. After all, we're watching the movies and not out playing softball like our mom keeps nagging us to since it's a beautiful day. We the asthmatic hay fever suffering indoor viewers love Mary, too. She might get scared there on the elevated platform, but she doesn't panic; she doesn't cry, give up, or lose hope or faith in humanity. Even with no life experience beyond an all-girls' school, she can easily, but calmly tell Gregory off when he condescendingly tries to get her to drink milk rather than taking her concerns seriously (milk being the ultimate echo of Victorian condescension in cinematic parlance - feel my and Anna Christie's rage here).

But the same problem Mary has with milk is what I have with the "Poet" who feels it's his duty to somehow shepherd these people towards his lame insight; I also have a problem with buying Jean Brooks as the 'stunning and vivacious' Jacqueline. She's far too glum looking for any of the Rebecca-Laura-style hype that precedes her character's sudden entrance. Sweeping around the stairwells in a black fur coat (Irina's?) and Cleopatra wig, she's more like a nice older secretary turned cranky from being stuck too long at her desk. If she was even half as beautiful as the hype, it wouldn't matter if she was so dour, and vice versa; we can imagine the role really belonging to cat eyes Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell, an actress who could be dour as you like but still classically gorgeous. Was Russell's part stolen by the "this is the girl" machinations of some Illuminati old power broker with a yen for Brooks, and Russell relegated to the 'beachcomber' role?


At any rate, she is Mary's sister, after all, and has the same older sister authority to take over the narrative that Blanche did once she's found. Thus the Victim shifts focus from Mary and her nocturnal search and the friends she accrues, to Jacqueline grouchy in her easy chair with the poison and the cult - their prayers to the dark lord reduced to a literary salon with some old German reading from 'the literature' and Jacqueline's refusing to take poison. "No!" she keeps saying - they won't let her sleep.  "No!" They keep trying to drive her to it for killing her is against their religion - it has to be her own hand. Like the roulette in Deer Hunter, it's a rather impractical metaphor for suicidal ideation (if you've ever been in the subway and just imagined putting a gun to your head, over and over, as if hitting the button on your opiate drip in post-op, then you know what Lewton's getting at.)

7th Victim - this is what
what being a white knuckle alcoholic is like
The other riveting scene--one of the big moments--the equivalent of the blood under the door in Leopard Man--is poor Jacqueline trying to seek help from the performers streaming out the back door of a theater ready for celebration and alcohol; rather than take her seriously, one whisks her up in his arms as if she's just a chorus member ready for a steak and a tall drink. But she's already said no to a drink once too often. "No! No!" Incidentally, the poison scene (left) is not unlike how I used to spend my Monday mornings, trying to not to take that first morning hangover cure hair of the dog, just one to take the edge off, man, or trying to show I could be my old self in a noisy bar and not have to drink during the first few months of sobriety (and even now). That she makes it home and then hangs herself anyway fits the bill too, the equivalent of making it all through the morning without drinking and then, finally, you get home and no one's there and you're all alone and free --you EARNED it - you made it to 4PM, cocktail hour.


Knowing they've been stopping her from getting sleep can explain her pissiness, but things can always be worse. Poor Elisabeth Russell shows up at the very end, going out on the town for the last time, even if it kills her, and we want to go with her, away from Brooks and her dour sleepless despair. Both run to death and death meets them as fast, but one is running to the pleasures that are like yesterday, and one is running neither forward, no back, but up, onto the chair above the rope.


But we needn't despair when there's still Kim Hunter's Mary, ready to step in and pick up the pieces left by her crazy older sister. Mary lives on, presumably, to teach kindergarten and marry that nice lawyer and bank her steady fire against the ever-rushing darkness of the Lewton-verse, the war, even the loud boorish ambience of New Orleans. Though she's always willing to let someone else have the spotlight, would any of these three films be the cherished classics they are without her quiet anchoring grace? We can see why these men in all three films, from rising beasts to falling poets (literally in Peter D. Carter's case, figuratively in Jason's) curve their arcs to orbits from the steady force of her gravity.

She curves ours too. Watching these films again and again, safe in the darkness of our personal space, she's a warm star in the night, a campfire in the empty desert visible from space, curbing our lost soul drifts. Most of all, personally, I curve towards Death because Cardiff's blazing Technicolor--like cool hand hand on my fevered tombstone brow. When I'm wigging out on a panic attack, Hunter's voice in Death meets me as fast as the flush of whiskey used to meet my dusty stomach. In our modern age of internet and phone romance -- where we fall in love with voices and words before we meet the object of our night's affections, there, in that Technicolor Cardiff-crafted warmth - a flame worth being reincarnated in, even if--in the end--it's all just them colored lights.

It's more than fair.


NOTES:
1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Bechdel and Bikinis - Best of the SyFy/Asylum Shark Movies (pt. 1)


They're on Syfy Channel all this week! And they have plenty of interesting female characters. Giant monsters and strong, sexy broads, why do they go together so fiercely? Roger Corman set the trend back in the 50s, fusing capable and cool female characters and engaging tropical scenery (where film crews were non-union and the dollar went far). And hey- all week Syfy is unleashing a ton of his offshoot label Asylum's shark movies in advance of their new "last" Sharknado film (This Sunday!). They also have some other new ones like DEEP BLUE SEA 2, which I'll be covering in the next installment.

Sure, this feminism doesn't happen all the time (especially not with certain strip club loyalists directing who shall be nameless) but, well, if you have it on in the background while taking an after work nap, who knows... some great little oases of cool and Bechdel brilliance might surprise you yet, or at the very least, keep your chair gently rocking in the ocean as you doze off (as always, put some cocoanut suntan oil on your nose to trick your sense of smell that you're at the beach). 

For looks at the previous Sharknado Movies go here:


EMPIRE OF THE SHARKS
(2017) Music by Heather Schmidt
**

Written and directed by Mark Atkin, it's one of two films on SyFy that imagine the inevitable WATERWORLD future after global warming had put our whole planet underwater; the few humans hold on via floating villages and sharks getting very good at leaping up through the air and biting of people's heads as they stand on the shaky floating platforms. Unfortunately, other than these delights, the EMPIRE depicted here isn't very nice, as it's run brutally by a ruthless thug played by John Savage who keeps demanding huger tributes of.... I'm guessing fish oil? From the villagers, who keep clamoring for more fresh water.

The pussy attitude of the villagers reminds me of the very clear difference between a well-armed populace like America's red states vs. the average Kramer-esque idealized 'small town' mentality. Wild roaming bandits would have a devil of a time in certain regions of the Southwest for example but could really raise the ruckus if the cops were gone from Connecticut, for example. Anyway, we get it - these guys who work for Saxon are bad - you don't have to rub it in with tired scenes culled from other movies depicting abuses of power--the flogging 'round the wheel of woe, the demanding twice the usual tribute in half the time, etc.--it's too much like our 9-5 weekday job man. Shark movies should be like vacations, where--by the end--we're fine with staying home. But EMPIRE isn't like a vacation, more like being dragged to one too many sadistic gladiator movies by a man who you're beginning to suspect isn't really your uncle.



Eventually a boatload of capable good guys show up --they're a nice mix of age, gender and race with weathered tans that look like they actually do live on the water and things perk up, but their attack on Savage's compound fails, and soon they're all being fed to the sharks again. There's an innocent girl (Ashley De Lange) named Willow with a mysterious stone who can control the sharks so we get a lot of the old 'make the sharks kill this woman or I'll destroy your village! You have ten seconds!" suspense generator (known in screenwriter circles as 'lazy hack trick #4, right after the "Don't you die on me!" mouth-to-mouth bit) As a concept it's not well thought out (you mean she can make hungry sharks trapped in a pool attack terrified unwashed humans with her mind!), but suspense grinds on with these Savage-Willow countdowns anyway, thanks to Saxon's chops. Willow stares blankly at the water going "I can't" over and over and Saxon--right in her face--goes "you must! you must!" and somehow almost makes it work. Of course inevitably one's attention turns to one's drink or the newspaper, if those still exist in your satellite world, hopefully before lazy hack trick #1 occurs (the sudden cavalry rescue that saves the innocent girl having to get blood on her hands).

Pros: the pirate ship manned by the well-named Mason Scrimm (Jonathan Pienar), a dynamite actor with a voice and manner evoking Timothy Carey -- his ship is coolly outfitted with human bone railings (were they his own idea? He seems like the type) and Saxon's compound has a nifty catapult - why didn't the villagers think of one of those? Another perk: some nice blonde hair-- good to know there's still peroxide in the future. The scenery--clearly the oceans around South Africa---is de-lovely, despite the dour trappings..

PLANET OF THE SHARKS
(2016) Starring Lindsay Sullivan
***1/2 / Bechdel - A+

Shot the year previous to EMPIRE, it nonetheless works as the happy ever after sequel to that film's dour patriarchal outlaw grimness (and Mark Atkins wrote and directed both). Here the Bechdel test in full effect (with three doctors played by women!) it's a huge progress as this advanced functioning society is totally matriarchal and operating without the need for money or barter for goods and services. So while you can imagine either one coming first, this one was screened after EMPIRE last weekend, so I saw it as the Hillary future - and so might you!


In the pic above--center-- is Lindsay Sullivan as the no-nonsense leader, Dr. Roy Shaw (!); over the course of an almost real time afternoon she coordinates a) the launch window for both a HARP blast down into the magma under the shark zone, and b) the rocket that will launch co2 scrubbers into the upper atmosphere and refreeze the caps. Christa Vissar stars as Dr. Caroline Munroe (!) who a) works on launching the HARP device and then fucking up the ampullae of Lorenzini of the lead alpha shark -- all of it coordinated via her boat's CB radio. There's lots of white knuckle suspense too as her colleague Dr. Shayne Nichols (Stephanie Baran) parasails a few leagues ahead of the badass alpha sharks to move a target dingy for the HARP (a very well done scene, with her riding of the wind to leap as sharks jump up at her superbly done; and then when the boat sails right into an oncoming tidal wave, hoping to roll over it before it reaches megalithic heights.)

Another female highlight comes earlier: Angie Teodoro Dick as the wild neopagan shamaness with the spear (top image) leader of the rogue New Orleans voodoo style outpost who deals with the advancing shark issue by a kind of savage Stomp performance on the floating docks as they draw the sharks in to stab them with their mighty lances. Their growling and chanting and thumping goes on about three minutes too long, but the initial bad vibe created by their eventual senseless shark slaughter is interesting in context, as is the dimly lesbian look she shares with the incredulous Shaw.

All in all it's a noted step up from most Asylum productions, with some craft, focus, and money clearly invested - somebody really put it in the mix and tried to one of these films look good. It understands the being serious doesn't mean not being witty - and above all, the sunny and clear water vibe really works and the feminist stance is invigorating without being didactic. After all, if both sides of the divide can't cheer at the sight of a badass lady jumpstarting a Co2 scrubber rocket by jabbing two insulated leads into the electro-magnetic ampullae of a hyper alpha mutant shark, then we deserve extinction.

TRAILER PARK SHARK
(2017) co-writer Marcy Holland 
*** 

An unscrupulous big game hunting property owner tries to clear out his hick trailer park (they're all squatters) by flooding it from the nearby river. In comes a shark... not just any shark either. As the crafty lead Rob (Thomas Ian Nicholas) notes "this shark has issues... electrical ones." The evil big game hunter sends a posse of good old boys on jet skis to bump off the survivors, feedin' em to the shark and/or hootin' and hollerin'. Meanwhile Rob and his foxy girlfriend Jolene (Lulu Jovovich) work to rally the scrappy residents from atop the roofs of their trailers. Who will survive and what will happen to all the beer?

Pros: We meet the residents in a great tracking shot running all through the camp/park, which is almost more like the elaborate junk art paradise of Street Trash without all the bodily discomforts (more of a kind of utopian togetherness). Standing out from the usual white trash fest is a script termite-perforated with genuine wit (more Mark Twain than Larry the Cable Guy) and strong female characters: they may be slightly trashy but they're smart and courageous and have good priorities. Rufus' girlfriend, April, making it to the roof of her trailer, pulls out at her flask and says "I'm so glad I grabbed this instead of grandma's pearls --she would not want me to be sober for this situation." Later, when one of her neighbors gets electrocuted and starts shaking after using her TV antennae as a rescue pole for a cramped swimming good old boy, April looks around and says "Is this real life?" Jolene has a brilliantly clear complexion and a perfectly spiky brunette home-cut (she manages to stay pretty dry for the whole thing). Though she has only a minor role, Tara Reid is a joy as a trash collecting trader ("one man's tragedy is another man's treasure") fishing with a net from atop her trailer. When Rob asks if she's seen Jolene, she notes "I ain't seen a soul since thing's got biblical." Her laugh's fake as hell but she's clearly having fun in her new role as the SyFy channel's go-to shark+chainsaw celeb, even though the site of her ineffectually throwing pink plastic flamingos at the passing shark then charing it with a chainsaw is pretty pleasant.

For the male comic relief there's lanky AMC star Clint James as Rufus the Cowboy. He just about steals the show - his slow-motion ride on his horse (named Duke, i.e. Dukie) right into the mouth of the shark is a big highlight, as are his surviving cries for how the shark ate his Dukie... like the ginchy score he plays it just straight enough it's actually funny rather than tiresome. His later triumphant shark-riding / water-skiing is pretty good ("John Wayne never did this!"). There's also Hollywood McFinley as Cleon, a fiery barbecue preacher with Tracy Morgan playing Pigmeat Markham in a deflated fat suit (he wears very starched world-too-wide shirts) oomph. They all react differently to their shit paradise being flooded, but more or less they've seen worse, and from their rooftops and makeshift junk heaps and and boats they do battle with both the shark and the landlord's thugs. And as the thug number one -- David Callaway is like a combination Julian in Trailer Park Boys and - Jason Momoa. No one asked for that, but we're glad to have it and can't wait to see him receive electro-shark therapy.

It's clear this was all filmed in a really flooded area in Louisiana, no blue screen (except for the shark, which is, around 1/2 its scenes, pretty bad) and there are some good swampy magic hour shots of jet skis and boats maneuvering through the cypress trees. Andrew Morgan Smith's score is just right for the situation, playing things up big and John Williams grand, but just slightly awry, deadpan straight but in on the joke, and if the sight of the bad guys zipping around the trees and trailers on their camouflage netting-covered jet-skis, faces hidden in Xtreme Sportz helmets and masks, hunting the most dangerous game, doesn't make you want to fire your AR-15drink Mountain Dew in slow motion while draped in an American flag,, then the blue state eco-terrorists win.

Cons: The sight of full beer kegs getting drained (not drunk, just drained into the water) for use as flotation devices  -- what a tragic waste. "April ain't gonna like that," notes Rufus. Neither do we.

But hey, "This is for my big brown Dookie," says Rufus as they prep for the climactic bout.

And I believe him.

Allisyn Ashley Arm as Molly 
you won't find it down there, Columbus
OZARK SHARKS
(2016) - Directed by Misty Talley
*** 

Helmed a woman writer/director who fills the larder with interesting characters - including a cool family helmed by a fun grandma, and book nerd Daria type sister named Molly (Allisyn Ashley Arm) who wont put her book down (at least it's not an iPhone) to appreciate the fine river scenery. With her hipster layering and hipster hair and folk bling she reminds me of about four different girls I knew in the 90s and 00s and maybe you know them, too. Seeing her go from a not-into-nature bookworm to a quick-thinking shark-killing heroine is pretty exciting, especially since it's in such an 'all in a day' real-time seamless momentum, the transformation accompanying the journey downriver down to the fireworks celebration. She has a brother she needs to find, a nice girl he meets amidst the screaming victims, a doofus boyfriend who stalked his way down to be with her as well as relatively cool parents (the mom with her pleasantly American heartland-weathered look). This being the Ozarks, there's a salty survivalist (Thomas Francis Murphy) who's ready for the shark incursion with a giant spear gun mounted in the back of his pick-up, an electrified fencewire-covered oar, bear traps-converted to shark traps, and assorted firearms. By the end of the river-long chase, Molly will be an arms proficient badass. Many will be dead, but that's show biz. The Ozarks is safe agin.

Pros
: The shark fins make real cool, psychedelic patterns in the current when they breach and submerge in the brown Ozark water; there's a cool/hot MILF at the river party I wish to have seen more of. I think the brother saves her little baby. Tons of varied female characters (and hardly any dumb hunk types on the menu) full of pale lack-of-tans (as befits the swamp) and great lines like "this environment is ruining my composition"; The score has some of those classic Jerry Goldsmith Alien woodwind quarter note slow-mo flutters. A shark is drawn in through a woodchipper. The dynamic of this extended family is very nice - they accept Molly's need to be all flatline disinterested (though she does like grandma - even helps her cheat at Go Fish). The dad (Michael Papajohn - he was the survivalist in Tremors) is awesome, grandma is cool, mom is cool, even the older brother is cool.

Cons: Molly's boyfriend Curtis however is not cool; he follows her down there on vacation and is too idiotic to rate with a smart girl in real life (I know a similar Molly with the same problem - which makes it all the more painful) --we can only hope she doesn't let him follow her to college - (but hey, he probably won't - no spoilers or anything!) The actor who plays him is a little too broad and mono-dimensional - and doesn't have much grasp on any one situation or tenor. And I don't like his dumb crusty pony tail man-bun neither. Guys like him usually have weed - that's all they're good fer! But this nimrod seems like he's never bought a gram in his life.


MISSISSIPI RIVER SHARKS
(2017) Dir Misty Talley
**1/2

All right, Misty! She's on a role, and after the sublime energy, deft fusion of hipster girl and folksy eccentrics (neither one cliche'd) and real-time, downriver vibery of OZARK, this here is a perfect follow-up. Not really a high Bechdel scorer but that's okay because a capable and interesting 3-D woman is the lead (Cassie Steele) and she's neither objectified nor belittled, and though there's few other girls around, the dudes around all treat her with max respect, including a salty old timer or two that allows for both satire and celebration of the down home spirit (Talley's female characters can be hipsters without undue eye-rolling at the folksy red state eccentricity around them) and a rather idiotic hipster dude comic relief (he's a big Asylum shark movie fan).

The plot for this one centers around an annual river fishing contest that's the big event of the season for the redneck caricature of the fishing nut who cheats by planting a big cooler with a pre-caught monster catfish in it deep in the marshes. Various boats full of hopeful fishermen, like the sad-eyed bearded hardware store owner (is that Richard Chamberlain under that beard) and his daughter (Steele) a science major home from college who--to his chagrin--wants to take over the hardware store rather than become some fancy doctor. There's lot of attractive beards floating around, and some good gags.

Cons: The blood spattering is pretty weak, looking more like a squirt from a raspberry Nestle bottle than actual spray; sharks are poorly animated, even more so than usual; the vain actor of the Shark Bite movie franchise Jeremy London (as himself) has to constantly lets us know he's only looking out for himself which seems a little dodgy for a guy doing local shit like this on a regular basis, and his agent, publicist, stylist, and PA aren't even there to think he's important so the townsfolk might be spared his tantrums. It could have been a good character if a little less baby-faced and more like Chuck Norris, but he comes off like more of a comic foil (though he's proven he can carry playing the badass specialist-type, as he did Talley's directorial deubut Zombie Shark).

When I'm nitpicking like this it lets you know overall it's pretty good, as the comb has to be finer-toothed to catch snags, so to speak. Like, in this case one must ask not just why the spastic idiot comic relief fanboy would insist on throwing their last bomb (even though he's seen all the shark movies he's clearly learned nothing from them!) and worse why Cassie Steele as the level-headed daughter would let him. Naturally he screws up and shrugs it off and the world almost ends, and Steele plays things way too intense for us to merely shrug off apocalypse as easily as that moron.  Bt anyway, it also seems way too easy (and poorly edited) that they bagged all dem sharks in one fell swoop of a net in the first place (and the protruding fins look super fake).

Cool moments: A redneck who shrugs off being swallowed down to the ankles by a shark, after he's hit walking across the road by the local cop and run over (which gets the shark off him) -- the cop asks if he's okay, and the dude just spits out some teeth and waves them on past. Now that's why the Red States must never be maligned - badass shit like that! Another cool moment comes when London finally mans up and goes all Queequeg; another when a drunk redneck is sizing up a shark with a harpoon gun misfires and nails the deputy square in the chest. Hey, nobody's perfekt. My country right or wronged!

ZOMBIE SHARK
(2015) Dir. Misty Talley
**1/2

The first of the Misty-stravaganzas, women compose a good portion of the cast. Sharktopus vs. Pteratcuda's own Katie Savoy returns... and is promptly devoured.

Ross Britz is Jenner, the dopey softboy, appetizer snack love interest. Cassie Steele is the lead sister, Amber. Steele also takes the lead in MISSISSIPPI SHARKS, so would definitely move from here to become a recurring Misty Talley favorite, it would seem. She's a fine actress -- blah blah ---but almost too good for the part (she explodes it outwards, like a depth charge). Sloane Coe is her kid sister Sophie, who's not a kid anymore, Amber! Her parents love her more than Amber, because Amber was a rebel and gave a baby away for adoption at 15. Jason London is the tough CIA guy with the family he never sees. The shark that's a zombie keeps coming back from the dead, infects other sharks, and all those who get bit or roughed up become zombies too. Time is running out for the mature lady doctor working more or less alone at the ubiquitous 'thought-long-closed-down' experimental clinic.

Pros: A cool shot has two dudes standing too close to a hottie getting sunned and she thinks (and so do we) that she's being ogled by these wallies, but they're staring at a dead shark right behind her. There's lots of well-acted backstory with the two sisters and over-protective parents -- we feel that dad's frustration he can't get a boat to go out to the island in the middle of the storm, but also the daughters' frustration their parents are so over-protective. There's a few great sudden attack moments.

Cons: The family drama is almost too well acted for its own good. We didn't come here for emotions but to escape them! There's a lame opening bar fight and one too many crunky dillweeds (and a -wad) fighting over tossed wings at a kind of fusion of Coyote Ugly and some retro 50s cajun club setting-- it's not a promising start and I was kind of skeeved out by the whole thing, but soon they're at zombie island and things perk up. Casting-wise, the parents don't seem to have a resemblance to the sisters. It will depend on your mood whether the lack of any kind of sexual energy (aside from that cool shot I mention above, there's almost no skin) is an ominous shade of things to come with more and more women directing. What kind of man would I be if I didn't almost complain, then think better of it?

Meta moment - a smash cut from a severed flying shark head taking out the hottie in her one fatal moment of altruism to a Pizza Hut pizza sliding onto the table TV commercial - so seamless as to be one continuous flying/sliding motion (this being a Weds. afternoon showing on SyFy --with the meta continuing outwards as right as I'm watching the storm in the film build up in the movie, a massive storm is going on outside with an amber alert flood warning lighting up my phone. 

TOXIC SHARK
(2017) - Written by Ashley O'Neill
** 1/2

A toxic water issue plagues a gorgeous Puerto Rican island occupied by the "Bodies by Reese: Singles Fitness Resort" - Reese (Eric Etarbi, lower left) with his hirsute tanned chest and blazing white open shirt, is Reese- bossing around a crew of worried young employees, unaware the clear blue water is high in arsenic and houses a toxic chemical-spewing giant shark that spits toxins which turn people into crazy 28 Days Later -istyle homicidal maniacs (they talk though - and do some pretty good maniac babble). Soon a dwindling number of attractive youth are trying to send the last working boat (the toxins burn off the propellors), dealing with the mounting zombie menace, and, of course, dealing with the shark issue --it's a lot to process, so they better think fast but they're just p-p-p-panicking!

Pros: This one relies heavily on the gorgeous scenery and people - all of whom are - as per the needs of the health spa- in peak physical health and fertility. The comedy tries not to overflow the banks of horror and 'MTV Singles' satire and the eco-awareness tragedy is all the more biting for being so downplayed. The place looks like paradise on earth, so the idea that the water is toxic and no fish survive only an arsenic-infused toxic shark, is extra tragic. "All those years of polluting the ocean has finally come back to bite us, literally!" There's a pretty funny wipe-out off a four-wheeler along the shore, with a couple getting believably swept out in the crashing tide.

Big plus: Your mileage may vary but for me the pinnacle hottie in all these films is Kabby Borders (what a name!) as Eden (top in above row, lower left), who wears a fetching navy blue bikini with pink and aquamarine trim that matches her sandy blonde hair, sparkly blue eyes and tiny freckles. In the whole cast there's nary a trace of the busted weather-beaten, Botox-and-collagen look of so many broads in these films, the type who can't seem to go gentle into their late thirties. All the girls here are young and hot but naturally so--they radiate health! Sie sind heimiche! -and even the boys are unobjectionable relative to... you know, other films of its ilk. This allows even cranky old feminists to just loll in the surfy rhythms and not have to worry this country's going to hell.

Pros: The director generously gives us long shots that catch Eden's whole gorgeous physique in that suit (as opposed to either Wynorski-style leering or Amicus-style close-ups.) I could watch her test the sea water for arsenic all the live long day. Though there's no conspicuous feminist strides, Angie O'Neill's script regularly surprises: one girl doesn't understand the word 'vapid' but it's not the one you'd think. The girls all talk mainly about getting laid but it's just to keep Eden's spirits up so she can get over her ex (who then shows up, unaware she's there--he's trying to get over her) and in the end she still pushes him away to take it slow! He agrees! The shocks keep coming! "Take a hike in the rainforest and take some samples of whatever..." One of the hotties is a bookworm but doesn't wear glasses, etc.  Eric Etabari is pretty hilarious as Reese, trying to play down the emergency as just some bad vibes, especially after one of the girls gets rabid from the toxic sludge and tries to bite him. Until it gets wet, the hair on Eden's go-to chatty compadre, Audra (Christina Masterson) is long and lustrous, sparkling in the glittery sun. As she sits with Eden, their collective white teeth blazing and hair rolling and shining--as the surf rolls in --we may begin to finally, on some pleasant level, feel relaxed and attuned to a higher power. Then of course, shit hits the fan, but slowly, over real-time tracking shots from the infirmary down along the balcony to the beach, and the ocean, as the staff's worried walking conferences overlap with guests hoping each other will be okay. Then - lots of gaping and struggling to get out of the water and slow motion moments of processing grief and overwhelmed staff freaking out.

Cons: The ugly ass shark itself is great, lunging and snapping like a garbage truck on fins - but the toxic sludge spew is ridiculously bad CGI. A real low - it's not even shaded (there's only one sort of flat food coloring green). The bickering between Eden and her ex gets old almost as quick as it would in real life -- as if O'Neill is exploring the relationship side of 'toxic' as well as the literal (shark) side.

 Meta-Bonus Round: When I first saw it, the commercial breaks were pretty well timed, so there were some nice jump cuts the munching sharks to mouth-watering close-ups of Burger King double Whoppers, or whatever.

FIVE-HEADED SHARK ATTACK
(2017) Starring Nikki Howard
** 

The sole reasons to see this are the bangin' ocean scenery and the presence of two babes in scientific research positions -- Nikki Howard's willowy raven-haired Dr. Angie Yost, and her oceanographic aquarium scientist chum Lindsay Snyder. Mainly, it's Howard who puts it over, by managing to do just enough acting to be believable without being tiresome. And of course, she looks very professional in a lab coat over red tank top, with shark tooth necklace and long raven hair. She's smart, and if a trifle judgmental ("Way to go, World!" she says sarcastically pulling plastic out of a shark's gut during a collegiate demo), yet accessible in her imperfection (she identifies Cerberus as having only two-heads.

Pros: Since there's so many heads to our shark this time, there's lots of young people and/or tourists and/or fishermen in the beautiful blue waters of Puerto Rico all lining up in rows of four or more while looking out from the lip of the boat - which is very obliging.  More importantly, the film has attractive leads without the leering camera of some other directors (the camera still leers, but at least tries to be subtle about it) and at least the film has the temerity to spend most of the film out in the clear gorgeous blue waters, with Howard going out of her way to seem like she's not going out of her way to seem serious and concerned. There's also a pretty great Air Jaws helicopter jump.

Cons: Though the two main 'final dudes' never stop wearing their baseball backwards, the bad guy aquarium owner is worse. He tries to sound tough as he does his song and dance about how it's okay to put his team in danger since if they don't capture a four-headed shark (the fifth comes later- popping out in the tail - which counts as another con); he wants alive for the aquarium then everyone's losing their job. Dude, that thing is as big as a whale - I doubt the boat could even tow it in - they don't even have anything to catch it with but a harpoon, yet on and on his bits go, fishtailing out into apologies once the team starts getting eaten. On and on he talks, voice in a conspiratorial whisper, teeth way too white for words, and we're like obviously you're all going back out there - or there's no movie, so let's get on with it.

Ah well, at least the other boys (with the cap issue) don't otherwise irk, but slide conveniently in their slots (the weathered manly slightly salty and dissolute ex-boyfriend charter captain, the cute scruffy tech nerd) and let the girls work the emotional high wire, as nature intended (the captain and Dr. Angie have some nice subtle 'history' chemistry -they know each other's little faults, but tolerate them) and he knows getting with her comes with the caveat he'll have to eat vegan, so our jealousy trails off to a dull splash.

Meanwhile, the only clear danger present might be carpal tunnel on the CGI programmer since the sight of those teeth gnashing up and ripping people to shred is, so many 'Attack' movies later, pretty damned good, relatively speaking, with good detail to sunlight and shadow when the thing's out of the water. (PS - If you doubt, compare with the shitty CGI of the follow-up film - SIX-HEADED SHARK ATTACK - yeeh gads).

PS - listen close and you will hear the occasional rip of John Williams' JAWS piano sneaking here and there in the soundtrack. It's okay, I won't tell anyone.

A simple counting of the row of obliging meals ahead lets you know this is a still from 5-Headed Shark Attack. 
If these sequels keep mounting they're gonna need a wider boat.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Angels of Death Special Edition VII: FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!


Welcome to violence, wrapped up in the flesh of woman, a deep raspy voice grabs us right from the get-go with this terrifying forward, the soundwaves of his voice on the tape measured out for us in some macabre dance of manly depth. He mentions dancers in a go-go club and the music explodes. Three uninhibited dancers enflame male lust, while grooving out to wailing garage band grind on a tiny stage in darkened room. A crew of bloated middle-aged male faces crowd around in the audience, puffy with drink and desire, the kind of mugs not even a mother could love, frenzied with cigars and darkness, shouting: 'Go baby go! Go! Go!" The girls wail and rock in their bikini ensembles (no stripping), the music builds, the shouts intensify. Everything builds until it all explodes into sunshine with a maniacal laugh and the title credits come rolling up as the dance continues into a sunny race down the open American highway; the girls are out of that darkened cesspool, speeding forward into the wasteland (the open planes of the American Southwest - in this instance the areas in and around the Mojave Desert). Each woman is in her own little souped-up roadster, leap-frogging each other and blasting their way freer and freer. The theme by some garage outfit called the Bostweeds roars under them like a souped up engine: "Pussycat is living reckless / pussycat is riding high / if you think you can tame her / well, just you try!"

Already we're in love, we'd never dream of trying to tame any of them, or this film - all we can do is hang on. It's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! a 1965 drive-in aimed by Russ Meyer, the master of movies featuring big-breasted, sexually voracious, tough-talking women burning through men with uninhibited carnality, and, hitherto this film, 'nudie cuties' and southern-fried gothics (like Mudhoney, and Lorna) made in pursuit of the long green accorded trash hits like Poor White Trash that had been playing the tail end of drive-ins for decades, and, also in 1965, Motor Psycho (a kind of The Searchers, but with bikers instead of Apaches). Pussycat was something else altogether-- there was no precedent for it, no antecedent. Cinema had never seen women like the three wild go-go dancing, off-road dragging thrill-seeking maniacs, nor would it, sadly, ever again, a few random female characters aside).

The threesome are now the stuff of grindhouse legend: Varla (the terrifying Tura Satana), the tough butch sadistic leader, in the black Porsche, who shouts her lines in a haughty monotone; Rosie (Haji), her right hand underling/lover, who speaks in a low-key Chico Marx accent; and the wild card/joker, Billie (Lori Williams), the curvy fun-loving sexually carnivorous blonde who tags along with this due for the wild kicks they provide. (Hell, we would too).  Wild stuff happens wherever they go. And besides, if Billie's antics get her into trouble with--say--go-go patrons stalking her, she can rely on Varla to beat the shit out of them.

There is never any mention of they're being in any gang. They have no matching jackets or tattoos, not even weapons; Varla doesn't even bust out her knife until the climax (Rosa carries it for her, like a nurse.) There is no posing or growling or trying to act tough for these three girls - they're the real deal. We learn this pretty early on, when--and some might say he deserved it for hitting her when she was already letting him walk away--she breaks a young All American boy Tommy's (Ray Barlow) entitled little neck.  For thrilled first time viewers we're in brand new territory. We have no idea what's going to happen, all we know is, any man who crosses them better watch out.

Susan Bernard worries she might be hogging all the oxygen. 

THE DANGER IN EMPTINESS

The girls' destination is a Mohave flatland, replete with tire markers for boundaries, that car nuts like themselves use for racing and timing trials; truck tires are laid out as boundaries for a race track loop. It's the kind of place that is usually deserted for miles and miles in all directions and, well, if you've never been way out alone in the middle of a desert before, then you know how eerie and ominous it gets, how long you can go without seeing another living soul, and yet how far you can see in all directions. It feels dangerous; if a bunch of rapey bikers showed up, you'd have to rely on their kindness or your courage. It's an eerie feeling, how quickly the law and order of the country can be left far behind, and horrible crimes could occur on you and your friends right there in the open, for hours and hours, and no one would know - and even if you tried to escape, there's nowhere to hide, and even if you get in your car and drive away, they have miles and miles in which to catch up and run you off the road. We see this 'sudden lawlessness brought on by the assurance of distance in films by Peckinpah (Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West), George Miller (Mad Max, the Road Warrior), Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes), among others. There's a deeply troubled understanding that, even in a country with laws and police, if you go too far off road, into the wasteland, either to homestead or just to run some timing trials, you have to be ready to defend yourself, and you should never be dumb enough to let yourself be led to far away from your trailer or homestead leaving your children and/or hot wife unprotected so a bunch of guys on bikes (or horses) can just ride up and run riot while you're off chasing a decoy. And unless you're going to kill them yourself there's not a damned thing you can do about it all.

"you don't have to believe it --just act it."
Into this wasteland, LA's own Mojave, came the hot rods. Teenagers were souping up dad's hand-me down Studebakers and drag racing out there, taking advantage of there not being a cop for miles to drive like maniacs. It's a distinctly American, distinctly mid-60s, pre-summer of love / post-big studio system phenomenon, when southern California car culture was all the rage (ala American Graffiti) and drive-ins the perfect place to see violence, sex, and speed and submarine races while getting it on in the back seat. Don't forget too that the mid-60s marked the time when the bikini--long a staple of French beaches--finally gained acceptance in the States. It was new-ish, so just having the word 'bikini' in your title, could guarantee box office interest. This was coupling up with teenager mobility and customized hot rods, as seen in AIP pics from the same era, like Velvet Vampire with its flashy yellow dune buggy, or climactic car chase scenes in Dr. GoldfootBikini Beach, etc. It was also the dawn of the transistor radio, so not only would we now the voluptuous young bodies in all their splendor on the beaches, but they could bring their garage band radio stations and dance the frug or whatever and hula hoop until the sun went down. Old duffers like Buster Keaton scrambled for fishing-related excuses to get out there and discreetly ogle.

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) - Bonehead dates a Mermaid
But over away from the relative safety of AIP's beach movies and The Horror of Party Beach, was the adults-only tail end drive-in entree. A nice-looking All-American boy, a "safety-first Clyde"  and his groovy obedient chick come roaring up to where the girls are., 'the best measured strip of land around' for timing trials ("It felt fast.... real fast!" - what a tool). Were headed for trouble from the moment Tommy gets out and stretches a little too patriarchally before them, as if to say, I'm the only man here so naturally I'll be in charge starting now." His girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard) comes out when Varla notes of his bomb "you could time that heap with an hourglass" ("did someone mention my figure," she says all cute. Then adds "shall I set up shop here, Tommy?" and already you can't wait to see him get roughed up). Soon squabbling and chicken runs will give way to something darker.

They race, he wipes out when Varla cuts a corner just to chicky run him out of control with a sadistic laugh. Humiliated, he comes running up after parking far away, like he's just been violated. Linda screams as if he's already dead.  Tommy's tiny enough the towering Satana could break him with her bare hands. So she does. It's still morning, presumably. Later, at the local gas station, they spot a a giant hulk of young man and his crippled father peeling away in a pick-up; the leering attendant mentions the pile of loot they're sitting on... Billie meanwhile is bowled clear away by the sex appeal of the hulk. They realize now where they'll be heading to unload the body and maybe even create a few more.

With each trip to the well, my cup to fill, I come away with no admiration for what may well be the Big Sleep of 60s drive-in exploitation - a favorite that makes me feel just a little cooler every time I watch it, no matter how many times that is. I know I'm not alone in cherishing this film, one my all-time favorite movies. I love it so much I almost hate to talk about it even here. Luminaries of the trash arts like John Waters (who first turned me onto it through his book Shock Value), and feminist film critics like B. Ruby Rich alike, recognize its genius and can convey it more cogently perhaps. I can only vouch from my dozens of viewings that, as Waters says, "it ages like fine wine." Even now, elements are coming out in that bouquet. From the sound mixing to the framing, the gutsy brawling saxophone of club jazz combo score -- always somewhere between a tough TV cop show and a strip club, and editing, everything is surprisingly professional and opened up -- there's no canned audio dubs; as in John Waters, there's nothing primitive in its execution. Sure they shout all their lines when outdoors, to make sure they're heard - but they never sound muffled and sloppy, like they would in, say, an Al Adamson movie, or all canned and overdubbed, like in a Doris Wishman (or combo, like HG Lewis) and -oh! oh! What delicious lines! Jackie Moran's gonzo script roars by like half beatnik version  of Ben Hecht and half punch-drunk George Axelrod. You can feel and hear the air between the actors and the cars, the voices, that blowsy wailing saxophone it's Hollywood studio level professional. The acting may be flat, mostly (only Haji and Stuart Lancaster seem born for this weird style of dialogue, almost like Samuel Jackson was born for Tarantino's), but the dialogue is hilarious so it works perfectly.

Haji as the right hand woman / lover of the tough gang deb leader Varla, is someone I never really paid much attention to her before, being too enthralled by the statuesque curves of Lori Williams, and the evil of Tura Satana. But then, Marx Brothers fans like myself don't really appreciate Chico Marx, either --he's not as anarchic as Harpo or as intellectual as Groucho -- but as he holds it all together, his presence makes them 'the brothers', the way Haji makes it a girl gang even with just three people. It's Haji's Rosie who defines what they are and aren't, who never seems too be hamming, but deadpan cool - and always in that weird accent. She sticks with Varla, but she's also very aware of the danger they're in, that this time she may have gone too far. She's not as freaked out as Billie, but she's also clearly got some kind of moral conscience. And she makes the best use of any line she's thrown. While Tura and Lori both shout their lines like they're yelling over a lawn mower. Haji purrs, low, almost halfway to herself, comments like "his car's okay.... only the color needs changing.. ..like maybe yellow?" and my favorite line of all, when Linda offers them a soft drink. "Soft drink, she asks?" notes Rosie, incredulously, "we don't a-like nothing soft --Everything we touch is hard."


But while Rosie is to be fathomed for her middle child subtlety, Varla is one of the most amazing and badass characters in all of exploitation cinema, a force to be reckoned with. Tura Satana's a giant, beautiful in a weird almost alien way - half-Japanese yet towering, pale skin dark hair fierce eyes, flattish face, a sneer that seems to melt into the fourth dimension. We wouldn't see a smile that scary again until the alien smiles down a Harry Dean Stanton in the Nostromo docking bay. Yet Tura is never not all woman, even belting out hammy jujitsu moves or swinging her head around in a crazy kamikaze driving style - it's clear early on she'll go to any lengths to get her fierce kicks. We never learn why she's such a crazy bitch, but who cares? She doesn't seem to have got that way by suffering past male abuse, but just by being a true Woman, stripped of all phony decency.

Then there's Lori Williams' Rosie, who gets all the best lines and looks the sexiest in her white go-go buts and hip-hugging white shorts. Her lust after 'the Vegetable' the brain damaged body builder who the old man (Stuart Lancaster) uses like, as he puts it, "a piece of mutton", is truly hilarious ("I don't know what you're training for, but as far as I'm concerned, you're ready." What Williams lacks in subtlety she more than makes up for in giddy oomph. When she's getting drunk at lunch with Stuart Lancaster (as 'the Old Man') she sounds like she really is drinking (there ain't iced tea in that Cutty Sark bottle), noting it's "it's been known to be passin' out time." With Varla out back seducing Kirk to get the loot location and Varla jealously spying, and the Vegetable taking Stuart up to his room for a nap, it's time for Linda to make a dash for it, but this is still the desert, and walking anywhere on foot without a day-long head start, you just wont outrun a jeep, especially if driven by a pro like Varla.


For those who aren't familiar with it (and it can become hard to track down since the Meyer estate keeps the rights notoriously close to the vest) Pussycat is slightly easier to find than the rest of his films (aside from the studio-made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) though they're sold on the Russ Meyer website, the DVDs aren't the best - they look like merely remastered from old tapes rather than source prints. So why someone like Arrow doesn't do a deal with them is a lingering mystery. I hear there's been a Blu-ray thing in the works for years now, but who knows why it's taking forever? (Apparently the original negatives are long lost and video masters are all that are left, which is too horrible to contemplate).


The film's been compared in more ways than one to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and indeed there's a kind of bent similarity but it's one with a feminist throttle all the way open, for the buzzing isn't Leatherface's chainsaw but Varla's wheels driving a car against 'the Vegetable' smashing him against the wall until he's a crinkled mess. They'll have to send him away "from a lot of things" and we imagine suddenly that Carmen Sternwood would be a great candidate for this gang, to take Billie's place, as would Claudia Jennings from Truck Stop Women (1974). Well, we can't have everything, unless we want to make a movie ourselves. I'm not trying to put any ideas into anyone's heads, but it seems to me a badass girl gang crashing a lot of different genres would be just the thing. A lot of folks have tried and they end up being the usual overwrought nonsense with one too many well-scrubbed thugs locking girls in trunks, strippers with sun-damaged silicone lugging bags of cash in and out of hotel lobbies, sunglassed douchebags smirking into rearview mirrors, abusive backstory, flashy meaningless over-editing, in other words missing the whole point. The only film of late I can see even coming close is the 2010 low budget Aussie pic, El Monstro Del Mar (which is kind of like the Faster Pussycats vs. the Sea Monster).


BEFORE AND AFTER (THE MEYER CANON):

Faster is so good it's natural to want to explore more Meyer films. Alas, while the quality of the filmmaking is always superb, the films aren't well restored -- the negatives may have been lost over time, with Meyer's iconoclastic insistence on handling all the video recording and distribution leading to a current state of stasis as far as Blu-rays, restoration, etc. Even so, there's no film quite as perfect as Pussycat in the Meyer canon. Changes in distributor demand led Russ from black-and-white to color for the rest of his films. Off-road mayhem changes to bedroom farce, and his earlier backwoods lustful Erskine on the Half-shell insanity tempered down into historical epics (Blacksnake) and generally insane softcore farmer's daughter style rutting (Up!, Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixens)

These days I have a whole new appreciation for Haji's Rosie, The co-star of Motor Psycho, her gorgeous breasts ever hanging out of a torn blouse as she bounces around in Rocco's truck through the desert on their quest for vengeance. 
Even his vehicular homicide film from the same year (1965) wasn't in the same league as Faster - by keeping the bad guys men, it becomes a 'roughie,' part of a short rape/revenge trend in mid-60s exploitation. Now it's notable mainly for a chance to see Haji in a more prominent role, as an aid to bereaved vengeance seeking vet played by Alex Rocco (!) Motor Psycho chronicles a trio of rapey male bikers who happen across a lot of gorgeous ladies lolling around in revealing outfits, guarded only by their furious middle-aged husbands. After they gang has left enough destruction in their wake, Haji and veterinarian and Alex Rocco take revenge, but for my money it's too little too late. Plus, there's a very uncomfortable feeling afoot, with a deep encouraging of the Mulveyan male sadistic gaze as well as the Studlar masochistic spectator position, as our eyes all but molest these gorgeous women, and then must watch in horror as the bikers act on our eye's desires, almost like they're our own monster of the Id (from Forbidden Planet). Very Clockwork Orange in that respect - as all our libidinal leering comes back to haunt us. We'd never get that uncomfortable today, when Hollywood films sexual assaults in such a way as to leave us feeling personally violated, traumatized, but never uncomfortably complicit through our own ogling desires

we may not approve of their methods- Motor Psycho

From thenceforth the style changed. Drive-ins no longer wanted black-and-white, so- Meyer moved into color and relaxing censorship let him drift ever closer into hardcore. One film of his I do have, SuperVixens (1975) has scenes like the one with mail order bride Uschi Digard running around the farm naked but for feathers in her hair and waving ears of Indian corn outstretched as if auditioning for some X-rated margarine box cover, while Stuart Lancaster naked but for a chicken over his groin runs in an intersecting direction - breaking up a montage of them screwing in all sorts of farm locations, enough material if the shots were dragged out as long as they'd be in lesser hands, to make some shaggy farmer's wife story as Uschi doesn't get enough from Stu (I'd love to read his thoughts on all this - he's a fine, grounded actor whose gravitas imbues the second half of Faster Pussycat with such relief pitcher oomph, and who also appears in nearly every other Meyer film, as well as other sexploiters like Mantis in Lace --for a balding old dude with a cigarette voice, he gets around). Everywhere he goes 'Super'-sized glamazons throw themselves at him and he seldom wants to reciprocate, either trying to fight them off and arousing the ire of their kinky boyfriends (who like to watch, like John LaZar) or angering the farmer or hotelier into chasing thim with a shotgun. Violence explodes from the wild cartoon fury of nymphomaniacal Super Lorna (who takes an axe to her man's car in a jealous rage and then is later killed in the bathtub by Charles Napier as the investigating cop after she taunts him for not getting it up). This becomes the norm for Meyer, when death is just a joke that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, an extension of sexual frenzy wherein everyone loses- all the girls in Motor Psycho wind up dead or traumatized. And even in Meyer's big budget Beneath the Valley of the Dolls two women get a pistol shoved in their mouths for being lesbians. You can call that homophobic, or misogynist (I do), but more than that, it's misandric, viewing men as a bunch of easily bested slobs chasing cleavage over any cliff handy and resorting to violence like a temper tantrum.

Uschi Digard in SUPER VIXENS - the Mail order Milk Maid Fantasy cranked to cartoonish extremes
enough to make Jayne Mansfield blush; (but we see the problem with color film vs.
black and white as far as preservation - it's all muddy, especially without the negatives to strike a restored
print from for  a good DVD or Blu-ray
Our hero is very rude not to indulge the weird come-ons of Super Cherry while her boyfriend
(John Lazar) watches excitedly from the driver's seat.
It's violence but the wrong kind, not the badass liberated gangland karate of Varla, but a kind of extension of pent up sexual madness -- it's not 'constructive' as a machination for kicks as is the violence is in Faster Pussycat. We don't 'feel' the violence in Pussycat. We're not meant to share Linda's frustrated terror at the macabre luncheon ("she's a sick girl, pops"), or Tommy's  humiliation after the race around the track. We're meant to view this pair of clean-cut normies with a kind of savage's eye; their small world has been enlarged, their sense of middle class entitlement blown clear and loose, by this experience. We're not rooting for them and it's liberating. We wouldn't be in a similar position until Alberto Di Iglesia's Perdita Durango (Aka Dance with the Devil), a film a highly recommend


TOO FAST FOR SEX

One of the unusual aspects too of  Faster -- there is no sex in it whatsoever, yet there's implied lesbian pair bonding and -- in the house of the three men, some implied rape/abductions done by the Vegetable with the Old Man as instigator/spectator (revenge for a past slight done - when he crippled himself rescuing a girl off the tracks, who didn't even stop to see if he was all right but just caught the next train). According to interview, Haji didn't even know she was playing a lesbian until the shoot was almost over, but that's okay- this is 1965, after all, that they don't wear it on their sleeve is quite realistic for its time. We wouldn't really think of it if not for Billie's pronouncement that 'I can turn myself on a dozen different ways while you only got one channel, and your channel is busy tuning in outside," adding "you really should be AM and FM... you one channel chicks are a drag." There's a moment where Varla tells Billie, "Rosie and I are going to take a walk..." and somehow we imagine there might have been a softcore lesbian moment if this was 1969 instead of 65, or if Meyer had time, and the girls were down. But who cares in the end? There's no time for such stillness.

It all moves too fast to find out just where and what goes on between them, there's no time for sex, even implied in this film -- the few times (straight) sex is tried it's interrupted either by either a train (which throws vegetable off his rhythm since his dad doesn't like them) or a scream from the escaped girl (which interrupts Varla and Kirk), and at the end, a rape the Vegetable is too upset to perform despite his lecherous old man's shouts. This lack of sex mark a key turning point for the Meye canon, as sex will become the obsession in all Meyer's films from this point forward. Feminism and amok 'super'-sizing will all be in service of sexual fulfillment - it being no idle job choice that gas stations with their big phallic pumps figure so prominently in the Meyer utopia of desert flats and homemade California hot rods. The cars will still zip by, but our heroes will be settled in cabins ant tract homes, at least until their horny broad burns the apartment down or he comes home to find her making it with the milkman, unless that sort of thing turns him on.

Still, the women of all Meyer's films are, mostly, still celebrated for being strong and aggressive, and the men, for the most part, are shown to be insecure idiots who talk a big game but when a woman comes for their zipper like a piranha, they freak out and make some excuse. Their macho shit talk is exposed as little boy bravado, the masculine house of cards comes caving in with a cold feminine laugh.

"You girls nudists, or just short of clothes?"
As for the rapey duo of Vegetable and old ma, we never really get the details of one ominous pronouncement that they have "all the land to hide those pretty ribbons in when we're done with 'em" but we wonder how the good brother, who doesn't seem to have any kind of a job except nursemaid to the pair of them, can stand back and let these kind of atrocities go on. It's fine that the script doesn't bother explaining that, it's too busy tossing out one great line after the other, and perfect to drink to as there's copious opportunities and justifications, such as when the old man grabs the Scotch bottle out of the grocery box Kirk is bringing in, "it's a little early for that, old man!" notes Kirk. "The train is late!" / "nothing's on schedule today!" When I watched this over and over in a drunken euphoric bender haze on a 6-hour tape with Mesa of the Lost Women, Cat People of the Moon, and Spider Baby. Can you imagine how perfect?
Linda realizes her 'rescuer' is taking
her back to where she just escaped from

 In the end it doesn't matter what the old man instigated or not SPOILER ALRT -- he will be dead before nightfall, his wheelchair overturned, his long greenbacks fluttering in the wind. Something else is gone forever, too. Movies will never feature this much crazy thrills packed into Hawksian 'enhanced' real time again. There'll never be a character as unhinged and gleefully butch mercenary as Varla, not in the Meyer canon, not anywhere.  This is the steep price of civilization. Nowadays producers would be too worried about arousing feminist / lesbian film scholar ire, actresses too worried about their image. When there are badass females, they're too prettified, too cartoonish or torture porn-ish, they 'got that way' because of child abuse or some other male thing.

But not Varla. When she snaps the neck of the All-American Safety First Clyde Tommy we're not meant to care. As Varla told him right before "you can still walk away, buster!" and he agreed. Hitting her from behind after he taps out is a real no-no. It's super shady, showing for all his good boy shorts-wearing yacht club squareness, he's no gentlemen - clearly considering a woman as hardly worth Queensberry rules, and needs to be put in her place before he leaves, like taking out the trash, or closing the front gate. Big mistake, Eight-ball!

Welcome to violence, the word and the deed, that narrator said back at the start (and is never heard again). But the stay is short, like a delicious lap dance to a short song, the film ends much too quickly, leaving us with the only two 'other' boring characters in the film: Linda and the 'good' brother (Paul Trinka), who buys lots of big hardcover books over mail order -"and they're ain't a picture in one of them " - a sure sign he's "growin' away from us, boy." But irregardless, the others are all dead now (or 'destroyed' in the biceps) and it's not even dark yet. The film is over so fast we need, want to keep the electric thrill of it going with another film. But what comes close, if, as I said above, the Meyer films tend to drift off into rape and bedroom farce rather than badass bitches tearing up the swinging' miles.

That's the saddest part of Faster, the realization there's almost nothing else like it, anywhere. And there should be. It's a damned conspiracy. Women are becoming more equal, but for my money that's missing the point. Equal to what? The point is of no return, we're reaching it.


There's a great line in John Waters' Female Trouble, wherein--praying her son is gay, and ever-trying to hook him up with dudes from the block--Edith Massey worries being straight will mean her son will have to "work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries" and that "the world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life."

Oh man, like Female TroubleFaster should be taught in schools, shown on the very last day, to promote rioting. We need rioting and destruction, fast. This one-channel world is a drag.  Is it really so bad to want to see some strong women set the whole damned world on fire? It's only a damned movie! I think gender relations will survive.


FURTHER EXPLORING

Actually -For some Meyeresque thrills, make sure to get the DVD set of Honey West starring Ann Francis. Lori Williams has a poolside cameo in the first episode (left)! Francis plays detective Honey as a capable swinger, both Emma Peele and John Steed rolled into one -- her handsome boy Friday may do the heavy stunts, but she's the lead and never lets him forget it (and there's no romance of male dominance - she calls all the shots). Each episode is only a half hour, so no time for filler either, though there is a rather repetitive reliance on the usual spy gadget gaggery - there's still feminist sex appeal and capable sleuthing. And of course:  Julie Newmar as Catwoman

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