Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pure Laudanum: Criterion Marlene Dietrich Set Review - Part 1: MOROCCO, DISHONORED, SHANGHAI EXPRESS

If you're looking to worship a higher power of your choice in this screwed up age, may I suggest it be via the church of the recently released Dietrich-Von Sternberg Blu-ray set from Criterion? It has all six films they made in Hollywood (mit aus der Blaue Engel) before going their separate ways, changing times forcing such extravagant subtlety to disappear from the world's collective screens. Luckily we have these six. If you don't worship these movies, thou art no lover of cinema, monsieur! You love only escape or reality. These films are neither realistic or escapist, except in the purest, sense, like if most cinema was aspirin, these would be pure laudanum. This is a one-way trip, this is cinema for 'suicide passengers,' as the captain tells Adolphe Menjou in the opening scene of the opening film: it's a succinct intro to the fatalistic appeal of these films. They are falling into the black abyss of perfect beauty, high as all hell, knowing you'll never get back up again.

I know God loves me even as I plummet; I prayed for this set (you can find my prayer back in a 2013 review of Scarlet Empress here) The set also includes great essays from writers like the incomparable Self-styled Siren, and glorious Gary Giddins (even if you don't know a thing about jazz, his jazz reviews percolate like great jazz). As for me, now that it's all here, there's not much I can add to their insightful comments... But I can call back to the one academic source that would have made the set complete, even if its focus might be a little too involved or risque. Without it, actually, all the critical pontificating is sorely imbalanced. I refer of course to the "masochistic spectator" theory (the counter to Mulveyan male gazing) championed by the great feminist film theorist Galyn Studlar (see my Verboten Masochist Supplement from this past July).

So let me use this occasion to my obsessive worship of Dietrich's glorious features, clothes, and otherworldly cool as seen through the Studlaryan masochistic eye of Josef Von. Come with me and examine these films, one at a time, in their new setting and format. For even though I've seen them all dozens of times, no matter how many trips to the well, these remain unwaveringly cool and intoxicating draughts, especially the first three. Good lord almighty, thanks. 

Giddins' essay points out that the six films can really be separated into two parts - the first three films being all of a piece in presenting Dietrich as a single super-cool character. The second three find Dietrich stepping into different characters altogether, each sharing some of Dietrich's elegant nonchalance but each also trapped in the trappings of conventional womanhood and the soap opera arc (except maybe the last one, which is more the dawn of Bunuel and paranoid sexuality.) Following the paths of her fellow women stars, stuck in endless female market-aimed sagas of rags-to-riches heroines, mothers torn between domestic drudgery and fancy parties, girls forced into prostitution to pay for the baby's medicine, only to have their rich absentee dad swoop in to grab the child later and proclaim her an unfit mother, etc. etc. Maybe because I'm a man I'm not much of a fan of those types of films; I never like seeing Dietrich play a character unworthy of her larger-than-life uber-grace. 

Luckily, the first three Dietrich films in the set feature her as amongst the coolest of all the cinema's characters, unrepentantly larger-than-life in her man-manipulating and suicidal tendencies, both chameleonic and unflappably sublime within herself. No other actress came close to her weird cool until the arrival of Lauren Bacall in 1944 (who even borrows the "to buy a new hat" line from Morocco as if in tribute, as if to announce that finally, after over a decade, a worthy heir).

I'd go Giddins one further and add they could all even be a trilogy. With the lover in all three films being essentially the same man, an officer rising from private in the Foreign Legion, to colonel in the Russian Secret Service, to a chief surgeon in the British army in Shanghai Express. In each, the level of maturity and game playing grows and falls just a bit, in each she in turn grows, finally reaching a kind of happy ending happy-ever-after, even if it is with a stodgy British officer.

(1930) ****
Criterion Image: B

When I first started watching the Criterion Morocco (1930) my heart sank. I was hoping the HD upgrade would include a remastering, leading to a deeper blacks and less faded grayness. But Criterion often just adds a lot of grain and leaves it at that. This one is basically exactly the same as the old DVD, maybe even a little softer, as if the smoke and bright lights were making everyone slightly blind. Well, at least now Morocco finally has the setting it deserves, even if some of us still dream there's a better upgrade waiting to be struck.

Like the next two films in the collection, Ms. Dietrich begins the film as a world-weary cooler-than-cool seducer of men, larger-than-life and beyond anyone gender, belonging to no one woman or man. Here, as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, she begins the film looking mildly bedraggled, on a boat arriving into Morocco's port (a suicide passenger - they're always a one-way trip, notes the captain) to play an extended cabaret gig. Before she even gets off the boat, she's been sized up by Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) and he makes his move. He's not an officer this time, (2) just rich, classy, and influential in the affairs of the French-occupied city. He's also not the jealous kind. He's far too well-bedded to have any illusions. He gives her whatever she wants, slavishly, and even drives her to find her real love when he's wounded.

Amy's1 real love is Legionnaire Pvt. Brown, played Gary Cooper, he's the male version of her, i.e. a figure all the girls are in love with, who never says no to a proposal, and as a result is juggling everyone from his commanding officer's wife on down to the Arab girls jangling their bangles out the windows to him, arranging rendezvous via hand signals while he stands at attention in the winding streets with his regiment. Like Amy, Brown is free from all illusions about love and the opposite sex, yet he still has a rock-solid sense of honor. Though reticent, in that lanky Cooper way, he's not above sticking his neck out to the point of even making veiled threats to his senior officer about naming his own wife in the investigation of an attack on Brown and Jolly (orchestrated by her in a fit of jealousy). While the officer notes "I appreciate you trying to keep my wife's name out of it," he nonetheless names her and then takes Brown out on a death march, there to follow him into the thick of Arab snipers, ready to shoot him in the back and make it look like an accident if the snipers don't get him first. Luckily, an Arab bullet nails the CO and relieves Brown's problem. Yet Brown, ever the cool customer, is not one to rejoice such a loss. This is just blind luck. He doesn't go AWOL and race back to Amy's side like some punk - to do so would inevitably ruin him in her eyes (as it would Charles Boyer in the 1936 Garden of Allah). Used to girls throwing themselves at his feet, his not making any forward advances on Amy becomes Brown's ultimate transgression. For her, his presence is so intense she wants him to leave or to leave him mere minutes after they're in the same room. When he first arrives at her little studio apartment ("it looks different... now," he notes, indicating he's had trysts with singers there in the past - it's clearly a room the club keeps for their touring attractions). For her part, she adds "there's a Foreign Legion of women, too... but we have no wound stripes" as if evoking the invisible lash welts so coveted by cinematic masochists. He leaves, but of course she follows soon after, anxious for another parting, and it's there in the streets, such as they are, that the trouble begins. If they'd stayed in her room, they'd have been fine. But of course one can only say goodbye once or twice there. These two need to say goodbye constantly, like an addiction.

It's actually Cooper and Dietrich that have the most touching romance of all in the six films because both are masters of the small gesture, and Dietrich would not find someone so attuned to that aspect of acting again (the way he always nearly bumps his heads on the low doorways etc.) and the quick exit. Each exhibits the reticence of real feelings vs. showing practiced ease with glib seduction and, through it all, finding a way to practice a strict abiding moral code, a real even Hawksian (or certainly Jules Furthian) moral code, vs. the bourgeois morals of marital fidelity. In each other, Jolly and Brown find someone who feels as they do - with the same sense of dissolute sluttiness coupled to unshakable honor. Both of them are used to stirring up feelings in the opposite sex way more than they themselves are stirred up; they're comfortable just easing back and letting warring lovers slug it out between them. But now, instead, they're too evenly matched. Neither one is the aggressor (at least not successfully), maybe they forgot how. They only know how to evade real feelings: "you better go now. I'm beginning to like you," she tells him. It's the ultimate compliment, to kick him out because she likes him. His ultimate compliment retort "I wish I met you ten years ago." The only way to prove he does mean it is to leave. Hooking up with her would just prove that it was a phony line. His only way of proving his love, to make it real, is to leave before anything even gets started.

It's hard to go back in time to remember my ambivalent feeling about all their reticence the first few times I saw Morocco. I didn't quite get it and thought both of them were being chumps, and that the censors were behind their lack of connection, but at the same time, I was in a long distance love affair, tortured by longing, and yet every time we got together in person we were just friends, no spark -but we still loved to hang out, and then after she left I would chalk up to my being too shy to bust a move. We were madly in love only by phone and email (I won't name names, but you know you are). Now that I'm older and such romances are a national pastime thanks to the arrival of the internet, that self-induced torture seems absurd (3) but understandable in ways it wasn't. Now I get the ever-parting sacrifice aspect of Morocco. This is what cinematic love really is, in a way, something that cannot exist in its object's physical presence. We can fall in love with Dietrich, and even Cooper, but we can't take them home. They don't even see us, there in the dark, yet they stir something good in us. This is not a lusty film where we're meant to ogle or get excited. This is a film of dares and defiance, where no one acts just how some mundane dinner guest might expect. Rather than live as the wife of the wealthy la Bessiere, Amy kicks off her high heels and follows her man into the desert on a long march, barefoot into the ever-blowing desert winds.

Some critics have said this renouncement marks Amy's suicide/ death as she won't survive out there- will be left behind, etc. I used to think it was so romantic, but now I don't think anything is really over. No doubt Monsieur La Bessiere will wait a bit under the arch, for her feet get a few blisters. She'll probably just sit down and wait expectantly, for his car to drive up. He will. We can tell in the way La Bessiere drives her around to check on Brown in all the army hospitals after hearing he's been wounded. (why these guys have to hike everywhere when there are supposedly roads for fancy limos is anyone's guess - just joining them of your own free will suggests a unique kind of masochism). And in his gentlemanly handshake of 'may I wish you good luck?'

Their key encounter, Brown and Jolly, is when she finds him not at the hospital but at the local bar, sitting there with a cute Arab girl in his lap, who's wearing his hat, no less (a kind of subtextual mirror to Amy's male gender signifier-appropriating m├ętier), while he drunkenly carves Amy's name into the table with a heart around it. When Amy finally finds him, he covers it up with scattered playing cards. He receives her coldly, and she adjusts her frantic tone appearing suddenly nonplussed, only mildly surprised to find him there. The best he can offer as a warm greeting is another evasion --as his company is called back to the barracks before a long march -- "Come see me off tomorrow" (his regiment leaves at dawn). She does see him off, of course, though for these night owls getting up at dawn seems yet another masochistic indulgence.

This weird dichotomy of absence/presence is our first taste of Von Sternberg's masochism elevated above simple debasement. The loss of the love is the goal even more so than actually being with the other --thus deserting his outfit and running away with Amy Jolly to the Riviera is a nice idea but would ruin their love, turning it into just another pair of attractive scammers on the make, when in this masochistically unfulfilled state, it could blaze on forever (so he writes on the mirror--"I changed my mind. Good luck!" - and she later admires it as a kind of to-the-point eloquence unusual for a soldier). There's a mirror of this, a cautionary tale of the other option-- in Garden of Allah, Boyer is from a holy order of monks, hooks up with Dietrich, breaking his vow of celibate devotion. Eventually he's guilt-tripped into returning, but at least gets to taste the sweetness of life outside the monastery. Nonetheless, the intensity of their love increases in the frustration of the absence, and his willingness to flee his vows to be with her is what paradoxically lowers her high regard for him. And then there's the movie Von Sternberg and Dietrich made in Berlin, The Blue Angel, wherein the professor runs away to join the show and marry Naughty Lola, and winds up as the clown enduring Chaney-esque humiliations onstage and lumbering through the audience after his wife's performance, peddling the same dirty postcards he was confiscating earlier while an esteemed professor. We can't imagine that same fate for Cooper, yet what else would he do if the left the service? Sell apples? His honor would be gone and soon she'd be pregnant, admonishing him for not having a job while he drank and fumed.

Another unique touch: as their romance develops, each character talks in that measured careful way that one can't quite tell is something JVS thought was sexy or just what what the early sound equipment demanded (in 1930 the fewer words... in a line of dialogue... and the more pauses... the better), the feeling is that a lot of emotion is being withheld in those pauses, and that's largely because the leads themselves are so luminous, their silence speaks volumes, and the sound effects around them so intoxicating. As with their previous collaboration, The Blue Angel, what the actual dialogue might be limited by in terms of clarity does not effect diegetic sound (of which, like Fritz Lang in M, Von Sternberg was an early master): bird calls, distant Arab singing, chanting, Islamic prayers, and idle conversation outside windows, the slow arrival and fade of military bugles and drums (1).  The crowd scenes especially in Von Sternberg's mise-en-scene carry far more complex movement and little termite details than we find almost anywhere else.

This is also, surprisingly, one of only three times Dietrich will sing in a cabaret in the films (the other two being Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman) and it's a shame there wasn't more such scenes as she clearly belongs there. It's where she got her start (when she had to cancel her violinist career due to wrist issues); the songs in this hot Morocco club, with the fans and the orchestra leader with his tuxedo collar popping out, the jacket off, wiping a big cloth on his forehead with his baton hand (also holding a fan), are so iconic we wish the film was an hour longer and just included her whole set (like Criterion's MONTERY POP box does for the Hendrix and Otis Redding peformances). Imagine what that would be like her just singing and wandering around the club, playing off the varied clientele, for a full forty minutes or so --that would be some kind of outtasite Heaven!

LATEST VIEWING - May 27, 2019

First time noticing the lusty eating of the apple shot when we get a close-up of Cooper's first few bites; the topless native girl we only get to see flashes of as the legionnaires march past in the beginning, forming a kind of kinetoscope of her foxiness; noticing the ghostly way Dietrich has of staring at Cooper even as she closes the door, as if she's trying to be a ghost or hypnotize a cobra. The screen is always packed with detail, the way his arms are full of girls as she comes to say goodbye, me wondering if masochism in cinematic language really began with von Sternberg. Was this all because he was so jealous of Dietrich's endless parade of lovers, of which he was but one? Stories are told of his hanging out on her lawn in Hollywood, painting landscapes while Gary Cooper's car rolled up for a tryst; Cooper apparently suffered this too, and would mope around in a kind of possessive funk. He didn't get the whole German polymorphous kinkiness of the situation, how Dietrich was still married and would send her husband (Rudy Sieber) in Germany all her various love letters for archiving. How she and Cooper or whomever would tryst with Rudy and his longtime mistress in exotic locales for menage a quatres, or whatever. Of course the story comes from a novel but it's the language of the maoschistic specatator being created. 

(1931) ***1/2
Criterion Image: A-

A loose re-telling of the 'possibly true' story of the other (i.e. not Mata Hari) WWI sexy super spy  'Fraulein Doctor' (see also 1968's Fraulein Doctor), this starts out with Dietrich as an Austrian war widow-turned-streetwalker living at a Viennese apartment house/brothel where despair and gas-powered suicide are so common the cops barely shake off their rain-soaked ennui long enough to make a tsk-tsk noise as they carry another one out, but Dietrich, watching from across the street, won't say die. Her unflappable cool and stubborn loyalty to a country that's forgotten her leads her to be recruited as special agent X-27 by secret service man Gustav von Seyffertitz. First she hits a streamer-packed masquerade party, uncovers the treachery of military bigwig Warner Oland, gets a load of Victor Maclagen playing the clown and talking through his teeth, and later gets information that sends 'thousands of Russians to their deaths' while wearing no make-up and making cat noises. Posing as a maid servant in the Russian border HQ, it takes even us awhile to realize that's her. Damn girl, what make-up will do. Nonetheless she's aces at getting a colonel drunk enough while playing tag that she can spy on his papers after he passes out. Her prowling black cat gives her away (Mclagen remembers it from his midnight visit through her window), but he can't kill her until the dawn (there are rules!), so there's one of those magic dissolves to the snowy night woods, indicating sex has occurred, maybe (even pre-code had a code, and that's it). And soon she's back in HQ playing out the plans in a scene that no doubt inspired Hithcock's similar one in Lady Vanishes. 

Either way, the role of female James Bond fits Marlene well. She and her Russian op counterpart McLaglen are like advanced serpentine predators in a world of clueless prey. They are keen observers and always five moves ahead of the pack, yet Dietrich is dumb enough to keep her spying orders (uncoded) in her coat pocket where McLaglen can find them, read them, replace them, and promptly head off to try and catch her in the act on the front line hotel where she's headed. He's also dumb enough to accept a drink from her, though she patiently waits until the very last minute to drug him, seemingly resigned to her fate. She really is unafraid to die, and that's one of the reasons he finds her so exciting. "Hope you're on my side next war!" is his equivalent to Brown's "I wish I met you ten years ago."

He could easily have killed her on the spot instead so it's clear that, while not exactly collaborating, McLaglen and Dietrich make it pretty for the other to escape when they fall into each others' clutches. In this they're a bit like Adam West's Batman and Julie Newmar's Catwoman... Apparently, that's how the KGB and CIA were with each other back in the day - rather than keep killing each other, they'd swap enough secrets, turn each other into double double agents, share enough tidbts to make their bosses happy, then lean back and get drunk together. I mean, that's the smart play, after all. Why kill each other over this shit? If either side wins, you're both out of a job.

And that's partly the problem for Dishonored's detractors, of which I used to be one: we were appalled that this sensitive seductress would deliberately sabotage her own sworn duty by letting someone as leering and one-dimensional as Mclaglen's Russian spy escape during her interrogation, and then not even deign to answer the charges of collaboration against her during the military tribunal. They desperately want to cut her a break but she won't help. The best she can do is say "I've lead an inglorious life, it might be my good fortune to have a glorious death." So she never got far from that Viennese gas jet asphyxiation suicide state of mind after all.

I always imagine her adding the word 'scene' at the end of that sentence: to have "a glorious death scene," for it's always clear that in these films there's no such thing as a 'happy ever-after' because somewhere along the line Von Sternberg has turned us into frustrated lovers, longing--not unlike the odious Johnny in the latter BLONDE VENUS--for the sort of happy ending American directors love but sophisticated jaded intellects like Von Sternberg can't take seriously. We think we'd love to see X-27 back on the case, keeping a date with Mclaglen at some monastery after the war, like Constance Bennett's spy in After Tonight - or do what Myrna Loy does as the same character (Fraulein Doctor) in Stamboul Quest (though ideally not with smirking American tourist George Brent) or--ideally--to do as Suzy Kendall playing the same role in Fraulein Doctor, end the film laughing sardonically in her nurse disguise on her way to safety after watching a whole frontline of French soldiers choking in agony via gas she stole from a French female chemist during a lesbian tryst (if a female chemist making WWI poison gas sounds familiar, you maybe saw Wonder Woman? It's all connected). What we get instead, is both inspiring and downbeat, agonizing and cool.

The cool aspect comes from how--in the JVS-Dietrich-verse-- it's not about happy ever after but all about how you handle yourself at the end of the film, for that's the echo, that's what people remember, the ghost image, like the imprint of a dead man's pupils recording the last thing he saw. X-27 knows her masks are all there is to herself (and even her peasant disguise -- not wearing make-up at all-- is a mask) and so only in a similarly mask-within-masks super spy like Victor can she find an equal. Through her nonchalance (and even rapturous smile - left)  in the face of immanent death she's able manipulate the conscience of the firing squad, but she does so only with the ambivalent curiosity of a cat playing with a box of regimented mice, she doesn't especially want to go on. The Dietrich in the JVS movies knows she has only 90 minutes in which to exist so she may as well go out on an impaled-butterfly-pin high rather than preserve herself in some uncertain happy ever-after of old age make-up and caterpillar drudgery. Her Dishonored death pleases her for the same reason it frustrates the whole secret service (and us): her inability/unwillingness to explain why she let the prisoner escape (I think in El Dorado they'd call it "professional courtesy"). Just as becoming X-27 helped her shed her prostitute guise, the firing squad becomes a chance to shed the movie altogether. That she'd want to escape all mortal coils and comforts for some barely spoken maybe-not-even-love sends the patriarchy into masochistic fits. ME too! Throwing away money and power over men away in favor poverty and oblivion in the name of some undeserving but very tall smirking lover --it makes me want to scream!

But then the young officer leading her to the wall has his outburst about it and it just sounds childish. He's led away and a different officer takes his place immediately. Von Sternberg has the last chilling laugh.

Only when starting the film over at the beginning immediately after the ending does it make sense in a Mulholland Drive-style Moebius strip way. The snow of the backyard firing squad wall gives way to the rain of the courtyard to the front street, the snow dawn to the rainy evening - as the asphyxiated body is lifted outside ("She didn't even leave enough for the gas bill" notes a sardonic landlord) by the cops. We first see her watching the morgue wagon parked in the pouring rain in front of the building, seeing it perhaps as a kind of nihilist prom limo, and she knows it's stopping for her not long from now. She knows the girl in the coffin is destined ere long to be her But her ethical code doesn't permit suicide, so she must wait until her death scene can be proper and glorious, with a weeping audience of young soldiers to perform it for. This is the one mask that can't come off, because to pull it resets the whole damned show. In the space where that Paramount logo mountain tag provides the Alpine breather, here alone Dietrich can fly free. Naturally she wants to get back to it asap.

The Criterion Blu-ray image is intoxicating as the steep curve upwards I was expecting with this set begins to kick in after a so-so start with Morocco. Her Ziggy Stardust-style masquerade attire sparkles like an obsidian sky beflecked with diamonds and as no doubt JVS hoped when meticulously filling the screen canvas, the ever flowing streamers and confetti of the ball scene, as it plays out on two levels at the same time, glistens so that every streamer is clearly visible and separate from its neighbors. X-27's fancy apartment now attains a nice cavernous dream-state 3D quality and the elaborate study of Warner Oland's traitorious general carries extra masculine gravitas.

(1932) - *****
Criterion Image: A-

"I wish you could tell me there'd been no other men."
"I wish I could, Doc. But five years in China is a long time..."

Second in my heart only to His Girl Friday as far as sending up the harbingers of decency, this not only has a great pre-code Paramount jazz score, bullfrog-voiced Eugene Palette, Warner Oland, and Gustav von Seyffertitz getting tortured for the crime of shutting off fans (a major offense since I always watch this in deepest summer), and Dietrich--never lovelier--but Anna May Wong at her most coolly exotic, passing back the prim boarding house matron's business card with a cold stare, sharing the compartment with Dietrich, playing the gramophone and turning their shared space into a den of stylish cool like we imagine Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg might have while traveling together on a Rolling Stones tour circa 1966-7, wandering into some dream version of Paramount's already surreal champagne-and-opium 1932 via some kind of Donald Cammell time warp.

Oh saints of alternate reality, would that Von Sternberg and screenwriter Jules Furthman made a dozen movies with Wong and Dietrich luxuriating in their car in her long black silk gowns, listening to jazz on the portable gramophone and smoking stylishly, barely speaking between themselves but sharing that "professional courtesy", wrecking dozens of souls all along the China coast, the dutiful reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) trailing behind to help turn the broken, desperate men towards god before they blow their brains out, but never never judging them because, when the chips are down, even Shanghai Lily prays, and beautifully.

That Carmichael turns from ranting about the train's "cargo of sin" to sticking up for her against Clive Brooks shows he's the most dynamic character in the film, the only one who demonstrably changes his opinion, because he puts his money where his mouth is. It's hard not to be moved by his gruff assurance to her that God is "on speaking terms with everybody." This is where Von Sternberg blows the mind, along with masterful Jules Furthman on the script, as he did with Morocco (and so many of the best Hawks films, making us wonder if its Furthman, not Von Sternberg or Hawks, who supplies the unique sense of moral code his characters share, a moral code leagues above the petty sense of bourgeois 'decency' uptight prudes mistake for morality, but a true chivalrous code where a word is as good as a bond, and death isn't flinched from even though it's known all too well).

The whole first half of this film is a glorious ribbing of censors, colonialism, and British prudery, only to reverse the flow later by having the Henry Davidson harrumpher turn over to Shanghai Lily's side of things, and the train to at last reach the station. I watch it every summer, sometimes more than once, with all the fans blowing high on me (to spite that loathsome Gustav), rapt in a unique kind of midnight ecstasy.

PS - 2017 re-viewing
): The ultimate rationale for why artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade, what I come away this latest viewing is how frozen in cigarette ad abstraction is our Major Harvey. His banter with Dietrich is like a long secret code, repeated in abstract mantra form like some Karloff Latin mass, the cigarette smoke like holy incense. She's an exotic danger to which his only defense is to freeze in place and betray no desire. She too mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow. (from EK's all-time favorite - top 25, - #4 after Big Sleep, The Thing and His Girl Friday)

(PS - 2018 re-viewing on Criterion Blu-ray): A cleaned-up sparkly Blu-ray of Shanghai Express is still only marginally more satisfying than the past DVD from TCM, though the blacks are much deeper and obviously special care was taken for the key iconographic moments, like the one above, the shadows of the darkened train compartment now glisten with 3D velvet obsidian against which the silky white of Marlene's face gushes in rapture. The opening and closing scenes of her with the black feathered boa and veil now show the sharp plains of her face like some creamy cliffside or glistening creamy Ivory soap bar. The twinkle in her eyes and glistening of the black feathers carries an intoxicating electric allure. The added sense of depth allows us to revel in the layers of activity in each frame (even inside the cars, the foot traffic past the compartments continues; waiters and porters get in the stars' way, and the backgrounds are alive with comic bits so fast an innocuous it takes years of viewings to suss them out.)

ASIATIC EXTRAS (Blu-ray Extra):

Especially in films of white colonialists swept up in Asian affairs, like Shanghai Express (as opposed to, say, The Good Earth), exotica is the rule, and a chance for art directors to go nuts with foreign bric a brac and religious iconography. Exotica, in the term of using the cultural art and style of another country as pure 'other' decor-is still super common. Just walking down the hall at work to get tea just now I passed an office where I could see a little Krishna statue amongst on a fellow staff member's desk --their sole connection to Hinduism being, maybe, a yoga class. I have a Buddha head on my desk though have never even entered a Buddhist shrine. What would we feel I wonder to find Jesus souvenirs sold to Buddhists as souvenirs? Everyone needs a dashboard suction cup Jesus or a Jesus on the cross pencil holder! With Christ being no more than an exotic piece of souvenir detritus.... how would we take it?

In the words of  Kali Bahlu, "Oh Buddha, I'm so confused!"

The first three films in this set--as we have seen--get steadily more beautiful and unabashed in their unconventional Weimar decadence-meets-Hollywood opulence pre-Breen/pre-Hitler libidinal freedom. They stand tall as ahead-of-their-time pictures of fallen women who--as opposed to say some saintly working girl ala Joan Crawford or Loretta Young--remain unabashed by their state, never judging themselves for wrecking men up and down the China coast, or buying into the condemnation of the 'moral' right the way, say, Loretta Edwards or Joan Crawford, or even Mae Clarke over at Universal (in Waterloo Bridge). They don't let themselves be treated poorly the way Jean Harlow goes along with being expected to stay out of sight when a 'decent' Mary Astor shows up in Red Dust). Dietrich's characters would never renounce their past (the only thing Shanghai Lily would do different after five years as a 'coaster' is not bob her hair), they know that--as fellow Paramount star Mae West put it--"when women go wrong, men go right after them." So often only the boys can be bad and not be punished for bucking convention. But in these films, it's character that counts, and though she's a high end prostitute 'adventuress,' Lily clearly has her own form of integrity way beyond that of most proper ladies'. When she agrees to leave with Chang to save Harvey's eyesight, she knows she must stick to it ("a man is a fool to trust any woman," notes Chang, "but I believe a word of honor would mean something to you") and would, except for Wong's timely knife. That she lets Harvey think she wanted to is proof of her daunting moral code. So often in the world of exotica films (especially, say, the Todd Browning/Lon Chaney pictures, or Al Jolson sagas), love means debasement and loss of identity. In the Dietrich films love may claim lives, and even reputations, but never honor. And the opinion of Yorkshire pudding-making matrons and doctors of divinity in service of mankind don't even rate on that scale. Menjou's masochistic patient suitor in Morocco gets it, and so plays the rules. When he wishes Cooper's legionnaire "good luck" on his march, you believe he means it. "You see," he tells his dinner guests, "I love her."

Man, we know the feeling, the loss of her presence in whatever capacity is felt like a pain. The "End" is going to swallow her up from our sight no matter if we beg and plead like infants or stand tough and game-faced like soldiers, like worthy lovers, like... her. Bye-bye, or rather au revoir... auf wiedersehen... bis spater. Bald, hoffe Ich, sehr bald. 

Aber, bitte mit kein kindern? 

end part 1
1. The sound of a distant diegetic tribal drum was a common atmospheric thread amongst colonialist dramas, often either based directly on W. Somerset Maugham works (The Letter, Rain, The Narrow Corner) or inspired by their success (The Road to Singapore, Mandelay, White Woman, Red Dust) . It could denote anything from a native uprising to a chief's son at death's door ("when the drums stop," as --- notes in Black Narcissus -- he's dead") but often served as a kind of voodoo call towards a pair of errant lovers, a kind of manmade version of howling wind or monsoon rain. 
2. but once again he's he so often is in these sorts of films, all of which fall into a kind of loose romantic triangle: the handsome private in love with a beautiful nurse or singer coveted by his superior officer or just a rich, influential, older man with the power to transfer him to some dangerous, remote outpost, ala Prestige, Farewell to Arms, Friends and Lover
3. Lacan really helped with this, too. Understanding that the pain of absence really is the reward of love, that the objet petit a structures the whole foundation of the self - attaining it leads to depression and disillusionment which can be a reward unto itself, setting you free to--in the words of Lou Reed--find a new illusion. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Erich K's HEREDITARY Witchcraft Conspiracy DSM-IV Reader

I'd forgotten about all about conspiracies, Saturn, Satan and schizophrenia until I finally saw HEREDITARY, which brought it all cascading back, buckling the thin walls of sanity I'd set barely nailed up after exiting the paranoid conspiracy zone writing some of the posts linked below. Not that this amazing new horror movie is just conspiracy paranoia-tingling, no, no no! It's also a deep character study that takes its time to get going and, true to the name, rides the raft of inherited mental illness all the down the DNA river into the tributary to the sea of true madness. There's a recently deceased mother with "a lot of secrets" and a whole family tree of suicides and despair and then Toni Collette, the daughter, and also the scariest yet most sympathetic mother in a horror film since Essie Davis in The Babadook, coming to terms with things like her son not trusting her just because he once woke up one night to find himself and his sister covered with turpentine and mom standing over them while they slept with a book of matches in her hand. She was sleepwalking! He doesn't believe her, not even now. We don't see it, but it's a haunting slow burn image that ranks with those moments in Paranormal Activity as far as making all our unconscious eight-hour stretches in bed suddenly seem so unsafe we wonder how we ever managed to sleep at all. (If you've ever encountered a sleepwalker, then you know how terrifying it is, that flat dilated black pupil look in their eyes). This movie does what great horror movies do, it takes these nuggets of forgotten uncanny everyday living and slowly compiles them alongside enough sudden calamities and random bits of disturbing 'accident' that it's much more than a mere thrill ride, it's something that slowly builds until it turns by extension your life into a horror movie, like a virus. While you were distracted by one narrative, it snuck around behind you with another, and pushed you out of your safe viewing distance into something like terrified rapture.

The debut feature from young Ari Aster, the film successfully gets the whole "there is no difference between inherited paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression, and witchcraft" route (the kind mastered in Rosemary's Baby and duplicated almost nowhere else since... until now). Treading so close on our actual fears it crosses the line where imagination becomes insanity, like that normal-seeming friend confiding in you all sorts of paranoid-sounding statements, like someone is breaking in at night to move boxes around in her closet (am I the only one with weird friends like these?). This is the kind of film wherein a roster of DSM IV-spiked beliefs start to dovetail with the Old Testament, making us wonder if the ultimate conspiracy theory paranoid schizophrenic manifesto might be the Bible. Is it so hard to believe that, once the blinders on our perceptions are opened through chanting, stress, sleepiness, magical potions, or prolonged trauma conditioning (PTC), the witchcraft can begin in earnest. Maybe we can only fly when no one who doesn't believe we can is watching. Maybe if we can let go of our bodies we don't need a broomstick; when no one is around to listen, the sound a tree falling in the woods makes is like music in the eye of a screaming demon.

Here lie some links to past conspiracy writing should you be a glutton for madness, or need more ideas for similar mind-benders afterwards:

The Goat of Menses and the Fox in the Atheist Hole: THE WITCH
(March 2nd, 2016)

"So see the movie and understand at last why patriarchal science and religion are both such hardheaded dicks about the unknown and supernatural, and why Christian zealotry has never not been on the rise and why women are always considered a zone outside of western rational objectivity. Only in one or two other films have we seen beautiful women materialize out of the darkness of the woods or the gleam of the bathtub, as irresistible as a warm slug of whiskey in an unfriendly wilderness, our willpower long gone, we lower our lips towards their hearth and then suddenly these figures grab onto us as if with clawed tentacles and thorny paws. They are not hot and young at all, but decomposing and very old. You've been tricked, son of Adam! The distance of time between that first kiss, the wedding bells, funeral chimes, cold ground worms boring through rotten pine box walls collapses into a single Donald Sutherland death rattle.

This powerful motif, the 'young-old predatory woman' reflects the tradition of the sidpa bardo in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the level of purgatory where you see and notice only undulating lovers like flames in an otherwise all-consuming darkness. If you let yourself be drawn too close to them you run the risk of finding yourself stuck like a fly in the frozen web of the woman's newly-fertilized embryo, like being sucked over a waterfall. Then devouring demon rock below shreds your current construct of self into a million pieces which sink or scatter in the rapid current below; only the core I AM remains trapped in that sticky embryonic web- and soon you've forgotten you were ever anywhere else-- the 'you' you believed yourself to be is shaved away like your hippie hair under the electric razor of a FULL METAL JACKET barber." (more)

The Illuminati, Hypnosis, Paranoia, Schizophrenia, Kubrick, and Tom Cruise 
(DP - May 2016)

As per Zizek via Lacan (or vice versa), the Big Other's whole purpose is to remove the 'constituent anxiety," to make sure there is no "traversing" the fantasy which would dislocate the subject from its void-circumscribing orbit. In EYES WIDE SHUT, Ziegler's positing Dr. Bill as an outsider who will never be a member of this exclusive shadow society, no matter what mask he dons, is doing him a massive favor, because this forbidden society exists solely in order to exclude him, and thus perpetuate constituted (rather than constituent) anxiety. It's a gift, son! This lack of a gift is the best gift he can give.

A similar effect occurs with UFO crash sightings wherein the military steps in, harasses and bullies witnesses into silence, and reports it was a weather balloon or crashed satellite, then hauls it away never to be seen again. In doing this they perpetuate the revolution around the desire. They fan the flames of the need to know, and so perpetuate the illusion that they have this thing well in hand. If they announced a spacecraft was found, the world press would swamp them and create panic, but by simultaneously threatening witnesses and lying to the press they create a subliminal consolation. Instead of worrying about aliens (which is terrifying - coming with a sense of total powerlessness and vulnerability) we're angry at the government for not telling us the truth. We always feel protected when denied knowledge. It brings us full circle back to the feeling of invulnerability we had as five year-olds bugging our mom about where babies come from, free from any worry she might actually find out, that she'd lie to protect us from the whole bloody-terrible besital truth. (full)

Genealogy of Flies: LORDS OF SALEM (2013), HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2008) + My own Salem Witch Connections
(September 2013)

 I have to mention, as always when discussing Salem and genealogy (characters here are descendants of the hung witches and/or judges and executioners) that all these descendant movies are fascinating on a personal level for me because the one side of my family tree that kept immaculate records is from Salem, having arrived in Boston in 1631 (with fellow passenger Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island): This side of my tree includes nuggets like these (copied direct):
The family of John Perkins 1583-1654 - freeman 18th May 1631
Married Judith Gates, born Newent, Gloucestershire, England
1. "Quartermaster" John - b. 1614 0 d. Dec, 14, 1686
2. "Deacon" Thomas 1616-1686 (not the witch hunter, he died before that)
3.  Elizabeth 1618-1700 / married William Sargent (5 children)
4. Mary 1620-1700 - "She was accused of witchcraft, sentenced, but the execution delayed and the citizens recovered from the delusion." (+5 more)
The Family of Elisha Perkins (born - 1656 - Topfield) died - 1741 in Methuen
Married Catherine Towne - 1680
(9 total), including: John (third son) born Aug. 12, 1685 - died June 22, 1750
married Mary Easty (whose mother Mary Easty and Aunt Rebecca Towne Nurse were hanged for witchcraft) --etc.

Age of Asherah: ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
(May 2014)

"In conveying Rosemary's gradual awakening from compliance ("you're gonna think I really flipped,") Polanski exploits our willingness to grant power to unseen forces, and thus allows us to see the link between paranoia and pregnancy, and how the patriarchal condescension in the big city can completely dominate even a free spirited young woman from Iowa whose determination to be hip is both her saving grace and undoing. Taken in total, her story has devils of both the psychoanalytical interpretation variety (paranoia brought on by hormonal surges due to pregnancy) and the physical arrival, up from the subconscious realm, of a devil ("Hail Satan!"), in other words, Rosemary's Baby is the opposite of a film like Inception - which is a story about people invading other people's dreams. Baby is about a dream incarnated into living tissue, the rip in time is the rip in Rosemary's womb from which out claws the Elder God.

When we sense something is being kept from us, whatever it is gains in power as our fears project onto it and projection is exactly how the coven operates: they chant together and use combined mind projection to astral travel along an associative nine-dimensional curve via an item belonging to the victim into that victim's nervous system (like following a DNA print through space the way a cell phone signal follows a chip). This is the same 'reality' that paranoid schizophrenics and remote viewing agents live in (tiny microphones in their teeth, men following them in brown town cars, etc); it's an ocean wherein all dreamers are linked together, are as fish, surfers, sailors, drowners, whales, or dolphins, in a matrix of nonlocal consciousness. The Satanist sails on the surface (hence Rosemary's dream of being on a boat and seduced by a Naval officer, like Nicole Kidman's fantasy in Eyes Wide Shut - see Make-Up Your Mind Control); the psychedelic shamans surf until they're wiped out or transcend the ocean altogether; unconscious dreamers bob in the waves; and the schizophrenics drown but do not die, just hover in that agitated drowning panic until medicated or the spell subsides. Rosemary's dream begins on the ship and winds up bobbing, then sinking, before clawing her way back to land (finding the secret passage between the apartments). In the end she joins with the cult because her maternal instinct is too strong to resist. (Besides, she wasn't even invited before - that's what stings, being left out, when she's the most important part, like not inviting the kid with the fake ID who bought the booze to your party. But now, no one even has to ask her to come now - it's really her party, whether they like it or not). "What have you done to its eyes?!" she asks, horrified. "He has his father's eyes," Castavet answers. And its the eyes of Guy's rival for his coveted part that are affected by the telepathic sabotage of the coven - the windows to the soul. No one has their own eyes anymore, the souls are long since funneled. (more)

(October- 2013)

Cinema's pagan devil culture can't quite capture the ephemeral chain of cause-and-effect karma ouroboros-boomeranging to the point just watching a film creates bad luck, but it can generate a feeling of unease through depiction of the most sophisticated or banal of circumstances if it but tweaks them with little uncanny ripples of fatalistic coincidence that benefit or harm as befits 'the bargain.' With Satan there's usually a gruesome payoff after the subject sells his soul for a drink, where he learns he's "always been the caretaker," and so forth. Ask not whom is sacrificed on the ancient altar, because if no one told you else it's going to be, then it's you. You're doing both the killing and the being killed. Two ends of a scroll slowly rolling towards each other, when they meet, your text has disappeared.

So is there free will in a Satanic model of reality? Maybe the one who has 'always been the caretaker' can play Christian the way a closeted gay guy can play straight i.e. stunting his own potential and becoming far less than he was meant to be, or he can let go of the handrails and let Satan's vacuum suction pull him towards the full realization of his unholy destiny. If your Christian family would rather have you as a stunted straight than a fully blossomed gay person then they are the cursed, not you. Thus the devil exists only in advocate position --where there is hypocrisy he brings truth; where there is repression he brings exultation.

If we apply that logic to the actual making of these films, wife Sharon Tate is doomed the moment husband Roman Polanski helps her get the part in EYE; Polanski is doomed to exile the moment he shoots a scene wherein a woman is drugged and date raped by Satan. It all connects, from the devil's murky fatalistic machinations within the story--recreating itself through helping Guy get the part in that play (as, fittingly enough, a cripple)--to the reality of its makers (Castle's kidney stones, etc). The devil's happy to crib off your paper, so to speak, to make reality out of the image you made of him. It's as if film was little more than a halfway point, the equivalent of a pie cooling on the windowsill before its opened up and devoured, except the windowsill is a mirror, and the pie sliced open is a young and lovely actress -- an accident that becomes a rupture in the fabric of pop culture history. (More)

(October 2013)

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG is on TCM in the background as I write about mind control, totally by chance. Onscreen: an audience of power elite have assembled to watch a demonstration. An automaton girl in German peasant attire is standing before a series of mirrors (which I've just learned they use in Monarch mind control programming mere minutes before this comes on), singing that she's under a spell and delivering an almost exact description of sexually subjugating mind control techniques (including having the demonstration occur before an assembled audience, which mirrors our standard dreams of being exposed naked at a school exam). Coincidence?

Maybe nyoets, for if there was a blueprint for mind control it would probably be geared to work towards reproducing--as close as possible--synchronicity, the iconography of normal subconscious dreaming, and the mechanics of sexual repression, allowing the programmers to tap into the unconscious' control state with maximum ease, 'speaking its language' so to speak. Programming their automaton women, the "standard pleasure model" ala BLADE RUNNER, DR. GOLDFOOT, etc. (see CinemArchetype #16 - the Automaton) to fall in love with whatever billionaire diplomat is breezing through town for a weekend, these girls wouldn't even know they had microphones in their teeth to record any business secrets that might get spilled in pillow talk, or which could be used for blackmail. They wouldn't even remember being there. Or suffocating him with a pillow and making it look like a heart attack.

I don't believe this was what CHITTY was trying to achieve (then again, Walt Disney was a 33-degree Mason) but it shows you that once you let this paranoid stuff into your mind, it mutates and transforms even dishwater dull children's movies into rabbit holes of horrifyingly vast circumference. (full)

Caretake Sparkle: ROOM 237
October 1, 2013

Call the critics in ROOM 237 paranoid, overreaching, seeing too deeply, perhaps mildly schizophrenic, but at least they know how to look deeply.... deeply... into the Kubrick's crystal ball. And as long as it’s well written I’ll read good crazy film deconstructive analysis over lifeless, if intellectually advanced, Bordwell style 'post-theory' any day. To the average academic, a crazy person is someone whose words must by definition have no meaning; to Acidemic, a crazy person is someone uniquely aware of how awfully close death and blood and pain is to the surface of our skin-thin reality at every given moment -- he goes crazy because he can’t shut it out of his mind; it doesn’t go away after eight hours like it does for the humble tripper, or fade with some deep breaths like it does for the anxiety attack sufferer. So if it makes him unusually aware of how everything is connected, to the point he even sees connections where there aren't any, well, maybe we're not digging deep enough. Maybe our teeth really do contain hidden microphones, but the dimension where that happens is far beyond ours. Somewhere advanced 8th dimensional beings are recording every human word and sigh for some massive Akashic library, using the teeth like crystal sets…. (full)

Daze of our Lies (or "As the Reichstag Burns"): SECRET HONOR, HITLER (1962), UFO HUNTERS, Lord Lhus!
(September '11)

If you surrender to Hall/Nixon's fever dream rant (and you may as well since there's nothing else going on in the film) you enter a pretty spooky world, a U.S. with the curtains ripped back to reveal giant white owls devouring a pile of gutted mice and money. Presidents like Nixon (and now Obama) are just straw dogs set up to take all the shit the manipulated American public cares to volley after being robbed and deluded by the previous office holders (who conveniently step down right before it hits the podium). Watergate was Nixon's way of reversing the straw dog parabolic mirror. Instead of the plan to throw Nixon to the wolves so his puppeteer overlords could sneak off to the inky darkness of the Bohemian Grove's towering redwoods, Dick snags up the strings by pretending to fall off the stage, derailing their entire evil plan... for now.

Meanwhile we see the paintings of Eisenhower, Lincoln, Jefferson on the oval office walls, and they all seem twisted and arcane, as if swirling reptilian pan-dimensional aliens were, even now, within the confines of a portrait on television on television, writhing and breathing and corrupting the deepest tissue of man's democracy with Martian spider eggs(full)

CinemArchetype V: The Human Sacrifice
(Feb. 28, 2012)
In the movies the sacrificial subject creates a great unease because it hits so close to home; the death is intrinsically tied into the act of viewing itself. The tribe always gathers to watch the sacrifice, otherwise what's the point? Watching these sacrifices now (i.e. slasher film killings, etc.) stirs up deep archetypal responses from our past lives still seeing through the two-way crystal ball eye. If the film is clever about it, the whole process sneaks up on us and suddenly, too late to do back out, we feel the big black body bag suddenly close over our heads and the credits roll us right into the cremation furnace; to our horror, our friends regard our anguished pleas with the same ambivalent mix of compassion, gratitude (better us than them), and morbid curiosity, we felt looking at all the other victims. Sometimes we're led by the nose ring of desire, sometimes we're manacled unwillingly to the Satanic altar, either way it's like a spin the bottle game where sooner or later the bottle is going to point to us... and then when it does we're always hoping for that last minute rescue and when that last minute's up we try one last gambit: take my wife, please. If that doesn't work, we try to substitute our children, our friends, anyone! And all those members we would have so willingly held down had the bottle not pointed at us now hold us down. We can't even complain it's not fair, since we've already killed so many in just this same way to avoid being killed ourselves. Every cult member knows this truth - every innocent drop of blood spilled is just another interest payment on the massive carnivorous debt we owe that dark insatiable thing below.

The Primal Scenesters: TWIN PEAKS
Nov. 2016

Consider the implication in a lot of these stories (THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING in particular) that deep cover memory repression of dark events provides the current that activates the dark ghost 'residual energy' captured in the walls, so that traumatic moments in the past keep repeating. That energy stays there, up for grabs to anyone with the right wireless router to tap into. And who has that router? Free-floating demonic spirits--formless and powerless initially, like inactive ions or dried-up flies in the corners and basement doorways--the trauma recorded in the stone provides the energy jolt back into corporeal existence (on some higher or lower frequency from the spectrum of most human's perception). Be the energy coming from the trauma of past dark crimes or--in the case of poltergeists--boys or girls hitting puberty, the huge amount of psychic disturbance shocks the inert magnetic anomaly some choose to call Satan into our dimensional spectrum.

In other words, incest or similarly abominable crimes are like a wave generator that gets the boat of consciousness bobbing, allowing the usually unseen barnacles on the lower hull to rise above sea level. Thus the unseen barnacles whisper to sleeping seamen above them through the wood, bidding them to obscenely vile doings. (full)

Dentist Chair Don Juan: Love Radio and the Scaly Father
(C-Influence - March 21st, 2011)
...mystical visions can trick you... In September of 2006 I was meditating one afternoon after work, when I felt the sky and wall dilate open behind me an a giant electromagnetic hand touched my shoulder, enlightening me instantly in a profound holy 'beyond duality' glow. For two months I was completely egoless and in tune with love for my fellow man. But I got carried away, got cocky as  cult leader, and would up making a pass at this girl I was infatuated with, too soon, and who--rather expertly-- rejected me, depositing me in a vast swarm of subway commuters so that I couldn't get over her to try and kiss her goodbye--I saw her wry smile (though she was too deft to reject me directly to the point I might get violent or sullen-- a real pro!) and I felt that inner God voice I'd been following (and which had led me to all sorts of secret gifts prior to) sneering and laughing at me the whole subway ride home. I was so shaken and abashed I missed my stop and rode it to the end of the line. That laughter was heartless and terrifying. It was as if everything from the hand of God moment had been a way of conning me into risking my soul for this girl and getting shot down -  it was Trickster God 101 shit - and I'd fallen right into it (Hamlet's friends were, you may remember, worried the king's ghost was just such a trickster). Now that I was in such heartsick misery, I felt the god feeding off me, like I was a slot machine that he'd been rigging up and now was paying off big time - all that holy soul energy he'd cultivated he now stripped off me like he was expertly rolling a sleeping drunk.

Now maybe I was just 'imagining' all this - it was 'magical thinking' my shrink would say; but at the same time, so what? If she'd done any LSD she'd know it's all magical thinking, the whole damned show of 'perception' -- we have to go on what feels more than real, especially if we're writers and artists who want to depict more than the boring surface of the world. Whole months can go by these days that don't seem as real as that godly hand on my shoulder, or the glowing demon in the bookshelf. There's a certain assumption among left-brained scientists that hallucinations are somehow 'less' than reality, but it's the opposite: they're more. They spill through when our perceptions overheat and dilate, letting in more information than our egoic inhibitors would like - it's like we're five and our mom passed out drunk and left out her pornography stash all over the floor so as we wake up and go downstairs we see things we were never meant to, by her, that is, until we're much older. Our senses have built-in 'blinders' on them that filter out up to 90% or so of all the information coming at us. Our visible world is just a swath on a spectrum. Hallucinations and visions could be said to be moments when the blinders fail and dreams and reality leak into one another-- but isn't this in a way a much more 'real' situation? What about dreams, then? As we spend 1/3 of our life sleeping aren't we rather too quick to dismiss everything we experience with our eyes closed as just fluffy nothing? Are Van Gogh's electric color bands considered hallucinations since 'sane' normal people don't see them? Matter is just vibrating energy waves. The image of them as solid, permanent objects is what is the illusion. Meanwhile memory and reflection change even the most concrete experiences, shrouding and distorting the more we record, write, and relay them. (full)

Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition
(Oct. 2009)

Made at a time when psychedelic drugs had changed the face of American culture, LET'S SCARE .... DEATH (or LSD!) is nothing short of elegant in the way it blurs the line between subjective and the “real" to demonstrate how paranoia can bend the nature of reality itself, exposing even the most realistic objectivity as a paranoid conspiracy. Polanski set the bar high for this in ROSEMARY, by having Mia Farrow's paranoia be utilized to cast doubt on the reality of her situation, even though at the same time as we know the supernatural is behind it all. Rosemary and Jessica prove you can unsplit the difference between the real and the delusional, and that in fact, the difference is--as quantum physics proves--all in your head. (full)

(July 10, 2010)

Take it from me, the first time you run into 'The Lollipop Guild' (while astrally traveling the psychedeli-brick road) is enough to give even the gutsiest space cowboys the yips. They're like those little weird demon guys in the bottom corners of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which scared me as a four year-old (back when first hearing the full alien weirdness of Harrison's sitar on side B, was terrifying beyond any palpable physical threat). When in college I began to read the work of the pioneering psychonaut Terence McKenna on 'the machine elves' -- common mushroom and DMT hallucinations-- small, elvin beings that exist in alternate dimensions but are nonetheless real, dancing in lockstep unison as they paint the plurality of worlds onto the time/space canvas like a curtain of slow motion paint bristle soft shoe that's hilarious yet terrifying, joyous yet disturbing. When I saw them during my own travels in college (and after), they were even wearing plaid, just like the Guild (which came first, is of course your immediate question - did I see them like that because of the movie or did the movie costume designers dress them based on patterns from their unconscious?!!) Mine had garden hoes instead of lollipops and lacked that terrible gold hair, but otherwise - yeesh. Good thing I'm a drinking man. Or was. I'd nah go down that road again unarmed. 
Thus as an LSD-quaffing college kid I found the living link wherein Eastern mysticism, indigenous shamanic vision quests, and Western schizo paranoia are all linked. When I learned that the Monarch 7 program used Oz imagery during their hypnotic programming, I wasn't a bit surprised. But in thinking about it, I also wonder where the line between hypnotic programming and mythic archetypal psychology intersect. Saying the iconography of Oz is used in a ritual that is itself possibly fiction, makes it the definition of myth (in my mind) come into focus as a narrative both true and untrue, a 'possible fiction' or a reflection of some truth so large normal reality cannot encompass it (full)


Blue Testament: History Channel's Hot Hot Hell. 
(DV, 2011)

Occult Streams of the Amazon: 13 Prime Witchcraft-y Recommendations:
Blood-Orgy of the She-Devils (1973), Haxan (1922), Southbound (2015), Witchouse (1999), Satan's School for Girls (1973), The Church (1989), Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), Voodoo Man (1944), Chandu and Magic Island (1934), Little Witches (1999), Mark of the Witch (2014), The Eternal (1998), etc.
(Oct. 2016)

Guide to Cable's Paranormal / Ghost-Hunting TV Shows

(DP - August 2012)

Rite of Passage - the Archons begin their Feb 2013 chi/soul energy harvest

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Angels of Death VIII: The Good, the Bad, and Beyond

Part of Acidemic's ongoing series, here rounding up another 15 cool broads, evil characters unafraid to rip a man's manhood clear out like a weed without needing to be assaulted first. They're not victims, even from the get-go, their avengers aren't just compromises between a once wild script and a star who gets all self-righteous about firearms, or manipulates situations through tears or accusatory whining so she can bring tears and accusatory whining to her role. They don't have to get all higher ground mortified when they first kill someone, throwing the gun or knife down as if it ruined, rather than just saved, their life. They are Lilith, Medusa, Asherah, Lamia and the Queen of the Night. Be they good, evil or beyond good and evil, we celebratese the deadly dames who don't need a personal reason to decimate whole rows of frats or snickering jock locker rooms. Kill! Kill! 

It's a sad thing that classics like FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS were one-offs for their auteurs, cult hits now that came and went at in theaters and drive-ins without a chance to generate buzz. Their rarity indicates the difficulty convincing the microphallic patriarchy of  America to not be deathly afraid of women who aren't afraid of men. Patriarchy be so quaked, they had to have a whole censorship code changed them from unpunished maneaters to devoted wives and Better Homes & Garden martyrs. The censors were mostly gone by the 70s, but audiences punished Jack Hill for SWITCHBLADE (it bombed under its original title, THE JEZEBELS, a title that I think sank its chances, and then they switched the name right as the grassroots word was getting out about it so now people were looking for the JEZEBELS in the paper and not finding it). Meyer's reward for PUSSYCAT was only enough money to switch to color and follow relaxed censorship into softcore nudist bedhopping comedies, where the girls are still refreshingly aggressive but they don't run over people while issuing flatly shouted quips - more's the pity. 

And, as I say a lot, good luck finding those TV shows that reimagine the world as a matriarchy with men subservient - STAR MAIDENS or ALL THAT GLITTERS anywhere. Even John Carpenter was punished with a major flop when he depicted a Martian matriarchy in GHOSTS OF MARS. He hasn't made another film of any note since (you can't really count THE WARD, as that just seems like hackwork). Meanwhile dumbasses like Zak Snyder sink fortunes into junk like SUCKER PUNCH that try to show badass chicks but just show a thin glaze of empty schoolgirl fetishism over a mile wide subtext of deep-seated misogyny. What a waste of time, talent and money. 

Times are still tough, man, despite the strides --so cool lady characters who don't take any shit, who step hard and don't have some liberal reticence towards using violence against the thick animus-dominated idiocy of their peers--they must be celebrated! Luckily there's plenty to celebrate, so here's another round-up of 15 badass female characters and actresses who embody these too rare principles. Salut! Vive les femmes forte!

the beyond:
1. Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman - 

The tone may be a slightly too self-aware, but that doesn't stop this college campus Scream 2 x Groundhog Day horror-comedy hybrid from being wittily thrilling, thanks largely to the self-reliant, confident performance of relative newcomer Jessica Rothe in the lead. Forced to live the same day and night over and over -- it starts waking up with a post-blackout hangover in a strange freshman's dorm room and ending in her death at the hands of some maniac in a baby mask--it's only after she moves from wryly snooty sorority girl to a more balanced compassionate person to change the loop. Finally willing to go the extra mile to throw the pillow under the frat pledge about to pass out and hit the ground in the middle of the quad and not be bitchy to pledges, she's like Billy Murray meets that girl you used to love to drink with in college. As with another strong-female centered horror film of a few year's back, the Diablo Cody-scripted, Karyn Kusama-directed horror film, Jessica's Body, the girls are the strong characters, the boys in the supporting roles; and the boy who ultimately wins her love is a shock to her vacant sisters (technically she's way out of his league, but we like him since he sports the poster from Criterion's Repo Man above his desk, knows the names of all the movies her situation evokes, and doesn't take advantage when she's drunk). 

Meanwhile, don't forget someone in a baby-faced mask (the school mascot) is still out to kill her, and no matter what she does, this killer finds her and offs her before the night is out. Again. Soooo Buddhist.

One of the things that makes Rothe's character such a badass is unlike 89% of her movie peers, she's not the least bit interested about currying cute boy's favor or elevating her station in the mean girl hierarchy. That might not sound like a big deal but see this performance and realize just how rare that it, even for a Bechdel scorer. And once it hits her to investigate her enemies (there's quite a list), a bouncy montage song begins and she's snooping with the deftest of aplomb, intentionally dying when trails dry up and hardly giving a shit about the immanent pain. Gradually the noose tightens, leading her to a hospital corridor and hallway showdown, dead cops, and so forth, but always she's in control of her emotions, and looking good. Even her eventual romantic heterosexual pair bonding isn't a sell-out to the boy's club patriarchy but another step forward in her personal growth. It's so gradual yet so profound it becomes quite moving and it's to Rothe's credit that even on this transformative journey, involving many layers of subtle character gradations, she never wavers in her general air of assured triumph. Her growing compassion and self-respect only increases her ballsy courage, which only makes her Xmas Day Scrooge euphoria that much more engaging, even if--fighting wise--she's one of those who hits once, then runs, rather than hits again and again, until the killer is dead or unconscious. Can't have everything. But almost! 

2. Angela Pleasance as Emily Underwood

She's got a fine aura of eerie stillness, an alien face, perfectly round head with elf ears pointing out above her perfectly straight thin hair and such a strange assertive calm that you want to hang out with her even if you suspect she'll kill you ere you fall asleep, just because you know her and her dad (Donald, here as a dotty, lovable pencil-selling war vet) are undoubtedly a blast to be around, either on and off camera. While they're at the kitchen table, she sings weird, eerie little Wicker Man-ready children-folk songs and dotes on the friendly but misguided henpecked war hero (or so he says) played by Ian Bannen in one of the better segments of this Amicus anthology. Initially bonding with Pleasance over (fabricated) war stories he's soon won over by daughter Emily, to the point he disposes of his current family to make room for them. Generally, genuinely and totally, she's so good that when her segment is over we kind of lose interest in the rest of the stories, preferring to look her up in and see what else is out there with her name on it. So many 70s British folk-horror movies would have been better with her in them. She was in some Shakespeare and the gorgeously photographed Symptoms. But there she's just another cracked dame gettin' gaslit by her own suppressed lesbianism and latent schizophrenia. That ain't as fun, though she's great in it. And sure looks pretty.

3. Anitra Wash as Jill

With a unique energy and uncanny look that might make you think she's some alternate reality grown-up version of Virginia Weidler (the witty little sister in Philadelphia Story), Anitra Walsh stars as Jill, a sweet young co-ed lured into buying an old spell book and resurrecting a 300 year-old witch at a college party hosted by the reincarnation of the man who stood idly by while her ancestor was hung all those years ago. Some things never change, am I right, future self? Stuck like a canker to the lip of time, she kills some folks, and forces a pair doofuses to vow to submit to Satan body and soul. The boys need to interrupt her black magic initiation with, somehow, a disco ball and a silver cross. I don't know how such a thing can be, but Walsh seems to be having a great time, her voice slightly pitch-shifted so she sounds like one of the witches in Welles' Macbeth. 

The print on Amazon Prime is gorgeous HD - part of the Code Red catalogue which seems to have been imported sans fanfare onto Prime lock stock and B-roll barrel - a lot of it is un-color corrected but not MARK OF THE WITCH - it looks fantastic. The boys have that overfed mid-60s pre-hippy college kid vibe where the extent of emerging radicalism is still just slightly longer sideburns than usual, but Walsh is clearly enjoying herself, and feminist evil wins handily, for most of the running time anyway.

4.a. Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica
DUNE (1984) 
4.b Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth
MACBETH (1971)

Though for the first half of DUNE she wears her hair in an unflattering tricorne bun, when Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) and her son (Kyle McLachlan) crash into the desert of Arrakis, her hair comes flowing down over her dusty, ribbed burnt umber Fremen suit, mother and Kyle Mclachlan become a very attractive, well-dusted duo, the desert powder dabbling them in a nice powdery tactile grayness. She's taught son 'the weirding way' and--upon seeing the ease with which she defends herself and overpowers their security detachment--the manly man leader of the underground rebel colony asks her, the mom!, to train their armies! That's so badass. Not Jeffrey, but mom gets the official request. When she later gives birth it's to great Alicia Witt as the strange little mad-psychic homicidal imp (given far too little screen time compared to the endless gluttony and homo-sadism of the Harkonens). Alas, after this, Jessica goes bald, like her weird sisters. Even then, however, clad in drab Spanish-inquisition-style robes after birthing the Witt, Lady Jessica is still a badass.

As Lady Mcbeth in Polanski's 1973 film, Annis first appears happy, malevolently sinister only in an early reel of the Wicker Man sort of way. Her long golden hair free-flowing free against orange magic hour sun and thick clouds like a highlands fairy tale Druid nightmare, with her little snub of a nose and low resonant way with lines like: "this is the very painting of your fear", "screw your courage" and "your face is like a book in which one may read strange matters," Annis conveys a quiet, strong power that doesn't need to underline things and add histrionic flourish for the back rows (3). In other words, this is Shakespeare for the big screen, where the small gesture carries large. Especially enchanting is the way her eyes light up with pleased astonishment, like an infant might watch a balloon inflate for the first time---no sense of the cruelty and savagery on display as being anything but exciting--- as fighting dogs are set upon a baited bear (where they got the bear in Scotland I'm nah sure - they went extinct around the same time the play is presumably set. Maybe that was the last one? Nice going, dickweeds!)

Taken together almost as a part one and two, with Ladies Jessica and Macbeth Annis conveys a refreshingly young but assertive form of ladyship: regal without being stuffy, quiet without being meek; super sexy without being cheap, strange without being over the top, deadly without being callous. Alas, as is his wont, Lynch spends way too much time focusing on the blighted canckerous debauched evil of the Baron Harkonen --played with venomous over-the-top villainy by Kenneth McMillan as a kind of meth-addicted, gay, syphilis-stricken, over-the-top version of Michael Gambon's sadistic gourmand in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. 

And Shakespeare, well, don't forget that after the Banquo banquet scene, Lady M. fades to the background until she winds up insane and hallucinating. As I've written in the past, more films need to be made with such complicated ladies front and center. In Dune we get that, but Lynch is  clearly more comfortable with monstrous paters than he is with demure but lordly maters.

5. Angela Featherstone as Veronica Iscariot

Sure, Featherstone isn't the greatest actress in the world, but what she lacks anyone can learn; what she has--the ability to project complete confidence and emotional vacancy at the same time--is unteachable. Her flatline reading of dialogue like "I've always wanted to witness people coupling, Max, but I never thought it would move me so much," is so spot-on you realize better (or worse) actresses would never be able to match it --they'd either try to be sexy (and come off campy), imperious (and come off stuffy), mean (and come off buzzkill sour) or tough (and come off laughable), but Featherstone's assertive confidence and deadpan demeanor is so despite-itself sexy she gets away with the actor equivalent of murder, which is just right for Matthew Freeway Bright's genius tale of one of Satan's minions longing to explore the surface world of mortals (she winds up in an Americanized Romania - where the film was shot). And when she unfolds her true form--wings, horn, tail--after orgasm, just for her doctor lover, it is, despite the fakeness--or because of it in some Satanic school play directiness--reassuring, as is her matter-of-fact way with wrapping human hearts in newspaper to feed her dog Hellraiser. I've only ever seen that kind of deadpan female genius--commanding both adoration and respect--in German science fiction film female characters from the 70s (as in STAR MAIDENS in the west, ELEOMA and IM STAUB DER STERNE in the east). It's sad America has never been able to duplicate it. Why there wasn't a sequel (judging from the double title more than one was planned), I don't know, unless of course it's the damn patriarchy. (more)

6. Sheeri Rappaport as Jamie 

I imagine this tried to ride the success of the very similar high school girl clique coven flick, The Craft. Much as I like that film and much as critics disparage this one online (a scant 3.6 on imdb), I think I like Little Witches better. The only advantage The Craft has is Fairuza Balk and a gift for CGI snake hallucinations. Well, this one has a great evil witch performance too, from the lovely dark-haired Sheeri Rappaport, who rocks an insane midriff and bares her (thankfully un-augmented) breasts with diegetic abandon (but sans schoolgirl-fetish ickiness). While Balk was a scruffy little monster with wild eyes and a terrifying scruffy dirtbag edge, Rappaport is quite a dark heart-stealer, and the diegetic opposition is way less extreme. The good girls less good, the bad less bad, and the Skeet Ulrich douchebag factor not even present.  Instead this adheres more to a Satan's School for Girls format: set an all-girls boarding school (this time Catholic and less LA-baked), it's got a similar, setup but the only boy is an unobjectionably dumb hunk construction guy with the hair and demeanor of a zonked teenage Joe Dellsandro, whose excavation crew discovers a walled-off room under the campus rectory, within which waits a deep well/pit to caverns leading to the sea, and a gaggle of skeletons of missing girls from decades earlier. The (living) students left behind for Easter holiday (aka spring solstice!) are bored and under-chaperoned enough to find themselves returning to the uncovered room in the dead of night, again and again, driven to perform unholy rites for reasons that wouldn't make sense to the sober layman (dormant evil has the ability to prey upon your idle boredom and make you think summoning spirits is your own idea - don't let your ego be fooled by demons mimicking your unconscious). What they invoke is an ancient witch, who Jamie dubs "Miss Illuminati 1896." Man, Jamie's so cool. 

Typically the more conventional sites spit on our Witches. Rather hostilely, Arrow in the Head notes "the sex is too soft (no lesbian scenes or sex scenes) to satisfy the [XXX] hounds and the horror too weak to thrill the genre fiends. I don’t even know if the film is supposed to be a comedy or not." But to some of us, oh Arrow, that's what makes it great! Once it's one thing or the the other, a comedy, a sex film, a teenager PG spook show or an R-rated gore fest, it's boring. What Little Witches has that's unique is its comfort with playing in-between the lines. I also appreciate the hard-to-duplicate naturalistic Hawksian overlapping rapport between the girls, and the film's refreshing freedom from all the typical characterization shorthand we associate with the boarding school supernatural misadventure. In the midst of it all, watching Rappaport's Jamie go from just Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted wild to truly beyond good and evil Lovecraftian monstrous is really a thrill (I'd go more into detail, but the damned thing isn't on streaming anymore - WTF!)

the bad:
7. Hope Stansbury as Monica 
(1972) Dir. Andy Milligan

Perhaps there's nothing quite as matter-of-taste as Andy Milligan, the theater geek's Ed Wood, a master of getting Victorian era value out of random corners of modern NYC and London (actresses in Victorian era costume walking past historic building in an off-peak hour so there's no anachronistic pedestrians or traffic - clever lad). Like some poor cousin to Dark Shadows (with more gore), most scenes are single shot set ups between two hammy actors trying to stretch short dialogue exchanges to tedious length, no matter how slight the onus, if you'll forgive my Latin. When enough scenes accrue, there's a rushed, poorly edited climax of gore and blood that happens so fast that after the glacial pace of the rest your head spins along with the camera. Milligan's habit of shooting on 16mm then blowing up the final work to 35, wisely but not too well, gives all the whites a death green pallor and the costumes, lousy with chintz, often take on the creased appearance of being made out of cardboard. It's on Amazon Prime, along with a host of other Milligan "gems" (see item #12 on the 'Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime" list, THE BODY BENEATH)  

But in the midst of it all is this overly eye mascara-ed madness is a willowy brunette named Hope Stansbury. She plays Monica, the wild jealous daughter in the family of repetitive werewolf decadents. A sexy morass of Jill Banner in Spider Baby and Mary Woronov in Hollywood Boulevard, whether flitting around taunting her chained up wolf brother, or whirling out of a closet trying to stab her sister only to fall and burn her back on a cross, or heading downtown to buy a horde of man-eating rats so she can shout "Tear 'em up!" as was the big catch phrase of 1972 in case you forgot (1), she's sensational.  No matter how horrid the rest of the film is, there's some Woodsian splendor in watching this emotionally arrested wolf woman posing as what she imagines a sophisticated Dickensian upper crust adult would behave like while buying the rats in a disreputable back room; and there's the great sun-drenched outdoor scene between the emotionally arrested Monica and her similarly childlike neighbor friend Rebecca (Lillian Frith) as--in the same real time scene--they move seamlessly from affirming undying friendship confessions to Monica cutting Rebecca's arms off with an axe since she started implying blackmail. Hurrah for small miracles!

8a. Ania Pieroini as Ann, the Babysitter
8b. Ania Pieroni as Music Student / Witch
INFERNO (1980)

Playing more or less the same enigmatic character in each film, Pieroni rarely speaks, but her eyes speak volumes. Just seeing her drive by or appear in the music class in tandem with the letter in INFERNO is to get an exciting chill that unfortunately the rest of the movie can never quite match. It might be her best role, just staring at Mark Elliott in music class with her white cat - then disappearing in a gust of wind. She shows up in an array of Argento films in small roles, from a catty fellow ballet student in SUSPIRIA to a shoplifter stalked by a horny deranged homeless vagrant (and then killed by someone else) in TENEBRAE. Though that film is marred by a 'just doesn't get it' ponderous score from Rick Wakeman (he's no Goblin, he). In all her work for Argento she has a wild, untamed ferocity that beams out of her bewitching eyes like a cat's claw slashing open reality. Her American equivalent for this is perhaps only Brinke Stevens, but with that dark allure cranked to eleven.

In HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), Pieroni gets a substantially bigger but equally enigmatic role (though as so often happens - she's eventually killed). As the nanny for a family moved into the haunted house of a deranged undead doctor still working in the locked basement, her ominous silence contrasts with the incessant generic small talk of Lucy, the family's neurotic mother. Anna's eyes seem to say 'cut the crap' with every glare: "What a shame you didn't come with us to the restaurant last night" Lucy says, for example, as Anna is cleaning the floor. This gets a knowing, vaguely contemptuous and cuckolding reaction shot stare that could be read many ways, as its no doubt meant to - is there something going on between Anna and her husband, or is she just paranoid? Later, Lucy comes out onto the street with a bag of groceries and we think we see Norman driving by in the car, but he doesn't see her or pull over to help her, and just drives on. Did Lucy drive the car and he stole it, leaving her to walk home with two bags of groceries through the woods in order to have some quick tryst time with Anna?

It would be unfair to make Fulci account for the lack of resolution in all this unspoken 'let's drive the wife insane' red herring anymore than in the 'almost affair' between Richard Harris and Monica Vitti In Antonioni's Red Desert. There's no trope or cliche that sits still in this uniquely Italian form of heroine/censor gaslighting; the things that normally allow us to situate ourselves as viewers into what kind of movie genre tropes to anticipate are missing, which again maddens yet placates the censors, so a paranoid neurotic hausfrau narrative hovers in the air. If you submit to the alienation ambiguity as intentional, it makes the later horror events seem further and further abstracted, so that when they finally cohere from the ambiguity, they come too close to home for easy laughing off, kind of the way an actual nightmare works. Like Antonioni's Blow-up or Godard's Prenom Carmen, House seems to exist in a molten state, a film ready to become any genre, follow any thread, but finding that all threads in the end, are broken, lead back to the starting spot, or merge into the infinite (and what's the difference?). Is death really the same as waking up? Somehow, though, Pieroni's eyes are still watching us, still somehow mocking and daring us all at once. (more)

9. Amber Heard as Miss Antonio

Amber Heard (i.e. the Mandy Lane that All the Boys Love) revels in her every frame a CIA double agent, playing handler to Danny Trejo's Machete (at the request of president Charlie Sheen - if only) all while busy snagging the title of Miss San Antonio Texas at some never-seen beauty pageant. She's so statuesque in that form-fitting blazing red pageant gown she exceeding the known limits of badass drive-in babe potential. I'd go so far as to say Heard might well be our century's Tiffany Bolling! She's the most badass female in the film (and one of Rodriguez's strengths is that he usually packs in a lot of them), so badass in fact that even in her glittering, gorgeous gown, sash and tiara she's cooler and tougher than Michelle Rodriguez in all-black and eyepatch. I was rooting for Heard in their big final showdown; Rodriguez seems--as in the Furious movies--to be just marking time, making weird smiles like her teeth are trying to escape. Heard, on the other hand, never met a cliche she wasn't happy to rend to shreds with just a wave of that flawless hair. 
10. AnnaLynne McCord as Liza
Sheila Vand as Monica
68 KILL! (2017)

Played in a lion mane of a hair-do with eyes wild by AnnaLynne McCord, Liza is a super confident, cash-hungry predator but she seems to love her doe-eyed boyfriend Chip, to actually care about him, despite leaving him ravaged by her love punches and claws of passion. After a long crazy car chase (after he rescues and runs off with an innocent witness she's about to consign to a harrowing death) she's still ready to forgive him because she's had a wild time chasing him. She's the alpha bitch as she later explains to her new rival--the gravel voiced meth-addled den mother Monica (Sheila Vand), a kind of Daria from Hell, tweaking the cooler-than-thou punk alpha bitch persona and elevating it to a whole new plateau of deadpan madness and euphoric meth-spiked malice-for-malice's-sake. The shocks keep escalating until even we, the jaundiced audience--so used to these kind of outlaw couples cable movies--pop our eyes open and begin whooping for joy, and genuine unease. (full)

11. Terry Liu as Princess Dragon Mom
INFRA-MAN (1975)

All hail Princess Dragon Mom. A shape-shifting, whip-snapping, go-go boots wearing master of monsterdom! A Shaw Brothers version of Japanese Kaiju kids movie, INFRA-MAN is wisely wrought with a vicious villainess or two (Many of the Shaw Brothers' films are remarkably feminist - with badass females on both sides and in the middle of their sagas). Dragon Mom is so cool all other evil supervillains of kaiju movies pale in comparison. Sending out her spies, monsters and hypnotized sleeper agents over to Infra-Man HQ to steal away their big scientific genius for her own nefarious ends, Liu projects real menace, and a refreshingly direct approach to her evil deeds. At the same time you can see her chasing some Buggle around a Sid and Marty Kroft- style evil lair one minute, chaining Batman to a water heater after stunning him with poison lipstick the next, then blowing /herself up to Godzilla-size and becoming a dragon to level Hong Kong after that. She's versatile! And her monster minions are great too, all of them in a row, waving their appendages around in great paroxysms of relish in their own evil while she issues orders from her grand psychedelic throne. 

And when it's time for her to fight, she just turns into a flying monster to make it less awkward for our gallant hero to kick her, which is good because by then he's starting to sag along his sponge foam shoulder padding so it's time to call it a day. If she wasn't enough, Dragon Mom has compatriot hot female with a dinosaur skull helmet and big eyes painted on her hands that shoot lasers. Sigh, If we had DVDs in the 70s growing up, I would have watched this every single day after school and love it more than Ultra-Man, Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot, and Space Giants combined, and I'd be having all sorts of 'phallic stage' sadomasochistic daydreams over Princess Dragon Mom and her snake-like whip arm. All I can do now that I'm all old, discovering this in vivid color on Amazon Prime, is wistfully hit 'play from beginning' one more time (I watch it at least three times a year). Either way, sharp, abrasive voice or no, Dragon Mom rawks

the good:
12. Louise Marleau as Col. Stella Holmes

Got to love a movie about NYC getting hit by a massive influx of giant alien seed pods (shipped over in containers from Costa Rica as alleged coffee) that explode your body outward if you're too close to one when the randomly burst open, all meant to evoke ALIEN's eggs (and look similar), and like Fulci's ZOMBIE is part of a whole wave of early-80s / late-70s Italian horror films set in both Manhattan at the zenith of its crime, grime, and poverty and some sunny third world locale. But hey, Goblin did one their wildest scores, Cozzi is in a rare coherent mood, and a cool, relatively mature Louise Marleau plays the chief investigating operative--Col. Holmes. She runs the NYC CDC and leads a special team of an astronaut (laughed out of the service for telling a story of green eggs on Mars) and a city police detective down south to the Costa Rican coffee plantation, disguised as importers. Once they all arrive, the two men come to admire and respect this lady, even as they kind of good-naturedly jostle for pole position, and Marleau handles the job of colonel as to the academy born, taking a slap from the astronaut with gusty aplomb, "if I have to die with the rest of the world, I want to have a nice dress on and clean underwear" which makes the extended scene where she's trapped in the bathroom with one of the egg/spore things, while the men wonder where she is and she pounds at the door, all the more painful (even capable as she is there's nothing she can do except try to slowly screw the door off the hinges while the egg makes weird noises and gets ready to burst open). With more than a few women in high-powered positions (including the evil alien's right hand woman and the lead scientist at Defense 'Team 5' ), this is a feminist-friendly revamp of two or three familiar genres twisted up in a sleek, fast-moving product that will remind discerning fans of everything from Species 2 to Lifeforce -- and that thumping, ominously breathing Goblin score  spackles in every crack with sizzling electric portent and woozy diegetic electronic spore/egg breathing noises (are they diegetic? who knows?), and the quality of Holme's character and assertive but unbitchy performance make it weirdly endearing, especially once the Martian cyclops shows up.

13. Tammy Lauren as Alexandra Amberson

Though clearly modeled after Sarah Connor, Alexa Amberson is her own woman and quite a character in this FX-laden Wes Craven-esque genre hybrid. A genuine professional (art restoration management at a Sotheby's-style auction house) she's a single independent woman not defined by her family or the absence of one, who's able to build friendships with men wherein her youth, intellect and charm is lubricant to social-business interaction, hardly just a green light for one lame hitting on after another. Her platonic BFF gently pushes she values his friendship too much to go farther (2) and--as with the men in her business world (Robert Englund as a highbrow gallery curator, for example), she's able to let them down easy, without damaging their tender egos. Instead, for relaxation, she coaches a varsity girls' basketball team after work and does a pretty damned good job. Lauren really seems to have looked into how to do this, though it's just 'character development' in a horror film, her connection with the girls and investment in the game feels lived in and earned, like she actually embedded herself in the team for research. And when she needs advice on what a djinn is she doesn't go to some old dude in a library, she goes to frickin' badasss Joanna Cassidy as the requisite archeological expert - damn right - a woman!

As with Julien Sands below, the idea at work is that this very ancient and terrible being is out to wreck human life, or all life, or the universe, or god, or at least create hell on earth, or some mischief, and this heroine doesn't have a time traveling good guy to assist her here, she has to do it all more or less herself. Aside from some fleeting aide from the BFF, some cops and art security guards, it's her vs. an all-powerful evil genie. And she ultimately wins through guile and a deep understanding of the nature of Monkey's Paw gotchas. That she ends up entertaining her BFF's incessant attempts to be 'more' is the only drawback, in my grandiose opinion. But such is life --at least he's not a dick about it.

14. Lori Singer as Kassandra 
WARLOCK (1989)

Another one of those 'hot but doesn't know it' vaguely klutzy girls who tends to talk to themselves in the second person while staring in the mirror, Singer gets a lot of flak over her dazed approach to acting but I love her, especially here, where she brings an earnest natural loping grace where you can kind of tell she plays a lower registered string instrument in real life (in this case, she's a prodigy cellist). She has that kind of deer-in-the-headlights sweetness with a dash of Nordic strong-jawed strength we all want from our Sarah Connor-modeled "ordinary girls compelled into extraordinary deeds by a guy from the future or the past who's pursuing some unstoppable time-traveling fiend" movies. Singer holds her own against two quality British actors who each know just how to have maximum fun with their roles - Richard E Grant as the fur-clad hero (with whom she has a good friendship bond with a tinge of romance that goes unfulfilled, to the film's credit) and Julian Sands, who gives the evil warlock the maximum playful drollery - terrifying in his disregard for human life, but endearing that he never loses a certain Vincent Price-y enchantment with his own odium (his malice comes not from hate of victims but from love of the malice itself). Also, got to love the instant rapport formed when Grant's witch hunter instantly breaks through to the Amish father who's been waiting for generations for this moment, with the Amish farmer's son all weirded out that what he thought was just an inter-generational superstition is real, but that the dad just rolls right into it as if the Con Ed man is here to read the meter.

And Sands' warlock goes right to the source, a hip new age bookstore and sham spiritualist (Mary Woronov!) for his link-up with his spiritual father Satan, who gives him his big purpose in life (assemble the grimoire). I like the lack of sexism from dark ages witch hunter Grant, who never tries to shelter Kassandra or keep her out of danger; and when he's forced to stay behind and give aid to the stricken Amish dude, it's Singer who must take out after the evil Warlock as he tries to escape on a passing train. Following along (even as she rapidly ages through a very terrifying spell), trying to get her charm bracelet back, hammering nails into his footprints and sending poor Warlock to the sandy ground in howling pain - I wish Noomi Rapace could watch Sand's brilliance with handling agony here- how we believe and feel his pain but at the same time can hear he's having fun with it - as an actor. After all, Noomi - we don't go to movies like this to be bummed out! But try telling that to her in Prometheus

15.  Alyson Croft as Inspector McNulty:

Howard Hawks would be delighted at the idea of McNutly, a hardboiled police chief from the future inhabiting the body of a young girl ancestor of his in the distant past (our present), popping over to issue orders and updates to her/his similarly time-traveled officer, Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson). Croft's letter-perfect "don't make a big deal out of the fact I'm a ten year-old girl or I'll bust you down to traffic detail" droll way with the role almost overshadows the deadpan cool of Thomerson, no easy feat, especially as we watch Croft herself leap through time via the seven year-gap between the two films. Incidentally, both have other strong roles for women in them, including a breakout early work from Helen Hunt as the girl Deth falls for in our present, and Megan Ward as his future wife sent back in the past on a parallel mission hunting a different set of 'trancers' who winds up stuck in a suspicious mental institution (until her zingy rescue). Add McNulty, now a teenager, riding her bike over after breakfast on a Sunday afternoon with the news on the latest trancer movements-- Croft still displaying all the more that deadpan chief of detectives no-bullshit nonchalance--and you have one sequel I'll be happy to watch again real soon. The sight of these actors kicking it on the front lawn of a massive estate in their robes and suburban wear, as a mysterious trancer hit squad comes slowly at them--disguised as landscapers--is one of the highlights of the Charles Band catalogue, not for anything in particular, but in the genius laid back way where, as in the best Hawks' settings, we feel like we're there hanging out with people who are both cool and good and all is right with the world even though (or maybe because) the abyss is never more than a false step away.

1. Willard was a huge hit, hence all the Kiss of the Tarantula-style bullied loner raises flock of ravenous vermin to do his or her bidding and off the oppressors movies that came right before the Jaws craze. In fact, one might speculate that Jaws itself was the spawn of Willard or at least its children. Funny how thoroughly then, Willard and sequel Ben and the later remake are ignored by both mainstream and classic fans. Personally I haven't even seen it because frankly, I don't like rats or Bruce Davison or movies about anguished loners... too close to home? 
2. Longtime readers know I feel strongly on this issue, lazy writers and inadequate males presume the 'just friends' card is code for either 'she's not interested and stringing you along' in which case you're a dope for hanging around, or on the other foot, 'he secretly likes you and is just too shy to ever bust a move' in which the girl thinks you're secretly gay or something and winds up shacking up with some guy who's beneath her because she's bored of waiting for you to man up. The result of this either/or in movies is that one's lovers are made jealous and insecure when one has BFFs of the opposite sex --the final result of the mainstream media's maligning of the male-female platonic friendship when it can be so very valuable (another trick to keep the feminine hamstrung?) All my friendships with women are either long-lasting and full of good will (because they stayed platonic), or I slept with them and now we cross the street to avoid each other, despite both being cosmopolitan people of the world who swore we wouldn't let anything ruin our friendship. I'd rather keep a friend for life than a lover for a night, though not all dudes feel that way, or at least don't say so - guy peer pressure being what it is. Ah well, check out my middle sub-rant on Babes of Wrath, or read Robin Wood's excellent treatise Sexual Narratives in Popular Film.
3. No knock on Jeanette Nolan in Welles' 48 version, whose thick accent and expressionistic postures impress me more and more over repeat viewings)
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