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 imdb.com 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)

1 comment:

  1. After seeing Inframan Gaia knows how many times, you have finally made me realize that the awful dubbing has kept me from fully appreciating Princess Dragon Mom. Why did the best character have to get the worst voice? As usual you've given me a lot of other things to see. These write-ups are always enlightening and damn fun to read.


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