Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Happy Birthday Luigi Cozzi! HERCULES (1983), its Sequel (and the Cozzi Canon)

Luigi Cozzi is 72 years.... young today. Though he's not made a film in some time, how nice is it he's lived to see his most fertile period become immortalized, his place in the pantheon of trash auteurs assured thanks to the rise of cults like Alamo and boutique labels like Shout Factory? Truly a birthday wish denied to those who died too soon, like Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. Ignored, too poor to stay high, as if their cults couldn't rise except like not-so-virgin springs from their self-despoiled corpses. Today Cozzi drifts merrily through the DVD extras, palling around with Quentin and his great and terrible canon is, for the most part, available freely and without bitterness to all mankind (barring a few later works like Paganini Horror [1989] and The Black Cat/Demon 6 [1991]).

I mention Ed Wood for a reason: like his Bride of the Monster, Plan Nine and Night of the Ghouls, Cozzi's "best" work was all churned out in a very short period, approx. 1978-83--Stretching from Star Wars-influenced Starcrash in 1978 through to Alien-influenced Contamination in 1980, to the Conan-influenced Hercules in 1983 (and its sequel in 1985)As with Wood, we laugh at their budget-breaking wild flights of imagination, the way they go racing through gonzo set-ups with clear love of the sources they borrow from (not just the aforementioned, but the Golden and Seventh Voyage(s) of Sinbad, the 1936 Flash Gordon, and Clash of the Titans. Though possessing no ability to match them in effects, atmosphere, writing or pacing, we can watch Cozzi's films, over and over in ways we may not be able to do with the originals, or 'better' movies because his love of those referenced films is so palpable; more than just rip-offs or homage, they become like pagan idols, some kind bowing to down to the celluloid image, the kind of thing we see in the DIY recreations in Michel Gondry's work, or that 1989 Mississippi homegrown student film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Unlike so many of his less genius contemporaries, Cozzi would rather fail on a cosmic stage than just show some fake-breasted frizzy-haired lady racing around an empty soundstage warehouse meant to represent the loading bay or prison or engine room of the space ship for 80 minutes as she tries to find some hunched over extra in a spiky diving suit. Cozzi's films never skimp so. He zips around from planet to planet, from labor to labor, packing vignettes with savages, monsters, gods, demons, and scheming bearded kings, and most of all... lovely women in strong roles. There might be cleavage, but its not leered at, and it comes couched in stylish restructured costumes, and attached to strong, capable women.  Far ahead of the curve on that aspect, Cozzi gives us a bevy of strong women space captains, CDC colonels, witches, queens, goddesses, and agents of chaos magic.

So here's wishing you the best of birthdays, Luigi Cozzi. And to celebrate, a deep look into one of my recent discoveries, an unfairly ignored and forgotten relic from Cannon films in the wake of the post-CONAN sword and sorcery craze 

 HERCULES (1983)

When your only takable umbrage with a Cannon neo-peplum is a tacky corset worn by Sybil Danning (above) as the evil princess Adriana, then you know you are blessed by the refreshingly primitivist and un-tacky Coates once again.  File it, as I did, in my emergency reserves, right next to Plan Nine or Mesa of the Lost Women, something to bring on your laptop over Xmas when you need a break from your brother's loud shouting at Alexa to play various "An Eric Clapton Christmas" over and over. Most Hercules films have all sorts of unforgivable things that make them unpleasant to see once, let alone often (unless the gym muscle rainbow is enuff - even then 95% of the stuff on Prime is in the wrong aspect ratio). To get to the perfect 'all flaw' gem facets of lovely classics like  The Car, The Devil's Rain, and Ghosts of Mars a sword and sandal film  needs to have a wild imagination and a love of movies that overrides limitations. Better to try for a time lapse change from an old witch face to a lovely enchantress than to just cheat it out with a reaction shot. No matter if it doesn't quite work, and better to have a hydra --even if it only has three heads, none of which move, except to slightly raise or lower the necks to breathe fire--than to have no hydra at all. Better to have Hercules stand semi-transparently in the middle of outer space, flexing his mighty self, then to just see him rolling around in the dust behind De Paolis. In each instance of his 'effects' Cozzi all but salutes some older movie he's clearly in awe of. Like Tarantino, he's a true fan of the genre/s. And if you have find memories of making movies as a kid (or now) and love seeing the seams, ala Ed Wood (like a magic show where the wires are visible), then you love Cozzi.

By now you guessed it. I love Ed Wood, and Cozzi  too. I got the double-sided disc of Cozzi's Herc films last summer and I've already seen them bith four times. I still haven't been able to stay awake through the B-side (Adventures of...., the Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe of Herc sequels) but that's OK-- I liked what I saw, almost as more than what I didn't.
Alexa, play "Erich loves a Cozzi-clastic Christmas!"

The lightbulb claiming credit for electricity-
don't trust it's wattage down the mossy stair
to the couch-warm coffin,
where the slightest misstep is certain life!

Cozzi, the Coates-holding footman never snickers.
The electricity from his cracked glass shell,
the brilliance from his busted filament's flicker,
carries Tesla madness, not Edison's argon sanity!
Heed his gonging clarion bell,
the way to the woe-free Lite-Brite city!

If you are afraid to eat the peach,
Cozzi cushions your woeful rise,
like dough left in a proving bin but briefly,
yet as as as leaden as the zeppelin's air,
(by which I mean hydrogen), each new pair of eyes
flying up by fathom-steep dark stairs, in shock, in awe,
in some surprise. What the fuck has Cozzi left there?

Mirella D'Angelo (Tenebrae) as Circe, the witch
disciple of Athena who helps Hercules
See, Hercules isn't just about a muscle-head smashing foes, there's also lessons in astronomy: we learn the planets were formed from broken shards of Pandora's water jar; we learn how the constellations got their names and shapes (they're all things Hercules threw into deep space during fits of rage), and that the four elements are: night, day, matter, and air. These planets and jars are all shot through with color spectrum prisms, flashing lights overlay people so they all fade like Bert I. Gordon giants. (If you get that reference, this is the movie for you).

We learn that the gods were the first beings fashioned on the earth, and they settled on the moon to better observe and judge the tests of mankind. Thus we find Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli!) refereeing a bout betwixt the astringent Hera (Rossana Podesta) and the compassionate Athena (Delia Boccardo) over Hercules' journey, sending in their respective servants on earth to aid or abet Hercules on his epic quest. Perfectly cast as the mighty Hercules, with his huge jaw, dead set against the world, Lou "The Hulk" Ferrigno (well-dubbed by familiar voice artist Marc Smith) has a gift, a way with seeming deep inside himself, unfazed by threats or challenges, but then reacting to stimulus with the sudden reckless energy of a five year-old. His eyes squint to indicate focus on some magical spectacle and widen when roused to sudden violence. When he hears his mother has been slain he drops his harness and shouts "WHAT?" like he just saw his car getting stolen, and goes racing across the fields with these little but super fast steps like a six year-old might run from a barking dog. He reacts quick, like a prize fighter as opposed to a dancer. In short, he is the perfect choice for Hercules because we like him, and he's not a good enough actor to hide his real self from us, so we know he's trying hard, giving it his all, but not trying so hard he casts a dour pall over things.

As Herc's romantic lead/ princess-in-distress, Anderson spends most of her scenes in sexy hanging white linens, wearing a trippy golden crown, natural breasts tastefully cupped by scallop shells (no leering, but beautiful side boobs seen only in passing) "sweet and submissive" thanks to the 'black lotus' (mmmm) waiting to be burned alive as "a bride" of Minos' captured firebird/phoenix. But both evil (agent of Hera) Danning and good (agent of Athena) D'Angelo are very much active in Hercules' life, as is, indirectly, Eva Robins as a glam chaos agent named Daedalus (above, left), with the ability to raise up giant monsters from an erector set series of toys atop her giant waxy head in the land between time and space. With her bat-winged gold lamé skullcap and a gold codpiece (carrying weird echoes of her 'heel'-work as the possibly trans girl in the flashback sequences of Tenebrae) its suitable that Daedalus, representing "chaos in the name of science! Science in the name of chaos!" collapses sexual boundaries while staying all the time beguilingly pretty, alighting the eyes of evil king Minos (William Berger) with the macabre delights of her monsters. As Daedalus tells him, time and space are relative, so that miniature mechanical toy monsters made by figures atop a normal skull size head can still grow as large as houses once 'subject' to the atmosphere of earth.

Though Cozzi stacks his decks with strong female characters there are also some cool characters on the male side, though their faces are often obscured by unconvincing beards: Gianni (Sartana!) Garko shows up in a crazy red and gold-winged refurbished centurion costume; William Berger (5 Dolls of an August Moon) is the evil Minos; Cassinelli should be familiar to Italian crime genre fans (though with his droopy white beard as Zeus he carries a kind of Linus Roche-ness); and Bobby Rhodes (the pimp in Demons) is the King of Northern Africa, who shows up on a rocky beach for one scene, after being called forth by Circe, to make a deal: Hercules will build his people a waterway in exchange for the magic chariot stashed in yonder cave ("and that's how, with the help of the Gods, Hercules created the great continents," intones the chorus-like narrator, "by separating Europe from Africa"). Rhodes has a pretty cool elephant skeleton litter, but Cozzi's budget couldn't swing a Pegasus, so mighty Hercules has to throw a big temple boulder out of orbit and have Circe fashion a magic rope to tie it to the chariot (there's a great stop motion bit where the rope ties itself into a very cool sailor's knot, seriously, that is some wild-ass knot). Soon Circe and Hercules are soaring across the solar system, completely out of our planetary orbit, being pulled along in an open air chariot by a giant.... rock. Does it get any better?  Lesser directors would never even dare try to get away with that, or using erector sets to make stop motion monsters (i.e. the budget didn't allow the clay most animators would put over the erector set frame).

As he did with Starcrash, Cozzi somehow even manages to get an A-list composer to deliver a dynamite full-bodied score to something that would normally be subject to "library" tracks. He got John Barry to outdo John Williams in intergalactic bombast with Starcrash. Here he gets the legendary Pino Donaggio to deliver a prime mythic, hugely entertaining, even more bombastic score, full of Rocky-style coliseum brass and moody deep string ominousness. Did Cozzi prevent him Donaggio from seeing the movie during his composing, like he famously did with John Barry? I'd almost wager... Otherwise they would have, at the very least, lightened the heroic mood. But it's just that heroic mood that makes it all work. A single wink and the whole thing would deflate like a soufflé.

The dubbing too is all first-rate too, even the minor characters get professional well-recorded treatment, with Donaggio giving every absurd action the benefit of the doubt. This is a film never tries to be realistic, it gets that it is myth in its purest form, and evoking the gods is seldom far from any characters' lips, as it would be in any Greek tragedy. The Gods sometimes even seem to address the camera directly, as if this pre-ordained saga, reflected in macro and micro dimensions as surely as any archetypal myth. This approach explodes the barriers between accidental Brechtianism, intentional Greek myth chorus-style theater and a child showing off his toy collection. Cozzi throws everything he has in the box at us, including Zeus-knows-what kind of filters and pieces of rainbow-reflective mylar held over the lens, mismatched matte paintings overlaid with multi-colored stars (white, red, blue, yellow, green, even purple). It's never too much or not enough; it is, in its sublime perfection, the very nature of magic and exactly what (Greek writer) Ado Kyru meant in his famous quote (1). It belongs in a Criterion Channel triple feature between Godard's Les Mepris and Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera. 

Then the sequel in 1985. Lots of light effects, overlays, fan art inspiration, clips from the last film, and everything a-nice.


Six viewings in and I'm still trying to stay awake through it all, and I don't mean that as uncomplimentary. For me, it's like falling into a peaceful dream, one punctuated by occasionally druggy reveries and name-that-influence excitement. My only caveat is the tired look of surprise in the 'Colin Ferrell as an old queen trying one last time to get into Studio 54 but his heart isn't in it'-glam of the evil priest (Ventatino Ventinini) but he's only around in a few scenes. Stay awake, and you'll get through him! There's also fire monster animation that seems traced over or color-styled from Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id and when Hercules sends in his mojo to battle Minos they becomes a similar rotoscoped outline King Kong fighting the T-rex and the snake in the 1933 version); there's also a claymation Medusa ala a DIY fan art version of the one from Clash of the Titans and plenty of Tron-like light video game effects. The music is still great but the dubbing is way too-over-the-top and badly mixed and its jarring to hear different voiceover artists dubbing the same actors from the first film (Lou Ferrigno keeps Marc Smith and he stays refreshingly deadpan). Once again there are no stuntmen or fight coordinators, so the battles have a home movie primitivism. Alas, the costumes have grown massive shoulders for some weird reason, as if the cast is trying to wear all their costumes so they can sneak out of a studio without paying their soundstage bill, rather than posing in their sexy neo-togas. Ferrigno  is never allowed to wear a shirt but dad Zeus is encumbered by a big 'Santa Clause does Catholic christening' robe, a way-too-bushy white beard and a weird yarmulke crown. He looked much better last time, with a simple tiara.

Daedalus, Minos and Zeus are all back and played by the same actors, though they all look like the intervening three years have widened them (probably the fault of the bad costumes and hair). The lady playing Hera is different and suddenly we get Laura Lenzi (the cute mom in Manhattan Baby) as the goddess "Flora" (?) who thinks it's a good idea to revive the evil Minos (via that old upside down blood donor trick no doubt gleaned from Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness) as he has a grudge since Hercules killed him in the last film (but she doesn't count on him hating the gods, too). Lots of rebel gods zapping in and out of the dimensions of time and space (outlined in a glowing green). Outside of time and space, they all stand on giant surrealist mesas above bubbling matte paintings and below rainbow starred outer space, evoking the weird trans-dimensional zones of 60s Jack Kirby comics. When mortal characters step outside space and time they wave their arms around to give off trippy trails, supporting my theory on where the many arms of Hindu deities come from (see my post on Dvinorum Psychonauticus). In short, it's a gem with tons of hand-painted lasers and crazy light of effects, and a cast that's at least 3/4 women and none are ever being sexy or maternal (Bechdel A+!). Sure it's a step down for the mighty Cozzi after the 'heights' of the previous film, but priceless lines like "Quick! Step inside the stone mouth!" and "Grow, Hercules! Growww!" help smear over the wounds, as does the feeling of drifting dreamlike abstraction, the way it seems to veer at times off its own axis into the land of hazily remembered Saturday morning cartoons, albeit tinged with an indescribable mournfulness for the loss of big screen outdoor options for its like. If Cozzi's the Italian Ed Wood, this is clearly his Night of the Ghouls! Look fast for a shot of the rock-pulled chariot from the first film pulling into view from behind the moon during one of the many astral zip-arounds. Is it a sign Cozzi is using the same footage, or is Hercules truly outside of time and space, so the past and future exist simultaneously? Hurrah for Cozzi!

Here they are, would there were more. All have the distinct brand of the Italian Wood. There's a few TV shows he did, unavailable here, and a few projects where he stepped in to help (or was stepped in himself), such as SINBAD, which I'm still slogging through. But these four! A me bella! Perfecto,


Starcrash moves so fast from cliffhanger to cliffhanger it seems to have more in common with one of those compressed feature film versions of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (right down the helmets, and the hero's escaping his/her stint shoveling fuel into the enemy blast furnace) crossed with the Golden and 7th Sinbad Voyages, more than Star Wars. And it has even less to do with actual science, which is a relief. Here you can swim through space if you have a bubble helmet on, and invade a ship by crashing through its windows, jumping out of a torpedo and opening fire. The sets, guns, and costumes are all super kinky and wild; outer space is laden with lava lamp overlays and stars as varied in color and size as a drunk Xmas tree. Christopher Plummer gets to shout "Freeze time itself!" and his son David Hasselhof has never looked prettier. Clearly Cozzi lavished attention on weird details like kinky cool costumes, crazy sets, and fool in the rain moxy, leaving the big picture a tad lumpen, but never flaccid. (full review here)


This Italian ALIEN-inspired sci-fi adventure gets a bad rap in some circles but I adore it. Rather than just have some amok alien eating crew members, this keeps itself on Earth in the present, and decides to focus in on the pod-to-stomach-stage, with rows of ugly watermelon slime pods that explode when ripe and cause instant explosions in the stomach of everyone in horseshoe vicinity. I dig the obvious phone book size padding under the victim's shirts before the explosions; I dig the traumatic Freudian-cave-on-Mars flashbacks; the unearthly humming whale-ish noise the pods make when they're fixing to blow. I dig the vibe between the NYC cop who discovers the initial shipment (Marino Mase), the female colonel (!) of the Army's special disease control unit (Louise Marleau) and the traumatized astronaut (Ian McCulloch). The three team up in a sexy 'gentleman's agreement' synergy and head down to Colombia where they're soon ensnared up in a big slimy alien's world domination plan, ala It Conquered the World. 

Louise Marleau's heroine finds a worth opposite number in lovely blonde Gisela Hahn as the evil mastermind's right hand, and I love the alien itself, especially that bicycle reflector eye and the glistening artichoke coloring. Lastly, what really earns my goofball admiration is the Goblin soundtrack. That late-70s-80s European prog rock style has aged well. I don't know what else you need to make you love this dumbass film the way that I do. Whatever's missing, you don't need it.

AKA Demons 6: De Profundus  (1989)

A parallel program to the Argento-Bava-Soavi school, this unofficial metatextual sequel to Argento's Suspiria (and sixth in the catch-all Demons series) factors in post-modern self-reflexivity to keep you guessing, including the Mater Suspiriorum  source of sources (Thomas de Quincey's Confession of an Opium Eater). Argento is name-checked and there's even some familiar Goblin cues from Suspiria.Screenwriter Marc (Urbano Barberini) writes a treatment for the story of a witch named Lavania. He thought he made the name up. But there was a witch by that name, and she's rising from her grave a little farther every time the word 'Lavania' is spoken. Her face and hands are grotesque pustules (ala Lamberto's first two films), but she begins to take over the mind of Marc's wife, Anne (Florence Guérin) and causes her to hallucinate guts flying out of the TV. A hot local psychic encourages Marc to change the character's name to something else, but he won't.  Meanwhile, without even knowing the story he's writing, new mom Ann starts to demand to play the role, saying she "is" Lavania. How would she know? But what about sexy Caroline Munro, who starts luring Marc into the sack for the Lavania part? Michele Soavi plays the director. I didn't even have time to mention the undead financial backer! Confused? Join the club. Still I'd rather go on a Cozzi ride-- even if its bumpy, and dangerously near collapsing--than play it safe on some competent piece of junk like Lost Souls or Stigmata -hai capito? (full review here). 


Lou Ferrigno is back for this late, confused entry in the pre-CGI fantasy genre! His dubbing is different, his hair is like a Shetland shag and the sound is badly mixed with an overly cartoony mom narrating to her treacly child via a storybook, but it's great. Technically Cozzi only half-directed. Enzo G. Castellari (the genius behind the 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Warriors of the Wasteland) did, I presume, the earlier ornate village scenes and intended a Thief of Bagdad setup; Cozzi took over from around the 1/4-in point and had Jaffar whisk Sinbad onto a wild fractured voyage to liberate various gems from inside various monsters (ala Zeus's thunderbolts in Herc 2!). Sometimes the dialogue and performance of John Steiner as Jaffar veers far too close to self-aware camp, like telling his female bodybuilder ally, "you're really spoiling my biorhythm" when she keeps calling bullshit on his ravings (she's dubbed by, my guess, a drag queen, though she's a female bodybuilder - just one of the countless wild ?? Cozzi touches). Ferrigno gets to do lots of flexing, as when he wrestles with animated bird cage or knocks heads off rock monsters and, famously, fights himself --which side won? We did! Alessandra Martines is the gorgeous princess Alina, whom Jaffar tries to make fall in love him. He has her tied down under a weird conglomeration of tubes pumping red water which enable her to watch her own true love, Prince Ali, and Sinbad's progress in collecting the magic gems, which means lots of crazy fights. Sinbad gets his own girl, Kyra (Stefania Goodwin - Bronx Warriors), the fun and capable daughter of a terribly overacting 'comedy relief' wizard (with a painted on mustache). Melonee Rogers is a seductive Amazon queen working for Jaffar who tries to slow Sinbad down but Alina sends him psychic impetus. So yes, as with other Cozzi gems, there are a lot of strong female characters. Even Kyra isn't afraid to deliver some serious punches in one of the countless brawls. Cozzi  forever!!!!


1. "“I urge you to look at bad films, they are so often sublime.”– Ado Kyrou

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


America, Canada, the North, vast empty night skies, rows of dreary tract homes without trees or sidewalks. The Winter, the dwindling Fall, dying err it arrives. Can it be here at last, the chill, the leaves and the first day of school all at once; the bell of the end, the clicking wheel of life and death. And in film, dreams fill the void of the empty road, sky, and life.

And of course... autumnal Italy, art is older than America many centuries over - the orange hair of Nicoletta Elmi as she comes roaring at you with a hammer like a modern instance - and all on Prime...

(1988) Dir. Ed Hunt
*** / Amazon Image - B- (SD)

The Prime thumbnail image for this film might fool you into thinking it's another 50s black-and-white Donovan's Brain retread (there are over a half-dozen movies with the same ironic title) but accept no substitutes: your Brain of choice should be Canadian, from 1988, and bathed in wintry Ontario wanness. The titular brain is a giant fanged alien head floating head (less Donovan, more Arous), so don't worry about being gypped on the monster end. It's using TV signals to brainwash parents into believing their children are dangerous illegal drug addicts! If that brings you a shudder of recognition, maybe you were a teenager in the 80s (the decade of urine samples and 'surviving straight'-style rehabs). Also you might be thinking of the divine Carpenter's They Live from the same year, but that was less about suburban rebels and more about inner city homeless. Not as relatable!

there's obviously no such thing as irony on this Brain's planet
The mise-en-scene of The Brain boils down to the welcomely familiar Hitchcockian lovers-on-the-run model as a smirky antihero (Tom Bresnahan) reaps the bitter fruits of his practical jokes when no one believes his conspiracy babbling, especially his girlfriend (Cynthia Preston) who works at a local diner and doesn't brook his tomfoolery. Still, escaping from his rehab leads to a great stretch of film where he's just driving around his local streets, eluding the funny farm wagon. The lead goon for the rehab is a hulking hipster of a thing, and the sight of him wafting gracefully out of the bughouse white van in his lab smock and credentials tag, brandishing ID tag and hypodermic and slinging a doped Tom over his shoulders like a bag of dogfood while fighting off his buddy and girlfriend, is one of those stealth cool/creepy sites we take for granted in movies like this. Anyway, old Tom deserves it: wasting his chemistry skills on the sort of spiteful anal-retentive panks too gauche even for a detention-magnet hesher. He's got a lot to learn.

 "he was dead before he ate here, sir."
Hypnotizing the whole Canadian town in order to suck up their brainwaves for his alien disembodied head ruler, Dr. Anthony Blakely (a re-animated David Gale) is a kind of Dr. Phil meets Dan O'Herlihy in Halloween III x Patrick Swayze's in Donnie Darko. The plan is to launch a global satellite system that will enslave the world but in the meantime, kill that rascally kid! The gift the big brain has for motivating the populace to kill smirky Bresnahan leads to great moments like housewives grabbing up jackhammers and swords whenever they see him and going crazy and hallucinating tentacles if they try to disobey. As the Brain grows ever bigger the more consciousnesses it devours, car chases and fights occur on the same drab suburban roads we all drove up and down every day while in high school, the kind with no sidewalk, or trees: tract homes hung in brick rows along soggy front lawns, peppered with shrubs and grey windows. It's grim but familiar territory and we can well imagine skulking in the property dividing bushes, taking backyard routes along tiny strips of shrubbery-filled no man's land to sneak home to get a change of socks. And the TV studio is also a rehab and looks just like the high school and the high school looks just like dorm rooms --it's all made out of concrete blocks, painted white or grey walls as prisons without bars. Again it's so familiar it's like the filmmakers are inside your head, rooting through your public high school memories like your own unconscious dreams.

Now we can watch a film like The Brain and--in addition to reveling in the great, over-the-tip but super slimy and welcomely analog latex monster, remember back to a time long before the internet, when cable and video was new and our current erosion of consensual reality only in its infancy, early enough that films like Videodrome and They Live seemed more speculative than historical. 1988--as evidenced by both The Brain and They Live coming out the same year--reflects a moment in time when parents were turned against their own children by hysteria-mongering TV pundits and first ladies urging everyone to just say no to drugs, even as every other facet of outlaw self expression was slowly rolled back on us. Our only quasi-legal 'fun' came in skipping school with one's girlfriend and maybe another couple to fool around a upstairs for hours while the parents were out working, then going to the mall and smoking cigarettes at the mall Spaceport. Too specific? For those of us living in this post-real America of the Now, where dueling 24/7 news channels turn political footballs into bombs and Russia crashes our future's hard drive with flag-pumpin' sock puppets fanning flames of the fires they faked us into fearing, this has never been more prescient, blah blah.

Forget all that relevance. Come back to when this was all just science fiction, when it was all just part of a mid-80s micro-wave that saw deep into the 'reality' that cable TV and video rental stores seemed doomed to propagate. The Brain never caught cult status like fellow Canadian Cronenberg's Videodrome or Carpenter's The Thing, but it's more fun than both put together, with the teen couple like a suburban version of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, running around the TV station chased by zombified guards and an ever scarier fanged beach ball. If you were a pot-smoking hippy or punk teenager in the 80s you may relate, as Nancy Reagan and hysteria-mongering news reports convinced your mom it was OK have you shanghaied by Christian extremist rehabs if she found a bag of oregano in your jeans.

Now that weed is practically legal, the real addiction is cell phones. There is no rehab for that ailment, and the world is already in the thrall of some ancient online Slavic monster that has no name... let us call him - Yogxander SoPutggi'noth- and his Necronomicon the Faciem-liber!

(2016) Dir. Monica Demes
*** / Amazon Image - A-

Brazilian director Monica Demes has clearly taken some points from other b&w womyn's rites vampire features, like Michael Almereyda's Nadja and, especially, Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone in her feature debut, filmed in Iowa while under David Lynch tutorship at the University of MUM (i.e. Maharahrishi University of Management). Sophia Woodward stars as Lucy, a dissatisfied woman living in a twilight world of the flatland emptiness-drenched midwest, where she's bossed around by her dad (she works at his gas station as a cashier), almost raped by his creepy-hot mechanic (Matthew Lloyd Wilcox), and bossed around by her doughy husband (Sam Garles).  Lillith (Barbara Eugenia) rides into Lucy's dreams to wreak some vengeance, though her dreams seem like they're also happening in reality. When it seems like it's almost always night, when days pass like dreamy flashes, which is which? That could be a sign to click 'stop' and keep scrolling, but resist! In a lot of ways this works as good as or better than Lynch's own Twin Peaks: The Return in that it's at least not boring and there's not as many badly-aged once-cute actors to remind us of our own crumbling mortality every second.

What helps most is that Demes and her cinematographers have found a way to capture the deep spooky blacks of the Iowa flat straight landscape, where the night extends outwards ever blacker into the vast distance, while letting us see, gradually, as shapes and faces emerge into an invisible lighting spectrum; there are blacks on blacks in ways one hasn't seen since straining to find Joe Spencer's tattoo on the cover of the Velvet's White Light/White Heat album. Filmed mostly in the dead quiet of night, with huge empty starless skies- a film that exists already deep in the void.

A kind 80 minute nightmare logic poem, Lilith could have been a real bore in lesser hands, but Demes takes a few pointers from Lynch (who cameoed as a security guard in Nadja!) by papering the cracks with a droning avant-garde minimalist underscore, adding intensely hypnotic layers to the empty darkness of the landscape; its few twisting trees, tapping into a meditative, pleasurable unease.

This is a dark movie, and the camera settles in for long-held static shots comprised often mostly of darkness, shadows of tangles of trees overlapping, or long flat stretches of road, with angry or zombified faces illuminated by dashboard lights at the wheel. Since it is so dark we're always peering into it, straining the emptiness out for faces; and sometimes, when one does show up, Demes ingeniously keeps the score quiet about it --there's no jangle of music letting us know what to feel and when we should feel it, and/or see what may even not be there. Thus, along with Lucy, we quickly begin to go crazy ourselves, as a defense mechanism against such unyielding emptiness; the uneasy wintry place where daylight savings' time is almost a relief, crushing out the latter half of the day from the reminder there's nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Strain real close now, and let your paredolia fly! 
It's not perfect, moments like sudden CGI flash of fangs, or a dumb shot of Lilith hanging upside down from a tree are more dumb than scary or dreamy and throw one out of the moody spell. (Demes might have taken a look at the way bat conversion is subliminally alluded to in films like Daughters of Darrkness rather than spelled out); it would be the same in Witch Who Came from the Sea if we saw shots of Millie Perkins wearing a pointy witch's hat and straddling a trident-ended broom. It also doesn't seem believable that Lucy's chucklehead husband would announce to her that he invited his boss and his wife over for dinner and therefore he expects Lucy to cook some nice meal for them when their kitchen is the size of a matchbox and it's not the early 1960s anymore and it's clear she never cooks anyway and holds a full time job.

We hope she'd tell him to go fuck himself, or that Lilith, her dream anima-avenger shadow, will rip him asunder, but this is a movie not really on a realistic level -instead it has a kind of dreamy 'is Lilith real or is this girl hallucinating, seeing her murderous alternate personality as a fantasy (ala Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came From the Sea); but who's complaining when--instead of the usual trenchcoated middle aged working stiff investigating detective we get lovely Eden West in big aviator shades and a leather jacket is the cute lady motorcycle cop investigating the mechanic's mysterious disappearance. With first timer--or any--horror movies, it's sometimes not about the cumulative effect and the cohesion into a nice wrap-up payoff, it's about the mood and the moment. And on that, Demes delivers! 


Il medaglione insanguinato (malocchio)
aka "The Cursed Medallion"
aka "Together Forever" 
(1975)  Dir. Massimo Dallamano
*** / Amazon Image - B

Despite its crummy name/s, this is autumnal-hued, Exorcist-tinged supernatural has the goods, especially for classic and giallo horror fans as there's Richard Johnson (The Haunting) as an eligible widower filmmaker; Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) as his sexually available new assistant, ahem;  nd--on her way to being a young teenage hellion, Nicoletta Elmi (Who Saw Her Die?), showing eerily on-point flashes of maturity as the possessed/possessive as Johnson's daughter. He's brought her to Italy along with her governess, (Evelyn Stewart -the stringent sister in The Psychic) while shooting a documentary about a mysterious Italian painting, depicting Hell, with angels and knives and Satan coming down from the clouds. The girl in the painting is starting to look a lot like Emily (Elmi) who's growing increasingly possessed by the homicidal spirit attached to her mysterious medallion. The strange fortune telling Contessa Capelli (Lila Kedrova, Torn Curtain) tries to convince Johnson to leave Italy at once, but he won't, he doesn't believe in the supernatural, and yet... that painting... and the way an old dagger flies across the gallery floor at his nice shoes whenever he tries to harm the painting, or the strange ghostly apparitions screwing up his documentary, or Emily's terrible nightmares whenever dad is off scoring instead of at home where she can spy on him. As evil doings accrue, the dried blood or other strange gunk falls off the painting to expose more and more eerie detail. What is Emily doing on this ancient canvas, holding a sacrificial knife? And what size rock has to fall on the man's head before he wises up to the ghostly goings-on?

We can easily see how Elmi became such a fixture in the genre as she can get legitimately terrifying with a single smile. There's a scene where she goes from having a kind of nightmare seizure to a kind of Helen Keller plate breaking fit to outright maniacal psychosis: her eyes wild with merry homicidal glee, a truly fiendish in its banality grin across her features, she at her governess with a hammer while daddy and new girlfriend Joanna Cassidy are off on a date. Even just trying her mom's old dress, Emily's eyes light up with such dirty adult malice one gets a deep, satisfying shudder.  When she smokes a cigarette, she does so with a look that's startlingly adult, running the gamut of expressions precocious 10 year-olds assume when they're desperately trying to come off as mature enough to not need babysitters.

Though it's a 70s post-Exorcist horror film, Italian cinema rarely let go completely of its old obsession just to add the trappings of a new. (their history is too damned ancient to escape into a ground zero canvas the way we can here in the States). Maybe that's why the past is never through with the present. Maybe that's why Stelvio Cirpiani's score comes at it all like some sweeping sinful post-neorealist romance, building strings and wistfully gamboling fifths up into where you can practically smell the spring flowers and see pairs of lovers lost in blissful montage like it's some 60s softcore erotic vacation. Occasionally cycling minor key piano motifs and dimly choir-like vocalizing gallop along with music box tones and Spanish guitar, though why is anyone's guess. Seriously the music is so generic I doubt even Cipriani himself would recognize it if his name wasn't on it.

Other percs: the lush autumnal scenery--often seen via reflective windows to let you know they really are driving around the countryside--evokes the dusk autumnal beauty of José Ramón Larraz movies like Symptoms and Vampyres.., and the dreams Emily has are layered in extended overlaps which only reluctantly give way to dissolves - a trick seldom employed as brazenly well. The painting that so fascinates Emily's documentarian dad is just the right blend of classical and heavy metal (Bosch meets Kiss) and if he gets too fresh with it, an ancient double-sided dagger that whisks along the floor towards his shoes.

It might not be great but just check out Beyond the Door from the same post-Exorcist dust bin (in Prime's closed-out basement room) and see if this ain't a muhfuggin' classic by comparison. And PS, I love Beyond the Door!

Friday, August 16, 2019


Leave it to Europe to deliver on the promise of HD cameras and non-union expressionist German handwerkers, taking the time to bring old masters' lighting and composition to even their low budget fantasy. Here are--if not quite a slew, at least a few--fairly interesting, more or less family-friendly (presuming your kids are cool), dark fairy tale-style forays into deep Jungian crypto-horror, hailing from the Emerald Isle, Germany and Italy. The accents might not always be there (they sometimes seem to be doing 'American' accents) but the lighting runs from good to decent - these aren't your average DIY SOHDV miss-terpieces, but legit little minor key gems, just looking for a rocky outcrop to nestle in amidst the sprinking waterfall between YA fantasy fiction and horror, waiting for the right mopey young person, reading Bronte or Keats while perched on a fractal-patterned tapestry spread over the mossy rocks, to catch the secret glint of.

That they are all findable in the rocky maze of Prime (in the US at least), is a blessing. Normally we'd be able to see these only at a 'Fantastic Film Festival' where sneaking out after ten minutes would be, well, you'd hate to do it since you know the filmmaker and cast are probably in the row behind you and you're the only non-crew/cast member there, and really, it's not them it's you, etc. One of the reasons I stopped submitting my own work at festivals was to avoid this very thing. Just know this: the genesis of this post began after my surprise at the loveliness of The Forbidden Girl's cinematography. The other two films listed were the only ones I could watch to the end. I've started, stopped and flicked around on, dozens of similar titles on Prime just to get to these three (I was hoping for at least five), so bask in your moment if one of these lost kittens are yours! The rest of us, bring your grains of salt, your huddled sage-and-sandalwood candles yearning to be lit!

(2013) Dir. Riccardo Paoletti
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

You'd be forgiven thinking this a UK production- the actors are all Brits, Welsh, Irish, more or less. But it's an German-Italian joint and--despite the near constant UK-style dinginess of the skies, filmed in Italy, so they say. The story has independent-minded Jenny (Daisy Keeping) spending a summer with her archaeologist father near an ancient Etruscan lake where he's been recovering ancient idols, small fetish totems that used to be tossed in as sacrifices to the spirits of the lake. He's been taking them out, but also throwing stones in, for some reason. Left largely to her own devices, though semi-bullied by a dimly evil au pair named Olga (Joy Tanner), escapes the dreary confines of the old-school house by reading Shelley down by said mysterious lake, a practice that soon draws her an audience of handicapped children with the kind of pale ghostly faces that raise all sorts of red flags for any normal person. In addition to the whole Etruscan statuary element (shoehorned into the narrative with the finesse of a frostbitten safecracker), there's passages from Shakespeare (guess which play? Hint: one of the pale urchins is a brooding older boy with Edward Cullen facial planes).

Enriched with mythic meaning, often to the point of anything else, writer-director Martin Gooch clearly knows his Maria-Louise von Franz, and ably uncorks the genie of archetypal psychology, as Jenny takes on the job of recovering the statues stolen by dad and throwing them back into the lake, and in the process finding a mysterious doorway hidden behind a log pile leading to a secret chamber, and the surprises she finds there are so WTF I feel I've said too much!

Fans of 70s-80s Italian horror will be pleasantly surprised to see ember-eyed David Brandon (Scarlet DivaStagefright) aging nicely into the sort of enigmatic dad role usually monopolized by Gabriel Byrne, and--thankfully--there's no romance with the doe-eyed Edward-clone, just the kind of Jungian archetypal challenges, triumphs and dark father pursuits we find in all the darkest coming-of-age crypto-Jungian fairy tales with teenage girl protagonists whose moms are either dead or in Florida. The underwater photography is great and for the most part Paoletti wisely keeps the less-successful CGI chimeras at a hazy distance.

Occasional missteps: the Medusa hair effect of one of the water nymphs, for example would have been much more effective if they moved languid like flowing seaweed (as Val Lewton would have done it) and the Etruscan statue tossing thing is kind of bum rushed past us, as if the writers sincerely hope we won't notice the stank of an upcoming social studies quiz creeping in like a dad trying to interest his children in opera during a long car ride.

Either way, fairly engrossing, with interesting use of pans and dissolves (as in the above, where a painting of robed figures seems to imprint itself on the twilit lake), a pretty riveting climax, lots of drug use (I can't say more), and lovely to see the still-Satanic eyed Brandon still at it and Keeping is a keeper as the can-do 'Nancy Drew on weird drugs' heroine. It's great to see movies where the new girl in town isn't saddled with cumbersome school alienation tropes ("Fitting in is so hard!") or romantic sogginess, just the right dash of Elektra complex. Jenny might get pissed when dad keeps ignoring her, but she finds things to do, and if the climax doesn't quite make as much sense as the filmmakers seem to think, at least they have the courage of their convictions, and one ends up feeling compassion for most everyone of the characters, save one....  

(2016) Written and directed by Martin Gooch 
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

Though on the surface it's yet another modernized fairy tale where the intrepid young daughter of a slightly-overwhelmed, gruff but lovable widower (Simeon Willis) helps him rescue some mysterious stones in order to save her from a horned monster of the ancient woods, there's a lot more going on here than just the usual trite nonsense we'd get in an American movie following the same beats (the dad doesn't mope around watching videos of his dead wife, and when he dreams of her, it's of their last moments together, drinking in a canoe rather than canoodling at a backyard picnic). She appears to both father and daughter as a ghost, warning them of coming danger.  By day, dad occasionally raises his voice and flies into overwhelmed fits while trying to follow the strange clues and fix breakfast for daughter Eternity (Scarlett Rayner), who's ever bothering him with random questions, but the pair can also share nice moments together (we applaud his knack for taking her on treasure hunts, even giving her maps he's carefully designed to find presents he's buried) and spend evenings outside looking up at the stars ("if I ever get to ill or too old to have a beer under the stars," he tells Eternity, "I want you to put me in a little boat, and set fire to it..." - hey we applaud that notion (and what else is AA, but that very burning boat?)

Fans of Irish horror will recognize this 'if you take things from out of the woods you had best return them' set-up from other films besides Neverlake, such as 2015's The Hallow, where a dad researching something in the woods and living right on the outskirts, unwittingly wakes up an ancient evil... That's all to be expected in a woosdy fable like this, and Gooch wisely keeps the focus on the brilliantly precocious and alert Eternity as she mucks about digging holes looking for treasure, not quite aware of the forces she's messing with (as when she hacks into a power cable) but able to meet the creepy gaze of the enigmatic neighbor with the shotgun, the Dickensianly-named Algernon Sykes ((Linel Aft) without so much as an imperceptible shiver.

But what really sells it is the well-tempered rapport between Eternity--her super long straight hair picking up impressions like a 10 year-old Maria Orsic--and her only-mildly overwhelmed and disheveled, vaguely taller-Ricy-Gervais-ish dad--they seem like both opposites and clearly related--with him gruffly giving her pointers for sticking up for herself against bullies, and gradually realizing he'll be totally overwhelmed unless he brings her along instead of finding a sitter. Once his investigation into the magic stones leads him to the truth, it's nice that he has no problem totally believing Eternity. How often do we see a dad have any other reaction other than either sleepy irritation or pasteurized  reassurance when his daughter starts screaming about something being under the bed? Not this dad! He gets down on his knees to look, and he's scared, and so is the score. This is a world where bumps in the night aren't just delusions. We've crossed over into fairy tale land but without ever being quite aware there was a door to go through.

There's an ecological message underlying things but it never gets heavy-handed. In this case the CGI is better modulated than in most such low budget films: branches reach out and victims of a woodland "Green Man" style horned guardian of the forest captures those traveling through and meshes them into the roots of trees - a pretty scary, well-done effect. There are also some terrifying parental dreams dad has, when he cuts off her iPad scrolling fingers in the dead of night, then wakes up to find he's done it for real! The fairy tale intensity of this all works to keep things uneasy and may scare children into realizing the emotional fragility of adults daily shut out of their kids' lives by cell phones. People straight up die in this film, even an innocent lady cop who spends the day wandering around the woods evoking a mix of Winona Earp's sister's cop girlfriend Nicole, and Amy Pond in her cop costume in the first Matt Smith episode of Dr. Who. (2)

My favorite bit is the third act, when both mom of the babysitter and dad finally believe the kids and they all go on an armed expedition into the woods to find the horned god, and there's even a Goth psychic (Anda Berzina) friend of the sitter (Zara Tomkinson) who drifts over to read tarot cards (and keeps drawing the Devil). As with Neverlake, strange country houses turn out to have hidden rooms deep within secret chambers accessible only from trap doors hidden in the base of closets or woodpiles.  By the end one has grown quite fond of all the characters (save one) and would for a nice sequel. Like Neverlake it has the air of a YA fantasy novel, and there are virtually no boys at all, just a few adult males pointing dad towards the horned truth, and the strange Mr. Sykes. Big old Bechdel score up in here, in short, to make up for the narrative bumps.

PS-= For what a visit from boozy relatives from across the pond, after some eccentric uncle played by Christopher Walken discovers a mummy druid priestess in the bog, check out another big favorite discovery of recent years, Michael Almereyda's The Eternal (1998)

Dir Til Hastreiter
*** / Amazon Image - A+

What a difference a talented ambitious cinematographer makes! Merely OK films become great, or at least worth a glimpse. 99% of the unknown stuff floating on Prime is shot on HD video, in this case it's the staggeringly pretty looking (especially for such a dismal and unfair imdb rating, a staunchly undeserved 3.4) movie that lets you know just how good digital film can look with the right painterly craftspeople at the helm. My observation through relentless slogging is that such brilliance is almost always the result of an Eastern European craftsman making it over to the west and getting their start in low budget films, knowing they will be future calling cards for Hollywood (like Vilmos and Lazlo) or staying home to deliver beauty that, like in Ivan Brlakov's stunning work The Bride, (also on Prime, which would be in this list but for its atrocious tone-deaf English dubbing), transcends the film it services. In this case, it's Hungary's Tamás Keményffy, who brings a golden dusk sharpness to German-Dutch production, The Forbidden Girl, a (filmed in English) tale of which I stumbled on knowing very little about, but was just drawn to the cover art, which suggested some dusky photography and imaginative make-up.

The result? It might be my favorite random discovery since Bitches' Sabbath (i.e. Witching and Bitching). It's a little rough around the narrative edges, but it's a nicely acted ands sometimes well-written tale of the anointed son of a deranged (Baptist-style, for some reason) preacher whose mysterious dream lover may well be either a witch or imprisoned by one, and all in a very matriarchal witchy situation as Toby McLift, the son (Peter Gaidot) of the apocalyptic preacher, is hired as a tutor in ann ancient, crumbling mansion that just happens to hold his true love chimera girlfriend whom he thought daddy killed before he was dragged off to an asylum. If he thinks he's going to have an easy time teaching her though (she has no memory of him) or rekindling their passion, he's wrong - as her guardian, a towering, supernatural Germanic watchdog malevolent spirit played Klaus Tange (Strange Color of Your Body's Tears) skulks ever within hearing range.

Hamburg-born, Strassberg-trained actress Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen is alive and wild as this forbidden girl Laura, a classic Jungian anima figure, whose kept in a tower, away from the eyes of strangers, though why her guardians should want a doe-eyed lovestruck mental case like British-born dreamboat Peter Gadiot up there as a tutor is anyone's guess, unless it's because he bears 'the mark' that will open doors to Hell or something. That's not really a spoiler if you've seen enough of these kinds of films. That's business as usual. But what's not usual is the great use of a crumbling mansion - scenes by a leaf-filled crumbling half-full indoor pool, for example, or along dark twisted hallways, and into small ditches around the property while formulating their escape. The dark father non du pair, forbidding superego injunctive character is played by the pleasingly weathered Danish actor . And in bed, withered and dying though slowly growing mysteriously younger with Gaidot's presence (ala Hasu, or I Vampiri), is the enigmatic witch Lady Wallace (Jeanette Hain). You won't need a copy of Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces to figure out what's really going on (or why even a tiny amount of sunlight let in, when a shade slips open, can set fire to ancient books and generally wipe these witches out. As the light creates a weird camera obscura image on the side of what looks like a transparency projector, we're forced to admit that, unconvincing as it is, it's all way prettier, better, and more genuinely surreal than Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return

But these kinds of dark fairy tales are never about that - they're about the journey, these are the equivalent of the tales children love hearing over and over, because the story rings deep into the fabric of our unconscious tapestry, shaping the way we view the world and giving our dreams the narrative structure our unconscious is often not enough of a dramatist to provide, resulting in a jumble of characters and events that fade before they can be tabulated in the morning. Here we get the same balmy 'living all ages of life at once' thing we get in Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Lemora, and even Muhlholland Dr. to a weirder degree. It's not 'better' than those films, but it is certainly lovely to look at, with deep blacks and rich moody colors that evoke the saturated interiors of Next of Kin's old folks home, or the autumnal leaf-bedecked scenery of José Ramón Larraz films like Symptoms and Vampyres. 

Performances are all superb in their offness - the 'American' accents giving them all an uncanny frisson (to these Yank ears at least): especially Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen, so alive from one moment to the next that capturing a good screenshot for her was like asking fire to hold its flicker; and Hain, whose mastery of the sort of raspy, old world seduction where we believe she could hold both young and older men in her sexy cobra stare on separate floors at the same time. Tange is legitimately frightening yet also romantically tragic and Gaidot shows he's more than just a pretty face through Toby's spirited can-do gallivanting in the face of insurmountable supernatural cockblocking. There are some less-than-successful CGI elements, depicting a kind of shadowy quick-moving ghost creature (shown way too early) ever trying to steal back Laura to hell or wherever, prowling the long Overlook-style hallways with their murky lighting mix of candle light, gas lamps, and the occasional dab of electric light, the CGI black smoke whiffs don't overstay their welcome (except for some tacky fire effects here and there) or become bogged down in tacky Danny Elfman whimsy cues, though composer Eckes Malz's reliance on familiar orchestral and chorale themes does seem a missed opportunity for some good droning synths). The camera zips and prowls on padded feet so we feel like we're skulking around the mansion's spooky vastness on stocking feet in the dead of night, to get the lay of the vast land. It's a hard thing to get right, but by the end of the film we feel like we know all the ins and outs of this weird wondrous place, including how to escape it, or die trying, and trying again even after that.

One of the story's many strengths is the total absence of a distinct black/white dichotomy. We empathize with the romantic yearning and sense of irrecoverably lost time in the sad eyes of the older pair of lovers and can't help but wonder whether the real villain is actually Toby in his blind determination to rescue Laura whether she wants to go or not.

Jeanette Hain
All together, taken as a triptych of what can happen when imaginative low budget filmmakers let loose with enough of a European sensibility their work isn't stepped on by a lot of second-guessing producers and Sundance script workshop class-infected superego second-guessing (where, in a misguided bid for 'structural logic' and 'integrity', one winds up passing the holes with the same tired cliches, or trusting gore, talking heads, exposition-heavy denouements, leering sleaze, and gross-out ugliness over beauty, open-handed symbolic Jungian resonance, brevity over clarity, and a cast chosen for their beauty, uniqueness, nerve and talent, rather than the dictates of an insecure, bossy girlfriend or not being able to say no to one's small town millstones. Sure some of the tropes may be as old as time, but there's a difference. A fairy tale never becomes cliche --that's the genius of the archetypal unconscious as delineated by Jung via Marie-Louise von Franz via the Brothers Grimm via Joseph Campbell, and upwards, from Disney to the MCU. You can tell the same story a thousand different ways and it's still fresh. Archetypal myths don't weaken with retelling, and children in fantasy movies needn't be doe-eyed drips or crass morons, and parents needn't be saints or sex offenders - there's a wealth of fantasy material that lies in the gulf between these poles. Childhood fairy tale wonderment and adult sexuality (portions of Forbidden Girl get pretty racy, but then again Germans aren't as prudish as us) go hand-in-hand. Wether it's delivering stolen ritualistic stones back into the hands of woodland spirits or shagging 300 year-old witches during arcane rituals, these tales take us home, to the real home. When told with the feeling of real danger, alive with real magic, the secret doors hidden in our gatehouses open, and along with the demons that spill out, comes everything we ever thought was lost, all those traumas too rough to recall in the same decade they happened, all those intense in-love moments that were so great they left you feeling hollow and lost for years after, vainly trying to get back to the garden until, by the time you got there, it was a wasteland, plants all dried and dead -- even a layer of black factory runoff long since dried up. You took too long, and now aren't even the same person. 

Still, there's treasure down there, so it's maybe worth the dredge. You could end up with nothing, like those Curse of Oak Island-ers or you could wind up dead/reunited with your long-buried anima. Maybe digging into these old vaults of underseen fairy tale films has disturbed their power - just my writing about these, lifting them up into the light, as it were, exposes their flaws. When I watched them, after all, I didn't have any capsule review to guide me. So the dreams were personal, unfiltered. That's when they are most powerful. When written down and discussed, a dream's obscure import fades; once deconstructed by a good psychoanalyst it becomes practically as dull as ordinary reality. 

But am I a good psychoanalyst? Of course not! So, don't listen! Just dive into these loopy, dead-end dream logic pictures quick, before you forget them! You just may be glad you didn't. 

2. Surprise! If you get those two references, thou art a geek

Monday, August 12, 2019

Air Auda Beya Lah: THE BEACH BUM (2019)

One of a trio of neo-'head' movies (along with CLIMAX and MIDSOMMAR) that marks 2019 as the year psychedelics became the new weed and weed became a nootropic, THE BEACH BUM signals the return to the ever-in-style bad boy auteur Harmony Korine, his stoned-ass hour has come! All three films make a successful conscious effort to capture the highs and lows of the psychedelic experience, in an array of settings (Climax being the worst trip ever; BUM being the best, MIDSOMMAR moving between both like Jacob's ladder angels), to not just use drugs to tell a story but to make the viewer feel like they are on those drugs, either via remembrance of one's own experience or -- well, I can't imagine the other way, would people watching these films who've never done drugs 'get off' from them or would it just seem like a bunch of idiots cavorting around in loud circles?

Furthering the sunglasses and turquoise Florida ecstasy-dilated forward kinetic momentum of his 2012 masterpiece Spring Breaker, Korine also shows his age. He's too old to party with college kids by now - so rather than oversexed coke dealers with pianos on verandas he's put himself in the headspace of an old stoner, sans guns, unless you count poetry as violence, and the occasional cold cocking a cripple with a beer bottle as somehow deserving of legal repercussion. Moondoggie doesn't. Sailing with the ocean wind at full speed, damn the too torpedoed to keep up with the headlong momentum of a poetic madman on an everything that comes his way binge, swapping out Saint Pete for the party-hearty Key West. Which is a 24/7 raging town where everyone knows and loves the Moondog (no relation to the famous NYC street musician - except perhaps subliminally). Once a literary lion, now a sun-trippin' chronic-bong-rippin' alleycat, Moon spends his days fishing on his crazy Rube Goldberg-does-gravity-bong-hits houseboat with a few naked girls, and at home with an understanding maid who helps him up when he passes out on the floor. Welcome to drop in on any party, make out with anyone's girlfriend, or rush anyone's stage, Moondog's wise enough to never bring bad vibes to his transgressive personal space invasions. He makes 'the Dude' seem uptight and reminds me of my previous parlay with enlightenment (see my 2012 Galactic Awakening and its ensuing poetry here). It's the kind of good vibrations awfully hard to maintain once reality sniffs you out like a police dog and sinks its judgy-wudgy fangs into your tender fetlock. Fame sure helps keep that dog leashed though, allowing the Moondog to sashay through life as if it's his own private dream where he only he knows he's dreaming.

Maybe he is, maybe we're seeing people's reactions to his antics through his own rose-colored shades, and there might be a different movie, through the eyes of a sober, weary soul who just wants to drink in peace, for whom Moondoggies' antics are just tiresome reminders of how much less 'fun' such behavior actually is (forcing the witness to re-evaluate how charming booze actually makes him). We see a bit of it in the way he does judge his daughter for marrying a straight-edge dillweed, but it should be clear enough to him why his daughter is so hungry for structure.

And indeed, it seems like a dryly self-aware fantasy for delusional poets, those of us who surrendered the dream of being the next Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson shortly after realizing the real world had no space for such people anymore, except as small chapbook distributing visiting professors who spend half the year traveling the country giving readings at tiny bookstores. In real lifethere's simply no more room in the pantheon of greats for us - the living rockstar poets of today, man. Times have changed, man. The idea that anyone could be famous for poetry in a party town like Key West is itself a fantasy, like going platinum for your self-produced album of mostly in-key acid rock jams.

In case you can't tell by my veiled bitterness, I had a mild taste of the dog's life back in Syracuse back in the late-80s and NYC in the early-90s, when I was doing radio and TV voiceovers; a time when someone like Maggie Estep could still get on MTV (so there was hope/ for us all / to rise / like dough / on flour-strewn boards / the rolling pin and the proving / the open mic salted but not too soured  / over thyme, etc.), but I needed far too much chemical enhancement to stay that positive for more than a few months straight without winding up getting strep throat or a massive flu (impossible to avoid up in Syracuse where the snow never melts and the heaters carry molds stretching back to the dawn of time). But I talked the talk and walked the walk, and I knew the Moondogs, and loved the drugs and sometimes could even stand listening the Grateful Dead or reading Wallace Stevens, But that's the genius of Moondog, he sails through life irregardless of the clammy claws of the social order. Even stripped of his riches, he finds wealth in an endless assortment of local color with which to run wild, never judging the violent anymore than the righteous.  Even forced into rehab, he finds a way to handle it - to just break out at the first opportunity and go deep underground. A real outlaw.

Matthew McConaughey is brilliant in the lead, playing an extension of the character he'd already perfected to the point of godliness 26 years ago in 1993's Dazed and Confused, the Zen floater on currents of non-focalized amorphous fraternal love and bliss that make him able to pull down complex poetically-phrased thoughts that stun and reduce his pot-struck cronies to near tears. We see how he's tapped into the same divine hedonistic source that made him so deft at pulling the tachyon potentiality strings that alerted his daughter to his presence behind the bookshelf in Interstellar (see 'Space is the Place: Sun Ra vs. Mathew McConaughey). He's a high brother. He reminds me of me in college, of course, thanks to the band I was in; I too had a rep where I never had to pay for drinks or covers, and would sell xeroxed copies of my chapbook for $1 each, and was welcome on any stage, to improv poetry over jams from my fellow bands, at least for a few years. All that went away of course, and its absence crushed me like an empty can, almost sending me on that long swim until Night of the Iguana saved my life. But I would have loved to show my dad this movie as if to say "see dad! You can get rich on poetry and unemployment."

Still, in the end it's a fantasy to imagine anyone could make enough money on a book of poetry to be able to please a cash-guzzling southern "literary agent." Coupled to this willfully fantasy-tinged view of the lucrative world of publishing (no doubt a beard for filmmaking itself, and the agent and friends' needling to finish his book being the rub that it's been so many years since party animal Korine's last movie), is the idea that with enough weed you can float past the consequences of busting out of a court-mandated rehab, stealing a boat and going on a wild crime and auto theft bender spree with a vaping felon (a thugged-out Zac Effron), breaking a bottle over a crippled man's head as he steers home in his electric wheelchair and robbing him, all without it affecting your pristine beach karma, because you're so filthy rich and famous it's an honor to be cold-cocked, like how it was once considered 'in fashion' to be robbed by Jean Genet. So though the cops are after him, the Dog never serves time or is caught - putting on women's clothes for the rest of the film (and what clothes, like he's Gloria Swanson on her 50th honeymoon) seems too make him invisible to cop eyes. Fleeing to his house in the Keys seems to wipe clean his slate. As with the ending of Taxi Driver, or the little 'ride to jail' escape dream shard by Edward Norton in Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, we've, somewhere along the line, crossed over into wish fulfillment fantasy.

One aspect of the brilliance of Korine's work, stretching back to his script for Larry Clark's seminal Kids (1995), is that he trusts his audience to navigate this kind of deceptive murk as it were the clear water of a tropical beach, that hides broken glass and invisible jelly fish -- which sting you without the music on the score changing from happy beach jams. He gives us in The Beach Bum, as he did in Spring Breakers, a morally bankrupt antihero on a truly endless summer, encouraging us to identify without emulation, to get a feel for the kinetic freedom of those willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the bliss of the moment, unattached to possessions so much as seeking intoxicants and never saying no to weird opportunities, nor even judging people's actions as right or wrong, to not go on a crime spree after seeing the film's ostensible heroes commit crimes and get away with them.

There's a brilliant druggy breathy moment between college students Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson (who funded their trip south by robbing an all-night cafe), and James Franco (the drug kingpin of "Saint Pete", who bailed them out when they got busted for drugs in their hotel room during their initial massive coked-out orgy) - the three are all twisted up in a weeklong naked threesome on beds of money, guns, and drugs, when suddenly the girls grab a gun and stick right in Franco's face, as if to say, sucker, we got you now, and are going to take all his cash and split. Franco is we're expecting to either get pissed off or panic, but he quickly brings himself back into the moment and starts fellating the gun. Is this something they improvised? Either way, it's brilliant - all with repetitive whisper ASMR whispery drug/sex talk. It's that kind of kinetic in-the-moment response that earns our admiration and makes both Breakers and Bum work as twin masterpieces of duplicating the best highs of the drug experience, they are the corbeille américaine nouvelle vague - as accomplished in their heedless momentum as Truffaut's one-two punch of 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player at the dawn of the swingin' early 60s. Of course those weren't separated by seven years in which Truffaut only managed to make two music videos. But there were so fewer drugs floating around then. The best one could do was expired US Army amphetamines and endless wine. God knows the shit Korine's been doing, it probably doesn't even have a name yet, just a molecular number.

There is a moment early on when, to inherit his share of his late wife's millions, Moondog must first publish his long-delayed new book of poetry. To motivate him, he's totally cut off, and even kicked out of their Miami mansion, essentially forced to look for hand-outs as he bums around with his typewriter in a pillowcase. Then, he's arrested and forced into a 12-month rehab but he escapes after a few days and never looks back, nor does he have to! Between that and the way his rather dubious poetry is so highly regarded that he can stagger up to the podium at the Pulitzer Prize award dinner and babble about his cock and be embraced like a scruffy saint, his daughter now laughing at his jokes again, his cash released and presented to him in a giant slab, lets you know this is the kind of fame imagined by a stoned poetry class freshmen ranting at his school's open mike nights, but he rants / to no avail.

To no avail.

But I know these Moondog types, I partied with them, and it's certainly true that they liven up their corner of the scene. As long as you don't expect coherence or to be your own center of attention, you're bound to have a good time when they're around. Certainly they're no mooches, unless they don't happen to have anything, which they seldom do as they're too generous with it so it's gone very fast (Jesus with the loaves and fishes they ain't). Still, we understand why Snoopp would give him a plane, a massive wad of cash, and a wheelbarrow full of weed, to make his getaway when the law closes in on Snoop's pleasure palace. At the same time, none of his new friends ever proves hard for the Dog to leave when he gets the least bit bored or called off on his magical road. He end up never having to shoehorn a glommer off of his leg, which alas happens quite often in real life. Everyone is as welcoming as they are understanding of the cosmic forces which draw him thither (or they're just happy to see him go).

On the other hand, for every one of the charming Dogs there are about 100 mooches. Magically, Moondog never attracts such needy barnacles. After I graduated I'd drift back to that scene and there was a would-be Moondog (but really just a joneser townie) named Doug E. Fresh (who actually looks a lot like MM does here, as far as facial hair, but with that angular, starving dog face so familiar to those of us whose parents could afford braces or complex proteins). He didn't do poetry but he did have raps, which were the nu-poetry in 1991, and he'd never stop reciting them. You'd hear him recite the same lame rhyme flow over and over through the night as he hit on each new girl at the party. I'm sure, in his mind, he thought he was as irresistible as Moondog, but that's the genius of having McConaughey in the role. Swap him out with, say, Robert Wuhl, Ethan Hawke, or Eric Schaeffer and see if he gets the same howda ya do without it feeling like someone is buying him friends.  (1)

I can't spoil the ending, nor do I want to give up many plot points since there are so few of them - let's just say that he walks it likes he talks it, and no amount of challenges in his late wife's will can prevent him from doing just as he pleases, whether that includes leading a chorus of homeless inside his wife's and his pearly gates, to go swimming and then trash his own living room (shades of 2017's Mother!) or celebrating... something by a kind of ritualistic self-immolation (and Korine loves to film outsider derelicts smashing rich people furniture, a tribute to his beloved Werner Herzog, and perhaps Bunuel).

It's all just a dream anyway, so why not do as thou wilt? Jonah Hill's accent as the super rich literary agent lets you know just how much of a fantasy this is, especially in this day and age. The only literary agent living that high on the hog today is JK Rowling's.

As I get older and older, the kind of in-the-moment hedonism, McConaughey displays here leaves me feeling both assured and slightly lost, not that I didn't get enough of a taste for that kind of life in my prime, but that I could never sustain it for long. Other people in my group could ride it all the way, and in some ways that wave is only now beginning to break. I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall during this shoot to see just what they were all smoking, if they actually smoked that much. Like Nick Charles with his drinking, one can really only smoke so much pot without hitting a kind of plateau and either crawling over to the TV to waste the rest of the day, crashing onto the beach, or going into a paranoid heart-racing tailspin. Nick's drinking consumption would probably kill a normal human being but it's a kind of fantasy of excess. Especially in this day and age, weed has become so strong most of us can barely handle more than a single hit or two before reaching that breaking point wherein it's no longer fun.

I'm sure that's not true for all of us. Couple guys I know... they could. But they sure ain't about to write poetry. The biggest weed smoker I know did get one to write memoirs, with my encouragement, when he was in jail, and he was a natural with lots of sharply-observed details. But he didn't have access to weed then, I assume. He stopped writing once he resumed smoking.

Thank god then, there's a man like Moondog, out there smokin' and livin' a dream and writing about it.

Where will the crabs go,
when there's no more crotches like his?

A key element of Korine's success, if any, is an obsessive need for speed, for sharply observed moments tumbling after each other in a blithely stumble-forward momentum. Without this, Spring Breakers would wind up in plenty of circular eddies, with sound bytes repeated over and over, like a breathy, coke shiver mantra, and dead ends like jail and the wearisome Catholic reticence of Selena Gomez. There's none of that here, just a forward march move of the Dog, so that even rehab seems like it's part of an incredible outlaw journey undertaken while stumbling genially forward. There's never a dead stop. We seldom, if ever, see Moondog either eat or sleep --he's never shown as starving, dizzy from lack of a decent meal, looking for a place to shit or pee, or throwing up from too much booze; he passes out once on the floor once early on, and his loving housekeeper rescues him but as soon as he's back on his feet he's off and rolling away the doobs.

Korine captures a very rare and difficult to do right interiority in his mastery of this style. Just as he did with Breakers, we're given the 'inside' view of a very high man. We don't get a 'true' external but we do sense that, with just a slight shift in the POV, Dog's antics might seem the height of uncool tragedy. We get glimpses of the underside to Moondog's shenanigans in the corners of frames sometimes, like the poor old lady in the wheelchair he sends flying across the veranda into wall while bounding into his daughter' wedding ceremony. It's okay because she's not really his mother, or something - and she's forgotten. We don't even see if anyone helps her back into her chair. Indeed, the way the other person in a chair we see is cold-cocked and robbed, we wonder if the Dog and/or Korine has an unconscious resentment against the physically impaired, which is uncool. On the other hand, there's his erstwhile dissing on the loathsome banality of his daughter's choice in husband, which he does right there on the wedding floor. On the other hand, he doesn't recognize him as the kind of straight edge type of spouse sought after by adult children of flaky drug-addled partying celebrity parents (ala Saffie in Absolutely Fabulous or Christian Bale in Laurel Canyon). In other words, her choosing a doofus is partially his fault.

What makes Korine's view unique, is that the Moondog gets away with it. Is it because he's a celebrity or because he's Matthew McConaughey? Take for an example of the other side of it all - Johnny Depp in the awful same-year (2019) manly literature dude setting the people straight while coasting into a middle aged white man oblivion cock wave, The Professor, and you see just how great Korine is at his job. Unlike Professsor's director Wayne Rogers, Korine would never have the Dog make grand, insufferably bourgeois self-congratulatory demands to "seize your f--cking existence, folks!" He'd rather show than tell, which is what real writers and filmmakers do, Wayne. And if in the process we see just how unsightly it all may look if you don't have rose-tinted star-shaped shades on, that's just how it is, baby. You'll come around, and anyway he'll be off on another adventure and you can start cleaning up and soon he'll be just a funny anecdote.

A few years before I had my first drink there was a chapter on alcoholism in my middle school health class. (Actually it was that textbook that inspired me to try and smoke weed for the first time, being up til then a depressive punk rock straight edge: on the very last page at the end they point out they quietly mention pot has no long-term negative effects and indeed might promote immunity health and that psychedelics have immeasurable therapeutic value when done in the right circumstances -you had to read between the lines but there it was). Alcohol, the book said was a poison en par with heroin as far as detrimental health value and erosion of competency. We learned on the other hand that, though weed made you stupid if done to excess, it was reversible. Quit smoking dope and all your brain cells would grow back. Alcohol, on the other hand, was brain damage. One step up from glue sniffing

In this health class the teacher also showed a movie on the dangers of booze in which we see a thing those of us with alcoholic parents might be rather used to already: in the story, there's girl acting in a high school play and she's a big success. On opening night, during the curtain call, down the center aisle of the crowded PTA-packed assembly room comes drunk mom, in her bathrobe, staggering onstage to bring her embarrassed daughter a tattered flower bouquet, babbling to the gasping throng about what a great daughter she is, before crawling off to sleep in the wings. Ugh! God only knows how well that must have come off in her head.

We might also think of Norman Maine's (above left) drunken crashing of his wife's award speech (either at the Oscars or Grammys in any of the Star is Borns).  Seeing such naked sloppy attention grabbing is not unlike lifting the rock off a bug nest, for we see the externals not the camaraderie and hilarity we'd see were we as drunk as he is, or that stage mom, or Moondog is high. I know my dad ceased to be annoying once I too was drinking. I know too the cushy inside of that - I know what it's like to be all warm with whiskey mixing heroic grandeur and emotional sweep into the blood, so that every flourish of your hands in time with the sweep of some Bernard Hermann passage feels as if you're conducting the whole of Odessa across the steppes, a one man Dr. Zhivago of emotion and scope all encapsulated into your every head turn. You only find out how un-all that is years later, when you see it parade before you in the next generation, while you are painfully sober - aware of all the problems, rippling through time, your 'merriment' has wrought upon the world.

What's genius about Korine's and McConaughey's excellent work on the Bum is that it captures that rush of genius feeling without the need to either back it up with genuine brilliant diegetic poetry or anything like actual consequences. We're so conditioned to presume that with the wife's dying will edict about getting his act together coupled with the judge (who even confesses she "used to be a fan") remanding him to rehab, that he'll emerge with a haircut and a suit and we'll have the other polarity, which is what--if Korine was a 19 year-old screenwriting student at some generic writing workshop, he'd be told is important for character arc (I can just see the teacher drawing a big half-circle on the white board and gazing hopefully at Harmony like he's a precious little five year-old), workshopping it all down until it's another 28 Days (2000).

Clearly, Moondog needs no lessons in learning boundaries or how to open up to people, he can just do it while getting lit with Snoop Dogg (Here called 'Lingerie' so we don't get our 'dogs' mixed).

Cigarettes helped obscure how unattractive that all looks from far enough away. Now in bars you can see all the way across the room, and smell the way proximity in a small space while drinking and being flushed with drink leads to a boozy mist in the air that smells like a tang. Luckily, we have Korine here to remind us how wondrous it all looks from close enough we're on the inside looking out, and everything sure is beautiful. The jokes keep coming, from Moondog shaking off his jealousy before it can blossom (when he sees wife and Lingerie making out on the dock) and goes deep into the fountain, swimming around while masterfully keeping his drink always above the waterline; or his temporary affiliation with Martin Lawrence's hilarious 'swim with the dolphins' boat guide, who winds up leaping in to a pool of sharks by mistake and has his foot bit off (which Moondog helpfully tosses into the ambulance before ambling onwards).

In the end, bro. It's all good. It looks great. And it even ends in such a way as we expect movies to end, with millions caught up in empty explosions and a cat in jeopardy. And along the way, Matt McConaughey is so very much his stoner self he all but smokes the film right in front of you.

And in the end we're spared trite 'third road' solutions like in Depp's awful The Professor, because the Dog doesn't want you to 'shepherd your own life' or stand on your Dead Poets desk. The Dog doesn't want anything, not even millions of dollars. The dog just wants a doob, and a kitty.

And the cat lives!
(Visit my own site of trippy poetry here)

For a nice chaser to the Moondog's shaggy antics, check out the paralyzing bad trip energy of Michael Cera in two underseen little gems from Chilean director, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus. 
The other two psychedelic hits of the year: CLIMAX, and MIDSOMMAR

And for more on debauched middle-aged SWMs giving the crowd one last finger before turning it over to... you know, everyone else:

Now bleed for Me: THE WRESTLER (2008)
An American Rohmer: Clint Eastwood's BREEZY (1973)
Beards of Bleak: THE ROAD, WINTER'S BONE
The Foxy, the Dead, and the Foxier: DEATH-PROOF (BL 1/08)
Fantasy Phallus Fallacy: SATURN 3 (1980)
Quixote Ugly: THE SWIMMER (1968)
The Flower People Screaming: DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967)
You rolled, you really rolled: ROLLERBALL and a 70s Bloodsport Overview
Where's the Love, Man? THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
Paters Horribilis: Hookers, Harvey, and a Man called Pollack: EYES WIDE SHUT
The Narcissistic Male Gaze: It's not you it's Me because I am You
Great Old Drunk Writers and their Big Black Death (12/07)
Charge of the White Elephant: POLLOCK (2010)
Bride of Bogartstein: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)
Mendacity A-Go-Go: Liz vs. the Little Monsters (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF)
All Hail the New Flesh Keychain: ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)
The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER (11/23/07)
Born to be Childless (WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?)
The Sorrows of Softcore are the Joys of Art: L'IMPORTANTE C'EST D'AMIER
Mid-Life Crisis Superstar: Humbert, LOLITA and the Bait/Switch Cycle
Butler of Orbs: THE MASTER, THE (2012)
The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER (11/23/07)
Chop Wood, Carry Sponsors - The MAD MEN - Finale
A Great Hook: ROLLING THUNDER (1977 - Blu-ray review - BL 7/7/13)
Out HUD (New Years 2008)
Forgotten Men with Steam
All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives: Kubrick's LOLITA (BL)
Procedurama!: PUBLIC ENEMIES (BL)
I Aims to Scan your Big Bald Head: HITMAN and the New Male Chastity (07)
CinemArchetype 25: The Fisher King

1. Astute readers will analyze my loathing for Doug E. Fresh as a kind of projected self-loathing anxiety (that was the Doug E. Fresh, and not an erudite, occasionally coherent mix of Mick Jagger and Zoot (from the Electric Mayem). Just having to write all that judgy stuff up there kind of shows I still worry about that. 

Ride on, Moondog - you never worry, or project, right down to your core of cores. 
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