Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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.

Autumn comes everywhere, even Italy, whose art is older than America by many centuries --the orange hair of Nicoletta Elmi as she comes roaring at you with a hammer like a modern instance - and all on Prime... Can such deals be real, even at the tragic cost? 

(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 in color, from 1988, and bathed in wintry Ontario wanness. The titular brain for this one is a giant fanged, alien, floating head (less Donovan, more Arous), so don't worry about being gypped on the monster end (I haven't ever seen Donovan, out of principle). This evil brain isn't possessing gangsters or John Agar, it's using local 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 kidnap rehabs). Too, it might make you think of the divine Carpenter's They Live from the same year, but that was less about suburban teenage rebels and more about the inner city homeless. Not as relatable for me (thank the gods)!

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; his girlfriend (Cynthia Preston) works at a local diner and doesn't brook his tomfoolery. Escaping from rehab leads to a great stretch of film where he's just driving around his local streets, eluding the funny farm wagon. Its driver is a hulking hipster of a thing, and the sight of his lab smock wafting gracefully out of the van, brandishing ID tag and hypodermic and slinging a doped Tom over his shoulders like a bag of dog food--all while fighting off Tom's buddy and girlfriend--is one of those stealth cool/creepy film moments we take for granted in 80s movies, but we shouldn't - for they have not yet come again. 

Anyway, old Tom deserves his fate for wasting his chemistry skills on spiteful pranks too gauche even for a detention-magnet hesher. But he'll learn... oh yes.

 "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. He plans to launch a global satellite system that will enslave the world, but in the meantime, kill that rascally kid! The knack 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. Meanwhile, the evil brain grows ever bigger the more consciousnesses it devours inside the TV studio. Outside, 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, it might be Ontario, but it's still griml familiar territory for a lot of us 80s kids, and we may well remember taking backyard routes along tiny strips of shrubbery-filled no man's land just to sneak home to get a change of socks while our parents were at work. And the TV studio/ rehab looks just like the high school and the high school looks just like your dorm rooms --it's all made out of those drab concrete blocks, painted white or grey -- prisons without bars.  For me at least it's so familiar it's like the filmmakers are inside my head, rooting through public high school memories like the evil brain is ransacking my own unconscious dreams.

Today we can watch a film like The Brain and--in addition to reveling in the great, over-the-top 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 was only in its infancy, early enough that films like Videodrome and They Live seemed more speculative than historical. 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 even as every other facet of outlaw self expression was slowly rolled back on us by our own consumerist impulses. Our only quasi-legal 'fun' came in skipping school and then going to the mall and smoking cigarettes at Spaceport. Too specific? For those of us living in this post-real America of the Now, where dueling 24/7 news channels turn America agains itself as Russia crashes our future's hard drive with flag-pumpin' sock puppets fanning flames of the phony 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-growing fanged beach ball. If you were a pot-smoking hippy or punk teenager in the 80s you may well remember back to that time, when 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, which then seems like 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.

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- it's a kind of 80-minute nightmare logic poem that could have been a real bore in lesser hands. Demes takes a few pointers from Lynch (who cameoed as a security guard in Nadja so it all fits full circle!) 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. Sometimes '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 like a bat are more dumb than scary or dreamy. (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. 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 of her own.

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?' (ala Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came From the Sea); but who's complaining when--instead of the usual trench-coated 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 rapist mechanic's mysterious disappearance. With directorial debut 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
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B

Despite its banal title/s, this autumnal-hued, Exorcist-tinged supernatural Freudian Italian thriller has the goods. Richard Johnson (The Haunting) stars as a British documentary filmmaker whose new subject is "Diabolical Art," specifically a nightmarish, ancient Italian painting with a tragedy-speckled provenance that has some eerie connection to his Elektra-complexioned young daughter Emily (giallo redhead mainstay Nicoletta Elmi). She's still getting over her mom's death (in a horrible fire which Emily witnessed) and is so clingy she ends up tagging along to Italy with him (at her shrink's insistence) to watch daddy film the cursed painting and its creepy condemned historical old private gallery/museum setting. Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) is his sexually available new assistant; Evelyn Stewart (the stringent sister in The Psychic) is the governess who maybe waited too long to make her own move in that department. As you may guess, all sorts of similarities between the events depicted in the painting and reality start to manifest, especially the young girl in the painting is starting to look a lot like Emily, who's growing increasingly possessed by the homicidal spirit attached to a mysterious medallion that used to belong to her witchy mom. 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, countess, I'm sorry. He keeps insisting the accumulating deaths are "accidents." The discovery of a duplicate to Emily's locket inside the statue that breaks at his feet when looking at the painting?. That too, countess, is coincidence... Sigh.   The countess can only see his death and see the roots of all the problems in her weird dreamlike trances, she can't convince Johnson to believe her warnings.

Meanwhile, Emily has terrible nightmares whenever dad is off scoring with sexy Cassidy. Everyone standing in the way of Emily's Elektra-Freudian desires starts dying off, and each time the dried blood or other strange gunk falls off the painting to expose more and more eerie detail. What is Emily doing? Why is her image appearing on this ancient canvas, holding a sacrificial double-edged knife? And what size rock has to fall on our documentarian's head before he wises up to the ghostly goings-on?

Johnson and his vaguely bossy/patriarchal manner and dismissiveness of the supernatural are familiar from The Haunting, so the real surprise here is Nicoletta Elmi. 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: in the scariest scene-- her eyes wild with merry homicidal glee--she starts lunging at her terrified governess with a hammer! Even just trying her mom's old dress, Emily's eyes light up with such dirty malice a viewer may get a deep, satisfying shudder.  When she smokes a cigarette, she does so with a look that's startlingly adult, easily outpacing other smoking 10 year-olds trying the same look (as in Tatum O'Neil in Paper Moon.)

Though it's a 70s post-Exorcist horror film, Italian cinema rarely let go completely of its old obsessions when adding 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 there. Don't Look Now-style weirdness includes a muttonheaded skeptic chasing a strange child through twisting old narrow twisted Italian alleyways (in Spoleto instead of Venice). Maybe that's why Stelvio Cirpiani's score comes at it all like some sweeping sinful post-neorealist romance, with building strings and wistfully gamboling fifths soaring and lilting until you practically smell the autumn leaves and see pairs of lovers lost in blissful montage like it's some 60s softcore erotic vacation. He then plays that tune over and over and over, all that banal grand piano sweep. Only a three-beat recurring solo heartbeat line provides an in kliung Cipriani even watched the film. Suddenly the soapy dross drops away like mortality's curtain for this spare, ominous line.

The lush Italian scenery and ancient buildings and art--often seen via reflective windows--lets you know they really are driving around the Italian countryside; and the dreams Emily has are layered in extended overlays which only reluctantly give way to dissolves - a trick seldom employed as brazenly or as effectively as here. The painting that so fascinates dad so much is just the right blend of classical and heavy metal (Bosch meets Kiss) without it becoming tiresome (since we look at it so damned much). All in all, it might not be as great as The Exorcist or Don't Look Now, but the combination of Elimi's terrifying smile, the unabashed Freudian murk of the central relationship, and Italy's leafy old world foliage more than make-up for Cipriani's generic scoring, the low body count, the ultimate emptiness of the resolution, and the flat dubbing of everyone but Johnson.  

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