Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Off the Road: NIGHT CHILD, THE BRAIN, LILITH'S AWAKENING


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...

THE BRAIN
(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!

 LILITH'S AWAKENING
(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! 

--

NIGHT CHILD
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," mainly a strange nightmarish ancient Italian painting with a tragedy speckled provenance that has some eerie connection to his Elektra-complexioned young daughter Emily (Nicoletta Elmi of Who Saw Her Die?). She's still getting over her mom's death in a horrible fire and is so clingy she ends up tagging along to Italy with him (at her shrink's insistence) to film the work 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) the governess who maybe waited too long to seem interested. 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 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 deaths are "an accident." The discovery of a duplicate to Emily's locket is 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 it.

Meanwhile, Emily has terrible nightmares whenever dad is off scoring. Everyone in the way of some ancient curse of Freudian impulse starts dying off, 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 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. The real stand-out here is bizarre grin of 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: her eyes wild with merry homicidal glee, lunging at her terrified governess with a vase.  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 10 year-olds trying the same look (as in Tatum O'Neil smoking 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, so there's also plenty of Don't Look Now-style weirdness where a muttonheaded skeptic chases 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, 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. He then plays that tune over and over and over, all that banal grand piano sweep. Only a 3-beat recurring solo heartbeat line when danger brews is evidence 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. 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. 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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