Saturday, February 11, 2017

#250: Blackenstein (William A. Levey, 1973)

Following the financial success of 1972's Blacula and independent studio AIP's decision to dump its plans for a Frankenstein followup and instead make a Blacula sequel, an eccentric criminal lawyer who had always fantasized about becoming part of the movie business decided a black Frankenstein movie was his ticket into showbiz. He started writing the screenplay, contacted an aspiring director friend who had yet to make anything, and the plans for Blackenstein quickly turned into action.
That writer/producer was named Frank R. Saletri, and he had a wild, weird life story, even by  fringes-of-Hollywood standards. Saletri was a successful criminal lawyer who ran his law practice from his Hollywood home, a mansion resembling a castle formerly owned by Bela Lugosi. (Johnny Depp owned it for a while, too, in the 1990s.) Unlike most high-powered criminal lawyers in large cities, Saletri didn't socialize with his fellow attorneys, instead preferring to hang out at the Hollywood chapter of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a social club for retired professional wrestlers and boxers, actors who portrayed fighters in films (including Sylvester Stallone), and rich guys like Saletri who were obsessive wrestling and boxing fans. He especially liked to show up when celebrities were hanging out and get his face in as many pictures as he could. Saletri considered himself a ladies' man, took pride in his mustache, and enjoyed flying single-engine planes and doing pro bono work for his fellow American Legion members.  
Blackenstein was Saletri's only film as writer/producer, and his next project, Black the Ripper, never got off the ground. Saletri was murdered in his home from a single gunshot to the head in 1982, and the crime remains unsolved. Family, friends, and law enforcement believe it was someone he knew because there were no signs of forced entry or burglary, and Saletri had no known ties to drugs or crime outside of the clients he represented. He also owned several guns, knew karate, and had three large dogs, so he probably had his guard down. Adding to the strange details, Saletri had the locks changed in his home and took out a large life insurance policy just a few weeks before the murder.
His aspiring director pal Levey's story was a happier one. After Blackenstein, Levey somehow managed to work for another 20 years as a director, and his credits include crime drama To Be a Rose, Wam Bam Thank You Spaceman (a film about aliens traveling to Earth to impregnate Earth women, of course), teen party movie Slumber Party '57 (starring a young Debra Winger), the self-explanatory The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, roller disco masterpiece Skatetown, U.S.A. (starring Scott Baio, Flip Wilson, Ron "Horshack" Palillo, Ruth Buzzi, Patrick Swayze, and Billy Barty), early Jean-Claude Van Damme action-thriller Monaco Forever (Van Damme plays a character known only as Gay Karate Man), Mickey Rooney-starring family film Lightning, the White Stallion, and Ron Palillo-starring motorcycle gang/magic crystal horror film Hellgate. His last film to date was 1991 inmates-are-running-the-asylum kidnap thriller Committed, again starring Ron Palillo.
I guess I have to talk about Blackenstein now. It's not very good. It can be dull. No one in it seems to have any idea how to make a movie. Despite all that, it has a weird fascinating quality that is hard to describe, it's short, and it contains one of my favorite lines of dialogue: "He won the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the DNA genetic code." Sometimes, it even stumbles into an accidental avant-garde experimentation.
Blackenstein begins with young doctor Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) arriving at the castle-like mansion (Saletri's actual home) of experimental surgeon Dr. Stein (John Hart). Dr. Walker's fiance Eddie (Joe De Sue) lost his arms and legs in a landmine explosion in Vietnam and is currently in a VA hospital in Los Angeles. Winifred has just moved to Los Angeles from New York to be with him, and she convinces her former medical school professor Stein to give her a job in his home/hospital/laboratory and take on Eddie as a patient. Stein has had some success regenerating limbs in his weird lab, the set of which contains some props from James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein.
Unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Stein's creepy assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) falls in love with Winifred, and when she politely declines his advances, he switches the DNA serums of Eddie and another patient. The switcheroo causes Eddie to Frankenstein the fuck out, and he (slowly, very slowly) sneaks out at night to wander the streets and rip the arms off and the entrails out of anyone unlucky enough to cross his path and dumb enough to just stand there and not run away, which is oddly almost everyone (again, Blackenstein walks extremely slowly). The notable exception is a nightclub comedian who is taking a smoke break in the alley while the singer and band perform. When the police question him, he says, "This sounds crazy, but I saw a 12-foot shadow." The cop: "So, what did you do?" The comedian: "Man, I got the hell out of there."
The performances range from passable to atrocious, with the majority of the cast never appearing in another movie before or since. Joe De Sue was a client of Saletri's hired for his size, and he gives possibly the least emotive performance in cinema history. Another member of the cast, Liz Renay, who plays one of Blackenstein's victims, was also a client of Saletri's. Raised by Christian fundamentalist parents in Arizona, Renay ran away from home at 13 and ended up in Los Angeles, where she won a Marilyn Monroe lookalike contest and became a showgirl. She later dated notorious mob boss Mickey Cohen, and she served two years in Terminal Island for perjury during Cohen's tax evasion trial. After her release from prison, she became a Vegas showgirl and was married seven times. Saletri defended her in an indecent exposure charge after she became the first grandmother to streak down Hollywood Boulevard. (I don't know who was in charge of investigating that statistic.) Renay died at the age of 80 in 2007.
Everyone connected to Blackenstein seems to have a more interesting story than the film, but, like a lot of amateurish B-movies, it holds a weird, fascinating charm. I also like how a couple guys with no experience decided to make a movie and actually did it. And there's a progressive aspect to the movie, too, before all the Frankenstein killing business, in which a young black woman and an old white guy can work alongside each other with mutual respect and skill. This jumps out more than usual in our current political climate where old white men are trying to destroy everything for the dispiriting old reasons of greed, spite, stupidity, authoritarian power, and racism.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

#249: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)

What a hellish nightmare of a week for the United States and humanity in general. The presidency turned into a white supremacist authoritarian dictatorship in a single week, and this country's worst impulses have become blazing neon signs. This is just a silly horror movie blog, and I won't be commenting much on politics in this space in the uncertain weeks, months, and years to come, but I fucking hate Donald Trump, his cabinet, the Republican Congress and everything they stand for and won't stand up for, and the weak-ass Democrats who are voting for his cabinet picks and not fighting for their constituents and a better future, and I'm sad, disgusted, angry, and worried. Being a straight white guy, I've had and probably still have plenty of blind spots and ignorance, and I'm in the demographic that is the least endangered by this administration's policies, but I want a world that welcomes and includes everyone and gives everyone a place at the table and a chance to participate and succeed in as even a playing field as we can get. I don't understand anyone who doesn't want these things. The only thing keeping me from total despair right now is that most Americans don't support this monster, either. Movies, music, books, (some) family, and friends have been a big help, too. Please, in any way you can, support the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and any other local, national, and global organizations fighting the good fight. And support your local arts, too. This could be a better world. It's on us. Rant over. Now an artless, awkward transition to this week's movie. 
Dario Argento's first film as a director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a lot less visually opulent than the horror classics he would soon make, but the seeds are definitely there, and a handful of scenes and images prove he had incredible imaginative skill from the beginning. This first film keeps one foot in the real world (or at least the movie version of the "real world"), especially compared to the baroque, hallucinatory dreamworld that most of his '70s and early '80s work inhabits, but it's packed with great movie faces, suspense, weirdness, and some pretty jaw-dropping set pieces, as well as 1970s Italian horror standard-issue sexism and homophobia that has aged pretty poorly.
Before he got the chance to direct his own films, Argento spent four successful years as a screenwriter, which seems a little odd to me. I love peak Argento, but I find his writing the least interesting thing about his work. He has great story ideas (one of which became the basis for one of Sergio Leone's greatest westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West), but his dialogue is pretty clunky and is generally perfunctory and expository, meant to keep the plot and narrative together and moving forward. I don't watch Argento for the sparkling writing. I watch him for his insanely awesome cinematic eye. His action sequences, shot compositions, odd visual details, eye-popping colors, and spectacular sense of where to put the camera and how to move it for maximum impact, these are the reasons why I'm an Argento fan. At any rate, he worked on the screenplays for comedies, westerns, gangster films, war films, sexploitation films, dramas, and psychological thrillers before putting his unique stamp on the horror genre as a director.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fascinating take on an Italian subgenre most popular in the '60s and '70s that Americans call "giallo." In Italy, giallo is a broader term applied to any thriller. "Giallo" means "yellow" in Italian and was used to describe thrillers because postwar Italian mystery paperbacks often had yellow covers. Americans use it in a more specific way about a specific type of Italian horror film that is easier to recognize than describe. The characteristics of giallo as an Italian subgenre are as follows: A black-gloved killer murders beautiful women in particularly violent ways, usually with a knife, presented in highly stylized scenes and shots and accompanied by progressive, experimental music scores. The hero is often a witness to one of the crimes. Visual impact and formal inventiveness are prioritized over narrative coherence and logic. Characters generally behave in strange, illogical ways. These films tend to be misogynistic, but fortunately most of them don't include torture or rape and instead place their scares in menace, atmosphere, and suspense.
Argento's Plumage contains all the elements I mentioned in the previous paragraph, though the narrative is far more coherent than most of his subsequent films. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a struggling American writer preparing to move back to the United States who witnesses something strange while walking home one night. In the first of the film's many impressive visual sequences, Sam sees a woman struggling with a man in a black coat, hat, and gloves through the window of an art gallery. The woman is stabbed, and the man runs away, but not before hitting a switch and trapping Sam in the entrance to the gallery. He's surrounded on all sides by glass, and he can't get inside the gallery or back out to the street. Meanwhile, the woman is crawling on the floor, bleeding. Sam finally gets someone's attention, and the police and medics arrive in time to save the woman.
After a stretch as a suspect in which his passport is confiscated, Sam soon becomes a confidante to the detective working the case, helping him track down leads and growing more and more obsessed with catching the would-be killer, who has also been stalking and murdering a string of other women throughout the city.
Many intense, visually expressive scenes follow, including a chase through the streets that leads to a parking lot for buses and a hotel conference room full of ex-boxers having a union convention, the killer attempting entry into a top-floor apartment, an eccentric painter trying to make a sale who has walled off the entrance to his home, and a wild trio of scenes concluding the film. Argento was a gifted natural from the beginning, and he'd only get better from here (and then much worse, but I'll pretend his last several years never happened). Besides his own gifted compositional skills, Argento is masterfully aided here by the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose score is strange, intense, beautiful, and in some scenes, a kindred spirit to the electric improvisational music Miles Davis was making at the time. I like this movie, and even though some of its creakiness and stereotypical attitudes revealed themselves even more on this second viewing, its strengths did, too. A solid, scary film.