Saturday, October 30, 2010

#95: The Ugly (Scott Reynolds, 1997)

This disappointing debut feature from New Zealand writer/director Scott Reynolds presents a dilemma for me as a writer: I have a lot of specific things to say about the aspects of the film I disliked, but its virtues are a bit more amorphous and abstract. I will try not to beat up on Reynolds too much because he's attempting something interesting with the serial killer storyline, and I'll try to describe just what he's doing that works without getting too vague or fluffy. Let's begin by beating him up.
The Ugly takes place in a bizarre insane asylum in rural New Zealand housing prolific serial killer Simon Cartwright (Paolo Rotondo). Unlike most killers, he has no pattern for choosing his victims. He kills them by slicing their throats with a straight razor, but the weapon is the only constant. His victims are men and women, children and adults, friends and relatives and strangers. He doesn't rape, torture, or beat his victims, and he doesn't keep souvenirs. He's a mystery man. To use sophisticated psychological terminology, what is the cut of this guy's jib? Cartwright has been declared legally insane. Six years later, he decides he wants a second opinion, and requests famed and controversial psychologist Dr. Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Hobbs) for his reevaluation. This angers his current psychologist, Dr. Marlowe (Roy Ward), the head of the institution and a man who resembles a walking penis. He ensures that his only two employees, a couple of knuckle-walking goons (one of whom dresses exclusively in a sleeveless vest with no shirt underneath), regularly abuse Cartwright and attempt to intimidate Schumaker. He is what is known in the psychology biz as a dick. The rest of the film takes place in the two days in which Schumaker evaluates Cartwright, alternating between flashbacks to Cartwright's life before and during the murders, dream and fantasy sequences, and the present.

After a promising first fifteen minutes, the film unfortunately becomes a bit of a slog with some bright spots. Some of the blame can be placed on the miscast leads, Rotondo and Hobbs. I never accepted Rotondo as a serial killer. He lacks menace and intensity, and he's just physically wrong for the role. This may sound like a contradiction, but he's both too much and not enough of a pretty boy to convince as an indiscriminate killing machine. Maybe if the movie worked with Rotondo's almost-but-not-quite-teen-idol looks, something interesting would have developed, but painting him as a mysterious and threatening presence is a stretch. At least Rotondo is a fairly subtle actor. Hobbs chews scenery like she needs to compress every role she's ever had into one character. It doesn't help that the film's idea of psychotherapy is evil manipulation on the one hand (Marlowe) and yelling, confrontation, and high drama on the other (Schumaker). When Hobbs angrily throws all her papers on the floor with a sweeping gesture of her arms as she screams at Cartwright, I checked out. That is some ri-goddamn-diculous professional methodology. I think we're beyond the highly unorthodox at this point. "But she gets results!" you may offer in counterpoint. "Stupid results," I might reply.
Another problem with the movie is an overabundance of dream and fantasy sequences that borders on self-parody. On multiple occasions, the film devolves into the following sequence of events: Oh my god, that just happened! No, it was just a dream. Or was it? Yes, it was. No, it wasn't! Oh my god, yes it was! Or was it? No. Yes. Or, maybe... I sometimes wondered if I were watching a New Zealand version of an interminable Saturday Night Live skit.
Reynolds sometimes mistrusts his own admirable visual skill with abrupt switches to rapid jump cuts, shaky cams, and intrusive zooms in and out with an accompanying deep-focus/out-of-focus image. When he stays out of his own way and avoids over-stylization, he has a nice eye and the film is visually powerful. To his credit, he trusts himself more often than he feels the need to hyperbolically overzazz his imagery, music-video style, but when he punches up the visuals, the film becomes unnecessarily jarring and distracting.

My last criticism may be a little unfair since I'm slamming the film for what it isn't rather than what it is, but I found the overly serious tone oppressive. The Ugly tries too hard to be a serious art film but can't really pull it off. The movie's understanding of psychotherapy, serial killers, and mental asylums is too movie-cliched to reveal any new ways of seeing these subjects. A dose of exploitation or campy fun or a beheading or two would have been welcome, especially since the film's one moment of humor really worked. That moment involves penis-shaped Dr. Marlowe's secret one-way-glassed room with theater seats and piped-in classical music where he spies on Schumaker's sessions. Marlow is a balding, incredibly thin man with neatly trimmed sideburns and a soul-patch, and he's fond of wearing ascots. While he watches the session, he glares evilly and chomps on hard candy. The only thing missing is an aged cat or small dog for him to stroke while he formulates his evil plans.

Time to stop bashing Reynolds. Here's what he does right. His aforementioned visual skills are formidable when he's not bogged down in over-stylization. He has a nice eye for detail and shot composition, and the film's cinematography has that pleasing grit and grain often found in American films of the 1970s and Australian and New Zealand films of the 1970s-1990s. The black blood coming from the victims in the flashbacks and dreams is a nice little stylish touch that makes things seem not quite right without going overboard while also providing a payoff in the final scene. The asylum and Marlow's office are well designed, strong visual presences. The art director deserves some kudos for doing a lot with a little. The flashback sequences to the killer's childhood are handled in a straightforward, compelling way, ably performed by a strong cast. The mother gets some of the blame, as usual, but many actual serial killers had fucked-up mothers, so I can let this slide. Finally, the ghostly physical manifestations of the voices the killer hears are nicely handled. These apparitions are creepy and unsettling, and Reynolds uses them just enough without overusing them. I wish I liked this movie better, because Reynolds has some talent. Unfortunately, I can't work up much enthusiasm for The Ugly.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

#94: Two Thousand Maniacs! (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1964)

I nearly made the same mistake with Herschell Gordon Lewis I made with Mario Bava in my last post. I erroneously reported that Twitch of the Death Nerve was my first exposure to Bava's films. I later updated with the corrected information about seeing Bava's science fiction film Planet of the Vampires on the big screen as part of the Austin Film Society's global science fiction series several summers ago. I also nearly forgot that Two Thousand Maniacs! wasn't my first exposure to the films of H.G. Lewis, the "Godfather of Gore." I saw his biker chick movie, She-Devils on Wheels, on the big screen at an old motor speedway a few miles outside of Austin for an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow makeshift drive-in theater event. It was the first film on a double bill with Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Tura Satana and Hajji were there in person. The show was plagued with technical difficulties, stifling heat, and not enough restroom facilities (it was the first Rolling Roadshow event and procedures hadn't been nailed down yet), but I got to see some garage bands play live, watch a couple of cult classics on the big screen, and hear Tura Satana talk about her sex life with Elvis Presley.

At any rate, Lewis made biker chick movies, sexploitation, and children's adventure films, but he's better known as the man who invented the gore film, beginning with Blood Feast in 1963. His second film, Two Thousand Maniacs!, is probably the only gore film inspired by Brigadoon, though if you can think of any others please let me know. Two Thousand Maniacs! doesn't have it all, but it does have murderous Southern rednecks, a 1963 Playboy Playmate, the worst Southern accents captured on film, terrible acting, buckets of red paint, fairly decent suspense, some surprisingly powerful images, iconic moments in the history of horror/gore, amateurish camera work, a fascinating 1960s time-capsule quality, a Twilight Zone-esque twist ending, and an above-average bluegrass score.

The film opens with a pair of hillbillies hiding out on the side of the highway. One is up in a tree with binoculars, the other hides behind some tall grass next to the road. When Binocular Boy spots a car coming, Tall Grass Boy removes the "Augusta, Georgia - 110 Miles" sign and puts up his own detour sign leading the unsuspecting tourists to the town of Pleasant Valley instead of their destination. They need six Northerners to be the guests of honor at their centennial celebration. We never forget this because the phrase "guests of honor" is repeated at least 428 times. Why Northerners? You'll find out later in the film. Why six? That's never explained. The six Northerners they snag with their wily street sign switcheroo have many things in common. They all drive convertibles, they share stereotypical early 1960s fashion sense and good looks, and they can't act.

The film's depiction of small-town Southerners is so grotesquely over-the-top that it moves beyond the realm of stereotype and into some strange land of surreal, parodic homage. We get the fat, well-dressed mayor who likes to take off his pork-pie hat and provide you with overbearing Southern hospitality. We get the big dumb handsome guy, the regular-sized dumb ugly guy in a straw hat, the amply cleavaged Southern belle, and a lot of other goony, inbred dummies. We get a lot of dialogue like "We got us some good'uns! Dogged if we don't!" and "Yay doggies!" and "Yee-haw! We got us a mighty fine centennial!" We get moonshine in a jug.
This stereotypical setup is complicated by the twist ending, and the reason for the centennial. In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, a group of Northern soldiers killed and mutilated everyone in Pleasant Valley. It's now time for some revenge, Dixieland-style. The Northerners are separated from each other and forced to participate in twisted versions of normal centennial-type events like a barbecue, a horse race, a barrel roll, and a dunk tank. The blood flows copiously in these scenes, which are much more violent and gruesome than other films of similar early-1960s vintage.

Finally, it's up to our heroes, school teacher Tom (William Kerwin) and Terry (Playboy Playmate Connie Mason), the pretty lady who picked him up on the highway when his car broke down, to find out what's going on and plot their escape. Will they succeed? And what is going on? I'll let you find out for yourselves, although, if you're familiar with Brigadoon, I probably spoiled the twist ending.
The action is accompanied by a quality bluegrass score credited to the fictional band The Pleasant Valley Boys. In addition to the Lester Flatt covers, the score also includes some songs written and performed by Lewis himself, "Rebel Yell (The South's Gonna Rise Again)" of particular note. Lewis might have made a career for himself as a musician if he hadn't been too busy pushing the envelope of cinematic violence. Besides the score, the film's virtues are inseparable from its flaws. The awesome and terrible intermingle to such an extent that they become a single, lovably disgusting entity. This is a weird-ass movie, truly deserving of its cult-classic, midnight-movie status. It's Lewis' favorite of his own pictures, beating out such contenders as Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, The Wizard of Gore, and The Gore-Gore Girls.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

#93: Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, 1971)

Whew. This has been quite a week. I saw two great shows by two of my favorite reunited '90s bands, Pavement and Guided By Voices. I'm in the second week of preparing materials for a major life and possible career plan for next year. My wife and two friends were on lockdown at their jobs for three hours because a masked gunman opened fire on the University of Texas campus, fortunately killing or injuring no one, and killed himself in the main campus library. My wife and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary and our eleventh anniversary as a couple. Most importantly of all for me personally, my maternal grandfather died peacefully in his sleep after a long life. It's been a strange cocktail of mixed emotions all week long, and when life hits you with everything it has, good and bad, it's important to take a few hours to watch some Italians get murdered horribly. It centers your chi, I hear.

Mario Bava directed several films that horror fans generally consider classics, he is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of the slasher film, and he was a major influence on Dario Argento. For whatever reason, I'd never seen any of his movies until last night. Peculiar. Unfortunately, this particular DVD copy of the film contained the single worst sound quality I've ever encountered. I had to turn the sound on my television to Spinal Tap 11, and even at that level, the sound fluctuated from piercingly loud to normal to so quiet one-third of the dialogue was unintelligible within the space of each single line of dialogue. Come on, Image Entertainment, get your shit together. For some reason, the sound problems disappeared during the film's final 30 minutes, which is when everything gets explained anyway. A string of kick-ass murder scenes is the primary reason for this film existing, so you don't really need the dialogue until that final 30 minutes.
Let's get the dumb stuff out of the way first. This movie is either woodenly acted or overacted, stupidly written (by four people, from an idea by two other people!), and occasionally clumsy. None of that really matters, though, because the actors giving those wooden line readings have strikingly visual faces and facial expressions, the murder setpieces are clever, unexpected, and blackly hilarious, some of Bava's shot compositions are beautiful (others are sloppy, but there's more of the beautiful than the sloppy), and the film's influence on the slasher genre is pretty all-encompassing. If you've seen this movie and the original Halloween, you've seen every slasher movie. Friday the 13th, Part 2 even lifted two murders from this movie, shot for shot. (If you're interested, those murders are an axe to the face and a couple speared in flagrante delicto. I finally got a chance to use my favorite Latin term.)

Bava's film opens with a dialogue-free eight-minute scene that includes two murders and a hilarious fly's point-of-view shot that includes the fly's accidental death in the bay. This is a great scene. I won't spoil any of it for you if you plan on renting this one. (Just avoid that Image Entertainment disc if you can.) After these murders, we're introduced to several characters. There's an entomologist, a Tarot card reader, four randy teens, a developer, his secretary, a fisherman, and so on. We don't know their relationships to each other, in most cases, or what their angle is. Several murders occur, from your basic stabbings and stranglings to your axes to the face and elaborate beheadings. We don't know why people keep getting killed, though it has some vague something to do with development of the bay, a countess, and an illegitimate son. (The vagueness may be deliberate or just a byproduct of the DVD's atrocious sound quality.) We know there are multiple killers, because some of these killers are killed by other killers. And that's basically it. One murder after another, until the final thirty minutes explains, in flashback, who these people really are and why they are killing each other. Then we get a darkly comic ending that's expected in event but not in detail.

There's not much to say about this film without spoiling any of the fun, but I think any fan of Italian giallo, slasher movies, and creative death will enjoy at least part of this movie. Just find a DVD with better sound quality, if you can.
Claims are made that this film has more titles than any other. These claims may be right. Twitch of the Death Nerve is my favorite. It's just fun to say. The original Italian title translates as Chain Reaction, but the film has been released under many others, including:
A Bay of Blood
The Last House on the Left, Part II
(though it has nothing to do with Craven's film and was shot a year before)
Ecology of a Crime
The Antecedent
O Sexo na Sua Forma Mais Violenta

New House on the Left
A Smell of Flesh
the fabulously redundant Bloodbath Bay of Blood.

UPDATE - 10:01 p.m.
We're drinking with some friends right now, and one of them just reminded me that I have seen another Mario Bava film, and on the big screen, no less. Bava's 1965 science fiction epic, Planet of the Vampires, in brilliant color, is recommended to any living thing. It would make a great double feature with Forbidden Planet.