Thursday, December 11, 2008

#51: The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

I have no doubt that The Last House on the Left is an effective horror film. I just don't like it very much. It makes me feel dirty. I don't enjoy watching people being tortured. It's not my bag. Rape and sexual humiliation also are not big cinematic treats for me. Wes Craven, in his first film, creates a powerful atmosphere, serious shocks, and some striking images. The film achieves what it sets out to do, but it's so damned unpleasant with a thoroughly depressing view of humanity. Besides Last House on the Left, the only Craven film I've seen recently (though I watched many of his movies when I was a kid) is Scream, which would be my least favorite movie of the last decade and a half if Paul Haggis' Crash and the oeuvre of Oliver Stone ceased to exist. Shit, I forgot about Patch Adams. Scream is better than Patch Adams. At any rate, Craven strikes me as a shitbag of a human being based on these two films.
(Warning: Multiple spoilers ahead, for this movie and others.)

Bizarrely, Last House on the Left remakes Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which itself was based on a Norwegian folk tale. In the Bergman original, a barely pubescent girl, a blonde little pixie whose budding sexuality and angelic appearance attract the wrong sort of crowd, falls victim to a group of bandits. The bandits later seek shelter at the home of the now-dead girl's father, Max Von Sydow, unbeknownst to them. When he discovers their misdeeds, he viciously slaughters them. In Craven's film, two teenage girls try to score some weed in the city before attending a rock concert and are kidnapped by a group of escaped convicts: a bisexual spike-haired refugee from a John Waters film, her alpha-male ringleader rapist/murderer lover and his heroin-addicted teenage son (who has been plied with the drugs so he can be easily controlled), and a dim-witted rapist/murderer. (That the gang of killers all have Jewish features has already been covered in someone else's blog, but is worth reiterating if for no other reason than to express bafflement.) The girls are humiliated, raped, tortured, and, finally, killed. The murderous gang's car runs out of gas near the home of one of the girls' parents. They pose as traveling businesspersons, the parents take them in, the mother sees one of the gang wearing her missing daughter's necklace, murderous revenge occurs.

The difference between Bergman and Craven is vast. Bergman presents the allure of a girl on the verge of womanhood with lighting and facial expressions. Craven has a mailman deliver a monologue about what a piece of ass a teenage girl has become while delivering her letters, then shows the girl getting out of the shower and gazing happily at her own breasts, then has her father ask her why she's not wearing a bra (borderline creepy, but still somewhat fatherly) while grabbing her by the bottom of her shirt and telling his wife "Look, you can see her nipples" (out of the ballpark creepy), then flashing to a scene of the girl and her friend in the woods in which the girl talks happily about how much her breasts have filled out.
The dialogue in the film is mostly atrocious, but the actors are very strong. They deliver the ridiculous lines believably, they physically inhabit the characters, and they carry the movie on their shoulders. The scenes of torture and violence are hard to watch. One stabbing, in particular, seems to carry some psychic residue from the Manson family murders, still very recent news at the time of the film's release and a violent episode in American history that haunted pop culture for twenty years afterwards. The bizarre Hee-Haw style comic relief from two bumbling local policemen and an African American woman driving a pickup truck loaded with live chickens raises many questions I will never be able to answer.

I Spit on Your Grave might as well be a loose remake of this loose remake. (All roads in torture porn lead back to Norwegian folk tales.) Both films feature women sexually tortured for an extended duration, followed by revenge killings. The ringleader of the creeps in both films is a Semitic-looking man with dark, curly hair who smokes cigars and hates everyone, especially women. In Craven's film, the victims are rural Connecticut girls hitting the big city. In the other film, the victim is a New Yorker spending the summer in rural Connecticut. In both films, the women are raped and beaten in the Connecticut woods. A penis is bitten off during oral sex in Craven's film. A penis is scissored off in a bathtub after a masturbatory rubdown in I Spit on Your Grave. Roger Ebert called I Spit on Your Grave "a vile bag of garbage" but gave Craven's film 3 1/2 stars out of 4. To each his own.
Weird facts about the actors:
Fred Lincoln, the dim-witted rapist/murderer, eventually became a porn director. You may know him from such films as Thighs Wide Open, Sextraterrestrials, Prettiest Tits I Ever Came Across, Cajun Heat, Bone Appetit: A She-Male Seduction and Last Whorehouse on the Left.
Jeremie Rain, the only woman in the murder gang, was married to Richard Dreyfuss for several years.
Marc Sheffler, the heroin addicted son, wrote seven episodes of "Charles in Charge."
Richard Towers, the father of one of the murdered girls, acted in this film under the fake name Gaylord St. James.
These facts sound suspiciously like the bullshit I like to invent, but they are real.

My parents saw this film early in their relationship in the theater on a double-date with my dad's best friend and his then-girlfriend. During one shock scene, my dad's friend threw his popcorn and soda-pop in the air. They landed on the person sitting behind him.

An image from The Virgin Spring:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

#50: Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988)

Ken Russell's work has always been a little off-putting to me, but I can never quite figure out why. I'm tempted to call him a vulgarian, but the line from A Fish Called Wanda pops in my head in which John Cleese calls Kevin Kline a vulgarian, and Kline responds, "You're the vulgarian, you fuck." I like vulgarity. Maybe it's Russell's garish excess. I'm tempted to compare him to Oliver Stone, another excessive guy whose films don't work for me, but Russell has so much more imagination and humor than that clod Stone. Maybe it's because Russell is kind of a dirty old man, but I hope to be a dirty old man someday. There's a determined ugliness to his work that is perhaps my closest, most viable reason to shrink away from what he's offering, but I'm still having trouble describing that ugliness. What have I got against Russell? I'm not alone, anyway. Russell's been fighting the high-profile critics for his entire career. Pauline Kael described Russell as a "shrill, screaming gossip" and said his "idea of art is purple pastiche." Judith Crist, using the royal we, said "we can't recall in our relatively broad experience a fouler film." Vincent Canby said he was "a hobbyist determined to reproduce The Last Supper in bottle tops." Roger Ebert gave his film The Devils zero stars. A quote I can't find attribution for describes Russell's work as "hyperthyroid camp circuses." That one should go on the poster.

I have to admit, anyone who can inspire such expressive vitriol is probably doing something right. And I haven't really seen anything like these Russell moments in other films: a nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates on a bearskin rug in front of an enormous fireplace in his D.H. Lawrence adaptation, Women in Love, any random five minutes from The Who's rock opera Tommy, the last twenty minutes of Altered States.
I think Lair of the White Worm is probably the most enjoyable Ken Russell movie I've seen, even though I tried, and failed, to watch it twice before when I was in high school and my second year of college. I don't why I had trouble getting through it on those two occasions. Despite its horrible reviews when it was first released, Lair of the White Worm is a stylish, funny, ridiculous, smart, stupid, fantastic horror movie. Based on a late-period Bram Stoker novel, when the author was afflicted with gout and Bright's disease and suffering from mental problems (some historians think he was also suffering from advanced syphilis), White Worm works as a parody of the British Hammer horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s, a female version of the Dracula story, a campy comedy, a straight-up horror film, and a prurient teenage celebration of blasphemy, phallic worship, and boobies. Not to mention some wildly over-the-top dream sequences.

In the British countryside, a Scottish doctoral student in archaeology is staying on the farm of two sisters whose parents mysteriously disappeared a year ago. The farm sits above what was once a colonized piece of the Roman Empire. He finds some ancient Roman coins, but he also finds a mysterious, dinosaur-like skull that is soon stolen. Meanwhile, one sister is engaged to idle, rich snob Hugh Grant, whose ancestor supposedly killed a giant, white snake. The village has a festival every year celebrating the slaying of the white worm, complete with Pogues-esque songs of dragonslaying performed by a Celtic rock band, pickled earthworms, and a simulation of the snake's death performed by Grant and several villagers in papier-mache snake costume. Amanda Donohoe enters the picture as the female Dracula figure. She owns a large mansion in the woods, and hibernates for the winter there. She's very interested in the monster skull, the archaeology project, the virginal fiancee of Hugh Grant, her Snakes and Ladders boardgame, and walking around in various states of undress. Donohoe is perfect in this role, one that requires sex appeal, humor, and menace, often at the same time. Will the Scottish doctoral student, Hugh Grant, the sisters, and a cross-eyed cop team up to stop Donohoe's reign of snake-loving vampirism? Will dream sequences feature nuns being raped, giant snakes slithering around the crucified body of Jesus, and a topless Donohoe licking a homemade wooden dildo against a lava lamp background? Will the virgin be sacrificed to the giant worm/snake/dragon? Will a serum for vampire/snake bite be found? Will bagpipes be played? Some of the answers to these questions are yes. I like that.

This scene warmed my lapsed Catholic heart:

I would like to wish a happy decapitated zombie vampire birthday to my lovely unholy, undead vampire wife, Spacebeer! I hope you have a great day.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

#49: Kingdom of the Spiders (John "Bud" Cardos, 1977)

You would think a movie about killer tarantulas starring William Shatner as a cowboy veterinarian named Rack Hansen would be an unintentionally funny piece of Z-grade camp. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Kingdom of the Spiders is a taut, effective B-movie with tons of atmosphere, an interesting and unusual location, and strong performances, including Shatner (!), who dials it way, way down from his usual Shatnerian Shatneritude. That said, there are still a few unintentionally hilarious moments, including a twisting, leaping, balletish Shatner dodging a shitload of killer tarantulas on the ground, and the following exchange of dialogue that had me howling with laughter:

Shatner, to a sexy scientist from Arizona State: You expect me to believe that a spider could kill a dog, much less a full-grown steer?
Sexy scientist: Not one spider. Several hundred.
Rancher, whose dog and cattle were killed: Well, that would explain Spider Hill.

Yes, that certainly would explain Spider Hill. Kingdom of the Spiders opens like a Western, with a scenic view of the Arizona desert and a country music soundtrack by Dorsey Burnette. Next, we meet rancher Woody Strode, his wife, and a prize calf, nearly full grown, who ends up being spider meat. We see this slaughter through a tarantula's-eye-view, a technique that is repeated a few other times in the course of the film. Next, we meet Shatner, as Rack Hansen, the cowboy vet, and his widowed sister-in-law. They have a sexually tense, not quite romantic relationship. When Shatner sends a blood sample of the slaughtered calf to Tempe, sexy scientist Tiffany Bolling heads to the small Arizona town to investigate the test results. Why did the calf die from spider venom? She's sexy enough to get involved in a not quite love triangle with Shatner and sis-in-law. Shatner initiates things by nearly running Bolling off the road, then taking her to dinner. The ladies love that, let me tell you. Meanwhile, the county fair is coming up, and the mayor is none too pleased about Spider Hill. He demands either a massive pesticide drop or a cover-up. Unfortunately, the spiders are attacking animals, and soon humans, because overuse of pesticides has depleted their food supply. In addition, those wacky tarantulas have evolved, and their venom is now five times more powerful. What will happen? Probably spider mayhem, but I'll leave that for you to discover.

Kingdom of the Spiders is quality drive-in fare. The character actors are interesting and convincing, the rural Arizona locations are easy on the eye and have been underused by Hollywood, giving the setting a freshness lacking in most Hollywood tripe, and the people behind the camera clearly know what they're doing. IMDB describes director John "Bud" Cardos as a B-movie Renaissance man, and they're not lying. Retired now, he enjoyed simultaneous careers as a director, actor, producer, stuntman, assistant director, and production manager. Not to mention the rare job as a special effects man, production designer, driver for the transportation department, and, for Hitchcock's Psycho, bird handler. He covered the waterfront of 1960s to early 1990s B-movie genres, working on horror films, westerns, biker movies, drag racing movies, sword and sorcery, blaxploitation, family movies, sexploitation, and comedies. Where is the John "Bud" Cardos of today? Where?

In conclusion, Kingdom of the Spiders is worth seeing. Peace out, jerks.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

#48: The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

Some friends of mine and critics I read tend to either rapturously love Michael Mann's films or intensely despise them. I don't have such strong feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed Manhunter and Thief, thought Heat was silly (except for Tom Noonan's small part), enjoyed The Insider but quickly forgot about it, and avoided seeing the ones I'm guessing won't set me on fire (The Last of the Mohicans, Ali, Miami Vice). So, I don't have any beef with Michael Mann, but I also don't go into multiple orgasms every time he releases a movie. However, I find the vigorous reactions to his work interesting.
The Keep is Mann's forgotten movie. He wanted a three- to four-hour cut, but the producers had the final say and trimmed it to a sometimes incoherent 96 minutes. The film is only available on VHS, with no current plans for a DVD. It was a huge flop at the box office and not critically well received. At times, it's way too stylistically flashy for its own good. However, looked at as a pure genre movie, The Keep is not without its charms.

Set in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania during World War II, the story begins with a group of Nazi soldiers occupying a small village on orders to guard a mountain pass. A large castle keep occupies the bulk of the village, but this keep has been oddly constructed. It doesn't keep intruders out; it keeps something in. Bwa ha ha ha! The villagers ominously warn the Nazis to stay away, but they don't listen. Two soldiers bust open the keep to steal some silver crosses, and the evil inside gets released. There is an amazing shot (the best one in the movie) at this moment. A young Nazi soldier, after breaking through the wall, pokes his head inside to look around. The camera pulls back, and back, and back, revealing an enormous, empty, cavernous blackness with the man's head at the top center of the screen the only visible lighted source.
Soon, Nazis are mysteriously dying every night. The captain calls for backup, and a sadistic major and his forces arrive to relieve him of his command. When the deaths continue and mysterious writing appears on the wall, an ailing Jewish professor and his caretaker daughter are removed from a concentration camp and sent to the village. The professor is an expert on the region, and the only expert on the keep. Soon, a demon emerges from the keep to make deals and destroy Nazis. But, is he an even bigger evil than the Third Reich?

The Keep, based on an F. Paul Wilson novel, contains a lot of ridiculous dialogue. The filmmakers take themselves very seriously, but the mood reminds me of an old DC or Marvel comic, and the demon even looks like an old comic book supervillain. The fine cast includes Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, and Robert Prosky. The score by Tangerine Dream is very satisfying in a 1980s time capsule way, but Mann overuses it. The plot jumps around too quickly, like huge chunks are missing (and they are). It's a fun movie, though, and campy enough to enjoy a larger cult than it currently possesses.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

#47: Jack's Back (Rowdy Herrington, 1988)

Jack's Back, the first film by Road House writer/director Rowdy Herrington, is a satisfyingly cheesy 1980s-style suspense thriller, with horror and police procedural elements. The plot relies on about seven or eight twists, so I'll try not to give anything away. (If you want to see it, this film is only available on VHS. I had to order a cheap copy from Amazon since none of my neighborhood video stores carried it.) The movie opens with a woman running away from an unseen attacker before he catches up with her and kills her. Then, two police detectives discuss the murder with a psychologist. A copycat killer is reenacting Jack the Ripper's murders exactly 100 years to the day after they originally occurred in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and this murder was a part of it. Pseudo-Jack has one murder left to commit, and it will happen ... TONIGHT! Next, we are introduced to James Spader, playing a double role as twin brothers. One brother is an idealistic medical student, working in a free clinic for poor people with no health insurance and volunteering his time at a homeless camp. Fellow medical student Cynthia Gibb has a crush on him, while the doctor who runs the clinic, Rod Loomis, is an ill-tempered whack job. The other twin is a slightly pompadoured bad boy who drinks, smokes, and gets into a lot of minor trouble with the law. He also manages a shoe store. Yes, that's right, a shoe store. The bad-boy character manages a shoe store. Saucony paid for product placement, so what can you do? Without giving anything away, the goody-two-shoes twin gets accused of the Ripper slayings, and the bad boy twin must clear his brother's name. Additionally, there are at least five possible suspects capable of committing the murders, including the good twin, the bad twin, the lunatic doctor, an orderly named Jack, and the psychologist.
Herrington's film gets two interesting performances from Spader, including a lot of angsty shirtless contemplations that my wife, the lovely Spacebeer, enjoyed very much. Most of the other performances are interesting as well. I also enjoyed the location shooting, the fact that most of the characters smoked in places where people can't smoke anymore (including the shoe store), the dated synth score, and the amusing plot twists. The film's climax is admirably light on dialogue, avoiding unnecessary exposition.

I don't have much to say about this movie. It's enjoyably cheesy without ever getting too cheesy, surprisingly suspenseful, and fun. I had a good time watching it, but I don't have any personal anecdotes or analyses this time. I was entertained, that's all. Also, it's very difficult to find images from films that aren't available on DVD. Goodbye, everyone.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

#46: Jack Be Nimble (Garth Maxwell, 1993)

This interesting, obscure New Zealand film stars a pre-female Alexis Arquette and the late jazz drummer/actor Bruno Lawrence, and should probably enjoy a much larger cult reputation. It has several midnight-movie ingredients:
1) A heavily stylized, hallucinatory, yet formally consistent tone
2) Psychic telepathy
3) A weird metal box with flashing lights that hypnotizes anyone who stares at it
4) Weird murders
5) Teen angst
6) The New Zealand equivalent of Southern Gothic
7) Four creepy sisters who move in unison and never speak, whose appearances bear distinct similarities to the female followers of Charles Manson

Jack Be Nimble begins with two young siblings watching their mother have a nervous breakdown. She abandons the children, and they get adopted by two separate families. The sister winds up in the home of a loving, middle-class couple, while poor young Alexis lands in the creepy backwoods shack of a sadistic, hateful farm couple and their weirdo daughters, the aforementioned four creepy sisters. All grown up now, the sister (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) hears voices in her head that hint at the location of her brother and starts a relationship with fellow psychic Bruno Lawrence. Lawrence's character is that rarest breed in a horror film, an asshole who is not secretly evil. He's just an asshole. Meanwhile, Arquette's adoptive father whips him with barbed wire and tells him he's never allowed to leave the farm. Arquette promptly shows the family the weird metal hypno-box, does some nasty things to the mother and father, but unwisely spares the weird sisters. He flees the farm and reunites with his sister. The happy, and vaguely creepily incestuous, reunion is short-lived, however. Arquette is a little too messed up by his upbringing to forgive and forget, and the weird sisters go on a murderous rampage of their own, in search of him.
Jack Be Nimble is a hard film to love. The stylization is intentionally claustrophobic, and a little humor could have tempered the unrelentingly bleak tone. However, I admired the film's consistent, focused style, unusual story, and avoidance of cliche. The four creepy sisters are awesome villains and my favorite part of the movie. (I couldn't find a decent picture of them.) Jack Be Nimble is definitely worth a look and should be better known.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

#45: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Why does this movie work so well? The director, Philip Kaufman, hadn't made a horror film before, and he never made one again. Most worryingly, Invasion (I'm shortening the title because I don't want to type out the full name every time, though I'm still against shortening and/or combining things, e.g. South By, SoCo, Brangelina, LiLo, etc., so please forgive me) is a remake of the great Don Siegel original. (By the way, rent anything with Siegel's name on it. He was a great director, as well as an important mentor for two of my favorite actors-turned-directors, John Cassavetes and Clint Eastwood.) The potential existed for this remake to be a pointless mess. Instead, Kaufman wound up making his best film. This is a great horror movie.

I have a hardcore 1970s fetish. Some people describe that decade as a time of malaise and self-absorption, but I think they're confusing it with the 1990s. Though the only year I remember from that decade is 1979 (I was born in 1977), I feel like most of my formative cultural touchstones come from the years between 1967 and 1985. My teeny-tiny hometown is almost exactly ten years behind the zeitgeist. If you were to visit the place right now, it would look exactly like 1998. So, I really did grow up between 1967 and 1985, in a delayed time warp kind of way. Also, the Denver WGN affiliate played a movie every night at 7, and I usually watched at least part of whatever the station showed, which mostly consisted of American movies made between 1967 and whatever year preceded the year we were currently in. I remember seeing Dog Day Afternoon when I was eight and having my mind blown, among hundreds of examples. So, I grew up watching predominantly 1970s movies on television, and I have a bottomless well of love in my heart for the way '70s movies look. I believe that roughly the same amount of quality, shit, and quality shit get released every year, but I can't help feeling nostalgia for a time I barely lived through, when grown-ups could go to a mainstream theater and regularly see great movies in all genres from a variety of excellent directors in their prime. We live in a time when a mean-spirited, politically muddled, incoherently directed, and grimly depressing movie like The Dark Knight is seen as the pinnacle of mainstream film art and sophistication (though I agree with almost everyone that Heath Ledger was awesome as the Joker and Two-Face looked great) and a piece of motherfucking dogshit like Dane Cook can be a bankable movie star. (I do think our current decade has been absolutely phenomenal for film, but only a handful of great movies has reached a wide audience.) Long story short, I first saw this movie as a child on the Denver station, and it has all the 1970s qualities I deeply miss from today's mainstream films (slight seediness, realistic locations with lived-in atmosphere, fully developed characters with personalities, visual creativity without overbearing flashiness and incoherently quick shot lengths, editing that makes sense, idiosyncrasies that are free of fake-indie mannerism and quirk, absence of corporate sterility, adult characters who aren't infantile).

Updating the original film's small-town setting to urban San Franciso, Kaufman's allegorical backdrop encompasses post-Nixonian conspiracy paranoia and New Age and psychobabble self-help fads in contrast to the original's Red Scare and McCarthy witchhunt parallels. Aside from its era-specific fears, the movie exploits some universal, primal terrors that keep it from being dated, for example contagious epidemics, societal change, loneliness, not being able to sleep or something terrible will happen, loss of identity, distrust of others, and a feeling of helplessness at the direction the world has taken. Invasion maintains an off-kilter creepiness throughout, in which every mundane object, including a flower and a garbage truck, and every person, including the guy sweeping the floor, appear menacing. Kaufman sets a consistent tone without errors in judgment or lapses in taste. The movie never beats you over the head or devolves into cliche, and the shock sequences are powerful because the audience is so invested in the characters.

Those characters are portrayed by a great cast. Donald Sutherland plays a bureaucrat at the Department of Health, and Brooke Adams plays his co-worker. They're good friends, with lots of sexual tension, due to Adams' unavailability. Her boyfriend (Art Hindle) gets bodysnatched by spores that have drifted to Earth from space and flowered in all kinds of plants, setting the story in motion. Sutherland's friends include a husband and wife (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) who run a mud bath/sauna, and a celebrity psychiatrist, played by Leonard Nimoy. Goldblum, an aspiring poet, despises the faddish pop psychology of Nimoy. These characters are multi-faceted and interesting, likable and flawed. The movie contains many excellent cameos, including the star of the original, Kevin McCarthy, director of the original, Don Siegel, Robert Duvall, Lelia Goldoni (star of Cassavetes' Shadows), film composer Sam Conti, film archivist Tom Luddy, Kaufman himself, and the banjo playing of Jerry Garcia (one character is a banjo-playing homeless man with a dog). All this, plus a great ending.
I wish Kaufman would have made other horror films. He's had an interesting but frustrating career, making quality films (The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and colossal duds (Henry & June, Quills, Twisted), but he's never topped this movie. The screenwriter, W.D. Richter, went on to write Big Trouble in Little China and direct Buckaroo Banzai. Adams and Cartwright have continued working steadily, but without the cachet and success of Sutherland and Goldblum, yet another example of the marginalization of middle-aged women in Hollywood. Male actors can continue playing leading roles until they're geriatric, while the women have to be 35 or younger. I suppose I can continue to complain about Hollywood films for several more paragraphs, but I'll just stop here and mention that Hollywood used to make movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's good, it's weird, it's scary, it's paranoid, and it's fun.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

#44: I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978)

Now that I've seen I Spit On Your Grave twice, which is probably two more and certainly one more time than anybody needs to see it, I have no plans to ever watch it again. While I can't entirely agree with Roger Ebert that the film is a "vile bag of garbage," and I disagree with him entirely when he says the film "lacks even simple craftsmanship," I think he's right on the money when he says that at the film's end he felt "unclean, ashamed, and depressed." I Spit On Your Grave has the most skeletal of stories. A woman from New York City who writes short stories for women's magazines rents a summer home in rural Connecticut to write her first novel. While there, she encounters a group of grotesquely stupid men whose vocabulary largely consists of guttural grunts, whoops, discussions of how women are "sluts," "bitches," and "full of shit," and how women from big cities like "to fuck a lot." One of the men is mildly mentally retarded, but he's a genius compared to the other three, two of whom spend the bulk of the film shirtless. The four men kidnap the woman and rape her repeatedly in an excruciating forty-minute scene. They instruct the mentally retarded man to go back to her house and kill her, but he can't bring himself to do it. She recovers from the assault and murders each man, one by one, in grimly ironic fashion. The movie ends, less than ninety minutes after it began, immediately following the final murder.

Why would someone want to make this movie? Little information can be found online about the writer/director, Meir Zarchi. I could only find a few details. Zarchi is an Israeli immigrant who moved to New York. He directed only one other film, a drama about an Italian family in New York. He got the idea for this film when he, his daughter, and a friend were driving around in New York and saw a battered, nude woman on the street. She had been raped while walking to her boyfriend's apartment. Zarchi drove her to the police station, where he says a moronic policeman interrogated her repeatedly, though the woman's broken jaw kept her from being able to speak. Zarchi insisted the policeman let her go so he could take her to the hospital, which he then did. Why this incident would make someone want to film a forty-minute rape scene in a rape/revenge movie is beyond me. However, Zarchi must have been under the mistaken impression that he was making some kind of feminist protest film, particularly considering the film's original title, the horribly misguided Day of the Woman. When the film flopped under that title, the distributors stole the name of a 1962 horror film and re-released it in 1980 to greater success.

Another baffling bit of oddness involves the casting. Zarchi cast his then-wife, Camille Keaton (the grand-niece of Buster Keaton!), in the lead. Why would you want to film your wife being brutally gang-raped? Sure, it's just a simulation, but why? If Zarchi believes he made an anti-rape film, why does he devote half of the film's running time to a scene in which Keaton is raped vaginally, anally, orally, and with an empty wine bottle, beaten savagely, verbally abused, bloodied, and covered in mud and dirt? Surely, a large majority of the viewing audience doesn't need convincing that rape is wrong. We already knew that before watching the film. For the depraved minority who get off on the violent degradation of women, Zarchi has (unintentionally?) delivered a key text. Ebert gets at this when he describes a middle-aged man in the theater with him who yelled "That's a good one!" and "That'll show her!" at the screen. The film's agenda is totally muddled, implying that Keaton asked for it with her revealing clothes, flirty behavior, and feminine allure, but also portraying men as idiotic sub-humanoids and raging ids. The graphic rape scenes and the revenge killings give everybody what they want while contradicting each other, and the stereotype of small-town folk as inbred hillbilly lunatics is perpetuated and glorified. This is a film that wallows in sleaze, and not the fun kind of sleaze.

I have to admit, however, that Zarchi's film is highly effective and cinematic. Despite Ebert's critique of shoddy craftsmanship, I think the film is technically well-made except for the sound recording. The dialogue is muddy and hard to hear, but there is so little dialogue in the film that it doesn't matter too much. Zarchi and his cinematographer Nouri Haviv know where to put the camera, how to light the scenes, and how to get compelling images. The location shooting and absence of a score create a consistent tone of realistic dread that convinces the audience everything they're seeing is really happening. Keaton, the only person who worked on the film who managed to sustain a movie career (albeit low-budget horror and exploitation), is a compelling, interesting actress. The way she moves through the woods after being attacked and the look on her face throughout are indelibly cinematic images. There's something both natural and stylized about her and the way she moves through the frame that gives the film some redeeming qualities.
Why did I watch it twice, you might be wondering? This time, I watched it for the Fangoria list, but I first saw it 19 years ago, when I was 12. My hometown is extremely small, with a population of 1,500. If you wanted to go to a mall, find inexpensive household items, see a movie (except for the drive-in in the summer), buy books or CDs, or get some pizza or Chinese food or Mexican food, you had to drive 38 miles to the twin cities of Scottsbluff and Gering, which had a combined population of 30,000 or 34,000, I forget which. On this summer Sunday, my parents and siblings decided to go to Scottsbluff. I opted to stay home and spend the day hanging out with my friends. Like most days when I stayed home from the Scottsbluff trip, I decided to ride my bike to the convenience store and rent a movie that I couldn't get away with renting when my parents were home. My friends and I skimmed the random assortment of convenience store movies and decided on I Spit On Your Grave. The VHS cover showed a half-naked woman holding a knife. We decided it was probably a slasher movie with copious T&A. Perfect for four 12-year-old boys. We had no idea we were about to see a 1970s cinema verite sleazefest with a forty-minute rape scene. We were completely silent for the first 30 minutes of the rape scene. When the last ten minutes dragged on, we embarrassedly looked at each other with obvious visual discomfort and halfheartedly tried to joke about the scene to shake off the palpable unease. We laughed about the retarded man's repeated exhortations of "I can't come!" and joked about his tubesocks. That's all we had. It wasn't enough. After the movie ended, we were silent for a long time. Then some of us said, "That's fucked up." Though we planned to spend the rest of the day hanging out together, one friend decided he just wanted to go home. The other two followed suit. I would have gone home, too, but I was already there. I don't remember what I did after that. For the following school year, we occasionally looked at each other and said "I Spit On Your Grave" while shaking our heads in disbelief and smiling sheepishly.

Two years ago, film blogger Jim Emerson hosted a Contrarian Blog-a-Thon. One brave soul attempted to defend I Spit On Your Grave. Here's a link to his review.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

#43: Humanoids from the Deep (Barbara Peters, 1980)

Reasons why Humanoids from the Deep provides quality B-movie value for money:

1) It was produced by Roger Corman.
2) It stars B-movie legend Vic Morrow, the father of Jennifer Jason Leigh. He was later decapitated on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in a freak helicopter accident.
3) It also stars another B-movie legend, the late Doug McClure. McClure, along with Troy Donahue, provided the inspiration for the character of Troy McClure on The Simpsons. You may remember the real McClure from such films as Omega Syndrome, Cannonball Run II, Firebird 2015 AD, and Wild and Wooly. In this film, he and the actress who plays his wife have matching sleeveless vests.
4) It contains the only seduction-by-ventriloquism scene I've ever seen. The ventriloquist and his dummy charm all the clothes off a nubile co-ed in a tent on the beach, but their coitus is interrupted by a humanoid! From the deep!
5) Ann Turkel, who plays Dr. Susan Drake, was once married to Richard Harris and helped invent the tan-thru swimsuit. Honestly.

6) Shot on location in northern California, the film includes a seedy small-town atmosphere, sailboats, beer drinking, an epic fistfight, Molotov cocktails, bodies of water, and a musical performance by Jo Williams and Her Whitewater Boys.
7) Amphibious humanoid fish-men, aka actors in partly shitty/completely awesome rubber suits.
8) Brazen rip-offs of scenes from Jaws and Alien.
9) This movie is not afraid to kill children.

Science runs amok with the help of corporate greed in Barbara Peters' film, another ridiculously entertaining installment from the Roger Corman assembly line of high-quality schlock. In a small northern California fishing village, a large corporation plans to build a cannery. Evil jerk-off Hank Slattery (great evil jerk-off name), played by Vic Morrow, is the local bigshot who partners with the corporation. Native American man Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena) opposes the cannery for its environmental destruction and usurpation of native land. Jim Hill (Doug McClure) stands around in his sleeveless vest and attempts to keep the peace. Dr. Susan Drake, a scientist who works for the corporation, has helped invent a chemical that, when released in the water, increases the size and amount of salmon. However, coelecanths have been eating the salmon, which causes all kinds of freaky hullabaloo. The chemical speeds up the evolution process dramatically in coelecanths, who start to become half amphibian/half human. They want to make the next evolutionary leap, so they naturally come ashore, kill the men and rape the women in an attempt to mate with humans. Unfortunately, the annual salmon festival is underway, and these humanoid monsters are crashing the party.
The rest of the characters spend most of the film's running time drinking beer, fighting, having sex, swimming, fishing, mourning their dogs which have been killed by the mutated coelecanths, and getting smushed and/or sexually assaulted by the monsters. The finale is especially satisfying, in which the humanoids bust up the salmon festival's big carnival.
When Peters turned in her final cut to Corman, he told her he wanted her to add some more nude scenes. She refused. Corman said OK, then hired Jimmy T. Murakami to shoot some scenes of girls getting their bikini tops ripped off by the monsters, a woman lathering herself up in the shower, and the aforementioned ventriloquist seduction (I can't believe they didn't use the line, "Want to see my wood pecker?").
I really have nothing else to say about this film. I enjoyed it immensely, but it hardly invites detailed analysis. I first saw it on the big screen seven years ago, when it was part of the Austin Film Society's Women Directors of the 1970s and 1980s series. On repeat viewing at home, it suffered a little, but not much. I'd hardly call it essential, but it's way better than Atonement.

Monday, August 4, 2008

#42: Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1973)

They don't make movies like this anymore. They should. The late 1960s and early 1970s were stuffed with Eurotrash gems like Horror Express. Ridiculous B-movie international co-productions filled with major character actors and featuring budgets large enough to make things work but not large enough to smother everything with professionalism.
Horror Express, a Spanish/British co-production that existed solely as a reason for a wealthy movie producer to re-use an expensive full-size model train set he built for a previous film, stars the great British character actors (and good friends in real life) Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The two men made many films together until Cushing's retirement in the 1980s. Usually, Lee played a deranged psychopath, lascivious man of the world, suave villain, or comic foil, while Cushing portrayed the uptight British gentleman. They switch roles here, with Lee as an uptight, humorless anthropologist and Cushing as a goodtimes-loving doctor with a very dry British wit.
The film opens in Szechuan, China in 1906. Lee finds an apeman frozen in a cave that just may be the Missing Link. He decides to box it up and take it back with him. He meets fellow Brit Cushing at the train station in Shanghai, if you trust the dialogue, and Peking, if you trust a title card on the screen. At the train station, a pickpocket who tries to open Lee's crate mysteriously winds up dead, his eyeballs completely white. A Rasputin lookalike and priest traveling with a Russian count and countess declares the crate Satanic. Lee thinks the holy man is a doofus. In most horror movies, the scientists are always wrong. Horror Express plays both sides up the middle. Lee should have left the apeman alone and not meddled with the darker side of science, but Rasputin Jr. is later revealed to be an opportunistic charlatan. So far, science and the supernatural are even. The film also takes a decidedly pro-evolution stance. I particularly enjoyed Christopher Lee's retort to the Countess when she declares evolution immoral. "It's a fact. And there's no morality in a fact." He says this with withering disdain.
Once our Trans-Siberian express train gets rolling, things progress as you might expect, and then get really weird. I'm going to give away some spoilers, so if you want to watch this movie with an unmolested brain, jump ship here (I'm mixing my transportation metaphors). The apeman thaws, gets out of the crate, and starts messing people up. I'm sure you expected that to happen. Otherwise the movie would have been called The Express Train that Carried its Cargo Safely to its Destination. Unlike most apemen, however, this beast's eyes turn red, and he kills people just by looking at them. When Cushing performs his autopsies, he discovers that the victims' brains are as smooth as the music of Michael McDonald, that is, completely free of gyri and sulci. The cortex is wrinkle-free. Turns out, the apeman is absorbing the contents of his victims' brains through their eyeballs. With each victim, he gains a fresh brainful of knowledge. Cushing and Lee soon reach the conclusion that the apeman is just a host body for the actual creature doing the brain-sucking. They speculate that the creature can jump from host to host when the host body wears out. They are correct in their speculations. Plot developments then become extremely strange. The Rasputin lookalike starts whining about Satan a lot and glowering ominously. The Russian count has invented a steel that can never be destroyed, and another female passenger is an international spy who intends to steal the secrets of the steel. Steal/steel? Get it? Soon, the Missing Link has been gunned down, and Cushing and Lee are able to snag one of his eyeballs before the host jumps into another body. They take a tissue sample from the eye and look at it under a microscope. The tissue shows actual moving images of the last person the Link de-brained. They take more samples and see images from pre-history, including dinosaurs. Then, the final tissue sample reveals an image of Earth from outer space. So our killer is a parasitic alien who is possibly Satanic and was last seen in the body of the Missing Link. Got it?
When you think it can't get any weirder, Telly freakin' Savalas shows up as the leader of a group of Cossack rebels who attempt to hijack the train! Savalas hams it up big-time. He answers a question from one of the train's passengers by removing a shot glass of liquor from his coat, gargling with the booze, and then tossing the glass away violently. Then, he speaks. Like most Cossacks, he has a heavy New York accent. "Who? Whooooo are da trouble-makahs?" he says.
Then, the victims of the parasitic alien thing come back to life as zombies. You can't make this stuff up!

Savalas fact: Telly Savalas lived most of his adult life in the Sheraton in downtown Los Angeles. Seriously. They named the hotel bar Telly's. He claimed he enjoyed living in a hotel because he was often out of town making movies, and when he was back in town, he wanted a hotel maid to clean up his mess while he drank in a hotel bar. He admitted that his children eventually grew tired of living in a hotel.

Monday, July 21, 2008

#41: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

I rented this film from the Blockbuster Video located two blocks away from my dormitory at the University of Nebraska twelve years ago. I was a sophomore in college then. If I'd had a car at the time, I wouldn't have rented it from Blockbuster. My bicycle wasn't an option, either. The short-lived and dearly missed Pig of Destiny Video hadn't opened yet. Named after an epiphany the owner received while watching Babe, the store was small, but full of great and terrible stuff and a five-minute bike ride away. I rented Caligula, Meet the Feebles, China Girl, and lots of early Cronenberg there. Just a few short months later, Pig of Destiny violated some arcane city tax law, owed some back taxes, and got their sales tax privileges revoked. It was such a bizarre situation that the college paper, the alternative Omaha weekly, and the legitimate daily all covered the story. The owner decided to keep it open until his money ran out, so anyone with a membership could check out movies for free for the two months it took for the store to die. That was a pretty sweet two months. Bittersweet, but sweet. I think I rented seven or eight movies a week for free. Later, the owner ended up managing a coffee house next to the record store where I worked, and my coworkers and I regularly got drunk with him at a country-western karaoke bar. I really miss those few years of my life, and I think about them more than the entire time I attended public school in my hometown. Although, I am glad those years are over. All of them. I'm not too keen on dying, but I rejoice in the passing of each year. So long, past and present. Fuck you! Bring on the future! Whoo! This is a long way of saying that I wish I had rented Henry at Pig of Destiny instead of Blockbuster because it was a Pig of Destiny kind of movie.
Watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a relatively naive 19-year-old, I admired the film but found it an almost unbearable viewing experience. I wasn't alone. Distributors were so turned off by the film's reputation that Henry didn't show up in theaters until four years after it played the festival circuit. I don’t know if the world has become a more violent place or if I have become more inured to simulated violence. Maybe I've just seen more sadistic films that wallow in their own filth. Whatever the case, watching a second time twelve years later, I was surprised to discover an effective character study of three social misfits with detailed, expressive uses of its Chicago setting (though some interiors were filmed in Austin). It's a dark, unrelenting movie, but there's a lot of humor I missed the first time around, and a lot less graphic violence than it's reputed to have (much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Only one scene, in which Henry and Otis murder a family during a home invasion and videotape their exploits, made me feel rotten. However, I remembered that particular scene going on interminably during my original viewing. It doesn't. The scene lasts only a few minutes. Ten years later, Michael Haneke basically turned this scene into a 97-minute feature called Funny Games (or Funny Games U.S. if you opt for the shot-for-shot American remake). I'm a great admirer of Haneke's work, and Funny Games is formally and narratively admirable, but its political/social message is simplistic and ham-fisted and lacking in the restrained ambiguity of Haneke's other films. John McNaughton, director and co-writer of Henry, beat Haneke to the punch by a decade.
SPOILERS AHEAD: Haneke is fond of mentioning that he makes you cheer a murder about midway through Funny Games, and how this cinematic manipulation forces an audience to confront its complicity in viewing violence for entertainment. However, the character who gets killed spends the preceding 45 minutes of running time torturing a family, and his murder can quite easily be read as an act of self-defense. Haneke then has the other torturer/murderer/home invader hit the rewind button on the remote control and bring his accomplice back to life. McNaughton's manipulations are smarter, trickier, and subtler, and they bring audiences to the same conclusions. In McNaughton's film, the audience knows Henry is a conscience-less killer from the beginning, but he methodically instills empathy in the viewer toward Henry. By mid-film, the audience (or at least I) felt so much empathy for Henry that the murder of a loudmouth asshole selling stolen TVs becomes an almost heroic act we (or maybe just I) applaud. After being confronted with the overwhelming terribleness of the videotaped murder of the family a few scenes later, I realized how I was being manipulated earlier, how easy it is for films to implement their manipulations, and how murder is murder, even if the victim's a prick. McNaughton, unlike Haneke, doesn't need his characters to turn to the camera and explain these concepts to us. END OF SPOILERS.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was an impressive feature debut for director John McNaughton. His work finds a rich source of inspiration in that weird little world where the art film and the exploitation/drive-in/b-movie meet (The Borrower, Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things). Part of why Henry works so well may be due to McNaughton's life experience. He wasn't an 18-to-23-year-old movie brat whiz kid like Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, or Scorsese. He was a 36-year-old man with a degree in still photography who logged time as a construction worker, ship builder, silversmith, factory worker, bartender, member of a traveling circus, and, in the early days of video, an installer of looped Keaton and Chaplin short films on video projection screens in Chicago bars. He assembled a straight-to-video documentary about the deaths of famous gangsters before being offered a low budget to make a straight-to-video slasher film. Loosely inspired by a 20/20 episode about alleged Texas serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole (there is much evidence now that these two men lied about most, if not all, of the murders), McNaughton and his co-writer, Richard Fire, delivered a real movie instead. Hiring veteran Chicago stage actors Michael Rooker (Henry), Tom Towles (Otis), and Austin native Tracy Arnold (Becky), and making creative use of the low budget, McNaughton avoids both the show-offy flashiness and stilted amateurism of many first-time directors' projects. Instead, McNaughton unites setting, acting, and structure to make a formally satisfying, confident narrative feature. Bootlegs of Henry circulated in Hollywood while the film sat in limbo, and Rooker scored parts in major films because of it. He deserved it. He plays the character just right, with an intensity that never devolves into mannerism or grotesque caricature. Towles and Arnold are excellent, too, especially Towles. He has possibly the trickiest part to pull off, playing an initially likable buffoon with a barely suppressed layer of sickness (including murder, necrophilia, incest, and possible sexual attraction to Henry) waiting to be unleashed. He has to play this change convincingly and realistically. He pulls it off.
I like this film very much. McNaughton has been criticized for not punishing Henry, not explaining his motives, and refusing to interject a moral message. Just watch the damn thing. If you need a movie to tell you that killing people is wrong, you have problems, dude. (That last sentence was written by Bones Valentino, the wisecracking Southern California surf bum from the upcoming sitcom Life's a Beach 90210, coming to an imaginary television set near you in 2010!)