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.