Saturday, August 21, 2010

#90: Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982)

I'm not a big Wes Craven fan. That might be an understatement, considering I find The Last House on the Left and Scream two of the most insulting, repugnant films ever made, but I have to give the guy a little credit. He's directed a lot of iconic horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow), his visual style complements the tone of the particular projects he directs, and he's certainly had staying power in an industry that tends to discard older directors. And he made this campy piece of fun.

Swamp Thing is often misunderstood by film writers, bloggers, and fans who have no appreciation for the sources of its visual style. It's supposed to look cheap. The rubber suits, comically exaggerated pratfalls, and Wilhelm screams are there on purpose. This film is paying homage to both the DC comic book it's derived from and cheapo 1950s monster movies and their low-rent rubber-suited beasts. Craven gets this mood just right. Swamp Thing looks like a late-1970s/early-1980s comic book brought to life, and the creatures and mad scientist super-villain are old-fashioned monster movie staples.
Craven could have buried this movie in too many layers of camp and self-referential, condescending winkery (wankery?), but he achieves a surprising amount of empathy and warmth by assembling a wonderful, offbeat cast and shooting on location in the swamps outside of Charleston, South Carolina. There's just something visually magical about a Southern swamp, am I right? That unusual cast does a fine job of playing it straight enough to make an audience feel something for the characters, but silly enough to let you know they're aware of acting in a film about an avenging plantman who lives in a swamp and fights an evil genius named Dr. Arcane.

Adrienne Barbeau stars as government scientist Alice Cable, who is dispatched to the South Carolina swamps to replace a predecessor who became alligator food. She joins a team working on a secret government project attempting to end world hunger by genetically engineering super-plants that will grow quickly and abundantly in hostile conditions. Barbeau, besides being a likable actress and crush object for genre fanboys of a certain age (mine), was the go-to female lead for early 1980s horror and sci-fi. In addition to Swamp Thing, she appeared in her then-husband John Carpenter's early classics The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing (in an uncredited, vocal-only role as the voice of the computer), as well as George Romero's Creepshow. Her fellow government agents and scientists include Ray Wise (best known for playing Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks), Al Ruban in a rare acting role (he was the producer and cinematographer for most of John Cassavetes' films), and television veteran Don Knight. The government workers are being targeted by evil mad scientist super-villain Dr. Arcane, played by international movie veteran Louis Jourdan, who wants to kill them all and steal their scientific secrets. The scientists and the world at large think he's dead, but he's secretly living in an enormous, super-villain mansion deep in the swamps. He's enlisted an army of thugs and mercenaries, led by Last House on the Left sleazebag David Hess, to carry out his dirty work. When they finally make their move, something goes awry with the super-plant formula, and Swamp Thing is born! He's played by veteran stuntman Dick Durock. Soon, Barbeau is on the run in the swamps, aided by teen-aged, Coke-bottle-glassed, deadpan-voiced, convenience store clerk Jude, played by the thoroughly enjoyable Reggie Batts in his only film role.

What follows is 90 minutes of silly, inviting, horror/sci-fi/action fun. For once, Craven decides to depict warm, likable, human characters, and he has a lot of fun with his comic-book panel transitions between scenes. This is a rare horror film that's kid-friendly, and it was marketed that way when it first hit theaters in 1982. I remember wanting to see this movie so badly as a child and being fascinated by an article about it in a sci-fi magazine my mother bought for me at the grocery store. By the time we got a VCR three or four years later, I had transferred my fascination to R-rated horror films (even though my mother never let me watch any), and no longer cared to see the PG-rated Swamp Thing. That was kid stuff. I should have seen it then. I would have enjoyed it.

Speaking of kid stuff, the European prints of Swamp Thing were a bit less kid-friendly. In the non-Puritanical half of the Western world, the film featured a couple of nude scenes, including the amply bosomed Ms. Barbeau bathing in a less grungy part of the swamp. When Swamp Thing was first released on DVD in the U.S., the European version was mistakenly pressed instead. Even though the case showed the PG rating, American kids got an eyeful of boobage. After getting several complaints from a bunch of prudes who think the key to a well-adjusted adulthood is to never catch a glimpse of the opposite sex's anatomy until you're 18, the studio recalled the DVDs and replaced them with the PG version. That version still shows a brief shot of sideboob and much emphasis on Barbeau's cleavage, but I guess the prudes are okay with that. As we all remember from the recent Janet Jackson Super Bowl debacle, this country is full of people with serious, bizarre, and inconsistent hangups about body parts that exist on half the adult population.
Unrelated note: I think Craven missed an opportunity to convince The Troggs to reform and record the theme song to this film. Just imagine it. "Swamp Thing, you make my heart sing. You make everything...swampy. Ohh, Swamp Thing."

Friday, August 6, 2010

#89: Strange Behavior (Michael Laughlin, 1981)

A few minutes into Strange Behavior, I smiled and thought to myself, "This movie was made by interesting people." That thought continued for the rest of the movie's running time. This is a weird, forgotten gem that deserves more attention, and anyone who dislikes it should be battered with large objects and thrown off a couple of bridges.
A slasher/mad scientist hybrid set in Galesburg, Illinois but filmed in New Zealand during the creative height of 1970s-80s Australian and New Zealand exploitation cinema called Ozploitation (see the entertaining documentary about this scene, Not Quite Hollywood), Strange Behavior contains a smart, considered visual style, rich characterization from everyone including even the tiniest roles, and a mix of satisfying genre cliches and bizarro weirdness unique to this project. If you want to quibble, there are some continuity errors, unexplained occurrences, and a few stiffly delivered lines, but, on the whole, this is the kind of buried treasure I'm always on the hunt for as an obsessive movie lover.

In the small community of Galesburg, life is sleepy and content until some teenagers get carved up by what the police think is a deranged whacko until the evidence points to multiple deranged whackos. Why is this happening in Galesburg? Meanwhile, at Galesburg College, some bizarre experiments are taking place in the psychology department. Late professor Dr. Le Sange's work is continuing, even though he's been dead for three years. All his lectures have been recorded on film, so he's still teaching from beyond the grave, and his protege Dr. Parkinson is continuing his work. Are these victims and killers somehow connected to the experiments and events related to these experiments from 17 years ago? Take a wild guess. Meanwhile, the chief of police, John Brady, and his teenage son, Pete, get deeply involved in the mystery, unbeknown to each other.

The cast is excellent, except for a handful of people who have just one line. Each character is layered, complex, and refreshingly un-Hollywood. Michael Murphy, best known for appearing in multiple Robert Altman and Woody Allen films, plays the police chief. He's an obsessed, stressed-out guy, which is all we'd learn about him if this were a conventional movie. Instead, we also see his wicked sense of humor, his kindness, and his close relationship with his son. Louise Fletcher plays his girlfriend. She's still so identified with her most famous role, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, that her varied talents are often overlooked. Here, she plays a warm, likable woman who couldn't be more different from Nurse Ratched. Dan Shor, best known to my generation as Billy the Kid in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Ram in TRON, plays Murphy's teenage son Pete. He's smart, charismatic, and funny, and a weird combination of popular jock and punkish, skinny-tied new waver. In fact, all the characters are smart and unusual. They have personality, instead of being movie personalities. Other favorites of mine include Hollywood legend Charles Lane as the police chief's elderly clerk (Murphy: "Where'd you get that tie?" Lane: "Munky Ward's"), Marc McClure as Pete's teenage buddy Oliver, Jim Boelson as Waldo, the annoying guy in class who looks like he's 40 and always ruins the party, and horror movie pinup queen Fiona Lewis as the sexy and sinister Dr. Parkinson. I love this cast.

Director Michael Laughlin, in his debut, does a lot of interesting things, structurally and formally. In almost every scene, the camera frames the action in a mostly stationary medium shot, so we can see the characters interact with each other and see the physical space they're moving around in without being forced to take any character's point of view. These shots ensure a certain detached objectivity, which creates a physical space for the audience to form its own judgments and make its own choices about what to look at in the frame. Closeups are eschewed until the final two scenes, in which our relationships to the characters are fully earned and invested with carefully developed feeling. At the same time, Laughlin nudges us into feeling a little uneasy and off-kilter by positioning his camera in these shots either slightly above or slightly below the action, as if we were sitting on a chair that's just a little higher or lower than the rest of the table. It's subtly discombobulating. When Laughlin does move his camera during a few crucial scenes, the effect is startling. These scenes really take off and stand out.

One of these scenes takes place at a costume party and has immediately become one of my favorite scenes in the movies after just a single viewing. It's the kind of scene that does nothing to further the plot and everything to justify this visual medium's existence. It's a ridiculous, exciting, visceral, unexpected visual pleasure that makes me love the art of film. Our teenage characters, Oliver and Pete, attend a costume party dressed as skinny-tied new wavers commonly found playing bass in The Knack, Tubeway Army, The Damned, or some other late-punk/early-new wave combo of your choice. As they enter a room full of teenage cowboys, nurses, vampires, Batmans, Robins, etc., Lou Christie's "Lightnin' Strikes" begins to play. The teenagers sloppily and jokingly dance around for a few minutes in a half-assed fashion before slowly growing more enthused until, finally, the whole party comes together in a giant, choreographed dance routine as Christie's crazy falsetto launches into that final, kick-ass, uber-pop chorus. The camera glides through this party gracefully as the dancing turns from sloppy to organized. When the song ends, the dancers fall back into normal, sloppy teenage mingling. What a lovely, magic scene. It's cinematic Red Bull, and the kind of scene that exists for no other reason but its own awesomeness. You know you're in the hands of filmmakers who are comfortable eating their own boundaries.

Director Michael Laughlin has had an erratic but interesting movie career. He directed two other films, an alien invasion movie called Strange Invaders that I'm really excited to see now and a drama about a teenage girl forced to marry a creepy older man called Mesmerized, which Laughlin wrote with acclaimed Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (who had a rare acting role in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises). Laughlin also produced Monte Hellman's cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop and the Warren Oates-starring Raymond Chandler homage Chandler. His last movie job was the massive flop Town & Country, which starred Warren Beatty and was written by Laughlin and Buck Henry. Laughlin's producer and co-writer on Strange Behavior was Bill Condon, who has gone on to be a successful Hollywood director and screenwriter. Condon also co-wrote Laughlin's follow-up, Strange Invaders, and the Oscar-winning movie based on the hit musical Chicago. As a writer/director, Condon got his start with a bunch of TV movies and the job of work sequel to Candyman called Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. That movie sucked, but Condon bounced back with Gods and Monsters, an excellent little drama/historical fiction about the final days of film director James Whale and his unrequited crush on his pool boy. Condon also directed Kinsey and Dreamgirls and is on tap to direct the next two Twilight sequels and a Richard Pryor biopic. I still think his finest work is that party scene in this movie.
Bonus points: The soundtrack, besides Lou Christie's immortal, unstoppable pop hit, includes great songs from The Birthday Party and Pop Mechanix, and a score by Tangerine Dream. The first murder victim is wearing a Nebraska Cornhuskers sweatshirt. I love that a kid wearing a shirt of my alma mater's football team takes a knife to the eyeball.