Saturday, June 22, 2013

#159: Psycho II (Richard Franklin, 1983)

Richard Franklin's 1983 sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho is, depending on your aesthetic temperament, an entertainingly pulpy homage to the original or a crass, brazen cash-in on the reputation of the Hitchcock film. Critics at the time of the film's release tended toward the latter point of view, but time has been kind, and recent years have seen an uptick in reputation and a small, growing cult of appreciative fans. Count me in with the film's admirers. I really enjoyed what director Franklin, screenwriter Tom Holland, and star Anthony Perkins did with Psycho II.
Franklin is ballsy enough to open with the entire shower scene from the first film. This is a risky move. Hitchcock was a spatial architect of near-genius, while Franklin is merely a good director, and putting their filmmaking styles side-by-side from the beginning invites an unflattering comparison for Franklin. It works for me because the majority of scenes in the sequel echo, pay tribute to, or affectionately parody Hitchcock's film, and the sequel uses the same sets of the motel and house as the first film and two of the same stars (Perkins and Vera Miles). Unlike the cheap, cash-grabbing knockoff it was derided as in 1983, Psycho II is the love letter of a fan to one of his favorite films. It's like fan fiction, in a way, and everyone here appears to be operating from affection, not opportunism. And those detractors conveniently ignored, or maybe didn't know, that Franklin was a friend and protégée of Hitchcock's.
Psycho II opens in real time, 23 years after the first film, with Norman Bates (Perkins) declared sane and released back into society. Lila Loomis (Miles) is also at the hearing, vociferously protesting his release and claiming he will kill again. Norman's psychiatrist, Dr. Bill Raymond (Robert Loggia), keeps close tabs on Norman and helps him get a job at a diner to help integrate him back into society. Norman befriends a waitress at the diner, Mary (Meg Tilly), and she soon moves into Bates' house after her boyfriend dumps her and kicks her out of their apartment. Norman returns to find a new proprietor of the Bates Motel, Warren Toomey (a seedy, delightfully over-the-top Dennis Franz), and he is dismayed to find out Toomey has turned the motel into a by-the-hour dive for those wishing to engage in illicit sexual and pharmaceutical activity in a private setting. Norman fires Toomey and makes plans to reopen the motel as it was before. Things are going great for Norman, except for the phone calls and notes he keeps receiving from his long-dead mother. Is he going crazy again, or is something more sinister going on?
What follows is a highly entertaining B-movie with a great Perkins performance and nice visual and structural nods to most of the key scenes in the first film, including the shower scene, Arbogast's fall down the stairs, the peephole, the explanatory speech at the end, the car dredged from the swamp, and Mother Bates. There are also a couple surprise twists I didn't see coming, not enough Robert Loggia, an excellent Jerry Goldsmith score, effectively squirm-inducing suspense, genuine shocks, and some lovably cheesy low-budget '80s special effects sequences. It will also make you want some toasted cheese sandwiches.
Director Franklin, an Australian who died in 2007 from cancer, made two cult horror films prior to Psycho II I hear good things about (Patrick and Road Games), the kids' adventure movie Cloak & Dagger, the sequel to F/X, and some television work. Screenwriter Tom Holland would go on to write and direct the hit horror films Fright Night and Child's Play. The cast I'm sure you're mostly familiar with. Oddly enough, Robert Bloch, writer of the novel that was the basis for the first film, wrote a second novel in 1982 that saw Norman Bates escape from the mental institution to attempt to stop a Hollywood biopic of his life from being filmed. Bloch's unflattering take on the film industry supposedly pissed off Universal Studios enough to cause them to develop a sequel of their own, completely unrelated to Bloch's book. That sounds like an apocryphal tale to me, but if it is true, I'm glad their temper tantrum led to this film. It's a good one.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


I've already written about the next movie on the list, Sandor Stern's Pin (1988). Here's a link to the old post.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

#158: Perdita Durango aka Dance with the Devil (Alex de la Iglesia, 1997)

I had a smile on my face before I even pushed play on the Perdita Durango DVD (dully retitled Dance with the Devil for the American market). That smile was an involuntary, automatic reaction caused by previous memories of the people behind and in front of the camera. Directed and co-written by the almost too entertaining Spanish madman Alex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast, The Last Circus), co-written and based on the novel by surrealist pulp-noir writer Barry Gifford, who collaborated with David Lynch on two underrated films (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) and starring Javier Bardem, Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Don Stroud, and Alex Cox, Perdita Durango would have to be a complete fiasco to keep me from enjoying myself. Though not without some minor flaws, it's a hell of a long way from a fiasco.
A pulpy, cartoony mishmash of genres, Perdita Durango manages to incorporate elements of spaghetti westerns, lovers on the run, road movies, comedies, action, crime thrillers, horror, romance, and noir. Quentin Tarantino and cast member Alex Cox may be the closest reference points of directors working in a similar key, but Iglesia is his own man. He's not as overtly referential or as pleased with his dialogue as Tarantino can be, and he's less political and more violent than Cox, but he shares their visual skills and energy and knows how to blend genres without creating a disjointed or soupy mess. He and Gifford make a good team.
Rosie Perez plays the title character (Isabella Rossellini played the same character in Wild at Heart, though her approach was worlds apart from Perez's) in her patented no-bullshit tough-girl manner. Some people I know find Ms. Perez insufferable, but I've always enjoyed watching her and not just because I have a crush on her. She meets the wild, charismatic outlaw Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem), who has a slight case of demonic possession. He's spent the day robbing a bank, double-crossing his bank robbing partner, and conducting a Santeria ritual over the corpse he's stolen earlier that day. (Gifford and Iglesia play fast and loose with the actual practices of Santeria.) His right-hand man in the occult rituals is Adolfo (Screamin' Jay Hawkins). He hits on Perdita, they exchange insults and barbs, and she decides to join him. Soon, they're having very intense sex and planning a human sacrifice.
Romeo soon runs into his cousin, Reggie San Pedro (played by Bardem's brother Carlos Bardem), who tells him his associate, crime boss Santos (Don Stroud), has some work for him. Santos gives Bardem $10,000 and instructions to deliver some frozen embryos to Las Vegas, where he will receive an additional $10,000 upon completion of the mission. Perdita and Romeo kidnap a couple of naive milquetoast teenagers out on a date, Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham, Heather's younger sister), for their sacrifice. Unbeknownst to Romeo and Perdita, they're being followed by a federal agent, Willie "Woody" Dumas (James Gandolfini), who is later joined by a few more agents, including Doyle (Alex Cox). Soon, shit gets complicated and body counts and explosions pile up as our protagonists travel through Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. And that's primarily just the setup. (By the way, I love Gifford's names for his characters.)
Despite the film's length of just over two hours, Iglesia keeps everything moving. It's hard to get bored watching an Iglesia film. Something crazy, funny, disturbing, or interesting is almost always happening, sometimes at once. The look of the film is gorgeous, too. Iglesia's cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano gets a sun-baked golden crispness of image that calls to mind spaghetti westerns and Mexican and Southwestern American summers. (One of Labiano's first jobs was as camera operator on the Vanilla Ice movie, Cool as Ice. That has nothing to do with this review, but I had to mention it.) Everyone in the cast is so fun to watch, with Gandolfini, Stroud, and Bardem especially bringing the ruckus. Bardem, wearing one of the most bizarre mullets in cinema history (he is truly a man unafraid of an unflattering hairstyle), nails a character that has to be ridiculous and silly at certain moments and scary as fuck in others.
Some viewers may have trouble with the film's detached approach to violence, and we're expected to enjoy characters who murder, rape, kidnap, and beat people while not feeling much for the victims. This is some dark territory, but the film is clearly an alternate movie fantasy world that bears little resemblance to our own, so it didn't bother me. In fact, a running gag about characters being hit by cars had me laughing throughout. Wild at Heart took a lot of heat for its similar tone, but I feel Gifford is just putting a modern spin on the classic noir template, filtered through 40 additional years of both underground and mainstream pop culture. These are darkly funny, amoral worlds that greatly appeal to me in a cathartic, amusement park ride kind of way. If you're anything like me, you'll probably enjoy the trip.