Saturday, July 20, 2013

#161: Raw Meat (Gary Sherman, 1973)

As longtime readers of any of my three blogs know, I have a bit of an obsession with the 1970s. This obsession is strong enough at times to make me feel like I was born twenty years too late and that I would have fit in much better on this planet if I'd been an adult in that decade instead of a small child, but the logical part of me knows I wouldn't have fit in very well at any time in this planet's history and also that my obsession with the 1970s is a nostalgic yearning for a past I barely experienced that is based mostly on fantasy. I also know the decade was far from perfect (Richard Nixon, Osmonds, Debby Boone, "Disco Duck," etc.) and that most other decades offered at least as strong, if not stronger, artistic masterpieces and cultural advancements. I also know that many '70s films could be overly sloppy and far too reliant on the zoom lens, as one of my favorite critics, Dave Kehr, is fond of pointing out. And I know that too many 1970s films glorified defeatist attitudes and tortured young white males who were presented as progressive rebels but were as reductively macho in their own way as their more obviously right-wing, knucklewalking peers. So, don't misunderstand my obsession with this decade's music, film, typography, clothing, and general atmosphere as some kind of blind worship.
What I think I love about 1970s films is the no-bullshit documentary feel prevalent in even the bullshit films, the pessimistic dark humor of an economically fucked-up planet in a painful post-'60s hangover, the emphasis on people and their faces instead of technology and plot, the spareness and rawness of most projects, the glimpse of a world in its final decade of thriving small businesses and heterogeneous local cultures before the corporations succeeded in homogenizing America and Americanizing the globe, directors who didn't get steamrolled by producers and studios (though there are plenty of exceptions here), the de-emphasis on high fashion and pop culture references, the lack of plastic surgery disaster faces, the best bars and pubs on film, the location shooting that really let you get a feel for what the region being depicted was like, a mainstream engagement with art and knowledge that has been replaced by an unfortunate obsession with teenage spectacle and anti-intellectualism as well as content for its own sake in the current climate, and a time when word of mouth was valued more highly than opening weekend box office. (This has become such an expensive insanity that a film like The Lone Ranger can be the second-highest-grossing film in the country on its opening weekend and still be regarded as a notorious flop.) Also, I was born in the late 1970s and spent a good portion of my childhood watching '70s movies on late-night TV (I was a night owl from the age of five). Seeing Dog Day Afternoon on TV when I was in third grade imprinted something on my brain that never went away. The grain of '70s-era 35mm film is part of my DNA. Even a shitty '70s movie makes me feel like I'm being enveloped in a nice, warm blanket impervious to CGI, Starbucks, Wendy Williams, Judge Judy, Angry Birds, Lady Gaga ringtones, Perez Hilton, Applebee's, digital cameras, and 24-hour news channels. For a brief window, my horrible anxiety is gone.
This is a long, long way of saying that a movie like Raw Meat is catnip for me, but even by those biased standards, it's a pretty good horror movie. The catnip: This film is the feature debut of Gary Sherman, who later went on to direct the excellent '80s horror film Dead & Buried and the underrated '90s thriller Lisa. The film stars Donald Pleasence, who is one of my favorite character actors, and has a very funny cameo from Christopher Lee, who needs no introduction from anyone reading this. The score by Wil Malone and Jeremy Rose is a great piece of '70s film music. The opening credit sequence is such a great combination of atmosphere, music, and typography that I wanted to pump my fist in the air. The story is about a cannibal living under the London Underground, his victims, and the detectives on the case (Pleasence, Norman Rossington). It also manages to make its case in under 90 minutes, with no interminable padding that is the current style of the times. (For example, Sex and the City 2 was 14 hours long and Transformers 3 has yet to end. Several filmgoers have died of dehydration and starvation while viewing it.)
The implausible but awesome plot of Raw Meat (called Death Line in most of the world -- Raw Meat is the American title) begins when an expensively attired older man peruses the offerings in a porn store. He then makes his way to the subway and attempts to pay a woman for sex, mistaking her for a prostitute. She knees him in the groin and takes his money. Soon, a young couple, college students Patricia (Sharon Gurney) and her American boyfriend Alex (David Ladd, Alan Ladd's son), see the man passed out or injured on the stairs. Patricia thinks the man is ill and wants to get help, but Alex thinks the man is just a passed-out drunk and suggests leaving him. Patricia refuses and they find a police officer. When they return to the man's location, he has disappeared. The mystery of the missing lecherous old pervert heats up when the man's identity is discovered. He is a high-ranking government official. Soon, an investigation begins, with Pleasence as the perpetually tea-drinking, eccentric chief investigator and Rossington his second-in-command. The implausible but awesome portion of the story begins when we find out why people have been disappearing from the Underground, but I'll let you discover why a cannibal is living there for yourself.
Though the film is by and large a great entertainment, there is a current of anger here about the British class system. Our ostensible murderous villain becomes sympathetic once the circumstances of his existence are understood, and his reasons for being what he is and living where he lives have a basis in a historical screwing over of the working class. Though people have been disappearing from the Underground for years, the case only becomes high priority when an upper-class government official goes missing. And Pleasence is ordered off the government bigwig's case by a posh MI5 official, played wonderfully by Christopher Lee.
The film simultaneously provides reliable genre thrills while undermining expectations, and though Ladd and Gurney can be a little stiff in some underwritten parts, Pleasence, Rossington, and Lee enjoy themselves greatly. Raw Meat gets a lot of mileage out of just a few locations (the Underground and environs, the detectives' office, the official's home complete with hidden sex room, the students' apartment, and a bookstore where Alex works) and has a reliably unadorned style despite a couple of bravura long-take tracking shots. There are some great shock and suspense scenes, some gross-out moments that are surprising for early-'70s Great Britain, and a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Nice job, Raw Meat.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


The next movie on the list has already been covered here. It's Antonia Bird's 1999 vampire western Ravenous, and I liked it a lot. Here's the old review.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

#160: The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955)

It's a little funny, and maybe cognitively dissonant for me, how many horror and science fiction films I enjoy that require me to ignore a message, philosophy, and/or moral of the story I find insulting and stupid. These particular films all share a common trait: a driven scientist or team of scientists obsessively pursuing greater knowledge. Of course, they GO TOO FAR and endanger all of life as we know it. Knowledge is dangerous, these movies say, and trying to understand our universe is akin to playing God. Remain ignorant. Our Creator has a plan. Ours is not to understand. Like all sane people, I wholeheartedly disagree with this message in the non-movie world, the one where I occasionally buy 1% milk, go to work, and accidentally squeal my tires when I turn right on Lamar Blvd. at the intersection near my house with the Jack in the Box, the shitty Mexican restaurant, and the kickass taco stand. But in the world of the fantastical genres of film, I can momentarily set aside my objections to the anti-science/pro-superstition and ignorance crowd and get in touch with my inner ignorant fundamentalist. You went too far, bro. Ours is not to understand. Now we're totally screwed, and I love it.
The reason I can set aside some of my values for the sake of entertainment is that if these movie scientists did not go too far, we would be watching a movie about an experiment where nothing went wrong with the exciting conclusion of a scientist publishing his research in an academic journal and maybe speaking at a conference. "Hoo-aah!," Dr. Pacino tells his colleagues. "The rocket returned safely. Science occurred with no freaky results. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a dinner date with a Dartmouth economics professor ... and she's got A GREAT ASS! ATTICA! ATTICA!" Okay, I'd watch that movie, too, but you get my point.
In The Quatermass Xperiment, the first Hammer Film Productions horror film (which led to a 20-year run of successful horror releases), the experiment that goes too far is a rocket into space, manned by three brave volunteers. The film opens with a couple of 35-year-old British teenagers necking on a pile of straw who are rudely interrupted by a rocket crashing into the girl's yard. Her father goes outside with a rifle to confront the rocket (classic rural old man move) and is singed by the rocket's extreme temperature. Soon, the place is swarming with cops, emergency medical staff, government officials, reporters, and a van full of scientists, the team who designed the rocket. The head of the otherwise British team is brash American Dr. Quatermass, a guy you would not want as your boss unless you enjoy someone yelling at you all day and demanding immediate results. I love Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) for his hilarious lack of human emotion and his inability to suffer fools gladly for even a few milliseconds. For the duration of the film, Quatermass is almost always barking orders at everyone he meets in this basic style: "You don't tell me what to do. I tell you what to do. Shut up and do it now. I want the results on my desk yesterday, you chowderhead." I embellished this somewhat, but it's a fairly accurate summation of his inimitable style.
When the rocket cools down enough to be opened (I'm no science major but I don't think the bit with the fire hoses is scientifically accurate), only one of the three astronauts can be found. The other two spacesuits are empty. Nobody knows what happened, and the only guy who can say, remaining astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), has gone astro-nuts. (I apologize.) He's messed up, in a state of shock, and he looks skeletal. His body chemistry seems to be changing and he refuses to speak. Meanwhile, the police have joined the investigation, for some reason, and Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) and Quatermass form an uneasy alliance to get to the bottom of what happened in that rocket. Soon, we learn that Carroon is not alone. Something is living inside of him, something that requires food. He goes on the hunt, and our science fiction film turns into a horror film at the halfway point.
Adapted from a BBC television miniseries, Val Guest's film is a very fun sci-fi/horror hybrid that knows when to be stupid and when to be smart for maximum entertainment value. There are some nice character turns from almost everyone, even the actors with the smallest roles, though Margia Dean, as Carroon's wife, is very stiff. I especially liked the characters of the zookeeper, a homeless alcoholic woman, and a very young Jane Asher as a girl who invites Carroon to join her and her doll for an ill-fated tea party. The homeless alcoholic woman gets a great line when she goes to the police station to report a sighting of the space alien. When the police actually take her seriously, she replies: "Then you mean this one is real? I thought it was just a gin goblin." Note to aspiring rock bands: Gin Goblin is still available. Snatch it up quickly. The finale in Westminster Abbey, where a television crew is filming a documentary series, is clever and satisfying, and though the film is not exactly a visual marvel, Guest does a lot with a small budget.
The film did so well in England and in the U.S. (where it was retitled The Creeping Unknown and became a big hit at the top of a drive-in double bill) that two sequels followed: Quatermass 2 (or Enemy from Space in the U.S.) and Quatermass and the Pit. Director Val Guest, who died in 2006 at the age of 94, had a long and varied career. Besides the first two Quatermass films, he is best known for the cult sci-fi film The Day the Earth Caught Fire and the beatnik Cliff Richard film Expresso Bongo, as well as for being one of the directors on the '60s Bond spoof Casino Royale. He worked in several genres, including comedy, drama, horror, science fiction, musicals, mystery, family films, and even soft-core sex (Au Pair Girls, Confessions of a Window Cleaner).  We don't have his equivalent in the film business anymore, by which I mean non-auteur craftsman who are comfortable working in any genre, which is kind of sad.