Saturday, November 30, 2013

#170: Spider Baby (Jack Hill, 1968)

Filmed in 1964 but not released until four years later due to a series of setbacks and complications, Jack Hill's Spider Baby is a cult film truly deserving of its reputation. Campy, funny, dark, creepy, sexually depraved, and very, very entertaining, Spider Baby is evidence of both the unfairly neglected Jack Hill's great talent and the imaginative superiority of many drive-in/exploitation/B-movies over expensive, mainstream Hollywood product. Spider Baby is not like other movies. It has its own weird, freaky thing going on, and I salute that weirdness and wholeheartedly endorse that freakiness. Throw away whatever you're watching now and put Spider Baby on.
For those of you unfamiliar with Spider Baby's charms, it's the story of the Merrye family, a tight-knit unit who live in a run-down Gothic mansion in an isolated, foliage-hidden stretch of rural California. The family suffers from a rare disorder, beginning in late childhood, that causes the brain to slowly regress in age as the body continues to age normally. As adulthood continues, the Merryes become more childlike until they have the brain activity of infants. Then things get weirder as the disorder makes them regress even further. They become feral, disfigured, hairy wild creatures, though the Merryes we're introduced to at the film's beginning haven't regressed this far yet.
Those three Merryes, in their late teens and early twenties, are Ralph (exploitation film legend Sid Haig) and his two younger sisters, Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). The Merrye parents are no longer among the living, so the trio of afflicted young people are looked after by the dutiful family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). There's also some talk about a feral uncle and two aunts who live in a hidden basement, but we won't see them for a while. Ralph is a large, bald baby who's about to go feral, but his sisters are still lucid, if very childlike. They also have a dark side. Virginia is obsessed with spiders and has a murderous streak, while Elizabeth likes manipulating Virginia, pushing her to do bad things and then chastising her for it. She has a murderous streak of her own, and the two make a dangerous team.
The Merryes receive a telegram from an ill-fated messenger (Mantan Moreland) informing them that two distant cousins are visiting that day. The cousins, a brother and sister named Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart), have learned that they are the inheritors of the Merrye fortune and that their afflicted cousins are being raised by a family employee. Assuming Bruno is merely after the family's money, they decide to pay a visit to their distant relatives and assess the situation, their lawyer Mr. Shlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel) in tow. The Merryes are not the visiting type, and an already weird day is about to get weirder.
Working independently with a small budget provided by first-time producers who worked in the real estate business, the filmmakers nevertheless created a memorable, unusual film with better performances and more striking images than your run-of-the-mill drive-in cheapie. Washburn and Banner are both hilarious and frightening as the Merrye sisters, with their odd spoken cadence and body movements reminding me, in part, of documentary footage of Manson family acolytes. I don't know if the Manson Family women ever watched Spider Baby, but they seem to have stolen a few moves.
Lon Chaney, Jr., gives a sincere and emotional performance as a man who genuinely cares for the Merrye family. A bad alcoholic at the time of filming, Chaney was so devoted to this film that he managed to stay off booze for the 12-day shoot. Chaney as Bruno is a bit crazy, in his own way, but he's the sturdy foundation that grounds the film, the straight man the other characters play off. (He also sang the awesomely goofy theme song, nicely covered by the avant-metal supergroup Fantomas on their film score covers album The Director's Cut.) The rest of the cast give their characters unique traits and distinct mannerisms, especially Redeker (a veteran actor who also cowrote the screenplay for The Deer Hunter, oddly enough). No one here is a stiff placeholder or a tool of the plot. These are characters existing in a world created specifically for this film, not a generic world of general film tropes.
Writer/director Jack Hill is an underrated, unique film voice who had a great run of B-movies in the '60s and '70s. Hill grew up in Hollywood with an architect father who did a lot of work for Disney and Warner Brothers as a set designer. He attended UCLA's film school with classmate Francis Ford Coppola, and both men got their start with Roger Corman, though Hill remained in the drive-in/exploitation circuit. After codirecting a couple of horror and sexploitation films, Blood Bath and Mondo Keyhole, Hill got the chance to write and direct his own film with Spider Baby. He followed it with a drag racing film, Pit Stop, that introduced Ellen Burstyn to the world; four blaxploitation films with Pam Grier (The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, and Foxy Brown); The Swinging Cheerleaders, my favorite cheerleadersploitation film; and Switchblade Sisters, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's. Hill's last movie, the 1982 fantasy film Sorceress, was an unhappy experience and a reportedly lousy final product, though I haven't seen it. The finished film was taken away from Hill, reedited, and credited to fictional filmmaker Brian Stuart.
Fed up with the movie business, Hill retired after the Sorceress fiasco to concentrate on writing a novel. The single novel turned into a series of novels that Hill is still working on, and I hope he finishes them before he kicks off and that somebody publishes them. He wrote another screenplay in the 1990s, an offbeat sex comedy he planned to direct with Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee in the lead role, but he failed to find funding. The movie business doesn't treat its veteran directors very well unless they're firmly entrenched in the big studio system, and that really sucks. Jack Hill's still here, though, and so are his best films, of which Spider Baby is most definitely one.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

#169: Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Hitchcock's favorite of his own films, 1943's Shadow of a Doubt is both a textbook example of "the master of suspense" in peak form and an unusual exception in his body of work, in that its central subjects are a close, loving family. Hitchcock's protagonists are most often solitary individuals trapped in a private hell or romantic couples bound together by sexual attraction and shared wit, but it's a rare Hitchcock film that focuses so specifically on a family unit, though I'm going to qualify this statement later in the review. Perhaps this focus on family can be attributed to co-screenwriter Thornton Wilder (of Our Town fame) more than Hitchcock, but that's just speculation on my part. No matter the source, it's exciting to see Hitchcock tackle the subject of hidden evil in a wholesome small town. David Lynch, for one, was taking notes.
The family at the center of Shadow of a Doubt is both typical and unusual: a banker father, Joseph (Henry Travers, best known as the angel in It's a Wonderful Life), a working mother and homemaker, Emma (Patricia Collinge), a daughter in her early twenties, Charlie (Teresa Wright, so good here and in my favorite movie about veterans returning from the war, The Best Years of Our Lives), and two younger children, Ann and Roger (Edna May Wonacott and Charles Bates). The family is tight-knit and close, all-American (as stupid as that word is, it fits here), church-going, hard-working, comfortable with each other. They're an unusual bunch, though. All three children are fiercely intelligent, eccentric, and both wise beyond their years and dreamily, naively romantic. Emma embodies the American '40s mother figure, but there's a melancholic wistfulness and a wounded sensitivity just below the surface. Meanwhile, Joseph is obsessed with murder, of both the true-crime and detective fiction varieties, an obsession he shares with his neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut). The two men, in some of my favorite scenes, debate the best ways to murder each other without getting caught. Also, both men have some of the best facial expressions in film history.
Charlie is feeling a little down at the film's beginning. She feels the family is stuck in a rut, going through the motions, trapped in its particular roles. She decides to write a telegram to her namesake, her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, veteran of multiple Orson Welles films and plays), and ask him to come for a visit as a way of rejuvenating things. She's pleased and surprised to discover that Uncle Charlie has written a telegram of his own, announcing an extended visit. The two Charlies have a bit of a telepathic connection, in a subtly supernatural undercurrent that grows more disturbing as the film progresses. Uncle Charlie's reason for leaving his current home of Philadelphia to visit his sister's family in Santa Rosa, California, however, is much darker than the younger Charlie realizes. Rather than heeding her telepathic call, Uncle Charlie is on the run from two men he gives the slip at the film's beginning. Initially, we're not sure who these men are and why they're after Uncle Charlie, and Uncle Charlie himself is a bit of a mysterious figure. Nobody knows what he does for a living, other than vague mutterings about him being "in business," and though he has been staying in Philadelphia, his sister mentions their time in the Midwest, his brother-in-law describes him as a "New York man," and he describes himself as a person who's been all over the globe.
Young Charlie has an obsession with her uncle. She feels they have a deep spiritual and mental closeness, and she idolizes his independent lifestyle and worldly demeanor. Some analysts of the film have described their relationship as one of incestuous sexual attraction, but I feel it's more complex and less sleazy than that. Charlie does have a bit of a crush on her uncle, but it's less romantically sexual than it is romantically ideological, in my view. She sees him as a kindred spirit and mentor, an idealized figure who has realized the fantasies young Charlie daydreams about. Charlie is a deeply intelligent young woman, lacking only life experience and adventure, and she thinks of Uncle Charlie as a guide to the wider world. Uncle Charlie initially seems happy to be among family, offering gifts and warm smiles. He's got one hell of a dark side, though, and young Charlie feels the burden of being the only one in the house to discover it. (Here's the solitary individual trapped in a private hell I mentioned above.)
Formally, Shadow of a Doubt is subtler than some of the stylistic tours de force that come later, but Hitchcock still has you by the shoulders and throat from the beginning. He avoids closeups, for the most part, but when he chooses to use one, it has tremendous weight and impact. The camera moves often, but doesn't call attention to itself short of a few intense moments. The film is relaxed and unhurried in its pace without losing any narrative momentum or focus, and suspense is maintained even when we're given most of the information. The man was such a naturally gifted filmmaker.
Hitchcock's work with the actors here is wonderful as well, despite his reputation for using them as chess pieces and his famous description of them, apocryphal or not, as "cattle." The principal cast fit their roles perfectly, but what's equally impressive is how rich and memorable even the tiniest parts are here. Macdonald Carey is too much the all-American bore as one of the men on Uncle Charlie's trail who develops romantic feelings for the young Charlie (she's too complex to love such a conventional guy, in my opinion), but everyone else is interesting enough for their own movie. My favorite is a hilariously deadpan former classmate of Charlie's who is currently working as a waitress at a rough dive bar, but I'm also fond of an overzealous traffic cop, an irritated librarian, and a friend of Charlie's who says very little but hungrily sizes up, head to toe, every man she meets. There's a real sense of community and character here that makes the film feel alive. I was lucky enough to see Shadow of a Doubt on the big screen six or seven years ago, and I loved it just as much on my second viewing.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

#168: The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

I don't really know what its status is in our current cultural climate where "art" is a dirty word in both mainstream culture and the various subcultures buried just beneath it and where even a mainstream crowd-pleaser like the first Rocky would be marketed as an art film if it were released today simply because it's not about CGI figures crashing into each other, but for a good thirty-plus years, The Seventh Seal was the symbolic figurehead of European art film, referenced and parodied endlessly in popular culture, perhaps most memorably for people of my vintage in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. I saw dozens upon dozens of references to the film's famous chess match with Death years before I ever saw the film. It's hard to imagine another subtitled foreign art film becoming a mainstream reference point today, but culture is a lot more fragmented than it was in the '50s. If you're in your thirties or older, you probably know this movie even if you don't know this movie. If you're younger, you probably don't, unless you're the curious type who seeks out the older and/or the currently unfashionable.
If you are familiar with this movie, you might be questioning its place on a horror movie list. I questioned it when I first noticed it occupying a spot on Rue Morgue's list. "That's not a horror movie," I remember thinking. Then, when images from it came back to me, and I thought about the arc of the story and the elements and images making it up, I changed my tune. Like all Bergman's films, The Seventh Seal was marketed as a European art film for a highbrow audience (well, a few were initially marketed as sex films for horndogs who liked a little culture with their nudity ("Come for the tits! Stay for the cultural advancement!"), but that was a brief advertising fad in the late '50s and early '60s), but The Seventh Seal is also a dark fantasy with some pretty horrific imagery, a Halloween-appropriate piece of Scandinavian Gothic.
Expanding this line of thinking to Bergman's career as a whole, I'm tempted to call him one of the major non-horror directors who's had the most influence on the lighting, framing, and atmosphere of the horror genre. Almost all of Bergman's films contain scenes with disturbing, nightmarish imagery. Even one of his most straightforward pieces of drama, Autumn Sonata, has a scene of pure horror in it. The Virgin Spring was the inspiration for Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. Fanny and Alexander has supernatural elements. The Magician is a non-horror film that looks and feels exactly like a horror film. Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Sawdust and Tinsel, Cries and Whispers, The Passion of Anna, and Persona have moments of psychological terror. Two Bergman films I have yet to see, Shame and Hour of the Wolf, have even been described as his takes on the horror film. This is my long-winded way of saying The Seventh Seal is not much of a stretch for an adventurous horror list like Rue Morgue's.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Plague. A knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), pitch up exhausted on a beach. They have just spent the past 10 years fighting in the Crusades and both men are disillusioned, though in very different ways. Antonius' faith in religion has been shaken by the violence of the Crusades, but he still believes devoutly in God. Like many Bergman characters, he doesn't understand why God remains silent and desperately wants God to make his presence known. Jons is a cynical realist and atheist who sees no evidence of a higher power and has no faith in gods or his fellow men. They make an interesting pair, these two, so different from, but so loyal to, each other. Also present on the beach is Death (Bengt Ekerot). He's ready to drop both men with the plague, but Antonius offers to play chess with him in exchange for a little more time. Antonius wants to do something, or experience something, meaningful before he dies. The two men travel the countryside, with Death showing up at periodic intervals to continue the game. Meanwhile, a married couple, Mia and Jof (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe), members of a small acting troupe, join the knight and squire as they attempt to escape both the plague and the general end-of-times panic gripping the residents of the nearby villages.
Bergman adapted his most famous film from his own play, but the story feels like an old fable, and, as my wife pointed out, the structure has the feel of a Shakespeare play. The filmmaking, on the other hand, has a '30s horror feel and a more conventional score than is usual for Bergman that accentuates the dread and suspense. I was also surprised at the amount of humor in the film. Though Bergman made a small handful of comedies, the majority of his filmography is pretty devoid of humor. I don't remember a single light moment in the early '60s-early '80s stretch of his work until 1982's Fanny and Alexander, a very serious film in its own right but one that makes room for some comic relief in its early scenes. The Seventh Seal, however, is full of humor, both dry and silly, both physical and verbal. In that sense, it's a pretty unusual Bergman film, maybe the only one where you see his lightest and darkest sensibilities sharing space.
The Seventh Seal may not appeal to a more traditional horror fan or somebody who wants a blood-soaked slasher film, but I think there's a lot here for the adventurous horror enthusiast. Apocalyptic visions, Death, eyeless corpses, birds of prey, dark thunderstorms, a Satanic woman burned at the stake, half-mad villagers, omens, the plague, the absence of God. It's all here. A critic's darling in his prolific years who was championed by the French New Wave filmmakers and the New York critical establishment, Bergman has taken a few recent hits in some quarters as an overrated, repetitive writer whose compositions owe more to the theater than the cinema, but I'm not on board with many of these criticisms. He may not be as formally innovative as contemporaries like Bresson, Dreyer, Antonioni, Godard, Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and Renoir, but his films still retain their emotional power and his mastery at photographing faces is far more cinematic than theatrical. He's on the shortlist of directors who know exactly when, where, and how to use closeups. Bergman's not untouchable, but his best films will long outlast his detractors.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


The next movie on the list is Brad Anderson's Session 9, and I already reviewed it. Here's the link to the old post. New post coming tomorrow.