Saturday, April 30, 2016

#230: The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925)

Damn, I love this movie.
The Unholy Three is one of those films that catches fire from its combination of a great director who understands that visual style and great individual moments and details are important, an exciting and offbeat story, actors who thrive in their roles and have excellent chemistry with each other, a weirdness played seriously and straight-facedly while acknowledging moments of humor, a pace that builds in momentum and action without losing its way or forgetting its characters, a great opening scene that is both different from and a great introduction to what is to follow, and an indescribable yet palpable magic that only makes its presence felt in really good movies. It's also one of the most accessible silent movies I've seen, with a modern feel in its actors' movements and expressions and its economy of storytelling.
This was my first introduction to the silent films of Tod Browning, but I'm a big fan of several of his sound films, including Dracula with Bela Lugosi, deathless cult classic Freaks, underrated Lugosi vampire film Mark of the Vampire, and proto-Incredible Shrinking Man cross-dressing oddity The Devil-Doll. On the proof of The Unholy Three, he may have been even greater in the silent era.
The Unholy Three opens with an incredible circus sideshow scene. We see the fat lady, the exotic dancer, Hercules the strongman (Victor McLaglen), Tweedledee the little person (Harry Earles), and ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney, who, as I've written many times before on this site, seems to have appeared in every American horror, crime, and suspense film of the 1920s). Also in this group is pickpocket with a heart of gold Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch), who is kinda-sorta romantically involved with Echo and who cuts him on the pickpocket proceeds. When a couple of stylish flappers make fun of the hot-tempered Tweedledee, the crowd gets in on the heckling and the little man loses it. He kicks a child in the face, which causes a riot. In the melee, Hercules and Echo pitch in to help out their colleague, but they all flee when the cops arrive.
Now out of work and needing some scratch, the former sideshow performers hatch a scheme so unholy they dub themselves The Unholy Three. Never mind that Rosie is forced to go along with the con and is an integral part of it. They don't include her in the planning, the nickname, or the profits. These guys are jerks.
The plan, possibly one of the most complicated in Hollywood history, involves Echo opening a store that sells exotic birds and bird seed while disguised as a kindly old grandmother. (For some strange reason, the store also has a pet gorilla in a cage, as your high-end bird stores always do.) Rosie pretends to be Echo's granddaughter while Tweedledee, the 20-year-old little person, pretends to be Echo's infant grandson. Poor Hercules has no alternate identity, and just hangs around as a family friend. He's also deathly afraid of the gorilla. The gang of con artists lives in an apartment in the back of the bird store.
The bird-store grift angle is as follows. Echo is selling cheap parrot lookalikes that don't actually talk. He convinces his customers the birds are parrots through his ventriloquism skills. When a rich customer buys a bird, he eventually and inevitably complains about the bird's lack of vocal skills. Echo in grandmother disguise brings baby Tweedledee along to the rich person's home, does her parrot ventriloquism shtick while Tweedledee cases the joint, and the trio sneaks in the next night and robs the rich guy blind. In case they draw heat, the gang hires a goodie-two-shoes employee, Hector (Matt Moore), as a patsy they can pin the crimes on. They never counted on Hector and Rosie falling in love.
Things heat up when Echo can't make a burglary, Tweedledee and Hercules go without him, and everyone learns what a couple of sadistic psychos they are. Echo starts feeling shame and remorse, and many notable events ensue, some involving the gorilla. I realize I've given you several paragraphs of plot description, but I've only scratched the surface. There's way more here than just an ingenious, bizarre story.
Browning develops every character and finds time in the midst of all the action to put his camera on some fascinating face, detail, or visual moment incidental to the plot. I especially enjoyed Tweedledee chomping on a cigar and gesturing like a wiseguy while in convincing disguise as a toddler and the heckling flappers at the circus.
Harry Earles, the actor playing Tweedledee, had a long, fascinating life. Born Kurt Schneider in Germany as one of seven children, Harry shared his dwarfism with three sisters, Gracie, Daisy, and Tiny (real names Frieda, Hilda, and Elly). In an I'm-glad-the-world-doesn't-operate-this-way-anymore development, their father sold the four little siblings to Bert W. Earles, an American proprietor of a Wild West show. Earles adopted them, Americanized their names, included them in his traveling show, and gave them a place to live on his Pasadena ranch. When the elderly Earles died, the adult siblings struck out on their own and joined the Barnum & Bailey circus, where they were billed as the Doll Family. Harry was the first to get into the movies, and The Unholy Three was his first role. His sisters soon joined him, and their most famous performance was as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Harry enjoyed working with Browning, and gave him the short story that inspired Browning's Freaks, in which two of his sisters also appeared. After the acting roles dried up in the 1950s, the Earles rejoined the circus for a few years before retiring in Florida in a house they designed that had every room customized to fit their heights. They lived long, financially stable lives (very un-Hollywood), with the youngest sibling, Tiny, the last to die in 2004.
The Louisville-born Browning had a series of strange careers before his long, successful life as a Hollywood director, all of which seemed to exert an influence on how he made films and what he made them about. Falling in love with a circus performer at age 16, he joined the circus as a clown before becoming a jockey for several years. The entertainment bug returned, and he was directing theatrical variety shows when D.W. Griffith discovered him and cast him as an actor in silent films. He made the transition to directing in 1915 and died in Hollywood in 1962 at the age of 82.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

#229: Barbed Wire Dolls (Jess Franco, 1976)

Barbed Wire Dolls, a pretty insane and pretty terrible women-in-prison movie with one gloriously stupid scene that makes it all worthwhile (more on that later), appeared near the end of the first third of notorious and prolific Spanish writer/director Jesus "Jess" Franco's career. Franco, primarily working in the sexploitation and sex-filled horror genres, directed 203 films between 1957 and 2013, the year of his death. (For those keeping tabs, that last film was called Revenge of the Alligator Ladies.)
Franco was famous for cranking out films quickly, on time, and under budget, and he was also famous for not really learning much about how to make films even as he made hundreds of them. Franco reportedly despised his own work and is quoted as saying he wished he could have made films like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. On the evidence of Barbed Wire Dolls, two major steps he could have taken to put him closer to the cinema of Orson Welles and John Ford would be to refrain from taking so many closeup shots of vaginas and also to hire a cameraman who knew about things like focus, shot composition, and general camera placement.
Barbed Wire Dolls is basically softcore pornography, so to fault it for gratuitous nudity is a bit like faulting the ocean for having gratuitous water. That's the whole point. The film is a bizarre fantasy vehicle for Franco's particular fetishes, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense outside of that framework. The plot is primarily an excuse for Franco to fixate on his cast's legs and vaginas (including his wife, Lina Romay). Breasts seem incidental to Franco, with the exception of two buxom women who look like they stepped out of a Russ Meyer film. The vagina closeups are very clinical and not sexy at all, and the repetition gets pretty boring. Any gynecologists watching this movie will feel like they're still at work. Like a lot of simple-minded and single-minded sexploitation filmmakers, Franco makes the audience tired of nudity. Even a room full of heterosexual 13-year-old boys would probably check out about halfway through. Fortunately, the weirdness and unintentional humor helped me get through it.
Speaking of weird, this is a truly strange prison. Located on a beautiful island (filmed in Honduras, financed by the Swiss) and surrounded by clear blue ocean water, the prison itself is a drab, gray, dreary place.  The regulation uniform is a bluish-gray button-up shirt with no other clothes, though only one of the women wears underwear, for some reason. The prison is run as a fascist S&M torture camp, with the women being punished by the evil warden and her henchmen and women and drugged by a fake doctor who murdered the real doctor. That warden is played by Monica Swinn, who bears a strong resemblance to Fritz Lang. Franco has her wear a monocle just like Lang's. Is this a film buff inside joke about Lang's reputation for being a tyrant and sadist on his sets, or just an odd coincidence? The resemblance to Fritz Lang ends at the neck, however, as Swinn's warden wears an unbuttoned shirt and booty shorts, an odd combination for professional attire but par for the course in Franco's world. She's also fond of wearing see-through gowns in her private apartment and reading Nazi literature.
The usual women-in-prison cliches are trotted out, and much S&M, lesbian sex, mild torture, and copious nudity ensue. Moving this into the realm of the unusual, however, is Franco's incredibly bizarre, stilted, and goofy dialogue. When one prisoner mentions that her brother was killed, another prisoner (the resident nymphomaniac) says how lucky he is to be dead because you can make love to anyone you want in the afterlife. "He's probably made love to the bride of Frankenstein," she says. "I love Frankenstein!" As the kids type, WTF? There are also a lot of stupidly vague conversations about "revolutionists" and "bleeding-heart liberal journalists." Things carry on like this for an hour and a half, a prison break is attempted, and the whole thing goes out on a surprisingly downbeat ending.
Which brings me to the one amazing reason this otherwise painfully stupid film deserves to be seen -- the "slow motion" scene. Lina Romay's character, Maria, is in the prison for murdering her father, and in a flashback sequence, we see how this happened. Maria is sleeping totally nude on top of the sheets, instead of under them. Her father (played by Franco himself) comes into her room, sits on her bed, and wakes her up. She seems cool with this instead of embarrassed that her dad is looking at her naked, but things get even more disgusting when he starts fondling her and demanding sex. She gets up to run away, and her father chases her through the house. She shoves him away, he hits his head on the mantelpiece, and is knocked unconscious. We find out how he died a few scenes later. Most of this action takes place in slow motion.
This doesn't sound so great, I know, but wait. For absolutely mystifying reasons, instead of changing the frame rate to create the slow motion, Franco and Romay instead pretend to be moving in slow motion like kids on a playground goofing around. This is howlingly funny. My wife and I could barely breathe we were laughing so hard, and it made the endurance of the rest of this godawful film worthwhile. Because I'm a public servant, a man of the people, I have included a link to this scene here. You can skip the rest. This is the only thing about the movie that is pure gold. Oh yeah, this clip is totally NSFW. Enjoy. (The fake slow motion starts at about 1:30.)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

#228: Bad Dreams (Andrew Fleming, 1988)

In his first feature film, writer/director Andrew Fleming breathed some kinetic new life into the basic slasher film template, which was on its moldy but still financially successful last legs in 1988. (Wes Craven's Scream -- a film I hate -- kick-started a second wave of slasher flicks in the late '90s, most of which I have little to no interest in.) Fleming's film, like most slasher films, sees a group of people slowly picked off by a psychotic killer, but that's where the similarities end.
Fleming opens his film with a wide shot of a sunrise in rural California, slowly revealing a parked hippie van and a large home to the tune of the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today." Inside are members of what appears to be a '60s-style commune, under the leadership of the creepy Harris (the late Richard Lynch, reliably awesome character actor for when you needed a creepy dude or an action movie bad guy). We will find out that this hippie dream has continued way past its sell-by date (the mid-'70s) and that these never-say-die hippies are actually an always-say-die apocalyptic death cult about to commit mass ritual suicide by fire. Not cool, dudes.
The death hippies burn themselves up, but there is one survivor, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin). She languishes in a coma for 13 years, but finally wakes up in the late '80s. Without family, friends, money, or any life experience outside of the death cult, she is placed in a Los Angeles mental health facility, where she becomes a member of a borderline personality therapy group under instructions from the institution's director, Dr. Berrisford (veteran character actor Harris Yulin), though she seems more well adjusted than the other members.
The group members include the perpetually smart-assed, self-harming, prone-to-violent-outbursts Ralph (Summer School's Dean Cameron), pathologically shy Lana (Pee-wee's Big Adventure's E.G. Daily), Book of Revelations religious fanatic Gilda (sometime actor and full-time dance choreographer Damita Jo Freeman), suicidal ex-journalist Miriam (Susan Ruttan), and perpetually ashamed Connie (Susan Barnes) and her boyfriend, dangerously impulsive Ed (Louis Giambalvo). The therapist leading the group is kindly Dr. Alex Karmen (Re-Animator's Bruce Abbott), who falls for Cynthia, in the least of the film's many professional ethics violations. Hanging on the periphery is a detective investigating the fire and its many deaths, Wasserman, played by a favorite of mine, Repo Man's Sy Richardson.
Since Cynthia was the only survivor, late cult leader Harris feels she owes him her life. He appears to her from the other side and begins taking out the therapy group members as revenge for her failure to commit to the death cult's final sacrifice. Is he really appearing? Is he a figment of her imagination? Or is something more sinister going on in the facility?
Fleming's direction is confident and energetic, and Bad Dreams doesn't look like the work of a first-timer. The movie is silly and implausible, but it's also creepy, exciting, funny, and suspenseful, and the cast of enjoyable character actors fills the frame with life. (One other cast note: comedian and Roger Rabbit voice Charles Fleischer has a funny cameo as a pharmacist.) Its blend of tones and plots (hippie death cult, mental hospital patients, slasher movie, comedy, nightmare vs. reality) shouldn't work, but it does. I really enjoyed this one.
It's fitting that the film has so many unexpected moments of humor, because Fleming has largely worked in comedy since. I was not a fan of his second film, Threesome, a clunky comedy/drama about college and sexual experimentation starring Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, and a pre-evangelical Stephen Baldwin, but I enjoyed his third film, The Craft, and the episode of Arrested Development he directed, and I've heard good things about his comedies Dick and Hamlet 2. He's currently working on a comedy with Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan. Fleming's co-writer on Bad Dreams was Steven E. de Souza, one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. His credits include 48 Hrs., Commando, Die Hard, and mega-flop (but liked very much by me) Hudson Hawk