Saturday, December 31, 2016

#247: The Black Cat (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

The Black Cat, a very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, is a bit subdued by Lucio Fulci's standards, especially compared to the films on either side of it (The Beyond and Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead). This is a guy who included a scene of a zombie fighting a shark in Zombie. Still, it's got plenty of inspired lunacy and narrative incoherence, a pretty sick black cat with supernatural powers, and Patrick Magee and his incredible eyebrows and patented Patrick Magee intensity. It's pretty minor Fulci, but I had a good time watching it, and so did one of my cats.
The Black Cat takes place in a small village in England, but a lot of the interior scenes were shot in Italy. The cast includes veteran theater actor and supporting player in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon Patrick Magee in one of his last roles before his death in 1982, Mimsy Farmer, and Fulci regular David Warbeck. Magee plays retired professor Robert Miles, the town eccentric who keeps trying to communicate with the dead and who has an antagonistic relationship with his pet black cat. Farmer plays Jill Trevers, an American photographer taking pictures in the village who develops a fascination with Miles. When a young couple mysteriously disappears, the town police sergeant Wilson (Al Cliver) sends for help from Scotland Yard, which arrives in the delightfully campy form of Inspector Gorley (Warbeck).
Gorley stays on when the couple turns up dead under bizarre circumstances, the second and third victims in what soon becomes a string of freak accidental deaths. They were preceded in death by a man who drove his car at full speed into a parked car, and the body count just keeps increasing. Miles and Trevers both know the deaths aren't accidents but instead the work of Miles' black cat, which may be acting under the influence of psychic human impulses. But why is the cat causing these deaths, and how is it capable of human intent?  And how can Trevers convince the detectives without sounding insane?
Meanwhile, Miles is clearly hiding something, and the antagonistic relationship between him and his cat culminates in a hilariously nutty scene where he actually hangs the cat from a tree with a tiny kitty noose. Too bad for him this cat is unkillable, baby! Shortly afterwards, Trevers experiences a poltergeist-style window explosion in her bedroom for reasons never explained. In the next scene taking place in her room, the damage appears to have been repaired completely. I don't understand, but I love it.
This is all pretty silly stuff, but Fulci commits completely. I especially loved the closeups of Magee and his amazing eyebrows as he makes deadly serious pronouncements like, "Cats take orders from no one!" Ain't that the truth, buddy. There are lots of cool shots of the cat scratching the ever-loving hell out of people, some pretty sweet cat's-eye-view camera movements, and lots of atmospheric fog. Warbeck is also pretty funny as the frequently drunk and campily macho Scotland Yard inspector. (I also got to say things like, "Now he's the inspector from Scotland Hard" when he kisses Trevers and "Now he's the inspector from Clawtland Yard" when the cat scratches him. I have good times.) The Black Cat isn't a lost gem or one of Fulci's best, but it's a solidly enjoyable, delightfully goofy, and unusual horror film.
By the way, my tortoiseshell cat Fern went apeshit over the film's first 15 minutes. She was completely riveted by the scenes of the black cat scampering across the village's rooftops, and I was momentarily worried she would try to attack the screen, but she held it together. My wife and I watched the cat documentary The Lion in Your Living Room last weekend, and Fern's response was similar. We've unwittingly set a precedent for supplying her with cat-based entertainment every Friday night. Happy New Year, everyone. If we survive what is certain to be the destructive and incompetent presidency of the orange-sociopath-in-chief, I will continue to write these posts. Thanks for reading.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

#246: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)

At this late date, I think Russ Meyer's reputation as a genuinely talented, unique filmmaker is as strong or stronger than his mostly unfair reputation as a purveyor of low-grade T&A schlock. Meyer's films are campy, and he is obsessed with the figures of voluptuous women, but there's so much more going on in these movies than just that. Meyer was one of the most original film stylists, creating a dizzying blend of live-action cartoon, comic-strip, pop-art montage that used elements of exploitation movies, classic Hollywood, burlesque shows, the aforementioned comics and cartoons, and a troupe of oddball actors that built their own personality-driven images onscreen, much like John Waters' group of Baltimore oddballs. And, also like Waters, Meyers celebrated bad taste, the wide world of sexuality and fetishism, letting your freak flag fly, and fabulousness on the cheap.
Meyer's films are full of contradictions, however. He can be an old-fashioned moralist doling out punishment for hedonism while also celebrating the epicurean lifestyle. His sensitive, troubled characters are likely to end up dead or broken, while the brasher, more confident ones succeed and thrive.
Both regressive and progressive, a Meyers film ogles the bodies of beautiful women but also loves these women as people and performers creating characters. The women in his films are sometimes close to superheroes or supervillains, fighting squares, sexists, and dullards, carving out a space for their own lives and personalities to exist and triumph. I don't want to get carried away making a case for Russ Meyer as a feminist because I don't think he was (you only see one kind of body type in his movies, for example), but put a Russ Meyer film up against the entire filmographies of most male Hollywood liberal directors (Oliver Stone, etc.), and you'll see who cares about creating lots of great parts for women and who doesn't.
Meyer got his biggest budget and widest distribution with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, probably his most well-known film to this day. A sequel in name only to the Jacqueline Susann adaptation, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was written by Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, from a story idea by Meyer and Ebert. It still blows my mind a little that Roger Ebert wrote this film. He had a lot of things going for him as a critic, but one of his major blind spots was the hard-to-describe category of exploitation/drive-in/psychotronic/cult/midnight movie/b-movie. He tended to dismiss or ignore these kinds of films, but he ended up writing one of the great ones. Weird. (He also co-wrote two other Meyer films, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, under the pseudonyms Reinhold Timme and R. Hyde because his bosses at the paper weren't so keen on him writing for Meyer.)
For his relatively mainstream crossover film, Meyer toned down the sex (by his standards, not Hollywood's -- the film is still full of sex) but kept the weirdness cranked to the maximum. For those of you unlucky enough to have never seen it (or lucky enough to have the chance to see it for the first time), I'll give a quick description. A trio of rock musicians, Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and the awesomely named Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), and their manager (and Kelly's boyfriend) Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), get sick of playing to squares at local dances and head to Los Angeles to try for rock stardom. Kelly has a fashion designer aunt she's never met, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis). Susan introduces the newcomers to rock impresario and Hollywood scenester Z-Man (John Lazar), a demented svengali famous for managing rock groups, throwing debauched parties, and speaking almost exclusively in Shakespearean language.
Z-Man takes a liking to the women's rock band, renames them The Carrie Nations (in ironic honor of pro-temperance activist Carrie Nation), and makes them stars while also introducing them to the sleaze, depravity, drugs, and cruelty of the Hollywood scene. Wild characters enter their orbit, including porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams), fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin), perpetually shirtless heavyweight boxer Randy Black (James Iglehart), law student Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), unscrupulous lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), and part-time actor Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Things get dark, darker, and finally, dark as fuck. Crazy shit happens, someone is beheaded with a sword, and hard lessons are learned. Sample dialogue: "This is my happening and it freaks me out!' and "You shall drink the black sperm of my vengeance!'
In the almost two hours of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the pacing never flags, despite the almost constant whirlwind of events, drama, and insanity. Moving to Hollywood and losing one's soul was a familiar trope even in 1970, but you've never seen it told like this. Meyer's strange sensibility and uniquely personal approach to editing, framing, and storytelling was not compromised by the Hollywood money backing this film. His actors all have that patented Meyer mixture of naivete and knowingness and give slightly stylized (or in Z-Man's case extremely stylized) performances that fit perfectly in the world Meyer creates. This is both a sublime and a ridiculous film, and I love it. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

#245: The Show (Tod Browning, 1927)

Yet another fascinating gem from the great Tod Browning, The Show is an offbeat, visually expressive obscurity that resonates in its own strange frequency, hovering in the spaces between genres without committing to one. Browning, the Louisville-born director of The Unholy Three, Freaks, Lugosi's Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, The Devil-Doll, and the famous lost film London After Midnight, had a knack for striking images, great faces, and unusual stories, and he mined a rich vein of weirdness in films about people living on the fringes of society, particularly carnival workers and low-level show-biz types, small-time criminals, and supernatural figures of menace.
The Show combines pieces of the crime thriller, horror, melodrama, romance, dark comedy, and the backstage lives-of-show-people drama with a subtle German Expressionist influence and a clairvoyant eye toward the film noir of the future to tell a story about a seamy traveling carnival and medicine show performing a string of dates in Budapest. The show features a menagerie of deadly animals, phony circus freaks, and a theatrical retelling of the Salome story, complete with a fake beheading.
Performing double duty as ringmaster and actor in the Salome portion of the show is Cock Robin (John Gilbert), an opportunistic ladies' man always on the make for sex and money, making his living off the charity of the women he seduces. His current target is naive farmer's daughter Lena (Gertrude Short), whose father has just come in to a nice pile of money after selling several sheep. Gilbert is great as Cock Robin, with his rakish demeanor, pencil-thin mustache, stylish 'do, and hilarious self-regard.
Robin's attention on other women draws the ire of Salome (Renee Adoree), who has been having an affair with him. In bad news for everyone, the black-hearted entrepreneur who runs the carnival, The Greek (a hilariously evil Lionel Barrymore), thinks Salome is his property and is willing to murder the star of his show if his suspicions of their affair are confirmed. He tries to intimidate Robin in a hilarious macho dick-measuring scene by casually taking out his switchblade and flicking it open. Robin responds by taking out a blade that's three times bigger and even more casually using it for a few housekeeping chores.
The film spends the next breakneck 30 minutes tying together a performance of the show, some stolen money, a murder and robbery, an attempted murder, two love triangles, a giant lizard attack (!), and a police pursuit before the tone dramatically flips and The Show becomes a slow-paced melodrama about Robin, Salome, and a blind man who lives in Salome's apartment building. The film loses a little momentum here, and the change in atmosphere and scope is jarring, but Browning's sure direction and his actors' performances maintained my interest. The wild plot strands wind their way back into the melodrama by the film's end, and the viewer is left wondering how Browning can fit so much into 76 minutes.
Browning creates one expressive image after another and many great scenes. It's a pleasure to see a director who cares about everything in his film and knows how to realize it. The beautiful sets, the framing of shots, the movement of the camera, the actors' faces and bodies and their inhabiting of the characters, the structure and movement of the story, the little details that go so far in making a movie a self-contained world of its own and not just a filmed plot, all this is why Browning is one of the greats.
The film's leads, John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, had successful show-business careers, but they both died tragically young. Adoree, a French woman who moved to New York in her early twenties to pursue her stage and screen dreams, slowly built up her credits until becoming a major star in 1925. Hollywood is fickle, though, especially to women, and Adoree's career was on the wane when she retired in 1930 after a tuberculosis diagnosis. She died of the disease in 1933 at the age of 35. The film that made Adoree a star in 1925, King Vidor's excellent WWI film The Big Parade, also starred her Show co-lead John Gilbert. Gilbert was one of the most popular actors of the silent era (another great film of Gilbert's is Erich Von Stroheim's The Merry Widow), and the tabloids loved him for his on-set affair with Greta Garbo that turned into an on-going romance. Gilbert and Garbo were engaged to be married, but Garbo dumped him before the wedding, and Gilbert withdrew into a deep depression, drinking heavily. Gilbert's career also suffered in the transition from silent to sound. The oft-repeated legend is that audiences found his speaking voice weak compared to his silent film heartthrob image, but many film historians dispute this story. What no one disputes is that the major roles dried up for him. Garbo got him a leading part in 1933's Queen Christina, but his drinking continued, and he stopped acting shortly thereafter. He died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 36.