LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

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The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War.  Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem.  No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.

Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party.  With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside.  In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution.  With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town.  In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals.  Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him.  Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued.  Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham.  There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.

Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film.  Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture.  The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions.  In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.

It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama.  From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script.  Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent.  Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance.  Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause.  If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order.  Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings.  The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty.  Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world.  Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed.  Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles.  There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.

Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint.  The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted.  It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic.  Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today.  Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.

For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.  It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film.  Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead.  Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative.  In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career.  Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies.  The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection.  Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.

The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments.  In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name.  Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film).  A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night).  These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.

Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works.  This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was,  like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars.  Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema.  It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man.  For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood.  The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture.  It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings.  Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew.  It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement.  Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Days of Heaven, the 1978 second feature by director Terrence Malick, featuring a young Richard Gere alongside Brooke Adams and actor/playwright Sam Shepard in an elegiac tale of two migrant workers who scheme to con a dying farmer out of his fortune on the early-20th-century Texas panhandle.  Universally lauded for its visual beauty, it was nevertheless snubbed at the time of its release by critics who found it shallow and unengaging; in the years since, however, it has come to be recognized as one of the best films of the seventies, perhaps partly due to a two-decade hiatus taken by its director following its completion, during which time a sense of nostalgic retrospect- coupled with wide exposure on art-house cinema screens, cable TV, and home video- prompted a re-evaluation of its merits.

Set in 1916, Days of Heaven unfolds mostly through its visuals and the overdubbed commentary of Linda, the younger sister of its lead male character.  The movie opens in Chicago, where Bill, a short-tempered steel mill laborer, accidentally kills his foreman in an on-the-job fight.  Fleeing the scene, the young man collects his sister and his girlfriend, Abby, and the trio jumps a train with dozens of other poor laborers seeking opportunities in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest.  Their journey takes them to the expansive plains of the Texas panhandle, where they find work as harvesters alongside other migrants on a large wheat plantation owned by a shy and sickly young farmer.  To avoid talk among the other workers, the unmarried young couple pose as brother and sister, and for awhile the little makeshift family finds a sort of idyllic peace in their simple existence here, despite the grueling and dangerous work required of them, and despite a growing interest in Abby from the lonely young farmer.  When Bill accidentally overhears a conversation in which a visiting doctor informs the farmer that an unspecified illness leaves him only a few months to live, the ambitious and opportunistic young laborer begins to concoct a scheme by which he and his companions might trick the dying man into leaving them his considerable fortune.  He encourages Abby to accept the farmer’s advances; she does so, reluctantly at first, but gradually warms to him as their relationship progresses.  All goes according to plan- the farmer marries Abby, and moves her into his house along with her supposed siblings- but as time passes and his health remains stable, the delicate balance of this romantic triangle grows ever more precarious.  With Abby’s feelings becoming more and more conflicted, and the suspicions of the farmer’s trusted foreman threatening to expose the plot, Bill’s jealousy and impatience grow, and he begins to contemplate other means of removing their gullible benefactor from the picture.

Director Malick, who earned a degree in philosophy before turning to filmmaking, had made an impressive debut with Badlands, a 1973 drama starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree; produced independently, it garnered such acclaim at the New York Film Festival that Warner Brothers bought the distribution rights for three times the amount it cost to make.  For his follow-up project, Malick teamed with producer Bert Schneider, who negotiated a deal with Paramount Studios in which he and the director would be given complete artistic control over the project; the studio paid for the film, with Schneider agreeing to cover any amount spent beyond the allotted budget.  Malick, meanwhile, developed his vision for Days of Heaven with acclaimed Spanish-born cinematographer Nestor Almendros, drawing inspiration from paintings by Andrew Wyeth (specifically “Christina’s World”) and Edward Hopper (“The House by the Railroad,” an iconic image upon which the farm house in the film was based) and planning a narrative presented more through imagery than dialogue.   Filming took place in Alberta, Canada, despite the Texas setting, and thanks to Malick’s and Almendros’ wish to shoot mostly during the so-called “magic hours” (the 20-or-so minutes around sunrise and sunset) in order to capitalize on the special quality of light present at these times, it was a painstakingly slow and frustrating process for the actors and crew.  Things were made worse by Malick’s unorthodox shooting schedule, in which he would frequently diverge from the loosely organized daily plan according to his own whims and changing ideas; this caused expensive delays, as did the director’s choice partway through production to jettison his scripted dialogue and allow the actors to craft the story through guided improvisation.  In the end, the project went severely over budget- Schneider had to mortgage his house in order to live up to his deal with the studio- and took so long to complete that key participants (including Almendros) had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments.  To further exacerbate matters, Malick then took two full years to piece together the movie from the miles of footage he had shot; a full year after filming wrapped, he had to call his actors to Los Angeles in order to shoot assorted pick-up shots, famously including close-ups of Sam Shepard taken under a freeway overpass and an underwater take of Richard Gere’s submerging face captured in a large aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.  When Days of Heaven was finally finished and released, the lavish praise it received for its visuals was undermined by the mixed critical reactions to its content, and though it turned a small profit at the box office, it was widely considered a financial failure.

Nevertheless, all the painstaking work undertaken by its director, maddening as his process may have been to his colleagues and his studio, resulted in a film of breathtaking beauty, and though its simple story is seen as if through a prism, detached from the reality of its circumstances and affecting our emotions only obliquely as we take in the wonder of the pretty pageant displayed before us, it nevertheless has a cumulative power that strikes deeply resonant chords within us.  It’s not a deep tale, and its inescapable conclusion is obvious to us even as its premise develops, but that is part of the movie’s haunting charm.  Our intellect is not the target, but rather our senses, and through them that deeper level of understanding where we can appreciate the profound beauty of sadness.  For sadness is the overpowering emotion in Days of Heaven, creeping around the edges of every scene, even those full of joy; it comes from the implicit knowledge that everything is temporary, that the world is in a constant state of change- a theme underlined by the importance of the seasons in the life of the farm, the ominous juxtaposition of industrial age machinery in the pastoral life of its workers, the certainty that the security of regular wages will come to an end with the harvest, and the specter of death that haunts the doomed farmer.  It is exuded in Linda’s narration, filled with wistful nostalgia and philosophical observation rather than direct reminiscence, and it is inherent in the entire situation presented by the film’s central plot- a timeless and oft-repeated saga of the heart being subjugated for worldly gain, of people yearning and struggling for a life better than the one they know, in which brief happiness is attained and lost by all involved.  Days of Heaven, ultimately, is a meditation on the transience of all worldly things, almost biblical in its message; indeed, the title itself is a scriptural reference, and biblical connections are conjured by a number of elements, not the least of which is a plague of locusts that settles on the farm during the film’s climax.  It is not, however, a preachy polemic warning us of the wages of sin, but rather an invitation to embrace life in all its pleasure and its pain, to appreciate the good moments as they come and weather the bad ones with the knowledge that they, too, shall pass; most of all, it is an evocation of things past, a commentary on the repetitive and universal patterns of human behavior, and a chance to mourn our own losses and celebrate our own memories.

Malick’s success at realizing his vision- laborious and, perhaps, badly organized as it was- cannot be denied, nor can credit be denied him for making a film of such unique and delicate beauty; it would be wrong, however, to ignore the tremendous contribution of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on the artistic success of Days of Heaven.  He worked extensively with Malick from the beginning of the process, having been chosen by the director for his earlier efforts (particularly The Wild Child, a 1970 effort by French master François Truffaut, with whom Almendros had a long-standing professional relationship); the two men were much in tune with each other’s sensibilities, and Almendros was impressed by Malick’s knowledge and understanding of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically.  Their collaboration and the loosely-structured, improvisational process they used in creating the all-important look of the film may have led to dissatisfaction and frustration among the rest of the crew (there were claims that the two men “didn’t know what they were doing”), but it resulted in a truly stunning visual experience that still ranks as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot.  Malick’s vision works because of the power of the imagery which Almendros helped him to realize, deliberately drawn from the painters which first inspired the film- not only the aforementioned Wyeth and Hopper, but Johannes Vermeer and other old masters, whose distinctive visual style is referenced throughout in the play of light and shadow- and the techniques of silent filmmaking, with its penchant for the ethereal qualities of natural lighting and its reliance on the importance of wordless storytelling; indeed, these infusions are a perfect fit with the period and setting of Days of Heaven, enhancing its sense of time and place trapped in a bottle, and giving it a magical, shimmering quality that pervades even its earthy and most brutal moments.  The achievement is more remarkable because not only was Almendros, as a foreign national, not allowed to operate the camera himself (due to union regulations), he was also beginning to lose his eyesight at the time, and had to prepare the shots in advance with the cameraman by taking polaroids of the set-ups and studying them through his glasses. It is important to note, in the interest of giving full credit where it is due, that another legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was brought in to complete the shooting process when Almendros had to leave; the two worked together for a week ahead of time, and Wexler made every effort to duplicate the style that his predecessor had set for the film.  Unfortunately, though over half the footage in the completed movie was shot by Wexler (according to his own letter to critic Roger Ebert), he received credit only for “Additional Photography,” rendering him ineligible to share the Academy Award ultimately received for the cinematography in Days of Heaven.  This oversight resulted in some degree of controversy within the industry, but it has been widely acknowledged by all involved parties that both men played an important role in bringing Malick’s opus to the screen, and the work that they did stands among the best in either of their careers.

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make "Days of Heaven."

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad," another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

The magic of Days of Heaven is also bolstered immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s ethereal score, borrowing from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals), which is played over the film’s main tiles, and carrying its mood and motifs into the original music he provides for the narrative.  The remarkably authentic period atmosphere is made possible largely through the costumes designed by Patricia Norris, which she made with old fabric and used clothing items, giving everything a faded look of well-worn realism; also important here are the authentic period vehicles- everything from early automobiles to monolithic farm equipment to a bi-plane carrying a troupe of traveling entertainers- and, most prominently, the farm house, designed and constructed by Jack Fisk, which dominates the landscape of the film, both physically and psychologically, built from plywood and fully dressed with period detail inside and out.  This latter piece was used to film both exterior and interior scenes (a rare occurrence; standard practice, especially at the time, would be to shoot the interiors on a set in a soundstage) and leaves a lingering impression on the memory well after the film has faded to its final close.  It is, in its way, as iconic a structure as the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho (also based, coincidentally, on a painting by Hopper), and gives Days of Heaven a concrete center, a simple, serviceable image rich with multiple layers of symbolic meaning.  Finally, the cast cannot be overlooked.  Though Malick sought to evoke memories of the silent era, there is no bombastic posturing here, no emotional histrionics; instead, his players complement his elegantly simple plot with performances of equal simplicity, avoiding bravura displays and offering instead a low-key naturalism which implies volumes through its very restraint- likely a result of the improvisational nature of Malick’s shooting process.  All four principals give unforgettable performances; Brooke Adams provides a heartbreaking balance of pragmatism and romance as Abby, Linda Manz is hard-shelled but touching as the worldly-wise-before-her-time Linda, Sam Shepard mixes melancholy and earnestness into an appealing package as the unnamed farmer, and Richard Gere uses his almost impossible physical beauty as a powerful tool both to express a genuinely good nature and to mask the darkness brooding inside it in his portrait of the charismatic Bill.  Mention should also go to Robert Wilke, the craggy-faced character actor who manages to touch us deeply in his brief screen time as the farmer’s loyal foreman and surrogate father figure.

Terrence Malick, after Days of Heaven, spent twenty years as a virtual recluse from the movie industry, finally returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a WWII drama which sharply divided critics who found it either a masterpiece or a pretentious sham.  The same response, by and large, has been generated by his subsequent films.  For many, myself included, the jury remains out on whether he is in fact a genius or a charlatan; but regardless of any assessment of his later work, Days of Heaven– especially taken in combination with his earlier Badlands- is more than enough to ensure his status as a true cinematic master.  The way it uses imagery to convey its story, as well as its underlying subtext and the thematic elements which drive it, is a rare and remarkable achievement in utilizing the full power of cinema as a visual medium, and the magnificent beauty of that imagery is still unsurpassed over thirty years later.  Those seeking a passionate romance, with all the typical heart-tugging excesses of standard Hollywood fare, are likely to find it a cold and distant experience, like watching fish behind the glass of an aquarium- a comparison that is, upon reflection, more apt (and less critical) than it might seem.  Malick’s triangulated tale of tragic love is more compassionate for being less sentimental, more deeply moving in its preoccupation with the surface than any number of films that strive to explore the inner experiences of its characters; though it has all the makings of a melodrama, it is a tale without heroes, heroines, or villains, and its characters all contain elements of each, making it impossible to take sides or to judge their actions.  Through the director’s well-considered lens he shows us life, plain and simple, using his art as a means to reveal beauty rather than to manipulate emotion.  As a result, though we may feel somewhat removed from the events and characters, they have the unmistakable ring of truth, and our reactions to them are as honest as they come; for this reason, I count Days of Heaven as one of my personal favorite films, and despite my ambivalent feelings towards its director, consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of his time.  I don’t like to make hyperbolic proclamations like that, so coming from me, you can consider it a pretty strong recommendation.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077405/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

Flesh Gordon (1974)

Flesh Gordon (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Flesh Gordon, a 1974 semi-“porno” feature spoofing the classic sci-fi movie serials of Hollywood’s golden age, directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm and starring… well, probably no one you’ve ever heard of.  Rooted in the irreverently hedonistic sensibility of the so-called “sexual revolution” of the seventies, it lampoons the old-fashioned conventions of the original Flash Gordon adventures by sexualizing all of the story elements and adding lots of gratuitous nudity and sex.  Campy, juvenile, and amateurish, it nevertheless has a certain goofy charm that helped to make it a favorite on the midnight movie circuit and something of a cult classic.  It is also notable for its cheap-but-well-executed special effects, which were orchestrated by several future industry legends (most notably specialty make-up pioneer Rick Baker) and were sufficiently impressive to put the film into consideration for an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects- though ultimately the Academy opted to skip the category that year due to a shortage of suitable contenders.

As written by co-director Benveniste, the plot follows the story of the classic Flash Gordon serial so closely that the filmmakers had to include a disclaimer before the credits, expressly stating that the movie was meant as a parody and “homage,” in order to avoid a lawsuit from Universal Pictures, copyright holders of the original.  As the film opens, the titular hero is traveling by plane, summoned by his scientist father to help in the effort to stop a mysterious attack from outer space; the earth, it seems, is being bombarded by a “sex ray,” which causes widespread havoc by causing people to break into spontaneous orgies, and young Flesh is so far immune to its effects.  Unfortunately, the plane is hit mid-flight by a blast from this deadly extra-terrestrial aphrodisiac; its pilots abandon the cockpit in order to join the sexual frenzy in the passengers’ cabin, and the unmanned aircraft begins to plummet from the sky.  Flesh manages to rescue Dale Ardor, a young female passenger with whom he struck up an acquaintance before the ray hit (compelling her to rip off her clothes, of course), and the two parachute to safety on the ground below.  There, they find themselves at the secluded home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff, an eccentric scientist who has traced the source of the sex ray to the planet Porno, and has built a spaceship- decidedly phallic in design- in which he plans to go there.  Flesh and Dale, naturally, decide to join him, and the three new comrades set out on their journey through space.  It doesn’t take long to arrive- this is super science, after all- and they soon find themselves in the palace of Emperor Wang the Perverted, who plans to dominate the universe through its libido; the deviant despot conscripts Jerkoff into his service, declares Dale as his new bride, and sends Flesh off to be castrated.  However, Amora, the Queen of Magic, has become smitten with the young hero; planning to make him her consort, she abducts him from the palace, with Wang’s men in pursuit.  Though Amora’s vessel is shot down, Flesh escapes intact; Jerkoff, meanwhile, has managed to flee from the palace, as well.  The two adventurers reunite, and, joining forces with Porno’s rightful ruler, Prince Precious, they undertake to rescue Dale, destroy the sex ray, and overthrow the evil Wang once and for all.  To do so, they must defeat a tribe of evil lesbian Amazons, outwit Wang’s spies, and defeat the Great God Porno, a giant satyr-like beast awakened from his long slumber by the evil Emperor himself.

It’s probably unnecessary for me to have provided even such limited detail in the above synopsis; like most so-called adult movies, the plot of Flesh Gordon is really immaterial.  It exists merely to provide a framework for the various titillations and parodies which are, of course, the only reason for the film to exist.  As far as titillation goes, though virtually every scene features some degree of nudity, and there are a number of scenes in which people are seen having sex, the truth is that Flesh Gordon is really pretty tame, even by 1974 standards.  Part of the reason for this is that, although the film originally included numerous scenes of explicit, hardcore sex, both straight and gay, the filming of such material was illegal in Los Angeles at the time it was made (hard as that may be to believe now); to prevent their prosecution for pandering, the filmmakers were forced to surrender all such footage the L.A. vice squad, and Flesh Gordon was released without explicit pornographic content.  This was undoubtedly seen as a setback by its makers, but in the long run it was better for the movie; if it had been full-fledged porn, it would not have been as widely seen- or perhaps, at least, not by the same audiences- and would likely not have achieved the popularity it eventually enjoyed.  In the more “soft-core” form it was forced to take, it managed to become as much a lampoon of “skin flicks” (as they were euphemistically called in those days) as it was of the corny space operas of old.

This brings us to the satirical side of the film.  Though Flesh Gordon is loaded with crude sexual innuendo and sophomoric jokes, it somehow manages to be endearingly cute.  Sure, the humor is as juvenile as the nudity and sex are gratuitous, but this in itself is part of the charm.  Benveniste’s script does not pretend to be anything other than a collection of cheap laughs; it is free of the kind of hip, self-aware cleverness that mars so many similar attempts at this kind of send-up.  The comedy is so obvious and so gleefully raunchy, so painfully and ludicrously obvious, and just so plain silly, that it is impossible for any but the most snobbish viewers to be unamused; you roll your eyes and shake your head, but you chuckle as you do so.  One of the main reasons for this is the movie’s underground feel; the cheap sets, the grainy 16 mm look of the photography, and the hopelessly amateur acting, all give the impression of watching some weekend garage-filmmaking project undertaken by naughty teenagers while their parents are out of town.  The two directors clearly have limited knowledge of how to make a movie, with poor staging, sloppy editing, and muddled storytelling that sometimes obscures the intended focus of scenes and prevents us from getting an adequate view of would-be sight gags.  It’s somewhat frustrating, at times, but it has the effect of making much of the movie’s funniest material play like throwaway gags, the kind of parenthetical comic detail that contributes to the underlying wackiness that pervades the piece as a whole.  At times, the film’s raw quality is similar to the early work of John Waters- certainly the sex and nudity has the same glamorless, unattractive sensibility as one finds in Waters’ films from this same era- but with more of an attempt at emulating the polish of mainstream Hollywood.  It’s an attempt that falls far short of the mark, but, of course, that’s part of the joke.

Despite the low budget and the obvious inexperience of its directors, however, Flesh Gordon manages to impress with its special effects.  Certainly, these are not the high-tech visual feats of magic one could expect from an A-list studio production, but cheap though they may be, there is a sense of artistry on display here that lifts the movie above the level of low-grade exploitation cinema.  Under the supervision of Walter R. Cichy (one of the film’s three producers, along with Ziehm and Bill Osco), the designers and artists involved- many of whom, as mentioned, were established or soon-to-be established industry professionals- manage to infuse their bargain-basement work with the kind of imagination and tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the cheapness seem like a choice.  With an obvious nod to the spaceship-on-strings style of classic sci-fi history, the movie delivers deliciously cheesy visual delights to go with its inane dialogue and corny story; shaky walls, cannibalized props and sets, and primitive in-camera trickery create the appropriately campy environment, populated by such ridiculous creatures as “Penisauruses” and the aforementioned Great God Porno (voiced, sans credit, by the then-young-and-unknown Craig T. Nelson) which are brought to life by surprisingly deft stop-motion animation.  In addition, the thrift-store pastiche of costumes and the over-the-top execution of the makeup give the whole thing a Halloween party tackiness that somehow puts the perfect finishing touch on the whole package.

As for the cast, the only name of note is Candy Samples, a former pin-up and porn actress who earlier had worked with Russ Meyer, who makes a cameo as Queen Nelly, the eye-patched (and breast-patched) ruler of the Amazon lesbian tribe.  For the most part, the performances are as banal as one might expect, with Jason Williams and Suzanne Fields, as Flesh and Dale, respectively, barely able to muster the sense of excited urgency that is, pretty much, all that is required of them- well, except for their bodies, of course, both of which are suitably sexy in that pre-personal-trainer (and pre-silicon) early seventies way.  As Dr. Jerkoff, Joseph Hudgens (in his only credited film role) manages to combine likable earnestness with a Vaudevillian sensibility that, for some reason, conjures memories of Groucho Marx, and Lance Larsen exhibits signs of personality as the deposed Prince Precious, a leotard-clad Robin-Hood-like figure, mercifully keeping his mincing to a minimum as he allows the character’s name to do most of the work in conveying his sexual preferences.  The acting highlight, as far as it goes, is the performance of William Dennis Hunt as Emperor Wang, sporting outrageous Fu Manchu makeup as he chews the scenery with appropriate relish, laughing maniacally as he incites his mostly naked subjects to copulate and calling his minions “dildoes.” To be sure, none of these performances are Oscar-worthy, but they work well enough for a film which gets most of its charm from being deliberately bad.  There’s something about bad actors doing their best- even when it’s terrible- that is much less painful than good actors purposely trying to be bad; in this case, it complements the style of the film and, somehow makes it all the more satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong here; though it might seem I’ve raved about Flesh Gordon, it’s hardly some sort of visionary masterpiece.  It’s pure schlock, in fact, and shoddily made schlock, at that.   What makes it entertaining is its sheer unpretentiousness.  Benveniste and Ziehm were simply trying to make a cheap, funny, sexy movie that would appeal to youthful audiences; the vehicle they chose was designed to poke fun at the old-fashioned entertainment of an older generation, and whether by accident or canny exploitation, they managed to ride a wave of nostalgia that was rising in popular culture at the time.  These factors may have helped to give their movie a bit more push than it otherwise deserved, but what made it become a sort of mini-phenomenon was the fact that, for all its ridicule of the serials that inspired it, it exhibits a clear love for that source material.  Despite its effort to reinvent Flash Gordon as a blue movie, Flesh Gordon is undeniably sweet, amusingly naive, and more than a little geeky.  It’s these qualities that make it worth sitting through, not just once but over and over, despite the lousy acting and bad jokes; personally, I would rather watch Flesh Gordon a hundred times than have to watch the abysmal 1980 remake of Flash Gordon even once more.  Though this movie makes fun, it also celebrates the original; in truth, it’s really pretty true in spirit to those old melodramatic space operas, because they, too, were designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator by exploring the public’s sensationalistic urges for action, fantasy and, yes, even sex.  After all, the costumes worn in those 1930s movies were pretty sexy, for their time; by 1974, they might have had to eliminate costumes all together in order to get the same effect, but the principle is still the same.  Obviously, Flesh Gordon is not for die-hard prudes; but you are likely to see racier stuff on late-night cable TV than you will in this movie, so anyone else is encouraged to check it out, at least once.  It’s likely to be one of the more unique cinema adventures you’ve had, and besides, do you really want to miss a movie where the only way to defeat the villain is to use the “pasties of power?”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068595/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

 

Serpico (1973)

Serpico (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Serpico, the 1973 classic by director Sidney Lumet, based on the true story of the first New York police officer to speak up about the widespread graft and corruption in the city’s police force, featuring Al Pacino in an iconic early performance that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars and offering one of the finest examples of the kind of gritty, authentic filmmaking that made the seventies one of the richest and most influential decades in the history of cinema.  Shot entirely on location in the streets and interiors of New York City, it was made on a budget of a million dollars- small even for the time- and made over 30 times that amount at the box office, riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that had begun in the late sixties; its financial success helped pave the way for a sort of mini-genre that exposed injustice and corruption in government while exploring the difficulty of maintaining individual honor and integrity in such a dishonest system- a theme found in many of the period’s greatest films, reflecting the zeitgeist of an era marked by disillusionment in the powers that be and a growing mistrust of once-respected institutions of authority.

Adapted from Peter Maas’ bestselling book, the film follows the true story of policeman Frank Serpico beginning with his graduation from the New York police academy and his subsequent rapid rise from beat cop to plainclothes detective; a dedicated and exceptional officer, he excels at his job, using his spirit of innovation and his street-savvy sensibility to become the best cop he can be.  Along the way, however, he repeatedly encounters colleagues who resort to unethical behavior- physical abuse of suspects, accepting handouts and bribes, and, most pervasively, extorting money in the form of shakedowns and payoffs from criminals in exchange for looking the other way.  It’s a tradition that seems to be as old as the police force itself, and one in which everyone is expected to participate; those who refuse are viewed with suspicion, intimidated, scorned, and threatened by other officers.  Though at first Serpico is able to remain aloof to the widespread corruption, the pressure from his colleagues eventually becomes unbearable; he tries to take action through official channels inside the police department, only to find that the entire chain of command- all the way to the top- seems bent more on ignoring and covering up the problem.  When he finally joins forces with a lawyer friend and takes his story to the Mayor’s office, he is again rebuffed.  When his personal life also begins to crumble due to the emotional strain of his professional situation, he finally decides to go public, telling his story to the press and forcing the department to begin a widespread internal investigation.  It is Serpico’s testimony that will be the key to exposing the extensive wrongdoing on the force; perceived as a traitor to his fellow policemen, he is soon placed deliberately in danger while on duty, set up by his partners during a drug bust; shot in the face and abandoned at the scene, he nevertheless survives to bear witness at the hearings conducted by the Knapp Commission, a government agency set up to investigate largely because of his determination to make his story heard.

Though the screenplay for Serpico does take a few liberties with the true events, it is for the most part a faithful depiction of the real story.  Maas’ book, written with the participation of the real Frank Serpico, was adapted faithfully for the screen by Waldo Salt, with later modifications by Norman Wexler, who restructured the narrative when director Lumet decided it was too long.  In order to pack the decade-long saga into a manageable running time, the story is told in a sort of collage, constructed of mostly short scenes which document the progression of events over time; most of the faces change as Serpico is variously transferred throughout the department and makes changes in his personal life, but the thread of continuity is maintained by the main character’s presence at the center throughout and the unchanging circumstances of his dilemma- though the names and places may be different, the underlying situation is always there, showing not only the widespread nature of the problem but suggesting, by extension, that such corruption is a universal issue.  It’s an approach which also helps to reduce the sense that we are seeing a “movie” with actors (though many of them are recognizable faces), lending the piece instead a feeling of genuine, fly-on-the-wall credibility.  This kind of pseudo-documentary authenticity was no doubt enhanced by Serpico’s direct involvement; he was initially present on the set during shooting, until Lumet and producer Martin Bregman deemed him too distracting (or, perhaps, too intimidating) for the cast, and he was Pacino’s guest for several weeks at a rented house in Montauk, where the actor spent time with him in order to gain insight in preparation for the role.

The slice-of-life perspective Serpico uses to take us through this true story of heroism is ultimately made possible by its director.  Sidney Lumet was a filmmaker with a long and varied career, starting as a child actor on Broadway (indeed, the memorable party scene early in the film was shot in the apartment of Sidney Kingsley, the playwright who hired the 11-year-old Lumet to appear in the original production of his classic Dead End), whose studied, realistic approach and emphasis on the psychology of his characters had developed through years of work in the theatre and the early days of live television drama, and had made him the kind of “actor’s director” perfect for helming the strong, character-driven films that dominated the cinematic heyday of the mid-seventies.  Marked by a refusal to sentimentalize and an observational sensibility that allows both an empirical detachment and an intensely emotional connectivity, his style reached its peak during this era when polished Hollywood glamour was supplanted by a stripped-down, cinéma vérité honesty in popular filmmaking, and nowhere is it more clearly on display than in Serpico.  He wasn’t the first choice for the project, however; originally slated to direct was John G. Avildsen, but creative differences with Bregman led to his eleventh-hour replacement- a fortuitous twist of artistic fate, for it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film through the lens of another director.  Lumet’s instincts are a perfect match to Serpico’s story, and his  love for the craft of filmmaking- and for the city of New York, in all its contrasting splendor and squalor, photographed with equal reverence by Arthur G. Ornitz- is as evident as his technical skill here, helping to capture a visceral, on-the-scene portrait not just of the city, but of its people, and transporting us so completely into the place and time that we feel we know it as well as if we were there ourselves.  It’s a more genuine environment than most of the plastic-and-glass urban settings we see in modern police dramas, and one that reflects the economic reality of urban bureaucracy; it also provides a tangible sense of the rough-edged, oppressive conditions which may contribute, in some way, to the temptation for many to abuse their positions for personal gain.  Lumet’s most powerful and effective tool though, is the respect he gives his actors, allowing them to command every scene and placing primary emphasis, always, on their characterizations.  There are no flashy feats of camera artistry here; Lumet uses his lens unobtrusively, in full service of his cast, knowing that the story comes to life through them, and not through cinematic trickery.

Specifically, of course, it comes to life through the actor at its center.  Al Pacino, already proven as an intense and charismatic performer through his star-making role in The Godfather, solidified his status as one of “New Hollywood’s” hottest talents with his scorching portrayal of the title role; he gives us a man of intelligence, humor, compassion and honor, without being afraid to show us his flaws with equal honesty.  His Serpico is a hero whose fight for moral integrity also becomes a fight against himself, as the escalating frustration and pressure bring out his anger, depression, pettiness and self-doubt, and Pacino lets us have it all in an unvarnished and compelling tour-de-force that deservedly earned him an array of award nominations and wins.  It’s all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the film was shot in reverse sequence, in order to accommodate the changes in Serpico’s appearance.  Since his facial hair was required to become progressively more pronounced throughout the story, Pacino grew out his hair and beard before shooting began, and then gradually trimmed it back throughout the course of production; it is routine for a movie to be shot out of sequence, but even so, the clarity of Serpico’s emotional throughline is astonishing, considering it was achieved, essentially, backwards.  Though Pacino carries the vast majority of the film himself, he is surrounded by a fine gallery of supporting players, most significantly Tony Roberts, lending his dry and urbane charm to the role of the department lawyer who becomes Serpico’s friend and ally, and including such stalwart and familiar (or soon-to-be-familiar) actors as John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Lewis J. Stadlen, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh, Judd Hirsch, and Tony Lo Bianco.  The entire cast becomes fully immersed in the film’s reality, without a single “actorish” performance among them- though Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe, as the two significant women in Serpico’s life, seem stiff and more than a little out of their depth as they attempt to share the screen with their formidable co-star.

Serpico, when it was released four decades ago, was as topical and current a movie as you could get, offering for consideration a subject and story fresh from the nightly newscasts and the national papers.  Today, of course, it seems somewhat dated, to the casual viewer; the world it shows us, though utterly authentic in its day, now feels almost quaint, a nostalgic reminder of a time before cell phones and computer networks became standard operating equipment and video surveillance equipment captured virtually every move an officer could make on duty.  The environment and the situations strike us as a pastiche of familiar cop show clichés threaded with liberal naïveté; indeed, the corruption of Serpico’s fellow officers is amateur stuff compared with the staggering cases of corporate and governmental chicanery that have come to light, over and over, in the years that have gone by since.  Even so, Serpico remains a powerful cinematic document of its time and place, infused with a sense of moral outrage and antiestablishment fervor that is still quite capable of moving us.  Much of this has to do with Pacino’s electrifying, impassioned performance, of course; but it’s the film’s focus, built into its screenplay and shrewdly maintained by its director, that ultimately allows it to transcend its era and stand as more than a well-crafted period piece.  Lumet doesn’t care about the details of the corruption against which his hero fights- the nuts and bolts of the investigation are passed over in his movie, with only enough specific circumstance to set the stage for the real drama that concerns him.  That drama is not about the external events of Serpico’s life, but about the effect those events have on his inner self- the struggle, the emotional stress, the conflicting guilt that comes of being forced to betray one deeply held ideal in order to uphold another.  Serpico emerges, most of all, as a meditation on heroism- not the guts-and-glory kind that is usually the focus of police dramas, but the kind required to withstand the inner turmoil that makes standing up for your principles something that is easier said than done.  It offers us a portrait of a real life figure willing to sacrifice the thing which mattered most to him- being a cop- in order to be right with his own conscience, and it does so without the kind of cloying sentimentality that so often makes such movies feel more insincere than inspirational.  The real-life Frank Serpico told Al Pacino, when the actor asked him why he decided to come forward about the corruption inside the NYPD, that he had done it because, “if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”  It’s a rare man who can recognize the importance of such a distinction, and a rare movie that can help us recognize it, too.  Serpico is such a movie, and that in itself- even more than the towering performance of its star- is what makes it a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070666/?ref_=sr_1

 

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

The Long, Long Trailer (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Long, Long Trailer, the 1954 big-screen showcase for the talents of America’s then-favorite TV couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, directed by Vincente Minnelli and casting the two stars as a pair of newlyweds on a cross-country honeymoon in a super-sized luxury trailer home.  Designed as a vehicle for the tried-and-true antics that fueled the duo’s highly popular comedy series, I Love Lucy, it was considered a risky project by its production studio, MGM, who were skeptical that audiences would pay to see Ball and Arnaz in a movie theater when they could watch the pair, for free, in the comfort of their own living room; Arnaz reportedly made a $25,000 bet with the studio heads that the film would out-gross their highest-earning comedy to date (1950’s Father of the Bride).  Moviegoers responded well to the opportunity to see the couple’s wacky hi-jinks against the expanded backdrop of location-filmed American scenery, turning the film into one of the year’s biggest hits and winning the bet for the confident Arnaz.  Though the movie is ultimately a side note in the success story of these two American entertainment icons, it nevertheless has remained popular among their fans and offers a rare opportunity to see their beloved matrimonial shtick transported out of the studio-bound confines of their classic television show.

Based on a 1951 novel by Clinton Twiss, the screenplay (by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) tailors its plot for the needs of the Ball/Arnaz team’s familiar joint persona.  Framed as a flashback, it tells the story of “Nicky” and “Tacy” (noticeably only a few letters off from “Ricky” and “Lucy”); he is a civil engineer whose job requires his travel to various projects around the country, and she, seeking a way to keep them from being separated during the early days of their marriage, hits upon the idea that they should purchase a travel trailer in which they can set up housekeeping wherever his work takes them.  Though he is skeptical, she convinces him with the notion that a trailer will cost them far less than a house and allow them to save more money for their future.  With their new, enormous, top-of-the-line trailer (plus the new, more powerful car they have had to buy in order to tow it), the couple sets out on their honeymoon- a leisurely road trip across the Sierra Nevadas to Nicky’s next job assignment.  Things start out pleasantly enough, though their trailer park wedding night doesn’t go exactly as planned; but as the trip goes on, the mishaps begin to pile up and take their toll on the relationship.  A rainstorm leads to a night spent stuck in a mudbank, Tacy’s attempts at directing Nicky’s steering results in major damage to her aunt and uncle’s house, and her effort to cook dinner in the moving trailer ends in disaster.  The final straw comes when her growing collections of preserved fruit and souvenir rocks become so heavy that the trailer is dangerously overweight, placing the newlyweds in serious danger as they attempt to drive up a steep and winding mountain road- a trip which, even if they manage to survive, may well mean the end of their marriage.

The Long, Long Trailer is hardly the kind of film that warrants an in-depth analysis, though if one wanted to use it as a springboard for discussion about sociological and cultural characteristics of post-war American life, it would likely provide plenty of fodder.  Indeed, watching it today, it seems like a perfect snapshot, glossy and idealized, of the particular mindset of mid-fifties middle class America, personified by a young (well, young-ish) couple on the road to a shining new tomorrow, blessed with a new affluence, possessed of a can-do attitude, and excited about the endless possibilities that wait to be explored right here at home.  Of course, the entire premise of the comedy hinges on the fact that this romanticized fantasy is not quite in tune with reality- the adventure of building a new world on the domestic front is fraught with unforeseen difficulties and offers its own challenges to the character and spirit of those who undertake it.  All of which sounds deeper than it needs to sound, for in The Long, Long Trailer, social commentary is as heavy and unnecessary a burden as Tacy’s rock collection.

What this movie is about, nostalgic retrospect aside, is laughs; the American-Dream-on-wheels premise is entirely geared towards providing a mine of zany situations for the then-reigning royal couple of comedy to exploit.  Though the names are different (barely), the characters are, in essence, the same as their TV roles; Desi is the modestly successful, good-natured-but-hot-tempered immigrant husband (here, inexplicably, not Cuban but Italian), and Lucy is the well-intentioned manipulative housewife whose hair-brained schemes inevitably lead to hilarious complications.  The movie depends entirely on their comfortable chemistry together, their combative-but-affectionate dynamic, and Lucy’s consummate skill as a comedienne.  It is this last element that carries the film, of course; though they made a great team, and although he certainly holds his own during his moments in the spotlight, Desi was always the foil for Lucy’s comedic persona, a relationship upon which their act was utterly dependent.  The biggest laughs in the film come when she unleashes her flair for physical comedy- the classic sequence in which she tries to prepare a meal in the trailer while it is on the road is the movie’s highlight- but these moments work so well because she sets us up for them; she makes Tacy (which is short, by the way, for Anastasia- I know, it’s a stretch, but go with it) as endearing to us as to the hapless Nicky, and thanks to her rubber-faced expressions, we feel like co-conspirators with her, because we can read every thought and plan even as she hatches it herself.  It’s comedy genius, and to over-analyze it is pointless- it works because it works.  Lucy and Desi knew their audience, and they knew what that audience wanted; they weren’t about to take the chance of messing with a successful formula, especially when that formula was at the height of its popularity.  There is even a musical number, though not the kind of elaborate, slapstick-laced showstopper often featured on I Love Lucy, but simply a pleasant little duet performed as an interlude while the stars are driving into Yosemite National Park.  To be sure, the stakes feel a little higher in The Long, Long Trailer than they do on the TV series; there, no matter how big the disaster that results from Lucy’s schemes, we know it will never really threaten the blissful marriage at the center of the show, but here there is at least a more palpable illusion that they could end up apart- though, of course, on an intellectual level, we know that’s not very likely.  After all, this is a comedy, and even if it pokes a little bit of situational fun at the perfect domestic dream of the mid-fifties, it also embraces and reinforces that ideal; you can be sure, by the final frames, Ricky and Lucy… I mean, Nicky and Tacy will be locked once more in a tender and loving embrace.

Although The Long, Long Trailer is mostly an on-the-road installment of the Lucy-and-Desi Show, this is not its only appeal.  There are a few interesting cameos from other familiar personalities of the era; Marjorie Main of Ma and Pa Kettle fame makes an appearance, as does an uncredited Howard McNear (better known as “Floyd the Barber”) and a prominently-billed Keenan Wynn (who has less than 30 seconds of screen-time- and no scripted lines- as a traffic cop).  Vincente Minnelli, one of Hollywood’s seasoned veterans at turning out crowd-pleasers, wisely keeps the main focus on his stars, but frames them in a gorgeous visual environment; fans of mid-century roadside Americana will adore this film, which sometimes looks like a travelogue produced by the U.S. Tourism Bureau and sometimes a montage of picture-postcards, interlaced with stylish tableaux of glamorous settings that look like vintage magazine ads, brought to life.  Minnelli (and his stars) were smart enough to utilize the advantages of the big screen, giving audiences a scope they couldn’t get from I Love Lucy, so there is an extensive use of breathtaking location footage, most notably in the aforementioned Yosemite scenes, but also in the hair-raising climax when the couple drives their trailer up the mountain (Mt. Whitney, to be exact).  The realism of this latter sequence aids considerably in its effectiveness, and captures the universal anxiety shared by anyone who has ever attempted to navigate one of the winding, narrow roads that lace the mountainous regions of America- or, for that, matter, the world.  The road trip experience, naturally, must include a good deal of focus on the vehicles used, especially the title “character” (for it is, truly, a character in the plot), which is a beautiful, canary yellow, 36-foot 1953 “New Moon.”  Those who care about such things will doubtless be delighted by the extensive depiction of this remarkable piece of mid-century design, in all its improbable luxury, as they will also be by the car which tows it, an equally beautiful 1953 Mercury Monterey convertible.  Of course, the costumes also add to the movie’s nostalgic appeal, with both Lucy’s and Desi’s outfits representing the epitome of mid-fifties fashion- not high–fashion, mind you, but modest, popular, middle-class clothes that conjure images from the countless grainy home movies taken by couples and families during the era.  In essence, The Long, Long Trailer is a love letter to its time, a nostalgic walk down memory lane for those old enough to remember it first-hand and a wide-open window through which younger viewers can catch a glimpse of an America before affordable plane travel and utilitarian super-highways made the delights of the road trip into a thing of the past.

It’s somewhat tempting, today, to watch The Long, Long Trailer with a sense of irony.  The feeling of gee-whiz wonder and self-discovery that permeated the cultural psyche of the fifties has long since fallen under the wheels of progress, transformed by the turbulent decade which followed into a quaint and kitschy joke; it’s almost impossible to believe in the naïveté we see displayed here, and the knowledge that Lucy and Desi, like so many of the “perfect” couples of the Eisenhower era, would later end their real-life marriage in an acrimonious divorce casts a somewhat cynical pall over the proceedings, and makes the inevitable happy ending seem like just another carefully packaged lie- which, of course, it was.  The whole of the movie is sentimentalized dream-factory nonsense, but that’s not a negative criticism in this case; it was never meant to be anything else, and it’s easy to forget, from a modern perspective, that the audiences of the day were no more fooled by the pretty-picture images of society presented by their popular entertainment than we are by those we are fed today.  Indeed, much of Lucy and Desi’s appeal for their many fans came because they (or at least, their characters) were a couple whose efforts to fit into a cultural ideal never seemed to go quite as planned; at the end of every misadventure, no matter what affectations they may have tried on or pie-in-the-sky dream they may have chased, what was left was simply them as they were, imperfect perhaps, but together- and that was all that mattered.  Though they themselves were icons of their era, forever associated with the now-archaic ideals and attitudes it held dear, their message transcended it; they were champions of love and companionship, acting out the universal experience of living together despite difficulties and differences- not an easy task in any era- and making us laugh at our own relationships by reflecting them back to us in exaggerated form.  To put it more simply, The Long, Long Trailer might seem like a movie we can watch with an aloof detachment, making arch commentary or snarky observations based in our modern-day sophistication- but it’s not.  It doesn’t take long to forget our superior stance and get caught up in the somehow endearing ridiculousness of Nicky and Tacy’s great experiment, and we end up laughing exactly as we were intended to laugh by the film’s creators- not with the hip, contemporary irony we may have expected.  Don’t mistake me here; I’m not saying that The Long, Long Trailer is anyone’s idea of great cinema, and I’m fairly certain that nobody involved in it thought of it that way, either.  It is, however, a fine example of slick Hollywood entertainment, designed to exploit the popularity of its stars and the mood of the time, and the fact that it still works as more than a mere curiosity piece is a testament to the considerable talent behind it.  Lucy and Desi made their true mark in television; their pioneering work there changed the medium forever, in countless ways, and their big screen projects were really little more than a footnote in their legend.  Even so, The Long, Long Trailer is a charming and worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes, and even the most jaded viewers are likely to be won over by it.  Of course, you might not be able to keep from wondering exactly when Fred and Ethel are going to show up, or when Nicky is going to break out the conga drums, but even if those things never materialize, you won’t miss them- at least not too much.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047191/

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 comedy-horror film by John Landis, about a young American who survives an attack by a mysterious assailant while backpacking through England, only to find that he has become cursed to transform into a monster by the light of the full moon.  A quirky mix of madcap humor and gruesome horror, it was a fairly respectable hit upon its release, despite mixed reviews, and has since become something of a cult classic.  It was particularly notable for its then-groundbreaking make-up effects, which garnered their creator, Rick Baker, the first-ever Academy Award in the new category created to honor such work.

The movie opens on the moors of Northern England, where two young American friends, David and Jack, are on the first leg of a European hiking tour.  Arriving at nightfall in a remote village, they decide to stop off at the town pub in order to get some rest and sustenance.  The locals view them with suspicion, and when Jack asks about a strange 5-pointed star carved into the wall, they become downright hostile; the two young men decide to leave, and though they are warned to stick to the roads they soon become lost on the moor.  Things get much worse when they realize they are being stalked by a mysterious animal; when they try to run, it abruptly attacks them, savagely killing Jack and mauling David before the villagers arrive and shoot the beast dead as the young traveler loses consciousness.  He wakes up some days later, in a London hospital, where he has been sent by the locals to recover from his injuries.  The physician, Dr. Hirsch, and the attending nurse, the lovely Alex, are kind and sympathetic, but their young patient is troubled by the villagers’ official report that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic and not a ferocious animal.  Though the police put little stock in his traumatized memories, Dr. Hirsch decides to do a little further investigation on his own; meanwhile, David strikes up a relationship with Nurse Alex, moving in with her upon his release from the hospital.  Their romance is blissfully therapeutic, despite the young man’s troubling, violent nightmares; but harder to ignore are the visits from the increasingly decomposed ghost of his unfortunate friend Jack, who claims that they were actually attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now a werewolf himself.  Worse yet, Jack and all the other victims of the monster’s bloodthirsty rage are doomed to wander the earth until their killer’s bloodline has been severed- meaning that David, as the last surviving carrier of the curse, must die before the next full moon can transform him into a ravenous beast and lead to more senseless slaughter.  Though David is skeptical of the warnings, Hirsch is sufficiently convinced by a visit to the moors that his former patient may be a danger to himself and others, and he joins forces with Alex in an attempt to protect the young man from the darkness- whether supernatural or psychological- that threatens to take control of his destiny.

As written by Landis, who was inspired over a decade earlier when he witnessed a group of Central Europeans performing a ritual to prevent a deceased fellow villager rising from his grave, this grim and familiar tale is laced with the kind of hip, contemporary humor that marked the youth-oriented films of the period; arch, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, and self-referential, the comedy is a major ingredient in the mix, but Landis stops short of letting it undermine the gravity of his horror story.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, and many critics were at a loss to reconcile the seeming opposition of the movie’s two aspects; nevertheless, the apparent cross purposes complement each other in a way that makes for a unique and highly entertaining ride.  In addition, the two cultural sensibilities reflected in the film’s title are brought into the equation through the film’s overall style; the flip jocularity of the American mindset is superimposed against a background of traditional English influences that resembles a blend of Hammer horror and the Carry On series, with a slight dash of Monty Python thrown in for good measure.  The resulting subtextual implication in which the youthful, callow naïveté of the distinctly American personality is thrust into the Old World subtlety of European experience, suggests a story that is ultimately, perhaps, about the dangers of being overconfident in a world that is deeper and more complex than we know.

That’s not to propose that Landis’ purpose here involves any kind of socio-political statement; the “babe in the woods” undercurrent, extrapolations about cultural identity aside, serves mainly as a foundation for the uneasy sense of foreboding that pervades the film from its opening frames, when the hazy atmosphere of the isolated moors seems pregnant with ominous possibility and fills us with the dread of something unknown, lurking just beyond the hills or, perhaps, hiding in plain sight.  Confronted from the start with this landscape that is at once familiar and alien, we immediately bond with the two fresh-faced adventurers who, a few moments later, arrive on the scene- in a truck full of sheep, like proverbial lambs to the slaughter (to reinforce this idea, the pub through which they will soon begin their descent into horror is called “The Slaughtered Lamb”).  We are charmed by their banter, comfortable in their camaraderie, and touched by their friendship; we share their bemused outsiders’ perspective because we, too, are outsiders here, a commonality that helps us identify with them, but because they are so endearing, we also genuinely like them.  It is this factor, cannily accomplished by Landis in his script, that makes us cringe at a deeper level when they become victims of the inevitable carnage; and with this foundation laid, as the film follows the subsequent adventures of David, despite the cheeky comic tone maintained throughout, we can never quite escape or ignore the soul-sickening undercurrent of sadness which pursues us to the end.

Landis is able to pull off this delicate balance largely because he seems unconcerned with pre-conceived limitations of genre; as the director of the wildly popular Animal House and The Blues Brothers, he was the undisputed master of the kind of irreverent and iconoclastic humor that is on display in American Werewolf, and he confidently delivers the same lampooning style in his approach.  There is a definite anti-establishment flavor here that is cut from the same cloth as those earlier films, manifested in a continual opposition between stodgy decorum and free-spirited permissiveness.  The guarded discretion of the villagers regarding their town’s dark secret, the by-the-book attitude of the bumbling policemen assigned to de-brief David, and the stiff-upper-lip dispassion of Dr. Hirsch and even Nurse Alex as they become more deeply involved with their patient; all these are contrasted with the repeated disregard for rules of behavior displayed by the young Americans.  Jack and David challenge local custom with their questions in the pub, and later on, David flies against procedural form with passionate protests regarding the truth about his attacker on the moors, and he skirts propriety by crossing professional boundaries to initiate a relationship with his nurse; it is a similar lack of concern for the rules that allows Landis to blur the lines between comedy and horror with such disarming audacity.  In a way, it is as if he is attacking repressive authority on multiple fronts; not only does he sideswipe convention and cliche with satirical absurdity, and disturb order and decorum with gruesome violence, he also flaunts conservative standards of decency with a high level of sexual frankness and pointedly gratuitous nudity.

An American Werewolf in London uses all these ingredients, ultimately, in the service of providing entertaining thrills for the youth audience at which it was targeted.  The hip, comedic tone and the willful exploitation of sex and violence create an appealingly loose, edgy atmosphere, but it is the narrative itself that keeps us hooked, and Landis the director handles it skillfully.  The leisurely opening sequence is a small masterpiece in itself, and could stand on its own as a fine short film; the jocularity of the protagonists is slowly overtaken by the undercurrent of menace in a textbook example of building tension through visual storytelling.  As the tale progresses, we are subjected to alternating moments of hilarity and terror, often spiking one with the other, keeping us off balance at a visceral level while Landis fills the screen with artfully arranged variety of culturally telling details, from the recurring ironic presence of a Mickey Mouse figurine to the ludicrous porno send-up being shown at the cinema where David has his final meeting with Jack.  Along the way he continues to build on our emotional connection to David (as well as to Alex and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Hirsch, who become his allies) and offers up numerous stylish set pieces- a handful of nightmare sequences, a zany romp at the London Zoo, a gripping predator-and-prey chase in a “tube” terminal, an erotically-charged love scene between David and Alex in the shower- until he reaches the climax, an over-the-top blow-out of carnage and confusion in Piccadilly Circus that plays like a deadly slapstick farce.  Up until this point, his recipe works; the excesses of the finale somehow push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, and the callousness with which he treats the deaths of all these innocent bystanders feels a little too mean-spirited to be excused under the license of black comedy.  The final tragic confrontation which closes the film, a forgone conclusion since the very first frame, is also, undeniably, a bit of a letdown, and the promising potential for emotional payoff remains unrealized; it’s as if Landis, who has expertly managed to pad out what is essentially a familiar and simple scenario with clever distractions, has reached the bottom of his bag of tricks and decided to end his movie by hurriedly delivering the expected ending with as little fuss as possible.  Despite this anticlimax, however, Landis’ has invested enough into his main characters, on a deeper level than the snarky disaffection of the movie’s surface, to leave us in a state of satisfied melancholy as the end credits roll, and though we may have wished for an worthier ending for his clever mash-up, it must be admitted that his effort to present an oft-told tale in a fresh and surprising package has been, on the whole, a success.

A good deal of that success deserves to be credited to the charm of Landis’ leading players; in particular, of course, the considerable appeal of his star, David Naughton, whose earlier career as a pitchman for Dr. Pepper had made him a familiar face for most audiences, contributes significantly.  Attractive, affable, sincere, and possessed of a devilishly sly but somehow wholesome quality that makes him both sexy and endearing, his personality is well-suited to the demands of both the lightweight and dramatic aspects of American Werewolf, and watching him here makes us regret that, for whatever reason, he failed to become the rising star that his talent seemed to promise.  Matching him well is the beautiful Jenny Agutter, another familiar face (Logan’s Run¸ Equus) who never quite achieved full stardom, at least in the U.S., as Alex; she carries the same, sweet-but-sexy aura as her leading man, with an added layer of maturity and intelligence that makes her far more interesting than the standard damsel-in-distress usually found in monster movies.  John Woodvine is witty and refreshingly likable in his role as the benevolent older authority figure, Dr. Hirsch, and the assortment of recognizable English actors that constitute the cadre at the “Slaughtered Lamb” do a fine job of infusing life and dimension into the stock “superstitious villagers” characters that they represent.  The standout performance, though, comes from Griffin Dunne, as the doomed Jack; his lovably nebbish, self-deprecating nerd persona provides a perfect complement to Naughton’s all-American boy, and the chemistry they share is tangible- a factor that helps to add resonance to later developments when the deceased Jack returns to haunt his best friend.  Dunne manages, in those scenes, to bring the likable humanity of his character to the forefront despite the progressively hideous make-up he wears, undercutting the body horror of his walking-dead image with wit, pathos, and personality.

On the subject of the make-up, the aforementioned Rick Baker- whose prolific work in this field has always helped to redefine and push the limits of the craft- leads the pack in terms of kudos for Landis’ technical crew.  Not only do his remarkably detailed and gruesome prosthetic creations make for an utterly convincing conversion of Dunne into a grisly walking corpse, his work with Naughton’s transformation sequence, in which the handsome actor becomes the fearsome title creature, is a ground-breaking display of wizardry; a far cry from the old stop-motion effects used to morph Lon Chaney, Jr. in the classic Universal Wolf Man and its sequels, it is a truly hair-raising (literally and figuratively) pre-CG spectacle that reminds us all that movie magic did not begin with the computer age.  Also noteworthy is the cinematography by Robert Paynter, capturing the character and mood of the numerous English locations, from the desolate moors to the garish lights of Piccadilly, with a richness that gives weight to the proceedings; again, it’s a reminder of a now-bygone time, before the distinctive visual quality created by photography on actual film was supplanted by the high-definition digital imaging that dominates cinema today.  Finally, Landis gives his film a soundtrack that is comprised partly of effectively unsettling original scoring by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, and partly of a rather tongue-in-cheek selection of various popular recordings linked together by the subject of the moon, with several varied renditions of the standard, “Blue Moon,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” each figuring prominently in highly memorable sequences.

An American Werewolf in London is another one of those films that figured prominently in my own younger years; I have fond memories of seeing it, multiple times, on the big screen, and there was a time when I could quote virtually every line of dialogue.  In the ensuing years I assumed that my youthful enthusiasm, coupled with a fondness for monster movies and all things English, had probably paid a large part in my enjoyment of a film which, really, was little more than pulp cinema.  Upon my recent viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in fact, Landis’ odd little film holds up extremely well, and, in fact, boasts many nuances- some of which are explored above- that I had not previously recognized.  It’s really a tight, stylish, and yes, classy movie; though it deliberately strives for the lurid, sensational atmosphere of both Hollywood exploitation cinema and British “penny dreadfuls,” and it offers up a considerable amount of nudity, sex and violence (the gory, nightmarish kind so gleefully proffered by the blood-spattered horror films produced in England throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s), it nevertheless maintains an elegant, restrained sensibility, suggesting far more than it shows and allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Landis, for all his excess, does himself credit in his handling of the werewolf and its reign of terror, giving us only brief glimpses of the beast itself and using cinematic artistry- sound, camera perspective, editing- to build the suspense and fear; of course, we would feel cheated if he didn’t also deliver some good old blood-and-guts, and he gives us just enough of those to make us happy (if that’s the right word), but its also to his credit that we walk away feeling as if we’ve seen much more of a bloodbath than we actually have.  In the end, though, American Werewolf is most truly memorable for its unique hybrid personality, which lets us laugh, cringe, and cry a good deal more than we might expect.  It’s a smart, sexy, and surprisingly affecting film that has aged well, which is more than can be said for many of the more lauded-at-the-time works from the period.  Though it may not, at the time, have been as highly esteemed as Landis’ previous hits (mentioned above), and though, for many, his most important and lasting creation will always remain his video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” An American Werewolf in London  may well, in truth, be his best work as a filmmaker; at the least, it’s a definite crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to evoke a grin and a grimace from even the most hardcore horror buff.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082010/

Desperate Living (1977)

Desperate Living (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Desperate Living, the 1977 feature by underground filmmaking icon John Waters, featuring an assortment of his “Dreamland” players in the tale of a deranged suburban housewife who is exiled with her maid to a shantytown full of social rejects.  Financed, as all of Waters’ early projects were, on a shoestring budget, it generated notoriety through the outrage it sparked among the lesbian community for its treatment of same-sex female relationships, but it failed to catch on with the public to the extent of his previous hits, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, probably due in part to the absence of his signature star, Divine (who was unavailable to appear because of his commitment to a theatrical project in New York) but also because the “midnight movie” fad which had provided the perfect venue for the earlier films had largely subsided by the time of its release.  Nevertheless, it has taken its place as a cult classic alongside the director’s other works of the period, with which it shares an outrageous, anarchic sensibility and a deliberate intention to provide shock value through its depiction of socially taboo behavior.

The plot follows the misadventures of Peggy Gravel, a housewife from an affluent Baltimore suburb, who has recently returned home- perhaps prematurely- from a stint in a mental hospital.  Paranoid, delusional, and disgusted by virtually everything, she harangues those around her with wild and hysterical rants, accusing the neighborhood children of trying to kill her and reproving her husband for his ineffectualness.  When he attempts to calm her by administering her medication, she assaults him, calling for aid from her maid, Grizelda, an obese black woman whom Mr. Gravel has recently caught stealing from the household, and who now, believing she is protecting Peggy, smothers him to death by sitting on his face.  When the two realize they have committed murder, they go on the run together, attempting to drive out of town in Peggy’s car, but they are stopped by a policeman; instead of arresting them, however, he demands their underpants and some kisses for his cross-dressing, auto-erotic pleasure.  In exchange, he offers to let them escape to Mortville, a sort of hobo jungle on the outskirts of town where the criminal dregs of local society can find safe haven among their own degenerate kind.  The two women make the journey, and find themselves in a derelict town built mostly of cardboard and garbage; after trading a lottery ticket for a guest house owned by hard-edged lesbian Mole McHenry and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (“the most beautiful woman in Mortville”), they learn that the community is ruled by Queen Carlotta, a sadistic and self-serving tyrant who takes pleasure in degrading her subjects and dispensing draconian punishment to any who dare to displease her or disobey her absolute commands.  As the unlikely comrades settle into Mortville life, they begin their own lesbian affair, despite Peggy’s revulsion; meanwhile, Queen Carlotta’s egalitarian daughter,  Princess Coo-Coo, has fallen in love with the trash collector, and renounces her privileged life to elope with him.  The angry Carlotta has him killed, and when Coo-Coo flees with his body, she seeks refuge in the home of Peggy and Grizelda.  Peggy immediately alerts Carlotta’s goons, and Grizelda, attempting to protect the Princess, is killed in the ensuing struggle when she causes the house to collapse on herself.  Peggy, however, is rewarded for her loyalty to the Queen by being appointed as the replacement for the now-imprisoned Coo-Coo, and as her first duty she sets into motion the royal plan to infect the entire town with rabies, starting with Coo-Coo herself.  Back outside the “palace,” the lottery ticket Mole accepted as rent has proven to be a winner, so she uses the prize money to buy a bargain basement sex change for herself, thinking it will please Muffy, who has been goading her with fantasies about men.  Instead, it repulses her, causing her to admit that she loves Mole just the way she is; the sewn-on penis is severed and thrown to the neighborhood dog, and with their bond renewed, the couple leads the Mortvillians in a revolt against Peggy and the Queen, at last exacting vengeance for the brutality of their regime.

If this narrative sounds a bit convoluted, it’s no surprise; Desperate Living constitutes Waters’ attempt at an epic fairy tale, with multiple characters in interwoven subplots, and part of his particular milieu– at least in these earlier films- is a disregard for logical coherence in narrative structure.  Waters’ story lines are usually threads intended to link together his depraved set pieces, and a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that they are generally irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie, which is mainly to delight and disgust his viewers, preferably at the same time.  The downside to this approach, from a certain point-of-view, is that many of his movies have a tendency to “peter out” rather than build to a climax, with the final resolution often being little more than a means to tie up the loose ends; but Waters, always the iconoclast, has never concerned himself with following rules, and such an aesthetic consideration is as immaterial to his agenda as laws and social mores are to his characters.

This latter point is not strictly true, actually.  Waters’ films are usually populated by people who are greatly concerned with codes of conduct, albeit warped or inverted ones.  Here, for instance, Peggy is motivated by a fanatical devotion to her own brand of decency and decorum, a world view in which she, as a member of the social elite, is the natural recipient of preferential treatment and should be immune from the disgusting unpleasantries of the world; it happens that, for her, those unpleasantries include any form of natural impulse or show of sentimentality or affection.  She hates nature, is repelled by her husband’s touch, and would rather be raped by the kinky policeman than submit to his kiss; yet she is willing to ally herself with an oppressor and give up her own life in service of the ideal of autocratic privilege.  Similarly, the avowed man-hater, Mole, is prepared to transform herself into the very object of her own loathing in order to satisfy the needs of the woman she loves, not just because of her desire to please her lover, but because she is dedicated to her role as protector and provider.  The irony of both characters, of course, is that they personify the things they themselves despise; the victim becomes the victimizer and the militant feminist embodies the negative masculine stereotype she has rejected in others.  In similar ways, the other denizens of Desperate Living enact this paradoxical principle, or else they perform the meaningless reactionary pantomime of the social bystander, chasing their own self-serving needs and pleasures, deluding themselves with rationalizations and platitudes, and expressing outrage when they are met with opposition; Waters shows us a world of degenerates, overseen by other degenerates, and the only unacceptable transgression is the assumption of authority.  Of course, one could open up a discussion about the layers of social satire, political allegory, psychological commentary, or mythological inversion that can be seen within this low-rent fantasy melodrama; or perhaps we might speculate about the filmmaker’s intentions regarding such things as alienation of the audience, subversion of societal values and norms, or the use of cinema as an expression of counter-cultural concerns.  In the long run, however, Waters’ interest in such matters is clearly parenthetical, at best, and his work here- as with all of his films, particularly the “Trash Trilogy” consisting of this and the two previous efforts- has more to do with his creation of a signature mise-en-scène which can best be described as “transgressive camp.”  Even more than that, perhaps, it has to do with sharing his warped sensibilities through the medium he loves.

That Desperate Living is an expression of the filmmaker’s own imagination is certain; as the producer, writer, director and cameraman, he makes sure what shows up on the screen is pure Waters.  The histrionic dialogue, the over-saturation of de-glamorized nudity and sex, the exploration of fetish behavior and insular communities, the skewering of respectable society, the fixation on repellent imagery and ideas; these are trademark elements in his films, and they are all present here in spades.  Desperate Living features copious full-frontal nudity (both male and female), the sexualization of children, a baby in a refrigerator, the human consumption of vermin, sodomy with a firearm, cannibalism, and penile amputation, to name just a few of its dubious delights, and in typical Waters fashion, they are de-sensationalized to the point of banality- which is why they amuse us rather than outrage us.  This, of course, is precisely the point, if there must be a point; Waters shows us that the only thing more ridiculous than human behavior is to be offended by it.

Indulging in this pageant of absurd excess is a cast mostly comprised of the director’s regulars, a troupe of stalwart non-actors upon whose services he has relied upon from his earliest days.  Leading the pack is the incomparable Mink Stole, a fixture in Waters’ films who is here given her most prominent role as Peggy, sinking her teeth with relish into the character as she alternates between hysterical wailing and some of the most ferocious bitchery you will ever see.  She is perhaps (apart from the late Divine) the most proficient purveyor of the curiously bad-but-somehow-great acting that defines the style of the filmmakers’ canon, and Desperate Living offers probably the best showcase of her unique talents.  Accompanying her on the adventure is Jean Hill, a greeting-card model turned actress whose jubilant sass makes her a fitting complement to Stole’s venomous ice queen, and the two exude an undeniable chemistry as they act out their perverted fantasia on Imitation of Life.  Waters newcomer Liz Renay (a notorious burlesque queen, former gun moll, and convicted perjurer, whose scandalous autobiography prompted the director to pursue her for his film) brings a surprising freshness of personality- not to mention her sizable breasts, unfettered onscreen for a good deal of the film- as Muffy, and Susan Lowe as the pugnacious Mole, normally one of the director’s bit players, manages to hold her own admirably in the role originally intended for Divine.  Also notable is Mary Vivian Pearce as the goofily likable Coo-Coo, and “Turkey Joe” in his deliciously trashy cameo as the cross-dressing cop.  The standout performance, though, comes from the sublime Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed ex-waitress who became a sort of muse for John Waters and a cult icon to boot, as Queen Carlotta.  With her inimitably amateurish delivery, her indescribable physical presence, and her inescapable authenticity, she makes this grotesque character into a mesmerizing spectacle; gleefully punishing her groveling subjects, turning her leather-boy lackeys into sexual objects with whom she engages in lewd- and graphic- excesses, or sweetly bestowing gifts on a pigeon like the skid row vision of a Disney Princess and her animal friends, she is the indisputable highlight of Desperate Living.  The lady had charisma, there’s no denying it.

In spite of the fact that the cast is entirely on target, however, the absence of Waters’ supreme diva, Divine, is keenly felt in Desperate Living.  There is a void, somehow, in the center of the movie, that none of the other personalities can fill.  This is not to say that any of them are lacking in commitment or ability- at least, the kind of ability required of them here- but that some intangible quality is missing that none of them are quite able to provide; it’s possible that this is due to the lack of a strong character to provide central focus in the story, for Desperate Living, in truth, is all over the map- but then so are most of Waters’ films, a fact which audiences easily overlook with Divine’s electric presence as an anchor.  It’s hard, though, to place the blame wholly on this gap for the fact that the movie doesn’t quite work- for, unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Though it is a veritable treasure trove of deliciously quotable lines and ripe with the kind of unforgettable lunatic imagery that keeps us engaged in any given individual moment of the film, it never really grabs us with the unexpected visceral urgency of some of his other works; all the pieces are there, but the whole package leaves us decidedly unsatisfied.  It may be due to the attempted scope of the story, or the fact that the fantasy is so far removed from real experience that it loses the sliver of plausibility which gives the director’s preposterously lurid tales their outrageous edge, but for whatever reason, Desperate Living loses steam soon after it takes us to Mortville, a fact that is particularly disappointing in face of the fact that the film’s first ten minutes are pure, vintage Waters, containing some of the most inspired expressions of his wicked genius he ever managed to create, and setting the bar at a high level which the rest of the movie is then, sadly, unable to match.

Still, for Waters’ many fans, this kind of critical quibbling makes no difference to their enjoyment of its many riches, and for those who are exploring this alternative auteur for the first time, the fact that Desperate Living is not as complete a package as the masterful Female Trouble doesn’t make it any less essential an experience.  There was a certain magic at work in these heady, early years of the Dreamland crew, and it is just as evident in this movie- with its guerilla-filmmaking feel, its grainy 16mm photography, its elaborately shoddy sets built from found objects and refuse, its celebration of filth, and its mockery of traditional cinematic forms- as in any of the others.  What makes it so… well… refreshing (for want of a better word) is that, as always, Waters’ subversive trash is not merely intellectual posturing, nor is it exploitation, for it is clear that all of his participants are equally complicit in his effort to inundate us with perversity; John Waters is a subversive filth-monger because he finds it fun, and because it is an expression of self rather than a calculated pose, he makes it irresistibly fun for the rest of us.  Of course if you are someone who has, as Peggy Gravel puts it, “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” you are best to leave this one alone, as well as the rest of Waters’ canon; although his work, for all its over-the-top shock value and subversive topsy-turvy morality, is ultimately as good-natured and sweetly innocent as, say, two naked children playing doctor, for somebody whose sense of humor is not well-tuned to this kind of trashy treat, it’s about as appetizing as a fried rat on a plate.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075936/