Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Fridays this month on TCM are devoted to pre-code Hollywood and, honey, pre-code Hollywood is devoted the same way to its lord most high, its King Tut, its Maestro of Satanic bravado and merry carnivore sparkle, Warren William. Until TCM and pre-code festivals (like the one that regularly comes to Film Forum here in NYC), Warren William was all but forgotten except as a B-mystery star, a kind of hybrid Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn. But for Depression era audiences he was such a charming, sinister figure he stole their love right along with the ex-chequer's bank vault.  Despite his amok capitalist characters being so emblematic of what tanked the stock market in the first place, he was the great antihero (the regular joe who competed for his babes was by contrast a corn-fed rube).

He ascended the throne in 1932, when America was still in its Depression and Prohibition death spiral--and there seemed no hope for lifting it back up except via the same crazy capitalists who'd brought them so low. Audiences knew Williams might not give a shit about theie suffering, but he didn't waste time scamming them either. He scammed the fat cats who scammed them. While these corrupt old fuddy duddy's harrumphed helplessly, William aimed his cigar / wolfish nose-chin combination down at them like a triple revolver and cleaned their pockets. And if he stole the juvenile hero's girlfriend on his way out, so much the better. By then we hated the square hero, who turns down offers of crime and easy success because he's 'good honest folks.' Chumps like that were the ones got us into all this, with their blind faith and corny earnestness. The should have been boiling fat cats in oil or dragging them to the guillotine rather than dutifully working to death in service of the giant black Dust Bowl cloud Yaweh or fat cat mining company. You had to be soft in the head--like Joan Crawford or Loretta Young over at MGM--to think the homespun decent folks Americana small town ideal wasn't a bogus con passed down by the fat cats' sour matron moralist wives to help them smile extra smugly in church and confiscate poorer women's children in some weird venomous outpouring of stifled sexuality and creative expression. Guillotine the rich, or work yourself bravely to death like that poor trusting horse in ANIMAL FARM! See an MGM film and there's no doubt which choice they advocate. At Warner Brothers? Timmmmbre!

Alas, sometimes even tough-minded Vitaphone demanded William get a 'conscience' and start doing the right thing, but aside from a glimmer in his eye as he dutifully shed a tear in the name of good common decency, all he ended up with was a few bullets from the guns of the people he double-crossed. As Handsome Harry once said, "the trouble with reformers is, they always try to rain on everyone else's business."

And anyway, at savvy WB, the average workaday joes and handsome college boy heroes were played by annoying little pishers like Louis Hayward (the schmuck babbling about Babs in the tiger blind in RED DUST), or Charles Farrell, Randolph Scott (as the virgin geologist in HOT SATURDAY), or Norman Foster in SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1933), who relentlessly paws and stalks Maureen O’Sullivan, just because he happens to be her age and social class; Warren William develops eyes for her himself and who wouldn’t? Look at those legs! And anyway, she works for him and sexual harassment laws are still just a distant troubling tom-tom in 1933--Foster is so full of himself and his presumptive ladykiller charm, he literally makes it impossible for her to do her job. I had a guy like that haunting my assistant one time, and I kicked him out of the building! It's a boss's job to make sure his female employees aren't harassed at the workplace, which is why he sometimes needs to protect them, personally, even if takes all night.

1932 - ***
Warner's made a star out of William via this snappy fictionalizing version of legendary mob defense lawyer Bill Fallon. And until some hick dame puts him noble he's pretty badass, starting off as a an assistant D.A. but quitting after sending an innocent mug to the chair, determined to make sure no more murder charges ever stick. We can see why it would shake him; it's a pretty harrowing moment, ably rendered by a mere dimming of the prison lights before the warden can even make it to the hallway after getting the call. These calls come through so often so when it's too late, it's quite a shock. So as in all these type films (William Powell played versions of Fallon for Warners, too, in Lawyer Man and For the Defense), William becomes a big shot gangland defense lawyer and drinks (Guy Kibbee is his patient local speak proprietor) and sleeps around with impunity (look fast for Paulette Godard) while gal Friday Aline McMahon adds adds notes of warm complexity: half detox nurse-half Leporello crossed with Joan from Mad Men, she's become so adept at Moneypenny-esque faux flirting that even she can't remember if there's any real desire underneath it, and tall enough and physical enough that she can believably help heave William onto his feet when he's dead drunk.

Aline McMahon: What a gal 
Anyway, they're a great team, and all is well, with a few defense strategies so outlandish they must have been based on real life cases (William here drinks poison to prove its not poison, in other versions he throws a vial supposedly full of nitro glycerine), but then it all goes to hell when a hick typist in the pool turns down his wolfish advances because she's lousy with the type of small town "integrity" Sydney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker would later sneer at. But in 1931 there were only a few years left to even talk about other options to that same kind of sentimental malarkey before the code would insist on it, which makes William's defection from evil all the more heartbreaking.  Sidney Fox is the hick who sways him, John Wray the chump she's sweet on, who (of course) winds up implicated when he's robbed carrying a shipment of bonds. You can guess the rest. It's all worth it for a giddy stretch in the beginning where William rockets through his day, pausing to lift $10,000 fee out of an embezzler's stash before returning what's left to the employer on the condition he doesn't press charges. For this one crazy stretch, The Mouthpiece is a master... work.  It's the role that made William a star. It will make you a fan.

1934 - **1/2
All procedural political machinations, a bit like Perry Mason wandering into The Glass Key but pretty good, with Warren William as an ambitious assistant D.A. secretly married to the daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of a framed governor (Arthur Byron). If the public knew about the marriage, it would be conflict of interest! Nepotism! Whatever! It's vague, but the governor can be proved innocent only by exploding Warren William's career. But as long as he's innocent, you have nothing to worry about, maybe. William is on medium setting but that's still a high for anyone else. The cast includes the fey Capote-esque Grant Mitchell; the ever-dubiously allied Douglas Dumbrille; Glenda Farrell as the woman blamed for a murder that Barbara Stanwyck saw happen but can't reveal why she happened to be there! Courtroom will be cleared while the jury reaches a verdict! The verdict is that this is reasonably engaging thriller that adds up to little beyond itself. Yet how can you go wrong with Stanwyck and William as secret lovers? William fans who are wondering if this being made in 1934 means William is defanged, rest easy: he's not, he just doesn't need to bite anyone. Instead he's preparing for life after the code via detective series work as Perry Mason, Philo Vance, or hey -whatever ya need. William Dieterle directed, so there's atmosphere even if Warners had worked the old 'D.A. or Defense Attorney who has to sacrifice his love in the name of freedom or freedom in the name of protecting a lady's honor, or to save the life of the loser boy she loves more than him' etc. a bit near to death.

1936 - ***
Before it gets bogged down in needless variations on The Maltese Falcon this is pretty fun, and even after. Effie (Marie Wilson) known here as 'Miss Murgatroyd' below left, is an adorable little ditzy Red Riding Hood who has great chemistry with the big bad wolf Warren William - she's as tall standing as he is seated. And the way she rolls with his wolfish come-ons makes them a perfect pair. She all but grabs onto his fur and rides him to grandma's house.

Made in 1936 (after the code, but Mister, ya coulda fooled me) it co-stars a very young Bette Davis in the Mary Astor role--she's much less coy in this version, and Williams seems to prefer her that way--and Alison Skipworth as the conniving Gutman. I couldn’t find billing for the unsightly Tweedle Dum type who keeps releating “I told you once, Mister…” as her neurotic gunsel son. He’s no Elisha Cook Jr. Then again, who is?

The best ham-swap comes with the fey Joel Cairo, here a tall, game-for-what-for English gentlemen (played by Arthur Treacher), he brings his own quirky wit to the proceedings and the scene where William helps him ransack his own apartment looking for the 'horn,' c’est magnifique! It's like the Marx Brothers and John Huston had a baby. Williams must have been huffing laughing gas off camera and it's very psychedelic to see him so blithely unattached to his possessions and personal space-- whether breaking things, repairing them, or doting over Williams' little black book like it's a newborn litter of kittens, it's a scene that--in screwball pre-code hipness--could be the drunken grandfather of Altman's The Long Goodbye. Rather than a long stretch of time in Spade's apartment waiting for a package, the big climax meets Captain Jacobi's boat down at the rainy docks for a good old-fashioned shoot-out. The horn filled with jewels, and Alison Skipworth enjoying talking to a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk might seem like pointless alterations, but this movie's a nitrous oxide four-alarm fire.

Davis meanwhile smokes and wields a gun like a pro, at times annoyed Williams' not taking the gun she's jamming in his ribs more seriously. If you can recall the moment where, after giving Cairo back his gun upon receipt of the two hundred dollars, Cairo turns it on him and says "Clasp your hands behind your head, Mr. Spade..." and he just smiles and laughs, saying "Go ahead! I won't stop ya..." That, my friend, that moment of justifiably condescending but good natured merry surrender, is how William plays the whole damn movie. And unless you're like Davis, trying to establish her duplicitousness, than Williams' fun is contagious. If you've seen Huston's remake a few dozen times (if not, you should) then the use of so much of the same dialogue under such bizarre, nearly Godardian tweakage, is startling. While the whole cast bounces merrily on his lap, William seems like he’s having such a good time he can barely remember his lines; is he huffing laughing gas between takes? Who cares though, since he's basically the same character as in the other versions of the story and we already know the 1941 version so much? They may just as well just read the book aloud and mix some drinks.

1932 - ***1/2

Three girls meet while going Brooklyn public school (allowing for plenty of ethnic stereotyping - oy vey) and stay friends even after going separate ways up and down the New York City economic ladder (pre-code Warners loved showing their adult subjects as children first --God knows why, and maybe social workers). Joan Blondell winds up in a reform school, Bette Davis learns to type and settles into a nice cog-in-the-machine-shape for the duration, Ann Dvorak marries the rich guy (Warren William) and becomes a nymphomaniac alcoholic who feels strangled by the touch of any man dumb enough to treat her with respect.They end up running into each other and sharing the ominous match on a post-lunch round of cigarettes:  She has Williams' kid, then goes running amok with smooth-talking idiot Lyle Talbot, who gets them both in deep with some low-down mobsters (Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Ed Arnold) who figure they can collect big by holding the kid for ransom. With the 24/7 carrying on (and only cocktail peanuts for meals), the poor kid becomes a seriously neglected urchin, all while William looks desperately for the boy, finally procuring the help of the now reformed Blondell and Davis, who by then has nearly typed herself sexless. She must have really loved being relegated to glorified extra. But hey, she gets to be the kid's nanny when all's said and done, if that helps any. It should. In 1933 she could still hold her own in a bathing suit. Better get it on record, darling. In a few decades you'll be back on that beach in a very different seaside ensemble, toting a malnourished Joan Crawford instead of a finally-fed Dickie Moore.

Blondell is her usual reliable self, good-natured and morally flexible, inherently decent without being a drag about it; Dvorak's big tragic spiral out of control is awesome, seeing kids suffering from neglect to the point even Bogart's slimy gangster is concerned (he makes a wry cocaine nose gesture to indicate what Dvorak's doing in the other room). If even the gangsters are worried about your kid, then your kid's got problems. It's shocking stuff, second only to the deprivation / starvation of the kids in Night Nurse, the kind of thing we just wouldn't see after the code, and it's those post-code saintly kids that gave kids a bad name in the movies, since we all know kids aren't saints, they're complex little heathens. Dickie Moore can be unbearably cutesy pie in the wrong hands, but throw him into the next room during an all-night gangster poker game while his mom lies drunk and unconscious for weeks at a stretch, and now he's legitimately heartbreaking. FINALLY!

William meanwhile is just the sugar daddy here-- a noncomedic variation on his role in Gold Diggers (he wound up with Joan there, too) as the sensible Daddy Warbucks for the gang. That's the way it was in these punchy mellers from the WB though; the whole thing rips past your stunned eyes so fast you can barely light your twentieth cigarette before it's all over but the scraping off the sidewalk. 'hiccup.'

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Misterioso Blu Review: PUMPKINHEAD (1988), LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."                                                                                    --- Nietzsche
1973 - directed by John Hough
Like a serious-minded, less campy, more sexually experienced ground level update of House on Haunted Hill--i.e. a disparate group of people paid handsomely to spend awhile in a very haunted house--and based on a novel by I am Legend author Richard Matheson-- Legend of Hell House was once just a solid little spook film, seen mainly by kids like me in the 70s on the Late Late Show after creeping each other out with the Ouija board and with sound on low (to not wake up the parents). It was scary then, but incoherent, and we seldom made it to the end before falling asleep or losing our UHF reception. But now, with Shout's new Blu-ray, Hell has taken wing and expanded to a big dark, beautiful monster ready for close inspection. With its dark atmosphere, decadent art design and red bathed color scheme, cinematographer Alan Hume's almost Bava-esque level of warm, dusky, painterly color; the translucently pale skin of two beautifully alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper women-- sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive--the mix of sex, wit and high style is a must for anyone who loves Halloween more than Christmas.

The cast, only four people, need to carry a lot on their shoulders to make this work, and they do: Pamela Franklin proves herself a master of slow simmer emotional build-up as Florence, the psychic--and if you recognize her from The Innocents (1961) the you must remember her lovely name there was Flora, i.e. full name Florence! Am I the first to make that connection? I love being paranoid! Gale Hunnicutt (very hot and dangerous) is Ann, the prim (but open to sexual possession) wife-assistant of Dr. Barett (Clive Revill), a self-righteous parapsychologist who thinks ghosts are just psychic energy without personality or form, easily dispersed by a magnetic pulse, which he's bringing over later; and--in the Elisha Cook Jr. role (i.e. he's the only survivor of the last investigation and spends most of the film drinking and tossing off cryptic remarks)--Roddy McDowall. They've all been hired by a dying millionaire to spend a week in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," the Winchester Mystery House-ish estate of Earnest Belasco, a sadistic, decadent (and long-dead) munitions magnate outside London. Past investigations have been calamitous, but when has that ever stopped an intrepid ghost hunter earning $100,000. to determine once and for all if there's life after death to some dying old bastard by staying there for a full week?

Fans who hate when a movie wastes time getting to the good stuff will rejoice: the credits have barely begun appearing before the chosen four are creaking open the gate and entering the very spooky looking fog-bound manor, which we learn's been stocked with a full larder and bar (no word on the poor sods who had to go in and dust and do the stocking) and it's all gleefully ominous, the kind of film built for the aforementioned slumber parties and drive-ins, where once you settle in and/or stop making out or talking you can step right into it and get rightly scared, like all the best Halloween-ready ghost movies, and not worry about piddly-ass subplots, mood-shattering sunshine or cross-cuts, or those cliche patronizing fake-outs where the monster under the covers disappears before the witnesses can answer your screams so they all think you dreamt it, or tired scenes of incompetent detectives being called in, or sunny daytime shots trudging out to the local church, etc., or stodgy vicars in terrible bowl haircuts, or disorienting cross-cutting, or Cockney horse trainers skulking tiresomely around the grounds after red herring screen time. None of it!! And it's all based on real life paranormal events! In a forward blurb, the amazing Tom Corbett, billed as 'psychic consultant to European royalty' notes: “Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” As 50s TV psychic and Ed Wood All-Star Criswell might add, "can you prove it didn't happen!?"

As the week goes on, counting down to Christmas though no one mentions it, the days and times click by on the bottom of the screen in a kind of countdown of dread, adding to a feeling of authenticity and also enhancing the sense of endless night and gloom; it might be early in the morning or 3:33 PM it still feels like night. Kubrick likely was inspired by this sense of time's irrelevance when he put "Tuesday" on the screen in the middle of The Shining. 

I love a ghost film doesn't waste time debating whether ghosts are real or not--even doubting Dr. Barett believes something's happening, so the argument can move to what produces the haunting: actual personalities that survive beyond death or just energy we instinctually anthropomorphize. Dr. Barett thinks it's all just projected psychic energy and accuses Florence of creating all the poltergeist disruption (and attacks on his life), unconsciously or not. But Florence insists the activity is being generated by the goodhearted spirit of the evil Mr. Belasco's walled-up son. Meanwhile, Mrs. Barett sleepwalks as a voracious nymphomaniac and her walks down the stairs or sudden appearances in the far corner of the frame in flowing hair and nightgown are a great mix of super sexy and double-eerie. Clearly a little sexually frustrated by her cold fish husband she tries to seduce McDowell and get him into an orgiastic menage a trois with Franklin while under the thrall of her unseen possessor. (while Barett fumes atop the stairwell and chastises McDowall only for not opening up to the house, i.e. for going through with it, Lady Chatterly style!) Sexy, crazy stuff, and Hunnicutt is up to the challenge, modulating a slow burn from smiling self-possessed enigma to furious flesh-rending cannibal holding herself barely in check. With her longing caresses of cobwebbed statues she may even out crazy McDowall, who just stands still in these scenes like he's not even tempted by this hot babe in her ghost-flowing lingerie, waiting until she's at peak monologue intensity to slap her. In fact, he waits, until most everyone else is dead before he launches a monologue entirely in shouts at the ghost of Belasco, until you can hear Vincent Price's ghost image rise up from its scenery-chewed nest inside a stack of mouldering AIP Corman-Poe film cans and nod in contented cat approval.

Extras include a short-but-long enough and genial 'talking shop'-style interview with John Hough where he notes that Disney hired him to direct Escape to Witch Mountain based on his work in Hell House, and a repetitive if interesting commentary track with Franklin, which is kind of odd since it's clearly an interview with the questions being muffled out, and in the stretches of silence where most tracks activate the film's sound when no one's talking so it's nearly dead silence. She mainly says that Hunnicutt and McDowall kept to themselves while she and Revill got on famously and that Hume took forever with his lighting, to the point they'd start hiding lights from him in the cupboards. Though the time spent is clearly visible, since it all looks so gorgeous and ominous. What else is there to say? Oh yeah, the score, the throbbing in echo-drenched diegetic distortion by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hogdson of 'Electrophon Ltd. it's the best thing there is, fusing the distance between Forbidden Planet's 'electronic tonalities' and the echo paranoia of Ennio Morricone at his most atonal.

1988 - dir. Stan Winston
Lance Henrisken is, unsurprisingly, convincing and even a tad poetic as a woodsy general store fella, the kind who usually warns kids not to go too far from the highway, and get off the road before dark, but instead it's he who is the initial victim, as a high-livin' teen makes a jump on his motorbike and lands on Lance's boy. It's surprisingly complex in its emotions and sympathies for a horror film: we see both the rudeness of the snotty suburban teen interlopers through the local's eyes and the sheer grimy otherness of the locals as seen through the suburban teen eyes --in fact there wouldn't be a more even divide of red state-blue state good/bad qualities in horror until Tucker & Dale vs. Evil 22 years later. But hey, in a straight up horror that can get annoying, we're like 'get to the monster already' unless we're wise enough to lean back and absorb the incredible naturalistic lighting and lived-in detail, which we can more easily do with Shout's gorgeous new Blu-ray (released this week!). Now we see the magic Bojan Bazelli brought to the proceedings, how he makes the outdoors seem like indoors somehow, too suspiciously perfect to not raise the hackles, Bazelli makes the backroad country seem pregnant with menace in the same way Dean Cundey did for the suburbs in Halloween. The first sight of the old witch's cabin as the sun sets (Bazelli never met 'a magic hour' he didn't like), with it's orange light shining through the windows and this uncanny stillness in the air, it's as if the whole natural world is hushed and waiting... full with the ominous tick-tock momentum of the setting sun stretches of Halloween and Phantasm coupled to the fairy tale Halloween goosebump raising of the witch houses in Corman's The Undead and The Terror! Using natural candle light and lanterns in rustic cabins for orange flame light flickers which seem to have massive power in the dark of the cabins creating unworldly, and very Halloween-ready, menace.

While we wait for the demon to be born, there are similar neat touches of art direction and photography we can marvel at, now: the local folks look genuinely like they've been working hard and living close to the dirt all their lives, and now with  all that beautiful dusky detail restored its easier to notice The film really lives and dies with Henriksen's low key brilliance, with the poetic-realist touch gradual and perfectly applied, from naturalistic to dark setting sun fairy tale to nighttime blue filter monster action, a kind of slow steady momentum past the point of no return. I don't mind that it seems to take forever to get started now that the photography glows so duskily and I dig the vast spooky graveyard pumpkin patch and the withered old crone with the demon-raising mojo glowing in the firelight in a makeup that makes her look like Freddy Kruger's blind aunt crossed with Sir Roderick Femm in The Old Dark House (1932).  The cast includes: Devon Odessa (Sharon in My So-Called Life) and Mayim Bialik as barefoot backwoods children a-teasing their small brother with the Pumpkinhead poem chant and later trembling at the monster noises coming from outside their windows, and as the final girl Tracy, Cynthia Bain is luminous and resourceful: her youth and beauty in stark contrast to the dirt-stained roughness of the locals. The pastel teens' 80s fashions and terrible headbands of the teens are all spot on and a nice contrast to the ancient wagon train-ish look of the locals. In the 80s I well remember how we hated those damned Springsteen bandanas, jean jackets, aerobics wrist bands, and stone-washed seamless jeans but now they're the sign that the monster coming soon after them will not be CGI but god-awesome analog. And there special effects titan Stan Winston (in his directorial debut) delivers the goods: the pre-CGI seven foot-plus tall demon with its long weird arms and expressive face (and several different incarnations) especially, and the overall atmosphere at once earthy and alien make any sense of cross-cutting disjointedness or confusion (it clocks in at under 90 minutes) forgivable.

Henriksen is flawless, otherworldly and believably rustic without ever being cliche'd, his character's southern accent coming out strongest when he's really angry or upset is a great touch, the mark of a truly subtle pro, as if the rest of the time he's burying his roots. If the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts it's because, perhaps, it tries to be too nuanced, it's not the kind of 'fun' ride that leads to bigger budgeted sequels, but an emotionally mature, seasoned Halloween-ready shocker that never worries too much what genre it's falling into or out of. If the film stuck with the teenagers and they were kind of cool and nice and trying to do the right thing and the demon was sicced on them for some ridiculously small slight--one of them shoplifted a candy bar or something--it would chill us more, even if it didn't leave much of a lingering impression, but the idea that a kid, a boy, wouldn't be keenly aware of the path of those two crazy bikes, wouldn't be asking to ride one, or at the very least keeping his eyes out, is just hard to believe, as is even a direct hit would kill him outright (I think it would have worked far better if it was a stray bullet from a drunken backyard target practice). And it never makes sense why Harley wouldn't go to the cops, especially him being a small business owner, or confronting the kids directly, but that demon conjuring would be the only logical option without any need to explore the others. Then there's the issue of Harley trying to welsh after the first grisly murder, and running back to the witch to demand she lift the spell, then to his neighbors to demand they help him, this after he demanded they tell him where to find the witch in the first place. Ed Harley! You made your bed now lie in it, backwood-style.

But these qualms tend to melt away once one sees the film again and can just appreciate the careful storytelling and devotion to minute atmospheric detail; and anyway by the second half of the film all lapses in common sense are forgiven, because the ominous synth music is great and best of all, quite sparsely used; the special effects are ingenious and wild--the monster delivering an array of priceless facial expressions, using the lifeless bodies of victims to smash in doors and windows, pausing to smash a crude wooden cross, the way he travels with his own Evil Dead x Fulci's City of the Living Dead-style whirlwind of leaves and swirling fog, and crackling lightning--all lovingly and cleverly employed. Extras include a lively fun commentary track with the special effects guys, and you can tell they had a blast making the film and love pointing out all the eye holes and mechanisms and dummies used, that the guy wearing the suit was trying to move in the style of Harryhausen's Ymir (i.e. like stop motion animation) and that in certain spots his sneakers were visible and had to be masked out; it's one of the best commentary tracks I've heard, they're really excited and having a blast and pointing out lots of stuff even loyal fans of the film might have missed. There's also a dozen or so talking head interviews, including one with a moist-eyed, breathless possibly insane Richard Weinman, some great VHS tape monster suit test runs, and a tribute to Winston.

All in all, Shout's loving care (via their Scream Factory offshoot) and Blu-ray remastering help a minor but inarguably essential horror classic emerge from the folksy swamp into the clear Blu Bozan Bajelli light. When 1080 HD clarity reveals poetry, spookiness, and breadth of outdoorsy stark beauty instead of just the manufactured limits of CGI (which can make some newer films seem airless and without any inward depth), then everything up to now in our collective home entertainment evolution has been worth it.

So once again, Halloween is saved. Two more quintessential films for seance slumber parties you could never find. Scream Factory, Hell House and Pumpkinhead... I love you like the fall itself. 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Beyond the Green Inferno: HERZOG: The Collection (16 film blu-ray collection) - Review

Francis Ford Coppola's disastrous decision to cast Brando as Colonel Kurz for Apocalypse Now (1979) is by now a true Hollywood cautionary tale of amok ambition and dangers of trusting in the improv skills of titans: Coppola was losing his Godfather fortune, and sanity even before Brando finally showed up. Already stretched past endurance by typhoon season, drugs, malaria, wayward helicopters, Martin Sheen's heart attack, and Dennis Hopper's mania, Brando's arrival--overweight, befuddled, expensive, pissing away millions while he mumbled incoherently along, utterly and in every way unprepared--took tears off Coppola's life. The entire shoot dragged on for two years, and wore Coppola's genius down to such a low point he's never gotten it back, never made a great film again (he admits it). His films have tended towards the safely set-bound ever since. Never in a million years would he work with Brando again, let alone bring him back to Philippines in ten years for Apocalypse Now 2. 

Let this tale illustrate not just the dangers of tropical location shooting and titanic egos, but as testament to the gonzo madness inherent in Werner Herzog's oeuvre. For Herzog went back again and again into his own jungle madness, and he worked with his Kurz--Klaus Kinski, a dysfunctional madman of titanic ego who made Brando seem a model of professionalism--no less than five times. Such masochism is surely indicative of a personality that would have thrived in the very same madness that consumed Coppola. Maybe Coppola needed to be German to find that heart of darkness, and needed a German actor as Kurz.  Kinski starts at the destination Brando could never quite reach, and goes deeper from there. No other director ever worked with Kinski more than once. Herzog would have welcomed the miseries on the set of Apocalypse Now as welcome relief from the terrifying existential crisis proffered by German 'sanity.'

In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)--their first collaboration and the film that put Herzog on the map--Kinski plays a wayward conquistador searching for El Dorado who doesn't just usurp his royal commander on a side trip down the Amazon, he usurps the King of Spain himself, in his mind, and sails ever onward into the jungle, eventually ruling over a raft full of gibbering monkeys after everyone else has been picked off by unseen natives. Insane or no, while the other actors make their marks and look around nervously, Kinski's Aguirre is making friends with the insects, imitating the movements of wind through the fronds in every little gesture. Giant frog eyes dilating and seething and lolling back like a tide of bi-polar narcissism, Kinski is eternally adrip and atrip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex. Magnetic, tragic, and terrifying, it's almost like he can see us watching him from across time and media formatting. His eyes meet ours and we shiver in our safety shadows. No matter his character or period, Kinski is alive in the moment and in the film and in the room with us.

And now, thanks to a gorgeous and essential set from Shout Factory, we have the whole story of Herzog's existential sanity and Kinski's foam-at-the-mouth madness colliding in the middle of the South American jungles and German hamlets of the mind: Herzog: The Collection gives us 16 films on stunning Blu-ray, covering a 30 year period--from his black and white cult slice of mayhem Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to 1998's My Best Friend, Herzog's documentary about his five films with Kinski (all of which are included in the set), a 28 year-spanning Götterdämmerung of low key brilliance, including fictional films, documentaries, and cinéma vérités semi-documentaries. It's one of the most well-constructed sets I've ever seen, no annoying slipcase or crackable plastic, all beautiful thick pages with the DVDs fitting perfectly within thick paper pages bled to the edge with pulsing green photographs from the films. The dark images perfectly capture the moody existentialism and Germanic emotional peaks and crevasses of Herzog's style, the intentional blurring of the line between documentary-reality --with himself onscreen as narrator and shaper of action--and historical recreation and/or other fiction. And each fiction movie is likely to be half a documentary of its making, it's own DVD extra in a matter of course, with commentary tracks abounding.

Maybe like me you've seen some dusty PAL or VHS copies of these in the past, but these Blu-rays are a whole different world; we can now make out every blade of grass and every dirty fissure in Kinski's extraordinarily expressive, madman face. Challenging, maddening, disturbing, beautiful, tragic, and sometimes downright boring, watch them all and feel your senses slow and widen and dilate to better behold God's all-seeing blindness. And through all five of their collaborations, Kinski's willingness to throw himself off the cliff of his own sanity at the drop of a hat provides the perfect orbiting satellite for Herzog's implacable sanity. There are also several documentaries and two films with his other insane star, Bruno S.,1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (a true story of an abused man with eerie parallels to Bruno S's own dark childhood as subject of Nazi experiments), and Stroszek (1977). According to imdb: "He was very difficult to work with... sometimes needing several hours of screaming before he could do a scene." If anyone was going to be able to work with him, to wait out the screams and/or get them on film, it would be Herzog.

Needless to say there are copious extras which dovetail into the films themselves, though not all successful (Where the Green Ants Dream, for example, has a commentary track but it's in German mit out subtitles). My Best Friend is practically a DVD extra for the five Kinski movies included). And all the extras add to the self-reflective post-modern sense of dreaming and waking up into a dream far more vivid than localized reality.

In addition to the stunning and essential Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and their final collaboration, Cobra Verde (1987), Herzog made two, more locally-filmed, masterpieces with Kinski in 1979: Wocyzek--an adaptation of a German play about a soldier who kills his wife after submitting to mind control experiments--is claustrophobic and tragic, providing the chance for Kinski to bounce off the walls and cave on in himself in high Germanic style. It's also a more effective horror film for my money than Nosferatu, which seems airless and beery compared to most Herzog films. Though a fantasy-horror, Herzog is unwilling to abandon his beloved docu-realism and uses found settings to replace the dream expressionism the tale so clearly demands (and Kinski's snake fangs are ridiculous). Shot on location in Bavaria and Carpathian towns where centuries of whitewashing have preserved the slate walls of old inns and castle interiors but given them a dead museum air, there's none of that stifling Germanic folksiness when Herzog is outside Europe, though. Put the man on European soil and he drowns in ghosts, the centuries of history strangling him in a noose he cannot film except through terrible period haircuts atop beer-puffed German faces and costumery apparently borrowed from a local stage play. But Adjani is a great expressionistic Mina in Nosferatu- with her darkened eye rings and pale skin and jet black hair, she seems straight out of--not just Murnau's original, but Cabinet of Caligari or Lang's Mabuse.

Having only seen Aguirre and Nosferatu, Grizzly Man, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and At the Top of the World before diving into this set, I've kind of felt Herzog's obsessions with dreams seems a kind of knee-jerk raison d'être for his continued docu-wandering. I agreed to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence and truly it's been a long, soul-warping awe inspiring yet deeply troubling, at times maddeningly boring, 25+ hours of jungles and paranoia. Sometimes opening out on vast expanses, sometimes shrinking into claustrophobic tedium best endured with one ear on a cell phone.

Second hurtle: I've always been put off by some of Herzog's more jokey titles, especially Even Dwarfs Started Small and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, not to mention the subject matter, the former seeming exploitative, the latter masochistic (as an ex-POW recreates his tortures on location in moments recalling William Devane's demonstrations to his wife's boyfriend in Rolling Thunder) and yet at the same time boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Dwarfs could pass for something Alejandro Jodorowsky or a drunk Bunuel, filmed in black and white it's a bit like the end of Over the Edge stretched to feature length with little people playing the kids.

And Little Dieter Needs to Fly turns out to be a deeply moving true story of the only POW pilot ever to escape his captors and be rescued in all of the Vietnam war after being shot down over Laos and held prisoner for two years, suffering terrible tortures at the hand of the Viet Cong until he made a great escape through the uncrossable jungles. With Herzog in tow, Dengler revisits the locations, and in one great scene puts his forgiving arm around a former torturer, the look in that guy's eyes is so profound it almost makes the whole war worthwhile. Dengler is a bit larger than life via his sheer gratitude to be free and continual fascination with planes and food and the joy of being able to open doors. It's catchy.

As Herzog's camera follows, Dengler talks us through his ordeal in modulated perfect flow of English, cascading over the rocks and trees, and he never seems to need to take a breath. Through it all, Herzog--bastion of sanity begging to be eroded by the fertile fecund jungle--watches and learns of nature's bloody initiation that opens the gate to wonder, the vision of horsemen angels and Death rolling towards him through the clouds, signaling his death approaching. As Dengler goes on, one realizes he's a great writer --it's all facts and recreations, no wasting time with describing emotions or feelings, and when he mentions his dreams and hallucinations they're described in the same matter-of-fact style, and through that one discovers the root of Herzog's genius. Physical reality is just the eventual manifestation of the unconscious, twisted up as we are, raw and full of mysteries. Dreams have more in common with reality than our emotions or feelings. Herzog eventually filmed a more dramatized version of the story, Rescue Dawn (2006), starring Christian Bale, it's Dieter that packs more punch for being such a gentle, forgiving film in image and speech, conveying at the same time such deep horrors and inhumanities on both sides.

Another example of this unique documentary approach is Lessons of Darkness (1992), which shows the horrors of Kuwaiti oil fires in the weeks after the (first) Gulf War, the oil blackening the sky and pillars of flame illuminating everything in all directions. Letting the faces of Kuwaitis and the amniotic droning of the music and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration guide our response only, as it were, to the precipice. At the end, when the oil firefighters having extinguished most of the fires and capped the wells, Herzog doesn't concern himself with getting to the rationale behind their next bizarre action looking for his own answers to, like all his questions, the nature of dreams, madness:
"Two figures are approaching an oil well.
One of them holds a lighted torch.
What are they up to?
Are they going to rekindle the blaze?
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
Others, seized by madness, follow suit.
Now they are content
Now there is something to extinguish again."

In the end it's this kind ambivalence that makes Herzog endure. His narration in the documentaries makes no plea for tolerance or recycling, he doesn't try to understand if there's a valid reason Dieter Dengler was bombing Laos or being starved by his captors; he doesn't judge the oil workers lighting the gushing untapped oil back up after working so hard to put it out; he doesn't judge the mining company finally winning the right to blast the green anthills apart in Where the Green Ants Dream. He knows how to recognize any judgment as his own prejudice or that of others; the camera finds its own poetry and truth when free of imposed meaning's blinders, and in these jungles and hellish landscapes, Herzog is like an astronaut letting his camera find some unknown new planet, bringing a gold record of Wagner's "Siegfried's Funeral March" along for company as he gamely and steps into the pyre, refusing to judge the flame as it consumes him. Get this set, then and wade in to there with him. As your screaming ego melts down around you, you will see the light at the end of the dark tunnel, and if you keep melting you will see a new, stranger darkness waiting behind the light, and within that darkness, finally, the heart Coppola's camera could not catch.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Conjuring-from top: Fairuza (The Craft); Kathleen Hannah (Punk Singer);
Sianoa Smit-McPhee (Cheerleaders)
I summon thee, Netflix, unholy ghost streamer.
The Craft and now All Cheerleaders Die wait within you. 
Teenagers sleeping over and swapping blood, giggling over the Ouija, 
love spell chanting and stiff-as-a-boarding,
magic of entrained hormonal unconsciouses,
north, south, west, east - money spell - rah rah rah.
It soon gets out of control, 
sometimes with summonings true to the ancients or Aleister,
sometimes made up for the moment by lazy L.A. hacks,
always with boys, and traffic,
If no one else, it will scare your mom.

Director Andrew Fleming, 
you made The Craft and Bad Dreams!
Andrew Fleming, you seem respectful of women!
Hail to thee Andrew Fleming! Solid and respectful if perhaps a tad pedestrian.
feminist yet quietly misogynistic. Is there a difference?
Don't both overestimate woman's power? 
Don't both underestimate women's power?
Woman's power is nature's power,
darkness, Kali, Shiva, Destruction
Inhale the embers of my burning math book sacrifice!

Kathleen Hannah,
your 'music' like tattoos on Kali's iron fists,
your younger cuteness like Hopi from Love and Rockets!
Rail on against the murphs, frat boys, douches, and dickheads.
Set us free from their ungodly wally presence, Kathleen Hannah!
Without bitterness, without preachiness, 
without self-righteous food co-op sanctimony,
but with fierce tribal howling, smite them!
Kathleen Hannah, make slam dancing safer for women, 
inspire legions of xeroxed fanzines
and flinch not as the AOR vultures circle,
or as the nutcases from woodwork creep,
 or even as nervous exhaustion hides a wrongly-diagnosed disease.

Smite your enemies with thy shrill feedback screams, Kathleen!
 Let your documentary move me to liberal arts tears.
Guide my hand in smiting too the skittering wally snickerers.
The backwards baseball cap wearing tools of America,
deafen them, Kathleen Hannah!
We are with thee, streaming The Punk Singer!
Praying, Chanting for your Blinding Ashes-Rising!

--Hail to thee Netflix, for having this worthy trilogy--but release more classic shit - what happened to all that obscure AIP gold, like Cult of the Damned?  It's gone, man. And instead we get the fucking Blacklist??--
In order of release date then...

1996 - dir. Andrew Fleming
Andrew Fleming hasn't made many films but he has a rare gift of getting the ambiguity of hallucinations exactly right: the way snakes seem to be writhing in every shadow as the underlying reptilian cortices of the DNA serpent-tongue universe entwine and unwind within your fever or alcohol-or-opiate withdrawal or mushroom-overdose or lack of sleep-wracked brain melts its tubes. Little turkeys with straw hats dancing in the shattered scream-filled shadows of Bellevue's alcoholic ward, the rats and the bats in the walls, oh my yes! Terrifying but soothing compared to the convulsions... lost my train of thought, but Fleming never does!

The Craft's photography is a little flat, as was the style for teen films of the era, and still is, alas, with the L.A.locations (lots of homeless) casting dour focus on the girls and the rather straight-lined moral justice. The swim team black girl (Rachel True) wishes the blonde racist taunter Christine Taylor's hair off, but Taylor's ensuing anguish makes her more sensitive to her past taunts and she apologizes, so True feels bad; Neve Campbell's horrible back scars magically disappear so now she's smokin' hot but turns vain and obnoxious; poor white trash punk Fairuza Balk gets rich but her mom wastes the money on a jukebox, etc. Before new girl Robin Tunney showed up , though, they were just goofing around with spell books and stolen candles and getting nowhere, since she's a real witch, descended from her witch mom who died in childbirth, she gives them a magick power boost which they're too immature to handle.

For her wish, poor Robin Tunney doesn't think to wish for deliverance from her crippling phobias and deliverance and instead indulges her masochistic attraction to one of those backwards baseball cap wearing tools (Skeet Ulrich). Later she lets Balk walk all over her with snake 'glimmers' and some Voodoo god of everything named Manon. Apparently the witchery consultant didn't want them to invoke a real spirit, lest they offend a Wiccan or two, or encourage young girls to summon things they wouldn't be able to control, the way the proliferation of Ouija boards in the seventies led to a glut of summoned demons we're still suffering from today.

With a tight script that never wastes a word on pointless chit-chat, and a stable cast rounded out by Pedro Almodovar regular Assumpta Serna as the white witch new age bookstore owner, there's some troublesome stretches of Tunney running around her house whining and puling, and believing in the snake and bug hallucinations, wherein we root for Balk's then-deranged stalker; and the almost DC comics-level morality hanging under all the karma has a troublesome subtextual implication that teenage girls can't be trusted with that level of unholy power, presuming they'll throw it away on petty revenge, vanity, financial gains and douchebag boys with their  snickering at everything and their prepubescent attempts at mustaches. Maybe that's true, but it's not why we're here. We want to see the douchebag boys get thrown out of a second story window, and to see Fairuza tear it up (and she does, she's a real witch in real life and her summoning scenes have a solid orgasmic power), we don't want to see Tunney trailing after the mayhem in horror, so girls watching will know that taking revenge against snickering date rapists is wrong, since you might hurt them. Fuck that. I'll see it again in a few years though, since it's short, fast, and cool overall. It's not quite as grrl-empowering as Night of the Comet, but then again what is?

2013 - dir. Siri Anderson
A labor of love from some chick named Siri Anderson, The Punk Singer is an adorable little scrapbook-style montage of the life, bands, and illnesses of Kathleen Hanna, the original riot grrl, who wrote "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on Cobain's wall thus inspiring the big #1 track of 1991 and triggering a seemingly random coldcocking by Courtney Love backstage a little later. Cobain was enamored of her smart mix of sexual provocateur (strutting around stage in her underwear) and angry feminist ranting (about the evils of the male gaze). Critics argued that combination sent mixed signals, which was missing the point: just by being attracted to her, we (men) became part of the performance, target and the subject,. like shining a mirror in the face of Bro-Medusa (Brodusa?) and turning him to stone. We had the same eerie frisson listening to rap at the time, which was also coming up in the world in 1991. In a world of pop culture aimed right at us 18-35 year-old straight white males, bands like Bikini Kill, NWA and the Geto Boys gave us a new thrill - that of being the target of justified rage. Endangered, threatened, exposed, even from across the new medium called CD, we drove to or our pharmaceutical corporation mailroom temp jobs, blasting our cassettes and feeling like a horror movie was forming just ahead, women and minorities out to rip us apart, and we loved it.

Hanna had some fame as the founder of the riot grrl movement via her many 'zines, her bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, the Julie Ruin, and so in the film we learn how Hanna's fearless, raw, fuck you attitude was truly empowering to women and the anemic ectomorphs who love them. She'd get in the face of the mesomorphs who'd come to punks shows to mosh and stand in front of the stage to leer at her sexy bod, ordering them to the back so girls could come up and dance in safety  instead of forced to dwell out of skinhead elbow reach, and there some great moments here of her calling these mesomorphs out, including ordering them to the back of the room so girls could come up front in safety. Eventually she married Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz and is currently recovering from Lyme disease, which was misdiagnosed as exhaustion from her hectic touring schedule. The documentary's pretty short, too, and never repeats itself or wears out it's welcome. Hanna's in good hands with Anderson, and Horovitz seems a very compassionate husband. Their home, by a riverside is modern yet homey. Can the pitter patter of little feet be far behind? That's a joke, son! Power to the childless, for they can say fuck you to maternity's conscripted gender bondage!

2013- dir. Lucky McKee
That alt-emo quasi-feminist horror maven Lucky McKee (May, The Woods) and less successful writer director Chris Silverton (I Know Who Killed Me) be at it again in this bigger budgeted updated remake of their 2001 shot-on-video collaborative debut, a kind of Pretty Little Liars for the the Deathdream set. A year after the accidental death of the cheerleader squad captain, the hierarchy of a local high school goes into disarray: the late girl's beau, the narcissistic football captain, aptly named Terry Stankus (Tom Williamson), goes up against scheming lesbian hottie Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) for the affection of a pretty blonde (Brooke Butler). Maddy's own ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is a witch who follows her around and keeps the rune stones in play. Smash car and a few cuts later and Leena's fishing the cheerleaders out of the lake and bringing them back to life. Now they're cold zombies with different colored gems in their bodies who feel each other's orgasms and blood lusts. Parts are more successful than the whole: the blood is tacky cartoon CGI and the glowing colored rocks are corny and there's an excess of all the wrong people getting hurt (Stankus does a lot of really abhorrent stuff but dies only once) but the whole thing has a nearly Russ Meyer-level of gonzo recklessness--we never know quite what's going to happen next--and allowing Maddy lots of vicious insult hurling at Stankus, Leena a lot of twisted witchy faces which--with her pale skin, black hair, and inch thick black eyeliner--make her quite the future camp horror icon-in-pupae form.

There's wry sense of subtle romantic humor, such as when Leena opens up her vein to feed her beloved undead Maddy and romantic music swells and wind blows through her hair in slow-mo real Harlequin paperback style; the little sister seduces the doofus virgin football guy in her older sister's body, so he believes all vaginas are cold as marble, etc.  But there's stupid shit too, like Leena leaving her rune stones in her locker, sans lock, for anyone to steal. Still, despite the vaguely skeevy aspects of hot girl-on-girl action as a turn-on for guys rather than a genuine lesbian love story (unsurprising considering it was written by two dudes), there's some sharp insight to lesbian trials and tribulations, such as how if you're a lesbian you can swoon for a hot chick you see walking by at the gym before you realize it's just you in the full wall mirror (which happened to a lesbian pal-o-mine), and just as you cannot escape your reflection you can never escape your ex, or her ex, and so on into a long daisy chain of former-lovers peering sullenly over each others' shoulders, or hooking up with each other to get back at you or your current girlfriend, all at your own dinner party. In other words, same gender equals double the problems and also more opportunities than in conventional boring ass straight relationships. I'm happy to say straight ass relationships get a bad showing in All Cheerleaders Die, much more than in the more conventional Craft. Though the boys are all just as skeev though not all are as date-rapey as Stankus. The scene where Maddy tears into him with a hurl of insults recalls similar scenes in Russ Meyer films, like Supervixens, and are a gas but he wreaks six pounds of misogyny to every wreaked vengeance ounce, and even the murders are undercut in intensity due to the blood's Tex Avery elasticity.

I like a lot of stuff about this energetic film--such as great roving camera that is seldom in the right place at the right time--and look forward to 'part two.' But in the anticlimactic retribution relative to the rampant misogynistic violence makes this a bit like disproportionate payback to the abuse in Jack Hill's Foxy Brown as opposed to Jack Hill's awesome Coffy; another drawback is the ridiculous slow-mo CGI blood, making it seem like this movie at one point wanted to court a teen market rather than the Alamo Drafthouse crowd. Still, Smit-McPhee has Fairuza Balk-and/or-Multiple Maniacs-era Divine cachet, despite her 'killing people on school grounds is wrong' ethos and the film is way better than the average found-Netflix dreck, albeit in the end, dreck it is, unsteady on its feet as it tries to serve too many demographics at once. Lucky, don't be afraid to get a woman co-writer, the way Deborah Hill did for Halloween or Gale Ann Hurd for The Terminator, or Karen Walton for Ginger Snaps. That way we won't have to pretend to be appalled by your male gaze eye candy, in case Kathleen Hanna is watching our every lustful eye movements from her crystal oculus. That little hottie really has our number, but McKee, you're a very sick girl.