Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #27 & Papa Mike's Video #12: Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING

"You are a stench in the nostrils of God!"

(Oh, RIP Train btw, for Wes Craven and composer James Horner...)

That line above is spoken by Ernest Borgnine's character, the sort of patriarch of the farm called Our Blessing in some rural backwoods place.  He leads a sect of the Amish called Hittites - who I could've sworn were mentioned by Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters as being part of the group that were associated with Zuul or something, but whatever, it's a movie - and they are super strict folks.  You can tell simply by Borgnines beard, which seems glued on but who knows maybe he grew it, and just how pissed he is in this whole movie.  Not once does he smile, and why should he - he sees that there are some "outsider" women in their neck of the woods (I use a kinder word there than he does than outsider), and that no good can come from it.  Oh, and at times he has to show some his flock a lesson or two when they get out of line (one of the younger men at one point tries to sneak a peek at a naked lady, I think that was him, or he did something else, who cares).

I wish the movie was actually from his point of view.  He may not be any more complex than the other characters, but damn it all if Borgnine doesn't make him interesting by just how much he plays so well a raging, hammy asshole.  Every time he came on screen I liked Deadly Blessing more, as much as when the set pieces would come up involving our lovely ladies on screen getting harassed by... snaked and spiders.

Sure, that doesn't sound too compelling, but the scenes are staged with an appropriate amount of suspense and Craven gets to flex his chops with setting up a character in a room and seeing what thing will come up to fuck it up; the woman who is in the bathtub seems, by the way, like a precursor to a similar scene in Nightmare on Elm Street (right down to the obvious, exploitative phallic imagery of long things between a woman's legs - by the way this actress clearly has on bottoms in the bathtub). Another impressive set piece, a couple far as I can remember, involve giant spiders and the webs that they leap off from; one of them is where the image from the poster comes from, where Sharon Stone (in her screen debut) is instructed by a voice with a set of black, furry arms to open her mouth wider and wider, and then the spider goes PLOP into her mouth.  Her reaction is intense and wild and a lot of fun.

I mention these scenes because they're the best things about the movie.  There's also some craziness that happens in the last 15 minutes or so: at one point a woman, with a guy in a car who gets killed right outside of it, gets some gasoline spilled right close by to her and a fire comes to get to her car.  That little scene works, as do some other moments of horror as things ratchet up to the conclusion (which, if you've seen Craven's Scream by the way, won't come as TOO much of a shock as to what happens to a particular character after being put down).

But everything around these set pieces and Borgnine are not interesting in the slightest.  I got something of a plot where a man is killed in a barn by a tractor that may (or may not!) be powered by someone, and the man's wife's girlfriends come to the village to help her out in her time of need.  There's also some temptations for the Hittite folk (one of them Craven mainstay Michael Berryman, who gets a couple of creepy moments), and then, uh, some dialog and conversations happen.  Stone isn't even too bad here, though she's not given much to do outside of her spidery entanglements.  I get that it's supposed to be a dramatic set up and environment, but there actually didn't seem to really be *enough* of the hittites to make them either really compelling and grounded (ala Witness) or schlocky enough (they almost get there but not quite, i.e. the tractor) to make it a blast.

I wish I could recommend the movie more - it got re-released not too long ago by the incredible Shout Factory company, who put out many of the best re-releases of genre movies in this country - but it's not super impressive aside from a few truly wonderful moments with a couple of the actors and scares.  I'm sure Craven was trying, but he needed to make it just a little less serious; if everyone was as campy as Borgnine, or maybe a couple more were, then we might have something.  Deadly Blessing is a curiosity, but not an essential film from the late horror icon. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #25/26: Val Lewton Block: THE LEOPARD MAN & THE SEVENTH VICTIM

Val Lewton has one of the major, practically irreproachable reputations in Hollywood history, though probably, mostly, in the retroactive sense.  When movies like Cat People and The Leopard Man came out, they made a lot of money for RKO (according to TCM TV, 'Leopard' made four million on less than a 100 grand budget), but they were still seen as 'B' movies, meant to be on one side of a double bill - the length of the films, often if not always under 80 minutes (maybe less than 70), had that direction to them - and Lewton's career couldn't come back following the end of his horror movie run in the 40's.

But thanks to Lord Scorsese (sure, he's a Lord now, why not?) in his American Movies documentary and the Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows film he produced, and just lots and lots of heartfelt nostalgia for the days when films could suggest more and show less with effectiveness, he's a household name for certain movie geeks.  For a short while, he created true quality work that subverted the expectations of horror movies as just silly movies with people in costumes.  In other words, he was like a classier Jason Blum.

I'd seen Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie years back, but not the two features following it, and thanks to TCM I got that chance.  First up, The Leopard Man.  This is not so much about a Man Who Becomes a Leopard (one might wonder anyway), though the connection to the prior Cat flick is inescapable.  Especially because both films have the same director: Jacques Tourneur, who loved dark alleys and women walking down streets with loads of dark 'value' (or in less art-school speak, shadow) as they may or may not be stalked by something, or clicking and clacking some small musical maracas.  For the story there is and isn't much: by this I mean there is some plot with Clo-Clo (played by, not kidding, just Margo was her name) and a club promoter (Dennis O'Keefe), and what happens when O'Keefe's leopard goes on the loose.

I think there are things to recommend this movie for and some things that keep it from being less than when Lewton and Tourneur were firing on all cylinders with their previous films.  On the one hand, there's a sequence about 5 to 10 minutes in when a young woman is walking home alone at night, and somehow winds up under an overpass, and she feels like some eyes are on her.

And lo and behold, they are(!)  She is chased and a rather gruesome fate happens, but it's off-screen (though it's kind of ridiculous how a particular character could've easily saved her, the tension and terrible excitement is not lost on me, just by the ratcheting levels of screams from the actress - again, off-screen).  There's also another scene where a woman is locked in a courtyard and the character watching and waiting for something bad to happen makes it all the more painful to watch when something (I won't say what does).

Basically, any time that Tourneur gets to work on simply seeing his characters, without much (if any) dialog) on a street, at night, with some thing following them or in pursuit, it's a treat to watch.  But on the other hand, the characterizations are weak, even for a B movie where you don't expect much.  O'Keefe is fine but pretty one-note, and when it comes to the 'investigations' of these murders and other happenings with this Leopard (or a "Leopard Man" as it were).  It's frustrating since it's a mixed bag that I can recommend - if you can get past some of those day-time "talking" scenes, when it comes to the sort of "pure" cinema (I hate to use that word in quotes, but come on, you know what I'm talking about I hope) of the act of watching human being reacting to what they can't see, following them, seeing their hope dwindling, it's wonderful.  Oh, and those footsteps near the end...

If a major set-piece-type of reason to watch The Leopard Man is the opening (or I should say about 5-10 minutes in), the reason to watch The Seventh Victim would be the last twenty to twenty-five minutes of the run time.  It would be too much (or not necessary)  to reveal story-wise about the why of its power, but I do want to dig into how it's done, cinematically speaking, and hopefully I'll leave some mystery for you to discover.  In the simplest terms, a cult is taunting a woman to kill herself, and this woman, Jacqueline, is at a point where she is laible to do whatever is told to her - she doesn't really want to do it, but she has been with these Satanists (they could be anybody though) for so long she doesn't know what to do.  They let her go - for the time being - and she gets to walk the streets.

It's here that producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robeson strike where the cinematic iron is hot: Jacqueline has to find her way back to her sister's place, but she feels/knows she is being stalked (mostly likely, no it is, one of the cultists).  She tries to hide by running down a dark alley and ducking into a dark doorway, and narrowly misses the stalker; then she tries to get some (brief) help with an acting troupe going to a cafe, but she doesn't join them.  This could just be due to budget, like not being able to shoot inside the cafe.  But I think that they have to continue with this woman on her run from what is (to her in that moment) certain death.  The build up isn't to action though - it's to an interaction with some person in an apartment building, and... well, you'll have to see what kind of existential malaise has fallen over in that moment of time.

The Seventh Victim is mostly poised as a mystery story (as Leopard Man had some roots in film noir as in horror, so does this story), where young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter in her debut) leaves her school to find her missing sister.  She goes to New York city to find her - at first a sleazy detective tries to get her to hire him (hey, Manhattan's only 9 miles, after all, not hard to find people as he says), though he gets his later on.  Then she meets some people who knew Jacqueline, including her lover, and the search intensifies.  It leads to some rather peculiar and nasty people: Satanists.  How much are they dedicated to Satan?  Well, it's tough to tell.  All one can see for sure is they got Jacqueline under their spell; we see her only once in the first half of the movie, and she appears to Mary like under some sort of spell, and disappears.

I liked the story better for Victim than Leopard, though the performances are generally just a little better.  I did like seeing Hunter here as the one sort of innocent figure here, or rather the one person who is in this new world for her - we can tell she's been sheltered from anything remotely sinister or even urban in her life - and the fact that she is totally confused at times makes things stronger for the drama and horror.  When she goes to a place and the sleazy dick is with her, and he goes to see these, uh, 'people', when he comes out he walks in a sort of trance state.  Then she gets on to a bus and he is... back, but being propped up by these darn cultists(!)

I say cultists because the Satan element doesn't seem to really be a major factor here; this isn't Rosemary's Baby, or one of those movies from the 70's.  It's not even 'Zombie', where one saw voodoo rituals done with aplomb and a sense of eerie atmosphere.  Not that this isn't eerie, on the contrary seeing a group of people sitting silently, with malevolence, waiting for someone to do something they don't want to do via their cult-peer-pressure fills me with dread.  As far as depicting a group of people who all get so lock in step that they appear as like one BIG group of killers, The Seventh Victim is terrifying and has an ominous tone that makes that final passage so masterful.

I mentioned the film noir element, and I should close by noting that Lewton's brand of horror had some over-lap with that.  Maybe it was the low-budget side of it, as many film noirs were in the 1940's, but because filmmakers had to get creative and take their characters into dark places with little resources, they needed to be creative.  There was no choice, and whether it's a woman running from some criminal or a cult leader or a leopard, it all fills one with a degree of suspense that in sharp black and white is something that carries some magic to it. 

Spooktacular Savings #24 & Papa Mike's Video #11: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

"And then the dream became a nightmare...."

I've been meaning to see this for years, hyped up by a number of sources, not least of which Slavoj Zizek in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema documentary.  This is none other than what was the Granddaddy of all horror anthology movies, Dead of Night.  The premise is simple enough: a man goes to a house upon invitation, and he finds that there are a group of people already there, talking and having a good time with drinks and such.  There's also a psychiatrist there, and he tries to help this man, Walter Craig (Mervyn Jones), in figuring out if what he thinks as being his 'dream' is a 'nightmare', or even that real at all.  The problem is this: everyone he sees at this house gathering has been in his dreams.  Why is this?  This will be the mystery to crack open - but first, it's STORYTIME! 

Some 'Spooktaculars' ago, I wrote about the documentary Nightmares in Red White and Blue.  In it, John Carpenter talked about the two types of horror stories: those told around the campfire, about those horrors "out there" or of the other, and then the stories about how the horror is within us, which is a harder story to tell.  You can't get more "campfire" like than this group of folks in this movie, and I also wonder with the sorts of tales told here - those of the macabre and ghosts and psychotic personality disorders and other odd and certainly malevolent things to do with death - were an influence on Rod Serling.  It's hard for me to watch Dead of Night and not think of The Twilight Zone and, for better or worse (mostly better), I'm sure that for those who might fret watching some creaky British (Ealing) film from 1945, these stories really would be right at home in the "Submitted for your Approval" category, and I mean that as a compliment (mostly).

Here are the stories told by the people present in this room, all leading up to the doctor and his tale of his 'patient', which is the story most people have heard of likely going into DoN: 1) a man was a race car driver and got into an accident.  He wakes up in a hospital and is being treated, and things seem ok (he's even flirting with the nurse), but when he looks outside he sees a rather sinister figure (one of those guys with a double chin but no regular chin at the same time and a goofy/pleasant smile that ills) sitting at a carriage.  What is he representing?  He also pops up when the man tries to board a bus, and he makes some comment to make him seem even more sinister.  Is this race car driver dead?  It's deduced that no, he's not, but that he may be getting a warning of some sort; he had the feeling right before he got into the accident that he might die (split second earlier sort of thing), so it's likely this figure is a Masque of Death of .... some sort.

Story 2 is from a young lady who was part of a hide and seek game with some children in a large house party at night.  She goes up stairs to hide and keeps going further and further.  She ends up finding a room where a small child is crying.  She puts the boy to bed and to try to calm his nerves.  When she returns to the party downstairs she tells one of the older ladies about this young boy who she discovered and tried to calm down and make better with some singing (yes, she sings, one of those songs that no one remembers 70 years later).  The old woman is shocked... who is up there?  No one that we know, that's for sure.  This story, as the first one before it, are the shortest in the film, but they are effective enough as little anecdotes that cut right to the chase of death and the after-life: the question is, can they see ghosts, or are these freak occurences?  Are they just in their dreams? 

Pay it no mind, there's the three main stories to tell still (these were more like horderves): #3 is about Peter Cortland who marries a woman and she comes upon an old mirror that she buys for her to-be-husband.  He puts it his room and, uh oh, it turns out whenever he looks at it it reflects black an entirely different room than what he is in: it has a fireplace and is cloaked in darkness with a bed that can be described in no other word than foreboding.  Oh, and it fills some dark thoughts in his head, which happened to the previous owner.  If it weren't for the knock-on-your-ass power of the final short, this would be the best/favorite one of the lot of stories in Dead of Night.  I loved how little by little Cortland got worse the more he looked at the mirror and what was surrounding him, and yet there's also a wonderful moment (before the wife finds out what's really wrong from a second source who had the mirror before - one of those 19th century gothic sort of deals) where the two people connect. 

She stands next to him and makes him look again, and he still sees what Cortland's seen before... then she holds his hand and gives her a compassionate, loving look and demands he look again, and it's back to normal.  It's not one of those sweepingly romantic things that may or may not work out - this is a real moment of love, and it helps to anchor the characters into the horror that is happening here.  We never get a full explanation of what the mirror is from, but its power comes in what it represents: a medium to make you see the worst in you - such as what you dread/suspect may be with your significant other and another man(!)

Unfortunately, the fourth short is not my favorite, though it is enjoyable on its own terms and as a kind of 'hoot' of a story, which probably shouldn't have a place among the other shorts here.  This is about two men and a lady who go golfing and one of the men dies while looking for a golf-ball - deep in the lake right by they golf.  But lo and behold, this guy is back as a ghost to this friend still plugging away on the golf course - and at a moment when he (Larry Potter his name) appears to him in the "flesh" he finds he can't do the, uh, combination hand-signals to come back to his invisible netherworld or whatever. 

I do enjoy a story that skewers people who play golf - at one point Larry Potter tells his friend that he has to stop playing golf and to straighten up, to not go after this lady who the two men kind of fancied - but it's rather light and while some jokes work, others don't.  Where it leads up to is a nice ironic punch, and the actors have a lot of fun in the parts (seeing a grown man doing hand-signals is amusing on its own).  Yet it feels like a calculated attempt to make things a little "light" and funny - to get Walter out of his funk by the storyteller in the room - when it doesn't really need to be.  Again, not bad at all, it's actually well acted and put together, but it doesn't hold up against the other shorts.

 Certainly not, I should transition now, into the story of a man and his "Dummy".  This segment, 'The Ventriloquist's Dummy/, and the whole Party sequence, are directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, and something about these scenes has a wilder flavor, just a little more chance taken with the pacing of shots and how intense things get with the characters.  In the 'Dummy' story, here we get the classic split-personality story, a man, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) with his puppet who seems to have a "mouth" on him at a show they put on at a club.  Already something seems 'off': the ventriloquist looks surprised at the things the Dummy says to people in the club - he gives lip to people and it is not the sort of thing that seems planned (there's a musical number the dummy should be a part of that gets cut short and not in a way that feels planned).  And backstage things still seem... weird. 

Maxwell looks mild-mannered enough, but it's whenever the dummy gets in his hand that the 'thing' becomes alive.  This was where Zizek came in with his documentary and where I first saw this scene; how does one control the "other" voice that comes out of some place that is in the nether-region of the brain?  This may not be as traditionally shocking as a ghost story, but it really got to me in a big way.  This is seeing a guy going completely unhinged - and with the twist that, well, what if that thing IS possessed, in its way?  Redgrave is magnificent in the role, mostly because of how lost he makes Maxwell look: he is drained away, in this sort of state of being where he is kind of low-key until... the dummy goes away. 

The story builds to such a point that involves the dummy being "taken" (it is not... or is it, who knows!) in a hotel and murder happening.  I won't say who or how, but it all leads up to a scene in a prison that has the air of major WTF.  It's not scary so much as terrifying and mortifying at the same time, at how human nature can suddenly become so completely unglued and seeing a person who should be in control completely lose it (the one moment that really does shock is when the puppet is finally "gone" and Redgrave's voice is... what the fuck is that anyway!)

In terms of direction and super-black-dark humor - there are a few moments where it's difficult not to laugh at what this goddamned silly puppet with a mouth at the ladies like in certain bars (yes there is a scene) - this one tops them all and is one of those towering moments in horror movies from the period, or any period, all leading up to what Walter discovers in that house with Dr. van Straaten, and what all of those nightmares involving all those people 'means'.  Does it mean he'll be violent himself, or it's all just a dream. 

What IS a nightmare, after all?  The power of Dead of Night, and at times when these tales are being told by these characters in the living room there's a nervous energy I can't quite place but is hard to ignore, is in what you believe in and get absorbed into when hearing a story around the campfire, so to speak.  Some stories are greater than others here, but the masterpiece ones (3 and 5 for me, The Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist's Dummy) are worth seeking out the entire work alone.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #23: John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (revisited)

"Was it the boogeyman?"
"... as a matter of fact, it was."

Let's talk a little about what Michael Myers is.  It's difficult to not think about the myriad of college term papers and scholarly articles and just regular film reviews that have looked to posit what Myers not simply is - a demented mental patient who escapes and goes back to his hometown to kill - but the representation of him.  I don't know if I can really say anything more original than anyone else except of my perception that's changed over time with this 'thing'.  And perhaps the easiest thing to say is that it is a "thing"; I'm not sure if director John Carpenter knew that he wanted to remake it at the time (he was doing low-budget independent pictures back then), but the Howard Hawks production is featured prominently at a couple of points in the movie.  Why was it there?  "Who Goes There?" as the Joseph Campbell story goes.

Myers has also been called "The Shape", and not as some sort of nickname online or in the underground, but in the credits of the movie itself and in the script (just doing a quick google search comes up with things like this).  Is it meant to be taken literally as it may sound, like the SHAPE of EVIL?  It's possible.  I think that the power of Myers/Shape is that it really works more like a ghost or some supernatural entity (only a few days ago, good ol' James Rolfe at Cinemassacre posited a connection to Myers and the 'It' from It Follows, not bad at all).

Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men also comes to mind this concept of an unstoppable force that is after you - except that Chigurh does talk, and has his Two-Face conceit of the coin toss.  With Myers, everything is about watching and waiting and then striking.  Or it could be as basic as - here is his outline, you see his contour, this figure looking at you one moment, and the next is 'poof'.  Add to that a William Shatner mask and you got yourself a scary fucking dude, my friend.

Why does Myers keep appearing and then disappearing so suddenly though?  It's simply one of those great things about movie-making, the not explaining that keeps people coming back.  And yet it's all at the call and beckoning of suspense; if there wasn't that, Halloween might be dull.  For some, Halloween may have dulled over time.  Seeing it in a packed screening for a special one-night-revival, I wondered if the audience around me wasn't feeling put off by those scenes where Carpenter's camera just lingers, or he takes his time in those roving, creeping stedi-cam shots that are like the Shape itself: watching and waiting and not presenting any forced attempt to get a shock.  When Myers does appear, it's meant to scare the ever-loving shit out of you.  And after so many years, it is still... in a few spots.

I wish I could say that Halloween is a perfect film.  A couple of things bothered me seeing it in a movie theater screen (though not as it was seen in 1978, which I'll get to in a post-script), luckily all not major really: you cal tell, without much ambiguity, that it is certainly NOT in late October/early November when this takes place; while there are a couple of shots where fallen leaves are scattered about on the sidewalk, there are more scenes with leaves fully on the trees as people walk around.  And when a particular character yells and screams at a key point, you'd think that even if one set of neighbors don't help out, others would (or at least call the police - but hey, what can you do, monster movies are on man, I get it - or the sort of walking-around Dr. Loomis).  But those seem like such nitpicks that I can't let them get down the rest of the film, which is attempting, and succeeding, at making interesting characters - fleshed out enough for us to care (sort of, at least with Laurie) - and then see how they don't/do/fight to get out of this killer's grasp.

Why does this movie last?  Is it just the franchise itself that got spawned because of this one film?  And by the way, that is almost a shame in a way; the ending seems open-ended, like the natural thought is 'he'll kill again and keep killing'.  I was reminded of an embarrassing fact that I watched the #2 sequel before the original (not that the two viewings were far apart) and didn't feel TOO lost.  It ends on a series of shots that we don't really get to see much in movies anymore: seeing all of the places that we have been to - the rooms and staircase and the shot in front of the Myers house, which itself is a decrepit and 'Haunted' place.  Why is this done?  This add to the mystery at all?  I think it does, and mystery is one of those grand things that movies can sometimes do when they're in the right/smart hands.

So there are the thrills, and the tension with Laurie in that little closet as the Shape breaks through with nothing to stop him (except her, if she can try), and the music (good lord does that hold up exceptionally well, even as the themes are repeated - there may be just five, if that).  Many things come together in what is a, on the surface, uncomplicated horror movie.  And make no mistake that it IS horror - the horror of the unknown entity, the Thing In the Night, and that it may not be from another world but our own that is the most frightening thing of all - but that the question of this character/thing is still such a striking force.  I don't know what the hell Myers is, at least in this picture, and the lack of a connection to Strode (as would happen later in the films - it's all about the 'family' or something like that) makes it just this: there's this killer, it will not stop, and you may die.  Can you stop it, or survive?  As long as he's back 'home', who knows?

On a side note/PS: I saw this as part of the Fathom Events series; they actually screened an interview with Carpenter before the movie (with a voice-over that was saying things like "Halloween became one of the most important films in the history of horror" etc etc, yeah yeah, we know), which I quite liked as Carpenter is an unpretentious, informative speaker about things like filmmaking and getting things done to scare people.  But I felt uneasy for the audience around me, like, would they really care about this, they just want to get to the MOVIE itself.

And about that.... the theater I went to, I won't say there name (let's just say they're the only theater in Secaucus, New Jersey, that I know of), but they screened the movie in such a way where throughout the run-time black bars were on top and on the bottom of the image - in other words, the film was shown as if you were at home watching it on your TV.  Now, I know we can't turn back the clocks (for now) to show the movie as it should be, on 35mm through a projector, and that's fine.  But, could you at least *try*, movie theater, to not make the experience I've paid $15 for, make the screen fit Carpenter's 2:35:1 aspect ratio?  For the love of all that is Shapely?

Spooktacular Savings #21/22: THE FLY and RETURN OF THE FLY


I kid the Fox sci-fi horror of the 50's!  Let's get into some studio filmmaking with some creatures made in a scientist's lab, shall we?  The premise of the original version of The Fly (must distinguish it of course from Cronenberg's masterpiece of Goldblum and sinew) is that a scientist is in his lab (in the basement of his home, where has no assistants - it's referred to more than once he is a Genius after all with a capital G) and has developed a new system that can transport matter from one spot to another.  How does this work?  Well, you know how your TV sends an image from one space to another - it works with actual objects and beings too, it's all about atoms and molecular shit that you don't really care about, but... don't those lights look awesome in his lab?

I mention this part of the story since it may sounds just a little familiar... remember the first part of this Spooktacular Savings series?  Did it sound rather familiar to Attack of the Puppet People, per-chance, the story where a scientist decides to use some kind of technology that exists and just flip it around/reverse it in some way that makes Goofy-Movie-Sense and shrinks matter.  Here, it's not about shrinking as it is teleportation... until it goes awry.  But the difference is, Puppet People was a low-rent Bert I Gordon flick.  The Fly was a major studio release from Fox, boasting the name of none other than Horror God Vincent Price.  Does it rise above its possible limitations of the genre?  Well...

Here's the thing about The Fly: if you aren't expecting the world of it, if you go in with manageable expectations, it'll be fine.  If you go in hoping it's some science fiction/horror classic about a guy that turns into a fly and wreaks havoc all over the place... eh, nope.  One of the strange things about the movie is that a good 70/75% of the movie is a flashback; the scientist's wife, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens, who looks like she came out of an oven ready to be a 1950's house-wife/mother, says that she 'killed' her husband in a press-machine, and yet brother-in-law Francois (Price) can't believe it.  So she tells him, after much prodding and some rather peculiar behavior around a particular fly, everything that happened.  Oh, and by the way, her flashback includes scenes that she was certainly not apart of - like when husband Andre tests his teleportation machine on a cat, and the cat just... disappears into the ether of the, uh, 'atomsphere' or something...

One of the positive things I can say is that Andre's lab is wonderful to look at.  Every time he sets up one of his teleports of matter, we see the machine light up and there's cut-aways to the different parts in the room and it's multi-colored and full of blue and green and purple hues, almost like something out of the future (or an ecstasy dream of some sort).  And when his 'experiment' goes too far and he gets the, ahem, insect-like appendages, there's a good lot of time to build up the suspense of what the hell he looks like.  When it's revealed, it is... not bad.  I was expecting worse, again it's a cheesy 50's horror-sci fi flick.  Could it have been better?  Well, let's just say that Cronenberg's The Fly is the best criticism of this movie, albeit very, very different, aside from the Canadian connection.

(As an aside, why are they Canadian?  It seems sort of arbitrary - maybe it's so that the legal system can be a little altered so that Helen isn't taken away in cuffs right away, that she can, uh, stay in bed for most of the movie and have a reaction that just does not make much sense at fucking all, but anyway).

The acting here ranges from being OK (Owens and David Hedison when he's there in the flesh are fine 50's archetypes, no more no less, and Owens is a wonderful screamer when the time comes for the reveals), but the fact that Price leaves the picture for very long stretches is kind of disappointing.  Again, one has to readjust expectations soon after the start of the picture; I had the assumption that Price would be the scientist who Takes Things Too Far, and instead he's the sad brother of the scientist who also has a... secret love he's harbored for years for the wife(?)  Hmm.  Again, it's Price, he could act a McDonald's menu and make it the most captivating Quarter Pounder you ever heard.  But it seems rather odd to get him and use him as a straight guy, and in a storyline that is fully dramatic.

Of course, the plus side of it being SO dramatic and never losing its face is that by the time it gets to the climax - the "HELP ME!" little fly-man that has been etched but sometimes forgotten in pop culture lore - it is quite hilarious.  And yet the movie, has pacing problems, perhaps due to this flashback structure, which I imagine is there so that Price wouldn't have been just in the second half of the story; there's a ten minute scene (or it feels like it anyway) where the search for the fly "with the white head" goes on via Helene and her son (one of those kid actors by the way who should be tolerable in a milk commercial, and here shows why kid actors are indeed usually better today).  When the tension for this Fly-Doctor-Genius is going on, the movie works, up to a point.  When it turns more towards the domestic drama and Father Knows Best stuff... I'm not so sure.

But wait, fellow friends of BAXTER STOCKMAN!   (Yes, old, Ninja Turtles Cartoon reference) - there was a sequel, and I was psyched to watch this going back years, mostly due to a song recorded by The Misfits (which is at the bottom of this page)....

RETURN OF THE FLY is... Ok, now we're talking, folks!  This time the movie's in black and white, and seeing it in my pan-&-scan VHS version (reminded of how important it is to have widescreen when available, but still) it felt just about right.  This could also be called SON OF THE FLY (why wasn't it, I wonder) as the son of Andre, coming off of his mother's death, decides to face this feeling that he's had since he was a kid that something's been haunting him.  Finally his uncle Francois tells Philippe about the past (Brett Hasley as Philippe by the way, a Canadian Frenchman if I ever saw one) - his father used his machine to teleport matter, and ended up transporting himself with a fly.  All of this told to him he... goes with it anyway, and goes as far as to sell his stock in the family company.  Oh yeah, there IS a family company, I guess, which is how they make all their money for this stuff.

Strangely, Francois refuses to back Philippe in his venture, but then is still there in the lab at his nephew's house helping out.  Why this is is... hey, who cares, it's more Vincent Price dang-nabbit!  This time there is a villain, in the diabolical would-be partner-in-sciency-things with Ronald Holmes - I'm sorry, that's ALAN HINDS!  (A very good David Frankham fills the role).  Why have the double name?  Who cares, he has nefarious plans to sell the goods on Philippe's machine - why sell it, after all, when you can just steal it - and has one of those partners-in-crime who when we first see him is eating a big crab meal.  Leave it to director Edward Bernds to be a master of subtlety.

All my sarcasm aside, this movie's a lot of fun, shorter than the first movie but more compact (i.e., sure, simpler) in its storytelling.  It doesn't bother with a long, elaborate flashback to thins the character would or wouldn't of seen.  Here it's all about getting to the point where the fly *returns* of course.  And this time there's none of that stuff where the Man-Fly types out things or writes on a chalkboard: here we get to see ACTION, folks! 

A good question to ask is if any of this is scary.  No, not particularly, but perhaps being excited and engaged is just as well for this; there are even a couple of jump scares - and those sorts of shots that they used to do in 1950's sci-fi/horror movies where a characters hears/sees/thinks something (in this case it's Philippe when he hears/sees a fly in his living room early on) and just freezes up.  This is, by the way, before he's told by his uncle the terrible family secret - guess all those years of hunting for flies finally got to him.

In saying that I preferred Return of the Fly to The Fly it's not to say it's some sort of undiscovered/not-revered classic.  It's cheesy and stupid and yet I bought into it, down to the Fly-head which, I think, was sort of improved for this version.  And black and white cinematography suits this kind of material more than crisp Cinemascope color.  The only thing lost really are those fruity-pebble colors of the lab, which here are in the stark black and white.  Which, I should note, makes it look like a real old-school laboratory.  It's also fun to see at one point a man transported with a guinea pig and for the guinea pig to have a man's hands and for the man to get guinea pig hands (or, I think they're meant to be, they might have been left over from a set with an alligator or some such nonsense).

And, last but certainly not least, more Vincent Price.  And sure, he may be shot for part of RotF, but he still can act the shit out of this material.

So.... Take it away, Glenn:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #20 & Madadayo, Used DVD's! #9: The Duplass' BAGHEAD

"I'm an idiot."
"You are an idiot.  But it's ok."

In a little exchange like the one above, which happens in the movie Baghead, the audience gets a glimpse into the crux of what goes on between the characters in the "Mumblecore" style of filmmaking.  That term was slapped on to a group of independent filmmakers - the Duplass brothers, but also people like Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski among others - and it was designed to help to categorize this new super-micro-budget format where the characters and the filmmaking approach were very "lo-fi" and low-key and if it was god forbid anything than about characters it wouldn't count.  Indeed the term 'mumble' meant that actors were constantly improvising dialog - sometimes if you look at some of the credits for these movies, the directors are so generous to let like 10 people have writing credits (hey, actors DO come up with the lines as they go along after all).

With Baghead, the Duplass brothers follow up their debut, The Puffy Chair, with a take-down of pretentious movie characters, but in a way that has layers of cleverness to it.  It starts off with four struggling actors -Steve Zissis, Ross Partridueg, Elise Muller, and Greta Gerwig (gotta have the Gerwig if you can, and she did several of these before breaking out a little with Noah Baumbach) -go to an ultra-low-budget indie movie where the characters are 'deep' because they get naked and embrace at the end of the movie, and decide that they want to find a way to break in to this world.  They can't help but laugh about it, and yet there is an allure to what someone like Jett Garner does (his actual name by the way, I wonder if there's a joke in there, need to do more research). 

So the four decide to go to a cabin in the woods and write a script over a weekend for themselves to star in.  As soon as you recognize that it's 'cabin in the woods' and then that there is some ghoulish figure with a bag over his head stalking the characters - which is, in that super have-to-do-it-in-a-sentence-nutshell logline - you think you know all there is about this.  Wrong on several counts. 

This is first and foremost an awkward romantic comedy (or dramedy, there IS drama in here) where the relationship entanglements get screwy over the course of these days: Chad (Zissis, the most 'normal' looking/schlubby of the bunch) is infatuated with Michelle (Gerwig), and he is on edge that she may sleep with Matt (Partidueg) since he is, frankly, a better looking man with some of that filmmakery charisma (trust me, I've seen it in my time), and yet Matt is in an on-and-off again relationship with Catherile (Muller), though it's hard to tell if they're together.  And who does Michelle want, if anyone - does she want Matt, or does she just find Chad cute?

What I liked most about Baghead is that it takes comedy and horror genres for a loop.  The obvious assumption is that these characters think one is messing with the other, which is the gist of the main meat if the middle section of the movie, and then it turns out (dun-dun-DUN) that there really IS a Baghead-man outside stalking them.  As I watched this section I got to thinking, 'you know, this is really looking at, like, let's take some characters who ARE real people, or close to it in this Mumblecore style, and see what happens if they're plunked into a horror type of setting.  Not just that, but what does this guy-in-a-bag with a knife in his hands act like?  Do we even need much backstory, ala Jason in Friday the 13th part 2'? 
No, we're not at ALL hipsters, by the way...

Where this ultimately goes is a very sharp (and uproariously funny) twist that maybe one or two watching at home will get, but I certainly didn't see it and it was by far one of the most clever twists for any movie I've seen in a while.  I think part if it is because of the tone; I thought back to why something like Shyamalan's The Visit, also shot in a style not unlike Baghead, with a composition that was shaky (actually, Duplass' like shakier than not, certainly more than Shyamalan), at first had an 'OH!' twist, but then the more one thinks about it it doesn't work as well. 

I think in Baghead's appeal is about questioning the characters, but also questioning what you want out of this material, and that's where the intellectual rigor was stronger for me.  I see a lot of movies, but this sort of material can work even for those (hopefully, maybe, especially for those who are casual movie-goers and have seen one or two horror movies like this).  Because everything is so low-key here, and the characters aren't annoying (unlike, in a few key spots, in The Visit), I bought into what I was seeing, and yet had fun in half-way, in-the-back-of-my-mind expecting "what's going to happen next?"

It all comes down to the characters, and another thing to appreciate is how, legitimately, the characters are interesting and fun in the Duplass' hands.  Are there some conventions with them?  Oh, sure.  But then it'd be unbelievable if the roles were switched between, say, Matt and Chad, or even Michelle and Catherine (the two women have a pretty simple exchange in a bathroom early on in the movie, how they view each other career-wise, that sets things up pretty wonderfully).  I went along for the sort of 'guessing who-may-be-doing-this' at times, but mostly focused on who was feeling what towards another, and that was key for me.  I think the Duplass' take the tropes and cliches of horror movies seriously enough to subvert them, and then by the time the shit hits the fan, it gets exciting (if not scary) as to what's really going on here. 

All this praise said, it's a tough movie to recommend.  It would depend on the person I am talking with, or the group of movie-goers or folks at a video store (wait, scratch that, this isn't 2008 anymore).  I do think there are two issues that keep me from embracing this as a super-triumphant-this-is-the-best-of-the-Mumblecores: 1) the camerawork, not often but enough that it's hard not to notice, is so shaky and at-a-moment-reaction (i.e. how quick to zoom in or out makes things out of focus) that it is distracting in a few scenes where it shouldn't have to be that way (this may make to the Duplass' all my praise null and void, but it's how I see it).  And 2) the coda is... Ok.  Things get wrapped up in such a way that you almost would expect from the premise at the start - they go to the woods to write this movie, things don't turn out as planned, but at the end, hey, they have a MOVIE, aight - but I thought that the arcs for the women were kind of left by the wayside to wrap up the stuff between Chad and Matt much more. 

But overall, a solid little movie!  And at $1,000 budget!  (I... still wonder about that figure's accuracy... anyway, see you at the after-party!)