Friday, May 31, 2013

House of the Long Shadows (1983) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.), a successful but creatively stagnant writer with a monstrous ego, makes a brash $20,000 bet with his publisher that he can dash off a novel of the same literary significance as Wuthering Heights over the course of only twenty-four hours. Taking up his publisher's offer of an abandoned Welsh manor for an appropriately melodramatic setting in which to write, Kenneth settles into this opulent yet menacing abode and soon finds himself assailed by a parade of uninvited guests, each of whom provides Kenneth with a piece of the estate's lurid, bloody history. And that's when folks start being murdered. 

By re-opening the same vein of metafictionality that was slashed in The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and then allowing it to bleed out all over the place, The House of the Long Shadows finds Pete Walker splattering the walls with nine pints of meta-fun that soon dries, leaving behind the stain of a meta-headache, a dash of meta-confusion, and eventually a meta-shrug. The screenplay by Michael Armstrong (director of Mark of the Devil (1970) and Screamtime (1986)) is adapted from Earl "Charlie Chan" Derr Biggers' 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which was itself adapted into a farcical play by George M. Cohan soon after its release and from there into well above a dozen different film, television, and radio pieces over the ensuing decades. House of the Long Shadows looks to be the latest and possibly last adaptation of the material, and that's not a particular surprise: the basic story has a pulpy, melodramatic, turn-of-the-century levity that must have felt as out of place in '80s genre cinema as it would in today's. Granted, this version of the tale is based more closely on Cohan's play, which-- through a metafictional frame narrative concerning an author's bet with his publisher and certain revelations concerning the play's triple artificiality-- sought to undermine the conventions and stock characters of pulp mystery and crime writing. House of the Long Shadows attempts to do the same, but with Old Dark House murder mysteries and more contemporary horror cinema as the targets of its lighthearted ribbing. 

It's hardly the only film of the '70s/'80s to resurrect the Old Dark House subgenre, but it's telling that the most creatively successful entries were the out-and-out comedies that never really played for gasps (Clue (1985), Murder by Death (1976), Haunted Honeymoon (1986)). Walker's film sort of does attempt to be frightening (by late in the film employing the same sort of gory murder set pieces we could find in any of his more earnest efforts) but this secondary goal is continually undercut by the film's insistence upon being that unfunny-but-pleasant-enough type of comedy that we damn with the label of "amusing." Walker and Armstrong appear confused about what they want their film to be, and this confusion has seeped so deeply into the film's foundations that it comes of not only confused about its tone but also about its intended parody. One might think that the film, with its horror movie updating of Derr Biggers and Cohan's original mystery plot and almost direct references to classic films like, oh, The Old Dark House (1932), is hoping to elicit from the viewer the same wry, knowing response that it does from Arnaz, Jr.'s character when he's introduced to the titular house and its spooky irregularities: "I've seen the movie." Simply placing all of these weathered horror icons on screen together (Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, John Carradine) clues one into the fact that the film is attempting to say something about the horror films of a bygone era.

And, yet, it's not as clear cut as that: after all, Arnaz Jr.'s character is an author of mystery novels, and the novel he takes the bet to write (which in a meta twist becomes the story of the action of him actually trying to write the novel) is intended to ape the Victorian Gothic melodrama tradition of writers like the Brontë sisters. Placed alongside its movie genre mockery, this deliberate narrative association with classic literature (carried over from the play) results in unclear intertextual references: Christopher Lee's character resembles Heathcliff as much as he does his earlier character Kurt Manliff from The Whip and the Body (1963) and we can read as much Jane Eyre as The Old Dark House in the old "madperson locked up in the attic" trope that the film includes. Is this a film about literature or cinema? Is it just about genre itself, as if genre doesn't become complicated when switching between media? You would think the filmmakers-- who were making a movie ostensibly about movies based on other movies that were adapted from a play which was derived from a novel-- would ponder these questions. You'd think.

House of the Long Shadows was Walker's first major-minor-studio effort (a Cannon film, no less!), his last horror film, and his last film to date. It features a hugely impressive cast (minus the dreadful, black hole of charisma known as Desi Arnaz, Jr.), but this same cast is given little to chew on. They seem tired, and the film does no more than fall back on their previously established celluloid gravitas. This is the last time Cushing and Lee would collaborate before Cushing's death, and the film hardly has the two interact while otherwise requiring Cushing to put on an embarrassing elderly Porky Pig voice for the majority. Walker's signature excessive gore is a lot of fun during the murder scenes, but these scenes feel frightfully out of place in this otherwise bland and stagy film, one content to throw down buckets of exposition in place of meaningful action or story. It's a frightfully low note for Walker to go out on: as if the spirit rattling the chains in the spooky mansion attic tried to keep the guests up for awhile before losing interest, allowing his chains to slacken, and nodding off to sleep.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Schizo (1976) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: Newlywed ice skater Samantha (Lynne Frederick) believes she's being maliciously terrorized by a man from her past, the lumbering William Haskin (Jack Watson), who was convicted of the murder of her mother decades before and has recently had his sentence pardoned. The trouble is no one believes Samantha: not her new husband, not her best friends, not her psychiatrist. They all think Samantha is losing it. But when the horribly mutilated bodies of Samantha's acquaintances begin cropping up, it becomes clear that someone lurking out on London's streets has snapped for good.

In addition to roughly conforming to the patented Pete Walker Sado-Thriller Formula (as described in an earlier post of mine concerning The Confessional (1976)), Schizo also splashes around in the conventions of the just-past-its-peak giallo subgenre, resulting in the film's easy classification as a post-Psycho, post-Italian, pre-teenage mayhem prim and proper English proto-slasher. The film is a mutt composed of the the Italian giallo's greatest hits, with a gloved killer, potential gaslighting, gory murder set pieces, past traumas, bizarre love triangles, upper-class victims, and surprise revelations all hard-wired into its cinematic DNA. This is all to say that Schizo-- while unquestionably creative in its implementation of its many common horror-thriller elements-- is far from groundbreaking in the larger context of European genre cinema, despite what Pete Walker might have you believe. In a video interview included on Redemption's blu-ray boxset of his films, Walker himself takes a lot of undue credit when he makes bold claims about Schizo's startling originality, which is a laugh for anyone familiar with even a cursory knowledge of continental horror cinema: the closing twist (given away, Walker aptly notes, in the film's title) dates back to at least 1926 and would go on to become a common occurrence in the gialli of the early '70s (see, most notably, Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971; coincidentally re-titled Schizoid for its American release)). But a film that cherry-picks from a subgenre and winds up with a rather exemplary product is hardly something to frown at. Schizo is calculated for maximum enjoyment. In a delicious bit of thievery, the film blatantly pilfers from Argento's Deep Red (1975) when lead heroine/budding schizoid Samantha is invited to a spooky seance held by a group calling themselves the Psychic Brotherhood, which results in some bulged eyeballs and a few ecstatic chills. From its first reel to its last, Schizo skates by on the conscious implementation of successful ideas from the genre's past. In that way, it feels like Walker's most commercial film, one aimed (whether cynically or not) squarely at the checkbooks of 1976's theater-going audience.

But for all its stylistic charms, Schizo is abnormally weak on a thematic level. Walker forgoes the transgressive, making his murderess's motivation no more complicated than an unfortunate youthful association of sex (kinky or otherwise) with punishment and violence. This is, rather unfortunately, a standard slasher-killer motivation, and though the film may be prescient on this account of a future decade of body count films to come, it's not in a way that lends the film any thematic oomph. Luckily, Schizo is Walker at his visual prime. The film is beautiful and unsettling in equal measure, rife as it is with clever editing, exquisite murder set pieces, and a photographic menace that's difficult to describe. Allow me to try: mundane shots of the home occupied by Samantha and her new husband are converted into scenes of the utmost suspense by a camera that roves, almost lasciviously, around the hallways and rooms. Is this camera, prying and sneaking as it is, intended to alert us to the presence of an unseen intruder? Are we occupying the killer's point-of-view in these moments, or merely that of an errant prankster? (We're informed that one of their pals has been installing goofy rubber varmint pranks around their home as a honeymoon gift, so we can't be immediately certain). The film refuses to provide us a definitive answer, but a later offhand comment from Samantha about the home's contents' appearance of having moved by themselves out of order is enough to confirm our worst fears. While neither contemplative nor daring, Schizo is-- at the minimum-- enormously effective as the giallo-bellied thriller it makes no bones about being.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Confessional (1976) dir. Pete Walker

a.k.a House of Mortal Sin

Logline: One day, Jenny (Susan Penhaligon), a young English girl with errant boyfriend issues, wanders into a church and ends up confessing her troubles to the resident priest, Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp), who-- unfortunately for Jenny-- turns out to be a murderous crusader against sins both great and small and whose dangerous, fast-growing obsession with her will put the lives of all of her loved ones in peril.

Viewing a slew of Pete Walker's horror films over a short period of time reveals to the viewer that the director and his handful of regular screenwriters are working from a pretty well-defined formula. Here are the ingredients: a) an inciting crime that occurred at some point in the diegetic past and has been long-since buried, only to be uncovered near the film's conclusion, b) human, non-supernatural villains brought to madness and murder by psychological repression (generally either sexual in nature or created in conjunction with the trauma of that inciting past crime. Sometimes both), c) conservative morality clashing with contemporary liberalism, manifesting in violence perpetrated by the older generations against the younger, and d) grim, cynical resolutions that either end in the outright victory of the villains or, if the villains fall, partial villainous victories due to the total destruction of some aspect of the protagonists' lives. But breaking Walker's horror output down to these essential shared components might lead one to believe that his films are needlessly similar rehashes of a successful plot. While there may be a shred of truth to that notion (after all, Walker financed and produced most of these films himself and so had to guarantee he'd make his money back. What better way to do that than by remaking a film he knows will sell until it stops selling?), it might be more just to label them variations on a theme. The fact that Walker never strayed from his particular approach to horror filmmaking (even as the genre itself evolved into a diverse, multi-headed beast over the decade of the 1970s) demonstrates the same sort of obsessive circling of theme and situation as present in the filmography of a director like Jess Franco, who has suffered similar erroneous accusations of storytelling laziness in the pursuit of salable product. With each of his films, Walker returns to his themes and situations in order to play them in a different key, adding notes across the bars where it suits him, and each time he finishes he's produced a recognizable tune, certainly, but one that places unique and fascinating emphasis on nuances that may have been mixed far into the background on previous recordings.

Take The Confessional as your example. At a basic level it's a repetition of the same bloody clash between the young and the elderly over issues of morality that we've seen in The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and House of Whipcord (1974), but a deeper inspection of its story reveals a new complexity added to the old formula. In this particular instance we have a murderous priest, Father Meldrum, who believes he was "put on this earth to combat sin" and obstinately refuses to adapt the church or himself to the times. (His position is contrasted against that of a progressive younger priest, Father Cutler (Norman Eshley), who is working towards the abolition of the vow of celibacy for Catholic priests: an act that would, ironically, help to solve Meldrum's deep-seated psychological issues. When Cutler informs Meldrum that "The times change, and we must change with them," Meldrum shoots back, childishly, "By whose orders?!") Meldrum abuses his position of moral and religious authority in the aide of sadistically blackmailing and psychologically torturing young girls who have detailed their sins to him in confession. The lecherous holy man records their private conversations about intimate details and then threatens to reveal these secrets to the girls' friends and family if they do not follow his twisted commands for contrition, which drives at least one of his victims to suicide. Meldrum's blackmail takes on an even creepier air (as if such a thing were possible) when he grows enamored with one of his victims, Jenny, who reminds him of an unrequited love from his youth.

And this is where The Confessional gets interesting and diverges significantly from its predecessors: Father Meldrum is himself a victim of the older generation's sexual repression of the younger. Meldrum is a momma's boy, hopelessly devoted to his ancient, physically addled mother (Hilda Barry), with whom he has shared a home for his entire life. When he was a young man decades before the film's events, Meldrum had fallen in love with a girl (portrayed by Sheila Keith as an older woman) but instead of consummating that love he had been pushed by his jealous and moral mother into service with the church, preventing him from ever marrying or leading a life not dictated by religious restrictions. His attempts to repress his own desires (complicated by the fact that his would-have-been lover dedicated her life to serving him and his mother as a sort of maid) drove him into becoming the monster that he is. This late revelation opens up an unexpected wound in our villain that we're urged to sympathize with, while simultaneously complicating and expanding the regular theme of Walker's horrors: society's elders have always sought to suppress the perceived liberty of  the youth, making Walker's critique timeless rather than particular to the expanding sexual freedoms of 1970s England. This taut, pacey, bleak-as-all-heck thriller possesses the added benefit-- beyond all of its delectable, slasher-rific gore-- of showing us what sad monsters we'll become if we let our elders keep us home.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

House of Whipcord (1974) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: A young French nudie model working in England (Penny Irving) is tricked by a mysterious and dour man (Robert Tayman) through the front doors of a secret correctional institute for morally corrupt girls. Run by a ruthless trio of matronly wardens (Barbara Markham, Sheila Keith, and Dorothy Gordon) and presided over by a decripit former judge (Patrick Barr), this illegal prison turns into a house of casual sadism, in which its nubile prisoners learn that the second infraction against good behavior earns one a whipping and the third earns one a hanging.

I think Pete Walker is a fibber. In a recent video interview included on Redemption Films' snazzy blu-ray boxset of four of his films (House of Whipcord included), Walker claims that he stands by the old adage that a filmmaker "must never let [his] audience know which side [he's] on," lest he become too preachy or inadvertently simplify the ambiguity of his characters. And yet, the allegiance of the minds behind House of Whipcord is apparent from the film's opening frames. Boisterously, with a touch of irony as tender as the crack of a whip, the film opens with a dedication of itself "to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment." In no conceivable way do the film's unending scenes of horrific torture and murder in the name of moral decency support this dedication as an earnest one. Rather, the film is-- much like Walker's previous effort, The Flesh and Blood Show (1972)-- an exaggerated, hysterical dramatization of what would happen if the looser, sexier England of the 1970s were to all of a sudden revert (at least in the eyes of the law) to a rigidly conservative moral code. Under such an archaic code, flagrant offenses like modeling for nude photographs in a public park (an action unthinkable and unconscionable in the truly conservative society of England's jolly old days) would need to be met with punishment pious in its intent and extreme in its severity-- bordering on the barbarous-- in order to attempt to cleanse the sin from the hopelessly corrupt criminal.

Once again, Walker is pitting the older and younger generations against one another in mutual misunderstanding and intolerance, breeding violence. Neither generation can comprehend the actions of the other: the older sees the younger as reckless heathens decaying the fabric of society, while the younger sees the older as a group of ruthless, stuffy sadists upholding a fruitless and unjust system of yore. In that same video interview, Walker claims that in contrast to what most of his critics read, he has put no conscious themes of the "suppression of the young by the old" into his films, and in fact identifies himself as a conservative (though in what sense a conservative he fails to elaborate). Either Old Pete is being disingenuous with these statements (not terribly unlike House of Whipcord's opening dedication) or he fails to realize the power with which he condemns the conservative moral authority. House of Whipcord's younger generation may be vapid and slightly debauched, but such attributes come nowhere near to approaching the deplorable lows of the older generation's hypocrisy, repression, and sadism.

And what is at the root of hypocrisy, repression, and sadism, you ask? The patriarchy, of course! House of Whipcord equates ultra conservatism and patriarchal authority (an apt maneuver), and then demonstrates how they are used to suppress female identity, sexuality, and independence. In line with Walker's belief that sides shouldn't be too clearly drawn or freely sympathized with, the film's attack of patriarchal authority stems from its trio of female villains rather than its male villains. The off-the-grid prison institution is run by three elderly matrons-- Mrs. Wakehurst, Walker, and Bates-- who don themselves in grey, put up their hair, refer to themselves by their masculine last names, and whip poor young liberated women half to death. They do this with the hope of curing "depraved females of every category," though their "cures" and "categories" are awfully loose. In a moment of angry passion, Walker (Sheila Keith) spills the beans to the imprisoned French model concerning their true motives when she snarls, "I'm going to make you ashamed of your body." The three matron wardens, made to be ashamed of their own bodies, seek to violate and harm the bodies of those women who aren't, those who are free (relatively speaking) from the old patriarchy's sway. 

Because Wakehurst, Walker, and Bates all very much subscribe to the notion of a controlling patriarchy, they are restricted (at least formally) from enacting this violence independently. They require male consent before taking action against their prisoners, not because it's lawfully required (their institute is basically structured vigilantism) but because they have been culturally indoctrinated to believe that they require it*. Consequently, the three women require the constant presence and notarization of a resident senile judge, Justice Bailey, before they commit any of their evil deeds. In a curious twist, Justice Bailey (while still complicit in the forced imprisonment of innocent women) is oblivious to the violence and murder, believing as he does that their prisoners are being rehabilitated and released. The point being: even "benevolent" patriarchal authority causes damage and violence to women, if by no other way than altering the way women see and treat themselves and each other. 

To conclude, it's worth noting that House of Whipcord is essentially a Women in Prison film (all the rage in 1970s exploitation cinema) that becomes a horror film merely by twisting a few knobs and turning the Gothic sadism and blood up a tad. There's no need for monsters or the supernatural with a situation as horrific as the one presented here. And despite very definitely being concerned with staging a social critique, it's not all dour and self-important-- for giggles, there's an amusing instance of ice cube sadism and the mindbogglingly stupid "Mark E. Desade" false identity employed by one character-- but any moments of levity are countered by the bleak, nihilistic streak that runs underneath it all. As long as the patriarchy continues to hold court, society's escape from the House of Whipcord seems unlikely.

*The most illustrative moment of the matrons' bowing to male authority occurs during the film's resolution: Walker and Bates are attempting to flee the prison in a car after everything has gone awry but are thwarted, rather easily, by a police officer who merely raises his hand and commands them to stop. From their patriarchy-infected viewpoints, the notion of disregarding a symbol of male authority and, say, running the defenseless police officer down with their running automobile isn't even an option.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: A tale of sex, madness, and murder in London's theatrical scene. A ragtag group of swinging actors are beckoned to an old, abandoned pier-side theater by a mysterious producer to begin rehearsals for a new show. Between all the squabbling and fornicating, is it any wonder that these hot singles start popping up with their heads lopped off? These murders set off an investigation that reveals the theater's bloody, histrionic history alongside the "pleasures of the third dimension." It's all enough to make you exclaim, as one of the film's victims does, "this bloody theater's got a feeling of doom and death!"

Well, it's certainly a Flesh Show. Pete Walker's second (and first genuine) horror film, The Flesh and Blood Show, is more beholden to his early days in cheeky skin flicks than you might figure. Once our assorted young and randy actors assemble at the creepy theater and realize there's no other adequate lodging in town, we are witness to much leering, stripping, undressing, heavy petting, caressing, fondling, and other sundry sexy stuff. In retrospect, perhaps my most perceptive note was "This is a film about the unclasping of bras." This isn't exactly a gripe, because the film is fun in the same way most of the tamer '70s sexploitation films are: it's a jovial celebration of nubile human bodies at rest, at play, and perpetually shirking bad clothing decisions. The horror elements, when they kick in quite a ways into the film, are far less developed and assured than in Walker's later attempts. All of the murders (and there aren't many) occur off-screen, and the aftermaths we witness are pretty far from gruesome. Again, it feels like Walker is testing the horrific waters, making an earnest go of the genre but not yet having a feel for its extravagant nuances. Nonetheless, the film makes up for this lack in sheer dopey '70s sleaze appeal. The film's best moments are the fleeting glimpses we receive of the gang's avant garde theatrical improv sessions in preparation for their big London opening, one of which is best described as "a caveman dance party" and another as "an erotic yoga workout." One honestly can't find this sort of trash anywhere else.

As a mystery it's bunk, considering that the killer-- a local Shakespearean actor who has spent decades under the assumed identity of a solitary and overly friendly man named Major Bell (Patrick Barr)-- telegraphs his guiltiness early on by being the only possible suspect outside of the core group of actors and spouting out Obvious Psychopath give-aways like his comment that the town sure has been "cheered up by having young people" around. Yet, the film still manages to find some amusement in this clunker of a reveal by coating it with a thick layer of recursive winking-at-one's-self-in-the-mirror shenanigans. Once the reveal happens we're treated to a black and white flashback (in 3-D, no less!) in which Bell-- then a famed actor named Sir Arnold Gates-- takes his coal-faced, full-garbed rendition of Othello backstage by attacking (and eventually "Cask of Amontillado"-ing) his adulterous wife and her lover after a performance in which they all starred (they having literally stepped out of their costumes as Desdemona and Cassio for a post-curtain call tumble in the old dressing room). So, that's a cute little nugget of self-aware, metatextual goofiness, as are the repeated fake-out death gags in the first half and this beauty of a line uttered by one of the survivors during the exposition overload that serves as the film's resolution: "if it wasn't so bloody tragic and horrible it could almost make a movie script (wink)!"

In another bit of metafictional self-evaluation, our killer's motivation and the film's tacit refusal to affirm that motivation help illuminate the uniquely supportive appraisal of sexual freedom that's being presented here in re: the film and stage productions of a sexier, more loosely censored 1970s England. Major Bell has orchestrated the events of the film in order to take revenge against a group that he sees as a wealth of cultural "scum," "excrement," and "sex-crazed jackanapes": namely, actors. His actress wife's infidelity has led him to extrapolate her actions and come to the conclusion that "all actors are lecherous harlots" who can be found "flaunting their thighs and breasts" without moral qualms. To be sure, there is much flaunting of thighs and breasts to be found perpetrated by the actors of The Flesh and Blood Show (both from a fictional standpoint and from our voyeuristic perspective as viewers), but does the film's sexually liberated La Ronde-style liaisons have an honest-to-goodness detrimental effect on the world, either within the film or outside of it in reality?

The characters seem to have a jolly good time sleeping around with one another and we (the audience) enjoy the harmless ogling. Things only get prickly when a stodgy old man from a previous generation catches wind of the "the temptations of the flesh" being presented on stage and, failing to recognize that the cultural values surrounding sex have changed, starts up some murderin'. But he's not a hero for this: he's a lost and befuddled geezer, stuck in the long-gone past and easily bested by his own faultless victims. The film aligns itself with the actors, who are not the transgressive teens deserving punishment of countless future moral slasher flicks, but consenting young adults living their considerably more liberated lives for our vicarious enjoyment. Considering the film's penchant for internal metacommentary, it would be easy enough to read its events as symbolic of the BBFC's cultural war against nudity and sex in the cinemas. It's a hysterical dramatization of everything the censors feared: seeing flesh will make us crave flesh, and possibly cause violence in order to acquire it! Making the flesh-affected person in question not a participant or audience member (Bell never sees their production) but a person equivalent to a moral censor deflates any such claims by demonstrating that the only people harmed by all that sex on screen are those people fretting over it to begin with. Although flesh and blood were to be increasingly aligned over the next two decades in film (particularly in Pete Walker's own work), it remains true that Flesh need not beget Blood. The Flesh and Blood Show's structural overemphasis on the first component might be one bit of evidence that Walker and his film believe that being audience to a little more erotic yoga than gruesome decapitation is basically good for the soul.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: Marianne (Susan George), a psychedelic suntanned bikini dancer, has spent the last six years fleeing across Europe in order to evade her father, mysteriously known only as The Judge (Leo Genn), and whatever nefarious plans he has for her and her approaching inheritance. When she shacks up with her new accidental husband, Eli (Barry Evans), and finds that her association with him is putting his life in danger, Marianne resolves to confront The Judge and her estranged sister, Hildegarde (Judy Huxtable), at the family estate in Portugal. But Marianne must take care, for someone there wishes to see her die screaming...

English director Pete Walker's first hesitant toe into the pool of horror cinema, Die Screaming, Marianne has the lousiest reputation of any of his major films. Scouring the web for reviews leaves one with the general consensus  that it's a bore, a thriller minus the thrills, and a creaky bit of mod sexploitation. Honestly, the film fits that consensus, but not necessarily to its detriment: sometimes gazing at a weird, snail-paced moddish thriller is precisely how one wishes to spend one's lazy afternoon. And it's not as if the film is a chore to sit through, coming equipped as it does with whiffs of style (split screens! those opening credits!), scenic location shooting (beaches! canyons!), and some competent and appealing acting (particularly from a young and ever-feisty Susan George, though Judy Huxtable-- as Marianne's smirkingly deranged half-sister-- is no slouch either). Moreover, to focus too much attention on those perceived flaws of Die Screaming, Marianne is to ignore its intriguing code-switching between genres and its atypical construction of its female heroine.

The abrupt, muddy transitions between genres throughout are the film's defining characteristic. Marianne neither sits still nor focuses on any one genre in particular over the others; it seems as if it would rather have them all in equal measure. A woman-on-the-run thriller cuts to a swinging '70s sex comedy which then bleeds back over into a thriller (with assassins!) before becoming a romance and then an incestual family inheritance drama and then eventually settling in as a sort of coastal Gothic suspense film. The film shifts between these different genres (and their attendant tones and styles) as if it wasn't asking much of the audience to follow along. It's a wonder that the film feels as unified as it does; usually, these sort of shifts leave the audience feeling disconnected and adrift from the main narrative. The presence of some strongly realized characters helps anchor us, of course, but probably a bigger factor in our continued engagement in the film is Walker's clear skill in employing each of these genres. Though you'd imagine them being weird thrust up together (and they are weird, sort of), disparate scenes coexist peacefully because Walker directs and edits with the confidence that they will. Some small moments, like Marianne's not-quite-bashful flirtation with her new husband and Eli's slow realization that the men in his apartment are there to kill him, are fantastically crafted and hint that Walker would have been equally adept in genres outside of horror. (Early in his career, Walker did in fact experiment with other genres like sexploitation and crime, in films such as School for Sex (1969) and Man Of Violence (1971), before dedicating himself wholly to horror. Having not seen any of these early oddities, I can't comment upon whether or not he pulled off their respective genres with grace, but Marianne certainly suggests the possibility.)

But more so than its unlikely coherence, Marianne is the film's main appeal. She's not the usual sort of heroine that you find in ostensible thrillers like these, which generally feature multiple parties conspiring to kill or drive crazy a helpless innocent female who is severely limited in both the available thought and action open to her. Take for example, the young heiress of two film versions of The Cat and the Canary (1939; 1978) that I watched recently: in both, the heroine sat by, meekly, as all the film's men either tried to kill her or save her. The same cannot be said for Marianne. Upon her first recognition that her father and sister were up to no good with regard to her future and inheritance, Marianne split and spent the next six years on the lam, providing for herself while depending upon no one else (especially men) for anything other than small favors. Marianne displays a fierce independence throughout the proceedings, like when she refuses to be tied down in marriage to the weaselly Sebastian (Christopher Sandford) when he insists by intentionally screwing up the marriage license and quickly moving out when he gets angry, offering him some choice words in return: "Look, mate, I've looked after myself for the last six years, and believe me yours was the most amateur attempt yet." She chooses her own lovers, feels empowered dancing around in a bikini, and literally evades patriarchal authority personified in the character of her father, The Judge, a figure whose symbolic significance couldn't be more obvious if he'd been named, say, "The Man" instead.

Besides these welcome signs of a developed and complex female character, Marianne also fulfills the traditionally male role of rescuer at the film's climax: when locked in a deadly hot steam room by her wicked sister, Marianne is forced to rescue herself and gather enough strength in order to mount a final face off against the conspirators out to kill her (which she does, aptly, with a little help from a menacing butler). During her predicament, Eli-- her knight in shining polyester-- was off somewhere being a corpse and providing no help at all. Gender roles successfully inverted. However, the film isn't content to proclaim that Marianne's status as an empowered woman is unambiguously good for her: the film's bleak final message for Marianne (surrounded as she is by the dead bodies of everyone she knows) is that her independent lifestyle, though perhaps the only way to shield herself physically and psychologically from the sleazeballs and would-be murderers of the world, dooms her to loneliness. As the theme song says, "Love's not for you, Marianne," and that's unfortunate. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

April 2013's Footstones

Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of April, 2013.

The Lords of Salem (2013) dir. Rob Zombie

The amount of venom spat in Rob Zombie's direction these days by the notoriously fickle horror and genre cinema communities is enough to fill a few of the sort of dingy, leaky fauceted, mold-encrusted motel bathtubs you can easily imagine his characters frequenting after a long day of rolling around in dirt and corpses. For reasons rarely totally coherent, Zombie and his films rub people the wrong way. These detractors believe (erroneously) that he soiled their favorite horror franchise, or they're annoyed by his grimy heavy metal hick aesthetic, or they contest that his films are all flash and no substance. This last point of contention hits the M.O. of Zombie's filmography square on the nose, but the notion that this is in any way a bad thing is baffling. Zombie has based his personal image and the products of his dual careers on the recontextualization of horror film iconography. This is a man who's had the robot from The Phantom Creeps (1939) bobbing along with him on stage and in his music videos for decades. His first film, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), played around in Tobe Hooper's toybox (specifically Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 1 (1974), Part 2 (1986), and The Funhouse (1981)) while its sequel, The Devil's Rejects (2005), dumped the first film's rural carnival aesthetic altogether and adopted the attitude and thick-coated grime of '70s exploitation pictures. His Halloween films (2007-2009), while not the travesties that many of those aforementioned venom-spitters claim, feel disappointing and flawed because the cinematic touchstones are explicit rather than digested and internalized into the Rob Zombie horror machine. There are of course moments in both films that feel like outgrowths of Zombie's multifaceted-yet-singular vision, but on the whole one receives the sense of studio meddling (for evidence, compare the theatrical and director's cuts of Halloween 2, or sit through the blazing fast retread of Carpenter's original in the second half of Zombie's Halloween).

Now, it's pretty easy to note Zombie's use of the reconfigured situations, images, and characters of horror cinema's past and call him an unoriginal hack for doing so. But under this same logic, a filmmaker like Tarantino-- who pilfers the same from all corners of low-brow cinematic history-- is just as guilty, yet the cinema lovers attacking his films on those grounds are far fewer. (Though I do know a handful of those folks. Those folks are also wrong.) The Lords of Salem, Zombie's latest horror hodgepodge, is receiving a not unexpected amount of scathing criticism from certain sectors of the horror community, and yet it's by far the most direct and unambiguous example of what he's been doing since the beginning with less success: bombarding us, relentlessly, with the visceral sights and sounds that only horror films can create. The story and characters here are kept to an absolute minimum (and what's there is essentially-- indeed, recognizably, perhaps for ease of immersion-- Rosemary's Baby (1968)). But this narrative lack exists because those aspects of  visual storytelling are pretty clearly not what The Lords of Salem is all about. This is a film about wallpaper. 

More importantly, it's a film about how fucking terrifying wallpaper can be when knowingly presented through the lens of a camera wielded by a filmmaker who wants to create horror. It's a film about ambient noise, seething creatures in the corner of the frame, heavy breathing, the menace of opulent architecture, and droning scores that chill one to the bone. Zombie has fashioned a film that exists in the same nightmarish dream plane as those of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (1981) or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) (the latter of which having a direct influence on about a third of the film's visual style: check out that framing). But (it must be stressed) just because the film earmarks The Shining and Rosemary's Baby as influences doesn't render it a pale imitation by default: The Lords of Salem takes those rather subtle, creeping approaches to the language of cinematic horror and refashions them as an assault on the senses. It has the verve (and the style) of a mid-'90s heavy metal music video (see: the demonic, partially-animated fantasy in which Sheri Moon Zombie's character rides a horned goat in slow motion and gets her hair licked by a guy face-painted up like Sting). 

The cumulative effect of the visual and aural onslaught on the viewer is much like the responses that the film's characters have to the music contained on the mysterious vinyl record composed by the band The Lords: it might make you laugh, leave you entranced, creep the hell out of you, or give you a splitting headache. If you're properly attuned to the film's frequency, you'll feel all four responses. The Lords of Salem exists as an experience of horror, a distillation of everything that makes the genre's undead heart tick. It's not thematically deep, and it's only major flaw is relying a bit too heavily on exposition concerning its minimal plot when none was necessary. If, as has been reported, Rob Zombie has given up making horror films, it's certain that many will cheer it as a victory, though what it really means is that horror has a lost a filmmaker without scruples. Enjoy Paranormal Activity 5, everyone.

Ghoulies (1985) dir. Luca Berocovici

Though to a lesser extent than other slimy '80s puppet horrors like Gremlins (1984), Critters (1986), and (heck) even Munchies (1987), the Ghoulies series of films was nonetheless on constant rotation in the VCR of my childhood living room. The films' (um) stark and iconic toilet-centric box art appealed directly to my poor taste and pulled me in for multiple rentals of each at the local video store. One can hardly imagine what the clerks must have thought about my upbringing. Anyway, it's nearly twenty years later and in the heat of one afternoon moment I decided revisiting the first three back-to-back-to-back was a swell idea. If nothing else, I was right about the swelling. The vantage of time has left me able to appreciate the film's as if for the first bewildering time, with only bits and pieces of each returning to me through memory. Apparently I remembered next to nothing about the initial Ghoulies. By the time I've arrived at the juncture where our possessed hero, an Eric Roberts stand-in (Peter Liapis), summons a couple of chrome-skulled dwarves to do his bidding, I begin to feel as if the Ghoulies of memory and the Ghoulies of reality where switched in the VCR at birth. Though certainly bizarre, the film eschews the forthright humor of the later entries and dedicates most of its cinematic energies to its light demonic horror. It's a featherweight possession comedy that is paradoxically too serious and too silly to work on either level. In fact, the ghoulies themselves are hardly in the thing, pushing their precious puppet faces into the light only on occasion. Unarguably, the best scene in this first film is one in which a large group of party guests is at dinner, wearing sunglasses and laughing like maniacs while the ghoulies pop out of the pot roast. Oh, time, if only I could shove my hand up your puppet-hole and retrieve my fond reflections now lost. Director Luca Berocovici's other claim to horror "comedy" fame is 1990's teenage virgin vampire musical, Rockula, which--had my store carried it-- I'm certain would have wound up in heavy rotation too, considering posters with a whiff of cheese were the gateway to my heart (and my mother's pocketbook).

Ghoulies II (1988) dir. Albert Band

Forty minutes into Ghoulies II, and it's apparent that this one is where most of my affectionate memories for the series originate. It's not a good film (in fact, it's pretty much a bad one) but it contains an ample supply of all of the elements that set my young brain (and now slightly older brain) into a tizzy: a deliciously grody carnival setting, a prominently featured haunted house attraction, a smug yuppie villain, mild gross-out humor, a plethora of puppet mayhem, and a dollop of man-in-suit mayhem. It's a good deal more fun and chock full of goofy humor than the previous film, which helps. Case in point, at one moment an assorted crowd of onlookers cheer on the ghoulies and their destructive antics by chanting "Rats! Rats! Rats!" Though, the implication that demonic influence is the only way to ensure the survival of a small business enterprise threatened by the profit demands of a soulless (and smug!) controlling entity is as depressing today as it was in 1988. My memories aren't in tatters, but this hunk of juvenile toilet-fodder remains a largely disposable film. Ghoulies II was directed by Charles Band's dad, Albert, and it features an original score composed by a man named Fuzzbee. So there you go.

Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (1991) dir. John Carl Buechler

Ghoulies III is Rock 'N' Roll Community College Meets The Three Ghoulie Stooges. In a word: unbearable. My brain was fried twenty minutes in. Now here's the thing: I love childish campus sex comedies, and I love dumb child-skewing puppet monster movies, but the combination of the two (if this film can be said to represent the combination's full potential) is an abomination from birth, seething and writhing in its endless agonizing death throes across the quad of our enjoyment. It's not fun, it's not funny, and it's not enjoyable to pity; it takes abrasive idiocy to staggering new heights and seems too thick to take pride in itself over even that slight accomplishment. How veteran actor Kevin McCarthy was wrangled into this one to play a dean burgeoning with homicidal intent (a role that he really puts his all into, despite the anti-illustrious pedigree of the series) is beyond me, but if anyone else working on the film possessed a fraction of his energy maybe things could have turned out differently. Because it's more-or-less geared at children, the college atmosphere sits uncomfortably: the usual panty raids and raging parties are replaced by toothless Prank Week shenanigans, but the film still engages in light sex and nudity, so who is the intended audience for this again? I'd suppose pre-teens who wanted to sneak one past their parents or young adults with the psychological maturity of toothpicks. Either way, I can't imagine anyone being thrilled after hitting the rewind button on this schlock back in 1991. Every film in this gonzo series has been totally different from the last, and besides the tonal tweaks the most noticeable added feature in Ghoulies Go to College is voices for the ghoulie trio, who apparently have been Larry, Curly, and Moe reincarnated this whole time (who knew). Some changes are better left unchanged. Director John Carl Buechler also helmed the worst Friday the 13th sequel (Part VII: The New Blood (1988), as if you needed me to tell you) and the original Troll (1986), a film with the distinction of being outlasted in the public's consciousness by its train wreck of a sequel. You'd have to pay me in head trauma to sit through Ghoulies IV (1994) any time before another twenty years are through.

The Cat and the Canary (1978) dir. Radley Metzger

One not-so-stormy but assuredly dark night this past month I watched two film versions of the 1922 old-dark-house theatrical murder mystery The Cat and the Canary, the first being Elliott Nugent's from 1939, starring Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope, and the second being Radley Metzger's from 1978, starring quite a few people but most significantly Honor Blackman, Olivia Hussey, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. I don't have much to say about the 1939 version other than to note that it was sufficiently charming and that Bob Hope (while certainly not a bucket of laughs) played an interesting male lead in that his character's defining features seemed to be his decidedly nebbish and milk-livered nature. In contrast, I found the 1978 version of the tale to be of quite high interest, especially to the genre fan of eclectic tastes. Chief among these points of interest is the idetity of the film's maker: Radley Metzger, the 1970s porn chic auteur of such moody, artistic, and emotionally affecting films as Score (1973), The Lickerish Quartet (1970), and The Image (1975). The 1978 Cat and the Canary is one of only a couple films outside of erotica and pornography that Metzger ever made, and the mere fact that he-- a director with an established adult film career-- could wrangle together the cast and budget for this (relatively speaking) classy affair is an accomplishment akin to some lucky chap's tale out of a ten-cent Horatio Alger paperback, with blowjobs in the place of rags. And Metzger handles himself admirably. This is a stylish and clever take on the story, replete with amusing pitch-black humor and a pinch of sadism. Though torture, murder, cousin-on-cousin incest, and lesbianism are all key elements of this Gothic stew, they're implied rather than made explicit. This restraint is bound to bore some horror fans, as there's no murder to this murder mystery until after the halfway point, but the snail's pace lends itself well to fashioning the biting character moments and subtle atmosphere that are this film's proverbial bread and butter. Wilfrid Hyde-White's performance as the cranky patriarch whose inheritance everyone is scheming over is by far the highlight of the proceedings as he communicates from beyond the grave with his assembled guests (and the filmgoing audience!) through deliciously meta prerecorded film reels. It's nowhere near the charming, erotic, and harrowing psychological heights of Metzger's singular career in filmmaking, but The Cat and the Canary remains an amusing and little-seen curiosity that's well worth the footnote.