Monday, September 9, 2013

WNUF Halloween Special (2013) dir. Chris LaMartina

Logline: Halloween, 1987: Local television station WNUF sent a field reporter and a team of experts into the abandoned Webber House, site of the horrific Spirit Board Murders several decades prior, to broadcast a live television special that would confirm or put to rest the ceaseless rumors of the house's alleged haunting. The reporter and his team were never seen again. The television special presented to you is exactly what hit the airwaves on 10/31/1987, unedited and salvaged from the recycling bin of time.

A nostalgia project with an uncommon quaintness in its approach to reconstructing wistful approximations of yesteryear, the WNUF Halloween Special is also an aesthetic artifact of a cultural practice that's been lost to lossless encodes and streaming media in the cloud: the film is (at the moment) only available as a limited edition VHS tape, scribbled on with a felt tip marker and then shoved into an unadorned sleeve, as if it had been recorded off the television screen by a fellow discerning viewer as it aired and then exchanged discretely among like-minded friends or mailed to your doorstep through the machinations of some illicit underground bootleg service. Degraded, snowed-out magnetic tape recordings of television broadcasts (be they movies, television programs, marathons, or specials) were, for those of us who were children in the years before commercial home video became an affordable obsession, the stuff we were weaned on. Perhaps the most admirable quality of Chris LaMartina's faux found footage film is its devotion to recreating that singular viewing experience, annoyances and all, down to the commercial interruptions every couple minutes, irritating station call letter jingles, and that ad for the carpet warehouse that seems to never stop running. Considering the fact that these commercials make up the bulk of the film's length, it's to the filmmakers' credit that they're never a chore to watch and that-- barring a few promos for obviously nonexistent syndicated '80s TV series-- they rarely violate the appearance of verisimilitude. (Having fed her the phony story of the special's history and left off the fact of its more recent vintage, my partner discerned that the bloody special itself was staged but failed to suspect that it wasn't a genuine article of 1980s television.) 

Necessarily, the plot of the WNUF Halloween Special is secondary to the experience itself. As the tape rolls, we're greeted at first by a pair of cloyingly bubbly news anchors in costume on that specialist of days in 1987. This insipid, charmingly hokey duo introduce a few local interest pieces with holiday twists (like that of a local dentist who's running a candy buyback program) while teasing the start of the titular WNUF Halloween Special, which will see brash reporter Frank Stewart (Paul Fahrenkopf) and a team of paranormal investigators enter an allegedly haunted house in the hope of discovering the truth about its ghostly rumors. (An inspiration for LaMartina and his collaborators may have been the excellent Morton Downey Jr.-starring episode of Tales from the Crypt, "Television Terror," which bears a remarkably similar plot and also partially employs the found footage medium to tell its tale.) WNUF doesn't work as a film, but why should it? Was your town's local holiday news special ever worthy of the multiplexes? The moments in the film that most find their mark are those in which the ornery Frank Stewart interviews the assembled costumed audience for some unintentionally awkward local flavor. It feels trite to say, but WNUF succeeds in reminding us of, if not a simpler time, a slightly more innocent time in American history, when-- as various pretend commercials remind us-- we encouraged grown men to be big buddies to small boys, the Twins Towers still stood, and the biggest evil that the religious right saw itself fit to combat was the pagan ritual of one dark night in October. It's Ghostwatch (1992) for us Yanks, but-- unlike that artfully executed primetime ruse-- it's less attempting to play a trick on us than it is reassuring us that it loves our childhood, too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Dr. Jekyll & His Women (1982) dir. Walerian Borowczyk

a.k.a. Docteur Jekyll et les femmes; The Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll

I once promised you that I'd write at greater length about director Walerian Borowczyk's veritable bloodbath of a film, Dr. Jekyll & His Women. Months passed by with nary a peep, and there you were thinking I had forgotten my sacred oath, betrayed you in the worst way. How wrong you were.

Many moons ago, Richard Schmidt of Cinema Somnambulist, Doomed Moviethon, and Hello! This is the Doomed Show contacted me about submitting an original piece to a new venture of his, a Eurohorror and giallo fanzine entitled Fang of Joy (which, if you're wondering, is the curious translation of the title with which Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) was christened for its Japanese release). Such a bold, costly, and reckless experiment in print criticism during the Age of the Tweet appealed to me instantly, and I decided I'd write him a piece on the spot... several months after he originally sent me the messages, when they finally decided to show up in my inbox. So, maybe not on "the spot," but certainly on "a spot." Thankfully, Richard was still at work compiling the first issue, so I spent one frenzied night breathing whiskey and cranking out a very long piece on (what else) Dr. Jekyll & His Women for him to include. This essay is now available to you, my adoring readership, for a nominal fee, alongside many other fine pieces. Because the fanzine is a print exclusive, my essay will remain exclusive to it as well, so you'll have to throw down some bones for a copy if you'd like to read it (as you surely do). To tantalize, I will preview an early paragraph:

"Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 French-German co-production Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (a.k.a. Dr. Jekyll & His Women; alternately The Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborne) takes an approach to the Hyde conundrum that’s distinct from that of previous adaptations and in line with that of the source material. In Borowczyk’s film, Jekyll’s mad science is unambiguously presented as no more than a means of obfuscating the truth: Hyde’s crimes are those that Jekyll wishes he could commit, if only he could do so while maintaining his respectable reputation, which — in Victorian society — means everything. To lose one’s good name is to lose power and status, but to maintain one’s good name requires one to abstain from any behavior deemed immoral (reasonably or not) by the society that reaffirms that good name. Jekyll’s solution to this bind, in both novella and film, is to create another name entirely, one that is capable of enacting his forbidden desires and absorbing the scathing criticism that follows. When we first meet the film’s Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) he’s dictating a new book on his latest transcendental research. He relates a historical tale he’s heard about men who hire other men to perpetrate crimes for them, all in order to preserve their good names while still indulging (however vicariously) in the societal misdeeds they wish they could partake in. Taking this lesson to heart, Jekyll fashions himself a wicked cipher through his science by rolling around (constantly, as if it were the height of orgasmic ecstasy) in a tub of transformative blood-colored chemicals. For Jekyll, metamorphosing into Hyde is no more than the act of pulling down a mask to conceal his identity or—as Jekyll himself puts it—the ability of the schoolboy to toss of the pretense of his uniform whenever he desires to cause mischief. In one particularly revealing moment near the end of the film, Jekyll attempts to claim that Hyde’s words and deeds are separate from his own before contradicting himself by admitting “both of my faces are me.” "

That's all you get. Now throw them bones.