Monday, October 21, 2013

The Undiscovered Country and Western

Beetlejuice (1988)
directed by Tim Burton
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

For all of the jokes about bureaucracy in the afterlife, Beetlejuice is fundamentally a secular vision of heaven as a great day with the person you love. The Maitlands die in a car crash on the first morning of a two-week vacation they planned to spend more or less indoors, working on odd projects in one another's company. Although they're understandably surprised to discover they perished in the river beneath the covered bridge, the quest they undertake through the brick door in the attic is above all an effort to be left alone, free to build models and watch the countryside from a kitchen with a tea kettle.

It isn't the stop-motion sandworm that waits on the surface of Saturn just outside their front door that bothers Barbara and Adam, but the uninvited guests who insist on access to every room in the house. Even the guests are alright, eventually, once they see the merits in rural living (a visual shorthand for introversion). For Lydia, the lonely teenager, Adam and Barbara are people she cares about and won't ever have to lose. She socializes more once her new, larger family settles in; whatever planet she's on, she can always go home.

I was aware of death at an early age, and afraid of it, and I knew that even my longest, most idle summers would not last forever, no matter how far away life and adulthood seemed. Michael Keaton makes such a brief appearance in Beetlejuice that he is less a villain than a strange traveler from the wider world. He's the neighbor you like to catch up with but not run into every day. Only Maxie and Otho are grimly dispatched; there is no place in heaven for capitalists and sycophants, men without vision or spark.

Simply put, this isn't their picture. IMDb doesn't source its assertion that Geena Davis was the only cast member to commit the first time around, but of course she was; Geena Davis is the Geena Davis of your dreams. 1988 was a long time ago, but Alec Baldwin was so handsome at 30. Tim Burton never made a better movie.

Friday, October 18, 2013

It's Not Easy Having a Good Time

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
directed by Jim Sharman
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I don't want to be the Halloween grinch, and I love Tim Curry as much as the next Gabriel Knight fan, but in spite of that great big RKO backdrop and a song that mentions Dana Andrews, there isn't much of a movie here. It's strictly musical theater in The Band Wagon mold, superficially forward-thinking but tailor-made for the family demographic. The tell is the absence of drugs and alcohol (the exception is a bottle of champagne that no one drinks).

Castle sleepovers and spaceship jams can both be approached reasonably by appropriately inebriated companions, but Brad doesn't even stash a flask in the glove compartment of his hobbled sedan. He's unprepared for the world beyond the drawbridge, just like his wife or any member of Frank's court. Only at the very end, when everyone is forced into a warm pool together--and the effect of that water after a night in the cavernous cold of a Hammer set must be chemical, must go to their heads--do all of the assembled lovers-to-be close in on the orgiastic promise of a life with the neighbors in Eyes Wide Shut.

And Frank is punished for it, poor guy. Will Brad and Janet carry on his legacy as polyamorous adventurers? Will they leave Dr. Scott on the ground to freeze to death with his fear of an "alien invasion" rattling around in his skull? I doubt it! There isn't any horror in Rocky Horror, and the music is gummed-up nostalgia. I said a prayer to Jessica Harper and dreamed of Phantom of the Paradise while cold wind and rain pulled down the leaves.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Caught Your Waves Last Night

The Dunwich Horror (1970)
directed by Daniel Haller
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
streamed on Netflix

The still waters of three 3-cravat reviews in a row will drown me if I'm not careful, so let's begin with some trivia. Not only did I incorrectly identify Ed Begley as Ed Begley Jr. in the opening credits (I just assumed he played the eldritch monstrosity that would inevitably appear at the end of the film), but Ed Sr. and Dean Stockwell both starred in Stars in My Crown when Dean Stockwell was still in short pants. 1970 is the only possible year when a 34-year-old version of Dean's orphaned youngster could be considered a romantic match for a solitary young woman susceptible to the influence of an underground cult, and Stockwell, to his credit, never bothers to dial the quiet inflection of his performance above "obvious molester."

I'll give the guy who designed the cover of American Stars 'n Bars praise for just about anything, and mustachioed creep is no exception, but the heart of the movie is Wilbur's dad, "Old Whateley." Old Whateley, reduced to a doddering shut-in at the mercy of his physically abusive son, once impregnated his own wife as a vessel for Chtulhu's magnificence, only to see the promised unholy age wither on the vine. In Lovecraft's stories, the terror comes (in part) from the impression that the whole grand scale of human history is beneath the barest acknowledgment of the Old Ones, omniscient and eternal. Here life is more like The 7th Victim: men and women made hateful from loneliness.

When Wilbur grapples with a library security guard while trying to steal The Necronomicon after hours, he reiterates the smallness of his efforts and ambitions. Sandra Dee's Nancy Wagner is so close to catatonic in her behavior and acquiescence that she's very close to Wilbur's perfect match. When Wilbur confronts the citizens of Dunwich, only one or two wants to run him out of town or hurt him; the rest are scared, but not for their lives. "This is a Christian cemetery," one woman says. She's embarrassed more than afraid.

I liked that young mother and the Les Baxter score. More movies should use live owls as objective observers and more directors should fire up wind machines on estuaries and grassy fields (a trick Daniel Haller no doubt learned from the master). As in Night of the Demon, no monster can live up to the imagination--especially not Ed Begley Jr. in a rubber suit, who, it turns out, never shows.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In Brooklyn with the Bone Washers

The Mummy's Hand (1940)
directed by Christy Cabanne
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
streamed on Netflix

Peggy Moran's angle of repose beside the campfire was the half-full glass of cool water calling my name while I thought of the ways that this movie was better as The Mummy. Just glance at those plots on Wikipedia and tell me Ardath Bey isn't the superior strategist and villain to Professor Andoheb. Bey is undone only by the manifestation and intervention of a god, but not before he selflessly secures the lucrative artifacts of Ankh-es-en-amon's tomb for the cultural trust of the Cairo Museum.

Nor must Andoheb--a mere priest in a long lineage of secret overseers--suffer Bey's early fate as Imhotep. Andoheb is shot down like a common criminal by the most racist member of the archaeologist's gang, while the mummy Kharis (who, like Imhotep, was buried alive in ancient Egypt) endures in a more pitiable incarnation, zombified and controlled through starvation. His eventual end in fire, crumpled on the floor of his lost love's tomb, is pathetic and very sad.

Andoheb won't respect the mummy he took an oath to protect but he at least argues against archaeologist Steve Banning looting the graves of his countrymen. Banning's sidekick gets one good scene before doubling down on his bigotry, and that's a failed effort to cadge free drinks by performing sleight-of-hand on a professional magician in a bar. The magician, charmed (and drunk), agrees to finance Banning's expedition, and helpfully provides his daughter Marta as escort into the desert.

There's something about an unconscious woman in silk pajamas in the arms of a vengeful spirit that's more seasonal to me than dead leaves or dark skies, and Cabanne wastes no time in getting to the details of Kharis's despair, including the removal of his tongue before interment so the "ears of the gods would not be assailed by his unholy curses". It's a violent, romantic, lovely beginning, and carries the baton until Marta can bring it home.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Bar's My Destination

Event Horizon (1997)
directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
streamed from Netflix

One of my favorite anecdotes that Wiley Wiggins relates on his blog concerns the years he spent trying to discover the name of a movie that he watched as a child. He describes "the gracefully waving duckweed and the almost silent globe of billowing gas," and although this relationship with memory and haunting mirrors the film he eventually found, it's the wording I particularly admire. Even if you've never seen Solaris, you can imagine that duckweed in the water.

Now of course, I didn't hear about Andrei Tarkovsky until college, and I missed Event Horizon as a 17-year-old. To say that the latter is slapdash might be obvious, but for the longest time this seemed to be the Paul Anderson movie that critics pointed to (before critics came around) when arguing that Anderson had "potential" as a director. But Event Horizon is straight pastiche, with none of the happy irreverence of Alien vs. Predator or subversive eroticism of Soldier.

Although I respect Anderson's specific decisions within the larger context of taking on a production after the release date was set (i.e., introducing ghosts in place of monsters), I'm not convinced that a better movie was left on the cutting room floor. I don't want to make the simple point that Anderson has no business mixing and matching his influences. As I've said before, these early failures seemed to have encouraged him to not take himself so seriously. Producers can't be wrong all the time!

Sam Neill, surprisingly, seems more at home in the Hellraiser universe than as a Kris Kelvin doppelgänger. Maybe he was the reason that Joely Richardson reminded me of Laura Dern, but Anderson should have given Richardson more to do. The sets are believable, the crew a convincing team, and the scary stuff a little unnerving. That's three-star entertainment, but it wasn't ever a masterpiece.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I Asked for a Bride and They Sent Me a Witch

Beyond Evil (1980)
directed by Herbert Freed
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This struck me as a rare example of a movie that uses Los Angeles as a stand-in for someplace else without making any effort to disguise or amend the city's identity. Which isn't to say that Herbert Freed is lazy. A bar with a neon sign in an Asian language might as well be on the Pacific Rim as Hollywood, and the hills behind Bob Hope Airport have a humid kind of color at the right time of year. When characters go inside that bar with the neon sign, they aren't visiting a set or another location--just the inside of the bar!

In other words, Freed is willing to take all of the ways that LA can look like another country at face value, not just by passing the city off as an exotic destination, but by connecting the dots on a map to draw out impressions and patterns (like a constellation!). Instead of rendering the city a blank slate--instead of saying that Southern California is synonymous with anywhere on earth, from the Swiss Alps to African diamond mines--Freed sees all of the ways that the world is in LA.

Maybe it's not such an inversion or much of a trick, but it made an impression. Sadly, the plot--about the misery of a business relationship with your wife's ex-husband--never gave the protagonist much credit, either relative to the men in her life or with regards to the random curse that the daughter of a Portuguese merchant enacted upon her. It's up to Barbara's husband to not believe in possession and to actively oppose the efforts of the benevolent (white) spiritual doctor on the island to help her, just as it's up to the old witch to take control of Barbara's body or leave her alone.

And what does the witch really want? Is the devil she sold her soul to simply bored? The primary colors and VHS quality of the flashbacks (complete with odd magnetic tape effects in the print) lent this something of the Guy Maddin spirit, although you wouldn't hear a Guy Maddin heroine say, "We don't have to get rid of the house for me to change my hair."

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Sympton of Their Restlessness

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959)
directed by William J. Hole Jr.
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Per the YouTube post of this film, "A bunch of troublemaking 50s greasers are kicked out of their garage and move their hot-rod clubhouse to an old, deserted mansion which they soon find out is haunted by a 'She Creature' that wears gym shoes."

The Don Draper jokes write themselves, but "HotrodGirl86" sells this one short (although she did upload the movie). Close your eyes and let me describe a scene to you: the camera opens on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, empty hills and sky slow in the background behind two beauties in home-grown speedsters racing each other onto surface streets and finally into the Los Angeles River watershed. A patrolman on a motorcycle spots them from an overpass, but can't catch up until one of them crashes; the second speeds ahead home to headquarters, where her pals walk a reporter through the ins and outs of hot-rod culture, riffing enough car jargon to lay Charles Portis flat on his back.

An unapologetic female protagonist with a need for speed who moonlights in a three-part harmony at the local rockabilly bar? Forget about it! Sure, she might go home to a sitcom dad who huffs and puffs from his chair in the den about responsibility, but even the newspaper man (a stand-in for the producers?) shadowing Lois for a "story" acknowledges the threat of nuclear destruction that hangs over the head of every Southern California teenager--and teenagers everywhere! The girls have boys but build and maintain their own cars.

I'm overselling it, of course. It's a good-spirited drive-in but probably a common species. The She/He Creature does, in fact, wear gym shoes. But all the bad guys want to do is show up and dance with their own dates (who, in turn, want to race against the girls we're rooting for). The clubhouse has a cook, and the cook tells the reporter that "there'd be no juvenile delinquents if adult delinquents didn't make them." Everyone wears the right costume to the monster ball--all you need for Halloween is a ghost, a witch, a skeleton, and some masks--and the girls spend their big sleepover twisting to records in nightgowns and high heels.

A nice lie about a crummy generation, all told.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Mirrors Beneath Drapes

The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)
directed by Rafael Baledón
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Unlike this guy who loves "the whole haunted house scene," I have never once wanted to attend or participate in San Antonio's "Nightmare on Grayson" or the equivalent attraction in any other place I've lived. For one thing, I hate jump scares, both because they're cheap gimmicks and because they always work (on me). But I also have no desire to break into abandoned homes or buildings with reputations for ghosts. I'm a lightweight in the fear department.

Scary movies give me something to think about without running me ragged. But the atmosphere I'm always after sometimes leads to quandaries like The Curse of the Crying Woman. On the one hand, fog machines and sound stage forests of rotting trees are everything I want in a horror film. On the other hand, there is so much silliness in front of the camera that I want to push actors and script aside and take my bag lunch and sit with the bats on strings awhile.

I don't want to live on a set in Mexico, exactly, but to look out the window of my apartment (Mexico would be great for that!) and see an unearthly fog around the telephone polls. But until I'm up for an expatriate's joie de vivre, I'll take what I can get, which is a blind woman with three mastiffs and her disfigured, taciturn henchman who stops carriages on country roads and kills passengers and drivers in all manner of grisly ways.

These crimes occur on the Camino Real, a nice reminder of home. It's easy to see the ribs on the dogs and the horses, which lends the scene an unintentional but appropriate cruelty. The "curse" and its murderous demands can't match old-fashioned animal abuse, nor can the niece or her sop of a husband be excused for resisting evil's temptations so blandly and so well.

The witch who runs the show keeps a mummified corpse pinned to the wall with a lance and promises to free the immortal but weakened La Llorona through a ceremony when the belfry sounds midnight. From time to time a face appears inside the desiccated body, and eyes sometimes peer from the hollow sockets in hunger. Such eyes! When the niece walks out in moonlight, the sky is filled with eyes projected against the stars. Stars are so cold on their own!

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Ruins of the Free State Hotel

Carnival of Souls (1962)
directed by Herk Harvey
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

"Coffee never keeps me awake" might be new favorite line in a horror film. Candace Hilligoss's delivery is so close to the listless, dreamy exchange between Fred and Renee in Lost Highway* and, like that conversation, funny in a quiet way. The camera cuts to Mary with her head on the pillow and her open eyes--angled slightly apart--are not tired like an insomniac's but far away like a somnambulist's.

Mary is never any closer than far away. Harvey once said he didn't always plan to include the final reveal, and the moment when the men who were in love with Mary trail her footprints from the pavilion to the lone hand print in the sand--the last indication she was anywhere at all--is a better conclusion, anyway. As in Laura, everyone is in love with a dead girl.

But Mary isn't missing, but in some intermediate state. The parameters of her purgatory are never made clear: is her soul unconvinced of its fate? Why is death frightening and not merely insistent? Mary is an independent woman, not afraid to be unlikable or to set off on her own. She takes no obvious pleasure from day-to-day existence but notices when the birds stop singing around her. The absence of birdsong scares her; she does not need human contact to still be a part of the world.

Loneliness, as the basic human condition, is too brutal to face head-on, so Carnival of Souls is a romance. Not in the conventional sense--the only man with any obvious sexual interest in Mary is the other tenant in her boarding house, and he courts her at an aggressive, lascivious lurch--but because the space that Mary moves through is elevated by what Harvey sees around her. She's sunlight, in a way.

Whether watching a film directed by a dead man exacerbates one's sense of isolation or assuages it is a question I can never quite answer. It comes and goes with my moods. In the daylight, loneliness is a little morose (and sometimes overwhelming). At night it can be worse. But nighttime is a movie's best shot to convince you that a distraction can be something more than simple disengagement from too much thought or too much feeling.

So the interior of Mary's car becomes a way to light her face as she drives through the desert at twilight. The currents in the river where she drowns draw out the grain in the film. Carnival of Souls looks as lovely as Laura, but on a different scale. All Mary can say as she stumbles out of the water is "I don't remember"--what she lost, or who she was, or why she crawled from the car at all. She didn't, but she did. She can't find her way on her own.

* "What are you going to do?"

"Stay home, read."

"Read? Read? Read what?"

Monday, October 07, 2013

A Professor Walks into a Museum

The Psychic (1977)
directed by Lucio Fulci
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I admire the imprecision of Italian horror films even though I know there's no sense in making too much of the demands of a low-budget production. Directing a movie at speed is simply a means to an end--a skill more than a method. But circumstances for watching a movie change and I like movies with flexibility. You can't make popcorn, get your light right, and sit down at exactly 8 o'clock for Barry Lyndon every evening.

The weather was warm last week, but the streets were full of leaves. It looked like autumn but didn't feel that way. The apartment held the heat of summer to such a degree that the living room did not seem as dark (after dark) as I like it. No one is dressed for summer in The Psychic. The credits were sloppy, the prop corpse in the opening sequence comically mannequin-like. I fidgeted, telling myself I'd gone and made an assignment out of fun.

Then the protagonist took a day drive on a highway through the countryside. The highway passes through a series of three short tunnels that slip beneath low hills, and the transition to darkness as she enters the first is the first time the movie pivots towards the deep end of the color scale. The end of the tunnel is visible in the frame, but the car does not reach it as quickly as it should.

The second tunnel looms. This time the exit is far away. The darkness dissolves, and the woman sees a body in a strange room. Daylight again, but briefly. Then an empty screen. In an instant, she is no longer aware of the wheels of her car on the asphalt, the room in her mind is awash in red, and only the patrolman who finds her unconscious on the shoulder can call her back to the present.

Half of The Psychic is uneven zooms towards the eyes of Jennifer O'Neill. The threat is not supernatural--her gift is, and her gift manifests the threat by making her a witness to murder. She believes that her clairvoyance provides clues to an unsolved mystery, but you don't need her powers to see the inevitable angle. It's the right movie for a humid night when the curtains look heavy enough to fall.

The Italian title alludes to the number seven, but the woman's watch plays a plaintive three-note chime. The details are both beautiful and inconsistent, and the movie relies on beauty to great effect, whether in the face of a dead girl on the cover of a discarded magazine or the old and richly appointed salons of rare wood and thick velvet where death is bricked behind plaster.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Oyster Season

Cat People (1982)
directed by Paul Schrader
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This production, once anathema to what I thought I wanted from a horror film--above all else, no remakes of one of my favorite movies--gained traction on my curiosity after I watched Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I wanted to see what Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey did with New Orleans and I couldn't believe that John Heard, who I'll always think of as the dad from Home Alone, was once cast as a romantic lead. I try not to have "rules" about what I will watch or won't watch these days; remakes can be great!

John Heard is not a leading man. He does get a pickup line so laughable that I wish I'd know it when I was twenty, which is this: "I've been using this room as a darkroom so it might be a little cluttered." Try that one the next time you're giving a beautiful woman a place to stay because her brother was arrested for murder!

If you believe that Nastassja Kinski could ever be related to Malcolm McDowell, you'll have better luck with other narrative leaps of faith such as Ed Begley Jr. losing his entire arm to a panther or the absurd premise that relatives cursed by their mystical African ancestry must mate incestuously to avoid killing random sexual partners. The movie ends in a dark place, with Heard caging Kinski in the Audubon Zoo, ostensibly at her request, but more accurately as an assertion of sexual ownership.

Frankly, I enjoy that kind of a warped conclusion. I loved the opening credit sequence: a rhythmic Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, a red filter, and a close-up on desert sand as driving winds slowly draw skulls and skeletons from the earth. Oliver's first date with Irena takes place in an oyster bar at night, in an open room of white tiles and bay windows framed in aquamarine neon. Yellow lemon wedges and a bowl of red hot sauce sit on the table the couple shares. You think you wouldn't notice any of it for Nastassja Kinski's face, but of course you do. "I like a pretty girl/but still I like to eat."

In spite of all this--in spite of a bayou scene that gets close to a "what music they make" moment in the minutes before dawn--Schrader for the most part flubs it. Instead of footsteps on a dark street, we get the ugly mauling of a prostitute. Irena is approached by a Serbian woman in an atmospheric bar, but the stranger interrupts such a facile conversation between Irena and a friend that there is no loneliness or gravity in the scene. When the plot isn't silly in service of more nudity, it's racist or absurd (why such a cosy relationship between veterinary interests and the NOPD?).

But bad movies can be good movies if kids can be skeletons and vampires.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Happy Hog Night

Terror Train (1980)
directed by Roger Spotiswoode
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

In spite of its satisfying unspoken social critique (handsome rich guys are creeps), Terror Train is a mess. I don't remember Murder on the Orient Express (I remember that it was boring), but I assume that the conductor could apply the brakes if he wanted to. Trains are good locations for murder--compartmentalized private spaces filled with strangers--and a killer can conveniently hop off at any time, hundreds of miles from the city where he bought a ticket. If one were "simple, silent, and quick" enough, it would be easy.

But wholesale slaughter at the hands of a costumed maniac? Ben Johnson runs the locomotive that pulls this senior year booze cruise through the gathering darkness and even discovers the body of a dead teenager, but he doesn't stop the party because he doesn't want to scare the other kids. And of course there's no radio on his "little old excursion train"--he's talking about day sailing, not sharking for a living!

Someone wants revenge for a nasty fraternity prank that put him in a mental hospital, and the sitting ducks oblige and oblige again. We're primed to root against the bros for their "boys will boys" belligerence, but Jamie Lee Curtis, the ostensible heroine, still dates one of them. She isn't always comfortable with his behavior (Mandy Pepperidge without the pep) but he does charter trains for keggers. What's a girl to do? Side with the poor guy who overreacted to a mean-spirited joke?

David Copperfield was engaged to Claudia Schiffer at a time in my life when I thought Claudia Schiffer was the most beautiful woman in the world. Copperfield was in his late thirties in 1993 but still looked like an over-groomed high school senior. I attribute their depressing relationship at least in part to my eventual pivot from daydreams about German supermodels to daydreams about French actresses. Godard might be a nut, but better Vivre sa vie than tricking your true love at cards! The most financially successful magician in history is by far the strangest traveler on board Terror Train, and you can thank that weirdo for this blog.

Happy October!