Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Angels of Death List V: Magic Slut Split/Subject Maenads Edition

Magic sluts vs. doormat drudges dupable and dour, I pledge my eternal soul to you, badass brutal bitches of the cinema. In these 15 capsule review / character vivisections, I pen my praise. Be you sexy-voiced Morticia-esque Brits fogging the minds of idiot constables in Hammer-satires, wild-eyed brujas too cool for this country, the super bitch bizarro version of Emma Peel, or just a mom replicating in an endless loop, you're welcome to have never arrived because you've been here all along. Come along and see, these films are Halloween ready, and the women inside them more than merely players, they will FUCK you UP.

1. Melissa George 
(2009) - ***

Not to be confused with the 1970 'art' film starring Tiffany Bolling, this 2009 version is a weird mix of the super hilarious 1980 classic Death Ship any of the zillion movies called Ghost Ship and Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom." A yachtload of himbos, beeyatches, and one slightly skittish blonde deer-in-the-headlights single mom of a weird kid (who she leaves "at school") pass through a strange electrical storm inside the Bermuda Triangle. They capsize, and eventually drift their way onto a seemingly abandoned luxury liner--one of those boats like the Mary Celeste- where everyone aboard just vanished one day. It would be wrong to tell you anything more, except that it used to play nearly nonstop on Showtime, and it's the kind of film you can come in on anywhere, over and over, without knowing the plot, and it only fits the oomph of its meta-ouroboros.  Best of all is the way Melissa George so effectively plays a complex web of roles at various overlapping segments of 'time', and excellent trick hard to pull off without being a drag about it like Sharon Stone with a director other than Verhoeven. The slow descent into madness is deftly shaded so seamlessly from light to dark it's like if Hyde became Jekyll right in front of you in a single take one scene but so gradual and even-keeled that you're like hey he's Hyde now, when did that happen? you never noticed when he changed. The strange loop-de-loop logic of the film may or may not reward close scrutiny, so be safe and don't give it to much, just have done Salvia Divinorum inside the last year and trust me, this is how reality works (see also my Serpent and the Bartender analogy) and pair it with Frequency for a full night of high-stepping Capgras delusional double feature full night of stepping off frequencies high nightful Capgras high-edliniedlonalishuntrinsiculotiousness, bud--dy.

PS - that is a real word, learn to pronounce it and the sheer length of it as being all one word will set you free - all my big enlightenment breakthroughs have come through words like that. We're so used to words starting and ending quickly and forming our reality around them that when one starts and never ends and rather than just draws on long syllables, keeps adding suffixes and retroanalytical dimensional hightrombotiousstousooshusness and its variation, then our expectations for the end of the word are so shattered, so astounded that it becomes like a coiled up six-hour chanting session coiled up into one long unwinding hose of a word. And we have to realize at last the karmic chain which links a killer to his/her victim is like a celluloid strip of self, whether the you running towards me wants to kill me, save me, or have me save him/her depends on when I come in on the unspooling. TRIANGLE gets that.... yeah it does. 

2. Kim Novak as Lylah Clare / Elsa Brinkman
(shout out to Rosella Falk as Countess Bozo)
(1968) Dir Robert Aldrich

For worse and in sickness, there are films you wind up married to--you're able to see the latticework of doubling inside them--parts where you as the viewer make the double become quadruple as you see an obsessive Napoleon of Broadway jabbing his Mildred Plotka with hatpins until Lilly Garland screams forth like a rancid Coney Island low tide projectile vomiting a shucked oyster clear to midtown. So it's not enough that just having Kim Novak around implies she's two personae (ghost-anima slut maenad; shy dimwit virgin drudge) each in turn thrown up against a woozy James Stewart like a beach ball sloshing with kerosine whipped at a spindly match, she's ALSO the ghost of the Svengali producer's beard /obsession sea wife inside said drudge, who's being remade as said sea wife, a lesbian on her down time, who--truth be told--endured her Svengali's regressive touch the way a tired prostitute endures a sweaty boy's first time, never doing a dram more than needed --it taking all her energy not to burst out laughing or cursing his father. In this case, that means going up against Peter Finch, mediating his Network fire and Georgie-Boy brimstone with unappealing (and unconvincing) spoiled brat insecure ego malice. For every grandiose Barrymore intellectual flourish there's a self-sabotaging tantrum of the sort that--let's face it--no real impresario could get away with snapping at so many proffered hands, except of course if you're only pretending, in which case, make it believable.

Call me crazy but as I get older I'm continually more delighted by Aldrich's jaundiced take on Hollywood and less and less taken with Billy Wilder's (Sunset Boulevard, Kiss Me Stupid). Even when homophobic and infantile  (Big Knife, Baby Jane, Killing of Sister George), Aldrich has a genuine streak of misanthropy about him, while Wilder is just lewd --the type of movie that would goose up your daughter in the elevator but not even give you eye contact. Aldrich feels up your grandmother instead and then punches you in the face, like a man! His only misstep--which he regularly makes in in once again following some baroque Babel-style lighting playbook only believes that says actress's faces must look greasy and over-lit, the make-up and lighting at such odds the effect is genuine nausea, the women seem clownish and garish, sweat struggling to get out from blocked pores; frightening 'styled' blonde wigs ever shifting around so that bangs slowly seem to revolve around the head. Attractive young women suddenly look like Tourist Trap mannequins after a grease fire.

But from far away I love his badass babes, the daring of having the whole lesbian 'sewing circle' represented not with caricatures or lipstick hotties but middle-aged broads who got to their middle rung niches by a mix of youth, talent, and the ability to sleep with any man as needed when necessary and step on his cock all the way up the ladder, without it meaning even less to her than it does to him. Countess Bozo's (Valentina Cortez) sexually open give-and-take in Borgnine's office etc., where they fooled around once or twice 20 years ago but she used it against him for as long as it took to prove to him she knew her shit, and now she's a fixture in the scene like the  plumbing. Falk acts her with such casual chainsmoking elegance you can all but hear the entire life story, from Weimar cabaret wardrobe mistress and lover to Sally Bowles and Dietrich, to the German exodus to Hollywood in between the wars, to a complete almost zen chill confidence at her job that puts producers at ease. If I was to ever cite an example of how a woman might use her sexuality in the office to earn respect--even into middle age--rather than fighting against it like a tide. She even has a great Mutt and Jeff dynamic with her union mannequin shlepper (above left) --look at the three of 'em up there - don't it make a swell pitcher?

Best of all, Aldrich isn't convinced he's making art - like Borgnine says he makes "movies, not films." And even when they're homophobic freak shows (as in Killing of Sister George, a film I hate as much as I love this one) they're more interesting than 98% of the shit called 'film.' In fact, the worst part of Clare just might be Finch who never seems to find a hook where even he understand why anyone would put up with his Dick Steele-style infantile Hollywood self-sabotage. If it was someone like Richard Burton or Albert Finney you could figure it out, but Finch just seems like the kind of creep who hits on all your friends and you have to kick him out of your party at four AM because he's having a tantrum the moment any girl stops talking to him even for a second.

Oh yeah, and Lylah herself, when her ghost manifests through her doormat doppelgänger she speaks in a thick pitch shifted Euro accent (dubbed by a different actress?) and attacks everyone in earshot so relentlessly and tersely--knowing all the dirty secrets there's no way her mortal vessel or even Finch could know---she's like a breath of fresh air, a cookie full of arsenic, and a cyanide flame thrower (match her, sidney) all aimed square at Hedda Hopper as symbol of all the frustrated prudish dykes who lash out in their columns at the hotties who spurn their clawed and flustered come-ons (all while doting masochistic doormat lesbian handmaiden Rosella Falk smokes and looks on). Homophobic? Naturally, but also daring for the time, and after all - America always ridicules and gapes in horror at things it's been denying are part of it, it's our way of acclimating.

3. Emmanuelle Seigner -VENUS IN FUR
(2014) Dir. Roman Polanski
Stand over there! Dominate me!" these two seemingly contradictory commands are given by wormy lutte Polanski-esque stand-in Mattieu Amalric (the bad guy in QUANTUM OF SOLACE) to Polanski's (then?) real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner in VENUS at a late evening rainy audition for a Venus in Furs theatrical adaptation (terrible idea!) -- the pair alone in a drippy theater -with all the lights ready for scenes/ Her character starts by begging him for the lead role while dripping wet and disheveled for a last ditch audition as he's packing his script notes to go home--and within a few acts is barely tolerating  having him beg her to stay while she badmouths the infantile myopia at the heart of his beloved Sacher Masoch source text. From this beginning, Polanski proves once again he's the one true inheritor of the von Sternberg-Bunuel dog collar--this woman even starts talking in fake German saying she's adding some Dietrich to her role. As a Woman who seems too educated on the intricacies of Masoch's text to be just a part-time temp / call girl / actress threatening to call actor's equity one minute and taking his money and passport the next while he becomes more and more dependent on her brazen gleaming energy, Seigner runs with her part (she's also several inches taller --something that never seems to faze the diminutive Polanski with his giant brides) and above all captures the fluid crucible of identity melting and genre at the heart of good audition-drama (i..e. when is the part, who is the real, why are they not themselves?) she's right. Clearly both Masoch and this character (and possibly Polanski) have had it too easy in life that they think this sordid infantile fantasy is something worth theatricalizing, no matter how cinematically they envision it while having their dominatrix call girls read it to them. and deserve not some harmless spanking but to have their flesh torn from their bodies by devouring birds, sirens, or maenads . Irregardless, as a real-life strong woman 3-D character in a story that at its heart is fluid from puerile exercise in Polanski head trip power play (a two-hander to go with the Repulsion one-hander, Blue Moon-four hander, and Knife in the Water-three hander)

4. Fenella Fielding:
 Morganna Fem - The Old Dark House 
(1963) - *1/2
Valeria Watt - Carry on Screaming (1966)
With her rich smoker's purr of a voice, breeding and imperious carriage, any American who's ever had a mad crush on Morticia Addams  will feel how unfair life is that Fielding didn't make a whole series of films as her macabre sexually active mistress of the dark. She steals every scene as the macabre and focused Valeria Watt, sister of ghoulish Professor Watt in Carry on Screaming. Her seduction of Harry H. Corbett's detective is so hot I fell off the couch, and there's a great rapport and impeccable timing that makes her more than a match for the assembled team of Carry On players.  A prime example of sexually mature British womanhood, it's inferred rather plainly that she shags the detective and then uses his affection to distract him from her and her brothers' racket of abducting girls and turning them into mannequins for shop windows. No American monster/horror comedy has anywhere near such an advanced character development --imagine Paulette shagging Bob on the boat to Cuba in Ghost Breakers or Sandra (Leonore Albert) sleeping with Wilbur in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein--and suddenly a clearer understanding of why Americans movie characters are so sexually backwards and puritanical emerges. Britain got rid of the buzzkill censoring puritans back in the 1600s (guess where they sent 'em too?).

Naturally if you're a fan of the original 1932 James Whale Old Dark House (right), the William Castle /Hammer remake-- which thows 90% of the original out the window, instead doting heavily on that mid-60s labored 'traveling square salesman deals with eccentric family in kooky old house and romances good girl and is chased by the bad, and explores secret passages -leading to miscommunicationzzz' tip-- will annoy you. But then Fielding shows up as the super bored and sexually precocious sister-- part Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, part Myrna Loy in Love Me Tonight, part Jill Banner in Spider Baby--and all so delectable you want to pull an Agent Smith move from The Matrix and take over Tom Poston's pixel assemblage and reverse the romantic polarity -- even unto the wall with it. As it is he runs of with Janette Scott and Fielding barely has anything to do. Oh woe that I could not travel back in time and smite Castle soundly on the sconce with my bumbershoot!

5. Rita Morley as Laura Winters
Directed by Jack Curtis
The monster may start out just a high bright reflection on some soapy surf, the acting as choppy as the tide but there's two great reasons for FLESH EATERS stays frosty and dry: one is Martin Kolseck as a the ex-pat Nazi scientist whose tent the castaways crash; and two is Rita Morley as Laura Winters, alcoholic actress fresh from a near-win at the Tennessee Williams State vodka pong invitational. She and her assistant Jan (Barbara Wilkin) are marooned on a remote island--really more like a huge sand jetty with Kolseck--grateful for to be delivered with three unwitting subjects for his 'hehheh' experiment.  create the perfect maritime bioweapon and nab the three pointer of seducing the doofus bohunk your young hot personal assistant has eyes for AND convincing him to go back to where the plane is tied up and retrieve your satchel of golden nectar respectively.

"Sorry," says the dick captain Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders). "The liquor stays on the plane. There will be no bottle parties on my watch." So brave, so sanctimonious he makes Zalman King seem like Hugh Herbert. There's a section in hell reserved for people who'd take the water of life from a drowning woman. Does that stop our Laura? Hell no. "Lord protect a lady lush in a place like this," she notes, then gamely tries to horn in on her sultry secretary's action with the dumb hunk pilot (sanctimonious he makes Zalman King seem like Hugh Herbert) makes me lose some faith in her judgment.Martin's anxious to get rid of them and continue with whatever he's experimenting on there in his remote tent, way back over the dune where they should be safe from the incoming tide. But the plane, boss, the plane! Jan chartered Grant's plane get them to New York on time for a big opening and to idiot pilot who had to either take the job or lose his plane, can't even stay aloft in the face of these hurricane winds. A night like that can set your teeth on edge; Laura's career can't afford to let an understudy ruin her first night, and now... the booze!

I relate with sobering up while dealing with a rainstorm at a camp ground and needing to--and finding the miraculous strength to-set out to score your booze at whatever the cost. True heroism comes in many packages. The evil German professor Bartell (Kolseck) is unscrupulous sure, but Murdoch's the real villain. The next morning she seems to have gotten over it, but has she?? Uh uh - she went out to the bar, I mean plane.  

Then when all seems lost, enter Omar (Ray Tudor) as a travelin' arms dealer but he only sells the greatest weapon, love- and it's all free, baby. He's of course eager to be the first to try the crazy new herb Dr. Martel is dispensing. He dies of course. Sensing how hopeless it is, Winters goes back to the tent noting Omar is lucky - it's all over for him. It's that kind of remorseless elan that makes a great drunk. As Oscar DeWitt would say, she's maudlin and full of self pity. She's malignificent.

Then she decides to come onto the Nazi scientist - and though Kolseck admits the smell of her is exciting (I bet) - a handful of seconds later and for little apparent reason he's stabbed her and completely lost our sympathy. On the other hand, Grant is born to be killed by a wussy German character actor on his way down to the indie abyss; even as a scientist he all but thrashes iron jawed Grant, who for his part misses one chance after the other to take him; Kolsek's gun is grabbable for whole scenes and then when he makes his move he socks him but doesn't even try for the gun arm! It's absurd - the kind of thing that would wake John Milius from the grave and make him loud is .45 in rage, were he dead.

Carson Davidson's nice high contrast photography (the DVD looks great), the vivid score, and spirited acting by Kolseck and Morley and Tudor all help us forgive the ratty if ambitious special effects. I heard they did lots of pinpricks to make things sparkle but to me it looks like they just photographed some sunlight on water reflections on high contrast, but they try - like the better Bert I Gordon films such as Tormented and Amazing Colossal Man, (where is THAT film?) makes one forgive the double exposure look of the effects because the story's engaging but neither boring with jargon nor braindead with teens - it finds a nice balance. It also has a favorite line of mine: "Where there is no witness, there is no crime."

6, Allison Mackie as Ms. Marlowe / Ashley Laurence as Cathryn Farrell
(1994) Dir. C. Courtney Joyner
They try pretty hard to capture the 'cops and robbers team up to fight a common foe' Hawks vibe so near and dear to my (and John Carpenter's) heart, but this film --filmed in Romania with the Charles Band east-west unification front--which does miracles with low lighting and high def to create a unique kind of magic way nicer than the usual for direct-to-video--is a few tentacles shy of a satisfying Lovecraft affair. Still, it's never less than watchable-- wry, and pulsing with 'all in a single night' momentum. Mackie is the cool Mrs. Peel to Jon Finch (Polanski's Macbeth)'s snotty Bristol Steed, Bennett, the gangster whose casino was robbed years ago by John Martense (Blake Adams)'s pops now presumed dead or gone CHUD-or-Merrye. The loots buried where the monsters are--the Lefferts' Corners' cemetery and church. Bennett, Ms. Marlowe and their gang blow into town to get the loot, holding a church and the few people there as hostage., unaware both the militant surviving locals and mysterious cannibals have picked that very night to squabble. Hellraiser's own Ashley Laurence has booby-trapped the graveyard with the assistance of Jeffrey Combs--an alky chain-smoking doctor--so the entire graveyard to blow to high heaven once a Martense surfaces. Meanwhile Combs sets the bones and does the stitches, cigarette clamped in his mouth for maximum effect. And there's a funeral director named Skelton Knaggs -- if you get that reference this might be worth even a star more on the ratings scale. 

I think that's the plot -- and I've seen it twice, so it's a bit muddled maybe, very uneven with some parts that clearly weren't entirely edited correctly; one thing might be in there is that Ashley and Combs' characters are long time sometime lovers, which is only strange when you don't remember that there's only a 12 year age difference between. He looks like shit, she looks great--like if Winona Ryder was trying to look a bit muscular (but still sexy) like Linda Hamilton in T2--that look's gone out of style a bit now (with me anyway)--but it was roaring at the time, I do remember (she even starts out in the prologue all normal and nerdy and afraid of even holding a gun while her panicky sister--the Kyle Reese, so to speak--barricades the windows to protect her baby). Laurence's acting is terrible and her lines could use a dose of Hawksian cool humor, like Mackie's gets (I guess because Sharon Stone had them and her part was clearly meant to evoke a bit of Stone in Total Recall). As the guns change hands more than once, each side having the upper hand, etc. we get to see who really acts like a dick when on top--Bennett's thugs might be dumb and mean, but he and Ms. Marlowe are cool somewhat--at least they have two shades, whereas the rest have only one--the idiot priest super eager to die so someone else can be spared, but then he lays back and says shit like when we offer no resistance we invite evil in. They say they'll kill hostages but at least they sometimes lighten up, and overall they keep their heads level. Ms. Marlowe has a soft spot when it comes to the young moms, offering to kill the absentee father of one of the locals' incoming children and gets only surliness in response --not that it bothers her. As a matter of fact, she'll put away this gun and kick your ass anytime you say.  Right now? Sure. Where? A muddy graveyard, where mutant hands wait to drag us down and everything turns to mud wrestling that looks suspiciously like it's using male stunt doubles --not that it needs them cuz the fighting's choreographed by a blind pacifist? Why the fuck not? And if we have any doubts, the flatline 'who knows what the future holds down the road?' voiceover and the thundering T2-style thundering score at the end let us know at least what big genre hits Joyner and the Full Moon people had on their minds at the time (the way Alien was on New World's until Road Warrior and Conan came along). Though its action may be clumsy, the narrative confusing, the performances uneven, the monster hands ridiculous Halloween store latex, there's no denying the photography is good, and theres no place like home... unless that home is Lefferts' Corner, Romania. 

(for my other favorite Full Moon/Empire productions see: Dark Angel: The Ascent and of course Trancers and Trancers 2 which have great wpr

7 Dorothy Wilson as
(1933) Directed by Irving Pichel
Seances were all the upper crust rage in the 20- 30s (the way Ouija was in the 70s) and while most of the mediums turned out to be phonies, there was a general consensus that ESP was scientifically proven and real mediums did exist, as in Charlie Chan on Treasure Island. Here the true psychic is mellow gamin Dorothy Wilson, who makes up in a naturalistic low key sincerity what she lacks in dramatic range. She'd be right at home wafting around in a Val Lewton film. Her trances tell her nearly everything about the past, present, and future--but even when evidence comes fast and furious the cops don't believe her and consider it a favor not busting her as a phony just because her ruthless swindler of a father (Dudley Digges) refuses to refund three bucks to bunco squad undercover man Stu Erwin. Old Stu takes a shine to Wilson, though, who's on the up-and-up and call me crazy (I dislike Erwin on principle) but the two have a cutely abashed chemistry, with Erwin's cop authority helping to offset his patented aww-shucks everyman awkwardness. He might not have been able to stand the strain of Peggy Hopkins Joyce in International House, and he might make Red Skelton seem like Arthur Kennedy as far as assertive manliness, but he's at least adequate for the task of breaking down a wall and slugging it out on steep stairs with the murderer. And we come away genuinely rooting for this modest little couple to make it. 

8 Grace Zabriskie - Captain Trantor
(1981) - Art direction by James Cameron
I read all the hostile reviews when this movie came out (in the newspaper, of course) event though I knew I would never be admitted without parent (and who would bring a parent?). It was a rampant excuse for misogyny, sleaze and ALIEN ripping and rape they said. In my 14 year-old feminist phase I blanched in horror (the slasher craze--that underwriter of my useless gallantry and indignant disillusionment--was going full bore at the time and the theater ads section looked like a frat boy's basement slaughterhouse).  Aland and I had seen too many late night cable soft-focus endless showers, plastic and demoralizing breasts and dispiriting gorefests for me not to judge the film a priori. But then its production designer, some guy named James Cameron, did The Terminator and turned the final girls' downward spiral around once more forever. And now, slug rape conjured out of your own fears or no, this film rocks! Especially on Blu-ray where the full scope of its technical effects and art design on a budget can be marveled at (it's from New World Pictures, aka Roger Corman). The space ship interiors and above all the gorgeous, strange mist-enshrouded giant space pyramid is wondrous behold and as captain of the voyage (i.e. the Tom Skerritt role), Zabriskie is as fine and unusual a captain as you'll ever see. Not some bitchy perfectionist who needs a man nor a paragon of saintly wisdom, as we'd assume based on years of hackneyed conditioning, but a tough old salt who manages to be wryly sexy while out-machoing Captain Kirk at the same time, she calls everyone "boy," like "come get some chow, boy." And somehow seeing her in those cool dashboard lights makes me feel grounded. Sure she she goes down tough as a burnt steak, literally. I don't think there's ever been a female space commander quite like her since. 

Speaking of which... remember Frances Sternhagen?

9. Frances Sternhagen - Dr. Lazarus
(1981) Dir. Peter Hyams
You might not remember her in this now, but Sternhagen made quite an impression and more or less stole the film from Sean Connery in this, the first R-rated movie I ever saw, OUTLAND. I presume that means I didn't have a VCR yet because I remember the dread I was feeling going into it --knowing people exploded from space vacuum pressure. For one thing, it was gross to imagine. For another, even at 14 or whatever I knew Connery's HIGH NOON strategy was moronic --why just blast the guys as soon as they get off the elevator when you can lure them to a remote corner of the outpost, blow a hole in the protective shield, and destroy half the compound? And if youre gonna make a multi-million sci fi movie, why bother doing an overrated shitshow like HIGH NOON?  Fuckin' get some aliens in there for god's sake - how hard is it? 

But Dr. Lazarus stole the show as a doc relegated to this outer district who becomes sheriff Sean Connery's man on the inside, the control center eyes and ears. Like everyone else there, Sean too, she's a screw-up truying to make good --and braves the top brass by exposing what's at the core of the problems--the easy access to speedy drugs that lets miners double productivity but also makes them insane and misogynistic (there's a brothel and bar up here) - decadent times. In other words she's a goddamned narc like him! Still, gotta love  a movie where the narcs are the bad guys even if they're not -wait do i even remember this movie? What we came away with as kids in these films was you needed a hook, someone we could root for and understand who like us was above our outside all the adult doubletalk we didn't fully understand or want to. STAR WARS was just a lot of robots and boring farm shit til Han Solo shows up, like the cool older brother who helps you skip math class and take you to a Philly's game in his shag carpeted airbrushed Frazetta Molly Hatchett badass van. And Frances here was like --well, the cool nurse who lets you skip the rest of school when you only skinned your knee so you can get out of your math quiz. She's old enough to be your mom's cool aunt, so why are you attracted to her? Something about the way she makes you feel --like she gets you when no one else does, at a time when you really need getting. 

10. Anne Carlisle - as Margaret / Jimmy
(1982) Dir. Slava Tsukerman
This is what the East Village NYC in the late 70s-early 80s was all about--tiny black box combo art gallery / fashion studio storefronts open all night in a series of spontaneous poetry readings, weird performance art, fights, drug deals and never-ending private fashion shows-- vain attempts by effete men and manly women to stand out from a stable of similarly face-painted and cheap speed-and-opiate-withdrawal-driven clotheshorses. Enter Margaret, a mix of Edie S. 'pilgrim stock' and Nico 'sexual disinterest' --brilliantly played by Anna Carlisle in focused shades of ambient cool.  Initially hoping to do some coke, she instead gets raped by a sleazy goombah who force feeds her goofballs (i.e. roofies); she fights back, pulls a knife, but at the same time barely gives a fuck (not enough to get up off the bed at any rate)--she knows she'll get him back, whatever he tries to do, and she's patient as a cobra.
Behold a pale horse
Carlisle's other role, Jimmy, meanwhile is withdrawing from heroin but has no money to score and Adrian (his dealer and Anna's roommate) won't front. A fashion designer promises 'him' some lines if he shows up to model the next night at a shoot on Margaret's roof. Meanwhile a tiny alien is floating his giant solarized color style eye thing around, observing all the action through a color-twisted prism and killing those who dare reach anything so jejune as an orgasm in Anna's and Adrian's apartment. When Margaret's lovers come, a cigarette burn in the celluloid behind their head sucks them right out of the film, leaving her free to resume her high fashion Fassbinder-ish moping. Her own inability to have an orgasm (due to either drugs, ennui or some combination) saves her neck, and even allows her to notice her little alien guardian. Though she never sees it (them?) directly, they form a bond as touching as that between the disembodied Virginia Leith and her similarly unseen closet monster in The Brain that Wouldn't Die! 

A genuinely great performance art science fiction hybrid experimental 16mm oddity from the downtown NYC heroin chic fashion poseur scene, Liquid Sky is what Bowie probably hoped The Man who Fell to Earth would be. It's only weakness is a droning endless synth melody like Russian ex-pat Slava Tsukerman banged it out on a Casio as he was editing. Tsukerman also co-wrote it with the star, Anna Carlisle, who plays both Margaret, a disaffected model in Day-Glo face paint and a surly junky male model named Jimmy. If this was a biological guy playing both roles it might just be the usual camp drag theatricality but Carlisle brings a depth of wry deadpan wit and existential sad resolve that's Weimar Cabaret-level decadent without ever descending to camp, belying her tender age of 26 with a sophistication worthy of Dietrich and an androgynous punk sneer worthy of Tim Curry. When she announces she's from Connecticut in one of the film's key and classic scenes, we realize Connecticut is America's Valhalla-gone-Gomorrah and Carlisle is the persona we all hoped Edie Sedgwick would be in Ciao! Manhattan. She takes both her male and female roles over the edge, even going down on herself while fashionistas (before there was such a phrase) jeer jadedly. (more)

11. Jean Benedict - Carol
(1938) - **1/2

Sure it's not a horror movie, per se, but I love it anyway, cuzza some weird broad I never even heard of before. Jean Benedict was only in a few very minor roles in a few very minor B-films at Warners before she disappeared from view, but she poured the come-on sexuality in a kind of Veronica Lake-meets-Ginger Lynn aura that might get you weak in the knees as you scramble for your imdb bookmark in pleased disbelief. Good thing you're sitting down, probably, and stoned out of your gourd or you'd end up trying to find more about her and coming up against a stone wall.  It's always kind of bitter-sweet when you unearth some weird cool actress you really like in some old movie--someone who seems cast and hired to be the 'fake' someone else due to a passing resemblance, but then, like all the big stars when you see them in their early early work before they got huge, they seem so modern, so next generation, compared to the film around them, like Bugs Bunny crashing Ivan the Terrible's coronation. Such a girl is Jean Benedict... to me.

Now I can only find this picture above, which, frankly, I'm only 90% sure is actually her. Did Warners decide she was just too sexually open--too uninhibited--too much like Veronica Lake with the throttle down--for 1944? Or was it the opposite and some hot shot producer wanted her all to himself? Not sure, but somehow she's all the sweeter for her rarity. Maybe it's because her birthday is the day before mine, I don't know if that's right as imdb says she was born 1877 which makes her 61 in Patient in Room 18 and there's no way she's that old unless she's a vampire... but see it anyway and decide, though in order to do so you may have to do so by buying the Warner B-Mystery DVR set. I did, and I'm glad, but I'm screwy that way, see.

12. Margaret Lindsay as Beth Sherman
Fans of mysteries with a strong female lead will love this as I did, if they can find it. John Howard is a radio crime solver who taunts the cops and offers solutions to unsolved mysteries - but then a dead woman is in the bed next to his in the morning (cause husbands and wives can't sleep even in the same room in '42). His wife Beth (Margaret Lindsay) is his show's writer and theirs is rare example of a truly equal partnership. Howard never says 'wait here' or 'honey it's too dangerous' as he races from clue to clue and the hour of the evening's show looms (where the cops will surely nab him. Through thick and thin, Beth's right alongside him every step of the way, figuring out clues even faster than he does, eluding the cops and bouncing around NYC in the back of Keye Luke's uncle's laundry truck. Even Nick was always sending Nora off to avoid danger, and then she'd sleuth around on her own and get kind of made fun of for being gullible, espec. in later films... MGM being the shitheel counter-feminist status quo-bourgeois suckup that it is. No wonder, as so often happens in our sexist world, this movie got buried under rocks alongside STAR MAIDENS and ALL THAT GLITTERS. Fuck the bourgeois patriarchy and find this movie! It's only an hour long.

13. Carolina Bang as Eva
Dir. Albert Di la Iglesia 

Alex de la Iglesia's ballsy 'comedy of the sexes' film bursts with original ideas, carnal energy, wit, acumen, and Jungian archetypal initiation ritual mysticism all in service of a battle of the sexes. I laughed and loved it all the way through. If you've not been so fortunate as to have ever been married to a hot-blooded woman from Spain or Argentina, you nonetheless can enjoy the film like a gender-reversed The Magic Flute if Mozart smoked meth and was married to a hot-tempered harridan from Seville. Hugo Silva stars as a struggling divorced dad, driven to desperation by his hyper-intense and bitter nurse ex-wife (Macarena Gómez). Beginning with a gone-awry pawn shop robbery and culminating at a bizarre witches' sabbath, the action never lets up. Saughter Eva (Carolina Bang electric with wild Kate McKinnon-style eyes and punk haircut) is a true stand-out--super sexy and carnal in ways American women will never be, alas. So badass she makes young witches like Sherri Moon Zombie in Lords of Salem seem like Samantha in Bewitched... Her burgeoning on-the-fly romance with Silva is a true original of push-pull whirlwind passion and in-constant-flux emotion that stands out as the funnies and truest since The Taming of the Shrew. See it with your weekend custody son to get even with his mother. Too bad about the tacky American title and the poster art that makes it seem like a Disney movie. It ain't. The CGI is nowhere near as good, but it's way way way more subversive. Way. (In Spanish with English subtitles(more)

14. Caity Lotz as Ava/THE MACHINE
2010 - Dir. Caradog W. James
Sneaky cool little low-budget but highly-intelligent, unimaginatively titled Brit sci fi film THE MACHINE has great gloomy electronic momentum (no daytime shots ever 'til the very end, which is great); a beautifully retro Vangelis-meets-Carpenter synth score from Tom Raybould and an overall aesthetic that splices BLADE RUNNER's Tyrell Corporation to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's sub basement; and a script that mixes some TERMINATOR touches with CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962) post-humanist philosophy. The captivating Caity Lotz is great in a double role (evoking Elsa Lanchester in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and thanks to thrifty use of one giant empty soundstage and lots of Val Lewton darkness, and great artistic (and ingeniously simple) touches like the way the bodies of the artificial beings light up in strange patterns (clearly just projected onto their skin, it works superbly), its a near-masterpiece of B-movie Val Lewton econo mood; there's no filler, no apparent budget yet no corners are cut. What could be some douche chill sentimental TV movie nonsense in non-British hands (such as Guillermo del Toro's) is merely a means to a genuinely strange but optimistic Twilight Zone-style end. Slick and dark, but with some genuine AI insight and vintage analog originality to back it up (See also CinemArchetype #13 - The Automaton / Replicant / Ariel), The Machine stands as a good lesson in how you too can survive the coming robot revolution. Hint: treat the machines with compassion or at least tact, because they'll remember (and be able to play back for the jury) every last kind or derogatory word forever, no matter how far out of earshot you think they are when you say it. Their hard drive is our Akashic Records. They are the past and future, reaching back and forward along your every gesture, like karma's own sweet engine.

15. Anita Skinner as Dee-Dee
(1983) - Dir. Thom Eberhardt

It was weird seeing this by total 'chance' the same week as It Follows as the two are as alike in structure and mood as two sister craft. Anita Skinner is a TV commercial producer who is the sole survivor of a major plane crash--which from the start seems 'off' as she's not even knocked out of her seat. Once released from the hospital she's followed by the recent dead, reanimating and standing around or lurching toward her, i.e. Final Destination of the Living Dead. The alikeness with It Follows comes down to the same late 70s suburban decor (even the same clock radio, which I also had as a kid) and a cute neighbor girl whose grown up with neighbor Skinner as a friend, confidante, presumable babysitter once, etc. Dee-Dee comes over when stressed to drink wine and fall asleep on the couch because she feels unsafe in her big empty dark house, etc.  Both have scores of jarringly ominous synth notes play that would be at home in either film. What's cool is that Skinner's Dee is always her own woman, in charge of the men at the work place, snatching handsome Doctor Brian who treats her at the hospital (he can cook), confidently answering his call like a cat playing with a flightless canary, later arming herself, escaping trouble, quoting Bacall in To Have and Have Not and even managing a final surrendering smile. She's never 'terrorized' in that sadistic sense, either by any one monster, nor does she deal with children, a husband, a jealous ex, etc--she's chased around a parking garage here and there, sure--but she's her own damn woman and gets the cute doctor on her own terms, does all the seducing, and best of all, puts her career first and does it damned well. Maybe it helped that Skinner got her start in feminist oriented female-directed Canadian indie Girlfriends (Claudia Weill) which has recently been playing on TCM, and Survivor's director gave us the similarly girl powered cult classic Night of the Comet the following year. Alas, neither director or state did much after this, which might account for the film's relatively minor mention in horor film history. Too fucking bad, cuz it's awesome. (more) 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Nightmare Logic: Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)

October evenings in 2016--the usual chill of autumn warming the corpsey cockles of my hideous heart gone cold with heady heat. Has the Earth finally run dry of autumn leaf snap crackle and pop? Here in the East, a C-note of an October day barely resonates before summer muggin' flattens the coffers. In other words, this Halloween needs to get drastic. Luckily there's that first 7 days-free subscription to Shudder, which actually does curate and has pretty good taste --lots of 70s-80s Italian art-horror/giallos. Maybe it's age, but Lucio Fulci's 1981 Quella villa accanto al cimitero aka HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY has sure come along in my esteem. Maybe I'm finally mature enough to admit my prejudices against Italians and confront my childhood fear of a certain basement in our old Lansdale PA house in the 70s. (in particular the crawlspace). If you were ever afraid of the basement yourself, back in the time when each unaccompanied step was a huge endeavor, and when just going down there to get something for your mom while she was making dinner was so scary you'd race back up the stairs at the first tiny creak (even if you knew you made it)--then you owe it to yourself to revisit. Sure, there's a pretty fake bat involved, but we've all seen worse, and at least the wings flap and we wouldn't want Fulci to kill a real bat just for a movie like, say, old Ruggero.

Before diving in, a word of warning--even some of Fulci's fans aren't huge fans of this movie due to its many confusing anti-ellipses and stubborn adherence to paranoid  nightmare logic. Me, I like it better than most of his others in his undead series (City of the Living Dead, Zombi 2, The Beyond) as he keeps the focus so narrow--so localized and nightmarish, tapping the same vein of cabin fever time-bending paranoid 'always been the caretaker' interiority that make films like The Innocents, The Haunting, and The Shining (see Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror) so effective. Nothing evaporates the supernatural like the intrusion of cops and shrinks, fire arms, witnesses, panicky groups of holed-up survivors, reporters, etc.-- and nothing condenses it quite like communication failure between isolated, dysfunctional family members. In House it's the Boyle family --the father, Norman, is an academic researcher lugging wife and eight year-old son to New England for a six month stay to 'finish the project Eric (his mentor in grad school) started for the university' played by giallo mainstay Paolo Malco, Norman has a habit of staring conspiratorially at the camera as if its his Mr. Hyde wingman--especially when his emotionally drained and tantrum-prone wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) is in his arms and can't see his face--meanwhile too people in town say he was up there a few years ago with his daughter--he denies it and doesn't have one, but the Malco stare suggests. Lastly there's Danny Torrance-style psychic son Bob (Giovanni Frezza--burdened by one of the lamest voice characterizations in Italian horror dubbing history). Bob's main communication is with the murdered girl, Mae Freudstein (Silvia Collatina) who urges him not to come--but what parent ever heeded a tow-headed third grader's babbling (and why isn't he in school?). There's also the ever-enigmatic and smoldering-eyed Ania Pieroni (the music student young witch in Inferno) as Anna the babysitter.

No Italian horror film ever just rips from one source, so though the Boyles have a passing resemblance to the Torrances, the presence of Anna evokes passing vapors from Gaslight (all through sultry stares --no words) though never enough of either one to settle and become 'predictable.' Like Argento, Fulci was coming to the horror genre from mysteries / giallo procedurals, where keeping audiences guessing who the killer was meant having everyone be slightly suspicious--everyone is hiding something--or so it seems. People keep mentioning the last time Norman was up there and he says they must be mistaken but he's that shifty-eyed Italian kind of giallo-brand ectomorph--thin enough that he can be mistaken for a woman in a long black raincoat (and vice versa) with eyes that make you suspect he's having an affair with or trying to kill nearly everyone he meets even while his actions and words are all regular scared family man; and the mom is emotionally unbalanced, refusing to take prescribed pills ("I read somewhere those pills can cause hallucinations") and losing shit; then taking them and feeling great; and then being attacked by a bat, and so forth; and there's the beautiful blue-eyed blonde boy with that terrible terrible voice and his dead friend Mae;

 but the graves run right under the living room floor. When asked about the grave in the hallway, dad dismisses it, "Lots of these old houses have tombs in them," he says "because the winter's cold here and the ground is too hard for digging." Do those Italians know that shit happens in New York too? 

Lurking on the threshold between Lovecraft and calculated absurdity of Bunuel in its deadpan execution, it requires a reckless willingness to let go of reason's handrails and fully embrace the primal anxieties of nightmare logic side-by-side with playfully enigmatic deadpan paranoia, evoking the wry termite wit of Michel Soavi's La Setta and Stagefright but with more genuine dread--the kind of attention to wringing maximum suspense from random things like a steak knife being used to turn a key in a rusty hinge, the camera pulling up close and the suspense rising with the intense chalkboard squeak of dry bold slowly turning while dad comes ever closer to slipping his grip and slashing open his wrist (or having the knife blade snap off and go ricocheting around the kitchen before lodging in someone's head. But then the door opens--Norman flashes the flashlight through the thick cobwebs and we wonder if Freudstein really does live down there or is some kind of a ghost.   And then--before Norman can look around--a bat attack. It's quite a sequence - practically real time from when Norman wakes Lucy up (the barbiturates lining up on her night table like little troupers) to the death throes of the bat - a complete wind up all around from waking up refreshed after a night of (presumably) Valium and sex, and winding up back to being the sobbing out-of-her-depth nervous breakdown


And then, as the basement keeps opening, the weird mix of nightmare logic and deadpan humor shifts to straight nightmare. No other film of Fulci's is so rife with childhood nightmare faithfulness, and so void of cold logical counterpoint. Italy's other great horror maestro of the period, Dario Argento, still turned to logical cops and psychologists for eventual explanation but in House Fulci forgets about cops and rationale as the time window is just too short. By the time the progressively more deranged and horrified recordings left by Norman's mentor reach the part about Freudstein keeping himself alive in the basement via a steady stream of replacement organs and limbs shorn from new tenants. Bob is already locked in the basement, with Freudstein--one of the most genuinely unnerving Italian walking corpses--shambling towards him. As with Carpenter's Halloween (its sequel was in drive-ins the same year as this) this has sort of melting clock tick-tock momentum, wherein time moves slower than real life while never actually being in slow motion - so moving across a room to open a locked door (ala Leopard Man) can seem to take forever the more you crosscut. For example if we see a Laurie Strode running from point A to B and then cut to Loomis walking down the street from house 1 to house 2, we wouldn't cut back to Lauruie now running past point C or D but still running past B where we left her --then when we cut back to Loomis he'd still be walking from house 2 to 3, back to Laurie running past D. It's an editing strategy that subverts our the narrative pacing expectations originally set up by DW Griffith who invented crosscutting as a narrative style in 1909's A Corner in Wheat to create that nightmare pacing feeling of running through three feet of sucking mud while some being slowly advances towards you. Usually crosscutting liberates us from time's tedious aspects while enhancing our desire for the two separate threads to finally meet (the pursued or endangered heroine and the cavalry riding - riding to her rescue), which flatters our paranoia (we sense our desire will be met at the conclusion of the sequence, due to associative tendency created through signifier expectation: show me an apple near a pointed black hat and I'll think its poisoned with sleeping sickness, show me a racing squad of cop cars crosscut next to an isolated young woman slowly opening her attic door, and I'll think the killer is up there -- etc. Few American auteurs dare screw with this formula the way Fulci (and Soavi had) until Demme with Silence of the Lambs (when it turns out Crawford and company are rushing an empty house and Buffalo Bill answers the door at Mrs. Bimmel's for Clarice, alone except for a standard issue side arm.

A similar rupture even occurs in the time-frame of Cemetery as well, between the two children on opposite sides of the life-death divide, separated by 60 or so years, where time is much more fluid in both directions, which we're not used to. This angle confuses some people in its ambiguity (especially the 'huh?' ending). But if you know Antonioni's BLOW-UP (1967) and the birth of LSD symbolic melt-down post-structuralism and the 70s movement towards ESP, telekinesis, past-life regression, Satanism, post-Manson cults, deprogramming, near death experiences (NDEs), Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape theoryand the way in which strange visions and dreams might well be some denizen of your house in the far future channeling your ghost (wherein you might be talking to your unborn great granddaughter and not even know it), then yes the ending makes perfect sense. If someone from the past can visit our present why not vice versa, who knows we might be from the future - a visi on they're having in the past from around a seance table.

Whether or not Fulci had seen The Leopard Man (1943) by then--with little Maria's blood coming in under the door as her mama rushes to unlock it--is incidental. He takes that one pivotal moment -- a key scene in nightmare horror no one who's seen it can forget, and drains it of all cultural, feminist Jungian-archetypal symbolism, and mixed emotions (our relish knowing mom deserves to have this death on her conscience)--then distills it down into pure fear, turning the whole second half of the film into one prolonged, torturous child locked on one side, parents frenzied on the other, like a crazy man who distills a gallon of vodka down to a pint of 190 proof Everclear just so he can then take an hour and a half to sip it straight with no chaser. He may be dizzy, nauseous and trembling by the end but by god is he drunk.

My problem with Fulci's other films in his undead category, such as The Beyond (also 1981) is that it's all over the place, spread out into hospitals and cops and corpses with pink Jello-pop acid waves and tarantulas, and seeing eye-dogs and half-headed zombie broads--all fine stuff but the broader the canvas the less effective the horror, to my mind. All the true classics involve structural collapses of the social order, patriarchal symbolic orders toppled by intrusions of the unassimilated real, in HOUSE the cast is kept down to a handful-- there's no cops nosing around, no red herring "pervert" suspects, and the supernatural element is kept on the DL --once people are killed they don't get up and walk again, or wink in and out of existence (as they do in City of the Living Dead), they just get hung up on the basement laundry line for Freudstein's use in his self-Frankenstein home repair.

Thus while many critics will say it doesn't make sense that people take so long to walk say from one room to another and no one does the smart thing like call the cops or leave but in dream logic it makes sense; dream logic isn't an excuse for lazy coherency, to just toss whatever crap together you want and call it dream-like. The structural geography of the dream landscape is just as organized and cohesive--each element corresponds to aspects of a psyche in turmoil, as in the CinemArchetype series, with Freudstein as the Primal father devouring his young like Cronus. Whereas something like, say, American Werewolf in London will rely on dream sequences to justify senseless but visually interesting 'trailer-ready' moments, such as a squad of werewolf Nazis (left over from Song Remains the Same) bursting into the family living room and machine gunning everyone. In doing so Landis betrays a faith in the permanence of conscious perception that pegs him as part of the provincial pop Spielberg-Lucas-Chris Columbus school of wide-eyed wonder. The kind of naivete that insists of gruesome latex transformation scenes, and issues like waking up from your rampage naked (your clothes having been shredded off), the kind of naivete that comes from having not taken mind-altering drugs, experienced drastic social upheaval or had mental illness issues (they're all the same thing, really). Take as opposition to that the more grey-shade psychic breakdowns from more literature-based European immigrants refracting the start of World War 2--the shadow of the wolf over Europe vs. the promise of the New World--in The Wolfman (1941) and the original Cat People (1942 - below). In the latter especially I recently made careful observation of the shadowy transformation scenes and noticed that in the transformation isn't rendered by effects but by black on black animation (if you look closely in the dark shadows in the corner of the pool room you can see an animated black ink splotch), her transformation back is shown from paw prints becoming not bare feet but high heels! The camera doesn't dwell on it, merely pans away, but the implication is truly marvelous in a true Camille Paglia-style fusion of the chthonic feminine and high fashion glamazon.

 But Fulci, a dream logic master, doesn't need dreams within the narrative to infuse things with weird imagery; rather the film's entire language is rooted in the figures and narratives of childhood nightmares, just as Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are, and films that show reality from the point of view of a paranoid schizophrenic, wherein sensory perception merges with hallucination -so that, Dorothy finds everything in two-strip color, the farm hands all halfway between their archetypal dream selves, causing her to kill Mrs. Gulch by drowning her in the water trough, killing any older woman wearing red shoes and stealing them; Alice chasing real white rabbits around the woods, or leaving them to rot outside the ice box. Like The Innocents or The Shining, Cemetery is a study how one becomes the other, in understanding the importance of isolation for reality to bend - the way cops and psychiatry officials dispel it by trade and presence (the only outsiders are dispatched almost as soon as they enter, via axe or poker); a cop's whole training, and the court system, and doctors, is to clear away the cobwebs and separate fact from fiction, the very things that drive people into fits of cabin fever murderousness, the ghosts coming out when there's no one around to dispel them with the lamp of logic.

Therefore too comes the realization that a terrified kid locked in the basement, hammering at the door screaming and pleading while his mom pounds on the other side and the killer lurches slowly across the room--might run on and on, time melting down to stasis, the terror mounting like the swinging of a pendulum, or the slow ascent of a roller coaster. It doesn't matter in the end if the threat is actually real - it can still function along this line - in fact the two might need each other --the isolated paranoid schizophrenic and the supernatural Other like opposite polarities with a genuine demonic manifestation the lightning strike.

"Oh God! His voice... I hear it everywhere!"

One of the major quibbles/strengths for the dream logic effect is the sound of paranoia, the diegetic ambient sound effects which are genuinely (unless I'm as flipped as a Polanski heroine) attuned to incongruous association. Using a kind of Eisensteinian associative sound editing, the steady background sound of birds outside the window might include a child's scream --in the same key--heard but once, so that our brain doesn't have time to consciously notice, so that the birds never quite become a child screaming. If you hear a tree fall in the woods but didn't see it, and the sound of its creak-and-crash occurs the same time as a rusty door hinge is opened and is howling dog from a few yards back, did you really hear it? Would you go check it out? Or would you wonder if you just misread it, heard the dog plus a squeaky screen door hinge and a car driving by all congeal to sound, briefly, like a third thing, like an overtone in Tibetan throat singing. If another tree fell right afterwards or you heard a chainsaw, then you'd realize you heard it. Otherwise.... no. So did we even hear it in the film, either? I could rewind and check but would rather leave it be, Schrodinger's Cat-style.

Freudstein's disruptive manifestation comes even audio mimesis, a river of Satanic voices and--possibly--his past victims, such as Freudstein's unholy Bluto-style laughs of pleasure when killing the real estate lady or the way he cries in a child's voice (possibly Bob's) when injured, a voice that sometimes doubles itself to sound like a chorus and occasionally interrupts the cry with a tiny laugh. Are these the voices the ghosts of murdered children or is it a by-product of stealing their limbs, (including his own daughter's arm). Is this some kind of ability to mimic his victims to lure new ones down, ala Attack of the Crab Monsters? or does he just cry like a little baby? If you need an answer, then you may want to know for sure whether the hauntings in The Haunting and The Innocents are all in the projections from the deranged mind of a repressed middle-aged virgin hysteric or actual ghosts. Again, Schrodinger's Cat, man. Horror lives in amnesia and the dissolution of the line between hallucinations and reality.

Norman stares directly into the camera a lot - for the same reason most actors never do

Some would say fuck that dumb cat and label Fulci a sensationalist, especially in the spoiled mainstream USA, where open endings like House's allow for lots of WTF unanswered questions to just hang there. But they wouldn't dare say that about Antonioni or Lucretia Martel, because there's no shambling corpses in The Headless Woman or Red Desert. In each an ordinary upscale housewife reconfigures ordinary random events so that they almost constitute amnesia or an affair but we can never be sure what's going on - it's the way a thrill of guilty fear might pass us when we hear a siren in the distance or the flush of shame when we hear someone laughing behind us, as if mocking our private thoughts. In an international film center like Italy, since the language / dubbing is always so iffy from language to language, so much of the film's power rides (1) on the ambient noise / foley / sound effects and a style of antithetical music originated by Ennio Morricone and picked up by everyone, especially in the wake of Blow-Up. Italian auteurs like Fulci know the tone of a whole film can change with a bad dub job (as in the terrible adult voice doing little boy Bob here) but no one can argue with the way an innocent child's sob of woe is folded into the sprocket-waves of a squeaky door hinge, or a woman's scream becomes a jazz horn.

Walter Rezattis score rocks along all the while all, surging between soapy melancholic grand piano and crescendoes of church organ-driven prog rock, taking long pauses here and there so we can hear the pin drop, emphasizing all the weird random noises that come in and out of the mise-en-scene  This is a chamber piece movie as big as all outdoors while seldom leaving a few rooms, capturing the weird way time mirrors across itself, the way modern horror comes rupturing out of the ground like oil gushers of the putrid dead in between cliffside romantic clinches so that sweeping concert piano virtuosity --which normally is my least favorite Italian soundtrack instrument--fits elegantly as counterpoint--that great soundtrack style originating with Ennio (as far as I can tell)--where antithesis brings depth in a way the on-the-nose telegraph orchestration of Spielberg types like John Williams and Howard Shore would never imagine--as nowhere is the line between the 'experienced' and the virgin more sharply drawn than in music. Rezatti ain't no Morricone, or even Goblin but he is a kind of Keith Emerson-meets-Bruno Nicolai fusion, and as always with Fulci music is used sparingly, effectively, sometimes jarringly - roaring to life to cut off actors' last word or stepping on their first, with even what sounds like a 'play' button clicking in the mix. I've written too much validating accidental Brechtianism to just presume Fulci 'missed a few spots' in the sound editing, especially with all those earlier marvelous musical flourishes.

(but as a kid, so who believes me?)

Another example of Fucli's open-ended death/Lazarus metaphors (ala Mike Hammer voom! vavoom!): Bob, the child, racing in terror - the camera running up behind him with the score roaring to life with crazy synth squiggles of twisted menace--he falls atop a grave, the ghost (?) of its occupant's child, Mae Freudstein (redheaded child of horror Silvia Collatina) lifts him off grabbing him by his arm, which stays folded like he's in a coffin; Mae turns out to have been chasing him in a game of tag. But now Bob has to run home for lunch; promises -as we all have--to race back out right after. Mae watches as he runs back towards the house before saying (with a robotic fatalism) "No Bob, don't go inside." but the score surges to life again and cuts off her last syllable.

We saw her in a flashback to her own period (Victorian, judging by the dress), earlier (and again later) saying the same thing, as if in a trance, after we've heard her say it to Bob, while he's in a trance, and sees her talking to him from the window of the old photo of the house they're moving to, so one imaginary friend in the early 1910s is having a conversation with a real boy in "present" time (1981), etc. The girls admonition in the graveyard --"you shouldn't have come, Bob" has a chilling unemotional frankness far beyond either scary emotion or kids trying to act.

It's not like Bob really has a choice; as a kid is never listened to. Even after he sees his babysitter's head bounce down the stairs he's unable to get this across to his disbelieving mother the type of parent who if you came to them covered in bruises would chide you for having such a morbid imagination when crying for attention. Of course from that horror then comes the comedy of the idiot Bob down in the basement alone shouting "Ann! Mommy says your not dead!" when the last time the door just swung shut down there and locked by itself and something killed her. This is just one of the ways Fulci builds terror in a viewer, the raw molasses slow illogic after all that high-toned paranoia reaches back to the fatalistic dread of kids who aren't heeded until it's too late. It's the big fear preyed on in all the best horror films, most recently in Let the Right One in and It Follows, of being a kid in danger and adults around either unwilling or unable to notice or give your fear the slightest heed. Not until the blood runs under the door will they believe you and even then will rather believe it's somehow a result of your own morbid imagination.

NIGHTMARE LOGIC III:  Schrödinger's Cat People

House opens up with a mini masterpiece of generating suspense - we pan  up from the gloomy house and there's a gorgeous young women getting dressed by a table where clearly she's been getting it on mere moments ago, talking to her off-camera boyfriend (who doesn't answer--and we never see him until we see him dead), they've clearly been using this dusty derelict old house for their romantic trysts - which signifies their love is: a) forbidden (probably both living with parents -so they're young), passionate (they'd have to ripe with sexual heat to get it on in such cobwebbed gloom), and doomed (no one knows they're there, of course, so won't be looking for them). Anyway, the boyfriend doesn't answer - she gets more panicked - looking around --you can guess the rest. It's so simple - but it works. There's no fancy surreal touches, just a monologue really by this beautiful blonde actress (Fulci regular Daniela Doria) as she orbits a copulation table in ever wider arcs, introducing us to the house in the process --which is caked in dust now but presumably won't be after the credits. While many Italian filmmakers add weird touches and tricks from Hitchcock etc., Fulci's trick is to cut right to it, like paring away Argento's operatic style to establish a sense of powerless unease in the viewer using very little in the way of backstory, plot, or other stalling tactics. Good writing can convey more mood and information in a glance or line than three pages of lame exposition and that's the case here--all the details add up so that after barely a few minutes of elapsed screen time, the house itself seems doomed - the basement especially is cavernous and foreboding - the kind of place you can imagine never visiting even if you bought the place - better to just leave it be, and you're not sure why--but we feel it, too, in our bones along with the setting wintry New England desolation. As a result what might be just another dull opening murder of a naughty young girl and/or boy leaves dread in the air like a radio key. From this we cut to New York City and Bob's first psychic link with Mae, whose warning him not to come before he even knows they're going.

House by The Cemetery - Anna the Babysitter

Later: The real estate agent's corpse is dragged across the kitchen and down the stairs, leaving a wide streak of blood; the close-up of blood on the wooden floor is suddenly interrupted by a sponge coming into frame. We wonder for a half-sec if Dr. Freudstein is actually cleaning up after himself, but then see the floor's being cleaned by Anna, throwing down a big mop and bucket. But is she cleaning the blood or was the blood gone before she started cleaning or is she in league with Dr. Freudstein or is Lucy just hallucinating and by now shrugging it all off (or is it dead bat blood)? Lucy comes into the room in her robe, "What are you doing?" she asks. Anna gives her an enigmatic look that could mean a) what does it look like, genius? You people leave blood everywhere. and b) I'm going to fuck your husband. But instead: "I made coffee."

haunting stare from House by the Cemetery

Lucy continues, oblivious: "What a shame you didn't come with us to the restaurant last night." This gets a knowing, vaguely contemptuous and cuckolding stare even closer and straight into camera that could be read many ways, as its no doubt meant to. Since a lot of these signifiers all come from mysteries Italian filmmakers are used to conveying the 'everyone's a suspect with the same approximate build, male and female' suspicions.  It even continues with the implication Anna is bringing a tray of coffee into Norman at this desk, but instead in the reverse shot after her muffled voice we realize it's Lucy and shortly after all that's forgotten when we see it's Lucy behind the tray  - and that whole aspect evaporates. Lucy ccomes out with groceries and we think we see Norman driving by in the car but can't tell - did Lucy drive the car and he stole it leaving her to walk hme with two bags of groceries through the woods, did he say he was going to NYC but really is haning around the library listening to disturbing tapes of his predecessor's rantings (accompanied by POV shots of Freudstein's 'workshop' replete enough gore to repel most anyone no matter how fake most of it looks.)

It would be unfair to make Fulci account for the lack of resolution in all this unspoken
'let's drive the wife insane' red herring implications anymore than in the  'almost affair' between Richard Harris and Monica Vitti In Antononi's Red Desert. There's no trope or cliche that sits still and allows us to situate ourself into what kind of movie this is, which again maddens the either/or types. They can argue that since nothing comes of it, plot-wise, one can argue it's just a waste of time that goes nowhere, Fulci fooling around with the bag of enigmatic stare tricks so beloved of Italian genre filmmakers and French film theorists.

But one can argue to the genius of that - for it generates a sense of paranoia and unease if you submit to it, that helps amp up the shocks to come as they seem further and further afield but in actuality are remarkably blunt and close to home, like tricking us into looking at a car driving from far away and then after our eyes have adjusted, stabbing us in the throat from behind with a scissors. Fulci critics wouldn't dare say Hitchcock wastes our time with the Melanie Daniels'-Mitch Brenner meet-cute romance in The Birds or Marion Crane's embezzlement in Psycho. Well, Fulci does the same thing within the confines of wordless stares! In all three the suspense and fright comes seemingly from left field - we're not given to expect birds or knives or monsters in the basement because the cinematic signs are all lining up for a different movie, one we've doubtless seen: in The Birds, the story of a spoiled city heiress finding love and meaning while hiding out in a small waterfront fishing community (in the vein of Anna Christie, The Purchase Price, He Was her Man) is sideswiped by the bird attacks, so that the birds fly in under our radar in a sense, as in Pyscho where there's no signs of what's coming in the shower as we believe we're seeing some sexy noir thriller where a woman steals from her employer to run away with her handsome lover.

Did Anna Pieroni inspire this iconic
NG photo from 1985?
And besides, she has those gorgeous eyes, that haunting stare really is like the best part of Inferno -naturally Fulci would want one for his very own.

Earlier, seeing she's stressed  out over the move, husband Norman asks if Lucy's taken her pills (we never learn what they are or hear of them again). Though clearly very rattled by the goings-on in the house she says no, she hasn't been taking them because "I've read somewhere that those pills can cause hallucinations...." He looks at her (mock?) enigmatically: "Are you sure?" One can read the paradoxical inference (she hallucinated reading the article) but as it;s also just tossed off by the dubbing so if that meaning was there it's become lost in translation, but it's also typical of the gaslighting tactics husbands and their young lovers (or daughters and gigoloo acid dealing boyfriends) employ to destabilize a saintly momma in Italy's many soapy romantic thrillers. Especially in the age of the"Valley of the Dolls" era-- (the 60s-70s) wives could no longer always tell what reality was thanks to some blue pill a man who says he's her doctor keeps giving her--is he arranging gaslight-style scenes to make her think she's hallucinating? Put strong acid in her Valiums and play weird tape recordings of dead husband's voice under her bed (as they do in The Big Cube) and you can get her to jump off the roof into the sea while you're safely miles away with perfect alibis. It lets the filmmaker use all sorts of crazy images and unresolved ellipses (way better than the "it was all a dream" defense.

Again all these little tangents go nowhere, they're really more misdirection and paranoia-boosters, both aspects helping to make the ensuing murders that much more traumatizing - especially as they're so blunt an inexorably straightforward, like a raw unedited nightmare. After the incident in the kitchen with the staring and blood mopping, both parents are out and Anna is alone in the house with Bob, who's playing with his remote control car in the living room, the setting for another of the film's inexorable but natural progressions from one small thing to another until the trap swing shut. First Bob's the car turns a corner toward the kitchen out of his sight; Bob turns the corner wondering why it hasn't driven back; it's gone and there's no sound of it revving; the basement door, which is usually locked, is wide open however. Bob goes down into the gloom to look for it and disappears from view. A moment later Anna comes into frame and calls to him; he doesn't answer. She looks down the basement steps, and slowly goes down into the basement to look for him. Suddenly the door slams shut above and locks her in and some shadowy thing comes moving towards her from the far end of the basement. She's fucked. She starts screaming for Bob but he's somehow upstairs. It's so a simple logical progression: the remote control car disappearance leading to the babysitter locked in a cellar. She's screaming for Bob to open the door as Freudstein starts shambling towards her out of the gloom. But Bob isn't going to open the door unarmed, so he's collecting his stuffed monkey and flashlight while she's screaming and pounding at the door and the killer's lurching slowly towards her...

The glacial pace in which Bob suits up to walk across the kitchen floor -taking his sweet time -as she's cut to ribbons on the other side of the door is maddening, that borrow of Leopard Man thrown into an infinite loops, and yet we certainly can't fault Fulci for choosing 'nightmare time' frame for the action, the slowing down rather than speeding up is just what real nightmares are like. There's no time or space in a nightmare-- no logic rhyme or reason -running three steps can take an hour and a ten miles crossed in a single second. Here it's the former and a sense of fatalism overtakes us as, one after another, the adults trundle down into the basement to their deaths. We already know no one can be spared--from the tapes of the previous tenant/researcher that Dr. Boyle listens to: "Oh my god, not the children! "The blood! Blood! Not only blood.... his voice!" That terror in the tape is the most emotional of all the voices in the film. It settles over the rest of the film like a pall.

Demerits for some terrible dubbing, especially the lady playing Bob like he's always counseling a simpleton in a terrible 60s movie (which is why I can use that word) but that sense of wrongness helps to give it all a nightmare fatalism. The dad's declaration after dragging the family away from comfy upscale NYC, a dismissal of their needs and concerns, "You're gonna love it, smell that country air," is also strangely unconvincing --carrying no authority and raises suspicions he's woefully inadequate as a father. You could be coming to him bleeding and on fire and he'd wave it away as new school jitters. It can drive viewers insane but that's part of why it works as a nightmare logic parable -simple buildups from normal tiny incidents seeming slightly out of joint --the way no one in the family really hear what one another is saying - which is why Anna's ominous silence carries such a charge and says way more than all the generic small talk of the mother. If it gets too frustrating to see a whole family helpless to escape a limping armless dead man who can barely shamble, preferring to cower and die helpless and screaming when it would be a simple thing to chop off his other arm (or at least use your own) well, that's how nightmares are and who knows how we'd really act and maybe that's where the horror is -- the realization that if the shit got heavy enough we'd crumble into a sweaty sobbing ball. At least in this case we can imagine the terror really is overwhelming - that this thing has been living below them all the while and has been for over 70 years, repairing itself through limb replacement until all that's left is walking death - this is the first time they see it, and the last--as if the full horror of Freudstein's shambling maggoty cadaver is so overwhelming it paralyzes the prey, jams the record so it hops a groove and leaves you screaming on an eternal skip--a kind of instant repression black-out.

That's why the film's chamber piece momentum works so well, almost like a three act opera, as all the paranoid 'almost' sub-plots evaporate in the cold finality of the basement, the illogic that a row of corpses could be strung up down there without the smell carrying upstairs through the same crack in which Bob crawls for his own escape (trying to fit his head through that narrow crack provides one last nerve shredding moment that stretches forever) into Mae's and Mother Freudstein's sympathetic decades-departed arms--is so startling, original and final. There is no death but what we make for ourselves, which is called waking up, the alarm clock of your tender throat raw from claw-choked screaming, pulled up from the pillowy grave like sluggish screaming Lazarus Jr. by a girl who died before your grandmother was born, to a world with its own set of rules, but the same damned house. Or to put in layman's terms, it's the end of The Shining if its Danny who wound up at the party in 1929, or at least upstairs with a babysitter and those cool creepy twins... forever... and ever...And mind your manners--you know some other guest is sure to drop in.

1.(since it's going to be dubbed and subtitled in about 20 different languages, Italian film tradition is to shoot MOS (without sound) or silently - each actor in the international cast speaking his or her own language and then dubbing their part for that country's track, ideally, and voice actors in that language doing the rest, which is why nearly every character in Italian horror sounds like one of two or three different voice actors. No one knows their names or where they are - the invisible heroes of the business- as a voiceover actor myself I say their stories must be told!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...