Saturday Marathon II: The Trashening

It must be Fall, although the outside temperatures are still freakishly hot and humid.  Honestly, the worst thing about my laziness (and lifelong pursuit of becoming so sedentary I am declared a rock formation) is that I never bothered to move somewhere colder. I like wearing jackets and sweaters, boots. I find gloves bizarrely sexy. All these things are unnecessary 10 months out of the year here in the swamplands of Texas.

So how do I know it’s Fall? Things are getting busier. Much busier. Last week I alluded to squeezing in some movies in between a weeknight show and editing two stories (I didn’t even mention shooting a third, that came up at the last minute). This week, not much better. Edited one story, trying to set up interviews for three more. Not shooting this week but I have two shows this weekend. Monday night my family celebrated my birthday, because my actual birthday night I was working the Economic Development Corporation. This afternoon I journey into town for a preliminary meeting on another educational writing project which will allow me to pay bills in a timely manner for a few months. Such is life.

In the meantime, however, there are movies. Yes, many movies. Let us begin.

Last Tuesday I gave in to an urge I’d been feeling for a while and re-watched Psycho (the original, puh-leeeeeze). This is one of those movies I just have to watch every now and then, just to drink in Hitchcock’s master class in how to do slow-burn tension-ratcheting. The set-ups are so simple, so economical, that you despair why more filmmakers can’t do equally well with so little. The answer, of course, is they’re not Hitchcock.

There are a lot of different stories about the whys and wherefores of why Psycho is in black and white. That Hitchcock thought it would make the gore less offensive, the studio didn’t want to spend a lot of money on such obvious trash that was so obviously destined to fail, that Hitchcock noticed that crappy little B&W B-movies were making money hand over fist so what would happen if we made a good one?… in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter, it just works, and at the time it probably heightened the almost documentary feel of the movie, thanks to TV news every evening in black and white. Hitchcock was using a 50mm lens, the closest to human vision, to really drag out the feeling that the viewer was a voyeur in the whole matter.

Psycho is also interesting to me as the movie that changed the way we watched movies. I remember when I was a kid in the early 60s, you went to a movie whenever you felt like it. If you arrived in the middle, well, fine, you played catch-up with your native wit, stayed through the changeover, then watched until you hit the point you entered; kids, this is where the phrase “This is where I came in” comes from. Hitchcock insisted no one be seated after Psycho began, and though I have no way of determining how well this was enforced, it still ushered in a sea change of how we attended movies. The “exclusive road show engagements” of the 50s-60s helped also, but it’s possible to point to Psycho‘s box office success as a touchstone in the practice of seeing a movie from the beginning.

I also feel the need to point out the stunning work done on my Universal Blu-Ray’s audio tracks – the crew pulled a very nice 5.1 track from the original soundtrack. It doesn’t call attention to oneself, but it beautifully broadens a monophonic track into a true soundscape that I think Hitchcock himself would have appreciated.

Next up was The Woman in Black, one of those movies I intended to see in a theater but didn’t. This is the first movie from the revived Hammer Films, leading me to expect good things. There were strands of the old Hammer DNA in evidence; a good cast, led by Daniel Radcliffe (trying to put Harry Potter behind him and somewhat succeeding) and Ciaran Hinds as the most modern member of a superstitious village; great period detail matched a superb production design. What I didn’t get was the Hammer mastery of all that is Gothic.

Woman in Black relies throughout its first half on cheap jump scares administered far too frequently; there is some good scary stuff in the second half – and more jump scares – but those times that a person suddenly appears WITH A LOUD MUSICAL STING totally squanders any good will the creepy stuff engenders. I’m still looking forward to further Hammer offerings, but this one does not go on the shelf next to the others.

And cripes, wouldn’t it easier on everyone if these superstitious villages would simply come clean with out-of-towners and just tell them why they shouldn’t go to the Old Dark House?

The Show that Saturday was cancelled – actors out-of-town – and that would usually be cause for moping about all morose-like, because that’s disastrous for my fragile economic ecosystem. But you know what? not this time. This time I knew what to do. I dropped Rick a line and asked if he wanted to waste a Saturday watching movies again. Well, by golly he did, and thereby hangs the rest of this post.

The night before this epic meeting, Rick e-mailed myself and another Crapfest pal, Alan, about finding a gray market site that was selling a piece of 70s/80s softcore to which Alan had gotten attached in his teen cable-watching days. I fired back to Rick “Never mind that, Savage Sisters is playing on Channel 11-2 RIGHT NOW.”

You see, back during one of the Crapfests, I had infected Rick with my perverse love for Cheri Caffaro. To this point, I have played the Ginger Trilogy to an appreciative (and more than a little perverted) Crapfest crowd, and I know they’ve watched H.O.T.S., on which she has a producer credit (due diligence: sweet Jesus, but I hate H.O.T.S.). More due diligence: I haven’t seen her first movie, A Place Called Today, in which she has a supporting role. But Savage Sisters is the only remaining movie I would have shown at a Crapfest, such is its quality.

To get back to our narrative: Rick doesn’t get good reception on that particular channel, so he didn’t see it, breaking his heart. Guess what, then, was the first thing we dropped into my player? (And all due glory to Brit Stand-Up Guy Dave Thomas for supplying me a flawless, letterboxed copy)

This starts in pretty typical Filipino territory; Cheri is the girlfriend of the head of the Rebels, who gets double-crossed by the villainous team of Sid Haig and Vic Diaz. Cheri and another hardcore rebel, Rosanna Ortiz (who herself has a killer filmography in the Philippines) wind up in jail under the tender care of Gloria Hendry, who is the Vice President In Charge of Torture at the prison (which I believe I recognize from Women in Cages), and knows Rosanna from their earlier prostitute days. MEANTIME, hustler John Ashley has found out Sid Haig killed the Rebels (including Cheri’s boyfriend) for a “MEELION dollars, US currency!” and recruits old pal Hendry to spring Cheri and Rosanna so they can all chase after the bucks.

PHEW. As you can tell, this isn’t your typical Filipino WiP movie; besides the complicated set-up, it also contains a rich vein of bizarre comedy, especially with the incidental characters. The corrupt General, of course, has a chest full of medals; when he removes his jacket, his dress shirt is equally decorated, so naturally, when he removes that, his undershirt is also festooned with medals. A Punjabi sidekick who speaks in gibberish only Ashley can understand, a failed kamikaze pilot, and Sid Haig doing his best to masticate the entire landscape. Since his character is “a bandit”, he wears a serape and sombrero, and uses the adjective “Stinking” every third word. As his sidekick, Vic Diaz essays an eyepatch and is apparently only invincible when his plumber’s crack is showing, like some slovenly Greek legend.

This really is one of the best Cheri Caffaro movies around, mainly, I think, because hubby Don Schain was nowhere near it.

Afterwards, we were talking about the movie while making queso, and Rick was amazed at the unexpected humor. “Yeah,” I said, “it’s like they gave Eddie Romero this amazing cast and said, Make us a women in prison picture, and what he did was give them the Death Race 2000 of women in prison movies.”

“You know,” said Rick, “I’ve never seen Death Race 2000.

There was silence for a moment. “Keep stirring that cheese,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

No friend of mine is going to say he’s never seen Death Race 2000.

The premise of Death Race 2000 is simplicity itself, especially if you’ve ever played the sick game in a car about how many points each pedestrian is worth. In the far-flung future of 2000, in a world devastated by “The Crash of ’79”, Mr. President (from his Summer mansion in Peking), gives the official start to the most popular sporting event evar, the Transcontinental Road Race. Five racers and their navigators, representing various tribal cliques and possessing pro-wrestler-like larger-than-life personas, charge across America, solving the overpopulation problem where they can.

Death Race 2000 is a goofy good time. Early Sly Stallone as a bad guy!  Walter Cronkite impersonators! Mary Woronov! Illinois Nazis! Breasts are exposed every so often to remind us that it is, indeed, a drive-in movie. The second unit race footage is pretty good, but it’s Bartel’s sense of the absurd and savage barbs at media culture that edges this one from the ranks of forgettable action fare to actual classic. I had fun with the “remake” starring Jason Statham, but I don’t see anyone, forty years from now, excitedly pulling it from a shelf to share with their friends.

And as many times as I have seen this movie, I had never before realized John Landis had a line in it. Stallone runs him over for it.

(Oh, yeah, that guy on GetGlue who posted “This movie sucks. The remake was 10 times beter (sic).”? Keep looking over your shoulder. One day, I’ll be there.)

It was starting to get dark out. I cooked up some chicken fajitas while we played a bootleg DVD Rick had brought over, of a 1975 KISS concert. I’ve never been a fan, but Rick was exclaiming over how young they were, how energetic was the guitar work. Myself, when I walked through the room, marveled at the black-and-white video, complete with streaks and ghosting and trails whenever the highlights overpowered the tube cameras. Took me back to my days in public access at the local cable company, it did.

As we ate (and damn, I’m a good cook), we tried to get back to the concept that I have a List to watch and we were supposed to be whittling that down, so we slipped in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.

This is honestly about the best-looking, if most absurd, blaxploitation movie I have ever seen.

So the 6’2″ Tamara Dobson is back as Cleopatra, and this time she’s come to Hong Kong to track two of her agents who were trying to infiltrate a heroin ring, only to be captured by the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens, keeping up the tradition of odd female villains in the short series). Cleo immediately disses her boss, Norman Fell (engendering the phrase, “Oooh, Norman Fell burn!”) and decides to go out on her own. In a foreign city. Where she doesn’t even speak the language.

Well, that’s not the only extraordinary thing that’s going to happen in this movie. Cleo falls in with an equally tough HK woman and her gang of motorcycle-riding investigators, and we’re off. Like I said, this is an amazingly well-shot movie. Run Run Shaw is listed as a producer, and money is thrown at the screen in all the right places. Chase scenes through the crowded streets of Hong Kong are thrilling, and there is plenty of pyro and gunfire. What there isn’t, sadly, is much of a compelling story, but it is overall a painless way to spend 90 minutes.

Then, at last, the Final Round. What Rick had been looking forward to all evening, if not all week: Fight For Your Life.

Fight For Your Life carries with it a lot of baggage. What we have here is a bona fide video nasty, put on that daunting list along with such movies as Driller Killer and I Spit On Your Grave. Banned outright in Sweden. Legend is it caused riots in the grindhouses of 42nd Street.

Rick was looking forward to the ultimate in transgressive cinema. What I have learned about Rick is that he can buy seriously into hype. He still curses the day he bought a ticket to Gates of Hell and saw neither gates, nor hell, nor reason it was supposedly banned in 39 countries.

Anyway.

Fight For Your Life concerns three escapees from a prison van: Jessie Lee Kain ( a very early appearance by William Sanderson) , Chino (Daniel Faraldo, who went on to a decent enough TV career) , and Ling (Peter Yoshida, who… well, not so much). After a fairly brutal crime spree as they edge toward the Canadian border, the three take a middle class black family (the Turners) hostage, intending to steal their car and make their run after dark.

This is apparently racist.

As you might imagine with a musical name like Jessie Lee Kain, the leader of the thugs is not just a bigot, he is a unrepentant suuuuuper bigot. A whole lot of the movie is Kain spouting his racist bile at the Turners and generally being a hateful jackass. Rick and I were concerned that he would run out of epithets, and to be sure, at one point he begins referring to Mom Turner as “Deputy Dawg”. This frankly bewildered me, because I remember Deputy Dawg. He was a TerryToon back in the early 60s, and moreover, he was a white dog. I don’t get it. but anyway…

So what we have here is basically a racist version of The Desperate Hours, with some diversions along the way, like young son Turner’s white friend showing up and finding out the family is hostage, but (work with me here) Ling, who was sent out to capture the white girlfriend of the (now deceased) elder Turner son – and winds up accidentally killing her – well Ling finds the white boy running away and kills him with a rock. Not too swift, is Ling.

So there’s a little more going on here than a hostage drama. We also cut away every now and then to the antics of Rulebook Riley, a New York police detective pursuing our ne’er-do-wells. As his name implies, Rulebook has a zero-tolerance policy toward everything. Jaywalkers, drunk drivers, spitting on the sidewalk. If Rulebook catches you breaking the law, you are screwed.

Some actual detective work does bring the police, at last, to the Turner house (not that Kain and company have been particularly stealthy). One policeman finds the white kid’s body in the forest and carries him to the command center, and wouldn’t you know it, he was the Sheriff’s son. One screaming charge at the house later, Kain has put another cop on his kill list. But! The distraction allows our hostages to turn the tables, and now it’s revenge time!

This is what Rick was looking forward to, and so was I and so is every audience member that ever watched this (except for the ones that thought Kain was the hero and that he was exercising some restraint. God help me, I said that as a joke but it occurs to me there are actually are such people). I mean, one of the alternate titles was The Hostage’s Bloody Revenge, for pete’s sake. So let’s see what we get. Spoilers ahoy.

Now first of all, the cops have this parabolic listening device that no one can get to work properly, until Rulebook, in a fit of frustration, bashes it a good one and it suddenly works like a charm. He hears the Turners discussing what to do with their tormentors, and he also finds out all three men raped the daughter. Rulebook suddenly switches to a much older rulebook and orders the cops to wait.

Chino gets shot in the balls. Okay, that’s a start, a fitting end for a rapist. Ling freaks out and jumps through a window, and gets himself impaled on an absurdly long and apparently strong piece of glass. That… was weird. The daughter approaches Kain with an electric carving knife, but she can’t go through with it.

It’s all going to end up with a standoff between Pop Turner (Robert Judd, incidentally) and Kain, with Rulebook tossing Turner his pistol. Kain gives us the final piece of his backstory, that his mother ran off with a black man, and then he gets shot in the throat. The end.

Rick – and the aforementioned masses who bought a ticket – were expecting a climax like The Last House on the Left times ten, but got… well, some blood but not a whole lot of catharsis.

Fight For Your Life is a pretty competently made little thriller that goes a little long in the second act, but then we’re also talking about a video nasty with some actual character beats. The Turner family is well drawn – the filmmakers made damn sure where our sympathies lie – and it all comes just that close to making it to the next level of actually good movie as compared to grindhouse button-pusher. There’s something to be said that all the real violence, save the daughter’s rape, is perpetrated against white people. The cops, a gas station attendant, a liquor store owner, the white kid, the white girlfriend… but now, having made that observation, I have no idea what to do with it.

The Turners themselves have a broad range of racial opinions. Mom doesn’t like honkies and is still pretty pissed off that her elder son had a white girlfriend (this is one of the saddest ignored threads in the movie: had Ling brought the girlfriend to the house instead of chasing her over a cliff, there would have been a whole new dimension of racism and possible character reconciliation… but no, we went with some boobs and a mannequin tossed into a waterfall). Daughter loves the white girl friend and wishes she’d had time to get married into the family.The young son, of course, has not only a white boy as his best friend, but the friend is the son of The Man. Pop Turner is a preacher, who is going to have his faith righteously tested and eventually returned to its Old Testament roots. And Grandma has seen it all and weathered it all, and gets the best lines.

Like I said… this close.

So a sadder but wiser Rick went home that night, denied once again the ultra-violent extravaganza that had been promised him. But, as the mantra of the crap cineaste goes, “now we can say we’ve seen it”, and hopefully, next time, we won’t get fooled again.

Yes, we will. We’re saps, and really, I think there’s a part of us that enjoys being saps, we enjoy making movies in our heads that do not exactly turn out the same on screen… for some of us, that’s the only way we have left to be surprised.

Horrors, Netflix Style

Gadfreys, but I’ve been a lazy fellow lately. Just laid about, watching horror stuff. That’s not really an option this week, as I have to complete two stories, shoot a third, and do two acting gigs, so let me be pretty quick with this:

I used Netflix a lot during this binge. It appealed to my laziness as I didn’t even have to cross the room to put in a disc. First up, there was Nightmares in Red, White & Blue, subtitle “The Evolution of the American Horror Film”. Back in the day, i was going to write a book about how horror movies, and the political context of the times in which they were made. I don’t have to do that, because Joseph Maddrey did, and it is the basis of this documentary.

Nightmares is pretty well done; the experts providing insight include folks like George Romero, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante and John Carpenter, and Lance Henriksen providing some nice narration with the proper gravitas. The points made are very salient and well thought-out; it really is a very good treatment of the subject. Clips are plentiful. If there is a flaw, it’s that the period from the turn of the 21st century up to the doc’s year of release, 2009, seems rushed. Maybe the makers didn’t want to dwell on the era of torture porn, and I don’t blame them. This is a documentary I can recommend without hesitation, but you don’t have to trust me, have the first three minutes:

Followed that up with Celluloid Bloodbath, which is subtitled “More Prevues From Hell”. Yes, this is the follow-up to the well-regarded Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell, which I will admit I never saw. Now, I will also admit that pretty much anything is going to suffer after a class act like Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, but Bloodbath proves an exceptionally rough ride. The trailers themselves are great, and represent quite a few movies that haven’t been beaten to death in other comps, including rarities like The Baby, Psycho From Texas, Edgar Allen Poe’s Legend of Horror and a trailer for They Came From Within that makes you wonder how that movie ever got released in America (oh, that’s right – it was the 70’s. Never mind). The most high-profile picture represented here is The Exorcist.

The real problem with Bloodbath is the weakness of the host segments – we’re introduced to three of them, including a largely inanimate puppet, and then every sub-segment seems to have its own host – some of which seem to be taping their bits at convention tables. Some of the hosts handle their intros very well, a lot don’t, and the audio quality is all over the map. If you’re a real trailer goon like myself, you’ll tough it through those (and appreciate the good hosts all the more) for those lovely little mini-movies. Sadly the sheer number of the host segments makes Bloodbath ten minutes too long, outstaying its welcome.

I am keenly aware that there is a list of movies I have to work my way through by years end, so I roused myself from my indolence to put a disc in the machine, and that disc was Shaun of the Dead. No, I hadn’t seen it yet. Kids, this is what happens when you let an online game rule your evenings for seven years.

Anyways, as should be obvious by the name, Shaun is a zombie comedy taking place during a zombie apocalypse in England.  Simon Pegg is Shaun, Nick Frost is his childhood pal Edward, and Shaun just lost his girl over an Edward-shaped albatross. Then the zombies come.

There a great deal, in the beginning, of making Shaun squirm in his uselessness, and I don’t care for cringe comedy. But there is also an incredible amount of smarts in the staging (I especially appreciate the cast-off radio newscast at the beginning, about a deep space probe returning, a la Night of the Living Dead… which makes director Edgar Wright’s contention that the later line “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” was unintentional ring a bit false…) as the preoccupied Shaun manages for quite some screen time to not notice that everyone around him has turned into zombies.

After the rescue of mom, former (and forever) girlfriend and a couple of hangers-on, our heroes retreat to a local pub to wait out the apocalypse. Once we’re in zombie siege territory, though, the movie takes a surprisingly grim turn, causing me to mumble, “This has suddenly turned into Dawn of the Dead.” Well, the lightness does return for our end, It’s not as intense or bloody as, say, Dead Alive – but then, what is? It’s a well-made movie for people who like some yoks but still want to see someone eviscerated at some point.

And that walk-on by Martin Freeman was quite a shock.

The inclusion of that damned mall music from Dawn of the Dead slays me every time.

Now, back to Netflix.

People have been praising Ti West’s movies, and the only thing of his I had actually seen was a segment of V/H/S I didn’t really care for. But, you know, some writers can’t really handle the short story form, but they really shine at novels. There are two Ti West movies on Netflix Instant, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. I felt like a ghost story, so I queued up the latter.

West’s reputation is as a purveyor of slow-burn horror stories, and for a good part of The Innkeepers you’re going to have trouble distinguishing it from a slacker comedy. Two twenty-somethings, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the only two staff members at the Yankee Pedlar Inn’s final weekend before it is slated to be torn down. Luke and Claire are trying to prove the Inn is haunted before it closed, though frankly they’re not trying very hard – ha ha, those aimless twenty-somethings, huh?

Quite a bit of the first act is spent humiliating Claire in various ways – the cringe comedy is back, folks, though of a particularly American flavor this time. Things finally start getting spooky enough to justify our continued attention, but it’s not until the third act that we really hit the good haunting stuff. The climax, in particular, is really, really good, it’s just that…

This reminds me of a Movie of the Week. One that really lucked out with its cast – Kelly McGillis is great as a former TV star turned psychic, and Lena Dunham has a nice cameo – and a writer who did the filler very well, but that’s just it – it’s filler. There is about as much true spookiness here as I would get from the typical Movie of the Week.

Nostalgic horror fans, those of us who’d sit through a lot of celluloid to finally get to the scare, will find a lot to like here. I can’t imagine anyone weaned on the modern horror movie, with adrenalin-driven editing and splashy FX, to have much patience with it. Overall, I liked it, but won’t be revisiting it anytime soon.

I should also warn you: this trailer has easily three-quarters of the scares in it. Just sayin’.

Okay, last one.

Prey I stumbled onto quite by accident; the Netflix blurb made it sound quite intriguing. And what do you know: the French are back again!

The opening is especially well-done: a rustic fellow is awakened by a dog barking. He gets dressed and rushes out, searching a cornfield for his father. He finds him, injured, apparently attacked by a deer. Venturing out of the field, the man then finds four dead deer, tangled in an electric fence separating the cornfield from the woods; whatever the deer were running away from, they were more frightened of it than the electric fence.

This is a better look than you ever get in the movie.

This isn’t your typical farm, though it started that way. One of the sons started a factory producing fertilizers and pesticides, and has bought all the surrounding land for the factory and his family; he’s the younger brother of the rustic man in the last paragraph. There’s a complicated bit of intrigue where the factory owner convinces – forcing, by dint of family connections – make his daughter, an accomplished chemist, stay at the facotry for another year, despite the fact she is pregnant. The two sons, their father, and the son-in-law go into the woods to hunt down whatever it was that’s killing deer. The son-in-law hopes to make the factory owner see the light, but that ain’t gonna happen.

In the interests of making this short: what we have here is a French version of John Frankenheimer’s 1979 movie Prophecy, which was based on a novel by David Seltzer, who also wrote the source novel for The Omen. The factory has been dumping its new formula in the estate’s lake, which has caused a massive fish kill and given birth to a pack of mutant boars – not bears, boars, totally different. And our four fellows are about the only things left in the woods to eat.

Prophecy marketed itself as “The Monster Movie”, and this is precisely what we have here. Our hunters don’t suss out exactly what is happening until well after dark, so the entire flick is like one long Jurassic Park in the tall grass scene, all unseen monsters charging around and squealing. The attack scenes are very well staged and quite tense; this is likely the movie Prophecy might have wished it had been. (Due diligence: I read the novel before the movie came out, found it turgid crap, and never bothered with the movie. I am told I made the right choice).

So. Prey. Good monster movie, worth it if that’s all you want. Be aware that, unlike Prophecy, they do not give you a good look at the monsters, and some folks don’t like that. Probably because they don’t remember that giant mutant bear puppet.

The Return of the French: Eyes Without A Face (1960)

In the halcyon days of my doing this regularly – writing about genre movies, specifically – when I was a contributing member of the B-Masters Cabal, there was once going to be a roundtable of movies that we hadn’t gotten around to seeing, you know, stuff that should be essential to our critical works, something like a science-fiction fan having never seen Star Wars, except not that outrageous. In my case, it would have been Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, a fairly seminal horror movie.

Made in 1960, it has a plot that has been lifted several times since: a brilliant doctor doing research in tissue transplants has a terrible secret, hiding away his daughter, horribly disfigured in an auto accident which was apparently his fault. He and his assistant keep kidnapping young women and surgically removing their faces for transplant onto his daughter. Though, as mentioned, this is a plot that keeps being recycled throughout the 60s and into the 90s (witness Jess Franco’s remake Faceless), You get the indelible feeling during Eyes Without A Face that you’re definitely watching the original.

A brilliant, worldess beginning following the doctor’s assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) as she nervously dumps a young girl’s body in a river, is followed by a shrewdly low-key presentation of our basic story. Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) identifying the body as his missing daughter, then driving to his villa near his hospital, where we meet his unfortunate daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob).

It is in the person of Edith Scob that the movie achieves true transcendence. We see her true face only fleetingly, when one of Genessier’s transplants seem to have worked, but only temporarily. The rest of the time we only see the back of her head, or an amazing, expressionless mask (cast from Scob’s face) which gives her an eerie serenity – at least until you see her eyes. Scob’s figure, dressed in a Givenchy gown, gliding from room to room in her father’s mansion is one of the more haunting images in cinema, that has staying power long after viewing. I am constantly reminded of Mia Farrow, personally, but that’s my 60s upbringing, I think. So striking is Christiane’s appearance that John Carpenter points to it as a direct inspiration for Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween.

The genius of the storytelling is in its unfolding. We have no explanation for Louise’s introductory corpse-dumping, but we are pretty darn certain something untoward is afoot (the bizarre carnivale noir music by Maurice Jarre is another good hint. It reminds me of “Ernie’s Holiday Camp” from Tommy, though what to make of that I am not sure). The story’s setup is teased out over the next fifteen minutes or so with the slow unhurried deliberation of fate itself. For this we can largely thank the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac,  who had Diabolique and Vertigo to their recent credit.

The role of Louise, the assistant in all this is shady, vague. We know Genessier performed some sort of operation that “saved her face”, and she wears multiple strands of pearls as a choker to hide a scar across her throat. It’s a tantalizing plot thread that is never played out (frankly, I was expecting to find out she was Christiane’s mother, who supposedly died four years before, but that’s how my twisted brain works). She’s necessary to Genessier’s procedures, of course, worming her way into the young girls’ trust before convincing them to step into the villa, where they are unceremoniously chloroformed and strapped to the operating table.

It’s inevitable that we’re going to get at least one surgery scene in a movie about face transplants, and, even employing the comparatively primitive effects of 1960, it’s still squirm-inducing. Apparently at its premiere in the Edinburgh Film Festival, it caused people to faint; subsequently released in the US under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, the scene is abbreviated with an optical zoom, but passed muster with the European censors pretty easily.

There’s another cut in that US version, and it has nothing to do with gore; it’s a scene in Genessier’s hospital, where the doctor is examining a young boy with a severe neurological affliction. He is nothing but gentle and caring in his interactions with the boy and his obviously distraught mother. That’s probably one of the deepest veins of horror tapped in Eyes; Genessier and Louise are decent people, whose love for Christiane drives them to do despicable, terrible things. Apparently the American distributor didn’t want to confuse the audience with such concepts.

Franju et Scob.

Genessier and Louise aren’t working from some meticulously planned villain plot, either, they’re obviously improvising as they go along. The first victim, who dies on the operating table is (as we’ve seen) disposed of by Louise in the opening; the second victim (who supplies the temporarily successful graft) survives, and her two kidnappers are at something of a loss as to what to do with her. She solves that by attempting to escape and either accidentally killing herself or deliberately committing suicide, we’ll never know. But their increasing desperation is becoming obvious, just as Christiane’s depression and desire to be allowed to simply die become more and more vocal.

This how Franju, when his producer (who was determined to prove French cinema could handle the realm of horror just as well as fantasy) advised him to avoid blood to prevent riling up the French censors, animal torture to avoid upsetting the British, and mad doctors to avoid pissing off the Germans… made a movie featuring all three. Franju insisted the movie was not about horror, it was about anguish… not only the anguish of the victims, but the anguish of decent people driven to extremes, and the anguish of the innocent person in whose name atrocities are committed. Eyes Without A Face, so simple on the surface, proves itself increasingly complex the more it is considered, and that is truly the mark of a masterpiece.

Let’s Go The Other Way

So after three movies of considerable quality, I felt the need to balance out my cinematic diet. And if nothing else, my collection has quite the surplus of films on the other end of that curve.

First up: The White Buffalo (1977), which is probably the oddest Jaws rip-off ever made. Charles Bronson plays an older, wiser Wild Bill Hickok who returns to an Old West that really doesn’t want him, or would prefer him dead. Hickok is  suffering from recurrent dreams of a gigantic white buffalo charging toward him, and he is chasing rumors of just such a beast into the Black Hills of Dakota during a gold rush. He is also suffering from syphilis, requiring him to wear smoked glasses in bright daylight. Many he confides in think the disease is eating into his brains.

There are historians who are going to take umbrage at that supposition; it is generally agreed that Hickok was suffering at the very least from glaucoma and possibly trachoma, common at the time; but it’s typical of the revisionist Western that the syphilis rumor is presented as fact, and is of a piece with the rest of the movie. A trip to the combination bar/brothel of a boom town is one of the most raucously filthy. smoky, noisy and chaotic scenes in a Western ever. I’m in no position to judge its truthfulness, but it does stick with you.

The upshot of the movie is that the White Buffalo is real, and is rampaging through the Black Hills as Winter approaches. One Indian village is destroyed by the beast, and a little girl killed: the daughter of the tribe’s War Chief, Crazy Horse. Until he can slay the buffalo and wrap his daughter’s corpse in its pelt, her soul will be tormented; additionally, his real name is taken from him until he can achieve this, and he will be known as “Worm”. Will Sampson plays the role with great gravitas and stoicism; he’s one of the best things about the movie.

It is, of course, inevitable that the two will team up to hunt the White Buffalo, and getting to that point makes for a pretty entertaining flick, as Hickok and Crazy Horse save each other’s asses and come to respect each other, mainly because neither one has any idea who the other actually is. Jack Warden tags along as Charlie Zane “The White Warrior of Sand Creek”… which, if they’re referring to the Sand Creek Massacre is not a compliment, but Zane is pretty much the spokesman for the Indian-hating white majority in the last half of the movie.

The major problem with The White Buffalo is that it’s two-thirds of a decent movie. It’s a very entertaining revisionist western whenever the title character isn’t around – there are some scenes where it looks good, but overall, the Buffalo isn’t one of Carlo Rambaldi’s finest creations. The first half of the movie has a bunch of fun cameos – Slim Pickens as a foul-mouthed stagecoach driver, John Carradine as (of course) the town undertaker, Ed Lauter as Tom Custer (George’s kid brother), Clint Walker as murderous trapper Whistling Jack Kileen, Stuart Whitman as a frontier pimp, and Kim Novak, making one of her last screen appearances as Poker Jenny, a reformed whore from Hickok’s younger days.

The final showdown doesn’t carry with it the same emotional grip and lift of Jaws. Director J. Lee Thompson, a long way from Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, just can’t seem to make it click. But up to that point it’s diverting enough, and I don’t mind sharing its company every now and then.

I can’t really say the same about The Reaping, which is one of those movies I kept meaning to see but never did, so much so that it wound up on one of the lists of movies I will see this year. I had a pretty religious upbringing. It didn’t stick, but I know my way around a Bible, and instances of God taking physical action in this world is one of the things that has continued to intrigue me.

So you have Hilary Swank playing a woman who was once an ordained minister, but after a tragedy during her missionary work – blamed for the local famine, her family was murdered/sacrificed to the local heathen gods – she has turned her back on religion, and now, in fact, is a professional debunker of modern miracles. It doesn’t take a scriptwriting genius to realize that her character has yes, lost her faith, but is searching, however unconsciously, for something to rekindle it – only to find scientific explanations for everything.

She – and her associate, played by Idris Elba (which gave me great hope) are called to a small Louisiana town where, apparently, the Old Testament Plagues of Pharoah are being played out. The river has turned to blood, there is a rain of frogs upon their arrival, cattle sicken and die – and blame is falling on a young girl from an outcast family on the edge of town. Swank, having lost her daughter to murder, is immediately conflicted.

The Reaping pulls out lots of gross stuff – instant maggots, lice (instead of gnats) boils, eventually a literal plague of  locusts, while the viewer drums his fingers and waits for Swank to regain her faith or something. Eventually she pieces everything together and sorry, I’m not going to tell you what’s going on. It’s not really worth the trip, but why should I be the only one to suffer?

The movie wants to become The Omen in its final act, then actually manages to pull off a fairly decent twist… which is negated mere minutes later by one of the lamest final twists since Big Trouble in Little China. I sincerely hope it was included at the insistence of some clueless little studio weasel who sniveled that there had to be a final twist, every horror movie has a final twist. Mainly because I don’t need more reasons to hate director Stephen Hopkins, who also dropped Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and the Lost in Space movie on us. He also did Predator 2, which I don’t hate, and The Ghost and the Darkness, which I really liked.

So screw you, nameless and probably fictional studio weasel. I hate you for that final twist. Hopkins, I glare at you for wasting a great cast like Hilary Swank, Idris Elba, David Morrissey and Stephen Rea, whose portion of the story makes no goddamn sense whatsoever given that decent twist I mentioned earlier…which brings us to writers Corey and Chad Hayes, who are also responsible for the 2005 House of Wax movie, and that dreadful version of Whiteout that mangled a good story by Greg Rucka.

And then I just sort of lose the will to live and go to bed. I don’t mind watching crap, unless it’s listless, boring crap. I’m going to give some props to the production for sticking it out in Louisiana when Katrina interrupted their shoot, because they knew that the local economy could really use the cash infusion brought in by a film production. I just wish the end result had been more worthy of that suffering.

So now I find myself in a bit of a quandary; in the aforementioned lists, I still have 27 movies left to go before December 31st. That’s not impossible, except that my life is a patchwork of part-time jobs and nailing down time to watch movies is more of a challenge than it ought to be. Still in the realm of the doable. But. It’s October. Everybody else is having fun watching nothing but horror movies. On The Lists, there are five, possibly six movies that could be classified as horror if I stretch the definition a bit.

So I suppose if I watch those, it still brings me down to 21 movies, and that should give me some leeway to watch some horror movies that aren’t on The Lists, right? Right.

Phew. Thanks for your help, I really appreciate it.

Accidental French Culture

It entertains me to find the pattern in things; they’re all around us, once you start finding them. I’m sure there’s some sort of perceptual Event Horizon that one can eventually cross with this sort of thing, where mere observation turns to insanity, but I haven’t quite crossed that threshold. I think.

One of these occurred to me just recently, when looking back over the previous few days, I realized I had just, without planning, taken in a weekend of French cinema. There are worse fates.

This gets kicked off last Thursday night, when I found myself waiting to watch a network TV show. This does not happen often. It was the premiere of CBS’ Elementary, and I have to give anything involving Sherlock Holmes a chance. (Okay, shortly: I liked Lucy Liu’s Watson, because I like it when the Watson character is actively involved in the story. I’m giving it another shot, even if I’m willing to toss the series under a bus for Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock talking during a live performance, because fuck people who do that)

I’ve never been able to get involved in Person of Interest, even though I really like Michael Emerson. A quick run around the dial revealed nothing of, um, interest (is it any wonder I don’t have cable?). The answer was upstairs, a Criterion Blu-Ray I had picked up a couple of weeks before at a used disc store, which contained Chris Marker’s La Jetee, which clocks in at a mere 27 minutes.

After a nuclear war, people are reduced to living in a series of tunnels under the city, Desperate scientists begin experimentation on prisoners of war, seeking to unlock a method of time travel which will allow them to acquire aid from either the past or the future. Our protagonist is perhaps the 40th or 50th person to be so experimented upon. He is given a high chance of success because he has an image indelibly burned into his mind: when he was a child, he was standing on an observation deck at an airport – the pier, or jetee of the title – where he saw a beautiful woman’s face seconds before a man in the crowd was shot and killed.

Using a method wisely left unexplained, the man begins to journey back to meet the woman for fleeting moments, visits which last longer and longer, until he is free to move about in the past. She accepts the oddness of his plight, referring to him as “her ghost”. At that point, he is sent into the future, to find if mankind has survived, and if they offer any information to help the struggling survivors of his present to reach their future safe point.

La Jetee is rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. Announcing itself as a “photo-roman“, it is composed almost entirely of black-and-white photos, appropriate for a story whose success depends upon the attachment of the protagonist to a single image. Once the viewer accepts this, the clarity and immediacy of photographs becomes the film’s strength. An associate of mine, looking at some photos I had taken with black-and-white film (which should tell you how long ago this was) remarked that there was something about black-and-white that made the images seem more significant. Whether or not this was because we were used to the regular monochrome of newspaper photography, I do not know – but the colorless worlds of La Jetee suit the doom-laden proceedings very well, and the single instance of a moving image provides a moment so laden with genuine significance and longing that it is perfect.

Yeah, I’m going to be the three millionth person to say La Jetee is brilliant.

You are lucky – you have already made the journey to the future, and La Jetee is available in its entirety on YouTube… in French. There is an English dub or two with iffy picture quality (yes, I have become quite the Blu-Ray snob), so you’ll have to make do with this excerpt:

The next evening it was only logical to follow up with the second movie on the Criterion disc,  Sans Soleil, “Sunless” for those of you that flunked French. It’s named after a piece of music by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about the only clue you can hope for from me. Sans Soleil is the exact opposite of La Jetee: everything is movement and color. The female narrator reads letters from a globetrotting filmmaker, who goes unnamed until the final credits reveal him to be Sandor Krasna… who doesn’t exist.

Krasna’s letters obsess over memory and time, and a bunch of other things over a lot of footage of Japan in the late 70s-early 80s, occasionally zipping over to Africa and Iceland. It’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of cultural events, ephemera in odd places, snippets of Rintaro’s Galaxy Express 999, guerilla soldiers. The film opens with three girls on a country road in Iceland – the Narrator says that he will present only this footage bracketed by black frames, so the enduring image will be “happiness”. Only at the end of the movie does he reveal that the next day, a volcano will literally bury the girl’s village in ash.

Our fictitious filmmaker asks and ponders a lot of questions, philosophical eternals that have no real answers. Chris Marker is hard to pin down as an artist, a writer, what? The best suggestion has been to say he is an essayist working in film, and this is the greatest strength of Sans Soleil and its one downfall. It is fascinating in the way good documentaries are, engaging in the manner of late-night drunken philosophical discussions. What is maddening is that it demands multiple viewings to unpack what Marker is saying, if indeed it is possible to truly unpack it at all. Multiple viewings that would have been more possible with La Jetee‘s abbreviated running time, but not Sans Soleil‘s 103 minutes.

Yes, yes, movies should ideally exist in individual vacuums, without other movies brought in for comparison, but Sans Soleil downright invites this by spending some time visiting the shooting locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and mentioning the symbolic cross-section of the Sequoia was used in “one other film” – that film being La Jetee. Gah, like I said, this is a movie with ideas wrapped in images wrapped in reportage with a chewy philosophical nougat at its core.

And really, saying that you immediately need to watch a movie again to ponder its contents has to be one of the most specious complaints ever put to electronic paper.

Marker was quite the remarkable artist; I now find that he made a movie about Akira Kurosawa during the making of Ran, and I have moved that picture, AK, to the top of my list of Things To Track Down. His influence is unmistakable; the DNA of Sans Soleil is evident in movies like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, and given his noodling about with computerized solarization of footage in Sans Soleil, I can see his influence on Naqoyqatsi, which is a movie that almost rendered my teeth to flat nubbins, so much did I grind them during my viewing. So thank you, Chris, except for that part.

The last part of my unconscious French triple feature was Saturday morning, when I found myself all alone in the house with a soft rain outside. I finally plugged in my copy of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and was a bit nonplussed to find myself underwhelmed.

I should quickly establish that this is all on me: I liked it alright, but I wanted to love it. Frankly, this is what happens when you are told for forty years that a movie is an enthralling, magical experience, until after those forty years you finally put out an effort to buy it and watch it, ’cause the only version offered to you most of your life was dire made-for-TV versions or had musical numbers.

I actually do not doubt the quality of the movie. It is well-made, and those scenes within the Beast’s palace are full of marvelous imagery, judicious use of slow motion, and the sort of dream logic that could fall flat in less-capable hands. The Beast’s makeup is superb, and Jean Marais’ eyes beautifully emotive. The one technical problem I have is the overly-bombastic score.

Well, no, I also find the denouement troublesome, as the Beast’s cure left me a severe case of what-the-hell’s, what with Avenant’s death – which I don’t really think was deserved – and Belle’s lack of concern for the death of a fellow she had confessed a fondness for… But by then, I was really ready for it to be over, and not a little cranky.

Again, I can see the movie’s quality, and I can certainly see the influence it has exerted over a half-century and more of fantasy cinema… but whether it was my mood, or alignment of the stars, or if I had been promised the be-all of romantic fantasy movies and what I found was a 1947 black-and-white movie… well, we’ll never know. But I will say all three of these movies are worth watching, and while your mileage may vary, grumpy old me could see their quality and value.

I mean, look at this stuff, it’s beautiful. What is my problem?