S: Seconds (1966)

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Seconds-PosterI am reminded of an old SCTV sketch (so old I believe it dates back to their days as a syndicated show) wherein Joe Flaherty’s Count Floyd introduces that evening’s “Monster Horror Chiller Theater”, The Hour of the Wolf, only to find out it is the Ingmar Bergman movie (or at least, SCTV’s version of it). He is finally reduced, after the movie has played out, to sputtering into the camera, “What? You don’t think being depressed is scary? Wait until you get older! It is! A-WOOOOOOOOOO!”

If you don’t think Seconds is a horror movie, you are too young.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a career banker in the throes of his mid-life crisis (A phrase I’m not sure had even been invented in 1966). He is wealthy, successful, and terribly unhappy. Then his best friend – who died several years before – starts calling him in the night and directs him to a mysterious company that directs him through several different storefronts, worthy of a spy movie, until he gets the pitch. Like his supposedly deceased friend, this company will fake Hamilton’s death, then provide him with plastic surgery and a new life in a new identity, free of all the loveless relationships that have run their course and the hidebound responsibilities currently smothering his life.

Hamilton agrees (with a ruthless efficiency born of much practice, the company leaves him little choice), and after the surgery and months of grueling exercise to create a new, “younger” body, the bandages are removed to reveal that he has become Rock Hudson. Hamilton, now rechristened “Tony Wilson” initially has trouble adjusting to his new existence as a beach-dwelling artist. Eventually he forms a relationship with Nora (Salome Jens), a neighboring divorcee who finally gets him to loosen up in his new role – perhaps too well, as in the resulting cocktail party with his new neighbors, he makes some very disillusioning discoveries about his new community and his new life.

00001Seconds is very deliberately paced, and some are going to have a problem with that. But the truth is, that pace adds up to the inexorable march of fate as Hamilton/Wilson reaches out to his former wife, masquerading as a chance acquaintance of his former self, and tells his liaison with the company that he wants to try again, a new identity, a third life; he had abandoned a life full of “the things I was told I had to have” for another life made of a similar list. He wants a life where he makes the decisions, and that path leads to disaster.

Seconds is no less deliberately paced than the best of John Frankenheimer’s movies, but there is so much pain, disappointment and ennui in its composition that its audience quickly turned against it. The enmity of the French press at Cannes is the stuff of legend. Frankenheimer reflected that it was the only movie  “that’s ever gone from failure to classic without ever having been a success.”

Seconds12James Wong Howe’s acclaimed cinematography (nominated for an Oscar) is tremendous; enveloping and suitably nightmarish. And special mention must be made of Rock Hudson, whom Frankenheimer considered a light comic actor at best (He wanted Laurence Olivier for the role). Frankenheimer later recanted that position. Watching Hudson in his early scenes, his body language, his replication of John Randolph’s mannerisms, and the rollercoaster of emotions his character rumbles through, all give proof of a serious actor working his craft.

sec31Really, you don’t have to be of a certain age to appreciate Seconds. But it does help.

(Also, you’ll never trust Will Geer again)

Crapfest: The Late 70s

If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you are familiar with the phenomenon of the Crapfest. A group of us gathers every two or three months to gasp in wonder at the vast world of the Cinema of Diminished Expectations. Or, ofttimes, to simply gasp.

We had a full complement this time, saving only The Other David, who was healing his voice for an upcoming musical, and felt that shouting in dismay would be counter-productive to that. Fair enough. Break a leg, friend. This left us at myself, Rick, Paul, Alan, Mark, Erik, and your host, Dave.

While planning for this shindig, Host Dave informed us, in the tone usually reserved for doctors telling you to lose weight, that the agenda for this Crapfest had been decided long ago. (Maybe I should have said “In the tone usually reserved for the Lawgiver telling us The Prophecy”, but I’m going to need all my prophecy jokes for later) To that end, he laid out this pre-conceived roster.

it-came-without-warning-movie-poster-1980-1020194389I’m going to have to take some blame for the first feature. You see, once upon a time, we tried to limit the scope of a Crapfest to a single luminary in the realm of Crap Cinema. That luminary was Graydon Clark, and that was a mistake of Biblical proportions. Too much of a bad thing, as it were. But at the very beginning, there was a choice to be made, between Angel’s Brigade or Without Warning. The deciding vote came down to Paul, who reasonably enough, deduced that since Rick “Let’s watch Evilspeak again” Mantler had voted for Without Warning, it was only logical to vote for Angel’s Brigade instead. This was wronger than any deduction Dr. Watson had ever made, but I really can’t fault his logic.

So there was this time I bitched that I was still owed a viewing of Without Warning. So that was our opening salvo.

I think I’m not exactly engaging in spoilers when I tell you Without Warning is about an alien coming to Earth and hunting humans with little flying creatures he throws like frisbees, and yes, this was seven years before Predator. The major difference between the two is a) millions of dollars and b) Predator manages to fill its running time pretty well. The Alien spends the first part of the movie knocking off celebrity guests, or at least affordable C-listers of the era, starting with Cameron Mitchell and moving on to Larry Storch, playing the master of a cub scout troop. Storch was only on set half a day, and it seems to play out in real time.

1 withoutwarningOur protagonists are four teens who ignore the warnings of Professional Harbinger Jack Palance to not go to the lake, there’s trouble there. Half the teens become frisbee kibble fairly quickly, and since one of them is a young David Caruso, the Alien got a standing ovation. The other two (Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson) try to get help after discovering their pals and several other corpses in a remote shack. They find a believer in Martin Landau, playing a mandatorily shell-shocked veteran called “Sarge”, and, of course, Palance. The bar where they try to get help is notable for featuring Sue Ann Langdon, Neville Brand, and Ralph Meeker (in his last role, no less), none of whom stick around for the big alien fight, such as it is. They leave that to future Oscar winners Landau and Palance.

lobby6There is an interminable period at the end of the second act and before the third, sort of an eternal entre acte, where our two teens, on the lam from the increasingly psychotic Landau, break into somebody’s vacation home and set up shop. Nutter keeps waking up screaming and saying things like, “What if this is Sarge’s house?” which allowed us to kill the next ten minutes of filler with panicked questions like “What if snakes can carry knives?” “What if Zamfir really is master of the pan pipes?” and “What if Iron Man had Spider-Man’s powers?”

If there was one takeaway from this, it is that I wanted to make sure I didn’t buy the upcoming blu-ray from Scream Factory out of misguided nostalgia. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

without-warning-1980The Alien, incidentally, is played by the 7′ 2″ Kevin Peter Hall, because of course he is. And Hall would also play the title character in Predator. Also, Mr. Hall is not finished with us yet, because we are moving on to Prophecy, for which I must also take some blame. You see, back a year ago or more, I reviewed the French movie Prey, noting that it was basically Prophecy with mutated wild boars instead of a bear. I also mentioned I had never seen Prophecy, because I’d read David O. Seltzer’s novel, and immediately thought, “well, I can miss this one.”

To which Dave was all like whaaaaaaat and you are watching this.

Dammit.

220px-ProphecyWell, we already know about the mutant bear. Robert Foxworth is a two-fisted doctor concerned with social justice issues (as we find out in an opening scene set in a ghetto with the cleanest, freshest spray-painted graffiti you have ever seen), who is sent to a northern paper mill to investigate charges of pollution. The charges turn out to be true, as the whole region is lousy with mercury, which Foxworth assures us has “mutagenic” qualities. This is going to produce some tension in his wife, Talia Shire, who is pregnant, she just hasn’t bothered to tell Foxworth yet.

Extra risibility is supplied by Richard Dysart as the front man for the paper mill, essaying a cagey mix of Pepperidge Farm spokesman and Edward G. Robinson. And Armand Assante as an Indian.

The most famous scene in the movie was quoted in the TV trailer, when the bear attacks a family campsite and a kid tries to hop away in his sleeping bag, only to be dashed against a rock in a flurry of downy feathers. This also convinced 1979 Me that avoiding this movie was a good idea. There is no way anybody thought that was going to be anything but laughable, right? Especially when you consider the movie is directed by John freaking Frankenheimer.

Frankenheimer would say in later years that the movie would have been better if he hadn’t been at the height of his alcoholism during its shooting. The truly lamentable thing is there are moments in this movie that are superb. Foxworth examining the camp site where the exploding sleeping bag took place, and finding enormous claw marks on a tree, and then realizing that the claw marks go fifteen feet up the tree.

The best sequence for me, though is a bit later. Shire finds some mutant bear cubs in a fishing net nearby. One is still alive, but barely (no pun intended). It’s in recovering this cub that Foxworth spends too long, and his helicopter ride is socked in by a storm. They make it to an Indian hunting village where Foxworth labors to keep the cub alive until Dysart and the Sheriff can come and see proof of the pollution. Trouble is, Mama Bear also shows up and wants the cub back.

13005prophecyThis is the second great monster movie sequence, when our name actors (plus one or two more) take refuge in a tunnel under one of the tents to hide from the beast and all they can do is listen to the screams of the men still above ground as the monster kills them. Then, silence. Silence for way too long. But who’s going to look out and check?

So that day on the set, Frankenheimer only had half a bottle of Scotch, or something.

imagesWe’re building up to a big showdown with Mama Bear (even the most city-slickerish among us was yelling “Leave the bear cub! PUT IT THE HELL DOWN!” but movie characters never listen), which is… okay, I guess, but has nowhere near the tension it wants to have. It’s kind of like the end of the novel Jaws where the shark suddenly succumbs to all the damage done, but we’re led to believe it’s Foxworth stabbing it with an arrow over and over again. Also, the last shot shows us there’s another mutant bear wandering around, so fuck you, movie.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that was Kevin Peter Hall in the mutant bear suit. See? Connections are everywhere.

The worst part was when I got hungry and mentioned to Rick it was time to start dinner and I was going to help Rick in the kitchen because it was like my idea, but Dave was like, no, motherfucker, you get in there and you watch this movie.

DAMMIT.

I don’t mind crap monster movies – hell, in a way, those are my life. But crap monster movies with a painfully earnest social relevance angle – those hurt me.

Speaking of hurt, I had been saving hurt up for a long time. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Batman and Robin, Highlander II The Goddamn Quickening. I let that all out with something that had been dredged up by the Drive-In Mob: Bob Hope’s 1976 TV special Joys.

wbvideo-055Supposedly, someone has lured a bunch of comedians to Bob Hope’s place to murder them all. You see, it’s Joys because Jaws was really big, and… the murderer is… kinda… like a shark? But not? This is about the level of writing  here; you have several roomfuls of comedians – just look at that list on the IMDb page – and none of them are allowed to do their schtick, outside of Arte Johnson obviously improvising a few and Don Rickles calling people a hockeypuck. Because that many comedians in one place? That would be hilarious. Too bad what they’re given is the most insipid jokes 1976 could dig up. Most disheartening is Groucho Marx, frail and nearing death, not even bothering to pretend he isn’t reading cue cards and still making me laugh. Though Kevin Peter Hall is not there, Larry Storch is, and we also have to deal with disco era Don Knotts and Don Adams.

And commercials from Texaco, which assured us it was working to keep our trust.

Oh, the hatred that was cast my way! Hatred which I fully deserved, but I felt much better for having given vent  to my spleen. And then Dave retaliated magnificently with Playboy’s Roller Disco Pajama Party, which actually aired on ABC in 1979, even though it sounds like an SCTV sketch. I could only look across the room, give him the thumbs up, and say, “Respect.”

vlcsnap-00079Yes, this is a documentary about frolicking in the Playboy Mansion. Richard Dawson is there to make you cringe, and there were lots of astoundingly beautiful women which just about every man in the room had seen naked (I profess admiration of a sort for the guys who could name each and every one of them, even when they weren’t being introduced). Roller skating, and dancing to Village People songs we had never heard.

Rick’s haunted voice came from the back of the room several times, stating, “This isn’t going to get any better, you know. You may think it is, but it ISN’T.” But I was enjoying myself. Pretty women are pretty women, and there were quite a few here.

FILTH!

FILTH!

It had its educational points, too: we’d had no idea that there was a disco version of Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar”. Nor did we know that Waylon Flowers had a black version of his Madam puppet. (My reference source for all things gay, long-time theatre friend Rodney Walsworth, informs me the puppet was named Jiffy, and he saw Flowers perform with her at a club). The clip below has a glimpse of Jiffy, but sadly does not seem to have the bit where Flowers attempts to work his sassy black puppet magic on Jim Brown, who is visibly counting to ten several times just to keep from jamming this puppet up this little peckerwood’s ass.

No, here is this hunk of the show – the whole damn thing’s on YouTube, folks, it’s easy enough to find – that has the high point for us. About 13 seconds in, after a Mork and Mindy promo, is the 30 second throw to the local newscast coming on after Roller Disco Pajama Party, and it’s obvious the station has been getting a lot of calls about the show…

We really wanted that guy to come back.

vlcsnap-00094

A scene from True Detective, Season 2

You don’t have to watch the whole thing, or maybe you do, because you’ll catch a brief glimpse of Marjoe Gortner at the party (he got applause. I love my homies.), the aforementioned Jiffy, Richard Dawson referring to index cards as he interviews some Playmates, and likely the most skin you’ll see in the whole enterprise. Just enough to make our gathering feel all cheated and hollow inside.

Not me, though. I went home feeling purged, cleansed of all the negativity that had been weighing on me. Such is the power of inflicting crap on your fellow man. This feeling did not survive the light of day, but I slept like a baby that night, and I look forward to the next one, where I can start playing the nice guy again.

Dammit.

Movies: Vampire Ronin in Black… 3

In keeping with my tradition of oblique references to current releases: I saw Men in Black 3 last night. It was entertaining, and that’s pretty much the extent of what I took home from it. Josh Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones imitation is a gas, and overall, it’s a far better Men in Black II than Men in Black II ever thought of being. Also, I guess Will Smith doesn’t do the rap for his own movies anymore? Huh.

Well, after our Memorial Day Crapfest, I continued with my movie watching, but attempting to switch gears to movies of (harrumph) quality wasn’t quite going to happen, so strong was the hangover from Crapfest. (Admittedly, while waiting to come down from my caffeine high that night, I watched Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. at 2:00am, a definite step up in value) My next Kubrick film is Barry Lyndon. It is sitting patiently by my movie-watching chair. I never got to it.

My wife took off to the beach with a friend and fellow teacher, and I settled in to watch one of those movies I had managed to miss for years (and was therefore on The Other List) John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Man, John Frankenheimer. You watch The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and Seconds, then watch, say Prophecy and The Challenge and wonder, “What happened?” (Due diligence: I have not yet seen The Island of Dr. Moreau, and so cannot comment on its quality with any veracity). Ronin proved that Frankenheimer still had it, even in 1998.

The Ronin of the title are mercenaries, specialists for hire in the extra-legal landscape of modern Europe. Robert deNiro is Sam, an ex-CIA strategist on the run, Jean Reno is Vincent, a “tour guide” who… appropriates things. Sean Bean is a Irish thug who gets tossed out of the team for being a jackass, which is startling, because I expected him to be killed, what with being Sean Bean and all. Stellan Skarsgard is Gregor, the electronics dude. That’s a solid core for a good cast, topped off by Jonathan Pryce as the man pulling the strings on the team. Their mission is to steal a metal briefcase from a heavily-guarded courier. They don’t need to know what is in the case, but they do know a lot of people, like “The Russians”, want it.

Ronin has a lot of cool espionage planning, supplanted by double and triple crosses, and a number of high-speed chases through crowded European streets. It’s a pity that Frankenheimer never got the chance to direct a Mission: Impossible movie, since Ronin feels like what the MI movies should have been, but rarely were (the return to a team dynamic in Ghost Protocol was, for me, very welcome).

You would think that after that, I would be more inclined to some Kubrick. But no, I felt I had spent long enough without seeing an actual horror movie, so I put a Blu-Ray of long-ago purchasing into the player, Vampire Circus.

Vampire Circus dates from a very troubled time for Hammer, a period where a lot of the movies felt like wheel-spinning. The gothic horror was feeling pretty tired, the dollop of sex appeal that made the 50-60s Hammers so notorious was now also so commonplace in the market that their movies were beginning to wallow in gore and breasts, upping the quantity in desperation.Vampire Circus has some new personnel at the helm – well, new to Hammer, anyway – and the fresh outlook and propensity for boobs and blood creates a perverse minor gem.

Our jerk vampire count this time is Count Mitterhaus, who is sleeping with the local Schoolmaster’s wife. She does unneighborly things like luring little girls into Mitterhaus’ castle so he can extremely creepy toward them and then bite them. This excites Mrs. Schoolmaster into doffing her clothes and bedding the Count. Into this cozy little scene comes the local villagers, who eventually manage to stake the count and burn down his castle, but not until after he cursed the village and the Mrs has run off.

15 years later, the village is being swept by a plague, and the neighboring villages have enacted roadblocks guarded by riflemen to keep the infected within. Nonetheless, a small gypsy circus manages to make it through and sets up to entertain the trapped villagers. If you paid any attention to the movie’s title, you know who populates this circus. The villagers aren’t so smart, though, even when a pair of acrobats keep turning into bats in mid-air.

The only other time I had attempted to watch Vampire Circus was on TV, and only a few minutes was enough to convince me that it had been cut to ribbons for that medium and I would be better off waiting until I could see it uncut; there are several instances of nudity, including the segment that you always see a photo of when reading about this movie: the tiger dance, featuring a woman who is almost completely naked except for green tiger-striped makeup. Since this is the only time we see the dancers in the movie (except for their dead bodies at the end), I have to assume that this was their act in real life. Um, wow.

Well, why break with tradition.

It’s a fun enough movie, one of the off-Dracula Hammer vampire riffs like Kiss of the Vampire combined with a few elements from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. There are a few familiar faces: David Prowse as the Strongman, of course, and (shockingly) Lalla Ward as one of the vampire acrobats, and not looking very different from her run on Doctor Who as Lady Romana. A few other familiar character faces, and a Shakespearean body count. All the things one would want from a Hammer horror movie.

Well, my wife was back the next day, and found me watching, not Barry Lyndon, but Deadmau5 in concert. This, I think, puzzled her more than anything else.

That’s good. I don’t puzzle her near often enough. Also, my son: “How do you even know who Deadmau5 is?

Hmph. Punk kids.