Archive for December 1980

Maniac (1980)

December 26, 1980

Maniac+posterName one actor today who would hand himself over to a porn director and agree to star as a weepy, homicidal, mother-fixated slob in a gory slasher movie. Joe Spinell had balls the size of Gibraltar, of that you can be sure. Actually, Spinell initiated Maniac; he concocted the story, cowrote the script, and was one of the film’s executive producers. (Which probably means he called in a lot of neighborhood favors to get the movie in the can.) Critics didn’t like Maniac a whole lot — Gene Siskel couldn’t make it past the first half hour. Seen today, though, the movie has more in common with the grungy Times Square aesthetic of Abel Ferrara (who made his own splatterfest a year earlier, The Driller Killer) than with the multitudes of slasher flicks that followed it. The pacing might be deadly at times — it feels a lot longer than its 88 minutes — but the filmmaking has a rough kind of integrity. Even Stephen King, mentioning Maniac in passing in Danse Macabre, remarked on the detached camera viewpoint of the killings, which rendered them “well-nigh impossible to watch.”

Which they are. Under the supervision of special-effects maestro Tom Savini, the scalpings, stabbings, and decapitations (one by shotgun, administered to Savini himself in a walk-through as “Disco Boy”) are lingered over the way they always are in movies in which Savini has a bloody hand. (My theory is that all gore scenes in Savini’s films are directed by default by Savini, whether the official helmer is George Romero or Joe Schmoe; the camera just dawdles for a moment, forgetting all else, mesmerized by the butchery.) During Savini’s professional peak in the early ’80s, every film he worked on either fell under the MPAA’s scissors or, like Maniac (or Dawn of the Dead), simply went out unrated. No figure in modern cinema before or since has challenged the archaic ratings system so consistently or single-handedly.

Spinell stars as Frank Zito, a loner (and Vietnam vet, we deduce from the shrapnel scars on his chest — one of several quotes from Taxi Driver) who likes to scalp women and thumb-tack the bloody hair clots onto mannequins in his apartment. Why? Well, assuming there can be a logical explanation, he’s got a thing for Mommy, a whore who used to lock little Frank in the closet while she attended to business. (Was Frank one of the inspirations for the similarly backstoried hero-psycho Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen?) For about the first half hour — after which Siskel, probably knowing it wasn’t going to get any sunnier, hit the aisle — the movie amounts to Frank roaming around picking out likely candidates for mutilation. Oddly, when he dispatches Disco Boy and his girlfriend by shotgun, it doesn’t make much sense given his highly specific modus operandi, unless the woman’s scalp got blown clean off. In a prolonged sequence that rivals a similar sequence in An American Werewolf in London for cruelly extended tension, Frank stalks a nurse in a subway station (there’s a sizable glitch here when we see other people around in a long shot, and then when we cut back to the frightened nurse she’s alone in the subway with the killer).

But the plot, such as it is, thickens when Frank meets Anna (Caroline Munro), a beautiful photographer. The dialogue between them is stilted, and Munro, comely as she is, isn’t really acting on the same level as Spinell, but this subplot introduces an interesting new layer to Frank. Something in the photographer’s work touches him; in her apartment, he launches into a dissertation on how photos capture people forever. It doesn’t sound like a line; it seems to hook into who he is as a person as well as a killer, and when he describes himself as a painter, it may be technically a fib, but some of the weird things on the walls of his apartment look like the work of a talented (if disturbed) artist who might’ve gainfully explored his Oedipal demons in ways other than murder if the dice had rolled differently. Love cannot redeem the monster, though, and his attraction to Anna is as ill-starred as Travis Bickle’s was for Betsy in Taxi Driver. (I wonder if Spinell wrote this subplot in so that he could sit across from a beautiful woman at dinner just once in one of his movies.) At one point, the addled and lonely Frank puts on a winged baseball cap and shoots at photos of women with a little toy ray gun. I don’t know what that’s commenting on, if anything, but it sure sticks in the memory.

This was the film that put director William Lustig (still in his twenties when it was shot) on the grindhouse map; made for $350,000, it pulled in $6 million before all was said and done. Earlier, Lustig had directed two adult features (his debut was The Violation of Claudia starring Sharon Mitchell, who has a bit part here as the nurse who survives, and who went on to get her doctorate in Human Sexuality and found the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation — maybe playing a health-care provider rubbed off on her). Lustig is an interesting guy, even if most of his movies aren’t; his uncle is Jake La Motta (who put in a cameo in his nephew’s Maniac Cop), and, like Frank Henenlotter, he appears to have sidelined directing in favor of putting out sleazy oldies on DVD (Blue Underground is his baby). I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to Lustig’s subsequent portfolio; Relentless I thought was awful, and one Maniac Cop (he made three) was enough for me. But in Maniac, at least, he works seriously, getting far deeper into a madman’s twisted brainpan than most others would care to.

Lustig’s concentration carries you over such plot questions as why the hotel manager (played by Lustig himself) wouldn’t have given a description of the rather unique-looking Frank after the killer has left a hooker scalpless in one of the rooms. And in Joe Spinell, often looking like a frenzied cross between Ron Jeremy and an acid-bloated Benicio Del Toro freaking out in the tub in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Lustig has a psycho with attitude and cult longevity. Spinell wanted to do a sequel, to be directed by Combat Shock‘s Buddy Giovinazzo, but after getting ten minutes of film into the can he died of an apparent heart attack in early 1989. It’s too bad, because a sequel, if nothing else, would explain how Frank survived pulling a Mishima on himself. Perhaps, though, it’s better this way: no sequel, no back-from-the-dead Frank ready to scalp again, just this grubby critic-baiting piece of work that stands alone and stands apart.

Popeye

December 12, 1980

Reading a detailed book about the troubled production of Robert Altman’s Popeye might be more entertaining than watching the movie. All the ingredients are there, but the result is an alternately overcooked and undercooked stew with no dominant flavor — you taste everything and you taste nothing.

Jules Feiffer’s script has been said to match the ramshackle seaside tone of the original E.C. Segar comic strip, titled Thimble Theatre until Popeye showed up ten years into its run and took over. The movie, though, seems inspired more by the Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the ’30s; there’s a lot of slapstick and cartoon effects. It’s also abominably cluttered and headache-inducing. Altman, famous for his ensemble casts and overlapping plots, may have thought he could work the same magic in the story’s setting of Sweethaven. But, despite the surplus of characters, there are really only two stars, Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl; most everyone else is just noisy wallpaper. And there’s really just one plot, and a meandering, unfocused one at that.

Popeye comes to Sweethaven in search of his long-lost pappy. He meets Olive, who won’t give him the time of day until someone drops a baby, Swee’pea, in their laps, at which point the script seems to oblige them to decide to fall in love; we certainly don’t feel it. Olive is given one beautiful number, “He Needs Me,” and while the lyrics (by Harry Nilsson) aren’t anything great, Duvall turns it into a starlight bliss-out. Duvall is immaculately cast; everyone is, really. Of the large cast, the two actors (besides Duvall) who really nail the comic-strip spirit are Donald Moffat as Sweethaven’s monomaniacal tax collector and a young Bill Irwin, in his first film, as Ham Gravy, who contorts amusingly. The cast isn’t the problem; even Robin Williams, who spent years being self-deprecating about Popeye, plays the role with an antic side-of-the-mouth wit.

The problem is that nothing builds to anything; things just keep happening. This was Altman’s first stab at a mainstream movie since his breakthrough a decade earlier with M*A*S*H; he had spent the intervening ten years working on his own stubborn terms, and sometimes it worked (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) and sometimes it didn’t (pretty much everything else during the ’70s). So you’ve got Altman the toking iconoclast at the wheel of a $20 million kiddie musical financed by two studios and produced by Robert Evans. It could’ve been a masterpiece or it could’ve been a balls-out disaster — either way would’ve been interesting, but it’s neither, really. It has moments, mostly actors’ moments. But aside from the cosmetic attribute of a community of people skittering in and out of frame, it doesn’t feel like an Altman film. He resists the conventional narrative beats but isn’t free to put anything in their place.

I harbor a small degree of nostalgic affection for Popeye. I first saw it when I was ten and a fan of the cartoons (and of Robin Williams — Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite shows back then). I still have the soundtrack on vinyl somewhere around here, but other than “He Needs Me” — so good Paul Thomas Anderson stole it for Punch-Drunk Love — I wish the songs still held any charm for me. They range from undistinguished to downright abrasive. Revisiting the film thirty years later doesn’t do it any favors; a lot of it is klutzier than you may remember it being, and it leads to a wretched climax involving the fakest-looking octopus since Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.

Whose movie is this, really? It reads like more of a Robert Evans film than a Robert Altman film. The strain of the budget and the responsibility of delivering a big Christmastime blockbuster show in almost every scene. The movie seldom breathes — it’s hectic and irritating, except when Altman is allowed to hold his camera on Shelley Duvall (who’d worked with him five times before) and let her do her Shelley Duvall thing. The film’s Popeye hates spinach, which may be Feiffer’s nod to the Segar strips, where Popeye seldom if ever ate the stuff (that was more a trademark of the cartoons). But in the movie, coming after fifty years of Popeye gulping down spinach in the toons, it comes across as confusing and needlessly revisionist. Was this made for E.C. Segar scholars or for kids?

Popeye came out around the same time as Flash Gordon, and the two films share considerable similarities — both based on classic comic strips previously adapted into other media; both scored by pop musicians; both lavishly art-directed — but in the important ways they couldn’t be more different. Both show excess achievable only with serious money, but Flash Gordon winks at its roots and itself and has fun, while Popeye seems to fight itself to the finish until the money runs out and it peters out to that sad, sad octopus climax. More than anything, Popeye seems to want to be more and less than what it is — at any rate, anything other than what it is. It may be of interest to Altman acolytes who kill themselves trying to make it fit thematically and logically into his portfolio, but at this point who else would be interested?

Flash Gordon

December 5, 1980

FlashGordon1How can someone heap praise on Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon while scorning George Lucas’ last three Star Wars entries? Very easily. Watch me.

Excoriated by critics and largely ignored by audiences during the Christmas season of 1980, Flash Gordon has no illusions about itself whatsoever. It is thoroughgoing, unapologetic camp of the sort that nobody would attempt today (the Austin Powers films came closest). Seen at a remove of decades, this Flash has more to do with disco and homoeroticism and cocaine dust than with the old Buster Crabbe serial or the Alex Raymond comic strip. It’s the ultimate Studio 54 movie, awash in fabulous costumes and ornate set design (originating on the drawing board of master Danilo Donati, the film’s real star).

Sam J. Jones may have had to be dubbed because his acting was so wooden, but physically he’s the ideal fit for Flash Gordon — “quarterback, New York Jets,” he announces proudly — a blonde and uncomplicated hero, Luke Skywalker’s true father. Flash, Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and brilliant scientist Zarkov (Chaim Topol) find themselves on Mongo, home planet of the diabolical Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow, getting into the spirit of the thing and having a good time). Flash also encounters the duplicitous Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), befriends the effusive Vultan, prince of the hawkmen (Brian Blessed in the film’s runaway performance — who doesn’t love it when he shouts “Who wants to live forever? DIVE!!!”), and is almost seduced by the ultra-erotic Princess Aura (Ornella Muti).

Rocky Horror braintrust Richard O’Brien is a featured performer in Flash Gordon, and the movie has some of Rocky Horror‘s goofball abandon. Unfortunately, the movie’s thunder had been decisively stolen by the previous summer’s The Empire Strikes Back — a terrific piece of filmmaking in its own right, but dark and haunted and Wagnerian. Flash Gordon, initiated to cash in on the gee-whiz spirit of the original Star Wars (itself heavily informed by the original Flash Gordon), hasn’t a bit of gravitas anywhere in it. Its jokey tone bewildered audiences, who didn’t realize that Hodges and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who’d previously written Batman: The Movie and the 1976 King Kong remake, two other bastions of camp) were serving up pure, old-school escapism. Indirectly a comment on what audiences had adored three years prior, Flash Gordon bathes happily in its own excess. By the time the movie gets to the football scene (over too quickly, I always felt, even when I was ten) you are, as Dubya would say, either with it or against it.

There’s also a good deal of male shirtlessness, whip play, latex, and women coiffed and dressed like Barbie dolls on acid. There’s a creepy scene in which Flash and Prince Barin take turns sliding their hands into a slimy hole where a poisonous beast awaits — holy shit, how vagina dentata can you get without actually showing a vagina with fangs? (I’ll, uh, leave the fisting analysis to the braver of heart.) Star Wars was squarely heterosexual, but Flash Gordon could only have emerged from the same pop-culture closet that birthed David Bowie, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Freddie Mercury (heard often on the soundtrack along with Queen, intoning “FLASH! Aah-ahh! Savior of the universe!”). Danilo Donati’s designs are like some crazed Oscar-night vision of sci-fi, only with a huge budget. Taken solely as a pop wedge of cheese, it’s beautifully realized. As for the empty-headed dialogue and the puerile plot, isn’t it obvious those are both part of the point? Everyone involved (well, except maybe Sam J. Jones) knows precisely what this is and performs accordingly, with a straight face but with a small gleam in the eye. Its contemporary at the time, Robert Altman’s Popeye (another big-budget flop based on a comic strip), today looks cramped and antagonistic, as if Altman were fighting that fucking movie every step of the way. Flash Gordon just shakes your hand, claps a beefy glittered mitt on your shoulder, and invites you into its party. It’s Boogie Nights for real.

I don’t know if I’d want to know anyone who couldn’t love this movie, or at least enjoy it on some level. It’s the last hurrah from a decade of excess (I read it as a ’70s flick that happened to come out in 1980), a mirrorball love letter to color and lights and Queen’s spiralling guitar riffs (Jesus, what would the movie be like without Queen)? Flamboyantly idiotic, and quite happy to be so, Flash Gordon has passed the test of time much more gracefully than many “serious” fantasy films have. And, really, who ever took any of these movies seriously, or wanted to?


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