Posted October 16, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cronenberg, cult, horror, science fiction

shivers-1975_022Sometimes a writer-director might want to make a film solely to capture one scene, one performance, even one bit of dialogue. For the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, making his feature debut with 1975’s Shivers (aka Frissons, The Parasite Murders, or They Came from Within), the impetus may have been a monologue late in the game, when a nurse (Lynn Lowry, that cult fan favorite with features as pristine as a doll’s) tells her doctor lover (Paul Hampton) about a dream she had:

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.        

This is essentially an Arthur Schnitzler moment out of Traumnovelle given the standard perverse tweak by Cronenberg, whose cinema of tortured flesh runs long on ruminations like this. The thing that sets Shivers apart, of course, is that under Cronenberg’s watch it takes the point of view of the monster — the disease, the parasite. In form, the movie is sort of Night of the Copulating Dead. A community bound together by convenience, an island apartment complex peopled by the moderately well-to-do, is invaded by a parasite that passes from body to body. Ensuring its survival, it also creates powerful lustful feelings in its host body. So the film is also pornographic in structure, though not in practice (it’s erotic but not very explicit).

The doctor, an upright, Graham Chapman-resembling sort, is the putative hero, though it’s a while before we figure out that this is Cronenberg territory and that the parasites (slimy, red, phallic things made by special-effects guru Joe Blasco) are the heroes. Cronenberg takes a relaxed, measured, very Canadian approach to the parasite; he asks, in effect, why it shouldn’t survive, why it shouldn’t get what it wants. What it wants, in brief, is to procreate and to be, just like the rest of us. This was, and remains, a prickly and unique way of looking at horror. The horror, if any, resides in leaving the known and comfortable behind en route to a new and radical way of thinking, feeling, living.

Because Shivers is also Canadian tax-shelter pulp and not just Cronenbergian art, naturally, there’s nudity and gore and taboos not so much broken as dismissed and tossed aside. Intimations of pedophilia and incest stand alongside more upfront depictions of male and female homosexuality. Since this is the supremely nonjudgmental Cronenberg, though, we know that as long as it’s consensual he doesn’t have a problem with any of it — at least within the context of this film. People will be messily infected but will stride into a more authentic and less repressed future.

You do have to give early Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt. His filmmaking hadn’t yet really caught up with his ideas; a lot of the movie, borderline boring, has the inert compositions and staging of ‘70s television drama. But the film is wild where it counts, and in various ringers — Lowry, genre queen Barbara Steele, deep-voiced Joe Silver creating a fresh portrait of casually insensitive intellectualism — Cronenberg has the actors he needs. (God knows the dull, top-billed Paul Hampton doesn’t light any fires.) Shivers announced to general audiences (at least those who hadn’t caught his short films) a genuinely original voice in horror cinema — maybe the only one who owed more to literature than to Hitchcock or to Universal monsters. Has there been another since?




Posted October 9, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

31We get it by now: Rob Zombie loves the grotesque excesses of the grindhouse flicks of his youth, and he has dedicated his filmmaking career (and a good portion of his music career) to genuflecting to the disreputable gore, T&A, and general nastiness of those films. He’s sort of a Tim Burton wearing a blood-soaked wife-beater, paying homage again and again to the monsters and psychos that shaped his imagination. In 31, Zombie’s latest act of devotion, the spasm and stink of his style haven’t changed. Past fifty now, Zombie will likely be making movies in this same stubbly flea-pit mode well into his autumn years. The question is whether he’ll run out of stories to tell in that mode — or if he has already.

31 is an arch bit of diabolism in the tradition of Saw and your choice of and-then-there-were-none slaughterhouse entries. Five carny workers are kidnapped and brought to a place (hell) presided over by powder-faced aristo-Brits (including Malcolm McDowell), who give the five victims twelve hours to survive in a dank and dripping maze of pipes and chain-link fences. Our protagonists are trapped in there with a variety of killers, one of whom is played by the gaunt and leering Richard Brake, who seems to embody Zombie’s whole hellbilly, grubby-guignol aesthetic — the role Sid Haig used to fill. If Hollywood is serious about having another go at Stephen King’s The Stand and they need a Randall Flagg, they could do a lot worse than Brake; the movie could have used more of him.

Part of the problem is that after a while, 31 devolves into a predictable survival action film, with the structure of a video game (Brake’s character, Doom-Head, is like the final boss) and more than a few endless fights between people wielding axes, crowbars, knives, chainsaws. Zombie falls back on unreadable editing to suggest rather than depict carnage; I understand that the movie was rated NC-17 twice before being whittled down to something with the less restrictive R rating, and that Zombie plans to release an uncut version on disc, but I don’t expect the action to be very much more comprehensible. The shakiness of the style, in which the camera jerks from side to side even to capture a reaction shot, will always be part of the film’s, and Zombie’s, DNA. Sometimes it works, sometimes it frustrates.

That’s true of the movie in general. A crowdfunding effort, 31 is cast almost exclusively with actors Zombie has worked with before —McDowell, Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, E.G. Daily¹ — alongside various faded icons like erstwhile porn queen Ginger Lynn (thrown away in a mean-spirited scene) and former Sweathog Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (slipping into a Jamaican accent and performing smoothly). This isn’t the kind of movie that’s built for actors, and Zombie’s antagonistic yet orotund dialogue doesn’t help; people are either spitting clotted mouthfuls of blood and vituperation at each other or just carelessly scattering F-bombs like rusted pennies into a fountain. Only poor old bedraggled toothless Tracey Walter gets to bring some sozzled warmth to a scene, though Meg Foster’s trademark blazing eyes come close to declaring her the movie’s star by visual default.

Zombie obviously can’t make movies any other way — even his Woolite detergent commercial a few years back is hilariously gnarled and in-your-face — and anyone who knows anything about artistic instincts can’t fault Zombie for this. 31 is set on Halloween of 1976 so that Zombie can engage in a few vintage needle-drops (Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd) and nods to the films that fed his fire (at one point a fight is backed with music that sounds suspiciously like Goblin’s score for Suspiria). For some artists, a particular mode or visual/sonic emphasis is like a sore tooth they can’t stop tonguing, an itch they go crazy if they can’t scratch. Zombie scratches his itch here until it bleeds, but is the scratching pleasurable any more for anyone other than him?

¹Daily plays Sex-Head, a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl who reminded me of Harley Quinn, which then led me to imagine Rob Zombie’s Suicide Squad.



The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

Posted October 1, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, cult, horror, one of the year's best, science fiction, underrated

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.

The Maltese Falcon

Posted September 26, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, film noir, mystery, one of the year's best, thriller, tspdt

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Posted September 18, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, cult, drama, horror, one of the year's best

henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killerHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a creepy, city-after-dark overtone, an existential chill. It carries a true grindhouse whiff while staking its claim as art. There’s a deep tension between content and context here; the movie shows you hyperbolically grotesque things, but often at a remove, with the camera tracking in or out. The tracking happens during the opening credits, when we see various (usually female) corpses left in the wake of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker). Whether we’re pulling back to take in the entire scene of the crime or pushing in for a better look at a woman’s ruined face, we’re led to look at the carnage as a series of tableaux, as works of art out of time, suspended forever in death and by death.

After making one documentary, director/co-writer John McNaughton made his feature debut with Henry — and directed nothing remotely like it in the three decades since. Despite a few genre pieces here and there (The Borrower is goofy fun), McNaughton has never worn the label of “horror director” well. Henry has more in common with Cassavetes than with Herschell Gordon Lewis, though the movie’s purest demographic exists in a Venn diagram of fans of both directors. The movie is cold and bleak, shot in the bowels of Chicago at night or on sunless days, usually in godforsaken alleys or among dead-looking roadside flora, the kind of places where corpses can be hidden, sometimes maybe found, almost never cared about.

The motor of the minimalist plot involves Henry’s roommate and “friend” Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ visiting sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Tracy grows sweet on Henry, who doesn’t know quite what to do with her feelings. Otis has a thing for Becky, but also puts his hand on the thigh of a guy he’s dealing weed to. Henry is a moral blank, but Otis is a true monster, sexually twisted, possibly by his tightly lidded homosexuality, possibly by his abusive father (who raped Becky throughout her childhood). When this pair invade a well-to-do family’s home, even Henry, recording the whole atrocity on a camcorder, is appalled by what Otis does. It’s as though proximity to Henry has unchained Otis’ demons, and the demons make him giddy. Rooker has since, of course, gone on to many different types of roles, but Towles, I think, here bravely nuked any chance he would have of playing anything other than a slimeball (he died last year).

We need the existence of Otis in order to be able to relate to Henry at all; Henry’s a killer, too, but an affectless one who never seems to enjoy it. He’s gentlemanly towards Becky, and disgusted by Otis’ incestuous/necrophiliac kinks, and that makes him the closest thing to a moral center the film offers — yes, he’s a moral blank, but he’s not actively, gigglingly evil like Otis. Towles manages to make Otis more than a caricature of redneck rabies, and Rooker smolders implosively, hardly moving his lips as he pulls out painful bits of (contradictory) memories about his mother as though prying shards of glass out of his skin. I submit that the scene in which Becky and Henry sit around the table trading familial sex-horror stories is the entire movie in microcosm — everything proceeds from this grim and grimy reality of mothers and fathers who scar their children sexually. Henry’s murders involve the soul more than the body. That’s what makes the movie more drama than horror.

Dr. Strangelove

Posted September 11, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, comedy, kubrick, one of the year's best, satire, tspdt

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.

Hell or High Water

Posted September 4, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, overrated, thriller

Hell_or_High_Water_Large.jpgAt the end of a long, hot summer of movies for (essentially) children, there’s a tendency for critics to overrate a film that at least pretends to be for adults. The latest example is the crime drama Hell or High Water, which has just opened wide after a few weeks in limited release. The movie certainly isn’t bad; it offers some pleasures and actually has relevant things on its mind, yet wears the relevance lightly. It’s hard, though, to escape the feeling that we’ve heard this story and met these characters before. The conflicts are deftly played, decently written. There’s a terrific moment when a character makes a crucial shot and then seems torn between laughter and tears. There’s little flab but also little poetry, little reason this had to be a movie instead of, say, a novel or a radio play — it’s a bit cinematically null.

The relevance comes in with the motive for two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), to rob a string of Texas banks. They’re raising money to pay off the mortgage for the ranch that belonged to their late mother. The twist is that they’re hitting branches of the same bank that holds the mortgage — they’re robbing Peter to pay Peter. On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s set to retire in three weeks. Marcus has an amiably insulting relationship with his Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) — he says ironically bigoted things to Alberto we know he doesn’t really mean, and Alberto razzes Marcus about his impending obsolescence.

The brothers are mostly harmless, though Toby is capable of quick, decisive violence and Tanner has done time for killing their abusive father. For a while, they go from bank to bank without hurting anyone much. Then things go bad in a hurry, and the movie loses what garrulous Texan sprawl it had. There are a couple of funny scenes involving waitresses — flirtatious Katy Mixon, no-nonsense Margaret Bowman — which also, alas, points up that except for Marcus’ replacement toward the end and Toby’s ex-wife, waitresses and bank tellers are about all the women we see in this masculine world of guns, casinos and beer.

Fargo is missed in more ways than one, not only because Marge Gunderson is a more original hero than Marcus, but because Hell or High Water feels like an amalgam of Coen brothers films — Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, even True Grit with Bridges doing his gruff unintelligible shtick again — without the Coens’ sense of wit or play. Director David Mackenzie never does anything discordant but never does anything genuinely surprising, either. The comfort and pleasure many may derive from the film might issue from its very been-there-done-that quality. It is very much “a movie like they used to make in the ’70s,” only they used to make them with a bit more idiosyncrasy, a little more art.

The movie seems to want points for telling a small story about regular people, except that these are the kind of regular people one meets only in movies: the desperate but noble bank robber, his half-crazy brother, the soon-retiring good ol’ boy after them. These men could come across as archetypes rather than clichés, but they don’t. Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster try to make something dangerous yet relatable out of the brothers, and there’s a nifty bit of quietly combative dialogue at the end that would probably go down better if it didn’t seem so pleased with itself for drawing from the same well as Heat, American Gangster and many other movies in which adversaries sit and take each other’s measure. Hell or High Water is so busy taking inspiration from earlier movies that it forgets we’ve seen them too.