Quick Change

Posted November 21, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, comedy, murray christmas

Quick Change finds Bill Murray paddling into the uncharted waters of sincerity. To be fair, Murray had dipped his toe in earlier, at the end of Scrooged and in some parts of Ghostbusters II, and of course in his early dramatic attempt that was greeted with bafflement, The Razor’s Edge. But in Quick Change Murray gives a fresh performance, one that dials down the jaded snark while still cashing laughs. He plays Grimm, a New York city planner turned bank robber. Grimm is sick of the city and wants to get out, taking as much of its money with him as possible. Here, Murray doesn’t seem as though he’s critiquing the movie from its margins. Grimm cares about his goals, cares about getting the hell out of Dodge.

The movie, adapted by Howard Franklin from a Jay Conley novel, and co-directed by Franklin and Murray, begins as a farcical take on Dog Day Afternoon and eventually rolls into a variation on After Hours or The Warriors. After the bank robbery — which attracts the expected volume of police and media buzz — Grimm and his accomplices Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) fumble around the city, trying to get to JFK Airport. But New York throws all its snarls and roadblocks and crazies in their path; Grimm wants to escape the city, but it doesn’t seem to want to let him go. New York becomes a major character the way it did in the aforementioned three films.

Grimm and Phyllis aren’t just partners in crime; they’re lovers, and Phyllis spends much of the movie figuring out how to tell Grimm she’s going to have his baby. The sadness in Geena Davis’ eyes when Grimm says he feels “complete” — and presumably not welcoming a child — is one of her great moments as an actress, and it colors everything else she does in the role. Likewise, the eager, somewhat doltish Loomis has been friends with Grimm since grade school, but somehow fears his anger, specifically being hit by him. These two have a strange, complex emotional bond to Grimm that might have been unthinkable in an earlier Bill Murray comedy.

Quick Change is smarter, even more literate, than it needs to be — I remember back in 1990 being surprised that the movie’s commercials included a joke about Thor Heyerdahl (maybe part of the reason it wasn’t a big hit). It’s full of great New York faces and personalities: Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Kurtwood Smith, Philip Bosco, as well as comedians old (Bob Elliott) and then-young (Phil Hartman). There isn’t much filmmaking excitement in it; the two rookie directors (Murray has never directed again) essentially just point a camera at funny people, which turns out to be just enough. There’s enough breathing room in its anecdotal structure for absurdist throwaways like the jousters on bicycles, whom our protagonists — and seemingly the movie itself — pause to watch in wonderment. About the only true aesthetic bummer is Randy Edelman’s cheesy score, interchangeable with that of a dozen generic ’80s comedies.

At the movie’s genially chaotic center is a funnyman (he literally starts off as a clown) who seems to yearn for something different. Groundhog Day was only three years away, and that mystical repetition trip sealed the deal: Bill Murray still wanted to make people laugh, but no longer at the expense of squares, of people who dared to care. In an interview with Roger Ebert promoting the film, Murray said that people were calling the movie “gentle,” which didn’t sit well with him because he considered it “weird and funny,” which it is, but it is also gentle. It’s gentle not only because it has no violence but because almost nobody in it is held up for ridicule; even the chief of police (Jason Robards, and I can’t get over how he went from running around looking robust in this film to being a wheezing husk in Magnolia in just nine years) is allowed to be smart and funny. The two exceptions are a mobster who goes out of his way to be mean to an airport clerk, and a yuppie who insists on being the first hostage to be let free. Grimm uses each man’s aggression against him; it’s comedy aikido.

Twice Upon a Time

Posted November 8, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, comedy, cult, fantasy

Something was in the air in the late ’70s — a small, weird, but welcome animation renaissance that popped up in the void left by Disney in their dreary pre-Mermaid days. Ralph Bakshi hadn’t yet packed it in, Don Bluth was getting started, and not-for-kids toons like Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule were actually financed and put in theaters. Of course, given the lead time of cel animation back then, most of these didn’t hit theaters until the early ’80s, coinciding with a rise in sci-fi/fantasy films. Many of these experiments found little box-office traction but gathered cults that persist even now.

The cultiest of them all might well be 1983’s Twice Upon a Time, bankrolled by none other than Lucasfilm. It was released in a grand total of one theater, then banished to HBO for a handful of showings, which is how most of its fans caught it. Due to a foofarah over which version was being shown — there were two, one seasoned with lots of PG profanity, one largely clean — the film has been unavailable for decades. The cleaner version was the preferred version of its co-director, John Korty, but viewers erroneously considered the more profane version the “uncut, uncensored” one and thus the more attractive one. Now, finally, Warner Archives has made available a burn-on-demand DVD containing both versions.

What the new viewer (as well as the longtime fan who has never seen it in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio) will get here is a visually sumptuous experience tied to a fairly simple story given convolutions by Korty, his co-director Charles Swenson, and cowriters Suella Kennedy and Bill Couterie. In the black-and-white land of Din (Earth) live the Rushers (us), who receive sweet dreams from Greensleeves and the Figmen of Imagination. Not-so-sweet dreams arrive courtesy of the nefarious Synonamess Botch, who kidnaps Greensleeves and seeks to entrap us Rushers in waking nightmares forever. Our heroes are Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and Mumford the mime, who must keep Botch from procuring the main spring from the Cosmic Clock, which … well, you see what I mean about convolutions.

You could very well just let Twice Upon a Time babble and rave in front of you (most of the dialogue was improvised) and care nothing about its plot, because every frame looks as though it were engineered by the Figmen of Imagination. The animation style, which for all I know was limited to this one film, was called “Lumage,” in which plastic cut-out figures were filmed atop a light table, resulting in a lively and unique world of subtle hues. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s madcap creations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the trippy, quippy wooziness of Yellow Submarine; but its sarcastic, visually fecund spirit is all its own. Animation fans, and admirers of pure cinema in general, owe it to themselves to see this at least once.

I watched Korty’s preferred version, which still packs a couple of PG-rated swears (so neither version is altogether school-viewing-safe). The movie is essentially a comedy, satirizing such tropes as the Fairy Godmother (who here wants to be called FGM) and the superhero (goofed on via a Viking-helmeted idiot called Rod Rescueman) and paying homage to its executive patron when a television-headed creature named Ibor plays footage of Darth Vader and Indiana Jones on its face. The biggest name in the voice cast is the late Lorenzo Music, who voiced Garfield for years and does Ralph’s voice in the same jaded deadpan. But as I say, you could almost turn the sound off (a good way to avoid the lame, much-derided songs on the soundtrack) and still groove on the colors and the weirdness and the dreams and nightmares and the killer Scotch tape dispensers and so on.

Flesh for the Inferno

Posted November 1, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

Flesh for the Inferno is a menacing and evocative title for a film that works hard to earn it. The twentieth feature by Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin, this is a bit of a break from his frequent focus on tongue-in-bloody-cheek grindhouse throwbacks. It gestures at vintage grindhouse, all right — specifically the sacrilegious splatterthons of Italian maestros like Lucio Fulci — but it takes its premise more seriously than Griffin usually allows. Four nuns confront a child-rapist priest; he shoots one and bricks the other three up behind a wall in their Catholic school. Sixteen years later, the nuns, fueled by rage and revenge, wreak supernatural havoc on a group who’ve arrived to clean up the school.

Indebted though it is to the tone of Fulci and Mario Bava, Flesh doesn’t go in for the bizarre incoherence that Italian horror is notorious for. Griffin doesn’t bring everything to a standstill so he can show off some visual effects or his own twisted imagination; the script, by Michael Varrati, keeps things lean and mean, though not very clean. True to its title, Flesh can’t get enough of gore and ruined meat. The victims, mostly young people in keeping with horror-film tradition, die choking and messy. Some of the movie is gross in a way that will please gorehounds and put off most others, but who else would go to a movie called Flesh for the Inferno? It’s pretty obviously not whimsical and light in the Wes Anderson style.

“This is … brutal,” says a character, and some of Flesh is as self-aware as that line indicates. (Later, someone else comments on how anticlimactic the events are, but that turns out to be misdirection.) Despite that, Griffin and Varrati take a side door into the serious subject of predatory priests. This isn’t Griffin’s first time at the rodeo of blasphemy, of course — he helmed 2009’s zesty grindhouse goof Nun of That, starring Sarah Nicklin, who appears here as an amusingly cynical prostitute. I imagine some Catholics would rather do anything else than indulge Griffin’s church-bashing, while other Catholics, especially lapsed ones, will eat it up.

Griffin’s body of work, which kicked off in 2000 with a criminally obscure adaptation of Titus Andronicus, expresses a love of cinema, particularly disreputable cinema. (After all, he adapted Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s goriest and least prestigious play, not King Lear.) That’s why, as bloody and rage-filled as Flesh for the Inferno is, you can still almost hear Griffin cackling behind the camera. He relishes working in this lurid, sanguinary Italian style, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Personality peeks through, no matter how grotesque or how unpleasant the scenario is, and that’s a rare commodity that links Griffin’s work with the movies and moviemakers he loves.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

Posted October 25, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, foreign, horror

Generally agreed to be the first Brazilian horror film, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the perfect underseen-in-America Halloween movie. Its director and cowriter, José Mojica Marins, also stars as Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, a robustly diabolical and atheistic mortician who terrorizes everyone in his town. Coffin Joe has long fingernails and favors a black cape and black top hat. In this heavily Catholic town, he enjoys eating meat on Holy Friday, going so far as to force a man in the local bar to chew some lamb. Coffin Joe is obsessed with “the continuity of blood”; he wants a son to carry on his bloodline, and since his wife can’t give him one, he goes looking for a candidate. As you may have gathered, this does not involve gentle seduction and walks on the beach.

At Midnight is the first of a trilogy of Coffin Joe films (though Marins made several other movies featuring the character) whose plot throughline is the anti-hero’s quest for a son. Coffin Joe went on to become something of a favorite (if disreputable in many quarters) icon of terror in Brazil, lending his name or visage to books, comics, TV shows, songs, and even a Volkswagen. Our closest equivalent, I suppose, might be Freddy Krueger, who rose out of American fears of child abusers much as Coffin Joe is partly a cautionary figure demonstrating what happens if you laugh at God and spirits and the local bruja. Brazilian audiences felt safe in vicariously relishing Coffin Joe’s blasphemies and violence as long as it was clear that he would get his comeuppance at the end — which he does, spectacularly.

Of course, “spectacular” is relative when you’re talking about something obviously made on a frayed shoestring; this is the kind of cheapjack film in which an actor must endure real live tarantulas and maggots crawling on his or her face. Despite that, the gore effects (shot in inky black and white) are appropriately gross and wince-inducing, especially for a film that landed only a year after H.G. Lewis’ seminal Blood Feast. Not really a flashy director, at least on this ride, Marins still manages to birth a classically spooky affair with the sometimes-schlocky but lovable aesthetic of a small-town haunted house: skulls, witches, glowing eyes, disembodied shrieking and moaning.

Most of Marins’ cast were non-actors (one of his cowriters, Magda Mei, plays the unfortunate woman who catches Coffin Joe’s eye), but Marins himself gives a performance of epic hamminess, constantly laughing maniacally or screaming in terror of the “inferno.” At Midnight is a lot of fun, but it’s also a serious document of its time and place, a Brazil gripped with fear of God and ghosts; the movie is suffused with that unique South American Catholic mix of religion and superstition. It’s a place where the concept of the Holy Ghost consorts uneasily with that of unholy ghosts. Coffin Joe may be one of the latter; he starts off as a fairly normal mortician and gradually adds terrible qualities, beginning by wanting meat on Holy Friday, until finally he’s drowning his best friend and raping that friend’s fiancée.

Yet the little I know about Marins suggests he doesn’t mean Coffin Joe entirely as a cautionary figure. The character is also a critique of the society that gave rise to him, a heavily paternalistic culture that places a great deal of importance on procreation, especially having sons. Women, of course, are regarded only as a means to that end (remember, a woman cowrote the script). Coffin Joe isn’t just an example of how a Brazilian man can go wrong and doom his soul (he isn’t the one, incidentally, who issues the film’s titular threat); he’s the logical extension of the harsh misogynistic world he lives in. Naturally, this being a horror film, he also drops a tarantula on his wife’s face and smashes someone else in the face with a crown of thorns he rips off of a statue of Christ. At Midnight has been compared to Ed Wood’s loony absurdities, but it’s closer to the surreal grotesqueries of Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or.

Island of Lost Souls

Posted October 17, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, horror, one of the year's best, science fiction

H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has spawned a variety of adaptations, official and unofficial, but the first is still the best. Island of Lost Souls, for one thing, is in black and white. That might be the secret ingredient. Most of the other film versions were shot in color, but this one is gray and grainy, and the jungle is cloaked in deep rich shadow. Director Erle C. Kenton has no particular flair, but that’s okay for a story like this, which is quite freaky enough without stylistic curlicues. Kenton stays out of the way while master cinematographer Karl Struss lights the island of Dr. Moreau as a subtle hell of half-seen atrocities. The movie has a queasy documentary vibe — there isn’t even any score except at the beginning and end.

Charles Laughton oozes into frame as Moreau, a dominant sadist who even wields a whip. Laughton sneaks all sorts of perversity into his performance through a dark side door. Moreau has created grotesque man-animal hybrids, but why? So he can have bestial slaves to serve him in the jungle? Moreau’s pride and joy, his greatest creation, is Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When fate brings shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to the island, Moreau’s interest in Edward is mostly limited to trying to get him to mate with Lota. Let that sink in: A woman who used to be an animal — who in some respects still is — being groomed to have sex with a human male. This is a 1932 film, remember. No wonder it kicked up such a ruckus in America and in England (where it was banned for years because of its vivisection theme).

We could also be looking at a Darwinian concept here: the manimals onscreen came from animals, just as we derived from apes. But the oily Dr. Moreau, hairless except for his pate and his fussy mustache and beard, seems neither human nor animal. He’s like some gelatinous god or demiurge, a Judge Holden at play in the fields of the Lord, dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders or the bride of Frankenstein. Laughton keeps Moreau polite and cool-headed in most cases, until he must discipline his ranks, at which point he barks or hisses or growls. The performance isn’t over the top, though; Laughton sprinkles these weird touches around like biscuits for dogs to find.

As in the same year’s Freaks, we couldn’t care less about the “normal” couple (Leila Hyams plays essentially the same level-headed woman in both films). Our sympathies are with most of Moreau’s creations, like the yowling Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), or the frighteningly lustful Ouran (wrestler Hans Steinke), or the abused M’Ling (Tetsu Komai). Make-up legend Wally Westmore turns the Beast-Men into shaggy, melancholy nowhere men, neither-nors like their father-god, not remotely cute or clever but tormented demons from the nightside of nature. Ouran is pretty scary when he tries to get into Leila Hyams’ room after dark, but is he scarier than a man of science who essentially pimps out his “daughter” to see what her offspring will come out looking like?

Island of Lost Souls was described by Michael J. Weldon, that arbiter of all things cult and psychotronic, as “probably the best horror movie ever made.” There’s something legitimately sick and cold about it, a chill sweat of jungle malaria. Moreau hypocritically lays down a series of laws for his Beast-Men (“Not to eat meat…not to spill blood”) but ignores all manners of moral and medical law, including, eventually, his own — which leads to his downfall, vivisection at the hands/paws of his children in his dreaded House of Pain. Thus do creators of life die in this new world of gods and monsters.


Posted October 11, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, cult, horror

The horror of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks is not simply that it showcases “freaks.” It kicks off with a long, gloriously pious text prologue soliciting the audience’s sympathy for the malformed, the mutilated, and so forth. (It was assumed, of course, that the film’s audience was composed of “normals.”) Then, for a good long while, every scene seems to make the same point: that the differently bodied are no different from “normal people” in emotion, in their need to belong, and in their sexual drives. The “normal” audience is thus conditioned to see the “freaks” merely as “normal” people in unusual packages. So we shouldn’t be so surprised, perhaps, when the “freaks” end up acting, indeed, much like the violent, vindictive, vengeful “normals” who have forced their hands.

Set behind the scenes of a circus sideshow, Freaks gives us what Stephen King pegged as an E.C. Comics horror story twenty years early. The midget Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with able-bodied trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She strings him along, getting jewelry and “loans” out of him, until she learns he’s sitting on a fat inheritance. Then Cleopatra conspires with her real love, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans and gradually poison him to death. Hans’ fellow outcasts — who had earlier grievously offended Cleopatra with their wedding-night chant “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us” — band together for ghastly revenge.

The beginning of that climactic sequence boasts a genuinely badass moment Quentin Tarantino would be proud to have filmed: dwarf Jerry Austin snapping open his switchblade and polishing it, followed by “half-boy” Johnny Eck taking out a gun and polishing it, while dwarf Angelo Rossitto plays his flute, unperturbed. Freaks is essentially a melodrama (based glancingly on Tod Robbins’ rather corny short story “Spurs”) that rolls inexorably towards a uniquely powerful and frightening denouement. It’s not that the “freaks” confirm our suspicions about them as inhuman; it’s that they, after spending much of the running time seeming quite amiable, fulfill their potential towards a darker kind of humanity. In true noir fashion, they prove as rotten as almost anyone else onscreen.

After the movie died in previews, a nervous MGM hacked out roughly half an hour, reportedly including a scene in which we see exactly what the enraged performers do to Hercules (castration, rumor has always had it). In the existing film, we never find out what happens to him, which kind of makes it worse, since our imaginations fill in the grotesque details. Part of the horror, for me, was seeing one of the “pinhead” women — previously never seen without gleeful smiles — crawl through the mud after Hercules, her face frozen and numb. The “freaks” are not shown to enjoy their revenge, exactly; it’s just something that must be done. The “straight” world has stomped on their kind once too often. At that point, the movie’s putative heroes, good-hearted “normals” played by Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, have been soundly forgotten; they turn up at the very end in a happy coda that feels pasted on. We know the true final shot should be of Cleopatra in her new role in the circus.

Tod Browning, who’d directed a few Lon Chaney vehicles as well as Lugosi’s Dracula, more or less killed his career with this film; he would helm only four more before spending twenty years inactive until his death in 1962. In truth, Browning’s choice of material and comfort with the unusual were always more interesting than his generally stiff direction; someone like James Whale might have found bizarre outsider wit in the story. But where it counts, in that apocalyptic finale and the revelation of Cleopatra’s fate, Browning locked in some of horror cinema’s most indelible images. Decades later, of course, Freaks would find a younger, more appreciative audience on video and midnight-movie showings, influencing filmmakers as well as the Ramones (who misquoted the freak-chant as “gabba gabba” on their 1977 song “Pinhead”). By then, it wasn’t that Americans accepted freaks but that Americans accepted themselves as one of them.

The Green Inferno

Posted September 26, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, underrated

Ah, what a bracing slice of throwback nastiness is Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. This overdue fourth feature from the writer-director of Cabin Fever and the first two Hostel movies takes its time getting to the grue, but when it does, you can see what Stephen King meant when he called it “bloody, gripping, hard to watch.” A husky young man makes the acquaintance of a village of grateful cannibals, and he keeps them busy for quite some time. His colleagues, watching from inside a cage, vomit and scream as the flamboyantly accoutred tribal elder takes his eyes, then his tongue, then each limb, and finally his head. His torso, resembling nothing so much as a huge pork roast, slides right into the communal oven.

Roth has a reputation as a ravenously thirsty gorehound, but in truth he just knows when and how to deploy the money scenes so they count for more; the unfortunate young man’s fate is about the worst thing Roth makes us look at, and even then the editing snips the carnage into digestible bacon bits. Whether cannibalism should be digestible is another question; Roth’s film is openly indebted to Ruggero Deodato’s genuinely disquieting 1980 splatterfest Cannibal Holocaust, which in addition to people-eating is loaded with rape and animals being killed on camera for real. (In the filmmakers’ defense, the animals were eaten after their close-ups.) The Green Inferno doesn’t go nearly as far as a film from 35 years ago did, but then that film wasn’t obligated to nab an R rating and play in a thousand theaters nationwide, as Roth’s movie is.

The set-up gives us a group of campus lefties who fly to the Amazon to save a village from being bulldozed by an oil company. After being threatened by gun-toting mercenaries, our heroes go down in a plane crash, and the survivors are captured by the villagers. Now, I don’t think Roth is saying anything as jejune as “This is what happens when you try to help savages” or “This is why lefties are idiots.” Certainly there’s a huge problem with the way these crusaders go about their business; they are (mostly) not as insufferable as the film crew in Cannibal Holocaust, but there’s something distasteful about how their American privilege leads them into a situation they’re unprepared to handle and fatally uninformed about — looked at with a squint, the movie could almost be a satire of American military intervention.

The script by Roth and Guillermo Amoedo plants a lot of Chekhov’s guns early on, all surrounding the innocent-faced main character Justine (Lorenza Izzo): a flute necklace, a lecture on female genital mutilation, and, perhaps most obscurely, a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s anguished epic Betty Blue tacked above her bed back home. (Well, that film had an eye-gouging in it, too.) Justine is recognized by the tribal elder (whose brute ministrations apparently out her as a virgin) and by a little tribal boy as someone special, someone not to be snacked upon, but what? A bride for the fearsome village bad-ass, maybe? The storytelling could be clearer at times, but the fear on view is always accessible.

Roth, like King, knows that horror has no business being politically correct. Its job is to deal harsh slaps to the nerves, to the lizard brain. It cuts through the hypocrisy of someone who, say, volunteers for organizations to aid the homeless but who might be frightened by a chance encounter, after dark alone in the city, with an actual homeless person. Fear doesn’t mix well with social conscience. The Green Inferno isn’t without humor, some of it perfectly ghastly (a stomach-challenging visual gag involving tattoos, for example), but Roth isn’t some callous prankster, either. The terror here has more to do with the ancient feeling of being in a place one doesn’t belong — think of Bluebeard’s admonition to his latest wife — than with xenophobia. Those who consider Roth an obnoxious gore-bro, horror’s answer to Tucker Max, will find little in The Green Inferno to sway them. But if you believe, as I do, that he’s trying to do more with the genre than just pay gleefully bloody homage to his ancestors, enjoy the meal.


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